Lan Zhan always tried to demonstrate by his actions that he had full faith in a-Yuan’s ability and judgement. So he had only once gotten all the way to Taicang, to watch for a-Yuan’s party, when they had been late to return from a night-hunt. Normally, he managed with only one or two internal reminders to prevent himself hovering at the gates.
He reminded himself of this again, when he found himself passing by the gate for no particular reason for the second time that day.
Perhaps Jin Ling was reckless, yes. Perhaps Ouyang Zizhen was impulsive, yes. But Wei Ying had gone to watch over them, and if the party was a bit later than expected it probably only meant that Wei Ying had decided to expand the journey’s lessons to encompass bargaining with stall-keepers or advanced archery techniques. There was almost certainly no need for concern.
He was turning determinedly away when he caught the sound of familiar voices down the path.
“…really don’t have to—” Wei Ying was saying, only to be interrupted by Ouyang Zizhen’s voice, full of indignant passion.
“You shouldn’t have to put up with that! It isn’t right! They just… they blame you for everything, Wei-qianbei, and you never did anything but try to keep people safe!”
“Yes, yes, they do,” Wei Ying said in a soothing tone, “but it isn’t like it matters.”
“Wei-qianbei!” Ouyang Zizhen sounded downright scolding, now. Lan Zhan noted that a-Yuan had yet to say anything moderating, himself, which suggested he agreed quite firmly. When the party turned the final curve in the path, all the junior disciples were clustered around Wei Ying. Ouyang Zizhen and Lan Jingyi were crowded in at Wei Ying’s shoulders protectively, nearly bristling with it. Wei Ying looked fondly exasperated at this. Jin Ling walked quietly ahead of them, eyes shadowed, though not nearly as tense as the other two.
A-Yuan walked at the back of the group, expression so very calm that Lan Zhan glanced reflexively at his grip on his sword. It wasn’t tight. It was, rather, easy and poised, as if a-Yuan might draw at any moment. Lan Zhan raised his brows and went to meet them.
“What happened?” he asked quietly, reaching up to lay a finger against Wei Ying’s lips when he started to answer, looking at a-Yuan for a reply.
A-Yuan bowed, every impeccable manner pulled around him like a cloak against the cold. “Hanguang-jun. When we stopped this morning for food, there were people at the inn discussing the haunting we had gone to address. One of them mentioned that there seemed to have been more hauntings lately, and that it was only to be expected when the Yiling Patriarch had returned.” He bestowed a nod on Ouyang Zizhen that was nearly a bow, so clearly approving that the other boy straightened up in response. “Ouyang Zizhen corrected their misconception quite promptly.”
Wei Ying huffed and wrapped his hand around Lan Zhan’s, removing his finger. “It really wasn’t necessary to get into a fight with idiots over breakfast.”
“To supply necessary knowledge is admirable,” Lan Zhan noted, ignoring the way Wei Ying rolled his eyes.
“That was followed by some historical debate,” a-Yuan finished. “I apologize for the delay in our return.”
Lan Zhan considered a-Yuan’s sudden vagueness about this ‘debate’ and also the rather heated smile Lan Jingyi was giving a-Yuan, and concluded that a small village west of Gusu had been gently and earnestly lectured on Wei Ying’s history and accomplishments until they had been shamed into admitting their error. A-Yuan’s imitation of Xichen-xiong could be alarmingly effective. No wonder Wei Ying looked so exasperated.
“Learning comes first.” Under the shelter of that inarguable principle, Lan Zhan exchanged a small, satisfied nod with a-Yuan.
“You are both so ridiculously overprotective,” Wei Ying scolded. He was smiling, so both Lan Zhan and a-Yuan ignored it.
“Or maybe just protective enough.” Jin Ling looked up at Wei Ying, eyes still a little dark. “There are still cultivators who think that way, Uncle.”
Wei Ying’s smile softened, and he ruffled Jin Ling’s hair until the boy ducked away, scowling. “Lan Zhan doesn’t think it. None of you think it.” He shrugged, loose and easy. “The people who matter don’t think it.”
It worked on the juniors, who all grinned or blushed or otherwise looked flustered and pleased. Lan Zhan couldn’t deny that Wei Ying’s words sent warm satisfaction unfurling like a blossom in his own chest. But they didn’t distract him from the underlying issue, which was that a whole society of those who claimed to seek the truest self had become far too ready to lay responsibility for their own lack of achievement on the truest one of them all. When a-Yuan went to see his friends off, Lan Zhan stayed close beside Wei Ying, walking with him back to their rooms.
Wei Ying nudged his shoulder against Lan Zhan’s, glancing at him sidelong, eyes warm. “Lan Zhan. You know it doesn’t matter to me.”
Lan Zhan stopped in the middle of their courtyard and turned to face him, lifting one hand to cup his cheek. “I remember the look on your face, listening to the sects pledge your destruction.” Wei Ying hadn’t been at all afraid, but he had been hurt, wounded to the core. He flinched from Lan Zhan’s words, even now.
“That wasn’t…” Wei Ying lifted a hand to cover Lan Zhan’s, turning his face into Lan Zhan’s palm. “It wasn’t that I cared what most of them said or thought,” he finished softly. “It was that Jiang Cheng was right there. And I’d just lost everyone. Again.”
Lan Zhan reached out to gather him close and murmured against his ear, quiet and fierce, “You will never face such things alone again.” As Wei Ying leaned into him, he added, “I would have them not happen in the first place.”
Wei Ying huffed a faint laugh. “So would I, but people are like that.”
“Only if no one steps forward to say they should not be.” Lan Zhan tightened his arms as Wei Ying stirred against him. “You said yourself: Jiang Cheng was there. What if he were not?” He ran his hands slowly up and down Wei Ying’s back, trying to ease the tension gathering there. “What if I had stood forth against it?”
“Then they would have started saying the same things about you,” Wei Ying said flatly, and Lan Zhan felt the pull on his robes as Wei Ying’s hands tightened sharply in the fabric. “You saw that happen at the Burial Mounds.”
“And yet, when you spoke the truth of Su She’s deeds, they knew it.” Lan Zhan ran his fingers gently through Wei Ying’s hair. “I do not believe our society is so lost that truth will never move them.”
“Maybe. At least if the likes of Jin Guangyao isn’t egging them on,” Wei Ying grumbled, and then abruptly lifted his head, eyes wide. “Oh.” He was completely still for long moments, so still Lan Zhan spread a hand against his back, not entirely sure he was breathing. Finally Wei Ying did take in a deep, slow breath. “Oh.”
“Wei Ying?” He could usually follow Wei Ying’s thoughts, but he wasn’t entirely sure where they’d gone just now.
Wei Ying pushed back just enough to take Lan Zhan’s shoulders in his hands. “I’m an idiot,” he declared, in a tone which suggested anything but. “Jin Guangshan and his brat of a nephew stirred up a little talk, sure, but they were so obvious about throwing their weight around I doubt it would have gone very far. It was only Jin Guangyao that turned it into something else, starting right from the victory banquet, I bet. That must be when he started working on the set-up for the hunt at Phoenix Mountain, which means he was probably the one egging on the Wen prisoners’ keepers too, because it isn’t hard to guess how Jiang Cheng will act when it comes to the sect.”
Lan Zhan felt like he might need to catch his breath from the way Wei Ying’s thoughts leaped and rushed ahead, this time. “You mean… that Jiang Cheng would not support your compassion?”
Wei Ying’s mouth twisted for a breath. “That either. But the point was to make me lose my temper, ideally in public, over the treatment of the Wen remnants. Because that was the one thing he could be sure the other sects wouldn’t support, which means Jiang Cheng wouldn’t either, to protect Jiang’s reputation. And once I was acting apart from any of the sects, how easy must it have been to stir up fear that I’d act against them?”
“You will not be without the support of a sect again,” Lan Zhan said firmly, and blinked when Wei Ying swooped in to kiss him quickly and then shook his head.
“That’s not the most critical point. People are people. They’ll always be at least a little afraid of those stronger than themselves. But it wouldn’t have gone further than that without Jin Guangyao pushing. It’s that kind of interference that we need to be sure to halt.” He flashed a brilliant smile at Lan Zhan. “And the two of us are a match for any one like him.”
The conundrum Lan Zhan had been chiseling at in his mind for years, and had returned to far more urgently of late, turned over in his thoughts, the breaking point of it suddenly evident. Not how to change human nature, but how to stop the hands of the few who saw in other humans only tools for their own use. “Yes,” he agreed softly, and ran his fingers down Wei Ying’s jaw, coaxing him in for another, slower, kiss. “We will be.”
Wei Ying leaned in and kissed him back, humming a contented little sound into his mouth. After a moment he murmured, against Lan Zhan’s lips, “You know, there’s one person who could really help out with something like this.”
When Lan Zhan drew back, he saw that the laughter had slipped away from Wei Ying’s mouth. “Who?”
Wei Ying’s eyes were steady and serious on him. “Nie Huaisang.”
Lan Zhan took in a sharp breath and had to close his eyes for a moment, seeing again the empty stillness of his brother’s face, the last time Lan Zhan had visited his rooms, the way his gaze didn’t seem to really see what was around him.
Yet, he also remembered Jin Guangyao’s smile and the utterly reasonable tone of his voice, speaking condemnation of Wei Ying, dropping fear, word by word, into the ears of the other sects. And he remembered the light in his brother’s eyes, the way he’d held out his hands to welcome Jin Guangyao into the Cloud Recesses.
It cut across his heart with an edge made of shame, because he loved his brother, but he understood why Nie Huaisang might have seen justice in using Xichen-xiong’s hands to put a final end to the unblinking cruelty of Jin Guangyao’s plots.
Wei Ying’s hand on his cheek, warm and calloused and real, drew him back. “We don’t have to,” Wei Ying said softly. “But in the whole cultivation world, right now, he’s probably the best one at spotting that kind of manipulation. And the one with the most reason to put a halt to it.”
Lan Zhan laid his hand over Wei Ying’s, lacing their fingers gently. “Besides you? Perhaps so.”
Wei Ying blinked at him. “Besides…? Oh! Sure, I guess so.”
Lan Zhan really had some exceedingly uncomplimentary thoughts about Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan, these days. “Think more of yourself,” he told Wei Ying, quiet and firm.
“I will if you will,” Wei Ying proposed, something Lan Zhan frankly doubted. “Do you want to leave Nie Huaisang out of this?”
Lan Zhan gave his lover a stern look for that slippery maneuver, but made himself think it over. Was filial duty, or even his anger over his brother’s pain, more important to him than having this ally in keeping Wei Ying safe? As soon as the thought formed, though, he felt the tension in his arms and shoulders ease. Another thought formed to answer it, as surely as his blade would rise to answer the awareness of a blow coming toward him.
No. It was not.
He gathered Wei Ying close again, feeling the warm, living weight in his arms that whispered to his heart that all was well. “Let us speak to him.”
Wei Ying’s eyes widened, and even the bright smile that blossomed over his face didn’t fully hide his underlying amazement. “You’re sure?” he asked softly, draping his arms over Lan Zhan’s shoulders, fingers toying with the ends of his headband. Lan Zhan smiled and let him.
If everyone else in Wei Ying’s life had been blind and foolish enough to think Wei Ying’s generous heart would always be at their disposal, even if they failed at every turn to cherish, or even appreciate it… well, Lan Zhan was more than willing to ensure that everyone involved learned better. Including Wei Ying.
The errand was not immediately urgent, so they walked rather than riding their swords. At least, Lan Zhan walked. Wei Ying brought Little Apple to ride, insisting that the beast needed the exercise. Little Apple himself was unconvinced by Wei Ying’s arguments, and held out for an apple from each of them before consenting to take his headstall without turning up his nose or nipping.
It was good to be on the road together, though. Lan Zhan hadn’t fully realized how constantly alert he’d been, in the Cloud Recesses, for any sign that his uncle’s disapproval was affecting how the rest of the sect treated Wei Ying, or that his brother’s grief was spiraling downward, or that there was some need for his word as Chief Cultivator to quiet the lingering agitation among the sects. It was pleasant to be alone for a bit, just the two of them.
They were let in immediately, when they arrived at the Unclean Realm. The easy welcome made Wei Ying smile, only a little crookedly, which Lan Zhan had to admit pleased him. Even so, the way the Nie sect master came to welcome them and show them, not to his formal receiving room, but to his personal sitting room, sharpened Lan Zhan’s attention. This was a very marked degree of favor and respect, something which, in retrospect, Nie Huaisang had used his reputation for timidity to avoid offering any of the other sect masters or the late Chief Cultivator. He wondered if this was an apology of sorts.
Nie Huaisang poured tea all around and sat back, delicate cup held gracefully between his fingers. “What may I do for the Chief Cultivator and his cultivation partner?” he asked. “Or is it Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian who have come to visit?”
“A little of both.” Wei Ying trailed his fingers over the silky smoothness of the table, not quite perfectly at random. The motion caught at Lan Zhan’s eye. None of Wei Ying’s movements quite formed characters of the talisman script, but the suggestion was there. Perhaps he wasn’t the only one on edge. “Lan Zhan wants me not to be a target again, and I have to admit I’d like that too. That’s the personal part. For the less personal, we’re looking for a way to prevent our society’s weaknesses from being exploited.”
“Fear of the unknown is a weakness,” Lan Zhan supplied, at Nie Huaisang’s raised brows.
“And what do we have a Chief Cultivator for, if not to take thought for the cultivation world as a whole, and try to find ways to strengthen us all?” Wei Ying flashed Lan Zhan a bright smile, eyes crinkled with a private laugh, “Even if he’d often prefer to do it by knocking some heads together.”
Lan Zhan took a composed sip of his tea. “Only when truly necessary.”
Nie Huaisang furled his delicately painted fan and tapped it against his chin, not quite covering a faint, tilted smile. “So says the man who gave Jiang-zongzhu a black eye that lasted for weeks after the second battle at the Nightless City.”
Wei Ying paused, staring at Lan Zhan with wide eyes. “…you did?”
Lan Zhan took another sip of tea, which he hoped did a better job than the fan of covering his considerable satisfaction at the memory. “We would appreciate your insight,” he told their host.
Nie Huaisang tilted his head, faint smile fading as he watched them. “In protecting people from their own fear? As well try to protect the fertile ground from seeds.”
“Some harvests require more cultivation than others,” Lan Zhan returned, and after a moment Nie Huaisang turned a palm up in graceful acknowledgment.
“If there’s anyone who would know the signs to watch for, that someone is manipulating public opinion for their own ends, it would be you, wouldn’t it? Wei Ying added, quietly.
Nie Huaisang looked down at his folded fan, face still. Lan Zhan waited while he thought.
“It’s a good thought, but you’re being naive about how to start,” Nie Huaisang said at last, “Once you’ve recovered, then yes, maybe you’ll only need to keep watch to weed out the exceptional players in this game. But right now you’re already at a disadvantage, and that will attract anyone who wants a cheap victory in public opinion. So the first thing you need to do is persuade people that you bring them advantage in increasing their cultivation. That was what almost saved you, before, you know. The useful tools that everyone knew were of your making. You need something of that sort again, now.” He looked up with a tiny, wry smile. “The thing is, most people aren’t very thoughtful, let alone original. Wei-xiong is a bit of an exception.” He chuckled at Wei Ying’s exaggerated preening, but it faded back into seriousness swiftly. “For most people, if they usually do things one way, then they think it’s always been that way, even that it must be the right way. So once you’ve got them thinking in a new way, it won’t be hard to keep it up. But to get them there, you need to give them a justification for why the new way is right.”
Wei Ying slumped bonelessly over the table with a deep sigh, fingers toying with his cup. “Because of course, just being, you know, correct isn’t enough.” He waved a hand when Nie Huaisang started to speak. “No, you’re right, you’re right. It’s only when they don’t have a choice, or when there’s an advantage, that people change, I suppose.”
Lan Zhan contemplated the notion of not giving people a choice for a long moment before putting it aside with only a flicker of regret. Lan Yi had tried that once already, and it hadn’t worked well enough for his current purposes. “Will you help to construct such a justification, Nie-zongzhu?”
Nie Huaisang considered him for a long moment, eyes dark and opaque. “I admit that I owe the two of you,” he said, finally. “And this will probably be good for our society as a whole. Better than leaving it all to lie, at least. I’d be willing to help. But this will be a long piece of work; I’d like something in return.”
Lan Zhan felt the subtle tension that threaded through Wei Ying, beside him. “What is it you want?” Wei Ying asked, not straightening up but suddenly far more intent.
The corner of Nie Huaisang’s mouth quirked up. “I want the position of Chief Cultivator, when Hanguang-jun steps down. I want neither of you to stand in my way, while I restore my clan’s face from what I had to do to it. In return,” he spread his hands, “I’ll also use it to help you guard against the cultivators of dangerous harvests.”
Wei Ying’s mouth curled, too tight for amusement alone but still amused, Lan Zhan thought. “Oh, that should be fun to watch. All right, on one condition.” Now he straightened, shoulder brushing Lan Zhan’s, and his voice dropped into something hard and serious. “That you stand by your promise. The next time you decide someone has to die, you do it with your own hands or not at all.”
Lan Zhan felt his sharp awareness of their surroundings and of Nie Huaisang himself easing a little, the edge of it softened by Wei Ying’s fierce protectiveness. Neither of them faced this alone any more.
Nie Huaisang tilted his head, eyeing both of them, and finally smiled, unfolding his fan with a gentle snap. “You’re a good pair, the two of you. I agree.”
Wei Ying nodded and looked over at Lan Zhan, brows raised in question. Lan Zhan thought over what they’d all said so far, and decided he had one more question. One that might tell him just a little more of what Nie Huaisang would make of this plan. “Why do you say we’re a good pair?”
Nie Huaisang gave him an amused look over the edge of his fan that suggested he thought Lan Zhan might be indulging his vanity a little, but answered freely enough. “Your influence keeps Wei-xiong focused; his influence keeps you flexible. Neither,” he added dryly, “something either of you is especially good at on his own.”
Wei Ying mimed being struck, laughing, though it softened into a small, true smile as he looked sidelong at Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan smiled back, shifting his hand to rest lightly on Wei Ying’s knee, under the table. “I agree,” he said, simply, encompassing both Nie Huaisang’s remarks about the two of them and his proposed deal. Nie Huaisang’s answer had spoken of an eye for balance.
Nie Huaisang rolled his eyes and flapped his fan at them. “Good, good. Now go on, both of you. There’s a guest room ready. Go make eyes at each other there.”
Wei Ying’s smile transformed into a wicked grin, and he seized Lan Zhan’s wrist and bounced to his feet. “Okay!”
Lan Zhan let himself be tugged along, leaving Nie Huaisang shaking his head and smiling behind them.
Nie Huaisang joined them for breakfast in their rooms the next morning. “I think the one we’ll want to start with is Yao Chenzhuo.”
Wei Ying made a pained face over his dumplings. “Did you have to mention him while we’re eating?”
“Build up a stronger stomach,” Nie Huaisang directed ruthlessly, popping a bit of fruit into his mouth. “Yao-zongzhu is easily led and a terrible gossip. Convincing him that he secretly thought, all along, that exploration of mysterious cultivation methods is daring and admirable will not be difficult. Once convinced, he’ll spread the notion that you’re an asset to our world faster than any other.”
Wei Ying made another horrible face, and then sighed. “Okay. Who else?”
Nie Huaisang gave both of them a long, steady look. “To be honest, the most critical are almost all taken care of already. The junior set can be left to Ouyang Zizhen and Lan Sizhui. Jin will mostly be an internal problem for Jin Ling, but I have faith in that boy’s stubbornness.” He turned over his fan between his fingers, looking down at it, and finished softly, “The only really critical player left is Jiang-zongzhu.”
Wei Ying flinched, mouth tightening, eyes flickering down, and Lan Zhan deliberately set decorum aside and reached out to lay his hand over Wei Ying’s, fisted on the table beside his bowl. Wei Ying looked up at him, nascent attempt at a nonchalant smile fading under Lan Zhan’s steady gaze until the helpless hurt under it showed. Nie Huaisang’s gaze promptly fixed on the far wall.
“Take your time to think on it,” he said quietly. “I can speak to him myself, on the strength of having been at the temple, to see the end of it all, but… that will work best if I have some idea of what still needs to be said.”
Wei Ying’s free hand dropped to his belt, where Chenqing rested, fingers running over the smooth lacquer. “I think,” he said softly, “the idea that you’re trying to untangle the left-overs of Jin Guangyao’s work would be enough for him. Knowing he was manipulated, he’ll still be angry. He only ever took that if you made it obvious what you were doing. But no, I don’t think he’s ready to hear me say it, yet.”
Nie Huaisang looked directly at Wei Ying again for a breath, eyes dark, and finally nodded. “All right.” He gave them a tilted smile. “Let’s think about how to describe your heroism to Yao Chenzhuo, then.”
Wei Ying took a breath and turned his hand over to give Lan Zhan’s a quick squeeze before summoning a smile. “Well then. Not a white steed, but a black?”1
Lan Zhan started a little at that. Jing Ke, the reknown retainer a desperate king sent on a dire, hopeless errand, farewelled and remembered as a hero despite his failure. Black for white, condemnation instead of praise, yet success instead of failure. Lan Zhan released a soft breath as the perfect balance of Wei Ying’s reference settled into his mind. Nie Huaisang’s mouth twisted wryly. “Appropriate enough. I was already thinking about hosting a hunt in another month or two, as my own first step. If you’re there for a public toast, it becomes your return banquet.”
“Four sides arrayed by heroes,” Wei Ying agreed dryly. “He’ll like the implication that the fourth might be him.”
“I’ll be sure to look very impressed with him, yes.” Nie Huaisang sighed deeply and fluttered his fan. “It’s really such a shame you don’t write more, Wei-xiong; you’re terribly good at it.”
Lan Zhan had to agree, though he was still a bit bemused by the part where the black steed in question was clearly Little Apple. That was also an appropriately ironic reversal, he supposed, irreverent in a way that was very Wei Ying. He listened to the two of them pick and choose select phrases to prime Yao Chenzhuo with, but what he paid the most attention to was the way Wei Ying’s fingers slowly relaxed in his.
Renewing that fading tension was nearly the last thing he wished to do, but he knew leaving it alone would only leave Wei Ying open to sharper hurt. So when Nie Huaisang took his leave of them, Lan Zhan slid around the table and gathered Wei Ying into his arms. Wei Ying laughed softly and wriggled around until he was leaning against Lan Zhan like a superior sort of arm-rest. Lan Zhan took a moment simply to enjoy the solid weight of Wei Ying against him, combing slow fingers through his hair. “We have spoken of what needs to be done,” Lan Zhan said quietly. “But not of what you wish to do, abut Jiang Wanyin.” Sure enough, tension wound back through Wei Ying’s body, and Lan Zhan’s arms tightened, trying to soothe it.
“Trade you,” Wei Ying said against his shoulder, voice a little rough. Lan Zhan thought that was mostly deflection, but… perhaps not entirely. So he thought, and gathered his words.
“When I lost you,” he started, fingers still moving slow and steady through Wei Ying’s hair, “My brother let me grieve. When he visited, he did not demand that I forget you or denounce you. He did not ask that we play any of the variations on Cleansing I had made for you. He told me little things about events in Gusu. He brought a-Yuan to visit. He gave me time, even though he believed by then that you had followed evil ways. So I will give him time to grieve Jin Guangyao. I will not demand that he forget the kindness between them.” Lan Zhan had to take a slow breath before he could finish, because this still cut at him. “But neither will I forget the true evil that was done behind the shelter of my brother’s trust.”
Wei Ying was curled into him, now, arms tight around him. “Lan Zhan…”
“Shh,” Lan Zhan hushed him, hearing plainly the guilt in his voice. “I give you my heart and my truth willingly, Wei Ying.”
It took a little while for Wei Ying’s shaky breaths to steady, but eventually he relaxed enough to rest his head back on Lan Zhan’s shoulder. Finally he said, slowly, “I… never thought it was balanced, between me and Jiang Cheng. Or, I guess, Jiang itself. Uncle Fengmian saved my life, brought me back to the cultivation world. Jiang Cheng gave me a family; his family. How could anything repay or balance that? Putting up with his temper tantrums, when I could tell he was just hurt or scared… it seemed like such a little thing, compared.”
“He is not a child, now,” Lan Zhan couldn’t help pointing out, though he was careful to keep his voice even, his hands easy on Wei Ying’s back. “Nor was he, then.”
“No,” Wei Ying agreed, soft and sad, fingers toying with the edge of Lan Zhan’s sleeve. “He made his choice, and it wasn’t the one I would have made, or advised he make. Maybe not even the one his father would have made. But he made it and stuck to it. In a way… I was kind of proud of him.” Wei Ying snorted softly. “I thought he was wrong, but I was kind of proud anyway.”
Lan Zhan waited quietly, stroking Wei Ying’s hair, slow and steady.
“The thing is,” Wei Ying took in a deep breath and let it out in a shaky rush, “now he knows. That I gave him my Golden Core. When he didn’t know… I didn’t want…” much quieter, Wei Ying finished, “I didn’t want him to feel indebted, the way I’d always felt.”
Lan Zhan closed his eyes and gathered Wei Ying in tighter. He could only imagine how that feeling had subtly poisoned Wei Ying’s sense of his place with the family that took him in.
“So what can I do but call it quits, and tell him that paid for all?” Wei Ying asked, curling closer.
“For now, perhaps nothing,” Lan Zhan agreed quietly, restraining his urge to declare that Wei Ying was quit of the Jiang Sect. That wasn’t his decision, alas. With some effort, he turned his thoughts back around to what Wei Ying might need out of this. Out of his family. Out of the brother who’d never quite managed to grow out of throwing tantrums to get his shixiong’s attention. From that last thought, he spoke slowly. “Perhaps Jiang Wanyin needs a little more time to grow up, now he knows where he is truly growing from.” From Wei Ying’s gift, from Wei Ying’s love, and Lan Zhan very privately hoped that the Jiang sect master choked on it.
Wei Ying huffed, half laughter and half exasperation. “That sounds about right, actually. He always did take a while to decide about things.”
“Then let Nie Huaisang speak to him, for now.” A congenial solution, from Lan Zhan’s point of view. “And see what he chooses, from here.”
Wei Ying tipped his head back and smiled up at Lan Zhan, small and sweet. “You became very wise, when I wasn’t looking.”
Lan Zhan shook his head, ruefully aware of the less than wise path his private thoughts took. “Only now that you are looking, again.”
Wei Ying snuggled closer. “Then I’ll stay, to keep looking.”
Lan Zhan smiled, hearing the promise it was, and gave back his own.
Wei Wuxian was up a tree again.
He’d managed well enough through the hunt itself, mostly by sticking close to Lan Zhan’s side. But the banquet had done him in. When Yao Chenzhuo had, in all sincerity, drunk to “Our outstanding talent that only grows greater!” and beamed at him, Wei Wuxian had been so torn between laughing hysterically and screaming at the man, he’d had to escape. Fortunately, he’d managed to laugh it off in a way the increasingly drunk sect masters took for modesty, and Nie Huaisang had covered his retreat with some adroit flattery.
He’d almost rather deal with dogs.
Dusk had deepened into blue by the time pale robes emerged from the gates and came unerringly toward him until Lan Zhan was standing at the foot of the tree looking up at him. Wei Wuxian sighed, leaning back against the smooth trunk.
“Are we really sure I have to be nice to idiots?” he asked, unable to help his plaintive tone.
Lan Zhan’s voice was quiet and sure, in turn. “You do not have to do anything you do not wish to.”
It made Wei Wuxian’s breath catch with the sudden feeling of his world being upended, and he realized he was still waiting for denial. For what everyone else had always told him, whether gently or in scolding or simply by example. For the answer he’d spent a life and more fighting to prove wrong.
And instead Lan Zhan gave him an open door, and open hands.
He rolled lightly off the limb he’d been perched on, and dropped down into the arms that lifted to catch him. “I want to stay with you,” he said, absolutely certain, folding his arms around Lan Zhan’s shoulders.
“Then you shall,” Lan Zhan answered simply. Wei Wuxian let himself relax into the warm relief of the accord between them.
“Yeah,” he agreed softly. “I will.” The promise settled between them like the evening settling over them, natural and inevitable, and Wei Wuxian leaned his forehead against Lan Zhan’s, letting the feeling sink in.
When they finally turned back toward the light of the gates and the noise of cultivators drinking and boasting, he felt calmer than he thought he had since he was a child. In fact, he wondered a little if this was what his mother had felt, when she’d found her right partner, found a truth that went deeper than birth or accepted wisdom. The brush of Lan Zhan’s fingers against his wrist, and the private smile in Lan Zhan’s sidelong glance, curled into his chest, so perfect and sweet that he hoped so.
He held tight to that feeling as they stepped back out in the light.
1. This whole bit is a reference to “Yong Jing Ke” (咏荆轲) by Tao Yuanming 陶淵明, used here because Wei Wuxian is an inveterate poetry quoter when he’s emotional. Also, the line about the white steed caught my eye and immediately suggested ironic reversal of almost everything about the Jing Ke story. back