A breeze wafts gently across the still waters of Yunmeng, bringing with it the sweet scent of lotuses. The lotus season is finally here, and the dock is abuzz with the frenzy of the harvesting season. Watching the clamor from the upper decks of Lotus Pier, Zhao Zhongyi smiles, turning back to his fellow sect leader.
“Thank you for taking care of those corpses,” Jiang Wanyin says. “Yicheng Zhao has been a reliable ally for many years.”
“Yicheng Zhao is thankful for the opportunity to play a part in keeping the region safe,” Zhao Zhongyi returns. “Thank you for your trust.”
Out in the town, there’s a jangle of cymbals, followed by distant laughter. They both turn to look out over the squat buildings.
“A traveling fair, it seems,” Jiang Wanyin muses. “While you are still here, you should take a look. We will be happy to host you until you return back to Yicheng.”
Zhao Zhongyi bows.
“Thank you, Sect Leader,” he murmurs, and straightens. He hesitates for a moment, before speaking again. “Though perhaps you should also take a break and enjoy the fair, Sect Leader. You are looking a little tired today.”
Jiang Wanyin sighs, massaging his brow.
“Preparations for the upcoming discussion conference,” he explains shortly.
Before Zhao Zhongyi can respond, a young man’s voice rings out from the courtyard below.
“Uncle!” the young man cries. “There you are. I was looking for you!”
He quickly vanishes into the building.
“Ah, so the young sect leader is also here,” Zhao Zhongyi says.
“He is helping me with the preparations,” Jiang Wanyin says. “It will be his turn to host when the next discussion conference comes around.”
“He’s growing into a fine young man,” Zhao Zhongyi says warmly. “It seems he’s gotten even taller since the last time I saw him!”
Jiang Wanyin sighs. This time, however, there is something almost like a smirk flirting around the corners of his lips.
“Please don’t let him hear you saying that,” he says dryly. “He’s been insufferable since realizing, two weeks ago, that he’s now taller than me.”
Boots patter up the wooden stairs, and the young Jin Rulan soon emerges from the stairwell.
“Uncle,” he nags. “Weren’t we supposed to meet to talk about the seating arrangements for the discussion conference?! You’re late!”
“Is it your place to scold me for being late?!” Jiang Cheng scolds in return. “And in front of Sect Leader Zhao?”
“I will take my leave,” Zhao Zhongyi says quickly, bowing. “Sect Leader Jiang. Sect Leader Jin.”
Jin Rulan turns to him, startled, and seemingly chastised by the reminder of his presence.
“Sect Leader Zhao,” he returns courteously, cupping his hands.
With a final bow, Zhao Zhongyi descends the stairs into the courtyard, leaving the familiar sounds of raucous squabbling behind him. A familiar disciple comes forward to meet him, clad in Yunmeng purples.
“Sect Leader Zhao,” he greets, with a respectful bow. “Allow me to escort you to your guest room.”
“A-Luo,” Zhao Zhongyi greets warmly. “How is your brother? Is he still sick?”
Birds chirp overhead as they stroll leisurely through the courtyard, boots crunching quietly along the pebbled path.
“He’s doing better,” the disciple says. “Sect Leader invited a doctor down from Yiling last month. He has been very generous to us.”
“That’s good to hear,” Zhao Zhongyi says. “And what about Sect Leader Jiang? He looks like he hasn’t been sleeping well. He seemed a little distracted during our meeting too.”
“It must be due to the upcoming discussion conference,” A-Luo says unhappily.
“It’s not the first time Lotus Pier is hosting a discussion conference,” Zhao Zhongyi points out, surprised.
“But it’s the first one that the Yiling Patriarch will be attending,” the disciple explains, and sighs. “Sect Leader has been different since the Yiling Patriarch came back three years ago. He’s been having nightmares. Sometimes, he’ll wake in the middle of the night and go to the ancestral hall, staying there until morning. It’s been worse since the guest list was confirmed three days ago. I doubt he’s slept since.”
Zhao Zhongyi frowns.
“Has he spoken about this to anyone?” he asks.
“No,” A-Luo admits. “But everyone knows that the nightmares started when the Yiling Patriarch visited Lotus Pier three years ago! My shixiong said that he saw the Yiling Patriarch and Hanguang-Jin attacking Sect Leader at the ancestral hall!”
Zhao Zhongyi feels his good cheer seeping slowly away. Them again. But somehow, he isn’t too surprised.
“Attacking?” he asks.
“With their swords drawn, and insulting him too!” A-Luo confirms angrily. “Shixiong ran off to get backup, but when he came back, the three were already gone, and Sect Leader was in a panic. He seemed almost possessed that day, running around in a frenzy with the Yiling Patriarch’s sword. Who knows what Hanguang-jun and the Yiling Patriarch did to him, but it must have been terrible if he’s still having nightmares about it!”
A-Luo kicks a stone angrily across the pavement.
”The Yiling Patriarch betrayed Yunmeng Jiang, killed Sect Leader’s brother-in-law and sister, and desecrated the Jiang family ancestral hall,” he continues miserably. “And now, Sect Leader is being forced to accept them back into his home again? If I were him, I wouldn’t be sleeping well either from the injustice of it.”
Taking a deep breath, Zhao Zhongyi purses his lips, forcefully dispelling his anger. He reaches into his sleeve, drawing out a silver ingot.
“Thank you for telling me this, A-Luo,” he says, pressing the ingot into the disciple’s hand. “Take this and buy something nice for your brother.”
“Oh, but I couldn’t—“
“Take it,” Zhao Zhongyi insists. “Please continue to take care of Sect Leader.”
Finally, the disciple pockets the money, bowing deeply. As they head towards the guest wing, Sect Leader Zhao lowers his gaze to the stone path beneath their feet, mood pensive.
Perhaps it’s time, he thinks.
There is much work to be done.
Two weeks shy of the annual discussion conference, the harvest is in full force. His ride to Baling is slightly delayed by the carriages coming out of Yunmeng, delivering stocks of lotus seeds to sell in nearby towns. Still, Baling is near enough to Yicheng that he arrives not long after the meeting begins. Sect Leader Ouyang nods to him briefly as he enters the room.
“It’s true that Zewu-jun is still in seclusion,” Sect Leader Yao is speaking, seated beside Sect Leader Ouyang at the center of the table. “In a few weeks time, Hanguang-jun will again be attending the discussion conference on his behalf. And this year, it seems, he will be bringing a guest.”
“The Yiling Patriarch,” Zhao Zhongyi confirms, taking a seat at the table. “His spouse.”
Sect Leader Ouyang cups his hands in greeting.
“This gathering wouldn’t have been possible without your contributions,” he says respectfully. “It’s good to have you with us.”
Sect Leader Yao nods.
“I know many of us have been… dissatisfied… with the way the Yiling Patriarch has been accepted back into mainstream society, without trial or compensation,” he continues. “He seems to have been faring well under Gusu Lan’s protection.”
“The most righteous sect indeed,” he mutters.
“It’s quite unfortunate,” Sect Leader Yao agrees unhappily. “But fortunately for us, their marriage has rendered Hanguang-jun a biased judge in the eyes of the public. Furthermore, recent evidence has surfaced that may draw further doubt to his impartiality.”
With that, a disciple hurries forward, laying out copies of a few documents over the table. The gathered sect leaders read for a few moments.
Finally, one of them slams his hand onto the table, scoffing angrily.
“To think that Lan Wangji was the one to save the Yiling Patriarch at the Nightless City!” he curses. “If he hadn’t intervened, perhaps we might have killed that villain there and then, and our men wouldn’t have had to die during the Siege of the Burial Mounds! How many men died then? For what!”
Turning to Zhao Zhongyi, Sect Leader Ouyang cups his hands respectfully.
“We must thank Sect Leader Zhao for his thorough investigation work,” he acknowledges. “Without him, we would not have all this information compiled so neatly today.”
At the opposite end of a table, one of the assembled sect leaders lowers the papers slowly to the table, looking doubtful.
“To go against Hanguang-jun,” he begins uncertainly, “is to go against Gusu Lan. The alliance between the four great sects have always been strong. Can we as small sects hope to win against one of the greats?”
There is a moment of uneasy silence.
“The balance of power has shifted,” Zhao Zhongyi says surely. “Chifeng-zun is long dead, replaced by his head-shaker of a brother, and Zewu-jun is in seclusion. Yunmeng Jiang is now the most stable of the sects, bolstered by the support of the young Sect Leader Jin, whose hold over Lanlang Jin has strengthened greatly with his uncle’s help. I strongly believe that Sect Leader Jiang will support our cause. The Yiling Patriarch has done him too much wrong. Hanguang-jun has paid him too much disrespect.”
The atmosphere in the room seems to lighten.
“Ah, you’re right, of course,” someone murmurs, “You’re right. Yicheng Zhao has always been close with Yunmeng Jiang, hasn’t it? Your information must be reliable.”
“Yicheng Zhao was a close ally of Yunmeng Jiang during the war,” Zhao Zhongyi confirms. “The discussion conference at Yunmeng is prime time to strike. If the small sects present a united front, with Yunmeng Jiang’s support, and on Yunmeng Jiang’s turf— what chance does Gusu Lan stand against us?”
They wrap up the meeting soon after that. As uniformed disciples scurry forward to roll up the scrolls and take them away, Sect Leader Ouyang comes forward, greeting Zhao Zhongyi with cupped hands once more.
“Thank you again for compiling all this evidence,” he murmurs.
Zhao Zhongyi cups his hands as well.
“And thank you for rallying the other sects in the Yunmeng vicinity,” he returns. “Without your effort, the coalition would not be as strong as it is right now.”
“I’ve always longed to strengthen relationships with others in the region,” Sect Leader Ouyang says humbly. “Wei Wuxian has been a menace for too long. For the past three years, we’ve had to bite our tongues and watch him live on like nothing happened, but no longer. With your information, I hope we can finally hold him accountable for those we lost sixteen years ago.”
As the crowd begins to mill slowly out of the room, Zhao Zhongyi gathers up the papers in front of him, and hands it off to a disciple.
“We can only hope that justice will be served,” he agrees.
“Quickly!” Wei Wuxian cries. “Quickly!"
“Patience, young man,” the elderly boatsman sighs, and chuckles quietly. “If I paddle too quickly, we will crash into the dock with a very unpleasant bump.”
“We’re here?” Sizhui asks weakly, peering out of the cabin.
“Mm,” Lan Wangji confirms. “Drink more water. It will help with the nausea.”
“That was a long ride,” Jingyi mutters. “How does Senior Wei have so much energy?”
As the boat draws into the harbor, Wei Wuxian takes a running leap onto the dock with a loud whoop! and lands lightly on the wooden planks. While his companions slowly regain their bearings, he heads up into the town. Three long years since he’s set foot in Lotus Pier, and— perhaps it’s a little inappropriate, but he can’t help but feel excited!
The people of Yunmeng are abuzz with the clamor of harvest season, and it draws him right back into his youth— the happiness, the chatter, the sacks of lotus pods being ferried to and fro in wagons to be shelled, to be packaged, to be eaten or sold. During this season, he used to row out onto the lakes with his troupe of shidi, stealing lotus pods, getting chased by that angry farmer, and having a big bill sent home to Uncle Jiang at the end of the day. Jiang Cheng used to fret so much over those bills.
He slows a little as he draws into the town. Children run past him, shouting, swinging toy swords, as vendors hawk their wares. As a wagon driver hollers, he steps out of the way of the horses. At once, the jovial memories of his childhood become overlaid by the recollection of his last time in Lotus Pier. Shouting, fighting—
Let’s go, he remembers thinking in that moment, blurry with sorrow and rage, and never come back.
He looks up at the grand entrance to Lotus Pier, the tall watch towers, the high walls. As he stares, his husband comes up from behind him, squeezing his waist briefly and discreetly.
“Shall we?” he murmurs.
“Of course,” Wei Wuxian agrees.
With the two younglings in the rear, they stride forward through the bustling dock, and past the grand gates of Lotus Pier. As they enter the beginnings of the sprawling grounds, they see two figures ahead, seemingly in the middle of a conversation. Wei Wuxian does not recognize the first. The second, however—
Upon noticing them, Jiang Cheng’s expression stills. The other man — a sect leader, judging by the headdress — steps back as he seems to sense the change in atmosphere. After a moment, Jiang Cheng approaches them.
Lan Wangji averts his eyes, pursing his lips, and Sizhui steps forward.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” he greets graciously.
Quickly, Wei Wuxian lowers his eyes.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” he murmurs.
Jiang Cheng seems to startle at that. After a moment, he seems to gather himself, pressing his lips tightly together, and cupping his hands.
“Hanguang-jun,” he acknowledges stiffly. “I take it that you are representing Gusu Lan today, along with your two senior disciples. I hope you enjoy your stay.”
He offers Sizhui and Jingyi a subtle nod, but keeps his eyes pointedly away from Wei Wuxian’s vicinity. He does not greet Wei Wuxian.
Lan Wangji bristles.
“Jiang Wanyin—“ he begins furiously.
Wei Wuxian lays a placating hand on his arm, and Lan Wangji subsides, but not without a glare.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” he bites out, after a moment.
Striding forward, they walk past Lotus Pier’s owner, and into the compound itself. Wei Wuxian can’t help but feel a strong gaze against his back, but when he turns around, he meets an unfamiliar gaze. It’s the sect leader who’d been speaking to Jiang Cheng at the gate. He looks... vaguely familiar.
They look at each other for a moment, before the other man turns away, expression distinctively unfriendly.
“Who was that?” Wei Wuxian asks his husband in a low voice.
“Sect leader of a subsidiary sect of Yunmeng Jiang,” Lan Wangji says dismissively. “Surname Zhao.”
A subsidiary sect. No wonder he looked a little familiar, and no wonder he’d looked so unfriendly. He’d probably been one of those to march against Wei Wuxian during the siege. He can’t help but sigh at that. It seems like the ghosts of his past won’t leave him that easily.
After a moment, he shakes the morose feeling off. It’s too much to expect the world to forgive him. There are too many secrets to keep, and stories that must remain untold. He’s come to terms with that.
Turning to look forward into the compound, Wei Wuxian is distracted by the sight of Lotus Pier in all its glory. So much of it is different from the Lotus Pier of his childhood, taller, built with newer material— but so much of it is still so painfully familiar. The structure of it is still there. The architecture is still similar.
There’s a traitorous voice in his heart that whispers home.
He wants to see more of it.
They step over the threshold into a busy courtyard. It seems most of the guests are mingling here, standing in the open with cups of wine, or else seated at one of the many tables on the porch. He can’t help but pause.
There are eyes on him, but when he turns to scan the crowd, those gazes disperse quickly. He cannot tell who were the ones looking. Perhaps they were all looking.
The thought leaves him feeling vaguely disconcerted.
“Oi!” someone cries, striding quickly forward.
It is Jin Ling, scowling as usual, with the young Ouyang Zizhen by his side. They cup their hands briefly, before the two youngsters turn their attention to Sizhui and Jingyi, clasping hands, clapping shoulders. Wei Wuxian can’t help but smile. The juniors have grown close, he knows. Still, with the distance, he knows that Jin Ling and Zizhen do not get to meet their friends from Gusu as often as they would wish.
“You’ve grown taller again,” Sizhui notes.
“You’re taller than Senior Wei now!” Jingyi crows.
Jin Ling preens.
Escorted by the young sect leader, they are led into the guest wing of Lotus Pier.
“Is it just me,” Wei Wuxian murmurs to his nephew, looking back over his shoulder, “or am I feeling a little watched today?”
Jin Ling scoffs.
“Who doesn’t feel watched by the vultures every discussion conference?” he mutters.
Wei Wuxian laughs, surprised, but can’t help but ease a little at that.
“That’s true,” he admits.
The next day, the discussion conference begins for real. It’s difficult and boring as always, but sitting together on the dais, Jin Ling and Jiang Cheng do a good job of keeping the conference on schedule.
For the most part, Wei Wuxian stays on his best behavior, only weakening occasionally to play games with Jingyi under the table. He keeps obediently quiet throughout the whole thing, neither sassing nor chattering, dropping his eyes to avoid Jiang Cheng’s piercing gaze whenever it sweeps down over the crowd.
Still, even his best behavior seems to draw Jiang Cheng’s ire.
“It appears that Hanguang-jun’s spouse is not inclined for politics,” he says to the wall behind Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, on the first day after the midday break is called.
“I don’t begrudge Hanguang-jun for wanting to bring his spouse of course,” he says over dinner the second day. “But his spouse seems bored by these proceedings.”
“One can’t help but wonder why Hanguang-jun’s spouse chose to attend at all,” he says in the doorway, on the morning of the third day, “if he isn’t interested in—“
“Will you stop that?!” Wei Wuxian finally snaps.
Jiang Cheng’s expression does not change.
“Oh, are you talking to me?” he asks. “I had humbly assumed that I was beneath your notice.”
Lifting the hem of his robes, he steps across the threshold, and heads into the meeting hall. Jin Ling breaks away from him for a moment, coming to Wei Wuxian with an apologetic smile.
“Sorry about my Jiujiu,” he mutters. “He has a sharp tongue, but a good heart. Please don’t begrudge him.”
A spark of annoyance flares in Wei Wuxian’s chest.
“Do I not already know about his sharp tongue?” he asks. “I’ve been living with his bad temper since I was nine years old. You don’t have to introduce him like we’re strangers. If he wants to treat me like a stranger, that’s his problem.”
Jin Ling raises an eyebrow, and feeling chastised, Wei Wuxian swallows his anger down.
“Sorry,” he mutters. “I’m just on edge.”
“Jiujiu does have a way of doing that to people, doesn’t he?” Jin Ling agrees.
With a sigh, he lifts the front of his robes, and steps gingerly over the threshold.
The discussion conference drags on for two more days, before finally beginning to wrap up. It is on the last day when things start to get hairy.
“Any other things not covered in our agenda?” Jiang Cheng asks tiredly. “If not, then let’s bring this meeting to a close.”
“There is an important issue that we’d like to raise,” Sect Leader Ouyang says, standing.
Jiang Cheng looks slightly taken aback at that. By his father’s side, Zizhen is shooting Sect Leader Ouyang a questioning look. Finally, Jiang Cheng sighs.
“Please speak,” he says. “Though in the future, I would appreciate that important issues be submitted early and included as part of our meeting agenda. It’s difficult to accurately schedule otherwise.”
“We did not wish to give individuals time to fabricate evidence or obfuscate the truth,” Sect Leader Yao says boldly.
That sends the room into quiet whispers. Looking around, however, Wei Wuxian can’t help but notice that many of the faces in the crowd stay expressionless.
“It is about the Yiling Patriarch.”
The room erupts into loud muttering. Those sitting around Sect Leader Yao, however, remain silent. They do not seem surprised by this turn of events.
They’ve been planning this, Wei Wuxian realizes.
“There remain many crimes that he has not stood trial for,” Sect Leader Ouyang continues, dipping his head slightly, “many deaths that remain unavenged. And yet, he has been allowed to live on in comfort.”
Numbly, Wei Wuxian looks to his husband. Past him, Jiang Cheng stands slowly, expression slack with surprise. Lan Wangji rises as well, setting his palm heavily down on the table.
“Impudent,” he says coldly.
“Even if the Yiling Patriarch had committed crimes in the past,” Sizhui cuts in quickly from behind him, “it should already be clear that he is living a reformed life.”
“A child speaking at a table of elders?!” Sect Leader Yao demands.
“A senior disciple,” Jin Ling corrects.
“Gusu Lan can vouch for Senior Wei,” Sizhui continues. “He has been under the close watch of the Gusu Lan sect since his return.”
“Under the close watch of Gusu Lan?” Sect Leader Yao questions. “Or under the close watch of Hanguang-jun?”
A moment of silence.
“What is your implication?” Lan Wangji asks tersely.
Sect Leader Ouyang waves. At his gesture, a disciple scurries forward with a stack of papers.
“Distribute it,” Sect Leader Ouyang murmurs.
And finally, Jiang Cheng speaks up.
“What is the meaning of this?” he asks hoarsely.
He is still standing, and he is not the only one. After a moment, Sect Leader Yao bows his head.
“Gentlemen,” he says. “Please sit. It has taken us much time to put this evidence together. We have gathered a number of witnesses, so I hope you will listen to their story.”
That is the only way Wei Wuxian can describe how he’s feeling, as the sect leaders lay out their case. If it were a case solely against himself, it would be one thing, but this time—
“The honorable Hanguang-jun?” Sect Leader Yao demands, amidst the buzz of murmuring voices. “He has had intentions towards the Yiling Patriarch, has been protecting him all along! Can we trust his judgment? Is he just? Is he impartial?”
“How dare you!” Jingyi shrieks.
Sizhui sits silent and still as stone, eyes wide.
“The evidence doesn’t lie,” another sect leader intones coldly.
It is the sect leader they had encountered at the gates— Sect Leader Zhao.
“Hanguang-jun saved the Yiling Patriarch that night at the Nightless City,” he summarizes, rising slowly from his seat. “We have seven witness accounts of that. Immediately afterwards, Hanguang-jun was punished with three years of seclusion. What for? Is it possible that Gusu Lan was aware of his actions, but sought to cover it up? Why don’t we ask the honorable Hanguang-jun?”
“You—“ Lan Wangji begins.
His expression is thunderous, terrifying in its intensity, but to his credit, Sect Leader Zhao meets his eye without flinching.
“Was Gusu Lan aware of what you did that night?” he asks. “Was that what the punishment was about?”
Lan Wangji stares him down for a long moment, saying nothing.
His bottom lip is trembling.
“These are inner matters of Gusu Lan,” Wei Wuxian speaks desperately. “Hanguang-jun is not obliged to respond to intrusive questions about sect matters.”
“So that’s a yes,” Sect Leader Zhao says.
Wei Wuxian closes his eyes.
“According to the publicly available ledger on the Wen prisoners of war, there was a child amongst the Wen remnants,” Sect Leader Zhao continues, “whose body was not accounted for when they sacked the Burial Mounds.”
Beside him, Sizhui’s hands clench slowly against the table.
“However, we have yet another witness who saw Lan Wangji emerging from the Burial Mounds with a young child,” Sect Leader Zhao accuses. “We had the witnesses in just now. You heard their accounts. Where is that child now? Has Gusu Lan been sheltering and raising the Wen child that Lan Wangji rescued? Could there be a Wen descendent amongst us?!”
“The child is innocent!” Wei Wuxian cries. “What has the child to do with anything I’ve done!”
“So the child lives!” Sect Leader Yao shouts.
Wei Wuxian is struck speechless.
“I didn’t say that,” he finally manages.
He is ignored.
“These are frightening revelations,” Sect Leader Zhao continues. “For this long, we have held our tongues in respect for Gusu Lan, expecting that it would uphold justice and integrity. The evidence suggests that our faith has been sorely misplaced. We cannot put our faith in a single sect. There needs to be a public trial.”
“Impudent!” Lan Wangji cries.
“Today we call for the Yiling Patriarch to face trial on four matters,” Sect Leader Zhao continues loudly over him, “first, the cultivators he slaughtered at the Wen prison camp, second, the massacre at Qiongqi Path, third, the bloodbath at the Nightless City, and lastly, the deaths caused during the Siege of the Burial Mounds.”
“This—” Jiang Cheng finally splutters. “Zhao Zhongyi, what are you saying? This is absurd!”
Sect Leader Zhao seems taken aback. Amongst the small sect leaders that seem to make up the coalition, many also look surprised. They trade looks, some even murmuring quietly amongst themselves. Amongst them, Sect Leader Ouyang pales visibly.
“What’s so ridiculous about that?!” Sect Leader Yao forges on, strident. “Are you or are you not going to refute the evidence? If not, then I say we put this to a vote! Should the Yiling Patriarch face trial for his actions?! I say yes!”
“I say yes,” the sect leader sitting beside him says immediately.
“I too,” says another.
One by one, the sect leaders surrounding Sect Leader Yao pledge their support. The rest of the room murmurs amongst themselves, but Jin Ling, Jiang Cheng, and Nie Huaisang stay notably silent.
“Considering the number of people calling for a trial, I say that this should be an inevitability,” Sect Leader Yao declares. “When shall the trial be, and where?”
“Wait,” Jiang Cheng says suddenly. “We haven’t decided who will preside over the case.”
“The Yiling Patriarch was originally a disciple of Yunmeng Jiang!” Jin Ling interjects at once. “Yunmeng Jiang should preside over the case!”
The sect leaders surrounding Sect Leader Yao look at one another, then at Jiang Cheng. Wei Wuxian can see the calculation in their eyes, the assessment, before they begin to protest.
“The Yiling Patriarch is no longer an Yunmeng Jiang disciple!” someone protests.
“But—“ Jin Ling begins furiously.
“His misdeeds happened when he was not a member of Yunmeng Jiang,” another sect leader points out.
“Still—“ Jin Ling tries again.
“Why should Yunmeng Jiang preside when it’s been nearly twenty years since he was affiliated with them?” Sect Leader Yao cuts in.
Finally, Jiang Cheng seems to lose his temper, slamming a crackling hand down on the table. The table cracks a little under his hand, but does not break.
The room goes quiet.
“Wei Wuxian is still registered as a member of Yunmeng Jiang,” Jiang Cheng seethes. “He was never struck from our ledger!”
There’s a moment of stunned silence. Through the numb haze of his own shock, Wei Wuxian looks first to his husband, and then to Jin Ling. Both look just as shocked as everyone else.
Finally, a gong sounds distantly in the quiet.
It’s the second geng. 
“Can we take a break?” Nie Huaisang whines. “I need to visit the loo.”
The moment they step out of the hall, they find themselves accosted by Jiang Cheng, and a man Wei Wuxian recognizes as his deputy. Jin Ling gets dragged miserably behind them by the wrist into a nearby hall.
“Lock the doors,” Jiang Cheng says sharply to his deputy, before turning to the rest of them. “We need to figure out what we’re going to do next. I suggest—“
“You didn’t strike me from the ledger,” Wei Wuxian interrupts hoarsely.
Jiang Cheng blinks.
“This is not the time to talk about that,” he dismisses. “About the trial—“
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Wei Wuxian cuts back in. “Why didn’t you— I don’t understand, Jiang Cheng. I don’t understand.”
“You don’t need to understand,” Jiang Cheng snaps. “You just need to listen! This is important!”
“This is important too!” Wei Wuxian protests.
“We do not have the time to—“
The doors swing violently open as the deputy reaches out to lock them, forcing him to take a step back as they clatter loudly against the walls. Sect Leader Zhao storms in, furious and frantic.
“Sect Leader!” he cries. “What are you doing?!”
“What are you doing?” Jiang Cheng retorts. “Are you part of Sect Leader Yao’s coalition? I must say that I’m disappointed. Where has your common sense gone?”
Sect Leader stares at him helplessly for a moment, panting harshly, before looking between Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji with wild eyes.
“Sect Leader,” he explodes, thrusting a finger at them. “Why are you defending them?! After how they’ve sabotaged and mistreated you over the years?! After they’ve disrespected and humiliated you?! Wei Wuxian has been a blight on your reputation since the Sunshot Campaign, always overriding your orders, speaking over you in front of others, undermining your authority.”
“I—“ Wei Wuxian begins quietly, aghast.
“Be quiet!” Sect Leader Zhao snaps, before turning on Lan Wangji. “You’ve been sabotaging Sect Leader’s sect-building efforts for thirteen years! You refuse to greet him as a sect leader, having junior disciples greet him instead, even refusing to look at him! Is Sect Leader someone you can turn your nose up against?! How dare you!”
“Is my reputation so fragile that even a small bit of disrespect can hurt me?!” Jiang Cheng demands.
“Sect Leader!” Sect Leader Zhao cries. “Do you know how people talked after he pulled the stunt with the nets three years ago? He never dared to pick on Nie Huaisang and Jin Guangyao. Zewu-jun would be unhappy with him if he did, but because Sect Leader was excluded from that alliance, he picks on you freely! Upon Wei Wuxian’s return three years ago… he even had the gall to desecrate the Jiang family ancestral hall! Would he have dared with any of Zewu-jun’s sworn brothers?! Isn’t this picking on the underdog?!”
“I wasn’t—“ Lan Wangji begins furiously, before falling helplessly silent. He minces his lips for a moment, as if chewing on his words, but seems unable to find words to defend himself. Wei Wuxian knows his husband. There’s no way that Lan Wangji had consciously considered that. He is not a bully. He is also no good at arguing with others.
At his cut-off protest, Sect Leader Zhao finally turns on him, scoffing.
“Hanguang-jun,” he begins, spitting the title, “you really know how to take advantage of your good reputation. I’ve been serving Sect Leader Jiang for nearly twenty years, so I see the way you work. You have a reputation for standing up against injustice, so when you stand up against Sect Leader, the conclusion others draw is that Sect Leader must be “injustice”, and you the vanguard.”
“But in fact!” he continues. “It was solely because you were in love with the Yiling Patriarch from the beginning! Your feud with Sect Leader Jiang was because he rightly killed the Yiling Patriarch. All these years, the public has always painted your interactions in shades of morality, when in fact, this has always been a personal confrontation, not an ethical one!”
“I—“ Lan Wangji splutters. He shuts his mouth after a moment, looking lost. When he next speaks, his voice is small.
“That wasn’t my intention,” he whispers helplessly. Wei Wuxian lays a hand on his.
“It wasn’t,” he says frantically. “I know it wasn’t.”
Jiang Cheng makes a frustrated noise.
“Zhao Zhongyi—“ he begins, before sighing in exasperation. “I know you’re upset on my behalf, but why couldn’t you have brought this up with me first?! Now this whole backlash has started, and there’s no way of containing it! What am I supposed to do now?!”
He isn’t correcting Sect Leader Zhao, only deflecting. Lan Wangji’s expression turns even more unhappy at that.
“Sect Leader!” Zhao Zhongyi protests.
“Enough!” Jiang Cheng snaps, before turning to his deputy. “Please escort Sect Leader Zhao to quiet place and take care of him. He is clearly very emotional about this.”
His deputy hesitates for a moment, not looking up or speaking. Jiang Cheng steps backward, incredulous.
“Don’t tell me you are also on his side?!” he demands.
There’s a moment of silence, before Sect Leader Zhao bows.
“I don’t mean to cause trouble for you, Sect Leader,” he demurs, seeming vaguely regretful. “I will see you at the banquet later.”
With a final bow, he takes his leave. Jiang Cheng whips around, turning on his deputy with an incredulous expression.
“What was that about?!” he snaps.
His deputy dips his head.
“Everyone has noticed that Sect Leader has been different since Hanguang-jun and the Yiling Patriarch desecrated the Jiang family’s ancestral hall three years ago,” he says quietly. “Sect Leader was so disturbed in the aftermath— Sect Leader, it hurt us to see you so frenzied. Even until now, you haven’t recovered. Sect Leader is clearly still affected. So all of us were thinking: they must have done something. But what could they have done that was so terrible that Sect Leader has been having nightmares, has been visiting the ancestral hall, kneeling for hours at a time! Sect Leader—”
The man chokes, closing his eyes. His pursed lips are white and trembling with bitten back anger. At his words, however, Jiang Cheng recoils.
“Do I need to explain myself to you now?!” he snaps. “How dare you!”
“Jiujiu,” Jin Ling begins, gripping his arm frantically. “Deputy Shi only means well.”
But Jiang Cheng just brushes his hand forcefully away.
“Get out,” he seethes.
Deputy Shi lowers his head.
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian finally cuts in, feeling sorry for the man. “He was only—“
Jiang Cheng turns to him, looking visibly agitated.
“Both of you too!” he snaps, and strides towards the doors. “Get out! I don’t want to see any of your faces right now!”
He yanks the door open.
Sizhui, Jingyi, and Zizhen come falling into the room, landing in a heap on the floor with a series of yelps. After a moment, Jingyi pushes himself slowly up onto his elbows.
“Err,” he begins. “I swear— we just happened to be outside?”
Jiang Cheng groans, before turning around.
“A-Ling,” he calls impatiently.
“I’m here,” Jin Ling says, rushing to his side.
“Come,” he says shortly, before stepping over the heap of collapsed juniors, and disappearing off into the night. Jin Ling bends briefly, whispering something furiously to his peers, before he scurries after his uncle. Wei Wuxian strides slowly to the door. After a moment, his husband catches up with him as the juniors untangle themselves from one another behind them.
“Don’t worry, Senior Wei!” Ouyang Zizhen cries. “My father is loyal to Sect Leader Jiang, and is extremely afraid of his displeasure. If Sect Leader Jiang were to indicate his disapproval, even in the slightest, then my father will surely withdraw his support from the coalition.”
Sizhui and Jingyi look at each other, before looking at the floor.
“But even then,” Jingyi mumbles reluctantly, “will that be enough?”
A moment of solemn silence.
“Ai!” Wei Wuxian cuts in. “All these adult matters— young people should not be concerned about them!”
He offers the three juniors a hand up.
“Let the adults worry about the adult matters, alright?” he murmurs gently.
The three look at him doubtfully, but in the end, they just nod, accepting his hand.
Leaving the room, he walks out into the garden with his husband. The moon is high in the sky, the leaves wet with night dew, letting out a kind of sweet earthy fragrance.
“The nights are always so fragrant in Yunmeng,” Wei Wuxian murmurs, closing his eyes. “I have missed this.”
Still, when he opens his eyes, his husband is peering down at the stone path, brows drawn together into a troubled expression. Wei Wuxian bites his lip, and peers around. He catches sight of a doorway into a side wing, which he knows leads in the direction of the private lotus ponds at the back of Lotus Pier.
“There’s a nice spot to see the lotuses nearby,” he says eagerly, eager to distract his husband from his morose thoughts. “Let’s sit for awhile, Lan Zhan.”
He catches his husband’s arm, pulling him towards the doorway. As they draw near, however, a man steps out from a converging path, planting himself solidly in their path.
It is Deputy Shi.
“Please refrain from treating Lotus Pier like your own home,” he says stonily. “This wing leads into the Jiang family residence. Going wherever you please, and leaving whenever you please— Does Sect Leader even exist in your regard, that you freely let yourselves into private parts of his home, insulting him when he confronts you for trespassing?”
They both remain silent as he casts a stern look over them, his gaze eventually settling on Wei Wuxian.
“I’d just like to remind you that this isn’t the Lotus Pier that you once called home,” he says. “This is the home that Sect Leader rebuilt, with his own sweat, his own tears, all alone with no one to help him. Why was he alone? Remind me again who abandoned him when he needed you most, leaving him to rebuild this home by himself? He saw you as family, but you chose outsiders over him. Whatever gratitude you felt— was that more than the loyalty you owed to family?”
Wei Wuxian takes a step back, stunned. Deputy Shi turns to Lan Wangji.
“When Sect Leader was struggling to be taken seriously, a one man army with nothing but his reputation as a shield— you took every effort to undermine that reputation. You have never greeted him as a sect leader. You let your juniors greet him like equals. You sneer at him at conferences. I used to wonder: what had Sect Leader ever done to deserve this from you? Because he laid siege to the Burial Mounds? Then why don’t you blame your brother, your uncle? Did they not lead the siege as well?”
Lan Wangji does not answer. Wei Wuxian cannot bring himself to speak either.
Deputy Shi looks over them both one last time.
“Lotus Pier does not welcome you here,” he finally says. “Do not test the boundaries of our hospitality.”
And with that, he turns, and walks away.
The two of them stand there in silence for a moment, before Wei Wuxian draws Lan Wangji gently away by the hand. There’s a pavillion in the garden, which they seat themselves in. They sit there in silence for a long while.
Deputy Shi’s words come back to him, repeating over and over in his head damningly.
He saw you as family, but you chose outsiders over him.
Whatever gratitude you felt— was that more than the loyalty you owed to family?”
And then, plaintively, Deputy Shi’s pained words to Jiang Cheng.
What could they have done that was so terrible that Sect Leader has been having nightmares, has been visiting the ancestral hall, kneeling for hours at a time?
He has to close his eyes at that. Jiang Cheng, he knows, has always had a sensitive heart under that prickly exterior. How had he forgotten that? How had he left Jiang Cheng alone to weather the revelations from three years ago? How had he taken that prickly exterior as an indicator that he no longer cared?
He sighs, rubbing tiredly at his face.
Does he even deserve Jiang Cheng’s forgiveness? Does he even deserve the chance to call this place home again?
Up above, the moon shines down upon them, a cold and silent judge. All these grievances, lies, and secrets had slowly been tightening around him this whole time, and like in his previous life, he had not noticed the net until he had been thoroughly ensnared. For three years, he had been content to live in denial, pretending that his mistakes were behind him. Perhaps it had been naive to think that he could escape his past. The thought fills him with sorrow, and— perhaps a little fear, but also a kind of resigned acceptance.
When he turns to his husband, Lan Wangji looks equally pensive, expression somber. He wonders if his husband is also reflecting on Deputy Shi’s words. Reaching out, he lays a hand on Lan Wangji’s arm.
“I’ve done a lot of wrong in the past,” he admits hoarsely. “Perhaps it’s time for me to be held accountable for my mistakes.”
Lan Wangji stays silent.
“It’s going to be hard to overcome the evidence in a public trial,” Wei Wuxian continues. “Lan Zhan… do not fight them. We both know the charges are true. It would betray your principles to lie.”
“I would lie for you,” Lan Wangji croaks.
“But if you did,” Wei Wuxian cuts in fiercely, “if you lied and faked evidence to save me— then you wouldn’t be the Lan Zhan that I fell in love with. All I ask is that you fight for the punishment to be house arrest. I will surrender myself to your custody for the rest of my life.”
He brushes a stray lock of hair out of his husband’s face with a sad smile.
“That’s not a bad thing,” he whispers. “Just me and you until we’re both old and grey. At least we’d still be together.”
Lan Wangji closes his eyes, lips trembling with unspoken emotion. When he opens his eyes, looking at Wei Wuxian, there is a sheen of moisture over his eyes.
“You wouldn’t be happy caged,” he says.
In response, Wei Wuxian just smiles wordlessly, and shifts closer. Closing his eyes, he lowers his head, resting it on his husband’s shoulder.
It’s true, he knows.
But he will take what he can get.
They sit in the pavilion for the rest of the break, not speaking, just resting quietly against each other. Finally, however, they manage to tear themselves away to return to the meeting hall.
Inside, the coalition of small sect leaders are grouped together, whispering in anticipatory tones. Wei Wuxian can see the victory alight in their excited faces. Zhao Zhongyi, surprisingly, has moved to sit separately from them, expression stiff. Seemingly in line with Zizhen’s prediction, Sect Leader Ouyang is also sitting separately from the main coalition, amongst a small group of other sect leaders. They are muttering to each other, looking vaguely uneasy.
Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling are conspicuously absent, and Wei Wuxian takes his assigned seat with some disappointment. Finally, as the rest of the sect leaders trail into the room, Sect Leader Yao calls out.
“Where is Sect Leader Jiang and Sect Leader Jin?” he asks loudly. “How are we supposed to resume with two out of the four great sects absent?”
The room breaks out into uncertain murmurs. Sect Leader Ouyang sits amongst his posse of sect leaders, looking a little overwrought.
“Please exercise some patience, Sect Leader Yao,” a deep voice calls coldly from behind.
Wei Wuxian turns to see Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling entering the room, taking their seats up on the dais. Sect Leader Yao barely allows them to settle in their seats before speaking again.
“On the matter of who will judge,” he begins confidently, “clearly—“
“We haven’t even settled on the scope of the trial,” Jin Ling cuts in. “How can we settle on a judge when we have not even clarified what Wei Wuxian will be tried for?”
“We have already clarified,” Sect Leader Yao snaps. “Four matters: first, the killing of cultivators at the Wen prison camp, second, the slaughter at Qiongqi Path, third, the bloodbath at the Nightless City, and lastly, the massacre of cultivators during the Siege of the Burial Mounds!”
“Are you the reigning sect leader of Lanling Jin, or am I?” Jin Ling challenges. “The massacre at the Wen prison camp, and at Qiongqi Path were both crimes against Lanling Jin. I haven’t said anything about it. Why are you so concerned?”
The room goes quiet. The young man’s voice is steady, expression calm as he stands, but his hands belie his anxiety. They close slowly against the tabletop, trembling faintly.
“As my own father was killed during these events,” he continues, “I have personally investigated this matter in the last three years. According to Lanling Jin’s record, the prisoners kept there were all women, children, and the elderly. None of them were cultivators. I cannot, in good conscience, condone the treatment they received there. Thus, I do not wish to bring suit against Wei Wuxian for punishing those who abused their power to kill and torture.”
Beside him, Sizhui draws a shaky breath. Wei Wuxian reaches out instinctively to grasp Sizhui’s hand in his, so small, and so clammy with apparent nerves. His movement draws Jiang Cheng’s eye from up on the dais. Nervous, he quickly lets go, shifting away from Sizhui.
“Regarding the massacre at Qiongqi path,” Jin Ling continues, and stops briefly.
His voice is shaking audibly now, and that finally seems to draw Jiang Cheng’s attention away from Sizhui. He puts a hand on Jin Ling’s back, which seems to steady Jin Ling enough to continue.
“According to the confessions and material evidence presented to me,” he continues, “the confrontation was started by my uncle, Jin Zixun, who led an ambush due to the belief that Wei Wuxian had cursed him with the Hundred Hole Curse. However, we later found the caster to be Su Minshan of Moling Su, acting under the orders of the late Jin Guangyao.”
“The entire incident was a set up,” he finishes. “Wei Wuxian was framed and acting in self-defense. I cannot— do not blame him for what happened that night.”
After a moment, he sits back down. Then, his shoulders slump, face creasing with exhaustion beyond his years.
“A-Ling,” Wei Wuxian speaks hoarsely. “A-Ling, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Jin Ling just shakes his head silently, closing his eyes. Jiang Cheng strokes his back gently.
“The Siege of the Burial Mounds,” Jiang Cheng begins, “was initiated and led by the four great sects. At the time… we were not aware of the facts surrounding the Wen remnants, and the confrontation at Qiongqi path. Knowing what we know now—“
He stops, and then takes a breath.
“I’m not sure we can say that the siege was justified,” he finishes. “And if it wasn’t, then how can we blame Wei Wuxian for everything he did in self-defense? On the contrary... we might actually owe him an apology.”
Wei Wuxian stands, heart in his throat, and something unnameable rising in his chest.
“Sit down,” Jiang Cheng says, before he can speak. Truthfully, Wei Wuxian is unsure what he would have said, or if he would have been able to speak at all. And so, after a moment, he just sits down numbly. Lan Wangji strokes his back discreetly as, around them, the various small sect leaders trade unsure glances.
“I can say with confidence,” Nie Huaisang speaks suddenly, “that if my brother had known of the facts— if he had known that we were waging a war against women, children, and that the massacre at Qiongqi had been a set up, connected to the actions of the late Jin Guangyao—“
He purses his lips.
“Then he would never have agreed to be part of the siege,” he says certainly.
“Brother is not here today to speak for himself,” Lan Wangji adds, “but after many of the facts were revealed at Guanyin Temple, Brother has been in seclusion, reflecting on the mistakes he made under the influence of Jin Guangyao’s deception. He would not agree to be part of the siege if it had happened today.”
The room blurs strangely, and it’s only when Sizhui lays a hand on his that he realizes that there are tears in his eyes. He scrubs them away before they can fall. Inside of him, it feels like a knot in him is slowly loosening, a long unspoken grievance dissolving finally.
“Then what about the Nightless City?!” Sect Leader Yao demands suddenly, looking incredulously around him. “What about the three thousand cultivators slaughtered by the Yiling Patriarch in that single night?!”
“There were three thousand cultivators in attendance ,” Nie Huaisang corrects, “including my brother, Hanguang-jun, and even yourself. None of you died that night. Clearly, the Yiling Patriarch did not slaughter everyone in attendance, so how can you say that the Yiling Patriarch killed three thousand men?”
“Can crimes be haggled like that?!” Sect Leader Yao splutters.
“If there’s going to be a trial, then it’s important to ascertain the severity of the crime, and to get the numbers correct, isn’t it?” Jin Ling demands.
“Your mother died that night,” Sect Leader Zhao says, bluntly, but not unkindly.
Jin Ling visibly recoils at that.
Lan Wangji’s hand shoots out, gripping Wei Wuxian’s free hand. Sizhui’s grasp on his other hand tightens. Too late, Wei Wuxian realizes that he must have let out a sound.
“Zhao Zhongyi!” Jiang Cheng shouts, incredulous, and enraged.
“I killed people that night,” Wei Wuxian finally interrupts, “and I am willing to stand trial for it.”
“Wei Ying!” Lan Wangji cries, disbelieving.
Wei Wuxian closes his eyes, collecting himself.
“I did kill people,” he manages to choke out, past the lump in his throat.
“You were not in control,” Lan Wangji whispers.
“And who’s fault is that?!” Sect Leader Yao snaps. “The Yiling Patriarch is a cautionary tale of the dangers of demonic cultivation to the entire cultivation world! How many people has he killed due to his loss of control? He had a broad road to walk on, and he chose to gamble it all away for the promise of power!”
“That’s not why—“ Wei Wuxian begins, and then cuts himself forcefully off.
“That’s not why?” Sect Leader Yao taunts. “Then tell us why! Even if you needed it during the Sunshot Campaign, while didn’t you return to the proper path after? Why didn’t you continue to practice the sword?”
“Why did you refuse to carry your sword?” Sect Leader Zhao adds accusingly. “Why did you let people insult and judge Yunmeng Jiang for your actions?”
“If not for power, what other motivation could you have to stray from the righteous path?!” Sect Leader Yao challenges.
In the face of their accusations, Wei Wuxian can only close his eyes, remaining silent. A tear escapes from the inner corner of his eye, slipping down over his trembling lips.
On the dais, Jiang Cheng’s hand clenches slowly against the tabletop. After a moment, he touches that hand to his lower abdomen, before his expression hardens, and he stands.
Wei Wuxian knows what he’s about to do.
“Jiang Cheng,” he speaks frantically. “You don’t have to tell them anything—“
But he is ignored.
“He did it because he did not have a core,” Jiang Cheng says coldly. “He gave it to me.”
The room goes quiet.
“What does that mean?” Deputy Shi whispers.
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian begins desperately.
But Jiang Cheng ignores him again, turning to address the room at large.
“My core was destroyed by the Core Melting Hand on that day,” he explains stoically. “Afterwards, he sought Wen Qing’s help to transplant his core into my body. From then on, he was no longer able to cultivate the same way. But, to retake Yunmeng Jiang from the Wens—”
He trails off. He visibly swallows, eyes staring at a spot somewhere on the far wall. On Sizhui’s other side, Jingyi rises to his feet.
“How could you?” he accuses. “Knowing what he sacrificed for you, how could you— in good conscience—“
“He didn’t know until after my return,” Wei Wuxian cuts in. “I hid it from him. I don’t blame him for the siege. You shouldn’t either.”
Jiang Cheng jerks, turning to look at him. His eyes are wide, and his expression—
“But how can this be?” Sect Leader Zhao asks. “A core transplant? It’s not possible!”
Jiang Cheng blinks, seeming to regain control over his facial features again, and holds out a hand. With a loud shhk, Suibian flies out of Wei Wuxian’s sheath, and up into his outstretched hand. Wei Wuxian startles at that, as does the rest of the room.
After a moment, point demonstrated, Jiang Cheng sends the sword back into its sheath. It flies gracefully across the room, sheathing itself quietly at Wei Wuxian’s hip.
“Three years ago,” Jiang Cheng continues, “right after the second siege of the Burial Mounds, I asked everyone to try drawing this sword right here, in this very same hall. You all failed, but I was able to draw it. The reason is because I still have Wei Wuxian’s original core.”
The room remains deathly silent as he closes his eyes. Jin Ling puts a hand on his back as he visibly collects himself. Then finally, Jiang Cheng looks back up.
“Twenty-three disciples died at the Nightless City,” he begins. “One hundred and six died during the Siege of the Burial Mounds. I did not know the truth about my core until it was revealed to me that night, the night we were all gathered here at Lotus Pier. But in light of this reveal… I cannot in good conscience pursue the deaths of my disciples caused during the Siege of the Burial Mounds and at the Nightless City.”
Jin Ling clears his throat.
“Lanling Jin is willing to drop charges for the deaths of our disciples caused at Qiongqi Path, the Nightless City, and during the siege.”
“Qinghe Nie brings no case against the Yiling Patriarch either,” Nie Huaisang adds.
After that, there is a pregnant pause, as the other sect leaders look at each other.
“Yicheng Zhao,” Sect Leader Zhao says, staring straight ahead, “drops its charges against the Yiling Patriarch.”
Hurriedly, Sect Leader Ouyang speaks.
“Baling Ouyang is a subsidiary sect of Yunmeng Jiang,” he says quickly. “Seeing as Sect Leader Jiang is inclined to let bygones be bygones, we also have no case to bring up.”
“Sect Leader Ouyang!” cries Sect Leader Yao.
“Baling Ouyang was not initially clear of the full facts,” Sect Leader Ouyang says firmly. “We believed that we were speaking up for Yunmeng Jiang. Since Yunmeng Jiang is not in agreement with this suit, we wish to drop it.”
The rest of the sect leaders sitting around him nod hurriedly, murmuring their assent.
Sect Leader Yao watches in dismay as the coalition seemingly crumbles. Another tear slips down Wei Wuxian’s cheek, and he dashes it quickly away, before standing.
“If anyone present still wishes to bring suit against me for crimes committed in my first life,” he begins, “I will stand trial.”
There is a long silence at that.
“Sect Leader Yao?” Jiang Cheng prompts coldly.
“I bring no case,” Sect Leader Yao says unhappily.
Clapping his hands, Jin Ling stands, looking relieved.
“Then let’s draw this meeting to a close,” he declares. “We are long overdue. It is almost the third geng.”
Somewhere outside, a gong sounds in the night. Nie Huaisang stands as well.
“And there goes the third geng,” he says quickly, and grins sheepishly. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m exhausted! Good night, everyone! I’m making the first move!”
He scurries out of the room, fanning himself gently. And with that, the meeting seems to draw to a close. The assembled sect leaders begin to murmur, standing, and to mill out through the doors.
Wei Wuxian grips his husband’s sleeve, and begins to head towards Jiang Cheng. They are accosted by Zizhen, dragging his father by the sleeve towards them.
“Senior Wei!” he cries. “I didn’t know about your core. You did a really good thing, you know!”
“Yeah, Senior Wei!” Jingyi cries, standing and joining them in front of the table. Sizhui comes around the table as well, catching Wei Wuxian’s eye with a somewhat uneasy expression. Seeming to guess his thoughts, Lan Wangji reaches out and strokes a hand briefly down the boy's back.
“It’s over now,” he murmurs. “Don’t worry.”
“That was harrowing though,” Zizhen chirps. “I swear my heart was beating out of my chest. Thank goodness it was resolved.”
Sect Leader Ouyang keeps silent, looking a little uncomfortable amidst the juniors.
“Thank you, Zizhen,” Wei Wuxian says distractedly, putting a hand on his head, and then peering discreetly up over the dais.
Jiang Cheng has disappeared. Jin Ling is descending the dais towards them. As they make eye contact, he jerks his head towards the exit.
Go to him, he mouths.
“Zizhen, I’ll catch up with you boys later,” Wei Wuxian says distractedly, and makes a beeline for the door.
As he stands in the doorway, looking frantically out into the courtyard, he startles as Sect Leader Zhao appears out of the darkness. Lan Wangji hurries forward to stand in front of Wei Wuxian as Sect Leader Zhao approaches.
“He went into the residential wing,” Sect Leader Zhao says.
Wei Wuxian peers around Lan Wangji’s broad shoulders, surprised. Sect Leader Zhao makes an impatient noise.
“Hurry,” he snaps.
“Thank you,” Wei Wuxian finally says, and yanks Lan Wangji out of the door with him.
He takes down the stone path at a trot, passing through the same moonlit garden, the same quiet pavilion as before. As they reach the doorway into the private wing, a familiar figure steps out to intercept them.
It’s Deputy Shi again. This time, however, he only looks at them for a long moment, before dipping his head.
“Sect Leader has gone to the ancestral hall,” he says. “If you wish to speak with him, I will escort you. Otherwise, those of Lotus Pier will stop you from entering.”
“Please,” Wei Wuxian breathes.
They find Jiang Cheng where Deputy Shi said he would be, kneeling in front of the altar. His back is turned, his head lowered, and his expression cast in shadow in the dim candlelight, as he lights a stick of incense, and presses it slowly into the ash.
Lan Wangji nods at Wei Wuxian to go on ahead, staying back with Deputy Shi as Wei Wuxian quietly approaches. He stops before the threshold, knocking lightly on the door.
“Can I come in to light some incense?” he asks.
Jiang Cheng sighs.
“Just come in,” he says.
Wei Wuxian steps carefully over the threshold, and stops by Jiang Cheng’s side, reaching out to light some incense as well.
“I shouldn’t have come in without permission last time,” he murmurs. “I’m sorry. After everything I’ve done, and bringing people you held grudges against—”
“You always had permission,” Jiang Cheng interrupts.
Wei Wuxian blinks, surprised at that.
“This is your home too,” Jiang Cheng clarifies. “Even if I was upset that you brought others, I shouldn’t have— made you feel like you didn’t have a place here.”
Wei Wuxian’s throat tightens.
Turning back to the altar, he bows three times, before sticking the incense into the pot.
“Uncle Jiang,” he whispers, “Madam Yu. I’m home.”
Jiang Cheng draws a sharp breath. He averts his eyes, looking up at the altar instead of at Wei Wuxian.
“Welcome home,” he says shortly.
Something in Wei Wuxian tremors to hear that, and from this person, this dear person, of all people. He has to blink back the tears that rise to his eyes as he turns back to Jiang Cheng.
“I know I don’t deserve your forgiveness,” he manages to choke out.
Jiang Cheng looks taken aback at that. Then, after a moment, he lets out a sardonic chuckle.
“What is there to forgive?” he asks bitterly. “Wasn’t everything you did because of unspoken difficulties, because you had no choice, because of moral reasons? I had no reason for anything I did. I was just angry with you.”
“I did right by my morals,” Wei Wuxian says. “But not by my family.”
Jiang Cheng stares at him for a long moment. The candlelit casts a wet sheen over his eyes. He does not say anything.
“I would save them again,” Wei Wuxian continues honestly. “But— before I left— I would have at least let you know that I— that—“
“Don’t,” Jiang Cheng finally chokes.
“I love you,” Wei Wuxian finishes.
A tear slips down Jiang Cheng’s cheek. He turns his face sharply away.
All of a sudden, Wei Wuxian just wants to cross those two or three steps between them, and hold him in his arms. But that distance of sixteen long years seem to stretch wider and wider between them. As children, he remembers how they would crawl into bed with each other after nightmares. Now, he can’t even bring himself to hold his own brother.
“I can’t believe,” Jiang Cheng says, “that you brought your illicit male lover, who you were having premarital relations with, and paraded him in front of all my ancestors who ever lived.”
“Ask your husband to come in,” he finishes. “So that the ancestors know that you are respectably married now.”
Wei Wuxian lets out a startled laugh, unsure whether to be upset, offended, or amused.
But that’s always been Jiang Cheng for you, he muses fondly. Disagreeable, offensive, and full of the ugliest of words— yet thinly layered over a sensitive and thoughtful heart.
The distance of sixteen years stretch long and vast between them.
But we can cross it, he realizes.
We just need some time.
As a chill wind blows down over the lakes of Yunmeng, Lan Wangji lifts his head, and looks towards the cornflower blue sky. It seems that the wind is changing, and that autumn will soon be upon them. Browned petals float on the water’s surface as they walk slowly down to the dock.
“If you feel too nauseous, we can stop along the way for a rest,” Wei Wuxian is fussing ahead of him. “Maybe at Yunping. The ride back to Gusu will be quite long.”
“I’ll be fine, Senior Wei,” Sizhui says patiently. “I made the ride here, didn’t I?”
“This time, he refrained from breakfast so that he won’t puke his guts up later!” Jingyi adds cheerfully.
“Won’t you get hungry later on?” Jin Ling demands, concerned.
“I bought some lotus seed buns just now,” Zizhen offers immediately, sounding equally concerned. “You can have them!”
“The paste must been made from the recent harvest,” Wei Wuxian gasps. “Yunmeng’s lotus seed buns are the best, especially when they are fresh!”
“You can have some too, Senior Wei!” Zizhen cries, and sighs, a little sentimentally. “The taste of home is always incomparable.”
Wei Wuxian laughs.
“That it is,” he agrees. “That it is.”
Walking quietly by Lan Wangji’s side, Jiang Wanyin raises an arched brow. His expression is unimpressed, unfriendly, but Lan Wangji is beginning to realize— that maybe it doesn’t mean what Lan Wangji had always thought it meant. He’d spoken for Wei Wuxian after all.
“I’ve never seen someone from Gusu get seasick before,” Jiang Wanyin says bluntly.
“He has Wen Qing’s eyes.”
Lan Wangji stiffens at that, before turning to look at Jiang Wanyin. The man is staring straight ahead, pointedly avoiding Lan Wangji’s gaze, still wearing that ever-unfriendly look.
“When I visited the Burial Mounds, he clung to my thigh,” Jiang Wanyin says.
Something about the tone of his voice makes Lan Wangji think that it was supposed to be an explanation. Unfortunately, Lan Wangji cannot interpret how his words explain anything. In fact, that only raises more questions in Lan Wangji’s mind.
After a moment, he turns back forward, and says nothing.
Jiang Wanyin is evidently full of contradictions and layers. There are secrets that exist between his husband, and this unfriendly man— such as the reason Jiang Wanyin would have been present in the Burial Mounds after their very public falling out. There are also secrets in Jiang Wanyin’s gaze as he looks upon Lan Wangji’s husband. It reminds Lan Wangji of the expression Wei Wuxian had always worn when looking at Jiang Wanyin before the truth had come out. There is a story there that Jiang Wanyin has not told.
Perhaps in another three years time, Lan Wangji thinks. After all, they will have plenty more opportunities to talk in the future.
The waters of Yunmeng stretch out, mirror-still and blue with summer, far into the horizon.
Together, they walk on forwards, into the sun.