Actions

Work Header

That Bitter Draught

Work Text:

It wasn’t that Su She was entirely unaware of what he was like.

He was a man almost entirely consumed by bitterness and envy, his eyes so firmly fixed on what his neighbors had that he couldn’t appreciate the blessings in his own life. He was selfish and ungrateful, and hated the ones he admired the most, hated all of the ones who were better off than him, even the ones who pretended to be fair and equitable about it.

Especially those.

He’d been born to an ordinary family, not cultivators at all – a feeder family doing agriculture for the sake of the great Lan sect, who never much thought nor cared about where their vegetables came from. He waded knee-deep through the muck and the mire for the first six years of his life before some passing Lan cultivator had discovered he had a bit of potential, and next thing he knew his parents had handed him off to be someone’s servant, taking him away from everyone he’d ever known – from his parents and his animals and his siblings and his brother – and he was supposed to be grateful for it.

There wasn’t anything wrong with being a servant, Su She supposed. It was a livelihood like anyone else’s, and maybe he wouldn’t be so bitter about it if he’d stayed that way, the way he was supposed to, as a servant with just enough skill at cultivating to not disturb the tranquil and thoughtful atmosphere of the Cloud Recesses as he rushed around doing all the things that were necessary.

(The Cloud Recesses – so pretty and clean and pure, except there was muck here, too, and no amount of pretending by the sect disciples that their shit didn’t stink the way everyone else’s did would change that.)

Maybe Su She would have been fine with being a servant, though he suspected he wouldn’t – in the darkness of the middle of the night he sometimes thought that his ability to be content had been taken away when he had, that the black gaping hole in his heart that had once held his family would always be a yawning pit that always wanted more than he had, forever incapable of getting the one thing that would fill it up again – but he didn’t stay that way.

No, see, Su She was good at cultivating. He was really good - not quite a genius, but his hard work paid off and he got better and better at what he was doing even though they barely gave him any time to do it in.

After all, someone had to make sure that everything was ready for the sect disciples when they woke up at the start of the mao hour, and that meant he had to be hard at work by yin, and of course the fact that they went to sleep at the end of the xu hour only meant that his work stretched well into hai, but despite all the disadvantages they loaded him down with he cultivated like a madman at every free hour, squeezing it in between work and even more degrading work. He got better and better and better, and eventually, finally, someone noticed him again.

This time they made him a disciple.

They expected him to be grateful for that, too. As if he hadn’t bought the chance with his own sweat and tears and blood, and all to be one of the blessed ones, one of the lucky ones, one of the ones who could – if they were meritorious enough – get a pass to leave the sect to go where they liked.

(Moling was too far to reach by foot, not even for the New Year, and he didn’t make enough money to buy a horse. But once he had a sword, gifted to him from the sect, once he could fly – once he was old enough – once he was trusted enough –)

Being a disciple meant that he woke up at mao hour and went to sleep at xu, that his chamber-pot disappeared in the morning as if by magic, that his food was brought to his table instead of being stuffed into his mouth in the crowded staff room right off the kitchen in the brief reprieves he had between duties…all things he had to adjust to, things that were strange and felt almost unnatural.

Now that he was a disciple, he had all the same rights as all the others, the ones who had been born to it instead of raised up from a lower level for it.

It was supposed to mean that they were all equal, all Lan disciples the same, except that all the arrogant young masters looked down their noses at the former servant who’d stepped above his station. They ridiculed him for it: for being ambitious, for being envious, for thinking too highly of himself, for not knowing the things they’d had a chance to learn and he hadn’t, for smelling like the shit no matter how clean he kept his clothing or how much he washed.

Equal – hah!

The worst, though…the worst was the Twin Jades.

Lan Xichen was powerful, yet kind and generous to the point of selflessness, a proper gentleman; Lan Wangji, equally gifted, always did the right thing, no matter the circumstances, his expression solemn and serious, his reputation famous for his righteousness.

Su She hated them. He wanted to be them, wanted to be Lan Wangji so bad it made his blood boil, but he also hated them – hated him.

The Twin Jades. They didn’t deserve to be called that, not with the three year age difference between them and at least four points of difference on their face, if you were looking; not when Su She’s brother had been born so soon before him that he’d been born clutching his ankle as they left the womb together. Not when the only difference, the only difference, between them was that fucking Lan cultivator’s comment that he only had enough room in his cart to take one of them with him.

A servant, even with cultivation potential, was worth less than a bag of bok choy meant to serve as a side dish on a trueborn Lan disciple’s plate, and so his brother was stuck in the muck back at home while Su She fought his way through the muck that was the Lan sect’s glorious principles and discipline.

He didn’t even know for sure if his brother was still alive.

Oh, Su She had the sect’s permission to write them letters, but what would it help? No one in his village could read, he certainly hadn’t been able to before he’d been forcefully taught so that Lan sect elders could pass him notes instead of condescending enough to speak to him, and the cost of paying a scholar to read it to them would be a waste of the money he faithfully sent them out of his wages every month.

So yes, Su She was bitter. Su She hated. Su She envied, and envied Lan Wangji most of all. After all, he was handsome, but not as handsome; he was talented, but not as talented; he was smart, but not as smart; he was powerful, but not as powerful; he was a twin, but no one cared about him and his brother the way they cared about Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen – Lan Wangji, who got to have his older brother with him any time he liked, but spent the entire time standing there stone-faced and driving him away.

And, of course, Lan Wangji also had – him.

Yu Zhuliu was the sort of guest disciple that was really a servant and not a proper Lan disciple, although his cultivation was high enough to rank alongside some of the shining stars of the Lan sect – even more so than most, given his cultivation of the unique ability that had made him renowned throughout the cultivation world as the Core Melting Hand. It was only that he had been too old, at the time the Lan sect had rescued him from some misfortune that Su She had never heard specified, to learn their ways properly, and for some reason the elders resisted allowing him into the sect properly.  

Perhaps it was because he was what was termed an ‘inconvenient child’ of Meishan Yu, the bastard child of a daughter of the clan; a liability that could neither be killed nor kept.

Perhaps it was because his ability was truly too terrifying, attacking as it did the golden core that all cultivators strove so hard and so long to form.

Or perhaps it was simply that he made a very convenient servant.

Yu Zhuliu was, to put a point on it, Lan Wangji’s servant, acting as both bodyguard and attendant.

He was a deputy to help Lan Wangji with whatever he needed, big or small. The Lan sect prided itself on discipline and humility, but only to a certain extent – only to the extent it looked good or was pure – and of course they were desperate to keep their precious young jade safe from the growing predations of Qishan Wen; it was not so strange that they assigned him a bodyguard, and of course if he was already doing that he might as well do the rest.

After all, who could expect a proper young gentleman to care for himself?

Su She hadn’t taken much notice of Yu Zhuliu at first, other than a brief stabbing feeling of pity when he heard of the man’s circumstances. But then one day he’d noticed him rolling his eyes as Lan Wangji stiffly recited the rules in advance of yet another punishment he was inflicting over something minor – no one loved the rules as much as Lan Wangji did. There was a reason nobody talked to him, perfect disciple that he was, and of course unlike the lowly Su She who, despite himself, longed for the company and recognition of his peers, Lan Wangji rose above it all, was above it all. And while no one could claim that his distribution of punishments wasn’t as fair and equitable as might be asked, it was evident to Su She that he only did it that way because it was the subject of yet another rule.

But no one ever seem to notice or care, no one ever thought it as stupid as Su She did, right up until that moment when he’d seen Yu Zhuliu making a long-suffering face like that where Lan Wangji couldn’t see, and Su She couldn’t help but smile a little, heart suddenly warm with a feeling of fellowship.

Yu Zhuliu had seen him smiling, caught his eyes, and rolled his eyes again, this time more pointedly – a gesture aimed just at him, a shared joke – and that was it; Su She was lost.

Su She was in Lan Wangji’s age group, even if they weren’t close (no one was close to Lan Wangji), so it wasn’t hard to find time to go over and talk to Yu Zhuliu.

The conversations were mostly one-sided to start with, which Su She had expected. Yu Zhuliu was a reserved man, and of course there was always that master-servant divide lying between them like a gulf. Still, Su She had been a servant once, which Yu Zhuliu knew – everyone knew – and in time Su She got him to ease up a little, talk back, commiserate.

Su She told him about his family, the little he remembered of them after all these years; in return, Yu Zhuliu unbent enough to tell him a little about his own background: the mother that hated him as the living sign of her disgrace, the constant accusations that he didn’t deserve to bear the Yu surname.

“Have you ever considered changing it?” Su She asked, helping him fold Lan Wangji’s laundry. It wasn’t something he’d ever have permitted himself to do under other circumstances, knowing how important it was to distance himself from all things relating to servants, but he was willing to make some compromises if it meant getting to spend a little more time with Yu Zhuliu. “Obviously if you want to keep it, it’s yours; they can’t deprive you of your birthright like that. But it doesn’t seem like you particularly want it.”

Yu Zhuliu was quiet for a long moment. “Once,” he said, his eyes distant. “I considered it once, before I joined the Lan sect. I wasn’t yet sure who had been the one to – well. Suffice it to say that I was seriously considering an offer I had received to join a different sect, and they offered to allow me to adopt the main clan’s surname as my own if I performed well.”

Su She shuddered in automatic revulsion at the thought.

Yu Zhuliu saw it, of course, and chuckled. “It would have been a great honor,” he reminded him. “Especially for someone like me – to be able to shed my old name would have been enough, but to replace it with a name that was even more powerful..?”

“Gratifying,” Su She agreed, a little begrudgingly. The idea of giving away his identity like that, giving in to the arrogant young masters’ lies that they were better than him just because they had a fancier surname, revolted him, but he could, he supposed, see a little of the spiteful appeal of it.  “Like – stamping on their faces with it, showing them what they’ve lost.”

“Yes.”

“Why didn’t you take that offer, then?” They both knew the Lan sect would never in a million years extend a similar offer, even though there were plenty of branch families surnamed Lan and another one more or less wouldn’t much matter. It wasn’t proper, though, and no one cared more about propriety than the Lan sect. “With the clan surname, they would have had to make you a proper disciple.”

Su She would never agree to such an offer himself. He might want, in the darkest parts of his heart, to be Lan Wangjii, to be something better than he was, might occasionally daydream of what his life might have been life if they’d been born swapped in place, but he didn’t – he wouldn’t sell his surname for it.

(He wouldn’t sell his brother for it, even if all he had of his brother was a surname and some swiftly fading memories.)

But Yu Zhuliu hated his surname and all it represented. He wasn’t like Su She, always thinking of the past and the might-have-beens and growing fat on all his resentment and grievances; if Yu Zhuliu could shed his skin like a cicada, emerge somewhere else a brand-new person, he would do it in a heartbeat.

“It was the Lan sect that saved me,” he said simply. “And so I owed it to them to come here, no matter what the Wen sect offered me.”

The Wen sect. Wow. That was sure some offer to turn down; they commanded the loyalty of over a third of the smaller sects, maybe even close to half, and Yu Zhuliu could have gotten their surname.

Of course, the Wen sect offered that out much more readily than other sects did, but still.

On the other hand, if Yu Zhuliu had accepted, if he’d become Wen Zhuliu, then Su She would never have had the chance to meet him, or would have only met him under bad circumstances.

Maybe he wouldn’t have liked Wen Zhuliu that much at all.

“Your loyalty is admirable,” he finally said, after wracking his brain for something appropriately neutral to say.

That got him another chuckle. “Did you know that lies make you look like you’ve tasted something sour?”

“I,” Su She said with dignity, “am a great liar. You just haven’t noticed it yet.”

Yu Zhuliu was silent for a moment, maybe reviewing things he knew about Su She. “I suppose you probably are,” he said thoughtfully. “Which means it’s the Lan sect that you don’t like.”

Su She shrugged. “I don’t think I’d like any sect,” he confessed, even though he knew he shouldn’t.

Yu Zhuliu’s overwhelming trait was his loyalty, after all – he’d sell Su She out in a heartbeat if he thought the Lan sect deemed it necessary. Su She was mostly just counting on being so pointless and insignificant that Yu Zhuliu wouldn’t think it was worth telling anyone about him.

It probably wasn’t, either. Why would the Lan sect care about someone like Su She one way or another? He wasn’t anything to them, not really; even as a disciple, his only purpose was to act as an adornment, to bring honor and glory that would reflect upwards onto the great clan surnamed Lan.

“Why?” Yu Zhuliu asked. He sounded honestly curious – honestly interested, interested in Su She for something other than being an extra body in a formation or another cannon fodder to throw to the dogs when a night-hunt went badly.

Su She wanted to tell him everything.

But Yu Zhuliu was loyal, always loyal, and Su She may not be as smart as Lan Wangji but he wasn’t stupid.

“They’re all the same in the end, full of arrogant young masters,” he said breezily. “I mean, did you see the group of disasters at Teacher Lan’s lectures?”

Perhaps that was a harsh assessment, but he’d humiliated himself in front of them all on that night-hunt that went wrong against the Waterborne Abyss, with his still-shaky control over his sword, trying as always to live up to Lan Wangji’s example the way they kept always telling him he should and then being looked down upon as an idiot for even trying – why would he do something so stupid obviously he can never match Lan Wangji always aiming above his station and thinks too highly of himself still a servant after all obviously he’ll never be good enough – and the mere thought of them tasted like bile and hatred in his mouth.

“The head disciple from the Jiang sect seemed fairly smart,” Yu Zhuliu said, and Su She scoffed.

“He’s very smart, very smart indeed,” he said scathingly. “So smart that he’s forgotten who he is and where he came from. Eventually someone’s going to remember that he’s a servant’s son, not a proper young master at all, and he’ll pay for it in blood and tears – if he’s lucky.”

“Do you think so?”

“The Jiang heir has an inferiority complex as deep as the ocean –” Su She knew what one looked like; after all, he saw one every day in the mirror. “– and eventually the time will come when he has to be sect leader in his father’s place. On that day, all those pretty words about how wonderful Wei Wuxian is, how smart, how talented, what a credit to his sect, they’ll all fall onto Jiang Wanyin’s ears like a lash on his back. And when the time comes that he has to sacrifice something, well, we’ll see how much being smart helps Wei Wuxian then.”

“An interesting perspective,” Yu Zhuliu remarked.

“An accurate one,” Su She retorted. “He was raised as a proper young master, not a servant, and so he won’t even know to see the danger when it comes. None of them would.”

“No, I suppose not. It’s always the things you don’t know you don’t know that can harm you the most.” Yu Zhuliu straightened up – the laundry was done; they’d finished it ages ago. “We will have to continue this discussion another time, Su-gongzi –”

“Su She, please. Su Minshan, if you must.”

“Su Minshan, then. I look forward to speaking with you again.”

When Yu Zhuliu let, Su She hugged himself in glee, allowing himself a moment of triumph at a successful conversation with the person he liked, then went to wash himself clean again. He wasn’t dirty, and it was the middle of the day, but he wanted to make sure no one could smell the bleaching herbs they put in the laundry on him. He didn’t want to risk any more mockery, and anyway, it had gotten to be a habit.

As he went to the baths, he saw Lan Wangji standing on a nearby pathway, looking up at the sky as if deep in thought. He must be on his rounds again, even though it wasn’t his day for it, or even the right time; he’d taken to haunting the routine work of it as if it were the only thing keeping him grounded.

Whatever. It wasn’t Su She’s business.

Except maybe it was, because Lan Wangji kept – looking at him, over the next few days. Which was weird, because Lan Wangji never looked at anybody, his nose firmly stuck up in the sky where mortals dared not tread, and it was starting to make Su She nervous.

Surely Lan Wangji couldn’t tell – about him. He’d never been able to before, why would he start now?

And yet…what if he could?

What if Lan Wangji had figured him out? Figured out Su She’s rebellious heart, how he wasn’t grateful at all not matter nice a face he put on, how he hated the stupid Lan sect rules and the stupid Lan sect disciples and the stupid Lan sect arrogance, how he secretly schemed to learn everything he could and transcribe everything he couldn’t memorize so that he could take it back home to Moling one day and show his brother everything he’d learned, how he despised them all for their arrogance –

“Will you be attending the archery competition?” Lan Wangji asked stiffly. He did everything stiffy, like he was actually a statute carved out of jade and only just pretending to be human. “At the Nightless City?”

“Naturally,” Su She said, not bothering to look up from the verses he was copying. Not the most polite, not as kiss-ass as he ought to be when faced with the glory that was the second jade of the Lan sect, but he’d found that as long as he kept his tone as formal and humble as possible, he could get away with a little. “It may be nothing like yours, Lan-er-gongzi, but I do have some skill at it, you know.”

Not that most people thought so. They would be travelling to Qishan in three groups, for easier and more secure travel – one for the adults, one led by the Twin Jades to represent the shining hope of their sect, and the last of everyone else making up the numbers. He was in the last group, of course, even though his talent for musical cultivation was one of the strongest in the junior generation and his swordplay good enough to only lose to Lan Wangji three times out of every five – better results than a good half of the group of well-born Lan clansman being sent out as the representatives of their sect.

Was he bitter about it? Yes.

Lan Wangji hesitated for a long moment, and even shifted from one leg to the other – a sign of nervousness in most people, maybe. In Lan Wangji? Who even knew.

After a while, he said, “My group has an extra place,” sounding almost like it was an offer, and the entire thing was so bizarre that Su She immediately became suspicious.  

“What do you want?” he asked.

Lan Wangji blinked at him.

“He who is unaccountably solicitous is hiding bad intentions, Lan-er-gongzi,” Su She clarified, glaring up at him and unable to keep his mouth from twisting as though he’d bitten something sour. He knew he often looked like that, and it made the female cultivators downrate his handsomeness, but he’d been the subject of too many jokes to stop himself from being so bitterly defensive. “You don’t know me, you don’t like me, and you don’t go out of your way to offer a better place to anyone, even if there’s no official rule against it. So what is it you want?”

Lan Wangji shook his head.

“If you don’t want anything, why offer?” Su She sneered. It would be just like Lan Wangji to have decided to recognize a promising disciple that deserve a chance to shine – he was perfect like that, after all, always thinking of others, always a true gentleman. Well, Su She had endured a lifetime of being seen as promising by gentlemen, being recognized as a talent without once being thought of as a person, having to humiliate himself in front of them like a dancing monkey and worst of all of having to be grateful to them for allowing him to do it, and he was sick and tired of swallowing down that bitter draught.

He didn’t need the better spot, not this time – he would be going one way or the other – and he wasn’t willing to give Lan Wangji of all people the satisfaction of doing him a favor he didn’t even want.

Lan Wangji shifted from one side to the other again, waiting a long time before he spoke again. Maybe it was nervousness.

“Yu Zhuliu is in my party,” he finally said.

At first Su She didn’t understand the point Lan Wangji was making, terse and oblique as the other man habitually was, and then he understood it far too well.

He saw red.

“What business is that of yours?” he shouted, dropping his brush and jumping to his feet, forgetting all of his good intentions to try to keep his head down and his tone at least plausibly polite. “So what if I spend some time with him when he’s free? Not every waking hour of his is yours!”

Lan Wangji’s eyes darted from side to side. “No,” he said. “I didn’t mean –”

“You didn’t mean what?!”

“You like him.” A meaningful pause. “Very much.”

“Yes, I do,” Su She said, his cheeks flushed red. “So what? So I cut my sleeve sometimes, big deal. It’s not against any of your stupid rules – every attempt to introduce such a restriction formally has been rejected, I checked. This isn’t something you can punish me for!”

He could, of course. No one would question Lan Wangji issuing yet another punishment – he could say it was due to Su She’s noise, no shouting in the Cloud Recesses – and of course not every type of punishment was the sort that got meted out in the Punishment Hall. There were other types, more insidious – isolation, ostracization, missing out on opportunities for advancement, resources…even merely sentencing him to write lines could be used to deny him his coveted spot at the Nightless City.

Lan Wangji wouldn’t do that, though.

Somehow that just made Su She angrier. Who told Lan Wangji to be so fucking perfect?

“You can add it to your list of achievements,” he adds bitterly. “Everyone knows you’re better than me - better at manners, better at cultivation, better at everything, and now better in this way, too, because I’m a cutsleeve and you’re not –”

Lan Wangji flinched.

Lan Wangji flinched.

Su She’s jaw dropped in shock. “You are?”

Lan Wangji’s features weren’t exactly easy to ready for anyone except Lan Xichen, but at the moment it was plain enough that even Su She could figure out that he was miserable.

“For who?!” A terrible thought slipped into his mind. “It had better not be Yu Zhuliu!”

“No!” Lan Wangji said hastily. “No – no. Not at all.”

“Good,” Su She said fiercely. “Because he’s mine. Or, well, not mine, we haven’t agreed on anything, I haven’t even said anything, but I’m trying and – well, it doesn’t matter. You know what I mean.”

He wasn’t actually sure Lan Wangji did. He wasn’t sure he knew what he meant.

But Lan Wangji nodded, as if his confused rambling had been as clear as a Lan sect rule.

“I thought you might like to spend more time with him,” he said, and – oh. His offer. The Nightless City.

“…I would,” Su She said begrudgingly. “Thanks.”

For Yu Zhuliu, he’d even put up Lan Wangji’s charity.

“Who is it for you, anyway?” he asked, unable to resist and wanting to take advantage of this strange intimacy, this momentary breach of etiquette undoubtedly never to be repeated, but Lan Wangji shook his head, refusing to share. “Fine. Have it your way.”

It wasn’t that he cared, anyway.

Not about Lan Wangji’s mysterious lover, and not about Lan Wangji himself – this wasn’t a charming little flaw that made the whole seem more relatable, wasn’t something that generated fellow feeling, the way Yu Zhuliu’s gentle mockery had. So what if both of them were secretly cutsleeves in a sect that most assuredly did not approve of such things? That didn’t mean anything. It didn’t give them anything in common. They still weren’t the same, not at all, not with Lan Wangji was nobly bearing the burden of it while Su She had given in to temptation almost at once…

No, this was just more of the same.

More of Lan Wangji being, despite all of Su She’s efforts to the contrary, Su She’s idol, his ideal. The person who he hated most because he envied him the most, the person who made him hate himself as being nothing but the lesser copy, the person he despised for making him sometimes feel as if maybe Lan Wangji’s better birth really did entitle him to be better.

So no. He didn’t care.

(It wasn’t that Lan Wangji had seen him, recognized him as something the same. As a person, worthy of recognition, even if not of respect. It wasn’t.)

Maybe he cared a little bit.

He must have cared, or else he would have just run away when the Wen sect descended on the Lan sect with flame and sword instead of being a stupid idiot and going to look for him.

(He told himself it was because Yu Zhuliu would undoubtedly be wherever Lan Wangji was, and it was a pretty decent lie, except that he went to the Library Pavilion and Yu Zhuliu wasn’t there. So he told himself that Yu Zhuliu would have wanted him to protect Lan Wangji, and that lie worked better.)

Of course, once he got there, the stupid noble gentlemanly fucker wouldn’t even listen to him and run.

“Aren’t you supposed to be the important one?” Su She bellowed. This was clearly not the time for manners, and anyway Lan Wangji had already seen beneath his mask once; another time wouldn’t hurt. “Yu Zhuliu’s out there fighting to keep you alive and you’re wasting all his efforts, you’re just standing here, waiting for them to come get you –”

“It is necessary,” Lan Wangji said, solemn as ever. “Someone must keep their attention here, instead of following my brother.”

“Oh fuck you,” Su She said, and took out his sword. Lan Wangji just had to play the fucking brother card, didn’t he?

Yu Zhuliu would want me to do this, he told himself as he tried to fight. He was pretty decent, but he was just a disciple, not a soldier, and as a Lan sect disciple he’d never killed anything before. After a while, he ended up shouting for Lan Wangji to throw him his guqin – the one Su She favored was rented from the sect, lacking as he did the money to purchase her in full, and so he didn’t have it with him – and he attacked with that instead for a while, being better at music than he was at the sword.

The lash of his music was less powerful than Lan Wangji’s single-note waves of power, but Su She was also sneakier about it, and a few unexpected distractions during a battle were much more helpful to Lan Wangji’s defense than any amount of getting himself killed waving a sword around would have.

In the end, unsurprisingly, they were defeated. Su She ended up surrendering in fairly dramatic manner, knowing that the Wen sect might preserve Lan Wangji’s life as a useful hostage but that they couldn’t give a damn about his own and, as always, humiliation was the path to survival; he bet Lan Wangji was already judging him for it, for his weakness, for how pathetic he was when he was sniveling at Wen Xu’s feet as they beat him black and blue to make a point to Lan Wangji, but he didn’t care because he bowed his head and lived while the disciple next to him that didn’t died.

Lan Wangji didn’t bow his head either, but they just broke his leg before throwing them both in a carriage headed to the Nightless City.

The worst of it was, he didn’t even have Yu Zhuliu around to comfort him.

“I ordered him to go with my brother,” Lan Wangji said in belated explanation. “To protect him.”

“You could have said,” Su She said, curled up in the corner of the carriage and feeling sick to his stomach. He should have just run away. He could be in Moling right now if he’d just run away, and who would have known? Of course, then he would have to have left behind all the things he’d prepared, and Yu Zhuliu, too… “Maybe I’d rather have been on that team. Why’d he run, anyway? I bet he had a great reason.”

“He took the key books of our sect –”

Su She rolled his eyes. Of course there was a good nice selfless noble reason for Lan Xichen having fled, leaving his younger brother behind as a sacrifice to cover his tracks – proper young masters never did anything without one of those. It was like they thought that admitting that they were afraid for their lives would be worse than actually dying.

“He took what he could,” Lan Wangji said, his eyes cast down. He wasn’t really talking to Su She. “But so much was still lost.”

Su She thought about all the copies of the books he’d been making, all the knowledge he’d been slowly siphoning away over the course of years, and how they were hidden far away from the main buildings of the Lan sect. He’d probably have more than they did, when this was all said and done, assuming he survived. Wouldn’t that just drive them all up the wall? All those stiff smug elders who thought they were better than him would have to come and beg him to give them the books –

Lan Wangji would, too. Those books were probably his only friends, just as they were Su She’s.

“…maybe not all lost,” he said begrudgingly, and curled up tighter, cursing himself as an idiot.

He might be feeling all warm and fuzzy towards Lan Wangji over something as stupid as a single moment of shared misery, but just because he had feelings about it didn’t mean Lan Wangji did. More than likely, when it came down to it, Lan Wangji would put aside all his noble manners and sell Su She out in a heartbeat, and probably not even count it as a betrayal. After all, in the end, Su She was still just a servant that had temporarily made good, still just cannon fodder, meant to be used and sacrificed for the sake of his better-born master.

At least Lan Wangji had probably given up on expecting him to be grateful about it, given the despicable personality he’d already seen Su She display.

It irritated him how much that mattered.

“There’s always copies, after all,” he added. “And before you say anything, I know it’s not the same as having the original, but it’s worth something, isn’t it?”

He was worth something, even if he was only Lan Wangji’s copy.

“That’s true,” Lan Wangji said. He was quiet for a long while after that, long enough that Su She started seriously considering going to sleep because unconsciousness was preferable to worrying about what was going to happen to them once they got to the Nightless City, and then he said, “You are unhappy.”

Su She turned to goggle at him. “Of course I’m unhappy! The Cloud Recesses was lit on fire, we’re prisoners, we’re probably going to die painfully –”

“Not now. Before.” A pause. “With the sect.”

Su She shut his mouth and glared suspiciously.

“I won’t say anything,” Lan Wangji promised. “I only want to know.”

Su She shook his head stubbornly. “You won’t understand,” he said, a little helplessly, when Lan Wangji continued to look at him, wanting an explanation. “It’s not – something you would understand. You’ve always had everything, all your life.”

Lan Wangji frowned a little, clearly thinking it over, clearly taking it seriously, and for a moment there Su She kind of hated Yu Zhuliu for making him actually like Lan Wangji a little bit. “Not – everything,” he finally said. “My family…”

He trailed off, probably thinking about where they were now. A father locked away in seclusion was different from one on the verge of death; a missing brother, an injured uncle…

Su She huffed and turned his head away, refusing to feel sympathetic. “At least you had them,” he said bitterly. “I haven’t seen my family since they sold me to your sect, and at this point I’m too scared to go visit them.”

“…the Lan sect does not keep slaves.”

“No, of course not,” Su She said. “You just offer people more money than they’ve ever seen in their lives if they’ll hand over their six-year-old son to be properly trained as a servant, because it’s better to get them while they’re young – teach them to be quiet and inobtrusive and grateful for how much better it is to spend their life cleaning up the shit that sticks to your boots. And the worst part is, you are grateful for it, no matter how bad it is, no matter how much you miss your home or your family or your brother, because the buyer could have picked him instead of you and then you’d be the one stuck on some farm somewhere doing nothing with your life, just waiting to see if he’ll come back one day.”

The difference with Su She was that he’d figured out pretty quick that going back wasn’t enough.

When he’d realized how important it was to cultivate a golden core at a young age, he’d saved up every bit of money he could on top of what he sent his family every month, volunteered for every job that paid and even bit his tongue and took out extravagant loans from the sect that he would be paying off for years to come, and he’d hired a rogue cultivator to go teach his brother the basics of cultivation.

He hoped that was enough to make up for all the years he’d been gone, even though he doubted it; he wouldn’t think it was enough, himself, and surely his brother was like him. He was still too young to go outside the sect by himself – he would have to apply for a token, and agree to take someone with him, and he didn’t want to take anyone with him except maybe Yu Zhuliu, who wasn’t an option.

He didn’t want anyone to know if his return home went as badly as he feared it would. If his brother turned out to be as bitter as he was, and turned that bitterness against him –

“You have a brother?” Lan Wangji asked, because of course he’d noticed the important part.

“A twin,” Su She whispered, and turned his face away.

They did not speak again until the Nightless City, and even then it was limited to necessary things, neither of them wanting to risk the fury of their Wen sect guards. After a while, it was announced that the Wen sect would be holding a camp for all young masters, meant to indoctrinate them into righteous conduct, and that they would be attending whether they wanted to or not. They had probably assumed that Su She was well-born because of the fine clothing and fancy hairpiece he wore, and never knew that they were loaned to him by a sect that liked to surround itself with pretty things even if it had to pay for the clothing itself, and Su She had never been happier to be counted among his supposed peers.

Still, when the indoctrination camp began, and Wen Chao – accompanied by three bodyguards at all times, because he was even more of an arrogant snot than even Su She had previously imagined an arrogant young master could be – began lording it over them all, Su She drifted over to Lan Wangji’s side again.

Mostly because no one else would, other than maybe that troublemaker from Yunmeng, Wei Wuxian.

“I know some curses,” he told Lan Wangji, pretending to be casual about it as if he hadn’t accused Lan Wangji’s sect of various awful things. “Really nasty ones. Want me to try one on Wen Chao? I can be subtle.”

“He’d figure out it was you when he checked us all for the inevitable backlash marks,” Wei Wuxian put in. “Then he’d just kill you to get rid of it. Stupid idea.”

“Depends on how quick-acting the curse was,” Su She said peevishly. He hadn’t even been talking to Wei Wuxian, and he hadn’t forgotten who it was that had charged in like a hero from a play to rescue him when he’d overreached himself fighting the Waterborne Abyss even if he doubted Wei Wuxian remembered him in return. “Also, why are you even here? Shouldn’t you be off somewhere drawing fire onto the Jiang sect?”

“What? No,” Wei Wuxian said. “I’m not –”

“I mean, I certainly can’t think of any other reasons for your actions, Wei-gongzi,” Su She said, his voice set at its most simpering. It wasn’t like there were any Lan sect elders here to punish him for being disrespectful, after all, and he figured that helping defend the Library Pavilion with Lan Wangji probably earned him a little space to be himself for once. “Aggravating Wen-gonzi, making light of everything, galivanting around flirting with girls – one might almost feel as if you’re on vacation. Surely your Jiang sect will not have to pay for any of that, politically speaking; it’s not as if the Wen sect thinks of them as one of their greatest rivals and is looking for any chance to cut them down…but no, surely it’s my misunderstanding. I’m sure Wei-gongzi has a thoughtful plan, being such a good servant to his sect.”

Wei Wuxian frowned at him. “But that’s not what I’m doing,” he said, but his voice came out a little weaker this time. “That’s not it at all, I was just…hm. Hey, Jiang Cheng! Jiang Cheng, I have a question for you…”

Su She watched him leave with satisfaction, then turned back to Lan Wangji, who was looking at him again.

“Why do you dislike him?” he asked before Su She could change the subject.

“I don’t dislike him,” Su She said. “I envy him, sometimes. The rest of the time, I pity him.”

“You think Jiang Wanyin will cast him aside, one day,” Lan Wangji said, and Su She thought back to that conversation he’d had with Yu Zhuliu. Lan Wangji had clearly heard more of it than he’d let on.

“Well, yes,” he conceded, because he did. He’d seen how close they were, which was only going to make it worse for them both when it inevitably happened.  

“Would you tell me why? In your own words?”

Su She frowned at Lan Wangji, who raised his hands as if in surrender. “Please.”

Well, if he was going to ask nicely

Su She decided to pretend that he was talking to Yu Zhuliu.

“Fine. You want my opinion? Whoever raised Wei Wuxian ruined him,” he said bluntly. “I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but he doesn’t act like a servant – he doesn’t even act like a second son. He acts like a master. He acts like he’s the next heir to the Jiang sect, not Jiang Wanyin; you’ve seen how he’s always bossing him around and refusing to listen to him even when he tells him to behave.”

“He’s his shixiong,” Lan Wangji objected, but mildly.

“For now. Do you really think Wei Wuxian’s going to suddenly learn how to be obedient the second Jiang Wanyin gets instated as sect leader? Or do you think he’ll continue to run rampant, doing just as he likes the way he always has, with Jiang Wanyin bending to his every whim the way he always has? What do you think the cultivation world will think of that?”

Lan Wangji was frowning deeper now, thoughtful.

“The cultivation world isn’t kind to servants who forget their place. If he keeps acting the way he has been, the time will come when he does something so outrages that Jiang Wanyin will have no choice but to throw him away,” Su She concluded. “A servant’s son, however precious, is nothing when weighed against the duty owed to the sect inherited by your ancestors. I mean, even your brother put that first and foremost, and he’s your blood.”

“…I agreed with Brother’s decision.”

“Sure. But did he ask you first?”

Lan Wangji remained quiet.

“If it makes you feel better, there’s always a chance that it won’t become an issue,” Su She continued, mostly to avoid having to listen to Lan Wangji’s injured sort of silence. “Maybe they’ll luck out and instead something will happen to remind Wei Wuxian that he’s a servant and that his job is to throw himself into the abyss to save Jiang Wanyin, probably without even getting thanked for it.”

Lan Wangji looked at him sidelong. After a long few moments of contemplation – Su She really couldn’t stand the way Lan Wangji looked at him, as if he was trying to figure out an interesting puzzle, but he also couldn’t get enough of it, it was horrible – he said, “It will not be that way, with Yu Zhuliu.”

Caught, Su She glared at him.

“How would you solve it?” Lan Wangji asked.

“What?”

“You were a servant, once,” Lan Wangji pointed out. “You are no Yu Zhuliu, no Wei Wuxian, to sacrifice yourself for the Lan sect, and it pains you to pretend to humble yourself before us. What is your solution? You are too clever not to have one.”

Su She wrapped his arms around himself, wishing he didn’t enjoy being called clever as much as he did. It didn’t sound condescending when Lan Wangji said it, the way it did when the Lan sect’s teachers did – like praising a well-performing pet that they’d raised themselves, patting themselves on the back for doing such a good job in training him. He sounded almost as if he resented Su She for being smart enough to see the messy contradiction that was Wei Wuxian’s life, and for being the only person he could ask to shed some light on the subject.

Su She didn’t mind resentment, not even aimed at him. On the contrary, it made it feel real.

Why wouldn’t Lan Wangji resent having to respect someone like him?

“I’m leaving, eventually,” he confessed. “I’m going to start my own sect, or try, anyway, if I can get the money for it from somewhere. Back at home in Moling. Maybe, if I’m very lucky, I’ll be able to convince Yu Zhuliu to come with me, notwithstanding the stupid debt of loyalty he feels he owes your sect.”

Lan Wangji looked contemplative again, surprised but not displeased, as if Su She had suggested something he’d never even considered possible. “What cultivation style will you use?”

“Yours, of course,” Su She said, rolling his eyes at him. “What am I supposed to do, come up with a new one of my own? In what free time, exactly?”

“People will say you’re copying the Lan sect.”

“People have said I’m a copy all my life,” Su She pointed out. “Let the cultivation world sneer and the Lan sect break its rule against gossiping to look down their noses at me – I’ll still be sitting by myself as a sect leader in my own right while they’re just disciples. I’ll make my own rules, admit anyone into the sect that I want, and that’ll be worth all of their disdain.”

He hoped it would be, anyway. He suspected he’d end up being bitter about it, but then again he was always bitter, and anyway, what could he do about it?

If life had taught him one thing, it was that there was no way to make people stop talking, stop mocking, because no matter if he took three baths a day and scrubbed until the blood ran red he would still underneath it all be a servant, a farmer’s son. But he was more than that, he knew he was more than that, and the only alternative – to stay in the Lan sect as a second-class barely-better-than-a-servant for the rest of his life – just wasn’t tolerable.

He’d do what he could and figure out the rest when he came to it.

“You think Wei Wuxian will do the same?”

“Probably?” Su She said and shrugged. “I mean, he has the reputation for being an unorthodox genius, so maybe he’ll come up with his own cultivation style to go with it – you can do things like that when you’re rich and have the time – but as for whether he will form a new sect…how would I know? Maybe he’ll go be a rogue cultivator instead, the way his father did when he got tired of being stuck in the Jiang sect’s shadow. Depends on how many people go with him.”

Lan Wangji hummed thoughtfully. “A rogue cultivator has only to concern himself with his own wellbeing,” he said slowly, as if feeling something out. “A sect – with others.”

“I mean, you could try to take a family around as a rogue cultivator, but I think Wei Wuxian is a walking illustration of why you don’t do that.”

A small flinch. Why were all these well-born sons of the nobility so delicate? It was only loss.

“But you are certain he will go.”

“Well, yes. Either he figures out that he needs to shut up and listen to someone else for once or he leaves, and I don’t think he knows how to listen.” Su She shrugged again. “Why do you care, anyway? He’s Jiang sect. It’s not any of our business.”

Lan Wangji was silent, but somehow it came across as a meaningful silence. An almost pointed silence.  

An embarrassed silence.

“…him, really?” Su She said, twisting around to gawk a little at where Wei Wuxian was having a furious whispered conversation with Jiang Cheng that involved a lot of gestures and even more suspicious looks from the nearby Wen sect guards. “I mean, sure, he’s attractive, no one’s going to deny that – he’s not rated fourth for nothing – but…really? Him? He’s not exactly the quiet-and-thoughtful Lan sect type I thought you’d go for, you know?”

Lan Wangji, with all the great grace and dignity and pomp of a proper young master of high birth and proper breeding, buried his face into his hands.

Su She covered his mouth with his sleeve to keep from laughing at him. It wasn’t exactly nice to laugh at someone who was clearly all too aware of their evidently terrible taste in men.

From the way Lan Wangji glared through his fingers, he wasn’t doing a very good job of muffling his snickers.

It was a good laugh, which was nice because it was the last thing Su She had to laugh about for long while.

The “indoctrination camp” was frankly awful. It wasn’t that he thought being forced to do servant’s work like tilling fields or doing laundry was the worst thing in the world (although he did resent that they didn’t bother paying them for it), and memorizing useless maxims was more or less what the Lan sect excelled at the most, but the constant air of vicious supervision, the threat of punishment, of having the swords they had all worked so hard to obtain taken away from them…

And that was all before they were forced to act as bait in Wen Chao’s night hunt.

“I’m serious,” Su She muttered to Lan Wangji. “I know so many good curses.”

Lan Wangji condescended to elbow him in the side to get him to shut up.

“I miss Yu Zhuliu,” Su She complained instead. “He’s much better company than you are.”

“No one is better company than Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian piped up. He was hanging out by them – not quite with them, but nearby – again.

“I thought the Core-Melting Hand was terrifying,” Jiang Cheng opined. He was following Wei Wuxian, as always, and sticking as close as his shadow, as if he was afraid of losing him. Maybe he was. “All silent and stoic and looming.”

“He doesn’t loom. He’s just tall.”

“All tall people loom. Look at Chifeng-zun, he looms even when he’s sitting down.”

Chifeng-zun, who was the leader of the Nie sect, was, in fact, unreasonably tall and, yes, loomed quite a bit.

“Well, Yu Zhuliu doesn’t,” Sue She said. And then, because he didn’t actually like either of the Jiang sect’s young masters no matter what Lan Wangji might think of them, he added, “Not that you of all people have the place to say anything, Jiang-gongzi. Family shame should not be spread in public.”

He thought that would make an impact, remind them of their manners, but instead all three of them – Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng, and even Lan Wangji – looked at him in confusion.

“What?” he said, staring at them back. “I know Jiang-gongzi’s maternal family is Meishan Yu…isn’t it?”

“It is,” Wei Wuxian said, sounding baffled. “But what does…wait. Yu Zhuliu – his Yu is Meishan Yu?”

“Yes?” Su She said, looking between them. Yu Zhuliu had said it was no secret, but the junior generation was treating this as if the information had hit them like a sudden landslide: Jiang Cheng had gone white, Wei Wuxian’s jaw was hanging open, and even Lan Wangji’s eyes were as wide and round as the moon.  “You didn’t know?”

“I assumed it was another Yu,” Jiang Cheng croaked.

“Meishan Yu probably doesn’t want to admit that one of their own went to work as a servant for another sect after they kicked him out,” Su She concluded. It seemed relatively reasonable to him, but somehow that made all of them look even more upset. “What’s the matter?”

They all just shook their heads and made their way away, looking stunned to a man, and Su She was left to roll his eyes and wonder what in the world made young masters act like that. Something in the water, maybe?

He would curse himself later for making the joke, because there was something in the water of the cave they went to, and that something was, apparently, a corrupted Xuanwu.

(Lan Wangji was still glaring at him for trying to pull the girl out when Wen Chao’s whore demanded it, but it wasn’t his life on the line if the Wen sect went through with their threat to start slaughtering disciples left and right if they couldn’t get to her. Anyway, it wasn’t like he wouldn’t be able to cut her in a way that let out a bit of blood but left her the mobility she might need to escape – she was a cultivator, too! What did it matter that she was a woman?)

Wei Wuxian was holding the Xuanwu’s attention with a fire talisman, and Jiang Cheng was leading the disciples to the pool with the water, which Lan Wangji had identified as containing an exit…as usual, all the young masters were showing their stuff. In a burst of resentful fury, the sort he hadn’t had in weeks, Su She leaned down and grabbed a bow and some arrows. If he shot the Xuanwu’s eye, he might be able to –

A hand fell on his shoulder, and Su She turned to look.

Lan Wangji shook his head. He didn’t seem angry about the girl anymore.

“Keep them,” he said, nodding at the arrows. “There will be Wen sect soldiers waiting for us outside.”

“You don’t think I can make the shot,” Su She accused, feeling obscurely betrayed. “You scored so high in the archery competition – I bet you think you could do better, is that it? You want –”

“If you miss, you may anger it further,” Lan Wangji said. “And I have promised Yu Zhuliu that I would see you safe.”

Su She’s anger was extinguished as quickly as a candle blowing out. “You – did? He asked about me?”

“Before he left with my brother.”

“You should’ve said something,” Su She grumbled, but he let himself be lured into allowing Lan Wangji to use him as a crutch as they waded into the water. At the last moment, Wei Wuxian threw the fire talisman into the air and ran after them, causing the Xuanwu to go crazy and chase, and then there was a bit of frantic swimming – it felt more like drowning, even with Wei Wuxian leading the way for them both – before they got to the other side.

“I’m going to be sick,” Su She groaned, spitting up water, and then he still had to sit up and shoot an arrow back at one of the Wen sect guards that, as Lan Wangji had predicted, were out there.

Of course, a few seconds later the Xuanwu came bursting out of the side of cave, so they all had a whole different set of problems to deal with.

At least the Wen sect mostly ran away.

(Not all of them. A few of them stuck around to shoot some arrows at them – every bad thing Su She had ever thought about any young master, he thought twice for the Wen sect.)

“Next time we deal with this inside the cave,” Su She shouted, running for cover. He was able to get the arrow into the Xuanwu’s eye the way he had planned to in the cave when he finally had a little time to stand and aim – admittedly, he might’ve missed in the cave, he never shot half as well when he was angry – and in the end Lan Wangji shouted something about Chord Assassination and Wei Wuxian had a brilliant-stupid idea about using it like a spider web to make a net and Jiang Cheng swam like a fish to lure it through the right spot and all together with a bunch of the others they ended up chopping the Xuawnu’s head off.

Well, chopping was the wrong word. More like a shichen or more or wretched sawing using Chord Assassination as a garotte, relying mostly on Lan Wangji’s arm strength – Su She and the few other Lan disciples that knew the trick were holding the strings down with burning bleeding fingers, an essential part of the process but ultimately only a prop to help Lan Wangji do what he needed – and by the time it was done their robes were more red and crusted brown than white no matter how many bleaching herbs and special arrays had been used.

“All right, the threat is gone,” Su She said, feeling bitter again as he scanned the treeline. He didn’t even know what the bitterness was about this time. “Can we go already?”

“You can come to Yunmeng,” Jiang Cheng said. “It’s closest.”

No one disagreed.

More or less the second after they arrived, just as soon as they’d had baths and a change of clothing, Lan Wangji wanted to go back to the Cloud Recesses or to travel around looking for Lan Xichen. He looked strange in borrowed Yunmeng purple, even if they’d politely given him the lightest and bluest shade they had – really it was at best a pale lavender at best – but that sure didn’t seem to bother Wei Wuxian from the way he kept gawking at Lan Wangji when he thought Lan Wangji wasn’t looking.

“If you don’t trust your brother, trust Yu Zhuliu,” Su She told Lan Wangji irritably after yet another request that was swiftly denied. He’d made a half-hearted effort to remember his manners after the stress of the moment had passed, but Lan Wangji seemed unhappy any time he did so now he was back at being a bit more of his awful actual self. Of course, Lan Wangji liked Wei Wuxian so maybe he just had a kink for rude people? “Do you really think he’d take him anywhere you could find him?”

“Then I should be at the Cloud Recesses,” Lan Wangji said firmly. “To help rebuild –”

“To help make them a target again, you mean?” Su She said scathingly. “Did you forget, somehow, that you’re still a valuable hostage? That they’ll be expecting you to go back? Or is it just that all that nobility is starting to make your brain rot, you stupid fucker?”

Lan Wangji glared at him, tight-lipped, and stalked away, which meant that Su She’s point had probably been taken and they could have at least a little rest before having to start running again.

Before the war started. War, which terrorized the common people…

He needed to go to Moling to check on his family. Even if his brother rejected him, as he feared, he had to go – better rejected than bereaved, surely..?

Consumed with dark thoughts, Su She didn’t notice that he wasn’t alone until he walked straight into Wei Wuxian’s chest.

(Why were they all so tall?)

Wei Wuxian was glaring at him. “Listen,” he said, sounding angry. “Listen, whatever your name is, you can’t talk to Lan Zhan like that –”

Su She punched him in the face.

Wei Wuxian stared up at him in shock from where he’d fallen on his ass on the ground, but Su She didn’t care; he turned on his heel and stormed off, his face hot with rage and shame and bitterness.

“On second thought, we can leave right now,” he spat at a shocked-looking Lan Wangji. “I’m not staying here one more fucking second.”

Whatever your name is.

Like they hadn’t just gone through life and death together, hadn’t fought side by side, like he hadn’t risked his life on Wei Wuxian’s stupid plan, none of that mattered; he wasn’t important enough for Wei Wuxian to remember his name. People like him really were nothing but side characters to people like Wei Wuxian, weren’t they? Their lives, their hopes, their dreams, their bitterness – all irrelevant. An aside at best, mere marginalia, a splash of color to liven up the background.

Su She would bet money that Wei Wuxian knew the names of all the rich young masters that had attended classes with them, whether he liked them or he didn’t. He even knew the name of that little Wen clan member that he’d so bravely stood up for during the archery competition. But not Su She’s name, no, even though he’d been so graciously suffering all of the stupid back-and-forth pining Wei Wuxian had been doing with Lan Wangji, even though he’d let himself foolishly believe that because he and Lan Wangji had something in common that they might be something like friends or at least companions, that he might be treated as an equal

No, these stupid rich young masters were all the same. He’d been right the first time.

Actually, now that he thought about it, why was he even here? Did he really think Lan Wangji would take his side over Wei Wuxian, who wasn’t only his peer in every sense of the word but also his beloved?

What a waste of time.

Su She left again. He wasn’t stupid enough to try to walk away just as he was, no matter how furious; how far would he get with no money, no food, and even his sword back in Wen custody? Instead he made his way down to the kitchens to ask for travel rations that could last for a while, and planned to visit the armory to borrow a sword after that. He’d need to pack lightly, but comprehensively: who knew how far the Wen sect’s influence spread? He might not be able to risk going into the cities and towns on the way to get supplies, not even wearing borrowed Yunmeng robes – even if he hid the incredibly obvious white forehead ribbon with a hat, he still walked like someone from the Lan sect, something he’d only really noticed once he was surrounded by people who slouched and bent and took large ground-eating steps instead of the sedate pace that he couldn’t quite break the habit of using.

“Su She,” Lan Wangji said from the door to the room they’d been given. Su She didn’t look at him or stop stuffing the travel rations and the spare robes he’d obtained into a qiangkun pouch.

“If you’re coming here to scold me about hitting Wei-gongzi, spare me,” Su She said stiffly. “We’re not in the Cloud Recesses; you don’t have any role over discipline here –”

“The silencing spell would have been more effective.”

Su She blinked, surprised by the apparent non-sequitur, and turned to look at him. “What?”

“To silence him,” Lan Wangji clarified, meaning Wei Wuxian.

As if that was the problem with what Su She had done.

“Yeah,” Jiang Cheng piped up – Su She hadn’t seen him standing by Lan Wangji’s side. “Hitting doesn’t work, he just pops right back up again. Please ignore him in the future; he’s an idiot.”

Well, Su She couldn’t disagree with that.

“You have a guest,” Jiang Cheng added. He looked almost – nervous? “Could – would you introduce us? Properly, this time.”

Su She couldn’t think of anyone he knew that Lan Wangji didn’t also know. Why would they ask him? The only person –

He stiffened abruptly, hope welling in his stomach. “Yu Zhuliu? He’s here?”

“Brother sent him to check on me,” Lan Wangji said. “And to tell me to stay where I am. You were right.”

It was – immensely gratifying to hear that.

“He and Mother are having tea,” Jiang Cheng added, looking impressed. “She insisted. It’s so weird.”

Yu Zhuliu looked the same as he always did, when Su She finally got to see him: tall and broad-shouldered, steady as a mountain, untroubled by wind or rain. There were a few points of similarity between his face and Madame Yu’s, if you looked for them, and he seemed pleased by her surprisingly gracious reception – when they spoke about it later, it turned out that he greatly admired her, the famous (or infamous) Violet Spider who had made a name for herself as a fierce warrior and top-grade cultivator, and who had never looked down at him for his birth when they’d both been younger.

Wei Wuxian didn’t apologize at any point, though he also didn’t call Su She out as the cause for his black eye. Instead, he opted to act as though their earlier confrontation had never happened, bounding into the room Su She shared with Lan Wangji – no one else rose at the same hour they did – and insisting on taking them around to see the sights of the Lotus Pier, to spend a day on a boat, another picking lotus seeds, and yet another shooting down kites.

Su She refused to go shoot down kites, not wanting to risk humiliation at something he was actually pretty decent at by competing at archery against Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng, and Lan Wangji, and spent the day with Yu Zhuliu instead.

“I missed you,” he blurted out instead of saying something reasonable. “I mean – not that I wanted you to be there and suffering, it was pretty awful, and who knows what the Wen sect might have tried to get you to do, it’s just – you know – ”

Yu Zhuliu was a reserved man who did not speak much. He put his hand on Su She’s and said only, “I know.”

Su She swallowed, and stared down at the hand that rested on him. It was a good hand, to his mind: broad in the palm, with short fingers that were the exact opposite of the long graceful ones favored by the Lan sect, but it did its vicious work well enough that the whole cultivation world knew about it – the whole cultivation world feared it.

Su She had never once worried about it. That probably made him a fool.

“Yu Zhuliu,” he said, very cautiously, even though he knew he shouldn’t speak; it was him being a fool again, except only this time he was a fool a hundred times over. “I know – I know that the Lan sect is very important to you. They rescued you at a bad moment in your life, and you owe them your loyalty; I understand that. But…do you think...maybe – one day in the future…”

Yu Zhuliu was looking at him steadily. He didn’t pull back his hand.

Su She gathered up his courage. “I’m going to go home to Moling, someday. Maybe even someday soon. And when I do, I’m not – I’m not going to go back to the Lan sect afterwards. I’m going to start my own sect, if I can manage it. When I do, would you – consider coming with me?”

He waited for Yu Zhuliu’s response with bated breath.

Yu Zhuliu looked serious and thoughtful, and he opened his mouth to respond –

There was a giant clatter from outside their door. “Wen sect!” someone shouted. “They’re here!”

Su She and Yu Zhuliu looked at each other, alarmed, and rushed out.

Unfortunately, that just meant they got a front row seat to the travesty that happened next.

Su She felt sick to his stomach: he’d predicted long ago that Wei Wuxian would one day rediscover that the Jiang sect saw him as only a servant, as something that could be sacrificed for the good of the sect, but each sizzle and snap of Zidian on Wei Wuxian’s back made him feel worse and worse. Su She’d been beaten plenty of times before, even whipped on occasion, but then again he’d never really taken the Lan sect to heart as his family – it wasn’t Wei Wuxian’s fault that he’d been so badly raised, tricked into thinking that they loved him like one of their own, into acting like a proud and arrogant young master who had a family that would hold up the world for him no matter what he did.

“She’s pulling the blows,” Yu Zhuliu murmured in his ear, too low for anyone else to hear, and that helped, a little. But not that much, since it was clear that Jiang Cheng, horrified, couldn’t tell, when it wasn’t clear if Wei Wuxian could, and then in the end it turned out to be all for nothing because Wang Lingjiao still demanded his hand.

Worse: he wasn’t sure if it was that, or the casual mention of a supervisory office, that was the step too far for Madame Yu.

Su She did not especially appreciate Madame Yu’s comments about Wang Lingjiao’s status as a servant, unsurprising and almost expected though they might be – although in a moment of horror-stricken hysteria he noticed that her words made Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng, and Lan Wangji simultaneously flinch and glance over at him in concern, apparently all to a one forgetting the circumstances they were all in out of fear of his sharp tongue – but seeing her beat up the disgusting Wang Lingjiao was oddly gratifying.

Right up until the Wen sect guards she had brought with her started attacking from the inside, while from outside the sound of bombardment began – Wen sect’s armies had been lying in wait.

“Kill them!” Wang Lingjiao screeched the second she was free to do so, lunging forward with claws extended at Madame Yu’s face. “Kill them all –”

She never got that far.

Yu Zhuliu’s palm caught her dead in the belly, the force of it throwing her backwards into the arms of one of her guards, who quickly scurried away with her.

“A waste,” Madame Yu said, straightening her clothing. “Of your abilities, primarily. Did she even have enough of a golden core to justify melting?”

Yu Zhuliu didn’t bother responding, drawing his sword, and the next thing Su She knew they were all being given swords from dead Wen sect guards and heading out into the battlefield.

“Oh, I really hate this,” Su She said, looking down at the one he was given. As a Wen sect blade, it wouldn’t have any pity on him, and he didn’t think he was good enough to avoid getting skewered the first second he got angry and stopped paying attention to all of his weak spots. “Doesn’t anyone have a spare guqin I can use instead? I know some really good attack songs.”

“I think I have one in my room, actually,” Wei Wuxian said, and led him away from the others, limping only a little. Madame Yu really must have been pulling her strikes – not that Su She hadn’t believe Yu Zhuliu, of course, but still.

“You play?” Su She asked as they hurried through the hallways. “I thought you used a dizi.”

“I – considered picking it up. Briefly.”

“Just kiss him already,” Su She advised, deciding to try to be nice for once. “It’ll be faster, and your reception will be warm.”

“Kiss…who?”

“Aren’t you supposed to be some sort of genius?” Su She growled, and took the never-used guqin. It had been impossible to use anything more than the most straightforward sound attacks when they’d been fighting at the Cloud Recesses, given how many Lan sect disciples and even servants cultivated with music, but here at the Jiang sect where just about everyone was a swordsman first, musician later, and only Lan Wangji to compete with, Su She had a bit more freedom to go find a nice safe spot near the walls to play.

He wasn’t a guqin player on Lan Wangji’s standard – it still burned to admit it even if he maybe didn’t hate him as much as he used to – but he’d spent an awful lot of time in the library looking for things he could use when he was building his own sect and, well, he’d always liked the weird stuff.

“Wait, are you playing ‘Banish Evil’?” Jiang Cheng asked at one point, hopping over a wall to get near enough to ask.

“What? No. Are you deaf? They barely sound alike,” Su She said. “Now get out of range already before it you’re affected.”

Not long after, the effect started to show, with Wen sect cultivators falling left and right out of the sky above his head once their qi started locking up in response to his music.

Had he looked up a method to lock someone’s qi through music just because it reminded him of Yu Zhuliu? No, but it sure did help motivate him in learning the abstruse and needlessly complicated finger-work for something that, yes, okay, maybe sounded a little bit like ‘Banish Evil’, but not enough for people not to immediately call him out on what would otherwise sound like an incredibly bad rendition of that song.

“Once formed, your sect will be immensely unpopular,” Lan Wangji informed him as he flew by on his sword, his own musical cultivation acting as a shield to allow him to fight unaffected by Su She’s music.

Su She grinned down at the guqin and thought to himself that he’d be keeping this one. They could consider it payment for having made him have to put up with Wei Wuxian.

At some point in the battle, Sect Leader Jiang returned and ended up fighting back to back with his wife, which – once the battle was over – turned into a shouting match.

Yu Zhuliu, when he arrived, took one look and his eyebrows went up. “Perhaps we should assist with clean-up on the pier,” he said, delicately enough that Su She immediately figured out what he was implying.

“Yeah,” he said, covering up his smirk with his sleeve. “Let’s go quickly.”

“Don’t you two worry about our feelings getting hurt by it,” Wei Wuxian said, sounding amused, as Jiang Cheng nodded along. “We’re more than used to them fighting.”

“Is that what you call it in the Jiang sect?” Su She sniggered, unable to resist, and both of them paled.

“How would you even know about that?” Jiang Cheng eventually recovered enough to volley back. “Being from the Lan sect and all – I’m amazed it isn’t against one of your rules.”

“Su She is starting his own sect,” Lan Wangji, appearing from who-knows-where, interjected. “With fewer rules.”

“Wait, really?” Jiang Cheng asked, looking – he looked impressed, actually. “A sect of your own? That’s amazing!”

Su She flushed, his face hot and red at once. No one had ever said anything positive about his idea before. “Not anytime soon,” he demurred. “I mean, even a small cultivation sect has to have money enough to buy a house – pay for swords, musical instruments, things like that – and I’m broke.”

“Oh, money,” Wei Wuxian said, in a tone of someone who’d never had to do without, and Su She was already starting to secretly plan his murder – yes, he was aware that Wei Wuxian had reputedly spent some time on the streets as an orphaned child and no, he did not care – when he added, carelessly, “You helped save our home, the least we can do is give you something to help start yours.”

Su She stopped dead. “Are you serious?”

“Certainly,” Jiang Cheng said, and fuck, they were being serious. That was the Jiang sect heir saying he would give him money, not a servant, someone whose words could plausibly be held to be binding on the rest of his sect. “Do you have a plan for what cultivation style you’ll teach new disciples?”

“Uh,” Su She said. His mind was blank. “I was just planning on using the Lan sect techniques.”

Wei Wuxian looped an arm over his shoulder. “With some innovations, thought, right? That qi-locking music was pretty nice, and I’ve never seen it used before.”

Su She puffed up a little. It was pretty nice, good of Wei Wuxian to recognize that – and he hadn’t even seen the teleportation talisman Su She had been painstakingly teaching himself how to use!

“Nor I,” Lan Wangji said, and looked pointedly at Su She. “I suspect it comes from the forbidden section of our library.”

“No, it isn’t,” Su She said immediately, holding up his hands. He knew what the punishment was for going in there without permission. “Not the forbidden, but the forgotten – I was one of the people assigned to sort through old inheritances. Books from abroad, obscure books no one ever bothered categorizing, that sort of thing. The big jumble in the basement of the secondary library…you know, the fire hazard. The one that blew up in the Wen sect’s faces when they tried to light it.”

“You remember enough of them to make it work?” Jiang Cheng asked, now looking even more impressed.

“Well, no,” Su She admitted. “But I made copies of everything that looked interesting and hid them in an abandoned root cellar halfway down the road to Caiyi Town, so they should still be intact.”

Lan Wangji lit up, which for him was a slight bit of color to his cheeks, a slight arch to his eyebrows, a faint curve to his eyes – in other words, he was positively glowing. “Would you permit copies to be made of your copies? We would gladly pay for the privilege.”

“And if you put that together with our money, and you should definitely have enough to fund a sect,” Wei Wuxian said enthusiastically. “And we can come visit!”

“Sooner rather than later, actually,” Jiang Cheng said, rubbing the back of his head. “Before the yelling started, Mother and Father agreed that we younger generation should lie low somewhere for a few weeks somewhere obscure to avoid any immediate reprisals from the Wen sect – and once they’ve lost the trail, we go out to recruit new sects to join the war.”

“That would be in line with what Brother requested that I do,” Lan Wangji observed, voice carefully neutral as always. “I would not object to spending some time in Moling, courting a newly formed sect.”

Su She didn’t know what to say, his mouth moving open and closed. It was almost everything he’d ever wanted, and he only need to reach out and grasp it – his own sect, his brother, the respect of the arrogant young masters…

Nothing could be better.

A hand fell on his shoulder, the warmth of it lighting him up inside.

“Our sect would be happy to host you,” Yu Zhuliu said.

Su She was wrong.

Now it was perfect.