Wei Wuxian wakes up in a body that isn’t his that has four curse marks on his arm in a place he doesn’t know. His thoughts are shaky and fractured. He looks at the array he’s woken up in and the notes scattered around and understands that whoever did this acted too soon, that they should have waited a couple more months if they wanted the celestial alignment to be perfect, but they didn’t, and now he’s panicking and confused and he doesn’t think, only feels. There's a thrumming in his chest that almost feels like a golden core, then doesn't, back to emptiness, and the sensation of it leaving over and over again is going to drive him mad if he's not already.
He breaks out of the miserable little room with ease and runs without thinking of the direction, all his emotions too close to the surface, like they wouldn’t have been if this Mo Xuanyu had just waited a little longer.
This is how he finds himself sneaking into Lotus Pier, stumbling to the main hall, freezing and dirty and not totally sure how he made the journey, and not coming back to his body until there are fingers around his wrist and his brother’s furious eyes are glaring at him. “Who are you? What the hell are you doing here?”
They’re alone, almost, a teenager in Jin colors standing to the side with his sword drawn, but Wei Wuxian can’t focus on that now. “Jiang Cheng,” he says, voice cracking. “I don’t understand what’s happened. I don’t know why I’m here, I,” he wilts, pressing his head to Jiang Cheng’s shoulder, and for some reason he lets him. “I wasn’t supposed to come back and everything hurts.” Not physically, although he’s not doing great there either, but deeper, in his bones and his chest.
There’s a moment of silence, then, “Wei Wuxian?”
“Don’t pull your blow this time,” he begs. “It hurts so much, didi, just make it stop.”
“Wei Wuxian,” he says again, and there’s the anger, but it’s not alone, mixed with grief and outrage and a tenderness that he never thought he’d hear again, “you came home.”
He really can’t be blamed for passing out then.
Jin Ling has heard a lot of terrible things about Wei Wuxian, has watched his uncle torture and rage against every demonic cultivator he’s come across, so he’s unprepared for his uncle’s reaction to the real thing.
He’s even more unprepared for the discovery that Wei Wuxian’s golden core is now in Uncle’s chest, but at least he’s not alone in that. It all comes out after that, when Wei Wuxian wakes up and Uncle confronts him about his lack of golden core, and the whole truth comes tumbling out of his mouth, his eyes so wide and his body trembling like he’s not even sure of what he’s saying, and then he passes out again, and –
And it makes it very hard to hate him, is the thing, especially when he wakes up again and is more settled and horribly embarrassed and smiles at Jin Ling like he’s the most precious thing in the world even when calling him a brat. Uncle and Wei Wuxian have several more arguments behind closed doors after that, and slowly the tension Uncle has always carried around starts to ease, and, well.
Jin Ling likes him, this other uncle he’s been taught to hate, who’s not what anyone thought he’d be or like the stories he’s been told, now that he can see how Uncle loves him so much even when he tries to hide it behind rage, now that he sees Wei Wuxian can read Uncle easily, like no one but Jin Ling has seemed to ever be able to do.
The problem, Jiang Cheng decides one week after Wei Wuxian’s return, is that they’re hiding two different people. Wei Wuxian, obviously, who is in another person’s body and so should be able to keep his identity a secret easily enough unless he does something stupid. But they’re also hiding Mo Xuanyu, who ran away from his family and who people will certainly notice and recognize.
He digs out a chest of A-jie’s things, stuff she hadn’t taken to Jin Tower because she knew she wouldn’t be able to use them. He’d never been able to get rid of them, and figures that this will cover all the things that get tangled in his throat whenever he tries speak them out loud.
He drops the chest in front of Wei Wuxian and says, “Here. This should work.”
Wei Wuxian has four curse marks and a soul that isn’t settling quite right into his body, which is an uncomfortable experience, and a golden core that keeps disappearing, which is a horrifying one. It's there, most of the time now, except for when it's not. Personally, he’s never much cared for his body, or the things associated it, which Jiang Cheng knows and is probably why he’d suggested disguising him as a woman. If he were like Jiang Cheng, or Jin Ling, or most people, that would be a problem, or grating, or stressful, or whatever. But Wei Wuxian is Wei Wuxian, and that’s true whether he’s wearing a dress or called a boy or a girl or answers to Lady or Master, so he’s not much bothered about it either way. He’d never expected his apathy about his body to be tested to the point where he’s literally in another person’s body and he’s not pleased about it. He also doesn’t love answering to a name not his own, but Jiang Cheng calls him A-Ying, which helps.
He wants his body to be his, not someone else’s. He hopes this body will feel more like it belongs to him once they figure out how to get his soul settled.
Nothing in the Jiang library is any use. In spite of containing the largest library on demonic cultivation, which Jiang Cheng keeps under lock and key and only three people know about. Apparently he confiscates any books the demonic cultivators he captures have on them, but it’s all utterly useless since it’s all just derivative of his own work.
He founded demonic cultivation in three months and no one else has had an original thought in thirteen years. “Although,” he tells Jiang Cheng, “I suppose the good ones are the ones you don’t catch.”
“What a cheery thought. Shut up,” Jiang Cheng says, absently feeding spiritual energy into him while frowning at a scroll.
They have to figure something out. Mo Xuanyu’s body wasn’t particularly strong, especially compared to his last one, but it certainly shouldn’t be as weak as this. But things aren’t settling properly, probably because the ritual was done about two months too early. Which means the optimal time to fix, it will be then, which is only a couple weeks away from now, and he’s no closer to figuring out how. “We should try the Gusu Lan library. I actually figured out most of the theory in their library while I was supposed to be working on lines.”
“I don’t want you near the Lans,” Jiang Cheng says bluntly.
Wei Wuxian thinks of Lan Zhan without meaning to. He knows that Lan Zhan hated him in the end, and the beginning, but that there was a middle bit there where he thinks they did alright.
He misses him. He wants to see him. Maybe this is the only way he’ll be able to see him, wearing a face that doesn’t seem to be quite his own, under the disguise of a lady from the Yu mountains and not as himself.
“If we’re going to figure this out, I don’t think we have a choice,” he says honestly.
His brother scowls but, for once, doesn’t argue.
Lan Xichen has heard rumors that Jiang Wanyin has been courting a young lady, some new addition to the Jiang clan from the same place his mother was from, but since that goes against mostly everything he knows of Jiang Wanyin, he dismissed it. After granting Jiang Wanyin’s request to come to Cloud Recesses to make use of the Lan library for a research project and to iron our several details for the upcoming cultivation conference, he decides that may have been a mistake. Jiang Wanyin doesn’t show up alone.
Not that Lan Xichen had expected him to show up alone, exactly, since he’s a sect leader here on official business, and that always involved some sort of retinue, but it’s who he shows up with, exactly.
There is a young woman. She walks at his side, as if they’re equals, her voice low and raspy but bright. She has dark brown wavy hair that she wears mostly down, only two strands on either side pulled back from her face, no ribbon in her hair although there’s one around her throat. Her robes seem familiar to him, although he can’t place why. She’s too skinny, which isn’t an aesthetic observation so much as a medical one and she has her hand on Jiang Wanyin’s arm as they climb. He doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that Jin Ling is walking directly behind her, his brow furrowed. Should she slip and fall, he’ll be able to catch her easily.
Her chatter stutters to a stop when they get closer and her dark grey eyes meet his squarely. “Zewu Jun,” Jiang Wanyin says, giving him a slight bow that the woman echoes. It’s telling that the disciples and Jin Ling don’t bow until she does. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
“And your library!” the woman pipes up, a large grin stretching across her mouth.
“Can’t we at least get the introductions out of the way before you embarrass me?” Jiang Wanyin snaps harshly.
Lan Xichen startles but the woman just laughs. “You just make it so easy, A-Cheng!” He hasn’t heard anyone call Jiang Wanyin that since his sister’s death. Before he can formulate any sort of response to this, she bows to him again and says, “I am Wu Yingtai. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Zewu Jun. Thank you for your hospitality.”
“It’s no problem,” he says, but he’s distracted enough that his mouth is speaking mostly on its own. He recognizes her robes.
They’re Jiang Yanli’s. Jiang Wanyin has given his beloved sister’s clothes to this woman.
Maybe he is courting her.
Lan Wangji knows that Jiang Wanyin is here with some of the Jiang disciples. That he’s here on actual business and so that one of his disciples can make use of the Lan library, all proper and acceptable, but it still makes him burn. He elects to take his meals at home rather than the deal with that, which he can get away with doing for everything but dinner.
His mind is on the upcoming meal which is why he doesn’t notice someone running by and then running into him. They bounce off his side and he reaches out automatically, his arm curling around a concerningly slim waist to keep them from falling to ground. “Oh shit, I’m sorry,” says an unfamiliar voice with a familiar cadence that leaves his whole body cold and makes his arm tighten without his permission. He looks down and equally shocked grey eyes stare up at him. “Lan – um, I mean, Hanguang Jun, I was just, um. Hello.”
He abruptly realizes that this is entirely improper. He’s holding her against his chest. He lets go of her and takes several steps back. “Hello. I apologize.”
“What?” Her nose scrunches up and there’s a deep ache in his chest. “That was totally all my fault, don’t apologize. You saved me from tripping and getting mud all over me! Although maybe that would be an improvement on the ink, A-Cheng is going to give me such a bitchy look about this, which, whatever, I’ll be able to get it out later.”
He looks at her less closely, mentally stepping back so he’s not getting lost in details that may be similar but are not the same. It’s a disservice to pretend otherwise. She does indeed have ink staining her hands and her sleeves, and drops of it across the bottom of her robes, somehow. Her clothes are a pale lavender and there’s a silver lotus bell in her belt. “You’re with the Jiang.”
“Hm? Oh yeah, of course, me and Jiang Cheng are friends.” There is something in the way she says that, like it’s not a lie but not the whole truth, but he’s entirely uninterested in Jiang Wanyin’s business so he doesn’t care.
“There is no running in Cloud Recesses,” he says instead.
She blinks at him then bursts out laughing, a bigger sound than it seems like could come from her small body. “Ah, Hanguang Jun, my apologies. Shall I copy the rules a hundred times to make up for this grand transgression? I was only trying not to be late to dinner. I lose track of time when I’m researching.”
This woman is strange. She’s not inappropriate, exactly but she’s far too familiar with him. Not technically crossing any boundaries, but people do not talk at him like this, warm and joking. No one has spoken like this to him in thirteen years and abruptly he hates her with a ferocity he knows is unfair and misplaced, but he doesn’t have anywhere else to put it. “Excuse me,” he says, cold and too brusque, moving past her and not offering to walk her to the dining hall like he would have if she were anyone else, if she had not committed the grand and unknowable offence of reminding him a little bit too much of Wei Ying when he hadn’t been prepared for it.
He will simply avoid her. It won’t be difficult, surely.
Except, perhaps it will. She arrives several minutes after him, her hair a disarray and her face pale, but instead of going to sit with the other Jiang disciples at the lower tables, she drops in the empty seat between Jiang Wanyin and Jin Ling. “Sorry, sorry! You don’t have to yell at me, I already know the lecture. Look, I’m not late, am I, Zewu Jun?”
Jiang Wanyin’s mouth thins into a sharp line, but he says nothing, while Jin Ling bites on the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing.
“You are not, Lady Wu,” Xichen says, formal but with a lilt to his voice that mean he’s genuinely amused.
“If you’re letting me paw through your books, you have to call me Wu Yingtai,” she scolds, and her breath is still coming too quickly. It should have evened out by now, and her face is still pale rather than flush. Lan Wangji feels guilt squirm uncomfortably in his stomach. She is not in good health and had not been truly discourteous to him. He should have escorted her here.
She turns to him. It seems as if his rudeness is going to have consequences, but now that only seems fair. She’s not some random Jiang disciple, is clearly of some import to be seated with them at Jiang Wanyin’s side, and he’s quite sure his failing is about to be pointed out in front of everyone.
But instead she only smiles at him, teasing and warm, and says, “See, Hanguang Jun? You didn’t have to run to make it on time. Don’t you that know running is forbidden in Cloud Recesses?”
His lips part in surprise. She should be angry at his rudeness, but instead she’s teasing him.
Jiang Wanyin pinches the bridge of his nose and grinds his teeth together. “A-Ying, please.”
The bell sounds for the beginning of the meal and she whispers, “No talking during meals, A-Cheng,” before picking up her chopsticks.
Jiang Wanyin is furious while Jin Ling is delighted.
Lan Wangji faces forward and does his best not to notice her. He feels his brother and uncle’s gaze on him, and doesn’t want to know what’s there, so he does his best to ignore that as well.
He’s partially successful.
Wu Yingtai leans over to put several pieces of her meal onto Jin Ling’s plate, who glares before leaning over and scooping half his rice into her bowl in retaliation. The bowl isn’t meant to hold one and half servings of rice, so it makes a bit of a mess, but Wu Yingtai only looks fond.
She eats her food slowly, but not in a way that lends itself to elegance or manners. Her lips twitch into an almost grimace several times and Lan Wangji wonders if anyone thought to tell her of the food here. Even eating slowly, she puts her chopsticks down before everyone else.
“A-Ying, you have to eat,” Jiang Wanyin says, speaking low enough that his voice doesn’t carry further than their table. Uncle twitches, but it’s an important enough sentiment that he doesn’t interrupt. Lan Wangji remembers how slight she had felt against him and, against his wishes, finds himself agreeing with Jiang Wanyin.
She smiles and shakes her head, pressing a finger to her lips to remind him of the rule.
“Aunt Ying,” Jin Ling says, and Xichen and Uncle raise their eyebrows in unison, “what’s wrong? You ate when we were in Lotus Pier.”
She looks around at them and her shoulders slump. Her face is vaguely apologetic when she whispers, “Ah, it’s just hard to, well, this bo- my body doesn’t like to eat food that doesn’t … taste good.” She glances at his brother and says, “Sorry Zewu Jun.”
Jiang Wanyin’s face goes thunderous. He silently does what she’d done for Jin Ling, moving food from his plate to hers. It takes Lan Wangji a moment to realize that Jiang Wanyin is seeing what food is missing ftom her plate, what she’d found palatable enough to eat, and giving her his own portions. Jin Ling seems to figure it out a beat later, because he begins doing the same. Wu Yingtai begins waving her hands over her plate to dissuade them, but they simply move around her, and she gives in.
She buries her face in her hands, face red, but her smile covers half her face when she lowers them.
It takes Lan Wangji another moment to realize he’s staring. He pointedly looks down at his own plate and doesn’t look up again until the meal ends.
“You need to leave Lan Wangji alone,” Jiang Cheng snaps, pacing in Wei Wuxian’s rooms. Wei Wuxian almost points out that, considering how late it is, this is really only going to fuel the rumors that Wu Yingtai and Jiang Cheng are courting, but since he’s not even sure if his brother has heard those rumors, decides to let it lie.
Wei Wuxian sighs, stripping off the day’s robes so he can work on getting all the stains out. “I know, I know, I didn’t – it’s just automatic!” He pauses. “Do you really think he still hates me?”
Jiang Cheng is quiet for a long time, enough that Wei Wuxian is almost nervous. “I don’t think he hates you,” he says finally. “His actions of the past thirteen years don’t really match up with that of a man who hated you. But I can’t read him, not really. I’ve never been able to. I don’t want to have to fight the whole Lan clan, A-Ying.”
Wei Wuxian hides a smile. Sometimes, Jiang Cheng pretends to slip up and calls him A-Ying when they’re alone together.
He’s going to call him on it any day now, as soon as it stops making his chest feel so warm.
The Jiang have been here a week the first time Sizhui meets Lady Wu outside of a formal setting.
He and Jingyi are sitting under a tree, working on a night hunt proposal, when there’s a crash, someone saying, “Oh, fuck,” from nowhere, and then a young woman literally falling out of the sky onto their laps.
Jingyi gets kicked in the stomach but Sizhui ends up with her back against his chest, her hair over his shoulder. “Are you alright?”
Lady Wu blinks up at him, leaves in her hair, talisman paper crumpled in her fist and a brush tucked behind her ear. “I’ve got to stop meeting Lans like this.”
“Do you fall out of a lot trees?” Jingyi wheezes, rubbing his stomach and glaring.
“Oh, all the time,” she says cheerfully. “It turns out I don’t have the upper body strength I used to, so it’s really the only way to get down.” She lifts an arm as if to demonstrate and Sizhui is alarmed to realize it’s shaking. “You’d think it would have been getting up that would do it, since that’s objectively harder, but I suppose that’s the thing about limits, huh? Sometimes it’s not the hard stuff that trips you up.”
Jingyi stares. “Why were you up in the tree in the first place?”
“Just needed a place to think, really,” she says. “It’s so hard to find a quiet place to think in this place!”
It takes a couple seconds of staring to notice her twitching lips. “You’re joking,” he decides.
She laughs and stuffs the talisman paper in her robe. “I am joking. Thank you very much for being here! I’m grateful to you for cushioning my fall. A-Cheng and A-Ling would have thrown a fit if I’d broken something.”
Sizhui contemplates having to tell Sect Leader Jiang that his … whatever Lady Wu is had been injured and says, “I’m grateful too.”
Lady Wu snorts and pokes his shoulder. “He’s not that scary, I promise, he’s really a big softie.”
By silent, mutual agreement, he and Jingyi don’t respond to that because there’s no response they could give that wouldn’t break some sort of rule. “Let us take you to the healers, just in case,” Sizhui says.
Since she’s lying on top of him, Sizhui feels how she tenses at that suggestion. “Ah, thank you, but I’m fine, really. We don’t need to go making a fuss. What are you kids working on? Maybe I can help.”
“Are you a cultivator?” Jingyi asks. Sizhui should probably scold him, but he wants to know too.
She hums and makes a face, finally shifting off of them to lean against the tree trunk. “Of a sort. I used to be stronger. If you want to get up and fight, I won’t last very long.”
“We don’t want to fight you,” Sizhui says hastily. “We’re doing night hunt proposals for Master Lan.”
“Theoretical or actual?” she asks, leaning forward in interest. “Punishment or reward?”
“Theoretical and punishment,” Jingyi sighs. “Master Lan thought we were too reckless on the last night hunt.”
“We were too reckless on the last night hunt,” Sizhui corrects. When his father had gotten the report, his eyes had pinched briefly like only happened when he was worried and then he’d had Sizhui take his meal in the Jingshi rather than with the other disciples.
Lady Wu smiles, tilting her head back. There are dark bruises under her eyes. “Yes, Lans are a notoriously reckless sort. Tell me about this night hunt. Both the real one and the theoretical one. I like the implication of being too reckless, it means there’s an acceptable amount of recklessness.”
“Well it is a night hunt,” Jingyi says in what he probably thinks is a reasonable tone before launching into the story.
Lady Wu is a good audience. She follows along and never looks bored, asking questions that show she’s really listening. She’s clever too, her insights strange and sideways and brilliant, nothing Sizhui would have thought of even though they make total sense. He can tell Jingyi agrees, his eyes wide as Lady Wu sketches out the ideal array for their theoretical night hunt, not just showing them but explaining the theory behind each bit of it as she draws it, not a reference book in sight.
He’s not sure it matters that Lady Wu can’t fight with a sword. It seems like she has half the world’s cultivation knowledge at her fingertips.
The sun is starting to dip below the trees by the time they run out of paper and Lady Wu seems just as disappointed as they are that they can’t continue. “Dinner’s soon,” Sizhui says. “We’ll walk you to the dining hall.”
“You miss one meal,” she gripes, but obligingly gets to her feet. She seems fine now, but Sizhui can’t get the memory of her shaking out of his head, so he offers her his arm anyway. She smiles, crooked and small but, he thinks, real, and says, “You Lans are so sweet,” before taking his arm.
He smiles when she leans into him, continuing to trade talisman ideas back and forth with Jingyi. He can’t explain it, but something about Lady Wu almost feels familiar. Safe, even, like how he feels around his father.
Lan Wangji enters the library, sees Wu Yingtai pulling books off the shelves, and resolves to come back later. Just as he turns to leave, she jumps to try and grab a book slightly out of her reach, but manages to unbalance the whole shelf just enough that it tips forward.
The image of her small, frail body crushed underneath the heavy bookshelf flashes through his mind and he’s moving without thinking, but he’s too late.
By the time he’s there, reaching out a hand to steady the bookshelf, she’s drawn a quick talisman in the air and flicked it forward, freezing the shelf in place, half fallen.
She blinks, looking up at him, surprised to suddenly find him by her side but not startled. “Hanguang Jun, are you alright?” She follows his hand, sees it hovering right in front of the talisman, and she’s grinning at him, brighter than the sun. “Aw, were you coming to help me? So kind!”
“You have an impressive knowledge of talismans,” he says instead of addressing that, carefully moving the bookshelf back into its former position.
“Well, I prefer not to be completely useless,” she says, and her tone is still light but something about it makes him flinch. “Talismans aren’t dependent on a strong golden core, just your memory and imagination.”
Sometimes whole hours pass without him thinking of Wei Ying, but usually not much more than that. He doesn’t understand why thinking of Wei Ying while looking at this woman hurts the way it does, like jabbing a bruise rather than merely pressing on it. He endured thirty three lashes, he can handle this.
He took his own lack of control out on her once. He will not do so again.
“I see,” he says.
She steps closer to him, until they’re nearly chest to chest, and its a struggle not to put distance between them once more. He should, he knows, but something about the way she’s looking at him feels like a challenge.
He does not rise to bait easily, but for some reason he doesn’t want her to see him falter. “Ah, Hanguang Jun is so tall,” she whines, curling her hair around her finger and pouting her lower lip, a look that is not altogether displeasing but would be utterly distasteful if she wasn’t clearly two seconds away from laughing at herself. “Won’t you stay and help me pick books off tall shelves? I’m so little, Hanguang Jun, I need a big strong man to help me.”
The way she’s biting her lower lip almost hard enough to draw blood ruins even the illusion of seriousness. “I will retrieve Sect Leader Jiang for you.”
“Lan – Hanguang Jun!” she gasps. It’s the second time she’s slipped up on his title. He would not mind if she called him Lan Wangji, especially when she insists that he call her Wu Yingtai, but it feels like a form of surrender to tell her that. “You would leave me here all alone? What if another bookshelf tries to kill me?”
“They don’t attack unless provoked,” he says blandly.
He’s completely unprepared for the bright peal of laughter that elicits from her and he feels his face softening without his permission. Not many people are willing to laugh at him, not like this, genuinely rather than as an attempt to manipulate him.
“You’re so funny Hanguang Jun,” she gasps, wiping tears from her eyes. “You really won’t stay and help me?”
He did make her walk to the dining hall alone when they met and she’s clearly capable of hurting herself if left alone in the library. “Very well.”
Wu Yingtai’s smile does something to the space underneath his breastbone.
He wishes it didn’t.
Lan Xichen doesn’t know if wants to laugh or cry or simply lay his head on his desk and pretend none of it is happening. The last approach seems the most appealing, but it’s the one that Uncle has taken, which means it’s probably off the table for him.
Wangji doesn’t seem to have figured it out yet, but for the first time in a long time someone has gotten under his skin. It would be delightful news, a welcome relief from thirteen years of heavy grief, if not for one thing.
The woman that has caught his brother’s attention is Jiang Wanyin’s fiancé.
No one has said that, of course, no official announcements have been made and no one has caught them doing anything inappropriate. But at this point an official announcement seems almost superfluous.
Jiang Wanyin gives her the food off his plate. They spend long hours alone together. The Jiang disciples treat her with the utmost respect despite her not holding a specific position within the clan or even being powerful enough to carry a sword. Jin Ling refers to her as his aunt. If that weren’t enough, seeing them together more than does it. Jiang Wanyin has never met a positive emotion he couldn’t express through harsh, loud criticism, sure to scare off anyone but his nephew, but she only laughs at him and pats his arm, darting out of the way when threatens to strangle her.
They love each other, clearly and obviously, and Lan Xichen believes in different circumstances he would be capable of being pleased for Jiang Wanyin’s happiness.
But Wu Yingtai has caught more than just Jiang Wanyin’s attention.
Wangji keeps looking at her, keeps spending time with her, and it may seem like such small things to people who do not know him, but Lan Xichen knows him.
There is no way for this to end well.
Jiang Wanyin knows of the time Wangji spends with Wu Yingtai because she, to her credit, does nothing to hide it. Jiang Wanyin goes stormy and furious, as he always does around Wangji, but Lan Xichen doesn’t believe Jiang Wanyin has figured out that Wangji feels anything but polite courtesy for Wu Yingtai.
If he had, Lan Xichen imagines that all of Cloud Recesses would have heard of it.
When a request for aid comes in for Mo Village, it seems a perfect thing to send his brother and the juniors on, so they can at least spend one dinner where without Wangji’s attention straying to Wu Yingtai every few minutes.
Wei Wuxian considers it a bit of good luck that Lan Zhan and the nosiest of the juniors get sent off on a night hunt just when they need to attempt an array powered by demonic cultivation in the middle of Cloud Recesses.
“Are you sure this is going to work?” Jin Ling asks. “It looks like a mess.”
“A-Ling!” Jiang Cheng snaps, then looks down at the array that Wei Wuxian is busy drawing in his own blood, and says, “He does have a point.”
“Who’s the expert here?” he demands, leaning back to survey his handiwork. “Honestly, I get no respect around here.”
“Oh, respected elder brother,” Jiang Cheng intones, “what the fuck is this?”
He snorts, but just says, “It should fix what Mo Xuanyu did," rather than getting into a technical explanation that neither of them could follow. Well, Jiang Cheng could, maybe, but it would either confuse or frighten Jin Ling, so he doesn't bother.
“Will it make you less sick?” Jin Ling asks, not quite able to hide his worry under his scowl.
He pokes him hard in the cheek and he doesn’t even try and break his hand. He really is worried. “Yes. This body isn’t exactly strong on its own, but it’ll be better, after.” He’s made it stronger these past couple months, it’s just that it’s impossible to tell thanks to the botched demonic cultivation soul transfer.
He makes his brother and nephew stand at the edge of the room, checks that the moon is the perfect position in the sky, and activates the array.
Three of his four curse marks disappear, something he can tell isn’t related to the array at all, but he doesn’t have the time to worry about it.
In between the events of Mo Manor and the Dancing Fairy statue, Lan Wangji has almost entirely forgotten that the Jiangs are leaving today, has almost forgotten about Wu Yingtai’s presence in the Cloud Recesses.
He’s rudely reminded of it when he rushes to the Mingshi just in time to see his son violently shoved out of the doors along with a half dozen other disciples, all of them nearly barreling into Jin Ling and Wu Yingtai.
He’s already rushing forward, but the doors have started to close. Wu Yingtai reaches for Sizhui then narrows her eyes and pulls back. She draws a talisman in the air with quick, precise movements, shoving her hand forward and causing the doors to freeze in place. It’s the same one she’d used in the library.
She jumps into the Mingshi and his heart jumps to his throat. If a dozen disciples and his uncle aren’t enough to subdue the ghost sword, then Wu Yingtai, with her weak golden core and poor health, stand no chance at all.
“Aunt Ying!” Jin Ling screams, reaching for his sword.
“Get your uncle,” she commands, no trace of softness or teasing in her voice.
She dispels the freezing talisman. “Do not,” he starts, but then it’s too late, the door slamming shut just as he sees the ghost sword heading for her back. There’s a bitten off scream that must be Wu Yingtai and his hands are on the door, ready to shove it open by force, but then there’s a fission of energy around the Mingshi and the wood burns beneath his hands, forcing him back.
He looks at the red welts on his palms in disbelief. This isn’t the ghost sword. This is Wu Yingtai. She’s just locked herself inside with the malevolent sword spirit. He tries to break through her barrier and fails, no matter how he tries to shatter it. He’d probably be impressed if he had the room underneath the thrum of panic in his veins. It’s not that it’s powerful, it’s that it’s complicated, which means he can’t brute force his way through it. He tries to focus on the thrum of the barrier around the Mingshi, looking for a weak spot, but none makes themselves obvious.
“Out of the way!” He looks up and Jiang Wanyin is beside him, scowling and furious and scared underneath all of that. “Stop that, it’s not a barrier, that won’t work.”
He steps back, having it bite his tongue to keep from contradicting him.
Some of that mush show on his face because he snorts even as he drags his fingers through the air in what looks like a nonsense pattern. “It’s not a barrier, it’s a lock. It needs a key.” Jiang Wanyin flicks the nonsense talisman forward and it dissolves. When he shoves the door open, nothing stops him.
They both step inside, hands on their swords. Wu Yingtai is standing between Uncle and the ghost sword, her hands bloody, talisman paper fluttering around the floor, and her grey eyes burning. “Zidian!” she shouts, a talisman held between her fingers.
Jiang Wanyin doesn’t need to be told twice. The purple whips arcs out in front of them with a crackle of power as she sends the talisman forward, both their actions perfectly in time so Zidian strikes the ghost sword just as the talisman touches it. There’s a bright flash of light and when it fades the pressure of resentment energy lifts from the air, making it suddenly easier to breathe, and leaves the ghost sword floating gently in the middle of the room, docile for the moment.
“A-Ying, what the fuck?” Jiang Wanyin demands.
She grins and there’s blood on her teeth. “What, was I supposed to let the kids handle it? They’re babies, A-Cheng, come on.”
He rolls his eyes and any response he’d have to that is cut off by Jin Ling running to her. She lifts her arm just in time to catch him against her side, letting him bury his face into her shoulder. “Aunt Ying! Don’t do that!”
“Ah, sorry A-Ling, I didn’t mean to scare you,” she says, rubbing a soothing hand down his back.
He pushes her away and rubs at his eyes. “Who said I was scared? I wasn’t.”
She looks to Jiang Wanyin and they share a warm, exasperated glance. “Of course not, A-Ling.”
Uncle is finally getting to his feet, a disciple on either side, and Lan Wangji should go to him but he can’t bring himself to move, can barely make himself breathe. He feels as if he’s holding onto his control by his fingertips and he’s afraid any sudden movements will cause it to snap.
The junior disciples are filling the room. Sizhui and Jingyi don’t maintain a respectful distance, instead rushing towards Wu Yingtai in a way that’s not dissimilar to Jin Ling. “Lady Wu, are you alright?” Sizhui asks, his face creased in concern.
“You should think before you act!” Jingyi shouts, breaking eight clan rules about propriety at once. “What if something had happened to you?”
They know her. Somehow in her past two weeks in Cloud Recesses, Wu Yingtai has found time to become familiar with his son and Jingyi, to the point where they feel comfortable enough approach her instead of politely hanging back. That isn’t necessarily unusual for Jingyi but is for Sizhui.
“I’ve told you to call me my name,” she scolds gently, folding her sleeve over her bloody hands so she can reach forward and wipe away the blood at the corner of Sizhui’s mouth. “I’m fine boys, really, there’s no need to cause a fuss.”
He doesn’t think of it really, but one moment he’s breathing carefully through his nose and the next his hand is wrapped around the wrist of the hand that she’s not using to clean his son’s face.
“Lan Wangji!” Jiang Wanyin snaps, Zidian sparking up his arm. “Get away from her!”
“It’s alright, A-Cheng,” she says absently, meeting his gaze without a hint of fear but plenty of concern. “Is everything alright, Hanguang Jun?”
He lifts her hand up between them. There’s a thick cut across her palm that’s still sluggishly bleeding. Had she grasped the sword by the blade? Was that the cry of pain he’d heard from her? Foolish. “You should not have interfered. It was not your place.”
She rolls her eyes, obstinate and arrogant and not listening. “Look, I don’t mean to get involved in clan business or whatever, but I wasn’t just going stand there and watch! I’m weak, Hanguang Jun, not useless.”
“Yeah, so weak,” Jingyi mutters sarcastically, glancing at the ghost sword. Sizhui elbows him without looking at him.
Wu Yingtai absently tucks a strand of Sizhui’s hair behind his ear, coming dangerously close to touching his forehead ribbon. His son doesn’t even flinch, though Jingyi does. She turns to face him fully, putting her other wounded hand on top of his. She’s still bleeding, making a mess of both of them, but it’s like she doesn’t even notice. “Come on, relax, it’s not a big deal. I was just trying to help.”
He tightens his grip, too firm, enough that he knows he’ll leave behind bruises in the shape of his fingers on her skin. His rage isn’t justified. The blood pounding in his ears and the fury under his skin is out of proportion to her actions. He hasn’t been this angry since – since –
She stumbles as he yanks his hands back, turning and walking out of the Mingshi, walking away from her.
“Hanguang Jun!” she calls out, but he doesn’t pause and he doesn’t look back.
Of all his faults, Lan Wangji has never considered disloyalty to be among them.
“She saved my life,” Uncle says to him as they watch the Jiangs leave Cloud Recesses. Wu Yingtai leaves as she came, walking by Jiang Wanyin’s side, although the cheeriness in her voice doesn’t ring as totally genuine. Wangji had refused to leave the Jingshi to bid their guests goodbye and Wu Yingtai had sulked, begging to be allowed to go and apologize, which Lan Xichen had been forced to refuse.
Jiang Wanyin had been furious at Wangji’s slight against Wu Yingtai in a way he’d never truly gotten worked up about Wangji’s disrespect when it was directed at himself.
“Her insights into the ghost sword’s origins were impressive,” he says. A weak cultivator she may be, but her wider knowledge of cultivation and her talisman skills more than made up for it. Between that and her cheerful temperament, she’ll surely make an excellent wife to Jiang Wanyin.
He dreads receiving that invitation. The whole main Lan family will be expected to attend something as high profile as a sect leader’s wedding and it will be difficult to explain Wangji’s absence.
“He likes her,” he says helplessly. Wangji enjoys the company of so few people that even that would be remarkable, but this is something he hadn’t thought he’d ever see again, something he hasn’t seen even a hint of in the past thirteen years.
But it’s there again, like Wangji is fifteen years old again and just discovering what want is. It’s desire and protectiveness and affection too overwhelming to be anything but painful.
Sizhui likes her too. It’s almost perfect.
Uncle’s lips press together. “She is not his to like.”
Lan Xichen has no response to that, because of course Uncle is right. Wu Yingtai is obviously if not publicly engaged to Jiang Wanyin. There’s nothing to be done about it.
Maybe she and Wangji can at least be friends, one day.
Wei Wuxian gives into the urge to look behind him back up the steps to Cloud Recesses. He knows it’s dangerous, that there are too many things about him that threaten to give his true identity away, that clearly Lan Zhan despises him as much as ever, but he can’t help it.
He hopes he sees Lan Zhan again soon.