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Debt of Gratitude

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Lan Jingyi knows he is different than the other Lan disciples.

He is too loud. Too brash. Too much.

When he was younger, he didn’t realize it. He only knew he was disciplined more than his best friend, Lan Sizhui, and that he had a problem with sitting still, being quiet, and following the rules. But Lan Sizhui’s father, Hanguang-Jun, stepped in when he could and protected Jingyi from suffering too much. Jingyi didn’t escape all punishment, Hanguang-Jun did spend time away from Cloud Recesses after all, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

When Jingyi was a teenager, he began to understand he didn’t quite fit. He was still too loud, too expressive, too quick to show emotions, especially his temper. And excessive emotion was forbidden, but Jingyi would never forget the day he learned his mother had died, and Lan Qiren had held him as he sobbed. He wasn’t admonished. He wasn’t made to compose himself and hide his tears. He was shown kindness, and that lesson embedded itself into his marrow.

After that, Jingyi was still reprimanded when he ran down the paths on his way to feed the rabbits or if he overslept and was late to class. But Lan Qiren never punished him again for speaking his mind, for telling others the truth when needed, for being too noisy, too bold, too animated, too ready to defend others who had been wronged.

He feels like he has grown into himself. He is a good cultivator and disciple. He has a reputation for being truthful and brave and kind. He is a great friend. He knows he is loved.

Which is why it doesn’t bother him so much that he’s dying.

He knows he’s dying.

The curse burns its way through his body. It hurts as it frizzles into his veins, scorches a path along every nerve. It hurts worse than anything he has ever felt in his life.

Jingyi staggers, dropping his sword, then falls. He cries out when his body jars against the ground. He hears his name shouted in Sizhui’s panicked voice. Which means Sizhui is alright and Jingyi has done his job. He’s protected his friend.

He lands on his back, dust blooming around him in a cloud. His hands claw at the earth as the curse, which smacked right into his chest, spreads up toward his heart, and down toward his core. He’s on fire. He’s freezing. His back arches as he kicks out his feet as he writhes. His spine is limned with fire as the curse sinks into his skin, through his flesh, into his marrow.

“Jingyi!” Sizhui yells as he grabs Jingyi’s shoulders. “Jingyi!”

Jingyi’s vision fades, darkness encroaching on the edges, shadows gathering. Wet warmth slides over his lips. He’s bleeding, he thinks, the smell of it thick in his nose. The metallic taste of blood catches in his throat. He can’t breathe, his chest hitching futilely.

“Hanguang-Jun!” Sizhui yells. “Hanguang-Jun! Senior Wei! Help! Help!” He’s hysterical. His cheeks are wet with tears. His hands fist in Jingyi’s robes and no. No, Sizhui. It’s okay. It’s okay.

Jingyi raises his hand weakly, wraps his fingers around Sizhui’s wrist and squeezes.

“Sizhui!”

“What happened?”

There’s a scuffle. Senior Wei appears in Jingyi’s tunneled vision, his face creased with worry. He has added a new bruise under his eye. The fight with the demon must have been brutal if Senior Wei is bruised.

“Jingyi,” he says softly. His hands are gentle when they brush Jingyi’s skin despite the fevered motion of Senior Wei tearing open Jingyi’s robes.

Senior Wei’s gasp confirms Jingyi’s thoughts. Senior Wei’s throat bobs and the thin scar that resides there moves with his fear.

“Lan Zhan,” he chokes.

Hanguang-Jun touches Jingyi’s temple. Spiritual energy spills like cold water over Jingyi’s overheated skin. It pours into his meridians, soothing and cool like the cold springs over tender joints. But it doesn’t last. The curse surges in response and Jingyi is lit up from the inside.

He cries out again as the curse leeches up into his throat. He shakes and his joints lock, his muscles seize. His teeth grind against each other. Blood wells from between his parted lips. The grip he has on Sizhui’s wrist tightens reflexively.

Senior Wei bites his fingers and scribbles a talisman out of blood and paper. He slaps it to Jingyi’s chest. The relief is instant and Jingyi sags, body going limp. The curse throbs in him, but its spread has stopped and Jingyi’s own golden core is pulsing desperately in response.

In the blissful absence of pain, Jingyi hears the chatter around him. Jin Ling is barking orders. Zizhen is panicking. Sizhui is crying.

But it’s the whispered conversation between Senior Wei and Hanguang-Jun that fills Jingyi with fear.

“Lan Zhan,” Senior Wei says, voice low and urgent. “This curse is strong and not one I’m familiar with. The talisman will only hold for so long. We need to get him to a healer.”

“Lotus Pier is closest.”

“Take him. Quickly. We’ll follow.”

Hanguang-Jun hefts Jingyi in his arms. Jingyi’s grip on Sizhui loosens and his hand falls away. His head lolls on Hanguang-Jun’s upper arm, the blood from his mouth and nose staining Hanguang-Jun’s sleeve.

It feels like forever since the curse struck him and his entire body aches. Pain is starting to creep back in around the talisman. He doesn’t think he’s going to make it to Lotus Pier. By the way Senior Wei is staring at him, he doesn’t think so either.

“I’m sorry,” Jingyi says, his voice a whispered scrape. “I’m sorry.”

Hanguang-Jun looks down at him, his golden eyes bright in the darkness wavering across Jingyi’s vision. “Save your strength.” It’s not an admonishment—it’s too soft for that—and Hanguang-Jun’s grip tightens around him.

Jingyi feels safe in his mentor’s arms. He doesn’t fight the exhaustion that pulls him, and he allows his eyes to flutter shut. He passes out.

 

1.

Sizhui has made a friend.

Lan Wangji noticed them holding hands while bouncing across the courtyard on their way to their cultivation lessons. They had not been running, but to call their pace a walk would not be correct either. They bubbled in place, excited, as children should be. Lan Wangi’s stomach clenched at the sight, and at the awed expression Sizhui wore when he turned his big brown eyes to his new, talkative friend.

The boy’s name is Lan Jingyi, a distant cousin of Lan Wangji’s own line. He is the opposite of Sizhui in every way. He is loud. He giggles liberally. His emotions flicker across his features, his expressive face unable to hide his joy or his displeasure, but as quick as those feelings flare, they are quick to ease as well. He is free with his touches and he takes Sizhui’s hand in his, pulls him down the white pebbled paths on adventures that no doubt skirt the line between propriety and disobedience. He speaks out of turn. He is unwavering in his loyalty, the one trait that it seems he and Sizhui share.

Jingyi reminds Lan Wangji of Wei Ying so fiercely it makes his heart ache when he sees Jingyi and Sizhui huddled together during a lecture. And he remembers his own time in classes with Wei Ying and his paper men and his indecent questions and his bright smile when Lan Wangji had scowled in his direction. Most days he can bear it, but on others, Lan Wangji turns his head and walks back to the Jingshi, overcome with memories.

When Sizhui informs Lan Wangji that he and Jingyi are best friends, Lan Wangji can’t begrudge their relationship, not when it echoes one that changed his life forever. Despite the lashes that still burn across his back when it rains or when the weather turns cold, Lan Wangji cannot deny Sizhui anything that makes him happy. But he will not allow Sizhui to suffer the same fate as himself.

So Lan Wangji watches.

Sizhui grows into a model disciple, while Jingyi is disciplined often for minor infractions. He copies the sect rules in the library for long stretches of time. He kneels in the courtyard. He meditates under a senior’s watchful eye. He practices forms with a training sword. He holds a handstand for hours. If any of his numerous punishments sink in, he will be a formidable cultivator in his own right. As it is, he is impertinent and faithful and there has not been someone like Jingyi in Cloud Recesses since Lan Wangji was sixteen and Wei Ying burst into his life in a wave of light and sound.

On a spring day about eight years after Wei Ying’s death, Lan Wangji’s own meditation is interrupted by a commotion and the panicked call of his title. It is mid-morning and the juniors should be in lectures, but that doesn’t quell Lan Wangji’s rising unease at the familiar voice shouting for him.

“Hanguang-Jun! Hanguang-Jun!” A scuffle follows. “Let go of me!”

Lan Wangji rises from the porch and strides toward the sound. He finds Lan Jingyi sprinting down the path, pebbles spraying behind him. He skids to a stop, drops into a clumsy bow, before the senior following him grabs him by the arms. Jingyi wrenches away.

“How dare you interrupt Hanguang-Jun’s meditation and—”

Lan Wangji raises a hand and silences the senior.

A drop of sweat rolls down the side of Jingyi’s nose. His face is pale. His robes, hair, and headband in disarray. He wears a smudge of dirt near his temple and another on his chin. There is a smear of blood on his hand, but he appears uninjured.

Lan Wangji’s brow furrows. “Speak.”

“It’s Sizhui!” Jingyi blurts.

Lan Wangji goes cold.

“We skipped class. I mean, I skipped class. Sizhui would never but he followed me to the back hill. We were playing and he fell and—”

Lan Wangji doesn’t wait to hear more. He runs to his son, breaking a dozen rules in the process. He finds Sizhui where Jingyi said he’d be, curled up in the grass, crying. He’s not injured badly, but his ankle is swollen and painful, and the skin of his knees and elbows are torn. Lan Wangji gently picks him up, comforts him and dries his tears, and carries him to the healers.

Lan Wangji is ashamed to admit he forgets about Jingyi until he leaves the healing pavilion an hour later, Sizhui having fallen asleep from a combination of exhaustion and pain relief. Lan Wangji feels shaky, receding adrenaline from the fear of being a parent leaving him in need of meditation.

He passes by the disciplinary courtyard and stops short when he sees Jingyi kneeling in front of the same senior disciple who had chased him down the path.

“Skipping lectures,” the disciple says. “Running. Disrupting lessons. Shouting. Striking a senior disciple.”

Jingyi winces at that one, and Lan Wangji spies the outline of a bruise on the senior disciple’s jaw. He distinctly remembers Jingyi demanding someone to let him go in his efforts to reach Lan Wangji.

“Disobeying a direct order from a senior disciple. Coercing another disciple into mischief.”

Lan Wangji slowly approaches the scene. He has his own feelings about this particular courtyard. The one where he’d received his strikes from the board alongside Wei Ying. The one that had left his back and shoulders a scarred mess. But he pushes those feelings away and focuses on Jingyi—Sizhui’s best friend who broke at least a dozen rules to ensure Lan Wangji was able to get to his injured son.

“Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

Jingyi’s small fists clench. He lifts his chin. “I accept my punishment.”

“Your impertinence has gone unchecked for years, Lan Jingyi. Maybe this time you will learn. Twenty strikes from the discipline board.”

Jingy’s mouth drops open. His eyes widen, and any remaining color in his complexion drains.

”No.” Lan Wangji doesn’t know he’s spoken until he hears the word fall from his lips.

Jingyi startles and whips his head around. “Hanguang-Jun! Is Sizhui okay?”

Even faced with physical punishment, Jingyi is more concerned with the well being of his friend than with breaking yet another rule.

Jingyi is not his son, but he is the next generation of Lan, and Lan Wangji’s pride swells.

“No, Hanguang-Jun?” the disciple questions.

“Mn. No physical punishment. He is too young.”

“He is ten, almost eleven.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes narrow. He summons the frost he is known for and directs a flat, unyielding gaze toward the disciple who dares to argue with him. Jingyi shrinks under it, and the disciple looks away.

“No,” Lan Wangji says again. It is final. Loyalty cannot be beaten out of someone. Lan Wangji is evidence of that after all.

“What does Hanguang-Jun suggest?”

From Sizhui, Lan Wangji knows that Jingyi only skipped lecture because it was to cover the sect’s rules. Jingyi knows the sect’s rules because he has copied them extensively. In that right, again, he is similar to Wei Ying. If no one would know, Lan Wangji would not deliver discipline at all. Jingyi’s fear for his friend should be enough to deter him from wandering away in the future and climbing walls and trees that he should not. But Lan Wangji cannot show favoritism, not to his son’s best friend, and not when this confrontation will surely be reported to his uncle and brother who both still watch Lan Wangji with concerned and wary gazes.

“Kneel in the courtyard until dinner. Chores under my direction for the next three days.”

The disciple nods curtly. Jingyi bows from the waist. He does not speak, for once showing discretion.

Lan Wangji will check on Jingyi later when it is time to collect Sizhui from the healers. And if the chores Jingyi will be forced to complete for the next three days consist of feeding the rabbits and assisting Sizhui while he heals, no one has to know but them.

2.

Lan Qiren spreads the missive flat over his desk, his palms smoothing over the words. He received it hours ago but waited before acting upon it. He does not feel he is the best to relay the news. But Xichen is in Lanling and Wangji is gone from Cloud Recesses, earning his title of Hanguang-Jun. The responsibility falls to him.

When Lan Jingyi appears in his doorway, he dithers at the threshold nervously, undoubtedly believing he is to be punished. Sizhui hovers nearby.

“Jingyi,” Lan Qiren says, his voice gruff, “come in.”

Jingyi casts a glance at Sizhui then steps into the room. He offers a quick bow.

“Close the door.”

Jingyi complies, waving to Sizhui as he does so.

Lan Qiren beckons Jingyi to sit across from him. Jingyi is twelve, and he is all knees and elbows, and he bumps the low table as he settles. He grimaces, his features twisting in apology.

He will be gifted a sword soon. It will have to be given by Xichen, though Wangji might desire the honor as Jingyi acts as almost a second son. It is no secret that Wangji protects Jingyi from the harsher punishments. Jingyi’s own father was lost at Nightless City when Jingyi was a toddler. And his mother…. His mother was his only family other than his distant relatives, including Qiren himself. And now there is yet another child orphaned due to other’s mistakes.

Lan Qiren is at a loss. He stares at Jingyi’s expectant face, and words fail him. Instead, he gathers the letter, and hands it to him.

“It arrived this morning.”

Jingyi takes it with a trembling hand. Lan Qiren watches as Jingyi’s eyes track the words and he sees the moment Jingyi reaches the news. His features crumple. His eyes well and his shoulders hunch as if he could hide himself from the pain.

Jingyi is known for being expressive with his emotions. His joy can be heard echoing throughout the Cloud Recesses. His anger boils swift and hot though Sizhui’s presence tempers him. His loyalty runs deep as does his admiration for Hanguang-Jun, often heard in his pleased shouts whenever Wangji returns from his travels.

His grief is no different.

He breaks down into sobs. The letter crinkles in his hand. Tears fall in streams down his red cheeks.

“My condolences,” Lan Qiren offers. It is weak and insufficient at best, but Lan Qiren is not known for dealing well with emotions.

As if remembering he has an audience, and that it is Lan Qiren no less, Jingyi straightens his shoulders. He sniffles, wiping quickly at his eyes with his sleeve, and gamely attempts to compose himself, as if he is a cracked pot which could be mended by sticking the pieces back together. He is unsuccessful. At another sob, he stuffs his fist in his mouth and bites down, a trickle of blood running over his fingers, but the noise breaks forth anyway. As if Jingyi could be expected to do anything in silence.

Lan Qiren has not been more acutely aware of his failings in years. Not since Wangji knelt in front of him and questioned everything, taking the whip to his back, all for his loyalty to the deviant and dead Wei Wuxian.

Excessive emotion is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses. But it hurts to watch this boy struggle to contort his natural disposition into something deemed acceptable by a list of unbending rules carved into stone.

Lan Qiren stands and walks around the table, then kneels next to Jingyi. He wraps his arm around Jingyi’s shoulders. It is tacit permission and Jingyi takes it as such. He turns his face into Lan Qiren’s neck and cries. He is loud and grief-stricken, and Lan Qiren’s own throat tightens. Maybe, if he’d allowed Wangji to grieve his mother the way he should’ve, then Wangji may not have harbored resentment toward him for all those years, and would have not been so ready to turn his back on his sect. But no, Wangji was always steadfast in his love once given and that would never change.

But Lan Qiren can relax the rules just once, give Jingyi this moment at least. It doesn’t make up for all his past mistakes, but one small act of kindness can cascade into many.

There is a knock on the door and without waiting for a reply, Sizhui enters. He too is like Wangji, steadfast in his love once given, and despite being a model disciple, his concern overrides his sense of propriety.

He crosses the room without invitation. “Jingyi?”

Jingyi lifts his head and launches himself into Sizhui’s arms. Sizhui catches him and they cling to each other.

“Take care of him,” Lan Qiren says, rising. He has a damp spot on his robes, and he is uncharacteristically disheveled.

Sizhui nods and guides a sniffling Jingyi out of the door.

Lan Qiren watches them depart. He settles back behind his desk and contemplates the type of sword that would suit Lan Jingyi. He makes a note to consult with Xichen and Wangji about it when they both return.

3.

Who the hell is this kid?

That is the first thing Wei Wuxian thinks when presented with the dichotomy that is Lan Jingyi when the group of disciples descend on Mo Manor. He certainly can’t be a Lan. Except that he dresses like one and he exudes that same air of condescension that made Lan Wangji untouchable when they were teenagers together.

But otherwise – this kid is the most un-Lan-like Lan Wei Wuxian has ever had the pleasure of meeting. Wei Wuxian wonders how Lan Qiren has not been sent into qi deviation after only a few interactions. Jingyi threatens to beat Wei Wuxian when he steals the lure flag. He has no fear when speaking to sect leaders, even Jiang Cheng. He weeps openly at Yi City. He defames Su She in the cave which leads to the reveal that Su She was in league with Xue Yang. He is unapologetically loud, and Wei Wuxian kind of adores him.

Wei Wuxian knows that first impressions are not always correct especially when they occur in tense situations. That is not the case with Lan Jingyi. He is every bit as outspoken and sassy as he was when they first met, and the more Wei Wuxian gets to know him, the more he likes the kid. Lan Jingyi burrows his way into Wei Wuxian’s dead beating heart, slotting in right beside the space allotted to Sizhui.

Wei Wuxian is enjoying his travels when he runs into a group of Lan juniors. It is led by Sizhui and Jingyi and they decide to travel together while hunting a roaming band of fierce corpses. Beside a dirt road between two towns, they camp for the night. It’s a warm spring evening and Wei Wuxian sits around the campfire with the juniors as Lil Apple munches on grass nearby.

Wei Wuxian pats Sizhui’s head as they share their rations for dinner. “A-Yuan! You’ve grown since I last saw you. So tall and so handsome.”

Sizhui’s cheeks dimple when he smiles. The firelight light reveals his blush. “Thank you, Senior Wei.”

Crossing his arms, his sword in the crook of his elbow, Jingyi rolls his eyes, clearly inured to the fearsome Yiling Patriarch. “He’s the same height he’s been for years.”

Wei Wuxian tilts his chin. “Maybe I meant he’s grown in maturity and cultivation.”

“Of course, he has!” Jingyi says with a hint of arrogance. “Sizhui is the head disciple. He is the son of Hanguang-Jun! His skills will surpass us all.”

Wei Wuxian rubs his finger along his nose. “He really does take after me,” he says, voice low. Then he shakes his head, shrugging off the memory of a small A-Yuan listening intently as Wei Wuxian taught him about lotus seeds. He reaches over and tweaks Sizhui’s cheek then laughing, slings his arm around Jingyi’s shoulders.

“You’ve grown, too, Jingyi! In your admiration for Lan Zhan! And in your candor!” Jingyi elbows him off and Wei Wuxian lets out an oof. “Ah, you young ones. So strong.”

“How have you been Senior Wei?” Sizhui smiles sweetly.

Wei Wuxian twirls his flute. “Ah, I’ve been well.” He sprawls on his back, propped up on his elbows. “Traveling with Lil Apple, meeting interesting people, investigating hauntings and stories of fierce corpses.” He sighs. “It’s more than I could hope for in this second life.”

A heavy silence descends between the three of them. Sizhui’s brow is furrowed. Jingyi pokes at the fire. A twig cracks and an ember floats in the air between them.

“Pardon me for saying,” Sizhui finally says in a voice so soft and gentle, Wei Wuxian can imagine him using it when talking to Lan Zhan’s rabbits. “But lying is forbidden, Senior Wei.”

Wei Wuxian sucks in a breath. Sizhui is perceptive or maybe Wei Wuxian isn’t as adept at lying as he used to be. He pouts at them in an attempt to redirect and lighten the mood. “We are not in the Cloud Recesses. Your Lan rules don’t apply here.”

Jingyi turns his head and grumbles something too low for Wei Wuxian to hear. Sizhui swats his arm, and though Jingyi looks contrite, there is still a stubborn set to his jaw. Eyebrow raised, Wei Wuxian can’t help but to tease.

“Something to say, Jingyi?”

“You could be!” he blurts with fervor. “You could be in the Cloud Recesses with Hanguang-Jun right now and not traveling with your smelly donkey and camping in the woods!”

“Jingyi,” Sizhui says, admonishing as harsh as Wei Wuxian has ever heard him.

Jingy’s lip curls. “What? It’s obvious Senior Wei doesn’t know. He needs to hear how much Hanguang-Jun misses him.”

Wei Wuxian shoots upright from his sprawl. His heart pounds. “Misses me? Lan Zhan misses me?”

Jingyi scoffs. “He’s only pined after you for sixteen years. Of course, he misses you.” He turns his head and lifts his chin. “Everyone thinks the Yiling Patriarch is a fearsome genius, but it turns out, he’s just oblivious.”

Wei Wuxian can’t believe what he’s hearing. He can’t believe what Jingyi is saying. Surely, Lan Zhan didn’t pine for him for sixteen years. And if he did, he would’ve said. Wouldn’t he? Wouldn’t he have asked Wei Wuxian to stay?

“A-Yuan?” Wei Wuxian asks, hesitant. His pulse thuds hard in his veins.

Sizhui’s perfect posture sags. “Hanguang-Jun loves you Senior Wei. He’s always loved you.”

“Loves?” Wei Wuxian’s voice squeaks. “Loves? How did missing turn into love?”

Jingyi’s mouth falls open as he turns to stare at Wei Wuxian again. His eyes are wide, reflecting the light of the flickering fire. “Hanguang-Jun stood beside you against the whole cultivation world. He defied his uncle and his sect. He didn’t leave your side once since your return. He loves you.”

Wei Wuxian’s mouth flaps uselessly. Lan Zhan had stood beside him against all others. He saved him several times. He caught Wei Wuxian when he fainted and held him close, protecting him. Lan Zhan had stayed by his side. It was Wei Wuxian who chose to leave.

“Oh.”

Wei Wuxian rubs his chest where it aches in his new, fledgling core. He breathes and the air smells like fresh growth from the forest tinged with ash from the fire. He hears the night owls and the chirp of insects. He pushes his fingers into the earth to feel the give of soft dirt. He grounds himself in the world around him—in a world where Lan Zhan loves him.

Oh.”

“Oh? That’s it? The great Hanguang-Jun loves you and that’s all you have to say? Oh? That is the worst reaction to a confession I’ve ever heard. Not even the bad romance novels are this bad.”

“Jingyi,” Sizhui says again, shooting Jingyi a dark look. “Senior Wei may be overwhelmed. Give him a moment.”

Jingyi wrinkles his nose but clamps his mouth shut.

They sit in silence again as Wei Wuxian’s world rewrites itself into one where Lan Zhan returns his feelings. It takes more than a moment. It takes several moments. When Wei Wuxian comes back to himself, Sizhui offers a soft smile.

“Senior Wei? Are you alright?”

“I’m… I’m… I have to go.” Wei Wuxian scrabbles to standing, tripping over his pack, and grabs a tree branch to keep from toppling. “I have to go.”

Jingyi and Sizhui jump to their feet. “Now?” Sizhui asks, as Jingyi blurts “Where?”

“Yes. Now. To Cloud Recesses.”

Jingyi smirks happily. “Ah, so you do return Hanguang-Jun’s feelings. I knew it.”

Wei Wuxian doesn’t dignify that with a response, but he can’t say he doesn’t owe Jingyi a debt of gratitude for bluntly telling him what he needed to hear.

“But Senior Wei, it’s almost dark.” Sizhui hovers but he doesn’t attempt to stop Wei Wuxian’s mad scramble. “You might get hurt. Or lost.”

Wei Wuxian’s heart flutters. His body thrums with the need to see Lan Zhan. He’s days away from Gusu by donkey, and he’ll probably regret foregoing a night’s sleep, but he can’t sit in the woods and keep Lan Zhan waiting any longer. He’s already kept him waiting sixteen years.

“Ah, A-Yuan. Did you forget? I am the fearsome Yiling Patriarch. There is nothing in the dark more frightening than me. I will be fine.”

Jingyi bumps his shoulder into Sizhui’s. “Don’t worry. I’ve heard he’s a genius.”

Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes, as he hurriedly gathers his things. “Will you two be alright?”

“We’ll handle the corpses,” Jingyi replies, confident. “We were trained by Hanguang-Jun after all.”

After he’s packed his things and untied Lil Apple, Wei Wuxian takes a moment and regards the two Lan disciples. He bows to them. “Thank you.”

They bow in return. Then Wei Wuxian hauls them both in for a hug. Sizhui embraces him easily. Jingyi squawks in surprise and is as stiff as a corpse in his arms, but he’s smiling. He blushes when Wei Wuxian claps him on the shoulder.

“You two be good,” he says wagging his finger. “Be careful. I will see you in a few days.”

“You be careful as well, Senior Wei,” Sizhui says. “We will see you soon.”

Wei Wuxian waves then sets off down the road, leading his donkey into the dusk. His steps are as light as he hums a familiar and beloved song, the tune carrying him along the way to his soulmate and the rest of his life.

4.

Jin Ling has friends.

It’s good, Jiang Cheng thinks, for his nephew to have a friend group his own age that he can relate to. Jiang Cheng has been worried that Jin Ling was too lonely shut up in Koi Tower with the heavy responsibilities of a sect leader on his shoulders and with only withered advisors and his dog for company. But Jin Ling appears to be adapting well, and it’s good to hear him laugh.

His visits to Lotus Pier have decreased recently, but he still comes when he can, and now his presence attracts visitors from other sects. He is currently on a small boat in the lake with Ouyang Zizhen and that loud Lan kid. The boat sways dangerously as they dare each other to jump in among the lotus flowers to swim, their laughter echoing out across the water. Jiang Cheng knows from experience that if they keep pushing each other, they will all three wind up ass over head and soaking wet.

“Sect Leader Jiang,” he hears a soft, deferential voice greet him.

Jiang Cheng turns to find the other Lan kid, Sizhui, sitting on the dock with his feet dangling over the edge. He moves to stand but Jiang Cheng waves away the action, not needing the formality of a bow from a guest who is there to play with his nephew. But Lan Sizhui stands anyway, bows perfectly despite his dripping bare feet.

Jiang Cheng’s mouth flattens. Of course, this is Hanguang-Jun’s son, and he should’ve expected nothing less than respect. Jiang Cheng can see the traces of Lan Wangji’s guidance in the calm, even way that Lan Sizhui speaks, his mild temperament, and his polite demeanor. Except, while Lan Wangji is all frost, Lan Sizhui emits warmth. And his wide smile reminds Jiang Cheng of someone else entirely.

“Why aren’t you out there with them?” Jiang Cheng asks, jerking his chin to where Jin Ling is splashing Zizhen.

Lan Sizhui grimaces. “I tend to get seasick. I prefer to stay on the land.”

Jiang Cheng frowns. Jin Ling should be a better host and find activities in which all his friends can participate. He’s about to yell for Jin Ling to paddle back to the shore, when SIzhui interrupts him.

“I do not mind watching from here,” he says with a bright smile. “Would you like to join me, Sect Leader Jiang?”

Jiang Cheng should refuse. He’s a sect leader. He has important business. He has meetings and trainings and letters to write. He’d only wandered down there to check on Jin Ling, make sure he hadn’t drowned or drowned one of his friends. But he finds himself nodding and settling next to Sizhui on the dock.

The sun is high. Spring has bled into summer and the Yunmeng air is heavy with humidity. The well-worn wood of the dock is warm beneath Jiang Cheng’s hands. He doesn’t take off his shoes, but that doesn’t deter Sizhui from plopping his feet back into the water.

“Sizhui!” the loud Lan yells, balancing with his feet spread on either side of the boat as Jin Ling and Zizhen rock it side to side. “Look!”

Sizhui claps in approval. “Wonderful, but be careful, Jingyi!”

Lan Jingyi. That is the loud kid’s name. Jiang Cheng remembers him from the Burial Mounds and how he had humiliated Su She then had offered himself to be bait. It struck him then how Lan Qiren and Hanguang-Jun had not admonished or tried to silence him. And how brave he was, ready to rush into danger to protect others. The smirk that split his face while he defended his sect was very un-Lan like and very much like a young… He stops his thought before it can bloom further.

“I’m always careful!” Jingyi yells back. Then he squawks when Jin Ling splashes water into his face.

“Are you sure he’s a Lan?” Jiang Cheng asks, voice gruffer than he means it to be.

Lan Sizhui tilts his head, eyes twinkling. “The elders ask that same question daily.”

Jiang Cheng huffs a laugh. Hanguang-Jun’s kid is teasing him.

“But yes,” he continues, thoughtfully. “He embodies the rules of our sect, even if he is unconventional.”

Unconventional. That was a word that was a common descriptor of Wei Wuxian. And Jiang Cheng doesn’t know why his mind keeps lurching in his brother’s direction. Maybe it’s the nostalgia of being on the lake, or maybe it’s the young man sitting next to him.

“Senior Wei always talks about swimming in the lake and eating lotus seeds,” Sizhui says, as if reading Jiang Cheng’s mind. He lifts his foot and the water sluices over his ankle. “I did not realize how warm the water would be. Is this where he would swim?”

Jiang Cheng stiffens. He clenches his fist. His first instinct is to snap at Wei Wuxian’s name, to yell and threaten anyone who dares ask questions about him, to allow Zidian to spark into his hand. He tempers himself. This is not a nosy disciple who wants to know the origin of the Yiling Patriarch nor is it a pointed barb from a rival sect leader. It’s not asked with Jin Guangyao’s double meaning or with the chill of Hanguan-Jun. It’s merely an innocent inquiry from someone who admires Wei Wuxian as he is now, not what he was or what he became.

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng says around a tight throat. “He didn’t know how when he first came to live here, but this is where he learned.” It’s where Jiang Cheng also taught Jin Ling.

Sizhui’s eyes light. “Did you teach him?”

“We learned together,” Jiang Cheng says. He hasn’t talked about Wei Wuxian’s childhood with anyone in a long time. It doesn’t hurt like he thought it would. It’s more of an ache, like stretching his legs after sitting for too long. “I don’t suppose Lan Wangji taught you how to swim?”

Sizhui shakes his head. “No.” He touches his stomach. “Water makes me ill. But he did bury me in rabbits.”

Jiang Cheng’s eyebrows shoot up. “The rabbits on the back hill. They’re still there?”

Nodding eagerly, Sizhui leans toward him. “You’ve seen them?”

Before Jiang Cheng can answer, a chorus of yells break across the water. He turns in time to see the trio tip the boat too far and watches as all three spill in the lake. They surface seconds later, sputtering, and shouting at each other, splashing and throwing insults.

“A-Ling!” Jiang Cheng yells. “You better be alright!”

“Fine, Uncle!” he calls back.

“Jingyi! Zizhen! Are you okay?” Sizhui asks around a laugh.

Zizhen waves happily. Jingyi swims clumsily toward them, white robes trailing in the water, snagging on lotus roots. His forehead ribbon is slanted, and he’s grumbling under his breath, but he’s fine.

Once he is near the docks, Jiang Cheng and Sizhui haul him out. Then they turn to grab the other two.

Jingyi flaps his robes. “I’m soaked!” A lotus falls out of his sleeve and plunks onto the deck. Sizhui hides a laugh behind his hand.

“I’m certain Sect Leader Jiang has robes you can borrow,” Sizhui says.

Jingyi brightens, his lips curling into a mischievous smile. “Hey, Sizhui. When Hanguang-Jun and Senior Wei are married, will you call Sect Leader Jiang Uncle?”

Jiang Cheng freezes.

Married?” Jing Ling blurts. “Since when?”

“Not yet.” Jingy crosses his arm. “Soon though, right Sizhui?”

Ouyang Zizhen’s eyes widen and he clasps his hands together. “Their story is so romantic.”

Jiang Cheng balks. Romantic? He doesn’t know if he wants Jin Ling hanging out with the Ouyang sect.

Sighing, Sizhui wilts. “That was a private discussion, Jingyi.”

Jingyi shrugs, a smirk stealing across his face. “If it was so private, they should’ve used a silencing talisman.”

“Married?” Jin Ling says again. “Really? Uncl—” he cuts himself off, his gaze flickering to Jiang Cheng. “I mean, Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-Jun?”

Jingyi’s smile brightens. “That’s right! You and Sizhui will be cousins!”

Jiang Cheng cannot keep up with the chatter. He knows his expression is frozen somewhere between blatant surprise and a scowl. His mind is stuck on married just as is Jin Ling’s apparently, but also, on how much sense it makes. Hanguang-Jun’s protective nature, and how much he hates Jiang Cheng, and the way he’d mourned for sixteen years. And Wei Wuixan’s hopeless, ridiculous smile every time he looks at Lan Wangji.

Jin Ling thrusts a finger at Sizhui. “He can’t be my cousin. And my uncle is not his uncle because Wei Wuxian was thrown out of the Jiang sect.”

Jingyi shakes his head. “That’s before everything was revealed. He’s been exonerated. It’s fine now. Right?” Jingyi’s gaze flicks to Jiang Cheng. “Right?”

As if it was that easy. Could it be that easy? Jiang Cheng has barely talked to Wei Wuxian since the temple. It’s been a solid year, and he’s heard that Wei Wuxian had been traveling—everyone had a story about how they’d encountered the Yiling Patriarch—but if he had traveled through Yunmeng, he hadn’t visited Lotus Pier. Not since their disastrous last encounter.

He does know Wei Wuxian has visited Koi tower. If the aborted ‘uncle’ Jin Ling clamped down on was any indication.

“Jingyi,” Sizhui says. His jaw is set, and he looks upset. His face is red. “This isn’t the time or the place.”

Jingyi grumbles. “I don’t see why it’s so difficult. They’re adults.”

Ignoring him, Sizhui seems to be the only who has realized that Jiang Cheng has not engaged in the conversation. He completes another perfect bow.

“I apologize on behalf of my friends, Sect Leader Jiang,” he says. “I’m sorry we have made you uncomfortable and have been disrespectful in your home.”

The others go rigid at Sizhui’s words. Jiang Cheng doesn’t know what to say and if he did, he wouldn’t know how to say it.

Instead he turns on his heel, and tosses over his shoulder, “I’ll show you where you can change.”

The group follows him like cowed ducklings. Sizhui pulls on his boots and pads silently just behind him. The other three whisper fiercely, and their wet clothes flop and slap along the dock and the floor. They’re relatively quiet except for an explosive, “Adopted or not, they are brothers!” that comes from Lan Jingyi.

Jiang Cheng does not wince, but it takes effort to keep his shoulders straight and his eyes fixed ahead. Brothers. They were brothers once. And if Jiang Cheng is honest with himself, he’d never stopped thinking they were. As much as he hated the Yiling Patriarch, Jiang Cheng had mourned his brother, and missed him with a deep ache in his bones. He’d never show it, much less admit it, but the hurt was still there after all these years.

He passes by the guest quarters and leads the group further into the house. Jin Ling doesn’t comment, though Jiang Cheng knows Jin Ling has noticed, especially when they pause in front of a door that has remained closed for a year.

He opens it and walks inside. Suiban is where he placed it, on Wei Wuxian’s bed that he managed to salvage after the destruction of Lotus Pier. The rest of the original room had been destroyed, but Jiang Cheng had it rebuilt, back when… when he thought things might change and Wei Wuxian might come home. He never did.

“Uncle?” Jin Ling says.

“I’ll have spare robes brought to you.”

Jingyi and Zizhen are poking around the room. Sizhui has gone still, his eyes locked on the sword amid the sheets.

“This is… was your….” He trails off, not knowing what name or title to use. If Sizhui is who Jiang Cheng suspects he is—and Jiang Cheng remembers the dimpled grin and dark eyes of the child who had clutched his leg at the Burial Mounds, the one Wei Wuxian had claimed as his own—then Sizhui is his nephew with or without Wei Wuxian’s marriage to Hanguang-Jun. “This was your Senior Wei’s room. When he was growing up.”

Lan Sizhui’s smile is soft and fond as he runs his fingers over the carving on the bed. “Thank you, Sect Leader Jiang.”

Jiang Cheng clenches his jaw. “You’re welcome. I will see you at dinner.”

He closes the door behind him and leans against it. On the other side, the group bursts into chatter.

“I told you it could be easy, Sizhui,” Lan Jingyi says, loudly. “They’re adults. They can figure it out. They just need to talk.”

Jiang Cheng sighs. If Wei Wuxian really is to marry Lan Wangji, he wouldn’t mind another nephew. Especially one as respectful as Lan Sizhui.

And maybe… maybe Lan Jingyi is right. They were brothers. They are brothers. And maybe all it would take to mend their relationship is a talk. Maybe, it could be easy.

5.

Sizhui clasps his hands in his lap as he sits at the low table. His sword is propped beside him. His tea has gone cold because he can’t trust his hands not to shake if he tries to drink and he doesn’t want the entire room of cultivators to witness him spilling it across his robes.

Hanguang-Jun, his father, and Senior Wei, his… first father, sit at the head of the room, side by side, in resplendent robes. Hanguang-Jun in his ethereal white and blue and Senior Wei in his customary red and black. Hanguang-Jun’s face is placid like a frozen lake, and about as welcoming. Senior Wei is doing his best to emulate his soon-to-be husband, but his eyebrows sit at odd angles, and his complexion has paled save for two bright spots on his cheeks. He’s desperately trying to keep his mouth shut, and Sizhui has been ordered by Lan Qiren to use the silencing spell if Wei Wuxian starts to make a scene.

Sizhui thinks it’s a very real possibility that he might have to, because Senior Wei is failing at staying composed.

Everyone is failing.

Because Sect Leader Yao will not shut up.

This is Sizhui’s first Cultivation Conference as the heir apparent to the Lan sect. His father is His Excellency. His other father is the Yiling Patriarch, the Grand Master of Demonic Cultivation, brought back from the dead to expose Jin Guangyao. Sizhui is doing his absolute best to remain calm, but there is only so much he can take.

Jiang Cheng, his maybe uncle, sits directly across from him, and his lips are pressed together so hard they’ve disappeared except for a thin flat line. Jin Ling is next to him and he appears to be having the same problem as Sizhui. His bottom lip is bloody from where he has dug his teeth into it to keep from lashing out.

But none of them can say anything. And not only because Senior Wei has asked them not to. Jin Ling because he is a sect leader and Wei Wuxian’s nephew. Jiang Cheng is also a sect leader and Wei Wuxian’s brother. Sizhui is the heir and Hanguang-Jun’s son, and any attempt to quell the discussion would be seen as favoritism and a scheme to dismiss the real concerns from different sects at the prospect of Senior Wei’s and Lan Wangji’s union.

Sizhui’s happiness at their impending marriage has dimmed significantly and it’s all Sect Leader Yao’s doing.

Well, his and a few others. Sect Leader Yao just happens to be the loudest.

“I don’t understand why the esteemed Hanguang-Jun cannot consider partners from other sects before committing himself to a—”

“Watch your words,” Hanguang-Jun warns. His voice shivers down Sizhui’s spine.

This is not good. This may end in bloodshed.

Sect Leader Yao makes a grand gesture with his arm, the fabric of his sleeve snapping with the force. He continues despite the frost that now hangs in the air. “To a demonic cultivator? There are plenty of young women of good breeding from sturdy cultivation lines in the Yao sect who would make excellent wives.”

It’s a two-pronged insult directed not only at Senior Wei’s status as an orphan from rogue cultivators but also at Sizhui that he is not a true heir being adopted. It doesn’t hurt Sizhui as much as was probably intended, as Sizhui knows his place in his fathers’ hearts and in his sect, but the uncertain expression on Senior Wei’s face stings, especially as his gaze flickers to Hanguang-Jun.

“The Ouyang sect has many eligible partners as well. It is unfair to the smaller sects that our disciples were not considered for this position,” Sect Leader Ouyang adds, as if the partner of His Excellency is an obligation or a job, not a binding of love. “And now the Jiang, the Jin, and the Lan will all be related by marriage, adoption, and blood.”

Zizhen hides his face behind his hands.

“I will not consider others,” Hanguang-Jun says. His tone is cold and flat, and Sizhui sees his hand twitch toward his sword at his side.

Another voice chimes in. Sizhui does not see who it comes from, but it slices through the ensuing silence.

“Are we not allowed to question His Excellency? Have we traded one Jin Guangyao for another?”

Wei Wuxian stiffens. A murmur swells through the crowd. Anxiety rises in Sizhui’s chest. A flush creeps up the back of his neck and into his ears.

There is a clamor behind him, the sound of someone knocking over their tea as they rise to their feet, and the clink of a sword being grasped.

Then another voice rings out. “Sect Leader Yao.”

Oh no. Jingyi.

Jingyi strides to the middle of the room. He has grown taller in the past few months and he stares down at Sect Leader Yao. His knuckles are white where they grasp his sword.

“Were you not one of the first to stand against Wei Wuxian?”

Sect Leader Yao blinks. He blusters. “I… I… I stood against Wei Wuxian when he was the Yiling Patriarch.”

“Oh, right. Of course. You misunderstand me.” Jingyi’s back is straight and his tone, though arrogant, is also playful. He crosses his arms and lifts his chin. “I meant at the Burial Mounds when Su She poisoned you and half a dozen other sect leaders but instead of figuring that out, you stood against Wei Wuxian when he was trying to save us. Didn’t you even lead a chant of ‘kill Wei Wuxian?’”

Sect Leader Yao’s face goes so red, Sizhui is afraid he might pass out.

“But he saved you anyway.” Jingyi raises an eyebrow. “Yet, now you argue against his happiness?”

“You—” he raises a finger in Jingyi’s direction, but Jingyi ignores him. Instead he saunters toward the Ouyang sect.

“Sect Leader Ouyang,” he calls. “Did you not escape with your son from the Burial Mounds when Wei Wuxian used himself as bait to draw away the fierce corpses while Hanguang-Jun battled them? Did they not save you and the heir to your sect?”

Sect Leader Ouyang looks like he sucked a lemon. Zizhen answers for him. “Yes! We escaped because of the bravery of Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-Jun!”

Jingyi nods. He turns his back and strides down the aisle back toward the front. Jingyi winks at Sizhui, before he spins to address the crowd.

“Sect Leader Nie,” Jingyi calls, “who discovered your brother's body and revenged his death? Who revealed the truth to the whole cultivation world?”

Nie Huaisang startles at being addressed and snaps open his fan. He hides behind the elegant decoration, but answers smoothly without his usual stutter. “Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-Jun.”

“Sect Leader Jin,” Jingyi addresses Jin Ling. “Who saved you at Guanyin Temple when Jin Guangyao took you hostage with a garrote?”

“Wei Wuxian,” Jin Ling says. His faze flickers toward his uncle and Senior Wei offers him a soft smile in return.

Jingyi nods sharply. “Hanguang-Jun has spent the last sixteen years appearing wherever there was chaos. Who here has benefitted from the great Hanguang-Jun’s aid? Who here doubts his moral compass? Who here would deny him his choice in cultivation partner?”

Murmurs rise again, but not angry, more shamed, some accepting. Sizhui is so proud of his friend. Jingyi is brash and loud and he is the best. He read the situation, knowing no one else could come to his fathers’ defense and stepped in.

Sizhui not only hears talk about his fathers, but about Jingyi too.

“He’s the boy that lectured Sect Leader Jiang at Dafan Mountain,” someone whispers.

“That’s the loud Lan who exposed Su She.”

“That boy speaks the truth.”

It seems Jingyi’s own reputation has grown.

Satisfied, Jingyi sits back at his table. Sect Leader Yao slinks to his own place and all discussion of the impending marriage of the Yiling Patriarch to Hanguang-Jun ceases.

The conference continues. The topics change and later in the afternoon a break is called. As soon as the hall is cleared, Sizhui whirls in his seat.

“Jingyi!” he says, his smile so wide his cheeks hurt. “Thank you.”

Jingyi shrugs. “Someone needed to say something. And I knew you and Jin Ling couldn’t do it. And you were upset.”

“How could you—”

“Your ears turned red.”

Sizhui’s cheeks go hot.

“And Hanguang-Jun was angry. I had to do something.”

“I’m glad you did,” Sizhui says, joy infusing him. Senior Wei has returned to the Cloud Recesses permanently. Sizhui’s father is happy and will be married to the love of his life and cultivation partner soon. Sizhui has a new uncle and a new cousin and his best friend is right beside him.

Jingyi returns Sizhui’s smile and all is right with the world.

+ 2.

Jingyi wakes.

He’s surprised because he honestly didn’t think he would again. But he does. He doesn’t remember much, only snatches of feverish dreams and memories, of people holding his hand, talking to him in low voices, of tears and desperation. Thinking about it makes his heart clench, that he worried his friends, his family, so he tucks those thoughts away for later contemplation.

Jingyi doesn’t open his eyes right away. It would be easier to sink back into the dark, but he has a feeling he’s been there for a while, so he waits.

He’s on a bed, blankets tucked around him. He smells incense, but not the kind in the healer’s tent in Cloud Recesses. He hears the distant lap of water. He feels a stream of spiritual energy being passed into his wrist from a golden core strong and wild. It’s not Hanguang-Jun, he knows that for sure.

“Hey,” he hears Senior Wei’s voice, quiet and soft. “Do you need a break?”

“No.”

Jingyi’s hazy mind picks out the slight tension in the reply. Is that… Sect Leader Jiang?

There’s a huff. And the sound of clothes rustling, and the bed dips next to Jingyi’s hip. “Fine. Let me know when you do. Lan Qiren is nearby and said he’d take over when you’re tired.”

“Are you going to hover?”

“It’s either hover in here or hover out there. I finally managed to get A-Yuan to agree to try to sleep but it took bargaining. Jin Ling and Zizhen are with him. Hopefully, they’ll all rest.”

“He’s… a good kid. They all are.”

Senior Wei gasps. “Is that a compliment? Don’t let Jin Ling hear. He’ll become insufferable.”

Sect Leader Jiang scoffs, but his voice drops into something fond. “He could stand to hear it more.”

“You’ve softened, Jiang Cheng,” Senior Wei says with an affectionate laugh. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed Sizhui calling you uncle.”

“Shut up!”

Sect Leader Jiang jostles Jingyi’s arm and a sharp ache shoots down to his fingers and up to his shoulder.

Jingyi gasps then groans.

The small argument stops immediately.

“Jingyi?” A warm hand cradles his face, the fingers trembling as they brush his temple.

“Is he awake?”

“His fever has broken.” The hand runs through his hair. “Jingyi? Jingyi, come back to us.”

Jingyi’s eyelids feel weighed down but he struggles to open them at the plea in Senior Wei’s voice. He finally manages and Senior Wei’s blurry face comes into view. He looks tired. He has bags under his eyes and his hair is uncharacteristically disheveled. He actually looks worse than that time Jingyi and Sizhui met him in the woods.

“Jingyi?” he prompts again.

“Senior Wei,” he says, his voice a scratch.

Senior Wei’s mouth stretches into an exhausted grin. “Jingyi,” he says on a sigh. “There you are.”

Jingyi’s throat is dry. His lips are cracked. Sect Leader Jiang notices and reaches for a cup of tea on a nearby table while still pouring spiritual energy into Jingyi. He hands the cup to Senior Wei who lifts Jingyi’s head and helps him drink.

The tea is strong and tastes more like medicine than tea. He makes a face.

“I know. It tastes awful, doesn’t it? But it’ll help. I promise.”

When the cup is empty, Senior Wei lowers Jingyi back to the pillow. Jingyi’s mouth is no longer a desert so he asks the question that is on the forefront of his mind.

“Sizhui?”

“Fine. He’s fine,” Senior Wei assures. “Everyone’s fine. You were the only one injured.”

Jingyi’s relief is palpable. It soothes him more than the tea, and he could honestly fall back asleep now that his mind is at ease. But he doesn’t think Senior Wei would appreciate him passing out again. “What happened?” he asks instead.

“You took a curse meant for A-Yuan. And spent the last week trying to die on us. How do you feel?”

A week? A week? He’s been out for a week? Then why is he so tired? Why does he feel like he’s been trampled by Senior Wei’s donkey?

“What,” Jingyi says. His head is muddled. He’s lost all sense of time and place. What day is it?

Senior Wei nods. Jingyi can’t tell if he’s being serious or playful. “The whole cultivation world has ground to a halt because His Excellency has been tearing the archives apart trying to find a cure while everyone else has gathered in Lotus Pier to lend their assistance and I quote, ‘save that loud Lan.’”

Jingyi’s eyes widen.

Sect Leader Jiang elbows Senior Wei. “You’re overwhelming him.”

“What?” Jingyi says again.

Sect Leader Jiang sighs and rolls his eyes. “It’s true. Sect Leaders Yao and Ouyang are even here.”

Jingyi’s breath quickens as he panics. “You didn’t—”

Senior Wei waves his hands. “No! No. Only us, Lan Zhan, Lan Qiren, and your friends have been in here.”

“Everyone else has been…” Sect Leader Jiang sighs again, “helping in their own way.”

Clearly, they’ve not been helping.

Jingyi winces. “Sorry.”

“No apologies,” Senior Wei wags his finger. “Jiang Cheng is just being grumpy. You saved his nephew after all. He’s very appreciative.” Senior Wei adjusts the blanket over Jingyi, tucking it in around his torso, then smoothing out the wrinkles. “We’re all very appreciative. For everything.” His brow furrows and his eyes shine. He swallows. “It seems the cure we tried worked. Which is good because you’ve had us all very worried, Lan Jingyi.”

“Senior Wei,” Jingyi says, his voice cracking on the syllables, “excessive emotion is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses.”

Senior Wei startles, then he laughs, loud and long. His eyes crinkle into half-moons, and a tear slides down his cheek. “We’re in Lotus Pier. The rules don’t apply.”

“Oh, then I guess it’s okay.”

Senior Wei pats Jingyi’s cheek then pinches it like he does Sizhui. “Get some rest, Jingyi. You’ll need the energy when A-Yuan, Jin Ling, and Zizhen learn you’ve woken.”

Jingyi’s throat tightens. He grasps Senior Wei’s wrist. “You’ll stay?” he asks, sounding much younger than he is.

Senior Wei smiles softly. “Of course. I’ll be right here.”

“Thank you.”

Jingyi’s eyes slide shut. He relaxes into the mattress. Senior Wei and Sect Leader Jiang start bickering as Jingyi slinks toward sleep. The sound is comforting, reminds him of Jin Ling and Sizhui and Zizhen when they’re all together. It reminds him of family and home.

Jingyi smiles, then rests.