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don't shoot the messenger

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When Yunmeng Jiang was still untouched and the sect more than just its leader, its ‘Twin Heroes’ - brothers in all but blood - reveled in exchanging ridiculous but oddly useful gifts on each other’s birthdays.

It started with Wei Ying making Jiang Cheng a hideous purple hairband for his 10th birthday. It wouldn’t have been too bad if Wei Ying had left out the bells that were wrapped inside the purple silk; the incessant tinkling the bells made whenever he tried to wear the hairband still rings in his ears to this day. Still, it was a gift, and Father always gave him just the slightest bit more attention whenever he wore it, so he’d worn it occasionally for the next three months. When Jiang Cheng lost it at a swimming trip later, he’d sworn up and down that he hated it. Wei Ying only laughed and said he’ll give something even more ridiculous next time.

When Wei Ying turned eleven, Jiang Cheng gave him an enchanted kite painted with a growling dog’s face. The idiot was still frightened of it when it flew over them, so Mother told him to shoot at it instead of running away. Wei Ying didn’t stop shooting arrows at it until he finally hit it in the spine. Jiang Cheng couldn’t even feel offended as he watched the kite crash down into the water; instead, he laughed along with a victorious Wei Ying, flinging insults at their felled ‘vicious’ foe.

Year after year they carried on this tradition. Gifts ranged from mundane to outrageous: a set of rouge-dyed bandages on Jiang Cheng’s 13th birthday, a container of “ wuxiang powder ” that was really just ground turmeric on Wei Ying’s 14th, and even an illicit pouch of binglang Wei Ying procured for his fifteenth birthday that stained their teeth on the trip to Gusu.

Their lives changed quite quickly after that.

Brotherhood turned to resentment, the tradition entirely forgotten, left as a folly of childhood and of bygone days. Yet even in that chaos, Wei Ying had managed to give him the greatest gift, one that Jiang Cheng knew nothing about for the better part of almost fourteen years.

His golden core.

When all was (left unsaid) and done, there was little - and yet far too much - that held them together. Jiang Cheng kept his distance. These past five years, they have neither sat down to talk nor ever been idly alone for longer than necessary. Not without lack of Wei Ying’s trying; the man has often made excuses to visit him - with HanGuang-Jun on tow - in Lotus Pier. Much to their chagrin, Jiang Cheng rebuilt Yunmeng Jiang himself; he knows where to go if he has unwanted company. Jin Ling, who is now Sect Leader and too damn fond of Wei Ying for his liking, often invites them to tea in Lanling Jin as an attempt to get them to talk. It always ends with Wei Ying talking to a wall - a Jiang Cheng-shaped wall.

Jiang Cheng knows it drives Wei Ying mad, yet he can’t let go. Thirteen years of resentment might take him another thirteen to resolve. They’re cultivators. They have time.

Yet for all of Jiang Cheng’s stubbornness, the resurrected Wei Ying is far more resolute. Every year without fail, on the eve of his birthday, Jiang Cheng always finds an unmarked parcel sitting innocently at the foot of his bed. When it first happened four years ago, his paranoia nearly made him throw it into the waters of Yunmeng to spite whoever gave it for invading his privacy. Still, curiosity won over, and when he opened to see its contents, he found a small item wrapped in red paper.

Unwrapped, it revealed a wooden crescent comb, painted Jiang purple and engraved with gold detail. It wasn’t too expensive, yet also of good quality. The mere sight of it made Jiang Cheng’s heart hurt.

Only one person could remember the detail of his mother’s headdress so accurately - the only other surviving member of the original Jiang sect.

Wei Ying.

He nearly threw it anyway. How dare Wei Ying give him a comb that looked just like his mother’s, a woman who detested Wei Ying for putting her marriage under strain? If that bastard had come here personally to give the gift, Jiang Cheng would have rejected it four times just to get the point across!

But as he looked at the comb again, flashes of better days ran through his mind. Of when Mother would bring him small gifts from a night hunt, and when she would subtly comfort him after being ignored by Father in favor of Wei Ying. Of her praise when he finally wielded Sandu, and how she taught him how to heal his wounds after his first night hunt.

The paint didn’t even smudge when teardrops fell on them. That bastard must have paid good coin for this gift after all. Or siphoned more of HanGuang-Jun’s coin, knowing how sickening those two were on a good day.

Jiang Cheng never returned the favor. Neither did he send a thank-you note, or even bring it up in future stilted conversations. He didn’t see the point in it. He was all too content to lick his wounds; why would he open them up further by exchanging gifts with the one man with whom he had no face to show?

Wei Ying never mentioned it too. Despite this, year after year the gifts kept coming. On the next year, it was a pine tree sapling that Jiang Cheng put at the eastern sector of his house. The third gift was a stack of Wei Ying’s new talismans, an innovation that made complicated night hunts easier by repelling lower-level corpses or spirits while still attracting stronger targets.

The fourth gift revealed that, although the gifts are from Wei Ying, someone else is delivering it for him. After all, if Wei Ying could carry a box with eight spirit puppies in it without waking all of Yunmeng with his screaming, then Jiang Cheng would wear black and eat his own hair. Still, he appreciated the gift and was even tempted to introduce Wei Ying to them, but Wei Ying’s screaming would probably turn the puppies deaf. He wouldn’t do that to Silky, Sunshine, Dumpling, Little Princess, Rainbow, Peach Blossom, Tofu, and Pearl! They’re all good boys and girls!

So, just who is doing Wei Ying’s dirty work? Did he actually convince Lan Wangji to covertly fly all the way to Yunmeng, break into Jiang Cheng’s room to drop the parcel, and sneak out back to Gusu? Knowing the man, Lan Wangji just might, and the thought makes Jiang Cheng gag.

Is it that Wen dog, the Ghost General Wen Ning? Unlikely, given how the fierce corpse alternates between keeping watch over the Lan boys or acting as Jin Ling’s bodyguard whenever the Jin elders get too power hungry. How and when Jin Ling trusted that fierce corpse enough to shadow him remains a mystery to Jiang Cheng, but he’s willing to stomach his grudges in favor of his nephew’s safety.

Curiosity dictates that he find out just who has been delivering these gifts.

So, today, on the day before his birthday, he sets a trap for whoever steps into his rooms. He orders the servants to keep away from his quarters and spends the rest of the day walking and training his puppies to enthusiastically jump at a dummy on his command. He’s smirking at the idea of using it when Wei Ying visits again. Surely it would scare the idiot off for good!

When sunset finally comes, Jiang Cheng leisurely makes his way to his quarters. Even from a distance, he could see that the back window is now wide open - ah, that’s the entry point - and the arrays are glowing just outside his door. So someone truly fell into his trap! He feels a sadistic glee at finally finding out the mysterious carrier’s identity, he almost forgets to stop grinning before entering his rooms.

Face schooled into his usual scowl, Jiang Cheng slides his bedroom door open and —

Kneeling at the foot of his bed, skin deathly pale and a face truly devoid of emotions, is the Ghost General. Those eerie white eyes follow Jiang Cheng as he slowly circles the room, thumbing his ring purposely. “I’d like to say I didn’t expect to see you here, but that would be a lie.” He whips Zidian out, the air cracking with the force, and smirks. “And unlike your master, I’m not in the habit of doing that.”

Zidian lands just beside the Wen’s knee, yet the fierce corpse doesn’t even blink.

Of course he wouldn’t, a voice that sounds suspiciously like Wei Ying rings in his head. He’s a fierce corpse!

Feeling slightly offended at how his own mind is betraying him, Jiang Cheng pulls Zidian back and walks closer to the intruder. It’s surprising how the limb-binding spell even worked on a corpse when it was keyed to work on a living intruder. But Jiang Cheng isn’t going to question that now. Not when he’s right in front of the Ghost General with all the power in his hands. “So. What did Wei Ying have for me this time, Wen Ning?

He expects a growl, maybe even an attempt to bite at him, but Wen Ning only sits there, motionless. Then, with an emotionless voice, the corpse speaks, “It is in the qiankun pouch at my belt. Young Master Wei let me fetch it from Qinghe to bring to Young Master Jiang.”

“Like the loyal dog that you are, then,” Jiang Cheng sneers. Still, he doesn’t waste time and leans down to rip the aforementioned pouch. He may detest the messenger but he’s still eager to see this year’s gift.

The pouch holds a single object - a small box that was just a little bigger than his hand. It was far fancier than the previous gifts, clearly wrapped by a deft hand - probably even a professional by the lack of creases. When he tears the wrapping open, he’s greeted by a beautiful bronze box with a small note on top of it.

’MASTER’S AID. by MULBERRY SILKWORM. See the manual for further instructions .’

“What…”

When he pries the lid open, Jiang Cheng is greeted with the sight of a black leather neckband of the same quality as the kind Fairy wears. Yet it’s much wider than that of a dog’s, and when he touches it, he can feel the indents of carved characters on the leather. It fastens with a pair of thin leather strips at each end too, as if it were made to be adjustable.

Jiang Cheng may be untouched but he knows what this is. It’s the kind that they often see around the necks of corpses that had only ever found freedom in death. And those that do not, who continue to lament after their enslaved lives have been ended...well, it is Jiang Cheng and all cultivators’ duty to liberate their souls.

It’s particularly irksome, then, to receive this kind of gift from the antithesis of spiritual cultivation. From a man who makes slaves of the dead. To have it delivered by his own personal dog--!

“Young Master said that if it’s not to your liking, he will send you something else,” the aforementioned Wen dog speaks, face placid and emotionless. Jiang Cheng fights the urge to throw the sorry excuse for a gift at him. “But he also said that he’s tried it himself and it is safe to use, should you ever try to use it with your future cultivation partner.”

Future --- what!? He looks down at the neckband again. He’s inexperienced, not ignorant, and when it finally dawns on him why he would want to use it with a cultivation partner, he feels his cheeks burn with shame. How dare he --- How would he even know!? No one else knows about his proclivities, his most closely guarded secrets and fantasies. Was it purely coincidental, then? Or did Jiang Cheng somehow slip and give a clue that he liked - no, needed - to be in control?

The damned leather doesn’t even crease when he lets go of his vice grip. Again, no expenses were spared at all. This is fine, full-grain leather, the best of the best, the kind whose price even Jiang Cheng balked at when he bought one for Fairy all those years ago. Though he’s tempted to throw it into the waters of Yunmeng, he can’t deny that it would be such a waste of high-quality material. If he tries to dispose of it any other way and news of it point back to him, he’ll lose face for rejecting such a thoughtful, albeit crass, gift!

As much as he tries to deny it, he’s already made up his mind.

Still, he can’t just outright admit it to the only other person in the room. If Wen Ning was any other person he would have tried to permanently silence them. But you can’t kill a corpse like Wen Ning with ordinary methods, and even if Jiang Cheng tried to get rid of him any other way, his presence would be missed - not just by Wei Ying but by Jin Ling too.

At a loss, he fingers Zidian as he hums, “You understand that if I accept this gift, you cannot tell anyone else.”

“Of course, Sect Leader Jiang.” So calm, collected. Impassive.

“Not even to your master. Especially not to Wei Ying. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

Inwardly, Jiang Cheng sighs in relief; he wouldn’t have known what to say if the other said, “or else?” Perhaps Jiang Cheng can count himself lucky that Wen Ning didn’t inherit his master’s cheek, lest Jiang Cheng truly loses face.

So he simply moves to sit on his bed, on the other side of where Wen Ning is still bound by the spell and examines the gift with a more discerning eye. Remembering that it was supposed to come with a manual, he reaches into the qiankun pouch absently, only to realize that there was nothing else inside.

You can always trust Wei Ying to forget things like these!

He grumbles under his breath and complains out loud, “Your stupid master forgot to even add the manual. How am I supposed to know how to use this gift?”

“He said you would know what to do with it, Sect Leader.”

“I would, but I’m wary to test it on anyone, let alone my...” he sneers out, “ future cultivation partner. Or do you happen to know how to use it?”

A long silence reigns before the other finally speaks out. “I was one of the test subjects, Sect Leader. I understand how it works.”

Jiang Cheng didn’t expect that. He should have, knowing Wei Ying, but even then...To make products like these…Still, his interest has long been piqued. He cannot back down now. “Then answer me to the best of your ability. What is it supposed to do?”

“To subjugate one who wishes it.”

One who wishes... that shameless idiot! “What else?”

“It works directly with one’s qi and is activated by the pleasure slave speaking out a word that will either start or end the spell. While the slave is under the spell, they will follow your every command.”

Interesting. “And what if the slave is incapable of speaking? Or is not of sound mind?”

“Young Master Wei assumed you would not pick anyone less than worthy of your attention.”

True . Jiang Cheng couldn’t deny that he has specific criteria for any kind of partner, let alone one he will cultivate with for the rest of his life. So far no one has fit all of these, and Jiang Cheng doesn’t trust anyone - let alone some nameless prostitute - to keep mum about his activities. He would rather throw himself off a cliff than be rumored to be a deviant or anything beyond what title he has already made for himself.

Still, there’s one, no, two, now who know. Wei Ying because...because there are things even that dense idiot could pick up over the years, and this, the reanimated corpse kneeling here on his bedroom floor.

How long has it been since he’s harbored this...desire? Many a man - a demonic cultivator - had been whipped to death by his hand, yet he derived not even a momentary pleasure in those acts. But the idea of a faceless cultivator on her knees, begging for even just a morsel of his attention, knowing she can end the spell but unwilling to do it until she’s given all of herself to Jiang Cheng---

But his wife would be too meek, with cultivation so weak she couldn’t and wouldn’t fight back even when her boundaries have been pushed. Jiang Cheng wants his slave to be brimming with strength yet entirely too willing to be dominated by him. Powerful yet subordinate.

His mind drifts to Wen Zhuliu, who, once upon a time, he dreamt of subjugating, of breaking until he would follow Jiang Cheng’s every word. A man of such skill and power brought to his knees…

Saliva pools in Jiang Cheng’s mouth at the thought. He’d never considered those fantasies to be homosexual in essence. If he could find a woman as strong as...as his mother had been…

But there’s no one. No one who’s willing to consort with him even now, when he’s soared high after being pushed down.

Maudlin thoughts, all because of a stupid strip of leather. His chest suddenly fills with anger at how a stupidly thoughtful gift is also a mockery of his state of affairs. Wei Ying knew , yet he sent this to taunt Jiang Cheng, to show yet another thing that comes to Wei Ying without effort is always just out of his reach!

In his rage, he throws the leather collar towards the window, all too intent to just forget it ever existed---

But in a flash, a blur of white passes in front of his eyes and catches the collar in mid-air. Then that same body clumsily falls back down on the wooden floor with a loud thud.

It takes Jiang Cheng a few moments to realize that it’s Wen Ning, the same Wen Ning who’s been kneeling, legs presumably bound by the spell---

When he looks at the spell it’s already dim, long broken and deactivated. How didn’t he notice? Was the Ghost General merely biding his time?

Yet when he looks accusingly at the fierce corpse, Jiang Cheng sees not a hint of aggression in Wen Ning’s face. Just a morose expression as the man looks down at the collar in his hands, leather slightly creased from the force of his undead grip.

Then those undead eyes look up at him, and for the first time, Jiang Cheng sees a sliver of disappointment in a body that should not be capable of it. Then, with a low yet soft voice, “Please do not throw any of Young Master Wei’s gifts. You do not know how much of himself he has put into them.”

How much of himself ... Blood, sweat, and tears...A golden core sacrificed to the one who least deserved it…

Jiang Cheng feels his body go slack, the resentment all drained from him along with his energy. He’s just so tired now, on his birthday of all days. But when else can he allow himself to feel desolation?

He feels himself breaking down, his heart scrubbed raw. All of a sudden he’s back to being eighteen, helpless in the midst of his burnt-down home, begging to be taken by the Wens so he could at least ensure Wei Ying’s survival. Only for that to blow up in his face, to be saved once more, always too weak to protect himself, let alone anyone else…To wake up a shell of the child he had been, at the mercy of…

Of…

His memories show him who it had been...that young, meek Wen boy who saved them. In this very room…

The haze clears, and that very Wen boy - now a corpse, so alive in his lifelessness - kneels in front of him, white palms outstretched and holding Wei Ying’s gift on his lap. Though his face is devoid of emotion, somehow, somehow , he’s still radiating comfort, and perhaps empathy…

“Young Master Wei doesn’t want you sorrowful on your birthday. He only means well.”

“I…” Jiang Cheng croaks out, and his hands are still shaking when he touches the collar. He’s scared of it now, of the feelings it evokes from him. Yet… “I know. He always does.”

They sit there in silence as the last rays of the sun start disappearing from the sky. Even the need to light a lamp doesn’t come to Jiang Cheng; the moon is oddly bright tonight, the warm lively rays morphing to something colder yet alive in its own way. The light strikes the pallid white of Wen Ning’s skin in a way that makes it...glow.

In all of Wen Ning’s lifelessness, Jiang Cheng has never seen, no recognized, him as more alive than now.

So he finally clutches the strip of leather, his warm knuckles resting on Wen Ning’s cold palms, and softly says, “Thank you. Tell Wei Ying I appreciated his gifts.” All of them .

Wen Ning nods, yet he still doesn’t move from his spot in front of Jiang Cheng. And Jiang Cheng, as temperamental a person as he knows he can be, doesn’t move too. The air feels rife with something unspoken, something waiting to be sad. Jiang Cheng feels a thought at the tip of his tongue, yet he keeps it there, unwilling to break the solemnity of this moment.

Those gray eyes stare up at him, and though they are blank Jiang Cheng still sees - or perhaps imagines -  intent in them.

Then Wen Ning breaks the silence with this - “You can try the collar on me, Sect Leader Jiang. If you wish it.”

The words ring in the corners of his room, seeping into the recesses of his soul. He understands what the other means all too well. It is perhaps because...It is because, right now, he is weak , he badly needs to feel some semblance of control, that he nods numbly, uncaring of the repercussions of his assent.

For he is but a man, and today is the one day he is allowed to do as he wishes.

And Wen Ning, the indomitable Ghost General, is all too willing.

After all, when else will Jiang Cheng get a chance like this ever again?