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CucumberPlane’s Adventures in an Extended Existential Crisis

Chapter Text

The truth of the matter was this: in order for the plot of The Proud Immortal Demon Way to continue, Shen Qingqiu simply had to go.

There was no saying how much of the plot he had changed already, what with Liu Qingge still alive, the protagonist coming out of the Abyss in three years instead of five, with no sight of the love which would sustain him through his blackening. It was under Shen Qingqiu’s teaching, under his idea of doing what was necessary to prepare the child for his trials, that Luo Binghe had to undergo the trial of the Abyss without even the fond memories of the martial sisters who would one day wed him.

It shouldn’t have surprised him, then, that upon ascending from the Abyss, Binghe was far from the collected protagonist he should have been in the novel. Ascending early, ascending with so much hatred and not an ounce of hope — no wonder he fell prey to Xin Mo’s clutches so easily.

It only made sense that this master pay his apprentice back then, wasn’t it? Surely, with this final act, Shen Qingqiu’s part in the story which had formed would be done? Surely now, with Xin Mo suppressed and the figure of the master who betrayed and sent him to be tortured in such a way gone, Binghe could move on with the rest of the story, ascend the throne of the both the human and the demonic realm.

(Shen Yuan had made no secret of his hatred for Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky’s shitty novel, but no one would know that one of the reasons why he continued to read it, despite everything, was the idea that despite everything he had suffered, the protagonist would find happiness.

When he first began reading it, this is what made him stay, despite the bad writing and the needless lewdness: how pitiable this child was. Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky had spared no mercy in constructing Binghe’s origins. Any sorrow that a human could feel in their life, Luo Binghe had felt.

Abandoned by his parents, mistreated by his Shizun, surviving on the mere scraps of kindness which the sisters gave him….despite that, this child was able to triumph over those who sought to harm him, gain power and create a place for himself in a world which sought to break him.

The Proud Immortal Demon Way really wasn’t Shen Yuan’s usual reading material. He always had been a bit of a romantic at heart, no matter how he would never tell anyone else this. But in the scraps of emotion which shown through, Shen Yuan thought that he could spot some semblance of hope for this character.

...so maybe he was just projecting. Sue him.)

It was with this in mind that, when he was finally revived, Shen Qingqiu took one look towards the direction where his previous home resided, and started walking the opposite direction.

It wasn’t like he didn’t have enough to do when he woke up in his new body anyway. For one, it was an alarmingly unstable body: from time to time, Shen Qingqiu could feel something start tugging at his soul, as though trying to force it out of this shell. Considering the fragility of this body, he didn’t know how long he could last.

However….

The world which Shen Qingqiu lived in was far more than the world which Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky had written about in his book, this much was clear. He could remember earlier conversations with Shang Qinghua, where that sham of a writer admitted that this world was much more of the world he had planned, before he became some scam sellout who scrapped character and world development in favor of papapa to soothe the souls of single (and rabid) fans of The Proud Immortal Demon Way.

“It’s not like I sat down one day and actively thought about writing hundreds of women getting reamed for a living, cucumber bro,” Shang Qinghua’s voice was indignant and loud with the alcohol running in his veins. “I had dreams! Ambitions! A universe I wanted to build!”

Even Shen Qingqiu could feel the effects of the wine settling upon him, warming his cheeks. Entrapped by his own mannerisms, he brought his fan forward to cover his red face and snapped out, “Consider your audience, Shang-shidi! How was I meant to know that this was anything greater than some dumb wish-fulfillment fantasy?” In a lower voice still, “Meeting you here didn’t do much to dissuade that notion.”

Incensed by the accusation that he was simply some horny virgin writing porn because he couldn’t get laid (maybe he was but Shen Qingqiu didn’t have to call him out like that), Shang Qinghua burst out, “Oh, so what does that make you, Shen-shixiong? Or have you forgotten that you were a part of this audience too?”

Not even the fan could hope to cover the red which spread all the way to Shen Qingqiu’s ears. Realizing the futility of his efforts a moment later, he dropped the fan and lunged for Xiu Ya, intent on teaching this scum writer a lesson. The surrounding struggle had yet again damaged the bamboo house, but with the An Ding Peak Lord being one of the people involved in the confrontation, it wasn’t hard to rebuild.

Even thinking of that house brought pain to Shen Qingqiu’s heart. When he self-destructed, he had known that he would never be able to walk on that Peak again, never be able to sit outside that house and watch his students conduct their various activities, all the while calling “Shizun, Shizun!” like hyperactive children tugging at his sleeves for attention. And the one who would do so the most would be….

He shook his head to clear out the thoughts.

Shen Qingqiu’s part in the story was over, he knew this. The fact that the System hadn’t said a single thing to him since he had woken up, even though Luo Binghe was presumably alive and well in Han Hua Palace, was proof of that. He had no more tasks to fulfill, no more plot points to cover and….

...no more a home to go back to.

All of which meant that he was free to scour this land for things which would stabilize his body. If this was indeed the universe which Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky had sought to build, surely there must be something present to help him. Now, with his cultivation back in this new body, brimming with energy to the point of being overwhelming, he had all the time in the world to find it.

….and he probably would have needed every second of the time, if a familiar figure hadn’t found him some months after his awakening.

“Hey Cucumber-bro.”

“Airplane???”

A rueful grin. “I thought you might be going on a vacation. Mind if I tag along?”


Chapter Text

As it turns out, the universe which Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky wanted to build still had an under construction sign on it when he transmigrated.

“I wanted to, you have to understand,” Shang Qinghua insisted, stuffing broth in his mouth as though he had been starved for years. “But I just got so derailed….”

Shen Qingqiu huffed. “That’s why you get for dropping ten thousand word smut chapters with one thousand word plotlines every other day.” He stopped, frowning at the mess which Shang Qinghua was making with his food. “Eat properly!” he snapped.

Shang Qinghua stopped where he was going to shovel one more spoonful of broth in. He looked incredulously at his fellow transmigrator. “Holy shit, you really are a babysitter!”

Choosing to ignore the inane words coming out of the mouth of the former Peak Lord, Shen Qingqiu took to observing the rough map which they had created again.

All things considered, it was probably the most comprehensive map of the region anyone had ever made: Shen Qingqiu’s sharp memory alongside Shang Qinghua’s knowledge of the land had allowed them to effectively draw up the whole area in minimal time. But still…

“So you don’t think that a stabilizer for this body will be in the nearby locality,” Shen Qingqiu began, still examining the map with a frown.

His mouth full of broth, Shang Qinghua shook his head and made a sound of agreement.

“Then what about here?” Shen Qingqiu pointed to a specific point on the map. Swallowing what remaining in his throat, Qinghua leaned over to see what he was referring to.

“The lands to the South?” his brows furrowed. “Cucumber bro, I haven’t actually built on this entirely, you know?”

“I know, I know,” Shen Qingqiu waved his hand impatiently. “But the System didn’t just take stuff from the actual book, it also took things from your drafts. So even if you had the slightest amount of idea as to what was there…”

Shang Qinghua frowned, trying to rack his brains about what he had imagined his world to be like. “The only line that was in the book was that the land South of the primary cultivation sects was a place of ‘miraculous and terrifying stories…’ Do you really think…”

“I think,” Shen Qingqiu spoke, his voice low and firm, “that it’s the best chance we have.” He hesitated before continuing, “Also I think...that getting away from this place is also a good idea. At least, until the plot is done with.”

Shen Qingqiu was supposed to be dead. This body, while not exactly like his original one, still looked enough like the former Lord of Qing Jing Peak that he was willing to take no chances.

Shang Qinghua, surprisingly, was also supposed to be dead. The author had quickly realized the sequence of events which led up to his death in the original book had already started. Unlike Shen Qingqiu, he hadn’t even attempted to change any of the events, had simply fallen into his role as the traitor of Cang Qiong Peak and tried his best not to piss anyone off too much. Truthfully, he had done well. If he wanted to, he could probably stay on the demonic side relatively safely, if not completely unscathed.

On the other hand…

Shang Qinghua had never claimed to be a happy person when he was writing The Proud Immortal Demon Way. As with many other writers, he suffered his bouts of depression, of writer's block, of the ringing sound of his reader’s criticisms echoing and echoing in his ears.

(Even as a writer, Shang Qinghua really liked the user Peerless Cucumber because of this: their words were acidic, their criticism was harsh, but for some reason, they still saw potential in his work, potential that he himself had stopped seeing long ago. Even as he wrote B grade porn to satisfy his thirsty audience, he had imagined sitting down with this strange reader, conversing with him about the ideas he had in his mind, about the worlds he wanted to create.

All things considered, he was really happy that his fellow transmigrator was the very same being.)

This faltering happiness hadn’t exactly seen an increase after his transmigration: all the flaws in his writing, all the horror he created and brushed under the rug, was now on display before his eyes, 24/7, without any hope of escape.

Meeting Shen Qingqiu, learning that he was a fellow transmigrator, therefore, was a breath of fresh air in all the terror that surrounded him. At the very least, he thought, he could look at this man without feeling that all pervading guilt about his story, a story which had come from Shang Qinghua’s own sleep deprived brain. This Shen Qingqiu had still faced a fair number of trials, but at least his story was a tragedy from start to finish. At least, in the quiet moments between the noise, in that high Peak surrounded by those hyperactive children, he had actually been happy in a way that Shen Jiu never had been.

When Shen Qingqiu self-destructed all those years ago…

Well, suffice to say, Shang Qinghua had missed this man: all his haughty mannerisms, the soft heart which he hid behind them, how easy he was to tease and turn red if one knew what to say.

By the time he faked his death, the original Shang Qinghua would have long been dead. All the plot points he participated in were over with, so surely now the rest of the story could be carried out by the remaining characters. Shen Qingqiu had made himself beloved to many people before death, Shang Qinghua could see the toll his passing took on Luo Binghe, on Liu Qingge, and on so many others. But, it’s not like Shang Qinghua’s absence would create any major plot deviations.

He should be able to leave without regrets. He had planted the same seeds which Shen Qingqiu and he had found all those years ago, had waited so, so patiently for his new body to grow before staging his death.

Hell, he had even managed to burn down the building which held Shen Qingqiu’s original body on his way out! Naturally, Shang Qinghua’s own body had blown up in that fight that brought down the entire wing. Now there was no risk of their souls being summoned of out these bodies into the messy conflicts which comprised the plot of this story again. All that needed to be found was a way to stabilize the fluctuations of energy which their new bodies had, which really wasn’t an incredibly urgent issue.

Looking at Shen Qingqiu now, he couldn’t bring himself to regret the sheer amount of stress all that planning had inflicted on him. It was the least he could do for this man, who had been dragged and put through so much because of the world Shang Qinghua had created, who still held no actual grudges towards him for those pains, despite his snapping and faux anger.

Shang Qinghua had done the best that he could, given the situation he was in. He should be able to leave without regrets. But still….

(It was fun, sometimes, when he was able to work past the cloud of depression and fear which crowded his brain. Sneaking around the main characters, around people so much stronger than him, being a person of such importance to Mobei-jun despite being a mere human…

...it was fun, sometimes.)

He put his bowl down looked at his fellow transmigrator, who gazed back at him without flinching.

The things needed to stabilize this new body weren’t nearby, but they could also undoubtedly be found within the land they occupied. The two individuals hiding in this dingy room in this small inn were the most knowledgeable people in this world. If they truly tried, they could surely find some means to help their energy settle down without having to traverse to unknown lands.

At the same time….Cucumber bro was right. They really couldn’t afford to get caught. If they did….he didn’t dare think about what Luo Binghe would do to him.

(He didn’t want to think about what Mobei-jun would do to him.)

Although they paled in comparison to the OP protagonist and those who surrounded him, Shen Qingqiu and Shang Qinghua were powerful cultivators in their own right. Even if they gave up their biggest advantage by traveling south (namely, their foresight and in-depth understanding of this world), he’d like to think that they could handle whatever that new land would throw at them.

Ahh to go on an adventure! Without the voice of the System assigning them stupid quests one after the other! To be able to explore new lands, and meet new creatures!! With his friend!!!!

This is more than Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky ever thought possible!

For what seemed like the first time in forever, Shang Qinghua smiled, a true, excited, happy smile. He brought his hands above his head and cheered loudly.

“Alright! Roadtrip!”

Shen Qingqiu rolled his eyes and brought his fan forward to cover his face again, but Shang Qinghua could still see the smile etched on it.

Chapter Text

In the years which passed after Shen Qingqiu and Shang Qinghua’s deaths, the cultivation sects suffered one blow after another. Corruption, bribery, general accusations of disgrace proven true. With rumors of teachers lusting after their students, abusing their power to consort with demons and torture their servants, it was no surprise that public opinion of the cultivation sects took a downturn.

Cang Qiong Peak, despite having lost two of their Peak Lords, remained one of the few sects still respected. The two empty Peak heads remained unoccupied, the disciples choosing to take their education into their own hands with the aid of other Peak Lords. Even without their masters present, they grew to be incredible cultivators in their own rights, closing ranks in the territories under their purview.

Their masters were disgraced through different means: one said to have killed himself out of shame due to accusations put against him by a beloved disciple, and the other rumored to have been working alongside demons, having betrayed humanity. Still, Cang Qiong refused to entertain the rumors, defending the memories of their comrades with the same ferocity they used fight demonic forces in their lands.

How could one not admire the sheer camaraderie which the sect instilled in its members?

Yet another sect which remained in the trust of the public was the Huan Hua Palace, whose good reputation could directly be connected to one figure: Shen Qingqiu’s renegade disciple, Luo Binghe.

It was said that he so regretted and grieved the accusations he made against his master, accusations encouraged by the corrupt masters of the Huan Hua Palace, that he swore to see their reign end. Unlike Cang Qiong, the Huan Hua Palace was fully mired in the storm which swept the cultivation world, and only stayed afloat due to the perception that under Luo Binghe’s guidance, they would start anew, free from all the darkness which entailed their past.

It came as no surprise, therefore, that when the demon Tianglang-jun broke from his seal to wage war upon heaven and earth, these two sects put their differences apart to join forces and defeat him.

Oh, it was not an easy alliance to say the least. The Bai Zhan god of war and the new master of the Huan Hua Palace had famously been at odds for five years straight, fighting over the body of a dead man which had ultimately been burnt to ashes. Displices from Qing Jing Peak refused to stay in Luo Binghe’s presence, entirely holding him accountable for their loss.

Yet other squabbles kept breaking out. Liu Mingyan, the famed beauty, supposedly poisoned the young mistress of the Huan Hua Palace non-fatally, and when punishment was demanded, her brother simply solemnly patted her on the head while her master watched with proud eyes. Numerous other Cang Qiong disciples carried out petty acts of revenge against members of the Huan Hua, only to be let off without consequences by those supposed to discipline them.

Even worse, Luo Binghe showed no sign of speaking on behalf of his wronged sect members, seemingly entirely devoted to a war which demanded his complete attention.

Things came to a head in one final confrontation between the Bai Zhan war god and the Huan Hua young master when he sought to visit his late master’s house, only to be discovered by Liu Qingge, present there to pay his respects. Infuriated by the idea that Shen Qingqiu’s treacherous ex-disciple still sought to desecrate the man’s memory, the Bai Zhan Peak Head launched an attack, which was immediately parried by Luo Binghe.

The ensuing fight heavily damaged the bamboo house in which Shen Qingqiu once resided, as well as the surrounding area, only stopping when Ning Yingying and Ming Fan fell on their knees before the two and begged them to leave what little the Qing Jing Peak disciples had of their late master intact. Stricken, the two stronger cultivators removed themselves from the Peak, and refused to see each other until the next war council occurred.

Liu Qingge swore not to fight on the same battlefield as “that beast”. Luo Binghe laughed in his face and wished him the best of luck fighting against the demonic armies without his aid.

Just when everyone thought that the alliance was on the verge of falling apart: a miracle occurred.

In their efforts in cleaning and restoring their late master’s house, the Qing Jing disciples had stumbled upon piles and piles of old writing. And amongst the strange symbols and stranger words, they had recognized the elegant hand of their master, mingled with another’s writing, which the Peak Lords would recognize as Shang Qinghua’s hand.

Ordinarily, they would have put those papers away for respect of their late master’s belongings. But just as they were about tuck those papers back into their master’s shelves, they recognized one of the characters written within them.

A war council meeting was called. Ming Fan presented the papers to the Sect leader with shaking hands.

They all stared in awe at what had been given to them.

Pages upon pages writing, lazy, nearly incomprehensible at some parts. Some parts of the papers were stained with tea. Ming Fan recounted how, after the Immortal Alliance Conference, Shang shishu had often come to visit the Qing Jing Peak Lord, how they would seclude for hours on end in the bamboo house, only allowing the disciples to bring them regular refreshment and leaving empty pots of tea at the doorstep to be refilled.

In that time, it seemed, Shen Qingqiu and Shang Qinghua had mapped every single aspect of the coming years.

(In reality it was Shen Qingqiu and Shang Qinghua secluding themselves in a room, writing everything they could remember from The Proud Immortal Demon Way down, Shen Qingqiu critiquing his fellow transmigrator’s lazy writing with acid and Shang Qinghua elaborating on the stories he had built behind those one-dimensional characters which he had finally written down, both desperately trying to ignore their fates looming ever closer on the horizons.)

The room was quiet as the Sect Leader read what was written, brows furrowing as his eyes met symbols and characters he did not recognize. Despite their strangeness, the papers were full of information which no one else knew, about demons, about humans, about conspiracies that they hadn’t even heard about.

Luo Binghe traced the story of his origins with trembling fingers, reading Shang Qinghua’s writing about how the old Huan Hua Palace Master trapped and separated his mother from his father, how he coveted her being and tore Binghe’s family apart before he was even born.

In the margins, Shen Qingqiu’s writing: “My poor Binghe really didn’t deserve this.”

The story told in the valleys goes: under the banner of Shen Qingqiu’s memory, and the knowledge provided by the two late Peak Lords, the cultivation alliance against the demonic armies begun to triumph.

(“Holy shit,” Shen Qingqiu murmured when he heard the story years later, “I advanced from scum villain to beloved mentor who died and furthered protagonist growth.”

Shang Qinghua side-eyed him, wondering how someone so smart could be so dumb. “Oh you advanced into a beloved something alright.”)

This is what that story doesn’t tell: Luo Binghe, proud, immortal, the stallion who conquered the world, falling on his knees before the senior disciples of Qing Jing Peak, begging their forgiveness for taking their teacher away from them. Neither does it tell of Ming Fan, growing into a capable leader in his own right, pulling him up from that bend, words harsh (“Your apologies won’t be bringing our Shizun back!”) but hands gentle, awkward as they lifted his junior up, leading him to the house of their master and letting him mourn for hours on end.

The story in the valley goes: Luo Binghe made his last stand against the demon Tianglang-jun, bravely giving his life away to defeat the demon one last time.

This is what the storytellers gets do not know : Binghe, on the final battlefield, surrounded by demons and cultivators alike, creating barriers between hell and earth, ensuring that demons would no longer walk the lands freely even while demonic energy remained, retreating into this newly formed hell to bring order to the demonic realm.

This was the understanding the alliance had arrived at: the world could no longer continue on the way it had. Through complacency, through corruption, through trickery, both the cultivation world and the demonic world had fallen into complete disarray. If any true change was wanted, they would have to start completely anew.

For all the antagonism they begun with, the alliance ended on friendly terms. With the memory of Shen Qingqiu guiding them (with the ghost of Shen Qingqiu and Shang Qinghua haunting them -) they swore to do better and went to work on changing the world.

Years after, those two ghosts wandered into the land they had fled from and found no trace of what they had left behind.

Chapter Text

Consider what they had encountered in the lands they visited, Shang Qinghua and Shen Qingqiu did have some idea of what they would encounter when they re-entered what once used to be their cultivation lands. This didn’t lessen the shock of seeing the transformation a bit.

The lands to the south were indeed full of miraculous and monstrous creations, differing and similar to their own cultivation lands in turn. This was the worst realization they came to when they were in those lands: these creations were not the work of Shang Qinghua.

“Please I wouldn’t fucking make something as shitty as this!” He cried out through his gasps as he and his companion ran through a thick undergrowth, chased by what could only be described as demonic howler monkeys throwing at their heads truly foul smelling fecal matter.“Cucumber bro, have some faith!”

Shen Qingqiu turned back to see the monkeys catching up on them and let out a string of foul oaths. “Stop crying about that and run!”

Needless to say, without their flying swords, the two cultivators gained some serious leg muscles, as well as some….creative cultivation methods.

(Shen Qingqiu had taken to making talismans with a glee that Shang Qinghua had only caught momentary glimpse of long ago, when he had blasted apart a whole lake to lure one demon out in their search for the seeds of which would form their new bodies. His entire being shivered in apprehension, but Shang Qinghua was nothing if not in possession of an extraordinary survival instinct. He looked at his companion's gleeful face and wisely kept from making comments.)

But still, it was true: Shang Qinghua had not created the monsters they were facing, nor the people they were encountering. This was a particularly jarring realization.

“Cucumber bro…”

“Nn?”

They had somehow managed to get themselves captured and thrown in the prison of a major family in the area they were wandering in. The threat of oncoming execution for “defacing their lady’s pride” (which he hadn’t, how was he supposed to know what her intention had been when she took him out to dinner...also why was she so angry at him returning home to Shen Qingqiu? Can’t two bachelors live together now?) was nothing compared to the horror rising in Shang Qinghua’s body.

“Cucumber bro, don’t freak out…”

The snap of a fan. A low hiss. “We’ve been trapped by lunatics who’re convinced that we’re in some relationship and that we need to be killed for it, but please, tell me, what exactly should I not freak out about?”

He took in a deep breath. “I think I know where we are.”

 

So it turned out that they were in yet another novel.

“How could this happen?” Shen Qingqiu demanded, pacing the cell. He paused and whirled to look at Shang Qinghua, horror on his face. “Wait did you- did you plagiarize?”

“No!” Shang Qinghua protested. He hesitated. “Ok, so maybe I was inspired by some of the material being created but,” he spoke in a hurry, seeing the murderous expression on his companion’s face, “but I’ve never outright plagiarized the plot! Only landscapes and creatures! You know how much I had to world-build to give all of Binghe’s wives some uniqueness!”

Shen Qingqiu snarled. “And what did all their individuality amount to when they were reduced to being kept women?” He spat out. “And don’t even get me started on your so-called “world-building”, you half assed everything!”

Shang Qinghua spread his arms in front placatingly. “Alright, bro, I know I did it all wrong, calm down, calm down.” He watched Shen Qingqiu take several deep breaths before hesitantly continuing the conversation. “I still don’t know how we could have transmigrated into a new plot, though.”

With a groan, his companion sat down on the floor. “We probably didn’t,” Shen Qingqiu grumbled. At Shang Qinghua’s confused look, he let out another groan. “ Think about what you told me about the lands to the south.”

“That they were are place of….” Shang Qinghua’s face paled. “Miraculous and terrifying stories,” he finished in a whisper.

Shen Qingqiu rested his chin on his hand. “When I first transmigrated, I asked the System whether it was doing this sort of thing for other franchises too, and it didn’t give me an answer. But is also didn’t say no,” he recalled. “Which probably means that…”

“Having such an open ended land is allowing for worlds from other stories to seep into this one,” Shang Qinghua finished.

The two look at each other with equal dread in their eyes. Simultaneously: “Fuck.”

 

They were able to confirm things after breaking out of the house of the family keeping them (Shen Qingqiu was once again far too happy to break out the explosive talismans and Shang Qinghua worried ).  

  1. They weren’t only in the plot of one more novel: they were surrounded by them.

With Shang Qinghua being a writer who had access to a particular circle of writers who produced such webnovels, and Shen Yuan being a prolific reader of the same (“Not by choice, do you really think I would have touched them if I could walk over to the library!?”), they were quickly able to identify a number of plots occurring in front of them.

Some of them were tame, household stories. Others spanned generations and large swathes of land. But thankfully—

    2.  Having foreknowledge of the events occurring around them, and as well as freedom from the System, meant that they could very easily work around those stories and not get sucked into them.

Which honestly was probably for the best. Neither of them had any intention of falling into such stupidity again, not to mention that they weren’t particularly attached to the characters they were seeing either.

(“If it was Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu spoke on one quiet night, “...honestly I might have helped even without the system.”

Shang Qinghua swirled his cup of alcohol and watched his companion with hooded eyes. “Cucumber bro, you really liked him, huh?”

Shen Qingqiu smiled. Tilted his head in agreement. “He was a good character.

Seeing the serene expression on the usually blank face, Shang Qinghua kept quiet. But in his heart, he couldn’t help with think: ‘You didn’t just like him as a character, did you?’

That was alright. After all, it wasn’t until he met Mobei-jun that Shang Qinghua realized how much he really modeled him after his ideal man.)

And so, with this mindset, the years went on. Affected by the stories around them, the land changed and evolved with time, so much so that when they wandered back to the lands where their cultivation sects used to be, they could do so with the surety that they were extremely unlikely to run into someone who knew them.

The plot of the Proud Immortal Demon Way had ended, and other stories had begun. It ended up diverging massively from the original, but even hearing the tales in the valley, Shen Qingqiu knew that Luo Binghe was still alive, still thriving, no matter what tales the common people held. Why else would the entire demonic race be radio silent for so long?

(He was alive. He was alright. He had to be, because if he wasn’t Shen Qingqiu didn’t know what he would do—)

Oh, they couldn’t fully keep their promise to stay out of everyone else’s business, of course. There wasn’t any harm in saving some canon fodder here and there, right? Surely that wouldn’t cause the plots of these stories to deviate too much, right?

Still, they had to put in extra efforts to keep from meeting the protagonist of these tales. Both of them agreed: if they did meet them, it would be game over. The one common protagonist trait was, after all, their ability to get people to orbit around their lives.

So really, they had no one except themselves to blame for the mess they found themselves in. The moment they heard the name of the cultivation sects, and the name of the cultivation sect leaders, they should have known to avoid the area. The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation was an extremely popular webnovel, after all, so much so that even many of Shang Qinghua’s usual demographics had read it, despite having completely different tastes in content. Naturally, they knew which story they were witnessing when they saw the YunmengJiang, the GusuLan and the QishanWen sects arise.

But.

How were they supposed to know that this event was already happening? It hadn’t even been written in the book, only just heavily implied! At the time, Shang Qinghua had applauded the author for making such good use of off-screen material to push plot purposes, but now…

The barking of dogs intermingled with the shriek of a child.

Both entities were out on the empty road in the glaring sun, fighting over a small bun. The child was outnumbered, five to one, and one could see in his face, such, such terrible fear, but he kept on, holding the bun closer to his chest with one hand even as he fended off the beasts with the other.

It was a terrible scene, made more horrible by how those watching turned away from it. Windows were shut, feet begun to face away. The people of Yilling knew this sort of misery far too well to think that they could remedy it.

For their part, Shen Qingqiu and Shang Qinghua were frozen in place, both having arrived at the same horrible conclusion about what they were watching. A loud yelp had Shen Qingqiu taking one small step forward.

Fast as a snake, Shang Qinghua reached out with a hand and grabbed a hold of his wrist. “What are you doing?!”

The sharp words seem to shake his companion from the trance he had fallen in. Shen Qingqiu looked at the hand gripping his wrist with wide eyes. In his grip, Shang Qinghua can feel the other’s pulse race. “I..”

“He’s a protagonist,” Shang Qinghua hisses, using the panic in his veins to ignore the tugging in his heart. “He’s meant to live through this, he’ll be fine!”

(Shang Qinghua was not heartless. The cries in the alley hurt his heart as well, just as much as they are affected his friend. But the lifetime which he has spent roaming with Shen Qingqiu is the first time he has had some modicum of freedom in this world since he opened his eyes and was greeted by the System, laying out instructions before he could even walk.

Shang Qinghua was not heartless. He was however, so so afraid of going back to his old form, of once again being enslaved by a plotline he has no wish to follow.)

Shen Qingqiu meets his eyes with an equally panicked expression. He opens his mouth to say something - and then a loud scream interrupts them both.

They turn instinctively to the scene before them.

One of the dogs has run out of patience, choosing to ignore the food pressed against the child’s chest in favor of biting at the thin hand which was pushing it away. The child sobbed loudly, breath coming out in terrible gasps, but refused to let go of the bun. It didn’t matter at this point anyway: from the look in their eyes, marking the child as prey , the dogs had realized that there was other food to be eaten.

Shen Qingqiu made a wounded noise at the back of his throat. Shang Qinghua turned away from the scene in time to catch the helpless look etched in his friend’s face.

Desperate eyes turned to meet his own. “He’s a child,” Shen Qingqiu whispered, breathless.

Yet another scream. More barks, increasing in ferocity. The cries of the child slowly coming to turn into whimpers as he lost more and more strength, the bun from his hand dropping on the floor.

On his side, Shen Qingqiu surged onwards. Cursing, Shang Qinghua dropped the wrist in his grasp and reached for the talisman in his sleeve.

It looked like their age old avoidance policy had finally come to an end.

 

Chapter Text

With his hands tucked in layers of ointment and bandages, the child could hardly lift and eat the food laid out in front of him. Still, Shen Qingqiu couldn’t help but feel a pang of amusement, quickly followed by sorrow, at the sheer want in his gaze.

They had remembered what this protagonist liked in his food: spice to a killing extent. Still, with his current state, Shang Qinghua had played it simple and ordered mostly bland things.

“Water-based foods,” he muttered as he went to the master of the establishment they were staying at. “He’s bound to be dehydrated, I don’t think he’ll mind what we give him.”

Looking at the twitching hands and the salivating mouth, Shen Qingqiu couldn’t help but agree with that assumption.

“Would you like me to feed you?” he asked the child as gently as possible, doing his level best to not startle him.

Still, the other jumped slightly, face paling as the movement jarred his injuries. Wei Ying pressed his lips together, hair appearing around his face on a halo and, after one long minute, gave a soft nod.

Hiding his worry at how OOC this child was behaving (wasn’t this supposed to be the chatterbox sunshine?), Shen Qingqiu lifted the bowl and began to pace putting small spoonfuls of soup, laden with as many helpful herbs as they could gather, into the boy’s mouth.

Despite the pacing, it was obvious that Wei Ying was hurriedly swallowing it the moment his tongue touched the soup, gulping it down as though he feared never being able to eat again. Despite himself, Shen Qingqiu was not able to tell him to calm down.

It was only towards the end of the meal that Shang Qinghua came back up to their room, having settled all their accounts for the night. “All arrangements for the night stay will be done soon.”

Seeing how exhausted his friend looked, Shen Qingqiu couldn’t help but give a rueful smile. “Thank you, Qinghua. Really. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

The other snorted and collapsed in an ungrateful heap next to the door. “You’d starve and die like a true little master without his aids.”

Shen Qingqiu huffed a laugh, without looking away from where he was feeding the child in front of him, “Maybe so.”

Shang Qinghua shook his head. What a little master he had ended up with.

Catching the eye of the boy watching their interaction with a wide-eyed gaze, Shang Qinghua hesitated. Then, slowly, he sank next to him, bending towards grey eyes with a small smile. “Do you want more good, Wei Ying?”

The child remained silent for a few minutes. Then: “How do you know my name?”

Shang Qinghua and Shen Qingqiu fell silent, looking at each other with helpless faces. Neither of them had thought so far ahead.

“We knew your parents,” Shen Qingqiu finally said. It wasn’t exactly a lie, they did know CangSe SanRen and Wei Changze, as interesting characters turned into canon fodder by yet another sadistic author.

A small exhale escaped the child’s lips. Quietly, hesitantly, he raised his eyes to meet theirs. “Then...do you know where they are?”

Silence.

How does one answer that question? How does one even begin to tell a child that their parents, the strongest people in their world, the brightest stars in their sky, have fallen?

(It is one thing to write tragedy. It is another to live it.)

Wei Ying was a smart child, smarter than most his age. This intelligence was what allowed him to survive thus far, was fostered by his parents, who never stopped him in his creative endeavors, but chose to stand back with buckets of water for the inevitable explosions to occur.

He didn’t need a verbal answer. The silence in the room, the way the knuckles of the two men who had taken him whitened, this was all the confirmation he needed.

“Oh,” the protagonist said. And then, he looked down, pressing his long, uncut fingernails in his hands hard enough to scratch. Still, they shook.

Quietly, calmly, the child who would become the Yilling Patriarch, one of the strongest, most terrifying cultivators of his age, began to cry.

After some long moments, punctuated only by quiet gasping, the man in front of him shifted to face him. Gentle, awkward hands tugged him close, closer still, until he was practically sitting on his lap. A palm carefully patted the back of his head.

“We’re so sorry,” the man in blue whispered.

Movement from behind him. The other man, the one dressed in green, crowded close, slinking both hands around his waist. Gentle lips pressed to the back of his head.

“A-Ying,” the name slipped from Shen Qingqiu’s lips easily, as if he had known it forever. “We’re here.”

The man behind him smelled like incense and that one forest with those long stalks that his family had once gone through. Wei Wuxian knew this: this same man had picked him up on the street and allowed him to bury his face in his neck. Still, he could imagine…

(He climbed too far, too fast again. He could feel his heart tremble just looking at the sight below him.

“A-Ying!”

His mother stretched out his hands below the tree. His father stood behind, a look of worry painted on his usually gentle face.

Still, his mother smiled. Wiggled the fingers of her hand.

“A-Ying, we’re here!”)

The quiet gasps turned into full-blown heaving sobs. The two pairs of arms around his body tugged and held him, tighter and tighter still. Wei Ying felt like he could fall apart, and still those hands would hold him together.

And so, deep into the night, he did.

(Deep into the night, Shang Qinghua and Shen Qingqiu intertwined themselves around this child, and wondered how they would ever let go.)

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu came to breakfast in the morning with the sleeping form of Wei Wuxian clutched in his arms. Shang Qinghua, who had gotten up early in the morning to settle their accounts at the inn, spared a moment to be mildly alarmed.

Did he ever intend on letting the child go?

The ex-lord of Qing Jing peak sank down to his knees, supporting the back of his precious cargo with one hand. Shen Qingqiu opened his mouth to speak, causing Shang Qinghua to reflexively down his tea in one gulp, wishing for some form of alcohol to soothe the foreboding feeling in his soul.

Hearing Shen Qingqiu’s next words, he knew that feeling was on the money.

“I’ve had Wei Ying for one day,” the man declared, “but if anything happened to him, I’d kill everyone in this inn and then myself.”

Shang Qinghua spat the tea out in shock, spluttering in disbelief as people on the tables close to him began to turn at the declaration. “Fucking hell,” he coughed, “could you calm down, maybe?”

With one hand, he drew out a silencing talisman from his sleeve and slammed it down on the table, to ensure that other such declarations weren’t overheard as well. With another, he flagged down one of the workers, gesturing for another pot of tea.

Business done, he turned to look at his friend and paused.

The disheveled look on Shen Qingqiu’s face was one he knew that he was sporting too. Without the financial backing of the Cang Qiong Sect, the two runaways had largely been sleeping in one room, in order to preserve what money they could. Not only that, whenever they did decide to sleep in one room, the townspeople would always be nicer to them?? For some reason???? The women giggled whenever they decided to go to the market together and the men always looked weirdly uncomfortable, but sometimes the vendors would give them free fruit and congratulate them. Which.

Well it was weird but as long as it worked in their favor, Shen Qingqiu didn’t care much.

For his part, Shang Qinghua just found inordinate please in scamming all goddamn fujoshis who had somehow made their way into this world. Honestly, couldn’t two guys travel together without being together now? Couldn’t two bros have a sleepover without any papapa?

Still, last night, even though they had booked a separate room for Wei Ying, they had decided to allow him to sleep with them. This was in large part because when told that another room was made for him, Wei Ying had simply looked at them with those big pitiful eyes, not saying a single word, yet delivering his message loud and clear.

Are you two going to leave me too?

...they both had always been pushovers in different ways.

Despite turning in for the night, the two adults didn’t sleep at all, choosing instead to simply stare at the child sprawled out between them, wondering where to go from here. Over the course of the night, both of them had come to some individual conclusions.

“Why the fuck are you always so intense?” Shang Qinghua moaned, trying to mop up the spilled liquid with a spare cloth. “Give a guy some warning!”

Shen Qingqiu frowned, tightening his grip on Wei Ying. “I’m being serious, you know,” he said. He leant forward, lowering his voice despite the silencing seal, “Qinghua, we have to do something.”

Shang Qinghua sighed, massaging his forehead. “I know,” he replied belatedly. “I know….but honestly are we prepared to just..take him with us?”

The frown deepened. “I don’t really think we have any other choice,” Shen Qingqiu pointed out. “As it is right now, as an orphan and the son of a servant, his chances of thriving in other sects are already low. The only one which we know would treat him well is…”

His voice trailed off but they both knew what would follow. The YunmengJiang Sect, the one which housed Wei Ying in the novel. That sect really did treat him well but still…

Shang Qinghua shook his head. “The family dynamics there literally inspired his absolute lack of any self-preservation,” he spoke in a matter-of-fact manner. “Wei Wuxian in the novel was always aware of the fact that he was an outsider in their home....he was so concerned with repaying everything the Jiang family did for him that he was prepared to do anything to protect them, no matter what the cost to himself.”

They fell silent, ruminating over the fact presented to them. In a bad habit carried over from his first life, Shen Qingqiu chewed on his bottom lip. “Then we have to take him,” he said at last. “I mean, we have to at least try.”

The ex-lord of An Ding Peak shot his friend a helpless look. “I’m all for that, Qingqiu, but consider, ” he stressed, “does either of us know how to be a parent?”

The other man sat back, the barest hints of a pout on his face. “We could just ask around.”

Shang Qinghua rolled his eyes so hard that his companion feared they would fall out. “Ask who exactly? Parents in fantasy worlds like this are shit! They’re either dead, dying, or pushing their child to fuck off to some secluded mountain and never come home again!”

The pout grew heavier. “That...doesn’t sound ideal.” The hands around Wei Ying tightened a tiny bit. Send this kid away and never see him again? Not very appealing.

After a while, though, Shen Qingqiu smiled. “You know what that sounds like?” He leaned forward, hand moving to automatically cup the back of Wei Ying’s neck in support. “It sounds like the people in this world don’t know how to parent either. And they’re churning out good kids!”

Shang Qinghua stared at him in exasperation. “Cucumber bro,” he began, tone slow as though he were speaking to a kindergartner, “more than half the people in this world have PTSD which they’ll never realize.”

Shen Qingqiu conceded the point, looking away with a ‘tch’. “We could definitely do better,” he grumbled. “It can’t that hard to not fuck up a perfectly good child. Why, I raised so many of the canon fodder children on Qing Jing to semi-functioning adults! Even Bing—”

His voice died abruptly as the air turned sour. Shen Qingqiu turned pale, face fixed on the window looking into nowhere. His lips pursed together in fury at himself.

Shang Qinghua sighed inaudibly, seeing how his friend’s knuckles whitened as he clenched his hands.

‘So you’re still hung up on that, huh.’

After a long awkward moment, Shang Qinghua conceded. “Yes, Binghe was a happy child.”

Shen Qingqiu didn’t need words to hear what was being said in the silence that followed: ‘You just fucked him over as an adult.’

The silence they sat in would have grown overwhelming had Wei Ying not chosen that moment to shift in Shen Qingqiu’s shoulder, letting out a breath of air in a tiny gasp, clearly close to waking up. Immediately, the elder made a quiet shushing noise, bringing the boy closer to his chest. Watching the scene before him, Shang Qinghua couldn’t help but feel his eyes soften.

He didn’t have a chance of winning this one, did he?

More than that, ultimately, he didn’t really want to win this one, did he?

He sighed. Then, “I mean, I suppose we can’t fuck up too much.”

Startled eyes raised to meet his. Ignoring the look of delighted incredulity on his friend’s face, Shang Qinghua carried on: “We can’t possibly screw him up to the point where he carves out and transfers his own golden core into another person’s body through an untested surgical method without any thought of how he’ll survive the ensuing war zone, I guess. Although—”

Before he could continue on rambling, Shen Qingqiu reached across the table and gently put a hand on his, intertwining their fingers and giving a light squeeze.

“Thank you,” he smiled.

Shang Qinghua froze at the sight.

‘Fuck no! You keep your secret harem gathering smile to yourself!’

It was Shang Qinghua’s turn to look away and face out of the window, a small blush creeping up his face. His removed the silencing talisman on the table, seeing the master’s daughter approach with a pot of tea. Under his breath, still audible, he began to mutter, “I’m too young to be a father….what the hell…”

Shen Qingqiu snorted, readjusting his grip on the child in his arms. “We’re immortals,” he reminded his companion, “we’re old as fuck.”

Wei Ying chose to lift his face at that very moment. “Mister Shen,” he asked, voice still drowsy, “what’s ‘fuck’?”

A gasp from the inn owner’s daughter waiting to pour them tea, now looking at them with scandalized eyes. Shen Qingqiu froze, his grip on the child going slack, as Shang Qinghua burst out into nervous laughter. “Hahahahha, look at the time! We really must be going, right?”

Shen Qingqiu remained unresponsive.

Fuck, was he going to have to give up swearing?

How the fucking hell was he going to do that?!

That shit made up half his language!!!

....yeah right, that wasn’t happening.

Fuck, he really hadn’t thought this through, had he?

Without waiting for a response, Shang Qinghua grabbed Wei Ying with one hand and pulled his companion’s sleeve with the other, leading him away from the judgemental stares of the other guests.

Still in shock, Shen Qingqiu watched as Shang Qinghua continued rambling, spinning story after story to satisfy Wei Ying’s curiosity. Unwillingly, his eyes softened, as he raised one hand to shield his eyes from the sun so he could continue watching the scene better.

No matter what thought went behind it, this was their road now. Really, what else could they do but keep walking forward?


Chapter Text

They decided to teach Wei Ying to swear.

To be fair, the “they” in this equation had been Shen Qingqiu almost entirely. “It’s like what cool parents do with booze,” he said conversationally, “you know, they drink with their children so that they’ll know how to drink people later on.”

Shang Qinghua looked at him, judgement pouring out of every blink. “You just really don’t want to give up your curses do you,” he deadpanned.

His companion hissed, fucking hissed at him, like some overgrown green cat. “This,” Shen Qingqiu spoke, dragging out the s, “has been my one thread of sanity in this godforsaken world. And no one, absolutely no one, will keep it from me!”

Shang Qinghua was a smart man. He took one look at his companion, fraying at the seams from all the nights he had spent hovering by Wei Ying’s beside like an overgrown protective bat, and calmly drugged his tea.

Later that night, with Shen Qingqiu passed out next to him, he re-evaluated what had happened so far.

Wei Ying had been a surprisingly easy child to care for; bar the occasional nightmare, the occasional attack of panic, there hadn’t been any major incidents. Still, it was easy to tell that the child had been traumatized by his experience on the streets: far from the cheery, happy-go-lucky protagonist described in the Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, he was a quiet child.

That was alright: he had, after-all, just lost his parents. His entire world had been changed over the course of a few months. It made sense that he too, would change in reaction to it.

And besides, they could both see that those changes were nowhere near over with. They had both chosen to continue on traveling as nomadic cultivators, unable to decide a place to stay on for long. Wei Ying had taken to their routine with ease: having rogue cultivators for parents meant that this lifestyle was something he was entirely accustomed to.

They no longer had the resources of a major sect to fall back on in order to educate the child in their midst. This is what they did have: the entire land.

True to the novel, Wei Ying was quickly proving himself to be a genius. He was naturally curious about the places they visited, the cultivation they practiced and the methods they employed. And so, alongside lessons on the likes of swearing, literature and swearing at literature, Shen Qingqiu and Shang Qinghua began to treat their ventures as educational ones, often allowing Wei Ying to tag along on their small night hunts and the few cases they were asked to solve by the people in the towns they visited.

(This was a purely educational enterprise, alright?! It was in no way inspired by the fact that neither the guardians nor the ward could bare to be separated from each other for more than a few minutes, that they could not bare to let the other out of their sight for fear that something would happen, that something would go horribly wrong, the way it always did—)

Wei Ying was a quiet child, just coming into his understanding of how he could interact with the adults who looked after him. It probably didn’t help that the people looking after him were just as awkward, unsure of what they could and could not ask from the child.

Still, slowly, as the passage of time passed, they could see him growing warmer to them, asking for more without prompting, voicing the questions which plagued his active mind rather than swallowing them whole. Slowly, as the passage of time passed, they could find it within themselves to give more and more, coming or whatever place they were calling their home from markets and quests with their hands laden with presents of scrolls and ribbons and the odd toys, brought with the same thought : ‘Wei Ying would enjoy this.’

It was a beautiful thing to watch, really, as the child slowly bloomed. Day-by-day, his smiles grew, and with them grew Shang Qinghua and Shen Qingqiu’s resolve to protect and nurture them.

The shifting of shadows caught Shang Qinghua’s attention. He looked to see what was fast becoming a familiar sight. With a sigh, he patted the small space beside him on the bed, smiling as Wei Ying, dressed down to his inner robes for sleep, climbed on eagerly.

“Couldn’t sleep again, A-Ying?” He asked the child, carefully eyeing the child’s arms for the tremors which so often accompanied them after long nights spent with bad memories. Thankfully, there were none. Inaudibly sighing with relief, he dragged his eyes up to meet grey ones, smiling encouragingly to vanquish the hesitation he could see within them.

The child shook his head to signify as negative answer. “Could I…” he wetted his lips in nervousness, “could I stay here anyway? With you?”

Something in Shang Qinghua’s heart squeezed, tight enough that he could barely stop a choked out whine from escaping his lips. He fought the urge to close his eyes, to curl up in a ball the way Shen Qingqiu had at the other end of the bed.

Really, this child...this protagonist halo….

….wasn’t it a little bit too much? How was anyone supposed to deny those wide eyes anything? If Wei Ying walked into Qishan right now, and asked Wen Ruohan to jump into the Burial Mounds with that face, then the upcoming war would surely be over before it ever began!

“...yes,” Shang Qinghua replied belatedly. He cleared his throat, trying to balance out his voice which had come out a bit high. Made his tone a bit gentler, more quiet. “Of course you can, A-Ying.” He hesitated, looking into those wide grey eyes, before finding the strength to continue on. “You can stay with us whenever you want, as long as you want. We won’t ever turn you away,” he swore.

Wei Ying’s eyes grew even wider, the barest sheen of tears coming over them. Before Shang Qinghua could truly panic, the child spoke again, voice soft and trembling, “Promise?”

Shang Qinghua’s heart stuttered in his ribs; it wasn’t built for this. Still, he persisted past the ache, lifting a curved pinky in the air by reflex. Wei Ying looked at the digit at though he expected it to attack him; Shang Qinghua can’t help the soft huff of laughter which escaped his mouth as he guided the child’s own finger into the same position with his other hand. He linked both their fingers together, pressing a quick kiss at his own end.

“Promise,” he replied in a whisper.

Wei Ying’s eyes filled with tears and he quickly looked to the other side of the bed, clenching his hands into little fists and trying his best to calm his breaths. Shang Qinghua followed his gaze to where his companion was lying on the other half of the bed, curled up in a ball, and fought to keep his lips from quirking into a small smile.

Shen Qingqiu always had terrible sleeping posture.

In complete contrast to Shang Qinghua, who didn’t sleep as much as he napped, body ready to jerk awake at the slightest noise after a lifetime of paranoia and anxiety, Shen Qingqiu slept like the dead, his limbs twisting here and there. He slept on his side most of the time, either with his arms outstretched beyond his head or as he was right now, curled into the smallest ball. 

Like a cat, really, Shang Qinghua mused, not that he would ever tell the other this fact. He still valued his life.

Still, it was no wonder he liked to complain about his back all the time, Shang Qinghua thought, observing his sleeping posture with pained eyes.

“Is - ”, Wei Ying cut himself off with a jerk, shaking his head as if to clear a stray thought. He began again, “Is Mister Shen alright?”

“Oh, he’s fine,” Shang Qinghua laughed. “He’s just really tired.” And drugged to his gills, he added mentally, but that wasn’t anything an impressionable child needed to know. Yet.

Wei Ying frowned. “His fan…”

Shang Qinghua sighed. Wasn’t that the apex of the current problem?

They had encountered some especially feral walking corpses around the village they recently entered, isolated by the primary land of cultivation sects through a dense forest. Seeing the plight of the villagers, who had been awaiting help from the nearby Jin Sect for a while now, they had both undertaken the task of clearing the corpses away.

It hadn’t been a pretty fight, even though it was clear that they were going to come out on top. Without their swords, armed with primarily talismans...close range fighting wasn’t something they exactly like to indulge in. This fight was a clear example why.

Between one step and another, seeing a walking corpse approach the tree Wei Ying was placed in, Shen Qingqiu placed himself in the middle of the child and the corpse. Unwilling to lose his hand in his sleeve to pull out a talisman, he chose instead to use his usual fan, painted with scenes from a familiar bamboo forest, to fight off the corpse.

He had succeeded, naturally. The fan, however, was damaged beyond repair, contributing in no small way to Shen Qingqiu’s earlier bad mood.

Really, not having swords sucked. Especially for Shen Qingqiu, because god knows how he doted on Xiu Ya.

That’s alright, though. Shang Qinghua had plans to remedy that.

“Yes, it’s a shame,” he spoke out loud. “He’s had that fan for a long time.”

Wei Ying bit his lips. “I...I’m sorry,” he bit out eventually, voice going small. “If the corpse hadn’t come for me - ”

Thwack.

Wei Ying blinked, incredulous, below following the sight of the brush which gentle hit his head to the man holding it. “Don’t be ridiculous,” Shang Qinghua chided. “Both of us would happily give up such trivial possessions in order to keep you safe.”

Smiling at the child looking up at him with trembling lips, he gestured at the papers which lay scattered on his side of the bed.

“Fans can be re-built, can be fixed or bought again. But you, little one, are not expendable.”

Tears stung at Wei Ying’s eyes, but he kept them back, choosing to look at the papers Shang Qinghua was gesturing at. “Are you...going to build him another fan?”

“Mhm,” Shang Qinghua hummed in agreement, picking up the brush and holding it to his lips. “It’s his birthday soon, you know,” he whispered conspiratorially. It was, at least, the n-th anniversary of the day he had arrived in this world, a simultaneously celebration of the day of his death in one realm and his re-birth in another. “So I’m going to give him the biggest fan I can.”

Big was the main word. A fan large enough that he would have to tie it to his waist or back the way he would a sword, imbued with as many seals as Shang Qinghua dared put on it. Perfect for both ranged attacks and head-on fighting. Something to act as both a fan and a weapon, painted with that same scene which Shen Qingqiu treasured so much, which Shang Qinghua was fighting to re-create on paper.

The artisans at the next town were said to be the best in the area. If he was able to send word of their arrival ahead, along with a list of the things he needed for the fan, and perhaps even a draft of the design, they should be able to get it made fairly quickly —

Hands tugging at his sleeves distracted him. He put down the brush from where he was tapping it against his lips and looked down to see Wei Ying look at him with determination shining in his gaze.

“Can I…” he looked at the material scattered, all the scraps of paper lying here and there. “I want to help!”

The grip on his sleeve got tighter. Shang Qinghua watched in stunned silence as the child before him burst into a stream of words, more animated than he had ever seen him.

“Mama said that I was good at drawing! And - and - so did Papa! Even though I can’t remember things very well,” his eyes looked down at his hands as though in shame, the fingers leaving Shang Qinghua’s sleeve to intertwine with each other in nervousness, “If you tell me what it looked like, I’ll definitely be able to— ”

He got cut off by hands on his waist, gently picking him up. They laid him down in Shang Qinghua’s lap, turning him to face the papers scattered over the bed, allowing him to catch glimpses of lists and sketches.

A pressure at the back of his head as the man behind him pressed a gentle kiss to his hair. “I think,” Shang Qinghua spoke slowly, ruminating over the words carefully as they left his mouth, “nothing would make him happier than to have your hand on this present.”

He uncurled one of Wei Ying’s fists and pressed the brush down in it, before using the same hand to tug the child closer to him, so that his back was supported by the elder’s chest.

“How about you start to draw what you can remember,” Shang Qinghua suggested, “and I’ll let you know how it looks.”

Wei Ying nodded his head to fast that Shang Qinghua feared he would injure it. “En!”

The night outside was cold, the wind fast picking up. They worked in the light of one candle, for fear of waking Shen Qingqiu up despite how strong his slumber looked. And yet, despite the coming winter, intertwined together as they were, larger hands guiding smaller ones over brush strokes, the warmth that spread through them was reminiscent of a summer that was to come.

(The moon was high in the sky when Shang Qinghua blew out the candle and lay Wei Ying in the middle of him and his companion. He turned to sort everything on the table out, working with the moonlight to ensure that the bottle of ink was closed tight and that the papers were properly weighed down.

A tug on his sleeve.

He turned around to see Wei Ying look at him with bleary, sleep-ladder eyes, his face tired but his smile warmer than it ever had been before. Half asleep, the child mumbled, “Thank you, papa,” before turned to face Shen Qingqiu and promptly falling to sleep.

Shang Qinghua sat there, frozen, numb, as he watched his companion and his child instinctively come close to each other, one of Wei Ying’s hands tugging on the front of Shen Qingqiu’s robes as the latter swung an arm around the child’s waist and pulled him close. He sat there for what felt like hours, the paralysis in his body completely at odds with furious thumping of his heart.

“Anytime, little one.”

The choked whisper spilled out in a silent room. No one heard it apart from him and the moon and yet….that was alright.

A long journey lay in front of them, after all. They had time still, to speak and hear what lay in their hearts.

Chapter Text

 

A few days later, on that strange melancholic anniversary of Shen Qingqiu’s arrival in this world, they presented him with two gifts.

One: as promised, a truly massive fan - about half the length of his body - made with wood and metal intertwined to give it structure. The artists in the town were truly as good as they said, as was Wei Ying, who provided them with the first draft of the design. Scenes from a mountain spread over the wing, familiar bamboo, with rising clouded peaks in the background. Each spoke was carved with intricate seals: for fortune, for strength, for repelling demonic energies, etc.

Shen Qingqiu: “....do we have enough money to make something like this?”

Shang Qinghua, indignant: “Speak for yourself! I’ve been saving up for this for months!”

Both realized what had been said and looked away, a small blush spreading on both their cheeks. Clearing his throat softly, Shen Qingqiu began, “Thank you, Qinghua. This is….”

Taking pity on his struggle of his usually eloquent companion, Shang Qinghua smiled. “It wasn’t all just me, you know. A-Ying helped a lot!”

Shen Qingqiu turned to where the child was standing, watching their interaction with a small grin. Upon noticing the elder’s warm gaze on him, Wei Ying couldn’t help but feel a similar blush crawl up, the soft eyes of the green clad man making him feel pangs of embarrassment and happiness.

For his part, Shen Qingqiu took a moment to examine the child before him, waves of contentment arising in his heart. For all their misgivings, they seemed to be doing a good job raising him: soft flesh lay where there was once just bone, previously limp hair now growing thick and wild (more and more of a pain to manage as the days passed), that sorrowful, tearful look replaced by smiles which were becoming more and more common….

His heart ached as he fought to keep from smiling like a madman at the affection that swelled in it.

“A-Ying, you….”

Wei Ying took a deep breath.

Second present: A smaller fan, one he could simply hold in his hands, with a similar scene, extended towards him.

Alright, maybe two presents was just the official statement. The unofficial reality was this:

Third present: “Happy birthday, father!”

Brown eyes widened in shock.

Shen Qingqiu, it is important to note, had always been really vulnerable to protagonist smiles. In all these years, separated from Binghe, he had nearly forgotten that, forgotten how potent they could be.

Shang Qinghua, who was watching the scene with content eyes, cried out in alarm as his companion swayed, reaching out an arm to steady him.

“Qingqiu?!”

“Father??!!!!”

 

Once Shen Qingqiu awoke from his impromptu “nap”, the first order of business was to soothe his child, insisting, in tears, that he would stop calling him father if he hated it so much that it made him faint.

(No!! Protagonist tears were even worse than protagonist smiles!!!)

Once assured of his acceptance of the title (“No A-Ying, you calling me that makes me the happiest, actually, never call me anything else, alright? Always call me father, ok?”), the younger grew rapidly in his exuberance and cheer. Assured of his place by their side, he climbed higher and higher trees, confident in being caught if he went out of bounds; ran ahead in their travels to scout the territory, knowing that his parents would be walking right behind him.

It was a struggle to keep up with his energy. Still, even as they started to teach him basic sword forms and self-defense steps out of rising concerns with how far ahead he ran, both Shang Qinghua and Shen Qingqiu couldn’t help but smile at each other. Truly, this is how a child should behave: carefree, with assurance that the world was theirs to experience and grow in.

With his rising confidence and comfort by their side...maybe it was actually surprising that the question didn’t come sooner.

“Father, Papa, are you guys husband and wife?”

Only many years of growing the thickest of skins in his quest to bullshit his way through the plot of The Proud Immortal Demon Way kept Shen Qingqiu from spitting out the tea in his mouth, coughing lightly as he swallowed it in a rough gulp. Shang Qinghua was not as lucky, the sheer shock of the question made his hand jerk, smearing the accounts book he was writing in.

Silence fell in the room. The two elder cultivators shared loaded, awkward looks.

Fucking knew we weren’t ready for this parenting shit!

After a while, Shang Qinghua delicately cleared his throat. “A-Ying,” he began seriously, “in the first place, if two men get married, they’d just be husband and husband. In any good marriage, the roles of husband and wife aren’t that different anway,” he was beginning to ramble, oh god, “so there really isn’t any need for one person in a partnership to follow some rigid societal role—”

Wei Ying knew how to deal with these nervous ramblings by now. “Ok,” he said, unconcerned, “so are you guys husband and husband?”

Crickets.

“A-Ying,” Shen Qingqiu spoke helplessly, trying his best to divert the topic they were completely unprepared for, “what do you think a married couple should look like?”

Wei Ying thought about the question for a few minutes, drawing upon memories of his parents. “Well,” he began, “they should get along with each other. They should be really nice to each other — when one wants to do something, the other should always help them out and cheer them! Even when they fight, they should always try to make up with each other! They should make each other laugh lots and always stay together!”

Shang Qinghua and Shen Qingqiu exchanged hopelessly endeared smiles. Ahh this child was so cute! So smart! So precious! A Grade-A white lotus!!!

“And they should hug and kiss lots!”

The teacup creaked under Shen Qingqiu’s hand. The brush began to splinter in Shang Qinghua’s.

Unnoticing, Wei Ying went on: “That’s what Mama used to say to Papa anyways!”

...that explained so much. No wonder this protagonist grew up to be that shameless and bold!

“W-well,” Shang Qinghua began, hastily putting aside the brush before he could fully break it, “we don’t really do all of that, right?”

Wei Ying frowned. “You do! Papa, you even worked so hard on the present for Father so he wouldn’t feel sad about his fan!”

Shang Qinghua bit his tongue. Curse him for trying to be nice! He turned to his companion, pleading with eyes to take over the situation before he managed to make it even more disastrous.

Shen Qingqiu sighed, rolling his eyes. He put the cup down and focused on Wei Ying, the way he did when teaching him a particularly difficult character or poem. In response, Wei Ying stood up straighter, somewhat unconsciously.

“In this world,” he began, “there exist different types of love. One that you hold for a beloved friend, one that you hold for a beloved spouse,” he smiled, “one that you hold for a beloved child.” He reached out with one hand to gently poke Wei Ying’s nose. “Do you understand?”

The child giggled, going crossed eyed to keep the finger in sight. “Sort of,” he replied, “not entirely,” he confessed.

Shen Qingqiu smiled again. “That’s alright,” he spoke, “it takes time to get these things.” A deep breath. “Your father and mother loved each other as husband and wife. But your Papa and I just love each other like very beloved friends.” He paused. “Does that affect the way you think of us?”

Wei Ying shook his head hard. “No! Papa is still Papa and Father is still Father.”

How was Shang Qinghua supposed to control himself? He snagged the child’s waist and drew him close, bringing him into a tight hug. “Good child,” he murmured into his neck, “you’re such a good, good child, A-Ying.”

Never one to shy away from affection, Wei Ying turned in the embrace to sling his arms around his papa’s neck. He nuzzled into the elder’s cheek. “Papa is a good, good papa too!”

Whipping his fan to hide his smile, stretching so wide that his face ached, Shen Qingqiu watched the other two melt into each other’s embrace and thought that life was good.

 

Later that night, they decided to let Wei Ying sleep in their bed again.

It was really becoming a habit, this and their tendency to just hold Wei Ying from time to time. They should probably stop doing it, for child development or something but. But.

Wei Ying cute!

“Papa, Father,” the sleepy child spoke blearily in between them, “did you have anyone you loved like Mama and Papa did then?”

From their place on either side of their child, Shang Qinghua and Shen Qingqiu froze. Shen Qingqiu was turned to the other side, lightly oiling the spokes of his weapon to ensure it slid open smoothly, while Shang Qinghua lay on the bed, lightly caressing Wei Ying’s hair. They had blown out the candles already, but even in the meagre light which the crescent moon provided, they could see the other tense.

Shang Qinghua closed his eyes, and knew what the other was seeing: a familiar house, the smell of food, new yet comforting. A man with wide eyes and strong peerless features, the red mark shining like a beacon on his forehead.

He couldn’t begrudge Shen Qingqiu this. After all…

... a large body, skin tinged lightly with blue, hands which handled him roughly and softly in turn….

“That’s something we’ll talk about later, A-Ying,” Shen Qingqiu spoke softly. He turned around, smiling at the sleepy child. “Rest for now,” he came close, placing a soft kiss on his forehead, “we have an early morning ahead of us.”

A yawn broke through the child’s mouth. “Good night,” the child mumbled. “Love you guys….”

Shang Qinghua chuckled, still brushing a hand through wild black hair in a slow rhythm. “Love you too, little one.”

He stayed awake far after Wei Ying had fallen asleep, watching the tense form of his friend tend to his fan with single-minded focus and ruminating on that which they had lost.

Abruptly, he started, “We should find Wei Ying a friend.”

Shen Qingqiu paused in his motions, turning around and raising an eyebrow in question. “Oh?”

Shang Qinghua nodded distractedly, mind whirring with the possibilities they could carry out. “Yeah I mean...he should have people his own age to hang around with, right?”

Shen Qingqiu put down his fan. “Who are you thinking of?”

A slow, wicked smile spread across Shang Qinghua’s face. “You’re going to like this one,” he told his friend.

There was little hope of them sleeping tonight, not with all the ghosts which had inadvertently come back to haunt them. Still, they had spent too much time before not seeing what was right in front of them, too caught up in what should have been to really see what was.

Now, with their child asleep in their bed, innocent, trusting, so unaware of the fate which was coming his way, they couldn’t afford to repeat those mistakes.

Chapter Text

The clear autumn evening found itself two children resolutely walking towards a stream.

Well, one was resolute and walking. The other was decidedly against the venture, unable to escape due to the strong grip which the former had on his wrist.

“Brother please,” the younger begged, “I climbed it halfway the last time, didn’t I? Surely that’s enough!”

The elder sighed, aggrieved. “You wimped out and jumped back down before you could get anywhere near the top!” he scolded. “How are you going to be participating in night hunts if you can’t even do something as simple as climbing trees?”

“That thing isn’t a tree, it’s a mountain!” the younger protested. Honestly, he didn’t know where he was getting the courage to speak back against his brother from, but he was damned if he wasn’t going to milk it for all it’s worth.

The elder’s trigger temper snapped. “Nie Huaisang!” he roared. “You are one of the scions of the Nie Sect! How do you expect people to respect you if you can’t even do something as simple as this!” He scowled. “I should break your legs and give you a better excuse to not climb!”

The younger cowered under his half-brother’s temper, but still found the courage to hold on. “Brother,” he pleaded, “I’m just the spare! You’re the heir; no one cares if the spare can’t climb some tree! Spare meeee,” he wailed.

The veins in the elder’s face bulged. He moved forward with purpose, ready to drill into this good-for-nothing brother of his when—

“Do you hear that?” he paused suddenly, ears straining in the silence to pick out the sound he had heard mere moments ago.

Nie Huaisang frowned. “Hear what?” But then he too heard it - a sudden rustling of leaves punctuated by the smallest sound of laughter. Slowly, he looked up at the enormous tree which he had previously thought would be his execution ground and spotted small legs, hidden by thick branches, swinging in the breeze.

Trembling, he nudged his brother, gesturing that he look up. “G-g-ghost!”

Nie Mingjue spotted the same sight and shoved with brother behind him, drawing Baxia with a flourish. “Come down,” he cried out.

At their actions, however, the giggles grew even louder. The legs receded, and suddenly, in their place, a face appeared!

It was a boy, around Huaisang’s age, dangling upside down on the tree with his legs wrapped around a thick branch. Waves of thick black hair tumbled down, the odd leaf sticking here and there. A vivid red ribbon trailed even further than the hair, blowing gently in the breeze.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” the child laughed. “I didn’t mean to disturb you. It’s just - you guys are so funny!”

Nie Mingjue frowned, even as his grip on Baxia lessened. “Who are you? What are you doing here?” he demanded. “This is Nie Sect territory!”

The boy laughed yet again, swinging himself up before hopping down to stand on another branch. He bowed dramatically. “My deepest apologies, o sect heir,” his amusement wound through his entire tone. It was obvious that he didn’t seriously mean a word he said, and Nie Huaisang found himself looking at the boy with newfound fear in his eyes. What kind of fool would dare to even lightly mock his brother to his face like this?!

Said fool grinned down at the two. “My name is Wei Ying, courtesy name Wei Wuxian! It’s nice to meet you!”

Nie Mingjue huffed in irritation. “I’ve never heard of any Wei sect nearby,” he commented. The boy was obviously training in cultivation, given the ease of balance and grace he showcased on the tree.

“That’s because there isn’t any,” Wei Wuxian replied. “My parents are rogue cultivators. They came here to talk to your  mother about something!”

Huaisang’s mother acted as the sect retainer after the passing of the last Nie Sect head. Nie Mingjue furrowed his eyebrows, recalling that he had indeed been informed of guests coming to meet her, and thus had been urged to take Huaisang out for the evening.

He sheathed Baxia and bowed, what little diplomatic training he had been given kicking in. “Apologies for the hostility. I was not aware that you were a guest in our territory.”

Wei Wuxian waved a hand, as though saying that the apology was unneeded.

Nie Mingjue continued on. “My name is Nie Mingjue, heir to the Nie Sect.” He paused. As the silence stretched on, he sighed before knocking his brother on the head.

Nie Huaisang snapped out from where he was gawking at the boy. “A-apologies,” he stuttered, also bowing, “this one is Nie Huaisang.”

Wei Ying grinned, “Nice to meet you!”

Nie Mingjue sighed at the realization that he had not one, but two brats to look after, “Why don’t you come down? You should stay with us while your parents come to pick you up.”

Wei Ying sat down, legs swinging with alarming ferocity. “Well,” he cocked his head, “my parents did say to stay in the tree but,” a bright grin, “they know me better than that by now.” With a quick leap he was below, his step light throughout.

The two Nies appraised the boy anew. He was a little shorter than Huisang, but his eyes and face were exceedingly lively. His clothes were a mess, but it was clear that this boy was clearly well cared for.

Nie Mingjue’s eyes brightened when they landed upon the sword on his side. “Do you know how to use that thing?” He asked, jerking his head toward the weapon.

Wei Ying let out a surprised sound, hand coming to wrap around the pommel. He drew the sword from its sheathe with a grunt: he had yet to grow into the body he needed to have to use it comfortably.

“I try,” he replied humbly. “I’ve only had Suibian for a while though, Father says it’ll take me a lot more time to master it.”

A strangled noise escaped Nie Huaisang’s throat. “Your sword is named….”

Wei Ying let out yet another laugh, swinging the sword once, twice. “Isn’t it wonderful? Papa said the name fits!”

Nie Mingjue’s shoulders shook before he let loose a bellowing laugh. Huaisang froze, watching his brother’s rare good temper with a wide gaze.

“Very well!” Nie Mingjue exclaimed, still chuckling. He drew Baxia out once more, holding it in a lazy grip. “Let this senior offer you some guidance.”

Responding with a similar look of glee, Wei Ying met the blade head first.

 

The sun had gone well down by the time the two stopped their mock fight.

It wasn’t an even fight, to tell the truth. Wei Ying was far too young and inexperienced to hold a candle to the Nie sect heir, but still within his fast movements, within his ability to adapt to the others movements, Nie Mingjue could easily see the makings of a strong swordsman.

“You’ll be good with that,” he remarked. A grin, “At least, when you’re big enough to lift it properly.”

Panting and sweating where he stood, Wei Ying laughed merrily, punctuated by gasps. “I’ll trouble sect heir Nie to have another match with me then!”

Nie Huaisang approached them from where he had been standing on the side, two full waterskins extended. “That was amazing, Wei-gongzi!” He exclaimed. To see someone from his generation fight so hard against his monster of a brother - this was the first time Huaisang had seen such a sight!

“Hahaha, it really wasn’t that great,” Wei Ying laughed, reaching out to accept the water.

Nie Mingjue frowned but decided that he was far too happy to muster up any real anger. “You could do the same thing if you paid attention to anything besides your foolish fans, you know?” He lightly scolded the younger.

Nie Huaisang’s eyes widened at the mild tone employed by the elder. Wei Ying, on the other hand, bounced in excitement, turning to the younger Nie with delight. “Oh you like fans too?”

Nie Huaisang was stunned. His brother being somewhat calm, someone his age not mocking him for his “girlish” interests….this truly was a blessed day!

“...I think they’re interesting….” he replied meekly.

If anything, Wei Ying got even more excited at the mild reply. He grabbed Huaisang’s hand. “You should meet Father! He loves fans a super whole lot!”

Nie Mingjue grumbled internally. To think that such a promising child was being raised by another fan-lover! How disappointing.

Yet, he took one look at his brother’s rare look of delight and sighed. “Would you like to come with us, then?” he ventured. At the look of surprise he received, he elaborated, “It’s gotten dark, and your parents must still be at our house. So you can just tag along with us.”

Huaisang’s expression grew in happiness, but Wei Ying’s gaze became troubled. “Ahh,” he said, “I don’t know if I should….my parents did tell me to stay right here.”

Huaisang’s expression fell, but he recovered admirably. “I’m sure they won’t mind that much!” It was his turn to grab Wei Ying’s sleeve. “Why would they want you to stay in some random tree rather than a comfortable house anyway?”

Wei Ying frowned, his brows furrowing as he considered that logic. He opened his mouth to respond -

“Shh!” Nie Mingjue cut in. His voice dropped to a whisper. “Do you hear that?”

The trio fell silent. In the calm, they could hear the noise of the stream, the rustling of the wind, the faint growls - wait growls?!

As one, they turned out to the direction of the noise.

Out of the darkness emerged a beast, twice the size of the broad shouldered Nie Mingjue. It walked on four legs, eyes a shocking red. Patches of blood clotted dark fur, its claws going click-click on the pebbled path. Its snout was long, salvia dripping from the sides of large fangs.

It looked like - it really definitely looked like -

“PAPA! FATHER!” Wei Ying screeched, loud enough to wake the dead, “THERE’S A GIANT FUCKING DOG!!!!!!”


Chapter Text

Quick as a flash, Nie Mingjue grabbed the two younger boys and shoved them behind. The beast growled, but remained unmoving, staring down the boys with unnerving red eyes.

Beside Nie Huaisang, Wei Ying let out a small whimper at the growl, taking a step back, his features frozen in fear that Nie Huaisang didn’t think his face was built to carry. He let out a hand, as if to soothe the terrified boy, squeezing lightly on his arm.

Nie Mingjue remained still, his gaze still locked with the monster. He unsheathed Baxia just the slightest with his right hand, feeling that familiar comforting battle lust settle in him.

Unlike the boys behind him, he wasn’t scared of the beast. No, the emotions running in his veins were ones he had often felt in night hunts in the past: excitement, adrenaline, that all pervading thrill which blocked out all other unnecessary thoughts.

Still, he had enough wits about to remember who was next to him. Without turning his eyes from the beast, he spoke sharply to the two younger boys, “Get up the tree. Quickly!”

Nie Huaisang startled, even as Wei Ying began to make his way up. He looked nervously at the large tree next to him. It was the safest option, that was clear, but still…”Brother,” he ventured, voice soft with fear, “Brother I don’t know if I can - ”

The beast let out a growl, it’s hind legs tensing. Nie Mingjue gritted his teeth, “Huaisang,” he spoke with obvious strain, “if you don’t start climbing right now I’m going to break your legs.”

“Brother that seems a bit contradictory - ”

Three things happened in three seconds.

One: the beast, clearly fed up with the lack of action, hungry for more more more, let out its biggest growl yet, charging forward.

Two: Nie Mingjue drew Baxia fully, hands shaking just slightly, the initial push of adrenaline settling in. The beast’s strides were heavy enough to shake the earth and while Nie Mingjue was sure in the ability to hold it off until assistance came, if not defeat it himself, but his little brother was right here, and Huaisang always tended to panic, was weak and delicate and not strong enough to be on the field with such a monster yet-

Three: Nie Huaisang let out a yelp. He staggered, nearly falling on the ground at the beast’s advance and the next second he was airborne, slung over their new companion’s shoulder like a sack. Wei Ying hurried to reach the height he had been at before he dived back down to get the frozen Nie, “I’ve got him! Focus on the fight!”

Nie Mingjue didn’t need to be told twice. The shaking blade steadied in his hands, a bloodthirsty grin crawling over his face. The ‘clang!’ of his blade meeting sharp claws was followed by a bright light in the sky.

Nie Huaisang, finally back on his feet on a high branch, still holding Wei Ying’s shoulder for support, lowered his hand from it launched the Nie sect symbol in the sky. He trembled as he stared down at the form of his brother, weaving and pushing back against the beast.

Nie Mingjue flinched as the light spread across the sky: that was all the opening the beast needed. The swiped its claws again with a snarl, catching the boy by his shoulder. The force of the blow sent Nie Mingjue skittering back several steps. He touched the wound with his palm and frowned: the beast had managed to get his dominant hand injured.

Never mind, he thought, adjusting his sword and bringing his other hand to support it too. Without any collateral to worry about on the field, he should be able to handle to beast fairly easily.

Nie Huaisang disagreed, his face going pale as he saw the injury inflicted. “Brother!” he shrieked, “be careful!”

Nie Mingjue’s fragile temper snapped. “Stop shrieking!” He barked, turning to his brother. “If you put half as much care into your swordplay and cultivation as you did in your fans, this would have all been over with!” In the corner of his eye he registered the other child, Wei Wuxian, shaking in fear, a pale imitation of his earlier bold self. Internally frowning, he turned back to the beast, making note to check on the child later.

The monster was tired of playing with its prey by now. It leaned forward, fangs bared, clearly looking to finish off this hunt once and for all. With even greater force than before, it bounded forward.

Nie Mingjue gritted his teeth, digging his feet in to shield against the force of the upcoming attack. He raised his sword, a yell building up in his throat when -

WHOOSH!

The attack came from within the right side of the beast, hitting it before it could come within any harmful distance of the child. The wind pushed it back, another large gust hitting it and making it go ‘thud’ against a nearby tree. The beast let out a groan of pain before falling unconscious.

Silence fell over the clearing. As if in shock, the Nie Sect heir turned to where the attack originated from.

“That,” Nie Huaisang whispered in the silence, “is a big-ass fan.”

Wei Ying, stood, body still trembling just the slightest. His face brightened, breaking into a smile, and he jumped from the tree. “Father!”

 

Shang Qinghua emerged out of the trees panting, making a run for the falling child and catching him in his arms. He let the child bury his face in an embrace, arms gently rubbing the shaking back.

Behind him followed a retinue of Nie sect members, headed by Huaisang’s mother. Nie Min was built delicate and slender, just like his brother. Nie Mingjue often lamented that Nie Huaisang had inherited all of her colors, but none of her poison. She walked quickly towards him once in the clearing, eyes scanning his form and stopping at the injury.

“I’m fine,” Nie Mingjue waved her off, “it’s nothing big.” He gestured towards the tree where Huaisang was with his chin, knowing well his brother’s fear of heights. Any other time, he would have made the boy climb down himself, but after seeing such a beast, he was surely shaken up. “You should help Huaisang climb down.”

Nie Min turned to tree and paused, a wry smile breaking out on her face. She turned back to the elder child, and dryly commented, “I don’t think either of us need to worry too much about that.”

The cultivator in green, with his fan carefully folded and hung on his back, had reached up to the child. He knelt on the branch next to him, speaking gently and bending to prod at his ankle. He nodded to himself, gathering the child in his arms and jumping down elegantly.

He paused at the base of the tree, looking at where Shang Qinghua stood, Wei Ying still intertwined around his neck. The other man looked up to meet his gaze, nodding his head in the direction of where the sect heir stood on the field, mouthing that they would catch up.

Sighing, Shen Qingqiu adjusted his grip on the child in his arms and trudged on.

“My apologies,” he spoke as he neared the sect heir and current leader, “it seems like my son was far too rough in his efforts to aid Second Master Nie up to safety,” he bowed. “It’s a small dislocation on his ankle, I’ve already set it back. It should heal completely in a little while.”

For his part, Nie Huaisang did not look like he had registered any dislocations. He simply stared up at the man with clear astonishment in his eyes, straying over and over again to the tip of the large fan hung on his back.

For once, Nie Mingjue couldn’t blame his brother for falling into a stupor. He had planned to thank him, as a proper sect heir should. But now, standing before him, his words wilted at the tip of his tongue.

Nie Min raised an eyebrow at the stupor both her children were in, rolling her eyes internally. Really, boys these days…

“Nonsense, Master Shen,” she waved off the elder cultivator's apologies, “No apologies are needed. If anything, we owe your son our gratitude, for securing our child.”

Shen Qingqiu smiled wryly. “I’ll be sure to pass those wishes on,” he replied. “Speaking of which, I should probably go back and check up on him.” He extended the child in his hands towards Nie Min, raising a brow in surprise when Nie Mingjue mechanically interrupted to take his little brother in his arms instead. Nevertheless, he deposited the child carefully into those waiting hands and took a step back. With a bow and a gentle smile at the still wide-eyed Huaisang, he took his leave.

Both the Nie children watched him leave with wide eyes. His eyes still fixed on Shen Qingqiu’s back, Nie Huaisang spoke, “Mother, who….?”

Nie Min took in the sight of the flabbergasted brothers and worked to suppress the laughter rising in her throat.

“A rogue cultivator,” she answered. “Master Shen and his partner, Master Shang, were tracking that beast across our territories. It had eaten several of the villagers’ cattle before, they feared that it would not be long before it started to attack humans as well, so they sought help from our sect.”

“Partners?” Nie Mingjue’s eyebrows furrowed, watching Shen Qingqiu approach another man dressed in blue. “Are they…”

Nie Min bit her lips at the odd tone of the elder Nie. “No,” she spoke, the barest hints of laughter in her tone, “not as far as I can tell.”

A strange fire lit itself in the two Nie heir’s eyes. For once, both elder and younger brother were in complete agreement.

 

Wei Ying turned to where his father was approaching, extended his arms to be held by Shen Qingqiu anew. With a smile, Shang Qinghua transferred the child into those capable hands, looking around to see the state of the clearing.

Several Nie Sect members were gathered around the beast, tying it up with spiritually binding rope. Shang Qinghua watched them do so with sharp eyes, internally frowning at the amount of trouble the beast had caused them.

It used to be a feral dog, from what they were able to discover, until an experimental cultivator sought to use it for research rather than grant it the mercy of being put down. Feeding it so much resentful energy in such little time, with its mind already fraying: it was no surprise when, in the end, the experiment had turned upon the master and torn the cultivator to pieces before wrecking havoc on nearby villages. It was pure luck that no other human had gotten injured in its rampage, although many of the families in the villages it skirted around now lacked the livestock they depended on for a living.

It was yet again more good luck which ensured that the beast ended up in the Nie family territory.

Nie Huaisang was a fairly terrifying character, in Shang Qinghua’s opinion. He had outwitted several masterminds, successfully manipulated the strongest cultivators of his generation - all the while maintaining the facade of being some spineless weakling.

Shang Qinghua, who was always liked morally ambiguous characters (“Figures,” Shen Qingqiu had murmured), thought that he was clearly the best choice for a childhood friend.

“It’s a preemptive strike,” he informed his companion over a late dinner one night, “make friends with the most venomous viper, and they’ll bare their fangs for you in the future.”

Shen Qingqiu scrunched his nose in displeasure. “I get what you’re saying,” he sighed. “Still, I feel like some weird overprotective parent, setting up an arranged marriage for their only child.”

Still, they had set off for the Nie territories, only to be stopped at the borders by reports of the feral beast harming livestock, setting a trail that neatly led them to the center.

Making a note to speak with the Nie sect leader to provide aid to those families who had been affected, Shang Qinghua turned his gaze to look elsewhere and then - froze.

A familiar sinking feeling ran in his veins as he took in the intense gaze of the elder Nie child. He followed it to where Shen Qingqiu stood, gently nuzzling his face against Wei Ying’s, dropping light kisses on it to make the child giggle.

“A-Ying, what have I told you about swearing?” he groaned, his exasperation belied by the way he pinched the child’s cheeks gently.

Wei Ying looked down guiltily. “Not to do it in front of other people. But Father,” he protested, looking up, “these were clearly extenuating circumstances!”

Shen Qingqiu pulled away from the child in disbelief. He sighed, “This is what I get for raising a debater,” he remarked to Shang Qinghua, a grin tugging at the edge of his lips.

Normally, the sight would make Shang Qinghua smile. But at the moment, he could only feel dread.

Shen Qingqiu and Wei Ying both turned to him in concern when he did not reply. “Qinghua?” Shen Qingqiu probed, “All alright?”

How could he reply?

No!

Cucumber bro, I thought we had turned your harem gathering feature off!

As he watched the elder Nie brother with despairing eyes, he failed to take in the younger viper they initially came for, assessing both him and Shen Qingqiu with a wide, sharp gaze.

Chapter Text

About once every month, the Lord of the demonic realm would receive guests.

All the subjects of this realm knew to make themselves scarce when this happened: their lord’s guests ranged from even tempered cultivators to sheer madmen who insisted on challenging their lord to fights every half an hour, regardless of the destruction each of these fights caused.

Luo Binghe, on his part, looked forward to these visits a lot. It was hard work, managing the demonic realm. Demons were a primarily martial species, with some exceptions, and needed constant displays of power to be happy living under someone else’s rule. And while Binghe had power to spare, he couldn’t deny that showcasing it all the time got a bit, well...boring.

Honestly, even fighting with Liu Qingge was better! At least that man genuinely wanted to battle, and wasn’t simply using power as some means to establish dominance.

At the crux of the matter was this: Luo Binghe was lonely.

In his time in Qing Jing, he hadn’t sought to make many friends. He had, at first, been reviled for being untalented, and then later hated for his talents. The actions of the seniors had not appealed them to him: the closest he got to genuine friendship in the Peak was Ning Yingying, who continually saw him as a younger brother she should help. But, as a female disciple, even she could not be there all the time.

Staying with Shizun had helped curbed the loneliness. Shizun payed attention to him, in a way that no one had done before, taking pride in his accomplishment, always so so patient in his teachings. Those days in the bamboo house, helping Shizun manage Qing Jing - Luo Binghe really thought he could die happily.

And then, the Abyss happened.

It was a shock: betrayal, hurt, sorrow like no other. He had fought his way through the Abyss, conquered it in a way that no other being had before, with one goal in his mind: go back to Shizun. Ask Shizun why. Beg Shizun to take him back, to keep him by his side, to make Shizun stay by his side in turn.

“Tunnel vision,” Shizun had often fondly said when he came back after long days and found him still practicing the one move that he had mastered since morning. And he was right: in his campaign throughout the Abyss, Binghe had impressed many demons. He had been offered many friendships. But with that one goal in his mind, he had paid no attention to any of it.

(Shizun, Shizun, Shizun, the beat of his heart screamed, his every breath whispered. Binghe could feel the urgency infuse his entire being: his body, mind, soul chanting an endless mantra, go back to Shizun, stay with Shizun, m ake Shizun stay - )

It was pure irony that only after he had failed in that one objective - only after the destruction of his whole world on that roof - he had begun to find some companionship.

Mobei-jun was among the first of his companions, both of them banding together in a world that deemed them insane for mourning treacherous human cultivators. For his part, Luo Binghe too wondered about the ice demon’s relationship with the once lord of An Ding Peak: his opinion of Shang Qinghua had never been too great. The man was a coward, plain and simple, even if he was alarmingly knowledgeable about a variety of disciplines. But, according to what he had heard, even Shen Qingqiu had gotten close to the man after the Abyss occurred, often pulling him around on long trips, “in an attempt to forget his grief,” the people murmured.

There was something strange about Shang Qinghua. There was something strange about Shen Qingqiu. And now, with both of them gone, leaving behind only traces of a life that none of them could grasp at, they would never know. All they could do in the aftermath was come together, remember the strange wonderful humans who captivated them, and try to preserve their memory.

Mobei-jun was strange in his own way. Quiet, strangely intense, just as much a lord as he was a servant with Binghe, he was a good ally to have. And, in the quiet nights after long drinking sessions lamenting moments lost, Binghe could admit: he was a good friend too.

Then, after the war between the two realms, after Binghe’s world was yet again shaken by an elegant hand and kind words, he found yet more companionship: this time in those who he had overlooked so much.

In the aftermath of the war, obviously moved by Binghe’s tears, the disciples of Qing Jing Peak reached out to him. It’s what Shizun would have wanted, they admitted. Even if Binghe had been involved in causing their master’s demise, none of them could deny the obvious affection and care which their teacher held for the half-demon.

(None of them could deny how their hearts hurt upon seeing the half-demon cry, upon seeing this cold hearted traitor they hated the most break down in their presence and beg them for forgiveness.

Once upon a time, Binghe was young, among the youngest in their Peak. He came from terrible beginnings, and until Shizun decided to open himself up to him, seemed to be heading towards a terrible end.

Shen Qingqiu had raised his canon fodder children well. They knew responsibility now, knew of the slightest hints of kindness and what effect they could have on others. Their younger disciple brother broke down in front of them and - and -

None of them could deny what responsibility they had in turning Luo Binghe into this miserable being.)

It came as a surprise to Binghe when he was held back by Ming Fan and Ning Yingying on that final battlefield. Nothing in his vast powers as the strongest demonic being in the world had prepared him for the words: “A-Luo, will you come and see us sometimes?”

It was a begrudging relationship, on both sides. But, if only for their late teacher’s sake, they were ready to make an attempt.

It was that attempt that saw Binghe sitting in the garden of the palace with his oldest friend returned to him. Ning Yingying was among the people who visited him the most, insisting that Binghe couldn’t just live like some strange demonic hermit, secluding himself from the rest of the world the way he would have done if he had been left to his own devices.

As was routine, they ate together, cheerfully sharing stories about their companions.

In the power vacuum that followed the dissolution of three of the four major sects, it was the Cang Qiong disciples who took on the job of re-starting cultivational families anew, many of them descending from the mountains to live amongst the common people and offer them protection.

Ning Yingying and the other senior disciples, however, chose to stay on the mountain. They understood the benefits to what their companions had gone to do: cultivational families connected to towns in place of being secluded organizations would surely do a better job of helping the common people. To respect this venture, and to allow it some chance of success, the decision was made that Cang Qiong would no longer be taking any new disciples.

“Active recruitment at a stage when other families are attempting to found themselves would be...problematic to say the least,” Ming Fan had explained one day. “If Cang Qiong kept its doors open, as a trusted, established cutlivational sect, who would voluntarily chose to go to others?”

Seeing Binghe’s dejected expression, Ning Yingying hurried to cut in, “Still, if people seek us out, we will surely teach them!”

Binghe’s heart had ached when he heard that decision. He understood why it was done but still...effectively it meant that Cang Qiong as a sect had been dissolved.

Another piece of Shizun lost.

Ning Yingying and the others still seemed to like it, however. A surprising number of people from his generation: Peak Lords and Head Disciples mostly, had agreed to stay on the mountain, even if Liu Qingge seemed to like giving every heart attacks by vanishing for five years straight and re-appearing with giant wolf carcasses slung over his back.

In the middle of Binghe’s explanation of how he and Mobei-jun had been working together to condense the leftover demonic energy in the human realm into focal points, Ning Yingying interrupted him. She had been watching him with a fond smile on her face for the past few minutes, twirling her cup of alcohol in one hand.

Her little disciple brother...had really grown up, huh.

“Huh?” Luo Binghe paused. Ning Yingying realized that she had spoken her thoughts out loud, well on her way to tipsy. She smiled, putting the cup down and moved her hand to cup Luo Binghe’s wide-eyed face.

“Binghe,” she began, “tell this shijie of yours ...are you happy?”

Binghe’s eyes visibly softened. He nodded, leaning into the hand. “En.” A pause. “Is shijie….”

Ning Yingying laughed. “Of course I am! With a little brother like this, why would I not be?”

She pinched a reddening cheek affectionately.

Shizun’s death had hit them all so hard. It was so sudden, so unexpected. The whole sect mourned the man, none more so that those who were close to him. If she closed her eyes, she could still see those terrible days: Sect Leader Yue in seclusion, Liu Mingyuan in tears over her brother’s bitter insistence on laying his all down in consecutive defeats for a corpse, Ming Fan’s dry-eyed sorrow as he took on the responsibility for a role he was nowhere near prepared for…

And this little brother of her, closest to their Shizun, was hit the hardest of them all. Rumors of the crazed demon lord, who slept with a corpse next to him, hugging it with such gentleness, speaking to it with such respect, valuing it more than any other living being.

Ning Yingying knew that they all still mourned in their own ways. Sect Leader Yue spent all his evenings in the bamboo house. Liu Qingge still insisted on depositing “tamed” monsters in the woods near that home. Luo Binghe spent years upon years collecting all the shards of Xiu Ya, repairing the sword with his own bare hands. (Murmurs in the palace spoke about how the demon lord would sleep with the sword next to him, speaking to it as though it were a person.)

And really, if this was their method of mourning...that was alright. As long as they continued on with their lives instead of drowning in that sadness, it was alright. This was what Shizun would have wanted.

The tranquility in the garden shattered with an uninvited arrival.

“How touching,” a low, smooth voice murmured.

They both startled. In one quick move, Binghe unsheathed Zheng Yang, carefully unearthed from the sword mound Shen Qingqiu had made from him, and twirled around to face the threat, only to stop dumbfounded.

Next to him, Ning Yingying gasped.

They were looking at...himself?????

The copy was roaming red, lazy eyes across the garden, taking in the permanent night-sky above them and the rising structure of the castle behind. “I like what you’ve done with the place,” he spoke again, lips curling in a smirk. The smirk only widened when his eyes rested on the sword which Luo Binghe was holding. “A bit strange to see you still wielding that little trinket though.”

Luo Binghe’s eyes dropped down to the sheathe on his counterpart’s waist, widening in horror as the recognized that familiar demonic sword which had cost him so much. “Xin Mo,” he murmured. Truly a genius of his times, he had already connected the dots, “You’re me, aren’t you?”

The counterpart bowed. “Luo Binghe, at your service.” He stood straight again and Ning Yingying fought the urge to flinch at his malicious aura, at the sheer power and disdain with which he held himself. “I was advised to take a vacation, you see,” he drawled, “figured that I’d traverse all my lands, see all my worlds,” his eyes landed on Ning Yingying and a terrifying smile spread across his face, “meet all my possessions.”

His blood going cold at the implications, Binghe moved in front of Ning Yingying as though in reflex, waves of demonic power rising all around him.

The counterpart raised an eyebrow at this, an exaggerated pout forming at his lips. “Aww, come on,” he whined, “you won’t even share with yourself?”

Luo Binghe could feel his shijie trembling behind his back. Ning Yingying had grown into a formidable cultivator: while neither she nor Ming Fan possessed the spiritual power common in the Peak Lords, they were well versed in logic, in knowing what to do and how to get it done. What they did not possess in power, they made up in fearlessness and determination.

To see that determination be cowled in such a way -

Unforgivable.

“Shijie belongs to no one but herself,” he snapped out, furious at this...creature that stood before him.

For his part, the counterpart faltered at the sheer anger in Binghe’s voice, brows furrowing in confusion. He recovered a second later, openly sneering, “Shijie? Moving a bit slowly are we?” He huffed in disgust, “Might as well leave her at the mercy of that pig Shen Qingqiu.”

Luo Binghe’s grip on Zheng Yang faltered, the sword going lose in his hands. A quiet voice, “What did you say about Shizun?”

Ning Yingying, behind him: “Uh-oh.”

The counterpart sneered again. “Pathetic. You still call that wretch Shizun?” Crazed laughter, “Don’t tell me you still believe he’s some immortal master, ” the counterpart spat out. “I have no idea how trash like that managed to win such a position, but at least I put him back with dogs where he belonged.”

Binghe had spent many, many years keeping a firm leash on his temper. Losing it was what caused Shizun to make that desperate decision to self-destruct for him, after all. He had worked hard on keeping that same anger under a tight leash, giving up Xin Mo so that it wouldn’t worsen it, even if that meant he was losing a powerful weapon in a world reliant on power.

It had been many, many years since he had truly gotten angry. He had nearly forgotten what it felt like, living as he did in alternating states of emptiness and contentment.

Now, feeling the freezing fury spreading through his veins, he wondered if he had ever known anger before.

It was unlike the malicious whispers of Xin Mo in his ears, twisting reality in his mind until an eruption was the only recourse left. No, this time, Binghe was in complete control. He saw things with a clarity he never had before: he knew exactly what the problem was, and exactly what needed to be done.

Behind him, Ning Yingying had come to the same conclusion. She let out a small cough. “All right, then,” she spoke as though it were their regular parting, “I - uh - I’ll come by again soon, alright A-Luo?”

“Please do,” Binghe replied, voice almost dreamy. “Binghe apologizes for not being able to receive shijie properly.”

“Don’t speak nonsense,” she chides. “It’s not your fault there was a pest infestation.”

Binghe smiled. “Maybe so,” he replied, “but it’s my responsibility to cleanse it.”

The counterpart furrowed his brows in confusion. He reached out as Ning Yingying began to leave, tone descending to a whine that sent shivers down her spine, “Shi-jieeee,” he pouted, “are you leaving meeeee.”

A spike of demonic power arrested his attention, turning it away from the rapidly escaping girl. Luo Binghe stood in the middle of a rising storm of energy, swirling around his body and seeping into the ground below. “Don’t be too disappointed,” the overlord and creator of this demonic realm spoke, “What sort of host would I be if I let my guests stay unentertained?”

Looking at the crazed smile spread wide on that handsome face, the red, glowing eyes pulsating with demonic energy, Luo Binghe, the Stallion Protagonist who conquered the world, wondered if he had come to the wrong place for a vacation.

Zheng Yang swung in that lose grip, once, twice.

“Everything that you’ve said today...I’ll repay it all to you.”

Chapter Text

To say that they were hesitant about sending Wei Ying to Gusu was an understatement.

They finally had a way to do so now. Gusu would not accept the adopted child of two random rouge cultivators (“Classism,” Shang Qinghua huffed) but they couldn’t exactly ignore someone who had such high favor in the eyes of the Nie sect, especially when it looked like Wei Ying was well on his way to becoming sworn brothers with one of the Nie heirs.

Gusu would be nice for him. It would give him the opportunity to grow, to make important connections with the cultivation world, maybe it would even calm him down a bit. Nie Huaisang would be delighted to have someone he was so close to attend alongside him.

But - but -

“I don’t want to leave him for so long,” Shen Qingqiu confessed, half tipsy. With Wei Ying out sleeping in the main Nie house for the day, no doubt terrorizing the staff alongside his number one aid in matters of chaos, Nie Huaisang, they could indulge a bit.

“Ugh, I knoooww,” Shang Qinghua rubbed his forehead. With a thump, he let himself plant face first on the table they were both seated at. “We promised we wouldn’t become those shitty parents who tell their kids to fuck off on random mountains and not visit them for months on end!”

 Shen Qingqiu frowned, pouring more spirit from the bottle into their cups. “Then we should just keep him with us! Forever.”

Shang Qinghua peered up at him judgementally. “Cucumber bro, you have attachment issues, don’t you?” he accused.

Shen Qingqiu spluttered. “D-don’t speak like you’re any better!” he retorted. “We’re both on the same shitty boat, and empty nest syndrome is not a fucking joke!”

“Bro, bro, calm down!” Decades of dealing with this strange on-and-off tsundere behavior had left Shang Qinghua with a good idea of how to handle them. Not to mention….

….Cucumber bro was right. They both had attachment issues.

Even Wei Ying had commented on them once, talking about how his parents liked to carry or hold him all the time when he was younger. He had overgrown it now, Shang Qinghua thought with a pang, they’d never be able to hold their boy in their arms the way they did mere years ago.

Time means little to an immortal. Still….couldn’t the precious years they spent with Wei Ying as a child have gone slower? Would it kill anyone if they had?

“Our baby,” Shang Qinghua murmured, “off to go and fuck up the world.”

“Hmph.” Shen Qingqiu poured yet another cup. “I don’t see why he has to go.”

Shang Qinghua allowed himself a smile, glancing over at the red-cheeked Shen Qingqiu. The normally composed immortal had a pout on his face, locks of hair escaping his normal updo. Shang Qinghua knew he wasn’t in a better position - they had been at the bottle long enough that both of them were a mess.

“You know why he has to go,” Shang Qinghua replied. The silence that followed told him his answer, but for both their sakes, Shang Qinghua found himself verbalizing their thoughts out loud. “Gusu will be good for him. It’ll allow him to make friends, forge important connections. We can’t deny him that.”

“Ugh, stop making sense,” Shen Qingqiu whined, landing his forehead on the table. “I hate it when you do that.”

But Shang Qinghua was on a roll: “Besides, we need to get on with our research about everything….this plot isn’t going to be easy to navigate.”

The atmosphere in the room grew somber. They both knew what he was talking about: even if they were more knowledgeable than most about what actions would come, two cultivators could not hope to stand up to the might of the Wen clan. The whispers in the cultivation world were just as the novel described - the Wens, growing corrupt, power hungry, aching for more more more, slowly dominating the smaller clans. In only a few years, they’d move on to the larger clans, starting an outright war.

In only a few years, Wei Ying would turn himself into a monster because of the resentment and hatred they would sow in his heart.

They simply could not allow that to happen. However, with the Wen’s power being as strong as it was, so overwhelming that once even the four major clans united had struggled to cope with it until the Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation had helped them turn the tide of the war, Wei Ying would need all the help he could get.

“Think of it this way: maybe with him gone, we can get started on some of our other projects! Didn’t you say that you wanted to check some things out?”

Shen Qingqiu grunted in agreement. “Demonic cultivation,” he spoke. “If there’s any way to make it safe for a person.” If push came to shove, then neither of them doubted that Wei Ying would turn to that path to do what was necessary. The most they could do as parents was figure out how to make it safe for him.

Shang Qinghua sighed. “Yes well,” he swirled what little was left in his cup before swallowing it all in one gulp, “hopefully this time around, he’ll be in a better headspace if it ever comes to that. You know, without the crushing misplaced guilt of calling down the wrath of the Wens upon his adoptive family and insanity of losing his golden core and all that.”

Shen Qingqiu snarled, slamming his cup down so hard it cracked along the sides. “If that creep Wen Chao lays a single hand on my child then I will personally cut off that hand and shove it so far up his asshole that he’ll feel his fingers come out of his mouth.”

Shang Qinghua watched his drunken friend with a raised eyebrow, remembering Wei Ying’s own revenge on Wen Chao in the original novel. “Wow,” he said at last, “he’s definitely your kid alright.”

“Shut up Qinghua.”

 

“Papa!” Wei Ying wailed, crushing himself in Shang Qinghua’s embrace, “I’ll miss you!”

Despite himself, Shang Qinghua could feel his eyes get a little blurry. Wasn’t the parent supposed to be the one who got all sticky and attached at these moments?

He patted Wei Ying’s head, meeting Shen Qingqiu’s soft, exasperated eyes over it with a helpless smile. “Now, now,” he started, “be good for us, A-Ying. We’ll come visit you, alright?”

Face still buried in Shang Qinghua’s robes, Wei Ying nodded, sniffing tearily. “Ok,” he replied. His voice wavering.

As much of a pushover as ever, Shen Qingqiu turned the child back to face him. “Now, none of that,” he chided, gently wiping Wei Ying’s face with his sleeve, “the time will come for us to meet again before you know it!”

Wei Ying nodded again, his lower lip still trembling in a pout. One close look at the devastating face and Shen Qingqiu folded like a wet paper card.

No one told me that this protagonist would have such powers!

“A-Ying,” he began, “remember to have fun, alright? Learn lots, play lots,and remember, no matter what,” a peck on top of his forehead, Shang Qinghua’s arms coming from the back to embrace the boy in a recreation of a scene from an inn, all those years ago, “ no matter what, we are so, so proud of you.”

It seemed like such a short time ago, shen they shared a similar embrace, Shang Qinghua and Shen Qingqiu bracketing Wei Ying on opposite sides. He had been so small then, so incredibly tiny and vulnerable in their arms. He had cried then too, heartbreaking, loud tears, without any sign of slowing down.

Now, he had grown, his head reaching nearly to their shoulders. Now, he looked up, his eyes rimmed red around the edges the way they had when he was a child, and Shen Qingqiu was helpless against the waves of affection which drowned his heart.

In a few minutes, he would leave them, continuing the rest of his journey by himself. In a few minutes, he would take his first steps in a completely new world, without them by his side for the first time in so many years. But right now...

Shen Qingqiu’s lips pressed against his forehead, Shang Qinghua’s lips pressed on top of his hair, held by both his parents as though he were the most precious, most beloved thing in the world, Wei Ying allowed himself to breathe.

 

Later that night, in an inn on the outskirts of GusuLan territory, Shang Qinghua’s voice broke the silence which pervaded their party since the departure of their son. “It feels like we just sent our child off to their scary in-laws’ house.”

They had both forgone using cups to drink straight from the bottle tonight. Shen Qingqiu opened his eyes, glittering maliciously with warning, every bit the scum villain he was promised to be and began, “I don’t care how good he is.” He hesitated. “Alright, that’s a lie, I love that he’s so good, I’m happy that Wei Ying has such a kind and loving partner in his future.”

Unlike Shang Qinghua, Shen Yuan always had a soft spot for the nice guys, which made seeing Binghe’s descent into the darkness all those years ago all the more harder. Lan Wangji, on the other hand, was one of his most favored characters ever , his righteousness, his love, his willingness to fight for what was right winning Shen Yuan over fairly quickly.

But now, here, seeing the situation on the ground….

“But if he tries to fuck my son without lube,” Shen Qingqiu continued, “I will personally cut his dick off.”

Shang Qinghua snorted, raising his bottle in agreement. “I’ll drink to that.”

Chapter Text

Nie Huaisang took in the surroundings of the Cloud Recesses with significantly less enthusiasm than his companions.

He had been here plenty of times before, his brother dragging him along for when he had meetings with the Sect Heir. There was even that terrifying time when brother wanted to send him here when he was twelve, which was thankfully defused by Master Shang, bless that man.

So, even as his fellow Nie students looked around with stars in their eyes at the ethereal surroundings which comprised the Cloud Recesses, Nie Huaisang fought to keep from frowning overtly.

He had experienced so much color in his life in the recent years. Befriending Wei Wuxian was a ticket to constant entertainment, constant noise. It was overwhelming, how much energy the other boy could have. Nie Huaisang was sure that none of his brother’s torture sessions disguised as “training” could ever hope to match up to how exhausted he was after every time Wei Wuxian visited.

Considering how Nie Mingjue gave him time off from his usual training during those days, he thought that this was one of the few things he and his brother agreed on.

Still….after being exposed to that much color, that much adventure and joy…

Nie Huaisang let out a barely audible sigh, fan coming to cover the downturn of his mouth from his fellow classmates.

...Gusu was going to be boring as fuck.

He sighed again, this time louder. He could see the Jiang and Jin sect heirs turn to look at him with confused eyes, but honestly...he really couldn’t find it in himself to care.

Closing the fan and tapping it against his lips, he looked at the calm surroundings with a critical eye, and wondered how it would be if Wei Wuxian was here. Immediately, he shook his head, as if to banish the thought: if the other boy was here, then the Cloud Recesses would be on fire by the end of the week.

“Nie-xiong,” the Jiang Sect heir began hesitantly, having observed the other go through what looked like an internal crisis, “are you feeling well?”

With a sharp snap, Nie Huaisang unfurled the fan again. He allowed his eyes to crinkle in a rueful smile. “Apologies for worrying you, Jiang-xiong,” he replied, “I’m alright. It’s probably just fatigue from the long travel - I’m quite prone to such episodes.”

The Jin sect heir’s expression immediately turned disdainful - no doubt he had heard of what a disappointment the second heir of the Nie Sect was shaping up to be. Nie Huaisang fought to keep from rolling his eyes at the murmurs which propped up all around them.

The Jiang Sect heir didn’t appear to share the same disgust for Nie Huaisang’s perceived ‘weakness’, which made Huaisang’s respect for him shoot up by several degrees. Instead, he looked thoughtful. He opened his mouth, probably to offer Huaisang some assistance - only to be interrupted by loud laughter from nearby.

The other sect members stiffened, turning towards the source of the sudden noise, their hands on the hilts of their swords. Nie Huaisang turned still too, for a completely different reason. The Nie sect members simply turned to the noise with a delighted expression, far too used to this laughter to be alarmed.

Slowly, Nie Huaisang turned to obeserve the lounging figure of his best friend sitting on top of the closest wall, hair fluttering in the breeze. Wei Wuxian smiled down at the other boy, “We’re all aware of what a delicate fucking flower you are, A-Sang.”

Huaisang couldn’t bring himself to control the incredulous delighted smile which spread across his lips. “A-Xian!”

In one swift movement, the other boy flung himself off the wall. Instinctively, Nie Huaisang raised his arms. Sure enough, the next moment, the taller body slotted next to his as he was pulled into a hug. “A-Sang!” a cheerful voice chirped in his ear.

The murmurs around them had grown even louder, but Nie Huaisang found that he cared even lesser than before as he pulled back to look at his best friend’s face. The familiar grin stretched across it encouraged Huaisang’s own face to twist in happiness.

“What are you doing here?!”

Wei Ying laughed aloud again. “Surprise! I’ve been waiting for you guys to arrive since yesterday! Did you really think that big brother would leave you alone for the whole year?”

Nie Huaisang shook his head in disbelief. “I’m more surprised that your parents let you come,” he confessed. Despite all that they let Wei Ying run wild, one would have to be a complete fool to not see how protective both his fathers were of the boy.

Arms still slung Huaisang’s waist, Wei Ying shrugged, “They thought it would be good opportunity for me! Besides, it’s not like I won’t be seeing them while I’m here.”

Nie Huaisang brightened, “Master Shen and Master Shang will be visiting?!”

Before Wei Ying could do anything more than nod in agreement, a curt voice interrupted them, “Such displays of physical affection are forbidden within the Cloud Recesses.”         

Nie Huaisang froze, immediately tugging himself away from the other. The other disciples startled from where they had been viewing the spectacle created by the two boys. A single look at the source of the voice confirmed what Nie Huaisang had been dreading.

It was him - one of the Twin Jade of the Lans, Second Master Lan Wangji!

He was probably there to escort them up the mountain, seeing as they had been taking far too long. The guest disciples swept into a bow, murmuring quiet greetings towards the intimidating figure. Amidst the pageantry, only Wei Wuxian remained standing upright.

Nie Huaisang could only watch in horror as his best friend began writing his suicide note : “Well, we’re not inside the Recesses yet, are we?” He paused, giving a mock frown even as his eyes began glowing with humor. “Ah, Lan Zhan! You don’t need to be so jealous. If you want me to hug you, all you need to do is ask!” He winked exaggeratedly.

To act this familiar with a member of the GusuLan - to act this familiar with Lan Wangji!

Nie Huaisang, his soul flowing out of his body, understood now more than ever what Master Shen meant by Wei Wuxian “not having a single pinch of survival instinct in his body, completely beyond our help.”

The other boy’s gaze grew thunderous. “Shameless!” he bit out, whirling back to trek up the mountain. Unnoticed by anyone, his ears turned red.

Wei Ying bursts out into loud, raucous laughter. The other sects’ disciples give him a berth of space as they begin to follow Lan Wangji up the mountain, shooting scandalized glances at where he had practically folded in half, wheezing in amusement. Nie Huaisang stayed still where he was, watch his best friend with complete terror in his eyes.

“Wei Wuxian,” he began in a slow, measured tone which he had picked up from Shen Qingqiu, “would you like to tell me exactly what the fuck you think you’re doing?”

Chapter Text

As it turned out, Wei Wuxian had encountered Lan Wangji the day before.

“I thought ‘oh the Cloud Recesses are said to be gorgeous - surely that’s the best place to try out Caiyi’s famous Emperor’s Smile’”, he told the wide-eyed boys when they had gathered to talk for a while before retiring for the night.

Enraptured by the absolute insanity coming from this crazy person, the boys ignored the repeating rhythmic thud from where Nie Huaisang was repeatedly banging his head against the floor. Without looking, Wei Wuxian slipped out of his outermost robe and folded it under Nie Huaisang’s head to cushion it against the repeated impact.

“Anyway, I brought it up, right?” Wei Wuxian continued conversationally, “And I was just about to bring it to my room - when Lan Zhan spotted me.”

Nie Huaisang let out a whimper. Wei Wuxian immediately let out a hand to pat his back, still engrossed in his story-telling. Unnoticed by either of them, Jiang Cheng followed the movement with his eyes, a frown emerging on his face.

“And he began with the usual ‘all fun is prohibited in the Cloud Recesses,’ yada, yada, yada,” Wei Wuxian waved a hand, as if to show exactly how little he cared for the words of one of the most terrifying and promising cultivators of their age. “So I said, you know what? Then I’m just going to sit at the boundary and drink it! That way I’m not breaking any rules!”

Here he frowned, pausing for a bit. “And then Lan Zhan,” a pout emerged, “that old fuddy-duddy, he actually broke my Emperor’s Smile! I paid good money for those, you know?”

Nie Huaisang let out a groan of despair from where he lay, his face pressed against the black outer robes. “You’re beyond hope, you know that?” He paused, sitting up abruptly, his face etched in a frown. “Wait, he broke them?”

Wei Wuxian laughed again, “Yeah! He’s pretty good with that sword of his! Man, I’d love to actually spar with him for real - when my arms aren’t full of precious cargo, that is.”

Nie Huaisang looked at him with dead eyes. “You. Were attacked. By the Lan Wangji.”

Wei Wuxian had the audacity to look wronged. “I’ll have you know that I didn’t even withdraw my blade! I thought that no unsupervised fighting must have been in one of the GusuLan’s thirty thousand rules, how was I supposed to know that Lan Zhan would lose his mind like that?”

“You’re going to die by the end of the year,” Nie Huaisang deadpanned, “and then Master Shen is going to kill me.

“Don’t be silly, A-Sang. Lan Zhan is way too nice to kill me.”

“Oh don’t worry about that, if Lan Wangji doesn’t get you by the end of the month, then I’ll murder you myself.”

 

It would be accurate to say that Wei WuXian’s presence in Gusu took people by some surprise. It would be even more accurate to say that he hit them like a fucking hurricane - gale winds, tormenting waves, entire cities wiped out with no warning.

Only, instead of cities, the target this time seemed to be all elements of propriety and order in the Cloud Recesses. Also : Nie Huaisang’s temper, but for some reason that was classified as just a side-note.

“You cannot be real,” he hissed out at his friend the moment they left class.

Wei Wuxian, already having been kicked out in the first few minutes, was happily playing with the fish in the pond, dragging a long stalk of grass and watching them chase it around with a grin. He looked up the moment he heard Huaisang’s voice.

“A-Sang! Jiang-xiong!” He waved them over, as though Nie Huaisang wasn’t already walking over, fists trembling as he warred between rage and amusement.

“Wei-xiong,” Jiang Cheng nodded respectfully. Having only known the wild boy for a few days, Jiang Cheng was torn between feelings of awe and absolute terror upon his antics. Honestly, to bring up something like demonic cultivation in front of one as strictly set against it as Lan Qiren!

“I can’t believe you brought up something like demonic cultivation in front of someone as strictly set against it as Lan Qiren,” Nie Huaisang breathed out.

“It was just an idea!” Wei Wuxian protested. “He chucked a scroll at me for that!”

“You should be glad he didn’t personally push you off this mountain,” Nie Huaisang reminded him, sitting down on the grass.

Wei Wuxian pouted. “Man, everyone keeps going on about how the Lans are so serene and calm and shit. How was I supposed to know that they’d be so prone to losing their minds at the slightest provocation?”

Nie Huaisang snorted, lying down on the grass with no care for how his hair split all over the green, “I think your existence provokes them.”

Jiang Cheng, from where he had been sitting down, fiddling with stands of grass, “But do you really think that demonic cultivation is something to experiment with, Wei-xiong? Historically, the consequences of dabbling in such dark arts have been...immense.”

Wei WuXian’s expression grew more serious. “I know that,” he stressed. “My parents have told me all about it ...spontaneous horn growings that split your head open, qi deviations strong enough to wipe out your entire town, the slow creeping insanity which sets upon you without you even realizing it.”

“Then why are you even pursuing that line of thought?” Nie Huaisang questioned, eyes sharpening. “Why even take the risk?”

Uncharacteristically, Wei Wuxian struggled with the words he would pick to explain his line of thought. ‘Tsk’-ing in annoyance, he lay down on the grass next to the Nie sect member, mulling over how best to word his ideas.

“I just think...that making it into something taboo isn’t ever going to have a good end,” he began finally. “Every person who was experimenting with demonic cultivation was doing in secret, with limited resources, knowing that it they got caught, then they would face consequences at the hands of righteous cultivators. I mean….doesn’t that immediately sound like a recipe for disaster?”

“So what,” Jiang Cheng said, “you think that without the taboo surrounding it, it would get better?”

“Hmm….I’m thinking that people probably aren’t going to stop trying to practice demonic cultivation. Maybe...I don’t know...having some actually guidelines to go about doing it would be better.”

Nie Huaisang sighed. “I get where you’re coming from, but there’s no reason for you to do.” He frowned, sitting up to better speak to the other boy. Jiang Cheng, unused to this serious version of the second Nie Heir, could only watch in silence.

“You’re one of the most talented cultivators of our age - a prodigy, probably matching Lan Wangji. Your spiritual strength, your swordplay, your ingenuity with talismans - these are all things that even my brother has commended you on.” He paused. “You have a wide, golden road ahead of you, A-Xian. Why would you choose to walk a narrow plank instead?”

“No one’s saying anything about choosing,” Wei Wuxian stressed. “Look,” he paused, ruminating on his words before continuing, “my parents always said that knowledge is...primarily neutral. That while it is a form of power, it’s also like a vessel - a weapon, which has to be wielded. At the end of the day,” he smiled, “the people holding the sword are the ones you fight against, not the weapon itself.”

“In the end, the intentions are what matter. And yeah, people say that demonic cultivation can twist those too but...from the accounts that I’ve read about it, that doesn’t seem like an isolated event.”

A silence fell across the clearing - the first bout of silence that Nie Huaisang had enjoyed since Wei Wuxian arrived at the Cloud Recesses. How ironic was it - that the same person who disrupted it would also be the one to re-establish it.

In the end, Jiang Cheng was the one who broke it. “Your parents sound wise.”

Wei Wuxian brightened. “They’re the best,” he easily agreed.

“They really are,” Nie Huaisang sighed.

Jiang Cheng raised an eyebrow, before choosing to ignore the dreamy tone of the Nie sect member for his sanity, “You were holding up pretty well against Lan Qiren’s questions before...everything. Did they teach you all of that?”

“Yep!” Wei Wuxian chirped. “They’re super smart. They used to be teachers in some big sect a long time ago, you know?”

“Hey, I didn’t know that,” Nie Huaisang spoke up, sounding indignant.

“Ugh yeah,” Wei Wuxian gave a sheepish smile, “they don’t really like talking about it all that much. I think something probably went wrong somewhere.”

Nie Huaisang gave a hmm of interest that suggested that this topic was nowhere near over. Out loud, he said, “What I don’t understand is : why did they even send you here? It’s not like you need the education the Cloud Recesses gives - you’re probably way ahead of all of us in terms of material.”

“To be honest, I have been kinda treating this like a vacation,” Wei Wuxian confessed. “No offense just - Father’s teaching is so much harder than any of this, and even Papa pushes me way more.”

Jiang Cheng’s eyes widened. “Your parents are…?”

Wei Wuxian, “Yes!”

Nie Huaisang, “No.”

Immediately, they both turned to glare upon each other. “You can’t keep spoiling that trick every time, A-Sang,” the other boy complained. “I’m going to pull it off at some time!”

Nie Huaisang huffed, rolling his eyes. “They aren’t cutsleeves, if that’s what you’re asking,” he informed the wide-eyed Jiang Cheng.

“Oh, they’re definitely cutsleeves,” Wei Wuxian cut in.

“Yeah, but not with each other!” Nie Huaisang hissed back. It was clear that this was an argument they had carried out many times before. “And in any case - ”

“Oh great, here he goes again.”

“ - when I grow up, I’m going to be Master Shen and Master Shang’s second husband.”

Ignoring the strange looping feeling in his stomach, Jiang Cheng raised an eyebrow. “Both of them? Second husband? What happened to their first ones?”

Nie Huaisang smiled. “Nothing you want to know about.”

Wei Wuxian rolled his eyes in exasperation, “I’m glad you’re still reaching for the sun, A-Sang.”

“Shut up, A-Xian.” Nie Huaisang nudged him with his elbow. “And you still haven’t answered my question.”

Wei Wuxian frowned, “I don’t know. ” He shrugged. “Maybe they thought I’d make some friends?”

Nie Huaisang stared back at him, face blank. “And you decided the best way to go about that is by bothering Lan Wangji?

“Hey!” Wei Wuxian protested, “Lan Zhan is super cool! He’s all smart - and pretty - and really good at fighting!”

“I don’t think we’re denying that he’s cool, Wei-xiong,”Jiang Cheng replied, his tone tinged with amusement, “much more the entire ‘befriending’ aspect.”

Wei Wuxian pouted, “Whatever. You’ll see. You’ll all see. By the end of the year, Lan Zhan and I will be best friends!” he declared.

“Wei Ying.”

Speak of the devil.

As if from the ether, Lan Wangji appeared at the very mention of his name. Taking no notice of the other two boys bowing at the side, he focused with laser-attention on Wei Wuxian, who had immediately started grinning upon seeing him.

“Lan Zhan! Did you miss me?”

Lan Wangji’s eyes became even colder. “You’ve been asked to report to Uncle.”

“Eh? To Old Master Lan? For what?” Wei Wuxian expression was colored in confusion.

“Punishment.” Without elaborating, Lan Wangji immediately set back and started walking away, clearly expected Wei Wuxian to follow him.

Wei Wuxian, for his part, remained glued to his spot for a minute, ruminating over what he had been told. “Punishment, punishment,” he murmured, bringing his hand to his chin, “for what, though?”

Abruptly, he looked up and began to follow the white-clad boy out of the clearing. “Lan Zhan,” his tone outraged, “you snitched on me????!”

“I do not snitch.

“Lan Zhan!” A wail. “I thought we had something special.”

“Preposterous!”

Nie Huaisang laughed out loud, shaking his head in disbelief. “This boy,” he murmured, “I don’t know why anyone even tries.”

Jiang Cheng smiled back at him. “A bit of a handful?”

“More than you can imagine,” Nie Huaisang snapped the fan open, his eyes curling in a smile, “but somehow, I don’t really mind it.”

Jiang Cheng’s face flushed as he looked at the boy.

“When I grow up, I’m going to be Master Shen and Master Shang’s second husband!”

It was a credit to his training as sect heir that he regained control of his expression by the time Nie Huaisang opened his eyes.

 

That night, in the Jingshi, a boy knelt.

He had been kneeling for a while now. His knees ached at the point where they contacted the floor. Only practice and musculature kept his thighs from feeling the same burn.

It wasn’t a punishment anyone had assigned. It wasn’t a crime that anyone knew about. But still -

“By the end of the year, Lan Zhan and I will be best friends!”

Eavesdropping was forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, Lan Wangji reminded himself. That’s why he was kneeling.

“Aw, Lan Zhan,” a pout on pink lips, the voice insistent on repeating his name - a name no one apart from his brother called him, not even his uncle anymore - “is there anything that isn’t forbidden in the Cloud Recesses?”

It was scandalous, what the boy was saying in that clearing. To openly support the study of demonic practices - if uncle knew, he’d surely make him leave the Recesses’, regardless of which sect he was connected to.

“Knowledge is a weapon,” the boy declared, “it’s the intentions that matter.”

‘What’s more scandalous, Lan Wangji,’ the soft voice in his head whispered, ‘what the boy is offering or what you want to take from him?’

“Lan Zhan is super cool! He’s all smart - and pretty - and really good at fighting!”

“By the end of the year, Lan Zhan and I will be best friends!” the boy said, and he was struck by such a wave of shock - of disgust - of want -

Lan Wangji, still kneeling on the floor, shuddered. He did not know the answer to that question.

Chapter Text

To everyone’s dismay, Wei Wuxian’s reign of terror in the Cloud Recesses seemed to show no signs of abating, even after weeks there. His audaciousness quickly established his fame - and his infamy - within the people there. Tales upon tales arrived in Caiyi and the surrounding towns every day, expanding on some or the other new prank that the young rogue pulled.

“You’re lucky you were brought up by rogue cultivators,” Jiang Cheng remarked one day, “if you dared pull these things in my sect, my mother would have eaten you alive.”

Wei Wuxian gave a bright laugh from where he was kneeling. His hair still held traces of the feathers of the chickens he had procured from somewhere and let loose upon the largest training ground.

“I’m still impressed though,” Nie Huaisang laughed, “I never thought that a human could possibly become as red in the face as Lan Qiren did when he saw that.”

Wei Wuxian’s laugh transformed into a cackle, one that set off even Jiang Cheng into a helpless grin; the senior Lan’s dislike for the shameless child was a well known fact in the Cloud Recesses. Nie Huaisang thought that when he accepted a guest disciple to the Nies, the man had no idea that he was inviting the son of Cangse Sanren into the sect.

“My mom once shaved off his beard,” Wei Wuxian told a crowd of captive students, “Papa told me that he’s never forgiven her for that.”

And that was the other thing - Wei Wuxian’s parents.

They were probably the primary reason why, despite his dislike for the boy, Lan Qiren was unable to catch him unaware - clearly he had been raised by very learned people. A pattern became established over the course of many classes - at some point Lan Qiren would snap at the inattentiveness shown by the boy and begin a rapid-fire of questions, growing more and more visibly frustrated as Wei Wuxian navigated questions that grown cultivators struggled with easily. Then, at some point, Wei Wuxian would take pity on the elder cultivator and throw out a truly audacious remark, allowing the elder to throw him out and continue on with the lesson.

He spoke about them often, so much so that all the disciples knew about Wei Wuxian’s strange sort-of-cutsleeve parents by now. The one time a Lan elder made an off-hand remark about how such unnatural relations were discouraged in the Cloud Recesses, eyes disdainfully on where Wei Wuxian’s hand was slung across Nie Huaisang’s shoulders, on where Nie Huaisang’s hand was wrapped around his waist in turn, he awoke the next day to find his whole wardrobe dyed an audacious yellow - bright enough to make one’s eyes hurt.

Nie Huaisang smiled behind his fan and even though everyone knew that this was Wei Wuxian’s doing, for once, no one was able to find any evidence to pin it on him.

Still, despite his ridiculousness, despite his absolute shamelessness, no one was able to deny how proficient he was in all matters related to cultivation - whether it be related to swordplay or academics. It wasn’t an unusual sight to find him surrounded by YunmengJiang or QingheNie sect disciples after particularly hard lessons - regardless of the fact that he had been kicked out half-way through the teachings.

“You’d make a good senior,” Nie Huaisang observed one day, watching with thoughtful eyes as his usually carefree friend taught the others with joy, “or even a teacher.”

Wei Wuxian laughed, “Hahaha, I might, if any sect could bare to have me on their grounds for long!”

The one sect that didn’t view him as positively was the LanlingJin, and that was entirely due to his relation with their clan heir, Jin Zixuan.

It wasn’t hatred or anything that serious, truth be told. The Jin heir looked down on Wei Wuxian for a variety of things - his carefree attitude, his dubious “rogue cultivator” parents, his friendship with someone he viewed as an innately weak and useless cultivator. Wei Wuxian, in turn, seared the other’s disdainful expression when he had announced that he and Huaisang were as good as sworn brothers, that Huaisang would be amongst the most talented people of their age, and simply sought to repay him back for it at every turn he got.

Nie Huaisang thought it was a headache. Jiang Cheng, on the other hand, vehemently approved.

“He’s supposed to be engaged to my sister,” the other boy told him one day when the three of them met for their regular talks. “She likes him a lot but...he’s never given her his time of the day. Even though she tries to reach out for him, even though she’s always so kind and good to him, he always just judges her based on what people say about her strength and beauty.”

Wei Wuxian frowned. He had heard of Jiang Yanli from Nie Huaisang as well, when they started befriending Jiang Cheng, that she was a truly kind and gentle soul who all in Yunmeng treasured above everything else. Jiang Cheng, it was clear, thought the world of his sister - he had no doubt that one of the reasons why he was so kind and interested in initially befriending Nie Huaisang despite his low cultivation abilities was because of Jiang Yanli’s influence.

“That sounds terrible,” he finally commented, his tone frank. He remembered how Jin Zixuan would be surrounded by maidens when they visited nearby towns, and how, despite not actively engaging with them, he would do little to dissuade their presence and attempts to catch his attention, “He sounds like a total jerk. Your sister deserves better.”

Jiang Cheng sighed. “She does. But...she still hopes that they’ll get along and for her sake, so do I.”

Nie Huaisang fanned himself slowly. “Jiang-xiong,” he began with a low tone, “pardon me if I’m being disrespectful but in such a circumstance….would dissolving the tie not be better? No ceremony has been conducted yet, yes?” He imagined his own mother tied to a man who would not respect her and shuddered. No one would even find his remains.

“No, no official ceremony has taken place yet,” Jiang Cheng began slowly, “but…” his hands twisted in his robes, “but this alliance has been a life-long dream for my family. My mother and Madam Jin had sworn to tie their families together before they were even with child.”

Wei Wuxian’s eyebrows furrowed, his mood darkening at the rationale given. “Then they should have just married each other! No reason to use their kids for it.” He huffed disapprovingly, uncaring of how Jiang Cheng looked at him with wide-eyes. “Father would lose his mind if he heard this,” he muttered. Papa had always been so against adults using their children to fulfill their own goals, and in this moment, Wei Wuxian felt like he understood him entirely.

Nie Huaisang and Jiang Cheng looked at each other, their faces breaking out into smiles at the familiar sentence. Nie Huaisang hesitated, before closing the fan and moving forward to gently grab the hand which was crinkling Jiang Cheng’s robes with such force.

“I think…” he took in a deep breath, “maybe you should talk to your sister about this?” His voice rose to a question by the end of the sentence. “From what you’ve told us, she’s very cherished by your family. I’m sure that if she felt the same way that you did….that if she refused to be locked in a loveless marriage...people would listen to her.”

Jiang Cheng had frozen at the touch. He looked down at his lap, throat moving in a strong gulp. After a long moment of silence, he shook his head in a jerk. “Thank you, Nie-xiong,” his voice came out steady and low, “this one hears your advice.”

Wei Wuxian, observing the exchange, raised an eyebrow at it. “Huh.”

Nie Huaisang dislodged his hand from Jiang Cheng’s and turned to face him. “What?”

Wei Wuxian smiled, like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, “Oh, nothing. Nevermind me, I’m just being silly. Ah,” he exclaimed, seeing, Huaisang preparing to pounce and unveil his thoughts by peeling him like a potato, “I think I see Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan! Lan Er-gege! Wait for me!”

And so, the hurricane left the grounds in a silence. Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang looked at each other in confusion. “Well,” Jiang Cheng broke, “so that was something.”

 

The focal point of Wei Wuxian’s presence in the Cloud Recesses, however, was undoubtedly his relationship with Lan Wangji.

“You mean your lack of one,” Jiang Cheng snorted.

Wei Wuxian pouted as Nie Huaisang joined in the laughter. “I’m trying,” he whined.

“Try less, A-Xian,” Nie Huaisang replied dryly.

They spent much time together, considering that Wei Wuxian kept on breaking one or the other rule. He would have seen Lan Wangji upon breaking them anyway, considering that the other boy was the keeper of the rules in the Cloud Recesses, but every time he broke the rule, Lan Wangji would be the one to catch him to begin with.

Well. Almost every time. He was too proud of the chicken incident to even hide, so technically, he got “caught” by the whole morning class who stumbled upon the ground at unearthly hours to spar, grinning and chasing the birds around like a loon.

“It’s like he’s hunting you,” Nie Huaisang remarked when Wei Wuxian first observed this, “good luck with this one, A-Xian.”

Like the mature young man he was, in response, Wei Wuxian simply stuck out his tongue.

To be honest, he preferred the Lan Wangji who hunted him down, caught him in the act of defiling yet another modicum of Lan honor to the Lan Wangji who would still with him in his punishments. At least the former….responded to him, in some way, even if it was simply to attack him. At least he looked alive, looked at Wei Ying instead of simply looking away.

In the library, supervising his punishment….Lan Zhan sat still like a mountain, completely absorbed in his work, ignoring Wei Wuxian’s attempt to capture his attention as though the latter was some foolish summer breeze trying to overturn a sturdy rock.

Wei Wuxian didn’t know what it was about Lan Wangji that pushed him to bother the other in such a way. But he knew, more than anything, that he wanted Lan Zhan to look at him. He wanted Lan Zhan to listen to him. He wanted Lan Zhan to talk to him.

In typical Wei Ying manner, when such an occasion did occur in the library pavilion, he was completely unmoored.

It was the same usual routine - after having written his daily minimum quota of lines, Wei Wuxian would simply begin to ramble, about anyone and anything, throwing topics in the wind to see what would provoke a response. Today, having come to the realization that he had spent nearly four months without seeing his parents, Wei Wuxian began to speak about them in an attempt to drive out his heartache.

He spoke about his Father’s tendency to grow tipsy after a few cups of alcohol, how he would always begin to pat Wei Wuxian on the head in such a condition, murmuring “good boy, good boy,” over and over again. He spoke of his Papa, how he would spend hours upon hours writing prose in dim candlelight and bring it to Father for critique in the morning, hair sticking in every direction from where he spent the night tugging on it in frustration.

Just as he was beginning to start on how weirdly his parents behaved around any flora they encountered for the first time -

“Your parents...they sound kind.”

For a second, he could only gape, completely in shock.

Was that...Lan Zhan’s voice?

It had to be, right?! They were the only ones in the pavilion after all.

Could it be...the one day that Wei Wuxian had chosen to not measure his words, to instead just let loose a flow of them in order to distract himself more than anything...that day, Lan Zhan had chosen to listen to him?

Or….

Wei Wuxian felt his face color, even as he leaned in towards the other boy eagerly.

Had Lan Zhan been listening to him all along?

“They are!” He cheerily agreed, “They’re the best!” And then - like an idiot - he leaned in and ruined it all in one sentence.

“What are your parents like, Lan Zhan?”

The other boy froze, his grip on his brush growing slack. The expression on his face wasn’t anything that Wei Wuxian has seen before - he prided himself on cracking open the usually cold Jade and driving him to colors, but he hadn’t so far succeeded in painting him with as conflicted an expression as the one he wore at the moment.

More than that, through the ache in his heart, the panic rising in his veins, he was sure that he never wanted to cause that expression to appear in the first place.

“Lan Zhan?!” Wei Wuxian called, alarmed. “Is something wrong?”

Lan Wangji stood up, ignoring Wei Wuxian’s words to move as silent as the falling of the leaves in winter. “Punishment time is over,” he said, as if in response to Wei Wuxian.

And then he left.

Wei Wuxian, after a minute, “That literally doesn’t answer any question!!!”

 

Maybe he should have left it for the day - approach the interaction tomorrow with a fresh mind when he came to the library pavilion and spend the night finding fresh new ways to grovel for unintentionally offending the Second Jade. But Wei Wuxian had never been a patient person, and had never shied away from the responsibility of his actions.

So, naturally, the next course of action was to break into the Jingshi.

“You - you - you!” Lan Wangji seemed to have overcome this afternoon’s discontent and gone straight into furiousness.

“Yes - me, me, me,” Wei Wuxian agreed readily enough. He had nearly gotten skewered on Bichen the moment Lan Wangji opened the door and saw Wei Wuxian inside, leaning over his table and looking at the various scrolls for music scattered on it.

“Shameless! Indecent! Mannerless!” Bichen vibrated, as if aching to pierce his flesh once and for all.

“Yes, yes, I am all that,” Wei Wuxian waved his hand impatiently, as if uncaring for the threat growing in the room. “But Lan Zhan, it’s also rude and mannerless to make someone feel bad and not apologize for it instantly!”

Lan Wangji fell silent. His breath came out in short puffs, his forehead ribbon lay crooked. It was the most disheveled Wei Wuxian had ever seen the other, and just that fact gave him courage to forge on.

“Lan Zhan, today, in the library, I said something that must have you mad. I’m very sorry for that!” He bowed, more completely than he had to any teacher since entering the Cloud Recesses.

Lan Wangji trembled, fists shaking. “You always seek to make me angry,” he bit out.

“That’s not true!” Wei Wuxian cried out, aghast. “I mean,” he amended, “it’s true that I often make you angry but I don’t seek it, Lan Zhan! I just want you to talk to me, to respond to me, and you never do that unless I somehow piss you off!”

Lan Wangji stayed silent. Emboldened by this, Wei Wuxian carried on.

“In any case, I don’t like making the people who I like mad or sad - and I like you a lot, Lan Zhan! So please,” here he knelt on the ground, a clear invitation to come sit with him, “will you tell me what I did wrong? So I don’t accidentally do it again?”

Lan Wangji observed the ground before him with clear hesitation in his eyes. He wanted to tell the boy to leave, to never step foot in the Jingshi again, to tell him that it was forbidden but -

“Lan Zhan, please?

(When was the last time anyone tried to understand him this much? Not his brother, who had always known him, not his uncle, who would never understand the monster that lay beneath his skin which pushed him to defy, to reject, to seek out the boy in front of him over and over again -)

Lan Wangji walked ahead and sat down beside him. And then, before that kind, concerned gaze, he began to tell things that he had not spoken of to any other person in the world.

“My father...has been in seclusion since he brought my mother into the clan. Many disapproved of him doing so, but since he persisted anyway, secluding himself was...punishment.”

“Punishment?” Wei Wuxian wanted to move closer, but in the fragility of the moment he found himself sitting still, “For what?”

The entire sordid story spilled. His mother’s actions, his father’s decision. The clan’s condemnation, that saw both his parents living in isolation - their children being raised by someone else.

“I would see mother at very few chosen times,” Lan Wangji spoke slowly, and Wei Wuxian listen to him with more patience than he had ever spared on another person, “...she died a few years ago.”

Another pause, “I haven’t seen my father.”

Wei Wuxian bit his lips, eyes dripping with concern. Choosing to address the best part of that sad story, he attempted to smile and asked, “What did you do with your mother when you visited her?”

Lan Wangji was silent, as though he was ruminating on what to say. Finally, voice soft, “Mother...asked me about my day. What I learnt, what I ate. She was..” his voice stumbled, “...she was kind.”

Wei Wuxian’s smile grew more genuine. “She sounds amazing.”

Lan Wangji looked down at where he folded his hands on his lap. He gave a jerky nod in agreement.

God, his uncle would have a coronary if he heard him. Actually, if any of the clan saw him right now, speaking to this shameless, rule-breaking ruffian in the privacy of his Jingshi, telling him of how his mother was kind…. they’d probably think he was possessed.

“God, Lan Zhan….that sounds terrible.” Wei Wuxian looked at the boy sitting near him, hesitation overflowing from his every pore.

Lan Zhan doesn’t like touching people, his brain reminded him, don’t do anything to make him angry in the middle of your efforts to apologize for making him angry!

Another voice, Lan Zhan looks lonely. I wish I could give him a hug.

Wei Wuxian chose the middle path, reaching out to hold the place where the other’s palms were intertwined. Lan Wangji gasped audibly, looking up at the other’s face in shock, locking grey-gold in a clash.  

“I’m sorry you had to go through that,” Wei Wuxian murmured, gently squeezing the hand under him. Even though Lan Zhan looked so cold, his skin was very warm and it only made Wei Wuxian’s grip stronger.

Lan Wangji’s voice was confused, “Why...you don’t need to apologize. I had...my brother...my uncle...my clan…”

Wei Wuxian’s heart ached. What would he have been today if his parents hadn’t found him? What would have happened to him if they hadn’t loved him, taken care of him, taught him how to take care of himself? Where would he be without their support, their hugs, their kind words and gentle admonishments?

“I know you did,” he responded, “and I know that I don’t need to apologize. There was nothing that I could have done, after all. But still...I’m still sorry you had to go through that.” He thought about those few months on the streets of Yiling, fighting for survival by himself, hoping against hope that his parents would come back and find him and take him home. “It must have been lonely.”

Lan Wangji stayed silent. After a long minute, his eyes dropped from where they had been looking into Wei Wuxian’s, to look at where the other was grasping at both his hands.

He remembered old days, spent kneeling outside a small cottage, quiet, calm, still as a lake on a windless day, waiting for the opening of a door which would never again welcome him in. The whispers which followed him around, despite the rule of not speaking behind another’s back, how everyone would talk of him and never talk to him.

Lan Wangji stayed silent. Fortunately, this person seemed to not care about his own silence.

No, Lan Wangji realized with suddenness, remembering how the other bowed, apologized, he cared. He did care. He cared enough to reach out, even when I didn’t reach back.

“I can’t do anything about the past,” Wei Wuxian continued, his lips tugging into a smile, “but now that I’m here, you won’t be lonely anymore, Lan Zhan! I’ll visit you everyday! I promise!”

His ears grew hot, the back of his neck burned, and Lan Wangji, looking at the boy in front of him, so bright, so warm, a hurricane in human form, and wondered how he ever thought he could avoid being in its path.

He wished he could imitate the smile on the other’s face, but he feared that it wouldn’t spread on his own as easily, unused as those muscles were to stretching. Still, his heart felt light, hung on a promised hope.

What would his life be like now?

“If you keep gaining punishment, you won’t have a choice,” he retorted back.

Could he have ever imagined speaking to another person this way, before Wei Ying?

Wei Wuxian gasped in delight. “Lan Zhan!” he trilled, “Lan Zhan, you just made a joke!” He gave out a joyful laugh. “Who would have thought that the Second Master Lan would be capable of such retorts?”

“Shameless,” Lan Wangji muttered, his ears going red. But his voice was quiet, his tone was gentle, and they could both tell that his heart wasn’t in it.

Chapter Text

And then, there were monsters.

To be fair, there were always monsters, even when the people were unaware of them. Still, Nie Huaisang blamed the current situation on Wei Wuxian. Jiang Cheng agreed. Wei Wuxian protested loud and hard, but the effect was somewhat mitigated by the fact that he still had his face buried in his father’s shoulder.

This is what happened:

 

On one bright day, when classes were dismissed early, Lan Xichen invited Wei Wuxian over to help a contingent of Lans heading down to Caiyi town to aid a growing problem in Biling Lake.

“I’m sure someone of your talent will find such a task an invigorating one,” spoke the Lan sect heir, who had been growing happier and happier as the days passed and his reclusive little brother did little to remove the leech clinging from him. “Wangji would want you to come too.”

The Second Jade, in place of replying, turned his face to the other side, and began walking down the mountain. To anyone else, it might have seemed like a dissuasion, but Wei Wuxian had enough faith in his own ability to understand the other by now. 

If Lan Zhan didn’t want him to come, he would make it known. Violently, if need be.

So when the other boy started to move away without comment, Wei Wuxian laughed, grabbed hold of Nie Huaisang and Jiang Cheng were they stood and started to pull them forward. 

“Lan Zhan, wait for us!”

“Why is this suddenly an ‘us?’”!

“A-Xian, I had plans! Don’t just drag me around!”

“Maybe if you had the muscles to resist me, you wouldn’t have to go.”

“....I hate you. So, so much.”


“I HATE YOU SO MUCH!”

To say that Nie Huaisang wasn’t the happiest with the idea of facing a Waterborne Abyss would be an understatement. The sword that Nie Mingjue had temporarily compromised to let him have, with significant persuasion from Shang Qinghua and Shen Qingqiu (“It’ll be like a practice weapon until he’s ready for a sabre!”) wobbled under his feet and he fought to keep from shrieking as it nearly shoved him back in the water.

“Careful!” Jiang Cheng grasped his elbow, moving closer to provide him balance. 

Rage quickly overcame fear at the support and Nie Huaisang resumed shouting at Wei Wuxian from where he hung limply in Lan Wangji’s grasp. “I could have been reading Master Shang’s letter! I could have been maintaining the paints on my fans! But instead, I’m here getting drenched and nearly killed!”

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Wei Wuxian couldn’t help but laugh. Even from a distance, Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang could see the frown that appeared on Lan Wangji’s face, the way he shook Wei Wuxian where he was holding him. 

(“Be still.”

“Oh, sorry Lan Zhan!”)

“That guy…” Jiang Cheng murmured, “isn’t he too calm in a situation like this?”

(“Actually, I want to try something out. Lan Zhan, could you bring me closer to the Abyss?”

“....”)

“A-Xian’s parents are well-versed in handling monsters of a variety,” Nie Huaisang grumbled, adjusting his arms to better his balance on the blade, “they told us things about the creatures which roamed the Nie territory which we had never known before. Since he always accompanied them, he’s probably used to nonsense like this.”

“Wait, what’s he doing?!” Jiang Cheng cried out, alarmed. Nie Huaisang whipped his head back to where his dumb friend stood, only to shriek as he spotted Wei Wuxian, once again on his sword, heading for the heart of the Waterborne Abyss.

“WEI WUXIAN, WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?!”

In response, Wei Wuxian pulled out a single talisman from his sleeve and waved it around like a madman. “A-Sang, I’ve wanted to test this since forever!”

Nie Huaisang paled even more. “Wei Ying, no!”

Still speeding towards the Abyss, Lan Wangji hot on his tail, Wei Wuxian laughed, “Wei Ying, yes!”

He flew and flew until he was right on top of the Abyss. The, he closed his eyes, pumping tendrils upon tendrils of energy into the talisman, enclosing it between both palms. When he separated his hands again, the talismans had multiplied, hanging in the air, quivering, but holding on despite the wild winds all around them. 

Wei Wuxian opened his eyes. An uncharacteristic expression of seriousness hung on his face for all of three seconds before it gave way to a wicked grin. Unbidden, the talismans began to dive into the eye of the storm. 

He brought up one hand into a seal. From where he stood beside him, Lan Wangji couldn’t help the growing feeling of trepidation. Still, Wei Wuxian smiled, his lips forming into a single word.

“Burst.”

Before the shocked eyes of all the cultivators hovering on top of the lake, the Waterborne Abyss lit up from the inside, the medley of orange-red-yellow explosions filtering from layers of water and wind. 

Against the protagonist halo, tempered by years of experimentation alongside his parents…..well, the Abyss didn’t really stand a chance.

BOOM!

In one quick moment, the Abyss tore apart at the seams, scattering gale winds and waves of cold water everywhere. Nie Huaisang cursed as a sudden intense spattering of rain soaked into his robes and hair. 

Wei Wuxian trembled from where he was standing. The experimental talisman had been successful, but he had spent too much energy on that one technique. He really needed to tell Papa about what happened so they could begin streamlining a way to make the talisman more energy efficient….

Alarmed shouts echoed all around him, but he couldn’t make out the words they were saying. The last thing he remembered before complete darkness was the sensation of falling, before strong arms pulled him by his waist. 

Lan Zhan’s voice, “Wei Ying!”

Content in the knowledge that he had been caught, Wei Wuxian buried his face into Lan Wangji’s chest and let himself drift off. 

 

After Wei Wuxian fell unconscious, Lan Wangji sped to the shores of the lake, almost a blur to the eye of the regular cultivator. Behind him Lan Xichen, Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang fought to keep pace, the latter straining his spiritual energy after having stayed on the blade for so long. Still, by the time they caught up to the pair, Lan Wangji had already laid Wei Wuxian out on a pier.

Attracted by the spectacle of the explosion, a crowd had already begun to gather around them. It scattered somewhat as the other cultivators landed. 

Lan Wangji knelt by Wei Wuxian’s side, the other’s wrist firmly in his own grip, transferring as much energy as he dared with his own spiritual reserves so depleted. 

“Wangji,” Lan Xichen moved forward, his face etched in a frown, “what is his condition?”

Lan Wangji was silent.Then, just as some distant terror was beginning to fill Nie Huaisang’s veins (he should’ve kept an eye on him, should’ve deterred him from going, should’ve looked after him the way they both swore to do to their families—) he said, “Unconscious.”

Jiang Cheng’s expression tightened. Yeah, we can see that. 

Land Wangji continued, “Exhausted.” He looked at Wei Wuxian’s face with a strange gaze before saying, “Used too much energy.”

Nie Huaisang let out a sigh of belief. He scowled. “This - reckless - jackass -”

Lan Wangji shot him a glare. “Foul language is not allowed.”

Overtaken by rage, Nie Huaisang snapped back, “In the Cloud Recesses! And this isn’t the Cloud Recesses is it?”

Lan Xichen looked at the young cultivator and had a sudden vision of the Nie sect leader’s flash temper. He fought to keep his face composed, even as the cultivators around them gaped at Nie Huaisang’s sudden boldness. 

The teen continued, as though possessed, “When he wakes up, I’m going to smack him so hard -”

Before Lan Wangji’s glare could get any more ferocious - before he had the chance to use the silencing technique on the Nie heir the way Lan Xichen saw he wished to do - Nie Huaisang’s anger was interrupted by a voice from the crowd. 

“Get in line, kid.”

Lan Wangji looked up to see two figures pushing their way through the crowd. The short man dressed with traces of blue was looking at Wei Wuxian with faint traces of exasperation in his eyes. The taller man in green, with some strange metal contraption tied to his back, sighed.

They were both clearly cultivators. Even from a distance, Lan Wangji could sense their spiritual power - elders of immense cultivation. 

“Who…”

Nie Huaisang, voice showing traces of absolute shock, “Master Shang? Master Shen?”

The man in green nodded in greeting, while the other dropped to his knees beside Wei Wuxian. “Huaisang,” Shen Qingqiu spoke, “good to see you’re well.”

“What he means to say is that we’re glad this idiot child didn’t get you squished like a bug out there,” Shang Qinghua commented, griping Wei Wuxian’s other wrist. “Oh, Qingqiu, come here and help me fix your son.”

Shen Qingqiu shot him a dry look, “Oh so now he’s my son?”

“When he pulls shit like this he is. Or did you think I’ve forgotten about what happened with Zhuzhi-lang’s lake?”

Shen Qingqiu groaned, even as he moved forward, “That was one time.”

“....”

“...that time with the volcano was an accident.”

“You keep telling yourself that.”

Lan Xichen moved forward. “Excuse me, masters? May this one inquire about your identity?”

The two looked up from their banter, eyes wide. The man in green broke out into an apologetic smile. “Oh, forgive us, Master Lan. This one is called Shen Qingqiu. He, ” a disgusted wave at the man in blue, “is Shang Qinghua.”

A wry grin. “And we’re this little disaster’s parents.”

 

Wei Wuxian’s parents were in the middle of having tea when the incident happened, so they insisted that the tired group consisting of the main combatants against the Abyss join them in the inn that they had run out of. “Exhausting yourself by going to the Cloud Recesses in such a state will be of little help to anyone.”

Most of the cultivators invited disagreed, eager to get back and recuperate with a bath and a change of clothes. So, with Lan Xichen leading the rest of the members back to the Recesses, the small group consisting of Lan Wangji, Nie Huaisang, Jiang Cheng and the still unconscious Wei Wuxian settled in for tea. 

Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji couldn’t help the feeling of discomfort which arose in them as they settled around the table. They had been hearing of Wei Wuxian’s parents for so long that meeting them like this, while Wei Wuxian was silent, was very strange. 

‘I almost thought that they weren’t real people,’ Jiang Cheng though somewhat hysterically. 

Yet, they were real people, sitting here and conversing so easily with Nie Huaisang. It was...strangely underwhelming and overwhelming at the same time. 

“Young Master Lan,” Shen Qingqiu spoke at one point, “I would understand if you refuse it, but perhaps, would you allow me to transfer some spiritual energy to you as well? I understand you’ve exhausted a lot keeping our fool of a son out of trouble.”

Lan Wangji hesitated. He didn’t like people touching him - never had. His brother was always the exception to that rule, alongside his mother. Both their touches were leagues different from each other, but they had the same undercurrent of love, of gentleness that Lan Wangji couldn’t help but covet, despite the rules carved at the side of the mountain discouraging such emotions. 

He looked down at his hand and thought he could still feel the traces of warmth from where he had touched Wei Wuxian to hold him above water. He looked up and saw the other man, the one in blue, still holding Wei Wuxian’s wrist, eyes drawn in a worried frown but grasp gentle. 

“Your parents...they sound kind.”

“They are!”

Lan Wangji offered his wrist. “It was the least I could do,” he said, feeling as though he had no control over his mouth. 

Shen Qingqiu took a hold of the limb and looked at him for a moment, gaze complicated. Finally, he smiled and in the upturn of his lips Lan Wangji couldn’t help but see the traces of Wei Ying’s increasingly familiar joy. 

“In any case,” Shen Qingqiu murmured as the steady flow of power started between them, “thank you for looking after our son.”

Lan Wangji thought, absurdly, ‘Thank you for letting him look after me.’

No sound passed his mouth in reality, but Shen Qingqiu looked at him like he had heard something anyway. 

 

Wei Wuxian awakened in the course of time it would take for half an incense stick to burn, took one look at the figure of his parents and abruptly burst out in tears. 

“Papaaaa,” he wailed, flinging himself at the man as though he wasn’t knocked out mere seconds ago.

For his part, Shang Qinghua simply sighed at the sticky child in his arms. “Little fool.” His exasperated voice was belayed by the way he instinctively stroked Wei Wuxian’s damp hair. “What have we said about testing out experimental talismans?”

Wei Wuxian hiccuped, twisting to lunge at Shen Qingqiu anew. “To do it in safe testing conditions but Papaaaaa.”

Shen Qingqiu’s arms came up to hold him. He looked at Shang Qinghua and both of them rolled their eyes in fond exasperation. “Speak clearly,” he chided. 

Wei Wuxian withdrew, sniffing. His lips curled into a pout. He looked between both his parents and cried out, “Those were extenuating circumstances!”

Shen Qingqiu let out a laugh, tugging the boy close in his arms again. “One day,” he said, “one day, that excuse will stop working for you.”

Snuggling close to his parents, Wei Wuxian conveniently ignored the words. “Wasn’t it super cool though?”

“Yes, yes,” Shang Qinghua couldn’t help the pride that filled his chest. “Still some things to be fine-tuned, but it worked really well.”

“It’s unprecedented,” Jiang Cheng murmured, the shock from all the events of the afternoon finally beginning to set in, “no one has even been able to rid the Waterborne Abyss in such a way.”

Shang Qinghua looked at the boy and grinned. “Attempting the impossible is quite an inspiring motto, wouldn’t you say Master Jiang?”

On the other side of the room, Wei Wuxian had finally gathered himself enough to pull back from his father’s arms. “What’re you guys doing here?” He searched his father’s face as though it would show the answer to his question. “I thought you were on a research trip!”

“We were,” Shen Qingqiu grumbled, “but all these bugs kept popping up and pestering us.”

“Bugs?”

“Mhmm,” Shang Qinghua hummed in agreement, “of the same variety that you encountered here.”

Wei Wuxian’s expression darkened. Even as they were confronting the Waterborne Abyss he had been thinking about it - but it couldn’t be -

“The Wen sect,” Nie Huaisang murmured, voice low. “Master Shen and Master Shang’s reputations have grown significantly due to their interactions with the Nie sect.” He sounded apologetic - before allying themselves even indirectly with a major sect, the two rogue cultivators had gone significantly under the radar. 

Shen Qingqiu waved a hand. “That’s neither here nor there.” He sighed, “I get the feeling that we would have gotten this problem in any scenario.”

Wei Wuxian bristled from where he was nestled in his side. “Did they do anything to you?” His eyes roved the forms of his parents as though searching for injuries. 

Shen Qingqiu smiled, tapping the boy on the head with his fan, “Who exactly do you think your parents are?” he chided. “It’ll take more than a few insects to touch us.”

“They’re still annoying though,” Shang Qinghua stretched his arms across the table in an inelegant manner, laying with his cheek against the wood. 

Shen Qingqiu sighed. “Yes, yes they are.”

Jiang Cheng could feel shivers tumble down his spine. To call the largest sect in the cultivation world - the one which outnumbered every other sect by so much - insects. He looked at the family gathered at the head of the table, at the boy who destroyed an undestroyable object and at the parents who raised him to do so. 

What kind of monsters...

Nie Huaisang broached the question again. “What exactly brings you here then, Master Shen?”

Shen Qingqiu raised an eyebrow. “Hmm, I guess it’s a bit hush-hush, so it makes sense that you haven’t heard of it.”

“It’s alright to tell them though,” Shang Qinghua interjected. “They’d find out sooner or later anyway.”

“Find out what?” Wei Wuxian watched his parents speak with wide eyes. 

Scum villain Shen Qingqiu and canon fodder traitor Shang Qinghua exchanged heavy glances before turning to the boys on the table. Each and every one of the people present there - apart from them - was a major actor in the Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, but in this moment, in this world, they were the ones setting the stage. 

Shen Qingqiu busied himself with taking his fan out, examining the material before fanning himself lazily. Shang Qinghua spoke, “A meeting of three major sects has been called by Sect Leader Nie at the behest of his advisors. He will be arriving in Gusu come tomorrow alongside Sect Leader Jiang.”

Nie Huaisang and Jiang Cheng startled. Lan Wangji frowned.

Wei Wuxian watched his parents with the sharpness of a bird of prey.

One of the two Nie sect “advisors” smiled viciously behind his fan. “Officially, it’s to establish a trade of cultivational material between the three. But unofficially...we’ve come to the understanding,” Shen Qingqiu murmured, “that it’s time to start planning pest control. All hypothetical, of course.”