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1.

They parted knowing that this would not be the last time they met. 

How could it? With all the strings which bound them together? Sooner or later, they would once again tangle and knot, just as they had on that cloud covered mountain a lifetime ago, just as they had on Dafan not so long ago, with a rough bamboo flute drawing them close to each other like moths to a flame. 

As long as they would live, Wei Wuxian realized, they would meet each other again. And to think, this time around, he even had Chenqing! Ahh, he would surely play that song brighter, clearer now than he ever had before, his otherwise terrible memory having labored to memorize each note and imprint it under his skin, fit it in a space near his heart that had already been carved out so long ago. 

“When we meet again,” he tells Lan Wangji, “you must tell me the name of that song, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji looks at him, his eyes softened in the shade of the wooded path. “When we meet again,” he says, his voice as clear and gentle as a river at dawn, “you will know.”

It wasn’t a confirmation, wasn’t even a good answer. Yet, still, Wei Wuxian could feel his eyes fill with water, threatening to drip down his cheeks as it hadn’t in years. How long had it been since he had cried? Why on earth would he want to cry now, when his life was less dark than it had been in ages?

Looking at the man in front of him, he thought that if he felt his heart beat, faster than it ever had before. It beat like it was trying to escape his fragile chest, rip itself some his body and go to the other. Delirious, he thought that if he could, he would let it do that, would put his heart in Lan Wangji’s hands himself, trusting the other man to keep it safe and sound more than he himself would. 

Lan Zhan, an idle voice in his head began, wouldn’t be happy if tore your heart out now, after everything he’s done to make sure that it’s still beating.

The creepy voice in his head was correct — for some reason, he was sure that if he did anything that stupid in front of Lan Wangji, the other man would give him that look of sheer disapproval, the one which he had always been at the recovering end of as a teenager. Back then, his skin thick, he could shrug it off. Now, weakened by exposure to the other’s light.....he definitely wouldn’t be able to stand it!

So, to avoid falling prey to such an attack just as he was leaving, Wei Wuxian lifted his hands to his hair in a sudden movement, ignoring how Lan Wangji raised his eyebrow in question. With one sharp tug, the ribbon binding his hair together came off, leaving him with a thread of red clutched between his fingers even as waves of black hair came tumbling down from their hold.

Standing on a path with his hair down like this, where anywhere could stumble upon and see him in this state — it made him feel strangely vulnerable. Honestly, he didn’t know the last time he had worn his hair like this in public, had been without the shock of red that marked his presence like a beacon.

But doing this with Lan Zhan.....that was alright. 

He took a deep breath and moved forward, painting a cheery smile on his face. Lan Wangji allowed him to move closer to his body with no resistance, but his eyes widened upon seeing what the other planned to do. 

“Wei Ying — ”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian cut in, desperately closing his ears to what was sure to be a protest from the other, “I’m leaving this with you as insurance, alright?”

One trembling hand deftly wrapped the red string around Lan Wangji white-covered wrist, again and again until the patch of red spread half-way through his forearm. Then, having come to the end of the thread, practiced fingers tied a knot around the ends, tight enough that it wouldn’t come apart with a tug, but lose enough that Lan Wangji would be able to remove it without needing to cut the ribbon off. 

Wei Wuxian continued to speak, head looking down at the limb, one hand still holding the other man’s wrist. “So,” his voice broke off into a whisper, “so, you have to promise that you’ll return it to me when we next meet, alright Lan Zhan? I’m a poor man, you know, that’s my only ribbon—”

The feeling of pressure on his hair cut him off, forcing him to jerk his hair up. His eyes widened with surprise at how close the other man was, separate from him by only a few inches. Like this, and he could see himself being reflected back in this unnaturally gold pools. Any closer, and he would be able to feel the other man’s quiet breath on his face, any closer and he’d be tickled by the other’s impossibly long eyelashes, any closer and he would surely lose all his precarious self-restraint and ki—

His delirious thought process screeched to a stop as he noticed the actions of the other man, eyes widening to an impossible degree in his shock. “L-Lan Zhan - what - ”

Sometime in between his silent internal breakdown, Lan Wangji had gathered his hair back into its usual high ponytail, the usually stubborn tresses giving the terrifyingly efficient Hanguang-jun no trouble at all. With his other hand, Lan Wangji reached into his own hair. 

The Yiling Laozu, known for his sharp, never ceasing tongue, watched, dumbstruck, as the reticent Second Jade took off his ever-present head-ribbon. Lan Wangji approached him slowly, as gentle as he would one of his rabbits, only to bring both his hands together and loop that cloud-patterned ribbon around his hair, once, twice, thrice, only settling when the metal rested as the top of his ponytail and the rest of the ribbon flowed freely in the air.

Satisfied with his work, he stepped back. A corner of his mouth tugged into a smile at the shocked expression on Wei Wuxian’s face. “Insurance,” he said, repeating the other man’s words back to him, “for when we meet again.”

Wei Wuxian closed his gaping mouth with a click. He didn’t dare to say that he fully understood what the Lan ribbon stood for; why only parent, spouse or child was supposed to touch it. Oh, someone must have told him the reasoning behind it, but Wei Wuxian’s memory ensured that it slipped away like an eel in water. But this is what he knew - this man in front of him, the same man who had once been so angry at him for touching that ribbon without permission, the same man who had always glared him down when he asked teasingly to borrow it.....to this man, that ribbon was important. 

Even if Lan Wangji had been unnaturally patient with him ever since his return, even if he had allowed him to go about tugging and touching in the form of that paperman where he once would have slapped him away - surely this - surely this much -

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan’s voice brought him back from disarray again - and that had become a habit, hadn’t it - and he looked up to see Lan Wangji stare down at him, eyes as calm and peaceful as the waters of home he once knew. The other man smiled, and Wei Wuxian could feel his brain screech further and further to a stop, even as a red-covered wrist rose up to tug at the ends of the white ribbon now trailing his hair. “Return to me.”

Inexplicably, suddenly, Wei Wuxian was sure that he was five seconds from crying. Breathing in deep, he closed his eyes to calm himself down, but when he opened them again, he was staring at Lan Wangji through the same mist which had clouded them before.

Helpless, he nodded. “Yes,” he spoke, as though through a dream, “I’ll return it to you, Lan Zhan.”

They both knew what he was really saying. 

This time around, I’ll return to you.

 

2.

“That’s it?” Ouyang Zizhen hissed, more vicious than Lan Jingyi had ever heard him, “They’re going to leave just like that?!”

Lan Jingyi would answer him, he really would, if only he could get his entire face to stop burning first. Crouching and hidden as they were in the bushes, it was only the lack of sunlight which kept everyone from seeing his face turn redder and redder by the minute, an expression which he was sure his fellow GusuLan disciples mirrored. 

“I can’t believe this,” Ouyang Zizhen was still saying, “I can’t believe they’d just leave like that! They’re perfect for each other — what’s stopping them?!”

Lan Jingyi could only thank the heavens in his heart that Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei had already departed from the path. The volume of the disciples who had gathered to watch their parting was increased second by second — he did not want to imagine the sheer amount of lines which would await him if they were discovered. 

Disciples from minor and major sects mingled together, gossiping like bored housewives. Only those from the GusuLan stayed silent. 

One of his junior reached out to him, still shell-shocked, “Shixiong, shixiong, did - did they just—”

“Shh!” Lan Jingyi blushed again, glancing around furtively like he expected Lan Qiren to descend down upon them and punish them for the very thoughts they were thinking. “Don’t say it!”

Jin Ling, who had been quiet until now caught on to their exchange with all the ferocity of the hound he liked to tug around. “Don’t say what?” he asked, drawing the attention of the rest of the congregation. His eyes narrowed and he poked Lan Jingyi sharply between his ribs, “Out with it - what are you hiding?”

Lan Jingyi was caught between hitting back at the younger boy or turning red once again. Ouyang Zizhen took advantage of that moment of indecision, heavily clasping his shoulder with one hand and sending them both rolling out of the bushes. “What?!” The other’s eyes were bright, curious, and Lan Jingyi knew with a helpless certainty, that he  wouldn’t be letting go until he got answers, “What do you know?! Did they promise to meet each other somewhere else beforehand? Senior Wei, he spent so much time at the Cloud Recesses since his return — they must have already planned out his living circumstances and everything in advance!”

Oh, Lan Jingyi doubted that Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei had time to speak about such things, given how busy they had been over the past few days. Still, his traitorous ears turned red, that matter is resolved regardless, isn’t it?

“What, What, What is it?” Ouyang Zizhen began to shake him back and forth, “I know you know something, I’m not letting go until you tell me—”

Through the dizziness accumulating in him, Lan Jingyi spat out - “Hanguang-jun - Senior Wei - ribbon - married - ”

Ouyang Zizhen’s hands fell slack from his shoulder, and Lan Jingyi’s laid his head down on the earth and took deep breaths to calm down. Occupied with the thundering in his ears, he didn’t pay attention to the silence which had overtaken the whole group. He really should have.

When Lan Jingyi opened his eyes again, it was to the tip of an arrow pointing at his face. His junior had fled somewhere, the cowards, abandoned him to the fate of having to explain exactly what Hanguang-Juan’s gesture meant —

Jin Ling, vicious, “Start talking. What do you mean, married ?!”

Ouyang Zizhen stood by his side, looking more excited than Lan Jingyi had ever seen him. He was surrounded by curious disciple cultivators on all sides. Suddenly, he had a flashback to a memory from childhood - when he and Sizhui had fallen asleep out on the hill and woken up to a circle of red-eyed rabbits staring at them, far past curfew.

Sizhui, Lan Jingyi thought, Sizhui, come save me!

But Sizhui was out on his own journey and even if he was here, Lan Jingyi wouldn’t have let him face these dogs by themselves. Who knows how Ouyang Zizhen would have torn the boy apart after learning that he was the child that Senior Wei and Hanguang-jun had both raised?!

Lan Jingyi thought that he really was a good friend. With a quick prayer to the ancestors of his clan to forgive him, he began to story of giving one of the GusuLan’s most intimate secret practice away.

(And so, began the creation of another most intimate secret practice — although the secret part was up for debate.)

( “They got married?! Just like that?!!”

“Jin Ling, shh! If Master Lan Qiren hears that I’m telling you all this, he’s going to have me whipped raw.”

As always, Ouyang Zizhen remained the worst, “To think, all this time, Senior Wei, Hanguang-jun....ahh that explains so much! The trust, the familiarity, the intimacy—”

“Zizhen, shut the fuck up!”)

 

3.

The crux of the matter was this: Wei Wuxian did not wish to leave Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji did not wish to leave Wei Wuxian. However, they had both grown jaded enough to realize exactly which wishes they could achieve when by now.

With his brother in mourning, with the cultivation world in disarray, Lan Wangji had to stay back and help to rebuild what had fallen apart in the aftermath of Jin Guangyao’s revelations. There was no one to match his reputation among the civilians or the cultivators — the pure, clear Jade, who even upon suspicion of being bewitched by the Yiling Laozu, has been right all along. Raised with his duty, Lan Wangji was loathe to leave his sect or his brother behind, when it was within his power to help.

(And if he held ambitions to dragging the rot which had infected their world so badly out into the light, if he had any ideals of putting into place structures to ensure that cultivators would once again work according to true righteousness - the kind that saw them forsaking their sect, their reputation, their place in the world for the sake of defenseless prosecuted civilians - well, that was something which he would keep to himself, if only for now.)

With his name cleared out, Wei Wuxian was technically free to roam the lands however he wanted. The Yiling Laozu, now proven innocent - ah, that was a commodity that sects would fight to accept within their ranks, especially considering the amount of power he had demonstrated to hold even without a proper golden core! To hold the man who arose from the dead to bring the downfall of the one who initially killed him - how thrilling!

....except, Jin Guangyao wasn’t the one to kill him. In fact, until that confrontation at the temple, Jin Guangyao had never been involved in direct combat with Wei Wuxian. No, the ones who came after him, the ones who provoked his temper and destroyed the life he was trying to build in that dead mountain - it was the very cultivators who now praised his name.

In all honesty, Wei Wuxian would have liked to say that he wasn’t affected by how his reputation was construed and misconstrued, how it went from one of the spectrum to the other, over and over again at the whims of these cultivators. But he was, he was so, so tired of the cultivation world and all its politics and hierarchies, the way it sought to divide the world into good and evil, as if life could ever be that simple. If he had been given the chance, he knew, he would have happily spent his life until the end of his days on that mountain, growing lotuses, making A-Yuan laugh, protecting the weak and living without regret. 

But this was his life now. The world which once sought to make him betray his own ideals — the ideals which it had inculcated in him — the world which condemned and commended and wanted him, dead or alive, he no longer wished to drown in its waters. No, now, finally free, he would still uphold the vow that he had made so long ago — protect the weak, punish the evil, live life without regrets, as free as a cloud, wandering in the certainty that it would always be at home in the sky.

Two men walked in different directions. They walked with the surety that they were both each other’s skies, that all-accepting, all-encompassing home which they would always return to.

 

4.

Lan Wangji returned to the ruins of temple lacking his forehead ribbon and with a new ribbon tied out his wrist, the red standing out starkly on the pure white of his visage. He had left along with Wei Wuxian, and now, he returned alone. 

In all honesty, Jiang Cheng didn’t expect him to return at all. He had seen the way those two idiots that looked at each other, how Lan Wangji, who stared at him with such disdain and disgust, cradled Wei Wuxian as though he made of the most precious glass, how he looked at the other with infinite tenderness, so much so that even Jiang Cheng, who did not have any good relations with the Second Master Lan could recognize his expression.

More red joined the blood spattered ground as Lan Qiren spat blood in shock. 

Lan Wangji seemed to pay no mind to the stillness which had fallen across the gathering upon his return, making a beeline for the nearby Lan disciples and asking after his brother. Stuttering, blushing, their eyes plastered to the ground, they replied that he had left already for the Cloud Recesses. Lan Wangji was clearly concerned about his sibling’s mindset, but stayed where he was, recognizing the duty which had fallen upon his shoulders. 

Jiang Cheng thought he looked strange, with the turns of red tied around his wrist, without the ever-present strip of white tied around his forehead. He half expected the strip to leave behind an untanned line of white against the other’s pale face, but seeing the even coloration of his skin just made him feel even more pissed off. 

Of course, of course the bastard would be perfect even in this way. God, Jiang Cheng couldn’t stand him.

Lan Qiren approached Lan Wangji with the fury of a martial god in his steps. “Wangji!” he barked out, his footsteps faltering as he neared his disobedient nephew. “What is the meaning of this?!”

Lan Wangji turned to him, an eyebrow raised. Calmly, he greeted, “Uncle.”

Lan Qiren looked like he was going to breathe fire, “You would still call me uncle?” He stopped, breathing deeply, in and out. When he opened his eyes again, he looked exhausted, as though he had undergone some mortal trial. Jiang Cheng found, to his horror, that he sympathized. “Wangji, where is it? What have you done?”

Lan Wangji bowed, mild as a spring breeze. “Respect, Uncle,” he said, “it’s where it has always belonged.”

Jiang Cheng thought Lan Wangji looked strange like that — with the absence of white, with the presence of red. Thought he looked lonely without the black hovering by his side, flitting in-and-out like a hurricane circling the eye of some storm. 

Jiang Cheng thought he could recognize that loneliness like an ache. 

.....ahhh, it really pissed him off how steady Lan Wangji looked, as if the earth hadn’t shaken under all their feet, as if the foundations of the cultivation world hadn’t been affected over the course of the last week. Who knows, though, maybe things had been entirely different for him. Maybe his world had actually come back, had rebuilt after falling apart sixteen years ago, even as Jiang Cheng’s well-placed beliefs had been torn apart. Maybe this was Lan Wangji, reaping happiness that had been more than a decade overdue. 

Jiang Cheng shook his head, suddenly exhausted. He felt as though he could sleep for years, but there was still so much left to do. 

He shot another look at Lan Wangji, snorting at the sight of one of the ends of the red ribbon coming loose at his sleeve. Lan Wangji gently thumbed the fluttering cloth, looping it back around and tying a tighter knot. Jiang Cheng made a face of disgust and turned away — only to freeze. 

Jin Ling wandered in with a rowdy group of disciples, all pushing and whispering, flooding into Jiang Cheng’s mind memories of a simpler time, when he himself had been in that group traversing across the pier, across cloud-hidden mountains, the familiar weight of a solid arm draped around his shoulders. Jin Ling still looked pale, he noted, shock from the betrayal of one of the only people he had to his name. The ring of red around his neck stood out starkly, making Jiang Cheng clench his fist.

If they had been even a second slower.....

The thought spurred him into movement. He called out loud, “Jin Ling!”

Jin Ling tensed, before turning to him slowly. “Yes, uncle?”

Jiang Cheng looked at him for a second, taking in the tremble of his fists, the exhaustion present in his face. He wanted to tell Jin Ling to come back to Lotus Pier — to stay there until the anthill which had been overturned settled down somewhat. This child — the child that he had raised (in conjunction with the man who planned to have him orphaned, and wasn’t that a thought Jiang Cheng refused to touch with a ten foot pole), the child who he had loved and so nearly lost but an hour ago, he wanted to protect him more than anything.

Instead, he looked at Jin Ling, surrounded as he was by his peers in the aftermath of a world overturned. He had been smiling as he entered the ground, or smiling as much as Jin Ling ever did anyway, the corners of his mouth turned us in a soft smirk, so like his father. Happiness, Jiang Cheng remembered, which was sixteen years overdue. He thought about the shock and happiness in his eyes when that thin black figure touched his cheek, scolded him for being reckless (ha! The irony), and held him to his chest. Thought about the spoilt child who refused to leave his mother’s arms for even a second, for the entire one month that they had each other.

Jiang Cheng said, “I’ll be waiting for you back at Lotus Pier,” and turned away, purposefully ignoring the incredulous delight which spread across Jin ling’s face. Sixteen years of overdue happiness, he reminded himself, sixteen long, painful, lonely years. In all honest, overdue for even longer, since before that skinny, trembling, scared child had entered his home and called him brother.

His sister would never be able to hold her child again. His brother had just held his nephew less than an hour ago. 

Wei Wuxian might have said “let’s move on from the past,” but Jiang Cheng couldn’t, not when the days which haunted him occurred far before the world started to burn around him, when the past he remembered and longed for was filled with laughter and warmth as gentle as the spring sun. 

The present was miserable. The past was what brought him joy. The future had no hope but what he had invested in his nephew, then the last of his family. But maybe now, maybe after everything, he could begin to change that.

Jiang Cheng was strong, was born of the ashes of war, with lightning and steel in his blood. Sixteen years was a long time to wait for someone to come home, but he knew could wait longer.

(He would have stayed for longer to manage the situation, except the disciples behind him started dreamily sighing at the sight of Lan Wangji still staring down his uncle (the poor man, he never had to deal with stubbornness like this before did he.) One exclaimed about the romance of it all, and Jiang Cheng was gone. )

 

4.5.

My dearest Lan Zhan, 

I hope this letter finds you well. By which, of course, I hope that you haven’t created some scandal by silencing Sect Leader Yao like some junior disciple (no matter how much that vision has haunted my every waking moment). Really, I can’t believe the audacity of that man! To actually try to set you up with his daughter! I wish I had been there to see it - something tells me that one look at your expression would have had be laughing until I died for real this time. 

In other news of me decidedly not dying (because I know you’re already pitching a fit about that line), I stumbled upon the strangest little village yesterday, Lan Zhan, which was under the guard of one of the minor clans in alliance with the Jins. Really, you wouldn’t believe the kind of nonsense these sects come up with! Their talismans, a few of which I’ve scribbled at the back of this letter, look like something that A-Yuan would have drawn back when he was three and still chewing on Chenqing like it was the most delicious stick of tanghulu. I removed them, of course, but really, Lan Zhan, you should have seen their faces when they found out exactly who had come to examine their shoddy talismans…...

 

5.

The cultivation world awoke from their slumbers and found that - over the course of a single week - truths which they had believed for the past sixteen years were all made untrue. 

The previous chief cultivator was an incestuous, father-killing, power hungry bastard, who organized the deaths of all possible heirs to assume power in the Jin sect. He used, lied to, and  murdered one of his sworn brothers, only to be killed by the other. 

The previous boogeyman was an innocent, but still terrifying cultivator, who returned from the dead to seek justice for himself, unveiling a conspiracy decades in the making with little to no support. What little support he did get was from his sworn enemy who....really turned out to be quite the opposite of an enemy at the end of it all.

It was all good gossip at the end, but there were some changes on the ground. Oh, the Jin sect lost some power and some face, unlikely to recover to their prior glory from the back-to-back scandalous rules of both Jin Guangshan and Jin Guangyao. Still, what it lacked in political strength, it possessed in wealth — not to mention, the leader of the YunmengJiang seemed to be a fierce tiger in his guard of its heir, even from Jin elders themselves. 

A few opportunist clans tried to take advantage of the sudden wound inflicted upon one of the major sects — heirs from small-time sects in the area attempted to find and antagonize the well-known temper of the Jin sect heir in an attempt to make him lose yet more face, only to find him surrounded by yet other disciple cultivators. 

It was a strange thing, being at the forefront of such conflict. If you didn’t end up getting swept away from it, you would find yourself bound tightly together with those who weathered it by your side. Jin Ling had no idea when the disciples who were held captive at the Second Siege of the Burial Mounds decided that they were all now allies and companions but....he could hardly mind it. 

(Going back to Koi tower was hell. It wasn’t just seeing the faces of the sycophantic elders, trying desperately to gain his favor where before they sneered in his face, content in the knowledge that Jin Guangyao’s rule would continue for many years to come. It wasn’t just meeting Jin Chan and his other lackeys, being mocked by them for his naivety in being so close to a murderer, although that played a part.

It was still seeing shadows of everything: the hall where Jin Guangyao gifted him Fairy, the same dog he tried to later kill. The fields where Jin Guangyao watched with a proud smile as he went through sword forms with his tutors, make happiness bloom in Jin Ling’s chest at the praise that his other uncle would never give him. 

The bottom of the stairs, his father’s sword gleaming with the blood of the man who had guided and protected and saved him time and time again. A hand on his shoulder, Jin Guangyao’s voice whispering, “It’s alright, A-Ling. You did well.”

If it meant escaping those voices, those whispers, those memories....Jin Ling would befriend anyone, join any hunt, make any ally.

....but he didn’t mind the fact that these were the friends he now had.)

The other major change: the appointment of Lan Wangji as chief cultivator. Honestly, in the aftermath of everything, it was an inevitable thing — with Lan Xichen out of commission and facing his own scrutiny for being so naive to what happened under his own eyes, with Nie Huaisang still being the useless headshaker, with the YunmengJiang Leader still a spitfire, more prone to burn than guide, Lan Wangji was the only good option left. No matter how the Jin sect fell, no minor sect had any hope to be able to occupy such a position of power - not when it was just seen what men with far more status would do to keep it. 

Hanguang-jun’s status as a cultivator was untouched, unmatched. What blights were casted on him (for example, his support of the Yiling Patriarch) seemed to slip away like oil on water. There was no one who the common civilian, or even the common cultivator, was more likely to uphold as an icon, a paragon for what cultivators should be. Their new chief cultivator was perfect. Their new chief cultivator was going to lead them to new heights. Their new chief cultivator.....

......was going to drive them insane!

Hanguang-jun was a terrifyingly efficient leader, with skills in managing troublesome, rambunctious, annoying cultivators teaching him how to give minimal orders and still be obeyed. There was no casual chit-chatting to curry favor and maintain good relations, as with Jin Guangyao. He took in the views of those most affected by whatever chaos they were trying to address, paying little mind to those sects and leaders who attempted to climb the social ladder by developing friendships with him. 

It seemed that the only way to gain Hanguang-jun’s favor and approval was to simply keep to your tasks and do them well.

Still.....shouldn’t there be some conversation about things like this......

Hanguang-jun sat at the front of the room, reading reports about recent on-goings in Jin territory, where efforts were still being made to find and destroy the last of the experiments which Jin Guangyao and Xue Yang has conducted. While he read them and spoke with his advisor (a blank-faced Lan Qiren), other cultivators had been given time to talk, to mingle. 

And yet....not a single one could bring themselves to speak higher than a whisper.

They had all seen the red-ribbon tied around Hanguang-jun’s wrist. They all knew who it belonged to. Everyone knew of the absence of Hanguang-jun’s own white ribbon. They also knew who it had gone to.

(The last known reports of a Wei Wuxian who was trying his best to disappear said that he was wearing that ribbon around his neck like a collar. Everyone who heard it, tried their best to forget —  except a group of younger disciples who seemed far too interested in exactly that kind of news.)

That was all fine. Sure, they had been thrown off by everything, sure they were more than a little disconcerted at the implications of it all....but as long as those implications weren’t staring them in the face, they were alright.

Except.....just when they had all gotten used to the image of Lan Wangji without his forehead-ribbon, with the sudden splash of color of pristine white robes....he had to go and do something like this, didn’t he?!!

Hanguang-jun had entered the meeting today with the Yiling Patriarch’s red ribbon tied around his forehead like a warning. He had conducted the meeting without paying any attention to the way his advisor looked like he had lost his soul, or to how adult cultivators would avoid his gaze when speaking with him for fear of being too entranced by the strip of red stretched tightly across his forehead.

Lan Wangji wore the ribbon like a promise. Like a claim, although who was claiming whom was up for debate. He wore the ribbon like it was what he had been doing for years, casual, common-place, like it was given that he would wear it in such a way.

“Red,” Ouyang Zizhen whispered to Lan Jingyi, “is the color of marriage, is it not?”

As usual, he was too loud. The Ouyang Sect Leader looked up to the heavens for patience, wondering not for the first time where he had gone wrong with the boy. The few disciples who had come together with them began chattering excitedly, voices getting louder and louder, even as the adults quieted. 

Not many of them dared to look at Hanguang-jun while this conversation occurred, but those who did were struck by the slight, pleased curl of his lips, the way his eyes had softened even while he still read the paper in front of his eyes.

A minor sect leader from near Qishan swore that the chief cultivator’s ears had turned red. 

The silence was broken by a loud thud. Sect Leader Jiang had placed his cup of tea down with extraordinary force, paying no attention to the way those sitting next to him yelped as it cracked from the middle. Hot tea scalded his fingertips, gushing down his palm and soaking into his sleeve, but Jiang Cheng’s mind was somewhere else entirely. 

(A quiet hall. Two cultivators kneeling before tablets in respect. Solemnly, quietly, as one, they bowed, once, twice—)

Every eye in the hall was training upon Jiang Cheng as his shoulders began to shake. They had long since known that Jiang Wanyin temperamental at best, at his worst, he was unstable. Would they finally be seeing a long overdue breakdown? In public, at that? How embarrassing.

“Uncle,” Jin Ling called out, alarm over his face. He reached out to grasp one wet sleeve, “Uncle, what—”

His voice faltered as Jiang Cheng rose his head, alarm giving way to shock. 

Instead of the expected anger, instead even of the tears that some of the more bloodthirsty of the congregation had been wishing for — Jiang Cheng’s face was tightly drawn into lines of what was - undoubtedly, unmistakably - amusement. His lips trembled from a gargantuan effort to not break out into a mad smile. 

Smoothly, he rose. He bowed to the gathered, muttering a trembling, “Excuse me,” before walking out of the hall quickly.

In the silence left behind in his wake, a YunmengJiang disciple murmured, horrified, “Sect Leader Jiang has finally lost his mind.”

The gathering broke out into merry discussions about what had just happened, trying to puzzle out the reason behind the Jiang Sect Leader’s strange behavior. It was just as well that the noise grew louder - it masked the small, uncontrollable laughter spilling out of Jiang Cheng’s mouth only a few corridors away.

To think — that after everything! — he had still watched both his siblings get married. 

How insane. How very like Wei Wuxian, to pop up after sixteen years of death, destroy the most important man in the cultivation world, marry the then second most important man in the cultivation world, and pop right back out — all within the timespan of a few weeks.

“You idiot,” Jiang Cheng gasped out, “did no one ever teach you to slow the fuck down?! ” Even as he spoke, he knew the answer to the question; Wei Wuxian had always been like the kites he so loved to fly, fluttering hither and thither as the breeze took him back and forth. He thought of the string of that kite in the hands of the Second Jade of Lan, watching it float with the same blank expression he always had present on his face, and felt his laughter grow even stronger, heard it tinge with hysteria.

Once he calmed down, he would go back into that hall and apologize, glaring away everyone who tried to question him. He’d turn his glare on Lan Wangji last, and keep it there for the rest of the meeting - no, for all the meetings they would have in the future! It would spark more whispers about him, he knew, but Jiang Cheng found it hard to care about that at the moment. 

Lan Wangji, to stealth-marry my brother right in front of me — without even asking my permission — and in such a shoddy manner — aren’t you being a bit too brazen?!

 

5.5.

Wei Ying,

It heartens me to hear that you are well. The power of Chief Cultivator settles strangely upon my head, but I am glad to find that what little discomfort it causes is being alleviated by time. Brother - despite still being in seclusion - still helps me with what little he can, and every day I am glad for the support which you all provide. You were right, Wei Ying, as you often are - bringing such work to my brother has indeed helped him. I feared that before, he was wasting away, his mind focused on nothing but the tragedy that passed, but now, at least, his mind is more connected to the world. 

I chose to omit the second half of your suggestion. Sizhui was an alarmingly small child, thereby easy to bury in rabbits. I fear that my brother is many times larger - even weakened as he is right now, he could easily shake of all the rabbits in the Cloud Recesses if I decided to set them on his body….

 

6.

Winter found Wei Wuxian unfairly cold. It didn’t help that he had been traveling in the north, eager to explore the wild forests and reports of beasts that he had only read of as a child — neither did the fragility of his newly-recovered body favor his condition in any way. Even before, as a child and a teenager, he had never been able to stand the cold, far too used to Yunmeng’s humid summers, spent diving into the lakes. 

Winter was....stifling.

Honestly, this entire situation—it was so annoying! He had stood in Gusu winters after returning and still been Alright! So why was everything starting to hit him now?

No , his traitorous brain reminded him, you were like this before too. You stood in the snow until you were blue lipped and shivering and Lan Zhan carried you inside in his arms, wrapped you up in blankets until you were burning from the affection in his eyes

Shut up , he told his brain weakly. One hand fiddled absently with the ribbon which covered his neck from the cold as he tapped his foot and waited for someone to come down and properly receive him.

Originally, he had been all set to brave the winter by himself — perhaps win a coat or two from participating in night hunts to keep himself warm. But reports from further north spoke of heavy snow, bringing with it a chill which would last for at least the next week. Wei Wuxian hesitated at the news, unwilling to give up his journey before biting his lip and thinking, what would Lan Zhan do?

The answer to that question found him here. 

“Ah, Wei-xiong , ” Nie Huaisang was far better dressed for the cold, his usual fan absent due to the already heavy winds around them, “come in, come in.”

Wei Wuxian smiled through the cold, accepting the invitation and stepping into the entrance of the Nie sect’s fortress. Ignoring the wide-eyed gazes of the guards, the two began to trudge forward deeper into the residence, keeping up a light-hearted chatter the whole way. Observing him from the corner of his eye, Wei Wuxian thought that Nie Huaisang looked more peaceful, the shadows lining his eyes turned gentler. As they made their way through a twisting maze of corridors, Wei Wuxian thought: ah, I’m glad.

 Wei Wuxian let out a sigh of contentment as they arrived at a room with a fire, discarding his thin overcoat to crouch down near it and warm his hands. Nie Huaisang watched him navigate his household without any permission. He shook his head in find exasperation, “Wei- xiong, you never do change, huh.”

Wei Wuxian ignored the light-hearted chiding in favor of pouting up at his old friend. “Nie-xiong,” he whined, “I can’t believe you took so long to let me in! I was nearly freezing, you know?”

Nie Huaisang laughed, “Apologies, Wei-xiong,” he replied, taking a seat next to the other man, “our disciples weren’t exactly expecting...you.”

Even as he spoke a servant entered the room, carrying a tray of tea and familiar red pots of wine, very much expecting a thirsty, cold Yiling Patriarch. At Wei Wuxian’s raised eyebrow, Nie Huaisang grinned, “His Excellency was quite worried about your traveling in such conditions, did you know? He even asked that all sects who encountered you give you proper hospitality.”

Wei Wuxian colored. He had written to Lan Wangji about going further up north about a week ago, but who would have thought that the other man would actually reach out in such a manner! “Lan Zhan’s a mother hen,” he replied weakly, face still red. With one hand, he grasped the cup of tea poured for him and drank it in four quick gulps, feeling the warm liquid erase some of the chill that had seeped into his bones. 

Mercifully, Nie Huaisang let the topic go with a chuckle. “Will you be staying until the storm passes?” He inquired, settling himself with the other cup of tea.

“Mnn, that’s the plan,” Wei Wuxian replied. “You better be prepared to house me for that long, Nie-xiong! I tend to go crazy from sitting still for so long, but still, Lan Zhan won’t like it if you just threw me out!” Being who he was, naturally he had already overcome the flush of happiness which pierced through his body at the news that Lan Wangji was still looking out for him, and wielded such knowledge as a weapon unashamedly.

“Oh, I’m sure that we’ll find something to do in the meantime,” Nie Huaisang said, “you might have jumped right into the middle of things as soon as you came back, but there’s still sixteen year worth of things for you to catch up on.” They both shared a quick, mischievous grin over their cups of tea. 

Wei Wuxian had always liked Nie Huaisang, and vice-versa. This was in large part because they recognized each other for what they really were: complete bastards. Jiang Cheng would always accuse them of gossiping like the old fish-sellers who dotted the pier in Yunmeng and whispered about their sect heir’s terrible luck with girls within his vicinity, but honestly, neither of them minded the accusation. 

Nie Huaisang recognized gossip as what it was: a valuable source of information. Wei Wuxian also recognized gossip for what it was: a valuable source of amusement. In such a manner, they were able to spend time with each other in harmony.

“Ah!” Nie Huaisang thumped his fist against an open palm, looking as though he had just remembered some great revelation. Wei Wuxian froze where he had the cup poised at his lips; from experience, he knew that such an expression would lead to no good. “Wei-xiong,” he leaned forward, “we still have some time before the storm sets in, yes?”

“Yes,” Wei Wuxian replied, with great wariness, “the watchtowers said that it was predicted to arrive in a couple of days.”

“Then we should go out!” Oh this wasn’t good. This was the same tone with once had Wei Wuxian stick a paper saying KICK ME on Lan Qiren’s back. “The city has some wonderful attractions right now that you’ll never be able to see again, Wei-xiong.”

Well. It would be rude to refuse his host, but Wei Wuxian has never cared much about rudeness. He didn’t really want to go back into that freezing cold that he had just been rescued from but at the same time.....he really did miss talking to this friend of his. 

“Nie-xiong,” he replied, sighing in defeat, “you better give me all your thick cloth. There’s no way I’m going out dressed like this.”

Nie Huaisang snapped his fan open in response, but Wei Wuxian had known him long enough to know, even without looking at his lips, that his face was drawn into a smile. 

 

7.

They set out for the city without any guards. It was unusual for a Sect Leader to go around with a retinue, but it only took one dismissive gesture from Nie Huaisang and a few assurances of their leader’s safety from Wei Wuxian before the well-meaning sect members who offered to be their guard let them go on alone. 

Wei Wuxian’s eyebrows furrowed as he looked at the strange, reverent look on the Nie sect members’ faces as they watched Nie Huaisang go. Deliberately vague, he asked, “They know?”

As expected, Nie Huaisang only had to follow Wei Wuxian’s gaze to know what was being asked of him. He sighed in exasperation, “They suspect, I think. I could hardly pull everything off alone now, could I? There were some assistants within the sect, but now that things have wrapped up they probably spilled some of the beans.”

Wei Wuxian raised his eyebrows, “Is that safe?” Right now, QingheNie was left out of the cutthroat politics developing on the lower rungs of the cultivation world partly because of respect to Nie Mingjue’s memory. If it got out that Nie Huaisang was capable of such strategies and manipulations.... the newly sympathetic attitude would take an immediate nosedive.

Nie Huaisang huffed a laugh. “I wouldn’t be worried about that,” he said. “There are more interesting things for people to look at than me.”

Well. That was ominous. 

In true fashion, Wei Wuxian attempted to deflect the ominous undertone by resorting to humor. “Sect Leader Nie!” He gasped like some affronted maiden, “You should believe in yourself more! Why, any person would be honored to gaze upon your fair visage!”

This time, Nie Huaisang laughed, a true, loud, bright laugh, the kind that Wei Wuxian had not heard since he had left Gusu all those years ago. His friend turned to him, eyes shining, and said, “Wei-xiong, come on. There’s something you should see.”

 

Nie Huaisang dragged Wei Wuxian through the city with a firm grip on his sleeve, stop now and again when distracted by some pretty trinkets being sold on the streetside. They ‘ooh’-ed and ‘ah’-ed over paper fans and stretches of cloth, stopping once in a while to grab a bite to eat from the few food sellers who were still working in the cold. It was the most fun Wei Wuxian had had in a while, honestly. While he wasn’t a fussy person himself, he couldn’t deny that he had missed such simple pleasures, which he could hardly access considering most of his meager earnings went to shelter and the like.

Finally, they reached the place where Nie Huaisang meant for them to go. It was the corner of a street near the main market, with people swarming all around it. Instead of joining in the crowd, Nie Huaisang chose to pay a nearby tea house for entry, settling in on the balcony where they could both see what the people were swarming near. 

“What’s this?” Wei Wuxian asked. Cloth acting as makeshift curtains surrounded what was a small stage, with no one on it yet. 

Nie Huaisang smiled that odd, ominous smile once again, fluttering his fan. “Ah, of course. Having been traveling all this while, Wei-xiong must not have heard of this.” With a flourish, he used the tip of his fan to point to still-empty stage, speaking slightly louder to be heard over the enthusiastic crowd gathered near it. “They’re a group acting out a play that’s been recently written! They’ve begun their shows in Qinghe, but I hear that it’s become so popular that they’ll be traveling to showing it across the lands due to their patrons.”

“Ah?” Wei Wuxian was still concerned about Nie Huaisang’s motives,  but he knew that his friend would not harm him. He couldn’t deny that he was excited; while the world might have forgotten that he was once a young master with exceptional skills in both the martial talents and the arts, he hadn’t himself. It had made Jiang Cheng tear his hair out, but Wei Wuxian didn’t just learn music and art to push up his reputation: he found genuine joy in those activities.

Just as he was going to lean forward to bother Nie Huaisang into telling him more about the play, a cheer arose from the street. Nie Huaisang flicked open his fan once more, turning to face the stage. Wei Wuxian followed suit.

On-stage, a man dressed in black lay still on the floor, red smears all over the cloth underneath him. With a groan, he stirred, as if slowly awakening. One hand came up to hold his head, only to freeze at the sight of the limb. His eyes opened in shock and he pushed himself up, looking around as if examining the floor. “Where....where am I?” 

A terrible understanding was starting to build in Wei Wuxian’s head. He turned to look at Nie Huaisang, only to find the other already looking at him, lips curled in a smile. Before he could ask his suspicions, a voice from the nearby crowd distracted him. 

A young girl holding on to her brother asked him, “Brother, brother, when will he come?”

The brother shushed her. “Don’t you remember from yesterday? Hanguang-jun doesn’t come until the end of the first act!”

There are more interesting things for people to look at than me , Nie Huaisang said. They’ll be traveling to show the play all across the lands due to their patron , Nie Huaisang said.

(This was also true: both Nie Huaisang and Wei Wuxian recognized each other as souls very invested in art. Indeed, often when perusing erotic books, they would become side-tracked, much more interested in how the artist was drawing the characters than in the content itself.)

He turned back to Nie Huaisang with a gasp, “Nie-xiong, how could you?!” His lightning quick mind made all the connections: Nie Huaisang was the one who patronized, and most likely the  one who created the play. It was a smart tactic — undoubtedly, it would keep the attention of the public on Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian, away from other actors of the conspiracy. But still....

Nie Huaisang, If you’re using my life as artistic material, shouldn’t I be getting a bit of the profits?!!

For some reason, Wei Wuxian’s cheek burned. How strange was it to see himself being depicted like this! How strange to think that people were lined up in such a way to see his and Lan Wangji’s adventures!

Nie Huaisang laughed aloud. “Ah, Wei-xiong, Wei-xiong,” he sighed, fanning himself lazily, “You should be flattered! It seems the crowds really are fascinated by the love story of the Yiling Laozu and Hanguang-jun! It’s especially a hit with the younger kids, you know?”

“Nie-xiong!” Wei Wuxian protested, cheeks burning until he felt like he would combust on the spot. 

Nie Huaisang simply laughed again, calling over a servant to bring them both some wine in order to warm up. Not, he thought, that his friend needed anything else to stay warm, considering the rush of blood still settled in his cheeks.

(“ I did NOT faint into Lan Zhan’s arms like that, and he most certainly didn’t carry me in them in such a manner!”

“Yes, yes, he carried you on his back, I know. But I bet you wish that he’d done this type of carry, huh?

“.....fuck. I really do. Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit, I really, really, really want Lan Zhan to carry me like that, wow.”

“Uhm, Wei-xiong-”

“Oh, I bet I could feel his arm muscles tense so well in that angle, oh man.”

“.....I really can’t stand you.”)

The play concluded with the two main actors parting ways, having dressed each other in their colors. It was a cold, cold day, the kind of day which Wei Wuxian hated, but the cheers of the audience warmed him from tip to toe.

 

8.

The time Wei Wuxian spent with the Nie sect during that one awful week in winter was surprisingly fun. He spent time reading poetry and learning how to paint fans with his friend, laughing as Nie Huaisang groaned when Sect Leader responsibilities came to drag him away from the activities. He spent even more time among the disciples, re-building his sword skills even as he trained them in some basic stances and moves. 

The upper classes were far more interested in his drawing of talismans, and he was gratified to be allowed entry into the Nie sect library for all the services he was providing the sect. 

“It would feel wrong to just be a freeloader,” he would insist, but Nie Huaisang would take one look at the children sitting in front of him, enamored by his words, actions and way of being, and roll his eyes. Wei Wuxian, for his part, was happy to answer any questions they had, to tell any stories about his past that they requested — a surprising number of them just listened to ask ‘what about Hanguang-jun’, and Wei Wuxian knew with a sudden striking clarity that the Nie sect disciples were among the youth who comprised the “younger kids” which so loved that awful play.

(Still.....it was easy to talk about Lan Zhan. It felt like most of the significant moments in his life were spent with Lan Zhan, like every great adventure was one where Lan Zhan had been by his side. Wei Wuxian was a bit weirded out by the light that began to shine to the eyes of the disciples when his stories inevitably turned to the other man, the way they would track where he was wearing the ribbon given to him every time he entered the field anew, but deep in his heart, he couldn’t bring himself to mind that much.)

The last day of the storm arrived quickly, and Wei Wuxian found himself eager to once again be on the road. The night before his departure found him drinking with his friend, their faces just beginning to catch a healthy flush due to the warmth of the liquor. In the quiet of the room, Wei Wuxian finally asked the question that had been bothering him since that stormy day at the Guanyin temple. 

“What did you do with her?”

There was no need for him to specify who he was referring to. Over the past week, they had been casually referred to and danced around the events which unfolded, both knowing the other’s involvement in what happened. 

Nie Huaisang finished his sip before setting the cup down. He asked, “What do you think I did with her, Wei-xiong?”

Wei Wuxian felt a sudden tiredness wash over him like a wave reaching its crest. “I don’t know,” he replied, and felt the irony of telling the headshaker such a sentence set in fully. It was true, though, he really did not know what to expect of Nie Huaisang. He did not want to think about what he had done to Jin Guangyao’s mother’s grave — not after everything. 

It was a strange thing, to wake up in the world that had kept revolving without him for so long. Everything was the same - and yet, everything was so different. He didn’t know how much of his old friend remained, and how much of Nie Huaisang was now the cold, calculating man who danced all the major figures of the cultivation world on his fingers like marionettes. He didn’t think Nie Huaisang himself knew that distinction. 

The other man was watching him with hooded eyes, taking in his tired expression. Suddenly, his lips quirked up. “As expected,” he murmured, “Wei-xiong is still a good person after everything, to show such care over this matter.”

There remain in the world a good number of people who Wei Wuxian could Nie Huaisang to who would refute that statement, himself included, but he stayed silent. In the silence of the room, the fire crackled, an ember leaping out into the air. Nie Huaisang’s eyes tracked its path lazily. “You don’t need to worry too much, Wei-xiong,” he replied absently, “I didn’t do anything untoward. It would be unreasonable for me to involve those long dead in such a grudge.”

Wei Wuxian lifted an eyebrow, a teasing grin curling on his face. Catching sight of it, Nie Huaisang smiled back, “Oh come on, Wei-xiong, you only barely made the definition of dead.”

Wei Wuxian laughed aloud. For some moments, the room was plunged into a comfortable silence. Then, Nie Huaisang opened his mouth and hesitantly asked, “Does he write to you of his brother?”

Wei Wuxian exhaled a long, slow breath. “Still in seclusion. Lan Zhan says that he visits him often, but I can tell that he’s worried.” He examined Nie Huaisang’s face for a minute and then asked, voice soft, “Do you regret it?”

It was something that Wei Wuxian had often wondered about since things had cleared out. His generation, born as they were in times of war, had become too desensitized to death and suffering. There was no time for regret on the battlefield, no time for crises which would shake your world view and leave you bereft. But Nie Huaisang, Who had always been someone who was shielded from that particular reality by his brother, who had spent time back in sheltered fortresses while the rest of them marched out, had he also developed such thinking? This sheltered young master who would have been happy spending his whole life on trivial pleasures with his friends — how did he understand the person he had come to be?

In lieu of a response, Nie Huaisang picking up his cup once again, twirling it and watching the light of the fire catch on its edges. “Sometimes,” he began, “sometimes I think that I hate my brother. He was going to die, he knew he was going to die, and yet he chose to keep me ignorant of it, chose instead to lean on his sworn brothers for help.” He spat the words out as thought they were poison. “But then....how could I blame him for that?” His lips quirked in a sardonic smile, “After all, I was the one who wanted to live a carefree life devoid of all the drama the sect could bring me.”

For all his aggressive bluster, Nie Mingjue was used to sheltering his younger brother, was used to keeping him safe and sound. When such circumstances emerged, what could he do but follow his habits? How could he approach delicate, cowardly Huaisang with such news? Why would he choose to, when his talented, renowned sworn brothers could possibly stop his path from advancing towards death altogether?

(The strings of their mistakes crossed paths, spun, bound them in a web. Slowly, one by one, spider to an immobile, unaware prey, tragedy descended upon them and began to suck their bodies dry, while the entangled spectators could do nothing but watch, unaware of what arrow had been shot until their loved ones had already bled out.)

Nie Huaisang continued, voice low, as if he were speaking to himself. “My Brother was not a good person. I’ve always known this. He....was far too rigid in his understanding of justice. Far too impulsive in how such justice should be carried out, unconcerned with what that sentence might result in. He was harsh, brash, with rarely a kind word to give to anyone. Towards the end,” Nie Huaisang admitted, “Xichen-ge probably held more of his affection than I did.” His voice turned bitter. “Towards the end....no, maybe even before that, he refused to look down and actually see who I was. If he were any other person, then I would think that what Jin Guangyao did to him was not entirely unfair, considering the treatment he received at my brother’s hands.”

“But regardless, he was my brother. He was my father, my mother, my friend — as insane and lonely as that might sound. He brought me my first fan, taught me my first words, hired artists to teach me how to paint when I expressed the desire.” Nie Huaisang’s expression was the gentlest it had ever been, the softest Wei Wuxian had ever seen it, but only a fool would be blind to the undercurrent of agony underlying his every word, every breath. Nie Huaisang looked up, met Wei Wuxian’s eyes. In the light of the fire, he could see a layer of wetness glimmer. “He was my brother, Wei-xiong.”

Nie Huaisang have a wet chuckle, “He’d probably kill me himself, if he saw what I did to his precious Lan Xichen. More likely than not, I’d be out on the streets for the underhanded tactics I used, for the way I manipulated everyone around me, just like the man who killed him.”

“That’s not true,” Wei Wuxian interjects. He had been patiently listening all this time, but at this point he felt like he had to intervene. “Huaisang....if it were anyone else but you, then yes, he would have had that reaction. But you’re different. You’re his little brother.” People would tend to forget it, but Wei Wuxian was a big brother too. He and his little brother had destroyed each other a hundred times over, had left each other choking on promises kept and promises broken. And yet....

“Huaisang, your big brother loved you.” 

Throughout Empathy, despite the tumult of emotions which Nie Mingjue experienced, that much was clear. 

Nie Huaisang choked, as if on a sob. The wetness in his eyes looked again, some drops of tears finally escaping, slowly making their way down his cheeks. “Ah, Wei-xiong,” he sighed, “if you say so, then it must be true.”

He poured himself more wine from the jug. “Well then,” his composure regained after a few deep sips, he turned to Wei Wuxian again, “to answer your question of whether I regret it.” A smile lit up his face, dying before it could reach his eyes. “What do you think, Wei-xiong? Do I?”

Looking into those eyes, Wei Wuxian thought of Wen Chao, of dogging his footsteps, encouraging him to tear himself apart. He thought of the anger that arose in when he saw Wen Ning on that rainy night in Qiongqi path, compounded by the sobs of one of the strongest women he had ever known. He thought of waking up alone after being paralyzed in that godforsaken cave on a dead mountain, hiding A-Yuan away, making him sleep with gentle hands even as his mind screamed for blood, blood, blood. 

He thought of shijie, pale-faced and trembling. Thought of her touching his cheek, of the way her blood felt on his hands.

Did he regret the path he had taken? If given the chance, would he have done things differently?

He wanted to say yes, he really did. But he couldn’t help but remember the unnatural calm that had settled over him in the aftermath of the storm at the Guanyin temple. The blood that he had shed was still on his hands — would never be washed off — but to know that the lives of the innocents under his charge were not lost through any fault of his own, that their deaths were instead the result of the machinations of other, more power hungry beings — it was a bittersweet relief. It reminded him of first settling into the Burial Mounds with the Wen remanent. Back then, even as the world cursed him, even as the ache of the separation from his brother, his sister and his friends set in, he had thought: No matter what happens, at least I remained true to myself.

Did he regret it all? Would he take it all back?

I, Wei Wuxian, wish I can always stand with justice, protect the weak and live with no regrets.

Wei Wuxian turned back to Nie Huaisang and raised his cup. “Ask me again next year.”

Nie Huaisang raised his cup as well, in toast. “I’ll look forward to it, Wei-xiong.” As one, they drank.

To love, Wei Wuxian thought, and to the monster that it makes out of the best of us.

And so, deep into the night, the two monsters remained.

 

8.5.

Most Illustrious Hanguang-jun,

You will be glad to hear that I did indeed arrive at the Nie sect safely - and have spent the week dressed in the warmest coats which I could steal from them. But, Lan Zhan, I think that’s it for my adventures in the north - this storm has lessened my excitement to explore these lands. Next time around, you should come here with me! I’d like to see any storm try to beset someone who was under the immediate protection of His Excellency! And also, I imagine that we’d be much warmer if we were travelling together, don’t you?

Hahahaha, dearest Er-gege, I can imagine how red your ears turned at such a comment! I know, I know, I’m indeed the most shameless - but my shameless proclivities have only been exacerbated by my proximity to Nie Huaisang, who, even after all these years, still proves to be the most deviant of us all. Honestly, Lan Zhan, if your uncle saw some of the stuff I spotted in the Nie sect library, I’m sure he’d explode! It’s for the better, then, that the person who was allowed access to such materials was me and not him.

And oh, Lan Zhan, the things which I have found…...