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a constant satellite of your blazing sun (i obey your law of gravity)

Chapter Text

“Next year,” Huan-ge says, forbiddingly, “no intoxicants of any kind.”

“Yep,” says Wei Wuxian. “Yep, that seems fair. Very, very fair.”

“A-Yao?” 

Ugh. Why does Huan-ge only bring out the stern voice for things like this? Why not in bed? Why can’t Meng Yao get a little of that in a sexy context, as a treat? “Yes, ge,” he grumbles. “I do want to emphasize the fact that none of this was my fault. At all.”

Lan Qiren, who has been staring catatonic at the wall since the Incident, makes a small creaking noise. 

The attention of the whole room snaps onto him, barring Meng Yao’s precious little nephew A-Yuan, who is entirely occupied with his toy truck in the corner--the toy truck that Meng Yao himself, world’s best uncle, gave him for his birthday only two weeks previously and which immediately became the prized beloved of A-Yuan’s heart. (However, as quickly as it came into favor, the truck will be replaced, because Meng Yao is giving him an even better truck for Lunar New Year--one that makes horrible noises and, according to reviews online, has a battery that lasts forever. When it comes to strategically bringing torments upon one’s brother-in-law for his crimes, children are truly the gift that keeps on giving. Meng Yao could have doubled the torments with horrible trucks for both the birthday and the New Year, but he had suspected (rightfully, as it turns out) that the birthday truck would then be brought to Lan Qiren’s house, so Meng Yao had decided that the torments it would bring upon Wei Wuxian were not worth more than Meng Yao’s personal tranquility over what would already be a very stressful family event).

When Lan Qiren does not make any more sounds, they all relax. A-Yuan keeps making happy little vroom vroom sounds under his breath and racing his truck in circles around the leg of a table. Meng Yao cannot wait to show him the buttons on the new truck that will make the vroom-vroom noises for him and at a truly surprising volume.

“Does anyone want to explain how this happened?” Huan-ge asks. 

Meng Yao and Wei Wuxian think about this for a moment. “No,” Meng Yao says eventually.

“Ugh, I’ll do it.” Wei Wuxian groans. He’s sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of Lan Qiren’s chair, leaning back on his hands.

“Please,” Huan-ge says, sitting in a chair and folding his hands neatly in his lap, looking at Wei Wuxian with a sarcastically attentive expression. 

“So. You know how Meng Yao and I told you guys that we didn’t bring anything except some relaxing herbal teas?”

“Yes. Yes I do. Please explain what was in those teas that could leave shufu like this.” Ugh, he’s so hot when he’s angry, and he’s never angry at Meng Yao. Not like this, anyway--occasionally exasperated with Meng Yao, sure, but he’s speaking sharply to Wei Wuxian. Meng Yao kind of wants to drag Huan-ge out of the room in a jealous snit.

“Well,” Wei Wuxian says, drawing it out into several syllables. “For one thing.... it was not exactly tea. In the classic sense. Maybe you could infuse it in water if you wanted to, but. No, not tea as we modern educated human beings would define it.”

“Wei Ying,” Wangji says flatly.

“This is because,” Wei Wuxian continues, “it was--oh goodness, actually, you know what, I think you’re both actually too sheltered to have ever heard of this, um, rare yet harmless plant product--”

“Just tell them,” Meng Yao sighs.

“Yeah, it’s weed.”

A ringing silence fills the room, punctuated only by the clattering of A-Yuan’s truck over the floorboards and the occasional, “Vroom!”

Wei Wuxian holds up one finger. “In my defense! In my defense, I got a very low-THC strain. Obviously we did not want to be actively stoned in front of shufu and the baby. By the way, has everyone met my baby?” Wei Wuxian gestures broadly over to the corner where A-Yuan is playing. “My precious son whom I birthed from my own body?” Meng Yao reflexively glances at Wangji, but--alas, the constant exposure therapy of Wei Wuxian talking out loud like that to anyone who will listen has had a marked effect. Wangji’s ears only go a little pink. Such a disappointment compared to several months ago, when he would go fully red in the face and have to leave the room. “His name is A-Yuan? He is a tiny angel who is prepared to love each and every one of you with his whole entire little heart? My baby? Yes? We could instead talk about my baby?”

Huan-ge is pinching the bridge of his nose. “Tell us about the marijuana, Wei Wuxian.”

“Ah. Well. So, remember how you found us on the stairs between the third and second floors, carrying Lan Qiren’s unconscious body, and we were like Hello, our beloved respective husbands, don’t worry, your uncle is not dead? Remember that?”

“Vividly,” Huan-ge says.

“What a good time, right? We should do that again sometime, feels like it’s been ages since we did that.”

“It has been ten minutes,” Huan-ge says crisply. 

“Gosh, has it? Feels longer.” Wei Wuxian pauses. “Ok, I might be a tiny bit high right now.”

“How did it happen.”

“A-Yao and I were in the bathroom on the top floor, smoking out of the open window, and A-Yao said something snarky and very very funny, and I shrieked and fell over, and then Lan Qiren opened the door.”

“And?”

“And that was it! You people have such a low tolerance, jeez. It was just like Lan Zhan and alcohol. Shufu didn’t get more than a whiff of secondhand smoke and bam, he was collapsing into a heap and staring at nothing.” Wei Wuxian gestures at Lan Qiren. “Just like that. Truly amazing. I got stoned like that one time, but I had to hotbox in my car for an hour.

Lan Qiren makes another soft creaking noise.

Meng Yao crouches by the arm of the chair they’ve dumped him in. “Shufu?” he says quietly. “Are you alright?”

“He’ll be fiiiiine, it’s just weed,” Wei Wuxian drawls. 

Huan-ge gets up, moves his chair over beside Lan Qiren’s, and sits down again, gently taking one of Lan Qiren’s hands in his own. “Shufu? We’re a little worried, can you speak?” Huan-ge looks up at Wangji, concerned. “Should we call an ambulance?”

“No,” Meng Yao says, at the same moment Wei Wuxian says, “Absolutely not.”

Lan Qiren turns slowly to face Huan-ge, blinking owlishly. It takes a moment for his eyes to focus properly. “Oh,” he croaks, raising one hand to touch Huan-ge’s face. “Xiongzhang lost his glasses?”

Huan-ge turns to Meng Yao, eyes wide.

***

The hotel room reflected behind him in the mirror as he brushed his teeth was elegant, if a little dated. However, the view of the city was excellent, and at night the lights and street lamps looked like nothing so much as a handful of glittering jewels strewn across a black velvet tablecloth. Lan Qingheng had requested a room with a view of the cathedral, hoping to take some sketches of the dome by moonlight, but having this request fulfilled had not been possible, despite asking the desk staff every day whether a room had come available on that side of the building. A great disappointment, and now his time was nearly over and… well, in any case, the moon hadn’t been in the right phase since the first week of his trip. It had waned away to nothing, and now, the night of the new moon, was his second to last day in the city anyway.

Disappointing.

What had been the point of disrupting a routine if nothing much was to come of it?

***

Before Huan-ge can say anything, Lan Qiren says blearily, “Oh. Heh. A-Huan, not xiongzhang. Funny. That’s funny.” His eyes go a little glassy and unfocused, and he chortles quietly into his beard.

“This is so fucked up,” Wei Wuxian says.

“Ucked up,” A-Yuan agrees from the corner.

Wei Ying,” Wangji hisses.

“You said it, kid!” Wei Wuxian half-yells towards A-Yuan. Turning to Meng Yao, he says, “That’s my baby, you know. Four years old, excellent vocabulary. Gets it from his beautiful father. His beautiful father who held my hand the entire time I was in labor. Before you ask: Yes, it was a water birth--”

“You’re going to traumatize Xichen,” Meng Yao says flatly. “Stop it.”

“Sorry, dage.” 

Huan-ge wholly ignores Wei Wuxian, which Meng Yao feels is unnecessarily sexy of him. 

“Funny,” Lan Qiren mumbles to no one in particular. “A-Huan looks just like xiongzhang. But no glasses.” In very, very slow motion, he half-turns in his chair. “Is A-Zhan here?”

“Shufu,” says Wangji, who is standing literally right behind the chair. He steps to the side so Lan Qiren can see him more easily without twisting his spine. It takes several seconds for Lan Qiren’s eyes to track upwards to his face. This resembles nothing so much as the movements of an elderly turtle.

“Oh, A-Zhan.” Lan Qiren studies him for an uncomfortably long time. Huan-ge exchanges several more worried glances with Meng Yao. “Ah, funny. A-Zhan looks like xiongzhang too.”

“But without the glasses,” Wei Wuxian says.

“Eyes,” Lan Qiren says, squinting up as if Wangji is a very very tiny line of text that he is trying to read. “A-Zhan has that woman’s eyes.”

Huan-ge and Wangji turn to each other, unblinking, for a long and complicated silent exchange. 

“Uh,” says Wei Wuxian after an extremely long pause. “So, like, it’s been... sixteen years that I’ve known you guys? Roughly? And I have literally never heard him mention your mom before. Sixteen years.”

“I have. Once,” Meng Yao says. “It was when you and Wangji eloped.”

Wei Wuxian winces. “Guessing it wasn’t complimentary, then.”

That boy turned out just like his father, Lan Qiren had snarled under his breath to a room he’d thought was empty. Meng Yao, passing by the door, had paused just long enough to listen. Just like his father running off with that woman, and now he’s run off with that awful boy.  

“Not… terribly complimentary, no,” Meng Yao says.

Wei Wuxian leans forward and taps on Lan Qiren’s knee. “Eh, shufu, do you recognize me?” He points to his own face, grinning sunnily. Lan Qiren’s deep slow-motion frown speaks for itself; Wei Wuxian laughs.

***

What had been the point of disrupting a routine if nothing much was to come of it?

But it would not do to dwell on it or become embittered. Qingheng had worked hard and made the most of this little sabbatical. Perhaps, tomorrow, he could indulge in a day off to see the sights. He reflected on this as he took off his glasses and sleeve garters, changed into plain dark blue pajamas, slipped into bed, and opened the book that Qiren had insisted on lending to him for the trip. It was turning out to be quite dull, but his little brother would be so crestfallen if Qingheng returned without even a thoughtful and polite comment about it. 

Tomorrow, he would go sightseeing. What was the point of this trip, otherwise? What was the harm of a small indulgence? What was the point of embarking on a journey if one didn’t welcome the thought of a small adventure to freshen one’s spirits?

***

 “What about this one?” Wei Wuxian points to Meng Yao. “Who is he?”

Lan Qiren turns slowly and even more slowly blinks at him. “Nephew’s wife.”

“You know what, I’ll take it,” Meng Yao said.

“What about the baby, do you know the baby?” Wei Wuxian flails his arm in A-Yuan’s direction again.

Roughly at the same pace as a glacier, Lan Qiren’s gaze shifts to A-Yuan. His expression melts and goes butter-soft. “Yuan-er. A good boy.”

“Aw! Aww! Shufu! That’s right! That’s your grandbaby, right? He is a good boy! A-Yuan! Yuan-er, do you want to come give shufu a hug? He called you good!”

“No,” A-Yuan says unconcernedly. He’s reenacting car crashes now, ramming his truck against the wall again and again. It’s scuffing the shit out of Lan Qiren’s baseboards. The kid’s doing a great job, Meng Yao is so proud of him.

“Oh. Okay,” Wei Wuxian says. He turns back to the group. “Anyway, he’s gonna be fine. He knows who all of us are and that A-Yuan is his favorite person in the room. There is no reason to panic or call an ambulance. It’ll wear off in... Uh. A couple hours, probably.”

“I told you we should have brought edibles,” Meng Yao grumbles.

“Asshole, I told you that I have no fucking way to ration brownies or gummy bears, we would have eaten the whole stash and been high as kites for the first day and then stone-cold sober for the rest.”

“What if,” Huan-ge says, cutting them both off, “nobody brings drugs into my uncle’s house.”

“Mn,” agrees Wangji darkly.

“Going to have to adopt another baby to distract shufu,” Meng Yao mumbles under his breath, and does not realize he has spoken aloud until four pairs of eyes are on him. Okay, perhaps he is just a little high as well.

“Another grandchild?” Lan Qiren says, brightening at the same pace as the arrival of dawn. 

Meng Yao gestures pointedly at him as he looks at the others, as if to say, There! You see?

Wei Wuxian nods. “Hm. Yes. Yes, there’s nothing for it, I’m just going to have to get pregnant again.”

“Wei Ying,” Wangji says in a tiny, deeply exasperated voice.

“Well if I don’t, he’s going to kill us all when he’s sober, Lan Zhan! Please suck it up and do your job as a husband!”

“You are going to traumatize Xichen,” Meng Yao says again. Huan-ge has put his face in his hand.

“He’ll be fine,” Wei Wuxian says, flapping a hand dismissively at Huan-ge. “He can go play with A-Yuan for a bit, it’ll perk him right up. In the meantime, a proposal: We should absolutely ask Lan Qiren a bunch of questions and see what he says.”

Meng Yao considers this.

“I think we should put him in bed and let him sleep it off,” Huan-ge says firmly. “And we will all take turns sitting with him.”

“Not bad questions, dage!” Wei Wuxian protests. “Stuff like… Eh, shufu, what’s your favorite food?”

Lan Qiren considers this as if it is a deep philosophical question. “Fresh tofu.”

Wei Wuxian makes the same kind of There! You see? gesture that Meng Yao had made. “And now we know that!”

Lan Qiren peers down at him disapprovingly and heaves a very slow sigh. “Don’t know what he saw in that woman,” he mumbles vaguely. They all freeze again. “One day, nothing strange. Next day, there she is and she won’t leave.” Another huge, slow sigh.

“Really?” Wei Wuxian puts his elbow on his knee and his chin in his hand. “Just like that? Out of the blue, there she is?”

***

There was some kind of commotion outside, distant shouting. Qingheng shot a disapproving look towards the window and returned to his book.

***

“Alright,” Huan-ge says, standing suddenly. “Shufu, I’m putting you in bed.” 

Lan Qiren creaks gently as Huan-ge lifts him out of  the chair with one arm around his ribs. Wangji steps forward to help, and between the three of them, they get Lan Qiren shuffling slowly out of the room. 

Meng Yao disassociates for a minute, gazing in the general direction of A-Yuan’s little corner of chaos. Mm, yes, he’s definitely feeling the marijuana a bit. He comes back to himself with a jolt when Wangji returns, sits in the chair Huan-ge vacated, and glares at Wei Wuxian.

“What’s the look for?” Wei Wuxian says, pouting. “We were being careful. I don’t know why he was up on the third floor.”

“Probably came in because you fell over and screamed,” Meng Yao supplies. “Maybe he hoped you were dead.”

Thought I was dead, you mean.”

“No, I meant hoped.”

Wei Wuxian makes a face at him. He leans back on his arms, unfolds his legs, and pokes Wangji in the ankle. “Hey,” he says, in a softer voice. “He really doesn’t ever talk about your mom, huh.” 

Wangji shakes his head. “Nor father.” There’s a little frown between his eyebrows.

“Sucks,” Wei Wuxian says, quiet and not unsympathetic.

“Everybody’s an orphan around here,” Meng Yao says, leaning back in his chair and rubbing his eyes with one hand. “Me, Wei Wuxian, both of you.” He pauses. “Also A-Yuan. A whole running theme.”

Wei Wuxian rocked thoughtfully from side to side, shifting his weight from one arm to the other like he was being swayed by the gentle movements of a ship. “Do you know how they met, Lan Zhan? If she appeared out of nowhere?”

The frown between Wangji’s eyebrows deepens. “They were abroad. I think.”

Huan-ge stalks back into the room. “I moved the baby monitor from A-Yuan’s room to shufu’s,” he says, setting the speaker of the monitor on the couch’s end-table. “Now, to continue the discussion,” he says, turning a stern look back on Meng Yao and Wei Wuxian.

 Before he can say anything else, A-Yuan shouts at the top of his lungs, “Bobo!” and hurtles across the room like a little comet, flinging himself on Huan-ge’s leg and beaming up at him with all the adoration in his sweet little heart, as if it’s been weeks rather than minutes since A-Yuan has seen him. “Bobo, play trucks with A-Yuan!”

“Yeah, bobo, go play trucks with A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian says smugly.

Huan-ge has a constitutional weakness against things that are small and cute and dimpled and smiling at him, a weakness that Meng Yao has encouraged and carefully cultivated in him for sixteen years. Huan-ge folds like a house of cards and goes to play trucks with A-Yuan without more than a single final half-hearted glare at Wei Wuxian. 

They are all distracted for several minutes. “Play trucks” apparently means that A-Yuan  wants Huan-ge to sit on the floor and stay still so A-Yuan can drive his truck all over him like he’s a mountain. Huan-ge cooperates with no more than an occasional, “Gently, please,” when A-Yuan gets a little too excited. 

“Xiongzhang,” Wangji says. The frown has not disappeared from his eyebrows. “I… don’t know how mother and father met.”

Huan-ge looks surprised, then thoughtful. “Abroad,” he says after a moment. “They met by chance somewhere in Italy, I think. Tuscany? Father would have been studying architecture.”

***

The commotion outside continued--who could possibly be shouting at 8:45 in the evening, when all reasonable people should be at home, preparing for bed? 

Between the noise outside and the distracting idea of taking tomorrow to see what else was in Florence besides architecture (a notion that was slowly growing in allure), Qingheng was already having trouble focusing on Qiren’s dull book.  

***

“Oh, he was an architect?” Wei Wuxian says.

“A professor,” reply Huan-ge and Wangji in unison.

“What about your mother?”

After a long moment, Huan-ge says, “I… don’t know, exactly.”

“She traveled,” Wangji says. “I remember. She used to leave. It felt like a long time, but…”

“No, it was only ever for a few weeks,” Huan-ge says. Evidently growing tired of being a mountain for A-Yuan’s trucks, he catches the boy up, enveloping him in both arms and dragging him into his lap with a kiss to the forehead while A-Yuan shrieks with delight. “You were young, though,” he says to Wangji. “So… yes, it probably did feel like a long time.”

“Oh no,” Wei Wuxian says, laughing, and gestures to the door. “Shufu’s back! Hello, shufu.” 

Lan Qiren has appeared in the doorway, shuffling in at a snail’s pace. A-Yuan immediately squeals and squirms in Huan-ge’s arms until he escapes--he flies across the room and plasters himself on Lan Qiren’s leg.  

Huan-ge sighs. “He must have gotten up as soon as I left him alone.”

“Hey, shufu,” Wei Wuxian says. “What did dage and Lan Zhan’s mother do? Like for work?”

Lan Qiren shuffles in slow motion over to the couch, A-Yuan clinging to him the whole way; Wangji gets up to help him sit. A-Yuan climbs onto the couch immediately, and then into Lan Qiren’s lap, flopping onto his chest with a proprietary air. Lan Qiren pats his hair gently. At length, he sighs. “That woman,” he says.

Meng Yao is half-expecting Wangji or Huan-ge to interrupt, but… It is odd that they don’t know, and perhaps they think so too.

“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian says encouragingly. “That woman. What was she doing in Tuscany?”

“Florence,” Lan Qiren heaves another slow, long-suffering sigh. 

“Florence is in Tuscany, yeah,” Wei Wuxian says. “Lots of architecture in Florence, so that makes sense for a professor. What was there for Lan-furen?”

“Art. Jewels.”

“Oh, a classy lady,” Wei Wuxian says. “I see, I see!”

Lan Qiren frowns balefully. “No.”

“No? Not classy?” Wei Wuxian says, putting his head on one side. Huan-ge and Wangji are looking increasingly uncomfortable--Meng Yao’s eyes flick back and forth from one to the other. He’s still expecting one of them to speak up, but the energy is strange. Almost like each of them is waiting for the other to be the first to object.

Hungry, Meng Yao thought vaguely. They’re hungry.

Wei Wuxian tsks and makes a dubious face at Lan Qiren. “She must have been a little classy if she was in Florence to look at art and jewelry.”

“Not look,” Lan Qiren says darkly. “Steal.”

Meng Yao chokes on air.

***

Qingheng had just managed to block out the noise and focus on his book when the window of his room shattered inwards.

***

“I beg your fuc--hecking pardon?” Wei Wuxian says, his voice rising to a half shriek. “She was there to do what?

“She was an art thief in Florence?” Meng Yao demands.

Lan Qiren’s disapproving look turns Meng Yao. “No.”

“Not an art thief?” Wei Wuxian says, sounding vaguely hysterical. “Because it sounds like you’re saying she was an art thief.”

“No,” Lan Qiren says again, turning slowly back to Wei Wuxian. “Not in Florence. International.”

“She was an international art thief?” Wei Wuxian’s shriek is loud enough to rattle the windows.

***

Qingheng reflexively threw up an arm to shield his face from the flying shards; when he lowered it, he saw that a figure had tumbled into the room with the inward shower of glass and was struggling to their feet.

“May I help you,” he said, ice cold. 

The most beautiful woman he had ever seen in his life jerked to face him, her hands raised--she’d whipped a knife from her belt the moment he’d spoken. 

Her eyes were the color of molten gold, he noticed faintly. Jaguar eyes. Hawk eyes.

They stared at each other in silence for several eternity-long seconds. He saw those gold eyes flick across him, across the room. Taking stock. Assessing

He closed his book, set it aside, sat up slowly. Goosebumps rose all over his skin.

She lowered her hands (subtly sheathing the knife, he noticed, and flicking loose the carabiner clip at her belt that attached her to the rope that ran back out the window and upwards). She turned her eyes back on him. They welled up with tears. “Please, sir! Please, you have to help me!” She flung herself onto the bed, onto his chest, and threw her arms around his neck. “Please! There are terrible men after me, and if they catch me, they’ll hurt me!”

Qingheng’s hands had reflexively come around her when she’d collided with him. His hands were on her back (lean-muscled and strong and warm through the deep plum-purple satin of her blouse) and her scent was in his nose (pine and old books and lightning), and he was aware, in a distant and intellectual part of himself, that she was lying through her teeth.

A much, much greater part of himself cheerfully hurled that information out the shattered window. 

...The window through which another commotion was approaching. Someone shouted something in Italian, and Qingheng saw her discarded rope twitch as someone jostled it. He dragged her into bed, dragged the covers over her, and hissed, “Stay still.”

***

“No,” said Lan Qiren. 

“What do you mean no? Shufu, you have to say more than no.

“Not much art. Primarily jewels.” And then, with the kind of elegant disdain most people reserve for disposing of a small animal corpse that the cat left on the doormat, he adds, “Wanted in seventeen countries.”

Wei Wuxian collapses slowly onto his side and curls up like a bug, gibbering a little. 

Meng Yao stares into space. “Which seventeen, though,” he murmurs under his breath.

***

The first policeman fumbled his way through the window--not nearly as graceful as the woman had been--and looked in confused shock at Qingheng, who glared icily back at him. Lying is forbidden, offered that distant, intellectual part of his brain. The rest of him once again promptly hurled that thought out the window.

He pointed imperiously to the door. Affecting an imperfect grasp of Italian, he said, “She left.” He added accusingly, “She frightened my wife.”

The woman, buried under the blankets with only the top of her head visible, gave a very convincing sob and clung to his side. Qingheng curled his arm around her and pulled her closer, rubbing at her back as if to comfort her. A sense of deep, possessive satisfaction bloomed in his chest--an entirely new feeling, so unfamiliar that he was a little surprised with himself for it. 

The policeman leaned out the window and shouted to the others, then ran out the door into the hall. Three more policemen followed, a little quicker than the first, sparing Qingheng only the slightest glance while he glared ferociously at them and leaned more protectively over the quietly whimpering woman beside him.

As soon as the door clicked after the last one, the woman sat up, absolutely dry-faced. “Great! You’re a champion.” She flung back the covers and swung her legs out of the bed. 

Qingheng caught her by the wrist. “Wait. It’s not safe yet.” She gave him a curious look. He let go of her and turned to the bedside table, picked up the phone, and dialed the front desk. While it rang, he met her eyes again and held her gaze. As soon as the desk picked up, he snapped in English, “What is the meaning of this! I demand an explanation! Some ruffian just crashed through my window, then I had a dozen policemen parading through my room like buffoons! ” 

The woman’s expression grew delighted and then impressed. Qingheng did not break eye contact with her while the desk receptionist spluttered in confusion at the other end of the line.

“There is glass all over my floor!” Qingheng snarled. “My wife arrived today and she is very jetlagged! She has a delicate constitution! She needs her rest, and now half of the policemen in Florence have decided that our room is a public hallway. What the deuce is going on? What kind of a place is this?”

He took a breath, preparing to charge onwards; the receptionist seized the opportunity to squeak, “I will transfer you to the manager, sir, one moment!”

“Yes, you’d better,” he spat, just before the hold music turned on. “I’m being transferred to the manager,” he told the woman calmly. 

“Tell them I’m distraught. Tell them I’m pregnant and distraught.”

Qingheng nodded. A moment later, he offered, “My name is Lan Zhao. Lan Qingheng.”

“Xia Qin,” she said. “Xia Qiaofu, when I’m feeling snooty.”

“It is nice to meet you,” he said politely.

“Is it, though?” she said, casting an askance look to the shattered window.

“Yes, actually,” he said, and then the manager picked up. “What in the blazes is going on?” Qingheng raged, before the manager could say more than hello. “My wife is pregnant and distraught, the window was shattered by a ruffian and there is glass all over our floor. Do you want to be responsible for injuring a pregnant woman? If she so much as pricks her foot, I will call my lawyers and sue the entire hotel. I will have you sacked. You must move us to a new room immediately. Send up the key and a bellhop.” He slammed the phone back on its cradle, exhaled all the false fury, and cleared his throat. “My apologies for the coarse language, madam,” he said, and she--Xia Qin, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in his life--burst out laughing.

***

“This is not true,” Wangji says blankly.

“I,” Huan-ge says. “I think it might be, actually.” He sounds shellshocked. “It would explain some things.”

Wangji turns incredulously towards him. “Xiongzhang?”

“There was an… incident.” Huan-ge, still sitting over by A-Yuan’s corner with the abandoned truck, rubs his hands over his face. “I haven’t thought of it in years. There was--I had just started first grade, so you would have been… Four, I think? I was called to the school office, and there was a man in a dark suit and a tie, and he showed me a picture of mother and asked if I could tell him who she was.” Huan-ge drags his hands down his face so just his nose and mouth are covered by his hands. He’s staring into space, wide-eyed. “And, ah… All parents teach their children not to talk to strangers, but in hindsight, it was very weird of them to have followed that lesson up with, ‘And if a stranger ever shows you a picture of mama, A-Huan, say that you don’t know her.’”

Wangji, already frozen, becomes as still as a pillar of jade. 

Wei Wuxian releases a single brief shriek of hysterics. 

Meng Yao finds both of these options incredibly relatable.

“So I… did that,” Huan-ge continues blankly. “I told him I didn’t recognize her, and he looked disappointed and he gave me a business card.”

“Which government agency,” Meng Yao manages. He sounds kind of strangled. “Did it say? Police? FBI?”

“Not government. INTERPOL. I… He asked me if I could read the word, he helped me sound it out.” Huan-ge releases all his breath slowly. “And then I took it home and showed it to mother and father, and mother shut herself in the attic for a week and didn’t come down, and we weren’t allowed to go up--”

“I remember,” Wangji says suddenly. Meng Yao recognizes distantly that he must be very shaken indeed to be interrupting like that. “I remember. I thought--” He breaks off.

“Go on,” Meng Yao says, when it’s clear that nobody else has enough coherence for it. “You thought…?”

“I thought she was in trouble. Father said she had misbehaved and that he had locked her up in her room to think about it.”

“Mm,” Lan Qiren creaks. A-Yuan has dozed off in his lap; Lan Qiren is patting his hair gently. “Very irritating. Surveillance vans all over the street.” Another disdainful expression, his lips pursed. “Difficult to find parking.”

Wei Wuxian makes a noise like a teakettle coming to boil.

***

Xia Qin already had boots on, so when she bounced out of the bed, Qingheng did not have to protest that she would cut her feet. He only said, “My shoes, if you wouldn’t mind? By the door?”

“Of course this dutiful wife will fetch your shoes, beloved husband,” she crooned, and laughed again. He was getting the feeling that she was laughing at him , but found he did not entirely mind.

As soon as he had his shoes and glasses on, he opened a drawer of the dresser and handed her his last set of clean pajamas. “You should change. In case someone sees while we move rooms.”

Xia Qin took them, casting a dubious glance at the dresser. “You’ve been in this hotel long enough to unpack?”

“Only two weeks. But I do not like my clothes to become wrinkled in the suitcase.”

“Ohhhh,” she said, as if that explained everything. “So you’re just a big dweeb, then. Cool, okay.”

He stared after her in outrage as she went into the bathroom and half-closed the door. 

He was almost finished stuffing his clothes haphazardly into his luggage and scouring the room for any remaining belongings when she spoke again. “You know those names I gave you? Don’t tell those to anybody, okay? I probably should have given you fake ones, but I dunno… Something told me that I shouldn’t keep any secrets from my beloved husband.”

Qingheng rolled his eyes. Apparently this was going to be a running gag. “This husband appreciates your honesty, dear wife,” he said flatly, and he heard her laugh as the bathroom door creaked open. He glanced around, felt himself flush hot at the sight of her in his clothing, and turned sharply back to the packing. He felt those golden eyes like a weight on his back as he finished tucking away the last few things. “You may hide your clothes in here,” he said, and sensed more than heard her approach.

“Thanks,” Xia Qin said, her voice rich and warm with amusement. “Do you do this often?”

“This?”

“This. You know, heroically rescuing pretty damsels from the authorities, no questions asked about what they might have been up to that got them into that situation in the first place.”

“No. This is my first time.”

“Oh, a virgin?” She was definitely laughing at him. “Cute, cute! I’ll be gentle, but only if you let me call you A-Zhao.”

“Could I stop you?”

“No,” she said, grinning. It made her golden eyes gleam.

“Then I won’t try.” He went to the closet and removed the two plush bathrobes provided by the hotel, putting one on and returning to drape the other over her shoulders as she stuffed her clothes into his bag--she was quite tall, nearly the same height as he was, but once she was in the robe, she hunched up in a way that made her seem significantly shorter. He handed her one of his handkerchiefs. “Cry into that as we’re moving rooms. It will hide your face.”

She took it, marveling. “Carries handkerchiefs, rescues damsels, doesn’t ask questions. If only my mother were here to see this--she told me real gentlemen went extinct as a species long ago.”

A sharp knock. Xia Qin promptly buried her face in the handkerchief and sat on the edge of the bed, her shoulders shuddering in a very realistic way as Qingheng went to answer the door.

***

“I cannot deal with the idea of INTERPOL right now,” Wei Wuxian declares, rolling onto his back and staring up at the ceiling. “I need us all to slow way, way down. I need this to be going about as fast as Lan Qiren is going right now. I need us all to just take a moment to finish wrapping our brains around the concept of my mother-in-law was an international jewel thief wanted in seventeen countries. Also Meng Yao’s mother-in-law.”

Meng Yao’s eyes feel kind of dry. He’s not sure when he last blinked. “This explains a lot,” he whispers.

“Stop,” Wei Wuxian says, holding up one threatening finger in Meng Yao’s direction, still staring at the ceiling. “I said slow down. Do not do the thing where you scramble to the end and start piecing together bullshit, A-Yao. I need a fucking second.” Silence for several seconds. Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath. “A-Yao. International jewel thief wanted in seventeen countries.”

“International jewel thief wanted in seventeen countries,” Meng Yao murmurs in agreement, nodding. 

***

The hotel manager peered into the room as the bellhop loaded the luggage onto the shiny brass cart; his face went pale at the mess. Qingheng put an arm around Xia Qin’s shoulders as she pretended to sob into the handkerchief. He glared at the manager. “Well? What do you have to say for yourself? We have been given no explanation whatsoever for this appalling series of events.”

“Sir, we’re very sorry that you’ve been disturbed,” the manager said quickly. “But we do want to assure you that the hotel is not responsible in the slightest for what happened--”

“I do not care who is responsible,” Qingheng hissed. “The health of my wife and child has been endangered.”

The manager held his hands up. “Of course we are sympathetic, sir, we are as angry as you are at this disturbance! The comfort of our guests is of utmost importance, and we will certainly be reporting this incident to the relevant authorities. In the meantime, we are moving you to one of our finest rooms, and I would like to offer you a complimentary bottle of champagne--”

“I do not drink,” Qingheng said witheringly. “And, once again, my wife is pregnant.

“Room service for the remainder of your stay,” the manager amended without pause. “And if there is anything else that we can possibly do to assist you or your honored wife, please let us know--in fact, here is my card--”

Qingheng took the card and inspected it closely. He tucked it into the breast pocket of his pajama shirt with a final cold, disapproving look to the manager. “We want no further part of whatever nonsense happened tonight. If any of those incompetent policemen come back wanting a statement from us, you may tell them that we respectfully decline. My wife does not need to relive such an upsetting situation. Her condition is very delicate.”

“Of course, sir,” the manager said, nodding energetically. 

The bellhop escorted them to the new room; Qingheng led Xia Qin with one arm around her shoulders the entire way, only releasing her when the bellhop unlocked the door and Qingheng had gotten her safely inside. The new room was indeed very fine, just as the manager had said. Xia Qin collapsed into an armchair, still gently weeping into the handkerchief while the bellhop unloaded the cart. Qingheng tipped him generously and sent him on his way. 

When he bolted the door securely and turned back to the room, Xia Qin was standing at the window. “Would you look at this view? Gorgeous.” 

He crossed over to the window and stood beside her. It was a stunning view--and it had a clear sightline on the dome of the cathedral. But the entire building was lit garishly by floodlights, so it was as clear as if he’d looked at it in the daytime. Not what he’d wanted to draw--even the light of the full moon would have been washed out by those floodlights. 

He glanced at Xia Qin. Perhaps it had been fortunate that the hotel hadn’t moved his room after all. 

***

“I… love her?” Wei Wuxian says. “I might legitimately love her? Like, obviously I already cherished the idea of her because it takes a master artisan to make a person like Lan Zhan, but--like legitimately I might be now worshipping her?” Then, louder, while rolling over onto his stomach and shoving up onto his elbows, “Wait, I’m fucking sorry, hang on a goddamn second, though. How is this possible.”

“Are we jumping to the end now,” Meng Yao says.

“No. Yes. Sort of. Sideways. Kind of sideways. Listen to me. A-Yao, are you listening?”

“I’m listening.”

“International jewel thief wanted in seventeen countries.”

“International jewel thief wanted in seventeen countries, yes.”

“Which is arguably the coolest thing a person could possibly be,” Wei Wuxian says, as if he is insisting on something to Meng Yao. “Arguably.”

“Arguably, yes.” Meng Yao has been staring into space for a little while now. He makes himself blink. He had not had this kind of reaction to the weed at all yesterday--that had just made him feel calm and relaxed, loose in the shoulders like Huan-ge had spent a while working all the knots out. So this must just be shock.

“A-Yao, I genuinely need you to explain to me how the arguably coolest person who has ever lived... ends up producing those.” Wei Wuxian gestures at Wangji and Huan-ge. “A pair of nerds.”

***

She turned away from the window after a minute. “So, A-Zhao, you’re a gentleman, huh.”

“I don’t believe that a true gentleman would advertise himself as a gentleman, madam,” Qingheng said.

She chortled at that and went to sit on the edge of the bed, crossing her legs. There was something in the flair with which she did it that made the hotel bathrobe and the borrowed pajama set look like haute couture. “So you’re really not going to ask me any questions?”

“No.”

“Don’t you want to know why I was abseiling down the side of a hotel in Florence? Aren’t you curious?”

He hummed thoughtfully and turned away from the view, the dome of the cathedral. He sat in the chair that faced the bed and put his hands flat on the tops of his knees. “I am. But I have no need to pry into your personal business.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Why not?”

“It would be rude and improper. If you wish to tell me, I will listen with interest.”

“But you won’t ask.”

“No.”

“You seem smart, though. You know I’ve done something bad.”

“One can conclude this, yes,” Qingheng said dryly.

“But if you’ve got such a strong sense of propriety, why’d you help me?”

“Because you asked.”

She cocked her head and studied him. “I was about to leave after all the police were gone, but you stopped me.”

“You asked me to save you. I was not finished saving you.”

“And now?” Xia Qin gestures at the very fine room. “You got me out of the old room, you hid my trail. Are you finished now?”

Qingheng looks around the room and says mildly, “I can be, if you wish.”

Her eyes glint. “You’d go farther?”

“If you asked.”

“What if I needed a getaway? What if I said, ‘Ooooh, A-Zhao, you have to help me leave the country, it’s too hard and I’m tired’? What would you do? How would you get me out?” 

He sits back in the chair and steeples his fingers in front of his mouth. After a long moment of thought, he says, “I would take you to the embassy. I would tell them that you are my wife. I would say that you were mugged and had your passport and other identification stolen. I would bring you back with me to my family’s house, where it is safe.”

“Huh. And what would you want in repayment for such a favor?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?” Xia Qin raises an eyebrow at him. He only shakes his head in response. “Really, nothing? Not even a cut of the profits?”

He snorts softly. “I have no need of money.”

“Not even… my helpless body?” At this, he feels himself flush scarlet and has to look away. She crows with triumph. “There it is! So you aren’t totally unflappable after all!”

“I have no need of any repayment,” he says, haughtily attempting to recover his pride.

“That’s weird. You know that’s weird of you, right? You just go around doing huge life-saving favors for just anybody who asks and you don’t expect anything in return?”

“Not for just anybody,” he said.

***

Meng Yao makes himself blink again and then convinces his eyes to focus so he can regard Huan-ge and Wangji in turn. They still look like they’re working through the physiological aftereffects of shock too. “Hm.”

“Right?!”

Meng Yao takes a large breath to the bottom of his lungs--oh, perhaps he also hasn’t breathed in a minute or so--and seizes onto the edges of reality with both hands. “I mean, it depends on which side of the nature-versus-nurture argument you fall on. In academic circles, nurture is commonly accepted as--”

“A-Yao? Hey, A-Yao? I love science, you know I love science, but I need you to slow the fuck down.”

 “Argument for nurture: She was the coolest person in the entire world, but they were raised primarily by Lan Qiren.”

“Huge nerd.”

“Huge nerd, yes. But on the subject of nature, then...” Meng Yao let his eyes glaze over again, somewhere in the vicinity of the corner of the coffee table. “Wei Wuxian.”

“What?”

“You have more of an expertise on modern slang and jargon.”

“Probably.”

“Would ‘international jewel thief wanted in seventeen countries’ fall under the umbrella of ‘gremlin’?”

Wei Wuxian covers his face with his hands, slowly slides off his elbows to lie facedown on the carpet and, after a long moment, screeches. In Lan Qiren’s lap, A-Yuan blinks gently awake with a soft noise, squints for a moment at Wei Wuxian having hysterics on the floor, then simply nuzzles into Lan Qiren’s arm again and goes back to sleep. Wei Wuxian’s screeching collapses abruptly into human language. “Lan boys!!! Why are they all like this!!!”

“So it may in fact simply be a recessive gene,” Meng Yao concludes. “Being the coolest person that has ever lived, I mean.”

Wei Wuxian raises his head again on a long inhale and looks imploringly at Meng Yao. “How are we supposed to live up to that?”

“My impression is that one is never really expected to live up to one’s mother-in-law,” Meng Yao says philosophically. “It’s fine.” 

***

“No. Not for just anybody,” he said.

“Just me, then? Because I’m so special? You clap eyes on me and think, ‘Wow, get a load of this random tart who fucked up and fell through my window, I think I’ll give her any help she asks for’?”

“In essence, yes. Though, I profess I did not call you a tart in my head.”

“Hm. You’ll regret it, you know,” she said. “Helping.”

“I disagree.”

“You wouldn’t have done it if you’d known who I was.”

“You are Xia Qin. Xia Qiaofu when you are feeling… what was the word? Snooty?”

“That’s not all I am.”

Qingheng shrugged. “Nor is ‘Lan Zhao, Lan Qingheng’ all that I am.”

“Ask me what I did!” she demands.

“No. But if you wish to tell me, you may.”

“I killed someone once. My teacher.” A spark of triumph in her eyes. “There. Now you’re not so ready to help, are you? You ought to be more careful. You never know what sort of person might take advantage of you.”

“Did your teacher deserve it?” Qingheng asked softly. He hadn’t moved a muscle, still sitting there calmly with his fingers steepled, the tips of his index fingers resting against his chin.

The spark went out of her eyes, replaced with a quieter, steelier sort of expression. “He did.”

Qingheng nodded. “Well, then.”

“He was like a father to me,” she said, challenging. She was trying to bait him into something, as if she wanted him to agree that she was as awful as she thought she was. “He even gave me my courtesy name. Isn’t that terrible, killing your own father?”

“It is,” he agreed. “But were you like a daughter to him?”

She jerked back a little, a tiny movement. He’d surprised her with that one. After a moment, she said silkily, “As it turned out, no. No, I wasn’t.”

“I see. And that is why you had to kill him.”

She narrowed her eyes at him, as if she thought he might be trying to trick her. “I’m a wanted criminal in thirteen countries,” she said.

“Not even seven percent of the world?” He tsked, disapproving. “Qiaofu must try harder to live up to her name. This husband will become impressed at ten percent.”

She cracked and laughed aloud, a bright peal of sound. “What the fuck is wrong with you, Lan Qingheng?”

“Nothing. I am quite well.”

“Right now there’s a bag in your suitcase with about a half a million dollars’ worth of jewelry in it.”

He cast an idle glance at the suitcase. “Hm. Interesting.”

“Really?” she said loudly. “That’s it? ‘Hm, interesting’? Come on!” She jumped off the bed and went to the suitcase, unzipping it and rummaging inside. “How often do you see a half a million dollars of diamonds, huh?” 

“Approximately eighty years ago, there was a small influx of nouveau-riche families in the city my paternal great-grandmother lived in. Great-grandmother decided quite quickly that she was fed up with all the arrogant new upstarts who thought they were society,” Qingheng says calmly. “So she informed my great-grandfather that she was going to Europe and that she would not be back for at least a year and a half. She got on a steamer and landed in Paris, whereupon she discovered that it was full of, and I quote, ‘scoundrels, degenerates, and bohemians’, according to family lore. By all accounts, she was, in fact, delighted with this. By the time great-grandfather caught up with her, about six months later, she had been kicked out of three-quarters of the gambling dens in Montmartre, had allowed several fashionable artists of the era to paint her nude, and was in possession of a genuine mink coat as well as a diamond-and-sapphire necklace whose provenance she refused to disclose even on her deathbed.”

Xia Qin looks up from the suitcase and blinks at him. “A-Zhao, she definitely stole that necklace. You know that, right?”

“That has been the family consensus, yes. To bring the anecdote back to my point: That necklace remains in my family’s vault, where I am welcome to look at it whenever I please, and it is currently valued at roughly three-quarters of a million dollars.” He gave Xia Qin a faint, condescending smile. “Xiao-Fu will simply have to try harder.”

Her mouth fell open a little at the jibe, more incredulous than insulted, and more amused than not. She rose, a pillowcase-sized black sack in her hand, and stalked over to his chair. She leaned on the arms, getting down into his face. He blinked slowly at her.

He had a… hunch. She expected him to be afraid of her, or at least repulsed by her. The fact that he was very much not, on either account, had surprised her. And her surprise, in turn,  seemed to fascinate her.

He would like to be fascinating to her.

***

Wei Wuxian shoved himself up and dragged his hands down his face. “I need to know everything. Shufu. I need to know everything. Do you have a scrapbook? Did she have some kind of--of mysterious thief name? Something really slick, probably. She was so cool, she had to have had a cool alias.”

Lan Qiren pursed his lips. “Jade Phoenix.”

“Oh no, no, that’s too cool, no no no no no--”

***

“The newspapers call me ‘The Jade Phoenix’ sometimes. They don’t know my real name, of course, so they have to call me something,” she said conversationally, as if they were still ten feet apart rather than ten inches. “It’s because the first really expensive valuable thing that I ever stole was… can you guess?”

“I hardly dare to venture that it might have been a phoenix made of jade.”

“Good instincts, that was a trick question, it was actually a stack of old shoes, but only the left ones.” She grinned at him. “An ornament. Early Ming dynasty. White jade--I love white jade best of all. You ever heard that old chestnut about how every jewel thief has a particular kind of stone or gem that’s their irresistible weakness? White jade is mine.”

“You have good taste.”

“Do you want to know why I picked the phoenix ornament?”

“If you are willing to tell me, I am eager to listen.”

“I was mad at my teacher.”

“Ah.”

“You’re supposed to say, ‘For what?’”

“Am I?”

“It’s polite. Shows you’re invested in the conversation. A gentleman would know that.”

“I’ve never advertised myself as a gentleman.”

She leaned in closer, now only two or three inches away. “Say ‘For what’.”

“For what,” he said gamely.

“Because he named me after a fucking wren. Little common brown bird. Thought I was getting too big for my britches, so he reminded me I wasn’t special.”

Qingheng nods slowly. “Ah. I see. So you stole yourself the best bird you could find.”

The strange, predatory look on her face vanishes with a flash of girlish pleasure. “See, you get it!”

“Yet you keep the name.”

“Yeah, well, I came around to it. Wrens are cute. Little fat fluttery things. I’m cute too.” She put her head slyly on one side. “Don’t you think so?”

***

“Shufu,” Meng Yao asks suddenly. “In the vault. Are any of those pieces hers? Ones she stole, I mean.”

Wei Wuxian stops wailing and gnashing his teeth and looks to Lan Qiren.

Lan Qiren sighs, as if to say No one knows how I have suffered. “The white jade bracelets.”

Meng Yao looks calmly over to his husband, who is looking back with a studiously calm expression of his own. They share a moment of silent communication--by the slight widening of Huan-ge’s eyes, Meng Yao interprets that his husband is mentally screaming about something. Meng Yao attempts to telepathically soothe him, the equivalent of a hearty ‘Buck up!’ and a pat on the shoulder.

Meng Yao knows those bracelets. He’s had some excellent sex while wearing those bracelets. Hm. Interesting. 

“She fenced most of what she stole. But she hoarded white jade. I do not know why. Xiongzhang got rid of all of it but the bracelets, after she passed,” Lan Qiren says, bleary. Speaking this much, his voice sounds a little robotic, like the voice of someone under deep hypnosis. “Gave them back to the museums or their rightful owners. He said he’d found them in pawnshops or estate auctions.” His already glassy eyes go more distant. “She made jokes.”

“About what?” Meng Yao looks up--Wangji, that had been Wangji speaking. Good. That is good, that is evidence that they are all making progress through the shock.

“Keeping the best of her collection in the house.” Lan Qiren says. 

“Oh,” Huan-ge says. He’s frowning at the carpet again, his head cocked like he’s listening to some distant, faint sound. “ Oh. I get it now.”

“Xiongzhang?” 

Meng Yao glances back and forth between Wangji and Huan-ge. 

“You remember, Wangji,” Huan-ge says. “You must remember. She always said it. Every time she came back from a trip, she’d come into whatever room we were playing in and say she needed to take inventory and…?”

“Oh. Count her favorite two jades,” Wangji says.

They share another long, silent look.

“So I’m actually coming to a new conclusion now,” Wei Wuxian says, squinting into the middle distance. “And that might be that the nerd genes run along both lines. Pedigree nerds. Like, I’m not saying it isn’t cute, because it is , but also… Wow, what a nerd thing to say.”

“Mm,” Meng Yao says. “No, it’s good. Organized. Sticking to a theme. Still cool.”

“Ok, sure, yes, points for sticking to the theme, sticking to a theme is always going to be kind of cool. Like, yes, bitch, live that aesthetic, love that for you. But at the same time, you have to be a bit of a nerd to devote yourself to the aesthetic like that, you get me?”

***

“I’m cute too.” She put her head slyly on one side. “Don’t you think so?”

“I think you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in my life,” Qingheng said, as easily as if she’d asked whether the sky was blue.

She blinked at him and went a little pink in the cheeks. Charming. “Wow, okay, you’re just gonna say it out loud like that, huh? Who does that? Why would you do that? Why would you say that?”

“You asked. I answered.”

“You gotta stop saying that ‘you asked’ thing, because I’m kind of getting into it,” she said earnestly. “Like in a sex way.” He felt himself blush again and struggled to hold eye contact. “Gosh, that’s cute. Why are you such a prude about sex when you don’t give a shit about the crimes and murder and stuff?”

“Discussing such things is not considered couth in my family.”

“Ah fuck, and now you’re using the word ‘couth’ in the middle of a sentence like it’s just common vocabulary. That’s so hot. Listen,” she said, suddenly testy. “How come you don’t want to have sex with me? It’s unjust. I have a grievance.”

He had to break eye contact then, dropping his gaze to her hand, leaning on the arm of his chair. “You misunderstand.”

“Do you only like boys? It would comfort me a lot to know that.”

“I do not like men.”

“What is it, then?”

“You have not asked.”

“I did too. I said, ‘Ooooh, sir, how can this poor maiden ever hope to repay you? Perhaps with my helpless body?’ Wait, did you think that was just a joke? I wasn’t joking, that was literally just a straight-up invitation for you to have your way with me, and I’ve been sulking for like five minutes now about you turning your nose up at me after pulling that whole dashing hero thing--”

He kissed her.

“Oh, now we’re getting somewhere,” she said into his mouth, and slid onto his lap, straddling him. She broke off after a minute, her eyes sparkling. “Hey, do you want to see my jewels? I’ve been planning this heist for a year. You should look at the jewels I got.”

“Alright,” he said, sliding his hands around her waist. “Show me.”

***

Huan-ge and Wangji hold their silent look for several more long moments, then turn as one to Lan Qiren. 

Huan-ge gets up and goes over to the couch, sitting beside his uncle. “Shufu,” he says quietly. A-Yuan blinks awake again, peering at him. Huan-ge takes a breath and opens his mouth, then stops and looks at Wangji again. “I should ask?” 

Wangji gives a tiny nod. Says quietly, “Please.”

Huan-ge turns back to Lan Qiren. “Shufu, how did mother die?”

A flicker of something crosses Lan Qiren’s face during the long pause that by now they all expect before the answer. “Illness,” he says.

A-Yuan yawns hugely and says, “Nuh-uh.”

***

Somewhere in the chaos of trying to sort out Xia Qin’s fake paperwork with the embassy the next day, she leaned over and nudged Qingheng. “Hey. You know what’s easier than trying to forge documents? Just getting real documents. Do you wanna go get married? It’ll be fun.”

He gave her a long, cool look. “It will involve vows.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty standard.”

“I don’t make vows lightly. And I never break them.”

She blinked at him. “What are you saying?”

“It won’t be a joke to me. Ask me to marry you in truth and I will be your husband in truth.”

Xia Qin smiled slowly. “A-Zhao, are you in love with me already?”

Qingheng considered this. “What time is it?” He checked his watch. “One in the afternoon? Give me until dinner.” He looked frankly at her. “I haven’t hit the ground yet, but I’m falling.”

She leaned in and kissed him, curling one hand around his back and, with a bright sting of pain, digging in her nails on the stripes she’d left on him the night before. “Tell me the moment you hit the ground,” she whispered.

“Your servant, madam,” he whispered back.

***

“But what illness?” Huan-ge presses. “I was ten, shufu, I was old enough to know.”

“Illness,” Lan Qiren says vaguely.

“No,” A-Yuan says more firmly.

“Ah, baobei, what are you saying no about?” Wei Wuxian shakes the haze off and gets to his feet, whisking A-Yuan out of Lan Qiren’s lap and perching the boy on his hip. “Why no? No because all the grownups aren’t paying attention to you? That’s a mood, though, I get that. I do get that.”

“Down,” A-Yuan says firmly, then adds, with adorable wide-eyed guilt, “I mean please! Sorry, baba!”

Wei Wuxian puts him down. 

A-Yuan climbs right back onto the couch and tugs on Huan-ge’s sleeve. “Bobo, it was the man.”

The room puzzles over this.

***

They ate dinner in the room, because Xia Qin thought it was a waste not to take advantage of the complimentary room service. She came out of the bathroom wearing nothing but the shirt of the pajama set she’d borrowed from him, halfway through braiding her hair out of her face and energetically recounting an amusing story about her brief stint as a spy in East Berlin--

Qingheng felt his heart wrench an inch to the left, and said, “Now.”

“Huh?” 

“Now. I’ve hit the ground.”

She looked down at herself, puzzled. “What, seriously? Just from this?”

He nodded. His heart was in his throat. The amusing story suddenly wasn’t so amusing anymore, it was just… frightening. She could have been hurt. She might never have made it to him at all, and he would have left Florence having had no adventure at all, and he would have gone straight back to the house he shared with Qiren, and his life and his routine, and… 

Xia Qin gave him a scolding look. “Tsk! Men! I was expecting champagne under the moonlight or fireworks or some such! I was going to be wearing my best diamond earrings! The tiara I stole from that one duchy in France! We’ve done this all wrong. I could have been wearing an evening gown for this, you know.” She sighed. “And now I’ve gone and screwed it up on my end too. I had a whole vision for how this was going to go. Fine. We will make the best of it.” She finished braiding her hair and climbed into bed, straddling his hips over the blankets. “Try it again.”

“I’m in love with you. Please marry me.”

“Wrong!” she howled. “Asshole, I was gonna ask!” She seized a pillow and walloped him over the head with it. “What’s all this about refusing to ask me for anything, and then suddenly you start asking? I said I had a vision for this, A-Zhao! Useless!” She huffed and twirled one finger in the air impatiently. “From the top, let’s go.”

“Please marry me, clever wife.”

She groaned and topped off him onto her side. “I’m trying to do a whole thing here and you keep spoiling it.

“Sorry.”

“Say, ‘I’m in love with you.’”

“I’m in love with you.”

“WowamazingItotallydidn’tseethiscominglet’sgetmarriedimmediatelyandhavepreciselytwosons.” She gives him a smug look. “There, was that so hard?”

***

 “What man, baobei?” Meng Yao says. “What are you talking about?” 

“The man,” A-Yuan says confidently. He nods firmly at Meng Yao. “The policeman, bofu.”

“Ohhh,” Wei Wuxian says. “He heard us talking about the police thing earlier.” To A-Yuan he says, “No, no, sweetheart, that was just an adventure your diedie’s mama had one time.”

“No, baba,” A-Yuan says patiently, as if explaining himself to a total idiot. Meng Yao cannot fault the kid’s assessment, frankly. “Listen! I know!”

Meng Yao hauls himself out of  the chair and crouches in front of where A-Yuan sits between Huan-ge and Lan Qiren. He grabs the boy’s bitty feet and wiggles them back and forth. A-Yuan has adorable bunny socks on, which is good because Meng Yao always feels some strange alien impulse in his lizard hindbrain to gnaw gently on A-Yuan’s little toes (also Jin Ling’s, but Jin Ling’s toes just aren’t as cute). “The grownups are being very boring, aren’t they, Yuan-er? Want to come play trucks with me instead?”

A-Yuan sighs hugely and leans forward to pat Meng Yao’s hand. “Later, bofu,” he says, hilariously condescending. “We play trucks later, okay?”

Meng Yao pouts at him. “Not now?”

“No!” A-Yuan says, impatient and frustrated. Then, immediately contrite, he says, “Sorry! I mean no, please .”

“My baby, everybody,” Wei Wuxian announces. “Has everyone met my baby? Tiny little sock feet and tiny little manners. Lan Zhan, have you met my baby? Isn’t he an excellent baby? We should take him home and keep him in the bunny cage.”

Huan-ge returns his attention to Lan Qiren. “Shufu,” he says. 

A-Yuan looks up at him immediately. “The man,” he insists. “It was the man.”

Meng Yao wiggles A-Yuan’s feet again to distract him and murmurs, “Shh, sweet, your bobo’s trying to talk.”

A-Yuan pulls his feet out of Meng Yao’s hands, kneels up, and takes Huan-ge’s face in his tiny little hands, looking seriously into his eyes. “Listen. The lady told me. It was the man.”

Huan-ge looks slightly unsettled. “What lady?”

“The lady that came to my room and talked to me.”

“Ah? When?” Wei Wuxian says. “Before you came to live with me and diedie, you mean?”

“No,” A-Yuan says, sitting back down with a plop. “It was in my room. My room at your house.”

“Our house,” Wangji corrects.

“Our house. My room! I woke up and the lady was there. I was scared, but Egg said she was nice, so then I wasn’t scared.” Ah. Meng Yao nods sagely to himself. Incoherent toddler dreams. Egg, of course, is A-Yuan’s lion stuffie, the only toy he’d brought with him when he came to Wei Wuxian and Wangji.

“Good,” Meng Yao says in a low voice, trying to catch A-Yuan’s attention and bring his energy down a little so Huan-ge has even a slight chance of having a conversation over their heads. “Choosing not to be scared is very brave.”

A-Yuan nods. “She looked nice,” he says. “But she had a scar, so I was scared. It was right here, like this.”

A-Yuan reaches out and traces a line on Meng Yao’s face from his cheekbone to his jaw. Huan-ge, who had just opened his mouth to speak to Lan Qiren again, freezes.

A long silence.

“Hm,” says Wei Wuxian. “Lan Zhan, did your mom have a scar like that?”

“Yes,” says Wangji tightly.

“Hm,” Wei Wuxian says again, more thoughtfully. “Hm. And here I thought we’d all get to skip the Toddlers Saying Creepy Shit phase.”

“A-Yuan,” Huan-ge says. Meng Yao is so proud of him, he doesn’t sound creeped out at all. “What did the lady tell you?”

“Uhhh,” says A-Yuan, screwing his little face up in concentration. “She said… I’m cute. And Egg too. And...um, I don’t ‘member. And then I was sleepy, so she told me a story, ‘bout the man.”

“Tell us the story, baobei,” Meng Yao says, smiling so that A-Yuan won’t get nervous about all the weird vibes that the other three non-catatonic adults are exuding right now. 

“There was a man! And she was gonna get him . But then he chased her lots and she hid in a house. Then, the man! He came and it was like a movie. And then everybody was dead. From tickles.” A-Yuan concludes with one big, decisive nod. “Then the lady tickled me. Then I sleeped.”

“Neat,” Wei Wuxian says, too cheerful. “What a great story. Speaking of sleeping, Lan Zhan, isn’t it about naptime for little bunnies?”

“But I did napped already,” A-Yuan protests, even as he lifts his arms for Wangji to pick him up. “I want to play trucks with bofu now.”

Lan Qiren’s eyes refocus, watching Wangji lift A-Yuan, and as soon as Wangji begins walking away (A-Yuan flopping dramatically on his shoulder in dismay of naps), Lan Qiren pushes himself to his feet on his own power and shuffles at quarter-speed after them.  

Meng Yao takes the vacated spot on the couch. As soon as A-Yuan is out of the room, he says, “So it’s an established fact that all children are haunted.”

“Oh, absolutely all children are haunted. The spooky phase is well documented,” Wei Wuxian says, dragging over a chair and sitting. “When I was little, I was incredibly haunted at all times.”

“Your haunting continued well into your late teens, as we all so vividly recall,” Meng Yao snips. “It is the only explanation for your fashion choices at the time.”

“I’m still more haunted than average,” Wei Wuxian says, as if he has not heard Meng Yao. “Comes of being born on Halloween, it’s practically required that I maintain a certain level of mild spookiness.”

“Yes, we all wish you well with that. Back to my point: Spooky children, not unusual. Now, that said, I would like to disclose the fact that several months ago, during one of the first times I was babysitting, A-Yuan pulled some of Xichen’s scrapbooks and photo albums off the shelf because he thought they were picture books, and we looked through them together. He was very impressed with them.”

“Oh, shit, is that why he keeps asking me to read him the pretty book at bedtime?” Wei Wuxian demands. “I keep asking him which book is the pretty book and he looks at me like I’m a fucking moron.”

“He’s right. You are. He’s a very intelligent and insightful child, guttersnipe,” Meng Yao says. “Back to my point. As I was saying: I believe,” he says, turning slightly towards Huan-ge, “that there was a photograph of your mother in one of the books.”

“Pre-scar or post-scar?” Huan-ge says.

“Post-scar. The candid shot of her where she’s leaning on a table to look at some blueprints.”

“Okay, so that’s the less haunted explanation,” Wei Wuxian says. “He saw a photograph in a scrapbook and came away with a mental image of the coolest person who has ever lived. And an obsession with dage’s admittedly stellar sticker game.”

“Just so. I don’t think I particularly pointed out that photograph? I may have identified her in passing, but… Yes, as you say, he did seem more interested in the stickers than anything else, so that was our main focus of conversation.”

“Still kinda creepy,” Wei Wuxian says, squinting thoughtfully. “But it takes the creepy down from a ten to like a… four. Ish.” He sits back in the chair and laces his fingers together over his stomach. “I think I’m comfortable with that. Having a level four spooky kid, I feel qualified to handle that.”

“Congratulations.” Meng Yao glances sidelong at Huan-ge. “And how are you?”

Huan-ge takes a breath. “I don’t know.”

“This has kind of been, like, a lot, huh,” Wei Wuxian says. “Anybody feel like we all just got punched in the face six or seven times in a row? Whew. Y’know, dage,” he adds, “I do still have a good bit of weed left over if you want some. Ooh, A-Yao could teach you how to shotgun.”

“Xichen doesn’t know what shotgunning is,”  Meng Yao says.

“I don’t know how you know what shotgunning is,” Wei Wuxian retorts. “When would you have learned what shotgunning is?”

“In high school, the customary place for people to learn about shotgunning.”

“Bullshit.”

“No bullshit. It was after Xichen graduated and cruelly abandoned me for institutions of higher learning. I had two entire years of woe and misery in which to educate myself about the world.”

“Lies and perfidy! Don’t give me that! Dage was coming down from college nearly every weekend for you, and every school holiday, and you were attached at the hip every summer, and I would like everyone to give me a round of applause for not making a sex joke about that.”

Meng Yao did not dignify this with an answer. “There were some weekends he did not come down, and I still had the rest of the week with nothing to console me or occupy my time. Thus, I took up hobbies, such as occasionally going to terrible parties in order to socialize with people who were not Xichen.” He shakes his head a little. “Terrible decision. Cannot recommend it. But it was educational.”

“Is this the sort of thing that happens when you two go for cheeseburgers?” Huan-ge says, sounding dazed.

“Approximately.” Meng Yao pats his knee. 

“We’re not in top form today, though,” Wei Wuxian adds.

“I see,” Huan-ge says. Then, “What is shotgunning?”

“Shotgunning is a thing which I have never personally done, firstly because it is a disgusting act that is fit only for repulsive teenagers to practice, and secondly because all my favors are of course sworn to you,” Meng Yao says. “One inhales marijuana smoke and then exhales it into another person’s mouth while they, simultaneously, are inhaling.”

“Like kissing, but make it illegal in most states,” Wei Wuxian chirps. “I’ve done it.”

Meng Yao gives him a withering look. “I had no doubt about that, guttersnipe.”

“It doesn’t sound that disgusting,” Huan-ge says.

“That’s only because you’re picturing doing it with A-Yao,” Wei Wuxian says. “When it’s a bunch of gross sweaty teenagers in somebody’s basement with no adult supervision? Trust us, it’s revolting.” He studies Huan-ge. “Soooo? Are we getting dage high today?”

Huan-ge doesn’t immediately say no, which Meng Yao finds instantaneously delightful and fascinating. Huan-ge meets his eyes for a long moment; Meng Yao smiles and shrugs one shoulder. “Up to you.”

“Not everybody reacts the same way. You know how alcohol affects you and Lan Zhan completely differently? You might not go full catatonic like Lan Qiren,” Wei Wuxian adds, slumping lower in his chair. “For me, I’m just sort of… chill. You know? Except about international jewel thieves who are wanted in seventeen countries, because nobody could ever possibly be chill about that, so good on your dad for locking that shit down. What was I saying? Oh yes. Chill. But A-Yao is not as affected with such chill, I think.”

“Not as much as I was yesterday. Today it’s just making me vaguely unfocused. And…” He thinks, tries to figure out how to word it. “Distantly horny? As if it is happening in another room. Like hearing that a conversation is happening somewhere, but not being able to make out the words. That kind of horny.” 

Wei Wuxian makes a noise of sage understanding. “I’m gonna bet you’d still have that crazy low tolerance, dage. Classic Lan trait, there.” He holds up one finger warningly. “Though I will say, A-Yao, fair warning: If dage takes one hit and spontaneously develops a passionate need to go to Burning Man, I will be taking him on a road trip, and you and Lan Zhan can stay home with the baby and the running water and indoor plumbing and creature comforts of civilization and deal with it.

Huan-ge takes his phone out of his pocket. Meng Yao snatches it away. “Do not google Burning Man, fujun.”

“Dage,” Wei Wuxian sings. “Just let me know, okay? No pressure!” Footsteps approach, and then Wangji re-enters. Wei Wuxian squeaks with happiness and stretches out a frantically grasping hand, which Wangji takes. Wei Wuxian looks adoringly up at him. “Our child is only a level four spooky child, husband, not a level ten spooky child. Totally manageable spookiness! He saw a picture of your mom in one of dage’s scrapbooks.”

“Oh.” Wangji seems to relax. “And then had a dream.”

“Yup! Did he go down okay?"

Wangji nodded. “He and shufu are resting together.”

“Aw, cute. My baby’s a little cuddle monster. Oh, hey, dage is thinking of smoking some of my weed, do you want to?”

Wangji casts Huan-ge a surprised look; Huan-ge shrugs. “Seems like if I was ever going to do it, today would be the day for it,” he murmurs.

“Mn,” Wangji agrees fervently. After another moment of consideration, he says, “If xiongzhang wants to, I will.”

Wei Wuxian’s attention snaps to Huan-ge, who sighs and nods. “Alright.”

Wei Wuxian does a flailing, ecstatic dance of triumph without making a single noise--presumably so as not to wake the baby. “Amazing, amazing, amazing,” he hisses. “Shit. Wow. Yes. Okay, okay, okay. Whew. Okay. I am going to generously volunteer to stand this round out, ‘cause A-Yuan’s gonna wake up eventually and I’ll probably be the one closest to stone-sober. Also because A-Yao has to teach dage about shotgunning.”

Wangji’s eyebrows quirk together. “What is shotgunning?”

Wei Wuxian bounces to his feet. “I,” he says brightly, “am going to teach you,” he boops Wangji on the nose, “about shotgunning at a later date! When our precious son is having a sleepover at his uncles’ house and looking at dage’s sticker collection! Okay,” he claps his hands and rubs them together like a conniving little raccoon. “Where are we doing this? Backyard? Attic?”

Chapter Text

Qingheng set down one of the suitcases, held open the gate of the wrought-iron fence, and gestured her through. Behind them, the taxi driver slammed the trunk, got back in, and eased the car off down the street as Xia Qin looked up at the townhouse with a wry little smile, her hands in the pockets of her coat and her breath clouding in the air. “Cute and a bit stuffy,” she declared. “Suits you.”

“Madam is too kind,” he said, following her up the stoop with the bags. He set them down again long enough to fish his keys out of his pocket and open the door. 

She preceded him once again, kicking her shoes off and inspecting the floors, the ceiling, the art on the walls, the carved banister. “Stuffy,” she said again, grinning. “But a nice kind of stuffy.”

“I hope you like it.”

“There’s a few kinds of stuffy I’m partial to, as it turns out,” she said, sauntering forward, using her hands in her pockets to swish the skirts of her coat flirtatiously. 

He caught her around the waist and backed her against the door, kissing her until they heard footsteps coming to the upstairs landing. “Xiongzhang?”

“Yes,” Qingheng said, stepping back from her. She remained leaning on the door. “Yes, I’m home.”

“Oh--welcome back. I hope the travel wasn’t too stressful. You’ll have to tell me all about Florence--oh.” Qiren, descending, stopped in the middle of the stairs and blinked. “Hello.”

“Hi!” Xia Qin said, waving. “You must be Qingheng’s little brother, right?”

“Yes,” he said, his eyes flicking to Qingheng. “Lan Qiren.”

“Xia Qin, Xia Qiaofu! You can call me Qiaofu-sao if you like, there’s no need to stand on formality.”

“I beg your pardon,” Qiren said, frowning. “Whyever not--wait, sao?

His brother was going to faint, Qingheng reflected with some satisfaction. “Qiren, this is my wife.”

Qiren blinked. “But you don’t have a wife.”

“We got married in Florence.”

Qiren’s expression became one of profound disquiet. “You went to Florence to elope? That’s why you went so suddenly? Xiongzhang, why would you keep such a thing from me?”

“No, no, you misunderstand,” Xia Qin said warmly. “We met in Florence!”

Qiren’s hand gripped the banister, white knuckled. “Xiongzhang,” he said faintly. “You were only there for two weeks.” 

“That’s right,” Qingheng said, removing his coat and assisting Xia Qin with hers. He sat down on the bench to unlace his shoes.

“Miss Xia can’t be your-- You didn’t marry someone you only knew for two weeks!”

“I did not,” Qingheng said evenly. “We met three days ago.”

Qiren put a hand to his forehead in the same tremulous way that mother used to. “I will… sit in the library. This is unexpected.” He drifted back up the stairs like a dismayed ghost.

Xia Qin turned to Qingheng. “Whole family of stuffy dweebs, huh?”

He kissed her, bit at her lower lip to show her what he thought of that.

Footsteps on the stairs again. “Xiongzhang,” Qiren said plaintively. “Is this perhaps a prank?”

“No, Qiren.”

Qiren made a disconsolate sound and turned to go back up the stairs. He only made it three steps before he turned and came most of the way back down again. “But xiongzhang,” he said, woeful. “It’s Lunar New Year in two days, what will we tell the guests when they come for dinner?”

“I will apologize for springing such big news on them.”

Qiren made another soft, wounded noise. Went up a few steps. Turned around, came back down the same steps--he still hadn’t made it all the way to the bottom of the stairs at any point. “Xiongzhang,” he said, truly pitiful now. “Did you read the book I lent you?”

“I started it, and I meant to finish it on the flight home, but Xia Qin was… unwell. I had to attend to her.” Xia Qin had faked being unwell, actually, and then they’d had sex in the airplane bathroom. Several times. It had been a long flight. “I will finish it soon.”

Qiren looked extraordinarily dubious about this but, finally, went upstairs.

***

Meng Yao lifts Huan-ge’s face with his hands, seals their lips together, and breathes smoke into Huan-ge’s mouth for the third time--that vague, distant arousal is much more pressing now. Huan-ge is lying absolutely boneless and decadent across his lap on the loveseat tucked into the curve of the solarium’s bay window. “There,” Meng Yao says. “How are you feeling?” 

Huan-ge stares up at him, wide-eyed. “Oh. You’re so handsome.”

“Womp, there it is. What’d I say? No tolerance at all,” Wei Wuxian laughs from the doorway. They’ve taken things to the solarium on the reasoning that it is small, comfortable, mostly occupied by plants rather than heirloom antique furniture that might absorb the smoke or smell, has windows so they can air things out afterwards, and is located in a nice midway point of the house so that Wei Wuxian can supervise from a little distance while keeping an ear out for A-Yuan or Lan Qiren, who are still solidly napping in the master bedroom. 

Meng Yao brushes a bit of hair off Huan-ge’s forehead, smiling down at him. 

Huan-ge blinks. “Dimples,” he whispers.

“I don’t feel anything,” Wangji says. He’s been fiddling with his phone on and off for ten minutes now.

Wei Wuxian points a threatening finger at him. “You’d better start feeling something, Lan-er-gege, or I’m going to be so disappointed.”

Meng Yao silently passes Wangji the joint. “Keep it for a bit, I think we’re good here.”

“You’re so handsome,” Huan-ge says, as if perplexed by a mystery of the universe.

“Look, Lan Zhan. Look at dage. That’s what you’re supposed to be doing right now. You don’t want them to be cuter than us, do you? We’ve got a baby.”

“Wei Ying is the cutest,” Wangji says under his breath.

Meng Yao ignores him and pets Huan-ge’s hair. “I’m so handsome, but what are you, fujun?”

Huan-ge’s eyes somehow get even wider. “Fujun? Are we married?”

Wei Wuxian screeches with laughter, bracing himself on the doorframe. “Oh no, this is great .”

“I can’t be married to you,” Huan-ge says with a very polite, very genteel form of panic. “I have a husband already.”

“Yes, me. It’s me, I’m your husband.” 

“You’re my husband?” 

“You know what, Wei Wuxian,” Meng Yao says. “I’m having a really great day all of a sudden.”

“As dage’s cross-stitch projects would say,” Wei Wuxian says sagely, “Every day is a gift, that’s why we call it the present.”

Huan-ge tries valiantly to sit up and fails. “But you’re so handsome,” he protests.

“Gege is also very handsome,” Meng Yao says. This is wildly more affectionate than they’ve ever been in front of anyone before, even Wangji and Wei Wuxian, but--well, that’s what drugs will do for you. It doesn’t seem like it matters much right now, Meng Yao is just smug and pleased to have something nicer than Wei Wuxian does.

“Oi, dage,” Wei Wuxian says. “I’m not as handsome as A-Yao, but I’m still a little handsome, right? It’s okay, you can say so!”

Huan-ge glances over to the door, frowning. “Wei Wuxian, please don’t interrupt, it’s very rude.”

“Yes, Wei Wuxian, it’s very rude,” Meng Yao says, smirking. He tugs a lock of Huan-ge’s hair. “How come you remember his name but you don’t know that I’m your husband?”

Huan-ge’s attention snaps back to him. “You’re my husband?”

“Lan Zhan, are you sure you’re not feeling anything?” Wei Wuxian whines.

“I’m sure,” Wangji says. He’s sitting on the floor near the loveseat, fiddling with something on his phone.

“Hmmm. I’m going to do a thing,” Meng Yao says to Wei Wuxian. “And I want you to play along.”

“Ugh, fine. What is it?”

“I’m going to wait thirty seconds until gege has forgotten again that I’m his h-u-s-b-a-n-d--”

“You speak Latin?” Huan-ge asks, intrigued.

“--and then I’m going to play a game with him.” He looks down at Huan-ge. “A fun, harmless game, right?”

“Yes,” Huan-ge says confidently. His legs are draped over the arm of the loveseat, because he’s longer than any sensible human should be. He kicks them a little and raises a hand to touch Meng Yao’s face. “Dimples, please.”

Meng Yao smiles as dimplingly as he can; Huan-ge heaves a besotted sigh. 

“This is amazingly fucked up and I wish that I too were properly high for this,” Wei Wuxian says. “On the other hand, crystal clear memories. Lan Zhan, are you feeling it yet?”

“No.”

Wei Wuxian tsks impatiently. “What are you doing on your phone? Playing a game?”

“Just looking something up.”

Judging that roughly thirty seconds have passed, Meng Yao tugs on Huan-ge’s ear a little. “Hey, gege, who am I?”

So handsome. Beautiful. Really, really, really pretty. But also: handsome.”

Meng Yao basks. “I kissed you a minute ago, do you remember that?” 

Alarm. “I kissed you? But I have a husband!”

“Yes, you do,” Meng Yao says encouragingly. “That’s your husband, right?” He points at Wei Wuxian, who makes a horrified face and seems like he’s about to protest before Meng Yao glares at him.

He’s my husband?” Huan-ge says, equally aghast.

“Yes,” Meng Yao says solemnly.

Huan-ge again tries and fails to sit up. Catching sight of Wangji (what is he doing on his phone, Meng Yao wonders idly), Huan-ge says, “Wangji! He’s not my husband, is he?” 

Wangji looks up from his phone. Studies his brother. Studies Wei Wuxian at the door. Studies his brother again. Studies Meng Yao. “Hm. I don’t know,” he says, and returns his attention to the phone.

“I can’t tell if he’s playing along or if he’s finally feeling it,” Wei Wuxian whispers loudly.

“I’m not feeling it,” Wangji says. 

Huan-ge looks desperately up at Meng Yao. “He’s my husband?”

“Well, he doesn’t have to be,” Meng Yao says sweetly. “You could leave him cold and alone and run away into the sunset with me.” 

Huan-ge’s expression clears with a wave of relief and he nods. “Yes. Yes please.”

“Wow, okay ,” Wei Wuxian says. “I didn’t know that this so-called fun harmless game was going to be about being mean to Wei Ying.”

Wangji looks up from his phone. “I’ll be mean to Wei Ying.” 

Wei Wuxian gives him a suspicious look. “Okay, you’re definitely feeling it a little.”

“No. I don’t feel anything.”

“You just volunteered to have sex with me, even though your brother is right there.”

Wangji studies Huan-ge again. “Hm. He is not paying attention.” Back to his phone again.

Huan-ge is indeed not paying attention. “Do you want to be my husband instead?” he whispers to Meng Yao.

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe,” Meng Yao says airily. “That depends. What are you offering?”

Huan-ge gazes earnestly into his eyes. “I have a collection of oven mitts. They’re seasonal.”

“Hmm. Well, okay.”

“Okay?” Huan-ge lights up.

“Yes. Sold.”

“Okay,” Huan-ge says blissfully, nuzzling into Meng Yao’s stomach. Then, in a more serious voice, “I’m sorry I can’t be your husband anymore, Wei Wuxian.”

“Yeah, uh huh,” Wei Wuxian says, clearly vaguely disturbed. “Well, no hard feelings, please go find happiness with A-Yao, I’ll just have to find a way to get over it somehow.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Huan-ge says, half-muffled in Meng Yao’s cardigan. “That shows a real generosity of spirit. I too wish you the best.”

What the fuck is this, Wei Wuxian mouths at Meng Yao. Meng Yao only smirks at him. 

The doorbell rings. Wangji says immediately, “I’ll get it,” and gets to his feet with nary a wobble. 

Wei Wuxian watches him, all squinty and suspicious again. “You’re not feeling it?”

“No.” He hands the joint to Wei Wuxian. “I think I’m done with this.”

“So disappointing,” Wei Wuxian sighs as Wangji goes out. “Truly a shame. A-Yao, are you done too?”

“Hmm,” Meng Yao says, studying his husband and petting his hair. “You want one more hit, gege?” 

Huan-ge turns his face enough to peer up with one eye. “The kissing way?”

Meng Yao huffs a laugh. “Yes, if you want.”

“Yes.”

Wei Wuxian comes over to hand Meng Yao the joint, who picks up the lighter from where Wangji had set it on the edge of a plant stand. Meng Yao lights up, inhales deep into his lungs, and helps Huan-ge sit up enough to reach his mouth. Huan-ge’s eyes fall shut and Meng Yao exhales--it’s even less coordinated than the first one had been, and a great deal of smoke escapes, but Meng Yao still feels a rush of fierce, possessive arousal at the thought of Huan-ge taking Meng Yao’s very breath into his lungs. Fuck. He wants to drag Huan-ge upstairs and roll around in the sheets with him--and not even as a euphemism, not even really sex, just… touch. Bare skin. The skin is the largest organ of the body, isn’t it? He wants to rub every inch of himself against every inch of Huan-ge. Fuck. Fuck.

He lowers Huan-ge back to his lap; Huan-ge’s eyes flutter open a moment later and he sighs, “Wow. You’re just so handsome.”

“You’re a sap,” Meng Yao tells him.

“Okay.” Huan-ge touches his face. “Dimples, please.”

Meng Yao snorts and fakes annoyance with a little cluck of his tongue. “Why should I? Hm? When you can’t even remember that we’re married for a full minute?”

A giddy smile blooms across Huan-ge’s face like dawn, and his eyes fall closed again. “We’re married .”

“Useless,” Meng Yao says fondly.

“Fucking hell, it’s a good thing I’ve gotten inoculated against cuteness since getting A-Yuan, otherwise I’d be sick all over the floor right now,” Wei Wuxian says. He looks over his shoulder and frowns. “Lan Zhan, what are all those bags?” 

Wangji brushes past him into the room, two large brown paper sacks in his arms. “Take-out.”

“What? Who ordered take-out?”

“I did,” Wangji says, sitting on the floor and beginning to unpack the bags. “I wanted Indian.”

“Wangji,” Meng Yao says, speculative. Wangji pauses and looks up at him. “On a scale of one to ten, how hungry are you right now?”

“Seventeen,” Wangji says seriously. 

“Oh my god, you are feeling it!” Wei Wuxian cries. A moment later, “Fuck, that smells good. Can I have some?” 

Wangji nods and shifts a few containers to make a space for Wei Wuxian to sit next to him. 

“Ok, I take it back, this isn’t disappointing at all,” Wei Wuxian says, prying off the plastic lid of the nearest container. “This is great, this is perfect.”

“Dimples please,” Huan-ge whispers, poking Meng Yao’s cheek again.

Meng Yao catches his hand and tsks at him. “Aiya, why?”

“I want to see them.”

“You have to earn them.”

(The doorbell rings again. “I’ll get it,” Wangji says, standing again and picking his way across the array of takeout containers.

“Wait, did you order more food?” Wei Wuxian says from around a mouthful of food, but Wangji is already gone.)

“I’ve earned them.”

“Oh yeah? Who am I?”

“So, so handsome,” Huan-ge says sincerely.

Meng Yao snorts. “That’s not my name.”

“Putting me off my vindaloo here, guys,” Wei Wuxian grumbles, prodding a plastic fork into a container of something fiery crimson.

“Shut up,” Meng Yao says to him, sparing him the briefest glance. “Gege, what’s my name?”

“Furen,” Huan-ge says earnestly. Then, with great satisfaction, “Ah! Dimples, yes,” as Meng Yao smiles helplessly at him.

“Y’know,” Wei Wuxian says. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you at zero percent murder before, A-Yao.”

Meng Yao is about to reply, but Huan-ge gasps quietly and says, “Oh, is that your name? It’s so pretty. You’re so pretty.”

Wangji comes back into the room with two more big sacks.

“Oh no,” Wei Wuxian says. “Lan-er-gege, how much food did you get?

“This is for you,” Wangji says, stepping across the food and shoving the two bags into Wei Wuxian’s barely-prepared arms.

“But I have vindaloo! You got me chicken vindaloo! What’s this?” Wei Wuxian tries to stick his nose into one of the bags.

“Dim sum.”

“Sweetheart, dim sum has so much meat. You’re a vegetarian!”

“There is only some meat. It is for you.”

With some consternation, Wei Wuxian unpacks the bags. “A-Yao, you’re going to have to come down here and help me eat all this,” he says. “Extricate yourself from beneath dage. Also, if we’re done smoking, we should open the windows for a bit. Can you get them?”

Meng Yao hums and, with only a little difficulty, tactically slides out from under Huan-ge’s head. He perches on the arm of the loveseat to open the windows behind him--cold January air floods over him and clears his head somewhat, and he sees someone coming up the front path. “Oh, here we go. Wangji, are you expecting another order?”

“Mn.”

Wei Wuxian makes a furious noise. “Lan Zhan, what!

“Sushi.”

“Lan Zhan, we’re drowning in take-out already!”

“Xiongzhang likes sushi.” 

Wangji is halfway to his feet again, but Meng Yao hops off the arm of the couch. “No, no, I’ll go get it. I’ve gone stiff, I need to stretch my legs.” He looks down at Huan-ge. “Be good.”

“Okay,” Huan-ge says with a beaming smile. “Dimples?” Meng Yao dimples for him, rolls his eyes, and heads downstairs.

He’s just reached the bottom few steps when the door… opens. He has a moment to be bewildered about what sushi delivery boy would walk directly into someone’s house before he registers that it is not, in fact, a delivery boy.

Huh, says Meng Yao’s brain mildly, over the blaring air raid sirens of alarm. Interesting. So that’s what Huan-ge’s going to look like when he’s pushing sixty. And then, assessingly, Still pretty fucking hot. Good. Love this for me.

The man meets his eyes and seems a little surprised, but he doesn’t so much as do Meng Yao the courtesy of freezing, the way that Meng Yao has. He drags in his suitcase, shuts the door, and says, “Hello. Have we met?”

Meng Yao draws breath, turns slightly over his shoulder without taking his eyes off the man, and shouts, “Wei Wuxian!”

“Ah? What?” he hears distantly.

Wei Wuxian, come down here right now.

The man removes his hat and scarf (Oh good, says the part of Meng Yao’s brain which is still somehow able to process information, Huan-ge’s never going to go bald, excellent to know). Meng Yao hears movement upstairs. The man does not seem perturbed. “I’m sure I don’t know a Wei Wuxian,” he says conversationally.

Wei Wuxian comes around the banister at the top of the stairs and, a moment later, clatters downwards as he says, “If he ordered so much sushi that you can’t carry it all by yourself, I’m going to strangle him in his sleep--oh.” He’s seen the man, then. “Huh. Okay. Okay .”

“Wei Wuxian, I presume,” the man says, not unpleasantly. He takes off his coat, hangs it on the rack with the others. Sits on the bench, starts taking off his shoes like he owns the place. (Presumably, Meng Yao’s unhelpful brain offers, he does.)

Okay,” Wei Wuxian says again, behind and a few steps above Meng Yao. “Okay. Okay. A-Yao,” he says, strained with patience. “Are you seeing this?”

“Yes,” Meng Yao says tightly. There’s a tide change happening in his head, alarm flowing out and anger coming in. “Yes I am.”

The man sets his shoes neatly next to all the others and stands. He opens his mouth to speak, but Wei Wuxian says, “Nope. No. Stop. Give me a fucking second.”

The man’s frowns slightly. “Vulgar language is forbidden,” he says, which--Meng Yao didn’t need proof, but that’s proof, and it’s just a lot and--

“Don’t you come in here and start lecturing me about rules, asshole,” Wei Wuxian yells. He shoves past Meng Yao, striding towards the man, grabbing him by the front of the shirt and backing him up hard against the door. Meng Yao shakes off the paralysis and follows--not that he’ll be any use, they’re both taller than him, why is everyone in this family taller than him--

The man is not particularly reacting, other than a mild sort of surprise. He puts his hands on Wei Wuxian’s wrists and gently pries him off. “It seems you have the advantage of me,” he says pleasantly. “Wei Wuxian and--” His eyes flick to Meng Yao. “Pardon me, but I think A-Yao is a little informal for first introductions.”

“What are we going to do to him?” Meng Yao says.

“We’re going to throw him the fuck out of the house, and he’s going to come back tomorrow and explain himself,” Wei Wuxian growls, not backing off an inch--he’s right up in the man’s face.

The man frowns again vaguely. “I would rather not sleep at a hotel.”

“We could stab him,” Meng Yao says. He’s standing right next to the coatrack--he fishes his switchblade out of his coat without looking away from the man and flicks it open. “Got a knife right here.”

A stronger frown. “And get blood all over the floor?” the man says disapprovingly. “This rug is an antique. Young man, please be reasonable.”

“Wei Ying?” Wangji says from upstairs.

Meng Yao darts away from Wei Wuxian’s side and halfway up the stairs until he can see Wangji at the banister. “Do not come down.” He points imperiously towards the sunroom with the knife. “Go back in.”

“Is everything alright?” Wangji asks. He frowns--and it’s identical. It’s identical.

“It’s fine. Go back in.” Wangji doesn’t move. Meng Yao takes another step up and hisses at him, “I am pulling rank on you, go back in.

Wangji turns away, reluctantly. Meng Yao flies back down the stairs.

The man’s expression has gone still and blank. “Was that Xichen or Wangji?”

“Pretty sure you made that none of your fucking business about twenty years ago,” Wei Wuxian snarls.

Meng Yao looks directly at the man, takes hold of his own brain by force, and shoves two thoughts together--they’ve been repelling each other like a pair of magnets all this time, refusing to click together even though they ought to. He brute-forces the issue: The man. Lan Qingheng. Huan-ge’s father. Meng Yao’s father in law. 

“A fair point,” Lan Qingheng says, as if Wei Wuxian is presenting reasonable points in a friendly disagreement. “Hm. Wei Ying--that’s your familiar name, I presume.” He glances at Meng Yao again. “May I have the rest of yours? This is beginning to get awkward.”

Meng Yao narrows his eyes. “You may call me Jin Guangyao, I think.” Lan Qingheng glances over him; Meng Yao can only tell it’s skeptical because he’s been making a close study of Lans for sixteen years. Meng Yao shows him his teeth in what could technically be called a smile.

“Time to go,” Wei Wuxian snaps. “Come back tomorrow when we’ve all had a chance to come to terms with this. And knock next time.”

“A-Yao,” Huan-ge says plaintively from up on the landing. “I was told you had a knife.”

“Fucking goddammit,” Meng Yao spits under his breath.

“Language,” Lan Qingheng says sternly.

“Fuck you.” Meng Yao storms halfway up the stairs; Huan-ge is standing at the railing that overlooks the ascent, Wangji at his shoulder. “Don't you dare come down,” Meng Yao snaps at them.

“Oh, you’re pretty,” Huan-ge says, blinking at him.

“Not the time!”

“You’re angry? You’re so handsome when you’re angry.”

“He has a knife,” Wangji whispers.

“Oh right. A-Yao, Wangji told me you have a knife, and I see that you have a knife, why do you have a knife?”

“Ah,” Meng Yao hears from behind him, down in the foyer. “So this is Xichen, then, and it was Wangji before.”

“Shut up,” Wei Wuxian says, and then a thump as if Lan Qingheng has been shoved against the door again.

Huan-ge puts his head on one side, listening. “Who’s down there with you and Wei Wuxian?”

“I swear I will tell you later.”

“Is it the sushi?” Wangji asks seriously. “Is there a problem with the sushi?”

“Oh my fucking--no, it’s not the sushi. No, there’s no problems with the sushi. Do not come down.”

“Hm.” Huan-ge says, and moves around the railing to the top of the stairs. 

“Do not,” Meng Yao says forbiddingly. “Gege, we are handling it.”

“But I miss you. You’ve been gone for ages,” Huan-ge says, coming down the steps slowly, one at a time. “Wangji and I can help handle it.” He makes it to the step just above Meng Yao’s and blinks down at him again. “Oh, you’re so small.” It’s in the same adoring, wondering voice as he’s used every time he’s said Oh, you’re so handsome.

“Of course I’m small, look where you’re standing!” Meng Yao says. “Go back upstairs!”

“Can I have the knife?” Huan-ge asks curiously, as if he’s asking for his turn.

“No.” Meng Yao puts his hand in the center of Huan-ge’s chest. “Go upstairs.”

The doorbell rings.

“I’ll get it,” Wangji says immediately.

“Lan Zhan, do not come downstairs!” Wei Wuxian shouts. Meng Yao does his best to span the stairs, but now there are two excessively tall Lans in front of him, and he does not particularly want to stab either of them.

“Hm, you’re all very familiar with each other, aren’t you,” Lan Qingheng says, puzzled. “The youth in my day were more well-mannered.”

Wei Wuxian must somehow wrangle Lan Qingheng away from the door enough to crack it open and say, “Hello, thank you, yes, just leave it on the step, thank you. Yes. Thank you--actually, I kind of have my hands full at the moment, do you really need a signature?”

“Wei Ying needs help,” Wangji declares. “Excuse me.” 

He pushes past, and since Meng Yao cannot stab him, he does not get stabbed.

Wei Wuxian only has time enough to say, “Swear to fuck, Lan Zhan, if you come down here--okay. Well. Too late.” 

“Could I have the knife now?” Huan-ge asks. Meng Yao sighs, hands it to him, and troops back downstairs.

Wei Wuxian has his hands fisted in Lan Qingheng’s shirt again, and he’s shifted the fucker to the side, immediately next to the door. They are both watching Wangji, who (utterly unconcerned) is signing the receipt for the sushi. 

Meng Yao sits on the bottom step. Huan-ge, his steps slowing, says, “Oh.” A long moment later, he sits on the step beside Meng Yao, their shoulders pressed together.

Lan Qingheng looks at them, holding his face in the classic Lan blankness. Meng Yao has such a headache--he rubs his forehead with his left hand, and he hears Lan Qingheng’s breath catch. “Your ring-- Ah. Ah, I see. That would explain the familiarity, then. My apologies, I seem to have spoken too quickly.”

Wangji, two large bags of sushi in his arms, shuts the door. Meng Yao watches his eyes land on Lan Qingheng. There is a long pause. “Hm,” says Wangji. 

“Hello,” says Lan Qingheng. Meng Yao sees his gaze flick to Wangji’s wedding ring, and then he cranes his neck a little to peer down at Wei Wuxian’s left hand, the matching ring there. “Ah.”

Fucking Lans. 

Meng Yao pushes himself to his feet. “Well, this has been fun,” he said. “Wei Wuxian, are we throwing him out or aren’t we?”

“Hm,” Wangji says neutrally. “Shufu said you were dead.”

“I imagine he did,” Lan Qingheng says. “Is he available?”

“Asleep upstairs.”

Lan Qingheng’s expression grows deeply puzzled. “In the middle of the afternoon?”

After a long pause, Wangji says, “Mm." He glances down into the bags of sushi. “Would you like to eat?”

“What? No!” Wei Wuxian yelps. “We’re throwing him out! We’re mad at him!”

“There is too much food.”

“And whose fault is that? Lan Zhan’s! It’s Lan Zhan’s fault!”

“I could eat, actually, yes. Thank you.” Lan Qingheng says. “It was a long flight.”

Wangji goes silently to the stairs and heads up. Lan Qingheng follows, nodding to Meng Yao and then, almost tentative, to Huan-ge as he passes. Huan-ge only blinks up at him.

Once he and Wangji have gone upstairs, Wei Wuxian turns to Meng Yao and gestures wildly and violently. “What is this? What just happened?” he hisses under his breath.

“I should have stabbed him when I had the chance,” Meng Yao says through gritted teeth. “I have enough shithead father figures on my dance card already, I’m booked.”

“You sure do,” Wei Wuxian says, impassioned. “You sure fucking do, A-Yao. Who does he think he is? Swanning in here like owns--”

“Like he owns the place! Yes! I had the same thought.”

“It’s fucked up and I don’t like it.”

Meng Yao looks down at Huan-ge, who is still sitting on the steps. “Would you have been upset if I’d stabbed him?”

Another slow blink. The classic Lan blankness on Huan-ge’s face melts into adoration again. “I’m never upset with you.” Then, brightening further, “We should get married.”

Wei Wuxian snorts as Meng Yao puts his face in his palm. With a sigh, he says, “Fujun, how is it that your father can recognize the diamond in this wedding ring from across the room, but you can’t?”

“Being sober probably helps,” Wei Wuxian says. “Come on, let’s get dage upstairs and… oh shit, Lan Zhan just took that asshole into the sunroom, he’s going to smell the weed. Okay, well. This might as well happen.” He stomps up the stairs.

Meng Yao tweaks the shoulder of Huan-ge’s shirt. “Want to stand up and come eat something? Wangji bought you sushi.”

Huan-ge nods and stands up. “Oh. You’re still small.”

They’re standing on the same level now, so Meng Yao can’t even make excuses about it being the stairs. He rolls his eyes. “I’m a normal-sized person, fujun, you Lan boys are just tall and weird. Let’s go.” He’s four steps up when Huan-ge makes a surprised noise; Meng Yao glances over his shoulder and finds Huan-ge fully transfixed by his ass, now at eye level. Meng Yao snaps his fingers. “Hey.

Huan-ge jumps and looks up at his face. “Hi,” he says breathlessly. “You’re so handsome.”

“Yes, and small, and we should get married, yes I--”

“We should get married!”

“--know. Oh for fuck’s sake. Here, I’ll make you a deal. If you make it to the top of the stairs, I’ll give you a kiss.”

Huan-ge takes the stairs three at a time with his stupid giraffe legs and stands at the top, practically vibrating while Meng Yao follows. At the top, Meng Yao is immediately caught, lifted clean off his feet, pushed against the wall, and kissed within an inch of his life.

“Wow,” Huan-ge says, breaking off and staring at Meng Yao with amazement. “Wow.”

“I hate this and it’s also my favorite thing that’s ever happened,” Meng Yao says, patting his face. “Put me down.”

Immediately beside them, the door to the master bedroom creaks open and A-Yuan peeks out, frowning. Huan-ge puts Meng Yao down immediately. “Too noisy,” A-Yuan tells them, as disapproving as a man ten times his age. “You wake us up.”

“Sorry,” Meng Yao whispers. “There’s a lot going on.”

A-Yuan puts a stern finger to his mouth. “Shh!” He looks like a tiny, tiny librarian. “I mean-- Shh, please!”

“Okay. We’ll try to keep it down,” Meng Yao agrees.

A-Yuan nods imperiously. “Tell baba. Shouting is forbidden.” He shuts the door.

Huan-ge makes a soft sound like he’s dying.

“Yes, yes, I know, he’s cute and he’s so small,” Meng Yao says impatiently. “You can’t cope with it when you’re sober; I don’t expect you to cope with it when you’re high, either. Let’s go eat.”

Huan-ge looks back over his shoulder as Meng Yao drags him towards the sunroom by his elbow. Beseechingly, he says, “Oh, can I have one?”

Meng Yao stops dead. Turns to his husband. “Can you have one what?”

Huan-ge gestures broadly towards the bedroom door. “A baby.”

Meng Yao stares at him. “What.”

“He’s so small. I want one.”

“This is a conversation to have when we’re both stone-cold sober,” Meng Yao says. He puts one hand on his hip, leans on the railing with the other, and adds irritably, “You’ve literally never mentioned this before. You didn’t mention this when we were commissioning our custom couch. I said, ‘Let’s get pristine snow-white brocade for the upholstery,’ and you at no point said, ‘Perhaps a color that a child can be within a yard of without staining it unsalvageably.’ Sixteen years I’ve known you, and you haven’t ever even hinted that you wanted children. Now I have that to deal with, on top of your father reappearing out of the blue and the incredible revelation that my mother-in-law was an international jewel thief wanted in seventeen countries--could you not have done me the courtesy of mentioning children eight years ago when we first got married, so that by now I could have already been finished processing and thinking about it? I had nothing going on then. I had time. No, you have to spring this on me today, of all days, when I am supposed to be cooking reunion dinner tomorrow while fending off Wei Wuxian from snacking on all the vegetables and, simultaneously, also reflecting bitterly on the horrible, horrible dramatic irony of the word ‘reunion’. Fujun, do I look like someone who has time to process any of this?

“We’re married?” Huan-ge asks, wide eyed. 

“Okay,” Meng Yao says, turning on his heel and walking into the sunroom.

Lan Qingheng has taken the loveseat, sitting right in the middle of it so nobody else can share. He is picking at a container of what appears to be palak paneer. Wangji and Wei Wuxian are in their original places--Wangji is dipping sushi in some kind of curry, which is horrible to contemplate, and Wei Wuxian is in tears.

“Why the fuck are you crying?” Meng Yao demands. “What did this asshole say to you?” 

“No, it’s not him,” Wei Wuxian sobs. Maybe he’s laughing? Maybe just having another fit of hysterics? “I just unpacked the rest of Lan Zhan’s dim sum--it’s one order of chicken feet, one of shrimp dumplings, and twenty-three orders of egg tarts.”

“Wei Ying likes egg tarts,” Wangji says.

“It is quite a lot of egg tarts,” Lan Qingheng says philosophically.

“Oh, I’m going to have egg tarts,” Huan-ge says, sitting on the other side of the sea of takeout containers, opposite Wei Wuxian and Wangji.

Meng Yao closes his eyes and wishes that he too could have a fit of hysterics. “And I’m going to move to Madagascar,” he says calmly.

“Xiongzhang,” Wangji says, concerned. “You are vegan.”

“Egg tarts are vegan,” Huan-ge says confidently, pulling one of the little boxes towards him.

Wei Wuxian’s hysterics increase in both pitch and volume.

 “Oh! Good! You’ve just fully broken him! Great! Where is the fucking weed?” Meng Yao demands. Wangji nods towards the plant stand by the loveseat.

“Oh, is that what I’m smelling?” Lan Qingheng says, as Meng Yao nabs the lighter and the joint--there’s less than an inch of it left. “Hmph. Qiren certainly has let standards slide, hasn’t he?”

Meng Yao perches himself uncaringly on the arm of the loveseat and cracks the window open again. “First of all, you’re speaking while you eat, so that’s one standard that’s getting thrown out. Second, you’ve already broken Wei Wuxian, old man, do you want to see what it looks like when I break?” He lights up, takes a drag. “Just say the word. I can get my knife back and we’ll see how it goes.”

For some reason, Lan Qingheng only stifles a smile. In silence, he turns his attention to his palak paneer. 

Meng Yao exhales smoke directly out the window and turns his attention to the next problem. “Wei Wuxian,” he snarls. “Get it together.”

“I can’t,” Wei Wuxian wails. “Twenty-three orders of egg tarts.”

“Wei Ying likes egg tarts,” Wangji says again, this time with a tiny shrug. 

“And that’s the only thing he says about it!!!”

“Silence,” Meng Yao hisses. “You woke up A-Yuan with all your carrying on, and I got scolded for it.”

Wei Wuxian gets himself under control with a few hitched breaths. He’s hiccuping now, which frankly he deserves. “He woke up?” he says wetly, wiping his face on his sleeve.

“I think he went back to sleep,” Meng Yao says, taking another hit from the joint. Fucking hell. The one year that they don’t bring several gallons of high-proof liquor! Never again. “He said for us to, quote, shh, please.”

Wei Wuxian sniffles hugely. “My baby, everybody,” he says to the room at large. “Tiny sock feet, tiniest manners. Has everybody met my--oh. Oh, shit.”

Lan Qingheng has paused with the plastic take-out fork halfway to his mouth. He lowers it carefully. He sets the container in his lap. He says, “Hm.”

“Mn,” echoes Wangji.

“Mhm!!” Wei Wuxian says, very high pitched, and stuffs two egg tarts in his mouth at once.

“I hate this family,” Meng Yao says, which no one takes any notice of except Huan-ge, who gives him a look of wide-eyed, hangdog dejection. Not you, Meng Yao mouths at him. Huan-ge’s expression clears. He passes Meng Yao a box of egg tarts.

Meng Yao eyes Lan Qingheng’s shoulder and wonders if he can nibble the egg tarts strategically in order to get crumbs all over him or, preferably, down the back of his collar. Hm. No, too much effort. 

The doorbell rings.

“I’ll get it,” Wangji says, standing and picking his way through the take-out. Meng Yao shuts his eyes again and prays for strength. 

Wei Wuxian whimpers quietly. A moment later, he says, “When did he have time to do this?”

“When he was on his phone,” Meng Yao says, very calm. “When he was on his phone, and you kept asking if he was feeling the weed yet, and he kept saying no. Online delivery.”

“Wangji took drugs?” Lan Qingheng says, delicately appalled. 

“To be fair, his brother also took drugs,” Meng Yao says, gesturing expansively in Huan-ge’s direction. 

“Ah,” says Lan Qingheng neutrally.

“We’ve all had rather a day. I’m sure you know how that goes?” Meng Yao smiles simperingly at Lan Qingheng. “Surely you understand what it is like to be so overwhelmed with emotion that you stray from the path of righteousness and commit a very, very tiny wrong, such as indulging in harmless recreational drugs or, perhaps, abandoning two of your own children?” He takes another long drag, holds it in his lungs, exhales out the window--the delivery person is already leaving. “Two acts of absolutely equal moral weight, am I right?”

Wangji comes back into the room--thankfully he only has one enormous sack in his arms this time. He holds it out to Meng Yao. “For you.”

“What?” Meng Yao looks up at him, surprised.

“For you.”

Meng Yao takes it--it’s heavier than it looks, and as soon as it’s on his lap, he can fucking smell it-- “Oh.” He forces a smile onto his face. “Thank you, Wangji, very thoughtful.” Wangji nods and goes to sit down again.

“What did he get you?” Wei Wuxian says, sitting up very straight and craning his neck as if he has any hope of seeing it.

“Ah… It appears he has gotten me an uncountable number of what I presume to be McDonalds cheeseburgers.”

Wei Wuxian silently turns to stare at his husband as Wangji sits down beside him. 

“Meng Yao likes cheeseburgers,” Wangji says.

“I’ll eat one when I’ve finished my egg tarts,” Meng Yao says politely, setting the bag on the floor. He is absolutely not in the mood for cheeseburgers--and in fact, all the clashing smells of food in the room combined with the weed smoke is beginning to turn his stomach. He stubs out the ember on a plant pot and sets the tiny remainder of the joint on the windowsill. “Where was I?”

“You were being passive-aggressive and sarcastic about how doing recreational drugs is morally equivalent to abandoning two of your own children to be raised by their horrible tedious uncle,” Wei Wuxian says helpfully. “Which I thought was a great point.” 

“Oh yes,” Meng Yao says. “So I was.”

“If I might jump into that conversation?” Wei Wuxian says.

“But of course,” Meng Yao says grandly, selecting an egg tart from his box. “Please be my guest, Wei Wuxian, you know how much this one always values your insight and wisdom.”

“Oh, please, dear friend, there is no need to say such things, this one is very embarrassed to be praised,” Wei Wuxian says, matching him flawlessly. “I was merely reflecting on the fact that we have been sitting here companionably eating more take-out than anyone has seen in human history with a man who once abandoned his two small children, and yet we have not heard even a word of explanation, let alone--let alone--anything faintly resembling an apology.”

“Once again, this one must profess his sincere admiration for Wei Wuxian’s insight and wisdom. Wei Wuxian is truly a scholar among men. Perhaps it would be worthy of note as well to address the fact that, as far as this humble one is aware, the general understanding held by each person in this room was that the criminal in question was fucking dead?”

“Before continuing, this one must first take the opportunity to return the compliment and profess his most hearty and sincere admiration for Jin Guangyao’s equally astute and discerning sagacity. Perhaps, if such a person as Jin Guangyao describes were to be in this room and listening to this conversation, that person could begin with a simple answer to the question that, this humble one believes, is burning in all of our hearts: Where the fuck has he been for the last twenty-odd years if he was not fucking dead?”

“Outer Mongolia,” Lan Qingheng says mildly. He adds, “Raising yaks.”

Meng Yao takes this in. 

Wangji and Huan-ge are both eating quietly, their eyes lowered, but Meng Yao gets the sense that they are paying sharp attention, as much as two Lans who are stoned off their gourds can pay attention. 

“Yaks,” says Wei Wuxian blankly. “Do they have yaks in Mongolia?”

“In the Altai Mountains, yes,” Lan Qingheng says. “They prefer higher elevations.”

Meng Yao hums thoughtfully. “How interesting that you would prefer raising yaks to raising your own children.”

Lan Qingheng gives a faint, false smile. “The choice I made was not between yaks and children, it was between yaks and… well. Dying of grief, I suppose. And she would not have wanted me to die.” A weighty pause, settling over the room. “In fact, she forbade me from dying on several notable occasions.” A flicker of annoyance, and he adds under his breath, “A man gets shot once and never hears the end of it.”

“Can I ask a tangential question,” Wei Wuxian says, leaning back on his hands. “I’m stuck on this yak thing.”

“The yaks were not symbolically important,” Lan Qingheng says, waving this off. “The yaks were merely incidental.”

“So, what, you could have taken up raising reindeer in Lapland, or--or basketweaving in the remote Peruvian Andes? That’s what you mean by incidental?”

“Yes. It was merely a means of… locking myself into surviving when there no longer seemed to be any point in living.” He pauses. “It’s something of a family tradition.”

“Is it,” Meng Yao says coldly.

“My father died when I was twenty-three,” Lan Qingheng says. He sets his food aside and folds his hands in his lap, his eyes lowered but his voice steady. “Qiren would have been nineteen. My mother wrapped up what business she needed to finish and set about… removing herself from the world, shall we say, with the understanding that I do not mean that she died. The last I saw her, she had boarded a ship to Antarctica. It was an act of leaving the world without leaving the world. Ending her life, and beginning her survival.”

“Fucking grim,” Wei Wuxian says, clearly taken aback. “What the fuck?”

“And her father became a widower when she was… twenty-eight, I believe? I was a year old, I do not remember him. He chose Siberia, I believe. And his--” Lan Qingheng stops, frowns. “Surely you know all this already.”

“Nope,” Wei Wuxian says. “Your little brother doesn’t like to talk about anything.”

“Certainly not to us,” Meng Yao murmurs.

Yep, you said it.”

“I see,” Lan Qingheng says. His frown deepens. “Suffice it to say--a tradition.”

Allllll of you assholes need therapy,” Wei Wuxian says.

Lan Qingheng smiles faintly and drops his eyes as if politely acknowledging the joke, looking so much like Huan-ge for a moment that it nearly stops Meng Yao’s heart in his chest. “We only love once,” he says softly.

“That’s not a fucking excuse, though,” Wei Wuxian says, angry. “You can’t just waltz in after twenty-some years and say, ‘Ooh, sorry, boys, lost my fated gremlin, had to be declared legally dead and go raise yaks about it for a couple decades, you know how it goes, though, right? Anyway no hard feelings,’ and expect anyone to understand, let alone sympathize with that pile of steaming bullshit? Or yak shit, I guess, in this case.”

“Mn,” Wangji says, the first sound he has made in several minutes. Meng Yao glances to him--his expression is deeply pensive. “I do understand.”

Wei Wuxian’s jaw drops. “Lan Zhan!”

Wangji gives a small decisive nod. “If I lost Wei Ying, I too would want to… leave without leaving.”

“I beg your fucking pardon, we have a son, though?!”

“Yes,” Wangji’s pensive expression deepens.

“If you needed to,” Huan-ge says, sounding terrifyingly sober and terrifyingly earnest. “I would take care of A-Yuan for you. If you were sick with grief, I mean.”

“Thank you, xiongzhang,” Wangji says, also dreadfully sincere.

"And I don't think you would allow yourself to linger in it for twenty years. You would come back to him."

"Mn." A firm nod.

Meng Yao narrows his eyes. “Wait, is this like the time you took custody of Wangji’s bunny because Wei Wuxian went off to college and Wangji refused to leave his room all summer?”

“Yes,” says every Lan in the room.

“You all need to be in therapy,” Wei Wuxian sings as Meng Yao puts his face in his hand. “Except maybe dage, who has not said anything wildly overdramatic at all--”

“I too would want to leave without leaving,” Huan-ge says, contemplating the last piece of sushi in the box he’s holding. “It sounds peaceful. I don’t think I could be at peace any other way in that situation.”

“Meng Yao,” Wei Wuxian says after a moment. “A-Yao. Did this really just happen in front of our eyes? ‘Sorry boys, my fated gremlin died, you know how it goes,’ ‘Ooh, that sucks, totally get it.’ That’s what just happened?”

Meng Yao leans down to rummage in the bag on the floor. “Would you like some cheeseburgers?”

“I would fucking love some cheeseburgers, A-Yao. That’s the only way I’m going to be at peace in this situation. Two, if you would.”

Meng Yao throws two cheeseburgers at him; Wei Wuxian catches them both, barely.

“May I ask,” Lan Qingheng says, shooting them both looks of sharp censure. “What do you mean by ‘gremlin’?”

“Your wife,” Meng Yao and Wei Wuxian say in unison.

“The ultimate gremlin,” Wei Wuxian adds with great emotion, shaking his head mournfully as he unwraps his first cheeseburger. He looks up. “Y’know, I’m just piecing that together with that moment downstairs when you threatened to stab him, A-Yao, and he didn’t react at all except to scold you about getting blood on the carpet.”

“It’s an antique,” Lan Qingheng says.

“Do not get blood on the antique carpet, Wei Ying,” Wangji says, opening the box of shrimp dumplings.

I wasn’t!” Wei Wuxian shouts. “A-Yao was the one with the knife!” He turns back to Meng Yao. “You do see what I mean, though? You hurl a cheeseburger at my head, dage and Lan Zhan don’t flinch. This guy gets a knife pulled on him? Eh, whatever, must be Tuesday.”

Meng Yao is about to respond when a door opens and shuts down the hall and then the sound of righteously angry toddler feet approaches. “Now you’ve done it,” Meng Yao says. “I told you not to be so loud.”

“Ah, oh no,” Wei Wuxian says, scrambling to his feet just as A-Yuan appears in the door. 

“Baba,” A-Yuan says firmly. “Shh please!

“Sorry, baobei, sorry,” Wei Wuxian says, picking his way across the takeout containers. “Is your shugong’s room too noisy with us in here? You can nap up in my and diedie’s room, if you want.”

“No, I don’t want to nap. Egg wants to nap.” A-Yuan glares up at him. 

“Oh, Egg, yes. Is Egg still with shugong?”

“They nap together. But I don’t nap. I’m too big.”

“How are you too big for naps but your shugong is napping right now? Huh? He’s bigger than you. He’s the oldest person in the whole world, did you know that?”

A-Yuan sighs heavily. “Yes.” He turns his tiny glare on Meng Yao. “Bofu, I said tell baba! No shouting!”

“I did tell him!” Meng Yao says. “I told him he was very bad and a terrible person, and that he should be ashamed, and throw himself off a cliff in penance.”

A-Yuan nods the whole way through this, but pauses at the end. “What’s penance, please?”

“It’s when you’re very sorry and guilty for the awful thing you did,” Meng Yao says. “So you throw yourself off a cliff, or you announce that you’re not going to have any dessert for a week, to show everyone how much you mean it.”

“Oh.” A-Yuan looks up at Wei Wuxian, his frown now more thoughtful, edging towards worried. “Baba is not going to have any dessert?”

“Well, I said I wasn’t going to have any dessert, but then your diedie forgave me for being bad and shouty and he bought me ninety-two egg tarts.”

“Mn,” says Wangji. “Forgiveness is better than carrying anger and resentment.”

Wei Wuxian pouts down at A-Yuan. “Will A-Yuan forgive me for being so noisy and interrupting Egg’s nap?” A-Yuan heaves another small sigh and nods, glomming onto Wei Wuxian’s leg and burying his little face against Wei Wuxian’s thigh. “Aw. Thanks, kid.” He ruffles A-Yuan’s hair. “You want some of my egg tarts?”

“I want to sit with bobo,” he says, abandoning Wei Wuxian’s leg immediately. Huan-ge holds out an arm for him, and A-Yuan climbs directly into his lap. “You’re eating?”

“It’s sushi.” Huan-ge says. “Have you had sushi?” A-Yuan shakes his head. Huan-ge picks out a smallish piece of vegetable sushi and gives it to him. “Eat carefully, don’t choke.”

“Eat carefully, don’t choke,” A-Yuan echoes. “I eat carefully!” He nibbles a tiny corner of the nori wrapper and nods once. “It’s good. I don’t choke!” He starts to take another little bite and his big eyes turn to Lan Qingheng. He blinks like a little cartoon character, like it ought to make a plink-plink noise, and looks up at Huan-ge. “Who’s that?” he says, in a loud whisper that they can all hear.

“My father,” Huan-ge says, very neutral and pleasant. Meng Yao feels a bit validated then--there is, apparently, a difference between understanding and… well, yes, forgiveness. 

“Your father?” A-Yuan chews his sushi, looking at Lan Qingheng again, who gives him a soft, polite smile. A-Yuan looks up at Huan-ge again. “Your baba? Or your diedie?”

Wei Wuxian laughs aloud. “Both, baobei. Most people only have one. You have two because you’re so sweet and cute and well behaved.”

“Oh,” says A-Yuan. Another long, level look at Lan Qingheng. Another peek up at Huan-ge. “Diedie’s father too?”

Huan-ge nods. “Yes, that’s right.”

With great interest, Meng Yao notes the conspicuous lack of anyone saying ‘Yes, sweet baby boy, and that makes him your grandfather, and you should call him yeye’ and wishes that he had a glass of brandy to swirl and sip from as he observes all this. So Lan Qingheng is allowed in the house, and he is allowed at the table--metaphorically--but unspoken decisions are still being made about how much farther in he will be allowed. Fascinating. Very good material.

A-Yuan studies Lan Qingheng again. Lan Qingheng studies him back. A-Yuan finishes his piece of sushi and squirms a little in Huan-ge’s lap. “Do you know the scar lady?”

“The… scar lady?”

“The lady. She has a scar.”

Lan Qingheng hesitates for only a split second. “Right here?” He traces his own cheek, and A-Yuan nods excitedly.

“Yes! The scar lady!”

“Xia Qin,” Lan Qingheng says. “Xia Qiaofu. I was married to her.”

A-Yuan boggles. “You were married to the scar lady?” He looks suddenly very impressed. He squirms out of Huan-ge’s lap and bounces over to the loveseat. He clambers up onto it, his tongue stuck out between his teeth with effort. 

Huan-ge, Wangji, and Wei Wuxian all stop eating for a moment to watch, trading glances of reserved caution with each other. One by one, they meet Meng Yao’s eyes significantly; he nods a little and, as A-Yuan settles next to the arm of the seat that he’s perched on, Meng Yao puts his hand on the boy’s head, proprietary. 

Settled and comfortable, A-Yuan says, “I saw her picture in a pretty book!”

“Dage’s photo album,” Wei Wuxian translates, tearing a piece of naan in two and offering half to Wangji, who takes it and starts layering sashimi on top of it. Horrible to contemplate. Horrible.

“And she came into my room, and I was scared, but Egg said I shouldn’t be scared.”

“A dream,” Meng Yao murmurs. “Egg is his stuffed lion.”

“Ah,” Lan Qingheng says. “Yes, children often have dreams like that.”

“What’d I say?” Wei Wuxian says, watching with rapt, horrified fascination as his husband commits a gastronomic war crime right in front of him. “I told you people. The spooky phase is well documented.”

Lan Qingheng snorts. “Quite. A-Huan once--Ah, pardon.” He recovers seamlessly. “Xichen once dreamed of my grandmother. Very unsettling. We never did figure out how he knew all those things.” He turns back to A-Yuan. “What did you dream?”

“The scar lady… Um?”

“Xia Qiaofu.”

“Xia Qiaofu,” A-Yuan repeats carefully. Huan-ge and Wangji have their eyes lowered in that listening-intently way they have. Wei Wuxian is watching A-Yuan and Lan Qingheng like a hawk. Meng Yao pets A-Yuan’s hair gently. “She said I was cute.” Lan Qingheng smiles--Meng Yao thinks that might be the first really genuine smile he’s had. “She told me about the man.”

“The man?”

“She was gonna get him. But then he chased her into a house and they played hide-and-seek. And then everybody was dead.” A-Yuan nods seriously. “From tickles.”

Meng Yao watches Lan Qingheng intently. Watches the smile fade off his face, replaced by a faint frown. Confused, maybe. Unsettled. 

“Funny thing is,” Wei Wuxian says slowly. “Lan Qiren told us she died of illness.”

“No,” A-Yuan says firmly. 

Lan Qingheng’s frown deepens. He glances at Wei Wuxian. “Qiren told you that? All of you?” He looks around as they all nod.

Meng Yao says, “The four of us found out literally today, perhaps three hours ago, that she was an international jewel thief--” Wei Wuxian joins in unison with him as he finishes, “--wanted in seventeen countries.”

“Hm,” says Lan Qingheng. A long, long silence. He turns back to A-Yuan. “You’re right. There was a man, and they--played hide-and-seek.” He has nearly perfect control of his face now, but Meng Yao is still watching every flickering microexpression. He works up a bland smile for A-Yuan. “Tickles are very bad for one’s health.”

A-Yuan nods seriously. “I know that. I know stuff like that.” He squirms off the loveseat. “Okay, I’m going to play trucks with Egg now. Baba! Shh please, okay?”

“I’ll be good if you be good,” Wei Wuxian says with a bright twinkling smile. A-Yuan gives him such an unimpressed look that Meng Yao nearly bursts out laughing. As A-Yuan toddles out the door, Wei Wuxian says, “Wait! Wait wait, what room are you playing in, baobei?” 

A-Yuan pauses, thinks, and bounces once. “Nap room!”

“Shugong’s room, where he’s napping?”

“Yeah!”

“Okay. You shh too, ok? So he can sleep.”

Another deeply unimpressed look. “I’m not noisy, baba.”

“Ah, get out of here, ragamuffin! Wait! Come here, come back.” Wei Wuxian gestures him over and hands him an egg tart, pinching his round little cheek. “There. For being so good today.”

A-Yuan studies it. “Egg needs one too?” he says hopefully.

“You’re right, Egg needs an egg tart and A-Yuan has two hands.” Wei Wuxian says, and gives him a second one.

“Hm,” Wangji says.

Wei Wuxian whips around. “Don’t hm me, Lan-er-gege, you’re the one who bought ninety-two egg tarts for me to dispose of however I wish!” 

“It’s good for children to learn useful life skills, such as negotiation and persuasion,” Meng Yao muses.

“Yeah, what my esteemed colleague said.” Wei Wuxian pokes A-Yuan in the stomach. “Okay, get out of here, go play trucks or your diedie’s gonna dip you in curry and eat you up, and it’ll be super gross.” As soon as A-Yuan’s scampered out, giggling the whole way, Wei Wuxian turns back, suddenly serious. “So here’s the thing. I am goddamn wild to know what really happened, but also I feel like we’re all kind of vibing in a way that’s almost tolerable right now and I super, super don’t want a big downer moment to fuck it up. Also dage and Lan Zhan have never smoked before and I’m trying to be responsible and make sure that they don’t have too bad of a trip, you get me?” 

Lan Qingheng nods slowly.

“Please say aloud that you get me,” Wei Wuxian insists. “Because I need dage to be willing to get high with me again. If getting high with dage is a thing that I can now do in my life, then I can tell him about Burning Man and we can go together.”

“What is Burning Man?” Huan-ge asks, turning to Meng Yao.

“It’s too dreadful to contemplate and I want no part of it,” Meng Yao says.

“You’d like it, dage,” adds Wei Wuxian.

Meng Yao closes his eyes and sighs. “I will allow that you would probably like it. It is like camping, which is bad enough to begin with, but it is also in the desert with thousands of other people.”

“And every one of them a basic bitch, but the aesthetically edgy kind,” Wei Wuxian says, nodding enthusiastically. “Your people, dage! Go to Burning Man with me. I don’t want to go alone, and I need to have somewhere to take that flamethrower that I made. Besides demos at the children’s science center, I mean. Kids are too hard to impress! What do they want from me!? It throws fifteen feet of flames, but they still don’t give a shit! Therefore, I need to go into the desert with the flamethrower and my brother-in-law, and shoot fire for people who will appreciate it properly.” He turns back to Lan Qingheng with a sharp glance. “But if dage never wants to get high again, then that dream will crumble to dust in my hands.”

“I beg your pardon,” Lan Qingheng says, “but why did you make a fifteen-foot flamethrower?”

“Because I thought it would make six-year-old children think I’m cool, obviously! We can’t all be international jewel thieves wanted in seventeen countries, you know! Ugh, we’ve gotten off track. Listen very carefully: Tell me in like two sentences what happened, and try to do so in a way that makes me go, ‘Oh shit, that’s fucking baller , let’s go steal a real police car and burn it on Xia Qiaofu’s shrine’ rather than, ‘Oh wow, that’s so delicately wistful and sad, my heart hurts now.’ Do you get me? I understand that it’s very sad and we’re all sad about it, but as the designated responsible sober adult right now--”

“This is you sober?" Lan Qingheng says, dubious.

“...Wow. Wow, fucking burn. I now have one percent of respect for you. Anyway! Don’t do the Lan thing, do the gremlin thing. Yeah? If you get me, please say aloud, ‘Yes, I get you, Wei Wuxian’.”

“Yes, I get you, Wei Wuxian,” Lan Qingheng says.

“Good. Here.” Wei Wuxian hands him a box of egg tarts. Sternly, he says, “Do you need a moment to compose what you’ll say? There is also more weed if you would like some, just thought I’d offer, not that I think you’ll say yes, what with being the Lannest Lan to ever--”

“Hm, alright.”

What?

Interesting,” says Meng Yao, immediately handing over the end of the blunt and the lighter. “Do you know what you’re doing?”

“It’s been a while, but I believe I remember the principle,” Lan Qingheng says, lighting up.

Huan-ge and Wangji are staring. Wei Wuxian looks like he has glimpsed a fragment of the divine. Lan Qingheng inhales deep and doesn’t cough in the slightest

Wei Wuxian says slowly, “Lan Qingheng, if you can blow a smoke ring, I will give you twenty dollars and as many of these egg tarts as you want.”

Lan Qingheng, holding his breath, shakes his head. He exhales the smoke past Meng Yao in the direction of the open window. “I do not have the trick of it.”

“I bet Xia Qiaofu could, right?” 

Lan Qingheng does not scoff, but Meng Yao can see a scoff-equivalent in the judgmental set of his mouth. “Of course she could. There was nothing that woman could not do, Wei Wuxian.” He takes another large hit, which essentially finishes off the joint. After he exhales, he sets aside the lighter and the tiny scrap of rolling paper which is all that’s left. “She attempted to teach me on our belated honeymoon. There was not much else to do in the cell, so--”

“The what?”

“Oh, the cell that the Ukrainian drug runners threw us in,” Lan Qingheng says calmly, as if this is not a wild statement. “Unfortunately, I could not concentrate on the lesson enough to be a good student, as I was feeling somewhat perturbed. That was my first time being kidnapped, you see.”

First time?” Wangji asks, spreading wasabi on an egg tart and handing it to Wei Wuxian, who looks both flattered and revolted.

“Mn. By the fourth time or so, it had grown boring.” Lan Qingheng brushes off his hands. “But Wei Wuxian asked for a different anecdote. I shall endeavor to comply with the assigned restrictions.” His posture, ramrod-straight this whole time, relaxes enough for him to shift to the side and lean one elbow on the arm of the loveseat that Meng Yao is not perched on. “To begin with, I will profess myself acutely annoyed that Qiren would insult my wife’s memory by claiming that she died of illness.” A delicate sneer, as if the very idea is distasteful. “I will be having words with him about that at a later date. In truth--hm.”

“Don’t make it sad,” Meng Yao says.

“Do not make it fucking sad,” adds Wei Wuxian.

“I am endeavoring to comply,” Lan Qingheng says. “Alright. Let us put it this way. I imagine you have seen some overdramatic Hollywood spy movies. Picture the dramatic last stand at the end of the film, yes?”

“Uh-huh,” Wei Wuxian says.

“Xia Qiaofu had dramatic last stands perhaps twice a year for the eleven years that I knew her. They were something of a hobby of hers. Like how some people have a passion for bungee-jumping off bridges or parachuting out of airplanes.” He frowns. “She also parachuted out of airplanes from time to time. However, she felt bungee-jumping was passe. A very stressful woman to love, frankly.” He shakes himself. “As I was saying. According to the crime scene report, there were two hundred and seven shots fired between herself and a single opponent, the INTERPOL agent who had been tailing her for twenty years. Before you ask, yes, obviously she took the bastard down with her. She had also booby-trapped the place so heavily that, technically post-mortem, she killed seven more agents and local police officers, and injured twelve others.” He opens the box of egg tarts Wei Wuxian had handed him and inspects them. After a moment, he adds primly, “And her flamethrower reached twenty feet."

“Fucking shit,” Wei Wuxian says, under his breath. “Dammit. Dammit. A-Yao, what was that thing you said earlier?”

Meng Yao steadies himself with a breath. “Oh, what did I say? One is never expected to live up to the example of one’s mother-in-law? That thing?”

Lan Qingheng snorts, and Wei Wuxian snaps his fingers and says, “Yep! That’s the one. Gonna write that on a post-it note and tape it to my laptop.”

“I will make you a cross-stitch,” Huan-ge says, nodding thoughtfully.

“Aw, will you? If you do, I’ll hang it in my office at work. Fucking shit balls dammit, though, she was cool.”

“She was,” Lan Qingheng says solemnly. “She was splendid. Every blasted day of her life.”

Meng Yao slips off the arm of the chair and surveys the selection of takeout containers. “Wei Wuxian, come over to my house next week.” 

“What for?”

“We will make a shrine and burn paper jewelry and a rappelling kit for her. And weep extravagantly.”

Wei Wuxian whips out his phone. “Saturday afternoon?”

“That’s fine.”

“Mkay. Now does Lan Zhan want to watch the baby that day while A-Yao and I are setting things on fire, or shall I bring him over to play with his favorite bobo?”

Huan-ge and Wangji exchange a glance. 

“I will watch A-Yuan,” Wangji says.

Huan-ge nods. “And I will watch A-Yao and Wei Wuxian.”

“I’m feel like I’m being persecuted,” Wei Wuxian says thoughtfully, tapping at his phone. Meng Yao hums in agreement, picks up the box of chicken feet, and sits beside Huan-ge.

“You’re so handsome,” Huan-ge whispers, awed. Okay, still kind of high, regardless of all the emotional ups and downs of the past hour or so. Meng gives him a flash of dimples.

“Okay,” Wei Wuxian says, stuffing his phone back in his pocket. “I want another story. And I have further requests and restrictions.”

Lan Qingheng shifts so he is fully leaning on the arm of the couch, his stupid long Lan giraffe legs stretched parallel to the couch and his fingers laced over his stomach. “Hm. Go ahead.”

“Tell me something just… eye-wateringly cool. I want to be blasted with so much cool that I feel it in my sinuses. I sense that we have barely scratched the surface, and I think that we as a society should really sit with this kind of intense coolness and reflect deeply upon it. Yeah? Hit me.”

Lan Qingheng hums, thinking. “Well. She once broke into Fort Knox just to see if she could.”

“That’s pretty good. Yes, things along those lines. Let’s diversify a little, though, at this point I’m not surprised by heists. Or heist-adjacent outings. Give me something like how she once wrestled a mountain lion because it looked at her funny.”

A slow nod. “In that case, there was the time she faked her own death and escaped from a crematorium incinerator just before they turned it on.”

“Hgnnnnngnhn,” says Wei Wuxian. “Yeah. Fuck yeah, that’s the stuff.”

“If I recall correctly, that was probably the night A-Zhan was conceived,” Lan Qingheng adds thoughtfully.

“Nope! Gross! Don’t care about that! Try again!” Wei Wuxian says, as Wangji and Huan-ge both make the genteel Lan face that means profound fucking dismay.

“So was that at the crematorium, or after?” Meng Yao asks, gnawing on a chicken foot. The profound fucking dismay is turned on him from three corners. 

“Oh, yes, at the crematorium,” Lan Qingheng says without missing a beat. “I was attempting to rescue her, but as usual she did not particularly require it. Still,” he adds, contemplative. “It did keep the romance alive.”

“I said next! Next please!”

“Warm glow of the incinerator, wife smug and simply covered in soot, blood pouring down her face,” Lan Qingheng continues, horribly. Meng Yao has no regrets whatsoever. “A highly romantic situation. Very sexual. Any red-blooded man would have gotten carried away.” He pauses to eat an egg tart while Wei Wuxian splutters incoherently. “Although I must say, it was a terribly inauspicious way to start a pregnancy.”

“Oh?” says Meng Yao cheerfully. This is very good. This is very good. Wei Wuxian is never going to score a Lan Clan Strike again. Wangji and Huan-ge are both pink in the ears, their eyes fixed resolutely on the food. Wei Wuxian is grimacing.

“Mn. It rather set a theme. Like having a cat that won’t stop climbing a tree and getting herself stuck, so every time, you have to fetch out the ladder and climb up. And every time, she remembers abruptly how to get down by herself, or else claws you to shreds while you carry her down, and never mind that it’s for her own good. Ridiculous woman.”

“Haha,” Wei Wuxian says. “Those pregnancy hormones, right? Anyway, what about a totally different anecdote? Maybe one that doesn’t have you in it at all?”

Lan Qingheng is evidently still choosing not to hear Wei Wuxian. “The entire time, I kept having to say to her things like, ‘No, beloved wife, this is not a good time to see whether you can infiltrate North Korea, you are eight months pregnant, please sit down, do not get on that plane, I do not care that you are bored, read a book.’ Somewhere in the second trimester, I turned my back for five minutes and she managed to run off. Took all afternoon to track her down, but I believe that single incident ended up extending the Cold War by approximately six months.” 

“What,” says Wei Wuxian.

Lan Qingheng gives him and Meng Yao a stern look from over the rim of his glasses. “If you ever find yourselves selling fake government secrets in Soviet Russia because it is midwinter and you did not budget correctly--perhaps because you went in with the assumption that you would not need to get a hotel room because, quote, some friends would let you crash on their couch, unquote--” this is said with dripping sarcasm, “then please remember that when you are captured by the KGB and must seduce your way out, do at least attempt to do it without making one of your captors fall in love with you. It will come back to haunt you years later, and it will never be worth the headache.”

“Best sex you ever had, one two three go, ” Meng Yao says, utterly gleeful.

“At sea, on the pirate whaling vessel she commandeered to escape Japan after she swindled the imperial family and made off with--have you been in the vault?” Lan Qingheng looks over the rim of his glasses at Meng Yao.

“Yes, of course.”

“That strand of flawless twelve-millimeter aurora Tennyo akoya pearls with the cabochon star-ruby fastener?”

“Yes, I know it well.” Very well, in fact. Extremely well.

“Mn. And a pair of earrings. The stone in your engagement ring came from them, unless I miss my guess.”

Meng Yao smiles politely to cover his mental shriek of delight. “Ah. No wonder you recognized it from across the room, if it’s tied to such a powerful memory.”

Lan Qingheng nods and returns his pensive gaze to the ceiling--he has melted nearly horizontal, propped up only by the arm of the loveseat and the throw-pillow. “She made me call her captain the whole time,” he says wistfully.

Meng Yao takes stock of the room. Wangji and Huan-ge are clearly in the throes of a deep and dreadful suffering but--ah. Perhaps he has pushed Wei Wuxian slightly too far. Wei Wuxian has come out the other side of blushing embarrassment and is looking at him with narrowed eyes, speculative. There is a distinct aura of danger.

Without taking his eyes off of Meng Yao, Wei Wuxian says slowly, “So was she wearing the pearls? For the great sex, I mean.”

“Mn. And the captain’s hat. What is it that the kids these days say? It was a view?”

“A look,” Meng Yao supplies, holding Wei Wuxian’s gaze fearlessly.

“A look, yes. It was a look.”

“Interesting, interesting,” Wei Wuxian says. “Very interesting.”

Meng Yao’s sense of danger sharpens. He attempts to exude telepathic death warnings toward Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian only quirks an eyebrow in challenge and smiles like a knife. “So. The mink coat.”

“Which--oh. Great-grandmother’s mink coat from Paris?”

“That’s the one!” Wei Wuxian chirps. “Did you ever, oh… I don’t know… Put her in the mink coat and drape her in millions of dollars’ worth of heirloom jewels and have wild sex about it?” 

Lan Qingheng frowns at the ceiling. He turns his head and frowns at Wei Wuxian. “How could you possibly know about that? I took my journals with me to outer Mongolia.”

“Lucky guess, I’m sure,” Meng Yao says sweetly. Beside him, Huan-ge is delicately pinching the bridge of his nose, scarlet all the way down to his collar. Wangji is red-eared, but not yet astral-projecting directly out of his body. Ah well, an eye for an eye. “Scale of one to ten, Lan Qingheng, how hot was your wife when she was pregnant?”

“At least thirty-five, trending up into the mid-forties,” Lan Qingheng replies without hesitation. 

Wangji flushes scarlet; Wei Wuxian’s eye twitches. Meng Yao smirks back at him. 

Lan Qingheng levers himself upright suddenly. “We have too many egg tarts. Where is Qiren?”

Meng Yao, jolted out of his moment of petty triumph, attempts to parse how these two statements could possibly be related. “Ah… Passed out in the master bedroom. He accidentally had some weed too.”

“Good.” Lan Qingheng gestures regally. “Give me all the egg tarts.”

“What?” says Wei Wuxian.

“We have too many. I shall stack them on him, as righteous vengeance for the insult he has offered my wife by spreading rumors that she died of illness.

“Oh,” Meng Yao says. “Yes. Good.”

Wei Wuxian frantically begins closing up all the boxes of egg tarts and stuffing them in one of the paper bags. After a moment, Huan-ge and Wangji, still very red faced, collect themselves enough to help. “Yes. Take all of them,” Wei Wuxian says feverishly. “All of them.” He hands the bag to Lan Qingheng, who steps forward to accept it gravely. 

Meng Yao gets to his feet. “Perhaps the cheeseburgers as well?" he says, scooping up the bag where it had been forgotten by the loveseat. "Also, my phone has the best camera, so I’ll come and take pictures.” He looks limpidly up at Lan Qingheng and says, wide eyed and utterly serious, “It’s what she would have wanted.”

Lan Qingheng smiles again--the second really genuine smile. Meng Yao is counting. “Thank you, yes. That was my thinking as well.”

“I will also come,” Wangji says decisively, rising. 

Lan Qingheng and Huan-ge look at him in surprise as Wei Wuxian laughs aloud, bright and glittering. “Wangji?” Huan-ge says.

“It’s what she would have wanted, xiongzhang,” Wangji says impassively.

Huan-ge lowers his eyes and smiles for a moment. “In that case, should we all go?”

“Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,” Wei Wuxian chants, scrambling to his feet as Huan-ge rises more gracefully. And then, “Ah, fuck.” 

“What?” Meng Yao says. 

“I was about to demand that we get pictures of A-Yuan stacking egg tarts on shufu, the cutest vengeance in the world, but actually we can’t let A-Yuan see. I love that kid to death, but he’s a tiny narc.”

“Mn,” Wangji agrees with a single fervent nod. “He is.”

Chapter Text

“Jade Phoenix,” said an almost-familiar voice. “Good to see you again.”

Xia Qin groaned. “Ah, fuck, I was hoping it wouldn’t be you. Hello, Agent Donnelly, how’s the wife, how’s the kid?”

“They're fine. But why wouldn't it be me?” He stepped out of the shadows. “You think I’d give up so easily? I’ve been on your tail for twenty years now.”

“Not the whole twenty years,” she said smugly. “I lost you in Florence.”

“Ah yes, Florence.” He came forward and leaned on the stone wall next to where she sat, her good leg dangling over the edge, her badly sprained one laid straight along the top of the wall. “How long has it been since Florence? Ten years?” 

“Eleven,” she said. Her heart clenched in her chest, and she looked out over the villa’s terraces, the gentle rustle of ornamental trees and bushes all black and silver and blue in the moonlight. A waft of a breeze blew past, carrying Agent Donnelly’s obnoxious cologne.

“You went to ground pretty well after that,” he says, taking a box of cigarettes out of his pocket and lighting up. “You could have kept your head down. Disappeared forever.”

 Xia Qin grins out into the night. “Nah. I couldn’t have.”

“No? Rich husband and two sweet boys still wasn’t enough for you?” He blew a cloud of smoke politely away from her, but the breeze was all wrong; it blew back in their faces. He coughed and waved his hand through the air to clear it. “Sorry.” He dropped the cigarette and stamped it out. Ah, a gentleman. She wondered if he advertised himself as such.

“Spare me the small talk, agent. Where’s your partner?”

“Eh, left him behind. He’s too impulsive--he would have arrested you on sight, read you your rights, tossed you in the back of a van. I wanted to chat first. We haven’t had a good chat in ages.”

“Chat?”

“Yeah.” He shrugs. “Twenty years, y’know--feels like we’re practically friends. You ask about my family, I ask about yours. I look at your INTERPOL file on your birthday and hum the birthday song to a grainy photograph of you. You sent me that Christmas present that one time. Practically friends.”

“Apologies. I have no interest in chatting, agent.”

“What are you gonna do, run away?” he said.

“Not with this thing,” Xia Qin said, smacking her sprained leg. “Stupid reason to get end up getting caught. One of those things where you step wrong and your ankle just has a fit of the vapors for no reason, and suddenly you’re on the ground cursing like a motherfucker.”

He winced. “Had that happen a couple times. Sucks.”

“Mm. I sat up and thought, ‘Well, fuck, Donnelly’s gonna get here any minute and then it’s all over.’” She shook her head. “Ankles. Stupid damn reason to get caught.”

He heaved a sigh and stood up. “I hear ya, Jade. Seems like an anticlimax after all this time, huh? Wish I could give you a fair fight, at least, but that’s not how this works.” He took a pair of handcuffs from his pocket--in the moonlight, they gleamed like ice. 

“I don’t care for the idea of being taken in,” she said coldly. Hah. She sounded like A-Zhao. 

“C’mon, you’re not gonna make this harder than it needs to be, are you? After all this? If you cooperate and come quietly, I’ll do my best to get you a deal of some kind. It won't be a maximum security prison, and I'll try to make sure it's close enough your little boys can come see you now and then. That sounds good, right? Family visit once a month or so?”

She snorted. “Good? That’s supposed to sound good, agent? In comparison to freedom?”

“Little bit late to be thinking of freedom, my friend,” he said.

“I disagree,” she said, and rolled off the wall. 

She heard him curse just before she hit the ground--only about ten feet down--and rolled to find cover. Exactly as planned, her hand landed precisely on the first of the seven firearms she’d hidden around the terraces.

What a relief to know that East Berlin hadn’t been a waste of time after all. 

It was almost fun for a bit, just like the old days, before she met A-Zhao, before she had the boys and had to start thinking about the ways her body had changed, before there were people who would miss her…

But she wasn’t as young as she’d once been, and her ankle screamed with pain every time she put weight on it, and then the second Glock jammed and she had to throw it aside--

Incredibly, she almost made it anyway. 

But then Donnelly got a lucky shot, winging her bad leg, and she felt the gush of blood down her thigh and thought, ‘Well fuck, he got a vein. And that’s probably the ball game.’

That motherfucker had just orphaned her sons and broken her husband’s heart. How fucking dare he, honestly.

So Xia Qin let the phoenix go out of her, and instead went to her namesake, the wren--a plain little brown bird, hurt and fluttering in the dust with a broken wing. She fell to the ground and sobbed loud so Agent motherfucking-widowmaking-childorphaning Donnelly would be able to hear her. He approached with caution, his gun still in his hand, sweat pouring down his face. “Dammit, Jade,” he panted. “Just give up already.”

“Please,” she wept, pushing her good leg against the ground as if struggling away from him. A fluttering, helpless little bird, struggling away from the snake. “Please, don’t kill me, please, my family--”

“Fuck--fuck, you’re bleeding bad, hang on--you’re going to go to trial, you absolute bitch, do you hear me?” He holstered his gun and fumbled at his belt for his walkie-talkie, barking orders into it even as he fell to his knees and whipped off his belt to tie around her leg as a tourniquet. Too late for that, probably. “Dammit, stop fighting me! Trial and prison for you, Jade, do you hear me?”

She had pushed herself bird-fluttering along the path just far enough to set her hand on the last gun tucked behind a flowerpot, and now she brought all the fury back into her voice as she said, “I’d rather fucking die.”

Xia Qin shot him, point blank.

All, at last, was quiet.

She slumped back, already getting lightheaded and woozy from the blood loss, and she looked up at the sky and laughed.

Not damn bad, for an end. If she had to end, at least she went out with style.