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Five Dogs, One Cat

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1.

Jin Ling has never in his life worried about bringing an appropriate guest gift when he goes for an extended stay at Lotus Pier. Whenever he set off on the journey, his uncle Jin Guangyao handed him a box and informed him that this was for his uncle Jiang Cheng, and he should take good care to ensure that it arrived safely. The box always contained something absurdly expensive, impeccably tasteful, and extremely boring – a golden belt, a jeweled sheath – and Jiang Cheng accepted each gift with the bare minimum of grace and then presumably tossed it into a storage closet or something, because Jin Ling never saw any of the items that he’d delivered again. In any case, Jin Ling never got criticized for breaching etiquette on this particular matter, so he always figured that was more or less good enough.

Now Jin Ling is practically an adult, more or less a sect leader, and his uncle Jin Guangyao is dead. Jin Ling is perfectly aware that this is richly deserved. He’s really come to terms with the whole thing. It would be incredibly stupid, just complete and total nonsense, to start bawling like a fucking baby because he has to pick out a fucking guest gift by himself.

Nonetheless, because apparently he really is just that incredibly stupid, that’s what appears to be happening.

“Whoops,” says Wei Wuxian, who is currently his absolute least favorite uncle (not counting the ones who are dead), since his stupid teasing question is what set this whole thing off. He crouches down and slings an arm around Jin Ling’s shoulders. “It’s okay, I get it, picking out gifts isn’t easy! I can’t remember a good one I’ve ever given! … except maybe Wen Ning, but that’s kind of the exception that proves the rule.”

Well, that fucking tracks. Jin Ling shakes off Wei Wuxian’s arm, blows his nose furiously on his sleeve, and says, muffled and miserable, “If you’re no use then why don’t you go away and leave me alone?”

“I’m not saying I couldn’t have given a good gift,” Wei Wuxian says, reasonably. “It probably would’ve helped if I had any money. Fortunately that’s not a problem you have, so you’re ahead of the game already. Okay, come on, sit down. Let’s brainstorm. Wipe your face, you look like a soggy mannequin. What’s your favorite gift you ever got?”

“Fairy,” says Jin Ling immediately, without thinking, and then has to immediately fight back a renewed bout of sobs.

“Right!” says Wei Wuxian. “Okay! Great! Great thought! Get Jiang Cheng a dog!”

This startles Jin Ling straight out of his sobs and into a bout of hiccups, which is, arguably, worse. Only after a minute or two of his most annoying fucking uncle thumping him on the back and recommending an increasingly implausible laundry list of recipes for curing the hiccups does Jin Ling recover enough to say, “You hate dogs.”

“I don’t hate them,” Wei Wuxian tells him. “I’m scared of them. Different things. Fairy’s a great dog, would never argue this, I just never want to be within twenty feet of him.” Of the various things that Jin Ling envies his uncle, the confidence he has to simply announce the thing he is afraid of, without shame or embarrassment, ranks high on the list. “Anyway, that’s not the point, you’re not getting a gift for me, you’re getting a gift for Jiang Cheng, and he loves dogs. Used to have tons of them.”

Jin Ling squints. “He did?” He’s fairly sure that his uncle Jiang Cheng is fond of Fairy, in his gruff scolding fashion, but Jin Ling has always figured that this operated more or less on the transitive property – a natural consequence of Jiang Cheng’s affection for Jin Ling himself. If Jiang Cheng had any pre-existing feelings about dogs, you would think he would have mentioned it at least once.

“Did I ever tell you the first reason your uncle has to resent me?” says Wei Wuxian. Jin Ling looks at him, startled and angry – this seems like a bad fucking way for his uncle to try and comfort him – and Wei Wuxian waves his hands, hastily. “No, like, back. Way back, when we were kids, and I first came to live in Lotus Pier, and Jiang Cheng had, like, fifty pet dogs, and he loved them to pieces, and then I came and he had to give them all away, and he never forgave me for it. Trust me. He’s a dog person.”

“That’s a fucking lie,” Jin Ling informs him, and hiccups. He’s like ninety percent sure that Jiang Cheng couldn’t possibly have been so furiously betrayed at Wei Wuxian for so many years unless he’d forgiven him literally everything first.

He’s also at least eighty percent sure that Jiang Cheng doesn’t hate Wei Wuxian at all. Well, seventy percent sure. Sixty-five. He hiccups again.

“No?” Wei Wuxian rests his chin on his hand and considers this. “No. Well, maybe. I don’t actually remember the number of dogs. Just that it was a lot, and they were all big slavering nightmares. But Jiang Cheng really did love them to pieces. I’m telling you. Think about it.”

He slaps Jin Ling on the shoulder, and then bounces to his feet. “Anyway, I don’t know what I was thinking, asking about this at all, I’m not your etiquette teacher. Just offend everybody, that’s what I do. Come on, am I taking you night-hunting or what?”

**

“Uncle,” says Jin Ling, and bows deeply in front of Jiang Cheng’s lotus throne, his sleeves swinging straight out before him. “I am deeply grateful for your hospitality towards myself and my followers.”

The greeting is as correct and proper as he’s ever given. It has the stiff air of something memorized, rather than natural; still, he sounds almost something like an adult, almost something like a sect leader. Jiang Cheng finds that he is experiencing an emotion about this, and, as is his usual recourse, hastily tamps a scowl on over it.

He opens his mouth to return the greeting so they can all get on with their lives, but before he can do so, Jin Ling straightens. “In thanks,” he continues, “allow me to present you with this gift,” and flips his hand back to gesture towards the back of his travel retinue.

The sea of gold-and-white robes part to allow one of the smaller disciples to proceed up to the front. He’s holding a leash, at the end of which marches a spiritual dog.

For a moment, Jiang Cheng thinks this is just Jin Ling’s Fairy again, for some nonsensical reason being formally presented like a court lady – but Fairy has black ears and a white face, and is, moreover, standing right next to Jin Ling. This dog is almost entirely black, with one white ear and a white tail – and the dog’s collar and livery are clearly Jiang blue-and-lilac.

Jiang Cheng has not seen a dog wearing livery like this since he was six years old. He finds that his mouth is still open, and hastily shuts it. “What’s this?” he demands.

His voice – as so often – is sharper than he means it. The color on Jin Ling’s cheeks rises high, but he says, stoutly, “He’s from the same dam as Fairy, so you know he’s a good dog.”

He looks and sounds, once again, like a child of sixteen. Jiang Cheng puts a hand to his temple, and then lets it drop. There are twelve Jin disciples standing at attention in his foyer; he’s certainly not going to reject Jin Ling’s gift in front of all of them. He sighs, and holds out his hand, and the little disciple marches forward and deposits the end of the leash in Jiang Cheng’s hand. Jiang Cheng’s fingers close around it.

He does his best to modulate his voice to neutrality. “Sect Leader Jin is always welcome in Lotus Pier.” He looks at Jin Ling, and adds, “The guest quarters are ready for your followers.”

Jiang disciples converge to lead Jin Ling’s retinue out of the hall. Jin Ling remains standing in front of him, shoulders held stiffly back. Meanwhile, the spiritual dog cocks his head at Jiang Cheng for a moment, and then sets about the business of investigating his boots.

“Jin Ling,” Jiang Cheng demands, as soon as all the others have gone, “why a dog?”

“You can name him whatever you want,” Jin Ling informs him. “I’ve been calling him Sweet Bun. But you don’t need to keep that.”

“I don’t need to keep him,” snaps Jiang Cheng. There hasn’t been a dog at Lotus Pier in more than twenty years. He’d never planned to keep dogs here ever again. The reasons, as usual, do not bear examining. “What were you thinking? How is this considerate? Did no one teach you that you ask a person before you gift them a living animal that takes a lot of time and money to –”

Sweet Bun, tiring of his boots, lifts his wet nose up to sniff Jiang Cheng’s hand, and Jiang Cheng breaks off in startlement. His fingers brush against the dog’s short, soft hair.

“My uncle –” Jin Ling swallows, then jerks his chin higher still. “My uncle Jin Guangyao didn’t ask me if I wanted a dog, when he gave me Fairy. He just saw that I was upset, and he thought Fairy would make me happier. And he was right.”

Jiang Cheng is absolutely not going to engage on the absurd idea that Jin Ling thinks he needs cheering up like a fucking seven-year-old. “Your uncle Jin Guangyao,” he says, shortly, “murdered many, many people. So maybe not the best example.”

He regrets it almost as soon as he’s said it, but Jin Ling doesn’t crumble. “I know!” he retorts. “But he also knew etiquette better than anybody else! He wouldn’t have given me a dog if it wasn’t an appropriate gift, so!”

The so echoes, loudly, in the audience chamber, and Sweet Bun gives an anxious whine. This is familiar, from long ago; his dogs had never liked it when his parents argued, either. He reaches out, without thinking, to give Sweet Bun a reassuring scritch behind the ears. The dog settles, and licks his hand.

He only realizes what he’s done when Jin Ling says, “So you do like dogs,” and folds his arms in front of him, radiating smugness.

Jiang Cheng is becoming horribly aware that this is a battle he’s most likely going to lose.

 

2.

“Jingyi, take a look at this.”

“Can it wait?” says Jingyi, who is kneeling in the pond, attempting to get spider-ghoul blood out of his white robes. Somehow this is easy for everybody else. He doesn’t understand it.

“Ah,” says Sizhui. “Well, probably, but it’s moving, so I’m a little concerned …”

Moving?” shouts Jingyi, and whirls around, pulling his sword from behind him.

The lump of spider-ghoul webbing in the corner is, definitely, moving. It’s also extremely small. Jingyi relaxes a little.

“I don’t sense any resentful energy coming from it,” says Sizhui, rather apologetically. “I think it’s most likely a victim, rather than something else dangerous. But I thought it would be better if we were both paying attention, when I cut it loose.”

“Smart,” agrees Jingyi. Giving up on his stained robes as a lost cause for the time being, he splashes his way back out of the pond and goes to take his stand next to Sizhui, sword at the ready.

Sizhui gives a small nod of acknowledgment, and then reaches forward carefully with his sword to slice the ball of webbing open.

The next thing Jingyi knows, something has launched itself towards him and begun covering his ankles with slobber. Jingyi screams, and immediately regrets it.

“Careful,” says Sizhui, who sounds both anxious and as if he is trying not to laugh. “It’s just a puppy.”

“I know!” gasps Jingyi. “Startle reflex!” He re-sheathes his sword, then leans down to grab the puppy and hold it out before him to inspect. The puppy barks. “Well, look at you! Aren’t you cute!”

Cute, of course, is a relative term. The puppy is skinny, scraggly, definitely a mutt, and still covered in shreds of spider-ghoul webbing. Still: “He must be used to humans,” says Sizhui, thoughtfully, “or he wouldn’t be so glad to see us. Probably he belongs to somebody.”

“Right,” says Jingyi, staring besottedly in the dog’s eyes. “Me.”

“Ah,” says Sizhui. “Well. I don’t think there’s a Lan ordinance specifically against stealing the dogs of helpless citizens. But I do think it’s very much against the spirit of the law.”

“I know. I was kidding,” Jingyi agrees, sadly. He had been at least seventy-five percent kidding. “No pets in the Cloud Recesses, anyway. We’ll ask in the village, see if anyone’s lost a dog.”

He sets the puppy carefully down on the muddy ground, and then promptly gets down on his knees, the better to scritch behind its ears. The puppy wriggles blissfully. Jingyi’s robes are going to be absolutely unsalvageable and he doesn’t care at all.

“But,” Sizhui says.

Jingyi looks up.

“If after asking everybody – really, everybody – we can’t find who it belongs to,” Sizhui says.

“Regrettable,” says Jingyi. “Unfortunate. But a possibility! Possibilities should be considered and accounted for.”

“Then … we’ll have to bring it back with us, won’t we? We can’t just leave it alone to fend for himself. It’s far too little. After all,” Sizhui adds, thoughtfully, “the Wall of Discipline says, you must love all beings; you must embrace the entirety of the world; and you must not break faith. And I think it’s clear, Jingyi, that this small creature has already expressed its faith in you.”

“You’re absolutely right,” says Jingyi. “There’s a reason you’re most senior of our year, after all. I have so much respect for you. This disciple thanks you for your teachings.”

The puppy expresses its approval by licking Jingyi’s nose.

**

Hanguang-Jun looks at them for a long, long time. Then he says one word: “No.”

His tone is all the way up at a nine out of ten on the Hanguang-Jun Killing Frost scale. Sizhui goes white-faced. Well, Sizhui, who’s always so good, is not used to receiving reprimands like this – and really, Lan Jingyi doesn’t think that he deserves one this time, either. Hanguang-Jun is obviously not a person that one contradicts under any normal circumstances; still, isn’t injustice injustice? Why should juniors be shamed for something their elders have already done? Jingyi hoists the puppy higher on his shoulder and says, loudly, “This really isn’t fair. Hanguang-Jun, you have all those rabbits –”

Then he feels Sizhui’s hand on his elbow, to shut him up. “This disciple apologizes!” Sizhui says, head lowered. “Truly, this disciple wasn’t thinking. I’m really sorry.”

If Sizhui apologizes for something, it means he knows he was really in the wrong. “What?” Jingyi demands. “What is it? What did I miss?”

Hanguang-Jun looks again at Sizhui. Sizhui flushes, nods, and turns back to Jingyi.

“Dogs can’t be in the Cloud Recesses,” he explains, softly, “because it would be disrespectful to a person who’s been invited to make his home here, and can’t be comfortable around them.”

Light dawns. “Oh, shit,” Jingyi says. “Senior Mo.” Then, feeling Hanguang-Jun’s eyes boring into him: “Shit, I mean Senior Wei. I mean – this disciple apologizes! Profanity is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses! I’m aware!”

At this point, he knows it’s a lost cause. Where Senior Wei (or Senior Mo, or the Yiling Patriarch, or whatever they’re supposed to call him now) is concerned, neither Hanguang-Jun nor Lan Sizhui can be argued with. Still, Jingyi can’t help but try. “Of course no one wants Senior Wei to be uncomfortable –” This is heartfelt on multiple counts; with Hanguang-Jun around, when Senior Wei is uncomfortable, everyone is uncomfortable – “but he can’t be afraid of dogs forever, right? And if he meets a very little one,” he adds, hopefully, “when the person he trusts the most is by his side, supporting him through the difficult experience –”

Hanguang-Jun doesn’t need to say anything. Jingyi can see the ‘no’ written in the unyielding lines of his face. He wilts.

Sizhui lifts his head and says to Hanguang-Jun, “But – it’s true that, having taken responsibility for this creature, Jingyi can’t simply abandon it, either. Mustn’t a home for it be found?” He slides a glance at Jingyi, and adds, “A home where Jingyi could perhaps visit, from time to time, and be sure it was being treated well?”

Hanguang-Jun’s face softens very slightly, in the way it often does when Sizhui is being especially Sizhui-ish. He considers them both. Finally, he pronounces his verdict: “A home will be found before Wei Ying returns.”

Jingyi swallows, and scritches the puppy behind its ears. Senior Wei isn’t expected back until after the discussion conference next week, so that’s at least some time to figure out something.

“Jingyi,” Hanguang-Jun adds, “may care for it until then.”

Whooping is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, and so Lan Jingyi does not do so. But it is a near thing.

**

Jiang Cheng does not enjoy attending discussion conferences at Cloud Recesses. The food of Gusu Lan is horrifically bland. He does not find the perfect rows of straight-backed, white-clad disciples pleasantly nostalgic. And then, of course, the hostility that is constantly radiating out at him from behind Lan Wangji’s set marble brow – it grates. It would grate on anybody.

Meanwhile, at this, the first discussion conference after The Recent Events, he has discovered a new unpleasantness: a kind of hyperawareness of any flash of black or red happens to be glimpsed against all of that pure Lan white. It’s exhausting beyond measure, and, of course, it never turns out to be anything more than a passing shadow.

Not that he would have wanted or expected anything else.

In any case, there’s no getting out of it: he’s the leader of one of the largest sects, and, more importantly, this is Jin Ling’s first discussion conference as the official leader of the largest sect, and so, unfortunately, Jiang Cheng is just going to have to face it like a goddamn adult.

(Also, due to the Lan prohibition on pets, he’s had to leave Sweet Bun at home, interrupting a crucial time in her training. He doesn’t love it.)

And here, right on cue to make things worse, is Lan Wangji, wandering down the gravel path with one of those perfect Lan disciples on his heels. Jiang Cheng folds his arms, glares, and waits.

The Lan disciple steps out from behind Lan Wangji, clutching something small and wriggling in his arms. Somewhat to his own surprise, Jiang Cheng realizes he can identify him: it’s the loudest one of those kids who always seem to be underfoot when Jin Ling is at Lotus Pier. Jiang Cheng immediately retracts his mental ‘perfect.’ “Sandu Shengshou,” the loud disciple says, and bows.

The greeting is very proper. The bow is less proper, due to the squirming creature he’s holding. As the disciple bends, the puppy lets out a series of enthusiastic yaps and comes perilously close to slithering out of his arms; the disciple hastily grabs it back up against his shoulder and hisses “Be good!” into its ear before straightening once again. He concludes this disaster with a brisk nod, as if this could somehow retroactively render the entire rest of the bow a dignified and Lan-like experience.

It’s the first time in sixteen years that Jiang Cheng can recall feeling any urge to laugh in the Cloud Recesses. He looks from the disciple back to Lan Wangji, pointedly raises both eyebrows, and says, “I thought pets were not allowed?”

Lan Wangji’s face, of course, doesn’t move. “They are not.”

“Sandu Shengshou,” the loud disciple chimes in, “this disciple found this creature on a night-hunt. She’s a very good dog, very friendly, very well-trained –” The puppy is currently attempting to use the tassel on the disciple’s sword as a chew-toy; the disciple shifts it to his other shoulder, unblushing. “Anyone would be lucky to have such a dog, so, ah …” He glances at Lan Wangji; Lan Wangji gives a small nod, and the disciple sighs and continues. “So Gusu Lan gifts this creature to Yunmeng Jiang, in gratitude for the many times you have hosted Lan disciples for night-hunts, and for your attendance as the most senior Sect Leader at this discussion conference.”

Before Jiang Cheng can put together even vaguely appropriate words to express his profound sense of what the fuck, the disciple holds the puppy out towards him.

Any vaguely appropriate words scatter in the winds. “You don’t hold a dog like that,” Jiang Cheng says, appalled. The disciple is holding the puppy just under the arms; its legs and underbelly dangle below, completely unsupported. Jiang Cheng grabs the puppy from the disciple, shifting one hand under the puppy’s chest and the other under its hind legs. “Hold it properly!”

The puppy lets out a happy yip, and begins to lick Jiang Cheng’s chin enthusiastically. Its breath smells terrible. The disciple blinks. “Wow,” he says. “Hanguang-Jun was right as usual, Sandu Shengshou really does know about dogs.”

The surprise in his voice is irritating and unflattering. “Certainly more than your Hanguang-Jun does,” snaps Jiang Cheng.

“True,” says Lan Wangji. “There will never be dogs kept in the Cloud Recesses.”

And with that he walks away.

Jiang Cheng stares after him with the sudden sinking realization that he’s just lost a skirmish that he didn’t even know he was fighting.

“She’ll have a good home with you, I guess,” says the loud disciple, mournfully. “Hanguang-Jun is really wise.”

The puppy is a warm wriggling weight in his arms. She’s still licking his chin, with tremendous determination.

There’s already a dog in Lotus Pier – and since there’s only one person (unexpectedly) alive today who could have told Jin Ling about Princess, Jasmine and Love, Jiang Cheng has a pretty strong guess about who’s really responsible for that. Nobody who didn’t care for dogs was going to visit Lotus Pier now anyway. Still: “Hanguang-Jun,” says Jiang Cheng, with great feeling, “is a petty bastard.”

**

“You know, when I said a home for her would be found,” Sizhui confesses later, “I really was thinking we could just give her to Jin Ling.”

Jingyi, who has had several hours now to come to terms with these events, shrugs philosophically over the special-dispensation chicken he’s chopping up into dog food for delivery to the Yunmeng Jiang guest-house. “It’s probably for the best,” he says. “You know what the Jins are like. Only expensive everything. A mutt wouldn’t fit in happily there.”

Sizhui – who, much like Hanguang-Jun, is generally politely but expressively silent on the topic of Clan Leader Jiang – sighs and says, “If Hanguang-Jun thinks that Sandu Shengshou can be trusted with her, I’m sure that it’s so.”

Lan Jingyi waves his hand in a don’t-worry gesture. “Jin Ling’s at Lotus Pier often enough, we’ll be able to visit and make sure his uncle’s doing what he should. Anyway,” he adds, “can you imagine what our young mistress would have named her?”

3.
With respectful greetings to the leader of Yunmeng Jiang:

If Lanling Jin and Gusu Lan both offer gifts to a valued ally, surely it would be shameful of Qinghe Nie not to follow suit. Jiang-xiong, please don’t think this unfortunate one remiss in having left it so long! Had I known you were in the market for spiritual dogs, I would certainly have done whatever I could to assist you long ago. But, as you know, I’m always the last to hear anything. I implore you to show that you don’t hold a grudge by accepting this humble gift, so that Qinghe Nie is not the only one of the great sects without representation in Yunmeng Jiang’s kennels.

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes, tosses the letter aside and returns his attention to the Nie disciple kneeling in front of him to present a velvet pillow.

The animal placidly wheezing on the pillow is extremely small. It has long floppy ears and a pushed-in nose and incredibly long, silky fur, lovingly trimmed and braided around its face and stomach. Ribbons and bells swing from the collar around its neck.

“From context,” Jiang Cheng says, flatly, “I have to assume this is a dog.”

At the sound of his voice, Tulip the puppy suddenly yawns herself awake. (Jiang Cheng is aware that holding audiences with a scraggly half-grown dog in his lap does not necessarily foster exactly the atmosphere of intimidating dignity that he’d prefer, but there’s not a fucking lot he can do about it given that Tulip starts whining if she wakes up and finds that he’s not there.)

The first thing Tulip sees when she opens her eyes is Jiang Cheng, which is good and correct, and she lets out her usual happy yip. The second thing she sees is Sweet Bun, sitting in her usual dignified fashion at Jiang Cheng’s side, and she lets out another bark to convey that all continues to be right with her world.

The third thing she sees is a New Dog.

The loud Lan disciple had been right about one thing at least: whatever Tulip’s flaws, she’s exceptionally friendly. She leaps off Jiang Cheng’s lap in an explosion of delight and begins bouncing in circles round the Nie disciple and his cargo, barking and wagging her tail for all she’s worth.

The tiny dog on the pillow lets out a tiny answering bark, rises to its feet in a stately manner, takes three steps forward, and plops the short distance to the ground. Jiang Cheng, startled, half-rises from his seat – but the tiny dog, apparently both uninjured and unperturbed, immediately begins to sniff Tulip’s rear. Its impeccably curled tail swings enthusiastically back and forth.

“Oh!” says the Nie disciple, so enchanted he briefly forgets his discipline. “They like each other!”

Jiang Cheng thumps his ass back into his chair. He reaches his hand down to pat Sweet Bun, whose tail is thumping to indicate that he would very much like to join in the fluffy romp currently underway in the middle of Sword Hall, and fixes the Nie disciple with a cold stare. “The letter,” he says, letting his disbelief drip into his voice, “claims that this is a spiritual dog.”

“His name is Xiao Tingfeng,” the Nie disciple answers, composed once more. “Sect Leader Nie has provided me with his lineage, if Sect Leader Jiang would like to review. His lines are purebred on both sides, and well-respected; I understand my sect leader went to great pains to –”

“A purebred lineage of spiritual lapdogs,” says Jiang Cheng.

“Indeed so,” murmurs the Nie disciple.

If there is one thing Jiang Cheng possesses, it is a well honed sense for when he’s being fucked with. “And the Headshaker has absolutely nothing better to do with his time than prepare expensive gag gifts for his peers? Like, say, running a fucking sect?

The Nie disciple pauses, and then says, delicately, “Sect Leader Nie is aware of the importance of interclan diplomacy, and assures Sect Leader Jiang that he is working tirelessly to remedy his lacks in this area. He trusts Sect Leader Jiang will be patient with his failings.”

If Nie Huaisang were here to deliver this piece of horseshit in person, Jiang Cheng could find a way to answer it, but there’s not much he can do via this bland-faced disciple except roll his eyes heavenward. He cannot possibly fathom why Nie Huaisang has suddenly decided, now of all times, that the best use of his power and position is fucking with his colleagues for kicks – maybe the guidance of Jin Guangyao and Lan Xichen has been the only thing restraining him from this kind of activity for the past fifteen years, and what a horrible notion that is – but one thing is clear: he’s going to laugh his extravagant ass off when he hears how this conversation went.

(Though, now that Jiang Cheng thinks about it, the last time he actually remembers that particular smug-troll snicker from Nie Huaisang was in the Cloud Recesses, nearly two decades ago. In recent years, the Headshaker’s laughter has been an entirely different thing, usually only heard while making a drunken public embarrassment of himself as one of his brothers-by-proxy hauls him wearily away from a banquet. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad for Nie Huaisang to regress a little. Those times that are gone can’t ever come back, of course, but still – maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.)

Anyway, at this point, his options are two: keep the nonsense little lapdog, or send it straight back to the asshole it came from.

He looks at Tulip, still frolicking enthusiastically around Xiao Tingfeng like she’s found her soulmate, and heaves a deep sigh. Unfortunately, it’s not even a choice.

4.

Jin Ling’s in a mood. Well, that’s not unexpected; Jin Ling’s been in a mood most of the times Wei Wuxian’s dropped in on him for a visit. It’s been a rough year for the kid, and Wei Wuxian has not exactly gotten a great impression of any of the options he has for company here at good old Carp Tower, which is one of the reasons he keeps dropping in for visits.

Still, when one of the Jin disciples asks, sweetly, “How’s your puppy, Jin Ling?” he’s a little surprised to see Jin Ling’s eyes immediately pop with anger.

As far as Wei Wuxian can tell, it’s an innocuous question. But the disciple who asked has a perfectly innocent, wide-eyed, ice-wouldn’t-melt kind of look on his face – which is, obviously, a sign that some kind of Horrible Jin Cousin Shenanigans are afoot. An even better sign is the fact that he can see three other Jin disciples in the corner, collapsing on each other with laughter.

Meanwhile, Jin Ling is quite obviously exerting all the energy he has not to punch the other disciple in the face.

It’s tempting to tell the kids to just come have a fight if they want a fight – but they technically haven’t put themselves in the wrong yet (thinks Wei Wuxian, regretfully) and Jin Ling’s freedom to punch anyone he wanted without provocation died with Jin Guangyao. It’s probably praiseworthy, that he’s learning to hold onto his temper in situations like this.

Still, he can’t exactly let his nephew die of an apoplexy, either. “Jin Ling,” Wei Wuxian says, brightly, “you didn’t tell me that Fairy had had puppies.”

Jin Ling’s glare transfers itself to Wei Wuxian. “You wouldn’t care,” he says, through gritted teeth.

“Of course I care,” lies Wei Wuxian. “I love babies.”

“It’s just the one puppy, Senior Wei,” says the sweet-faced Jin disciple, earnestly, to Wei Wuxian, “but so charming. Really, it reminds me so much of our Ah-Ling!”

Wei Wuxian sees Jin Ling’s fists clenching at his sides. The giggling from the Horrible Jin Cousin Corner gets louder.

Wei Wuxian is beginning to get a sense of what might be going on here, and he doesn’t love it. “Fascinating!” he says, smiling broadly, and doing his level best not to think about what he’s actually suggesting. “I’ve got to see this for myself! Let’s go, Jin Ling.”

Jin Ling stares at him, so shocked his jaw actually unclenches. “You want to go see the puppy.”

“Absolutely,” says Wei Wuxian.

(After all, what’s a puppy? A puppy that was born since the last time he was here, it can’t be any bigger than a finger. Probably can’t even walk yet. Certainly can’t come chasing after him. His legs are much longer anyway if it did try to run after him. When you think logically about it, there’s no danger at all.)

“The puppy,” says Jin Ling, slowly, as if he’s talking to a very young child, “is with Fairy.”

“Sure, of course,” says Wei Wuxian. “What else could be expected. Such a nurturing mother.” Now he’s the one with gritted teeth. If Jin Ling asks once more, he’s going to back out entirely, and it will be Jin Ling’s own fault.

(Giving birth is tiring, isn’t it? Or so Wei Wuxian is given to understand. Surely Fairy is slow and exhausted. He’ll stay well across the room, and just take a quick look, and everything will be fine.)

“… uh,” says Jin Ling, now looking seriously poleaxed. “All right. Let’s … go then?”

“Oh, we’ll come too!” cries the Jin disciple. “We’ve been longing to see your little mutt again!”

Jin Ling’s face turns a furious brick-red. Wei Wuxian, the sage elder and teacher, puts a hand on Jin Ling’s shoulder and says, “Of course, of course. We’ll all come together.”

As soon as the sweet-faced Jin disciple begins walking with them, Wei Wuxian pushes Jin Ling ahead of him and, in the process, contrives to trip him flat on his face. Jin Ling’s steps stutter as if he’s going to pause and turn round, but Wei Wuxian keeps his hand on his shoulder, moving his nephew serenely forward. If the Horrible Jin Cousins want to play the plausible deniability game, Wei Wuxian is perfectly happy to play along with them.

Under cover of the sounds of the other disciples rushing to help the sweet-faced one up – probably not so sweet-faced at this very moment, admittedly – Jin Ling hisses in Wei Wuxian’s ear, “If you scream and run away when you see Fairy this time, I’ll never forgive you.”

“Have some respect,” murmurs Wei Wuxian, still smiling. “What I said I’ll do, I’ll do. Just open the door and close it quick, just enough for me to get a glimpse, that’s all.”

“You don’t have to tell me,” snaps Jin Ling. “I don’t want them near her or the puppy.”

For a moment, Wei Wuxian experiences a curious kind of double vision. The set of Jin Ling’s jaw, the squint of his eyes – well, of course it makes sense he would have learned it from Jiang Cheng, this particular brand of protectiveness, furious and undiplomatic. Who else could he have learned it from? Who else, in Jin Ling’s life, would have been so defensive of him, and taken such care?

It’s just too bad; it’s really a shame. Most of the chances Wei Wuxian has had to see Jiang Cheng protective with Jin Ling like this have been when Jiang Cheng was guarding Jin Ling from Wei Wuxian himself.

By the time they arrive at Jin Ling’s quarters, the other disciples have caught up with them. Jin Ling shoots them a baleful look. “You all stay behind the Yiling Patriarch,” he informs them. “Fairy doesn’t need to be crowded or bothered.”

Then he shoots Wei Wuxian another look, and Wei Wuxian realizes that Jin Ling is expecting him to serve as a protective buffer between Fairy and the other Jin disciples. In this situation, he’s the trusted one.

This is so endearing – and, after all this time, still so unexpected – that he can almost forget that Jin Ling has just placed a row of horrible children between him and the exit, so that if Jin Ling’s beloved Fairy comes leaping out the door to tear his throat out there will be no way to run.

He takes a deep breath. He feels all his muscles tensing. One of the Jin disciples behind him takes a step into his personal space, and he swings his head around and gives the disciple a narrow-eyed smile. The Jin disciple retreats. Wei Wuxian swings his attention back to the door, and Jin Ling opens it.

Fairy does not come leaping out to tear his throat out, so that’s a good start! A good start. Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath, and looks inside the room.

The dog is lying on a pile of incredibly luxurious cushions in the center of the room, apparently asleep. Her eyes slit open as the light from outside hits her, but she’s still at least ten feet away, and showing no inclination to move at this time. It’s fine. It’s definitely fine. She could be moving in an instant, of course, but she almost certainly won’t, because of the puppy that’s flopped snoring on top of her, which is …

...well. All right. Wei Wuxian, admittedly, has spent much of his life avoiding any opportunity to make a comparative assessment of different kinds of dogs, and he certainly can’t remember the last time he saw an actual puppy.

Still, he’d expect a puppy of Fairy’s to have … more of a nose? An actual tail? Maybe ears that don’t look like a pair of individual mops?

There’s no denying it: the small creature snuffling on Fairy’s stomach is one of the silliest-looking tiny animals he’s ever seen in his life.

(It’s almost enough to distract him from the fact that Fairy is still right there and capable of springing at any moment.)

“Thanks,” says Wei Wuxian, and nods at Jin Ling to tell him that he can close the door now. Jin Ling does so, with alacrity, and Wei Wuxian feels his heartrate thankfully starting to slow.

That is, until the Horrible Jin Disciples start sharing their views again. “So cute, right?” says the sweet-faced one. “Carp Tower’s Fairy forgot herself with a little lapdog from Lotus Pier, that’s why it looks like that.”

“Of course,” adds another, “you can see it will never do as a spiritual dog. A fatherless mutt like that, it’s hard to see what purpose it could ever have. Poor thing!”

Wow! He really wants to punch these kids! It’s such a good thing he himself is not still seventeen! He spares a moment to be proud of Jin Ling for his genuinely impressive self-control, then turns around, slowly, and smiles benevolently at the Jin disciples.

As one, they all take a step back. Sometimes, this Yiling Patriarch reputation is a burden, but one can’t deny the compensations.

“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says, slowly, “I can see your concerns, I suppose. It’s really too bad. A valuable dog like that, I’d love to bring it back to Cloud Recesses and gift it to Hanguang-Jun. But –” He heaves a sigh, and shakes his head, sadly. “Lotus Pier will certainly want to claim its rights. And the head of Qinghe Nie, who loves beautiful things, might also be offended if he’s not in consideration to take it home to the Unclean Realms. I can see it’s going to be a great difficulty. What a trial you’ll have, when this creature is old enough to leave its mother! Really, it’s true that too much of a blessing becomes a burden. Still – Jin Ling –” He turns back towards his nephew and puts a hand solemnly on his shoulder. “Every sect leader has to face his first diplomatic crisis. I suppose it’s true that yours would have to come sooner or later. Weather this well, Sect Leader Jin, and you’ll be wiser on the other side of it.”

Jin Ling opens his mouth. Jin Ling shuts his mouth. Jin Ling opens his mouth again, and says, haughtily, “Well, you can’t take him, anyway. How long have you been living in Cloud Recesses? Don’t you know that the rules of Gusu Lan don’t allow animals?”

“Ah, you’re right,” sighs Wei Wuxian. “Of course, of course. So it’s only Yunmeng Jiang and Qinghe Nie you’ll have to contend with. Well, I’m sure you can sort it out.”

**

If you’ve ever believed me in anything, believe I want what’s best for Jin Ling, the first line of the letter reads.

Jiang Cheng has to stop and take a moment before he continues on to the next line:

You must come to Carp Tower as soon as you can and lavish praise on the ugliest dog I’ve ever seen.

Jiang Cheng reads the line a second time. Then he reads the whole letter again, to make sure there’s not anything in it he missed. Then he crumples it into a ball and throws it forcefully across the room.

Unfortunately, he’s forgotten the dogs.

With Xiao Tingfeng’s arrival, Jiang Cheng had briefly cherished a hope that Tulip and Xiao Tingfeng could entertain each other, and allow him to conduct audiences in peace. What instead has happened is that both of them now spend a significant chunk of each day snoring on his lap in an indistinguishable pile, only separating when – for example – something unexpectedly flies across the room, indicating that it’s time for a game of fetch.

Jiang Cheng has barely brought his arm back down again when Tulip explodes off his lap, barking furiously, and shoots off in pursuit of the ball of paper that was Wei Wuxian’s letter. Sweet Bun immediately leaves her post at Jiang Cheng’s side and goes racing off after her. This leaves Xiao Tingfeng in full possession of Jiang Cheng’s lap; he clambers to his feet, looks contemplatively after the other two dogs, then farts and resettles himself down with a contented snort.

The loud Lan disciple, who delivered the letter, somehow manages to maintain his bow throughout this entire spectacle – though its propriety is somewhat marred by a pair of raised eyebrows. “Wow,” he says. “Sandu Shengshou, did you know there’s a Lan ordinance about treating the letters that people send you with the same respect you would if their words were delivered to you face-to-face? I just thought you might find that fact interesting, for no particular reason.”

Tulip comes loping back up with the ball of paper dissolving in her mouth, deposits it proudly on the tip of his shoe, and waits for praise. Meanwhile, Sweet Bun, completely outrun, trots back to his position at Jiang Cheng’s side as if nothing had happened at all.

Jiang Cheng closes his eyes, in an attempt to recapture a modicum of control over the situation. “Yunmeng Jiang feels differently –” He makes the mistake of down midway through this statement. Tulip, as yet un-praised, is staring at him with enormous sad eyes. “Yes, Tulip,” Jiang Cheng says, wearily, “good dog, well caught.”

Tulip lets out a happy yip, and then runs over to the Lan disciple. She’s grown quite a bit over the past few months; when she dances up on her hind legs, she can just reach far enough to lick the bowing Lan disciple’s nose.

The Lan disciple lets out a delighted laugh. “Hey! You remember me!”

“As I was saying,” Jiang Cheng snaps, raising his voice to recapture the Lan disciple’s attention, “Yunmeng Jiang feels differently on this matter. Yunmeng Jiang holds that a person who has something to say should come and say it to that person’s face. You should remind the person who sent this letter that that’s something he used to know!”

“...okay,” says the Lan disciple. “Uh, you don’t have any other message for him before I leave?”

What’s there to say? For the first time in years, Wei Wuxian has reached out. It’s proper it should be for Jin Ling, even for so stupid a request as this. Wei Wuxian owes Jiang Cheng’s nephew all possible amends. If he has nothing to say to Jiang Cheng himself – if for a year he’s had nothing to say to Jiang Cheng; if he’s removed himself, over and over, from any claim that Lotus Pier might have on him – then perhaps that’s proper, too.

“No,” Jiang Cheng says, coldly. “There’s nothing else.”

“All right, then,” says the Lan disciple. He straightens from the bow, ruffles Tulip affectionately between the ears, hesitates a moment, and then adds: “By the way, Sandu Shengshou – thanks for caring well for this creature. She seems to be living a happy life.”

Jiang Cheng sighs, and looks at Tulip, who has now flopped onto her back with the definite air of a dog expecting that the ear pets will properly escalate into a belly rub.

Tulip is by far the unruliest of his dogs, overly enthusiastic, ungoverned in her affections. Still, there’s this to be said for her, perhaps the most important thing of all: she always waits to receive Jiang Cheng’s praise before going to greet anyone else.

As annoyed as he is at Wei Wuxian (and the whole Lan clan by proxy) it seems there’s no need to be petty in this matter. He clears his throat. “Lan –” What the fuck is the kid’s actual name, anyway? Surely he’s heard Jin Ling say it before. “–gongzi … it’s nearly time for Tulip to go outside, and I have pressing business. If you’d attend to this before you leave, you’d be doing me a good turn.”

The Lan disciple’s face lights up, and Jiang Cheng – for the first time in many years, when faced with someone in those particular robes – feels a faint warmth of something akin to beneficence.

(Really, there’s nothing petty about asking the Lan disciple shovel some dog shit when he seems so delighted to do it. Maybe he can even get the kid to take all three dogs outside, and win a good half hour of uninterrupted time to begin preparing for his trip to Carp Tower.)

**

“What,” says Jiang Cheng, “are you doing here.”

“Ah!” says Nie Huaisang, brightly. “I’m here for the same reason you are, of course. As you know, Jiang-xiong, I’ve always been an admirer of beauty. When I hear tell of something famed, I really can’t stay away.”

“And let me guess who told you about that,” said Jiang Cheng, flatly.

“Wei-xiong,” Nie Huaisang murmurs, “is indeed very persuasive.” He swings the fan up in front of his face, and smiles around the edge of it. “But I think even he doesn’t do this particular dog justice.”

Jiang Cheng begins to roll his eyes, remembers belatedly that a large portion of the Jin clan is watching their interaction, and manages to restrain himself. “And what would you know about dogs anyway, Nie Huaisang?” he demands instead.

“I really don’t know very much,” Nie Huaisang agrees, humbly. (Jiang Cheng belatedly remembers the detailed pedigree lines that Nie Hauiang had sent along with Xiao Tingfeng.) “It’s too bad! How I would love for such an elegant creature to wander the halls of the Unclean Realms. But what a shame – I’m afraid I wouldn’t know how to keep it from chasing the birds. Once again, it will be Jiang clan that goes home with the prize.”

“What,” says Jiang Cheng.

“Congratulations, Jiang-xiong,” says Nie Huaisang, mournfully. “Everyone knows we were here to see who would claim the rights to this valued dog when it’s grown, but I really don’t know how anyone thought this failure of a clan leader could possibly compete with the honored Sect Leader Jiang.”

What,” says Jiang Cheng.

***

(With a feeling of inevitability, he names the dog Little Fairy.)

5.

Wei Wuxian thinks he really should be congratulated for the way the whole situation with Fairy’s puppy turned out. Jin Ling is a young sect leader, new to responsibility; Fairy is one thing, but if he’s always playing with puppies, people won’t take him seriously. (Also, it’s really better for Wei Wuxian, personally, if there’s only one dog at Carp Tower.)

Jiang Cheng, on the other hand – for sixteen years, it seems, nobody’s done anything but take him seriously. It can’t be good for him. And now that Jin Ling’s got to be at Carp Tower so much more, Lotus Pier must seem a little empty.

Ah, it really does make Wei Wuxian’s heart ache a little, to think of Jiang Cheng still alone in Sword Hall after all these years. If that lonely room is filled with dogs, like Jiang Cheng wanted when he was small – well, that’s better, isn’t it? It has to be better.

Also Wei Wuxian doesn’t really want to imagine all the dogs in any detail, so either way it helps him not to think about Lotus Pier so much as he otherwise might. A good thing for everyone!

“Not,” he tells Lan Zhan, as he packs up his bundle for travel, “that Jin Ling will thank me properly for dealing with his troubles for him. That child, he’s nothing like our good A-Yuan that Lan Zhan raised so well. Still, I should let him express a little appreciation how he can, don’t you think?”

Lan Zhan hands him a water-skin.

Wei Wuxian lets their fingers intertwine for a moment as he takes it. Then he pulls his hand away to set down the water-skin. “Don’t pout,” he tells Lan Zhan’s expressionless face. “I’ll only be gone a few days. Play our song every night and make all the children sad by how you’re pining for me.”

“I do,” says Lan Zhan, absolutely unperturbed.

Wei Wuxian explodes in laughter. He really should know better by now than to think he can embarrass Lan Zhan (which doesn’t make it any less fun to to try). “Lan Zhan! Absolutely shameless! Poor Jingyi, how’s he supposed to learn this sort of thing isn’t realistic!”

Lan Zhan patiently waits out the laughter before passing Wei Wuxian a spare pair of socks to put into his travel-pack. He follows this up with a report written on a piece of paper. Wei Wuxian raises his eyebrows and scans through it.

“Ah … I see, it’s along the route. Well, it seems like it’s only a little spirit, shouldn’t be too much trouble to take care of.” He glances back at Lan Zhan, and thinks for a moment, as he often does, about asking Lan Zhan to come with him on his road trip to Carp Tower – but Lan Zhan’s busy, it’s rare enough that he can slip away for a little night-hunting with Wei Wuxian, and anyway, it doesn’t feel right. Not yet. It’s no good if what’s meant to be a casual visit turns into a whole event, and Jin Ling can’t be at his ease.

Maybe once Lan Xichen is out of seclusion, and Lan Zhan can visit Lanling Jin as something other than Gusu Lan’s leader.

(Maybe once Wei Wuxian figures out how to reconcile a little better the parts of himself that belong to Lan Zhan, and the parts of him that will always belong to the family he failed.)

“Thanks,” he says instead, and tucks the report about the restless spirit into one of his sleeves. “This’ll make the trip a little less boring. So much walking! And not even Li’l Apple for company!”

Lan Zhan regards him for a moment, and then suggests, “Play the song, then.”

“It won’t be as much fun,” says Wei Wuxian, disconsolately. “The people I pass won’t know it’s supposed to show I’m pining.”

**

Still, he hums Lan Zhan’s tune to himself as he makes his way to the port at Caiyi to charter the boat that will take him to Carp Tower. If he was going with Lan Zhan, he’d take Li’l Apple, and enjoy the pleasure of travel and their solitude – but the trip is faster by water, and the quicker he goes, the sooner he can be back again.

The hamlet that reported the spirit is half a day’s ride down the river, right where the borders of Gusu Lan’s jurisdiction of care brush against Yunmeng Jiang’s. It’s still light when he arrives, and the townsfolk are more than happy to tell a traveler about the house that nobody dares to go inside.

“It’s a millstone around Young Su’s neck,” the innkeeper informs him, as she brings him his second round of wine. “The old lady was his aunt, and when she left him the house, he thought he was in the money. But he can’t live there himself, and he can’t sell it, and now people want him to pay for all their chickens and rabbits, too.”

Wei Wuxian cocks his head. “Only chickens and rabbits?”

“So far,” says the innkeeper dourly.

“Hmm,” says Wei Wuxian, and swings himself up from the table. “Thank you, ma’am, for the excellent wine.”

The innkeeper frowns. “You won’t take a room, sir?”

Wei Wuxian smiles. “Why should I pay you to put a roof over my head? You just told me yourself, no one’s staying in the old lady’s house.”

He pulls out his flute, twirls it around his fingers as he heads for the door, and sees the innkeeper’s eyes go round. It’s a little bit fun, he supposes, building a reputation up again this way. People whispered about the Yiling Patriarch for sixteen years, passing around hideous drawings and trading cautionary tales. Now, after everything that’s happened and all the rumors that flew in the wake of Jin Guangyao’s death, they don’t know what to think.

Well, it’s not that Wei Wuxian cares so much what anyone thinks of the Yiling Patriarch – but at least these people in the little villages he helps will know that he’s handsome, and the Second Jade of Lan really isn’t throwing himself away!

It’s easy to identify the haunted cottage; it’s the one with the deteriorating roof and the faint smell of decay. Wei Wuxian strolls in just as the sun sets, sauntering through the resentful energy that surrounds it like a curtain, and sits down square in the middle of the first room he finds. The deepening darkness thickens immediately around him, shadows closing in like judgmental neighbors, and the faint outlines of furniture and knickknacks gain an air of unutterable menace. From behind a curtain at the end of the room, something lets out a high-pitched whine. Every element conspires to let him know, in no uncertain terms, that the house doesn’t want him here.

Really, it would be rude to laugh, but holding himself back takes some effort. The whole atmosphere’s more comforting than anything else. He’s faced far worse ghosts than one cranky old lady who won’t be kicked out of her home.

First, he pulls out a piece of paper, a calligraphy set and a knife. He places the paper on the floor in front of him; then he takes the knife and matter-of-factly makes a slice in his thumb. Blood wells out, and he catches it in his ink-stone before grinding in the ink-stick to make a dark red liquid.

(Lan Zhan hates this technique, but when he’s not here with his guqin for spirits to pluck answers on strings, you’ve got to find other ways of talking with the dead.)

“All right, grandmother,” he says. “You left your nephew the house. Why won’t you let him have it?”

As he speaks, he writes the question out with the mixture he’s made in the ink-stone. Then he picks the flute back up, and plays the variant on Inquiry that he’s been working on developing over the past few months.

As he plays, the lines of the characters he’s written in ink and blood begin to shift around, sliding over and around each other to form new words:

He wouldn’t take care of my baby.

Wei Wuxian lets the sound of the flute trill off into a thoughtful note before lifting it from his mouth, and letting it dangle from his fingers. “Ah! Chicken and rabbits, of course.” He inclines his head, politely. “A mother who tends to her child from beyond the grave, it’s really praiseworthy. Though a little rice also, some spices perhaps …”

The characters whip around on the page. My baby needs meat!

Wei Wuxian spares a moment to pity whatever kind of creature is whining in the back room. If it’s still alive, this environment can’t be wholesome. Still, nobody he’d spoken to in the village said anything about a child. There are infant spirits that prey on the gullible living; why shouldn’t they do the same for the dead? Easy enough for a parasite to latch onto a ghost, and convince her to bring it a steady supply of prey. “Grandmother,” he says, coaxingly. “If this talented cultivator promises to care for your baby, to find it a good home, you’ll find rest, won’t you? There’s no need to stay?”

There’s a hesitation before the characters rearrange again. The ghost is considering. You?

“Ah, probably not for the long term,” says Wei Wuxian, quickly. “This wandering life of mine, you see, it’s no good for a child. But I’ll find a good place and make sure it’s settled.” (If it, too, is a spirit, settled to the grave – but it seems tactful not to mention this in so many words.)

Another long pause, and then the strokes on the page swirl and pile onto each other to form one word, taking up the paper from edge to edge: Swear.

When Wei Wuxian hesitates over the wording, the character practically pulses on the page. SWEAR!

Ah, so impatient! He clicks his tongue, but puts his hands together obediently. “I, Wei Wuxian, vow to take responsibility for your child, to make sure it’s not abandoned here alone, and provide for its future. Will that satisfy you?”

When he picks up the flute again, the characters stay as they are, unmoving. Moonlight pours in through the window, as the atmosphere around him lightens. By the time he lifts Chenqing once more from his lips, the little house is once again only a house.

“Hm,” says Wei Wuxian, aloud, and is answered by another whine in the back room.

It’s more than a little surprising, that the resentful energy should be gone so easily. Even if the grandmother’s moved on, contented by his vow, what about the spirit in the back? Maybe he was wrong, and it’s a real baby after all. Now he’ll have to find someone in the village that can take it, how inconvenient!

Though, on the other hand, Lan Zhan was very charming with A-Yuan, when he was small …

Well! One way or another, a promise is a promise. He pushes himself to his feet, cracks his neck from side to side, and goes to push aside the screen that divides the two portions of the little house.

Then he leaps back, with a scream.

“Baby!” he shouts, to the empty house. “What baby! Really, grandmother, are you trying to kill me?”

All the way in the back of the house, gnawing on a bone, muzzle stained with blood, surrounded by gore and feathers – there, in the back of the house, there’s a decidedly living dog.

**

He tries begging. He tries wheedling. He even tries bribery. Still, the people of the village are firm: no one’s going to adopt a dog that has recently been tended by a ghost.

Wei Wuxian slinks back to the house and glowers at the front door. He takes a deep breath. He takes another breath. He squares his shoulders. He says, out loud, “I am the fearsome Yiling Patriarch!” (Down the street, three women give him very odd looks, and another takes her child by the hand and scurries into the house.) He takes another breath. He takes a step back.

Then he marches up and pushes open the door.

From the back of the room, in the exact same position, the dog stares back at him with enormous, disconsolate eyes.

There’s this to be said, and only this: it’s not a very large dog. In fact, when you look under the blood and the bones and the piles of scattered, gory feathers – and really the blood and the bones and so on are the least distressing part of the entire situation – it’s really nothing more than skin and bones. For all the grandmother-spirit’s efforts, it seems the people of the village have been guarding their chickens and rabbits a little too well.

“Hmm,” says Wei Wuxian. He backs out of the house again, and heads over to the inn, which is just opening up for the night’s business. After this morning’s highly unsuccessful attempt at arranging a dog adoption, the owner’s not particularly pleased to see him again, but she relaxes when he explains that he only wants to buy some meat.

It’s easier to open the door, the next time. He’s got a theory. And, when he tosses a few chunks of meat through the door, his theory is proven: the dog snaps up the chunk that lands in front of its nose, but instead of getting up to its feet to pounce on the others, it only lifts its head to Wei Wuxian and lets out a truly pitiful sound.

There’s something wrong with the dog’s legs. It can’t walk.

“Well,” Wei Wuxian says, out loud, “at least I know you won’t jump at me.” He takes a cautious step into the room, closing the door behind him, and then leans his head back against the lintel. Now he’s proven his theory, he can take better care with his aim. Piece by piece, he throws the meat across the room to the safely-distant dog. His heart jumps every time its jaws snap around the food, but intellectually, he can appreciate that it’s probably good news for its health that it eats with such gusto. He can even feel a little sorry for it, in his heart. It’s such a pitiful creature; it really would be good for someone to care for it. It’s just, why does that person have to be him!

Ah, what a mess! If he was closer to Cloud Recesses, he’d just shamelessly summon Lan Zhan to take care of the situation – but there’s no way anyone from Gusu Lan will see the signal flare from all the way out here, and by the time he makes the trip all the way there and back again, the dog will have been starving for two more days. That really can’t fall under the terms of his vow.

No, he’s got no choice but to bring the dog with him somewhere that he can be sure to get rid of it as soon as possible. That, unfortunately, is very clear.

Even more unfortunately, there’s a very easy answer for where to bring it.

(Lan Jingyi had conveyed Jiang Cheng’s words from last time. If you know what Jiang Cheng’s like, there had been an invitation in them. Almost certainly an invitation to come and get punched, emotionally if not physically, and most likely both, which is why Wei Wuxian’s been trying not to think about it.

Still. Still.)

**

“Sect Leader!” Jiang Zhihua comes running into the hall, eyes wide. “Sect Leader!”

“What is it?” demands Jiang Cheng, straightening at once. Jiang Zhihua is a solid and grizzled veteran, one of the few who by chance survived the destruction of Lotus Pier, and Jiang Cheng can’t remember the last time he saw him this startled. “What’s the matter?”

(Xiao Tingeng, who had been in the middle of his evening meal – he refuses to eat except when fed by hand, which is something that Jiang Cheng is absolutely going to train him out of any day now – lets out a reproachful yip and begins nosing at his ankles.)

“There’s someone – at the dock – you’ve got to come!” Jiang Zhihua gasps. “You’ve got to come right away!”

As Jiang Cheng heads for the door, Sweet Bun at his side, Tulip and Xiao Tingfeng scrambling after him, Jiang Zhihua shouts, “Clan Leader! Wait!”

“You said to come right away!” snaps Jiang Cheng.

“You should! You must! Only –” Jiang Zhihua swallows. “This time, Clan Leader, maybe don’t bring the dogs?”

A few moments later, Jiang Cheng, heart hammering, strides out to the docks with no one at his heels but Jiang Zhihua.

He sees –

Well, of course it could be nobody but Wei Wuxian. He’s standing all the way at one end of a cheap boat. All the way on the other end of a boat lies a sad, matted, skinny little dog. From the way the dog gazes at Wei Wuxian, it clearly feels nothing but devotion for him. From the way Wei Wuxian eyes the dog, the feeling is clearly not mutual.

Over a year, since Jiang Cheng has seen Wei Wuxian face-to-face. Over a year, and in that whole time, Jiang Cheng has wrestled with the question of what would say the next time he finally encountered this person who has been his brother, his savior, his doom.

Now the moment’s come at last, and he finds that after all, to the situation that presents itself, there is only one thing he can possibly say:

“Wei Wuxian! What the actual fuck?”

Wei Wuxian, his brother, jumps and turns his head so fast he almost overturns the boat. “Jiang Cheng!”

Jiang Cheng jerks his head at the dog. “What’s that?”

“Ah …” Wei Wuxian laughs nervously. “It’s really a long story … if you want to take the dog and let me stay in the boat so I can be on my way faster, that’s all right too...”

Jiang Cheng scoffs so loud he can feel the scrape of it in his throat. “It’s like that? Bring me your problems to deal with, then run away?”

“What problem, Jiang Cheng?” demands Wei Wuxian. “You love dogs! It’s only a problem for me! For you, it’s a gift! Accept it gracefully!”

“Accept it gracefully? Look at it!” Jiang Cheng shouts back. “It’s clear to see that no one’s cared for that dog properly in weeks! You – always taking in strays, why drop your leavings on me?”

In all the times he thought what might happen the next time they met, he had never imagined this, the least likely thing of all: he’s enjoying himself. Whatever the story behind it, it’s clearly such a stupid predicament his brother’s gotten himself into! It’s like all the years have dropped away to a time before the arguments meant anything – which makes it even of like a punch to the solar plexus when Wei Wuxian suddenly deflates, draws silent, drops his gaze.

“All right, then,” he says. “If you don’t want it, we won’t trouble you, then. This creature can find another home.”

He lifts his pole, clearly preparing to push away.

And, just like that, Jiang Cheng is absolutely furious again. “Wei Wuxian!” he hisses. “You’re not going anywhere!”

Purple lightning crackles out and wraps around the anchor-hook of the boat, holding it fast. The dog lets out a yelp, and attempts to scramble to its feet, but its legs immediately crumple under it and it goes down again.

Wei Wuxian’s back is pressed all the way against the side of the boat. “Jiang Cheng! I thought you knew dogs?” Then, to Jiang Cheng’s surprise, he adds, “It’ll hurt itself worse like that!”

He looks back at the dog, and, swallowing, inches a few careful steps towards it. Then he carefully bonks it very lightly with the boat-pole, in what appears to be a gesture of affection. “I know,” he tells the dog. “His personality’s always been this bad.”

There is no way the pole actually hurts the dog. Still: “Don’t smack the dog!” snarls Jiang Cheng.

“You’re the one who scared it!” Wei Wuxian retorts.

They glare at each other for a moment, and then – as he was always going to do, as Wei Wuxian should have known he was always going to do – Jiang Cheng retracts Zidian, and waves an arm to Jiang Zhihua. “Send for Master Yu!” (Master Yu is the animal doctor who has been coming by once a month, ever since he acquired Sweet Bun.) “Tell him there’s an emergency and he’s to come right away. You!” He stabs a finger at Wei Wuxian. “You’ll stay until the doctor sees the dog!”

Wei Wuxian looks at the dog, and looks at the docks, and doesn’t move.

“What,” snaps Jiang Cheng, “afraid I’ll set the dogs on you if you get out of the boat?”

Wei Wuxian grimaces and doesn’t answer, which immediately gives Jiang Cheng far too much time to remember a.) swearing to protect Wei Wuxian from dogs, back when they were children and b.) various occurrences with Fairy last year. He wants to shake his brother until words come out normally, like they used to. He wants to roll back time sixty seconds; he wants to roll back time sixteen years.

Because he can’t do any of this, he rolls his eyes instead, and turns away. “Jiang Zhihua will bring them to my chambers, you won’t see them.”

(Jiang Zhihua opens his mouth, then shuts it again and changes his course from ‘the general direction of the stables’ to ‘the general direction of Sword Hall.’ Good. Jiang Zhihua can find someone else in Sword Hall who can go for Master Yu, but there aren’t very many people that Jiang Cheng wants wrangling his dogs.)

“Jiang Cheng,” says Wei Wuxian, behind him.

“What?”

“The hospitality of the master of Lotus Pier is appreciated, but…”

Hearing the pause, Jiang Cheng braces himself.

“…there’s still a dog here,” concludes Wei Wuxian, and stops.

Jiang Cheng draws a breath in and out. He turns back around to meet Wei Wuxian’s accusing gaze. “Wei Wuxian,” he says, slowly, “you brought this dog here yourself.”

“Yes?” says Wei Wuxian. “I told you, there were circumstances. Anyway –” He waves an arm at the dog. “It can’t get out of the boat itself. It can’t walk. You see?”

Wei Wuxian, the gesture says, very clearly, is not going to be the one to carry it out.

Jiang Cheng pinches the bridge of his nose. “How did you get it on the boat, even?”

“Begged for help,” says Wei Wuxian, with no shame whatsoever.

“And now you’re begging for help again?”

Wei Wuxian shrugs. “Who else should I ask?”

His voice is perfectly casual; if he’s thinking about old, broken promises, too, there’s no sign of it on his face. Jiang Cheng knows how terrible his brother’s memory is. Wei Wuxian probably just means there’s nobody else on the pier, now that Jiang Zhuliu has gone.
“Fine,” Jiang Cheng snaps, and kneels down next to the boat, then bends to pick up the dirty, injured dog.

He’s a little worried the dog will snap or bite at him, but it only whimpers as he shifts his hands around, trying to figure out the best way to hold it. It doesn’t seem like it’s actively bleeding, but there’s some scabbed-over blood on its scrawny legs, and one of them is bent at an angle that looks all wrong; he doesn’t want to risk touching it anywhere that could exacerbate its injury. Eventually he scoops it up around the middle, then stands and settles it carefully over his shoulder, the way he used to hold Jin Ling sometimes when he was a wriggly toddler. The dog quivers and whines in his arms, and stares back, beseechingly, at Wei Wuxian.

Jiang Cheng also turns to look at Wei Wuxian, who is still standing in the boat.

The boat isn’t tied to anything, now. Zidian’s been retracted. Wei Wuxian could push away from the dock right now, if he wanted.

“You can’t leave right away,” Jiang Cheng tells him. There’s a tangle of feelings trapped raw and rasping in his throat – but he can’t talk too loudly now, not while holding the dog. He’s already frightened it enough. “This dog trusts you. It’s going to need a doctor to look at its legs, and it’ll be frightened if there’s nobody there knows. You’ve got to take responsibility. You hear me, Wei Wuxian?”

Wei Wuxian meets his eyes for a moment, then glances away, up and past him. “There aren’t any dogs allowed in the Cloud Recesses,” he remarks. As if this were news to Jiang Cheng. As if Jiang Cheng did not know, all too well, that Wei Wuxian lives now in a bastion of righteous safety, wrapped around in cotton-wool by his perfect soulmate Hanguang-Jun.

Jiang Cheng draws in a breath, and then lets it out, to keep himself from shouting. “Did I say you should keep it? You wouldn’t anyway. I’m only saying, wait a little. You can’t abandon it yet.”

Wei Wuxian’s eyes rest, for a long moment, on the open walkways and tiled roofs of Lotus Pier. His face is closed, unreadable.

And then he stretches his arms up behind his head, and cracks his neck, and lets out a long sigh. “Ah, Jiang Cheng, so stubborn, really,” he says, and takes a step off the boat.

His foot hovers over the pier. Of course it does. Of course it makes Jiang Cheng angry all over again to see the hesitation. This was Wei Wuxian’s home. It should always have been his home. If it’s hard for him to stand here now, whose fault is that?

But Jiang Cheng’s still holding the dog, and he can’t frighten it. (It’s so much easier, to be gentle to a dog than to a person.) And so he says nothing, while Wei Wuxian hesitates – and then Wei Wuxian stands with both feet in Lotus Pier, and continues if there had been no break at all: “But you’d better feed me well! And you’d better keep your word about those dogs. That one I brought should be the only dog I see.”

Jiang Cheng blows out air through his nose rather than answering, and starts to walk back towards Sword Hall. The dog Wei Wuxian brought is a fragile, frightened weight on his shoulder.

“Whose fault is it there are dogs here, anyway?” he mutters – loud enough, of course, that Wei Wuxian should be able to hear. “Did I ever ask for them?”

For a moment, there’s nothing but the sound of footsteps behind him. Then Wei Wuxian says, sorrowfully, “This person … just like his nephew, no manners whatsoever, casts blame when he wants to give thanks.”

Jiang Cheng freezes for a moment, for once too startled even to be angry.

Is this what it was like? He’d nearly forgotten. It’s been so long, and so much between them – who knew that after all this time, a person could still know you this well?

 

6.

It’s very nearly a disaster. If it weren’t for Lan Sizhui’s quick thinking, they would all have been crying over a baby rabbit – but the baby rabbit hops away, perfectly fine, as Wei Wuxian bursts into applause for Sizhui’s fast fingers on the guqin.

“So impressive! Really, well done! Lan Zhan would be proud!”

Lan Sizhui smiles, and continues playing. Meanwhile, Lan Jingyi stalks around the cat, which has been frozen mid-air by a confluence of guqin chords and sounds extremely indignant about it. “Bad cat!” he scolds. “What a nuisance! Don’t you know, there’s no cats allowed –”

The cat’s yowling is abruptly interrupted by a yawn, as Lan Sizhui’s lullaby begins to take hold. Its mouth stretches big. Its eyes scrunch shut. It lets another bemused, halfhearted meow, and then yawns again, larger than before.

Lan Jingyi stops in his tracks. His eyes go wide. He puts a hand to his heart. “Sizhui,” he says. “Sizhui, help, it’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Jingyi,” Lan Sizhui tells him, lifting his hands from the strings, “you know this way lies only heartbreak.”

Lan Jingyi shuts his eyes, and proclaims, despairingly, “Why was I born a Lan!”

“Still –” The cat is, at this point, fast asleep. Sizhui carefully retrieves it from the tangle of spells that have been holding it. “What can we do? Senior Wei …” He looks down at the cat, now emitting tiny snores in his arms, then back up at Wei Wuxian. “It’s quite a young cat, isn’t it? And it really does look hungry.”

Wei Wuxian can’t help but laugh. “Gusu Lan’s really going to be in trouble, with all the next generation so softhearted like this … you’ll say we have to find a home for it, right?”

“Don’t you think we should?” says Lan Sizhui, earnestly. “Otherwise, now it knows this place, won’t it just come back to hunt more baby rabbits?”

“Oh, reasonable,” agrees Wei Wuxian, not bothering to hide his grin. This kid … he seems so calm, gives no trouble, but he really does have all that Wen stubbornness under there, doesn’t he? “Well …” He scratches his chin, elaborately casual. “I’ve got to go to Carp Tower soon, could maybe stop somewhere on the way …”

The cat – before Sizhui charmed it – had given all indications of being loud, bad-tempered, and thoroughly inconvenient. Wei Wuxian is sure he knows a perfect home for it.

“If you mean Lotus Pier,” says Lan Jingyi, “just say Lotus Pier. Honestly, I don’t know why you always pretend you just end up there by accident.”

“Oh,” retorts Wei Wuxian, “and who’s always clamoring to take messages so he can go play with that dog?”

He looks over at Sizhui to see if he’s satisfied with the solution; to his surprise, Sizhui looks grave and thoughtful, not pleased at all. “Sizhui, you don’t like it?”

Sizhui startles, then gives a tiny shake of his head. “No … I was only thinking about Jin Ling.”

Wei Wuxian raises his eyebrows.

“Jin Ling,” Sizhui explains, “has an uncle who is lonely, and who has been important to him. He has very properly sought for ways to show his respect and affection. Over the past year, he has gifted this uncle no less than two dogs.”

“That’s true,” agreed Wei Wuxian. “All very factually accurate.”

“We also have giving this uncle of Jin Ling’s a dog,” Sizhui goes on, “and you, as well, have given this uncle of Jin Ling’s a dog. Sandu Shengshou must feel himself very fortunate and beloved.”

His voice and words are calm and even. He doesn’t sound petulant, any more than Lan Zhan ever does, unless you know him exceedingly well. The very, very faint hint of Lan Zhan-ish disdain in the flare of his nostrils is … well, honestly, it’s very funny. “Yes?” says Wei Wuxian, encouragingly.

Sizhui lifts his chin a little, and says, “This disciple also has an important elder.”

Wei Wuxian raises his eyebrows. “This disciple is going to have to be a little more specific.”

Sizhui flushes, at that. “Of course, this disciple has many important elders! But – ah –”

“I think what Sizhui is saying,” Lan Jingyi jumps in, “is that Hanguang-Jun already has all those rabbits, and also he’s got you and you’re needier with him than any pet, so he doesn’t want anything else. No offense. And you, Senior Wei, you’ve got Li’l Apple, and you fight so much with that donkey, you probably couldn’t be trusted with anything smaller. No offense. But why should Sandu Shengshou, who does know a lot about dogs but is also honestly very rude, be continually offered more and more animals to care for, and Lan Sizhui’s Senior Wen, who may be a fierce corpse but also has never been anything other than polite, never receive a gift at all, and always be wandering alone? It doesn’t seem like justice.”

Light dawns. “You want to give Wen Ning the cat,” says Wei Wuxian.

Sizhui gives a small, firm nod. “I want to give Senior Wen the cat.”

**

“Excuse me.”

The merchant looks up, startled, to see – well, it’s a wandering cultivator, or … something. His hands are very pale under deep dark sleeves; his hair flows long and loose under a broad-brimmed hat that casts his face in shadow. And are the veins on his neck … black?

It’s all very sinister, honestly. Still, a customer is a customer. “Yes?” she says, politely. “How can I help you?”

“I’m looking to buy …” He hesitates. “A flask? A bottle? Something that will hold heat, when you put in hot water, but won’t be easily, um, punctured?”

“Punctured,” repeats the merchant.

“Yes. Um.” The wandering cultivator sounds deeply apologetic. “By – little claws?”

“Claws.”

“Like this,” explains the wandering cultivator, rather desperately, and turns around.

The small gray cat in the pack on his back looks up and lets out a mrrrp.

The merchant stares. “Oh,” she says. “Oh. Oh, I see!”

The wandering cultivator shuffles back around so he’s facing her again. “You see, ah, it’s starting to get cold at nights, and Little Sister –”

“No, no! I understand completely! One moment!” cries the merchant, and dives into the back of her store.

This will teach her not to make snap judgments. Sinister, nothing! She knows all the signs of a doting pet-owner when she sees one. By the end of the day – there’s no doubt about it – this man is going to buy a set of hideously expensive accessories for his cat.