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The Making and Keeping of Friends

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Lan Qiren hasn’t seen Cangse Sanren in years, having suddenly found himself the acting Sect Leader and raising first one child, then two. He hardly ever gets to leave Cloud Recesses these days. So when he sees her in Yiling on his way to Jin tower, he can’t keep himself from calling out, “A-Ren!”

He’d never let himself call her anything that affectionate normally, wouldn’t let their shared nickname leave his mouth in front of so many people, but he’s traveling alone and they’ve only exchanged letters for so long.

She turns to him and he’s startled to see a child in her arms, one who can’t be more than four or five, the same age as Wangji. Her face breaks out in relief when she sees him, but not happiness, and unease has already settled low in his gut by the time she makes it to his side. “Oh, thank you,” she breathes, face pale. She shoves the sticky child into his arms and says, “Here, you don’t have enough friends so I made you one.”

The attempt at levity would be more effective if her hands weren’t shaking. “What’s wrong?”

She doesn’t even look at him, instead smoothing the child’s hair away from his face. “Wuxian, be good for your Uncle Qiren, all right?”

The boy doesn’t respond but Cangse Sanren doesn’t wait around for an answer, instead turning away from him, but Lan Qiren reaches out a hand to grab her wrist. “A-Ren!”

“A-Ren, please,” she says, “I need to go!”

He doesn’t understand but he doesn’t have to. “Just wait one second,” he orders and lets go of her to reach into his robe and hands her the stack of premade talismans he has on him. Anything that unnerves her this much is something he wants her to face with as much help as possible. He’d insist on going with her if it wasn’t for the child in his arms. “Take these.”

She smiles at him as she takes the talismans and then she’s running through the crowd at a speed that would be impressive if it wasn’t so concerning. He looks down at the child in his arms. He’s not crying and doesn’t seem overly upset at being left with a stranger. “What’s your name?”

“Wei Ying,” he says, the words coming out clumsily. “But Mama and Baba call me Wuxian.”

Wei Ying. He’s going to kill her. “Was that your mother?”

He eyes him suspiciously for a moment then nods.

Cangse Sanren and Wei Changze had a child and didn’t tell him. He’s opting to sail by hurt for the moment to settle on incredulous. “Wei Wuxian, do you know where she’s going.”

“Papa’s late,” he says carelessly. He reaches out with his chubby hands and tugs on his beard. “Uncle Qiren, not Wei Wuxian.”

He’s not going to argue about propriety with a child. Considering he’s Cangse Sanren’s son, he can’t even guarantee that it’s an argument he’d win. “A-Ying,” he amends, far too familiar, but, one again, he’s Cangse Sanren’s son, so he’s sure it’s fine. Then again, he’s also Wei Changze’s.

Wei Wuxian tugs on his beard again, harder this time, and Lan Qiren winces as he gently pulls his hand away. “Can we play?”

“What do you want to play?” he sighs. He’s seen Cangse Sanren for a total of thirty seconds and she’d manage to knock all his plans off course. At this rate, he should probably send a message to Jin Tower, notifying them that he’s been delayed. Jin Guangshan has not become less obnoxious with age. There’s a long moment where Wei Wuxian says nothing, and when he looks down he’s running a careful hand over the cloud embroidery in his robe. “A-Ying?”

“No good for play,” he sighs, slumping into his arms.

Lan Qiren stares down at the child in his arm, a whole new sense of unease under his skin. It’s not an unreasonable thing for a child to notice. Wangji knows the difference between formal and play clothes, after all.

But this is the child of Cangse Sanren and Wei Changze. He can’t imagine either of them caring enough about either their clothes or Wei Wuxian’s enough not to allow him to play in them. They boy’s own clothes are simple and rough, and show nothing of either his father or his mother in them, no white or purple. Lan Qiren feels as if there are ants crawling up his spine.

He doesn’t want to stray too far away from where they are in case Cangse Sanren has trouble finding them, so he takes them out of the ways of the busy street to a tea house with seating outside that’s still visible from the spot they’d met.

Wei Wuxian is fidgety enough that Lan Qiren keeps him in his lap, just in case he gets it in his head to run away. He orders a pot of tea he doesn’t intend to drink and thinks of what he has on him that could entertain a child. It’s distressingly little. He sighs as he reaches into his qiankun bag and pulls out his guqin, laying it on the table in front of them.

Wei Wuxian stills instantly, reaching out his hands to touch the strings. He pauses with his hand above it and pouts, pulling his hand back into his lap

“It’s alright,” he says, surprised at his restraint.

To his confusion, Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “It’s fizzy. I can’t touch it if it’s fizzy.”

“Fizzy,” he repeats slowly, in case that will help it makes sense. It doesn’t. “I don’t understand.”

Wei Wuxian shifts in his lap in a way that makes him wince and points to his sword. “Fizzy.”

“You can sense spiritual energy?” he asks, although he obviously can. He might know that a cultivator’s sword is special, but there’s no way he could have known that Lan Qiren’s guqin is a spiritual tool rather than a normal instrument unless he’d been able to sense the difference. He wonders if Wangji can do that yet. He’s so quiet that Lan Qiren doesn’t know what’s going on his head most of the time. He should bring the boys down to Caiyi more. Sensing spiritual energy requires a more sensitive touch in the Cloud Recesses, where there’s so much of it around.

Wei Wuxian tilts his head back to look at him, scrunching his nose in confusion.

Wangji and Xichen are obviously the most adorable, perfect children to ever be born, but Wei Wuxian is rapidly moving his way to third place. “This belongs to me. You are allowed to touch it. Do you want to learn how to play?”

His eyes light up and he nods. He’s too young for anything but the stripped down basics, but at least plucking at the strings while Lan Qiren adjusts his hands and explains the different notes keeps his attention. He pays for several more pots of tea he doesn’t drink so the staff doesn’t become too annoyed with their presence. The sun is just starting to set and Wei Wuxian is plucking the string in a recognizable pattern when he looks up to see his friends rushing towards them. He tenses, but while Cangse Sanren and Wei Changze looks exhausted, they don’t appear hurt.

Wei Wuxian lights up, scrambling out of his lap. Lan Qiren winces and helps him down and he’s running almost as soon as his feet touch the ground. “BABA! MAMA!”

Wei Changze drops to one knee and opens his arms, catching Wei Wuxian in them and pressing his face against the top of his son’s head in way that looks like it’s more to comfort himself than Wei Wuxian. Cangse Sanren drops down in the seat across from him, raises an eyebrow at all the cold teapots, and says, “I think you’ve gotten a couple grey hairs since I saw you last.”

“Sanren-jie,” he says, which is cheating and he knows it, “what’s going on?”

Her face crumples for one moment, there and gone, and then she’s back to smiling again. “Ah, A-Ren, why don’t you come back to the inn with us and we’ll catch up?”

“Thank you,” Wei Changze says once he reaches their table. He goes into a deep, formal bow that Wei Wuxian copies clumsily.

“Stop that!” he snaps. He thought he’d broken Wei Changze’s habit of bowing to him back when they were still teenagers. This is intolerable.

He’s smiling when he straightens, so there’s that at least. “Well, you’re a sect leader now, Lan Qiren.”

Acting Sect Leader,” he corrects moodily. His brother is still Sect Leader, even if he’s been in seclusion for the past nine years.

Cangse Sanren makes a face at that, but they already had this argument when it happened and neither of them are eager to have it again. “Thank you for watching Wuxian. And for the talismans, they were very useful.”

“I don’t know what we would have done without them,” Wei Changze says, an uncharacteristic tightness to his voice. His hand is on top of Wei Wuxian’s head, who’s frowning as he looks between them all, pressing himself against his father’s side.

This child is far too intelligent for them to be having this discussion in front of him, however obliquely. “Let’s go to the inn,” he suggests, getting to his feet and leaving a final tip to the teahouse for neither kicking them out nor causing a fuss about the impromptu guqin lesson. “We can get some dinner.”

Wei Changze and Cangse Sanren exchange a look, then nod. Wei Wuxian walks in between his parents, holding each of their hands and in his, but insists on sitting next to him at the inn while they eat, which Lan Qiren pretends he isn’t touched by. He doesn’t speak during the meal, but Wei Wuxian does enough for all of them, eagerly telling his parents about his music lesson and all the tea and describing the people who had walked by them while they waited, and Lan Qiren isn’t even sure if it’s accurate or not because he hadn’t been paying attention to anyone around them.

His chatter slows eventually, then slurs, and he interrupts himself yawning at least three times before he tips over to snuggle into Lan Qiren’s side and falls asleep just like that. Wangji can’t fall asleep unless he’s perfectly warm and lying straight on his back and has an extra pillow to tug into his arms in the middle of the night, and it makes Lan Qiren wish that Wangji hadn’t decided stuffed animals were for babies. Xichen has to close all the windows before he can fall asleep, startled at every sound.

Wei Wuxian seems perfectly content half slumped over on a rough wooden bench surrounded by loud patrons. They all watch him for a moment before Lan Qiren places his chopsticks across his plate and looks at his friends, waiting.

“I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t been there,” Cangse Sanren says with unexpected seriousness, still staring at her son. “I was about to lock him in our room and go after A-Ze.” His face must show what he thinks of that, because she says, “I know! I know. I was just,” she takes a deep breath, then repeats, “I know.”

“You can’t do that,” Wei Changze murmurs, taking his wife’s hand. “If you’d shown up any later, I would have already been dead and you’d have had to fight it alone, or if you’d show up without the talismans we might have both died anyway.”

“That’s why I had to do it,” she says, her cadence like she wants to be angry, but instead she just sounds tired.

Wei Changze shakes his head. “And what of Wuxian? What would have happened to him? He comes before both of us, A-San. If that means I die, then I die.”

“A-Ze,” she starts, some of that anger starting to trickle in, but then she looks back at Wei Wuxian and it drains out of her just as quickly. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

Lan Qiren hates this entire conversation and understands none of it. “What are you two doing? Why are you toting a child around while acting like rogue cultivators? Also, since when do you have a kid? That’s something you could have mentioned in your letters, A-Ren!”

They stare at him for a long moment, then Cangse Sanren looks down and says, “I wanted to tell you. I was going to. I was going to come visit after he was born to surprise you and introduce you properly. You already had one kid, I was going make you give me parenting tips and hand him to you after feeding so that he’d spit up all over you.”

His chest aches. He doesn’t point out that technically, neither Wangji nor Xichen are his children, even if he loves them as if they were. That’s another old argument between them. “Why didn’t you? You know you’re always welcome in Cloud Recesses.”

Wei Changze squeezes Cangse Sanren’s hand again and says, “We didn’t want to make things difficult for you. They’re already so difficult for you, with all the responsibilities you weren’t supposed to have to take on.”

That makes absolutely no sense. He’s about to tell them that when Cangse Sanren says, “We left the Jiang sect.”

He stares. Whatever he’d thought of their relationship, Jiang Fengmian and Wei Changze had been best friends, as close as brothers, and he’d never seemed to hold Cangse Sanren’s choice against her. He’d still gotten the infamous student of Baoshan Sanren into his clan, after all, and the few times they’d all been together, it’d seemed as if they’d gotten along.

“Madame Yu had been,” Wei Changze hesitates then says, “displeased.”

As far as he’s aware, she’s always displeased, with everything. He doesn’t know what that has to do with anything.

Cangse Sanren’s lips twist into something that’s possibly attempting to be a smile but is definitely a grimace. “Yu Ziyuan accused me of carrying Jiang Fengmian’s child and tried to use Zidian against me.”

It takes him a moment to hear anything past the blood rushing in his ears. “Tried?” he asks faintly.

“A-Ze took the blow,” she says bitterly. “Then I told her if she ever raised a hand against my husband again, I’d strangle her to death with her own whip. Jiang Fengmian tried to mediate and blame her actions on her pregnancy, but considering I was equally pregnant at the time and hadn’t accused anyone of sleeping with my husband or attacked them, it seemed a weak defense. She unsheathed her sword, I unsheathed mine, and the only reason we didn’t come to blows is because Jiang Fengmian and A-Ze stood between us. We left after that.”

Lan Qiren tries to figure out who should be the most offended by her accusations – Jiang Fengmian, that he’s cheated on his wife when there’s been no evidence of him being unfaithful despite years of unhappy marriage, or Cangse Sanren, that she’d cheated on her husband, lied about the parentage of baby, and done so with her clan head who she’d once refused to marry.

“So you’ve been wandering ever since, without a clan to protect you or family to look after the child?” He doesn’t realize he’s angry until Wei Changze looks away from him, and then it’s all he can focus on, the burning in his chest and the thick ball of rage at the bottom of his throat. “I thought we were friends.”

“We are!” Cangse Sanren cries.

She lets go of Wei Changze’s hand to reach of his, but Lan Qiren pulls them back and under the table. “If we were friends, you would have came to me.”

“We can’t be Lan, even if you would let us,” Wei Changze says softly. “Clan politics aside, it’s not who we are. It’s not who I am. Part of his clan or not, I’m loyal to Jiang Fengmian.”

He snarls, remembering to muffle it at the last second so to not wake Wei Wuxian. “Am I only a clan head to you now? It’s not about what I could do for you. It’s about telling me things, because we’re friends, and not spending five years hiding your troubles and your son from me because you – I don’t know! Why didn’t you tell me?”

The anger is mellowing into hurt but it’s just as sharp. When Cangse Sanren heard what his brother had done, she’d been in Cloud Recesses the next day. Even though there was nothing she could do, she’d still been there for him. He would have been there for her too. For both of them.

“You’re angry,” she says softly. “That’s why. You are clan head now, and you’re going to have to see Yu Ziyuan for a long time and not hold this against her, or Jiang Fengmian. It’s not fair of us to make you choose sides, especially when we know you would want to choose ours.”

The surefire knowledge that he could never take her in fight is all that’s stopping him from reaching across the table and attempting to knock some sense into her. “What’s not fair is you trying to make my decisions for me. I’m an adult, which means if I want to hold a grudge against Yu Ziyuan for being an insecure bitch,” Wei Changze makes a strangled sound and Cangse Sanren’s eyes light up in delight, “and trying to hurt my best friend, then I’m going to, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s not your decision, it’s mine, and you don’t get to decide what I can or cannot handle or what decisions I get to make. Understand?”

There’s a yawn, and they all freeze. Wei Wuxian pushes himself upright and rubs at his eyes. He squints at the three adults, then pulls himself in Lan Qiren’s lap, leaning against his chest and absently tugging his arm around his shoulders so he can use his billowy sleeve as a blanket. “Uncle Qiren, it’s bed time,” he mutters.

“Apologies,” he says gravely, pulling Wei Wuxian that much closer.

“A-Ren,” Cangse Sanren says softly. He looks to her and her smile is tremulous but real. “I understand. We both do.”

This time when she reaches for his hand, he doesn’t pull away.