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love, in fire and blood

Chapter Text

A full week after the attack, Lan Wangji woke to find himself in an empty room. It came as something of a surprise. Whenever he awakened before, Wei Ying was always at his side. If he couldn't be there—if he needed to visit the others or secure the perimeter of the settlement—Wen Qing remained, watching over Lan Wangji in his absence. But Wen Qing wasn't there either. 

Lan Wangji blinked at the vacant room. He decided to take their absence as a good sign. Wen Qing had assured him that he was out of danger. Song Zichen was stable, too. He had regained some of his sight, and Wen Qing was optimistic that he would improve further. Their recovery was merely a matter of time, she said. In the meantime, Lan Wangji should rest. He must let his flesh heal, let his qi replenish itself.

With his recovery well underway, he didn't need a nursemaid. Wei Ying didn't have to hover anxiously over his bed every moment of the day. Even so, Lan Wangji found himself restless in his solitude. Fortunately, he didn't have to wait long for his husband's return. Wei Ying had lit a fresh stick of incense before his departure. Before it could burn halfway down, he sidled into the room.

He wore a sheepish expression. Lan Wangji had often seen that expression on the children's faces when they were caught doing something forbidden. Wei Ying held a basket in his hands, and he hastened to shut the door behind him.

"Don't tell Wen Qing!" he whispered. "She said you can't have visitors until tomorrow. But these visitors are so small! I don't think they can possibly count."

Wei Ying opened the basket, tipping the contents onto Lan Wangji's lap. Two rabbits tumbled out. Lan Wangji caught them before they could escape from the bed.

He couldn't hide his smile. Wei Ying beamed in reply, dropping into his customary place at Lan Wangji's bedside. He had brought a small pail of vegetable scraps. Together, they placated the rabbits with food. The rabbits seemed perplexed by their unfamiliar surroundings, but they didn't bother to investigate the room. They huddled on Lan Wangji's lap, furiously chewing their meal.

Lan Wangji smoothed a hand over their soft fur. They had become quite plump, he noticed. Someone had certainly been feeding them well during his absence. As the rabbits ate, Wei Ying tickled and harassed them. He remarked that they were growing nice and fat.

"If Lan Zhan doesn't hurry and get better soon," he teased, "he won't be able to protect them. Then I'll eat them up!"

The rabbits, devouring their greens, responded to this threat with a blank stare. Lan Wangji sighed. He assured his husband that he would recover in time to prevent such a catastrophe.

Wei Ying grinned, and Lan Wangji's heart lifted. He wanted to continue this foolish, nonsensical teasing. But there were so many things they still needed to discuss. A thousand questions crowded up on his tongue.

"I have a question," he began, haltingly.

He regretted the words at once. The smile slipped from Wei Ying's face, and Lan Wangji mourned its absence. Wei Ying nodded and ducked his head. He scratched the rabbits behind their ears.

"I bet you have more than one." His tone was rueful.

Lan Wangji brushed a strand of hair away from his face. He was acutely conscious that his hair had hung loose for several days now. The ribbon and the lotus pin were nowhere to be found. At first, he hadn't bothered to ask for them. There were more pressing matters, and he didn't need to wear either item while lying in bed. But he wanted to know what had become of the pin, at least.

"Where is..." he began.

He didn't have time to finish the thought. Wei Ying lurched forward, pushing the rabbits aside.

"Your ribbon? Ah, don't worry, don't worry! I put it in here!"

He opened the bedside drawer and retrieved the pouch, presenting it to Lan Wangji with a flourish. Lan Wangji shook his head.

"No," he murmured. "Not the ribbon."

Of course, he hoped that his ribbon survived the ordeal. But if it hadn't, Lan Wangji could make his peace with that. He had left the Lan sect, and the ribbon could be set aside if necessary. The fate of the pin was more pressing.

Fortunately, there was a comforting weight to the pouch. Lan Wangji opened it and slipped a hand inside. His heart stuttered with relief when his fingers closed around the pin. He drew the pin out of the pouch and examined it. The pin was still in one piece. It looked much as it always had, apart from a blackened spot at the tip. That was the place where the pin had pierced Xue Yang's skin. Lan Wangji rubbed a thumb over the pin, but the tarnish didn't budge.

"I struck Xue Yang with this," he said, softly. "And something happened."

Wei Ying went very still.

"Ah. That."

The rabbits nosed hopefully at Wei Ying's arm, evidently searching for more treats. He nudged them away and took the pin from Lan Wangji's hand.

"I put a spell on this before I gave it to you."

He rubbed his own thumb over the blacked spot. His brows drew together, and his voice was heavy. For a moment, he didn't speak. Then he took a deep breath.

"You know there are some kinds of spells that work better on precious objects. This is the most precious thing I own."

He closed his fingers around the pin, his eyes unhappy.

"I didn't really want to risk losing it. But I needed something to carry the spell that would break Wen Ruohan's control over his corpse puppets."

Lan Wangji stared at his husband's fist. Slowly, Wei Ying loosened his fingers. He opened his hand, revealing the lotus pin once more. Lan Wangji reached out and touched the pin.

He had wondered about this, too. He'd been curious to know how Wei Ying had gained control over the corpse puppets. During their conversation in the cave, Wei Ying hinted that his expertise in such matters far outstripped Wen Ruohan's. He implied that Wen Ruohan had made his puppets using brute force, and Wei Ying only needed to turn that force against him.

It made sense. But Lan Wangji had wondered what sort of spell had been responsible. The lotus pin had clearly been the fulcrum.

Wei Ying's decision to use the pin was perfectly logical. Lan Wangji had learned long ago that many spells worked best when used upon objects precious to their owner. Objects that had been well-loved—objects carried by a cultivator for many years—were ideal tools for complex spellwork. It was no surprise, then, that Wei Ying had been forced to use the pin. His mother's only surviving heirloom was ideally suited for this task.

"But I got worried that someone would try to take it away from you."

Wei Ying frowned at the pin. He held it between his thumb and forefinger, studying it thoughtfully.

"I didn't want the other sect leaders to take it apart and try to use this kind of spell for their own purposes. The last thing I wanted to do was show them how to weaponize walking corpses." He sighed. "So I put another spell on it."

Gently, he placed the pin into Lan Wangji's palm. For just a moment, both their fingers rested against the pin.

"If anyone but us touches the pin, it'll hurt." Wei Ying shrugged, drawing his own hand back. "Just a little at first! Just enough to make them drop it and back away. If they keep hanging onto it, the effects start to strengthen. Their hands start to burn and blacken. Even if someone was awfully determined to take the pin away from you, I figured that would probably convince them to give it back."

He scratched his scalp.

"I didn't think about what would happen if you used it as a dagger! But it did something, didn't it?"

His eyes were curious as he studied Lan Wangji, who nodded.

"It helped," he agreed.

He hadn't known the pin carried any dangerous spellwork. Yet something had always drawn him to the pin. He had felt tied to it. From the moment Wei Ying placed the pin into his hand, Lan Wangji had guarded it jealously. He had worn it every day, kept it within arm's reach while he was asleep. He hadn't allowed anyone else to touch it. Back in Cloud Recesses, he had sometimes been tempted to throw the pin away. He hadn't done that, though. It had felt like sacrilege. So Lan Wangji had kept the pin, tucked deep within his hair.

At first, he thought his behavior was foolish and superstitious: he was ascribing special meaning to the pin, just because it had helped win the war. But if Wei Ying had woven spellwork into the pin, that explained his uncanny feeling. It explained, too, why the pin had blackened Xue Yang's flesh.

Wei Ying gave a weary smile.

"Then I'm glad. Ah, but I wrecked it a little!" He studied the pin and scrunched up his forehead. "I tried to fix it, but this black spot is stubborn."

Lan Wangji shook his head, curling his fingers around the pin.

"Leave it," he said.

He didn't mind the spots of tarnish. Nor did he mind the small dent in the lotus flower. They were signs that the pin had lived a long life, passing from hand to hand. He liked to think that his mother-in-law had made the dent. Perhaps she had dropped the pin while night-hunting, in the midst of a furious battle. The dent seemed to be an echo of her memory.

The tarnished spot would become an echo of Lan Wangji's. Someday, perhaps, he would pass the pin to another. He and his husband would offer it to A-Qing, or to another of the children. The recipient would like know the story of the pin, and the source of each small imperfection. Lan Wangji didn't want to have those imperfections removed. Restoring the pin would erase their history: his own, his husband's, and his mother-in-law's. It was better to keep the tarnished, battered pin as it was.

Wei Ying was quiet. Then his face relaxed into a smile.

"I have another question," Lan Wangji said.

Wei Ying gave a small nod.

"Go ahead."

The rabbits had lost patience. In the absence of other food, they started gnawing on Lan Wangji's sleeve. Wei Ying scrounged the last few scraps out of the pail, and Lan Wangji tried to persuade the rabbits to accept radish greens in lieu of his clothing. He arranged his thoughts, choosing his words with care.

"Wen Qing told me that you suspected me until Double Ninth Festival." He spoke slowly. "Then you decided I was innocent. Is that true?"

Wei Ying shook his head at once.

"No. No, it was before then, really." He passed a hand over his jaw. "I was just too stubborn and paranoid to admit it myself."

He prodded the rabbits' round bellies glumly.

"You spent so much time with the kids. You seemed to like them a lot. That caught my attention early on. I figured it could be a plot, but it didn't seem like one." He laughed to himself. "There were easier ways to try and win my trust. You didn't have to spend hours teaching a bunch of unruly children how to pour tea!"

Lan Wangji couldn't argue with that. The children's lessons were a source of great pleasure to him, but he couldn't honestly claim they were easy. A spy would certainly have sought a less troublesome method of winning the Patriarch's trust.

Wei Ying corralled the rabbits, shooing them to the far side of the bed. Lan Wangji helped by building a border of pillows, trapping them against the wall. The rabbits gazed at him reproachfully, and he felt a twinge of guilt. He had missed his rabbits greatly. But this conversation was important, and he needed to focus on every word that left Wei Ying's lips.

He finished securing the rabbits and turned to his husband. Wei Ying stared at the bedcover, picking at a loose thread.

"And during Mid-Autumn Festival..." He lifted his eyes and gave Lan Wangji a sad smile. "We had fun, didn't we?"

Lan Wangji's throat suddenly felt very tight. He nodded and Wei Ying ducked his head.

"It's so embarrassing, but I kept forgetting what I was doing!"

Wei Ying's shoulders were hunched, as if he found the words unspeakable mortifying. 

"I was having a nice time! It was fun to tease you and pester you. So I forgot about the part where you might be a secret assassin. I got distracted, and I just enjoyed myself."

He groaned and rubbed his eyes.

"Then at the end of the night, we overheard those people gossiping. I remembered my plan, and I felt stupid for forgetting. I wondered if I was doing exactly what you'd hoped. If you'd lured me straight into your web!"

He gave Lan Wangji a wry, mischievous smile. Lan Wangji wanted to return it, but he couldn't seem to force his body to move. He felt frozen, transfixed. His heart had been scraped raw, but the pain was sweet.

He was prepared to resign himself to the possibility that everything before Double Ninth Festival was a protracted charade. Wen Qing had suggested that their suspicions hadn't faltered until then, and Lan Wangji had made his peace with that. It was all right. His most precious memories—the rabbits, the altar for his parents, the evenings they spent together—took place afterward. If the other memories were tainted by Wei Ying's suspicions, Lan Wangji could accept it.

Yet their time in the village during Mid-Autumn Festival was precious to him, too. If Wei Ying's behavior during that evening hadn't been an act—if Wei Ying had enjoyed himself so much he forgot about his plans—then Lan Wangji had nothing left to wish for. He lowered his eyes. Wei Ying reached out and took his hand.

"So I thought maybe I was making a fool of myself, and playing right into your hands. But that didn't seem right. You kept doing all these things you didn't need to do."

Wei Ying squeezed his fingers, and Lan Wangji squeezed back.

"You helped with the harvest and you worked so hard keeping the inventories up to date. You helped Granny and A-Ning with their work. You wanted to make offerings to my parents and everything!"

His thumb stroked over Lan Wangji's.

"I don't know when I figured things out. But I was sure I'd made a mistake by Double Ninth Festival. I just..."

He blew out a heavy sigh.

"By then, I felt like I was in too deep to back out. Besides, what if I was wrong?"

Lan Wangji lifted his eyes again. Wei Ying's shoulders had hunched once more, and he grimaced.

"So I kept doing stupid things. I'd bring you presents, just because you were cute when you scolded me for spending too much money on you. Then I'd turn around and try to bait you into cutting my throat."

Wei Ying looked exasperated with himself, but Lan Wangji couldn't share in his husband's annoyance. His cheeks warmed at the epithet: you were cute.

"That was the end of it," Wei Ying added.

He sounded faintly disgusted with himself, and Lan Wangji forced himself to pay attention. His memories stirred, and he tried to pick them apart. At the time, their conversation in the cave had been unfathomably strange. Wei Ying had run hot and cold. He was on edge while Lan Wangji had shaved him, but afterward, he seemed frustrated and almost dismayed. Lan Wangji hadn't understood at the time. He understood now.

"I was getting desperate." Wei Ying shrugged. "I thought, 'All right. If he doesn't take his shot now, I guess I'll know for sure that I made a mistake.'"

Once Lan Wangji had finished the shaving and handed over the razor, Wei Ying seemed to have given up on something. Lan Wangji remembered the bewildered, almost helpless note in Wei Ying's voice: You really aren't what I expected when I first saw you in that tent.

"And I did!" Wei Ying made a face.

Lan Wangji nodded, almost absently. Somehow, Wei Ying's mistakes mattered little. What Wei Ying had thought and felt inside that tent—before they married, before they knew each other—was of no consequence. Lan Wangji didn't care about such things. He only cared about what his husband had felt later on, as they had slowly grown closer.

"You brought me rabbits," he said softly.

Wei Ying groaned and swayed forward. He buried his face in his hands, evidently too mortified to look Lan Wangji in the eye.

"I brought you rabbits and chickens!" he cried. "Wasn't that stupid? You said you wanted them. So I thought, 'Well, if my husband wants rabbits and chickens, he should have them! He's so nice to the kids, so hardworking. I should make sure to get him whatever he wants!'"

Lan Wangji's throat and ears grew hot.

"Then I'd remember that you might be a spy and an assassin, and I'd feel so dumb. I'd think, 'If he's a spy, I'm falling right into his trap! Why on earth did I think I'd be able to trick him so easily?'"

Wei Ying moaned the last few words into his palms. Lan Wangji bit back a smile.

"We are both very poor at subterfuge," he murmured.

Wei Ying dropped his hands helplessly into his lap.

"We are! Ah, that doesn't seem fair." He pouted. His cheeks were rather pink. "We're both very smart and powerful and talented! Why are we so bad at this?"

Lan Wangji's fingers twitched in his lap, but he knotted them together. He wished to reach out and touch Wei Ying's face. But things between them were still so new. Lan Wangji couldn't be sure what his husband truly felt, or if either of them were ready for such overtures.

Perhaps another opportunity would arise? Lan Wangji wasn't without hope. His husband had confessed that he'd grown fond of Lan Wangji. He'd enjoyed the time they spent together, enjoyed it so much he often forgot his suspicions. The rabbits and chickens had been genuine gifts, not part of an extended plan to win Lan Wangji's trust. Wei Ying's sincere embarrassment soothed Lan Wangji, and he settled back against the pillows contentedly.

There was hope that they could transform their marriage into something deeper, something better. He could afford to nurture those hopes in private for a while.

"It was an observation, not a complaint." The rabbits broke free of their enclosure and Lan Wangji drew them into his lap. "I do not aspire to be skilled in such things."

He didn't aspire to have a husband who was skilled at subterfuge either. If his husband was honest to a fault—if his husband was terrible at maintaining any kind of deception—Lan Wangji wasn't inclined to complain. But Wei Ying made a face.

"I feel like we'd all be better off if I were more skilled at politics and subterfuge." He rocked forward in his chair. "But I'm not sorry that I'm so bad at tricking my husband!"

He took Lan Wangji's hand again, and that was enough. It was more than enough. Lan Wangji's mind emptied, his worries and concerns vanishing. His husband's hand was warm in his. The rabbits pawed restlessly at the bedding, optimistically searching for food beneath the silken quilt. Lan Wangji needed nothing more in this life, or the next.

It didn't last, of course. Wen Qing entered without knocking, and Wei Ying frantically scooped up the rabbits and stuffed them into the basket. He pushed it beneath the bed, then whirled around to give Wen Qing an innocent smile. Lan Wangji also strove to look like someone who hadn't been disobeying his physician's orders.

But he and his husband were, indeed, poor at subterfuge. Wen Qing's eyes narrowed in suspicion. Then she sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose.

"Don't tell me what's in that basket," she muttered, setting her bag on the table. "I don't want to know."

 

***

 

As the next few days wore on, Lan Wangji found himself deeply frustrated. Wen Qing weaned him off the heavier remedies, and his head cleared. His mind gradually sharpened, and he stopped falling asleep every few minutes. But his body didn't recover as quickly as he'd hoped. Even after several days, he hardly had enough strength to sit up in bed. Lan Wangji's fingers itched for his sword. He wanted to return to the practice fields, to the disciples' lessons. At the very least, he wanted to sit with his husband in the library. He wanted to walk with Wei Ying around the settlement, watching the Wens work and the children play. He didn't enjoy being trapped in bed, too weak to look after himself.

Wen Qing wasn't sympathetic to his plight.

"Hanguang-Jun." She spoke sharply as she changed his bandages. "I don't think you fully appreciate that you came within a hairs-breadth of dying. Look at this!"

Her voice cut like a blade, but her hands were careful. She uncovered the wound and pointed emphatically.

It was, Lan Wangji admitted, a rather gruesome sight. Wen Qing had removed the stitches two days prior. She said the wound had healed with remarkable speed. They were past any risk of infection. Still, the wound was red and jagged. His flesh had scabbed over, but it hadn't fully knitted together. If he moved abruptly, he might tear the wound open again.

Wen Qing had told him he must remain in bed for at least four more days. Afterward, he must spend another week resting within his chambers. She grudgingly conceded that Lan Wangji would probably be able to resume light duties by Winter Solstice. But she wouldn't permit him to resume his full duties—cultivation and swordwork included—work until after the New Year. His full recovery period would span two and a half months.

Lan Wangji felt that this was a truly excessive length of time. He had never been forced to recuperate for more than a week. Two weeks, at most. When he protested, Wen Qing rolled her eyes.

"During your previous injuries," she grumbled, "you weren't gutted with a sword."

She wrapped fresh bandages around his torso, tucking the edges in.

"If the blow had gone a little lower, you would have lost your core. If you threw a little more qi into that last attack, you might have permanently damaged your meridians. And if we'd arrived even one moment later, we'd be arranging your funeral right now. Please, have some patience with yourself."

Lan Wangji felt a prickle of remorse. He had been lucky to escape with his life and his cultivation abilities intact. He knew that. Wen Qing had provided dedicated care, and he must be grateful to her. So he tried to be a compliant patient. It was difficult, but the children helped.

Wen Qing delayed their visit for several days. She feared that the children would climb all over Lan Wangji and tear open his wounds. It was for the best, perhaps. Even if visitors were permitted, Lan Wangji wouldn't have been lucid enough to receive them for the first few days. Wen Qing told the children he was too tired for visitors, so they must keep away from his rooms and let him rest.

In spite of Wen Qing's orders, one visitor still found their way into his chambers. One afternoon, Lan Wangji woke from a light sleep. When he looked down, he found A-Qing curled up on the edge of his bed. She was shaking all over. Lan Wangji frowned.

At first, he thought she must be cold. Wen Qing kept the braziers burning, and Wei Ying had papered the walls with warming talismans. But A-Qing was thin. She was very small, and it was winter. The cold must have affected her.

Lan Wangji shifted awkwardly. He couldn't sit up and draw a blanket over her shoulders. Even brief periods of sitting were painful, and he required Wei Ying's help to rise. Yet he couldn't leave her to suffer. His eyes moved restlessly toward the door.

Wei Ying must have returned to the room across the hall. Song Zichen was recovering there, with Xiao Xingchen at his bedside. The two patients had been placed nearby so Wen Qing could easily tend to both of them. Wei Ying couldn't be far away. If Lan Wangji called out, he felt sure that his husband would come. Wei Ying would rush across the hall and he could fetch a blanket for A-Qing.

He didn't have a chance to call for Wei Ying, though. Before he could speak, A-Qing lifted her head. Her face was red and splotchy. Lan Wangji saw that she wasn't shaking with cold. She was crying, and his heart twisted.

He reached for her at once, the prospect of tearing open his wounds forgotten. Heedless of the risk, he tried to lift her into his lap. Wen Qing's hard work might have been destroyed in a matter of minutes, but A-Qing saw that he was awake and she crawled over to his side. She was mindful of his wounds, shifting carefully around his stomach. Then she curled up against his chest and sobbed into his robes. Lan Wangji stroked her hair and tried to soothe her. In the meantime, she poured out an incoherent stream of apologies.

"A-Qing," he broke in, as she paused to draw breath. "You must not apologize to me. You have done nothing wrong."

She lifted a tear-stained face and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.

"You got hurt because of me!"

"That is false." Lan Wangji put a careful arm around her shoulders, trying not to jostle either of them. "I was injured because a depraved man chose to hurt me. You are not responsible."

A-Qing's mouth trembled. More tears spilled forth.

"But if it wasn't for me…"

Lan Wangji frowned.

"Then it must be Xiao Xingchen's fault that his husband is injured." He wiped her face with the edge of the bedding. "After all, if Song Zichen never met Xiao Xingchen, they might never had crossed paths with Xue Yang. The temple would not have been attacked, and perhaps Song Zichen's eyes would not have been hurt."

A-Qing flared up at once. Her spine stiffened with indignation, and her mouth quivered.

"That's not true!" she cried. "It's not Daozhang's fault!"

Lan Wangji smoothed a hand over her back.

"It is not," he affirmed. "Nor is it yours. Xue Yang chose to harm others. The fault lies with him alone."

A-Qing stared at him. For a moment, he thought she might argue. If she felt she was right about something, she could be tenacious. But the fight seemed to go out of her. She crumpled against his chest and sobbed into the blankets. Lan Wangji stroked her back, his heart aching.

She was too young to have endured such hardships. Children her age should never witness brutal violence. They should never see their parents or teachers assaulted. He felt sick to think of what she had already suffered. A-Qing truly believed she was somehow culpable for Xue Yang's crimes, and Lan Wangji's stomach churned. He clenched his jaw. Yet again, he felt that he hadn't made Xue Yang suffer enough in his final moments.

"He's evil!" A-Qing wailed, once her tears slowed.

"He was," Lan Wangji agreed quietly. "He is not anything now. Not a man, anyway. Perhaps he has already reincarnated."

If Xue Yang was very fortunate, he would enter the cycle of reincarnation. He would face justice for his sins in the afterworld. Then he'd pass into his next lifetime and become something different. If he were unlucky, he'd become a restless spirit. He'd face centuries of agony, lingering in the hollow space between life and death.

Lan Wangji knew he shouldn't wish that sort of fate upon anyone. It wasn't right for any cultivator to hope for a murderer to become a restless spirit. Such spirits were a danger to innocent people. For their sake, Lan Wangji ought to pray for Xue Yang's peaceful death and swift reincarnation. But A-Qing hadn't finished weeping. The longer he looked upon her stricken face, the harder it was to wish Xue Yang any kind of peace.

Little by little, A-Qing's tears slowed. She wiped her face with the hem of her shirt and looked up. The word 'reincarnation' seemed to have captured her interest.

"He's going to reincarnate?" she asked curiously. "Into a person?"

Lan Wangji shifted her weight against his side. His mind worked rapidly. He had yet to discuss such matters with the children. They were very young, after all. A discussion of what awaited after death would be more appropriate for older disciples. A-Qing was nearly eight, though. She had already witnessed terrible violence. Lan Wangji weighed his words and decided she was old enough to understand the fundamentals.

"He committed grave sins in this lifetime," Lan Wangji explained slowly. "If he reincarnates, it will probably not be as a human. He may become a lower life form, as a punishment. If he atones, perhaps someday he will reincarnate as a higher life form. If he not, he may remain a beast of burden for many cycles."

A-Qing perked up, her eyes brightening.

"How about a spider? Or a cockroach!" She nodded vigorously to herself. "I'll stomp on every cockroach I see, just in case it's him!"

Lan Wangji sighed, but he couldn't bring himself to dissuade her.

"Spare the spiders," he advised. "They are important for pest control."

A-Qing found that remark equally intriguing. She wanted to know what spiders ate and why the world needed such creatures. Lan Wangji tried to provide an impromptu lecture, but Wen Qing caught them. She chased the girl out and A-Qing fled without an apology. Lan Wangji made a mental note to cover this topic—the diet of insects—in detail during future lessons.

When the rest of the children arrived, it was clear they had been hard at work during his absence. They brought drawings and samples of their calligraphy work. The children had even made him perfume sachets—just like Granny Wen's—as a get-well gift. Wen Qionglin lingered behind after the children were herded out, and he shyly added his own well wishes.

"They miss you a lot," he said. "They're looking forward to your return. The disciples, too."

He laughed, his voice gentle.

"Everybody is looking forward to your return, actually!"

Lan Wangji's heart warmed. He had already been told that the Wens were concerned over his health. But it was pleasant to hear it again.

Wei Ying had explained that the Wens knew nothing of the sects' schemes. He and Wen Qing had decided that discussing such things would only inspire panic and suspicion among the people of the Burial Mounds. Whenever one of the Jin's agents arrived, Wei Ying routed them quickly. He sent the concubines back to their masters and found ways to get rid of the others. If the Wens asked what had become of the strangers who had tried to enter their settlement, Wei Ying made some excuse. Wen Qing knew the truth, as did Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen. But the others knew nothing, and Wei Ying had wanted to keep it that way.

After Xue Yang's attack, the truth couldn't be concealed any longer. The commotion—their duel and the sudden explosion of Lan Wangji's qi—had roused the entire settlement. Every single inhabitant had been drawn from their bed. The Wens had rushed outside, and the children had tried to follow.

Zhang Huizhong had managed to call out to the others to keep the children away. They, at least, had not seen Lan Wangji's bloodied body. But at least a dozen Wens had taken a good look at the gruesome scene. The rumors had spread quickly, after that. Wei Ying couldn't hope to hush the matter up. Finally, he confessed that an assailant had crept inside their settlement. His intention was to harm the Yiling Patriarch and his people.

He had promised Lan Wangji—and the rest of the Wens—that he'd tightened the wards. Each of the newcomers had been subjected to thorough scrutiny. Once Lan Wangji was out of danger, Wei Ying made trips to the outlying villages for further interrogations. Lan Wangji gave his husband an apprehensive look when he mentioned these investigations.

"I didn't hurt anybody," Wei Ying vowed. "I just used these. See?"

He produced a sheaf of talismans. Lan Wangji sifted through them, and his husband pointed to each talisman in turn.

"If someone's wearing that one, they can't lie to me. If they're wearing this one, it shatters any disguise they might be wearing. That one glows purple if the person is planning to harm anyone nearby."

Lan Wangji studied the talismans. They were most impressive, and he told his husband so. He had never heard of talismans that could be used for such purposes.

"Of course you haven't," Wei Ying said lightly. "I just invented them! But I triple-checked all the newcomers. Xue Yang was the only one who slipped through my net."

He sighed, stuffing the talismans back into his sleeve.

"I should've used these talismans to begin with. I was careless, that's all. I was paying too much attention to you!"

Lan Wangji ignored the now-familiar flush creeping up the back of his neck.

"If someone had sent a dangerous assassin that I needed to watch closely," his husband added ruefully, "I thought it must be my husband. So when the refugees turned up, I didn't bother to look too closely at a pitiful young man with a damaged leg. That was stupid."

Lan Wangji chose to ignore that remark. He had already sorted the matter out within his own mind: there was no point dwelling on what had already occurred. Past mistakes were unimportant. They must focus on deciding what to do next.

For several days, Lan Wangji struggled to stay awake long enough to discuss the future. But he and Wei Ying had already agreed that no one outside the Burial Mounds should hear of the attack. The Wens were sworn to secrecy, and Lan Wangji felt sure their discretion could be trusted. Even if someone had been inclined to gossip with outsiders, they had no opportunity to do so. Winter had come, and the snows were heavier each day. No one could leave the mountain on foot. Wen Qing and Wei Ying were the only ones permitted to make trips into Yiling or to the villages. There was no need for travel, anyway, when their storehouses were full. Gossip could be smothered, at least for a while.

As soon as he could hold a brush, Lan Wangji penned a short letter to his brother. His brother was accustomed to receiving weekly letters. If there was a lapse in their correspondence, he would worry. Lan Wangji was careful to omit any mention of the attack. He made no reference to his injuries or Xue Yang's appearance. He strove to give the appearance of normalcy, and he was particularly careful not to disclose any information about their settlement.

The longer he considered the matter, the surer Lan Wangji felt: his letters to his brother could not be considered 'private'. Meng Yao had wormed his way into his brother's confidence. If Lan Xichen trusted the man, he wouldn't hesitate to share information from his brother's most recent letter. There was no way for Lan Wangji to put his brother on guard, not without tipping his own hand. So he withheld the news of the attack, then felt bitterly guilty over his silence.

If their positions were reversed, Lan Wangji would have been crushed to discover that his brother had kept such a devastating injury from him. He would have been desperately hurt to learn that his brother hadn't trusted his ability to keep a secret. But there was no alternative. Lan Wangji had faith in his brother's character and virtue. Yet if his brother trusted Meng Yao, Lan Wangji knew he must withhold a great deal of information.

As he sealed up the letter, Lan Wangji was flooded by a deep wash of grief. He had always trusted his brother implicitly. It seemed he could no longer do so, and that stung. There was some consolation, though: he trusted his husband, and he saw that his trust was returned.

During their conversations, Wei Ying provided a detailed explanation of his plans to tighten security. The wards were impenetrable, unbreakable. No one could hope to break in by force. The Wens were only exposed to danger when they left the Burial Mounds, or when they invited others inside.

For now, Wei Ying was determined to do neither. He was taking no risks, though. The road up the mountain was treacherously icy, and it was unlikely anyone would approach on foot. Even so, Wei Ying had asked the walking corpses to patrol the settlement at night, to check for scouts lurking near the borders. He had instructed them to watch the skies as well, in case anyone tried to spy from above.

Lan Wangji knew without being told that his husband often joined such patrols. Wei Ying seemed to labor day and night, seeking new methods to ensure their safety. Two weeks after the attack, Lan Wangji had had enough.

"You need to sleep," he told his husband.

Wen Qing had finally allowed him to leave the bed, so he was celebrating his freedom from a chair in the sitting room. The brazier was burning, and it was quite warm. Even so, Wei Ying had piled two blankets over Lan Wangji's lap. He eyed the bedroom as if he planned to fetch a third. Lan Wangji reached out and laid a hand over his husband's.

They touched often and freely now. It couldn't be helped. Lan Wangji had recovered enough to stand on his own and change most of his clothing without assistance. The wound had sealed fully, and no more bandages were required. But the internal tissues were still healing. If he raised his arms above his head, his stomach ached.

His husband had taken to helping him with his grooming. He tied Lan Wangji's forehead ribbon and fixed the lotus pin in place each morning. At night, he removed both items and tucked them away. Then he combed out Lan Wangji's hair. Sometimes, he rested his hands on Lan Wangji's shoulders as he talked. When he finished, he tucked Lan Wangji chastely into bed. Wei Ying never claimed so much as a brief kiss in return. He didn't seem to mind casual touches, though. It was no longer difficult or embarrassing to take his hand. Lan Wangji did so now.

"Wei Ying," he said firmly. "We are all safe. You must rest."

His husband smiled. He liked being referred to by his given name; Lan Wangji had discovered that already. He had also discovered that he liked the way Wei Ying's name felt in his mouth.

"I told you already." He gave Lan Wangji's hand a squeeze. "I don't actually have to sleep."

"That does not mean it isn't beneficial." Lan Wangji's brows drew together. "You have used up a great deal of qi in the last two weeks. It must be replenished."

His recovery was going well, and he no longer needed transfers of spiritual energy. Wen Qing insisted that his own golden core could repair the remaining damage. Once he healed, he would have to spend some time rebuilding his stamina. But within a few months, his strength would be restored. Wei Ying had seemed particularly pleased to hear this.

Yet the fact remained that Wei Ying had spent weeks pouring spiritual energy into his husband's body. Lan Wangji knew that Wei Ying's core was unfathomably powerful, but he had spent so much qi. His stores must be diminished. Sleep and food would help replenish them.

"Are you eating?" he pressed.

Wei Ying burst out laughing.

"Aiyah. You sound like Granny!" He rolled his eyes fondly. "And yes, she's been feeding me. She says she misses her top pupil, though."

Lan Wangji had missed her, too. He'd seen her only once since his injury. After he first woke from his induced coma, she demanded to see the patient with her own two eyes. Wen Qing had forbidden visitors, but even she was temporarily cowed by her grandmother's demands. She allowed Granny Wen to sit by his bedside for a while. Granny patted his hair and gazed at him with anxious, maternal eyes. It had been a long time since anyone looked at Lan Wangji that way. He found he liked it.

"I will return to my lessons as soon as I can," he promised.

Wei Ying sighed as he rose to his feet.

"You don't have to!" He reached across the table for the comb and hair oil. "There are other people who can do the cooking. It doesn't have to be you."

Lan Wangji chose to ignore this remark.

"I will resume my lessons," he insisted. "As soon as Wen Qing gives her permission."

He enjoyed the time he spent with Granny Wen and her kitchen staff. There was a strong camaraderie among the Wens who worked in the kitchens. They had taken Lan Wangji under their wing, brought him into their jokes and their playful rivalries. Lan Wangji had been somewhat surprised to discover that he liked it. Still, preparing meals for his husband was his favorite kitchen activity. Wei Ying insisted that he didn't need to trouble himself with such things, but Lan Wangji was unwilling to surrender this particular task.

Wei Ying didn't argue. As he took down Lan Wangji's hair—his movements slow and steady—he hummed to himself.

"Wen Qing said you're doing a lot better." He uncorked the vial of oil and spread some across his palms. "But she thinks you should stay off your feet for a couple more weeks."

Lan Wangji frowned over that as his husband patiently worked the oil through his hair.

"I can resume the children's indoor lessons," Lan Wangji decided. "And I can grade the disciples' papers. I will not need to be on my feet to accomplish that."

He disliked giving up his sword exercises, yet he couldn't argue with Wen Qing's admonitions. She was correct: there was no sense straining his golden core. His qi was still stabilizing and his body needed more time to repair the damaged tissues. If he rushed back into sword practice, he would only slow his recovery. It would be foolish and counterproductive to overtax himself.

But he couldn't lie around his chambers for the next several weeks. He must find something to do, and the children needed him. They required help with their calligraphy and history lessons. The disciples' compositions had piled up, waiting to be graded. Lan Wangji could tend to those tasks during his recovery. Surely Wen Qing would agree that grading papers wasn't unduly strenuous.

He said so, and his husband laughed.

"Yes, yes. You can do that!" He heaved a theatrical sigh. "If you absolutely insist, you can go back to giving lessons."

Wei Ying worked the comb through his hair, then tugged playfully on a stray lock.

"Ah, I don't know what's wrong with you. You should milk this, you know. Lounge around on your bed! Demand that we wait on you hand and foot! Keep us busy delivering your meals and brewing your tea!"

"I have had enough of that."

He'd spent enough time lying against the sheets while others scurried, bringing him congee and airing out the quilts. After two weeks of recuperation, Lan Wangji was heartily sick of his bed. If he never saw that particular piece of furniture again, he'd be quite satisfied.

As for being waited upon…

It was nice, Lan Wangji admitted privately. It was nice to have his husband lingering in his rooms. Wei Ying sat with him as he ate his meals. He helped Lan Wangji comb and fasten back his hair. He read aloud from books and talked with Lan Wangji about his favorite poems. Wei Ying was always close at hand, always rushing to fetch anything he needed.

Perhaps it was selfish, but Lan Wangji had enjoyed being the object of his husband's undivided attention. He didn't particularly want to give it up. Yet he wanted to recover, so he could wait on his husband in turn. He wanted to cook for Wei Ying, to help him with his shaving. He wanted to play the guqin for his husband, sing for him, read to him. He'd promised Wen Qing that he would look after his husband. Lan Wangji was impatient to assume those duties. He hoped she would restore his privileges soon.

"How is Song Zichen?" he asked, after a brief silence.

Wei Ying sighed again as he sectioned off Lan Wangji's hair.

"He's better. Wen Qing managed to restore some of his vision, but not all of it." A thread of tension crept into Wei Ying's voice. "He says he can live with what's left, but I have a plan."

Lan Wangji turned in his chair. It wasn't comfortable: the movement tugged upon his healing injuries. He winced, and Wei Ying hurried to circle the chair so they were face to face.

"Wei Ying. Please share it."

Lan Wangji took care to speak calmly. There was something about husband's expression that made him decidedly nervous, but it wouldn't do to say so. Nowadays, even his gentlest reproaches made Wei Ying wince. His husband grimaced at the comb in his hands before laughing humorlessly.

"Well. I guess I can't really refuse that request."

Lan Wangji took a deep, careful breath.

"You can," he insisted. "But I would prefer if you told me what you were planning."

Wei Ying still felt guilty about keeping secrets. Lan Wangji knew that. But he didn't want to wrest further secrets out of Wei Ying by leveraging his guilt. He didn't require unconditional honesty as a form of reparation. Lan Wangji simply wanted his husband's trust, his husband's confidence. Wei Ying tried to take too much responsibility onto his own shoulders, and that wasn't right. Not when Wei Ying had a husband who wished to share his burdens.

Wei Ying turned the comb over in his hands. He traced the design—a lotus carved into soft wood—with his thumbnail.

"The part of his eyes that got damaged… it's the outer part." He waved a hand under his own dark, clear eyes. "Just the thin surface of the eye. Wen Qing has found a way to replace it. It's experimental, but she's sure it would work."

Lan Wangji digested that.

"Replace it with what?"

"An undamaged lens." Wei Ying paused. He glanced up at Lan Wangji. "From a dead body."

Lan Wangji had survived a war against Wen Ruohan, then married Yiling Patriarch. For the last two years, he had seen walking corpses on a daily basis. It would be foolish to shrink back from this particular suggestion, so Lan Wangji didn't. But his stomach clenched anyway. He kept his face carefully blank.

"Wouldn't that part of the body deteriorate quickly?"

Wei Ying shook his head.

"I can keep it from deteriorating."

He sounded utterly certain of his abilities, and Lan Wangji had no reason to doubt him. The walking corpses of the Burial Mounds were old, yet perfectly preserved. Clearly there was a way to prevent bodies from rotting. His husband must be capable of doing exactly what he proposed. Lan Wangji weighed his words and strove to keep his voice neutral.

"Where would you find a donor body?"

"I already have one."

Wei Ying rose to his feet abruptly. He tried to resume the hair-combing, but Lan Wangji touched his husband's arm. Gently, he guided Wei Ying back into his chair. He knew of one particular corpse that must be residing in the Burial Mounds. If Wei Ying proposed to use that body, they must speak of this further. Lan Wangji refused to sweep the matter beneath the rug. He stared into his husband's eyes. Wei Ying surveyed his expression and let out a sigh.

"I kept it safe," he murmured. "Just in case. What if things went wrong with Wen Qing's treatments? What if you needed something, or Song Lan needed something? If that happened, I thought he should be the one to give it."

His brow furrowed, his eyes darkening.

"That's only fair, isn't it?" There was a cold, forbidding edge to his voice. "It's only justice. Fixing what he's broken."

Lan Wangji considered the matter. But an honest response was out of the question. Their situation was a truly exceptional one, and Lan Wangji wasn't even sure what 'justice' might look like in this case. He tried another approach.

"You must ask Song Zichen if this is what he wants,."

Wei Ying made a soft, irritated sound. His shoulders slouched and he rubbed his nose.

"I think he'd say no."

"Then that would be his choice." Lan Wangji took another deep breath. "For my part, I would rather Xue Yang's body was laid to rest permanently."

He wanted the man's body destroyed, purged from the world. He didn't want Wei Ying to raise the corpse for further interrogations, or as part of a counterplot against the Jins. He didn't want to look upon the corpse ever again. Above all, he never wanted to carry part of Xue Yang within his own body. Song Zichen would surely feel the same way.

Wei Ying claimed that Wen Qing had restored some of the man's vision. The rest, Lan Wangji knew, might return in time. A strong golden core could heal most injuries, and Song Zichen surely possessed a healthy, robust core. He had Wen Qing's skill at his disposal. Wei Ying could contribute spiritual energy. With medical care and spiritual infusions, his vision might return.

If it didn't, Song Zichen could learn to live with partial blindness. Lan Wangji had heard that cultivators sometimes gained new abilities after losing one of their senses. Their hearing sharpened, their qi blossomed, or their sensitivity to spiritual creatures increased. The body found ways to acclimate. Wei Ying didn't need to resort to drastic measures, not when Song Zichen could enjoy a long life without them.

Wei Ying's mouth tightened. He set aside the comb, curling his hands around the arms of the chair.

"Are you horrified to discover that his body isn't at rest?" He tilted his head. "That I've been keeping it warm and fresh, ready to carve it open so Wen Qing can perform a transplant?"

His voice was cool and detached. But after months of marriage, Lan Wangji finally understood his husband's sudden shifts in moods. When Wei Ying felt vulnerable, he pulled away. If he anticipated criticism or expected a counterattack, he found refuge in cold detachment. Perhaps it had spared him the pain of rejection, when he was young. Lan Wangji had similar mannerisms that he deployed when he felt uncomfortable or ill at ease. He refused to take offense to such behavior now. So he merely shook his head.

"No."

Wei Ying lifted his brows.

"No?" he echoed.

Lan Wangji shook his head again.

"I understand your logic," he admitted. "Xue Yang caused my injuries, along with Song Zichen's. He should be held responsible for his crimes. If he wished to keep his own body intact, he should not have damaged the bodies of others. He has forfeited his rights."

Lan Wangji could almost hear his uncle muttering protests in his ear. But he banished Uncle's grumbling disagreements. According to the laws of Cloud Recesses, what Lan Wangji proposed was incorrect. Even convicted criminals were meant to receive proper burial rites. Yet they were not in Cloud Recesses. This was his husband's domain. Here in the Burial Mounds, the Yiling Patriarch had the right to punish criminals as he saw fit.

When he looked into his own heart, Lan Wangji found that he cared little about the sanctity of Xue Yang's corpse. The man had slaughtered hundreds. He blinded Song Lan, attacked Lan Wangji, held a knife to A-Qing's throat. Lan Wangji had no mercy left for that man. Perhaps he would manage to rest peacefully in the afterworld, or perhaps he'd endure centuries of torment as a restless ghost. Either way, Xue Yang must face the consequences of his own actions. The fate of his soul wasn't Lan Wangji's concern.

"But I want nothing from him," he added softly. "If Song Zichen feels as I do, then we should dispose of the body quickly. Let it be cremated and the ashes scattered."

It would be better that way, Lan Wangji thought. The man's corpse would be destroyed. His short, vicious life would be forgotten. There seemed no worse punishment for a man like Xue Yang. If he knew that his victims had moved on and forgotten him, he would surely gnash his teeth. He would be outraged to know that his victims took nothing from him—wanted nothing from him—even after his death.

Bit by bit, Wei Ying's hands relaxed around the chair. He was silent for a long moment, his face tense. Then he nodded and his expression smoothed out.

"I'll ask him, then."

He didn't sound enthused at the prospect. Still, his voice was calm and honest. Lan Wangji knew his husband would keep his word. Wei Ying took up the comb once more. He circled the chair and resumed his work. Lan Wangji let him work in silence for a while. Then he spoke again.

"It is only Xue Yang who bears responsibility." He kept his voice soft. "Do you understand that?"

The comb slowed its strokes. Wei Ying was very quiet.

"If I'd handled things better," he spoke roughly, "when he first came to me…"

"He bears the responsibility for his choices," Lan Wangji broke in. "He alone bears the blame. No one else."

He wanted to turn and look into his husband's eyes, but he sensed that it might be better this way. Wei Ying was still restless and miserable when they spoke of such things. He wouldn't like to have this conversation face to face. So Lan Wangji let his husband work, focusing on each stroke of the comb.

"A-Qing also tried to take responsibility for what happened," he added. "I told her what I am telling you. No one but Xue Yang is at fault."

Wei Ying made an exasperated sound as he applied another dash of oil.

"That kid!"

He smoothed a hand over Lan Wangji's hair with a sigh. Lan Wangji felt that he was shaking his head ruefully.

"You told me once that she reminded you of someone," Lan Wangji remarked.

He let his curiosity show in his voice, and Wei Ying groaned.

"Yes, yes. I was talking about myself!"

Wei Ying set the comb aside again. He ran his fingers through Lan Wangji's hair, and his thumb brushed carelessly against Lan Wangji's neck. It took effort for Lan Wangji to slow his breaths.

"I don't have too many memories from when I was her age." Wei Ying's voice grew low. "But I'm pretty sure I was a lot like her."

"Have you considered adopting her?"

He had itched to ask this question for months, but he'd never found an auspicious time. The longer Lan Wangji dwelt on the question, the more absurd it felt. His husband didn't need to adopt any of the children in the Burial Mounds. He was their guardian and patron; they were his wards and students; they belonged to him already. Now they belonged to Lan Wangji in the same way. It ought to be enough.

But as the weeks passed, Lan Wangji found himself wishing for a formalized arrangement. It was pleasant to have students, yet he would rather have sons and daughters.

"I've considered it." Wei Ying spoke with careful deliberation. "She's more Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan's kid than mine, though. They found her, and she's closest to them. Come to think of it, I should bully them into a formal adoption!"

He rounded the chair again and sat down. Lan Wangji watched as Wei Ying busied himself with changing the incense and freshening their cups of tea.

"What about the others?" he tried. "They are also orphans. Of course, A-Yuan has his extended family…"

Wei Ying shook his head, pushing a teacup in Lan Wangji's direction.

"It's not that." He shrugged and took a sip from his own cup. "Like you said, he's an orphan too. The Wen name can be a burden nowadays. They all know that. It's why they don't use their name anywhere but here."

Wei Ying fell silent.

"I don't think the Wens would object if I wanted to adopt A-Yuan." He peered morosely into his teacup. "It's not like I'd be taking him away from his family."

Lan Wangji left his own tea untouched. He wasn't thirsty, and it was far more interesting to watch the ripple of emotion across his husband's face. Wei Ying seemed to sense his scrutiny. He lowered his teacup and looked away. For a moment, he seemed to have no intention of saying anything more. Then he spoke quickly, the words tumbling out.

"I haven't adopted any of the kids," he said, "because I didn't feel like I'd be a good father."

Lan Wangji frowned.

"Why?"

Wei Ying blinked and gave him an indecipherable look. He seemed almost bewildered. Then his eyes softened.

"Sometimes you ask me questions I don't know how to answer," Wei Ying grumbled, toeing at the floor. "I'm not even keeping secrets anymore, and it's still hard to come up with an answer!"

He turned away and finished his tea. Wei Ying was deliberately taking his time, emptying the cup in small sips. Lan Wangji could be patient, though. Perhaps his patience was even greater than that of the Immortal Yiling Patriarch. So he waited, and his husband finally sighed.

"I don't remember my parents well," he said tersely. "They died when I was very young. Afterward, I didn't have anybody to look after me."

Wei Ying looked away. His jaw tightened.

"I was alone for a long time." His hands flexed on his lap. "Then Xiao Xingchen found me, and he took me to Baoshan Sanren."

He was still holding something back. Lan Wangji waited some more. His husband shifted restlessly and stared at the wall. Then he let out a heavy sigh.

"I was already an immortal by then." His voice was very quiet. "It sort of happened by accident."

Lan Wangji stared. His breath caught in his chest as he tried to do the arithmetic. He wasn't entirely sure of his husband's age, but he gathered that Wei Ying was Xiao Xingchen's junior by just a few years. Xiao Xingchen was hardly six years older than Lan Wangji.

Wei Ying had become an immortal very young, then. He must have been astonishingly young. He might be the youngest cultivator to ever achieve immortality. Perhaps most would consider it a praiseworthy feat, but something itched against Lan Wangji's mind. He wondered what his husband meant by It sort of happened by accident.

"You must have been very young," he said, carefully.

Wei Ying tilted his head.

"I would have been…" He trailed off with a wince. "Gods, I don't know. I'm bad at keeping track of my age. And I don't even have the excuse of being a forgetful old man!"

He was striving for levity. Lan Wangji would have liked to help his husband break the tension, but it was impossible to joke about such a grave topic. He curled his hands around the teacup and watched the play of emotions across his husband's face. Wei Ying shifted in his seat. 

"I was twelve." Wei Ying stared down at his knees. "I think I was about twelve."

Lan Wangji's breath caught again. The air had suddenly vanished from his lungs.

Twelve. Wei Ying wouldn't even have reached his adult height by that age. He would have been far more of a child than a man. His golden core would likely have been only a few years old. To cultivate to immortality that quickly…

Lan Wangji held the teacup so tightly, he nearly shattered it in his hands. When the porcelain threatened to crack, he set the cup aside. He laid his hands upon his knees and tried to take deep, even breaths.

Wei Ying must have developed his core very young. Perhaps he had been like Lan Wangji, a prodigy who formed his core at the age of six. But that was not a satisfactory explanation. Natural talent only went so far, and even the most gifted young disciple couldn't be expected to cultivate to immortality as an adolescent. There must be a story behind Wei Ying's ascension, and Lan Wangji was suddenly afraid to ask for it.

"Did you remain with Baoshan Sanren afterward?"

Lan Wangji swallowed hard as the question left his mouth. He hoped the answer would be 'yes', and he knew the answer would be 'no'. His husband claimed he'd met his mother's master only once. Lan Wangji had received the impression that theirs was not a lengthy acquaintance. In that case, he couldn't have found shelter under the care of another immortal.

Wei Ying shook his head.

"Not for long." He picked at a loose thread near his sleeve. "She didn't want me to stay."

Lan Wangji's expression must have grown thunderous. Wei Ying glanced up, and he saw it. He waved his hands and spoke hurriedly.

"It was nothing personal! She wasn't trying to get rid of me, but our energies clashed. Our cultivation methods were just too different. She couldn't teach me much of anything. If I tried to stay with her, it would have been dangerous for both of us."

Lan Wangji clenched his fists, but he gave that some thought. After due consideration, he accepted the statement with a grudging nod. During the war, he had fought alongside many different cultivators. Some partnerships had been tolerably successful, while others had been disastrous. It was no easy thing, to endure cultivation methods at odds with one's own. If both cultivators were both immortal, the clash must be entirely overpowering. Perhaps Baoshan Sanren had no choice but to send Wei Ying away.

Even so, Lan Wangji's heart ached for his husband. Wei Ying's parents were dead and he had no living family. He had no home, no one to turn to except his mother's master. If she rejected him, where was he meant to go? He had been a child.

"She tried to help me as much as she could." Wei Ying's voice was calm and blank. "She taught me some methods for controlling my qi, and she made my sword. She gave me my courtesy name. But after that, I had to leave."

Lan Wangji swallowed hard and listened.

"I went back to the Burial Mounds. I didn't really know where else to go. Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan stayed with me for a while. They weren't much older than I was."

Wei Ying took an absentminded sip from an empty cup, and Lan Wangji hurried to refill it. His husband met his eyes and smiled. It was a sad smile, but Lan Wangji held it against his heart.

"They tried their best, though." Wei Ying shrugged. "They taught me sword fighting, and they brought me lots of books. I'd managed alone for a long time, so I could look after myself pretty well while they traveled. Once I got older, I had more control over my powers. So I traveled with them for a while."

Again, Lan Wangji tried to perform the necessary calculations. Again, he failed.

His husband must have been very young when he was left to fend for himself. Lan Wangji felt a prickle of resentment toward Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan. Had they really left to roam the world, leaving Wei Ying behind?

They would have been young too, Lan Wangji allowed. If they were only sixteen or seventeen, they would have found it difficult to raise any child. Caring for a young immortal would've been entirely beyond their abilities. They could hardly be expected to act as parents to an immensely powerful child, only slightly younger than themselves. Yet Lan Wangji felt hot and desperate and angry. He hated the thought of his husband 'managing' by himself.

"I sort of raised myself." Wei Ying gave another economical shrug. "What do I know about fatherhood, anyway?"

"You love the children," Lan Wangji said swiftly. "You provide for their needs. You teach them what you can, and you ask others to teach what you can't. You want what is best for them. In the ways that matter, you are already their father."

He spoke rather heatedly, but he felt sure that he had spoken truthfully. The children adored Wei Ying. They trusted him, admired him, and sought out his attention.

They didn't call him 'father.' Lan Wangji had observed that already. They didn't even call him 'master,' as the older disciples did. Wei Ying had evidently taught the young children to call him 'gege.' He walked a careful line, spoiling and playing with them like an elder brother.

But he took a keen interest in their health. He knew everything about their abilities, and he was anxious to ensure that they received a proper education. When Wei Ying spoke of the children or the disciples, his conversation was inexhaustible. He could talk for hours, telling stories of their past and planning for their future. The children and the disciples were clearly precious to him. Wei Ying knew something about fatherhood, even if he believed otherwise.

Wei Ying studied his face. Lan Wangji fought the urge to flush under such scrutiny. His husband looked as though he'd just realized something.

"Do you want to adopt some of them?" His voice was cautious.

Lan Wangji hesitated for a split-second. The answer—yes—leaped onto his tongue at once, but it seemed terribly blunt.

He wanted to have complete honesty in his marriage, though. Wei Ying had tried so hard to be forthright over the last two weeks. He even shared painful information about his childhood. If Lan Wangji tried to dodge the question, it would be a poor repayment.

"Yes," he admitted.

"Which ones?" Wei Ying asked slowly.

Lan Wangji did not respond, and Wei Ying's brows rose.

"All of them?" He blinked.

"It is not right to exclude anyone," Lan Wangji murmured.

His husband gave a soft, startled laugh.

"If they preferred to retain their family names," Lan Wangji added, "I would understand. I would not force them to disown their natal families. But I would accept any of the children or disciples who wished to be adopted."

Most of the children had been orphaned or abandoned in infancy. Aside from A-Yuan, they had no ties to their natal family. Several lacked a surname. In his heart, Lan Wangji felt sure that they would be eager to take the Wei name. They would jump at the chance to have parents and siblings, an official family of their very own. But if they hesitated to break ties with their natal family, Lan Wangji was prepared to respect their decision.

Wei Ying's lips parted. He stared at the teapot with a furrowed brow.

"With me?"

There was an uncharacteristic hesitance in his voice, and it was Lan Wangji's turn to blink.

"You think we should adopt them together?" Wei Ying prompted. "Formally? As a married couple?"

Lan Wangji knotted his fingers in his lap.

"I would prefer that arrangement," he allowed. "However, it is your decision."

The thought of being excluded from the proceedings made his stomach churn. It wasn't right: a married man always adopted children with his spouse. For Wei Ying to adopt the children but deny Lan Wangji the same rites…such an arrangement was unheard of. If his husband adopted children, they should become Lan Wangji's children too.

Yet Lan Wangji didn't want to force his husband's hand. He had only lived at the Burial Mounds for a few months. The children had grown close to him during that time, but he didn't want to force an adoption. No matter how much he wished to take the children on his lap and hear them call him 'Father.'

Wei Ying stared at his hands. He ran a thumb absently over his knuckles.

"You're really going to stick around, aren't you."

He sounded faintly bewildered. Lan Wangji couldn't understand why. He thought this matter had been decided days ago. Wei Ying had offered to let him return to his natal sect, and Lan Wangji had refused. He told his husband he intended to honor the terms of his marriage and remain in his new home. So naturally, he wished to claim his husband's adopted children. Naturally, he wanted to raise their children together. Any other arrangement would be absurd, unthinkable.

"We are married," Lan Wangji reminded his husband. "Regardless of the circumstances of our betrothal, we took our bows together. That means something to me."

He would have honored his vows even if he felt no affection for his husband. When Lan Wangji left Cloud Recesses, he had prepared himself for just such a future. He was prepared to do his duty and strive to be a faithful husband. Marriage was sacred, and it would be shameful to do anything less.

But Wei Ying wasn't just the man with whom Lan Wangji had bowed before heaven and earth. He was so much more. Wei Ying was the husband Lan Wangji would have chosen, had he been given the opportunity to make an independent choice. If they'd met before the war, Wei Ying would have captured his heart. He would have married Wei Ying willingly and taken joy in fulfilling his marriage vows. So he couldn't turn his back on Wei Ying now. It was quite impossible. He might as well try to split his soul in two.

Wei Ying didn't raise his eyes from his lap. Lan Wangji shifted anxiously. He thought Wei Ying seemed distressed, but he didn't know how to comfort his husband.

"You have offered to let me return to Cloud Recesses, without blame or dishonor." He reached out and touched Wei Ying's hand. "I appreciate that offer. But it is not what I want. That place is no longer my home."

It wasn't painful to utter the words: they were a simple truth. Part of Lan Wangji's life had belonged to Cloud Recesses. But that part had ended, and a new chapter had begun. Lan Wangji couldn't go back to his natal sect. He didn't want to.

Wei Ying's eyes fixed on Lan Wangji's hand. On his arm, his feet, his blanket-covered lap. He couldn't seem to force his eyes toward Lan Wangji's face.

"I will always care for my brother and my uncle." Lan Wangji took a deep breath. "They will always be my kin. Yet I am not a part of the Lan clan anymore, and I don't wish to be. My first allegiance is not to them. It is to my husband and his family."

He didn't know if his husband had a family registry. Wei Ying was an orphan with no surviving blood relatives. He had yet to adopt any children. Lan Wangji suspected that his husband had seen no need for a registry. But every respectable household ought to have one. Every marriage, birth, and adoption must be formally recorded. There had already been a marriage. They should create a registry and place their names within.

Lan Wangji realized that he'd like to see his name in the Wei registry. He wanted to trace the lines of ink connecting his name to his husband and to their children. He wanted the comfortable knowledge that his name would remain within that registry for eternity. He wanted to be remembered not only as Hanguang-Jun, but as the Yiling Patriarch's husband.

Wei Ying shut his eyes and swallowed hard. He turned his hand over, clasping Lan Wangji's, and swallowed again.

"The kids will need courtesy names, then." His voice was rather thick. "I'm bad at naming things, so you'll have to help!"

"I have thought of some names already," Lan Wangji confessed.

That wrung a laugh out of Wei Ying, even as he swiped a hand over his eyes.

"Oh, have you? My husband has such wisdom and foresight! Do you have a list? Show it to me!"

Lan Wangji did have a list. It was tucked carefully into his desk, hidden beneath a sheaf of blank papers. His husband fetched it, and they reviewed the names together. They chose a courtesy name for each child, then discussed plans for an adoption ceremony. It was the most pleasant evening Lan Wangji had ever spent.

But hai-shi drew near and Wei Ying insisted that he must get some rest. He helped Lan Wangji over the bed, and he watched as Lan Wangji tucked the forehead ribbon and lotus pin into their pouch. He waited—as he always did—until Lan Wangji was beneath the covers. Once the ritual was complete, Wei Ying hesitated in the doorway.

"It means something to me, too," he whispered.

Then he extinguished the lamps with a gesture and ducked away. Lan Wangji was left alone in the darkened room. But there was a flame burning in his chest, and it kept him company throughout the long winter's night.