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kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight

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Jingyi and Jin Ling don’t agree on much, but it is an indisputable fact that Sizhui being late to breakfast is extremely weird. Without him, the silence at their table is awkward rather than comfortable, and finally Jin Ling bursts out in a whisper, “Where is he?”

“I don’t know,” Jingyi whispers back. “He went to see Hanguang-jun but he’s never been late like this before?”

Jin Ling stands, abandoning his half eaten congee, and tugs Jingyi with him out of the hall so they can speak normally. For once, Jingyi follows without protest.

“If we leave now and grab him, we’ll be back in time for class,” Jin Ling says.

“What if he’s having an important talk with Hanguang-jun?” Jingyi protests, but he follows Jin Ling as he marches out of the main complex. 

“Hanguang-jun wouldn’t want him to miss class,” Jin Ling points out. 

To Jingyi’s relief, he can hear voices as they approach the Jingshi. It occurs to him only a moment later how strange it is to hear the low rumble of Hanguang-jun’s voice.

With a future-sect-leader obstinate confidence, Jin Ling knocks on the door. All speaking inside ceases, and then Hanguang-jun says, “Who is it?”

“Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi,” Jin Ling says. “Classes are about to start.”

Jingyi cringes and yanks on his sleeve. “It’s Hanguang-jun,” he hisses. “He knows when classes are.” He raises his voice. “Our most sincere apologies, Hanguang-jun, we were just worried about Sizhui.”

Another pause, and then the door slides open a crack. Sizhui looks flustered, cheeks flushed, and he flashes both of them a quick, uncomfortable smile. “I’m fine,” he says. He doesn’t look fine. He looks like he might have been crying. 

“Sizhui,” Jingyi says, stepping forward. “What’s wrong?”

“Um,” Sizhui says. “Family business.” He won’t meet Jingyi’s eyes. 

From inside the Jingshi, there’s a thudding sound. Sizhui jumps, turning to look, and when Jingyi steps forward and looks over his shoulder to see what happened -- since when does Hanguang-jun drop anything? -- he sees -- Sizhui?

Jingyi stares. 

“What the fuck,” Jin Ling says, very loudly, and both Sizhuis grimace. Hanguang-jun looks pained. 

“Come in, come in,” the closer Sizhui says, stepping aside and closing the door quickly behind them. This Sizhui is dressed in his disciple robes; the other Sizhui is in ragged gray robes and his hair is in disarray. His wrist is held by Hanguang-jun, who is still transferring energy to him. “Listen, you can keep this to yourselves, can’t you?”

“What is happening?” Jingyi manages.

Jin Ling has a hand on Suihua and is looking between the Sizhuis with increasing suspicion. “Is this a curse? Do we need to figure out which one is the real one?”

“Jin Ling,” says the Sizhui on the floor. “I’m Lan Sizhui. This is my twin brother.”

“Hi,” says the other one, who is apparently not Sizhui. “You can call me -- A-Yuan, I guess?”

Jin Ling turns the full force of his suspicion on A-Yuan. “Why are you in Sizhui’s clothes?” he demands. “And why are you also named A-Yuan?” 

“It’s a different character--” A-Yuan begins weakly.

“Jin-gongzi,” Hanguang-jun says, speaking for the first time. It’s barely seven in the morning, but he sounds both very tired and very commanding. “Please calm yourself. We are in the middle of dealing with a crisis.”

“What’s wrong?” Jingyi asks again dumbly. He can’t stop looking between the two of them; A-Yuan, in his white robes, seems familiar even though it’s Sizhui’s nervous clenched fists that he recognizes. Sizhui also looks awfully pale. “Sizhui, are you okay? Are you hurt?”

“Just low on energy,” Sizhui says. “It’s… a long story.” He looks at Hanguang-jun. “We can tell them, can’t we? They already know about A-Yuan.”

“I trust them,” A-Yuan agrees, looking between them and Hanguang-jun.

Jin Ling scoffs. “Trust us? You don’t even know us.”

A-Yuan smiles nervously. “That’s the thing,” he says. “The Sizhui you’ve been spending time with the last few months? That was actually me.” He gestures down at his outfit. “I’m sorry for lying.”

Jingyi blinks and looks at the real Sizhui again, who offers him an apologetic smile. He knows that smile; he’s known it since he was four. A-Yuan meets his eyes, hands twisting his sleeves anxiously. Well, he had been thinking that Sizhui got cuter over his vacation. “Oh.”

“Explain,” Jin Ling demands. He’s looking at A-Yuan, but it is Hanguang-jun who answers, his gaze even but shoulders tight.
“My fiance,” he says, “has been kidnapped.”

.

Jin Ling has to sit down halfway through the dizzying explanation. “This is ridiculous,” he says. “You’re telling me that not only was my dead uncle in love with Hanguang-jun, but he has been secretly raising Sizhui’s secret identical twin in the woods for over a decade ?”

“That’s the gist of it,” says A-Yuan with a wan smile. 

Lan Jingyi appears to have been struck silent. Jin Ling wishes he could savor it more. “Well,” he says dumbly. “What’s the plan?”

Sizhui -- real Sizhui, who squeezed Jin Ling’s hand when he sat down and nearly gave him a heart attack when he said it was “really nice to see him” -- rubs his eyes and says, “That guy, Xue Yang, he said he was taking him to Lanling. Koi Tower.”

Jin Ling gapes. “Well, I don’t know anything about this,” he says. “Who would be secretly kidnapping people to Koi Tower? My shushu?” He says it incredulously, but there is an awkward silence afterwards. 

“It doesn’t matter who did it,” A-Yuan says. “If we know where A-Die is, we can go get him, right?” 

I can go get him,” Hanguang-jun corrects. 

There is an immediate explosion of protests: “Hanguang-jun, we can help--!” “Please, we can’t just stay here--” “Baba, we should come with--” 

Hanguang-jun holds up a hand. Jin Ling assumes it is only out of respect for his son(s?) that he doesn’t outright silence them. “It will be dangerous,” he says frankly. 

“Please,” A-Yuan repeats. Jin Ling averts his eyes; he sounds ready to cry again. “I haven’t seen him for weeks and now --” His voice breaks.

Hanguang-jun exhales. “You and Sizhui may come,” he relents. Both twins look relieved. “But only as lookouts. You will not be entering Koi Tower. You will not be fighting.” 

“I know Koi Tower well,” Jin Ling says. “I should come too--”

“No,” Hanguang-jun says immediately. “I cannot put you in danger. I am only bringing Sizhui and A-Yuan because they will likely be safer if I have an eye on them. You two are not involved and I will not involve you.”

“Are you going to ask for help from the clan?” Lan Jingyi asks, sitting forward. “I bet my moms would back you up.”

Hanguang-jun frowns slightly. “No,” he says. “People tend to be… reactive where Wei Ying is involved. It is very likely that clan involvement would be harmful rather than helpful. I will go alone.”

“Jiujiu would help,” Jin Ling says. “Hanguang-jun, let me go to Lotus Pier and get my uncle.”

Hanguang-jun considers. “Very well,” he says. “But we will not delay for his sake; he can catch up when he gets there. Let us go as soon as possible.”

“Let me get supplies,” Sizhui says, struggling to his feet. 

His father steadies him. “Sizhui,” he says quietly. “If you are unwell, you should stay.”

“I’m fine,” Sizhui insists, more loudly than Jin Ling has ever heard him speak to his father. He straightens his shoulders and meets Hanguang-jun’s eyes. “I’m coming. I need to help. I let him get captured.”

“It was not your fault,” Hanguang-jun says softly, and lets go of his arm. “We will get him back.”

Sizhui nods shakily, and turns off towards the room that used to be his in the Jingshi. Hanguang-jun turns to Jin Ling. “If you are going to go, then go now,” he says. “Tell your father to bring the head doctor if he can.”

Jin Ling bows, and then bows to A-Yuan too for good measure. “Good to meet you properly,” he says. Looking at him now, shoulders slumped and eyes huge, clutching Suibian with a white-knuckled grip, Jin Ling is really not sure how he ever passed for Sizhui.

“You too,” A-Yuan says. 

Jin Ling doesn’t realize until he’s already outside that Lan Jingyi is still beside him. “I’m coming with you,” he says staunchly, clasping Jin Ling’s shoulder. 

Jin Ling, for once, doesn’t argue. “Don’t fall behind,” he says, unsheathing Suihua. “I’m not going to wait around.” He catches just a flash of Lan Jingyi’s tense smile before they’re both off, into the air. 

.

Wei Wuxian wakes uncomfortably, body aching against the cold floor of a prison cell. He’s no longer gagged, he realizes hazily, but that doesn’t really matter given that the warding carved into the ceiling renders his demonic cultivation null and void. He’s walled in on three sides, no windows, low ceiling, thick iron bars with an empty hallway on the other side. The dull yellow light filtering through them is just enough to see by. 

Pushing himself up to sit against the stone wall, he takes stock as best he can in the low light. He has all his fingers and toes and all of his limbs. An excellent start. Unfortunately, he is also manacled. The chains clank in his lap as he reaches up to prod at his face; the skin around his left eye is swollen and tender and he can’t open the eye all the way. A parting gift from Xue Yang. 

If Xue Yang is to be believed, he must be somewhere below Koi Tower. He hasn’t even approached Lanling since everything in Qiongqi Pass all those years ago, let alone been stupid enough to come to Koi Tower itself. He presses a fist to his chest, willing away the pain of wondering if his shijie is somewhere in the floors above him, closer than they’ve been in over a decade but still in a different world.

The empty feeling, it turns out, is not strictly psychological. He realizes this when he pats at his side and finds the pouch reserved for his silver core gone. That must be why he has to keep suppressing the urge to shiver. It’s funny, even after years of building his new core up, his body is still so used to missing a core that it took him a moment to realize. At least he was unconscious when they took it away this time. Ha ha.

Wei Wuxian slumps back against the wall, hoping to the heavens that A-Yuan hasn’t done anything stupid. Thank goodness the kid is more sensible than he is; thank goodness he took Wei Wuxian’s paranoia seriously. If he hadn’t, if he’d gotten captured too, then Wei Wuxian truly would have failed at the last good thing he ever did.

He’s too exhausted to panic, too wrung out. He’s been waiting for something like this to happen for years, and now it has. In a way, he thinks idly, it’s very validating to have proof he wasn’t being paranoid for nothing. On the other hand, his life is full of cruel ironies. He’d had to live when he wanted to die, and now that he’s actually quite invested in staying alive, he’s facing death again. 

Thirteen years, he thinks, tapping the toes of his shoes together. Not a bad record. He wishes that his comeuppance could have waited a little longer, until A-Yuan was properly an adult and didn’t need his old man anymore, but it could have been so much worse. A-Yuan is well-trained, if he says so himself, and at the very least equipped to look after himself in the short term. And Wei Wuxian can’t take credit for how excellent he turned out as a person. A-Yuan will be fine. He has to believe that. 

He’s almost fallen asleep from sheer tiredness when he hears the footsteps down the hallway and jerks awake. Hopefully it’s not Xue Yang -- what a little creep. 

When the figure reaches his cell, it takes him a moment to squint through the darkness and realize who it is. Ah, good, he thinks vaguely, yet another little creep. 

“Jin Guangyao,” he says. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” 

Jin Guangyao’s dimples look even deeper sidelit, his pleasant smile unnervingly out of place. He holds up a small metal sphere, glinting between his index finger and thumb. Wei Wuxian would know what it is even with his eyes closed; he can feel the pull of his silver core, just out of range. He snaps the fingers on his other hand, and Wei Wuxian’s wrist cuffs jump back to affix to the wall, as if magnetized. “Wei Wuxian,” he says. “We have a lot to talk about.” 

 

Thirteen Years Ago 

Wei Wuxian doesn’t retain much memory of those first few weeks after the battle. He’s newly free from the Tiger Seal, but also badly injured and the sole caretaker for a very sick child. Most of what he does remember is bits and snatches, walking the razor thin line between letting his guard down and pushing himself so hard that he would be no good to A-Yuan. 

A-Yuan’s fever doesn’t improve. He wakes only to listlessly pick at whatever food Wei Wuxian can buy or steal for him, his little hands clumsy. Many days he hardly wakes at all. Wei Wuxian spends entire nights pouring through Wen Qing’s cramped handwriting on how to treat fevers; his meager medical prowess is enough to keep A-Yuan alive, but not enough to heal him. 

It must be three weeks, or perhaps a month, by the time he staggers into a village so small it can hardly be called anything more than a collection of houses, and begs for a doctor. His child is dying, so it hardly matters if someone recognizes him and alerts the local sect, because it’s not as though he has any reason to keep running if A-Yuan is gone.

No one recognizes him. Illustrations of the Yiling Patriarch wouldn’t sell if they depicted a smiling young man with absolutely no warts or horns. He’s shed most of his more recognizable belongings, apart from Suibian, and since his sartorial choices are limited to what he can steal off of laundry lines, he’s currently wearing brown on brown. 

Someone points him towards the village doctor, an unsmiling man in his sixties who steps aside to let him in without so much as introduction. “Sit down, son,” he says. “You look like you’re about to fall over.” He checks A-Yuan over efficiently and pronounces him very ill indeed, but not a lost cause. 

“I can’t pay you,” Wei Wuxian says. The words come out rough, unrecognizable. He’s hardly spoken in the last month, aside from coaxing A-Yuan to eat. “But I could -- help with something? I -- I’m a terrible cook, but I can build things, I’ll do anything--”

“Don’t even think about it,” the doctor says, and Wei Wuxian’s heart clenches painfully in his chest. “Let me look you over too.”

“I’m fine,” Wei Wuxian says automatically. 

The doctor sighs, leaning on his table. “You think you’re the first refugees to pass through this town?” he says. “I won’t turn you or your son away. It’ll hardly do him good to get better only to find himself an orphan.”

Wei Wuxian is sure he’s heard something similar from Wen Qing, and for the first time since her death, the thought is fond rather than simply painful. He acquiesces. It only occurs to him when he shucks his underrobe that the Wen brand on his chest only helps the doctor’s assumption of their status. The doctor ignores the brand entirely to frown at the bump where his rib is healing incorrectly and the ugly new scar from Shuoyue and the way his right wrist won’t bend all the way back. 

“You should stay,” Wei Wuxian is told, as he shrugs his clothes back on, shivering. “Your son, he’ll need a few months to recover, at least, and the next few weeks should be under a doctor’s supervision. You’re both malnourished. I have a spare room.”

In the end, there’s no choice. Looking back, Wei Wuxian is certain they wouldn’t have survived without Ming-daifu’s kindness, even though at the time the risk of staying in one place for too long makes him wake in a cold sweat nearly once a night.

First, though, he sleeps for two and a half days straight. Hunger is a comfortable companion by now, a childhood friend. He vaguely remembers that shortly after he was taken in by the Jiangs, the regularity of meals made him nervous; surely it was better to be a little hungry all the time than to be full and have it all taken away? Ming-daifu presses a bowl of plain rice and vegetables into his hands three times a day and he eats obediently, because he cannot afford to waste away when he’s the only guardian A-Yuan has in the world. 

Other than mealtimes, he spends nearly every moment at A-Yuan’s side. A-Yuan’s fever recedes slowly, but it leaves him sluggish and disoriented. Wei Wuxian sleeps curled around him like he has for the past few weeks; he might be a cultivator with no core and a necromancer with no Tiger Seal, but at the very least he can put his body in between A-Yuan and the rest of the world.

Ming-daifu is reticent, which is convenient because it means Wei Wuxian is not being interrogated about a backstory he barely has the presence of mind to construct, but bittersweet because it reminds him of Lan Zhan. Out of self preservation, his mind tends to skitter around the edges of the thoughts that make it difficult to breathe, so he doesn’t think about it too hard. 

When asked where he’s from, he says, “Qinghe. Near the Qishan border.” His accent is enough of a mishmash that he could be from plenty of places, and it’s not like A-Yuan knows enough geography to contradict him. 

Ming-daifu grunts in acknowledgement and Wei Wuxian thinks that’ll be the end of it. Then he says, “The kid’s mother?”

Wei Wuxian swallows his rice with difficulty. “Dead,” he says, pleasantly surprised when his voice trembles but doesn’t break. 

A silence. “Sorry,” Ming-daifu says, then adds, as if Wei Wuxian could have forgotten what he was apologizing for, “About your wife.”

“Thanks,” Wei Wuxian says. His wife. Yes, his wife. He had called Lan Zhan his wife once, because he had been teasing and nearly said husband, but that was far too close to home and what they couldn’t have, so he’d tucked his hand into Lan Zhan’s elbow and said, What does my dear wife want for dinner--?

“There’s bathwater,” Ming-daifu says gruffly, snapping him back to reality, and puts more rice on his plate. 

Wei Wuxian eats it. It tastes like ashes. 

When he does bathe, later that afternoon, his hair proves to be beyond help. After struggling for ten minutes, he finds the knife that he had taken from Wen Qing’s things and cuts it off, shoulder length. The knife is dull, so he has to hack away at his ponytail until it falls away unevenly, and then wrestles a comb through the remaining hair. He figures that cutting his hair probably doesn’t rank even in the top one hundred things he’s not supposed to do considering everything he’s already done. 

A-Yuan wakes properly after the first week at Ming-daifu’s house, blinking his big eyes up at Wei Wuxian and actually reaching out for him. “Hi,” Wei Wuxian says, stupid with relief. “A-Yuan, hi. Be a good boy and lie still, okay? I’m getting the doctor.”

“Okay,” A-Yuan mumbles, rubbing an eye with his fist. 

He wakes up more as Ming-daifu checks him over, his little brow creased with suspicion even as he submits to an examination. 

“His temperature is much better,” Ming-daifu concludes, leaning back. “He won’t be fully well for a while yet, but barring any strain I’d say you’re through the worst of it, young man.” His voice softens slightly as he addresses A-Yuan. “You gave your A-Die a big scare.”

“Mm?” A-Yuan says, confused, and looks at Wei Wuxian. “A-Die?” he says hesitantly. 

“That’s me,” Wei Wuxian says, trying to communicate with his eyes how grateful he is that A-Yuan is playing along and extremely glad he won’t have to explain Xian-gege even as his chest tightens with guilt. A-Yuan’s next question will be about A-Hui, and he’ll have to --

A-Yuan’s little hand squeezes his. “Sorry, A-Die,” he says sincerely. Wei Wuxian has seen him trying to lie about things like how of course he couldn’t have been playing in the mud, his robes just… got like that on their own! A-Yuan is a terrible liar, because he is four. This is not what he looks like when he lies. 

“I’ll give you some time alone,” Ming-daifu says, pushing himself to his feet. 

“A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian says. “We had to leave home, okay? It’s just the two of us for now.” He braces himself for the questions. Where is A-Hui? Where is Popo, Qing-jie, Ning-ge? 

“Okay,” A-Yuan says again. 

“What’s the last thing you remember?” Wei Wuxian tries. 

A-Yuan’s little frown, at least, is the same as it’s always been. But it’s not quite cute enough to soothe the chill of dread in Wei Wuxian’s stomach when A-Yuan says, “I don’t know.”

He hides the horror he’s feeling as best he can so as not to distress A-Yuan as he puts him back to bed. It’s late afternoon. Ming-daifu is grinding herbs at the table. “Can you get some water from the river?” he asks, gesturing to a bucket by the door.

Wei Wuxian nods. He picks his way through the forest to the river, which is both cleaner and colder than the one they’d had running through the Burial Mounds, which they’d boiled twice over each time to be completely sure it wouldn’t make anyone sick. 

There’s a possibility, he considers distantly, that A-Yuan’s memories will return when he recovers fully. He’s not sure if that’s a blessing or a curse. Maybe it’s selfish to wish he wasn’t the only person to carry those memories, the good and the bad. The only person in the world to know who Wen Yuan truly is, and everything he’s lost. 

He sits down hard when a moment of dizziness hits him; he’s not strong enough to resist even the mere pull of gravity these days. Any one of them would have been better at this than he is. Wen Qing could have cured A-Yuan easily, would never have let him get sick in the first place. Would have taught him what it meant to be the good kind of Wen. Wen Ning was strong and fast enough that maybe he could have returned to the Burial Mounds before A-Hui disappeared. He would have known how to comfort A-Yuan, the right thing to say. Or Lan Zhan…

His vision blurs. He only realizes he’s crying when he has to drag in a ragged breath and tastes the tears. His chest hurts, his half healed ribs complaining when he has to force himself to breathe. He’s only cried in his sleep for the past month, woken up with his cheeks tacky and eyelids sticking together. The dull kind of pain that he can tuck away for later.

Later is now, he thinks hysterically, putting his knees on either side of his head and trying to breathe. Lan Zhan would have been so much better at this than him. He strokes the ends of the ribbon tied around his wrist. The silk is fine and slippery against his calloused fingertips. Lan Zhan wouldn’t want him to suffocate in the woods choking on his own self-pity and grief.

By the time he cries himself through it and starts breathing normally again, the woods have darkened around him. His limbs feel wooden and useless; he almost spills the water when he picks the bucket up. Ming-daifu gives him an obvious once over when he steps through the door, searching for injury and finding only the evidence of tears. 

“Get some sleep,” he says gruffly. “I’ll bring you dinner.”

“Thank you,” Wei Wuxian says. He doesn’t have the energy for more words than that. When he slips under the thin covers, A-Yuan reaches for him in his sleep, holding onto the fabric of his robes in one little fist. Wei Wuxian lets out a shuddering breath. 

“You deserve better,” he whispers to A-Yuan, who doesn’t so much as twitch. “But you’ve got me, kid. And I’m not going anywhere, okay?”

He gets no response, even as he wraps an arm around him. It’s a miracle, he reminds himself, that A-Yuan’s body is warm, but no warmer than it should be. He lets the warmth lull him into sleep. 

 

Now

“Let me get this straight,” Wei Wuxian says, tugging fruitlessly against his restraints. “You went to all the trouble of catching Liu Qinyu, but you didn’t even know that was me?”

Jin Guangyao tilts his head in mild agreement. “You did a good job covering your tracks as Wei Wuxian,” he admits. “Less so as your many fake personas.” He tightens the manacle just slightly. “My informants heard a few years ago about a rogue cultivator using a spiritual aid no one had heard of before. My interest was piqued.” He holds up the silver core. “You’re going to explain this to me.”

“My pleasure,” Wei Wuxian says. “Except I have a sneaking suspicion you’ll kill me as soon as I do.”

Jin Guangyao shrugs. “Not necessarily,” he says. “You could prove useful.”

“Exactly what you’d say if you were trying to kill me,” Wei Wuxian points out, narrowing his eyes.

Jin Guangyao just sighs lightly. “Thirteen years have not diminished your particular charm, it seems,” he says. “Fine. I’ll tell you what I know and you fill in the gaps.” He rolls the silver core between his fingers as he talks. “Around seven years ago, you went to a metalsmith near the edge of Qinghe and asked to borrow his forge for a few days. You paid handsomely. He was surprised that you had money to spare because you were in tattered robes and you had a small child with you.”

Wei Wuxian’s heart clenches. He’d hoped that paying off the smith would have been enough to buy his silence, but then he could never hope to match the endless coffers of the Jin. And that’s assuming Jin Guangyao persuaded him using the carrot and not the stick. 

“Since then,” Jin Guangyao continues, “Multiple rogue cultivators matching your description -- with various embellishments, of course -- have been sighted all over, notably using a silver orb to cultivate. So.” He leans forward. “You are going to explain to me what it does.”

“I don’t see what the big deal is,” Wei Wuxian says. “You can feel right now that there’s no resentful energy in it, can’t you? Or is your cultivation not strong enough?”

Very calmly, Jin Guangyao removes a knife from the side of his belt, and unceremoniously stabs Wei Wuxian in the thigh. Wei Wuxian can’t hold back a yelp; it’s far from the worst pain he’s ever experienced, but that is a very high bar. 

“You are not a stupid man,” Jin Guangyao says. “Please stop acting like one, for both our sakes. Don’t waste my time.”

“I’d forgotten you used to torture people for the Wens,” Wei Wuxian wheezes. “Explains why you’re no more creative than they were.”

Jin Guangyao yanks the knife out, which actually hurts worse. Wei Wuxian can feel the hot pulse of blood running down the outside of his thigh. He’s pretty sure he would be more lightheaded if Jin Guangyao had hit an artery, but that doesn’t mean the blood loss won’t be a problem. 

“Blather if you like,” he says, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket to clean the knife. “But I’m not playing around. That same young man was sighted with you on multiple occasions. Just because I didn’t tell Xue Chengmei to bother with finding him doesn’t mean I can’t track him down.” Satisfied, he tucks the knife away. 

Wei Wuxian takes a ragged breath. 

Jin Guangyao smiles. “I thought so.” He smooths a thumb over the carved surface of the silver core. “Like I said, you aren’t stupid. The last little metal ball you made nearly tore the cultivation world in half. So explain.”

It would be easier if he could guarantee that A-Yuan would be smart enough to simply run. But the kid has such a big heart it’s a miracle it hasn’t gotten him in more trouble. He can’t chance it. Plus, it’s not like Jin Guangyao can actually hurt anyone with the silver core. “It’s a prosthetic,” he says.

Jin Guangyao’s eyebrows draw together. “For what?”

“My golden core,” Wei Wuxian says. “I lost it in the war. I built that to replace it.”

Jin Guangyao blinks. Wei Wuxian could laugh at his expression, if he had a little bit more of a death wish. “You’re telling me that I am holding the Yiling Patriarch’s spiritual power?”

“It’s not very impressive,” Wei Wuxian says. “Like you said, I made it seven years ago. I still had to build it up normally. So my spiritual power right now is basically equivalent to a kid’s. Ha.” He swallows. The room spins for a moment, even though he’s locked in place. Maybe Jin Guangyao did hit something important. “A powerful kid, but -- yeah. It just holds my qi, that’s all. You can’t blow anything up with it or control an undead army.” He laughs a little, breathless. “Sorry, sorry, it’s just funny. You Jins spent all that time trying to get the Tiger Amulet and what you end up getting a hold of is my dinky little core.”

Jin Guangyao sighs. “Laugh all you like,” he says, and stands. He stiffens at the sound of skipping footsteps down the corridor, but the only person who appears is Xue Yang, who leans against the bars and peers in curiously.

“Hey boss,” he says. “Are you torturing him? You didn’t wait for me?” He pouts exaggeratedly. 

Jin Guangyao pinches the bridge of his nose. “Xue Chengmei,” he says. Xue Yang snorts at the name and pushes the door open. 

“Did you figure out what it does?” he asks, reaching to pluck the silver core from Jin Guangyao’s hand. Jin Guangyao yanks it away, tucking it into the pocket of his robes. Xue Yang sighs and winks down at Wei Wuxian. “I licked it earlier. It’s tingly.”

“Ew,” Wei Wuxian says.

“Go check the perimeter,” Jin Guangyao says, a clear dismissal. 

“Again?” Xue Yang whines. “It’s cold out.”

Jin Guangyao sighs. “I’ll let you do your experiments when I’m done if you make yourself scarce,” he says. Wei Wuxian doesn’t like the sound of experiments, but he likes the way Xue Yang lights up in excitement even less. 

.

Twelve Years Ago

It takes Jiang Cheng a surprisingly long time to find out that Lan Wangji is a) alive and b) in seclusion. Surprising for a sect leader, anyway, which means almost two months. In his defense, he’s been grappling with a lot of other things, and frankly doesn’t give that much of a shit about Lan Wangji, beyond a general disgruntlement. 

This changes a few months later when his sister, whose continued presence at Lotus Pier is the only good thing to come out of any of this, nudges him to go visit. “He cared about A-Xian,” she says softly, like the name doesn’t make his chest go cold. (The only bad thing about having Jiang Yanli at Lotus Pier: he keeps expecting him to come out from around a corner laughing. The three of them were supposed to come as a set.) “We have each other, but I can’t imagine there’s anyone in Cloud Recesses for him to talk to. Not when…”

She trails off. Jiang Cheng doesn’t need to ask for clarification. After what Zewu-jun did.

“I can’t talk to Zewu-jun,” he says gruffly. It’s been nearly half a year, and he still wakes up yelling from dreams where he’s clutching Wei Wuxian’s arm, too slick with blood to pull him up, Zewu-jun looming behind him. “I won’t.”

His sister settles beside him. She isn’t holding Jin Ling, which means he must have been coaxed into a rare nap. The courtyard is quiet, an after-lunch lull. “We can send a letter ahead to Lan Wangji alone, asking to meet,” she says. “If he doesn’t want to see you, you won’t have to go.”

Jiang Yanli is firmer with him these days. He’s not sure if it comes from living in Koi Tower, being a mother, or if she looked at him and saw that if he didn’t have someone keeping him upright, he’d topple. “Okay, Jiejie,” he says finally.

The letter is brief. He writes that he does not wish to interrupt Hanguang-jun’s seclusion, but if Hanguang-jun should like to meet, etc. All of this diplomacy makes him a little sick. You were the only one not trying to kill my brother, he wants to write. Feel like explaining yourself?

It takes such a long time for Lan Wangji to respond that it might be an impolite rejection in and of itself. But a response does come, even briefer: 

 

That would be acceptable. I have told the sentries they may bring you directly to the Jingshi, where I reside.

 

There’s no proposed date to visit, no pleasantries. Jiang Cheng supposes that in seclusion, it’s not as though Lan Wangji will have other plans. That doesn’t assuage the dread that builds in his stomach when he leaves Lotus Pier. His sister saw him off at the docks with a wish of good luck. Jin Ling grabs his sleeve as he pulls away. 

“Jiujiu!” he says, in the petulant tone of a three-year-old who gets whatever he likes. Jiang Cheng is starting to think it’s genetic from the Jin side, because it’s not like Jiang Yanli spoils the kid. “Why are you going? Stop it.”

“I know,” he tells the kid frankly. “I don’t want to leave either. But I’ll be back soon. Be good, okay?”

He turns before he can see Jin Ling’s face crumple, because if he does, he’ll never be able to make himself leave, and takes off on Sandu. 

The flight goes quickly enough. He wishes it would last longer. Halfway through, it occurs to him to resent Lan Wangji for being in seclusion and making a sect leader come to him rather than visiting Jiang Cheng like a respectable person. 

The guards at the gate look even younger than usual, Jiang Cheng thinks dispassionately. Is Cloud Recesses really asking fourteen-year-olds to protect the entrance? Or maybe he’s just getting old. The scrawnier of the two leads him off the main path towards the complex towards what must be the Jingshi.

Jiang Cheng straightens his shoulders and thanks the kid, then knocks. “It’s Jiang Wanyin,” he says, a moment after. “You said I could visit.”

A pause. “I remember,” Lan Wangji says. His voice is even lower than usual, a little raspy. Is he sick? “You may enter.”

Jiang Cheng slides the door open and steps through. Lan Wangji is seated at his table, dressed all in white, right up to the neck. No, Jiang Cheng realizes a moment later, it isn’t a high-collared hanfu, he has bandages still wound around his throat. His annoyance at being forced to visit fades; he didn’t realize Lan Wangji was still injured.

“Forgive me for not standing,” Lan Wangji says. He indicates his neck, then bows more deeply than he really should, as if to compensate. 

Jiang Cheng bows back. “I hope I haven’t intruded,” he says awkwardly, and sits across from Lan Wangji when Lan Wangji nods at the seat. 

“Mm,” Lan Wangji says, and pours him tea.

It affords Jiang Cheng a moment to readjust. Lan Wangji is as inscrutable as ever, but something seems off about him. It isn’t just the bandages. Jiang Cheng tries not to stare. 

“I was told,” Lan Wangji says, breaking the silence and almost startling Jiang Cheng, “that you tried to save him.” His voice is flat, unreadable. “That you looked for him, after.”

Jiang Cheng swallows. “Yes,” he says, because there’s no point in denying it. Enough people have lost respect for him for it, what’s one more?

“Why?” Lan Wangji asks, his tone becoming sharp. 

Jiang Cheng clears his throat. “I know he wasn’t a Jiang disciple,” he says. “At the -- at the end. But he was still my brother.” His traitor voice cracks and he has to clear his throat again. “If anyone could survive that fall, it would be him.”

“Did you find anything?” Lan Wangji asks, staring intently at a spot over Jiang Cheng’s shoulder..

Jiang Cheng exhales. This too, is not a secret. He’s not sure why Lan Wangji needs to hear it from him. “I found Chenqing,” he says. “But no trace of him.”

Lan Wangji is silent for a long, long moment. Jiang Cheng sips his tea. “What would you have done,” Lan Wangji says finally, “if you found him?”

“I don’t know,” Jiang Cheng says honestly. Lan Wangji’s gaze meets his. 

“Killed him?” he asks. “Tortured him?”

“No!” Jiang Cheng says, probably louder than any noise the Jingshi has ever heard. “What the fuck? No, I wanted to help him, I just -- nothing I did worked . He never let me.” He’s breathing hard. Lan Wangji hasn’t moved at all, but when Jiang Cheng glares at him, he realizes what’s different. “You’re not wearing your ribbon,” he says, so surprised that he says it aloud. 

There’s a small knock at the door. Jiang Cheng jerks. Isn’t Lan Wangji supposed to be in seclusion? “Come in,” Lan Wangji says, not breaking eye contact with Jiang Cheng.

A small figure slips inside, dressed in the same pale robes as Lan Wangji. “Hi Baba! A-Xiang’s mother said I could come over-- oh!” The child dips into a small, neat bow when he catches sight of Jiang Cheng. Jiang Cheng is hardly an expert with children, but the kid looks maybe a year older than Jin Ling and also weirdly familiar. 

He stares at the kid. The kid stares at him. Both of them seem equally surprised to see another person with Lan Wangji during his seclusion.

“This is Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Wangji says, absolutely unbothered by the presence of a small child in his house calling him Baba. “He is visiting for the afternoon. You may go to A-Xiang’s. Please return before dinner.”

“Okay, thank you! Nice to meet you,” the child says, and bows again to Jiang Cheng before slipping out the door.

“What the fuck,” Jiang Cheng says, once the child is gone. 

“My son,” Lan Wangji says calmly. “Lan Yuan.”

“Lan Yuan,” Jiang Cheng echoes, and then realizes why the kid looks familiar. “You--”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says. There’s a stubbornness about him that makes it seem like he’s ready for an argument. 

Jiang Cheng sighs and looks around. “Where’s the other one?” he asks automatically, because he refuses to be surprised by a second kid. Lan Wangji puts his teacup down hard. It takes him a moment to answer, just long enough for Jiang Cheng to deeply regret the question. His heart stops in his chest. “No.”

“A-Yuan is the only survivor,” Lan Wangji says finally. His hands are flat against the table, but Jiang Cheng can see them trembling slightly. 

“I’m sorry,” Jiang Cheng says, and means it. 

Lan Wangji narrows his eyes. “You will tell no one,” he says. It’s an order. Jiang Cheng can’t bring himself to be offended.

“I won’t,” he agrees. Well, he’ll tell Jiejie, but she doesn’t count. He hates this kind of talking around an issue, but he doesn’t know how secure the Jingshi is. He’ll have to wait to tell Lan Wangji about Lotus Pier’s secret guest. He hesitates. “Your ribbon.”

“I gave it to Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, and Jiang Cheng realizes belatedly that the flatness of his tone hides whatever emotion he’s feeling out of necessity. That’s right, isn’t it, he had seen the ribbon fluttering around his brother’s arm those last few moments, he just had other priorities. Lan Wangji’s eyes are fixed firmly on the table. “We were --” He hesitates. Jiang Cheng clenches his jaw to keep from talking, and waits. “I wanted to marry him,” Lan Wangji says finally, and a lot of things fall into place. 

“Oh,” Jiang Cheng says dumbly. 

“Mm,” Lan Wangji says, still not meeting his eyes, and sips his tea.

Jiang Cheng has -- a lot of questions, but all things that would be normal to ask Wei Wuxian and very strange to ask Lan Wangji. Grief punches through his chest; he misses his brother furiously. “Did he--” he begins, “Were you--?”

“He accepted the ribbon,” Lan Wangji says hoarsely, still not looking at him. “Technically speaking, we were engaged.”

“I’m sorry,” Jiang Cheng says again, the words feeling hopelessly inadequate. He wants to shake Wei Wuxian -- you fucking asshole I can’t believe you made me watch Lan Wangji almost cry -- but he can’t, because Wei Wuxian is dead and therefore cannot be shaken. He is so, so angry. “You should visit Lotus Pier,” he blurts, surprising even himself. Lan Wangji blinks. “When your seclusion is over, when you heal more, whatever. Jiejie’s kid is around the same age, you can bring yours.”

Lan Wangji looks at him. It’s uncomfortable. “Thank you,” he says finally.

“Of course,” Jiang Cheng says, itching to leave and forcing himself to stay. “You’re -- I mean, you’re--” Almost his brother-in-law. “A single parent too. You and Jiejie can talk.” And there’s someone else he should really see, but now is not the time for that revelation. He stands and bows. “Thank you for allowing me to interrupt your seclusion.”

Lan Wangji rises too, somewhat unsteadily, and bows back. 

.

Now

“Jin Ling,” Jiang Cheng says, watching his nephew tumble off Suihua and pant. “What did you do ?”

The other kid, a beanpole in Lan robes, manages a lopsided bow. “Sect Leader Jiang,” he wheezes. “We come bearing an important message from Hanguang-jun.” He breaks the bow to put his hands on his shaky knees and gasp for air.

“I can tell it was terribly urgent, since he sent two teenagers,” Jiang Cheng says dryly. He’d been worried, for a moment there, when one of his disciples fetched him from his office, that something had actually happened to Jin Ling. He’s actually kind of relieved that it turned out to be youthful nonsense.

Jin Ling picks himself up off the floor. “Jiujiu,” he says. “We flew straight from Cloud Recesses. Wei Wuxian is alive, and he’s been captured.”

“He,” Jiang Cheng says, and then stops. “What?” It’s some kind of a strange prank, it has to be -- Jin Ling has always had a weird sense of humor. “What the fuck?”

“It’s true,” says the Lan junior. “Sizhui came back this summer except he wasn’t Sizhui, he was Sizhui’s secret twin, who Wei Wuxian raised in secret because he thought that Sizhui was dead. But now both of them are together again but Wei Wuxian is missing because some guy named Xue Yang kidnapped him and took him to Koi Tower. And Hanguang-jun needs your help. Also your doctor?”

“I--” Jiang Cheng says, mind completely blank. They know about the second twin, which they couldn’t unless there actually was some kind of bizarre revelation about Sizhui’s past -- and Lan Wangji wouldn’t have asked about his head doctor if he wasn’t serious. Which means that Wei Wuxian is alive, or was before he was captured, and presumably has been for the last thirteen years. “Fuck. When did you leave?”

“Around six-thirty this morning,” Jin Ling says. 

“Impressive speed,” Jiang Cheng says, distracted, because it’s only the afternoon now and they’ve made very good time. Faster than a messenger butterfly, certainly. But it’ll take him at least a few more hours to get to Koi Tower, and that’s if he leaves right now . “I’m going to fucking kill him.”

He turns on his heel and walks very fast out the back of the building, mind racing. Shidi. Didi. Let me go. The fucking asshole. Distantly, he can hear both boys groan and pick themselves up to follow. “You are not coming with me,” he snaps over his shoulder. “Jin Ling, your mother would kill me, and Lan whatever, I don’t even know you.”

“Where is A-Niang?” Jin Ling asks, barely keeping pace with him. 

“Koi Tower,” he growls. “So I’m going right away . I just need to grab Daifu.” He breaks into a run as soon as they leave the complex -- why the fuck did he think it was a good idea to build a house so far away? He bangs his fist against the door, shaking it on the frame.

“Drop whatever you’re doing!” he yells inside. “We need to go help my idiot brother.”

The door wrenches open. “Explain,” his head doctor demands. 

“No time,” he says, drawing Sandu. “I’ll explain on the way. We’re needed at Koi Tower.”

“Is he alive?” she asks, stepping on behind him. “Is Yanli in danger?”

“Last I heard. And maybe.”

“Daifu?” Jin Ling asks, still out of breath. His little friend has collapsed onto the grass, chest heaving. “You know Wei Wuxian?”

“Oh yes,” Wen Qing says grimly. “I know him very well.”

.

Seven Years Ago

Daifu has been around for as long as Jin Ling can remember. She has a name, probably, but everyone has always called her just Daifu. She is his mother’s close friend, he knows, which is good because A-Niang gets awfully busy helping his Jiujiu run the sect. 

By the time Jin Ling is eight, he no longer needs constant supervision and is usually permitted to roam the complex as he pleases between the end of lessons and dinnertime. Jin Ling wishes this particular freedom extended to the water; he is an excellent swimmer and has been since before he could walk. But A-Niang and Jiujiu insist that he is not allowed to swim without adult supervision, and so, when they are busy, he often finds himself making his way to Daifu’s cottage. 

Unlike the other doctors, who either live in the disciple housing or outside the gates in town, Daifu is tucked away against the edge of the forest, in a house he assumes was built just for her. Although the medical wing near the training grounds is perfectly well-stocked, Daifu’s cottage is crammed floor to ceiling with supplies tucked away in little labeled drawers that she must have memorized. 

“Daifu!” he calls at the door. It is closed, but Daifu always keeps her door closed, even when she’s expecting visitors. “Are you busy?”

“Hmph,” he hears from inside. “I’m always busy. What do you need?”

“Come watch me swim,” Jin Ling says. He doesn’t bother trying to open the door; he has long since accepted that the wards don’t let anyone but Daifu through. Belatedly, he adds, “Please?”

A moment passes. The sticky summer heat clings to the back of Jin Ling’s neck, even in the shade. Daifu opens the door, looking unimpressed. “Come in and help me,” she says, an order rather than a question. “If no one else comes to ask for help by the time I’m done, then maybe I’ll watch you swim.”

“It’s dumb,” Jin Ling says, following her into the little house. The medicinal smell is familiar by now, comforting. The space inside is cramped; there’s her workspace, the table covered with herbs, the tiny kitchen where she lays her mattress down at night. “I know how to swim. You don’t even have to actually watch me, you could just tell A-Niang that you did.”

“Rulan,” Daifu says sternly, returning to her mortar and pestle. She is the only person in the world who is allowed to call him Rulan, mostly because she ignores him when he complains. “You want me to lie? What if you drowned?”

“I wouldn’t,” he says petulantly. 

She puts some kind of root in his lap, along with a grater and a small bowl. “Grate that for me,” she says. “We’re making something to help with your mother’s insomnia.”

Jin Ling sighs and complies. “Sizhui is coming to visit again next week,” he tells her. “We’ve been writing each other letters. His handwriting is way nicer than mine, it’s embarrassing.”

Her efficient hands falter. “Is that so?” Daifu hesitates. “Is he well?”

Jin Ling snorts. Just like a doctor, always asking about someone’s health. “He’s fine,” he says. “He gets motion sick though, so he’s not looking forward to the traveling part.”

“Hm,” Daifu says distantly. “I’ll make him something with ginger, for his stomach. You can give it to him for the trip back.”

“Okay,” Jin Ling says. He sniffs the small bowl of shredded root. “You’re sure this won’t make A-Niang feel worse?”

Daifu takes it from his hand. “Which of us is the doctor?” she says. “I’ve been helping your mother since before you could string a sentence together.”

Jin Ling rolls his eyes. “This humble disciple apologizes,” he says. She gives him a suspicious look. “If you’ve known A-Niang that long, does that mean you’re friends with Hanguang-jun too?”

Her lips purse; she ignores him. “I’ll take you swimming,” she says, shooing him off like a fly. “Go get changed, I’ll meet you at the docks.”

Jin Ling is eight; his question is quickly forgotten in the prospect of slipping into cool water on a hot afternoon. Daifu watches from the pier, her sharp eyes fixed on him as she leans on one of the posts.  

.

Now

Xue Yang has been having a disappointing day. First, he wasn’t allowed to play with Wei Wuxian, like, at all , and now Jin Guangyao is being a little bitch about wanting to do serious things first. He’s considering killing him, except the money is good and no one else will pay him for messing around with corpses. Pros and cons. 

He tosses the little silver ball from one hand to the other as he goes. Jin Guangyao should really watch his pockets better if he’s going to hire former street kids. 

Xue Yang is pleasantly surprised when his survey of the perimeter actually has results. Usually he just flies around the treeline and scares a few local teenagers. Once he found a dead deer and figured out how to bring it back as a fierce deer corpse. That was cool. But this time he catches a glimpse of someone standing at the edge of the forest, tall and proud, in white robes.

For a moment, he thinks it’s Lan Xichen. The one person he has been infuriatingly forbidden from maiming. But it’s fine, it’s whatever, because it’s not. It’s that brother of his, who caught Xue Yang and handed him over to the Nie sect all those years ago. And he must be doing something illicit, or he wouldn’t be lurking. Jackpot. Also, what kind of dumbass lurks in white robes?

“Xue Yang,” Lan Wangji says, drawing his sword. “You will tell me what you have done with Wei Ying.”

Wow, Xue Yang thinks. Nothing coy about that. “Who?” he asks, tilting his head. “Oh, you mean the Yiling Patriarch?”

No response. So boring. Lan Wangji just draws his sword. 

Xue Yang sighs dramatically and draws Jiangzai. Could he alert Jin Guangyao? Yeah, but that would be no fun. Much more fun to show up with Lan Wangji’s head and see the look on his face. Serve him right.

He’s gotta give it to Lan Wangji, though, he’s a damn good swordsman. He never actually got to cross swords with him the last time he met him, but he’s light on his feet for such a tall guy, and he hardly seems fazed by Xue Yang fighting dirty.

“What if we’ve already killed him?” Xue Yang pants, dodging a blow that almost catches his shoulder. “That’s what you’re trying to ensure, right? That the Yiling Patriarch is truly dead? Didn’t he almost kill you?”

Lan Wangji doesn’t flinch, but his responding strike almost takes out Xue Yang’s leg. He rolls back over a shoulder and hops back up onto his feet. 

“Cat got your tongue?” he taunts. “Lan Wangji can’t even hold a conversation?”

“Boring,” Lan Wangji says, lunging, and Xue Yang is forced to retreat, skipping back into the grass. 

I’ll say,” he says, annoyed, and splits Jiangzai, twirling her so Lan Wangji can’t get close. He’s stabbed himself so many times trying to switch Jiangzai to her double-bladed version in the middle of battle, but it’s worth it now for the frustration on Lan Wangji’s face -- the first emotion he’s shown, which makes Xue Yang hungry for more -- when he can’t get close. “Why do you care so much? You in love with the guy or something?”

Lan Wangji’s blade falters at that -- delighted, Xue Yang gets in a swipe against his shoulder, dancing back out of range before Lan Wangji can return the blow. He cackles. “This is too good! Your precious Wei Ying--”

“Do not call him that,” Lan Wangji grits out, and Xue Yang’s heart sings. 

“Ah, lost love,” he purrs, and parries a strike aimed at his head. 

Lan Wangji clenches his jaw and doesn’t reply. That’s okay; Xue Yang is having fun again. If he can get closer, he could use his corpse powder, and wouldn’t that be a good time. 

Lan Wangji isn’t planning to go down easy, but that’s fine, that’s better -- the chase is the best part, Xue Yang thinks. Lan Wangji gets in a solid slice across his side, and it stings but in the very best way. Even better, it leaves Lan Wangji’s left side unguarded. 

Jiangzai is about to connect when someone leaps down from one of the surrounding trees and pushes it away. Awfully rude, especially considering the person is some little Lan brat. But that’s fine, that’s fine -- especially when Xue Yang catches the way Hanguang-jun’s eyes widen. 

“A-Yuan--” he begins sharply, knocking Xue Yang backwards, and the kid says, “ Baba , let me help--”

It couldn’t be better. This is delicious. 

“I love this,” Xue Yang announces. “This little father-son family band thing.” He takes a vicious swipe at the kid, who yelps and jumps away, just barely bringing his sword up in time. Xue Yang grins at him. The kid might have good reflexes, but he should have realized the mountain of leverage he just gave Xue Yang over his poor old father. Xue Yang fantasizes, briefly, about whether it would be more fun to kill Lan Wangji or his kid first.

“Do not touch him,” Lan Wangji all but snarls, which is just delightful. Xue Yang beams at him and darts towards the kid.

“A-Yuan, was it?” he says, parrying Lan Wangji’s attack easily -- defensive now, of course, and he’s desperate to keep himself in between Xue Yang and little A-Yuan. “Aw, do your precious elders praise your skill with the sword?” he sneers, and feints with Jiangzai. 

The kid dodges, but just barely in time. Xue Yang laughs. He can taste his victory. Oh, he’s going to put so many nails in this kid’s head and he’s going to make Lan Wangji watch. If Jin Guangyao tells him no, he’ll kill him too. This is the best perimeter check he’s ever been on--

Xue Yang’s heart stops. Literally. He looks down, surprised. There is a sword sticking out of his chest. It doesn’t make sense -- Lan Wangji and the kid are both in front of him, so --?

“Who--?” he says, honestly confused. Jiangzai drops from his numb fingers. He twists his head, trying to see the person behind him, which hurts like a bitch with the sword still in his chest. The same kid who was in front of him is also behind him, jaw clenched, eyes wide. 

“That is so fucking trippy,” Xue Yang says, stunned. It’s kind of like Jiangzai, but with people? Oh, it would be so cool if he could split himself into two people. “You have to teach me -- how to -- do that --”

Kid Number Two rips the sword out of his chest. He’s half-unconscious before he hits the ground, face down. He can hear them talking over him, but not make out the words. In the last moments before he passes out, he wonders about that little silver ball. So tingly. Maybe that will help? 

His blood on the frost is kinda pretty, he thinks. His eyes close.

.

Jiang Yanli is preparing for bed when she gets the messenger butterfly. She blinks in surprise and extends a palm to allow it to land. The tiny, precise characters read: Madame Jiang. Urgent need for assistance outside the main gate. Lan Wangji.

It’s certainly his handwriting; she’s exchanged enough letters with him to know. Still, he’s not exactly the joking type. She can’t imagine what urgent assistance he might require outside Koi Tower -- after Lan curfew, no less!

He wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important, she knows. Still, she won’t go unprepared, just in case it is some kind of trick. She leaves her hair down, since he did say urgent, and pulls a thick overlayer on before heading down one of the spacious halls towards the palace exit.

Jiang Yanli doesn’t dislike staying in Koi Tower, but without her late husband, the shining decorations seem gaudy rather than elegant. The poise of the servants is unnerving rather than considerate. Most of the residents of the tower have retired to their respective rooms (or each other’s), leaving the hallways cool and quiet as she makes her way down.

She could have raised Jin Ling here, but she might have lost her mind without the familiarity of Lotus Pier. Koi Tower never had a chance to become her home. She still spends a minimum of three months here each year for appearances -- it wouldn’t do for it to look as though she’d abandoned A-Xuan’s family as soon as he died -- but Lotus Pier has her brother, her son, her Wen Qing. 

A hint of wind blows her loose hair as she makes her way down the side staircase. She always feels absurd going down that huge set of stairs -- moreso now, when she’s underdressed without any jewelry. How the rest of the ladies in Koi Tower would laugh if they saw her right now! It’s the kind of thing that would have been mortifying at the beginning of her first marriage, but now is vaguely amusing. 

She slips out the servants’ entrance, the one lords and ladies only use to sneak someone out when they’re afraid the guards will be paid off to tell their spouses the truth about their affairs. It is unguarded in the night, since all of the servants who live outside have been sealed out, and no one below a certain rank would be able to come back in. 

Jiang Yanli spots the white of their robes first, striking against the dark trees. Three figures -- Lan Wangji flanked on either side by a disciple. She smiles as she draws closer, sure that she sees sweet little Lan Sizhui beside him. Then the disciple at his other side turns around and she nearly stumbles. 

“Auntie Yanli!” one of them says, darting forward to steady her. 

“Madame Jiang,” Lan Wangji says, his low voice not quite as steady as usual. “I apologize for disrupting your evening. Wei Ying is alive. He has been captured and brought here. Your assistance entering would be most appreciated.”

“A-Xian is--” Jiang Yanli covers her mouth with her hand. “I-- Oh, then you must be--” She turns to the second young man, the one who looks just like Lan Sizhui. He stares back at her.

“I’m Wei Yuan,” he says softly. “I’ve heard so much about you.”

He’s darling. He must be so scared. She wants to hug him, but there’s no time. “My brother raised you?” He nods. There is so much she doesn’t know, and absolutely no time to discuss it, so she just reaches out and squeezes his hand before turning and leading them back towards Koi Tower. Her brother is alive. 

“I only found out this morning,” Lan Wangji murmurs. “I had hoped not to involve too many people, but the wards…”

“Lan Wangji,” she says firmly. “A-Xian is my brother. I want to be involved.” 

The present tense thrills her. Her brother, alive. 

Her hands tremble as she allows them through the barrier. All three of them have a hand on their swords, and it makes her wish for a sword of her own, if only for something to hold onto. 

“I can lead you down to the dungeons,” Jiang Yanli says. She hasn’t been down there in years, but she remembers the way. The servant’s entrance is once again the easiest to pass through unnoticed, but before she can lead them there, movement catches in the corner of her eye. There is someone silhouetted at the top of the grand staircase -- no, several someones. Her stomach clenches. 

Lan Wangji stops in his tracks. On either side of him, the twins stumble to a halt. At his left, Wei Yuan makes a choked noise and says, “ A-Die .”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, voice cracking, and she realizes that he is completely correct.

Wen Ning stands behind her gagged and blindfolded brother like a pale mountain, movements jerky and eyes blank. He has a thick chain wrapped around A-Xian’s neck in addition to the shackles already weighing him down. The Ghost General is strong enough, she knows, to snap his neck in an instant. A-Xian is shivering, favoring his right side. He looks barely upright.

And beside them -- her brother-in-law. Jin Guangyao. 

.

Lan Wangji is sure that Jin Guangyao sees them in the same moment they see him, but he can’t tear his eyes away from Wei Ying. A part of him barely believed it until now, that Wei Ying could truly still be alive. And yet, it is him -- even with a cloth covering his eyes and mouth, Lan Wangji knows those cheekbones, that chin, tension in his brow. His hair is down and wild, curling loose over his shoulders.

Wei Ying is alive. Wei Ying is in danger. Relief and fear war for dominance in Lan Wangji’s chest. 

“Madame Jiang,” Jin Guangyao says. He does not speak particularly loudly, but his voice is clear even at the bottom of the stairs. “Hanguang-jun. And…?”

Lan Wangji does not want to hear his sons’ names in this man’s mouth. “Release Wei Ying,” he says instead. At Jin Guangyao’s side, Wei Ying twitches at the sound of his voice, cocking his head curiously. 

“I don’t think I will,” Jin Guangyao says, with a hint of mock apology in his pleasant, even tone. “I think, instead, that you will let me pass by, and when I return, we can speak like rational adults.”

Just the thought of letting Wei Ying escape his field of vision makes Lan Wangji’s ribs seize in momentary panic. He takes a deep breath. “No.”

Beside him, Jiang Yanli says, “Guangyao, please. I don’t understand.” Her soft voice is confused, with a hint of distress. It’s convincing, probably because the distress is real. “Why do you have my brother? What do you plan to do?”

“As I said, we may speak later,” Jin Guangyao says. “Stay where you are. Make no mistake -- while Wei Wuxian is currently alive, I have no attachment to him remaining that way.” He reaches over and yanks Wei Ying’s collar from Wen Qionglin, who lets him go at once. Wei Ying, too off-balance to resist, goes to his knees easily, sucking in a breath of pain at the impact of his knees on the stone. Lan Wangji realizes with horror that he left a small pool of blood in front of Wen Qionglin; where is he injured? His robes are too dark to tell. Jin Guangyao puts a knife to his throat, one hand fisted in the tangle of his hair to hold him upright and still. 

At Lan Wangji’s right, Sizhui gasps in belated recognition. “Is that--?”

“Ning-ge,” Wei Yuan agrees faintly. 

“He is not himself,” Jiang Yanli tells them softly. Lan Wangji knows her well enough to tell that the tinge of fear in her voice is all real this time. Of course -- she hadn’t been there when her husband died, but the survivors must have described… 

“Stay where you are,” Jin Guangyao repeats. “The Ghost General will move you aside, and then we will pass by. I am not a warrior, as you know -- my hand is not steady and may slip.” He tightens his grip on Wei Wuxian’s hair, pulling his head back. “Keep that in mind.”

“Baba,” Sizhui whispers as Wen Qionglin begins to stiffly make his way down the stairs, chains clattering with every step. “What do we do?”

Lan Wangji should not have allowed the twins to accompany him inside the gates. He cannot let them come to harm. And there is Wei Ying -- so close to him. Untouchable. Even after all these years, he knows: Wei Ying would tell him to protect the children and his sister first. He reminds himself that Wei Ying has survived thirteen years without him -- although the thought makes him ache -- and lets go of Bichen’s hilt.

“Stand down,” he murmurs. He doesn’t say for now , but hopefully they can hear it in his voice. 

“I don’t think so,” someone says above them, louder than anyone has spoken this entire conversation, and as he watches, Jiang Wanyin lands on Sandu in front of them, halfway up the steps, Wen Qing holding tight to his shoulders. “Jin Guangyao, you bastard. What have you done with my brother?”

“A-Ning,” Wen Qing cries, leaping off the sword and landing neatly on the plateau.

For the first time in the conversation, Lan Wangji sees something like real surprise flash across Jin Guangyao’s face. “Wen-guniang,” he says. “And Sect Leader Jiang. What unexpected guests.” 

“Oh, piss off,” Jiang Wanyin says. “You wouldn’t be bothering with this whole dramatic bullshit if you actually wanted to kill my brother. Let’s just fight and get it over with.”

Lan Wangji wishes he had Jiang Wanyin’s confidence in this fact, but since the fight seems inevitable, he draws Bichen. He feels the twins do the same on either side of him. 

Jin Guangyao’s gaze flickers between the two of them, before he shrugs. “Very well,” he says. “If you truly wish to fight the Ghost General, who am I to stop you?”

He doesn’t have to speak a command for Wen Qionglin to move. He lunges for Jiang Wanyin with no weapon but his bare hands wrapped in chains; he doesn’t need anything more. 

“A-Ning,” Wen Qing begins, but there isn’t a chance for her to speak before he turns to attack her too. She darts out of the way, but just barely. Lan Wangji snaps into action, flying up the stairs to put her behind him. He’s never fought the Ghost General -- Wen Qionglin always refused to spar with him, even when he offered. “I might hurt you accidentally,” he’d admitted, embarrassed. “I’m still learning my own strength.”

The shell of Wen Qionglin before him now looks like it knows its own strength perfectly well. He snaps out a thick chain that wraps around Bichen and drags it down before Lan Wangji manages to pull his sword back, just in time to block a second blow. 

“Oh,” he hears Wen Qing say behind him, anguished. “What have they done to you?”

“Are you going to help?” Jiang Wanyin grits out, just barely twisting his wrist out of Wen Qionglin’s grip. 

The next time he sweeps a chain towards Lan Wangji, Lan Wangji drives Bichen down through one of the links, effectively securing one of his arms but leaving himself defenseless. The sword sinks easily half a foot into the stone.

Wen Qionglin tugs against the makeshift restraint, as if confused, then leaps in the only direction he can -- towards Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji keeps Wen Qing behind him and yells, “Jiang Wanyin, now !” He has to let go of Bichen’s hilt as he retreats, leaving it in the stone, but just before Wen Qionglin’s bloodless hands close around his throat, Zidian wraps around Wen Qionglin’s face. 

Wen Qionglin makes the first noise he’s heard from him all night -- a kind of hoarse, wordless shout, and drops to his knees. The crackling electricity dances along his dead skin, apparently to no effect, sending his hair in every direction, but he claws at his face, trying to get Zidian to release and then collapses, unmoving. Wen Qing tries to go to him, but Jiang Wanyin holds onto her arm.

Stepping out of the range that Wen Qionglin’s restrained chains allow, Lan Wangji looks up at Jin Guangyao and Wei Ying, who has wilted even more since Wen Qionglin handed him over. His blood has begun to drip over the top step and Lan Wangji thinks that without Jin Guangyao holding him up, he looks as though he might crumple. 

“Release him,” he demands again. 

Jin Guangyao takes a sharp breath. Although he retains a sliver of his usual composure, he looks pale and sweaty. He is gripping the knife at Wei Ying’s throat very tightly. “On the contrary,” he says. “I have a vested interest in staying alive, so I think I will hold onto Wei-gongzi for the time being. I just need assurance that none of you fine folks will kill me before the guards arrive.”

“Don’t you dare,” Jiang Wanyin spits. “You really think anyone will let you get away with this?”

Jin Guangyao shrugs, tight smile strained but still affixed. “I have the home field advantage, I’m afraid. So many things have happened tonight that who even knows what was going on? Not to belittle your position, Jiang- zongzhu --” He spits the title out. “--but only one of us is the Chief Cultivator.”

“There’s too many witnesses,” one of the twins says; Lan Wangji can’t bring himself to look away from the scene before him to tell which one. His voice is shaky, but sure. 

“Won’t I?” Jin Guangyao says. “It looks to me as though the venerable Hanguang-jun has been harboring a second, secret son for all of these years. Why would he do such a thing? Could it have to do with their origin?” He pauses. “Besides, caught doing what? The Yiling Patriarch is universally reviled. If his brother, his sister, his former associate, and his…” He trails off significantly with a nod at Lan Wangji. “--former very good friend happen to side with him -- that implicates them, not me.”

When she speaks, Jiang Yanli’s voice is small. She picks up her skirts and climbs the stairs, slowly, until she is several steps higher than Lan Wangji, closer than any of them. To his horror, she bows. “Jin Guangyao,” she says. “Please do not hurt my brother.”

Jin Guangyao’s smile settles, just a little. He has leverage over all of them. He knows it. “I am going to descend to the bottom of the stairs,” he says, “where I will ring the bell for the guards. If you know what’s good for you -- for Wei Wuxian -- you will not raise a weapon against me. Keep in mind I only need him alive until the guards arrive.”

He yanks Wei Ying to his feet by the hair. To Lan Wangji’s astonishment, Wei Ying doesn’t immediately fall over, although his legs shake beneath him. His dark gray robes aren’t quite dark enough to hide the bloodstain all down the side of his skirts. 

Each step seems to take an eternity as Jin Guangyao nudges Wei Ying down to the next step and waits for him to steady. Lan Wangji aches with fear. Perhaps, he thinks. Perhaps if he moves very quickly, once Jin Guangyao’s back is turned… But he’s not willing to bet Wei Ying’s life on it, not when he knows perfectly well how quickly a throat wound can kill. He spares a glance at the twins, down near the bottom of the steps, both of their faces ashen. He shouldn’t have brought them. They shouldn’t see this.

Slowly, slowly, Jin Guangyao descends the first ten stairs, putting him at the same level as Jiang Yanli. To Lan Wangji’s astonishment, Jiang Yanli reaches out and gently grasps his shoulder. 

“Guangyao,” she says softly. “You used to be a good man. Why are you doing this? You’re already Chief Cultivator, loved and respected by all. I don’t understand.”

He spares her a glance, although his grip on the knife doesn’t falter. He takes another tenuous step down. Wei Ying nearly slips on his own blood. He’s left a thin trail all the way back up the steps. Jin Guangyao sighs condescendingly. “You wouldn’t, would you,” he says, blinking slowly. “None of you would. None of you can think big enough. I can never be complacent. Your late husband was complacent, Jin-furen.”

Another step. Lan Wangji can see Wei Ying wavering. He knows what it looks like when he’s struggling to stay conscious. He hates that he knows that. 

“None of you would understand,” Jin Guangyao repeats. He passes Jiang Wanyin, who is gripping Sandu very tightly. “One can always be more powerful. More secure. Richer. None of you have ever fought for that. None of you have ever needed to.” He laughs, a high, thin sound. “You don’t understand that this won’t matter to anyone except you. What the people will see is the Chief Cultivator putting down the terrifying Yiling Patriarch like a dog.”

“Fuck you,” Jiang Wanyin growls. “The other sects -- they won’t be okay with this.”

Jin Guangyao’s dimples contrast sharply with the cold set of his eyes. “Won’t they?” he asks. “Zewu-jun is my sworn brother, and he attempted to kill the Yiling Patriarch once before. And little Nie Huaisang, he would never accuse his precious San-ge, he--” Uncharacteristically, he stumbles over the words for a moment.

“Guangyao?” Jiang Yanli calls. “Are you feeling alright?”

Jin Guangyao makes a sound sort of like, “Guh.” For a moment, Lan Wangji thinks he has misheard, but no; he blinks twice more, heavily, hand lowering, and then Jiang Wanyin leaps in and grabs Wei Ying from his hands just in time for Jin Guangyao to topple inelegantly down the golden steps, face first.

There is a moment of shocked silence, and then everyone begins shouting at once. 

Jiang Wanyin lays Wei Ying down on the plateau halfway up the stairs and bellows, “What just happened?” Lan Wangji goes to his knees beside Wei Ying just as Jiang Wanyin sets him down. He aches in sympathy at the tight tie of the gag, but reaches for his pulse first. It takes a long, terrifying moment before he can detect his faint heartbeat.

Below them, Wen Qing grabs Jin Guangyao’s wrist and then pulls up his eyelids, not at all gently. “He’s out like a light,” she says. “Yanli, was that--?”

Jiang Yanli nods, scurrying down towards Wei Ying as well. “A-Qing, I brought one of the needles you gave me for my insomnia, did I aim right?”

“Right in the cephalic vein,” Wen Qing says, half proud and half still terrified. She plucks the needle out of his shoulder and tucks it into her pocket before handing Jin Guangyao off to Jiang Wanyin to be restrained.

“You did tell me that if I gave it to anyone else, it would knock them right out,” Jiang Yanli says.

The twins reach Lan Wangji’s side. “Hanguang-jun,” Sizhui begins, clearly scared out of his mind.

“He’s alive,” Lan Wangji murmurs. Sizhui lets out a short, shaky breath.

“That’s Qing-jie, right?” Wei Yuan asks hoarsely. “She’ll help. She’ll save him. She has to.” He looks up to see her climbing the stairs towards them. “Qing-jie?”

“Oh,” she says, looking between them. “Oh, both of you. I’ll -- here, move aside, let me look.” They shuffle obligingly down. Lan Wangji shifts from Wei Ying’s side to Wei Ying’s head, reaching down to cradle his skull from the hard stone. 

.

Wei Wuxian wakes very briefly to the feeling of someone easing the blindfold out from under his head. He’s far too tired to lift his neck and help them. His whole body feels cold. Gentle fingers tug at the knot holding the gag in place, and then that loosens too and is plucked away. His mouth is very dry.

“Wei Ying,” he hears. That voice. A smile tugs at the corner of his mouth, unbidden. 

He blinks dumbly up. He can make out the blurry outline of Lan Zhan’s perfect face -- that nose! That jaw! Those lovely eyes. Ah, he must be dying. He’s been hearing his voice too. He hasn’t hallucinated this vividly since the Tiger Amulet had a grip on him. 

There are so many worse sights that his mind could have conjured in his last moments. Lan Zhan, he tries to say, but his mouth disobeys him, eyelids awfully heavy. 

“A-Die!” A-Yuan says, but his eyes are already sliding shut. For a moment, though, he could swear he was seeing double.

.

“Wei Ying!” Hanguang-jun repeats, but A-Die’s eyes are already closed. Wei Yuan can barely breathe. He hasn’t been this close to his father in weeks, and now-- A-Die didn’t even look like he recognized him. His face is pale, one of his eyes swollen, and the cut in his leg looks deep. 

At his side, Qing-jie curses. “He’s lost a lot of blood,” she says, digging through a pouch for supplies. “I’ll have to make--”

“A tourniquet?” Wei Yuan asks, handing over his own bandages. She takes them at once, with a short nod of thanks. 

At A-Die’s other side, Jiang-shushu grits his teeth. “Why isn’t it working?” he asks, pushing even more excess qi into A-Die’s limp wrist. “He’s not accepting the energy. What’s wrong?”

“Let me try,” Hanguang-jun says at once, but Qing-jie waves him off.

“He’s not going to be able to integrate it,” Qing-jie says grimly, tightening the tourniquet. “There’s nowhere for it to go.”

Wei Yuan blinks. When he looks up, Sizhui is staring back at him. Distantly, he can hear Jiang-shushu demanding, “What do you mean nowhere for it to go?” but he is trapped in a moment of complete and utter understanding. The silver core.

He stands and rushes down the stairs to Jin Guangyao’s unconscious body, rolling him onto his back. Sizhui is close behind him, and together they check every pocket and pouch. There is nothing. 

The panic starts to creep deeper into Wei Yuan’s chest. He can’t lose A-Die.

At the top of the steps, Jiang-shushu bellows, “Well, what happened to it?”

Sizhui grabs his shoulder. “Xue Yang,” he says, eyes wide. 

The sprint down the stairs and out of the gate is the fastest he’s ever run. Sizhui keeps pace with him, their boots crunching through the light crust of frost on the grass.

Xue Yang’s corpse is sprawled out where they left it, his sword still lying ten feet away. Sizhui maneuvers him against the nearest tree, patting down his chest before moving onto his pockets. 

Because Xue Yang’s head is lolling, Wei Yuan nearly misses the glint of metal when he leans down to help. He stops and blinks. 

“Sizhui,” he breathes. “Tilt his head back.”

Gingerly, Sizhui presses against his forehead, lifting it up -- and Wei Yuan sees it again. Right between Xue Yang’s teeth.

“Ew,” he says, but doesn’t hesitate before reaching out to pry open Xue Yang’s stiff jaw. Rigor mortis hasn’t set in yet, but he has been lying on the frozen ground for a while, and there’s a bit of resistance as he opens it. 

“Goodness,” Sizhui says, as Wei Yuan reaches in and pulls A-Die’s silver core out of Xue Yang’s mouth. A line of spit connects it for the first few inches. “Did he think it would heal him?”

Wei Yuan rubs the spit off against Xue Yang’s robes. “No idea. Let’s go.”

This time, Sizhui draws his sword -- it’ll be faster than trying to run up all those stairs. Wei Yuan steps on behind him and holds on tightly. They zip over the gate, with no mind for the alarm wards -- half the tower is probably awake by now -- and touch down just beside the huddle of adults around A-Die’s unconscious body. 

Hanguang-jun is crying, Wei Yuan realizes, silent tears rolling down both cheeks, shoulders shaking. Jiang-shushu’s face is twisted in anger and confusion. Auntie Yanli has her head bowed, her thin fingers tight around her brother’s arm. Fear tightens in Wei Yuan’s belly, overshadowing the triumph of finding the core -- what if they’re too late?

“I’m sorry,” Qing-jie is saying, “he’s losing blood and energy too fast for me to--”

“Qing-jie!” Sizhui cries. “What if he had a core?” Wei Yuan kneels beside his father and curls his lax fingers around the small metal ball, willing it to work. 

She blinks at him. She looks exhausted and frustrated, and her eyebrows draw together at the question, frustrated. “That would be an unhelpful hypothetical,” she says. “As he lost his core over fifteen years ago…” Her head snaps down to A-Die’s unconscious body, detecting some invisible change. “What did you just do? His wound just started to close.”

“He lost his original core,” Wei Yuan breathes. “He built himself a new one.”

“Will it work?” Sizhui presses.

Qing-jie gapes for a moment, then concentrates, closing her eyes to examine his meridians. “It just might,” she says. Under her hands, A-Die’s breathing evens somewhat, his chest rising more visibly. “Wanyin, try giving him energy again.”

Jiang-shushu does as he’s told. His expression is tight and wounded, but he goes back to what he was doing without question, and his shoulders relax slightly when he realizes the energy is being accepted. 

“He’s not out of the woods yet,” Qing-jie says. “But he should stabilize soon. We can take him back to Lotus Pier.” She looks up at Wei Yuan. “And you are going to tell me absolutely everything about the last thirteen years.” Her eyes flick to Sizhui. “You too. I’m sorry I never told you who I was. I thought it would be safer if you didn’t remember me.”

“It’s okay,” Sizhui says softly. “I’m starting to remember you now.”

“How soon will Guangyao wake?” Auntie Yanli asks quietly. “Someone should make sure he doesn’t cause more trouble.”

“Couple hours,” Qing-jie estimates. “The medicine is very strong if you haven’t built up a tolerance.”

Jiang-shushu grunts. “I can stay. It should be another sect leader. Lan Wangji--”

“I can give Wei Ying more qi,” Hanguang-jun agrees. His voice is hoarse, and Wei Yuan realizes belatedly that Hanguang-jun is combing gently through the mess of A-Die’s hair with careful fingers. 

“A-Ning is coming with us,” Qing-jie says, leaving no room for argument. “I won’t leave him here. Hopefully Wei Wuxian will know how to fix him.”

As they speak, figuring out the logistics, Wei Yuan allows himself the luxury of sinking back against his heels, the last of the adrenaline draining. He slumps back against Sizhui, who must be even more tired than he is, since he flew all last night too. Sizhui offers him a tired smile. 

“When we met in the woods,” he murmurs. “I didn’t think we’d end up here.”

Wei Yuan laughs. A lightheaded huff of relief. “Me neither,” he says. When he pulls his brother into a tight hug, Sizhui hugs back just as hard. 

.

Six Years Ago

Wei Wuxian is rolling a leek consideringly between two fingers when he catches the flash of purple in the corner of his eye. He freezes -- probably quite conspicuously, but the market is busy and with his shorter hair pulled all the way up and his brown robes, surely it won’t be obvious -- and drops the leek to duck around a corner into the alley. 

The cultivators had their backs to him, so he hadn’t gotten a good look. But he could never mistake those particular disciple robes, not even if he was on the run for six more years. 

Stupid, he thinks, heart racing. Stupid to think they could stay here for longer than a few weeks. Because now there are Jiang cultivators to contend with, maybe even --

When his breathing slows enough that he’s no longer worried about passing out in the alley, he pulls himself together. At least it’s Jiang, and not Jin or Nie or Lan. At least he has a chance of surviving the encounter, if it’s Jiang. Not that he plans to let there be an encounter. 

Wei Wuxian slips down the alley and heads down the side street, parallel to the direction the Jiang contingent was going. It makes him nervous to have his face exposed, but they’d be more likely to recognize him with hair down than hair up. He knows his face looks thinner, with all his hair tied up. Wearing a hood in the middle of summer would probably draw more attention than he wants. He’s tried growing a beard, but it’s so itchy that it’s more trouble than it’s worth. 

He catches sight of them again, near the end of the marketplace, close to the town center. This is one of the bigger towns he’s dared to go through in the past few years. Keeping his head down, slouching to make himself look shorter, he gets close enough to hear them speaking.

“--excuse me, Madame,” one of them is saying to a woman selling fruit. Wei Wuxian doesn’t recognize her voice. “We’re here to investigate the ghoul problem in the lake, do you know anyone who lives near the shore?”

Wei Wuxian lets out a breath. They’re not here for him, then -- or if they are, they’re not announcing it to everyone. He darts a glance over at the second cultivator, a broad-shouldered man, wondering --

“Thank you very much,” the man says. His voice is far too deep. It’s not Jiang Cheng. Hope and apprehension dissipate in Wei Wuxian’s chest at once.

As the two of them turn to leave, Wei Wuxian allows himself to turn fully and watch them walk off. He doesn’t recognize either of them, but then, why would he? He hasn’t been a Jiang disciple for eight years, and these two easily look young enough to have been recruited after the war. 

Stupid to be disappointed. He doesn’t want to see Jiang Cheng -- or at least, he doesn’t want to want to. It would risk everything he’s worked so hard to keep secret these past six years. Still, it would be nice to catch a glimpse. Just to be sure he’s doing well. He’s looked so unhappy, the last time Wei Wuxian saw him. Wei Wuxian’s fault, of course. 

He slips back through the crowd, back in the direction he came. He’s become awfully sentimental, he thinks. If he’d seen a random Lan cultivator instead, would he have mistaken him for --?

Well, but that’s different. That’s impossible. He rubs the end of Lan Zhan’s ribbon between his fingers, hidden up his sleeve so no one can see. He’s keeping Jiang Cheng safe by staying away, he reminds himself. He can’t lose him too. 

The crowd thins as he approaches the residential area on the outskirts of the town. They should stick to smaller towns after this, he thinks idly. Too risky.

“A-Die!” A-Yuan calls, waving. The small band of children around him in the street don’t stop their game, but a few of them look up and wave too. 

Wei Wuxian hugs him. He’s trying to get his hugs in, before the kid outgrows them. He’s already ten, which means a rebellious preteen phase is probably on the way. “Good day?”

“Yeah!” A-Yuan says. “A-Chen and I invented a game and now everyone is trying it!” He tilts his head up at Wei Wuxian. “Is something wrong?”

“Not super wrong,” Wei Wuxian says. “But we do have to leave as soon as possible.”

A-Yuan’s face falls. “Oh,” he says. “Okay.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian says. “Jiang cultivators in town. They’re headed for the lake, so we’re going the other direction.”

A-Yuan nods. “Can I have a few minutes to say goodbye?”

Wei Wuxian swallows down guilt. “Of course,” he says. “I’ll -- I’ll go pack up.”

He can’t hear the conversation from the house they’ve been staying in, but he does keep an eye on A-Yuan through the door. Just in case. A-Yuan touches Ouyang Chen on the shoulder to get his attention. Wei Wuxian had been wary of him befriending a cultivator’s kid -- but A-Yuan had said he barely even counted, not when the Baling Ouyang sect was only a handful of years old and Ouyang Chen was only here with his mother and his sisters for the summer…

Oh great, Wei Wuxian thinks. The Ouyang kid is crying. A-Yuan hugs him very tightly, still talking. Wei Wuxian takes as long packing as he thinks he can get away with, until the anxiety in his stomach claws at him and demands that they leave town now

He shoulders their pack and checks all his pouches, then does one last check of the room. No stray talismans under the bed. He can’t delay it any longer. 

The other kids have migrated down the street to give Ouyang Chen some room. The kid starts crying again in earnest when he sees Wei Wuxian making his way back, but he sinks into a wobbly bow. 

“You’ll write, won’t you?” he asks A-Yuan, rubbing his wrist over his damp cheeks. 

A-Yuan glances between his friend and Wei Wuxian. “Um,” he says uncertainly.

“Yeah, you can write,” Wei Wuxian says, because his heart will shatter into a million pieces if A-Yuan starts crying too. They’ll have to have a conversation later about keeping their location secret, and it’s not like the Ouyang kid will be able to write back until one of them learns how to make messenger butterflies, but… he can’t take this from A-Yuan too.

A-Yuan looks relieved. “Yes,” he tells Ouyang Chen, and darts forward to hug him one last time.

“Goodbye,” Ouyang Chen says tearfully. “I’ll miss you.”

A-Yuan’s voice is soft, as though he doesn’t want Wei Wuxian to hear. “I’ll miss you too.” He lets go and steps back to Wei Wuxian’s side. 

They’re both quiet as they leave town. It’s not the first time they’ve had to leave suddenly, but it’s the first time A-Yuan has truly had someone to say goodbye to, rather than a gaggle of neighborhood children who’ll forget him by the next week. 

They’re well into the forest by the time A-Yuan speaks. “A-Die,” he says. “Why are we running from Jiang cultivators? I thought you said Jiang-shushu didn’t want to hurt you.”

“I don’t think he does,” Wei Wuxian says. “But they might try to bring me back to Lotus Pier, and then I would worry about Jiang Cheng getting hurt.” 

“Oh,” A-Yuan says. 

“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian says. “I shouldn’t have -- we should have left earlier, maybe.” Before A-Yuan got attached. “That might have been easier.”

A-Yuan shakes his head. “No, I -- I’m glad we stayed,” he says. “Even if we had to leave like that.” His little face is solemn. Wei Wuxian ignores the squeeze in his heart and they venture on. 

.

Now

Wei Wuxian wakes slowly, still half in a dream. He blinks up at the familiar ceiling. Why is it familiar? His mind clears slightly. Why is he in Lotus Pier? In his old room, of all places. 

The room is dark, lit only by a few modest lamps. It’s how he used to sleep when he first arrived at Lotus Pier, afraid of how dark and quiet the complex became at night. His eyes adjust slowly. His leg aches, as does his face. He tries to raise a hand to feel it and finds that he can’t.

He looks down. His hand has been taken hostage by someone asleep at the side of his bed, leaning forward to rest their head on folded arms. His A-Yuan, in perfectly white Gusu Lan robes, folded up to sleep at his bedside. His heart pinches with fondness. And beside him --

There is a second young man sleeping at his bedside, also in Lan disciple robes. Leaning back against the wall beside the footboard with his arms crossed, a blanket tucked over him. He could also be A-Yuan.

Wei Wuxian looks between them, heart pounding so hard he can taste it. This is what it would look like if both twins had grown up, he knows. It’s not a thought that he often allows himself to entertain. He had thought about it so often back in the Burial Mounds -- the two of them growing up together, raised by Lan Zhan, so cute and matching in their tiny robes, their little forehead ribbons. The idea hurts too much these days. And yet, here they are, even though they cannot be real.

The floor outside the doorway creaks, and Wei Wuxian looks over just in time to see it slide open. He should know himself well enough to know what his mind would conjure, and yet -- the sight of Lan Zhan still takes his breath away. Even in the lamplight, his white robes shine. He doesn’t wear a forehead ribbon. He carries a tray in his hands, though it trembles slightly when he looks over and realizes Wei Wuxian is awake.

“Wei Ying,” he says, voice as low and full as Wei Wuxian remembers. 

It’s too much. Wei Wuxian shuts his eyes, feeling hot tears streak down his cheeks. When he opens them again, Lan Zhan has hastily set down the tray and knelt by his bedside. 

“Wei Ying,” he murmurs, eyes searching his face. “Are you in pain?”

Wei Wuxian brings his free hand up to stifle the sound of his own gasping breath. “This can’t be real,” he says raggedly. “What is this?”

“It is real,” Lan Zhan says, pulling his hand down and clasping it between both of his. His hands are warm and calloused, big enough to envelop Wei Wuxian’s entirely. Just like he remembers. “I am alive. Both of the twins are alive.”

Something like a hysterical laugh escapes Wei Wuxian’s throat. “See, but that’s what you’d say if this was a dream, or an illusion, or, or--”

“I never died,” Lan Zhan says, and lets go with one hand to reach up and bare his neck. His high collar has hidden it, but a dark scar streaks across the hollow of his throat, still visible after thirteen years. Wei Wuxian stares. 

“Okay,” he breathes. “So if this -- is real --” Which he’s still not completely sold on. “--then… what happened?”

“I thought you were dead,” Lan Zhan says, a hint of heartbreak pulling at his fine features. “Jiang Wanyin looked for you, as did I, but we could never find anything.”

“I thought you had died because of me,” Wei Wuxian manages. “I didn’t realize…” 

“I went to the Burial Mounds before the battle at Nightless City,” Lan Zhan says. “I was looking for you, but I could only find one twin.” He swallows. “I didn’t know what happened to the other. Then you -- disappeared. I raised Sizhui as best I could.”

“Sizhui?” Wei Wuxian echoes. “Is that A-Hui’s courtesy name?” His chest aches. This is a very specific dream. 

At this, Lan Zhan lowers his gaze. “I thought I had A-Yuan,” he says. “It seems you did too.”

Wei Wuxian manages a wet laugh. “I was going off of robe color, but honestly I was only half-sane at the time. I could have remembered wrong.” 

“I was only guessing,” Lan Zhan says. He glances over at the two of them, still fast asleep. They had always been heavy sleepers. “It seems they met two months ago during a night hunt and put some of the pieces together. And then…” He sighs. “They switched. Your A-Yuan came to Cloud Recesses. My A-Yuan went to you. When you were captured, Sizhui came back to Gusu to tell us, and we found you.”

Wei Wuxian snorts. That’s ridiculous, even for his brain to come up with. Oh heavens, what if it is real? He laughs again, a little lightheaded, and doesn’t stop, even when Lan Zhan looks at him with fondness and concern. He doesn’t realize there are fresh tears rolling down his face until Lan Zhan reaches out to thumb one away, gently cupping his face. 

“Are you alright?” he asks.

“I have no idea,” Wei Wuxian admits, reaching out with his free hand to tug Lan Zhan closer by the back of the neck until their foreheads are pressed together and they’re breathing the same air. “If this is a dream, I don’t want to wake up.”

Lan Zhan’s forehead is warm. “Not a dream,” he promises.

“Where’s your forehead ribbon?” Wei Wuxian wonders aloud.

Lan Zhan exhales. “Gave it to you. Didn’t want it back.”

“Do not make me cry again,” Wei Wuxian says firmly. “Ah! This is ridiculous.” He sniffs. “How did you get me back here? Why aren’t we in Gusu?”

“Lotus Pier was closer,” Lan Zhan says. “And your siblings would not hear of bringing you anywhere else.”

Wei Wuxian sighs. “How angry are they?”

“More worried than angry, at the moment,” Lan Zhan says. His gaze shifts to Wei Wuxian’s bandaged leg. “You almost bled out.”

“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says. “Aha.” He’d been so sure he was going to die that he hadn’t had much of a chance to be scared about it. He’s quite certain that his thigh wouldn’t hurt so much if this wasn’t real. He decides, abruptly, that it is -- he won’t be able to cope if it’s not, so it must be.

“Wen-daifu was worried you might lose the leg, but twins found your… new core just in time,” Lan Zhan says carefully.

“Wen Qing?” Wei Wuxian echoes, astonished. 

“Madame Jiang snuck her out of Koi Tower after her supposed execution,” Lan Zhan explains. “She brought her back here, where she has been all this time.”

“Is anyone else going to come back from the dead?” Wei Wuxian exclaims, remembering at the last moment to lower his voice to a loud whisper. “You seem awfully calm about this.”

“I have known Wen-daifu to be alive for nearly twelve years,” Lan Zhan says. His expression softens. “Funny words from a necromancer.”

“Well, I’m not used to people resurrecting themselves without my involvement!” Wei Wuxian retorts. He crosses his arms as if to cover the feeling in his chest, so warm it could burn him. “Is she really okay?”

“Well enough. Better now that she has her brother back.”

A scrap of memory returns to Wei Wuxian. “It was really him? I thought I saw him for a second before they blindfolded me.”

“Yes,” Lan Zhan says. “He does not appear to be conscious, but he has shown no violent urges since Jin Guangyao became unconscious. Wen-daifu was hoping you might assist in reawakening Wen Qionglin.”

“Of course,” Wei Wuxian says at once. 

“There is no rush,” Lan Zhan says. He hesitates. 

Wei Wuxian knows better than to push. It pleases him that even now he can read Lan Zhan’s non-expressions. All of those hours spent drinking in the sight of him by candlelight in the cave, savoring every second before he left, have not been lost or wasted. Something in him eases; some fear he hadn’t even realized he had that thirteen years would be enough to shift or change whatever it was they’ve always had between them, drawing them together. 

“Your new core,” Lan Zhan says finally. 

“Oh, yes,” Wei Wuxian says, half embarrassed by the rigamarole of being kidnapped for it. “I meant to tell you ages ago, Lan Zhan, I really did.” He searches Lan Zhan’s eyes, honey-brown in the lamplight. “You remember you asked why I was always getting tired and sick? And I said I would explain?”

“I’m surprised you remember,” Lan Zhan murmurs. “Yes, I do.”

“I remember because I meant it,” Wei Wuxian says. “I was going to tell you the next time you visited for longer than a few days, so I could work up the courage.” He exhales shakily and holds on to Lan Zhan’s wrist. “I didn’t have a core. I gave mine to Jiang Cheng after Lotus Pier fell. Just before I fell into the Burial Mounds. I begged Wen Qing to do it. She and Wen Ning are the only people who knew. So I built myself a new one.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says. His voice cracks.

“Don’t cry,” Wei Wuxian begs. “Oh, don’t, please. It’s alright. It was so long ago, and I really don’t regret it. Lotus Pier is doing well, isn’t it?” He huffs out a tiny laugh. “Lan Zhan, it’s really unfair that you’re even pretty when you cry.” He uses a bit of sleeve to wipe clumsily at his cheeks. “Shall we just take turns crying until we both feel better?”

Lan Zhan manages a wet breath. “He missed you. Your brother. And your sister.”

Wei Wuxian presses his lips together. “I missed them too. And you. So much.” He tilts his head. “Did you miss me, Lan Zhan?”

“Don’t ask stupid questions,” Lan Zhan says forcefully, which actually startles a laugh out of him. It’s the same face he made when Wei Wuxian asked about his crush on Mianmian. Oh, how Wei Wuxian missed that dear little crease between his eyebrows.

The twin against the wall stirs at the sound, blinking dazedly at the both of them in the dark. “A-Die?” He reaches out and shakes the other’s shoulder. “Sizhui, wake up.”

“A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian says, rubbing away any leftover tears on his cheeks. “And A-Yuan. Good heavens, what am I supposed to do with these naughty, disobedient children? Oh, look at the two of you.” He reaches out to both of them. Without being able to sit up, his range of motion is limited, but they shuffle closer obligingly. 

“How do you feel?” Sizhui asks, smoothing the blanket down. 

“Bamboozled,” Wei Wuxian says. “Maybe in a good way? But don’t think you won’t be punished for your little switcheroo.”

“Hanguang-jun said we probably felt bad enough from watching you almost die,” his A-Yuan says. 

They probably do. “Oh,” he says, somewhat guiltily. “And what are you doing sleeping on the floor? Has the hospitality of Lotus Pier gone so downhill that guests have to simply pass out beside their father’s sickbed?” He doesn’t miss the way Sizhui brightens at being included as his son. 

“They have rooms,” Lan Zhan says. “They refused to leave you.”

“Oh, boys,” Wei Wuxian says. “Take me as your cautionary tale. I slept just about anywhere as a young man and now my neck hurts all the time. Go sleep in real beds, won’t you? For your dear old A-Die?”

His A-Yuan is inoculated enough against this kind of sentimental talk to just roll his eyes fondly, but Sizhui is flushing. 

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you who I really was,” he says softly. Now that Wei Wuxian is looking for it, now that the act is over, he can see so much Lan Zhan in him -- the determined set of his shoulders, that earnest gaze. “I really wanted to, especially after I saw those butterflies you were burning and I started to remember.” He hesitates. Once again, it’s all Lan Zhan. Wei Wuxian swallows against the lump in his throat. “Is it alright if I still call you A-Die, as Wei Yuan does?”

“Yes!” Wei Wuxian says, more loudly than he means to. “Yes, of course. In fact, if you call me anything else, I won’t respond.” Sizhui smiles, eyes shining, 

“A-Die,” A-Yuan says. “I missed you.”

“Am I to understand I haven’t seen you for weeks and weeks?” Wei Wuxian asks. “I should have known there was teenage rebellion on the way. Aiya, was all this your idea?”

“No!” A-Yuan exclaims, affronted. “Sizhui said it first. I just perfected it.”

“You are a menace,” Wei Wuxian says. “I missed you too. Retroactively. You know, I did think you were acting weird, going to bed so early and being so quiet during meals.”

A-Yuan huffs a laugh. “You can’t brag about teaching me everything I know and call me a menace,” he says. Then, to Lan Zhan, “I’m sorry for lying too.”

“It worked out in the end,” Lan Zhan says. How could Wei Wuxian have forgotten the precise look in his eyes when he looks at their children? Ah, he thinks with a pang, their children. 

The room grows quiet again after the boys leave. 

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan.”

“Yes?” Lan Zhan says.
“I just missed saying it,” Wei Wuxian explains. 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says. His eyes crinkle just slightly. “Wei Ying.”

The night is warm around them. Wei Wuxian loves him so enormously he doesn’t know how he kept the weight of it from crushing him all these years. He feels as if he’s twenty-three again, discovering kissing for the first time. “Lan Zhan,” he whispers, trying to keep his eyes open in the face of creeping exhaustion. He summons the last of his higher brain function. “Thirteen years and a half years is a long time. There’s no Madame Lan, is there? A marital bed that I’m keeping you from?”

Lan Zhan gives him a withering look. He is so beautiful that Wei Wuxian’s heart could fly from his chest and flit around the room. “Another stupid question,” he says, voice wonderfully disdainful. “I have been engaged to Wei Ying all this time.”

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian breathes. The ribbon. He’d thought of it as a last gift, but of course Lan Zhan had meant it like -- “Oh, good. Good.”

“Good?”

“I love you,” Wei Wuxian says. The words are unexpectedly easy. “I can’t sit up. Kiss me right now,” he demands. Lan Zhan obliges, leaning down. Wei Wuxian sighs through his nose as Lan Zhan slips his hand around the back of his head for support, pressing their mouths together. Lan Zhan’s lips are dry and he’s sure his own breath smells terrible, but it’s still one of the best kisses he’s ever received. Lan Zhan is tied with himself for that honor about a thousand times over. He kisses Wei Wuxian carefully, deeply, intently, right up until Wei Wuxian yawns into his mouth.

“You need to rest,” he murmurs, pulling back. 

“Hey,” Wei Wuxian says, eyes closed, “do you think we could get married right now?”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says warmly. “Sleep.”

Wei Wuxian tugs at the blanket. “Only if you get in here too.” He has spent far, far too long alone in his bedroll. 

“I do not want to hurt you,” Lan Zhan says.

“You don’t move in your sleep,” Wei Wuxian tells him fondly. “You just lie there like a log. Stay on my uninjured side and you’ll be fine.” He’s too tired to keep his eyes open now, but he can hear Lan Zhan shedding his outer layers before climbing in beside him. He wraps a strong arm around Wei Wuxian’s middle, laying his head against his shoulder.

“I love you too,” says Lan Zhan, who is warm and solid and everything good in the world. 

“Mngnh,” Wei Wuxian mumbles, and then sleeps for fifteen hours straight, deep and utterly dreamless.

.

“I could strangle you,” Jiang Cheng says to him that morning. His arms are crossed, and he is glaring at Wei Wuxian so ferociously that an onlooker would assume Wei Wuxian was sacrificing babies rather than eating a steamed bun. Wen Qing (who had, to both of their surprises, hugged him awkwardly when he woke up, meaning that they both had to determinedly pretend not to be crying) had insisted that he continue to lie down for another day at least. So soup was off the table until they could be sure he wouldn’t accidentally drown himself with it. “I really could.”

“Shijie,” Wei Wuxian whines.

Jiang Yanli pats his uninjured leg. “I could also strangle you,” she says, her small smile undermining her words. 

“Jiejie!” Jiang Cheng says, startled.

She shrugs serenely. “I don’t see why you’re the only one who gets to be angry about being kept out of the loop,” she says. “A-Xian, we really missed you.”

Jiang Cheng nods, convinced. “It’s settled, then. Jiejie and I will strangle you once you get better.”

“Betrayal,” Wei Wuxian sighs. He pops the rest of the bun into his mouth. He’s been studiously avoiding Yunmeng for all this time, and he’d almost forgotten that it’s the only place in the world that seasons things properly. 

“Seriously,” Jiang Cheng says, looking wounded. “Why didn’t you trust us?”

Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “That’s not it,” he says. “I was just making everything worse. I couldn’t help it. And then Lan Zhan…” He trails off. “I didn’t want to risk your lives too. I couldn’t bear it if I lost you too.”

“But you thought we wouldn’t mind losing you?” Jiang Yanli asks softly.

He avoids eye contact. “Well! I was also barely holding onto my sanity, and then by the time I felt like myself again, I figured it was… I don’t know. A clean break? You were better off without me making everything complicated again.”

“That’s fucked up,” Jiang Cheng says. 

Wei Wuxian swallows. “Well, I can -- if you don’t want me to stay --”

“No!” Jiang Cheng says immediately. “I hate you. You’re staying right here.” He aggressively readjusts Wei Wuxian’s blanket, then bursts out, “Would it have killed you to send a letter?”

“Um,” Wei Wuxian says. “If it makes you feel better, A-Yuan had strict instructions to come to Lotus Pier if anything ever happened to me?”

Jiang Cheng pauses. “What?” he says.
Wei Wuxian clears his throat. “Yeah,” he says. “I mean, I didn’t want to do what my parents did to me, where there was no backup plan. When he was little, I made him carry around a letter that said that if he was brought to Lotus Pier, you would pay whoever brought him here safely. Then once he was older, he knew that if I didn’t come back from a night hunt or got taken away by cultivators, he should try to make his way to Lotus Pier and tell you that he was my kid.”

“Oh,” Jiang Cheng says. 

“Should I not have done that?” Wei Wuxian asks. “I knew you’d keep him safe.”

“No, that was fine,” Jiang Cheng says, and in a generous act of older brother benevolence, Wei Wuxian doesn’t mention the way his voice cracks on the words. “I mean, I would have. Whatever.” He sits back, the wind momentarily gone from his sails.

“A-Xian,” his sister says, “I think what we are trying to express is that we are very, very happy to have you back, but we also want to be better informed going forward.” She takes his hand. “We didn’t even know that you’d lost your core until Wen Qing told us. Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says uncomfortably. He takes a deep breath, but it doesn’t help, not with both of his siblings watching with concerned eyes. “I guess I just… Hm. After the Burial Mounds, the -- the first time. I just, I don’t know. It felt like if I let myself acknowledge any weaknesses, I would just -- fall apart. I don’t know. I know that doesn’t exactly make sense.” It’s not the whole reason, obviously, but it is true. He takes a deep breath. “I… I want to tell you more. Eventually. I don’t know if I can right now.”

“That’s fine,” Jiang Yanli says gently, squeezing his hand. “Isn’t that fine, A-Cheng?”

“Yeah,” Jiang Cheng says gruffly. “And I guess… I’m sorry if I didn’t help you as much as I could have, afterwards.”

“It wasn’t your fault!” Wei Wuxian protests immediately. “I didn’t tell you anything.”

“I guess,” Jiang Cheng says. “I knew you were hurting, though.” He sniffs, once, and then says, loudly, “Now that you have a core again, don’t think that I’m going to let you slack off like you did the first time around. Wen Qing says you have the core of a ten year old, so as soon as you can hold a sword you’re going to be out in the practice field with the juniors. Personally, I cannot wait to watch the littlest shidis beat your ass in drills.”

Wei Wuxian laughs. There’s a light feeling in his chest. “Ah, but Jiang Cheng! I’m getting married as soon as someone will let me out of bed and then I don’t plan to do anything strenuous for a year! I’ll just have Lan Zhan waiting on me hand and foot.”

Jiang Cheng smacks the side of his head, very lightly. “That’s another thing,” he says. “I cannot believe that you didn’t tell me about you and Lan Wangji. I had to find out from him .”

“I did so,” Wei Wuxian says. “Plus, you’re friends now. That was my scheme all along: disappear for over a decade to force my Lan Zhan and my beloved shidi to actually get along.”

“We are not friends,” Jiang Cheng mutters. 

“You saw us cuddling this morning and he wasn’t even that awkward about it,” Wei Wuxian points out. “You’re friends.”

“Disgusting,” Jiang Cheng huffs. 

“Shijie,” Wei Wuxian says, reaching for another steamed bun. “You’re going to have to tell me all about this daring rescue of Wen Qing. I can’t believe you finally got her in Lotus Pier, Jiang Cheng!” He winks.

“I want no part in that wink,” Jiang Cheng says. “Don’t speak like that about my sister in law.”

“Your--?” Wei Wuxian gapes at them, and it takes thirty full seconds of wondering how that possibly could have occurred before Jiang Yanli takes pity on him.

“A-Qing and I,” she begins with a smile.

Wei Wuxian shrieks, “ A-Qing !”

“Pipe down,” Jiang Cheng says. “They don’t go advertising it, because Wen Qing is officially just Jiejie’s doctor. But they did the bows and everything.” He looks awfully smug for someone whose sister married his teenage crush. Possibly because Wei Wuxian missed the wedding.

He buries his face in his hands. “I can’t believe I missed both your weddings,” he groans. “I’m a terrible brother. How long ago was this?”

“Our five year anniversary is coming up,” Jiang Yanli says. “We were taking things slow. A-Cheng is really the only one who knows. And A-Ling, of course.”

Wen Qing slides the door open. “Speak of the devil,” Wei Wuxian says. “When were you going to tell me you married my sister?”

“When not telling you stopped being funny,” Wen Qing says, leaning down to kiss Jiang Yanli’s cheek. “Wanyin, did you tell him? Yanli and I had a bet going on how many months it would take him to realize we weren’t just friends.”

“He’s Wanyin now?” Wei Wuxian grumbles. “Wei Wuxian this, Wei Wuxian that. He gets to be just Wanyin? I’m going to call you Qing-jie until you find something nicer to call me.”

Because she has an absolutely horrible sense of humor, she waits until he’s taking a careful sip of water to say, in her flattest voice, “Alright, A-Xian.”

.

Wei Wuxian takes the nails out of Wen Ning’s head as soon as he can sit up without having to blink spots away from his vision -- about three days after his rescue. 

“I would have done it myself,” Wen Qing explains. “But I worried that -- if he wasn’t in control when I took them out…”

“That was smart,” Wei Wuxian says, patting his flute. “I can subdue him if need be.”

Wen Qing nods nervously and pets a hand down her brother’s shoulder. They’ve managed to pry open his chains, but they haven’t changed his clothes yet, even though they’re nearly disintegrating off his body. Wei Wuxian thinks they might actually be the same robes he went off to Koi Tower in all those years ago.

In the end, there is no need for subduing. Wen Qing winces as each nail comes out, smoothing her fingers over Wen Ning’s wild mane of hair. There’s no immediate change, but a few hours later, as Wen Qing is changing Wei Wuxian’s bandages, Wen Ning says, quietly but quite clearly, “Jiejie?”

Wen Qing abandons the bandages entirely, which Wei Wuxian can hardly blame her for. There is a great deal of hugging and then a long, long explanation during which Wei Wuxian cannot stop himself from laughing. The story gets more absurd every time he hears it, and Wen Ning has missed the most out of all of them. 

“Boys, boys!” Wei Wuxian cries when they come to the door. His face hurts from smiling. “Come in here and say hello to your cousin!”

The twins go wide-eyed identically, which Wei Wuxian will never, ever get over. It only makes him laugh harder. “Ning-ge?” Sizhui says. At least, Wei Wuxian hopes that one is Sizhui, because otherwise A-Yuan is in Lan disciple robes and Sizhui isn’t.

“Oh, you’ve grown up so much,” Wen Ning says, blinking up at them. “You look so much like your father -- our cousin.”

“They do, don’t they,” Wen Qing says, leaning on the chair. For the first time since Wei Wuxian woke up, maybe since he’s known her, there’s true contentment on her face.

“It’s really good to meet you properly,” Wei Yuan says earnestly. “A-Die told me so many stories.”

“A-Yuans, come and sit,” Wei Wuxian says. He’s been trying to find the humor in the fact that they may never know which twin is which, the same way they don’t know their actual birthday.

“A-Yuans?” Wen Ning asks, confused.

“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says sheepishly. “One of us guessed wrong. So now we have two A-Yuans and no A-Hui.”

“I could have told them apart back then,” Wen Qing insists. “But now they both look so different to how they used to.”

“Um,” Wen Ning says, and stands carefully, pushing himself up against the wall. “Do you mind turning your heads left?”

Both boys oblige. Wen Ning only has to look for a moment, and then he points at Sizhui and says. “This is A-Hui.”

Wei Wuxian gapes. Wen Qing frowns. The twins exchange a bemused look. “How on earth did you know that?” Wei Wuxian demands.

“A-Yuan has a freckle behind his right ear,” Wen Ning says simply. His stiff lips curve into a small smile. “Did you never wonder how I could always tell which was which?”

“I thought you just knew their personalities really well!” Wei Wuxian wails. 

“Ha!” A-Yuan says, bumping his shoulder against his brother’s. “I’m the real A-Yuan.”

Sizhui has the good grace to laugh. “Hanguang-jun will be embarrassed,” he says.

“Yes!” Wei Wuxian crows. “This means I was right! Oh, I can lord this over him forever .”

“An auspicious beginning to your marriage,” Wen Qing says wryly. 

“Oh,” Wen Ning says happily, “are you finally getting married?”

“As soon as I can bow without fainting,” Wei Wuxian says. “Hey, do you think we’ve set a record for world’s longest engagement?”

He notices belatedly that both the twins are watching him with a smile. “What?” he says. “Do I have something on my face?”

“It’s nothing, A-Die,” Sizhui says, still smiling.

A-Yuan grins at him. “I’ve never once seen you this happy,” he explains. “It’s really, really nice.”

.

It takes a week for conclusive news to reach them. In that time, Wei Wuxian has improved enough to not only sit up, but to be helped out into the main banquet hall to eat with everyone.

Wen Ning doesn’t eat, of course, but he sits politely with everyone, flanked by his sister on one side and the gaggle of teenagers on the other. Sizhui eats his dinner quietly, like a good little Lan, but he can’t stop himself from grinning over at Jin Ling, who makes up for Sizhui’s silence by shouting at the dinner table, sometimes even with his mouth full. Jiang Cheng shouts back, mostly about how he’s embarrassing him in front of their guests. 

“What guests?” Jiang Yanli asks. “This is our family. But A-Ling, do try to keep your mouth closed when you’re chewing.” She’s sitting on Wen Qing’s other side. Quite close.

Lan Zhan, of course, doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t have to. He alternates between gazing happily at their children and gazing happily at Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian isn’t sure which he prefers; the former, obviously, allows him to gaze at Lan Zhan gazing at their children, but the latter makes Jiang Cheng pretend to retch into his soup bowl.

“Manners,” Jin Ling says snippily, and Lan Jingyi nearly falls off his chair from laughing so hard. 

A-Yuan meets his eyes across the table, pink-cheeked and delighted. For a moment, Wei Wuxian aches with the idea that he was the one to deprive A-Yuan of this kind of loud and loving childhood. But then A-Yuan, the little sneak, mouths, Thank you , at him and completely derails that chain of thought. 

“Are you alright?” Lan Zhan asks beside him, ever attentive. 

Wei Wuxian leans his face into Lan Zhan’s shoulder. “Yeah,” he says, meaning it. “Yeah, I think so.”

At Wei Wuxian’s side, one of the disciples -- Mo something, but Wei Wuxian can’t be expected to remember people’s names -- fetches Jiang Cheng from the table. The conversation continues without him. Wei Wuxian tunes back in just in time to catch the end of some particularly embarrassing tale from Jin Ling’s childhood, told mostly by Jiang Yanli with the occasional interjection from Wen Qing. Jin Ling is getting progressively redder.

“And then,” Jiang Yanli says, nearly weeping with laughter, “he turns to me and he says, ‘A-Niang, the bee looked fuzzy. I only wanted to kiss it.’”

“A-Niang!” Jin Ling cries. “I don’t even remember that!”

“I was putting cold packs on your chubby little cheek for five whole days, Rulan,” Wen Qing recalls fondly. “I’m surprised your first memory isn’t me wrestling you down with a pair of tweezers to pull out the stinger.”

“Everyone,” Jiang Cheng says from the entrance. “Zewu-jun comes bearing news.”

The lively atmosphere dies down as everyone turns. Wei Wuxian feels Lan Zhan stiffen at his side and reaches for his hand under the table.

Zewu-jun looks much more tired than he remembers. His cultivation is strong enough that he’s hardly aged visibly, but he has dark circles under his eyes and holds himself smaller than is befitting of a sect leader. “Greetings,” he says, clearly avoiding his brother’s gaze. “There is no need for alarm. I came myself because an official decision will not be announced until tomorrow, and I thought you might want to know as quickly as possible. Jin Guangyao has been removed from his position as sect leader, and in the interim, his wife Qin Su will serve in his place, given the lack of adult heirs.” He nods at Jin Ling, who looks extremely relieved. 

“I may return to Koi Tower for a time, then,” Jiang Yanli says, more to Jiang Cheng than anyone else. He nods.

“Wei Wuxian,” Zewu-jun says, turning to him. Lan Zhan grips his hand very tightly. “Other crimes have also come to light, in addition to his violence against you. Jin Guangyao was also discovered to be involved in the murder of --” He has to pause to collect himself. “of Chifeng-zun. He has been taken into custody by the Nie sect, but Sect Leader Nie said he would be willing to hear from you, if you wished to add your grievances to the list of what he is being tried for.”

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says. “I mean, I think I’m okay. If he’s already being tried for murder of a sect leader, I don’t think a little kidnapping will make much of a difference either way.”

Zewu-jun bows to him, way more deeply than a rogue cultivator or even a former head disciple deserves. “I am glad to see you well,” he says seriously. Without his usual smile, he looks more like Lan Zhan than Wei Wuxian has ever seen him, but when he glances over at Lan Zhan, his fiance is not just expressionless but ice cold.

“You too!” Wei Wuxian says, overcompensating for his confusion with enthusiasm, even though Zewu-jun doesn’t look very well at all, actually.

“I’ll take my leave,” Zewu-jun says politely.

“Oh, but the sun has set!” Wei Wuxian says. “I’m sure there’s space for you to--” Behind Zewu-jun, Jiang Cheng grimaces. “--stay?” Maybe he’s not allowed to invite people to stay in Lotus Pier anymore? He’s not totally sure what his powers are as the ex-head disciple formerly-assumed-dead adoptive brother of the current leader.

“Thank you, but I don’t want to impose,” Zewu-jun says. 

Jiang Cheng sighs, then pulls himself into sect leader mode. “You’re welcome to stay the night,” he says. “It’s cold in Lotus Pier, which means it will only get colder as you head back to Gusu.” And Jiang Cheng can’t exactly banish another sect leader to stay in town. His tone is chilly, but technically not outright rude. 

Zewu-jun must be aware of just how unwelcome he actually is, but perhaps he does not have the energy to fly back. “Thank you,” he murmurs, and retreats. 

Wei Wuxian blinks as the meal ends and the dishes begin to be cleared away. Lan Zhan is stock still beside him. “What was that about?” he whispers to Jiang Cheng. “Does everyone hate Zewu-jun now?”

Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes at him. “Do you really not remember?”

“Remember what?” Wei Wuxian wracks his brain for any scandal he’s heard of on the road. “Jiang Cheng, you have to remember that I haven’t been involved in sect politics for years. I’m not up to date on the gossip.”

Jiang Cheng groans. “You idiot,” he says. “He stabbed you. He all but pushed you off that cliff. Officially, until last week, Zewu-jun was considered to be the person who killed you.”

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says. 

“Baba?” Sizhui is saying, on Lan Zhan’s other side. “Are you alright?”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says, which in this case means, no, absolutely not. 

Wei Wuxian squeezes his hand. “Should we go back to our room?” he asks, because calling it “their” room usually makes Lan Zhan’s eyes twinkle and Jiang Cheng’s roll. 

“Mm,” Lan Zhan agrees, standing up to help Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian looks at Sizhui -- and A-Yuan, hovering right behind him -- and tries to communicate with his eyes that he is going to fix things in a mature and responsible fashion. He thinks he’s at least semi-successful.

Once Lan Zhan has half-carried him back and helped him settle back in the bed, Wei Wuxian pats the mattress and says, “Sit with me, won’t you?”

Lan Zhan nods and sits obligingly. 

“Okay,” Wei Wuxian says. “I’m going to say something that may be upsetting to you.” He waits for Lan Zhan’s reluctant nod. “Lots and lots of people have tried to kill me. Zewu-jun is not special.”

Lan Zhan’s jaw clenches. “None of those other people are my brother,” he says. He raises a hand and traces, so carefully, over the fabric of Wei Wuxian’s robe until his fingers come to rest over the raised scar in the center of his chest, just above his sternum. “He did this to you.”

“I--” Wei Wuxian begins, but before he can explain that he hardly remembers, there’s a knock at the door.

.

Eleven Years Ago

Since Wangji awoke from his injury, he has not spoken to Lan Xichen once. Granted, he was under medical orders to speak very little, but Lan Xichen has still glimpsed him through the doors of the medical wing, obligingly following the rules for whatever little games A-Yuan makes up to keep them both amused. The little boy is recovering far faster than Wangji is, but Wangji still has him brought to his room every afternoon for play and conversation, however one-sided it is.

Lan Xichen tries not to watch them enviously. 

“It’s unreasonable,” Mingjue had said bluntly. “Your brother is even more stubborn than mine, which is saying something, but he’ll move on eventually. Just wait him out.”

Privately, Lan Xichen thought that if Wei Wuxian’s transformation into a pariah and public enemy wasn’t enough to get Wangji to move on, his death might not be either. But that was an unhelpful thing to say, so he didn’t.

A-Yao disagreed. “He doesn’t understand your motivations, Er-ge,” he said, listening so patiently as Lan Xichen explained his troubles. “You need to speak to him. Wangji may have loved him. But you also acted out of love. You wanted to keep him safe.”

This was all true. And yet, when faced with his brother’s determinedly lowered gaze, Lan Xichen felt his resolve wither. Wangji was not a malleable or particularly forgiving man, and Lan Xichen had struck upon one of the only exceptions to his rigid morality. Literally struck upon, with a sword. 

Without the courage to pursue A-Yao’s approach, he goes with Mingjue’s and simply… waits. But unlike the Nie brothers’ tiffs, he is not waiting for Wangji to get over something so trivial as a broken fan or a missed practice. To his horror, the silence between them begins to feel normal. 

A year and a half after the battle of Nightless City, there is a commotion in the courtyard. Lan Xichen is usually in the Hanshi by curfew in order to set a good example, but sect business has kept him up unusually late. It has nothing to do with distracting himself from more unpleasant thoughts.

Initially, Lan Xichen suspects drunk junior disciples. There are a few rebellious teenagers every year, usually a harmless nuisance, but occasionally, in a complex full of armed former soldiers with trauma about being woken in the night, a genuine danger. He hastily puts away his papers and goes to the door. 

It is not drunk junior disciples. It is his adult brother. Ah, Lan Xichen thinks faintly, watching Wangji sway and bump against a pillar, it is his drunk brother. 

He rushes after him without a thought. At least in the middle of the night, no one will see the First Jade of Lan breaking at least two rules to prevent the Second from tipping face first into the koi pond. “Wangji,” he hisses, steadying him with difficulty. 

Wangji twists to blink at him dubiously. “Go away,” he says. He probably means to sound fierce but it comes out petulant.

“What were you thinking?” Lan Xichen asks, not so much scolding as incredulous. He can smell the wine on his brother’s breath. “Drunk? In public?”

“Armory,” Wangji says. 

He’s really rather sweet like this, Lan Xichen thinks. It sort of reminds him of how insistent Wangji had been as a toddler, always so certain that he knew exactly what he wanted, so particular. “Why do you want to go to the armory?”

Wangji looks away. “Armory,” he repeats. 

Perhaps it’s because he hasn’t spoken with his brother in months, but Lan Xichen finds himself feeling somewhat indulgent. “Okay,” he says. “I’ll take you to the armory.”

“Mm,” Wangji says, not looking at him but allowing him to help. He still has bandages around his throat, though they’re mostly hidden by his high collar. It scares Lan Xichen still, just how close he came to losing him altogether. 

The armory is locked at night, but as sect leader, Lan Xichen can open it easily. He lets go of Wangji’s arms in order to light the lamps, and when he turns back around, finds that he has already wandered off. The sword shelves are neatly organized, but each successive shelf becomes a little less tidy, full of the axes and knives and shields and neglected bows and arrows.

Lan Xichen finds Wangji all the way down the last shelf at the wall, fumbling with what appears to be a long metal rod. One end flares orange in the dim light, scorching hot. The Wen branding iron they collected after the war.

“Wangji!” Lan Xichen exclaims, rushing forward to pry it out of his hands. His brother doesn’t let go, holding on tightly, attempting to tip the hot end towards himself.

They’ve been evenly matched ever since Wangji came of age. Wangji is the slightly more skilled swordsman; Xichen the better diplomat. Equally talented at their respective instruments, all the elders agree. If pressed, two years ago, Lan Xichen would probably have guessed Wangji to be ever so slightly physically stronger; with less politicking to do, he can focus more on training. 

But that was before he bled out nearly half the blood in his body and spent eighteen months recovering. Lan Xichen wrenches the brand out of Wangji’s grip and casts it away without a care for where it lands. 

“Wangji,” he gasps, “what are you doing?”

Wangji sways and slumps back against the wall. He looks dazed, but not actually startled or aware of what he was about to do. “I wanted to,” he says, and then stops. “Wei Ying had…” He sinks down with uncharacteristic clumsiness, sitting on the floor with his long legs sprawled out. He’s got a hand over his chest. “Here,” he explains.

Lan Xichen swallows. His brother’s drunken stupor abruptly seems much less endearing. “I’m sure that Wei Wuxian wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself.”

“Mm,” Wangji agrees, but he still looks lost. “Didn’t want to forget.”

“You can remember him without collecting every one of his scars,” Lan Xichen points out, kneeling in front of him. 

Wangji huffs bitterly. “Couldn’t,” he mumbles, body going slack against the wall. “You’d have to stab me.” 

“Wangji,” Lan Xichen says, horrified, but his brother appears to have fallen asleep. For one beat, two, he waits for him to come back to himself, but when he only lists further to the side, Lan Xichen leans forward and gathers him up as best he can. He knows, with a sick feeling in his stomach, that his brother wouldn’t want him to touch him, but he cannot leave him here unconscious in the armory, nor can he allow other people to see Wangji like this.

Wangji stays blissfully unconscious as Lan Xichen retrieves the fallen branding iron, extinguishes the lamp, and locks the armory up again. If anyone sees him crossing the courtyard with his brother in his arms, he doesn’t hear anything about it later.

Lan Xichen hasn’t entered the Jingshi in what feels like years. Even before Nightless City, it felt like Wangji was rarely there with how often he went running off to Yiling. Still, he knows it well. He lays his brother down on the bed as gently as he can, reaching down to smooth the hair out of his face. He used to brush it for him every morning, until Wangji decided he was too big for that and could do it himself. 

His forehead is still bare. Nothing Uncle says will persuade him to wear a forehead ribbon again. In anyone else, this would be considered a serious offense, grounds for punishment since one would be rejecting the Lan tenets. Lan Xichen wonders if Wangji expected him to punish him for it.

“Leave,” Wangji says, and Lan Xichen realizes abruptly that he has woken back up, watching Lan Xichen with hazy eyes.

“Why do you hate me?” he asks, in a fit of boldness brought on by the darkness of night and the fact that Wangji will probably not remember this come morning. "I thought he had killed you, Wangji.” The words taste bitter on his tongue. “I have no other defense, but surely his other actions proved my suspicion reasonable? He might not have hurt you -- but that day,” Lan Xichen has to pause to take in a shaky breath. “--he was dangerous, unhinged. He had killed so many already--”

“He killed in war and then in self-defense.” Wangji’s face twists in disgust. “You sound like Jin Guangyao.”

“What do you mean?” Lan Xichen asks, taken aback.

“This talk about the Wens,” Wangji says. “They were good people. Old people and children.” He shuts his eyes. “They trusted me. Couldn’t protect them.”

“Wangji…” Lan Xichen whispers. “It wasn’t your duty to protect them.”

“Wasn’t it?” Wangji asks sharply. “None of them fought. Innocent.” 

Lan Xichen’s heart shrivels. It can’t be true. And yet -- Wangji was in the Burial Mounds. Lan Xichen was not. The Lan forces had been present in Nightless City, but the Jin had led the actual charge in Yiling. Lan Xichen has never actually seen the Wen remnants with his own eyes. He had guessed where A-Yuan came from -- how could he not? -- but had assumed he was the child of cultivators who were a legitimate threat. Children, Wangji had said. Plural. Lan Xichen feels sick. 

“Just go away,” his brother mutters, turning his head away. “I wish you really had killed me instead.”

Lan Xichen reels back as if slapped. “Wangji--” he begins, and then cuts himself off. He can barely breathe. If his brother doesn’t want to speak to him -- if this is what Lan Xichen’s presence provokes -- then he will respect his wishes. His heart squeezes painfully as he backs away. He doesn’t let himself cry until he closes the door, although Wangji wasn’t looking at him and wouldn’t have seen. 

He doesn’t sleep that night. If Wangji remembers their conversation, he certainly doesn’t breathe a word about it to Lan Xichen. He doesn’t speak to Lan Xichen for almost twelve years. 

.

Now

There is a moment of silence after Lan Xichen knocks on the door. He might think he has the wrong room, except someone has carved “Wei Wuxian was here! :)” with childish handwriting into the dark wood of the doorframe.

“Who is it?” Wei Wuxian calls from inside.

“Lan Xichen.” A longer moment of silence. He’s not sure if they’re having a whispered conversation or simply communicating silently. 

“--really okay, Lan Zhan!” he hears. Then, “Come in!”

Lan Xichen slides the door open gingerly. Wei Wuxian has been carefully tucked into his bed, pillows piled against the headboard so he can sit comfortably. As he did at dinner, he looks thin and pale, but he is bright-eyed and smiling. More like he did as a young man than he did the last time Lan Xichen saw him, dangling off the cliff. 

Wangji is not smiling. He is sitting on Wei Wuxian’s bed, but he looks anything but relaxed. He is holding Wei Wuxian’s hand, his other fist clenched in his lap. Lan Xichen supposes he should be glad he isn’t gripping Bichen. 

Well. There’s no sense in delaying. He sinks to his knees, then bows down even further until his forehead is pressed against the smooth, cool wood of the floor.

“Zewu-jun!” Wei Wuxian squawks. “What are you doing?”

“I tried to kill you,” Lan Xichen says plainly. “I thought I succeeded. I must apologize. I was mistaken, but that is no excuse.”

“Get up, get up,” Wei Wuxian says, and the alarm in his voice is so genuine that Lan Xichen does sit up, although he stays on his knees. “Zewu-jun, truly, there’s no need.” He’s flushing, perhaps in embarrassment. Wangji has not moved, and his expression is carefully unreadable.

Lan Xichen has been holding himself together with string since A-Yao looked at him last night with huge, hurt eyes as he was led off by the Nie in chains, and said, “I acted out of love, Er-ge, does that count for nothing?” and now he feels himself beginning to come unraveled. For all his smiles, he is as thoroughly Lan as his solemn little brother is, and he needs absolution.

Distantly, he hears Wei Wuxian saying, “Lan Zhan, can you give me a few minutes alone with him?” and his brother’s quiet protest. “You can stay right down the hallway to listen for a scream if it pleases you, but I really don’t think he’s going to stab me again. He didn’t even bring Shuoyue.” Finally, Wangji acquiesces, because he has never been good at refusing Wei Wuxian, but he leaves with a glare that could make Lotus Pier freeze over in the middle of summer.

Wei Wuxian waits patiently for the door to close behind Wangji before looking down at Lan Xichen. “Please don’t bow again,” he says fervently. 

“I am truly sorry,” Lan Xichen says. “If I hadn’t -- I cost the two of you so much happiness. I took A-Yao at his word about the Dafan Wens. About everything.”

Wei Wuxian just sighs. “If it hadn’t been you,” he says, not unkindly, “it would have been someone else. I’ve thought about it, the past week, and as much as I would have loved to not be on the run for the last thirteen years, I’m not sure it could have worked out another way. As for trusting Jin Guangyao, it’s not as though you were the only one he fooled.” He offers Lan Xichen a small, genuine smile. “I don’t remember much of those last few days before I destroyed the Tiger Amulet, but if it makes you feel better, I never blamed you. It’s in the past.”

“I stabbed you,” Lan Xichen says, disbelieving. “I broke your wrist. I essentially threw you off that cliff.”

Wei Wuxian laughs. “Oh, the wrist was you! I had forgotten that. I still can’t bend it all the way back.” He demonstrates, as if this is a parlour trick rather than a lasting injury. “But it’s fine, I taught myself to be ambidextrous.”

“Wei Wuxian,” Lan Xichen says, helplessly confused.

Wei Wuxian exhales. “Zewu-jun,” he says. “I get it. You’re unhappy, and you want me to be mad at you so you can punish yourself. Unfortunately, this has been one of the best weeks of my life, and I’m in an excellent mood. Plus, we’re going to be brothers in law soon.”

“Oh,” Lan Xichen says. He should have expected. “Congratulations.”

“Thank you!” Wei Wuxian says. He tilts his head. “You forget that I’m an older brother too. If we’re being judged on the basis of what we’ve done to keep our little brothers safe -- well, I don’t think I have any ground to stand on.”

Slowly, Lan Xichen stands. “I won’t keep you any longer,” he says. “Thank -- Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Wei Wuxian says. “I’ll work on getting Lan Zhan to talk to you. Not to brag, but I know a guy on the inside.” He winks exaggeratedly and Lan Xichen almost smiles. 

The conversation stays with him all the way back to Cloud Recesses. He is not Wei Wuxian, and he will never be able to brush off what he did quite so easily. He considers going into seclusion, but Uncle is getting too old to manage being an acting sect leader again, and he has no one else he trusts to take on the burden. With nothing else to do, he simply buries himself in work. On the days when the weight of it all becomes too much to bear in silence, he plays the xiao until his hands stop trembling. Nie Huaisang has said nothing of A-Yao -- of Jin Guangyao -- since he took him into custody, and Lan Xichen does not ask. 

He’d been the one to find the head. He’d been so sure this was all a big misunderstanding, that A-Yao must have had his reasons, that every sect leader has to compromise their ethics in one way or another, and then -- he’d moved aside a curtain and Mingjue’s dead eyes had stared back at him. 

He has nightmares about it nearly every night. But worse are the good dreams, the ones where A-Yao is visiting and climbs into his lap fresh from the bath, dimpling at him with wet hair, smiling the smile that no one else got to see. “I acted out of love, Er-ge, does that count for nothing?” echoes in his head whenever he jolts awake. A-Yao’s wide eyes. Maybe he’d wanted Lan Xichen to be the kind of lover that Wangji is, the kind who could weather any doubt in service of the belief that his beloved’s wellbeing was the most important thing in the world, regardless.

But he and Wangji are not each other. Gone are the days when people make a fuss over the matching pair of them, the perfect, untouchable Twin Jades of Lan. 

A month after A-Yao is taken away, a letter arrives addressed to him, written, to his astonishment, in Wangji’s neat hand. The letter itself is barebones, unremarkable. Sect Leader Jiang sends his good wishes, it begins, and continues, even more bizarrely, to say:

My son Wei Yuan has decided to return to the Cloud Recesses with Lan Sizhui. I trust that arrangements will be made for him. He has been taught unconventionally, but his education rivals any Lan junior.

Lan Xichen stares down at the final lines. He reads them five times over to be sure that they say what he thinks they do.

He has expressed an interest in learning the xiao. If you should like, you have my permission to teach him. 

He doesn’t quite believe it until weeks later, when he meets the twins as they come up the hill. They are both dressed in Lan disciple robes, although only one of them wears a forehead ribbon. (No matter how much time he spends with them -- and it will be a lot of time over the years -- he will never, ever learn to tell them apart consistently. But he doesn’t know that yet.) 

“Zewu-jun,” one of them says, with a bow.

The other bows too, but he comes up with a smile. “Sect Leader Lan,” he says. “I’m under strict orders from my father to call you bobo. Is that alright?

The laugh startles out of Lan Xichen, unfamiliar even to him. It leaves his chest lighter than he’s felt it in -- he’s not sure how long. “Yes,” he says. “Yes. Please.”

.

Five years don’t solve every one of their problems. Lan Wangji still wakes semi-regularly in the middle of the night to cling to his husband until he can be sure he is alive and healthy. Occasionally, when Wei Ying is down by the river or in town, Lan Wangji will be gripped with the awful certainty that something could happen to him or their sons that Lan Wangji is powerless to prevent, and has to be talked out of panicked paralysis when Wei Ying returns. For his part, Wei Ying has terrible nightmares that leave him shaking, as well as the occasional fit of anxiety that he has so much to lose these days. The whole house is warded ten times over, just in case. 

He hadn’t wanted to take Wei Ying back to Cloud Recesses. He had spent enough time there, and he would much rather stay with Wei Ying wherever he chose to go. They spent the rest of the winter and spring in Lotus Pier as Wei Ying regained use of his leg. When they got married, they did it there with Jiang Wanyin’s gruff blessing. 

It was just after their marriage, curled together with his nose in Wei Ying’s loose hair, staring up at the ceiling of Wei Ying’s childhood room, that he had idly mentioned an old dream of his. Back when he’d been flying back and forth between Cloud Recesses and the Burial Mounds, Lan Wangji had often gazed down at the farmland and forest beneath him and mused on the idea of running away to a humble cottage with Wei Ying and raising the twins as exceptionally polite farmboys.

“Hmm,” Wei Ying said thoughtfully, resting his cheek on Lan Wangji’s chest. “Well. I know a place.”

Jiang Wanyin had let them go on the absolute condition that they return frequently. Lan Wangji suspected that as glad as Jiang Wanyin was to have Wei Ying back, he was perfectly happy for him to be elsewhere some of the time, given just how excellent Lan Wangji and Wei Ying had discovered marriage and its daily perks to be. 

In the cottage Wei Ying brought him to, Lan Wangji reflected, there was certainly no danger that they would be overheard or interrupted. 

“I know it’s small,” Wei Ying said, prying the door open.

“It is perfect,” Lan Wangji said, because it had Wei Ying in it. 

The cottage still has Wei Ying in it, so it is still perfect. “I had good luck today!” he cries, bursting in the door. “I caught three fish! Enough for me and the boys to have one each.” He gives Lan Wangji a winning smile. His robes are tied up around his waist to keep them dry, which Lan Wangji thinks is devastatingly attractive. More so when Wei Ying sheds his wet trousers to hang them up on the laundry line. 

“Lan Zhan!” he laughs when he catches Lan Wangji watching. “The boys will be here any minute, there’s no time.”

“Mm,” Lan Wangji agrees. It is also devastatingly attractive when Wei Ying is the prudent one between them. He settles for kissing him so thoroughly that Wei Ying sways when he lets go.

The twins arrive within moments of each other, although Sizhui is coming from Cloud Recesses and A-Yuan from Lotus Pier. “A-Yuan, A-Hui!” Wei Ying exclaims, gathering them both into his arms as though they’re still children and not twenty-two last winter. “So grown up, so handsome!”

“A-Die,” A-Yuan says, embarrassed. 

“A-Die,” Sizhui says, pleased. 

Dinner is an enjoyable affair, as it always is when Lan Wangji has his favorite people around him. Both Sizhui and A-Yuan recount recent adventures -- some night hunts together, some apart. Sizhui has been taking on more and more sect leader duties from his bobo, but the transfer of leadership probably won’t happen for years yet; Xiongzhang has told Lan Wangji that he’s trying to ease him into it. Their relationship will never be as simple as it was before Nightless City, but Lan Wangji’s appreciation for the way his brother looks out for his nephews is genuine. A-Yuan still hasn’t realized that Jiang Wanyin is trying to convince him to be sect heir, but he has already been persuaded to wear a Jiang bell at his waist and Lan Wangji suspects the rest will follow soon.

“Shushu is asking when you’re going to come back to Lotus Pier,” A-Yuan says to Wei Ying. 

“Actually, we might go back soonish and stay a while,” Wei Ying says, glancing over at Lan Wangji. “I’ve just finished expanding the cottage.” He gestures at their new extra room, as if the boys could have missed it somehow.

Sizhui tilts his head. “Why finish expanding and then leave?” he asks. 

“Well,” Wei Ying says. “Lan Zhan, you have to break the no talking during meals rule, because I’m going to need back up.”

“Is something wrong?” A-Yuan asks. 

“No, no! You know how we had you two whippersnappers when we were very young?” Wei Ying asks, in the tone of someone who may have rehearsed this speech while he was fishing in the river. “Like how we were the age you are now, actually?”

The twins exchange a look. Sizhui nods for Wei Ying to continue.

“We may seem like shriveled old men to you, but although we have two beautiful grown up sons, we’re not actually that old. So--” He spreads his hands dramatically. “Lan Zhan?”

“We may have more children,” Lan Wangji finishes. They’ve been talking about it for a few years now, from the question of “How do we even acquire children?” to “Where would they grow up?” to, importantly, “What will the twins think?”

From the looks of it, they needn’t have worried. A-Yuan gasps in delight, and Sizhui puts a hand over his mouth in astonished joy. 

“We wanted to talk to you beforehand,” Wei Ying says. “We didn’t want you to feel left out, or like, jealous that you each only got one of us growing up and someone else might get both.”

“You give us too little credit,” A-Yuan says, injured. “After I begged you for siblings for years?”

“I’m so happy for you,” Sizhui says. “We’ll babysit, of course.”

“Well, obviously,” Wei Ying says, as though he was never worried about it. “You two can decide amongst yourselves which of you is da-ge or er-ge or whatever. Or you can take turns.” He smiles at Lan Wangji. After over twenty years of being in love and five years of marriage, it still makes Lan Wangji’s stomach tingle. “And we still have to get the kid, of course.”

They stay up far later than curfew, talking into the night; his husband and sons always do, although Lan Wangji begins to get sleepy around ten, no matter how much he enjoys listening to them. He allows himself the luxury of leaning on Wei Ying’s shoulder. Wei Ying just laughs and draws him closer. He is sure, no matter how sleepy he is, that he will never grow tired of listening to his husband and sons talk to each other. Even as he stops keeping track of the words, the familiar cadences of their voices soothe something deep in the part of his brain beyond language. 

“Aha,” Wei Ying says to the boys. “Your baba is falling asleep at the table, so it must be far past your bedtimes. We’ve made the new room up for you.”

“Goodnight,” he hears one of them say warmly. 

“Love you,” says the other. 

“Love you too,” Wei Ying says. He slips an arm around Lan Wangji, who takes this as an invitation to curl in closer, pressing his face against the soft skin of Wei Ying’s neck. Wei Ying snorts. “C’mon, you big dope,” he says. “Let’s go to bed.”

“Wei Ying too?” Lan Wangji asks, blinking.

“Yeah, Wei Ying too,” Wei Ying says. “All that fishing tired me out. I really am getting old.”

“Mm,” Lan Wangji says, thinking fondly of his wet trousers, and of Wei Ying removing said wet trousers. 

As if reading his mind, Wei Ying huffs a laugh. “So predictable,” he says. “Are you awake now?”

“Could be,” Lan Wangji says. The twins have already closed the door to the new room. “Yes.”

“We’ll have to be very quiet,” Wei Ying whispers. “But it’s good practice for when we get the baby.”

Around seven years ago, two years before Wei Ying’s reappearance, Lan Wangji had looked at his quiet life in Cloud Recesses and thought, for the first time in a decade, that he had made his peace with it. That if things had never gotten any better than that, and he had just been somewhat miserable for the rest of his life, it would have been… fine. 

He is so, so glad he never had to find out if that was true. “Mm,” he agrees, and he lets Wei Ying thread their fingers together to lead him into the room they share, in a house of their own, on a little farm by the river where they are beholden to no one but each other.