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Those Who Defy

Chapter Text

Wei Ying wouldn’t come back.

Perhaps some part of Lan WangJi had known this long ago.  He thinks that he had known it since before Wei Ying appeared on that blood-soaked battlefield, reborn into a specter of death haunting the footsteps of the Wens. He thinks that he probably knew it since he heard of Yunmeng’s fall, of the disappearance of it’s brightest disciple, thought dead at Wen Chao’s hands.

Wei Ying wouldn’t come back. Not with him to Gusu. Not with Jiang WanYin to Yunmeng.

He had always been like that, hadn’t he? Stubborn to a fault, refusing to allow anyone to budge him from the path he had taken. He had been like even when he studied in Gusu, approaching Lan WangJi over and over again, uncaring of the freezing words he received.

Lan WangJi had long feared that the path he had chosen to walk on was a sinister one. It had been his greatest terror - that he was watching the boy he loved, that familiar shining sun, sink himself into dark clouds and be engulfed in them, unable to aid him in any way.

The Sun-shot campaign, doing a two-way job, taking with it not only the scorching heat of the Wen tyranny, but also the brightest star in Lan WangJi’s sky.

And yet, what he saw today….traces of that same sun-bright smile, that same shining light which called Lan WangJi to it every single day. Even dressed in the darkest of colors, Wei Ying had laughed, had teased and held the Wen child close to him, whining about how the child liked Lan WangJi more than him, unknowing of how the boy in his arms looked at him - as though he had brought the stars down from the sky and gifted them to him.

Lan WangJi couldn’t stop his heart from stuttering at the sight. Wei Ying, his foolish, enamoured soul went, Wei Ying, come back with me.

But if he closed his eyes, he could see the child who Wei Ying so familiarly called A-Yuan. Could imagine the army which Wei Ying was said to shelter at the Burial Mounds, names that Wei Ying had spoken of so fondly over the course of the meal, an Uncle Four, a Granny.

Wei Ying had chosen his path. Rumors of the Yiling Laozu’s misdeeds grew wilder and wilder by the day, but Lan WangJi thought back to that shining sun and knew what he had to do.

He looked at the bundle of white in his hand, moving carefully to tuck it into his sleeve.

If Wei Ying wouldn’t come back, then Lan WangJi would simply go to him

This time….this time I won’t let go of you.

-X-

The walk back to the settlement was filled with A-Yuan’s chatter.

He had been growing better. As one of the few children in the settlement, most of the adults agreed that he should get most of the food and resources, even if it meant a reduction in their own portions. Wei WuXian was glad to see the results of it paying off, the weight settled in his arms just that much heavier than it had been when he first saw the child.

Waves of affection awashed him anew when he thought about how he had gotten to see this child grow. He cut off A-Yuan mid-sentence to press his cheek against the child’s.

“A-Yuan, A-Yuan,” he called, “you won’t leave your Xian-gege alone, will you? You won’t run-off with your Rich Brother in the middle of the night, will you?”

A-Yuan giggled, squirming in his arms. Tiny hands, so small that they made Wei WuXian’s heart jump in funny loops, planted themselves onto his cheeks. “Silly Xian-gege,” A-Yuan laughed, “A-Yuan doesn’t even know how to find Rich Brother!”

Wei WuXian looked at the boy, so different from the wraith which he had initially seen among the Wen settlers, so much more alive and living. He pushed down his swelling heart into laughter, mercilessly tickling the child in his arms, his hold firm yet gentle. “What was that you rascal?! More time in the ground for you, I think.”

Wen Yuan squealed in his arms, little hands trying their best to escape the treatment being administered to him. “No!” he wailed, “No more burying!”

“Ahh?” Wei WuXian exclaimed with a mock pout. “But if we don’t bury you, how else do we know you’re not running off?”

“A-Yuan won’t run! A-Yuan won’t run!” The child kicked out with small feet, tears of laughing beading at the tips of his eyelashes. Wei WuXian was struck with the sudden urge to kiss those tears away - an urge he did nothing to suppress this time, instead planting his lips on top of Wen Yuan’s eyelid with the gentlest of touches.

The child stopped squirming abruptly, looking up at Wei WuXian with a wide, shocked gaze, only to receive a grin in response. “I know he won’t,” Wei WuXian began, nuzzling against Wen Yuan’s soft cheek to elicit new giggles from the child, softer, all the more precious.”A-Yuan’s a good little radish, isn’t he?”

Wen Yuan pouted in his arms. “Not a radish!”

“Oh?” Wei WuXian pulled back, as though surprised. He gave a thoughtful hum. “I guess there’s only one way to check.” Without warning, he grabbed a hold of Wen Yuan’s cheek with his lips, blowing in loud air as the child shrieked in delight.

“Wei WuXian, are you terrorizing children again?!”

The scene Wen Qing came upon was ridiculous enough to make her halt in her tracks. She took one look at the adult and child, Wei WuXian’s lips still locked around Wen Yuan’s cheek, tears of laughter flowing down the child’s face, and brought up a sleeve to cover the smile she could feel forming on her lips.

“Auntie Qing, Auntie Qing!” Wen Yuan called, “Tell Xian-gege I’m not a radish.” Despite his protests, he did nothing to remove himself from Wei WuXian’s hold, Wen Qing observed, her eyes softening. She folded her arms across her chest, giving into the inevitable smile and said, “If this is what you think radishes look like, then no wonder you’re unable to get the radish seeds I’ve been asking you for.”

Wei WuXian winced, letting go for Wen Yuan’s cheek with a stricken look on his face. Immediately, Wen Qing discerned what had gone wrong. “You didn’t get them this time either, did you?”

“In my defense,” Wei WuXian began, shifting the child in his arms to hold him better, “I got a bit understandably distracted. Do you want to tell your Auntie Qing who we saw today, A-Yuan?”

The child grinned at her, uncaring of the wet on his cheek. Tutting, Wen Qing began to wipe it with her sleeve. “We met Brother Rich! Auntie Qing, he got me lots of presents! He was super cool, a-and super nice, and super pretty - ”

“Brother Rich?” Wen Qing mouthed at Wei WuXian, allowing Wen Yuan to ramble.

“Lan Zhan,” he replied back in a low voice, shifting the weight in his arms again to show her the bag of toys he carried at his back, “he seemed to like A-Yuan a lot.”

Wen Qing raised an eyebrow in question, reaching to relieve him of the bag. “You think it’s safe?”

Wei WuXian let out a small hum, a smile breaking its way across his face. “Lan Zhan is a good man,” he said, “I wouldn’t trust anyone other than him with these matters.”

Wen Qing hummed, looking at Wei WuXian’s smile with thoughtful eyes. “Let’s get inside,” she said at last, “and then you can tell me all about your Rich Brother.”

-X-

To be honest, Wei WuXian thought that would be the last of the encounters.

There was no way the Lan sect would allow one of their precious heirs to remain in the presence of the tainted Yiling Patriarch, after all. The chances of Lan Zhan coming to Yiling again, or, god forbid, coming to the Burial Mounds to see him were so negligible that he honestly didn’t even bother thinking about them.

Sure, it would be a bit terrible for Wen Yuan, who had latched on to the Jade like one of the leeches which always gathered around the lotus ponds at Yunmeng. However….if there was one person in the world who had an even worse memory than Wei WuXian, it would be the child.

“You shouldn’t be this happy about beating out a toddler, ” Wen Qing had reminded him.

“I’m three; toddlers are my favorite type of human to compete against,” Wei WuXian had replied back, much to her disgust.

Life in the Burial Mounds would go on according to schedule.

….or so he thought, until he encountered a familiar white-clad figure outside barriers he had set up around the settlement.

“Lan Zhan?” He couldn’t stop his voice from stuttering in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

Lan WangJi turned to observe him from where he was standing. From this close, Wei WuXian could the slightest glimpse of hesitation in golden eyes before it was overtaken by something he could put a name to.

“The child,” Lan WangJi replied after a long moment. “Wanted to see the child.”

“Ah A-Yuan?” Wei WuXian was confused for a split moment before he could feel the stirrings of his trigger temper. “I haven’t devoured him over a day, you know,” he fought to keep his tone polite. “A-Yuan is fine.”

That’s not what I meant.

Lan WangJi could feel the familiar strings of despair climb over him as he observed the guarded demeanor of the man in front of him. This, this was what he feared. It was a cruel irony, perhaps, that he was the one trying his best to reach out to Wei WuXian, considering their entire acquaintance before had been the opposite.

Not more words, he took in a deep breath, just the right words.

Looking at the too-thin man in front of him, how skeletal fingers clutched the tip of the flute, shaking just the slightest, he struggled to verbalize his concern.

He couldn’t ask Wei Ying to return.

He just had to find the right words.

But Lan WangJi had always relied more on action than words - three months of inquiry, an entire war fought on the frontlines, the choice to buy a crying child toy after overpriced toy.

Words had failed him before (“Wei Ying...come back to Gusu with me,”) but actions, he thought, rarely had the same effect.

It was with that idea that he extracted something from his sleeve.

Wei WuXian’s eyes widened upon seeing the placid white rabbit resting in Lan WangJi’s palm. “The child…” Lan WangJi began, “...wanted to see a rabbit.”

In some ways, Wei Ying was the same. Quick to temper, just as quick to laugh.

As abruptly as it appeared, the anger vanished. Instead, Wei WuXian could only feel sharp pinches of affection, tugging his lips up in a hopeless smile. To think that he would remember some side-way rambling that A-Yuan made at the lunch they had...to think he would go this far to make it come true, when A-Yuan himself had probably forgotten it.

“Lan Zhan, you didn’t have to,” he called out, voice infinitely softer than before. “A-Yuan’s a brat, he definitely doesn’t remember anything that he said yesterday by now. Haha, I think that if you asked him today what “yesterday” is, he wouldn’t even be able to give you an answer!”

Lan WangJi shook his head, wondering if his desperation was visible through the gesture. “No. I….I wanted to show.”

Not a duty. Not a demand. This is me, wanting to be close.

He looked at Wei Ying’s softening eyes and wondered if he got through.

Wei Ying, will you let me in?

As if by magic, as if the gods had finally granted his wishes, the Yiling Patriarch smiled. Waved his hand to dissipate the barrier and let him through.

“Lan Zhan,” he spoke, and Lan WangJi’s heart went thud-thud-thud at that fond tone which he hadn’t heard in so long, “you really are too good, you know that?”

Lan WangJi swallowed his heart as it tried to escape from his mouth, choosing to nod in acknowledgement instead. “I hope he will enjoy them.”

”Oh he will,” Wei Ying spoke in tones of humor. “Careful Brother Rich,” he teased, “or you’ll find your leg that much heavier when you head home, hahaha!”

Together, white-black in unison, they walked back to the settlement.

Chapter Text

Despite everything, Wei WuXian really thought it would be a two-time thing only. Except…

Lan WangJi kept coming back!

Sometimes with gifts - toys, food, a plethora of rabbits (which - where was the man getting this many rabbits? Wei WuXian had only given him two, all those years ago, and he was sure that Lan Zhan would have thrown them out), new brushes and ink, fit to teach a child calligraphy in. Sometimes, he would just come by himself - sitting and drinking tea, following Wei WuXian around as he played with A-Yuan.

Wen Yuan, naturally, loved the man. It never failed to make Wei WuXian laugh to see someone of Lan WangJi’s stature lower his head to be crowned with shoddy child-produced grass crowns, or see him nodding seriously to whatever wild tale A-Yuan had come up with that day.

Maybe he should have been jealous to see A-Yuan get so attached to another adult, but honestly, Wei WuXian doesn’t think anyone could fault him for just getting mushy and soft at the sight.

Any hope that Wen Qing had of A-Yuan finally gaining “some responsible adult influences in his life, finally,” died a quick death when she saw the Second Jade of Lan sitting on the ground, solemnly helping a grinning Wei WuXian dig a whole large enough to fit a child up to their neck, or better yet, improvising to bring rabbit after rabbit until they could join forces to bury the child in a blanket of wriggling, jumping fur, uncaring of how he shrieked in laughter.

“He’s obviously been corrupted by you completely,” she huffed.

“I-I think Master Lan is nice,” Wen Ning offered.

Well, of course he would think so.

(The rabbits seemed to take alarmingly well to the Burial Mounds, multiplying one after the other. Eventually, they had to dedicate one whole day to moving them further from the farms, and creating a clearing solely for them, to ensure that they wouldn’t eat any more of the vegetables.

Surprisingly enough, no one seemed to mind the extra labor, not even Lan WangJi, who had to carry ten of the creatures at a time.)

Lan WangJi’s presence in the settlement had made the Wens uncomfortable at first. They had grown used to their surroundings by now - had grown used even to Wei WuXian, despite the nightmare he initially presented to them. Often, when he wasn’t looking after A-Yuan, he’d be working alongside them to set up buildings, or till particularly hard ground. Despite the loss of his golden core and previous musculature, his strength still dwarfed the most fit of the Wen remnants' several times over.

Considering how he followed Wei WuXian around, then, it quickly became a familiar sight to see Lan WangJi being politely asked to help with one or the other task by the old Wens, who quickly came over their initial reservations to bossing a righteous cultivator around for menial tasks when they realized that Lan WangJi would not refuse their requests.

“Really,” Wei WuXian mock complained when he came back from a trip to the town to see Lan WangJi lifting the material to build a granary, “you people are just looking to replace me.”

Wen Chin, well used to his antics by now, grinned. “Not our fault you’re a stick compared to this man.”

It was true, compared to his old form, he had been losing strength, and fast. Even though the Wens had grown used to their diet, it was nowhere near enough to fully sustain someone of Wei WuXian’s activity level, especially now that he couldn’t practice inedia. They all knew these facts - knew also that there was little they could do about it when the man pushed down second servings towards the young and the elderly, claiming that he had lived on lighter stomachs.

Wei WuXian gasped and fluttered in mock-indignation, causing all the Wens near him to laugh, but that night, his bowl of rice was just that much more full.

-X-

Despite Lan Zhan appearing regularly enough to become an expected presence at the Burial Mounds, his schedule wasn’t exactly...regular. He would come once every three or so days, more often than nor without warning as time went on.

Wei WuXian could understand why, of course. Quite frankly, he was surprised that the Lan had this much free time to begin with: although the war against the Wens had long since ended, it would be a folly to assume that the cultivation world was in any semblance of peace. New sects arose as old sects fell, each scrambling to fill the power vacuum which the absence of the Wens created.

“Lan Zhan,” he began one day, “is your sect alright with….this?” He gestured vaguely at the shabbiness and slop which surrounded them where they were sitting drinking tea in the Demon Slaughtering Cave.

Lan WangJi, “Brother would be alright.”

Wei WuXian was still sharp enough to catch the connotations. “Would?” he asked, delighted, “You mean to say you haven’t informed him yet?”

Lan WangJi’s silence was answer enough.

Amused beyond belief, Wei WuXian burst out into peals of laughter. “Oh Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” he gasped, “I can see the plays they’ll write already - the Big Bad Yiling Patriarch corrupting the Second Jade of Lan in his most heinous crime yet!”

Lan WangJi, who had grown more relaxed upon the sight of the other’s laughter, now become just as tense as before. Frowning, “Did not corrupt.”

Wei WuXian was helpless against the smile which refused to leave his lips. Ahh, this man! So good! So funny! Wei WuXian always knew of the first characteristic, but could only wonder how he hadn’t seen the second one in all those years where he pursued his friendship.

“Yes, yes, I didn’t corrupt,” he replied, “this one is all on you.”

His share of accountability reclaimed, Lan WangJi nodded back, satisfied.

The only issue with how normal his presence became on the Burial Mounds is when he wasn’t able to come for longer stretches of time. Once, when he couldn’t appear for one whole week, A-Yuan became inconsolable, asking over and over again when “Pretty, Rich Brother would come back, Xian-gege where is he? Did the bad men get him?” and generally trying his best to rip his poor Xian-gege’s heart out.

When Lan WangJi reappeared, carrying with him traces of exhaustion, Wei WuXian resolved to talk to him about the issue.

….maybe after the guy had a nap.

“Lan Zhan, you look awful,” he commented bluntly. Night had fallen in the camp, Wei WuXian himself only staying awake through sheer paranoia and the unceasing ideas in his mind, pushing him to create, create, create, as much as he could. He’d been alerted of Lan WangJi’s approach through a talisman that he’d made, personalized to the man’s qi, to grant him entry if he approached the borders of the settlement.

“Mm,” even Lan Zhan’s usual grunt sounded exhausted. “It was...a tiring hunt.”

Wei WuXian looked at the man, taking in the absence of the usually overflowing spiritual energy, now so much more tired and dimmed. Lan Zhan’s eyes...as someone who could still cultivate and practice inedia, his eyebags would never get as bad as Wei WuXian’s, naturally, but that they were there at all was a cause for concern.

“I can see that,” Wei WuXian finally replied, sympathy mingling with concern. “Come on, let’s get you in.”

They walked to the Demon Slaughtering Cave together, Wei WuXian moving to provide Lan WangJi support after seeing the slightest hints of pain when he put pressure on his right foot. He expected to be pushed off, but Lan WangJi had long since gotten into a habit of surprising him, ever since that day with Yiling. He allowed himself to be helped by Wei WuXian’s shoulder with nothing but a small nod of gratitude.

Somehow, that small gesture greatly lifted Wei WuXian’s mood. Escorting him in, he made the other cultivator settle on a lighter patch of the cave, laden with soft grass replaced weekly. On truly ferocious nights, nights where sleep turned A-Yuan’s dreams into monsters, he slept there so that his Xian-gege could show the monsters who was boss.

Wei WuXian busied himself making tea - a new concoction that Wen Ning had made for him with lemongrass and the aromatic leaves which grew just outside the mountainside. Quietly, he slipped in some Moondew, something which Qing-jie used fairly often to knock out A-Yuan when he got sick, and prayed that it would be enough.

When he looked back, Lan WangJi was absorbed in a scroll that he picked from his table - an essay on the how wind instruments would best be used to direct resentful energy from one area to another. Here too, Wei WuXian could see the signs of exhaustion: his eyes roamed across the paper just that much slower than they normally would have.

“Lan Zhan here,” he pushed the cup towards him. “Drink this, it’ll help you sleep. You can leave that for later and we’ll talk about it, yeah?”

Lan WangJi accepted the cup, a frown decorating his face. “Not here to rest,” he objected, still staring at the tea. “Not here as a guest. Here to help.”

Wei WuXian let out a small laugh. “Who’re you going to help dead on your feet? Come on, now, drink it - quickly while it’s hot! A-Yuan always says that the Moondew tastes terrible when it cools down.”

Still frowning, Lan WangJi began to take small, measured sips of the tea. Even as Wei WuXian watched, he could tell that it was working - Lan WangJi’s breath became deeper, more stable.

Ah, good. Wen Ning will be glad when I tell him.

“How is he,” Lan WangJi began, suddenly enough that Wei WuXian found himself taken aback. After a pause, he clarified, “A-Yuan.”

Wei WuXian grinned, huffing in amusement. “He’s really gone crazy without you, you know? Did you know Lan Zhan, this morning, Wen Xue made a joke - a joke, mind you - about catching and roasting one of the rabbits for a snack. A-Yuan went crazy! Gathered up all the rabbits in the lower mountain to start some sort of a rabbit uprising.”

“Mm.” The pitch lifted slightly at the end of the sound. Amusement.

Wei WuXian’s grin grew stronger. Who would have thought that he of all people would be able to understand the Second Jade so well! Ah, soon enough, even the First Master Lan will come to me for lessons, he laughed internally.

After a while though, he felt his mood grow more solemn, remembering the reason for the tantrum today. Even if it ended well, that is to say with A-Yuan covered once again in a sea of rabbits who seemed to know his moods and exactly what to do with them, the very reason why Wen Xue provoked the child into committed such deeds was precisely to make him overcome the sorrow that this person’s absence made him feel.

After deliberating for a while, Wei WuXian leaned forward, prompting Lan WangJi to look him in the eyes. “Lan Zhan,” he began. He paused, licking his lips in nervousness before taking a deep breath to start again, “A-Yuan...he missed you a lot, you know?”

Without breaking his gaze, Lan WangJi nodded. “I know.”

“He’s had a rough time of things in his childhood,” Wei WuXian continued, “that’s why we all spoil him so much. It’s why he’s so sticky - he’s scared that if he lets go of the person he likes, he’ll never see them again.”

Unspoken, just like his parents.

This time, Lan WangJi lowered his eyes, hands gripping tighter on his cup.

Wei WuXian took in a deep breath and went in for the killing blow. “Lan Zhan, you can’t do that again, alright? A-Yuan’s a fragile child….in many ways, he’s still learning about the fact that he can grasp and continue to hold his happiness without it being taken away from him.” Here, he paused again, letting his words sink in for a beat.

Ah but - but -

Lan WangJi looked so forlorn at the implications of his words that before he could think, Wei WuXian knelt in front of him, grasping the hands holding the cup in his own. Lan WangJi startled, golden eyes growing wide.

Some part of Wei WuXian’s head screamed - the Second Master Lan didn’t like contact - much less from someone like him - he should let go -

Yet another part of him, ‘That expression wasn’t one made for this face. This face of surprise is much nicer.’

And so, Wei WuXian held on, speaking as earnestly as possible, hoping against hope that his intentions didn’t misconstrue on their way out of his mouth.

“Lan Zhan, I’m not saying this because I’m going to forbid you from visiting A-Yuan anymore or any such thing. I understand: what you’re doing is super hard! You’re basically living two lives, and even though you have no duty towards any of us, you continue to come visit us and we’re so grateful for that.”

“So I really understand why you might not visit for days on end. I’d even understand if you stopped coming once and for all! Just,” he paused, licking his lips to wet them again, “just let us know when such things happen, alright? A little notice, a small letter - something to tell us that you won’t be visiting for the week. That’s all we need.”

They sat like that for a long time, just looking into each other’s eyes, gold-grey brimming with something unnameable. Then, Lan WangJi gave a short, jerking nod.

Wei WuXian sighed in relief, his hold on the hands relaxing, not yet letting go. He looked up, smile on his lips, gratitude at the tip of his tongue - only to have his thanks be interrupted.

“Would not.” The words came unsteadily, as though trying to trip each other of the Second Jade’s mouth. Taken aback by the loss of Lan WangJi’s composure, Wei WuXian could only encourage him to elaborate.

“Would not…?”

“Would not leave.” Gritted teeth, eyes flashing with determination. “Not once and for all.”

It was like the floor had fallen out from underneath his feet - a sudden, quick slide, that left him grasping for balance. Wei WuXian, still looking up at the figure of the other man, could only gape in shock, speechless in a way that he never had been before. He looked and looked into gold eyes, trying to spot any tinge of a lie, and was met only with sheer honesty.

Incredulous laughter spilled from his lips. “Lan Zhan…” his lips quirked into the truest smile he had felt himself give anyone outside of A-Yuan in what felt like years.

A truth for a truth, then. Wei Wuxian always prided himself on being fair, after all.

“You know, A-Yuan isn’t the only one who missed you, Lan Er-Gege.”

There was no missing it this time - Lan WangJi jerked in his grasp, fingers shaking the tea so hard that liquid long since gone cold dripped from the edges of the cup onto Lan WangJi’s hand, slowly trailing down to Wei WuXian’s. The latter didn’t pay much attention to the fact - he was far too enamoured by the way the widening of gold eyes made the dark circles of sleeplessness stand out under them.

As if entranced, Wei WuXian reached up with one hand to trace the darkness. “Ahh, Lan Zhan, look at what you’ve done to your pretty face..”

Just as he was about to touch smooth skin, the man in his grasp seemed to come once more to life, flinching just the slightest at the approach of fingers.

Wei WuXian froze inches from Lan WangJi’s face. Quickly, he unwrapped his hand from the other, apologizing, “I’m really sorry, Lan Zhan, I forgot you didn’t like contact...I’ve just been seeing you hang around A-Yuan so often...but really that’s no excuse, not from someone like me…”

His reasonings devolved into a ramble, his body inching piece by piece away from the other cultivator, slowly. How strange - he was the one at fault, but here he was, behaving like the prey!

Before he could get out of reach, Lan WangJi reached out, frustration clear in his eyes. “No!” His hands grabbed a hold of Wei WuXian’s wrists. “No.” He brought them close to his face, sinking down to the ground to be at Wei WuXian’s level.

Deliberately not moving his eyes from the other’s, he brought one captured wrist close to his face, pressing the palm against his cheek. Actions, he reminded himself, not words, and not more words, just the right ones.

He leaned his whole cheek into the press, aware by now of how his hand was shaking where it gripped the other’s. Still, he found the strength to open his mouth and voice out, “Not by you. Not from you.”

Wei WuXian’s entire demeanor melted away, his being stripped to its barest bones. What was left before him wasn’t a Wei WuXian he had ever seen before - face blown wide open, all acts shattered. His eyes were wider than Lan WangJi had ever seen them, the smallest sheen of tears visible in the dim light of the cave. He took one shaky breath, then another, small gasps echoing around the cave.

Slowly, like a flower coming to bloom over the course of the sun’s journey in the sky, the other hand reached forward, placing itself on Lan WangJi’s other cheek. His fingers were cold, Lan WangJi realized distantly. He brought his other hand to cover them even as they covered his own face.

There. Now they won’t be so cold anymore.

“Lan Zhan...you…” Never in a million years would anyone have dared imagine this scenario, of Yunmeng’s Wei WuXian, Yiling’s Wei WuXian, the shameless flirt said to always have one or the other flowery word in his mouth, brought to speechlessness by none other than the silent Lan WangJi.

But the world, Lan WangJi thought as he memorized the sensation of Wei WuXian’s touch on his skin, the feeling of his breath against his neck when he was tugged into an embrace, the warmth of his tears where they soaked into Lan WangJi’s robe, had been wrong about things before.

Wei WuXian’s hands were so, so cold, but Lan WangJi could hear his heartbeat pulsing through them.

Tomorrow would bring with it the morning sun. It would bring a small body, lunging on his legs, a high voice crying, “Rich Brother, Rich Brother, where were you, why didn’t you come - ”

Tomorrow, once everything was said and done, once all his apologies were given and all his promises made, he and A-Yuan would both hold Wei Ying’s hands, and he would never have to be so cold again.

Chapter Text

The month everything went to shit was an unfairly good one. 

The Burial Mounds were more peaceful than they had been in decades - so much more peaceful that Wei WuXian thought they ever could be in his lifetime. The Wen remnants had settled well into their new town. Lan WangJi’s aid in building the infrastructure was invaluable to them, allowing Wei WuXian precious time to research and experiment with ways to make the Burial Mounds liveable. 

Hell, even the people of Yiling had been forging good ties with the settlers! Understandable, considering that the settlers had been able to bring more and more produce into the town as their farms grew. 

“You also need to consider that civilians experienced the war differently than cultivators,” Wen Qing remarked over a cup of tea. Wen Ning had calmly and politely pushed her out of her workshop, which Wei WuXian found hilarious and approved of entirely - she was working far too hard, not only as a healer to the Wens but also to the townspeople nearby. 

What he didn’t approve of as much was the fact that Wen Ning, in a move that took both him and Wen Qing by surprise, had decided that Wei WuXian also needed a break from his research and sicked Wen Yuan on him to guilt him out of his cave with crocodile tears and accusations of abandonment.

Little brat. Just watch, Wei WuXian would plant him like a carrot and set the rabbits lose to nibble on his hair.

“How so?” He blew gently on the surface of the tea. 

Wen Qing hummed. “Think of it this way,” she began, “Wen Ruohan and the Wen upper branches...while I can’t say that they didn’t bother with the civilians - they did. Life under their rule was dangerous for those who lived in Wen territory, if there was any incident which required cultivator intervention, they’d be much better off appealing to some lower cultivation clan. Hell, some of the incidents were actually caused by them.”

Wei WuXian, remembering the Waterborne Abyss, so long ago, had to agree. When he told her about that incident, Wen Qing nodded. 

“Exactly. So naturally, even the civilians rejoiced the downfall of the Wens.”

Wei WuXian couldn’t help but marvel at the steady tone of her voice. Would he have been as calm, as accepting, if it had been his family, his sect, which was prosecuted and dragged through the mud? Would he have been able to accept the wrongs committed, accept the judgement handed out? Throughout it all, would he have been able to conduct himself with as much grace, as much surety?

“Ultimately, however, the conflict was between cultivators. The ones which the upper branches sought to wipe out were cultivators. The ones which were truly targeted were cultivators. What happened to the civilian population at the hands of the Wens...it was an afterthought, not an agenda. Therefore...of course the civilians would be much quicker to accept the idea that there are Wens in the world who were just as much of a collateral in the cultivators war as them.”

Here in the Burial Mounds, surrounded by the remains of the family that the world sought to destroy, surrounded by the ghosts of the sect that had fallen to pride and arrogance and Wei WuXian’s own flute, Wen Qing conducted herself in the manner of a queen. 

“What happened to civilians…” Wen Qing continued, quieter still, as though she was repeating it to herself, “that wasn’t an active part of the agenda of the upper branches.” She snorted, “No one actively thinks about the civilians anyway,” her tone turned bitter. 

Wei WuXian couldn’t help but reach out. “Qing-jie,” his voice came out soft. 

Wen Qing looked at him, and smiled wryly, “You’re one of the few exceptions in that regards, I suppose. One of the few who didn’t turn into the same of dogs they sought to exterminate.”

She looked at him, but her gaze was far away, and Wei WuXian knew that she was thinking about those hundreds of other civilians who were imprisoned, tortured, killed - simply because they held the misfortune of being born into a family which the world had decided was no longer worthy of living in it. Simply because they held a name, held the blood of people who the world had decided with synonymous with evil, regardless of how they conducted themselves, regardless of how much good they did. 

He didn’t know how to tell her that she was wrong - that he was just as bad as the others. That in the haze of war, he had cut down her family without any remorse, without any hesitation. 

How many of them deserved that fate? How many of them were willing participants in the war? How many of them were victims of the Wen upper branches, forced to fight for their survival?

He had known, hadn’t he, about the fact that the Wen remnants hadn’t been treated well? Even if he hadn’t known about the extent of their mistreatment, why hadn’t he reached out? Why hadn’t he sought to confirm their well-being himself? 

If he had...would Wen Ning still be alive? Would A-Yuan’s parents still be alive? Would the sheer magnitude of the tragedy which struck the Wen civilians have been mitigated?

He shook his head to remove himself from those thoughts. Wei WuXian had plenty of regrets, however...he wasn’t in the habit of sinking in them. He’d be the first to claim that he had done many wrongs. He would also be the first to attempt to fix those wrongs.

He turned to face Wen Qing, observing the bitterness clear upon her brow as she sipped the tea. He knew, without hearing, the thoughts that ran in her head. They were the same ones which he himself had been carrying for quite some time now. 

Righteous cultivators, my ass. 

-X-

Later that day, as they began to pack up the tea and move inside, they were interrupted by the very criminals who banished them from their respective lairs.

Wen Ning had chosen to take A-Yuan into town today, something which the boy had happily agreed to, despite it being Wei WuXian’s day to look after him. He couldn’t deny that he wanted to spend time with the child, but he would never be able to refuse his friend, who had done so much for him and asked for so little in return. 

Judging by Wen Ning’s suspiciously innocent look when he came to ask for Wen Yuan in the morning, he knew that. Judging by the masterful way in which he then manipulated Wen Yuan to draw Wei WuXian out of the cave, to ensure that he would take the opportunity provided by the suddenly free day to actually relax and not simply drown himself in different work, he also knew that Wei WuXian couldn’t do anything to prove it. 

“Young Master Wei,” Wen Ning bowed. Wei WuXian had a feeling that if he was able to smile, he would be grinning like crazy right now, and couldn’t help the pang he felt in his heart at the idea that the world had been robbed of Wen Ning’s smiles. 

Another thing to fix, I suppose. It should be doable. 

Wen Yuan came running in, barging into Wei WuXian’s legs without slowing down. The elder sank down onto the ground with an oof, kneeling so that he was at Wen Yuan’s eye level. 

“Xian-gege, Xian-gege,” the boy chirped happily, “Xian-gege, look what I got!”

He turned around to show his guardian the surprise. There, nestled in wild hair, holding it all away from his face, was a new, red ribbon - startlingly reminiscent of what Wei WuXian himself wore.

His breath caught in his throat and, in a sudden fit of absolute adoration, he pulled the boy close to himself and buried his nose in his hair. 

Behind him, Wen Ning: “A-Yuan saw it by a street-seller and wouldn’t leave without it...that’s why we were a bit late.”

Wen Qing sighed, exasperated, but even without looking, he could recognize the fondness in her tone. “You both spoil the boy too much,” said the absolute hypocrite, as though she didn’t go out of her way to sweeten A-Yuan’s medicines while giving everyone else liquids that tasted like shit. “I hope you didn’t end up spending so much on those trinkets that you forget to get things which actually mattered, much like someone here.”

“Hey!” Wei WuXian protested into soft hair, causing the child to giggle as he felt the air tickle his scalp.

Wen Ning let out a gentle huff of amusement. “No, jie. We didn’t even have to buy that one.”

“What?” Wei WuXian scrambled back, pulling himself away from the child to look at Wen Ning in abject surprise, tinged with joy. “You stole?

“No!” A-Yuan protested, grabbing a lock of Wei WuXian’s hair and tugging, “Stealing bad!”

“Ow, ow, ow,” Wei WuXian protested, trying to untangle his hair from Wen Yuan’s vice grip. Seriously, this is why he used to wear it up all the time! “One day, when you’re all grown up, I’ll teach you about this fun little thing called relative morality, A-Yuan.”

“Absolutely not,” Wen Qing pulled the child to herself.

Before they could begin one of their infamous arguments, Wen Ning interrupted. “Master Wei, we have something for you as well.”

He extended forward an envelope.

“Eh?” Wei WuXian grasped at its edges, standing up, “What’s this?”

Wen Ning’s face contorted in that way which signified that he was smiling, “The one who brought the ribbon for A-Yuan was actually Lan-gongzi. He left the letter for you.”

“Lan Zhan?!” Wei WuXian’s face brightened, “Lan Zhan was here?” Stirrings of confusion made themselves known on his face. “But then why wouldn’t he just come here, instead of leaving me a letter?”

“Master Lan appeared as though he was in a hurry,” Wen Ning said apologetically. 

“Ahh,” Wei WuXian waved a hand in understanding, “I see, I see.”

“Well?” Wen Qing asked, A-Yuan firmly set on her hip. “Are you going to open it?”

Grinning, Wei WuXian retorted, “Who’s the one spoiling him now?” He cackled at the way Wen Qing’s face turned away. Before she could move to hit him, he opened the letter, unfurling the larger paper to see a smaller piece tucked inside, two separate handwritings clear. 

He picked up the smaller one first, recognizing Lan WangJi’s elegant calligraphy from all those months they spent in the library. He couldn’t help the smile at the memory.

Even after all this time….even after so much has changed...it’s good to see that Lan Zhan hasn’t changed in this regard. 

The content of the paper is short and succinct. 

Apologies for not coming recently. Hope to see you there.

Frowning, he pulls up the second sheet. As he reads, the others watch his face get paler and paler.

“What is it?” Wen Qing asks, her tone guarded.

Wei WuXian looks at them, a lost expression over his face. “A-an invitation. From Jin ZiXuan.”

Tone disbelieving, “I’ve been invited to Jin RuLan’s one month ceremony.”

-X-

Wen Qing snorted in disdain at the idea of a one month ceremony which would be grand enough to invite one of their biggest enemies. “Rich people,” she spat out in disgust, “they’ll have all the guards out, you just know.”

Wei WuXian nodded in agreement. “I’d expect nothing less of them.” If it weren’t his shijie’s kid, he’d probably be saying something stronger. 

As it is, he doesn’t want to go to the ceremony. Part of it is a practical concern - despite how calm the Burial Mounds have been, their existence here is a tedious one. Any second, any minute, something or the other could go wrong - whether it’s through so-called righteous cultivators stumbling past the defences to exact revenge on a people who have done no wrong, or if it’s through the Burial Mounds themselves, overflowing with resentful energy which Wei WuXian constantly has to keep in check, tamed but never conquered. 

(There are other reasons, ones he will never voice out but forever acknowledge in his mind.

He’s….scared. 

He hasn’t seen shijie or Jiang Cheng since that one day all that time ago, when they snuck in, is sister in all her bridal finery. He remembered their eyes back then, the concern emanating from his shijie, the anger emanating from Jiang Cheng. 

What will they think of him now, after so many months of him being nothing but a stain on their names? He isn’t a fool - the cultivation world has only grown hungrier and hungrier for his blood since he retreated into the Burial Mounds, despite the fact that he hasn’t lifted a hand to harm any of them in so long. 

Wei WuXian doesn’t regret the choices he has made. If given the chance to save the Wens, he would do so again. He knows, deep inside, it was the right thing to do - that it was the most he could do to redeem himself from the blood which covered his hands over the course of the war.

...he only regrets that doing so hurt the people that he loved.)

He thought that the reasons that he’s voiced out were perfectly good ones. It’s unfortunate, therefore, that no one else holds that opinion.  

Even Wen Qing - for all that she disdains the Jins - is pushing him to go. 

“Be quiet and sit still,” she barked out, “you can’t show up at the ceremony with this rat’s nest!” A rough comb tugs one side of his hair, and from the corner of his eyes he can see Granny break out into helpless laughter. 

Wen Ning is gentler from where he manages another section of Wei WuXian’s hair. “Sister and I used to do each other’s hair when we were younger,” he informed the taller man. 

Wei WuXian has a split second vision of a tiny Wen Ning, reaching up to brush Wen Qing’s hair in her usual bun on his tip-toes. “That’s adorable,” he replied, very seriously.

Wen Qing picks up on his thought with ease, “A-Ning is adorable,” she nodded, equally serious. 

Wen Ning abandoned the comb to bury his face into his hand, whining incoherently. Granny’s laughter turned louder and Wen Qing and Wei WuXian grinned at each other in solidarity. 

Having little siblings...it’s truly such a universal experience. 

With his hair tamed into a neat style that would have Madam Yu spitting blood if she ever saw it, he encountered the last obstacle in his way.

“A-Yuan wants to see Brother Rich too!” 

Wei WuXian barely stopped the groan that tried to exit his mouth. Sighing, he knelt down to where the child stood at the entrance of the cave, blocking his path like the smallest, most ineffective boulder to ever exist. 

“A-Yuan,” he began, “I’m not only going to see Brother Rich, you know? There will be a bunch of other people there - people who don’t even like your Xian-gege. It won’t be safe.”

Wen Yuan frowned, before taking a decisive step to  cling to Wei WuXian’s leg. “Then Xian-gege shouldn’t go! Stay here! Stay safe!”

Wen Qing ducked behind her brother, her shoulders shaking in laughter at the situation he found himself in. Wei WuXian looked towards her direction with betrayal. “Qing-jie,” he whined, sounding more like a child than the one clinging to his leg. 

Wen Ning moved to cover his laughing traitor of a sister. “Master Wei,” he started, tone apologetic, “...perhaps, it would be a good idea to take him? He misses Master Lan too.”

“Wen Ning!” Wei WuXian was now truly betrayed, even as Wen Yuan let out a cheer, “How could you say that?!”

“Silly child,” Granny laughed, “what’s all this talk about danger? Do you not trust your shijie?”

Wei WuXian froze. 

A-Xian...why would you walk this path alone? Do you not trust us anymore?

He shook himself from the ghost of the memory, from those soft words paired with the gentle touch on his cheek, the fierce tug on his heart when he saw shijie’s eyes.

Shijie used to cry, he remembered. When they were children, there were times when she would become too tired from being their family’s rock, from managing her mother and father, who would only ever listen to her. She wouldn’t do so in front of them, having been scolded by Madam Yu too many times for showing weakness in public, but Jiang Cheng and Wei WuXian would sit outside her door during those nights,and listen as she wept, making promises upon promises in their hearts to not allow her to cry anymore. 

That day, when shijie visited him, her words were sad, but her eyes were dry. Wei WuXian never doubted her strength -he knew that even without their aid, their sister had grown to not weep anymore. 

“I don’t - it’s not that I -”

Wen Qing had pity on his stuttering. “Take him,” she began, her tone still full of laughter. “He’ll be completely unmanageable if you’re gone anyway.”

“It’s the Jins! ” he cried out, “Have you all lost your minds?!”

Wen Qing tsk -ed. “Lan WangJi will be there. Your shijie will be there. Even that brother of yours will be there. Take A-Ning with you for the journey. You’ll be fine.

-

The thing about storms is this - sometimes, you don’t realize that you’re living in the calm before they strike. Sometimes, they catch you unaware. Sometimes, they destroy your house, your life, your happiness, hitting so fast and so hard that you don’t realize when they began and when they ended -  only realizing their existence when you’re living in their aftermath.

Some storms, you can recover from. Some, you can rebuild after, recreate your old world anew. 

Some storms, on the other hand, swallow you whole, spitting out only your bare bones. 

-

Jin ZiXuan found the scene on the path akin to some of the stories his juniors would tell on late night hunts - those hair-raising tales that left him unable to sleep or eat for days to come in the dark wilderness. 

Wei WuXian stood in the valley, surrounded on all sides by archers and swordsmen, their weapons drawn, forms tense.

An ambush, he realized, his heart sinking. It was clear that Wei WuXian, dressed in his usual black-and-red robes, his hair tied in a manner he had never seen before, drawn over one shoulder, had never expected it. 

No trace of SuiBian, the sword which had once earned the younger such fame. ChengQing was withdrawn, held in front of him like a shield, but Wei WuXian didn’t appear to be making any moves to use the feared flute. The Ghost General stood beside him, eyes too lively and intelligent for one who death had claimed.

The tales of this fierce corpse rung far and wide, speaking about the ferocity with which he devastated battlefields, how he had torn apart Jin guards as though they were made of paper on that fateful day on Qiongqi Path. None of that fierceness shone right now. Instead, his body tense, but clearly not aggressive, leaning back as though shielding - he was shielding -

In the silence which had fallen across the clearing upon his arrival, he could hear high pitched whimpers, sounds from one too young to be able to hold their quiet. A tiny hand clutched at Wei WuXian’s waist and with a suddenness that he had never felt before, Jin ZiXuan felt sick, the taste of blood rising at the back of his tongue.

A child! What on earth was a child doing in such a place?!

“Cousin,” he addressed Jin ZiXun upon reaching the head of the procession. He glanced upon Wei WuXian and hesitated. How should he address the man? This person was someone who his wife had claimed as her own, who she called brother and who defended her through ice and fire in turn. 

Brother?  

No, not at the moment. 

“Wei WuXian,” he finally stated, nodding at him in greeting. Then, formalities done, he glanced around the valley filled with men who should  be under his command - men who had gone behind his back to attack his wife’s family -

“What is the meaning of this?” his voice came out much more curt than he expected, much colder than any tone he had ever used with his own clansmen, but he couldn’t bring himself to regret it. 

“Yes, indeed,” Wei WuXian’s voice was far calmer than he had ever heard it, but that didn’t install any peace in his heart, “what is the meaning of this?”

Jin ZiXun looked furious, more frantic than Jin ZiXuan had ever seen him. “Silence!” he snarled at the man. Wei WuXian’s lips curled into a cold smile at successfully provoking the man, but all Jin ZiXuan could focus on was the way one of his hands reached back, the way the tiny fist on his waist tightened until it was a pale, pale white. 

“Cousin,” Jin ZiXun, “Ah good, you can bear witness.” He raised his sword and pointed it at Wei WuXian, growing more incensed when he recived nothing but a raised eyebrow in return. “This man,” he declared, “has attempted to kill me!”

“I’ve heard all about it,” Jin ZiXuan replied, “Jin GuangYao told me before he informed me about... this.

Jin ZiXun’s face colored, but he carried on through the implication of treachery which Jin ZiXuan had woven into the sentence, “Then you know why I must do this! Or are you truly such a person who would prioritize the life of your wife’s treacherous shidi above your own family?!”

“Jin ZiXun! Watch your words!” Jin ZiXuan had never been this hard on his cousin, but the horror of the situation, of people from his clan holding an unarmed man and a child at swordpoint quickly overcame any hesitation he had in doing so.. Jin ZiXun’s eyes widened in disbelief at the harsh tone of the words, the grip on his sword shaking. “The lives of my family matter above all else - but how can you claim the life of a man upon nothing but conjecture?! If there is any truth to your words, then you would come to me, to our clan, and trust in their judgment instead of using my invitation to attempt an assassination!”

“He threatened to kill me in front of multiple clan heads!” Jin ZiXun cried, outraged.

Wei WuXian, who had been listening to the confrontation thus far, scoffed. “No offense, but I don’t even know who you are.”

Far from difusing the situation, the comment simply made Jin ZiXun more angry. “You have some nerve,” he growled, advancing forward. 

Jin ZiXuan, in desperation, “Wei WuXian, be quiet. Come with me, back to the ceremony, so we can discuss this affair in peace.”

Wei WuXian laughed, a dark and bitter thing. “All these years, and you’re still that brain addled peacock.” His eyes settled on Jin ZiXuan, and the latter had to fight to keep from shivering under the red gaze. “Tell me, Jin-gongzi,” he spat the title like it was poison, “are you really naive enough to believe that anyone here came with the intention of letting me into the Koi Tower alive?”

“Watch your tone,” Jin ZiXun snarled, “how dare a clanless piece of trash like you speak to our heir in such a manner?! Just because Lady Jin takes pity on you and still pronounces you her shidi, you think you can be this familiar with him?!”

Jin ZiXuan, louder still, “Jin ZiXun, be silent!”

But Jin ZiXun, caught in his rage and fear, would not hear him. “We should do Lady Jin a favor, and eliminate the blight you are on her name here and now!” He grinned with teeth, “How lucky that we can even take out a few Wen dogs with you.”

The temperature of the clearing dropped, the storm truly begin to set in. 

One great factor of menace which the Yiling Patriarch held in battle was how his hair shadowed his face as resentful energy formed around him in a wreath. Here, his hair tied down, face clear, no tendrils of dark energy wrapping his body like a lover, Jin ZiXuan thought he never seemed more terrifying.

He pushed the child behind him, so much so that Jin ZiXuan could no longer see the hand clutching at him. “You would dare turn your weapon upon a child?” Never once during the sentence did his voice rise, but the effect it had amplified across the clearing as though it was shouted. 

Jin ZiXun sneered, “Better to slay the cub before it grows into a wolf.”

Behind Wei WuXian, the child’s whimpers got louder, even as the clansmen around them burst into raccous laughter. Wei WuXian’s face was serene, an expression more fit on the Jades of Lan than the rebel cultivator. He raised an eyebrow and remarked with a humorless smile, “To think that the Jin clan would be so depraved as to harm a child even as they celeberate another...righteous cultivators indeed.”

Before Jin ZiXuan could attempt to control the situation, a voice from the archers, “How dare a demonic cultivator like you tell us about righteouness!”

The voice came from behind him. An arrow let loose, aiming not at the Yiling Patriarch, nor the Ghost General beside him, but at the child, hidden so well behind their figures. 

After that...things appeared to happen as though within the period of a strike of lightning.

Jin ZiXuan could only watch, horror feeling every cell in his veins, as the arrows sank home - not in the child, but in his wife’s brother, his brother-in-law, who had pulled the child in his arms, shielding him with his back. 

Even though he didn’t see, he could hear the thud of two arrows lodging themselves in the man’s flesh, see him jerk forward as they did. A third whizzed by his cheek, create a bleeding scrape.

This close, he could see the look on the child’s face, the terror in his eyes, the tears wetting his cheek, the way his mouth moved in a shriek as his guardian bled from his mouth. “Xian-gege!”

“Stop it!” Jin ZiXuan demanded, but it was too late to pause the volley of arrows let loose. 

Wei WuXian gritted his teeth, calling out, “Wen Ning!” 

 Resentful energy whirled in a screech around them, the shouts from the Jin clansmen  and growls of Ghost General adding to the cacophony of sound. Throughout it all, Wei WuXian didn’t make a single sound of pain, even as the sound of the child crying in his arms became louder and louder still.

In no time, the Ghost General spirited the two away, cutting a path through the agressors. 

Soon after the only sounds echoing through the path were the groans of his clansmen from where they lay injured during the Ghost General’s rampage. Jin ZiXun screeched in anger behind him, shouting accusations of incompetence at those still standing for letting the man get away.  

Jin ZiXuan could only hear the child’s weeping, trapped in his ears like a loop - deaf, dumb, blind to the carnage around him.

“Xian-gege, no!”

Numb, he moved a step in the direction which Wei WuXian had gone, only to step upon something. He paused. Looked down. 

The bright, exquisitely-carved bell under his foot chimed back at him. He looked back at the direction of the man he should now call brother and wondered how he would ever hear anything else.

Chapter Text

Wen Qing was filled with alarm when she saw them return. “What happened?!”

“Jie, there was an attack…”

“I can see that! Is A-Yuan alright?”

Wen Ning adjusted the unconscious child in his arms. “He’s fine, he’s just tired….he was crying the entire way home. I think he’s in shock.”

“Fuck!” Wen Qing lashed out, punching a nearby wall causing small indents to appear. “Which bastard did this?!”

Wen Ning hesitated. “Jie...Wei-gongzi….”

For the first time since he entered, Wen Qing turned back to witness the still figure of the demonic cultivator. He had pushed past the crowd that had gathered upon their return, silently and single-mindedly making his way to the Demon-Slaughtering Cave. With his back turned to them, fiddling with one or the other creation on his desk, Wen Qing could see the discolored patches on his black robe. 

“Is that blood?!”

Wen Ning flinched as his sister began making her way to the other man. Wei WuXian didn’t respond to the exclamation, hands still sorting through miscellaneous pieces of paper. 

Wen Qing stopped by where he was standing, trepidation rising in her heart. 

“He was shot was protecting A-Yuan,” Wen Ning supplied from behind her, “two arrows. I removed them on the journey here but….”

They wouldn’t have had the material necessary to bind the injuries created by them. None of them had known that they were walking into an ambush, after all. If they had known ...if they had known, then Wen Qing….

Wei WuXian was never this still. He was never this calm, this silent. Even when he got injured, even when he got a minor splinter, he would be animated, would whine and mumble and be a general nuisance. With every step he took, with every action he carried out, he would bring life to this dead mountain. 

Wei WuXian was never this dead.

“Oi,”she placed a hand on his shoulder, “we’ve got to see your wounds. Come on, sit down. After we’ve bandaged you up, we can start discussing our next step.”

Wei WuXian’s voice sounded oddly disconnected. “There’s no need. I know what to do.”

From the mess that was the Yiling Laozu’s experimental den, he finally grasped a single piece of paper. 

Wen Qing glanced upon it and immediately stiffened. “A transportation talisman?!”

Both Wen Qing and Wei WuXian were prodigies of their generation, despite working in different fields. In another world, in any other circumstances, they would have lived separate lives. But in this life, forced as they were to work together, they presented a formidable force, churning out invention after invention - somethings allied together, sometimes separately. Even though they had mastered different fields, they had a certain solidarity as scholars in the Burial Mounds, and often found each other theorizing together late at night with Wen Ning, kept awake through the sheer force of determination. 

The transportation talisman was something that Wei WuXian had spoken of in one such talk more than a month ago. It was his idea, fueled by resentful energy that Wen Qing had been hesitant to wield for fear of it interfering in her healing cultivation, but still, she knew enough about it to be alarmed. 

“You haven’t even finalized the design!” She reached out to grip the wrist of the hand holding the talisman tightly. “Where would you even go with it? You were attacked, you need to heal!”

“It will work,” Wei WuXian declared, voice cold and filled with certainty. He stroked the paper with his thumb, “I will make it work.”

Helpless, Wen Qing shared a look with Wen Ning. 

(If there was any other factor that connected Wen Qing and Wei WuXian, apart from their tendency to spit in the face of what other cultivators considered the natural order of the world, it was this : they were both kind of soft on this foolish little brother of hers.)

Wen Ning hesitated, moving forward. “Master Wei, are you planning on going to…” His voice trailed off.

Despite that, Wei WuXian picked up his trail of thought. “I was invited to a celebration,” he replied, “it would be rude not to attend.”

“In your current state, do you really think that you can confront whoever did this?” Wen Qing cut in. “Do you really think you can leave the Burial Mounds undefended?”

Wei WuXian looked at her and smiled. “Who said anything about leaving the Burial Mounds defended?” He gazed past her at Wen Ning and Wen Qing knew that whatever would leave his mouth next would only serve to incense her. “Wen Ning, you will protect the Burial Mounds, won’t you?”

Wen Ning’s eyes opened wide with shock, the abnormal whites standing out more than ever. “Master Wei, you cannot possibly mean to confront them by yourself!”

Wen Qing grabbed a hold of his sleeve, “Wei WuXian, please, calm down. We’ll find some way to fix this situation together -”

At that moment, Wen Yuan shifted from his perch in Wen Ning’s arms. Tiny arms came to grasp  at his robes as he let out a small whimper. 

Any hope that Wen Qing had of making the demonic cultivator listen to her vanished with that one movement. His eyes fixed on Wen Yuan, glowing red of an intensity that Wen Qing had never seen before. “Qing-jie,” he spoke, never once taking his eyes off the child, “someone attacked our family.” He turned to face her. “Someone attacked our child. In such circumstances, tell me, how am I meant to sit still?”

The solemnity of his words froze them both. 

A long, long time ago, when Wen Qing had first met Wei WuXian, she had thought that her brother was indeed a foolish one. He had praised this boy so much, called him steadfast and staunch. Yet, when she had looked at that face, begging her to cut out a part of himself to ensure his brother would live, she had thought to herself, “This boy is going to break.”

(She had gone along with his request anyway because, well. She could understand the concept of moving heaven and hell for one’s little brother.)

Even when he had taken them all to the Burial Mounds, even when he was building them a life in spite of a world which would see them perish, she had never once rescinded that thought. The Yiling Laozu, with his thin fingers and gaunt face, was steps away from breaking, she knew.

The Yiling Laozu, with red eyes and an oppressive presence, stood in front of her now. His hands trembled, she could see. He was still bleeding from his back and something in her itched to strip and bandage those wounds. He stood in front of her, one step from breaking, as steady as a mountain in the face of those he had sworn to protect. 

“I’ll be back soon.”

When he walked away, she could do nothing but stare at his wounded back, helpless in the face of determination, his insanity. 

“Fuck!” Her punch this time shook the ceiling of the cavern, causing Wen Ning to flinch and Wen Yuan to stir again in his arms. She breathed in deeply, once, twice, and turned to take care of those left behind, the way she had always done. 

“Wen Ning, tell me exactly what happened.”

When Wei WuXian came back, she’d break his legs and tie him to the fucking bed for a month.

Please...please, come back safe. 

 -X-

Jin ZiXuan was late. 

Jiang Cheng ground his teeth together in irritation, struggling to keep his temper. 

That - stupid fucking peacock - taking off without telling anyone to god knows where - making his sister worry - he was lucky that Wei WuXian wasn’t here or he could have broken his teeth -

But he wasn’t, was he - he would never be there again because he left them, left him, turned his back on their family for a bunch of Wens because he never could live without playing the fucking hero - 

Jiang Cheng stopped. Took a deep breath.

What was he losing his mind over? He’d see his stupid brother today, wouldn’t he? After all, Wei WuXian would never dare ignore an invitation from their sister. 

He’d see him today and he would - he would - 

(He would scream in his face, shake his shoulders and demand that he come home, demand that he uphold the promise he had so carelessly made all those years ago.)

...he couldn’t think about what he would do. It wasn’t like that bastard would listen to him anyway. 

In the absence of what should be, Jiang Cheng turned to what was. He walked across the hall until he was next to his sister, scattering the simpering idiots around her with a venomous glare. Finally free of needless courtesy, the new Madam Jin’s shoulders relaxed. It was a subtle enough movement that no one around them would have seen it. 

He would have, if he was just here -

“A-jie,” Jiang Cheng called, “don’t worry too much about that peacock. When he comes here, I’ll tell him off for being so late, just you watch.”

Jiang YanLi laughed and Jiang Cheng wondered if the stars had decided to descend. “Be nice to your brother, A-Cheng,” she spoke in response, “he’s been so excited for this celebration the whole time.”

I only have one brother, Jiang Cheng thought. Outside he replied, “Well then, he should have been here right now? Where did he go off to anyway?”

In Jiang YanLi’s arms, Jin Ling squirmed. He blinked open large eyes and reached out with chubby fists upon seeing his mother’s face above him. Not feeling the familiar weight of his father’s sword settle in them, he scrunched up his face as if to cry. Jiang YanLi hurried to rock him in her arms, cooing and shushing all the while. 

Jiang Cheng watched the scene with eyes full of discomfort. He had never been good with children - his stern face and strict mannerisms much like his mother in that matter. It was always Wei WuXian that appealed to them, probably because he was mentally of the same kind. 

Nevertheless, with Wei WuXian gone, he would just have to do his best. 

He took in his sister’s figure fully. She held Jin Ling with great ease - had been used to lifting much more when she was younger. Yet, he could see shadows under her eyes, the faint traces of exhaustion on her face. 

(Once, when they were younger, a visiting leader told Jiang YanLi that her mediocrity at cultivation meant little - that her gentle manner and excellence at domestic tasks meant that she would be a natural mother. It was meant as a compliment, received publicly as the same, but later that night, he and his brother had both heard muffled cries from her pavillion. 

The next day, the leader woke up to find his daybed filled with tadpoles, his food “accidentally” switched with Wei WuXian’s demon fodder. Everyone in Lotus Pier knew who was responsible, even if they didn’t say it out loud. Madam Yu punished them accordingly when the visiting party left - but Wei WuXian swore that he saw the ghost of a smile on her face in the midst of it all.)

“A-Xuan…he didn’t say anything before leaving. But A-Xian is also not here….” Jiang YanLi bit her lip. 

Jiang Cheng hurried to soothe her, “Knowing the fool, he probably got side-tracked buying wine on the journey here. We’ll make him kowtow and grovel to hold Jin Ling when he gets here.”

Jiang YanLi laughed again, but before she could chide him for being mean to their brother, a commotion in the hall caught their attention. 

“Stupid son of mine, how dare you be this late to your own son’s ceremony! Wait - ZiXuan - ”

Jin ZiXuan had always walked with the stride of an emperor. It was the surety of someone who knew his place in the world, who knew what was his due and how he would get it. It had irritated Jiang Cheng so much when they were younger, but upon seeing how that emperor bowed to his sister, he had felt much more forgiving. 

He walked in with a contingent of Jins behind him, carrying with them the stench of blood. Some of them were injured enough to be supported by others in their walk. Jin GuangYao followed with hurried steps, “Brother - at least let them seek healing - ”

Ignoring the words said to him, Jin ZiXuan turned around and drew SuiHa. In a cold voice, “Kneel.”

In face of their sect leader’s displeasure, they knelt with trembling limbs. Only Jin ZiXun stayed standing, watching the scene with a fearsome scowl on his face. Jin ZiXuan spared his cousin a careless look before turning around himself. He met Jiang YanLi’s bewildered eyes and slowly, steadily, sank to one knee himself. 

SuiHa clattered on the floor. In its place, a single ringing bell arose in his hands. With his head bowed, his hands trembling, it looked like he was making an offering to an emperor.

“Sect Leader Jiang,” his voice quietened the whispering hall. He raised his head to meet his wife’s eyes again, gulping. “Jiang YanLi. My family...has committed a most grievous crime against yours. Though...though I know it is beyond me to ask for forgiveness, I can only pray for it regardless.”

“Cut the nonsense,” Jiang Cheng growled out. One of his hands was placed on Sandu’s sheath but the familiar feeling of his sword could not comfort the terror arising in his heart. “What is the meaning of this, Jin ZiXuan?”

The other bowed his head again, raising the bell higher for everyone to see. “In a fit of anger, over a series of misconceptions, today, members of the Jin family attacked revered guest Wei WuXian as he traveled to the ceremony.”

A series of gasps broke out over the hall, but Jiang Cheng felt his mind go blank with rage, with panic. 

Where he was standing next to his brother, Lan WangJi’s face turned paler than snow, his knuckles tightening. Lan XiChen, his attention on the drama unfolding in front, did not notice the reaction. 

Jin XiXuan continued, “They attacked against my orders, but as Sect Heir, I must still claim responsibility for their actions. Whatever action you choose to take against them...I will not reject.”

“Jin ZiXuan! Have you lost your mind?!” Jin ZiXun barked, striding forward, “First defending that scum from righteous justice and then offering lives of our sect for his actions!”

“Be silent,” Jin ZiXuan did not get up from his bow, but the tone of authority in his voice was undeniable. “Unless you are prepared to bow in apology before Sect Leader Jiang and my wife, this is no place for you to speak.”

Jin ZiXun scoffed. “You would give your loyalty to a man your wife mistakenly calls brother above your own family?! Very well, cousin, I will speak the truth of what happened.”

He fearlessly met Jiang Cheng’s dark eyes and spoke, “Wei WuXian has attempted to kill me!” Before the eyes of the witnesses in the hall, he pulled back his sleeve, showing the growing holes scattered over his arm, “Upon consulting my uncle, I decided to ask him to lift the curse he placed on me over some petty grudge before the ceremony. Instead of accepting the courtesy extended to him, he insulted the Jin sect, mocked me, and rejected the hand that was extended. Tell me, Jiang WanYin,” he spat, “are my actions not justified?!” 

Mechanically, Jiang Cheng turned to face the Jin sect leader. He could feel his sister trembling beside him. 

None of this felt real. To think that Wei WuXian of all people - had been attacked - had been injured -

I should never have let him leave. 

“Is this true, Sect Leader Jin?” Jiang Cheng questioned coldly, idly twisting Zidian where it rested on his fingers, “Am I to understand that you attacked our brother without notice?”

Jin GuangShan floundered before gathering himself. “Ah, forgive me, Sect leader Jiang. I thought it were best if such matters were cleared before the ceremony, you see. Bringing such ill blood in here would be extremely disrespectful.” He paused, as if in thought, “Regardless, I was under the impression that Wei WuXian had been evicted from the Jiang sect…?”

Jiang Cheng snarled. “Do not think our alliance gives the Jin sect any allowance to speculate on Jiang family affairs! Regardless of what his position in relation to the sect is, Wei WuXian is our brother!”

Jiang YanLi had said so long ago, on that hunt which granted her the passage to a happy marriage, “A-Xian is my brother.” Now, with that passage crumbling in front of her, her family ripping apart at the seams, she could only stumble to her husband. One hand holding her son in a death grip, the other reaching to grip Jin ZiXuan’s shoulder and make him stand up, she bit out, “A-Xuan, A-Xuan….” Helpless, she stared into her husband’s remorseful eyes, “what happened? What happened to my brother?”

Jin ZiXuan bit her lip, ignoring the clamor of the hall to focus on being in front of him. His heart ached in the worst of ways upon seeing her desperate expression. One trembling hand brought forward the bell and offered it to Jin Ling. “He made this,” Jin ZiXuan breathed, “for - for Jin Ling.” 

The child in Jiang YanLi’s arms twisted as the bell chimed above him. One arm reached out to grasp it with a delighted coo. 

Jiang YanLi bit back a sob. “ What,” she bit out once again, “happened to my brother?!”

“He was injured,” Jin ZiXuan murmured, “arrows in his back.” He hesitated, “He was still conscious when he escaped, A-Li, I’ll take you to him - ”

“There’s no need for that, Jin ZiXuan,” a cold voice cut through the storm, “it would be strange if the host visited the guest, don’t you think?”

Silence spread through the hall again. The crowd which had formed around the kneeling men parted, helpless prey in front of a predator of old. 

Through it, Wei WuXian walked with silent steps. “Apologies for being late,” he declared, “I was somewhat...held up.” 

Red eyes settled on Jin ZiXun like an omen of death. A storm had come to Lanling. 

-X- 

The tension in the hall racked up, higher than it ever had been before. “A-Xian,” Jiang YanLi breathed out, relief tinging each word. 

However, her brother’s eyes stayed on his aggressor and the relief failed to reach him. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything serious,” he commented, looking at the kneeling men with a raised eyebrow. His presence had caused them to struggle to stand up, but some were so injured, so exhausted, that the most they could do was withdraw their swords and hold them in front while still on their knees. 

The Yiling Laozu stood alone in the middle of multiple cultivators with their weapons withdrawn, unarmed, ChenQing still tucked into his robes, but there was no doubt who the real threat was. 

Sthing!

“You…” Jin ZiXun dragged out his sword. Rage and fear clouded his mind, but his hand still shook where it rose with his weapon, “You have some nerve to come here.”

Mock-confusion drowned out the blank expression on Wei WuXian’s face and Jiang Cheng felt his skin crawl at how fake it felt, “I’m...sorry? I was of the opinion that I had received an invitation?” One hand came up to hold his chin, a pale imitation of the way he would behave when puzzled by one or the other inane theory all that time ago, when Jiang Cheng could still see him. “I was so sure that the invitation had not been rescinded.”

Madam Jin swallowed her pride in the face of her sect’s disgrace and moved forward. “It hasn’t. Wei WuXian, we of the Jin sect apologize for the hasty actions of our members. Please, settle down. We can discuss this better after the ceremony.”

Wei WuXian watched her speak with a detached gaze. “I’m afraid I’ll have to refuse your request,” his lips curled into a humorless smile and his eyes cut to one of the men still kneeling, “you see, Madam Jin, I’m afraid I can’t stay for long. I just came to address an issue I’ve found with Jin hospitality.”

“Also with Langling Jin training,” he added, watching the man with an unreadable expression. “Such twitchy fingers on an archer, so much so that they’d shoot an innocent civilian unable to defend themselves….surely, this must be rectified.”

“You might have left the path of cultivation,” Madam Jin retorted, “but you can hardly be called an innocent civilian.”

Wei WuXian’s intense stare at the shivering sect member broke as he shot her an incredulous look. “You don’t know?”

“Speak your words clearly,” she met his red-eyed gaze with defiance, refusing to be cowed as so many in the room were. 

Breathless laughter spilled from the demonic cultivator's lips and Jiang Cheng felt goosebumps arise. Standing next to him, stricken gaze still on the figure of their brother, Jin Ling tight in her arms, Jiang YanLi shivered. 

Blood red roved the room before settling on the still figure of Jin ZiXuan. “You didn’t tell them?” Wei WuXian questioned the man. 

“Tell us what?” Jiang Cheng’s voice was sharp. Look at me, he urged, uspoken, unheard, but as always, Wei WuXian saw what he wanted to see. 

“Wei WuXian did not come alone on his journey here.” Jin ZiXuan gulped feeling ice creep up in his heart at the insanity in the red gaze settled upon him, “He had with him Wen QiongLin and…..a Wen child.”

Lan WangJi’s breath stuttered. He took a step forward, eyes blown wide.

“Wen Yuan,” Wei WuXian supplied, the gentle smile completely at odds with the situation on his lips, “my child.” His eyes cut back to the snivelling figure of the archer in front of him, “They say it’s the parent’s duty to shield their child from arrows….who knew the Jin sect believed it to be so literal.”

Jiang YanLi, horrified, tugged at Jin ZiXuan’s sleeve. “A child?” Her voice wavered, her eyes begged her husband to say something to dissuade the news given. 

Jin ZiXuan could only look away, his eyes affixed to the ground.

Wei WuXian smiled, placid, humorless, dead in a way that Jiang Cheng had never seen, and he could see the way his sister trembled without looking, how she ached to rush to their brother and hold him in her arms until he calmed, the way she had when they were younger. 

The man himself didn’t have eyes for anyone but the trembling Jin sect member in front of him. When he spoke, his voice came out in a low hiss, eyes syllable hanging in the air, waiting to strike. “I should make you pay,” Wei WuXian spoke, low and soft, “for what you did to him.” He paused, grin stretching even wider, “I should reap every single one of his tears with your blood.” Another pause. “It would only be fair. Only be just. Wouldn’t you agree, oh righteous cultivators?” He announced in the hall, as though putting on a show. “Someone who maliciously attacks a child….isn’t death the best fate to be awarded to them?”

“You would dare attack a Jin ?!” Jin ZiXun raised his sword higher, “For what, the fact that he made some child cry?! He’s a Wen!”

“He’s four! Wei WuXian snarled. Waves of resentful energy arose, meeting around his body to swirl up in curls of red and black. 

“He’s going to attack - prepare yourselves!”

“Should have known this would happen - what did we expect inviting someone like this - ”

“Wei WuXian, don’t you dare!” Jiang Cheng called out. He could draw Sandu out an a moment’s notice, but on Jin territory, he couldn’t hope to defend his brother from a major sect. 

For once, please, listen to me. Step back from the path you’re on - I can’t protect you there, you fool!

“A-Xian,” Jiang YanLi shrugged off the hands holding her back and moved forward, “A-Xian, please!”

For a moment, the energy stoppered, drawing to a standstill. 

In the eye of the storm, the Yiling Laozu stood alone. Wei WuXian could hear every uneven beat of his heart, every staggered breath leaving his mouth. His back ached, trickles of blood still flowing on the wounds present on it.

Slowly, he moved his eyes up to where his sister was standing. 

In a room full of people who cowered before him, Jiang YanLi met his eyes without any fear. Why would she? If she asked, at this moment, he would withdraw SuiBian for her himself, settle his neck on the blade for her without hesitation. 

“A-Xian, come to me, please. You don’t need to do this alone.” As if sensing the tension in the hall, the child in her hands squirmed, breaking out into a long-awaited cry. Like a beacon, Wei WuXian’s eyes were drawn to the child.

This...was his nephew. This was the child who he had set out to greet - who he had spent so many pain-staking hours carving the bell for. 

In that valley, surrounded on all sides by people who wanted him to die, Wei WuXian had spent a moment to think - I’ll never see Jin Ling. But how could he think about any other child with his own clutching his leg so tightly that he could feel his adrenaline filled blood stop from reaching the limb. 

His sister said, A-Xian, come to me, and he wanted nothing more than to go, to fall at her feet and beg her to forgive him for insulting her by creating such a spectacle on the day meant to honor her son, beg her to stroke his hair, kiss his forehead and tell him everything was going to be alright, make everything alright with that indomitable force which she always existed in the world with. 

The voices which guided him through the Burial Mounds begged him for more, more, asked him to give them friends, to slaughter and kill and avenge that which had been taken from him. Throughout it all, Wei WuXian didn’t move. 

He didn’t want to fight anymore. He didn’t want to be angry anymore. He wanted to go back, to Yunmeng, to the Jiangs, to the Wens, to all the families he had built out of nothingness and stay pressed safe in their embrace. He wanted to tease Lan Zhan, to pick up and twirl A-Yuan and press kisses to his giggling face - to - to -

Jiang YanLi looked past him and her eyes widened. She reached out with one hand, desperate - “A-Xian!”

Wei WuXian twirled around to meet the arrow flying at him head first, lips curled in a snarl. To think that after all this - after being pushed to their knees in such a way - they still wouldn’t learn -

This time, he swore, calling upon the dark energy which had become one with his veins, this time, he would make the lesson stick. 

He didn’t get a chance. Before he could make a single move, a flash of silver-white cut the arrow down. 

Lan WangJi stood in front of him, Bichen trembling slightly in his firm grasp. “Wei Ying.”

Tension in the hall finally rocketed to a peak. Everyone knew how bitterly the Second Jade and the Yiling Laozu argued with each other during the Sunshot Campaign. But back then, united against a common enemy, none of their arguments had cultivated to an outright fight. 

Would such an encounter finally occur here? Had the Yiling Laozu gone too far for the Second Jade to ignore?

Lan XiChen was aware of the reality of such ideas, aware of how fond his brother still was of the unstable man. Still, he moved forward in worry, “WangJi!”

Lan WangJi did not answer, calling once again to the man in front of him, “Wei Ying.”

I’m here. 

Wei WuXian walked towards him, unaware or uncaring of how the GusuLan grew tenser and tenser with each step. At the last few feet, he stumbled, hands shooting out to brace himself. 

Instead of the cold floor, instead of the flare of pain as multitudes of surrounding aggressors took advantage of his weakness - his fall was stopped by a field of white. 

He tangled his hands in the white GusuLan robes, smearing them with traces of blood and dirt. 

“Lan Zhan,” his voice trembled, the syllables tripping on each other in their rush to escape his  mouth, “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan….”

In front of the shocked eyes of the witnesses, Lan WangJi’s hands moved, awkward but steady, to rest on the other man’s back. One palm went up to tangle with black tresesses held back by multiple contraptions, resting the other man’s head on his shoulder. 

Lan WanJi had not held Wei WuXian since that lone night in the Demon Slaughtering Cave, so long ago, surrounded by cooling cups of tea. He had dreamed - oh how he had dreamed of the moment! Even back then, Wei WuXian’s breath had been uneven on his shoulder, patches of wet spread where his tears dripped, staining pristine robes. 

Lan WangJi had woken and slept and dreamt of this weight in his arms, of being able to steady this uncontrollable, untamable man as he ran forth on the single plank bridge with little care for support or safety. 

Not like this. Lan WangJi had woken and slept and dreamt of this moment, but not like this, not with Wei WuXian trembling in his arms -

 “Lan Zhan,” the words came out in a whisper but they still arrested the silent gathering, “Lan Zhan, they tried - someone tried - they tried to kill our child.

Lan WangJi closed his eyes to offset the pain which the last words instilled in him, not wanting to see the proud man breaking apart in his arms, but soon found that to be a mistake. 

Had Wei Ying held A-Yuan in his arms so that the child would not tire? Had he instead chosen to walk with A-Yuan beside him, choosing to entertain the new independent streak which the boy had developed over the past few weeks? 

Had A-Yuan been scared, when the arrows flew? Had he cried? Where he was now, was he safe - uninjured - happy? 

Wei Ying trembled in his arms, minute shivers raking up his spine and sinking into Lan WangJi’s own form where they were pressed together. The man in his arms said, “Lan Zhan, someone tried to kill our child,” but Lan WangJi only had to look at the rapidly reddening sleeve against Wei WuXian’s back to find a new reason for sorrow. 

He closed his eyes, tried to forget the image of Wei Ying’s blood on his clothing even as it flowed still. 

Wei Ying, they tried to kill you too. 

“Lan Zhan,” the words came out in a punched out breath, “Lan Zhan, if anything happens to A-Yuan - if A-Yuan - I don’t know what I’d do - ”

I should never have left, Lan WangJi thought. If he had been there, would he have been able to protect the man in his arms? Would he have been able to ensure that the child they both treasured so would remain happy?

Strong arms tightened around Wei WuXian’s trembling form, Lan WangJi pressing him against his form as though he could mold them together and stand tall for the both of them. In an echo of words spoken in a recent past, “Will help.”

Will help protect you. Will help protect our family. Will help fight if we can’t.

Wei WuXian was silent for one long moment, breath becoming steady against Lan WangJi’s shoulder. When he spoke again, his voice was still wet with tears that had stopped flowing, muffled against fabric. “Mark your words, Lan WangJi.”

One breath, two breaths more, and the Yiling Laozu turned back, breaking the hug with same ease with which he held Lan WangJi. Uncaring of the weapons pointing at him, unconcerned with the animosity and confusion in the gazes surrounding him, he strode out with his head held high. 

Flower to sun, moth to flame, planet orbiting the sun, Lan WangJi was helpless but to follow.

Lan XiChen lurched forward, “WangJi - !”

Jiang Cheng spared a glance to the man, looked at his desperate face, the way his eyebrows were drawn together, and felt a moment of intense petty satisfaction at the idea that someone other than him finally knew the pain of calling out and never being heard.

Jiang YanLi struggled to shush Jin Ling where he wept in his arms, Jin ZiXuan screamed orders past his father and cousin, promising pain upon whoever followed the man with intent to harm. Jiang Cheng curled his fingers tight enough that the nails cut in his flesh, warm droplets of blood dripping past his arm.

He didn’t bother calling Wei WuXian back - he knew that he would not be heard. Instead, he looked at the threads of his family, stretching in two opposing directions, and wondered how he could possibly stitch them back together.

Lan WangJi and Wei WuXian cared for no demands to stop, no threats to attack. White-black in unison, stained and uncaring, they left as one. 

Chapter Text

The journey back to the Burial Mounds was quiet.

Wei Ying was a warm weight plastered to his front. Lan WangJi had insisted that the other stay in his embrace throughout the flight, too scared of Wei WuXian falling due to his injuries. And hold him he did, despite the red that seeped into his robes from the injuries on Wei WuXian’s back. 

It was a comfort to wrap his arms around Wei WuXian’s waist, to feel him breath in and out. The man himself was silent, still, in ways that Lan WangJi had never seen him. 

It felt wrong, to have Wei Ying like this. Every moment Lan WangJi had spent with Wei Ying had been one of movement, ever since that meeting on the rooftops of GusuLan so long ago. Back then, used to the quiet serenity of his home, he had scoffed at that chaos, had gotten so, so exhausted from being in its mere presence. 

Now, he thought that he would give anything to have it back.

As they neared the settlement, Wei Ying stirred, the first sign of life outside his breathing. One hand came up to grip Lan WangJi’s wrist as they crossed the border into the  Burial Mounds. 

“Lan Zhan, wait. Stop.”

Lan WangJi startled, the only sign of his surprise showing in the tightening of his grip across Wei WuXian’s waist. Still, he came to a stop, much slower than he normally would, gently landing them by a leafless tree, branches wide and twisting into the night sky. 

(It was stupid. Wei Ying wasn’t going to blow away with higher wind, no matter how frail his form felt in Lan WangJi’s arms. And yet. And yet.

Lan WangJi wasn’t going to take any chances from here on out.)

He watched Wei WuXian with worry glinting in gold eyes, the gaze that had been looking at him ever since the fires started to burn their world down and Wei WuXian swallowed the sun to stop them from spreading, uncaring of how the heat threatened to engulf him whole. 

“When I brought them to this place,” Wei WuXian began, his voice smaller, more lost than Lan WangJi had ever heard it, “I thought that I would be able to keep them protected.” He let out a sinister chuckle, traces of dark amusement making themselves known on his face.

“Lan Qiren would have a field day if he ever heard my hubris, but Lan Zhan,” he turned to face the cultivator clad in stained white, “I thought that here, in the Burial Mounds, I would be able to keep them safe. I thought….I thought that I was the scariest creature in here.”

Lan WangJi stayed quiet. He could tell that Wei Ying simply wanted him to listen, not respond. 

“There was a reason for my decision,” he continued, “the Burial Mounds were….safe.”

As strange as it sounded, as much as those words would seem to the layperson like one of a heretic, a fool, the reasoning behind them was strong. The Burial Mounds were Wei WuXian’s territory, one where he had fought back and won against the forces of the natural order itself, making the impossible possible in ways that the founders of the YunmengJiang would never have dreamt of. No one would have dared enter the Burial Mounds before him. No one would dare enter them after him. 

Unless, of course, he was walking by their side. 

There was a reason that, despite the overt aggression that the cultivation world held towards the Wen remnants, no one had dared to venture into their settlements and kill them in their sleep. 

Well, there were two. 

The first, the aggression was not nearly strong enough for the recovering sects of justify sending their best and brightest members to a terrain as treacherous as the Burial Mounds. Even if people lived within it in some modicum of safety now, it was hard to forget that this land, this resentment drenched soil, had been the boogeyman of the cultivation world.

The Burial Mounds, it was said, was where all life came to die. 

The other reason was the clearer one, the one spilled more from the lips of those who dared to speak it. The Yiling Laozu would be hard enough to fight on regular terms, but to fight him in the land which carved him into existence? Surrounded by mud which had formed itself from the corpses he so loved to use, by soil tilled with the seeds of resentment for centuries upon centuries?

Not one, not two, no. Maybe not even all the major sects combined would be able to fight against those forces. Not without major losses, setting back their rebuilding by years.

(But cultivators had their own pride, their own ego, and when that reason passed their lips, it was filled with hatred that hid behind it tinges upon tinges of envy.)

“But I was wrong,” Wei WuXian murmured, almost to himself. “I was wrong….no where in the world is safe for us.”

No place in the world is safe for me. Any place I deem home will be destroyed, any people I claim as family will be taken away from me.

What happiness I create….I must fight to keep it.

Lan WangJi seemed to know the darkness that was running through his mind. He stepped forward, lightly grasping Wei WuXian’s shoulder to awaken him from the trance he had fallen under. “Wei Ying. We must get you inside.”

Wei Ying’s back still bled sluggishly, his pallor, already pale from months upon months in the Burial Mounds, turning dangerously white as every second passed. Lan WangJi ached to see him sway, wanted nothing more than to get him into the relative safety of the place which had become their home.

(Wen Qing would scream at them till the sun rose if Wei WuXian fainted after having been brought all the way back, right at the doorstep of the Burial Mounds.) 

But Wei WuXian was nothing if not difficult. He shook his head in disagreement, steel making his back straighten even as his wounds screamed in pain. “Not yet,” he said, “not while it’s so dangerous.”

….Lan WangJi was two seconds from dragging this infatuating man to bed by his ankles. In his current state, Wei WuXian would likely be unable to resist. 

“Wei Ying.”

But, lost in his thoughts, Wei WuXian could not listen to the voice that called him.

Wei WuXian turned to survey the lands, eyes lingering upon where he had layered the soil with seal upon seal, carved from his own blood. Those seals were the only thing making the Burial Mounds habitable, taming the resentful energy in designated spaces instead of allowing it to roam free and drown the inhabitants of the region, they way it once had when Wei WuXian was thrown into the valley for the first time. 

He had a notoriously bad memory, would forget names and faces moments after meeting them unless they struck his fancy in some way. But these seals - where they were located - this wasn’t anything he could forget in a hurry.

Memories of the lotus ponds of Yunmeng haunted what meagre sleep Wei WuXian could get, the scent of the flowers, the feel of their petals against his fingers, the taste of their seeds on his tongue dogging his closed eyelids. Yunmeng was the first place he had ever stayed at for that long a time - and even now, when everything had been said and all ties had been cut, some part of him longed to return to what was once his home. 

But Wei WuXian was a practical man. He built his home in people. And he knew, as he was right now, there was no better place to keep those people safe than the Burial Mounds, the legions of resentful energy which gathered there over the centuries at his beck and call.

In his mind’s eye, he could see the steps he would have to take to secure that safety next.

The seals were cued into his blood, meaning that he would only have to command them from a remote distance to release them. Considering how much energy he had to put in taming the spirits before sealing them, they would listen to his orders, provided he used enough strength behind his commands. 

Unfortunately, as Lan WangJi and Wen Qing had pointed out on so many occasions before, using such concentration of resentful energy would cloud his mind, leave him unable to focus on the orders he wanted to give it. Normally, he had to balance on the thin line between holding the resentful casually and holding it tight enough that it didn’t lash out and destroy what he did not aim it at.

“Like a snake,” Wen Ning had commented on one particular late night discussion with Wen Qing. The comment had stuck in Wei WuXian’s mind, snakes of one or the other variety doodled across his notes for the week.

This time, he couldn’t hold the snake gently. This time, he would have to grasp it’s neck and squeeze the venom out, mold the resentful energy into a shield, go against the destructive capabilities that nature had assigned it.

Now….how to ensure that it wouldn’t turn back and bite him before he finished what needed to be done?

“Wei Ying? Wei Ying?”

Wei WuXian blinked, coming back to the awareness of a touch on his shoulder. Lan WangJi’s eyes were full of unspoken concern, but Wei WuXian’s were caught on the guqin hanging from Lan WangJi’s back.

“Lan Zhan,” red, red eyes met gold, “will you help me?”

There was only one answer to that question. “Yes.” 

Without hesitation. Without thought. 

Wei Ying, do you not know yet? There is nothing I can refuse you.

-X-

Of the inhabitants of the Burial Mounds anxiously awaiting the return of their protector, none was more anxious than Wen Qing. She paced the outside of the Demon Slaughtering Cave (which - honestly - could he come up with a more ridiculous name?), having been dissuaded from going to the boundary of the Burial Mounds by Wen Ning.

“Wei-gongzi asked me to keep us safe while he was gone,” her little brother said, steel in his words that had only started to emerge after meeting that accursed boy. His hand held her sleeve in the gentlest of grips, his newfound strength only making him more and more mild in the face of physical contact. Wen Qing looked up to meet pleading eyes, and, as always, just like when they were young and this stupid brother of hers would bring cursed feline after feline into their home from the streets of the Nightless City, begging her to let him keep them without using words, was helpless to resist. 

Ahh, she could curse her soft heart!

“Where is he?” she growled, never once stopping in her pacing. A-Yuan slept in the darkest parts of the cave, exhausted by the trials of the day. He had yet to awaken from the journey back, and Wen Qing forced her voice to lower, loathe to be the one who woke him up.

God knows how the child would react if he awoke to a world where his precious Xian-gege was once again gone, no matter how temporarily. 

“He should be back by now,” she stopped her pacing and focused on a distant tree with intense ferocity, imagining it catching fire in solidarity with the sheer frustration she felt at the moment. “He said he’d be back soon.”

Next to her, Wen Ning flustered, torn between calming his sister down and panicking himself. “Jie, I’m sure he’ll be back soon….please stop walking like that, you’re scaring Grandmother…..”

Wen Qing forced herself to stop and take a deep breath. She looked outside, gazing towards where she knew the rest of her family had gathered in the communal dining space, none of them willing to fall asleep without knowing the condition of their protector. 

Did Wei WuXian know how much people here looked up to him? Did he know how much they worried, how much they cared, how much they wanted his happiness and safety?

Probably not, he was always hopeless at recognizing things like that. Never mind, when he came back, she’d paralyze him and keep his eyes open, his mind working, so she could lecture him for hours about worrying them. She’d sick A-Yuan and A-Ning on him and laugh herself silly seeing how he’d face against both those destructive forces staring him down with large doe eyes at once.

She turned back to tell Wen Ning about her plans - her brother was a devious bastard, no matter what other people thought, he’d surely help her out in this - but just as she had begun to face him, she froze. 

There it was - in the distance, growing louder - the sound of a flute. 

There was no way she wouldn’t know that sound, not after she had heard so many tales of the way it haunted battlefields and sounded the death knell for her family. Not after she had heard it perform trill after trill to keep A-Yuan happy, after she had fallen asleep to the sounds of the lullabies it produced, familiar songs which it’s owner learnt after spending days at Grandmother’s side, listening to her sing the old tunes of their people, fading fast from their memories.

ChenQing. 

She swilled back so fast that something in her neck went crick. The flute grew stronger and stronger, and from the high point of the cave she could see tendrils of resentful energy beginning to rise from all sides of the Burial Mounds. 

She let out a loud oath and began to run towards the sound of the flute, faltering slightly as a zither joined it. 

What is this fool doing?! 

She had insisted that Wei WuXian take her with him when he initially told her the plan about sealing away resentful energy at vantage points across the Burial Mounds. It had been her who stopped him from overdoing the sealings, forced him to rest when he used up too much blood in creating them. 

Had he forgotten everything she had told him them?! Why was he messing with them now, when he was already injured? Why was that fool Lan WangJi letting him?!!

Out loud, she snarled, “I’m going to wring both their necks!”

“Jie,” Wen Ning kept pace with her effortlessly, “it’ll be faster if I carry you there.”

Wen Qing stumbled again. “Fool! What kind of big sister would I be if I forced you to carry me around everywhere?!”

“But jie, Master Wei -”

“Hah?! You’re going to compare me to that freeloading bastard?!”

Any response that Wen Ning had was cut off by streaks of black and red, shooting up in the sky. They had both come to a halt by then, watching with wide eyes as the pillars rose, rose, before joining each other in the center to form a dome, the energy spreading to cover the entire sky atop them. The dome pulsed, once, twice, before blinking out of existence. 

Just as it vanished, so did the sound of the flute - abrupt, as though the player had been cut off mid-breath. 

“....Wen Ning. Let’s hurry.”

Wen Ning gripped his sister’s waist tightly, “Yes, jie.”

 

The arrived to the smell of something burning, even though no fires had been lit. The field around them looked as though it had been subject to a storm, branches torn off of trees, the grass beneath their feet turned black. Wen Qing would find time to be concerned about it - later. For now, her entire attention was focused on the two figures in the middle.

“Wen Ning,” her voice came out low, soft, as if speaking too loudly would break the fragile moment into two, “put me down.”

Equally quiet, Wen Ning did as she said. He stayed behind as she approached Lan WangJi where he lay crouched over Wei WuXian’s unconscious body, taking quick note of the blood which stained Lan WangJi’s robes, the same blood which now seeped out of Wei WuXian’s mouth in a trickle. 

But more of her attention was arrested by something else, by the hand which was placed on Wei WuXian’s torso, right above where his Golden Core should be. On the way Lan WangJi’s eyes widened in confusion, in horror, in disbelief. The grass rustled under her feet and pools of terrified gold burrowed into her. 

“How….why….I - I can’t feel -”

Wen Qing bit her lip in indecision. 

Lan WangJi had approached her before, to talk about Wei WuXian’s deteriorating health, asking her what symptoms had occurred and what she thought the cause behind his decline was. At that time, she had distracted him with one excuse or the other, unwilling to disclose the secret which Wei WuXian held so dear, allowing him to believe that solely demonic cultivation was to blame. 

What could she have told him? 

Lan WangJi, this idiot you’re so enamoured by, I reached into his chest and plucked his Core out. Lan WangJi, at that time, he sobbed so hard that his entire body would have shaken if Wen Ning hadn’t been holding him down, screamed so loudly that he would have woken the entire mountain up if we hadn’t lined his mouth with cloth. Lan WangJi, for two whole days, I played god with your beloved’s life and death.

Lan WangJi, his decision back then, my decision back then - it’ll affect him for the rest of his life. This is what it means to be an older sibling, Lan WangJi. This is what it means to love - wildly, passionately, without restraint. Wei WuXian would carry this secret to his grave, and I, to mine. For both of us, there’s no going back.

Lan WangJi saw the indecision in her eyes and spoke again, his voice trying for a demand only to waver mid-way, “Wen Qing, where is it?”

Wen Qing stared at him, at this man holding her friend like he was the most fragile, most precious thing on Earth. The white regular Lan sect robes, normally unblemished, were beyond saving, stained as they were with blood and dirt.

This was the man who the cultivation world pinned their hopes on - the pristine idol who was beginning to be held up as the standard for all cultivators in the absence of the older generation who had fallen in war. This was the figure who even the common folk admired, when Jiang WanYin was seen as too brash, where Jin ZiXuan was seen as too arrogant. She knew that he had been given a ridiculous title to match most of the cultivators in his generation already. 

Hanguang-jun. The Bearer of Light, content to live in the darkness, to walk the dark bridge which they all walked on to live, if that’s what it took to stand next to the man in his arms. This was Gusu’s finest cultivator, Lan QiRen’s most cherished, most clean jade, kneeling in the Burial Mounds, holding the man who was considered to be the scourge of the cultivation world as though he was it’s greatest treasure instead. 

Who knows. To Lan WangJi, he probably was. 

Wei WuXian was pale, she noted, exacerbated from the bloodloss, no doubt. Wei WuXian was pale even without it, nowadays, a far cry from the healthy, tan-skinned ruffian who had charmed and befriended her little brother back when they were teenagers. In the quiet of the Burial Mounds, in the darkness of his cave, he was wasting away. 

He had been getting better over the past few months, coming out into the sun more and more, to assist them with their lives. It had gotten even better after they had created the official roster of who was going to be on A-Yuan Duty, the child himself demanding his Xian-gege be by his side more often than not. Lan WangJi’s presence had been the final motivator : Wei WuXian was far too enamoured with this man to leave him mingling outside with the Wens while he shut  himself in his cave alone, far too eager to prove himself a good host to the one person who consistently reached out to him. 

Still, for all his strength, for all Wen Qing, Wen Ning and Wen Yuan’s efforts, Wei WuXian was wasting away. Her patient, her friend, deteriorating in front of her, hurtling head first into the darkness without any care of their pleas to stop.

(It was, if she thought about it carefully, a very cruel thing to do, to make them love him so much and then force them to watch as he immolated himself.)

The first tear had barely begun its track from wide gold eyes when Wen Qing made her decision. 

“Master Lan,” still quiet, still low, still caught in the web of silence woven around them, “please, follow us. Wei WuXian’s wounds need to be tended to.” A moment of hesitation. Then, “After that, you can ask me whatever you want. I’ll answer any question you have.”

Wei WuXian...I’m doing this for you. 

-X-

The Yiling Patriarch stormed LanlingJin, the streets whispered, they say that he threatened to break the sky above their heads! 

On his shijie’s child’s one month celebration?! Outrageous! To think the Jin sect actually invited such a being into their homes!

No, didn’t you hear? They ambushed him on the path there, when he was walking with the Ghost General. They say that he had a child with him, who he has accused to Jins of trying to kill!

What on earth is a child doing near someone like him?

He said it was his own.

…..which madwoman would birth a child for someone like him?

Don’t tell me…..Wen Qing?!

No, it couldn't be!

He called the child a Wen! 

Is this heretic really planning on re-building the Wen sect?!

To father someone from the same blood which burnt his adoptive family to the ground….truly, there is nothing sacred to the Yiling Patriarch. 

I heard that he even cursed Hanguang-jun….

However, the people of Yiling, who breathed the same air, ate the same food, drank the same water as the people hidden away on the mountain, told different stories. 

(History, as it turned out, was not just written by the victors, but by all those who lived and all those who passed away. If, that is, one would care to listen to them.)

The child….don’t tell me it’s….

...the same child he carried through the markets, yes. 

That’s terrible. How could anyone possibly attack….

...these cultivators really aren’t righteous at all…..did you hear about how Wen Ning died in the first place?

Yes! Terrible, terrible story...god knows how they would have treated Grandmother and Uncle Four if Wei WuXian hadn’t rescued them.

I heard Wen Lian was pregnant when she was in the camps…..that she….you know….

Oh the poor dear! I’ll make sure to give her extra peaches when she comes next time….which kind of monster would dare do such a thing...

But….when will they come? 

It had been night when the dome formed on the Burial Mounds, but the shop-owners had stood in terrified awe as the Burial Mounds were engulfed in red-black energy, engulfing the shelter whole before disappearing. The next morning, when one of the fruit-sellers, filled with concern about the fate of the boy who she gave so many plums to, went up to the Burial Mounds against the warnings of the Yiling townspeople, she found herself unable to enter. 

“It was like there was a wall!” she exclaimed when she came back, “but the air ahead of me was clear?? I tried to push on it and get through but after a while, it made me sick...my head became all heavy, like it was carrying the weight of ten cartons of potatoes.”

Overnight, the Burial Mounds had sealed itself away. No one could go in, the few curious teenage boys who tried after the fruit-seller’s attempt facing the same darkness that she had. 

And though they waited, anxious for more news, no one came out, the worn path down the mountain remaining empty. 

Where are they? the streets whispered, why won’t they come down?

A few days later, striding down the streets dressed in gold, their heads raised up (“So much so that my neck hurt just looking at them,” the radish seller who had gotten into many squabbles with the Yiling Patriarch over accusations of monopolizing the radish market said), walking with a stride that screamed of their assurance regarding their status in the world, the answer arrived. 

There was little that the Jin vanguard could do: they had come here without permission from their sect heir, without official authorization from their sect leader, locked as they were in tense negotiations with each other and members of the YunmengJiang in Koi Tower, each hesitant to let the other out of their site. Still, they tried their best to be a general nuisance to the people of Yiling, who took great delight in selling them sub-par produce for inflated prices, laughing as they came back from another fruitless attempt to break into the Burial Mounds, holding their head in their hands, groaning as if they were hungover. 

The other shoe finally dropped a week in: one of the vanguard, exhausted and frustrated at the lack of progress they were making, took out his sword and charged at the barrier. The resulting explosion was heard all the way in Yiling, and, eventually, all the way in Lanling, the Jin sect heir’s fury at the news that members of his sect were sent to once again attack his brother-in-law behind his back rendering the Tower silent. 

(This was to say nothing of Lan XiChen’s silent disapproval, his usually genial temperament battered by his little brother’s disappearance and by the tensions which kept him from riding out to see Lan WangJi himself. The anger on the Jade’s face rendered even Jin GuangYao’s silver tongue quiet.)

Jiang YanLi, it was said, smiled in a manner that none of them had ever seen before. The next day, Jin GuangShan was bedridden with terrible stomach pains, unable to participate in further discussions. A mundane deviation, the physicians asserted, especially given the tensions that the sect leader had faced recently. None of them dared look at where his daughter-in-law sat next to his bed, her head bent down.  

In the temporary absence of the power, Jin ZiXuan quickly assumed authority. The next day, an anxious delegation of concerned Lan, Jin and Jiang sect members set out for Yiling.

-X-

Wei WuXian woke up to a throbbing feeling in his head. No, actually, it was all across his body, he realized as consciousness slowly bled into him. It wasn’t the pleasant, familiar ache of a long day of Madam Yu’s training, but rather the searing pain that had haunted him all throughout his initial stay in the Burial Mounds, the one he had to insinently fight in order to move, to breathe, to live. 

He fought now as he had fought then, eyes opening slowly, but steadily. He was back in the cave, he noted, the darkness lit by a singular fire talisman to not overwhelm his eyes. For a few seconds, he blinked up at the ceiling. Then, he shifted, bracing himself on his elbows with the intent to sit up.

How long had he been asleep? What had happened to everyone in the meantime? Were they all still safe?

His chest felt like it had a weight on it, his vision swam in and out. But still, he fought through his exhaustion, fought through the pain, the concern and panic building in him giving him the strength to lift his head. Immediately, he froze. 

Oh, he thought wryly, that explains the weight. 

Wen Yuan lay atop his chest, curled into a ball. With greedy eyes, Wei WuXian roved the small form in the meagre light, desperate to assure himself of the child’s safety. With effort, he lifted one had and gently brushed off Wen Yuan’s unruly hair from where it stuck to his cheek. 

Hair needs to be washed, Wei WuXian noted idly before another sight tried to squeeze his heart into a pulp. Wen Yuan’s cheeks were sticky, not just from the languidness of sleep but also from old trails of tears, barely visible in the firelight. 

“Oh sweetheart,” Wei WuXian murmured. Gently, he rubbed the cheek, as though his very touch could make the traces of tears evaporate. 

He didn’t mean to wake him, but still under that touch, A-Yuan stirred. The same sleepy murmurs which always escaped him when he was waking spilled from his mouth now. Wei WuXian’s heart clenched when he recognized a small “Xian-gege” tumbling from their midst. 

Let him sleep, some part of him whispered, you know how hard it is for him to fall asleep. But the larger part of him, the one that had been screaming ever since he transferred A-Yuan’s body into Wen Ning’s arms and left, yearned to see those eyes open, to hug his child and press kisses upon his brow. 

Wei WuXian would never claim to be a selfless person. He waited for A-Yuan to fully awaken. 

Soon enough, a small wrist came up rub his eyes, only for them to open in shock when the child noticed the hand know stroking through his hair. Slowly, as if the touch was a spectre which would vanish upon being looked at, he raised his eyes to look up. 

The tears began anew. With a wail, A-Yuan threw himself at the man holding him. 

“Xian-gege! Xian-gege!”

Wei WuXian tampered down a hiss as the boy hit his chest, instead, wrapping his arms around the small frame and holding tight. He held him tighter, tighter still, as though he could envelop Wen Yuan whole and shield him from the world. 

“Y-you were gone,” a wavering voice emerged from where the child was pressed against black robes, “Xian-gege, I woke up and I c-couldn’t find you.”

Wei WuXian’s breath hitched and he closed his eyes to combat the grief that arose in him as he felt tears stain his clothes. No matter how hard he tried…..it seemed he was always doomed to make those he loved cry, huh. 

“I’m sorry,” he whispered into his child’s hair, “I’m sorry, A-Yuan. Xian-gege shouldn’t have left, Xian-gege’s sorry.”

Wen Yuan trembled in his arms and Wei WuXian pulled him closed still, one hand going up to tangle into short hair as he breathed the presence of the boy in. To think, to imagine, that he could have lost this….

“I was so sc-scared! Xian-gege, I was so scared!” 

“Shhhh….” he stroked the child’s hair, leaning back to press his lips to Wen Yuan’s forehead, “I’ve got you now, A-Yuan.” He smiled at the wide-eyed gaze that looked up at him, using his thumbs to brush away the wetness on plump cheeks. “Xian-gege’s here,” he pulled the child into an embrace yet again, black hair coming to blanket the boy like a curtain, “Xian-gege’s here now, A-Yuan.”

This was the scene that Lan WangJi and Wen Qing walked into, having been alerted of Wei WuXian’s awakening through Wen Yuan’s cries. They stopped short of the entrance, close enough that Wei WuXian should have noticed their presence. If he did, then he did not deign to show them any response, absorbed in his whispers to the child hidden behind layers upon layers of thick black hair. 

Eyes the color of rusted blood stared at the walls. Wei WuXian’s hands never stopped moving from where they stroked A-Yuan’s hair, his back. He never stopped whispering platitudes to the child, promise upon promise of safety and protection. 

It should have been heartwarming. It should have been comforting. But Wen Qing couldn’t help but see the insanity seeping into that broken gaze and shiver. 

“It’s ok, A-Yuan. I’m going to keep you safe, I promise. Your Xian-gege is never going to leave your side again….”

Even if I have to burn the world to do so.