Zhou Jia finds the boy by the side of the river, a heap of red and black amidst the waning yellow of late autumn reeds. A pool of dried blood on his back, his throat a mangled expanse of dark purple fingerprints.
Her first thought had been to bury him, give him the smallest semblance of ritual and peace, before she notices the faint rising and falling of his chest. Then the slow, yet insistent thrum of qi in his veins.
Zhou Jia might only be a rogue cultivator - Her cultivation a lifetime's patchwork of trial and errors and borrowed knowledge - But she had survived the roads for decades on her skills, and she'd be damned if she lets this boy die here when there is yet something she could do.
It's wholly fortunate that for one so young, the boy's golden core is a veritable furnace instead of the candle light it should be. But Zhou Jia knows that even how bright it is, a golden core alone could not fight so many things all at once, from the wounds on his back to the exhaustion evident on the shadows beneath his eyes, and of course, of course, the shackle of bruises around his throat. As it is, the qi he is still able to circulate barely holds the boy's body together, forcing breath through his mangled airways and keeping his blood loss to a minimal.
She works fast, peeling away the plain black robes sticking to his skin, trying not to wince, not to stop in her horror at the bloody mess that is the boy's back. She cleans his wounds as best as she could to stave off any infection, all the while feeding what spiritual energy she could spare straight into his major meridians. Barely a sichen passes before she's able to hoist him into her boat - Her joints creaking in protest but her knees holding firm as she lays the boy in the space she's made amongst her cargo, sideways as not to aggravate the wounds on his back, providing what cushion she could to support his neck.
Zhou Jia's fingers stay on his wrists all the way downriver, the thinnest thread of qi connecting her to the fluttering, yet persistent thing that is the boy's life force.
- * -
Zhou Jia gets the boy to Meixue the moment she docks, young A-Xun running over to help her from his slouch on the pier, the boy's weight quickly shouldered between them. It doesn't matter that it's well past dusk. There are no knocks to Meixue's door that she would not answer, whatever the hour - Ready as she always is with her needles and poultices and a glare one would be inclined to remember before getting themselves into another scrape.
It's early enough that Meixue still has her hair up, ever-proper even if most the people she gets to see are rowdy dock workers and even rowdier sailors. She is just as quick to lay the boy on her cot, hands already working to check on his pulse and meridians as Zhou Jia rattles off his injuries and what she's done with them.
Despite the still-healing brand above his heart and the litany of lightning-wrought whip marks on his back, it's clear that the hands around his neck had been the last straw for the boy's battered body. Zhou Jia watches as Meixue directs her attentions there, fingers gentle as they skim across the skin, the faint, familiar hum of her qi stirring the air between them. Watches as she fusses with her mortar and pestle and lays a sharp-smelling poultice around the tender circle of his throat, as she inspects the rest of his body. When Meixue finally draws back from the slumbering boy and leans heavily on the table behind her, the lines of her elegant face are drawn and troubled.
"He didn't fight back," Meixue says at last, giving voice to the niggling thing that has been sitting on the back of Zhou Jia's mind all the way back home. How the boy had been without a sword despite clearly being a Cultivator, the reeds all around him undisturbed even as his arms lay limp on his sides - Silent, accepting.
The whip marks on the boy's back were fresh, but it lay upon a bed of old, faded ones, the skin jagged and raised - The remnants of a body forced to heal too fast, too frequently as it was growing. There are traces of qi on the wounds, branching lines across his skin that spoke of weapons used to punish. Weapons used upon a child.
Despite everything Zhou Jia has seen in the long years of her life, she still feels sick to her stomach, and she doesn't even dare look upon Meixue's face. Once, Meixue too had run away from such a place. From a world that speaks of honor and righteousness above all but tramples upon the weak just as cruelly, or even more, than ones without their boundless powers.
"He's safe now," Zhou Jia takes a breath and finds her voice, even as she reaches out to envelop Meixue's hand in hers, "That's what matters."
She might only be a mere rogue cultivator, with no clan nor power to her name, but she looks after her own. Just as she had once taken Meixue's hands and hid her away at the very edge of the world they know, she too would take this boy and keep him safe.
- * -
The boy's name is Wei Ying.
It's the only thing he remembers once he wakes up, his grasp of the world and how it turns intact yet with no memory of his own marks upon it. The first time he tries hard enough to remember, Wei Ying collapses into the wooden floors of Meixue's clinic, eyes rolled back in his head and muscles jumping wildly beneath Zhou Jia's frantic hands before Meixue's needles stills his limbs and turns him pliant.
They don't try to make Wei Ying remember anymore, after that. Simply ply him with food and reprimands as he goes through his recovery with a stubborness that reminds her of herself when she was younger.
"He's definitely as terrible a patient as you are," Meixue points out as she yet again apprehends Wei Ying wandering off from his bed - Trying to help Meixue's apprentice and the youths that frequents the clinic with one chore or another.
It soon becomes apparent that whatever Wei Ying had been before, he is utterly terrible at staying still. That his mind flits and jumps like a Northern racehorse when left unoccupied, and it leads him into all sorts of excuses to renege from his supposed recuperation. Meixue is probably a hair's breadth away from simply knocking off the boy out cold with her needles when Zhou Jia barges in with her arms full of scrolls and an old suanpan.
"You said you know your letters, right?" She breezes in past Meixue before dumping the load on her arms on the bed, "Any good with numbers? Lao Xie's usual scribe had to go back to his village for the birth of his first child, so there's no one to do the book keeping for the harbor for a few days now. It's an unholy mess, I'll tell you."
Wei Ying cocks his head to the side as he studies the harbor's ledger and various manifests, touching the suanpan briefly before he looks up again and nods excitedly at Zhou Jia, his hands making wide, vague gestures of enthusiastic assent. Despite Meixue's careful treatment, his airways had been badly damaged, and any sound that comes out of his throat is gravelly and harsh on his still-healing airways. Meixue had told him to rest his voice to aid in his healing, and watching the animated boy try to make up for what must have been a habit of running his mouth has been quite endearing.
"Lao Xie will owe you one," Zhou Jia grins, waggling an eyebrow at Wei Ying, "Ask him for the baijiu he gets from the passing Champa ships, the one that's made with coconuts, those are good."
Wei Ying ends up spending the afternoon rooted to his bed, surrounded by papers and the furious clacking of his suanpan. By nightfall, Zhou Jia drops the whole thing on Lao Xie's desk, smirking as the Harbormaster almost cries in relief.
Meixue is quick to get that the way to stop Wei Ying trying to work is to actually give him work that doesn't have him venturing outside the clinic, and soon Wei Ying is cataloguing the whole of Meixue's herbs and old notes. His calligraphy leaves a lot to be desired, but it's meticulous and thorough, the boy quick to find patterns and pertinent tidbits of useful information amidst Meixue's case notes.
"You're right," Meixue muses, perusing through the notes Wei Ying had compiled together despite the stark difference in cases. Her hand reaches out, in that unconscious way it often does when she's around children and small things, to pat Wei Ying on the head, "You have an eye for this, A-Ying."
It takes a few moments for the endearment to sink in, before Meixue looks up from her notes and Wei Ying looks back at her, grey eyes a breakable mix of hope and vulnerablity.
A-Ying, Meixue calls him from then on, as she fusses over the boy like a child she never got to have. As she pats his head and reprimands him to care for himself more, even after he's steadier on his feet and the wounds on his back scab over.
A-Ying, Zhou Jia calls him in kind, as she takes him around Xiangshan, along the harbor and the quietly buzzing streets. As she watches him charm the people around them with his smile and seemingly boundless curiosity and enthusiasm.
She doesn't know what the Wei Ying of before had been like, what he was supposed to be, and perhaps they might never know. But she likes to think that the A-Ying that is with them now - Bright and warm despite the purple shackle still painted around his throat - is fine as he is.
- * -
Slowly, perhaps more slowly than A-Ying wanted, Meixue allows him to venture off his sickbed, to relearn his steps and the limits of his healing body. Slowly, A-Ying weaves himself into the tapestry of Xiangshan harbor's inhabitants, a constant and welcome sight as he flits from one thing to another, ever ready to help, ever ready to learn.
They find out that he is as good with a blade as he is with numbers, that he is as good with haggling prices and ironing out fraught negotiations as he is with keeping children entertained. That given ink and brush and some talisman papers, he could weave such practical wonders as to make Zhou Jia cackle at what the high and mighty Sects are missing out on.
The gravel stays in A-Ying's voice, along with the headaches and the rare yet terrifying instances where he collapses to the ground, lost in seizures that leaves him weak and pale for the rest of the day. She knows it could have been much worse, without the steady hum of A-Ying's golden core. She had seen enough people lose their lives days, weeks after being strangled like that - Blood clotting in their veins, their airways flooding slowly to drown them in their own lungs even as their skins stay unblemished.
It is a good thing as well that A-Ying is recovering so speedily. The cultivation war, once mere whispered rumors that had slowly solidified as Cloud Recesses and Lotus Pier fell, is upon the horizon even as they speak - Looming over a land already strained enough even without the threat of war they have nothing to do with.
She knows that Xiangshan is far removed from areas of potential conflict, being much smaller than nearby Mingzhou harbor, but war has a way of spreading its tendrils in unexpected ways. And to think that what is coming for them is a cultivation war - Who knew what kind of things the Sects would resort to in the defense of their ever-important honor? And speaking of Cultivators, well, there is also the matter of A-Ying himself.
"I know that you remember nothing of your life before," Meixue says at last, after their dinner have been cleared away and it's just a pot of strong black tea on the table, "But I think we may all be forgiven to assume that you were once part of a Cultivation Sect. And given the recent development with the Sects, we were wondering whether you would want to have a part in it in some ways."
A-Ying's face had taken a pale shade, eyes wide and trembling as if the space he's sitting on has been taken away and oh. Oh. Zhou Jia feels her own eyes widen with realization the moment Meixue reaches the same conclusion, one delicate hand flying to her mouth at her unintended folly.
"If Meixue and myself are to have our way, then we will simply keep you here forever, with us," Zhou Jia says quickly, reaching out to envelop A-Ying's hand with hers, squeezing them in assurance even as A-Ying's gaze snaps up to look at her, "But this is not just about us or what we want. In the end, it has to be your choice and yours alone. What do you want to do, A-Ying?"
There is a strange, almost lost look on A-Ying's face, his eyes now searching, almost beseeching upon both of theirs. Zhou Jia remembers the map of lashes across his back, and wonders if choices had never been something he lived with, before. Wonders, even with the memories he's lost, if this is the first time he has ever been asked what he wants.
A-Ying is silent for a long time before he finally speaks, voice quiet as it rarely is.
"Yang Shushu said that Xiangshan and the nearby towns are oftentimes left without any Sect protection against spiritual problems. That it's always been just you two, even when things got dire, just because we don't really fall under any Sect's jurisdiction and are not, well, important enough."
"And that's - That's not right, isn't it? I don't remember how I had been, of course, if I was also that way, but now that I'm here, now that I know, it's not something I could live with."
Something blooms in Zhou Jia's chest, warm and fierce and unfamiliar still in her largely solitary life. Pride, perhaps, for this boy she found on the side of a river, with his bright core and brighter smile. She thinks she could get used to pride, if this is how it feels.
"I want to stay here," A-Ying says quietly, tentatively, as if there is a chance in the whole damn world that either one of them would refuse, the silly boy. And then louder, something steely in his silver eyes as he looks at the both of them.
"I want to help."
- * -
And help A-Ying does.
After their talk, A-Ying had gone straight to Headman Lu - himself a veteran of the war that had swept the Middle Kingdom a few decades ago. He had listened as old Lu Jiuling recounts how the first casualty of any war would be the common people. How their homes would be decimated and themselves displaced from their livelihood and ancestral lands, sometimes with no hope of return as the lands of their home changed hands with the results of the war. How thousands would most likely be left without food nor the most basic of shelters as trade and supply routes are cut off by the path of battle.
A-Ying had moved from Headman Lu to Mistress An of the merchant's guild, and then Harbormaster Xie and Head Shipwright Meng before he brings a few jars of baijiu to the docking traders from afar. Zhou Jia had watched, both fascinated and a touch proud as the whole town slowly got roped into whatever wild scheme A-Ying's brilliant mind concocted.
Thus, when the first ripples of the war finally reach them - In the form of a flood of refugees from upriver - Xiangshan welcomes them with a smiling A-Ying on the fore and a plan behind them.
Zhou Jia would never forget the look of relief in the newcomers' faces as they are told that they would be given a roof over their heads that very same night - Even if said roofs are the cleaned-out husks of retired or wrecked trade ships strewn across Xiangshan's old shipyard. A-Ying and Lu Furen are quick to wrangle the refugees into groups, making sure close families are kept together and more importantly, noting down what skills and trades they could offer up before assigning them to their duties for the near future. Zhou Jia stays alongside Meixue, tending to the wounded and ill, checking on those too young or too old or heavy with child.
"With the fighting concentrated around Jiangling at the moment, the coast will probably be receiving more people in the coming days," A-Ying's raspy voice carries over the expanse of people around him, courtesy of the array he's drawn across his skin, "So once you're settled into your temporary homes and roles, you too could help the next batch of people who are similarly affected by the war. And this way, we'll weather through this war together."
Over the years, Zhou Jia has seen the oftentimes cruel fate bestowed towards refugees of war or famine - The way they are often left stranded with neither home nor purpose. But now she sees the people looking at her A-Ying with flickers of hope in their eyes, the boy's words like a beacon in all the uncertainty surrounding them and their uprooted lives.
Zhou Ayi found me by the river and gave me a home, A-Ying had said to her, grey eyes shining gently like a long-awaited dawn, it's only right that I should help give a home to ones the river brought to us in kind, don't you think?
- * -
The war drags on, and with it the devastation it wrought across its path. Both the Wens and the so-called Sunshot alliance give each other no quarters as they move from battlefront to battlefront, heedless of the people and trades they displaced or downright decimated as a result.
The Empire and its stewards of the land try their best to reason with the Cultivation world, pushing for life to go on as usual, removed as they all are from the Jianghu's disagreements and stakes. But a cultivation world conflict of this magnitude is nigh unprecedented, the Wens' sphere of influence too massive and the united Sects' territories spanning too much of the Empire. After a few disastrous instances of getting between the two warring forces, they simply stop trying to intervere and draw in their resources to mitigate the now wide-scale refugee problem and the looming threat of famine in the horizon, with how many fields and pastures are left behind to languish.
And all the while, their little harbor town grows with the war - A quiet pocket of safety and aid, with A-Ying like the bright sun of its center. Even now, Zhou Jia still finds herself fascinated at how much A-Ying manages to do, armed with nothing but his ingenuity and a smile both warm and sharp in equal measures.
A-Ying runs an ever-growing network of people - From merchants to village headmans to rogue cultivators - Transporting, circulating, even smuggling much-needed supplies and people alike across regions cut off by the push and pull of the Wen and Sunshot army. Xiangshan harbor becomes the hub of this operation, being smaller and more secluded than nearby Mingzhou and Zhoushan, less likely to be targeted or claimed by Cultivator Sects desperate for supplies.
With the help of Xiangshan's refugee enclave - many of them merchants displaced by the war - the harbor runs a clandestine trade for supplies with the outside world. Rice and grains from Chola and Champa in exchange for the bales upon bales of lotus silk lying unused in Mingzhou harbor's storehouses. Fur and hide from Balhae to weather the coming winter, traded with rolls of Gusu parchments gathering dust as the cultivation gentry replaces their books with blades. Tinctures and salves from far Tianzhu swapped with Hebei's fine, snow-white Xing ware.
And with everything they circulate, comes stacks of A-Ying's talismans - Protections from the heat and cold for ones unfortunate enough to be rendered without shelter, protections against beasts and spirits that the Sects are supposed to shield them from. There is a small army of youth in Xiangshan that scribes A-Ying's talismans now, forged by the necessity of war to far outstrip any Sect disciples of their age.
In the quiet safety of Xiangshan harbor, the people labor and toil and trade, keeping the land alive, keeping it fed and clothed and safe. The war drags on, heedless of them, of everything, but Zhou Jia knows that they will persevere.
- * -
Feng Huo, the people call A-Ying. Beacon.
It starts with a wandering poet turned millet smuggler, singing A-Ying's praises as he drops the clandestine grains along the Huangshan path. And then somehow it catches on, the name whispered amongst the people with awe and gratitude.
It's a fitting name, Zhou Jia thinks, A-Ying's smile and stubborn conviction a constant in the increasingly dark days of the war, something for the people to gather and rally around when everything and everyone else seem adamant to turn away from them.
It's a good thing as well, to have A-Ying's name safe and tucked away from his growing renown. However separate the cultivation and secular worlds are, Zhou Jia knows the extent to which the gentry Sects would go to gain power. And however oblivious he is to the influence he holds, A-Ying would indeed be a priceless asset in the eyes of those who covet absolute power.
Meixue had pointed this out in the earlier days of the war, the importance of having some protection over A-Ying while still maintaining his freedom. For all his brilliance and skills, had Zhou Jia not found him whipped and strangled, discarded on the side of a river? There is rarely true righteousness within the Sects despite their claims of championing the straight path, and both of them knew that whenever the dust of the cultivation war settles, A-Ying's influence and renown could very well put him in danger instead.
And so Meixue had woven the beginnings of a safety net, calling upon her old friend Song Bingfen - Now the Dowager Duchess of Jiangnan - to secure her son's support of Xiangshan's operations. Penning discreet letters to include with every shipments they make, making sure that each and every magistrate and local lords acknowledge and remember Feng Huo's aid in their darkest time.
Zhou Jia does her own part, reaching out to her considerable network of fellow rogue cultivators. It is an unfortunate yet undeniable fact that most rogues have had their share of unpleasant run-ins with the gentry Sects. It's easy to make them close ranks around A-Ying, to protect his wellbeing and whereabouts when the Sects might come knocking.
When the war finally ends, Feng Huo's name is spoken with reverence all throughout the land - In tea houses and in the fields, in the markets and slowly-rebuilt towns. If Hanguang-Jun belongs to the Cultivation World, being the hero who had slain Wen Ruohan with the help of the Wen Sect leader's own niece, then Feng Huo belongs to the people - To the ones who had no choice but to endure the war brought to their doorsteps. Two beacons of light and hope, for two entirely different worlds.
- * -
The white-robed Cultivator comes to Xiangshan months after the war ended, and the fine layers of his robes and the silver glint of his sword immediately puts Zhou Jia on guard.
Sect Cultivators simply do not come to places like Xiangshan. Not before the war, not during the war, and not even now when the war has ended - Too preoccupied as they are in fighting over Qishan Wen's spoils and rebuilding their Sects for whatever coming squabble they'll drum up amongst themselves. For this pristinely dressed Cultivator to be this far outside Clan territory is deeply suspicious, and Zhou Jia quietly signals A-Yan to tail him - The girl slinking easily into the crowd from her previous perch.
Zhou Jia has to admit that she hadn't expected the story of how he came to be here - Escorting a family he saved from a Yao attack on the roads, out of worry that they might encounter yet another danger. A-Yan, too, had checked twice with the mother of the family, who had sang the Cultivator's praises readily, likening him to their own Feng Huo in his readiness to help.
However, the surprise of the Cultivator's apparent righeousness is nothing compared to the moment the Cultivator lays his eyes on A-Ying.
The Cultivator turns towards A-Ying with such spontaneity, with a desperation that almost seems out of place with the cold, serene way the man had held himself with so far. Within a breath, they are face to face, the cultivator's hands reaching out abortively to hover around A-Ying's shoulders.
"It's really you," the white-robed Cultivator whispers, and Zhou Jia has to marvel at the world of longing and relief in his voice. So much so that she almost feels bad at what's coming for him. Almost.
"Well," A-Ying, on his part, seems just as taken by the whole series of events as the other man is, his grey eyes wide and conflicted, "This is - Um, so you obviously know me, don't you?"
"Wei Ying?" Concern, imperceptible were it not for years of deciphering Meixue's subtle tells, laces into the man's voice and gaze, and Zhou Jia feels a tiny amount of tension bleed out of her. Concern is good. If the cultivator had been one of the people who had hurt A-Ying before, concern would probably be the farthest thing they'd be feeling.
"I'm really sorry, I-" A-Ying draws a deep, raspy breath, ever unwilling as he is to make others uncomfortable, "I don't know how to put this in a good way. But I have absolutely no memories of anything before the war. Just my name, nothing else. So if you knew me from before then…Then I don't remember you."
The sheer anguish on the Cultivator's face is almost too much to take, so much so that A-Ying makes a distressed sound in sympathy, hands fluttering around the other man uselessly until Zhou Jia sighs and drag them both to Mistress Chao's nearby teahouse - Both boys too taken with each other to protest much before they're plopped down on their respective chairs.
Zhou Jia has to be the one to explain A-Ying's condition to the cultivator, leaving out the details of how exactly had she found him and the fact that her boy and the famed Feng Huo are one and the same.And throughout it all, she notices how the young man's eyes barely stray away from A-Ying, following his every move with something between wonder and wariness - As if he is beholding something too good to be true, as if he's afraid the other man would be gone the moment he looks away.
"I see," the cultivator finally says when Zhou Jia's concludes her story, A-Ying fidgeting on his seat as he takes in the tiny ripples in the other man's face, "All this time, we believed that you were lost to the Wens during the fall of Lotus Pier. Jiang Wanyin was particularly adamant regarding your death. Had I known-"
Something hardens in the cultivator's golden eyes. If he had looked cold and aloof before, there is something terrifyingly glacial in him as he utters the Jiang Sect Leader's name. Jiang. Lotus Pier. Suddenly, a lot of things make sense. The way A-Ying had not carried anything with him as she found him, the traces of lightning on A-Ying's back.
"Had I known," the anguish is back in the cultivator's eyes, quiet devastation and regret lacing his voice in kind, "I would have looked for Wei Ying. Forgive me."
"Aiya!" A-Ying is quick to refute him, brows drawn together at the other man's clear distress, "What are you apologizing for? There was a literal war going on! You can't possibly be expected to look for one person, especially when they're supposed to be dead!"
"Still," the cultivator dips his head, an unfairly elegant gesture for one in such misery, "I should have known that something was not right."
"So A-Ying's Sect has declared him dead, which probably explains the lack of people looking for him all this time," Zhou Jia weighs in, directing the two boys' attentions towards her, "But what of you? Why would someone outside of A-Ying's former Sect care to look for him? And on that note, we haven't even had the honor to know you name."
The cultivator has the decency to look chastened, even if it only shows in the barest ripple over his blank countenance.
"Forgive this one for his lack of courtesy," he bows in his seat, posture-perfect as Zhou Jia only ever sees people of a certain standing do, "This one is Lan Zhan, courtesy Wangji, of Gusu Lan."
"Oh," A-Ying's mouth drops open even as Zhou Jia feels her own eyes widen, "Oh, you're Hanguang-Jun?"
The cultivator - or fucking Hanguang-Jun, apparently - doesn't seem like someone who would fidget in place. But had he been such a person, Zhou Jia is sure that he would be doing so right now under the onslaught of A-Ying's bright-eyed enthusiasm.
"That's so cool!" Her boy practically gushes, scooting his chair that much closer to Lan Wangji, putting them almost shoulder to shoulder, 'So you're saying we knew each other, from before? Were we friends? Were we close?"
"Mn," Lan Wangji agrees easily, something determined in the set of his mouth, "We were friends."
"Aiya, why are you so earnest?" A-Ying laughs, "Hanguang-Jun, are you just humoring me, hmm?"
"Lan Zhan," Lan Wangji murmurs quietly, before he slowly looks up towards A-Ying, "You used to call me Lan Zhan."
Something seems to soften in A-Ying's face - An echo to the tender, vulnerable thing on Lan Wangji's own after his admission. A-Ying reaches out a hand, gentle and tentative as it settles on the other man's shoulder.
"Then you should continue to call me Wei Ying."
The day she found A-Ying, Zhou Jia had known that anyone who'd come for him is not to be trusted. That A-Ying would be better off without being followed by a past that had discarded him, bleeding and broken and forgotten. And yet.
And yet her A-Ying's eyes are bright and gentle on this Lan Wangji, the man's own eyes swimming with unspeakable tenderness and longing. And she thinks that perhaps, perhaps there are some parts of A-Ying's past that should still follow her boy after all.
- * -
Despite how easily Lan Wangji had gained A-Ying's attention and trust, despite his own clear regard towards A-Ying, the young man is still a Sect Cultivator - Beholden first and foremost to the arbitrary values that ensnares the cultivation world above all. And as such, when Lan Wangji retires to his chambers in Lao Ye's inn for the night, Zhou Jia is already waiting for him on the low tea-table center to the room.
To his credit, Lan Wangji seems unfazed at the sight of her, falling gracefully into a proper bow before he folds himself across her. Notices the pot of tea between them and pours for her, like the good young master that he is. She supposes the boy did win the cultivation world a whole war, as not to be shaken by the mere presence of an old lady invading his lodgings.
"I don't know what A-Ying had really been to you, before," she starts without preamble, in this state of mutual understanding they seem to have found themselves in, "But there are a few things you should be aware of in light of your discovery of him."
She watches Lan Wangji's face closely as she recounts the circumstances of how A-Ying came to be in Xiangshan, and every twitch of his brows, every minute shift of his implacable features slowly soothes her worries. There is first disbelief, and worry, then rage. Rage for A-Ying, simmering quiet yet potent behind the young man's eyes as she concludes her tale.
"Wei Ying's voice," Lan Wangji says quietly, mouth drawn into a thin, taut line, "That's why-"
He does not continue, but Zhou Jia understands the warring mixture of rage and helplessness brewing in the young man's face, just beneath the surface. How must it feel, to know of A-Ying's voice and laughter before? Before it's clouded with gravel and the rare yet painful hitches that interrupts his lively words?
"I know little of the affairs of the Clans and their people, but if A-Ying did escape the attack on Yunmeng Jiang with its heir, only for him to declare him dead while I found him in the condition he was in. Well," Zhou Jia chuckles darkly, swirling the now-cold tea in her cup, "Surely you understand why his presence here should probably remain for your knowledge only. For A-Ying's safety."
Lan Wangji's silence is a damning thing in and of itself.
"Wei Ying's relationship with Jiang Wanyin has always been…fraught," Lan Wangji's words are careful when he finally speaks, as if reciting a text from somewhere else. Vaguely, she remembers the silly Lan rules of no gossiping, the few times she's crossed path with disciples of the Sect, and wants to laugh at the reality of how even their precious Second Jade is not impervious to it, "It would not be a far-off assumption that Jiang Wanyin had been involved in Wei Ying's sudden disappearance."
Zhou Jia couldn't help but raise an eyebrow at the admission. Gossip is one thing, but for Hanguang-Jun to admit so easily that Wei Ying had very possibly been murdered by his own shidi? How blatant had A-Ying's mistreatment been? And how accepted had it all been, that everything had been allowed to culminate in A-Ying's broken body discarded like so much refuse on the side of that river?
"Regardless of what really happened, Wei Ying's safety should come first," Lan Wangji says quietly, and a part of Zhou Jia's heart caves in every so slightly at the obvious care in his voice, "This Wangji swears to keep Wei Ying's presence here a secret."
Zhou Jia nods, taking in the quiet determination in the young man's eyes, the fingers clenched around itself on the wood of the table, and hopes that A-Ying's trust is not unfounded this time around.
- * -
Lan Wangji's visit to Xiangshan that day becomes the first of many.
Lan Wangji comes to the nearby area for night hunts and calls for help, of which there are many in the wake of the cultivation war. But it's clear that he comes for A-Ying, his golden eyes both gentle and rapt as they follow every one of A-Ying's steps, as he turns ever towards her boy like a flower towards the sun. There is a quiet sort of peace in his eyes, as if he could simply sit and bask in A-Ying's presence forever and be content with it.
A-Ying, on his part, is equally drawn to Lan Wangji in kind - Flitting around the other man to ply him with words and laughter and light touches that linger longer and longer as the days go by. Despite his taciturn countenance, Lan Wangji never seems to mind A-Ying's chatter, giving her boy his undivided attention every time their spaces intermingle.
As A-Ying goes about his business as Feng Huo, as he teaches his fledgling talisman disciples and people from around the coast call upon him for one thing another, Lan Wangji is there beside him, like a quiet shadow, ever watchful for her boy's discomfort and whenever his boundless energy seems to flag. In the earliest days of Lan Wangji's visit, she's at least thankful for how much he took care of A-Ying, coaxing him to eat and drink and rest with the same quiet intensity he seems to approach everything with.
"I know I don't remember anything about Lan Zhan," A-Ying mumbles when Meixue points out their burgeoning closeness, "But I think I trusted him, Luo Ayi. I think I trust him, even now."
And with every visit, with every word and stories that the townsfolk and travellers in the harbor traded of their frequent visitor, with every instance of A-Ying agreeing to rest and take care of himself more despite his grumbling, so does Zhou Jia's own trust in Lan Wangji grow.
From her fellow rogue cultivators, she finds out how Hanguang-Jun has been one of the only Clan Cultivator to go out of his way and aid the devastated land after the war. While the cultivation world is scrambling over each other to build up their Sects, Lan Wangji had gone beyond the borders of his territory to answer pleas from places the Sects don't reach - Former Qishan Wen lands or far-flung borders and places too small to be of import to the Sects' machinations.
"I made a vow with a friend, once," Lan Wangji says quietly when Zhou Jia prods, "To stand with justice, and protect the weak."
Zhou Jia doesn't miss how Lan Wangji's eyes stray towards A-Ying as he admits it, how the hard gold of his eyes softens yet shines with renewed strength. She thinks of her A-Ying, so determined to stand up for the people during the war, and thinks that perhaps some things could not be entirely forgotten after all.
- * -
The first time Lan Wangji is there when A-Ying collapses is a cold autumn day, months after the two found each other again.
A-Ying has never done well with the cold, and the week had been a stressful one, with a dispute between the seasonal traders with envoys from nearby provinces, the same time a small clutch of villagers came looking for refuge, displaced by a landslide up North. A-Ying has always stretched himself too thin despite his own limitations - A leftover from the war but also something she suspects came from his time before as well - and days of settling disputes and relocating people have unwittingly taken its toll on him.
It's luck that has Zhou Jia nearby when it happens. It's also luck that has them safely within Lao Xun's tavern instead of out on the streets, where strangers could gawk and too many things could hurt A-Ying in his convulsions.
Lan Wangji catches A-Ying before he is even halfway to the ground, golden eyes wide with terror as A-Ying's limbs spasms and thrashes within his hold.
"Zhou Qianbei, what-" Lan Wangji chokes, almost cries out.
"Lay him on the ground," Zhou Jia is quick to instruct, Lan Wangji equally quick to comply even as distress roils off the young man in waves, "Gently now, good. Lao Xun, get everyone else out, please."
It never gets easier to see A-Ying like this, even after years upon years - The feeling of helplessness and impotent rage ever-simmering in her gut. What must it be like for Lan Wangji to see it for the first time, hands hovering helplessly, twitching abortively towards A-Ying's flailing ones.
"Don't hold him down," she lays a gentle, quelling hand on Lan Wangji's own, the young man jerking sharply as their skins made contact - As if the touch snapped him from a deep haze, "It will pass on its own, we'll just have to make sure that he doesn't hurt himself and could breathe fine in the meantime."
"Here, give me your outer robe," she says, and Lan Wangji is just as quick to shed the outermost of his many layers, handing it for her to fold and slip beneath A-Ying's head, cushioning him from the worst of his thrashings. Lan Wangji watches her with a rapt, almost desperate attention, as she gently turns his body to the side when the convulsions finally die down. As she checks his meridians and gently cards a hand through his hair when he slumps bonelessly to the ground, his breathing slowly returning to normal.
"A-Ying," she murmurs, low and quiet as the last of his tremors subside and awareness returns to his silver eyes, "You're in Lao Xun's place. You're safe, and you're here with me and Lan Wangji. Are you good to try and sit up?"
A-Ying nods slowly, letting Lan Wangji help him pick himself from the wooden floors, uncharacteristically silent as the other man leads him to sit on one of the long wooden benches scattered around Lao Xun's tavern.
It always breaks her heart to see A-Ying this quiet, even knowing that he would be back to his bright, smiling self after a good night's rest. It would seem that Lan Wangji shares her sentiments, as the young man keeps his arm around A-Ying's waist, hands clutching unconsciously at A-Ying's robes like a lifeline.
"Ah, Lan Zhan," A-Ying laughs, ever compelled to seek out and soothe others despite his own predicament, "I'm sorry if I scared you, but I'll be alright very soon, just you see."
Lan Wangji doesn't answer him, the arm around A-Ying's waist tightening even as he bows his head down, nestling it on the crook of A-Ying's neck and drawing a deep, shaky breath.
"Oh, Lan Zhan," A-Ying whispers, arm reaching out to wind around the other in kind, until they are all but melded together, until Zhou Jia has to nudge the two boys into moving from the spot at all.
"Let's head back to the clinic," she rouses them gently, rising from her own seat to gesture at the darkening streets outside, "Your qi seems fine, but I still want Meixue to look at your meridians, just in case anything fluctuated too badly. Let your Hanguang-Jun carry you there, hmm?"
A-Ying doesn't fuss nor fight as he usually does as Lan Wangji gathers him safely inside his hold, hands still white-knuckled around A-Ying's robes. Instead, he tucks his head on the crook of Lan Wangji's shoulders, much like what the other man did mere moments ago. It takes Lan Wangji but a few steps before A-Ying is asleep, looking safe and settled as he rarely does after his episodes.
"Come now," she says, patting Lan Wangji's arm carefully, feeling the still-coiled tension there, "Let's get him to bed, alright?"
- * -
Zhou Jia catches Lan Wangji at first light, meditating on the small courtyard behind Meixue's clinic, the whites of his robes almost ethereal in the warm grey cast of dawn.
"Zhou-Qianbei," he bows, once he notices her presence. Despite the young man's ever-impeccable posture, there are dark circles under his eyes, a tightness around his mouth - As if he had slept badly, or not at all. She remembers her own fear, that day A-Ying first collapsed, the fear that he simply wouldn't wake up, the fear that next time would be worse - If there would be a next time.
She gives a small nod back before gesturing to follow her to the kitchens, putting a hand on his shoulders to sit him down on the old wooden chairs Meixue kept around the large kitchen table. She heats water and scoops tea leaves into her favorite pot, waiting for the jumble of things beneath Lan Wangji's calm facade to settle enough for him to speak.
It takes her pouring out the first pot and submerging the leaves anew with hot water, swirling the porcelain lid to let out steam and portioning the amber liquid into two cups before Lan Wangji would look at her, eyes haunted and beseeching.
"Are there-" he stops, takes a deep breath before continuing, "Are there other things Wei Ying is living with, due to the wounds Zhou-Qianbei found him with?"
Zhou Jia sighs, setting back her cup with a clink on the old wood, "What he experienced yesterday mostly happens when he is tired or stressed, even though sometimes it would come out of nowhere as well. But there are many other things, even if most won't see it. Even if A-Ying himself tries his best not to show it."
"He has headaches a lot of the time, and nightmares that comes and goes. You wouldn't know it, seeing him, but it tires him easily," she shakes her head wryly, "His back acts up when it's colder, from his whipping scars. Makes it painful to move around. He's not good with overly bright lights either, or overly loud noises. They make him irritable, and then make him frustrated that he gets irritated so easily, the silly boy."
She wonders if she's betraying a part of A-Ying's trust, in telling his hurts to another. But A-Ying himself would never admit to being in pain, would shrug and smile off all his hurts if it meant he's less of a perceived burden for others. But she doesn't want that for him, doesn't want him to think even for a second that he might be a burden. Wants to share this feeling of wanting to care and protect him with someone else, someone A-Ying holds with warmth in kind, as for him to understand that he will be loved, will be cared for.
If Lan Wangji's expression had been somber before, it is now tinged with rage almost palpable through his normally implacable features. The fingers he rested on the table clenches and unclenches, so hard it must be painful.
"Yunmeng Jiang has to answer for this," Lan Wangji intones lowly, a trace of venom she's never heard lacing his voice, "To think that Jiang Wanyin is simply carrying on with his life as if nothing at all happened, as if he had not murdered his Shixiong. It is unacceptable."
Something breaks gently, somewhere within her chest, and she reaches out to lay her hand over Lan Wangji's clenched one.
"Lan Wangji," she says quietly, "You know that's not something you could do. Even if you bring this up in front of the cultivation world, what good would it do anyone? At the end of the day, Jiang Wanyin is the leader of a gentry sect, and A-Ying had been, and still is but an orphan of a commoner, without any clan nor standing in the eyes of the Sects."
Lan Wangji's fingers clench harder under her palm, and Zhou Jia tries not to sigh. She understands the rage, the feeling of imbalance and wrongness. Lan Wangji had seen many things, had fought and won a war in his yet meagre years of living - But at the end of the day he is still a young master cossetted and cradled in the safe embrace of his Sect and his privilege. Uncomprehending still of just how cruelly and senselessly the world could treat ones without the right name nor birth.
"Even if A-Ying's former Shidi does admit to what he did, then do you think the blame would not still fall towards A-Ying? It would be so easy to turn the tale so. Perhaps he went against his betters, perhaps he was out of line, perhaps it's simply Jiang Wanyin's right to do with his subordinate however he wishes."
She draws a deep breath, trying to steady her voice at the onslaught of renewed anger her own words wrought within her, "If you see the state of A-Ying's back, if you see how old some of the scars were, would you think no one in Lotus Pier knew? If people are fine staying quiet when a child is beaten with a weapon, then why would they turn against one of their own for simply taking out their anger on a servant?"
She almost feels sorry for the flinch marring Lan Wangji's expression, before his lips draw into a straight, stubborn line. Yet there is reluctant understanding there, in the weakening clench of his fingers, and this time Zhou Jia does sigh.
"At the end of the day, asking for any sort of recompense would probably do nothing but put A-Ying in a position for further hurt and danger," she squeezes Lan Wangji's hand lightly, "Sometimes justice simply doesn't come within our lifetime, sometimes, the only thing we could do is to simply let go and keep what we have left safe. And isn't that the most important thing? that A-Ying is safe. That A-Ying is living a life he wants, probably one he wouldn't be able to have were he to stay bound to his former Sect."
There is a long silence, nothing but the distant awakening of the docks hanging between them before Lan Wangji inclines his head, something infinitely sad yet accepting in his golden eyes.
"This Wangji understands," he says quietly, "I would make sure that Wei Ying stays safe here, where no one from before would find him."
- * -
Lan Wangji had been wrong.
The next time Lan Wangji visits Xiangshan, he is followed not a sichen later by the arrival of a cadre of purple-robed cultivators. At its head is a young man, perhaps even younger than her A-Ying, if the blustery, entitled jut of his chin is any indication. His robes are the rich silk of the gentry, the scabbard of his sword gleaming flawlessly and a small group of burly, thuggish men in matching purple silks flanking him.
Zhou Jia sees Meixue pause in her conversation with a visiting Duchess Song and several provincial envoys, her brows scrunching in worry, even as the older woman muses beside her.
"What are people from Yunmeng Jiang doing here, of all places?"
The realization has barely a moment to sink in before the young man in purple is striding towards the front of Mistress Chao's teashop. More precisely, towards A-Ying.
"Wei Wuxian!" The young man roars, and Zhou Jia feels her heart drop to her stomach, even as A-Ying whirls to face the Yunmeng Jiang cultivators, grey eyes wide and uncertain even from this distance, "I should have known that that damnable Hanguang-Jun is hiding something, and I should have known that any trouble around would eventually come down to you!"
"Get Hanguang-Jun," she hisses at A-Yan, ever-lounging in the nearby crates, the girl immediately flying through the sparse crowd of the docks, to where Lan Wangji is instructing A-Ying's little disciples for the day. Zhou Jia curses under her breath, shouldering her way through the crowd to where her boy is. Only when she's finally managed to reach A-Ying, Meixue has already put herself between A-Ying and the young man that she supposes would be Jiang Wanyin.
"Jiang Zongzhu," her Meixue says calmly, every inch the noble lady she was raised to be as she stands tall before the furious boy, "What an unexpected visit indeed, all this way to our little town. What seems to be your business here with one of our own?"
Jiang Wanyin, however, seem to take one look at Meixue's humble healer's robes and immediately his eyes rove past her, zeroing in on a now wary A-Ying, her boy's fingers twitching in the way it does when he's reaching for one of his talismans.
"So this is where you've been hiding out, then?" Jiang Wanyin spits, taking in their surroundings with a dismissive gaze akin to the one he'd just given Meixue, "Where you've been lazing around while the war was raging?"
"Our Feng Huo has done anything but laze around during the war," someone interjects sharply, and Zhou Jia sees the envoy from Mingzhou step up beside Meixue - An elderly war veteran who had headed the clandestine caravans from their warehouses himself, "Even a village fool in these parts know that many would not have survived the war without his and Xiangshan's aid. Whatever your grievances are, honored cultivator, please refrain from baseless accusations."
At Harbormaster Wu's words, Jiang Wanyin's lets out a sharp, jeering laugh.
"You are Feng Huo? The people's hero everyone would not stop talking about?" His laugh recedes, face twisting into a snarl, "But why of course, of course you just had to run away when things get too difficult, when there's a chance you could play hero somewhere else. Why bother taking up your responsibility to your Sect when you could just fuck off to the middle of nowhere and be a hero to random strangers instead!"
"These people are not mere strangers," A-Ying shoots back, his voice hard and firm despite the confusion he must still be feeling, ever ready as he is to stand up when others are being slandered, "The people of Xiangshan and everywhere else are ones who were affected by the war, who needed aid as much as anyone else fighting in it."
"Well the people here weren't doing anything, weren't they? We of the Sects were the ones who fought in the war! Who risked our lives to hold off the Wens and take back the lands they invaded!"
Silence rings, loud and precarious, in the wake of the boy's harsh words. A sizable crowd had gathered around them, traders and envoys and commoners alike, frowns and dirty looks thrown about wordlessly at the dismissal of each their sufferings in a war that wasn't even theirs.
"Jiang Zongzhu," Zhou Jia finally breaks the tense silence, stepping up between Meixue and Harbormaster Wu to completely obscure A-Ying from the Jiang sect leader's view, "I think before you continue with your accusations against our Feng Huo, you should know that anything you berate him of would be in vain, as he does not have his memories from before the war."
The boy's glare widens as he whirls to face her, face turning a darker shade of purple, "What the fuck? What kind of pathetic lie is that? You're telling me he claimed to just forgot who he was, and you just believed that?"
Silence answers Jiang Wanyin's incredulousness, stares hardening towards the sect leader until he falls back into a disbelieving laugh.
"Of course you would, of course you would really forget about all your debts and responsibilities just like that, and never even try to find out what you left behind. Truly, Wei Wuxian, I shouldn't have expected anything else from you!"
Zhou Jia could feel A-Ying flinch behind him, a sharp, ragged inhalation of breath through his damaged airways. It had always been a spot of lingering guilt for A-Ying despite the clear marks of his abuse, for him not to dig up his past. And like hell is Zhou Jia going to let this uppity brat who had literally murdered him to play upon that undeserved guilt.
"Did those debt and responsibility include letting you strangle your wounded shixiong and then leaving him for dead in enemy territory, Jiang Zongzhu?" She asks, making sure her voice ring clear and true through the crowd.
Immediately, a ripple of shocked murmurs goes through the crowd. Most everyone in their community and their operation during the war knew of A-Ying's predicament and how he had built up his life from nothing, of the physical hurdles A-Ying had to deal with due to whatever incident happened to him in the past. But to know exactly what had caused it, and have the one who caused it still have the gall to berate their Feng Huo is another matter entirely.
"Whatever punishment Yunmeng Jiang inflict on our disciples are our own business," Jiang Wanyin snarls at the increasingly restless crowd, "And whatever punishment he got he deserved it-"
"No honorable Sect would do any of the things you did, Jiang Wanyin," a cold voice cuts through the Sect Leader's furious tirade, and Zhou Jia draws a relieved breath as the imposing figure of Hanguang-Jun cuts through the crowd, looking every inch like a wrathful deity as he puts himself between Jiang Wanyin and everyone else, "And for you to demand anything at all of Wei Ying after what you and your Sect did to him is merely shows your lack of shame."
Wei Ying's eyes are wide and bewildered as they bounce between Lan Wangji and a now near-apoplectic Jiang Wanyin, another laugh ripping from his mouth as he steps towards the Lan cultivator.
"If it isn't the honorable Hanguang-Jun, come to share his impeccable righteousness with us! Pray tell, why should my Sect not demand everything from Wei Wuxian when he was the cause that the Wens came to Lotus Pier! When he chose you and that damn Jin peacock over the safety of his own Sect and went directly against Wen Chao, painting a target on our backs!"
Zhou Jia feels her mouth round open, even as Lan Wangji's glare sharpens. But both of them are beaten to it by indignant cries from the crowd.
"What manner of nonsense is that?" A voice Zhou Jia recognizes as the envoy from Guangzhou pipes up above the din, "Any trader or common people with their ears on the ground would know that the Wens would have come to Lotus Pier eventually!"
"After Gusu Lan and Qinghe Nie fell, did it not even occur to you that Yunmeng Jiang would be next?" Mistress An scoffs loudly, "How could one boy be the cause of such an attack when it's so clear that the Wens would have gone for Yunmeng's waterways if they wanted to wage a war? That's where most of the supply routes to and from the South goes through! What are they teaching you cultivators, really?"
"You dare! None of you know anything of how Yunmeng Jiang suffered because of him!"
"The people know plenty, Jiang Zongzhu," someone spits out, uttering Jiang Wanyin's title as if it's a curse, "However adamant you are on not seeing us as anything that matters, we are as much human beings as Zongzhu is, and we have lost plenty as well due to the war the likes of you have wrought."
"Perhaps the people of Yunmeng should demand Yunmeng Jiang's responsibility instead for doing nothing to warn nor defend the people when they knew very well the Wens would be coming," another voice calls out - one of the merchant turned refugee from the West.
"Hear hear! You thought none of the people who survived the Lotus Pier massacre talked of your Sect's incompetence? Even when it was clear that the situation has turned bloody, your Madam didn't care to sound a retreat nor thought to evacuate the people. But here is Yunmeng Jiang blaming their failings on a singe disciple! Imagine that!"
More shouts and jeers are levelled from the crowd, even as the Jiang disciples draw themselves closer to their Sect Leader, who's nearly sputtering with rage at this point.
"I suggest Jiang Zongzhu leave," Meixue says amidst the din, almost gently, "And do not bother the people outside his territory anymore."
"Our Sect's quarrel is not with any of you," Jiang Wanyin grits out, clearly unable not to have the last word as he turns and snarls at A-Ying, "Wei Wuxian, this is not over."
"On the contrary," Song Bingfen, who had been quietly taking in the whole mess behind Meixue suddenly steps forward, smile as pleasant and bland as one would sport during a particularly boring banquet, "Jiangnan takes care of their own, and my son the Duke would not take kindly to any threat to our Feng Huo, or any of his constituent."
Song Bingfen stops, her smile gaining a sharp edge as she gracefully tilts her head to the side, as if considering, "And neither would Duke Wang of Yunmeng, I suppose. He had been very understanding, I believe, about the recovering state of your Sect and how the people who paid their tithes to Yunmeng Jiang are yet to receive any of the services they were promised. But seeing that you have sufficient time and manpower to hunt down a former disciple that your own Sect had harmed, well."
The Dowager Duchess' speech, and perhaps the sheer flashiness of her brocaded robes and headpiece finally seemed to pierce through the haze of Jiang Wanyin's anger, and the young sect leader stares, suddenly unsure as Song Bingfen's smile grows even larger.
"I am sure Yunmeng Jiang would do well not to fall into another conflict, not when you're still recovering from such a hard-fought, important war, hmm?"
With that, Song Bingfen turns on her dainty heels, taking A-Ying with her in clear dismissal.
- * -
Zhou Jia quickly attaches herself to A-Ying's side, flanking him together with Song Bingfen, pulling him away from the crowd even as the people of Xiangshan closes rank around A-Ying's path. Lan Wangji hovers uncertainly behind them, and were the situation less dire, Zhou Jia would have laughed at how much the great Hanguang-Jun resembles an anxious mother hen.
As it is, A-Ying is pale and trembling as he is led to the safety of Meixue's clinic, hands wringing aimlessly before Lan Wangji gathers him in his arms, letting A-Ying clutch desperately at his robes even as he does the same to A-Ying.
"Wei Ying is safe," Lan Wangji intones, quietly yet firmly, "I would never let Jiang Wanyin touch you nor your family here."
"And neither would my A-Yun and Wang Xie," Duchess Song weighs in, seating herself primly across the two boys, her expression more somber that she's ever seen it before, "Yunmeng Jiang might have been a great Sect once, but the war and that foolish boy's ghastly temper had whittled it down to little more than a middling clan with a ridiculously large territory. Even if the brat wants to stir up some trouble, he'll find that it won't be as easy as he thought."
"He said I was the reason his Sect was destroyed," A-Ying whispers, his eyes wide and lost and for a moment, Zhou Jia seriously contemplates the logistics of assassinating the Jiang Sect Leader.
"Upon a calamity happening, a bad ruler only knows to blame his people, while a good ruler would ask what they could have done to prevent it. It is easier to find faults within others than admit that one should be culpable of wrongdoing" Meixue says calmly, running a hand through A-Ying's hair, the way she always did when A-Ying was still bound to his bed and lost to his fevers.
"Luo-Qianbei is right. My home had also been attacked and myself held hostage by the Wens. It had been Wei Ying who saved my life then, as well as numerous other Sect Heirs during our captivity."
Lan Wangji pauses, cupping a hand ever so gently over A-Ying's cheek, tilting his head up towards him, "For Jiang Wanyin to deem Wei Ying's actions the sole reason for Lotus Pier's fall is foolhardy," his tone turns wry, "And implies that myself and the cultivators from other Sects should be left for dead if it means Yunmeng Jiang's safety."
"Well, at least we know who not to make alliances with in the future," Song Bingfen interjects, even as A-Ying burrows his face back into Lan Wangji's chest, the faintest of smiles on his lips.
- * -
Lan Wangji comes even more frequently, afterwards. Helps with more night hunts A-Ying goes to, even bringing some of his younger disciples along - each one of the wide-eyed youth quickly becoming as enamoured by A-Ying as their senior is.
Zhou Jia supposes it's the Lan boy's own way of staking his protection over Xiangshan and A-Ying, the sort of posturing that those of the gentry understands and acknowledges above the mere notion of commoners suffering or dying. In all honesty, she doesn't care a whit of the cultivation world's petty power plays, as long as Gusu Lan's post-war influence does its part in keeping her boy safe.
"They say the Lans only love once," Meixue notes as they watch Lan Wangji and A-Ying circle each other yet again in their simultaneously quick yet painstakingly long courtship, a wry smile playing at the edge of her lips, "Out of all the ridiculous rumours about those bunch of monks, didn't expect that one to be true. A-Ying literally didn't even remember his name, and that Lan boy still went for him. And A-Ying for him, I suppose."
"A soul is a soul," Zhou Jia shrugs, "Even if they don't remember you, won't your soulmate still be your soulmate? If you suddenly, I don't know, knock your head real hard on that rickety herb shelf of yours and forget all about me, I could still probably get to you. Give it a month, and you'll be bitching about how I can't even do my hair right and try to do it for me while stealing glances at my pretty face."
Meixue snorts into her tea, wrinkling her nose in that imperceptible way she does that only Zhou Jia herself could pick up.
"What? You think you won't fall for my roguish charm all over again, huh?"
"Anyway, let's just hope they won't take as long as we did to get it together," Zhou Jia grins, waggling her eyebrows at an unimpressed Meixue when she doesn't deign to answer, "Now that you've had a taste of having a kid, aren't you curious about grandchildren?"
This time, Meixue does laugh, soft and secret, the kind of laugh that makes Zhou Jia thinks that despite everything, all would be fine. The way she's sure their two boys would eventually be fine as well.
- * -
Zhou Jia had been there for most of Lan Wangji and A-Ying's bumbling courtship, if copious amount of night-hunting and community building together could be considered as such. She had also been there the night they had to wrangle a drunken Hanguang-Jun from turning a docking trade ship upside-down in search of chickens, of all things.
"They have to be fat and nice, Zhou-Qianbei," Lan Wangji had said solemnly, cradling the confused chickens in his arms, "Only the best wedding gifts for Wei Ying."
Zhou Jia had managed to keep her laughter at bay until A-Ying finished apologizing to the bemused Guangzhou traders and she could hand Lan Wangji back to him, and had proceeded to laugh for a ke straight once she's in the safety of Meixue's clinic.
So considering all of their very public process of getting together, neither she nor Meixue, nor anyone else in Xiangshan - and probably the whole of Jiangnan - is really surprised when Lan Wangji asks for A-Ying's hand in marriage to her and Meixue, Song Bingfen beaming gleefully behind him. No one, that is, expect her A-Ying. Silly boy that he is.
"I realize this is quite unconventional," Lan Wangji continues unabated, even as A-Ying gapes beside him, "Since both of us are grooms and neither of us would be marrying in nor out, but I would still like to the blessings of Wei Ying's family to marry him."
Something warm and fierce blooms in her chest at the word. Family. She supposes that's what A-Ying is, what Meixue and herself, and the whole of Xiangshan is to A-Ying. Their A-Ying, who had survived and flourished against all the odds stacked against him, only to make everyone's life that much brighter and safer with his presence.
"But- But Lan Zhan, you-" A-Ying rasps, "You're like, Hanguang-Jun. You're supposed to marry a maiden from a good family and bring pride to your clan! Not some rogue cultivator without even a memory of-"
"Jiangnan would be delighted to back our Feng Huo in the negotiations," Song Bingfen cuts A-Ying's ramblings mercilessly, eyes glinting in a way that hints at nothing good, "Should the more…traditional members of your Sect need the assurance."
Zhou Jia idly thinks of the coming wedding negotiations, and wonders whether Lan Wangji's infamously fastidious Shufu might yet meet his match in her old friend. One could hope for some excitement in the hellscape that is a gentry wedding negotiation.
"This one would be honored, Dowager Duchess Song," Lan Wangji bows gracefully in his seat, making the Duchess titter in glee.
"Lan Zhan," A-Ying has finally had it, hands gripping the white silk of Lan Wangji's sleeves for attention, "Do I get no say in this?"
"Wei Ying does not want to marry?" Lan Wangji asks mournfully, his placid eyes suddenly twin pools of pitiful liquid gold. The boy had clearly been spending too much time with Song Bingfen.
"Yes, I mean, no! I mean, of course I want to marry you, who wouldn't want to marry you, Lan Zhan, ah! But you clearly weren't listening when I said-"
"Then I am marrying Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says, smugness radiating off the perfect lines of his face, prompting A-Ying to another round of incoherent spluttering.
On second thought, they should probably just let the two boys loose on the Lans during the wedding negotiations. See how long those old goats could stand it before they fold and simply give their prized jade cabbage away.
- * -
The wedding comes on a bright spring day, with lilting music and the taste of salt in the air, A-Ying looking replesedent in red with Lan Wangji on his side. Many had sailed and docked from near and far for their beloved Feng Huo and Hanguang-Jun's nuptials, and the wedding banquet overflows with well wishes in a myriad of languages and dialects, over a spread of food and wine from all manners of places.
They would probably have to do a second ceremony in the Cloud Recesses to satisfy Wangji's Clan, but for all that Zhou Jia cares, for all that the two boys should be concerned, this is their wedding day proper. Whatever stuffy, passive-aggressive rituals the Lans would make them go through afterwards, the boys' memory of their happiest day would always hold the sound of the open sea and the merriment of people who wholeheartedly love them and they love in return.
"Thank you," A-Ying sniffles into her shoulders, ever the crybaby, "Zhou Ayi, without you and Luo Ayi, I won't have-"
"Hush now you silly boy, nothing of that!" Zhou Jia smacks A-Ying's shoulder, trying to hold back the moisture in her own eyes to no avail, "Now go and enjoy yourself! Everyone's drunk enough they probably won't notice if the grooms take off to start their own party!"
That worked to send A-Ying into a blushing frenzy, Lan Wangji appearing by his side and bowing deeply at both her and Meixue before stealing her boy away.
"Ah, how quickly they grow up, huh?" Zhou Jia chuckles, her voice undeniably hoarse and wet. Meixue merely scoffs, her hand squeezing hers - cool and dry and familiar in its comfort. They watch the pair shuffle through the crowd before they disappear from view, before Zhou Jia lets her tears fall in earnest.
"Come on," Meixue says gently, squeezing her hand again as they rise from their seats, "It's late."
They pick their way through the crowd, across the docks, past the mouth of the river that she'd once traversed with an unconscious boy clinging to life beside her. Zhou Jia couldn't help but slow her steps, taking in the rushing of the waters before them. Perhaps, as with all things in it, the river had brought A-Ying home to them, as the rivers brought the waters home to sea.
Zhou Jia bows at the waters, and follows Meixue to their home.
- * -