The mornings after Jiang Yanli leaves are strange. It's not unusual for her to be traveling, especially not to Meishan Yu, but all of the younger disciples have departed at the same time, some in her entourage and the rest in smaller groups, disguised among merchant ships heading up the river. The noises from the training ground are oddly subdued in the early hours, populated only by senior disciples going through sword drills under Madam Yu's watchful eye rather than the usual clamor of the youngest disciples refusing to fall into line and begging for Wei Wuxian to show them flashier, more advanced moves.
Breakfast after training isn't any better. Wei Wuxian keeps chattering away next to him, as if trying to make up for the absence of Jiang Yanli on the other side of the table. Jiang Cheng wishes he wouldn't. He knows that he's just trying to act like nothing's changed, but Jiang Cheng can't help but be angered. Wei Wuxian has spent the days since his return talking behind closed doors with every other person in his family, even Yu Ziyuan, but practically falls over himself not to bring up anything serious with Jiang Cheng unless he has to. Not to mention his new and unsettling habit of stopping in the middle of a sentence, looking wistfully east towards Gusu and sighing to himself like a love-sick maiden. It gives Jiang Cheng chills just thinking about it.
He pushes himself away from the table, leaving his breakfast half-finished. It's the same food as ever, but it tastes different now that Jiang Yanli is gone.
"Jiang Cheng? Where are you going? Aren't you going to finish your food?" Wei Wuxian is eating as much as ever, bouncing back from the deprivation of the Qishan Wen indoctrination better than anyone despite his long confinement in the xuanwu cave.
"Not hungry. I'm going back to training," Jiang Cheng says. Wei Wuxian protests behind him, but he doesn't pay him any further mind. If Wei Wuxian doesn't want to talk to him, then they won't talk.
The training yard is almost deserted at this hour of the morning, and Jiang Cheng welcomes the silence as he sets to his individual training with whip and sword. He earned the right to use a whip like the ones that Jinzhu and Yinzhu carry a long time ago and he loses himself in the sizzling crackle of the whip in his left hand and the unfamiliar weight of the sword in his right hand.
The lack of Sandu was not so grating when they were in Qishan Wen but Jiang Cheng misses the feeling of completeness that came from being in perfect harmony with his sword. He can fly and fight with the basic sword that he uses now, but it doesn't feel the same. Nothing feels the same. He feels off-kilter, out of touch, as if the entire world has started to move just a little bit faster and leaving only him behind.
Even his parents have started to look at him differently after the meeting with Lan Wangji and their subsequent fight. The disappointment he'd seen in Jiang Fengmian after he'd returned without Wei Wuxian seems to have disappeared after Lan Wangji's over-generous praise of his conduct, while Yu Ziyuan has only increased the intensity of his training in all aspects after being confronted with Hanguang-jun in all his glory. They've both taken to watching him with an unsettling look in their eyes, a mix of pride and fear that he doesn't understand. Jiang Cheng doesn't understand anything.
It's not an unfamiliar feeling. Wei Wuxian has always been a genius at cultivation and anything else he puts his mind to, but he's terrible at explaining his knowledge to anyone else. It had driven Jiang Cheng up the wall when they were younger but by now he's accepted that Wei Wuxian just doesn't think the same way as anyone else. He's never known what his parents were thinking either, so this sudden shift in behavior shouldn't be half as unnerving as it feels.
By the time Jiang Cheng gives up on trying to clear his mind through training, he's dripping with sweat and starting to regret not finishing his breakfast when he had the chance. If the food didn't taste right earlier, any snacks he prepares for himself before the midday meal will be even more foreign after years of mid-morning tea with his sister and the treats she carefully prepared for him and Wei Wuxian. Jiang Cheng is a decent cook, but nothing he makes can compare to Jiang Yanli's mastery of the art (or Wei Wuxian's menacing concoctions for that matter). He can wait for lunch.
Still, if he can't work his troubles out on the training field, he might as well meditate before his afternoon meeting to review the progress of the evacuation and fortification of Lotus Pier. It's lucky that they've never been as dependent on servants as Lanling Jin because most of the non-combatants have already left to join Jiang Yanli in Meishan Yu or to take shelter with family far from the cultivation world's troubles. Lotus Pier still bustles with activity in the absence of more than half its normal population, but it's the frenzied preparations for an assault rather than the everyday business of the sect.
Halfway back to his rooms, Jiang Cheng stops dead in his tracks in surprise. Wei Wuxian is sitting quietly—already a shockingly rare occurrence—in the ancestral hall. His eyes are closed in silent contemplation, hands clasped before him without a sign of fidgeting.
Wei Wuxian hasn't been punished today. Jiang Cheng definitely would have heard him or Yu Ziyuan from the training fields if something had happened, but if anything, Yu Ziyan has been treating Wei Wuxian with more equanimity than she has in years, though Jiang Cheng has no idea why. Yet here Wei Wuxian is, kneeling in the ancestral hall more obediently and respectfully than he does when he's actually been punished.
"What are you doing in here?" His throat is dry from exertion and Jiang Cheng winces as his croaky voice cuts through the tranquil atmosphere around Wei Wuxian, clearly startling him from whatever world he's lost in. He kneels on the cushion next to Wei Wuxian and offers incense himself, bowing before turning expectantly to Wei Wuxian.
"Isn't it obvious?" he says, smiling with the same forced cheer from breakfast. "I'm reflecting on my misdeeds just like usual."
"A-niang hasn't punished you for anything since you got back. What's wrong?" He's not trying to sound accusatory, but something's clearly going on. Even when Wei Wuxian is trying to mask his emotions, he does it by putting on a show. Seeing him so subdued is unnatural.
"Nothing," Wei Wuxian says. "Nothing's wrong, I just needed a quiet place to think. Everyone is so tense that just listening to them rush around is making me anxious."
"Think about what? You don't even think before you act half the time, and now you want to think quietly for hours on end?" The incense sticks in front of Wei Wuxian have long since burned to ash and the scent only faintly lingers in the air.
"It's because I don't think before I act that all of this is happening," Wei Wuxian says sharply, still facing the tablets rather than Jiang Cheng. "The Yunmeng Jiang Sect built Lotus Pier over hundreds of years and now Qishan Wen could destroy all of that in one day."
It's the first serious thing Jiang Cheng's heard out of his mouth all week. Too bad that he's completely wrong.
"Have you lost the rest of your mind?" Jiang Cheng snaps. He would hit Wei Wuxian upside the head if they weren't literally in front of all his ancestors. Wei Wuxian twists around, opening his mouth to protest. "Shut up, you don't get to talk when all you say is nonsense. Weren't you listening to Lan Wangji at all? No matter what you did or didn't do, Qishan Wen would have found an excuse to attack us or made one up sooner or later."
"Just because a-niang says something doesn't make it true," Jiang Cheng interrupts. From the way Wei Wuxian curls in on himself, he's found the root of the problem. Apparently Yu Ziyuan hasn't stopped yelling at Wei Wuxian, just confined it to closed door meetings. "It's easier for a-niang to blame things on you than to admit that she can't control everything. You could do with more thinking before you act, but there's no need to be shameless enough to act as if everything terrible that might happen is your fault alone."
"What a surprise," Wei Wuxian laughs weakly. "Usually you're yelling at me for not listening, but today I'm being yelled at for listening."
"No, I'm still yelling at you for not listening, but this time you should have listened to Lan Wangji. Do you think the Yunmeng Jiang Sect is so fragile that it can't survive the destruction of Lotus Pier?"
"I always remember what Lan Zhan says, he's my—" Wei Wuxian cuts himself off abruptly before he continues, "That's not the point, Jiang Cheng. Once something is destroyed, it's never the same, not even if you rebuild it with as much care as possible. Some things are impossible to bring back." Still so oddly serious, hands twisting agitatedly in front of his stomach.
"Who says it has to be the same?" Jiang Cheng says. "This Lotus Pier already isn't the same one Jiang Chi built. You've personally burned down at least one building already with your experimental talismans and now you're worried about some long overdue renovations after we deal with Qishan Wen?"
"That's not the same thing at all!"
"You're right. You burned down the building by accident and Qishan Wen will do it because they want to prove how powerful they are. And then we'll rebuild it stronger to prove them wrong."
"It's not that simple," Wei Wuxian says. His eyes are distant but at least he's still facing Jiang Cheng.
"Am I going to have to be the one to remind you of the sect motto for once, you fool? Look at you flaunting how ignorant you are in front of all the ancestors."
"Jiang Cheng, you—"
Wei Wuxian's lunge at him is aborted by the sudden noise of clipped steps on the steps leading to the ancestral hall. They both resume a posture of proper filial piety before Yu Ziyuan appears in the door behind them. She sniffs down at them, undoubtedly having heard their argument, but declines to comment further when they dutifully greet her.
"A-Cheng, have you even bathed since you single handedly destroyed half the training ground?" Yu Ziyuan asks, sneering down at his admittedly filthy clothes. "It's nearly midday and if you even think about showing up in such a state, you won't be eating again until dinner time. Wei Ying, wipe that grin off your face. You'll be coming to the afternoon review today, I want your input on some of the barrier arrays and you've been moping around far too much without the children to bolster your ego."
Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian agree hastily and scramble away before she can decide that she does want to punish them for arguing in the ancestral hall. Once they're out of earshot, they slow back down to a normal pace, heading towards Jiang Cheng's rooms.
"What the hell is up with you and Lan Wangji anyway?" Jiang Cheng asks, nudging Wei Wuxian with an elbow. "I didn't think you two really got along that well before now, especially after the incident with his forehead ribbon. He sure didn't seem happy to see you whenever you were pestering him in Qishan."
"Shut up, Jiang Cheng, that was an accident!" Wei Wuxian says, shoving him back hard enough that he nearly goes headfirst off the walkway into the water. When Jiang Cheng gets his feet back under him, Wei Wuxian is already sprinting away, but he can see the red flush creeping up his neck. Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes and races after him, thankful for the empty hallways.
"How can you do something so shameless accidentally? Why are you blushing now? You weren't bothered at all then."
"Of course I wasn't bothered, I really didn't know what it meant back then!" Wei Wuxian shouts back over his shoulder. "You know I got kicked out of the Cloud Recesses before Lan-lao-xiansheng got past all the boring basic stuff!"
"But you know what it means now?" Jiang Cheng asks incredulously, grabbing at Wei Wuxian's shoulder. Wei Wuxian speeds up his steps further, trying to escape in earnest now. "What the hell did you do to Lan Wangji to make him tell you after you embarrassed him in front of everyone without even realizing?"
"Who said I did anything to him?"
"Oh, so you're trying to tell me Hanguang-jun just told you of his own volition when trying to make him talk is impossible for anyone but Zewu-jun?"
"Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying!"
Wei Wuxian manages to make it all the way to Jiang Yanli's rooms without Jiang Cheng catching him, but he's failed to remember that with her gone, there's no one left to enforce the ban on fighting in her rooms that's stood since the first time one of their brawls destroyed her desk (along with all of the talismans she'd just finished writing). Jiang Cheng follows him into her rooms at top speed, kicking the door shut behind him so that the silencing barrier will engage, and tackles him to the floor.
"Jiang Cheng! Get off of me!"
"Not until you explain what the hell is going on with you and Lan Wangji!"
Wei Wuxian isn't struggling that hard to get free and with Jiang Cheng all but sitting on his back, Jiang Cheng can easily keep him pinned unless he resorts to talismans or other dirty tricks. Still, Wei Wuxian is wriggling around like a landed fish and Jiang Cheng grabs at his shoulder to pin him more securely. Already loosened by his wiggling, the collar of his robes gapes even wider under Jiang Cheng's hand to reveal a series of extremely distinctive bruises and bitemarks in fading yellow and brown along the curve of his shoulder.
"What the fuck!?" Jiang Cheng exclaims, scrambling off of Wei Wuxian in surprise. His hand remains clenched in Wei Wuxian's robes, only pulling them open wider as Wei Wuxian rolls away, and by the time his shock-numb fingers release the fabric he can see far more.
Wei Wuxian ends up on his back and he stares up at Jiang Cheng with shocked eyes as his robes gape open. Jiang Cheng can see the edge of the Wen brand on his chest, finally healed enough not to need bandages. He got that almost three weeks ago, but the love bites are either fresh enough to have been received in the last few days—impossible, neither of them have been allowed out of Lotus Pier and everyone left literally helped raise them—or he's been intentionally leaving them unhealed.
"Fuck, you are a lovesick maiden," Jiang Cheng says blankly. He tips over to lie on his back and stare up at the ceiling so he doesn't have to look his brother in the eyes after this world-shaking revelation (and also so he doesn't have to watch Wei Wuxian actually blushing because there's something deeply wrong about that). "What the hell does he even see in you?"
"Rude," Wei Wuxian says, apparently recovering the capacity of speech as long as they don't have to look at each other. "I'm not fourth on the list of young masters because I'm bad-looking and incompetent, you know."
"No, you've never mentioned it before in all of your incessant bragging," Jiang Cheng says sarcastically. "I can see the surface appeal, I just don't understand what's so enthralling about him. Or you, for that matter." Struck by a horrifying thought, he bolts upright. "He is serious about you, right? This isn't some kind of weird, repressed version of a teenage fling?"
"Have you ever known Lan Zhan to do something he wasn't serious about?" Wei Wuxian asks, arching a brow at him. He's still pink all the way down. What the fuck.
"And you're serious about this?" Jiang Cheng presses. Wei Wuxian has always been flirtatious, but he's never actually followed through on anything and he's made his opinions on marriage loudly known whenever the topic comes up. "He wouldn't have told you about the forehead ribbon if he wasn't serious." He has to lie back down when Wei Wuxian starts to smile dreamily.
"Deadly serious," Wei Wuxian says, voice just as effusive as his expression. "We are very different people, but I think of all the people in this world, Lan Zhan is the one who understands me best, my soulmate."
"Where does that leave me, huh?" Jiang Cheng says, hating the churning rage and jealousy that wells up at being compared to Lan Wangji and found inferior in any way.
Wei Wuxian sits up now, poking at the wrinkles in his forehead until they smooth out.
"Let me finish talking before you start making assumptions about what I'm trying to say," Wei Wuxian scolds. He sighs and looks east again and he's so obviously pining that Jiang Cheng almost hates himself for not putting it together sooner.
Did Jiang Yanli notice? She couldn't have missed it, not if even Jiang Cheng can see it. She could have warned him at least.
"Do you remember when we made lanterns back in the Cloud Recesses? That time right before I punched Jin Zixuan in the face and got myself kicked out?"
"It would be hard to forget for anyone except you," Jiang Cheng says dryly. He bats Wei Wuxian's hands away from his face when he starts to pull at his cheeks in retaliation.
"Anyways, when Lan Zhan and I sent our lantern up, we wished that we could protect the weak and suppress the strong for the rest of my life, without any regrets," Wei Wuxian recounts. Jiang Cheng pulls a long-suffering face at the last bit; Wei Wuxian never has any regrets. "Lan Zhan shares that wish with me in a way that you can't. You're the future sect leader of Yunmeng Jiang, you can't just live according to your own morals and damn the consequences like we can."
"Are you trying to say that Hanguang-jun, the Second Jade of Gusu Lan, doesn't have duties to Gusu Lan?" Jiang Cheng asks incredulously.
"Of course that's not what I'm saying," Wei Wuxian says, "but it's not the same kind of duty. Think of it this way: Zewu-jun is what people think of when they think of the Gusu Lan Sect, so he always has to act with that weight on his shoulders, even though he's not the sect leader yet. But Hanguang-jun can act in ways that contradict the Gusu Lan Sect's public stance with more leeway because he's not the literal face of the sect."
"Putting yourself on the same level of reputation as Hanguang-jun now? Your face is really too thick."
"Maybe my reputation's not that good yet, but just watch, I'll make my mark somehow," Wei Wuxian says cheerfully enough to make a shiver run up his spine. He absolutely does not want to know what Wei Wuxian has planned. "And besides, neither of us care about other people's opinions like you do. It doesn't matter to us if we're hated by the world as long as we know that what we're doing is right."
"That's a bold claim to make on Lan Wangji's behalf," Jiang Cheng says with what he feels is reasonable skepticism. "I know you've run into him on night hunts since the archery competition, but it never sounded like he talked that much. I'm sure you talked at him until his ears practically shriveled up, but actual conversation?"
"I told you, that week in the cave felt like a lifetime," says Wei Wuxian, flopping back down beside him. "He couldn't ignore me forever. Do you understand what I'm saying though? I wish it could be as simple as swearing to serve you like my father served yours, but I'm not the kind of person that can stay in one place all the time and take orders."
"How are you going to cope with living in the Cloud Recesses then? Three thousand rules to follow every day?"
"Who said I was going to marry into Gusu Lan? Maybe Lan Zhan will marry into Yunmeng Jiang instead," Wei Wuxian says flippantly.
A jolt of pure horror runs through Jiang Cheng. Given hours on end, he couldn't even begin to explain what a terrible idea that is. Yu Ziyuan would surely compare not only Jiang Cheng to Lan Wangji and find him wanting, but also any possible marriage prospects he might have in the future. No one would ever be able to measure up against Hanguang-jun in terms of lineage, cultivation, or refinement.
Wei Wuxian's uncontrollable laughter dissipates the nightmarish future that dances before his eyes and reignites the embers of his half-forgotten anger.
"Don't joke about that kind of thing, you bastard! Marriage is a serious matter!"
"I know, I know," Wei Wuxian says once he's calmed down. "It really is serious, for both of us, but now's not the sort of time when you can make plans for the future and not have them overturned immediately."
Jiang Cheng stops trying to hit him and his heart sinks in his chest. Wei Wuxian is right, of course. They're preparing for a siege on Lotus Pier, Gusu Lan is in the middle of staging an attempt to retake the Cloud Recesses, and Qinghe Nie has been openly fighting Qishan Wen for nearly a month and a half now. Nothing about their future is guaranteed except danger so it's easier to joke about it than think about what they're going to lose.
"Would you have told me? If I hadn't figured it out?"
"Isn't getting married already telling everyone?"
He sighs. "Would you have believed me?"
"I'd have believed you were serious at least." Wei Wuxian has never been subtle about his interest in the untouchable and aloof Hanguang-jun. "Every other word that comes out of your mouth is related to Lan Wangji at this point and now that a-jie has the clan treasury with her, she's probably already putting together your dowry."
"Who needs a dowry?" Wei Wuxian says, pink with indignation now. "I'm not a bride!"
"You think Lan-lao-xiansheng is going to let you marry Lan Wangji without some seriously expensive gifts as bribes? After he literally threw you out of the Cloud Recesses?"
"I'll win him over eventually," Wei Wuxian says with his usual blithe confidence. "If Zewu-jun didn't approve, it would be really difficult now that he's sect leader, but I think he'll agree as long as I make Lan Zhan happy."
Jiang Cheng snorts. He has no idea what a happy Lan Wangji would look like. Probably more like Lan Xichen than he already does, but he really can't imagine it.
"He'd better make you happy too," he mutters under his breath.
"Oh believe me, he does." Jiang Cheng doesn't look over. He doesn't want to see what kind of soppy face Wei Wuxian is making now. Just his voice is disgusting enough.
"You can tell me things, you know?" He coughs to clear out the lump in his throat. "I'm not stupid, I know when you're trying to avoid talking about something, just. You don't have to keep everything to yourself like some kind of martyr."
A hand creeps into his, warm and firm. "I know, a-Cheng. I know. I swear, I'll share my burdens with you, and you can share your burdens with me. It's what families are supposed to do, right?"
"Right," says Jiang Cheng, choking back tears. "I'll listen to whatever you have to say, but I'm making no promises about not getting angry if you're being stupid."
"That's fair," agrees Wei Wuxian. "I can be very stupid."
"No need to brag about it, you idiot, it's obvious every time you open your mouth."
There's nothing much left to be said after that. Jiang Cheng's stomach breaks the silence occasionally but they lie hand in hand in the hushed and empty gloom of Jiang Yanli's abandoned rooms until the chimes sound for the midday meal and he has to scramble to wash up. It tastes as strange as the morning meal, but Wei Wuxian's chatter rings less hollow, and Jiang Cheng lets himself hope that his family will be reunited soon.
The moment Jiang Yanli returns from her morning market rounds in Meishan proper, Jiang Cheng knows that there is news. Bad news, judging by the pale mask of her face and the way she sinks to her knees on the other side of the table that serves as their shared desk. Jiang Yanli clutches the sword he's barely ever seen her use to her chest, not tightly enough to hide the shaking of her hands.
He looks down at the mess of paperwork that's consumed his morning and gives up on getting anything done today.
Jiang Cheng reaches across the table and Jiang Yanli reaches back, grabbing onto his hand like a lifeline. It's the opposite of their reunion on the docks of Meishan after the fall of Lotus Pier, Jiang Cheng too heartsick to speak the words and Jiang Yanli too afraid to ask. He hadn't known at the time how she could bear to not know the full story, but now he understands. Knowing how it happened will do nothing to ease the grief of loss or the pain of uncertainty that's plagued him from the moment Wei Wuxian left him in the boat headed upriver and returned to Lotus Pier with Lan Wangji in tow.
Jiang Cheng breathes and feels like he's drowning, trapped beneath the same icy layer of composure that keeps back all of the tears he wants to cry. He wants to wail and weep like he did the entire way to Meishan, barely restrained by the seniors who managed to escape with him, but the frantic energy that had powered his rage then is more than useless now. There is nothing he can do to change the news that Jiang Yanli bears, probably days old by the time it reached her ears.
It won't get any easier to hear.
"Go ahead, a-jie." His voice is as even as he can make it. It wavers like a kite in an unsteady wind. "Tell me what they're saying."
"A-Cheng," whispers Jiang Yanli, calm mask crumbling away like the banks of a flooding river under her unrestrained grief. "Wen Chao carries his own sword again, Bichen and Suibian on his belt as trophies, boasting about how he's slain the cowards who dared to slander his name."
He's distantly grateful that Zidian is on his left hand rather than his right, still holding Jiang Yanli's across the table. The purple sparks that it spits out like a fountain wouldn't harm Jiang Yanli, but they would leave nasty scorch marks on the table and all their paperwork.
"Bodies?" He can't manage any more, tongue frozen and heavy with dread. They've only just cremated his parents' bodies, recovered before they could be desecrated. He can't imagine what Wen Chao might have done to Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji's bodies to disgrace them in death.
"No mention of them," says Jiang Yanli, and Jiang Cheng wishes that he'd gone with her this morning, so she wouldn't have heard all of this by herself, seeking out as many details as she could glean from the traders who still move up and down the river despite the chaos of the cultivation world. "But Wen Zhuliu is dead."
"Good." A fierce satisfaction burns in Jiang Yanli's eyes, mirrored in his own. The state of their parents' bodies had made it very clear how they died, spiritual pathways all but destroyed.
"Does anyone know any more details beyond Wen Chao's claims?" he asks. If there are no bodies on display, they might still be alive. For now. It might be better if they're dead. Everyone knows what happens in the Flame Palace.
Jiang Yanli shakes her head, the same thoughts clearly having run through her mind. "Some merchants from Yiling say that there was a major fight with Wen cultivators in a nearby village, but no one is willing to talk about it in any more detail. From what they aren't saying, it sounds like it was a one-sided ambush by the Wens."
"How long ago?"
"Three days ago." Around the same time that their parents' bodies arrived. It can't be coincidence. "I think we need to talk to Wen Qionglin."
Jiang Cheng shuts his eyes and groans, pushing the heel of his free hand into his eyes as if that will do anything to help the headache rapidly growing behind them. He doesn't want to talk to Wen Qionglin. He doesn't want to look at his deceptively delicate face and hear him stammering again as he tries to explain himself in the face of Jiang Cheng's towering rage, roused to new heights by the confusion and gratitude he doesn't want to be feeling towards a Wen.
"A-Cheng." Jiang Yanli's voice carries the firm weight of command now, the shared burden of leading their sect already settled on her shoulders, but she doesn't need that leverage to reprimand him.
"You're right. I just don't want to." Nothing feels worse than admitting he's wrong. Just another way he's more like his mother than he wants to be.
"I've found apologies to be quite useful for expressing remorse," says Jiang Yanli, disapproval mild but still clear. Jiang Cheng groans again, letting go of her hand to bury his face in his hands.
"I get it, a-jie, I was an asshole, no need to rub it in." Making Wen Qionglin cry was not one of his finer moments. They do have to figure out what to do about him sooner rather than later, but Jiang Cheng has been putting it off in favor of less emotionally draining mundane tasks.
"As long as you know," she says and squeezes his shoulder on her way to the door. There are two people on guard at all times outside their quarters (hastily repurposed to serve as office and receiving room as well as living space). Meishan is far from Qishan, but Sect Leader Yu had insisted Jiang Yanli carry her sword for good reason and she hasn't stinted on offering them help as needed while they settle their affairs.
Jiang Cheng snorts as he watches the two young women on duty this morning straighten up even taller under Jiang Yanli's kind gaze. "Please tell Liu-popo that we need a midday meal for three. Wen Qionglin will be joining us."
"Of course, Jiang-guniang!" She smiles at them before she closes the door again and they all but fall over themselves to salute her. Jiang Cheng has never understood why Jiang Yanli remains so intent on Jin Zixuan when half the youths in Yunmeng (and Meishan apparently) would have killed for her favor, but the mysteries of the heart have always been beyond him.
Jiang Yanli busies herself with preparing tea and Jiang Cheng makes himself go through their paperwork and organize it in neat piles so they can actually use the table for dining. Morning and evening meals are shared with the rest of the sect, but the midday meal has always been reserved for family. More often than not, it was just the three of them, his parents often away on sect business or simply avoiding each other.
Jiang Cheng has to pause with his hands flat on the table in front of him and breathe through the sudden pang of grief at the thought that Wei Wuxian might never sit across from him again, talking loudly through his food and poking fun at Jiang Cheng until Jiang Yanli makes him stop. He even misses the grating tension between his parents when they both attended, the feeling that everyone was at least trying to live in familial harmony even if it ended in yelling.
The gentle clink of porcelain on wood startles Jiang Cheng out of his reverie and he blinks away tears he won't let himself shed, schools his expression back to his version of neutrality before he thanks Jiang Yanli for the tea, perfectly steeped. They sit together, facing the door as a united front, sip their tea in silence, and he tastes nothing but the bitterness of loss.
Wen Qionglin arrives before the food does, ushered into the room by another set of guards, Yunmeng Jiang disciples that eye him with the same odd mix of emotions that Jiang Cheng himself feels. Jiang Cheng gestures for them to leave them alone.
"Jiang-gongzi, Jiang-guniang." Wen Qionglin salutes as well as he can with immortal binding ropes securing his forearms together in front of him. He looks tired, even drained, with an unhealthy tinge to his dark complexion. Jiang Cheng feels a prick of guilt at his treatment, but not enough to regret the precautions they've taken.
"Wen-gongzi," Jiang Yanli says for both of them, offering only a dip of her head in return.
She looks to Jiang Cheng and he gets up, leaving his replacement sword by the table but flaring Zidian threateningly as he approaches Wen Qionglin. His dark eyes go wide but he doesn't flinch back. Jiang Cheng releases the fastening of the immortal binding rope with a spark of spiritual energy and sits back down, takes a sip of his lukewarm tea.
"Please, sit," says Jiang Yanli, indicating the one cushion placed on the side of the table closest to the door, where she usually sits when they're stuck with the endless paperwork of letter writing and record-keeping. Jiang Cheng can't stand keeping a door at his back. "There are a few questions we'd like you to answer."
"Thank you," Wen Qionglin ventures once he's taken a seat. He looks confused by the hospitable atmosphere, but not bold enough to actually ask about it. Jiang Yanli pours him a cup of tea which he accepts with a shy duck of his head.
"You didn't take part in the attack on Lotus Pier," Jiang Cheng blurts out. He regrets the hostile note in his voice the moment he hears it but he can't take back words already spoken. Jiang Yanli rests a soothing hand on his fists below the table.
"No, I arrived afterwards, as soon as I heard," Wen Qionglin says, apparently taking his words as an awkwardly phrased question rather than a statement of what Jiang Cheng already knows. "I owed Wei-gongzi a debt for his actions at the archery conference and I wanted to help if I could."
Jiang Cheng can't help but stare at him incredulously. Wei Wuxian stuck up for him once more than two years ago and gave him some advice on archery and now Wen Qionglin is willing to betray his sect for him? Wei Wuxian was charming and charismatic, but surely such a simple thing shouldn't have left such a large impression.
Under his piercing gaze, perhaps thinking his words had been misconstrued, Wen Qionglin rushes to continue, "I only wanted to ensure that the bodies of the dead were treated respectfully and protect any survivors, I didn't expect that they wouldn't leave anyone alive. Wen Chao didn't suspect anything, so he left me in command to guard Lotus Pier when he left to hunt down Wei-gongzi and Hanguang-jun."
"Left you in command? How high is your position?" Jiang Cheng asks, eyeing Wen Qionglin's robes again. Judging from the sun patterns on the sleeves, he was a clan disciple, but his rank didn't seem particularly high.
Wen Qionglin ducks his head again. "My standing is not very good, but jiejie is well respected in Qishan Wen and the disciples I command are well-trained and obedient, so Wen Chao didn't think too much of leaving us behind, not when he was so angry about Wei-gongzi and Hanguang-jun escaping. I think he wanted someone to blame if Lotus Pier was retaken while he was gone."
"And your sister is?" Jiang Yanli prompts.
"Wen Qing." Jiang Cheng almost chokes on his tea in shock. He's met Wen Qing only once, but he's seen her a number of times at discussion conferences. He wouldn't have expected Wen Qionglin of all people to be her rumored younger brother, but looking at his delicate features, he can see the resemblance.
"You're barely alike," Jiang Cheng says, and kicks himself again when Wen Qionglin's gaze drops back to the table, his whole body drooping like a kicked puppy. "I only meant, I've never heard of Wen Qing ever challenging the authority of the main branch like you have. And your demeanor is very different."
Jiang Yanli gracefully saves him from tripping over himself anymore by asking, "If you had only meant to offer protection from Wen Chao's cruelty, what made you take such drastic action?"
Wen Qionglin looks up just enough to stare into the space between Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng. "The second night after Wen Chao left with most of his men, Wei-gongzi and Hanguang-jun appeared in the room I was given. I thought they were going to kill me, but they said they wanted to talk to me."
"About what?" Jiang Yanli prompts gently. Jiang Cheng is somehow more confused than he was when Wen Qionglin showed up with his parents' bodies in the first place.
"They told me that after the attack on Lotus Pier, a war would be inevitable, and they asked if I could really stand back and watch, regardless of who won."
"And?" Jiang Cheng says impatiently when Wen Qionglin seems lost in thought, hands fidgeting with his teacup. "How did that end up with you ferrying a-die and a-niang all the way here with twenty Wen cultivators in tow?" He's distantly proud when he doesn't stutter on the mention of his parents.
Wen Qionglin hesitates again, eyes dipping back to the table, but when he looks Jiang Cheng in the eyes for the first time, his voice is firm.
"Jiejie says that what the Qishan Wen Sect does doesn't represent what we do, that we don't need to be responsible for their wrongdoings, but I can't believe that. Wen Chao wanted to slaughter every last person of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect, even the children, and when he realized that you had evacuated and emptied the treasury ahead of his attack, the threats he made were so foul that I cannot repeat them. If I stood by and watched him do such things, there's no way I wouldn't feel responsible."
Jiang Cheng can't look away from Wen Qionglin's eyes, deep and dark as the pool in the xuanwu cave. His voice is as resolved as if he were swearing an oath, and maybe he is.
"So, I asked them where I should take the bodies of the fallen, and Wei-gongzi told me to go to Meishan, that they would make sure we weren't followed. I only asked the cultivators among my disciples that I was certain I could trust, and we took the bodies and left in the middle of the night without anyone noticing. We made it up the river with no pursuit, so I don't think the Wen cultivators in Lotus Pier realized what we did or where we went."
"There's been no sign of any pursuit in the past few days," Jiang Cheng says into the sudden silence after Wen Qionglin's speech has come to a halting end. "Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji must have been distracting Wen Chao pretty thoroughly."
Until they couldn't. His breath catches in his throat and he can't keep eye contact with Wen Qionglin, staring out the window as he tries to steady his breathing. Winter is upon them and the lotus pond outside the window holds nothing but withered leaves and hidden roots.
"Did something happen to Wei-gongzi and Hanguang-jun?" Wen Qionglin asks, sincerely and earnestly worried. Of course. He's been imprisoned for the past three days. They only got the news this morning.
Jiang Cheng rips his gaze away from the empty lotus pond, wetting his lips. Jiang Yanli gave him the news, the least he can do is spare her the burden of saying it again. He's almost used to carrying news of death now that he's told his entire sect and half of Meishan Yu about his parents.
Every word feels like the blow lands anew and he watches Wen Qionglin's face crumple again, this time because of the bitter truth rather than his angry, vicious words. Tears well up in clear eyes, the pool overflowing its banks, and Jiang Cheng wishes he could cry as easily as Wen Qionglin does, no shame on his face as he weeps for two men he barely knows. Jiang Cheng can barely even cry for his own parents.
"I'm sorry," Wen Qionglin chokes out, wiping at his cheeks with the handkerchief that Jiang Yanli offers. "It's because of me—"
"Shut up," Jiang Cheng says reflexively, a knee-jerk response honed by Wei Wuxian's own propensity for taking the blame. "Don't apologize for things that you're not responsible for. Unless you want us to act like you're a part of Qishan Wen?"
"No!" Wen Qionglin says with alarm, eyes locking back onto Jiang Cheng's.
"Then stop apologizing already," Jiang Cheng barks. "I'm the one who should be apologizing to you anyways."
Wen Qionglin blinks in confusion. Jiang Yanli nudges him lightly and Jiang Cheng realizes that he has yet to actually apologize.
"I'm sorry," he says, rising to his feet to offer a salute to Wen Qionglin, taken aback by the sudden turn of events. "I was unforgivably rude to you upon your arrival and I apologize for my words. Thank you for bringing our parents back to us."
"Thank you for bringing a-die and a-niang to us." Jiang Yanli echoes him in word and deed, voice more even than his, but no less emotional.
"Ah, no, there's no need—" Wen Qionglin trails off again when Jiang Cheng glares at him. His face is flushed from tears and embarrassment and Jiang Cheng feels like he needs to offer another apology because Wen Qionglin looks like he's being bullied instead of thanked, which is quite literally the least Jiang Cheng can do.
At that point, a knock at the door announces the arrival of the midday meal. Jiang Cheng goes to accept the heavy tray, letting Jiang Yanli and Wen Qionglin regain their composure while he sets the dishes out on the table. It's simple fare, but since they're living on another sect's hospitality and what they managed to carry with them from Lotus Pier, Jiang Cheng isn't going to complain.
They dine in silence, none of them having the energy for polite conversation. Jiang Cheng eats mechanically, not really tasting anything that he puts in his mouth.
With his parents' remains cremated and the news about Wei Wuxian, there's no pressing reason for the main force of Yunmeng Jiang to remain in Meishan Yu. Everyone who could have escaped Lotus Pier has gathered here and now they're waiting on nothing but marching orders. Jiang Yanli has long since made the arrangements with Sect Leader Yu for any non-combatants not willing or able to travel with them to remain in Meishan until Lotus Pier can be reclaimed for good.
Lan Qiren's correspondence with Jiang Fengmian has passed to Jiang Yanli, and the most recent news out of the east is that Lanling Jin has finally caved and joined the Sunshot Campaign and Gusu Lan has solidified its position in the Cloud Recesses once more. The top of a spiritually rich mountain is a very easily defensible stronghold and it was only by abusing their standing invitation through the barriers that Qishan Wen managed to destroy so much of the Cloud Recesses in the first place.
Lotus Pier is not so advantageously positioned, but the familiar mountains to the south and east of Yunmeng will serve as a staging ground to coordinate more easily with Gusu Lan along the southern front. The smaller sects who swear to Yunmeng Jiang will have already fled there in the wake of Lotus Pier's destruction—if they followed Jiang Fengmian's advice and haven't just decided to swear themselves to Qishan Wen in an attempt to preserve their lives.
Jiang Cheng blinks and looks up to Jiang Yanli, already in the middle of clearing the dishes, and realizes that he's been staring off into the middle distance rather than eating for a while.
"How soon can we move out?"
The question is abrupt, but Jiang Yanli just pauses to think. Jiang Cheng is trained in the minutiae of sect management, but she has been managing the logistics of this evacuation since the beginning. Jiang Cheng moves to stack his own dishes back on the tray.
“No less than three days, if you want to move everyone at once," Jiang Yanli says eventually. "If you want to stagger our movements, we could start sending groups as early as tomorrow."
"Tomorrow then." Jiang Yanli nods in agreement, already turning to begin making arrangements.
Jiang Cheng frowns at Wen Qionglin, then tugs him to his feet and runs an appraising eye up and down his figure. They're about the same build and he still has some of his old disciple robes for training in.
"Jiang-gongzi?" Wen Qionglin has turned a bright pink under his scrutiny and Jiang Cheng belatedly blushes at his own rudeness.
"You can't keep wearing Qishan Wen robes if you're going to be working with us," he says by way of explanation. "If you don't mind hand-me-downs, I have some robes that should fit you. They won't be particularly flattering, but they'll fit."
"I don't mind," Wen Qionglin rushes to say and Jiang Cheng goes to dig them out of the qiankun bag that still holds most of his belongings. He hasn't had much time to unpack, which is just as well if they're going to be on the move soon.
He has to all but shove Wen Qionglin into his room to change. Regardless of his protests of impropriety, Jiang Cheng thinks it's a lesser evil than letting him walk around a compound of twitchy and paranoid cultivators in Qishan Wen robes with no visible restraints.
"Did I put them on right?" Wen Qionglin asks, shuffling awkwardly as Jiang Cheng looks him over carefully. The robes aren't particularly complicated, but everything looks right. The dark blue suits his complexion much better than the white and red of his Qishan Wen robes.
"They look fine," Jiang Cheng says. "Come on, I want this over with as soon as possible so a-jie can finalize the preparations with Sect Leader Yu."
Jiang Yanli waves a distracted farewell to them, deep in conversation with one of their guards about their impending departure. Wen Qionglin bobs his head in her direction and hurries along in Jiang Cheng's wake as they head towards the temporary holding area they'd had to set up on the arrival of his contingent.
"What are we doing?" Wen Qionglin asks plaintively as they carve a path through the bustle of the compound.
"We're going to see which of your men we can take with us and which of them we're going to leave behind."
"Oh," Wen Qionglin says, faltering momentarily before he catches back up with Jiang Cheng. "You're taking me with you? You're not worried that I'll betray you?"
"Will you?" Jiang Cheng says, spinning around so that they're facing each other. Wen Qionglin manages to catch himself before he runs into Jiang Cheng, looking the short distance up with eyes wide in surprise.
"I won't," Wen Qionglin says with the same strange seriousness he'd shown earlier. "I won't."
Jiang Cheng believes him.
“Good. Now come on, we don't have all day. After this, you're going to show me just how good at archery you actually are."
Jiang Yanli and Wen Ning are late. Jiang Cheng scowls up at the ceiling of the pavilion he’s sharing with Wen Ning while they're in Langya, sprawled out across the floor in an attempt to relieve some of the tension in his back while his stomach grumbles in protest at being forced to wait on dinner. The dishes he fetched on the way back are all laid out on the table, but he's not about to eat without Wen Ning and Jiang Yanli.
It's been a long day of tedious meetings about the still precarious situation of the Lanling Jin Sect, bent over endless maps and reports while Jin Guangshan tries to make more excuses for why exactly he needs further help from the other sects to defend his own stronghold. Nie Mingjue has been keeping busy along the northern part of the eastern front, pushing it further west than Hejian after the death of Wen Xu, but Jin Guangshan remains hesitant to commit sufficient resources and troops to accomplish the same on his end.
It's clear that Jin Guangshan is hedging his bets with regards to the outcome of the war. He'd resisted entering the fray for as long as possible and even now he's fighting a far more defensive war than the rest of them, maintaining a firm line of defense without making any real attempts to strike against Qishan Wen directly. Should the tide of the war turn, Jin Guangshan will be able to make his excuses to Wen Ruohan and maybe keep his neck and sect intact, and if the Sunshot Campaign succeeds, Lanling Jin won't have nearly as many losses to recoup as the rest of them, but Jin Guangshan will still be able to lay claim to an equal share of the spoils.
The cynical calculation of it all disgusts Jiang Cheng, but he's not going to make a target of himself by pointing it out. Still, Yunmeng Jiang's situation is somewhat precarious in the wake of Lotus Pier's destruction and they can't afford to lose too many of their own people just because of Jin Guangshan's political maneuvering. Even with the new intelligence that allows them to move against Qishan Wen without risking costly head-on confrontations, Gusu Lan and Yunmeng Jiang are already stretched far too thinly along the southern front for Jiang Cheng's comfort.
Jiang Cheng groans in frustration and sits up only to slump over the table in the space not covered by dishes, an indignity he'd never stoop to outside of his own quarters. He's tired and hungry and he wants to talk to Jiang Yanli before he makes any final decisions on how much to push back against staying in Langya. She never comes to the war meetings in person, but she'll undoubtedly have more information on the situation from the perspective of the lower-ranked cultivators who serve as support staff rather than fighting.
He's so hungry even Lanling Jin's terrible food smells good.
Their usual tradition of eating together at midday has been disrupted by endless meetings and he's desperate to sit and eat and talk without having to worry about how he looks in front of the other sect leaders, the youngest person in the room by far. The meals that Lanling Jin provides, like the company, are somewhat lacking in quality, but Jiang Yanli has been serving lotus root and pork rib soup at dinner every day to make up for it, which he appreciates more than he can say.
There's a banging on the doorframe to go with the shouting, but no one barges in through the curtained doorway, so it can't be that urgent. Sighing, Jiang Cheng reluctantly drags himself to his feet to find out what new crisis demands his attention now.
"What is it?" he says brusquely, pushing the curtain aside and stepping back out into the balmy late spring evening. The source of the noise is a Yunmeng Jiang disciple, young enough that she's kept out of the fighting altogether but still allowed to serve in the camp.
She gives him a hasty salute and says, "Jiang-gongzi, something happened with Jiang-guniang and Jin-gongzi, and a-Ning said to get you!"
"Outside his pavilion."
He's already on the move, brushing past her towards the center of the compound as fast as his tired legs will carry him. Jin Zixuan is only staying in Langya for a couple of days more, recovering from a broken bone that's kept him off the front lines for the past month. Jiang Yanli has already been dealing with enough unpleasantness from Lanling Jin cultivators upset with what they saw as her rejection of Jin Zixuan after their engagement was broken years ago. Jiang Cheng had hoped that Jiang Yanli would be able to avoid any unpleasant encounters with him too, but it looks like luck has run out.
Jiang Cheng finds them exactly where the girl said, outside Jin Zixuan's pavilion, along with a sizeable crowd of onlookers, arriving in time to catch the tail end of Jin Zixuan's speech.
“Don’t think that just because you come from a powerful sect that you can steal and trample other people’s feelings. Some people, even if they come from poor backgrounds, their character is much better than the former’s. Please watch your conduct.”
Having said his piece, Jin Zixuan flips his sleeves disdainfully and turns away from Jiang Yanli, standing frozen beside Wen Ning with a pot of soup held in front of her. Her back is straight but her face is wet. Jiang Yanli doesn't look up from her tray, but Wen Ning takes it from her hand and steps in front of her, hiding her from prying eyes as best he can.
Jiang Cheng pushes his way to the front of the crowd and cracks Zidian as loudly as possible, making sure that his strike scorches a visible line on the road between Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan. Jin Zixuan flinches at the sound and turns back, face paling at whatever he sees on Jiang Cheng's face.
"Everyone who's just here to watch a show, get lost," Jiang Cheng snarls, holding up his sparking left hand with as much menace as he can muster. He turns in a slow circle to meet as many staring eyes as possible and watches in satisfaction as spectators flee under his judgmental gaze. "Now, Jin-gongzi, would you like to explain why you've disrespected my sister and our sect in such a public fashion?"
Jin Zixuan opens his mouth to speak, indignation written clearly across his fine features, but he's anticipated by the one Lanling Jin cultivator who has braved Jiang Cheng's wrath to remain.
"Jiang-gongzi, please allow me to explain—"
"If he's willing to make such accusations in public, he can answer for them himself, Luo-guniang," Jiang Cheng interrupts, glaring past her at Jin Zixuan, "and count himself lucky that I'm not demanding satisfaction on the training grounds. Yet."
Jiang Cheng wouldn't ordinarily demand Jin Zixuan face him in a duel while the man is recovering from a broken arm, but Jiang Yanli's quiet sobs are still audible from behind Wen Ning. Wen Ning shuffles the tray onto one arm and pulls out a handkerchief that he passes behind him to her, his stony gaze still fixed on Jin Zixuan. Jiang Cheng shifts his position so he stands between them on the line of Zidian's scorch mark, another layer of protection for Jiang Yanli.
Luo Qingyang looks like she wants to protest further, but she doesn't have the standing to contradict Jiang Cheng so openly, and they all know it. He hasn't officially taken up the position of sect leader yet, but he's earned the title of Sandu Shengshou for a reason. Jin Zixuan motions for her to stand aside and steps forward, hands folded behind his back.
"I returned to my rooms this evening to pick up a letter and found Jiang-guniang there," Jin Zixuan says, meeting Jiang Cheng's eyes with an arrogant look on his face. Jiang Cheng wishes he could be as reckless as Wei Wuxian and just punch that smugness right out of the flashy bastard. "When I asked about the reason for her presence, she claimed to be the one who has been bringing me soup every night. However, I have already met the cook who left the soup. Only someone utterly shameless would take credit for someone else's efforts so blatantly."
"Utterly shameless?" Jiang Cheng echoes, rage churning in his belly. Jiang Yanli only sobs harder, biting down on her lower lip to try and stifle the noise. "She has no reason to be ashamed. Any disciple of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect could tell you that my sister is the best cook in this whole camp and you should feel blessed that she chose to offer you some of her lotus root and pork rib soup. Did you even listen to her before you made such accusations in front of half the camp? You must really have a thick face to be calling my sister shameless when you went out of your way to make such a fool of yourself."
"But a-Yuan already told me last week that she made it," Jin Zixuan protests, brow wrinkling in consternation. "Why would she lie to me?"
"Jin-gongzi," Luo Qingyan says, darting a swift glance at Jiang Cheng. When he doesn't cut her off again, she continues, "Jin-gongzi, that's what I was saying earlier. A-Yuan didn't say anything about it, but she was the one that Jiang-guniang asked to put the soup in your rooms from the beginning. If I had known she was taking credit for making the soup once she knew that you liked it, I would have told you earlier that she wasn't the one."
Jin Zixuan's brow is still furrowed and Jiang Cheng wonders if Jin Zixuan is really so naive as to need his question answered any more blatantly. The favor of the heir to the Lanling Jin Sect is not a trivial matter and he should know that by now.
"Then, Jiang-guniang really was the one?" Jin Zixuan asks, all of his arrogance gone, leaving only uncertainty shading towards shame. Jiang Cheng hopes he chokes on the words he's going to have to swallow.
"Yes," Luo Qingyang confirms, ducking her head under Jin Zixuan's pleading gaze.
"I—" Jin Zixuan falters and bows his head. Jiang Cheng has never seen him look so unsure of himself. It's not as satisfying as he would have hoped when Wei Wuxian isn't here to poke fun at the peacock being humbled. "Jiang-guniang, I—" He stumbles over his words again and they descend into an awkward silence, punctuated only by Jiang Yanli’s soft sobs.
"Jin-gongzi," Wen Ning says, voice as loud and clear as when he coordinates with Jiang Cheng on the battlefield, raining down arrows from above. "If you are willing to consider the words of someone from a poor background, I cannot speak to the education of the Lanling Jin Sect, but my sister has always taught me that the two most important things a person should learn to say are 'thank you', and 'I'm sorry'."
Jin Zixuan blanches at the reminder of his own words, a carelessly aimed arrow returned unexpectedly to plunge into his own chest, and then reddens again with shame. His face twists into an unflattering expression before it settles into a mask of composure and Jiang Cheng marvels all over again at how much Wei Wuxian would have wanted to be here to watch this. It's not as painful to think as it would have been even a month ago.
"Jiang-guniang, thank you," Jin Zixuan says with a cold voice, bowing jerkily, "and I'm sorry."
Then he undercuts the whole production he made of the incident by fleeing into his pavilion without even a backward glance, leaving Luo Qingyang to salute awkwardly, make her own apologies and follow him in. Why a sensible woman like her is even friends with him, Jiang Cheng doesn't know, but Jin Zixuan could do with even a tenth of her common sense.
"What a peacock," Jiang Cheng mutters into the silence that falls over them. Jiang Yanli laughs wetly from behind Wen Ning and Jiang Cheng grins at her with relief. She smiles back with genuine mirth, face still damp and flushed, and Wen Ning is left wearing the awkward smile of someone who doesn't quite get the joke. "Thank the heavens that Wei Wuxian wasn't here, he definitely would have punched him again."
"Wei-gongzi punched Jin-gongzi?" Wen Ning asks, tilting his head curiously at Jiang Cheng.
Jiang Cheng forgets sometimes that he only really met Wen Ning five months ago. Wen Ning feels like he's been a part of his life forever, a calm and accepting presence that never shies away from the worst of his anger and grief.
"Three years ago now," Jiang Cheng says, already turning to head back to their quarters. Word will definitely have spread to the rest of the camp already, and he doesn't want to be in the area when Jin Cuiyu descends on Jin Zixuan to berate him for making Jiang Yanli cry. "When we were all studying at the Cloud Recesses. That's officially why he got kicked out by Lan-lao-xiansheng, but I think he was just waiting for any excuse to get Wei Wuxian away from Lan Wangji."
"Why would he want to separate them? Did he not approve of their relationship?"
Wen Ning's eyes widen in shock when both Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng hush him immediately, looking around for any prying ears. He probably would have slapped his hands over his mouth if he wasn't carrying Jiang Yanli's tray already.
"Don't just say it out loud like that," Jiang Cheng hisses, tugging Wen Ning towards their quarters even faster now. Wen Ning squeaks and hurries his steps, trying desperately to keep the pot of soup from spilling over.
"I didn't know it was supposed to be a secret," Wen Ning says apologetically when they're safely inside the silencing barrier of their quarters. Jiang Yanli pats his shoulder comfortingly as she takes her tray back. "I'm sorry. It didn't seem like they were trying to hide it?"
Jiang Cheng snorts. Wei Wuxian is the only one he's ever seen make Lan Wangji lose his composure and Lan Wangji is the only person he's ever seen Wei Wuxian blush about despite his years of flirtations—also the only person he knows Wei Wuxian has kissed, but he doesn't want to think about his brother doing that. His brief glimpse of their reunion before the attack on Lotus Pier began was more than enough to cement the image of their shameless affection in his mind's eye.
"It's not that it's a secret," Jiang Yanli says, shooing them all towards the table and ladling out her soup into the bowls Jiang Cheng prepared earlier. "It's just not officially recognized by either sect yet. I never got the full story out of a-Xian before"—she pauses mid-movement, eyes falling shut briefly—"before everything, but I think they only realized that their attraction was mutual during the indoctrination camp at Qishan Wen. There wasn't really time or space to make anything official."
"I think Zewu-jun knows, but I'm not about to ask him outright," Jiang Cheng says, eagerly tucking into his portion of soup. For all his faults, Jin Zixuan did appreciate Jiang Yanli's soup, so Jiang Cheng doesn't actually have to duel him for her honor. "Also, I think you're giving those idiots too much credit. They didn't figure it out until they were trapped in a cave together for a week."
"That sounds about right for a-Xian," Jiang Yanli agrees. "He's quite oblivious when it comes to feelings."
"Meanwhile, Lan Wangji looks like he hasn't felt an emotion in his life," Jiang Cheng snorts. Jiang Yanli looks at him in gentle rebuke and he ducks his head in acknowledgement. "Anyways, the whole discussion is moot as long as they're still missing."
Jiang Cheng regrets the words as soon as they leave his mouth, turning the comforting clicks of spoon and chopsticks on porcelain into a sudden, startling silence. He's shattered their charade, reminded them all that the people they're talking about are gone, gone from them, gone from this world, neither, both. He keeps his eyes on the table and brings another bite to his mouth, chews the food that feels like sand between his teeth, gritted so tightly that his jaw aches.
Missing, not dead. For all his stories, Wen Chao has yet to produce any bodies to back up his claims. He still carries their swords despite Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen's best efforts to pull them off his rotting corpse, but rumor is that Bichen and Suibian have sealed themselves in the absence of their wielders. It doesn't prove that they're alive, but it feels like a sign to Jiang Cheng.
They never talk about them like they're gone for good, just another part of their collective pretense, and Jiang Cheng wonders what will happen if this war ends and they never find them, not even in the darkest depths of the Nightless City. How long will it take for him to truly forget the way Wei Wuxian looked when he laughed? It's already hard to conjure up the sound of his voice, the wheeze of his laughter, the particular tone of his teasing.
Their silence is taut with grief delayed and deferred, a loss that's simultaneously months old and not yet realized, and Jiang Cheng regrets ever opening his mouth to do anything but eat. He can't look up at Jiang Yanli and Wen Ning to see the pain written across their faces, always so open and kind. Guilt settles heavy in his stomach and he excuses himself to his room with a muttered apology as soon as he chokes down the rest of his dinner.
It's late evening by now but Jiang Cheng doesn't feel tired, just hollowed out, a piece of himself missing. He sits on his bed and cleans Sandu just like his father taught him. The first time after the morning training, the second time after the afternoon training, and the third time right before bed to ensure Sandu will be in good condition if he needs it during the night. Three times a day, every day.
Wei Wuxian never took such care with Suibian, but Jiang Fengmian didn't chide him about it. Jiang Cheng always thought that his father not minding Wei Wuxian's carelessness yet being so harsh on Jiang Cheng's own shortcomings was just another sign that he favored Wei Wuxian more than his own son.
Now he questions the assumptions that colored his entire adolescence with competition, tears apart his own memories to try and find the definitive proof that his father loved him after all, lingers over the hours on end that his father spent with him in that last month together.
In hindsight, Jiang Cheng can tell that his parents expected the worst outcome long before the attack on Lotus Pier. They'd known that Qingheng-jun was the only casualty of the Cloud Recesses' near destruction, the second sect leader dead from Wen Ruohan's machinations, and (correctly) assumed that they would be the first targets of any incursion, right after Wei Wuxian. He hates them a little for not telling him, hates himself for not realizing, hates Wen Ruohan and Wen Chao even more for thinking that the Yunmeng Jiang Sect is so weak as to roll over and give up if their sect leaders die.
He used to be able to hate the entire Qishan Wen Sect, during that brief, beautifully uncomplicated week between the attack on Lotus Pier and his first real conversation with Wen Ning when all he wanted was to destroy the people who had destroyed his home, his parents, his childhood.
Then Wen Ning had looked him in the eyes and told him about Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji taking a chance on him, daring to believe that given the opportunity, Wen Ning would follow his heart and do what he thought was right. And Wen Ning had taken that chance offered to him and extended it to the twenty Wen cultivators who followed him willingly into the arms of the enemy because they could not stand by and watch any longer. Jiang Cheng knows them now, their faces and their names and their stories. He knows other names and stories too, the people Wen Ning could not bring with him because they had too much to lose.
Jiang Cheng wonders now how many people in Qishan Wen are just like Wen Ning and his disciples, complying because they have no way to disobey without destroying themselves and their families. Everyone knows that Wen Ruohan tortures people in the Flame Palace. Everyone knows that Wen Chao goes after whichever girl he likes so it's better not to catch his eye. Everyone knows that Wen Zhuliu could melt down the golden core that sets them above the dusty mundane world, reduce them to nothing in the eyes of the cultivation world. Everyone knows, but no one knows better than the people of Qishan Wen.
Everything was so much simpler when he could see a cultivator in red and white and gold and see only the sect rather than the person beneath the uniform.
Jiang Cheng's wrist seizes, cramping from the repetitive motion of cleaning Sandu. He's fallen into a reverie, waiting for someone to come and cheer him up, but that was always Wei Wuxian's job, to barge in heedless of his welcome and brighten up their lives however he could. Wen Ning and Jiang Yanli will leave him his space, however little he wants it at the moment. He can still hear them in the other room, voices low in deference to his mood.
He's not brave enough to face them tonight. He sets aside Sandu and readies himself for bed, knowing that he'll stay awake for hours to come. Reminiscence comes easier than sleep these days.
Eventually he slips into a restless slumber, soothed by the soft whispers of Wen Ning and Jiang Yanli as they talk late into the night.
Jiang Cheng rises with the sun, eyes reddened by tears shed in dreams. The compound is quiet at such an early hour, only Gusu Lan disciples and the lower ranked cultivators moving around and preparing for the day. A worried note from Jiang Yanli lies on the table next to a plate of lotus seed paste buns, still warm.
Wen Ning has already gone ahead so Jiang Cheng walks alone to their usual morning training ground—far enough out of the way that Wen Ning can escape the prying eyes of curious cultivators and the thunder of Zidian's strikes won't wake up the rest of camp. It's not an officially maintained training ground, so it lacks the amenities that might attract other cultivators, but Wen Ning practices archery at a range far beyond the normal targets and all Jiang Cheng needs is an open space for his training.
When he arrives this morning, there's no sign of Wen Ning on the ground, so he looks up, squinting against the glare of the sun rising in the east. His eye catches on the gleam of sunlight off Wen Ning's sword as he hovers above the treetops and a moment later, he follows the sharp glint of an arrowhead as it flies from Wen Ning's bow to land inside the smallest of the concentric rings scratched into the dusty ground at one end of the field.
Wen Ning was always an exceptional archer, but he's improved by leaps and bounds over the months at war. It's too risky for him to fight on the ground, where his face could be recognized by Qishan Wen cultivators and his swordwork could be recognized by everyone else. High above the battlefield, he can make a moving target of himself and put his bowmanship to efficient and deadly use. It's easy enough to dodge one arrow coming at you when you're expecting it, but almost impossible to flawlessly fight another swordsman in close combat and dodge arrows from above at the same time.
Jiang Cheng whistles sharply, just to let Wen Ning know he's there so he doesn't startle off his sword or accidentally shoot at Jiang Cheng, but the distant dot of Wen Ning starts to float down towards him, like he's a dog responding to Jiang Cheng's summons.
"Jiang-gongzi!" Wen Ning greets him, cheerful as always.
"How many times, a-Ning?" Jiang Cheng grumbles back at him. "It's weird for you to call me so respectfully when it's just the two of us, just use Jiang Cheng."
If he had his way, he wouldn't be calling Wen Ning so casually, but using his full name is impossible, so a-Ning it is. Wen Ning says he doesn't mind being called a-Ning by everyone, but Jiang Cheng doesn't know how it could not bother Wen Ning to know that half the people who call him so familiarly would be calling for his head on a pike if they learned his family name.
It still bothers Jiang Cheng to be addressed as Jiang-gongzi by the same disciples who used to call him shixiong while they clamored for attention from him and Wei Wuxian. It's not as bad as it could be though.
The few people who tried to call him Sect Leader Jiang in the first month or so barely lived to regret it. He's ashamed of how easily he lashed out back then, but the sting of failure and loss was far too fresh for the title to settle comfortably on his shoulders.
"Jiang Cheng," Wen Ning says dutifully, and Jiang Cheng can't help but return his shy smile. "Did you sleep well?"
"I slept," Jiang Cheng says. That's about as much as he can ask for these days. "You and a-jie were up pretty late too, should I be worrying about you two getting enough sleep?"
"No, no need," Wen Ning rushes to say, hands fluttering in front of him. He looks down, expression falling into familiar lines of worry. "I'm sorry for interfering yesterday. Jiang-guniang said she wasn't angry with me, but I know that she likes Jin-gongzi and—"
"Which time?" Jiang Cheng asks, cutting Wen Ning off before he can work himself up too much. "Sending someone to get me or telling Jin Zixuan to mind his damn manners? Because you did the right thing both times and honestly, if Wei Wuxian was here, we'd have had to stop him from murdering Jin Zixuan with his bare hands. You just gave him a taste of his own damn medicine."
"Do you think it will cause trouble with the Lanling Jin Sect?"
Jiang Cheng snorts. "Not any more than there already is right now. Jin-furen will take Jiang Yanli's side over Jin Zixuan's any day and Jin Guangshan is too busy manufacturing reasons for the rest of us to be doing his dirty work to pay attention to what his son is doing."
"Really," Jiang Cheng says. "If he hadn't apologized right then and there, I would have dueled him and made sure to break his other arm. So really I should be thanking you, because that would have caused some trouble." They're not forbidden from dueling while at war, but it's heavily frowned upon to actually injure someone in a duel.
"Gongzi," Wen Ning says disapprovingly.
"What? He made a-jie cry!" Jiang Cheng protests. "It'd only be what he deserves. Besides, it would hardly be more fair for him to try and outshoot you, and there's no one else here I'd trust to duel for her honor."
Wen Ning has nothing to say to that, opening his mouth and closing it again without even managing a stuttering word. Jiang Cheng means what he said but it sounds a lot more flirtatious out loud than it did in his head. Why does he even open his mouth?
He splutters out something that he hopes was a coherent excuse and goes to take out his embarrassment on a nearby rock in as violent a manner as possible. Eventually he hears the distinctive twang of Wen Ning's bow above him again, a comfortable background rhythm to coordinate his own exercises with.
They don't speak for the rest of their morning training. Wen Ning rushes off to help in the kitchens and Jiang Cheng goes back to their quarters to clean his sword and stare at the ceiling in mortified silence and dread another day of meetings as he goes through the correspondence that Jiang Yanli has passed on for him to handle.
Luckily for Jiang Cheng (and the other sect leader who is precisely one more smiling excuse away from getting Zidian wrapped around his throat), Lan Xichen arrived sometime last night from Hejian. It's amazingly refreshing to watch Lan Xichen politely and precisely dismantling all of Jin Guangshan's excuses, an icy smile on his face the whole time and his kind eyes boring holes into Jin Guangshan's facade.
In the end, the meeting wraps up before lunch and Jiang Cheng has the go ahead to move his base of operations back to the southern front as soon as he pleases rather than having to stay in Langya for another month. He barely resists the urge to drop to his knees in front of Lan Xichen and thank him profusely for setting him free from this very expensive hell.
"Will you be returning to your main camp immediately?" Lan Xichen asks once they're free of the perfumed air of the meeting hall and safely ensconced in his temporary quarters.
Lan Xichen stopped smiling the moment they crossed into his rooms and he could drop the mask of Zewu-jun, radiating grace and cheer for every cultivator that crossed their path. Jiang Cheng can see the family resemblance between him and Lan Wangji more clearly without his usual smile, but Lan Xichen is starting to look closer to Lan Qiren, exhausted grief carving new lines around his eyes. Even the blues of his robes have started to shade lighter and lighter, not yet pure white but the color of a pond frozen over for the winter.
"Not immediately," Jiang Cheng says. "It'll be tomorrow at the earliest, but I wouldn't put it past Jin Guangshan to try and keep us here longer by suddenly 'noticing' a gap in his defenses."
"Mn," Lan Xichen agrees, fatigue clear in his sudden inarticulateness.
"Do you want to come to lunch with a-jie?" Jiang Cheng asks, casting a worried eye over Lan Xichen again.
His porcelain skin looks paper-thin and the bags under his dark eyes are almost the same color. Some of Jiang Yanli's soup would go a long way to putting color back in his face and grief shared is easier to bear.
"Thank you, but I fear I would not be good company," Lan Xichen says, mustering up a painfully thin imitation of a smile. "I must return to Hejian once Jin Guangshan has finished compiling his reports for Mingjue-xiong this afternoon. Meditation will suffice to keep me on my feet, but please pass along my regards to Jiang-guniang."
"Of course," Jiang Cheng says quietly. Lan Xichen does not like being coddled, but Jiang Yanli will make sure that he is served tea and some appetizing food at least before he leaves again. "I won't bother you any further, Zewu-jun."
Lan Xichen just inclines his head in silent reply.
Jiang Cheng leaves him be, seeking the comfort of his own quarters. He'll actually get to eat lunch with Wen Ning and Jiang Yanli for once and pass on the news that they'll be leaving for Yunmeng soon. Lotus Pier is still out of reach, but at least they'll be back in familiar territory.
Jiang Cheng still can't see an end to this war, but it's getting easier to live through it.