Lotus Pier is quiet these days.
Well, no, it’s never fully quiet--there are always the sounds of the town, the river traffic, the merchants and vendors on the docks and banks, a steady stream of human affairs that overlays the perpetual lapping of the water.
But Lotus Pier itself, the residence, is now quiet in a stately way, calm and dignified. Even the squabbles Jiang Cheng has with his advisors aren’t as heated as they were when he was a younger man. It’s… alien. Strange. Not like he remembers from his childhood. It’s beginning to give him hives, honestly--if they keep going at this rate, their vibrant purples and blue-greens will start sun-bleaching to white, and then they might as well declare themselves a subsidiary branch of the Lan Sect, at which point Jiang Cheng will ritually hurl himself into the river and fake his own death.
It’s because there aren’t many kids around, these days. When he was young--and mother of fuck, how ancient is he that he keeps thinking “when I was young” over and over like this--there were a good dozen or so new Jiang disciples in every year.
And then, of course, the war.
They lost a lot of promising young cultivators in the war, people who had their whole lives ahead of them. People who should have had time to keep growing, to marry, to have the kids that would be today’s new generation.
They never got that chance, and so today’s generation is… scanty. Two or three in every year, instead of a dozen or more, and Jiang Cheng is relieved to have even that many--there’s a few smaller sects he knows of who haven’t had more than one new disciple per year for a solid decade. There’s a few, now on the brink of collapse, who would envy even those numbers as an abundance of generational wealth.
He knows, intellectually, that the numbers are due to start recovering soon, where “soon” means “over the next twenty years or so”--but twenty years is too long to wait. By then, no one will remember that Lotus Pier was once full of energy and laughter. By then, he will be an old man, and he will have forgotten entirely how to look towards the future, the gaze of his memory fixed instead on the mist-gilded past.
But life goes on, and business goes on, and politics. He addresses the day-to-day affairs of the sect and of governance, and he cultivates as much as he has time for, and he worries about Jin Ling, even though Jin Ling demonstratively doesn’t need to be worried about anymore--two years a sect leader now, and becoming more and more his own person every day, growing into himself at a rate that alarms Jiang Cheng and leaves him proud and sad and lonely. Yes, lonely, because Jiang Cheng can’t help but feel a little abandoned--but that’s the way of children, isn’t it? They all grow up and leave you in the end.
So he endures, and he fills up his time so there isn’t a spare moment to be unhappy, and he only leaves Yunmeng when it is absolutely necessary to do so, mostly for the occasional diplomatic summit with the other sects.
But eventually… Perhaps it’s the quiet that’s driving him mad. Perhaps it’s the harsh, scathing thoughts that come to him in the dead of night: if he’s lonely it’s his own fault, he drives everyone away eventually, he could change if he only wanted it badly enough. Perhaps it’s meditating in the ancestral shrine and remembering jiejie’s gentle voice, her cool hand on his cheek, Boys, be good. A-Xian, A-Cheng, can’t you be sweet to each other? You only have one brother!
She’d be so ashamed of you, he thinks to himself furiously. He’d punch himself in the face if he could, if it’d help. Idiot.
But of all the cruel things he thinks at himself--and he is crueler to himself than he is to anyone else--that’s the one thing he can’t make himself believe, because it’s not true. Jiejie was never once ashamed of him, never once even disappointed in him. She just believed, always, that he could be a better man than he was, and kept quietly loving him while he tried and failed and tried again.
Jiejie, I can’t, he imagines himself saying. She used to let him weep into her lap when he was small, stroking his hair and shoulders.
A-Cheng is so strong, I’m sure he’ll find a way.
Or maybe that’s just his own mind again, finding different ways to say, Of course you could do it, moron, if only you wanted it badly enough.
Jiang Cheng stands at the foot of the mountain and looks up the long path to the Cloud Recesses, determinedly gathering resolve in his heart.
It has been two years since he has seen Wei Wuxian face-to-face, other than brief glimpses at cultivation conferences and other political events--even now, Wei Wuxian isn’t serious enough to attend any of them for real, and when he does, he sits too close to that blank stone wall he’s married to, drapes himself over Hanguang-jun’s shoulders or across Hanguang-jun’s lap with no care for propriety or the innocent eyes of everyone else in the room who definitely do not need to be privy to such things.
Jiang Cheng unclenches his jaw before he cracks a tooth. Again.
He is going to be courteous this time. He is going to be… brotherly. They are brothers, aren’t they? Even if Wei Wuxian has flounced off to be disgusting with Lan Wangji and has completely forgotten Jiang Cheng and--and Lotus Pier, and their family and--
He unclenches his jaw again, and makes himself think the words that send a dull throb of grief through his chest: What would jiejie say? What would she do?
A-Cheng, he hears as an echo in the back of his head once more, gentle and chiding, as if what lies between him and Wei Wuxian is mere children’s bickering that can be solved with a single “I’m sorry” or an offer of sharing a toy.
He swallows hard. Unclenches his jaw a third time.
He just wants his family back, is that so much to ask for? Besides Jin Ling, Wei Wuxian is the only other remnant of the family that’s left, and he hasn’t come running back to Lotus Pier to beg forgiveness, so…
So Jiang Cheng is tired of waiting for something that’s never going to happen.
Maybe there’s no way back from this. Maybe all those broken bridges are gone for good. Maybe fifteen years and a few hundred miles is too much to expect someone to just… forget and forgive. Maybe he should be wise enough to recognize a hopeless cause, and turn around now and go home.
He draws himself up. Tips up his chin. Well, so maybe all those things are true. Maybe it’s a fool’s errand. What of it?
He’s the Jiang sect leader, and before he writes it all off for good, he will, at least, attempt the impossible.
He alights from his sword at the gates and bows briskly to the two Lan disciples standing guard--he doesn’t recognize either of them. “Yunmeng’s Jiang Wanyin,” he says briskly. “May I enter?”
“Er,” says one dubiously. “Sect Leader Jiang?”
“Are you here to see Hanguang-jun?” asks the other, in a much more polite tone. “We were not told to expect you.”
“He is not expecting me.” He gathers up all his resolve again. “I’m here to see Wei Wuxian, actually. He’s not expecting me either.”
The two disciples exchange a glance. “Ah…”
Fucking Lan sect. If he’s even the slightest bit impolite here, the guards will just turn him away and he’ll have to try again on a day when there’s someone else posted here--they have policies in place to deal with pompous sect leaders turning up to bitch and moan and waste everyone’s time. Jiang Cheng has waited on the doorstep of the Cloud Recesses often enough to be well accustomed to it by now. “It’s fine,” he says, carefully civil. “Send them a message if you need to. I won’t be offended.”
He retreats a dozen yards or so down the path. There’s a large tree which is an old friend by this point--its gnarled roots have, in years past, offered quite a pleasant place to rest when he arrives unannounced for sect business and has to be granted permission to enter. Better than standing around kicking the ground or sitting on the hard stone steps, anyway.
He gets comfortable leaning back against the trunk, folds his hands on his stomach, and closes his eyes, undecided about whether this will be meditation or a brief nap.
It must end up being a nap, because he twitches awake when he hears running footsteps and opens his eyes just as Wei Wuxian, from a dozen paces off, says, “Jiang Cheng?”
He sits up.
His erstwhile brother looks… well might be a stretch. His hair is messy, his clothes are messy, he looks kind of tired and worn, and there is a smear of something unspeakable on his sleeve and the skirts of his robe. But the color is bright in his cheeks, and he doesn’t have that gaunt, hungry look that haunts some of Jiang Cheng’s worst nightmares.
It’s a strange double-vision: Mo Xuanyu’s body is not his brother’s, and his face, however similar, isn’t the same either. Sometimes, when Jiang Cheng has glimpsed him in a rare moment of extreme stillness, he… forgets for a second.
But then his brother moves again, or smiles, or laughs, or speaks, and there is no mistaking him. Every gesture, every rhythm of every sentence, every shift of his body language--it is unmistakable. Jiang Cheng knows him better than he knows his own reflection.
“Hi,” he says warily.
“Hi,” says Wei Wuxian, coming to a stop and blinking at him. “Uh. Good to see you.”
Jiang Cheng eyes the unspeakable stain on his sleeve. “Did you dip your hand in a bowl of congee?” he asks carefully. Is that congee? It might be… something else that doesn’t bear thinking about.
Wei Wuxian looks at his sleeve in surprise. “Oh,” he sighs, and tries to brush the stain off. “Can’t seem to keep tidy for five minutes these days.” He laughs suddenly. “I suppose you know how that goes, huh?”
Jiang Cheng hasn’t the faintest idea what he’s talking about. “Sure,” he says cautiously.
“So uh.” Wei Wuxian rocks on his heels. “What brings you all this way?”
“I’m allowed to visit my brother, aren’t I?” he says, and he can hear that it’s too sharp. A-Cheng , sighs the beloved voice in the back of his head again, and he grimaces.
“Oh. Yeah.” Wei Wuxian blinks down at him again. “Just a… visit? Nothing wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong.” He hauls himself to his feet and dusts off the skirts of his over-robe. “So are you going to invite me in or what?”
“Uh. Right, yeah,” Wei Wuxian says. “Of course. Come in.”
They walk side by side into the Cloud Recesses, and Jiang Cheng has a wrenching sense of deja vu.
An awkward silence settles between them.
“So,” Wei Wuxian says at last, stretching the syllable out for several seconds. “How’s... Sect leadering?”
“You’d know if you--” He cuts himself off. “Fine,” he says. “It’s fine.”
“Good,” Wei Wuxian says. “That’s good.”
“And…” Heaven help him, this is horrible. “How are things here?”
Wei Wuxian heaves a huge sigh. “Ah, don’t get me started, I’ll complain for the rest of the day like one of those old aunties from the Yunmeng marketplace, you remember? Oh woe, my husband is just too attentive and rich, all my best ribbons are sadly stained, my children are far too dedicated to their studies, it’s so expensive to keep buying them books, how horrible my life is, and that’s not to mention--”
“You’ve gotten started,” Jiang Cheng says through gritted teeth.
“Oh, whoops, so I have. Well, short version, things are good here too.”
“Good,” says Jiang Cheng. He considers, briefly, turning on his heel, jumping on his sword, saying, Well, good talk, see you around, and flying off.
The silence falls between them again.
Jiang Cheng has just about panicked his way into saying something else when a young girl disciple--perhaps eleven years old, white robes, white boots, white ribbon--stomps up to Wei Wuxian and says, “I’m lodging a formal protest.”
“Another one?” Wei Wuxian says, stopping in his tracks and putting his hands on his hips. “What now?”
“A-Hao is bothering me,” she hisses. “Make him stop.”
Wei Wuxian heaves a sigh. “Okay. I’m in the middle of something at the moment so just… Tell him I said to stop.”
“He’s not going to!”
“Then go find your da-ge to make him stop, I’m in the middle of something!” Wei Wuxian says, gesturing at Jiang Cheng.
“Da-ge is writing a letter to his boyfriend.” This last is said with such disdainful venom that Jiang Cheng almost laughs.
“If he had a boyfriend, I’d know,” Wei Wuxian says with great confidence. “Maybe he has somebody he likes, though, I had somebody I liked when I was his age--”
She ignores him, giving Jiang Cheng a long, cool look. “Who is that?”
“Don’t be rude,” Wei Wuxian says, which is a piece of hypocrisy so eye-watering that it’s a marvel the sun doesn’t fall right out of the sky. “This is--my brother. Sect Leader Jiang Wanyin of Yunmeng. Jiang Cheng.”
“Oh,” she says, subsiding. The look she gives him turns calculating, but then she sketches a neat little bow. “Hello. I’m Lan Shu, courtesy name Siyuan. Pleased to meet you.”
He nods to her. “Having trouble with brothers, huh?”
She heaves a sigh and raises her eyes to the heavens, which is honestly answer enough. Jiang Cheng rather sympathizes.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, okay, off with you,” Wei Wuxian says, flapping a hand at her. “Get out of here. Go.”
“Either don’t be so easily bothered or just--” Wei Wuxian gestures widely. “Go dump him in the Cold Pond or something! Don’t do that,” he amends instantly, holding up a warning finger. “If you dump A-Hao in the Cold Pond I will tell your father.”
She considers this. “I won’t dump him in the Cold Pond.”
“Glad to hear it,” Wei Wuxian says, warily.
“Telling diedie is a good idea. I will lodge my formal protest with him,” she says with a resolute nod, and then she whips around and flits off around a corner before Wei Wuxian can catch her.
Jiang Cheng snorts. “Lost your gift with kids, did you?”
Wei Wuxian gives him a suffering look. “What?”
“The Jiang disciples used to follow you around everywhere and fawn over themselves to do whatever you wanted,” he says. He can’t help but be smug about it. “Lan disciples not as easily charmed, eh?”
Wei Wuxian heaves a sigh. “You don’t even know the half of it.”
Wei Wuxian deposits him at the guest house and makes some distracted, half-coherent excuse about having to go check on Her Ladyship , whoever that is. Jiang Cheng racks his brain for a full minute and can’t remember any female cultivators ranked high enough in the Lan Sect to be ladied by Wei Wuxian of all people, unless Lan Xichen has gotten married sometime in the last week and Jiang Cheng hasn’t gotten the news yet. Which… isn’t likely.
It is a lovely day, and he doesn’t have anything better to do but relax and continue gathering his resolve. He opens all the doors and windows, makes himself a pot of tea, and sits on the back porch where the hill slopes down to a little brook, all set about with neatly manicured shrubs and tidy stands of bamboo.
It is probably meant to be pretty and calming. Jiang Cheng has little appreciation for gardens. He drinks his tea--that, at least, he can admit is rather good.
Halfway through the pot of tea, he hears whispers and turns just in time to see a pair of white-ribboned foreheads duck down behind the edge of the raised porch.
He watches quietly, not moving or speaking, until they dare to peek again, and then he looks them right in the eyes and they squeak with alarm and hide again, whispering ferociously to each other. “Run, run, run,” one of them says.
“Oi,” he says sharply. “Come here.”
There is absolutely no movement or sound, only the breeze.
He frowns. “It’s forbidden to disobey your elders in the Cloud Recesses, isn’t it?” he says, and then the two little disciples get to their feet, very red in the face, and shuffle up to the edge of the porch where he’s sitting.
And heavens, they are very little--the boy is a year or two older than the girl, but both of them are under the age of ten, by a rough estimation. They bow to him, clearly very embarrassed, and his heart softens.
“You spying?” he demands. “Did Wei Wuxian send you?”
They exchange tiny, adorable, puzzled looks. “No?” says the older boy.
“What’s with the hiding and the whispering then, eh?”
“Jiejie said you were here,” says the girl, kicking a rock. “We came to see.”
Jiang Cheng puzzles. “Well,” he huffs. “Well, here I am. Now you’ve seen me.”
They gaze at him with solemn, serious expressions. They can’t be blood-siblings--they don’t look anything alike--but they’re standing very close to each other and holding hands, so maybe just cousins or particularly close sect-siblings.
“Where are your manners?” he says. “Introduce yourselves.”
They jump a little and let go of each other’s hands to bow--the boy shakes out his sleeves very dramatically as he does so, as if he’s bowing to an emperor. “Lan Hao, courtesy name Sixia!” says the boy.
“Lan Chun, courtesy name Sihan,” says the girl.
Jiang Cheng puzzles again. “Did the Lan sect suddenly start using a generational poem?” When they blink at him, he says, “I’ve met three people with ‘si’ names in the last hour.” He peers at the boy. “Lan Hao, you said? And you mentioned your jiejie--that’ll be your sister Lan Shu, then?”
The boy nods.
“Can I have some tea?” Lan Chun asks, eyeing his teapot. “That’s the nice tea, isn’t it? I can smell it. Diedie says it’s only for special occasions and guests.” She puts her elbows on the edge of the porch and gives him a big smile. He’s instantly on his guard--Wei Wuxian had had that sort of sunny charm when he was her age too, and it had brought no end of hardship and suffering into Jiang Cheng’s life. “Are you a special occasion?”
“I’m a guest,” he says.
“Guests are special occasions,” she says, pulling herself up onto the porch and sitting near him with a hilariously pointed, expectant look at the teapot. “Er-ge, come up here.”
Lan Hao hesitates. “May I join you, Sect Leader Jiang?” he asks, very grave and serious, so grave that it’s a little hilarious.
But Jiang Cheng raised a child himself, and he knows that pretty manners are to be valued and rewarded. “Are you expected at any lessons?” he asks sternly. The boy shakes his head. “Then you may. Briefly.”
Lan Hao scrambles up onto the porch to sit next to his--sect-sister? Friend? Well, who knows--and folds his hands neatly in his lap, straight backed and tidy, a perfect little Lan in miniature.
“You’re from Yunmeng!” says Lan Chun, impudently reaching for the teapot.
Jiang Cheng takes it away--besides being rude of her, the ceramic is very hot and she might burn herself if she just grabs for it carelessly. “Ask first.”
“Oh.” She looks at the teapot, then at him, then at the teapot, then clasps her hands under her chin and sings, “ Please ?”
He gives her a long, cool look. He’s seen this act ten thousand times before. “Be careful . Pour for your elders first.”
She nods, pushes back her sleeves, sticks her tongue out with concentration, and does so, refilling his cup and then one for her… whoever. Er-ge, anyway, and that could be literal or figurative. To her credit, she is quite careful, but Jiang Cheng still watches like a hawk. It’s probably forbidden in the Cloud Recesses to let children do things that might hurt them, but Jiang Cheng has always believed that a few singed fingertips are a cheap price to pay for learning experiences. He’d let Jin Ling get plenty of little hurts--singed fingers, skinned knees, bumps to the head--and he’d turned out just fine, hadn’t he? Sect leader at seventeen and doing an okay job of it, though of course it isn’t in circumstances as difficult and challenging as it had been for Jiang Cheng at the same age, so it can’t really be any kind of comparison. Hmph, kids these days. No concept of real hardship.
It’s really about scale--obviously you don’t want to let a kid outright drown, but letting them run off the edge of a pier and get a dunking because they weren’t looking where they’re going is a valuable life lesson to look where you’re fucking going, and it’s usually more effective than wasting your breath shouting at them.
Lan Chun blows carefully on her tea to cool it, sips a little, makes a little squirm of happiness, and says again, “You’re from Yunmeng!”
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng says. “I am the Sect Leader.”
“Wow!” She beams at him. “I’ve met three sect leaders, you’re the fourth! Do you know Zewu-jun? He comes to see us every month--he’s the leader of the Gusu Lan sect,” she adds helpfully, as if he doesn’t fucking know that, even though he is a grownup sitting in the middle of the Cloud Recesses guest house , drinking their tea. But kids just talk like that sometimes when they want to show you that they know that information, so he says nothing. “And I’ve met Sect Leader Jin of Lanling, who is ten whole years older than me, I did the math all by myself, I’m very good at math--”
“A-Chun, arrogance is forbidden,” Lan Hao whispers to her.
“It’s not arrogant to say I’m good at math! I’m better than you are, er-ge! And I’ve met Sect Leader Ouyang, because he’s Ouyang-gege’s dad, and Ouyang-gege comes to visit da-ge sometimes. And now I’ve met you. What’s Yunmeng like? Did you bring lotus seeds? Do you like them? I like them. Can I see your sword? Can you fly on your sword? Did you bring your whip? Can I see that? Have you ever used your whip to decapitate somebody ? I think you should try decapitating somebody with your whip, because that would be cool .”
Shit. He hasn’t ever used the whip to decapitate somebody, but that would be cool. Fuck. He sips his tea sternly. “Ask one question at a time.”
“Please tell us about Yunmeng,” Lan Hao says, still very polite. “My baba says it’s beautiful there.”
“It is the most beautiful town,” Jiang Cheng says, because it fucking is. “It’s--”
“More beautiful than the Cloud Recesses?” Lan Chun says, her eyes wide as saucers.
He scoffs. “Easily.”
“Wow! Is it true the lotus flowers grow as far as you can see, all the way to the horizon?”
Jiang Cheng wonders vaguely who has been indoctrinating her with this shamelessly partisan Lotus Pier propaganda but he’s not about to undo their hard work. “Yes,” he lies solemnly. So what if it’s forbidden? Hanguang-jun can kiss his ass.
“Wow! Is it true the food there is the most delicious food in the whole world?”
“Yes,” he says, and thinks, Ah, she's been talking to my stupid brother. But why’s he telling some random disciple...?
“Wow, wow! Is it true that the best thing ever is to lie in the bottom of a boat on the river in the summer and put your feet over the edge into the water and nap?” Jiang Cheng’s a little hurt, really, that Wei Wuxian’s telling so many stories to little Lan disciples but can’t even bother to come visit , not once in two years-- “My baba said it was,” she adds.
Jiang Cheng almost chokes on his tea. “Your baba?! ” he demands, a little strangled.
She blinks those big eyes at him and grins. “Yes! Wei Wuxian!”
Wei Wuxian comes back again around dinnertime, and Jiang Cheng greets him with a hard glare. “When were you going to tell me you adopted a daughter?”
Wei Wuxian has the gall to give him a hazy, distracted look and say, “Eh?”
“Lan Chun,” he says impatiently. “She came to interrogate me. No manners whatsoever, which I guess is to be expected of Wei Wuxian’s kid!”
“You met A-Chun?”
“She drank three cups of tea, shameless girl! No manners! I had to chase her off or she would have made me brew a second pot!”
“Oh. The good tea?”
Jiang Cheng frowns at him.
Wei Wuxian holds up his hands defensively. “She really likes the tea, do you blame her? She’s seven, you didn’t have any manners at seven either.”
“When did this happen,” Jiang Cheng demands.
“A-Chun? Uhhh, about a year ago now, it must be? No, a bit more than that. Hah, time goes so fast these days!”
Jiang Cheng holds onto his temper with both hands, barely. “She’s an orphan you found on the streets, I’m guessing,” he says tightly.
“Actually,” Wei Wuxian says, cheerful, “Lan Zhan found her! It’s a funny story, actually! He ran into her begging on the streets and talked to her a little, and--well, she’s so much like me! Everybody says so after listening to her for three minutes! So he loved her instantly, and asked if she wanted to be adopted, and at the very same moment, I was night-hunting with Sizhui in--”
Wei Wuxian stumbles to a stop. “Ah?” he says, smiling. He has more congee--or whatever--on his sleeves, Jiang Cheng notices. He scowls at them.
(Actually, distant memory supplies vaguely in the back of his head, don’t those look like milk stains, didn’t you have them all over your clothes when A-Ling was a baby--)
“Why didn’t you write to tell me?” Jiang Cheng demands.
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says, as if the idea really hadn’t even occurred to him. Unbelievable. Wow, Wei Wuxian, that fucking hurts, thanks so much for that. “You would have wanted to know?”
“What do you think?!”
Wei Wuxian looks thoughtful and taps a fingertip against his chin. “I think I probably thought you’d say something like… Ugh, Wei Wuxian! So annoying, sending me so many letters! Who cares!” Wei Wuxian mimics tearing up a piece of paper and hurling it on the ground. “Like that. Don’t be mad, Jiang Cheng, I was trying not to bother you!”
“Ugh! Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng snarls, surging to his feet and into the guest house. He grabs his sword and the qiankun pouch that holds all his luggage and stomps back outside. “You’re the worst!” he says, pointing one accusing finger at his unbearable brother. He just doesn’t get it , why doesn’t he get it? As if Jiang Cheng would be annoyed with one single measly damn letter to say hey, asshole, you have a new niece, just thought you should know!
Wei Wuxian is smiling easily, as he always does, though it flickers a bit when he sees the sword and pouch. “What are you doing?”
“I can’t deal with you!”
“I thought you came to see me,” Wei Wuxian says, pouting.
Jiang Cheng makes an incoherent sound of rage and storms off in the direction of the gates.
He takes a room at an inn in Caiyi Town, orders food and drink, and fumes to himself. Why is he even bothering with this, why is he bothering to try when Wei Wuxian is so--is just so--!!
Why’s Wei Wuxian even bothering to tell his daughter anything about Lotus Pier if he’s not planning on taking her there, or introducing her to her uncle, or showing her his shijie’s memorial plaque in the ancestral hall and helping her light incense before it, which he would do if he were any kind of decent person at all!
Jiang Cheng goes to bed furious and wakes up the next morning cranky and disgruntled and begrudgingly aware that okay, yes, maybe that one was a little bit his fault. He doesn’t do well with… feelings. He doesn’t know what to do with them except shout, especially when they come upon him so suddenly--he hadn’t expected to be confronted with the idea that his list of family members just increased from two to three: Jin Ling, Wei Wuxian, Lan Chun. It’s… a lot. It means something.
But ugh. He’s related to a Lan. Two Lans if he counts Hanguang-jun, which he does not.
At least she’s not a particularly Lannish Lan. Not like that little friend of hers, Lan Hao, all perfect and tidy and quiet and scholarly. Lan Chun has some promise as a tolerable person, if she can be salvaged from all this smug Lan nonsense before it bleaches all those bright colors out of her.
Jiang Cheng goes to the lake outside Caiyi and hurls rocks into the water to work off some of his frustration, and then he takes a deep breath, gathers his resolve, and goes back up to the Cloud Recesses.
“Hello,” he says to the disciples at the gate. He bows to the one he recognizes. “I’m sure you remember me from yesterday. May I please go inside.”
“Didn’t you have a fight with Senior Wei and storm off in a huff last night?”
Only a little sharply, Jiang Cheng responds, “Isn’t it forbidden to gossip in the Cloud Recesses?”
The disciple has the good grace to look a little abashed. “If you’re trying to talk to him again, he isn’t here. Whole family went back home last night after dinner.”
“Home,” Jiang Cheng says. “Home, what home? This is his home! Isn’t it? Where is home?”
The disciple blinks innocently at him. “I’m so sorry, Sect Leader, you were quite right, it’s forbidden to gossip in the Cloud Recesses.”
Jiang Cheng pinches the bridge of his nose and breathes. Obstructionist little fucks, the Lans, he’s always said so. “Please,” he says carefully, “will the honored disciple tell me where I might find my brother?”
The disciple leans back against the gate and starts cleaning his nails. Jiang Cheng does not decapitate him with his whip. “What do you want him for?”
It takes another fifteen minutes to get even a vague answer out of the disciple, while his companion sniggers unbecomingly a few feet away, and Jiang Cheng’s temper is once again worn paper-thin.
The disciple’s vague answer was still better than nothing -- there’s a cottage a dozen or so miles away, on the other side of the mountain. Nearly an hour by sword, a handful of hours on foot.
Jiang Cheng makes it take an hour and a half, stopping to walk for a while once he gets over the worst of the mountain and down into the valley on the other side. It’s a little more thickly forested on this side, more remote than the busy farms and villages that the Cloud Recesses overlooks. A river wends its way through the bottom of the valley like a ribbon fallen from a girl’s hair.
The problem with walking is that it gives him time to think. Time to plan. Wei Wuxian, ever the jester, is probably going to laugh in his face the second Jiang Cheng reaches the doorstep, tease him and pester him until he explodes again--another failure.
He stops to bang his head against a tree. What is he thinking? Is he three times the idiot that Wei Wuxian is? When do you get to stop attempting the impossible? If a city is impregnable, doesn’t it make sense, at some point, to stop hurling yourself at the gates and trying to batter them down with your fists? Perhaps the real impossible thing is the idea that he could be allowed to give up! Perhaps he should attempt that!
Attempt that, and succeed famously, and then go home in triumph to Lotus Pier, where he will enjoy his victory in solitude and isolation.
He has a niece. His heart hurts. He has a niece, and she’s… quick, and bright, and clever, and she thinks decapitating things with Zidian would be cool . Jiang Cheng can’t remember the last time anyone thought he was cool. Jin Ling has never once thought he was cool. He wants to be cool for her. His niece, his .
Should he have brought her a present? He pats his pockets, rummages through his qiankun pouch. Well, he has some money with him. That’ll do. Probably not that impressive, considering that her other dad (ughhh) is Hanguang-jun, but the Lans probably have snooty opinions about how much money a kid can be allowed and what they’re permitted to buy with it.
He sets his jaw. If Wei Wuxian wants to make fun of him for trying again, then so be it. Let him. Nobody ever called Jiang Wanyin of Yunmeng a coward.
The Lan disciples had told him to look for the “quaint little cottage”, and so Jiang Cheng had pictured… a quaint little cottage. Something cottagey. Little. Quaint.
He sees, first, a trickle of smoke rising above the treetops, like that of a kitchen cooking fire, and heads towards it. He smells food as he gets closer--meat and spices. Closer still, he hears several voices--the sounds of children playing.
He comes around a bend in the path and sees the so-called “quaint little cottage”, except it’s not a cottage, it’s a proper damn house; and it’s not precisely little, it’s got two floors and a generously-sized shed; and it’s not what anyone could call quaint, though it is very pretty in that bland Gusu Lan style, with subdued and restrained ornamentation, except for the pond of lotuses curving around one side with a tiny pavilion next to it, barely big enough to cover four standing adults. One edge of the platform overhangs the water, and there are three kids lying there on their tummies, looking over the edge and splashing their hands in the water.
“Frog!” one of them shrieks. “Frog! Jie! Frog!!”
“You’ve scared it off,” one of the other kids says peevishly--when she sits back on her heels, Jiang Cheng recognizes Lan Chun. She’s missing her ribbon and sect robes--she and the little one are both in rumpled, plain clothes, comfortable and appropriate for the sort of play that might involve rolling around in the dirt or splashing in ponds. The third child is in Lan whites--Lan Hao, he sees. A-Chun’s little friend.
“Frog!” calls the littlest one beseechingly, reaching her hands as far into the water as she can. She’s perhaps five years old. “Frog, come back! Frog!”
“You have to be very quiet, Ding-er,” Lan Hao says. “Frogs like quiet.”
“Quiet?” she says, suspicious, turning to look at Lan Hao--and when she does, she sees Jiang Cheng. “Who’s that!”
The other two look up sharply, startled, but relax when Jiang Cheng raises a hand in greeting. A-Chun and Lan Hao scramble to their feet and bow to him as he comes up to the little pavilion. Ding-er, interest already lost, has returned all her attention to the pond, loudly whispering, “Frog, come back,” at the water.
His niece’s little friend looks nervous for some reason. “Sect Leader Jiang,” he says. “Hello. Uh. Why are you here?”
He makes a vague gesture. “Family business. And you? Are you visiting?”
A-Chun and Lan Hao look at each other, puzzled, and then Lan Hao says. “No, I live here.”
“You… live here?”
“Not at Cloud Recesses?”
“Oh, no,” says A-Chun, merrily. “Diedie and great-uncle had a big fight and--”
“A-Chun,” hisses Lan Hao, nudging her.
“Sorry--a minor disagreement ,” she enunciates carefully. “And then we lived in Caiyi for a couple months, and then one day diedie called da-ge down from the Cloud Recesses to look after us, and diedie told baba that there was a surprise for him, and they went off, and then they came back the next day and baba was still crying, but like happy-crying, and then da-ge helped us all pack and we came here! To the house! The house was the surprise. Diedie had it built here! It’s a nice house! Do you want to see my and er-ge’s room?”
Jiang Cheng’s head is reeling. He feels like he is drowning in information. He tries to slot things together, but for some reason the first thing out of his mouth is: “You two share a room?” Isn’t it a little odd for a boy and a girl to share a room--
“Yeah!” says A-Chun. “We’re twins!” Lan Hao nods seriously and edges a little closer to her, his hand closing around a fold of her sleeve.
Jiang Cheng eyes them. “He’s older than you. By a couple years.”
She makes a face, as if he’s misunderstood something and she’s annoyed. “We’re twins,” she says again, insistently, and Lan Hao--A-Hao??? His… nephew? What the fuck?--nods again, more firmly.
“Okay,” Jiang Cheng says weakly.
“Frog!” screeches Ding-er, and oh gods and immortals, is she their little sister? Is she his second niece? He feels a little woozy. She scrambles to her feet, hands dripping wet and carefully cupped as if she’s enclosing something egg-sized. She totters over to Jiang Cheng, right to him, absolutely fearless, and looks way, way up at him. “Got a frog,” she says with a determined sort of triumph, and he can’t help but melt a little bit.
He squats down. “You have to be gentle with frogs,” he says sternly. “Are you being gentle?”
Ding-er matches his stern look and nods once, emphatically, and he secretly melts a little further. “I know! Be gentle because frogs are littler than me!”
“Right,” Jiang Cheng says. “What’s your name?”
Lan Hao nudges her shoulder. “Be polite,” he whispers. “Do it properly. What’s your whole name?”
“Lan Ding!” she chirps.
“And your courtesy name,” A-Chun adds.
“Lan Siyue! I can write it! It’s the si for thinking and the yue for joyful. Baba said that da-ge has a sad name so I should get a happy name because we’re happy now! Da-ge is number one and I’m number two--this many,” she says, moving the frog to one hand cupped to her chest so that she can hold up two fingers with the other. “And I’m this many old!” She holds up five fingers.
Jiang Cheng feels lightheaded, like he’s just been panting for breath and got too much air. Two little nieces; and now two nephews--no, three if you count this “da-ge”--who is their da-ge? Dizzily, he casts around. Has he seen Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-jun with any other kids? Older than these three, sad name--oh heavens, it’s Lan Sizhui, isn’t it. His ward--son???--oh, fuck it--Lan Sizhui is his fucking nephew by marriage now. Fuck. Motherfuck. What the hell.
He needs to change the subject. “What sort of frog did you get?”
“A green one! Want to see?”
He nods, and she opens her hands right away, which means that all he gets to see is a flash of green as the surprisingly tiny frog makes an instant break for freedom and, with one giant leap, lands with a watery plop back in the pond as Ding-er howls, “My frog!” at a volume which frankly should not be possible considering her size.
Jiang Cheng expects her to burst into tears next--Jin Ling had always burst into tears the second that something didn’t go his way or got lost or taken from him--but Ding-er huffs in hilarious outrage, stomps to the edge of the water, lays down on her tummy again, and sticks her hands back in the water. “Frog,” she says, with a taking-no-bullshit-today tone that reminds Jiang Cheng painfully of his mother, “Frog, come back, you are my frog.”
“It’s not your frog, Ding-er,” A-Hao says, kind but clearly tired of repeating himself. “It lives in the pond.”
“He’s his own frog,” A-Chun agrees.
“He’s my frog,” Ding-er says stubbornly. “He’s my frog and I love him.”
A door of the house slams open--the front of the house, not immediately visible from the pavilion. “Ding-er!” Wei Wuxian shouts. “What have I told you about playing in the pond!”
“I have supervision!” Ding-er bellows back.
Wei Wuxian comes striding around the corner of the house, clearly cross, and stops in surprise. “Jiang Cheng,” he says. “Wow. Thought you’d be halfway back to Yunmeng by now.”
“Yeah, well,” he says stiffly. “Here I am.”
They just sort of stare at each other for a minute--or, well, Wei Wuxian stares at him, and Jiang Cheng pretends to be studying the architecture of the house. He makes a little gesture towards it when the awkwardness of the silence (save for Ding-er sternly coaxing the frog to come back) grows too excruciating. “It’s nice,” he says gruffly. “The… house. Pretty. If you like that sort of thing.” Fuck. He’s fucking it up. “And this,” he says, gesturing at the lotus pond, the forest. “Very pleasant.”
Wei Wuxian is… blank. Fuck. He’s angry, then. Of course he’s angry, why wouldn’t he be angry? He has an incompetent moron for a brother, Jiang Cheng scathes at himself. At least Wei Wuxian isn’t smiling. If he were smiling, that’d mean he was really angry, and Jiang Cheng might as well just give up and walk away now. Blank means he hasn’t decided what to do yet. Blank means he’s too surprised to cover up his real feelings. Blank means there’s a chance.
And the stakes of this game just got… astronomical. A brother, a brother-in-law, two nieces, two more nephews--riches beyond his wildest dreams.
If he fucks this up, he’s going to camp out in the forest and fucking cry. He’s going to cry like he hasn’t cried since That Day in Lotus Pier when he lost the first half of his family, like That Other Day in the Nightless City when he lost the second half.
He can’t fuck this up. He can’t. He can’t. It will break him again, and he doesn’t know how many more times he can survive being broken.
He is definitely going to fuck this up. He fucks everything up, doesn’t he? He always has.
He can’t fuck this up.
A-Cheng, whispers jiejie’s voice in the back of his head, always so gentle and sweet, and it still hurts even after all these years. A-Cheng, A-Xian, can’t you be kind to your brother?
A daunting task, but he is a Jiang: He will attempt the impossible.
“You have such nice children,” he says, and then mentally cringes at himself. He sounds so stiff and formal. It’s as if he’s complimenting a stranger’s children, not his nieces and nephew. He ought to know them. He ought to know them well enough to be a partner in scolding them.
Wei Wuxian’s brow furrows a little. Confused, then. “You say that now,” he says slowly, “but really they’re tiny monsters, the lot of them.”
A damp little hand suddenly slips into Jiang Cheng’s. “I’m not a monster,” A-Chun says with absolute confidence and a winning smile, swinging their joined hands gaily. “I’m the cutest.”
The front door opens again. “Senior Wei,” a vaguely familiar voice calls. “Hanguang-jun said to tell you, quote, what has he told you and Ding-er about playing in the pond? He also says that he needs to get his things together, so can you please come take Her Ladyship?” A moment later, Lan Sizhui comes around the corner of the house, sees Jiang Cheng, and freezes in place for a split second before turning sharply on his heel and vanishing once more. “Um, Hanguang-jun?” Jiang Cheng hears him call nervously.
Ah, shit. Jiang Cheng is gonna die.
“Maybe I should go,” he says.
“What, no,” says A-Chun.
“Maybe that would be best,” Wei Wuxian says weakly. “Not that you’re not--welcome--it’s just, we’re kind of in the middle of some stuff right now and, well--”
The front door slams open. Hanguang-jun strides around the corner like a whole fucking army bearing down on Jiang Cheng, hand on his sword, hurricanes in his eyes. Jiang Cheng generally sneers at the very idea of cowardice, but he can’t help that in this moment his whole being goes eep.
“Leave,” Hanguang-jun snaps, and there’s so much power behind it that it almost feels like a crackle of qi, like that one word would be enough to set off a landslide down a mountain.
Righto, a good healthy cry in the forest it is. “Please excuse me, then,” Jiang Cheng says, but when he tries to withdraw his hand from A-Chun’s, she flings her arms around his middle.
“No,” she says loudly.
Jiang Cheng extricates himself gently. “Sorry,” he whispers to her, and she looks up at him with big eyes.
“You’re sad,” she says. “You’re sad! Don’t go if you’re sad!”
“I’m not sad,” he replies firmly. He nods to her and A-Hao, and says, “Ding-er, be gentle with the frog,” to which Ding-er sighs, “I know!” He bows in the general direction of Hanguang-jun and Wei Wuxian and, fixing his eyes on the forest path, begins to walk.
He passes the corner of the house and registers a sound with his gut before his head. A moment belated, his brain identifies crying baby , and he’s sort of ruefully, wistfully amused to notice that he can still instantly diagnose it as colic rather than a hungry cry or a tired cry. Another two steps and his poor brain, still drowning in new information, slots together a few more pieces of the puzzle and offers up: Aha. The fussy Lady Lan. What is he up to now? Three nieces, two more nephews?
He glances towards the front door as he passes, and there’s Sizhui--nephew--standing in the doorway with the wailing infant cuddled on his shoulder--niece--and… Standing at his elbow, that other girl with the si name that Jiang Cheng met the day before, Lan Siyuan, Lan Shu--niece--and a moment later a chubby little face peeks out from behind the skirts of Siyuan’s white Lan robes--nephew--and Jiang Cheng cannot fucking breathe, he can’t breathe.
He only notices he’s stopped walking when he senses a presence at his shoulder--Wei Wuxian, with his thumbs stuck in his belt, rocking on his heels a bit. “Hey,” Wei Wuxian says quietly. “Thought I’d walk you to the gate.”
What gate? There wasn’t a gate when Jiang Cheng came in.
“How many kids do you have?” he demands. He sounds… Ah, fuck him, he sounds like he cares. Shit.
Wei Wuxian frowns and has to count on his fingers. Jiang Cheng wants to strangle him right here, but Hanguang-jun has gone up on the porch now and he’s standing there with his whole brood around him, kids clinging to his arms and his robes, and he’s looking cold and noble and haughty and smugly paternal and Jiang Cheng is so envious he could have a qi deviation right now. He prays for the ground to just swallow him up. “Seven? Seven. Aiya, that’s a lot, isn’t it?”
Jiang Cheng swallows everything down hard and says, “Congratulations.”
He turns and walks. Wei Wuxian follows him.
After a minute, when they’re a little further out of earshot of anyone on the porch, Wei Wuxian says, “Don’t be mad at Lan Zhan, eh? He’s just--stressed. I’m stressed. We’re all stressed. There’s a lot going on, and with Sizhui we’ve only got six grownup hands between us and we need about sixteen.”
Jiang Cheng draws a careful breath. He has so many feelings that he just wants to scream, but if he screams then it’s all over, and he can’t afford to lose, he can’t. Four nieces, three more nephews, a brother. Walking away feels like losing his golden core all over again.
“I’m not angry at Hanguang-jun.” He’s just going to close his eyes, figuratively, and pretend he is talking to a stranger. “I apologize for intruding. Please be assured that it won’t happen again.”
“Good heavens, what did I do?” Wei Wuxian says, shocked. “Are you here to disown me again?”
“What?” Jiang Cheng splutters.
“Don’t what me! What else am I supposed to think, with you being so cold like this?”
Jiang Cheng thinks, Jiejie, please, I can’t, jiejie, jiejie, and barely, barely manages to keep from exploding. “I’m not being cold.”
“You are too!”
“I’m talking normally.”
“No you aren’t.”
“This is my normal voice.”
“It sounds angry, why are you angry at me? You’re only this quiet when you’re really really pissed.” Wei Wuxian steps in front of him, stopping him with a hand in the middle of his chest. “Don’t just go off mad.”
“I’m not mad.”
“Jiang Cheng, please,” Wei Wuxian says, and there--there it is, that’s his genuine voice, whatever he says next is going to be the absolute truth, this is his brother and Jiang Cheng knows him better than anyone, “I’m so tired, I can’t do this right now. Just tell me what to say sorry about so I can say it before you go.”
Jiang Cheng closes his eyes. Jiejie. Jiejie. Help me.
A-Cheng, be kind to your brother.
“He’s--That husband of yours, he’s treating you right, isn’t he?” He sounds angry, he can hear it and he doesn’t know how to stop. “What do you have to be stressed about? If he’s sticking you with all the housework and dumping the kids on you, if he’s not doing right by you, then… I’ll go back and fight him right now, I don’t even care, I’ll--”
“What? No, he’s great, he’s the best.”
“He’s got all this money and he hasn’t even hired servants or a nursemaid? Look at you, you’re a mess, you need help and he can afford it--”
“Yes, yes, there’s two servants from the Cloud Recesses who usually come to help a few days a week, but one of them’s off because she’s getting married next week and the other’s down with a cold--and really, we’re lucky to have even them! It’s a little house in the woods and it’s hours and hours away from any village, hardly anyone wants to make the trek. We’re in the Cloud Recesses every other week anyway--more often now, what with Her Ladyship being a fussy young mistress--she runs this house, Jiang Cheng, I swear to you that she does--”
“She’s an infant, that’s what they do,” Jiang Cheng says, completely at his wits’ end. “Jin Ling was running Lotus Pier when he was six months old.”
Wei Wuxian wobbles a little and gives a high-pitched, odd sort of laugh. “Bet he didn’t cry like this one does.”
Jiang Cheng looks at him again, more carefully. “Do you need to sit down?” he asks slowly.
Wei Wuxian gazes off into the middle distance, his eyes glazing over a little. “I haven’t gotten to sit down since breakfast.”
Oh, for heaven’s sake. Jiang Cheng takes Wei Wuxian by both shoulders, steers him under a tree, and shoves at him until his knees go out and he collapses into a pile. He has a canteen of water in his qiankun pouch, and he takes this out and shoves it into Wei Wuxian’s chest.
“Is this alcohol?” Wei Wuxian says. “Jiang Cheng, if this is alcohol, I will cry on you.”
“It’s water, you absolute idiot, you’re dehydrated.”
Wei Wuxian seems just as happy to drink water as he is alcohol. Jiang Cheng sits a little ways off and glares at him every time he tries to hand the canteen back, until it’s empty and Jiang Cheng puts the cap back on and stows it away again.
Wei Wuxian slowly topples over onto his side. Jiang Cheng casts an anxious glance at the house--is Hanguang-jun still watching? Is he going to interpret this from a distance as Jiang Wanyin just poisoned his former sect-brother in broad daylight, let’s go murder Jiang Wanyin?--but no, Hanguang-jun and the enormous brood of children have all gone back inside.
“I like toddlers,” Wei Wuxian says, sounding a little delirious. Maybe Jiang Cheng shouldn’t have let him sit down. If Wei Wuxian passes out here, Jiang Cheng is going to have to drag him back to the porch. “Toddlers are the best. They speak human language and they can tell you what’s wrong.”
“She’s just colicky, it’ll pass,” Jiang Cheng says gruffly.
Wei Wuxian rolls onto his back. “Yeah,” he groans. “All the healers say so. And all the people in the sect who are parents. Or who have met infants. Lan Qiren called us incompetent. I didn’t even care, you know why? Her Ladyship had been crying for six hours straight and he walked in and snatched her right out of Lan Zhan’s arms, and then he paced around the room reciting the Lan Precepts in his pompous scholar voice for her and she was asleep in five minutes. I nearly wept. I would have kissed his hems. Nobody can make her sleep as fast as he can. The man is a god. Even Lan Zhan reciting the precepts for her doesn’t work, which is truly incredible, because Lan Zhan has the most beautiful voice, and--”
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian agrees, gazing dazedly up at the leaves above them. “We were going to be in the Cloud Recesses for another week, but I wanted to come home--gods, I’m an idiot, why would I come home when the servants and perfect, wise, sage-like, godly Lan Qiren whom I truly love are all over there? Oh--wait--oh right. Never mind.”
“What is it?”
“I might have been upset yesterday,” Wei Wuxian says blearily. He’s still using his honest voice. Jiang Cheng knows firsthand that a drink of water and two minutes’ rest to talk to another adult can be as heady as a bottle of strong wine when you’re a sleep-deprived parent of a colicky infant. Possibly he shouldn’t take advantage of this. On the other hand, this is his awful brother, and Jiang Cheng is allowed. “I said to Lan Zhan that I didn’t want to be there anymore, I wanted my own house and my own bed, and I said, no problem, it’s just a couple weeks, Sizhui and Jingyi will come along to help, they don’t have classes--but then Jingyi got called off to a night-hunt just as we were packing up, and I said, no problem, there’s only six kids and three of us counting Sizhui, we’ve each got two hands, we can wrangle them, and then we got here and all the wards were down--”
“Wait, what,” Jiang Cheng says.
“Ah, you probably saw it when you came in, the gate?”
“I saw no gate.”
Wei Wuxian rolls his head to one side and peers at him. “You came along that path?” he asks, pointing to the one near them. When Jiang Cheng nods, he says, “You didn’t see the talisman arrays? Big glowing paper arch over the path, maybe a hundred yards down?”
Wei Wuxian groans and sits up. “Well, as I was saying,” he says, and now there’s his faking-it voice, all cheerful and carefree. “All the wards were down because there’s a giant demon boar in the area and it felled a tree right on top of one of the ward anchor points, and I, like an idiot, said, no problem, Lan Zhan, I’ll just write up the new talismans and fix it, but then I actually went out there and saw that the anchor wasn’t just knocked over, it was totally shattered and I was gonna have to make a new one. Except guess what, we don’t have half the components, because for one thing we have to get the stonecutters in Caiyi to make the anchor, and for another thing, my darling beloved child whom I love so much went into my workshop without permission and decided that first-quality cinnabar was exactly the pigment she needed to paint some pictures--”
“A-Chun,” Wei Wuxian says, sighing. “So after I was done telling A-Chun I was gonna bury her in the dirt up to her neck if she goes in my workshop again, I said, no problem, I’ll just use blood for the wards, but Lan Zhan and Sizhui objected on the grounds that I would probably pass out--”
“In this state? You would.”
“So we all three of us argued about it, and we decided that I’d be allowed to use a little blood just to make a temporary ward to secure the house--that’s the paper gate that you didn’t see--and Lan Zhan would fly back to the Cloud Recesses and Caiyi to commandeer or buy new components, but it’ll take at least six hours for the stonecutters to make a new anchor. That, plus the fact that the weight’s going to slow him way down, coming back by sword, means he’ll be gone overnight, so Sizhui and I will stay here to protect the kids--easier to hunker down here than try to get them all back to Cloud Recesses, especially since I still can’t fly very far on my own--”
“Wei Wuxian. What happened to the gate?”
Wei Wuxian squints thoughtfully into the distance and nods a little. “Probably the boar tore it up before you got here.” He pastes a big fake smile across his face. “So tonight I’m going to lie awake and think about my babies playing outside while there’s a giant demon boar in the area, with no wards between them and it, and that is just going to be a good, fun time.”
Jiang Cheng’s heart is in his throat. He scrambles to his feet as Wei Wuxian starts tottering back towards the house. He catches Wei Wuxian by the elbow and yanks him back around. “I will stay,” he says firmly. “I’m staying. I’ll watch the perimeter.”
“No, don’t worry about it, we’ll be fine, Sizhui and I can handle it, and Lan Zhan will go so fast--”
“Why can’t Lan Sizhui go instead?”
“Not strong enough yet to carry a huge stone thing back. Flying by sword, it’d take him days. Might be faster with a wheelbarrow, he thinks. And he’s too nice to be able to bully the stonecutters into working overnight. Lan Zhan can go and be back in the morning.”
“I could go.”
“Ah, no, we couldn’t trouble you, we couldn’t possibly impose, Lan Zhan wouldn’t hear of it, I won’t hear of it, neither of us will hear of it,” Wei Wuxian says, which is possibly one of the most infuriating things he has ever said to Jiang Cheng.
“Wei Wuxian!” he snaps. “How dare you? Are you disowning me?”
“Eh?” Wei Wuxian has half pulled out of Jiang Cheng’s grip, but at this he pauses, alarmed.
“I’m your brother!” Jiang Cheng shouts at him. “Are you a moron? You can’t impose? What impose? I’m family, there’s no such thing as imposing on family!”
Wei Wuxian gives him a stricken look and goes red in the face. “Listen, you don’t--”
“I come all this way, I discover out of the blue that I’ve got seven nieces and nephews that you didn’t tell me about, I find out that there’s a giant demon boar that can knock over trees wandering around near your house, and you’re declining my help just to be fucking polite? What’s the matter with you!”
“We can handle it ourselves!” Wei Wuxian objects. “It’s only one giant demon boar! Between me and Sizhui, it’ll be fine! We can take care of it!”
“Just because you can doesn’t mean you have to,” Jiang Cheng snarls. “I’m not leaving. Go tell Hanguang-jun. Ask him if he wants me to stay here or go fetch the components for you.”
And with that he sits back down facing the path, crosses his arms, and glares into the woods as if that could make the giant demon boar menacing his family turn around and wander somewhere else.
Wei Wuxian sighs in a way that sounds too much like jiejie, and Jiang Cheng hears the gravel crunch under his shoes as he walks the path back to the house.
A few minutes later, footsteps again, approaching this time, accompanied by the sound of Her Ladyship’s furious crying. Jiang Cheng does not look away from the forest path until he sees a flicker of white robes in the corner of his peripheral vision.
“Hanguang-jun,” he says.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Hanguang-jun replies, almost inaudible under the racket Her Ladyship is making.
Jiang Cheng gets to his feet, bows briskly like a soldier. Somehow, it’s easier to be polite to Hanguang-jun than it is with Wei Wuxian. It’s all those years of experience he has in dealing with Hanguang-jun, a decade and a half of cold, brittle formality that barely qualifies as civility--but it does qualify.
Hanguang-jun does not look murderous anymore, at least. Jiang Cheng supposes it’s hard to look murderous when you’re holding your wailing infant daughter against your shoulder and rubbing her back. And bouncing her a little. What. He’s so used to seeing Hanguang-jun as a stony, statue-still block of ice--the cognitive dissonance right now is so strong it feels like it’s turning Jiang Cheng’s brain inside out.
Her Ladyship’s little face is bright red and she is screaming practically in Hanguang-jun’s ear. Jiang Cheng’s fingers twitch a little. He wants to hold her. He bets he can get her to sleep faster than stuffy old Lan Qiren. He fantasizes, briefly, about Wei Wuxian falling to his knees in tearful gratitude, kissing Jiang Cheng’s hems and so on--a lot of nonsense.
Hanguang-jun, of course, says nothing. It is a favorite trick of his to use at discussion conferences, and Jiang Cheng hates it. He cannot outlast Hanguang-jun in silence, and today he can’t even attempt that impossibility. There’s a rather time-sensitive issue to be addressing, so playing that game wouldn’t be responsible.
“I can stay here or I can go to town and get what you need,” Jiang Cheng says. “Whichever you prefer.”
Hanguang-jun’s long, cold look doesn’t waver, and Jiang Cheng mentally rolls his eyes. At least Hanguang-jun is deigning to make eye contact with him today.
“Why did you come,” Hanguang-jun says--hardly even a question, just a statement of granite. Not friendly in the slightest, merely the opening salvo in what Jiang Cheng now expects to be an interrogation.
Why did he come? That really is the question, isn’t it. He has too much pride to slouch in front of Hanguang-jun, and if he breaks eye contact first then he will lose this round. With as much dignity as he can muster, he says, “I wanted to see my brother.”
“You saw him yesterday,” Hanguang-jun says. “You fought him immediately, and you hurt him. Why did you come here?”
Through gritted teeth, Jiang Cheng says, “Why do you think? How much family do you have left?”
For perhaps the first time in sixteen years of verbal dueling with Lan Wangji, he scores a hit: Hanguang-jun blinks first.
Emboldened, Jiang Cheng presses his advantage: “A husband, a brother, an uncle, seven children. You have never once been truly alone.”
“I have,” Hanguang-jun says.
“You have not,” Jiang Cheng says, his voice the blade of a knife. “You have always had someone . I was once left with no one but an infant. And before that, I was once left with no one but my sister--remember that time? Those three months that we couldn’t find him while he was in the Burial Mounds? Who was by your side, then? Who was searching as tirelessly? Remember how no one besides you, me, and my sister seemed to care where he’d disappeared to? Remember how you and I never once asked each other if it was time to give up and stop looking? And now you ask me why I’m here ,” he spits out. “Don’t insult me, Lan Wangji. You know why.”
Hanguang-jun studies him for another long moment. Her Ladyship is still squalling, and he shifts her to his other shoulder.
“What’s her name,” Jiang Cheng asks before he can stop himself.
He doesn’t realize that he hadn’t quite expected Hanguang-jun to answer until he’s surprised that he does: “Lan Ying, with the ying of ‘to welcome’.”
“Wei Wuxian only calls her Her Ladyship."
“Her nurse-name. His idea. She is… demanding.”
“Can I hold her?” Jiang Cheng blurts out, and then he shuts his mouth so quick his teeth click together. Obviously Hanguang-jun is going to say no. Obviously.
But maybe Hanguang-jun is just as exhausted as Wei Wuxian is, because he only pauses, shrugs minutely, and hands her over, and Jiang Cheng is so profoundly shocked that it’s pure muscle memory alone that keeps him from dropping her.
“Wait, what, really?” he says, when she’s already cradled in his arms.
“You cannot disturb her more,” Hanguang-jun says flatly. “There is no harm.” But Jiang Cheng, looking down at the wrinkly, furious child, catches him rolling out his shoulders a little as if they’re stiff. Hah. So much for the icy Second Jade of Lan.
Jiang Cheng promptly and blithely stops paying any attention whatsoever to him.
Crying babies are never beautiful. Her Ladyship’s little face is twisted up in scarlet fury, and she’s a wriggler. She has the lungs of a lion.
Jiang Cheng can work with this. He mentally cracks his knuckles, rolls his neck, and gets to work. She can’t be any more difficult than Jin Ling was.
Less than five minutes later and immensely smug, he concludes that she really isn’t any more difficult than Jin Ling was. She’s still mumbling little noises of objection at (he can only assume) the general state of the world and the very injustice of having to be a baby in it, but she’s stopped kicking, and she’s got two tight fistfuls of his robes gripped in her chubby little hands, and by the time he’s finished with the last verse of the wretchedly complicated tongue twister his mother had forced him to learn to refine his elocution, she has made one last grumpy noise and fallen asleep with a stubborn yet righteous expression.
“Anyway,” Jiang Cheng says airily, turning back to Hanguang-jun. “What were we saying?”
It seems to take Hanguang-jun a moment. He seems a little… Well, who knows, he’s impossible to read. “You are here to reconcile with Wei Ying.”
The only reason Jiang Cheng doesn’t bristle is because he’s still riding the high of apparently being the only other person in the country besides Lan Qiren who can put Her Ladyship to sleep. “That’s the long and short of it, yes,” he says. “So. Am I staying here or going to town?”
Hanguang-jun’s eyes drop to the baby in his arms.
“She’s got an awfully tight hold on me,” Jiang Cheng says, not trying to restrain his smirk. “You could try prying her hands open and taking her off me, but she might wake up again.”
Her Ladyship yawns and nestles a little closer to his chest, and it’s only because Jiang Cheng is looking right at him that he sees the light in Hanguang-jun’s eyes go instantly and impossibly soft. He mentally reels again, the cognitive dissonance coming back with a vengeance. He did not sign up to see Hanguang-jun being… human like this. He feels almost like he ought to look away, politely avert his eyes as he might if he accidentally glimpsed someone unclothed.
“We will ask Wei Ying,” Hanguang-jun says at last, voice firm. And then, wonder of all fucking wonders, he turns his back on Jiang Cheng holding his infant daughter and starts walking towards the house.
Jiang Cheng is gobsmacked to be trusted so demonstratively .
He follows all the way up the gravel path, all the way up the steps of the porch, all the way inside, where Wei Wuxian is sitting cross-legged on the floor, making faces at the littlest boy and feeding him spoonfuls of soup while A-Chun leans in way too close, elbows on the table, eyelashes fluttering wildly, whining, “Please? Please, may I? Mama!”
“Who are you calling mama?” Wei Wuxian scoffs. “Mama should be the prettiest one, right? If anyone’s mama, it’s your diedie.”
“Why?” says the little boy, pushing away the next proffered spoonful.
“Why’s diedie the prettiest? Because he eats all his soup,” Wei Wuxian responds instantly. “Don’t you want to be pretty like diedie?” He holds out the spoon again and Jiang Cheng’s tiniest nephew looks at it speculatively before slurping it down.
“Wei Ying,” Hanguang-jun says, and Wei Wuxian jumps so severely he nearly spills the bowl of soup.
“Scared me out of my skin, Lan Zhan--wait, where’s Her Ladyship?”
Hanguang-jun takes one step to the side so Wei Wuxian can see Jiang Cheng clearly just behind him with the sleeping baby in his arms. Wei Wuxian’s jaw drops. So does A-Chun’s, and then she claps her hands over her mouth in delight.
It takes a moment for Wei Wuxian to find his voice. “Lan Zhan! Did he--”
“Faster than Uncle did,” Hanguang-jun says evenly. “Come outside a moment.”
Wei Wuxian hands the bowl of soup to A-Chun, who hisses, “Yes!” and takes over his cushion to spoon feed Jiang Cheng’s tiny nephew, who opens his mouth wide and tips his head back like a baby bird.
Wei Wuxian shakes out the skirts of his robes and steps outside, still glancing now and again at Jiang Cheng like he’s just witnessed something that could well be a miracle. Jiang Cheng smirks at him and rocks Her Ladyship. Wei Wuxian puts his hands on his hips and shakes his head. “Should have known that’d work, really.” He sighs. “Okay, how are we doing this? Who’s going, who’s staying?”
“Your choice,” Hanguang-jun says.
Wei Wuxian groans, tipping his head back to the sky for a moment. “Sure, put it on me, why not.” He rubs a hand over his forehead. “Ah, hell, it’s probably faster if you go, Lan Zhan. As much as I hate to say it--it’d take at least another hour for me to explain the components to Jiang Cheng, but you already know them.” He glances at Jiang Cheng. “If… that’s alright with you?”
“Her Ladyship will wake up when he puts her down,” Hanguang-jun says.
“There is that as well, yes,” Wei Wuxian says, going a little pale.
“I said I’d stay, so I’ll stay,” Jiang Cheng says stubbornly. “Don’t go simpering to me like I’m being inconvenienced. I already told you what I thought of that bullshit.”
Hanguang-jun nods once. “I will go immediately,” he says. “After saying goodbye to the children.”
“Are you going to be okay?” Wei Wuxian asks, the corner of his mouth twisting in that way that means real concern.
“Yes. Are you?”
“Yes, of course.” He doesn’t laugh at the end of it, and Jiang Cheng feels suddenly a whole fucking lot more confident and secure about this situation.
And then there’s a moment where they seem to forget that he’s there. They’re not doing anything but looking at each other, but one moment it’s normal and the next moment it’s so incredibly private that Jiang Cheng wants to blush and turn away. He has to bite back a scathing remark.
“I will worry about you,” Hanguang-jun says in a low voice. Has he drifted half a step closer to Wei Wuxian? Gross.
“Me? Whatever for? I’ll be worrying about you.”
“There are no giant demon boars in Caiyi.”
“No,” says Wei Wuxian, with a mournful tone that really, really isn’t genuine anymore. That’s a teasing tone. That’s (ew) flirting. “But there’s still all those grannies who think you’re available to be accosted and married off to their relations. Every time you go to town, I live in dread that you will be kidnapped and I’ll have to come stage a daring rescue.”
There is a strange expression hiding just in the corner of Hanguang-jun’s mouth which in some world might almost be a smile. Jiang Cheng resolutely looks away, because he has had quite enough of Realizing Lan Wangji Is Human today. “I can defend myself,” Hanguang-jun says.
“Against grannies?” Wei Wuxian says, so dubious that Jiang Cheng is surprised Hanguang-jun doesn’t take insult. “Giant demon boars, sure, whatever. Creepy, bad for the health--but grannies?”
“Wei Ying will rescue me,” he says in this soft voice, and Jiang Cheng can’t help but clear his throat in protest, his face hot with embarrassment.
Wei Wuxian laughs aloud--a real laugh, an everything is okay laugh, and shakes his head. “Okay, you big sap, go say goodbye to the kids. Leave sooner so you can come back sooner.”
“Mn,” agrees Hanguang-jun, and brushes past him into the house.
“Is the flirting really necessary,” Jiang Cheng hisses to Wei Wuxian as they follow him inside.
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian says instantly, making his eyes big and innocent. “It’s important to model a healthy, loving relationship for children, don’t you think?”
Jiang Cheng makes a disgusted face, and Wei Wuxian laughs again.
Hanguang-jun is kneeling by A-Chun’s cushion, helping her wipe soup off the littlest nephew’s face. It’s dribbled all down his front, too. “But why?” says the littlest nephew, trying to dodge the napkin.
“Why what?” Hanguang-jun answers, dabbing off the last of the soup from the boy’s round, fat little cheeks.
“Why diedie go?”
“I will be back in the morning. I am fetching things from town.”
“So baba can repair the broken wards.”
“So that you and your siblings will be safe.”
“Because baba and I are worried when you are not safe.”
“Because we love you very much.”
“Because you ask so many good questions,” he says, perfectly straight-faced. A-Chun, kneeling beside him, shrieks with laughter.
“Only you know that answer, Xiao-Que.” Hanguang-jun tidies Xiao-Que’s hair. “I will see you tomorrow.” He turns to A-Chun. “Be good.”
“I’m always good,” she says, with the biggest, shiniest grin Jiang Cheng has seen yet.
“Hm,” Hanguang-jun says, with that same faint, fond amusement that had been so intolerable to see directed at Wei Wuxian. “Where are the others?”
“Da-ge and er-ge are washing the pond muck off of san-mei, and da-jie is upstairs reading,” she rattles off.
He disappears into one of the back rooms, and Jiang Cheng, without waiting to be invited because this is clearly a house of chaos, settles himself at the table next to A-Chun as Wei Wuxian scoops up Jiang Cheng’s tiniest nephew and settles him on his hip. “Look at this soupy boy! Do you want clean clothes, baobei?”
“No,” says Xiao-Que, very firmly.
A-Chun pokes Jiang Cheng in the arm. “How did you get Her Ladyship to go to sleep? She never sleeps. She’s so loud, all the time. We have to go to the Cloud Recesses way more often than we used to, just so that great-uncle can make her fall asleep, because when she cries for too long then baba starts crying, and when baba cries, diedie gets sad and worried and makes loads of spicy food to cheer him up.”
Jiang Cheng eyes her. “Spicy food, huh?”
“Yeah! Ding-er and I like it a lot, so we don’t mind, but the others are all wimps.”
“Hey,” Wei Wuxian says sharply. “Is that how we talk?”
She rolls her eyes. “It’s true, though, they are.”
“Hey,” Jiang Cheng says, equally sharp, and she jolts a little, wide-eyed. “Don’t backchat.”
She pouts, looking eerily like Wei Wuxian even though it’s both physically and temporally impossible for her to be his blood daughter. She recovers just as swiftly. “So how’d you make her sleep, huh?”
“I recited tongue twisters.
“Aren’t your arms already getting sore?”
He shifts Her Ladyship a little, very carefully so as not to wake her up, and shakes his head. “I’m strong. It’s from decapitating so many people with my whip.”
Wei Wuxian snorts, covering his mouth with his hand, but A-Chun’s big eyes go even wider. “Wow! Really?”
“Absolutely,” he says gravely.
Hanguang-jun leaves with what Jiang Cheng deems to be an excessive amount of fanfare. By the time he’s actually ready to walk out the door, six children and Lan Sizhui have somehow multiplied to what seems to be sixty children and Lan Sizhui, all of them trailing after Hanguang-jun and most of them hanging off his sleeves and his hems or trying to hold his hands and either bewailing their cruel and tragic abandonment or attempting to fast-talk him into agreeing to add things to his grocery list as long as he’s going to town anyway. Obviously, Wei Wuxian himself is at least twenty of these sixty children, and he bewails and fast-talks the loudest out of any of them.
Hanguang-jun, with infinite patience, gently pries each barnacle child off of him, calling each of them by their courtesy name as he says goodbye and depositing most of them in or around Jiang Cheng’s lap (primarily occupied by the miraculously still-sleeping Lady Lan). He leaves Wei Wuxian for last and, in full view of the children, kisses him so forcefully that Wei Wuxian is bent backwards, kept standing only by Hanguang-jun’s arm around his waist.
“Ew,” chorus the children (except for Lan Sizhui, who laughs).
Jiang Cheng quite agrees with this assessment. He grits out, “Wei Wuxian!” from between his teeth, but he’s drowned out by the cacophony of tiny voices raised in protest that kissing is gross, grownups are gross, don’t they have a room for this, and isn’t this is forbidden in seven different ways in the Cloud Recesses--this last is from A-Hao, A-Chun’s so-called twin; Jiang Cheng immediately despairs of him as irretrievably Lannish and beyond redemption.
Jiang Cheng despairs again when it clicks that the tone of these protests is rather bored and dutiful, as if both the kissing and the collective and vocal objection to the kissing is routine. Shameless. Who goes around kissing their spouse in front of people! Modeling healthy relationships, that’s not a real thing! That’s just an excuse to be disgusting in public! Ugh, Wei Wuxian!
Wei Wuxian is already laughing when Hanguang-jun lets him go. “Be good,” Hanguang-jun tells him seriously, and Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes so hard he sprains something.
“Absolutely not. You be good,” Wei Wuxian retorts.
“Mn. This one will obey his husband,” Hanguang-jun says, absolutely deadpan, and while Wei Wuxian is busy spluttering and blushing, he turns and sketches a very perfunctory bow to Jiang Cheng. “Sect Leader Jiang.”
“Hanguang-jun,” says Jiang Cheng through gritted teeth. “Please travel safe and come back soon.”
There’s another of those moments where Hanguang-jun just barely pauses and looks at him, as if he’s seeing him for a second time and… thinking about whatever Hanguang-jun thinks about when he’s not doing disgusting and unspeakable things to Jiang Cheng’s brother.
As soon as he’s gone, Wei Wuxian claps his hands and says, “Right, to-do list for the rest of the afternoon: Ding-er needs her dinner, someone’s got to cook for the rest of everybody, baths all around, A-Chun needs to work on copying rules two hundred times so she can continue to internalize that baba’s workshop is off limits without supervision, I mean it , and I want to see Siyuan and A-Hao’s talisman work. Her Ladyship will obviously disrupt the schedule whenever she wakes up and decides she’s hungry, but let’s all try to be nice and quiet until then, eh?” The children nod and begin to disperse,
“There’s enough soup left for Ding-er’s dinner,” Sizhui says. “Do you want me to cook for everyone else, or--”
“Absolutely not,” Wei Wuxian says. “I’m going to cook. Meat and spices!” Several of the kids groan; A-Chun cheers. “Sizhui, go do a quick flyover of the perimeter just so I don’t have to have a heart attack every time I hear a twig snap, eh?”
Sizhui nods and is out the door and on his sword in moments.
“I suppose I’m just sitting here like a lump, then,” Jiang Cheng says scathingly.
“You’re a guest,” Wei Wuxian says distractedly. “You don’t have to--”
“Aiya, don’t wake the baby--”
He scoffs. “I used to carry Jin Ling around and shout every day, it’s healthy for them. That boy sleeps like a rock now, nothing wakes him up. Also, I’m going to cook,” he adds stubbornly. “You can eat or you can starve.”
The rest of the afternoon whips past--Ding-er is fed soup, and she and Xiao-Que are put to bed just as Siyuan, A-Hao, and A-Chun are scrubbing ink off their fingers from the afternoon’s work. Jiang Cheng manages to cook food enough for six people using only one hand while he holds Her Ladyship in the other arm. There is a truly excellent array of spices in the kitchen, at which Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. Another disgustingly indulgent extravagance that Hanguang-jun has decided to lavish upon Jiang Cheng’s garbage brother. He really shouldn’t do things like that. Wei Wuxian will only end up more spoiled and annoying than he already is.
He makes simple, straightforward food, properly spiced--not the ninety-percent-chilis-by-weight horrors that make Wei Wuxian smack his lips and say, “Hey, not bad, that’s almost spicy enough,” but definitely not the bland and tasteless muck the Lan sect thinks is food either. It’s got colors to it, and rich complex scents, and enough spice to kick but not incapacitate.
When it’s all laid out on the table, the kids and Wei Wuxian descend upon it like locusts. Even Lan Sizhui, his eyes and nose running from the spice, agrees that it’s good, and A-Chun says it’s the best food she’s ever had, and something in Jiang Cheng’s lonely little heart sighs and curls up like an old dog in a basket by the hearth.
The chaos of baths and bedtime happen in what Jiang Cheng appreciates as the kind of obsessively ritualized regimentation that is characteristic of the Lan sect: Everyone knows in what order they go, and how long they’re permitted to take with the big washtub in the kitchen, and somehow, miraculously, they’re all in bed precisely by nine and the house is quiet.
He tromps back downstairs--A-Chun had insisted on showing him the room she and A-Hao share, inseparable as they are--to find Wei Wuxian sipping from a tiny cup of liquor with his chin propped on his hand and his eyes very soft as he watches Lan Sizhui, across the table, feeding Her Ladyship from an odd-shaped cup with a narrow spout like a teapot.
“Are you fucking serious,” Jiang Cheng says. “Is your wetnurse out sick too?” He had just assumed--he doesn’t know why he assumed, why would he assume anything about this house--
“No,” Wei Wuxian says. He waves a hand towards a cabinet against the wall. “We had one for a while but she missed her family, being so far away from town, so I invented a stasis talisman so we could store milk. She bottles it in town and a Lan servant delivers it with the rest of our weekly supplies.”
Jiang Cheng closes his eyes and seethes privately to himself. Wei Wuxian just casually invented a stasis talisman so they don’t have to inconvenience the wetnurse. Of course he fucking did. Jiang Cheng goes over to the cabinet and opens one of the doors, revealing a neat row of little porcelain jugs, well sealed with beeswax and faintly glowing talismans. He heaves a longsuffering sigh. “What’s next, stopping time? You’ve already brought someone back from the dead. Twice. What else, Wei Wuxian?”
“Technically,” Wei Wuxian says brightly, “the stasis talismans are related to time control, it’s a really subtle--”
Jiang Cheng huffs. “I don’t care about the--the dumb scholar part of it. How long do these last?”
“Dunno, we go through ’em too fast. When I was developing them, I kept a piece of raw pork in the sunshine for two weeks, sealed in a clay pot, and it was still perfectly fresh when I took it out. Only the best technology for Her Ladyship, of course.” He pours himself another little cup of wine. “By the way, want some?”
Jiang Cheng heaves a sigh, but sits at the table and accepts the cup. Emperor’s Smile, of course--he doesn’t like it as much as the Yunmeng home-brew, but it’s nice stuff. He turns to Sizhui. “And how’d you get roped into this? Aren’t you--what, nineteen, twenty this year?”
Sizhui smiles and nods. “Twenty after midwinter, Sect Leader. And I’m happy to help when I have time.” He smiles down at Her Ladyship. “It was a little lonely when I was growing up. It was just me and Zewu-jun for a couple years, until Hanguang-jun came back out of seclusion.”
“Oi, let’s not talk about such sad things,” Wei Wuxian scolds. “We’re going to be staying up on watch all night--or I am, at least--so only funny stories and dirty jokes. That’s the rule.”
“Hmph,” says Jiang Cheng as Sizhui laughs softly, still smiling. “Fine. How about an explanation, then?”
“Explanation?” Wei Wuxian says innocently.
Jiang Cheng sets his elbows heavily on the table and fixes a glare on his errant brother. “You get married without inviting me, you adopt Hanguang-jun’s ward--”
“Hah! No, that’s backwards, Sizhui was mine first,” Wei Wuxian says with a grin, while Sizhui ducks his head and smiles again, blushing.
Jiang Cheng boggles at him. “When did you have a kid?”
“In Yiling. I bore A-Yuan with my own body,” Wei Wuxian says solemnly. “He is my and Lan Zhan’s real love-child.” Sizhui snorts a little under his breath.
“Gross,” Jiang Cheng says. “A-Chun showed me a poster of rules hanging on the wall of the upstairs corridor and one of them was Don’t lie.” He mentally puts a pin in that thought so he’ll remember to come back around to it later--seriously, Wei Wuxian? Posted rules? Really? Is this just a miniature Cloud Recesses? (Except most of the rules had been really reasonable, things like bedtime and house chores and Don’t go in baba’s workshop, it’s dangerous, and Knock before entering a room with a closed door and Don’t play in the pond without supervision, you could drown. Still. It’s the principle of the thing.)
“Fine! Fine, I will tell you the truth.” Wei Wuxian straightens his back and takes a deep breath. “It was a sunny day in the Burial Mounds, not a cloud in the sky, and the creepy murder-ghosts screaming in the trees were like the gentlest birdsong over the serene bubbling of the blood pool, and as I went walking out in the fields, what did I find but a perfect little child tucked under a turnip leaf, right on the spot where Lan Zhan and I had made sweet, sweet love--”
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng hisses as loud as he dares, conscious of the horde of children trying to sleep upstairs.
“I was one of the Wen survivors,” Sizhui says softly.
Wei Wuxian stops pouting at Jiang Cheng and goes quiet and serious, his eyes flicking to Sizhui as his back straightens. After a moment, he says, “I didn’t think you’d want to tell him.”
“He’s my shushu, isn’t he,” Sizhui says, and Jiang Cheng’s heart stops while some big and complicated feeling flails just under his lungs. “He can know.” He glances at Jiang Cheng again with a small, shy smile. “Wen Ning is my uncle, Wen Qing was my aunt.”
“Oh,” Jiang Cheng says. Strange and surreal to think of it. He’d once been a little bit in love with Wen Qing. Strange to think of another world where one day something might have come of it, where he might have been Sizhui’s uncle by marriage twice over. Gruffly, he says, “Of course I won’t tell anyone. This isn’t public knowledge.”
Wei Wuxian clears his throat and slaps a hand on the table. “This is veering towards sad! And I have prohibited sad tonight! I will assign copying to all of us if morale does not improve.”
Jiang Cheng shakes the strange feeling off. Thing is, he can fake a mood just as well as Wei Wuxian can, but he fakes anger where his brother fakes happiness and merriment. “Fine!” he snaps. “Explain the others, then!”
Wei Wuxian groans and leans back on his hands. “What explanation do you want? Where should I start?”
“Most people start stories at the beginning,” Sizhui says absently, setting aside Her Ladyship’s cup and bundling her onto his shoulder.
Wei Wuxian frowns at the ceiling. “What was the beginning? You were going on a lot of night-hunts, and I started coming with you all the time--”
Sizhui, for some reason, freezes. A look of panic crosses his face. He glances at Jiang Cheng. “Uh.”
“Hah, it was so cute, Jiang Cheng, he kept trying to be so polite and tell me I didn’t have to come with him, as if I wouldn’t want to spend quality time with my own child!”
Jiang Cheng eyes Sizhui, who is still as tense as a startled deer that isn’t sure whether it should run.
“Of course I wanted to spend time with him,” Wei Wuxian continues warmly. “All those years I missed! I had a lot to make up for. Lan Zhan raised him so well, though, he’s such a dutiful son--going out night-hunting every single week, sometimes more often, really a model young gentleman. So responsible, too, sometimes I would run a little bit late and have to catch up, and he was already with his friends in a little team. They’re too cute, Jiang Cheng, you should see them when they’re all together.” He pouts. “They’re so independent now that they’re not juniors anymore, they’re always telling me to stay in town and let them do all the fun night-hunting themselves.”
“Anyway,” Sizhui says, a little too loud and too quick. “And then you found Ding-er!”
“That’s right!” chirps Wei Wuxian. “Wait. Wait, no, you found her, technically, right? Ah, see, Jiang Cheng, always such a modest boy, doesn’t want to take any credit. So yes, we were on a night-hunt, and we were on the tail of this demonic cultivator who was causing trouble, and when everything was finished and we’d put out the houses that were on fire, we found a little tot in the ashes of the cultivator’s hovel. It was really a miracle the fire hadn’t gotten as far as her cradle, she was only about two, two and a half. So since we’d just had to exorcise her mother--the woman was basically held together with resentful energy at that point, there was no way to save her, she wasn’t alive anymore but she wasn’t quite dead either--we took Ding-er to her relatives, but they didn’t want anything to do with her.” Wei Wuxian sniffs, derisively. “Called her a bastard, called her mother some ugly names, said they didn’t want a kid who was born tainted with resentment. So Sizhui said--”
“Ahaha,” says Sizhui. “Me? No, it was your idea.”
“Was it?” Wei Wuxian squints at the ceiling. “Maybe it was.”
“It definitely was. We were stomping off from that house with Ding-er and all I said was that it was a shame that people were so unrighteous as to think a child could be guilty of anything, I said that I wished she could have someone like who Hanguang-jun was to me, that he never thought I was tainted by anything--”
“Oh right! And I said, great idea, let’s just take her home! ”
“It was a great idea, Senior Wei,” Sizhui says with a very warm smile. “Senior Wei has a lot of great ideas. He and Hanguang-jun have so much love in their hearts.”
Jiang Cheng squints at him.
“So we brought her home, and I went straight to Lan Zhan and I said, Husband! Look! I know you can’t be surprised about this considering how hard we have been trying for a child every day-- ”
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng mutters, dropping his face into his hands.
“--And look, at last I have borne one for you with my own body--”
“Yes, all the way up the mountain,” Sizhui murmurs. “Except when your arms got tired and I had to help.”
Wei Wuxian shoots him a brief dirty look, and concludes: “And Lan Zhan was delighted, and we kept her. We were ever so proud. We went around Cloud Recesses with her and showed her off and said to everyone, Yes, of course we have been expecting a baby for all this time, didn’t you know?, and we nearly sent Lan Qiren into a qi deviation.” Wei Wuxian grins wickedly, which almost immediately shifts into serious, wide-eyed contrition. “That was before we knew what a precious treasure Lan Qiren really was. Always respect your elders! This is a lesson I have recently learned very well. Respect Lan Qiren! Anyway, of course, it was a bit of a shame because I was too busy to go on night-hunts with Sizhui for a while,” he adds with a pout. “A whole month and a half! Will my A-Yuan ever forgive me?”
“Of course, Senior Wei,” Sizhui says immediately. “Of course, there is nothing to forgive.”
Jiang Cheng squints at him.
“And after that was Siyuan, and it was sort of the same situation, but she’d been on the streets for a while--she was about nine then, she’s eleven now--and didn’t have any family, but she’d bullied some book merchants into teaching her to read, and somehow she’d gotten her hands on a really old raggedy copy of a beginner’s cultivation manual, one that was somehow not totally fucking useless, and taught herself the basics. So she already had a pretty strong golden core for her age, and when we came to town--our first night-hunt together after Ding-er, Sizhui! Our glorious father-son reunion outing!--she could see we were cultivators, so she took us right to the den of demon snakes that we were there to deal with, and when we were done, we bought her lunch to say thank you, and Sizhui got to talking to her and made friends right away--”
“So did you,” Sizhui says.
“True,” Wei Wuxian says. “Very true. She’s smart as a whip. She’s going to be a damn good scholar when she grows up. Can’t buy books fast enough for her, she’s already made a solid dent in the Cloud Recesses’ library. Anyway, by the end of lunch, we were all fast friends and I said, Look, I lived on the streets for a long time too, I know it sucks. If you don’t have parents, do you want to come back with us and learn this stuff properly? And she said yes, and so we walked into the Cloud Recesses together and immediately ran into Lan Zhan, and he took one look at her and said Wei Ying, have you brought me another daughter, and I said Of course, my love--”
“You said Uh, shit, fuck, uh, I didn’t ask her that, um, do you want to be our daughter, Xiao-Shu,” Sizhui says. “And she said Don’t you dare call me Xiao-Shu ever again, but I guess so. And then Hanguang-jun teased you about how you didn’t carry this one with your own body.”
“Right, and I said, Fuck you, Lan Zhan, watch me, and I tried to drag Siyuan back to Caiyi again so I could haul her up properly in my arms, just to say that I did, but she called me an idiot and kicked me in the ankle.” Wei Wuxian casts a fond look up at the ceiling. “Takes no shit, does she. And then the twins!”
Jiang Cheng pours himself another little cup of wine and slams it back.
“Getting the twins was very romantic,” Sizhui says. “Tell him about that one.”
“I think I already told him a little bit, didn’t I, Jiang Cheng?”
“You said Hanguang-jun found A-Chun and thought she took after you, so he brought her home,” Jiang Cheng says, wondering how this one is going to twist itself into another nonsense story.
“Right! And at the very same moment--the very same moment--I was on another night-hunt with Sizhui--”
Jiang Cheng shoots another suspicious look at Sizhui, who returns it with a wide-eyed look of utter innocence that Jiang Cheng doesn’t trust a whit.
“--and we met little A-Hao, whose whole family had been cursed and they’d all died of it one by one. Merchant family, very upstanding and well-respected, but they got obliterated. Long story short, he was just being… so strong, and so calm, and so serious, and he had the most perfect manners, the tiniest gentleman I’ve ever met, and the first moment he looked at me, I thought to myself Oh no, he’s a little copy of Lan Zhan, I’m definitely taking him home if no one else wants to look after him. And well, no one did, because… y’know, they were all obliterated by a curse. So I brought him back, feeling kind of embarrassed about the whole thing--I mean, that was going to be the third kid I’d brought home in the space of eight months, I thought surely Lan Zhan would start feeling like I was asking a lot of him--”
Oh gods and immortals, they’re both morons.
“And so there I am on the path up to the Cloud Recesses, with A-Hao riding piggyback because I am not going to open myself up to being mercilessly teased about my various failures of child-bearing again, and then Sizhui and I hear voices coming up behind us, and then there’s Lan Zhan, with A-Chun riding piggyback too, and we sort of stare at each other for a minute--”
“It was longer than a minute,” Sizhui says.
“And I said, Hi, and Lan Zhan said, Hi, and I said, Uh, I’m giving you another son? And Lan Zhan’s ears went all cute and pink and he said, And I’m giving you another daughter. And I burst into tears and had to put A-Hao down so I could sit in the dirt and cry for a while. And that was the twins! Because… twins! Basically!”
Jiang Cheng closes his eyes and rubs his temples.
“And then Lan Qiren really did nearly go into qi deviation, and he and Lan Zhan had a huge fight about how I wasn’t allowed to keep every stray that followed me home, and Lan Zhan said that they were all his lawful children, that they were all very much wanted, and that Lan Qiren could go suck eggs--not his exact words, obviously, but that was the sentiment--and Lan Qiren said that he wasn’t running an orphanage, and Lan Zhan said, essentially, Fine, I guess you don’t want grandchildren at all then, and we packed up the kids and all our stuff, and moved out of the Cloud Recesses, and rented a house in Caiyi.” Wei Wuxian stops abruptly on a sharp inhale, a complicated sort of expression on his face.
Jiang Cheng stops rubbing his temples and looks at him. “Just like that?”
“Just like that,” Wei Wuxian says. He sounds almost like he doesn’t quite believe it himself.
“He did that for you?”
“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian says quietly, picking at a loose thread on the hem of his robes. “Yeah. He did.”
“He really loves you,” Sizhui says quietly, and Jiang Cheng is horrified to see Wei Wuxian’s eyes go shiny and wet.
Wei Wuxian sniffles and blinks quickly to banish the tears, pasting a smile across his face. “He’s a big dummy, is why. That was a--a weird couple months, because the place in Caiyi was really too small for six of us, and he was really busy all the time, what with trying to divest himself of the Chief Cultivator title and secretly having this house built, and I was feeling--some feelings! About Lan Zhan and Lan Qiren fighting, and him walking off like that! And some people were gossiping, you know, because they always gossip, about how the Lan sect will just take in anybody these days. So I told Lan Zhan about it, and he got this determined look and…” He makes a helpless gesture, as if he doesn’t even have words for it.
“And he came up to the Cloud Recesses to go a second round with shifu,” Sizhui says, hugging Her Ladyship a little closer and rubbing his cheek against the silky tufts of her hair. His eyes are very soft, looking at Wei Wuxian. “And shifu tried to bluff him.” Jiang Cheng snorts, and Sizhui grins at him. “He did, I was there.”
“You seem to be everywhere, don’t you,” Jiang Cheng says pointedly.
Sizhui looks a bit alarmed and does his wide-eyed-innocence act again. “So the second round of the fight,” he says quickly. “Basically what happened was that shifu said that Hanguang-jun wasn’t being demonstrative enough, that he couldn’t be upset about people gossiping because he was just confusing them, and it wasn’t their fault if they couldn’t understand what he was doing, it was Hanguang-jun’s own fault for not being able to make it clear enough, and the implication was that there wasn’t any way to make it clear that he was claiming them as fully, really, legally his, it would just look like fostering random Lan disciples. And shifu was kind of counting on Hanguang-jun not… you know… having an easy time expressing himself. Except...”
“Except he does,” Wei Wuxian says, unexpectedly ferocious. “Except he does, all the time, and it’s so easy to see it once you know what to look for, and Lan Qiren was bluffing with an empty hand because he doesn’t know what Lan Zhan’s really like.”
“At least, he didn’t at that point,” Sizhui says, nodding. “So Hanguang-jun goes out to the bunny meadow to be angry for a little while, and I go with him to keep him company and play some soothing music, and ah… I might have played a particular song Hanguang-jun is very fond of.”
“Your Senior Wei is also very fond of this song,” Wei Wuxian says.
“And Hanguang-jun said, The words of the song start with si.”
“Did you know that before?” Wei Wuxian asks, resting his cheek on his fist and sipping his wine.
Sizhui shakes his head. “I didn’t even know there were words at all. So I said, Do they? And he said, It’s the same si that’s in your name. And then he said, And everyone knows you’re mine. And then he rushed off.” He laughs. “The bunnies and I were very confused.”
“And next thing I know,” Wei Wuxian says, picking up the threads of the story, “he’s charging into the house and kissing me against my work table and saying something about a generational poem and courtesy names and so forth, and uh. We might have been distracted for an hour or… three…”
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng growls again, but it’s becoming rote already.
Wei Wuxian laughs to himself. “Anyway, so I didn’t think to ask what he meant about a generational poem until morning, and the next thing I know we’re sitting on the floor surrounded by papers and writing brushes, covered in ink, yelling at each other about literary allusions--the excited sort of yelling, not angry yelling--and we get distracted three or four more times--”
“Sorry!” he sings, clearly not at all sorry. “So then we were going around pointedly calling the kids by their full courtesy names in public so that everyone would get the picture that they were a set and they were extremely ours. Thank goodness everyone in Caiyi knows what a good and sweet young man Lan Sizhui is, because suddenly everyone had nothing but nice things to say about Lan Siyuan and Lan Sixia and Lan Sihan, and wasn’t Lan Siyue just the cutest little thing, and I really think that it was mostly just that they were already trained to associate the first two-thirds of those names with a litany of virtues, you know?”
“Shifu nearly had another qi deviation about it,” Sizhui adds. “But Zewu-jun was just coming out of seclusion by that point, and Hanguang-jun brought the whole family up to the Cloud Recesses to be officially presented to him--”
“Aiya, we rehearsed that for days,” Wei Wuxian says. “But seeing all of them in a row in their little Lan robes with their little ribbons, bowing to Zewu-jun like perfect tiny disciples and calling him bobo--”
“He nearly cried,” Sizhui says with satisfaction. “And Hanguang-jun rattled off all our courtesy names--”
“Sizhui, Siyuan, Sixia, Sihan, Siyue--”
“And Zewu-jun was just… smiling, he was just smiling like everything was going to be okay now, and it was like all the air went out of shifu...”
“That was a good night,” Wei Wuxian says, grinning. “Zewu-jun came up to be speechless at me a bit later that night, after the banquet, did you see?” Sizhui shakes his head. “Mm. Just sort of beamed at me for a while. Squeezed my arm. I think he would have hugged me if excessive displays of emotion weren’t forbidden in the Cloud Recesses. That would have been too awkward to deal with anyway, I would have had to change my name and go into seclusion. Lan Qiren got a bit easier to deal with after that. Not nicer, just…”
“He knew he’d lost the war,” Jiang Cheng says.
“Exactly. And then the house was finished, and Zewu-jun took over as Chief Cultivator, so Lan Zhan had so much more free time, and we went on night-hunts together. Sometimes even with our darling beloved eldest son--”
Sizhui’s smile is perfect. Too perfect. “I cherished every moment, Senior Wei,” he says. Jiang Cheng can’t detect a speck of dishonesty.
“So did I!” Wei Wuxian says, and sighs. “Ah, we should do that again sometime. One day. So, let’s see... Who are we up to? Xiao-Que, that’s right. You weren’t with us that time, were you. You were off in--Lanling, was it?”
“Hm,” says Sizhui, occupying himself with rearranging Her Ladyship in his arms, wiping a bit of drool off her face.
“And big important Sect Leader Jin Rulan, my most favorite nephew, wrote to us to say he’d heard there was some kind of haunted orphanage that could use our attention--why he didn’t just ask you to look at it, I don’t know, Sizhui. You were right there, weren’t you?”
“There were other matters that had my attention,” Sizhui says. “It was the junior disciples’ discussion conference, remember? We’d all been working hard to prepare for it for months.”
Jiang Cheng squints at him again. He remembers this clearly, even if Wei Wuxian was too distracted with an entire subsidiary sect’s worth of children and an overly attentive husband to bother paying attention.
“Junior disciples’ discussion conference”, his ass. He’d heard about it early in the planning stages, a bit more than a year and a half ago, and had immediately identified it as nothing more than an excuse for Jin Ling to invite a couple dozen of the most hormonal young cultivators from the various sects to come to Carp Tower for a weekend of “fostering diplomacy” and “forging alliances”, as Jin Ling described it, but when Jiang Cheng had arrived unannounced the day after the conference was over, he’d found his nephew extremely hungover with two visible hickeys on his neck, which just goes to show that teenagers cannot be trusted to manage themselves even if they have been adequately competent at managing a sect.
Most infuriatingly, while Jiang Cheng had been shaking him and threatening to murder him on the spot, all Jin Ling had had to say was, dreamily, “Worth it, worth it.” Horrible boy. He got it from his father, of course.
Sizhui is not meeting Jiang Cheng’s eyes, but it might be because Her Ladyship has just spit up a little. Hm.
Wei Wuxian gets distracted from the story for a moment as he goes to fetch a damp cloth from the kitchen for Sizhui to clean her up with. “Want me to take her?” he says when he comes back.
“Oh no,” Sizhui says instantly--and suspiciously firmly. “No, I’m quite happy to hold her, thank you, baba.”
Suspicious! Suspicious! What nineteen-year-old young man wants to hold a baby this long, even one as perfect and filial as Lan Sizhui? He’s using her as a shield. She’ll be a convenient excuse for him to leave the room if the conversation goes towards one of those things which has been making him so… odd. Not twitchy, exactly, because he is a Lan, but… Hm!! He’s Wei Wuxian’s son, apparently , so that means he’s gotta be at least a little squirrely. Jiang Cheng’s solemn duty as his uncle is to eyeball him until he catches Sizhui out in something, and then to either tell his fathers while editorializing in the most mournful possible tones about the degeneracy of today’s youth and how he himself would never have allowed his own charge to get away with such nonsense, or else to hold it over Sizhui’s head and use it as leverage to extract a promise of better behavior or future favors. This is the true meaning of family.
“Where was I?” Wei Wuxian says, settling back down at the table.
“Haunted orphanage,” Jiang Cheng says slowly.
“Right! Haunted orphanage. Well, you probably know the chorus of this song by now: We put the ghosts to rest, we fall a bit in love with a tiny grubby orphan along the way, we give the orphanage mistress a huge bag of money and a promise to be patrons of the orphanage so that the kids can grow up healthy and less grubby and so forth--to be fair, though, we really couldn’t help it. Xiao-Que took one look at Lan Zhan and clung to his leg in exactly the way A-Yuan did when he was a baby, and we had no chance. We were totally gone on him in seconds. The whole time we were killing ghosts, we were having these panicked silent conversations with only our eyes that went something like, Ahhhh, do we need a sixth kid! Yes, absolutely, look at him! Look at him! He’s the cutest thing in the whole world, in a six-way tie with our other five kids!”
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng groans quietly. He is suffering. He is suffering so much.
“He’d just turned two! Two! Jiang Cheng, do you know how cute two-year-olds are! Their chubby cheeks, Jiang Cheng! Their little hands! The way they walk like they’re still figuring out knees! The way they see a cool bird and it blows their tiny minds! Do you know how big and scary the world is to a two-year-old, Jiang Cheng! What was I supposed to do! What was Lan Zhan supposed to do! Anyway, so we brought him home, and we said, Great, good, nice, this is so many kids, this is the right amount of kids to have, six is probably just perfect, we can… y’know, calm the fuck down now.”
There is a long pause. Jiang Cheng closes his eyes. “I notice,” he says, with some difficulty, “that you have seven kids.”
“Well...” Wei Wuxian says, drawing it out into several syllables. “You know how it goes when people say they’re not gonna have any more kids. Sometimes you just… have a little surprise!”
Jiang Cheng stares at him in silent outrage.
Wei Wuxian smiles and laces his fingers together on the table, twiddling his thumbs. “So yeah, Her Ladyship was kind of an accident but we love her any--”
The only reason he does not roar is because there are children sleeping upstairs. “Wei Wuxian, you are not physically capable of having children by accident.”
Wei Wuxian pouts at him. “Probably could if I really put my mind to it--”
“Then it’s not an accident!”
“--I’d have to invent a whole new path of cultivation, but hey--”
“--everyone needs a hobby, right, and it’s not like Lan Zhan would object, kind of the opposite--”
Jiang Cheng splutters wordlessly.
“Ah, Jiang Cheng, Jiang Cheng, calm down. Don’t worry, nobody has the energy for that.”
Jiang Cheng, for some reason, does not find himself calmed or unworried. He glares at Wei Wuxian for a solid minute, and finally he says, through his teeth, “Tell me about this… accident.”
“Well, for a long time we were doing great--eight whole months! Eight months without adopting any new kids! It was a bit hectic, having a two year old and a four year old at the same time, and kind of a learning curve because not all toddlers are as sweet and well-behaved as my little A-Yuan was,” he gives a fond, sappy look to Sizhui at this point, who only smiles and rocks Her Ladyship in his arms a little, “and not all young kids are as dutiful and obedient as Lan Zhan’s little A-Yuan was, so we have to keep telling them things like Don’t play in the pond, we really mean it, we don’t want you to drown and Seriously, for the tenth time, you can’t go in baba’s workshop, do you like having all your fingers? Don’t do it. But! We kinda settled into the routine, and we hired help, and whenever we need a couple days’ break we just haul them all to the Cloud Recesses where there’s enough people that the kids can kinda run all over and there’s always grownups around to keep an eye on them, plus a few other little kids in the creche for them to be friends with, plus their bobo, who is absolutely vibrating out of his skin to spoil them rotten.”
Jiang Cheng instantly moves Lan Xichen to the top of his list of nemeses and recalibrates his life’s priorities around a single motive: Become the favorite uncle. He makes a polite noise for Wei Wuxian to continue.
“We were at an inn about three months ago--”
“Why?” says Jiang Cheng.
“Oh, it was our anniversary, Lan Zhan and I were on a romantic walkabout. Anyway--”
“Was Sizhui there, by chance?”
“Wow, how’d you know?” Wei Wuxian says, laughing. “He was!”
“Like I said,” Jiang Cheng says, squinting at Sizhui, receiving only a mild, inquisitive smile in return. “He seems to be everywhere in this story. But why was Sizhui at the inn when you were on your…” He stifles the instinctive grimace. “...Romantic anniversary walkabout.”
“Well, we ran into him by chance outside Lanling--”
Suspicious! “Start from the beginning.”
“Isn’t the story better if he just starts from the interesting part?” Sizhui murmurs.
Jiang Cheng glares at him. “No. From the beginning, Wei Wuxian.”
“Wow, Jiang Cheng, so aggressive! You really wanna hear it properly, huh?”
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng says crisply. “With every detail.”
“Okay, weird. But sure: Like I said, then, three months ago, anniversary, romantic walkabout,” Wei Wuxian says. “We left the kids with their bobo for a week.”
“When you say… romantic walkabout. What does that consist of?”
“You know, traveling here and there, eating things, looking at things, night-hunting some things, making out in bushes by the side of the road, buying lots of trinkets and presents for everyone at home, sleeping until noon, taking long baths, having noisy sex all night long--”
“You asked! It’s the good life! All the stuff you can’t really do when you have five kids living under your roof and a sixth who might come down to visit from the Cloud Recesses at any moment unannounced!”
“I only did that once,” Sizhui says reasonably. “And then I learned my lesson.”
“So anyway, we go to drop in on Jin Ling--”
“How was he?” Jiang Cheng asks. Every detail. Every single one.
“Uh… I don’t know, kind of harried? Stressed out? So I tell him his beloved da-jiu is only stopping in for a cup of tea and to pinch his little cheeks, and then we leave, and who do we run into on the road outside Lanling but our darling eldest son!”
Jiang Cheng turns and squints at him. Sizhui smiles sweetly at them both. “Eh, baba, just skip to the good bit!”
Wei Wuxian pouts. “That was a good bit. We hadn’t gotten to spend quality time with you in months.”
“Ah, sure, but Her Ladyship! So dramatic, right? I was just sort of… there.”
“Were you arriving in Lanling or leaving?” Jiang Cheng asks.
Sizhui pauses, blinks at him, puts his head a little on one side with an inoffensive expression. “Ah?”
“Arriving or leaving, nephew?”
“Oh, not really either one, just sort of passing through, just stopping in for supplies, snacks for the road…”
“Really? Aren’t you close friends with Jin Ling?”
“Of course he is, that whole little group goes on night-hunts together all the time,” Wei Wuxian says. “Haha, Jiang Cheng, what’s your point?”
“Were you going to stop in to say hello to Jin Ling while you were passing through?”
Sizhui blinks at him, entirely guileless. “It’s possible that I could have, I suppose. I certainly don’t like to impose on a busy sect leader’s time, of course, and when I saw Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei, that took priority over anything else.”
Jiang Cheng turns this over and looks for any cracks where a lie could hide. There are none. It is exquisitely worded. Not a single bit of untruth to it anywhere. Still... Suspicious! He smells a scheme here! He knows teenagers, they’re always up to something! When he was a teenager, he was up to things constantly! When Wei Wuxian was a teenager, he was up to more things than anyone has ever been up to in all of history!
There is something going on!
“Hn,” Jiang Cheng says. “Fine. Wei Wuxian, continue. Do not skip to the good bit. I’m enjoying hearing all the details.”
Sizhui meets his eyes, still smiling, but Jiang Cheng thinks he can see the slightest little crack beginning, the slightest stiffness in his expression.
“Right, so, we ran into Sizhui and said Ah, our darling son, our treasured eldest, we haven’t seen you properly in weeks, why don’t you come with us for a couple days, and Sizhui was ever so polite and said that he didn’t want to intrude on our romantic walkabout, and we assured him that we love him to pieces and that of course his presence would not be an intrusion at all, and that we wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
“Hn,” Jiang Cheng says. “And being a dutiful and obedient son, he agreed.”
“Hn. And then what?”
“That night, we stopped for evening in a little town, and Sizhui mentioned a good restaurant with amazing spicy food--”
Aha! There! The first clue! Jiang Cheng pounces on it. “How did he know it was good? Do Lans like spicy food these days?” Sizhui doesn’t--although he’d complimented Jiang Cheng’s cooking at dinner earlier, he’s positive that the boy would have chosen something else to eat given the chance.
“Ha, not usually,” Sizhui says, smiling. “But I know Senior Wei likes it, and though I can’t appreciate it myself, everyone praises that restaurant and recommends it to me when I go through that town.”
“Such a good son,” Wei Wuxian simpers. “So Lan Zhan and I sat down to eat, and Sizhui said he’d go find us an inn--”
“Why,” says Jiang Cheng.
“Eh? We needed a place to sleep, of course--”
“Was he not hungry?”
Wei Wuxian huffs in annoyance. “Jiang Cheng! I am trying to tell you about my beautiful perfect infant daughter, why are you so fixated on whether Sizhui wanted dinner or not? Can I be allowed to get to the point?”
Sizhui drops his eyes modestly. Jiang Cheng mentally gnashes his teeth. There is something going on! “Of course,” he says tightly. “Please continue.”
“Thank you,” Wei Wuxian says, with a haughty sniff that he has definitely picked up from hanging around all these Lans all the time. “As I was saying, Sizhui went off to find us rooms, but most of them were full, so we had to take an inn towards the less nice part of town--but that was fine, honestly, I think any bed is perfect as long as it has Lan Zhan in it--”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t even bother hissing Wei Wuxian this time, he just shuts his eyes and bears it.
“--and actually the room wasn’t that bad at all, we’ve stayed in much worse places and found much less comfortable surfaces to make love--”
“Wei Wuxian.” It’s just pure reflex that time. Gross. So gross. Does he have to say it like that?
“I thought you wanted to hear all the details, shushu,” Sizhui says, clearly biting back a smile. Jiang Cheng glares at him.
“Yeah, shushu!” says Wei Wuxian. “Anyway, we got settled in for the night and I got my dick sucked in the bath--main benefit to marrying someone with cultivation as strong as Lan Zhan’s: he can hold his breath for a really long time--”
“Shushu, are you alright?” Sizhui asks innocently. “You’ve gone a funny color.”
“Fine,” he manages, barely.
Wei Wuxian continues as if he hasn’t heard them, “And I’m woken at five in the damn morning by somebody pounding on the door, and the next thing I know Lan Zhan’s shaking me awake again a second time and saying that I need to get up right away, because someone left a baby on our doorstep.”
“On my doorstep, technically,” Sizhui says. “I had a room on the other side of the inn.”
Probably a smart precaution, Jiang Cheng’s brain screams at him. He’ll have to make a note of that in case he himself ever ends up sharing an inn with Wei Wuxian and his awful husband.
“Right. On Sizhui’s doorstep,” Wei Wuxian says. “But there was a note in the basket that was addressed to Hanguang-jun. You can’t blame someone for mixing up the devastatingly beautiful and handsome white-robed cultivator with the devastatingly adorable and handsome white-robed cultivator, can you. A very cute example of the son being mistaken for the father--”
“Is it true,” Jiang Cheng asks Sizhui sharply.
“Yes,” Sizhui says immediately.
“You found a baby on your doorstep in the morning.”
“With a note?”
Sizhui nods. “It said, Hanguang-jun, please look after this child. That was all. So I brought her to Hanguang-jun.”
He turns back to Wei Wuxian. “So you just decided to just take this random infant--”
“No, what? We thought it was suspicious as hell.”
Jiang Cheng pauses. “Did you.”
Wei Wuxian scoffs. “Of course. Grubby kids off the street who know they don’t have anyone to look after them, that’s different. Infants, though, they can’t tell you anything, and who knows why they got left with you? Maybe someone has an agenda, like blackmailing you or extorting money. Or maybe they were kidnapped and their real parents are dying of worry.” He rolls his eyes. “Did we just take her,” he says derisively. “Please. The three of us tore the whole inn apart looking for someone who might have witnessed who left her there.”
“No one did,” Jiang Cheng guesses.
“Not a soul.” Wei Wuxian takes a deep, steadying breath. “And then she started crying, and Lan Zhan and I were panicking, and one of the ladies at the inn took pity on us and pointed out that Her Ladyship was probably hungry, so Lan Zhan and Sizhui stayed to keep interrogating people, and I took the baby to find a wetnurse--fortunately there were a couple brothels nearby, and--well, lots of women at brothels, you know, and some of them have their own babies, and they’re also usually nice about exchanging services for money, so Her Ladyship got fed, and I sat around with the girls and we traded bawdy jokes, and I tried to play with Her Ladyship--never met a baby that small before, you know--”
“How old was she?”
“Oh, like a week.” Jiang Cheng chokes, and Wei Wuxian continues, “Anyway, you can’t really play with a week-old baby, they’re just sort of sausages at that point.”
“True.” He’d tried to do the same with Jin Ling, but the best game that you could play with an infant that small was just dangling things in front of their faces to see what they’d reach for. Like playing batting games with a cat in very, very slow motion.
“But… I don’t know, Jiang Cheng, she was just so little.”
“Yeah, yeah, and you thought she was the cutest thing and you just had to take her home,” Jiang Cheng says, rolling his eyes.
“No,” Wei Wuxian says quietly. “No, actually. I was thinking she was the most terrifying thing I’d ever seen, and that I really, really wasn’t sure whether I was up to it.”
Wei Wuxian puts his elbows on the table and rubs his eyes with the heels of his hands. “I love toddlers. Toddlers are the best. They’ve got these huge personalities crammed into tiny vessels and I just--get that. You know? They don’t... fit into themselves yet, and I completely get what that’s like. They’re already making decisions about who they’re going to be, and they can tell you. Babies are… so small, and so helpless, and mindbogglingly vast. They’re just undirected potential, and something that powerful ought to be sturdy, right? But no, they’re like… they’re like a wagon full of blackpowder, with iron wheels, poised at the lip of a cliff overlooking a flint mine.”
Jiang Cheng takes a moment to parse this. “One push, iron hits flint, sparks, boom?”
“Boom,” Wei Wuxian agrees under his breath. “And fate had just dumped one into my lap and said, Well, Wei Wuxian? How brave are you really? And I kept thinking, Not this brave, thank you.”
Jiang Cheng looks down at the table. He is painfully aware of Sizhui across the table--his nephew, yes, but still practically a stranger, an outsider. But he’d… He’d called Jiang Cheng shushu, and he’d confessed something close and secret of his own past, so… “After,” Jiang Cheng says quietly. “After… you. And.” He has to stop and swallow and breathe to get the next word out, “After you and jiejie. And all of that. There was the question of whether I’d look after Jin Ling or whether Jin Guangyao would.”
Wei Wuxian raises his head just enough to look at Jiang Cheng, resting his chin in his palms with his fingers covering the lower half of his face. His eyes are dark and steady. They’re not his eyes, they’re Mo Xuanyu’s eyes, so the color is all wrong, but at the same time the light behind them is… right. Familiar. Known. He’s sitting so still right now, uncharacteristically still, but Jiang Cheng knows his brother. He’d know him anywhere, in any body.
Wei Wuxian says nothing, just keeps looking at him.
“He,” Jiang Cheng says, with a great deal of difficulty, “looks a bit like jiejie, doesn’t he.”
Wei Wuxian’s eyes instantly go shiny, like they’re stinging with almost-tears. He nods, a tiny little nod.
“Jin Guangyao was so kind,” Jiang Cheng says quietly. He has to look away from Wei Wuxian’s face. “Or he seemed so. He said he was happy to raise Jin Ling, he said that it was surely too much stress for me, what with having to rebuild Lotus Pier and the sect.” He takes a shuddering breath. “I almost let him,” he confesses, voice barely above a whisper. “I kept looking at Jin Ling and thinking… the sort of thing you thought about Her Ladyship.”
“Moreso, probably,” Wei Wuxian says, his voice just as soft. “Because he was shijie’s.”
“But you took him. You were scared, but you took him.”
Jiang Cheng clears his throat, straightens his back, and stops avoiding Wei Wuxian’s gaze. He sets his jaw and speaks at a normal volume, forcing his voice to be steady: “Attempt the impossible.”
A smile flashes across Wei Wuxian’s mouth, behind his fingers, and sparkles in his eyes. He sits up too, the smile going wry, and folds his hands on the table. “Well, I wasn’t smart enough to shore up my nerves like that, I just sat there telling loud jokes and thinking Haha, I can’t do this, not a chance, no way until Lan Zhan came to find me.”
“No one at the inn had seen anything--no witnesses, no clue who she belonged to. No one in the neighborhood around knew anything about it, or at least they weren’t admitting it. We hired the young lady from the brothel to sleep at the inn that night to feed Her Ladyship again, and then Lan Zhan and I went to our room and had possibly the best sex we’ve ever had? Like, whew.”
“I came so hard that I could hear colors and taste sounds for like five minutes afterwards, it was wild.”
Sizhui’s biting back a laugh. Jiang Cheng wants to slowly peel off his own skin and hurl it at Wei Wuxian’s head. “Alright, enough! Enough! Feel free to leave out details,” he says.
“You did say you wanted all of them!”
That was really only to try to shake loose some clues about why Jiang Cheng smells a scheme around Sizhui. He makes a face. “Not those. You’re disgusting enough already without lying about it.”
Wei Wuxian holds up three fingers. “I swear it’s true. The color of the sheets was the highest note on the flute, and the shade of Lan Zhan’s hair sounded like the wind whistling in the eaves. His voice tasted like red bean sesame balls! I swear this is true. It was weird and awesome.”
Jiang Cheng rubs his temples with his fingertips and silently waits for death.
Wei Wuxian, ever mercurial, grows serious again. “We looked all over town for Her Ladyship’s parents the next day too, and we just got... nothing. I think I must have been going a bit… manic?”
“You were,” Sizhui murmurs.
“Yeah. Yeah. And I think Lan Zhan could tell. There was a minute where I was, ah… I was panicking a little, I was chattering a thousand words a minute, and he just took my hand and said, There’s lots of people who would give her a home, we can find someone who will be happy to have her , and I just kept thinking, You can’t be sure of that, you can never be sure of that, how could you just leave a baby with someone and trust that they’d love her--” He breaks off, forces a smile, one of the fake ones. “Ah, I was a little coward, huh? I wasn’t brave enough to say yes, and I wasn’t brave enough to say no, so I just kept putting off making a decision by thinking of other things that could help us find any kind of clue… I even made Sizhui and Lan Zhan play Inquiry.” He takes a breath. “We got a bit from that, actually. A birthday, at least, and that she was the fourth child born to her family, and during which shichen.”
“You made us go to an astrologer,” Sizhui says, smiling softly.
Jiang Cheng clucks his tongue. “Making a lot of trouble for everyone, aren’t you,” he grumbles to Wei Wuxian. “Shameful. Don’t make me have to apologize about you to Hanguang-jun.”
Wei Wuxian shrugs hugely. “I have no excuses. This humble one is very repentant and will beg forgiveness from his husband and son.” Sizhui only laughs at this again. “The astrologer gave us a lot of bullshit. We said she was a fourth child, and he tried to sell us all kinds of shitty charms and fake talismans to ward off her bad luck, and we told him her birthday and he ranted and ranted about how she had too much fire in her chart and how that was so unhealthy, and he tried to sell us more charms to fix all the things he said were wrong with her, as if she were going to keel over dead at any second unless we accepted his very expensive help. But Sizhui dragged us out of there before we started breaking his furniture, huh?”
“Ah, no, nothing so dramatic,” Sizhui says quickly. “Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei had it well under control! I merely pointed out that perhaps one of the astrologers in Gusu might have more experience… Caiyi’s a bigger town, that’s all.”
Wei Wuxian harrumphed.
“When did you finally get around to making up your damn mind about her?” Jiang Cheng asks.
“I didn’t, not really--I said she was an accident, didn’t I? We went back to the inn and I left for a walk to clear my head, and when I came back, Lan Zhan was curled up around her on the bed, and she was asleep with a bit of his hair clenched so tight in her fist that he couldn’t get free--you’re familiar with how that goes now, huh?” Wei Wuxian asks archly. “And I just looked at them and screamed inside my head for a second and went, Okay! Okay, I get it! I guess I’m doing this! And… yeah. I sat down next to the bed and I told Lan Zhan that I didn’t care whether she was someone else’s bad luck fourth kid, because she'd be our good luck seventh. So we cut our romantic walkabout short and went back to Gusu that night feeling all cocky and cool and badass, right up until the Lan sect aunties mobbed us and drowned us in information and, uh… we ended up kind of traumatized and paranoid? We might have stayed up all night hovering over her crib for a few nights ‘cause we were both under the impression that babies can just, like, suffocate on nothing? We kinda went just a little bit weird for a couple weeks.”
“Senior Wei and Hanguang-jun were more than a little weird by the time I got back,” Sizhui murmurs. “Senior Wei was fully paranoid and having minor hallucinations from sleep deprivation when I returned for Her Ladyship’s one-month celebration.”
Jiang Cheng snorts; Wei Wuxian pouts. “I wasn’t hallucinating!”
“You were away a while,” Jiang Cheng remarks casually. “Three weeks.”
Sizhui gives him a brilliant and unimpeachable smile. “Yes, I was occupied. I find that there’s always people in need of help, don’t you?”
Someone’s been teaching this boy politics, and by that smile and that elegant and slightly passive-aggressive non-answer, Jiang Cheng suspects it’s his arch nemesis Lan Xichen.
The boy’s up to something, Jiang Cheng can smell it.
The ebb and flow of the conversation is interrupted when Her Ladyship sets to howling. Wei Wuxian’s face goes instantly tense and anxious, but Jiang Cheng whisks her out of Sizhui’s arms and gets to his feet, singing Yunmeng folk songs for her as he paces around the room.
She quiets fairly quickly, to his satisfaction, but it takes longer for her to sleep properly.
“Should we be on watch outside?” Jiang Cheng asks as he passes by the table.
“We are on watch,” Wei Wuxian says, drawing a talisman from his sleeve. “This is going to burst into fire if anything malicious gets within two hundred yards of the house. You two don’t need to stay up if you don’t want to,” he adds. “I’m fine by myself. Her Ladyship and I have some of our best conversations at three in the morning.”
“Ah, I’m a little tired, actually,” Sizhui says. “May I sleep on the floor in your room? In case shushu wants the guest room?”
Jiang Cheng waves this off, bouncing Her Ladyship a bit in his arms. “I’m staying on watch. Sleep wherever you usually sleep.”
Sizhui nods, gets up, and bows to both of them. “Goodnight then,” he says, and heads to bed.
Wei Wuxian is silent, picking idly at the edge of the talisman as Jiang Cheng sings quietly to Her Ladyship. She falls asleep far before he stops singing, but eventually his voice peters out, and he’s left just slowly pacing the breadth of the front room in silence.
“I really didn’t think you’d care, you know,” Wei Wuxian says eventually. “About--about the kids.”
“You’re an idiot.”
“Yeah, but--look, when it was just Ding-er, it didn’t… feel real. It felt like Lan Zhan and I were… indulging ourselves, grabbing selfishly for something we wanted--like we were eating a whole platter of cakes by ourselves. Everyone in the Cloud Recesses was astonished and incredulous at us about it, and Lan Qiren was angry about it, so I really did think… Ah, Jiang Cheng will be angry too, I’d better not annoy him . And then Siyuan, and I thought, Ah, Jiang Cheng won’t care to hear about this one either, she’s so old already, he won’t even think she counts…”
“Ouch. Of course she fucking counts, idiot.”
Wei Wuxian makes a baffled gesture. “It didn’t start feeling really real until the twins, and then I thought, What do I even say, how do I write and tell him that I’ve adopted another four kids? He’ll say that’s too many, he’ll say I’m embarrassing him.”
“It is too many, and you are embarrassing me,” Jiang Cheng says gruffly. “But you should have said.”
“I’ll definitely send a letter right away whenever we get the next one, then,” Wei Wuxian says seriously, and when Jiang Cheng shoots him an outraged look, he bursts out laughing.
“You have enough kids!” Jiang Cheng snaps. “Let a few of them grow up and leave the nest, at least!”
Wei Wuxian composes himself with some effort and props his chin on his hand. He’s still smiling, but his tone sobers when he says, “Siyuan’s already itching to move into the disciple dormitories in the Cloud Recesses. She wants to be closer to the library. She wants to be in classes. She spends hours every day trying to catch up to where her age-mates would be.”
“And then in your house, you’ll still have five kids under the age of, what, nine? Do you need to adopt every single orphan in the country?” he demands. “Can you not leave any for anyone else?”
Wei Wuxian spreads his hands. “Do you see anyone else snatching them up? They could have. They had plenty of chances.”
Jiang Cheng hmphs at him.
After a long moment, Wei Wuxian says, “I wish she wasn’t in such a rush.”
“Yeah.” He pouts a little. “It’s not even been two years that we’ve had her here. Feels like it’s only been a few weeks.”
“She has ambition,” Jiang Cheng says. “Don’t hold her back.”
Wei Wuxian hums in agreement. “Hey. Give me my baby, would you? You’ve been hogging her all day.”
Jiang Cheng sits at the table and hands Her Ladyship over, both of them moving very carefully so as not to wake her up. Wei Wuxian hugs her close. Another long silence, and Jiang Cheng asks, “When did you stop being afraid of her?”
“Completely? Like two weeks ago,” he answers instantly. “The first time she laughed at Lan Zhan. It felt like my heart moved an inch to the left and slotted into place. I’ve been too tired to think straight since we got her, but I she laughed and I felt like… Okay. Okay, all I have to do is make sure she laughs like that every day, and maybe I won’t fuck it up too bad.”
Jiang Cheng grumbles under his breath, “And raise them with a bunch of rules on the wall.”
“Only sensible rules about how to keep from drowning or losing fingers or teeth.”
“It’s not about what rules they are, it’s about--”
“Having them posted?” Wei Wuxian scrunches his nose. “Yes, well, marriages are about compromise, and Lan Zhan argued that it provides structure.”
“Only Lans need structure like that,” Jiang Cheng says.
“And they’re Lans, aren’t they?”
“Are you a moron?”
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian says absently, looking down at Her Ladyship. “We established that.”
“Look me in the fucking eye and tell me A-Chun is a Lan more than she’s a Wei. Is she dying to go to the Cloud Recesses as soon as she’s allowed?” he demands.
Wei Wuxian groans and rubs a hand over his face.
“She’s seven! She doesn’t have to go anywhere for ages.”
“And when the time comes?” His voice is rising again, and his temper, and something in the back of his head groans in exasperation with himself even as he keeps talking. “Are you even going to think twice about where she’ll fit best, or will you just say, Oh well, she’s a Lan, and Lans go to the Cloud Recesses, as if that’s any kind of logic? That husband of yours certainly won’t think about it--he’ll make the same assumption, and you’ll just let him and the whole sect walk all over you! Why aren’t any of these kids named Wei?”
Wei Wuxian’s expression shutters off. He gets to his feet, hugging Her Ladyship tight to his chest, and says, “They’ve had enough hardship in their lives without inflicting that particular burden on them, don’t you think?” And then he strides out of the room, through the door that leads to the master bedroom.
Jiang Cheng drops his head into his hands. Fuck .
He sits alone with the signal talisman and his thoughts until he can’t stand himself anymore, and then he snatches the talisman up and goes out onto the porch. His sword is securely at his hip, Zidian on his wrist.
The night is cool and fresh, the sky clear, the stars ice-crisp.
A-Cheng, jiejie sighs in the back of his head.
I know, he whispers back.
He knows what he did. He knows himself. He knows himself right down to his bones, right down to Wei Wuxian’s golden core whirling in his lower dantian, warming him in the cool night air. He doesn’t get cold anymore. Hasn’t for a long time.
He knows himself, and he is embarrassed at his own behavior--he wishes he could slap himself upside the head. He wishes there was someone to shake him by the shoulders and snap at him for his wrongs until his face goes hot with humiliation. He wishes there was someone to force him to turn around, to shove him in the back until he stumbled forward, to order him to apologize to his brother.
There isn’t anyone. They’re all dead.
He turns around, he forces his feet forward himself. He goes back inside the house, the talisman crumpling in his hand.
He knocks softly on Wei Wuxian’s door, but there is no answer--just silence. He knocks again. Has Wei Wuxian fallen asleep after all? Jiang Cheng slides the door open just a crack and nearly jumps out of his skin when it releases a wave of sound--Her Ladyship crying, the colicky sort. Wei Wuxian humming to her, the sort where he's clearly trying not to sound too upset himself.
Jiang Cheng slides the door the rest of the way open--it’s papered with sound-canceling talismans, he sees now, and so are the walls, the window, even the ceiling. It’s a broad, generously sized room with another little table, an enormous bed that Jiang Cheng immediately shoves out of his awareness, and a painted screen blocking off a smaller area. He is, somehow, comforted to see that the alien Lan tidiness of the rest of the house is relaxed here. The bed isn’t made. The curtains on the bed are brightly colored. So are the cushions by the table. So is the painted screen, and there’s a red under-robe flung carelessly over the top of it. There are little knick-knacks on the shelves, and a pile of books on the floor next to one side of the bed. It looks like a room that belongs to his brother.
Wei Wuxian turns to him sharply. “Ever heard of knocking?”
“I did,” he says. “Twice.”
“I didn’t hear you,” he says over Her Ladyship’s wails. “For obvious reasons. Just--just give me a damn minute, would you?” He’s showing that exhaustion again, that hard edge of despair. Jiang Cheng should have made him sleep at some point. Heavens can see he needs it.
“Jiang Cheng! ”
He stops breathing for a moment--Wei Wuxian’s really angry at him. Not hiding it behind smiles, not laughing it off. He’s got his crying child clutched to his chest and he’s glaring daggers at Jiang Cheng over her head. And why wouldn’t he? Jiang Cheng’s an outsider here, and he’s stomped in and been insufferably himself (he can’t stand himself, he hates that he does this, he hates that he can’t help but hurl himself into this swamp over and over, why does he have to be like this). And more than that--Wei Wuxian doesn’t give a shit if Jiang Cheng calls him names or speaks sharply, or criticizes him, or rolls his eyes, or makes disgusted noises when Wei Wuxian overshares about his sex life.
But Jiang Cheng had the fucking idiot gall to say something against one of Wei Wuxian’s people--against his favorite of all his people--and that’s the one thing that Wei Wuxian has never once laughed off in his whole life. He’ll let himself be punched all day, but one swing at anyone under his protection and he’s ready to go to war.
He imagines jiejie’s hand on his shoulder, nudging him forward. Now, A-Cheng, what do you say?
“I’m sorry,” he says for her.
“For being rude.”
Is that all?
“And for hurting you.” What is he, five? Is he not a grown man, a gentleman of honor, one of the leaders of the five great sects? Is he not righteous and upstanding enough to make a proper apology when he errs? Was he raised in a pigsty? “I spoke without thinking. I would like to rescind my words. Both they and the sentiment behind them were unbecoming and--”
“Stop, stop, stop, what the fuck, stop, are you haunted? Are you possessed?” Wei Wuxian’s voice rises to an incredulous shriek by the end.
“What’s the matter with you, why are you talking like that? So creepy! It’s bad!”
He huffs and kicks the ground. “I was a dick,” he spits. “And I know it. I was a colossal ass, and I’m fucking sorry. Happy?”
Wei Wuxian subsides a little, but he still looks suspicious. “Why are you apologizing?”
“Because I don’t want to be fighting with you anymore!” he has to shout a bit over Her Ladyship’s crying, but the door is closed and presumably the silencing talismans are working.
“What?” Wei Wuxian shifts Her Ladyship to his other shoulder and bounces her a little, rubbing her back. “What?”
“Ugh! You’re a moron! I miss you! I’m all alone now, and Lotus Pier is empty, and nobody comes to visit me, and--and a man wants to have some family around, is that a crime?”
Wei Wuxian has gone still, staring at him while Her Ladyship screams against his neck. After a moment, Jiang Cheng makes a scathing noise and strides forward. “Give her to me, let me put her to sleep again,” he says, and Wei Wuxian lets him take her.
She goes quiet the instant she’s in his arms.
“Hurtful,” Wei Wuxian says to her frankly. “Hurtful. I’m hurt. Baba is garbage, huh? Baba is garbage, and diedie is garbage, and da-ge is garbage, and there’s only shushu in your heart, huh? Is that it? Only shushu and Lan Qiren?”
Her Ladyship makes a gurgling noise and reaches up to bap her little hands against Jiang Cheng’s face. Jiang Cheng tries very hard to retain his dignity.
They both occupy themselves with looking down at her so they don’t have to look at each other. At length, Wei Wuxian says, “It’s really that lonely, huh? Must be really bad if even the likes of me are… are worth apologizing to.”
“Yeah,” Jiang Cheng says, letting Her Ladyship grip one of his fingers in her tiny, surprisingly strong little hand. “It’s too quiet.”
“How does this work?” Wei Wuxian says, in his half-joking voice. “I’ve never been on this side of the fight before. Do I just say thank you for the apology, of course I forgive you? That’s what shijie would say. Feels like we’re skipping a step, though. Wrestling in the mud or something.” He brightens. “I have a pond right outside, we could go try to drown each other. Clear the air.”
Jiang Cheng gives him a flat look. “Playing in the pond without supervision is forbidden.”
“Adults are allowed.”
“Are you? Are you an adult?”
“No, Xianxian is barely three years old,” Wei Wuxian says promptly.
“So it’s forbidden to play in the pond.”
“Ah, I’ll just flirt with the guy in charge of the rules if we get caught, don’t worry about it.”
Jiang Cheng raises his eyes to the heavens and heaves a sigh. “You can be barely three or you can flirt with your husband, please don’t do both.”
“I am a complex person, Jiang Cheng, I have facets.”
They go back out to the main room as soon as Her Ladyship has drowsed off again, and Wei Wuxian makes a little nest of cushions and a thin blanket to lay her in. Jiang Cheng watches him like a hawk, watches the gentleness of his hands as he tucks soft fabric around her, as he strokes her little cheek with two fingertips. He’s leaning over her, and his hair has fallen over his shoulder, so Jiang Cheng can’t see his whole expression, but there’s so much love in Wei Wuxian’s hands. He feels a little guilty for how quickly Her Ladyship had quieted in his arms.
“Lan Zhan and I have a deal,” Wei Wuxian says quietly, “where I have to tell him the truth about what upsets me. Instead of hiding it or laughing it off.”
“Oh heavens,” Jiang Cheng says, genuinely horrified. “He makes you do that?”
“Yeah.” Wei Wuxian sounds truly mournful. “It’s awful.”
“Does it…” Jiang Cheng clears his throat a little. “Does it start a lot of fights?”
Wei Wuxian turns to him, folding his legs and putting his hands on his knees. “This is going to sound surreal, but no. Somehow.”
Jiang Cheng frowns, uncertain and still a little wrong-footed about this strange truce. They’re both fumbling through it--at least now he’s old enough to recognize it’s just as awkward for Wei Wuxian. “Really?”
“Really. It’s weird.”
“You just…” Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes. “You just say… the real thing that’s upsetting you and that’s fine?”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
Wei Wuxian throws his hands in the air. “Right! No sensible person would think it makes any sense! It shouldn’t make any sense!” Jiang Cheng nods along with all of this. “He doesn’t even get mad about it. He doesn’t even hold a secret grudge about it! I say something like, I’m tired and frustrated and I feel lonely because you haven’t tried to hold my hand all day, and he just goes, Mn, I understand, and gets me some tea or a cup of wine and holds my hand, and doesn’t even accuse me of--of thinking he’s a bad husband or anything.”
“He… does that with the kids too, doesn’t he?”
“Yeah, yes, yes he does,” Wei Wuxian says pointedly, as if he can tell that Jiang Cheng has understood what he’s implying. “When we first got Ding-er, I kept lying awake at night and thinking to myself, okay, which of us is going to be the one that’s kindly and benevolent but sort of disinterested in doing any real parenting, and which of us is the one that randomly switches between being overbearingly coddling or furiously angry?”
Jiang Cheng feels extremely seen. He shifts uncomfortably. “Okay,” he says, because he can’t think of anything else to say. He knows, intellectually, that there must be other categories of parents. He knows, too, that he ended up modeling his own parenting style far too much on the blueprint of his mother than he likes to think about. “Why… do you feel it’s necessary to bring this up?”
Wei Wuxian looks straight at him, very serious. “Because I’m about to tell you honestly about part of why I was upset.”
“Besides me being pointlessly mean about your weird husband.”
“Right, besides that.”
Jiang Cheng gives him a wary look. “Do you have to?”
“It is,” Wei Wuxian says crisply, “healthy.”
“Okay,” says Jiang Cheng. “If you say so, but… he’s not here. You could just give me the silent treatment and make me beg for forgiveness for a while longer, and I could be vague enough about my apologies that it applies to whatever you want it to apply to, and then we wouldn’t have to… do this.”
“What if we did do this, though,” Wei Wuxian says. A manic light has come into his eyes.
“But we don’t have to do it,” Jiang Cheng says.
“But what if we did.”
“Why would we want to?”
“That’s not a reason to do things. You’ve been living with the Lans too long.” He makes a face. “This is making my skin crawl.”
“Yes, it does that,” Wei Wuxian says. “Okay. I will tell you, and then you have to not shout at me about it.”
“Is this some kind of trick? I don’t like it.”
“Do your best.” Wei Wuxian closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. “I was upset because of what you said about my husband, and I was upset because you threw something in my face that I’ve been worried about lately.”
All Jiang Cheng’s hackles go up. He holds himself very stiff. “How was I supposed to know about it? You can’t be mad at me for not knowing!” He scowls. “Fuck. Fucked it up already.”
It feels like a gargantuan piece of effort, a truly mythic amount of will, like some hero from legend, but he forces words onto his tongue one by one. “I’m. Sorry. That I. Did that.” All his muscles are tense. If he were any less tense, he’d be leaning away from Wei Wuxian, or hurling something at his head. “What… were you worried about. Do you want to...” Another gargantuan effort to keep his face from twisting up in disgust. “Talk. About it?” That’s a thing people say, isn’t it? Isn’t it?
“Oh fuck no, I absolutely don’t want to talk about it,” Wei Wuxian says immediately. But he’s always been braver and stronger than Jiang Cheng, hasn’t he? Fucker. So he continues: “It’s A-Chun.”
Jiang Cheng frowns and sits up straighter. “A-Chun?” He cuts himself off. If he talks, he’ll fuck it up.
“You were talking about the… assumption that she’d be a Gusu Lan disciple when the time came, and it…” Wei Wuxian purses his lips into a tight white line for a moment and then seems to make his own gargantuan effort. “It hit close to home.”
“Because recently she’s decided that she doesn’t want to.”
Part of Jiang Cheng perks up sharply, ears pricked like a hunting dog. “She doesn’t want to study at the Cloud Recesses?”
“Nope. She’s very firm on it. It’s been… a point of contention.”
“Hanguang-jun wants her to go.”
“Hanguang-jun has taken the stance that he doesn’t mind which sect she studies with,” Wei Wuxian says, his tone drifting toward annoyed. “He went and told her that Gusu Lan has diplomatic alliances with most every clan so she can be fostered wherever she likes.”
Jiang Cheng carefully does not say anything. He wishes he had a cup of tea to sip, to hide a bit of his face in.
“He suggested Qinghe Nie. Implied they might teach her subtlety.” Wei Wuxian’s annoyed expression deepens into a scowl.
“What’s the problem?”
“Qinghe’s too far away. I don’t want her to go so far. I’d miss her.” His expression tightens further. “Siyuan’s already ready to hurl herself into her studies, and with A-Chun thinking of going halfway across the country--”
“It could be worse. There’s farther places than Qinghe.” He carefully does not mention that Yunmeng is closer to Gusu than Qinghe is, only a day or so by sword, depending on how much of the scenery you take in and whether you stop for meals.
Wei Wuxian blows out his breath. “I feel like I just got them and already they’re trying to fly off again and leave me.”
“Mm,” Jiang Cheng says philosophically. “You did always have abandonment issues.”
“Yeah, yeah, fuck off,” Wei Wuxian says. “It’s not just me, though, A-Hao’s been beside himself. Don’t mention this in front of him.”
“They’re pretty close,” Jiang Cheng says, noncommittal.
“They’re twins.” Jiang Cheng must give him some kind of wry look, because Wei Wuxian laughs a bit and shakes his head. “They might as well be. They’ve been attached at the hip since the day we brought them home. And A-Hao…”
“He’s a Lan to his bones.”
“Takes after his father,” Wei Wuxian says with a straight face. “Including the clingy part. A-Hao’s upset about the idea of being separated from his sister. They fight about it,” he adds. “They don’t fight about anything.”
Jiang Cheng can’t relate.
“So.” Wei Wuxian spreads his hands. “That’s why I was upset. And also garden-variety exhaustion and sleep deprivation from taking care of a colicky newborn. And what if my beautiful husband gets kidnapped by grannies in Caiyi?” Jiang Cheng would scoff at this, but he’s trying very hard to be nice and Wei Wuxian does look genuinely mopy about this idea, as if it’s a real possibility. Moron. “I miss him.”
“He’s been gone less than twelve hours.”
“We haven’t spent a night apart in more than a year,” Wei Wuxian says, moping harder. “I will surely waste away by morning. And what if he is delayed? What if I have to wait until lunchtime to see him? Or later? What if I forget what his perfect face looks like?”
Jiang Cheng closes his eyes so that he can roll them without Wei Wuxian being snippy about it.
He opens his eyes, opens his mouth to speak--
And the crumpled talisman on the table between them catches on fire.
Jiang Cheng gives the corpse of the giant demon boar one last crackling strike with Zidian, one last kick for good measure, and stands back, hands on his hips, the length of the whip falling by his feet with little snapping purple crackles. Across the carcass, Sizhui uses a flare of spiritual energy to clean the gore off the side of his guqin, which he had used as a cudgel just as often as an instrument.
Wei Wuxian calls from several yards back, towards the middle of the wide front yard, “Alright?”
Of course Jiang Cheng’s alright. He just decapitated a giant demon boar with his whip. He’s the coolest guy in Gusu tonight. He could have finished this fucker off even if Sizhui hadn’t joined in. He turns on his heel to face Wei Wuxian. “Alright.”
Wei Wuxian stuffs the flute back in his belt and regards their work with a frown. “Ugh, look at this mess! It really tore up the grass, huh?”
“Baba! Jiang-zongzhu! Da-ge! That was so cool!”
A-Chun, A-Hao, and Siyuan are hanging out of the upstairs window, evidently awoken by the almighty noise. “Oi, what are you doing awake?” Wei Wuxian says, shaking a finger at them. “Go to bed!”
“It was so cool though!” A-Chun shrieks. “Wow! Wow!!”
“A-Chun, shush! You’ll wake the babies!”
A-Chun does not pay him any mind. She is having a tiny meltdown of delight. “When da-ge came shooting out of the house on his sword and walloped it in the face with his guqin right as it was about to gore baba with its tusk! Walloped it!! Wow!”
A-Hao is no less enthused, though he has more of that Lan restraint about it. “And then when Jiang-zongzhu stabbed it, that was incredible. Right in the eye!”
“Right in the eye!” A-Chun shrieks. “And when baba played his flute and tied it all up with resentful energy so that Jiang-zongzhu could decapitate it with his whip!”
“It was pretty cool, I guess,” Siyuan offers in a bored voice that gives Jiang Cheng a brief war flashback to when Jin Ling was that age, prepubescent and performatively unimpressed at all times. Little shit.
“If you’re not in bed by the time I count from three, so help me, you do not want to know what I’ll think up for you! Giant demon boars will be the least of your worries, little urchins!” Wei Wuxian says. “Three… two...”
The three little faces vanish from the window, and the shutters close with a snap.
Sizhui twirls his guqin away into whatever spiritual pocket he keeps it in and wipes the sweat off his brow. He’s barefoot, un-ribboned, hair down, and only wearing his sleeping robes, but somehow he looks as crisp and tidy as any Lan disciple at a banquet. “It’s nice to have some peace of mind, isn’t it,” he says, joining Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian as they wander back to the house.
“It’s gonna be a hell of a time moving that thing,” Wei Wuxian says, casting a look back over his shoulder at the carcass. “Maybe I can reanimate it and get it to hurl itself into the river…”
“A problem for tomorrow,” Sizhui says. He glances down at his muddy feet. “Ah… I’ll go around the back and come in through the kitchen so I can wash up.”
“And then back to bed with you, young master,” Wei Wuxian says, kicking off his own shoes at the door as he enters. Jiang Cheng does the same; by the time he’s inside, Wei Wuxian has already flung himself onto the cushions by the table, fussing over Her Ladyship’s blankets. “She’s still out cold,” he whispers around a laugh, looking up with a grin as Jiang Cheng stands in the middle of the room.
“You got any more wine?”
“In my room, in the cabinet below the bookcase. Left-hand side. Uh… don’t look in the right-hand side. Or if you do, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“You’re disgusting,” Jiang Cheng informs him, and goes to fetch the wine.
He comes back with two bottles of Emperor’s Smile, sets one firmly on the table in front of Wei Wuxian, sits across the table from him, takes a giant swig, and says, “Listen.”
“Eh?” Wei Wuxian looks up from hovering moon-eyed over Her Ladyship.
“About A-Chun.” He takes a breath. His nerves are still singing with adrenaline from the fight. There’d been a moment where the boar had almost broken past his guard, and he’d had a vision of it careening into the structure of the house, the damage--
He shakes it off. “She takes after you too much. I said she was more Wei than Lan, and I stand by it, and I bet your husband wouldn’t deny it either.” He swallows another swig of wine and looks his brother right in the eye. “More Wei, or… or more Jiang.”
Wei Wuxian stops, his own bottle of wine frozen at his lips. He lowers it and blinks at Jiang Cheng.
“Don’t you dare send her off to be fostered in Qinghe,” Jiang Cheng says, a little harsh because he’s more nervous of saying this than he was about the giant demon boar. “A couple years from now, if she still doesn’t want to go to the Cloud Recesses… Send her to me, okay? Let her come to Yunmeng.”
Wei Wuxian doesn't say anything, just stares at him.
“If,” Jiang Cheng says, feeling terribly awkward and wishing fervently that he had never spoken up at all. “If she wants, that is. If Hanguang-jun doesn’t mind. If… She wouldn’t be that far. You could… You could come and see her whenever you wanted. Easily.”
“You want a Lan for a disciple of Yunmeng Jiang?” Wei Wuxian says blankly.
“I want my niece A-Chun, Sihan, for a disciple of Yunmeng Jiang.” He clears his throat and gruffly adds, “Then even if she’s far from you, you’ll know that at least she’s with family.”
He risks a quick glance at Wei Wuxian, no more than a flick of his eyes. His brother looks like he’s been pushed off balance, like he doesn’t know which way to swerve. “I’ll. Talk about it with her. And Lan Zhan.” And then, awkwardly, “Thank you.”
“Don’t fucking thank me, who thanks family?” Jiang Cheng scoffs, and chugs the rest of his wine.
Wei Wuxian falls asleep on the cushions, half-curled around Her Ladyship’s little nest, with one of her little hands clutching his thumb. Jiang Cheng stays awake, too keyed up to sleep and still feeling that someone should be on watch as long as the wards are down. He nurses the bottle of wine for hours, pacing back and forth along the porch. Every now and then he hops on his sword and flies up above the level of the roof to peer through the darkness at the surrounding forest, just in case anything else decides to come for his family.
The night is quiet.
Dawn is a bluish haze and a tinge of pink on the horizon when Sizhui and Siyuan wake up. From his post on the porch, he hears them murmuring quietly to each other and, a moment later, they emerge, bright-eyed. Sizhui is in his Lan whites, as always, but Siyuan is in more practical clothes, earthy shades of green and charcoal. “Oh,” Sizhui says. “Good morning, shushu.”
Siyuan gives him another one of those calculating looks. “Shushu,” she says thoughtfully. “Yeah, alright. Good morning.”
“Did you wake early?” Sizhui asks. “Or…?”
“Didn’t sleep,” Jiang Cheng says. “I stayed on watch.”
“Ah.” Sizhui radiates unimpeachable politeness. “I was about to help Siyuan with sword practice. If you would like to join us, we would be honored to receive your wisdom.”
Siyuan eyes her brother sidelong, but her lips move soundlessly, as if she’s committing the words to memory. Jiang Cheng supposes that she’s studying up on etiquette just as much as cultivation and academic subjects--after all, she’s been living on the streets for most of her life and now finds herself a daughter of the gentry. She seems focused, though. Determined.
“Sure,” Jiang Cheng says. “Might as well.” He’s not very tired--missing a whole night of sleep here and there isn’t such a hardship at his level of cultivation.
They get a solid hour in, and Jiang Cheng is sharply relieved to see that neither Sizhui or Siyuan are strictly Gusu Lan in their style--there’s flavors of Yunmeng Jiang in their footwork and some of the attacks, and Sizhui’s got some other influences that Jiang Cheng can’t quite pin down. A bit of Jin and Ouyang, maybe, which isn’t so much of a surprise, considering who he’s friends with.
Sizhui heads in to make a start on breakfast, and Jiang Cheng has to force Siyuan to sit down and take a breather. She flung herself into each round of practice like she truly was fighting for her life, or for someone else’s. Maybe she’s not too irretrievably Lannish. He’s never known a Lan who put such visibly hard work into anything. They all just float around being effortless.
Maybe she, too, is a little more Jiang than he first gave her credit for. He knows what it’s like to be playing catch-up your whole life. He ushers her to sit down on a bench against the side of the workshop shed. “You’re going to hurt yourself one day if you push too fast,” he says, hands on his hips. She gives him an arch look and does not dignify this with an answer. He sighs. “Give me your wrist.”
She blinks up at him and holds out her arm. He puts two fingers to her pulse point, feels the singing of qi running bright through her meridians. Wei Wuxian was right--her golden core is coming along well for her age.
“Right,” he says. She takes her wrist back and gazes up at him, absolutely unintimidated. “You’re doing sitting meditation?”
“Your fathers taught you that?”
“And my books,” she says. “That’s all so far.”
“Okay.” He squats down in front of her. “You seem like a person who likes the straight truth. You want that?” She pauses and nods slowly. “You’re pushing hard enough that you’re hitting diminishing returns. Either slow down a bit and enjoy being a kid, or--hear me out--” he says when she gives him a dark, disdainful look. “Or. Figure out a different method of meditation and alternate them. I used to do running meditation, or swimming.”
“It’ll help?” she says, frowning.
“Worth a shot, isn’t it?” he says briskly, rising again. He dusts off the skirts of his robe. He could tell her more, but she’s clearly doing a moody preteen thing, and if she’s anything like Jin Ling was at that age, she won’t listen to a damn word he says if he wastes more of her time than is absolutely required.
And besides, nobody needs to know that he’d had to experiment with a dozen different kinds of meditation to find a balance that would keep his cultivation progressing at a rate even vaguely comparable to Wei Wuxian’s.
“Maybe I’ll try it,” she says, which feels like a huge triumph, but then she’s still a year or two out from the really intolerable moody phase, and therefore still sort of able to talk like a human person.
Her eyes catch on something behind him. “Oh. A letter.” She hops off the bench. “Excuse me.”
He turns around on instinct and sees one of the golden spirit-butterflies, the messengers of the Jin sect, fluttering around the kitchen door. Ugh! Speaking of irritating teenagers! If Jin Ling has some sort of emergency that he suddenly can’t solve on his own--
Jiang Cheng strides forward in Siyuan’s wake and snatches the butterfly out of the air just as she sticks her head into the kitchen and says, in utterly scathing tones, “Da-ge, it’s your boyfriend again.”
There’s a clatter from inside the kitchen and Sizhui appears in the doorway an instant later, wide eyed.
“Ahaha,” he says, instantly plastering on that expression of unmitigated innocence he’d worn last night. “Siyuan, it isn’t nice to make jokes.” Jiang Cheng suddenly feels like he’s nabbed the last piece of the puzzle and now he just has to put them all together.
Siyuan sighs, “Whatever,” and goes inside.
Jiang Cheng waits until she’s out of earshot, holds up the butterfly between two fingers, and says, “Your boyfriend.”
“Siyuan likes to joke and tease sometimes. I suppose I do write to Jin Ling quite often,” Sizhui says lightly, but there’s a little knot of worry just under the edge of his ribbon, and his eyes keep glancing between Jiang Cheng’s face and the butterfly.
“Do your parents know you’re courting?” Jiang Cheng says, nestling right into this stern uncle role and glorying in it. Very comfortable.
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to trouble them,” Sizhui says with a soft smile. “It’d just be another needless worry to add to the pile, you know? They’re so busy with the kids.” He reaches forward, gently, for the butterfly.
Jiang Cheng backs up a step, holding it out of reach. “Funny you should mention the kids,” he says thoughtfully. “I think you’ve gone well out of your way to make sure nobody noticed that all of this was your idea.”
“My idea?” Sizhui says, blinking like a guileless baby deer.
“You were with Wei Wuxian for most of them. You know how much he likes kids. You know how impulsive he is, too. How much of a soft touch he is for a little tragedy. He can’t walk down the street without compulsively trying to rescue someone.”
Sizhui gives him an injured look. “Shushu, surely you’re not suggesting that he should help people less?”
“I’m suggesting that perhaps you nudged him into situations where an opportunity to help would fling itself into his face.”
“That sounds like a very wicked thing to do,” Sizhui says seriously. “I would never dream of manipulating my seniors like that. May I please have my letter?”
“Call it what you like, but lying’s forbidden, isn’t it? Were you or were you not behind all this nonsense?”
“I wasn’t,” Sizhui says immediately, without even a flicker of guilt in his expression.
Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes and skims through the list of kids until his brain snags on something. “Were you behind all of this nonsense, excluding A-Chun?”
The slightest pause.
Jiang Cheng has got him cornered. “A-Chun was the accidental kid, wasn’t she? Not Her Ladyship. Lan Wangji ran into her by himself. It really was his own idea, wasn’t it?”
“Senior Wei and Hanguang-jun are very happy now,” Sizhui says, that soft pleasant smile back on his face. “They’ve both wanted family for so long. Perhaps I might have encouraged Senior Wei a little when he was hesitant about whether Hanguang-jun would want the same things he wanted, but...”
“You think you’re so smart, kid? You think I’m as much of an idiot as your parents?” He gives Sizhui a scathing look. “Teenagers! Pah! Just ask Jin Ling, he’s never been allowed to get away with a damn thing in his life without me knowing about it.”
“I’m surprised the conversation isn’t more about him. I thought you would be interrogating me about my intentions and so forth, or demanding to read the letter.”
Jiang Cheng makes a disgusted face. “You think I don’t get enough shameless over-sharing from my brother that I have to go shake my nephew until he spills the beans about whatever disgusting teenage bullshit he’s getting up to? I don’t give a shit about that.” Not entirely true, he gives several shits about it, and as soon as he’s done here with Wei Wuxian, he’s going to hurtle off over the hills to Lanling and dangle Jin Ling off the edge of a balcony by his ankles until he swears to be celibate until he’s properly married.
“Oh? How interesting. I’ll have to let him know that no one will murder him if we kiss in public, then.” And then, in one swift movement, like a swallow on the breeze, Sizhui nabs the butterfly away from him and vanishes back into the house.
“Lan Sizhui!” It’s just reflex, really, from all the times he’s shouted Wei Wuxian! in his life. He storms after Sizhui, just disappearing through the door from the kitchen into the main room--but Sizhui is young and quick and all Jiang Cheng ends up with is a door snapped closed in his face and, before he can haul it open, the hiss of an activated talisman. A lattice of glowing lines appears across the door. It is immovable. Jiang Cheng seethes at it and turns back to see a very bleary Wei Wuxian propped up on one elbow, just peering over the edge of the table.
“What’s going on?”
“Hanguang-jun raised a little sneak,” Jiang Cheng says.
“Who, Sizhui? No, he’s a good sweet boy.” Wei Wuxian drops back onto the cushions and closes his eyes again. Jiang Cheng stomps over and sits next to him.
“Wei Wuxian,” he says in dark tones. “That boy tricked you into adopting all your kids.”
“Did he?” Wei Wuxian says, sleepily. He doesn’t open his eyes. “Very cute of him. He always wanted more brothers and sisters, you know,” he adds around a yawn. “Even when he was as tiny as Xiao-Que and Ding-er.” Wei Wuxian seems fully prepared to go back to sleep, mumbling, “Ought to be illegal for kids to grow up so fast, nobody told him he had to go and get so tall… ”
“He has a boyfriend,” Jiang Cheng says, aggrieved. The stern uncle aesthetic is not going to be much fun if no one’s going to take him seriously.
“Really? I thought he’d found a favorite person. Takes after his father. Decisive. That’s Lans for you.”
“You don’t care who it is.”
“I’m dying to know who it is, but Lan Zhan says I shouldn't pester him, and anyway all his little friends are good boys. It’s probably one of them. My money’s on Jingyi.”
“It’s Jin Ling.”
This makes Wei Wuxian open his eyes and turn on his back, frowning at the ceiling. Finally! Success!
“Hm,” says Wei Wuxian. “On one hand, what good taste, going after shijie’s son. On the other hand, what poor taste, going after Jin Zixuan’s son.” He shrugs and curls back around the cushions. “Can’t be helped. Lans all have wretched taste. If it’s not noisy and embarrassing and, preferably, a murderer, they don’t want it.” Without opening his eyes, he raises one finger philosophically and says, “That’s what happens when you’re a repressed bunch of virgins. But well done, Sizhui, picking a boy who’s only fifty percent a total disaster. Lan Zhan did such a good job raising him. Gonna kiss him about that when he gets back.”
“Very sexy of him, being such a good father.”
Jiang Cheng glares at him. Her Ladyship, close by, fidgets in her little nest of blankets and makes a waking-up sound. Jiang Cheng gathers her up and returns to glaring at Wei Wuxian, who has cracked a single eye open to see whether there’s anything for him to attend to. “He tricked you because you were cramping his style,” Jiang Cheng snaps. “Following him around, annoying him all the time with his friends. With his boyfriend.”
“Mngh. Silly." Wei Wuxian yawns and nestles further into his pillow. "Should have just done what Lan Zhan and I do. Make out in front of everybody until they get bored or mad and wander off.”
“Case in point: He and Jin Ling sent you to the haunted orphanage on purpose because they knew there was no way you were going to get out of that without at least one more baby.”
“Xiao-Que was two, Jiang Cheng, we couldn’t help it. Two.”
“That’s the point I’m trying to make!” Jiang Cheng yells. Her Ladyship gurgles a laugh and baps his face with her hands. “He knows you’re a sap!”
“Who’s a sap?” A-Chun says, bouncing down the stairs.
“Your baba,” Jiang Cheng says sharply.
“That’s not fair,” Wei Wuxian says. “Lan Zhan is also a sap.”
“Mn,” A-Chun agrees. “He’s a bigger sap than you.”
“See! See, Jiang Cheng! Even the babies know!”
“Baba, I’m hungry, is there breakfast?”
“Da-ge is cooking breakfast,” Wei Wuxian says, eyes stubbornly closed.
“He’s not. He’s reading a letter from his boyfriend in his room,” Jiang Cheng says flatly.
“Oh, ew,” A-Chun says. “Boys are icky.”
“Ew is correct, but it’s not because boys, it’s because it’s an appalling hour for anyone to be awake,” Wei Wuxian says.
“Why are you out of bed, then?”
“I’m still where I slept last night, sweetheart.” He sighs heavily and raises his voice in mournful tones. “I just could not bear the thought of spending the night in that big bed all alone. What if my toes had gotten cold, whose legs would I have warmed them on? Your diedie is truly cruel, abandoning me like this. I will have to learn to be a single mother now.”
A-Chun comes around the table and pokes him with her toes. “Yesterday you said diedie was the mama because he’s prettier.”
Wei Wuxian surges up and grabs her, bodily dragging her down into the cushions for a snuggle while she shrieks with laughter. He ends with a smacking kiss on the side of her head and tucks her head under his chin. “Don’t talk to me about what I said yesterday, child. Yesterday was yesterday.”
A-Chun wriggles ineffectually for freedom and casts a pleading look at Jiang Cheng. He shakes his head and shrugs pointedly. Solve your own problems, he mouths.
“Baba,” she whines. “Mama. I’m hungry. If you’re a single mother now, are you going to let your favorite third daughter starve?”
Wei Wuxian groans. “If I cook, you’re getting spicy congee for breakfast.”
Wei Wuxian grins against her hair and drops another kiss on the top of her head. “Truly you are my child.”
He unwinds his limbs from around A-Chun and, as if hauling hundred-pound weights, drags himself to sit up.
From just outside on the porch, there is a flutter of cloth in the breeze, and A-Chun and Wei Wuxian are instantly on high alert. A heartbeat later, the tap of shoes meeting wood, something heavy set down, and the ringing sound of a sword being sheathed.
“Diedie’s home!” A-Chun shrieks, and she and Wei Wuxian scramble for the door, all Wei Wuxian’s lethargy vanishing in the blink of an eye.
Jiang Cheng looks down at Her Ladyship, who solemnly takes firm hold of his nose with one hand. “You’re the only one in this house I respect,” he tells her. Wei Wuxian and A-Chun fling the door open and themselves onto Hanguang-jun, screaming at him about the horrible trials of Wei Wuxian being a single mother for an entire afternoon and night.
“Good morning,” Hanguang-jun tells them. He sounds so warm and unlike himself that Jiang Cheng looks up in bewilderment and immediately looks away again when he sees Hanguang-jun smiling down at them, A-Chun’s arms around his waist and Wei Wuxian’s around his neck.
A-Hao and Siyuan thunder down the stairs and likewise throw themselves on Hanguang-jun, who finally staggers just a little under the weight.
Ding-er and Xiao Que are following more slowly, taking the stairs very carefully--Ding-er is holding her little brother’s hand and narrating in a very bossy jiejie voice about how he has to hold onto her and to the railing.
“Why?” says Xiao Que.
“Because you’ll fall and die if you don’t.”
“Because you’ll hit your head.”
“Because you didn’t hold on, so you have to hold on.”
Jiang Cheng watches them like a hawk, but they probably won’t actually die from a tumble down the stairs. It’ll be a learning experience either way, like running off the end of a pier.
The uproar at the front entry--Hanguang-jun hasn’t even been allowed to step inside and take his shoes off yet--quiets just long enough for Hanguang-jun to distribute various affections: A quick kiss for Wei Wuxian; a serious nod for Siyuan, who returns it solemnly and then, a little self-conscious, ducks in to hug Hanguang-jun’s waist, her face buried against his side; twin hugs and pats on the head for the twins. By then Ding-er and Xiao-Que have reached the bottom of the stairs and are bouncing up to the crowd and demanding their own attention. Hanguang-jun whisks both of them into his arms at once and receives sloppy kisses all over his face. He is smiling a real, glowing smile, and it’s appalling, and Jiang Cheng can’t even look straight at it. It makes his face look wrong. It doesn’t fit on him. It’s kind of crooked and weird looking, imperfect.
Even more appalling, this display is followed by gifts, as if Hanguang-jun hasn’t spoiled them all enough already. It seems that all the begging and fast-talking yesterday for things they wanted from the markets was remembered with exhaustive detail--Wei Wuxian receives a stack of fine talisman paper and various sundries, Siyuan and A-Hao get a few books each, A-Chun gets a new set of paints (“So you don’t have to go into baba’s workshop and steal his cinnabar, which is dangerous,” Hanguang-jun says seriously), Ding-er, Xiao-Que, and Her Ladyship get soft stuffed toys (shaped like a frog, a bunny, and a lion, respectively), and everybody gets a little bag of candy, including Wei Wuxian and, mystifyingly, Jiang Cheng himself.
When all the children have been seen to, Wei Wuxian (who has been oddly patient during all this) wraps himself shamelessly around Hanguang-jun’s arm, tips his head against Hanguang-jun’s shoulder, and croons, “Husband, is that all the greeting your poor wife gets, just a single peck, it’s like you didn’t even miss me at all, even though I pined for you, I barely ate--”
“Ew,” say the kids preemptively, turning away and trooping off into the kitchen, all except Xiao-Que, who sits right beside Hanguang-jun’s feet and tries valiantly to help pull his boots off while hugging his bunny doll firmly with one arm--he is otherwise entirely unconcerned with anything else that might be happening.
Jiang Cheng looks away again very quickly, and he tries to stop listening as well, but since his arms are full of Her Ladyship, he has to endure hearing, “Truly I was wasting away--mmph!” followed by a sharp gasp from Wei Wuxian, and then his breathless laughter around Hanguang-jun’s name, and then, “Eep! Husband, don’t pinch me there!” in a voice that manages to sound scandalized and delighted at the same time. It’s fucking unspeakable.
“I have another surprise for you also,” Hanguang-jun says.
“Oh fuck. Oh fuck, is it a new baby?” Wei Wuxian says. Jiang Cheng’s head snaps around, outraged. “Oh heaven. Shit. Okay. Well, I guess there’s no helping it. Is it a girl or a boy? Where are they?” Wei Wuxian stands on his tiptoes and cranes to see over Hanguang-jun’s shoulder--Hanguang-jun is still holding him, his hands lower on Wei Wuxian’s hips than Jiang Cheng needs to ever see, and certainly not before breakfast.
“It is not a new baby,” Hanguang-jun says. Jiang Cheng relaxes. Hanguang-jun pauses and asks, “Do you want another baby?”
“I don’t,” Xiao-Que says decidedly. Jiang Cheng respects him.
Wei Wuxian drapes his arms around Hanguang-jun’s neck and leans most of his weight against him. “Jiang Cheng thinks we should have biological children. He said so.”
“Fuck off,” Jiang Cheng spits. “I did no such thing.”
“He dared me to invent a new cultivation path to do it. Er-gege, don’t you want to get me--”
Hanguang-jun catches his mouth in another brief kiss before he can say any more. At their feet, Xiao-Que is still industriously trying and failing to remove Hanguang-jun’s boots, since Hanguang-jun is still standing in them. “I have a surprise for you,” Hanguang-jun says again.
“Oh, right, yes. And it’s not a baby. What is it?”
Hanguang-jun opens the qiankun pouch from which all the little gifts had come and withdraws a bottle containing a liquid of such a rich, dark garnet that it looks nearly black until the light catches it. “There was a new kind of chili oil at the market.”
“Husband!” Wei Wuxian shrieks at the top of his voice. “Beloved! Darling! Light of my life! You do love me! I forgive you for abandoning me all night! Of course I will take you back!”
And then he pushes Hanguang-jun up against the doorframe and kisses the breath out of him. Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. At their feet, Xiao-Que heaves a very grown-up sigh of annoyance and scoots himself back into reach of Hanguang-jun’s boots.
After his horrible brother and brother-in-law have gotten their shit together, and after Wei Wuxian has bounced off to put away the new chili oil and see whether anything can be made of the various attempts at breakfast, and after Hanguang-jun has allowed Xiao-Que to finally help take off his boots, and after he has gently scooped Her Ladyship out of Jiang Cheng’s arms, he says: “I see the giant demon boar was not a problem.”
Jiang Cheng sniffs haughtily. “We handled it.”
Silence but for the cheerful sounds of chaos in the kitchen.
“How was town?”
“Stonecutters did their work quickly, I guess.”
Hanguang-jun--should he start calling him Lan Wangji, since he’s Jiang Cheng’s brother-in-law? Jiang Cheng is starting to feel like he's seen Hanguang-jun's tonsils get licked often enough that he should be able to address him more familiarly--nods towards the door. “The anchor is on the porch, if you wish to look at it.”
Jiang Cheng goes to look, for lack of anything else to do. The anchor is a large stone lantern, chest-high, solidly constructed. It weighs more than he does. He wraps his arms around it and heaves--he can lift it, but it takes a surge of spiritual power.
He sets it down gently and goes back inside. Sits down.
“Heavy,” he says.
“Good work,” Jiang Cheng allows, gruffly. “Bringing it so quick.”
Lan Wangji’s eerie golden eyes flick to him once before returning to Her Ladyship. “Thank you.”
Wei Wuxian comes back in with a tray full of breakfast. “The kids wanted to eat outside,” he says, settling at the table. “And Ding-er wanted to feed herself, so I figured it’d be less messy.”
Lan Wangji nods and looks down at Xiao-Que, cuddled up against his elbow with the stuffed bunny hugged tight in his arms. “Do you want to go eat with your siblings?” The little boy shakes his head and buries his face against Lan Wangji’s side.
“Oh no, he’s so cute,” Wei Wuxian whispers, slightly strangled. “I thought for sure nothing could ever be as cute as A-Yuan but…”
Lan Wangji frowns and looks up. “Where is Sizhui?”
“Locked in his room with a letter from his boyfriend. Jin Ling,” Jiang Cheng adds crisply.
Lan Wangji hums thoughtfully and settles Her Ladyship in the cradle of his lap so his hands are free to eat. He has a narrowness to his eyes and a tension in his brows that Jiang Cheng finds very promising.
“Want to do it,” Xiao-Que says, leaning across the table and insistently grabbing for his own spoon. “I can eat.”
“You must eat neatly,” Lan Wangji says, taking his own bowl when Wei Wuxian hands it to him.
“You will be sticky, and someone will have to wash you and change your clothes.”
“Being sticky is unpleasant for you and for others. A young gentleman is always tidy. It is part of being considerate to those around you.”
“I don’t want a bath.”
“Then don’t spill food down your front, okay?” Wei Wuxian says to him, handing Jiang Cheng his own bowl.
“Will you be careful?” Lan Wangji asks Xiao-Que, who nods fiercely and scoots up to the table with his spoon.
“Want me to take Her Ladyship?” Wei Wuxian asks. “She’s probably getting hungry too.”
“No. I will attend to her momentarily.”
“Aww, Lan Zhan! Did you miss her?”
Lan Wangji gives Wei Wuxian a very patient look. “Yes. I missed all of you.”
Wei Wuxian melts. Disgusting. “Are we just going to ignore the thing about Sizhui and Jin Ling, then?” Jiang Cheng demands. He’s already halfway through his bowl and if he has to sit here watching these idiots be disgustingly domestic at each other for a moment longer, he’s going to lose his appetite.
Lan Wangji says, slowly, “We must ignore it.”
“Eh?” Wei Wuxian says. “Really? Thought you were going to object for a moment there.”
“I do object.” His lips thin. He sets down his bowl.
Wei Wuxian pours Lan Wangji a cup of tea. “To be fair, we were pretty sure it was one of that set.”
“I hoped it was Ouyang Zizhen.”
“And I really thought it was Jingyi. Not a murderer, but plenty noisy and embarrassing enough to turn a nice Lan boy’s head.”
Jiang Cheng is obliged, as an uncle, to bristle. “You saying there’s something wrong with Jin Ling?”
“He’s still not over that time Jin Ling stabbed me,” Wei Wuxian stage-whispers to Jiang Cheng. To Lan Zhan, he says, “You really would have preferred it to be Zizhen? He’s too nice! A little gentleman! Ah, but you wanted a big romantic for your eldest son, didn’t you!”
“My preferences are irrelevant,” Lan Wangji says. “But we must ignore it. We will express no opinion on the matter either way.”
“Why?” Jiang Cheng demands. “You’ll just… allow this? Should they be allowed to go running about wherever, unsupervised, no chaperone? You don’t care about Jin Ling’s intentions towards your son? You don’t care about your son’s intentions towards Jin Ling?”
Lan Wangji levels a look at him. “As a teenager, I was once forbidden from associating with someone. I am now married to him, with seven children.”
“Ugh. Fine, we ignore it,” Jiang Cheng says, while Wei Wuxian laughs so hard he has to lay his head down on the table.
After Her Ladyship has been fed and breakfast is all cleared away, Xiao-Que bounces off to go play with his siblings, and Jiang Cheng’s horrible brother-in-law murmurs to Wei Wuxian that it would be best to set up the anchor point as soon as possible. This, for some reason, makes Wei Wuxian go pink in the cheeks, biting his lip on a grin, his eyes sparkling. “I completely agree. Must make sure the house is secure. Very serious situation. Meet you outside in a second.”
He dashes into the master bedroom as Lan Wangji hands Her Ladyship back to Jiang Cheng again, and he comes back out a moment later, tucking something into his belt pouch, grinning. “We’ll be back in like--”
“An hour and a half,” Lan Wangji says solemnly, going to the door.
“An hour and a half! Maybe a little longer!”
Jiang Cheng squints at them and shifts Her Ladyship more comfortably in his arms. “It takes that long to set up the anchor point?”
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says airily, yanking his boots on. “Well, you know, the talismans and so forth, and making sure everything’s in good order, this and that. Very important! The kids know what their morning chores are! Just keep the little ones from drowning in the pond, okay?”
He opens his mouth to object but Wei Wuxian grabs Lan Wangji by the wrist and drags him off down the steps of the porch.
“Fine, bye then,” Jiang Cheng grouses at their retreating backs. Hanguang-jun has the huge anchor lantern propped on one shoulder as if it’s nothing. Wei Wuxian is practically skipping.
Only a few minutes pass, in which Jiang Cheng is entirely occupied with softly grumbling to himself and dangling his belt tassel for Her Ladyship to play with.
He hears the soft wooden noise of a door sliding open and turns to see Sizhui peeking out.
No reaction, he remembers. They must give him no reaction.
He turns back to Her Ladyship. “You missed your father getting back. And breakfast.”
“I already ate, but thank you.” He hears Sizhui pad across the floor, and then the young man is settling himself by the table with his hands folded neatly in his lap, that Zewu-jun-like smile on his face again. “I’ve had a moment to think, and I was wondering if we could… discuss things.”
“Oh?” says Jiang Cheng. He too has had a moment to think, and what he’s thinking now is that while he might have agreed that No Reaction is the way to go with teenagers, especially stubborn Lans, that doesn’t mean that he can’t make his nephew squirm a little if given the opportunity. It’s practically his job as an uncle.
Sizhui’s a clever boy--he probably used his time locked in his room usefully, writing a panicked letter to Jin Ling. His nephew will know that Jiang Cheng knows what he’s been up to, and who he’s been up to it with, but--here's the delightfully evil part--the next time he visits Lanling, Jiang Cheng will offer no comment about it whatsoever, and it’ll make Jin Ling bend himself in knots out of sheer paranoia.
Sizhui, though. Jiang Cheng doesn’t know him as well, doesn’t know what’s going to be just the right amount of affectionate familial torture for him.
He tries that trick of Lan Wangji’s and smooths out his expression, gazing at Sizhui in silence and waiting for him to be the one to speak first.
Sizhui doesn’t flinch under it--of course not, he’s used to it--but he does straighten his already perfect posture even further. “I know you’re working very hard to repair your relationship with Senior Wei,” he says earnestly. “And I wanted to know if there was anything I could do to help facilitate that.”
Jiang Cheng quirks an eyebrow. “Were you, now,” he says coolly.
“I was.” Sizhui nods, smiling. If he didn’t know better, Jiang Cheng would never have guessed that Sizhui was anything but perfectly sincere. “I know family is important to you--it’s important to me too. I know that we can agree, also, that harmony and peace is something to strive for, isn’t it?”
Oh, the boy wants to bargain. Someone’s taught this kid diplomacy backwards and forwards and upside down. Establish shared goals and values, build rapport, offer something the other party wants, make it sound enticing and irresistible, and then ask for what you want in return.
Jiang Cheng mentally snorts. Teenagers. They think they’re so smart. Jiang Cheng is going to milk this for everything he can get--he grew up alongside a very clever person, so he’s an old hand at negotiating for every little scrap of advantage, or at least he used to be. He makes his voice gruff. “I suppose,” he allows. “It’s better when nobody’s fighting and bickering, getting on each other’s nerves.” He wonders what Sizhui’s opening offer is going to be.
Sizhui nods energetically. “Just so! And I know Senior Wei sometimes does get on your nerves, but anyone can see how much you both love each other. He talks about you all the time, you know, he’s always telling the kids stories about Lotus Pier. Do you think it might be easier to talk to him if he came to visit you there? Where there’s all that shared history you have in common, all those childhood memories of when you were properly brothers?”
A bit presumptuous, but… Damn, the kid’s good, Jiang Cheng has to admit that. “Hm,” he says. “Might be.”
Sizhui’s sweet smile widens. “I would be truly happy to encourage him to go see you there. I think he really wants to, but--well, with all the kids, he hardly has time--”
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng can’t resist saying. “You did make sure of that, didn’t you?”
Sizhui doesn’t even blink, his smile doesn’t even flicker. “And I think he’s been nervous about the possibility that he wouldn’t be welcome, or that you wouldn’t be happy to see him.”
“And you think you could convince him otherwise? And babysit the kids while he’s gone?”
“It’s not babysitting if they’re my little siblings, it’s just helping take care of the family.” His smile still does not falter. He practically glows with filial piety.
“Hm,” says Jiang Cheng.
Sizhui’s beatific smile grows a little thoughtful and wistful, “Though, I admit… I worry about whether I could really be of any use in that regard if…”
Textbook! It’s textbook! Jiang Cheng saw this coming from a mile away! “If…?” he prompts, since they’re playing the game already.
“Well, if anything were to disrupt the harmony of the family,” Sizhui says soberly. “Any unexpected pieces of news, you know, things that might upset Hanguang-jun… If Hanguang-jun was so upset then of course Senior Wei wouldn’t want to leave his side.”
“Oh,” says Jiang Cheng evenly. “I see. You want me to not tell them that you’re secretly seeing Jin Ling.”
Sizhui lowers his eyes modestly. “That is but one example of the problems I refer to.”
“Hmph. Is it not forbidden to lie to your parents?”
“Is it lying to keep some matters private?” He glances up to meet Jiang Cheng’s eyes again. “I’m sure you can agree that neither of us wants to know the particulars of, for example, my fathers’ private life.”
Ooh, a clean point scored there, Jiang Cheng has to admit. “It’s not comparable,” he says. “Because Wei Wuxian is nosy enough that he would want to know all the particulars of your private life, and he’d probably offer a lot of disgusting advice you didn’t ask for, and pretend to be an expert.”
This, at last, gets a reaction--a spasm of half-amusement, half-horror, quickly smoothed out. Jiang Cheng doesn’t blame him. He can just imagine what Sizhui must be picturing--Wei Wuxian stomping around and shaking his finger in Sizhui’s face and scolding him like a fishwife, demanding to know why he wasn’t told about it. He, Sizhui’s own mother who bore him with his own body, or some such nonsense. Wei Wuxian always did hate to be left out of knowing things.
“So,” Jiang Cheng continues. “Partly you knew Hanguang-jun would be upset. Partly you knew Wei Wuxian would be insufferable about it. What else?”
“It really is a private matter,” Sizhui says. He seems a little like Jiang Cheng got him on the back foot with that parry about Wei Wuxian. “It’s nobody’s business.”
“The Jin sect leader… courting… the heir of the Lan sect? That sounds like quite a lot of people’s business, boy.”
“We aren’t courting, not at the moment. We are aware of the complications, and we are handling them carefully. The rest is private.”
Jiang Cheng snorts. “Jin Ling, careful? Jin Ling, discreet?”
Sizhui smiles politely and says, “It’s private.”
“It’s private because the brat’s scared of Hanguang-jun, isn’t it?”
“I don’t wish to speak for Jin Ling.”
Jiang Cheng harrumphs. This Sizhui. Far too collected and unflappable.
Thing is, now he’s had a chance to think, and think again, and think a third time and… Well, really, if the kids are being conscientious--which apparently at least Sizhui can be counted on to do--and not doing anything that could get them into any serious consequences… What’s really the harm? It’s just the same as standing back and letting a toddler run off the end of a pier and get a dunking in the river so they learn to watch where they’re fucking going, isn’t it. If Sizhui and Jin Ling want to bumble through some unbearably stupid, “private” thing like incompetent teenagers, then they might as well. Let them get their fingertips singed a bit, let them get their hearts bruised. Let them learn valuable lessons from it. Jiang Cheng will be standing in the background to rescue them from drowning, or in this case from fucking up anything too badly that it causes actual political consequences.
Kids these days are too soft, anyway, they don’t know anything about real heartbreak. Fuck it. He’s too old, nobody has the energy for this shit anymore. He barely had the energy for Wei Wuxian’s versions of this shit when they were teenagers themselves.
Still, he’s not going to let this go without nabbing a few perks for himself. He narrows his eyes at Sizhui. “You really think a little thing like talking Wei Wuxian into visiting me is a fair trade for what you’re asking?”
“Is it not?”
Jiang Cheng scoffs. “No. If I wanted him to visit, all I’d have to tell him is that Grandma Lu with the dumpling stand invented a new kind of spicy bun, and that he should come try it, and I wouldn’t be able to get that guy out my hair for weeks.”
“But you haven’t told him that,” Sizhui says evenly.
Little shit. “Offer me something else.”
The tiniest line between his brows mars Sizhui’s serene expression. “What else do you want?”
Jiang Cheng studies him for a long moment. “A-Chun doesn’t want to go to the Cloud Recesses as a disciple.”
Sizhui blinks at him. “Yes.”
“But A-Hao does, and they’re very close.”
Again, more slowly: “Yes.”
“A-Chun would thrive as a disciple of Yunmeng Jiang.” He almost says, Convince them that it won’t be the end of the world if they’re separated, but his heart catches hard in his chest just as the words reach his tongue.
It is, actually, the end of the world when you’re separated from your sister. And here he'd thought the unforgivably Lannish A-Hao would be the one he was least able to relate to or empathize with.
His eyes sting. “Find me a good solution.”
Sizhui puts his head a little on one side. “Would you take on A-Hao too, if he wanted to come?”
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng says. “Without hesitation.”
Sizhui nods. “Okay,” he says, smiling. “I’ll do what I can.”
“And I won’t breathe another word about your private life to your parents,” Jiang Cheng says with a single nod. Sizhui doesn’t even notice the sly wording. Sucker. He might be a clever little shit, but Jiang Cheng’s got a few tricks of his own.
Jiang Cheng glares at his awful brother and his horrible brother-in-law. His eye twitches.
Wei Wuxian has a twig and bits of crushed leaves in his hair and a bright red hickey on his neck, and he’s grinning and swaggering as he comes back in the house. Lan Wangji, of course, looks utterly presentable and visibly smug.
Jiang Cheng wonders, with some outrage, how long it actually took to fix the anchor point. Suddenly he doubts it was longer than ten minutes.
“Okay,” he says, abruptly hitting his real limit. He gets to his feet and hands Her Ladyship to Lan Wangji. “Okay, I’m leaving. Let me know if you get any more giant demon boars.”
“Eh, what, you’re heading out already?” Wei Wuxian says.
“I’ll send gifts for the kids,” he says, picking up his sword and walking to the door. “Ah, shit, I should say goodbye to them.” He goes back to Lan Wangji and pokes Her Ladyship’s fat little cheek. “You’re still the only person in this house I respect,” he tells her. He walks out through the kitchen to the backyard--Sizhui is attempting to teach basic sitting meditation to Ding-er and Xiao-Que, who are both squirming and flopping about on the ground. Siyuan, A-Chun, and A-Hao are weeding a generously sized kitchen garden; A-Hao is wearing Lan whites even for this, though no ribbon. The others (save Sizhui, also in Lan robes) are dressed in more sensible play clothes of bright colors, things that won’t suffer for being worn to stomp in mud puddles and climb trees and lay in the grass.
“I’m going,” he bellows at them.
“Okay, bye!” most of the kids say. Sizhui gives him a neat little bow from where he’s sitting, which Jiang Cheng returns begrudgingly.
Ding-er and A-Chun hurtle to him like tiny comets and glom onto his sides. “You’ll come back to see me again, right?” A-Chun says, beaming up at him.
He huffs. “Tell your baba to bring you to Lotus Pier.” He pauses and leans down, whispers into her ear, “If he doesn’t agree, tell him he’s a bad father and cry at him. I’ll give you enough money for a pound of candy if you do.”
“Deal,” she hisses back.
He claps her manfully on the back. “Ding-er, be gentle with the frog.”
“He’s my frog,” Ding-er says seriously. “Bye, shushu. I love you.”
He’s a grown man. He’s not going to be uncool about this. He’s not going to cry or anything. “Uh,” he says, and coughs to cover the crack in his voice. “Yeah, thanks, you too.”
He cringes as soon as he hears himself--it sounds awkward and insincere as fuck, but he doesn’t have a whole lot of practice saying stuff like that. Even jiejie hadn’t been one for all that words nonsense. If she wanted you to know she loved you, she’d just make a pot of soup and pet your hair and you’d just… know.
Jiang Cheng clears his throat again and pats Ding-er’s head. “Right,” he says. “Off I go.”
“Jiang Cheng!” Wei Wuxian cries, swinging himself around the doorframe, breathless. “Wait, hang on, um!”
Wei Wuxian grimaces. “Can you help us move the giant boar carcass really quick before you go?”
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. “Weren’t you talking a big game about making it walk itself to the river?”
“Well yes, but someone decapitated it with a whip and the head is too big for Lan Zhan to carry by himself. C’mon, it’ll only take a few minutes, the river isn’t so far away.”
He huffs. “Fine.”
Which is how he ends up flying by sword very slowly, side by side with Lan Wangji on Bichen a yard or two away, hauling the head up above the level of the trees with a glowing net of Wei Wuxian’s talisman bindings while, below them, the idiot himself plays ear-splitting noise on his dizi until the headless corpse of the demon boar hauls itself slowly to its feet. Wei Wuxian jumps up on its back, and then he’s riding on it to guide it through the woods just like he used to ride around on that obnoxious donkey, the whole time tootling away on skin-crawling harmonics until Jiang Cheng wants to throw his brother, flute and all, into the river.
He contents himself with dropping the head into the river from a great height, satisfied with the almighty splash and Wei Wuxian’s squawk of protest when he gets soaked. By the time Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji glide down and land on the banks of the river, Wei Wuxian has slid off the boar’s back and made it walk itself into the water. It’s already floating away downstream--a day or so and it’ll wash out to sea.
“Any more chores you need help with before I go?” Jiang Cheng says, not bothering to hide his sarcasm.
Wei Wuxian, wringing out his wet hair, opens his mouth, closes it, and looks at Lan Wangji. “Well. Uh. Actually. Maybe.” He coughs a bit, wipes the river water off his face with a sleeve. “Lan Zhan, do you want to…?”
“It was your idea, though!”
“He is Wei Ying’s brother. Wei Ying should ask.”
“Ugh. Ugh ugh ugh. Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian grumbles, stuffing the flute into his belt. Jiang Cheng squints at him suspiciously. “So,” he continues. “We were talking while we were fixing the anchor, and--and, you know, we haven’t picked a courtesy name for Her Ladyship yet.”
Seems like a bit of a non sequitur... “And?”
“And!” Wei Wuxian says, gesturing wildly. “It’s so hard to name kids, you know! And we’ve named six of them! We’re tired!”
The bottom drops out of Jiang Cheng’s stomach. Surely they aren’t… They can’t be asking him to…
“So, um, we were wondering--it was Lan Zhan’s idea, he had a lot of time to think when he was flying back from Caiyi last night--we were wondering if you. Might. Want. To pick a courtesy name for her.”
Jiang Cheng’s breath stops, his heart stutters in his chest, his mouth goes dry, his eyes burn. “Uh,” he says. “Right now, or…?”
“No, no,” Wei Wuxian says hurriedly. “Take some time if you need it. And just… write, I guess, when you’ve picked it out. If you want to. You don’t have to.” He laughs; it’s one of his fake ones. “If it’s too much trouble, just say so!”
He’s not going to cry in front of Lan Wangji of all people. He’s not. He clears his throat. “If you’re tired of naming kids, maybe you should stop adopting so many of them.”
“Ha,” Wei Wuxian says, smiling and smiling, and it is so fake that Jiang Cheng wants to slap it right off his face. He opens his mouth again, undoubtedly to say something infuriating that Jiang Cheng will have to sneer at.
“Fine,” he says quickly, before Wei Wuxian can speak. “I’ll do it.”
The big fake smile drops, replaced by a slower, smaller, much more real one.
Jiang Cheng looks away, swallowing hard. “I’m really going now,” he says roughly. He adds, as if careless, “Grandma Lu at the dumpling stand in Yunmeng invented a new kind of spicy bun.”
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says, rocking a little on his heels. He seems to be trying to repress his smile now, biting it back. “I bet they’re good.”
Jiang Cheng sniffs. “Not to my taste.”
“Oh shit, they must be delicious.”
“Travel safe, Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Wangji intones, and then he is stepping around them and down the forest path that Wei Wuxian’s giant demon boar corpse knocked clear.
Jiang Cheng can’t help rolling his eyes and sneering a little at Lan Wangji’s back, but he’s almost surprised when Wei Wuxian snorts, hiding a smile behind a couple fingers, and--
Suddenly all Jiang Cheng can remember is being fifteen at the Cloud Recesses, making faces at Lan Wangji’s back with his brother, increasingly grotesque every time until they lost their composure and laughed so hard they had to lean on each other to stay upright while Lan Wangji looked back over his shoulder and they had to snap to attention again, gripping their hilarity with white-knuckled hands until he turned away again, bubbles of laughter welling up and pressing so hard against the backs of their teeth that Jiang Cheng’s eyes had watered, sometimes, from the effort.
He meets Wei Wuxian’s eyes, shocked out of all pretense, and sees his brother--his brother, the father of his seven nieces and nephews--bright-eyed and glittering with mirth. For a moment, it’s like they’re fifteen again. For a moment, there’s nothing at all to grieve or begrudge. For a moment, just a heartbeat, he thinks of how it was once so easy to sling his arm around Wei Wuxian’s shoulders, muss up his hair, hug his neck.
Wei Wuxian gets his grin under control. “Travel safe. Come back and visit, if you want. Anytime.”
Jiang Cheng feels his face go hot, feels too much in his chest. They’re not ones for words. They never were. “Yeah, whatever,” he says sharply. A moment belated, he slowly reaches out and, very gently, punches Wei Wuxian in the arm.
Wei Wuxian’s smile, in response, is brighter than Jiang Cheng has seen in nearly two decades. He rubs his arm a little, more like he’s confirming that it really happened than rubbing away an ache, and gives Jiang Cheng a friendly punch in return.