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Running Our Hands Through Embers

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng knew that he wasn’t a good person.

He was well aware of his reputation and the things he did to earn it, could hear the screams of the poor souls that he tortured and smell the blood that stained his hands as he took lives whom he convinced deserved their deaths. His sins were as abundant as his secrets, both of which he would carry with him until the day he died.

Jiang Cheng wasn’t afraid of death even when he knew it wouldn’t be kind of him. He expected to pay for his crime in the afterlife, and be reincarnated into something despicable, if he was reincarnated at all.

If anything, it meant that he would be free of his memories, so that his next lives wouldn’t have to look at fire with tears stinging his eyes.

Many lifetimes later, Jiang Cheng would reminisce on his naïve, wishful thinking, and laughed.

***

If asked, Jiang Cheng would compare falling in love with Lan Xichen to a moth inevitably drawn to a flame.

It burned.

***

Jiang Cheng wasn’t a romantic.

He scoffed at the love poems and stories Yanli used to tell them, about destiny and love at first sights and soulmates. It was simply unrealistic, he reasoned, for a person to love another for their entire life. People fell out of love; or they were never in love in the first place, only committing to one another because of allegiances and duties. It was perfectly normal.

His parents were normal. There wasn’t anything wrong with his family.

That was what Jiang Cheng liked to tell himself.

His first meeting with Lan Xichen wasn’t anything special. He was only ten at the time. The Lan had accompanied his uncle to a sect meeting at Lotus Pier, a necessary preparation for a sect leader. As a future sect leader himself, Jiang Cheng was allowed to sit and observe with his father. Their eyes had met for the first time then, in that conference room. As time went by, Jiang Cheng couldn’t quite remember the details of what transpired that day, but he could vividly recall the warm smile Xichen had given him as he hurried to look away, embarrassed that he was caught staring.

The events his sister described in her stories didn’t happen. He didn’t see an explosion of colors, didn’t see his world get turned upside down, didn’t even feel his heart threatening to jump out of his ribcage. Instead, calmness washed over him, and a feeling of rightness settled in his bones. It took him the longest time to learn that it was love.

Although their meeting was brief, it stayed with him until he took his last breath and even after that. Sometimes, when it all went down to hell and the only thing in his possession was forgotten memories from thousands of years ago, he’d closed his eyes to blurred images of honey-colored eyes and pretended he wasn’t crying.

Jiang Cheng couldn’t call him and Lan Xichen soulmates, because they weren’t, not in the way Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji was, not when Lan Xichen wouldn’t love him. He only knew that even if he had a choice, he would choose the Lan all over again, even if it resulted in a lifetime of suffering.

Those were the choices he made. They weren’t particularly good choices, but they were his to make, just like the secrets he took with him from one lifetime to the next.

Chapter Text

When he was told that he and his siblings would be sent to Cloud Recesses, Jiang Cheng wasn’t nervous. He figured that whatever feeling he felt for the first Jade of Lan had disappeared by now, a simple childhood crush that he would berate himself for his own ridiculousness years later.

How he couldn’t be more wrong.

As soon as he got into the Orchid Room, Xichen, taller now and effortlessly elegant, had smiled at him as if the man recognized him, as if he was someone worth recognizing, and Jiang Cheng knew he was gone.

Nothing happened after that.

Why would he do anything? What could he even do? Try to court the other man like a maiden? They were both males, and future sect leaders at that. Xichen surely wanted to find a nice girl to settle down with and create a family. Jiang Cheng never really cared for children or family. All he wished for was to lead his sect peacefully and die knowing that everyone around him was happy and content.

So he kept quiet for the rest of his time there and went to bed every night trying to forget about the phantom smell of sandalwood clinging to his skin and the xiao playing in his ears.

It was fine. He was fine.

Then the Wens happened. His parents were killed and his home was on fire and his sister was sick and his core was gone and everything Jiang Cheng ever knew crumbled before his eyes. He couldn’t afford to think about the stupid crush or lo-whatever to call this thing he had for Lan Xichen. He tried not to think about how warm those hands were when they accidentally touched or how beautiful the other man was underneath the moonlight or how flames licked at his heart every time his name was called.

Because fire burned everything and he knew that better than anyone else, when he woke up in the middle of the night to people screaming as they were set aflame, and in the end, there would be nothing but ashes.

Everyone he loved was gone, and so was the man who caused it all. But he was still alive. And as was the people of his fragile sect and even old friends who he thought he would never meet again.

Even Old Man Yu, an old family confidant who he thought had retired, came back to Yunmeng to assist him. The man treated him and his nephew with gentle hands, as if Jin Ling wasn’t the only child at Lotus Pier. It was strange, to be a sect leader and yet handled with kids gloves again, but Jiang Cheng didn’t mind, not when sharp eyes occasionally stole glances at him like he knew.

Knew about a certain flute sitting innocently in a box hidden inside his drawers. Knew that he spent the whole night crying inside of his bed chamber. Knew that, when he wasn’t crying, he would lay in his bed and think about the Lan sect leader’s fingers around him.

And so, Jiang Cheng carefully buried his emotions behind a scowl, picked up whatever pieces that still resembled himself, and moved on. He didn’t have a choice, not when there was an infant in his arms and hope in his people’s eyes.

That was how he became the fearful Sandu Shengshou - respect was not freely given, especially not to a man who barely grew out of being a boy. He would rather be feared than loved, especially if that fear made people think twice about coming after his sect. He cared for his nephew as well as he could, despite knowing that someone like him had no business raising a child. He handled his sect duties like his father would want him to, and sometimes, asked himself if this would make the man proud of him, if he was still alive.

What a silly thought that was. Jiang Fengmian wouldn’t be proud of him because he wasn’t Wei Wuxian, so nothing he did was ever good enough. His mother wouldn’t either. She would always find faults in everything he did. But his a-jie would though. Yanli would smile at him and told him how proud she was that he was leading his sect all on his own and praised him for taking care of her son so well. But Yanli was dead; she was dead, and she couldn’t come back to him.

He tried not to dwell on those thoughts too much. It reminded him of everything that he’d lost and sent him towards a downward spiral that could only be relieved when he tracked down and destroy the thing that took everything away from him and left him nothing but ghosts. He heard what the rumors said, that he tortured and killed demonic cultivators because he was afraid the Yiling Patriarch would come back, even if those people aren’t demonic cultivators at all.

How stupid can those people be? Jiang Cheng grew up with Wei Wuxian. He knew that man like the back of his hand, can recognize him from the lightest tilt of the head and the quirk of lips. He knew when he tortured those people that they were not his brother.

That didn’t make what he did right. His sins were numerous and there was no redemption. When their screams crawled their way into his dreams, he wanted to give them a proper burial and utter his apologies, but he couldn’t stop. So he subjected himself to a lifetime of loneliness and misery as punishment. He rejected all marriage proposals or insulting his partners outright. He turned up to the matchmakers with a list of impossible standards (that he knew only one person could fulfill, for that list was based around him) and cackled as they blacklisted him.

He didn’t deserve love or marriage or a happy family, and he would not subject his partner to the same treatment. So naturally, he also avoided Lan Xichen.

He didn’t speak to the First Jade of Lan outside of the usual formalities. He was busy with Jin Ling and his sect, while the other had duties of his own. They slowly drifted apart, and the budding friendship that threatened to turn into something more with every lingering touches and longing stares wilted away until they were almost like strangers again.

At least that was what he liked to think.

It didn’t stop him from trying to catch a glimpse of blue and white in the middle of the crowd, and, when their eyes happened to meet again, he had to use every bit of self-control he had to not dig his fingers into silky robes and just take.

Chapter Text

After years had passed by, Wei Wuxian, like the hurricane he was, stormed back into his life and brought with him the truth about his golden core. For the first time in more than thirteen years, Jiang Cheng found himself floundering. He tried to reassure everyone that things were fine, even after his breakdown inside of his own home. Deep down, he knew that it would never be the same again, but he needed to carry on and perform his duties.

So he buried his inner turmoil until it all came out at Guanyin Temple. Tears streamed down his face as he poured his heart out at the man he taught himself to hate for so long. Wei Wuxian, the older brother who he abandoned, who in turn abandoned his own sect, wrapped his arms around him and comforted him like they were children again, attempting to sooth his pain.

Except the pain didn’t stop. And he knew that maybe, just maybe, if he told the other the truth, about why he lost his golden core, I was saving your life you idiot, the pain in his chest would lighten to a dull ache. But he didn’t, couldn’t. So, he left everyone else behind and returned to his own sect. His secrets would continue to gnaw at him until the day he died, but at least they were his.

He tried to ignore the rumors about his golden core, not that he had to try, not when the truth about the Chief Cultivator rocked the entire cultivation world, not when the First Jade of Lan went into seclusion triggered by the betrayal of his sworn brother, and not when the second Jade abandoned all traditions and customs and elope with the fearsome Yiling Patriarch. Too many structures in place were unraveled at the aftermath of what he now dubbed “The Incident,” and he was never interesting enough for gossip. Which was fine, he thought as he signed another mundane letter to be sent to a leader of a minor sect, he was used to it.

He wrote Xichen letters too, when his feelings got the better of him. He thought he had mastered how to control his baser instincts by now, but the soft and pathetic little thing that bloomed inside of his chest all those yeas ago, which he thought had wilted away and died already, tugged at his heartstrings when he thought about how utterly broken the other man looked after he was duped into killing his own sworn brother. So he picked up a brush and attempted to be a good friend, a good ally, while simultaneously trying to not pour his heart out because when it came to Lan Xichen he always cared too much.

How are you doing? I hope seclusion is going well for you. Things have settled down lately…

When he sent out his letters, he often wondered if his recipient could read the words unwritten on the page.

I love you I love you I love you

He continued to write letters, continued to manage his sect, continued to train his nephew into becoming a capable sect leader. Life went on and Jiang Cheng managed to convince himself one more time, that he was fine.

Until it didn’t.

News of Lan Xichen’s death rocked the cultivation world and once again, uncannily similar to when Wen Ning had told him about his golden core, Jiang Cheng found the ground being swept off his feet, and he was falling. This time, he wasn’t sure if he could get himself back up.

He went to Xichen’s funeral because he was a sect leader, despite his heart screaming at him not to. Everyone he knew were there. Lan Qiren looked like he aged by a few decades. The Lan juniors, the ones he knew and ones he didn’t - though it had been years, he really shouldn’t call them juniors anymore - were also there, with red-rimmed eyes and trembling fingers. His nephew was right next to two of them, his yellow robe a contrast against white ones that was now befitting of the occasion. Out of the corner of his eyes, he caught sight of two figures, one dressed in blue and white and the other in black and red. Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian were also here, hurried to get back when they got wind of the news. For perhaps the first time since they met, he saw mist in Lan Wangji’s eyes as his brother quietly held onto his husband.

It was dark by the time he got back to Lotus Pier. He couldn’t remember how he got back home. He couldn’t remember what he did during the funeral. He couldn’t even remember what he said to Lan Qiren, to Lan Wanji, to Wei Wuxian. All he remembered was locking up his room and wetting his pillows with tears as his mind took him back to warm eyes and a smile that can lit up the sky.

Suddenly, life stopped happening. It was like time stopped moving all together, or perhaps it moved too fast for him to catch up. He went through the motions of being a sect leader, but everything didn’t feel real. Jin Ling visited often, under the guise of being a fellow sect leader. Even Wei Wuxian came to bother him, Lan Wangji by his arms, under the guise of being annoying. They asked him questions, obviously trying to be gentle but came off as obtrusive. Nevertheless, he could see that they were worried. He knew that even his own disciples were concerned about his wellbeing; he could see it in their eyes when he appointed his right-hand person as the next Jiang sect leader, having no offspring of his own.

Sometimes, he would gaze towards the direction of Cloud Recesses, expecting a man who was no longer there. Wei Wuxian would stand next to him and stared at him like he knew.

“Why didn’t you tell him?”

He turned his eyes and towards at his brother, he should really stop calling him his brother by now. Wei Wuxian was uncharacteristically quiet. He had asked Lan Wangji to fetch some errand to give them some time alone. Their eyes met for the longest time, until Jiang Cheng shifted his attention back to the stack of documents in front of him. Neither of them spoke for the longest time until Jiang Cheng broke the suffocating silence.

“Would it have mattered if I did?”

He didn’t dare look at the other man again for fear of what he would see in those eyes.

He went up to a higher point at Lotus Pier to watch the sun set at the horizon, casting the Pier in a glorious shade of orange. He used to love Yunmeng sunsets, thought it was the most beautiful view in the world, second only to the nights when the cloud cleared and the full moon was in view. Although his opinion hadn’t change, he didn’t enjoy it quite as much anymore, its shadows reminded him too much of the things he lost.

Old Man Yu, who had quietly stepped back and observed him slowly drifted away, respecting the choices he made, was there beside him, appreciating the view with him like old friends. Neither spoke for a while, until the older man broke the silence.

“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it, Sect Leader Jiang?”

He nodded as affirmation, still keeping his eyes on the horizon because he was afraid of what he would find in the other man’s eyes. Aware that his sect leader wouldn’t say anything, Old Man Yu continued.

“When I first sent the Young Mistress to the Pier, I never expected that I would outlive the Jiang sect leader.” The old man stopped and caught his breath, and when he spoke again, his voice was hoarse, emotional. “I would hate to outlive another one, Sect Leader Jiang.”

The tension was now palpable in the air. Jiang Cheng wanted to say something, but every word he could think of seemed insufficient. What could he say to satisfy a man who had served and cherished his mother like his own daughter, and who gladly did the same to him and Jin Ling?

“I’m sorry.”

He bowed to the man in front of him, and when he looked up, there were tears in those tired eyes.

He was present when the married couple departed that night. Before they left, Jiang Cheng pulled Wei Wuxian towards him, in something that barely resembled a hug, but was perhaps the most intimate act of human affection he had experienced in a long time. As they parted, he whispered.

“Take care of Jin Ling for him.”

Wei Wuxian had the saddest look in his eyes when they finally broke apart. But before the pair could even react, he had turned his back from them and retreated into his own quarters. A sense of finality dawned upon him as he watched their silhouettes departing Lotus Pier. He lied on his bed and cried again, for the first time since Lan Xichen’s funeral.

He had never feared death. In fact, he expected it, welcomed it even. His only fear when he died was that Jin Ling would be left to the wolves that were the Jin Elders, but it had been years ever since the boy was given the position. The troubled and insecure teenager he once knew had become a competent sect leader who could maneuver tricky situations without giving into his temper. Not to mention that he was friends with Lan Sizhui, the newly appointed leader of the GusuLan Sect, giving him political leverage needed to fully secure his position. Jin Ling would be fine without him.

The Jiang sect would also be in good hands. His right-hand person had accompanied him through the last twenty years. She was competent and patient enough to withstand his temper tantrums. But more importantly, she was a good person. The sect would flourish under her leadership, he was sure of it.

Wei Wuxian would be fine without him. Lan Wangji would never let anything harm his husband. He didn’t need to worry, not that he was in the first place. Nevertheless, he wrote his brother a letter. He kept this one short, unlike the one he wrote to his successor, in which he revealed some of Yunmeng’s most cherished secrets, unlike the one to Jin Ling, in which he rambled on about his sister and brother-in-law, and ended the letter by saying he was proud of what his nephew was able to accomplish.

In his letter to Wei Wuxian, he simply stated that he was sorry they couldn’t reconcile in this life and hope that they would find each and become brother in the next. He didn’t tell him about how he sacrificed his golden core to save his brother’s life, and he knew it was unfair of him to not divulge that secret. But he had accepted it and added it to his long list of sins that will follow him to the afterlife.

It was a terrible secret, but it was his to keep.

The last letter, he burned.

This one was to Lan Xichen.

He poured his heart out onto the page, feelings that he had bottled for thirty years bled out onto the page. He mused about their first meeting, their mundane conversations when he was still a pupil at Cloud Recesses, when Xichen treated his injury after the incident with the water ghoul, their even more mundane conversations during the Sunshot Campaign, and the letters they exchanged during their time as sect leaders and while Xichen was still in seclusion. Those memories were nothing special, but they were ones he would cherish for the rest of his life, as short as it was, until the day he took his last breath.

When he finished, the letters were barely legible due to how bad his fingers were trembling. He knew he was a mess, as tears ran down his cheeks and blood blossoming out of his bottom lip from how hard he had been biting down on them. However, all he could felt was an overwhelming sense of relief, like a weight had been lifted off his back.

As he set the letter on fire, he allowed himself a small smile, a genuine one, and thought to himself, now, finally, he will pass away with no regret.

The last page of the letter crumbled into ashes in his hands. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes for the last time with sandalwood in his lungs and amber underneath his eyelids and I-love-you’s unsaid on his lips.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng was born into what most people would consider a completely ordinary household. His parents were both cultivators, not particularly famous or renowned but with enough skills for the people under their command to treat them with respect. His family had served the YunmengJiang sect for generations, after developing a deep respect for the man who brought the sect back to its glory day after near complete destruction. That was why he was named after that same man.

When he was still a child, after their dinners, his parents would tell him about the glorious days of the past, when the great Jiang Wanyin courageously led his troops to victory against the Wens, with the help of the other sects. Jiang Cheng was never good with names, but one in particular had stuck out to him.

“Mama, papa, who is Lan Xichen?”

His parents had looked at each other, sadness in their eyes. He struggled to understand why, but somehow, dread bloomed at the back of his mind, like he was supposed to remember. His mother placed him on her lap and sighed.

“A great man, who died a very tragic death.”

She then planted a kiss on his forehead and told him about how he must never betray those he cared for, even at the cost of his own life. He nodded and kissed his parents goodnight and climbed on his bed, yet sleep eluded him. He couldn’t shake off the uneasiness that threatened to burst out of his chest, and he began to shed tears that were not his. The sound woke his parents up, and they hurried over to comfort him, but he could not tell them why he was crying, for he himself did not know in the first place.

That day, when Jiang Cheng managed to fall asleep, he dreamt about shades of blue and white and eyes so golden they almost scorched his entire being.

***

The memories came back, one by one at first, and then all at once.

The first time it happened, he had thought it was a dream. Lotus Pier was easy to recognize, and yet, there was something different about the structure, an intangible and undecipherable thing that told him this was not the Lotus Pier that he knew. He then saw a man standing in the middle of it, his purple robes indicating his status as the sect leader, and, next to him, a woman stood dressed in a similar shade of purple. He had never met them before, so how did they make their way into his dream?

He then saw a boy who looked almost identical to himself, laughing and pointing at his kite next to the married couple. A girl who looked a few years older was next to him, giving him encouraging words. Beside her, a boy dressed in black was letting out a loud laughter while mumbling about being hungry. They looked like a picture-perfect family, and the reason he said that was because he had seen pictures of them before, in the books his parents had bought for him.

Jiang Fengmian, Yu Ziyuan, Jiang Yanli, Wei Wuxian… And Jiang Wanyin, Jiang Cheng, the man he was named after.

And suddenly he couldn’t breathe, because he was only supposed to recognize them through picture books. He wasn’t supposed to remember the harsh scolding a mother reserved for her son, or the quiet negligence of a man who fooled the whole world into thinking he was a good father, or the lotus soup of a girl whose kind smile could melt the coldest hearts, who died to protect what little she had left of a family.

Or a smirk thrown carelessly at him to hide the pain of the soul inside. Or black robes that could almost blend into the night. Or a piercing tune that could awakened corpses to bring destruction upon his enemies.

Or a tired silhouette who stayed awake to take care of his infant nephew. Or the tears that fell silently in the middle of the night as a broken man wept for everything that he’d lost, for a soul that would never love him.

Or burnt letters. Or shades of white and blue and gold.

He wasn’t supposed to remember, and yet he did.

Jiang Cheng woke up screaming.

It took his parents hours to calm him down. He had reassure them that it was a nightmare gone bad, about the living corpses he had seen and read about in the books they gave him. Jiang Cheng forgot how easy lying was, especially when he needed to reassure his loved ones that he was okay. Soon enough, he managed to convince them to fall back asleep, while he laid in his own bed, sleep the furthest thing on his mind. He tried to keep his consciousness just blank enough so that the memories didn’t flood back like a broken dam, or else he wasn’t sure if he can cope with it.

How did one even grapple with decades of blood and death and sorrow coming back to them, when they chose death as their way out?

When Jiang Cheng was sure that he could breath properly again, he let himself pick apart his own memories and carefully analyzed them. The more he floundered in them, the more he wanted to go to a temple and confront the gods abut how utterly unfair this situation was.

The whole point of reincarnation was to start one’s life with a clean slate, to be freed of the past’s burdens. So why the fuck did he still have his memories from centuries ago, memories that were supposed to be forgotten the moment he passed the bridge?

Why did everyone else get to live happily but he alone was forced to remember the pain of having everything ripped away from him over and over again?

Letting out a laugh too bitter for a child, Jiang Cheng closed his eyes and tried not to think about how brightly fire burnt.

The next day, he asked his father to take him to Lotus Pier under the guise of wanting to watch the disciples practice their swords. It felt nostalgic, stepping into his home for the first time since he died in it, and he struggled to swallow the lump at his throat and tears that threatened to spill from his eyelids. The current sect leader kept the old place mostly the same, with the same murals and lotus carvings on the walls, ones that he had painstakingly attempted to replicate after the Pier burnt down. Instead, his successors and the ones after them had taken the foundation he built and expanded upon it, opening up new ports and docks, constructing new buildings, dabbing into new industries and areas such as medicine that even he didn’t think about.

Even the people didn’t change, different faces donning the same robes (he did notice some slight modification to allow for easier movement, a good change, he supposed) and practicing the same sword moves that had been passed down for generations. He was pleased to note that everyone seemed to remember the movements by heart and executed them with perfect precision, demonstrating their hours of hard work. He didn’t want to start yelling at them in the middle of the courtyard, for they would surely be baffled if they were lectured by a child barely ten years old.

Afterwards, he asked his father to visit the Ancestral Hall - a perfectly innocent request, he told himself, for many visitors in the past had come to show their respect. As he knelt before his family, he knew he was supposed to be overwhelmed with emotions. Instead, he just felt tired. He didn’t know what the gods want when they made him remember all these things. Surely such a “gift” would be more appreciated by Wei Wuxian, who could put his former wits to good use. All Jiang Cheng had were anger and resentment and regret that ate at him until he self-destruct. What could he do?

He briefly wondered if this was how Wei Wuxian felt, when Mo Xuanyu sacrificed his body to bring him back from the dead. How did he manage to move on and find happiness with Lan Wangji?

The only answer he came up with was that Wei Wuxian was strong, while Jiang Cheng simply wasn’t. He was too weak: too weak to protect his own sect, too weak to prevent his loved ones from their demise, too weak to tell his brother the truth.

Too fucking weak that he let himself wither away and died an early death because of a man who didn’t love him back.

He gripped his palm so tightly he didn’t realize he drew blood. He was a mere child, yet to form his golden core, so healing would be much more difficult. So he dusted himself off, exited the Ancestral Hall, and vowed that he would never be so weak again.

Later, he asked his father if he could give himself a courtesy name. Jiang Wanyin, he wanted to say, but that would be improper. So he chose a name that was closed enough to remind him of who he was, of what he lost.

Chapter Text

After he returned from his visit to the Ancestral Hall, he went to the library to inspect just what happened that brought his memory back. It couldn’t have been the work of any branch of cultivation he was familiar with, not even demonic cultivation. Most curses or poisons that could affect the memory did not carry over to the afterlife. That was the one place where you were granted your final closure, and he was deprived of even that.

He tried to swallow down frustration when his investigation turned out to be fruitless and shifted his attention to the vast array of history books the library possessed.

A brief inquiry through the family tree and history books revealed that one of the sect leaders after him was a famous scholar, and under their guidance, the YunmengJiang sect began documenting and spreading its teachings, its rich history and its unique form of cultivation. Because of this, disciples from other areas started coming in droves to learn, allowing the sect to prosper even more. Now, YunmengJiang could easily compete with LanlingJin as the richest sect, something that had astounded him.

One of his biggest fears when he took his last breath, spurned by the nonsensical protests of his Elders, was that nominating a sect leader not based on bloodline would eventually lead to betrayal, and that the Lotus Pier he cherished would crumble under a misguided hand. Seeing the state of the current Lotus Pier, he mentally pat himself on the back and reminded himself to lit an incense for his successors.

Satisfied after catching up with his sect’s history after his passing, Jiang Cheng then read up about himself. Jiang Wanyin, who insisted on nominating a successor instead of birthing one, normalized such procedures not only within the YunmengJiang sect but also the cultivation world as a whole. The history book made sure to mention that, even though it also mourned for his early death. He was torn to have found that the history books were not as kind to him as he had hoped. It painted him as a man who was cruel, often too much so at times, who was driven to do unspeakable things due to his lost core (oh, they actually included that part, he thought bitterly) and the tumultuous relationship with his brother. Nevertheless, they portrayed him as a man who lost too much, a man who, instead of letting grief engulfed him, moved on for the sake of his sect. A war hero during the Sunshot campaign. An honest and courageous man with a firm set of values and morals. Reading what was said about him, he could almost called himself a great man.

So this was his legacy.

Good.

He could never claimed himself to be a great person, not even a good one, not after all that he had done and the blood that stained his hands, blood of whom he tried to convince were not innocent (but some of them were, his demons told him during late nights, some of them were and you not only killed them, you tortured them until there was nothing of them left, you monster). However, he knew that he had done good things. This was the way he deserved to be remembered, a reminder to everyone that not everything was black and white.

While he was there, he briefly dove into the history of the other sects, mildly surprise to find such extensive details about other sects included in his own library. His mouth nearly dropped open at what he found.

There were extensive documents written about his nephew. Apparently, Jin Ling did become a great sect leader just as he knew his nephew would be. That was not a surprise. What was though was that the great Jin Rulan, who was quoted as to “want to follow his uncle’s footsteps,” went against the wishes of his Elders and nominated his successor among the men who had earned his trust after decades of serving him. He also began a relationship with Lan Sizhui and announced it publicly when both of them were still sect leaders. There were backlash at first, but the couple persevered and eventually earned the approval of both the people and even Lan Qiren, which was even more baffling. Their love strengthened the alliance between the LanlingJin Sect and the GusuLan Sect, and the two remained close allies until the very day. Jin Ling appointing his own successors also dismissed the concerns by many about the need for a heir for both sects, and this had also prompted Lan Sizhui to do the same thing. The two got married and, after both of them passed down their duties, they moved to an area that was somewhere between Gusu and Lanling, and spent the rest of their days there.

Jiang Cheng had always known that Jin Ling and the Lan kid were friends, and were expecting them to become sworn brothers as well, and according to the texts they actually did, but he never expected the two to be in love, enough so to announce their relationships while both were still bounded by duties, surely knowing the backlash they would receive.

Would he and Lan Xichen, if they were together, become accepted among his people the way Jin Ling and Lan Sizhui were?

No, he quickly dismissed that thought. It would never happened because Lan Xichen didn’t love him back.

Wiping away the tears that were threatening to form - having his memories while still be in the body of a ten year old had really rendered him too emotional for his own good - he skimmed the rest of Jin Ling’s biography, where the book described the many legacies his nephew left behind.

It was said that their relationship, as well as the dreamy love story between Hanguang Jun and the Yiling Patriarch, led society to become more open to cut-sleeves. After centuries had passed, cut-sleeves were now accepted as a norm, and the community had even developed their own customs for courtship and marriage.

The Yiling Patriarch.

There was a time when even the mention of that name used to bring him to uncontrollable rage, but now, he felt none of the bitterness that plagued his past. He remembered the way Wei Wuxian held him in the temple after he broke down like the pathetic, weak piece of shit that he was, could almost see the concerned glances and quiet way his brother took care of him after Lan Xichen’s passing, and he recalled most vividly the sadness in those eyes when they parted for the last time. Did Wei Wuxian grieve for him when he died, or was he just quietly resigned because he knew all along that this was meant to happen eventually? Or both? He was tempted to find his brother and asked those questions himself. Wei Wuxian is no longer here; nobody could’ve lived for that long? Or could they? There was always a possibility that his brother and Lan Wangji managed to achieve immortality, which, knowing them, wasn’t entirely impossible.

So, as curiosity got the best of him, Jiang Cheng scanned the library for any information regarding the infamous Yiling Patriarch. Surely there must be texts that talked about the man. And finally, he saw it, an old book written by somebody with two family names. Though confusion overtook him at first, when he read the “Lan” and “Wei” in the name, he quickly realized that the author was a descendant of sorts to his brother.

Even though he had denounced Wei Wuxian, had casted him of the family, and even though they weren’t even blood-related, knowing that this person, whoever they might be, were family to his brother, he couldn’t help but think that maybe they were family to him as well.

What a silly thought, he shook his head and chastised his own weakness, turning his focus to the book in front of him and scanned through the introductory pages.

Wei Wuxian, despite being as ingenious as he was mad, still were not able to find a way to immortality. However, the book mentioned that he managed to develop a core that allow him to cultivate alongside his partner. They travelled all over, helping the needed and exorcising evil. Along the way, they adopted children who did not have a home of their own as travelling companions, forming their own little family. After a while, they settled at Yiling and built a home, and anyone who wanted to learn demonic cultivation or simply had nowhere else to go were welcomed there. Soon, the place turned into a robust community where esteemed scholars and cultivators would frequent to catch a glimpse of the infamous couple as well as learning new ways to cultivate. The two lived for nearly two centuries before passing away together, and they were buried at the back of the hill surrounded by people who they considered family.

How disgustingly romantic was it that those two even died together? Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. But a part of him, deep inside, was pleased that everyone he knew from his previous life lived lives they would be proud of and passed away peacefully with their loved ones, something that he himself was never able to do.

No, instead he had passed away as lonely and bitter as he was before Wei Wuxian came back from the dead. He knew that wouldn’t be what both of them wanted for him. No, despite everything, he knew that Jin Ling and Wei Wuxian cared for him, loved him even, and would wanted to see him happy. Did they grieve for him when he died? Did they come and visit the Ancestral Hall for him? Did they blame themselves for allowing it to happen, knowing they could’ve prevented it? However, these texts, despite extensively describing their history and legacies, failed to give him the answer to those questions.

He hoped that they forgot about him and moved on eventually. It was what he deserved.

***

Jiang Cheng started his early training under the supervision of his parents, from whom he denied a private tutor. He knew the basic steps, had developed a golden core under the watchful eyes of the best teacher his sect could offer (before he lost it all). The children around him were stunned at his fast development, and the word “prodigy” got passed around his village until it reached the ears of their current sect leader, who insisted on watching him practice.

It wasn’t like he hadn’t met the sect leader before, but now that he had his memories back, he took a closer look to fully examine the man in front of him, trying to look for similar features that could ring a bell in his mind. However, this sect leader bear no resemblance to his right-hand man, indicating that they were not blood-related. Perhaps the woman he proudly appointed as the new sect leader had too nominated someone else instead of a member of her own family, or perhaps a descendant of hers did. Not that it mattered, but at least he knew his sect was in good hands, that the people following his footsteps kept his values in mind.

The sect leader asked him to show what he’d learnt, and he complied with the man’s request after briefly contemplating if he should play dumb and not demonstrate the decades of experience he had that this body did not. However, a voice at the back of his head that sounded eerily like his mother quickly banished the thought. He began to display the basic movements of his sect that had been embedded into his memory, watching as the sect leader’s eyes went wide and a crowd started to gather around them.

“You’re good.” The man mused, seemingly contemplating something.

I know. It would be quite a disgrace if I’m not. He didn’t say. He bowed like a child that he was supposed to be and thanked his sect leader for the compliment. Decades of diplomacy, though failing to curb his temper, had taught him how to act appropriately when he needed to.

The next day, he was told that his family was offered a place at Lotus Pier, and that the sect leader himself would oversee his training. His parents were overjoyed, and, when the messenger left, they held him in their arms and told him how proud they were of him, and that they knew he would become one of the best cultivators around.

Jiang Cheng once again had to swallow the tears that accumulated around his eyelids. How he missed this, somebody having faith in him, telling him that he was doing well. But he knew better. There was no way his past parents would be openly proud of him like this, especially not his mother.

So his family moved into Lotus Pier, and a feeling of rightness settled into his bones again, similar to when he met Lan Xichen so long ago. It felt like falling in love, except that he never felt out of love with his home in the first place. If Wei Wuxian had Yiling, Lotus Pier was his, his to love and cherish until the day he die. But he knew he didn’t have time to whisk poetically about his home; he had training to do.

It was more difficult than he initially anticipated. He knew he had the form down to perfection, but he kept forgetting that in this body, he had yet to form a fully functioning golden core, and thus, various movements that would’ve taken him little energy in his past life now became difficult to perform. His teachers often chastised him for wanting to move too quickly and not letting his body catch up. So he had no other option but practice day and night until he formed a full golden core, and soon enough, those moments came easy again, and he was fully able to exhibit the skills he dearly missed, skills that he knew even adults who have cultivated for decades of his own sect would struggle with.

A sense of satisfaction curled around his gut as he took in the shocked faces of the other disciples. When inquired about how he had mastered such skills so quickly, Jiang Cheng lied that he simply practiced hard each night. Although he had always been a bad liar, this one seemed to be readily accepted, as it was more believable than the truth. How was he supposed to tell them that he had the memories of his past life, who was once their sect leader and one of the most respected, albeit hated, cultivator of his generation?

His parents, impressed as they were of his progress, told him to not push himself too hard, and that he had a long life ahead of him to learn the things he wanted to. They told him that they would be proud of him nevertheless, so he should make friends and enjoy his childhood.

His initial emotion to their kind words was an anger so fierce it threatened to char his flesh.

How dare they.

How dare they tell him to slow down after the endless nights he spent ensuring that he would develop a golden core quicker than other children and practicing the movements he had not done for centuries? How dare they not push him harder? Do they want him to fail, to fall behind on other kids so that he would have to settle for being completely ordinary and average instead of exceptional like he knew he was capable of being in this life?

So he stormed out of their quarters amidst a heavy rainstorm and settled to watching the rest of Lotus Pier while perched on top of a cliff.

He knew he shouldn’t be here, that his parents would be worried, but he needed to calm his mind and not lash out at them, to scream words that he didn’t mean and hurting another person he loved. He calmly observed the lightning in the distance and was reminded of his mother, the embodiment of lightning itself, the woman he had been told he took after ever since he was a child. His mother, who earned a reputation for herself at a young age and given the title “Violet Spider,” who had a temper she passed down to her son and a tongue as fierce as her personality, who would never said the things his parents just said to him. Instead, she would mask her love with strict reprimands and harsh sneers and occasionally a slap to whip him back to shape, who would have told him that he was not good enough, that he need to try harder until he was the best there is, even when he knew that he would never surpass his brother.

His father would never said those words either, simply because the man wouldn’t care.

He took a deep breath and allowed tears to finally fall. He was soaked; nobody would know he was crying and that was good because crying was weak. He didn’t want anyone to think he was weak, especially when he had made enemies out of most of the children who also trained in Lotus Pier. Many were jealous of his talents, while others simply couldn’t stand his temper. He always had a temper, even before he had his memories back, but now it got worst due to the decades of insecurity and sorrow he accumulated from his past life. He didn’t quite care that he didn’t have friends though, as he was used to being alone anyway.

Sometimes, he would hear whispers from those who knew the people who knew him from his past life, about how much he resembled the man he was named after, and he could only laugh. How he wish for them to know, because then maybe he wouldn’t have to suffer alone with the decades of trauma he didn’t ask for.

He couldn’t, because this was another secret he had to keep, because even if it was terrible and cumbersome, at least they were his, and he would hold onto the things that were his until the day he take his last breath.

A cry from a distance shook him out of his thoughts, and he saw his parents frantically running towards him. They held out an umbrella, despite doing so would render them soaked in the rain instead, and ran careful fingers over him to ensure that he wasn’t injured. “I’m not injured,” he reassured them, but that still didn’t deter their fingers until they were positive that he was okay. Then they both wrapped their arms around him and mumbled their apologies, asking him that if he was angry he should just shout at them instead of wandering off in the middle of the storm.

Jiang Cheng was rendered speechless and just stood there and allowed himself to be hugged and then carried back home. He didn’t even complain when they stripped him and insisted that he take a warm bath so that he wouldn’t catch a cold. He met his sect leader the next day, who told him that he shouldn’t worry his parents like that again. It was then that he understood why their previous apologies from last night had stung.

They didn’t do anything wrong. His sect leader was right. His parents acted like any concerned parents would over their child growing too fast and potentially burning out. It was normal for parents to want a good childhood for their child, for their child to enjoy the beauty life had to offer without comprehending its harshness.

But his previous family wasn’t normal. He was always told that he wasn’t good enough, that he need to spend more time training at the cost of meal time and sleep, so that one day he would surpass his brother. He never knew what it felt like to be told to slow down; he only knew how to be pushed and pushed until he broke.

And broke he did, didn’t he, when he lashed out at his brother after Lotus Pier burned and then again in that cursed temple.

But that wasn’t quite true, wasn’t it.

Because he was broken even before that. He had been broken since he was a child, and that was why he was never good enough for his mother and kind enough for his father and strong enough to protect his sister. He was broken because ever since he was a child he had looked at his older brother with love but also a seething resentment that he hated himself for. He was broken when he fell for a man who he knew would never return his affection. For so long, he had attempted to stitch the broken pieces of himself up using needles made from blood and the quiet tears he never shed into something can vaguely be passed off as a human being and move on with his life for the sake if his sect. That was why he recoiled at human affection, so much so that he couldn’t even give his nephew who lost both of his fucking parents when he was an infant the care and love he deserved, too afraid to even hold the child and tell him that he’s proud of everything he had achieved, only doing it in letters as his consciousness slowly faded away.

Jiang Cheng hadn’t realized he was crying when he saw his parents. Instead of asking questions, his mother, the one from this life, the one who was gentle and sweet instead of harsh and aloof, pulled him into her chest and ran a hand up and down his back, while his father carded his sword-calloused fingers through his hair in a soothing motion. They didn’t say anything as he squeezed himself between them in bed and pretended like they were asleep as he whispered late sorry’s and thank you’s into the quiet night.

Chapter Text

Years passed by in a blink of an eye, and before he knew it, he was fourteen year old, still a child, but old enough to comprehend that the private lessons his sect leader gave him was a privilege not many other disciples get to have. He briefly let the guilt eat at him - they probably needed it more, there weren’t many things his sect leader told him that he didn’t know - considering his current situation and accepted that gift. This means that his sect leader planned to train him into becoming his successor, and while his job had its disadvantages, he had always worn his sect leader title as a badge of honor. He remembered the way his people looked at him with hope which later turned into fear and a belated respect, how his sect had relied on him and cherished his legacy even after such a pitiful death.

There was another factor that he noted down. He passed Zidian to his successor, who proceeded to pass it down to her successor, and now it rested elegantly on the index finger of the current Jiang sect leader. This meant that if he was to become sect leader Zidian would be in his arms again.

The thought of having it all again pumped his chest with a heavy, overwhelming feeling that could almost be called joy.

Of course, his sect leader’s intention was made more obvious when the man asked him to accompany him to Cloud Recesses for a Discussion Conference, where he would be able to interact with other children who also were considered to have exceptional talent. Such an opportunity was hard to refuse, so his parents fussed over him as they prepared for the journey and bid him goodbye with tears in their eyes.

He inhaled the familiar air and closed his eyes as his feet landed on the ground near the familiar entrance of a place he knew by heart, had memorized the geography when he was still a boy and then later carved that map into his heart as he sneaked through the various buildings to stop at a certain hanshi, where a certain man was practicing secluded meditation. He never went inside though, never dared to even knock, because he knew better than to disturb a Lan who was in such a state, but he wanted so badly to, wanted it almost as much as he wanted to rip his heart out of his chest and gave it to that same man who will never be able to do the same thing to him.

He opened his eyes.

Cloud Recesses was almost identical to when he last saw it, except there seemed to be more rules than before. It seemed like two, three thousand more rules were added since he was alive, and he briefly wondered if he was breathing wrong and if that was a violation. It was a ridiculous thought, like the many ridiculous thoughts that had been clouding his mind recently, but it did make him chuckle and calmed his mind as he followed his sect leader through the many buildings and into the guest chambers.

He didn’t realize he would be given his own room, albeit a smaller one that was adjacent to his sect leader’s. He couldn’t complain though, as it gave him much needed privacy as he crashed into his bed and contain his urge to go outside, searching for a certain hanshi for a man who was no longer there. It was a rash, stupid thought, and he should really ought to forget that man as soon as possible. He had a new life now. There was no use yearning for a dead man.

So he closed his eyes and try not to think about robes of white and the familiar tune of a xiao.

***

Jiang Cheng soon learned that time can change many things, but what it couldn’t change was the nature of man. Humans are always greedy creatures, caring for themselves or their closed ones rather than looking at the big picture. That was what made previous Discussion Conferences so insufferable, as any mildly good suggestions were picked apart and shot down because no one wanted to sacrifice what they had.

So, watching a pair of sect leaders from two smaller sects bicker about where they should place the next watch tower, one of the only good things Jin Guangyao did that he was grateful was still around, Jiang Cheng couldn’t help but felt a sense of deja-vu. He tried not to rub his temple, a gesture far too old for someone his age, and instead chose to observe his sect leader, who seemed as exasperated as he was. He then scanned the faces around the room, pleased to note that he wasn’t the only one who was absolutely fucking done with these antics. That was, until he landed upon a pair of figures in blue and white who was currently standing behind a pole near the Lan sect leader, calmly observing the chaos unfolding in front of them, and he suddenly felt like the breathe was knocked out of him.

Even if centuries had passed, he could still recognize those figures.

How could he not, when one of them had been haunting his dreams for decades.

Suddenly, the hall where the conference was held felt too small as Jiang Cheng dug his nails into the palm of his hands hard enough to draw blood as he struggled to steady his breathing, except that he couldn’t, not when the walls felt like they were closing in on him, not when the flames inside of his heart threatened to burn him.

Not when Lan Xichen was right in front of him, tall and beautiful and alive.

The first Jade of Lan looked to be the same age at him, if not a year or two older at most. He was dressed in Lan’s traditional white garments, which had been kept more or less the same. He looked younger than when Jiang Cheng had met him while studying at Cloud Recesses, his height a bit shorter, and there was still some baby fat on his face, but there was no mistaken that this was Lan Xichen. He had a familiar-looking xiao strapped to his waist. His hair was the same shade of black. Most importantly, his eyes were the same shade of amber that had captivated Jiang Cheng upon their first meeting, the same eyes that were currently gazing back at him. He looked away, embarrassed that he had been caught starring, but not before catching the blinding smile Xichen gave him.

Fuck, he even had the same smile, the one that Jiang Cheng thought he’d lost after The Incident.

Oh, he’s so fucked.

After the first session of the Conference was over, his sect leader hurried over to his Lan counterpart to introduce his newest pupil. The Lan sect leader, who he now noticed bear an uncanny similarity to Lan Jingyi, greeted them and looked at him like he had heard about him. Jiang Cheng realized that he had a bit of a reputation now, the good kind, and gave a respectful bow. He was then introduced to the pair of brothers who he had not taken out of his sight the entire conference.

They even had the same fucking names.

Later, he would hear from his sect leader that Lan Huan was born when lilies miraculously bloomed outside of his parents’ residence. His mother, the current sect leader’s oldest sister, wanted to name him after the esteemed cultivator out of admiration, despite the man’s tragic death. What she didn’t expect was to give birth to another son more than a year later who was strikingly similar to her first son, to the point they could be mistaken for twins, and, sensing that it was destiny, she decided to name him Lan Zhan. The pair was raised in Cloud Recesses and showed progress that far surpassed their peers. Even at the age of fourteen and fifteen, the two could easily match cultivators with decades under their belt. Thus they were dubbed “New Jades of Lan.”

The New Jades of Lan.

If not out of politeness for his sect leader, he would’ve laughed until he cry.

As he lied in bed at night, he couldn’t help but wonder, if the two Lans were here, did it mean that life came full circle? Would he started seeing ghosts of the past again? Would he start seeing Nie Huaisang or Nie Mingjue popped up somewhere? Or Jin GuangYao’s face among the Jins? Or Wei Wuxian?

For once, he hoped he was wrong.

For the next few days, outside of sitting with his sect leader during meetings, Jiang Cheng pondered the various ways to approach Lan Xichen. He waited until Xichen was free before coming up and awkwardly asked to be shown around town, to which the other boy enthusiastically agreed.

They talked about the most mundane of things, from the weather (nice, if not a bit chilly), to the food (which Jiang Cheng had given the other boy a pointed glare, and earned a delighted laughter in return that he shoved to the deepest corner of his heart), to the matters discussed within the conference (Jiang Cheng wasn’t even a bit surprise that both of the Jades were fluent in analyzing political situations, and when he gave his own input, Xichen had seemed impressed, and if he lacked self-control he would’ve grinned until his cheeks hurt).

By the end of the day, Jiang Cheng had no doubt that this was the Lan Xichen that he knew and love, or rather, the reincarnation of that man. He had a different courtesy name, different parents and background, just like Jiang Cheng himself, but nealy everything else about him was identical to the man he lost. Except for one important thing: his eyes, which were so bright and innocent, acted as a reminder that unlike him, this boy, a child, really, did not carry the burden of his past and thus, didn’t know war or betrayal yet. Perhaps it was for the best. Lan Xichen didn’t deserve to remember all the sufferings he had to endure to no fault of his own.

These memories were Jiang Cheng’s burden to bear and his only, and maybe, if he hold these memories long enough that he started to choke on it, perhaps he would be able to redeem himself.

By the end of the day, Jiang Cheng had insisted that they started calling each other by their real names, A-Cheng and A-Huan. Even though he had never called the other man that name before, and a part of him was still horrified at how forward he was being, at least it was something familiar. He thanked the gods that the other boy was kind enough to agree, and by the end of the day, he could feel a budding friendship forming between them. Maybe this time, it would be different.

Maybe this time, he would finally have Lan Xichen in his arms.

The thought kept him giddy throughout his entire stay at Cloud Recesses, and his heart didn’t settle down until he was in the comfort of his own room in Lotus Pier. It stayed with him throughout every letter they exchanged and every small gifts he sent to the other boy (friends sent each other gifts, right?). He knew he didn’t deserve someone like Xichen, someone so kind and beautiful and forgiving, but if the opportunity was presented to him, how could he not take it, especially when he had dreamt about it for so long?

But of course, he should’ve known from the moment he got stuck with this curse that fate absolutely abhor him and would rather made him suffer for eternity than to taste happiness.

***

Because another year past, and another Discussion Conference was held, this time in the LanlingJin Sect, and his face paled when he spotted new faces among the crowd.

The little community that Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji built in Yiling had grown prominent enough to be allowed a seat in the council, and this time, the head of that place brought with him another boy around Jiang Cheng’s age, who dressed himself in all black and tied his hair into a loose ponytail. He stood in a corner and listened to adults around him squabble with a casual nonchalance that was impolite and all too familiar.

Once again, Jiang Cheng felt like the wind was knocked out of him.

After the first meeting, the Wei-Wuxian-that-was-not-Wei-Wuxian sauntered over to him, face bearing a smirk he recognized all too well, and introduced himself with a courtesy name Jiang Cheng didn’t recognize, but he knew there was a “Wei” in there, and a sense of dread filled him.

“But you can call me Wei Ying if you want to. I like that name better. I’m named after the Yiling Patriarch you know.”

Fuck me.

Not-Wei-Wuxian spent the rest of his day bothering him and asking mundane questions about him and Lotus Pier. Jiang Cheng couldn’t even bother to listen, too wrapped up in his own thoughts, but his ears perked up at the mention of this Wei Ying’s personal background. Apparently he was born in Yiling, one of the many descendants of the children his brother took in. His parents gave him his name immediately after he was born, upon seeing bright amethyst eyes and delight laughter that reminded them too much of the stories they were told about the Yiling Patriarch as a kid.

Ever since a young age, this Wei Wuxian, much like his past-life self, had displayed wisdom and strength that far surpassed pupils his age. This, combined with his mischievous yet charming personality, fueled rumors that the Yiling Patriarch had once again return. Wei Wuxian embraced these rumors whole-heartedly, and even took on demonic cultivation at a young age.

“I just feel like I relate to him on a personal level, you know?” Wei Wuxian cackled, “like, I know it sounded silly, but it seemed like he was almost reincarnated into me.” Too busy with his own thoughts, Wei Wuxian didn’t notice a shudder that overcame the person next to him and kept rambling on.

Somehow, this Wei Wuxian had a bizarre connection with his past life that he didn’t know was possible. He didn’t even see it with the two Jades. This Wei Wuxian looked at him with stars in his eyes as Jiang Cheng described Yunmeng and Lotus Pier to him and listened intently as Jiang Cheng droned about the most mundane things about his sect, almost as if he’d been missing it for a long time. Jiang Cheng’s heart had ached then.

Despite everything that happened between them in their past lives, he didn’t doubt that Wei Wuxian loved Lotus Pier with his whole heart, had yearned to return but was too afraid that he would be shunned, that everyone there would hate him because his own brother did.

He was suddenly reminded of the letter he penned to Wei Wuxian before his death. In it, he expressed a desire for them to reconcile in another life or for a future generation to mend the drift between them, because the sins and burdens they both bear during this life made it impossible for them to act like brothers again. Well, they were reincarnated for a reason, weren’t they?

Was that why he remembered everything, just so that he could seek out the people of his past and make things right again? But why him? Why was this curse not given to someone like Wei Wuxian, who would have no qualm seeking him out and mend the problems of their past? He was too sad and angry and broken to get anything done. He couldn’t even hold a proper conversation with his brother without feeling like he was going to combust. It didn’t take a genius to realize the stilted and awkward lapses in their conversation was because of him being unable to control himself.

Yet Wei Wuxian didn’t seem to mind, always looking at him expectantly and waiting for him to continue his line of thought. He wondered if this boy had that patient with everyone else, or if it was just him. It didn’t take a genius to realize that both of them were named after figures of the past, two people with a long, extensive and painful history with one another. Was that why Wei Wuxian zeroed in on him in the first place? He wasn’t a fool, he had felt eyes on him ever since he stepped into the room. Both of them knew that they were observing each other ever since the conference started.

A part of him wanted to ask if Wei Wuxian knew. He couldn’t bring himself to ask, afraid of what the answer would be.

Too preoccupied with his own inner demons, Jiang Cheng didn’t notice that Wei Wuxian had shifted to talking about a certain Jade.

“You know the epic love story between the Yiling Patriarch and Hanguang-Jun right? And you know the New Jades of Lan, you’ve met them, right? Like, I know it sounds weird, but when I first saw Lan Zhan, I immediately felt this…connection with him, like love at first sight.” Wei Wuxian came to a halt, as if reminiscing something, a love sick smile on his face that made Jiang Cheng automatically roll his eyes. The boy clad in black then pursed his lips, bringing his hands to his hips. “But then I told him that and he nearly attacked me! I didn’t even do anything, like can you believe? All I said was that I think we will have a love story like Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, what’s so bad about that?”

Jiang Cheng’s eyes might as well are permanently embedded at the back of his head. He never had any doubt that this was his brother, just as he never had any doubt that the two New Jades were the reincarnation of the old ones, but now he was absolutely sure that fate existed, it had repeated itself, and it absolutely and resolutely hated him.

It just made so much sense for those fools to end up together even beyond death.

He tried telling himself that the feeling in his chest wasn’t jealousy, but he knew, deep down, that he wanted what Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji had, even before he passed away.

Jiang Cheng couldn’t sleep that night.

It only got worse from there. In typical Jin fashion, the new Jin family had insisted on hosting a series of games that would determine the best of the best, and then, in typical Wei Wuxian fashion, the new Wei Wuxian demolished every single competition he participated in. To be fair, so did the new Jades of Lan, but even they struggled against the pure, raw talent that his hurricane of a brother possessed. At the end of the day, Wei Wuxian came first in a number of competitions, to the surprise of no one, and Jiang Cheng once again tried not to let past anger took over him and acted irrationally. He knew he would be watched closely, as the potential new successor to the YunmengJiang sect, and his actions will reflect back on him and his sect leader.

Besides, it wasn’t a surprise he came second or third or fourth. Jiang Cheng knew his knowledge far surpassed anyone here, having knowledge of cultivation that most of these disciples would only dream to have, but his other skills regarding the six arts had been mediocre at best. He was never a particularly exceptional archer. He couldn’t pick up an instrument to save his life beyond recognizing the notes, which meant that he wasn’t a bad singer, not that he would let anyone else but Jin Ling hear it. It all made sense, really. Not everyone was as naturally gifted as the man who was currently grinning at his arrows, which were firmly planted in the bullseyes of the targets before them.

But still, jealousy and something else, something dark, that he thought he had buried for a long time came to the surface, because this reminded him too much of their childhoods, of him losing and losing every single time, of his mother’s disappointed glares, of his father’s smiles, the kind that was never reserved for him, being given to the person who always ended up first in every single fucking thing.

But he knew he couldn’t take his past anger out on this Wei Wuxian because, even though this one acted the same way, teasingly called him Jiang Cheng the same way, and caused trouble wherever he went the exact same way, this boy in front of him was only the reincarnation of the man he taught himself to hate. This one had no history with him, had not committed terrible sins when his judgement was clouded by demonic cultivation, had not killed his sister and brother in law and destroyed everything he worked so hard for and left him all alone even though he promised he wouldn’t.

This one was innocent. And it wasn’t supposed to hurt, but it did, because it reminded him once again that he was stuck his this curse, while everyone else had the freedom to move on with their lives and enjoyed their reincarnations without thinking about blood and fire and mangled corpses every time they closed their eyes.

Soon enough, they arrived at the most anticipated session of the day – the dueling competition. To everyone’s surprises, the Jins have allowed everyone to use not just their swords but any other weapons they might own, so the two Lans brought their guqin and xiao, while Wei Wuxian held the flute in his hands – not Chengqing, which he read had been buried with the past Wei Wuxian – as if it was some cherished treasure.

The only good thing about this curse was the years of cultivation he had under his belt that others didn’t. This was how he breezed through most of the competition without even breaking a sweat. As he took down another opponent, he could hear whispers among the other competitors, about how he was someone to look out for, how good he was even compared to other esteemed cultivators from his sect. However, he knew his sect leader could see it, just as he could see it. Against someone with additional weapons, there were holes in his movement that his basic training should’ve covered.

He fought like he was missing something, and both of them knew it.

But his sect leader said nothing, only giving him a pointed look. He knew that he shouldn’t be looking at the Zidian that was innocuously resting on the man’s index finger, but he did anyway, because that belonged to him, just as it did to his mother, to the point he almost hesitated to give it away to his successor. His sect leader followed his stare, and, to everyone’s surprise, slid off Zidian and passed it to him.

Lightning roared through his veins as his family heirloom curled around his hand and turned into a whip. This felt like home, like the first time he stepped his foot back to Lotus Pier, like the first time him and Lan Xichen locked eyes and he fell in love all over again.

Like seeing the twinkles in the eyes of a man with no recollection of his past as Jiang Cheng talked about a home he never knew but loved anyways.

His opponents never stood a chance.

Jiang Cheng was stunned that he actually came first. He expected to lose against either one of the two Jades or Wei Wuxian. What he didn’t expect was that his brother, despite being a genius, had yet to master demonic cultivation like his past self, and thus, had left his defenses full of holes that were easily exploitable if one had cultivated long enough, and so he did.

Wei Wuxian, in typical Wei Wuxian fashion, wasn’t even mad that he lost. Instead, he beamed at Jiang Cheng and extended his hand while requesting Jiang Cheng to show him the Jiang sword styles later if they had the chance. Xichen offered his own congratulations, hands too hot against Jiang Cheng’s back he could almost felt Zidian came back to life in response.

Even Lan Wangji, who surprisingly suffered a defeat against Wei Wuxian in the semifinals (he was fairly sure the reason for that was psychological, more than anything else, and briefly wonder if he should congratulate the two of them early or something, to make up for not offering his congratulations when they eloped, too wrapped up in his own inner turmoil), nodded at him before walking off, Wei Wuxian excitedly trailing behind him like an overenthusiastic rabbit.

He had excitedly bragged about it with his parents when his entourage arrived back at Lotus Pier, and they had smiled at him and patted his head, telling him how a job he was doing. He then told them about the rest of the competitions, telling them that he would do better and try to get first place next time. He expected their responses, and yet, when they told him that he didn’t have to rush anything, and that he was learning so fast and doing such a great job, there was no anger in his chest. He remembered how they frantically seek for him in the rain, the way tears stuck to their cheeks as they held him, and the warmth of their bodies as he was squeezed between them, and suddenly, he realized how nice it felt to not be told that he had to be good at everything all the time.

Why did he have to try so hard all the fucking time? He was fine the way he was. There was no war on the horizon, and everyone tried to work together to solve problems even when petty fights broke out during discussions, and he was on track to become one of, if not the best, cultivator of his generation. Wouldn’t it be nice to just… slow down and enjoy life for once, allowing himself to think about trivial things, such as if his brother was still afraid of dogs in this life or if Lan Xichen was still as beautiful under Yunmeng sky as he last remember him?

Despite his mother’s voice, the one from his past life, screaming at him about how careless he was being, how useless of a feeling it was, Jiang Cheng allowed himself to indulge in feeling like second best, at least just for a little while.

***

He remembered the first letter he’d received from Lan Xichen after the Discussion Conference at Lanling like he remembered the ash in his mouth as he watched his home burned down.

The content itself was harmless, even friendly, like all of the man’s letters was. It would’ve been perfect if he had not mentioned the friend he made during their stay. The name “A-Yao,” too familiar and intimate, made his lungs burned, because he had always known he was haunted by ghosts, he never thought this one would follow him to his next life. No, he was supposed to right the wrongs of his past, to erase his sins, to make sure that Lan Xichen wouldn’t follow the footsteps of his past life because Lan Xichen of this life was supposed to love him.

He recalled too well the sweet, caring glances Xichen reserved for Meng Yao, the way the man vehemently defended that fucking snake against all the accusations levelled at him, the utter devastation in his eyes at the temple, and how liquid gold turned hollow as he let his own demons and seclusion ate at him until he was gone.

No

No no no no

He read the description Xichen provided for him, about the other man’s appearance and background. There was another unfamiliar courtesy name, but his name, Jin Yao, was the same, only with a different last name than the one Meng Yao inherit from his mother. The description, about the clear, knowing eyes, the short stature, the hint of dimples when he smiled, were all so similar, for that was what Xichen had used to described Meng Yao too, a long time ago.

So he did some digging, and surprisingly, there was already a fair bit of gossip about someone who he never heard of before, someone so terribly unremarkable he didn’t even leave an impression on Jiang Cheng during the tournament or during their Conference. Soon enough, he learned why.

Jin Yao was born into the Jin household, his mother a concubine to the latest Jin sect leader. It seemed that she was somebody exceptionally beautiful and intelligent, but when her son was five, she suddenly went crazy and was eventually killed for conceiving a plot to assassinate her own husband. Since then, despite being raised in the Jin household, he was treated like some bastard child, even denied the privilege of learning how to develop a golden core, and thus, had to think of other unconventional ways to hone his cultivation. Thus, he had no solid foundation of his own and had to travel elsewhere to learn a variety of methods to make up for it. The Jins turned a blind eye to his struggles and treated him like some dirty little secret, hiding him away if possible, and it was only to save face that they didn’t kick him out altogether.

Despite all of this, Lan Xichen managed to find him, and, being the kind soul that he was, befriended him and even taught him some basic Lan sword style.

Jiang Cheng’s fingers trembled as he finished the letter. He had always kept the precious pages Xichen wrote him in a locked box like the lovesick fool that he was, but now, all he wanted to do was to burn this cursed letter and pretended like nothing ever happened.

Somehow, in this new life where everything else was different, where he didn’t even have the same parents or sister, who was nowhere to be found despite his efforts, he met his brother, his brother-in-law, the love of his life, and the man who threatened destroyed everything he knew and love.

Who managed to do just that, because for the longest time the only thing that kept him alive was the wrinkle of his nephew’s nose and honey wrapped in white and blue.

That fucking bastard took one of them away from him.

He knew he shouldn’t blame the guilt of the past on the current Jin Yao, just like he didn’t gnarl at the current Wei Wuxian and blame the boy for killing his sister.

And yet.

Next year’s Conference was held in Yunmeng and Jin Yao had asked to come along as some lowly servant, as if he didn’t have Jin blood in him. Xichen had eagerly introduced two of his closest friends to one another.

“A-yao, this is Jiang Cheng, of YunmengJiang sect. We met a while ago during the Conference held at Cloud Recesses.”

Jin Yao had bowed to him, shy and nervous and nothing like his past self despite their almost identical appearance. Yet all Jiang Cheng saw were mocking smirks as the man talked about his lack of core and strings sinking into Jin Ling’s neck deep enough to draw blood.

“A-Cheng, this is the person I told you about in the letter, who I met during our stay at Koi Tower.”

Jiang Cheng walked away.

He knew he was being rude, as Lan Xichen caught up with him later and asked what was wrong, but he couldn’t bring himself to answer the other man, because that would require him to tell the truth, and he would rather die than let Lan Xichen knew about it. So he swallowed his pain and went to Meng Yao, because no matter what he would be Meng Yao to him, just like how Lan Huan was Lan Xichen and Wei Ying was Wei Wuxian in his mind. The apologies tumbled out of him, rough and almost insincere, but Meng Yao had smiled and nodded and it made him almost forget the acrid smell of charred flesh that dug into his nephew’s skin.

Chapter Text

In a blink of an eye, Jiang Cheng was celebrating his twenty-fifth birthday in the loving embraces of his parents and the watchful eyes of his sect leader.

For a while, everything was fine.

Wei Wuxian showed up at the doorsteps of Lotus Pier, a familiar white figure beside him, and demanded Jiang Cheng to show him around Yunmeng. Apparently, somewhere along the way, Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian had gotten closer (again), and often accompanied one another on night hunts. It was strange hearing and witnessing how the two of them fell in love again, but he knew in his heart that they deserved one another.

He just wished Lan Wangji was more subtle about his affections, because if he had to see another lingering touch or heated glances, he might actually throw up. However, it was pretty funny seeing Lan Wangji trying to not grimace every time Wei Wuxian insisted on trying out a new restaurant “to experience the full spectrum of Yunmeng cuisine.”

Before dinner, Lan Wangji politely requested to use the kitchen. After the initial confusion, a realization dawned upon Jiang Cheng as the second Jade of Lan carried out a pot of lotus rib soup.

Apparently, the past Lan Wangji had developed a recipe that was meant to replicate Jiang Yanli’s lotus rib soup and passed it down to his family. The current Lan Wangji somehow managed to get his hands on said recipe, and, using fresh Yunmeng lotuses that were unrivaled in quality, made a soup that reminded Jiang Cheng so much of his sister’s he almost cried in front of the pair.

How was such insignificant details capable of rendering him into an emotional mess?

He stared at the nervous Lan Wangji, suddenly growing to appreciate the man and the lengths he was willing to go through to make his brother happy. They hated each other in their past life and only endured one another for the sake of their sects, but wouldn’t he had felt the same, if Lan Wangji had killed the love of his life? Their history was nonexistent in this life. They could start over.

Maybe they could even take the tentative steps of calling each other friends.

Jiang Cheng blinked away the tears and finished his soup.

He was still worried about Meng Yao, about the sins of his past life catching up with him, but maybe, everything will turn out alright.

That was what he thought, until the first dead body showed up.

The body belonged to the eldest son of the Jin family, who was found in his own quarters, face pale as a good and hand clutching his stomach. An investigation was conducted and the cause of death was determined to be poison, indicating that this was a murder. All the servants of the Jin family was interrogated, but none of them seem to be involved.

Amidst this chaos, a member of the family suggested that the murderer was none other than the neglected son who was trying to eliminate all potential successor so that he could be pushed to power.

Of course, Lan Xichen had stood in front of the Jin elders and defended his good friend against what he deemed to be baseless accusations. It was true, everyone else agreed, that there was no proof except for the Jin’s obvious hostility towards Meng Yao. Eventually, the Jins retracted their accusations and carried on with their investigation, this time turning towards other sects. Thus, the matter was quickly dropped and Meng Yao was deemed an innocent man.

But Jiang Cheng had known Meng Yao.

A part of him told him that he was being paranoid, that he was acting on the jealousy that was sowed inside of his heart the moment Xichen befriended the Jin. However, he couldn’t get the feeling out of his gut that Meng Yao had something to do with this. He recalled the way Meng Yao meticulously sent both of the Jin heirs to their early deaths and then later ruthlessly killed his own father, all to ensure a smooth transition to power for himself.

He had seen the way the past repeated itself too many times in this lifetime, so what if Meng Yao repeating his past mistakes were once again fate’s way of telling him to go fuck himself?

Knowing that he would behave irrationally if he was to act alone, he seek out the person he knew would be perfect for the job.

“So you want us to investigate Jin Yao?” Wei Wuxian casually sat on top of Lan Wangji’s lap, which Jiang Cheng would’ve scoffed at if he wasn’t asking for a favor, and tilted his head curiously. “Why? There isn’t even any evidence pointing him to the crime? Isn’t it a bit too presumptuous?”

He knew it was, but then again he also knew a good deal more than the people in front of him, but he couldn’t tell them that. “I think it makes sense. Jin Yao was neglected and mistreated by the Jin family and had no way of ascending into power if the other Jins are alive. We both can see how badly he wants it, Wei Ying.” The name still felt strange on his tongue, after preferring to him as Wei Wuxian for more than half of his life.

The other nodded in agreement. They could all see how hard Meng Yao worked to gain the approval of his father, carrying out errands for the Jins no matter how difficult or mundane. He also was the one organizing the tournaments as well as night hunts for the Jin family. Sometimes, it felt like he was being treated as a servant, but it was easy to tell that these were all ways Meng Yao made the Jin family dependent on him.

“Alright, I’ll look into it. I can’t guarantee anything though.”

He nodded, thanked the two of them before running out of the room before Wei Wuxian pull anther stunt with Lan Wangji that will traumatize him for the rest of this lifetime and the next. Once he was in the comfort of his own room again, he ran through his emotions and was surprise how easy it was to ask for help from his brother, something he would never allow himself to do in his past life.

He briefly wondered if this could be considered healing.

His brother didn’t tell him much after that, and it all quieted down for a while, until the next body showed up, this time it was the second oldest son of the Jin family.

Immediately the Jins were thrown into chaos once again. The method of murder was the same, so there was no doubt that this was executed by the same person. Accusations were thrown left and right, before the physician made a startling discovery that the materials used to create the poison can all be found in one area – Yiling. All eyes now turn towards Wei Wuxian, with demands for him to be captured and properly investigated. Lan Wangji vigorously defended his partner, however, it all fell to deaf ears when they discovered that some materials were found in the guest room Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji resided.

With no other choice, the couple escaped Koi Tower and went into hiding.

Yiling was accused of attacking and killing Jin family members to gain political leverage and established themselves as a prominent sect. The tension was higher than ever, and Jiang Cheng knew that with one misstep, a lot of people were going to die. Yiling, despite being a community infamous for its demonic cultivation, was no match for the LanlingJin sect, who had both money and power to expend to turn the whole place burn into ashes again.

He wouldn’t let it happen to the community his brother put his sweat and blood into building and cared for until his last breath.

So, despite the Jins being on higher alert than ever, Jiang Cheng used words of mouth to try to track down his brother. He didn’t need to search for long, as they came to him instead, asking to seek shelter in Yunmeng. He hid them in his quarters, but not before telling his parents, who were ever so understanding about the situation and even offered to help them avoid the guards who patrol the Pier. He tried to pry more information out of his sect leader regarding the Jins’ next movement, and avoided the knowing stares from the man.

“Be careful.” That wasn’t a threat, just concerned words coming from a man who had helped Jiang Cheng since he was a child. He could only nod.

Without any other choice, Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji shared with him what they knew.

Apparently, they tried to investigate using paperman, only to found out that Meng Yao had set up multiple spells and talismans outside and inside of his chamber to prevent almost any method of spying to happen. Wei Wuxian recalled with a shiver how the paperman that contained his soul almost burned before he even made it inside. That in itself was a huge red flag for both of them, because there was no way one would seal his chamber like that unless he had something to hide.

However, they had no way of finding out how to get inside. Desperate, he decided to seek out the only person with any viable way of going in and out of the room. The letter to Lan Xichen was written in a rush, and being so vague about asking him to come to Yunmeng that Jiang Cheng was sure the man would refuse. Nevertheless, within half a day, he saw the tall, elegant figure dressed in white and blue descended from his sword and landed just inside of Lotus Pier.

Lan Xichen wordlessly followed Jiang Cheng to his quarters, and only spoke when they were just outside.

“My brother is here, and so is his partner.”

Jiang Cheng looked back at him and let out a sigh. As the two brothers made eye contact, he could tell that the first Jade of Lan was relief that nothing had happened to his brother. However, his face turned darker and darker as they explained to him what they found.

Once again, Xichen vehemently denied the accusations and defended his friend. Jiang Cheng had seen this happened before, in front of the Jin elders and a long, long time ago, when Meng Yao’s reputation was at stake and all evidence were pointing to him. And still, his heart ached. Why was someone so good like Lan Xichen insisted on trusting a man who would continue to betray them from this life to the next?

Nevertheless, Xichen agreed to help them break into Meng Yao’s chambers. Meng Yao protested when they tied him up, but was helpless as they began to search through every nook and cranny of his room. Soon enough, they found a secret pathway that led to an underground bunker where all sorts of herbs were planted. A closer inspection confirmed that these were, in fact, the materials used to create the poison.

Just as they were about the notify the Jins, Meng Yao managed to escape his bonds and stabbed them each with tiny needles that escaped their notice, each filled with poisons that effectively paralyzed them and drained their spiritual power. He threatened to kill all of them except for Xichen, who he would keep inside of his chamber for the rest of his days.

However, despite being paralyzed, Wei Wuxian was still able to hum a tune to summon spirits to allow them the necessary distraction to get out of the bunker. As Jiang Cheng ran to get back up, he stumbled upon his own sect leader, who was alerted when he got wind of the news that they left Lotus Pier. Caught red-handed, there was no way for Meng Yao to deny his crimes, and thus, he was executed the following week.

None of them attended the execution. Jiang Cheng retreated into his own room to meditate and try not to think about the hollowness in Xichen’s eyes as Meng Yao revealed his true colors.

Even when he had all of his memories, and was aware of Meng Yao before everyone else did, he was still unable to stop people from dying, to stop Xichen from being betrayed and hurt by the people he put trust in. He couldn’t even save them. If not for Wei Wuxian and his sect leader, they would be dead by now.

In the end, he was useless, just like he was in his past life, always needing someone stronger, like his brother, to come save the day.

Perhaps he had mistaken fate’s intentions after all. Perhaps him having the memories of his past life wasn’t so that he could right his wrongs, it was for him to witness the way the past repeated itself over and over.

He jerked out of his thoughts when warm hands pressed against his forehead. His mother was in front of him with a tray of soup and hot tea. Neither of them uttered a word, but she looked at him like she knew exactly what he was thinking, a motherly instinct that reminded him too much of his past mother but without all the cruel words that were used to thrown at him hoping that it would somehow make him stronger. This one simply hugged his neck like he was a child again and not a man in his mid-twenties who was only mere years away from becoming a sect leader. As her soft lips pressed again his forehead, he allowed himself to cry into her neck as she murmured soft encouragements to him. Although he could barely hear her through his own sobs, one thing stuck with him.

“It’s not your fault, A-Cheng.”

She was right, it wasn’t, and he didn’t know that he needed to hear that for so long.

It wasn’t his fault that Meng Yao turned out the way he did. It wasn’t his fault that none of them were even aware of that monster’s true intentions before it was too late. It wasn’t his fault that Xichen befriended him and decided to trust that man.

It wasn’t his fault that his sister sacrificed her life to seek for and protect Wei Wuxian, because it was a decision that was hers to make, one that he knew she would make all over again if given the chance, just like it was his decisions to make to carry his secrets with him. It wasn’t his fault that he wasn’t able to protect his brother and ended up hating him for thirteen long years, because there was no way he could’ve known about his core. If it wasn’t for Wen Ning, that would be a secret that Wei Wuxian would’ve taken to his grave.

He remembered once, many years ago, when Wei Wuxian visited Lotus Pier again. The day was strangely quiet, too quiet for a place always bustling with activities like Lotus Pier, and it seemed to have affected Wei Wuxian too, for the man was not as chatty as usual. Instead, the feared Yiling Patriarch had spent much of that day observing his little brother, something Jiang Cheng ignored in favor of the paperwork he had yet to complete. When night fell, Wei Wuxian called for him, his face somber, an expression so out of place on the man’s face that it almost startled Jiang Cheng into falling out of his chair. The other man continued to stare at him, before speaking, loud voice now barely a whisper.

“You know we were only sixteen then, right? Barely a teenager. We were so young, Jiang Cheng.”

The sentence was vague, but both of them understood perfectly what that meant. They were both so young when so many wrong things happened to them at once. Both of them weren’t ready to deal with war and its aftermath, and ended up coping badly, leading to their inevitable fallout. He knew they both did terrible things, but sometimes, when he was left alone with his thoughts, he would ponder, weren’t they all products of the terrible war none of them had a say in? So, maybe, just maybe, it was neither Wei Wuxian’s fault or his that they both ended up the way that they were. So, wouldn’t it be so bad to just forgive one another, even if everything around them wasn’t the same anymore?

Afterall, they loved each other so much (because Jiang Cheng knew, despite everything, he loved his brother, and loathed him at the same time, and Wei Wuxian loved him unconditionally, that was obvious enough), didn’t they?

Would it be so hard, to forgive Wei Wuxian, to let Wei Wuxian forgive him, and told him the truth?

But then when Wei Wuxian stood in front of him again, happy and cheerful with Lan Wangji by his side, it reminded Jiang Cheng of how much he lost and so, he shoved those thoughts inside of his heart again, right beside the I-love-you’s he never confessed to Lan Xichen, and kept it with him as he walked the bridge to cross over to the afterlife.

This all came back to him, as he was held in his mother’s arms, someone who was sweet and loving and alive, and it just broke him all over again as he sobbed harder, for the many times he didn’t allow himself to be held like this. He cried and thought about how he was so young when he lost everything, and that nothing was his fault, so maybe it’s time for him to move on.

And so, he did.

He knew he couldn’t stop loving Lan Xichen, even if he tried. He had decades of trying, and his feelings had only deepened after every attempt. But he could mend the relationship with his brother, so that they could be close the way they were again, even if there was no Yanli to help them this time. Maybe, one day he could look at Wei Wuxian and felt warmth blooming in his chest without also tasting blood on his tongue.

Chapter Text

In the next few years, he asked his sect leader to travel around the world in order to learn and prepare for his future. The man had readily agreed. With a goal in mind, he travelled to Yiling and asked to learn whatever the other man was willing to teach him. Wei Wuxian’s eyes immediately lit up, and that was how he found himself with a bundle of red and black by his side, excitedly showing him around Yiling, encouraging him to try out their cuisine, and introducing him to demonic cultivation.

He was still wary about the last one, knowing how much damage it did to his brother’s mental state in their first life. What he found was that Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji’s descendants had developed an elaborate system to control their energy and make sure one does not go too far and risked turning into a madman. Demonic cultivation had prospered since then, and the stigma around it had also reduced massively. After listening to his brother explaining the system to him, even Jiang Cheng belatedly admit that perhaps it wasn’t so bad.

Recalling how possessive Lan Wangji was in his past life, a trait that seemed to carry over to this one, he half-expected the man to shoot him deathly glances when he thought his partner wasn’t looking. Instead, Lan Wangji calmly observed the two of them with something like understanding and even a hint of sadness. He had always expected to receive resentment from the man, so the strange change in sentiment left him at loss.

He didn’t know why until three of them sat in the middle of nowhere with their dinners in their hands. Jiang Cheng had joined the two of them in their endeavor to explore every corner of the world, helping people as they went. Though it sometimes felt like he was third-wheeling them, they established a unique dynamic that allowed them to work well together, although sometimes he had to sneak out and stay as far away as possible from their resting place for fear of traumatizing himself lest he stumbled into something unsightly. It was going well, almost too well.

“You love my brother.”

Lan Wangji spoke, voice even and casually as if he was discussing the weather. In front of him, Jiang Cheng choked on his dinner and coughed until he felt water being shoved in his direction and Wei Wuxian’s hands up and down his back. Lan Wangji didn’t elaborate after what he said, simply because he didn’t need to, not when the truth was obvious between them. Jiang Cheng let out a deep sigh before he mumbled, resigned.

“Yes.”

Lan Wangji put his hand to his chin, pondering about something. Finally, he asked.

“Are you going to tell him?”

Jiang Cheng could only let out a bitter laugh.

“I know that Lans only love once in their lives. And you know the person he loves isn’t me.”

Lan Wangji didn’t reply, instead, choosing to stare at him, and he could almost detect a hint of sadness under the cold exterior.

“I understand.”

Nothing more was said after that, and the three of them went back to their respective dinners, appetite now gone. That night, Wei Wuxian snuck into his bed and held him, the way his mother would, and Jiang Cheng tucked his nose into the nape of his neck and allowed himself to be held.

In between their night hunts, when he wasn’t busy responding to his sect leader’s updates about the matters of his sect, he wrote to Lan Xichen. The man had been in seclusion for years now, which meant he was still grieving. Jiang Cheng didn’t want to bother him too much, despite how much he cared. Xichen, however, didn’t seem to find his obnoxious presence intrusive, telling him about how much his letters helped the man kept update on the outside world and his brother. They fell into an easy friendship, to the point Jiang Cheng almost missed the painfully awkward letters he sent in his past life to a man who didn’t know how to deal with him.

This Lan Xichen was recovering quicker and responding more positively to the people around him, embracing companionship instead of shutting himself up. It wasn’t hard to see why. This Lan Xichen hadn’t been betrayed for decades and wasn’t the reason why his own sworn brothers ended up dead. Given enough time, he was sure that Lan Xichen would recover. If he wouldn’t, Jiang Cheng would still be there and make sure he didn’t fall again.

And maybe that was enough.

***

Eventually, he came back to Lotus Pier and resumed his studies in preparation for his future position. By now, it was widely known in the cultivation world that he would become the next leader of the YunmengJiang sect. His communication with Cloud Recesses increased as well, especially towards Lan Xichen, who came out of his seclusion and took up his position as the sect leader shortly after his return to the Pier.

When he turned twenty, his sect leader officially announced his retirement and allowed Jiang Cheng to take over the position. Zidian was handed to him as secrets that was kept by the Jiang Sect was whispered in his ears, ones that he had known a long time ago, and new ones that accumulated between his last life and this one. A large party was thrown in Yunmeng, and sect leaders from all around came and paid their respects. His parents were right next to him, eyes brimming with pride and tears. Even Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji were there to celebrate the occasion, offering their own gifts and telling him how great of a sect leader he would be.

This ceremony was so unlike his last one. He had refused an official ceremony all those years ago, as his sect was still too fragile and fresh out of war to allow for such an event to occur. To be allowed this kind of ceremony was something he never knew he wanted, and yet, his heart felt too loud in his ears and his cheeks were numb from how much he had been smiling. His smile only got wider when the first Jade of Lan came over to offer his own congratulations. The man’s hands smoothed over his back, a touch that burned through his robes and left an imprint on his heart, trickling liquid heat down his back and settling at the base of his groin. Once again, he wanted to just grab the robes of the man next to him, even when they were in the middle of a crowded hall and take what was supposed to be his.

Despite knowing that he and Xichen of this life were closer than they ever were in their previous lives, Jiang Cheng still stayed awake at night at times, gazing at the stars and wondered how his and Xichen’s aligned, and mourned for something that was yet to exist. What if he decided to confess his feelings earlier and Xichen accepted it? If it happened, would Xichen still fall for Meng Yao and prevented the following catastrophe to happen, so that the two Jin heirs wouldn’t have to die untimely deaths?

Would he finally know how warm those fingers were when they were laced with his, or how soft those lips were as he pressed them against his own, or how strong those arms were as they hold him or lift him up, because he would allow Lan Xichen to do anything the man wanted, things he would never allow others to do, if it meant he alone get to see how beautiful the other man was above him or under him as they make love.

Sometimes, when it got too much, Jiang Cheng curled oil-slicked fingers around his cock, inside of himself, and wondered about all the possible what-ifs.

When he came, there were lilies in his lungs and tears in his eyes and I-love-you’s at the tip of his tongue.

***

Life went on.

Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji continued to travel all over, to explore new places, absorb new knowledge, and help the people in need. They eventually returned to Yiling to help grow the community and pass down what they had learned to future generations just like their past selves had done.

Both him and Lan Xichen continued their duties as sect leaders. They communicated while they can and maintained a close friendship with one another. And that was fine, really. Everything was fine. He wouldn’t ask for more, couldn’t force his feelings on this god of a man who was unable to return them.

It didn’t stop him from wanting to, though, when he showed up on the day the past Lan Xichen took his own life and embraced the other man, breathing in the familiar smell of sandalwood to remind himself that no matter how much he failed, Lan Xichen was content and alive in this one.

The Lan Sect Leader said nothing and allowed himself to be held. He didn’t even ask his friend about what prompted him to do something so out of character. When Jiang Cheng pulled away, he could’ve sworn he saw something else in those amber eyes, until he quickly dismissed it as a product of his own delusion. Loving the same man for too long did that to you, he mused.

So he swallowed his I-love-you’s and flew back to Lotus Pier. When they met again, neither of them discussed what happened. Later on, when he caught Xichen starring at him from across the room, he wondered if he made a mistake.

Less than a century later, his parents passed away in their sleep. A quiet funeral was held for them, and everyone from his village came to pay their respects. There were few tears shed, for everyone knew the couple had lived fulfilling lives with the son they were so proud of, and died in each other’s arms like they were supposed to.

Jiang Cheng had shed a few tears then, not because he was sad at their passing – he knew they lived long, happy lives with one another and died the way they desired – but because he wanted to prolong this moment and cherish it for just a while longer.

In his past life, when his parents passed, he hadn’t allowed himself to grieve for long before immediately going back to taking care of his sect. He never allowed himself the time to heal. So, as he stood in front of his parents’ grave, who asked to be buried together, he couldn’t help but felt like a burden being was lifted off his chest.

When his brother came later and pat his head, Jiang Cheng let out a sigh of content and leaned into those touches. He wrapped his arms around the smaller figure – losing everyone else and desperately searching for their reincarnations to fruitless results, he still had one family member left – and pressed a smile into the other’s collarbone.

Maybe, just maybe, he was finally okay again.

Some decades later, Lan Xichen also passed away. After he retired, the First Jade of Lan had remained at Cloud Recesses to assist the newer leaders and passed his wisdom down to young disciples. Later on, he became an important voice on the Council. When he wasn’t teaching, he spent time with his friends (not that he saw any of them beside himself, but still, Xichen must had some) and took care of his garden and the rabbits at the back of the hills.

His life was quiet, and so was his death.

Unlike his parents’ death, this one stung. As Jiang Cheng sat in his own quarters and drowned himself in their memories, he wondered if he should’ve told the man about his affections. He knew it was useless, but he couldn’t help it.

Would he live the rest of his life holding on to his secrets?

He wasn’t worried about his own sect. A capable hand was now leading his people, someone he trusted enough to give them his beloved Zidian. Peace had reigned for a very long time. Despite the occasional rebellion and chaos that broke out here and there, because humans were still humans, he couldn’t see any large-scale war or massacre happening soon. Even then, it was the next generation’s problems to solve, not his.

He himself had let most of his scars scabbed over and healed. He no longer dreamt about fire and deaths every time he closed his eyes. Even the pain of losing his family had lessened into a dull ache that only acted up on rare occasions. His relationship with his brother was as close as ever, despite both of them knowing that there were things Jiang Cheng didn’t tell him.

Maybe it was time he did.

He sent a message to Yiling and welcomed Wei Wuxian to Lotus Pier not even a day later. His brother greeted him with a smile, which Jiang Cheng reciprocated before looking at Lan Wangji firmly to be alone. When they were just by themselves, he took the other man’s hands, inhaled deeply, and asked.

“Do you believe in reincarnation?”

His brother stared at him for a long time, eyes wide and unblinking. Taking advantage of the silence between them, Jiang Cheng told the other everything. Like a dam that broke, he couldn’t stop until he was out of breath. By the time he finished, his brother’s face was pale as a ghost and his hands were shaking, which he hadn’t noticed over the trembles of his own. He didn’t realize he was crying until fingers came up and wipe away his tears. He carefully took the other’s hands away, because he needed to tell him one last important thing.

“Do you know the story, that the Sandu Shengshou lost his core due to the Wens, and that the Yiling Patriarch had cut out his own core and gave it to his brother?” He could barely get the words out, and the trembles of his hands had extended to his entire body. “Everyone, even you, were convinced that I did it because I wanted to take revenge for our parents’ deaths, but they couldn’t be more wrong.”

He looked up at his brother’s face, only to see it wet with tears. His hands tightened around the other’s and continued. “That day, Yanli was sick, and you were out to get medicine for her. I was watching you from afar, and that was when I noticed the Wens approaching you. I knew that you weren’t a sect leader, so your life was worthless to them. If they found you, they were going to kill you.” He held his brother’s face now, his thumb wiping away the tears on wet cheeks. “After our parents died, you and Yanli were the only family I had left. Yanli was sick… I… I don’t know what to do if I lose you, too. So… I…”

He let his words hung in the air, unable to continue, but he knew his brother understood him completely. The tears now turned into full sobs, and Lan Wangji burst into their room, alarmed, until he saw the scene unfolding in front of him. Jiang Cheng knew Wei Wuxian would tell his husband eventually, but he appreciated the man’s silence in the precious moment shared between them.

Despite crying until his voice was hoarse, he never felt more relief than in this moment. His cowardice prevented him from telling the truth in his past life, and now, it was a secret no longer. If he was to die now, he would have one less regret.

That night, with his limbs tangled with his brother’s as they squeezed themselves onto his bed, like they were children again, Jiang Cheng replayed the events of his past and felt that his memories no longer stung the way it did when he remembered them for the first time, more than a century ago. It didn’t even sting like it used to the last time he died, surrounded by ashes of what used to be a letter and pain in his chest.

As Jiang Cheng observed the sleeping face of his brother, he immediately knew why. There was still guilt in his heart from the things he was unable to say, but he couldn’t anymore, not when the words he wanted to say were towards the people who were already dead. Perhaps, in another live, he would be able to find and settle the matter with them. Right now, however, he had his brother by his side, his brother who knew and loved him nevertheless, and he was content with that.

He had died crying then. It seemed almost fitting if he were to die with a smile on his lips now.

So he did.

Chapter Text

The next time he remembered, Jiang Cheng was in his bed, ready to fall asleep. He laid between his sheets, let out a choke, before taking a deep breath to calm himself down. He then proceeded to create a standard procedure that he would carry with him throughout the rest of his reincarnations: to closed his eyes and reminded himself of what happened in his last two lifetimes, and compared them to what he knew about this life.

His family.

He had his family again.

He thought he would handle the curse better this time around, but he still felt his hands shaking underneath his blankets as memories he carefully hid away now bubbled up and threatened to burn him alive.

In his previous life, he nearly tore the library inside out trying to find any useful information that could lead him to his parents or sister, but in the end, he had to accept the fact that they simply weren’t reincarnated during his lifetime. It was something he had made peace with over the years. Still, there would be times when he would lie in his bed and cursing out at fate for entangling his life with familiar figures of the past, for history to repeat itself, and yet would prevent him from meeting the people he wanted to see the most.

It seemed fate heard his prayers, for they had given him his parents back in this life.

It wasn’t that he didn’t love his parents from his second life. He cherished them with his entire being, spent decades missing his mother’s soft kisses and his father’s warm smiles, but they had lived their lives to the fullest and left with few regrets. Meanwhile, Jiang Fengmian, Yu Ziyuan and Jiang Yanli were all ripped away from him too early. There were many confessions he wished to tell them and questions he yearned to ask, and he thought he would never be able to tell them those things, until now.

They were here with him, alive, and that was all that mattered.

No, Wei Wuxian hadn’t come to Lotus Pier, not yet. However, there was a feeling in his gut telling him to wait, that Wei Wuxian will return to him eventually. Their fates were too intertwined for him to be missing Wei Wuxian from his life. He was sure of it.

Jiang Yanli was only a teenager in this life, which meant that their age gapes were kept the same as they were in his first life. He slowly felt tears stinging his cheeks as he looked deeper into this life’s memories of his sister, seeing the same sweet smile and the twinkles in amethyst eyes that he’d been searching for centuries. He could still taste the lotus rib soup at the tip of his tongue from the dinner she cooked, the one that only her can replicate. It all felt too familiar and he immediately wanted to find his long-lost sister and tell her how much he loved her and missed her.

And then he remembered his parents.

He noted down how this life’s Jiang Cheng felt about his parents. He saw himself standing in front of his mother, desperately trying to not tremble, because that would be weak and his mother hated weaknesses, as Yu Ziyuan shouted at him in front of the entire row of disciples, about how his formation was wrong or how he wasn’t good enough for a sect leader. The same woman would later pile food into his bowl telling him that he needed to eat to get better, who later would carefully tended to his injuries and told him to be careful while criticizing his sword form in the same breath.

He saw Jiang Fengmian, younger than the man was when he lost him, who was as kind as ever, treating him and his sister like they deserved the world. But still, sometimes, he would retreat and ignore Jiang Cheng for an entire day, especially when he acted too much like his mother. His father never knew how to deal with his mother, even in their first life, that much was painfully obvious. Sometimes, he would have a distant look in his eyes when he looked at Jiang Cheng, like he was expecting his son to be someone else. Wei Wuxian, his mind helpfully supplied him with a name that the boy with no memory couldn’t have known, and that had stung.

Jiang Cheng in his first life was resigned to the fact that the moment Wei Wuxian stormed into their lives, he would always be second best and second loved, but still, seeing the same fucking thing happening in his third life left a cold, dark poison festering in his bones, threatening to eat him alive.

He never doubted the fact that his mother loved him, but she was terrible at expressing her affection. He also knew that his father cared for him, even if the man always put his other siblings before him. However, he was too similar with his mother for the man to fully express his affections, because his mother reminded him of what he couldn’t have. Jiang Cheng wasn’t even sure, even when he was a child, if his father ever even loved his mother, and he knew his mother often wondered the same thing. Had he been a regular child and not one with hundreds of years of memories within him, he could see how he would cope with emotions badly, just like he did in his first life.

In his lifetime, he was determined to make things right again between his family, so that his siblings can grow up to a happy childhood. He had to.

***

He woke up early the next day. He opened his doors to welcome his sister, who was about to knock on it. Jiang Yanli’s stumbled backwards, mouth agape. She was not expecting her brother to wake up before being called. Before she could say anything, the younger boy lunged himself into her arms. She smiled and laid a comforting hand on his head. It was then that she noticed how hard his body was shaking. Reluctantly, she pulled them apart, only to find her younger brother’s eyes brimming with tears.

“A-Cheng? Tell me, what’s wrong?”

Jiang Cheng shook his head vigorously and held onto her sleeve as he took in the familiar smell of his sister. How he’s missed this, had dreamt about it for as long as he started dreaming about fire. Sometimes, when it got so hard to cope with, he held Jin Ling in his arms and traced the features on his nephew’s face that resembled her and conjured a reality when she was still alive. But he couldn’t tell her that. So, he just wiped away the tears and snot that had accumulated on his face and smiled up at his sister.

“Nothing. I just miss you, that’s all. Good morning, jiejie.”

He could tell that his sister had questions. She was always more observant than other people gave her credit for, and she had noticed how different he was from yesterday. Yet, she didn’t push him for answer, simply reciprocate his smile.

“Good morning to you too, A-Cheng.”

They walked together to the dining hall until Jiang Cheng’s movements came to a halt as his eyes caught two familiar figures in the distant.

It didn’t get any easier facing his parents again.

It was one thing to see them in his memories, but it was another to meet them again in the flesh. The last time he saw them was when he laid their bloodied bodies down a coffin during their burial. Sometimes, those images still haunted his dreams, reminding him of his own weakness. After the Siege at Burial Mounds, his sister joined them, looking at him with sad, cold eyes. He tried to pretend it didn’t get to him and hope that one day he wouldn’t have to pretend anymore. That was how he moved on and continued with his duties of expanding his sect and caring for his nephews.

It didn’t mean that they stopped appearing in his dreams, and it kept him up even more than the dreams about fire and his golden core being melted off. Sometimes, he had the terrible thought that if he was to wipe away all of his memories, maybe he would be rid of this torture. However, he quickly dismissed those thoughts. Nightmares or not, they were his family first and foremost, and there was nothing he wasn’t willing to do to see them again.

In his second life, when he found Wei Wuxian, hope flared inside of him that one day, he would be able to meet his family again, that they would be reunited. Yet, despite exhausting his connections, nothing turned up. At least the nightmares were easier to deal with, as he had his second parents and later his brother by his side.

And now, they were here, looking exactly the same as they were before the Wens took them away from him, and Jiang Cheng felt like crying again, despite bawling his eyes out in front of his sister just moments beforehand.

He took a minute to calm down his heartbeat, before walking over to his mother, who was sitting down beside their breakfast table, and wrapped his hands around her waist. He hung onto her clothes until he was sure it would leave wrinkles. When he was young, a life time and a half ago, he always did this when he hugged her, and often got a heavy scolding out of it for ruining her outfit. Despite her dislike of this habit, she didn’t usually push him away unless he did something that truly enraged her.

When that happened, she would hit him hard enough on the shoulder or chest to leave a bruise, and promptly ordered the maids to not give him dinner that night. He wasn’t too worried about her threats though, because even if he didn’t eat, Yanli would try to sneak something in for him. Not that his sister ever needed to, since his mother would storm into his room in the middle of the night and shouted at him for going to bed with an empty stomach, even though she was the one who starved him in the first place.

Jiang Cheng would always love his mother. But she was so cruel sometimes, enough so that he wondered if she ever truly loved him or his family at all, and sometimes, a voice would mutter inside of the empty, hollow part of his soul, if she was capable of loving anything at all, and if he took after her.

He loved her despite wondering if it was easier to hate her. When he couldn’t find her in his past life, and in her place was a new mom who accepted that he wasn’t the best and didn’t need him to be, he had allowed himself to forget how easy it was to love her.

He reluctantly let go before he was reprimanded about his lack of manners. He then walked over to his father, who seemed just as bewildered as his mother about his sudden display of affection, and climbed onto his lap and wrap his arms around his neck and took a lungful of the man’s scent and felt the familiar warmth he hadn’t allowed himself to miss. His father, as negligent as he was towards his youngest son especially after Wei Wuxian came along, had always been more affectionate than his mother. Surely the man wouldn’t deny him this simple gesture of affection.

He didn’t let the hug linger though, because unlike his wife, although Jiang Fengmian gave away his touches too easily, but his eyes didn’t focus on Jiang Cheng. It wasn’t until he was much older that he realized why. He had initially thought that it was because he wasn’t good enough, that he needed to train harder and catch up with his brilliant older brother, and perhaps that was part of it too.

But there couldn’t be smoke without fire, and he didn’t doubt that his father loved Wei Wuxian’s mother. When she married another man and passed away, he grieved by gifting her son the affection he was never able to express towards her.

If he was sure, even through the bruises he nursed at night, that his mother loved him, he died his first life not knowing if his father ever did. Perhaps in his life he might be able to cope with it.

When Jiang Cheng turned away, he was aware that every eyes in the room was on him. His mother, from whom he had expected a scolding, had a dazed look on her face. His father gently pressed the back of his hand against his son’s forehead and asked.

“What’s wrong?”

He wiped away his tears and smiled reassuringly at his family.

“Nothing, I just missed you that’s all.”

***

Disregarding his strange behavior in the morning, his mother ushered him into the courtyard to continue his training, insisting that he needed to perfect his new sword movements by today. To everyone’s surprise, he completed his movements easily with perfect precision. There were adjustments to the traditional Jiang sword styles that he had learned from the past, but his memory had no trouble adjusting to said movements. At the end of the session, he ended up being dismissed early by his mother and teachers, each of whom had an impressed look on their face. His usually aloof mother even patted him on the back, but not before telling him to go to the library to memorize the latest lessons from his private tutor.

Which was perfect, because he needed an excuse to go to the library anyways. He needed to catch up on what he missed between his last life and this one, because based on what he’d seen so far, he could not tell what era was he reborn in.

The color of his sect was still purple, and they still carried with them swords that were evidently forged in Yunmeng. However, there were details he saw here and there that told him that he was very far away from when he took his last breath.

The first was his sect’s outfits. Although they still retained their traditional Yunmeng purple, those outfits had been heavily modified to, if he had to guess, allow for easier bodily movement, especially under water. Gone were the flowing robes that could potentially hinder bodily movements, replaced by a sleeveless, buttoned-up top and tight pants that hugged the waist, both of which were made from light and waterproof material. The long hair that was heavily favored by men of his days were now trimmed short or tied into a bun. Sword was still the preferred weapon for cultivation, but he had seen numerous cultivators walking around with a variety of different weapons, from flute to nun chucks.

He recalled how frowned upon the Nie’s method of cultivation was due to its volatile nature, and how it had resulted in most members of that family dead by qi deviation. It was interesting how time had led people to figure out methods to cultivate safely using their weapon of choice, which he figured had led to the popularity of non-sword spiritual weapons. It was a vast improvement from the past.

Talking about improvement, he couldn’t help but marvel at the technological advancement of the era he was reincarnated into. There were machines being used to do mundane household chores that could put Wei Wuxian’s inventions to shame. These machines produced copious steam and was, when functional, was hot enough to burn a man alive, which reminded him too much of the Wens, but he learned to ignore the heavy feeling in his chest upon observing just how much faster it got things done than if his men were to do it. Perhaps, in the future, he could learn how they work and develop a deeper appreciation for them.

For now though, he was busy digging up all the oldest library books in search for anything that resembled the lives he used to know.

As he dwell deeper and deeper into the history of Lotus Pier, the more worried he become. There were detailed descriptions of lives the sect leaders of the YunmengJiang sect had led, wars they had won, the glory they were able to achieve, but there was nothing about him or even Wei Wuxian. He didn’t recall encountering this much difficulty finding himself in his past life.

It wasn’t until he stumbled upon an ancient book about myths and fairytales that it dawned on him.

Thousands of years had passed.

He couldn’t estimate how long, but it was long enough to erase the traces of his and his brother’s past lives, long enough so that Jiang Wanyin and Hanguang-Jun and the Yiling Patriarch were nothing more than ancient legends told to children during their bedtimes. There were little to no detail about his life or legacy except for a few scant lines about how he rebuilt Lotus Pier. He was essentially just a myth at this point, and even the Zidian that he cherished were now locked up in a building somewhere for travelling cultivators to admire, a museum exhibit instead of being used for its intended purpose.

The thought that he was forgotten by history except for within stories and a few introductory lines in ancient history books were supposed to anger him. Instead, he felt relief. This meant that he wouldn’t have to live with the shame of people knowing what he did, of being remembered as a great but impossibly flawed man. He wouldn’t have to hear whispers inside of dark corridors about how much he resembled his past life, and thus would die an untimely and sad death just like that man as well. He wouldn’t have to avoid the dungeons because the sting of the horrible crimes he committed were still so fresh in his memories, and he knew that among the Jiang disciples, there must’ve been people who knew all too well what he did.

Perhaps, unburdened by the remnants of his past that were swept away by push and pull of time, he could start all over again.

Was that why fate, cruel, twisted fate that had bestowed this curse upon him, give his family back to him?

Too deep in his own thought, Jiang Cheng couldn’t help but jump out of his seats when he felt a tap on his shoulder. His sister was standing beside him, a kind smile illuminated her features, though he could feel some worried lines on her face. Wordlessly, she pulled him away from the library and into the courtyard, where his mother was throwing out insults in front of all their disciples. In front of him was her father, whose usual kind smile was gone, replaced by a solemn expression he rarely ever saw. A small figure hid behind him, startled and scared by the sudden outburst.

Jiang Cheng felt familiar tears wetting his eyelashes. He knew in his gut that his and Wei Wuxian’s destinies were intertwined, had told himself that cheeky brat would find a way to storm back into his life. However, seeing his brother in the flesh again, who was now barely a boy, his heart felt like an invisible hand had reached inside and squeeze it until it burst.

Unknown to her son’s inner turmoil, his mother was still shouting at his father.

“How can you bring him back and decide to adopt him? If you care all that much, drop him at an orphanage or to be taken care of by the maids. How dare you bring him into my household and treat him like your own son?” Yu Ziyuan had always been famous for her tongue, and she currently did not hesitate to use it on her husband, spitting out words as vicious and cutting as venom. “Is this how you live your sick, twisted fantasy with that woman, who dumped you for your best friend? Who never even loved you back? Do you not have any propriety left, Jiang Fengmian? I don’t care if you don’t care for me, but have you ever considered how your own children feel on the matter?”

Jiang Fengmian avoided eye-contact with his wife and directed it towards his children, his eyes sad and pleading.

All of those years ago, when Wei Wuxian was first brought to the Jiang household, Jiang Cheng remembered the tantrum he had thrown that day and the disappointed look his father had given him at the aftermath. Although him and his brother eventually made up and became friendships, he still felt guilty for how he had acted that day, especially when his father’s expression always soured when it was brought up.

He was determined not to make the same mistake this time around.

So he walked over to his brother, frowning a little when he noticed how thin the other boy was, and offered his hand with his friendliest expression.

“Hello, my name is Jiang Cheng, what about you?”

Above them, he noticed his father’s bewildered expression and his mother’s glares at the back of his neck, but he elected to ignore them, focusing solely on his long-lost brother. The other boy still looked wary of him, probably a defensive mechanism from the time he was still living on the streets, but he eventually took his hand and mumbled.

“I’m Wei Ying.”

Jiang Cheng’s face broke into a smile to cover up the victorious laughter he wanted to let out (because even his name was the same, what kind of non-coincidence was that?). He then pulled the older boy into a hug, hands caressing softly up and down his back in a soothing motion, a habit he learned from his last father.

“I’m very happy to meet you, Wei Ying.”

This time, the name Wei Ying finally sounded right on his tongue.

Ignoring everyone else’s attention towards the two of them, Jiang Cheng pulled his brother to where Yanli was standing and enthusiastically introduced the two. He could tell that the other boy immediately took a liking to her and followed her like a duckling towards the kitchen when she insisted that he needed more food.

She had cooked them her signature lotus and rib soup. Jiang Cheng thought that he had exceptional control of his emotion, but now he felt like bawling again.

Out of the things that were kept the same between his reincarnations, he never expected his sister’s soup to taste the same as it did when he last had it thousands of years ago. Only she could make it taste like that, because not even him or Lan Wangji could replicate the recipe. Something was always off. He knew that if he asked her, she would pat his head and say that the secret ingredient was love.

If he wasn’t convinced before, he was now, that he finally had his family back, and this time, nobody, not even the Wens, will pry them away from him.

“A-Cheng, what’s the matter? Is the soup not to your liking today?”

His sister seemed to have sense the change in his demeanor. He didn’t want her to worry anymore, especially not after the eventful day they had. He swallowed his tears and flashed her a confident and earnest smile.

“No, I’m fine. The soup is delicious, jiejie.”

He observed her when she nodded at him and went back to her soup, ever so elegant and beautiful even when she was doing the most mundane things. He then stole furtive glances at his older brother, who was still in the process of wolfing down the rest of his soup. So Wei Wuxian – no, it’s Wei Ying now - was still a slob when he was hungry. Some things hadn’t changed, after all.

Fondness bloomed in his heart as he returned to his own meal.

Maybe, in this lifetime, everything would be right again.

***

When night fell, Jiang Cheng was summoned to his father’s quarters while his sister helped put Wei Ying to bed after an exhausting day. When he arrived, he immediately sensed his mother’s presence, standing right outside of his father’s studies. He could sense cold fury simmering beneath a mask of calmness and briefly contemplated what he would have to do to ease it so that Wei Ying would grow up in a healthier environment than in his first life.

Similar to his first life, his father had asked him to send away his dogs and to not blame his brother for it. However, this time, he accepted the proposal without throwing a tantrum. His father sighed in relief and even patted his head, telling him what a good kid he was and how well he was taking the whole situation. Normally, he would’ve gone back to his room or perhaps to his brother’s room to make up for all the time they’d lost, but he found that he couldn’t go yet.

After two lifetimes of torturing himself with what-ifs, Jiang Cheng came to the conclusion that the reason why he was so fucked up was because of the suffocating relationship both had with his parents. That was why growing up with loving parents who unapologetically accepted him for who he was tremendously increased his confidence and helped him heal somewhat from the trauma that haunted his past life.

He wanted both him and his siblings to grow up in that kind of supportive household, but part of him knew it was not possible with things the way they were now. Both of his parents didn’t know how to make the people around them felt their love, if they knew how to love at all (a small voice inside of him was still absolutely convinced his father never did). To ease the tension of his household, he had to make his parents communicate effectively with one another.

He had always been clumsy when dealing with emotional matters, a consequence of growing up in the Jiang household, but he could try.

“You should talk to mother.” His father looked at him like he just told him to go jump off a cliff, and it would’ve made him laughed if it wasn’t so fucking sad. “She was very displeased with what happened today. I’m afraid that if you don’t talk it out, she might take her anger out on Wei Ying.”

Because she did, so many years ago, and he had blamed her then. Many years later, he learned that he should blame his father too. His quiet resignation only fed into her anger and resentment, further heightening the tension in their household. How many times did Yanli have to endure her outbursts? How many times was he himself at the end of it?

He thought he had gotten over this particular part of his childhood, but now it was all dug up again, the insecurities and pain and bitterness threatening to eat him alive. It felt like when he lost to Wei Wuxian in that athletic tournament, when he lost Lan Xichen after the man met Meng Yao. It left him as empty and broken as when he took his last breath in his first life and he wanted nothing more to give in to that darkness, so he kept talking.

“I know you love Wei Ying’s mother. Everyone does, you don’t have to hide it.” His father’s breath hitched, and Jiang Cheng felt triumphant for having caught the man by surprise for the first time in his life. “And perhaps you and mom were married because it was convenient. I don’t care about that, but you are married, and you have children. Children who will suffer under your household if you do not resolve the matter with her. You don’t have to care about me, you never really did, but you don’t want Wei Ying and jiejie to suffer, do you?”

His father looked like he wanted to say something. He cut the man off.

“You don’t have to hide it, just like you don’t have to hide the fact that you don’t love my mother. I don’t resent you for it, learnt to accept it over the years.” He should really stop talking, but he swallowed the lump in his throat and continued anyway. “Actually, I do, I hate you just a little bit for it, but I will learn to live with it, just like you learn how to accept the fact that the love of your life will never return your affections and marry someone you never loved.”

He wasn’t sure if he was talking to his father anymore. No, he knew this was what he had always wanted to say towards a father who was long dead. It felt so wrong directing those poisonous words towards a man who didn’t know the extent of his suffering, who was largely not responsible for a large part of it. He would’ve stopped, should’ve stopped, if it didn’t feel so good getting those words out.

“I don’t care that you love me, but mother do, because she loved you very much, and she has always felt jealousy towards Wei Ying’s mother. She wouldlearn to tolerate Wei Ying, because she loves you, but wouldn’t it be better if you just talk to her? You don’t have to love her. It would’ve been much easier on all of us if you do, but you don’t, but can you at least learn how to listen to her side of the story and care for her?”

By the time he finished talking, he was out of breath and slumping against a column. He spotted red at the center of his palm and realized that he gripped his hands so hard his nails drew blood. Wiping them away discreetly, he dared a look at his father, only to find that the man wasn’t looking at him. His eyes fixated towards the floor, and for the first time in his life, he saw shame dawning on his father’s face.

By the time he regained his breathing, the man had looked up again. Neither of them spoke, and the silence stretched on until a voice that was barely a whisper.

“I’m sorry.”

He had expected the man to send him back to his rooms or even scold him. He was being beyond disrespectful, especially for a nine years old kid. Even his last father would ground him for what he said.

What he hadn’t expected was that.

Jiang Fengmian was apologizing to him, admitting that he neglected his family and was remorseful for it.

His mind went blank.

He knew that was what he wanted his father to say, wanted the man to accept his sins instead of hiding behind that damn caring mask all the time. And now, he had gotten it. He should feel happy. He had all the rights to, after a lifetime of thinking he was nothing more than second best. But if this was what victory felt like, why did it taste like ash in his mouth?

Instead of gloating in his father’s face or press him for more apologies, Jiang Cheng bowed and asked to go back to his room. His father only nodded and starred at his back as he retreated. However, before he could leave, he heard the familiar voice again, tired and hoarse.

“Jiang Cheng?”

He stood still in his tracks, still keeping his back to his father. He didn’t know what kind of expression the other man was making and wasn’t sure if he wanted to know.

“I… I’ve done many wrong things, but please believe me when I say that I do love you.”

Jiang Cheng closed the door behind him when he stepped out.

The first person he saw was his mother. She looked at him like she didn’t recognize him, and there was no doubt to him that she heard every word he said. He couldn’t bring himself to care though, so he bowed to her and find his way to his brother’s room.

That night, as he observed the features on his brother’s sleeping face, he allowed a smile to remain on his lips.

***

The next day, Jiang Cheng noticed how the atmosphere had improved tremendously from yesterday. His parents, for once, were actually talking to one another, though the conversation had ceased the moment he entered the room. His mother’s eyes stayed on him for throughout most of their meal, which should’ve made him uncomfortable if he wasn’t so relieved that that piercing gaze wasn’t used to glare daggers at his older brother. When they finished, her attention shifted to Wei Ying, who unconsciously flinched. He winced in sympathy. Very few people, even grown men, could withstand the glare of the infamous Violet Spider.

Just as he was about to drag his brother out, his mother cleared her throat and spoke up.

“Wei Ying.” Her voice was strained, like she was struggling to get her words out. He almost gasped. His mother never struggled with her words. “My behavior from yesterday was… unbecoming. I just want you to know that you are welcomed here.”

Jiang Cheng nearly choked on his own spit. His fingernails once again pressed into his palm. The pain that crept up his wrist told him he was definitely not dreaming. Both of his siblings starred at his mother with open mouths, stunned into silence. Finally, his brother stood up and took a deep bow, his eyes brimmed with tears.

“Thank you, Madam Yu. I am eternally grateful for your kindness.”

His mother looked at Wei Wuxian for the longest time, a plethora of emotions whirling in his eyes. He would’ve urged her to say anything, or for his brother to stop bowing, but then he remembered how hard it must be for her to look at, to live with, the testimony to the fact that the love of her life didn’t return her feelings.

Wasn’t that why he treated Meng Yao the way he did, in their second lives?

When she finally tore his gaze away, his mother had already molded her face back into his signature scowl.

“Don’t thank me just yet. Have you even developed a golden core yet? You need to catch up with the fellow disciples, so your training is going to be more demanding. I’m not going to go easy on you, got it?”

That was the most his mother had ever done for anyone who wasn’t a part of their family. Even his father was aware of that, for he was now solely focused on her, eyes full of admiration and something that almost resembled fondness (but he knew better, it couldn’t be.

Could it?)

For the next few months, Jiang Cheng settled into an unfamiliar dynamic with his older brother. In the past, ever since his older brother gained a courtesy name, he had always called him by that name. He never dared to address his brother by any other honorific for fear of his mother’s wrath. He started calling his brother “gege,” hating how formal the term “xiongzhang” was. He knew his mother wouldn’t approve such an intimate term towards someone who was not technically blood-related to them, but his mother wasn’t here, was she?

She was too preoccupied by his father to notice. They were often seen together and even at times gave an impression that they enjoyed each other’s company. It was obvious to him that his parents were making an effort in rebuilding whatever relationship they had. Jiang Cheng even saw his mother let out a giggle (he definitely imagined it, because his mother simply didn’t giggle) at one of those terrible jokes his father made.

He thought he detected something like contentment in his father’s eyes once, while the man was looking at his mother, not expecting that he was the one being observed. It wasn’t quite love, or even quite fondness like he’d hope, but it indicated that the man was trying, and that was enough for now.

Even the servants and the Jiang disciples noticed the change, and they were all taking bets on when his mother would move into his father’s chamber. Much money was earned and lost when she eventually did, half a year after his initial conversation with his father.

Yanli’s mood was the best he’d ever seen her, and she insisted on sleeping with him and Wei Ying that night. He feigned sleeping when she whispered into his ears how much she loved all of them. When she fell into slumber, he mouthed those words back to her.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng had been waiting for this day ever since he got his memories back.

This year’s Discussion Conference was delegated to the GusuLan Sect.

It wasn’t that he was actively avoiding the Lan brothers. He had turned Yunmeng upside down for any bit of gossip regarding the Lan family, and found that two brothers with exceptional talents were children of the current leader of the GusuLan sect, Lan Huan and Lan Zhan. He could have asked his father to visit Cloud Recesses, but in the end he had opted to wait until they cross paths during the next Conference.

He wasn’t a romantic, but the memory of Lan Xichen’s eyes meeting his in the middle of the Discussion Conference had been burn into his mind. If fate was determined to make him relive the same events over and over, then at least it should let him have this.

Despite knowing all sorts of stories regarding the Lan brothers prior to his arrival, Jiang Cheng still had trouble breathing when he spotted Lan Xichen from across the room.

The other boy was already tall for his age. He was dressed in traditional Lan garments, which, to his surprise, were kept relatively similar to the garments of his last life, except for the robes, which had been trimmed shorter. Lan Xichen’s hair was now trimmed short, reaching his shoulders. Despite these minor differences, everything else was the same, especially his eyes, which lit up with the same shade amber when he smiled at him.

Lan Xichen looked as beautiful as the day Jiang Cheng first met him, and he felt like dying all over again.

Just like in his past life, he sought out and befriended Lan Xichen while witnessing his brother being an absolute menace to the second Jade of Lan. He knew those two would fall in love no matter what, but a part of him was worried if them meeting so soon would affect their relationship in any way. He wanted his brother to be happy, after all.

Fortunately, Lan Wangji seemed to enjoy his brother’s enough to let the boy cling to his arm for the entirety of their stay at Cloud Recesses.

Not that Jiang Cheng could afford to pay too much attention to the couple, not when he finally had Lan Xichen next to him again.

The First Jade of Lan, just like his title, seemed to be unmarred by the flow of time. Thousands of years had passed, yet he still managed to be the same kind and sweet person Jiang Cheng knew from two lifetimes ago.

He knew it was a bad idea to get too close to the other man - he was always the one bleeding his heart into his sheets every single time. However, as their shoulders bumped against each other as the other boy showed him around Cloud Recesses, an endearing smile on his face whenever he described his favorite places, he felt hope flared inside his chest again.

Maybe in this lifetime, Lan Xichen will finally, finally love him back.

***

Lan Xichen told him many stories about his life, but there was one thing in particular that stood out to him: there was someone else accompanying him. A strong and fierce boy from the QingheNie Sect who was without a doubt Nie Mingjue. If the oldest Nie was here, the younger one was sure to be in this life as well.

Neither of the Nie brothers were present in their past lives. He hadn’t missed Nie Mingjue much, since he rarely interacted with the man even when they were both sect leaders. After The Incident, he didn’t communicated with Nie Huaisang outside of official duties, unsure if he was able to trust the man ever again. Nevertheless, sometimes he missed the easy friendship between three boys who had yet to experience how ruthless the world could be. He often wondered if he could ever go back to those good old days, if not in this life than the next.

Knowing he would see the two of them again in the future, Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure how to feel.

They left Cloud Recesses after a week, with Wei Ying asking his father if they could come to Cloud Recesses again. In the end, his father had agreed to let his oldest son exchanged letters with the Second Jade of Lan, while Jiang Cheng was also allowed to communicate with the first Jade.

Wei Ying already knew how to read and write, likely taught by his parents until their untimely demises, so writing letters wasn’t a problem. However, his handwriting were as atrocious as his past lives’, but a part of him speculated that Lan Wangji found it endearing, so he didn’t say anything either.

On his part, he kept his handwriting as neat as possible for his letters to Lan Xichen. The other boy’s letters for him were always impeccably written, describing the regular occurrences at Cloud Recesses as well as his adventures with Nie Mingjue. Just like in his past life, Jiang Cheng kept those letters in his drawers, among many of the treasures he accumulated, because that was what Xichen deserved. He tried to make his letters exciting, but Yunmeng was always a peaceful place, where even corpses naturally avoided, so there weren’t many things to talk about.

Over the years, the letters started to blend together, and he couldn’t remember the details of what he put in them anymore. He could only remember the I-love-you’s he never wrote down and regretted for the rest of his life for it.

He was thirteen when he met the two Nie brothers again. Nie Mingjue was introduced to him by Lan Xichen, and he could see that the boy was making an effort to be nice, but it didn’t come easy for him. The older Nie possessed the rough edges that reminded Jiang Cheng too much of his own mother and although he loved her, as a son would, he couldn’t imagine befriending the man beyond the point of tolerating each other.

His friendship with Nie Huaisang came easy, benefiting from the fact that his brother basically adopted the boy within the first hour of their meeting. The youngest Nie was a shy little thing who always kept his head down, probably from being told how weak he was his entire childhood. He had heard the rumors about the tumultuous relationship between the two brothers, stemmed from the younger’s slow growth and his lack of interest in cultivation.

In his first life, he saw how it broke the cheerful boy who he met at Cloud Recesses. In hindsight, it could see how it turned Nie Huaisang into a bitter, scheming sect leader who was so hellbent on revenge he didn’t hesitate to think about the consequences of his actions.

A part of Jiang Cheng hated the other boy a little bit, for the trauma he caused Lan Xichen that led the man to commit suicide, but in this lifetime, he was determined to never turn Nie Huaisang into that person, so he welcomed the boy with open arms and told him he was good enough.

He knew what those words sounded like. They were the exact words he told himself every time his mother observed him like a hawk during their training sessions. His mother kept demanding more of him, despite both of them knowing he was leaps and bounds ahead of other disciples, including Wei Ying. It reminded him too much of his childhood, when he spent the majority of his time chasing unrealistic expectations, kept pushing himself until he broke.

At least, this time, when his father found out that he was pushing himself too hard, the man would stop him and told him to get dinner, ignoring the protests of his own wife. He didn’t know if his father truly cared for him or if the man was feeling guilty over what he said all those years ago, but he was thankful for it nevertheless. It made his mother’s temper much more bearable.

He wanted to tell her that he would never be the best cultivator, and that he felt absolutely fine being second best, but not now, when the newfound peace in their family was still too fragile. One day he would tell her.

One day.

***

It was supposed to be a peaceful day. The sun emerged through the clouds and bathed Yunmeng in orange. The lotuses grown all over Lotus Pier was just about to reach their peak, coloring entire regions of lakes into a soft purple that almost seemed to glow under the sunlight. Jiang Cheng had started the day visiting the museum where all family heirlooms were displayed, just so he could see how Zidian was doing.

Outsiders who knew nothing about the Jiangs liked to dismiss Zidian as nothing more than a beautiful ring passed down for generations, but he knew better. Zidian was one of the most powerful spiritual tool the cultivation world had ever seen, and it was such a shame that it now sat behind a glass wall to be ogled at by those who couldn’t understand its significance.

He asked his mother, once, if he could remove it from the museum and use it, because she too must had heard of the stories about how Zidian turned into a whip, demolishing enemies wherever it struck. He had given him a resigning look and explained how, thousands of years ago, one of the former sect leaders was suddenly killed by a group of bandit not even a year into his tenure, and the sect was thrown into chaos for years afterwards, as the man hadn’t named any successor. The man who emerged victorious from that fight for power found that he was unable to use Zidian, as if the ring had sealed itself up. The following generations couldn’t make Zidian work either, and thus, the ring was locked up since then.

The fact that Zidian locked itself up was shocking to him. He knew it was best to leave it be, if that was what the ring wished, but he couldn’t help coming back to see it every week. Zidian had been his mother’s, and then his, until he handed it to his successors when he retired. It had stayed with him longer than most people had. He wanted it back around his fingers, and for everyone who had ever dismissed Zidian to witness the truly terrifying power it was able to unleash.

And now, he pressed his fingers against the glass, trying in vain to close the distance between him and his beloved weapon. A voice calling from a distance startled him, and he quickly removed his fingers. Behind him, a Jiang disciple was struggling to catch his breathing, the young boy’s face as white as a sheet.

It seemed that there was a spirit summoning session that went horribly wrong, and fierce corpses from all over the region now swarmed there to the point where even experienced cultivators were struggling to hold them off.

And Wei Ying was caught up right in the middle of it.

Jiang Cheng felt his heart dropped, and fear spread through his veins like poison. He never had to worry about Wei Ying, because his brother had always had Lan Wangji by his side, except that Lan Wangji wasn’t here. Wei Ying had disappeared on everyone for months now, saying that he was travelling to study and better his cultivation. Correspondences with Lan Xichen revealed that menace didn’t even tell Lan Wangji where he went.

And yet, his older brother was here, and in serious danger as well, if the information he was given was to be believed.

He knew Wei Ying was strong, probably one of the most terrifying person he had ever known, but this reminded him too much of the time when he desperately ran back to Lotus Pier to request assistance, not knowing if his brother or Lan Wangji was still alive. Or the sleepless nights he had worrying if the Wens killed his brother, only to find the man months later with a flute by his side.

Jiang Cheng wasn’t thinking through the consequences of his actions when he broke the glass cage that contained Zidian and put the ring on his finger. All he thought about was the rightness that settled inside of his heart as the ring cackled with a familiar energy and his brother’s mischievous smile.

When he arrived, he could tell that his brother was fighting a losing battle. There were simply too many corpses, too much for one to fight, especially when he has to protect the injured cultivators as well.

He dropped from his sword right beside his brother. Wei Ying’s relief expression didn’t last long before he swung his sword to repel against a corpse that almost managed to impale him. Without hesitation, Jiang Cheng let Zidian form into a whip in his hand and swung it at the incoming corpses, effectively wiping them out within their region.

Normally, Jiang Cheng would’ve gloated at Wei Ying’s shocked expression, but right now both of them had work to do.

Fierce corpses were always hard to deal with, even for the strongest cultivators. Wei Ying, even by an age of sixteen, was already an exceptional cultivator, but he was only a boy, and one without the knowledge his past life accumulated. He didn’t spend centuries fighting these pests like Jiang Cheng did, and he also didn’t have Zidian.

There was a reason why Zidian, in the right hand, was one of the strongest spiritual tool the cultivation world had ever seen.

Jiang Cheng technically didn’t have a choice when he was forced to hold himself back during duels, not when some of the techniques he used was meant to extinct already. He wanted to become one of the best cultivators, but not at the expense of the entire world finding out about his secret. Besides, his fighting style was heavily reliant on Zidian, so he wasn’t fighting at his best capacity at all.

Until now.

He couldn’t hold himself back, not when there were lives on the line.

Jiang Cheng had just finished kicking down the last corpse when he heard the unmistakable flute stopped (ah, so his brother had left to pick up demonic cultivation, typical, really). It was then that he was aware how every single eye in the area was focused on him.

He hadn’t noticed that his parents had rushed to the area upon hearing the news, bringing with them a group of cultivators. Judging from the looks on their faces, they arrived just in time to see him obliterate the corpses around him with Zidian in hand. Even his father stood slack-jawed, speechless at the stunts his fifteen-year-old son just pulled. The only person who managed to stay calm was his mother, who casually walked up to him and inspected the whip on his hand. Not wanting to accidentally hurt his mother, he retreated the whip back to its ring form and handed it to his mother. It was once hers, too, after all.

“Zidian,” she whispers

He nodded, feeling satisfaction crawled up his spine when he heard gasps within the crowd. His mother’s fingers traced the outline of the ring before she looked down at him. There was something he couldn’t recognize in her eyes. He might even say that she looked stunned.

“How?”

He pulled his hand back to twirl the ring around his index finger. He recalled the first time he wore Zidian again in his second life, in the middle of the tournament the Jins hosted, how right it had been for the weapon to end up on his finger. He looked back at his mother and grinned, trying for innocence but knew he was anything but.

“I guess it just likes me, that’s all.”

He let Yanli fussed over him when they returned to Lotus Pier, and then retreated into his own bedroom far earlier than he was supposed to. Normally, he would’ve gotten an earful from his mother.

This time, she let him.

He knew that news travelled fast in the cultivation world, but to wake up and learn that he became famous over night was something Jiang Cheng hadn’t experienced before, and he soon found that he didn’t like it. He kept feeling curious eyes boring a hole into his skin in the training grounds, and disciples poured to Lotus Pier from all over the cultivation world meant that he had to actually interact with people, something he never really got better at past the usual formal pleasantries.

However, he found it hard to complain when his mother didn’t scold him when he missed one of the targets at archery practice, or when his brother bounced excitedly next to him and begged to be shown the whip again with stars in his eyes.

Or when Lan Xichen looked breathless as he admired the whip, a twinkle in his eyes that made Jiang Cheng’s toes curl.

“You’re amazing, Jiang Cheng.”

No, definitely not.

Chapter Text

Everything went well, for a while, but Jiang Cheng knew that one day it would all crashed down on him.

By now, having lived through three lifetimes, Jiang Cheng knew that despite what era he was reincarnated in, there would be a few constants following him. Lan Xichen, Wei Ying and Lan Wangji would all appear in his lif(e one way or another. In a way, he was grateful for it, because that meant he wouldn’t have to be alone as he navigated his way through his new life, unsure of the reason why he had his memories back in the first place.

He neither expected nor wanted Meng Yao to be one of those constants as well.

Nie Huaisang had travelled to Lotus Pier one day, saying that he needed to get away from home. A few bottles of Emperor’s Smile later, the Nie started to loosen his tongue and talked about his problems. Apparently Jin Guangshan (because of course the embodiment of human slime had to be present in this life too) had a string of illegitimate children, one of which showed up at Koi Palace and demanded to be taken in. Usually, the Jin family would take in those illegitimate children and tried to train them into someone useful. However, the boy’s mother was a prostitute, so the LanlingJin sect leader refused to acknowledge his son and kicked him out. The boy then travelled to Qinghe and saved some disciples from being attacked by a group of fierce corpses. Impressed by his skills, Nie Mingjue offered to take the boy under his wing and made him his right-hand man.

The tension between the Nie brothers came from the fact that Nie Huaisang didn’t trust the boy that his brother took in. Not one bit.

“I don’t know… he hasn’t really done anything bad but… how do I say this… he kept talking about wanting his father to acknowledge him, wanting that power or whatever.” Nie Huaisang started to slur on his words. “I don’t feel like he’s truly loyal to gege, you know. I feel like it’s not a good thing for him to want so much power, because people like that would go to the extreme to make sure they have power.”

After finishing his rant, Nie Huaisang slumped over and promptly fell asleep on the table. It took both him and Wei Ying to carry the other boy to the bed. After making sure that the younger Nie wouldn’t kill his back in the morning, Wei Ying retreated back to his own quarters while Jiang Cheng went to the highest point in Lotus Pier and starred at the full moon that was slowly emerging from the clouds, surrounded by constellations he could name like the back of his hand, something he had picked up from the last life time.

Despite being reincarnated thousands of years into the future and being forced to adjust to an unfamiliar environment while carrying secrets and broken promises that no one else knew except for him, at least he got to observe the same Yunmeng sky again.

Jiang Cheng loved his family, loved his brother and Lan Xichen, but even he knew that the people he saw in this lifetime was not the same figures from all those years ago. They were raised in a completely different era and didn’t have to endure the pain and suffering their past lives went through. That was why he was careful to not treat them as if they were guilty of the crime they committed in the past, because they shouldn’t be responsible for what their first life did. That was how he treated Meng Yao in his last lifetime, despite wanting nothing more than to kill the man for what happened at GuangYin temple, he didn’t actually grow to hate that Meng Yao until he revealed his true intentions.

He didn’t know if he could do the same to this life’s Meng Yao, not when even Nie Huaisang didn’t trust that man, and the younger Nie had always had a keen eye for people.

But he couldn’t exactly accuse Meng Yao of things he never did, could he? He couldn’t even tell his friend about it, because that would entail confessing that he had memories of his past lifetimes.

The only thing he could do was to wait until Meng Yao tried something, just like he did in his past life, and then they would catch him red-handed before anyone died, and then, finally, everything would be alright again.

And so, he waited.

***

The first time he wondered if he was wrong to wait was when he received a letter from Lan Xichen talking about how he had befriended someone who was training under the QingheNie Sect. Dread pooled at his stomach as he read the way Xichen described Meng Yao, using the kindest and most gentle words on him the way the first Jade never did anyone else.

He wanted to say something, but he couldn’t, not when the love of his life was so happy talking about his new friend. He tried to warn him, giving out subtle signs about how Nie Huaisang didn’t trust him, but he couldn’t say anything more without revealing his secrets. He didn’t even know what Meng Yao was planning.

He couldn’t wait anymore.

Jiang Cheng sent out an urgent message to Nie Huaisang, requesting to meet him at Yunmeng. When the other boy arrived, he didn’t waste time in asking him if Meng Yao was up to no good.

“It seems like Meng Yao and Lan Xichen was getting closer. I do not want him to be involved in whatever Meng Yao was planning.”

It was the best excuse he had without having to reveal his secrets, and it sounded flimsy to him at best. Much to his relief, both Wei Ying and Nie Huaisang didn’t pry too much, though his skin crawled when both of them exchanged knowing looks at one another, like he was being left out of some kind of secret.

It was probably nothing. He had more important matters to deal with.

He wasn’t a slight bit surprise to learn that, despite having developed a golden core at a late age and was still a weak cultivator, Nie Huaisang was good at devising plans that would allow them to spy on Meng Yao, which proved to be a much more difficult task than they had anticipated.

Meng Yao, much like his past self, set up talismans all around his chambers. The three of them had to set up a network of spies spread from Qinghe to Lanling, trying to see if there was anything unusual in his movements.

Except, there was nothing.

Meng Yao rarely communicated with anyone outside of people of the QingheNie sect, only occasionally going out to meet with the prostitutes who used to be his mother’s friends. He performed his duties in a timely and efficient manner, despite the insults sneered towards him by people jealous of his close relationship with a future sect leader, retreated back into his quarters early, and even helped Nie Mingjue through the mental struggles of wielding a blade.

But Jiang Cheng knew better, so he kept waiting, because he knew one day, Meng Yao would reveal his plans, and he had to be prepared if he wanted Lan Xichen to see the truth.

***

Years passed by, and Jiang Cheng turned eighteen, became one of the best cultivators of his generation, and was well on his way of becoming the future sect leader.

The Jiang family, along with Wei Ying, had been invited to the eighteenth birthday of the only son of the LanlingJin sect. The name Jin Zixuan jolted a deeply unpleasant part of his memory, and he couldn’t help but glance over to his sister, who was occupying herself with sewing up a shirt he tore during practice. Yanli and that peacock hadn’t met in this life yet.

Would they end up like they did in their first life?

He never quite came around to liking Jin Zixuan, always hating the way the man hurt his beloved sister. However, he also remembered how happy Yanli looked around him, how beautiful she was in her wedding gowns, and he couldn’t bring himself to take that away from her even if he tried.

Perhaps, if Wei Ying was to end up with Lan Wangji in every single lifetime, then his sister and that peacock was meant to be together as well.

His suspicion was confirmed when he noticed the way Jin Zixuan’s gaze lingered on his sister as the two families greeted each other. He also saw the way his sister would also steal furtive glances towards the Jin every now and then. He knew then that he couldn’t separate them even if he tried.

But he could make the process of them getting together much easier by knocking the peacock down a few pegs.

So, with Wei Ying in tow, he cornered Jin Zixuan when the boy was going back to his room late in the night, grabbed him by the corner, and ushered him into an empty room.

“Wha-”

Ignoring the indignant yelp, he shoved the taller boy into the wall and gave him the most vicious snarl he could manage, trained to perfection after hundreds of years.

“Listen here, I know you like my sister. You’ve been stealing glances at her all evening. She likes you too. If you intent to court her, you are going to treat her with the utmost respect. If you even dare to think about hurting her, I will gladly show you what Zidian is truly capable of.” As if noticing its name being called, the ring on his index finger let out tiny tendrils of energy that resembled purple lightning. “Got it?”

Jin Zixuan, for the first time since he had met him, looked terrified.

Satisfied, Jiang Cheng let the other boy go and watched as the proud successor of the LanlingJin Sect scrambled out of the room and disappeared from their sight. Wei Ying bumped his shoulder and reached up his hand to make a mess out of his hand, despite Jiang Cheng’s protests.

“Great job, Jiang Cheng.”

Jiang Cheng grinned back, happiness blooming in his chest at the possibility of his sister and the peacock ending up together and even having children.

He didn’t want to think about it, because it brought back too many old memories that could send him to the verge of tears, but he couldn’t stop thinking about seeing his nephew again.

And this time, Jin Ling would know what it felt like to grow up with both of his parents. Even if Jiang Cheng was a terrible uncle, he could at least give the boy that.

***

The party proceeded smoothly, and, instead of putting on his arrogant front, Jin Zixuan approached Yanli with all the awkwardness and sincerity of a teenager who had never been in love before. Although it drew laughs from both of her brothes, Yanli had mysteriously found such gestures endearing and accept them with a bashful smile and a twinkle in her eyes that convinced them she was in love with the peacock as well.

Their interactions did not escape the keen eyes of his mother and her best friend, and talks of an official courting and even wedding plans occurred later during the week, much to the protests of the him and his brother about how everything was too early. His sister, however, listened to those conversations with interest, and from then on he knew that he would see his sister being sent to Koi Tower in the near future.

He couldn’t complain though, not when Jiang Yanli looked the happiest since he last saw her dressed in red and gold, thousands of years ago, and he would do anything in his power to keep that smile on her face, if only to apologize for not being able to save her all those years ago.

It wasn’t until the night of the birthday party that Jiang Cheng detected something going horribly wrong.

As he was completely wrapped up in his sister’s affairs, he completely disregarded the other guests who were invited as well. Among them were the Nie brothers, and Meng Yao had come as part of the entourage. He dismissed the information at first, if not for the fact that he had spent years by now watching Meng Yao like a hawk, waiting for the man to reveal his true nature.

The bastard son of Jin Guangshan was an exceptional actor, Jiang Cheng had known this for thousands of years now, but even he was not perfect, especially when any poor souls touch the subject of his upbringing. Today, Jiang Cheng couldn’t help but notice the corner of the boy’s lips curl up as he watched his father, the same man who disowned him, loudly exclaiming to the room about how proud he was of the son he had with his legitimate wife, an insincere gesture to appease said woman, who had been rumored to be deeply unsatisfied with her husband’s affairs.

Why the fuck was that fucking bastard smiling?

He knew he shouldn’t dismiss it but he couldn’t figure it out either. That was until he remembered that, in their past two lifetimes, Meng Yao was responsible for the deaths of the Jin heirs and in their last lifetime, he had done so by poison.

His eyes landed on Jin Zixuan, who was about to take a spoonful of his birthday soup, and realization dawned upon him. With no time to waste, he tackled his future brother-in-law down and wrestled the spoon away from the astounded figure below him. The scene soon descended into chaos, but Jiang Cheng could distinctly make out a smaller figure slipping away and into the shadow.

His fear was confirmed when the healer declared that there was indeed poison within the soup. After an investigation was conducted, they found that the cook was the one who was responsible for bypassing regular procedures regarding poison testing and ensure that the Jin heir ended up drinking the poisoned soup. The cook held a grudge against the Jin’s for mismanaging the village of his hometown. He was then approached by a mysterious figure who offered to pay him handsomely and heal his sick mom if he was to follow the instructions given to him. The cook refused to reveal the names until the end, though Jiang Cheng had a pretty good idea who that would be, and was executed by the Jin’s within days.

Jiang Cheng immediately met up with Wei Ying and Nie Huaisang once the investigation was over and the culprit was punished, telling them everything. He could tell that they both had questions regarding how exactly he knew that the soup was poisoned, but he gave them the same answers he did everyone else, that he noticed the way the cook did not allow anyone to touch the soup when he came to inspect the kitchen earlier. The excuse was flimsy, but he couldn’t exactly tell them that he had the benefit of hindsight in his hands.

The trio, who were complacent before, was now on full alert. If Meng Yao failed once, he would without a doubt try again, and they did not know what kind of stunt he was going to pull next. In the midst of all this, Wei Ying confessed that he had told Lan Wangji everything, unable to hide such a huge secret of his destined one (that idiot’s words, not Jiang Cheng’s). Lan Wangji, upon hearing about how one of his brother’s closest friends was not what he seemed, was adamant that they should tell his brother and Nie Mingjue everything, a proposition that was backed by both his brother and the younger Nie. Faced with not two but three stubborn figures, Jiang Cheng had no choice but to seek out the two sworn brothers and told them everything he knew.

The truth was, Jiang Cheng had been hesitant about telling Lan Xichen anything regarding Meng Yao. He knew that the man deserved to know the truth, but he also knew from his past two lifetimes that the first Jade of Lan would do anything to protect Meng Yao because he firmly believed in him and was in love with him. Therefore, Jiang Cheng didn’t want to confront the man until he had solid proof.

A small part of him told him that he was a coward, that he didn’t want to feel his heart slowly breaking into pieces when Lan Xichen sacrificed his own pride to defend Meng Yao’s innocence. He ignored it.

Just as he expected, both Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen stared at him with disbelief when he told them about how he had been quietly observing Meng Yao over the past years, and the way the man had smiled like he was aware of the attempted assassination on Jin Zixuan.

“How dare that little rascal, after everything that I’ve done for him!” The entire table collectively winced as Nie Mingjue slammed his fist on the table, the alcohol from the cups slashing everywhere before they were snatched away by Wei Ying. The oldest Nie’s entire face was scarlet, veins popping out of his neck and forehead. The younger Nie slowly patted his brother’s back in a soothing motion, waiting until the other calmed down before calming explaining how his brother couldn’t have seen it coming.

It was then that he dared sneak a glance at Lan Xichen, whose face seemed to be as pale as a ghost, struggling to maintain his composed demeanor. Xichen turned towards him, eyes beseeching.

“Surely this must’ve been a mistake. I’ve known A-Yao for a long time, and I trust him to not be the person who you are accusing him of.”

Jiang Cheng wanted to grab him collar and screamed at him to wake up, to ask him how stupid he had to be to love and trust the same person in every single lifetime, only to be betrayed and heartbroken over and over again. Instead, he heaved a sigh and calmly explained every single observation he had about Meng Yao from the moment he first met him, backed by Nie Huaisang, who had a much keener eyes for details than him.

By the time he finished, Lan Xichen had already excused himself from the room, a gesture far too unmannerly for a man known to be a gentleman. Jiang Cheng contained the urge to run after him, if only to offer the most meager gestures of comfort, like a hug between two friends.

In the end, he didn’t, because it was not his place to, because he couldn’t do anything when the man didn’t love him back.

***

After revealing everything to Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen, the group spent the next week or so plotting about how to confront Meng Yao. They determined that Meng Yao must made new plans now that his previous one was foiled, and he would do it again within the period of time when the Jin demanded all their guests to extend their stay at Koi Tower for fear of letting the assassin go. Once again, Lan Xichen offered to become the bait to help them penetrate Meng Yao’s personal room in Koi Tower, which were, to no one’s surprise, heavily warded with all kinds of talismans. This time, Jiang Cheng was determined not to make the same mistake that nearly caused them their lives the last time, and had Wei Ying, Lan Wangji and Nie Huaisang outside as backup in case anything went horribly wrong, while Nie Mingjue, Lan Xichen and himself went in to confront Meng Yao.

This time, it had gone noticeably smoother than the last, with them able to detain Meng Yao and searched his quarters shortly after entering. A thorough search revealed the contents of what would be made into the poison to give to the cook. Confronted with the evidences of his crime, Meng Yao had no choice but to admit to his own wrongdoings.

Expecting everything to be wrapped up and done, he hadn’t expected Meng Yao to leap out of his own restraints; neither did he expect guqin strings to sink into his neck, almost deep enough to draw blood.

He nearly choked with the weight of his own memory, visions of his precious nephew trembling as his own uncle threatened to kill him came back to him like a tidal wave, and he was aware that he too was shaking, remembering the nights when he woke up in cold sweats and struggled to contain the urge to check on his nephew, for fear that the boy would be in danger once again.

Meng Yao kept talking, this time no longer towards him. Instead, cruel words were thrown at Nie Mingjue, about his late father who died from qi deviation from an early age, the first person to die so young after the Nie’s figured out a way to control the spirits in their blades better, and how he was destined to follow the footsteps of his father. By the time Meng Yao was done, Nie Mingjue had already surged forward as if to choke on the younger man.

Fortunately, they were both stopped by their backup, who broke into the room after sensing the situation was dire. Lan Wangji made quick work disarming Meng Yao, cutting off the other man’s right arm in the process, while his older brother worked to calm his best friend down, taking out his xiao to play a relaxing tune.

“Da-ge, please, he’s not worth it.” Still reeling from the wound on his neck, Jiang Cheng could only barely hear Xichen’s soothing voice ringing in his ears. He wanted to laugh if it hadn’t sound wholly inappropriate.

Everything was the same as it was in his first life, even the Nie brothers were here, and yet he still couldn’t get what he wanted.

But it was already too late. Nie Mingjue, ignoring the protests of the people around him, unsheathed his blade and stabbed Meng Yao in the chest, killing him within seconds.

The room fell into silence immediately afterwards. Nie Mingjue retreated his sword from the dead man’s chest, before slumping down into a heap on the floor, tears wetting his cheeks. Next to him, Lan Xichen was too stunned to offer comfort to his friend, eyes never leaving the body in front of them, whose blood was now seeping out of his chest and onto the hard wood floor, staining it into a deep shade of red.

This was Jiang Cheng’s first time ever seeing Nie Mingjue cry. The oldest Nie, who was one of the youngest sect leader of his generation, a strong, prideful man, was now shedding tears for a traitor who never deserved it.

At the back of his mind, he vaguely wondered if there was something he was missing between the three of them, a piece of puzzle that, even after three lifetimes, he still failed to put into place, before he dismissed the thought to take care of the matter at hand. He recalled centuries of being a sect leader to call for back up, answer the inquiries thrown at them, and escort everyone safely back to their rooms.

Jiang Cheng, instead of going back to his own room, was forced to make a detour towards the healer’s office to treat the wound on his neck, accompanied by his worried family, who were woken up by the commotion. His mother had cursed him out for being so reckless during the entirety of the time his neck was bandaged, while his father was a silent presence behind her, silently observing the healer doing her work.

It would’ve been suffocating, except this time he could see his mother’s knuckles almost turning white from the grip she has around her palm, the way his father checked his body for any injuries, the way their tired eyes seem to be on the verge of tears, and that was enough to tell him they cared.

And in this life, that was enough.

***

With Jin Zixuan nearly dying, his sister’s visits to Koi Tower increased in quantity until one day, not even a year later, Yanli appeared in front of his doorsteps whispering about how she wanted to get married.

The wedding ceremony was held not long after, and Jiang Cheng cried into her sister’s robes when he saw again how beautiful she looked in red and gold, her face beaming with happiness. He remembered how he had to sneak her out to meet their other brother, how bittersweet the moment was for all three of them, and reminded himself that this life was not the same as that one. His brother was here now, relentlessly teasing his younger brother for being so emotional despite the permanent scowl on his face, as the two of them prepare to accompany their oldest sister to Koi Tower for the wedding ceremony.

Many centuries ago, Jiang Cheng decided that reliving the same memories over again as history repeated itself was the most terrible punishment he could’ve been given. Right now, as he watched the peacock he had grown to not completely hate embraced his dear sister, who was happy and alive, he couldn’t help but think perhaps it wasn’t so bad.

Maybe, just like how fate had decided to give him two sets of new parents who taught him how to not crush under the expectations he set on himself and then returned his original parents back to him to see how he would cope, this too was a step towards him healing.

And maybe, he was fine with that.

After the ceremony, Yanli moved permanently to Koi Tower, but not before making both of her brothers promise to visit her at least twice a month. She announced her pregnancy a month after the wedding, and, within a year, she held an infant in her arms, whose familiar wails had been permanently embedded within his memory as it carved a space in his heart. She offered for him to hold the boy, her son, his nephew, but he turned her down, not trusting himself to not just break and crumble into a heap onto the floor.

He wanted to ask fate, if it had a physical manifestation, if he had to pay a great price in his next reincarnations because it was kind enough for him to have this in his current life.

Instead, he shoved that question aside and focused back on the infant in his sister’s arms, extending a finger to pat the top of the tiny forehead.

“Hello, Jin Ling.” He whispered, both to this boy in front of him and his past life, and, hopefully, to the many lifetimes afterwards.

***

Life continued on, and Jiang Cheng put the incident at Koi Tower behind him to prepare for his future as the leader of the YunmengJiang Sect. He wasn’t too worried about taking over a job that he had centuries of experience on, but nevertheless, those mundane tasks were a temporary reprieve when he needed to avoid his demons.

When he was alone with only his thoughts, he tried to not think about Lan Xichen.

Lan Xichen went into seclusion right after Meng Yao’s death and stayed there for two years before being forcefully dragged out by his best friend and carried on with his duties. They were still on speaking terms, but what little improvement he managed with their relationship in this life shriveled into a sad, broken thing that couldn’t be called friendship anymore. They still exchanged letters at times, but even Jiang Cheng, as dense as he could be, lacked the playfulness that was peppered throughout their earlier letters.

Sometimes, when they crossed paths during sect meetings, Xichen would give him a look that was soft and sad and he wondered what it would feel like to give into the instincts he reigned in place so many years ago to just grab the front of blue and white robes and just take.

He didn’t.

Wei Ying left home shortly after Yanli got married, when he was barely twenty, to travel the world with his partner. Jiang Cheng received news of their elopement some months later and the two, along with his sister and Nie Huaisang, met in a small cottage near Yiling to congratulate the couple. Somehow, him and Wei Ying ended up leaning against one another as they sat side by side on the roof, and he listened with one ear open while struggling to not vomit as Wei Ying rambled about love and destinies and how his and Lan Wangji’s stories were written into the stars. The conversation then drifted to the formerly-known-as-Venerable-Triad and that was how he knew his brother was really drunk, a truly impressive feat. They never willingly talked about those things.

Even with half-lidded eyes, Jiang Cheng could feel Wei Ying’s gaze at him, bright and curious and somehow all too knowing and wondered how much his brother actually knew.

They didn’t talk about it again.

He became the sect leader. Wei Ying continued to travel the world and visited when he came. Yanli raised her son in Lotus Pier and occasionally visited when she has time, or he came to her. His parents retired and retreated into a private quarter deep inside of Lotus Pier and worked out their differences there.

They were two very different people who got along like oil and water, Jiang Cheng knew this better than anyone. Sometimes, when he got near their residence, he could hear their arguments about the most random things that happened in Yunmeng, despite the fact that they were both relieved of their duties already. However, he was also there, keeping a watchful eye over them, as they made up on top of the highest point in Lotus Pier, and gazed at the moon together for an entire night.

Jiang Cheng’s concept of love had always been centered around the stories his sister told him and later it was based on his observations of the relationships of his siblings. It was based on soft touches and lingering stares and staying by your loved one’s side no matter what, even when the world turned away from them. For him, love had always been like fire, burning and passionate and sometimes, left nothing but ashes.

But now, as he quietly studied his parents underneath a sky full of stars and the moon hanging low and bright near the edge of the lake, their bodies barely touching, he wondered if there was love there as well.

Sometimes, he thought about how his heart threatened to leave his chest every single time he saw Lan Xichen again for the first time, the way he desperately seek after the older boy like a puppy, clumsily wooing him and hoping that Lan Xichen would fall for him. He thought about how he did whatever he could to push Meng Yao away, telling himself that it was because that bastard would end up betraying Xichen; but he knew better, knew that there was a part of him that was always simmering with jealousy whenever the Jin so much as look at Lan Xichen.

Sometimes, he thought about all these things and wondered if the thing he felt for Xichen was love at all.

It terrified him even more than when he confronted Wei Ying in their second life and told him about how he saved his life and lost his golden core for it. So he didn’t think about it.

Jin Ling grew up with his uncle’s temper, his father’s pride, but also his mother’s kindness and underrated strength. He then inherited his sect and became a great man who looked out for his people. On a visit to Yiling, he met and fell in love with Lan Sizhui, one of Wei Ying’s adopted children, and they got married at Koi Tower, with all of their families present Somehow, thousands of years later, when the stories about their lives were all turned into fairy tales, Jin Ling had managed to live a life that would’ve made his past self proud, but this time surrounded by everyone he mourned for, and Jiang Cheng couldn’t be more happy for him.

Nie Mingjue, after the tragic events that happened when he was too young, slowly grew more unstable, to the point his best friend couldn’t help him. He passed away at the age of fifty, far too young for a cultivator to die. His brother, Nie Huaisang, nominated a general to take over his sect while he traveled and became a well-known poet and fan painter. Whenever he visited Lotus Pier, Nie Huaisang would gift him various fans, and they would drink and reminiscent about their past, Jiang Cheng ignoring the sadness in his friend’s eyes and Nie Huaisang refrained from looking at Jiang Cheng as if he knew.

As if they both knew.

Because Jiang Cheng was blind at times, but he wasn’t that blind to not see the truth, and the truth was that sometimes, love burned until there was nothing left but ashes and blood that stained hardwood floor, and those ashes turned into lilies that he choked out every time the bed felt too cold, and those lilies turned into the I-love-you’s that died before it was ever said out loud.

They didn’t talk about it.

Lan Xichen passed away, at an age far too young for a cultivator to die, but at least it wasn’t as tragic as his first life.

Decades later, his parents also passed away, in each other’s arms, after spending a lifetime in each other’s company. Unlike his first life, Jiang Cheng didn’t sob or scream or make a scene – he seared the images of their smiling faces into his memory and smiles himself, knowing it would be what they wanted.

He too, would be going soon, had been waiting for a long time - it was not appropriate for a child to pass before his parents. He gathered with his siblings and Nie Huaisang and talked about destinies and love and death and they listened and pretended like they didn’t know.

Jiang Cheng passed away with a smile on his face carried images of honey eyes and blooming lilies with him even beyond death.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng recalled everything in the middle of the rain in a place he didn’t recognize and used a language he couldn’t remember learning. Instead of “cultivator,” they called people like him “alchemist” and it confused him at first but then he saw familiar figures starting to appear and reassure himself that maybe, everything wouldn’t turn out too badly.

Maybe, in a completely new setting, things would turn out differently this time.

Somehow, they were at war again, but sometimes, he fought and thought if they were truly in war at all, and if they were, against what?

He met Wen Qing and Wen Ning, who were still too strong and kind for their own good in this life. He treated them as nicely as he can manage, doing anything he could to take away the pain he made them go through, and wondered if it would ever be enough.

Sometimes, he looked at Wen Qing and saw her bloody robes and lifeless eyes and remembered how he stood there and did nothing nothing nothing and didn’t complain when she ordered him to do the rounds while she treated her patients.

He met Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen again, whom he hadn’t seen since he was barely a sect leader, but whose tragic love story he knew all too well. Xiao Xingchen was too gentle for his own good, but a phenomenal alchemist. He hoped war didn’t corrupt them and wondered if it did him.

He found Zidian in a museum again and wielded the whip and watched fear appears in his opponents’ eyes.

He met Lan Xichen, fell in love, watched the love of his life fell in love with Meng Yao, and nursed his broken heart over alcohol everyday and wondered about the war they were fighting.

It turned out, there was a corruption in the government, and they were only fighting amongst themselves. Somehow he saw the Wens again, dressed in robes so despicably red he felt like he would’ve laughed if he wasn’t so busy killing monsters and telling Wei Ying how you cannot bring the dead back to life.

He wondered if it was healthy to feel this good watching Wen Rouhan, Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu died again. He knew he shouldn’t carry emotions he felt for their past selves and project it on their current selves. He learned that with his own brother during his very first reincarnation. But these people had deserved to die, so he killed them and tried to not let the satisfaction linger after their deaths.

Meng Yao worked for the government and almost got all of them kill. This time, it was Wei Ying that killed the yellow-cladded snake. Jiang Cheng tried not to think about the way Lan Xichen grew quiet as he watched Meng Yao died

And how he stayed quiet ever since.

They returned to their normal lives and Jiang Cheng found a region for him to look after. Lan Wangji and Wei Ying got married and travelled all over the world to learn new methods of cultivation. Jiang Yanli married Jin Zixuan and had Jin Ling. Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen also proceed to travel with a daughter they found and befriended along the way. She reminded him that he couldn’t wait to meet Lan Sizhui again.

Wen Qing and Wen Ning became full-time doctors, and Jiang Cheng still occasionally paid them a visit at times. Wen Qing always acted annoyed at him, but he liked to think they were friends. Wen Ning was welcoming and even, if he dare to say, like him. Their relationship would’ve massively improved if Jiang Cheng could look him in the eyes.

When Jiang Cheng fell asleep, he thought about how everything, but one, was slowly slotting into place for his reincarnations and what he could do for Lan Xichen to not fall for Meng Yao and love him back.

Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat.

***

Everything happened all over again. The same events happening, only in different places and to people with different names, but they are the same, with the same face, the same personality, the same fate. They loved and died and loved and died and loved love love love.

In his fifteenth reincarnation, he told his brother and Nie Huaisang about Jin Guangshan’s betrayal, omitting details that can reveal his secrets. They spent months searching for evidence before finally getting a lead regarding the man’s illegal dealings with the Wen’s for weapons and explosives. However, their lead then killed herself afterwards, leaving them with no concrete evidence of the man’s misdeeds.

It was Nie Huisang who suggested it.

During the next family gathering, hosted by the Jin’s, they arrived early, drugged the guards, and rigged explosives all over the corners of the ballroom, where everyone who was anyone would gather. If something were to happen in there, it would inevitably lead to the Jin’s being questioned and the truth coming to light.

Just as they predicted, the explosion, though precisely calculated by Wei Ying to not harm anyone directly, caused the entire room to descend into chaos, and questions were leveled at Jin Guangshan and Madam Jin for allowing such a massive security breach to happen. Jin Guangshan, still reeling from what he thought was the Wen’s failed attempt at assassinating him, confronted the Wen’s about it, which the three of them tracked down and caught red-handed.

That had been the end of that, except that it wasn’t.

Jiang Cheng then noticed a difference in dynamics happening in his household. He saw it when his mother fussed over his father’s every move, as if he was going to disappear, and he just let her, even showing concern when she wasn’t looking. Albeit their interactions with one another had always been positive after his third life, when he resolved their issues, but this was the first time they looked like they had something he wanted, something that Wei Ying and Lan Zhan had.

He decided that he liked that a lot.

So he decided to try it again.

Next time, it was Wei Ying who planned it, with a lot of convincing on Jiang Cheng’s part.

He hadn’t really meant for it to happen, not really. He casually alluded to how tragedies and near-deaths bring people closer together, forcing them to confront their issues and the love they had for their loved ones, and his brother had looked at him like he was a genius and asked him if he wanted to fix his parents’ marriage.

They were only fourteen and fifteen respectively at the time, too young technically to be attempting such a ridiculous task, and surely their sister must be upset with them if she knew, but Jiang Cheng had suffered through their disaster of a marriage for far too long and saw the terrible communication they had with one another. If he could enforce a way to get the two of them to talk it out with one another, he would.

So they paid some street thugs to stage a fake robbery with his father caught right in the middle of it. The police investigated the incident, but even they couldn’t track down the perpetrators, not when Wei Ying was the one responsible for covering up their tracks. Just as they predicted, the planned assault triggered his mother’s protective instincts and was the cause the two of them to confront their differences and how much they care for one another.

Maybe it was something about being forced to face the fact that one of them may have died that bring the two of them closer together. Jiang Cheng didn’t understand why it took such drastic measures to do so, but then again, his parents’ love - he knows now that they love - has never been the normal kind. It’s selfish and twisted and threatens to destroy everyone around them.

In the past, he’s always felt like he was stuck right in the middle of it.

Jiang Cheng wasn’t indifferent to rumors – he knew what people meant when they said his parents weren’t very good parents, knew that himself ever since his first life, ever since he was a child. But they were his parents, and if there was a way he can make them turn out for the better, into the parents he’d always wanted, then he would, over and over and over again.

***

In every single lifetime afterwards, the same thing happened all over again. Lan Wangji and Wei Ying met and fell in love. He forced his parents to resolve their differences and maintain a peaceful household. Yanli met the peacock and gave birth to Jin Ling, who then later met and fell for Lan Sizhui. Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan, despite interruptions from a pest called Xue Yang, managed to end up together. Nie Huaisang pursued his passions and helped his brother when necessary. Wen Ning and Wen Qing resided to a quiet part of the world and became healers. Later on, Wen Qing met an all too familiar Luo Qingyang and fell for her, and they stayed together for all of their reincarnations. Somewhere along the line, Lan Jingyi and Ouyang Zizhen, the two kids he always saw with Jin Ling and Lan Sizhui, popped up again, and the four were reunited to go on whatever shenanigans they manage to cook up.

Gradually, Jiang Cheng noticed that if he made some sort of tremendous process in his previous lives the problem would lessen in severity or go away all together in his next lives. His parents cared for him and they lived in a relatively peaceful household, as peaceful as it can get with, anyway. He and his brother grew up tangled around one another like wool on scarves their sister knitted for them, sharing pain and joy and sleepless nights when Jiang Cheng dealt with nightmares from thousands of years of memories Wei Ying didn't have. His sister was there too, sharing those moments with them, and then fell in love and got married and spent the rest of her days content with her family instead of dying tragic deaths. Wen Qing became his friend of sorts, and even Wen Ning gradually treated him well. Nie Huaisang got to do what he wanted without being encumbered by the duties to his sect. Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan had their little family. And everything was happy, for most of them.

But then he remembered there's still Nie Mingjue who never found a resolution for his own problems. There's Lan Xichen who spent the rest of his days with a smile on his face that failed to reflect his heart.

With every single reincarnation, he grew more hopeless and desperate, and it seemed like the solution was right in front of him, so close that he could taste it, but every time he extended his hands, it just barely eluded him, and it turned out he was chasing thin air all along.

One time, he wondered if it was better for Meng Yao and Lan Xichen to end up together, but he quickly dismissed it. Meng Yao wasn’t someone worth of the other man’s affections.

No, that wasn’t it, a voice inside his head told him. You’re just jealous that the man Lan Xichen chooses to love isn’t you.

He ignored it.

***

This time, when Jiang Cheng remembered everything, he struggled to not scream.

Everything he knew was gone.

He couldn’t feel the qi running through his body. He ran to the courtyard of his home and tried to detect something, anything, but his body failed to pick up anything that could resemble qi at all.

Even children who had yet to develop a full golden core was able to sense qi, a relentless energy that simmered beneath the surface of the earth and then later flowed freely throughout their bodies, allowing them to perform cultivation.

Had he somehow managed to lose his golden core, at such a young age?

Jiang Cheng slumped against the floor of his garden and drew his legs to his chest, struggling to not full on sob. This reminded him too much of a hand that went through his chest and the hollowness that accompanied him until his own brother sacrificed his golden core for him and the feeling of humiliation when he knew everything and how he had broken down at that temple because it was too much too much too much-

“A-Cheng, are you okay?”

It was his sister, ever so kind and loving and didn’t ask questions, merely embraced him to offer the comfort he needed. He clung to her like a lifeline and fell asleep in her arms, with tears still drying on his cheeks.

Soon enough, he learned that it wasn’t just him. Cultivation was all but a myth among the common folk in this life. Nobody was able to sense qi anymore. Everyone was on equal footing, and the only way for you to prove your worth is through your exceptional talents instead of how strong your cultivation was.

Jiang Cheng didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but at least he knew he wans’t alone. Many centuries later, he would even belatedly admit that perhaps this was for the best. Humans would always go to war and bring destruction among themselves, that was what humans do, but at least this time, the destruction were less devastating.

Zidian now wrapped uselessly around his mother’s finger, unable to form into a whip without spiritual power, but when he finally got his hands on it again, he let its familiarity ground him to continue forward in this life and the next.

Without cultivation, the knowledge he accumulated in his past lives largely went to waste, and he was forced to focus on other subjects that were far less interesting. He had never been particularly exceptional at them, especially math, but he did have other reincarnations to learn and perfect them.

He often wondered when the reincarnations would stop, or when he would stop remembering them. Surely, there was a purpose to him being forced to remember everything and then relive the same betrayal happening over and over again, but he couldn’t figure out what it was.

He didn’t have much time to dwell on that thought, not when Meng Yao was trying to kill his half-brothers again.

Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat.

Chapter Text

This time, when he remembered everything again, he stopped being scared and feeling sorry for himself and started finding out what happened between his past life and this one.

He was shocked to discover how old he was. Ever since his first reincarnation, he had always regained his memory early on. The oldest he ever turned before his memory came back to him was ten, and that was before he met Wei Ying and the Lan brothers. In this life, however, Wei Ying was already a fixture of his life, and the two were as close as ever, helped by the fact that his parents seemed to fight less this time around.

He was already sixteen, well on his way towards becoming an adult, much later than in his past reincarnations. He wondered if he should take that as a bad sign or not, but he had adapted and survived for thousands of years. He figured he could handle it.

He forever thanked the person who invented the modern system of time - keeping track of his reincarnations got so much easier. It was with this system that he found out there was a mere twenty years from his past reincarnation and this one, which was surprising considering some of his reincarnations were centuries and even thousands of years apart. One of the benefits of reincarnating again so early was that he took less time adapting to the new era he was reborn into, for the language they used was still somewhat the same, so he didn't have to fumble out clumsy excuses when accidentally use a phrase that was out-of-date.

However, despite being reincarnated so early, he couldn’t find Zidian, was told by his mother that much of their family heirlooms were lost due to a great heist she suspected was organized by the Wen’s. He wasn’t too worried though. Once he brought the Wen’s down, he would take back what is rightfully his.

But that was for later. For now, he was preoccupied with finding out what the Wen’s and Meng Yao was up to again in this life.

***

He came to learn that even though everyone had a different name here, everything else was the same. The Wen’s ruled over Shanghai with an iron fist, using their money and power to take over the government and kill anyone who even dared to protest their actions. He also knew that his parents, as well as the Lan’s, the Nie’s and the Jin’s were doing something about it, a rebellion set to happen right underneath the Wen’s nose, with the ultimate goal to kill Wen Rouhan and his family.

That was how him, Wei Ying, Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen met again, during one gathering to draw a plan to take down the Wen’s. He was too late, once again, for Lan Xichen had already befriended Meng Yao and Nie Mingjue beforehand, and this time they were childhood friends. Jin Guangshan had somehow accepted his bastard son and even took him in and gave him a position within his company.

This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be, and a feeling in his gut told him that there was something very wrong with the Jin’s, which didn’t come as a surprise to him. Jin Guangshan throughout his reincarnations hadn’t stopped being a slimy, two-faced snake, not that Jiang Cheng would ever say it to the man’s face, or to his parents’ faces, for that matter - the Jin’s were an important ally and they would not believe him.

So he told his brother his suspicions, who in turn told Lan Wangji and Nie Huaisang, and together they tried to find out what the Jin’s was hiding. To do so, Jiang Cheng befriended a young boy who was a member of his mother’s side of the family. The boy faked an identity to penetrate Shanghai’s vast network of spies and snooped to see if there was any information regarding the Jin’s that were kept under the radar for fear of retribution.

Sometimes, Jiang Cheng would observe the boy and noticed familiar features that he could not remember from which of his reincarnation.

The work was difficult and often times fruitless. Even if there was anything suspicious about the Jin’s, those were often swept under the rug with all evidence destroyed. A family as rich and powerful as them would not let scandals destroy their reputation so easily. There weren't even any spy he can rely on for help.

It was then that Jiang Cheng hit the jackpot.

The relationship between his sister and Jin Zixuan brought the family together closer than ever, and it was then that he noticed Madame Jin starting to grow paranoid for fear of her son’s future, and seek out his mother’s advise and companionship. Their meetings increased in frequency, and it was in one of these meetings that Jiang Cheng heard about how Madame Jin was suspicious of her husband working with the Wen’s and planned to take him down without affecting the rest of the family.

Jiang Cheng came to her and brought up a plan to spy on her husband, and she hesitantly accepted his offer, even giving him necessary connections and resources to gain access to information that even the black market couldn’t get their hands on about the Jin's.

While letting the Yu boy and his spies do their work, Jiang Cheng learned to pick up the gun again. He had learned how to use one in one of his past lifetimes, but he found that it was better to relearn from the basics because gun models were constantly changing and could heavily damage his body when handled wrong. Learning how to use a gun was akin to being instructed on how to hold a bow for the first time, which meant that he was never going to be the best at it. But beyond that, there was another reason why he disliked guns. Sometimes, he missed having Sandu in one hand and Zidian in the other, the whip curling around his hand like a hug, but then again he never got everything he wanted.

He would eventually get over it, as he did everything else in his previous lives, Jiang Cheng thought to himself as he aimed another bullet at the target and tried not to think about how gun powder reminded him of fire that turned Lotus Pier into ruins before time eventually did.

He tried talking to Xichen, but he was always too awkward, too rough around the edges for the man who was far too kind for him. Besides, it was obvious to everyone by now that Xichen was in love with Meng Yao, and he had to get away from the two of them or else he would snap and choke that snake to death.

He wanted to warn Nie Mingjue, but it seemed that the oldest Nie also placed trust on his childhood friend in this life and dismissed his concerns as paranoia. Not even Nie Huaisang, who still didn’t trust Meng Yao one bit, could manage to convince him.

It was then that the Yu boy brought them earth-shattering news. They were right in that Jin Guangshan was colluding with the Wen’s to strengthen his own political power and take down the other families and threats towards him, including his own wife. There were going to be multiple assassinations happening soon, orchestrated by the Wen’s and backed by Jin Guangshan himself, that would lead to numerous casualties and a complete restructuring of the power structure in Shanghai, if they didn’t put a stop to it in time.

He immediately revealed to his family the information and let Wei Ying’s brilliant mind planned their next steps. On his part, he went and confronted Lan Xichen about the news.

“But Jiang Cheng, I already knew. A-Yao told me he would act as a spy for the Wen’s to help bring them down when it’s time. I’m sure he would not allow those assassinations to happen. Do not worry.”

Jiang Cheng saw red then, and he wanted to grab Lan Xichen’s collar, to tell him everything, tell him how Meng Yao betrayed everyone in every single reincarnation, and ask him how can somebody so smart like the first Jade of Lan be so incredibly stupid all because he fell in love?

But then again, wasn’t that what Jiang Cheng had been doing for thousands of years, letting love blind him to the point he refused to do what was best for them just so that maybe he could have Xichen in his arms?

So, instead of wasting time trying to convince Xichen to see reason, he went and sought out Meng Yao himself.

The fucking bastard dared to looked up at him and smirked before telling him everything, about his father’s connections to the Wen’s, to how Meng Yao had taken advantage of his relationship with Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue to obtain valuable information about the two families. Jiang Cheng could feel his temper rising with each word that came out of Meng Yao’s mouth.

He could handle Meng Yao being a spy, but to learn that he once again took advantage of Lam Xichen’s trusting nature sent him into a blind rage that was only hindered by the reminder that Meng Yao had the information they needed to prosecute the Wen’s and Jin Guangshan.

“I’ve always hated you. You were only able to get as far as you did in life with the support of you family. Everyone respect you, just like they respect that arrogant good-for-nothing peacock.” Meng Yao sneered at him, and Jiang Cheng had to bite back a retort and escalate the situation further. They needed Meng Yao, he told himself. “I had nothing. I have to sacrifice blood, sweat and tears for my father to accept me, but even then, I am nothing compared against them. You don’t understand how it feels, do you?”

Except that it was Meng Yao who knew nothing because if there was anyone who was made to feel for centuries like he was worth nothing was Jiang Cheng himself. He knew many things about Meng Yao through the lifetimes they stumbled upon each other, and it was an indisputable fact that Meng Yao’s mother loved and cared for him, wanted him to be the best person he could be. If the man hadn’t been so adamant on chasing the approval of his father, so willing to sink himself low enough that he couldn’t get back out, Jiang Cheng knew that even Meng Yao could’ve been turned into a good person.

But before he could tell him that, Meng Yao had changed the subject, this time determined to provoke Jiang Cheng where it hurt.

“I do feel sorry for your family, I really do, but I have to do what must be done. I would like to apologize if that upset you.” The other man now turned back towards him, a dangerous gleam in his eyes, like a predator looking at his prey. “Or was that why you were upset? Or… perhaps… was it because er-ge decided to trust and love me? Are you jealous? After all, everyone can see how –”

He didn’t let Meng Yao finish that sentence before unlocking the gun he hid inside of his shirt and put a bullet in the other man’s chest.

Meng Yao stumbled backwards, eyes wide with surprise and fear, having never expected the Jiang heir to actually had the guts to kill him. Jiang Cheng wanted to laugh then and told him every single secrets he held, about the people he tortured and killed. Strangely enough, despite having so much blood on his hands, Jiang Cheng had never killed Meng Yao himself. It was always someone else doing the dirty work for him.

Jiang Cheng knew he wasn’t supposed to feel relief washing over him when the light faded from Meng Yao’s eyes, but he did.

That was short-lived, however, as Lan Xichen burst into the room and took in the sight before him. The man trembled as he looked back towards Jiang Cheng, his face red, knuckles white, and eyes positively murderous.

Lan Xichen was livid, an expression so out of place on the man’s face that it actually rendered Jiang Cheng speechless.

When he collected himself again and remembered that he needed to explain everything to Lan Xichen, it was already too late. He only had time to hear the gunshot before he saw blood blossoming on his purple shirt and tasted a metallic tang at the base of his tongue.

Lan Xichen had shot him, in the same fucking spot he shot Meng Yao.

Throughout his past reincarnations, despite dying peaceful deaths every single time, Jiang Cheng had always anticipated the worst. He imagined himself dying too many times to count, either by a vicious fierce corpse, or by the Wen’s again, or even a freak vehicle accident of some sort.

Never did he even entertain the possibility that he would die by the hands of the man he loved for thousands of years, all because he snapped and killed the man who had brought nothing but sorrow and destruction with him in every single one of their reincarnations.

And that fucking stung.

He was aware that he was crying as life slowly left him. His mind came back to his family and he was relieved knowing that Wei Ying was still there, and that his brother will handle everything after his death to ensure that the Wen’s meet their doom and Jin Guangshan get the punishment he deserved. Yanli would be fine, as she was protected by Jin Zixuan. He felt bad that he wouldn’t be able to meet Jin Ling again, but at least the boy would be safe and loved by both of his parents.

Lan Wangji and Wei Ying would surely end up together again, because that was what his brother deserved.

He wanted to apologize to his parents; it wasn’t right for a child to die before his parents, but everything was out of his control now. He hoped they wouldn’t grieve for him for too long. It would be nice if his death bring them closer together, and they get to live long, fulfilling lives before dying in each other’s arms again. That, too, was what they deserved.

He looked back at Lan Xichen, whose face was now as pale as a ghost, too aware of the weight of what he just did. He hoped Wei Ying wouldn’t get too angry at Xichen – the man couldn’t have known – and learned to forgive him. He didn’t mind dying by the other man’s hand, only at the fact that Meng Yao was the cause of it. If anything, he was glad that he finally died before Lan Xichen did, after too many lifetimes of grieving for the man and whispering I-love-you’s to the lilies he got into a habit of growing.

He smiled then, a simple quirk of lips that was meant to be reassuring but he knew it was anything but, whispered “I love you” even when it was too late, and felt another stone getting lifted off his chest before everything faded to black.

Chapter Text

As if to compensate for giving his memories back too late in his past life, fate decides to make him remember everything again at the age of six, the youngest he has ever been since his first reincarnation. He’s always liked being reincarnated at such a young age - the rash decisions and mood swings he often has, especially when the trauma of the past is still too fresh, can be easily attributed to childhood tantrums.

In the body of a six-year-old, no one will say anything if he were to scream or cry. He knows he should. It is the first time he is murdered. Shedding some tears may sooth the pain from the phantom bullet that is no longer embedded in his chest.

Instead, Jiang Cheng just feels tired.

He is tired of living the same life over again, witnessing the same events unfolding in front of his eyes and being unable to do anything about it. He is tired of seeing everyone else finding their own happy endings while he ends up all alone, nursing a broken heart until the day he takes his last breath. He is tired of carrying the same secrets for thousands of years, unable to share it with anyone else, because the pain and trauma of the past are his burden to bear, and he doesn’t need Wei Ying to feel guilty about the lives he takes or Wen Ning knowing about his actions as a fierce corpse.

He is tired of watching the man he’d loved for thousands of years falling in love with the same person and get his heart broken over and over again.

Doesn’t Lan Xichen deserve a happy ending too?

It rains heavily that night.

Jiang Cheng let himself be soaked as he stands on the balcony of his bedroom, desperately hoping that the cold rain could help clear his thoughts. He remembers the things people used to say, how his eyes are like a storm, and sometimes wonders if anyone ever gets reminded of him when it rained like this.

He thinks about Lan Xichen.

He thinks about the boy he met in his first life, his hair dark as the night and his eyes shines like liquid gold. Over the years, the hair has been trimmed short to fit with the times, but his eyes stay the same, bright and warm until there is an inevitable underlying hint of sadness in them.

He thinks about how the man is kind and generous to everyone regardless of their skills or status, always giving them the same friendly smile that can melt the hardest hearts. Even when Jiang Cheng becomes the fearsome Sandu Shengshou, the man’s treatment towards him doesn’t change from the time they first met at Cloud Recesses.

He thinks about how loyal and trusting Lan Xichen is, how the man always looks for the best in people, even when it ends up destroying him. Sometimes, Jiang Cheng wants to shake Lan Xichen and tell him that he is being naïve, but isn’t that one of the things that made the man so loved and admired within the cultivation world?

Someone like Lan Xichen deserves happiness just like everyone else, so why is it that Jiang Cheng unable to give him that?

Jiang Cheng thinks about how happy Meng Yao makes Xichen before his betrayal, and he confronts the thoughts he has been trying to avoid since their first reincarnation, that maybe Lan Xichen’s happy ending isn’t with Jiang Cheng. It lies with a Meng Yao who, if brought up properly, won’t turn against them.

Is that why he regained his memories at such a young age?

“Young master, why are you out so late?”

A gentle voice startles him from his pondering. Turning around, he is met with a gentle face with keen grey eyes that remind him too much of his mother. It is the long-time butler of the Jiang family, his mind helpfully supplies him. His throat suddenly runs dry as he recognizes the familiar face of the man who dutifully served him until he died an early death in his first life.

“Old man Yu?”

The man throws him a questioning glance before holding up an umbrella towards his direction and ushering him inside. It is only when he is safely within his own bedroom that he allows himself to observe his trusted servant again. The man wears a traditional three-piece suit with a black coat and purple vest. His face is noticeably younger than when Jiang Cheng last saw him, and his eyes less sad, a reminder that no one but him remembers the suffering the people of Lotus Pier went through.

It is then Jiang Cheng knows why he befriended the Yu boy so quickly in his last life, why he had trusted him to carry out the important duty of spying on one of the most influential families in Shanghai – the boy had reminded him of his trusted servant.

But it has been a century since his last life. It can’t have been the same person. Perhaps he is the reincarnation of the boy he once knew. And that is a reassuring though, so he allows the butler to dry his hair off with a towel and excuses himself to the bathroom

Only when he is submerged within the warm water of his tub that he lets his thoughts trail back to Lan Xichen and Meng Yao.

If somehow, he can find Meng Yao and lead him to the right path, so that he isn’t so power-hungry and desperate for his father’s approval, can that snake be turned into someone Lan Xichen can love without breaking the man’s heart?

It is too risky, he knows that. Even with his help there is still a high possibility that Meng Yao will backstab them again, just like he has every single other lifetime, but it is worth a shot.

But what about him? Will he regret it for the rest of his life as he watch the two of them be happy together? Will he stay awake in the middle of the night curling around himself and dreaming about drowning in a sea of white and blue and wondering if Lan Xichen could be his? Can he live like that again until the day he dies?

Unconsciously, Jiang Cheng reaches out, thumbs the birthmark the shape of a bullet on his chest and thinks about how the mark overlays one he has gotten from losing his golden core, a phantom scar that he feels even when it’s no longer there. He can’t decide which one hurts less.

It is a common myth that your birthmark is how you die in your last life, but he never expects it to be true. Now he has a painful reminder of the fact that Lan Xichen will never reciprocate his feelings, will always choose Meng Yao over him. Justifiably so – if Meng Yao doesn’t deserve Lan Xichen, then he doesn’t either, not after everything he’s done. He’s tried to ignore that aspect in the past, but now it rears its ugly head again, reminding him that he isn’t worth having such a good thing happening to him, but Meng Yao can be.

What he is about to do is risky, but for Lan Xichen’s happiness, it is worth it.

He turned on the water faucet again to let the water streamed down his face and pretended he isn’t crying.

It is then, in the body of a six-year-old, mind filled with memories of gold and gunpowder, after thousands of years has passed between his first reincarnation and this one, that Jiang Cheng lets Lan Xichen go.

Chapter Text

When he awakes the next day, he takes a moment to collect the information regarding his current family.

It is frustrating, though understandable, that a six-year-old Jiang Cheng without his memories isn’t very observant, but he can make out a few details that set off alarms. His parents, though on speaking terms, fight quite frequently. When they argue, words like “affair” are hurled through the air to the point it inspires gossip among the staffs.

After too many lifetimes, Jiang Cheng notices various important elements to his reincarnations, one of them being that if there is a particular problem that he resolves in his past lives, it is less likely to come up again during his next one. For example, after Jiang Cheng helps his parents figure out their marriage in his second life, they has maintained a peaceful dynamic in every other lives where he meets them. Albeit they never displayed affection in public, Jiang Cheng knows that they quietly care for one another.

Hearing about his parents needing a marriage intervention again, he can’t help feeling that all his past efforts had gone to waste.

Jiang Cheng groans and stuffs his head into his pillow, before getting dressed and preparing himself to walk into another argument. His instincts are proven to be accurate as always. Before he even steps into the dining hall, he can hear a loud voice, unmistakably his mother’s, echoing against the walls. Next to him, even his butler can’t contain a sigh.

He can’t really make out what their argument is about, but he is fairly certain it had to do with matters of their company, of which his father is CEO. He makes a note to hit the library for additional information after they’re done with breakfast. Or… he can use his… phone? Apparently, it is a useful device that is now sitting quietly in his room. He has to make sure to inspect it later.

Unlike in his previous lives, when he comes back to relatively minor changes, the world has practically transformed since the last time he was alive, even the language he used isn’t the same anymore. He has to spend hours in his bed practicing how to speak like a six-year-old again, with all kinds of “slangs” that he is expected to use lest sounding like an old man. It is rather frustrating, but he appreciates in the challenge when it can help him ignore the throbbing in his chest.

His sister sits down next to him and put a hand on his back, pointedly ignoring commotion brought upon by the two people in front of them. He greets back and reaches out to give her hand a reassuring squeeze. One of his worries before he died is that the Wen’s would put his sister in danger, so it is a relief to see her so well and healthy, albeit a little tired.

Eventually, even his parents are worn down from arguing, and they settle into a quiet breakfast before he excused himself to his room. He wants to find out how to fix his parents’ marriage, but before he could do that, he must find out just what kind of world he is reborn into.

It turns out that as time passed, brilliant people has given the world many interesting inventions that make his job so much easier. Instead of combing through the library for anything that can potentially be useful, he just uses his phone, which allows him to access something called “web browser,” where one of the first options is “Google.” When he types in the names of what he wanted to investigate, it redirects him to multiple sources that contained the information he needed. The words starts moving on its own when he swipe down his phone, and, when he is stuck on a new word, it even gave him the option to look up the definition of the word.

This is faster and better than any talismans he could’ve crafted, and he once again marvels at the wonders created by humans whose knowledge of cultivation is contained to novels and fairy tales. They can’t even sense qi, can’t even form a golden core, and only live to a century at most, yet they still manage to make the most of their short lives and come up with things that the cultivation world could only dream of. That is quite amazing on its own.

Apparently he is no longer even in China, which doesn't exactly surprise him, as he figures out as much based on what he's seen so far. He learns some lifetimes ago that there are numerous countries, China being one of them, and each country had their own languages and cultures. He was reborn in England once, and it took him years to completely mastered the language.

Based on his memory, he is forced to use the same English he learned all those years ago in social settings, where most people don’t speak his birth language. However, he is not in England as he expected. Instead, a place called “the United States” pops up when he tries to find his location, and his family is currently living in a region called “Pasadena, in “California.”

Through Google, he discoveres that his father is CEO of Jiang Corp., a midsize corporation - whatever that is supposed to mean - specialized in manufacturing and exporting various consumer goods, including tea, ornaments, and sweets. They are specialized in lotus-related products, and thus owned thousands of lotus lakes all over the world.

He then finds a website that seems to delve deeper into the issue, adding their own speculations. Apparently, the Yu family is influential and owned many lakes and lands, and that is why his father, Jiang Fengmian, marries his mother, Yu Ziyuan. Because of this, the Yu family also had an important say on the Board of Directors of Jiang Corp.. However, the website reveals, although Yu Ziyuan is known for a long time to be infatuated with Jiang Fengmian, the man does not reciprocate her feelings, instead, he harbors long time feelings for his best friend’s wife, a young and talented young lady from a humble background who has been friends with him since high school.

The name Wei Changze catches his attention because of its familiarity. So his father is best friend is Wei Ying’s father, and they both fall for Wei Ying’s mother, yet again.

This time, Jiang Cheng gives into the urge to slam his head against the wall, internally cursing at his fate.

When he finishes sulking, he looks up Wei Changze and sees that, after marrying the love of his life, the man quits Jiang Corp. and travels around the world to help people. Unfortunately, tragedy befalls them as the couple are caught in a plane accident and passes away, their only son going missing.

Jiang Cheng’s stomach drops at the mention of Wei Ying’s name, and his eyes frantically searches for anything he can about the boy. However, the information is almost nonexistent except that the plane that takes the couple’s life has crashed in China.

No, there is no way Wei Ying dies this early. Back then, his brother is forced to wander the streets until Jiang Fengmian found him, didn’t he? However, judging from the timeline of when they met, it seems that his father wouldn’t find Wei Ying again until at least one or two years later.

Jiang Cheng wonders if there is anything he could do to speed the process up. His brother is strong and resilient, even as a child, but the thought of him being forced to live on the streets for two years while Jiang Cheng does nothing in the comfort of his own mansion makes something dark and twisted flares up inside of him. It reminds him too much of the time when Wei Ying escaped with the Wens and he was too worried about his own sect to come for his older brother. They had come so far since then.

He is busy with the ideas to track his brother down throughout the day. When he gets back into his room after another tense dinner with his family, he is stopped by his butler, who now wears a complicated expression on his face. The old man sits next to him on the couch opposite his bed, struggling for words. Eventually, he speaks up, concern evidenced in his voice.

“Young master, your search history seemed very abnormal today. Did something happen?”

Jiang Cheng’s mouth feels to dry to form words. Eventually, he chokes out.

“My what?”

“Your search history, young master.” The man calmly explains, noticing his apprehension. “Every time you look up something using the Internet, I can see it. Usually I won’t pry too much, but some of the things you were reading, coupled with your strange behaviors over the last day or so, give me serious concerns. I do not want you to get into trouble if you mother knew. Also, there are a lot of things that are said about the Jiang family online, and most of them are not true. I suggest you do not pay them too much attention.”

The man’s voice is soft, but that only exacerbates Jiang Cheng’s anger.

“You spy on me.” He surges up from his seats and snarls at the man in front of him, uncaring of how rude he is acting. Old Man Yu is taken aback by his outburst and takes a moment to collect himself, clearing his throat.

“Please excuse me, young master, but it is all very standard security procedure, especially because the Jiang is such a big corporation, there ought to be people who wanted to spy on us. I apologize for not informing you earlier, but I hope you understand.”

Jiang Cheng’s anger deflates like a balloon, and he flops himself down on his bed. He wanted to argue, but he knows the man made a logical point. If he is already found out, then Jiang Cheng might as well ask for help, especially when his search isn’t giving him any fruitful result.

“It said on there that I am looking for one particular person, right?”

“Yes, I noticed that you were looking for Wei Ying, son of Mr. Wei, who has been missing for a year now.” The old man nods. “Your father has also been looking for him for a while, but even he isn’t able to find anything, not even with the family’s connection in China.”

Jiang Cheng slumps his shoulders. If even his father can’t find anything then how on earth could he find his brother?

It is then that an idea comes to him. Fate likes to play games on him, didn’t it? How many times does he have to watch history repeated itself in front of him?

Pulling out his phone, he quickly searches for Yiling, which, after thousands of years, is now called Yichang of Hubei, China. He quickly shows it to his butler, nearly jumping out of his seat with excitement.

“Here, tell my father to look here.”

The old man stares at him for a few seconds, unblinking, before taking out his own phone and records the location.

“I… will tell Master Jiang.”

Jiang Cheng hums, before looking his butler straight in the eyes, voice lowering a notch. He learns that it makes him more intimidating, even as a child.

“Also, Mr. Yu.” His eyes narrow. “I appreciate your concerns, but I would prefer it if you don’t look at my history again. I am fully capable of taking care of myself.”

The man looks stunned before managing a nod and excusing himself from the room. He doesn’t miss the surreptitious look thrown his way but chooses to not think about it. Instead, he thinks about his brother.

Fortunately, he doesn’t get his dogs yet, so it wouldn’t break his heart sending them away. Yanli will love Wei Ying when she eventually met him, like she always does. He needs to do something about his mother, she makes Wei Ying’s life and his own difficult for so long, and that meant that he would need to fix his parents’ marriage first.

Later that night, he is greeted with his sister’s sweet smile when he asks to sleep with her. As she falls into slumber, he tucks his head closer to her shoulder and promised her that he will give them a happy family again.

***

His father departs to China immediately after, citing an emergency. The flimsy excuse only heightens his mother’s suspicion so she vents her anger on them, rambling to her children and staff about how useless of a father he is, and how he must be hiding something again. Even though Yanli stays silent, he can tell that she is clearly uncomfortable with the things his mother said.

“I am sure father had his reasons. Perhaps we should wait and see.” In the past, he wouldn’t dream of talking back to her like this, but after such a long time of relative peace, he is truly sick of both of their antics. His mother glares at him, probably planning an entire lecture about how he should behave, before his sister chimes in.

“I think A-Cheng is right, mother. We should ask him when he come back, but I don’t think it is good to speculate now. It would only fuel rumors, right?” Yanli put on her best smile, which seems to appease his mother. She has always had a soft spot for his sister. Letting out a huff, she goes back to her breakfast.

Jiang Cheng inquired about his father’s departure with Old Man Yu afterwards, and confirmed that his father is indeed heading for Yichang in search for Wei Ying. Nevertheless, he’s still skeptical.

“Yichang is really big. Would he be able to find Wei Ying?”

There’s something soft and almost fatherly in his butler’s eyes, the kinds he used to see in his father’s eyes.

“Worry not, young master. I have sent Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan with them. Those two had extensive connections in the region, not to mention experience in tracking down missing people. I am sure they will find young master Wei if he is truly there.”

The names instantly capture his interest. Albeit they don’t cross paths often, Jiang Cheng has met the pair enough times to develop a deep respect for them and their bond despite numerous hardships. Their stories don’t always stay the same, but some patterns emerge over the years, particularly their history with Xue Yang.

“Who are Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen?” He feigns innocence and pretends it is his first time hearing of the names. His butler smiled.

“Just two young men who I brought with me from China. I happened to meet Xiao Xingchen two years ago and helped him out of… a certain predicament. Your father is kind enough to take them both in.”

He knows not to push the issue. He can find out himself later, if his butler keeps the promise of not spying on him. It might take him more time if it is something big, but he has the benefit of hindsight that not everyone did.

Especially if his gut is right when it tells him that Xue Yang is involved.

Just as he suspected, information regarding Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan is sparse as most. He sees pictures of the two men accompanying his father to private events, some gossiping sites commenting how the two are too handsome to be bodyguards, and so on, but there is nothing about their pasts.

Not discouraged just yet, he tries looking up Xue Yang.

Finding out about Xue Yang is been much easier than anticipated. There is a plethora articles about the man who the media has deemed a “psychopath,” detailing his numerous crimes against humanity, ranging from high-profile heists to murder and torture of entire families spanning across all seven continents. The man is finally tracked down and captured two years ago and is currently serving a life sentence at some prison in the Netherlands.

The same time as when Old Man Yu says that he met Xiao Xingchen.

That has piqued his interest. He finds himself reading more about Xue Yang’s crimes. Apparently, some five years ago, investigators came close to capturing Xue Yang near the Chinese borders, but the criminal disappeared. Even the Chinese government couldn’t track him down despite international pressure. When he came back half a year later, killing a millionaire in a Dubaian hotel, it is speculated that he had an accomplice who helped him and treated him during the time he went missing.

When Xue Yang was taken in three years afterwards, many people said that it is the same accomplice who turned him in after finding out about the madman’s actions. Many journalists has set out to find out who the mysterious accomplice might be, but they all find close to nothing, except that the mystery man is most likely Chinese and had expert knowledge on weapons.

He knows without a doubt that man is Xiao Xingchen.

He notes his discovery down. If the rumors are correct, then Xiao Xingchen can be of great assistance in the future.

In the following week, Jiang Cheng goes to school, a place vastly different from those he hasattended in the past. He remembers the wall of rules of Cloud Recesses, the boring lectures, the strict teachers and can’t help but be surprise at how lax the rules around this institution is. There were other kids there who speak his language, but the teachers prefers them to communicate in English, so he does, thanking his lucky stars that he speaks English as a first language. The English he learnt many lifetimes ago probably is considered nonsense by today’s standards.

He is glad that he doesn’t have to learn advanced subjects just yet; he should get started on it though. His mother would throw a fit if he fell behind, and he can’t afford to worsen her temper before he figures out the solution to her marriage.

He loves his parents, he truly does, but they can be so difficult sometimes.

While he is in school, he spotted a boy with green eyes who sits timidly at the back of the class and jumps every time the teacher calls him. At first glance, it is easy to assume that the boy is socially shy. However, he is sure that it is because the boy just hated his classes, because that is a very young Nie Huaisang, and he knows Nie Huaisang.

His memory tells him that they have met before during numerous private parties the elites liked to throw, but he never makes an attempt to befriend anyone his age. Determined to change things around this time, he approachs the other boy and offers to eat lunch with him. The younger Nie is clearly intimidated by him at first, but the two establishes a friendly relationship through their bland sandwiches, and conversation flows easily without being awkward, especially when Jiang Cheng uses his thousands of years of knowledge of the arts and poetry to his advantage.

For the six-year-old, Nie Huaisang is almost too knowledgeable about ancient Chinese poetry. He almost suspects that the man somehow regained his memory as well, if not for the twinkle in his eyes that is far too bright and innocent for somebody who experiences the loss his past life went through. So he just smiled and listened as the other boy babbled about some poets who were probably born after his time, and tries not to think about why he is the one who woke up every night with sweat wetting his back and ashes choking his lungs.

He has thought that he learns to accept the curse a long time ago and get over how absolutely fucking unfair it is.

He guesses he never really did.

When he is not busy with school, he uses what little resources he had to find out anything about the Wen’s.

The Wen’s, as it turns out, had a rich history behind them. They were one of the most influential family in Shanghai, but their dirty deeds were exposed and they were driven to near collapse a century ago (not long after his death, he notes). Many of their descendants immigrated to the States in the 1950’s, and the family has been keeping a low profile since then.

However, rumors around the grapevine speculates that they have gone back to their ways and started dipping their toes into gang activities again. Some sources even go as far as accusing them of being responsible for the emergence of some Chinese gangs around the Los Angeles area.

He rubs his temples to contain the incoming headache. If his gut is right again, then he and Wei Ying will inevitably cross paths with the Wen’s again, and he can’t see himself coming out of it alive unless he has to fire a bullet or two. He doesn’t like using a gun, but he is sure swords isn’t exactly common in this era.

Although he does see something that reminds him of sword duels when he stumbles upon a practice court that his school shares with the middle school in the area. Nie Huaisang tells him that it is the fencing team, of which his older brother, Nie Mingjue, captains. The team doesn’t accept young children, but they can join a year or two later. Nie Huaisang laments about how his brother is pressuring him into joining, which he dreads, because he has neither talent nor passion for the sport. He might need to get into that.

But that is for another time. For now, he needs to deal with the Wen’s. He doesn’t think his family would let him anywhere near a gun at this age, but he can always asked Xiao Xingchen to train him later, if his suspicions are correct.

However, he knows that taking down the Wen’s will be difficult even if he knew how to protect himself, especially if the Jin’s are involved.

He learns three days into his father’s “business trip” that the Jin’s he once knew exists again in this life when Madam Jin appears at the Jiang family mansion, as regal as he last saw her. He gave a stiff bow, which she barely acknowledges out of propriety before greeting his mother, hugging her across the chest with the intimacy both of them wouldn’t allow for anyone else. The two then ends up in the garden, hot tea in front of them, as his mother rants about his father to her best friend.

He finds out the Jin’s owns one of the largest chains of jewelry retailers in the world, specializing in handmade high-end jewelry that has gained numerous accolades for its quality, especially with their latest collection of golden chains. This meant that the Jin family is large, powerful and richer than sin, which is strangely appropriate, really. However, their fame and money also invites snooping eyes on them, and there is no shortage of rumors about the current head of the Jin’s and his scandalous activities.

Of fucking course, Jin Guangshan exists in this universe as well. The man reportedly has a string of affairs all over the world, resulting in multiple illegitimate children. However, such matters, despite making the rounds at the rumor mill every month, are quickly swept under the rug by none other than Jin Guangshan himself. Despite living such a lecherous life, the head of the Jin household is terrified of his wife, who rules the company with an iron fist.

That is the only thing Jiang Cheng and Jin Guangshan had in common. Over the years, as his relationship with his parents improves, he stops being so fearful of his mother, especially when she starts openly showing him affection somewhere between his fifth and sixth reincarnation. Thus the only person he truly, genuinely scared of is Madam Jin.

Unlike his mother, Madam Jin never raises her voice against anyone and deals with problems in her household in the calm, efficient manner a hawk uses to tear into its prey. Her keen eyes, all seeing and all knowing, can splay someone open and exploit their weaknesses until they had nothing left.

He has seen men destroyed for looking at her wrong and even more men suffering a worse fate for less.

Nevertheless, he knows that he needs her assistance to take down the Wen’s, especially if Jin Guangshan is colluding with them again. He has no evidence to back this up, but the benefit of hindsight is far more valuable than any evidence modern technology can detect. He wondered if she knows about her husband, as well, cannot imagine someone like her letting such a thing fester under her roof. So why hasn't she dealt with the matter already? Does she actually believe in her husband? Does that mean he has to somehow find a way to break the news to her without revealing himself? How does one even go about doing that?

The how's and why's swirl in his head until Jiang Cheng starts to feel the beginning of a headache. Shutting off his phone, he plops gracelessly down his bed, manners be damned.

This feels like preparing for war, and he hates it. There is nothing good that comes out of war. Like fire, it takes and takes until there is nothing left but ashes for the dead and trauma for the living.

He should know.

Chapter Text

Nearly a week has passed since his father departed for China. Despite having faith in Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan’s abilities, he grows more anxious as time goes by, and nearly leaps from his chair when news came that his father will return in the afternoon.

Sensing that the current quietness in his household is merely the calm before the storm, he asks his sister if she can make her lotus rib soup for dinner. If it doesn’t calm his mother down, at least Wei Ying get to eat his favorite food after what must have been a hard year.

He then asked Old Man Yu if they could send away all but their most trusted servants. If he knows anything about his mother, it’s that she values face more than most things. There is no need to give the rumor mill more material.

Just as he predicted, his mother’s expression darkens when she spotted the boy hovering behind his father, scared and tired and way too thin for Jiang Cheng’s liking. She saunters over to where her husband is standing, eyes not leaving Wei Ying the whole time.

“Who might this be?”

Wei Ying shrinks from where, and his father pulls the boy behind him, away from his wife’s disdainful glare. Wrong move, Jiang Cheng grimaces.

“This is Wei Ying. I found him when I went to Yichang. He is -”

His mother cut him off.

“Wei Changze’s son. I know.” She positively growls. “Her son.”

His father nods in defeat, preparing for his wife’s incoming onslaught. Even when he sees it coming, Jiang Cheng still jumps when his mother’s voice rises into a high-pitched scream.

“How dare you bring him into my household? Do you not have any consideration for proper decorum anymore? Have you thought about losing face? Do you even care about your company? Your fucking family?”

Jiang Cheng heaves an exasperated sigh. His mother is scary, especially when she is mad, and she’s livid now, but after several thousand years of hearing the same thing, he grows quite a resistance to it. Instead of enduring her tantrum, he pulls a shaken Wei Ying and Yanli away from their entrance, ignoring his mother’s protests.

It isn’t until they were in the safety of the kitchen with a bowl of soup each in front of them that Wei Ying noticeably relaxes. Next to him, Yanli combs through the boy’s hair, removing the knots that has accumulated there.

“My name is Jiang Yanli, What’s your name?”

Her voice is gentle and reassuring. Wei Ying gives her a small smile.

“I’m Wei Ying.” Jiang Cheng already knows that. Nevertheless, he extends his hand.

“I’m Jiang Cheng.” He too gives Wei Ying a smile, trying for unassuming but he hears from Nie Huaisang that it came off as intimidating. It doesn’t seem to deter Wei Ying though, for the other boy takes his hand and returns a firm shake.

“Nice to meet you.” His voice is small and shy, but Jiang Cheng knows that the boy would be an absolute menace when they get to know him better, always getting into trouble and then expecting Jiang Cheng to bail him out of it.

“Nice to meet you too.”

Jiang Cheng doesn’t mind at all.

That night, the three of them cuddles as they sleep alongside one another in the spacious bedroom their butler has prepared for Wei Ying in anticipation of his arrival. His father, to no one’s surprise, spends his night in one of the guest rooms, his argument with his wife going nowhere.

His mother is still angry, he could tell, and she will undoubtably take her anger out on Wei Ying if he doesn’t do anything about it.

He knows he need to talk to his father so the two of them can begin to work out their differences, but the conversation he has back then which changed everything cannot happen now. He simply isn’t that person anymore. The pent-up anger and disappointment he feels towards his father over the years has faded into a distant memory.

He also isn’t interested in waiting for years for his parents to sort out their differences. If there is something quick and effective. And somehow, he still needs to find the perfect opportunity to take down Jin Guangshan, and maybe, just maybe, there's a way to kill two birds with one stone.

An idea takes place in his head, dark and twisted and absolutely crazy. No, it won’t work, not without him revealing himself, not without risking the stability of his household.

But then he recalls how much happier Wei Ying and Yanli are after his parents resolve the misunderstandings between them, the way Yanli smiles in contentment when she sees them showing that they genuinely care about one another, the way Wei Ying’s eyes light up when his mother shows even an ounce of affection towards him, when she learns to no longer resent him.

He has lived for thousands of years in every way except physical. He’s experienced love and loss the way no one else is forced to, the kind that will turn even the sanest man into a raging lunatic. He's forced to lived in his parents' house for his entire childhood, enduring all of his father's neglect and his mother's rage. And he loves them, will never do them harm, but there's a part of him, tired and bitter and downright petty, that is just a little bit angry at what they have done to mere children. He’s given and given and taken nothing and expected to be fucking grateful for it. Maybe he can afford to be a little bit crazy.

Chapter Text

He wakes before everyone else the next morning, when the sun has yet to show its face above the horizon, and tiptoes towards the kitchen, where he patiently waited for his preys to show up.

He is told from Old Man Yu that both Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan, after ensuring their boss has a safety arrival from his trip, have stayed in their usual rooms located at the left wing of the Jiang mansion, only a flight of stairs away from the main kitchen. If Jiang Cheng’s prediction were correct, they will rise early and get breakfast.

Jiang Cheng gives himself a mental pat in the back when he sees two tall figures, one cladded in black and the other in white, descend down the stairs and towards the kitchen.

He “accidentally” bumps into them and offers his hand. Xiao Xingchen has greeted him with a friendly smile and returned his handshake. Just as he expects, the man’s hand are littered with gun calluses, signaling that he is no stranger to the weapon. It is natural for a bodyguard, he supposed. However, there are odd scars here and there that tells a different story.

He hasn’t seen it in the photos, but from where he stamds, it’s easy to spot a scar that spans across the left side of the man’s neck, cutting across his vein.

Jiang Cheng’s eyes widened. He’s seen all types of wounds, is even behind many of them, and this one, judging by its angle, isn’t caused by someone else.

No, that wound is self-inflicted.

His throat runs dry, and for a slit second he wants to ask just what the hell Xue Yang makes Xiao Xingchen go through this lifetime for the man to do such a thing to himself. Instead, he continues to throw discreet glances at the two men who are currently shuffling around the kitchen like they has spent years living around one another, which they probably has.

Unlike his partner, Song Lan doesn’t have any visible scar on him, though the same gun calluses can be spotted running across his palm. The man keeps his eyes on his partner, a tenderness inside of them that Jiang Cheng sees too many times on Lan Wangji when Wei Ying isn’t looking.

Jiang Cheng isn’t a naturally curious person, but he really wants to know just what happened for Song Lan to look at Xiao Xingchen like he is going to disappear. It won’t be appropriate for their first meeting, he supposed, so he keeps his mouth shut and gulps down the warm milk Xiao Xingchen kindly reheats for him.

When he finishes his drink, he redirects his focus to the reason why he decides to come down so early in the first place.

“About my parents yesterday… I’m sorry you guys have to see that. They weren’t usually that loud, especially in front of staffs.”

Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan’s faces immediately pale at the mention of their bosses. If Jiang Cheng’s memory serves him correctly, they were right next to his father when Wei Ying is brought home, so they must have heard everything as well. Knowing how bad his mother could get, he couldn’t help but pity them. They really need a raise.

Song Lan coughs into his coffee before looking back at him.

“It’s nothing. Is Wei Ying okay?”

“He’s okay, just a little bit shaken. He’s currently resting in his room.” Although he appreciates Song Lan’s efforts to change the topic, he really needs to know if they are willing to go with his crazy plan. “I’m just worried about what will happen in the future, you know. Mother is still angry at father, and she will take that out on Wei Ying.”

He casts his eyes downwards, an expression that he knows makes him look pitiful in a child body. From where he stands, he can see Xiao Xingchen’s face softens, and the man steps beside him and puts a hand on his back.

“Young master Jiang, from now on, if there is anything about your parents that trouble you, you can come to us and we will do what we can to help.”

Jiang Cheng gives the man a small smile and thanks him while doing a victory dance in his head.

Jack-fucking-pot.

He then proceeds to devote the entire morning to accompany his sister as the pair show Wei Ying around the mansion. Jiang Cheng has insisted that Wei Ying’s bedroom be situated next to his and his sister, where the windows will allow him to observe the beautiful garden in the backyard and the lotus lake constructed at the insistent of his mother. He cam tell that his older brother isn’t used to such luxury after living on the streets, but he gladly gives it to him, because Wei Ying deserved it after everything he has been through, especially on their last life, when Jiang Cheng died too soon for his liking.

Beyond that, although he doesn’t like to admit it out loud, he does love his brother.

His father joins them during lunch, asking Wei Ying about his health and how he has liked the house so far. Somehow, Wei Ying ends up talking about his parents, and the accident that leads to their death. Conversation flows easily between the two of them, and Jiang Cheng is reminded of how well the two has gotten along in the past the way Jiang Cheng himself is never able to connect to his father.

The past him would’ve dwelled on the thought until he chokes on it; the present him just smiled and glad that this current Wei Ying, fresh from trauma, manages to find a confidant.

By the end of their little excursion, he has befriended all the staffs and rendered them completely enamored with him. Not that Jiang Cheng is surprise. Wei Ying has always been a magnetic presence, drawing admirers from all over the cultivation world even when his reputation is completely tarnished. In their subsequent lives, Jiang Cheng has seen firsthand how Wei Ying worked wonders around people, how he drew people to him like a bee towards honey.

The only person who remains completely immune to his charms over the years is Jiang Cheng’s mother, who has left the household early in the morning, presumably to head to the Jin’s to relay her troubles to her trusted friend.

Not that Jiang Cheng is complaining. His mother can be quite cruel when she is angry, and Wei Ying is still intimidated by her presence.

His mother’s absence extended to dinner as well, and thus they were able to have a somewhat comfortable meal with a lot less shouting. Although he has picked up some basic English and Spanish from the time spent travelling with his parents, Wei Ying isn’t completely fluent, which can hinder his academic. His father has decided to enroll Wei Ying in school starting a week later and hired a private tutor to help catch him up. Jiang Cheng gave himself another pat on the back with his decision to track down Wei Ying early on, so that the boy won’t need to work too hard on adapting to a new environment.

By the end of the day, he could see Wei Ying’s mood improved exponentially. His older brother has gone to bed thanking the two of them and pulled them each into a tight hug. Jiang Cheng considered that another win.

But the biggest challenge is yet to come.

Jiang Cheng takes a deep breath before knocking the door to his father’s studies.

He knows his father liked to stay in his studies well into the night, and he thinks about how well it fitted into his plans instead of the implications behind it.

His father is surprise to find his son at the door, and reluctantly let him in. It is good that the man is caught off-guard, he supposed.

Jiang Fengmian’s study is a simple space with pastel purple walls lined with shelves of all sizes, each one displaying various little trinkets his father has collected over the years. It’s a surprise to no one that the head of the Jiang family is a sentimental person who cherishes the items he is given, a habit that hasn’t changed over thousands of years. He looks towards the back of the room, where there is a mahogany desk on which numerous reports were strewn carelessly, and felt the urge to saunter over and compile them into neat piles.

He did that once, many lifetimes ago, and stumbled on a picture of a woman with Wei Ying’s eyes hidden in one of the drawers. He didn’t confront his father about it, but the image stayed.

Sometimes it is easy to convince himself that his father loved his mother, that he somehow learned to care for her despite the circumstance of their marriage. Other times Jiang Cheng wondered if the man really did at all, in any of their lifetime, and those were the thoughts he hated the most.

He should’ve been content with what he is given. His father doesn’t have to love his mother for them to grow up in a peaceful household. But it isn’t enough. He wants his father to look at his mother the same way she did him, the way he has wished for thousands of years now that Lan Xichen will look at him.

If he can’t have what he wanted, why can’t he at least have this?

“Is there something wrong, A-Cheng?”

His father’s words snap him out of his thoughts. He shuffles in his chair before leaning his back against it, a gesture he is sure his father would’ve admonished if both of them weren’t emotionally drained. Always keep your back straight, A-Cheng. Might as well get to the point.

“Mother is very upset.” His father stiffens and sighs.

“I know. I want to apologize to her, but I don’t know if she would listen.” He shakes his head before smiling at him. “You shouldn’t worry. It is between me and her, and I will resolve it myself.”

How many times has the man told him that?

“With all due respect, father, if you could resolve it yourself, then this household wouldn’t have been the way it is ever since I was born.” His father’s mouth drops open, but Jiang Cheng needs to knock some sense into him. “You and mother know it, I know it, and a-jie knows it. Father, even the staffs are aware of the conflict in our household. Having Wei Ying here will only worsen her temper, and if you do not resolve the matter between you two, he will be the one to suffer. Both of us don’t want that, do we?”

His father sits still for a minute, as if to process everything his son just says, before slouching down on his chair and buries his face in his hand.

“I… I just don’t know what to do. I have never known how to deal with her.” The man quietly admits, honest in the way Jiang Cheng knows he hasn’t been for years, to himself or anyone else.

This is a step in the right direction.

“She thinks that you are still in love with Wei Ying’s mother, and you taking in Wei Ying just further proved that.” He explains, floundering like he wants to tell himself that. “Mother… loves you, anyone can see that. All she wants is for you to love her back. To see you loving somebody else, it hurts her and her pride, and she reacts the only way she knows.”

To lash out.

After all, Jiang Cheng should know.

He can still vividly recall the first time he met Meng Yao again, in his first reincarnation, the way he has pulled his hand away as if burnt, how he wants to treat Meng Yao like he is nothing, because then it sooths something dark and ugly in his heart that he recognizes is jealousy.

He wants to blame him losing control and shooting Meng Yao on a moment of weakness, from fear that the man will execute his plans and harm his family, but if he is truly honest with himself, he knows it is anything but.

People were right when they say that Jiang Cheng takes after his mother.

The silence hangs in the air until Jiang Cheng finally breaks it.

“Father,” his voice is quiet, barely above a whisper, “do you love mother?”

His father avoids his gaze, looking down on the hardwood floor and twisting the wedding ring on his finger.

“I…” The man begins slowly, and Jiang Cheng dares to feel hope because at least it’s not an immediate no. “I don’t know. I wasn’t when we first got married. I was still in love Cangse then.” Wei Ying’s mother. Jiang Cheng nodded. “But then, you guys were born, and I love you and I can tell how much she does as well, and –”

His father cut himself off and swallows before finishing.

“I don’t think I hate her anymore. And sometimes, I wonder if I love her. You have never seen your mother in front of the Board of Directors, ripping into them one by one, A-Cheng. Your mother looks beautiful then.” He doesn’t think his father is speaking to him anymore, because these are not exactly the most appropriate words to be told to his six-year-old son. “But I don’t know how to deal with her. I can’t even tell her my feelings because I don’t even know what they are. I just want us to be happy.”

Snapping out of his reverie, Jiang Fengmian turns his head back towards his son, who now wears a determined expression on his face. Horrified by what he says, he opened his mouth again, but Jiang Cheng beat him to the chase.

“I think you should try apologizing to her first, about Wei Ying. Then tell her that you want to take Wei Ying in out of kindness and the friendship you shared with Wei Changze, not because you are still in love with Wei Ying’s mother.”

Knowing his mother, she will act indignant that his father shares such unnecessary information to her, and that she doesn’t need to know about his feelings for Cangse Saoren. But Jiang Cheng knows his mother more than anyone else, and he knows that she will be relieved.

His father seems ponderous for a minute and gives him a firm nod.

“I’ll tell her that.”

The man then leaves his chair for the first time since their conversation, walks over to where Jiang Cheng is, and pulls him into his arms.

Jiang Cheng is taken completely off-guard by the sudden burst of affection his father rarely gives him, only opening his mouth to form a grunt, his arms hanging uselessly at his side.

“I’m so sorry, to both you and your sister.” His father’s voice is soft. “You don’t deserve to suffer just because your mother and I couldn’t figure out our marriage. Thank you. I love you both.”

I love you.

Jiang Cheng takes a deep breath and tries not to cry. Despite how many times he has heard it throughout their many lifetimes together, those words still make him strangely emotional. His parents never say it enough towards him in his first life, and he has lied awake in his bed at night wondering if he would ever hear it again.

And he does, over, and over, and over again.

He then releases himself from the man’s embrace and bids goodbye not too long later. Despite wanting to linger and enjoy the moment just a little bit longer, but he has one last thing to do for the day.

He isn’t surprised to find that Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan are still awake. Bodyguards often doesn’t sleep very much, and he figured their job gives them a little bit of a paranoia, making sleep even more difficult, something he could relate to. They haven’t expected him though, and Song Lan’s eyes briefly widen letting him into his and Xiao Xingchen’s shared bedroom.

Their room is much sparser than his own. There is a queen-sized bed in the middle, neatly made even when it’s almost bedtime. Next to it is a small counter where the lamp is situated, emanating the only light source in the room, casting a shadow over a yellow bottle, which Jiang Cheng can’t make out the label, but if he has to guess, it has to be some kind of sleeping herb, or its modern equivalent.

Near the doorway is a large wooden desk with two chairs tucked beneath it, and Song Lan pulls one out and offers it to him. The man sits down on the bed beside his partner, and then hesitates, before standing up and pulling out the other chair to face Jiang Cheng, obviously trying to not seem unprofessional. Jiang Cheng would’ve giggled if it doesn’t make him look rude that a grown man is trying to maintain propriety in front of a six-year-old kid.

“Is there a reason why you decided to pay us a visit so late, Young Master Jiang?”

Ah, back to business.

Jiang Cheng folds his hands together and put on his most polite smile, the kind that can unnerve or fool his opponent at the same time, depending on if they knows where to look.

“Is there something wrong, Young Master Jiang?”

Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan obviously knows where to look.

“Nothing, it’s just that I’ve been thinking about something lately.” He begins, his voice even. “And I think you two are the only people I can ask for help.”

Xiao Xingchen removes himself from the bed and stood behind his partner. Jiang Cheng preferrs if he has just stayed sitting.

“If there is anything you need, Young Master Jiang, you can come to us for help. Though we are not sure how much we can be of assistance to you.”

There is obvious concern in his voice, and Jiang Cheng almost feels bad for coming. The man is really too kind for his own good.

“Mr. Xiao Xingchen, you are a marksman, right?” He doesn’t want to beat around the bushes and pushes on. “Not just that, you are a sniper, and a very good one at that.”

Jiang Cheng has seen too many snipers in his past lives, has remembered the patterns of gun calluses that formed on their palms and observed the familiar glint in their eyes and seen the kinds of weapons they carried around.

Xiao Xingchen isn’t just a good sniper; he is probably one of the best.

In front of him, Xiao Xingchen’s face has paled considerably. Jiang Cheng wonders if he has accidentally poked at a bleeding wound. He usually does that.

“How…how did you?” The man’s breathing quickens. “Did you check my background? Did Mr. Yu tell you? I – he promised me that…”

“No, Mr. Yu doesn’t tell me anything, I found it out on my own.” Jiang Cheng defends his butler. “I have my ways. I just did some research here and there, about guns and stuff.” He finishes lamely, wondering if he just somehow digs his own grave.

Song Lan stares directly at him, casual politeness now gone.

“How much do you know?”

Glad to see that even after so many lifetimes, Song Lan’s protectiveness over his partner hasn’t diminished.

Jiang Cheng sucks in a huff of air and deliberate whether he should tell them, and decides that he needed their trust for his plans to work and hiding things from them isn’t going to do him any favors.

“Look, what happened in the past between you guys and Xue Yang isn’t my business.” Both of them wince at the mention of the name. “I don’t know what happened, and I don’t want to either.” He has a pretty good idea of what went down though, but they don’t need to know that. “All I know is that Mr. Xiao Xingchen has a good aim and familiarity with the gun, and that is why I come to ask for help.”

Xiao Xingchen seems to have calmed down from the initial shock and is now listened attentively. After a full minute, he asks softly, voice full of skepticism.

“Young Master Jiang, just what kind of favor are you asking for, exactly?”

Jiang Cheng gives both of them a grin with a hint of teeth and can tells how it unnerves them.

“Mr. Xiao Xingchen, I need you to fake an assassination of my father.”

***

I need you to fake an assassination of my father.

Song Lan chokes on his own saliva and nearly falls off his chair. Xiao Xingchen loses his balance completely, tumbling gracelessly into a heap on the floor. Song Lan doesn’t even attempt to help his partner up; he probably doesn’t notice, which is understandable, given that Xiao Xingchen himself doesn’t seem to be aware either. Both are too busy focusing on him, incredulity on their faces.

“May I know why?” There’s a slight tremble in Song Lan’s voice.

Jiang Cheng clears his throat.

“As you can see, my parents’ marriage is… not going well, to say the least. And now, it’s only gotten worse with the arrival of Wei Ying. They don’t know how to communicate properly with one another, they never have, and now it will only get worse.” He pauses to allow them to process the information, before elaborating. “That is why I plan to provide them an opportunity to reevaluate their marriage and the time they spend together and foster their communication with one another. An assassination provides the perfect opportunity for this to happen.”

Jiang Cheng pouts, hoping that it comes out right. He has gotten better at acting the age of his body throughout the years, but sometimes he still garners strange looks for sounding too formal or old in his body or using a language that has been discontinued years ago. He hopes the pair is too caught up with comprehending his plans to notice, so he shrugs and continues.

“I have considered all the possibilities. Such a daring attempt would ensure chaos within the Jiang household and with the elders. Security will be heightened around the area and we will have more eyes on us than ever. Mother has always hated negative attention, so, even if she doesn’t talk it out properly with father, she still wouldn’t be able to display her temper around Wei Ying. It might even distract people from Wei Ying’s adoption, which I’m sure are making the rounds around the rumor mill and tabloids by now.”

Jiang Cheng exhales, feeling absolutely exhausted, before finishing.

“I’ve even thought about a cover up for Xiao Xingchen. We can just say he is sick and let Song Lan accompany my father to his workplace alone, where the attempted assassination will happen. When they ask, I will vouch and say Xiao Xingchen is with me the entire morning. I believe that is a good enough excuse for people to not question it.”

After explaining everything, Jiang Cheng leans back from his chair and puts his hand around his chest, waiting patiently for the pair of bodyguards to reply.

They don’t. Instead, they keep their eyes on him.

The more they prolong their staring, the worse is Jiang Cheng’s urge to shrink back into his chair, or better, to dig a hole and bury himself alive (at least that is a better way to go out than be shot dead by the guy you’d loved for thousands of years). Instead, he straightens his posture and holds their stares, trying to prove that he is indeed serious about his proposition.

Finally, it is Song Lan that breaks the silence.

“There are many risks to this plan.” The man rattles off. “What if Xingchen get caught? What is no one believe you? What if the plan went wrong and something happen to your father?”

When he stops his rant, Song Lan’s face has turned red, a vein pops out from his temple. Xiao Xingchen, who has been quiet through the whole ordeal, finally regains his footing and speaks from behind his partner.

“I think Song Lan is right. Even if I do have experience as a sniper, I don’t want to hurt my boss.” He shook his head. “I don’t think this is a good idea. I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can help you, Young Master Jiang.”

Jiang Cheng slumps his shoulder in defeat then stands up and bows to the two men before him.

“I understand. Good night, Mr. Song Lan.” He turns to the man in white. “Goodnight, Mr. Xiao Xingchen. I apologize if I bring up sore memories for you. Please forget this conversation ever happen.”

He walks out wanting to slam the door until the lock break, but he composes himself and retreates to his room like a general commanding a losing army. That night, he can’t sleep, too busy thinking of another plan, before giving up and burying his face in his pillow.

The funny thing is, despite possessing thousands of years of experience and knowledge under his belt, Jiang Cheng is never a scheming man. That is Nie Huaisang’s job. How he can’t wait for the younger Nie to grow up and assist him in these matters. He alone won’t be able to juggle fixing his parents’ marriage, ensuring the people around him are happy and alive at the end, tracking down Meng Yao and turning him into a good person, and taking down the Wen’s at the same time.

When Jiang Cheng eventually falls asleep, he dreams about how cruel fate could be.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng wakes up late the next morning and barely manages to stumble to breakfast before having to run to prepare for school. Too caught up in his own routine, he doesn’t notice the odd looks Old Man Yu is throwing his way.

It isn’t until after dinner that the man confronts him in his bedroom, his face wears the same concern Jiang Cheng has seen on him a week ago, when he is inquired about his suspicious search history. The find themselves in the same spot, and the man observes him for a full minute, as if to take in every feature of his face.

“Young Master Jiang, Xiao Xingchen came to me this morning with some…concerns about you.” Jiang Cheng winces and wonders if the other man saw that. “Apparently you approached him with an unusual proposition, and he has turned it down. Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan are convinced that it is some wild idea you heard from the older kids at your school, and want to speak to your parents or me about it.”

The old man pauses, and Jiang Cheng expects a “but,” but none came. Instead, his butler has taken to starring at him again, as unnerving as in his previous life and never fails to make Jiang Cheng squirm.

“My grandfather is born as a servant into the Yu family, a long time ago. There is also a marriage between a Jiang and a Yu in his time, and thus, he is sent to the Jiang to serve them.” Jiang Cheng blinks. Huh? “He is born in Shanghai, where the Jiang originally resided. Back then, there were multiple forces that were at war with each other. He often told me that it is a dark time.”

Realization dawns on him. No wonder the Yu boy from back then looked so familiar when he first saw him.

“Back then, the Jin’s, the Jiang’s, the Lan’s and the Nie’s were all powerful families, and were close with one another. That is one of the reasons why their descendants are still close when they all settle in California.” A soft voice continues, although Jiang Cheng isn’t sure how much of it he actually heard. Not that he needs to when he has lived it. “The Wen’s were very powerful at the time, before they went here, but they were stopped, their empire crashing down, because of the heir to the Jiang household.”

A pause.

“And a young boy the Jiang household took in, with the last name Wei.”

Jiang Cheng is grateful that the man allowed him the time to collect himself, because he wonders if he will be able to come up with excuses for the way his body is trembling.

“Most of these were lost. Your grandparents destroyed most of the records about their connections to the Wei, how the Jiang’s has a hand in taking down the Wen’s. everything is gone. They doesn’t want to burden their children with the knowledge, because their hands also weren’t clean, Young Master Jiang.”

The man’s voice seemed almost… sad.

“But my grandfather remembered everything, because he is the person the Jiang heir has employed to spy on the Jin’s and the Wen’s and played a crucial role in taking them down.” There is something soft and almost nostalgic in there, as if the man is reminiscing a life that isn’t his.

“He often told me about the Jiang heir, who he befriended and is the one who tasked him to spy on the Jin’s. Unfortunately, that man died before he can see the fruits of his labor.” His voice lowered. “He is shot by the heir of the Lan family, for killing a spy that threatened to betray all their hard work. It caused a fracture between the Jiang’s and the Lan’s for the longest time. Even to this very day, your parents and the Lan’s are barely on speaking terms with one another.”

His butler’s eyes trails to Jiang Cheng’s hand, which is now crumbling the front of his shirt, at the area right above his birthmark. Jiang Cheng can’t look the other man in the eye, he doesn’t have to, because the man knows.

He knows about my past lives. He knows I’m not just a normal boy. He knows the secret I swear I’ll take to my grave every time because no one else but myself needs to remember what I did, what we did.

“When I first heard that your father is looking for a young master Wei, my first thought is that it is too much of a coincidence. But I dismissed it, and I told myself that it is because the Wei’s and the Jiang’s have always been close. But then… you started looking the Wei’s up and I doesn’t know what to think, because there is no way you can’ve heard of them.” There is a pause, and an intake of breath. “And then you started acting strange, too old for your age, and then you started acting like you have a plan, like you know something I don’t. It’s… unnerving, Young Master.”

He knows he knows he knows what do I do how do I lie my way out of this he knows he knows he knows

“I can’t believe what I is hearing when Xingchen came to me. No matter how much information is available out there, there is no way you could’ve heard about Xue Yang or know how he and Xingchen were connected. Even your father doesn’t know. It’s one of the only things I hide from him.”

There is a brief moment of quiet that doesn’t stay for long. When Old Man Yu spoke again, his voice is firm, yet reassuring.

“I have a rough idea of what’s going on, but I’m not sure. However, if you encounter any trouble, you can come to me and I will do my best to help. I promise, young master.”

The hand on his back is now grasping his hand, a subtle gesture that Jiang Cheng doesn’t know calm him down until he felt his heartbeat settles back into its usual speed. He releases his grip from his shirt and absent-mindedly smoothed out the wrinkles that forms as a result of his panic. When he spoke again, his throat felt parched.

“Do you believe in reincarnation, Mr. Yu?”

Keen eyes meet his own grey ones, before the old man nodded. It feels like sin and relief and salvation all at once.

For whom, he does not know.

“I doesn’t before, but now I do.”

Jiang Cheng digs his nails into his palm hard enough to mar pink skin with bloody crescents. There’s no going back now.

“What if I told you that I remember your grandfather. He is young then, when I…” He gritted his teeth. “I died.”

The air around him gets heavy, and Jiang Cheng almost carves a hole into his chest to check that he is still breathing. This is completely different from when he has held Wei Ying’s hands and told him everything in his first reincarnation. He has felt content then. Now he just feels young and stupid and terrified all at once.

“How?”

Old Man Yu doesn’t sound scared, just bewildered. Jiang Cheng sucks in a lungful of air and wonder if it’s easier to instead cut his heart out and eat it.

“During my first reincarnation, many lifetimes ago, I remembered everything that happened in my last lifetime. And then I remembered everything in that life in my next one, and the one after that. And now here I am, with memories of every single one of my lifetimes with me, while everyone else get to live their lives not having to remember the kind of things that nearly destroyed me.”

He knows he sounds bitter. He is.

“Do you know why I knew about Xiao Xingchen? About Wei Ying or Xue Yang? Simple. When you go through as many times as I have, you tend to notice a few things, and you see the same people over and over again, and history keeps repeating itself. I’m not the most calculating person in the room, but it’s much easier to outsmart everyone else when you have the benefit of hindsight in your hands.”

Old Man Yu closes his eyes and swiped his thumb over the hem of his tie, a nervous gesture that seemed to has carried over from their first lives together, when Jiang Cheng would often catch the man thumbing his bell when sect duties and trauma got too much for both of them.

“Does anyone else know?”

Jiang Cheng shakes his head.

“I can’t tell anyone. I told Wei Ying once, in our first reincarnations, but Wei Ying cann’t remember it in his following lives, while I did. I couldn’t tell him again. Everyone… we didn’t do things we were very proud of in our first lives. I can’t tell Wei Ying that, or anyone for that matter.”

His butler tilts his head, and then leans forward, almost out of curiosity.

“Young master, just what did you do in your previous lives, exactly?”

Fuck. He really doesn’t want his former servant to ask that.

What can he even tell the man? That he used to whip people until they were black and blue, until there were bruises forming on their bodies that will form permanent scars, until they were crying and screaming and begging for their lives-

Jiang Cheng wonders if it is socially acceptable to cry right there and then. Instead, he just pulls his knee to his chest and buries his face into his knee.

“In many of our lifetimes, we were at war. In my first life, the Wen’s waged a war against everyone. They burned down my home, killed both of my parents, and everyone I loved. I resented them. And I was hurting.” He sounded haunted even to his own ears and knew he looked it too. “I killed and tortured many people. I wasn’t afraid to hurt anyone, with my swords or my words. Everyone is afraid of me, and I let them, because it meant that they won’t hurt the people I love.”

It feels wrong looking the man in the eye, so he trains his eyes to the floor instead.

“It got better in my other lives, but I can’t get rid of the memories of the people whose lives I took away kicking and screaming.”

He dares a look at his former servant now, who was there with him through it all, who only witnessed at him slowly destroying himself with an exasperated resignation. There is a complicated expression on the man’s face. He tried a smile and hoped it came out genuine.

“Don’t worry, it got better over the years.” Changing the topic feels appropriate. “I’m sorry to spring such an absurd request on Xiao Xingchen, I don’t know the whole story between Xue Yang and him, but I’m sure he’s still reeling from the aftermath. Tell Xiao Xingchen I won’t bring it up again.”

He thinks that is the end of their conversation, until his butler brings a finger to his chin, face deep in thought.

“Young master,” the man’s voice almost sounds intrigued, “is there an ulterior motive as to why you wanted to fake an assassination of your father?”

His trusted servant has always been smart. It also doesn’t help that the man knows Jiang Cheng better than he knows himself.

He isn’t a scheming man, but he did think of a few things in his plans.

“The Wen’s.” He begins. “The incident against such an established family will surely cause a commotion in the elites. The Wen’s will surely not miss the opportunity to jump in and investigate who is behind it. They might also make their own moves on the Jiang’s, and that is the best opportunity to catch them red-handed.”

The old man’s eyes widened, and he throws a quick glance at the window to ensure the curtains are shut. Both of them are now to be aware of the direction they were heading with the conversation.

“Catch them with what, exactly?”

With the way things have been going, Jiang Cheng might as well tell him everything.

“Jin Guangshan is working with the Wen’s," he grits his teeth, "I’m sure of it. I don’t have any evidence, but I’ve lived through enough lifetimes to know that he will do it.”

The old man’s jaw drops. He can understand why. Madam Jin and his mother were best friends, meaning that the man has known Jin Guangshan for at least several decades. He is sure that Old Man Yu is aware of the true nature of slimy yellow snake senior, but to hear that the man he’s known for such a long time actively colluding with the Wen’s must’ve been a shock.

“Young Master,” his words are heavy, “Do you know the kind of accusation you are making? Against the Jin’s, no less? If anyone finds out…”

Jiang Cheng crossed his arms around his chest.

“Mr. Yu, you have known this Jin Guangshan longer than me, but I’ve known that man for many, many lifetimes now, and in every single one of them, he is willing to betray his allies and even his own family for money and power. I don’t believe I am wrong.”

Old Man Yu opens his mouth briefly before closing it, dazed.

“I’ve never trusted Jin Guangshan, I never have since the day Madam Jin got married to him.” It sounds like a confession. “I know he has done plenty of shady, under the table deals for his company. Ziyuan doesn’t want to interfere but…”

He narrows his eyes.

“If Jin Guangshan is truly working with the Wen’s, I want him destroyed and his reputation tarnished.”

The man sounded truly angry for the first time he has met him, and Jiang Cheng is glad there is someone else who sees the potential ramifications of Jin Guangshan’s actions.

If Jin Guangshan is truly working with the Wen’s, then not just the Jin family will be affected, but the Jiang’s can be put in danger as well, if the Wen’s decide they need collateral.

His butler stands up and gives him a bow.

“I will talk to Xiao Xingchen, and we will plan our next moves from there.”

He nods back, feeling triumphant for the first time since he regained his memory. Now that Old Man Yu knows everything he doesn’t have to hide anymore, does he? There has always been a question he’s meant to ask. “Mr. Yu, do you know what happened to the family heirloom?”

“Which one, specifically?”

“A purple ring,” Jiang Cheng elaborates, “one that is passed down from the Yu family, from my mother’s side, said to have been stolen by the Wen’s. Do you know where it might be?”

His butler furrows his eyebrows, face deep in thought, before shaking his head, much to Jiang Cheng’s disappointment. “After we successfully bring down the Wen’s, they hid our stolen treasures away, scattering them all over the world. The family has tried tracking them down but many of these items have ended up on the black market and is virtually untraceable. I have tried using my connections but even then I can’t find anything substantial.”

His face falls, trying to not look too bothered by what he’s been told and miserably failing.

“I’m sorry, Young Master.”

“It’s okay,” he waves him off, “thank you so much for helping me. You are dismissed.”

He thinks that is the end of their conversation. He hasn’t expected the old man to hover by the doorknob before turning around, asking him another question.

“Young master, just how many reincarnations have you gone through?”

It is an innocuous question, and yet it is the one that caught him off-guard.

The answer is simple. Even if Jiang Cheng can’t give accurate number for how many years has passed or how many reincarnations he has gone through, he can give a fairly reliable estimation for it. He has always been blessed with a great memory.

And yet.

He remembered how years felt like minutes and how entire lifetimes bled together into an incoherent kaleidoscope of colors where there is white like Lan robes and funeral ribbons and Lan Xichen and gold like someone’s eyes and Jin coats and Meng Yao and red like fire and Wei Ying and the blood that bloomed on his chest as a bullet pierced his heart.

Jiang Cheng wipes away a single tear that appears at the corner of his eyes.

“Too many.”

He doesn’t hear the sound of the door being clicked shut.

If his butler finds him in his older brother’s room the morning after, arms around the other boy’s small shoulder like a lifeline, he says nothing.

Chapter Text

With Old Man Yu’s help, Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan reluctantly agrees to his outrageous plan. The man has somehow suggested that Young Master Jiang’s little plan might help them kill multiple birds with one stone. He has been hesitant about mentioning the Wen’s and sharing his knowledge of them, so the old man has taken responsibility for the idea, telling the pair that he has been spying on the Wen’s for a while and that Jiang Cheng’s plan can end up being to the benefit of the Jiang family.

The plan is to be executed Friday morning, when Song Lan is responsible for taking his boss to work. Xiao Xingchen is excused by Old Man Yu to run errands for him, but in truth the sniper is perched on top of the building nearby, his finger on the trigger and waiting for the signal.

To keep family members protected and avoid scandals, the Jiang’s have developed a network of “watchers” all over Southern California, especially around the company building the mansion, creating an intricate and almost impenetrable network of spies and safety nets that has kept the Jiang a force to be reckon with among the elites and gangs in the region. Old Man Yu, as his mother’s trusted assistance, knows it like the back of his hand, allowing him to find blind spots within it Xiao Xingchen can slip in and out without getting caught.

After the failed assassination attempt, the family elders will no doubt go into a frenzy. An investigation will be hosted to find the culprit, one that will be fruitless, since the person behind it all is the only person who everyone think won’t betray the Jiang family even if someone holds a gun to his forehead.

No doubt the news will blow up enough for the Wen’s to get wind of it, and, if they are lucky, those pests will reach out to Jin Guangshan and inquire him about the matter. Old Man Yu tells him that nothing is truly secured on the Internet, and, if they play their cards right, they can capture the evidence of collusion between the Jin head and the Wen’s. Unfamiliar with current technology, Jiang Cheng has left the finer details to the other three, only to find that they has recruited a rambunctious young lady who insists to be called A-Qing, the brilliant hacker who initially tracked down Xue Yang and is also the one who revealed the truth to Xiao Xingchen.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t need to see her pictures to know she is the one who has followed the pair of rogue cultivators from their first lives to the next.

“She is there too, in their first lives.” He expains while looking through the drafts of their plan. Old Man Yu insisted that he shouldn’t be at the meeting lest drawing more attention to himself, offering to be the conduit for all future negotiations that involve Jiang Cheng. No six-year-olds would act the way you’re acting. “She continued to meet them in their following reincarnations, like a daughter. I think in one lifetime they formally adopted her. They spent the rest of their lives together. It’s actually quite sweet.”

“I’m glad.”

He can feel the fondness that lingers in the man’s smile even from where he’s sitting. He smiles back, because the three of them, just like everyone else around him, deserved happiness.

“Me too.”

He’s in school when the whole thing goes down, committing to their agreement of no communication until the plan go through. He doesn’t need updates, though, not when a staff has barged into his classroom, her face ashen, and excuses him and his siblings from school for the rest of the day. He feigns worry and holds Yanli’s trembling hands as they ride back to their mansion with twice the number of bodyguards as usual. Even Wei Ying isn’t his cheerful self, playing with the red ribbon wrapped around his wrist in the passenger seat, one of the last remnants of his late parents.

The atmosphere is heavy when they gather in the living room. His parents are already there, occupying the ostentatiously large purple couch at the center of the room. There is a solemn expression on his father’s face, yet he remains calm and continued to intertwin fingers with his wife, who is sitting beside him, her face close to tears.

His mother isn’t the crying type. The only time he remembered her being anywhere even close to teary-eyed was when she tied him and Wei Ying up with Zidian and marched back to Lotus Pier to her death. It makes guilt claw at his gut until he has to bite his lips to prevent himself from marching to his mother’s side and confess everything.

Instead, he takes the seat on one of the side chairs that bracketed the coffee table, Wei Ying siting on the armrest to his right while Yanli occupies the chair on the other side, facing them.

“There is an attempted murder on your father.” His mother gets straight to the point, spitting out the words out like they are her worst enemy. There is a collective wince from everyone in the room. “We have gotten the family and police involved, and the investigation are still ongoing. Until it is all wrapped up, I don’t want you school. We will hire a tutor to help you catch up. I don’t want you to go out either. We can ask your friends to come here instead.”

The tension is palpable is whispers from the staffs filled the room, the majority of which have served the Jiang household for more than a decade and know its innerworkings better than anyone else. They’re all aware that it is an inside job.

Yanli is the first one to move, taking small, timid steps towards the couch where her parents are sitting and put her arms around his father’s waist, her hands digging into the fabric on his back.

“Father, you are okay, right?”

She sounds like she is about to cry. Both Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng promptly come over and hovered around her protectively. The guilt that has been eating at Jiang Cheng’s heart now feels ravenous. His father sighs and pats her head.

“I’m not injured. Don’t worry about me. However, if something happens to you…”

Yanli sniffs into her sleeve, before looking over to her mother and quickly pulling out her handkerchief. Their mother’s lessons have all but been physically drilled into their heads.

“I’ll be careful. I’ll look after A-Ying and A-Cheng too.”

Jiang Cheng and Wei Ying look at one another and immediately know what the other is thinking. Although they have their differences and might not get along even in the best of times, they both share a common goal – to keep Yanli safe, even if their lives are sacrificed in the process.

Later that day, they invites Nie Huaisang to their home, who fusses over them from head to toe, checking for any injury as if they are the one who is assassinated and even offers to call his brother over, who the boy claims “is strong enough to protect all of them.” Jiang Cheng has distracted him with a variety of video games his father has bought for him the day after his older brother came into their household, as if they are some bizarre compensation for bringing Wei Ying home, and the three of them battled against one another while Yanli busied herself in the kitchen making some kind of lotus bun.

Jiang Cheng hasn’t questioned it. They each has their own way of coping with stress, especially in situations like this, and his sister has always found comfort in the kitchen more than anywhere else in their house, so he just lets her be and focuses his attention on throwing his friend off the track (Mario Kart truly is the best invention after the phone).

The younger Nie practically begged his parents to let him sleep over at their house after dinner, when they just finished off the homemade lotus buns. His parents don’t refuse, and neither can Jiang Cheng, not when he’s too busy celebrating the way his mother’s hands hover protectively over his father’s and the man just let her.

That night, on their too large bed, the three huddles together in their shared blanket like a litter of puppies, Wei Ying in the middle, his left arm in Jiang Cheng’s face and his right leg swinging over Huaisang’s, snoring loudly. Jiang Cheng can’t help but chuckle and amuses the thought that this is possibly the best physical representation of their relationship.

Just as he expected, Nie Huaisang has taken to Wei Ying like two puzzle pieces slotted together. Wei Ying, when he finally came out of his shell, has been charismatic and friendly to the point of overbearing. While Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang are on friendly terms, he’s aware that he has always been too rough around the edges (too much like Nie Mingjue, he tries not to think about) for the two of them to fully be comfortable around each other. Wei Ying acts as an intermediate between them, enabling the three of them to form a tentative dynamic that can blossom into a great friendship.

He should know.

Jiang Cheng swallows the urge to bite Wei Ying’s arm off his face when Yanli tiptoes into their room and pecks them each on their forehead, earning incoherent grunts for her affection. When she left, he perks up his ear and waits until Wei Ying and Nie Huaisang’s breathing even out before exiting the room himself and heading towards his own room, where Old Man Yu is waiting for him.

Just as he has predicted, the failed assassination of the CEO of one of the biggest corporation and head of one of the most influential families in California causes a frenzy in the media (he should really think about convincing his parents to give their bodyguards and the PR department a raise). Although most wild speculations are shut down, many fingers have pointed towards the Wen’s.

Much to his glee, A-Qing has detected communication between the oldest son of the Wen family, Wen Xu, and Jin Guangshan. According to the logs she collects, there are multiple inquiries about the assassination as well as some blood diamond deal the Jin’s has, revealing the two’s extensive history of working together. These alone can be enough to plant a convincing case against both the Wen’s and Jin Guangshan, putting them behind bars.

But if there is anything Jiang Cheng learned throughout the thousands of years he has lived, is that, like a pot of stew, victory tastes better the longer he lets it simmer. He doesn’t just want to throw Wen Xu or some no name lackey in prison. The Wen’s will go pay for their actions, and until that happen, he can afford to wait for a few more years.

But Jiang Cheng has never been a patient man, nor is he a particularly ingenious one, and he needs someone like that to take down the Wen’s. Both Nie Huaisang and Wei Ying are too young now, and although Old Man Yu is understanding and willing to help, there is so much he can do, especially when dealing with matters not directly related to the Jiang’s, and Jiang Cheng really shouldn’t trouble him too much, lest putting the man in danger as well. The Wen’s do not hesitate to shed blood.

Luckily, he knows exactly the person he wants to ask to take on the task, who would be more than willing.

“Young master, what do you plan to do with the information?”

He scans through the logs, fingers trailing the words on those pages about how they wish the assassination was a success and feels the desire to kill erupts inside of him, to just take a gun and end their pathetic, miserable lives once and for all. Surely someone as smart as A-Qing would have no problem tracking down their lairs and bringing Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen with him would be enough to kill Wen Rouhan himself.

Instead, he reigns in his rage and thinks about the xiao playing in the distance for someone that isn’t his, and reminds himself that killing two birds with one stone is better than killing one.

“Can you make contact with Madam Jin?”

***

Arranging a meeting with Madam Jin has been easy for the man who has known her since she was a child. Initially concerned, especially after news of Jiang Fengmian’s attempted assassination, Madam Jin grew immediately alert when Old Man Yu handed her a thick folder containing every information A-Qing is able to gather.

For a whole minute, Jiang Cheng can’t hear anything but the sound of pages turning from the earpiece that is connected to a listening device hidden in his butler’s vest coat, then Madam Jin finally speaks up, an uncharacteristic tremble in her voice.

“Mr. Yu… This is…”

A sigh. Jiang Cheng can’t tell from whom.

“You know exactly what this is. You understand the implications behind it. You’ve always been smart, let’s not act oblivious now, A-Yan.”

Jiang Cheng recalls that Yanli has been named after Madam Jin. He can’t even remember his own mother calling her that before. It sounds almost like a reprimand to a small child.

“Are the sources reliable?”

More denial. This isn’t like Madam Jin at all, who he has expected to start plotting to take down her husband with the man in front of her.

“I can vouch for my sources. I have high faith in my own people, and this information are all easily verifiable. You may do it yourself, if you wish.”

There is another minute of silence.

“I do not understand how can you obtain this information.” There is confusion in her voice, and Jiang Cheng almost feels proud for being able to take such a brilliant woman off-guard. “To catch him, you must have been aware of when they will be communicating with one another. Even if you act right upon Fengmian’s attempted assassination, to extract such delicate information, you must have known and set up everything in advanced, which is not possible.”

Jiang Cheng can tell Madam Jin’s mind is rapidly working to make sense of the situation, to assuage herself, and possibly to repair her damaged pride too, for someone like her would never accept that she’s outwitted by the man who practically raised her.

“That is because Jiang Fengmian’s attempted assassination is all a part of the plan.” Old Man Yu helpfully grants her a hint.

Quiet, before laughter, delicate and light but with a hint of sharpness, fills the room.

“I knew Xiao Xingchen has always been a good shot.” Madam Jin huffs. She has always been one of, if not the smartest person in the room. The moment of levity lifts the tension in the room, and Madam Jin speaks again, finding her usual composed self. “Thank you, Mr. Yu. Consider that I owe you a favor. If you need anything, you can come to me.”

What Madam Jin doesn’t know is that Jiang Cheng has been waiting to hear those words all night. He’s gotten an odd look from his butler when he first requests it, nevertheless, the man knows to not question the means to his madness, built from thousands of years of hindsight other people do not have.

“Actually, I do have a favor to ask.” Old Man Yu begins, just as they’ve rehearsed. “I need you to help me find someone and provide assistance to them by any means necessary, financial or otherwise, and I want you to provide me weekly updates of them.”

Madam Jin hasn’t expected that.

‘Why can’t you do it yourself?” It is an unusual request, so Jiang Cheng doesn’t blame her for being wary.

“I can, and certainly would if I need to. However, you have far more resources and connections than me. Besides, I have a feeling you already know where they are.”

“I do?”

“I’m sure you do. You keep track of all of your husband’s illegitimate children, do you not?”

Another long silence stretches, and Jiang Cheng presses the earpiece harder, trying to discern the atmosphere in the room.

“What are you planning, Mr. Yu? I’ve known you all my life, and I have always thought you loyal to the Jiang’s and Ziyuan. It is concerning to know there is a possibility that is not the case.”

That’s a low blow, and for a second, Jiang Cheng frets. The last hour seems to have lulled him into a sense of false complacency, making him forget how difficult Madam Jin is.

Luckily, he has a very good butler.

“Madam Jin,” the calmness in his voice is almost disquieted, and there's a deliberate choice of formality used that is no longer the intimate name he's called her earlier, and it's the most unsettling thing Jiang Cheng has ever heard, “I’ve served the Jiang family since I was a boy. Before that, my father served the Jiang’s, and before that, my grandfather. I know you have concerns, but I reassure you, my loyalty lies with the Jiang’s and only the Jiang’s.”

Of course he is, Jiang Cheng muses, I wouldn’t trust him with my biggest secret if he isn’t.

“I see.” She sounds almost guilty. “What is the boy’s name?”

Jiang Cheng hasn’t realized his fingers have crawled inside of his shirt to caress the birthmark on his chest, the shape of a bullet, and wonders if the other has the same one.

“Meng Yao, the boy’s name is Meng Yao.”

Chapter Text

Despite what everyone says, Jiang Cheng didn’t start out hating Meng Yao.

They had met during the Sunshot Campaign, which made Meng Yao famous and a war hero overnight. Though briefly bitter for a second that someone else was the one who killed Wen Rouhan, Jiang Cheng soon dismissed such childish thoughts and focused on his duties to rebuild his sect from the brink of destruction. However, from then on, he only grew more jealous of Meng Yao as he watched the Venerable Triad formed a bond together without him, despite them all being sect leaders of the four biggest sects. Sometimes, it got easier to deal with, especially when he had an infant in his arms.

That was the thing. Before everything fell apart, Jin Ling had adored Meng Yao, had cherished every bit of affection the man had given him and returned those affections two-fold before he learned to be embarrassed by it, most likely a trait he learned from Jiang Cheng himself. Despite everything, Meng Yao was a good uncle, compensating his absence from his nephew’s life with an abundance of gifts, most notably Fairy, and smiles Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure were completely genuine, but it had made Jin Ling unbearably happy, so every red flags were quickly shoved away. Even after The Incident, Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure Jin Ling held complete hatred towards the man. Monster or not, he was family, and Jin Ling has always been sentimental when it came to family.

It was only after many lifetimes and many more betrayals have passed that Jiang Cheng chooses to erase any sympathy he has for the man and treat him as nothing more than dirt underneath his shoes, no more better than the Wen’s who are always destined to plot something sinister against him.

But that hasn’t stopped him from wondering about what-ifs. He’s collected enough clues from Meng Yao’s various reincarnations to piece together a coherent picture of what makes Meng Yao the way he is. In that picture, he can see a scared little boy who spends his whole life being looked down upon, who wishes for money and power to care for his mother and acknowledge from the father who will always treat him lesser than his “legitimate” sons, who fights and claws and kills for those things until one day he ends up turning his back on the people who truly cares for him, eventually leading to his ultimate doom.

He can’t help but look at it and wonder, in another life, if someone actually gives that poor boy the respect he deserves, actually extends a hand to help his troubled household, would that boy still turn out the way he does?

He doesn’t think about it, not when he’s too busy wanting Lan Xichen in his arms, not when he’s been willingly blind for love for too long that he doesn’t want to consider the possibility of someone he hates having the potential to be a good person.

And then Lan Xichen has gone ahead and killed him.

And it’s not supposed to change anything, except that it changes everything, because it’s been thousands of years and Jiang Cheng has loved too much and lost too much and hurts too much and now he’s just too fucking tired.

So he cuts his heart out and genuinely prays that, maybe this time, Lan Xichen will find happiness with a Meng Yao that may actually deserve him.

He hasn’t even bothered searching for Meng Yao in this life. If he can’t find someone with a high profile like Wei Ying, trying to find a random boy who lives with his mother who may or may not have an affair with Jin Guangshan, who has probably at this point accumulated enough scandals to cover the entire Los Angeles population, is like finding a needle in a haystack.

However, if there is anyone with enough resources and an incentive to keep track of Jin Guangshan’s affairs, it would be Madam Jin, who just happens to be the perfect person to plan the take down of the Wen’s and her own husband. It’s almost too perfect.

A few days after their meeting, he hears from his butler than the investigation organized by his mother will soon shut down, presumably due to encouragement from Madam Jin, who must’ve convinced his mother that no one is actually planning to kill Jiang Fengmian without dropping Xiao Xingchen or Old Man Yu’s names.

Nevertheless, his father doesn’t stop being paranoid. Jiang Cheng assumes that a man doesn’t get out of being forced to confront his own mortality without thinking about the choices he’s made that lead him to that point. His father will probably spend some time evaluating his life, thinking what he could’ve lost if he’s died. Hopefully, he will start making positive changes for the benefit of his household.

His father already has, if his moving back into their shared bedrooms and his mother’s late stays in their studies are any indication.

Not that Jiang Cheng is spying on them or anything.

Even after the investigation is over, he can see that his mother doesn’t stop worrying about her family, realizing that she comes too close to losing one of them. She lingers at the entrance of the mansion gate every morning as the three siblings head to school, frets over her husband when he mentions the possibility of a business trip, and even contains her temper around dinner, making what Jiang Cheng assumes to be her version of a pleasant conversation with Wei Ying.

Luckily, as tactless as Wei Ying can be, he seems to be on his best behavior around her, cleverly avoiding all mentions about his parents, especially his father, and focusing on heaping praises towards the house and the garden, which construction she is heavily involved in. Hearing someone appreciates her work, even his mother can’t help but be pleased.

Those two have a long way to go before they start acting friendly towards each other, but it’s a great beginning, and in a life where he finds that he has to start his work all over again to fix his family, he will take any victory he can get, no matter how small.

With that problem out of the way, he continues to attend his classes, lets Madam Jin do the heavy lifting, and pretends what he is doing isn’t killing him on the inside.

***

Unlike Wei Ying, Jiang Cheng isn’t naturally a selfless person. He isn’t going to watch Lan Xichen and Meng Yao meet, because they will, he’s sure of it, fall in love, and wish them happiness as they set off into the sunset. He will put up a good fight, he has put up a good fight, for thousands of years at that, but it has been thousands of years and he would like to end this life not getting killed again.

He’s been mentally preparing himself for the inevitable heartbreak the moment Meng Yao reenters their lives. He avoids mentions of the Lan’s and changes the topic every time Nie Huaisang mentions his brother, who is best friends with the eldest Lan. It helps that the Lan brothers are still homeschooled by their uncle, so he doesn’t have to see them on the school campus either.

He knows that he will have to face them eventually. He doesn’t know what to do then, doesn’t even know how to look at Xichen again and not cry again, but for now, he allows himself a small moment of reprieve to focus solely on his family.

According to his butler, Madam Jin successfully tracks down the Meng Yao after almost a week. A background check reveals that Meng Yao’s mother used to be one of the main attractions at an elite strip club in downtown Los Angeles, most likely where Jin Guangshan met her, but the Jin’s try to shut her up after she fights for Meng Yao’s right to be accepted into the family, causing her to move to a seedy part of Compton where she is currently attending classes while working on the side.

Just as he asked, Madam Jin sent one of her people to approach the single mom and offer her a job in one of the Jin’s stores as a clerk, with an offer to pay her handsomely and assist her financially if she keeps her mouth shut. Finding the proposal too appealing to resist, the pair pack up and move to a small studio apartment in Pasadena, where Meng Yao would be able to enroll in the same school as Jiang Cheng on some kind of merit program for children from less-than-privileged backgrounds, allowing him to keep a closer eye on the boy.

Jiang Cheng has been informed of Meng Yao’s attendance in advanced, even know that Old Man Yu has pulled strings so they can be classmates at his request, has even meditate, something he hasn’t done since getting his memory back, to relax his nerves. Despite their rather unfortunate endings in their previous lives, Jiang Cheng has thought that he is mature enough to deal with a six-year-old child in a considerate and mature manner.

That doesn’t stop hot, white rage to blind him until lightning cackles through his veins, threatening to burst out of his fingertips and strike the child in front of him. He hates it, hates how terrible of a person it makes him, knows he’s better than that, but he can’t help it, not when his mind flashes back to images of Meng Yao taunting him, dangling his loved ones’ lives over his head like they were nothing but toys to him, reminding him that Lan Xichen will never love him.

Jiang Cheng takes a deep breath and takes out his diary in his bag, which has its latest page bookmarked by a plain white ribbon. He has insisted his butler buys it for him, one of the only physical items he ever requests, and pointedly ignores the subsequent glances the man throws at him. He’s sick of enduring entire lifetimes of people throwing him knowing looks, he doesn’t need to see it coming from his trusted servant as well.

“The young master Lan that killed you, is he present in this life as well?” The man asks out of curiosity once, and Jiang Cheng has threatened to walk then and demands to never hear question again. Old Man Yu hasn’t touched the issue again, but he has looked at the ribbon and something clicks in his head and now Jiang Cheng has to deal with the fact that he knows.

Nevertheless, he doesn’t regret obtaining the ribbon, not when it reminds him of the moonlight and nights filled with lotuses and sandalwood and something unspoken and too beautiful and pure and good to be true.

It helps even out his breathing and he’s finally able to spend the rest of class time not thinking about murdering Meng Yao.

Unlike the cunning, scheming man whose smirk burns into his mind and haunts his nightmares, the boy in front of him sits in the corner table like he’s afraid of approaching his own classmates. Jiang Cheng wonders what could’ve prompted such a young boy to act such a way.

And then, he sees it, a child ruthlessly mocked by his neighbors and fellow children for being the son of a prostitute, who has done nothing wrong but suffer the consequences of his mother, shut down and chased out of her own profession all because she wants to fight for her son’s legitimacy.

How can Jiang Cheng not know when many lifetimes ago, he was one of those judgmental people.

The shame coursing through him finally gave him enough courage to walk up to Meng Yao and introduce himself. The boy is hesitant to take his hand as first, probably wary of rich kids who must have an ulterior motive, but Jiang Cheng just rolls his eyes and holds his gaze steadily until the other concedes. Nie Huaisang, noticeably friendlier than he is and without an intimidating scowl, achieves more progress, managing to get the other to talk about himself and accept their invitation to sit with them for lunch.

After that it’s basically a done deal, even Meng Yao can’t resist the natural charms of Wei Ying, and the young boy who nearly slit Wei Ying’s throat open in their first lives together now looks with wonder as his older brother tells the story of how he has hid a kid’s gym shoes after hearing that kid calls him an orphan yesterday. Jiang Cheng could only sit next to them and sigh, shutting down the urge to rub his temples.

Wei Ying, after getting over having to adapt to a new environment and people, starts to show his mischievousness, often trying to get on their teachers’ good sides to avoid punishment when he breaks the school rules. He’s sure these tendencies are going to get worse in the future, but he also can already see Wei Ying getting out of his troubles with a slap on the wrist so that their parents won’t find out.

He’s already mentally prepared to bail Wei Ying out of trouble. He knows he should be annoyed, but after many lifetimes, he finds that he doesn’t mind it anymore, even expects it strangely enough, likes the way Wei Ying trusts him enough to confides in him about his problems, the way it reminds him of the good old days.

At least Nie Huaisang has shown to be quite obedient and prone to stay out of trouble, probably born out of a lifetime living with Nie Mingjue, and Meng Yao, despite his own propensity of scheming behind people’s backs and killing them without remorse, isn’t exactly a troublemaker type either. He doesn’t have to worry too much about those two, though he really should keep a close eye on Meng Yao. Even if he’s convinced that Meng Yao would grow up less murderous if given a better support system, he’s been betrayed too many times to count, has seen betrayal and heartbreak too many times too. Being overly cautious in this case doesn’t hurt.

Jiang Cheng knows Meng Yao’s mother asks him to remain on the campus after school finishes so she can pick him up at five when she gets off work, so he has offered to accompany the other boy to the library and asks the driver to come later. It’s not like his parents will return before dinner. He has some hours to spare for the sake of his grand plans. Meng Yao accepts his proposal with a blush, not used to such casual kindness coming from someone who, if he doesn’t know before he definitely knows now, comes from a much more privileged background than him.

Yanli has joined them not long afterwards, in a corner of the library perusing some picture books, and greets Meng Yao with too much cheerfulness towards someone who nearly got their whole family killed just a century ago, even going as far as offering her homemade sweets which she has specifically preserved for her brothers. To his surprise, when he digs into his treats, Meng Yao has gotten teary-eyed before quickly wiping his tears away and thanking her profusely.

He can already tell that despite meeting the three of them first, Yanli is going to be Meng Yao’s favorite. He isn’t surprise really, because he already knows why. Meng Yao has always been ruthless, but he does have a soft spot for one particular person, someone too kind and too sweet and looks past people’s background, just like his sister.

He tries not to think about it.

He also hasn’t expected when Meng Yao trusts her enough to open up about his family, how they have gotten out of the slums and moved to Pasadena thank to a mysterious benefactor who has given his mother a job so she “won’t have to stay the night with bad men anymore” – Yanli has paled at that, and Jiang Cheng supposes that even at ten she understands what that means. Jiang Cheng knows he doesn’t have to worry – his sister has not a malicious bone in her body – and if anything, he hopes that she would help him with his plans to incorporate Meng Yao into their lives.

His predictions are proven to be true when Yanli marches up to Meng Yao’s mother and asks for Meng Yao to stay at the Jiang household afterschool, and they will have a driver dropping him off when she is done with work. His sister even offers to let Meng Yao stay with them in the weekends, when his mother goes to night school, so they won’t have to hire a babysitter.

Even after thousands of years, Jiang Cheng hasn’t been able to obtain much information about Ms. Meng, but he knows she must’ve been a prideful woman who is willing to go against the powerful Jin family to fight for her son’s legitimacy. For her to bow to a ten-year-old Yanli, tears streaming down her cheeks, her son panicking by her side, it tells him how much she loves her son and how much his help means to her.

It feels vindicating, but he doesn’t focus on that. He’s doing this for Lan Xichen, after all.

Chapter Text

“Get out of my way!”

Jiang Cheng bites back a curse as he maneuvers to dodge a red car threatening to throw him off the track. Besides him, Wei Ying cackles his way to victory, jumping up the couch to do a celebratory dance. Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes, whacking his older brother in the arm, which earns his an indignant yelp. On each side, Nie Huaisang and Meng Yao only chuckled at the brothers’ antics, before calling for a break to enjoy the snacks Yanli has baked for them. She seems to have been doing a lot of that lately, but that’s understandable. His sister only bakes during two occasion, when she’s extremely distressed or extremely happy, and lately there has been many things happening that makes her happy.

A month has passed since they met Meng Yao, and with time comes new changes to the Jiang household. For once, rumors are circulating again, but this time they are actually nice instead of baseless speculations about his father’s alleged extramarital affairs. The heads of the Jiang household are actually getting along with one another, an impressive, if not unbelievable, feat if you keep tabs with the rumors around the two. Jiang Fengmian, they say, has stopped working long hours to go home and enjoy the time with his family, and Yu Ziyuan hasn’t thrown any tantrums nor said anything nasty about her husband.

What the rumor mill hasn’t been able to pick up is that his parents have gotten more intimate with one another, as in Jiang Cheng has caught them locking lips one night when he has headed to the kitchen to get water. A part of him has felt a little bit disgusted, but for the most part he was just happy they are getting along as well as they were in their previous lives.

Even little Wei Ying, who is the cause behind much tension in the household, seems to have adapted seamlessly into his new environment and gotten along well with the matriarch of the household, who everyone know cannot possibly like him.

The only rumor that worries Jiang Cheng is the one around the mysterious boy who has somehow made his way into the friend group that consisted of the heir to Jiang Corp. Even if Ms. Yao has kept a low profile to protect her family, people within their circles would still realize that Meng Yao is one of Jin Guangshan’s many bastard children and discriminate him because of it. His own mother has warned her children and Wei Ying to stay away from Meng Yao, for he would cause nothing but trouble, but all three of them stands their ground, including Yanli, who rarely disagrees with her mother. Knowing she cannot persuade them, his mother only stands by begrudgingly as Meng Yao continuously visits their household at her own children’s insistence.

Meng Yao himself seems to be aware of the unsavory rumors regarding his status. There is only so much a child can ignore, especially when even the adults are talking about it. Jiang Cheng wonders how much his mother tells him, but that isn’t something he wants to wrangle out of Meng Yao, not when he is barely holding onto the boy’s tentative trust.

Luckily, Meng Yao is naturally smart and has no problem catching up to schoolwork with Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng’s help, keeping himself on the teachers’ good side. Even the staffs who dislike him can’t do anything but grumble behind his back. He really should do something about them, but not now. He has bigger fishes to catch.

Madam Jin hasn’t made much contact with Old Man Yu in the past month, but he has seen what she is capable of. Even if she has held some feelings towards Jin Guangshan, there’s no way someone like her would let go of the matter so easily. If he has to guess, she is in the process of collecting evidence to build a solid case against her husband and the Wen’s, and such a thing can take years.

He has waited before. There’s no harm in waiting for a few years now.

“Hey, are you going to the party at the Allan’s?” A voice interrupts his thoughts, and Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes for real this time. Is that supposed to be a question?

The Allan’s, who are apparently hosting some kind of fundraiser slash political event to for his supposed presidential campaign, his butler has helpfully informed him. He later learns it’s something like persuading everyone to vote for you via very expensive and downright manipulative methods. He doesn’t quite like the idea, and he doesn’t quite like the Allan’s either, whose youngest son has taken to dunk an entire bucket of water onto Wei Ying’s head on his first day and calls him an orphan. He doesn’t even feel bad when the kid finds his shoes missing and spends the rest of PE being left in the dust in footwear two sizes too big.

More importantly, the Allan’s are influential, an important ally to maintain in the Californian social sphere, which means every big families are going to be there, his, the Nie’s, the Jin’s –

The Lan’s

Jiang Cheng really isn’t ready to think about that yet. He has been trying, failing, to think about the Lan’s ever since he gets his memories back.

The thing is, he knows he should look forward to the occasion, knows Wei Ying and Lan Wangji will inevitably meet, the youngest Lan will inevitably have his buttons pushed by the other’s antics, before slowly finding those acts of rebellion endearing and falling in love with his hurricane of a brother. They will inevitably date throughout school before getting married, probably through elopement, fresh out of graduation. It’s all already written in the stars, and the only job Jiang Cheng has is to ensure nobody gets too hurt in the process.

But Lan Xichen is a completely different story.

He tries to muster the courage needed to even ask Nie Huaisang about Lan Xichen, but in the end, he can’t - in the end Jiang Cheng is still a fucking coward and the wound in his chest that is no longer there still hurts too much and he’s so tired.

But his past and his duties won’t let him run away forever, so he dons his best suit, too old and formal for a his body yet feels awfully inadequate for his mind, puts on his best smile and pretends he isn’t bleeding inside, just a little bit.

If his mother notices he keeps dodging certain shades of white and blue, she says nothing. But she shouldn’t, his mother couldn’t have known, and he can never tell her.

So Jiang Cheng keeps hiding like a coward that he is.

The night has been going well so far, and by “going well” Jiang Cheng means a spectacular, glorious disaster that is thankfully noticed by none of the adults in attendance.

His parents have been doing an excellent job dodging Lan Qiren and the rest of the Lan's in attendance, and it seems like the Lan's are adamant on doing the same thing. They aren't seen even in the vicinity of one another, which is for the best, really, if the story he hears from his butler about his mother pouring champagne over a Lan who was caught spreading rumors about his father's affairs is true. But his brother is a whole different story.

It seems that Wei Ying has the bright idea of trying out a glass of champagne to see how it tastes like, probably the begin of his journey into alcoholism - Jiang Cheng really needs to do something about that, like he always does, now that their liver cannot handle so much after losing cultivation. The ever grim and aloof Lan Wangji, even at the age of seven, happens to stand nearby and, having been drilled the rules of the Lan household since he was a child, views Wei Ying’s actions as extremely improper and worthy of intervention. They have a mini argument that would’ve garnered more attention if Jiang Cheng hasn’t pulled the two away on time with a help of a worried Nie Huaisang and lock them in the bathroom until they resolve their differences.

They eventually do, and Wei Ying even going as far as to apologize to Lan Wangji for his misconduct, with, knowing the current reincarnation of his brother, is a truly impressive feat. Lan Wangji seems satisfied and the two falls into conversation with one another, momentarily forgetting that Jiang Cheng is still in the bathroom with them. So Jiang Cheng lets them have their romantic moment in the fucking bathroom of all places and steps into the garden to get some fresh air.

The Allan’s might have been pieces of shit, but at least they have nice gardens.

Even when he’s told explicitly not to, Jiang Cheng lingers at a section in the right wind of the garden where the all kinds of different flowers are grown, eyes looking for a particular one. When he finds it, he gently cards his fingers through them, admires their delicate texture and marvels at how they glows with a golden hue under the moonlight.

Everyone thinks Jiang Cheng’s favorite flower is lotus, and it is, because lotus means everything to him, means his home and his people and his family, everything worth living and fighting for and in between.

But lilies are nice too.

He’s read about it once, lilies, beautiful, delicate and haunting. Lilies are funeral flowers, representing the purity of a purged soul, as he’s been told, a match with funeral robes. But lilies have a different meaning too. Devotion. Devotion to his family, to his duties, to his brothers.

Devotion to a man who never loves him back, who only uses him for his own gains and then betray him in each of their lifetime together.

Jiang Cheng wipes away his tear. He would not be caught dead crying at the Allan’s of all places.

“You should head back inside. I believe Mrs. Yu and Mr. Jiang are looking for you.”

Jiang Cheng whips his head back and finds himself confronted with the person he’s been trying to avoid ever since he gets his memories back, the one who’s been haunting his dreams for thousands of years.

The person who makes him fall for lilies in the first place.

Jiang Cheng feels his breath knocked out of him.

This is certainly new.

They have always met in some kind of formal setting in the past. They would greet each other, exchange pleasantries, Jiang Cheng pretending like his heart is not threatening to fall out of his ribcage, and, if he’s lucky, they would establish some sort of friendship that never fails to give Jiang Cheng hope that one day Lan Xichen will fall for him (he doesn’t). They’re never alone together, that’s the point, and Jiang Cheng is glad for it. His pride wouldn’t allow him to be too emotional in front of so many people.

They most definitely never meet in a garden full of lilies of all things, when the moon hangs high above cloudless sky, casting its lights over the other’s boy face, reflects it in his golden eyes that almost seems to glow in the dark.

Lan Xichen is here again, living and breathing with no knowledge of his past actions, and Jiang Cheng wants to cry.

But he doesn’t. He can’t. Instead, he gives a stiff bow and lets his arms hang awkwardly at his side.

“I’m Jiang Cheng.”

The other boy smiles at him, reaching out his hand, and Jiang Cheng doesn’t want to take it, he does anyway, or else it would’ve been rude, and he’s raised better than that. In a body of a six-year-old, the hand seems too large and too warm.

“I’m Lan Xichen.”

I know.

“I believe you’ve met my brother, Lan Zhan. I apologize if he causes any trouble for yours.”

There’s an attempt of small pleasantries here, as if Lan Xichen is trying to befriend him, or he’s just being nice, Jiang Cheng isn’t sure. All he knows is that he’s been here for too long and Xichen doesn’t love him, hates him enough to put a bullet in his chest and –

And perhaps he deserves it just a little bit. He doesn't have to kill Meng Yao. He doesn't have to do the terrible things he did to hold onto the person he loves. He doesn't have to hide anything from everyone because he's selfish and a coward and terrible and monsters -

He's hated Meng Yao enough to kill him, but is he really any better? Is that why Lan Xichen does what he did? Maybe he deserves it.

Jiang Cheng can’t do this.

So he excuses himself hastily to meet his parents, knowing it isn’t proper, since Lan Xichen is probably the heir to the Lan empire, whatever that might be. He tries not to look into it. He doesn’t want anything to do with the Lan’s except when Lan Wangji becomes his brother in law.

But Jiang Cheng knows himself better than anyone else, and if he stays any longer, he’ll fall, and this one will hurt.

When they head back home, Jiang Cheng doesn’t even blink when Wei Ying starts chatting animatedly to their siter about Lan Wangji, or Lan Zhan, he should start calling him. He’s pretty sure the other boy doesn’t have a courtesy name. Which begs the question, why is Lan Xichen using his courtesy name? What happens to “Lan Huan?” Is the tragedy of their parents repeated in this life as well? What happens to –

Jiang Cheng stops his train of thoughts right there. He reminds himself, no commitment. Isn’t he trying to not get hurt?

So he distracts himself by Wei Ying’s gushes of “he even plays the guqin, you know, the traditional Chinese instrument? Isn’t that great” and tells himself that he’s fine.

Everything is fine.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng tries not to think about Lan Xichen, so he distracts himself by thinking about Meng Yao.

What Jiang Cheng has learned is that the Meng Yao of this cycle of reincarnation has a basket of insecurities that he holds onto, about his background, his family, his intelligence, and most importantly, his place in the world. He has never fitted anywhere except beside his mother, Meng Yao has whispered to them on a Sunday lunch, exhausted from playing games with Wei Ying all morning. He has smiled at them, innocent and a little sad, and tells them he’s glad they allow him to join their little circle, because he’s so afraid of being alone, and he doesn’t feel like he’s alone anymore.

The best and worst thing about children is they are far more honest than adults can ever be.

For once, it actually makes him stop and think.

He hasn’t hesitate in inviting Meng Yao into his little group with Wei Ying and Nie Huaisang, reasoning that it will help him keep an eye on the boy better for any potential nefarious activities, which sounds silly now, because this Meng Yao is a mere child who is only trying to catch a break from all the rumors at school and not make his mother sad. To learn how much such simple actions mean to Meng Yao makes guilt climbs up his skin like a layer of dirt that he can’t wash off, and he’s forced to walk everyday burdening himself with another secret.

That isn’t the hard part. He has already carried too many secrets for too long, one more wouldn’t hurt him.

But it makes him think.

He thinks about how Meng Yao, just like him, lost everything he loves – his mother. Meng Yao who’s born nowhere as privileged as him, who never finds a good home like Wei Ying, who’s forced to walk around enduring the nastiest insults hurled towards him for having the gall to be a bastard. He’s so desperate for validation by the only family he has left, his father, only to have it thrown back at his face and pushed him down the stairs until he’s a bleeding pulp. So the only way he knows to prove himself is through power, and so he holds onto it no matter the cost until it blows up in his face.

Meng Yao isn’t a good person. He’s someone who’s capable of, someone who has done, many terrible unspeakable things.

But so has Jiang Cheng. So has Wei Ying. They were, are, children of war. Their hands are not clean, never have been. Jiang Cheng isn’t here to judge someone for their past actions, even though sometimes he really wants to, yearns to gives into the bloodlust in him and just kill all those who wrong him, thinks about killing Meng Yao just like he has in his past life or barging into the Wen’s headquarters somewhere and kills them all just because he can, because those bastards don’t deserve his mercy.

But he doesn’t.

He’s just trying to make sure in this reincarnation, his siblings get to live happy, fulfilling lives again and maybe Meng Yao doesn’t betray Lan Xichen.

He isn’t supposed to feel sorry or sympathize or get fucking attached to the person he murdered in his previous life.

He can think about those things later. For now, he has a fencing match to watch.

At his brother’s insistence, Nie Huaisang is forced to attend a fencing practice session afterschool to prepare him for joining the team next year, which has earned the three of them enough complaints from the youngest Nie to last their lifetimes. At the age of ten, Nie Mingjue still somehow manages to look as tall and intimidating as his adult self. He carries himself like he owns the room and speaks in a loud and booming voice that echoes through the walls of the gym where the practice is held.

While Nie Huaisang looks like he’d rather be anywhere else, Jiang Cheng, Wei Ying and Meng Yao all look at Nie Mingjue with interest as the boy begins to explain the basic rules to fencing. There are three basic types of blades used for fencing, foil, epee and sabre. Foil is the most basic one, and the one that all beginners will learn. You can only score with the tip of the sword and towards the torso of your opponent, or else the point won’t be counted. He’s expected more, and it frustrates him that there would be such ridiculous rules regarding a sport that’s supposed to mimic sword fighting. In a real fight, you have to use all of your blade – the tip is pretty much useless in that situation – and you can’t be picky about where you hit.

When Nie Mingjue starts to demonstrate sabre though, is when Jiang Cheng’s interest piques. To no one’s surprise, it’s Nie Mingjue’s favorite style, and it allows him to use all of the blade instead of just the tip. You still can’t hit the area below the waist, but Jiang Cheng guests it’s an appropriate compromise, not that it would’ve been useful. You want to either aim for the chest or arm to take away their swords. Watching the sabreurs get into position, Jiang Cheng couldn’t help but be reminded of his own disciples nervously warms up to a duel with the intention to impress their notoriously strict sect leader.

He couldn’t help but smile at the memory, replacing the usual scowl, and both of his siblings are quick to notice it.

“Are you interested, Jiang Cheng? Do you want to learn with us? I’m thinking about signing up with Meng Yao. He seems to enjoy it too.” Wei Ying points towards the direction of their other friend, who seems to have his eyes permanently glued on Nie Mingjue as the captain of the fencing team demonstrates a particular movement. Nie Mingjue hears them though, for he retreats his sabre and puts his hands to his hips, voice gruff.

“No children under seven. Jiang Cheng, Meng Yao and Huaisang can join next year.”

Jiang Cheng crosses his arms. That doesn’t seem fair.

“Why? A seven-year-old can’t be that different from a six-year-old one. I don’t see why Wei Ying can join now but I have to wait.”

The person who’s been standing near Nie Mingjue their entire lesson takes off her mask to reveal dark, sharp eyes and long, brown hair tied back into a high ponytail with a red ribbon. She seems familiar, but Jiang Cheng can’t recognize her anywhere. She looks at his direction and huffs.

“Look here kiddo, if you think you can do it then prove yourself.”

He grins.

“Of course. I’ll take you on if you want to.”

He scans the shocked faces in the room and wonders if he says something wrong. He feels a tug on his sleeve.

“A-Cheng,” Yanli smiles warily, “Wen Qing is the vice-captain of the fencing team. Perhaps you should choose an easier opponent.”

Wen Qing?

Oh, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

Jiang Cheng wants to shake her and ask about her connection to the Wen’s, but he can’t, not when he has a match to complete. So he looks straight into Wen Qing’s eyes and grins.

“Can someone tell me where the equipment is then?” He adds. “And I would like to duel in sabre.”

Nie Mingjue has protested fiercely. Sabre should never be learned before foil, being much harder to master and carrying higher risk of injury. But the practice blades in their school have been modified with plastic and smooth edges, making the possibility of anyone getting hurt incredibly low. Even Nie Mingjue has to concede with Jiang Cheng’s stubbornness.

Within minutes, he puts on the cumbersome gear with minimum difficulty, having observed the others doing so moments before. He doesn’t like how restrictive the mask is to his vision, but facial scars aren’t exactly pleasing in modern standards, so it’s quite understandable. He gets into the starting position and mimics the footwork of other sabreurs, studying his grip on the sabre. There are different types of grips, and he has initially reached for the one that reminds him most of his Sandu, but is told that such a grip is not available for sabre, so he reluctantly settles for a sabre with a strange grip that takes him a minute to get a good hold on.

Wen Qing keeps talking through his warmup, explaining the different positions and technique sabreur can utilize in a match, all of which are alien to him. What isn’t alien is the surge of excitement that induces goosebumps on his skin as he holds onto his not-Sandu, facing the woman who he has called a friend for too many lifetimes.

Jiang Cheng knows the limit to this body, knows he hasn’t trained enough muscle memory to hold his own against an opponent much more experienced in this sport than he is. He has seen Wen Qing with a sword in their previous lives, is aware that she barely uses it but when she does, she can make a person twice her size collapse to their knee. He doesn’t expect this eight-year-old Wen Qing to differ too much from her past self, and that should make anyone scared.

But this match isn’t his to win, it’s hers to lose. She might know the rules better than him, and her muscle memory might allow her to better deal with his attacks, but Jiang Cheng has spent thousands of years perfecting his craft.

Every person born in Yunmeng is a natural swimmer. Children are taught how to hold their breaths as infants and can dive to the bottom of muddy lotus lakes by the age of five. The YunmengJiang sword styles, too, are developed to reflect their home, its fluid movements resembling the flow of the water, elegant and unstoppable.

Because fire can be snuffed out, metal can be melted, earth can shatter, but water can only be temporarily constrained, never destroyed. The literal embodiment of the impossible.

Jiang Cheng likes to think that’s how his ancestors have created YunmengJiang motto. Attempt the impossible.

So he does.

Wen Qing, knowing it is his first time fencing, goes easy on him, approaching him slowly with her sabre to allow him to make the first move. He observes her stance: impeccable posture, back ramrod straight, left arm behind her back to minimize potential target zone. No wonder she’s the vice-captain of the team.

Jiang Cheng strikes first, a lunge towards her dominant side that she should have no trouble parrying. She ripostes to his left side, which she must've presumed to be his weak side, not knowing he’s ambidextrous, allowing him to easily dodge her attack and strike her on the shoulder.

The whole gym erupts into chatter. Nie Mingjue perks up with interest in his referee chair. Off on the bleachers, Jiang Cheng can hear Wei Ying’s loud cheers, followed by more quiet encouragements from his friends and sister. In front of him, Wen Qing stands rooted to her spot, her expression undiscernible underneath the mask, but Jiang Cheng can envision her surprise. He shrugs.

“Beginner’s luck, I guess.”

As they presume their position and moves to the second point, she, as well as the entire fencing team, realizes it isn’t.

Jiang Cheng moves with his sabre like he does with Sandu, like the flow of water into a lake, with smooth and clean movements just enough to hit his target and overwhelms his opponent. As he hold a sword again, he can’t help but regret that Zidian, wherever it might be, isn’t here with him anymore, nor can it be turned into a whip. He’s lived for some thousand years without needing a whip, has adapted his technique to compensate for his missing weapon, but sometimes he selfishly wishes to hear the familiar cackle from his middle finger in response to an energy that no longer exists in the earth.

Jiang Cheng learns to suck it up. He has thousands of years to. Besides, it’s hardly the most unfairness fate has bestowed upon him.

He wins by fifteen to twelve. It’s impressive, almost miraculous, for somebody who has never touched a sabre before in his life. It’s too low for Jiang Cheng. His body is still far too slow, his muscle memory failing him at crucial moments of riposte. He can’t control his grip properly, slipping up from time to time, relying on sheer force that he doesn’t own to strike his opponent.

Jiang Cheng is completely fine with being second best, but he hates performing sub par to his own standards when knowing he has potential for so much more.

Wei Ying’s cheers have descended into full on screaming, and when Nie Mingjue finally announces the winner in disbelief, he leaps off his seat and tackles Jiang Cheng to the ground, knocking the helmet from his head. Jiang Cheng protests lightly before belatedly let his older brother has his way. From the corner of his eyes, he can see Wen Qing taking off her mask, a blank look on her face. She doesn’t seem upset, just curious. She gives him a long glance.

“You’re ambidextrous.” She says simply.

Jiang Cheng nods.

“I don’t have a dominant hand or feet, and I can write with both hands, but I prefer using the sabre with my right hand.”

Nie Mingjue absorbs every word he says, and nods at him.

“I’ll talk to coach about admitting you into the team. So will your brother.”

Jiang Cheng points towards Meng Yao, who comes down from the bleachers to stand next to Wei Ying.

“How about him? He wants to join too.”

The oldest Nie furrows his brows together.

“I told you, he’s too young. I can make an exception for you but I can’t just give that out to anybody. He can join next year with the rest.”

Jiang Cheng watches Meng Yao deflates like a balloon and frowns. Unlike Jiang Cheng, Meng Yao probably wouldn’t want to duel someone for his place in the team. It’s then that Nie Huaisang speaks up.

“Brother,” his voice is barely a squeak, “If you let A-Yao joins now, I’ll join as well.”

Jiang Cheng can’t help but let his mouth drop open. Having been on the receiving end of Nie Huaisang’s complaints over the past couple of months, he has never expected that the other boy would propose to join just to help his friend out. He almost wants to come over and gives the boy a hug, but Meng Yao has already beaten him to it.

Even Nie Mingjue can’t refuse it. He walks over to his brother and gives him a hard slap on the shoulder.

“You better start training properly and not lag behind, Huaisang. I have a whole training regime ready for you.”

Jiang Cheng doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry when the youngest Nie starts trembling all over.

Meng Yao, who has said nothing until now, carefully approaches Nie Mingjue and gives him a deep bow, too polite for a ten-year-old, but Jiang Cheng figures that’s how Meng Yao is raised.

“Thank you Nie Mingjue, I’ll try my hardest.”

Jiang Cheng wonders if Meng Yao is scared of Nie Mingjue, with the way the boy is fidgeting with the hem of his shirt and his blood is rushing to his cheeks.

It’s probably nothing.

Chapter Text

So that’s how the three of them become the youngest members of the fencing team. Just as he has predicted, Meng Yao immediately takes a liking to the foil, fascinated by the flexibility one is allowed with the blade. Although he doesn’t have any basic knowledge in fencing, he has proven to be a quick learner, taking mere weeks to catch up to older students, who refuses to acknowledge him after learning who he is.

Children doesn’t stop being malicious after thousands of years, Jiang Cheng has regretfully learned. Fortunately, Meng Yao doesn’t seem to mind. He seems to only care for compliments when it comes from Nie Mingjue, much to Jiang Cheng’s satisfaction. If they establish their friendship this early on, there’s less possibility that Meng Yao will murder the other man when they grow up.

He still remembers Meng Yao’s first duel. The boy timidly points the blade at his opponent, another member of the team a year older, hand shaking so hard Jiang Cheng is afraid he’s going to drop the blade. He knows Meng Yao has memorized the basics, he just doesn’t dare to attack his opponent for fear of retaliation. Nie Mingjue sighs and pulls him aside, open and honest in ways Jiang Cheng never could.

“You know in fencing, to score points, you have to actually attack your opponent, right?” He puts his hands on his hips. “Also, you have to hide your weaknesses from your opponent. If they know you are afraid of them, you’ve lost before you even start.”

Meng Yao keeps his head down, an apology already making their way past his lips, before Nie Mingjue stops him.

“Look kid, you must’ve been looked down upon a lot in your life right?” Jiang Cheng stiffens, and so does his brother. Wei Ying hasn’t been aware of Meng Yao’s background, but his perceptiveness allows him to catch glimpses of his past, before he moves to Pasadena, and the picture it paints isn’t a good one. “You must’ve felt anger, right? But you keep taking it without fighting back, and allows people to trample all over you.”

It seems like the oldest Nie knows from experience, which couldn’t be his - no one would dare mess with Nie Mingjue. He glances at Nie Huaisang, who wears an unreadable expression, out of place on such a young face. It's then that he understands.

Children can be incredibly cruel.

“Have you ever thought that people would stop messing with you if you just fight back?” Nie Mingjue continues, picking up the foil and thrusting it at Meng Yao, fire in his eyes.

“I’m asking you to fight back.”

And Meng Yao does.

Maybe that’s something he needs to hear all this time.

Somewhat satisfied with the progress of the relationship between Nie Mingjue and Meng Yao, Jiang Cheng shifts his thoughts to his older brother.

Wei Ying doesn’t take a preference in regard to his fencing style, but with some training he manages to surpass most members in both, to the surprise of everyone but Jiang Cheng. Wei Ying has always possessed raw talent for everything he dabbles in, he can’t see fencing being an exception.

However, his brother doesn’t seem too passionate in the sport though, instead choosing to spend his time reading and studying musical theory. He also picks up a musical instrument, a flute, which their father doesn’t hesitate to purchase for him, and begins playing in their music room, often accompanying Yanli during her piano sessions, insisted by none other than their mother.

His mother once demands he learns an instrument too, but he adamantly refuses it, well aware that he has no musical talent whatsoever. She eventually relents when convinced by her husband, who seems to understand his predicament. After a few weeks she drops the issue altogether after hearing about his progress with the fencing team.

Jiang Cheng knows it isn’t exactly fair that he doesn’t have to start from scratch like Meng Yao or Wei Ying. He already possesses a solid foundation to fall back on when his physical strength fails him, allowing him to surpass everyone else’s progress. Even Nie Mingjue is impressed and gives him a left-handed sabre so he won’t be as bored in practice.

Jiang Cheng has used his right hand growing up in his first life. After being handed Zidian and going through numerous painful sessions to perfect his control of the deadly weapon, he learns how to write and perform menial tasks using his left hand as well. Even when using a gun, he can switch from left to right hand with ease. Only people who observes closely can tell that he has a preference for his right side, but even then, the difference is too minute for his opponent to take advantage of during duels.

Given the circumstances, he easily masters the sabre with his left hand. To everyone’s astonishment, he beats every person except Nie Mingjue in sabre not even a month after stepping foot into the gym using both hands.

It doesn’t surprise him even the slightest that Nie Mingjue is a sabreur, and a very good one at that. He has seen the crowd that gathered, including famous coaches with “Olympics” on their lips, whenever Nie Mingjue practices. He hasn’t paid them too much attention at first, so it takes him a while to find out that they are watching him as well. He hasn’t understood why, it’s not like he has won against Nie Mingjue once.

Despite his vast knowledge and experience with handling a sword, even Jiang Cheng has to concede to the four-year-gap in both experience and age between him and Nie Mingjue. The oldest Nie is tall and strong for his age; one strike from him is capable of knocking the blade out of his grip. The other boy is far better at detecting the weaknesses in his opponents, especially one as new to the sport as Jiang Cheng, striking him at the spots he leaves open, mostly around the arm and shoulder area, which he has always put as his last priorities in an actual sword fight, preferring to protect his head and chest. He never thinks that his survival instincts developed over thousands of years would become his detriment in fencing. Jiang Cheng doesn’t let the bitter taste of failure sours his mouth, though.

He has bigger problems to deal with.

“You are really good, Jiang Cheng.”

Something fragile and beautiful and terrible blossoms in his chest, and he has to bite back the urge to scream. Lan Xichen, dressed in the most casual clothing Jiang Cheng has seen on him, a blue polo shirt with faded khakis, stands in front of Nie Mingjue and stares at him in awe. Nearby, the Lan's chaperone observes them warily, seeming to know who he is and expects them to be kicked out soon, forcing him to remember the reason why the Lan's and the Jiang's are not on speaking terms with each other. He wonders if the Lan brothers themselves know.

If Lan Xichen knows.

However, Lan Xichen doesn't seem to notice the poor man's predicament, choosing instead to shift closer to him and heaping compliments on him like he actually deserves it. It’s not like it’s anything particularly impressive. He’s heard from the Nie brothers himself that the Lan’s fence too, have received private training since forever, good enough that Nie Mingjue wants to sneak them on the team, so his performance so far shouldn’t have elicited such a reaction.

Lan Zhan, because it’s Lan Zhan now, not a Lan Wangji that no longer exists, seems to share his thoughts and doesn’t bother sparring him a glance, instead concentrating his attention at an excited Wei Ying who is in the middle of demonstrating some movements that Jiang Cheng is sure Lan Zhan knows already. Seriously, aren’t they too young to be this disgustingly in love?

“It’s nothing.” It feels like someone pours sand into his throat and he hates it.

“You’re being too humble.” Lan Xichen smiles, kind and sincere from someone who doesn’t know how to be otherwise, before diverting his gaze to the boy next to him, who’s still fussing over the glove his mother has made for him. “I don’t believe we’ve met before.”

Upon noticing eyes on him, Meng Yao flinches, panic evidenced in his eyes, and takes a step back.

“Uh, I’m Meng Yao.”

Lan Xichen doesn’t seem deterred by Meng Yao’s shyness, shifting closer to the boy until they’re in front of each other.

“Nice to meet you, Meng Yao. Da-ge and Huaisang has told me a lot about you. He says you’re very good despite being so young. That’s impressive.”

Meng Yao relaxes, his gaze softens into a warmness that reminds Jiang Cheng of fire that takes and takes from him until there’s nothing left. Distantly, Jiang Cheng is aware that they’re still conversing, but he has already excused himself to the bathroom.

He really can’t do this.

Sleep eludes him in the moonless night, enshrouding his whole room in darkness. He’s always preferred at least one source of light, keeps a lamp near his bed like a refuge, but sometimes he needs darkness to think better. In the dark, it doesn’t matter what body he’s in, there are just memories from a life that he will never get back and phantom pain encased in his chest from wounds that are no longer there.

He doesn’t really look into the physical effects of his curse, but he’s always felt young in his reincarnated body, accompanied by a sense of wonder and an urge for exploration that he’s grown tired of as he grows older in his past lives. It’s only in the dark that Jiang Cheng is allowed to feel his age.

And he’s old, so incredibly old from living too long of a life for any human and carrying its burden all on his own.

It doesn’t work like that, he tries to reason with himself, and maybe physically, it doesn’t. But then how is life defined? By the memories you carry or the length from when you are born to when you take your last breath? Is Jiang Cheng six or is he thousands of years old or both?

Jiang Cheng isn’t sure he wants to find the answer to that. All he knows is that it feels like he’s lived for too long and seen so many events repeating themselves and now he’s just tired.

He can tell Old Man Yu everything that happens in their previous lives, can tell him about the horrible crimes he commits and the people he kills, can explain in detail the way he pulls his family apart and puts them back together, can tell him just what kind of crazy, desperate lives Jiang Cheng has lived through for the first plan he proposes when he gets his memory back is for the assassination of his own father.

But it doesn’t matter.

Because Jiang Cheng can’t tell him the dreams of his home burning, his sister screaming into his ears, his brother’s sad, stricken face, the voices whispering poisonous words in his ears that he can no longer tell if they belong to actual people, the lilies he keeps in his heart until they bleed with him, bleed through the bullet that isn’t still supposed to be there.

They are children of war, and afterwards they are children of the wars that born out of peace. They make their own choices and deal with the consequences their own way. Wei Ying will choose to protect the people he wants to protect, Lan Zhan will choose Wei Ying no matter what, Jiang Cheng will choose his pains and secrets. Those are the decisions they make, and those are the ones they would make all over again.

And Lan Xichen makes his decision when he pull the trigger.

Chapter Text

“Madam Jin told me that she is working with the Feds to investigate Jin Guangshan and the Wen’s.”

Jiang Cheng takes his eyes off the book he’s reading about modern history of fencing and looks up at his butler, frowning.

“She works with who?”

“The federal agents.” The man explains evenly. “It’s a good sign. This means that they can be punishable by law.”

“I see.”

They still get regular updates from the Madam Jin, but he isn’t naïve enough to think that she would tell them everything, not when the her empire is involved. She has always been cautious, preferring to keep a façade of ignorance and keeps her cards close to her chest. Jiang Cheng finds he doesn’t mind. He knows far more than her, but she has always outsmarted him. If there is anyone who is capable of helming a plan that will bring down the Wen’s and the head of the Jin family, he expects it to be her.

A year has passed since he tells her about Jin Guangshan, and too many things have changed since then. Meng Yao becomes a permanent fixture in their group, which has gained some notoriety in their school, making other children hesitant to target him. Wei Ying has thrown out too many punches at the age of eight for them to even think of hurting anyone he loves, not that anyone would anyways, not when his little brother is the school’s new fencing star.

Jiang Cheng hasn’t expected his newfound fame, yet strangely, instead of feeling happiness he just finds annoyance. He only joins in the first place to reconnect with a remnant of his past reincarnations, not to be some renowned athlete. He knows he has his family legacy to inherit, including stepping up to become the CEO of Jiang Corp. at an appropriate age, which means he will need to study the trades much sooner. He also needs to make sure that everyone reconciles with the people they are supposed to, and Jin Zixuan is determined to make his job as difficult as possible by refusing to acknowledge his sister’s existence. He has the Wen’s to deal with, knowing that if Madam Jin slip up or has a spy in her ranks it can reveal Old Man Yu and his hand in the issue, not to mention exposing Song Lan, Xiao Xingchen and A-Qing. That can have deadly consequences.

He has too much on his plate in this life to waste time worrying about attending some sort of competition just so that his mother can brag to her friends about her prodigious son.

He doesn’t let those thoughts dampen his enjoyment of the sport, instead focusing on the positives, like how Lan Zhan and Wei Ying has bonded over the fencing sessions, the youngest Lan even bringing his own gear every meeting so they can practice together. It’s insufferable seeing them make the kid version of heart-eyes at one another, but Jiang Cheng can’t stay too mad when Wei Ying has looked so unbearably happy afterwards, even if he has to ask his butler to threaten their chaperone up and down to ensure that news of the youngest Lan acquainting with them won't reach his mother.

The side-effects of Lan Zhan coming to their sessions is that Lan Xichen will be there as well.

Jiang Cheng isn’t sure why he decides to come, not when Lan Zhan has a bodyguard with him. Lan Xichen hasn’t even asked to duel once, preferring to deflect questions about his skills to cheering everyone on, though it isn’t hard to guess that he’s good, so he couldn’t have gone to the fencing club to test himself. Nie Mingjue has graduated not long ago, leaving his captainship to Wen Qing, so the only reason Lan Xichen would even bother coming has to be Meng Yao.

After their destined meeting a year ago, Nie Mingjue, Lan Xichen and Meng Yao immediately gravitate towards one another and form a bond comparable to the one the Venerable Triad had all in their previous lives. Although Nie Mingjue has always had a soft spot for Meng Yao – Jiang Cheng can tell, even if the older boy wouldn’t admit it – it’s Lan Xichen who has taken a liking to the younger boy and invites him into the Lan social circle, despite rumors that the Lan elders do not approve to their friendship after knowing the Meng family situation.

Jiang Cheng has never been fond of the Lan’s, especially not the Lan’s elders, who somehow manage to remain conservative old farts in all of his reincarnations. He’s told Lan Xichen as much, in more palatable wording, when the Lan has approached him after being reprimanded by his uncle for befriending Meng Yao. He doesn’t know why Lan Xichen looks for him of all people, especially when the Lan's are as wary of him as his own family are of the Lan's, but he figures he’s been Meng Yao’s friend for longer, and must’ve been met with a fair bit of resistance at the beginning by his parents as well, so if there's anyone to ask advice on the matter, it would be him.

Lan Xichen has laughed then, soft and delightful and so, so beautiful it makes Jiang Cheng’s heart does a little dance. He can't even hate himself for it, and ends up thinking about it over and over, when he's alone in bed, until he has to forcefully distracts himself into thinking about other matters.

So he chooses to focus on their next move.

Rumors are that the Wen’s are looking for a marksman with a preference for long-distance weapons and a grudge towards the Jiang’s. It doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots. After his father’s fail assassination, the Wen’s must’ve communicated with Jin Guangshan and other connections to find the perpetrator, no doubt to recruit him. Jiang Cheng is sure they aren’t the only one – any assassin who is skillful enough to penetrate the Jiang’s network of security is a worthy asset to any organization.

Jiang Cheng is content with letting Madam Jin deal with the rest, has it not for her to approach them and ask for their help.

Apparently, the federal agents she has been working with is adamant about knowing the identity of the person who executes the attempted assassination on Jiang Fengmian, even when she reveals to them that it’s a farce designed to lure out Jin Guangshan.

Xiao Xingchen pales when Old Man Yu first brings it up, no doubt recalling of his past troubles with the law and Xue Yang, but offers to work with the Feds if need be, which Song Lan immediately turned down, insisting that if they have to get involved, then he would rather it be him. Faced with Song Lan’s stubbornness, Jiang Cheng has to acquiesced with letting Song Lan meet with the agents on his own, A-Qing and Xiao Xingchen watching over him from a distance.

A-Qing has allowed Jiang Cheng and Old Man Yu a monitor so they can observe the situation as well. The agent seems to be a tall male who looks far too young to be doing this kind of work, with faded blond hair and large eyes, who looks as unassuming as one can be, if Jiang Cheng hasn’t spotted the bulge on his jacket that is no doubt concealing a gun.

Song Lan and the agent makes quick conversations before parting their ways. They have agreed to keep the story short: Song Lan has worked with the Jiang for a long time and developed deep loyalty towards them; after accompanying Jiang Fengmian to his meetings, he detects suspicious activities from Jin Guangshan and wants to lure him out; being Jiang Fengmian’s close bodyguard gives him the ability to fake the presence of a sniper when it is him who he contacts Madam Jin on his own and hands over the information he has.

He doesn’t understand Old Man Yu’s hesitation to lie to these agents, but time has changed since even his last reincarnation. Modern people have different sets of morality and standards that seems ridiculous for a child who is raised in war and becomes sect leader at the tender age of seventeen. However, at the end of the day, they all comply with his plan, because the lie is better than exposing the identity of Xiao Xingchen, A-Qing, and Old Man Yu.

Later, Song Lan has told Old Man Yu that the Feds need a codename to contact him, and he has given them one, based on a nickname he’s been called since he was a kid.

“Zichen.”

Old Man Yu hasn’t understood why he’s laughed so hard, but he can’t help but feel nostalgia washes over him like the gentle waves of Yunmeng lakes.

When was the last time he even used his courtesy name?

After his first reincarnation, his courtesy name has changed over the years, always something similar enough to his original one to remind him of his past, until it goes extinct altogether. Jiang Cheng sometimes finds that he misses it, but he still has Zidian and ghosts of the past in new bodies, so he is content with locking it in a cherished space at the back of his mind, rarely touched again. To hear a remnant of his past calls himself a courtesy name that’s supposed to have been lost to time, Jiang Cheng has the urge to pry open that space again and holds it delicately in his arms and feels like he’s in the old days again, where he can still the energy thrumming beneath the earth’s surface and qi cackling under his skin like lightning to the storm that’s embedded in his eyes.

Late that night, when he’s all alone on his head, he says it for the first time in thousands of years.

“Wanyin.”

And says it again, Wanyin, and chants it like a mantra, Wanyin Wanyin Wanyin, until it lulls him to sleep.

***

Life goes on like that, with Song Lan continuing his cooperation with the Feds, who luckily hasn’t contacted him frequently enough to be suspicious. Wei Ying continues to be sickeningly in love with Lan Zhan and yet remains completely oblivious about his own feelings. He can’t complain about that when Jin Zixuan thinks he can impress Yanli by deliberately ignoring her existence or answering her with the fewest words possible. Luckily, he’s sent to some private academy that’s too far from where they live, or else Jiang Cheng is sure he would’ve ripped the kid’s head off. At this age, the heir to the Jin empire is insufferable, testing even Yanli's nerves, so they might have to wait until he grows up for there to be any progress with his sister.

Lan Xichen and Meng Yao continues to be as close as brothers, Nie Mingjue sometimes joining them when he finishes classes at the middle school adjacent to their campus with the excuse of visiting his former fencing team to see if Wen Qing is doing a good job with his team, which earns an indignant huff from the current captain.

Although initially wary of Wen Qing and her potential connection to the Wen’s, Jiang Cheng is relieved to find out that in this life, her parents are a distant relative of the Wen’s and were disowned after housing a dying man who happened to be a federal agent on the run. They now works as doctors for Kaiser, raising their two children in a house in the suburbs, away from the eyes of their family.

The youngest, Wen Ning, has been sickly since he was a kid, and thus his parents deem that he should be kept at home until middle lest worsening his condition. The boy would sometimes drop by during their sessions, observing his sister skillfully maneuver the blade in awe. Because of his weak body, his parents haven’t allowed him to participate in sports, Wen Ning confesses to them once, so he always finds people who can do sports at such a young age “very cool.”

Jiang Cheng wants to hint at Wen Qing to enroll Wen Ning in the local archery club, but perhaps he should wait until the boy grows a bit more. The lack of cultivation makes him too aware of how weak the human body is, especially that of a child. Wen Qing would never forgive him if something is to happen to her brother.

After all, he wouldn’t want to make her dislike him, his captainship is on the line. It’s an open secret at this point that Jiang Cheng is the most likely candidate to inherited the captainship from Wen Qing after she graduates. Wei Ying, despite being a genius and excelling with his chosen weapon, the foil, has never been passionate about the sport, preferring to play his flute and compose music with Lan Zhan. The older kids all lose to Jiang Cheng at one point, they wouldn’t challenge him for the role.

And so Jiang Cheng becomes captain of the fencing team at the age of eight. He enjoys the way his teammates respect and rely on him, the hope in their eyes when he’s by their side. It reminds him of when he has taken up the title of the leader of his sect, still hurting too much and so so young, but he has done it for the hope in his people’s eyes and the legacy of the Jiang sect. It’s not the same, he knows that, even the stakes are not the same, but finding the familiar in this strange world he is reborn into helps him sane, helps remind him that there is something worth protecting and fighting for.

And maybe that’s all that matters.

Not long into their third year, Meng Yao misses class and practice without telling any of them. Worried, Yanli, Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng stops by the the Meng household only to find the apartment empty. After ringing his butler, who contacts the Jiang network, they find the boy sitting in the waiting room of the closest emergency with red eyes and puffy cheeks. Meng Yao didn’t react when he sees them, keeping his gaze to the floor and bringing his knees to his chest.

“They said something is wrong with mum.” He whispers, voice almost undiscernible from the chaos that wraps around them.

Jiang Cheng curses, uncaring that his siblings are there. He always forgets that Ms. Meng dies young.

They bring a shaken Meng Yao back home with them and let the boy sleeps in Wei Ying’s room, his older brother’s arms hovering protectively over their friend the whole time. It isn’t until both of them fall asleep that he sneaks to his room, where Old Man Yu tells him that Madam Jin contacts him after dinner to talk about a serious matter.

“Cancer.” Jiang Cheng doesn’t understand what that disease entails, but from the crease at the old man’s brows he figures it can’t be good. “It’s a serious and often times deathly disease.” There must’ve been something alarming on his face, because his butler adds quickly. “Lucky for her, they discover it at its early stage, so it can still be treated.”

He lets his mind process the information for a moment, examining every alternative.

“We can contact Madam Jin.” His butler offers what he knows is the most sensible solution, given her track record with the Meng family and the information she has obtained on them. He immediately turns it down.

“No. We have already asked her for a favor with tracking down Meng Yao. I don’t want to owe her anything.” He doesn’t think the woman is capable of doing anything malicious against the Jiang’s, but he’s not going to take any chances in his current situation and gamble away his secrets. If Madam Jin insists on keeping her cards close to her chest, he would be a fool to reveal his. “Is there any method to tap into my savings? My parents must have one of those set up for me. We can make an anonymous donation to them, or set up some program and enroll them on that.”

Old Man Yu taps his fingers on the armrest of his sofa, probably running through the logistics in his head, and nods firmly.

“I will work it out and contact Ms. Meng.”

He smiles. This life hasn’t been easy, but having someone understanding and helping him makes it so much better.

“I will trust you then.”

Meng Yao stays with them for a whole week, occupying a space next to Wei Ying on a bed too large for one and acquainting himself with the residences of the Jiang household. His mother predictably didn’t approve, but even she isn’t cruel enough to kick out a child who has nowhere else to go. The staffs find the small, quiet boy a refreshing presence in the house who insists on cleaning up after himself and helping out with the chores, despite being a guest. It’s obvious to Jiang Cheng that Ms. Meng has taught her son well, and Meng Yao has carried that manners with him wherever he goes. Looking at him now, he wonders when does this kid stop being polite and start pretending to stay in power?

Jiang Cheng doesn’t know if he can ever like Meng Yao, a part of him still doesn’t trust him, after everything he’s done, but he no longer feels an ugly and twisted desire for blood every time he looks at him, doesn’t feel like tearing the place apart when they cross eyes, and he thinks that’s progress.

When Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue visits his house, the frequency of their visits increasing now that Meng Yao moves in, they have looked so happy to see Meng Yao has friends his age that will look after and protect him. Lan Xichen has beamed at him as he shows them the short sketches he makes of them, short and sweet and spreads warmth around his chest like his second mother’s smiles, and it feels healing.

Jiang Cheng hasn’t thought that he can do more healing after thousands of years. He doesn’t hate it.

He adamantly doesn't think about the drawings Lan Xichen shows him in private, when the boy thinks they're alone, of him in a fencing match, of lilies the shade of the moon in the backdrop of the night, and asks to model for him like Jiang Cheng deserves it.

It makes dealing with his mother and the Lan's pestering about the two family heirs interacting a little bit more bearable. His mother, surprisingly, is the one who blinks first, passively allowing the Lan brothers to be in their house while turning a blind eye to what happens, which is probably one of the only concessions he has ever seen his mother subject herself to throughout the thousands of years he's spent living with her. Jiang Cheng has to find a way to appropriately deal with it some time later, establish some sorts of business deal between them, perhaps, when he's finally handed the reigns of the corporation his father is handling. He wants the two families to get along, which will make Lan Zhan and Wei Ying's eventual union a little bit more smooth-sailing. Besides, he doesn't want them to hate each other forever, especially when the cause of their rift in the first place is Jiang Cheng himself.

Their friend group all accompanied Meng Yao when they’re finally allowed visitation rights. Ms. Meng greets them, pale and tired but happy, and requests to speak to her son alone. When he comes out, the boy has crashed into Jiang Cheng’s chest and sobbed.

While Ms. Meng is hospitalized, a mysterious benefactor approaches her and offers to pay for the costly treatment of her breast cancer, a part of his program to help single moms overcome their financial difficulties to keep their families together. All of her skepticism vanishes when an oncologist who calls herself Dr. Chang calls her and sets up a meeting. A quick search is enough to find out about the doctor’s prestigious background, and thus, Ms. Meng has no choice but to accept the offer, even if it is too good to be anything but an advanced scam.

It’s best she doesn’t know about Dr. Chang’s affiliation with Old Man Yu, one of the many students he saves and fosters, or the origin to the money for her treatment. Jiang Cheng still feels guilty for making his butler uses the man’s own savings, but it’s the most reliable method to not leave a paper trail that can reach his parents.

“Wow, how can someone be so kind to offer that? It must be so expensive!” Nie Huaisang marvels, as if assessing if there’s anyone he knows who would be willing to do that. “What does he say his name is?”

Meng Yao looks up from his burger, eyes with enough wonder and admiration to make Jiang Cheng squirm beside him. He doesn’t need anyone, not Meng Yao out of all people, looking at him like that.

“He doesn’t give his last name.” He talks through his bites.

“But mum says to call him Wanyin.”

Above them, the sun retreats back to where it initially wakes, casting them in a golden hue, reflecting the eyes of the boys who has been his friends ever since his first life, who he loves with his whole heart, and someone else who isn't supposed to be there, but nevertheless does not look out of place. There's hope in their eyes, and happiness too, like the eyes of his people the day he returned to Lotus Pier to rebuild it from destruction, like the eyes of the infant in his arms who was too young to feel the death of his parents, and it's the most beautiful thing Jiang Cheng has ever seen.

Despite everything, despite having too long a way to go before he accomplish his goals, he can't help but think, there’s peace in this.

Chapter Text

Ms. Meng completes her cancer treatment in half a year, and takes another half for doctors to declare there is no evidence left of the disease in her. During that time, the chatters around Meng Yao has died down significantly, especially among the adults. Jiang Cheng even sees some teachers offering their assistance and even words of congratulations to his mother. He’d never thought that amidst the nasty things people are willing to say about one another, cancer is the one topic they won’t touch, but he’s glad for it nevertheless. Meng Yao seems a lot healthier and happier now, unlike the scared little boy he was when they first met all those years ago.

He also takes Nie Mingjue’s words to heart and starts standing up for himself, using a lot less murder and more of his naturally sharp tongue and keen sense of observation. In their previous lives, Meng Yao used to utilize his psychological weapons on those who insult him, now, he uses it on anyone who dares to say anything bad about his mother and his friends, and Jiang Cheng finds himself to be included in that circle.

He hasn’t expected it when it happens. They have overheard a group of their classmates talking about how Jiang Cheng is an angry, stubborn idiot whose only good trait is his family heritage, which is honestly tamed compared to the insults hurled at him over the years. He’s intended to walk away – body of an eight-year-old or not, he isn’t going to fight a bunch of kids – when Meng Yao cuts him off and stomps towards the presumed leader of the group.

“It seems like someone is bitter that they’re beaten by someone two years their junior.” He has the audacity to fucking smirks. “Next time, you can just say it to his face.”

Nie Huaisang nearly yelps when a punch comes towards Meng Yao’s face, which is dodged before Meng Yao throws back a slap – more for self-protection than to do any actual damage – towards its owner. A fight has broken out then, with Wei Ying doing the heavy lifting, because Jiang Cheng still isn’t going to fight children, that results in numerous bruises across their body that are thankfully easily hidden by their clothes. All four of them agree to not speak of the incident again.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t know what to make of it, and he still doesn’t, but maybe it’s for the best. It’s far more beneficial to stay on Meng Yao’s good side than his bad one.

Maybe, it’s even quite nice.

Just like that, another couple of years pass, and before he knows it, Jiang Cheng is forced to leave behind the team he captains to head to middle school. The Jiang’s don’t believe in pointless celebration, but still, a small party is thrown in their residence, and Nie Huaisang and Meng Yao are invited. The event feels too intimate and surreal, making his mind wander aimlessly into the abyss of his memories until he has to get up and take a walk, fearing that he might fall.

That’s how he stumbles upon Xiao Xingchen, alone, in the middle of their kitchen. There’re bags under his eyes and worry on his face.

“Mr. Xiao?” His whole body jerks as he turns around and politely bow to Jiang Cheng, always professional.

“Pardon me, Young Master Jiang. I didn’t notice your presence.”

Jiang Cheng shook his head. “I don’t mind. Why are you out so late? Where is Song Lan?”

Xiao Xingchen attempts calmness that Jiang Cheng almost falls for if not for the slight tremble in his right hand. His mind shakes off sleepiness and goes on full alert. “Song Lan is out, for… business. I’m waiting for him to come back.” Xiao Xingchen’s remains even, and Jiang Cheng nods, understanding, before he notices how the other man’s gaze has strayed from the window and is now boring a hole at the top of his head. Their eyes meet when he finally looks up, confused and baffled at the sudden change in attitude. He can’t remember the first time Xiao Xingchen look him in the eye.

After the pair of bodyguards reject his proposal nearly four years ago, he has rarely conversed with them alone, and the time that they do, they pointedly refuse to acknowledge their meeting. Jiang Cheng is fully aware of how intelligent the pair is, knows they must’ve realized how he isn’t acting like a normal child, but he is willing to keep them in the dark rather than letting them know. There are very few people Jiang Cheng is willing to entrust his secrets, the equivalent of giving away his life, and Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan, despite being good people in the duration of the time Jiang Cheng has known them, are still mere strangers to him.

“You know that I’m a sniper.” Xiao Xingchen begins. “Due to the nature of my job, I have very good vision, and that makes me more perceptive than the common people.”

Where is he going with this?

“Four years ago, in the kitchen, I notice you staring at my scar.” Xiao Xingchen says, his hand no longer trembling. It’s Jiang Cheng’s turn to flinch. “I found it…odd, because you’ve never looked at my scar before, but I didn’t mind it. Plenty of people have, some even asked me about what happened.”

Insensitive assholes, he wants to say, but holds his tongue.

“I have expected you to be scared of such a gnarly scar, or even take pity on me,” never, not when I have them myself, phantom scars that span across my chest mourning the loss of a thing that can’t be formed anymore, “but I saw neither of those things, in your eyes. What I see instead is… understanding.”

So his subtle attempt at observation wasn’t so subtle after all.

“I thought at first that my eyes were tricking me, because there is no way you can understand what happened, what I went through. But then…” His voice drops lower, only a whisper now. “Then you told me about Xue Yang.”

Jiang Cheng could only nod, unable to find the appropriate word, hoping that the other man would take the hint and divert to another topic. Instead he presses on.

“I don’t know how you could’ve found out about Xue Yang, when Mr. Yu promises me that he would not tell anyone, not even your parents. Even if you look me up, nothing should’ve been available. Song Lan and Mr. Yu makes sure to wipe my trail clean before I move here. The information about my existence is valuable, and definitely not something a six-year-old child can just find from a quick Google search.”

It feels like Xiao Xingchen isn’t rambling to him anymore, but to himself. “Then you’ve come and tell me that crazy plan, and it sounds… awful, but we end up executing your plan anyways because it leads us to find out about Jin Guangshan.” These are all things he shouldn’t have known, and yet Xiao Xingchen still chooses to tell him. It’s reckless, which isn’t like him, so there can only be one possibility: the man thinks Jiang Cheng already knows. He isn’t far off the mark. “And now A-Lan is working with the Feds and a regular visitor to the house is one of Jin Guangshan’s illegitimate children and we are on track to take down one of the most notorious families in the entirety of California and somehow, it feels like it’s all connected, and I know Mr. Yu couldn’t have been behind it, or else he would’ve done something a long time ago. He is only loyal to the Jiang’s, so whoever is pulling the strings must’ve been a Jiang as well. It could be your mother, but she is out of the loop as I am.”

Jiang Cheng hasn’t noticed that Xiao Xingchen has stepped closer to him, their feet almost touching.

“And then I remember you looking at my scar all those years ago. Suddenly, everything makes sense, except it doesn’t, because you were a six-year-old child.” He takes a breath.

“So, forgive me for being forward, Young Master Jiang, but why were you looking at my scar?”

Xiao Xingchen’s voice sounds parched by the time he finishes, and Jiang Cheng wonders if he should offer the man a drink; he needs one too, preferably alcoholic. He doesn’t say that.

“I know the scar on your neck is self-inflicted.” He says instead.

Xiao Xingchen’s breath hitches, and he grips the hem of the curtain of the kitchen window that overlooks the sky outside, as if wanting to peer out to inspect if they are being watched. The air around them is quiet, the surroundings pitch black from the lack of light source. Jiang Cheng has always disliked moonless nights, yet today it feels strangely appropriate.

Jiang Cheng has prepared for the barrage of questions Xiao Xingchen understandably has. He hasn’t expected what the man says next.

“I was abandoned as a child.” Jiang Cheng blinks, looking up, a terrible realization hits him like a fistful of swords. “A very kind woman adopted me and raised me until I was old enough to leave on my own. I then travelled all over the world, doing odd jobs here and there. I learned how to use a gun, then learned how to be a sniper. The work I do wasn’t entirely…legal, but it’s what I thought was right. That was how I met Song Lan, while I was on the job. We travelled together for a while, but then we parted, not on good terms.”

Xiao Xingchen’s voice quivers, and he closes his eyes, as if trying to chase away tears.

“I moved back to China, lived in a secluded area around the Chinese border.” He took a deep breath. “One day, I found Xue Yang at the verge of death near the Chinese border. No one knew his face back then, I didn’t either. I healed him and let him stay with me for two years. Afterwards, Song Lan found me, and found out about Xue Yang, because they crossed paths before.”

Xiao Xingchen slumps to the floor and leans against the wall, boneless, like a puppet with its strings cut. Jiang Cheng squats down next to him and deliberates what to do. He has never seen the man like this, ever.

“That bastard killed Song Lan’s entire family, and I took him in and saved his life.” The laugh he let out was a broken thing, tears streaming down his cheeks. “It was the darkest times of my life. Afterwards, we contacted Mr. Yu, who knew my mother. He helped us give Xue Yang over to the federal authorities. We erased all of our paper trails and moved here and have worked for your family ever since.”

So that’s the reason for the scar.

After Xiao Xingchen finishes his story, he sits up and looks back at Jiang Cheng, an uncanny determination in his eyes.

“There’s an expression, an eye for an eye.” He doesn’t like where this is going. “You were curious about my scars, my stories, so I told it to you. Now tell me yours.”

Jiang Cheng shifts to his right, putting a distance between him and the man who’s determined to burn a hole into his forehead. Finally, he gets up, pulls the taller man with him and drags both of them into his bedroom. When he is certain that they’re uninterrupted, he sits down next to the Xiao Xingchen, who’s waiting patiently for his side of the story. He rubs the patch of skin that connects his palm and middle finger, twirling a ring that’s no longer there.

“I can’t tell you everything, you know that.” A frown marred Xiao Xingchen’s handsome features as he nods. “But I can tell you that I know about Jin Guangshan working with the Wen’s, and I was the one who reveal that to Mr. Yu. I was the one who set up the plan to failed assassination of my father.”

This feels different than confessing everything to Old Man Yu. This feels like carving out his chest and feed it to the wolves; he trusts Xiao Xingchen, but not in the way he trusts his family or his former servant.

“I was also the one who gave the evidence A-Qing found to Madam Jin and asks her to investigate her husband. I was the one who asks her to track down Meng Yao and brings his family to Pasadena. I was the one who enrolls him to my school and befriends him, all while knowing that he is one of Jin Guangshna’s many illegitimate children.” He lowers his voice. “I was the one who helps his mother with her cancer treatment. I offer to pay for everything and Mr. Yu helps me.”

He knows Xiao Xingchen deserves better after telling him his life story, but he can’t bring himself to talk about reincarnations and history repeating itself, not because he doesn’t think the man doesn’t believe it, but because he’s afraid he would, and his secrets will no longer be called that anymore. Even if those secrets are terrible, they are his to keep, his burden to bear.

“You were six years old.”

Jiang Cheng has always been protective about what’s his. His secrets are his. Wei Ying is a part of him. Old Man Yu is a part of him. Xiao Xingchen isn’t.

“You’re right. I was six years old.”

So he keeps his mouth shut and refuse to elaborate, despite the hisses in his bones urging him to confess everything.

"You can see the future?" He asks, face as confused as he sounds.

"Not really," he replies, "but I can have a pretty good guess of it, and everyone who I help is important - Wei Ying, Madam Jin, you, Mr. Song, Meng Yao - but I can't tell you how, I just -" he takes a deep breath. exhales, "I just need you to trust me."

The space between them seems suffocating, and then something shifts in Xiao Xingchen’s face.

“There’s a mole in the FBI,” the man chokes out, no longer speaking to a child, “that’s what my sources tell me. I think the Wen’s know about A-Lan’s presence. I – I think he’s in danger. A-Lan told me that he can handle himself, but I’m worry nevertheless.”

He quiets, “I’ve worked too hard and waited too long for us to be together again. I can’t lose him. Not… again.”

There’s something wistful and desperate in the silence that befalls them. Jiang Cheng hates comforting people, but at that moment he walks up to Xiao Xingchen and presses his face against his chest to feel the rapid movement of his heart. A pale hand with long fingers cards through his hair, like a father would his own child.

“I don’t fault you for playing the games you’re playing, Young Master Jiang,” the heartbeat slows until it settles back to its normal pace, “but you must realize that those games are dangerous, and there are going to be consequences. I just hope that A-Lan isn’t a part of those consequences.”

“He won’t.” Jiang Cheng promises, a futile thing he isn’t sure he can keep, but he tries anyways, and hopes that it will be enough.

***

According to Xiao Xingchen, there are information on sale for a high price on the market that shouldn’t have been publicly available, and the only possible justification is that someone is leaking that information from inside the FBI. Among the pieces of intel being sold is the identity of the person who stages the infamous assassination on the head of the Jiang family, and that person is actively collaborating with the Feds to bring down the Wen’s. Over the next few weeks, he discusses with Old Man Yu to increase the security around the Jiang residence, even to their staffs, paying special attention to Song Lan.

Luckily, Song Lan seems to be aware of the severity of the situation and goes through necessary steps to ensure his own safety. Jiang Cheng isn’t sure how much Xiao Xingchen tells him, but Song Lan thrusts towards him a pocket knife and teaches him how to conceal it in his regular uniform as to not arouse suspicion. He sounds half careful around Jiang Cheng and half horrified at himself for giving a ten-year-old a weapon. Jiang Cheng has laughed then.

“No offense, Mr. Song, but I doubt a knife isn’t going to help much,” He wishes he has a phone to record Song Lan’s face as he completes his sentence, “I’d rather you just give me a gun.”

He soon learns that gun laws in the United States, particularly his state, is… complicated, to say the least. All he knows is that he isn’t allowed to carry one to his middle school, and his usage is restrained in a tiny shooting range the Jiang owns, far away from the curious eyes of strangers. Even the guns they use are different, smaller and made of different materials than the one he used to own, but it feels familiar enough in his hands, even if he’s shaking, too.

He’d never liked guns, wants to go back to his fencing club, wants to go back to his sword that no one uses anymore, feels lightning that doesn’t taste like ashes curl around him. But he can’t, and he still needs to protect himself, and guns are far more effective than any blade, so he waits until Xiao Xingchen finishes his spiel about how dangerous the gun is, how he should put his foot to minimize the effects of a recoil, and fires.

He can only faintly hear the deafening burst of gunpowder through the soundproof headphones, but he hears his own heartbeat, hears the excitement threatening to eat him alive, reminding him of the first time he holds the sabre in his hands.

Jiang Cheng has never been the best at aiming, not for archery, and not with a gun either, but he has far more practice than either of his bodyguards.

The bullet he fires lands in the white space right above the target’s shoulder. He retracts his hands, gently caressing the tender skin between his thumb and index finger, where the beginning of a chaffing is beginning to form. His technique is right, but it’s been too long, and this body isn’t used to it. But Jiang Cheng has trained his muscle memory to get use to fencing, to its strange rules and techniques, he will beat the memory of all those times he’s used a gun into his body if he needs to. He clicks his tongue and fires, again, and again.

By the time he empties his magazine, he’s managed to put a bullet into each shoulder, one in the stomach, and one in the left chest area, where he would have punctured a lung if the target is an actual human.

“You’re good.” Song Lan compliments, frank and… amused, strangely enough.

Jiang Cheng waves him off. “I’ve watched a lot of movies.” That’s perhaps the most boldfaced lie he’s ever told, and none of them believe it.

Old Man Yu examines the target carefully, “None of them land on the chest. You should aim at the center of the target, lethal points.”

Jiang Cheng’s grip tightens around his gun, and he bites back the urge to scream. He has hoped no one notices that. “I’m looking for methods of self-defense, not to kill anyone, Mr. Yu.” He thinks he hides the trembles in his voice, and they don’t touch the topic until they head back to the Jiang mansion.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to prod at old wound.” The man says when they’re back in his room, away from their bodyguards. Jiang Cheng hopes his former servant isn’t offended when he shuts the door to the bathroom without answering.

The water is scalding, but it washes away the gunpowder that clings to his skin and that’s enough of a remedy for now. Jiang Cheng folds himself into a fetal position and prays it’s also going to be enough to peel away the sin that lingers on his tongue and wither the blood-matted lilies in his heart.

Chapter Text

Months pass by without them hearing from the Wen’s. Jiang Cheng wants to believe the Wen’s know that the Feds are on them and are laying low, but the more likely scenario is that they’re scheming something big and waiting for the opportunity to strike, so he asks his butler to double the security around the house and to have someone accompany his siblings and Song Lan. For good measures, he also implements watchers over the Meng family, not worrying too much about the Lan’s and the Nie’s. The Lan’s are some of the richest and most influential families in the area, rivaled among the Chinese community only by the Jin’s, and the Nie’s, a prominent presence in the steel manufacture industry, wouldn’t let anything touch their sons.

Song Lan is still his biggest concern, since his position as a bodyguard allows for more opportunity to be attacked. Xiao Xingchen thinks the same, constantly fretting over his partner, even going as far as to give him a tracker and an emergency phone in case things go awry.

Xiao Xingchen is so focused on Song Lan he never considers that he himself might be targeted. Jiang Cheng hasn’t either – a gross oversight on his part, and one that he pays dearly for.

Jiang Cheng just arrives back home from fencing practice when he receives news that Xiao Xingchen has been admitted to the emergency room since early morning, while escorting his father to work, and has been in surgery for six hours. The incident occurs inside of the local gas station, where Xiao Xingchen stops by on his way to the Jiang headquarter, and is labelled by the local police as a burglary gone wrong. Jiang Cheng feels like he has a good idea of who the real culprits are.

He almost regrets coming to the hospital when he sees Song Lan sitting in the waiting room, his head buried in A-Qing’s shoulders as the young hacker hushes words of comfort to his ears. The sound that comes out of his throat is raw, unintelligible, like he’s been sobbing for hours, which he probably has.

A-Qing is the one that spots him and his butler, blinking away her own tears to give them a reassuring smile that looks out of place on a girl who wears her emotions on her sleeve. They waits together for hours, before the doctors announce that Xiao Xingchen barely survives and is currently in a comatose state. A-Qing has cried then. It arouses in him anger he doesn’t realize he possess anymore, hasn’t felt since the first time he sees Meng Yao again, an uncontrollable rage that renders his self-control useless, that urges him to destroy everything and make them beg for their lives and kill them until there is no one left.

The last time, he manages to calm himself down enough to treat Meng Yao like a human being using a white ribbon that reminds him of the past. He still has it, loops it into a bow that is tucked loosely on the inside of his favorite purple jacket. He hasn’t given in then, but he wants to now. The Wen’s are not Meng Yao; they deserve only the most painful deaths, and he prefers to be the one to deliver it upon them.

But not now, not yet. He needs a plan, needs time to plan his next steps, so he heads to his bedroom early. He wishes his parents goodnight, watches the way his mother’s lips tremble as her hands squeeze her husband’s enough to hurt. The entire ordeal must’ve brought up some unpleasant memories for her, which he has taken part in. He swallows back the guilt before it does him and kisses the cheeks of his siblings, still reeling from what happens. Lastly, he approaches his butler, who has been trying to keep the household together after the chaos that unfolds that day, and wraps an arm around the man’s shoulder, barely reaching due to their height difference.

Jiang Cheng sees the exhaustion in every step he takes, the anger embedded in his stiff shoulders, knows the man is as furious as him. While Jiang Cheng only respects Xiao Xingchen, his butler has taken him in and treat him like his own son. It’s honestly quite admirable that the man is still standing here to perform his duties instead of breaking down.

“You should rest early.” It isn’t a request - it’s a command, and Old Man Yu knows enough to bow before retreating back to his own quarters.

The situation settles down over the course of the following week. Song Lan and A-Qing are released from their respective duties to spend time in Xiao Xingchen’s hospital room, where Jiang Cheng and his groups of friends would visit afterschool. Even Nie Huaisang, who has a fear of blood, and Meng Yao, who hates hospitals, insist on coming with them. Wei Ying offers to play his music, claiming it has healing properties, and Yanli brings her soup to the hospital for Song Lan and A-Qing, even when the former barely touches it. His mother, noticing her butler’s distress, takes on more strenuous duties within the household and let the man cope in peace. Even Wen Qing, now captain again after Nie Mingjue graduates, doesn’t comment on Jiang Cheng’s mistakes during their fencing sessions. doesn’t comment on his mistakes during their fencing lessons. For a while, Jiang Cheng could almost pretend like everything is fine.

But it isn’t. There’s still undeniable tension in the air, the kind that leaves an sour taste in his mouth that won’t come out until all the Wen’s are gone - he knows they won’t stop until they have Song Lan’s head.

“They weren’t targeting him. They were targeting me.” Song Lan murmurs, hands tracing the outline of his partner’s face, who has just survived a deadly encounter less than twelve hours earlier. “It’s a warning.”

Jiang Cheng doesn’t know what to say, isn’t even sure if his pitiful attempt at an apology will be accepted, so he just nods and lets the beeping of the breathing machine drowns out the noises in his head.

At the end of the week, when he doesn’t expect any more surprises, his butler barges into his room, a flash of genuine fear crosses his face.

“Xue Yang just escaped from prison.”

***

Jiang Cheng met Xue Yang once his first life, had chills running down his spine the moment they locked eyes when Xiao Xingchen brings him to Jin Guangshan to be punished. They didn’t see each other again, even as Xue Yang became a guest disciple at Koi Tower, and what little Jiang Cheng knows of the madman afterwards was told to him by his nephew. Nevertheless, he’s heard the stories, knows the history between Xue Yang, Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan, and eventually witnesses it repeats itself in every reincarnation that he stumbles upon the pair again.

Xue Yang is a child born of desperation and misery, who wears his trauma like a skin around his body, as drenched with blood as the tip of his blades and the barrel of his guns. There’s a part of him that’s pitiful, that reminds Jiang Cheng so much of Wei Ying, except that’s false too, because Wei Ying has killed countless people, too many of them innocent, but he’s never cruel, and never without reason, as much reason as one can muster up during war. Xue Yang has never managed to do even that.

Jiang Cheng sees how Xue Yang loves Xiao Xingchen, how that love breaks them both, before he realizes that what Xue Yang feels isn’t love at all. It’s a juvenile, twisted obsession of a broken child who was too eager to latch onto the first person who shows him any kindness; eventually, it pushes him to destroy the world around him to keep that person by his side. Jiang Cheng realizes this too late and hopes that one day Xue Yang would realize it too; it would’ve made all their lives so much easier.

He never does, and this lifetime is no exception.

Old Man Yu immediately goes on alert, heightening the security around their mansion and post watchers all over Southern California. They aren’t sure if Xue Yang knows if Xiao Xingchen’s current residence, but connections forged from a lifetime of heinous crimes should not be underestimated. Song Lan and A-Qing wants to track the criminal down and kill him before any damage can be done, but Old Man Yu advises against it, worries that it would be too risky. Jiang Cheng has a feeling they’re all wrong; the timing is too much of a coincidence, so it’s more likely that Xue Yang would come to them.

A text is sent to Song Lan that traces to some rural area in Germany. There’s no message, just an address to a warehouse in the Red Light district off central Los Angeles and a time that’s four hours from now. They don’t have time to prepare, not that they needs to. Jiang Cheng has no wish to capture or kill Xue Yang, at least for now. He just wants to talk.

Old Man Yu’s face darkens when Jiang Cheng demands to come to the meeting, but opposition is futile when he has made up his mind. They both know even if they try to lock him up he would crawl there himself, so his butler relents and teaches him how to use a silencer before they accompany Song Lan to their desired destination.

Song Lan has shouted at them, asking if he’s crazy, and Jiang Cheng has calmly replied to him that he might be, just a little bit, as they all have known by now, and that makes him the only person equipped to deal with Xue Yang.

When they arrive, Xue Yang is already seated on the couch of the living room, sipping on some wine that can almost be mistaken for blood. The man looks older than Jiang Cheng remembers, barely a child when he was handed to the Jin’s the first time they met, but his eyes are the same –a vicious shade of brown that glows red under the dim lights, cold and uncaring, now widening as he spots Jiang Cheng among Song Lan’s entourage.

He sits up, but doesn’t approach them, knows that he shouldn’t, “Long time no see, Mr. Yu, Song Lan,” he hums, before narrowing his eyes on Jiang Cheng, a steely glint in them that is reminiscent of a predator cornering its prey, “and the Young Master Jiang.”

Song Lan steps up, covering half of Jiang Cheng behind him, but Jiang Cheng stops him and saunters forward, “Mr. Xue,” he nods but doesn’t extend his arms, he isn’t that stupid, “I’m Jiang Cheng, nice to meet you.”

He knows a lot more about Xue Yang than anyone else ever can, and one thing that he knows in every single lifetime he’s lived through is that Xue Yang is a monster, and he’s very good at dealing with monsters.

(Because he’s one, because he’s capable of doing monstrous things, because he has done monstrous things, because that’s how they look at him as they scream and cry and beg for their lives - )

Xue Yang bursts into laughter, “And why is the heir of the esteemed Jiang family lowering himself by meeting a dirty street rat like me?”

There’s resentment and jealousy in his voice that Jiang Cheng files away for another time; he has business to attend to now. “I’m here to talk about Mr. Xiao and the Wen’s. There’s no one more qualified to discuss that matter.”

The smirk Xue Yang sports slides off his face, and it’s only then that Jiang Cheng notices the tension in his neck, the anger that simmers just below the surface of tanned skin, threatening to erupt. “What happened?”

Song Lan raises his voice, Jiang Cheng beats him to it. “Mr. Xiao has been working with the Feds to investigate the Wen’s, who’s been causing trouble for the Jiang’s and his family.” He lies smoothly, watches as the vein on the other man’s temple becomes more prominent. “He hasn’t suspected that there is a mole from within who leaks his identity to the Wen’s. They put a hit job on him. He’s shot during a staged attempted burglary and is recovering from surgery.”

With one swift movement, Xue Yang crushes the cup in his hand, the sound of broken glass echoes in the quiet room, Rivulets of wine mixed with blood stream down his hand, dirtying the concrete floor beneath them. The monster in front of him looks murderous, as he should be, but when he speaks again, his voice is soft, quiet, “How is he?”

Jiang Cheng sighs, “He was in surgery for a while, still in a coma.” To avoid prodding the beast, he quickly adds, “but he’s fine now. The doctor says he’s going to wake up soon.”

Xue Yang’s shoulders sag in relief, and Jiang Cheng almost misses the brief flash of care in his face that can only come from genuine affection for another human, before Xue Yang stares directly at him, his grin full of teeth that he hasn’t known can be that sharp on anything but a canine.

“I’m going to kill the Wen’s,” he spits out, “I’m going to hunt every single one of them down until there is none of them left.”

Jiang Cheng doesn’t reply, merely gestures towards Old Man Yu, who steps up next to him with an envelope in his hand.

“In this envelope is information about the Wen’s Xiao Xingchen has collected over the years, some of their key locations, warehouses, important middle-men, things like that,” he explains, “you might find some of them useful. I don’t doubt your skills and connections, but this will quicken the process.”

Xue Yang narrows his eyes at them and snatches the envelope out of Old Man Yu’s hands. The furrow between his eyebrows deepens as he scans its content, “You know why I came here,” It sounds like an accusation, and Jiang Cheng doesn’t understand why.

“Of course I do, Mr. Xue. If I don’t know then I wouldn’t have come here.” If he has to guess, Xue Yang probably keeps tabs of the outside world even when he’s imprisoned, has probably planned his escape already. If Xue Yang knows about Song Lan enough to initiate contact, that means he has been keeping tabs of Xiao Xingchen, and must’ve heard about the man’s near encounter with death, giving him the perfect motivation to execute his jailbreak and seek revenge for the man he not-loves. When he has all the dots, it’s a simple task of connecting them together, so much so that Jiang Cheng doesn’t understand why Xue Yang is surprise someone else has figured it out.

Jiang Cheng wants to take the words back as soon as they leave his mouth, goosebumps emerge across his back as Xue Yang eyes him like a butcher examining his cut of meat.

Does he hate other people finding out his plans?

“I’ll tell you what I’d do to the Wen’s,” the smirk is back, “I’m going to hunt down Wen Ruohan and his offspring, cut off all of their fingers and toes, tear them from limb to limb,” his voice is slow and even, puncturing each word with perfect clarity, “I’m going to gouge out their eyes, pull out their teeth, peel off their skins and wear it like a robe in front of them, and when they finally beg for their deaths, I will give them the mercy of killing them.”

There’s something like amusement in those words, and a thinly veiled threat too. Jiang Cheng wonders if this is some sort of psychological warfare, recalling reading about how Xue Yang prefers to play with his toys before devouring them. The tactic obvious works, as both Song Lan and Old Man Yu reel back in disgust, the former reaching to his back for his gun, wanting nothing more than to kill the madman who made his partner’s life miserable for so long. He’s probably wanted to do that since they first step in the room, and eventually Jiang Cheng might let him, not right now though, they still need to kill the Wen’s.

A long time ago, those words might have the same effects on him as they do his companions, but Jiang Cheng has lived for too long, has seen too much and done too much, so he doesn’t even bat an eyelash.

“My apologies, Xue Yang,” he gives his best bored expression, deliberately forgoing all formalities, “but I simply do not give a fuck about what you do to the Wen’s. I do not give a fuck what kind of torture you apply on them, if anything, the one thing we might agree on is that they need to suffer before they die for their wrongdoings.”

Unlike his two useless sons, Wen Ruohan is a genius in both cultivation and strategy, capable of amassing great manpower and resources while simultaneously slipping under everyone’s radar until it’s already too late. He’s seen the man taking advantage of people’s complacency to gain power and would hate it if Xue Yang ends up committing the same mistake.

“Make sure the Wen’s, especially Wen Ruohan, are all dead, and they stay dead. That is all I’m asking for.”

A prolonged silence befalls the room as all three men stares at him, variations of astonishment on their faces. Determining that he has nothing else to say, Jiang Cheng signals at his butler and bodyguard and leaves the building, leaving a stunned Xue Yang behind them as they slam the door shut.

Song Lan carefully approaches him many hours later, when he’s busy finishing up the last of his homework, a dictionary on his lap so that he doesn’t accidentally use an ancient Chinese word, a particularly bad habit he hasn’t been able to shake off. Jiang Cheng watches, amused, as the man more than triple his age shifts uneasily from his position before speaking, voice soft.

“Thank you for today. You dealt with him well, if it was me I would’ve reacted more rashly and ruined our plans.”

Jiang Cheng nods, expecting to hear the door shut, but instead, Song Lan bites his lips and avoids his gaze.

“Also, Young Master Jiang, you should stop watching so many movies. They can be terrible influences.” He mumbles, blushes, probably realizes he isn’t in a position to advise the young master of the house. Jiang Cheng can’t fault Song Lan for worrying about him; the man has seen him grown up, probably sees him as an innocent, albeit aggressive, kid, but never a cruel one.

I’ve lived for far longer than you ever will, and done far worse things that you could ever dream of, Jiang Cheng thinks but doesn’t say, “Mr. Song,” he says instead, “you can kill Xue Yang after he’s finished with the Wen’s. I know you want to.”

Song Lan’s face darkens, shifts from embarrassment to poorly concealed anger, and he manages a nod before scurrying out of the room, the door hinges rattle from the force he applies on them. Jiang Cheng wonders if it’s because his intentions are found out or because he’s ashamed for having them in the first place. He doesn’t dwell on the thought when Wei Ying barges into his room and tackles him down on his bed, shouting about how he and Lan Zhan are composing a song together, and demands they call Nie Huaisang and Meng Yao over to celebrate over a round of Mario Kart.

Apparently Yanli has invited Wen Qing and Wen Ning over, the pair bonding over numerous meetings at the fencing clubs when Wen Qing has taught his sister how to treat bruises so she can apply it on her unruly brothers. Wen Qing has demanded her baby brother be included in the Mario Kart, and she will join them, presumably to ensure her brother has an edge in the competition. However, she ends up being even more competitive than all of them, using all dirty tricks in the book to win. The friendly game descends into a shouting match that results in a pillow and food fight that would've horrified his mother if she isn’t at the Jin household right now.

As he watches Wen Qing putting Wei Ying in a chokehold, Yanli desperately trying to separate them, Jiang Cheng feels contentment washing over him, driving him away from thoughts of Xue Yang and the Wen’s and the demons of his past. This is what he’s fighting for, and even if he has to sacrifice blood or his sanity or even his own life, he would do it all over again, because it’s worth it.

He can’t have everything he wants, he learns that now, but if this is second best, then he will take it and maybe he wouldn’t die with as many regrets.

Chapter Text

Rumors that the infamous psychopath and newly freed man Xue Yang is out for Wen blood spreads like wildfire in their circle. His parents speak nothing of it, but children talk, and soon enough, Nie Huaisang, who’s always been more interested in people and stories than he does his academics, starts whispering to them about how the Wen’s mess with the wrong person and is now suffering the consequences. He whispers in hushed tones about Xue Yang’s cruel deeds, all of which Jiang Cheng has read about before. He plays along, observing the expression on his friends’ face, particularly Meng Yao’s, as Nie Huaisang recounts a story of how Xue Yang once used his charms to seduce the son of a Russian millionaire, but the guy ghosted him after a one-night stand. Enraged, the killer tracked down his prey, cut off his dick and stole all of his money, then let him bleed out of his genitals on the hotel bed.

Jiang Cheng briefly wonders how an eleven-year-old Nie Huaisang gets his hand on such gnarly stories, but the Internet is truly an amazing place).

By the time he finishes, Meng Yao’s face has turned ashen green, and he gulps his soda like a man about to die of thirst.

“That’s so cruel,” he mutters, “even if the millionaire’s son wrongs him, he shouldn’t have taken such drastic measures. No one deserves to die such a way.”

You’ve done worse to your own father, Jiang Cheng muses. Not that he faults Meng Yao for it. The cultivation world was scandalized when they found out, but even then, he’d thought that Jin Guangshan deserved it. The way someone lives should be reflected in how they died, and Jin Guangshan’s death was entirely of his own making.

Wei Ying repaid for the crimes he committed when he committed suicide at Burial Mounds, but then he was brought back to life because despite the blood on his hand, he’d also done a breathtaking amount of good, had somehow managed to fit the criteria of what fate called righteous. He then lived a happy life and died in his husband’s arms, deservingly so.

Jiang Cheng, who did terrible, unspeakable things during his first life, somehow managed to die a peaceful death, with his reputation mostly intact and his loved ones either gone or content with their lives. That was nowhere near enough of a severe punishment for the souls he’s tortured and taken away, and he knows it.

Perhaps that’s why it’s him and not Wei Ying or anyone else that fate has bestowed this curse on.

He wishes they has dragged him to the afterlife kicking and screaming.

Next to him, Wei Ying clutches his Switch and scoffs.

“Who cares? The Wen’s is behind Mr. Xiao’s “accident,” right? Also aren’t they behind Uncle Jiang’s attempted assassination? If anything, he’s doing us all a favor. Right, Jiang Cheng?”

The three pairs of eyes zeroing in on him snap him out of his thoughts. He speaks up, concise and final.

“Mercy should only be extended to people who deserve it.”

All three nod at him, as if they understand, and he wonders if they actually do.

***

He’s heard the stories about Xue Yang, knows most if not all of them are true without exaggeration, but the news of Wen Ruohan’s death a year after their meeting still sends him reeling. It is without a doubt Xue Yang’s doing; the Wen’s have been on the run ever since they realize the madman set a target on their backs, and when the underworld caught wind of it, no one has dared to go after the Wen’s. Xue Yang’s reputation is as well-known as his sadistic tendencies, and he doesn’t like anyone messing with his toys.

Nevertheless, the Wen’s have old money, power and history, their leader shouldn’t have been killed so easily, and especially not by one man. Jiang Cheng wonders if there’s something more behind it, a piece of puzzle he’s somehow missed. Has there been a spy in the higher-ups that’s been assisting Xue Yang? Surely there must’ve been people vying for his position within the family. Knowing the Wen’s, Jiang Cheng wouldn’t be surprise that even his sons are involved.

The next day, Wen Ruohan’s oldest son, Wen Xu, is found dead.

It isn’t this one, then.

Jiang Cheng banishes his suspicions and focuses on the small victories. The Wen’s losing Wen Ruohan is like a snake losing its head. Now that Wen Xu is dead as well there will be intense power struggles within them, an impossible task when the death count reports indicate that Xue Yang kills almost a third of their manpower, and another third abandon ship. The youngest, Wen Chao, who is currently hiding with his trusted right-hand man, if he is anything similar to how Jiang Cheng remembers him, is stupid, rash and useless, so he will either be taken over by someone else soon enough or will lead his empire into ruins.

Either way, Jiang Cheng feels like he can rest easy regarding the Wen’s. He’s now more worried about Xiao Xingchen. The former sniper has woken up three months after his coma and is still undergoing extensive physical therapy to get back to his peak condition. Although steady progress has been made, he wouldn’t be able to fend off Xue Yang on his own if the man decides to come find him. Song Lan and A-Qing are protective, rarely letting him out of their sights, but just how much of a match they are to a monster who just sets one of the most prominent families in the United States into a path of destruction?

The thing is, Jiang Cheng would never call himself wise, but when you live as long as he is, you start to develop intuition beyond levels a normal human can, which also means that he’s rarely wrong with his suspicions.

This time he wishes he does.

It’s supposed to be a peaceful day. Wei Ying has orchestra practice with Lan Zhan, Nie Huaisang is forced on doing some extracurricular activities by his brother, Meng Yao says he is going to spend the day shopping with his mother, and Yanli is accompanying their mother to the Jin’s. It seems that both his mother and Madam Jin are trying to set his sister and Jin Zixuan together, despite the peacock’s insistence that he has no interest in his sister, his loss, really. It’s the perfect opportunity for him to visit Xiao Xingchen in their usual shooting range to sharpen up his skills, despite having no need for it yet.

He doesn’t even make it through the front door when A-Qing pins him to a nearby wall and covers his mouth, shaking her head vigorously, as if motioning for him to stay quiet. Next to him, Old Man Yu is on full alert, reaching into his vest coat to pull out a handgun – in hindsight, he shouldn’t really be surprise but oh shit his butler knows how to use a gun and how cool is that – and dashes into the building through the backdoor. Only then does A-Qing lets go of his mouth, allowing him to see how hard she is shaking.

They both know the reason.

“Xue Yang is in there.”

Despite A-Qing's protests, Jiang Cheng tiptoes in through the same path his butler has gone, poaching a handgun atop a shelf and loading it just in case. He doesn’t want the confrontation to get violent, but knowing both Xue Yang and Song Lan, especially with his temper at the moment, it’s best to prepare for the worst.

It doesn’t take long to find the four of them in the small corner of the shooting range where Xiao Xingchen likes to occupy with Song Lan’s shouting echoes through walls of the desolated area, raw from anger and maybe tears. A peek into the room has him confronted with a scene that’s almost comical if it hasn’t been so heartbreaking. Old Man Yu stands near the entrance, his gun pointed firmly at Xue Yang’s head. Near the glass wall is Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen, the latter’s body almost entirely hidden behind his partner, who is curling a hand around his hip, as if trying to protect him from the world. Bracketed between them is Xue Yang, dressed to impress in a dark green suit, a gun in his right hand and fucking flowers in his left.

Nobody seems to have noticed his presence, as Song Lan continues spitting venom at the man in front of him, “You do not have the fucking right to be here, not after what you put him through. I warned you, didn’t I, that if you come find him again I will make sure it will be your last, and still you dare to show up here?”

The smirk doesn’t leave Xue Yang’s face, “You’re being too uptight, Song Lan. I only want to see Xiao Xingchen again. Surely he must be excited to see me. After all,” his grin widens, “I took care of the Wen’s for him, and you helped me with it.”

Xiao Xingchen looks up, swallows, and curls further into himself. It arouses a protective instinct inside of Jiang Cheng that he doesn’t think he possesses for anyone other than family, and he makes his way into the room, clearing his throat to attract their attention.

“We briefly exchange useful information as we share a common goal – to take down the Wen’s,” his voice is firmer than how he feels, wonders if it makes Xiao Xingchen understands why he has to do what he did, “there is nothing in our deal that includes giving you permission to see Xiao Xingchen again. In fact, it is obvious that he doesn’t want to see you.”

Xue Yang stares at him, challenging him to continue. He stares back, keeping his voice even, “you are not welcomed here. Leave, or we will make you.”

Xue Yang throws his flower to the floor, walking towards him with blackened face, embarrassed that he’s been shown up by a twelve-year-old kid. “Listen, you little fucker, the only reason why I didn’t kill you was because you gave me valuable information, but if you think for one second that I’m hesitant about killing you – ”

Xue Yang’s gun is aimed at Jiang Cheng’s face, and thousands of years ago, he would’ve been content with drawing out their little game a while longer, would’ve prolonged the scene for added dramatic effects like in the action movies Wei Ying and Meng Yao enjoys, but right now he’s lived for far too long and has grown too impatient and he really fucking hates having a gun pointed at him, so he unlocks his gun in one smooth motion, gets into position, and fires two bullets, one in each of Xue Yang’s shoulders.

The smell of gunpowder burns his nostrils, unpleasant memories searing themselves back into his mind again, opening up the space where he’s locked up his demons. This time Jiang Cheng lets them roam.

The impact of the bullets loosens Xue Yang’s grip around his gun, causing the weapon to fall to the floor, kicked out of the way by Old Man Yu, who’s now stepped in front of Xue Yang, gun pressed again his temple. The madman doesn’t even seem to notice he’s being threatened, fingers pressing into his right shoulder in a daze. Jiang Cheng can’t blame him; he probably hasn’t expected to get shot, much less by a child.

“I told you that you are not welcomed here, and yet you insist on threatening me anyways,” Jiang Cheng knows he sounds too casual for a kid who just puts two bullets into another living human, but he can’t muster the energy to care. Even if Xue Yang has died, it would be far from his first kill, although he should really absorb his butler’s lessons about how murder is quite frown upon in this day and age, “so really, you have this coming. Don’t expect me to feel sorry that I shot you, because I don’t.”

He walks up to Song Lan, whose jaw seems like it wants to permanently attach itself to the floor, and hands him his gun.

“I know you want to kill him. You can do it,” he ponders for a second, shrugs his shoulders, “or you cannot, or let Xiao Xingchen do it, it’s your choice. It’s always been between you and him.”

Xiao Xingchen steps up from behind his partner and takes the gun from his hands, there’s determination in pale grey eyes he hasn’t seen before, “I will do it.”

Jiang Cheng nods and motions to his butler to step out of the room, leaving behind the three people whose fates are inevitably tangled with one another. As he passes Xue Yang, he can see both sadness and resignation in features too young to have done the things he did, and he knows he isn’t supposed to sympathize with Xue Yang, but he does.

Jiang Cheng, out of anyone, knows what it feels like to be killed by the person you love.

Except it’s different, because what Xue Yang feels for Xiao Xingchen isn’t love, and what he feels for Lan Xichen is, and the two of them aren’t comparable, except that they are. Maybe the things he’s done isn’t worse than Xue Yang, but they are cut from the same cloth, but Xue Yang has never used any excuses to justify his actions, while all Jiang Cheng has are excuses. He can do an unbelievable amount of good, but does it erase his wrongdoings?

Wei Ying killed too many people to count. Meng Yao betrayed and killed many more on his road to power. Nie Huaisang didn’t hesitate in sacrificing lives like they’re mere puppets to bring his plan into fruition. But none of them have memories of what they did, and in that, they’re lucky enough to be absolved of their sins the way Jiang Cheng can’t.

If Xue Yang is a monster, what does that make him?

At least Xue Yang wouldn't remember any of this, won't remember getting killed by the person he thinks he loves. Jiang Cheng can't even have that luck.

Xiao Xingchen knocks on his door after dinner, when he’s finished washing off the gunpowder on his clothes. The man takes his hands and whispers his thank-you’s, and Jiang Cheng almost wants to say the words back at him.

Jiang Cheng takes another shower before he goes to bed, just to make sure he gets rid of all the residue, despite knowing that no amount of baths would cleanse the gunpowder that’s buried in his heart, a permanent wound where the birthmark has scabbed over.

That night, as he sleeps, he dreams about Lan Xichen falling for someone who isn’t a complete monster.

Chapter Text

Everything calms down after Wen Ruohan and Wen Xu’s death. Just as Jiang Cheng predicted, Wen Chao and his minions aren’t able to regroup under his leadership, causing the Wen’s to lose significant power in the central Los Angeles underground scene. No one knows about Xue Yang’s death except for the four people who bear witness to it, but rumor has it that the sadistic killer is still out there hunting down the Wen’s, causing Wen Chao to constantly move from place to place, making it harder for the local authorities to hunt him down but also much more difficult for him to establish a solid presence in any area, diminishing the Wen’s power even more.

Jin Guangshan, upon losing his number one ally, reaches out to other prominent families to establish an alliance that he keeps a secret from his wife. Jiang Cheng half expects him to slip up and be caught red-handed, and that Madam Jin will bring him to court soon enough, except that two years have passed, and she still doesn’t. He’s aware they both need to be patient, but Jin Guangshan not being in jail is another problem that keeps him up at night, and he doesn’t need more of those during his last year of middle school.

Wei Ying has already started his first year of high school, a private school in the area that allows him to commute to the private academy owned by the Lan’s where Lan Zhan boards – because of-fucking-course in this life the Lan’s are a prominent family who owns a plethora educational institutes and academic organizations across the United States, especially around the Pasadena region.

Luckily, Wei Ying going to Lan Zhan means that he no longer has to see Lan Xichen with the frequency he used to. It also helps that the now-teenager no longer seeks him out. He’s been relieved, much to Meng Yao’s unhappiness, who complains about why he doesn’t like someone as nice as the eldest Lan, and he prefers to let him think that, if it means no one knows the truth.

Yanli now attends the same high school as Wei Ying, working her way towards an impressive resume for early admittance into culinary school. Even though that means she’s busy until late evening, Jiang Cheng can’t help but be supportive of her choices when he sees how happy she is. The food she brings back home is also incredibly delicious, although he can’t help but feel annoyed knowing that a portion of it is going to be shared with the peacock. His mother and Madam Jin have come together to get the two of them together, further strengthening the ties between their families, and Yanli even goes along and treats him with the kindness he doesn’t deserve as he continues to reject her advances.

Jiang Cheng knows for a fact that Jin Zixuan cares for his sister, has seen the way he looks at Yanli when he thinks nobody is looking, the blush that envelops his cheeks when she smiles at him, but the idiot is probably inexperienced with love and cope with his feelings badly, not knowing that his actions would only push Yanli away. But Yanli has the patience of a saint and tolerate his antics either way.

She is too good for him, but being with him will make her happy, so Jiang Cheng keeps his disapproval within the comfort of Wei Ying's bed room and secretly plots to get the two of them together. He really needs to do something about their relationship soon. This dance between them has been going on for too long.

Luckily, the peacock’s idiocy allows him more opportunity to bond with Wen Qing, who graduates and attends the same school as Wei Ying, and now constantly complains about Jiang Cheng going there and taking the captainship from her after Nie Mingjue graduates. She too notices how her best friend tolerates “that absolute menace” despite countless boys her age pursuing her.

Although they have been close in their previous lives, the easy friendship with a teenage Wen Qing has been a pleasant surprise Jiang Cheng hasn’t expected. She’s confident, knowledgeable and tolerates nobody’s bullshit in ways he wishes he could be in his first life, and he knows they would never get along then; he would’ve been too jealous of her to approach her. In this lifetime, Jiang Cheng is reassured in who he is and what he wants. He lives his life on his own terms and make decisions that is good for him, despite everyone else telling him he’s making a mistake, and that’s all it takes for her to take a liking in him.

After Xue Yang’s death, Jiang Cheng focuses twice as hard on fencing, going on tournaments offered in the area and taking on a leadership role in their school to help develop a more vigorous fencing program for his middle school, unable to shake off the guilt that he has been neglecting his team and his sport to deal with the Wen’s drama.

Apparently, his victories have attracted the attention of quite a number of people, many of whom decide to seek him out. Wen Qing hasn’t agreed with how he turns down every offer from coaches who travel half a planet over to California to train him. She says that he’s beaten almost every single opponent he comes across, is a state champion at the age of fourteen, and is on his way to becoming one of the youngest Olympics gold medalist as a sabre fencer, at least that’s what one of the coaches have told him.

If one has to compare, winning one of these medals would be the equivalent to coming first in one of those sport tournaments the Jin’s often host, of which Wei Ying has always come out on top. He can vividly recall how envious he was of his older brother back then, how he wishes it could be him instead. Now he just finds it cumbersome, with the way everyone is expecting him to go to the Olympics and his mother nagging him about rejecting such ludicrous offers.

Despite those inconveniences, life in the last two years for Jiang Cheng is peaceful, to the point where his mind is no longer thinking about Wen Chao’s movements, and that he’s just a normal fourteen-year-old teenager living out his youth, not someone who ordered the fail assassination of his own father at the age of six to get dirt on the head of one of the biggest families on the planet.

He wishes he shouldn’t have.

He’s always liked Fridays, because it means that Yanli rarely have classes, so she would pick him, Wei Ying and their friends up at school and they would go somewhere new and excited or familiar and intimate, so they can just spend time together while she talks about her day. Sometimes, Wen Qing and Wen Ning, who’s still homeschooled and will be enrolling in high school with them next year, accompanies them. Other times, Jin Zixuan belatedly follows them around while cursing about how his mother forces him to spend time with the Jiang’s, though Jiang Cheng is sure he is the one who volunteers to go himself.

Today is no exception. Jin Zixuan has had his personal driver pick them up in some fancy long car the peacock must’ve thought would impress Yanli. Yanli has offered to sit next to Jin Zixuan near the left door, which induces a subtle blush on his face. Meng Yao and Nie Huaisang climb in next to him, while the Wen siblings sit on the chairs facing them. Wei Ying has gone to pick up Lan Zhan, promising to meet up with them later at their agreed destination, a quiet, fancy cafe specialized in traditional Chinese desserts Yanli’s teacher has recommended.

Usually, they have their own drivers, each of whom goes through extensive background checks and has no problem maneuvering around the Jiang’s security network. However, his family trusts the Jin’s enough to dismiss their chauffeurs to allow the Jin’s own bodyguards take over, who Jiang Cheng is sure is as competent as the Jiang’s with the exception of Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen. That’s why he isn’t surprise to find the familiar patterns of gun calluses on the person who’s tasked as their driver or the gun hidden inside of the man’s jacket.

What he hasn’t expected though is for the man to take them into an unfamiliar street that’s far away from their usual suburbs. It seems he isn’t the only one. Yanli looks out the window, alarm written all over her face.

“Mister, this isn’t – ”

“Quiet!”

Their supposed driver cuts her off gruffly, pulling out his gun and pointing it towards their direction. Silence overtakes the car, as each of his friend wears identical expression of fear on their faces, even the normally unflappable Wen Qing is shaking as she wraps an arm around her brother, who seems to have trouble breathing. If it’s just him, he wouldn’t have been so worried, but if he acts too recklessly, his friends can get injured, and he doesn’t know how to live with that. The only option is to call for backup and hope for the best.

With no time to waste, Jiang Cheng discretely reaches into his backpack and turns on the emergency signal for the tracker Song Lan has given him all those years ago, a device he hopes he would never use.

A dozen men with guns surround them when they get off the car in front of a worn down warehouse not unlike the one Xue Yang invited him to, and they are lead through the gates and into a large room on the right wing of the house, what Jiang Cheng presumes used to be a dining area, but now is renovated to suit the purpose of its owners, for now there are only torture devices and weapons lining its walls, which emanates a putrid smell that reminds him too much of rotten flesh.

Upon entering the room, they all are immediately tied up with ropes and huddled into the back of the room, a guard stationed on each side, guns strapped to their belts and handguns nestled in holders, which shouldn’t be easy to take if he’s quick enough to catch them off guard. Jiang Cheng is lucky enough to have sat right next to the guard, on the far left, which allows him full view of the weapons the guard carries. He can probably reach into the knife inside of his jacket and cut through the ropes, because of course these dumb fucks can’t even bother with handcuffs. However, the chaos caused by his actions may escalate the tension and risk someone getting hurt, and he can’t afford that. His best bet is to wait it out until Old Man Yu notices his signal and sends help, which is not an impossible task. Whoever is behind this plan will not kill them so easily.

He doesn’t know if the rest of them are going to last until then. Next to him, Meng Yao is offering comforting words to Nie Huaisang, who looks like he’s on the verge of fainting. Beside them, Wen Ning is laying his head against his sister’s shoulder, his condition not much better than the youngest Nie. Furthest from Jiang Cheng is his sister, who is on the verge of tears – he’s going to kill them and leaves no one because how dare they make Yanli cry not even the peacock in this life has made her cried yet he’s going to kill them all – as Jin Zixuan shuffles closer to her, as if he wants to reach out to offer comfort but doesn’t know how to. Unlike him, his friends don’t have combat or self-defense experience outside of a controlled setting with the use of weapons that hold little physical damage; they wouldn’t be able to adapt if it goes awry.

The situation wouldn’t have been as bad if Wei Ying is here. His brother can throw some punches.

Of course, he only says that. He’s glad that his older brother is currently somewhere else, perhaps at their café right now, wondering why his siblings fail to show up. At least his brother is safe.

Jiang Cheng nearly curses out loud when Wei Ying and Lan Zhan is escorted to the room half an hour later, ruffled but otherwise unwounded, and are promptly tied up and shoved towards Jiang Cheng’s direction, the former letting out a loud yelp that interrupts the tension in the room and attempting to rub his sore bottom with his hands tied behind his back.

“You idiot,” he hisses, “what are you doing here?”

Wei Ying collects his bearings and sits up, inspecting Jiang Cheng first, then glances over to their friends, as if to check for injuries, before quietly muttering, “they were the ones who approach us. They said they have you guys, so we have to cooperate.”

Jiang Cheng sighs and briefly regrets every single wrongdoing he’s ever committed. A series of footsteps snaps his attention back, just in time to see Wen Chao and the Wen’s long-time right-hand man Wen Zhuliu enters through the entrance of the room, the latter as cold and aloof as ever, while the former dons a victorious smirk on his face.

He really should’ve known from the moment he’s brought here that only Wen Chao could’ve cooked up such a plan.

“Hello everyone, my name is Wen Chao, nice to meet you all.”

Confusion hangs in the air before Nie Huaisang loudly exclaims, “You’re the last survivor of the Wen family!”

The grin is back on Wen Chao’s face, “That’s right. That means you’ve also heard of my reputation, so you better behave,” his voice lowers, “or else.”

Wen Ning and Nie Huaisang jerks in their spot. Jiang Cheng resists the urge to roll his eyes. You don’t have a reputation. Your father does.

He doesn’t say anything, and Wei Ying is already quicker than him, sneering at the man in front of them like he’s nothing but dirt on their shoes. “Knock it off already. What do you want with us?” Jiang Cheng doesn’t know if he wants to be proud of his brother for his courage or punch him for his stupidity when Wen Chao’s face darkens, and he walks over to their spot and kick Wei Ying in the chest. His brother falls backward, landing into Lan Zhan, who scoots over just in time to catch him. The youngest Lan glares at the man in front of him before focusing back on Wei Ying, struggling against his bonds in an attempt to check for his injury. Wen Chao observes the two and cackles.

“Ah, young love is something else, isn’t it?” He muses, “you see, this is why I have to take the Wei kid as well, because the Lan one will come along. The Lan’s are rich, aren’t they? Wouldn’t they pay a ton of money for him?”

Suddenly, everything makes sense. The driver must’ve been a mole for the Wen’s, planted by Jin Guangshan, if he has to guess. Wen Chao must’ve seen the opportunity to kidnap and exhort them for money, desperate for some capital to revive his dying empire. There are still things that don’t add up.

“If you take us for money,” he asks, “why do you have to take Wen Qing and Wen Ning as well? What about Meng Yao? If you have no need for them, can you just let them go? They have nothing to do with this.”

A wolfish grin appears on Wen Chao’s face, which means that the man thinks he knows something Jiang Cheng doesn’t. “Ah, you’re right, there’s really no monetary value to keeping them here. I merely bring them because I was… curious.” He hates it. “You see, I haven’t had the chance to meet my cousins ever since my father disown their parents, I’m just pleased to see that they’ve turned out well, that’s all. And as for the Meng Yao kid,” Wen Chao’s eyes zero in on the Meng Yao, the boy to curl into himself, all color drained from his face, “I’m simply curious what the bastard child of Jin Guangshan looks like.”

Jiang Cheng feels his stomach drops. He glances at Meng Yao, sees how afraid the boy looks, before pulling his eyes away when noticing that everyone else was doing the same thing. It’s too late now. Jin Zixuan stares down at Meng Yao, mouth agape, and Jiang Cheng wonders how much he knows about his father’s affair, blaming it on Meng Yao is hardly fair, especially since Meng Yao is far from the first bastard child Jin Guangshan has.

“Is that true?”

Meng Yao doesn’t dare look at anyone, hanging his head down in shame, not that he ever needs to. Jiang Cheng is about to say something, but his sister beats him to it.

“Even if that is the case, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Zixuan merely acts angry because he’s shock, not that he’s looking down on A-Yao,” she explains calmly, eyes meeting Wen Chao without fear, “as for you, Mr. Wen, I’m disappointed that you as an adult man would try to shame a child for his heritage like that.”

That has set Wen Chao off. The man, red in the face, takes quick strides towards Yanli and grabs her by the hair, “Be careful about your words, you bitch. Your worthless life is in my hands, don’t you dare forget that.”

It is in that moment that Jiang Cheng decides he wants Wen Chao dead.

He’s about to say something, but Jin Zixuan is quicker than him, using unbound legs to give Wen Chao a vicious kick to the groin, causing the man to stumble backwards, releasing Yanli “Don’t you dare touch her!”

Wen Chao quickly recovers and retaliates with a kick to Jin Zixuan’s face, leaving the bruise on his left cheek.

Using the ongoing commotion, Jiang Cheng slides the knife out of his jacket and starts cutting through his bond, shifting backwards until his back is completely obscure from the bodyguards. By doing so, his line of vision comes in contact with the view from outside the window – Wen Chao is actually stupid enough to not close the blinds – and that’s when he sees a hooded figure perching on top of the adjacent building, completely innocuous unless you know where and how to look.

A sniper.

Xiao Xingchen, Jiang Cheng can’t help but think, despite having no evidence to back it up. It’s too dangerous a gamble. He doesn’t even know if it’s friend or foe and guessing wrong can put them in serious danger. But he still needs to get out of here, and if the hooded figure is determined to kill him, then he would’ve been dead a while ago. He still needs to somehow drive Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu out of the room so he can deal with them alone without hurting his friends.

Fuck it.

Pressing his hands against his back, he puts out three fingers from his right hand, signaling a count down. As soon as he retracts his last finger, bullets start piercing through the window into the wall opposite of them, shattering the glass and scattering the shards into the floor. Wen Chao lets out a pathetic squeak before Wen Zhuliu takes over and drags his master out of the room, their minions hurrying out behind the pair. There are now only three guards left in the room, each desperately finding a place to hide and dodge the bullets. Taking advantage of the chaos, Jiang Cheng trips the guard nearest to him and takes his gun, knocking him down with the barrel.

He kicks the knife to Lan Zhan, the closest person to him, who nods and starts cutting through his own ropes. Sensing changing tides, the guards pulls out their guns and points them at him, so he has no choice but to fire a bullet in each of their shoulders, effectively disarming them. They drop their guns and groan in pain, just in time for Song Lan to burst in, two familiar silhouettes of purple dashing in behind him.

They give pointed glances at the guards he just shoots and the gun in his hand, understanding dawning upon them. They know the gun calluses he tries hard to hide isn’t just from a one-time usage of the weapon.

Yu Jinzhu and Yu Yinzhu, his mother’s trusted secretaries and certified cold-blooded killers, often not found in the house as they’re busy travelling around the world conducting businesses for the Yu that Jiang Cheng is sure aren’t entirely legal. He’s only recalled seeing them a handful of times in the last eight years since he’s gotten his memories back, and only during time of family crisis. For them to be here means that both the Yu and Jiang elders must’ve known about the ordeal. That’s another headache to deal with later.

For now, he just watches the twins untie the other’s ropes as Song Lan reports on the situation.

“We stopped a dozen of Wen Chao’s men on our way in and have the entire area surrounded. They can’t get out even if they want to. He doesn’t have many people with him left have escaped to the upper floors. The exit is right there, you guys should have no trouble getting out. We will take care of the rest.”

Jiang Cheng knows he’s better off letting Song Lan and the rest of them handle the situation, knows it can be dangerous for him if Wen Chao has something else up his sleeves, but he wants to, has to, take care of the fucker himself.

“I’m going with you.”

Gasps can be heard throughout the room. Wei Ying yanks his collar, “Are you fucking crazy? Do you see how dangerous those bastards were? They have guns for goodness sake!”

Jiang Cheng lifts up his right hand, still holding onto the gun that’s missing two bullets, “so do I,” and pushes his brother away, motioning at the twins and Song Lan, “let’s go.”

Before anyone else can protest, he already makes his way out of the room and deeper into the warehouse, to where the stairs are. If they are not going with him, then he’ll go by himself. From where he stands, he can hear the door to the gate being opened and quickly shut. Soon enough, a series of footsteps, one of which he recognizes is Song Lan’s, starts trailing behind him.

They find Wen Chao, Wen Zhuliu and five henchmen in the large bedroom at the corner of the room, Wen Zhuliu struggling to bandage the arm of a wailing Wen Chao, who, judging from the severity of the bleeding, must’ve been shot by one of the twins. They all flinch when Jiang Cheng steps into the room. Before anyone can react, Yu Jinzhu and Yu Yinzhu fires their guns into the henchmen’s chest, killing all five of them within seconds. He watches the blood seeps into the yellow-stained carpet with concern. “Won’t this be hard to clean out later?”

The twins looked at one another, a silent language only they understand, and Jiang Cheng has a gut feeling that it’s about him. He doesn’t care what they think about him, as long as they tell nothing to his mother.

Wen Zhuliu, sensing a losing battle, puts an arm in front of his master, a futile attempt to save a dying man. He’s taller than Jiang Cheng remembers, with shorter hair and less extravagant outfits, and without his signature glove, a reminder that too much has changed. Jiang Cheng doesn’t remember the last time they’ve met. He’s never fought the Wen’s directly in his last life, so it has been over a few hundred years since the last time he’s seen the man face-to-face. It doesn’t make the scar on his chest burn any less, mourning the loss of his golden core, and all he wants to do is to stab the bastard in the chest, just so that he can know what it feels like all over again.

Jiang Cheng has had too many years to make amends with his past, yet he’s never able to with this one.

He clutches onto his gun like an anchor, pointing it towards Wen Zhuliu. He doesn’t fire, instead, he asks, “Wen Zhuliu, you aren’t born into the Wen family, right?” Wen Zhuliu looks at him like he’s crazy, then nods, “then why are you so loyal to them? You know the situation better than I do, know the Wen’s glory days are over, so why don’t you just run away?”

Jiang Cheng likes to think that after living for so long, he’s gotten better at reading people, yet he can’t discern the emotions concealed behind the mask of calmness.

“I have nothing to say to a child.”

Despite himself, Jiang Cheng laughs, it’s the closest he’s come to telling another living soul everything, “I know a great deal more than you,” he says, “do you think you guys aren’t predictable? Do you think your collusion with Jin Guangshan could’ve gone unnoticed forever? Do you think I won’t figure out that it’s your connections to Jin Guangshan that helps you to kidnap us so easily? Do you think I am stupid, Wen Zhuliu?”

Wen Chao sits up, groaning at his bleeding shoulder, “how do you know that?” he demands.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t answer, instead looks Wen Chao straight in the eyes, delighted in seeing the man shrinks, and says, “If I know you would pull a stunt like this, I would’ve let Xue Yang kill you before we killed him. I was too full of myself then. I don’t intend on making the same mistake now.”

Behind him, the twins stiffen. Hopefully they know better than to report this back to his mother.

Wen Zhuliu’s face pales, the mask he dons now completely gone, “you conspire with Xue Yang to kill the Wen family?”

“Not exactly, I only give him some useful information I have on you guys,” he waves, “and none of this would’ve happened if you left Xiao Xingchen alone. Instead, you planted a mole inside the Feds and found out about Song Lan, and you decided to put his partner in a coma. I only retaliate appropriately.”

Just as he finishes his sentence, Wen Zhuliu lurches up from his seat and pulls out a knife from his boots, aiming at his throat. Song Lan steps in between them, gun in hand, ready to intercept the knife, but Jiang Cheng is quicker. He pushes Song Lan out, lungs at Wen Zhuliu, bends his wrist, takes the knife from him and buries it in the other man’s chest in one smooth motion.

He’s always been better with a knife or a sword than a gun.

Wen Chao positively screams. Song Lan sits up from the spot he’s landed when Jiang Cheng pushes him, dazed. Yu Jinzhu and Yu Yinzhu quickly recovers, the former aiming her gun at Wen Zhuliu, who’s now lying on the floor with Jiang Cheng on top of him, a foot on his throat, while the latter points her gun at Wen Chao, who’s now a crumpled, sobbing mess on the floor.

“I would recommend not removing the knife. It’s the only thing keeping you alive,” Jiang Cheng huffs, “now that the formalities are over, are you going to answer my question?”

Wen Zhuliu looks not at him, but at the sun peeking in from the windows adjacent to them, “he saves me,” the man says simply, “he took me in and gave me a new life, a new purpose, and for that, I intend on serving his family until the day I die.”

So it’s the same as in their first life as well, where the man nearly died, even injuring his most important asset, his hand, in order to protect Wen Chao. Obviously, to be able to do what he did, Wen Zhuliu must had some natural talents, but those talents were used by the wrong hand, twisted until the man became nothing more than a weapon the Wen's used to sow fear into their opponents. And of course, he's responsible for the crimes he committed as well, the terrible, horrible crimes that he inevitably paid for, under the hands of none other than Jiang Cheng himself.

An eye for an eye, Xiao Xingchen says once, and he's made Wen Zhuliu pay for what he did over, and over, and over again.

Would both the past and present Wen Zhuliu have turned out better if he was saved by the right person?

"Do you know that Wen Chao has to do with Wen Ruohan's murder? That he probably conspires with Xue Yang to help propel himself into power?" he says, watching Wen Zhuliu's face gets paler.

"What do you mean?" The man demands, uncaring that he still has a knife embedded in his chest. He can tell that the twins and Song Lan also stare at him, eyes widen.

He rolls his eyes, "I've read every single report about Wen Ruohan and Wen Xu's deaths, the places they were killed in and the methods used to kill them, and I don't doubt Xue Yang's connections, but some of the things he was able to do and the places he was able to penetrate, he has to have an insider, and not just a random henchman either - someone pretty far up top. And then Wen Xu was killed and I could extrapolate the rest myself."

He was lying, of course he was lying, but it's been his suspicions for quite a while now. Except maybe he isn't lying, after all, if Wen Chao's downcast face, filled with shame and fear, is any indication. Good then, that he reveals it when he does. Wen Zhuliu doesn't deserve anything, but perhaps that information would give the man some closure when he dies.

Jiang Cheng removes his foot from Wen Zhuliu’s throat, stepping back and carefully examining the man before him, starring at his right hand that’s littered with scars.

In most of his reincarnations, he wants nothing more than for both Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu to die the most painful deaths imaginable, to suffer in the process, to have their reputation and legacy completely ruined and humiliated. In his first life, he’d used Zidian to choke Wen Zhuliu to death without feeling a twinge of regret. In his first life, both him and Wei Ying had tortured Wen Chao to death, and lived with it as part of their sins. Just moments ago, when Wen Chao touches Yanli, he wants nothing more than to do just that.

But now, thousands of years later, as he faces both of them again, Jiang Cheng realizes just how tired he is of all of this.

He still wants them to die, but perhaps he no longer wants them to die kicking and screaming.

He turns to the twins, “Kill them quickly,” and receives two nods in return. He doesn’t turn back when he hears two hisses of bullets being fired, almost entirely muffled by the silencer. A morbid curiosity arouses in his gut, urging him to go back and take one last look at them before the twins get rid of the bodies, to see if he can see himself in them, if the bullets embedded in their chests are in the same spot as his.

Jiang Cheng doesn't. Instead, he takes a deep breath and heads towards the door, Song Lan scrambling to his side, still reeling from what he’s just witnessed.

The rest isn’t up to them anymore.

"Don't tell my mother," he orders the twins before they get out, and knows they won't.

The twins will always be loyal to his mother, and because of that, they won't tell a single soul.

He doesn’t even make it out of the gate before he hears his mother’s shouting.

“I can’t believe you all just let him go like that. I taught you better! If something happens – ” She stops and stares at him, causing everyone else to turn their heads. It’s then that Jiang Cheng notices the condition he’s in, with Wen Zhuliu’s blood all over his hands, on his shirt, and hanging off the bottom of his pants, from when he’s pinned the man to the floor using his foot. He probably looks like he just survives murder or commits them, which isn’t far off from the truth.

Jiang Cheng takes a look at his surrounding, noticing how it’s more crowded than he’s anticipated it to be. His parents stands at the spot nearest to the gate, his mother clutching Yanli’s hand while Wei Ying hovers near his father, Lan Zhan by his side. Old Man Yu stands near the car, speaking in hushed tone into his phone, probably trying to clean up their messes. Next to his parents is Madam Jin, holding onto her son and silently observing the scenario unfolding in front of them.

Jiang Cheng hopes that she’s contemplating her husband’s murder, because he might do it himself if that bastard has something to do with the kidnapping.

Ms. Meng stands with her son at a distance, as far away from Madam Jin as possible, struggling to hold back her tears as to not disrupt the silence that’s now befallen on them upon Jiang Cheng’s presence. Nie Huaisang stands two steps away from Meng Yao, his brother and Lan Xichen beside him.

Because of course Lan Xichen has to be here, seeing him in this state, spending the rest of their lives hating Jiang Cheng all over again.

Who can love such a monster?

It wouldn’t be the first time.

Jiang Cheng breathes, approaches his parents and banishes those dark thoughts from his head, if only to keep a cool head to deal with the situation, “mother, father,” he pauses, looks back at himself, explains, “don’t worry, this isn’t my blood. I’m fine. They took care of most of it,” he motions to Song Lan and the twins, who now emerges from the warehouse, towards him casually like they haven’t just killed most people in it.

His father sighs, relieved, while his mother trudges over to him, angry like he’s never seen her before, a dark shade of red colors her cheeks, “what were you thinking, doing such a reckless thing?” There’s no screaming, no shouting, just a quiet, even voice filled with disappointment, the kind Jiang Cheng hates the most. “Jinzhu and Yinzhu could’ve easily taken care of it, and there’s also Song Lan. They don’t need your help. You could’ve gotten seriously injured in there.”

Jiang Cheng clasps his hands together, feeling thoroughly admonished. He has his reasons, but he can’t tell her that, can’t tell anyone that, not that he needs to. He hasn’t needed that kind of validation from other people for a long time. “Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu is dead,” he says instead, “I just need to find out how they got us here without anyone noticing. I’m sure that the reason why you know in the first place is because I turned on the signal to my tracker and led you guys here.”

He turns to Old Man Yu and receives a nod, encouraging him to continue. “I tracked them down and asked a few questions,” he tilted his head towards Madam Jin’s direction, “what I learned was that the reason why they were able to kidnap us in the first place was because they were working with Mr. Jin the whole time and use the information he provided them.”

Audible gasps are heard in the crowd, whispers stirring up from the corners where the Jiang staffs are situating. Madam Jin doesn’t even bother pretending to look surprised, narrowing her eyes at him, full of questioning. She has been working with Old Man Yu for eight years and surely has her own suspicions, but she wouldn’t notice a thing from a six-year-old child, would she?

“Don’t worry, I will take care of it.” His mother reassures him, patting his back, carefully avoiding the spot with blood on it, and motions him towards the car. “Let’s go home. It must’ve been a long day for you all.”

He's expected questions from the rest of the entourage on their trip home, but no one has said anything, not even the ever talkative Wei Ying, who merely stares at him pensively from his seat. Jiang Cheng hopes isn't a sign that he's going to start doing some digging - he has too many skeletons in his closet for his family to start investigating what exactly has been going on under their noses, and he isn't sure how many answers he can make up anymore.

His butler has come into his room later in the evening, after he’s finished washing off the blood that’s accumulated on his body, and Jiang Cheng has told him everything.

“Anyways, I expect the bastard’s dirty laundry to be revealed soon. I’ve effectively forced Madam Jin’s hands on the matter. We’ve been waiting for too long. I want him gone.” Jiang Cheng grumbles, digging into his bag of chocolate, one of mankind’s best invention, to be honest.

“It would be hard, but she will do it lest risking souring her relationship with the other families,” his butler agrees, “the Jin’s might take a hit, and Young Master Jin is still too young, but I believe it is the appropriate course of action. Besides, her own son is put in danger today, she won’t let that go.”

Jiang Cheng nods, suddenly remembers, and sits up from his bed. “Oh, if we’re talking about the peacock,” the man raises an eyebrow at his word choice, “he tries to stand up for Yanli today. It’s actually quite sweet. I thought he’ll pretend to ignore her until they grow old or something.”

His butler smiles, “I’m glad,” before immediately frowning, “on a different note, I believe he seems to be aware of Meng Yao’s relation to the Jin’s, which can cause tension between them, especially if Young Master Jin is going to become a more prominent presence in our household in the future.”

That can be a problem, but he isn’t worried, “It’s okay, Yanli likes Meng Yao, so Zixuan will behave, plus, now that Jin Guangshan’s crimes have come to light, he won’t fault Meng Yao for his father’s mistakes, he isn’t that kind of person.”

Meng Yao is the one he’s worried about more, since it must’ve been a big shock for him. Knowing about how desperately Meng Yao craves for the yellow snake’s validation in his previous lives before turning on them doesn’t ease his concerns at all.

It turns out he doesn’t have to worry, Meng Yao has already known.

“Mom told me when she was hospitalized for her cancer treatment,” the boy mumbles between mouthfuls of the chocolate tarts Yanli has stress-baked the previous night, “I was curious about meeting him too, especially after I met Zixuan, but I figured mom and I have a pretty good thing going on right now, and if he abandons her then he isn’t all that great anyway, so I decide to not touch the matter again,” he shrugs, “and it seems that I was right. If it wasn’t for him then we wouldn’t have been kidnapped.”

Jiang Cheng… hasn’t expected that. The Meng Yao he knew would have never been content with just him and his mother “having a good thing going on,” the Meng Yao he knew would never pass up the opportunity to have Zixuan introduce him to their father, the Meng Yao he knew wouldn’t hesitate to fly as high as he can to reach the man until his wings burn and he falls tragically from grace, dragging Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen with him. But that Meng Yao also doesn’t have a loving mother that accepts him for who he is nor friends who come to his defense when others look down on him, all things that Jiang Cheng has a hand in.

That thought makes it hard for him to swallow the lump in his throat.

He’s accomplished the goals for Meng Yao he sets out eight years ago, yet he doesn’t feel victorious. In his chest there’s only guilt, he can never tell Meng Yao the truth, but there’s something else, something warm and comforting that catches him so off guard he almost doesn’t want to admit that it’s Meng Yao who causes it, the same Meng Yao who he’s killed in their previous lives.

Something that isn’t supposed to exist in the first place dies, and where it withers grows something else, morphed and deformed yet new and exciting and beautiful all the same.

He isn’t a hopeful person, knows how much optimism eventually fails him, but in that moment, he has the wildest thought, something he hasn’t thought since his second life, that maybe, maybe, in this lifetime, they will all be okay.

***

He doesn’t want to see Lan Xichen again.

With everything that happens between them, it’s better to cut the eldest Lan off for good, he knows that, has known that ever since he gets his memories back. But that thought is torturous, and Lan Xichen has been so nice, so incredibly kind despite his aloofness, and Jiang Cheng can’t imagine missing that from his life.

He awkwardly greets Lan Xichen the week after their brief encounter at the warehouse, in the middle of a party hosted by Madam Jin to ease tensions with other families after her husband has a hand in the kidnap of their children. The boy has beamed at him like he hasn’t watched Jiang Cheng emerges from the warehouse covered in blood. Jiang Cheng is sure Lan Zhan must have told him everything, about how Jiang Cheng has shot those guards, so he’s supposed to look at Jiang Cheng with fear in his eyes, like he’s a monster, nothing more and nothing less. It will break his heart, but it’s easier that way for both of them.

Jiang Cheng has been prepared to be given odd stares, to be feared, to be whispered about, but he hasn’t expected to have such a warm smile directed towards him. So he runs.

The fresh air at the balcony is a reprieve, even if it lasts for only a second. He barely manages to control his breathing before a low voice calls out to him with concern.

“Jiang Cheng, are you alright?”

Luck must’ve had it out for him, which isn’t too far-fetched.

He turns to Lan Xichen, gritting his teeth. “I’m fine.”

Not noticing how uncomfortable he is, the eldest Lan continues, “You didn’t look too good back there. Do you feel sick? Do you need me to take you to the doctor?”

Why are you being so nice? “Why are you here?”

The smile doesn’t waver from the handsome face. “I’m concerned for you. I figure you are still recovering from the incident last week.” The smile gets impossibly brighter. “You handled the situation well, by the way, better than I ever will. I want to thank you for protecting my brother and A-Yao.”

Anger erupts like flames in his chest, around the area where a bullet was once lodged, licking at his skin in an effort to consume him whole, crawl itself up his throat and coats the tip of his tongue, asking him to spit them out. “You must’ve heard from Meng Yao or Lan Zhan,” his voice trembles, “about how I took the guards’ guns and shoot them, how I shot them in their shoulders.”

“A-Zhan and A-Yao told me,” Lan Xichen says evenly, unaware of how bad he’s shaking, “what you did was very brave, and it must’ve been hard on you, as well.”

How can he still say that, after everything?

“Wen Zhuliu tried to attack me,” he growls, voice now barely a whisper, “I took his knife and stabbed him in the chest. It would’ve killed him if I pull it out of him. He would’ve bled out.”

Lan Xichen blinks, starring down at him, and for a brief second he feels a sick sense of satisfaction.That's right, be afraid of me, it's easier for both of us that way. It doesn’t last long with Lan Xichen’s next words.

“That was quite dangerous. Why didn’t you tell anyone? Are you hurt?”

How how how how how

“How are you still being so nice to me? Shouldn’t you be afraid of me, after all the things I’ve done? Why are you still here? Why haven’t you run away yet?” Jiang Cheng isn’t sure if his speech is entirely coherent and can’t bring himself to care. He wants the boy in front of him gone, run away and never come back.

“Why would I do that?” Lan Xichen tilts his head, half-confused and half-curious, “I think you react well in your situation, and I don’t fault you for the things you did to protect yourself and others. To go through such lengths for them, I think that’s quite beautiful.”

Just like that, the rage that burns in his chest immediately dissipates - how can he be angry when Lan Xichen just call him beautiful when is the last time anyone even call him that - and in its place, a different kind of flame takes place. Liquid heat pools at his chest, putting a blush at the tip of his ear, up his neck, just below his cheekbone and –

And he knows he shouldn’t compare Lan Xichen to fire, because all fire do is burn and take and burn and take until there’s nothing left but ashes and Lan Xichen is like water, like lilies that blooms under full moon, breathtaking and pure and graceful and kind, so, so unbearably kind and –

And deserving of someone better than Jiang Cheng, someone like Meng Yao, who in this life is as nice and fiercely protective and won’t betray him, not someone who’s been through so much, has lost so much and let those losses engulf him, has died and killed and died and killed and –

And Jiang Cheng knows Lan Xichen doesn’t love him back, has never chosen him over anyone else, that he’s just setting himself up to be disappointed and heartbroken and broken all over again, and yet –

Yet Lan Xichen is like fire, glowing too bright, and Jiang Cheng is an insignificant moth drawn to its flames, dousing itself in the flames until its wings darken and it's reduced to nothing, because all fire does is burn and take (him) and burn and take (him), and –

Jiang Cheng digs his hands into his chest, holds the phantom bullet in his scarred, bloody hands, the only thing Lan Xichen has ever given him, the proof that he will never be loved back, so why does he keeps loving and hoping and loving and hoping and -

And -

And he -

He dives headfirst into the fire

And falls

And drowns

And burns.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng falls again, and it’s terrifying.

He’s used to being afraid, despite how good he is at hiding it. He was afraid when he’s forced to face the Wen’s, when his entire sect was gone, his parents with them, when he lost his sister and eventually his brother.

When he lost Lan Xichen in every single lifetime.

When Lan Xichen points a gun at his chest and –

And Jiang Cheng’s solution is the same every single time. He runs away from his problems, avoiding Lan Xichen at all cost. Then he keeps his mouth shut and moves on.

So he does.

He wraps up the Wen-Jin Guangshan debacle within a year, starting off with meeting the twins to ensure that what happens in the warehouse won’t get to his mother’s ears. He trusts Song Lan, Xiao Xingchen and A-Qing enough to know that they won’t reveal anything either. The rest are handled either by his butler or Madam Jin. The details of the kidnapping is completely kept off the tabloids and swept under the rug, with the warehouse in which the incident occurs “mysteriously” caught on fire. The world never hears from Wen Chao or Wen Zhuliu again, even Xue Yang slowly becomes an urban myth, and thus the Wen empire crumbles and is quickly forgotten, replaced by other forces, because humans are the way they are and chopping off a branch won’t keep the tree from growing, but at least they know better than to touch the Jiang’s, and that’s all that he needs.

Immediately after the kidnapping, Madam Jin files a lawsuit against her own husband, accusing him of colluding with Los Angeles gangs to conduct numerous illegal businesses and conspiring against his own family. In court, she presents every single piece of evidence she has collected over the last eight years, including his chat logs with the Wen’s and CCTV footages she’s been able to gather when collaborating with the Feds.

Facing the unsurmountable proof of his own crime, Jin Guangshan never stands a chance.

Ten months later, he’s convicted of a string of charges, from fraud to tax evasion to accomplice to murder, and is sent to twenty-five years of jail with no chance of bail. It takes another year before Madam Jin completely cleans Jin Corp. of his influence, turning every single member of the board and her family against her husband. Even if there’s a chance that Jin Guangshan is released early, he would be nothing, just a pathetic, penniless, powerless man the way he deserves to be. Meng Yao’s words, not his, after hearing Jin Zixuan explains the situation.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t miss the way the two stepbrothers share a private smile with one another, finally finding one thing the two have in common, and feels things slot into place again, for once.

Next, Jiang Cheng decides to focus on himself.

He accepts an offer from a famous Chinese-American coach who insists she be called Ms. Zhao, who’s been responsible for elevating numerous successful sabreur to the Olympics and on top of the World Championships. However, he’s put out an ultimatum that he would be able to dictate his own schedule and allow time to finish his academics before anything else. He never intends to fence for his entire life, not when his family legacy is waiting to be continued.

Eventually, Nie Huaisang, Meng Yao and Jiang Cheng all graduate from middle school and enroll in the same high school as his brother. There, they befriend Wen Qing’s brother, a tall and shy Wen Ning who spends most of his life sick in his bed, only now being deemed by his parents and physician healthy enough to attend school. The four of them ends up in the same class and forms a strange friendship Jiang Cheng can’t remember ever have with someone, with Meng Yao taking a strange liking to the boy, being reminded too much of his younger self, trapped in a sea of strangers, waiting for someone else to make the first move who won’t make fun of him for being different.

Jiang Cheng learns that he likes it.

Nie Mingjue has already graduated and headed to San Diego. Yanli, who graduates in the same year, goes to Claremont where she has the opportunity to fast-track her way towards culinary school in three years. Not only is it close to home, it also gives them the opportunity to visit her often, especially Jin Zixuan, who has abandoned his pride and started asking her out properly, much to the satisfaction of both families.

He couldn’t care less about what the elders want, or what social benefits it will bring to the Jiang, only Yanli’s happiness, and the peacock, despite all his flaws, makes his sister incredibly happy, and that’s good enough for him.

Wei Ying now spends most of his free time either in the orchestra or with Lan Zhan. He can’t really fault Wei Ying for wanting to spend time with his future husband, now that they have started officially dating. Both agree to hiding it from their guardians, so the only people who know are their siblings and friends, which Jiang Cheng can’t exactly blame them. His parents wouldn’t approve of a relationship with a Lan, and there is always the possibility that the news will reach Lan Qiren, which sounds like a disaster in-the-making, knowing the man’s personality.

Jiang Cheng isn’t too worried though. Those two are destined to be with one another, just like the peacock and Yanli or Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan. He hasn't even bothered giving Lan Zhan the shovel talk, if anything celebrating that once again the youngest Lan is willing to love his menace of a brother all over again. Besides, he's sure Yanli has already acted before him, planting what he's sure must be seed of fear into Lan Zhan to ensure that he worships the ground Wei Ying walks on for the rest of his life, if he hasn't been doing that already (he has).

Jiang Cheng has always found it amusing that the rumor mill portrays him as the one to look out for, the scary one, per say, in his family, with the traits he takes after his mother and his sarcasm and his words that are as lethal as his blade.

The rumor mill knows nothing.

But he can't exactly blame them, when Yanli doesn't flaunt her protective streak often - one that she has developed as the byproduct of growing up in their parents' household. Not that Jiang Cheng has minded - it doesn't particularly bother him if his sister puts out any kind of specific threat towards her loved ones' potential partners, not when he has done things that are a thousand times worse. More importantly, he understands that the reason for her action is because she cares about their happiness more than anything else.

So that's why he has to try to be happy too, and that includes pretending to be okay with Meng Yao and Lan Xichen getting together in the future without feeling like someone has stabbed him in the chest, and hopes that enough pretending will make it come true, that maybe, he will one day let go of his love with no regret.

Maybe, one day, he’ll even find someone who will love him.

***

Four years pass by just like that, and before he knows it, he’s graduating high school, one of those major feats in one’s life that requires a celebration. Everyone he cares for are present in the ceremony – Wen Ning, Nie Huaisang and Meng Yao sitting next to him, his sister coming over from her culinary school in Los Angeles, Wen Qing coming from UCLA with her girlfriend Luo Qingyang, who she literally falls into the first day of college, even Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen fly in from their respective graduate schools to congratulate them.

“Hey, we are going to meet up often right?” Wen Ning quietly asks them as they gather in Nie Huaisang’s room after the graduation ceremony, sipping on wine Wei Ying has smuggled in.

“Of course, what kind of question is that?” Wei Ying snorts, “even if you guys don’t want to I’ll come and drag you to hang out with me. You can’t escape from me that easily.”

He isn’t wrong. While they are all going to be going their own ways, their campuses aren’t too far from one another, taking them mere hours to commute back and forth. Nie Huaisang is going to Pitzer for media and art studies, Meng Yao has partial scholarship to UC Irvine, Wen Ning has been enrolled to UCLA, joining his sister in studying pre-med as he competes in archery, while Jiang Cheng himself is pursuing a business degree at USC while fencing professionally in preparation for the World Championships, where he will represent the United States. Wei Ying still has three years left from his double degree in engineering and music while Lan Zhan is in the process of completing his in biomedicine (Jiang Cheng isn't there, but he’s heard about the fit Lan Qiren throws when Lan Zhan rejects Stanford to be with his boyfriend).

But that is nothing compared by both families when Lan Zhan and Wei Ying announce they are dating, which consists of an emergency meeting in a neutral location, a lot of yelling, and a whole lot more convincing from both sides. Though the Lan's and the his own family are still not on speaking terms, they come to an agreement to let the couple date in peace, but they can't get married before both get their respective degrees and establish a solid footing for themselves first.

Lan Zhan has hesitated, but it is Wei Ying who agrees to make concessions to keep his boyfriend by his side.

So that is that.

Only Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen are far away from them, a fact that has initially upset Meng Yao. While the eldest Nie is only a two hour at UC San Diego, Lan Xichen is all the way in the East Coast to complete his master’s in education and business at Harvard. It doesn’t make missing him hurt any less, but the distance helps Jiang Cheng cope better, because that means he doesn’t have to look into warm eyes and imagine what it feels like if he’s just given in and take everything in ways he knows he shouldn’t.

Jiang Cheng knows Meng Yao and Lan Xichen loves each other, that Meng Yao has confessed having someone in his heart ever since he was a child, and Wei Ying has told him that Lan Xichen has also liked someone for a very long time, that “it’s very obvious if you know to look,” so he is sure that Meng Yao is just waiting for Lan Xichen to finish his education and return back to California before pursuing an official relationship.

He can’t wait for them to put him out of his misery already.

He gets his own apartment, a nice, cozy little thing on a fifth floor of a building that’s on the safer part of town, on his mother’s insistence, not wanting him to be too close to the USC campus, that’s just high enough to remind him of Lotus Pier and allows him to keep pets, which he fully intends to get after graduating. He decorates his space with colors of people he loves, purple on the walls that reminds him of his family, red on the couch and the bean bag chairs that are too comfortable to not purchase, gold on the coffee table and the kitchen counter because he loves a child who hasn’t been born yet, green on the bonsais he keeps outside of his balcony.

Blue in his bedroom, on the pillow, on the notes he writes that will never be sent out. Those he hides like a dirty little secret.

Another couple of years pass by of Jiang Cheng balancing between his friends, school and fencing. Fortunately, USC has given him leeway to train and travel for competitions. Modern classes still don’t come natural to him the way it does everyone else, but befriending the professors have benefited him tremendously. They have said that they like him because he “has an old soul,” that he’s knowledgeable about things other students won’t notice, and he wonders if it’s rude to laugh at them and tell them they have no idea.

In his second year, he wins the World Champions for sabre in the Men’s Individual competition, one of the youngest to complete such feats. His mother insists that his accomplishments will not go unnoticed and throw a party at their mansion, inviting everyone they know. His father, never one for flashy display, merely sighs, but anyone can tell the underlying fondness in there.

So much has changed in their household ever since he gets his memory back. By now, it’s obvious to anyone that they are in love, or at least care for one another deeply, and it affects the way they treat their children. His parents show their love in different ways. His mother is not the affectionate type, but she is the one who organizes the party that celebrate his achievements. Even though his father is stingy with compliments, he’s the one who pulls Jiang Cheng aside during said party and tells him how proud he is of him.

And just maybe, it’s enough.

A year later, he gets off school early to attends Wei Ying and Lan Zhan’s graduation, who has decided to head off to graduate school together, both staying at Caltech for their master’s. Right afterwards, Lan Zhan has proposed to Wei Ying in the middle of the Caltech courtyard, much to the horror of the school staffs and students and Jiang Cheng’s own embarrassment. He vaguely recalls Jin Zixuan starring at Yanli, no doubt wanting to pull a similar stunt, except the peacock still has to go back to Harvard for law school, so he probably won’t propose before then. But they have survived a long-distance relationship the entire four years Jin Zixuan spends at that place, so they’ll be fine. Jiang Cheng still wants to meet Jin Ling, after all.

Jiang Cheng also isn't too worried about how the Lan family or his parents will react. They should've expected it when they approve of the two of them dating. Besides, none of them are heirs the way him and Lan Xichen are, so the pressure is taken off their shoulders. He's briefly worried about Meng Yao, about how the Lan's would treat who they would consider to be someone of lower status, but Jiang Cheng is sure when it comes to that, Lan Xichen will step up to defend his partner, and Jiang Cheng would lose sleep every night thinking about how the person the man defends isn't him, but it's fine, he will get used to it because he has to.

The whole proposal is a blur for him, except that he vaguely remembers there being a lot of shouting and tears and a pair of amber eyes starring at him. It’s probably Lan Xichen’s way of telling him they are going to be in-laws soon, something he tries hard to not think about.

He doesn’t need another reminder that Lan Xichen isn’t meant to be his.

Lan Xichen has now grown back into the person Jiang Cheng once knew, losing his baby fat and grow to his full height, only an inch taller than Jiang Cheng yet it feels much more due to how broad he is, all muscles and well-defined features that will turn any head. That alone is enough to make him one of the most desirable bachelors in Southern California, in all of the United States, and that hasn’t accounted for his status as the heir to the Lan empire. Jiang Cheng has never cared for that. He looks at the man in front of him and is relieved that Lan Xichen’s eyes still twinkle so brightly with kindness and warmth and he still smiles the same way he does before betrayal destroys him.

Over thousands of years, they are still some of the most breath-taking things Jiang Cheng has ever laid his eyes on.

Lan Xichen is twenty-four and beautiful and Jiang Cheng has never wanted him more.

But he can’t have him, so he swallows the lilies into his throat every time he comes, mind dizzy with fantasy, and moves on with his life.

***

He goes on to graduate college in four years, and, not long afer the graduation, heads straight to training for the Olympics. He’s competed in his first Olympics just before college, finishing second and earning a silver medal, impressive for an eighteen-year-old, and he hasn’t cared about such achievements. But this time, he intends to win the whole thing, since it will be his last.

He faces against a French veteran in the presence of his family and friends, and Lan Xichen, strangely enough - last he remembers they aren’t friends. Finishing his master’s must have given the man some free time, and he probably thinks watching his in-laws compete is a great way to build relationship between the two families, or some bullshit like that. He wants to ask, but he doesn’t have time to, now is his last chance to win, so he gets into position.

The sabreur reminds him too much of Nie Mingjue, with his piercing gaze and vast experience and the strength that can easily knock out the blade from your grip if you are even the least bit distracted, but Jiang Cheng is no longer six, has competed for most of his life against opponents who knows nothing else other than to underestimate him, unaware of the thousands of years he's spent training for this exact thing.

There is one vital different between them - they play to win, he plays like his life depends on it, like facing the Wen's and protecting his family, like firing a gun to save the people he loves from an untimely demise, and that makes every difference.

And he wins.

The weight of the gold medal feels surreal around his neck, and the cheers are deafening, and he’s pretty sure all four of his family members are crying, including his mother, which would’ve surprised him if it hasn’t made his heart so warm. Whispers erupt from the crowd when he announces his early retirement, and from where he stands, he can see Ms. Zhao’s mouth dropping open. In hindsight, he should’ve told her beforehand, she still need to find someone else to coach, so he should apologize later – but all that he feels is a weight lifted off his chest.

When he first learned how to fence, all he wanted was to reconnect to something he's thought he’d lost. He never expects the glory that come with it, nor does he desire it. He cares about his family and their legacy, and that is what he will choose, every single time.

There’s another party at their house, this time bigger and more elaborate than the one she’s thrown when he won the World Championships, with too many people invited, and lifetimes of being a sect leader doesn’t make Jiang Cheng anymore sociable, especially when every person he meets keeps pestering him about his retirement and encourages him to go back to fencing, “the Jiang Corp. can wait.” He’s two conversations away from giving up, telling everyone to get the fuck out of his business, and holing himself in his room until everyone leaves.

His friends aren’t helping either. Wei Ying is drunk off his ass, clinging onto Lan Zhan like a lifeline and whispering sweet nothings into his ears, which he does not need to see nor hear. Yanli is chatting with Jin Zixuan in the corner, their closeness indicates an intimacy that Jiang Cheng doesn’t dare disrupt. Yanli barely has Jin Zixuan to herself before he has to go back to Harvard, he can’t blame her for not wanting to waste the precious time they have together. Not far from them, Nie Huaisang is chatting with someone with an eagerness Jiang Cheng rarely sees from him, and it doesn’t take long for him to realize that it’s Mo Xuanyu he’s conversing with. Knowing the two’s history, it would be best for him to leave them to their own devices, so he does.

He can’t even confide in Wen Ning, who’s ran off to find his sister, probably making out with her girlfriend in one of the vacant rooms. Ever since those two get together, they haven't been able to keep their hands off one another, but even then he has expected them to behave at his own house, but then again, a lifetime of living with Wei Ying should've taught him better about how shameless one can be.

Jiang Cheng just sincerely hopes Old Man Yu doesn’t catch them in some compromising position, still fresh off the traumatizing experience of having Wei Ying and Lan Zhan at their mansion over the winter break.

He can’t even bother Meng Yao, as the man is now wrapped up in a discussion with Nie Mingjue over the current state of the steel industry - the Nie's work in steel now, he reminds himself - and he would rather not get involved in that. He knows that the two of them have always been close, but it seems like lately they’ve been spending a lot more time together.

Like too much, and he doesn't think he like it.

He hopes Nie Mingjue isn’t in love with Meng Yao - he’s too far into his plan to deal with another heartbreak when Meng Yao inevitably ends up with Lan Xichen. Maybe he should introduce the eldest Nie to someone – not Wen Ning, he’s ace so that’s out of the question, and he doesn’t have any friend who is either single or interested in men, wait is Nie Mingjue even gay -

Jiang Cheng gulps down the cup of champagne the waiter offers to him and decides he’s officially lost his marbles. He’s actually trying to play match-maker to Nie Mingjue, of all people.

Deciding that he needs fresh air, he heads straight towards the door at adjacent to the exit, towards the balcony of the ballroom.

He’s always loved any balcony that belongs to the left wing of the Jiang mansion, for it gives him the perfect view of the garden and the lotus lake in the backyard. More importantly, the chatters from inside can barely be heard here, and he has his peace, no matter how brief.

“Are you alright, Jiang Cheng?”

Jiang Cheng whips his head around to come in full view of Lan Xichen, looking too dashing in black vest and blue tie, and has to swallow the lump that forms in his throat. “Who gives you the right to be here?” he positively squeaks, unaware how unreasonable that sounds until the words leave his mouth.

“Oh?” Lan Xichen raises his eyebrows, “I didn’t know I am banned from the Jiang’s balconies. My mistake.”

Jiang Cheng bites back a retort and turns his head back towards the balcony, taking a sip of the champagne to calm himself. It doesn’t make sense how, after so many years have passed, the man still has the ability to make him feel like he’s falling. “Seriously, why are you here, Lan Xichen?” He asks instead.

There’s a pause, “I just want to congratulate you. I… went to your match. You did well.” There’s only sincerity in those words, Lan Xichen doesn’t know how to lie, and it does things to his heart he should be ashamed of.

“You didn’t have to come,” he mutters, “flying all the way to Oslo is too much just to cheer for me.”

“But I want to.”

Jiang Cheng turns his body to face Lan Xichen and stares him in the eye. “Why?”

The smile doesn’t waver from his face, though there’s something else in it, confusion, maybe, “Do I need to explain why I want to? It’s a important to you, and I want to be there to witness it. I didn’t know my presence is bothersome.”

“No it isn’t,” he says quickly, “I – just…”

Why me why do you care why are you so nice to me why me why me why me

He struggles for words, gives up, eventually gripping onto the balcony for dear life. Lan Xichen is still starring at him, a softness in his eyes, and something else too, something dark and more and Jiang Cheng wants so badly it hurts.

There’s a hand reaching out, tucking a loose strand of Jiang Cheng’s hair behind his ear, a gesture too intimate to be platonic, and everything around him feels too loud and too quiet and too much at once.

Wei Ying’s voice from inside the ballroom causes both of them to flinch back, and just like that, the moment is gone. Jiang Cheng doesn’t have time to process what the fuck just happens before he turns away and does what he’s been doing for sixteen years – run.

He ends up forcing Lan Zhan to loosen his chokehold around one of the Allan’s brats who mentions something about how Wei Ying still leeches off the Jiang despite being an orphan, seriously, what’s with the Allan’s and orphan-related insults. After the mess is dealt with, Jiang Cheng excuses to his room early, adamantly avoiding Lan Xichen the whole time. As soon as the door is closed behind him, he slides down onto the floor and draws his legs to his chest, focusing on evening out his breathing.

What the fuck was that?

Jiang Cheng isn’t stupid enough to think what happens between them is just something friends do, but it doesn’t make any sense otherwise. Lan Xichen doesn’t love him, he couldn’t have, not when he’s too busy loving Meng Yao. Maybe it is simply just an innocent gesture? Maybe he has something on his face or in his hair and Lan Xichen is just kind enough to get it away from him? But that’s too ridiculous even for him to believe, but it's better than thinking that the man is cruel enough to play with his feelings.

So Jiang Cheng doesn’t think about it and moves on with his life. They never talk about the incident again, as if it’s some fever dream he’s cooked up while being too lovesick. He knows it’s an indication that he should forget about it, forget Lan Xichen altogether, it’s better that way.

And it's fine, he's fine.

Everything is fine.

And yet -

Yet it doesn’t stop him from staying up in the middle of the night, the right side of his face burning from fingers that used to be there, mourning for something that never was.

Chapter Text

After the Olympics, Jiang Cheng enrolls into the Marshall for his master’s and focuses completely in preparing to take over his family business, all thoughts of Lan Xichen shoved back into the corner of his heart where he always belongs.

Unexpectedly, he becomes classmates with Wen Qing’s girlfriend, Luo Qingyang, and ends up bonding over coursework and her love for his family’s company products. Even though they’ve met before, they never have a proper conversation, so Jiang Cheng is surprised to notice how much they have in common. Although they have maintained mutual respect for one another during their previous lives, after Jiang Cheng becomes friends with Wen Qing, he never feels that Luo Qingyang likes him enough for them to work together, yet her current self doesn’t rebuke when he jokingly suggests she should come to Jiang Corp. after her master’s.

“You should let her be CFO,” Wen Qing has said, casually, after Jiang Cheng picks her up from Keck, “think about it, you would make such a good combo. Isn’t Qingyang so smart? And she won’t take any bullshit. Those old geezers on the Board wouldn’t dare touch you.”

“Are you sure this isn’t because of the huge-ass salary that entails her position?” Jiang Cheng snickers, earning a giggle from the person sitting next to him. He hums, “Maybe in a few years.”

Wen Qing laughs harder.

He likes being around Wen Qing and Luo Qingyang. Despite their honest personalities and direct words, they never pry into his personal matters if he shows signs that he doesn’t want to talk about them. Luo Qingyang suggests once that he should meet up a friend of hers, Gonzalez, who’s tall and tanned with bright green eyes that anyone who isn’t him would fall for. Jiang Cheng stiffens, and whatever expression he displays on his face must’ve given her a pause, because she doesn’t mention it again. Wen Qing never says anything, but sometimes he would catch her stares, a knowing look he sees too often from Wei Ying or Nie Huaisang or now Meng Yao.

They don’t talk about it.

What is less fortunate is that now that he’s in business school, he has to start his preparation to eventually take over his family business, including attending monotonous social events to shake hands with potential investors and business partners. He wouldn’t have mind tolerating people for a few hours has Lan Xichen not been there to represent the Lan family. It seems that the board of Jiang Corp., upon hearing the engagement news from Lan Zhan and Wei Ying, wants to take the opportunity for the two families to forgo their differences and work together to benefit both sides. This clashes with the main branch of the family, including his parents, who are still reeling from the his death as well as decades worth of tension between the two families.

Nevertheless, Lan Qiren has agreed to set up events and meetings where the two families can work towards resolving their differences, and Jiang Cheng has the luck to be caught right in the middle of it. Between curt greetings and stiff, polite bows, they step around each other as if there isn’t history between them, and it hurts, but Jiang Cheng accepts it, like he learns to accept everything else.

Jiang Cheng obtains his master after two years and denies any suggestion from his parent for a party, opting for a night at the bar with his friends. What has warranted a celebration, though, is his sister’s engagement not even a week later. Apparently Jin Zixuan has moved back after finishing law school and passing the state bar exams, and the first thing he decides to do upon returning is to propose to Yanli in the typical Jin fashion – Jiang Cheng wasn’t there, but according to Nie Huaisang, who the peacock has seek help from, there were too many roses and chocolates and tears, most of which was from Jin Zixuan.

He and Wei Ying return to the Jiang mansion to a mountain of various sweets and Yanli with the widest grin he’s ever seen on her. She pulls them into a hug, telling them how happy she is, how much she also wants them to be happy too, and gives him a long glance that makes him understand immediately what she’s trying to tell him. He pretends like he doesn't understand.

She has once been understanding of him, telling him it’s completely okay to want to be alone, but somewhere along the way, she starts encouraging him to follow his heart, start telling him about how terrifying falling in love is, but it will bring him immense joy at the end, and he wonders how much she knows.

How much all of them know.

There’s a party thrown at the Jin household to celebrate the engagement. Jiang Cheng nurses his glass of champagne in a corner of the room, wanting to just be home and rest. He knows he’s safe, that no one would do anything to harm the new life he’s created because he’s destroyed every single threat there is, but after witnessing Meng Yao attempting to kill too many of his half-siblings, something about parties at the Jin’s always unravel his nerves. Maybe he should check the punch, just in case.

His train of thought is interrupted when another figure slides into the empty spot next to him with a glass of his own. He doesn’t need to look at them to know who they are.

“I was about to bring you a glass, but you already have one of your own.” Lan Xichen’s voice is soft, and Jiang Cheng wants to run his hand over charcoal, just a little bit, just to see how well he burns, just to see if the blisters can swallow him whole. “How are you doing? I heard you’re done with your master’s now.”

“Yeah, just got it a week ago,” he sounds gruff, borderline rude. He doesn’t understand how Lan Xichen stands him. “I’m going to start apprenticing at the corporation, learn the ropes to take over when my father retires.”

He knows it’s going to happen soon, doesn’t think he’s ready yet, but he doesn’t tell Lan Xichen that, Lan Xichen who’s always been confident and reassured in himself, who takes over the Lan empire at Jiang Cheng’s age. He’s always wanted the man to see him in his best light before he realizes he’s in love with him. That hasn’t changed.

(It's been Lan Xichen who offers his help first, who comes to him with guidance from the years he spends preparing to be sect leader and helps him pick himself back up, who never asks for anything else other than his companionship that until this day Jiang Cheng isn't sure why the man desires. But he doesn't think about that.)

“I see,” he sympathizes, “well, if you need any help, you can come to me. You can contact me, you know. I don’t believe we have each other’s numbers.” There’s a reason for that.

Jiang Cheng nervously rubs his hand. It would be rude to not give his phone number now that he’s asked, wouldn’t it? “Okay,” he says, handing his phone over, feeling like he’s running towards a cliff. In minutes, he’s had Lan Xichen saved, enabling him to call anytime. This is too dangerous, and he knows it. He doesn't get drunk often but he might, and he can do plenty of stupid things when drunk, one quality he and his brother share. Maybe he should erase it later. Would Lan Xichen be mad if he finds out?

“Um, I should go.” He’s leaving too early, it would make Yanli sad, but he can’t stay here.

A hand wraps around his wrist. “Wait, Jiang Cheng.” Lan Xichen clears his throat, a faint blush on his face. Why does he sound nervous? “Actually, I have something to ask. Are you free next weekend?”

Jiang Cheng glances back, starring at the cliff in front of him, feet hovering just at the edges.

“Can I see you again? We can meet up in the café, near your apartment, the one Wen Qing says you like.” Traitor.

It’s too high. If he jumps, it’s going to hurt.

Fuck it.

“Okay.”

He jumps.

***

Jiang Cheng arrives half an hour early, in a purple dress shirt and black pants that he spends too long choosing out from his wardrobe, only to find Lan Xichen already sitting in the right corner table that looks out on the busy street outside, his usual spot. The sunlight that streams into the café baths him in gold, like he’s glowing, too good to be true and too beautiful and Jiang Cheng is speechless every single time.

It’s absolutely unfair how Lan Xichen still has the same effects on him even after thousands of years.

The man spots him from where he stands and waves him over. They order, black coffee for Lan Xichen and caramel latte for him, and initiate small talks, and even though it’s not awkward, Jiang Cheng can tell there’s something else on Lan Xichen’s mind. He’s lived far too long to spend time beating around the bushes.

“Even though I’d love to talk about the state of Californian agriculture, there’s something else on your mind. What is it?” Jiang Cheng asks. The hand that wraps around the coffee cup stills, before Lan Xichen lowers his cup and brings his hands together, deep in thought.

“I heard from Wei Ying that you’re not seeing anyone, right?” Lan Xichen sounds nervous, Jiang Cheng doesn’t understand why.

“No.” There has never been anyone else, only you.

“Well, I was just thinking,” a pause, “would you like to go out? With me?”

Everything comes to a standstill.

“As in like, a date?” He asks, already knows the answer, but doesn’t, not really. Lan Xichen doesn’t mean it.

Lan Xichen absolutely could not have meant it.

“Yes.” The man sitting in front of him confirms, nothing but trepidation that’s out of place coming from someone like him and a breathtaking sincerity, unable to lie even if he has to, except he does, is lying right now, because Lan Xichen doesn’t like him, much less love, that is something Jiang Cheng has known for thousands of years now, has learned to accept it even if it hurts.

“No,” Jiang Cheng chokes out, feeling like he’s about to cry, “you don’t mean it.”

Lan Xichen’s face falls, he stutters, “I – I don’t understand – ”

Jiang Cheng cuts him off. “You don’t like me, you never have. You like Meng Yao, you always have.” I was there. I witness it happen over and over again. I couldn’t stop it.

He hasn’t realized he is now standing up, voice close to shouting, other patrons giving them judgmental stares. He doesn’t pay attention to them, all that matters is the rage that pulses through his vein, like the first time his mother told him he didn’t need to be the best, like when he met Meng Yao for the first time, except this time it’s worse, cuts deeper, hurts more than the bullet that Lan Xichen uses to shoot him.

He would rather get shot again than hear the words he’s been waiting to hear for thousands of years, only to know that the person he yearns to hear it from doesn’t mean it.

“I have to go.”

He runs.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t stop until he’s back in his apartment, his safe haven, breathes a sigh of relief when he slams the door shut and doesn’t even notice the tears streaming down his cheeks. When was the last time he cried? It’s stupid and pathetic to cry over something so insignificant.

Stop it.

Jiang Cheng inhales, putting a hand over his heart to feel it beating, waits until it evens out. As soon as he collects himself, he starts recalling the events that occur not even half an hour ago. Lan Xichen has asked him out, on a date, and he doesn’t know why. He’s had eighteen years to learn about modern romance, and he’s thought that he has a good grasp of it, so why would someone asks out another person if they already love someone else? Why isn’t Lan Xichen asking Meng Yao out on a date? Or maybe he has? Jiang Cheng knows Lan Xichen enough to realize the man isn’t cruel enough to cheat on Meng Yao, so was he rejected? Is that why he comes to Jiang Cheng like he’s some sort of fucking back-up.

He doesn’t understand, neither does he want to. All he wants to do is forget about everything, at least for tonight.

So he picks himself up and heads towards his cabinet.

One does not simply grow up with Wei Ying and not develops a high tolerance for alcohol. Jiang Cheng doesn’t make a habit of indulging in his brother’s tendencies, afraid that he might say too much when he’s not in his right state of mind, but he does have various types of alcohol stored in a cabinet just in case he has friends over. So he brings out all his stash and down one bottle to the other until his vision warps and everything becomes a blur, furniture and sceneries morphing together into shapeless splashes of colors, red and green and blue and gold that reminds him too much of the past filled with too much pain and regret and trauma that he’s still trying to get away from.

He wishes that he doesn’t have his memory, so that when Lan Xichen confess, he is able to feel joy, can readily say yes, even if it’s just a delusion. Except he remembers everything, including the way Lan Xichen doesn’t love him, isn’t meant to be together with him, has hated him so much he shot him, leaving behind a birthmark on his chest.

From somewhere far away, Jiang Cheng hears his door being opened, and footsteps slowly approach him, which would’ve been alarming if he hasn’t recognized the familiar walking pattern that can only belong to the only person who knows his secret.

(There’s someone else there too, he thinks, can’t really tell with the way his head is pounding, his first fatal mistake)

“Mr. Yu,” he raises his head, even though his butler’s face is blurry he can still make out a frown, “what are you doing here?”

“Young Master Wei told me to check in on you. I have been told that your meeting with Mr. Lan didn’t end well.” Old Man Yu explains matter-of-factly, looks at him again and casually remarks, “It seems that is to be the case. You are drunk, Young Master Jiang.”

Jiang Cheng flops back down on the kitchen counter, burying his nose into his elbows, focusing on evening out his breathing again. It’s been a terrible day. “He confesses to me. He says he likes me, and that he would like to go on a date.”

“Is that not a good thing?” his butler’s voice comes out in a hush, as if trying to not offend him. “I’ve always been under the impression that you like him, ever since you were children.”

Jiang Cheng laughs, bitter and sad in ways his butler doesn't deserve, but he does anyways because if he doesn’t, he might cry. Standing in front of him is the only man alive who knows his secret, and yet he also doesn’t know a single thing. “Mr. Yu, your grandfather told you that I was murdered by a Lan in my past life, right?” There’s a long pause, tension tangible in the air, and Jiang Cheng wonders if he is to look Old Man Yu in the face he would see understanding there. “Have I ever told you that sometimes, when I close my eyes, I can still feel the sting from the bullet he puts inside of my chest?”

Old Man Yu puts his hand on his back, raising his voice, trying to say something, but Jiang Cheng doesn’t let him. He’s lived for too long and suffered too much and remembers too many things and he’s miserable and broken and drunk and he needs someone, anyone, to know.

“Do you remember asking me how many reincarnations I’ve lived through?” he asks, not expecting an answer, before continuing.

“Twenty.” he slurs, “In those twenty reincarnations, I died natural deaths in nineteen of them. If you consider it, I’ve actually lived for thousands of years, before modern civilization even exists.” He pauses, playing with a loose strand of his hair, feeling warm fingers that’s not there. “I’ve loved Lan Xichen ever since my first life. That means that I’ve spent thousands of years loving Lan Xichen.”

“In all twenty reincarnations, I watched as Lan Xichen falls in love with Meng Yao over and over again, would protect him, do everything for him.” He lifts his face, picks up a forgotten cup of - is it whiskey? He swirls the content, feeling lightheaded and angry, an ugly, twisted thing that he’s tried so hard to repress over the last eighteen years now bubbling at the surface of his skin. “I witness Meng Yao plot behind our backs, betraying us in every single lifetime. I witnessed him working with the Wen’s, him plotting to murder the peacock, his father, Nie Mingjue, his own fucking son, and I witnessed Lan Xichen defending him in every single lifetime, even willing to sacrifice his own life, to kill, in the process.”

He gulps down the cup, feeling bitter alcohol on his tongue, wishes it’s something else instead, something he can never have. “If there is anything I know, it’s that he doesn’t love me. I didn’t realize it at first, and it took a bullet to the chest for me to learn my lesson. I’m – ” he hiccups, “I’m tired, I’m just really fucking exhausted and I don’t want to be heartbroken again.”

He tips over the cup on the kitchen counter, sending it crashing to the floor, makes no motion to pick it up, and neither is his butler, who’s probably still trying to process everything he’s just said. He stares at the shards, wondering if he hold it in his hands and let his fingers bleed from the sharp edges, would it hurt as much as running his hands through fire and watching himself get burn, would it hurt as much as spending a few thousand years loving a man who will never love him back?

He doesn't realize his own voice when he speaks again, hoarse and pathetic, as if it is more suitable coming out of a child who learns you can lose your golden core for the first time.

“We’re all forced to make decisions, and whether I like it or not, I’ve learned to accept other people’s decisions and live with its consequences.”

Wei Ying chooses to give him his golden core. Wei Ying chooses to save the Wen’s. His sister chooses Jin Zixuan, chooses her family until it becomes her death. Lan Wangji chooses to protect Wei Ying at the cost his life and dignity. He has his secrets, his memories, his traumas, his love. Those are the choices he makes, and those are the choices he will make over and over again.

“Lan Xichen made his decision when he pulled the trigger.”

Chapter Text

It’s already morning when Jiang Cheng wakes up, a pounding headache wakes with him. His muscles ache, his tongue feels numb, his stomach feels like someone steps on it. Unlike Wei Ying, who seems to be miraculously blessed with the inability to possess a hangover, Jiang Cheng’s body hates alcohol, and it always punishes him after a night of drinking, another reason why he doesn’t make a habit of drinking often anymore, especially after his cultivation was gone.

Once he gains coherency over his thoughts again, there’s only one thing on his mind.

“Oh fuck.” He says out loud, remembering what he told his butler yesterday. Another reason why he doesn’t drink, and probably never will again, if that is what he does when he’s drunk.

From his bed, Jiang Cheng hears the turn of his doorknob, before two familiar faces peek through. “A-Cheng, you’re awake.” Wei Ying greets him, although he notes how his brother’s voice lacks its usual cheerfulness. His sister steps in, carrying a tray of her signature lotus rib soup, his favorite hangover food, which usually would make him rejoice, except that neither of them is supposed to be here. It’s a Saturday, so even if Yanli doesn’t have work, she should still be with her fiancée, not here taking care of him. And why is Wei Ying here instead of on his campus doing labs or whatever PhD students do?

“Why are you guys here? Aren’t you busy?” He asks between spoonful of soup, feeling better bit by bit as he swallows down the hot liquid, chasing away the headache and soothe his muscles, even just a little. He watches the two of them share a look, a feeling of something horribly wrong settles at the pit of his stomach.

“A-Cheng, do you remember what happens yesterday?” His sister is the one who speaks first, carefully dancing around the topic. He panics, floundering, wanting to dance around the topic, but it wouldn’t help them. He’s always been someone who prefers to just rip the bandage off.

“My conversation with Mr. Yu, you guys were there.” He says curtly. They both wince, guilt on their faces. “How much did you guys hear?”

Wei Ying puts his hands up, “In my defense, I only came because Lan Zhan was determined to track you down and kill you. You can’t believe how mad he was yesterday. I’ve never seen him that angry,” he points at their sister, “shijie only came because Xichen-ge mentions how upset you were. She was worried. We were both worried.”

That catches his attention. “Wait, you were chasing after Lan Zhan? Does that mean he was here?” He sits up, almost tipping over the bowl on his lap, his sister reaching over to prevent it from spilling, not that Jiang Cheng cares if it does when he has more urgent matters on his hands.

Wei Ying refuses to look him in the eye, choosing instead to play with his wedding ring, the one Lan Zhan gave him years ago when they eloped, “Yeah,” he whispers, adding, “so was Xichen-ge. He insists on seeing you to resolve the misunderstanding.”

Fuck

no no no no he heard everything he knows everything

The only thing preventing him from panicking even further is the look of guilt that now deepens on Wei Ying’s face, like he has something else to say. “What?” he spits out.

“Um,” his brother sucks in a breath, “A-Yao was also there.”

That’s it, Jiang Cheng is never touching a drop of alcohol again.

“Please,” it’s not quite begging, since he doesn’t beg, though it’s a close thing, “please tell me you’re joking,” but he knows they aren’t, not about something like this. Wei Ying still isn’t looking at him. Yanli does, but he would rather she hasn’t, there’s something so sad it almost feels like pity in her eyes.

“He’s sitting outside. He said he doesn’t know if you want to meet him, not after… everything.”

Jiang Cheng often feels like loving Lan Xichen is like falling off a bottomless pit, like playing with fire, and it feels the same now. Except this time he can't run away, can't just keep his secrets forever when it's already out.

Besides, he can't let Meng Yao blame himself again, for something that the him of this life has never done. No one should be made to feel like that.

He sighs, raising his voice, “A-Yao, I know you’re out there. Come in!”

A familiar face pokes through the doorframe. Growing up in a happy and stable household has done wonders to Meng Yao’s confidence. He speaks clearly and straight-forwardly with a tongue that can cut glass, looks people in the eyes, holds his head high, posture straight. The man hovering at his door right now is anything but that, small and scared like the first time they met, and Jiang Cheng hates it.

“Is it really okay for me to come in?” Meng Yao says shakily, both his cheeks and eyes are red, like he’s been crying, he probably has.

“A-Yao, if I truly want to harm you, I would’ve killed you when he first met all those years ago.” Everyone but Jiang Cheng flinches, Meng Yao gets somehow smaller, his eyes tearing up again. He immediately feels bad. “Shit, sorry, don’t take that to heart.” He says in a hush, knows the apology isn’t sufficient.

“No, it’s okay, I deserve that.” His voice gets even smaller. Of all the things he could’ve said, that is what angers Jiang Cheng the most. He flops down from his bed, almost toppling over from the muscle cramps, and saunters to Meng Yao and pulls him into the room.

“Look here, I know I said some pretty terrible shit about you yesterday,” he wants to reach out and hold his hand, but it would only make things more awkward between them, “but you don’t deserve that. The current you haven’t done a single thing wrong, so I don’t want you to feel guilty, okay?”

Meng Yao stays quiet for a moment, long enough for Jiang Cheng to dread what’s about to come next.

“The things you said, about me killing da-ge and my – my own son, is that true?” he whispers, his eyes misty. He should’ve seen it coming, honestly. Doesn’t make it hurt any less.

“Yes,” he answers truthfully, because the truth isn’t what he wants to take away from Meng Yao, quickly adding, “but you from your previous lives are very different from the you now. You lost your mother, casted out by your father, humiliated by your colleagues, there were a lot of reasons why you decided to do what you did.”

He hasn’t noticed Wei Ying and Yanli standing next to Meng Yao, holding the man by the shoulder, who now looks like he’s about to fall over, his face pale, and he’s biting his lips too deep to be considered safe. “I was a monster.” He looks up at Jiang Cheng, “Was that why you befriended me in the first place? So that I wouldn’t become a terrible human being again?”

Jiang Cheng gulps, “Yes,” he grits out, “that was my original intention, that’s why I tracked you down in the first place. It wasn’t a coincidence that you ended up in my class, and it wasn’t a coincidence that your mother moved to Pasadena.”

A frown mars Meng Yao’s features, before it lights up with realization. “You were the one who helped my mother get a job, the one who gives us the apartment, the one who helps me with the scholarship,” he says in awe, “my mother always says that the treatment she receives for her cancer was too good to be true. You were the one that helped her.”

Meng Yao has always been smart - one of the smartest among them, probably rival with Wei Ying, if Jiang Cheng is willing to admit it. What he lacks with his foundations he makes up for with his wit, his charms, his ability to connect the dots, and this time it's no exception.

“Yes, I asked Madam Jin for help, through Mr. Yu, in exchange for information about Jin Guangshan.” He affirms.

The entire room quiets. Even his own siblings are now starring at him with the same awestruck expression that Meng Yao wears. What remains of his headache comes back in full force. If it’s this difficult talking to them, he doesn’t even want to know what it will be like confronting the Lan brothers.

He knows he have to, or else Lan Xichen would spend the rest of his life blaming himself for something he never does, and Jiang Cheng doesn't want that on him. Only wants him to have the best of everything.

“Why Wanyin?” Meng Yao asks suddenly, fear and sadness almost gone from his eyes, in its place an odd curiosity, “What does it mean?”

He hesitates briefly, “Back in the old days, we used to have courtesy names,” he admits, “Jiang Wanyin, that’s mine.”

“That’s a beautiful name.” Meng Yao breathes, shuffling his feat.

The tension is still there, but the air doesn't make him gasp desperately for his own breath. It's been going much smoother than he's thought it would go, after hiding everything for so long. Meng Yao stays silent for a full minute, eyes distant, before hugging him across the chest, “I guess I just want to say thank you, I guess, for not letting me turn into a monster.”

Despite himself, Jiang Cheng laughs. He can’t believe he would ever hear those words come out of Meng Yao. And this time, he's wrong.

He's not the monster in the room.

“Do you know that I was the one who shot Xue Yang and lead him to his death? Do you know that I was the one who stabbed Wen Zhuliu?" He watches their eyes widen, Wei Ying's mind working exhaustively to connect the dots. He doesn't doubt his brother will figure out everything from the clues Jiang Cheng has given him. He's never been the best at cleaning up after himself. "I've done many things, and those aren't good or kind. I haven't killed in this life, but I could have, if it comes to that."

His chest feels too full, "In fact, I have killed before. Do you know that I use to capture people by the hundreds to keep them in the dungeons and torture them to death?” He asks, hollow and bitter, “and I didn’t even do it because they deserve it. I did it because they reminded me too much of Wei Ying, and it hurt too much, so I hurt them in return, in hope that if one day I got rid of people like Wei Ying then it would hurt less.”

Rumors had it that Jiang Cheng tortured and killed those people because he was afraid the Yiling Patriarch would come back; they couldn’t be more wrong. They lived in each other’s pockets their whole lives, he knew his brother, knew those people aren’t his brother, but they wielded the demonic cultivation his brother used, the cursed power that took everything away from him, left him a shell of a person he was, if such a person existed at all, so he took and took until there was nothing left but ashes.

“At least you don’t remember what your past selves did, and in that way, you are absolved of your sins.” He steps in front of Meng Yao, until their feet are practically touching, starring into unblinking eyes, “I, on the other hand, am forced to remember everything, the way they screamed and thrashed and begged for their lives.”

He's talking too much, revealing too many things that shouldn't be privy for anyone but his demons, but he couldn't care less. He's been holding it back for too long, has too many things to hide, like a dam that's about to collapse from all the tension put upon it until it eventually does. But then he thinks about the people he's tortured and Xue Yang who he's shot in the shoulder and the knife stuck inside of Wen Zhuliu's chest and the wave of nausea from the terrible, terrible things he's done to keep all that is pure and innocent left in his life stay the way they are and has to let someone know.

That he might be his family's heir, might be a good friend and a great son, might be an Olymic medalist, but he is nowhere near the person he's portrayed in this world to be, and no one knows that better than himself.

The tension he tries to hard to dissolve mere moments ago are back, making it hard to concentrate, but he has to let Meng Yao know, has meant to let him know for a long time.

“So, I ask you, Meng Yao, if you’re a monster, then what does that make me?”

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng turns away, heads towards the window and cracked it open, letting the damp air of the summer morning fill the room, though it does little to ease the existing tension. Wei Ying follows his movements, looking distinctly like he’s been punched.

“You… you killed people because they reminded you of me?”

Jiang Cheng sighs, “Not you, per say, you were practicing demonic cultivation, like those novels you like to read. I hunted down those demonic cultivators because they reminded me of what I lost, due to demonic cultivation.”

“Why didn’t I or anyone else do anything to stop it?”

Jiang Cheng flinches and looks at his hands, “trust me, you don’t want to know.”

Wei Ying joins him on the bed, tucking at his sleeves like they are children again, eyes pleading. “Tell me.”

“The Wen’s killed everyone in our sect, including our parents. I lost my core, so I can’t use my spiritual power anymore. You gave your core to me, making you turn to demonic cultivation.” He says in one breath, “You killed thousands of people. You ordered Wen Ning to kill Zixuan. You lost control. You didn’t kill Yanli, but you were the cause for her death and I – ” he chokes, hating having to talk about this all again, “I lost everything, and it turned me into a monster.”

His brother looks down at his hands and pulls it away from Jiang Cheng’s sleeve, as if burnt, the composure on his face now gone, replaced by horror and disgust, at himself, probably.

“I don’t fault for you for. I can’t.” Not after what I did. “We were children of war, doing whatever we can to survive, turning to cruelty to cope with our trauma. You don’t remember what you did anymore, neither does Meng Yao, so you don’t need to feel bad about it.”

Wei Ying stares at Jiang Cheng like he’s the one missing something, then leaps over and engulfs him into an embrace. “Thank you, didi,” Wei Ying rarely calls him that anymore.

“I’m surprise at how well you guys have been taking all of this.” He comments, and it's true. He has expected a lot more tears and questions.

“Well, you were fourteen when you shoot those guards,” Wei Ying snorts, “so, after the whole thing with the Wen’s was over, I asked Mr. Xiao about it, and he admits that you have been receiving training from him, he also said we should look over you because sometimes you have to bear too much weight on your shoulders, which makes a lot of sense now that we know the truth.”

Xiao Xingchen really is too nice, but Jiang Cheng can’t afford to be mad at the man, not when everything has led him to this. It’s not like he has been the most careful either. In hindsight, he doesn’t understand why people haven’t figured it out sooner, even Song Lan, who seems to still be under the impression that he is some mad child genius who naturally excels at everything he does.

Don't they deserve to know the truth too, after all they've done for him and all the questions they ask and never ask that he can't adequately answer without making up half-lies?

“Then, after yesterday, we asked Mr. Yu about it, and he said we should look at the family documents, around a century ago, before the Jiang’s moved over here, so we did. We found someone that reminded us too much of our family, of you – a sister, an adopted brother, died young,” he grits his teeth, “killed by the eldest son of the Lan family, the reason why the Lan’s and the Jiang’s weren’t on speaking terms for generations. We had all night to come to terms with the situation, before coming here again. After knowing that, all this stuff doesn’t seem too farfetched.”

“That’s my most recent reincarnation.” He admits. “Life comes in cycles, and history repeats itself unless I make any important changes,” he looks at Meng Yao. It’s still hard, talking about something he has kept a secret for so long, but as he talks the words form easier on his tongue. “That’s how I knew that Jin Guangshan was working with the Wen’s, how I knew about where father can go to find you,” he looks back at Wei Ying, “how I knew about Meng Yao, how I knew you were going to fall for Lan Zhan and how a-jie was going to be with the peacock.”

“Wait,” his sister suddenly speaks up, “in our previous lives, what happened to me? Did I and Zixuan still end up together?”

He avoids her eyes, picks up the cup from the table, and looks over at Wei Ying.

“Call Huaisang, Xuanyu, A-Qing and A-Ning over. Tell her to bring Qingyang too, and Zinxuan. This is going to be a long story.” Maybe all of them deserves to know. “Actually, call Old Man Yu too. Tell him to contact Mr. Xiao and Mr. Song.”

Old Man Yu arrives first with Song Lan, Xiao Xingchen and A-Qing, all with weary expressions on their faces after they note the presence in the room. His butler turns towards him and gives a sympathetic nod, already understanding the situation and knowing what he’s going to say. It makes telling some of his darkest secrets easier, barely.

Mo Xuanyu drags a sleepy-eyed Nie Huaisang into the room, himself looking like he just gets out of bed as well. Jiang Cheng resolutely does not think about what they could’ve done that render them both bedridden past noon. Wen Qing bursts into his apartment with her brother and girlfriend, cursing him out about how “you should’ve given me advanced notice do you know how tough schedules at med schools are,” only cutting herself off when another guest enters his apartment. Jin Zixuan, half-confused and half-annoyed from not seeing his fiancée the entire night, walks in like he owns the place and takes a seat on one of chairs in his living room, right next to Yanli. They all eventually settles there, a space too small for what he considers to be such a grandiose occasion, yet it feels appropriate only because it's his territory.

There’s a serious of footsteps that get louder as they approach his apartment, and the three people he doesn’t want to see the most step into the room. He gives Wei Ying an unimpressed look, before his sister speaks up.

“A-Ying didn’t call them. I did.” And that was that.

Jiang Cheng has never raised his voice or throw his temper tantrums at his sister. He isn't going to now.

Lan Zhan and Nie Mingjue throw vicious glares at his direction, and lifetimes ago, he would’ve cowered and shrunk back into his room or glares back and kicks them out, now he returns their understandable hostility with a coldness that would’ve impressed Lan Zhan himself. Lan Xichen looks like he hasn’t slept all night, hesitates to enter his apartment before giving in and stands near the door, ready to bolt if Jiang Cheng orders him to, and he’s almost tempted to do just that, but they’ve come all the way here, and don’t they deserve the truth too?

When he notices every eyes in the room are now on him, he clears his throat, takes a deep breath, and starts telling them everything.

He starts with their first lives, how everyone was connected to one another, the consequences of the war, their deaths, everything they’ve done for their sects, for their family, for love, for themselves, no matter how heinous it was. He watches the shift in everyone’s expressions, concern and disgust and fear and just enough of a hint of happiness to encourage him to keep going, weaving through every reincarnation in which he met them, showing them that amidst the cycle of betrayal and violence he’s forced to live through, forced to remember all of, there’s breathtaking beauty in it as well, allowing them to somehow find each other, to love and be together until the day they die in each other’s arms.

He takes another breath, feeling like dying all over again, except this experience is positively more miserable than death, and tells them what happens in the last reincarnation. He doesn’t look Meng Yao and Lan Xichen in the eyes as he describes in detail how Meng Yao betrayed them, how Jiang Cheng killed him, and how Lan Xichen in return killed him as revenge.

He folds his hands, which now no longer shakes, and proceeds to tell the rest of his story – how he has woken up in the body of a six-year-old, finds his brother and Meng Yao, conspires the fail assassination of his father, works with Madam Jin to bring down her husband, contacts Xue Yang to bring down the Wen’s. He dances around Xue Yang, doesn’t want to bring back bad memories, before Xiao Xingchen steps up and talks about the sadistic psychopath himself, like they did many years ago, tell your story and I’ll tell mine. He finishes by talking about how he let the twins finished off the rest of the Wen’s in the warehouse and Jin Guangshan’s life sentence.

Now that everyone in the room know what happened, Jiang Cheng sinks into his chair, exhales, and feels the burden a worth the weight of thousands of years being lifted off his chest.

He’s never considered telling a single soul his secrets, even Old Man Yu, despite his undying loyalty to the Jiang family, doesn’t know the whole story. They are uncomfortable, terrible secrets, but they are his to keep, and there isn’t anything else in this world that he can unequivocally call his, so he holds onto them as best as he can, like the I-love-you’s that he has never spoken to Lan Xichen, except that in a drunken stupor he did, and he has no doubt the man has heard all of it, for he still refuses to look Jiang Cheng in the eyes.

He also doesn’t think he can face Lan Xichen again, can’t even fathom what the man will do next. Would he feel sorry, apologizing for something he has never done which is fucking ridiculous, or worse, would he feel pity for Jiang Cheng, for being such a miserable, love-sick fool for such a long time?

He doesn’t want to think about it.

Everyone around him are quiet, and he wonders if they are still trying to process the information or they are just mercifully allowing him a brief moment of reprieve from all the questions they inevitably must have, and for that he is thankful. Surprisingly, it is Nie Mingjue who speaks first.

“I knew it! You were too good at fencing for someone who has never taken classes before. It was totally unfair!”

Jiang Cheng laughs. From the floor, Wen Qing chimes in. “Wait, does that mean I wasn’t supposed to win in the first place? I spent hours after the match lamenting at myself for being so arrogant that I let a newbie beat me, but it was because you have thousands of years of experience under your belt?”

Just like that, the atmosphere in the room considerably lightens as everyone chats about their previous lives, how relieved they are that they met each other. He figures it's easier to be curious, to ask questions about their previous reincarnations, when they don't have to feel the pain of living through it the way Jiang Cheng is forced to.

He doesn't think about how unfair that is, not anymore. He's come into terms with it over the years and accepted it as is.

Wei Ying seems to be particularly interested in demonic cultivation, not that Jiang Cheng can answer much when there’s no spiritual power left in the earth for him to explore. Yanli asks about her son and future son-in-law. Nie Huaisang asks about his life, his sect. Mo Xuanyu asks about his family, his career, his love. They are all valid questions to have, but Jiang Cheng finds that he doesn't want to answer all of them.

Although he isn’t sure how it works, or what would happen if he lets everyone else know, he has a feeling it isn’t good to spill everything that can happen in the future lest doing some serious damage to it. He might use his knowledge from previous lives to keep them safe, but he will never want to spoil the surprise from them.

Besides, letting his loved ones discover their lives and relationships in their own way, isn’t that the beauty of living?

“You should tell your mother about what happens. At least the time when you, um, staged your own father’s assassination. I feel like she deserves to know that.” Luo Qingyang, who has proven time and time again to be the only sensible person in the room, suggests.

“She’s going to kill me.” Jiang Cheng deadpans.

“She will,” Yanli agrees, “but then she will thank you.”

As much as he hates to admit it, his sister has a point.

Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen leaves first, the latter bowing slightly out of sheer politeness before all but scramble out of the doorway, and Jiang Cheng’s heart aches. One by one, everyone bids him goodbyes and go back to their respective lives. At the end, only Meng Yao, Wei Ying and Lan Zhan are left. Lan Zhan, who hasn’t said a word the entire time, speaks up.

Xiongzhang could not sleep yesterday.” He figures. “He blames himself, despite having done nothing.” There’s a crack on Lan Zhan’s mask, a ripple on the water surface that reflects the inner turmoil, “after hearing everything, I do not completely blame you for your reactions, I just wish you see things in his perspective.”

I know I’m supposed to, I’m supposed to be kinder but I can’t I can’t I can’t

“He really does love you, Jiang Cheng. He has for a long time.”

He doesn't believe a single word of it.

Jiang Cheng has known Lan Zhan for most of his life, back when they used to call each other by their courtesy names, knows he isn’t the type to talk about or display feelings openly except with Wei Ying, so to hear such earnest words coming from a usually stoic man is quite a shock. It is honestly the nicest thing Lan Zhan has ever said to him, but this time he can’t accept it. Lan Zhan might know his brother like the back of his hands, but Jiang Cheng has thousands of years of hopeless hope by his side, has the bullet that is no longer in his chest, to prove otherwise.

“Thank you for your concern.” He watches their faces fall and wants to resist the urge to apologize, for what, he doesn’t know. They drive away shortly after, leaving him with only Meng Yao. The other pauses at his doorstep, glancing back and forth between him and the door nervously, as if having something to say but is too afraid of saying it, which is uncharacteristic of him. Meng Yao may withhold information if it benefits him, but he never hesitates.

“Is there something wrong?” He asks, as gentle as he can, which doesn’t mean much but at least he’s trying. All of them have been through too much today, especially Meng Yao, who is probably still grappling with the concept that he was some kind of merciless traitor in his previous lives.

“Earlier, you said that I am not responsible for my past lives’ mistakes, because I turn out to be a much different person in this one.” Meng Yao says quietly, but there’s confidence there as well, gaining back a semblance of his usual self. He looks him in the eye. “But you keep saying that you are a monster, even though you are also reincarnated as well, so you have a new body in this life, so, technically, you aren’t responsible for what your first life did either.”

Jiang Cheng wants to scream. Or cry. Crying sounds nice, if that means they aren’t having this discussion anymore.

“It’s not the same. You don’t remember the people that you kill. I do.” It gets better over the years, often easy to ignore if he tries, but sometimes, like after Xue Yang, after the Wen’s, it comes back to him in full force and tells him that he deserves to suffer suffer suffer

“The only difference is that you remember your past lives while I don’t.”

Meng Yao is smart – brilliant, really – so why doesn’t he get it?

“The difference is that I remember my past lives and you don’t, Meng Yao.”

And that means everything.

***

After Meng Yao leaves, Jiang Cheng doesn’t sit idly in his apartment – he goes and finds his parents.

Their working hours have gotten laxer over the recent years, allowing them in spend the weekends in each other’s company. He meets them in the bourgeois tea house his mother frequents, out on a date that his mother is clearly not happy having it interrupted. Fortunately, they have a room to themselves, meaning he wouldn’t be interrupted or watched as he confesses everything.

The thing is, Jiang Cheng has always meant to tell his parents eventually – they deserve to know that the event that sent the entire Jiang family into a panic is entire planned by their youngest son. Madam Jin handles the issue, convincing his mother the threat has been dealt with and sooth their anxiety, but it doesn’t stop him from feeling just a little bit guilty for his involvement from them. However, he would be lying if he says he isn’t afraid of how his parents, in particular his mother, would react. He hasn’t had to endure her tantrum for a long time now, and although her temper has gotten better ever over the years, he doesn’t know how she would react to such a momentous revelation.

His assumption is proven to be right, as he watches his mother’s face pales and then turns a dark shade of red as her palm grips the napkin, her other hand threatening to break her husband’s. His father winces, motions his wife to let go, and looks back at him, his face ponderous. His mother’s rage is predictable, his father’s calmness isn’t, and Jiang Cheng resists the urge to squirm in his seat, feeling like a naughty child caught in one of Wei Ying’s antics all over again.

“Was it Xiao Xingchen?” His father asks, casually sipping his cup. He stares at his father, mouth agape. The man elaborates. “I did a background check for both Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen when they came to work for me. I know about their pasts, A-Cheng. And the fact that Xiao Xingchen is “busy” during the only day when a sniper is supposedly after me? It’s too much of a coincidence to pass up.”

It’s one of the only times in the thousands of years he’s been alive that he’s rendered speechless, and he’s never thought his father, who’s always been too nice and unassuming, is the reason.

Even his mother is starring at him, hitting him across the shoulder. “You should’ve told me! Don’t you think I deserve to know the truth?”

“Darling,” Nope, still not use to that, can’t he go back to calling her my lady? “I know you, and you would have had both of them fired, and I can’t have that. Mr. Yu takes them under his wing, doesn’t he? They’ve worked for me long enough, so I don’t doubt their loyalty. I figure what he does must have a reason”

“Old Man Yu told me later that he agreed to my crazy plan because he wanted to gather evidence on Jin Guangshan,” he lies, doesn't think he can tell them he's involved in that as well, “Now that I think about it, it makes sense why.”

His father nods. “Mr. Yu is truly wise in that regard. I have to admire him for it.”

His mother, who’s been silent throughout their exchange, snarls, “I can’t believe both of you,” she glares at him, “Especially you, A-Cheng, how can you keep such a thing from me for so long?”

There’s a great deal more that I don’t tell you, but it’s okay, you don’t need to know those things.

His thoughts is cut short when his mother sits down by his side and pull him into an embrace. He freezes, feeling her fingers carding gently through his hair.

“You silly, foolish boy,” she mumbles, “how can you concoct such a plan? What was the use of all that?”

“You and father were unhappy,” he answers honestly, “but you obviously care for one another, and… I just want to find a way to prove that.”

He observes his parents sharing a look, almost like guilt, but there’s something else there too, like fond, like love, and his father whispers low, “I do love your mother, A-Cheng, at least believe that.”

He smiles. “I do.” He does.

They bid him goodbye with an arm wrapped around his shoulder and a warm hand resting on his back, and it's all the reassurance he needs to confirm that everything he's done, all the people he's hurt, all the suffering he goes through in this life, is worth it.

Jiang Cheng doesn't remember dragging himself back to his apartment but he somehow does, and it isn't until he hears the door slammed shut that he realizes he's somehow arrived home.

He slides down, lying inelegantly on the cold floor tiles to gaze up at the ceiling, mind drifting into a place far away. He hasn’t felt it before, but now that he’s alone with his thoughts, it hits him with full force that his secrets are gone, he has given them away to the people he loves, and now in its place within his heart is a vast, hollow empty space that he has never experienced before.

Except that is a lie, because he has, a very long time ago, when he lost his core, when Wen Zhuliu took it away from him, and it felt like having his soul rips out of him, and he hated it, hated it enough to lash out at his brother and everyone who only tried their best to comfort him. Eventually, he has a new one – his brother’s, his mind supplies – and he can almost pretend everything was okay, except it wasn’t, because you don’t simply grow a new soul and expect it to be exactly alike to your old one, and there’s still gaps in that space, and he feels so empty he desperately sought anyway to fill in those gaps, maybe not completely, but maybe just enough to fool everyone into thinking he’s completely and utterly broken.

The space fills itself in over time, when he has a new family who won’t admonish his second place, when he tells his brother everything, when he successfully fixes his parents’ marriage, when he watches the people he loves find each other and be happy in every reincarnations, to the point where he can almost ignore that empty space. But as he lives longer, the secrets get heavier, weighting down his chest. It feels like drowning, like falling in love, and it’s terrifying, but he keeps them there anyways because they are his.

But now that is no longer here anymore.

And this time around, he thinks he’ll be fine.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng expects everything to change, only to learn that not that much has changed at all, at least at first. They all go back to their respective lives, though they still call him from time to time, asking him about the minute details of their past lives, particularly Wei Ying, who seems to be obsessed with the idea of demonic cultivation, it almost feels like he never tells them anything at all.

Then Meng Yao calls him a week later and asks to talk.

Da-ge and I are dating.” Meng Yao says between gulps of tea. “We talked about what happened between us in the past, after you revealed everything, and one thing led to another and yeah,” he blushes, “I kissed him. We just went out on our first date yesterday.”

“Oh,” was all that Jiang Cheng manages to stammer out, glad that he hasn’t taken any tea beforehand.

It isn’t that he’s blind. He’s always known that there’s something between Meng Yao and Nie Mingjue, between all three of the Venerable Triad. He’s just always thought that in a life where Meng Yao isn’t completely evil, he will end up with the eldest Lan. In hindsight, Jiang Cheng wonders how he could have possibly missed it when the signs are all there, ever since the two of them first met in that fencing club when they were six.

Lan Xichen is going to be heartbroken, he wants to say, doesn’t. Meng Yao doesn’t need to feel guilty for chasing after the person he loves. Jiang Cheng would’ve done the same thing.

There's a part of him too, a part he isn't used to admit, that is fond of Meng Yao, as strange as that is to say, that is relieved Meng Yao gets to be with the person he loves, the one who loves him, without the burden of their past holding them back. Jiang Cheng, meanwhile, can't even force himself to believe the confession Lan Xichen tells him.

It isn't that he thinks Lan Xichen is lying - the man he knows is too honest for his own good - but whatever Lan Xichen feels for him couldn't be love. It must've been something he's developed after he discovers that Meng Yao doesn't love him. He's heard Huaisang talks about it before - a rebound, his friend call it. And it can't be deep or intense or passionate or beautiful (because he doesn't deserve such a thing) for it to be love. It has to be something fleeting, something that will pass by in a blink of an eye, that Lan Xichen will look back at and wonder what the hell he was thinking.

A mistake.

Just the thought of it sends chills down his spine, something like fear, a feeling he can't even remember when he last experiences.

He calls Lan Xichen immediately afterwards.

“Hello?” Lan Xichen’s voice is gentle, soft, like the man already know who is on the other side, which he probably does, since Jiang Cheng has stupidly given him his number before turning him down, and his heart clenches.

“Hi, this is Jiang Cheng.” He says uselessly.

“I know.” There’s a hint of a smile there. “Is there a reason you decide to contact me?”

“A-Yao told me he’s dating Nie Mingjue,” he gets straight to the point.

“I know,” Lan Xichen replies, “they told me after they got together. They’ve been pining after one another for so long, I’m surprise it takes them this long.” Jiang Cheng can hear a sigh full of fondness from the other side of the phone and wonders how can something feels so wrong yet to right. Why aren’t you crying, why aren’t you miserable, why don’t you fight for your love because you deserve so much more more more –

“Are you okay?” He asks. Jiang Cheng has carefully avoided the topic of Lan Xichen’s taking his own life, but drunk him has spilled too much for him to go back, and he thinks they’ve figured out everything already. Besides, Lan Xichen isn't someone to do such a thing over a heartbreak, he knows that by now. He worries, nevertheless, after too many lifetimes of worrying.

“Of course,” there’s confusion there, but also understanding, “I’m happy for them.”

But how can you be, Jiang Cheng asks himself before realizing that of course, Lan Xichen would be the kind of person to be happy for his two best friends’ union, despite how he himself personally feels. You don’t have to be too kind all the time. He wants to say, but instead, he offers, “If you want to talk about it, I’m here.”

Maybe he shouldn’t have, but after watching Lan Xichen losses himself through twenty reincarnations, you can’t blame him for being too cautious.

There’s a long silence on the other side. When Lan Xichen speaks again, his voice is quiet, “I thought you hate me now. If you want nothing more to do with me, I won’t bother you.”

A small part of his heart breaks, “I don’t hate you,” I love you I love you I love you I love – “I never have, not even after that happens between us. I do care about you,” fuck, should he have said that.

“How can you not?”

This is not a conversation he wants to have over the phone, but it’s easier too, when he doesn’t feel like he’s going to burn into ashes from the heat of Lan Xichen’s gaze.

“It’s all in the past, a past that you have no memory of. Just as I don’t hate Meng Yao for what he did, I can’t hate you as well.” Because it’s true. Jiang Cheng can never hate the man. He can hate what he did, what he was willing to do for Meng Yao, hates it proves how much he loves someone who isn’t Jiang Cheng himself, someone who isn’t worth it, but he can never hate Lan Xichen himself.

“Oh,” Lan Xichen says, no longer sounding like a kicked puppy, “do you want to meet up? Not like a date,” he corrects quickly, “but just, you know, meeting up, like friends?”

Jiang Cheng is tempted to say no, but there isn’t really a good reason why he should deny such an innocent request. It’s not a date, right? But you want it to be.

“Okay.”

To his surprise, Lan Xichen tells him to bring his gears and meet him in a private multipurpose sport center owned by the Lan’s. By the time he arrives to his not-date, the other man has already dressed and properly equipped, a sabre lying at his feet.

“I didn’t know you use sabre.” He teases, “you and Lan Zhan always use foil around us.”

Because Meng Yao and Wei Ying use foil, he reminds himself.

“I used to fence with sabre more often at first, because of da-ge, and then A-Yao asks me to train him, so I transitioned into foil” Lan Xichen reminiscences.

Jiang Cheng smiles as he puts on his own gear, hoping it’s convincing. Jealousy is beneath him, but it aches anyways. He isn’t supposed to read too much into it, but somehow the fact that Lan Xichen has chosen foil over sabre tells him all that he needs to know, reminds him that there has never been a lifetime where Lan Xichen chooses him over Meng Yao.

Except that he doesn’t need to worry about that, because he already knows, and that’s why this is not a date - just two friends hanging out, except that's the biggest lie he's ever told himself, and he's told himself a lot of lies.

“But I think if I have to choose a blade, it would be sabre.” Lan Xichen continues, as if reading his mind - which he shouldn't be able to, but after all that happens, Jiang Cheng wouldn't be surprise - and it catches him so off-guard he doesn't even have time to compose himself before feeling his face heating up.

Oh

Blushing is also beneath him, so he resolutely does not blush. Except that maybe that is the biggest lie too.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” He grins, “I’m actually pretty good, you know.” The gold medal back in the Jiang mansion proves that.

That has drawn a laugh from Lan Xichen, “What a coincidence, I’ve been told that as well.”

True enough, Lan Xichen proves to be a formidable opponent – not only is he quick and strong, Lan’s arm strength and whatnot, he can also see through his opponent’s movements, blocking most of Jiang Cheng’s attacks. It doesn’t help that Jiang Cheng is hopelessly distracted because there’s no fucking way someone can be so fucking hot covered from head to toe in gear and sweat

“Ugh,” Jiang Cheng grunts when the sabre strikes him on the shoulder. Lan Xichen immediately drops his sword and takes off his mask, coming to his side. “Are you okay?”

Jiang Cheng almost glares at him. It’s not even that serious. “No, it’s fine. Let’s continue.”

Focus.

He won’t deny that Lan Xichen is good, too good for someone who probably hasn’t played professionally, but Jiang Cheng is competitive and an Olympic gold medalist, and even if he’s loved this man for thousands of years, the last thing he wants to do is lose.

In the end, Jiang Cheng wins by ten points, not as bad a defeat as he’s thought, but to a lesser man it may hurt his pride. Luckily, Lan Xichen is Lan Xichen, who just smiles and shakes his hand. “I see you haven’t gotten rusty after you retired.”

“It’s only been two years, Xichen.” He huffs, taking off his mask and unties his hair. He usually ties his bangs back to prevent it obstructing his vision, and it’s supposed to be something he’s done hundreds of times before, yet it feels different, because the distance between them is too close, and even through the mask, he can tell that Lan Xichen is starring at him, lingering at the strand of hair tucked behind his ear, at his fingers.

Instead of being offended or disturbed, it sends fire through his veins.

At this distance, it would be all too easy to take a step forward, wraps his arms around the other's neck and kisses him.

Lan Xichen blinks and clears his throat, embarrassed that he was starring. “There’s a shower over there, to the right,” he points towards the exit, “you can use it if you want to.”

They leave together and have lunch at a café nearby, which he’s told is owned by the Lan’s as well, which means they don’t have to pay for their food, much to Jiang Cheng’s dismay. Lan Xichen has simply said, “You can pay the next time we go out,” which is enough to stop any of Jiang Cheng’s protests.

There's going to be a next time.

They make small talks, inquiring about each other’s families, discuss their companies, but it isn’t awkward, as if there isn’t so much history between them, and Jiang Cheng almost wants to believe that they’re just two friends sharing some quality time together, but it’s anything but that. Jiang Cheng knows he’s starring way too much, but Lan Xichen is, too, feels gazes surreptitiously thrown his direction when the other thinks he isn’t looking, and it shouldn’t have turned him on as much as it does, and yet, it’s enough for him to shamefully jerks off in the shower when he gets back home.

It isn’t enough, he still feels that gaze on him even in the middle of the night, and it turns him on even more, something that only Lan Xichen can ever do to him. Afterwards, he would be worried about how much power the other man has over him, but for now, he just grabs the lube from the dresser and gets lost in his own fantasies.

The thing is, Jiang Cheng doesn’t do it often, and not with anyone else. But he has been a teenager at one point, and one doesn’t grow up Wei Ying, Nie Huaisang and Meng Yao without absorbing some useful knowledge. Wei Ying never shies away from topics of porn or lubes and sex toys, which Jiang Cheng promptly bans when he gets together with Lan Zhan, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t pick up on those things, and inevitably, Lan Xichen would come into his mind, no matter how hard he tries to banish those thoughts.

When he becomes an adult, his desire for Lan Xichen only gets stronger, to the point it’s impossible to move on or even to think about another soul in a romantic capacity. It’s for that reason that he’s never been with anyone for thousands of years, preferring to die alone than to fill his bed with someone other than Lan Xichen. His partner deserves better. He deserves better.

But there comes nights like this, when he wishes he has someone with him, someone who will hold him and kisses away his scars and tells him how good he is, except that it’s not a “someone,” it’s Lan Xichen, always has been, and always will be. He knows he can’t ask that, but that doesn’t stop him from fantasizing about it, from picturing how the other man would look in his bed, skin reflected against the golden hue of his bed lamp, low voice grasping with each push and pull of their bodies, and it’s suffocating and maddening and he wants so much it hurts.

When he comes, three fingers inside of himself, he thinks about arms caging his body and amber eyes on his skin and lips that muffles away the I-love-you’s on his own.

Chapter Text

He visits Xiao Xingchen on the weekends.

He and Xiao Xingchen has always been on good terms, especially after everything that went down a decade ago. Xiao Xingchen is the second person after his trusted servant to be aware of his secret, or at least a portion of it that he’s willing to share. The man is one of the people he trusts most in this life, and for good reasons too, proving not only to be a good person but also a reliable companion who is willing to listen without passing judgements.

But more importantly, he needs someone who can understand his current predicament – someone who’s been pushed to do things they are ashamed of, but who has seen love and receive love in equal amount without letting his past get between his relationship.

He hasn’t meant to intrude on Xiao Xingchen’s time precious time with his husband and daughter, now both bodyguards are well on their way to retire peacefully within the next decade or so. The man doesn’t seem to mind, however, welcoming him in his and Song Lan’s shared apartment, saying that he’s pushed his husband and daughter out for them to go shopping, much to Song Lan’s annoyance. Soon enough, he finds himself seated on the black sofa in the living room, Xiao Xingchen sitting to the side in what is probably his own chair, judging by the worn fabric on the armrests caused by excessive friction over an extended period of time, which he knows is one of the man’s habit.

There’s a kettle of tea brewing between them, and the atmosphere is comfortable enough for him to start opening up. At least things are easier now that everyone knows, so he won’t have to think of some half-baked lie to cover up the fact that he remembers his past lives.

“Wait, so are you and Lan Xichen dating?” Xiao Xingchen asks, curious but not intrusive, but perhaps it is, because Jiang Cheng isn’t sure how to answer him.

“I don’t think so? Maybe not?” He stammers, feeling like his teeth is being pulled. “We have been hanging out… like friends! I feel bad for him after A-Yao and Mingjue got together, so I’ve been trying to help him move past that.”

Xiao Xingchen continues to stare at him, to the point it becomes unnerving, which he doesn’t think is physically possible, with Xiao Xingchen being the man he is. “What?”

“Pardon me for asking, Young Master Jiang,” he’s insisted the man call him by his name, but he guesses old habits die hard, “but did Lan Xichen ever tell you that he’s upset Meng Yao and Nie Mingjue are dating?"

Why is that even a question? “I’m sure of it. He has to be. I have been actively avoiding him for the best part of the last decade so I didn’t get the chance to observe it,” I don’t want to, it will only hurt more, “but I’m sure he’s in love with Meng Yao. He has to, has been for thousands of years.”

“Young Master Jiang,” Xiao Xingchen begins, “have you try asking that to Lan Xichen? You have told us about our previous lives, and even then there are differences between us, why can’t that happen to this life as well?”

“No,” Jiang Cheng retorts, “there are minimal differences due to the era we’re reincarnated into, but the bigger picture stay the same – you ended up with Song Lan, A-Ying with Lan Zhan, my sister with the peacock, A-Qing and Qingyang – it has all stayed the same, and so has Lan Xichen being in love with A-Yao. There shouldn’t be, can’t be, any difference.”

“Young Master Jiang,” Xiao Xingchen repeats again, sounding like Jiang Cheng is testing his patience, an almost impossible feat, “have you try asking that to the Lan Xichen of this life? Even if you are sure, it’s never bad to check.”

He doesn’t even know why the bodyguard is so convinced. “Why would I do that? I don’t even know if I’ll like the answer.” His voice gets quieter, until it’s barely above a whisper, like their conversation from so long ago, when he was too afraid to tell Xiao Xingchen everything, “I don’t even know what he sees in me if he does.”

Xiao Xingchen gets quiet, silently analyzing him, and Jiang Cheng resists the urge to get away and probably never come back, but he knows they need to have this conversation. “When A-Lan confessed to me, right after Xue Yang was thrown into prison, I rejected him right away,” the man chokes out, like it takes him a great deal to form the words, “I didn’t want him to have anything to do with me. I keep reasoning to myself that he wouldn’t want to be with me for too long, there’s too much blood on my hand, that I’m a terrible human being, so on and so forth.”

This feels like a confession, and it makes him wonder if he is the right person to hear this, even though the words are directed towards him.

“But then A-Lan didn’t give up,” Xiao Xingcheng smiles, so in love it makes Jiang Cheng jealous, “He told me that if I was going to reject him, then I should do it for my sake, not his, and that if I didn’t like him then I should just say it to his face. And I – I can’t do that.”

Xiao Xingchen leaves his chair, sitting down next to Jiang Cheng the way he did in that kitchen, when they told each other their stories, and continues, “so believe me when I tell you I know what it feels like, Young Master Jiang. I believe just like A-Lan, Lan Xichen wouldn’t want you to reject him for his sake, just because you think you are a horrible human being, which, please believe me when I say this, you aren’t.”

“How can you be sure of that?” He asks, trying to keep the tremble out of his voice.

“Do you think I am a terrible person?” Xiao Xingchen asks back.

It’s not the same.

“It’s not the same,” he retorts, “the things you did with Xue Yang – you did it unknowingly, I am perfectly aware of my own actions. In fact, I have been the mastermind ever since I was six. I’ve killed and tortured people in my previous lives, Mr. Xiao.”

Xiao Xingchen takes his hand, in which he’s sure must be a gesture of comfort. “Does Lan Xichen know that?”

“Yes,” he answers, “I told you guys everything, when we gathered in my apartment that day, so he must have known.”

“Exactly, and he still chooses to love you nevertheless.”

“But he doesn’t,” Jiang Cheng repeats, enough times to hopefully convince both of them to believe it. Xiao Xingchen obviously doesn't. Their conversation has been going in circles for the last hour or so, and he feels like what goal he has in mind upon entering the apartment has been thrown out of the window.

Xiao Xingchen sighs, exasperated. “Why don’t you just ask him that?”

He can tell that Xiao Xingchen is as tired of this conversation as he is, so he quickly conjures an excuse and gets out of there, back to his apartment where he’s safe with his own demons and his own thoughts so that he can reaffirm to himself that there’s no way Lan Xichen would love him back.

Except that he follows Xiao Xingchen’s advice, eventually.

In an effort to take Lan Xichen’s mind off Meng Yao and Nie Mingjue’s relationship, he’s asked the man to tell him where he’s most comfortable, and that they can go together. He’s expected to be taken to some art exhibition, or even to a library or a park, which he knows Lan Xichen used to frequent when they were still children.

What he doesn’t expect is to be taken to a greenhouse on top of a hill at the edge of Pasadena, far removed from any sort of civilization except for a mental asylum nearby.

That detail has stuck out to him, and he doesn’t realize why until it’s too late.

Oh.

He’s heard about the dark secrets that nobody talks about, the gossips that they push under the rug, the scandal surrounding Lan brothers’ parents, and he has no one but himself to blame for asking Lan Xichen to take him here, because the man just does exactly what he asks.

Rumors have it that the former head of the Lan family fell in love with a woman from a less than prestigious background and fight with his elders to marry her, eventually strong-arming her family into an arranged marriage.

But she never loved him back.

Their marriage was described as rocky, with the woman constantly suffering sneers and scorns from her own in-laws while forcing herself to get along with her husband, who destroyed her life.

She attempted suicide, and promptly carted away into a Lan-owned mental asylum on top of a hill, away from the prying eyes of the press, and stayed there until she passed away not long before Jiang Cheng got his memories back.

Jiang Cheng hasn’t minded going anywhere with Lan Xichen – they can meet up in a landfill digging through the garbage and he would have been content. But he doesn’t know what to do with this – this is intimate, the kind of things you don’t share with anyone except your closest friends, but he’s sure not even Meng Yao has been here.

Or maybe he has, they don’t have to tell Jiang Cheng everything, but Jiang Cheng knows that he shouldn’t be here, shouldn’t have the right to visit what Lan Xichen must have considered a very significant part of his childhood.

“Back when my mother was alive, she loved this space,” Lan Xichen begins, as casual as ever, and Jiang Cheng wants to grab his collar, demands him to answer how can he be so calm about this, how can he show Jiang Cheng such a private corner to his life when Jiang Cheng doesn’t deserve it, “in the rare times when we visit her, A-Zhan and I, we would come here, and she would introduce us to new plants she’s grown or read to us as we sit by the pond, feeding the fish.”

His eyes soften, so much love in them that Jiang Cheng’s heart physically aches, “it’s one of the best memories of my childhood.”

“I shouldn’t be here,” he blurts out, immediately regretting it when Lan Xichen winces and casts his eyes downwards, fixing them at the grass below them. He’s always been rough with his words, never knowing what to say around the man, and now it’s coming back to bite his ass.

“Of course, my apologies,” Lan Xichen stammers out, and Jiang Cheng wants to slam his own head against the nearby glass wall, feel the sting as it bleeds, since that's what he probably deserves, “I should’ve asked you first. I should’ve known such a place would’ve made you uncomfortable – ”

“No!” Jiang Cheng cuts him off, “I’m not…uncomfortable. That’s not what I meant. Sorry – fuck I’m bad at this,” he stops to compose himself, taking a deep breath, “what I meant is that – this is a personal place to you, and I have no business intruding in it.”

He hopes that comes out right. He hates to see Lan Xichen upset, and it proves to work, for now the man is looking at him again, sadness no longer lingering in his eyes, and it’s so beautiful under the sunlight that streams in through the glass windows of the greenhouse it makes his heart skips a bit.

That comes out more cheesy than it should be. They aren’t in a romance novel, after all.

“You didn’t intrude on anything,” Lan Xichen explains, “I invited you, because I want you to be here, because I want nothing more than to share this with you.”

“Because you love me,” Jiang Cheng blurts out, more blunt than he intends, but maybe not, because Lan Xichen smiles again, that little quirk of lips that’s softer yet brighter than the sun above them.

“Yes, because I love you.”

That isn’t how he wants to ask the question Xiao Xingchen has been telling him to ask, and he isn’t sure if Lan Xichen’s answer is the one he wants either. Or maybe he does, because he has been wanting to hear those words for thousands of years, has been wanting the man sitting next to him for just as long. But he can’t – can’t allow himself to be happy or to accept them or even to say those words back like he means to.

He doesn’t mean it he doesn’t mean it he doesn’t mean it and whatever he feels is going to pass over eventually and he's going to leave and be with Meng Yao and I'm going to be all alone alone alone

Those words are borderline cruel, and hurting Lan Xichen is the last thing he wants.

So he keeps quiet instead, and they enjoy that peace together, until the sun sets on the horizon, and the fishes in the pond are fed, and the hearts incessantly beat within their ribcages.

Chapter Text

That should have been the sign for him to do what he has been doing so well for decades now - to avoid Lan Xichen at all cost, to wallow himself in the comfort of his own home with alcohol, or maybe not, maybe a soft drink of some sort, because he has had enough of spilling out unwanted truth via alcohol - except he finds he can't. He's helplessly, hopelessly in love, and he wonders if the other realizes it.

If he does, he says nothing.

“Do the Lan’s have one?” Lan Xichen asks curiously, taking a bite of his salad.

They’re at some fancy Italian restaurant his sister has recommended because friends have dinners together, and Jiang Cheng just finishes explaining the significance of the Jiang bell, one of the many similarities that somehow has carried over to all of his reincarnations. The modern Jiang bell is different from the one in his past life, and is kept within the family and only to be taken out during weddings or funerals. He’s lived without his bells for many lifetimes, so he hasn’t minded the changed, though sometimes it still feels strange to not have the reassuring weight of the bell around his waist.

“The Lan’s have their forehead ribbons,” Jiang Cheng answers, avoiding Lan Xichen’s gaze, an irrational fear in his heart that the man will find out the white ribbon he bought when he was a child because it reminded him of the Lan’s one, which he has carried everywhere with him, a good luck charm of sorts. It now sits comfortably in the desk drawer in his office, tied into a bow, a reminder of his desire for something that can never be his.

“Wait, a forehead ribbon?” Lan Xichen perks up with interest. “A long, white strand of silk with cloud embroidery?”

Jiang Cheng blinks. “You guys have that as well?” In hindsight, it seems silly to have assumed that the Lan’s doesn’t have their forehead ribbons anymore. Obviously they won’t be walking around wearing their ribbons. That would’ve looked silly.

“Yes, we have one.” Lan Xichen affirms. “Like your bell, it’s part of an old tradition, used during marriage ceremonies, to be tied around partner’s wrist. It’s currently in my apartment right now. I can show it to you if you want to.” It now makes sense why he hasn’t seen it before. When Lan Zhan eloped with his brother, they hadn’t held any official ceremony, promising that they would organize one after their doctorates. He hasn’t seen the Lan forehead ribbon in a long time, and he would be lying to say he isn’t curious.

And maybe, he’s curious about Lan Xichen’s apartment as well.

“Okay, if you don’t mind.” He says, feeling like it’s the worst decision he’s ever made, and the best.

Lan Xichen’s apartment is every bit what Jiang Cheng imagines it would look like, immaculate and organized, decorated simply and tastefully with pastel shades of white and blue. Even the forehead ribbon is every bit like the one he remembers tied around the Lan’s foreheads, except it now sits coiled up in a wooden box, almost like a ring, like a marriage proposal, except it can’t be because Lan Xichen doesn’t want to marry him.

“You can touch it, if you like.” The eldest Lan must’ve noticed the awestruck look on his face, and Jiang Cheng reels back, as if burnt, a blush makes its way to his face. He clears his throat.

“In the old days, the Lan ribbon is considered sacred to you guys. No one except for your parents and partners are allowed to touch it.” He explains. He hasn’t realized that particular tradition has been lost to time, and a part of him wonders if there’s anyone else Lan Xichen has offered this to, and he controls the urge to completely descend into blind rage. He’s better than this.

“Oh,” Lan Xichen doesn’t seem perturbed by the revelation, continuing to fix his gaze on Jiang Cheng, there’s something fond in there, and something else too. “Do you still want to?”

It’s his turn to stare at the eldest Lan, feeling like he’s had his breath knocked out of him. The distance between them is too narrow, and within a step they can seal their lips together, Jiang Cheng doesn’t know he wants that more or to run away and never come back.

“Xichen,” there’s a lump in his throat and ants crawling on his skin, but he can’t afford to care, “do you know what you’re asking?”

“Yes,” Lan Xichen says without hesitation, sincere and sweet.

“I love you.” Jiang Cheng says.

It reveals too much. It reveals nothing at the same time.

“I watched you fall in love with Meng Yao, time and time again, over thousands of years,” he thinks there’s tears on his cheeks that fingers frantically wipe away, “I watched you sacrifice everything to stand up for him, I watched you rot away when you learn about his betrayal. You killed me, put a bullet in my chest, because I killed him.”

He steps back, watches the pained expression on Lan Xichen’s face, sees guilt and regret there too, and expects it to feel good, but instead he just feels sick, wants to just come to his side and kisses it away. “So tell me, Lan Xichen, how am I supposed to believe you when you tell me that you love me?”

Lan Xichen steps forward and intertwines their fingers together. “Then allow me to prove it to you. Please give me a chance, Jiang Cheng, it’s all I ask.”

There’re flames in his eyes, so hot it’s going to consume Jiang Cheng if he decides to jump. And he wants to, wants it so much it hurts, wants it even though he shouldn’t.

“You were the reason why I tracked Meng Yao down,” he confesses, because whatever is going to happen between them is not going to progress if he keeps his secrets, “you kept loving him, and he kept abusing your devotion, and I hated it. And in this life, I tracked him down and gave him a home and saved his mother, just in the hope that such acts of kindness would make him into someone worthy of your love.”

There’s a pause, and Lan Xichen smiles, “And that makes you an amazing person, Jiang Cheng, to be able to look past his past mistakes and help him like that.”

He growls, frustrated, “that’s not the point. The point is that I didn’t do it out of my own kindness. I’m not like you, Lan Xichen, I’m selfish and unkind and uncaring and would only end up hurting both of us at the end.” I hurt you, he remembers the heartbroken look on Lan Xichen’s face at the café, how he begs him to stay, to explain, but he’s left the man there because he’s fucking coward.

Lan Xichen runs a finger over Jiang Cheng's knuckles, looks like he wants to run his lips over them, and Jiang Cheng has to bite his lip just to prevent himself from kissing him.

“A-Yao and I, we talked about it,” Lan Xichen is looking at him now, “he knows you have ulterior motives in helping him. But he doesn’t blame you, none of us can blame you after knowing what he did. Tell me, Jiang Cheng, why would someone who is capable of extending such gratitude to someone he hates, takes a traitor in and treats him like a friend for decades, think of himself as someone selfish and unkind and uncaring?”

He’s trembling now, fully sobbing in another person’s apartment, and he finds himself clinging to Lan Xichen’s shoulders like a lifeline as the man draws him into an embrace. It feels humiliating. It feels like salvation. He wants to push him away and to pull him closer and crash their lips together. He wants nothing to do with this and he wants everything all at the same time.

“I’m a monster,” he says desperately, fighting the gravel in his throat, “I’ve killed and tortured too many people to count. I watched as they killed Wen Qing and Wen Ning, all the innocent people who don't deserved to die, I watched, and I did nothing.”

Lan Xichen’s palm stills on his back, even as he pulls him away from his shoulder, so that they can face one another. “And what about the things I’ve done? We were at war, weren’t we? I must’ve killed many people, as well, and so did Wei Ying, so did my brother, so did everyone else." He maneuvers until their foreheads are touching.

If you are a monster, Jiang Cheng, then so am I.”

If you are a monster, what does that make me?

He remembers how Lan Xichen hasn’t feared him even after knowing that he shot two people, after hearing about how he took Wen Zhuliu’s knife and stabbed him. Instead, he was called beautiful, and it hasn’t made sense at the time, but it does now.

Maybe he’s a monster, but what stops a monster from being beautiful too?

He never considers it like that. Calling something beautiful is to deem it deserving of love, and even though Jiang Cheng wants love, wants to be loved, fights for it until it kills him, he never thinks of himself deserving of it.

Is he deserving of it now?

“It’s okay if you don’t believe me,” Lan Xichen says, breathless, “then allow me to prove it to you. Just one date.”

But Lan Xichen has proved it, hasn't he? The eldest Lan has mustered up the courage to confess to Jiang Cheng, which Jiang Cheng himself fails to do after thousands of years. He's taken time out of his busy schedule to meet Jiang Cheng, just to talk about the most exciting and the most mundane things together, for nothing else other than the fact that he somehow enjoys Jiang Cheng's companionship.

Has invited Jiang Cheng into the space he shares with his late mother, talking about her like she's the most precious person in his life, the same way he talks about Lan Zhan, like somehow Jiang Cheng fits into the circle too, which he knows he shouldn't. He couldn't. He couldn't have meant so much to Lan Xichen to be included(but he has why why why - ).

Jiang Cheng isn't quite here anymore. He's standing in front of a cliff, and in front of him is the raging sea, the kind any man would die drowning if he jumps. He’s hovering atop roaring flames, its embers glowing white hot, just missing his palm. He knows he should pull his hands away, knows better after thousands of years, and yet he doesn’t want to.

He jumps.

“Okay,” he replies, cursing at how pitiful he sounds, but it’s worth it if only for the look of pure joy on Lan Xichen’s face, his eyes shining as bright as the Yunmeng sky, as deep as the lakes he loves, one he never minds drowning in.

And they can be on him, racking over his skin like hot coals, showering him with love, if he wants to.

He doesn’t understand why he keeps on loving things that hurt him, but he does anyways. And this time, as he smooths over the ribbon in his hand, movement as gentle as a feather, as if he’s carrying a great treasure, he can’t help but hope that it will turn into something beautiful.

Chapter Text

So that is how they begin dating.

The first thing they do is to tell their families – unlike Lan Zhan and Wei Ying, they are both going to be heirs to their respective empires, so they both have the responsibility to reveal the truth, especially if the truth is going to affect the way the two families conduct business with one another in the future.

That doesn’t mean they have the responsibility to listen to the nonsense their family members are sprouting.

Just as Jiang Cheng has expected, the commotion Lan Zhan’s and Wei Ying’s announcement caused back then is nothing compared to the way both of them are acting now.

Lan Xichen’s father is the one who protests first, disapproving of the relationship not only because Jiang Cheng is who he is, but also because he’s a man. His mother is the one who stands up then, ready to fight the man, and has to be stopped by his father. Lan Zhan stands by, expression darken, and comes to his brother’s defense. Lan Qiren sits next to them, wearing a mask as cold as ice, not protesting as loudly as his brother but not approving either.

Jiang Cheng can be headstrong if he wants to, can spill venomous words at his opponent if he can, will break down the people who dare hurt his family at every opportunity he gets, but he cannot push this.

To everyone’s surprise, it’s Lan Xichen who does.

“With all due respect, father, besides Jiang Cheng, I have no intention of marrying anyone else, or being with anyone, for that matter.” He stares at his father, the warmth Jiang Cheng usually sees there gone, and he wonders if, like himself, Lan Xichen resents his father just a bit too, despite loving him just the same. “I do not wish to marry someone who does not feel the same way I do for them, for I know better than anyone else how that turns out.”

Lan Qiren doesn't gasp - he doesn't think Lan's outside of Lan Jingyi are capable of gasping - but it's a near thing.

"This means that I will not share a family with another person outside of Jiang Cheng," Lan Xichen continues confidently, almost casually, like he isn't putting out an ultimatum in front of the two biggest families in California, "and if that makes me unqualified to be the head of the Lan family, then I would gladly step down from my position."

Jiang Cheng stares.

Everyone else in the room stares.

Lan Qiren, for the first time in a thousand years, stares at his own nephew with disbelief, slack-jawed, all propriety gone. No one can blame him though, for even Lan Zhan is losing his usual calmness.

Despite knowing how inappropriate it would be, Jiang Cheng wants to do nothing more than to surge up and kiss both of them breathless right there and then.

He doesn’t do that yet, can’t do that yet, doesn’t know if he will ever have the courage to, so all he does is grip onto his boyfriend’s hand until both of their fingers are red as he’s pulled away from the room and let the rest sort themselves out. The Jiang’s and the Lan’s will learn to move on, eventually, especially when the cause of their drift in the first place is essentially resolved, even if they don’t know that yet.

"You're crazy," he whispers later, when they've settled back at his apartment, running his thumb over Lan Xichen's knuckles, soothing away the marks Jiang Cheng leaves behind just moments ago.

"Maybe, just a little bit." Lan Xichen laughs, like a little kid after he's successfully stolen his favorite candy off a shelf, "they wouldn't actually do that though. Kick me off my position, I mean. My uncle and father has the most influence over any other branch of the family. Uncle would never approve. He knows there's no one more qualified than me. That means A-Zhan will have to do it, and he would never agree. More importantly, there's A-Ying," a mischievous grin tucks at the corner of Lan Xichen's lips, "and trust me, between you and him, uncle would pick you a thousand times over."

Jiang Cheng topples over himself laughing, and has to take his hands away and dig his nails into his palm until crescent moons overlaps with his callouses to refrain himself from kissing Lan Xichen for the second time that day.

And that is the end of that.

Jiang Cheng has expected everything to go downhill from there, that Lan Xichen will find out what a terrible person he is, the kind of short temper he’s developed over the thousands of years of being technically alive, and dump him and go back to waiting until Meng Yao and Nie Mingjue breaks up to pursue the other man.

He’s shown up on their first official date with sweat on his palms and ashes in his mouth, expecting just that.

Except that Lan Xichen hasn’t. The eldest Lan has been nothing but patient and sweet with him, laughing at his dry, sarcastic jokes and looks at him like he singlehandedly brings cultivation back into the world, which simultaneously makes him squirm in his seat and pools heat at his loins. Even when they reach the end of their date, Lan Xichen hasn’t imposed himself on him, despite how many times Jiang Cheng has caught the other starring at his lips.

He guesses modern standards have evolved over time to be more… consensual than during his days, so it all makes perfect sense that Lan Xichen, being the gentleman that he is, would behave in such a way, but it nevertheless makes butterflies run wild in his stomach, and they stay with him beyond his sleep, into his dreams, like a promise of things too pure and too good to be true for someone like him.

Sometimes, he wants to get into Lan Xichen’s brain, just to see himself the way Lan Xichen sees him, just to figure out how someone can look at him and see something beautiful or worthy of love. He has seen the paintings Lan Xichen shows him, of him doing the most menial tasks, working or reading or taking care of the mini garden outside of his balcony, and somehow he seems to always glow, like he’s ethereal, like Lan Xichen thinks he’s too good to be true.

He couldn’t have meant for his paintings to convey such things, could he?

Because Lan Xichen has said that he loves him and Lan Xichen doesn’t lie, so why why why why why

Jiang Cheng chooses not to think about it.

If this is all just some twisted joke, or if it’s a lie, or if it’s some sort of intermediate that will end one day to pave way for the inevitable conclusion, he doesn’t care, doesn’t want to know. Maybe it will end in ruins, in tears, in him shattered all over the floor and forced to pick up the pieces all over again, at least then he will do it already knowing the sensation of having Lan Xichen in his arms.

At least then, he would still have memories of their moments together, of Lan Xichen taking him to restaurants to find his favorite chocolate cakes, to museums to explore all the artists he's lived through, to parks to watch him paint and be painted, to the pubs Wei Ying plays at in the weekends, to events with arm around his waist, and, when nobody is looking, there would be hands travelling to rest on the small of his back, like a promise.

But more importantly, he will always have memories of this, of them sitting alone in Jiang Cheng's apartment, wrapped around each other as the TV plays in the background, discussing their lives like they are each other's normals.

These are always his favorites.

“Zidian, you say?” Jiang Cheng perks up from his rant about one of the many heinous crimes the Wen’s committed in their previous lives, head still cradled in Lan Xichen’s lap, only to find his partner starring back at him, his face gleaming with interest.

“Yes, it’s a familiar heirloom from my mother’s side,” he shifts, turning to the side and resists the urge to press his face against Lan Xichen’s stomach, “I used to always have it with me in every one of my lives, but in the previous one, the Wen’s stole it from us. I never got around to finding it,” he adamantly does not mention the because-you-kill-me part, continues, “and in this life, when I asked Mr. Yu about it, after I got my memories back, he told me they can’t find it anymore, it’s a shame.”

Lan Xichen combs through his hair with his fingers, almost like how one would pet a cat, and it feels so good Jiang Cheng forgets why anyone would be so interested in his ring. It’s not like the head of the Lan family, of all people, would spend his busy days looking for some long lost family treasure for him.

***

And they continue like that, dates after dates after dates, the frequency in which they spend in each other's company increases more and more, until the tabloids start to pick it up. Rumors run wild and spread like wildfire, each story and concocted scenario to make sense of their union gets more ludicrous than the last, even in a place as big as Southern California, and Jiang Cheng finds it harder and harder to ignore the questioning and awed stares from his employees and coworkers. Even Luo Qingyang participates in the gossips, despite having learned the news not even a full week after he and Lan Xichen gets together.

If she isn't so competent at her job, he would have seriously considered his friendship with her.

Not that any of his family or friends helps either. Wei Ying, when prompted by his bandmates, has answered the questions in the vaguest ways, alluding to the most inappropriate things. Nie Huaisang hasn't hesitate to recommend the various sex shops he frequents to spice up their personal lives, which Jiang Cheng is adamant to banish from his mind forever. Meng Yao has cheered them on, offering him an ear if he ever needs help. He just hasn't wished for Lan Xichen's love life to be mentioned as well.

He tries to not have anything to do with Lan Xichen, to not hear anything about him, but rumors travel quickly around here, and the matter of the heir of one of the most prestigious families dating during his college years does not go unnoticed. There aren't many people - a handful at most, all males, all beautiful and smart and too sharp for their own good - but they are enough for him to make him feel like someone has poked needles through his skin, and he hates it, for jealousy should be beneath him, and yet he feels anyways.

He doesn't want to ask questions he doesn't want to know the answer to, so he doesn't, and hopes that whatever he feels is enough.

So is whatever Lan Xichen feels.

Chapter Text

The Jin’s have already begun planning for Jin Zixuan and Yanli’s wedding, and his mother, being the way she is, has offered to completely take over the organization. Somehow, she has roped his father into it as well, something she would’ve never done in her past lives, always thinking that he isn’t interested. And she’s right, his father isn’t, but the man can’t say no to his wife, and has let himself be dragged across all of Southern California in order to search for the perfect place to obtain flower crowns. He’s heard from their staffs that the man sometimes would get drunk at night and rambles on about how he “hasn’t known there are so many types of peonies, why are there so many types of peonies.”

He’s decided to look on the positive side and take his father’s inability to refuse his mother as a testament of how much he loves her, which is always a good thing.

However, his father being preoccupied with the wedding planning means that Jiang Cheng has been left to pick up most of the work, which is further made difficult by the fact that he’s just learning the ropes at Jiang Corp. He knows better than to complain, of course, especially when Luo Qingyang is here as well, her internship instantly accepted, even deemed over-qualified, and she’s well on her way to become the next CFO of the company, even without befriending the boss.

All in all, things have been going well, and he can only be grateful for it.

Jiang Cheng really hasn’t meant to fall asleep.

He’s just been meaning to finish off the paperwork his father has assigned to him for the rest of the week so that he can spend the next two days with Lan Xichen mulling over some painting at the museum exhibition that just opens. He hasn’t noticed the time, neither has he noticed how exhausted and bored he’s getting, before falling asleep on his desk when he’s supposed to be meeting Lan Xichen for a late dinner.

It comes when he least expects it, visions of his home burning down and everything he’s worked so hard for collapsing in front of him, and all he can do is scream and scream and scream but it won’t stop and there’s a hand encircling him and why the fuck is it there go away go away go away

Jiang Cheng yanks the pocket knife out of his jacket from pure muscle memory and presses the blade against the neck of his intruder while his legs pin their body to the floor, leaving them to his mercy.

Except that it’s just Lan Xichen, who wouldn’t hurt a hair on his body, who’s now looking up at him, surprise and scared in ways he shouldn’t be, not at him.

If you’re a monster, then what am I?

He immediately pulls back, retreating as far away from Lan Xichen as possible. He hasn’t felt the need to cry or get pissed drunk for a long time, isn’t even aware his eyes are turning misty or he’s trembling until Lan Xichen approaches him and squeezes his shoulders.

“Don’t worry, A-Cheng,” how is he so calm why is he so calm why isn’t he running away - “I should’ve at least knocked first.”

It’s meant to reassure him, and Lan Xichen only means well, always, but there’s so much guilt in his chest he can burst from it. “You’re supposed to be mad,” he says, finally, “it never warrants me reacting the way I did, not with you.”

His partner winces, like he remembers the sensation of a knife against him, and it makes Jiang Cheng shakes harder, but he finds his nose burying in warm chest instead, and it’s not hard to feel a heartbeat, strong and steady and calm, “I’m not mad, not when I know about your past,” he lowers his voice, “you never told me about the nightmares.”

He stiffens in Lan Xichen’s embrace, feels himself being pulled even closer, until he’s sure the pressure of his nose is enough to become an irritant. He knows he should pull away, he grips tighter onto strong shoulders, resting his forehead on his partner’s sternum, closing his eyes and catching flashes of red and white so hot it threatens to consume him, “I remember everything, Xichen, and a lot has happened in the past, so of course there are nightmares.”

“So that’s why you don’t sleep much,” Lan Xichen mutters, like an afterthought. He nods. “Tell me, is there anything I can do to make it better?”

Jiang Cheng rummages through his memory, trying to find the last time he’s had a peaceful sleep, realizes right away, “back then, I used to sleep with my nephew, ajie’s son. The nightmares rarely come then, but it’s such a long time ago.”

Lan Xichen removes him from his chest for real this time. Jiang Cheng groans, complaint at the tip of his tongue, but he falls silent when there’s a forehead pressed against his, their lips barely an inch away from each other, and he’s painfully aware of the fact that they’ve never even kissed. If he so much as move his neck just a little bit, they would, and he wants so badly, has wanted for thousands of years.

Except he doesn’t. He doesn’t know how he’s supposed to pick himself up again after Lan Xichen inevitably leaves him, knowing the taste of the other’s lips against his.

“I’m not your nephew,” Lan Xichen murmurs quietly, as if aware of the delicate thing between them, trying as hard not to break it as he is, “but can I sleep with you?”

Lan Xichen immediately blushes, and it’s the prettiest shade of red Jiang Cheng has ever seen, even more than his sister’s veil, and their distance allows him to feel the heat travelling to his partner’s face, not that he’s anyone to talk, when his own is burning as well.

“Not like, sexual or anything,” Lan Xichen explains desperately, and it doesn't make him giggle like a lovesick teenager, but it's a near thing. Lan Xichen can be adorable sometimes, “just like, lying next to each other, you know, if it can help with your nightmares.”

“Okay,” he agrees, the eagerness probably seeps onto his face, but he couldn’t care less, “let’s go then.”

Lan Xichen stays over often enough that there’s an extra set of clothes for him in the guest bedroom, and it’s not even the first time he’s seen his boyfriend in pajamas, but he doesn’t think he can ever get used to it, not when he can see hard muscles contrasts against fine silk. He shakes those thoughts away, trying to distract himself with, say, Wei Ying and Lan Zhan’s disgusting display of public affection, because he doesn’t need to get a hard on when they’re barely even doing anything - him resting his head against the other’s chest, their arms and legs tangling like it never does with Jin Ling, but it makes him, feel safe and warm nevertheless.

That night, he has the best sleep in probably centuries.

***

They keep that arrangement to themselves for a few weeks, when Jiang Cheng pries an eye open one morning after feeling his right cheek constantly poked and bites back a curse when he’s faced curious amethyst eyes. The spot next to him is cold, so Lan Xichen must’ve already been awake, the Lan’s curfew more powerful than any alarm clock, but he doesn’t doubt that Wei Ying is aware of what transpires, his grin too wide and face too knowing.

“I saw Xichen-ge coming out of your room,” his brother hums, “I don’t need to tell you about using proper protection, do I?”

Jiang Cheng sits up and glares at his brother, but it must’ve looked unconvincing with how red his face is, and Wei Ying laughs, “We’re just sleeping together,” he grumbles, “we haven’t even done anything, we haven’t even kissed.”

Wei Ying stops mid-laughter and stares at him, unblinking. Jiang Cheng shifts from his bed. “What?”

“Why do you have to blue-ball the poor man like that?” His older brother positively shrieks, “well, unless you don’t want to have sex? Which is totally okay, but like you have to tell Xichen-ge okay? Communication is important in a relationship.”

It would’ve been a compelling advice if Wei Ying hasn’t said it like he’s quoting from one of those relationship books and if Jiang Cheng hasn't already known how Wei Ying and Lan Zhan got together in their first lives. “Like you’re the one to talk,” Jiang Cheng grumbles.

“Hey! Me and Lan Zhan communicate plenty!” Wei Ying retorts, indignant, and gets back to the topic Jiang Cheng has been attempting to distract them from, “but seriously, I know he won’t do something that will make you uncomfortable, but you should talk it out with him if you don’t want something, especially sex.”

“No,” he rubs his temple, “I do want it, it’s just – ” He cuts himself off, not knowing what else to say, not even sure if Wei Ying, who, even when his reputation is in tatters, has been unconditionally loved, has never had his heart broken the way Jiang Cheng has.

“Xichen-ge really loves you, you know, he wouldn’t just like, sleep with you and then dump you or whatever,” Wei Ying says, and there’s a note in his voice Jiang Cheng doesn’t recognize, before the tension is broken by a fit of giggles, “besides, even if he does, I’m not going to be the person who makes his life hell. I’m like, at least 88% sure shijie threatens to cut off his dick if he even tries to fool around with you, which he doesn’t, because he’s Lan Xichen.”

Jiang Cheng snorts.

He doesn’t fault his sister for worrying, that’s how she loves, but Lan Zhan wouldn’t hurt Wei Ying, just as Lan Xichen wouldn’t intentionally hurt him, but Jiang Cheng would prefer him do that than trying to keep him happy at the cost of himself.

“I’m afraid,” he fills in the quiet spaces in the room, “and it’s not Xichen that I’m afraid of.”

Wei Ying goes quiet, and they stay like that until they’re both startled by the knock from the door.

Lan Xichen steps in, a smile on his face that easily rivals the morning light, carrying a tray of what looks to be blueberry pancakes, and looks at him like he holds the secrets to the universe. And Wei Ying doesn’t talk between mouthful of food he’s successfully stolen from his younger brother.

They don’t talk about it.

Except that this time, they do.

“I know what you’re afraid of,” Wei Ying leans against him, draping himself over Jiang Cheng on his sofa, his laptop hanging precariously on his lap, “I’ve never experienced what you went through, and honestly I’m still amazed that you haven’t gone crazy or anything, and no, injuring a couple of people who definitely deserves it doesn’t count as going crazy.”

“I know he hurts you deeply in the past, and that totally justifies the cold attitude you have with him when you two first met,” Wei Ying says, “but I also know that Xichen-ge truly does love you, he’s been making moony eyes at you since you two were like kids. I’m surprise you didn’t see it. Everyone was so sure that you two would end up together eventually.”

Jiang Cheng closes the folder he’s been reading and stares at his older brother. Although the three of them are inseparable, him and Wei Ying have lived around each other for most of their lives, have shared things with one another they would swear to keep a secret from their sister, things that even Nie Huaisang and Meng Yao aren’t privy to. If there’s anyone Jiang Cheng can confide on who would understand his predicament, he’s sure it is the person in front of him.

“Do you know how I knew where to find you, A-Ying?” he begins, “Do you know how I knew Jin Guangshan was working with the Wen’s, despite not having a shred of evidence? Or Meng Yao’s identity when most of the world doesn’t know who or where he is?”

Wei Ying grows quiet, contemplation on his face, but there’s sympathy there too, not pity, and Jiang Cheng clings onto that as reassurance. “I’ve seen the same stories repeating themselves after a few dozen lifetimes, and there are things I’ve taken as irrefutable truth, and I’m not going to fool myself into thinking otherwise just to feel better.”

Wei Ying puts his laptop away and scoots away from him, crossing his arms on his chest, “so you don’t think Xichen-ge love you, then, that he lied when he confessed to you?”

Jiang Cheng sighs, there’s no coming back from this, is there?

“No, I know that Xichen doesn’t lie."

When he says Lan Xichen doesn't mean it, he never means that the man would lie to him.

"But whatever feeling he has for me… he’ll get over it, eventually,” I won’t, I never do, “so for now, I’ll take what I can get.”

The silence that follows is suffocating, and he half-wishes he never utters his confessions, despite knowing his brother would be the last person to judge him. And then he feels a sting on his shoulder.

“Ow!” he grunts, “what was that for?”

“You’re an idiot,” his brother says simply, “why are you so preoccupied with the future? How are you so sure that history will repeat itself? If that’s the case, shouldn’t A-Yao be some crazed murderer right now? But he’s probably out there somewhere not being in love with Xichen-ge, living his best life, so shouldn’t you be out here living yours too?”

Wei Ying grips his shirt, brings their forehead together, warm breath against his, “I couldn’t understand it at first. Like A-Zhan, I was angry too, but after hearing what he did, I don’t think anyone is going to blame you for not wanting to be with him,” from where he stands, Jiang Cheng can see clearly the condensation around his brother’s eyes, “but I know you, we’ve been best friends since we were kids, and it’s plain as day to me that you love him, A-Cheng, that being with him makes you happy, and that’s why I want you two to be together."

"That’s all I want, A-Cheng, for you to be happy.”

He stares.

And stares.

And wonders if it’s what he’s been waiting to hear all along.

Days later, he returns to his apartment to find it lit with only candles, Lan Xichen standing near the dining table, blue apron tied around his waist, arranging the cutleries. There’s something that look like salmon, and is that chocolate cake he sees? Does he like chocolate enough for Lan Xichen to notice?

Upon hearing him, his boyfriend turns around and flashes him a smile, brighter than the stars in the sky, “Happy one-month anniversary.”

He isn’t even aware that people celebrate one-month anniversaries.

“You can’t cook,” he says the first thing on his mind. It’s true, he has a nearly burnt down kitchen to show for it. Lan Xichen blushes.

Da-ge and A-Yao… help.”

Jiang Cheng snorts, wants to reply with something sarcastic and fond, but his words are caught in his throat, clogged by how full of love his chest is.

“I love you,” he says instead. He watches as his boyfriend’s eyes widen, and the corner of his mouth lifts up, so affectionate it makes him wants to combust. He doesn’t. Instead, he slots their mouths together to see how that smile taste against his lips.

Between the craziness that’s his life and loving the same person for thousands of years, Jiang Cheng has never actually kissed anyone, and he figures there’s significance in that, somehow, but all he can think of is how awkward he is, how terrible his technique must be, but he can’t dwell on those thoughts he can feel how soft and right Lan Xichen’s lips are, how tight his fingers are around his waist, and then there’s something prodding at his lips, begging for entry and then oh –

He’s seen, read about, people using their tongues during moments like this, but nothing could’ve prepared him for actually experiencing it.

He’s often seen falling in love with Lan Xichen as running his hands through embers, a hopeless, futile thing, expecting himself to burn and burn until there’s nothing left of him but ashes, and yet, Lan Xichen’s touches are cool against his skin, curious and exploring, but never invasive. It feels right, freeing even, like practicing how to swim for the first time in Yunmeng lakes, and it’s possibly the best thing he’s ever felt in the thousands of years he’s lived.

“I love you too,” Lan Xichen finally says when they pull away, and he says it again, and again, and again.

That night, in a tangle of limbs and heartbeats, Jiang Cheng can almost convince himself that this time, he actually means it.

Chapter Text

It happens entirely by accident.

He just happens to have the rest of the day off early, and he’s texted Lan Xichen asking what he wants for dinner, only to be asked for a favor in return. The instruction is simple enough – find a misplaced document regarding some art program in one of the left cabinets of his study – and he finds it, eventually, but not before tumbling upon a drawer full of rolled up paintings and drawings. Lan Xichen likes to display his paintings, be it in his own apartment or his loved ones’, so to know there are paintings that never get to see the light of day immediately piques his interest.

He’s asked his boyfriend about it, later that night, and gotten an answer that, in hindsight, he should’ve expected.

“Most of them are from when I was young,” Lan Xichen explains, “many of which I consider to be not up to par with my current pieces, so I shelved them.”

The ever-perfectionist. Jiang Cheng thinks, and he should drop the issue, but there’s a part of him that can’t help but be intrigued. Knowing Lan Xichen’s standards for his art, those forgotten pieces couldn’t have been that bad.

“Show me.”

He hasn’t expected a flush across the other’s face, and a vigorous headshake that can rival Nie Huisang back in the days. “You don’t want to see them. They’re nothing exceptional.”

Now he’s really curious, and Lan Xichen can tell.

“I’ll show you later,” his boyfriend says, “I promise. When the time is right.”

He’s going to hold Lan Xichen to that.

And then his sister’s wedding happens.

They’ve settled for a blend between traditional and modern wedding customs, hosted on a Jin-owned garden filled with all sorts of flowers and trees on top of a hill, complete with doves and bells and bouquets and too many types of peonies to count, much to his father’s chagrin. He’s wearing a suit, a rich purple that’s tailored to hug his body in just the right way, coupled with a pale blue tie, that of his own choice, which looks just mildly out of place on the otherwise dark suit, but the look in Lan Xichen’s eyes makes up for every single stare he’s had to suffered through.

It’s not like he cares what others think of him anyways. He’s lived far too long for that.

His sister is in the prettiest shades of red and gold, a twinkle in her eyes and flush on her cheeks, and she’s as beautiful as she is every day, but maybe even more, because she’s the happiest he’s ever seen her. And Jiang Cheng would fight anyone, kill anyone if necessary, if it means at the end of the day, he gets to have this.

If Lan Xichen notices he is tearing up during their vows, the man says nothing.

Jiang Cheng has not planned on being put on the spot, but then Yanli all but toss the bouquet straight at him with a wink that induces laughter from even the groom next to her. He gives the bouquet to one of the flower girls later, puts on a polite smile, and shrugs off every knowing looks thrown his way throughout his least favorite part of the wedding, of any wedding, actually – the socializing. People are always curious about him, Olympic gold medalist and all that, but now he has even more eyes on him due to his relationship with Lan Xichen.

If he is being completely subjective, it’s natural for people to be curious. The Lan’s in this life is not only rich and respectable, carrying the level of prestige within the elite circle few other families can match. He hears from Nie Huaisang that Lan Zhan announcing his engagement to Wei Ying has forced some matchmakers to go out of business, and although he’s tempted to believe it’s an exaggeration, knowing how others look at the Lan’s, he isn’t quite sure anymore.

He hasn’t bothered monitoring everyone else’s reactions to the announcement that he’s dating Lan Xichen, although he’s sure it’s public by this point, but now he wishes he has, because everyone is looking at him like a fish on a chopping block, and it leaves the bad kind of goosebumps down his back and ashes in his mouth, the kind even Lan Xichen can't kiss away.

He wants to run away, or maybe punch someone, but he can’t.

It’s his sister’s wedding after all; she wouldn’t be happy if he or Wei Ying cause a ruckus, and punching Jin Zixun in his stupid face would be considered exactly that, despite the man making it easy by remarking something nonsensical about how it’s awfully convenient for the two sons of the Jiang’s to snag up the two most eligible bachelors in the world, like his own family isn't rich and powerful in their own right.

But his boyfriend is here, Lan Xichen who is always understanding and knows exactly what he wants, despite him never being able to voice it, puts a hand at the small of his back and leads him towards an isolated corner, away from the piercing gazes threatened to eat him whole.

He resists the urge to kiss him right there and then, if only it isn’t so inappropriate.

"Hello, is this spot occupied?" a voice from his right interrupts his thought, and he turns his head to come into view of another man in a rich wine-colored suit, all legs and feline elegance and tanned skin that is positively glistening under the sun. He's reminded too much of himself, and it unnerves him so much he forgets his words. The other man doesn't seem to mind his silence, choosing to observe him under gold-rimmed glasses, the analytical kind, the kind a lawyer gives, the kind a predator gives to its prey, and Jiang Cheng would've squirmed if he hasn't had thousands of years to be immune to such a look.

He wants to say no, but that would've been rude, so he nods, "It's not occupied," but if he isn't sure before he knows now that the stranger wouldn't have cared if it is. The target has been him all along.

He takes another minute to run through his list of possible enemies and, despite the numerous sins he's committed in this reincarnation, he has no idea who the stranger is.

As if he's read his mind, the man sitting next to him clears his throat and raises his hand, "I'm Wang Zhoucheng, lawyer associated with Jin Corp., nice to meet you."

The name hasn't rung a bell to him, but apparently it does for Lan Xichen, for his boyfriend immediately pales after returning to their table, almost dropping his tray of food that's filled with the kind of bland food that the Lan's are used too, but there's some spicy dish too, something Jiang Cheng has insisted he should eat once.

"Zhoucheng," Lan Xichen slides in the seat to his left, faking calmness unless you know where to look, and it's the most perturbed Lan Xichen has looked since the meeting at Jiang Cheng's apartment some time ago, "I didn't know you would be here."

"If you have, would you avoid your own sister-in-law's wedding?" The stranger, Wang Zhoucheng, snickers, and Jiang Cheng wants to bite out a warning, telling him to watch himself - they're in the Jiang's territory - but he doesn't get to do that before the man gulps down his glass of champagne and stands up from his chair, indicating his departure.

"Don't worry, I'm not here to cause a scene. We're too old for that," Wang Zhoucheng explains cooly. Jiang Cheng's mind starts to pick up the evidence and paints the picture in his mind of what happens between them, and it isn't pretty. "I just want to see him in person, after wondering for so long." He's looking directly at Jiang Cheng now, eyes still as piercing, but there's sadness there too.

"I should've known I never stood a chance."

Jiang Cheng isn't sure what to make of it, but the man has already left, not that he needs to, when Lan Xichen explains to him when they're finally alone.

"Wang Zhoucheng and I were classmates at Harvard," Lan Xichen says, shifting in his seat, avoiding Jiang Cheng's eyes. He hates it. "We dated for a while. He was my first boyfriend.

Jealousy is beneath him, Jiang Cheng repeats in his head, but it doesn't stop bile raising at the tip of his tongue, a dark, dirty thing threatening to build up on the surface. He washes it down with a gulp of champagne, and tries for casual but miserably fails it. "I assume you two didn't part on good terms."

Lan Xichen winces, fingers rubbing the back of his neck, a nervous habit Jiang Cheng learns after spending nights and days together. He wonders if the other man - Wang Zhoucheng, such a pretty name - knows that too, if that is something Lan Xichen carries over from his days at Harvard. He doesn't want to know.

"Yes," Lan Xichen replies, "I'm still ashamed of myself, for what happened during my college years. I wasn't... suited to date him. It wasn't the right time. Or any of my partners, really." He trails off, stammering out words so quickly they almost sounds incoherent. Jiang Cheng isn't sure what Lan Xichen is getting at, but whatever happens between them, it's bad enough that he determines it's best not to press. They will have this conversation later, he's sure, but for now, to have this between them is enough. He doesn't need to know about the others.

So he switches the topic to something more lighthearted, about what their in-laws are doing at the wedding, the Lan's awkward attempts of playing nice to the Jiang's after nearly a century of avoiding them, and the Jiang's efforts to retaliate appropriately. They talk about Lan Zhan practically prying Wei Ying's hands away from the champagne tray, Lan Qiren's constant eyeing of the dessert table, his mother's watchful eye over the crowd, her best friend by her side, and behind the two of them are the Yu twins, ready to jump in if the situation calls for them. For a while, Jiang Cheng is able to take his head away from the encounter and just focus on how happy he is, how Lan Xichen is right here, next to him, caring for him, and loving him

(hopefully probably hopefully probably please please please - ).

Soon enough, the afterparty comes to an end, everyone saying their goodbyes to the now-married couple, going back to their respective lives. And Jiang Cheng can't wait to have Lan Xichen in his arms again.

“Let’s go back to my apartment later,” Lan Xichen says, leaning close to him so that only they can hear it, and it doesn’t register to him how intimate the gesture is until he hears squealing coming from a table nearby, “I have something to show you.”

They end up at Lan Xichen’s apartment later, numerous sketchbooks and paintings scattered in front of them, and his boyfriend is visibly nervous, sweat at his temple and hand gripping the hem of his shirt, which Jiang Cheng doesn’t understand why until he starts going through them.

Oh.

Jiang Cheng already knows that Lan Xichen is an artist, and as artists usually do, he takes inspiration from his surroundings and loved ones, including Jiang Cheng himself. He’s seen the sketches and paintings of him peppered here and there in Lan Xichen’s current sketchbook, so he has no doubt that there’s bound to be more of him here too.

He’s just never expected to be featured in so many of them.

There are sketches of him that, judging by the dates left at the bottom left corner of the pages, date back decades. There are drawings of him inside of his fencing uniform, his eyes prominent even through the mask. There’s one of him sitting with his friends, his face full of laughter from what must’ve been one of Wei Ying’s horrendous jokes. There’s one of him standing on the podium in one of the most prestigious events on the planet, a gold medal around his neck and a victorious grin on his face that on anyone else might have looked arrogant, if the artist has not painstakingly smooths out the lines on his face, paying the utmost care to them.

There’s one of him emerging from a burning warehouse, covered in blood and whatever else, a gun in his right hand and calmness on his face, but he’s not terrifying, because he’s glowing too, like he’s done the world a favor by doing whatever he did.

Jiang Cheng never forgets the fact that Lan Xichen, out of all people, have called him beautiful even as he tells him that he drives a knife through Wen Zhuliu’s body, that he’s shot actual people, has done terrible things for the sake of protecting his loved ones, but to see the physical manifestation of his words is something he’s never known he needs until it’s presented in front of him.

The earliest sketch of him dates back to when they first met in that garden at the Allen’s so many years ago, of him standing underneath the moonlight, eyes like a storm that contrast against the serene look on his face.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about you ever since the first time I met you,” Lan Xichen wraps his arms around his neck, nuzzling into his shoulders, “you were enchanting, and I was helpless. I kept trying to draw you, but all of my renditions felt… inadequate to how beautiful you look in real life.” Lan Xichen pauses, a distant look in his eyes, “I knew I was gone the moment I met you, but I kept denying it because it seems like you hated my guts, so I tried dating other people, and it all didn’t end well.”

Jiang Cheng plants his lips on Lan Xichen’s knuckles, kisses away unpleasant memories from both his boyfriend and his own. The encounter with Wang Zhoucheng is put in a new light, and he suddenly understands now why the other man reacts the way he does. This isn't about being jealous or bitter exes; it has always been about the push and pull between him and Lan Xichen, the way they deny their affections for one another until it all implodes on them, the way their own denial has hurt each other, hurt the ones they love.

He knows he should be angry at his boyfriend for treating his partners like that, like a replacement, because it's obvious now that's what they are, for him, of all people, but he can't, not when he knows what it's like to be young and stupid and in denial too. And he's done much worse things, has hurt many more people. They will talk about this again, he's sure, but for now, he can't get over the fact that somehow, it has always been him that Lan Xichen has his eyes on, him who Lan Xichen chooses, after everything.

“After you graduated, A-Ying practically forced me to ask you out, telling me we both need to, his words, ‘get our heads out of our asses,’” there’s a chuckle on his neck, affectionate and warm, and it’s not all just from their body heats.

Because he’s burning, brightly and brilliantly, right here in Lan Xichen’s study.

Is this how a moth feels when the flame consumes it?

If that is so, he finally understands why so many of them are willing to burn, if there’s a moment between life and death when they get to have this.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng still remembers his first meeting with Wei Ying.

The boy comes to his doorstep, scared and confused in a sea of strangers he doesn't recognize, and he doesn't hate him until he does, until he realizes he would always be his father's second best, until he has his dogs sent away to accommodate a boy who he barely knows. So he's done the only thing he knows how to do - lash out, pushing everyone around him away until he gets what he wants.

And it works, and it feels good for a little while, but then he soon learns it isn't what he wants, perhaps wants that same boy in his life, so he has desperately gone and gotten himself lost to find that boy.

Their sister is the one that find them, exhausted and injured and in tears, and she has carried them both back and put them in Jiang Cheng's room, warming up the fireplace in hope of providing some form of comfort. Jiang Cheng still remembers how cold it is that night, how bad he is shivering, but then he also remembers the sensation of Wei Ying leaning against him, skin against skin, and it's one of the fondest memories he's had of them.

Many years later, during the Sunshot campaign, under the roaring fire, Lan Xichen has leaned against him, almost falling asleep, the Lan's strict curfew catching up to him - a product of spending too much time planning for their next moves against the Wen's - and he's reminded of the night he spends with his brother, the fire in front of them, their body heats intertwining like red strings. And it feels like he's going to combust, not from anger, not the kind he's used to, but not the kind that would consume him whole either. Something else, something new and raw and so beautiful it terrifies him.

Somewhere along the way, after wallowing in his own misery after too many years, too many decades, too many lifetimes, Jiang Cheng forgets that not all fire will turn him into ashes.

***

Right after the wedding, Yanli and Jin Zixuan fly to Europe and Asia for their honeymoon, leaving Jiang Cheng behind to fall back to his usual routines of completing paperwork and listening to his brother complains about his thesis. Work, though can be interesting at times, are mundane on most days and borderline on insufferable, depending on whether he has to meet with the board or not. The thing is, he’s desperately needing a distraction right now, and the inane paperwork only causes his mind to wander, entertaining the possibilities he doesn’t want to think about.

Lan Xichen is hiding something from him.

It’s not that hard to notice when you know where to look, and Jiang Cheng has always been more observant than most. His boyfriend works late, which isn’t unusual on its own, but he’s been sleeping over less and going on business trips that last for days, leaving him with an empty space on his bed that messages and phone calls can’t fill. He has to take more phone calls, mysterious ones that don’t sound like they come from his employees, that he doesn’t let Jiang Cheng in on, which, fair point, plausible deniability and conflict of interest and all that, but it renders him uneasy nevertheless.

He doesn’t think Lan Xichen is cheating, knows his boyfriend isn’t that kind of person, but a small part of him wonders if this is the beginning of the end.

And he shouldn’t be, he’s seen it coming, has taken all precautionary measures to ensure it won’t happen, but the possibility of this thing that he has with Lan Xichen coming to an end terrifies him more than his own death ever did.

He keeps most of it to himself, despite wanting to share it with someone else. His family is out of question, if he still wants to find Lan Xichen’s body again – that is one person’s blood he doesn’t want the twins to have on their hands – and so is Wen Qing and Luo Qingyang, and definitely not Nie Mingjue or Meng Yao either.

And that’s how he finds himself in Nie Huaisang’s house, ruminating on his love life while his friend sits beside him with a red wine in hand and a book of something on his lap. Jiang Cheng doesn’t want to know, not really, he’s preferred to keep himself out of the dirt of the entertainment industry, thank you very much.

Despite the (technically) half an hour drive through Los Angeles traffic, which stretches into an hour drive on a good day, Jiang Cheng loves visiting Nie Huaisang’s house, a cozy space with two bedrooms and green walls that’s wedged the overpriced mansions at Beverly Hills. The youngest Nie is in his element here, putting his networking talents to full use and carving out a unique space for himself as a talent agent for his own company while his partner busies himself with acting gigs. They always welcome their friends over, and listen to his problems without asking questions, so he more often than not find himself there when he needs to get something off his chest.

“Maybe he’s preparing for a surprise gift for you?” Nie Huaisang suggests, aiming for innocent, but Jiang Cheng’s bullshit detector has only gotten sharper over time, and they’ve spent their entire childhoods in each other’s pockets, so he sits up and narrows his eyes.

“What are you hiding?” He demands and squints his eyes further when Nie Huaisang shuffles in his seat.

“You should probably head home now, it’s late,” Nie Huaisang changes the topic, and he almost scoffs, when the man continues, “there might be something that’s waiting for you at home.”

He blinks and searches for any sign of a lie, but only find satisfaction in the other’s face, like he’s completed a momentous task, so he bites back his questions and endures through another hour of traffic to go back to his apartment.

He hasn’t known what to expect, yet he finds his own boyfriend dozing off on his sofa. Lan Xichen jerks awake when he enters, hair mused and eyes dazed with sleep, and Jiang Cheng has never wants to kiss him more. He proceeds to do just that, wrapping his legs around the other’s middle and presses lips against his, but before things can get more heated, he’s flipped over, Lan Xichen is kneeling on the floor in front of him, arms pulling away from his waist to reach into his pocket.

“I was waiting for you, Huaisang said you would be right back,” Lan Xichen says, lowering his sleep-laced voice, “I know I’ve been distant lately, but I hope you can forgive me, I want it to be a surprise.”

He presents Jiang Cheng with a ring box, and he sputters – he knows he wants to spend the rest of his life with Lan Xichen, but they’ve not even been dating for a year yet, and he’s sure his parents is going to protest how quick the whole ordeal is – but then there’s a twinkle in Lan Xichen’s eyes that make him second-guess everything, so he hesitantly takes the box and flips it open.

And immediately has all his breath leaves him.

Carefully placed inside of the velvet box is a purple ring engraved with familiar lightning patterns, a piece of jewelry that is unique not just in its design. You cannot replicate such an item even if you know what it looks like – its value extends beyond its benign appearance. It is a spiritual weapon, first and foremost, and it calls out to its owner, even if neither of them can use their spiritual power anymore, as if their souls have imprinted on one another.

He knows his Zidian anywhere.

“How?” He chokes out, gripping his ring for some purchase on his emotions. He’s not going to ruin this moment between them by breaking down crying, no matter how much he wants to, to sob until he melts like a puddle onto the floor, until he’s combusted from how much he loves this man, this sweet and lovable fool who insists on finding some treasures that has been lost for centuries just for him, of all people.

“I asked for help,” Lan Xichen confesses sheepishly, “and I might’ve asked A-Yao and Huaisang about it, and they somehow have connections to some people who were able to help us.” Jiang Cheng raises his eyebrows, to which Lan Xichen only shrugs, and he figures it’s best not to ask. “And then when we were able to pin down where it was, we asked Mr, Yu if he can help us, and he said he’ll take care of it.”

He really needs to give his butler a raise, and possibly Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan too, if his assumptions are correct.

“He gave the box to me this morning, and told me to give it to you, he says that there’s no one else more fitting,” Lan Xichen finishes, his cheeks now a light pink.

Jiang Cheng plucks the ring from the box and puts it back on his index finger, where it has belonged ever since his first life, ever since he became sect leader at the age of seventeen. Once again, rightness settles into his bones, electrifying every single one of his nerve, as if responding to his spiritual power, except that it should be impossible - none of them have it anymore. But Zidian has always been impossible and beautiful and his, and they’re bound by soul, by destiny, and no one, not even the Wen’s, can separate the two of them for long.

And now it’s back on his hands, brought to him by the man he’s yearned to spend an eternity with for thousands of years, and Jiang Cheng isn’t sure what good has he done to deserve all of this.

“Thank you,” he whispers, not trusting his voice, and he’s crying, but it’s all fine because Lan Xichen is here to comfort him, to be with him, and Jiang Cheng will trust the man with his life as he does with his love.

Before Lan Xichen can answer, Jiang Cheng surges up and kisses him square in the mouth. They end up on the bed, their clothes and hair a mess, but Jiang Cheng can’t afford to pay his attention to such mundane things when he has Lan Xichen’s fingers caressing his skin and mouth at his throat.

“I love you,” Lan Xichen murmurs.

“I know,” he says back, and it’s like a declaration of love, but there’s meaning beyond that, not just for him, but for both of them.

From the look on Lan Xichen’s face, it seems he recognizes it too.

He doesn’t want what happens between them to be a fleeting thing in Lan Xichen’s life, he wants to be his love, his eternity, and more.

He wants everything, and maybe he doesn’t deserve it, maybe the voices in his head will never be completely silenced, not with the kind of memories he carries with him, but Lan Xichen is with him, and loves him back, and that’s all that matters.

They don’t get far before Lan Xichen makes an attempt to pull away, cheeks flushed.

There’s a hardness against his thigh. And he is sure he wants this more than anything else in his life, so he wraps his legs around his boyfriend’s hips and grinds their erections together.

“A-Cheng,” Lan Xichen warns, greedy hands lingering at his hips like it takes a great deal of effort for him to do so, and Jiang Cheng grins at the satisfaction of rendering a man like Lan Xichen to such a state. He repeats the motion, and delights at the sound he’s pulled from the man on top of him.

A part of him is worried he’s moving too fast, that maybe they should wait, but all he’s done over the last thousands of years is wait and he doesn’t quite have the patience for that anymore, so he grabs the lube from his drawer and hands it to his boyfriend, and growls out, “fuck me.”

Lan Xichen’s pupils are blown wide, and he feels hands roaming underneath his shirt, before his shirt is lifted off and discarded to the floor.

Eyes stopped at his chest, at the place where his birthmark was, the birthmark the shape of a bullet caused by none other than the person lying on top of him. And it seemed Lan Xichen recognizes it too, circling his thumb around the area but not directly on it, deep in thought.

“Is this?” He doesn’t need to elaborate. They both understand.

Jiang Cheng kisses him again, kisses away the sadness on his face as if his life depends on it, “Don’t worry, it’s in the past now. I don’t mind it anymore.”

He means it, hasn’t felt that phantom pain in his chest ever since they start dating. And then Lan Xichen has kissed that same spot, as if apologizing for something he hasn’t done, and Jiang Cheng thinks he will never feel that pain again – Lan Xichen is here, knows everything but loves him anyways, and how can you feel pain when you’re feeling so much love you can drown from it?

“Stop overthinking it and fuck me.”

He gets a nod before they both shed their clothing, and oh, it’s a well-known fact that Lan Xichen is beautiful, but to witness it laid bare before him is something else entirely. The touches against his skin and inside of him are scorching, but he finds he doesn’t mind it, not when it reminds him of when they’d kissed for the first time, how freeing he’s felt, and it hurts but it’s good and right in the best of ways, and he couldn’t get enough of it.

He’s right there, in the middle of the fire, his hands holding the embers, fully expecting it to hurt.

Except it doesn’t.

All he feels when he comes is pleasure like he’s never experienced before and love that he’s been aching for since he first spotted Lan Xichen inside of that Discussion Conference, way too many lifetimes ago. And he can't ever imagine letting go of this, so he holds onto Lan Xichen tighter, until the morning sun baths their skins in gold, and prays that he can have this for an eternity.

***

If asked, Jiang Cheng would compare falling in love with Lan Xichen to a moth inevitably drawn to flame.

And it burns, too, but instead of turning him into ashes like he fears, it warms him like the heat of a fireplace in the middle of a cold winter, like the sensation of skin against skin, itching to reconcile on a level beyond physical, like the feeling of love that he is unconditionally given, despite everything all of them have done.

And that makes all the difference.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng is eight years old when he wakes up in his family vacation house to the sound of the raging storm outside. He walks towards his window and stares at the rain, trying to not get startled when a sudden flash of thunder descends from the sky, charring some area too far away for his eyes to see.

There’s something familiar about all of this, something that crawls just below his skin, itching to get out. And he tries to remember exactly what is amiss in all this.

He doesn’t.

And it should be unsettling, but for some reason, Jiang Cheng just feels overwhelming relief.

So he closes the curtain, momentarily forgets the rain outside, and goes back to sleep, like he is supposed to be doing all along.

***

Jiang Cheng all but slams the door to the police station on Wei Ying’s face, his brother letting out an indignant yelp, bouncing towards his side, pouting.

“You’re so cruel, A-Cheng, that could’ve really hurt, you know?”

“Fuck you,” he spits out, permanently immune to Wei Ying’s whining. He couldn’t care less about being rude.

It’s his twentieth birthday, and he’s spending it in a fucking police station because his brother got arrested for public indecency, of all things. He’s going to kill the man, but he doubts he needs to, when his mother would gladly do it first. Just because she loves the both of them doesn’t mean that she isn’t afraid to rip them a new one.

Oh how he wants to be in the room when that happened.

But perhaps not as much as being in the Lan mansion when Lan Qiren inevitably confronts Lan Zhan.

He stares at the aloof man trailing behind them, an almost perfect mask of calmness in place if not for the flush across his cheeks. Jiang Cheng guesses it’s the first time he has ever gotten into any sort of trouble, with the law or otherwise.

Good, that should teach both of them not to pull this shit again.

He can’t be angry for long, however, as there’s a warm hand encasing his and lips pressed to his temple.

“It’s okay, as long as nobody gets hurt,” Lan Xichen, the ever so kind and forgiving Lan Xichen, smiles at him, “Let’s get home now, shall we?”

How can he say no to that?

“Get a room!” Wei Ying whines, and Jiang Cheng resists the urge to turn around and kick him in the shin, “and somehow Lan Zhan and I were the one arrested for public indecency?”

“Excuse me, but a kiss on the temple is not the same as blowing your boyfriend in a dirty alleyway in the middle of a crowded street,” he retorts, watches the both of them choke, and grins as they stay quiet for the entire ride back to their apartments.

***

“Oh, fuck.”

Jiang Cheng collapses on top of his boyfriend, his head resting on warm chest, feeling the rapid heartbeat gradually settling down, his thighs loosening their grip around the man’s waist. There are fingers carding through his hair and a chuckle from below him.

“Work out your frustration yet?”

He’s exhausted, his mind is mush, and his muscles are aching, but he doesn’t want to stop. Not now. Not ever.

“Not really, but I’ve been doing most of the heavy lifting so far,” he teases, “it’s your turn.”

Just as the sentence leaves his mouth, he’s flipped and pinned below Lan Xichen, and they continue until morning, Lan’s sleeping habits be damned.

The sun is barely peeking through the horizon when Lan Xichen finally sleeps, exhausted from their nightly activities, leaving Jiang Cheng with a few moments of quiet to observe his boyfriend and simply let everything sink in.

Sometimes, he feels too lucky to be born the way he does, to be blessed with a caring family, a loving sister, and then a brother who seemingly comes out of nowhere, but who he would die for nevertheless.

To experience love at such a young age, to confess to that person, who somehow miraculously love him back.

And now, he has who he knows is the love of his life sleeping soundly in his bed, and it’s everything.

He knows it’s selfish to wish for the same things all over again for the rest of eternity, but he wishes anyways, hoping that it’s enough.

***

It’s enough.

Chapter Text

If asked, Lan Xichen would compare falling in love to desperately chasing after clouds.

It’s too far for him to reach, no matter how high he climbs, and sometimes, he struggles to convince himself if it’s real.

***

Lan Xichen met Jiang Cheng for the first time in the middle of a room too small for the people it contains, as their parents discuss strategies to take down the Wen’s.

Jiang Cheng was sixteen, barely a boy, really, but his eyes were anything but – they were far too knowing to belong to a sixteen-year-old, and Xichen wonders if there was something else there, something he’s planning that he didn’t tell anyone else.

Xichen loved his family, his friends, and he didn’t want to see them hurt.

Sometimes, his eyes would trace the boy’s shape in the crowd, stared into piercing gaze that bears an entire storm in its greyness, and felt a tightness in his chest he doesn’t recognize, or maybe he did, he just didn’t want to admit it.

But he should be liking girls, the pretty ones who laughed at his jokes and shared their treats and soft and sweet, not full of rough words and edges and muscles that induced goosebumps on his skin. He shouldn’t look at the Jiang heir that way.

So Xichen looked the other way, ignoring the roars in his chest, and learnt to resent Jiang Cheng a little bit for making him this way.

He knew he shouldn’t, that Jiang Cheng has no fault in this, that it was all his own fault, and he hated himself for it too, punished himself too hard in his training, enough for bruises to bloom across his skin, and hoped that it will be enough.

He hates himself and hates Jiang Cheng and the line between love and hate is so thin he can almost cut it with scissors so Xichen loves loves loves –

Loves until it turned both of them into ashes.

“I think Jiang Cheng is hiding something from us,” Meng Yao murmured when they were alone together, like he was confessing a great secret. “I think he’s working with the Wen’s. He can’t be trusted.”

He nodded, not because he believed it but because he should, it’s his best friend after all, and he ought to trust his best friend. And then Meng Yao delivered him private correspondence between Jiang Cheng and the Wen’s, and how they were planning something big, something that could kill all of them.

The first thing he felt is rage unlike he'd ever felt before, enough that he wanted to dig nails into his palm until he drew blood, because even that would hurt less than admitting that the person he loves is like that, that he'd never known Jiang Cheng at all. He doesn't understand, doesn't want to understand, why the boy he once knew, the one who put his family first, who would do anything to ensure that they wouldn't come into harm, can become someone like that.

No, not him, please, anyone but him.

Xichen loved his family, his friends, and he didn’t want to see them hurt, so he agreed to keep a watch for Jiang Cheng, the bitter taste of disappointment blinding all of his judgement, and promised himself that he would kill Jiang Cheng if he really needed to.

And then Jiang Cheng had gone ahead and killed Meng Yao.

That confirmed everything Meng Yao had told him, and more, that Jiang Cheng was a ruthless monster (that he hated loved hated loved loved loved loved - ) and must be stopped before more damage could be done. And Xichen didn't even have time to berate himself for being a lovestrucked fool before he unlocked his gun with trembling fingers and pointed it at Jiang Cheng, determined to do just that.

This would haunt him for the rest of his life, the sin would follow him everywhere he went, but he had to do it.

When he had shot Jiang Cheng, he heard something like “I love you” that left the man’s lips, but it couldn’t be. He must had imagined all of it.

And then found out that it was him who was in the wrong the entire time.

It turned out it was his best friend who was behind everything, who faked everything and fooled everyone and was about to kill all of them too, and he was the fool all along.

They did end up taking down the Wen’s, after many months of Wei Ying’s planning, no thanks to him, but they couldn’t turn back time and retrieve what they’d lost, can’t rewind and hope they can unkill a life.

He had expected Wei Ying to punch him, to yell at him, to get physical, and yet he’d only met with silence, and it’s the most terrifying thing he’d ever witnessed coming from his brother-in-law.

It was his little brother who punched him instead, gripping his collar hard enough to draw blood, his voice on the verge of breaking.

“Why did you do that? Why did you have to do that?”

Why did he do that?

Xichen liked to delude himself into thinking that it was because he was naïve and stupid and didn’t know any better, letting Meng Yao lead him along, but even he has a hard time convincing himself that’s the case.

The truth was that the boundary between love and hate is too thin he could breathe and it would disappear, like a cluster of clouds in the sky, tangible but intangible all the same, and he loved and hated and loved and hated until it killed one of them.

Or both of them.

He’d always known that the bond between the two of them was too strong for anything to come between them, and even then his brother and Wei Ying’s relationship took nearly a decade to recover, and even then, Wei Ying didn’t look him in the eyes, refused to acknowledge his presence at all, and he accepted it because that was what he deserved.

The relationship between the Jiang’s and the his own family never recovered in his lifetime, and there was nothing he could do about that, nothing but knelt down in front of Jiang Cheng’s grave and said he was sorry, but that he couldn’t do, not when the Jiang’s wouldn’t let him anywhere near it.

There’s nothing he can do now to fix his mistakes.

It’s really all over.

Dying in itself was nothing new or revolutionary or bad, but dying to escape his sins made him feel like a coward, and it was because he was one.

When Xichen died, an apology lingering at his lips, an image of a boy flashed in his mind, he wished that if there was a next life, he would find Jiang Cheng again and apologize in every way he knew how, and hope that it would be enough.

***

He’s heard the rumors.

His family is prestigious – one of the most well-known and well-respected family in the world, actually, even before they moved to California – but even then it isn’t like there’s no fair share of rumors, from the benign to the borderline defaming, though he wonders how defaming it actually is if there’s a kernel of truth there.

His mother doesn’t love his father, that much is obvious, but his father does, apparently, so much that he’s willing to sacrifice her happiness to get what he wants. He takes and takes until she’s nothing left but an empty husk of a person who knows nothing but resentment for her own husband, and that drives her into doing things that he knows she regrets, for it separates them forever.

Afterwards, besides the rare trips to the family’s private psychiatric institution, he doesn’t see her at all, until he stops seeing her all together.

He’s read all the books in their library, remembers the poems and epics in them, how they describe love as a wonderful, joyous thing that’s supposed to bring happiness to all parties involved. But then he looks at the desperation and sorrow in his brother’s eyes and the tired lines on his uncle’s face and the stiff posture his father maintains every night as he kneels in front of her altar, a late repentance for his sins, and asks himself if that is truly the case.

If it is, he isn’t sure he wants to fall in love at all.

So he changes his name, to the one his mother loves to call him, and decides that is that.

But it’s not him who gets to decide that, for it is love that comes find him.

After his mother’s death, he throws himself into activities after activities, anything to distract himself from falling even further – he’s the future head of the Lan family, he doesn’t get to do that. He picks up the xiao and plays elegant tunes with his brother, he composes poems and little novelettes that always end happily because that’s all that he wants, but he enjoys painting the best.

He’s always had a talent for it, able to sketch vivid paintings of sceneries and people that looks as good as real life, if not more, and there’s something relaxing about being able to recreate a close depiction of reality without having to confront it. Later, he knows it’s just a form of escapism, a coping mechanism he uses to deal with the death of his mother, but his love for painting doesn’t fade, if anything, it’s one of the only times he allows himself to relax and just do what he does best.

But then his teacher has looked at his paintings and shook her head, telling him that they are just as lifeless as they are gorgeous, that he lacks inspiration. She slowly explains what a muse is, how the ancient greats have used them to create some of the most revolutionary arts humanity has ever seen, and asks him if he has one.

He doesn’t really understand what she means.

He thinks about his brother, small and soft and keeps his heart close to his chest ever since tragedy befalls them, about the flowers in his mother’s little garden that she keeps at the balcony of her suffocating room, and then later she brings to the greenhouse, their greenhouse, about the music sheets he painstakingly writes and the joy of being able to perform them, and though he loves them all, it doesn’t make him want to pick up a brush and paint like his teacher tells him.

Until he does.

Lan Xichen meets Jiang Cheng when he’s eight years old.

They are at some formal event, as far as he can remember, at the Allan’s, who’s has enough clout in the area to procure attendance from some of the biggest families, and of course, the Lan’s as well. Normally, he will try to behave and accompany his uncles to make small talks with other families, preparation for his position as the family head and all that, but then his brother, who’s usually quiet and let himself fade into the background, has gotten into an argument with another boy who looks his age, and they seems to have been dragged away by someone.

They both are locked in the bathroom, and stays in the bathroom for quite some time, and he briefly wonders if he should check on them, but then the person who drags both of them in there in the first place storms out and heads towards the backdoor, to the garden right outside the mansion. Xichen, despite his better judgement, follows him in a trance, hopelessly intrigued.

He really shouldn’t. He’s pretty sure the boy is the head of the Jiang family, and his own cannot afford to anger or offend them any further, not after what’s happened to his great-grandfathers. But he does anyways.

The moon is glowing that day, peeking through the clouds to encase the lilies in the garden in an ethereal hue, casts its lights towards the other boy too, illuminating his face and reflects his grey eyes, all too knowing and just a little bit sad but so, so stunning it takes his breath away.

But then the boy has run away, leaving him there in the garden, alone, but he doesn’t dwell on that, choosing instead to cling to that image of a boy with eyes of a storm surrounded in lilies, and for the first time in his life, he wants to pick up the brush and paint that exact picture, not to forget about his mother, but to have the physical manifestation of that image in front of him, as if to recreate even an imperfect rendition of it can bring him joy.

Jiang Cheng is his first muse, and also his last, he would tell the man many years later, watches a flush blooms on his cheeks, and kisses him again, and again.

***

Mingjue has roared into laughter when Xichen tells him about it later – they don’t hide anything from one another - and he’s teased mercilessly for the next couple of days, but then Jiang Cheng starts to come up more and more in their conversations, especially after the boy joins the team Mingjue leads.

“The kid is good,” his best friend muses between their sodas on the couch at the Nie’s, one of the only vices his uncle allows him, and he’s intrigued. There’s something there, amusement and respect and maybe even fear, and he’s never heard Mingjue talk about anyone like that before. “I think if we give him another couple of years, he might even be good enough for the Olympics. His improvement rate is insane.”

He smiles, and demands to visit them during the practice sessions, and that’s how he’s met Meng Yao.

The boy is shy and wary at first, sticking close to Mingjue like Xichen is going to hurt him, and he doesn’t understand why until his uncle talks to him much later, telling him about who Meng Yao is, warns him to be careful around the boy. He has argued against his uncle then, telling him that they should’ve be hastily judging someone without knowing their character first, just because they come from what the Lan’s would consider a less than dignified background, and only then does his uncle reluctantly allows him to befriend the boy.

Meng Yao doesn’t talk too much at first, but then he can’t stop talking once they’ve opened up to one another, about his school, his mother, his friends. The boy talks about Jiang Cheng with stars in his eyes, the first person who approaches him despite his background, and Xichen just keeps being more and more interested, until Meng Yao has given him a long stare and smirks like he knows.

It doesn’t take much to know – it’s not like he makes an effort in hiding it. In fact, almost everyone around them seem to be aware of how attracted he is to the heir of the Jiang’s family, even Jiang Yanli has smiled at him fondly when they meet during fencing sessions, while Wei Ying flat out tells him to take good care of his little brother.

His little brother has simply looked at him and given him a reassuring hug, the most intimate gesture between them ever since they were barely infants, and it’s comforting because he knows his brother feels the same way about Jiang Cheng’s older brother.

Xichen only knows how to love then, not fall in love, but much later, he would look back and deem himself fallen.

Jiang Cheng has quite a tongue, even for a six-year-old – the boy doesn’t hold back, lashing out at anyone who dares to wrong him or his friends with the intensity of a cornered animal, his words direct and honest and sometimes even hurtful, but only to those even Xichen would admit deserves it. His uncle wouldn’t have approved, would’ve tried to change the boy in some way, and Xichen would stop him if it gets to that. He doesn’t want Jiang Cheng changed – the kind of easy honesty the boy exudes is so hard to find nowadays, and it’s the most refreshing things he’s seen in a while, and it remains so for a long time afterwards.

Then he’s seen Jiang Cheng in an actual match.

Jiang Cheng is already a marvel to watch during their practice sessions, but to see him in a real match against an opponent too old for him, who wouldn’t hold back against a child, is an entire revelation.

His posture is straight, his grip is firm on the blade, his movements are quick and precise, but that’s not what Xichen is preoccupied with. Even through the mask, he can feel the analytical gaze, pulling his opponent apart and exploring every single one of their weaknesses with a casual ferocity and relentless desperation, even when Jiang Cheng is the person with the upper hand. He attacks and attacks like his life depends on it until he’s sure he’s broken down his opponent, even when the difference in their points would inevitably ensure his victory.

Jiang Cheng fences like he’s fighting a war, and it takes Xichen’s breath away every single time.

He’s always practiced foil, honestly preferring that weapon better, only switching when Mingjue asks him to duel, but after Jiang Cheng’s first match, he’s asked to fence with Mingjue using sabre too, and his best friend only sighs and complies with his request without addressing the elephant in the room.

Somewhere along the way, sabre becomes his preferred weapon. And he tells Jiang Cheng exactly that, much later.

The only thing to do now is to get closer to Jiang Cheng.

He counts himself lucky at first that the rest of Jiang Cheng’s circle like him enough to give him a hand in approaching Jiang Cheng. Jiang Yanli goes as far as to talk to her parents to ensure that he and his brother can visit the Jiang mansion without much backlash from the two families. Wei Ying approaches him when he isn’t focusing on his brother, giving him tips about what Jiang Cheng likes and cheering him on in his endeavors. The only Jiang who seems like he can’t stand Xichen is Jiang Cheng himself.

He tries making small talks at first, even sometimes going with Lan Zhan to the Jiang mansion when the other boy wants to visit his new friend, try to come find him under the guise of asking for advice, but every single time, Jiang Cheng would give him a quick answer and then avoids him like he did in their first meeting. Every single time, Xichen would be left wondering if he’s done something wrong.

Maybe it’s not to do with his actions, but with Xichen himself – maybe there’s something about him that isn’t worthy of loving, and that’s why his mother left them and his father locks himself away while his little brother spends most of his time nowadays loving someone else instead.

Xichen hopes that it’s not the case.

***

The push and pull between them goes on for a while, neither of them acknowledging the something-else in the room every time they interact, to the point where Xichen wonders if Jiang Cheng even notices it, until he gets a call to find out that Jiang Cheng, his brother, and the rest of their friends have been kidnapped.

The Jiang’s, the Nie’s, the Jin’s, along with his own, are thrown into an immediate panic. Apparently they have found out through the Jiang family’s butler, based on a tracker from none other than Jiang Cheng himself. Despite being told it’s too dangerous, Xichen accompanies Mingjue to the scene of the crime anyways, finding the rest of the others there as well.

Every single one of the people who are kidnapped get out not soon later, Xichen immediately coming to fuss over his brother and Meng Yao, who still look shellshocked after what happened if you know where to look. He scans the rest, observing the protective way his brother wraps around Wei Ying, how each person is trying to comfort their family members and friends.

But no Jiang Cheng, and the realization sends hot white rage all over his entire body.

He isn’t the only one who notices.

“Where is my son?” Madam Yu’s voice echoes across the makeshift parking lot, inducing a collective wince from every single party present, who are all too familiar with her temper. She doesn’t stop, yelling at every person who just escape, blaming them for daring to abandon her son, and Xichen is just about to step in, you can’t raise your voice against a kid like that when you’re an adult, matriarch of a family, no less. But then Jiang Cheng steps out of the warehouse accompanied by the Jiang bodyguards, looking like a general coming back from a war, one which he emerges victorious, and all of Xichen’s words die before he can ever utter them.

Jiang Cheng is covered in blood and has a gun in his hand and a storm in his eyes.

Jiang Cheng is the most beautiful person Lan Xichen has ever laid his eyes on.

The fact that this boy, who are two whole years younger than him, is willing to barge into the enemy’s lair to find out the truth, willing to let himself be covered in blood, is willing to sacrifice his life to protect his loved ones…

How can he resist falling right there and then?

And then nothing happened.

It’s not like he doesn’t want to pursue Jiang Cheng, it’s just that his hands are tied. He has some years before he has to head off to college, the road towards Harvard practically paved for him, and there he will stay for six years, until he finishes grad school, if his uncle has his way, which he will, because Lan Qiren is Lan Qiren. He cannot be here for Jiang Cheng if the boy needs him, not that he would – he is almost certain by now that Jiang Cheng hates his guts, doesn’t want anything to do with him.

But sometimes, he would lay in his bed and remember the night they spent at the balcony of the Jin mansion, the look Jiang Cheng has given him, so full of emotions and near-tears, and wonders if there’s something else he’s missing all along.

Maybe there isn’t, and maybe he’s just deluding himself, chasing after the clouds thinking that he is right there, only to find out that the clouds wouldn’t think twice about him.

And so when he can’t have Jiang Cheng, he settles for second best.

His family have known he is gay not too long after high school graduation, him determining to not hide anything from them. His father has protested at first, asking if he can hide it and act interested in the opposite sex, but to his surprise, his uncle is the one shutting his own brother down, and approve of him dating in college, albeit not doing anything that would be considered scandalous in the process.

His uncle has always been the one who understands him the best outside of his brother, even more than Mingjue or Meng Yao, and he wonders if the man knows.

He has his first boyfriend in freshman year, a boy with dark hair and grey eyes and high cheekbones that contrast magnificently against his feline eyes, who laughs at his jokes and models for his paintings and comes so prettily against his body every time they fuck, but loving him feels wrong, like he’s doing a disservice to both of them. He knows why he feels that way, knows his boyfriend understand it to a certain degree too, but they refuse to talk about it.

Until his brother has paid him a visit and the two have met and his baby brother looks at him like he knows.

They break up a week later, and the boy kisses him for the last time and tells him that he doesn’t want to be a replacement, and he musters up enough courage and shame to say he’s sorry.

He dates again, many times, in fact, but they are all don’t last for over a month. They are all different, but in some ways they are all the same. The sex is great, as it always is, but there’s something missing there, like an itch that crawls under his skin, and no matter how hard he tries he can’t get rid of it.

He still watches Jiang Cheng competes live through the tiny screen of his laptop, and it’s nothing compared to seeing the boy - on his way to grow into a man now - fights in person, but he’s not physically there so he will make do with what he has. He cheers when Jiang Cheng wins and boos for every point scored against him and cries when Jiang Cheng loses in the finale and has to settle for the silver medal.

He still paints, the person he paints isn’t one of his partners, and it frustrates him so much he almost gives up painting.

He would later look back and be ashamed of himself, for what he does to his partners – they deserve so much better than what he gives them. He genuinely hopes they find happiness, even if he never finds his.

And then he has immediately flown straight to Oslo after getting his degrees, even before getting his things delivered back home, just to see Jiang Cheng compete in the finale of the Olympics again, but this time, he doesn’t come to mourn – he comes to celebrate. The Jiang Cheng he knows wouldn’t lose.

And he doesn’t.

Jiang Cheng, despite years of training, still fences with the desperation of a general leading his army to war, and Xichen can’t imagine loving anyone else.

And so they end up on a balcony again, alone, and Xichen has dared a touch, boosted by champagne that he knows no longer has an intense effect on him and the moonlight lit dimly from above, and watches something shifts in Jiang Cheng’s eyes, almost like emotions, almost like longing, and dares himself to hope.

“You both are idiots,” Wei Ying huffs once, nearly hitting him squarely in the face with his laptop, but is promptly stopped by his fiancée, “he’s been head-over-heels for you since we were kids, but his idiotic ass probably thinks you don’t like him or something, which is why he never says anything. You have to be the one to initiate it.”

And so he does.

But then it doesn’t work out as he expects, as Jiang Cheng pales as soon as the words leave his mouth. But instead of straight up rejecting him, the man recoils, insists it’s Xichen who doesn’t love him, and runs away.

He is too confused to even be sad about it, so he calls A-Zhan instead, hoping to be less confused.

His little brother is the angriest Xichen has ever seen him, even more than the time that one Allan boy has called his fiancée an orphan, and Xichen seriously wonders if he makes the right decision.

Rejection or not, Jiang Cheng is still the person he has loved since he was a child – he would hate to see him get hurt by his own flesh and blood.

Somewhere along the way, Meng Yao has come as well, insisting that the A-Cheng he knows wouldn’t deliberately hurt him like that, that the Jiang heir must’ve been confused about his own feelings too, and lash out in the process of dealing with them.

Xichen hopes that it’s the case, even though he has a hunch it isn’t.

It isn’t.

And he hears everything.

He hears about how it’s Jiang Cheng who has been in love of him all along, not only for decades but for thousands of years, and it should’ve made him happy but it doesn’t.

He also hears about the monstrosity Meng Yao committed in his previous lives, and how Jiang Cheng has found him and shaped him into the person he is today.

He also hears about how he killed Jiang Cheng in their last reincarnation for protecting all that they hold dear.

And it’s over.

It’s really over.

***

That night, he sits in his living room, fighting the urge to follow Jiang Cheng’s footsteps and get drunk until he can’t see straight, until he closes his eyes and dreams about a universe where Jiang Cheng would want to be with him.

He has no doubt that Jiang Cheng is telling the truth when he says he has been in love with Xichen for that long, and it’s incredible – he can’t imagine being that committed for over thousands of years, but then again everything about Jiang Cheng is incredible. But to want to be with him is another matter.

No wonder Jiang Cheng avoids him like a plague when they were kids. No wonder there’s always something sad and forlorn in the way he looks at him. No wonder he runs away when Xichen tells him he loves him.

The line between love and hate is a fine one, one that Xichen himself knows to walk cautiously, As much as he doesn’t doubt Jiang Cheng loves him, as he’s stated such, he also has no doubt that the man must hate him too, deservingly so, for all the things he’s done.

Of all the crimes you could’ve committed, you have to go ahead and kill him.

And then Jiang Cheng has called all of them over and told them everything, every single painful, shameful, devastating things that happened in their previous lives, all the things none of them remembers but Jiang Cheng alone does, a burden he’s forced to live through without telling a single soul about. Once again, he wants to stare at Jiang Cheng, awe at the selfless man before him who gives and gives and demands nothing in return.

This is not a problem for him to solve, not one he is sure he can.

All he can do is try to make up for the suffering and trauma he puts Jiang Cheng through, and hopes that it will be enough.

Not long afterwards, Mingjue and Meng Yao get together, and he is the first person they tell. He smiles and congratulates them, feeling happy and just a bit jealous, for they can have the one thing he cannot have.

He doesn’t fault Meng Yao for the actions of his past lives, but a part of him can’t help but feel bitter at how unfair it is that Meng Yao ends up with the love of his life despite doing the same thing he did in his previous reincarnation.

Maybe Xichen isn’t as kind as everybody claims, after all.

He is pleasantly surprised to find out the event of the two of them getting together has compelled Jiang Cheng to contact him, which Xichen politely deny out of respect for the person he’s loved most outside of his family.

Jiang Cheng is so tremendously forgiving, and if he doesn’t want anything to do with Xichen, the last thing Xichen wants to do is impose and risk losing even the tentative thing they have.

But then Jiang Cheng tells him that he doesn’t hate him, that he cares for him the way he cares for everyone else, and Xichen’s heart threatens to escape his ribcage just entertaining the possibility that this man cares for him the same way he cares for his family, because if there’s anything Xichen knows better than anyone else, is that the Jiang heir loves his family more than anything else – it’s one of the most endearing quality about him.

It makes him think that perhaps, there’s hope after all.

So he takes that strand of hope, as thin and fragile as it is, and hang onto it even when it threatens to topple him too, and hopes that this time, maybe he will successfully reach the clouds.

***

There’s tension in the way they interact with one another, in the way their eyes linger on one another’s lips, for far too long, in the way their touches hesitate just for a slit second longer, just to feel the sensation of skin against skin, in the way they talk about their respective lives, even the mundane of things can be turned interesting.

Jiang Cheng is funny and sarcastic when he wants to be, when he isn’t being serious, but there’s a part of him that loosens up when no one else is looking, the softness in his eyes when he looks at puppies and small children that he tells Xichen reminds him of his nephew, and it’s perhaps even more breathtaking than seeing Jiang Cheng fences.

Xichen knows then that he can never spend his life with anyone else.

So he takes Jiang Cheng to his sanctuary, the one space he loves the most in the world, perched on top of a hill where you can almost be as close to the clouds. Jiang Cheng looks like he belongs here, belongs with Xichen, and Xichen wants nothing more than for him to.

It’s okay if they can never be together. To have this quiet companionship with the man is enough.

Except that it doesn’t.

Xichen continues to paint when he isn’t busy dealing with the Board who wants nothing more than to cut funding from small children, and uses up his purple before anything else.

When Jiang Cheng inquires about his ribbon, how can he refuse?

He’s well aware how sacred it is to the Lan’s, especially during matrimonial ceremonies, that his uncle would probably yell at him for showing it to someone who isn’t even dating him, but Jiang Cheng is here, is the love of his life, and he won’t refuse such a simple thing from the man.

His heart breaks all over again when Jiang Cheng looks at him, eyes misty, and there’s no ferocity in them, no laughter or happiness, only a sad resignation, like he doesn’t believe Xichen when Xichen tells him he loves him, like he doesn’t believe he’s deserving of love.

He talks about the things he’s done like they’re supposed to be terrible or terrifying or both, like Xichen is supposed to not look at him like he’s the most selfless person in existent, like he isn’t perfection in and of itself, and Xichen doesn’t understand how someone like this can look in the mirror and thinks of himself as anything less than beautiful, less than deserving of everything good in this world, and Xichen is determined to give him just that or die trying.

So he says he loves him.

He will say it again, and again, and again, until Jiang Cheng finally believes it.

He knows the people around them know that they’re dating, and expects quite a number of angry or even threatening phone calls, especially from Wei Ying, who no doubt has his own worries about their relationship, or simply just wants to give him the “older brother talk.” He understands how it feels, for he gives Wei Ying the same talk when he finds out the man, a kid back then, intends to date his younger brother.

What he doesn’t expect is a call from Jiang Yanli, of all people, who asks to meet up with him in a restaurant near the Jiang mansion, which he is sure must be carefully watched by none other than the family himself.

He knows about the meeting between her and his little brother when the boy started dating Wei Ying, knows it still sends chills down Lan Zhan's back every time he mentions it, a feat no one else has been able to accomplish. He vaguely wonders if he should call up some of his own people, if the Mistress of the Jiang family truly wishes to dispose of him, but then again if she does want to do just that then not even his best people will be able to help him, so he puts on his best suit and comes alone.

Jiang Yanli smiles kindly at him, and they talk about their families, about their businesses, about current politics, and she’s as sweet and genuine as he remembers, but he knows better than to keep his guard down.

“So you’re dating A-Cheng.” She says, not a question, a statement. He nods.

“I know I don’t deserve him,” he begins, hoping he doesn’t sound too nervous, “but I will do my best to make him happy.”

“You’re right, you don’t,” she says bluntly, and he winces, prays she doesn’t catch that, “but then again, after everything A-Cheng has gone through, everything he has done for us, for you, I don’t think anyone does.”

She goes back to her chocolate cake, which he’s learnt is a favorite that runs in the family – he’s made sure to stock the cabinet with various flavors he observes Jiang Cheng prefers, a simple gesture that doesn’t go unnoticed.

“But you make him happy, have been able to make him happy the way none of us can,” she says again, and her tone softens, “and we can all agree that he deserves happiness more than any of us, and if being with you can do just that, then I don’t mind you two being together, despite everything you put him through.”

He avoids her eyes, focusing back on his own dessert, feeling ashamed for the things he has never done, but he can’t blame her for blaming him – he blames himself too, every moment that he spends with Jiang Cheng eats at him as much as elates him, a painful reminder that Jiang Cheng is a better person than all of them combined, for accepting him the way he does.

Jiang Yanli looks at him again, the intensity of her gaze forcing his eyes on her, and there’s a storm in them, but none of the chaos in Jiang Cheng’s – this is a quiet one, like the eye of a hurricane, and it terrifies Xichen more than anything else.

Because of the way he’s brought up, he isn’t intimidated easily. The only other person who’s capable of inducing goosebumps from his skin is Madam Jin, but everyone is afraid of Madam Jin.

The rumor mill likes to portray Jiang Cheng as the scary one in the family, with his nasty temper and venomous tongue and Olympic gold medal and gun-calloused hands.

The rumor mill knows nothing.

She leans closer to him, until their noses are barely inches apart, and he can’t even afford to be scandalized.

“I will say this once, and don’t make me repeat myself, Lan Xichen, but if you even dare to think about hurting my little brother, I will destroy everything you ever love, and I will let you live with the consequences.”

She means every word of it.

He gulps, chasing away the tremors in his fingers, and nods, as confident as he hopes he feels.

“You have my word.”

But so does he.

Wei Ying does end up giving him the talk later, grabbing his collars and telling him to not hurt his little brother, or else he would ruin his pretty face, and Xichen considers that a reprieve.

***

Afterwards, he and Jiang Cheng ends up dating, and it’s the happiest Xichen has ever felt for the longest time.

Jiang Cheng tells him about Zidian, about the wonderful adventures he’s had with it, how precious it is to him, and Xichen has promised himself to give his boyfriend everything he deserves or die trying, so he calls everyone he knows to get his hands on the information, no matter how miniscule.

Mr. Yu hands over everything he’s collected about the Wen’s underground trading over the last couple of decades, about what the ring looks like, the various organizations it has gone through, which isn’t much, but it’s enough of a foundation for him to start.

He then contacts Nie Huaisang and Meng Yao, who has done enough business with Madam Jin by now to have accumulated the connections that he would need to make this work. Surely, such a precious family heirloom can’t be traded without going unnoticed by various important people, who must’ve chosen to turn a blind eye to it.

He will ensure that they don’t, not this time.

It’s Nie Huaisang who gives them their first major breakthrough, connecting them with a guy who has just enough connections to the underworld to know all about the important auctions going on, and Zidian happens to be among one of them, sold for an astronomical price for its history, carefully hidden away from the eyes of the Jiang’s “watchers.”

He’s told Mr. Yu just that, and is told in return to not worry and let him handle everything. After watching the efficiency at which the man handles the aftermath of what went down in the warehouse all those years ago, the people he surrounds himself with, the infamous Yu twins, who he is almost certain are professional assassins, Xichen doesn’t hesitate to send all the information about the auction over, and hopes that it will be enough.

When he isn’t fretting about the ring, he focuses on his beloved.

Xichen enjoys buying him things, despite knowing that Jiang Cheng has his own company, simply because he wants to, wants to give everything and more, willing to cut his own heart out and hand it over if the man demands it. He paints and refills the purple in his palette and hangs painting of them all over his apartment and inside his room. He nearly burns his hands off as Meng Yao yells at him in the background just because he can, because Jiang Cheng deserves just that.

Then Jiang Cheng has gone ahead and kissed him, and it’s awkward and clumsy but it’s the best thing that has ever happened to him all at once.

His touches are hot, but the inside of his mouth is almost cool, like he’s stuck in the clouds itself, letting them engulf him and is helpless to do anything else but give and take and give and take.

He tastes sweeter than the tea his mother used to make, and Xichen wants to taste it again for the rest of his life.

Xichen shows him the paintings he made when he was still a child, wants to demonstrate to him that he’s loved that boy before he even knows what love is. He lays himself bare and hopes it will be enough.

Xichen clings to his boyfriend when they’re in bed like holding a storm in his palms, squeezing themselves into each other’s spaces like bookends, mouths I-love-you’s to his neck, and hopes that it will be enough.

He hands Jiang Cheng his Zidian, explains how he’s gotten it, and watches something shifts in his boyfriend’s face, something wonderful and hopeful and no longer desperate, and hopes that it will be enough.

They fall into bed, tangled around one another in the best of ways, and he says “I love you” again, just to make sure the person below him understands it, and hopes that it will be enough.

It is enough.

For Jiang Cheng whispers into his skin, “I know,” and there’s no lie there, only complete honesty, and he wants to carve those words onto his skin, into his heart, and cherishes them forever, and more.

They’re laid bare against one another, skin against skin, heart against heart, and Jiang Cheng is still the most beautiful thing he’s ever laid his eyes on. There’s a birthmark on his chest, right above his heart, the shape of a bullet that Xichen puts inside of him, and it makes him want to cry. But Jiang Cheng kisses him again, and that’s enough to distract him from all the pain of their previous lives and focuses on what’s in front of him, who’s in front of him.

Every touches feels more good and more right than anything else he’s ever experienced, like he’s a man dying of thirst who finds himself above the clouds, surrounded by the comfort it gives, and all he can do is reciprocate and knows it will be enough.

Jiang Cheng cries when he enters him, probably his first time, in this life anyways – he doesn’t know about Jiang Cheng’s past relationships, respects him enough not to pry, just as Jiang Cheng wouldn’t ask him. Not that he ever cares for such a mundane thing. He almost wants to pull away, but then Jiang Cheng grips onto him tighter and pull them close, slotting their mouths against one another again, and Xichen is only able to kiss the tears away, muttering his apologies against his tongue, and tries to return as much pleasure as Jiang Cheng offers him.

Jiang Cheng is still curled around him, almost surrounding him, like water, like Xichen is standing at the shore, unable to do anything but let the water sweep him away, except that this time he wants to, wants to drown in this sensation forever.

Aren't clouds just water in the end?

When they come together, it feels like having his thirst quenched. It feels like freedom. It feels like redemption.

It feels like love.

***

If asked, Lan Xichen would compare falling in love to desperately chasing after clouds.

If asked, Jiang Cheng would compare falling in love with Lan Xichen to a moth inevitably drawn to flame.

They both want farfetched, impossible things, but they are also willing to do farfetched, impossible things just to be with each other. Only to realize at the end that the things they want maybe isn't too impossible after all.

And perhaps that is enough to last for an eternity, and more.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng still remembers meeting Jin Ling for the first time like it was yesterday.

He was prancing back and forth in front of the door to the Koi Tower’s innermost bedchamber, chewing on his lips hard enough to draw blood, surrounded by anxious maidens and disciples of both YunmengJiang and LanlingJin sects. He was cursing, if he recalled correctly, mentally berating societal norms for allowing husbands to be with their wives during labors but not family members, before the door burst open and one of the midwives ushered him inside.

His dear sister was sitting up on the bed, but just barely, leaning against her husband, exhausted after hours spent giving birth, but there’s a smile on her face nevertheless, for there’s a bundle in her arms that was worth all those efforts and more.

She handed the bundle to him, and when he looked into those chocolate eyes, bright and innocent and full of wonder even when he was screaming his lungs out, he knew that he would sacrifice his life for this child if he needed to.

“Hello, Jin Ling,” he whispered, clumsily rocking the child to cease the insistent crying. When his results bear no fruit, a midwife took his nephew away so the child can be fed by his mother to hopefully calm his tantrum. Despite knowing it was for the best, his touch lingered, afraid that if he put too much distance between them, this child would disappear like all his other loved ones too.

He had always loved his parents, always remembered loving his sister. He learned to love his brother too, despite everything. He loved his sect, his land, his lakes, and they would always be in his heart, but there were only two instances where he fell in love.

One was Lan Xichen. The other was Jin Ling.

They were two very different kinds of love, but he cherished each of them just the same.

Thousands of years have passed, and things have changed too much for him to keep up, but it doesn’t change the way he loves.

They aren’t in their houses, and there’s no midwives, just doctors and nurses surrounding them, calmly doing their jobs despite the wife’s loved ones fussing over their shoulders. Unlike his first life, his parents are here, his father openly crying while his mother discreetly wiping the tears from her eyes as they gaze upon their grandson, who’s still screaming his lungs out as he’s held by the peacock. His brother is also here, standing next to them and quiet for once, starring at his nephew with an awestruck look on his face.

He wonders if Wei Ying and Lan Zhan, who’s still standing outside with his brother, want to start a family of their own, but they’ve just gotten their doctorates, yet to fully secure their positions in their respective fields, Lan Zhan coming back to work for his family while Wei Ying works as an engineer for Jiang Corp. while balancing his side gig as a flutist in the indie Los Angeles music scene. They’re still young, and perhaps not ready to start a family, but if there’s anything he knows about Lan Sizhui, is that the boy will come to them.

Nevertheless, he makes a mental note to call Wen Qing to see if she has any loose cousins she’s willing to give away.

He walks to his nephew’s side and takes him from Jin Zixuan, ignoring the glare that’s thrown his way. He can’t even muster an apology, not when he gets to hold his nephew in his arms again.

To stare into brown curious eyes, eyes that never see him as a monster despite the world around him saying otherwise, but instead as someone that’s worthy of respect and love.

“Hello, Jin Ling.”

And he falls in love all over again.

***

It turns out, he doesn’t even need to make that call to Wen Qing.

Not even a month after Jin Ling is born, he receives a call from Wei Ying to come to his apartment. His boyfriend has offered to accompany him, and the gentleness in his expression tells him that Lan Xichen already knows.

And maybe, he does too.

His brother gives him a bear hug, but even his cheerful demeanor fails to hide the fatigue in the hunch of his back and the bags on his eyes.

“What is it?” he asks, and watches the man in front of him grows pensive.

“A-Cheng,” Wei Ying starts, “you mentioned once that Lan Zhan and I have a son together right?”

He nods, and asks back, “where is he?”

From the corner of his eyes, he sees the guest bedroom’s door being opened, as if they know they are being called. Lan Zhan steps outside, calm and expressionless as usual - unless you know where to look, and Jiang Cheng has never been able to see it the way Wei Ying or Lan Xichen do. A small boy trails after him, hand behind his back, eyes downcast. He couldn’t be more than three or four years old, probably even younger, if the age gap between him and Jin Ling remains the same.

“Hello,” the boy bows, keeping his manners despite his shyness, and Jiang Cheng can’t help but smile – he’s always liked Lan Sizhui, and it’s not just because he makes his nephew happy.

“Hello, Lan Yuan, nice to meet you. I’m Jiang Cheng.” He extends his hands and watches tiny hands attempting to curl around it.

“It’s still Wen Yuan for now,” Wei Ying stands behind him, leaning over to ruffle his future son’s hair, “he’s going to be Lan Yuan soon, though, we’re finishing up the paperwork.”

“From A-Qing?” he asks.

A nod. “She comes to us last week,” Wei Ying explain. It’s insensitive to discuss these kinds of matters in front of a child, so Jiang Cheng will have to wait for the full story, but it’s not hard to guess. What’s left of the Wen’s probably come asking for help, but Wen Qing and Luo Qingyang, or Wen Ning for that matter, aren't in any shape to take care of a child - the Wen’s siblings still have med school to complete and Luo Qingyang still steadily climbing the corporate ladder. She must’ve asked for help, and Wei Ying and Lan Zhan are all too eager to offer their assistance.

His brother’s eyes alternate between him and soon-to-be-Lan-Yuan, as if trying to look for answers, and he must’ve found it, maybe in the way Jiang Cheng is holding too tightly onto the boy, for he bursts into a wide grin and hugs Jiang Cheng’s shoulders.

“Is he…?”

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng cuts him off, “and I think you should bring A-Yuan over to ajie’s house often. Jin Ling needs a friend, won’t he?”

His brother laughs, and despite himself, Jiang Cheng does too.

Oh, this is going to be an absolute delight.

(Of course, Jin Ling would ring him up, much later, grumbling about how his uncles try to set him up with A-Yuan when he is barely an infant, but that’s a story for another time.)

Chapter Text

Traditional Yunmeng braids was one of the first things Jiang Cheng was taught as a child.

It’s an intricate technique, one that requires fluidity and precision in movement to keep the braids in place. As a child, Jiang Cheng never got around it, his own braids always ended up falling apart after a few hours, his small chubby hands failing to secure them in place the way his father does with ease. Somewhere along the way, Yanli offered to braid his hair, just so that he can escape his mother’s admonishing about propriety and whatnot. She would sneak into his room in the morning, run a comb over his hair, and put two braids on either side of his head the way they were both taught, both of which would stay on for the rest of the day.

Even after he learned to properly braid his hair, she still insisted on doing it when she could, as a sort of routine between them, and he couldn’t deny her such a simple request. He never could.

He never told her their morning ritual was one of the best parts of his day.

And then the Wen’s happened and demonic cultivation happened and she was gone and he was all alone.

He picked pieces of himself up and moved on and didn’t look into the mirror when doing his braids.

He taught his nephew how, when the boy was older, but the braids seemed out of place on his hair the way the Jin’s vermilion mark never did, so Jiang Cheng stopped. Jin Ling might be his sister’s son, his nephew, but he was a Jin through and through, and perhaps that was for the better.

Over the next few millenniums fashion changed, their hair style changed, but Jiang Cheng still insisted on doing his braids every morning, even if the short hair made it difficult. He found comfort in such inane habit, as if each braid helped him hold onto the things he’d lost, a remnant of the past that no one else would remember but him.

But then he’d lost Zidian and he’d realized then how much had changed, how much he had changed – for the better, he hoped – and he no longer wore the braids like he was proud of them, and perhaps that was fine, and he was fine too.

(He was the first to offer when Yanli was learning how to do hair, watched her weave tiny braids onto either side of his head, and wiped away the tears at the corner of his eyes when she wasn’t looking.)

But now Zidian is back, brought back to him by one of the people he loved most, the love of his life, and everything wrong and twisted about this world, about him, about his fate and the curse he’s been suffering under for thousands of years seem insignificant. And it feels right again.

So he starts to braid his hair.

Except that it’s not perfect, it’s been far too long since he’s last done it for it to be, and his hands and arms still ache from last night – no one told him Lan fucking Xichen of all people is an animal in bed and what the hell is with the Lan brothers and tying people up – but it calms him down and that’s all that matters.

There’s a pair of lips against his nape, sucking on a spot left behind from last night, and Jiang Cheng bites his lips to contain a moan.

“Are you braiding your hair?” Lan Xichen asks into his neck.

He explains the Jiang tradition to his boyfriend, observes the man’s eyes lighting up and feels hands encasing his on his hair.

“Let me.”

Who is Jiang Cheng to deny him such a simple thing?

“Do you know how?” He asks.

“Yes,” Lan Xichen nods, “my cousins taught me when I was little, they even did it on me and A-Zhan,” oh, he definitely will coerce some pictures out of his boyfriend later, “but then we didn’t grow out our hair anymore so they stopped, but I still occasionally do it for them.”

Lan Xichen rambles about his family as long, flute-calloused fingers (there’s beauty in that too, the way it fits with the gun callouses on his own hand) work on his hair, forming two little braids on either side of his head, neat and perfect just like his sister used to do, and it fills his heart with so much love he turns around and kisses his boyfriend again.

“I love you,” he whispers, grins as amber eyes grow dark before he’s thrown on the bed to continue yesterday’s activities. His braids are going to get ruined again, he’s sure, but it’s fine, if the man on top of him will gladly fix it for him, again, and again, and again.

Chapter Text

Wei Ying and Lan Zhan host their wedding just a month after getting their doctorates, a small party among family and friends at one of the pair’s favorite restaurant – or rather, Wei Ying’s, Jiang Cheng isn’t sure how much Lan Zhan tolerates the food there, having grown up with Lan cuisine his entire life – despite his parents’ protests. The Lan’s haven’t cared much for it, their official ritual, an ancient thing that requires them to meet in a room to bow in front of their ancestors, having been completed years ago when the two decided to elope.

Jiang Cheng hasn’t cared much about the logistics of the wedding itself. Wei Ying has always been a storm of a man, doing whatever he pleases in the ways he likes, uncaring for other’s opinions of him, and Lan Zhan wouldn’t say no to his husband, so it’s best to just let them have their way and deal with whatever the aftermath is later.

And then his brother has insisted on having a bachelor party.

The thing is, Jiang Cheng has read up on the wedding rituals of the modern world, knows what a bachelor party is, and realize that it isn’t supposed to be the way Wei Ying wants it to be.

Most notably, he’s pretty sure both of the brooms aren’t supposed to be here.

Once again, storm of a man.

Not just Lan Zhan, Lan Xichen is here too, an arm around his waist in a futile effort to calm him down as his face gets darker and darker as the chaos unfold before them. Wei Ying is chugging down another bottle of vodka at the cheers of his friends, who are all present at the party – he makes a note to ask his butler for his brother’s medical records later because this can’t be healthy – while Nie Huaisang is doing shots off Mo Xuanyu’s body, another image he does not need to see until the day he dies. Wen Qing and Luo Qingyang are glued to the sofa, determined to suck each other’s faces off in a drunken display of public affection while Wen Ning sits at the far corner of the room, mortified, with an equally mortified Jin Zixuan sitting next to him. He can’t see Meng Yao and Nie Mingjue where he’s sitting, and with the way thing have been escalating he isn’t sure if he wants to see them at all.

His sister, now four-month pregnant, is sitting next to her husband, nursing a cup of orange juice and giving him a sympathetic glance when they lock eyes across the room. Finally, another sane individual.

“I know, let’s play truth-or-dare,” Wei Ying announces to the room, sounding nothing like he just downs a whole bottle of alcohol, and gets sounds of affirmation in return. Soon enough, they all gather on the floor in the middle of the living room while Yanli sits on the sofa and observes the whole ordeal with a smile on her face, even Meng Yao and Nie Mingjue come back from who-knows-where while avoiding the knowing looks thrown their way.

They play some initial rounds, and it’s enough to traumatize him for this entire lifetime and possibly the next. Mo Xuanyu gives Nie Huaisang a lap dance, to everyone but Wei Ying and Wen Qing’s collective horror. Jin Zixuan is forced to answer some embarrassing questions about his first date with Yanli, how he’s made an utter fool of himself in front of her because of his emotional constipation, which earns him a kiss when he finishes. Lan Zhan is dared into drinking alcohol, and he’s protested vehemently, knowing the effects of the drink on the Lan’s, but the youngest Lan insists on downing an entire cup and proceeds to spend the entire night clinging to Wei Ying and positively growls every time anyone as much as come close to his husband, much to everyone else’s amusement.

Finally, the bottle points towards Jiang Cheng, and he isn’t a coward, per say, but it’s Wei Ying of all people, and he knows Wei Ying, which means he would rather die than to take any chances.

“Truth,” he answers, feeling oddly like he’s walked into a trap.

Wei Ying’s grin is positively predatory, “Before you started dating Xichen-ge, who were you with?”

He blinks. That was easy. “None,” he answers.

“No, I mean like, in all of your previous lives,” Wei Ying clarifies.

“As I said, none,” he reaffirms, unsure what other answer his brother wants.

Everyone’s eyes are on him now as silence fills the air, and he squirms, wondering if he’s said something wrong. “What?”

It’s Wen Qing who breaks the silence, “So you’re telling me,” she begins, looking at him like he’s some sort of extinct animal, “throughout the thousands of years you’ve been alive, you have never been with anyone? No wives? No heirs? Not even a one-night stand?”

He doesn’t really understand what’s the fuss about. “I’ve never had any children or wife, or any partner, for that matter.” He confesses truthfully, “I have only ever loved Xichen. I didn’t want anyone else.”

Lan Xichen stares at him, awestruck, intertwining their hands together and doesn’t let go for the whole night.

When they return back home, he’s immediately pinned to the wall, hot mouth encasing his, hands in his hair, across his back, and he chokes out a moan.

Lan Xichen looks at him as he dives down, leaving another hickey on his collarbone, “I don’t know what I have ever done to deserve you,” he whispers into his throat.

Jiang Cheng tilts Lan Xichen’s chin up so he can slot their mouth together, “Yes you do,” he says between kisses, “you deserve everything.”

“So do you,” Lan Xichen whispers back.

“I know,” he says, “and I have everything I want right here.”

Lan Xichen doesn’t reply, kissing him again.

That night, Lan Xichen fucks him hard enough that he sees stars and leaves marks all across his body that he hopes won’t fade for this life and the next.