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Children of the River

Chapter Text

After five years spent in seclusion, cultivating on his own and cut off from the outside world, taking that first step outside the Hanshi was like taking a breath after years of drowning.

He'd forgotten how much noise there was in the Cloud Recesses.

This was not to say that the disciples were being rowdy, not at all. The elders were not squabbling loudly, and the soft burble of the streams running merrily along wasn't noisy either. It was just … more than he had heard in a very long time.

Lan XiChen stood frozen on his own doorstep, letting all the strange sensations – had the wind always tugged at his robes in such a noticeable fashion? – and noises wash over him. By the time he felt like he wasn't going to jump at every little sound, he looked up and saw his brother standing hesitantly a few paces away.

"WangJi," he said, donning a smile to invite his brother closer. "I didn't see you there. Were you coming to visit me?"

WangJi didn't say anything, but XiChen read the way his brother's eyes flicked to his sandal-clad feet, which were barely touching grass, and back up.

You're outside. Brother, what are you doing outside? Is your seclusion over? Why didn't you warn me?

XiChen felt his smile turn a little wan.

"I'm sorry. I didn't quite know I was really going to go through with it either."

"Mm."

I understand, said his slow blink, like the lazy smile of a tiger. A good sign, but still there was hidden danger. He was happy for now, but it might turn to upset sooner rather than later.

XiChen took a deep breath and reinforced the expression on his face. Keeping up the cheerful smile was like armor. Having it felt like he had just one more layer of protection. It wouldn't fool WangJi, nor would it fool shu-fu, but he wore it less for other people's and more for his own comfort anyway.

"So, what brings you to the Hanshi?"

WangJi's eyes dropped to his hands, where he carried a bundle of scrolls.

"Are those for me?"

WangJi held them out, but then hesitated before XiChen could get a proper hold of them.

"Go inside."

"Didi?"

But his brother had already retrieved the scrolls and clamped them securely under his arm, looking at XiChen with a look that brooked no argument.

In unison, the both of them selected their usual places to sit and made themselves comfortable. XiChen tried not to show his own anxiety, however. What could be so important that WangJi would all but force him back into seclusion? He was wavering already – he didn't really want to change his decision to come out of seclusion now. If not now, he feared he might never do it.

"WangJi, what is going on?"

His brother carefully arranged the scrolls he had been carrying, sliding one close to XiChen. His manner indicated, however, that he shouldn't open it just yet.

"The discussion conference," WangJi said, finally.

"Yes? Did something happen? Is shu-fu alright?"

WangJi waved his hand. Shu-fu is fine.

"The conference. It's right now."

"I- … Oh, that's right. Shu-fu told me. What about it?"

"It's right now," WangJi repeated, almost imploringly, his eyes intent. "Here. In Gusu."

XiChen blinked.

"Oh."

As the words slowly sank in and the realization came, he felt heat blooming on his cheeks. Imagine! If he'd just walked out of the Hanshi proper, if he'd just barged into the discussion conference with all the major and the most influential minor sect leaders all present?

He cleared his throat.

"Thank you, WangJi, it would not have been appropriate for me to disrupt the conference with my appearance."

"Mm."

Don't worry, I will keep you company. You can still go out later.

XiChen breathed out forcefully, dispelling the brief panic and embarrassment he'd felt.

"Would you like some tea?"

~

Perhaps it was just because it was his second time leaving the Hanshi, but he almost dared to say it wasn't quite so overwhelming now. Was it perhaps a little quieter? The discussion conference was over for the day, the sect leaders each having already retreated back to the housing they had been allocated. It was shortly before sunset, and all the life in the Cloud Recesses was starting to prepare for the night.

The only one getting ready to come out and embark on something new was XiChen.

WangJi was silent and steadfast by his side, still. He'd asked him whether he shouldn’t perhaps report back to shu-fu or enjoy the company of his husband. Both questions were deflected by an imperceptibly raised eyebrow.

This is more important. Shu-fu and A-Ying will understand.

Now WangJi was a quiet shadow following after XiChen, who hesitantly picked a random path to walk along. He didn't quite want to see shu-fu just yet. He wanted to be out of seclusion, yes; he wanted to feel the wind on his face; he wanted to walk freely and hear the muted sounds of the Cloud Recesses during dusk. He didn't quite want to be Sect Leader Lan just yet. Let shu-fu handle it for a little bit longer, what was the harm in that? Just for the evening, at least.

The path he had haphazardly picked lead them downhill, closer to the heart of the Cloud Recesses, near where the Library Pavilion and the Orchid Room were. Despite this, they did not meet anyone on the way. Perhaps the servants and disciples were all busy cleaning up after the conference session. Either way, XiChen was glad for the little bit of privacy for now. He could enjoy being out and about without any of the burden that would usually come with it.

Just when he was about to turn around and tell WangJi that he would be fine on his own, he spotted a dark robed figure up ahead, leaning heavily against the railing of a bridge that arched gently over one of the many brooks. The sight of the figure swaying unsteadily gripped XiChen's heart, and without thinking, he hurried towards whoever it was, unheeding of the strangled noise coming from WangJi behind him.

He couldn't quite make out the details of this person's robes, but the dark fabric indicated they were not one of GusuLan sect's members. They had to be somebody visiting because of the discussion conference.

Before it registered what a bad idea it was, XiChen had already reached the person and gripped their elbow in a steadying fashion.

"Are you alright?" he asked, slowly taking note of more identifying features. It was difficult to make out in the diffuse, dusky light, but the robe's colors should be purple. YunmengJiang sect, then. Yes, there was the silver bell attached at the waist.

The person swayed a little before steading themselves with a firm hand on the bridge's railing.

"I'll be fine in a moment," they said, revealing their deep, smooth voice.

"WangJi," XiChen called out, "go and see if you can find somebody to- …"

Before he could finish his sentence, the man's head shot up, in a manner surely not conductive to his dizzy state.

"Wang- …?" he choked out, before stumbling predictably. XiChen merely tightened his grip and brought the man closer to himself, almost wedging him between his own body and the railing to keep him from fainting on the spot.

He opened his mouth to repeat his order for some water or tea to be brought, when the light finally fell on the man's face, cutting sharply over the bridge of a nose and the severe cut of a jaw.

"S-Sect Leader Jiang?"

The man- … Sect Leader Jiang's eyes finally flicked over to XiChen, blinking a few times, stupefied.

"Lan Xi- …? Sect Leader Lan?" He blinked again, more forcefully. "I'm hallucinating. What kind of medicine did that brat slip me if I'm seeing things …"

"No, it's me." XiChen winced. "I mean, Sect Leader Jiang, you are not hallucinating. I only just exited seclusion, and I was making my way around the Cloud Recesses when I happened to see you."

Sect Leader Jiang did not reply for a while, only continuing to blink at XiChen. He sighed.

"Here, Sect Leader Jiang, why don't we sit down on that bench over there. You look like you might keel over at any moment. WangJi, can you send for the kitchens to bring us some ginseng tea? That should- …"

"No!" Sect Leader Jiang interrupted, wide-eyed. "No ginseng tea. I have medicine back in my rooms, I will be fine."

As if drawing from some heretofore untapped well of strength, Sect Leader Jiang suddenly righted himself, coming to stand more or less steadily beside XiChen with a look of stubborn defiance on his face.

"I thank you," he continued. "Sect Leader Lan. But you should return. Or inform your uncle of the end of your period of seclusion. If anyone else were to see you, it might have consequences you are perhaps not yet ready for."

XiChen opened his mouth to protest, but even before he said anything, he knew Sect Leader Jiang was correct. It was foolish to frolic around the Cloud Recesses like this. He'd been lucky nobody had seen him, apart from Sect Leader Jiang.

But instead of a protest or a polite sentence of acquiescence, what escaped him was this: "I just wanted to walk around undisturbed for a moment."

Sect Leader Jiang, now standing firm and unwavering again, met his gaze with unreadable, unfathomable blue eyes. Then, miraculously, he nodded, and the perpetually downturned shape of his mouth softened a little.

"I see. Still, you should return. I will leave first."

He offered WangJi a nod and XiChen a shallow, perfunctory salute, which he returned dazedly. And then he was gone.

XiChen looked at his brother, who stood a little to the side, with tightly pressed together lips.

That could have gone better, he seemed to say. It could have gone worse too, though.

Silently, XiChen had to agree.

~

Lan QiRen was not impressed when XiChen approached him, walking freely outside the Hanshi. Sect leader or not, the first thing he did was to hit XiChen's fingers with a bamboo stick and condemn him to kneeling in the ancestral hall for two days.

"Don't repeat their mistakes," was all he said, turning around with a flick of his sleeves.

XiChen smiled through all of that, just a little annoyed that his shu-fu was unable to show affection in any other way. He quickly snuffed that feeling, reciting the sect rules that forbid thinking negative thoughts and harboring ill feelings for others. But he was truly happy too. If QiRen had actually been angry, he would not have let him off so lightly.

"Will you join me in kneeling before our parents' epitaphs, didi?" he asked jovially.

WangJi shook his head.

I miss A-Ying.

XiChen laughed.

"Go, brother, find your husband. I won't keep you from each other any longer."

So, XiChen found his way to the ancestral hall himself, still undisturbed, though this time he felt more than saw the curious looks from the periphery of his vision. He had garnered quite a lot of attention by the time he lit some incense and knelt before his parents' epitaphs, and though nobody approached him, he could feel the eyes on his back. The observers were too far away, but he could well imagine their whispering.

"Is that really Sect Leader Lan? He's no longer practicing closed-door cultivation?"

"It is him! I can't believe it."

"Why is he kneeling in the ancestral hall?"

"I bet laoshi has punished him for one thing or another already."

"How? He's the sect leader, he shouldn't be punished like that!"

XiChen took a deep breath, letting the familiar smell of incense cleanse his lungs and thoughts. It was right for shu-fu to punish him, because he was the elder and XiChen his nephew. Sect leader or no, he was a child of the clan of GusuLan, and it was always right to follow one's elders' words of guidance. He should have spoken to shu-fu about his decision to leave the Hanshi. Threatening his image, and that of his clan, running rampant like this, it had been a bit of mischief amidst his fear of re-entering the world of the living. He should not have sought reprieve in such chaotic measures. He should have trusted his shu-fu, their sect rules, and the knowledge that he had a responsibility to his family, to his people.

He bowed to his parents' epitaphs, calming his mind. It was not his place to judge the decisions that his father had made, staying in seclusion his entire life. But XiChen was not his father. His way could be different, and this was why he was here.

Yes. He was taking the matter of his destiny, and the future of his sect into his own hands again.

~

Sect Leader Jiang, Jiang WanYin,

Accompanying this letter is the official missive sent to all major sect leaders, informing all of my decision to leave secluded cultivation and take up once more the mantle of Sect Leader of GusuLan. However, seeing as we already had an impromptu meeting during your stay in the Cloud Recesses for the discussion conference months ago, I believe this comes as no surprise to you. Therefore, I send this letter along with said missive.

First of all, I would like to humbly inquire as to your health, hoping that this letter finds you well despite the condition I last encountered you in. If GusuLan or the knowledge stored in our vast library may be of any assistance, please do not hesitate to ask.

Secondly, for this issue I have decided to approach you first, for various reasons both obvious and not. These past months I have been trying to catch up to matters regarding the cultivation world, being near drowned underneath scrolls, books and piles of letters that are compiled in goodwill, but I fear do not adequately prepare me for anything at all. Therefore, I have decided that instead of reading secondhand accounts and outdated missives, it would be both more prudent and efficient to pay visit to the most important sects in order to catch up. I apologize profusely for the rudeness of inviting myself to your home. However, I would ask you to consider whether it might be convenient for you to receive me as your guest, so I may be appraised of Yunmeng's situation and see it with my own eyes.

I thank you for your kindness shown and advice given the last time we met, extending my most sincere gratitude. I hope to express it next time we speak, in person.

With deepest regards,

Sect Leader Lan, Lan XiChen

~

Sect Leader Lan,

Thank you for your letter, and for asking about my health. I am well. That time we met, I was just regaining my strength, but I have long since recuperated. My physicians are quite capable, and more than used to it by now.

Currently, Yunmeng is busy with preparations for the Mid-Autumn festival, as I am sure Gusu is as well. Perhaps it would be better to wait to pass by Lotus Pier until after. Spending this time with family is important.

Lotus Pier is honored to receive you at your convenience.

Regards,

Jiang WanYin

Chapter Text

Though shu-fu hadn't voiced his thoughts, XiChen could still hear the accusations ringing in his ear. Accusations about his comportment and behavior. His attitude and energy.

Shameful. Disrespectful. Without honor. Unsightly. Erratic. Impudent. Lawless.

He had written and sent his letter to YunmengJiang's Jiang WanYin himself, without consulting shu-fu first, and once he had received the other Sect Leader's response, Lan QiRen had all but forced XiChen back into seclusion.

"You have no idea what you have done," he scolded him, in a tone barely removed from a growl. "From now on you run everything through me. Even if you just want to order tea from the kitchens, everything you do must be approved by me first. And you will under no circumstances write to that man again. Clearly you don't know what you are doing."

It took every ounce of self-control XiChen could muster not to make a petulant reply along the veins of "naturally I don't know anything, since you have kept me in the dark this entire time". He couldn't be too direct in making his displeasure known. After all, shu-fu was still his elder, no matter what rank XiChen had. Plus, seclusion had been XiChen's own idea. And even though it left an uncomfortably churning sensation in his stomach, he dared not openly defy his uncle.

When XiChen requested to see Wei WuXian a few days later, shu-fu stared at him for a long time, as if trying to figure out what new type of harebrained scheme he'd come up with this time. But eventually he had to give in.

"Can I not spend an afternoon talking to my brother-in-law?" XiChen persuaded him gently, smiling over a cup of tea. "I see him rarely enough, what with him and WangJi always going off to night-hunt away from the Cloud Recesses. I wish to catch up with their adventures, that is all."

And then Wei WuXian arrived, as customary, with robes and hair askew and tangled, equally as restless and energetic as the storm brewing outside.

"Lan da-ge!" he exclaimed, throwing himself haphazardly on the ground, reasonably close to the table where XiChen had planned to serve tea. "To what do I owe the pleasure? I hope nothing too boring, brother, have mercy on me, we only just came back from the outside. At least give me a day or so to get accustomed to those many, many rules. On the other hand, it's you, and we never talk unless it's something boring or important."

XiChen smiled and held out a soothing hand to stop his brother-in-law's stream of consciousness.

"I don't think this will be too boring, nor is it very important. Brother, you know I am not knowledgeable about current events at this point. But you and WangJi are travelling a lot, so I thought it might be good to hear some firsthand accounts."

"Oh, if it's just that!"

Wei WuXian was a special type of talkative apparatus, like a burbling stream that never tired. All that XiChen had to do to keep him talking, was to provide him with ample fuel in the form of tea and snacks. And talk he did. He talked about some of the odd troubles he and WangJi had encountered during their adventures, the trivial sort of issues that the rural areas they visited had, the everyday problems of normal people that somehow became grand tales on his practiced orator's tongue.

It was very entertaining to listen to, XiChen had to admit, as he found himself engrossed in some strange, overly complex family drama surrounding a virgin bride, two piglets and a severed finger. This wasn't primarily why he had called Wei WuXian here, but he found that he was glad anyway. He used to resent Wei WuXian, for breaking WangJi's heart. Now he was just happy. For the both of them. And there were worse people to have for a brother-in-law than a slightly ostentatious blabbermouth.

"By the way," XiChen interrupted him, on the rare occasion that Wei WuXian paused to take a breath. "Did you pass through Yunmeng by any chance?"

Wei WuXian fell uncharacteristically still.

"Yunmeng? No. Why do you ask, brother Lan?"

"Oh, I just found it strange. The other day I wrote letters to the other sects, but shu-fu later scolded me for writing to YunmengJiang sect. Is there a reason why?"

When Wei WuXian's lips remained sealed and the younger man busied himself with pouring tea and fiddling with a few bites of food, XiChen was alarmed.

"I was very confused, I must admit," he continued calmly, drawing up the corners of his mouth and lowering his eyes in a bashful expression. "After all, I ran into Jiang WanYin a while ago, during the discussion conference."

This finally got him Wei WuXian's full attention. His brother-in-law stared at him with wide eyes, mouth hanging open.

"You saw him?"

"Yes? I had just come out of closed-door cultivation and I was taking a stroll when I happened upon him." XiChen paused, weighing his options, and then decided to go for it. "He did not look very well. I was concerned, so I wrote a letter."

Wei WuXian's mouth closed, his teeth clicking together audibly.

"Brother Wei," XiChen said. "It is not something serious, is it? But then, why would shu-fu keep me from asking? And he did reply, saying that he was fine now. He even invited me to Lotus Pier. Are there some other troubles that might worry shu-fu?"

"That …"

Clearly, Wei WuXian didn't know what to tell him, and that already signaled to XiChen that shu-fu must have even gotten to this gossipy windbag, threatening him to keep silent on this matter. How bothersome.

"It's, ah." Wei WuXian scrubbed his mouth, eyes flitting here and there, never landing on anything too long, and certainly never on XiChen. "Perhaps Old Man QiRen thought it was inappropriate to- … I assume you also wrote to LanlingJin and QingheNie? Well, maybe he considers it an insult to regard YunmengJiang with equal importance as these two. Just maybe."

"What? But they, along with GusuLan, are the Four Great Sects. Of course, they should be equal," XiChen said, bewildered.

Wei WuXian finally looked at him.

"It wasn't so long ago there were Five Great Sects, brother."

"You mean to say …? Surely you don't mean there are only Three Great Sects now? What happened to Lotus Pier?"

"No, no, not at all, Lotus Pier is fine. It's just … that it has been decided that YunmengJiang will no longer be considered a part of the Big Four."

"When was this decided? Who decided this? Not at the last discussion conference, I don't think?"

"I believe it was about a year after you had gone into closed-door cultivation, brother. And … it was unanimous. They replaced YunmengJiang with MeishanYu. Gave them the territories, most of the night-hunting rights and everything. Only Lotus Pier and Yunmeng city with the surrounding villages remain in the jurisdiction of Jiang clan."

XiChen was stunned. This was not what he had expected to hear. He didn't know what he'd expected, but certainly not this. It was as if someone had shown him a map of the world and he couldn't recognize it anymore. YunmengJiang, no longer one of the Four Great Sects? That was like saying water was no longer one of the five elements!

"What happened?" he asked, surprised at hearing how hoarse his voice was.

And then Wei WuXian broke, like a dam, and his words spilled forth.

"It's my fault! It was my idea all along! I didn't even mean for him to take it so to heart but then I should have known, it was always so important to him, I should have thought before talking to him about- … But then he did it and it worked, and we were so happy! You must believe me, none of us ever thought that people would be so opposed to it. And maybe it would have been fine, but then he did it again, and people started getting angry, saying that he'd lost his mind or maybe I had been corrupting him or something like that and- …"

"Wei Ying," XiChen cut in at the first opportunity he had since regaining his senses. "What are you talking about? What did he do?"

When Wei WuXian met his gaze this time, XiChen was shocked to see that there were unshed tears glistening in his eyes.

"It was right after you had gone into seclusion. After the whole thing with … you know … they made Jin Ling step up as Sect Leader of LanlingJin. Jiang Cheng, he basically lost it. Said Jin Ling was too young, that there was no way he'd allow that to happen. But Jin Ling insisted. And it threw everything into chaos, with this fragile new power balance, and Jiang Cheng was angry at Jin Ling and LanlingJin, and Jin Ling was struggling with LanlingJin himself, said he didn't need his uncle to meddle anymore, so he got annoyed at Jiang Cheng and cut off contact.

"In any case. There were always some people who thought that YunmengJiang wasn't a proper sect. That since there was no clan anymore- …" Wei WuXian paused, blinking rapidly. "They kept pressuring Jiang Cheng to marry and have heirs, or to step down and let someone else capable take over the sect. Someone who would propagate the bloodline to provide stability. But he wanted neither of those things. He didn't want- … Anyway, that's when I thought, I had been working on this idea. I thought it might help him. But it backfired. I mean it worked, it was just that it's something nobody has ever done before and it's just – people are scared of new things. I thought it might take them a while to get used to the idea, we'll just have to wait, but then it was too late, they had already replaced YunmengJiang with MeishanYu, and … that's it."

XiChen sat quietly breathing, sorting through his thoughts before he broke the silence.

"What exactly was it that backfired?" he asked, more calmly than he felt.

Everything about this afternoon had already been so strange, he barely even felt any surprise at seeing Wei WuXian blush and squirm.

"I don't like talking about it, he's my little brother!" he exclaimed, covering his cheeks with his hands. "He- … Um, well. He, uh, he had children."

XiChen blinked.

"Oh. Well. I mean. Alright. I- … I don't see why that would be an issue, though. Wasn't that what they wanted?"

This time he could clearly see the blush creeping along Wei WuXian's cheek, even down his throat.

"Yes, but … Brother, are you really going to make me say it? It would be so easier if you just knew, like everyone does. Gossip is so convenient, wouldn't you say?"

"Don't change the subject."

"Aah! Fine! Jiang Cheng got himself knocked up! There, I said it!"

XiChen choked.

"What …?"

"We just thought it would be so convenient! He didn't want to marry, didn't want to have to live with a wife who hated him just so he could get an heir and keep his sect, the sect he'd rebuilt from the ground up with his own sweat and tears. And I had already been thinking about, um, you know," Wei WuXian blushed again. "Obviously I meant it for. For me. And Lan Zhan. But, uh. I told Jiang Cheng about it, and he got this expression on his face, you know the one, where you don't want to say no to what he's saying, or he'll probably break your legs or something. So, I told him the technique and … it worked. I didn't ask him who- … I mean, he just kind of appeared one day, already pregnant, shouting at me and hitting me like usual, so clearly he was fine, and then a few months later he gave birth to a baby boy."

At this point, Wei WuXian's eyes suddenly turned glazed, and XiChen watched in fascination as his smile became almost groggy.

"You should have seen him with the newborn A-Chun, it was so cute. My little brother had a little baby nephew, and we were so happy, you know? It worked! He didn't need to worry about losing his sect again, because who could deny that A-Chun was his flesh and blood? He'd literally carried him in his stomach for almost an entire year, for everyone to see."

"But people weren't happy," XiChen supplemented quietly.

"No." The dopey smile dropped from Wei WuXian's face. "They weren't happy. They accused him of demonic cultivation, even though it has clearly nothing to do with that. It's creating life, not using death. It's yang, not yin. How anyone would even come to the conclusion that- … Anyway, Jiang Cheng didn't care about all that. He knew it wasn't demonic cultivation, so that was that for him. But then they kicked YunmengJiang out of the Big Four, and he was so angry. I think if it wasn't for A-Chun …" He cleared his throat. "In any case, he did it again, and then he had little A-Yong. Like he was saying fuck you to everyone."

XiChen winced at the wording, but let it slide for now. He supposed it was appropriate, after all. In a way. Sect Leader Jiang was not one to mince his words, and he had very likely said … that.

"I don't understand it either, to be honest," Wei WuXian continued. "You should see them, they are so adorable and beautiful and smart and so talented already, how can anyone dislike them? I love my nephews, and my little niece. That's why he looked so terrible, by the way. During the discussion conference. He'd just given birth to A-Min, my little baby niece. I told him he shouldn't come, that it was too dangerous, and since YunmengJiang wasn't one of the Big Four anymore anyways, fuck them, right? But he came anyway."

XiChen sat back with a deep sigh, gathering his thoughts. None of this was what he had been expecting when he invited Wei WuXian over to coax information about YunmengJiang from him. He'd thought, perhaps … He'd had the terrible fear that perhaps Sandu Shengshou was succumbing to qi deviation. His memory of Nie MingJue's last months and his knowledge of Jiang WanYin seemed to overlap in his mind, highlighting how similar they were in some ways. Known for their bursts of anger, quick to lash out, both of which were signs of fluctuations in qi. Or perhaps, he imagined, there was some stupid falling-out between GusuLan and YunmengJiang over some hunting grounds or something equally silly, yet it would be something shu-fu might stubbornly insist upon.

But this? It was unprecedented. He understood how quickly the cultivation world turned to fear when faced with unknown factors. He supposed that Wei WuXian understood that as well. How readily they had rounded on the Yiling Patriarch, attributing every evil in the world to him, only shortly after having hailed him a hero of the Sunshot Campaign. And it was unsurprising that GusuLan's elders would take a firm stance against anything new and untraditional and untested.

Children, though. How could they justify the demonization of children?

XiChen took a deep breath, centering his mind with the soothing process of making and pouring some tea.

"Thank you, brother, for telling me."

"Brother Lan, do you- …" Wei WuXian shifted uneasily. "I know you probably can't do anything about this, but surely, surely you don't agree with what has happened? I love my niece and nephews, they deserve everything in this world. And Jiang Cheng too."

"I can't say just yet." XiChen raised his hand, to stop Wei WuXian's protests. "Listen to me. I intend to go to Lotus Pier and speak to Sect Leader Jiang myself. Shu-fu can't stop me. After all, I don't know anything about all of this, do I? And he will not enlighten me any time soon, I wager."

His brother-in-law's eyes widened almost comically.

"You're going to fool Old Man QiRen?"

"Hm?" XiChen innocently sipped on his tea. "I don't know what you mean. Surely it is only right for me, as sect leader of GusuLan, to pay my respects to a fellow sect leader?"

This sent Wei WuXian into a fit of giggles. He rolled around on the floor like a little child, kicking his legs and holding his stomach as he laughed hard enough to bring him to tears.

"Oh, da-ge, Lan da-ge, you are more devious than I gave you credit for!" he snickered, out of breath. "You are not pure and proper at all, I have been blind. I like it!"

XiChen quietly watched as Wei WuXian descended into a second fit of laughter at his own words, tumbling around the Hanshi's rooms without proper control of his limbs. If he was grinning at the antics of his brother-in-law, well. Nobody was there to see it.

Chapter Text

XiChen stood, watching serenely out onto the waters of the lake, waiting for his attendants to finish loading the boats with heaps of gifts and unnecessary trinkets so they could begin making their way slowly, but dignified, to Yunmeng's Lotus Pier.

How boring. How unnecessarily difficult.

He had a flying sword, for heavens' sake. And who cared if his hair got a little tangled on the way there? He didn't need six coffers full of robes and sashes and shoes to bring along. He didn't need four servants to lift the hems of his robes so as to not dirty them in the mud. He didn't need or want any of it.

XiChen knew he was being willful. And petty. He felt a little bad for the servants probably panicking and scrambling to fulfil his wishes as well as satisfy shu-fu's orders. It was new that they expected him to let himself be pampered like this – it had started after he left seclusion, only getting worse over time, and he didn't like it one bit. His last exchange with shu-fu about this topic had come as close as members of Lan clan ever got to screaming at each other. Which was to say they mostly glowered silently. But he couldn't bring himself to back down, much less to give in, because it would mean he was admitting defeat and he couldn't do that.

He'd come out of closed-door cultivation to regain some freedom. To have some other way, other things to distract his mind from his grief and anxieties. This was not it.

Over the last few weeks, since the Mid-Autumn festival, XiChen had felt like he was sitting on a pile of coals. He wanted out of the Cloud Recesses. Shu-fu kept trying to smother him in work, and he usually loved dealing with major and minor troubles in their sect's area of influence. But now it had become a tool for shu-fu to try and tame XiChen. To humble and punish him, force him into submission, push him into a shape that the Lan clan elders would like better than one he currently had.

The only sliver of light on the horizon was a promise: Lotus Pier is honored to receive you at your convenience. He held onto the image in his mind, Lotus Pier, sprawling grandly along the riverbank, open and inviting. The river, sparkling and glinting like the heavens had opened to lay themselves at their feet. It was the only thing that got him through any of it. And now he couldn't wait any longer.

Perhaps it hadn't helped matters that WangJi and his husband had left the Cloud Recesses almost immediately after XiChen spoke with Wei WuXian. He'd hoped his brother might stay for a while, offering if nothing else at least the company of another soul that understood his struggles and supported him unconditionally. XiChen didn't begrudge them both their decision to leave though. He may still not have completely forgotten what WangJi's love for that man had done to his little brother, and the years of worrying XiChen had endured, but seeing how unwilling the vast majority of the Lan clan was to acknowledge Wei Ying's union with WangJi still, who could blame them for roaming about night-hunting most of the time? Nobody liked to voluntarily subject themselves to criticism and reproach for longer than necessary. It was a source of irritation he knew well these days.

Was it a good idea to flee to Lotus Pier in his state of mind? No. Clearly not. But there was a jittery sort of restlessness sitting in XiChen's chest that he could not disperse, and it was only getting worse.

Somewhere along the way of making preparations to visit Lotus Pier, fending off shu-fu's many protestations with his own claims of innocence, he had come to feel a little guilty. He didn't mean to use the situation with YunmengJiang as his own little project. Something to distract him from the yawning abyss he could sometimes feel hiding behind his ribcage. He truly cared, he thought, it was just convenient that trying to help YunmengJiang sect would also serve to take his mind off certain things at the same time. Surely it was fine, since it was mutually beneficial.

Finally, the boats were ready, and he was allowed to board. This was going to be a long journey, especially with nobody able to accompany him, aside from a handful of servants and maids. Initially, he had intended to bring Lan JingYi along, but then he and Lan SiZhui were called away to deal with a few rampant spirits. So now he sat alone in his seat, trying to draw as much enjoyment from the gentle breeze and the warm autumn sunshine as he could.

The maids flitting here and there around him were trying their hardest to ensure their sect leader's comfort. He felt a little helpless, being pampered so, but it was nice. At least they weren't scolding him. Instead, they washed his hands with scented water and praised how clean and neat his fingernails were, which made him laugh. Then they complimented his laughter, professing that there was no lovelier sound in all of Gusu. XiChen protested that, saying that at least music should be lovelier than his plain voice. To prove it, he played a few simple melodies on his xiao Liebing, smiling gracefully when they applauded him afterwards. They still said his laughter was prettier. It was very flattering.

As XiChen and his escort sailed along the river's meandering stream, languidly writhing to and fro like a great, lazy dragon, his conviction towards his plan began to falter a little. Who was he to offer help to a man he had barely known in depth even before his five years of closed-door cultivation? What if he was to arrive in Lotus Pier, only to be turned away, ridiculed for his lack of tact – no, reprimanded and found wanting, not to be considered an equal?

A shudder ran through him, betraying XiChen's tumultuous thoughts. Immediately, the maids hurried to massage his hands and laid a warm blanket across his lap. He barely noticed any of it, lost in thought. Jiang WanYin, Sandu Shengshou, was a man of pride and honor. He was very similar to da-g- … ChiFeng-Zun in that regard. Suddenly, XiChen couldn't help but imagine Nie MingJue's face, looking at him in disappointment.

And he would be disappointed in him, wouldn't he? For being so weak. For losing his grip on his own self. Using others to hide his own flaws. Claiming charity, when in truth he was the beggar.

Pull yourself together, XiChen.

No. He regained proper control of himself, gently soothing the frightened maids, who were clucking like startled pigeons. He couldn't let the dead speak to him. Not again. This was why he had left the Hanshi. To stop spinning in circles that led nowhere, only down, down into calamity.

After a while, his eyes were drawn outward, away from the confines of the boat he sat on. The river had broadened, its surface looking less turbulent. The appearance was deceptive, of course. Its waters were still strong enough to drown a man. But at the edges the currents slowed down enough to allow for vegetation now.

Lotus. They had reached the territory of Yunmeng. Or perhaps this was part of the lands YunmengJiang had to yield to MeishanYu. XiChen did not know.

Despite their speed, as they floated along the river's undulating path, he began to see more and more signs of human activity. Boats of fishermen dragging nets and baskets behind them, laden heavy with their catch. Women kneeling at the riverbank, washing clothes, drawing water for cooking or cleaning. Children bathing in the river, playing, their unbridled laughter even reaching XiChen, feeling so detached as he sat on a boat where he was surrounded by attendants. So much, no, everything about life here revolved around the river's waters and its yield, like a great, winding spine that held civilization together at a fragile seam, like spider silk.

The river kept broadening, sprawling and spilling over until the distinction between land and water was nearly erased. More and more patches of lotus started covering the surface, indicating a further decrease in the water's flowing speed and depth. And then the river opened up into a vast expanse of glittering reflections and an ocean of green. It was a bit late in the year, but there were still some lotus blooms left over, dotting the surface with lovely brightness.

They had reached Lotus Pier. The YunmengJiang sect's compound loomed above and behind Lotus Pier proper, the purple nine-petaled lotus banners waving gently in the wind.

It hit XiChen every time he saw this place that if he hadn't known, he wouldn't be able to tell that it had once been razed to the ground. Not even a single scar was visible. YunmengJiang stood strong and proud.

All of this was due to the relentless efforts of Sandu Shengshou. From the pain and the loss, he had rebuilt it all. Any other sect would have crumbled, after what Wen clan had done to them. It had taken GusuLan long enough to recover, even though most of their infrastructure had been left intact, and most of its disciples survived the attack. But to imagine coming back from utter annihilation? It was humbling to contemplate.

XiChen debarked in the middle of Lotus Pier, in between boats unloading fish and other produce of the river. He attracted a few interested looks from bystanders and other people getting in and out, but perhaps due to the proximity to YunmengJiang sect, nobody was too awed at seeing a cultivator, even one who was clearly not local.

As he looked around at the docks and the open marketplace, XiChen was hit with a strange sensation of wrongness. It took him a while to get his ears accustomed to the local dialect, which was less soft and lilting than the one he was used to back in Gusu. That was not what disoriented him, though. Shouldn't there be more people bustling about? Were there less stalls than what he remembered? It had been more than six years since he'd been to Lotus Pier, but instead of having grown and expanded it seemed to have … diminished? Not just in size, but also in terms of activity and transit.

It wasn't abandoned by any means. But it had an energy much more similar to Caiyi Town, rather than one of the most important trade posts via waterway.

And nobody from YunmengJiang was here to greet them.

"Hmph," muttered XiChen's butler. "The audacity. YunmengJiang really has fallen low, not even receiving our esteemed ZeWu-Jun upon his arrival."

"Ah, Xiao Han, I am sure it is merely a mix-up. Nothing to fret over. Let us just go to the compound and find somebody to alert Sect Leader Jiang of our presence."

His butler quickly bowed and scraped, hurrying to agree with him, praising his thoughtfulness and kindness.

However, there were no guards posted at the entrance to the YunmengJiang sect compound either. Flanked by his entourage, XiChen entered unhindered, even unnoticed. As he hesitantly walked towards what he knew from previous visits was the clan residences, he encountered nobody, not even servants running errands. From afar he could hear the noises of sword training, but otherwise it was quiet and peaceful.

He started to sweat a little, and not just from the surprisingly hot late autumn sun beaming down on him in his heavy GusuLan sect robes. He was trespassing on a foreign sect's ground. Their clan residences, even. If Jiang WanYin wanted to grab him by the scruff and kick him out, visiting dignitary or no, he would be more than justified.

"Perhaps we should wait here," XiChen decided, before they could intrude any further. "You, go in and find somebody to announce our presence to Sect Leader Jiang."

"Right away, Sect Leader."

An attendant bunched his robes and hurried forward, disappearing somewhere between the lofty, graceful structures. While they waited, two of his maids started fanning him lightly with a pair of exquisite cloud-motif paper fans. He did not really need it, but he thought it would be rude to make them stand here in silence without anything to do, so he let them.

After a short while, XiChen saw his attendant walking back towards them at a brisk pace, four remarkably tall women in purple robes behind him. The women marched at them in a straight line, almost like a defensive array.

"ZeWu-Jun," said one of the women, and the four of them bowed at the same time. "We apologize on behalf of our master for not receiving you sooner. There was a small mishap this morning, and we were not informed of your arrival."

XiChen smiled and waved his hand.

"There is no need for that, I understand. I hope everything is well?"

"Thank you for your concern, esteemed leader, the issue has been sorted. Please follow us, Sect Leader Jiang is waiting to receive you."

"Your attendants may follow me in the meantime, we have prepared rooms for your excellency," a different woman said, nodding at XiChen's butler.

Flanked by three strong women with swords hanging at their waists, XiChen was escorted through the Jiang clan residences. There were long, shadowed walkways in between sheltered courtyards and small gardens, little corners where flowers bloomed, and peaceful ponds that glinted in the sunlight. He had never seen this side of the YunmengJiang sect's compound before, having only visited the main banquet hall, the guest residences and one time the training grounds.

They walked through a gate, leading to a long, narrow boardwalk that bisected a sea of lotus plants, reaching far out onto the river. XiChen felt disoriented. He'd gotten so turned around that he hadn't even realized that they somehow ended up back at the riverbank. A closed off, private section of it that belonged to YunmengJiang sect alone.

The woman who had spoken before looked at XiChen over her shoulder.

"Don't fall in," she said brusquely, and then walked onto the causeway.

At the end of the path stood an ornamental pavilion, appearing as if to float on the water amidst the lotus. As if it were a flower itself. XiChen admired the craftsmanship of it before gladly stepping into its shade.

"Thank you, BianBian, you can go. Send someone with refreshments."

XiChen patiently waited as the women bowed deeply before leaving. It was only then he allowed himself to appraise the dark silhouette standing before him. He did look much better than back at the discussion conference. Less pale, and certainly more rooted. XiChen took note of Zidian resting dormant on its master's finger, and Sandu sheathed at the waist, next to Jiang clan's silver bell.

"Sect Leader Lan," said Sect Leader Jiang, offering a shallow salute. "I am surprised you came."

"Sect Leader Jiang," he replied genially after mirroring the gesture. "Naturally I came. You invited me, did you not?"

"Hmph."

Sect Leader Jiang stared at him for a few moments, the blue of his eyes washed out to grey by the shadows shrouding his face. XiChen patiently let him take stock of Shuoyue at his waist, Liebing tucked in at his belt right next to it.

"If you were anyone else than the venerable ZeWu-Jun," Sect Leader Jiang drawled, "I'd say that you've come here to gloat. Perhaps to taunt me. But then you are ZeWu-Jun. And it leaves me not knowing why you are here."

"But Sect Leader Jiang, is it not merely to reconnect to my peers and to all that I seem to have missed while I was in seclusion?"

XiChen kept up his smile as Sect Leader Jiang scrutinized him from head to toe once more. Ai, what a distrustful man.

"If that is all, you did not need to come here personally."

"I did though. Reading reports and letters and documents, I felt like I was missing everything. I have missed everything. Is it not better to speak to people directly if at all possible, rather than merely reading secondhand accounts?"

Sect Leader Jiang stayed silent. He crossed his arms, a deep frown on his face. It did not look very friendly, but XiChen knew enough about the man to know he was not truly angry. Or else Zidian would be sparking with spiritual lightning.

One of the purple robed women who had escorted XiChen to this pavilion entered, carrying a low table and a tea set, which she set down between him and Sect Leader Jiang.

"Thank you, LeiLei, that will be all." Then, with an impatient gesture at the ground, Sect Leader Jiang said: "Sit."

XiChen gracefully shook out his sleeves and the hem of his robes before kneeling on the ground, bemused.

"It seems there is a shortage of helping hands in YunmengJiang sect," he remarked innocently as he watched Sect Leader Jiang pour the tea himself.

"Hmph. You would know, having brought more maids with you on retainer than I have in total in my employ."

They regarded each other over the rim of their cups.

"And please," Sect Leader Jiang continued, pointing at XiChen's face, "stop that. It's freaking me out."

"Stop what?"

"I know you're not the guileless airhead everyone thinks you are. It won't work on me."

XiChen paused in the middle of bringing his cup of tea to his lips. His smile curled further upward, finally reaching his eyes.

"And here I thought you were a boorish blockhead."

"Hah! There you are!" Sect Leader Jiang threw his head back, and when he righted himself again, he fixed XiChen with an electric look. It almost tinged his eyes purple. "Welcome to Lotus Pier, Sect Leader Lan."

Chapter Text

XiChen remembered a time after the Sunshot Campaign, after the Siege on Burial Mounds. A time when he had yet been blissfully unaware of the dark undercurrents that would eventually lead to mistrust, betrayal and death. A time when he still had two sworn brothers, and though there were tensions between them – only between MingJue-xiong and YaoYao really … well, perhaps XiChen had been blind. The signs were there. But he ignored them, in favor of pretending that they were still three sworn brothers, caring for and supporting each other equally.

Either way, he remembered some martial arts conference, or something similar. There was so much inter-sect exchange and cooperation going on during this time, it was difficult telling them all apart in his mind sometimes. This one he remembered clearly, however, because he would never forget the friendly duel fought between Nie MingJue and Jiang WanYin that day.

It had started with some boastful claim that QingheNie sect's saber spirit technique was superior to the standard set of spiritual sword forms. Of course, there were many who cultivated with a standard sword technique, including XiChen himself. However, it was not GusuLan's specialty, which was the use of their spiritual instruments, and neither was it LanlingJin's, whose fighting style focused more on the use of spiritual weapons and tools. Therefore, Nie MingJue challenged Sect Leader Jiang to a duel, to determine whose technique was superior.

In XiChen's memory, Nie MingJue was always this blindingly dark golden, towering figure. He knew his booming laughter. The haughty smirk. He was someone to look up to, literally and figuratively. He had admired him so much back then, he only had eyes for his eldest sworn brother.

Until the duelists stepped onto the field.

If his memory served right, XiChen hadn't seen Sect Leader Jiang once since the Siege of Burial Mounds. This was the first time since then that he came face to face with the younger man. And he remembered that the first thing he thought upon seeing him was: he looks so small.

Of course, anyone would look small in stature when standing next to Nie MingJue. But this was something else. Something to do with the blank look on his pale, sunken face. Or perhaps the glassy emptiness of his eyes.

From some corner of the field came the unhappy sounds of a young child crying, and Sect Leader Jiang's face showed some unnamed, bitter-tasting expression for the first time since XiChen had started paying attention to him.

"ChiFeng-Zun. Let's make this quick. I have other things to attend to," he said gruffly, unsheathing Sandu.

"Hah!" barked Nie MingJue, raising his saber Baxia into his opening stance. "Does that mean you admit that my saber technique is far superior to your sword technique and it won't take long for me to beat you?"

XiChen gasped in surprise at the loud clang of steel clashing against steel. Like a purple thunderbolt, Jiang WanYin had dashed forward without warning. Nie MingJue was forced backwards half a step, but before he could react, amidst a burst of sparks, Jiang WanYin was already out of his reach again.

Naturally, he had realized that one could not win against Nie MingJue in a battle of pure strength. Any prolonged exchange would inevitably lead to the saber-wielding cultivator's victory. Therefore, betting on his swiftness was Jiang WanYin's only chance. Such as it was, however, Nie MingJue was also not slow, and his reach was better. As they exchanged a few such exploratory blows, the tension among spectators mounted.

They seemed to be evenly matched.

This stunned XiChen, who did not believe that any one technique was superior to another – but he had believed that Nie MingJue was superior to any other opponent. Whether in skill or ferocity, he had thought there was no opponent, living or dead, who could withstand Nie MingJue's Baxia. Seeing Jiang WanYin, far slighter in build and a significant amount of years younger than XiChen's sworn elder brother, holding his ground against the ruthless slashes of the spirit saber? He was not the only one surprised at this outcome.

The duel was not over yet, however. The tentative first phase – still more explosive than what XiChen had ever witnessed in a friendly duel – was over, and Nie MingJue started to lose his patience, deciding to go on the offensive.

And Jiang WanYin matched him, beat for beat.

This was taking far longer than what any of the spectators had anticipated, and XiChen could see the strain of keeping up their energy on both the duelists' faces. What had started as a silent exchange of carefully controlled strikes and blows had now turned so demanding that every parry and deflection was accompanied not only by the clang of the sword meeting the saber, but also their wielders' voices shouting and grunting in exertion. Both their faces were twisted into masks of rage, chests heaving violently as they danced across the field, bathed in sweat.

Suddenly, XiChen thought it was over. In a risky maneuver that might as well have lost him the match, Nie MingJue surged forward, into Jiang WanYin's attack – and struck him with his fist.

In a spray of blood, the young sect leader of YunmengJiang was catapulted halfway across the field, coming to land on the sandy ground in a crumpled heap.

The crowd was silent. Nobody dared to cheer yet.

Then, Jiang WanYin began to laugh. His unfettered cackling rose and rose in volume until he knelt on the ground, shaking with the force of his laughter. XiChen watched breathlessly as he stumbled back on his feet. Around him, he could hear the whispers rising, in equal contempt and awe.

"Sandu Shengshou is truly indomitable."

"He really is the Violet Madman."

"Pah. Brother-killer."

Nie MingJue himself had also fallen to his knees and was laboriously getting back up, a matching, near insane grin on his face.

"You have spunk, kid," he shouted, silencing everyone.

Jiang WanYin wobbled once and then spat a mouthful of blood onto the ground.

"I thought we were here to measure sword and saber techniques." He smiled, almost gently, showing off bloodied teeth. "But if it is like that …"

Then, amidst the gasps of the spectators, he threw away his sword, Sandu. Instead, his hand reached out, gripping empty air – until purple lighting curled forward, manifesting in the form of a whip crackling with spiritual power.

Zidian. The heirloom of the Jiang family.

Purple reflected in Nie MingJue's dark eyes as he watched apprehensively. XiChen saw the moment he realized he would likely only get one chance. Zidian was an extremely powerful spiritual weapon, especially so in the hands of its rightful master. But it was also a whip. Once he got it in the air, Jiang WanYin would keep him at a distance where his saber would be useless, ensuring victory for the younger warrior. He had to attack before Zidian could build up speed.

With clenched fists XiChen watched as Nie MingJue let out a bellow and started charging at the stationary Jiang WanYin in order to attack him at close quarters. Baxia drawn and at the ready, he came within striking range.

XiChen gasped, at the same time as he saw Nie MingJue come to the same conclusion. It was a trap.

Jiang WanYin lightly pushed off the ground and jumped into the air just as his opponent struck – but the saber only met empty air. This left him open and vulnerable from all sides. Especially from above.

It happened so fast that it seemed as if one moment the two opponents were suspended in the air, one mid-lunge, the other serenely poised to strike. And then in the next moment, after a loud crack and flash of light, Nie MingJue lay flat on the ground, Baxia struck from his grip. Jiang WanYin stood a few feet away, Zidian having retreated back into its dormant ring form.

The audience was shocked silent. The only sounds they could hear were the continued crying of a child, and the heaving gasps of the two duelists.

"It seems," Nie MingJue said, laboriously climbing to his feet, "that our techniques are equal."

"It seems so."

It was then that something happened that XiChen could to this day not quite believe having witnessed. ChiFeng-Zun stepped forward, limping a little, towards where Jiang WanYin was swaying weakly on his feet. And reached out to wipe away the blood from Jiang WanYin's bottom lip with his thumb. His hand stayed curled around his challenger's chin, all but supporting his entire body weight with his grip.

"You're a formidable opponent, little one. Almost my match."

Then, the young Sect Leader Jiang scoffed, slapping Nie MingJue's hand away.

"Almost, my ass. I won. Now, excuse me, I have better things to do."

A few minutes later, the child's crying stopped.

~

Sitting now under the cool shades of a pavilion overlooking Lotus Pier and the river surrounding the YunmengJiang compound, XiChen was quite content to sip his tea and wait for a cue from Sect Leader Jiang in order to continue their conversation. The other man did not seem very inclined to start speaking, however, so he settled more comfortably on the bamboo mat beneath him and directed his gaze outward, to the lotus plants floating peacefully in the water.

It was quite some time later when Sect Leader Jiang raised his voice.

"In your letter you mentioned there were various reasons why you decided to visit Lotus Pier first on your journey to rediscovering the cultivation world. I would like to know these reasons."

XiChen carefully set down his cup of tea, gathering his thoughts.

"Well, primarily it was because of our chance meeting that day. I see now that you are of impeccable health again, and this relieves me. I also wished to thank you for your advice. Just having left seclusion, perhaps I was not quite of sound mind, and you reminded me of things I had perhaps deliberately forgotten about."

"Yes, so you said in your letter."

"I must admit," XiChen continued, averting his eyes to avoid seeing Sect Leader Jiang's stony expression. "I am also quite cowardly, imposing my presence on you and your sect at this time. I will not make a secret of it; I am quite unhappy with the treatment I am currently receiving back in the Cloud Recesses. I wanted an excuse to leave, and not just to see some villages in Gusu, because it would mean I could return to the Cloud Recesses by evening. I wanted to leave for longer, to- …" He paused, rethinking. "And so, I decided I would like to visit the other sects. But I admit that I do not know if I can yet bear to visit Koi Tower and see the place where … it all happened. Or if I am able to face Nie HuaiSang at this time. I don't know if I am strong enough. So, of the Four Great Sects- …"

"Then no one has told you."

"No. And yes." XiChen tilted his head, considering. "I apologize for the deception. This must be insulting to you. I do know that apparently YunmengJiang is no longer considered one of the Four Great Sects, and I do know why. But I was not told officially, and so my uncle had to let me go, under the assumption that I was still ignorant of that fact. I'm sure he thought it would be deeply humiliating to the both of us if you had to explain everything to me, and I ask that you forgive me the presumption of coming anyway."

The silence that followed would have borne down upon him like the weight of a mountain, if not for the sweet fragrance of lotus in the air. XiChen closed his eyes, focusing on the quiet, the distant voices of Lotus Pier. It was a kind of muted silence that was very different from the Cloud Recesses.

"You know."

"Yes. I know."

"Who told you?"

"Wei WuXian."

Sect Leader Jiang snorted, and XiChen felt safe enough to look in his direction again.

"Meddling idiot," the other said under his breath.

"In his defense," said XiChen mildly, "I can be quite persuasive. And he is not the most … tight-lipped of people, which makes him an easy target to exploit when wishing to extract information."

"I think that's the most tactful I've ever heard someone refer to Wei Ying and his tendency to never, under any circumstances, shut his big, damn mouth."

XiChen pursed his lips. He knew that Sect Leader Jiang was trying to divert his attention and drive their conversation in a different direction. For a moment, he considered letting him.

"Sect Leader Jiang. Respectfully, I am not Lan QiRen. Whatever has been decided by him while I was in seclusion may not necessarily reflect my own opinions and judgements. This is certainly the case here. I do not agree with the resolution of letting MeishanYu take YunmengJiang's place among the Great Four. I especially do not agree with the reason why or how this was done."

He paused, a little for effect, but mostly to gauge Sect Leader Jiang's reaction. He should have known the man would stay stony-faced.

"Sect Leader Jiang," he repeated, gentler. "I would very much like to meet your children."

This did not get him the response he had expected. Jiang WanYin sat staring at him expressionlessly, until a long shadow fell over the both of them.

"QiaoQiao will escort you to your guest room now," he finally said, betraying no emotions at all.

XiChen sighed silently. Perhaps it was too much to ask for a smooth path to walk on for once. He calmly finished his cup of tea and then brushed a few imaginary wrinkles from his robes. Then, he tilted his chin upwards, meeting QiaoQiao's flinty gaze. She almost imperceptibly tightened her grip on the sword at her waist.

"There's no need for that. I'll come willingly." XiChen rose gracefully, nodding in the direction of Sect Leader Jiang. "Thank you for the tea. And the conversation."

Turning away, Sect Leader Jiang grumbled: "Someone will fetch you for dinner."

It was as good as a dismissal as he would get. And it bordered just so on the edge between rudeness and petulance that it amused XiChen rather than offending him.

"I look forward to it," he replied, bowing shallowly. He knew Sect Leader Jiang could see his shadow. Then, to QiaoQiao he said: "Lead on, then."

The tall woman stepped onto the causeway before him, clearly used to the shifting underground. XiChen had to extend his hands a little in order to keep his balance, as the wooden boards tilted this way and that beneath both their weights. Then, QiaoQiao led him back almost the same path as he had arrived here earlier.

As they walked, XiChen took closer note of the woman's appearance. She was clearly a cultivator who had chosen the martial path, like only few women did. It also seemed as if she was superbly talented, wearing her sword not only with pride and confidence, but also with the ease of someone proficient. Aside from the sword, at her belt also hung a silver bell and the coiled body of a chain whip. Her hair was braided tightly, adorned only with a simple jade pin. Her stride and body type also matched his conclusion that this woman was highly trained and dangerous. The purple robes did nothing to hide the width of her shoulders, and the muscles bunching on her arms and legs as she moved.

It made him wonder.

"If I may inquire," he called out to her, making her slow her steps a little to better accommodate conversation. "You seem to be of rather high cultivation, yet you are asked to walk me to my rooms. And earlier, one of your sisters brought us tea. Are there no other servants to do this kind of menial work?"

QiaoQiao laughed, a surprisingly lovely tone.

"Me and my sisters, we are the Spiders of Yunmeng. We do as our master commands. We guard the residences, mop the floors, go on night hunts, and walk our esteemed guests back to their rooms."

XiChen hummed, intrigued. Her answer still left him wondering why there were not more servants around to do the less important tasks such as cleaning. But though she appeared friendly, he was not sure whether she was likely to divulge more.

"It is rare to see female cultivators choose this path and follow it for long enough to reach your level of ability. Why did you?"

This time she did not reply as readily, scrutinizing him for a few, long moments. Though usually it would be considered quite rude to act like this towards a sect leader and senior cultivator, he let it slide. He sincerely wanted to know.

"Let me ask you a question first," she finally said. "Do you know why not many women take this path, or abandon it early?"

"Hm. I believe that to the majority of women it is less appealing to spend a lifetime hunting monsters, mostly living on the road, working hard for such little reward. It is too demanding, perhaps. Too violent."

She shook her head.

"That is not true. It is your perspective of it perhaps, but, respectfully, you are a man, ZeWu-Jun. Many women would love nothing more than to live as we do. But we are told that our role is to be gentle and soft-spoken. That it is our task to bear and raise children. And many of us do want that, too. You cannot have children and cultivate to a high level, however. Time, for one, is limited. And mostly it is the husbands who won't agree. This is why women sacrifice their cultivation, in order to fulfil their wishes and duties."

"So, then why did you not do that?" he asked. QiaoQiao studied him again. Perhaps she saw that he was sincere in his curiosity, and therefore chose to continue.

"Because I love our master," she said simply. "I believe in our master. I believe that serving him with my cultivation and martial arts is a duty greater than bearing and raising the children of a man who will likely not love me. I love our master because he understands that. He, too, did not wish to be a part of it. He did not wish to be such a man. A man who takes a wife just so she can give him children. He would rather have our sword arms, so we can protect our sect and the people within our jurisdiction.

"That is just my reason, though. All of us sisters, we have similar opinions. But our reasons for dedicating our lives to our master are varied. If you wish to know them, you should speak to my sisters."

XiChen nodded his head.

"Thank you for telling me your reasons. If I am given permission, I would very much like to speak to your sisters about this, too."

"Then ask them."

"I will. If I may ask, how many of you are there?"

"Eight, at the moment. There used to be more. Some left, some died, a few joined, as new disciples or defectors from other sects." She waved her hand. "We are all free. But the ones who do leave, usually they have no other choice. Most of us are happy where we are."

"Even serving tea and talking to foreign dignitaries?"

"Even then, yes," she said cheekily, throwing him a lopsided grin. "There are enough other duties to distract us from the ones we may not like as much. And not all of us do everything."

"Such as?"

"Some are less suited to go out on hunts, for example. Those are tasked with guarding the family instead. And," she added, almost as an afterthought, "our master tries to do everything himself, but there are just some things he can't do. For example, FeiFei is also currently our Young Mistress' nursemaid."

This was a particularly fascinating piece of information, seeing as it was the first direct mention of Sect Leader Jiang's children. XiChen tried not to let his interest show, merely humming in acknowledgement.

"Your dedication to your master is very admirable."

QiaoQiao came to a halt in front of a small courtyard, which he assumed led to his guest quarters.

"I like you," she said bluntly. "But if you make trouble for our master, or bother my sisters, be prepared to meet my sword."

"I will surely keep this in mind."

With a parting nod, XiChen entered the building before him, which actually consisted of a number of interconnected rooms and multipurpose halls that made up the guest house. Inside, he could see his attendants had already restructured things to XiChen's tastes and according to GusuLan custom. When they spotted him, his butler immediately came to relieve him of the outermost layer of his robes, and two servants offered him tea and a plate of fruit. He declined the former but accepted the latter gladly.

"I hope Sect Leader Jiang received our esteemed ZeWu-Jun properly this time?" his butler asked while he directed one of the maids to brush XiChen's hair.

"He was very polite," XiChen muttered, letting the maid pull him in this and that direction as she worked around his forehead ribbon.

"Hmph. At least the guest quarters are large enough. There don't seem to be many helping hands around though. And those women … Unsightly, they are."

"We shall not speak ill of our hosts, Xiao Han."

"Of course, ZeWu-Jun."

He sighed, plucking a piece of honeyed fruit from the platter absentmindedly. He knew that his butler was truly in shu-fu's employ, and surely prepared to give a detailed statement to the elders of Lan clan. Usually, he did not mind. There was very rarely anything to report after all. But here, finally out of the Cloud Recesses, away from the Hanshi, even this little bit of supervision felt like a vise clamping around his throat.

He waved away the maid, interrupting her efforts to smooth out his tresses. Not that there was much for her to do there anyway. Then he asked a servant to light a bit of incense.

"I will meditate now. Do not interrupt me, unless Sect Leader Jiang calls."

"Very well."

Then he put his hands on the ground, carefully straightening his back and shifting his weight until he was in a perfectly balanced handstand. He breathed in the scent of jasmine, letting his mind wander along the familiar steps of mediation like a pebble rolling down a hill dotted with blue gentians.

Chapter Text

XiChen was pleased to note that nothing had really changed about the banquet hall, one of the rooms of YunmengJiang sect's compound that he was most familiar with from previous visits. The Sect Leader's table at the head of the hall stood before a large banner bearing the purple nine-petaled lotus symbol, standing only slightly elevated in comparison to the other tables present. In this case, there was only one table on the left, reserved for clan members, and one on the right, for guests.

It was QiaoQiao again who had come to fetch him for dinner. She silently directed him to his table, only quietly informing him that it wouldn't be long.

"Thank you," he told her, and she vanished with a nod.

He truly did not have to wait long until he could hear voices coming from outside the hall. Quickly checking himself, he made sure his forehead ribbon did not sit crookedly, that his robes weren't wrinkled, and his posture was impeccable.

The doors slid open to reveal not Sect Leader Jiang, as he had expected, but rather a tiny little boy wearing purple robes and a serious frown on his round face. He walked towards the middle of the hall with the determination of a general marching to war. Then, he turned to face XiChen, offering a deep, impeccable bow.

"Greetings, Sect Leader Lan," he said in his sweet, young voice. "I am Jiang Chun, first-born son of Jiang WanYin."

"Hello, Young Master Jiang. It is a pleasure to meet you," he replied, feeling the power of his smile creeping into his voice. Immediately, the boy relaxed a little, and XiChen's cheeks strained as his smile grew into a proper grin.

He was very happy, for multiple reasons. He felt honored, for one, at being able to meet one of Sect Leader Jiang's children despite the man's clear reluctance earlier. And they were mostly unsupervised as well, even though he was fairly sure there must be dozens of ears trained at this room at this very moment. Mostly though, he was charmed by this young boy. It was clear he was nervous and trying very hard not to show it. This may very well be the first time he was asked to greet a foreign dignitary by himself like this. And he was doing well, holding steady even under such pressure.

A worthy heir of the Jiang clan. Jiang WanYin must be very proud.

The boy had just settled at his own table when the doors opened again. This time they admitted Sect Leader Jiang, flanked by two Spiders, followed by half a dozen servants. XiChen was about to get up in order to greet them, when Sect Leader Jiang gestured at him to remain seated.

"It's fine," he muttered dismissively, walking past to sit at his own table. "No need to insist upon protocol."

The servants then swarmed in, carrying various dishes, bowls and platters and hurrying to fill their cups with water. As soon as they were done and the fragrant smell of food teased their noses, Sect Leader Jiang told them to begin eating without hesitation.

This was not XiChen's first time tasting Yunmeng cuisine, though the bursting flavors always surprised him whenever he left Gusu and the Cloud Recesses after a prolonged stay at home. The dishes that Yunmeng was known for were not too spicy, even in comparison to what he was used to, but they were surprisingly sweet and thankfully not greasy at all. GusuLan's cooking was mostly vegetarian, with the addition of the occasional bits of fish, though XiChen himself enjoyed some meat whenever he went out. This was no different here, so he thoroughly relished the glazed and braised varieties of pork, and the multiple fish dishes that naturally featured heavily as well due to the river's abundance.

"Chun-er," Sect Leader Jiang broke the silence. "How were your studies today?"

The child visibly jumped, dropping his chopsticks that were bound together at one end with some cloth and a string to help with gripping them with his little hand.

"I- … My reading is getting better. I learned a few new characters today. And I can recite more scriptures now," he reported obediently, after recovering from the shock of being talked to. Jiang Chun's round cheeks reddened as he spoke, and his eyes kept flicking from his father to his left to XiChen directly opposite of him.

"That's very good, Chun-er. And did you have fun with your brother this afternoon on the boat?"

"Yes! We … we saw some fishes."

"Did you catch any?"

Jiang Chun shook his head, sending his short ponytail flying.

"BaiBai said we couldn't. That we didn't have a pa- … a pre- …"

"A permit," Sect Leader Jiang said gently.

"Yes! Per-mit. And she said that, um, we didn't have the proper things to catch fishes with. So if we tried to, we might hurt them. And it's bad to hurt animals."

"That it is indeed. Did you do anything else?"

"Hm." Jiang Chun's tongue poked out of his mouth a little as he picked up his chopsticks again. "Not much. A-Yong kept trying to splash me with water, but I didn't let him. He almost fell in at one point, but BaiBai got him in time."

"Don't bully your brother, Chun-er."

"I didn't bully him!" the child burst out, slapping the table with his palm. Then he seemed to realize what he had done, sending a scared glance first at his father and then at XiChen, who smiled a little to signal that he was fine. When no one scolded him, the boy continued, sullenly: "A-Yong was bullying me, not the other way around."

"Am I going to have to have words with your brother?"

"No." Jiang Chun poked at his food with his chopsticks. "It's alright. I can talk to him myself."

Father and son then lapsed back into a comfortable silence, only disrupted by the sounds of chopsticks against bowl rims, and the occasional discreet slurp or smacking of the lips.

"Laoshi, laoshi, I like your ribbon!"

XiChen looked up from a particularly tasty bit of food to see Jiang Chun looking at him, both hands pressed to his blushing cheeks. Before he could reply to the boy, however, Sect Leader Jiang already cut in.

"Chun-er! What did I tell you before? Our guest's sect has rules that forbid him from speaking during mealtime."

"I'm sorry, A-Die."

"No," XiChen said calmly. He met first Sect Leader Jiang's eyes with a smile and then looked at Jiang Chun, who had gotten even redder in shame. "It's quite alright, Young Master Jiang. After all, it is only your father, you and I here, yes? If you won't tell, then nobody needs to know I broke a few rules."

Then, he winked. Jiang Chun giggled, muffling the noise behind his hand.

"And thank you, I am quite proud of my ribbon."

"Is it the same kind of ribbon as Uncle JiJi's?"

"Uncle … JiJi?"

"Yes! He's my Uncle Wei's husband, and he has a forehead ribbon just like yours."

"Oh."

Stunned, XiChen checked Sect Leader Jiang's expression, but he was currently chewing, cheeks bulging with food. He did not pay them any attention. Either his full mouth was the reason he did not interject, or he did not mind their current topic after all.

"Do you mean Lan WangJi, who is your uncle Wei WuXian's husband?" XiChen asked carefully.

"Mm-hm!" Jiang Chun confirmed, nodding.

"Well then, that makes sense, because WangJi, your Uncle JiJi, is my little brother. He is from the same sect as me, and all of our members wear a forehead ribbon like mine."

At this, Jiang Chun's eyes widened almost comically, reminding XiChen of Wei WuXian all of a sudden.

"Really? Does that mean you are my uncle too? I will have to tell A-Yong!"

"Chun-er!"

Before XiChen could reply, Sect Leader Jiang's voice cut through the air like Zidian on a wrathful day. He was surprised there were no sparks flying from his finger. The boy's grin collapsed, and he shot a surprised look at his father. Sect Leader Jiang was frowning sternly. He had even set down his chopsticks.

"Chun-er," he repeated, more softly. "Sect Leader Lan is not your uncle. He is not related to us, neither by marriage nor by blood. Do not impose yourself on him. He is our guest."

Chastised, Jiang Chun deflated and morosely went back to stabbing his food with his chopsticks. XiChen, too, had to hide his disappointment. Even though Sect Leader Jiang's statement was technically correct, it seemed that he still was not considered truly welcome.

"Are you done eating already?" asked Sect Leader Jiang after observing his son for a few moments. "You have barely touched your food. We can ask BianBian to bring you a- …"

"No!" Jiang Chun cried. "I don't need- … I'm done. I'm not hungry anymore."

XiChen quietly noted that both he and Sect Leader Jiang had more or less cleared all their dishes, while Jiang Chun's were mostly full still. It was clear that he had been struggling with his chopsticks, despite the cloth and string meant to help him build enough strength to clamp and lift the food. XiChen wondered what Sect Leader Jiang was going to do. His son clearly felt humiliated by his lack of skill with the chopsticks despite his young age, refusing to use a different tool. Would he force him to use something else anyway, so he could eat, causing him to lose face? Or would he punish his willfulness by letting him go hungry for the night?

"Alright," Sect Leader Jiang sighed after a while. "If you say you're not hungry now, that's fine. But we'll have cook keep your leftovers. If you want them later, cook can warm them up for you again."

This seemed to surprise Jiang Chun as much as XiChen, who both turned to stare at Sect Leader Jiang.

"Go, go. Shoo, go play with your brother and sister, leave the adults to talk," he grumbled, waving his hand at Jiang Chun. As soon as he did so, the boy was out of his seat and halfway to the door like a shot. "Chun-er!"

The boy skidded to a halt, hastily sketching a bow in XiChen's direction.

"Good night, Sect Leader Lan. It was nice meeting you," he panted, and then bolted out of the banquet hall.

"No running!" Sect Leader Jiang shouted after him, but the boy was already out of earshot. With a groan, he rubbed his forehead. "I rue the day he learned to walk. Troublesome boy."

Chuckling, XiChen leaned back in order to let the servants clear the dishes more efficiently.

"I thought he did well."

Sect Leader Jiang only grunted in reply. He suddenly relaxed his posture, sitting cross-legged and sprawled over his table instead of sitting neatly on his haunches as before.

"I am going to drink some wine now," he announced. "I hope you'll forgive me the rudeness of not offering you any. We don't need another 'drunk Lan' incident."

XiChen raised an eyebrow.

"'Drunk Lan' incident?"

"Oh yes." He paused to thank the servant who came in with a clay jar to pour him some of the clear liquid. "We only made the mistake of giving Lan WangJi alcohol once. Never again."

XiChen pressed the tips of his fingers to his mouth to keep his laughter in.

"What happened exactly?"

Sect Leader Jiang knocked back an entire cup before answering: "I thought you were here to learn more about what you missed in the cultivation world while you were in seclusion, not to make me relive my most humiliating moments."

"Perhaps the two intersect somewhere."

"No." He refilled his cup. "Ask me something else."

Given an opportunity such as this one, XiChen was both excited and apprehensive. He did want to be able to ask Sect Leader Jiang freely and without restraint and get the kind of honest, straight-forward replies he expected to receive from him. But if he was going to drink himself into a stupor in the meantime …

"If you won't say anything, then let me ask you first. Why your interest in YunmengJiang? No. Why your interest in my family?"

Perhaps he should have known that alcohol would do nothing to blunt Sandu Shengshou's sharp tongue and wit, he thought wryly. He'd have to stay more alert in the future.

"I told you, I think, this afternoon," he said slowly. "I cannot quite bring myself to visit QingheNie or LanlingJin just yet."

"Mm. Then you should have sailed a little further west, to MeishanYu. After all, they are now the fourth of the Four Great Sects. Not YunmengJiang. And it does not explain why you asked to see my children."

XiChen shrugged, in what he hoped looked like an effortlessly careless gesture.

"I have never been to Meishan, and I don't rightly care to now. And I like children."

"Nonsense."

"Pardon me?"

Sect Leader Jiang snorted around a mouthful of wine.

"I don't doubt that you couldn't care less about MeishanYu. Neither do I doubt that you like children. You seem like the type. But that's not all." He swept his arm out, in a motion probably meant to encompass everything. "You could have sent someone else. You could have had someone write a detailed report. You could have asked me to write you a detailed report. You did not have to sail here, with your coffers full of knick-knacks and half an army of attendants, just to coo at my children. There is another reason, and I want you to tell me it."

XiChen bit his lip, suddenly feeling a burst of frustration that clawed at his throat, tearing at the pleasant, limpid expression he'd meticulously kept on his face this entire time.

"You are right. I could have sent someone else or read a report. But I already told you, it did not feel like enough. It did not make things feel real." He closed his eyes. "I could have read a report that summed up everything conveniently and neatly. But it would have meant nothing to me. I would have stared at those pages, feeling empty and blank as if I had been reading a weather report.

"I hated sitting in the Hanshi, alone, reading scrolls about the lives that people have led in the five years that I … sat in the Hanshi, alone. Doing nothing. I wanted to do something for once. I wanted to change something."

As soon as he opened his eyes again, only to meet Sect Leader Jiang's strangely intense blue eyes, he had to avert them again. He felt his heart pounding in his chest as if he'd been running from a horde of undead.

"Alright. Then I will rephrase my question: what is it you intend to change here?"

XiChen took a deep breath to calm himself. He imagined smelling his jasmine incense, imagined a pebble rolling down a hill full of blue gentians. Only once the pebble had reached the bottom of the hill did he meet Sect Leader Jiang's gaze.

"I came here in order to help you restore YunmengJiang to its rightful place among the Four Great Sects."

The following silence was thick enough to make XiChen wonder whether he should have trouble breathing. Sect Leader Jiang kept staring and staring, not moving a single muscle. It was almost impressive.

And then he broke out into ringing laughter.

"Ah, so that's it. I see now," he forced out between giggles, wheezing as he bent nearly in half. "The great ZeWu-Jun! Oh, this is so stupid. Has your brain gone to mush in the last five years? What are you going to do? Hah! What a charity case we must be, o great Sect Leader Lan, how blessed we are that you are here now to take care of everything."

XiChen felt the corners of his mouth dip down in displeasure. It tasted almost bitter on his tongue, leaving his teeth aching and his jaw tightening.

"You are not taking this seriously," he spat, smoothing out his robes and standing. "You're drunk, and I will not have this conversation like this. I won't let you mock me for genuinely caring."

Finally, Sect Leader Jiang seemed to calm down a little, merely out of breath. At least he was no longer shaking with laughter.

"Genuine? Caring? What did you think, you could swoop in like some sort of savior, changing the entire power axis of the cultivation sects and public opinion with a wave of your mighty hand? We don't need your help. And I certainly don't need to be indebted to you."

"I would not require anything in return, of course. That's what helping means. Is that truly your opinion of me, or do you not understand the concept of human kindness?"

He regretted his words as soon as they had left his mouth – but it was too late to take them back now.

Sect Leader Jiang leaned forward, still seated, pointing his finger at XiChen as if he was not forced to look up at him. As if he felt still like he was in power and comfortable where he was. Meanwhile, XiChen felt unmoored, like standing on shifting sand. It was a very strange feeling, especially paired with the intensity of Sect Leader Jiang's gaze.

"Everyone thinks you're so nice," he said between clenched teeth. "Lan XiChen the generous. ZeWu-Jun the noble. But nobody is like that. I had to learn the hard way that there is nothing given freely, and nobody helps anyone out of the good of their own heart. You just like other people to be beholden to you. You just like to feel superior to everyone else. I won't have it. I won't let you look down on me. If you can't accept me as your equal, then don't bother staying – I'm sure you know the way back to Gusu. Or perhaps you have attendants for that, too."

Every word hit XiChen like an arrow piercing through his skin, punching through his lungs until he could no longer breathe. He stood swaying in the middle of the banquet hall of YunmengJiang sect, feeling as if he'd been run through with a sword.

"You don't know me," he said. He couldn't recognize his voice – it sounded like the broken strings of a guqin, dissonant and hollow. "You don't know anything about me. How dare you."

Unable to bear hearing anything else, he shook his sleeves and left without looking back. His trek back to his guest house passed in a blur. When he barged inside, his servants jumped and scattered like a broken string of pearls, shying from him in fright. No one stopped him from going to his sleeping quarters and collapsing face first onto his bed, where he lay still, except for the rapid, uneven rising and falling of his chest.

It took him a very long time to fall asleep.

Chapter Text

Waking up the next day felt terrible. His eyes were crusted over and swollen, likely because he must have been crying in his sleep. He felt disgusting from head to toe, and it did not help that he hadn't taken off his robes last night. The only thing that was still right and proper on him was his forehead ribbon. For some reason this felt entirely wrong.

He shooed away the first maid to ask whether he wanted anything. From the second person to come knocking he requested a hot bath.

After scrubbing himself red with scented water until the hot water had turned tepid, he felt marginally better. At least he was confident that he no longer looked like a resentful, restless corpse freshly risen from the grave. Slipping on a new set of robes, lighter than the ones he had worn the day before, also improved his mood a little. Cinching the belt around his waist and tucking Liebing into it, at least he could call himself a cultivator again. He wouldn't quite go so far as to call himself worthy of being the sect leader of GusuLan yet, but he was getting there.

After asking for some breakfast, XiChen sat in his sleeping quarters and slowly sipped his tea. The hot, fragrant liquid served well in restoring his energy a little, as did the food. With that he had his body taken care of. But he knew that the real problem was, as always, his mind.

He was not in the mood for meditation. Perhaps a walk and some fresh air might help.

He waved away the servants asking whether they should accompany him. Then, picking at random, he turned left, letting his feet and chance carry him wherever. It was not long until he picked up the sounds he could immediately associate with a training field. However, it would be rude to intrude on a foreign sect's teachings and witness their practices and techniques without invitation, so he chose a path that would lead him in the opposite direction.

The next time he became aware of where he was, he regretted not having spent some time at the training grounds. At least then he would have young, impressionable disciples to take his mind off things, and if that was of no use, perhaps he could make use of their training dummies and hone his sword forms for a while. But no, he had to trample upon a garden that was clearly supposed to be restricted to clan members only, seeing as Sect Leader Jiang sat on a blanket in the grass, a baby on his knees and two boys running in circles around him.

The sound of their laughter halted XiChen in his steps as surely as a tiger trap. He should turn around. He should leave. He was intruding upon a happy family and their private time together.

He stayed, hiding behind a pillar like a thief.

You just like other people to be beholden to you.

Sect Leader Jiang's words from the previous night rang in his ears. He knew the reason they cut so deep was … that he'd had the very same thought before. It was one of his greatest fears to wake up one day, only to realize that he wasn't a good person. That he'd been wrong all this time.

It had been like that the day he found out what san-d- … what Jin GuangYao had done to their eldest sworn brother.

There had been a case, once. Before all of this, before the Wens became too obviously power hungry, before the Sunshot campaign. He'd been young, then. Even thinking of this time made him feel tired and old. How long ago it had been.

The case involved a strange series of murders, the source of which nobody seemed to be able to figure out. At first, a smaller cultivation sect had gotten involved, investigating the matter. But once the dead bodies kept piling up without any results, they had called for help from GusuLan. XiChen himself had not been part of the group sent to deal with this, though he later heard their firsthand accounts.

The bodies they found were mutilated beyond recognition. One by one, by process of elimination, they determined that it was not the work of a wild animal. Nor was it a spiritual beast or monster. It also did not seem to be any vengeful spirits or resentful corpses. They were stumped for a long time, and more and more people kept dying without a solution to prevent the murders. No talismans or arrays were effective, no spells and no potions.

Ultimately, it turned out that it was the wife of one of the farmers who had killed all these people. XiChen didn't remember how they caught her. He only remembered thinking at the time: how did her husband not know?

Well. Apparently, he was the husband. He had been clueless, professing time and time again that Jin GuangYao meant well, that he was innocent, that he didn't do it, that he should be trusted. He'd been blind. Naïve. Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

He'd felt so good about himself when he found a way to help Nie MingJue. That playing the Sound of Clarity, specifically the song Cleansing, helped to calm his temper, evened the flow of qi in his body, working towards stalling if not outright preventing the qi deviation that loomed inevitably in his future.

How foolish. He'd handed Jin GuangYao the best tool to murder their eldest sworn brother. Like handing a knife to a butcher. And he'd felt good about it.

You just like to feel superior to everyone else.

Jiang WanYin was right. XiChen was not a good person. What did he come here for? Only to soothe his own consciousness. Hadn't he admitted it to himself, that this was just a project to while away the time and an excuse to leave the Cloud Recesses? He thought he liked helping people, but in reality, he wasn’t helping anyone, he only liked how it made him feel.

Jiang WanYin was right, but instead of apologizing and leaving, here he was, spying on the man playing with his children. How pathetic.

Suddenly, he heard a popping noise.

Startled, XiChen looked up and leaned against the pillar he'd been hiding behind. He froze in surprise at the sight of Sect Leader Jiang, looking cross-eyed at the little girl sitting on his knees, with his cheeks blown out. Then, a chubby little hand struck, swift and sure.

Pop.

XiChen blinked. Did he- …? Yes, he was seeing correctly. The feared Sect Leader Jiang, Sandu Shengshou, was pulling faces and making noises at his baby daughter. He fought the urge to rub his eyes.

"Deeh!"

"Yes, that's right, I'm your A-Die. Say it again, Min-er, come on."

"Dyaa!"

Sect Leader Jiang broke into peals of laughter then, hugging his daughter to his chest as he tickled her and kissed her cheeks, making her giggle and squirm in delight. The sound of their happiness was so different from the mocking laughter Sect Leader Jiang had directed at XiChen before that he had to turn away in shame. This was not meant for him. He should not have witnessed this. The joy that bloomed in his heart at the beautiful sound withered, leaving behind nothing but acrimony.

He turned on his heel, hurrying back the way he came – unaware of the fact that he had been seen.

~

Family was a difficult concept for XiChen. Not because he had trouble understanding it. Such as it was, he knew it rather too well. Better than most, perhaps.

He knew that family did not mean what most people thought it meant. To him, family was duty and responsibility. It was shared blood, shared secrets, shared burdens, shared pain. It was a house on a hill, dotted with blue gentians. It was a young boy kneeling on that house's doorstep, even knowing that there was no one to open the door for him.

Family was a seal that could not be broken. Family was silence.

At least that was what family meant to him.

Of course, family was also WangJi. Holding a trembling, young boy in his own, weak arms, struggling to encompass the fragile warmth he was holding with his feeble strength. Wishing to protect him from all harm while knowing he was doomed to fail. The joy of seeing the glint of his smile in his eyes, even after everything. WangJi. Oh, he missed his didi. He missed the time they were both smaller and the world seemed bigger, but at least he was WangJi's big brother. At least he still thought he could shelter him, bear the brunt of the burden so it fell less heavy on his little brother.

What a fool he had been. What a fool of an older brother. What a fool of a son. What a fool of a nephew.

He lay motionlessly in bed, barely cognizant of how late or early it was. When he blinked, he saw the happy, proud smile of a father, his cheerful daughter in his arms. He didn't understand why. His next breath felt constricted, and he absentmindedly rubbed at his sternum.

A knock.

"ZeWu-Jun? Sect Leader Jiang is here to see you."

He opened his mouth to- … to send the maid away? He didn't rightly know what kind of answer he was going to give. Not that it mattered. His voice did not seem to obey his command.

"Sect Leader Lan? Master?"

After a while he heard soft steps retreating from his door.

"He, um. ZeWu-Jun is currently not available," he heard the same maid's voice, muffled and far away, but he could still hear her clearly.

"Really? What's so important he can't see me right now? Is he ignoring me?" came Sect Leader Jiang's voice, louder and sharper than the poor girl's. XiChen imagined her trembling and cowering before the great Sandu Shengshou.

"I would not presume to know, Your Excellency."

"Hmph. Nothing important then. Step aside."

"Sect Leader Jiang!"

A moment later the entire doorframe shook with the force of repeated knocking.

"Sect Leader Lan? Open the door." A pause. "It's me."

For some reason, XiChen thought this sounded very funny and couldn't help but chuckle. It gave him enough energy to sit up on the bed and get up to open the door himself.

"Finally. I came here to apol- … Heavens, are you alright?"

Sect Leader Jiang's initial scowl was swept off his face by a shocked expression. With wide eyes he stepped forward, only halting when he realized he was about to cross the threshold into XiChen's bedroom. His hands hovered inches away from XiChen's robes.

"I'm fine," XiChen said mildly. "You wished to speak? Let us step into the parlor."

The two of them then sat in silence, waiting for the servants to bring some tea. XiChen absentmindedly rubbed his arms, feeling strangely cold. Or perhaps it was just discomfort from Sect Leader Jiang's nearly unblinking stare. Finally, the tea arrived, and XiChen took reprieve in sipping the hot liquid.

"What is it you wished to talk about?" he broke the silence.

"Mm. As I tried to say earlier, I came … to apologize." Sect Leader Jiang hesitated, and finally his eyes shifted away. It did not lessen the chilled feeling in XiChen's bones, however. "What I said last night, I did not mean it. I was angry. And I tend to say things I don't mean when I'm angry. Which is often. I intended to perhaps shake you a little, but I see now that I uprooted you instead."

"No. There is nothing to apologize for, Sect Leader Jiang. You were right."

To his surprise, Sect Leader Jiang shook his head rather vehemently.

"No, it was you who was right. I do not know you. I should not have presumed to know you, or your motives. The only thing I stand by is that we do not need your help."

"Alright."

Sect Leader Jiang stared again.

"Just like that?"

"Of course. What did you think, that I was going to force you?" XiChen laughed, but it sounded strange in his ears. "I will find someone else to provide me with the validation that I crave."

Sect Leader Jiang's face twisted into a strange sort of grimace.

"I'm sorry. I should not have said these things, I truly did not mean them. Please do not take them to heart."

"How could I not, when I have been asking myself the exact same things for the last five years?"

Perhaps he was being a little too honest. Perhaps this was a mistake. But for some reason he could not bring himself to care right then, feeling the words spill forth out of his control.

"Ever since I was a boy, I was held to such a high standard that sometimes I forgot that I was just a person too. I was to be pure and elegant and kind and nice and obedient. I was to be smart and strong and talented and erudite. I was to inspire trust and confidence and comfort. But it's all a lie isn't it? I'm none of these things. What I am is stupid and naïve and gullible. I'm ignorant and selfish and self-centered and arrogant. I have learned nothing from all these things that have happened to me, nothing at all, except how to hide the fact that I am not the person people believe I am. I'm not even the person I thought I was."

"Good heavens, how can you say these things about yourself?"

XiChen flinched, suddenly noticing that Sect Leader Jiang no longer sat opposite of him on the other side of the parlor. He had a strong, warm hand clamped around XiChen's elbow, and his blue eyes bored into his with an intensity that bordered on madness.

"It's true," he said, despite their sudden closeness, forcing himself to remain unfaltering.

"No. No, it's not true. I may not know you well enough to criticize you, but I know this: you are kind, and you are nice; and you are skilled and strong. Unless you wish to tell me that all those accomplishments during night-hunts and competitions weren't achieved by you, but by some impostor? That you weren't the first to come to the aid of those in need?" He finally let him go, leaning back a little. "Maybe you are a little too trusting sometimes. But that doesn't make you a bad person. In fact, I'd say it makes you a better person than anyone else I know. You believe in the good inside people. Please don't let my careless words dishearten you."

He didn't know what to say to that. He felt a little angry, that Sect Leader Jiang had missed the point – that he'd been right, that nothing he could say would make him change his mind, that what he'd said was nothing he hadn't told himself before. But he was touched, too. Did he really think he hurt XiChen? Oh no, he had long since hurt himself, and far better than Sect Leader Jiang ever could.

"Come, let me show you something."

Suddenly, XiChen felt himself being pulled to his feet. His legs did not heed his command, though, and he nearly dragged Sect Leader Jiang back onto the floor with his own body weight.

"I'm afraid I'm not quite feeling well enough to go out at the moment," he whispered, hiding his embarrassed face behind his sleeve.

"That's fine. Give me a few minutes, I'll be back."

Stupefied, XiChen could only nod and watch Sect Leader Jiang leave with long strides, robes fluttering in his wake. As soon as he was gone, XiChen released a sigh, and with it most of the tension holding his body upright. He knew his current posture would likely cause shu-fu to have a fit, but he was just not strong enough to maintain a straight back with the air of dignity and elegance trained into him from a young age.

Doing anything at all, even sitting seemed to exert him far too much lately. Or not lately. Wasn't it that his strength seemed to have drained from him in the days after … after he had killed Jin GuangYao? Wasn't this why he had gone into seclusion?

"We mustn't let others know," XiChen had said, ignoring the pained expression on shu-fu's face.

But he thought he was better now. He hadn't had such dizzy spells in a long while. It was what had given him the confidence to stop cultivating behind closed doors only. He had felt hunger again, hunger for the outside, for going on night-hunts and doing work. So, then why …?

His thoughts were interrupted abruptly, by a warm presence by his side, and the sudden weight of a squirming bundle in his arms.

"Ada?"

"No, Min-er," Sect Leader Jiang chuckled. "That's not your A-Die. Look closer."

XiChen blinked, holding his breath. There was a child sitting on his lap. His arms had instinctively curled around her, his palm pressed gently against the small of her back – nearly engulfing her entire body, to be honest. She was so small.

"Hello," he croaked.

"Oh no. I forgot to wash her hands."

XiChen looked at the tiny fingerprints staining the front of his formerly pristine, white robes orange. Then, he smiled, his chest blooming with warmth.

"It's fine. It reminds me of when SiZhui was small. He used to always have ink on his fingers, no matter how often WangJi wiped them for him, and no matter how far away we placed the inkpot."

Jiang Min burbled, her voice trilling as if imitating an imagined reply to what he had said.

"Yes, that is correct. He was a lot bigger than you, though, when he came to us. He could already walk and talk."

"I think all children are like that, somehow," Sect Leader Jiang said. He had pulled a cloth from seemingly nowhere and leaned forward to rub Jiang Min's hands free of whatever had stained her little fingers orange. Food, most likely. "I remember Jin Ling wasn't much for paw prints everywhere, but he'd always have something smeared around his mouth. It drove me insane, always worrying he'd swallowed something poisonous."

Distracted by Jiang Min's chubby hands escaping Sect Leader Jiang's clean-up efforts, XiChen merely hummed in response. He'd forgotten how warm babies were. And how good they smelled. He ran a careful finger through the downy hair on the little girl's head, where it stuck in every which direction. She had two little pink ribbons affixed on top, likely in an effort to tame the wispy strands, but it was in vain.

"You're such a wiggly worm today," Sect Leader Jiang muttered, clicking his tongue. "Hold still for a second."

Jiang Min, of course, did not understand her father's command. Therefore, she likely felt licensed to do the exact opposite of holding still, instead fidgeting and reaching desperately up. When this got her grasping hands captured by cloth, removing the stains on them, she let her displeasure known with a loud wail.

"Careful, she's trying to get your hair," Sect Leader Jiang muttered – but it was already too late. Jiang Min's crying was cut off, thanks to the long strand of hair she had put in her mouth.

"Oh. Oh no. Don't eat that."

Panicking internally, XiChen tried to shift himself and the baby in his arms so he could tug the lock from her grasp, but it seemed to be an exercise in futility. Not only was he too scared to let go of her – lest she fall, and he be responsible for injuring Jiang Min right in front of her father – but she also had a grip that was surprisingly strong.

He was saved by a stuffed fish toy dangled in front of Jiang Min's face. She was distracted enough by the toy that she opened her mouth, and a deft hand plucked XiChen's hair away.

"That's the trick with children," said Sect Leader Jiang, simultaneously moving the fish in and out of his daughter's reach to entertain her and carefully brushing all of XiChen's stray hair behind his shoulders. "They have such short attention spans, anything will distract them."

XiChen hummed in what he hoped was an assenting kind of tone – in reality, he was far too overwhelmed by having essentially a stranger, who was by no means his servant, rearrange his hair. A few times Sect Leader Jiang's hands came close to brushing against XiChen's neck or his jaw, and he shuddered at trying to imagine how warm and calloused they might be.

How long had it been since anyone who was not his servants or his closest family touched him?

"Da-da!"

The stuffed fish toy was wrangled from Sect Leader Jiang's hold and raised as high above Jiang Min's head as she could manage, which was not very high. Still, she made direct eye contact with XiChen, showing him her gummy little smile, and very likely offering the toy up to him.

"Is that for me?" he asked. "Hmm, thank you, Young Mistress."

Her hands now devoid of the fish toy, Jiang Min toppled forward, all but smashing her face against XiChen's chest. Within a few moments, she had managed to somehow get a fistful of his robes and have them stuffed in her mouth. Things were surely going to stain; this set of robes may very well be ruined. But XiChen sat quietly with a baby held in his arms, a stuffed fish in one hand, and he couldn't care less.

"I think," Sect Leader Jiang broke the silence again, "that perhaps you should stay."

"I thought you did not need my help," XiChen retorted.

"We don't. But maybe. You should consider whether you might need ours."

XiChen met Sect Leader Jiang's gaze, trying to find any indication that this was some sort of jest. A practical joke. But no. His expression was entirely serious – and it was not as if XiChen knew Sandu Shengshou to be a very funny person, despite what his adopted brother was like. Therefore, this could only mean that … he was completely sincere.

"Look," he continued. "All I am saying is that you tried closed-door cultivation and cutting yourself off from everything and everyone. And I don't think I'm wrong when I say that it didn't work. Now you're trying to connect again, but it's also not working."

"You think staying in Lotus Pier will solve that?"

"Maybe not." He shrugged. "But you came here for a reason, whether it was out of misguided pity or something else. Might as well stay and try to find out what that reason is."

"It's not that easy. I am still a sect leader."

"I'm not asking you to move in and join my sect," Sect Leader Jiang said, rolling his eyes. Suddenly, XiChen thought he resembled his adopted brother very much after all. "Just stay for a while. Hug some babies. Banish some ghosts with the Spiders. I don't care."

XiChen weighed his options. Weighed the baby in his arms, really. She was still soaking his outer robes with her drool, perfectly content and safe. Then, he said: "Alright. I'll stay."

Chapter Text

XiChen loved the Cloud Recesses. Not just because they were his home. Not just because it was the place where he was born, where he grew up, where he studied and trained to become the man, the cultivator, the sect leader he was today. The Cloud Recesses were a beautiful place. They were a peaceful place. Though atop a mountain, the climate was quite mild, the air was always fresh and crisp, and when the fog lifted to reveal the houses and pavilions scattered across the hillsides many had likened the vision to what they imagined entering the heavens must be like.

Usually, the air in the Cloud Recesses smelled like rain. It was as strange smell, unlike damp or the smell of a river or a lake. More elusive and dreamlike, somehow. And most of the time there were the faint echoes of instruments fading in and out of the fog. The drip-drop of guqin strings. The faint beckoning of an erhu. The sweet lull of a xiao, the trill of a dizi. It was an atmosphere that invited thinking. The mind almost begged to enter meditation. It was very conductive to cultivation, hence the fact that many sent their young generations to study in the Cloud Recesses for a while. To temper the fires of youth into potential.

XiChen loved the Cloud Recesses. But sometimes he had the urge to just leave it all behind and not return for a very long time.

The silence could become stifling, especially when the voices inside his head were louder than anything else around. The cool air could become biting, sinking sharp teeth into too thin skin, burrowing inside like a poison that had no antidote.

Or maybe it was XiChen's fault, somehow. After all, he couldn't count the number of people who requested entry to the Cloud Recesses for healing, both physical and spiritual. All of them left, eventually, cured or relieved of whatever it had been that ailed them.

Was there something wrong with him? Was he broken in a way that did not allow him to find a source of strength and comfort in his own home?

It must be so. Or else, why would he find this carefully balanced point inside him, not sitting on a meadow surrounded by his brother's rabbits, not in the hushed quiet of the Library Pavilion – but sitting on a boat, being sculled upstream of one of Yunmeng river's tributaries?

They weren't even here for leisure. Yet his mind had slipped into stillness and peace. A pond, undisturbed, reflecting the moonlight.

"ZeWu-Jun? We should stay alert."

Like some great beast buried underwater, XiChen turned his head with great difficulty. QiaoQiao, who was propelling the boat he was on, gave him a concerned look, even as she swayed left and right in what seemed an extremely practiced movement, keeping them moving evenly forward.

"Apologies," XiChen whispered. "My thoughts were occupied."

"Yeah. Better occupy them with listening for ghouls, or we all might die."

It had surprised XiChen, how seriously they were taking this outing. Usually, as the sect leader, he was barely kept informed about regular walking corpses these days. They let their junior disciples take care of them, either alone or under the supervision of a senior, depending on the expected threat level. But when a few villagers came to the YunmengJiang sect compound to report that their fishing boats had been attacked by an unknown though most likely low number of ghouls, all of a sudden it seemed as if all the disciples currently stationed at Lotus Pier appeared before their sect leader to await his orders.

Sect Leader Jiang selected four of his Spiders to accompany him, along with five disciples. Two seniors, and three juniors. And, he asked whether XiChen wished to come along as well.

"Sure, I would love to join you," he'd said. After all, he came here to do things. Things that, perhaps, he would not usually do.

They moved out like an army prepared for battle, Sect Leader Jiang as their general. As they made their way through Lotus Pier, to the half a dozen boats moored at the easternmost side of the docks, the crowds hushed and parted for the procession of cultivators marching in rows of two. XiChen, following behind them, heard the susurrations. A name repeated again and again in awe.

"Sandu Shengshou."

Did they truly fear him so? Of course, XiChen was aware of Sect Leader Jiang's reputation. It had been worse, just after the Siege of Burial Mounds. The first one, that is. Of course, people had already begun to question his temper and general friendliness during the Sunshot Campaign. Mostly, he had been overshadowed, however, by Wei WuXian and Nie MingJue in terms of 'people to be avoided'. And there had been a universal understanding regarding Jiang WanYin due to his personal losses. A lot of his behavior was excused as merely being the outbursts of a grieving boy made to carry the burdens of a man far too early and abruptly.

After Burial Mounds, however, different kinds of rumors began to spread. They called him brother-killer, regardless of the fact that everyone agreed that "Yiling laozu needed to be put down", as if he were a rabid dog. There was even some sort of honor in that he had not shied from the task despite it being his shixiong, his – adopted – brother.

Then, it was said that people started to disappear, only to end up either dead, disfigured or traumatized in Yunmeng. The few who survived told tales of interrogation and the power of Zidian lashing out.

The brother-killer became a madman.

"It's not surprising," some would mumble under their breaths. "Considering what's happened to the boy."

Back then, XiChen had watched on in vague worry, thoroughly distracted by other issues. He remembered thinking that perhaps, in some strange sense of cosmic balance, the fact that ultimately the young Jin Lin was given to his uncle to raise had been Jiang WanYin's saving grace. Though the only reason for his deep grief was the loss of his sister, on top of all the losses he had borne, it was only thanks to receiving custody of his infant nephew that saved him from succumbing to darkness.

XiChen himself had mostly been concerned with the threat of Nie MingJue's qi deviation back then, only sparing the troubles of YunmengJiang half a thought – and even then, only because it also concerned Jin GuangYao, by virtue of him being Jin Ling's uncle also. Hadn't he even assisted Jin GuangYao for a while in trying to obtain custody of Jin Ling?

Heavens, perhaps it was good that they hadn't succeeded.

"Shh! Did you hear that?"

XiChen was torn from his tumultuous thoughts by the hushed voice of a YunmengJiang disciple, crouched in the boat next to him. He struggled to attune his senses to their environment – the gentle lapping of the waves against the sides of their boats, the creaking of wood, the occasional splash from one of their oars.

"Damn, SuYang, don't scare me like this."

"I swear I heard something scrape against the bottom of our boat though."

"That was probably just a lotus stem or something."

"Stay alert!"

"Yes," the disciples replied in unison, snapping back to attention at their sect leader's order.

XiChen, too, was affected by Sect Leader Jiang's quiet but sharp voice. He put his hand on the hilt of Shuoyue, leaning forward slightly to be able to react quicker in case of an attack. Reaching out a little with his spiritual energy, he brushed against the presences of the disciples around him and that of QiaoQiao behind him, rowing their boat. In his mind, their auras bloomed purple, curling like the currents against his own blue mist. When he reached further, intending to feel for resentful energy, he skimmed something else, something- …

"Stop that."

Embarrassed, XiChen withdrew his energy, meeting Sect Leader's Jiangs unimpressed glare with a wince.

"Apologies."

A grunt.

"It's not unwelcome, just unnecessary. And distracting."

It was only then that XiChen understood what it was he had accidentally bumped against with his spiritual feeler. It had not been, as he had initially thought, Sect Leader Jiang's spiritual energy – or it was, but not his direct personal aura.

Leaning a little to the side and ignoring QiaoQiao's quiet curse as she had to compensate for the shift of gravity he watched in fascination as tendrils of purple spiritual energy … combed through the river. Like a fishing net dragging behind them.

"They like to get underneath," Sect Leader Jiang said quietly in explanation. "Remember the waterborne abyss?"

"Ah."

He remembered, indeed. He remembered Wei WuXian splashing WangJi with water and then upending the boat he'd stood on alongside the ghouls that had clung to the bottom of it. He'd been very impressed at the time.

In retrospect, it was far less impressive – and far flashier – than this. XiChen had to force himself to remain silent, despite his burning curiosity. He'd never seen anything like this. Was this an array? A talisman spell, tied to their boats? Something that only YunmengJiang disciples were taught, perhaps even something exclusive to their sect? Had it been handed down for generations, or was it maybe an invention of the current sect leader?

Before he could ruminate any further, he suddenly felt a jolting push sending the boat he sat on swaying. Despite QiaoQiao's expert rowing, it still fell in misalignment with the others, catching everyone's attention.

"Unsheathe your swords," Sect Leader Jiang said calmly. "They're coming from behind. At my signal."

XiChen pulled Shuoyue from its scabbard, tense. He was not part of their sect formation – he didn't know their particular commands and positions. Therefore, he intended to hang back for now, lest he get in the way. Still, he had to be alert and ready for anything.

The boats floated in the water for a few moments, still carried by their momentum, even after the rowers had stopped to pull their own weapons. It was as if the river was holding its breath.

"Now!"

A dozen swords lit up with spiritual energy, following their masters' commands. At the same time, the shriveled, skeletal hands of ghouls broke through the water surface. Either they had been provoked into action by the cultivators or Sect Leader Jiang had perfectly anticipated them.

At once, the swords formed a protective circle array around their boats, preventing the ghouls from trying to capsize their vessels.

"Out!"

Humming with spiritual energy, the array expanded in a flash, until only a thin ring of purple remained, far out on the water. XiChen could barely see its glimmer anymore.

"And back!"

Before the ghouls could take advantage of the protective barrier not being between them and their prey anymore, the swords shifted again. Like a noose, the circle collapsed gradually, with their boats at its center, restricting the ghouls' movements. They were trapped now, the water churning with their desperate movement.

"Suppress!"

At the command, the disciples released the restricting noose array, instead channeling their spiritual energy into targeting individual ghouls, suppressing their resentful energy until it was purged. XiChen joined their effort, capturing and banishing four at once. Some of the disciples, XiChen saw, struggled a little with their selected objectives, but before he could hurry to assist them, there was a flash of purple.

Striking quickly and precisely, Zidian lashed out, weakening the ghouls resisting the most and allowing the disciples to suppress them and negate the resentful energy that had transformed them into what they were. They repeated this process a few times, each time thinning the herd, until at last there were no ghouls left.

"That was fun," QiaoQiao said next to him, chest heaving in exertion. She did not look tired though, instead she was grinning with pure exhilaration.

"Yeah, but there shouldn't be that many ghouls," supplied one of her sisters. XiChen did not know her name.

"It's suspicious," added another Spider, one whose face was half hidden behind her own hair. "We're so close to the border of MeishanYu territory. Shouldn't their watchtowers have alerted them to this growing infestation? Instead, one of our villages got attacked."

"It's useless to speculate. We've cleansed them, now let's go home. I'm hungry."

XiChen sheathed Shuoyue and sat down, letting QiaoQiao burn up the rest of her battle energy by rowing them back to Lotus Pier. On the way back, he thought about the Spiders' comments. Was MeishanYu neglecting their territorial borders? Were they perhaps understaffed? They had only relatively recently ascended to the status of one of the Four Great Sects, which brought privileges but also a significant increase in responsibilities with it. Perhaps they had not been able to recruit as many disciples as were necessary, or they were not fully trained and capable of taking care of threats such as these ghouls yet.

Or perhaps it was something more malicious. XiChen had to swallow down the fear and anxiety rising up in him like bile at the thought. It reminded him far too much of the early days of their conflict with QishanWen. They all knew how that turned out.

Was this why Sect Leader Jiang had reminded him of the waterborne abyss they had fought together? It, too, had been forced into GusuLan territory, rather than being dealt with where it originated in QishanWen sect's jurisdiction. Or perhaps he had meant nothing by it.

Letting his thoughts circle thus, their journey back to Lotus Pier did not take long. At the dock, they were met by a small gaggle of disciples, and two of the Yunmeng Spiders. One of them held Jiang Min in her arms, and between them stood two young boys dressed in purple. Recognizing the taller of the two to be Jiang Chun, XiChen inferred that the other one had to be Jiang Yong, his younger brother.

"A-Die, A-Die!" they shouted, jumping excitedly up and down. As soon as the boats touched ground, they escaped their minders, boarding the vessel that carried their father.

"Greetings to Sect Leader Jiang," chorused the disciples.

Ignoring them, and in turn being mostly ignored by everyone around him, Sect Leader Jiang laughed freely, hoisting the boys up onto a hip each. He let out an exaggerated groan, swaying this way and that.

"How much did the both of you eat? You've gotten so heavy that I can barely lift you!"

XiChen stole a glance at father and sons out of the corner of his eye while disembarking. It did not look like he was struggling with their weight at all, but it was something that he had seen many parents remark on with their children. Perhaps to imply that they had grown, reaching further into adolescence and later adulthood with every day. The boys did not complain at all, rather looking quite proud of their father's observation.

"I had two big servings today!" said Jiang Yong, reaching around his father's head with both his little arms. It was barely enough to encompass the circumference of Sect Leader Jiang's neck, but he seemed to happily bury his hands in his father's hair instead, making it come a little loose from the usual tight bun it was bound in.

"I had more than A-Yong though!"

"Not true."

"Yes, it is."

"Liar."

"Shut up, I'm older than you."

"No quarreling, my little ducklings, or I will have to revoke your right to eat sweets tonight."

Immediately, the boys united in their protesting before eventually settling comfortably against their father's shoulders. They were content there, letting themselves be carried back docilely to the compound, where their band dispersed. XiChen hovered for a few moments longer, until he realized that nobody was going to really notice whether he stayed or left now. Somehow, this disappointed him, and so he made his way back to his guest house in a rather somber mood despite their earlier success against the water ghouls.

Chapter Text

"It really is true, then. This is the secret to the Lan clan's superior arm strength?"

XiChen opened his eyes, mentally adjusting to everything being upside down as he was currently in a handstand position while meditating. It took him a little longer to recognize the face of the woman peering at him curiously. When he finally did, he smoothly bent his legs and spine, coming to stand right side up.

"QiaoQiao," he greeted his visitor, smiling as he straightened his hair and robes. "What brings you to my rooms?"

"Nothing urgent. But me and my sisters are having a little gathering in one of the gardens, and I thought to ask you whether you wished to join. If I remember correctly, you had some questions."

Immediately, XiChen brightened.

"How kind of you, I would like nothing more than to speak to you and your sisters more extensively."

"Wonderful. Come, I'll show you the way."

Thankfully, XiChen had dismissed most of his retainer already since he had been planning on meditating for the rest of the afternoon, and they weren't accosted on the way out. Otherwise, XiChen's butler might have a fit, seeing him accompany an unfamiliar younger woman without a chaperone – to meet even more women, no less. XiChen felt a peculiar sense of glee at the thought. Was this why the juniors liked breaking rules so much? It did feel rather good. A proper distance between males and females must be maintained at all times. Hah. Take that, rule number sixty-two.

He sidled up to QiaoQiao, smiling brightly.

"I hope to make a good impression on your sisters," he said. "Sadly, I was not able to be better acquainted with those who accompanied us on the night-hunt the other day."

"BianBian was impressed," offered Qiao Qiao. "I don't know about TaoTao or YinYin, but I heard praise that you did not interrupt our array with your own heroics. Humility and patience are regarded highly in a man."

"As they should be."

QiaoQiao looked at him for a moment, before tilting her head a little.

"Come, I'll introduce you to everyone."

They had reached a spacious courtyard overarched by the boughs of a beautiful plum tree. By its roots, a congregation of six women sat in a loose circle, chatting and laughing amiably. The atmosphere was lively and carefree. XiChen involuntarily took in a deep and soothing breath, feeling as if his meridians had opened up all on their own. Spiritual energy pooled here, perhaps naturally so.

"It's a beautiful place," he said quietly.

Immediately, the conversation died down, and all eyes came to rest on him. Their looks were not cold, but they were not especially welcoming either. Expectant, perhaps? It felt like getting the attention of a flock of ravens. Then, they all except one got up on their feet.

"Greetings to Sect Leader Lan," they chorused, bowing deeply in respect as they cupped their hands.

"Thank you, I am honored to formally make your acquaintance," he replied, nodding politely. "I hope I am not intruding."

"Of course not. Come, sit with us. And apologies for not rising to greet you," said the woman who had remained seated in the grass. XiChen's gaze fell to her lap, where a child perhaps one year of age sat, contently eating some sweets. Below where the child sat, he could see the woman's legs ended in stumps.

"Thank you." XiChen smiled, approaching the group as they settled on the ground again, this time in a slightly larger circle to accommodate the two newcomers. "May I know your names?"

The woman with the child in her lap began: "I am called FeiFei, and this is my daughter A-Xia."

Next spoke a woman with a rather prominent scar across her neck that climbed up her jaw and cheek, brushing barely past one coal-dark eye: "I am TaoTao, our master's first guard."

"My name is BianBian, our master's second guard," spoke the woman next to her.

XiChen nodded at her. He had seen her before, when she had escorted him to Sect Leader Jiang on his first day here. She had also served them tea, if he was not mistaken. It was difficult to tell, but she looked to be the tallest of them all.

"I am called RongRong, and I am responsible for enforcing abidance to our sect rules," said perhaps the slimmest and daintiest of the bunch, peering at XiChen through a curtain of her long, sleek hair as if trying to assess his soul. She, and the broad-shouldered woman who introduced herself next were there to accompany them on their night-hunt, he remembered.

"I am YinYin, tasked primarily with teaching our disciples in the martial arts."

The last woman to speak did not speak at all – she gestured at herself and then struck the knuckles of her right hand into the palm of her left twice.

"Her name is LeiLei," said QiaoQiao next to XiChen. When the woman continued to gesture, she said: "She is our runner, or messenger between Lotus Pier and our various watchtowers in Yunmeng."

"Does that not leave us short one?" XiChen asked. "I thought you said there were eight currently in your order."

"There are," answered TaoTao in her sister's stead. "There is also BaiBai, the primary caretaker of the Young Master and Second Young Master. Both are currently busy with their studies elsewhere."

"Ah, thank you for the clarification." He smiled and smoothed out his sleeves. "Please, continue your earlier conversation, I did not intend to interrupt."

XiChen settled himself comfortably with his legs crossed, letting his gaze wander as the women pick up their discussion again, haltingly and hesitatingly at first, but it didn't take long until they were back in full swing. Talking about … the night-hunt XiChen had attended? Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but he felt strangely glad that they had chosen a topic he might even be able to contribute to.

"This isn't the first time it's happened," BianBian was saying grimly in response to YinYin, who had concluded her short retelling of what had happened.

"Such a large gathering of them, you mean. Yes. But this one was even larger than the one we took care of this summer. And that one we spotted thanks to our own watchtower. This time, villagers were hurt."

"I don't like this," said RongRong with a glance at XiChen, translating LeiLei's hand signs clearly for his benefit only.

"It's just ghouls, though," contradicted YinYin, gesturing as if to mollify her sisters. "We have never had a problem suppressing ghouls, we're strong enough to deal with them. Even our most junior disciples behaved commendably under the circumstances."

"That's not what I'm worried about," BianBian growled.

"Yes. Where are they coming from? The corpses, I mean. There hasn't been a storm that might have sunk a ship recently. There aren't any violent conflicts in Yunmeng. We didn't hear anything about disturbed graves. So where did they originate from?"

BianBian scowled, but it was her sister TaoTao who grimly said: "There was a landslide at Tianbing mountain last month."

Everyone fell silent, looking meaningfully at each other.

"Pardon me, I am not familiar with Tianbing mountain. Where is it located?" XiChen spoke up.

"It is situated in the new MeishanYu territory, near our borders" QiaoQiao answered gravely.

"Oh."

"That isn't conclusive evidence though."

"Sure. But the village that was attacked is in the direction of Tianbing mountain, which coincidentally also is the source of the tributary in which we found and fought these ghouls."

"The seniors have gathered the corpses," said YinYin, "and they will ask villagers on the tributary if they can identify them. If not, we will expand our search. But for now, we can't say for sure."

"Looks pretty clear to me."

"I agree."

"Well, what can we do? Even if MeishanYu has neglected to properly investigate the landslide and whether it resulted in the emergence of resentful water corpses, our hands are bound."

They continued to argue back and forth in the same vein for a while. XiChen listened with half an ear, but in his mind, he remembered all the other times he had heard people arguing similar issues. It was not unusual for sects that shared territorial borders to get in conflict about such things every now and again. Who was responsible for taking care of threats that originated in one sect's jurisdiction, but caused trouble in another's? Could one sect be blamed for not noticing that spirits, walking corpses or other threats had emerged if it was at their borders? Should there be compensation? Was it done intentionally? As sect leader, it had often been his responsibility to hash out these things for the minor sects that operated within Gusu and ultimately owed allegiance to GusuLan. 'Daughter sects', if one will.

It was a completely different topic, however, if these conflicts existed between two sects of higher rank, such as YunmengJiang and MeishanYu. Both these sects were 'mother sects' rather than 'daughter sects', neither owing allegiance to anyone, especially not the respective other.

Making matters even more difficult, there was a complicated history between YunmengJiang and MeishanYu that XiChen never really understood or even known the origin of. There had been some tensions of rivalry even before either XiChen or the current Sect Leader Jiang had been born, harking back to their grandparents' and great-grandparents' generation or perhaps even longer. This had then eventually resulted in Sect Leader Jiang FengMian's marriage to MeishanYu's Third Lady, Yu ZiYuan, Sect Leader Jiang WanYin's mother. The Violet Spider. Previous wielder of Zidian.

And now MeishanYu had taken YunmengJiang's position as the fourth of the Four Great Sects in the ranking. Clearly, tensions persisted. But whether it was only on the side of YunmengJiang – perhaps feeling slighted for the loss of power – or whether MeishanYu had taken a position of slighting and belittling their old rival, XiChen did not know.

"They harbored our Lady YanLi during the Sunshot Campaign," a sudden, loud voice cut in, interrupting XiChen's train of thought. RongRong had spoken up, glaring hotly at her sisters. "And our master would not appreciate our slandering of his mother's house of birth. Until we know more, perhaps we should refrain from pointing accusing fingers at our neighbors. Ties of friendship are equally as important as ties of blood, remember? And we have both with MeishanYu."

This cowed everyone, except perhaps BianBian, who remained scowling unhappily at the ground between her knees.

"Wouldn't you agree, Sect Leader Lan?"

He startled, meeting RongRong's partially covered gaze.

"That friends are equally as valuable as family?" He pondered it for a moment. "I suppose it depends. Some hold great resentment to family members, feeling that they cannot escape such a deep connection even if they wish to distance themselves. Some trust only family members, saying that even if there is affection between friends, it can never measure up to the deep-seated loyalty that blood provides. In either case, both are important."

"And which is the case for you?"

XiChen opened his mouth, intending to say that he loved his family and friends equally. But he started thinking about his complicated relationship with his shu-fu. About his mother, who had lived in seclusion, dying when he was but a child. About his father, whom he had rarely talked to, who he rarely thought of, unless it was to contemplate the pain of his parents' distance and sudden deaths. He thought of his closest friends – both of them dead as well, one murdered by his very own hand. And he didn't know what to say.

"It's difficult," he finally responded, unsure what he sounded like. Perhaps he imagined it, but he thought that RongRong's sharp gaze softened a little.

"We all understand how complicated people can be," she said. "We prefer each other's company, and the safety of our sect to strangers and blood relations. For good reasons, too."

"Except my daughter," piped up FeiFei, who had been silent this entire time.

The sisters all talked over each other, praising A-Xia and how she was an exception, such a beautiful and lovely and obedient child. It was true. She hadn't disrupted the discussion at all so far, it was almost eerie how quiet and content she was. Or perhaps XiChen had just not been paying proper attention to FeiFei and her young child.

"The only one I know I will always love and trust, is my brother, WangJi," XiChen continued, after the sisters had quieted again. "I would do anything for him."

"That is how we feel about our sisters here," said QiaoQiao.

"Then you are all very lucky indeed, to have found each other."

The women nodded, murmuring their assent. There was a strength in their bearing then, a kind of pride and love for each other. XiChen knew, then, that their bond was true. Truer than most familial bonds, and certainly firmer than what mere friendship merited. They truly were sisters. Sisters by choice, no less.

"How is it that an order such as this one exists?" XiChen asked. "The Spiders of Yunmeng. What is the reasoning behind recruiting women to cultivate the martial path? Why does this order inspire such loyalty?"

"I spoke to our master about this once," offered YinYin. "Our name is to honor our master's respect for the late Madame Yu. He wished to commemorate her prowess in battle and her strength in cultivation, so he invited specifically girls and women to become disciples."

"Why separate them from the other disciples, then?"

"Because we aren't just normal disciples." This time it was TaoTao who had spoken up. "Some of us, we were already taught in other sects and shunned for various reasons. Others came to cultivation late in our lives. We were found. Saved, in some cases. Our lives were given new purpose, after experiencing numerous hardships."

"I was a beggar on the street. An orphan, I grew up without education or any chances of learning a trade or marrying into a good family. I was begging for scraps, when a cart ran over my legs. My feet could not be saved, but our master found me and took me in, promising that if I could prove to him and to myself that cultivation was still possible without the use of my legs, I was welcome to stay."

XiChen's gaze fell to FeiFei's leg stumps, overwhelmed with … admiration. He did not pity her. Her presence here proved that she had managed it. She was a cultivator. She had lost half her legs, but she was a disciple of YunmengJiang nonetheless.

"All of us," FeiFei continued, "we have stories similar to this. It binds us together. It binds us to our master. None of us were forced to stay, once he had taken us in. After our wounds were healed and our bellies filled. But all of us stayed anyway, out of respect."

"Why have I never heard of this before? Was this order established in the last five years?"

"Officially, yes," said BianBian. "But I have been here longer than that. So has TaoTao. We were hired servants in the years after the Siege of Burial Mounds, tasked with cleaning, cooking, washing and mending things. We knew our master, back when he earned his title of Sandu Shengshou. Yet we stayed on, even as other servants came and left, because Lotus Pier had become our home and we had become fond of the place and our master. It was because of this that our master tasked TaoTao and me with his protection, once he had succeeded in conceiving his first child."

"In order to fulfill this command, we secretly began training ourselves in sword forms and other martial arts. When our master found out, instead of punishing us, he offered to train us as cultivators. Later, others joined, and we began to teach them in return. But we remain our master's guardians, first and foremost," added TaoTao.

"Do you not regret it?" XiChen asked. "Devoting your lives to a sect, instead of marrying into a good family?"

He did not wish to pry too much into topics that were too personal. Asking who A-Xia's father was, for example, would be overstepping clear boundaries both as an outsider, as well as a man speaking to women. But he still struggled with the idea that his image of women in the cultivation world did not apply to the Spiders of Yunmeng at all. The women cultivators that he knew in his own GusuLan sect were either blood relations of his or had married into the Lan clan for the purpose of dual cultivation with their respective husbands. They did go out to night-hunt as well, but were always kept separate from the men, aside from their spouses. In the case of GusuLan sect, he knew only of women who gave up cultivation for the sake of marriage – none had given up the prospect of marriage for the sake of cultivation.

"We have everything we need," said BianBian, apparently speaking for everyone present. Her sisters all nodded solemnly, content not to add anything.

It did not explain much. He was still unsure what to think. Perhaps these women were only a minority, and most women preferred to pour their passion and time into something other than cultivation even if they had grown up with it. Perhaps it was because of their hardships in life that they had decided to take this path rather than another. Perhaps it really was just the loyalty that Sect Leader Jiang seemed to inspire in these women. In any case, he felt that they were not going to speak of this anymore.

Indeed, the topic soon shifted, and the sisters began to speak of other matters – a new sword smith in town, and whether to take the disciples who were close to developing their own cores there for an assessment; this year's harvest, which promised to be bountiful; a recommendation for a craftsman who could repair a hairpin that LeiLei had broken during training.

It was comfortable to listen to, because the sisters were clearly happy with each other. XiChen did not contribute anything, yet still felt included. Welcomed. Perhaps they had not really accepted him yet. But he had also not been rejected outright. They allowed him as a peaceful spectator, just like the plum tree whose shade they sat under.

Thus, he passed a very pleasant afternoon.

Chapter Text

The next opportunity XiChen had to speak with Sect Leader Jiang presented itself rather unexpectedly, on a day he intended to visit the training grounds and hone his sword forms. He spotted RongRong and YinYin, their faces now no longer unfamiliar since the afternoon he had spent with the Spiders of Yunmeng. They seemed to be instructing two groups, one each, RongRong with the seniors and YinYin with the juniors. Not wishing to interrupt, XiChen merely nodded a greeting and went past them to an open square that was currently unused and should be ideal for his practice, having enough free space and an even ground.

It had been a while since he properly went through stances and forms instead of simply using Shuoyue to fly or in battle. In order to get himself back into the proper mindset to cultivate with his sword, he began with slow, simple techniques, likely similar to the ones the disciples behind him were practicing. Then, he gradually moved to higher level techniques that required the use of spiritual energy, relying on the strengthened body and honed reflexes of an advanced ranking cultivator.

He was just beginning to really lose himself to the fast movements and the invigorating flow of spiritual energy in his body, when he became aware of a foreign presence just outside the practice field. Not interrupting his sequence, XiChen brushed against the aura, trying to determine who it was.

He flinched back, nearly losing his footing, when the force punished his invasion with a crackle of energy. Before he could regain his bearing, his sword met resistance.

"Is this a bad habit of yours?" asked Sect Leader Jiang, effortlessly filling in XiChen's sequence with its counterpart.

Too stunned to reply, he could only continue, keeping up the rhythm of steel against steel, step for step, jump for jump. Having his forms complemented by their corresponding matches transformed the technique from its original calm and serene flow into something much more loaded and charged. Or perhaps that was just Sect Leader Jiang's presence.

It wasn't a real fight, or XiChen was sure he wouldn't still feel light and refreshed at the end as they bowed shallowly towards each other.

"I hope I did not steal your space, had you intended to train yourself," XiChen said, thankfully not out of breath. It really had been a while since he'd formally practiced the sword.

"Not at all. I meant to check on the disciples today." Sect Leader Jiang's eyes flicked sideways, towards where the juniors and seniors were. "Then you distracted me with your sword work."

"Oh. Did I make a mistake?"

"Hm? No, of course not. It's- …" He paused, seeming to chew on his next words. "It was fine."

"Ah."

XiChen stood still for a few moments longer, unsure what to do next. Had Sect Leader Jiang intended to speak to him about something? But then, he had said he came to see the disciples. He must not have known about XiChen's presence here at all. In which case … should he not be leaving?

"The martial arts conference in Koi Tower. It is in a few days. I was wondering whether you will attend it as well. You could depart together with us; or will you return to Gusu beforehand?" Sect Leader Jiang finally asked.

"A … martial arts conference?" XiChen blinked. He sheathed Shuoyue, just to hide the sudden tremble in his hands. "In Koi Tower, you say."

"Yes. I assume you received an invitation?"

For some reason Sect Leader Jiang's voice sounded very strange. Apprehensive, almost. Oh, did XiChen really look as frightful as he felt right now? He tried to plaster on a smile but judging by the frown on Sect Leader Jiang's face he must have failed to make it resemble anything close to reassuring.

"I don't know. I did not receive any notification regarding that."

"Hmph. Have you heard anything at all from your sect during your stay here so far? I was not aware of messengers from Gusu, in any case."

"Oh. I- … I have not been- … I did not- …" He trailed off. Meeting Sect Leader Jiang's gaze head on, he felt as if there was some understanding passing between them – except that XiChen did not comprehend anything at all.

"Come with me."

XiChen was left in the dust in the wake of Sect Leader Jiang's quick paces for a moment, until he caught up with the meaning of what he had said. Hurrying after somebody without seeming to hurry at all, that was a specialty of GusuLan cultivators. Usually, it was required by teachers in order to be able to follow unruly students breaking the rule of no running in the Cloud Recesses. Making use of this special skill, XiChen caught up with Sect Leader Jiang, who was nonetheless walking fast enough to make his purple robes and the purple tails of his hair tassel billow and flutter behind him.

"Where are we going?" XiChen inquired, taking careful note of Sect Leader Jiang's left hand – not the hand that bore Zidian – resting loosely on his sword Sandu's hilt.

"My office," Sect Leader Jiang responded gruffly, offering no further explanation.

Said office was located in a larger pavilion that looked to be Sect Leader Jiang's own private residence. When they came within view of the entrance, XiChen saw BianBian and TaoTao stationed there. As soon as they saw them, they made to move from their posts, but a gesture from Sect Leader Jiang halted them in their tracks.

"Can we bring you anything, master?"

"Tea, please," Sect Leader Jiang said without slowing down. He walked past them and into the residence, and while TaoTao hurried away, BianBian stayed where she was.

The inside of the residence was quiet. XiChen felt like an intruder, even as he followed just behind Sect Leader Jiang's steps. They passed a few open rooms, designed to let in the air and light, furnished comfortably and large enough to contain groups of over a dozen without it being overcrowded. XiChen could well imagine the Jiang family and their closest friends to spend rainy days or late evenings in the stifling summer air here.

In passing, Sect Leader Jiang slid a few doors closed that apparently lead to rooms not meant for XiChen's eyes. It reminded him vividly that he was currently intruding on the Jiang family's private space. As they walked further towards the heart of the compound, XiChen's ears started to pick up faint voices.

"Laoshi."

Sect Leader Jiang stopped in front of an open door and nodded respectfully. Apparently, this was the room the voices had drifted from.

"A-Die!"

"Chun-er," Sect Leader Jiang said chidingly, when a weight collided with his legs. Despite his tone, he set a gentle hand on Jiang Chun's head and waited patiently for him to stop hugging him. "Did your teacher say you could abandon your desk?"

"Ah." Even from his angle further away, XiChen could see the young boy's face light up red. "I'm sorry, A-Die."

"Don't apologize to me. Apologize to your teacher."

"I am sorry, Guan-laoshi, I forgot myself."

"Sit down, Young Master, we will deal with your punishment after. Is there anything you wished to discuss, Sect Leader Jiang?" asked the teacher, while Jiang Chun shuffled back to his desk, properly scolded.

"No. Resume your lesson."

Without waiting for the teacher to reply, Sect Leader Jiang turned away and continued walking down the hall. XiChen had to hurry again to keep up with him.

In comparison to the rest of the residence, the office was rather dark and cramped-looking. It smelled like ink and parchment, like any proper office, but there was also the underlying fragrance of lotus flowers.

Sect Leader Jiang deposited himself behind an ornate writing table laden with scrolls and books and other material with a heavy sigh. He gestured at the soft mat on the opposite side of the desk, indicating XiChen to take a seat there, which he did with an uncertain shake of his sleeves.

"Sect Leader Jiang," he began hesitatingly, "why did you ask me here?"

Instead of replying, Sect Leader Jiang started to rummage around in the mess on his desk. Well, XiChen chided himself, it looked like a mess to him, but he was sure there was … some sort of organization to it. One that only Sect Leader Jiang knew.

"Here. These are all the letters, maps and other missives I have received from GusuLan since your arrival," he finally said, thrusting a bundle of paper at XiChen.

Stunned, he gathered the pile in his arms, trying carefully to balance it so nothing would fall out.

"I'm … Sorry, I don't know what- …"

"Read them. I have been amiss in not forwarding them to you sooner, it seems."

And thus, without so much as another glance, Sect Leader Jiang went to work himself, hunched over his desk at an angle that obscured his eyes from view. He absentmindedly seemed to read through a letter while preparing his ink and brushes to compose a reply. It was only when he unhurriedly looked around in search for a blank piece of parchment that XiChen realized he had been staring at the other man. Quickly, he rifled through the documents in his arms, sorting them by apparent age, oldest to newest. As he was doing so, TaoTao entered with some tea, which she poured for them before leaving again unobtrusively.

He soon realized that the documents Sect Leader Jiang had given him were all official missives between GusuLan and YunmengJiang. Most of them had been written by shu-fu's own, neat hand. One or two were succinct and efficient in WangJi's particular style. Some he did not recognize who they were from – probably a secretary that either worked in shu-fu's employ or in that of the council of Lan elders.

They contained mostly correspondence regarding a shipment of winter provisions that YunmengJiang clan had negotiated for its people to send to Gusu. It detailed a rather terse, but fair appraisal and a short negotiation of amounts and compensation. Other than this, there were a few letters regarding a treatise, on the topic of a night-hunting ground that GusuLan shared with YunmengJiang. It seemed as if YunmengJiang had wished to renege its quota of spiritual beasts in exchange for a hunting permission in a different area that also belonged to GusuLan.

None of this really told him anything. Perplexed, he lowered the last map, which had detailed the hunting grounds in question.

Gathering his thoughts, XiChen continued to watch Sect Leader Jiang work for a while. He was currently writing a letter, though it looked like he had finished the one he had been preparing earlier. His posture had improved significantly, leaving him less slumped but rather with a proper, straight back and relaxed writing hand. His brush dipped back and forth between the inkpot and the letter in regular intervals, not halting even once. XiChen looked around a little, thinking perhaps this was the second, final draft if he was writing this fluently and without mistakes. But he saw no scrapped paper lying around.

"What do you think?" Sect Leader Jiang asked, barely a second after he had neatly signed the letter with his name.

"I do not see the reason why you would show me this. Did you need my input on the trading agreement? Or is there a problem with the night-hunt quota?"

Sect Leader Jiang carefully cleaned his brush and set it down. Then he fixed XiChen with an almost disappointed look.

"Is there nothing else you noticed?"

"No. There is nothing unusual about this correspondence as far as I can see." He thoughtfully sorted through them again, remembering their contents. But he could not figure out what Sect Leader Jiang was getting at.

"You do not find it strange, then, that none of these letters even make mention of you or your presence in Lotus Pier at all?"

XiChen froze, a lump forming in his throat as he was left staring at one of the few letters WangJi had written. Absentmindedly, he admired the beautiful, neat characters.

Before he could answer, Sect Leader Jiang said: "And it is not for want of transparency. In fact, I have written several replies first mentioning your safe arrival, and later to inform GusuLan of your intention to stay a while." He pointed at the pile of paper. "As you can see, there has been no reaction. I thought at first that they must be corresponding with you directly, but …"

He trailed off, meeting XiChen's eyes again. Whatever he saw there made his features soften almost imperceptibly, but it only caused the lump in XiChen's throat to tighten.

"You have been here for a week now," Sect Leader Jiang said, too softly. "Surely you should have heard from your family, at least. And you are still their sect leader, out of seclusion now, even. Yet they have not kept you appraised of matters directly concerning you or that should require your approval. If they send someone else to the martial arts conference in Koi Tower, what kind of message would that send to the others?"

XiChen straightened his back, painting a false smile on his lips that he hoped was not as transparent as he felt it to be.

"Perhaps they were merely waiting for word from me," he offered. "In that case, I have been remiss. I have neglected my duties as a sect leader."

Mutely, Sect Leader Jiang fished a piece of parchment from seemingly nowhere, grabbed his inkpot and brush, and slid all three items towards XiChen.

"Then write them."

He stared at the blank paper for a moment, and then looked at the brush as if it were a sharp weapon trained at his heart. Then he met Sect Leader Jiang's eyes again, which proved to be a fatal mistake. There was no shallow anger there, no pity or condescension. What was there, XiChen could not name it. But it pierced through him like he imagined Sandu might.

"Look," Sect Leader Jiang said. "I know your presence here is partially Wei WuXian's fault, whatever he told you. And he is an idiot, I'll be the first to say it. But he and I – together we have had plenty of experience with all sorts of shit. Loss and grief and betrayal and pain in all the variations it comes in. We were young and we made mistakes. Blamed each other for shit we shouldn't have; didn't talk about other shit we should have.

"Right now, I am proud again to call him my brother. But we didn't arrive at this point dawdling and not communicating. I don't know if he realizes how much he's helped me, or if he knows that my family contributed largely to his growth and maturity in the recent years. It doesn't matter. What does matter is that we dealt with things together. Badly, at first, I admit. We learned though. And now we're fine."

XiChen shuddered, feeling cold all of a sudden. At first, he fought the urge to rub his hands together and hide them in his sleeves, but then it became dire enough that he stopped caring. He knew Sect Leader Jiang was looking at him, taking note of everything. XiChen was showing weakness right now, and a person like him would not miss chinks in somebody else's armor.

Something about what he had said hit XiChen deeply. He couldn't put his finger on what exactly it was. Perhaps just some of the crass wording. Or that he was talking about his brother – adopted or not, in a different body than originally or not, they were still brothers – and XiChen had been thinking about WangJi and how much he missed his little brother. Or perhaps it was the reminder that though Jiang WanYin and Wei WuXian had probably had one of the worst fraternal disputes in recent history … they were fine now. They had mended their relationship. Helped mend each other, even, to a point where it made them better people.

Five years had passed in their lives, XiChen realized. Of course, they were going to be different. Of course, they had changed, and in their cases for the better even.

"I think," XiChen said, startled by how rough his voice sounded, "I should not have stayed in seclusion for so long."

Sect Leader Jiang said nothing in return, but the answer was clear. Closed-door cultivation had solved exactly none of XiChen's problems. He had wasted five years of his life. That may not be much for cultivators of their level, who had the potential to reach immortality, or if not that, then at least live very long and healthy lives. But he had stood still for all this time, while the world moved past him; moved on, leaving him alone in the dust.

With a soft sigh, Sect Leader Jiang got up from his relaxed sitting position. As he walked past XiChen, he laid a very warm hand on his shoulder. XiChen could almost feel the heat radiating through himself, starting from that one point where they touched – separated by the multiple layers of his robes, yet still, it felt as if there was a connection there – and reaching even the most remote of corners of his body.

"Write that letter," he said quietly. Then he removed his hand and left.

No longer freezing, XiChen picked up the brush and confidently began to write.

Dear WangJi.

Chapter Text

There was a reply from Gusu, two days after he had sent his letter. He wondered if WangJi was confused, receiving a letter embossed and sealed with the nine-petaled lotus, when it was in fact XiChen who wrote him and not Jiang WanYin. He wondered what WangJi made of it. If it even meant anything at all in the first place. Shu-fu might have gotten angry, chiding XiChen firstly for not bringing his own seals and stationery, and then accusing him of abandoning GusuLan for a foreign sect. As if he'd ever do that.

But hearing from his little brother was wonderful, no matter the letter's contents. At first, he had feared that perhaps WangJi was not going to be in the Cloud Recesses after all, off night-hunting with his husband somewhere else. But now a reply had come. Bundled together with the rest of the mail exchanged between GusuLan and YunmengJiang, so XiChen was once more asked to sit in Sect Leader Jiang's office – invited to read his personal correspondence there, while the man worked.

He touched the seal holding the letter closed, tracing the beautiful curves and swirls of the cloud pattern. Almost out of reflex, he touched his forehead ribbon next.

"It's not going to bite," Sect Leader Jiang said, absentmindedly, except for the way his eyes clearly flitted between the document he was working on and XiChen's face. He wondered what he looked like to warrant such a reaction.

"I suppose I am just a little scared," he admitted.

"What's there to be scared of?" Sect Leader Jiang scoffed. Of course, Sandu Shengshou found the mere notion of fear to be ridiculous, XiChen thought to himself. "You know what you wrote. You know your brother. You know he loves you. Now open the damn thing, it's making me antsy."

Complying serenely, XiChen peeled the seal off and then smoothed out the thick, beautiful parchment marked with the Lan clan symbol. WangJi's impeccable characters met him there, deep black on creamy white. It was short, but then again, he hadn't expected anything else from his brother, who weighed words as if they were worth more than gold.

Dear brother. Thank you. I will speak to you in Koi Tower. Lan WangJi.

He made it sound so easy, but then again XiChen always thought WangJi made things very easy for himself. When he made a decision and deemed it right, he would insist on it and do everything in his power to see it through. Sometimes to the detriment of other people's peace of mind. But he was consistent like that. Simple. He looked at a problem and knew usually right away what the correct way to deal with it was.

And he seemed so convinced that XiChen was going to Koi Tower. Seeing it written black on white like that, it seemed like an edict from the heavenly gods. Leaving no room for doubts.

"And?"

"I suppose I will attend this martial arts conference."

Sect Leader Jiang merely grunted. Apparently, he too, had taken this outcome for granted.

"Can't wait to see that ice block of your younger brother again," he said. "Because it will mean that my fool of an older brother will also be there, and things have been getting slightly boring around here. I need someone to remind me to stay on my toes."

XiChen shook his head, carefully rolling up WangJi's letter to put it in his sleeve.

"But should it not be the other way around now? You have lived thirteen more years than he has. We all have."

Without warning, Sect Leader Jiang broke into roaring laughter. It shook his so much he nearly fell flat on his face and into the inkpot placed conveniently in range. Bemused, XiChen shifted it somewhere it would not end up causing an accident.

"I want to hear you say that to his face," he chuckled, wiping tears from the corners of his eyes. "I'd pay to hear that."

"No payment needed; I promise to merely point out a well-known fact to my brother-in-law."

"Well, now you have to. I will hold you to it. Now." Suddenly serious again, Sect Leader Jiang clapped his hands together, and XiChen nearly startled from the loud noise. "Tell me if you intend to travel there with my entourage or whether you will make your own arrangements. We're departing tomorrow, as you are aware, and I am sure my steward would appreciate knowing whether to prepare ships for one or two sect leaders."

"That- … I would not wish to trouble you. I can ask my butler to make arrangements for me."

"On the day before?" Sect Leader Jiang raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Please, I'm sure it's no bother, especially if your butler would be willing to work with my steward and help to prepare everything to your specifications. I'll tell him to take care of everything, then. I'm sure we have some white sails lying around somewhere."

Unbidden, an image came to XiChen's mind, of him sailing on a ship equipped with purple nine-petaled lotus motif sails. Drifting into Lanling territory on such a ship. Entering Koi Tower under the protection of the YunmengJiang banner.

He knew, of course, that such a thing would never be allowed to happen. It was bad enough that they were going to arrive together. He could already hear shu-fu having a screaming fit all the way in Gusu. It would be like wearing another sect's robes instead of the white and blue of GusuLan or removing his forehead ribbon. Unimaginable. And he didn't want to, he was proud to be a Lan, he loved his sect, his family, and he would never do this to Sect Leader Jiang. It would ruin his reputation if they thought he made XiChen do this.

But even thinking about it gave him a strange sense of satisfaction. Some sense of freedom. He could, and he was sure Sect Leader Jiang would allow him, if he asked. Perhaps XiChen would have to beg, but eventually he'd give in. He could enter Lanling and Koi Tower completely unnoticed, not as Sect Leader Lan, not as Lan XiChen coming back crawling, bowing and scraping back to the place where he had spent so much of his time in the past. It would be a relief not to be himself, just for a little while.

It was impossible, of course. It was nice to dream, though.

"Yes," he said. "White sails would be best."

~

He regretted everything that ever happened in his life by the time they reached Koi Tower. Lanling city was bad enough, but it was big and bustling, and people didn't give a damn – apologies, shu-fu – even about two high-ranking cultivators who were swarmed with attendants, at least in the case of XiChen. Seriously, his maids fussed around him as if anxious that he might accidentally breathe some stranger's air. However, nobody even looked at him twice, much less cared that he was here. He was practically invisible, though it did nothing to lessen his anxiety.

At least they didn't have to use the carriage path. He had no wish to find out whether his murals were still there, and even less of a wish to find out whether he'd be upset or glad when he found out they were probably removed.

He'd been so proud of his artwork. The murals had been beautiful, he'd outdone himself. He didn't really want them to be destroyed. Truthfully, he wished he'd never painted them.

They entered Koi Tower through a side entrance instead that led directly to the wide, brick-paved square that lay at the foot of the grand palace overseeing the entirety of Lanling city. A welcoming committee of a least three dozen cultivators and servants of LanlingJin sect awaited them there, and XiChen felt ready to faint.

He should never have come here.

"Jiujiu!"

Had it not been for the shouted exclamation directed at Sect Leader Jiang, the vermilion mark on his forehead, and the ornate sword hanging at the man's hip, XiChen would likely not have recognized Jin Ling – Sect Leader Jin, now, he reminded himself. A child no longer, he seemed to have filled out nicely, standing as tall as his uncle, who grasped his arm in a familiar embrace.

"You got fat," said Sect Leader Jiang in greeting, and XiChen had to hide his shock behind his sleeve.

"Hey!" protested Jin Ling, withdrawing his arm to flex it. "It's all muscle. No fat at all. You should get your eyes checked, old man." And then, still beaming brightly, he turned towards XiChen to greet him with a bow just shallow enough to indicate their equal rank.

"Sect Leader Jin," he said, mirroring the gesture. "Thank you for your hospitality."

Jin Ling waved his hand lightheartedly.

"We're all just glad you came. I think your brother has already settled in his rooms, and I'll have them put you next to him."

Immediately, all the servants standing behind him began swarming out, mingling with XiChen's own attendants to make sure all his things were properly stowed away, and the rooms prepared to his wishes. It happened so fast, XiChen was reeling a little when they all suddenly vanished, leaving him to stand alone with Sect Leader Jiang and Jin Ling in the middle of the brick square.

"… haven't seen her in weeks! Can she walk already?" Jin Ling was asking, tugging at his uncle's sleeve animatedly.

"You know I can't bring a baby all the way to Koi Tower, it's too far. FeiFei is watching Min-er and the boys. And no, she can't walk, she's barely six months old."

"But I wanted to see my little cousins! Couldn't you at least have brought A-Chun? He's going to be the next sect leader of YunmengJiang, you know."

"Well then, you'll have to fly to Lotus Pier yourself, lazy ingrate."

Jin Ling snorted loudly, shaking his head so his long ponytail whipped around him. For a moment, the image was superimposed by XiChen's memory of the boy's father, Jin ZiXuan. He must have made a noise then, startled by their similarities, because both Jin Ling and Sect Leader Jiang turned to look at him with strange expressions.

"Ah, ZeWu-Jun," Jin Ling said, "would you like to join us for some tea? The conference is tomorrow, and so far, you two are the first guests of honor to arrive, aside from HanGuang-Jun and Senior Wei. Or would you prefer to rest first?"

The two, uncle and nephew, stared at XiChen with an open clarity that told him nothing about whether they wanted to invite him or if it was just politeness. After short deliberation, XiChen smiled and told himself not to intrude on their family business.

"I think I will rest a little first and see if I can catch WangJi. I promised to speak to him."

When Jin Ling kindly gave him directions to his room and turned away with his uncle to enter the palace, XiChen finally let out a relieved breath. As they climbed the stairs, Sect Leader Jiang pulled his nephew into a sideways hug, raising his free hand to mess up Jin Ling's hair. They both laughed. He was glad not to have come between that with his strange mood.

With slow, heavy steps, XiChen selected the path that Jin Ling had indicated, and followed it to where he had been told his guest apartments lay. He stubbornly kept his eyes trained on the tips of his boots and the pavement below, blocking out everything else about his surroundings. When he breathed in the familiar scent of peonies, he pressed his sleeve to his nose, blocking the smell out with the pungent odor of jasmine that clung to him as if he were a walking incense burner. And when he heard the jarring, typical Lanling accent that the servants brushing past him spoke as they greeted him jovially, he closed his eyes for a moment, tracing in his mind the melody for the Sound of C- … No, not the Sound of Clarity, Cleansing. Anything but that. Sound of Tranquility, Repose perhaps. Yes, that would be appropriate.

Feeling lightheaded, he finally reached his destination, and barged into the room without caring how much noise he made. He fell to his knees, gasping for air.

"Brother?"

XiChen froze, slowly lifting his head. Familiar, amber eyes met his, the skin around them pulled taut with worry. When he breathed in next, his lungs filled with the well-known scent of sandalwood.

"W-WangJi?"

Strong hands gripped him under the arms, lifting him from the ground as if he were one of his brother's rabbits. WangJi silently carried him to a low, cushioned couch and gently deposited him there.

"I think," XiChen wheezed weakly, "I went in the wrong room."

"Mm."

"Here, Lan da-ge, drink something, it will help with the dizziness."

Startled, XiChen nearly dropped the offered steaming cup of tea, when he saw Wei WuXian's face peeking up at him from behind WangJi's broad form.

"Thank you, brother," he muttered, after recovering from the shock of seeing his brother-in-law when he hadn't even noticed his presence previously. He took a sip of the nearly scalding liquid, noting an underlying, invigorating spiciness of ginger, softened by some honey notes. "I think coming here was a bad idea. I should have stayed in Lotus Pier."

Out of the corner of his eyes he could see WangJi and his husband exchange a silent look.

"Well, we are glad that you came, and we're both very happy to see you."

"Thank you," XiChen said and grasped Wei WuXian's hands.

"Good heavens, your fingers are freezing cold. Here, let me. I'll bring you a blanket. The wind and humidity on the river can be really suck the warmth out of everything, am I right?"

While Wei WuXian buzzed around the room in search of a blanket that wasn't either too ratty or too thin to pass muster, XiChen steadied himself to meet WangJi's eyes. The tension was still there, and his brows were drawn together, but he was smiling a little too.

"I shouldn't have asked," he said quietly, gathering both of XiChen's hands between his. They were both the same size, but the gesture made XiChen feel dwarfed by his little brother. Protected, too. And his calloused, scarred hands were so very warm.

"You didn't," XiChen assured him, smiling a little. "I decided for myself that I had to come. It's good, it will do me good to come here. I would have had to come eventually anyway. Why not now? And I'm glad that you're here with me."

"Mm."

WangJi shifted a little closer, slumping himself uncharacteristically inelegantly against the couch and against XiChen's side. It almost felt like when they were little, when WangJi used to curl up on his big brother's lap, seeking warmth and comfort. Except now it was the other way around.

"Here." Wei WuXian returned with a beautiful woolen blanket, stitched with rows of lilac and golden thread. He shook it out and then spread it over XiChen's legs, working around his husband's bulk to tuck it in securely around his feet and knees. A gentle perfume rose from the blanket, something he couldn't quite identify, as it was dominated by the sandalwood scent of WangJi. "You'll feel better in no time. This is a magic blanket; it's made to bring comfort. I mean, there aren't any actual spells in it, but … You know."

"It's lovely, thank you, brother Wei."

"I, uh …"

XiChen braced himself a little, though the faint squeeze of his brother's hands eased him.

"A-Ying," WangJi said in an apprehensive tone, and for once XiChen didn't know what he was saying. Because, he realized, it was meant for his husband.

"The blanket," Wei WuXian blurted out, either despite or because of WangJi's warning. "It was made by Fei-mei and lent to us by Lei-mei. I assume you've met them in Lotus Pier?"

XiChen had to think for a while before he realized that Wei WuXian was referring to FeiFei and LeiLei, two of the Spiders of Yunmeng.

"Yes, I did meet them indeed. I did not know FeiFei was so skilled with her hands in addition to her being such a good caretaker. Did she make this blanket for you? I'm sorry to have commandeered it for myself."

"No, no, she didn't make it for me. She, uh …" Wei WuXian trailed off again, and WangJi turned a little to look at his husband. "She made the blanket for my brother, in fact. For when he had given birth to A-Yong."

"Oh."

Stunned, XiChen suddenly saw the blanket cocooning him warmly and softly with completely different eyes. The lilac and gold thread, the patterning, reminiscent of the purple nine-petaled lotus of YunmengJiang. The scent, which he now recognized to be that of blooming lotus. It should have been a dead giveaway. It should make him uncomfortable to be swaddled in it now. Instead, all he felt was … safety.

"Keep the blanket for now. And ask my brother about the story behind it the next time you see him."

"I will keep it in mind," XiChen said politely, and with absolutely no intention to ask Sandu Shengshou of all people for the reason why he got gifted a purple, fuzzy knit blanket and how it inexplicably wound up with XiChen.

Chapter Text

XiChen eventually did find his way to his own rooms, which were of course right next to the ones WangJi shared with his husband, just as Jin Ling promised. It also explained why he apparently barged into the wrong chambers, though thankfully it was just his brother's and not somebody else, like a stranger. Or worse, somebody from LanlingJin sect.

He still felt weak and unsteady, so he asked for dinner to be brought to his rooms – with apologies to Sect Leader Jin. But he really did not trust himself with the stairs leading up to the palace right now.

Sleep did not come easily either and once it did, he had strange dreams that made no sense once he jerked awake from them, drenched in sweat and trembling from head to toe. By the time a Lan ought to get up, he felt more battered and bruised than after a gruesome fight. He must have looked absolutely horrendous, because his maids made sure to pamper him, and once again he did not have the strength to keep them from bathing and brushing and perfuming him to their liking. He barely had enough energy to lift his head, when his butler announced that WangJi was here to see him.

"Xiongzhang."

He smiled, gratefully dismissing his maids as his little brother stepped forward to support him in their stead.

You look terrible, WangJi's look said. Here, let me help you. You can lean on me.

"Thank you, didi. What would I do without you?"

WangJi did not reply, except to help him to his feet and fuss silently over his appearance. He was wearing different, more ornate robes than usual, because he was here to represent GusuLan. The cloth was heavier, the cloud pattern stitched with more detail, and though it was nothing ostentatious, it at least felt quite different. He wore no jewelry aside from the jade ornament he always wore at his belt, matching the one WangJi had, and his hairpiece. The only other adornment was his forehead ribbon, the same one as always, and Liebing tucked in at his side in place of Shuoyue.

XiChen filled the silence between them with quiet chatter about the weather and other inane things, keeping up with his little brother's soundless replies that transferred between them where their arms were linked. WangJi seemed more careful than usual about escorting him today, elegantly and efficiently making sure that nothing could obstruct his steps as he walked. He also let XiChen lean on him as much as he needed as they ascended the stairs to enter the palace without saying anything.

They joined the sect leaders who were already gathered in an open court like this, and XiChen felt strangely relieved to hear quiet whispers about the "Twin Jades of Lan". He had always liked that people saw them as a unit. He was happy that this had not changed. And he was glad that nobody mentioned his seclusion, at least not within earshot.

WangJi led him to a table high up and close to the spot where surely Jin Ling – Sect Leader Jin, he reminded himself again, he mustn't forget that – was going to be seated. The only table between XiChen's and the one reserved for the host was already occupied, and XiChen gracefully nodded at Sect Leader Jiang sitting there.

"Good morning. Thankfully, I do not seem to be the last one to arrive," XiChen said with a smile.

Sect Leader Jiang snorted, such a refreshingly inelegant sound that XiChen nearly laughed.

"Should have waited longer," he said gruffly. "I've already got pins and needles in my feet at the thought of how long this is going to take."

Feeling WangJi's sturdy, warm arm slip away from his, likely to take a seat in the row behind him, where clan representatives were placed, XiChen carefully lowered himself behind his own table.

"But this is a martial arts conference, surely there will also be some demonstrations?"

"Sure, but- …"

Before he could continue, a shadow fell over the both of them. Startled, XiChen turned around, blinking against the low morning sun that prevented him from properly seeing who it was that had interrupted them.

"Boy," said a deep, slightly gravelly voice. "I believe you are in my seat."

"Oh, really? I don't see your name on it anywhere, uncle." Sect Leader Jiang made a grand show of looking around himself, before coming up empty and shrugging apologetically.

"You- …!" The man finally shifted a little, and XiChen finally saw plum robes with dull white colored accents. He blanched. MeishanYu. This must be Sect Leader Yu.

"Please," he hurried to say, softening his voice into its most pleasant register, and making sure that his smile was bright and endearing. "Sect Leader Yu, surely it is only proper for family members of the host to be seated closest to the table of honor? Here, I believe the seat next to me is still free."

"It's for the Chief Cultivator," came WangJi's interjection from behind him.

"Oh. Well then, where were you seated originally? I am sure it is also a place of honor, Sect Leader Yu, as you are unquestionably a valued guest. And it matters so little, after all, doesn't it? It is only a martial arts conference."

Sect Leader Yu finally relented, grumbling and clenching his fists in his robes, but he stalked away without making even more of a scene. Releasing a gust of breath once he was out of earshot, XiChen concentrated everything he had into not collapsing into a puddle of goo where he sat.

"You didn't have to stand up for me," Sect Leader Jiang said to him, moments before a warm hand gently gripped his elbow in order to help him remain upright. "He may be my mother's older brother, but he has nothing on her. She was ten times fiercer than that spineless fool, and she made sure I was raised in her image."

"I couldn't just stand by and say nothing," XiChen protested.

"How noble of ZeWu-Jun. You truly are a saint among us common folk, and it is a blessed day now that you have rejoined our ranks."

Just as he had regained a little of his energy, these words cut through XiChen.

"S-Sect Leader Nie. Chief Cultivator."

He had to crane his neck a little to look up to Nie HuaiSang, to see his eyes, which were the only thing really visible of his face. The rest of it was hidden behind a large silk fan, black, with the golden beast head of the QingheNie sect painted on it in gold.

"HuaiSang, how have you been?"

"WanYin, hello. What an honor for you, to be seated so high up. I see Sect Leader Yu is quite disgruntled about it. And you too, ZeWu-Jun, sitting right next to WanYin-xiong. How unexpected."

Nie HuaiSang was … a difficult person. XiChen used to think not much of him, though perhaps his opinion of the younger boy had been influenced by what others said about him in his youth. Especially Nie MingJue, his older half-brother, who was probably the first to say that Nie HuaiSang was a good-for-nothing. Only mediocre potential in cultivation, more interested in collecting trinkets and useless things than taking up a position in his sect as befitted a member of the clan. It was not done with malice, but XiChen dismissed him, even as he lived in the Cloud Recesses for his studies, taking much longer to complete them than anyone else in his age group. He was quiet, he thought, unobtrusive, unremarkable, but ultimately nice.

When the entire business surrounding Jin GuangYao blew up in their faces, XiChen had to rethink everything he had ever known about a person he thought to have figured out years ago. Nie HuaiSang was no longer simple and nice. He was complicated, and bitter, and angry, and very, very dangerous.

There were days when XiChen blamed himself for everything that transpired. This happened most days, in fact. But there were some days when XiChen's thoughts kept circling around the question of how much Nie HuaiSang must have known. How much he orchestrated. How much he planned, or how much was just bad luck.

Had he intended for XiChen to kill his own sworn brother? Had Nie HuaiSang called out to make him strike, depriving himself of the closure of speaking to Jin GuangYao just one last time, to help him clarify things? Or had it all just been a terrible accident?

You would get nothing from Nie HuaiSang if you asked him. He'd shake his head and say no, say he knew nothing, say he had no idea. But XiChen thought that those fans he liked to hide behind so much hid far more than just his face. Thinking him a good-for-nothing and an insignificant, incompetent person, a poor replacement for Nie MingJue, it made it nearly impossible to decipher the strange glints of extreme cleverness and even sometimes malice he thought he could see in those fathomless, greenish brown eyes. Or were they just in his imagination?

"I am just surprised that GusuLan has changed its opinion about such outlawed cultivation techniques. I wonder, does the council of Lan clan elders know what you are here to endorse?"

XiChen startled, realizing that Nie HuaiSang had been talking this entire time. He just hadn't seen his mouth move, obscured as it was by the fan in his hand.

"Stop meddling and go back to shaking your head like you used to, HuaiSang," Sect Leader Jiang said, but without any heat. He wasn't even looking in the Chief Cultivator's direction.

"My friend, I apologize, I was merely speaking my thoughts. It doesn't mean anything."

"Friend? You are not the friend I thought to know so intimately before. And you know exactly that what you do weighs heavily, Chief Cultivator."

A foreboding spark lit in Nie HuaiSang's eyes then, and XiChen braced himself – except they were saved by the entrance of none other than Sect Leader Jin. Reluctantly, the sect leader of QingheNie sat down, along with everyone else present.

Jin Ling stepped forward to give a short speech, relaying again the emphasis of this martial arts conference, which he put on a more open exchange of techniques, spells and magic tool uses between sects. Usually, each sect more or less developed their own style not just due to necessity – things like the spiritual net array that XiChen had recently witnessed in Yunmeng would have no need to be invented or taught extensively in a place where water ghouls were less prominent – but also because there were certain techniques handed down through the generations of clan members, and clan members only. In order to develop improvements and make progress, so Jin Ling said, he would like to have a better flow of information regarding spiritual teachings, which would in the end also improve general relations between sects and their ability to adapt to each other's styles in battle.

It was a very good proposal, very noble and idealistic. XiChen already knew that it would get shut down by the assembly. Still, he began by saying that once again disciples of all sects were welcome to study at the Cloud Recesses, which should facilitate exactly this kind of interchange.

"But not every sect is GusuLan sect," complained the leader of a smaller clan. "We can't afford to have our unique knowledge taken by others – it is the only thing that makes us competitive when several sects are looking to take a contract."

"That's right. For us smaller clans, the only option we have is to specialize ourselves and jealously guard our secrets."

"This proposal is clearly to encourage innovation, not to- …"

"Innovation is not always a good thing," Nie HuaiSaing surprisingly cut in, rather sharply at that. "New techniques can be harmful. We have seen this time and again in the past. It is safer to keep to tried and tested methods that have been handed down for generations."

"If everyone had access, though- …"

And they kept arguing like that, like they always did.

There was something reassuring about that, XiChen supposed. It had to be terribly stressful for Jin Ling, who was trying to keep men much older than him from verbally devouring each other, forcing them to stay on topic and achieve at least some sort of consensus. But XiChen was not obliged to say or do anything and could hide in the chaos of the conversation as it washed over him.

He still felt so very tired. And after a while he came to realize that he was also hungry, yet there was no food around aside from a tiny bowl of melon seeds that he emptied in no time at all. It worried him, that he felt that particular weakness of the limbs and lightheadedness that came with severe hunger even though he knew he had not eaten anything for breakfast, and it was already past noon. His cultivation base should be high enough for his body not to need as much sustenance anymore, and he had long since been able to practice inedia. He'd been a child when he mastered it, in fact, and used this particular skill often during his five years of closed-door cultivation. It should not be an issue.

Time passed and the gnawing feeling in his stomach only worsened. He tried to quell it with more tea, to the point that a completely different problem made itself known. Panicking slightly, XiChen shifted on his knees, contemplating whether he should draw attention to himself by turning to his brother behind him or ask for a break. The mere thought, however, was so mortifying that he felt a blush creep up his neck.

"XiChen-xiong?"

He startled, blinking furiously to focus his blurred sight, but he could see nothing but a large black canvas with angular golden lines. It reminded him of something, but he couldn't put his finger on what it was.

"You are not looking too well. Perhaps it would be best if we took a break?"

He opened his mouth, wanting to reply in the negative – that he was fine, just a little light-headed, do not let him interrupt their discussion. But then he closed his eyes for a moment, only to open them again to the sight of the blue sky above.

"Xiongzhang!"

All sounds were strangely muffled, but he could still clearly his little brother's voice calling for him. He tried to lift his hand and reach out, reassure him that he was fine. But then the world tilted, and XiChen felt a moment of weightlessness before he was pressed against a warm, soft surface. WangJi? He breathed in, but his senses did not fill with the soothing aroma of sandalwood.

Lotus. He smelled like lotus. Weakly, he tried to lift his head, to say something, anything. But then there was the strong, steady sound of a heartbeat beneath his ear. And he could hold onto consciousness no longer.

~

He awoke to the feeling of being softly cocooned and held in a warm, secure embrace. There was a gentle pressure between his brows, maintaining an even circling motion that sent noticeable sparks of crackling spiritual energy cascading through his body.

"ZeWu-Jun. Are you awake?"

Confused, XiChen frowned a little and opened his eyes, only to blink them shut again at the assault of bright light. He regretted trying that, more so when he noticed that the hand that had been rubbing his brow now retreated.

"Take it slow. Your meridians took quite the shock, and your qi flow has been disrupted."

The voice speaking sounded familiar, but he wracked his brain trying to find a name that matched it. None seemed to fit. So, he tried to open his eyes again, this time more slowly.

The first thing he saw was a very well-known and dear face. It was not, to his surprise, WangJi who sat by his side, but rather- …

"SiZhui," he muttered, clearing his throat. "What are you doing in Lanling?"

His nephew grinned a little before evening out his expression and saying: "We were close by on a night-hunt when we heard that you would be here too. I wanted to visit you. But then we heard that you were not feeling well."

"We?" XiChen echoed. He craned his neck, trying to see who else SiZhui was with. Then, his eyes fell on the unmistakable form of a resentful corpse, and he acted on instinct. His hand went to his belt, grasping for Shuoyue, only to come up empty. Jerking upright, he drew Liebing instead, intending to play the Sound of Vanquish, when a hand gripped his wrist to prevent him from setting his xiao's mouthpiece to his lips.

"ZeWu-Jun, don't!"

He blinked, clearing his vision, but it remained mostly blurry. His chest heaved with exertion.

"Wen … Ning?"

The other had retreated a little, in expectation of his attack. But now he awkwardly came forward again, bowing contritely.

"I apologize, Sect Leader Lan," he said in his raspy voice that still managed to express wretchedness and misery. "I did not mean to scare you. I only helped direct them to which acupressure points would help speed up your recovery."

"Oh."

We? Them? XiChen slowly tucked his Liebing back into his belt after SiZhui relinquished his hold on his wrist. As he did so, he noticed the warmth that had settled over him – it was the blanket that Wei WuXian had given him the day before. With a quick look around, he realized he was back in his quarters. And that there was one more person here, sitting at the head of the bed he had been lying in, looking relaxed and open with his wrists resting on the knees of his crossed legs.

"S-Sect Leader Jiang," he hurried to say. "I apologize- …"

He interrupted XiChen's stammering with a raised hand.

"It's nothing. I was glad to have an excuse to leave these blabbering fools at the conference to themselves – we weren't making any headway."

Wen Ning then excused himself with nearly unintelligible muttering and at least a dozen bows that might have devolved into full kowtowing, had SiZhui not kindly offered to escort Wen Ning outside and keep him company.

That left XiChen alone, with Sect Leader Jiang. He wondered where his servants were. Though most likely the Ghost General's presence had scared them away.

He caught himself worrying the edges of the blanket with his fingers and forcefully stopped himself. It would not do to destroy it, in front of its rightful owner no less. Which reminded him of something else.

"This blanket," he blurted out. "Wei WuXian said I should ask you about its story."

"Oh." Strangely enough, Sect Leader Jiang almost looked … like he was blushing? "Well, there isn't really much of a story there. FeiFei knit that blanket for me after I had Yong-er. I was not feeling well then. They tell me it occurs sometimes, after a difficult birth, and his was especially taxing. I felt like I couldn't recover my strength, and my spirits were very low for such a long while that it began affecting everyone around me, especially my children.

"It seems like such a little gesture now, but the blanket helped. It is a symbol of the trust she had in me to get better; her affection for me; her patience. Now we sometimes give it to other people who may be struggling, in the hope that it might help them too."

His eyes scrutinized XiChen for a bit, as if searching, but said nothing else.

"Why did your brother have it then?" XiChen asked.

"The question you should be asking is, why did he give it to you?"

I felt like I couldn't recover my strength, and my spirits were very low. XiChen thought about his own condition, which varied so greatly these days but was always punctuated by these dizzy spells and times where he just couldn't get warm enough. Now his qi seemed to have drained from him to such a degree that his inedia practice failed him and his body reverted almost to the state in which a non-cultivator's body would be. Such occurrences had been par of the course after he- … When he decided to go into seclusion. But he thought he'd gotten better.

Then he remembered something else Sect Leader Jiang just said: Now we sometimes give it to other people who may be struggling. And he wondered. Was he struggling? Had the people around him realized that, and were now offering to help?

He bunched the blanket's fabric in his hands, enjoying its softness.

"I would like to request that I may keep this for a while longer, then," he said.

Sect Leader Jiang nodded immediately.

"Good. You have helped others for a very long time. Perhaps it is time to allow others to help you in return for once."

Chapter Text

Unanimously, they decided to stay in Koi Tower for a bit longer, even after the martial arts conference had concluded. On the one hand, XiChen thought that perhaps Sect Leader Jiang wished to spend some more time with his nephew, and of course he would not get in the way of that. On the other hand, he did not feel well enough to travel by ship just yet. And he had more ghosts to face, if he could muster the strength.

WangJi and his husband stayed behind as well, not citing any reason. But then again, Wei WuXian was Jin Ling's uncle too, and WangJi likely wanted to continue observing XiChen, aside from wanting to keep his husband company.

"I am very grateful for your hospitality, Sect Leader Jin," XiChen said over dinner, conveying to the younger leader not only his gratitude that he could stay and recover a while longer, but also he had heard that all rumors and gossip about his health had been quelled by none other than Jin Ling himself. He truly seemed to have grown into a fine young leader in these past years.

He felt his little brother's gaze on him the entire time, but he tried not to let it perturb him as he ate to his satisfaction. Lanling cuisine was scrumptious, just adventurous enough to appeal to him, but not too spicy or wild for XiChen's soft Lan palate. That he had at least twice the amount of servings as anyone else present at dinner, including Wei WuXian, would be almost embarrassing. Except he knew all too well how sometimes after an attack such as the one he'd had earlier he could barely even keep down water, much less food. That he had such a healthy appetite now seemed promising, and so he felt no need to curb himself.

When night came and it was time to sleep, however, XiChen felt the temporary high of dinner dissipate again. He lay on his bed, cocooned by the blanket, feeling anxious and restless. His mind just wouldn't settle down, and he knew that even if he managed to fall asleep, he'd likely suffer from nightmares.

So, he got up from his bed, contemplating for a moment before he took the purple knit blanket and wrapped it around himself like a shawl. Then, he went out.

He felt a little like a ghost roaming the open courtyards and gardens and walkways of Koi Tower. He felt like the things surrounding him were spectral, as if touching them might make them disappear. Most of it was due to the late hour, the sleepy silence and darkness that dipped everything in unreality. But the rest of it came from XiChen himself.

He was bleeding. Not physically, at least. His heart, though, his mind and his soul. They bled as he walked, haunting halls and pagodas and bridges and every spot he touched. Like painting the world with a watery, inky brush, his eyes looked at corners, and his heart remembered.

So much time spent here in utter bliss. Together with his friends, his brothers by choice. He had been so happy here, once.

Where had it all gone?

Tilting his head back, he contemplated the sharp crescent of the moon, framed beautifully by clouds drifting past. It was a wonderful night. The air was just fresh enough without being too cold. Still, he was grateful for the blanket wrapped around him, since he hadn't bothered with wearing his outermost layers. It was perfect. If only XiChen were not feeling like this.

He wandered past artfully composed flower beds, their buds closed, heads bowed as if asleep as well. Bushes cut tastefully into soft shapes just this side of natural. A lot of work went into making Koi Tower the living, breathing work of art that it was, and always had been. The architecture was conductive to the flow of spiritual energy, creating a calm and soothing atmosphere.

As he went around a bend, still roaming aimlessly though he knew the layout of Koi Tower well enough to keep his bearing, he suddenly saw the soft glow of lantern light up ahead. Before he could even think about stopping or turning around to give whoever was there privacy, the lantern bobbed into view, illuminating two sharply contrasting figures.

"I said no, and this is final," XiChen heard a familiar, sharp voice. Unmistakable, despite how Sect Leader Jiang was more hissing than speaking right then. Visible now in a narrow beam of moonlight, XiChen saw as he snapped his arm forward. "And stop touching me."

The second figure, fully dressed in yellow robes with the Sparks Amidst Snow peony motif of LanlingJin sect stitched onto the front, did not let up, hurrying after Sect Leader Jiang's retreating form with the lantern swinging wildly in his hand.

"WanYin," he said, far too loud for the late hour. "I know I agreed, but I made a mistake – I realize now that I have a right to- …"

"You have no right!"

Sect Leader Jiang whirled around, roaring and sparking like a thundercloud, to push against the LanlingJin sect cultivator's chest, right where the peony motif bloomed. But as he did so, his eyes met XiChen's over the man's shoulders.

"I- …"

With a flick of his hand, the lantern went out, plunging the three of them into darkness.

"Scram," XiChen heard Sect Leader Jiang growl. Unsure whether he was the one being addressed, he turned on his heels, intending to flee back the way he came and forget he'd ever seen and heard anything. His mind reeled, and then he lost his footing, crashing uncontrollably into a wall.

"Careful, it's too dark to see where you're stepping."

Trembling, XiChen righted himself, noting absently the warm hand supporting his elbow.

"S-Sect Leader- …"

Before he could finish his sentence, Sandu Shengshou stepped forward and into the moonlight, revealing his pinched expression.

"How much of that did you hear?" he demanded to know, shaking XiChen's arm a little. The force of it seemed to rattle through him, making his teeth clatter.

"N-Nothing, I swear. I was only w-walking around because I c-couldn't s-sleep."

The frown on Sect Leader Jiang's face intensified.

"Then I will escort you back."

XiChen could only nod and follow, noting hollowly that Sect Leader Jiang was taking a different path – one that would take longer than the one he had intended to take. They walked side by side for a while, both of them shaking. XiChen did not know why he himself was trembling, but he imagined Sandu Shengshou was quivering with rage.

"I am really sorry," XiChen broke the silence. "I will not utter a word about this, I swear. I'll forget this every happened."

Sect Leader Jiang snorted.

"I thought you didn't hear anything."

They entered a garden that was particularly bright and open. A breeze came through, making XiChen shudder violently.

"You're freezing."

A hand in front of his chest made him stop, confused. Sect Leader Jiang silently tugged at the blanket that had dropped from XiChen's shoulders, tucking it more securely around his throat. XiChen stayed as still as prey beneath a predator's claw.

"You're barely breathing, too," Sect Leader Jiang continued, frowning again. "Are you even cycling your spiritual energy? It's not that cold."

With a gasp, XiChen remembered to draw air into his lungs. Following this prompted action, he felt his meridians widen again from a state in which they had nearly clamped themselves shut. Immediately, he felt spiritual energy course through his body again, subsiding the worst of the cold. With an embarrassed look, XiChen noted that he himself was wearing three layers, counting the blanket, while Sect Leader Jiang seemed to only be in his black underrobes, yet the other seemed unaffected by the chilly night air.

"Thank you."

They continued to walk for a while, slower than previously. XiChen was highly aware of the presence by his side, while Sect Leader Jiang appeared to be deeply engrossed in his own thoughts.

"That man," XiChen began carefully. "Is he causing you trouble? If I can be of any assistance- …"

"Ah, no. I can deal with Jin ZhuShuang myself," he said dismissively.

Now he had a name. Jin ZhuShuang. It was nobody XiChen was familiar with, and coupled with the Jin name he could conclude that the man had to be someone only distantly related to the main Jin family and Jin Ling. Before he could ruminate further, Sect Leader Jiang continued: "He wants to see Min-er."

Confused, XiChen shook his head.

"Your daughter? But why- …?" And then he realized. He was stupid. The man must be the little girl's … other father. "Oh. Why do you not want him to see her?"

"Because that was the only stipulation I made," Sect Leader Jiang bit out between clenched teeth. "That he has no claim whatsoever over her. She's mine, and mine alone. If he visits her even once, it will make him think he has a right to her, that he can even take her away from me, and I will not abide by it. I made that mistake only once. Never again."

XiChen's mind reeled at the sudden onslaught of information. Firstly, that a cultivator of Jin sect was Jiang Min's second father. And he had never really thought about it – even now, it made his cheeks burn with mortification – but he supposed it made sense that it should be another man. Further, though, Sect Leader Jiang's words implied not only that his older sons had a different parentage than Jiang Min – but also that whoever the boys' second father was, if they even shared the same sire, had once been more involved in their lives. And threatened to take them away from Jiang WanYin.

"He signed a contract not to pursue Jiang Min as his offspring?" XiChen asked, ideas spinning in his head.

"Yes. But I don't want to enforce it, because it means I will have to involve Jin Ling, as his sect leader." He grimaced. "I'd rather that my nephew in the dark about this matter."

"And you yourself cannot represent the case from YunmengJiang sect's side either, due to conflict of interest," XiChen finished the thought.

"Exactly. This whole situation is one big steaming pile of garbage." Sect Leader Jiang kicked out one foot, skidding a loose pebble on the ground along their path. "Mostly I'm mad at myself. I knew Jin ZhuShuang would cause trouble."

"Then it, uh … was not a love match?"

In the dark, XiChen could only hear his companion choke and cough, though he recovered quickly.

"Heavens, no. It was just … business." He coughed again. "It surprised me how many, ah, willing candidates were the first time. There was still some prestige, I suppose, to having relations with the sect leader of YunmengJiang. After everyone caught on to what I was doing though, it got … more difficult to find a partner. I had to lower my standards."

Despite the cool night air and just having been freezing, XiChen felt the heat bloom on his cheeks like a bonfire. Speaking of these matters, out in the open. He was sure that his face was redder than a sunset.

Jiang WanYin cursed softly.

"Apologies, ZeWu-Jun, I don't know why- … Just ignore what I said. I have never talked about this to anyone, I shouldn't have said anything."

"Oh. No, it's fine," he hurried to say. He scrambled for something else to add, but the longer he thought, the less he felt confident to say anything. In the end, they walked in silence for a while, and XiChen thought about Sect Leader Jiang's words. How difficult and dangerous it had been. Knowingly letting himself fall prey to someone as deceitful as Jin ZhuShuang, just to fulfill his wish for a family. Never talking about these matters to anyone. Eventually, he said quietly: "You must have been very lonely. I understand that."

"It doesn't matter. I got what I wanted."

XiChen hummed, coming to a halt in front of the by now familiar door leading to his guest quarters. In the faint moonlight he finally allowed himself to properly look at Sect Le- … At Jiang WanYin. The other had his arms crossed in front of his chest, but instead of looking defensive, he seemed rather relaxed. As he had noticed before, Jiang WanYin only wore his underrobes, which usually would be enough to make XiChen blush again, but he wore them with such confidence – and YunmengJiang sect's uniforms were conservative enough that barely any skin showed anyways – that he did not mind. In addition to this, he only now realized that Jiang WanYin's hair had been down this entire time, curling a little at his temples where it was usually braided tightly.

"Will you be able to sleep?" he asked quietly.

XiChen shook his head, tugging at his borrowed blanket.

"I suppose I can meditate until morning. What about you?"

"I won't be able to sleep either, so I just thought I'd have a drink or two. Or ten." Sect Leader Jiang shrugged, and then seemed to hesitate. "If you- … I mean. It is kind of pathetic to drink alone, and if you're going to be awake anyway. Would you keep me company?"

"Oh."

Peering at his own hand, already resting lightly on the door that led to his quarters, he thought about sneaking inside without garnering the attention of his servants. He thought about lying in bed, wide awake, terrified by the passage of time as dawn neared and a member of Lan clan should wake from eight perfect, undisturbed hours of sleep. He imagined going through the motions, letting his maids dress him and brush him like a puppet before likely being confronted by WangJi, who would see through him with one glance; who would look at him with worry and reproach and likely demand that XiChen return to Gusu with him.

His hand slipped from the door, retreating into his sleeve.

"I would gladly keep you company, Sect Leader Jiang."

The other grunted, letting his previously crossed arms fall limply by his sides.

"If you're going to be my one-sided drinking buddy, you should better call me by my name, Lan XiChen," he said, challengingly.

"With pleasure, Jiang WanYin."

Chapter Text

Jiang WanYin invited XiChen back to his own guest quarters, closer to the palace proper. It was an area usually reserved for high-ranking non-clan members of LanlingJin sect or important private guests of the sect leader. In this case, Jiang WanYin was likely always welcome to stay in these rooms, and they were reserved for his use, seeing as he was the sect leader's maternal uncle.

They were also close to where XiChen's apartments in Koi Tower had been. Back when he had not yet known betrayal so deep it still, to this day, drained from him like heart blood.

XiChen let his gaze wander while he waited for Jiang WanYin to light a few lamps and fetch the wine he intended to drink alongside some water for XiChen. The apartment looked more lived-in than the rooms he was staying in, which supported the notion that not only were they kept for the sect leader of YunmengJiang's use only, but it also indicated that he visited quite often. Often enough, at least, to leave some personal touches here and there. The faint scent of lotus, for once. Knick-knacks, and a slight state of disorder that XiChen remembered from his two visits to Jiang WanYin's office in Lotus Pier.

Jiang WanYin returned, bare feet padding softly on the mats spread on the ground as he poured XiChen some water and himself a shallow bowl of wine. Then, he dropped into a cross-legged position, groaning deeply.

"To not being able to sleep," he said and lifted his bowl in a salute before draining it in one go. He refilled it immediately.

"Hm, yes, that."

"Why is it you can't sleep? Nightmares?"

"Oh, nothing so dire," XiChen sighed, sipping lightly at his water. "Just … thoughts. Worries. Fears. I lie awake and nothing will stop my mind from spinning in circles. I tried meditation, I tried incense, tea, exercise. None of it helped."

"Hm, I see." Jiang WanYin peered at the bowl in his hand, looking as intent as if he were able to read some secret from it. Then, he quietly admitted: "I always have trouble sleeping when I am away from Lotus Pier."

XiChen did not dare to ask why exactly. He imagined there were various reasons why Jiang WanYin specifically might not like being away from home. Primarily, memories of the destruction of Lotus Pier that may still be haunting him, and XiChen did not wish to remind him of this with a misplaced question. However, it seemed as if he didn't even need to ask.

Jiang WanYin grimaced, swallowing another mouthful of wine before saying: "I just miss my children. I try not to make them too dependent on me, but it seems I am dependent on them instead. It's little things, you know. That I didn't say goodnight to them. That I didn't make sure they ate properly at dinner. What if Min-er is crying and nobody can console her? I know FeiFei spends more time with her than I do on most days, which means she clearly knows what to do in any situation that might arise. But I suppose I am the same as you – thinking, wondering, worrying."

"It is only natural," XiChen assured. "You are their parent, and you love them. Missing them and worrying about their wellbeing is what parents do when they are not with their children."

"You know, I thought I was prepared to be a father, having been an uncle to stubbornly and utterly cluelessly manage to raise his orphaned nephew." He chuckled mirthlessly. "But Jin Ling was alone. I could strap him to my chest and fly to Qinghe if I had to. I brought him with me everywhere I went. But with two, and now three of them? That's impossible. The first time I had to leave Chun-er and Yong-er alone at home I think I cried harder than they did. I was so scared, as if they might disappear if they were out of my sight for too long."

XiChen's surprise at this admission carried him through the following silence, while Jiang WanYin went back to drinking. Hearing not only that there were worries that weighed heavily on the other man, worries that he nonetheless bared to XiChen. It was humbling. And he believed that trust shown so confidently needed to be repaid with equal currency. Even if it was a gamble.

"I loved him."

The words nonetheless escaped him without him quite meaning to say them. Not like that, just dropped into the silence like a heavy weight into the still waters of a pond. Jiang WanYin's head jerked up from its position where he had been leaning it on one hand, and there was something sharp in his eyes.

"You- …"

"I loved him," XiChen repeated, clenching his fingers into the thick fabric of the blanket still slung around his shoulders. "I loved him, and I killed him."

A shadow passed across Jiang WanYin's expression then, a thing so dark and dangerous that XiChen had to avert his gaze. It was difficult enough to speak about this and open up about the pain lodged in between XiChen's ribs like a poisoned splinter without having to face the revulsion and accusation of others. Especially somebody who had previously shown him kindness and trust.

"That's what I think about when I lie awake, unable to quiet my thoughts. That it was my fault he died. I handed the weapon with which he was killed to his murderer, and does that not make me just as responsible as if I had done it myself?" He paused, unclenching his hands and staring at his open palms. Imagining blood staining them. "I wonder if it means I ever really loved him, because we should not be able to harm the people we love, shouldn't we? But I did.

"That's not even the worst of it though. The worst thing is that I have to wonder … if none of it had ever come to light, would I not have- …? No. I know I would never have known just what I'd done. And it terrifies me. What else have I done without knowing? Who else have I inadvertently hurt? Who else has had something or somebody taken from them because of my wrong choices? Could I not have seen it at least and put a stop to it? Could I have saved him?"

"You can't think like that," Jiang WanYin interrupted him. "You'll go insane if you ask yourself these questions." And then, grimly: "I'd know."

XiChen continued, sweeping over the other's words as if he had not heard them – he couldn't hear them, couldn't let them through the acidic wall of self-loathing he'd laid out around himself. He spat the words, forcing them past the tightening in his throat and the tears that he knew were inevitable to spill: "And once I get past that, once I get past mourning and thinking … I start hating myself for killing the only person who could ever have given me closure. I hate myself for killing him, because I never had the chance to ask, why? Why? Why did you do it, why did you have to choose us, why could you not just be the person I believed you were? He was my friend. My brother. I trusted him. I trusted him with the life of the person I loved. He betrayed me, and I'll never know why."

He paused, catching his hitching breath as he wiped his face with his sleeves, uncaring of staining the pristine white cloth.

"And once I get past that," he repeated, more quietly. "Once I get past that, I find this part of me that enjoyed killing him. That thinks it was my right to take revenge, and do to him what he did to- … And I know it's not right. I should not have thoughts like that; bloodthirsty, vengeful, resentful thoughts. But they're there and it scares me even more. What if it makes me no better than he was? Or what if it makes him no worse than I am?"

Sniffling, finally, he let his head drop onto his chest. Defeated. Exhausted. Despite the pain clenching in his chest and the pressure of his tears pounding in his head, he thought that perhaps he might be able to sleep tonight after all. Letting it all out like that …

But then he remembered that he had an audience. And suddenly, he was more than awake again, terrified by the thought of having to face Jiang WanYin's judgement.

Before he could brace himself and see for himself, a hand entered his limited visual field. A hand, holding a shallow bowl filled with wine.

"You win."

For some reason, this startled XiChen into laughing, even as he gently pushed the bowl away from himself.

"Thank you, but I think I have caused enough trouble for you tonight already."

"Are you sure? If anyone deserves to have a drink right now it would be you, after spilling your guts like that."

"I am sure." He smiled wanly, touching the swollen corners of his eyes. "I don't want to lose control."

An understanding look bloomed in Jiang WanYin's eyes, and he wordlessly retracted his hand.

"To us, then," he said, saluting him. "And all the shitty worries and fears in our hearts."

Then, he drank.

~

XiChen blinked awake, feeling as if somebody had stabbed him in the eyes. There was soft morning light filtering through a paper screen painted with beautiful birds and flower motifs. Wait, those were Sparks Amidst Snow.

He remembered now. He was in Koi Tower. And he'd spent the last night in Sect Leader Ji- … in Jiang WanYin's quarters. Apparently, he must have fallen asleep at some point.

After their bleeding heart to heart, they had continued to talk. About more inane things – safer things, things that wouldn't cut them both into emotional ribbons, to be found rotting and dead the next day. As time passed, Jiang WanYin got drunker and drunker, as naturally occurred when imbibing a continued supply of wine, though it took a lot more than XiChen had guessed.

"I'm going to pass out," he'd said, more lucid and coherent than should likely be possible for his level of inebriation. "Make yourself at home."

So XiChen had done exactly that. While Jiang WanYin naturally retreated to his bed, XiChen settled for nestling himself comfortably into the cushions of a couch. Where he had apparently nodded off in the late hours of the night.

Groaning, he stretched his shoulders and neck, feeling the shooting pain of having slept in an awkward position. Aside from that and the grittiness of his eyes that came with hours of crying he felt surprisingly good. Rested. Drained, too, but in a satisfying way. Like he'd stabbed his own heart, but along with all the blood and despair he'd also let out some of the poison he kept there for so long.

It was early yet, the rays of the sun hitting the windows at a low angle and stretching long, pale shadows against the floor. It was very quiet, a cool breeze wafting in and a few birds singing were the only sound XiChen could hear. Clearly, Jiang WanYin was not awake yet. Nobody, likely, was awake, except for WangJi below in the foreign guest quarters, rising punctually in the manner of any member of Lan clan.

XiChen carefully got up from the couch, tucking the blanket slung around his shoulders tightly against his sides and stepped out the front door, following a gentle tug inside him. He took a deep breath of the fresh morning air, closing his eyes against the sunrise caressing his face. It was peaceful here, right then. Almost as peaceful as the Cloud Recesses. It smelled wrong, of greenery and flowers instead of rain. But he could pretend.

There was only one more thing missing.

He reached towards his belt, past his jade ornament and to the spot where he carried Liebing with him nearly everywhere he went. It had been a while since he'd properly played, but he dared to set it to his lips right away, nonetheless, beginning to play a melody that beckoned smoothly, blending gently into a breeze here, birdsong there.

As he came upon the first repetition, his lips curved into a smile and his eyes fell shut again in sweet pleasure, when the majestic echo of a guqin joined in.

WangJi, he called. WangJi, brother. Are you there?

Here, replied the guqin, bending effortlessly back into the melody.

The language of Inquiry that they were using to communicate through sound like this was an imprecise and incomplete thing. XiChen made do, therefore, with weaving interesting little thoughts into the music instead of what he would likely say if he were standing right next to WangJi. He constructed a tiny story of questions and answers, because that was what Inquiry mostly consisted of and most of its vocabulary was centered around this structure, just to hear WangJi's amusement through the softened plucking of his fingers. He imagined him sitting on the porch of his own rooms, or perhaps further away so he wouldn't wake his husband with the resonance of his instrument. All neat and proper, waiting, listening intently for XiChen's next piece to interpret and support with his own play.

They went back and forth for a while. The sun kept rising, the warmth of its rays intensifying as time passed, until XiChen felt his cheeks prickle and his lips go brittle with dryness.

Thank you, he said. I love you. See you soon.

Yes. Yes. Yes, replied the guqin.

With a happy sigh, XiChen lowered Liebing and turned around to greet the presence he had been feeling hovering behind him for a while now.

"Good morning, Jiang WanYin," he said, smiling at the sight of the other trying – and failing – to hide a wide yawn behind one hand.

"Morning," he grumbled in response. "I heard you play. Wasn't there a guqin, too?"

"Yes, that was WangJi. I was talking to him."

Jiang WanYin stared at him for a moment, still looking a little tired around the edges. XiChen's gaze skipped over his form, noting that he was wearing formal robes, but Sandu was missing from his belt and the hair ornament he was wearing was more understated then the ones he usually chose.

"Please tell me that you actually mean Lan WangJi, and not the damn guqin that has the same name as him," he finally said.

This startled a laugh from XiChen.

"No, I actually do mean my brother. But I do see the source of confusion. WangJi was … not a very creative child. Smart, but not creative."

"Thank the heavens you didn't name your xiao XiChen, then," Jiang WanYin muttered, yawning again. "Are you hungry? I'm starving. Oh, and after breakfast I'm meeting Jin Ling for something. If you want, you can come along."

"Oh, I wouldn't want to intrude upon- …"

Jiang WanYin waved his concerns off with a lazy hand.

"Nothing like that. We're just looking at puppies."

XiChen stared.

"Puppies?"

"Yes, puppies. Koi Tower has the best kennel, and I wanted to pick a puppy for Chun-er's birthday." His expression suddenly morphed into a grin – the kind that sent a shiver down XiChen's spine. "Plus, I get to hear my brother be absolutely terrified by a pile of fluffy furballs. I haven't heard him scream in a while, and it's time for me to get revenge for the last time he pranked me."

"Well. That certainly seems like something I shouldn't miss." XiChen smiled. "And I did promise you I'd speak to your brother about something."

Jiang WanYin's eyes widened.

"You did promise that indeed."

Chapter Text

Breakfast with not only WangJi, who greeted him quietly but sincerely with a melodious hum, but also WangJi's husband and said husband's adopted brother and nephew was … He was not sure a word existed for the confusing, loud chaos that it was – while also managing to carry a sort of warm, familiar atmosphere that only a congregation of people who call themselves family can have. XiChen and WangJi both sat back quietly and watched, speaking when spoken to or not even then, but he knew they both felt honored to be included in whatever capacity was allowed.

Jiang WanYin and Wei WuXian were at the heart of it, wild and loud and laughing and shouting, threats of broken limbs hurled this way and shameless taunts thrown the other way. Jin Ling tried to negotiate and mediate, but he did it with the air of someone both very well versed in such an undertaking, but also someone who knew it was futile to even try, even if he had to make some minimal effort, as their host.

"Puppies?" Jin Ling finally called out, into a short breathing pause in which both of his uncles finished their meals. He sounded just a little desperate and seeming like he was bracing for something.

That something likely being the horrified screech that came from Wei WuXian despite his full mouth.

"No dogs!" he screamed, throwing whatever scraps of dignity he had left to the wind and crawling into WangJi's lap. "Keep those things away from me! Rescue me, Lan er-gege, you have to keep me safe!"

WangJi silently slung both his arms around his husband's waist and patted his back. There, there.

"You don't have to come with," Jiang WanYin said, smirking. "It's just for Chun-er's birthday, after all."

Wei WuXian's continued crying cut off abruptly.

"Oh no."

"Oh yes."

"You conniving, little- …! You know I'd do anything for my baby nephews, but …" He shuddered exaggeratedly, whining. "Why does it have to be a dog? I'll have to see it every time I visit Lotus Pier now. Are you trying to chase me away, is that it? What an unfilial brother I have, are you seeing this HanGuang-Jun, can you believe it? The sheer gall!"

"Just shut up, you whiny baby," Jiang WanYin roared. Apparently, he'd had enough of his brother's antics. He rose from his seat and unceremoniously went over to grab Wei WuXian by the scruff of his neck, plucking him from WangJi's grip as if he weighed nothing. Then he threw him on the ground, uncaring of WangJi rearing his head, watching very closely what was happening to his husband. Then, Jiang WanYin pointed a finger at Wei WuXian's nose, almost touching the tip. "You. Are coming with me. We're going to look at puppies. We're going to choose a puppy for Chun-er, or so help me I will disown you as his uncle!"

If even humanly possible, Wei WuXian's screaming was even louder and more terrified than previously.

"No, Jiang Cheng, good brother, kind brother, you can't do that, I'll do anything, please don't!"

With a loud snort, Jiang WanYin stood up straight again, smoothing out his robes.

"Anything, huh? Then I'll be merciful and only ask you to bear the presence of a bunch of completely harmless puppies for a while. How does that sound?"

In the end, Wei WuXian kept whining, but they all managed to agree to go visit the kennel together. Jin Ling went ahead because technically he was the host and the kennel and the dogs in it were his, but really Jiang WanYin was in charge. He hurried them along to get out of the dining hall, nearly vibrating with anticipation. Meanwhile, XiChen hung back with WangJi, who stoically bore being clung to by his husband like a grand tree who was climbed by an unruly monkey.

Remembering something, XiChen leaned over and stage-whispered: "Brother Wei, how is it you are making such a fuss? I thought between you and Jiang WanYin you were the older brother?"

As soon as he had said the words, the entire hall fell deathly silent, just for one beat. And then it fell into utter chaos again.

Wei WuXian screamed and flailed, torn between continuing to cling to WangJi and throwing himself at his brother across the hall. And said brother had sunk to the ground, fists beating the floor because he was laughing so hard.

WangJi looked at XiChen, unimpressed.

"What?" He shrugged and walked past them all, joining Jin Ling, who peeked in through the door with a terrified expression on his face.

"You did that," he muttered, sounding traumatized. "I can't believe it. ZeWu-Jun's power is too much."

"Oh." XiChen smiled and tilted his head. "I only asked a simple question in order to fulfil a promise to your uncle."

Jin Ling's eyes widened, and he peered into the hall again. Jiang WanYin was still rolling from side to side on the floor, and WangJi was trying to console his upset husband, who had dissolved into crocodile tears. Then, Jin Ling pulled his head back, shaking it rapidly.

"I don't want to know."

The two of them waited patiently – in XiChen's case, at any rate, because Jin Ling seemed half distracted by his own thoughts and half angry at having to wait – until finally at least Jiang WanYin joined them outside. He looked like he had been crying, cheeks puffy and wet.

"Oh, heavens," he coughed, voice rough. "Lan XiChen, you are now my favorite person. This is the best thing that could have happened today."

"You're welcome," XiChen said and drew a handkerchief from his sleeve. Without really thinking about it he reached out, pulled Jiang WanYin closer and began to wipe his face. It was only once there was nothing else to do but go through with it that XiChen realized what he'd just done, out of pure reflex. He was wiping Sect Leader Jiang's face, as if he were an unruly child.

Wishing to sink into the ground from humiliation, he cleared his throat, face burning, and pushed the now wet handkerchief at a stunned Jiang WanYin's chest.

"Here, uh, keep it."

Embarrassed, XiChen shook his sleeves and began descending the stairs of the palace, hoping the kennels were this way. He did not want to look back and see the expressions of Jiang WanYin and Jin Ling behind him.

This was bad. But it got worse. With a flash, he remembered his handkerchief. It was white, of course, and it had been embroidered with the blue cloud pattern of GusuLan sect. And XiChen's name. And he'd told Jiang WanYin to keep it!

Heavens, what had he been thinking? He quickly pressed his cool palms against the flaming heat of his cheeks. He'd made an utter fool of himself.

In a daze, XiChen came to a halt at the bottom of the stairs. Mostly because he didn't know the way, but also because he felt a little faint. It was an immense battle of wills against his own humiliation not to try to cover his eyes and ears, when he heard steps descending behind him.

"I am so sorry," he cried, muffled by his sleeves. "I was not thinking; it was a reflex. I did not mean to offend, Sect Leader Jiang, I- …"

"Calm down," said Jiang WanYin gruffly. "Nothing to apologize for. But I do think I should not keep your handkerchief."

"Oh, please burn it!"

"No, I'm not going to burn it. But it does have my snot all over it, so I'll have it washed and then returned to you. Promise."

"Are you sure, because burning it and me alongside it sounds like much less trouble," XiChen groaned. Even when Jiang WanYin awkwardly patted his shoulder and muttered platitudes, it only made things worse.

"You'll feel better once we're at the kennel," Jin Ling said. He sounded a little annoyed, and when XiChen checked to see his expression, it only soured further when Wei WuXian added: "But I won't feel better once we're at the kennel! Won't anybody take my feelings into account?"

It didn't help that WangJi immediately assured him that he would always take Wei WuXian's feelings into account. If XiChen were in Jin Ling's position, he too would question who among all of them was supposed to be the youngster and who the dignified elders.

He did feel much better not just after the short walk to where Koi Tower's kennel was situated, but mostly when he caught sight of the little furry fluffballs that were outside playing. Even Wei WuXian's whining could not detract from the sweet feeling XiChen got when he saw five black and white fuzzy dogs yipping madly and rushing towards them in anticipation of being petted. Three of them immediately swarmed Jiang WanYin, who had to fend them off in order to keep them all from licking his face at the same time as soon as he knelt down to greet them. One was busy chasing after its own tail, and the last one was watching curiously, did not approach, however.

XiChen instinctually felt drawn to the last one, a pure white puppy with a black nose and a black marking on its chest. It looked at him when he cowered next to it and reached out to touch its fur but did not react aside from wagging its tail a little clumsily.

"Hello," he whispered. "And who might you be?"

"That's Sugar, the runt of the litter, and these are Riceball, Jelly and Bean. The lone one over there is Candy," Jin Ling provided, himself distracted with helping his uncle cope with the three most rambunctious rascals.

"Interesting names," XiChen muttered to himself.

The name Sugar at least suited this little puppy calmly soaking up XiChen's affections, though, he had to give them that. Its mostly white coat and sweet disposition were very endearing, and it was incredibly soft to the touch.

The thing about these dogs, XiChen reminded himself, was that they were not merely beautiful pets – though they were very beautiful. The Jin clan's kennel especially was specialized in breeding only the best, meaning the most adaptive of spiritual dogs. What set them apart from regular dogs was firstly, their superior intelligence. The smartest of spiritual dogs were said to understand everything a human said and could even make snap decisions during battle without input from their master. Secondly, they were naturally sensitive to spiritual energy, especially resentful energy, which made them very suitable not just to hunt monsters, but also regular dangers such as walking corpses.

That they were so capable of learning XiChen could witness now firsthand. After an overly enthusiastic greeting by the three most excitable puppies, Jiang WanYin had now gotten all of them to sit quietly and obediently at his feet, watching him with big, attentive eyes, ears perked up. He was testing them, XiChen realized. The fourth puppy, Candy, had joined them as well, but it was busy trying to chew one of its siblings' ears off, which said sibling endured calmly, not once taking its eyes off Jiang WanYin.

He walked them around the kennel once, continuously speaking both to the puppies trailing eagerly after him and the breeder himself, who answered his questions. It was very obvious even to XiChen's untrained eye that they both were very knowledgeable.

Meanwhile, he had gotten little Sugar to climb onto his knees, where it let itself be petted calmly, even while keeping an eye on its four siblings and all these new humans standing around. Wei WuXian, too, had calmed a little, though he still seemed to be shaking and had to be supported by WangJi, and they both were peering in from the outside, talking to a bored looking Jin Ling.

"What about this one?"

XiChen looked up, craning his neck to be able to meet Jiang WanYin's eyes, but then he thankfully crouched as well.

"This is Sugar, apparently," he said, stroking the little puppy between the ears.

XiChen watched Jiang WanYin as he interacted with Sugar as well, speaking to her in a low, calm voice as he inspected her and observed how she reacted when her siblings joined in. Right then, XiChen felt … very calm. Or maybe it was the way he spoke to the puppies that affected him, too. But he almost had the urge to close his eyes and- …

"Well, somebody seems to have fallen in love."

He jerked from his thoughts, blinking rapidly.

"What?"

Jiang WanYin raised an eyebrow and pointed at Sugar.

"She was protecting you from her brothers and sisters. It seems she's taken a liking to you."

"Oh."

For some inexplicable reason, XiChen felt his cheeks heat up with embarrassment. Perhaps it was a delayed response to the comment about falling in love while he'd been daydreaming, or maybe it was because a tiny little puppy – a lady, apparently – had deemed him in need of protection from a bunch of fuzzy bundles her own size. Even if they did have sharp teeth and claws.

"She doesn't really have the temperament I'm looking for," said Jiang WanYin, "but she might be a good fit for you, especially since she has taken a shine to you."

"Pets are not allowed in the Cloud Recesses," XiChen recited automatically.

"Tell that to your brother and his rabbits."

"They are no pets; they live in the wild. We just … feed them sometimes."

"Uh-huh."

Jiang WanYin walked away again, the gaggle of puppies following after him like … well, like puppies. This left XiChen to enjoy the calm little bundle in his own arms. How soft she was, and how warm. She licked his palm, even, when he was curious enough to stroke the short fur on her face. It made him very happy that she had chosen to stay with him instead of chasing after her siblings. He wanted to bring her with him so very badly. But he knew it was impossible.

Shu-fu had allowed WangJi his rabbits because they were wild. Or they used to be, at least naturally occurring. There had been a warren of rabbits in the Cloud Recesses since XiChen could remember, and most likely since always. They were easy to take care of, mostly dealing with everything they needed themselves. And it had made WangJi so very happy to watch over them that XiChen knew not even shu-fu could deny him anything that gave WangJi even just a little bit of joy, at a time when barely anything did.

A dog – even a well-behaved and smart one like Sugar, who would be useful to have on night-hunts and be able to protect XiChen – was just too much. It would never be allowed.

Eventually, Jiang WanYin and the breeder finalized everything they needed to. It seemed they had settled on Riceball, one of the male puppies for Jiang Chun.

"I suppose that means goodbye."

XiChen gently set Sugar down onto the floor, expecting her to remain sitting there just as calmly as she had been this entire time. But as soon as he straightened himself to his full height and started to walk towards WangJi and his husband waiting outside, she began barking up a storm. Even when the breeder came over to keep her from running after him and trying to calm her, she would not stop.

"Are you sure you don't want to keep her?"

"I'm sorry." XiChen reached out, scratching the shaking and yapping little puppy between her ears. She paused to lick his fingers. "I can't take you home with me."

He had to harden his heart and walk away despite the desperate howling behind him that was tearing him apart. Nothing could have prepared him for this. He had expected to play with some puppies and have fun. Not to get his soul cleaved in two.

Even Wei WuXian, who clearly held neither love nor sympathy for dogs, seemed mildly concerned about what was going on. The worst, however, was WangJi. XiChen could read his thoughts in his eyes.

You're making a mistake.

He still walked away, going to wait for the others out of sight of the kennel. It was not out of earshot, however, and he could still hear Sugar's distressed crying.

To his surprise, it was Wei WuXian who came to wait with him first. Or perhaps it was not so surprising, considering his dislike for the animals. The thing that astounded XiChen mostly was the fact that he said nothing, neither commenting on what had happened, nor blabbering nonsense at him the way he usually would in a transparent attempt at cheering XiChen up.

No, Wei WuXian was silent, standing next to XiChen with a troubled expression on his face. Then, it finally looked as if he was going to speak, but it was not what he expected.

"You smell like lotuses."

XiChen had no reply.

Chapter Text

Nobody mentioned Sugar to XiChen, to his endless surprise and relief. This visit to Koi Tower had been more than stressful enough already, but having people hover over him would have made it infinitely more unbearable. And he needed to hold out a little longer, just for one more thing.

This was how XiChen found himself staying late after lunch together in order to speak with Jin Ling. Nobody had left yet, though he would have preferred some privacy for this. Not out of necessity. Just to save some face.

He could feel WangJi lingering behind him as well, either out of concern for XiChen or because he wanted to speak to him – or perhaps he had business with Jin Ling as well. He didn't know, and it wasn't important anyway. The only thing that mattered was this. He had to do this.

"Sect Leader Jin, I would like to request something of you," he said respectfully, bowing a little lower than technically necessary. He could see it disturbed Jin Ling, but he motioned for him to go on nonetheless. "I ask that you give me access to Jin GuangYao's old private quarters."

Immediately, the entire hall fell into deadly silence.

"Sect Leader Lan. They were emptied and refurbished. All of … my late uncle's possessions were removed. Was there anything in particular you were looking for?"

XiChen shook his head. He had expected this of course.

"The thing I am looking for should still be there. I would not trouble you – I can retrieve it myself."

"Still. I will accompany you. If that is alright with you, we can go right now," Jin Ling said, making clear that this was his final decision.

"Thank you, Sect Leader Jin."

As they walked past their assembled family and friends, XiChen kept his head low. He did not wish to see the expressions of pity or distrust there. Only WangJi's gaze he met, knowing his brother would be understanding even without knowing what XiChen intended to do. True to his expectations, his brother nodded just a little, even as he tightened his arm around his husband's waist.

Go. Do what you have to, he said.

"As I said before, the rooms have been emptied of all personal possessions, refurbished and renovated," Jin Ling said while they walked down the long corridor that led to the Jin clan's private quarters. It was a path XiChen had walked before, many times. Visiting his sworn brother. "Nobody has used the chambers since, even though they are unrecognizable. They have been purified as well, of course, but still nobody wants to use them. It's stupid superstition."

XiChen eyed Jin Ling's expression, seeing only mild irritation there. He wondered how the youth felt about all of this. They had never gotten to talk about what Jin GuangYao's actions had meant for him, both realistically speaking and emotionally as well. They had not been especially close, even though Jin GuangYao had been his uncle. A-Yao- … He had tried, XiChen knew. He had tried to gain Jin Ling's affections, through many means. But always, no matter what, his other uncle, Jiang WanYin, came first in Jin Ling's heart.

And yet. Jin GuangYao had tried to kill Jin Ling. With a guqin string around his throat, for sure, but perhaps other times as well. Who was to know?

Perhaps time had healed this wound for the young sect leader of LanlingJin. Perhaps he was never so affected in the first place, not having put his entire heart and trust in a two-faced uncle. Either way, he showed no expression when he opened the door to Jin GuangYao's former private quarters to XiChen.

"Here we are. Should I wait outside while you do … whatever you wanted to do?"

"That is not necessary." XiChen steeled himself. It might even be beneficial to him if Jin Ling was here. Just so he couldn't quit before completing this one thing.

The rooms did indeed look very different. None of the furnishings and small, impersonal decorations were recognizable to XiChen's eye. It was disorienting, to say the very least. The image he'd held in his mind about this place for so very long was being overridden with something else. Something empty and cold and lifeless. The place he remembered was gone. The air smelled stale and clean, and it felt … bereft.

He took a deep, relieved breath. This was good. He could handle this.

Not wasting any time, XiChen went into one of the side rooms. The former music chambers. When he stepped over the threshold, his stomach cramped painfully at the assault of memories that came to him despite all the changes.

This was where he had taught him. Echoes of the Sound of Clarity shivered against his skin and into his bones but wrong. Poisonous.

Pushing past the nauseous feeling, XiChen knelt by one of the corners, hastily prying at one of the floorboards with his bare fingers, unheeding of the pain when one of his nails bent backwards and broke. Finally, the floorboard loosened and lifted under his ministrations. He could hear a gasp coming from behind him, reminding him distantly that Jin Ling was still here.

"A secret compartment?" he said, astounded. "How did we miss this? Are there weapons hidden there? Talismans? Perhaps magic too- …"

Jin Ling interrupted himself when he saw what it was that XiChen pulled from the hidden partition, gasping in either shock or surprise.

It was a canvas. A sheet, large enough that XiChen had trouble spanning it open even with his arms outstretched. And on it was a painting – one that he was more than painfully familiar with. Because it was him who had made it.

Painted onto the canvas with skilled, careful strokes that betrayed the affection with which he had led his brush were three figures, captured in ink, water and pigments like ghosts. Shadows of the past: The Venerated Triad.

On the left was Nie MingJue, ChiFeng-Zun, da-ge. Their eldest brother. He had struck a heroic pose as soon as he noticed that XiChen was drawing the three of them together, kneeling on one knee, one hand propped up on his hip, the other arm stretched out, so his elbow rested daringly on XiChen's shoulder. His grin was as broad and dazzling as he remembered it always being, the fierce glint in his eyes as piercing as his saber, Baxia.

On the right was Jin GuangYao. LianFang-Zun. A-Yao. San-ge. His smile was more subdued as he knelt with his hands pulled demurely into his lap, a book held open and forgotten in his fingers. The brushstrokes made him look so very soft and gentle, so kind, even as XiChen searched the ink expression for traces, explanations, anything. But there was nothing. Because it was his hand who had drawn this. And this was what he had seen. Nothing. Only a lie.

In between his two sworn brothers was he himself. ZeWu-Jun. Their er-ge. There was a strange disconnect, seeing his own grin, broad enough to squish his eyes into closed crescents. He must have been happy. Even with ink stains on his hands, listing to the side because of ChiFeng-Zun's weight pressing down on his shoulder. Even with a traitor by his other side.

"No!"

He ignored Jin Ling's startled yell, decisively ripping up the canvas into shreds. Every tear felt like the slash of a sword cutting his insides open. His hands shook as he destroyed them. These three. Their lying, despicable faces, their false smiles.

"Sect Leader Lan! ZeWu-Jun!"

It rained violent strips of paper, letting them fly everywhere like the lifeless corpses of snowflakes. Before they could all settle peacefully on the ground, XiChen grabbed them all, bunching and wrinkling them in his hands. Then he stood, searching. When he could not find what he was looking for, he barged past Jin Ling and stormed outside.

To his surprise, WangJi was standing on the other side of the door, Wei WuXian hidden half behind his bulk. And Jiang WanYin, brows drawing into a tight frown at the sight of XiChen.

"Brazier?" XiChen asked, out of breath.

Nobody moved.

"Is there a brazier nearby? An open fire."

Finally, Jiang WanYin pointed his arm down the corridor. Not hesitating for a single moment, XiChen went in that direction, finding a lit brazier just on the end of the corridor. He threw the shreds of paper onto the hot coals, watching with satisfaction as they curled, blackened and shriveled into nothingness.

"Sect Leader Jin."

"Y-yes?"

"I would like to request a canvas from you. This size." He stretched out his arms. "And brushes, and ink, and pigments as well."

There was a pause, and XiChen turned around to look at Jin Ling, WangJi, Wei WuXian and Jiang WanYin standing behind him. Then, Jin Ling nodded.

"I will have these things brought to your rooms, Sect Leader Lan."

"Thank you."

With a shake of his sleeves, XiChen walked away, in the direction of his guest chambers. He felt like he was flying, so he quickly checked that Shuoyue was sheathed securely. And Liebing. It did not help the strange sensation of being disconnected from everything. Unmoored and left adrift. Distantly, he was aware of the fact that there were steps following him. Plural. WangJi, most likely, and perhaps his husband too. He did not dare to contemplate whether Jiang WanYin was coming as well, and he dared even less to ruminate on why that thought frightened him so.

Almost as if in a trance, XiChen reached his chambers, finding everything he had asked for there. Then, he began to work.

He had known he would need to do this during his stay in Koi Tower. At first, he had been terrified of the notion of even confronting this place. Then he had gathered his courage and faced his memories, and all the emotions that came with it. Fear, first and foremost. Anger, no, fury secondly. Now it was time to let go of all of that. To turn it into something else.

He barely saw where his hand was going as he wielded the brushes he had been provided with as if they were deadly weapons. Surely, his technique had to be suffering. There was no control over the flow of color at all, but he couldn't see any of it. Couldn't bring himself to care. This needed to be done.

In the end, he was exhausted to the bone and drenched in a rainbow of colors from his fingertips nearly up to his elbows. Painting this had been a violent act, and it showed.

"Xiongzhang?"

He raised his head to meet WangJi's guarded eyes. There was a kind of fear there that he had only seen very few times. One being the day XiChen had told his brother that he was going into secluded cultivation.

"I am fine, now," XiChen breathed, feeling that it was true while he said it. He dropped the brush in his hand and looked at what he had drawn for the first time.

It was them, again. The Venerated Triad. ChiFeng-Zun, ZeWu-Jun and LianFang-Zun. But this time it was the truth, how he saw them now.

None of them smiled.

Jin GuangYao still sat neatly, his legs tucked underneath him. But from his flat, closed mouth flowed bright red cinnabar, dripping down his chin and onto the Sparks Amidst Snow motif on his chest. The book he had held in his hands in the old painting had been replaced with a guqin, its strings and his fingers resting on them stained red.

On the left, Nie MingJue stood on his feet, towering above them all. XiChen had drawn his body in profile, facing away from his brothers. Only his face was turned towards the viewer, showing them a fearsome expression. His left hand rested on the hilt of Baxia tied at his waist. His right hand reached behind him, hovering in the air, though giving the impression of retreating and falling down. He was not reaching out. He was withdrawing.

Between the two, as before in the original painting, XiChen sat himself. There was little he had changed about his own appearance in comparison. One being the lack of a smile. The other being that his forehead ribbon now covered his eyes, leaving him blind.

"This is right."

WangJi said nothing, only reaching out gently to grip XiChen's elbows. He did not have the strength to protest, so he let his brother pull him to his feet – carry him, really – and to the couch where he laid XiChen down.

"The blanket."

XiChen smiled, holding on to his brother's hand. It halted WangJi, who had been about to get up. Immediately, he knelt back down, all but crashing into XiChen's side.

"I am fine, didi. It is all good now."

Clearly, WangJi did not believe him. His lips pressed tightly together, he accepted the bundle of lilac and gold, spreading it over XiChen and tucking it in at his sides. Then, to his surprise, Wei WuXian stepped in, bringing something unexpected with him.

"WangJi," he muttered, staring uncomprehendingly when his brother settled his guqin over his knees.

"Rest."

And then he began to play. At first, XiChen braced himself, worrying that WangJi would play the Song of Clarity, Cleansing. But of course, his brother knew the anxieties surrounding that piece. Instead, it took XiChen a short while to recognize the piece. Once he did, at first, he started laughing. Then he sobered.

"WangJi," repeated. "Didi, look at me."

He reached out with his hand, stilling the vibrating guqin strings under his brother's fingertips. Questioning amber eyes met his, full of fear and care.

"It is not like that," he tried to reassure.

Finally, WangJi stopped trying to continue playing the song. It was a melody they both were very familiar with, though XiChen had not heard or played it himself for a very long time. It had also taken him a while longer to recognize it, because usually it was XiChen who used to play it to WangJi, as an older brother soothing the younger. This song was the one he had recited for his little brother during a time when WangJi was inconsolable due to their mother's passing. When words had failed, this melody was able to reach him and communicate to him that he was not alone. That A-Huan would always be there for little A-Zhan, to protect him and to give him shelter.

"Is it not like that?" WangJi asked.

"No, didi. I promise. Here, listen to me." He shuffled a little, sitting up on the couch. Immediately, WangJi's hands shot forward, nearly unbalancing the guqin in his lap as he steadied XiChen. "Thank you. But brother, let me explain it to you. This painting, that memory, it haunted me. I had to erase it and rewrite it. Redraw it, actually. You mustn't worry about me now that it is gone and replaced. Its shadow has left me.

"This," he continued, "this is why I had to leave the Cloud Recesses. I have to face the people I need to face. I have to confront the memories I need to confront. This is just one of these things that I need to do to heal."

"Heal." WangJi lowered his eyes, seemingly deep in thought. XiChen waited patiently, knowing that his brother had to think things through, always. It would take time for him to completely understand everything that XiChen had said and meant. But once he had made up his mind, it was always true and right. So, after a while, he raised his head and nodded. "You are healing."

Laughing lightly, XiChen reached out to caress his thumb over his brother's cheek in a rare, open show of affection.

"Yes, WangJi. I am healing."

Chapter Text

Returning to Lotus Pier, XiChen expected to also return to a state of tranquility and peace that he seemed to have found there in his short stay there. It had been interrupted, of course, by the trip to Koi Tower and all the excitement that came with it. But surely, going back would again summon that feeling?

He was wrong, of course. As soon as he disembarked, there was a message waiting for him. This time he knew it could not be from WangJi, who he had seen just the day before.

XiChen sat in Jiang WanYin's office again, clutching the thick scroll in hands that wanted to shake.

"Who?" asked Jiang WanYin.

"Lan QiRen. I am to go home."

They sat in silence for a while, XiChen staring at the black ink that sealed his fate, and Jiang WanYin staring at him. He did not dare to see what his expression was.

"You are not happy."

With a sigh, XiChen rolled up the letter and put it in his sleeve.

"No."

"Hmph. You know, you are welcome to stay as long as you like. But if you need to leave, I won't be offended. You have your own sect to think of, after all, and I understand that if there is urgent business- …"

"There is no urgent business," XiChen interrupted him.

"Ah."

Taking a deep breath, XiChen closed his eyes to contemplate. Why was he so reluctant to answer shu-fu's summons? He felt strangely angry and upset, and it worried him. This should not be a sect leader's reaction at hearing he was needed at home. Naturally, he let none of it show, but that still did not make it just … go away.

He opened his eyes again, looking at Jiang WanYin who sat with his legs crossed, perfectly still and seemingly content with doing nothing. His posture almost looked too relaxed, as if he were trying to make it seem so.

"You said that you are restless when away from home," XiChen began. "That you miss your family when you are not here. I understand that. But was there ever a time when you … did not want to come back?"

"Yes." His reply came without hesitation. No contemplation at all, as if it had been at the forefront of his mind.

"Why?"

"Because." He paused, clenching his hands, which had previously hung relaxed over his knees. "I was afraid to face what I had left here."

"If I may ask … When was this?"

"It was the months before and after my sister's wedding."

XiChen reeled, not having expected this answer. He could have imagined Jiang WanYin feeling like this after the destruction of Lotus Pier. Having to face his home, burnt and razed to the ground, surely it would make him hesitate to return. He voiced this thought.

"Of course," said Jiang WanYin. "But I was also eager to remove any stain the Wens had left on this place. Any scar I saw I could not heal quick enough. It was not so difficult to come back with such strong motivation."

"Then why because of your sister's wedding?"

"Because she was my home. And she had left."

She had left me, XiChen completed the sentence in his mind. He began to understand a little. Having to give away his older sister, the last and only blood relation he had – after all no matter how close he may have been with Wei WuXian, he was not his blood brother. He was not a Jiang. But Jiang YanLi. Her leaving must have felt like tearing his heart in two and sending half of it away to Lanling.

"She rebuilt Lotus Pier as much as I did, you know."

XiChen held his breath. As far as he knew, Jiang WanYin never, ever talked about his sister. She would be mentioned fleetingly, in passing. As Jin Ling's mother. Sometimes as Wei WuXian's beloved shijie. Like a ghost, the version people spoke of was … vague. A concept, more than a woman. Someone kind and gentle and loving. Someone who was loved fiercely in return.

"I was the one who trained the new disciples and handled the war efforts, of course. I also directed the rebuilding of the main hall, the family residences and the ancestral hall where we buried what little we had left of our parents and erected their memorial. But it was A-Li who made it Lotus Pier again, instead of just … a bunch of houses." He smiled a little, sadly and bitterly, directed at the ground, but still XiChen felt the force of it pierce through his heart. "Lotus Pier was nothing without the smell of her cooking. And she was the one who remembered stupid little things, you know? I had never thought about what patterns we had on our paper screens, or what wood the tables were made from. But she did. And she would always be there for us, smiling and welcoming us home after a battle. After everything.

"So, when she left, it felt as if she had taken all of Lotus Pier with her. And I was alone again. That was when I would rather go out night-hunting and slaying monsters than be here, hearing nothing of her giggle or smell nothing of her perfume."

He fell into silence, but XiChen could imagine what else remained unsaid. How much worse it must have been after her death. Knowing that not even a flight to Lanling would soothe some of the homesickness. That he would never get to speak to her or touch her ever again. Having just one more piece of his home torn away and swallowed by death.

"Why is it that you don't want to go home?"

Of course, he would ask that same question in return, now. XiChen hesitated, swimming helplessly in his own uncertainty. His heart ached, but he had no answer.

"I don't know."

To his surprise, Jiang WanYin nodded, as if he had expected this.

"You have achieved much, you know. You went to Koi Tower, even though you feared it. Perhaps it is time you went home, to reflect on things. Or to face what it is about the Cloud Recesses that makes you fear them, too."

XiChen laughed shakily.

"Wise advice, as always, Sect Leader Jiang."

"Mm."

A knock suddenly rang through the office, startling them both.

"Master? A-Min just woke up, would you like to- …?"

"Yes, please, bring her in."

XiChen wrung his sleeves, feeling suddenly very much out of place. It was BaiBai who came in – the only Spider of Yunmeng XiChen was not really familiar with, since he had never actually talked to her in person – with little Jiang Min in her arms. She deposited the squirming bundle in her father's lap without much ceremony. Immediately, the girl latched on to him, burbling and cooing quietly when he kissed her cheeks.

"And the boys, master?"

"Is Chun-er done with his studies?"

"Yes, Guan-laoshi has dismissed him for today."

"Then you can let them in, too."

"A-Die!"

Before he even finished his sentence, the door was ripped open and a storm consisting of two little boys rushed inside. They scrambled over each other, the two of them equally eager to reach their father before the other. In their haste, one of them bumped into XiChen, sending them both reeling.

"Ow."

XiChen quickly steadied himself, lest he fall face first to the floor, and turned around to check on the child that had actually fallen. Apparently, it was the younger brother, Jiang Yong, since his older sibling was standing uncertainly over him, hands half outstretched as if unsure whether to help or not.

"Boys, what did we say about running in the office?"

"Not to," they chorused obediently, even as Jiang Yong struggled to get back on his feet.

"That's right. If you want to run so badly, I'll have you do laps around the compound tomorrow morning before breakfast."

"Nooo," they moaned, grasping the hem of their father's robes with teary eyes. "We will be good! We promise we won't do it again."

"Two laps on the training grounds. And apologize to Sect Leader Lan, Yong-er," Jiang WanYin insisted, voice perfectly strict even as he bounced his baby daughter on his knees and she giggled, completely oblivious to her brothers' plight.

Jiang Yong turned and bowed to XiChen right away, muttering: "Sorry, Lan-laoshi. You're not hurt?"

"I am not hurt," XiChen assured gently. "What about you? Did you hurt your knees or scrape your hands?"

The boy shook his head mutely.

"Then I am relieved."

Apparently content with this apology, Jiang WanYin turned his attention towards his oldest son, asking him about the progress he made in his studies. This was not done intentionally or maliciously, but XiChen noticed that while Jiang Min was content in her father's embrace and Jiang Chun was earnestly reporting on his learning, Jiang Yong was excluded from the conversation. Likely knowing that he should not interrupt his father and brother speaking to each other and also barred from playing with his little sister, Jiang Yong eventually sat down on the ground, fiddling dejectedly with his sash. This sight touched XiChen, and he carefully reached out to tap the boy's shoulder.

"Second Young Master," he whispered, so as not to disturb the conversation going on. "Do you know how to play an instrument?"

Jiang Yong shook his head, eyes wide and glinting.

"No. But I want to. Uncle Wei plays the flute. It's nice."

"You like the flute? Hmm, but there are different kinds of flutes, did you know that?" XiChen grinned and beckoned the boy closer. "You are fortunate. Here, look. I also have a flute, but it is not the same as the one your Uncle Wei plays. His is a dizi, and it is played horizontally. Do you know what that means?"

"No."

"Look, it is played like this." He lifted Liebing, holding it so the end pointed at the wall. "This means holding it horizontally. But my flute is a xiao, and you play a xiao vertically, like this." He turned the flute in his hands, until the end pointed at the ground. "You see?"

Jiang Yong's face lit up and he nodded.

"Yes. But why do you turn it?"

"Hmm." XiChen touched a finger to his chin. He wondered how simply he should explain this. It was difficult to convey sound theory to a child as young as this. Then again, he had been not much older than Jiang Yong when he began playing, so he thought he'd give it a try. "Well, your uncle's dizi has a special tone. I am sure you know it, if he has played it for you. That special tone comes from a very small part, which would be about here if this was a dizi. It's a very thin layer of bamboo. But sometimes you don't want that special tone, and you want it to sound different, so you have to change things. Things like the way you hold the flute. Do you want to hear what a xiao sounds like?"

"Yes please!"

Deciding on a whim, XiChen chose to play the short little melody that WangJi had reminded him of the other day in Koi Tower. Since he had played it for his little brother when they were children, he thought it would be suitable for Jiang Yong to enjoy as well. It seemed as if he was right, because the young boy leaned forward in fascination, eyes round and glinting with joy. When XiChen finished, he clapped his hands.

"I like it!" he laughed.

"It sounds very different from a dizi, doesn't it? Here, why don't we try something."

XiChen shifted so he sat a little closer and behind Jiang Yong, almost letting Liebing rest on the boy's shoulder. As he leaned in, the boy tilted his head back to be able to see XiChen, and it was then that something strange happened … The image snapped. It was like seeing two pieces that were perfectly crafted for each other fit together. Instead of that, it was just the sight of Jiang Yong's eyes, their corners tilted downward just a little bit. Their greenish brown color. The angle of his nose. How a little curl of hair had escaped his ponytail and fell over his left eyebrow that curved just so. He was seeing something. Except he had no idea what it was.

Snapping out of it, XiChen smiled and helped Jiang Yong settle comfortably in front of him. Then he asked the boy to show him his hands.

"Alright. I am going to play a tone now, and when you feel like it, I want you to put this finger," he pinched the knuckle of Jiang Yong's index finger, "onto this spot here. You see where there is a hole in the flute? Exactly there. Ready?"

He played a single, long note, saving his breath to continue it for as long as he was able. Jiang Yong hesitated for a bit, before he timidly reached out and put his finger on the spot XiChen had indicated earlier. When the note changed, he startled and pulled his hand back.

"Oh!"

XiChen continued to play the tone, biting down on the urge to smile, when the boy eagerly dove back in to hold down his finger.

"It changes!"

"Yes," XiChen chuckled, stopping to regain his breath. "Do you want to try a different one?"

And so, slowly, step by step, XiChen taught Jiang Yong how to play a simple little melody with their four hands combined. When they played it together for the first time, the boy laughed and clapped his hands, lighting up with happiness.

"A-Die!" he called out, crawling over to his father and siblings. In his haste it seemed he did not find the time to get on his feet and walk. "A-Chun! Look what I learned. Lan-laoshi and I can play flute."

"Hmm, really? Can you show us again?" Jiang WanYin asked, smiling indulgently. Obviously, he had been listening the entire time, even as he talked to his eldest son and soothed his baby daughter. But he watched intently anyway, when Jiang Yong crawled back to XiChen and assumed his position.

"Ready?"

"Yes."

It went even better the second time, Jiang Yong being clearly more confident already in his motions. And in front of spectators, too.

"I want to play flute, A-Die," he announced, after they were done and had received their due applause from their audience.

"Oh? I will arrange a teacher for you, if you really want to, Yong-er. Or maybe your uncle can start instructing you, next time he comes to visit."

"But!" Jiang Yong clenched his hands in distress. "I want this flute. Not Uncle Wei's flute."

"You want to play a xiao? Not a dizi?" XiChen asked, trying to clarify the young boy's meaning.

"Yes. I want this one," he said, carefully placing his fingers in the positions they had practiced earlier. He shyly grinned up at XiChen. "Can we play?"

"Second Young Master- …"

"Yong-er," Jiang WanYin said, before XiChen could finish his sentence. "Sect Leader Lan is a busy man. He is going to have to leave soon, and we don't know when he'll come back to visit."

Clearly, this was the wrong thing to say, because Jiang Yong broke into tears. He clung to XiChen's sleeve, looking between him and his father with begging eyes even though the heavy sobs ripping from his throat prevented him from articulating himself.

"It's alright, Second Young Master. A xiao is not meant to be played by two people, you see. And you are not big enough to play it by yourself just yet. Look, it is almost as tall as you! That means you will have to grow up first, and then when you are big enough, I promise I will teach you how to play."

"P-promise?" he hiccoughed, messily wiping his running nose.

"I promise. If you promise to grow up quick and strong."

Jiang Yong nodded, and then let go of XiChen's sleeve, tilting forward in exhaustion. Purely on reflex, XiChen reached out to sling his arm around the boy's back, letting him nestle safely against his hip.

"I think we're all a bit tired here, aren't we?"

As if on cue, Jiang Min yawned widely in her father's arms, and even Jiang Chun surreptitiously rubbed his eyes.

"That's what I thought. Come on, my little ducklings, we're having a nap."

And so it happened that XiChen was roped into helping Jiang WanYin put his three children to bed for an early afternoon nap. While Jiang WanYin had his daughter leaning against his shoulder, cradled safely in the crook of one elbow, holding the hand of his eldest boy on the other side, XiChen had the limp weight of Jiang Yong propped up on his hip. The boy seemed to register nothing at all, head lolling limply as they walked down the corridor to the children's rooms. First Jiang WanYin handed his daughter over to FeiFei, who would properly keep an eye on her. Then, XiChen waited outside the door to Jiang Chun's room, turning away even though it did not keep him from overhearing the soft murmurs exchanged between father and son. Eventually it was Jiang Yong's turn to be put to bed. Thanks to all the excitement, he was already out like a light, so all XiChen had to do was to lay him down and cover him gently with a blanket.

"Thank you," Jiang WanYin whispered, after they had slid the door to Jiang Yong's room closed behind them.

"Oh, it's no trouble."

"Not that." He nodded at the door. "I meant earlier. A-Yong is in this strange age where he is too young to participate in the things that I am trying to teach his brother. And I am hoping I can keep those responsibilities away from him for a while longer. But it also means that sometimes he feels left out."

"I saw. I only hope I did not cause you more trouble, now that he wants to learn an instrument that he's not ready for yet."

"No. I think it may give him something to strive for. A goal."

XiChen smiled, relieved. Their eyes met then, in the dim light of a corridor somewhere in the privacy of the Jiang family's pavilion.

"Then I am glad I was able to give him that."

Chapter Text

When it finally became time for XiChen to leave Lotus Pier and return to the Cloud Recesses, he still found himself reluctant to go. It was made somewhat bearable by the delegation seeing him off. Not only did it remind him of how many new acquaintances he had made over the duration of his stay, but their genuine affections also soothed his spirits greatly. Not all of the Spiders of Yunmeng were able to come, seeing as some of them were on duty outside of Lotus Pier, protecting the territory through the watchtowers that were set up, or they were currently on night-hunts. But QiaoQiao was here, who he felt closest to, and so were BaiBai and FeiFei, who had accompanied the children they were tasked with overseeing.

Speaking of those, the entire Jiang family had come to see XiChen off at the pier. He did not quite know how to feel about that. On the one hand, it warmed him to see Jiang Yong's smile and to hear him beg XiChen to return soon. His older brother, too, sweetly wished him a safe journey, though he hid mostly behind an unhappy scowl. Jiang Min, of course, knew nothing of what was going on, but she was happy chewing on a soft toy, and the sight alone was very charming to behold.

Saying goodbye to Jiang WanYin was strange though. He was likely here as a sect leader, wishing farewell to a fellow sect leader. But to XiChen, he had become a dear friend. A strange one, but a friend, nonetheless. They had bared their hearts to each other so many times, and it had helped XiChen so much, he had no idea how to express any of it or how to show this man the depth of his regard.

He'd let him into his home – willingly at first or not, he had still provided more than just a simple distraction from XiChen's mental turmoil. He had allowed XiChen glimpses, and in some cases went above and beyond, welcoming him into the life of his family. A family that was usually not only isolated from the rest of the world due to their rejection, but also protected fiercely by the father who had gone through unimaginable hardships to have these three wonderful children.

After he had exchanged good wishes and pleasantries with everyone else and he could avoid it no longer, he turned to Jiang WanYin at last. He had no idea what the smile on his face looked like at this point, but either way, Jiang WanYin's expression was too knowing and kind to bear looking at it when he held out one hand.

Hesitating for a split second, XiChen eventually reached out and took it, only to startle, when Jiang WanYin laughed. The rough, calloused hand in his twisted out of his grip, only to settle further up, by XiChen's elbow, pulling him closer.

"Don't look like that," he muttered, smirking a little. "You'll come back for Chun-er's birthday at the latest, won't you?"

Finally shaking off his stupor, XiChen also wound his fingers around Jiang WanYin's forearm, completing the gesture. He did not know how to feel about this either. An arm clasp like this, it was done between friends or brothers, but he did not really want Jiang WanYin to be his friend or his brother, seeing as XiChen did not have a very good track record with either of those.

"Of course, I wouldn't miss it for the world," he replied despite this.

"I'll hold you to that, Lan XiChen."

He hesitated, tightening his fingers a little to steel himself.

"Lan Huan," he said then. A titter went through the small crowd surrounding them, but it felt as if they had all fallen away, leaving only the two of them. Well, the two of them and little Jiang Min clutched to her father's chest, where she was leaving a wet spot of drool. XiChen tilted his head and brightened his smile. "Unless you don't feel that we are close, now."

"That's- … No, I mean yes, I mean- …" He huffed. "You must call me Jiang Cheng then, too."

"Thank you."

"I said before that you are my favorite person, but now you are my favorite brother. Much better than that good-for-nothing Wei WuXian."

XiChen withdrew his hand, pinching his lips so nobody would see his grimace. He did not want to be anyone's brother, not like that. He was WangJi's brother, and that was that. That was good. But like this he had only ever made mistakes and hurt his brothers. He looked at the people gathered around and the children at Jiang W- … Jiang Cheng's feet. If he hurt him, it would hurt all these people.

"I should go," he choked out. And then, crouching down, he looked both Jiang Chun and Jiang Yong in the eyes, mustering another smile for them as he told them: "Be good, you two. Be good to your family."

"We will, Lan-laoshi," Jiang Chun answered seriously, holding his brother's hand. The smaller boy also nodded earnestly, though he had one corner of his robe stuck in his mouth and was currently sucking on it, so he could not speak.

"Then I will rest assured."

With the help of the YunmengJiang sect's steward, XiChen's butler had prepared the same boats they came with to travel back to Gusu. However, this time XiChen had insisted that he take the direct route by himself, meaning he intended to fly by sword. Therefore, he pulled Shuoyue from its sheath and mounted it after waving once more at the kind people waiting to see him off.

Traveling like this was not only much faster and convenient for a cultivator especially of his level, but it was also rather relaxing. After only a few minutes, XiChen was able to shake off the strange jitteriness and dark mood that had gripped him earlier when saying his farewells to the people of Lotus Pier. He took a deep breath of the crisp air rushing past him, enjoying how he felt the push of his spiritual energy against the drag of gravity and the resistance of the wind. Shuoyue was as steady and reliable as ever beneath his boots, giving him a special sort of joy.

At least this he still had for himself.

The more the distance between him and Lotus Pier grew, the more he had to force himself to get into a mental state in which he could properly deal with being back in the Cloud Recesses. Going back home was not just that. He would need to speak with shu-fu, which was like a test unto itself. He may be called to speak to the Council of Lan clan's elders. He would have to behave a certain way in front of the disciples of GusuLan, the visiting students from other sects, and whoever else he may encounter. He had to be ZeWu-Jun, gentle and warm and willing to stop and speak to everyone who caught his attention.

The time to prepare himself, however, was short. Travelling to Yunmeng in the first place had taken nearly an entire day, despite having the best conditions and strongest talismans to sail upstream. But flying on Shuoyue, it only took him the better part of an afternoon, even though he did not push himself to the limit.

Sooner rather than later, he spotted the first watchtowers belonging to GusuLan territory. The cultivators stationed there recognized him – perhaps not personally, but at least that he was a senior master of their sect – and greeted him with joyous sword glares. He flew over the hubbub of CaiYi town, high enough that he could not make out any individuals or hear the soft accent of Gusu. This was the last bit of civilization before making his way deeper into the mountains, where the Cloud Recesses were hidden.

It was fairly late in autumn now, and the fog clung heavy to the mountain sides, forcing him to slow down considerably lest he'd be in danger of crashing into an obstacle. But then he flew even higher, breaking through the thick layer of clouds, to be welcomed by the sight of his home.

The main gates let him pass with a soft chime coming from his jade ornament, surely alerting somebody somewhere of his arrival. Not long now, he thought, watching the first junior disciples scatter at the sight of him, likely to run off and spread the word.

Gossiping was forbidden in the Cloud Recesses. But this was just passing on information.

ZeWu-Jun is back. Our sect leader is home.

He sheathed Shuoyue and leisurely took the path that would take him to the main hall at the center of the Cloud Recesses. Either shu-fu could be found there or near there, or he would come to find XiChen there himself.

True to his expectations, shu-fu already stood on the steps, looking down with an inscrutable expression, one hand caressing the long trail of his goatee.

"Shu-fu," he said, offering a salute to his uncle as he joined him.

"XiChen. I see you have regained your senses," said Lan QiRen, looking at everything on XiChen from his head to the toes of his boots, and apparently finding him satisfactory. For now.

"Have I?" XiChen said mildly. "I was not aware I had ever lost them."

"Hmph."

Saying nothing more, shu-fu turned on his heels and started to walk in the direction of the clan houses. Specifically, the Anshi, shu-fu's private house. It had been a while since XiChen was called over or invited to his uncle's abode, but from what he remembered, it still looked exactly the same. Meticulously organized, clean and devoid of anything unnecessary. After gesturing for him to sit, shu-fu poured them both some water and then sat looking at XiChen.

"Was there something you wished to talk about, shu-fu?"

At first, he only sighed heavily, ceasing the stroking of his beard. Then he took a sip of water, carefully measuring each of his movements and making sure that his robes remained smooth and unwrinkled throughout. He just was this kind of man. Calculating, rationalizing, until things were perfect according to his standards. Oftentimes, XiChen would wonder why his uncle was like this, why he had such a strong need for order, when he thought he knew that his father, shu-fu's own brother, was not like at all this.

"I was wrong."

XiChen blinked, halting in the middle of reaching for his own cup of water.

"Shu-fu?"

"At first, when you and your brother were given into my care, I thought you were easy to raise. Very obedient and eager, but not too excited." He sighed again, looking at XiChen with heavy eyes that were so similar to his own, yet so very different. Pained. And old. Suddenly, he looked so very old, even though he still looked more than youthful for his nearly seventy years of age. "You both grew up strong and capable, but then WangJi had to go and be unreasonable about this boy who wasn't worth his devotion. So, I thought at least I still had you, to be filial and dutiful. That you would still be what a Lan ought to be. But now I see I was wrong."

XiChen felt his breath hitch in his throat, staring uncomprehendingly at the man he had looked up to and admired and emulated more than his own father. He opened his mouth, his first instinct to protect WangJi and protest the reproach to his little brother's character. But he could not say anything. Instead, his mind spun with thoughts about what his uncle must have seen in him to tell him this now. Where had he failed? Was it finally so visible, what was wrong with XiChen?

Eventually, all he could force out of his hoarse throat was: "I have disappointed you, shu-fu. I am sorry."

Shu-fu's eyes widened, and he suddenly leaned forward, placing a warm, gentle hand on XiChen's cheek.

"XiChen. Zhizi. No."

It was only then that XiChen noticed the hot tears spilling from his eyes, now gathering in his uncle's palm to be smeared against both their skin. His breath hitched again, breaking on a sob, even as shu-fu came closer, wiping the tears with his sleeve now. With horror, he stared at the stains on his uncle's pristine robes. He had never seen them in any state other than utter perfection.

"A-Huan, look at me."

Startled into obedience by the use of a term of affection that hadn't been used in years – decades, even – he lifted his head.

"I am never disappointed. I could never be disappointed in you. I am only … sad that it must be this way." Shu-fu shook his head, a slow, weary gesture. "I have only ever wanted the best for you and your brother, and I had hoped to know the easiest way to happiness for the both of you. Now you have both proven me wrong. Neither of you is taking the easy path. But that does not mean I am disappointed."

"Then- …?"

"I am scared, zhizi. I am scared, because I have to watch you both struggle and hurt, while I can do nothing to help. I don't know how to walk the paths you have chosen; all I can do is to show you the easy way. The Lan way. It would not hurt you, this way, but it is not your way. And … Perhaps it is good like this, too. We will all have to change eventually – and if it is my two strong boys leading the way, perhaps we can make it."

"I don't know what you are saying, shu-fu," XiChen admitted in a small voice. At least his tears had stopped now, but he wiped the residue of the last of them on his own sleeve still, lest his uncle dirty his own robes even more.

"What I am saying is this: Lan XiChen, you are not the person I had hoped you would become. I had hoped you would become that person, because life would have been easy for you. But now that I see that you are not that person? I don't want you to change into someone you are not. I can only help you bear this harder life that you have chosen." Shu-fu smiled then, a sight so rare, XiChen immediately felt it deep in his heart. This was the truth. "Do not ever think that I am disappointed in you. And please do not blame me for wishing that you were happy."

"I am happy," XiChen protested, irritated at feeling the tears prickle in his eyes again.

"Are you? I have placed restrictions on you, and the Council is dissatisfied with you, yet you are happy?"

"I am," he insisted. "The only thing is that perhaps you should accept that I am sect leader now. And for as long as I am sect leader, this is how the sect leader of GusuLan will be. If you want a different sect leader, then elect one of my cousins who is more suitable to your taste."

"Mm."

To his surprise, shu-fu nodded.

"It is difficult to accept for us old ones, but I will try. And I will speak to the Council. Certainly, they were not happy that you were in seclusion for so long, only to flee the Cloud Recesses as soon as you came out of closed-door cultivation. You are here now, though, and it will go a long way towards appeasing them."

"Good. I am here. That means, though, that things will have to change. For a while now there has been no sect leader, just like when my father was still alive. You and the Council were asked to take over many of the duties of a sect leader, and it should not be so. Now that I am here, these duties will be transferred to me again." He frowned, looking into his uncle's eyes to convey his seriousness. "As will the decision-making power. I won't have others making choices for the sect that I do not agree with. I will consult you and the Council, of course. But they will have to recognize me as the sect leader again."

Shu-fu nodded, thoughtfully stroking his goatee.

"I assume you are speaking of the situation regarding YunmengJiang."

"I- … Yes, I am."

"You were not there when it was decided that YunmengJiang would be removed from the rank of the Four Great Sects and replaced with MeishanYu, so I will try to explain to you why the Council has decided to support this decision." He sighed. "You are aware now of the … surrounding circumstances?"

"If you are referring to Jiang Cheng's sons and daughter, then you should say it."

Surprised perhaps by the bite in XiChen's tone, shu-fu hesitated a moment.

"Indeed, I am referring to the Jiang children. Or rather, the technique that was used to conceive them. I believe Wei WuXian told you that it was a technique he developed, after extensive research, among other things with the help of literature obtained from the Room of Forbidden Books?"

"He did say he developed it, but I was not aware of the sources, no."

"Ah. Well, this plays part of the role why such a decision was made. Firstly, Wei WuXian's involvement. He, who despite being cleared of many crimes and ill deeds he was formerly accused of, still is who he is. Secondly, the experimental nature of the technique, meaning there is uncertainty regarding ill effects and such. And thirdly, the use of sources from the Room of Forbidden Books, implying the connection to harmful, if not downright malevolent methods."

XiChen pondered this for a while.

"I understand that this would raise concerns regarding the technique. However, the results are undeniable. The children are as if conceived the natural way. Has no one considered this?"

"It was considered, but eventually deemed irrelevant in the face of the usage of forbidden techniques."

"Who deemed it irrelevant?"

Shu-fu hesitated for a moment, and this was when XiChen knew he had come across something important. The crux of the matter.

"It was Sect Leader Nie."

XiChen sat back, inhaling deeply. This explained everything.

"Of course," he said slowly, eyes closed. He carefully enunciated his thought process, looking at his uncle for confirmation. "He is the Chief Cultivator, now that LianFang-Zun is dead. Very few would disagree with the Chief Cultivator in the first place, but more so now that it has been revealed how cunning Nie HuaiSang really is and his reputation has taken a turn from being a head-shaker to a mastermind. QingheNie sect is also naturally the most powerful currently, having very good standing. This explains why he was able to sway public opinion in his favor.

"But why did he disagree so much with a technique that, as far as I can tell, has not seen usage outside of the example of the Jiang clan? I can only explain this with what little I know of this new Nie HuaiSang, having heard him argue during the martial arts conference in Koi Tower. He was very outspoken towards the conservation of tradition and against innovation and experimentation. Clearly, he counted the technique that allowed Jiang Cheng to fulfill his wish for a family among such methods and argued strongly that it should be banned, perhaps even on pain of severe punishment. Am I right so far?"

"You are."

"The only thing I cannot yet explain is … why? Why would the Chief Cultivator go to such lengths? Why is he so opinionated on this matter?" He rubbed his chin in thought. "I also thought in the past that Nie HuaiSang's relationship with Jiang Cheng was rather good. There is no grudge or old resentment between them. In fact, I thought them good friends. That he would go this far, even against someone he was originally close with, destroying their friendship …"

"I cannot tell you the thoughts and reasons of others," shu-fu said. "But I must caution you to be careful. I had hoped you would not get involved in this and create conflict between the sects over this small matter- …"

"Small matter? Shu-fu, these are the lives of children that are affected. It is the happiness of a family. It would matter if it were any family, but shu-fu, were we not close allies with YunmengJiang? Could we not also be considered friends of the Jiang family?"

"We could be considered that, yes."

"Then I decide that we will not simply agree with the Chief Cultivator's verdict," XiChen resolved, firmly meeting his uncle's eyes.

And then, miraculously, shu-fu smiled.

"As you wish, my sect leader."

Chapter Text

Finally. He was settling back into his life. Having returned to the Cloud Recesses, XiChen finally felt like he belonged again. Like a flower, he imagined, or a tree, settling comfortably back into the soil with its roots, able to stretch its leaves out towards the sun. Outwardly, nothing much had changed, really. He could not pinpoint the reason why he felt so much more content. So much happier with himself, his life, his position. Perhaps it was just that something inside of him had solidified now, after years of being in flux.

He no longer felt exhausted when visitors came to speak to him about sect matters. He no longer struggled to keep up the smile on his face when greeting his disciples and fellow sect members. He felt pride, once more, when they called him ZeWu-Jun, because finally he thought himself worthy of the title again.

What five years of seclusion had not mended, a short while spent in the company of virtual strangers gave him the strength to confront the fears sapping the strength from him, and now upon coming home, he was able to grow again.

The entire Cloud Recesses seemed to thrive, as contradictory as it seemed with the end of autumn and the beginning of winter drawing ever nearer. It was a season during which most people prepared to live sparsely, stay indoors and endure until the arrival of spring. But to XiChen it felt as if he had already lived through winter, and spring was now here. Perhaps the people around him felt this, too.

Soon enough, the first frost came, and with it, a letter. But it was not the one XiChen had been expecting.

"Are you sure you want to go?" shu-fu asked.

They sat together in the Hanshi, taking shelter from the rain outside, though it was not so cold today. The fog had started to press in closer to the Cloud Recesses now, and it led to many withdrawing to their houses at times like this. Apart from those being sent out to night-hunt, this was a time for reflection, study and meditation.

XiChen lowered the letter in his hands, absentmindedly skimming its contents again as he set it aside.

"It would be rude to refuse the Chief Cultivator's invitation to his home."

"It seems to be more than a mere invitation for tea, though."

XiChen smiled wryly, meeting his uncle's worried gaze.

"True, there is much that the Chief Cultivator and I need to speak about. Why wait any longer to clarify things between us and make sure there are no lingering resentments?" he argued.

"I am not speaking about what is right and proper," shu-fu said surprisingly. "I am speaking about what is good for you."

This made XiChen waver for a moment. He had been afraid of visiting the Unclean Realm exactly because of this, and his fears had only mounted after shortly meeting Nie HuaiSang at the martial arts conference in Koi Tower. But he'd have to face him again one day sooner or later.

"I have to do this," XiChen finally decided.

"If that is your wish. I shall have everything made ready for your journey."

This time, XiChen did not protest. It might be better to arrive in Qinghe with the protection that his title and position afforded. Nie HuaiSang may not be the person he thought he was anymore, but if one thing had not changed about him, then that he appreciated pomp and luxury. Flying to the Unclean Realm alone would not impress to the Chief Cultivator that he was taking their meeting seriously. Arriving with a large delegation, banners and fanfares, however …

"Let me also bring a few of our disciples," XiChen requested.

"Oh? Who do you have in mind?"

He smiled and took a measured sip of his tea.

~

Even though their relationship was that of an uncle and a nephew, it was inherently different from what XiChen experienced with himself and shu-fu due to the simple fact that in no way did XiChen ever think he was any kind of authority figure in Lan SiZhui's life. WangJi was, for all intents and purposes, SiZhui's father. He had raised him, sheltered him, fed him, clothed him, taught him. By that virtue, XiChen should be the boy's – now young man's – uncle.

And he was. But he was the fun uncle.

This was why XiChen now sat comfortably in a wagon that would carry them to the Unclean Realm, his shoulder propped against SiZhui's, while they both snacked on sugared fruit and giggled about a detail of his nephew's story. He had been telling him about his latest adventures out night-hunting with Lan JingYi and Wen Ning, who, XiChen now realized, was a strong contender for the title of 'fun uncle' these days. He'd have to try harder, especially since SiZhui had gained a 'fun' father in Wei WuXian on top of it all.

"I wish I had seen his face," XiChen snickered.

"You will have to come with us soon, please, uncle," SiZhui begged, and paused to chew some berries. "It has been a while since I was last night-hunting with you. I miss it."

"Oh, but I would only get in the way. I am a stuffy sect leader. It does sound like you had lots of fun though. I am glad."

"But you are all better now, uncle. Will you at least consider it?"

"Fine. Anything for my favorite nephew," XiChen said in mock reluctance. They both dissolved into laughter again when SiZhui began to rationally protest that he was his only nephew and therefore there was no competition about who might be his favorite.

"Oi!"

They looked up guiltily, both quickly hiding a handful of the candies they had been eating between them.

"Oh, JingYi! How is the road?"

The young man who had stuck his head through the small window of the carriage snorted inelegantly and rolled his eyes.

"I can hear the two of you clucking like hens all the way from the front of the procession. What's so funny? I want in on the gossip. Oh, and when are we going to switch? SiZhui?"

"I was only telling ZeWu-Jun about our last night-hunt, JingYi. And I'll ride with you soon enough. We are close to the border?"

"Yeah. Another half hour or so."

SiZhui nodded seriously.

"I will join you then. After all," he threw a sharp glance that was softened by his affectionate smile, "this is the sect leader's carriage."

"Just until the border," XiChen agreed with a sigh.

To be honest, it was a bit of a tight fit with the both of them in here, and it tended to get stuffy very quickly with two people breathing the air at the same time. But it would have been unnecessarily boring to endure the entire trip to Qinghe isolated and alone, stuffed away into this box, all by himself. By his lonesome. Cast away and forgotten.

"I am glad you asked us to come along with you, uncle," SiZhui disrupted his morose thoughts.

"Oh? I hope you were not getting bored in Gusu."

"Not at all." He shook his head and smiled bashfully. "There are more than enough things to do at home, even with HanGuang-Jun and Senior Wei taking care of most of the threats themselves, and now that you are back, which leaves more time for Senior QiRen to manage the disciples' teachings."

"Then why is it you are happy to go on this frankly time-consuming and mostly pointless trip with me?"

"Pointless?" SiZhui echoed, frowning a little. "Uncle, why would you say that?"

"SiZhui."

He hung his head.

"ZeWu-Jun. I am just glad that you are feeling better. I- … JingYi- … We all were worried. Especially after what happened to you at Koi Tower. We are happy to accompany you, because now we can see that for ourselves."

XiChen's heart softened at his nephew's words, and he reached out to take his hands in his own.

"Of course. And here I thought I was being selfish, asking our two most brilliant disciples to go on a dreary joyride with me."

"This is an important meeting, though, isn't it?" SiZhui asked, eyeing him shrewdly. "I mean, I heard you spoke to the Chief Cultivator at Koi Tower, but due to your poor health I can't imagine that there was much exchange. And relations between GusuLan and QingheNie are more vital than ever, now that you are back, and QingheNie's sect leader is the Chief Cultivator."

XiChen silently held his nephew's hands for a few moments, thinking.

"I wager that Nie HuaiSang has called me to meet with him for a different reason."

"Really? What reason?"

"Ah. To speak about what happened, of course."

SiZhui's mind visibly turned XiChen's words this way and that, analyzing them and trying to decipher their meaning.

"About what happened," he repeated, slowly. "Uncle, you don't just mean what happened while you were in seclusion, do you?"

"No. You are right, there is more that Nie HuaiSang and I need to talk about. Mainly, that is, my involvement in ChiFeng-Zun's death."

SiZhui gasped.

"But ZeWu-Jun, you did not harm your sworn brother. It has all been revealed to be LianFang-Zun's doing now."

"Yes, but the Chief Cultivator may not see it that way. Both ChiFeng-Zun and LianFang-Zun were my sworn brothers. The means by which Jin GuangYao killed Nie MingJue was a technique originally only known to GusuLan sect disciples, which I personally taught to our younger sworn brother. And I preempted justice by killing Jin GuangYao myself, accidentally or not." XiChen sighed. "Some days I blame myself for what happened as well. It remains to be seen what Nie HuaiSang's verdict is."

SiZhui remained strangely still and quiet for a while, though his hands had now turned to hold XiChen's instead, and they held him steadily. He was clearly still thinking about his words, as always, and so very much like WangJi, weighing everything in his mind before he spoke his mind.

"So that is why you asked me and JingYi to accompany you," he said finally. "We are here to protect you."

"No, SiZhui, I do not expect you to shield me from Nie HuaiSang, nor do I wish for you to get involved in this. Whatever happens, you have to promise me, not to get in the way of things. We cannot afford to sour relations between GusuLan and QingheNie, do you understand?"

SiZhui blinked.

"I understand, uncle. But then, why?"

"In a way you are right. I did ask you to come with me for a specific reason, and you could say it is to protect me. But not in the way you think." He smiled a little, awed and humbled beyond words at the bravery of his nephew. He would have stood between him and the Chief Cultivator, incurring the wrath of the most powerful sect, just to keep his uncle from coming to harm. He was their most shining, brilliant, and virtuous head disciple for a reason. "Your role is not truly to entertain me on the journey to Qinghe. Nor is it to intervene while I speak to Nie HuaiSang. It is to comfort me, should I need it, after we are done here and on our way home. Is that alright?"

Immediately, SiZhui's eyes lit up.

"Of course. You mustn't worry at all, JingYi and I will take care of you."

XiChen laughed then, relieved, and let himself be pulled into a tight hug. In his mind, unbidden, came a voice.

You have helped others for a very long time. Perhaps it is time to allow others to help you in return for once.

Was this not what Jiang Cheng had said? He smiled, hiding his expression in the curve of SiZhui's neck while they held onto each other. Perhaps it had taken him a while to realize this, but for a man of relatively few words, who was reputed to be more anger and impulse than reason, what Jiang Cheng said held a surprising amount of wisdom.

How curious, he thought, closing his eyes and taking comfort in his nephew's embrace. He quite missed the smell of lotus.

~

XiChen arrived in the Unclean Realm picturing himself as an elegant, pure white swan alighting gracefully upon the steps laid before him. He had the natural poise and dignity lent to his body due to his high cultivation, which made the offer of any help descending from his carriage nothing more than superfluous – and still he extended both his hands, one to SiZhui, and one to JingYi, flanking him in their pristine white robes.

He himself wore ceremonial robes far more complicated and intricate than anything he'd worn in a very long time. In fact, the last time he had likely worn something similar was when he was officially sworn in as the sect leader of GusuLan, after the Sunshot Campaign, in a ceremony that lasted eight days and eight nights. Aside from an additional layer of translucent, blue silk that complimented the soft, thick cloth of the rest of his dress, it also consisted of a broader than usual belt embroidered with silk cloud patterns in vibrant colors, and a head piece of fine silver and white jade.

If the reactions of the delegation from QingheNie sect were to believe, he made an impressive sight. Even Nie HuaiSang, who had apparently opted not to hide behind a fan this once, took a moment longer to speak than warranted by a scripted greeting.

"QingeNie sect welcomes GusuLan's sect leader in warm friendship," he finally said.

XiChen nodded his head and cupped his hands in a low salute before him, distantly aware that SiZhui and JingYi had come forward to help him lift his trailing sleeves.

"GusuLan is honored to be received by QingheNie sect," he replied, fashioning a warm and sparkling smile onto his face.

With these words out of the way, XiChen could see Nie HuaiSang's expression settle into something firmer and more secure as he invited them inside. While they walked, entering a well-maintained garden where attendants hurried to put the finishing touches on a light welcoming banquet, they exchanged some empty pleasantries.

"You seem of much better health than when I last saw you in Koi Tower," the Chief Cultivator observed agreeably, while they were served some tea.

"I do feel much better, thank you." XiChen lifted his cup, inhaling the steam rising from it. "Ah, this is Xinyang Maojian? It is my favorite of the northern varieties. Sadly, this seems to be the summer blend."

Something in Nie HuaiSang's face shifted.

"I rather like the slight bitterness," he said, taking a sip right away. To XiChen it looked a bit defensive a gesture, as if he needed to prove that the tea was still good. It was, of course. This was criticism on a very high level, after all.

"It's alright," XiChen said in a pacifying manner, drinking some as well. It really was delicious. "After all, I am honored that Qinghe still remembers my preferences, even though it has been so long since I was a regular visitor."

Perhaps it was dangerous territory to delve into so soon, but XiChen did not want to skirt around the important topics they were clearly both here to discuss. He wanted to get to the point.

Immediately, Nie HuaiSang took the bait.

"Ah, yes. Since my brother's death we have not had the honor of hosting you as often as before. I wonder why that is?"

"Oh, you know. I was grieving my sworn brother's death of course, and his home would naturally conjure painful memories." He looked around, as if taking in the view. "I must say, it has changed quite remarkably since then. Your doing, I presume?"

Nie HuaiSang smiled a little, but it did not reach his eyes.

"You know that I am more preoccupied with the finer things in life than my brother, and the rest of our family, really, was. I have been rather adamant that the Unclean Realm be more beautiful, at least while I am sect leader."

"You have succeeded in that, I say," XiChen said, and it wasn't a courtesy or a lie at all. The place was much more pleasing to the eye. Not that the Unclean Realm was ever ugly. But the QingheNie sect, until now, had preferred a more austere look than even GusuLan sect did. There was no place for art – only functionality. This had visibly changed under Nie HuaiSang's rule. Now, there were lush gardens, rich fabrics, winding paths that invited thoughtful strolling, and distantly he could hear the chirping of an aviary.

Useless things, MingJue-xiong would say. Trivial, worthless things. But XiChen was not so sure of that at all.

"It is a testament of your benevolent rule, Chief Cultivator," XiChen dared to continue after a while. "It does leave one wondering, though."

"About what?"

"Why, your stance about tradition of course. I thought you were quite opinionated on that, saying that tradition must be upheld in any case."

Nie HuaiSang smiled a little foolishly at that, and surely would have fanned himself if his hands were not empty.

"Ah, but I don’t know about that, Sect Leader Lan. It was not a QingheNie sect tradition not to plant any trees or to keep any birds, was it? This is only my personal preference. We still practice the dao, and our techniques are the same as they were generations ago. Nothing about my sect has changed at all, except some of its appearance."

"Very true, you are right."

They fell into a tense silence then, occasionally sipping tea or eating a light snack. Out of the corner of his eyes, XiChen could see SiZhui and JingYi both waiting under the eaves of a tree, flanked by QingheNie sect cultivators. It looked like their atmosphere was rather strained as well.

"Sect Leader Lan," Nie HuaiSang suddenly said, rising to his feet. "Would you accompany me?"

"Where are we going?" XiChen asked, even as he joined the Chief Cultivator onto a narrow path.

"You will see," was the only, mysterious, reply.

Throwing a quick glance of his shoulder, XiChen was worried to see that SiZhui and JingYi were kept from following him by the QingheNie cultivators. It was nothing forceful – there were no swords or sabers drawn – but it was clear that especially JingYi was anxiously trying to convince them to let them go. And SiZhui looked as stiff and taut as a bowstring.

Well. He patted his belt, feeling the outline of Liebing hidden beneath it. He was not helpless if it came to an altercation. Especially considering he was fairly certain Nie HuaiSang had never progressed much further beyond forming a golden core.

He should not have worried at all, of course. The danger that they had all felt rising in the air was not of a physical nature after all. The only wounds XiChen would sustain here were of far less tangible nature.

"Here we are," said the Chief Cultivator, directing a vacant smile at XiChen as he gestured at the entrance before them. The open door led to an ornate building of clearly high importance. It soon became clear why, when XiChen stepped inside, to a room permeated by the smell of incense.

It was QingheNie clan's ancestral hall.

Of course, since the events of now nearly six years ago, it was no longer a secret that QingheNie sect required a different rite of burial than other sects due to the nature of their cultivation. The Hall of Swords had been discovered, and with it all the secrets that came with it. This ancestral hall was purely ceremonial. But that was more than enough to freeze the blood in XiChen's veins.

They came to stand before a pedestal of black stone and gold inlay, a grand epitaph stood on top of it, with a multitude of incense sticks surrounding it. Some were still lit, spreading a pungent odor that, once inhaled, seemed to nearly paralyze all thought.

"Kneel."

XiChen tore his gaze away from the epitaph and the name engraved upon it, to stare at Nie HuaiSang in shock.

"Pardon?" he foolishly said.

"Kneel," repeated the Chief Cultivator, his voice hardening from its usual, dreamy, sweet tenor into something bitter and sharp. "Kneel before my brother's grave and prostrate yourself. Beg for his forgiveness, like you should have done years ago."

He turned from Nie HuaiSang to the epitaph, reading Nie MingJue's name and title there. Then, he took an unlit stick of incense, lighting it with a small open flame set aside for this very task.

"I will pay my respects," he then said calmly, meeting Sect Leader Nie's eyes. "Because he was my sworn brother." And because I loved him, once upon a time, he added silently. He did not know if MingJue-xiong had ever told his little brother, if Nie HuaiSang knew this about them. It did not matter anymore, anyway. "I should have come earlier to pray and say farewell, I agree. But I will not beg forgiveness. Not for something we all know I am not at fault for."

Without waiting for the Chief Cultivator's reply, XiChen knelt down on the hard floor before Nie MingJue's epitaph and began to pray, breathing in the heavy smoke of the incense between his hands.

Chapter Text

After they left the QingeNie clan's ancestral hall, XiChen felt strangely relieved. Perhaps some of it could be attributed to the fact that he was finally breathing fresh air again, after having had his lungs filled to the brim with incense smoke for the last few hours. Mostly, he thought, it was thanks to finally having been able to say goodbye to Nie MingJue.

Naturally, there had been a ceremony that XiChen attended, after MingJue-xiong had succumbed to qi deviation. Now that they knew not only that it had been a sham, his body slashed to pieces and scattered across the land and his spirit unable to find rest, but also that it had not been natural qi deviation at all … It warranted saying his farewells again, especially considering the question of his own guilt in the events leading to MingJue-xiong's untimely demise.

The first time around he had been heartbroken and grieving but accepting. They had seen it coming, he thought – the increasing irritability, his mounting paranoia and violent outbursts. He had been sad that he had not been able to help more and if not relieve the symptoms, at least offer more comfort.

How foolish of him. The murderer had been right there, patting his hand, dripping crocodile tears from his own eyes and offering empty condolences.

This time XiChen expressed his regret for not seeing things clearly earlier, yes. But there was no reason for him to take the burden of blame upon himself. That was his only hope, that Nie MingJue would find rest one day, knowing that XiChen had found his peace with what happened as well.

"Thank you for giving me this opportunity."

Nie HuaiSang looked at him, half of his expression hidden behind his hair. They were sitting in the gardens again, peacefully drinking tea, while SiZhui, JingYi and the QingheNie sect cultivators were watching on.

"You really have changed, Lan XiChen, haven't you?" It was not a question. Still, XiChen felt obliged to respond. Just as he opened his mouth, however, a glint of light caught Nie HuaiSang's eye, refracting in his iris and highlighting the deep brown and green color. Like a flash it hit XiChen. This was what he had seen before. This is what it had reminded him of when- …

"I have not only summoned you to Qinghe in order to pay respect to my brother," the Chief Cultivator interrupted XiChen's thoughts, and the revelation he had had was swept aside like so many spider webs. "There are other important matters, boring as they may be, that we should speak of. Specifically, that GusuLan of all sects should agree with me on this matter … yet for some reason I have the feeling that you intend to change things. Perhaps I should not be surprised, seeing as your own brother has radically changed in these last few years."

"And for the better, I hope," XiChen finally found his footing again. He felt like it was both a late reply to Nie HuaiSang's first statement, and a defense of WangJi. "He was barely a shadow of himself for nearly a decade. The last couple of years have seen a drastic change in that, by which I mean he is much happier than he was before."

"Hm. I suppose that remains to be seen. But what do I know?" He laughed faintly, falling back into that old role of the foolish head-shaker. It made him seem slightly unhinged, if XiChen was to be honest. "The issue I wished to speak to you of was, of course, that entire business with YunmengJiang. I assume you know?"

This certainly caught XiChen's attention, and he involuntarily straightened his back a little more.

"I do," he replied cautiously.

"What's done is done, I do not see a reason why you should invest any time or effort into changing the situation." He waved a lazy hand. "Unless, of course, you were only sating your curiosity, as many did for a while. It's understandable."

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, I am sure you are not the only one he has let into his home in the hopes of gaining something from such an association. What is it that you hoped to get from it, I wonder? Surely the encounter itself would not be worth- …"

"Excuse you."

XiChen got to his feet, unheeding of the clatter of fine porcelain breaking when he bumped against the table and spilled expensive tea everywhere. He was all but shaking with rage, his hands fisted into the cloth of his robes.

"I sincerely hope that you did not just insinuate what I thought you were insinuating," he ground out between clenched teeth.

"Oh, I apologize, my gossiping tongue got away from me. Of course, one so virtuous as ZeWu-Jun would never."

XiChen narrowed his eyes, reading all the little angles and ticks on Nie HuaiSang's face. They told a story. One that surprised XiChen, but it was not enough to deter him from turning the blade back to where it had come from.

"You are jealous," he guessed. "You are so staunchly against Jiang Cheng's efforts to restore his clan, his family, citing tradition and the dangers of innovation, but truly, deep inside you wish … that he had chosen you?"

The Chief Cultivator's lips flattened into a thin, angry line.

"Who are you to address him so familiarly? You were never his friend. You were not the one he confided in, when he was brought low, thinking there was no way out of his misery," he retorted. "It was me he came to. I am the one who offered him my friendship and company when his own brother forsook him."

"Is that all?" XiChen huffed. "He did not ask you first, and so you destroyed everything he has worked so hard to achieve? You are pettier and even less noble than I thought. If you truly loved him- …"

Nie HuaiSang waved a dismissive hand.

"It has nothing to do with love. I am his friend, and only his friend. But instead of asking me, he went to strangers. Nobodies. Nameless faces who would not care about his wellbeing. I only wanted to stop him from hurting himself!"

"I don't think he quite considers you both friends anymore. Not after what you have done."

"And what is it you think I've done? The great and venerable ZeWu-Jun. How do you judge me?"

Shaking his head, XiChen knelt down again, bringing them both eye to eye. Some of his anger drained out of him, even while Nie HuaiSang bristled and filled with it until his entire body shook.

It was strange, he thought. What loving someone could do to people if they were not at peace with themselves.

In his hands, in his heart, XiChen felt he had the means to either destroy Nie HuaiSang in this moment. Or to give him back some semblance of clarity and nobility. He had to choose his words very carefully.

"I judge you not," he began.

"Then what- …?"

XiChen interrupted him, his voice low and gentle: "I know that you have acted as was natural to you. You wished to be the one trusted with an honor that, in your eyes, could not be greater. You were hurt that it was offered to others who held no regard for this honor and the wellbeing of your friend. But you must also understand that others act as is natural to them as well. It is my understanding that Jiang Cheng would naturally choose not to ask such a favor of you, who was his friend, in order not to taint the friendship the both of you had. That he would rather turn to strangers, who neither cared for him and he need not care for them, because it would not matter what happened after. Do you not agree? That perhaps he was only protecting you, in a way that was natural to his being?"

Nie HuaiSang fell silent then. Not just in that he did not speak, but his entire body fell silent. XiChen could not read him anymore, he had drawn so deeply into himself.

"You know," XiChen whispered, and those green and brown eyes flicked to him, attentive despite the thoughts running awry behind them. "When I looked more closely at Jiang Yong, at first I thought that he might be your son."

Those eyes widened, taking on the exact shape and form that XiChen had seen in a softer, younger face.

"Really?" asked Nie HuaiSang. His voice was choked and thick with tears that did not show on the surface. "Well, he can't be."

"Still. I think that in any case the friendship between you and Jiang Cheng is perhaps not as lost as you are fearing."

Nie HuaiSang chuckled.

"I have never met them you know. He wouldn't let me." He paused to rub his nose. "You know how he gets when he's on a rampage. He has this righteous fury, and nothing anyone else says will dissuade him from ravaging everything in his path. That stupid, prickly shell of his. I've spent years picking it apart until he would let me in. And now it's closed again."

"Then you just simply pick it apart again."

Nie HuaiSang looked stunned. His hands, which had tangled anxiously in his sleeves, halted in their rubbing and plucking motions. He suddenly looked like that young boy sent to the Cloud Recesses to polish his studies, XiChen mused. A young boy who very much missed his older brother, despite his rough exterior. To him, perhaps Jiang Cheng's youthful surliness must have felt quite similar to that brotherly presence he had been deprived of. No wonder they became friends, especially after Wei WuXian was expelled from the Cloud Recesses for stirring up trouble with Jin ZiXuan.

"I feel bad now," Nie HuaiSang chuckled mirthlessly. "I invited you here to demean you and let out my anger at the situation with Lotus Pier on you. I kept this anger at you inside me all this time while you were in seclusion, and I kept it, keeping it unchanged until you'd come out to face me. That was unfair. Instead, you have given me hope again and shown me that it was wrong to be so contemptuous for so long. Really, you are worthy of your title."

"Nothing to feel bad about. I am glad we were able to clarify things between us."

Nie HuaiSang shook his head, laughing.

"You truly are a saint. I never stood a chance against you."

"How do you mean?"

"Nothing, really. You are just too good to be real sometimes. Here, have some of these candies, they were made especially for your visit today."

XiChen tilted his head, letting Nie HuaiSang drop the subject. They continued to exchange pleasantries and delved into no more topics that dug as deep as dead brothers and broken friendships. It was quite the enjoyable afternoon, all things considered. He had never had too many dealings with Nie HuaiSang – the real one, as it were, since it seemed that all the years since he was forced to step up after his brother's death, he had not shown his hand at all. It was like meeting a new person. A new friend, if time, opportunity and luck were on their side.

"I would invite you to the Cloud Recesses next time," XiChen said after they agreed that it would be best for him to leave now, lest he have to spend the night in Qinghe. "But winter is approaching, and it will soon be inconvenient to travel up the mountain on anything but flying swords."

"That is really nothing for me," Nie HuaiSang waved off, eyes squinted into amused crescents. "I never did develop a stomach for flying, I am afraid. But you are welcome to come to Qinghe – I am sure you remember our hot springs. Wonderful in winter, they are."

"I shall keep it in mind." XiChen bit his lip so as not to add anything else. Anything incriminating. Because he did remember the hot springs vividly, just perhaps not the way one should, as an honored guest and high-ranking cultivator of some – and pure – repute.

The Chief Cultivator saw him off with a cheerful wave, completely different from the unforgiving and driven man that had greeted him earlier. As the wagon carried XiChen away and back towards home, the relief of it was tangible.

As soon as they crossed the boundary of QingheNie's territories, the wagon halted, and SiZhui scrambled to join XiChen inside the carriage, this time with JingYi in tow. The three of them squeezed together, unheeding of knees and feet bumping into each other.

"ZeWu-Jun," JingYi cried, "are you alright? We could not follow you, where did the Chief Cultivator take you?"

"The ancestral hall." He held up a hand when both of his disciples threatened to dissolve into a state of shock. "I spoke to Nie HuaiSang, and we have come to an agreement between us. Whatever trouble we shared has been resolved. There is no need to worry, children."

SiZhui gripped his hand, JingYi immediately following to take his other. Like a makeshift array, they all connected to each other, and despite it not being any kind of spell or spiritual formation, XiChen felt soothed, nonetheless.

"Thank you both for accompanying me. Even if it turned out better than I feared, I am still glad that you two are here with me. It has been a while since it was just the three of us, hasn't it?"

"Yes!" JingYi exclaimed. "SiZhui told me he asked to you accompany us on a night-hunt. You really have to do that. I mean," he backtracked, blushing after he realized he just ordered his sect leader and senior to do something, "we would … appreciate it very much, if it does not trouble ZeWu-Jun."

XiChen laughed lightly, squeezing his nephew and cousin's hands.

"I will certainly try to find the time. I make no promises though."

"That is all we can ask for," said SiZhui, smiling happily.

And thus, the three of them spent the rest of the journey back to Gusu squeezed into a tiny carriage, laughing and telling stories, basking in each other's presences and affection.

~

It was not a memory that XiChen liked to revisit often, despite it being so critical to his relationships and his development from a mere youth to a young man. Between him and his sworn brothers, naturally it should be assumed that his relationship with Nie MingJue should be more profound, seeing as they had known each other – or at least known of each other – since they were children. Meanwhile, XiChen had only met Jin GuangYao, still Meng Yao then, when he was already past the age of maturity. Though what they had experienced together had also forged a deep connection, one deep enough to impair XiChen's judgement of character, one that rested on affection as much as gratitude, it was of a different quality than what XiChen's regard for Nie MingJue was like. Naturally, this was because he had, for as long as he remembered, been in love with him.

When or where it began, XiChen could not really tell. Perhaps it was born from childish awe at seeing an older boy in a dazzling, worshipful light. Perhaps it was just friendship that bloomed into something else. Either way, he had never had any plans to reveal the depth of his regard to Nie MingJue.

He should have known that the older man, as shallow as most thought him, ruled by his brash temper, he was smarter than many would assume. And XiChen was not the only one who had watched the other and learned his private language all these years.

During one of his visits to the Unclean Realm, at a point in time just past the Sunshot Campaign, during an era when they thought peace had returned to the cultivation world and their minds were more open towards turning to … other things. During one such visit, Nie MingJue invited XiChen to join him in the hot springs after a long day of hard work pouring over documents and arguing over menial details.

"It helps me relax," MingJue had confided, finally winning over XiChen, who had been reluctant to accept the offer. Hearing this, however, such a rare moment of vulnerability from his friend, XiChen's heart softened and he assented.

The hot springs themselves were located not far from the QingheNie sect compound, belonging to a building adjacent to it that was both affiliated with the sect and not. It seemed that many of QingheNie sect's cultivators liked to frequent the springs, but they were also open to other guests.

Despite his earlier apprehension, XiChen was quick to divest himself of his heavy robes and to slip into the hot, steaming water with a relaxed sigh. Places like this were truly a wonder.

His tranquil state of mind did not last very long, though. He had closed his eyes and was leaning against the cooler rim of the natural stone tub he had chosen, only to open them again when he felt the water being disturbed.

He knew, of course, that it should be MingJue joining him. But he was still not prepared to see his sworn brother and friend's naked body in such close proximity. He would have averted his eyes for anyone – but the fact that this was the person for whom he had gentle affections for years if not decades made him jerk his head in another direction with such abruptness that it caught MingJue's attention.

"Er-ge, is everything alright? You look flushed," he asked.

"Oh? Well, I am not used to hot springs, you see. The ones in the Cloud Recesses are cold," he replied, strangled, and still unable to meet his friend's eyes.

Because he had turned away, he did not see the hand coming that came to rest hot and wet against his cheek. Startling again, he bumped against the stone behind him, causing the water to slosh loudly and spill over.

"XiChen," MingJue said, still so gently. "A-Huan."

Swallowing past the lump in his throat, XiChen finally looked at the man, whose proximity did nothing to alleviate the swirling emotions choking him. MingJue's dark eyes were softer than any other time, and his expression read of deep affection. XiChen already knew what he was going to say.

"I know, A-Huan. I know. It's alright."

It was not the outright rejection he had been expecting, but the meaning was the same. He could see it in the slight downturn of the corner of his mouth; he could feel it in the steadiness of his palm resting against XiChen's cheek; he could hear it in the soberness of his tone.

Turning his face, XiChen took the hand that had been cradling him and pressed the back of MingJue's fingers against his mouth. In response, MingJue leaned forward and kissed his forehead, above his ribbon.

"It's alright."

They never spoke of this again, though XiChen could often tell that MingJue looked at him with the same understanding expression. It should be a wonder nobody else had ever found out the extent of XiChen's regard for his sworn elder brother. Or perhaps they had, and never said anything either.

He did not like to ruminate on memories like this, not because they were painful. In fact, he cherished these moments. It was just pointless to keep thinking about the feelings he held for a person who was dead, regardless of whether he had loved him in return or not. He was thankful for the bond he had with Nie MingJue. All the years they spent together and apart, he would not miss them for the world. And now that he had been given the opportunity to truly say goodbye – he was at peace with himself, these memories, and his feelings.

Finally, he could bury them, alongside the person they belonged to.

Chapter Text

XiChen was in the Hanshi together with shu-fu, working through the honestly staggering amount of correspondence he had received during his absence while he was on his trip to Qinghe, when his hands froze. Most of the scrolls were held closed by strings, as was this one, but what had caught his eye was the seal stamped onto the outside of the paper in bright red cinnabar. The letters were carved crisply, placed with care, creating a harmonious image that read: Attempt the Impossible, Jiang.

Almost giddy, XiChen tore at the knot holding the scroll closed, unheeding of shu-fu's puzzled look. He spread the letter on his desk, leaning forward in his eagerness to read the words written.

Sect Leader Lan, Lan Huan

He had to pause here already, pressing a hand to his sternum. His birthname. Jiang Cheng had used his birthname, in a piece of official correspondence between their sects. His cheeks prickled with heat at the thought.

"XiChen?"

He ignored shu-fu, leaning in again to continue reading.

I remember your letter to me, months ago by now, which differed from the letters you sent to others, announcing the end of your seclusion. I shall follow in the same manner, and send you differently worded mail, while I am unashamedly sending copies of the same to everyone else. You deserve a more personal touch, I say.

The purpose of this letter is our invitation to my son Jiang Chun's fifth birthday. Neither me nor my family will accept anything but your acceptance of this invitation.

In other news, I heard that you visited Nie HuaiSang in Qinghe. Do not tell me about it in your replying letter – for I fully expect one, how else will I plan my son's birthday banquet if I cannot be certain of everyone's attendance. I find it more satisfying to hear such stories in person, face to face.

I eagerly await your reply.

Yours,

Jiang Cheng

Almost giddy with joy, XiChen had to rub his mouth with the tips of his fingers to hide his grin. Or perhaps he had not quite succeeded in that, judging by shu-fu's rather expressly annoyed glare directed at the letter.

He was invited back to Lotus Pier. And it was for Jiang Chun's birthday, as promised! Oh, there was so much to do until then. He would have to find an appropriate gift, for Jiang Chun, obviously. But also wanted to find something for his siblings, perhaps something related to fluting for Jiang Yong, and a soft toy to replace the stuffed fish XiChen still had, which Jiang Min had given to him upon their first proper meeting. He should also get a gift for Jiang Cheng, to thank him for the invitation and to apologize for his earlier imposition. Perhaps he could find something in CaYi Town? Ah, but he was so happy at the mere thought of returning and seeing everyone again – seeing the children, and the Spiders of Yunmeng. Seeing Jiang Cheng again. They needed to be good gifts, to properly express his gratitude. He would never be able to repay how much the Jiang family's welcome meant to him. He himself could barely express it, much less measure its value. His chest was nearly bursting with it, though, and shu-fu almost looked a little concerned.

With a heavy sigh, shu-fu refilled their cups of water.

"I assume you have been invited to Lotus Pier?"

"Yes, shu-fu. On the occasion of Jiang Chun's fifth birthday. I need to find a gift. Many gifts! Oh, I have forgotten completely, what does a five-year-old like? Do you think he still likes toys, or is that too childish? I can barely remember what we gave SiZhui when he came to live with us, he was so quiet and content with everything. Shu-fu," he pleaded, starting to panic a little, "you need to help me."

Shu-fu sighed again. But XiChen was not exaggerating, was he? This was important.

"The mental development of a five-year-old is enough to begin formal education, as you told me the Young Master Jiang has started already," shu-fu helpfully began, stroking his beard as if he were lecturing in front of an entire hall of disciples. "However, that does not mean that children of this age are still not encouraged to engage in playful behavior as well. In some cases, both education and play can be combined. Especially activities that engage them socially, either with peers of a similar age, or with adults, are recommended. But if you like, I can refresh my knowledge on the topic."

"No, I believe that's fine. It gives me a better idea of what to look for."

He kept the thought in the back of his mind the entire time while they worked. Even as he read dry reports and requests for aid from other sects or negotiations, he always ruminated on the topic of his upcoming visit to Lotus Pier. While he composed responses to other sect leaders and instructions on how he wished to proceed on matters, he carefully examined the joy that had bloomed in his heart since he had read the letter. The joy itself was manifold, like a flower of a thousand petals. Each petal being another aspect that brought him joy.

Just before he left – or returned, depending on one's perspective – he had finally felt like he was allowed into the Jiang family. He had been allowed to interact more closely with the children, who were so sweet and wonderful that he ached to see them again. Jiang Chun and his mannerisms that reminded him so of a younger Jiang Cheng. Jiang Yong and his inquisitive exuberance and delicate emotions. And Jiang Min, who he was certain must have grown already in his absence. Perhaps she was able to speak more words now, even in her garbled child's tongue? Would she even remember him?

And then he thought about seeing Jiang Cheng again, and he had to set down his writing utensils at the sudden rush he felt. There was something about him, something that had developed perhaps, which had been cultivated during their time spent in each other's vicinity. XiChen knew not whether it was mutual, and the thought scared him. If it was what he hoped – feared – it was, he did not wish to tread this path alone again. He had done it in the past, and it was a fruitless, forlorn one full of chill and loneliness.

He looked at the letter again, trying to ascertain whether Jiang Cheng looked forward to seeing him again as much as XiChen. Was there a certain warble in his writing when he wrote his name? Was it not quite a forceful way of wording the invite, even with how familiar they now were?

He thought it was. But then he recalled Jiang Cheng calling him brother, and his fingertips froze, inches before touching the ink his hand had left like beautiful stains in the shape of words.

But the memory made him think of something else, too. It was not so late, even by the standards of anyone who was not a Lan, who went to bed early and rose even earlier. He could get this done sooner rather than later. Throwing a look at shu-fu, who was getting ready to leave the Hanshi, he hid his intentions behind a warm smile.

"Thank you for your hard work today, shu-fu," he said, escorting him to the door.

"Get some rest," shu-fu responded without turning back. His steps were measured and swift on the white pebble path, carrying him away from XiChen, who waited impatiently for him to disappear out of sight. Which did not mean, of course, that he would not somehow know. Shu-fu always knew.

Quickly tidying his study into some semblance of order despite the undone work left on his desk, XiChen threw on an additional layer and put on a different set of boots. The distance between the Hanshi and the Jingshi warranted better protection from the elements, after all.

And thus, treading the line between dawn and night, XiChen went to visit his brother and brother-in-law. They had returned to the Cloud Recesses just days prior, from some grand adventure that XiChen had yet to hear. This was not why he was here, though.

He knocked on the door, bracing himself a little. One never knew what … state the couple may be in when dropping by unannounced. Even when announced, there was a chance of- …

"Oh!" he startled, when the door was ripped open rather enthusiastically. The face that greeted him behind it, however, was not one he had expected. "Ah, Senior Wen. You have returned with WangJi and Brother Wei?"

"Mm," said Wen Ning, nodding his head a little stiffly. "We were debriefing."

"Oh. Am I interrupting? I can come back tomorrow."

To his relief, Wen Ning appeased him, saying they were just about to wrap up. Then, he let him into the Jingshi.

The inside of the house was rather warm, so he almost immediately shed his outer robe. Wen Ning politely took and folded it, setting it down gently in a corner.

"XiChen."

He turned around from the jarring display of a fierce corpse handling XiChen's clothes as a servant might, meeting his brother's gaze with a cordial smile.

"Didi," he said. "You are home."

"Mm." I am home.

"Brother Lan! How surprising and wonderful of you to visit! I hope nothing is amiss?"

Wei WuXian's head popped around the side of WangJi's broad figure, face full of grins and genuine joy at seeing XiChen.

"Everything is fine, nothing to worry about."

"Good, good, come sit down with us, we were just done recapping our last adventure. Lan Zhan, tell your brother, wasn't it just amazing?"

"Mm." Really amazing.

"We went really far west this time, and it was so interesting because at first we were going to look further south for some trouble to get involved in but then we overheard an innkeeper saying something about a bunch of ghosts, and we thought to ourselves, why not go and see if we may be able to help, so- …"

"Wei Ying."

Wei WuXian's mouth shut immediately, with a faint clacking sound.

"Lan Zhan?"

WangJi gestured with a tilt of his head in the direction of XiChen. Wei WuXian blinked a few times uncomprehendingly, and then his mouth fell open again.

"Ah, apologies, Lan da-ge! You came here for a purpose, and here I am running off at the mouth. Did you need our help with something?"

"Oh, nothing so dire as that," XiChen assured. "But it is rather time-sensitive."

"What is it about? You are making me curious!"

"Well, it is about your nephew Jiang Chun's birthday."

Immediately, Wei WuXian started squealing and bouncing around the entire Jingshi. Wen Ning waddled after him like a concerned mother-hen, attempting to contain his outbreak a little. Meanwhile, XiChen and WangJi sat serenely, like two stones in a river, while the chaos unfolded around them.

"Aaah, you got invited too? I can't believe it! The little baby has grown up so much, he's already five years old I can barely comprehend it! Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, has it really been five years already?"

"Mm." Yes, husband, that is how time works, even for little children.

XiChen hid his smile behind his sleeve. Little children, in this case, applying both to Jiang Chun, and also a bit to Wei WuXian's antics, though it was something XiChen had grown to appreciate. A grown-up person who was so open with their feelings, specifically their joy, it was rare enough to be precious indeed.

"You see," XiChen interrupted gently, "naturally, you will both attend as well, that much is clear. I was only wondering if perhaps you had suggestions as to what I may choose to gift Jiang Chun."

To his surprise, Wei WuXian's elated and gleeful exclamations took a sudden turn, morphing into the laments of a despairing man.

"We don't have a present yet either, it is horrible! I have no idea what to give a child of his age, and everything I suggest, later I start thinking it might not be good enough or not appropriate, but the worst thing is that Lan Zhan is no help at all! Didn't he raise SiZhui? Shouldn't he know what to give a child for their birthday?" His head shot up, and his eyes were comically wide. "Wait. You're his uncle. Doesn't that mean you should know too?"

Embarrassed, XiChen cleared his throat.

"Well, perhaps we knew what to do with SiZhui because he was such a well-behaved, Lan-like child. But neither of us has any idea what to do with a child who is not a Lan. I don't think Jiang Chun will be happy with some rare parchment or an engraved calligraphy brush."

Wei WuXian's face twisted into a grimace.

"Heavens, you're even worse than I am. At least I only suggested inappropriate things, and not plain boring things."

XiChen thought perhaps he should be offended, but really … Wei WuXian was quite right.

"So, you have no ideas either? Well, no matter. We can go to CaYi Town together tomorrow."

"Yes! Shopping! Lan Zhan, do you hear that, we are going to buy so many things, because I'm your husband and you're rich, and that means I'm rich too, and if you're rich you have to buy all the things."

"Unnecessary."

Wei WuXian gasped.

"Are you saying that the slippers and the spoons and the pots and pans I bought the other day are unnecessary? You never know when you can use a really good pot! And they were so cheap, it was a bargain, I had to get them!"

XiChen caught Wen Ning's eye behind Wei WuXian's back, and they looked at each other with a shared mixture of fond exasperation and resigned patience. Such were things when in the general vicinity of Wei WuXian, after all. At least WangJi seemed content, as always, with anything pertaining to his husband, even if it meant making concessions towards buying things that were being offered on discount.

Chapter Text

XiChen regretted going shopping with his brother and brother-in-law. Not because he hadn't been successful – in fact, he had found many things, surpassing his own imagination as he had completed all of his planned acquisitions in one fell swoop. No, he should have known how awkward it was going to be, as a hanger-on to the sticky and enamored couple that still acted as if they were newlyweds. XiChen did not think there was an end of that sort of behavior in sight.

Now they were back in the Cloud Recesses though, XiChen and WangJi respectively laden with goods, while Wei WuXian had naturally left the task of carrying their gifts and trinkets to his husband. XiChen may or may not have gotten an eyeful of Wei WuXian squeezing WangJi's bulging bicep appreciatively, leading to him having to turn away with a peculiar mixture of embarrassment, shame, and bitterness.

Having said goodbye to his brother and brother-in-law, just about to unpack his purchases, he reminded himself that he was truly happy for them. After more than a decade of having to watch his little brother mourn the love of his life, that said person returned and they found each other in marital bliss, he could not begrudge them their free and frequent shows of affection. It just stung, only a little bit. Especially entering the Hanshi, which was as empty and devoid of companionship as always, truly earning its name.

Nothing was going to change that, he knew that. Even if he were to marry – and the thought had not seriously entered his mind in decades – perhaps a kind and lovely woman from the GusuLan sect, or even if he were to choose a woman from a different sect, she would live in the other compound, where GusuLan's female cultivators and their children lived. Once more, WangJi was uniquely lucky in that his chosen cultivation partner was a man, and therefore allowed to live with him in the Jingshi.

Suddenly, an unbidden thought entered his mind, even as he unpacked and put away the gifts he had bought to sort and assign them later. Two unbidden thoughts, in fact.

His first thought was that he could select a male cultivation partner, like WangJi. Now that the way was paved, so to speak, in terms of a precedence, it would not cause so much of a fuss perhaps. But the problem was, the one person he used to like that way was dead, not to speak of the fact that he had not reciprocated XiChen's feelings and was in no way eligible for such an arrangement anyway – and if things were to continue as they were, the other person he felt like this for was not eligible either.

Despite his best efforts, his mind conjured the image anyway. At first, he had to cover his reddening cheeks with his palms at the rush of excitement when thinking about Jiang Cheng in the Hanshi with him. He had never been here before, there was no reason for such a visit. But he knew that he would fill the house with his presence, the resonance of his voice, leaving perhaps a lingering trace of the scent of lotus behind.

It was a wrong picture, though. Even his imagination could not maintain it, knowing that Jiang Cheng would never leave Lotus Pier, not for any extended period of time. Not for anyone or anything. The Hanshi may host him in the future, if their friendship continued to grow in depth and if XiChen got the chance to muster up his courage to invite him. But it could not become his home. It would be cruel to even think about it – like uprooting the lotus from the riverbed, it would eventually kill him.

No. It was wishful fancy, and nothing more.

This led him to the second thought he had, namely that not only cultivation partners were allowed to share quarters. So were parents and children. Usually, of course, children lived with their mothers, but exceptions were made in the case of single parents, such as when SiZhui came to stay with WangJi, or orphans such as JingYi, who lived with his unmarried elder cousin until he came of age.

As the sect leader of GusuLan, naturally, XiChen was more or less required to produce an heir. It did not necessarily have to be a direct descendant – there had been cases in the past, when a sect leader chose the child of a close blood-relative and mentored them to become the next sect leader. XiChen could name any of his numerous cousins' children as his heir and be done with it. He could even name JingYi, if he wanted. Any Lan was eligible, really.

Such a child would not come to live with him, however. It would not be family, in the way he longed for.

But now he knew of a way. He could have a child without the trappings of a marriage neither he nor his partner really desired. He himself could have that child.

XiChen's hands stilled, in the process of folding an incredibly soft blanket that was knit and stitched in the form of a panda's face. His gift for Jiang Min that he had chosen at a market stall in CaYi Town today.

The more he thought about it, the more the idea appealed to him. He may not have thought about an arranged marriage in decades, but he had often thought about having a family. Having children. He loved children, as evidenced by how enamored he was with Jiang Cheng's offspring. It may have been a while – the last time such a yearning had truly ignited with him was back when he helped WangJi take care of a young SiZhui – but the desire was clearly still there. And at the risk of sounding conceited, he thought he would make a good father.

Perhaps he should copy the rules a few times for such a thought.

However. All he would need to do was ask Jiang Cheng about the technique.

Immediately, his thought process came to an abrupt halt. Asking a man who he only recently had become friends with; a man he may or may not be falling in love with – yes, there, he had said it. A man who he admired, and whose opinion of him he valued. Asking him about … that?

Holding up the panda-faced blanket, XiChen spoke to it as if it were Jiang Cheng in a mocking sing-song tone: "Oh yes, I thought it would be convenient to have my own baby, what do you think? Do you have any pointers as to how one would go about doing that?"

With a loud groan, he dropped the blanket in his lap, before feeling bad about how crumpled it now was. He folded it neatly instead, looking at the white and black bundle left in his hands in contemplation all the while.

He was a little scared. A little hesitant and worried. But deep in his heart he knew that he wanted to do this. He wanted to try to have a family, something as warm and wonderful as he had witnessed one fateful day in Lotus Pier when he saw a father and his three children playing in a garden. That, he thought, was what happiness looked like. And he wanted to be happy again, so very much.

He wanted it. Despite everything, he thought tentatively, perhaps he even deserved it. Happiness, that is. Maybe even more.

~

How different it was, now, stepping off the boat and onto the landings of Lotus Pier. The last time he had done this – well, truthfully the last time was when they returned from the martial arts conference at Koi Tower. But the last time XiChen did this after coming from Gusu, intending to swoop in and, how had Jiang Cheng said it? Change everything with a wave of his hand?

The last time he came here like this, XiChen had been a different person. Fresh out of seclusion, he had been like a peeled lychee, soft and vulnerable. He had been far too out of touch with reality to realize that everyone and everything around him was not as he had left it – or rather, that he had stood still, not progressing for five years, while everyone else naturally followed the flow of time.

He had done a lot of catching up since then. Now, with his head filled with hope and his heart to the brim with blooming affections, Yunmeng's mild winter air greeted him as if it were a summer's breeze. And it carried with it the greetings of people who were happy to see him.

He immediately quelled the thought that it felt like coming home.

QiaoQiao was at the forefront of the delegation of Spiders and YunmengJiang disciples who had come to welcome him to Lotus Pier, roughly elbowing past the others to rudely grip his arm in a familiar fashion. XiChen allowed it, feeling refreshed already by her disregard for propriety – the collective gasp coming from his entourage was reward enough, but the genuine affection with which QiaoQiao lamented how many things he had missed in his absence warmed him even more.

She was not the only one who came to greet him as soon as he set foot in Lotus Pier, of course. The YunmengJiang senior disciples flanking the docks saluted him reverently, and he graciously accepted their well-wishes with a nod.

"Come, come, let's not hang around here where it smells like fish," QiaoQiao said rudely, pulling at his sleeve. "Half the compound is in uproar about your visit – with the other half of course going insane because of the preparation for the Young Master's birthday. Or, should I say, going insane due to our master's dwindling sanity. Your presence is going to help so much, we need you to distract the sect leader, please."

Laughing, XiChen resisted her grip a little.

"I cannot promise anything, but I will try. Perhaps someone else would be more suited, however?"

Before QiaoQiao could voice the question writ largely on her face, she spotted something over XiChen's shoulder. Something that made her blanch and take a step back in horror.

"Oh no, I completely forgot- …"

"A-Qiao!" came a shrill scream from behind XiChen before a black shadow barreled past him and into QiaoQiao's arms. "Shimei, I missed you, did you miss me too? How are you doing, what have you and your sisters been up to, where did you leave- …"

As Wei WuXian kept rambling and rambling, XiChen exchanged an indulgent, long-suffering look with QiaoQiao, and then with Wangji, who joined them more sedately.

"You," QiaoQiao said, finally managing to peel Wei WuXian off her like a barnacle, "are not going to be any help at all, I already know it. There is already so much chaos, we can't use more of it. Please promise me to behave."

"Or else what?"

XiChen grimaced at the sudden change of expression on QiaoQiao's face. Her earlier liveliness and exasperation were replaced with the icy glare of a cold-blooded warrior who had no qualms about using her skills on anyone for any reason. It effectively silenced Wei WuXian, though it also caused WangJi to scoot forward a bit, as if trying to shield his husband from the Spider of Yunmeng's threatening stare.

"You don't want to find out what I will do to you if you ruin Young Master Chun's birthday celebrations, you miscreant." She narrowed her eyes. "And I won't give you the mercy of telling your brother first."

Wei WuXian actually swallowed audibly at that, knowing that his brother was more bark than bite. Most likely, if Jiang Cheng were to decide a punishment for him it would involve a little bit of humiliation and a bit of shouting. But the Spiders? They had no scruples.

"I'll behave," he promised wanly, though he also pouted a little and clung to WangJi's arm, so it didn't look very serious after all.

"This is a very important event to all of us," XiChen interjected warmly, smiling first at Wei WuXian and then at QiaoQiao. "But for the birthday boy's uncle especially. I cannot tell you how often my brother-in-law has professed how much he was looking forward to this. Rest assured, QiaoQiao."

This actually made her relax a little, her hand falling off the handle of her sword. He hadn't even noticed earlier that she had reached for it.

"Good," she replied gruffly, before breaking into a grin again. "Come on, we have to tell my master that you're here."

Almost as soon as they stepped foot in the sect compound, two streaks of purple rushed over to meet them, ponytails and robes flapping.

"Uncle Wei!" shouted one.

"Uncle JiJi!" shouted the other one.

Together they came to a halt in front of them, eyes going back and forth as their mouths worked, searching for the proper term. Finally, it was Jiang Yong, who said: "Lan-laoshi, you came too!"

"Of course, I did just as I promised, didn't I?"

Jiang Yong's face split into an enormous grin, even as his older brother shook him, reprimanding him for hogging the seniors' attention.

"It's fine," Wei WuXian laughed, reaching out to ruffle both of his nephews' hair until they both looked like plucked chickens. "Let A-Yong have Lan da-ge, the birthday boy can have me! I'm way more fun than a stuffy old Lan. Uh, no offense, Lan XiChen."

Jiang Chun at least looked appeased – inasmuch as his furrowed brow eased a little bit – and accepted the company of his uncle with serious graciousness. Wei WuXian immediately teased him, poking his cheeks and saying he should stop frowning so much, lest he turn out like his father.

"What's that supposed to mean, huh? Miscreant!"

Out of nowhere, a palm slapped the back of Wei WuXian's head, making him yelp and stumble forward. WangJi immediately hurried to steady him with a hand on his arm, directing a glower at the man who had slapped his husband.

"Jiang Cheng!" Wei WuXian whined. "Is that how you will treat your dashixiong? You are a bad example for these impressionable children."

Jiang Cheng snorted and crossed his arms, looking at ease with TaoTao and BianBian flanking him. He swept a lazy gaze over the delegation, starting with his brother, who kept rubbing his head and moaning pitifully, skipping WangJi, who only had eyes for his husband anyway, and finally coming to rest upon XiChen, who reacted instinctively by smiling and straightening his back.

"You came," Jiang Cheng said, looking surprised.

"Oh." XiChen's smile fell a little. "Of course. Your son already remarked the same. Did my letter not reach you? I did confirm."

"No, I mean yes, of course we did, I just- …" His eyes dropped lower, widening. "A-Yong, come over here right this instant."

XiChen followed the direction of his gaze, realizing only then that there was a slight weight tugging on his left sleeve. It was Jiang Yong, who had one hand clenched in the fabric of XiChen's robe as he stood on the tips of his toes, tongue thrust out, as he tried to reach for Liebing tucked into XiChen's belt as always.

"No!" the child complained, tightening his fist and finally lighting up in triumph as he managed to grab hold of the xiao. His smile then turned to frustration, when Liebing would not let itself be pulled free. "Lan-laoshi, can we play?"

"Later, I think, Second Young Master." XiChen carefully bent down a little to disentangle the boy's fingers from his robe, only to end up with Jiang Yong grabbing hold of his hand instead.

"Really?" he asked, blinking his greenish brown eyes innocently.

"Really."

Instead of resigning himself to remaining bent over like this for as long as the boy wished to hold his hand, XiChen made a snap decision and lifted the child into his arms and onto his hip. Jiang Cheng had stepped forward at the same time, reaching out to take his son from XiChen's arms – but the boy would not let go.

"No, A-Die," he whined, threatening them both with tears. "Want to stay with Lan-laoshi."

Visibly frustrated, Jiang Cheng pinched the bridge of his nose.

"He's been like this the entire time," he groaned under his breath. "I apologize, Sect Leader Lan, but with me having my hands full with A-Chun and the preparations for his birthday celebration, would it be too much trouble to ask you- …"

"Lan Huan," he interrupted him. "And it is no trouble at all."

Jiang Cheng blinked a few times.

"Oh. I- … Of course. Lan Huan. And thank you. Really, I am very grateful."

"You're pretty."

XiChen and Jiang Cheng both looked at Jiang Yong, who had muttered this with his hands tangled in XiChen's hair. The boy leaned forward a little, closer to XiChen's ear to stage-whisper: "A-Die said you're pretty, too."

"That- …! Yong-er, you- …!" Jiang Cheng spluttered, cheeks reddening at XiChen's stunned look. "He- … I can explain. Well, it's a long story, but- …"

"Did I hear that right? Shidi, you didn't tell me you have a crush on Lan da-ge!"

"Shut up, you scoundrel!"

XiChen laughed quietly as they watched the two brothers wrestle with each other, trying to forget the quick rush those words had caused in his heart. For a moment he almost believed- … But no. Children were easily impressionable. Jiang Yong must have misunderstood.

Eventually, Jiang Cheng had Wei WuXian in a headlock, and he dragged him back over like this, huffing and puffing.

"As I was saying," he said, squeezing a little harder, until Wei WuXian's legs kicked. "It's a long story, but essentially I was explaining to A-Yong and A-Chun about the, the list. Of eligible bachelors in the cultivation world. And, well, you're still first on that list, so. That's why he thought I said … that. But I didn't. I mean, it's not that I don't think you're very good-looking or that you don't deserve to be first on that list, you are, and you do, I just, you mustn't think that- …"

"It's fine," XiChen chuckled, swallowing the difficult feeling those words conjured in him. It was so complicated that he smiled, when Jiang Cheng sighed in relief and finally let go of his brother – who had gone rather blue in the face from oxygen deprivation. Yet at the same time he felt like crying a little. Of course, he should have known this was how things were going to be. It was always going to be like this with XiChen and his heart.

"You said he's very good-looking," Wei WuXian croaked then, breaking into wheezing laughter. "You do have a crush!"

"I do not, shut up," Jiang Cheng roared, kicking in his brother's direction. "It's gentlemanly to admit when someone else is a better marriage prospect, that's all. Not that you'd know anything about that, you shameless villain."

And just like this, to the sound of screaming and laughter, XiChen was welcomed back to Lotus Pier, enveloped in the sometimes wild and dangerous lives of the Jiang family.

Chapter Text

The birthday celebrations of YunmengJiang clan's Young Master were long since in full swing by the time XiChen was able to get a moment to himself. The banquet had already been cleared away, and though due to the nature of YunmengJiang's position in the current cultivation world not many other great sects had been invited – both GusuLan and LanlingJin were here privately, rather than with an official delegation – there were still many delegates of minor sects that owed allegiance to YunmengJiang in attendance. This meant that the banquet hall had been so full and also brimming with noise and activity that there had been no chance to speak with anyone, even with WangJi, who sat next to XiChen, because his brother was busy keeping track of his husband, who kept getting in trouble with the attendees.

There was much alcohol flowing all around him, lowering inhibitions, raising the noise level and the heat gathering in the hall despite it being winter. Though quick, checking glances told XiChen that at least the birthday boy himself was enjoying himself – showing a rather rare smile on his youthful face, which was mirrored by his father and siblings surrounding him – XiChen himself found himself simultaneously overwhelmed and isolated. The end of the banquet was his first opportunity to steal himself away for a short period of time, while others also sought refreshment.

Knowing a little bit of the YunmengJiang sect's compound layout by now, XiChen found a familiar spot nearby where he could sit and breathe in the refreshing winter air. This garden was where he had, upon his first visit since the end of his seclusion, witnessed Jiang Cheng playing with his children. Perhaps it was his imagination, but the place brimmed with comforting spiritual energy, enveloping him and calming him after the ruckus and chaos of the celebratory banquet.

Usually, events such as this that XiChen attended had a completely different spirit. He had expected this, of course, knowing that there was a difference between how GusuLan handled things and how the majority of the rest of the world did things. After all, he had to listen to Wei WuXian lament this fact many times by now. Experiencing it, however, was another thing.

Remembering his past, XiChen tried to think back on his own fifth birthday. Had he also been so loved that his father's attention wasn't on anyone but him and his brother? No, of course not. His father had been in seclusion, and he was allowed to visit him and his mother – separately, how else – for five minutes each, in addition to his monthly allowed visit of half an hour.

It was on his fifth birthday that his father gave him his courtesy name, and his mother gave him his first set of calligraphy brushes. It was on his eighth birthday that his father bestowed him his xiao, Liebing, and his mother gave him his jade pendant, carved by her hand, which allowed him to freely come and go in the Cloud Recesses. On his tenth birthday his father gifted him his sword, Shuoyue, and his mother gave him nothing, because she was already dead for a year.

XiChen wondered if Jiang Chun was going to receive his courtesy name so early as well. Usually, in the rest of the cultivation world, youths received their courtesy names at the age of fifteen, upon reaching the first vestiges of adulthood. Along with what usually came their swords. But as sons of the withdrawn sect leader of GusuLan, both XiChen and WangJi had experienced a rather … accelerated childhood.

But perhaps Jiang Chun also had different expectations placed upon him – expectations that weighed heavier than on other children his age. Being the firstborn son of a sect leader was always a more profound responsibility, but to be the firstborn son of the only surviving member of a clan … To have such a burden, perhaps Jiang Cheng would also try to raise his son earlier and as fast as he could, to brace him for his future. So he could be prepared, in case the worst thing happened, like it did to them when they were young.

XiChen did not know if that was the right thing to do, or if Jiang Cheng had chosen to do this at all. But the mere thought of it rather made him sad. For a boy asked to grow up before his time. For a brother to be pulled along in his wake, required to follow in his sibling's footsteps.

If he ever was to have children of his own, he would not raise them like this. But in order for such a future to come to pass, he first needed to know the technique. And for that, he needed to speak to Jiang Cheng, who was currently naturally occupied with his own son's birthday feast.

Judging by the sounds coming from behind him, in the direction of the banquet hall, the celebrations were likely drawing to a close. Gathering his robes, XiChen reached into his sleeve to check if his gifts were still there. Naturally, they were, and so he slowly made his way back.

As he had predicted, most of the guests had already left or were in the process to. Half the hall was filled with people standing, either about to leave or on their way back from having approached the dais where the person of honor was seated. Or persons, in this case, since it was both improper and unreasonable to expect a five-year-old to host a banquet of this size by himself.

Sitting in front of the proudly displayed purple nine-petaled lotus symbol of YunmengJiang sect, Jiang Chun and his father sat next to each other, graciously accepting their guests' gifts as they stepped to the foot of the dais and extended their well-wishes to the Young Master of YunmengJiang on this auspicious day.

There were not many people left in the queue, so XiChen joined them while he cast his gaze about. That was when he spotted Wei WuXian and WangJi, standing to the side of the dais, together with Sect Leader Jin and three of the Spiders – BaiBai, YinYin, and FeiFei, the latter of which held an apparently sleeping Jiang Min in her arms. Meanwhile it was Jin Ling who rocked an equally sleepy-looking Jiang Yong, sitting unperturbedly on the ground by the cushions FeiFei was resting on.

"Lan da-ge!" Wei WuXian exclaimed as soon as he spotted him, excitedly waving his free arm, while his other was wound tightly around WangJi's waist. "Are you here to offer my nephew a gift?"

"Yes," XiChen confirmed, smiling at his brother and brother-in-law. "I thought I would go towards the end. You already presented yours?"

Wei WuXian nodded, and WangJi mirrored the gesture.

"No need to be nervous, Lan da-ge," Wei WuXian said, coming closer. "Jiang Cheng may look like he's ready to bite off someone's head, but he won't. Not as long as A-Chun is with him."

"Ah, I know. He is not so bad as everyone thinks," XiChen replied, fondly peering past the heads of the people in queue before him, catching a glimpse of Jiang Chun earnestly bowing and thanking someone for their gift. Sitting imperiously next to him sat his father, frowning, huffing and sneering, but ultimately Zidian rested calmly on his finger, without even a single spark of lightning betraying its master's ire.

"Don't let him hear that, or he'll get angry for sure, " Wei WuXian laughed, slapping his thigh. "You'll be alright by yourself for a bit? We are going to help put A-Min and A-Yong to bed. It is getting late for them."

"No need to worry about me. I will present my gift and then probably retire for the night as well."

"Then we will likely see you at breakfast tomorrow?"

"Mm," XiChen said, nodding in assent. He caught his brother's eye, receiving another nod in return.

See you tomorrow, it said. And: Be well.

"Thank you, didi. You too," he mouthed in reply.

He watched for a while how FeiFei transferred Jiang Min to BaiBai's arms, proceeding to smoothly climb her way upright. Then, with the help of two sturdy looking crutches, she walked out of the hall under her own power. Following her were her sisters, as well as Wei WuXian, WangJi, and Jin Ling, who had Jiang Yong held cradled in his arms.

Once more, XiChen was inspired and full of admiration for the women in YunmengJiang and their strength of body and character. However, he did not have much time to dwell on his thoughts, seeing as there were only two more people left in the hall with him, aside from Jiang Chun and his father of course.

To his surprise, XiChen realized that the man standing in front of him wore plum and dull white robes. All this time, he had been in the direct vicinity of Sect Leader Yu. It did not seem as if the man noticed his presence – or perhaps he merely did not deign to acknowledge him.

Once the person in front of Sect Leader Yu stepped away, XiChen had a very clear view of the dais and their honored hosts' interaction with their second to last guest.

"Young Master Jiang," Sect Leader Yu began by cupping his hands in greeting. "And Sect Leader Jiang. My nephew and my nephew's son."

"Uncle."

"Sect Leader."

XiChen winced a little, when Jiang Chun shrank a little, even though he could not see Sect Leader Yu's expression.

"You address me so formally? Am I not your grandmother's brother? Here, I will call you grandson, and you will call me grandfather."

Immediately, Jiang Cheng raised a hand.

"You will do no such thing, Chun-er. This man is not your grandfather. Remember, your grandfather is Jiang FengMian – not Yu FeiHong."

"Yes, A-Die. I apologize, Sect Leader Yu."

The man in front of XiChen huffed and crossed his arms, clearly displeased.

"Fine. Despite this, please accept my gift. I could not bring it with me, as it is not something that can be carried. Young Master Jiang, as my gift for your fifth birthday, I offer you, due to our shared blood, the opportunity to study techniques unique to MeishanYu as you continue your education."

"A very generous gift, Sect Leader Yu," Jiang Cheng responded in his son's stead, visibly torn. His brow was furrowed, but he forced a facsimile of a smile onto his lips. "How do you propose he should do so? Will you send us a teacher from your own ranks?"

"No, nephew. I am saying that I am inviting Young Master Jiang to come and study with us in order to fully experience everything that MeishanYu has to offer."

This time, Jiang Cheng's fist clenched so tightly around Zidian that the sparks leapt forth in a crackling burst.

"Did he give you that idea?" Jiang Cheng growled. XiChen did not know who 'he' referred to, but Jiang Cheng looked ready to draw Sandu from its sheath and challenge Sect Leader Yu to a fight. However, a quick dart of his eyes to Jiang Chun and then to XiChen over Sect Leader Yu's shoulder told XiChen that the only thing holding him back was a thin veil of propriety. He would not lose his composure in front of his son – or in front of another sect leader.

Sect Leader Yu laughed coldly.

"I don't need to listen to that worm in order to realize that it was a mistake not to instruct you, my blood-related nephew, in our sect's ways. ZiYuan was too weak to do it and I failed to grasp the opportunity once she was dead. But now that I am presented with the next generation, I will not back down so easily."

There was a pause, in which XiChen felt his own rising unease, which mixed with fear and a foreboding sense of dread when he saw how pale Jiang Cheng had gotten. Sect Leader Yu laughed again and continued: "MeishanYu's blood flows in your and your son's veins whether you like it or not. And MeishanYu's teachings are his, by right. Are you going to deny him what is his by right of his birth?"

Zidian's threatening crackle reduced a little, but still did not settle completely.

"Perhaps we should speak about this matter in more detail at a later date, Sect Leader Yu."

"But you accept my gift? Young Master Jiang?"

Visibly shaken, but stoically firm, Jiang Chun nodded and cupped his hands.

"Yes. Thank you, Sect Leader Yu, for your generosity."

"Hmph. Later then, Sect Leader Jiang."

And with that, Sect Leader Yu turned around on his heels, plum robes fluttering around him, as he marched out of the banquet hall, leaving XiChen alone with Jiang Chun and Jiang Cheng. But before he could step forward and get their minds off what just happened with a bright smile and a few choice words, Jiang Chun threw himself into his father's arms, breaking into tears. Taken aback, XiChen hovered at the bottom of the dais, unsure what to do.

"I don't want to go to MeishanYu sect," Jiang Chun cried, burrowing his face into his father's chest as if attempting to vanish. "Please, A-Die, don't make me go!"

"Hush, Chun-er. Shh, I won't make you go if you don't want to. I would never. In fact, I don't want you to go either."

"But what if fuqin will come back because of this? I don't want him to come back, A-Die, please!"

Startled, XiChen met Jiang Cheng's gaze over the top of Jiang Chun's head. The father's hand was curved protectively over his son's hair, cradling him into his embrace. His eyes, though, burned with rage and barely contained hatred, even as he consoled his distressed child with a gentleness that contrasted his expression jarringly.

Immediately, XiChen knew that there was more going on than what was evident. He did not like making assumptions about the private lives of other families, such a thing was not proper. But he could not help but connect certain details of the conversation that he had overheard. Or rather, the conversation he was allowed to hear.

Though no names had been mentioned and no details said, to XiChen it was clear that this was not about lessons for a young cultivator. It was also not about MeishanYu's supposed, flimsy blood relation to the young master of YunmengJiang. This was about a person that had remained unnamed, but which XiChen had heard tales of. Whose existence was like an empty void amidst careful whispers and insinuations.

This was what XiChen surmised: Yu FeiHong, sect leader of MeishanYu and uncle to Jiang Cheng, felt great pride in his own sect surpassing his nephew's as one of the Great Four. When he did not receive the respect he thought he was due, neither from said nephew nor from others, he became enraged and started plotting. Perhaps this had something to do with the large number of ghouls ravaging a town in YunmengJiang territory during XiChen's stay at Lotus Pier, perhaps not. What was clear, though, was that Yu FeiHong had found another way to pressure his nephew's family. And that was a connection of unknown quality to a person that Jiang Cheng only disdainfully referred to as 'he', and Jiang Chun called fuqin. This person could only be Jiang Chun's second father, who Jiang Cheng told XiChen had caused his family great trouble and much grief in the past by attempting to steal his children away. These events must have left such a shadow on the children's minds that the mere prospect of having to see this man again caused Jiang Chun enough distress to make him cry and seek solace in his father's arms even in front of a virtual stranger.

The sight of father and son consoling each other uncharacteristically made XiChen so furious that he let himself think for a moment that he should hurry after Sect Leader Yu and reprimand him for his actions. That he should find the man who had caused this family so much grief and have them judged accordingly.

The reality was much more sobering of course, because XiChen was not family. Even if he wanted or was able to do something, he would never be allowed. Though the thought was painful, it was none of his business, and even wanting to find out more or wanting to help would be inappropriate.

Maybe it was also for the best. If XiChen learned the name of the man who had caused the Jiang family so much trouble, he did not know what he would do with this information.

By the time he came to this conclusion, Jiang Chun seemed to have calmed himself a little. Though he still had his face buried in his father's chest, he only sniffled occasionally and responded readily, if quietly, to his father's coaxing voice.

"Let's not think about this anymore, hm? Or have you forgotten that it is your birthday? You see here, Sect Leader Lan has been waiting very patiently and kindly, and I think he still has a gift to give to you. And I haven't shown you my gift yet either. Do you want to see them now?"

"Mm." Jiang Chun finally unfurled from his coiled-up position, rubbing his face with his hands bashfully to remove the last traces of tears. His bright eyes, so similar to his father's, met XiChen's gaze with a clarity that almost seemed too mature in his young, round face. "I apologize, Sect Leader Lan. I didn't mean to- …"

XiChen raised his hand with a soft smile and interrupted him.

"No, Young Master Jiang, it is I who is sorry for intruding upon such a moment. I am very honored to have been invited to your birthday celebrations, however. Like your father said, I do have a gift for you. Before I give it to you, is there anything you would like to request from me? It can be anything. If it is within my power, I shall give it to you as well."

Jiang Chun's eyes widened at that; all traces of his earlier sorrow wiped away. That was what XiChen had hoped to achieve.

"Then … Can I call you uncle?"

Taken aback, XiChen was speechless for a few moments. He had expected Jiang Chun to perhaps request something material – a book, though that was a very Lan-like idea, or a toy, or something related to cultivation like a talisman. But maybe he should have seen this coming, seeing as it was a request this boy had made during the first meeting, only to be denied.

This time, XiChen met Jiang Cheng's eyes, and found them unreadable. There seemed to be something profound reflected in his expression, something bright and strong. Something that XiChen could not name.

And then he nodded. Subtly, without looking away, without changing his expression. But he gave his assent nonetheless, and XiChen smiled brightly in response, holding out his hand to Jiang Chun.

"Gladly," he said.

Once more his expectations were shattered, when Jiang Chun did not merely clasp his arm as he had intended, but threw himself into XiChen's arms instead, across the table and the dais and everything. It was only thanks to his quick reflexes that XiChen managed to catch him and cradle him to his chest.

"Thank you," whispered Jiang Chun, face burrowed in his neck. "Uncle XiChen."

Chapter Text

If there was ever a surefire way to distract a child from crying until it exhausted itself, it would be to give it many, many gifts. Therefore, XiChen and Jiang Cheng unanimously decided to cheer up the still teary-eyed Jiang Chun by presenting him with their birthday gifts. In order to do so, they retreated from the banquet hall, leaving it to the servants to clean up the mess left behind and tidy up. Jiang Cheng then led them to a pavilion nearby, which was adjacent to the Jiang family compound – perhaps for ease of access to his own gift, which XiChen of course knew the nature of.

XiChen was first, withdrawing an ornately carved, wooden box from his sleeve that immediately caught Jiang Chun's eye. The design of it was beautiful in and of itself, elegant yet simple enough for a child to like as well. It was not really part of the gift, but XiChen liked it and thought that surely Jiang Chun would find some use for it in the future.

"Can I open it, uncle?" Jiang Chun asked, rubbing his nose bashfully even as he shamelessly made use of his new privilege to call him uncle.

"Of course, go ahead."

While Jiang Chun carefully opened the latch, XiChen caught Jiang Cheng's eye. The other man looked back at him, seemingly relaxed, as his hand absentmindedly ran up and down his son's back in a comforting gesture.

Jiang Chun gasped, lifting a silk bag from the box that was embroidered with motifs similar to the box. The bag was nothing truly special – it was not a qiankun, for example – and as soon as he determined this, he was quick to release the cord holding it closed. As soon as he did so, a couple of stones fell into his lap.

"Oh!" He picked one up and looked at it from all sides.

"These are stones to play a game called tiu-u," XiChen explained. "This is a game that is played with two people, and either your father or I can teach you the rules later, if you wish. However, the true nature of my gift to you is that these stones are made from the ivory of a beast living in a country far away. This ivory is very receptive to spiritual energy, and so I added a few spells to the stones after they were already carved. If you ever find yourself in a difficult situation, these stones will act the same as any defensive talisman. They can repel resentful energy, resist physical attacks to a certain degree, and even purify lower level corpses, sprits or monsters."

To his surprise, Jiang Chun reacted to this by gasping again and shaking the rest of the ivory stones out of the bag until they were all scattered in his lap. Then, he ran his hands over all of them with a peculiar expression on his face.

"They feel different," he said, finally. Leaning to the side, he reached out with one hand to touch a finger to his father's belt, where the YunmengJiang sect's bell rested quietly. "It's the same, but different."

"Mm, very good, A-Chun. Indeed, they are. But first, I think you forgot something," Jiang Cheng muttered gently, stroking his son's head affectionately.

"Oh. I'm sorry, Lan- … uncle. Thank you very much for your gift. I will cherish it."

XiChen smiled, touched by Jiang Chun's excitement.

"It seems you are very talented, if you can already feel the subtle differences in spiritual energy between your own YunmengJiang sect and my GusuLan sect."

Jiang Chun pressed his lips together, trying to unsuccessfully hide the smile that had rose to them unbidden.

"Thank you, uncle."

"Alright, enough praise for now. Are you ready for my gift?"

"Y-yes, A-Die," Jiang Chun said, rubbing his eyes a little. XiChen wondered whether it was due to the late hour and exhaustion, or leftover soreness from his crying earlier. Either way, it was sure to go away once he saw his surprise.

"Just one moment, I have to go and get it."

This left XiChen alone with Jiang Chun, who yawned a little – exhaustion, then. It had been a long and exciting day, after all, and he was only just five years old. Plus, the crying must have drained even more of his energy. XiChen just wondered whether he should distract him for a little while, perhaps by starting to explain the game of tiu-u to him, when he heard footsteps and a sharp, crisp whistle. As if conditioned, both XiChen and Jiang Chun lifted their heads and perked up, looking wide-eyed as Jiang Cheng returned. With a puppy at his heels.

It was Riceball, the puppy that Jiang Cheng had picked during their stay in Lanling. It was only now, seeing the black and white puppy having grown so much – lanky, and awkwardly tripping over its too large paws rather than round and puffy – that he realized how much time had passed since then.

"A-Die!" Jiang Chun exclaimed, in a whispery, hushed tone, as if afraid to startle the puppy that came bounding towards him with a lolling tongue and flapping ears. Awed, the boy reached out towards the dog, which immediately began licking at his fingers and making him giggle.

"This," Jiang Cheng said, crouching next to his son and the puppy, "is a spiritual dog called Riceball. He is from a very good stock, which means he is extremely smart and loyal."

"Riceball …" Jiang Chun laughed again when the dog's ears perked up at hearing his name.

"Chun-er." Jiang Cheng whistled, and the dog's mouth clacked shut, his butt planted itself on the floor, and his head tilted to the side, one ear perked up as if to indicate that he was listening. "Chun-er. This dog is going to be your companion from now on. He will spend every waking hour with you. He will sleep with you. He will watch you when I am not there. He is going to train with you, so that when you are older and go on night-hunts, he can go with you and protect you. Do you understand? This is not a cuddly pet, although he is very cuddly, I understand that. You can pet him, you can play with him, you can give him treats, and you can, no, I expect you to love him. And he will love you back. But he is also here to work for you by helping you become a strong cultivator."

Jiang Chun had sat silently during this short lecture, eyes flicking between his father and the dog still sitting obediently next to him. Gone was the tiredness. He clearly realized that this was serious.

"How did you tell him to do this?" he asked after a few moments, brow furrowed, and nodded his chin at Riceball.

"You mean, how did I tell him to stop being excited and wait for instructions? Well, I trained him to listen to whistling commands, but I know you can't whistle like that just yet. If you want, we can both work on verbal commands with him, such as sit, stay, or come here."

Jiang Chun nodded, the frown on his face easing.

"Can you tell him to stop now? I want to stroke his fur."

"You can pet him right now if you want to, but alright. Here," Jiang Cheng said, and gave a softer whistle. Immediately, Riceball was as if unfrozen and started to curiously sniff at his new, young master's hand that was trying to burrow itself in his soft neck ruff. Jiang Chun laughed a little, glowing with it.

"Thank you, A-Die," he said quietly. "I love him."

"Good."

XiChen quietly observed for a while as Jiang Chun and Riceball got further acquainted. He was thankful that the attention had shifted away from him for this because … he could not help but remember a different puppy, so similar to Riceball. His sister, most likely. Sugar, who he had left behind in Lanling. That almost purely white dog, who had cried bitterly when he just abandoned her, not knowing what else to do. He wondered if somebody else had picked her up, someone who would educate her and hone her sharp intelligence. If she had a home where she was appreciated and loved like Riceball was.

XiChen struggled to tear himself away from thoughts of this wonderful dog he had met what felt like ages ago, yet at the same time the unjustified pain of his betrayal still stung as if it had been yesterday. To take his mind off it, he reached into his sleeve again and then tugged at Jiang Cheng's robe to gain his attention.

"Hm? What is that?"

XiChen smiled bashfully, holding out another small silk bag.

"Nothing much. Just a little gift, to thank you for inviting me."

Jiang Cheng gave him an incredulous look.

"For me? Why would you ever feel the need to do that? I had to, you know. If I had not invited you, my children would have most likely killed and buried me right here."

"Did you really not want to?" XiChen rebuffed, hiding his mouth behind one hand as if hurt – really, though, he was smiling like a loon. "Then consider it compensation for enduring my presence."

Jiang Cheng finally sighed and accepted the bag.

"It's- … It's no bother, really," he grumbled, fiddling with the knot holding it closed.

XiChen nearly vibrated in his seat as he waited for Jiang Cheng to see his present. He was both nervous and excited. Nervous, because he worried it was a presumptuous gift. Excited, because if it got accepted, it would mean- …

"Oh."

As soon as he had gotten the knot open, a length of fabric spilled out of the bag, pooling in Jiang Cheng's lap in a tangle of purple and silver. With slow, careful fingers, Jiang Cheng picked it up, unspooling the length of it in a way that the silver threat caught the light. His thumb patted against the fabric, and his mouth fell open.

"It's- …" He directed a stunned look at XiChen. "What spell is this? I have never seen anything like this, not on a- …"

"It will only work if you wear it," XiChen interrupted him. "That is, if you are willing."

Jiang Cheng looked at the strip of fabric twined between his fingers for a moment, before nodding.

"Help me," he said, holding it out with both hands.

It was this that XiChen had both feared and longed for. As he accepted the embroidered band and waited for Jiang Cheng to turn his back towards him, he had to take a few steadying breaths. By the time his hands went through the familiar motions to undo the hair tie currently holding Jiang Cheng's crown securely on top of his head to replace it with the one he had just gifted him, he hoped that outwardly he looked as calm and serene as ever. Inside, however, he could not help but exclaim at the honor of being allowed to do this. The few strands of hair he had to touch in order to do his job felt cool and smooth beneath his fingers – exactly as he imagined they would.

"There."

Jiang Cheng carefully touched his hair bun where the ribbon was affixed.

"I can still feel the spell, but I don't know what it does."

"You will see in a bit." XiChen tapped Jiang Chun's arm to get his attention. "Don't startle now. And hold onto Riceball."

Confused but also curious, Jiang Chun nodded, putting a hand on his dog's back. Riceball docilely sat down next to his master, looking calm. Then, XiChen swung his sleeve, extinguishing all sources of light within their line of sight – lamps, torches, braziers, they all flickered and then plunged their pavilion into deep darkness.

Jiang Chun gasped, but though the hand XiChen still had on his arm, he could feel that the boy was not scared by the sudden change of lighting. It was so dark, however, that not even XiChen could see anything. If he had not grounded himself before, he would be completely disoriented.

"I'm- … I can still see you," came Jiang Cheng's surprised voice from somewhere to his right. A slight draft told XiChen about movement near him, but he could not tell what it was. "You did not see that?"

"No," XiChen chuckled. "It is too dark for us to see. I can make out some shapes, maybe, if I strain myself, but it seems that the moon has been covered by some clouds. It is not enough light for us to see any details."

"The ribbon?" Jiang Cheng asked, incredulously.

"Yes."

XiChen turned his head towards the direction where he had heard Jiang Cheng's voice coming from. Perhaps it was his imagination, but he thought he could see a short flare of light where perhaps his eyes should be. Like the glint of light off the surface of water. It was gone the next moment, however.

With another wave of his sleeve all previously doused light sources burst alive again as if they had never extinguished at all.

"It is an incredible gift," Jiang Cheng said, blinking a little. "Thank you, Lan Huan."

"It should be of great assistance during any night hunts, I think. And it is nothing much – I have a comb that does the same thing, only I have never used it." He hesitated. "You really like it?"

"Yes, I do."

"It's very pretty."

Both Jiang Cheng and XiChen startled, having forgotten for a moment that they were not alone. Jiang Chun, who had said these words, was wrapped around his puppy and yawned, all innocent and sleepy.

"Alright, my little duckling," Jiang Cheng chuckled. "I think it's time for you to go to bed."

"No," the boy moaned, but it was only a token protest. The two adults shared a fond look as he seemed to almost immediately fall asleep as soon as his father picked him up and nestled him in his arms. The puppy at their feet yawned as well and stumbled to its feet.

"I … will see you in the morning?" XiChen said hesitantly, rising to his feet. He did not want to intrude upon the Jiang family's private time, though he desperately wished to stay in this soft and comfortable atmosphere a bit longer. Perhaps he should take a walk around Lotus Pier before going to bed himself.

"Is it past your bedtime too?" Jiang Cheng said deadpan, though it was clearly meant to be teasing.

"Actually, it is."

"Ah, the Lans and their regimen. I forgot for a moment."

XiChen wavered for a moment.

"I suppose," he said slowly, "I could make an exception, if there was somebody to keep me company for a while."

It was worth pushing past his fears and false senses of propriety, he thought, at the sight of Jiang Cheng's lips curving into a secret smile, half of it nestled in his child's hair. Without another word, the sect leader of YunmengJiang turned away and carried his son in the direction of the Jiang family compound. It was as much of an invitation as XiChen would ever get – and it was not even the first time that he was asked to join either, he remembered. In fact, he had been given the honor of accompanying all three of the Jiang children to sleep before.

It did not take them long to wind their way past paper screens, corridors and sliding doors to Jiang Chun's bedroom. The chambers next to his, belonging to his younger siblings, were already shut tightly, with no noise coming from inside. Jiang Chun himself seemed to be already deeply asleep, so XiChen gave the pair of father and son a bit of privacy while Jiang Cheng prepared him for bed and tucked him in, tasking Riceball with watching over him until the morning.

Only after they stepped out and walked some distance away from the children's rooms did Jiang Cheng ask: "Did you want anything? If you'd like some tea, we will have to go to the kitchens ourselves. I would hate to bother anyone at this hour."

"Oh, no, I am fine."

"Alright then. Come, I will show you my favorite spot."

Curious, XiChen could not help but excitedly follow in Jiang Cheng's footsteps. This entire day, but especially this night felt like an enormous gift that he had been allowed to have. It did not matter that XiChen was the one who had offered physical gifts. What he truly treasured was this – the opportunity to spend time with people that he cherished.

He was sure that he was never going to forget this day, for as long as he lived.

Chapter Text

XiChen and Jiang Cheng walked side by side in silence for a while, enjoying the crisp night air and the peaceful atmosphere of the Lotus Pier asleep except for a few YunmengJiang disciples apparently preparing a boat to go out night-hunting. It was a wonderful way to let an equally wonderful day fade away.

Though he said nothing, XiChen could see that Jiang Cheng's mind was relentlessly working even as they strolled along narrow bridges arching over lotus ponds. In the darker gaps between lanterns, he stole glances at his profile, noting the way his eyes would glint in a way that told him he was making full use of the ribbon's night vision spell. It warmed XiChen's soul more than even the most heartfelt expression of gratitude would. To see the curiosity and enthusiasm directed at his present; seeing it being used and appreciated.

Also, it gave him a convenient excuse to keep glancing at the man walking beside him for something else than mere admiration of his beauty.

It actually felt rather relieving to admit it to himself. He had been doing things like this gradually, allowing himself to realize the extent of his emotions step by step. First, he had acknowledged that they existed, that they were romantic in nature, and that they were directed at the man currently walking calmly next to him. Now, he was plunging himself into thoughts beyond "I enjoy his company". Such as admitting that Jiang WanYin was, in his eyes, beautiful.

There was a certain nobility to his bearing that XiChen knew well. It was something you weren't born with, but groomed into, with expectations running concurrently. It was this, the way he held himself, rooted and yet moving fluently like the river anchored to its bed. It was a natural sort of grace, effortless and easy, despite it being anything but.

Of course, no matter how shu-fu and the Lan clan elders may deny it, he was still a man of this world, made of flesh and bones. Therefore, it was not just his nobility of spirit and his strength of character that he found beautiful. It was said that Jiang WanYin took after his mother in terms of his appearance, and he could see that too, though in fact XiChen could also see much of Jiang FengMian in him. He was a blend of Madame Yu's sharp eyes and brow, softened by influence of the former sect leader's gentler countenance. Something about it made XiChen's stomach lurch – in an entirely pleasant way, assuredly – and his cheeks warm, both sensations he was more familiar with in his youth, before everything went wrong.

It was refreshing, and perhaps he was not old enough to think that it was good to feel young again. Still, it was the only comparison he could make. Jiang Cheng, being with him, looking at him, made XiChen feel as if nothing bad had happened to them. As if all wounds and scars had been washed away by this feeling.

Eventually, the two of them came upon an open garden overlooking a lotus pond that was fed directly by the Yunmeng river itself. Without needing to speak to each other, they jointly decided to sit on a bench there, their feet nearly brushing the water. Only a brazier offered some light and warmth aside from the moonlight diffused through the clouds overhanging the night sky.

Jiang Cheng's profile was lit in sharp relief, hard shadows cast across smooth skin. He rather looked like the statue of a god, XiChen thought.

"I heard you spoke to HuaiSang," Jiang Cheng finally broke the silence, his breath ghosting visible in the wintry air. XiChen had not expected this topic but was not startled. It felt like some silent continuation of a conversation they had been having this entire time, and completely without words.

"I did, indeed," XiChen replied mildly, folding his hands in his lap. "We spoke of you, too."

Jiang Cheng snorted.

"He must have given you a hard time of it."

"Not at all, actually. I rather think we came to a sort of … understanding."

His companion turned his head, finally looking away from the wide expanse of water rippling before them. His eyes flickered once, making use of XiChen's gift as he seemed to try to decipher XiChen's expression more clearly despite the darkness.

"He is doing well," XiChen continued, when Jiang Cheng said nothing.

"I couldn't care less how that good-for-nothing is doing. He isn't my friend." A pause. "Not anymore, at least."

"Perhaps that is so, but must it remain that way?"

"What are you saying?"

XiChen spread his hands in an open, helpless gesture.

"Only, that perhaps it might benefit everyone involved if the air were cleared of misunderstandings, assumptions and past grievances. It has improved my relationship with the Chief Cultivator, friends or no friends." He chuckled. "Since you have given me so much advice already ever since the end of my seclusion, perhaps this time it is my turn to give you some in return. It might be worthwhile speaking to Nie HuaiSang about why exactly you both think you are no longer friends and who has wronged whom and why."

Jiang Cheng said nothing to this, though XiChen had expected as much. He let him sit and think, taking deep breaths of crisp air and stealing glances every now and again to sustain the content and warm feeling in his heart.

"I don't need you playing matchmaker," Jiang Cheng finally settled on grumbling, rather adorably, XiChen thought to himself. Especially, when he was going to say something else, only to interrupt himself with a wide yawn that he had no hopes of hiding at all.

"Perhaps we should head back?" XiChen suggested. "It is getting rather cold, too."

Immediately, all signs of weariness disappeared from Jiang Cheng's bearing. He leaned over, taking XiChen's hands and startling him.

"Are you cold? I forgot, we should not have come out here, it is rather windy- …"

"I'm fine," XiChen assured him. "The Cloud Recesses are much colder right now; I am used to it."

"Really?" Jiang Cheng sounded skeptical. "Still, let's go back. We can sit somewhere more sheltered if you like."

"That is fine, but only if you are not too tired."

"Don't worry, the children will sleep in late tomorrow, which means I can also have a rare lie-in. And if there are any emergencies, I have people to deal with that sort of thing."

"Alright, then."

XiChen could feel a blush creeping up his cheeks when Jiang Cheng stood from the bench, still holding his hands. Their arms were now stretched rather uncomfortably between them, so he rectified this by getting to his feet as well. It did not relieve his embarrassment about continuing to hold hands with Jiang Cheng and savoring every moment of it, though.

Eventually, Jiang Cheng's rough and sword-calloused hands did slip from his as he led them on the path back to the main houses. There was nothing hurried about it, however, nothing like a man realizing he had been holding someone else's hands for too long. It left XiChen wondering, tentatively, if perhaps- …

But no. He folded his hands in front of him comfortably, letting Jiang Cheng dictate their pace. Apparently, he felt fanciful enough to let them stroll leisurely, even stopping for a few moments to admire the way a dragonfly alighted upon one of the last lotus blooms of the year. Despite his resolution, Jiang Cheng clearly did not intend to make it easy for XiChen to keep his reading of the situation strictly platonic. That he was content with letting the silence between them stretch comfortably did not give him anything to distract from his tender thoughts, nor did his clearly relaxed and trusting demeanor currently help XiChen to keep a brotherly sort of physical distance.

In a sort of morbid pique of curiosity, XiChen reached out to loop his hand around Jiang Cheng's elbow, bringing them hip to hip. He wanted to see if such an overly familiar gesture would be rejected, and he expected it to be. Jiang Cheng did not seem to him a person who liked physical affection, his own children being the only exception of the rule. Plus, the gesture was kind of strange, with XiChen being a bit taller than him, and the height difference causing a slight tension at their point of contact.

But he did nothing.

No, that was not quite true. Holding his breath as he waited to be pushed away and denied the warmth radiating off Jiang Cheng's body, XiChen instead watched as Jiang Cheng bent his arm so as to better accommodate the weight of XiChen's hand tugging at it. And then he cast a sidelong glance at XiChen, which tilted his head just so, almost letting his chin brush against the fabric of XiChen's robe where it folded over his shoulder.

The next few steps of their walk were erased from XiChen's memory as if they never happened. As if his mind could not process what was happening at the same time as it was trying to comprehend Jiang Cheng's unexpected actions.

"Are you cold?"

A warm, calloused hand settled over XiChen's where they were resting on Jiang Cheng's elbow, even further reducing the chances of XiChen's mind ever recovering.

"I- … I'm- …"

"Come, this way is more sheltered from the elements."

XiChen did not truly register where they were going at this point, nor could he really appreciate the no doubt beautiful sights of Lotus Pier around them. It was hopeless, he knew that, but he still could not tear his gaze off of Jiang Cheng, who serenely and obliviously pulled him towards himself. He had no idea. He couldn't know what he was doing – or else, the implications were too much to contemplate.

Should he test the boundaries of their friendship? He knew it was a terrible idea, and yet. Something about this night, about everything that had happened so far, tugged at XiChen in a way that told him he would not be able to resist for much longer.

"What are you thinking?" Jiang Cheng asked, leaning in so close and intimate, his voice so low and soft, it was as if they were the only two people in the world.

What was he thinking about? He was thinking about fate and destiny, about how recently his mindset has changed. He used to lament his own foolishness, his inability to change the past, the confusion and devastation of loss. He used to be stuck in it, this way of thinking, sinking slowly but surely to his own demise.

And then ….

"I am thinking about you," he said, truthfully, bravely. Then, he waited with bated breath.

Jiang Cheng looked lovely in the muted moonlight. Ethereal, almost. His eyes flickered again, indicative of his use of the night vision spell. It was not so dark that it should warrant such use, since XiChen himself could see just fine how his gaze trailed from between them, where their arms were linked, up, up, until his eyes came to rest … somewhere on XiChen's face.

"I was thinking about you, too."

XiChen gasped, drawing in a lung full of air. Time seemed to stand still.

Before he could even think, XiChen surged forward to kiss Jiang Cheng. It was not a refined or gentle kiss. He had no experience with these kinds of things, and the urgency and longing that had been building inside him all night were finally finding an appropriate outlet. No, this kiss was more a mashing-together of mouths, he was aware of that.

Nonetheless, it was the best thing he had ever felt.

He shifted his arms until he had Jiang Cheng cradled against him, one hand on the small of his back to keep him in place and the other curved around the nape of his neck to maintain the pressure of their kiss, because he could not let go, it was too much and yet not enough at the same time. Sensation barely registered past the rush and elation of touching Jiang Cheng in the first place, his eyes closed at the sheer, overwhelming intensity of it.

Suddenly, there was an unrelenting spot of pressure in the middle of his chest, pushing him back, back, until cold winter air came rushing into the space between their bodies. Disoriented, XiChen opened his eyes, blinking in confusion.

Jiang Cheng's right hand, Zidian sparking purple on his finger rested on XiChen's sternum. His head hung forward, hiding most of his expression, though it could not hide the redness of his ears or the heaving of his chest as he gasped for breath.

"Stop," he finally breathed out between wheezes.

And XiChen's heart stood still.

Heavens above, what had he done? Icy cold dread flooded him as he staggered a few steps backwards, letting Jiang Cheng's hand drop from his chest and thus severing the last connection between them. He could see Jiang Cheng's mouth moving, but he could not hear him – the blood rushing in his ears drowned out all sound while everything inside him collapsed.

He just kissed Jiang Cheng – and he had been rejected.

"I'm sorry," he choked out, covering his mouth with his hands. He did not know whether it was to futilely hide evidence of what he had done, or if it was to hold back the bile rising in his throat.

He had forced himself onto- …

Before the sting of his eyes could result in actual tears, XiChen turned around on the spot and ran away. He could not face Jiang Cheng any longer, dreading what he would see in his eyes if he did. Betrayal? Fury? Fear? He asked him to stop, and thank the heavens XiChen did, because he had held him so tightly, Jiang Cheng must not have been able to resist at all, even though he clearly wanted to.

There was a voice coming from behind him, growing quieter and quieter as he put more distance between them. If there was one thing Lans were good at, it was walking very fast without seeming to run at all, and he made full use of that. At first, his surroundings were blurry with his tears, shock freezing his lungs, so he soon felt dizzy and disoriented, but he just went on. Pushed past the burning in his throat that threatened to strangle him, until he found a familiar landmark. From there on he made his way back to the guest house that had been assigned to him.

Without regard to the late hour, he barged inside, his only goal to reach the scabbard holding Shuoyue lying leaned against the bed where he had left it earlier. As he grabbed it, he was distantly aware that a few servants had awoken from the commotion, chattering and squawking at him like startled birds.

"ZeWu-Jun," he heard someone ask, "where are you going?"

"Back to Gusu," he choked out, barreling past them by thrusting Shuoyue forward and pushing aside anyone who dared to try and step in front of him.

They were inside the YunmengJiang sect compound, which was sacred ground much like the Cloud Recesses, in that there were restrictions put on the use of certain spells – including sword flight. The only exceptions were the training grounds, and of course anything outside the gates. So this was where XiChen headed, humiliation, shame and grief hounding his steps.

He had just ruined everything with a single, impulsive action.

Finally, he stepped past the threshold, feeling Shuoyue come to life in his hands. He did not hesitate to mount his sword and soar up to the sky right away without any regard to his surroundings.

He had to get away. He had to- … Perhaps he would forget. Maybe he would forgive, if XiChen never appeared before him again.

He was glad that nobody was there to see him cry, tears running down his face and nearly freezing on his skin as he flew through the clouds. No one was to bear witness to his foolishness and cowardice anymore. Not ever again.

When he finally reached the Cloud Recesses, it was so late into the night that it was almost morning for members of GusuLan. He hurried, lungs burning and straining at this point because he had been pushing himself so hard, all but running along familiar paths, until he reached the Hanshi.

Tonight, it did not offer him any comfort. He nearly collapsed on the mats spread on the ground near his desk, which was the only thing sparing his knees. He lunged forward desperately, grabbing the nearest piece of paper, hurriedly making what was most likely a horrid quality of ink and taking the first brush his fingers could find to write a short, ugly-looking note, addressed to shu-fu. He blew on it to dry the ink even as he staggered back to the door, folding and tacking the note onto the outside of the Hanshi's entrance without checking whether his rough actions had smeared the ink. Then, he closed the door, expending just enough spiritual energy to make sure it would stay shut.

As if the simple locking spell had drained all of his strength, he barely made it to his bed, collapsing upon it in a messy heap, before he lost consciousness.

Chapter Text

XiChen was awoken by the sound of a loud explosion and wooden splinters flying everywhere, including in his face. Spluttering, he brushed off a piece of … was that a piece of doorframe? He blinked, trying to dispel both the confusion and the sting of the light hurting his sensitive eyes, but before he could get his bearing, a rough hand grabbed his arm and pulled him upright.

"XiChen! Are you alright? Are you hurt?"

He was just about to quip something, perhaps how it was a wonder he was uninjured despite being assaulted with what looked like his own, broken door, when his memories came crashing down and his feet gave out under him.

"A-Huan!"

"Shu-fu?" he asked groggily.

"XiChen, what happened? Why did you seal yourself in here, and what is the meaning of this note?"

Shu-fu continued to talk at him and shake him, patting him down as if trying to find hidden contraband tucked in his inner robes, and XiChen could do naught but let it happen, hanging dizzily in his uncle's arms. He scrunched his eyes shut, wishing he had to strength to push shu-fu away. He wanted to be left alone, wasn't that what he said in his letter? He was going back into seclusion. Let the elders' council choose another sect leader, he didn't care. As long as he didn't have to face his humiliation and the pain of rejection again.

As long as he never had to see Jiang Cheng, and the disgust, anger and mistrust that would no doubt be written on his face, should he ever meet XiChen again.

"Xiongzhang."

The warm scent of sandalwood enveloped him, a soft, caring embrace replacing the restraining grip of his uncle. Suddenly, everything became too much, and XiChen began to cry. His brother quietly let him lean against his sturdy shoulder, uncaring that his tears were staining his robes. When had his brother returned? He had been in Lotus Pier too. Did he talk to Jiang Cheng before departing? Did he know XiChen's shame?

WangJi's calloused hand came to rest soothingly on XiChen's hair, cradling him as if he were a child. Right then, it was just what he needed, and he turned his face into the gesture, seeking comfort and reassurance from the only person who had ever loved him unconditionally, fully, and unhesitatingly.

"WangJi, talk some sense into your brother. He can't go back into seclusion again, not even a year after coming out of closed door cultivation; he is the sect leader of GusuLan! This is entirely inappropriate behavior, especially for a man of his stature."

WangJi's response was slightly muffled due to XiChen's position, his face buried in his brother's robes and his ears covered by his sleeves, but he could feel the deep resonance of his voice in the chest he was leaning against.

"My brother is the only thing that matters. I will not help you, shu-fu."

Their uncle spluttered, choking out fragments of words, yet unable to string them together.

"I will give you one day to pull yourself together, XiChen," he finally said. "I don't know what the problem is this time, but the council has been very lenient. Their patience with you is running out. I won't be able to protect you this time."

"I don't care," XiChen replied, his voice thick with tears. "Let them choose someone else to lead the sect. Anyone, I don't care."

"You will regret this – both of you!"

"Mm."

XiChen almost laughed at hearing the dismissal in his brother's voice. Leave, it said. Leave, I will take care of him. We do not need you here anymore.

He put a soothing hand on his brother's arm, letting it rest there until he could hear the awkward attempts of shu-fu trying to close the broken door behind him. After a few minutes shu-fu finally gave up, and he listened to his retreating footsteps. It was only once they faded completely that WangJi's arms slowly began to relax. XiChen settled more deeply and comfortably into his embrace, feeling as if all strength were being sapped from him. In the end he was barely more than a puddle of formless goo lying across WangJi's lap.

It reminded him of when their positions were reversed, so long ago now, in their childhood. After their mother's death WangJi was inconsolable, only able to seek refuge and find solace in XiChen's arms.

It must scare WangJi, to see his brother so.

"Thank you, didi," he whispered, attempting to reassure him. "I feel much better now."

But WangJi's arm tightened around his shoulders, fingertips pressing into his flesh to the point of nearly bruising. He forgot. XiChen could read WangJi's silences, yes – but it was also WangJi who could always hear the truths buried in XiChen's words. He knew he was not feeling any better.

"Who did this?" he asked, his deep, resonating voice shaking with barely restrained fury.

"Shh, didi, it was no one. It was me. I- … I made a mistake."

WangJi took a shuddering breath and pressed his cheek to the top of XiChen's head. Oh, he realized then. He was not angry. He was crying.

"Xiongzhang," he choked out. "Please."

XiChen closed his eyes. Please, WangJi's heartbeat said, trembling by his ear. Please tell me. I am afraid. Don't leave me alone in the dark, unknowing.

But he could not say anything. His lips remained sealed, even as his brother shook and begged silently. How much time passed like this, he could not tell. But eventually the sky darkened, and his eyes felt heavy. His head felt heavy, too. WangJi still held him, clinging on as if he were the only thing holding XiChen grounded. As if he were to fly away and disappear if WangJi let go.

Then, into the quiet, XiChen's stomach rumbled.

WangJi stiffened, jerking half upright from their slumped position, before hesitating. Distantly, XiChen wondered whether his brother would risk leaving him along in order to fetch something to eat or not. In the end, WangJi fell back onto the rumpled bedding, settling back in next to XiChen. Holding him. Guarding him like the stone figure of a dragon.

"WangJi," he whispered, blinking sluggishly.

"Mm." Brother, speak to me! Tell me what's wrong, I will fix it.

"WangJi," he repeated. "You should not spend the night here. You should stay in the Jingshi, with your husband. I don't want to keep you from him."

He was silent for a long while. Even his breathing gave nothing of his thoughts away.

"Wei Ying is not in the Jingshi," he finally replied.

XiChen frowned.

"No?"

"I followed you alone. Wei Ying was needed in Lotus Pier."

"Ah." That made sense, XiChen supposed. There was likely no one else who could curb Jiang Ch- … Sect Leader Jiang's ire, except his brother. He wondered how bad it was. He hoped Wei WuXian was not in too much trouble. "I'm sorry that you had to separate because of me."

"Mm," WangJi said, dismissively.

They fell back into silence for a while, lying side by side like they used to as children. It was strangely nostalgic, and XiChen would likely have enjoyed it if not for the reasons why. He was sorry WangJi was not with his beloved husband right now because of him; he regretted causing his family grief. Even shu-fu, despite his strict words, XiChen knew he cared and was afraid for him.

A light wind drifting in through the still half smashed door made XiChen shudder with cold. Immediately, WangJi gripped him closer, at first rubbing his hands along his arms. Then, after a moment of visible hesitation, he got up from the bed.

"WangJi?" He lifted his head to observe his brother stepping around a few larger fragments of wood lying on the ground. "Was it you or shu-fu who shattered my door?"

"Me."

"Ah."

WangJi moved carefully around, seeming to be looking for something. He looked inside a few cabinets, behind some furniture, and finally he opened one of XiChen's travel trunks – one that he hadn't used during his last trip to Lotus Pier. The other ones were likely still there, unless his retinue was on its way back to Gusu right now. WangJi's hands dove into the chest unhesitatingly, pulling out a large, formless object.

"What- …?"

The question got stuck in his throat as soon as XiChen recognized what it was. It unfurled from WangJi's hands in a soft curtain of purple and gold before coming to rest atop of XiChen. There was no way to protest it, as WangJi slipped underneath the purple knit blanket next to him, pulling it snug around the both of them to trap their warmth.

"Better?" WangJi asked, now lying face to face with him. His brow was furrowed slightly in worry and his hands kept tugging at the blanket as if unsatisfied with the way it was placed. He pulled it up snug to XiChen's chin, keeping it from touching his own neck, however.

XiChen buried his nose in his brother's chest, trying to block out the gentle scent of lotus flowers rising from the blanket's fabric with WangJi's own overpowering scent of sandalwood. The smell of lotus conjured images that he would rather forget – yet at the same time, warmth suffused him, chasing away the stiff, empty feeling inside him.

"Yes," he choked out. "Better."

WangJi sighed, carding his fingers through XiChen's hair.

"Good."

~

Someone eventually came by to repair the door, just before shu-fu's ultimatum was up. By the time he arrived, it was as if WangJi never shattered it in the first place.

"Have you reconsidered?" was the first thing shu-fu asked, barely past the threshold.

XiChen did not have the strength to lift his head from where it was pillowed on his brother's arm, but WangJi shifted a little, turning just enough to be able to meet shu-fu's eye.

"He is not well," he said.

"I can see that." Shu-fu's steps came closer, halting just by the edge of the bed the brothers were lying upon. He sighed heavily, as if surveying a problem. In a way, that was likely not far from the truth. "XiChen. I do not know what has changed your mind so suddenly and why you insist on retreating to seclusion. This means I also do not know how to help you. However," he continued, louder, when WangJi reared his head. "However, I can see that you are truly upset. I will speak to the council about being lenient. Perhaps they will give you some time to recover."

XiChen breathed heavily, his mind turning. He thought about staying in the Hanshi for however long the council would allow him, only to then be forced back out again. Forced to be confronted with the outside world. Forced, eventually, to interact with Ji- … Sect Leader Jiang. He shuddered.

"Shu-fu, I don't think- … This time, if I go into seclusion, I think I will not come out again."

There was a long pause then while shu-fu clearly weighed his words.

"WangJi," he said eventually. "Do you know what happened?"

XiChen clenched his jaw, shifting his gaze to his brother's eyes. He was startled to see WangJi staring right back at him, his pale citrine eyes searching, begging.

"We attended the birthday celebration of Young Master Jiang. Wei Ying and I took our leave after presenting our gift. Xiongzhang was still waiting to present. I do not know what else happened."

Shu-fu sighed again.

"Then the fault lies with YunmengJi- …"

"No!"

XiChen surprised himself with his loud exclamation, shying back at his brother and uncle's astonished looks. Not only had XiChen rarely, if ever, raised his voice like that before, but clearly, they had not expected it from him now that he was so weak.

"No," he repeated, firmly but more quietly. "The fault was mine alone."

"Blame yourself as you blame others," shu-fu recited sagely. "The fault never lies with only one person, XiChen. If you are not willing to forgive yourself, how do you expect others to?"

Frustrated, XiChen clenched his fist around the fabric of WangJi's robe.

"You don't understand- …"

"Then explain yourself to me!"

"No."

"You- …!"

Suddenly, WangJi rose to his feet in one fluid motion, crowding shu-fu back and away from the bed where XiChen still lay. Without waiting to explain himself, he hurried outside, through the newly repaired door. However, before either XiChen or shu-fu could voice their confusion, WangJi returned with a large bundle in his arms.

He came to kneel next to XiChen's bed, drawing back the white silk that protected the guqin he had carried inside – his guqin. He set it down in front of XiChen, meeting his eyes meaningfully. Then, his fingers reached out two pluck two of the silk strings at once, then a single string.

What is your pain?

XiChen stared at his brother's hands poised elegantly over the guqin's strings. Inquiry. He was asking XiChen with inquiry, as if he were a spirit. What is your pain? It was usually the first question asked to a spirit after determining its origin, and if possible, name and age. It was a question asked in order to establish the reason why it lingered in the human world instead of moving on and passing into the reincarnation cycle.

Here, it had a different connotation. WangJi was asking: What happened? Why are you sad? Who hurt you?

Slowly, hesitatingly, XiChen reached out as well, pressing down on one side and plucking on the other while shifting his first finger back and forth.

Heartbreak, WangJi's strings said.

Shu-fu gasped audibly, while WangJi's eyes merely widened a little.

Before WangJi could continue his line of questioning, XiChen played the same note thrice, followed by a single, drawn out gliding sound. Love. Rejection.

WangJi resonated with a single, seven-string chord, asking: Who?

It took XiChen even longer to reply this time. He could not meet his brother and uncle's eyes as he wavered between hoping to keep this secret to himself, to suffer in silence – or to have them know him and his shame openly, irrevocably.

Eventually, he played one harmonious chord, before hinting at the beginning of a song.

River.

Clarity.

Chapter Text

XiChen did not know how, but shu-fu managed to convince the Lan clan's elders to be lenient with him. Officially, he was still the sect leader. Any questions asked about XiChen's sudden absence from meetings and the lack of direct correspondence with him were being deflected by both shu-fu and WangJi, who had taken it upon themselves to shoulder most of his responsibilities, as well as handling the fallout of his renewed seclusion.

Through the hazy fog that permeated his mind these days he barely had the wherewithal to feel guilty that his closest family had to bear the consequences of his failure. WangJi no longer left the Cloud Recesses to night-hunt with his husband – in fact, XiChen was not sure at all whether Wei WuXian had ever returned from Lotus Pier to rejoin WangJi. Either way, he felt great shame at the fact that he was inconveniencing his family so. He would do anything to stop this from happening.

Except he couldn't.

He could see the fear in WangJi's eyes whenever he had the time to come and visit him. It was the same fear he had seen back then, when he first entered closed door cultivation – after he killed Jin GuangYao.

Everything seemed so … pointless.

There were entire days that he barely moved. Days that he lacked the strength to eat or drink – not because he wasn't hungry or thirsty, but because he would stare at the bowls of food and cups of water, thinking. That it was so far away. How complicated it would be to sit up. Take the chopsticks. Operate them carefully to take the food. Guide it to his mouth. Chew and swallow.

He would keep thinking and thinking, until someone came to take away the leftovers, and he'd realize that he had been thinking for hours.

This was all he did, spending all day in the Hanshi. It was so reminiscent of his five years of seclusion earlier that sometimes he would wonder if he hadn't perhaps imagined everything that happened since. It seemed like a dream, too good to be true. All the joy and happiness that he had experienced, all the things he was able to see, the people he was able to get to know more closely. The love he had been given.

In fact, he would prefer believing that maybe it had never truly happened. Would that not be better than having to face the reality in which he was the one who had destroyed his own dreams?

One day, he did not know how long into his renewed seclusion, he began wandering the Hanshi's rooms, only clad in a few haphazard layers that draped over him like funeral garb. He slowly walked from room to room, looking at all that he possessed. The house itself was old, having been in the possession of his family for centuries already. The wood was dark and polished with care and use, smooth beneath his bare feet.

Here was his study, filled with the earthy scent of ink and paper. It had an ideal amount of light to work with from early morning until the late afternoon, and there were many knickknacks lying around that gave the space XiChen's personal touch. Here was his favorite cushion, embroidered with two cranes in flight – a gift from one of his aunts, if he remembered correctly. There were his brushes, still the original rosewood inlaid with mother-of-pearl that his mother had given him upon his fifth birthday. Here was his favorite tea set, dirty and unused. Apparently, he had forgotten to pour away some tea he never finished.

Not touching anything, least of all the tea set, he moved on.

His music room was right next to his study, one of the only rooms to be truly separated by walls instead of only paper screens – the only other exception was the washroom. The music room was filled with all the instruments he had mastered over the years. His guqin, QinFeng, of course, since like every Lan he had been instructed on it first. He had placed Liebing on its stand next to it, a place of honor, since it was his favored instrument. Aside of these two, there were also a very old erhu that he had inherited, a guzheng to match, as well as a dizi, though he could not remember the last time he had touched it.

He looked at the exquisite instruments for a very long time, standing far apart. He traced their shapes with his eyes, imagined their sound in his mind. And then he moved on.

His bedroom, on the side opposite of his study, was only a dimly lit nook, now messy with fabrics, cushions and bedding lying everywhere in a messy heap. The air felt rather stale, and XiChen half wished to sink into the bed's comfort, and half he wished to never touch it again. His gaze brushed past the purple lump at one end of it, instead coming to rest at the sight of the tray of untouched food lying at the foot of the bed.

Turning around, he moved on.

The main room of the Hanshi was where he would receive guests or take his food if he was unable to join the others in the communal dining hall. It was airy and open, decorated tastefully with beautifully painted paper screens, jade ornaments and soft mats covering the floor to let anyone feel comfortable. As he looked at it now, however, XiChen felt strangely detached from it. He could not see himself sitting there anymore, pouring tea for shu-fu or welcoming visitors with a warm, benevolent smile.

There was nowhere else to go now. Nothing else to see. These were all his possessions. This was his entire world now.

He walked around the Hanshi again, memorizing each and every piece. This is all that was left to him, because his mistake had cost him the world. Because of his errors, this was all that he would ever get.

There would be no more work to be done in the study. He would never be able to take his instruments and play them for an audience other than himself. He would sleep on his bed, alone, and never receive guests other than WangJi and shu-fu – and even then most likely only for business, because shu-fu had fought hard to let him keep his vanity, his title as sect leader of GusuLan.

After he finished his second round, his strength was only just enough to carry him to the table in the main room, in the center of the Hanshi. He slumped against it, breathing heavily, holding back his tears.

He was all alone now. Because he had destroyed any future possibility of- …

The patter of small, bare feet against aged wood.

"A-Die, A-Die!"

"Not so fast, be careful."

The curl of a small hand in his, warm and a little sticky from candy or fruit.

The pull on his arm was getting heavier and heavier with each step, indicating that the one holding his hand was tired but unwilling to admit it. He smiled, crouching down and swooping them into his arms, where nothing could ever hurt them.

The sound of pearlescent laughter.

XiChen smiled, looking up from his paperwork when he heard a mischievous giggle. As soon as he glanced towards the screen separating his office from the Hanshi's main room, a flicker of white disappeared behind it. Then, after a few moments, a little round face peeked out at him, with amber eyes full of mirth.

He had dreamed of this in the past, vaguely at first, and recently with more fervor, wishing it would come true. Hoping to fill the Hanshi with happiness, love and joy. To infuse it with the warmth of family.

Now, the Hanshi would forever remain cold.

~

His thoughts kept circling around this matter for the next several days. His desire for a family of his own, the warm weight of a child settled on his lap, held in his arms. His wish for a young boy or girl to love and cherish rose and rose, causing him more and more pain whenever he remembered that it should be impossible now. His heart was sore with grief, overflowing with it, when instead it could have been pouring out its abundant love and care.

Even shu-fu, upon his visits, was more soft-spoken and gentler than usual, foregoing having XiChen pour his tea and serve him even though it was his due as his elder. It told him much about his own condition and how terrible he must look, if even shu-fu was willing to coddle him like this.

"There is someone who would like to visit you," shu-fu said one day, pouring XiChen's tea after vehemently insisting that he do. His hands, still smooth and youthful, were steady as always. XiChen knew that his own would not have been.

Hearing shu-fu's words, XiChen's heart stood still for a moment.

He waited for a bit, blowing gently into the steam rising from his cup of tea. When he deemed it right, he took a little sip. It nearly burned his tongue.

"Who is it?" he asked calmly.

"Wei WuXian."

This surprised him – yet at the same time he was relieved. For a moment he thought- … But no. Of course, he would not come. Though perhaps Wei WuXian would carry news of Lotus Pier with him.

"Mm. I would be happy to see him. It has been a while, and, after all, he is my brother-in-law." He attempted a mischievous smile, but judging by shu-fu's frown, he failed. "Perhaps he is willing to tell me more about how WangJi is doing these days, too."

"If you are sure."

"I am."

"Then I will tell him he can see you tomorrow."

Naturally, Wei WuXian arrived, not on time, not early, but late, two days after XiChen's conversation with shu-fu. He came like a storm, barging in after barely knocking and waiting to be let in, swirling robes, stray hair and a smile to rival the sun.

"Lan da-ge!" he cried. "Everyone has been so worried; you don't even know. You left Lotus Pier so quickly, and Jiang Cheng won't talk to anyone about it, and people are starting to wonder- …"

XiChen held up his hand.

"Please, can we not speak about this?"

Wei WuXian bit his lip, visibly struggling. Then, he nodded, only a little stiffly.

"Of course, we don't have to talk about that. I just wanted to visit you and see how you were doing. Really, if there is anything I can do, don't hesitate to ask, alright? I know we never really dealt with that, but I know I owe you a lot, too. I doubt me being with Lan Zhan would be so well-received by Lan clan if not for you."

"If WangJi's happiness is in question, I would move mountains. Asking shu-fu to accept you into our family is nothing."

"Really?" He sat down cross-legged, reaching over to pour himself some water into a cup that was hopefully not already used. The smile on his face looked peculiar in a way XiChen was too tired to decipher. "Well, still, I'm glad you love your brother so much that you would go out of your way to help him. You know, I'm an older brother too, I understand that instinct very well."

XiChen rubbed his eyes with one hand.

"I thought we agreed not to speak about this."

"This? Oh, do you mean my brother? No, we only agreed not to speak about what happened at my nephew's birthday party to make you flee to the Cloud Recesses and shut yourself into seclusion again. Or will you forbid me to mention my family?"

He helplessly opened and then closed his mouth, unable to retort anything. Of course he could not forbid that.

"See, A-Chun and A-Yong kept asking me about you when I stayed behind – after my husband, your brother, flew off after you to deal with this side of things. Badly, judging by the state of things." He loudly sipped his water. Oh, XiChen could see it now. Wei WuXian was angry.

He continued, still in his nearly-pleasant-but-not-really tone: "Apparently, you promised A-Chun that you'd be his uncle from now on. What, did Lan QiRen do such a bad job at being an uncle that you think an uncle is supposed to run away without even saying goodbye or offering an explanation? You know, I can excuse a lot. I know you're a busy sect leader, Jiang Cheng lectures me about that all the time. But I don't care what you and he squabbled about. You hurt my nephews. They cried, and I had to console them because their father was too distraught and out of it himself to do it. You should thank the heavens that A-Min is too small to know what's going on, or I'd be even madder at you for hurting my baby niece."

XiChen felt his throat constrict, tears threatening to gather in his eyes. The words were harsh, but they were true. Wei WuXian was angry at him for hurting his family, and rightly so. He hadn't even considered- …

"Look, I don't blame you. Whatever happened, I know, it's Jiang Cheng's fault. If everyone could just calm down and start acting like normal, I'd be very grateful."

"No," XiChen finally choked out. "It's not his fault. I- …"

"You don't have to tell me," Wei WuXian said kindly, after XiChen did not manage to complete the sentence for a while.

"I'm sorry."

"Like I said, I doubt you even have something to be sorry about. I know you'd never mean to hurt my nephews and niece. They were just so confused, and nobody could tell them what was going on, least of all me." He sighed, running a hand through his untidy hair. "I can also see this wasn't easy on you either. Whatever happened, it's a mess on both ends. And like I said, I owe you. It feels like I'm being yanked both ways, between my family and my other family."

"This … mess, as you say, has nothing to do with you. I am sorry you got dragged into it."

"Then there is nothing I can do to help? I am shoveling water out of a sinking boat?"

XiChen shrugged.

"At this point, my happiness is no longer anything tangible. I am more than content knowing that WangJi has you."

That was when he remembered something. Before Wei WuXian could retort, he asked: "Did you and WangJi not intend to have children of your own?"

"Ah, we did. But as you know, that is impossible for now," he replied, after a short, confused pause.

"Impossible? No, I did not know. If I can contribute to your joint happiness, then do not hesitate to say so," XiChen said, struggling not to show his disappointment.

"Oh. It's just until I manage to cultivate this new golden core to a higher level," Wei WuXian assured him. "Did I not explain that? The technique used to allow for the conception of a child is restricted by cultivation level. On the one hand, both the receiving and the donating party have to be of a certain level. On the other hand, and this is what is restricting us at the moment, is that the donating party must not be of exceedingly higher cultivation than the receiving party. For now, my golden core is still too weak to sustain the surge of spiritual energy that Lan Zhan would be required to, uh, provide me with if we were to, you know."

He petered off here, blushing visibly. It seemed even men as notoriously shameless as Wei WuXian were hesitant to discuss the intricacies of making children with their partner's older brother.

"In that case, I pray that you will soon advance in your cultivation," XiChen said sincerely. "I know it would make WangJi very happy."

Wei WuXian awkwardly thanked him, rubbing his neck.

"But, well, not to overstep. But Lan da-ge, did you ever consider- …?"

He cut himself off almost immediately. Apparently XiChen had not been very successful at hiding his distress at the mere mention of his shattered dream. He laughed dryly.

"I would have liked to have children of my own very much, but I don't think that I will be blessed in this regard," was all he said, sinking back into his blankets and cushions to hide the sudden weakness of his limbs. The reminder that the Hanshi would remain empty, as well as the new knowledge that not even little nieces or nephews may console him in the near future was enough to bring him back to the brink of tears.

"I see."

XiChen barely registered Wei WuXian's efforts to tidy a little bit and awkwardly excuse himself before leaving.

Chapter Text

The wind howled and rattled at the Hanshi's windows, pushing and pulling with such force that the old wood groaned and strained. Winter storms like this so high up on the mountain could be dangerous and cause a lot of damage. They were forces of nature that not even cultivators could battle – they could only alleviate some of the risks with talismans. XiChen, after the rising storm had woken him from a stupor, was currently worriedly checking and re-checking his own talismans, gripping Liebing in one hand just in case he needed to actively use spells.

There had not been a storm as strong as this one in a very long time. It was him, alone, against the winds, the thunder and the snow. In moments when he could take a breather, he would pray that the others were alright. The little disciples in their barracks were surely huddling together for comfort and warmth. Shu-fu was likely helping he elders. And WangJi and his husband were currently not in the Cloud Recesses. While the storm may ravage elsewhere too, at least they would not have to battle it atop a mountain like them.

One after another, XiChen had to replace his talismans. Despite them, there were some areas where the wind pierced through gaps and holes, howling terribly like an enraged beast trapped in fierce bloodlust. Things being knocked around outside also hit the Hanshi's walls every now and then, shaking the ground with force.

Though he was fairly certain that his talismans would hold and that the Hanshi was built sturdily, having withstood the elements for such a long time already, there was still some fear. XiChen knew not to underestimate the power of nature – with every slam and howl, he flinched slightly, redoubling his efforts to seal his house against the storm wreaking havoc outside.

Afraid that the wind may knock them over, he had extinguished all open flames, plunging the Hanshi's interior into a darkness that was very different from usual night-time. Shadows shifted and trembled in the corners, and coupled with the terrible noises of the storm, it made it impossible to find any kind of rest. Even when unable to do anything, XiChen cowered in the main room, eyes flicking back and forth, waiting to spring into action as soon as he saw one of his talismans fail.

This storm was not only extremely vicious and ferocious, it also seemed to endure for much longer than XiChen expected. He was already tired to begin with, yet by the time he imagined the winds were dying down at least a little, he thought that it must already be the next day. Though he was still on alert, the time between having to exchange talismans became longer and longer, until eventually he fell asleep on the spot.

He only realized that he must have nodded off, when a series of loud banging noises tore him from restless slumber. Looking up, he noted that he was lying on the floor of the main room, only half cushioned by the floor mats. His legs and hip, which had not rested on any padding, felt quite sore as he shifted, taking stock of his surroundings.

There was more light filtering through his barred windows, and the wind had stopped howling. Most of his talismans still held, though some had stopped functioning while he slept. Despite this, he could not see any damage.

In this case, what had made that much noise that he woke up?

Just as he thought this, the sound returned – loud knocks like something violently crashing into wood in quick succession. Still groggy from his restless sleep, XiChen looked around in confusion. It was when the sound came for a third time that he realized it was coming from the door. Someone was … knocking on it?

"Yes? Who is it?" he called out hoarsely. He cleared his throat a few times. Perhaps it was shu-fu coming to check on him and see if he had withstood the storm without any damage or injuries. Struggling to his feet, he went to reassure him.

However, it was not shu-fu who stood on his doorstep.

The figure before him was in a sorry state. Their dark robes were stained even darker with moisture and weighed down by patches of snow that had gathered in places, like they had grown there. The hood was drawn so far down it nearly met the scarf covering the rest of their face – only the reddened tip of a nose was visible.

At first, XiChen thought that they were injured, as they stood hunched over, with a rather strangely bulging middle. He was about to reach out and pull them inside, for now uncaring of the mystery of how a stranger may have found their way to the Hanshi of all places, and in the middle of a storm. But then the bulge started to wriggle, and he stared in confusion.

"What- …?"

"I came here to apologize," came the stranger's muffled voice, interrupting XiChen's startled question. "The fucking storm caught me by surprise. I think at one point I nearly drifted to Qinghe on my way here."

There was some more cursing after this, thankfully rendered unintelligible by the scarf and all the other additional layers that, now that XiChen was looking more closely, looked rather haphazardly thrown on and mismatched. Just when he regained his voice, about to question them who they were, the bundle held to the stranger's front wiggled again – and then burst free from its confines.

XiChen yelped, jumping back from the thing that sprung forth. After a moment of panic, thinking he was being attacked, he realized that … it was a dog?

"Bad girl! Sit! I told you to stay still, what are you being so excited for, hm? Ruining my apology, you are. Sit, I said. Shh, shh, quiet, loud noise is prohibited here, do you want to get thrown out?"

Gaping, XiChen stared at the spiritual dog with pure white fur and a small black mark on her chest as she excitedly pranced and hopped before him, trying to catch his attention. Sugar. This was Sugar, the spiritual dog that he had met in Koi Tower.

While Sugar whined and paced back and forth on his porch, XiChen finally took a closer look at the person who had delivered her. Beneath the squashed hood, he met blue eyes.

"Lan Huan," said Jiang Cheng, tugging the scarf loose around his throat. "If I am still allowed to call you by this name. I'm here to apologize. Will you hear me out?"

XiChen stood frozen on the threshold of the Hanshi, hand resting limply on the warm and soft head of Sugar, the spiritual dog that Jiang Cheng had brought to him. He dared not stroke her fur, even though it was so tempting. Like he feared she might vanish if he dared to. She was panting lightly, her hot breath ghosting against his thigh. Her eyes were closed, as if content with the world around her. As if oblivious to the tension in the air, between the two humans standing around her.

Perhaps he had read something in XiChen's expression, or he had been silent for too long. Either way, Jiang Cheng suddenly fell to his knees, hands cupped before him.

"Lan Huan, I beg that you forgive me," he said. "I spoke wrongly the last time we saw each other. We parted with discord between us, and it was all due to my words. Please, I ask that you let me explain."

"Explain?" XiChen echoed, incredulous. What was there to explain? A breeze passed by and he shivered. "Fine. But it is too cold. Come inside."

Jiang Cheng looked up, pushing his hood back when it obstructed his sight. His eyes glimmered with hope, and there was a tentative, trembling smile on his lips.

"Thank you. Thank you, so much."

They stepped back into the Hanshi, XiChen hesitantly leading them to the main room where there was a table with some utensils. He doubtfully surveyed all the cups and bowls lying around, hastily stacking them out of the way. When he looked up again and saw that Jiang Cheng was observing him with a soft gaze, he felt his cheeks heat up.

"Sit, Sect Leader Jiang. If anything, it should be me who apologizes," he began. "For- … For how I behaved the last time, as well as the mess here. I have been too distracted to properly clean up as I should."

"Sect Leader Jiang?" Jiang Cheng scoffed, hanging his head. "I guess I deserve that. But really, the fault lies all with me. You … You ran away so fast I barely realized that you had misunderstood when it was already too late, and you were gone."

"Misunderstood?" XiChen whispered. His heart sped up at first – and then his stomach dropped. So, it was him who had misunderstood indeed. He had misunderstood their friendship and all of their interactions that night, thinking that they were romantic in nature, when they were clearly not.

"Yes. I also admit my mistake in not following you immediately. However, I had not realized the severity of my error, thinking there would be opportunity to speak with you the next day. It was only after I went to check your guest house only to see your attendants in a panic that I learned that you had already left." He sighed. "And as much as it pained me to leave the matter unresolved for even longer, I cannot just leave Lotus Pier any time I want. I had to settle some matters first." He paused again, his eyes shifting to Sugar, who had followed them and was now lying docilely, stretched out by their sides. "Also, I went to pick her up from Koi Tower first."

XiChen followed his line of sight, looking at the dog – who looked back at him with shining, black eyes like polished river stones, her ears perking up.

"Why?"

"To show you my sincerity. And also- …" Jiang Cheng looked at his own hands, resting lightly on his knees. "In case you rejected my apology and sent me away, I hoped that at least Sugar would keep you company. Wei WuXian told me that you had gone into seclusion again and- … I know this is presumptuous of me. But I think it does not do you good to be alone. So I brought her with me. I hope you can accept her at least, if not me."

XiChen sat quietly, at least outwardly showing no expression. Inside, however, his mind was in turmoil.

What was the meaning of all this? Did Jiang Cheng perhaps still value their friendship, if nothing more, so he came to remedy their brotherly relationship? It did not make any sense. Jiang Cheng almost seemed resigned to being rejected by XiChen – but had it not been him who pushed XiChen away and said 'stop'?

"I beg that Sect Leader Jiang be clearer about his meaning."

Jiang Cheng winced.

"Very well, then. Do you know why I pushed you away and told you to stop?"

"Because … I was too forward. And you rejected my unwanted advances."

"No."

XiChen's head shot up and he stared incredulously.

"No?"

With a trembling heart he watched as Jiang Cheng resettled himself closer to XiChen, a strange smile on his face. There was no defenses to him when Jiang Cheng reached out to take his hands into his own, thumbs resting on XiChen's knuckles as if to hold him without trapping him.

"The reason why I pushed you away was not because I was rejecting you," he said softly. "It was a stupid reason, and I should not have done it either way. But it was only because I was out of breath."

XiChen spluttered, disbelieving, but Jiang Cheng continued: "You surprised me, you see, but it wasn't a bad surprise. I just wasn't prepared, so when my air ran out, I pushed you away to take a breath. When I said 'stop' I only meant to … ask for a pause."

"I see," XiChen choked out. "I only humiliated myself by overreacting like a fool."

"No. I should have clarified my meaning and not scared you like that." Jiang Cheng scooted a little closer, still holding XiChen's hands. "I would understand if you did not believe me right now, but I assure you that I am sincere. We only misunderstood each other. I believe that if we were to clarify our feelings and speak about- …"

XiChen startled, when Jiang Cheng suddenly leaned away from him and sneezed loudly.

"Oh no, you flew here through the storm," XiChen realized all of a sudden.

Apparently embarrassed, Jiang Cheng had withdrawn his hands, rather using them to hide most of his face. Only his shining eyes still peeked out. XiChen decidedly reached out to touch the back of his hand to Jiang Cheng's forehead.

"Fool," he said softly then. "You have a fever."

"I only wished to dispel this confusion between us as soon as possible. I wasn't going to let a mere snowstorm stop me from apolo- …" He sneezed again.

XiChen suddenly laughed, feeling a little light-headed, as if this entire conversation had lifted the weight of a mountain off of him and the rapid influx of air made his head dizzy. Instead of air, however, he knew it was something entirely different. He giddily reached out to grasp Jiang Cheng's arms and help him get to his feet.

"Quick, let's get you out of these clothes," he said, already tugging at the sopping wet hooded cloak.

Jiang Cheng, however, struggled against him, stuttering.

"W-what are you doing? Surely you don't intend to- …?"

XiChen laughed again.

"Get you out of these wet clothes. To dry them," he emphasized, chuckling when Jiang Cheng heaved a relieved sigh. "Or does this mean that you have changed your mind?"

Suddenly serious again, Jiang Cheng gripped his wrists, gently but firmly.

"I have not changed my mind. And to be truly clear about my meaning this time … I have not changed my mind about wanting to be with you. To be closer to you. To strive further in being worthy to be by your side."

XiChen smiled softly, twisting his wrists out of Jiang Cheng's grip.

"First, you should take care of your health."

"Then- … Lan Huan, have you changed your mind? If so, tell me now and I will speak of this no further."

"To be honest, this- … I cannot really comprehend it yet. It feels unreal that you should be here, having flown through a snowstorm and are now refusing all measures to prevent you from getting any sicker than you already are," XiChen admonished.

"Alright, in that case." Jiang Cheng interrupted himself to sneeze twice. "Damn it, how can a damn storm defeat me like this?"

Chuckling, XiChen helped him to finally peel himself out of the several, soaking wet layers of clothes that he was wearing, until they got to the merely slightly damp underrobes he was wearing. Embarrassed, XiChen handed him some of his own, clean robes and then excused himself to find some blankets and such that he could wrap himself in, as well as to prepare some medicine that would help reduce his slight fever. By the time he came back, Jiang Cheng was indeed already wearing XiChen's clothes, making him blush. He looked rather lovely in white and blue – and had Jiang Cheng's words not meant that he was allowed to think these things?

"Here," he said, spreading the first blanket across Jiang Cheng's shoulders.

"I hadn't realized that you kept this."

"Hm?"

He followed Jiang Cheng's gaze to the mountain of blankets he brought, only to realize that he must have instinctively grabbed the purple knit blanket – the one that was originally Jiang Cheng's.

"Oh. I suppose it is yours anyway. Should I return it?"

Jiang Cheng sniffled a little, shaking his head.

"Only if you wish to exchange it with this." Then he reached into his pile of wet robes, pulling out a scrap of cloth. XiChen took it, unfolding and turning it curiously. Then he stared at the embroidery in disbelief.

It was his handkerchief. The one he used to wipe Jiang Cheng's face with in Koi Tower. After he laughed so hard that he cried.

"You- …"

"I promised I'd have it cleaned and then returned to you, didn't I?"

Wordlessly, XiChen lowered himself to his knees next to Jiang Cheng, still holding the handkerchief in his hand. Then, he leaned forward, wiping a few droplets of water off of Jiang Cheng's forehead.

"There was some snow still melting in your hair," he said, smiling softly.

Chapter Text

The next few days after the snowstorm were like the sort of soft awakening that members of Lan clan only rarely got to experience. It was the moment before full wakefulness, before opening one's eyes to the harsh sunlight to welcome a day of activity. It was a sort of weightless, floating time in between time, like being cocooned – not a caterpillar anymore, but not a butterfly yet either.

XiChen stayed curled up in bed with Jiang Cheng, who at first followed his mandatory resting period to recover from his cold, and then simply … extended it for a while longer. Huddled under blankets, they shared each other's breath and taste, as if getting reacquainted with the world. A world that only had the other in it.

One morning, XiChen woke to the sensation of soft, fluttery kisses leaving their wake along the arch of his neck. Turning slightly to peer at Jiang Cheng lying behind him, he blushed, feeling the lingering press of lips against his skin.

XiChen watched his hands, gliding carefully over cloth and seams, riding along the grain of the fabric as if afraid to upset – as if afraid to wrinkle and catch on anything. It astounded XiChen, how careful his hands were. Others would only see instruments of death and labor; hard, calloused, scratched and bloodied. His nails short and ravaged, perhaps chewed on or torn. But Zidian rested peacefully against his finger, sliding obediently over the cloth of XiChen's robes.

His hands reached the end of the fabric, tightening, so as not to slip accidentally and touch living flesh.

"Are you afraid?"

For a moment, XiChen though he must have said it. But when Jiang Cheng scooted closer, tilting his head a little so he could interrupt XiChen's line of sight and fill it with the view of his own, wide and glittering eyes, he realized that he was the one who had to answer.

"No," he whispered. "I am not afraid. You cannot scare me."

In order to prove it, XiChen decided to take the initiative. He lifted his arms a little, bringing the weight of Jiang Cheng's along with him. Then, with a little turn of his wrist, he turned their hands around, bringing them palm to palm. Naturally, as if made for this, their fingers slid apart, weaving into each other. Despite priding himself of being a scholar and an artist, he shared this with him – the rough palms of a swordsman.

He smiled at the sight of Jiang Cheng's eyes, fixed on their embracing hands as if astounded that anything like it might be possible. That they might fit together, like this.

He swallowed visibly, his gaze flicking to XiChen's face before dropping away.

"You know," he began to say, clearing his throat, when his voice came out rough. "I have never touched anyone like this – never anyone who- …"

"Who you cared for?" XiChen teased, when Jiang Cheng did not continue. He leaned forward a little, intending to perhaps catch a kiss directly from his lips. But then Jiang Cheng shook his head.

"Who cared for me."

Stunned, XiChen could only watch as Jiang Cheng huffed and offered him a depreciating smile that did not touch his eyes.

"It is my own fault, of course. Some of it, anyway." Even that painful little smile fell away. "It's what I wanted. Still, it surprises me how different it feels now."

"A-Cheng. Look at me."

Startled, perhaps by the use of such a familiar nickname, Jiang Cheng's head immediately jerked up.

"That is all in the past now, so it doesn't matter anymore. It doesn't matter that I was foolish and misunderstanding. It doesn't matter how others treated you. It only matters that we are here now, and how we will treat each other."

Jiang Cheng's lips tilted into a lopsided smile.

"You are wise, Lan Huan. Who am I to deserve you?"

"There is no deserving. Only wanting."

XiChen tentatively reached out, tracing the curve of Jiang Cheng's jaw. The skin beneath his finger pads stretched as he smiled.

"You have no idea how beautiful you are," Jiang Cheng said, despite XiChen being the one to admire his handsome features. Scooting closer, he displaced XiChen's fingers, letting them glide over his cheek to come to a rest in his sleep-mussed hair. "And you're right. Of course you are."

"I'm right?" XiChen asked, a little dazed from the feeling of running his fingers through Jiang Cheng's tangled tresses.

"I may not deserve you. But I do want you."

Gasping, XiChen could only helplessly lie back as Jiang Cheng surged forward, latching his lips onto XiChen's throat like a man starved. It tickled at first, but when Jiang Cheng gained some confidence and his kisses became more forceful, XiChen started to feel desire like a shower raining through his body, warming his cheeks and making his limbs heavy.

"You have no idea," Jiang Cheng said between kisses, sounding distracted as he lavished his entire attention to XiChen's neck. "No idea how you look. How you sound like this."

Embarrassed, XiChen held back the next whimpering sound trying to slip out of his mouth, though it had the opposite effect of what he intended. Jiang Cheng growled, hands tugging and pulling impatiently at XiChen's underrobes that he had worn to sleep in an attempt to maintain some semblance of modesty between them. He quickly managed to part them, baring XiChen's chest to his ministrations – his hands stroking along unblemished, pale skin, his mouth finding the hollow of his clavicle to suck and lick as if the most delicious nectar had gathered there.

"Ah, A-Cheng."

Powerless to the pleasure Jiang Cheng's touch brought him, XiChen squirmed weakly and buried his fingers in the dark, tangled locks before him.

"Even your taste," Jiang Cheng whispered, muffled against the skin of XiChen's chest, spreading the heat of his breath everywhere and overstimulating him. "The flavor of your skin is better than anything else I have ever tasted."

His deft hands parted XiChen's underrobes further, exposing his entire torso to the cold air of the Hanshi. Goosebumps broke out all over his skin, and XiChen turned away in shame when Jiang Cheng's hot breath ghosted over his hardened nipples. There was no relief, however, when he moved on to first tease his bellybutton, which was only to distract him enough so that Jiang Cheng could fully remove the robes, leaving him only in his underwear.

His hands grazed past where XiChen did not know if he wanted them or not, smoothing along the length of one thigh as if appraising a piece of art. His mouth followed the fingers, burning a path of kisses along the sensitive inside to his knee, where he paused, chuckling. The burst of warm breath against his heretofore untouched skin provoked another low moan from XiChen.

"I must admit," Jiang Cheng panted, his voice half muffled against the bend of XiChen's knee. "I did not think you would be this passive."

"I- …" XiChen cleared his throat. "It's just that- … Well, I have never done this before."

"Yes, I assumed. Still, that does not mean that you don't know what you want, does it?"

Instead of answering, XiChen suddenly sat upright, tightening his legs until they were clamped around Jiang Cheng's waist. With a twist of his hips, ignoring Jiang Cheng's shout of surprise, he was sat atop his belly, triumphantly beaming down at him. Before Jiang Cheng could gather his wits, XiChen went to work in order to prove that he did know what he wanted. With a few quick motions he had parted Jiang Cheng's underrobes and peeled him out of them. None of that evil teasing from him.

Just when he was halted in his momentum by the daunting task to remove each other's underwear, XiChen was startled by a loud knock on the door.

"Oh no," he gasped. "That must be either WangJi or shu-fu, for their weekly visit. Who knows that you're here?"

Jiang Cheng only lay beneath him, seemingly relaxed. He raised one eyebrow.

"Who do you think let me into the Cloud Recesses?" Snorting, he settled his palms on XiChen's hips. "It surprisingly didn't take much to convince HanGuang-Jun to let me pass."

XiChen paled, throwing an anxious glance at the door.

"But … That means he knows. That you have been with me this entire time."

"Yes," Jiang Cheng drawled. His second eyebrow joined the first. "You were just nursing me back to health, weren’t you?"

Before XiChen could retort, there was another knock. This time it was accompanied by a voice they both knew very well.

"Well, he has to be in there!" said Wei WuXian. He must have stepped closer, for the outline of his body appeared on the door like an ominous warning. "If you're so worried, Lan Zhan, why don't you break it down? Wouldn’t be the first time, right?"

Jiang Cheng groaned, covering his face with his arms, nearly drowning out WangJi's reply: "Rude."

"Ah! What do you mean, rude? You were the one to explode the Hanshi's door with spiritual energy. Yes, yes, I know it was an emergency, but- …"

XiChen finally regained his bearing and ignored the rest of Wei WuXian's litany in favor of awkwardly climbing off of Jiang Cheng and the bed in search of his robes. He must have put them here somewhere, but all that he could find was the laundry he had folded neatly a few days ago – which consisted of Jiang Cheng's washed and dried clothes.

A third knock made him throw all caution to the wind and grab Jiang Cheng's outer robes, hurrying to the door. He patted Sugar's ruff on the way there, gaining himself a sleepy rumble from the spiritual dog. Meanwhile he haphazardly held the YunmengJiang sect robes closed at his waist with one hand.

"Coming!" he shouted, sliding open the door at the same time. As soon as he did so, both WangJi and his husband's eyes dropped to somewhere below XiChen's face.

"X-xiongzhang," WangJi stuttered, slightly strangled.

"It seems we interrupted you at an inopportune time, ZeWu-Jun," Wei WuXian laughed slyly, hiding his mouth behind one hand.

"That- …" Blushing, he leaned against the doorframe, attempting to at least hide his naked legs. "Was there anything urgent you wished to discuss, WangJi?"

His brother's eyes widened almost imperceptibly.

"Not urgent."

"Yes, ZeWu-Jun, I think we will come back another time." Wei WuXian giggled. "Tell my brother- …"

"Tell me what?"

XiChen spluttered when a calloused hand suddenly brushed his hair back from his neck, sweeping it over to one side. The same hand then reached around, the arm coming to rest around his shoulders like a warm, solid cloak.

"You- …!"

Jiang Cheng scoffed, his breath brushing against XiChen's ear. A frisson of pleasure ran down his back, making him shiver. He turned away his face, acting as if he hadn't seen his brother notice.

"Finally, the day has come – Wei WuXian is speechless. Did you think you would always be the one to shock me without me ever taking my revenge on you?" He snorted. "Serves you right, mocking me all this time."

"Hey!"

"Now shoo, skulking lout. Not you, HanGuang-Jun, you're no lout. You just married one."

XiChen then let out a snort as well, quickly distracting from that by gently hitting Jiang Cheng's naked shoulder.

"Stop it, no disrespecting my brother right in front of me."

"Apologies," Jiang Cheng grumbled, pressing a kiss to his ear.

"Aah!" Wei WuXian screamed. "Alright, alright, no need to be indecent in front of these innocent eyes. We're going, we're going."

"Good riddance," said Jiang Cheng, sliding the door closed before either WangJi or Wei WuXian had actually left. For some reason this seemed so comical to XiChen, he broke out into pealing laughter. His legs nearly gave out under him, and he was aware that Jiang Cheng had to half carry him back to the bed because of that – and also his laughter had woken Sugar from her sleep, so she was now circling around their feet, barking and yipping happily. XiChen was still grinning and shaking with chuckles every now and again by the time the three of them were nestled in bed, a mess of tangled limbs, clothes, skin and fur.

Giggling a little, XiChen turned his head to give Jiang Cheng better access to his hair. He was combing it with his fingers, running them through with no resistance whatsoever.

"Look how perfect you are," he grumbled, mock-angry. "Not even your hair tangles."

Not responding, XiChen took the hand that was buried in his hair guided it upwards, from his shoulder to his nape, to the back of his head, and higher still. As he did so, he kept watching Jiang Cheng's expression, which was peaceful and gently smiling at first. Then, he realized what he was about to touch.

"A-Huan," he whispered, making XiChen hum in pleasure at hearing such an intimate nickname. "Are you sure?"

"Yes. Take it. It's yours." Seeing Jiang Cheng hesitate, he bit his lip. "Unless you don't want- …"

"No!" he interrupted him immediately. "I want- … But what if you change your mind?"

"I won't. A-Cheng."

The knot that held the forehead ribbon of a member of Lan clan closed was not anything special. Children were only taught to tie it securely and weave it into their hairstyle of choice. Therefore, it did not take much for it to come loose, despite its significance. As a whisper the silk unraveled, falling into XiChen's eyes. Blinded at first, he was surprised at the warm press of lips against his mouth that followed.

"I will treasure this ribbon. But I wish I could give you something equally meaningful in return."

"There is no need for that, A-Cheng. It is just a symbol, it means what we want it to mean," XiChen said, watching Jiang Cheng's deft fingers play with the ribbon, winding and winding it around his fingers. "And anyway, haven't you given me your heart? That's more than enough."

Jiang Cheng chuckled, pressing another kiss to his temple.

"Wise and beautiful? Must have done something right in my past life to have fate pair me with you in this one."

"You know," XiChen murmured, leaning into Jiang Cheng's embrace. "I am thinking the exact same thing."

~

This was not his first time coming to Lotus Pier, intending to visit its master. The first time he had done so after his long seclusion, he had come woefully unprepared, seeing the world not as it was but how he wanted it to be, how he feared it to be in some cases, and how it had been in the past. His stay had changed him, for the better, he would argue, though the path to betterment was not a straight one, nor was it an easy one.

The second time he came, he fled in shame after a misunderstanding. That did not count.

Today he came, carrying hope in his heart, and love. He was no longer a sect leader visiting another sect leader. He was here to see his family.

The fact that he and Jiang Cheng would likely never marry, or certainly not until they were both much older and retired from their positions as the heads of their respective sects, did not diminish in any way the bond that they had with each other. And it did not lessen the love and care that XiChen had for Jiang Cheng's children, who were as precious to him as if they were his own.

He had not said anything yet, though he still hoped that he and Jiang Cheng may have their own children in the future. Nevertheless, his heart would never differentiate between those of his own flesh and blood and those that he was blessed with through their shared love of Jiang Cheng.

Standing at the prow of his boat, XiChen could already see many purple clothed figures standing at the dock, their faces yet indistinguishable, but quite a few of them were cheerfully waving, clearly having recognized the cloud patterned flag his ship was flying. Deciding to forego any decorum, XiChen waved back equally enthusiastically.

When he spotted a tall figure holding a smaller bundle on his arm, his heart sped up and he wished he could walk across water to arrive faster.

"Jiang Cheng!" he shouted, framing his mouth with his hands to make his voice carry further.

The tall figure perked up a little and then bent his head to the child sitting in the crook of his elbow. A moment later, the girl turned her round little face and waved shyly in the rough direction of the boat. XiChen's heart melted.

"ZeWu-Jun, careful, don't fall in."

With a gasp, he realized he had almost been about to step off the boat's edge and into the water. Regretfully, he took a step back, though he also eyed the gap still remaining between the boat and the dock. Ignoring his attendants, he took another step, and another, tilting his head in contemplation.

Then, he started running.

Amidst the shouts rising from around him and also from the dock in front, he jumped off the boat in one giant leap. Extending some of his spiritual energy to slow his descent and to let the wind carry him a little further, he soared through the air, to gracefully alight on the dock, right next to Jiang Cheng.

"Reckless!" shouted he, punching weakly at his arm, even as he kissed XiChen's cheek. "Stupid idiot, couldn't you wait one minute longer? What if you fell into the water, huh? What would they say about me, having chosen someone whose brain apparently failed?"

Laughing freely, XiChen let himself be fussed over, knowing that the complaints and cursing were only to ease Jiang Cheng's heart and to vent his frustration. Between them, little Jiang Ming giggled at her father's gruff tone, slapping at XiChen as if to imitate him. Then, she opened her mouth, saying: "Papa!"

Stupefied, XiChen stared at her.

"Come on, say something, I've been practicing that with her for the last few weeks."

"You- …?"

Before they could say anything else, two weights barreled into XiChen's legs and hip, one on his right and one on his left.

"Papa, papa!"

Chirping happily, Jiang Chun and his younger brother Jiang Yong were hanging on XiChen's robes like leeches, their little round faces tilted up at him to show him their broad grins.

"M-me?" XiChen finally managed to stutter.

"Well, you can't be A-Die, because that's me," Jiang Cheng said haughtily, turning up his nose a little. "So, we had to come up with something else. After all, uncle won't do at all."

"Papa!"

Following a sudden urge, XiChen bent low for a moment, looping one arm around one boy each, and lifting them up to bring them to the same height as him and Jiang Cheng. Like this, he could hug them all at the same time, and also hide his tears of joy against their shoulders.

"I see, that is the real secret of the Lan clan's legendary arm strength," he heard someone around them say. "Lifting children!"

XiChen then laughed, so full of happiness and love and joy, and his family joined him. They all laughed together, entangled in each other's embraces – two fathers and their three children of the river.