The kitchens are hot and busy with dinner preparations and Jiang Yanli mops her sweaty face with a handkerchief, smoothing back damp tendrils of hair that have fallen over her eyes. She usually helps with the communal dinner but today she's making up a special meal for the eighteen disciples who returned from the indoctrination camp only three days ago. Their physical condition wasn't worryingly bad, but as Yu Ziyuan had predicted before they left, the Qishan Wen Sect had not fed them well at all. Young as they were, none of them were used to practicing inedia and now they were struggling to adjust to eating regularly again.
It didn't help that all of them were practically sick with worry about Wei Wuxian. They had begged to accompany Jiang Cheng on his rescue mission, but Jiang Fengmian had put his foot down and decreed that only senior disciples would be allowed to go, much to Jiang Yanli's relief. It's still a risky proposition to venture beyond Lotus Pier when Qishan Wen has claimed every night-hunting area for their exclusive use, but the senior disciples are well-rested and prepared for the dangers of open combat.
Jiang Yanli hopes it doesn't come to that. Every disciple with Jiang Cheng will put their life on the line to get him back safely, but she would rather they not lose anyone at all. She knows every disciple and every servant in the walls of Lotus Pier and any loss would be felt in such a tight-knit sect. They are not like Lanling Jin, where servants come and go without any notice by the lofty cultivators who depend on their work.
"Shijie, shijie!" Jiang Yanli looks up from the pot she's been tending as one of the younger disciples skids to a halt in the middle of the kitchen. She squints through the steam—sixth shidi, just like she thought. No one else is quite as loud or brash.
"Come here and tell me, what's wrong?" she calls, beckoning the boy over to her little corner so he doesn't disturb the well-rehearsed dance flowing through the rest of the kitchen. He comes eagerly, round little face bright—he's always reminded her of a-Xian at that age, just settling into Lotus Pier.
"Shijie, Jiang Cheng is back with da-shixiong! They brought back another really pretty guy too," sixth shidi says, tripping over his words in his excitement. "Sect Leader Jiang said that you should come to his residence right away!"
"Of course, thank you for passing on the message, you've done well." She's already turning to prepare three bowls of her special congee to take with her. Wei Wuxian and the mystery man will surely be hungry, and Jiang Cheng as well, though he would never admit it. She only pauses to make sure that someone else will take over getting the returned disciples their dinner before she's walking as fast as she can towards her father's quarters while keeping a heavy tray balanced in front of her.
She nearly trips up the last set of steps up to the residence in her haste, but nothing spills. She doesn't knock on the door, only slides it open with her foot and enters. The moment she crosses the threshold of the silencing array she's greeted by the familiarly discordant chorus of her little brothers, seated around the table with her parents.
"A-Xian! A-Cheng! Welcome back," she says, joy welling up in her chest, but her eyes widen as she realizes who the 'really pretty guy' sharing the side across from her parents with Wei Wuxian is. "Hanguang-jun!" She quickly sets down the tray for the ravenous boys to descend on and salutes Lan Wangji. "I've brought food for you as well. I'm sure you and a-Xian must be starving."
He returns her salute without rising from his seat, posture still as perfect even though he's wearing purple Yunmeng Jiang robes and there's an unfamiliar sword in his hand, definitely not Bichen. "Many thanks, Jiang-guniang."
"A-Li," Jiang Fengmian says, "come and sit with us. You've already heard the story from the disciples who returned, yes?"
"Yes, die," she says, settling down gracefully between her father and Wei Wuxian at the free end of the table.
"What story?" Yu Ziyuan says. If it wasn't an unrefined habit, Jiang Yanli is sure that she would have snorted in disgust. "Those little fools have surely exaggerated the truth so far as to be unrecognizable. Wen Chao would not have dared to do anything serious before Wei Ying started stirring up trouble." Jiang Yanli stares at the table in front of her, waiting out the familiar tense silence of Yu Ziyuan daring anyone to contradict her.
"Apologies to Yu-furen, but I must disagree." Jiang Yanli, like everyone else around the table, looks up at Lan Wangji in shock. He continues, unmoved by Wei Wuxian's increasingly frantic tugging on his sleeve, "It was only luck that Wen Chao's arrogance and carelessness had not killed one of our number before then. Many disciples were already injured and weakened by the conditions in which we stayed and I do not believe some of them would have survived much longer. Had Wei Ying not acted when he did, Jin Zixuan and myself would have been seriously injured to appease Wen Chao's ego, rendering us easy targets for the xuanwu."
Yu Ziyuan looks as if someone has just slapped her across the face and Jiang Yanli feels much the same. No one but Jiang Fengmian dares to intervene when Yu Ziyuan has decided to blame something on Wei Wuxian, but here is Hanguang-jun, second on the list of young masters, blatantly contradicting her in front of Wei Wuxian himself. The surprise melts from her face quickly, replaced by anger as Zidian sparks purple on her hand. Yet whatever she would have said in response to Lan Wangji's defense is forgotten when Lan Wangji keeps speaking.
"Therefore, I must apologize to Sect Leader Jiang and Yu-furen for my own reckless actions which endangered the disciples of Yunmeng Jiang Sect, as well as the actions of the Gusu Lan disciple who shot carelessly and injured Wei Ying, preventing our escape with the group led by Jiang Wanyin and causing more trouble for the Yunmeng Jiang Sect." He bows his head deeply as he apologizes, the very model of courtesy and manners. Yu Ziyuan cannot respond with anger to such refined self-effacement without losing face and her eyes blaze even brighter with all of the stifled words she holds behind her lips.
"No need, Lan Wangji," Jiang Fengmian says when it becomes clear Yu Ziyuan will not speak. "Mistakes made in the confusion of battle should not be held too harshly against the young and inexperienced."
"Sect Leader Jiang is gracious as always. My thanks as well to Jiang Wanyin for ensuring the safety of the Gusu Lan disciples that escaped with you." Lan Wangji speaks in the same tranquil manner, unruffled by the baleful stare of Yu Ziyuan as he bows to Jiang Cheng as best as he can while still seated.
"It was nothing," Jiang Cheng says, face screaming his discomfort at being dragged into the conversation. "You and Wei Wuxian did all of the hard work of distracting the xuanwu and figuring out the hole was there in the first place."
"Jiang Wanyin was the one to confirm its existence, as well as carrying most of the disciples who were unable to swim. Your efforts secured the avenue of escape for everyone else, and your return in such a timely fashion assured the safety of myself and Wei Ying. Should I not express thanks for this?"
Jiang Yanli has to cover her mouth to hide her amusement at Jiang Cheng's discomfort. He looks like he's receiving a scolding rather than earnest praise from a distinguished peer.
"If Hanguang-jun says so, it must be true, Jiang Cheng," Wei Wuxian chimes in, "so if you won't believe it from me, you have to believe it from him!" Yu Ziyuan glares at him for speaking so informally, but it's much less poisonous now that Lan Wangji has mollified her rage by also speaking out in favor of Jiang Cheng.
"Shut up and eat your congee," Jiang Cheng says. "No one wants to hear what you have to say right now!" Wei Wuxian pouts but obeys, shooting Jiang Yanli a sideways look of approval after he tastes it. Jiang Yanli smiles back at him, ignoring the disapproval radiating off of Yu Ziyuan at his abominable table manners. At least he hasn't tried to start talking through his food with Lan Wangji sitting right there.
"Regarding the xuanwu, these past few days the Qishan Wen Sect has been celebrating its death at Wen Chao's hands, though he sadly lost his sword in the process," Jiang Fengmian says, nodding sardonically at the sword in Lan Wangji's hands. Looking more closely at it, Jiang Yanli can see now that the decorations on the hilt and the overall design are characteristic of the famed forges of Qishan. "Thus they are claiming that they are too busy to return the swords of the foreign disciples who fled like cowards, abandoning Wen Chao to his brave stand against the xuanwu of slaughter."
"What a bold lie that is," Wei Wuxian grumbles into the last of his congee. "Wen Chao was the one who couldn't even keep hold of his sword and he was the first one out of there once the xuanwu woke up. What a brave stand it must have been when he couldn't even look at the beast without screaming for Wen Zhuliu to protect him."
"How humble of you," Yu Ziyuan says with arched brows. "Are you really passing up an opportunity to brag about how you slew the xuanwu?"
"Even my face isn't thick enough to start bragging about things I didn't do!" Wei Wuxian protests. "Lan Zhan was the one who killed it, not me."
"I could not have done it without Wei Ying." This whole conversation has involved Lan Wangji saying more than Jiang Yanli has ever heard him say at once and she attended classes with him for a year at the Cloud Recesses. Half of it has been either defending or complimenting Wei Wuxian with the same conviction he might use to answer one of Lan Qiren's questions.
"I didn't even remember that Wen Chao's sword was still in the pool until you brought it up and you're the one who spent hours cutting through its neck with your clan's Chord Assassination technique, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian demurs, doubling down on his uncharacteristic humility.
"Who retrieved the sword? Who distracted the xuanwu so I could ambush it? Who cut the xuanwu's neck so that the chord could cut through easily?" Lan Wangji asks.
"Yes, that was me, but—"
Lan Wangji looks ready to continue questioning Wei Wuxian in the same vein, but he raises his hands in surrender in front of his flushing face. "Fine, fine, I give up, we killed it together, you can stop now, Lan Zhan!"
"I thought you two didn't get along," Jiang Cheng says, staring between the two of them incredulously.
"We killed a giant turtle monster together and then we spent a whole week trapped in a cave, Jiang Cheng. It felt like a lifetime, which is more than long enough for me to finally wear him down, right, Lan Zhan?" Wei Wuxian throws an arm around his shoulders, but he falls utterly silent when Lan Wangji turns his intense golden stare on him.
"Mmn," Lan Wangji says, clarifying nothing of his stance on the matter. He doesn't shrug off Wei Wuxian's arm, though, just turns to Jiang Fengmian, who has been watching the interplay with an indulgent look that fades back to sobriety when Lan Wangji produces a jade slip marked with the insignia of the Gusu Lan Sect from his sleeve. "I must take my leave to return to the Cloud Recesses, but the message that shufu sent contained news that you should hear."
"Please, speak freely. Any information on the state of affairs right now is welcome." The seriousness of her father's voice cuts right through the levity that Wei Wuxian had managed to inject into the conversation. Jiang Yanli holds her breath in apprehension and her brothers are quiet now too, staring at the message from Lan Qiren.
"No disciples from Qinghe Nie were present at the indoctrination camp, but I did not know why until now. Shufu writes that open combat broke out on the border between Qinghe Nie and Qishan Wen shortly before the Cloud Recesses were attacked, most likely to preempt any assistance we might offer to Qinghe Nie."
"What of Lanling Jin?" Yu Ziyuan asks. Madame Jin is her closest friend and Jiang Yanli feels a pang of worry herself at the thought of Koi Tower under attack and Jin Zixuan on the front lines.
Lan Wangji frowns. "Sect Leader Jin has already informed shufu that he will not move against Qishan Wen openly, and unless Jin Zixuan manages to convince him otherwise, Sect Leader Jin will remain neutral until he must pick a side. With Lanling Jin not posing a direct threat to Qishan Wen, I fear that their next target will be Yunmeng Jiang."
All of Jiang Yanli's fear for Lanling Jin is eclipsed by the terror that flows through her at the thought of her home under attack. Yu Ziyuan clenches the hand that bears Zidian into a fist, purple lightning traveling in lazy sparking waves up her arm.
"You mean to say that the rebellion of the disciples sent for indoctrination will provoke reprisal against Yunmeng Jiang?" Jiang Fengmian asks. He places a calming hand on the table in front of Yu Ziyuan when her eyes immediately dart towards Wei Wuxian.
"I think that such an attack would come regardless of any rebellion," Lan Wangji says firmly. "Yunmeng Jiang has always been resistant to Qishan Wen's dominance, and it lies on the southern border. Wen Ruohan will not wish to fight a war on two fronts against Qinghe Nie in the north and Yunmeng Jiang and Gusu Lan in the south."
"And what would you recommend that I do in the face of such an ambiguous threat, when an attack could come at any time?" Jiang Fengmian asks. It's not the sort of question a sect leader would usually pose to a cultivator barely over eighteen, but Jiang Yanli remembers abruptly that with Qingheng-jun dead and Lan Xichen missing, Lan Wangji will be the acting head of Gusu Lan when he rejoins the rest of his sect. It's a sincere question from one clan head to another.
Lan Wangji sits in silence for a moment, clearly gathering his thoughts. Then he replies, "Qishan Wen will come in force, and strike when you believe you are safe from reprisal. Your ties to Meishan Yu make evacuation along the river feasible and no one would question Jiang-guniang being sent to stay with her mother's relatives in such a troubled time. Her public journey and entourage would keep watchful eyes away from any other movement of people and cargo out of Yunmeng."
"You would suggest that we abandon Lotus Pier?" Jiang Fengmian doesn't sound overly shocked by the proposal, and Yu Ziyuan isn't getting any angrier; have they talked about this before? Jiang Cheng looks ready to spit fire, but he subsides with a stern look from their father. Jiang Fengmian glances towards Jiang Yanli with a thoughtful look.
Jiang Yanli drops her eyes under his scrutiny, avoiding the eyes of everyone else around the table as well. She has never thought of her relative weakness compared to her brothers as a strength before, never thought of herself as a leader, but if she is the only one of her family who can leave Lotus Pier, the only one who can stand as a beacon without also becoming a target, then can she refuse? She doesn't know.
"Is a sect a place or the people within it? A place can be rebuilt once destroyed, but only if the people who live there survive," Lan Wangji says, and it sounds like he's quoting someone, but it's what he's not saying that resonates the strongest in Jiang Yanli's heart. The Cloud Recesses of Lan Wangji's childhood is already gone, and his father with it; he has to believe that it's more important to look to the future, to the new home that they will build. "Wen Ruohan will not stop until he crushes all who oppose him." Unsaid again: or until he is overthrown himself.
"I thank Hanguang-jun for his thoughtful words," Jiang Fengmian says. He rises to his feet and the rest of them follow suit. He and Yu Ziyuan exchange a salute with Lan Wangji before he turns to his children. "A-Li, a-Cheng, a-Xian, make sure that Hanguang-jun sets off safely."
The four of them salute and make themselves scarce. Lan Wangji looks a little confused at how suddenly the conversation has ended, but the Jiang siblings and Wei Wuxian know to get out of range before the yelling really starts. Yu Ziyuan only stays that quiet when she's waiting to tear into Jiang Fengmian behind closed doors and away from guests, and this is not a fight about sect matters that her parents can easily settle or compromise on. Once they've fought it out, they'll present a unified front to everyone else, but the fight itself will surely be long and bitter.
Jiang Yanli carries the tray almost all the way back to the kitchen with the boys in tow before she realizes that Lan Wangji has yet to eat his dinner. "Lan-er-gongzi, you should eat before you leave. Are you sure you don't want to stay the night?"
"I must return to the Cloud Recesses as soon as possible."
"You won't be able to return quickly if you fall off your sword because you finally ran out of spiritual energy," Wei Wuxian says, slinging his arm back around Lan Wangji's shoulders. Again, no protest. "Also, you should really get your leg checked out by a physician while you're here. Mianmian's herbs were good, but they can't fix everything!"
"Mmn." Away from serious discussion, Lan Wangji seems to have reverted back to speaking as little as possible.
Wei Wuxian takes it as agreement and drags Lan Wangji through Lotus Pier towards his room, babbling the whole time about whatever catches his eye. Jiang Cheng ducks out as quickly as possible to let a physician know to meet them there, or maybe just to escape Wei Wuxian's recountings of his most embarrassing moments as a young disciple. But Jiang Yanli listens and watches Wei Wuxian as he talks without pause, but hesitates at odd moments, stumbling over names and stories, and pained expressions flash over his face at mundane, everyday sights. She doesn't comment, but she notices.
Once they reach Wei Wuxian's room, Lan Wangji eats neatly and completely silently, not responding to Wei Wuxian's chatter, which is now mostly directed at Jiang Yanli anyways. While Lan Wangji eats and they wait for the physician, she catches him up on a good bit of the gossip that he missed while in Qishan, reveling in the fleeting feeling of normalcy after the quiet weeks filled by the simmering tension between her parents.
"My thanks, Jiang-guniang," Lan Wangji says, setting aside the bowl once he's finished.
"That means he really liked it, even though his tastebuds have been permanently damaged by the terrible stuff they serve in the Cloud Recesses. Shijie's food is always the best, because it's made with love," Wei Wuxian says from where he's sprawled across the floor so that Lan Wangji can sit on his bed and prop his leg up.
"If I had known a-Cheng would be back with you so soon, I would have had a pot of lotus root and pork rib soup ready," she says, smiling down at Wei Wuxian from her own seat behind his desk. "Even die expected it to take another day at least."
"It's only because Lan Zhan remembered about Wen Chao's sword. We could fly up to where they blocked off the cave and we managed to get at least part way through by the time Jiang Cheng showed up."
"Partway, he says," Jiang Cheng cuts in as he enters with the physician. "You made a hole barely big enough to hear your screaming through, that's not partway. You saw the boulders we had to lift off of there to get you out."
"If we'd had to depend on your sense of direction to find us, it would have taken you even longer!"
Luckily the physician is well used to ignoring their antics and goes directly to Lan Wangji, talking with him in low tones as he examines his leg. From what Jiang Yanli can see, it seems to have healed up well, thanks in no small part to Lan Wangji's high cultivation. The physician only applies some ointment and fresh bandages before quickly vacating the site of yet another sibling showdown between Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng.
"You're lucky I didn't just leave you there the moment I heard your annoying voice again!"
"A-Cheng, a-Xian." She doesn't raise her voice, but they turn to her sheepishly anyways. "I'm glad both of you made it back safely."
"Me too, shijie," Wei Wuxian says, smiling up at her. He's pale and tired and there's sadness lingering at the corner of his eyes that wasn't there before he left, but his smile still shines like the sun brought down from the sky.
"Lan-er-gongzi, are you still determined to leave tonight?"
"I must." Unlike Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian, both of them rumpled and slouching with exhaustion, Lan Wangji stands tall and straight even on his recently broken leg. If it weren't for the purple of his robes, Jiang Yanli would say he looked the same as ever.
"Then we won't keep you any longer. You won't be able to take off inside the compound, but we can see you off at the edge of the barriers."
The training field will be deserted by this time of night and it lies in the less protected public spaces just outside the internal compound barriers that mark the heart of Lotus Pier. Jiang Cheng walks by her side and soaks up her recounting of the weeks he missed while Wei Wuxian pesters Lan Wangji behind them.
"Wei Wuxian, leave the man alone, he's already been trapped with you for a week, he doesn't need to suffer through anymore of your chatter," Jiang Cheng barks when they reach the center of the training field and Wei Wuxian shows no sign of shutting up. "Lan-er-gongzi, thank you for keeping this idiot alive and not murdering him." For all his show of disgruntlement, Jiang Yanli knows that his thanks are sincere; his perceived failure to rescue Wei Wuxian had weighed heavily on his shoulders.
"Thank you for your prompt rescue," Lan Wangji says, returning Jiang Cheng's salute. As before, Jiang Cheng struggles to accept the genuine gratitude and just bows again before walking away quickly as Wei Wuxian snickers at him.
Then it's only Jiang Yanli left, watching the two of them stare at each other again. Not for the first time this evening, she feels as if she's watching two people converse from the wrong side of a silencing barrier.
Lan Wangji turns and offers her the same salute he made to Jiang Cheng. "Jiang-guniang. Yunmeng's hospitality is as exceptional as Wei Ying described."
A startled smile spreads across her face as she returns the unexpected compliment. "Lan-er-gongzi is as handsome and talented as a-Xian described as well."
"Shijie!" Wei Wuxian makes a betrayed face at her and unexpectedly blushes when Lan Wangji turns to look at him. They stare at each other for another long, charged moment. "Sorry I made you talk so much, I know it's not your favorite." His voice is low and intimate and if Jiang Yanli felt like she stood on the outside of a barrier before, she feels very much like she's intruding now.
"Mn. Such important things need to be said. No apology necessary." Lan Wangji hesitates for a moment before he reaches out and lays one hand on the left side of Wei Wuxian's chest, over his heart and the brand that now marks his skin. "Wei Ying. Stay safe."
Wei Wuxian returns the touch easily, fingers curling into Lan Wangji's borrowed robes. "You too, Lan Zhan."
Lan Wangji nods back and they stand like that for a brief moment. Then their hands drop in unison and Lan Wangji turns away, launching himself into the sky on a stolen sword. They stand there watching in silence until he fades into the night sky, dark purple silhouette blending easily into the midnight blue that falls over them.
"A-Xian, do you think he's right? About Lotus Pier being attacked?" Jiang Yanli can't bring herself to speak above a whisper, as if saying the words more loudly would make them true.
"Yes." Wei Wuxian's voice is just as quiet as hers, and he comes to stand by her, holding her hand in his when she reaches out and meeting her worried stare with haunted eyes. "I want him to be wrong, and he'd prefer to be wrong about this too, but in all the time I've known Lan Zhan, he's never said anything he doesn't believe is true, and he's never been wrong."
"Do you think I'm right?" She doesn't know what she's asking. Is she right to hope for Lan Wangji to be wrong, is she right to disdain fighting and violence, is she the right person to lead her sect into exile to save their lives, will she be enough? The darkness of night is no longer comforting, but menacing, and every shadow seems to hide a threat to the safety and light of her home.
"A-jie," Wei Wuxian calls softly, bringing her out of the seething cloud of worry and fear that surrounds her like gnats on the water. He hasn't called her that since he was very young and she only realizes that she's crying when he brushes away her tears with a gentle thumb.
"A-jie, you've always been the strongest one of us, no matter your cultivation level. Even when we were little, you carried me and a-Cheng home in the middle of the night all by yourself when we were too scared to ask for help from anyone else. Everyone in Lotus Pier knows you and everyone trusts you to do the right thing. It's not weak to be afraid of the difficulties in your path, only to refuse the path because you fear failure."
He's quoting Jiang Fengmian now, a familiar lecture that her father gives to every crop of new students on the meaning of their sect's motto. She's heard it a thousand times at this point, but this is the first time that it's weighed so heavily on her heart.
She laughs wetly, wiping away her tears with her sleeves. "When did a-Xian get so wise? I feel like I looked away for a moment and you've grown up ahead of me."
"Lan Zhan must have rubbed off on me after I was stuck with that fuddy-duddy for so long, ahh, Lan-lao-xiansheng would be so proud that his best student has finally had an impact on me!"
She can't help her laughter at that, more cheerful this time, just as Wei Wuxian must have intended. Lan Qiren's frustration with Wei Wuxian's conduct had been the subject of many jokes during their time at the Cloud Recesses and even after Wei Wuxian had been expelled, the mere mention of his name had been enough to get Lan Qiren tugging at his beard.
Wei Wuxian keeps up the jokes all the way back to his room, yet the moment his head hits the pillow, he's snoring away without even pulling the covers up. Jiang Yanli shakes her head but tucks him in anyways before checking in on Jiang Cheng and heading to bed herself, content in the knowledge that her family is safe tonight, no matter what dangers the future holds.
In the morning her father summons her to his residence and asks her if she will go to her mother's family in Meishan Yu. His eyes are red and tired and the tell-tale branching marks of Zidian cover the table they sat at last night. Jiang Yanli bows her head and agrees. He announces it to the rest of the sect the same day.
That night her mother summons her to her residence and hands her a letter for her grandmother, Sect Leader Yu. She hasn't left her residence all day and her eyes are red and angry. Jiang Yanli bows her head and accepts the letter and the embrace and scolding advice that follow.
Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian hover around her more than usual as she prepares to leave, seeking reassurances that she cannot give them. She walks around Lotus Pier with them in what spare time she has, etching familiar sights into her memory and speaking with as many people as she can. She does her best to breathe through the fear and keep walking, one step more down this path and then another step and then another and so on.
Her boat leaves a week after Jiang Fengmian's announcement, trunks full of clothes and the contents of the treasure rooms of Lotus Pier, packed in qiankun pouches that will only open to her touch. Her parents and her brothers see her off at the docks. No one cries but their smiles waver at the edges.
Her attendants are clumsy in their new finery and she has to keep sixth shidi from tipping over the edge of the boat in his excitement when they finally reach the end of the familiar lotus lakes that surround Yunmeng and set off up the river towards Meishan.
She gives her mother's letter to Sect Leader Yu in private and watches as her stern old grandmother cries, long, heaving sobs that she can do nothing to halt or ease. She doesn't ask to read the letter and she doesn't protest when her grandmother insists that she carry her sword at all times.
The people of Lotus Pier join her in Meishan in drips and drabs, like raindrops coming together to form a steady trickle. She organizes their housing with her grandmother and takes command of the household staff who turn to her for guidance and watches over the training of the younger disciples and comforts the children who miss their home without understanding why they had to leave and doesn't think about how many of the senior disciples she may never see again. She listens intently to every scrap of news that comes from the east or up the river.
The last boat from Yunmeng Jiang arrives in Meishan Yu a month after she does, charred at the edges and unnaturally swift against the current. It brings only her youngest brother, Zidian curled around his hand and a terrible, yawning abyss of grief in his eyes, the most senior disciples in various states of injury, no small number of them bearing the marks of Zidian, and the news that she is an orphan.
A map of MDZS locations can be found here which will probably help make more sense of LWJ's comments re: Yunmeng Jiang's geographical position in relation to Qishan Wen. A jade slip is a magical tool that can store information and transmit it directly into someone's mind . How they work depends on the xianxia novel in question, but I imagine they can be keyed to only respond to people authorized to access the information.
We don't know what LWJ and JFM talked about after the rescue in the novel, but the fact that Yunmeng Jiang doesn't seem to have prepared for an actual attack (even after the Cloud Recesses have been attacked for no apparent reason and Yu Ziyuan implies that they expect retaliation because of WWX's actions) seems kind of like sticking your head in the sand and hoping the problem will go away.
No Qinghe Nie disciples are mentioned at all in the xuanwu/indoctrination camp chapters in the novel, but no mention is made of them being missing either, so I'm taking some artistic liberties there and folding it into the mystery of why Qishan Wen would attack the Cloud Recesses right before they essentially ask for hostages from everyone.
I'm sorry that I killed Madame Yu and Jiang Fengmian but I don't feel like I know either of them well enough to do them justice and also it would make the political parts of this fic more of a fucking nightmare than they already are. I promise that no siblings will die in this fic.
Chapter 2: lan xichen
Things this chapter contains: truly amazing amounts of rambling and overthinking canon, sibling angst, and lots of tears. Also, canon-typical levels of terribleness from Wen Chao, all offscreen and not very explicitly described.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Lan Xichen barely recognizes his brother when he finally, unexpectedly finds him, six months after Wangji disappeared towards Lotus Pier on Wen Chao's stolen sword, their paths separating mere days after they reunited to take back what remained of the Cloud Recesses. Seeing him again is nothing like Lan Xichen feared—he lives and breathes, his body bears no obvious wounds or signs of torture (yet he knows firsthand just how stoic Wangji can be in the face of debilitating injury)—but he's still shocked breathless by Wangji's simple presence, the gaping hole in his heart so suddenly filled that he finds he doesn't know how to breathe around the absence of pain and guilt and rage and despair. He can't even smile. He has barely smiled since Wangji was lost and now his face is too stiff to smile.
The Wangji in front of him is not the one who flew away with a barely half-healed leg to warn the Yunmeng Jiang Sect of the force that advanced towards Lotus Pier and if Lan Xichen hadn't watched him subdue half of the fierce corpses they were facing with a single effortless strum of his guqin only a moment ago, he would have thought he was imagining his brother's face on another's body.
Wangji's clothes are of fine make and weave but the colors and embroidery are all wrong, dark green and blue rather than the lighter shades of sky blue favored by the GusuLan Sect and rarely found on his brother's stark white clothing. Even the jade token on his belt is replaced with an unfamiliar piece hanging from a red tassel. His hair is pulled back only in a simple half-tail, no headpiece or forehead ribbon in sight. He carries no sword, Bichen still in Qishan Wen hands by the time he disappeared, and now that the fight is over, Wangji has disappeared into his sleeves.
Wangji is not the same man but Lan Xichen is not the same man either. He knows now how fleeting life can be, has lost and all but forgotten too many faces he once saw everyday, has spent too long on the battlefield to waste any time on hesitating before pulling Wangji into an embrace, crushing him against his chest with all the prodigious arm strength of the Gusu Lan sect. Lan Xichen isn't expecting Wangji to do much more than endure the affection and relief he can't express any other way in the moment, too overwhelmed for words, but his brother's arms come around him, a vice around his chest to match the clench of his heart.
"I can't fucking believe you, you bastard! How could you just—"
Lan Xichen's eyes water fiercely. He breathes through the catch in his throat and pushes back the tears, watching as Jiang Wanyin fails to do the same not five feet away, collapsing into Wei Wuxian's shoulder after choking on what is clearly the first of many recriminations on the theme of Wei Wuxian's brilliant idiocy. Wei Wuxian doesn't flinch under the onslaught of clearly distraught yelling that ensues, but the firm set of his stance is betrayed by the tears that drip down his face and the clench of his fingers in Jiang Wanyin's robes. Lan Xichen has known since their time as guest disciples that Wei Wuxian and the Jiang siblings treat each other as true siblings.
He doesn't know if they saw each other at all between the fall of Lotus Pier and Wei Wuxian's disappearance. He doesn't think so.
"I can't exactly apologize for anything if you kill me right now," Wei Wuxian says, breaking through Jiang Wanyin's tirade. He makes no move to release his younger brother, only settles his arms more comfortably around him and rubs his soaked face into the collar of the other's robes. "It's like you aren't even happy to see me, really makes a man feel unappreciated—" He grunts in pain as Jiang Wanyin pulls back only far enough to bash their foreheads together.
"Shut up before I actually kill you!"
Zidian crackles warningly against Wei Wuxian's back. Lan Xichen can't see Jiang Wanyin's face, but he's intimately familiar with the despair and exasperation that usually flash across Jiang Wanyin's face when talking about Wei Wuxian's sheer stupidity when it comes to genuine emotions. They've spent a lot of time fighting together, shoring up the major defensive points of the southern front and looking, always looking, in every stranger and every crowd and every corpse for faces they don't want to find.
There's plenty of time to talk when you can't keep flying through the night but you also can't sleep without seeing the face of your brother in every horror story about how Qishan Wen treats prisoners.
"Do you know how much shijie cried when I showed up in Meishan Yu without you"—his voice breaks like an echo of Zidian's familiar crack—"and then, after you patted me on the head like a fucking dog and told me not to worry and disappeared into a fucking battlefield, the next thing we hear about you is that Wen Chao is boasting about finally killing you and Hanguang-jun like he was doing the world a favor?"
Lan Xichen's grip on Wangji tightens convulsively and Wangji squeezes back like he's seven again, clinging to the only person left in his tiny world who will reach back. Still, familiar tension is starting to build under Lan Xichen's fingers and he reluctantly releases Wangji to stand straight again and reclaim his sizeable personal space, golden eyes perfectly level with Lan Xichen's own darker pair.
Wangji has only grown during their time apart, body just as strong and back just as straight, but Lan Xichen almost feels as though he's shrunk. It's the lack of his forehead ribbon and headpiece, stripping away the facade of the upright and formal Hanguang-jun that the rest of the world can't seem to see through to find Wangji, glimpsed only in the quiet and privacy of the jingshi, the one place where he can put down the weight of the world's expectations.
"Wen Chao couldn't kill us if he had half of Qishan Wen behind him," Wei Wuxian scoffs wetly with what Lan Xichen thinks would be undeserved scorn for anyone but Wen Chao. The man still crows now about having killed Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-jun, carrying Suibian and Bichen on his belt like macabre trophies and neglecting to mention that the swords had been confiscated long before the pair of them had upstaged him by killing the xuanwu of slaughter using the very same sword he lost during his panicked flight from the cave. With no corpses as proof and the swords useless in his hands, sealed as they are, no one would have believed Wen Chao if he hadn't also reclaimed his sword, last seen in Wangji's possession. "Even after we killed Wen Zhuliu, that greasy bastard only got the better of us with the usual cheap tricks."
"Mn. Threatened to burn down Yiling if we didn't surrender." Wangji's voice is even, but his fists are white-knuckled by his side.
"But Yiling has been under Qishan Wen control for centuries, ever since they set up the seal on the Burial Mounds," Lan Xichen says, sick horror burning in his stomach (but never showing on his frozen face) at the thought of an entire city torched like the Cloud Recesses and Lotus Pier. Lan Xichen had already heard the story of Wen Chao's cowardice in the xuanwu cave directly from Wangji, but clearly Wen Chao had found new depths to sink to after the shameful 'success' of his assault on Lotus Pier. It was common knowledge by now that Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan were dead, but the humiliating story of the mysterious disappearance of their bodies and any casualties of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect right under his nose had spread even further.
"That's what I said! Still, it's not the kind of threat that you want to take a chance on. Useless bastard," Wei Wuxian sneers, dragging a protesting Jiang Wanyin over to a patch of the meadow not covered in corpse remnants and pulls him down with an arm hooked around his neck. Wangji follows and so Lan Xichen does too, arranging themselves more neatly than the squabbling siblings. "No, you shut up and stop struggling, I refuse to stand around or sit straight if we're going to be catching up on the last six months of our lives, I'm not carved from jade like Lan Zhan—"
Wei Wuxian continues his babbling but Lan Xichen doesn't hear any of it, attention caught by the fluttering white ribbon tied around his right wrist, only visible now that his tussling with Jiang Wanyin has disheveled his long-sleeved robes even more than usual.
Lan Xichen looks at the very pronounced clouds embroidered on the ribbon and then he looks at Wangji beside him. His little brother meets his curious gaze with a placid but expectant expression. Lan Xichen raises one brow at him and wonders when Wangji learned to tease so well; given his apparent company for the past months, perhaps it was simply self-defense. Wangji just nods at him, no trace of guilt or shame in his clear eyes, a faint smile rippling across his face and settling around his eyes as he looks at Wei Wuxian.
Wangji doesn't raise his voice, but Wei Wuxian hears him over the racket anyway, rolling off of his victorious position on Jiang Wanyin's back with a groan. He settles in the lotus pose with a very long-suffering air that does nothing to hide his radiant joy.
"Lan Zhan! Where do you want me to start?"
While Lan Xichen struggles for words, Jiang Wanyin manages to answer Wei Wuxian's question first. "How about with where you've fucking been for the past six months?"
"Well, for a while, we were stuck in the hell on earth that is the Burial Mounds after Wen Chao so kindly left us to die rather than killing us outright, but you know me, I've never met a wall that I didn't want to climb over or break through, so that was only the first two months and after that, we've been keeping our heads down," Wei Wuxian says in one long rush, explaining nothing and everything all at once.
Lan Xichen wonders fleetingly if Wei Wuxian has some kind of plan to keep himself from being murdered by Jiang Wanyin, whose face has darkened like the sky before a rumbling summer storm.
"What the hell kind of answer is that? Do you think this is some kind of fucking joke? Every single sect between Meishan Yu and Qinghe Nie has been watching for you and Hanguang-jun for six months and you want me to be satisfied with this sort of vague bullshit?"
Lan Xichen is again too slow to pre-empt Jiang Wanyin's explosive outburst, but he finds he agrees with the sentiment behind it. Wei Wuxian is clearly talking around the question, and perhaps on another day or another topic Lan Xichen would have the patience to wait for him to get to his point, but he has all but spent his self-restraint on the grief that grows like pond scum in his chest the longer the Sunshot Campaign draws on, clouding the still pool of calm that he draws on to maintain his signature equanimity.
"Perhaps you could elaborate?" Lan Xichen says as mildly as he can manage, which may not be as mild as he thinks, given the alarming rise of Wei Wuxian's eyebrows upon glancing at his face. "Particularly on the part about Wen Chao leaving you to die?"
"An incredible miscalculation on the part of everyone involved, but especially Wen Chao," Wei Wuxian says shortly. He looks angry, but Lan Xichen isn't sure of the target of his ire—himself, Wen Chao, the whole situation. "Lan Zhan and I were trying to be as careful as possible while still distracting as many of the Qishan Wen cultivators as possible away from Lotus Pier. Neither of us expected Wen Chao to have so many cultivators involved in his ambush, or for him to be so bold as to try something in the middle of a town in broad daylight. Like I said, he threatened to burn down Yiling and we weren't about to test whether he would be able to go against Wen Qing so openly. We thought that maybe we could escape later since he didn't seem like he wanted to see us dead immediately."
His voice hardens, "Of course, what he really wanted was to know that we were going to suffer before we died, so he branded Lan Zhan's chest as punishment for the 'theft' of his sword, tied us in immortal binding ropes and dropped us in the middle of the Burial Mounds."
Lan Xichen's brother is sitting next to him and he felt his heartbeat strong and quick against his chest not five minutes ago. That doesn't keep him from seizing Wangji's wrist, feeling for his pulse automatically, reassuring himself that this story doesn't end with his little brother's painful and extremely messy death at the hands and teeth of an uncountable horde of fierce corpses and whatever other horrors populate the haunted hills behind Yiling.
Wei Wuxian really has a gift for drama because he doesn't follow up on the practically earth-shattering announcement that he and Wangji managed to survive for two months in a place where nothing can live and then escape apparently unscathed, letting such an unbelievable claim stand for long enough to make it clear it isn't a joke. Or maybe even he can't find words for the Burial Mounds.
"I'm not really seeing how this was a miscalculation on his part, except for the part where you're still alive and just as annoying as ever," Jiang Wanyin growls. While Wei Wuxian is slouched insouciantly despite his anger, Jiang Wanyin sits rigidly upright, fingers clenched so tightly in the purple fabric of his robes that his bones are visibly gleaming through the skin of his hands.
"Wen Chao failed to consider two very important things in his brilliant plan," Wei Wuxian says, holding up two fingers to emphasize his point. "First, just because he's a fucking useless piece of dead weight without his sword doesn't mean the rest of us are, but he didn't even search us for qiankun pouches, or even search our sleeves, even though we could have literally anything tucked away in there. Second, he thought using the immortal binding ropes meant we wouldn't be able to defend ourselves and we would be easy prey for any resentful beings, which was truly an idiotic assumption because if anything, the immortal binding ropes probably helped us survive those first hours more than anything else. We were very unappetizing prey when compared to the numerous terrified cultivators who carried us in, like literal bonfires of yang energy just tantalizingly out of reach. It wasn't really a bad plan besides those parts, though, which is even more aggravating than him doing something completely stupid."
"Worked in our favor," Wangji says, serene amid the storm of emotion from every other side.
"Doesn't make me any less angry about the way he got the upper hand in his ambush though," Wei Wuxian retorts, bright eyes flicking over to Wangji before he focuses back on Lan Xichen and Jiang Wanyin. "That's part of why we haven't tried to get in contact before this, even after we made it out of the Burial Mounds. If we showed back up as ourselves anywhere, you can bet that Wen Chao would do anything to get at us, battlefield or no battlefield. Not to mention that two months in the Burial Mounds wasn't exactly a pleasant spiritual retreat where all we got to do was practice our cultivation."
"That's not the whole reason you've stayed away," Lan Xichen says, not quite a question and not quite a statement. He doesn't think he's quite as good at reading people other than Wangji, but he doesn't have to be Meng Yao to figure out that Wei Wuxian talking around some rather large parts of the past six months with Wangji's implicit approval at the very least. "But it's the only reason you can give us?"
"It might be the only reason you'll accept." Wei Wuxian doesn't drop his gaze and Lan Xichen inclines his head in acquiescence. Wangji adds nothing, which says more than anything he might have said.
"Don't give me that bullshit, Wei Wuxian!" Jiang Wanyin growls. His posture has only grown stiffer with every evasive word out of Wei Wuxian's mouth and now he looks as if he's ready to ascend to the heavens (or at least leap to his feet) as a streak of purple lightning only to descend again and smite Wei Wuxian with all the force of his pent up emotions (mostly rage and grief and worry). "Have you already forgotten what you promised me before you fucking disappeared? Is this what you think sharing our burdens is, just skipping over the bits you think I won't accept?"
"No, of course not!" Wei Wuxian looks, if not hurt, then at least startled by the force of Jiang Wanyin's accusations. "It's not that at all, Jiang Cheng. We're not trying to hide things from you or Zewu-jun, it's just. Complicated."
He bites his lip and looks down, uncharacteristically speechless. Jiang Wanyin really hasn't exaggerated his discomfort in the face of such raw emotion. All the glib ease from earlier has disappeared and he looks very young and afraid.
"Didn't I promise you that I would still listen to everything you told me, even if it made me angry? Don't you believe me?"
Jiang Wanyin's chest heaves, face still ominously dark, and Lan Xichen feels more than a little uncomfortable to be intruding on such a private and apparently fraught sibling dispute. As far as he knows, Jiang Wanyin has never discussed what happened when Lotus Pier fell with anyone other than Jiang Yanli, just as he hasn't talked about the Cloud Recesses burning and his own father's death.
"I do! I just don't know how to tell you. And it will definitely make you angry so—"
"Wei Ying." Wei Wuxian visibly relaxes at Wangji's quiet call, hands coming out of tense fists even though his arms stay crossed over his chest. "Silencing array first. I will play while we talk."
Wei Wuxian nods and extracts a sheaf of talismans from one of his sleeves, infusing them only briefly with spiritual energy before tossing them straight up to hover above the four of them. Red ink on yellowed and battered paper, the talismans flutter briefly in place before spreading out to land in a circular formation around them, connected by faint lines of light. In the scant moments that Lan Xichen is enthralled by the unfamiliar array (invented by Wei Wuxian or adapted from the ones usually worked into sect buildings?), Wangji retrieves his guqin and the first notes of Cleansing fall softly into the oddly muffled space created by the silencing array.
Hearing Wangji play again should reassure him, but the choice of song only makes Lan Xichen apprehensive. Wangji infusing his playing with spiritual power means that he anticipates the complicated full story of their confinement in and subsequent escape from the Burial Mounds will be upsetting enough to require the full calming effects of Cleansing, one of the most powerful songs of Clarity.
Lan Xichen doesn't know if Jiang Wanyin knows the music, but if he doesn't realize, Lan Xichen isn't going to bring it to his attention. It's more than a little rude to influence someone with musical cultivation without consent, but if anyone ever needed a moment of tranquility, it's Jiang Wanyin.
He notes that Wei Wuxian has managed to slide himself around their little circle so that he's sitting closer to Wangji and facing Jiang Wanyin and Lan Xichen, two united fronts of mismatched siblings.
"None of what I've said so far has been lies, I promise," Wei Wuxian says earnestly, keeping his eyes locked on Jiang Wanyin's. "We were ambushed by Wen Chao, it went badly for us after we killed Wen Zhuliu and we were thrown into the Burial Mounds. It's just that surviving long enough to get out was far more complicated than taking turns keeping the fierce corpses from eating us while we figured out a way to get through the barrier array without breaking it completely."
He pauses again, gaze dropping to the ground and mouth half-open with an uncertain and almost guilty look on his face. "I figured out—"
"We." Wangji's sharp correction does not faze Wei Wuxian, who only flaps a hand at him, but Wangji doesn't turn back to his playing at the dismissal, eyes intent on the guilty grimace Wei Wuxian still wears. "We, Wei Ying. Not just you."
"Fine, fine, I hear you, not just me, it was a group effort. As I was saying, we figured out together how to—safely!—cultivate with resentful energy." Wei Wuxian's hunched shoulders stiffen even further and he rubs at his nose sheepishly as he lifts his eyes to Jiang Wanyin, whose outraged reaction doesn't disappoint.
"Wei Wuxian! It was one thing when you were just trying to rile up Lan-lao-xiansheng by talking about using resentful energy, but you actually dragged Hanguang-jun into messing around with demonic cultivation! Wei Wuxian, you—"
Jiang Wanyin trails off into the familiar muffled outrage of a foreign disciple subjected to the Gusu Lan Sect silencing spell. Lan Xichen stifles a sigh. Apparently not even Cleansing can subdue Jiang Wanyin.
"Not demonic cultivation," Wangji says firmly, still plucking out the notes of Cleansing. Lan Xichen appreciates his foresight now because he can't say if he would have reacted as strongly as Jiang Wanyin without the mental preparation and serenity afforded by the music. "Cultivating with resentful energy is not the same. Can be done without causing harm to the cultivator."
"If you're certain of this, I'll hear you out."
Wangji sounds confident, but Lan Xichen turns instead to Wei Wuxian, who will more than certainly have an impressive argument ready to back up their assertions. The angered noises from Jiang Wanyin are directed at Lan Xichen now, but he simply pretends he can't hear them. Jiang Wanyin seems to have calmed down a bit, but Lan Xichen isn't going to visibly override Wangji's judgement and release the silencing spell before he does.
"We're as certain as we can be with only the two of us as rather short term test cases," Wei Wuxian says cautiously. "For the second part, both of us have manipulated resentful energy without incurring damage to our golden cores, which is not to say it could never happen, but we think that the precautions we're taking will be sufficient and the medic we saw after we left the Burial Mounds agrees. Do you actually want the full version?"
Wei Wuxian is clearly relieved by the lack of immediate condemnation and Lan Xichen worries for a moment that he comes across as that stern and unforgiving before he recalls the circumstances under which Wei Wuxian was thrown out of the first day of classes with his uncle. A healthy amount of caution regarding the reaction of Lan Qiren's most famous student is more than understandable.
"I think it would be enlightening for both myself and Sect Leader Jiang," Lan Xichen says, catching Wangji's eye and tipping his head slightly towards the not so silent Jiang Wanyin. Wangji sighs but obliges the unspoken request to release Jiang Wanyin.
The first things out of his mouth are curses on the entire Lan family for inventing such a spell, but his ranting quickly peters off into his normal level of vitriol. "If Sect Leader Lan thinks it's wise, I'll listen for now, but if you silence me again, Lan Wangji, I'll break both of your legs instead of just the one!"
"Mark your words."
"Okay, okay, let's not start fighting again," Wei Wuxian says quickly, waving a hand around to break up the apparent glaring contest that Jiang Wanyin and Wangji have started. He hums thoughtfully for a moment before he pulls another sizeable sheaf of blank paper from his sleeves, full pages instead of talismans this time.
How much paper exactly can one fit into a qiankun sleeve and still keep it all organized? As Lan Xichen ponders this, Wei Wuxian pulls out a stick of charcoal and settles into a more formal position to present his argument.
"I'll start from the basics, which both of you already know, but in this case, it really helps to start from the foundation rather than just telling you my conclusions and working backwards. Lan Zhan, you'll interrupt me if I forget anything important, right?"
"Alright, then. First, the nature of spiritual and resentful energy!" On the top sheet, he quickly renders a rudimentary taijitu.
"As yin and yang energy are complementary and indivisible, all mortal creatures possess a measure of both yin and yang energy, or resentful and spiritual energy, whichever term you want to use. Right now I'm going to use yin and yang because I think it's easier to bypass the negative implications of calling it resentful energy. Generally speaking, righteous cultivators attempt to reach the pinnacle of immortality by converting all of their internal yin energy into yang energy. Because yang energy as the active principle is ever renewing, the immortal body of a righteous cultivator will never hunger or thirst, suffer from heat or cold, sicken or die. Theoretically at least, as far as I'm aware there's never been a recorded instance of a cultivator reaching true immortality? Lan Zhan?"
"Not that I have read. Shufu would know." Lan Xichen hasn't heard of a credible example either, but Wen Ruohan is the closest thing to a true immortal among the cultivators of this era. Not precisely an encouraging reminder about the chances of their somewhat rag-tag rebellion.
"Yes, but we're definitely not telling him about all of this until we can be sure he won't kill me for corrupting his prize cabbage," Wei Wuxian retorts, shuddering theatrically at the mere mention of Lan Qiren. "Or would it be his prize cabbages? Zewu-jun, in the future please don't let Lan-lao-xiansheng murder me for teaching you and Lan Zhan about improper cultivation methods!"
He actually does offer a salute to Lan Xichen. Having never conversed with Wei Wuxian at length before, Lan Xichen finds he understands the unpredictable moodiness of Wangji and their uncle during the time Wei Wuxian attended classes far better now.
"Why are you asking him? Shouldn't you be asking me as your sect leader to protect you?"
Wei Wuxian scoffs. "As if! I've never seen you even talk back to Lan-lao-xiansheng and you told me it served me right to get things thrown at me on the first day of class!"
Jiang Wanyin sneers right back at him. "It did serve you right and you still haven't learned your lesson. Lan-lao-xiansheng told you the first day that if you did figure out how to manipulate resentful energy the cultivation world wouldn't allow your existence and here you are still trying to walk such a crooked path! Even as Sect Leader Jiang, I can't protect you from the rest of the cultivational world, let alone Hanguang-jun."
Wei Wuxian stares dumbfounded at Jiang Wanyin for a moment before he bursts into laughter. By the time his chuckles have petered out under Wangji's disapproving stare, Jiang Wanyin's face is lit from below by the crackling violet light of Zidian.
"Jiang Cheng ah, Jiang Cheng! Do you really think I'm planning on telling the rest of the cultivational world about this? If we ever even write it down, it'll end up somewhere like the room of forbidden books in the Cloud Recesses for sure! I told you already, I'm not planning on walking the crooked path either, not when I have a nice, broad road ahead of me. Still, how kind of you to worry about your Xian-gege like this!"
"I told you already, stop calling yourself that! It just sounds wrong coming from you!"
"Haha, fine, I'll stop for now," Wei Wuxian laughs, his entire mien lightened by the opportunity to tease Jiang Wanyin. Lan Xichen can't deny that the sound of them bickering is a balm to his own heart as well; he's never quite known how to talk to the prickly young sect leader or lift his gloomy moods. Even with all of the losses they've shared as part of this war, Lan Xichen hasn't been able to bridge the gap between them or bring Jiang Wanyin comfort the way Jiang Yanli could, afraid of pushing too hard or striking a wrong chord. "Zewu-jun, you didn't think I was planning on shouting this to the rest of the world, did you?"
Lan Xichen can't help but return Wei Wuxian's smile, infectious and bright as the sun. "I assumed you would be more prudent, but surely your brother knows you better than I, so perhaps I should be worried after all."
"No need. I would have stopped him," Wangji reassures both Lan Xichen and Jiang Wanyin, who does seem relieved at the reminder that his brother isn't undertaking such a dangerous course of study on his own.
"See, Jiang Cheng, no need to worry about me! Like Lan Zhan said, there's a difference between demonic cultivation and making good use of yin energy," Wei Wuxian adds as he gestures back towards his crude diagram. "For one, you can use yin energy in talismans and the like without any harmful effects or any raised eyebrows from the cultivational world. Take a gloom-burning talisman for example. It uses yin energy from your surroundings as fuel to produce flame, but it's so useful for tracking down yin energy sources like yao and ghouls that no one ever suggests we should stop using them, right?"
"Mn. Compass of Evil too."
"Yes, same principle," Wei Wuxian says in agreement, nodding along as if a Compass of Evil is something they should have all learned about. He notices Lan Xichen and Jiang Wanyin's skeptical faces and launches into an explanation, sketching a representation for them to examine as he talks. "It's a tool I invented! It works like a gloom-burning talisman, using yin energy to fuel the movement of a compass needle, but it can sense yin energy sources over much longer distances and function indefinitely rather than burning out after one use. I've been selling them to earn spare spending money since Lan Zhan refuses to let me collect any of the rewards for all the night-hunting we do."
The pout he contorts his face into is actually quite remarkable but Wangji remains unmoved even after Wei Wuxian's pouting deteriorates into snickering. Lan Xichen wouldn't have thought a pair of cultivators trying to avoid notice in the middle of an all-out war would still night-hunt, but neither Wangji nor Wei Wuxian have ever been able to ignore people in need of assistance, no matter the recompense.
"I don't see why you complain about the names I give things when your naming sense is just as terrible," Jiang Wanyin grumbles even as he admires Wei Wuxian's rough diagram of what looks like an incredibly intricate cultivation tool. "Also, how the hell is openly selling cultivation tools supposed to keep you from being recognized by the Wens, you idiot?"
"No reputable cultivator would ever hawk cultivation tools directly on the street so it's the best way to get actual cultivators to completely ignore you. I tried growing a beard too, to complete the disguise, but Lan Zhan said I couldn't because it made me look too seedy."
"He was absolutely right. I still remember when we were fourteen," Jiang Wanyin shudders. "Ugh, no wonder no one recognized you while you were selling these."
"Rude, Jiang Cheng!"
"It's true. Now stop going off on tangents and just tell us what the fucking difference is between demonic cultivation and cultivating with resentful energy?"
"But the difference is in the name, a-Cheng," Wei Wuxian says with a distinctly whiny tone that seems calculated to instantly catapult Jiang Wanyin back into incandescent irritation. Jiang Wanyin just snarls at him and gestures impatiently until he continues in a more even tone, "Demonic cultivation relies on the opposite process from righteous cultivation: converting all of your yang energy into yin energy instead, but since no coherent notes by those who follow such a path usually survive their destruction at the hands of whoever they've wronged, we don't know whether such a cultivator would form a golden core or something closer to a beast's core. Still, once that internal transformation is completed, the cultivator becomes a demon, attaining eternal life that can only be maintained by draining energy from other beings to sustain themselves. Manipulating yin energy externally is an entirely separate process from the internal alchemizing of yang into yin!"
Jiang Wanyin looks thoughtful, but he counters, "If that were true, then it wouldn't be so risky to try and manipulate resentful energy in the first place. There's no way everyone who's been accused of demonic cultivation has been following the same path that you're describing, but they still met the same end. And you admitted to Lan-lao-xiansheng before that you couldn't be sure that the resentful energy would only listen to you and not harm others."
"I must agree with Jiang Wanyin here," Lan Xichen says, rubbing his jade token between his fingers. "If such a process were as straightforward as you make it seem, then it would be far more common to find cultivators who used resentful energy, abundant as it is in our profession."
"Yes, yes, good points"—excited rather than discouraged, Wei Wuxian rubs his hands together in anticipation of a good debate—"and you're completely right that if it were that straightforward, everyone would be doing it. So here's a question for you to get us started: why do we call yin energy resentful energy?" It's a question worthy of one of Lan Qiren's infamous tests, difficult to answer precisely because the answer seems obvious. "Lan Zhan, you're not allowed to help them, they're going to have to get it on their own."
"I was not intending to."
Wangji hasn't stopped playing while Wei Wuxian lectures and Lan Xichen finds the sound incredibly reassuring. He can play the guqin like any good Lan disciple, but he has never been able to match Wangji's skill or dedication to the instrument and music in general. Now that the apparent danger of instinctive reactions overcoming more reasoned judgements has passed, Wangji has transitioned smoothly from Cleansing into another piece. Lan Xichen doesn't recognize the new tune, more lively than anything traditionally composed and incorporated into their sect's teachings.
Wei Wuxian has already turned back to his ever-growing stacks of paper, shuffling through them and humming along with Wangji while he waits for Lan Xichen and Jiang Wanyin to compose their answers. They're sitting on the ground in the middle of the forest, not three hours before full dark, but the atmosphere is almost unbearably domestic. It's clear that the two of them often sit together and occupy themselves just like this, a practiced routine that easily accommodates Wangji's need for quiet and peace and Wei Wuxian's inability to do any less than three things at once.
The sheer intimacy of their interactions soothes a thorn of worry that he's been carrying in his heart since their mother died and Wangji closed himself off to the world beyond the two of them. Lan Xichen feels a thousand times lighter than he did this morning, waking to another day where he had lost, was losing, would lose his brother. He breathes out his sorrow and grief, breathes in the peace and joy that his brother has found while he was lost, and his mind is clearer than it has been in what feels like eternity, free to ponder Wei Wuxian's question.
Once Jiang Wanyin starts producing little crackles of static, Wei Wuxian stacks together the papers he's been toiling over and looks at them expectantly.
"Any guesses? Don't worry, if you answer wrong, I won't throw anything at you like Lan-lao-xiansheng does!" Teasing tone aside, he seems excited to hear their answers, even if they are wrong. Lan Xichen wouldn't have thought of Wei Wuxian as the type to enjoy teaching, but he wasn't made the head disciple of Yunmeng Jiang for nothing. It isn't a small sect even now and every disciple younger than him must have looked up to him, even if he was notorious for being the target of Yu Ziyuan's disapproval.
"The only one he ever did that to was you, Wei Wuxian, and you damn well deserved it," Jiang Wanyin says. Wei Wuxian doesn't try and defend himself this time, just lifts his eyebrows expectantly. "Fine. Yin energy is resentful because it comes from all of the negative emotions that linger after a person's death, the unfulfilled wishes and repressed anger that still tie them here." Jiang Wanyin raises his eyebrows back at Wei Wuxian, creasing his forehead with wrinkles of annoyance rather than anticipation.
"Not quite what I was looking for, but close. Zewu-jun?" Wei Wuxian leans forward and pats Jiang Wanyin's head encouragingly, pulling his hand quickly out of range of any possible retaliation. Strangely enough, this seems to have more of a soothing effect than Lan Xichen would have expected and Jiang Wanyin just huffs something about not being a dog under his breath.
"Where yang is solid and physical, yin is diffuse and intangible; thus yang energy has a greater effect on the physical aspect while yin energy has a greater effect on the spiritual aspect." Lan Xichen pauses for a moment, sure of this part of his answer but uncertain of the rest. Wei Wuxian only smiles and gestures for him to elaborate further so he slowly continues, "Yin energy is termed resentful because it carries the emotions of the beings that produce it. Those emotions are not necessarily negative, but most commonly are in cases where cultivators are involved."
"Exactly!" Wei Wuxian actually rocks back and forth in glee, far enough to tip his shoulder into Wangji's, earning himself a stern look that does nothing to discourage him. "If yang is hard and resistant, then yin is yielding, or maybe malleable or sticky is a better way to phrase it? That is to say, all of the emotions of a spirit, living or not, embodied or not, color the yin energy it produces, like dye in water. Yang energy is also influenced, but to a far lesser degree.
"We, righteous cultivators all, assume those entangled emotions are overwhelmingly or entirely negative because those are the most common emotions that tether any lingering beings we might encounter to this plane: anger, rage, despair, resentment, all the unfulfilled desires and joys of life that turn to poison when thwarted by death. However, yin energy can carry any emotion as long as it's strong enough so the danger of yin energy doesn't come from the inherently negative and destructive sentiments it carries, or doesn't carry as the case may be. It comes from the possibility that foreign yin energy will attach itself to the cultivator's own yin energy and contaminate it to disturbance with those emotions without the cultivator's knowledge, almost like the effects of a spiritual possession without the true presence of another spirit in the cultivator's body." Wei Wuxian's spontaneously produced comparison seems to spark another train of thought because he rifles through his papers to scribble something on a leaf near the top.
Jiang Wanyin snorts even as he cranes his neck to get a glimpse at what Wei Wuxian is writing in his messy script. Lan Xichen can barely read it when he's not looking at it upside down but maybe long years of exposure will let Jiang Wanyin decode his brother's scribbles. "And how exactly did you figure that one out? Found yourself screeching like a fierce corpse about something that never happened to you and then exorcised by Hanguang-jun?"
"Mm, not quite," Wei Wuxian says distractedly, finishing his aside to himself before looking back up. He doesn't dispute the screeching but his eyes crinkle up at the corners and slide over to Wangji, whose ears are now a bright pink. "Come on, share with the rest of the class, Lan Zhan!"
"Wei Ying." It's more of a resigned rebuke than anything else. Wangji sighs and says reluctantly, "Woke up one morning and found myself yelling at Wei Ying for being a dirty thief after he borrowed my brush to make a quick note. It was…unsettling to feel unfamiliar emotions so strongly." He seems disturbed by the memory and Wei Wuxian rests a hand gently on his knee, only removing it when the crease between his eyes has smoothed itself out.
"It's alright, Lan Zhan! You've already apologized more than enough. Looking back it's hilarious, but it definitely wasn't funny while it was happening. You were so upset by the whole thing, my poor heart just couldn't take it," Wei Wuxian says with a distinctly flirtatious lilt to his voice, batting his eyelashes at Wangji, who responds not at all.
Lan Xichen smiles to himself. Wangji's ears are turning a brighter red.
Jiang Wanyin huffs at them in exasperation but Zidian's quiescence gives lie to the darkness of his face. "Can we please skip the part where you two fawn over each other and get to the rest of the explanation." Less a request, more a demand made through gritted teeth. "I would literally rather learn about demonic cultivation for the rest of the night than watch this. Zewu-jun and I are right here."
"Jiang Cheng ah, Jiang Cheng. Someday you'll find someone who likes you, no need to let yourself be tainted by jealousy and resentment now," Wei Wuxian says, putting on a mock-worldly air that riles Jiang Wanyin up even further.
"You—! Who's jealous!"
"Obviously not me, it's in my name after all," Wei Wuxian retorts smugly before he visibly decides to quit while he's still winning and forge ahead with his impromptu lecture. "What happened with Lan Zhan was definitely confirmation about my theories, but you know I had my suspicions about the properties of yin energy before that. There's just too many things that don't add up otherwise. For example, have you ever heard anything out of the ordinary when you're in a place where there's a strong concentration of yin energy?"
"You mean beyond the usual weird noises fierce corpses or whatever make?"
"If they're usual then they count as ordinary, so yes, obviously, Jiang Cheng."
"Then no, obviously, Wei Wuxian."
"If I told you I had never heard anything odd while in such places, I would be lying." He avoids the sharp prickle of Wangji's sudden and intense scrutiny, watches interest and excitement spark in Wei Wuxian's eyes even as he feels his own insides chill like a fire suddenly doused with water. Jiang Wanyin doesn't scoff now, perhaps shocked into acceptance of an absurd premise for now by the sudden serious mood that falls across them. Lan Xichen doesn't look away from Wei Wuxian, doesn't want to see how this admission hits the other two. "Although I don't know if I could describe the noise with any confidence."
Any noises he has heard have never been what one could call coherent, but there have been occasions while fighting more uncommon creatures, particularly when he was called to help suppress the waterborne abyss, when he felt as though he heard a multitude of voices, constantly muttering and murmuring just beyond the point of understanding no matter how far he enhanced his hearing. It sounded more than anything like a rushing stream of noise that flowed through his ears without him being able to comprehend or retain any of it, as meaningless as disjointed notes without melody.
Just remembering it now makes him feel cold, shudder with the sensation of being alone and awash in a sea of screams without reason. His fingers curl around the hilt of Shuoyue, creaking knuckles bone-white, as if he could defend himself from a formless phantom with the blue-green light of its blade.
"How about I describe what it sounds like to me and you tell me if I've gotten anywhere near what you've heard?" Wei Wuxian offers, forehead creased with concern. Lan Xichen nods mutely and ignores the even stronger worry radiating off of Wangji.
"Many voices, clearly different from each other but still indistinguishable, surrounding you but not seeming to come from any one direction." Wei Wuxian tucks his hands into his sleeves and Lan Xichen can just barely see his fingers stroking Wangji's forehead ribbon repetitively, reassurance and affirmation. "Every voice speaks differently but no words can truly be heard, only the voices crashing into each other like the waves on the shore."
"I always thought of it more like the sound of a waterfall or a whirlpool myself." Lan Xichen's voice doesn't creak with the tension that makes him feel like the cracking surface of an icy pond, only just keeping himself together, but it's close. "I really only heard it clearly—if that even applies to such a sound—when suppressing the waterborne abyss."
"Makes sense given what makes something like that. Lan Zhan, you didn't hear it when you were helping at all?" Wei Wuxian scribbles yet another note, charcoal poised expectantly over paper as he looks at Wangji.
"Don't think so. Might hear it now."
"Hm, maybe. Please don't look so worried, Zewu-Jun." Lan Xichen doesn't know why Wei Wuxian is addressing him, Wangji's the one who looks worried. "Being able to hear such things just means you're more aware or sensitive to the turbulence of energy, like I am. It's less hearing a noise that isn't there and more sensing the impressions left by so many different souls on one accumulation—deposit? pool?—of yin energy."
"The impressions?" Lan Xichen echoes faintly. He shudders suddenly as a wave of unconscious relaxation sweeps through his tense body, the churning of his spiritual energy settling into its usual smooth flow under the expert guidance of Wangji's sweet sound—Tranquility, not Clarity this time. A deep breath to center himself again, then, "My apologies. By impressions, you mean the emotional imprints of the spirits which produced the yin energy that eventually formed the waterborne abyss, or other aggregate beings?"
"Yes, exactly," Wei Wuxian says with an authority that should have stopped surprising Lan Xichen by now. "The impressions from resentful beings formed from a number of different sources are much more confusing when compared to the precision of impressions like shadows, which are visible to practically everyone and carry a record of a spirit's memory or experience, but they're also generally tied to specific places or events. Sometimes they have auditory and emotional components too but not everyone picks up on those, especially the less spiritually aware."
"The more overlap between sources of resentful energy, the more the different dyes bleed into each other and muddy the whole picture." Wangji's never been overly inclined to poetic turns of phrase, but Lan Xichen appreciates the effort to summarize Wei Wuxian's somewhat rambling explanations with a visualization that Lan Xichen can more easily grasp. It's not for nothing that Wangji has been helping instruct the younger disciples from the day shufu declared he had completed the basic curriculum.
"Yeah, that's a good way of putting it," Wei Wuxian says. "A person's internal yin energy is less affected than a spirit's yin energy, but the same emotional contamination can occur."
"Why the fuck isn't this contamination more commonly spread then?" Jiang Wanyin sounds curious despite his harsh language. "If it's so easy for someone's yin energy to be corrupted or colored or whatever, then wouldn't it happen more often to cultivators who encounter strong sources of resentful energy regularly?"
"Two reasons!" Wei Wuxian even holds up two fingers, pointing and wiggling them obnoxiously in the direction of Jiang Wanyin. "First, every cultivator, even a rogue cultivator, will be carrying protection against evil spirits and therefore resentful energy, from simple protective talismans to the more complicated wards in their clothing. Second, a cultivator's body is also protected from spiritual and physical threats by the yang energy that suffuses their body, rejecting any foreign energies. For a fully trained cultivator to have the type of contact with yin energy that causes contamination, they'd have to be either completely depleted of their spiritual energy or reaching out to the yin energy."
"Purification also cleanses foreign energies," Wangji adds when Wei Wuxian pauses for breath. "Self-purification is part of meditative arts and even bathing can dissipate foreign energy."
Lan Xichen only hums thoughtfully before he says, "You have claimed that cultivating with resentful energy can be done safely, yet you also admit that you risk contamination and thus deterioration by doing so.."
"Even orthodox cultivation risks death or grievous injury," Wangji says. "The risks are only small because the pitfalls are clearly recognized by now."
He's not wrong. Every clan child learns early to recognize a qi deviation and to never push their cultivation to the point of meridian damage for short-term progress, but those lessons have come from the suffering and mistakes of their predecessors. There's a reason there are very few rogue cultivators who didn't receive even the most basic of training from an established sect and those few tend not to live long at all. Yet even the major clans have risky methods—the Nie clan even cultivates a path that they know will cause qi deviation sooner or later.
"And you think you've found all of the pitfalls on this particular crooked path?"
"Not at all," Wei Wuxian says, waving a hand dismissively in front of his face. "I just think we've gone far enough down this path that we can see the pitfalls we've avoided—or not—and guess at the unsteady ground ahead."
"Getting contaminated with foreign yin energy is a simple pitfall," Jiang Wanyin says flatly.
"Yes and no?"
"It can't be both, Wei Wuxian!"
Lan Xichen coughs lightly, distracting them away from the impending descent of the discussion into tussling. "How can such a pitfall be overcome then?"
Wei Wuxian sits back down reluctantly, shooting a disgruntled glare at Jiang Wanyin. "As far as we understand the dangers of such a pitfall, the root of the problem is that foreign yin energy sticks to your own and taints it with the emotions it carries, wreaking energetic havoc in your heart and mind. Two ways to deal with the problem — purification or incorporation — but it's easiest to minimize the transfer by using some sort of spiritual tool like a musical instrument"—Lan Xichen tilts his head inquisitively, patting Shuoyue—"or a sword, yes, as a focus rather than directly reaching out and manipulating foreign yin energy. It doesn't entirely prevent the problem but there's infinitely less transfer than direct manipulation.
"No matter how you're manipulating yin energy though, there's still an accumulation of foreign yin energy in your meridian system and the longer it stays without being purified or incorporated, the more disturbed your own energies will become. In essence, you become a ticking time bomb for qi deviation, which, if it doesn't kill you outright, will probably get you hunted down and killed for following a heretical path."
"Again, how is that a simple pitfall?" Jiang Wanyin grinds out, faint purple light from his lap giving his grimace of worry a ghoulish look. "Certain death doesn't sound very simple to me, Wei Wuxian."
"You're such a bad student, never listening even when I tell you the answers," Wei Wuxian says mournfully. "It's a simple pitfall because we know it's there and how to get around it: purification or incorporation! Purification is exactly what it sounds like—using the traditional techniques to eliminate foreign energies—but incorporation is more of an innovation. If anything, it's the part that skirts the closest to demonic cultivation proper."
He rubs his nose almost sheepishly at the disgusted noise Jiang Wanyin makes in response to that but he forges on, "Purification eliminates foreign yin energy by pitting it against yang energy or letting it be washed away, but incorporation relies on refining foreign yin energy into internal yin energy, which can then be converted into yang energy according to the principles of orthodox cultivation. Such a technique could be used for demonic cultivation, yes, but it's the same principle as drawing yang energy from the environment in a spiritual sink."
"How would the first step of this conversion be accomplished then?" Lan Xichen asks. "As you have described it, this pitfall exists exactly because it is so difficult to distinguish between foreign and internal yin energy once the two intermingle."
"The difficulty comes from the unfamiliarity with sensing and manipulating yin energy," Wangji says quietly. "One person's yang energy has a different character from another's or sword glares would all be the same color as natural yang energy. The same reflection of their spirit colors their yin energy, but orthodox cultivation prioritizes the understanding and manipulation of yang energy over yin energy."
Wei Wuxian chimes in, "It's a learning process, but it's kind of like when you're learning to extend your spiritual awareness, except looking inward. When you first reach out with your spiritual senses, everything is fuzzy and indistinct, but you can eventually distinguish between people based on the sensation you get from their energy. Same principle here, except it's your own energy and you're looking inside of yourself. Does that make any sense?"
"Sadly, yes, but only because I've had to listen to you trying to explain things for the last decade," Jiang Wanyin growls. He has gradually relaxed as Wei Wuxian got more and more engrossed in his explanations and by now his demeanor is almost pleasant. "How did you even come up with the idea though?"
Wei Wuxian's cheer falters for a moment before he pastes a smile back on. "The Burial Mounds aren't famous for being an endless sink of spiritual energy, Jiang Cheng, and we didn't exactly pack the supplies for being stuck on a lifeless mountain for two months. It was either figure out how resentful energy could be refined into spiritual energy or starve to death."
Jiang Wanyin looks like he regrets asking. Lan Xichen focuses on his breathing.
"As far as excuses go, that's probably one of the least awful ones you've given me," Jiang Wanyin finally says. "I'm satisfied for now. Does Zewu-jun have any more questions at this point?"
"No, I think matters are clear enough as they stand," Lan Xichen says, following Jiang Wanyin's sudden switch to a more formal register. "I would like to verify what you're saying more thoroughly, but perhaps at a later date?"
He trusts Wangji to not present something like this without believing it as truth, but Lan Xichen needs more than belief. He needs proof, and he needs to discuss this with Nie Mingjue, the one other sect leader he can trust not to immediately reject the idea of utilizing resentful energy and also the one person who might benefit the most from a way to prevent a qi deviation caused by the use of resentful energy.
He looks at Wangji and Wei Wuxian, hoping that they can at least stop sitting in the middle of the forest now, maybe relocate to an inn, but they're looking at each other, deep in a completely silent conversation, and his hopes are fully dashed when Jiang Wanyin speaks again.
"Now that that's out of the way for now, you can spill the other thing."
"What other thing?" Wei Wuxian meets Jiang Wanyin's stare with wide and innocent eyes.
"The thing that's so much worse than demonic cultivation that you needed me to get tired of being angry before you even brought it up." Wei Wuxian droops. "You're not exactly hard to figure out when you use the same damn tactic you've been using since we were twelve, you idiot."
"I'll stop using it when it stops working," Wei Wuxian sniffs as he perks back up. Rather than discouraged, he just looks pleased that Jiang Wanyin can read him so well. "And I've been using it since we were ten, you just didn't notice."
"I hate you so much," Jiang Wanyin mutters through clenched teeth. "Just spit it out. Unless you two have actually eloped together, there's not much else that would shock me at this point."
"Who's eloping?" Wei Wuxian sputters, face red enough to match his hair ribbon. "I haven't even offered Zewu-jun any betrothal gifts yet! And that's not what I was going to say anyways! What I was trying to say is that we can't come back with you because we're working with Wen Qing to kill Wen Ruohan!"
"What?" Lan Xichen says.
"Alright," Jiang Wanyin says.
"You don't seem very surprised," Wei Wuxian says, squinting suspiciously at him. Lan Xichen feels surprised enough for the both of them.
"The only thing that could have kept both you and Hanguang-jun away from your duties for this long is something stupidly heroic and self-sacrificing. Like trying to kill the literal strongest cultivator alive and stage an internal coup. I'm honestly relieved that Wen Qing is involved because she's always been sensible. How did you even get her to go along with this?"
"I'm a very persuasive man when I want to be, Jiang Cheng!"
"So you're saying Hanguang-jun did all the talking."
"Mn." Wangji isn't paying attention to their determinedly cheerful exchange and he ignores Wei Wuxian's indignant squawking. He's looking at Lan Xichen, waiting for a response, any sort of reaction at all.
Lan Xichen can feel the part of his heart that froze the day the Cloud Recesses fell—the first time he had cut down another person—starting to thaw. He's never gotten the hang of the compartmentalization that Nie Mingjue and other cultivators have fallen into so seamlessly over the past months, cursing the Wen-dogs for their ruthlessness even as they themselves slaughter Wen forces without remorse on the battlefield. For him, this entire war has been a long nightmare from which he can never wake but this. This is a chance for a real resolution, a ray of hope warm enough to feel like true spring after the endless winter of this war.
He laughs. It's hysterical at first and he can see the alarm in Wangji's face, but the shrill notes fade away and soon he's laughing just for the feel of it, for the joy of laughter itself after so long. Tears slip down his cheeks and he's sobbing as he laughs but he feels no shame. Jiang Wanyin has seen him in worse states and Wei Wuxian will be family soon enough. Who can you cry in front of if not your family?
"Xiongzhang?" Wangji stores away his guqin with the flick of a sleeve and comes to kneel in front of him. His hands are torn between reaching out and staying by his sides. They end up hovering uncertainly between them. Lan Xichen grabs Wangji's hands and holds them tight enough to feel bone creak under his fingers, but he doesn't protest.
"The politics are going to be a nightmare," Lan Xichen gasps out eventually. "I can't wait to deal with politics again instead of killing people." He's still crying, but his shoulders aren't shaking with sobs and the tears don't burn his eyes anymore.
"Speak for yourself," Jiang Wanyin says, frowning thoughtfully to himself, but Lan Xichen has held his hair back and kept watch countless times as he vomited after battle. "If Wen Qing sues for peace, Yunmeng Jiang will listen. I assume Gusu Lan will as well?" He waits for Lan Xichen's nod of agreement before continuing, "Lanling Jin will probably agree if both of us do, but Qinghe Nie might be a problem. I don't know if Nie Mingjue will trust any message of peace, no matter which Wen it comes from, unless the fighting has stopped completely."
"Leave that part to us and Wen Qing," Wei Wuxian says dismissively. "Getting rid of Wen Ruohan is the easy part of our work. It's only taking so long because we need to make sure that the rank and file will listen to Wen Qing when she gives the orders."
"And how are you planning on that?" Jiang Wanyin asks, not quite trepidatious, but certainly cautious.
"Believe me, it's better if you don't know," Wei Wuxian says and the grin on his face is a little too far askew for Lan Xichen to find that comforting. Maybe that's the point. "Qinghe Nie will have to be the one to host the peace talks, though, so you won't know until they do when everything is finally settled."
"Mingjue-xiong isn't going to be very receptive to any message from Qishan Wen, no matter who sends it," Lan Xichen says, releasing Wangji from his death grip so he can blow his nose in an extremely undignified manner. As far as he knows, Wei Wuxian has never met Nie Mingjue, but Wangji has grown up with him; he should know full well just how deeply his hatred of Qishan Wen runs.
"He's not the type of man to kill the messenger, no matter how much he dislikes the message," Wei Wuxian says confidently. "It's just a matter of choosing the right messenger and the right message to catch his attention long enough for him to actually listen, and we have both, so I think it'll turn out just fine as long as everything else goes smoothly."
Lan Xichen winces. He had mostly been avoiding thinking about the part of this plan of theirs where they were going to try and kill Wen Ruohan, presumably in his own stronghold if Wen Qing was going to immediately take power. Similar ideas had been tossed around at the discussion conference that had formalized the alliance of the Sunshot Campaign in the wake of the attack on Lotus Pier, but the gathered sect leaders had discarded them almost immediately as a waste of resources that would never yield any real results.
Yet Wangji and Wei Wuxian would not have revealed themselves like this—deliberately letting their paths cross far from the battlefield, in neutral territory—if they were not completely confident in their plan. Lan Xichen can trust that Wangji at least will not have undertaken such a risky endeavor without thoroughly thinking things through, but he can also trust that Wei Wuxian will shine brightest, as he always does, in those moments that require improvisation and quick thinking. If they can trust each other, and trust Wen Qing, one of the most skilled and dedicated people he has ever met, then he can trust them to fulfill their goal by whatever means necessary.
"Then I'll look forward to seeing you both whenever our paths cross again," Lan Xichen says, summoning up his mildest, most threatening smile. "At that time, I will be pleased to accept whatever betrothal gifts you're planning to offer for Wangji's hand, Wei-gongzi."
He watches in delight as Wei Wuxian visibly struggles for words for a long moment before giving up and just saluting in flustered acquiescence. Wangji isn't frowning at him in disapproval for his interference, but only because he's locked in a staring contest with Jiang Wanyin.
"I'm giving you some leeway because I know you're not the sort of person to be frivolous like this asshole," Jiang Wanyin says, keeping his eyes firmly on Wangji's while he points rudely at Wei Wuxian, "but you better have some pretty fucking impressive betrothal gifts to present to a-jie when I see you again, and you'd better make sure they're appropriate for a sect leader's brother."
"No need to go that far, Jiang Cheng," Wei Wuxian laughs, a touch nervously. "No one will mind much if the betrothal gifts for a servant's son are—"
"A-jie already put you on the family registry, so you better not try and pull that self-deprecating shit in front of her," Jiang Wanyin says loudly over him, finally breaking his deadlock with Wangji to glare daggers at Wei Wuxian. "As of months ago, you're officially the second eldest child of the Jiang family, but a-jie gets to succeed if I die without another heir because we all know you'd be a terrible sect leader."
"Oh," says Wei Wuxian, shocked completely speechless. "I—"
"It should have been done a long time ago," Jiang Wanyin says, a little more gently than his default, still brusque by normal standards. "Stop dithering and just come here."
He opens his arms grudgingly and Wei Wuxian immediately launches himself into them with a suspiciously wet sniffle. Lan Xichen keeps his smile carefully even and looks over at Wangji, watching the brothers embrace with the most approval Lan Xichen has seen him ever direct at Jiang Wanyin, now patting Wei Wuxian's back and avoiding eye contact stringently.
Wei Wuxian pulls back after a minute or two, eyes red and cheeks flushed as he retakes his seat next to Wangji. "Tell a-jie thank you for me. And that I'm sorry I couldn't come see her in person."
"She'll understand when I explain what sort of scheme you've cooked up this time," Jiang Wanyin says, then hesitates. "Do you mind if I tell a-Ning as well? He should probably know, he's been beating himself up about your disappearance since we first heard."
"A-Ning made it out?" Wei Wuxian says, cheeks flushing further with excitement. Wangji has visibly brightened as well, his shoulders dropping in relief. Lan Xichen hadn't realized they were acquainted, but then he knows next to nothing about a-Ning, Jiang Wanyin's most reliable pawn on the battlefield, except the rumors about his prowess with a bow. He's famously shy, tending to keep to Yunmeng Jiang's part of any encampment. "We heard the rumors about your mysterious shadow, but we weren't sure if— He's been with you the whole time? Never mind, I can get the whole story later, of course you can tell him everything, just make sure you've got time to deal with his reaction to the whole plan."
"I've been living with the man for the past six months, I think I know how to talk to him by now," Jiang Wanyin says defensively.
"I bet you made him cry the first time he met you," Wei Wuxian says. He grins when Jiang Wanyin drops his gaze with a flush of shame, and adds, "Don't worry about it too much, our first meeting ended up with him embarrassing himself in front of half the cultivation world but we're still friends, so I don't think he holds it against you that much. He's just a very sensitive soul."
"Who asked you? I don't care if we're friends at all."
"Of course you don't, you're a grumpy old man," Wei Wuxian says while rummaging in his right sleeve. After sticking his arm in up to the elbow, he eventually pulls out yet another stack of papers which turns out to be two sheaves of paper, neatly bound with thread. "In lieu of any betrothal gifts, please be contented today with the fruits of our research with Wen Qing on the nature of resentful energy, purged of any references to actual demonic cultivation. It's mostly written as a medical text on the effects of foreign yin energy on the body and mind, so it should prove innocuous enough to share without too many questions."
Wei Wuxian meets Lan Xichen's eyes head on and smiles knowingly at him as he hands him his copy. Lan Xichen smiles back without having to force his face into it and clutches his copy as tight as he dares before tucking it away in his sleeve. He recognizes the calligraphy as Wangji's and he nods to his brother in thanks for such a thoughtful gift. Wangji returns the nod without comment.
"You're off the hook for now," Jiang Wanyin says, thumbing through the book with an air of reluctant admiration. "Did you do the pictures?"
"Oh, yeah," Wei Wuxian says. "Wen Qing compiled the original text from our notes, Lan Zhan made the copies, and I drew all of the figures." Lan Xichen decides to read the book thoroughly before he shows it to Lan Qiren or anyone else; he doesn't quite trust Wei Wuxian not to have put in some more questionable images as a practical joke.
"Hmm," Jiang Wanyin says and gives Wei Wuxian a sidelong look, clearly having the same thought. He doesn't say anything else, just tucks the book away.
"We should probably be going then," Wei Wuxian says, sharing a long look with Wangji before they all rise to their feet. "We have an appointment to keep a couple of towns over and I'm sure the two of you are needed urgently somewhere."
"That's what happens your head disciple disappears in the middle of a war," Jiang Wanyin says snappishly. "You get saddled with the work of two people, instead of just the work of one and a half people."
"You're such an asshole, Jiang Cheng," Wei Wuxian says fondly, tugging him in for a long hug that Jiang Wanyin doesn't resist.
Lan Xichen doesn't want to push Wangji into more physical affection, so he's surprised when Wangji hugs him first, actually leaning his head on his shoulder instead of standing upright like he usually does. He doesn't waste the opportunity though, folding Wangji into his arms as much as he can. Wangji has stayed slender through all of their years of handstands, but Xichen has always been broader and only more so after Nie Mingjue insisted that he put more actual muscle on his frame so he looked less like a reed and more like a sect leader.
Once Wangji pulls away, Lan Xichen is left to face Wei Wuxian while Wangji and Jiang Wanyin resume their territorial standoff. Wei Wuxian ignores the tension crackling through the air between them and offers Lan Xichen a perfectly polite salute that he returns with the appropriate degree of courtesy.
Seized by a sudden spirit of mischief, Lan Xichen says, "Thank you for taking care of Wangji, Wuxian."
"Of course, Xichen-ge," Wei Wuxian responds immediately, only a bit of shock on his face, well hidden. "Thank you for taking such good care of a-Cheng while I was, ah, indisposed."
"Who needs taking care of," Jiang Wanyin snaps, scowling at Wei Wuxian. "If you think I need taking care of, you can damn well come back safe and do it yourself."
"I wouldn't want to usurp a-Ning's position in the Yunmeng Jiang Sect," Wei Wuxian says, lowering his gaze demurely. "Unless he's taking on a more formal role that I should be made aware of?"
His tone is perfectly innocent and yet also suggestive, which is apparently enough to push Jiang Wanyin over the edge into incoherent rage. He doesn't even look at Wei Wuxian again, just offers precise salutes to Lan Xichen and Wangji before he flings himself into the air and speeds off towards Yunmeng with the same air of menace as a towering thunderhead.
"I knew it," Wei Wuxian says gleefully the moment he thinks Jiang Wanyin is out of earshot. "I knew they would get along, Jiang Cheng has always been a softy under all of his spikes."
"Mn," Wangji says dubiously, but he doesn't contradict Wei Wuxian outright.
"Until our paths cross again," Lan Xichen says, stepping onto Shuoyue and smiling at the pair one last time. Drawing out the goodbyes further will only make the parting worse and he really is urgently needed elsewhere. Lan Qiren has been overworking himself to the point of exhaustion to maintain the southern front and this news cannot wait to be shared.
"Until then," Wei Wuxian says, Wangji echoing him.
Lan Xichen says nothing more and urges Shuoyue into the sky towards the Cloud Recesses. It's a new moon night and the stars are bright above him. When he can't resist the urge any longer, he glances back over his shoulder. The clearing where their paths crossed is empty again, filled with nothing but shadows and corpses.
I hope you enjoyed this monstrously long chapter with only one scene, because it's the entire reason this fic exists and I did a really incredible amount of agonizing over it for someone who despises editing. It was very fun to write though.
If WWX's explanations seem terrible and rambling, that's because I too am terrible at explaining things and I am wildly projecting my ADD onto WWX, as one does. I have never been concise or straightforward in my life.
WWX's description of the end state of demonic cultivation is based on ghost immortals, an actual type of immortal described in the Taoist text Zhong Lü Chuan Dao Ji as draining the living essence of other beings to survive because they have cultivated too much yin energy. According to MDZS canon, demons come from living humans, so I don't feel this is too much of a stretch of the established lore.
I don't know how well it comes across in WWX's explanation, but I think there's a clear distinction between the different modes of improper cultivation that WWX demonstrates in the novel: summoning and commanding spirits and ghouls based on offering yang energy in the form of blood or flesh (e.g. the Summoning of the Painted Eyes), using resentful energy as a power source (e.g. Compass of Evil), manipulating resentful energy directly to command fierce corpses (e.g. using Chenqing and the Stygian Tiger Seal), and actualfax demonic cultivation.
Novel!WWX was absolutely a demonic cultivator in every sense of the word before he died because there is no fucking way he could have survived the Burial Mounds otherwise. His time there is one of about three events in canon that can be reliably dated (thank you, convenient red maple leaves), and it falls right in the middle of winter. He also falls from an obscene height and apparently survives it, and a vanilla human could not heal the inevitable damage from that in three months while also living off whatever you might find in a literal winter wasteland.
Chapter 3: jiang cheng
Jiang Cheng's amazing adventures in losing your parents and getting thrust into a leadership role you weren't ready for and also fighting a war.
Canon-typical mentions of violence by Qishan Wen, including torture and rape, but nothing graphic.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.
Jin Zixuan's first line is taken directly from the Exiled Rebels Scanlations translation of Chapter 69, but I am also stealing bits from CQL's version (like, Mianmian because in this house we love and appreciate the friendship between Jin Zixuan and Mianmian where she tries to stop him from making a fool out of himself and usually fails). Wen Ning also quotes bits of Wen Qing's dialogue in Chapter 60 and Chapter 77, with a bit of inspiration from Wei Wuxian's speech to Jin Ling in Chapter 24. I hope you enjoyed Wen Ning getting to verbally destroy Jin Zixuan instead of, y'know, actually destroying him.
This chapter was not intended to be this long, but then Wen Ning showed up and apparently Jiang Cheng also lives a Wen Ning appreciation life. If any bits of this made you cry, I'd love to hear about it because I cried about six times while writing this chapter. Next chapter will probably be nowhere near as fast because it involves plot and politics and discussion conferences and I expect to be tearing my hair out over it for a good long while.
1 Jīn Cuìyǔ 金翠羽 is Madame Jin (because it bugs me that she doesn’t have a first name).
Cuì means ‘blue’ or ‘bluish-green’, but also ‘kingfisher’, while yǔ is the same yǔ as in Mo Xuanyu, meaning ‘feather’. Cuì also has the feather radical so both characters carry the implication of lightness, freedom, and ascension. However, kingfishers are also a common poetic subject, carrying such associations as beauty, luxury, rarity, and royalty, while kingfisher feathers in particular are used in a particular type of Chinese art called tian-tsui [ 点翠 (diǎncuì) ] which involves cutting and gluing the feathers onto silver to create an effect similar to enamel, only far more expensive and luxurious.[return to text]