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The Winding Slanted Road

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“And as I said, I’m the Sect Leader now.” The voice was young and arrogant. “You can either show me through the high security cells or fetch me someone who will. Thank you.”

Wen Qing stepped to her feet. Changes were best met with what dignity she still had. That meant standing.

She could hear the footsteps echoing as they approached and the tapping of claws.

“Most of the cells are empty, I’m telling you.” The guard was still arguing.

“I’ll look through whoever is down here just the same.” The stubbornness in the younger voice sounded like– Wen Qing shook that thought out of her head. It did no good to her dignity to think of dead friends. Meng Yao had visited her personally to announce the eradication of their village on the Burial Mounds.

Wen Qing pressed her lips together, lifted her chin, and focused her gaze on the wall opposite her cell. She hoped that whatever had happened to Meng Yao so that he was no longer Sect Leader, it had been painful and bloody. (It wasn’t his fault, of course, A-Yuan and A-Ning and Wei WuXian and her people, but Wen Qing was sitting in a cell. She didn’t have much she could do to stay sane aside from blaming the messenger. He knew that she was only a doctor.)

The footsteps were drawing nearer.

“Be careful with this one. She’s deceptive. Sly.”

The boy looked like he was being dragged down by his Sect Leader’s robes. He must still have at least one growth spurt to go. Maybe two. He would be Jin ZiXuan’s and Jiang YanLi’s child; there was something of Jiang WanYin in his jaw, Jin ZiXuan in his forehead. His eyes were familiar too. Wen Qing wondered if he had inherited his mother’s asthma. There was a spiritual dog walking beside him. It was the dog’s claws she must have heard on the stone.

His double-take was barely visible, a tightening of his jaw and the skin around his eyes. Wen Qing didn’t understand it. Did she look that evil to the boy?

“Lan Y– Are you Wen… Wen Qing?” He frowned. “I’m not sure if that’s r– Wen Ning’s sister?”

Her voice rasped when she spoke. “Not ‘The Ghost General’? I was told that was how they were remembering him.”

“She’s Wen Qing.” The guard spat on the stone floor. “May all her ilk rot away in worse prisons than this.”

The boy turned to her guard. “Do you have the key?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t recommend going in there.” A pause. “Are you– LianFeng-zun never allowed us to,” he resettled his bulge menacingly, “but it might be worth the risk of her biting it off if–”

The boy cut him off. “Do you have the key? I will be continuing my xiaoshu’s policy. Do you know why he held that policy?”

The boy had presence in places, Wen Qing would give him that. It didn’t all sound like a sulky child trying to get out of going to bed.

The guard looked abashed. “Yes, Jin-zongzhu.”

“And do you know what excuses he gave for his depravities?” That sounded interesting.

“Yes, Jin-zongzhu.”

“Go get the key. I’ll wait.” The boy turned back to Wen Qing. The guard walked slowly away down the aisle. “Are there others, down here? Other political prisoners, do you know?” A pause while the boy pressed his lips together. “Is my cousin down here? Jin RuSong? He would have been… five? or so when they brought him down.”

Wen Qing bit her lips against all the things she wanted to say and shook her head. A-Yuan had been four.

The boy lifted his gaze up and nodded, mouth tight. “I– We’re going to get you out of there. I’m not–” he looked her in the eye again, tears apparently under control. “I’m not very secure – yet – in this position, but I’ll get you out of there right now and I’ll get my shibo and his friends. No one messes with them, not if they know what’s good for them.” He smiled thinly.

Wen Qing tried to think who his martial uncle might be. She’d counted out the families and Sects several times over, trying to stay sane, but it was difficult to keep up without news and there hadn’t been a Jin man she could think of who might have inspired that sort of confidence. Not who deserved it, not if Meng Yao was out of the picture.

The boy shifted his weight. “Have you– Do you know anything about current news?”

She awarded him the look that question deserved.

He winced and tried, “I thought maybe the guards had gossiped or something. I didn’t know if Zewu-jun ended up down here at all during xia– Jin GuangYao’s brief stint as his kidnapper.” He bit his lip and Wen Qing could see the calculations going through his head even if she – frustratingly – couldn’t know what they were.

“I should- Let me check the other cells. If there’s anyone else down here- No one should be stuck here.” The boy paused as he turned. “Fairy, watch him if he comes back. Keep Wen Qing safe.” The dog settled facing the way they had come and the boy’s footsteps echoed away down the hall and back.

He bowed when he returned. “I am Jin Ling – Jin RuLan– That is to say,” He blew out a breath. “I am very sorry for your imprisonment. As soon as– Assuming that I can stabilize my position, I– You will receive whatever reparations we can find. They won’t be enough, but.”

Footsteps echoed down the corridor of the guard returning. Wen Qing lifted her chin. Jin RuLan pressed his lips together and was as silent as if he’d had a Lan silencing– but that was no good to think about either.

“Are you– you can’t trust her. She’s– I’d sooner trust a wild dog – no offense to Fairy – than trust–”

The boy stopped.

Wen Qing closed her eyes. She had known it was too good to be true.

“If she’s that dangerous, then who made her that way?” The boy’s voice was sharp. Perhaps he had only been gathering his words after all.

Wen Qing opened her eyes again. His hands were buried in his dog’s ruff.

“My shibo said that Wen Qing turned herself in peacefully.” This shibo again. Who was he? “Unlock her door or hand me the key and I’ll do it myself.”

The guard held the keys out.

“You can go find her sword.” Jin RuLan’s voice was sharp. “Send–” He broke off. “Send it to my office.”

The guard hesitated. “I– We don’t keep that down here, Jin-zongzhu.”

Jin RuLan turned and glared at him. There was Jiang WanYin.

Wen Qing ducked her head to hide a smile – it wouldn’t do to let the guard know she was amused. Not unless she really was leaving.

“Do you know where it is kept?” His voice was deceptively soft. That was nothing like Jiang WanYin at all. Meng Yao then, maybe. (She squashed the comparison to- he was dead, Jiang WanYin had killed him, or maybe he’d killed himself. She couldn’t imagine Jiang WanYin killing Wei WuXian, not if Jiang YanLi had still thought him worth saving. Wei WuXian could have nothing to do with the dangerous gentleness of Jin RuLan’s voice, any more than the boy’s mother could.)

The guard seemed to realize that he had overstepped. “Yes, Jin-zongzhu. I’ll get it to you right away, Jin-zongzhu.” Wen Qing listened to his boots pad down the hall.

Jin RuLan stuck the key into the lock, winced, and pulled out a piece of talisman paper with his other hand. “Do you know– no, Lan JingYi told me how they do this.” He stuck the blank paper on the lock and then bit his forefinger (Wen Qing looked away from him and the overlying memory of watching Wei WuXian do the same thing so many times) and drew a quick design on it. There was a quick flash of spiritual energy.

Jin RuLan turned the key. It clicked gently and swung towards him. Wen Qing stood still and stared at him without the bars in between them.

He studied her, swallowed, and then bowed. “My deepest apologies, Wen-yishi. LanlingJin has wronged you and I will do everything in my power to put that right.”

Wen Qing watched as he stepped aside to let her out.

Meng Yao had never played this sort of mind game with her.

Wen Qing forced herself to take a slow breath. It was unreasonable to assume that Jiang YanLi’s son would be so sadistic. She had seemed nice enough at the Cloud Recesses, even if she couldn’t have been the paragon of virtue Wei WuXian had always– Wen Qing balled a fist. The open door was right there. All she had to do was walk through it. She was a cultivator. He was a boy and he was alone. Once she was out that door, she could– Wen Qing could feel her breaths getting faster and shallower.

“Wen-yishi?” It wasn’t the first time he had said it. Wen Qing blinked, and gasped another breath, and found the boy’s face much closer to hers than she had expected.

Wen Qing jerked back and would have fallen over, but for the boy’s hand on her elbow. She looked at it, and he blushed and let it drop. He was standing with her in her cell.

(She had treated herself, when the cold and damp and lack of sun left her falling ill. If it was a bad case the guards would give her second-rate ingredients to make her own medicines, though she tried not to let the guards observe. Who knew what perversions Meng Yao might put her medicines to? The last time someone had touched her had been to shove her into this cell.)

“Apologies, Wen-yishi. After you?” Jin RuLan stepped back so that she could exit the cell first.

Wen Qing wondered, as she walked through, whether Jin RuLan knew that the door would lock again just through being closed. There had been enough prisoners in and out through the years that she knew that much. Her own door hadn’t been opened since she had been shoved through it. Luckily. Thanks, apparently, to Meng Yao’s rules.

She watched him watch her, but he didn’t hurry out. Overly-trusting, thought he was being brave, or too in love with his own dignity, then.

Jin RuLan walked beside her as they climbed the staircase out, matching her speed even when she had to pause to breathe. “Is there anything that you especially like to eat? I can send for someone to make it for us while we wait.”

Wen Qing told herself that it was nothing to be ashamed of, to be out of breath after however many years in a cell that size. She was a doctor. (That the Jin Sect Leader called her one was… If she’d been any less shocked by it, she’d be certain that this was a dream.)

“The high-priority cells that you were in are at ground-level.” Jin RuLan still sounded apologetic. “This is the same as if we were climbing the steps out front – you know the ones I mean?”

Wen Qing rolled her eyes – how else would she have gotten in? – and asked, “While we wait?”

The boy dropped his gaze. “Jin GuangYao’s corruption was just discovered recently. He died two days later in an accident. Umm. A temple collapsed.” His hand had balled into a fist tight enough to whiten his knuckles around his sword. “I’m only sixteen, and there are those who want to assign themselves as my regent or to disqualify my right of birth because I was raised by my jiujiu and by Jin GuangYao. You’ll be safer with someone else until things settle.”

Wen Qing turned to start climbing again. It was best not to think about what some nameless other person might think of her. She might have to be grateful to this Jin whelp by comparison.

“If you want,” his voice was careful, “I can fly us both up on my sword. Or if you’d rather not, that’s fine too.”

Wen Qing bit her lip to hold back all the things she wanted to say and kept climbing doggedly. She wasn’t going to accept a lift from a boy who believed that his Sect had been justified in putting down her brother like he was a… a dog or… She was just going to keep walking.

The next time that they stopped, he cleared his throat. “I don’t want to risk the wrong messenger getting sent, but when we’re up in my office I’ll send someone who I trust to tell Hanguang-jun. He’ll tell,” he paused, and Wen Qing had the impression that he was making a decision. “I don’t want to give you a shock while we’re climbing the stairs and have you fall and injure yourself now. Lan Yuan would never forgive me. They’re people who cared for you, who think you’re dead.”

“We’re standing still.” Everyone she cared about was dead. She sighed and changed tacks. “Tell me what happened to Meng Yao.”

The tale of Meng Yao’s many and varied crimes and the method of his death (with odd skips, as if Jin RuLan was editing something about it) lasted them the rest of the way up the stairs. There was a pause while Jin RuLan wrote a brief letter to Lan WangJi and handed it over to a disciple, and then again while Wen Qing ate. (A small and snarky part of her wanted to ask if he was a Jin or a Lan, to be so silent during meals but… that was too close to other people she wasn’t thinking about. She wouldn’t cry in front of this child.) When he at last reached the point where Meng Yao asked Lan XiChen to die with him in a crumbling temple, then shoved him away, it was nearly dark out.

“And then- Hanguang-jun! Did you find…” Jin RuLan trailed off and Wen Qing balled her fists so that her fingernails dug into her palms before turning to face Lan WangJi.

Wei WuXian was standing in the doorway beside the other man. Wen Qing swallowed.

“Jin-zongzhu, what was in the food you fed me?”

“I… Normal things? Why, what are you-?”

Wen Qing breathed out slowly. “I believe that I’m hallucinating a- an old friend. I know that he died, and I managed to go sixteen years, if your account is correct, without hallucinating him in that cell.

Wei WuXian looked as flabbergasted as she felt, and much closer to tears. That was odd, she would have thought – had she ever considered what she would hallucinate, given a circumstance in which she was hallucinating – that she would remember Wei WuXian as he had preferred to be seen, a smile on his face. She had only seen his emotions this raw twice; while she was removing his core and the night he’d gotten drunk after Lan WangJi left the burial mounds. He was smiling through these tears though.

“Wen Qing?” His voice was rough.

Wen Qing grabbed at the closest grabbable object – a small rational part of her brain pointed out that was probably Jin RuLan’s arm. What else would be covered in that many layers of fabric? – and stared at him.

“Wei WuXian?” She could hear the wobble in her own voice now.

Lan WangJi nodded. (Like she cared for his confirmation.)

Wen Qing reached a hand towards Wei WuXian’s face.

Wei WuXian had been standing frozen. When she stretched her hand out he broke and flew across the room from the door. He paused at arm’s length and hovered.

Wen Qing had a moment when she thought it was the golden core operation. They had never been touchy-feely friends. Perhaps he still…

Wei WuXian stretched a hand towards her. “May I- After the burial mounds – the first time – I…”

“Oh.” Wen Qing would insist to her dying day that it hadn’t been a sob as she wrapped her arms around Wei WuXian. Wei WuXian delighted in contradicting her every time that he heard the claim.

When Wei WuXian lifted his head, there was a wet spot on her shoulder. Wen Qing kept an arm tight around his waist, unwilling to let go of the tangible proof that Wei WuXian, at least, had somehow survived.

Wei WuXian leaned his head against Wen Qing’s and spoke, his voice choked. “How are you alive, Wen Qing?”

Wen Qing’s jaw set. “I was a doctor. Meng Yao wanted my input on my writings.” She took a slow breath. “How are you alive, Wei WuXian? Meng Yao said they’d killed you.” That Jiang WanYin had…

It had been all she could do to stay silent and hope Meng Yao couldn’t read her guilt on her face. The secret was supposed to die with them. Jiang WanYin was never supposed to know. He couldn’t know, not now, not when he’d been close enough at Wei WuXian’s death for the rumors about his part in it to hold water…

Wen Qing turned to Jin RuLan. “This is your shibo?”

Jin RuLan looked abashed. “I didn’t want to shock you.” His gaze dropped to his hands. “You didn’t look like you trusted me much. I didn’t want to promise you so much that you thought you knew I was lying. When Jin Chan- And he’s not even ever- or he’s not related to- representative of…”

Wen Qing shook her head. “Alright.”

Wei WuXian looked serious when he turned his gaze on Jin Ling. “You just need to be you, Jin Ling.”

The boy dropped his gaze.

“Jin Ling? I brought the scrolls you- Oh.” Jiang WanYin looked at Wei WuXian for a long moment before his gaze reached her and he startled. “Oh, no. I- I’ll leave the scrolls in your rooms, Jin-”

Jin RuLan frowned at him. “Jiujiu? I- What-?”

Jiang WanYin backed up through the doors.

“Jiujiu, you knew Wen Qing, right? She’s-”

“Yes, I see.” Jiang WanYin didn’t sound- It wasn’t that Wen Qing had thought he would be pleased that she was alive. Her brother had killed his brother-in-law, after all. She hadn’t expected that mixture of rage and fear though.

“Jiang Cheng-” Wei WuXian reached a hand towards the Sect Leader.

Jiang WanYin’s back hit the wall on the other side of the hallway. His eyes never left Wen Qing.

“Was it your idea?” His voice was harsh. “Did you suggest it to Wei WuXian? Tell him that it would be fine as long as I never found out?” It was embarrassing, the long moment it took her to draw the connection.

Wen Qing turned to look up at Wei WuXian. “You told him?”

“Ahh,” Wei WuXian opened his mouth and hesitated. Jiang WanYin got there first.

“Oh no, Wei WuXian would be just as happy to have allowed me to go to my grave not knowing the debt I apparently owe him that I had no choice in.”

He was furious.

“No, it was the fucking Ghost General. Apparently,” Jiang WanYin’s face twisted, “I’m to blame for taking Wei WuXian at his word and not thinking that he would-” He curled his hand into a fist. “Never mind, I’ve always known that I wasn’t- Sixteen years you were dead,” He was looking at Wei WuXian now, perplexingly. “Sixteen years, and it was all down to- and I didn’t know, and I don’t know why I expected you to tell me, Wei WuXian, but you,” he glared at Wen Qing, “You’re supposed to be a doctor. You should have spoken to me about it first and not left it for your brother to attack me with sixteen years later like it changes my culpability when the three of you made so certain that I couldn’t have known.”

He was shaking. Wen Qing sighed and let go of Wei WuXian.

“Jiang Cheng.” Wei WuXian’s voice was uncertain. “Jiang Cheng, none of it was your fault.”

There were tears in Jiang WanYin’s eyes when he glared at them again. “Do you think I don’t know that?”

Wei WuXian walked across the room and stepped between Lan WangJi and Jiang Cheng. “Lan Zhan. Don’t you think you should go out and wait for Lan Yuan and Wen Ning?”

Wen Qing looked at Jin RuLan. “A-Ning is- He’s…”

Jin RuLan nodded at her in what she suspected was supposed to be an encouraging way.

Jiang WanYin spoke before his nephew could. “Wait, you didn’t- Where did you appear from anyway?”

Jin RuLan scowled. “Apparently the Jin Sect has high security cells where they keep political prisoners.”

Wei WuXian was ushering Lan WangJi out the door.

“Of course you do,” Jiang WanYin sounded confused. “Xue Yang-”

“No,” Wen Qing would be amused later about how much the two of them looked like – had speech patterns like – one another, “jiujiu, not where Xue Yang was kept. Down underneath Jinlintai. Only the Sect Leader and a few intimate trusted guards even know about them. There are no print records. I don’t see what they would ever be used for,” Jin RuLan inclined his head towards Wen Qing, “except injustices.”

Jiang WanYin swallowed. “So she’s been in prison here for sixteen years?”

Wen Qing was relieved to see that he didn’t seem in any hurry to put her back in prison. “I operated on you without your consent.” She kept her voice flat.

“Just because I want nothing to do with you doesn’t mean you should have been locked up.” Jiang WanYin’s voice was tense. “You’re- You didn’t know that your brother was alive. Did you know that Wei WuXian was brought back to life?”

Wen Qing shook her head. “I know only what I’ve been told, by Meng Yao and then by Jin-zongzhu here.”

Jiang WanYin hesitated, and then squared his shoulders. “Here, Jin Ling. Take the scrolls you wanted and do something with them.” He turned and settled himself across the table from Wen Qing. “What do you know?”

It was easier, somehow, to hear the happenings of the cultivation world from so impersonal a narrator. If it had been Wei WuXian she might have embarrassed herself, crying in front of strangers. Instead, by the time that Jiang WanYin stood to take his leave she had been acquainted with the major political currents of the past several years and the current chaos and struggle for control of Jinlintai in the wake of Meng Yao’s undoing. She had learned the barest bones of Wei WuXian’s death and return (that had been less impersonal), the reappearance of her brother, and the way Lan WangJi had adopted them both and set out to unravel Nie MingJue’s death.

Jiang WanYin paused at the door on his way out. “Jin Ling, why don’t you go check on Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi?”

Jin RuLan rolled his eyes. “Is this about Lan Yuan?” Wen Qing was further perplexed when he added, “I sent for him and Wen Ning. Did you think I didn’t know?”

Jiang WanYin spoke to the wall. “I wasn’t certain and I’d met him before. Before he was a Lan. Are you sure, Jin Ling?”

Wen Qing bit the inside of her lip – hard – and glanced around for something to distract herself. She almost missed Jin RuLan’s confirmation.

“Lan Yuan told me himself, and he had it from Hanguang-jun.”

Wen Qing lifted her eyes to Jiang WanYin. He was still facing the door.

“Wen Qing. The little boy who was at the burial mounds with you. He used to hug people’s legs.”

Wen Qing stiffened. “The child who was put into a labor camp as a toddler and then spent the rest of his life in the burial mounds before being brutally murdered?” She would put up with a lot, from the family who had brought her out of her cell, but A-Yuan had been innocent.

“Yes. I mean, no, I- He wasn’t murdered. Hanguang-jun saved him and raised him as his own. He and Jin Ling kept me and Lan WangJi from murdering each other while- in the past sixteen years.” Jiang WanYin slid the door open and walked out and away. He never turned to look at her. Wen Qing was grateful. Meng Yao used to watch her face, to see how the news was sinking in.

Jin RuLan stood up and closed the door with an odd smile. “He likes Lan Yuan too. I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up and it worried him. It was mostly- You’ll see, Lan Yuan is someone all of you can be proud of who had a hand in raising him. He’s a good friend.”

There was a rattle as the door slid open and Wei WuXian reentered the room. “I saw your jiujiu left, Jin Ling, so I thought it would be safe to leave Lan Zhan out there without worrying about him going to find and kill Jiang Cheng.” Wen Qing folded her arms across her chest in direct disbelief of Wei WuXian’s bright wavering smile. “If you have any Sect business to take care of today, I can sit with Wen Qing a while.”

Wen Qing wasn’t sure whether to be grateful or annoyed. She didn’t need to be babysat (she used to enjoy time alone) but it was nice to have one more reminder that she wasn’t still in a cell (she wasn’t used to so many personalities at once anymore).

Jin RuLan glanced at her as if for permission. Wen Qing tried not to laugh as she nodded. He was the Sect Leader.

Wei WuXian stepped up beside her and bumped her shoulder with his. Wen Qing couldn’t quite shake the idea that he was surreptitiously checking her solidity to make sure she wasn’t a ghost.

“If Wen-yishi doesn’t mind…” Jin RuLan’s face telegraphed his sudden recollection before he spoke it out loud. “When I return I’ll bring your sword, Wen-yishi.”

Wei WuXian didn’t wait until the door was closed to inform her, “He’s a very polite boy, Jin Ling. I don’t know who taught him that. I know it wasn’t Jiang Cheng.”

Wen Qing listened to the boy snarl before pointing out, “I believe Meng Yao prided himself on his politesse.” A thump reverberated as the boy stomped down the hallway.

Wei WuXian sighed and walked over and sat against her, laying his head on her shoulder. “I’m glad you’re alive, Wen Qing. It’s good, to have Wen Ning and Lan Zhan, but… I missed you too.”

Wen Qing leaned into Wei WuXian’s side in return. “So, you and Lan WangJi? Jiang WanYin said-”

She wasn’t expecting the bitter look that crossed Wei WuXian’s face. “Still convinced we were fooling around in his ancestral hall, is he?”

Wen Qing sat up straight. “So you died and came back to life and still haven’t talked to him like an adult about this? You’ve been moping over him since we were all at the Cloud Recesses together.” (It was easier to talk about this than the gaping fear that this was all a dream, or that something might change and put her back in Meng Yao’s dungeons.)

Wei WuXian laughed a little and Wen Qing felt something in her unclench at the sound. “Ah, Wen Qing, you’re so unbending! We were tracking things down and then I-” He looked uncharacteristically unsure. “I thought, I’ve spent so much time doing the next needful thing, Wen Qing. I spent some time with Jin Ling, these past few weeks, but I’ve mostly just been… floating.”

Wen Qing put a hand on his arm and squeezed. “I’m glad. Wei WuXian, if anyone deserves- I-”

The door slid open again. Wen Qing jumped to her feet at the young master standing in the doorway. Jiang WanYin had said that Lan WangJi had raised A-Yuan as his own, but she somehow hadn’t expected the fine robes. She certainly hadn’t expected the family cloud motif on the forehead ribbon. Her own clothes were undyed homespun that Meng Yao had shoved into her cell himself that first winter while she was shivering in the Wen finery she had expected to die in. Those clothes had probably been burned.

Behind A-Yuan was Wen Ning. He stared at her like he’d seen a ghost.

Wen Qing turned to Wei WuXian. Finishing her thought to him suddenly seemed like the easiest option. She only realized she’d risen to her feet when she looked down at Wei WuXian.

“You’ve given up so much to look after others, I’m glad you’re taking time to look after yourself now.”

Wen Ning spoke from the doorway, his voice a whisper. “Jiejie?”

Wen Qing felt herself sob, “A-Ning,” and threw herself across the room. Sixteen years she had believed him dead, and here he stood in front of her, arms wrapped around her shoulders. She buried her face in his shoulder. Wen Ning, at least, was still recognizable as himself.

She could hear A-Yuan talking as her sobs quieted.

“Wei-qianbei, is this…”

“A-Yuan, this is Wen Qing.” Wei WuXian’s voice was hushed, like he also feared breaking some spell. (That was oddly comforting. Any Wei WuXian she could imagine wouldn’t have these details. The dirt on his cheek that Lan WangJi had looked at fondly and not wiped off, the way he kept looking at her like she might disappear. Meng Yao couldn’t have gotten Wei WuXian that right for a copy, and she’d forgotten too much of this to have manifested him.) “Wen Ning’s sister.”

Wen Qing turned to face him, still braced against his finery (he’d been a child, he didn’t even recognize her, but she owed him this much) and watched him turn to her and bow, the same polite form she’d received from Jin RuLan, who she had never met. She breathed and let go of Wen Ning to raise her arms and bow back, her back straight and tilted to the correct degree for greeting the young master of a major Sect.

“Jin-zongzhu called you- what is your courtesy name?” Wen Qing could take a social cue as well as the next person.

Something hit her ear in one bright spot of pain and before she could react Wei WuXian was across the space between them and flicking A-Yuan’s ear.

“Neither one of you actually wants a distant relationship out of this, so stop being so formal with each other.” Something bitter crossed Wei WuXian’s face. “Don’t waste the fact that you both want to be family again.”

Wen Qing turned to face Wei WuXian. (This was easier.) “So we should be better adjusted than you and Jiang WanYin? Not that you’ve set a high bar, but it does seem a bit rich.”

“Lan SiZhui,” the boy smiled shyly at her and oh that was A-Ning’s smile. “But if you would call me A-Yuan, I’d like that.”

Wen Qing smiled at him. “SiZhui?” Although she knew Lan WangJi hadn’t meant it like that, she couldn’t help but to choke up a little. “That’s a lovely name, A-Yuan.” Their lives in the Burial Mounds had always hung by a thread, but they had been happy there. It did feel appropriate.

A-Yuan hovered a moment, and then dove down and wrapped himself around her leg. Wen Qing fought a smile and dropped a hand onto the top of his head.