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The blame game

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It all started in Lanling.

The upheaval that ends up cutting through the entire cultivation world, upending existing power structures and thought-to-be-unshakable truths of their society, starts with a single action taken within the very center of power of the Lanling Jin sect.

And most people think it also more or less ended there, crimes and cruelties exposed in the very hall gleaming so blindingly in ostentatious gold. They are certain that, with the perpetrators identified and suitably punished, everything must have been surely, finally resolved.

Then again, some people also know better.

Lan Xichen in particular would like to reiterate that, while everything might have started in Lanling, it certainly didn’t end there. Not by a long shot.

If only because, he himself would not allow it to.

+++

It will only be much later, weeks passing in the meantime, before Wei Ying hears of the commotion that had preceded the sect meeting in Lanling. How Zewu-jun, Lan Xichen, the First Jade, Sect Leader of the Gusu Lan, had stumbled while on his way up the endless stairs leading up to Koi Tower.

Wei Ying himself hadn’t been there, hadn’t been planning to show up for the greeting ceremony at all, despite Jiang Cheng’s demands that he attend. He’d had other things on his mind. 

Thus, by the time he does hear of Zewu-jun’s uncharacteristic stumble up the stairs, everything will already have happened, their world’s balance irreversibly altered, power dynamics and politics turned on their head, leaving Wei Ying and the rest of the cultivation world baffled at the sudden changes cutting through their post-war, thought-to-be-calm-at-last society. Changes, with Zewu-jun at their very center.

But, as Wei Ying storms those same steps a mere few hours later, Wen Qing’s desperate pleas ringing within his mind, he is yet unaware of the momentous changes to come.

Honestly, even as he flings open the grand doors that separate the ever-so-righteous sect gentry from the common world beyond, Wei Ying does not truly expect the clans to listen to him, simply knows better. He doesn’t expect to be listened to, doesn’t even expect Jiang Cheng to stand with him the moment he demands justice for the sake of those so freely hated for the surname they have been born to. Much less while standing against the most powerful amongst the sects, their own Chief Cultivator, no less.

No, he expects to find himself standing alone, against those claiming themselves righteous, and no support to be found amongst those who would have the power to bring true change to their world.

 

Turns out, he is wrong about that.

Never mind who ends up standing beside him, insisting on those very changes he himself didn’t actually expect to succeed in bringing about.

+++

“I, for one, would quite like to see for myself.”

The words are calmly spoken, a voice steady but impossible to ignore, so easily cutting through the rising din of affronted voices that had risen up in the wake of Wei Ying’s accusations.

Silence rings heavily throughout the hall.

Wei Ying himself is left blinking, still in Jin What’s-His-Face’s space. From where he had made his demands and spoken his accusation and trying to ignore the desperation clawing at the insides of his chest of needtosavemyfriend and pleaselethimbeokay and I’m so sorry I didn’t do anything to help sooner.

Not for a single moment, had he expected to find any sort of support within this hall of clan gentry and ever-changing power dynamics and blame so easily reassigned to anyone considered lesser.

Of course, he had hoped. But he had also known better. Or so he had thought.

He turns his head, alongside everyone else, baffled as he finds himself facing Zewu-jun, of all people, the man’s amicable smile perfectly in place, standing calmly by his previous seat. And his gaze steady upon Wei Ying.

It is quite an image. Zewu-jun’s figure broad and steadfast, appearance unruffled as ever in white and the lightest shades of blue, perfectly matched by his younger brother standing at his side, Lan Zhan clearly having risen to follow his brother’s example. One amicably smiling, one entirely unreadable. Both utterly immovable.

Truly, the perfect set of twin jade pillars to uphold their sect’s every lofty principle.

Even within Wei Ying’s own mind, the sarcasm that usually accompanies those last words, is missing for once.

Zewu-jun who is the one to have spoken. In support of Wei Ying.

“Z- Zewu-jun?” someone in Jin colors inquires carefully, almost hesitantly.

Well. Good to know that Wei Ying isn’t alone in his surprise, going by the stunned silence around the hall due to what – almost – sounded like… Zewu-jun might think Wei Ying’s words worth taking into account. Irrespective of his station within their society.

What a concept.

Zewu-jun himself looks perfectly calm, like he sees nothing out of the ordinary with putting himself on the side of someone considered barely tolerated within their circles nowadays. If anything, he sounds entirely amicable as he adds on, “I have previously thought that I as well would quite like to see the settlements Lanling Jin has so graciously provided for the remaining war captives and this seems like a fitting occasion. If the Chief Cultivator permits, of course.” He bows his head gracefully towards the dais at the front of the hall.

Wei Ying almost wants to laugh incredulously. Because… What a powermove.

Jin Guangshan can hardly refuse such a simple request. Not when it comes from a sect leader of one of the other great sects, much less Lan Xichen, the embodiment of righteousness and justice and all those lofty principles all the clans claim to uphold.

At least not without making himself and the entire Jin sect look guilty, like they might be hiding something, like Wei Ying’s accusations might hold some merit after all.

The hall around them is silent. Where there used to be chaos, voices yelling, shouting to be heard above others, everyone’s affront at some upstart, someone lesser, daring to threaten one of their own, one who belongs here, one of the gentry.

Now, there is silence.

Ringing, deafening silence. For, no one, no matter how outspoken about their undesired opinions they might usually be, wants to put themselves into the middle of any sort of power struggle between the great sects.

“Er-ge,” Jin Guangyao steps forward from beside his father’s seat, ready to smooth things over with his sworn brother. Lan Xichen calmly turns his head to meet his eyes, head tilting in a gentle gesture of encouragement. Although… There seems to be something off about it. Something coiled, something sad, something devastated.

Wei Ying is confused.

A quick glance at Lan Zhan shows him that it clearly isn’t his imagination either, the merest of furrows between the Second Jade’s brow as he watches Zewu-jun. Like, Lan Zhan, too, might be uncertain what to make of his brother’s uncharacteristic demeanor at the moment.

Silence reigns for several elongated moments, Jin Guangyao appearing somewhat taken aback by the uncharacteristically inflexible look on his sworn brother’s usually so amicable face. Still, he rallies himself quickly, speaking softly, demurely, bowing his head in supposed agreement, “Er-ge is of course right. Such accusations should be considered carefully for their… merit.”

It is that brief pause at the end which almost has Wei Ying wanting to applaud the man for his delicate phrasing.

As though everyone here isn’t aware that Jin Guangyao is – once more and forever again – pointing out the disparity between Wei Ying’s station as the accuser and Jin What’s-His-Face’s as the accused. A not-so-subtle reminder that it is the mere son of a servant, who is daring to speak against one of the gentry. How laughable.

Never mind the very real people who are dying because the gentry is more concerned with ‘station’ and verbally lauding their own righteousness, rather than putting in the effort of actually being as admirable in character as they claim for themselves by mere merit of the blood they were born with.

Then again, Wei Ying isn’t bothered by his own word, character, or lineage being put into question. That’s nothing new. He also has neither the patience nor the time for yet another game of political who-is-who at the moment. He has far more important things to insist on at the moment.

Wen Ning, he thinks again, painfully terrified that his inaction – for the sake of his sect, of the peace so recently wrought, of his brother’s standing within the cultivation world – might have lost him a friend more loyal and steadfast than any he has known. A friend who has helped him and his brother at any given opportunity, no matter the threat taken upon himself.

He clenches his teeth, about to turn back towards the Jin asshole right in front of him, ready to start putting the threat of his powers into action, if that is what’s needed in order to get himself his answers.

However, before Wei Ying can proceed to force the truth from this spineless little vermin of a Jin coward, Lan Xichen is already speaking once more.

“The accusations levied are certainly troubling,” he concedes calmly, before pausing as if giving Jin Guangyao’s interjection due thought, even though his eyes have once more evaded his own sworn brother as he then adds, “However, while I am sure that Jin-gongzi,” – he gestures at What’s-His-Face – “Has been doing his best in diligently looking after the Wen under his care as the sects have previously agreed upon, I am certain that everyone would feel assured at having our concerns at claims such as the ones made by Wei-gongzi being put to rest.”

The reiteration of Zewu-jun’s previous intent, to see the Wen camps for himself, despite his sworn brother’s interjection is startling enough to make Wei Ying turn back around towards the Lan contingent.

Not once since the Venerated Triad took their vows, has Wei Ying witnessed Lan Xichen standing against either of his sworn brothers.

And, well, at least my words have now been upgraded from ‘accusations’ to ‘claims’, Wei Ying thinks sarcastically.

Yay, me.

+++

Wei Ying watches almost detachedly as Zewu-jun’s unwavering demands are – unsurprisingly – joined by Chifeng-zun’s before long. Whether out of annoyance and/or suspicion is unclear.

Which of course has the smaller sects hasten to agree that they of course have the same concerns as Zewu-jun and Chifeng-zun. Because, well, not sharing the concerns of these two tends to be cast a rather harmful light on anyone’s ever-so-righteous reputation.

Wei Ying doesn’t know what to make of any of this.

He stands off to the side, feeling useless as he watches the leaders of the great sects argue ever-so-politely amongst themselves, politics and alliances warring with anyone’s claims of righteousness now that demanding the death of all Wen-dogs has been declared unjust by Zewu-jun’s simple declaration.

He entirely ignores the hateful glances thrown his way by certain members of the crowd, clearly blaming him for ever daring to bring this up at all. He ignores the way Jin Guangshan’s face starts turning an interesting puce color that almost matches some of Jiang Cheng’s most elaborate sect leader robes. He most certainly doesn’t meet Jiang Cheng’s furious eyes, ignoring the bright purple lightning he can almost see surround his brother’s fuming form.

Just as he does his best to ignore the steady form standing beside him, bright and flawless as ever, but having stepped up on his left the very moment accusations started being hurled about by those not quite part of the group of sect leaders talking at the front of the hall, harsh whispers and baleful glances.

Wei Ying doesn’t care about the slanderous masses. Let them talk.

Everything is moving far too slowly to satisfy the jittery terror within his veins at the thought of what the delay might cost him in the end.

Please let Wen Ning still be okay. Pleasepleaseplease.

When the location of the nearest Wen camp is finally revealed at Zewu-jun’s immovable request, it is only the quiet call of his name from the figure beside him, which stops him from simply leaving the squabbling gentry behind and start making his way to Qiongqi Pass on his own.

Despite Lan Zhan’s obvious disapproval of Wei Ying’s… everything, he has only ever succeeded at denying a single one of Lan Zhan’s requests. A request to return to Gusu and give up his wicked cultivation. A request that remains impossible to fulfill. For all that Lan Zhan still remains ignorant of that very fact.

A secret which Wei Ying intends to take to his very grave.

+++

How did it end up like this? Wei Ying thinks to himself, baffled.

They are flying. On their swords. Or rather… Wei Ying is flying on someone else’s sword. Lan Zhan’s sword, to be exact.

Because, when the ludicrously large group of sect gentry had finally managed to get itself into gear, Wei Ying had finally mentioned Wen Qing, stubbornly prepared to walk to Qiongqi Pass alongside her.

Instead, Lan Xichen had calmly requested Wei Ying take them to Wen Qing’s location and then offered himself as Wen Qing’s means of transportation. Just as he had offered Lan Zhan as Wei Ying’s.

Wei Ying knows that his refusal to carry Suibian might be behind Zewu-jun’s offer, knowing that Wei Ying wouldn’t be able to fly without his sword, much less to take Wen Qing with him. But something about the way he had said it, about the way Lan Xichen had so calmly declared Wei Ying’s inability to fly himself and Wen Qing… It had almost sounded like he knew. Like he was talking about more than Suibian’s absence. Almost like he suspected…

Wei Ying had been too terrified by that prospect to even protest, instead watching as Zewu-jun had offered – a rather wide-eyed – Wen Qing a hand to join him on Shuoyue and then, calmly, almost expectantly, gestured at Wei Ying to join Lan Zhan on Bichen. Like it were normal. Like they’ve done this before.

Which we, most emphatically, have not, Wei Ying wants to hysterically yell at everyone who keeps giving him and Lan Zhan side-eyes.

Especially since no one appears to be side-eying Zewu-jun and his passenger all that much.

So what’s with all this added attention on me and Lan Zhan, he thinks petulantly, trying his best not to focus on feeling of golden-bright power surrounding him, Lan Zhan’s spiritual energy spreading through him from any point of contact, from Bichen under his feet and the steadying grip Lan Zhan has around his waist, close enough Wei Ying thinks he can feel the warmth radiating from Lan Zhan’s entire being, slightly thawing his alwaysalwaysalwayscold body for what feels like the first time since he chose to rip out part of his very soul to gift it to his brother instead.

Instead, he attempts to focus on the current situation.

He truly does not know what is going on, simply doesn’t get it. Usually, he is fairly good at anticipating how any given situation will resolve, his brain forever running through scenarios and the most likely outcomes. He had been certain that no one within that grand hall at Koi Tower would decide to stand with him. Not as he was. Not with his current reputation – wherever all those rumors about his wicked deeds since the war might have come from – and certainly not while his own sect leader and brother remained silent.

Which he knew ahead of time Jiang Cheng would be.

Jiang Cheng has too much on his shoulders already, struggling so hard in trying to balance Yunmeng’s needs with the reduced power of their sect after the war and no real allies amongst the other great sects to speak of, even less so since the Venerated Triad took their vows, leaving Yunmeng Jiang specifically out of it. Wei Ying hadn’t expected his shidi to interject on his behalf. But he absolutely hadn’t expected anyone else to do so either, much less for Zewu-jun to so immutably – if faux-politely – demand Wei Ying’s demands to be met.

He barely knows Zewu-jun beyond the fact that he is Lan Zhan’s brother, calm and always smiling. Wei Ying thinks the only time he’s ever seen Zewu-jun stop smiling was during the harshest of battles during the Sunshot Campaign.

And now.

Now, when Wei Ying spoke up against the Jins and, instead of remaining content with the status quo, ever-concerned with maintaining the peace, Zewu-jun, in notable contrast to everyone else, seems to have simply believed him. Or, at least, seems to consider his word worth the effort of checking the truth of them.

No one else had bothered. Neither to honor the words of a comrade in arms as Wei Ying had once been to them all, nor to ensure no injustices were being committed out of their sight.

Not until Zewu-jun had joined him. Still smiling. But utterly immovable.

Just like his younger brother. And Lan Zhan had promptly stood with his sect leader, so quick about his support, it almost looked like relief how Lan Zhan had instantly joined his older brother’s demands for Wei Ying’s word to be listened to.

There really might be something to that whole ‘Twin Jade’ nickname, Wei Ying thinks humorously to himself, exhausted to the point where he doesn’t know whether he is more likely to cry or laugh at any given situation.

He glances to his right to meet Wen Qing’s eyes across the distance that separates them in the air. She looks uncomfortable and Wei Ying almost wants to snort at the way she is clearly attempting to keep as much of a polite distance from Zewu-jun as she can, while also utterly relying on him to not throw her off his sword from a height that would certainly kill her.

But Zewu-jun wouldn’t do that, Wei Ying is certain. The man is far too honorable for such an act. In contrast to most everyone else within the entire damn cultivation world, who Wei Ying wouldn’t trust to carry a live chicken, much less another human being with the family name Wen.

He ignores how, in contrast to Wen Qing’s attempts to keep as much distance as possible to the First Jade, Wei Ying can barely keep himself from fully leaning into Lan Zhan’s hold. To take advantage of this one moment, despite knowing how much Lan Zhan hates touch and hates touching Wei Ying in particular. The temptation of letting himself lean back, into Lan Zhan’s sturdy chest, to let someone else take his weight for a minute, just a couple of moments where he might get to feel weightless by someone else’s power, unburdened, instead of weighed down by debts piling ever on top of one another.

Alas, those are dreams for a much younger version of himself, a version that had been so much more naïve, so much more hopeful for a future that is no longer his own. A future that had included a hope of remaining Lan Zhan’s equal, of keeping a hold of that connection between them irrespective of Lan Zhan’s disapproval of him. A future that Wei Ying traded away for his brother’s life. A future that is no longer his to dream of.

For now he tries to ignore the feeling of being carried by the one he once called his zhiji but who has never returned the sentiment.

He tries not to wonder what Lan Zhan is thinking of today’s events so far. Whether he is only following along out of loyalty to his sect leader or whether he, like his brother, might possibly be willing to believe Wei Ying.

At least a little bit.

+++

The sight that greets them at Qionqi Pass is devastating.

The sun is just setting, glinting off the reddish pools of blood-darkened mud around them. Bodies scattered all around, discarded like trash, piled high in the ravine just behind the main camp.

It is so much worse than anything even Wei Ying had expected.

“People,” Wei Wuxian rasps, voice choked with his desperation at the sight stretching out in front of him. “These are people. How can-”

He feels helpless, bloodthirsty resentment stirring within his chest, the Tiger Seal forever lusting for blood, scratching at the corners of his mind, promising vengeance and justice carved into others’ flesh.

To his left, he feels Lan Zhan step a little closer from where they dismounted his sword, so near his ever-pristinely-bright robes brush Wei Ying’s, mingling with the dark of his own.

Wei Ying clenches his teeth, tries to reel in his fury.

I’m not the only one here, he reminds himself, vaguely aware of the other cultivators stepping off their swords around him.

There are witnesses around, he warns the seal baying for blood, offering vengeance.

I cannot lose control, he snarls within the recesses of his own mind

He is abruptly brought from his spiraling thoughts by a warm hand coming to rest upon his right shoulder, opposite from where Lan Zhan is still standing close.

The grip is firm, reassuring, though not quite restraining. A reminder that he isn’t alone. That it is not on him. That he isn’t even the leader of their ridiculous trek of sect gentry in their gleaming, fancily embroidered robes, looking so ludicrously out of place amongst the carnage around them.

Then, the hand is gone again, Zewu-jun stepping past him, into the middle of blood-soaked mud and discarded bodies, the hems of his formerly pristine robes already staining a pale, muddish red.

As Zewu-jun demands answers. Demands change.

Demands justice.

+++

In the end, Wei Wuxian doesn’t have to do much of anything.

The truth of his accusations is apparent to anyone’s eyes, the crimes and cruelties committed by those tasked to watch over the remaining Wens displayed freely, almost proudly, as far as the eye can see.

Suddenly, the sects are doing their best to out-compete one another at being more horrified, more virtuous, more vocal in their demands for answers.

With Zewu-jun spearheading the call for justice, everyone happily falls into line. Even those with pure hatred in their heart for anyone with the name Wen, are far less comfortable with the idea of civilians and elderly and children being worked to their literal deaths for crimes committed in a war none of them ever fought in, now that they have seen it.

Even more so, since the blame can be so clearly assigned. These are Jin camps on Jin land led by Jin disciples. The Jins are to blame. And the minor sects near-salivate at the thought of one of the main sects being taken down a notch or ten by such clear mishandling of previously struck agreements as to how the war captives were to be treated. In the righteously furious shadows of Zewu-jun and Chifeng-zun, the cultivation world gears up for demanding their own supposed sense of justice to be satisfied.

Wei Ying is disgusted, resentment coiling darkly, bitterly, lethally, a venomous pool of black resentment pulsing with his blood. All the while he cannot help but simply be glad for the aid provided by Zewu-jun’s uncompromising demands for righteousness.

Even more so, the white form beside him, brilliantly bright against the impossibly dreary background around them, even outshining his own brother, doesn’t waver. Lan Zhan remains at his side throughout the entire time they are Qiongqi Pass, not moving so much as a single step away from his side.

Not as they take in the full horror of the camp around them.

Not as Zewu-jun commands guards and prisoners to be gathered alike.

Not as Wei Ying matches Wen Qing in her desperate search for her brother, digging through the piles of discarded corpses.

Not as relief floods him once they find Wen Ning, beaten and bloody, but alive.

Not as they gather the rest of Wen Qing’s family.

Not as Wei Ying carefully reaches out to relieve the old grandmother of her grandchild, resting the dirty, skinny child she had been carrying far beyond her strength against his own hip, deliberately choosing the side that is also covered by Lan Zhan’s presence. To keep the child safe in between Lan Zhan’s impenetrable, unassailable brightness, and the threatening aura of dark vengeance curling around Wei Ying himself.

Not quite visibly so, but certainly felt by anyone around them, going by the fearfully cautious looks thrown his way.

Not that anyone dares to throw so much as a single less-than-amicable glance his way. The Jades of Lan have made their support more than clear. And with the apparent shifts of power within the cultivation world, no one quite dares challenge their protection at this point.

As Lan Zhan remains beside him, helping with their search through the camp, aiding Wen Ning with spiritual energy, bracing a few of the older Wens as they try to make their way across the camp to where everyone is gathering. He doesn’t comment on Wei Ying’s need for aid in lifting a few of the larger corpses during the search, he doesn’t comment on the fact that Wei Ying doesn’t offer his own spiritual energy to heal Wen Ning or the fact that Wen Qing doesn’t even ask him to.

Lan Zhan remains silently beside him, not saying anything beyond a few searching looks, a devastating sort of realization clawing its way across Lan Zhan’s breathtaking features.

Still, he doesn’t ask. Doesn’t demand anything of him at all.

And Wei Ying is grateful. As he is terrified.

+++

In the aftermath, Wen Qing refuses to be moved from his side.

With the few people remaining of her family huddled behind her and her brother’s bandaged form resting on a stretcher behind where Wei Ying and, thus, Wen Qing are standing, she looks tall. Proud. But in the waning light of night falling and rain clouds gathering overhead, Wei Ying can see her hands shaking behind her back, teeth clenched with anger and helpless fear and desolation at so many of her own family found dead amongst the piles of discarded bodies. Neither of them have spoken of how much worse things might have been if they had been without aid, if they had had to make their way here on foot instead of by sword.

Her eyes are red-rimmed as she bows low, so low, to Zewu-jun in thanks for his aid, promises a debt impossible to ever repay.

Still, she will not move away from Wei Ying’s side.

There is a certain desperation in her refusal, the knowledge that she and hers are nowhere near safe yet. 

Wei Ying more than understands.

She doesn’t quite trust the great sects and their ever-so-righteous heirs and leaders in all their splendor, now so very loudly proclaimed righteousness. Like she is just waiting for the moment where her people will once more be condemned, no matter the pretty words everyone is spouting at the moment in their horror at seeing the state of the camp.

Sect leaders Ouyang, Zhou, and Yao attempting to outdo one another as the one most loudly exclaiming their horror at the sight around them. Jiang Cheng’s furious disapproval at the mess Wei Ying managed to kick loose is more than apparent in the dark glare focused upon his own form. Chifeng-zun’s anger – an apparent mix of finding himself lied to by another sect leader, of having found himself unknowingly unrighteous in this instance, of finding himself in the presence of Wens at all – blankets the entire camp around them, impossible to ignore.

Wei Ying honestly can’t tell how much of the clans’ displayed horror is real or pretense. He is too tired to try.

At his other side, Lan Zhan hasn’t moved so much as a single step away from him, his face unmoved but his entire presence making it clear that no one is welcome to approach him or anyone near him. Something that has kept even the most outspoken and self-aggrandizing sect leaders at bay.

Something Wei Ying is grateful for. Because… Wei Ying is tired.

Of it all.

Of the politics and claims of righteousness made without any attempts to back them up. Of everyone vying for power, sooner disregarding morality than losing even the slightest bit of standing amongst the ever-so-self-satisfied gentry.

Of the Yin Tiger Tally scratching at the inside of his mind, filling all the corners within himself that are so devastatingly void of golden brightness but feeling all the colder for the resentment now roosting in its stead.

Of being everyone’s shield and sword whenever they have need of him but finding himself utterly alone once he has served his purpose.

Of trying so damn hard not to disappoint those he loves, those who might ever care for him, but simply being unable to, if only due to everything he simply isn’t anymore. Not since before the war. Not since Lotus Pier burned and Jiang Cheng lost his Core. Not since Wen Chao and the Burial Mounds. Not since he clawed his way back from hell on earth and giving all he has and all he is, despite knowing that it will never be good enough. Not for anyone. Not anymore.

He doesn’t know what is going to happen, how he will manage to keep Wen Qing and her family safe when there are so many cultivators of the great and minor sects milling around him. In some ways, he thinks, things might have been easier if everyone had ignored his accusations during the banquet and thus it would just be him and Wen Qing here and he could take his vengeance and then come up with a solution that wouldn’t involve anyone’s sensibilities or political power games at all.

Maybe then, he’d have been able to find a place to rest.

Just for a little while.

Alas, as the sect leaders present gather to begin questioning the guards about the state of the camp, Wei Ying knows that rest will simply have to wait.

+++

Of course, everyone promptly does their best to shift the blame anywhere other than themselves.

And he does mean, anywhere.   

+++

“It was Wei Wuxian!”

Wei Ying blinks, coming out of his distracted haze only to find the guard currently being questioned by Chifeng-zun, pointing at him with all the ardor of an innocent man maliciously and unfairly accused.

“He killed everyone!” The guard adds loudly and just as nonsensically. “He appeared like a shadow during the night!” His voice rises in pitch, exclaiming, “Wei Wuxian raised the dead and he had them kill everyone! It was him!”

The hell?

Some of the cultivators watching mutter curiously, throwing assessing glances his way. Because of course, they are that moronic. Give them something to mutter about in faux-affront and they’ll happily believe even the most ludicrous of gossip.

“What are you even saying?” Wei Ying demands, so utterly done, dark laughter in his voice. “I didn’t even know where the camp was until a few hours ago.”

The guard ignores him, his voice frantic, almost zealous, “It was him! He killed everyone!”

Some of the other guards are nodding along now and Wei Ying is furious and tired and the seal is ever-scratching at the walls of his own mind, demanding vengeance and blood to be spilled.

And if it weren’t for the far-too-light, tiny form still settled on his hip, skinny fingers clutching at the collar of his robe, dirty face tucked into his neck, as though in an attempt to hide from the world and its many impossible cruelties, Wei Ying might have long-since given up on holding back the powers clawing at him to be set free.

The guards are gaining momentum, bolstered by their comrades’ echoing agreement, their accusations growing in volume and elaborate details, one daring to stride two steps into his direction, finger pointed accusingly, spittle flying.

Before Wei Ying can do anything at all, whether to verbally rip them to pieces or literally so, his view of that particularly suicidal guard is suddenly obscured. It takes him a moment to make sense of the white-clad shoulder suddenly blocking his sight.

Lan Zhan, he thinks, baffled.

Lan Zhan who is now standing in front of him, having moved so fluidly Wei Ying barely noticed him move, covering him. Like- Almost like he might be-

The guard promptly comes to a rather screeching halt before he can take another step.

There is a moment of silence.

“Inquiry,” Lan Zhan provides, calmly if rather nonsensically so, while Wei Ying is still blinking in exhausted surprise at the back of his shoulder.

However, Zewu-jun is already nodding, easily, as though his brother has just given a detailed soliloquy on potential solutions, adding, “It will certainly be no trouble for either me or my brother to use our clan’s technique of Inquiry. And inquire the truth from the dead themselves.”

A moment of silence.

The guard promptly breaks down, then, his comrades having fallen silent at the realization that all of their claims will be easily verified by either of the unassailably honorable Twin Jades requesting answers from those murdered at the guards’ hands.

Of course they still proclaim their own innocence and promptly point fingers at various Jins, higher up in the chain of command, and how they had been ordered, forced even, based on their sudden claims, to work the Wens in the camps quite literally to death.

Isn’t that just typical, Wei Ying thinks in disgust.

Even he doesn’t know which part exactly he is referring to.

He carefully shifts his hold on the child on his hip, all the while wishing he had a little more body heat to offer to the skinny form tucking itself so firmly into his side.

+++

During the transport of the prisoners and guards alike to Lanling, Wei Ying simply resolves to focus everything on ensuring Wen Qing and her people are safe.

He ignores his brother’s glowering, a wide berth being given to the darkly fuming form of Sandu Shengshou by everyone, Zidian sparking wildly from time to time to go along with the fury in his eyes.

In contrast to everyone else, Wei Ying is fully aware of that fury being directed at himself, rather than at all that was discovered at the camps. Jiang Cheng is furious at Wei Ying. For daring to risk Yunmeng Jiang’s reputation by making his accusations against any Jins in the first place, for putting himself on the side of the Wen remnants. And Jiang Cheng is even more furious now that Wei Ying’s claims have been proven true, are bringing about real change, for Wei Ying not having come to Jiang Cheng first and thereby letting Yunmeng Jiang be the harbingers of justice that Gusu Lan is currently being lauded as due to their firm stance with justice.

Never mind that Jiang Cheng would never have agreed to put himself against the Jin before being assured of having Gusu Lan or Qiheng Nie support him. Never mind that Wei Ying himself hadn’t expected for things to turn out like this at all.

And Wei Ying is tired. He has been tired since… he doesn’t even know. Since the war ended. Since the war started. Since he was thrown into the Burial Mounds. Since he gave away his Core. Since Jiang Cheng lost his. Since the Wens came to Lotus Pier. Since the Xuanwu’s cave and killing a celestial beast and being alone with Lan Zhan who had finally been able to stand him, even if he hadn’t liked him much or even seen him as a friend, since they had been injured fighting the Tortoise of Slaughter and Lan Zhan had hummed that song for him that had soothed his soul and his mind and the memory of which had let him survive the endless resentment eating him from the inside out, one happy memory with just him and the boy who has fascinated him since their first meeting, their first fight, the first time those golden pools of steadfast commitment had first met his own gaze.

That song.

The song that had been his one anchor during his darkest times. As he had clawed his way out of the dark pit of endless despair that was the Burial Mounds.

He thinks of it often. That song and the memory it stems from, an image hazy-bright with fever and exhaustion but also soul-soothing calm due to the steady presence at his side.

Like right now.

Like Wei Ying still can’t help but dream could be permanent. A forever thing. A soulmate immovably at his side. Steadfast and steady and everything Wei Ying didn’t know to dream of as a teenager.

If he didn’t already know better.

+++

The impromptu trials Zewu-jun and Chifeng-zun demand in the wake of the recent discoveries are unexpected.

Even despite all they had seen there, Wei Ying can admit that he had expected the fault of those in power to be brushed under the rug. As it is usually done. Blame reassigned in some manner, usually to those of lower station, passed down the latter to those with little say in anything but everyone perfectly content to let them take the blame for the failings of those in power.

Except… Apparently, Zewu-jun seems to have entirely forgotten about established concepts like ‘that’s how it’s always been done’.

Even more, every time someone attempts to suggest using ‘history and custom as a guide’ to Gusu Lan’s sect leader, Zewu-jun merely pauses to carefully think the matter over, before calmly stating he’d much prefer clearing up the horrors observed at the camps right away. For, how could honorable folk rest until such injustices were put resolved.

Neither those who were present to see the camps in all their genocidal glory nor the one’s who weren’t, dare to contradict him on that. For, what would it say about those contradicting Zewu-jun’s proclaimed search for justice.

Reassuringly, Wei Ying isn’t the only one utterly baffled by everything that keeps happening.

Sure, he isn’t so naïve to think that anyone of the main houses, the sect leaders or direct heirs, will have to bear any real consequences. Even Zewu-jun’s reputation of righteousness doesn’t reach that far, not once he were to threaten the gentry’s cushy seats of power.

But at least, having the trials right away and having them out in the open, for anyone who would like to attend, sees to it that many of the usual tactics – you know, such as inexplicable, pre-trial disappearances of key witnesses – are employed. There simply isn’t the time.

It means that, even if those truly at fault will still avoid punishment, at least some of the dirt dug up due to their action is going to stick.

It’s not quite justice. But it’s still better than Wei Ying had honestly hoped for.

+++

The trials commence, much to the delight of the public, cultivators and commoners alike.

People show up in numbers, delighted to collectively gasp in affronted horror and sigh in romanticized relief depending on what is currently being discussed.

Zewu-jun and Chifeng-zun, seated at the front of the hall, lead the questionings, neither of them willing to pass on the role to anyone who might make it into more of a spectacle than a real trial. Jiang Cheng is up there with them as well, as is Jin Guangshan.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t speak a single word during the trial. Jin Guangshan sees fit to interrupt the questionings and witness statements a couple of times, if only to make light of some of the accusations.

Although, even the Chief Cultivator falls mostly silent after the collective hiss that goes through the crowd when, during the testimony of one of the Wen women coming forward to speak of her sister’s fate at the hands of the Jin guards, Jin Guangshan dares to chuckle about how she must have been quite pretty then.

Wei Ying sits off to the side in the grand hall they have all gathered in, Yunmeng Jiang’s disciples mostly assembled behind him, even though they share the space with many of the Wens remnants as well as any Lan disciples, if only due to the presence of their Second Jade right beside Wei Ying.

Lan Zhan who has barely moved away from Wei Ying’s side over the past few days, aside from whenever it is time for little Lans to go to bed. Not that Wei Ying’s bedtime differs all that much recently. Considering that little A-Yuan has desperate crying fits every time someone tries to separate him from Wei Ying, nearly having made himself pass out with his terrified panic when he woke the first morning in Lanling without Wei Ying right there, after he had passed the boy’s sleeping form back to one of the Wen uncles.

So, Wei Ying’s sleeping schedule now tends to resemble that of the three-year-old, who remains attached to his front.

Wen Qing seems to approve, hissing something about how he needs to take better care of his held-together-by-little-more-than-vengeance-and-resentment body, lest he wants to simply collapse anytime soon.

Even now during the trials, little A-Yuan sits in his lap, tiny hand curled into the fabric of Wei Ying’s robes, eyes wide at the happenings around him.

No one has had the heart to deny the child the only place he appears to feel safe, even if that appears to be Wei Ying. Least of all Wei Ying himself.

Then again, maybe it’s not really me who makes him feel so secure, he thinks to himself.

Wei Ying glances to his left, briefly focused on Lan Zhan, a statue of immovable jade at his side. Lan Zhan’s disapproval of everything being brought to light during the trials almost feels tangible, like a physical blanket of damning disapproval. Never mind the countless admiring glances thrown his way from the general population.

Not that Wei Ying can blame them.

Lan Zhan really is the prettiest of them all. The handsomest. The kindest.

Only proven by the way Lan Zhan has positioned himself in a way that most of the hall’s view of little A-Yuan is blocked by his imposing form.

Wei Ying doesn’t mention the fact that Lan Zhan’s act of kindness for A-Yuan’s sake also provides enough cover for Wei Ying to be hidden from the hall as well. For, that is surely unintentional on Lan Zhan’s part.

Still, hidden from the ever-curious gazes of the gossiping masses, Wei Ying thinks he could more than understand if it were less himself and more the reassuringly imposing presence to his left that has A-Yuan relax.

+++

As the trials commence and quite a number of horrific deeds come to light, the remaining Wen camps are sought out by groups of disciples from all sects. Some camps turn out to be run under better conditions than the one at Qiongqi Pass. Some are even worse. Some are empty by the time the sects get there, not a single Wen prisoner remaining, the grounds cleansed of lingering spirits, and the present Jin guards claiming ignorance.

By that point, no one of the other sects believes those claims of innocence any longer.

Wei Ying joins Wen Qing on every single walk through the lines of newly arriving Wen prisoners, A-Yuan held on his hip and Lan Zhan an ever-present immovable shadow at his side as they check for any of Wen Qing’s people potentially lost amongst strangers with the same last name but no relation beyond that.

In the end, it only happens once, but the joy on the faces of those found – a young woman, missing an arm, but still aiding her old grandfather in remaining upright – at seeing Wen Qing, alive and arguably healthy, is breathtaking to see.

+++

Wei Ying has no clue where the rumors about his and Wen Qing’s supposed betrothal come from.

Well, he doesn’t even realize there are rumors at first, only vaguely confused at the renewed fire-hot fury brewing in Jiang Cheng’s glower one morning, never mind that he has yet to speak so much as a single word to Wei Ying since he first made his accusations against the Jins. So, Wei Ying really doesn’t know what he could have done to piss off his brother anew. The fact that Jiang Cheng appears to be glowering at Wen Qing as well also doesn’t help.

Although, Wei Ying is even more confused when he realizes that, for all his continued presence beside him, Lan Zhan barely deigns to acknowledge him that day, neither glancing his way at his usual antics nor humming in thoughtful agreement or disagreement at some of Wei Ying’s rambling. It makes his lungs squeeze with an unfamiliar desperation to have Lan Zhan ignore him so, clearly disapproving but not telling him what he could have done to displease Lan Zhan so.

It is Zewu-jun who finally clears things up for them, approaching the four of them – Wen Qing, Lan Zhan, and Wei Ying still holding A-Yuan – and carefully inquiring whether congratulations should be in order.

Wei Ying almost gags at the thought of possibly marrying someone he thinks of as his sister – or maybe a lovable, if particularly violent, cousin – as he desperately denies the rumors. Wen Qing’s own obvious horror at the supposed betrothal is certainly reassuring.

Zewu-jun nods, smiles, and then inquires after A-Yuan’s health. Wei Ying is far too grateful for the change in topic to consider why Zewu-jun would have seen the need to approach them solely for the sake of congratulating them based on rumors.

Still, Wei Ying is relieved when things go back to normal afterwards, Jiang Cheng’s glowers returning back to their normal intensity by afternoon and Lan Zhan once more acknowledging his presence.

Wei Ying tries not to think on the soft, pink blush he had seen coloring Lan Zhan’s ears when Zewu-jun had inadvertently clarified the rumors. Just as he tries to not let his heart sink at the sickening thought of… Maybe Lan Zhan likes Wen Qing?

He brushes that thought aside, makes himself think of something else. He is already far too exhausted to deal with a broken heart on top of everything else. He blinks once, and then promptly refuses to consider why he’d think his heart would be broken by Lan Zhan liking anyone else in the first place.

+++

“Gusu Lan would of course provide sanctuary for those prisoners innocent of Wen Ruohan’s crimes,” Lan Xichen pronounces calmly, his voice quiet and all the more cutting for it.

They are in a smaller hall in Lanling for once, no spectators permitted for this particular discussion, now only the sect gentry remaining once more. As they haggle over innocent lives.

“Your sect would take in Wen-dogs!” A loud voice cutting through the ensuing quiet of Zewu-jun’s words. Wei Ying thinks it came from the Yao delegation. Which wouldn’t be much of a surprise.

Lan Xichen also appears entirely unperturbed, unbothered even by the scowl on Chifeng-zun’s face not too far from him, Nie’s sect leader apparently not all that pleased at Gusu Lan offering to take in any Wen remnants.

“My sect would take in any innocent seeking shelter,” Zewu-jun agrees calmly. “I should hope Gusu Lan would not be alone in such an endeavor.”

There. Wei Ying thinks, though remaining still, if only due to his chest currently serving as a cushion to a sleeping A-Yuan. Argue with that.

Somehow he isn’t surprised when someone actually tries.

“No Wen-dog is innocent,” someone else exclaims, voice full of conviction. This time Wei Ying isn’t sure which sect the speaker might belong to. Maybe Ouyang, or Zhou, judging by the general direction.

Zewu-jun remains utterly calm. “Not even a three-year-old child?” he asks, voice steady and all the more cutting for it.

An immediate hush falls over the hall at the reminder of something they had all been trying to ignore. The presence of a child amongst the Wens rescued. The sight of tiny, still bodies amongst the piles of corpses at Qiongqi Pass. The child still resting on Wei Ying’s lap right now, face tucked into his neck, tiny puffs of air betraying the deep sleep the boy fell into a while ago.

“Would you condemn a child to death for actions of someone so far beyond their reach?” Zewu-jun asks, a dare for anyone to reveal themselves immoral to that degree. “Is your conviction so strong that you would take the sin of a child’s death upon yourself? Would you offer your sword, then, to slay said child in punishment for the name it was born to? Or would you insist it to be returned to a work camp where it would surely die of disease or hunger soon? To keep our blades clean if not our conscience.”

No one speaks.

Well, damn, Wei Ying thinks, honestly admiring. Zewu-jun is clearly through with letting people get away with spouting nonsense without also demanding they put their swords where their mouth is.

Zewu-jun inclines his head, clearly taking the ringing silence as the agreement it absolutely isn’t but which no one will dare to contradict at this point. “Gusu Lan stands with righteousness, with justice. We will not stand by and watch children be sacrificed to the resentful hatred born from a war already won and not of either of our making.”

There is a pause.

“Mn,” Lan Zhan agrees quietly, cuttingly, from his brother’s side.

And that’s that, apparently.

No one quite dares to put themselves on the other side of Zewu-jun, much less on the other side of both of the Twin Jades. And certainly not when doing so would be to proclaim themselves to be standing with the side of meaningless slaughter of innocents.

+++

A-Yuan being pronounced innocent of crimes committed before he could talk had been somewhat expected.

Wei Ying is admittedly somewhat surprised when Zewu-jun then manages to spin that one concession into a pardon for all the Dafan Wens. Without exception.

For, if children can be considered innocent due to their lack of involvement in the war, then that same argument must be true for those far too old to have aided the Wens’ reign of terror. And in that case, surely it must be the same for any civilians unlucky enough to carry the surname Wen, when they clearly don’t have the power to have aided Wen Ruohan in any way.

Thus, the Dafan Wens, consisting of healers and civilians, are collectively declared innocent.

Regrettably, those arguments cannot be applied to Wen Ning and Wen Qing. Not only due to their blood relation to Wen Ruohan but also due to both of them being cultivators, no matter their lack of strength or specialization in healing.

In the end, it is Wei Ying’s own testimony that sees them scrape by with a conditional pardon. Wei Ying who reveals their many, individual and combined acts of aid during the war, the debts that Yunmeng Jiang in particular owes them.

Disappointingly, Jiang Cheng doesn’t lend his support, but he also doesn’t contradict Wei Ying. Most people seem to take it as tacit approval. Even when Wei Ying knows it most certainly is not.

Jiang Cheng still hasn’t spoken a single word to him ever since the dressing down he rained down on Wei Ying right after the visit to the Qiongqi Pass camp. Wei Ying doesn’t know what to make of it. He is honestly terrified of the first words that will come out of his adopted brother’s mouth once Jiang Cheng finally decides to break his silence.

However.

Wei Ying was prepared to leave his sect in order to repay the debt he and Yunmeng Jiang owe to Wen Qing and Wen Ning. He exchanged his debt to Yunmeng Jiang for a debt now owed to the Dafan Wens. And Wei Ying has always been one to pay his debt.

It is a conviction that has not changed, even if things have worked out much better than he had dared to imagine when he first came across Wen Qing.

+++

The trials conclude.

Jin Guangshan, Jin Zixun, and Jin Guangyao are proven to have known nothing at all of the atrocities committed on their land. Under their sect’s watch. By their own disciples.

Of course, the Jin sect gentry is innocent. There is proof and everything.

Of course, they didn’t know. Of course, they would have stepped in if they had known. Of course, no one dares challenge the newly established fact of their innocence.

However, with so many witnesses having lined the hall, cultivators and commoners alike, there is still a price to pay.

The echoes of incompetence, of the Jin sect gentry being so devastatingly unaware of the going-ons within their own sect, still reach far and wide. Rumors and whispers and many of the smaller sects who had been planning to petition for an inclusion into the wider – and up until then ever-growing – Jin sect’s influence, suddenly turn their assessing gazes to the other great sects, considering whether another, calmer, more reliable clan might not be a better choice to swear their loyalty to after all.

+++

The power balance within the cultivation shifts.

It is subtle, a slow but unstoppable process as the ‘most powerful’ sect – by value of having the most wealth and most territory and the Chief Cultivator himself – proves itself… somewhat shaky in regards to actually managing that power they have accumulated.

People are suddenly reminded that there had been some… iffy aspects to the Jins’ ever-growing influence right from the start. Like the fact that the Jin sect had been the one to contribute the least to the Sunshot Campaign but had still reaped the most benefits, while those sects that nearly lost everything during the war barely came away with scraps. Never mind the fact that, amongst the current sect leaders, Jin Guangshan might be the eldest, but his cultivation strength certainly is no match to that of Chifeng-zun or Zewu-jun. And why did we elect the Jin Sect Leader as Chief Cultivator again? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have the most powerful amongst them hold that office? Or the most righteous? And preferably someone who isn’t also a sect leader and thus so distracted from the important job of managing the cultivation world’s troubles? Especially if the one in power barely manages to keep sight of everything that is going on within his own sect?

Of course, it’s only whispers, especially in the beginning, no one daring to publicly speak out against someone like Jin Guangshan, whose enemies have a… notable tendency of unexpectedly disappearing never to be heard of again.

And it might have been different if Wei Wuxian, the one who won them the last war but who everyone had so delighted in vilifying after the war for his cultivation, hadn’t been the one to point out the injustices carried out by those who should be standing for justice before all. It might have been different if the son of a servant reaching above his own station hadn’t been immutably supported by Gusu Lan, the most righteous sect amongst them.

It might even have been different if there had been a common enemy for the cultivation world to band together against, to focus their ever-slanderous gossip upon and to elevate themselves beyond, if not by merit then by comparison.

Alas, there is no common enemy, no one to vilify outside of the Jins themselves.

For, with both of Gusu Lan’s immaculate Twin Jades so clearly putting themselves with Wei Wuxian, who would dare assail his character any longer?

+++

In the end, Jiang Cheng refuses to do anything at all, the glower on his face dark and accusing at Wei Ying daring to not simply fall in line as demanded of him. By his shidi. By his adopted brother. By his sect leader.

It is an unspoken order, but one Wei Ying cannot fulfill. Not as it is now. Not with Yunmeng Jiang refusing to take in any of the pardoned Wen remnants, not even those of Wen Qing’s family.

Instead, it is Gusu Lan who not only offers Wen Qing’s family in particular sanctuary, but Zewu-jun also approaches him with an offer of letting Wei Ying join them, the offer of letting him assure that the Wen are treated well unspoken but heard all the same.

Wei Ying takes the offer.

He tries to ignore Wen Qing’s unspoken relief – her suspicion unabated, despite her belief in Gusu Lan’s general righteousness by now – just as he tries to ignore Jiang Cheng’s seething fury in the background as he joins the slow trek of the Lan-accompanied convoy toward Gusu.

Instead, he focuses on A-Yuan, the boy finally willing to be set down at least, just as long as Wei Ying remains within sight. He focuses on Lan Zhan’s calm, steady figure striding along at his side, instead of joining his brother in his flight back home.

No regrets, Wei Ying reminds himself of the oath he took only a few years ago, with only single person to bear witness.

He cannot regret the choices he has made. For, his brother is alive and well and thriving, rebuilding their sect as quickly as he can. And Wei Ying is perfectly willing to repay the debts he owes in return.

+++

The journey to Gusu is harrowing.

The emotional exhaustion of the past few weeks and months seems to finally crash down on A-Yuan about halfway from Lanling to Gusu.

With everyone fed and clean and generally happy, it finally seemed to register to A-Yuan that there wasn’t a reason for him to be constantly quiet anymore, no reason for him to fear someone hurting his family, no reason for him to be afraid anymore at all.

He hadn’t dealt well. Or maybe he had. Wei Ying really isn’t the expert on child psychology, doesn’t know how to judge A-Yuan’s endless, helpless tantrum, the screaming and crying himself to sleep and refusing to eat but then stuffing himself to the point of nearly throwing up as soon as his watchers glanced away.

A-Yuan’s grandmother does her best to help, but the camps have been unforgiving on her, her body so frail the healers ordered she be settled on a bed on one of the wagons for the entire journey. And A-Yuan simply refuses to be kept in one place.

By the time they finally near Cloud Recesses, Wei Ying is so tired, the world has started to blur a little at its edges, Lan Zhan keeps hovering beside him, so near the brightness of his robes never quite leaves Wei Ying’s sight.

Lan Zhan who also hasn’t offered him transfusions of spiritual power once. Lan Zhan who seems to know.

Wei Ying is far too tired to do something about it.

+++

That first night after they finally reach Gusu after almost two weeks on the road, somehow Wei Ying ends up staying in the jingshi. In Lan Zhan’s home.

He doesn’t realize as much at the beginning, exhausted from the road and keeping a completely overtired A-Yuan soothed, carrying the boy for hours on end, and it’s with a finally asleep A-Yuan unconsciously clutching at the front of his robes, his own eyes feeling like he has sand stuck under his lids, barely able to keep them open any longer, that he simply follows along with Lan Zhan’s guiding hand, leaving the rest of the Wen remnants behind at the healers wing, not even asking where they are going.

The promise of a bed, somewhere to lie down and rest for any amount of time, is far too alluring for him to question the general ownership of said bed.

 

When he wakes in the morning, Wei Ying of course quickly realizes that he isn’t in some guest quarters but rather that he is in someone’s home. A place that is comfortable and cozy and lived in. Quiet. Soothing.

He doesn’t quite understand how he ended up here, much less why. Even less so, once he realizes whose bed he is apparently occupying.

A fact that becomes clear to him when he stumbles his way out of the bedroom. Only to find Lan Zhan calmly entertaining A-Yuan in the living room with simple games and toys he got from who-even-knows-where.

Wei Ying blinks at the sight in front of him. The sight of A-Yuan dressed in tiny, perfect Gusu Lan robes, his hair brushed and pulled back. Looking like the matching set to Lan Zhan – aside from the forehead ribbon, of course – kneeling on the floor and apparently in the middle of a game that involved a plush rabbit, a rattle drum, and a couple of building blocks with the simple kanji on them, which appear to have been turned into some sort of fortress, and an assortment of additional knickknacks.

Wei Ying spends a few moments blinking stupidly at them, still tired and brain still sluggish. Until A-Yuan spots him.

“Xian-gege!” the boy cries in greeting, scrambling upright in his instant quest to get to Wei Ying. “Good morning!” he exclaims as he flings himself forward, perfect trust that he will be caught no matter what.

Wei Ying laughs joyfully as he catches the little boy by his armpits, spins him once, twice, before cuddling him into his chest.

“Good morning, little radish!” he greets back cheerfully, unwilling to curb his joy at seeing A-Yuan so happy, no matter where they are. “Have you been good for your Rich-gege?”

“A-Yuan always good,” the little boy nods seriously from his cozy spot against Wei Ying’s chest.

He laughs, helplessly. “That you are,” he agrees happily.

Then, two quick strides over, before he plops himself down next to their little island of toys, right across from Lan Zhan.

A-Yuan immediately wriggles in his grasps, apparently wanting to be set down, although in the end, he doesn’t actually remove himself from Wei Ying’s lap after he lets go, instead settling down happily in the gap between his crossed legs, apparently comfortable where he is.

“We were playing!” A-Yuan exclaims. “Xian-gege slept too long and Rich-gege had toys! And I’m the rabbit!”

A-Yuan is loud. And enthusiastic. And everything Wei Ying thought Lan Zhan would disapprove of in his own home. But, still kneeling in his spot where he had been part of A-Yuan’s game, Lan Zhan looks entirely content, happy even.

Wei Ying doesn’t quite know what to make of the look in Lan Zhan’s eyes. Much less once he finds Lan Zhan’s gaze rather immovably focused upon himself.

+++

Things develop from there.

+++

During his first – apparently mandatory, according to Zewu-jun – check-up with the Lan healers, the old healer, who can barely walk on his own due to age but who appears to know quite literally everything there ever was about medicine, merely scoffs at the assertion that it would be impossible for Wei Ying to cultivate a new Core despite having given his own away freely.

Wei Ying is breathless with the promise, with the chance, with the hope of ever, possibly, maybe one day, being able to cultivate another Core, feeling like his entire being has lightened, like a weight he hadn’t noticed suddenly being lifted off his very soul. Hope is all he has ever needed.

Wen Qing seems chastised at the old Lan healer’s words, at finding her own theories so bluntly disproven. Even more so at the old man’s recriminations at her having taken a patient’s hope by declaring the impossibility of recovery even before a surgery, despite not being sure of her projection herself.

Wei Ying still isn’t certain whether he likes seeing her so humbled or not.

Wen Qing, who is now spending much of her days learning traditional, non-harmful, non-combatant medicine anew under the old healer’s eyes - something she admits quietly, she never really got a chance to learn under Wen Ruohan - doesn’t seem to mind much. If anything, with Wen Ning recovering in the Lan halls of healing and her people slowly settling into this new, stress-free reality, she seems almost enthused at finding herself something to learn and someone to teach her.

+++

The Lan healer provides him with a grueling regiment of exercises and meditation techniques and declares that slowly cleansing his meridians of resentful energy, all the while receiving regular transfusions of spiritual energy – continuously and from the same source, if possible – will aid him in forming his second Core.

Lan Zhan offers himself for both, to play Cleansing for him and to provide him with spiritual energy as recommended by the healers.

Wei Ying gladly accepts, surprised that Lan Zhan would offer but also happy to have an excuse to spend time around Lan Zhan every day, even despite everything with the Wens having been resolved now.

To his surprise, Lan Zhan looks rather happily content at Wei Ying’s own joy, still remaining at his side as Wei Ying wouldn’t want to go without anymore. In turn, Lan Qiren has taken to looking rather long-suffering, as though resigned to something that is going to last for a long time, for all that Wei Ying is surely only going to remain within the Cloud Recesses for a short while. All the while Zewu-jun looks strangely smug.

Wei Ying thinks that, sometimes, Lans are a little weird.

+++

Wei Ying knows he should move out of Lan Zhan’s home. He knows there is enough room elsewhere, in the disciple quarters or the guest quarters, or even in the medical wing with the Wen remnants until they are well enough to be settled elsewhere within Gusu’s borders.

But Lan Zhan doesn’t say anything on the matter, a steady hand coming to rest against the small of Wei Ying’s back every evening whenever curfew draws near, A-Yuan inevitably having fallen asleep either on Wei Ying or on Lan Zhan by then.

Wei Ying is far too weak a man to resist the offer.

Still, more than once, while lying next to Lan Zhan – and, boy, was that a struggle to get Lan Zhan to agree to, if he wasn’t going to accept Wei Ying sleeping anywhere but in the only real bed in his house, then to at least join him – Wei Ying asks himself how he will survive without this once he inevitably has to go back to Yunmeng to resume his duties as Jiang Cheng’s right-hand man. How he will live without A-Yuan’s little smiling face in the morning or Lan Zhan’s steady touch guiding him home each night.

He won’t. That’s how.

So, he needs to brace himself, he knows. Needs to get used to the idea of giving this up at some point.

Each evening, when he and Lan Zhan have completed their routines, one getting A-Yuan ready for bed while the other bathes, before switching roles, he swears that he’ll start looking into different accommodations soon.

Tomorrow. Or the day after. Or maybe the beginning of next week. Or something.

But soon.

Soon.

Probably.

+++

Between the Wens and A-Yuan and his new ardor to cultivate once more, Wei Ying has little time to consider his duties elsewhere.

He hasn’t heard from Jiang Cheng since he left for Gusu, Wei Ying’s letters going unanswered. It’s only through Shijie replies that he knows things are actually going wonderfully well at Lotus Pier.

It’s enough of a reassurance that the pressing need to ensure his siblings are doing well is soothed.

+++

To Wei Ying’s surprise, Zewu-jun tends to seek him out rather frequently.

Despite the man’s insistence on standing with Wei Ying during the current upheaval, there has still been a strange distance between them, one that Wei Ying hasn’t known how to bridge.

In the end, it’s not him who bridged it, but rather Zewu-jun himself.

It takes Wei Ying a while to realize that the ‘coincidental’ run-ins they keep having in the Cloud Recesses or the back mountains which tend to turn into long conversations, might not actually be all that coincidental at all.

Zewu-jun really isn't as sneaky as he seems to think himself.

Their conversations also generally tend to circle around current sect politics, the shifting powers within their world, nighthunts, happenings amongst commoners, or judgments passed by the sects upon their own.

He honestly doesn’t know what to make of the fact that Zewu-jun appears to have made him, Wei Ying, his gauge for righteousness enacted.

“I’m not as unbiased as Zewu-jun seems to think,” he announces – somewhat regretfully – during one of their walks through the back mountains. “I have only ever cared about keeping those I care about safe.”

It pains him to say as much. Zewu-juns good opinion means a lot to him. He’s never had someone simply believe in him. Not like Zewu-jun does.

Beside him, stride unbroken, Zewu-jun smiles, soft and genuine and utterly unconcerned with Wei Ying’s words.

“Is that so?” he inquires calmly, seeming rather unsurprised by Wei Ying’s words.

He is still smiling at Wei Ying, happily and indulgently. Like he knows something Wei Ying doesn’t.

And then Zewu-jun asks him to call him Xichen from now on.

+++

Despite his somewhat cluttered schedule, for the first time in his life, Wei Ying also finds the time to focus on talismans.

The thinning power within himself as Lan Zhan aids him in cleansing his meridians in preparation for cultivating a new Core, has him jittery. He doesn’t like the awareness that he doesn’t have the strength to protect all those he cares about at the moment.

So, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the first thing he invents after being given complete access to the Gusu library, is a fire ward.

Something impenetrable, a ward to be carved into wood and stone and the very air they breathe. Something to ensure that no part of the Cloud Recesses – and anyone within its wards – will ever receive so much as a scorch mark again.

The moment he finalizes his ward, he can’t quite help his excitement, almost giddy with his, immediately hurrying to find Lan Zhan, wanting to share and tell him and not once questioning why Lan Zhan would be the first person he wants to tell.

He finds the other somewhere between the main housing complex and the back moutains, apparently on a walk, and promptly starts excitably babbling at him about the ward and how he linked this rune to that and then had to alter the shape to balance it all and how it can be applied to everything, everything at all, so Cloud Recesses can be safe and everyone can be safe and no one has to have nightmares about their home burning anymore, and look, Lan Zhan, I also integrated something specific about books, so that paper absolutely won’t catch fire ever again within the Cloud Recesses either, oh, maybe I should try creating a ward that would also deter lightning, maybe, if there were a storm at some point, oh and wind, I can probably do that, maybe a combined array, because what use is protection against one element when there are so many other things that could do damage, right, Lan Zhan? And really it would just make our home as safe as it can possibly be-

He is silenced by a pair of lips against his, almost too brief for Wei Ying to fully register what is happening.

A second of hesitation as Lan Zhan pulls back to meet his eyes.

Wei Ying stares. Breathless.

Before he reels Lan Zhan right back in - all the while having the epiphany of his life - to get those lips back on his, losing himself in it, in the touch, feeling himself being walked backwards, can't help the delightful shiver running through him at Lan Zhan so easily moving him, moving them, doesn't care about his back hitting a tree, his hands ending up tied with the ribbon he has so coveted ever since he was a teenager, mind hazy with the heat of it, the soft, inescapable force holding him firmly in place.

As he lets himself be unraveled by unrelenting lips against his, a body large enough, steady enough, to almost envelope his own, hands firmly claiming all of him they can reach.

+++

Their first kiss is epic. Something to write poems and annals and entire books about.

Wei Ying thinks he might just do that.

You know, just as soon as his brain recovers from the lack of oxygen.

+++

Turns out their first kiss isn’t their first kiss at all.

A fact he’ll never let Lan Zhan live down. Never mind that Wei Ying thinks he might just swoon at finding his own teenage romantic dreams of only ever kissing one person, the person meant for him, and no one else, possibly coming true after all.

That’s entirely beside the point.

+++

Wei Ying never quite gets around to moving out of the jingshi.

Just as he never quite gets around to leaving Gusu, either.

+++

Months later, when the Wens are settled and the betrothal negotiations for the first main house Lan wedding in decades have been concluded, when Wei Ying realizes he kind of forgot to ever move out of the jingshi and the serene quiet of Cloud Recesses has become something his overtired soul craves with every part of his being, especially if it is cut through by A-Yuan’s bright laughter and no one dares reprimand Hanguang-jun’s more-or-less adopted ward. When he can no longer imagine waking anywhere but in Lan Zhan’s bed, the other side of the bed long-since gone cold but breakfast waiting for him on the table in the living room.

When Shijie has reminded him that Wei Ying’s happiness is just as important as everyone else’s. When Wei Ying has made his peace with having to disappoint Jiang Cheng in order to let himself and Lan Zhan attain that happiness.

When he has attained everything he has never even dreamed he could have.

It is then that he finds himself seeking out Xichen-ge, his brother-in-law-to-be, in the hanshi.

“What made you take me at my word, back then?” he asks straightforwardly. Because, he has never quite understood Xichen-ge’s utter, easy conviction that following Wei Ying’s word would be worth it.

To his credit, Xichen-ge doesn’t ask what he is talking about. Instead, raising his cup for a sip of his tea, eyes focusing into the middle distance.

Wei Ying knows that Xichen-ge has changed over the past couple of months. Not because he himself observed it, but rather because Lan Zhan said so, his husband-to-be worried for his older brother and the weighty sorrow within his gaze which Lan Zhan cannot tell where it came from.

Ever since Xichen-ge intervened that day and put himself as well as his entire sect behind Wei Ying’s claims, very much against his sworn brothers, he changed again, Wei Ying thinks. Xichen-ge refused Chifeng-zun’s assertion that all Wens who did not actively work against Wen Ruohan are evil and thus to be eliminated. Xichen-ge’s determination to take in the remaining Dafan Wens has caused a rift between him and Nie Mingjue that has only recently begun to heal. Something Wei Ying only knows because Huaisang has written to him about his own brother’s endless grumbling about not really caring about ‘A-Huan’s Wens’ if he really wanted to keep them so much.

Wei Ying is glad to hear it.

Because Xichen-ge’s other sworn brother, Jin Guangyao, has stopped visiting nowadays. Wei Ying thinks it’s out of no desire of Jin Guangyao’s own, but rather even Wei Ying could tell that there was something… off about the way Xichen-ge interacted with Jin Guangyao. Something coiled and disappointed and devastatingly sad. Something difficult to look at. Something that Jin Guangyao had done his best to fix. Unsuccessfully so.

Xichen-ge might not have withdrawn his support for Jin Guangyao entirely. But he has certainly created a new kind of distance between them, a look of desolate disappointment and resigned heartbreak in his eyes whenever his sworn brother visited.

Broken trust, Wei Ying thought to himself the first time he saw that look within Xichen-ge’s eyes. He himself is all too familiar with that particular emotion.

Still, part of himself also can’t help but think that the separation might be a good thing. Not because he has anything against Nie Mingjue or Jin Guangyao as such. But by what he can tell from Lan Zhan’s stories, before the split, it had always been solely on Xichen-ge to compromise, to fold to their demands. Wei Ying thinks it will do those two stuck-in-their-ways, holier-than-thou pricks some good to be forced to be the ones giving in for once.

At least if they want to have any chance at regaining Xichen-ge’s trust.

He focuses back on the present when Xichen-ge finally speaks.

“Would you believe me if I said, I had a dream,” Xichen-ge asks, voice calm and far-off. “A dream where choices were made and everything went badly as a consequence. Where everyone had their heart broken at some point, and true happiness was only attainable for those willing to go through years of devastation beforehand. And sometimes not even then.”

Wei Ying blinks, gives that ‘hypothetical’ some due thought.

“A dream,” he finally returns thoughtfully.

“Hm,” Xichen-ge hums.

“A very detailed dream, I would assume,” Wei Ying adds carefully.

“One might even say, with enough detail to rival reality,” Xichen agrees, voice cheerful and forlorn at the same time.

Reality. A reality that never was but could have been. A glimpse of the future.

Wei Ying ruminates over that for a few moments. “If you were to tell me so, I do not see any reason to believe you would lie about such matters.”

Xichen-ge’s smile is honest and somewhat indulgent in a way that still make Wei Ying falter a little at the included fondness. “You wouldn’t, would you, A-Ying,” he smiles.

Wei Ying can’t help but let his lips tick up a little on one side.

Although, thinking of his own happiness, the quiet but unwavering support from Xichen-ge of his and Lan Zhan’s happiness and A-Yuan’s inclusion into their little family and his offer of a place at the Cloud Recesses and the kindling of a golden-bright spark that Wei Ying is still breathless to feel shimmering within his own dantian, which had only taken root because Xichen-ge had insisted Wei Ying go to see the Lan healers right after they arrived at the Cloud Recesses…

Wei Ying hums, eyes bright and mind whirling. “Well, in that case I have to ask, why you wouldn’t ensure that your own life contains all you might ever require for happiness. As you would so clearly do for others,” he then asks carefully, though almost a little reproachful.

For, if anyone deserves happiness in this world, then surely it must be Xichen-ge, the kindest man Wei Ying has ever known.

Xichen’s smile widens, a soft laugh in his voice as he finally lets his gaze focus back on his immediate surroundings. On the here-and-now. On the tea set out in front of them, set up for four people at the moment, for when Lan Zhan joins them in a bit after picking A-Yuan up from his lessons.

“Oh, but I have, A-Ying,” Xichen smiles, a chuckle in his voice, his gaze happy and content and entirely focused on the present. “I most certainly have.”