Jiang Cheng’s first memory is of his mother. Summers in Lotus Pier are beautiful, even against her stark and wintry expression. That day, she holds him in her lap like he is something precious and lets him twist at the heirloom ring around her finger.
“That’s going to be yours one day,” she says. His mother rarely smiles, but she does now, her lips curving up as she looks down at him, like she knows he’s destined for great things.
Later, Jiang Cheng wishes that she had never wanted so much from him. For now, though, he smiles back at her, bright and unburdened.
The harsh noise of swords clashing rings in Jiang Cheng’s ears. His knees are scraped red where he’d fallen on the stone too many times, but the keen eyes of his father and the swoop of Suibian over his head keep him on his feet. Not for the first time, he reels under his own inadequacy.
“Are you okay?” Wei Wuxian asks. He’s been controlling the pace of the sparring session since it had begun, and not a hair on his head is out of place. Jiang Cheng tries to tamp down the anger that burns at his throat. He charges again, sweeping Sandu horizontally at Wei Wuxian’s ribs, but his older brother parries him easily.
“Uncle Jiang, I—“ Wei Wuxian starts to say, eyes flashing towards their father with worry, but Jiang Cheng doesn’t let him finish. He tries again, jumping back and slicing a wide arc through the air. This time, Wei Wuxian is distracted, and Jiang Cheng is the first to draw blood, the tip of his sword catching the helix of Wei Wuxian’s ear.
The tension in the air drops like an anvil, and Jiang Fengmian flicks his sleeves behind him and makes his way towards them.
“Jiang Cheng,” he says, firmly. Jiang Cheng has never been afraid of his father, only afraid of disappointing him. Wei Wuxian is still staring, open mouthed and oblivious to the dark red rivulets that run carelessly down the side of his face. Jiang Fengmian reaches out and directs a pulse of spiritual energy at Wei Wuxian’s injury. The indecipherable look that Jiang Cheng’s father gives his brother sets Jiang Cheng even more on edge.
“A-Xian began learning the sword after you, but his strategy and technique are more consistent than yours. It would do you good to take some pointers from him,” his father says. Jiang Cheng has heard this spiel a hundred times before.
“Sorry,” Jiang Cheng bites out, and sheathes Sandu.
“It’s been weeks since you showed improvement,” Jiang Fengmian continues, looking at Jiang Cheng with narrowed eyes. “Is that what’s expected of a future sect leader?”
Jiang Cheng knows he’s being childish and disrespectful when he turns on his heel and stalks away, but there’s a lump in his throat that won’t go away and he’ll be damned if he cries in front of Wei Wuxian again.
He knows that he’s lacking, and that if Jiang Fengmian had a real choice in it, he would make Wei Wuxian his heir without a second thought. (Or maybe, maybe he wouldn’t. The darkest side of Jiang Cheng’s conscience thinks that, maybe, Jiang Fengmian keeps him for a reason—that he knows Wei Wuxian would never be content leading a sect and, therefore, thrust the position on Jiang Cheng instead.)
Jiang Cheng does circles around the Lotus Pier compound until he decides to settle in the armory. He’s comfortable surrounded by the weaponry that’s been familiar to him for his whole life. He uses a cloth to wipe away the splattered blood on Sandu’s blade. That’s his blood, your brother’s blood, you hurt him, Jiang Cheng’s mind whispers. Despite how often he and Wei Wuxian fought, this is the first time Jiang Cheng has hurt him out of pure spite.
A sick feeling rolls around in his stomach. Sometimes, he feels just as callous and unforgiving as his mother.
When Jiang Fengmian finds him, Jiang Cheng is sitting cross legged on the floor in the middle of the room, having finished oiling his sword. In response, Jiang Cheng scrambles to his feet and bows deep. “Father,” he greets, looking at the floor rather than in Jiang Fengmian’s eyes.
“You’re not a child anymore, Jiang Cheng,” his father says. It’s not often that Jiang Fengmian decides to discipline him. “You can’t just run off and expect us to find you.”
Jiang Cheng looks up. “But you did,” he says, a little boldly. He’s surprised when his father doesn’t get angry. Instead, he just smiles minutely.
“You’re still my son,” Jiang Fengmian replies. “You’re my son, so I push you hard.”
“Wei Wuxian is your son, too,” Jiang Cheng can’t help but blurt out. His father seems taken aback for only a second, and then sighs, shaking his head.
“Yes, he is. But you’re the one who’s following in my footsteps. I chose you because you can be better than me, A-Cheng. You have your mother’s blood, after all.”
“You chose me because you had to,” Jiang Cheng insists.
“Maybe,” Jiang Fengmian concedes, “but you are still the only person I would trust with leading the sect after I am gone. That’s why I push you. Because I know you can.”
Jiang Cheng’s heart lurches. He’s not very used to casual affection, especially from the people who really matter. “But he...he’s better than me. You see that, right?”
“You’re both my sons, A-Cheng, no matter what your mother says. I only treat you differently because you are different,” his father explains. “You each have your own strengths and weaknesses. That doesn’t mean I care about you any less.”
To his own dismay, Jiang Cheng realizes that tears are forming in his eyes. “I apologize,” he says, stiff and formal to hide the feelings bubbling up in his chest. “I’ll try harder from now on.”
Jiang Fengmian smiles. It’s at moments like these that Jiang Cheng realizes how dissimilar his parents are. His father fits right in with the lotus flowers that bloom here.
“Now, go apologize to your brother. He’s worried about you,” Jiang Fengmian says, and Jiang Cheng steps back and nods, bowing to his father again. Sandu shifts from its place around his waist when Jiang Cheng sprints out of the room to find Wei Wuxian. Luckily, Jiang Cheng always knows exactly where he will be.
There’s the spot by the lotus pond near their bedrooms where Wei Wuxian always goes when he’s sulking, and there, Jiang Cheng finds him skipping stones across the water. There’s a small bandage wrapped around his ear, but besides that, he looks in good shape.
“Hey,” Jiang Cheng says, sitting next to his brother on the stone steps. “You alright?”
“I’m probably the one who should be asking you that,” Wei Wuxian replies, without hesitation, and Jiang Cheng scowls. “I’m fine, though. Shijie kissed it better,” Wei Wuxian says smugly.
Jiang Cheng makes a face. “You’re shameless,” he says. Wei Wuxian winks.
Wei Wuxian, cruel as he is, waits for Jiang Cheng to smile before he says, “Uncle Jiang and Madam Yu only want the best for you, you know.”
Jiang Cheng’s face drops immediately. The lump in his throat is back, and he puts his head in his hands. “I know,” he replies, words muffled, “but I’m still not enough.” He’s trying so hard not to cry.
“Yes, you are,” Wei Wuxian insists. “ A-niang and A-die aren’t stupid. They wouldn’t make you their heir if they thought you couldn’t do it.”
Jiang Cheng freezes, and then lifts his head slowly to look Wei Wuxian in the eyes. “You called them A-niang and A-die.”
Wei Wuxian’s face goes carefully blank, and then he forces a smile onto it. “No, I didn’t, Jiang Cheng. What are you talking about?”
“You did,” Jiang Cheng says. “You’ve never called them that before.”
“Stop lying, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian replies, his voice suddenly hard as stone, despite the smile on his face. Jiang Cheng’s mouth snaps shut.
“Okay,” Jiang Cheng says, very quietly. Wei Wuxian is rarely this serious. Jiang Cheng can do nothing, except hesitantly reach out to put his arm around Wei Wuxian’s shoulders and tug him closer. And then he says, in the same small voice: “Xian-gege.”
Wei Wuxian’s jaw drops. Jiang Cheng fights off the blush rising to his face. Although Jiang Yanli often uses loving terms to refer to Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng has never called Wei Wuxian anything but his name, or, occasionally, shixiong. Gege is far too affectionate for the two of them, and yet—
“Jiang Cheng!” Wei Wuxian wails dramatically, arms flying around Jiang Cheng in a hug. “My sweet wonderful didi! My baby! I love you!”
Jiang Cheng makes a strangled noise, turns an odd purple color, and tries to shove Wei Wuxian off of him, but his older brother’s grip is tightening. “You’re disgusting!” Jiang Cheng complains. “Go away!”
“No, never!” Wei Wuxian exclaims, while Jiang Cheng struggles in his arms. “I’m never letting you go!”
The scuffle ends in an accidentally bruised elbow and the shattering of Jiang Cheng’s pride, but deep down, he thinks that, for the return of Wei Wuxian’s genuine blinding smile, it was worth it.
The Cloud Recesses is no place for boys like them.
They are not Lan Wangji, who has a metal rod in place of a spine and ice cold eyes that pierce whomever they lay on. Jiang Cheng is older now, and he tries to be the man his father wants him to be, but he knows that he will never reach the point of perfect elegance that the Gusu Lan disciples hold—not that he wants to. As much as he berates Wei Wuxian for his careless actions, he much prefers chasing his brother down the docks at Lotus Pier than having to resort to clenching his jaw and waiting for the throb in his head to fade.
However, despite Jiang Cheng’s lack of love for this place, it is beautiful, which is how he finds himself wandering around the mountain forests on a free evening. Wei Wuxian is completing some punishment back in Gusu Lan’s library, although Jiang Cheng would not be surprised if he showed up soon, having shirked that responsibility. Privately, Jiang Cheng thinks that Wei Wuxian has done nothing truly wrong during his time here—besides, perhaps, the alcohol.
The Cloud Recesses is no place for boys like Wei Wuxian, who enjoys his liquor to an unhealthy amount.
In the Gusu forests, everything is silent, far different from the woods in Yunmeng that teem with the chirping sounds of life. It’s different, but not unwanted. Jiang Cheng finds that being here clears his head, which has been plagued by distressing thoughts lately. What if I don’t pass my exams? What if Wei Wuxian gets himself into trouble and I can’t fix it? What if something happens back home and I’m not there to help? What if, what if, what if—
In a pristine clearing, Jiang Cheng finds Nie Huaisang. Not surprising that he’s shirking his responsibilities too. Still, though, Jiang Cheng understands Nie Huaisang in a way that he would never utter aloud. He knows what it feels like to be the youngest in the family, crushed under the weight of superior siblings and societal expectations, although the two of them go about handling it in entirely different ways. Wei Wuxian had told him once about how, on one of Jiang Fengmian’s political visits to Qinghe, Nie Huaisang had shown Wei Wuxian the beautiful paintings and the exquisite fans that he had made. Although Jiang Cheng was no connoisseur of the fine arts, he had felt a twinge of jealousy at not being able to see them himself.
However, it turns out that the feeling was of no purpose, because now, in this clearing, Nie Huaisang is painting. He’s cross legged on the ground, and his brush is raised in gentle strokes on the canvas that’s propped up against a large stone. The scene is so flawless that Jiang Cheng doesn’t even dare to breathe.
Nie Huaisang notices him first. “Jiang-xiong!” he startles, dropping his brush on the grass. Jiang Cheng finds that his other hand is holding a wooden palette that's covered in splotches of bright colored paints.
“Nie-xiong,” Jiang Cheng greets, and that’s when he sees the glittering in Nie Huaisang’s eyes. “Are you okay?” he asks.
“Ah, yes!” Nie Huaisang replies, picking up his brush again. Jiang Cheng gets the feeling that, if Nie Huaisang was not otherwise occupied, he would be hiding his face with his signature fan. “I’m fine, Jiang-xiong, you don’t have to worry about me,” he says, blinking rapidly to clear his eyes.
Jiang Cheng makes a decision, then. “Okay,” he says, and then walks across the clearing to sit next to Nie Huaisang. “Will you show me what you’re doing then?”
Nie Huaisang eyes him warily, but concedes. The painting is a subtle reflection of the pond and the greenery surrounding them, with white highlighting the sun glancing off of the water. Nie Huaisang dips his brush in the bowl of water in front of him, and swirls it around in the rich red ochre on his palette. He touches the brush lightly against the canvas, forming bright flowers on the painted grass. Off to the side of the pond, two figures sit close together. One figure is larger than the other, shielding the smaller from the harsh sunlight, and even Jiang Cheng can tell that they’re dressed in the dull greens and golds of the Qinghe Nie Sect.
“Do you miss him?” Jiang Cheng asks. He and Nie Huaisang aren’t really close, so he’s pushing a boundary by asking.
Nie Huaisang gives him an odd look. “Do you miss your jiejie?” he responds.
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng says, immediately. He’s not shy about his love for Jiang Yanli. “But that doesn’t answer my question.”
“Do I miss him? Not as much as I should, probably.” Nie Huaisang laughs, dryly. Jiang Cheng kind of understands. When Wei Wuxian is away, Lotus Pier finally looks Jiang Cheng in the eye. He savors the attention. For Nie Huaisang, though, it must be different. He’s complained before how his brother pays too much attention to him, urging him to improve his cultivation and skill with the saber. In the Cloud Recesses, Nie Huaisang is skipped over by everyone, save for Lan Qiren’s sharp gaze during classes and Wei Wuxian’s mischief. Jiang Cheng sees that, here, Nie Huaisang is not carrying his saber—he rarely does outside of class and training. Here, he can hide away in the forest and paint to his heart’s content.
Nie Huaisang sighs. “I got a letter from him,” he explains. “Zewu-jun doesn’t know how to lie to my brother.” He doesn’t explain what the letter entails, but Jiang Cheng gets the implication. “I get it, you know. He thinks I don’t get it! But I do! I just don’t want to be like him and my father. I don’t,” Nie Huaisang says, more fiercely than Jiang Cheng has ever heard him speak before.
Jiang Cheng is at a loss for words. “Tell him that?” he suggests weakly. Nie Huaisang turns on him with frustration written in his green eyes. His brush strokes scarlet like blood onto the canvas.
“What use would that do?” he replies. He’s so focused on the painting that the curtains that make his face push back and Jiang Cheng can see the steel in his expression. “No one listens to me anyway.”
Suddenly, Jiang Cheng realizes that Nie Huaisang has never been the know-nothing that everyone makes him out to be. It’s a little scary—Jiang Cheng has never felt threatened by Jin Zixuan or any of the other future sect leaders. Nie Huaisang, however, with his sly smile and sharp fan, is someone to be afraid of.
It means nothing right now, not when they’re classmates in the lovely spring of the Cloud Recesses, not when they share jokes through eye contact during their lectures and laugh together after class. But Jiang Cheng stores it away in his memory for later.
(And yet, when it really matters, Jiang Cheng will forget. He will forget how Nie Huaisang’s eyes turned to sparks in that clearing in the woods, and it will almost cost him everything.)
Jiang Cheng is sixteen when he loses his heart.
The time he spends under Wen Qing’s care is tumultuous at best. In between cold sweats and nightmares, he wishes for a lot of things, but mostly he just wants his mother. Yu Ziyuan never showed much affection, but when Jiang Cheng became sick as a child, she took care of him and stroked his hair until he fell asleep. And, oh boy, is he sick right now.
He also wishes for death, so much that it almost worries him. Death would have been less painful than the knowledge that he is alive and useless —after all, he is nothing without his cultivation. Wei Wuxian may have charm and smarts to back up his skill, but Jiang Cheng can’t really say the same for himself.
Useless is what his father calls him in his nightmares. It’s hurtful enough for him to fight to stay awake.
He hasn’t slept without Wen Qing’s needles in the soft flesh of his temples since the night after his parents died. Wen Qing points this out on one night, a night where Wei Wuxian is nowhere to be found and Jiang Yanli is catching up on some well deserved rest. Even thinking about his siblings makes tears start to well up in Jiang Cheng’s eyes.
“You need proper sleep to heal,” Wen Qing tells him, voice firm. Jiang Cheng hasn’t spoken to her since he said those horrible things about her and her family.
She hands him a cup of tea mixed with some medicine, and Jiang Cheng accepts it with a shaky hand. It’s hot and bitter when he gulps it down, but all feeling has been dulled to him under the empty darkness of his missing core.
Almost to herself, Wen Qing says, “Wen Zhuliu was once a good man. So was Uncle, a long long time ago. It’s not because of our name that makes them this way, I know that for certain.”
Jiang Cheng lies back down from his seated position on the bed. He’s far too exhausted to be angry. Wen Qing hesitates from where she’s standing by his bedside, and then pulls up a small stool to sit beside him. Jiang Cheng is far too exhausted to care.
“You can hate the Wens all you want, but not all of us are evil, and cruel. And if you ever raise a hand against the innocent of us, if you ever touch my brother—” She cuts herself off. Her hands, placed on the edge of the bed, are shaking. Jiang Cheng has never seen them anything but steady, while carefully mixing herbs and sewing up slashes in his skin.
“Don’t worry,” Jiang Cheng says. His voice is hoarse. “I can’t raise a hand against anyone now.”
Wen Qing’s stone eyes look stricken for just a moment. The moment passes before Jiang Cheng even realizes it happened.
He feels the drug that Wen Qing had put inside his tea start to strip away his consciousness. It doesn’t feel as bad as the other times—his mind is almost blissfully blank, so he closes his eyes. It’s as blue and dark as an ocean under his eyelids.
Wen Qing pushes Jiang Cheng’s hair back and covers his forehead with a cool damp towel. The excess water drips down his temples to his ears and neck. It’s soothing, especially the way Wen Qing’s hands stay in his hair and stroke through it. If he tries hard enough, he can almost imagine his mother there with him.
“I have never not saved a life in need,” Wen Qing says with barely-concealed ferocity, when Jiang Cheng is slipping into the embrace of sleep. “You’re not going to be a blemish on my track record.”
Jiang Cheng wishes he could laugh, but the darkness takes him all too quickly. When he wakes up, Wei Wuxian is by his side again, and he doesn’t remember anything from the previous night at all.
It seems that Jiang Cheng cannot go very long without losing something, because as soon as he gets his core back, Wei Wuxian disappears. Between war preparations with Nie Mingjue and drinking away the stress with Nie Huaisang, Jiang Cheng spends all his excess time with none other than Lan Wangji, looking for his brother.
For someone who had spent so much time disciplining Wei Wuxian in his youth, Lan Wangji is surprisingly determined throughout their search. When Jiang Cheng brings this up to him, Lan Wangji gives him a look that he interprets as you can say the same for yourself, no? Over the past month, he’s gotten remarkably good at reading Lan Wangji’s blank stares.
This is the third time Jiang Cheng has insisted on returning to the small town tavern where he and Wei Wuxian had agreed to meet up after Jiang Cheng’s meeting with the Immortal. Lan Wangji’s blank stare says you’re not going to find anything, but I’m not going to stop you, either.
True to form, Jiang Cheng finds nothing. The trail is even drier than it was two weeks ago. With a huff, he sits down on the steps outside the building, and puts his head in his hands.
Lan Wangji’s shadow falls over him. Jiang Cheng props his head up on his palms and looks up at him. His gaze seems more sad than intimidating.
“So? You were right,” Jiang Cheng says. Lan Wangji makes a noise of affirmation under his breath. He flicks his lacy robes behind him and sits down next to Jiang Cheng.
The frustration is building up in Jiang Cheng’s skull—it’s been a month since he last saw his brother, and as much as he trusts Wei Wuxian’s ability to stay alive, he can’t shake the feeling that something horribly wrong has happened.
“You know, I don’t even think Wei Wuxian knows that you care about him this much. Pretty sure he thinks you hate him, or something like that,” Jiang Cheng says, simply because the silence is getting stifling.
Lan Wangji’s jaw tightens, almost imperceptibly. “Wei Ying is my friend,” he replies. Jiang Cheng is somehow pleased by the answer.
“Yeah, he has a lot of those,” Jiang Cheng replies, and watches Lan Wangji’s eyes narrow.
“I will protect Wei Ying. Like you and Lady Jiang do.” Lan Wangji’s voice borders on threatening, like he’s daring Jiang Cheng to say he’s wrong. Lan Wangji, Jiang Cheng thinks, is a lot more interesting than he’d originally thought.
“Cool,” Jiang Cheng says. From the way Wei Wuxian had leaned on Lan Wangji when they’d been rescued from the Xuanwu cave, Jiang Cheng can tell that Wei Wuxian wants Lan Wangji to protect him too. It stings a little, because Jiang Cheng wanted to be the one to have Wei Wuxian’s back, but he doesn’t really have the right to complain.
“Wei Wuxian really likes you,” Jiang Cheng blurts out. “I swear, all I used to hear was Lan Zhan this and Lan Zhan that. It kinda got annoying, because I’m not too fond of you myself, but I guess I’m glad you like each other or whatever,” Jiang Cheng grumbles.
Lan Wangji’s face doesn’t shift, but Jiang Cheng notices his ears going red. It’s kind of nauseating—he regrets saying anything at all.
There’s a minute of awkward silence until Lan Wangji says, “I’m not too fond of you, either.” Then he stands up, dusts off his pale blue robes, and starts walking down the street to the exit of the town, leaving Jiang Cheng, open-mouthed, in his wake.
Jiang Cheng jumps to his feet. “Hanguang-jun!” he yells. “Are you fucking kidding me? I give you this whole ass speech and that’s the only thing you get out of it?” Jiang Cheng doesn’t know Lan Wangji that well, but he would bet money that there’s a hint of a smirk on the latter’s face.
He chases after Lan Wangji, his feet splashing into puddles from last night’s rain. He manages to catch up as Lan Wangji stops to muse over a craftsman carving a dizi out of wood.
“You play the flute, Hanguang-jun?” Jiang Cheng asks. Lan Wangji shakes his head. Jiang Cheng wonders if he knows that Wei Wuxian had learned the instrument many years ago from a trader in Yunmeng. Wei Wuxian hasn’t played the dizi in many years, but maybe he would start again if Jiang Cheng bought him a nice new flute.
Still, Jiang Cheng is a Sect Leader now, trying to rebuild his sect and wage a war with the little resources he has. He doesn’t have time for frivolous purchases.
Jiang Cheng is a Sect Leader, trying to rebuild his sect and wage a war, but the only thing that he can think of is Wei Wuxian.
“Let’s go,” Lan Wangji says and turns on his shoulder to continue down the road. Jiang Cheng casts one more look over the dizi, and follows.
These days, Chenqing has a starring role in Jiang Cheng’s nightmares. Deep in his heart, he knows that Wei Wuxian has no grudge against him, despite the fact that his broken arm is still slowly healing a month after their fight.
And yet, he can’t help but hold a grudge against Wei Wuxian. He can’t fathom leaving his closest family behind for anything, even if the cause was as noble as Wei Wuxian’s is. It feels like Wei Wuxian had abandoned him at his most vulnerable, as much as Jiang Yanli tries to convince him otherwise.
For the past week, Jiang Cheng’s been in Lanling, meeting with the other Sect Leaders and helping with preparations for his sister’s wedding. As much as Jiang Cheng is mystified by the fact that she fell in love with the peacock, he won’t let a single thing go wrong on her special day.
He’s getting ready for bed one night when one of Jiang Yanli’s attendants—the one with cropped short hair and a knife sharp jawline—knocks on his door.
“Lady Jiang seeks your presence!” she says when Jiang Cheng opens the door, not even bothering to greet him formally. That’s another thing about her—she doesn’t have much interest in etiquette, at least from what Jiang Cheng has noticed, but she seems to care for Jiang Yanli deeply.
“I’m coming, I’m coming, just give me a minute,” Jiang Cheng grumbles. The attendant huffs and steps aside to wait for him while Jiang Cheng closes the door. He’s taken out his hair and removed the first layer of his clothing, and has to go through the process of retying his robes before he can leave to see his sister. He’s taking a risk by leaving his hair out, but he figures it’s late enough that no one will see.
Jiang Cheng follows the attendant across Carp Tower to Jiang Yanli’s quarters. While she doesn’t yet live with Jin Zixuan, she is staying in the area sectioned off for inner circle family members, and Jiang Cheng is sure the two visit each other at night anyway. He prays that Jin Zixuan isn’t there now, although he’s sure his sister would not embarrass him to that extent.
The attendant knocks twice at Jiang Yanli’s door, waiting patiently until she opens the door. She’s dressed in long gauzy sleep robes, and gives the attendant a charming smile before calling Jiang Cheng in. The attendant shoots Jiang Cheng an indecipherable look before closing the door behind them.
“A-Cheng, A-Cheng,” his jiejie calls, voice as melodious as always. “I didn’t get to see you all day.”
“Not my fault you’re getting married,” Jiang Cheng replies as he takes off his shoes at the door, which makes Jiang Yanli laugh. Jiang Cheng grins back. Being with his sister always makes his mood lighter, no matter what the situation.
“A-Cheng, come sit with me,” Jiang Yanli requests from the bedroom. She hops onto the bed and sits up against the headboard; Jiang Cheng pauses to dust off his robes before joining her, leaning against her with his head on her shoulder. Jiang Cheng isn’t shy about how much he loves his sister, and how much he enjoys her attention and affection.
“I really can’t believe I’m getting married,” Jiang Yanli says. “Seems like only yesterday that—that A-Xian punched him in the Cloud Recesses.” Jiang Cheng can’t help but snort.
“Still one of the biggest wins of his life, probably,” he quips.
Jiang Yanli sighs. “I really do love him, A-Cheng. I know he’s made mistakes but he is kind to me, and—and he looks at me when so many other people just look right through—”
“You don’t have to justify yourself to me,” Jiang Cheng interrupts. “If you’re happy, that’s all that matters.”
Jiang Yanli gives him a soft smile, and puts her arm around his shoulders comfortingly. Jiang Cheng doesn’t complain when she twists her fingers through his loose hair. “I am happy. And I have something to be even happier about—that’s why I called you here.”
“Oh?” Jiang Cheng asks, curiosity piqued. “What is it?”
“A-Cheng,” his sister says, gentle as always, “you’re going to be an uncle.”
Jiang Cheng’s starting to get drowsy, so it takes him far too long to process the statement. “Oh my god,” he says, when he gets it, and all his tiredness vanishes. “Jiejie, you’re going to be a mom.”
Jiang Yanli’s hand tightens in his hair. “I just found out today. He’s a boy, A-Cheng; the nurse told me. You—you can feel his qi, A-Cheng,”
“Jiejie, you’re having a baby,” Jiang Cheng says, still half shell-shocked. He feels like he might cry, which would be entirely too embarrassing, but his sister is having a baby so he can’t even bring himself to care. He takes his free hand and holds it over Jiang Yanli’s flat stomach, looking up at her for permission. She nods; there are tears in her eyes, turning them bright.
When Jiang Cheng rests his hand on her belly and focuses, he can feel the pulse of qi that’s separate from his sister’s. It’s barely detectable, but Jiang Cheng already knows his nephew will grow to be powerful. He knows that he will protect this tiny spark of energy as long as he is alive to do so.
“Have you thought of a name?” Jiang Cheng asks.
“A-Xuan and I want to call him Jin Ling.” Ling, meaning to rise above—Jiang Cheng finds it fitting. “But for his courtesy name, I want…” Jiang Yanli trails off, and seems to drift into her own thoughts. Jiang Cheng taps her on the nose to snap her out of it.
“What’s up?” Jiang Cheng asks.
A tear, unexplained, slips down Jiang Yanli’s cheek, and Jiang Cheng catches it with his thumb. “I want A-Xian to name him,” she says, voice quiet. “If he’s going to stay away from us for the rest of our lives, I want to give Jin Ling something to remember him by.”
Jiang Cheng’s chest hurts at the thought that he may never see Wei Wuxian again, at the thought that his sister only has one younger brother to care for now. And, god, Jiang Cheng used to be so jealous when Wei Wuxian had Jiang Yanli’s attention, but now he’s just miserable.
“Let’s go see him,” Jiang Cheng says. “I don’t have anything important to attend to tomorrow and—and Jin Zixuan’s not going to die if we let him handle the work for one day, okay? You have to see him, jiejie.” Jiang Cheng insists, and I have to see him goes unspoken.
Jiang Yanli’s eyes go wide, and she bites her lip in worry. “We can’t be seen, A-Cheng. You publicly denounced him—they’d have our heads for that.”
“I know, I know,” Jiang Cheng agrees, but he’s determined to make this happen, to make one sacrifice for his sister before he has to let her go. “I’ll just say we have something to take care of in Yunmeng, and Yiling’s along that way anyway. It’ll be fine.”
“I want to show him my wedding dress,” Jiang Yanli says, suddenly. “He can’t be there, so I want to—”
Jiang Cheng snorts. “I’ll bet money on him crying when he sees it.”
“You almost cried when you saw it, A-Cheng,” Jiang Yanli points out with a smile.
Jiang Cheng makes an offended noise. “Don’t tell him that,” he replies, and Jiang Yanli laughs. It sounds like flowers in spring and wind chimes.
The two of them talk about trivial matters until Jiang Yanli starts to yawn and nod off against Jiang Cheng. Jiang Cheng extricates his limbs from her embrace and covers her with blankets, before slipping on his shoes and closing the door carefully behind him.
The attendant who’d brought him to the room is sitting on the porch outside Jiang Yanli’s door. “You need a walk back too?” she asks, when Jiang Cheng turns to look at her. Her casual way of talking to even such a high ranking cultivator should bother him, but instead, Jiang Cheng’s only mildly amused.
“I think I’ll manage,” Jiang Cheng replies, continuing walking, but she jumps to her feet anyway.
“Too bad,” she says, “I need to stretch my legs,” and follows Jiang Cheng down the path.
Jiang Cheng raises his eyebrows. “What’s your name?” he asks. Although Jiang Cheng has no reason to know, she’s interested him enough with her odd mannerisms.
“Minghua,” she answers simply.
“Minghua,” Jiang Cheng repeats. “No family name?” he asks.
“I ran away from home,” she replies, “so I don’t have much of a family.” It’s not sad or self pitying as much as it's a matter of fact. Me too, Jiang Cheng thinks.
At Jiang Cheng’s door, he pauses before making his way inside. “Take care of my sister, Minghua,” he says, looking her straight in the eyes. They are hard and determined in response.
“With everything I am,” Minghua replies resolutely, tightening her grip on her sword. Jiang Cheng is inexplicably reassured by it. If he must leave his sister, he hopes it will be in safe hands.
(Jiang Cheng leaves his sister, and the world goes to shit. At her funeral, Jiang Cheng is holding Jin Ling in his arms. His eyes are dry and burning with hatred.
When he goes to return Jin Ling to the maids, he finds Minghua in the servant quarters with a knapsack over her shoulder.
“You’re running away,” Jiang Cheng says.
“You will too, if you know what’s good for you,” Minghua replies.
“Too bad I don’t have that luxury,” Jiang Cheng retorts. The room is empty besides the two of them and a sleeping Jin Ling cradled against Jiang Cheng’s chest; their voices echo around the walls.
Minghua takes a sharp breath in, and lets it out slowly. “I was in love with your sister, you know. I could never have her, of course, but just being around her was enough. But without her, this place, this world, it’s absolute shit,” she hisses.
You’re right, Jiang Cheng wants to say, but instead he just repeats himself. “You’re running away.”
“Do you want to know what my family name is, Sandu Shengshou?” Minghua doesn’t even wait for an answer. “I ran away because Wen Ruohan killed my family. We were all cultivators, but we didn’t want to fight in a meaningless war. This is a meaningless war.”
“Wei Wuxian killed my sister,” Jiang Cheng says, gritting his teeth. His throat burns when he says his brother’s name. It registers somewhere in his brain—Minghua was a Wen—but Jiang Cheng is too blinded by misery and fury to care.
“Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, what’s the fucking point, anyway?” Minghua says. “Your sister wouldn't want you to kill him, even as retribution.”
“You don’t know anything about my sister,” Jiang Cheng seethes, and then immediately, a wave of sadness sinks in his stomach, taking the anger away. Oh, he wants to scream until his throat doesn’t work anymore, but he doesn’t want to wake Jin Ling. His arms tremble when he sets Jin Ling down in the crib in the corner of the room. He looks so small and peaceful in his sleep, free of the world’s burdens.
He turns to face Minghua now; her face looks haunted. “Come to Yunmeng,” he says. “Even if you won’t fight with us now, we could use a cultivator like you.”
Minghua shakes her head. “Thank you, Sect Leader Jiang,” she says, “but I can’t. I’m not meant to follow the whims and woes of leaders who don’t deserve the positions of power they hold.” Jiang Cheng must look offended, because she almost laughs. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I don’t mean you.”
Then she bows formally, the most respectful gesture she has shown him since they met, and takes her leave.
Jiang Cheng sways in his spot for a minute, and then drops to his knees on the floor near Jin Ling’s crib. Even though he wants to, he doesn’t scream or wail or howl; his tears fall as silent as snowdrops on a winter hill.)
When Jin Ling is eight years old, a virus-like fever spreads through Lanling like wildfire. By the time Jiang Cheng gets a moment of free time to sweep him up and take him back to Lotus Pier, the fever has already killed over fifty civilians and six cultivators in Lanling, and Jin Ling has already fallen sick.
Jiang Cheng makes the executive decision to shut both himself and Jin Ling up in a room in Lotus Pier until the fever passes in order to keep it from spreading through Yunmeng. Jiang Cheng’s core is strong enough to allow him to flush most toxins out of his system so he’s fairly confident he won’t catch the illness while he takes care of his ailing nephew. He tells himself it’s not because he’s afraid that if he leaves Jin Ling’s side for even a moment, the boy will slip away from his grasp.
Jin Ling has always been a little capricious, a little scared, a little determined. Jiang Cheng would be lying if he said Jin Ling didn’t remind him of Wei Wuxian when he’d first arrived at Lotus Pier—a little clumsy on his feet, but ready to take on anything that comes his way.
It’s been eight years since Wei Wuxian died, but Jiang Cheng still feels sick to his stomach when he thinks about him. It might be anger, or fear, or guilt, or a mix of all three; all Jiang Cheng knows is that he cannot remember what Wei Wuxian’s smile looks like in the warm light of a Yunmeng sunset.
Jiang Cheng spends a week debating policy with his advisors through a closed wooden door and nursing Jin Ling back to health with warm porridge and cool bursts of qi . On the second day, Jin Ling wakes up crying about how he’s missed his lessons and Jiang Cheng has to talk him down from his near delirious state. Thankfully, he’s conscious by the fourth day, but still exhausted, and falls in and out of sleep fitfully. By the seventh day, he’s nearly bouncing off the walls and bothering Jiang Cheng until he has no choice but to let him loose near the lotus ponds.
That day, after Jiang Cheng nearly dozes off while meeting with the leader of a nearby minor sect, his most trusted attendant, a tall woman named Liu Fan, makes the executive decision to cancel his appointments for the rest of the day and force him to take a nap.
He sleeps for sixteen hours straight, and wakes up with a craving for soup. It’s five in the morning, so he sneaks into the kitchen himself, and repeats his sister’s recipe as exactly as he can remember it. It still doesn’t taste the same.
While he’s slurping down his breakfast, Liu Fan walks into the kitchen and dumps a stack of paperwork on the table Jiang Cheng’s sitting at. “A lot of work to catch up on, Sect Leader Jiang,” she says, and spins on her heel out of the room. Jiang Cheng closes his eyes.
Later, when Jiang Cheng’s painstakingly read and signed every document, he stops by Jin Ling’s room, where his nephew is still sleeping the morning away. Jiang Cheng knows he has to take Jin Ling back to Lanling soon, and that he should instill a sense of early rising in his nephew, but he figures that one day of relaxation can’t hurt much.
When he does get Jin Ling back home, Jin Guangyao gives him a baleful look before sending Jin Ling off to his lessons. Jiang Cheng isn’t sure what he’s done to make the fellow Sect Leader dislike him so much, but Jiang Cheng can’t claim to like Jin Guangyao much either, so he just bows respectfully and takes his leave.
After that, Jin Ling stops visiting Lotus Pier as often. Jiang Cheng is too prideful to ask why.
When Jin Ling is thirteen years old, Wei Wuxian comes back. Everything from that night on Dafan Mountain and the events at Guanyin Temple are a blur of rage and pain, and Jiang Cheng knows that now, no matter how hard he tries, he will never forget Wei Wuxian, because his brother’s power is the gold that flows through his veins and thumps in his chest.
Jin Ling becomes the leader of a wealthy and crumbling sect, under the eyes of a thousand people looking to pull the wool from under his young eyes. Jiang Cheng knows how that feels.
The events at Guanyin Temple changed Jin Ling. While he used to whine and complain at the tasks given to him, he now accepts his burdens with a steel spine. When Jiang Cheng sees Jin Ling stand tall, speak confidently, and prove himself to the people trying to bring him down, he is so proud that it aches.
It feels odd to be rejected when he offers help, but Jin Ling politely declines every time Jiang Cheng offers to scare off a particularly pushy minor Sect Leader, and insists that he can handle it himself. It takes Jiang Cheng far too long to realize that Jin Ling’s doing it for his sake, to separate the Jiang clan from the misdeeds of the Jin. The choice to put someone else’s well being above your own is a choice that Jiang Cheng has only had the courage to make a few times in his life. Jin Ling is much more like Wei Wuxian than he will ever know.
Jiang Cheng remembers, through that blur of rage and pain, the forlorn look that Jin Ling had given him when he’d walked away from Wei Wuxian after it was all over. Jiang Cheng knows that Jin Ling has been speaking with Wei Wuxian when he visits his friends in the Cloud Recesses. Jiang Cheng knows he should lift his head and move on, but he will never forget Wei Wuxian.
“You know,” Jin Ling says, one day over dinner. He’s over at Lotus Pier under the excuse of discussing a trade deal with Jiang Cheng, when they’ve really just been eating snacks and sharing stories about how annoying their associates are. It’s nice to just have a day with the person he loves the most.
Jin Ling’s been a little off today, though, and Jiang Cheng feels the uneasy energy at full force now.
“I know?” Jiang Cheng asks. “No, I don’t. You’re going to have to be more specific, Jin Ling.”
Jin Ling scowls, swallowing the food he’d been chewing on. “I was eating,” he snipes. “Anyway, you know that Wei Wuxian does want to reconnect with you, right?”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t know what he was expecting, but it wasn’t that. “Jin Ling,” he warns, like he always does when Jin Ling brings up Wei Wuxian. It’s dangerous territory, but Jin Ling is a lot less afraid of his uncle now than he used to be.
“No, hear me out,” Jin Ling says. “If anything, he’s the one who should be more mad at you, right? Since you’re the one who killed him and all.”
“Jin Ling,” Jiang Cheng repeats, teeth clenched together.
“I’m not joking,” Jin Ling replies. “Why don’t you want to talk to him? You both apologized. What’s stopping you?”
Jiang Cheng’s been trying (he’s been trying) to control his anger lately. He takes a deep breath in, and out, like his doctor advised him. “You wouldn’t understand, Jin Ling,” Jiang Cheng says.
“Jiujiu, you’re the one who told me to hate him in the first place. You convinced me that Wen Ning and Wei Wuxian killed my parents on purpose. Why did you do that?” Jin Ling asks, jaw set.
“The food’s going to go cold,” Jiang Cheng says.
“Does it look like I care?” Jin Ling spits back. There’s a glint of something in his eyes that Jiang Cheng can’t quite identify.
“Fine,” Jiang Cheng says. He stands up; the plates on the table clatter. “If you want to talk, we’ll talk.” He grabs Jin Ling by the upper arm and pulls him to his feet, perhaps a bit too powerfully, and drags him off to the hallway. Jin Ling peels Jiang Cheng’s hand off of his arm easily—it’s almost absurd how strong Jin Ling has become.
“I just want you to explain,” Jin Ling pleads.
“Explain what, Jin Ling?” Jiang Cheng asks, turning on Jin Ling. “You’re still a child. How would you understand how it feels to lose your sect and your parents, and your brother turns into the cultivation world’s most feared enemy, and your sister, who was the most important person to you all your life—”
“I know,” Jin Ling says. “How would I understand, when I’ve never had a family in the first place?”
Jiang Cheng stops. “Jin Ling—” he starts, but his nephew cuts him off.
“I know, jiujiu, I've thought about this a lot,” he says. “Yes, I had Jin Guangyao, but he didn’t really care about me in the end, obviously.” Jin Ling says it so matter-of-fact that it makes Jiang Cheng nauseous.
“Jin Ling,” Jiang Cheng says, “I raised you.”
“And I will always love you,” Jin Ling replies. His eyes are so honest, that Jiang Cheng can’t even summon the anger up inside of him. “But, jiujiu, do you think you were ready to raise a child? After all that trauma?”
Jiang Cheng swallows. He’s shaking so bad that he feels like he needs to sit down. “I had no other choice,” he says.
“I know,” Jin Ling says. “You hurt me a lot, when I was younger. I didn’t understand why you didn’t love me the way that other parents loved their children. But I understand now,” he says.
Jiang Cheng feels even more sick now. He knows he was never perfect, but he never meant to hurt Jin Ling. Not the way that his parents hurt him—
“I...I didn’t know any better,” Jiang Cheng says miserably.
“I know,” Jin Ling repeats, and wraps Jiang Cheng in a hug. Oh, his nephew is so tall now. Jiang Cheng can lean his forehead onto Jin Ling’s shoulder. It’s less embarrassing than it is comforting.
“Jiujiu,” Jin Ling calls. “Uncle Wei doesn’t hate you. He loves you, like I do. Don’t you love him too?”
“Everything went wrong because of him, Jin Ling,” Jiang Cheng says. His throat feels raw. “You don’t understand.”
“Everything went wrong because of Wen Ruohan. Everything went wrong because of how—how awful my fucking relatives were. Uncle Wei told me that you, and him, and my parents, you were all just casualties. And me too, I guess.”
Jiang Cheng holds Jin Ling tighter, like he could disappear in another breath. “You shouldn’t have to do this for me, Jin Ling. I raised you.”
“Let me help you, jiujiu,” Jin Ling says. “If you need someone to hold onto, I’m here.”
“I’m sorry,” Jiang Cheng replies. “I’m so sorry, Jin Ling.” He doesn’t know what else to say. His eyes are so dry.
“I know,” Jin Ling says. “I forgive you.” If he notices the tears that drip down Jiang Cheng’s cheeks, he doesn’t say anything at all.
When Jiang Cheng stops shaking, Jin Ling lets him out of the embrace, but keeps his hands on Jiang Cheng’s shoulders. “I can’t explain myself,” Jiang Cheng says. “I don’t know if I even understand it myself, all of the things that I did. And do.”
“But it’s not too late to make amends,” Jin Ling says. He’s so confident that it makes Jiang Cheng ache. Jiang Cheng has spent so long convincing himself that he doesn’t deserve his second chance. He hasn’t believed in himself in a very long time, but if his nephew—his son—does, then…maybe that’s enough.
Maybe that’s enough.
Jiang Cheng looks at Jin Ling, not even really minding that he has to tilt his head up to do it. “When did you get all smart and assured, huh, A-Ling?” Jiang Cheng asks. “Definitely not from me.”
Jin Ling blushes, surprisingly. “Probably because of Sizhui,” Jin Ling says. “He’s really good at this stuff. He’s a good friend, too.”
Sizhui, Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji’s son. The bad-at-communication gene must have skipped over him then, Jiang Cheng thinks idly. The boy seems to have both Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji’s best qualities. Lan Sizhui is the physical representation of both of the people Jiang Cheng has spent most of his life hating, yet he cannot summon up any anger for this boy. Instead, he finds an odd contentment in his chest, simple happiness for the fact that his nephew has found a loyal companion.
“I’m glad, Jin Ling,” Jiang Cheng says, and realizes that he absolutely means it.
Jin Ling grins. He looks so mature now, but his smile is just as it was when he was a child. Jiang Cheng wants to protect that innocence. He wants to give Jin Ling the one thing that he never got to have. “ Jiujiu…” Jin Ling starts. “For once in my life, I feel like I have a family. And—and I would love for you to be a part of it, okay?”
Jiang Cheng wants to give Jin Ling the one thing that he never got to have.
“I’ll try,” Jiang Cheng replies. “No promises, though, okay?” He narrows his eyes at Jin Ling, who is still smiling.
“Okay,” Jin Ling says. “As long as you try. That’s what Zewu-jun told me, at least.”
Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow. “You’ve talked to Lan Xichen? Isn’t he supposed to be in seclusion?”
Jin Ling pouts. “Well, yeah, but one Sect Leader to another...he said he had some advice for me. And some to pass onto you.”
“It’s always been like him to get involved in other people’s businesses,” Jiang Cheng scoffs.
“Well,” Jin Ling says, “Hanguang-jun is his brother and Wei Wuxian is Hanguang-jun’s husband and you’re Wei Wuxian’s brother, so it is kind of his business right?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jiang Cheng replies. “Whatever you say, kid,” he says, and Jin Ling laughs. He can’t remember the last time Jin Ling laughed at something he said. It’s...a nice feeling.
Wei Wuxian had always laughed at Jiang Cheng’s bad jokes, had always laughed when Jiang Cheng tripped and fell and then put out his hand to help him up, had always laughed and wiped away Jiang Cheng’s tears and worries. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to have a brother again.
After he and Jin Ling clean up what was left of dinner, and Jin Ling sneaks in another crushing hug, Jiang Cheng retires for the night into his study.
Then he takes out a sheet of parchment and his ink and brushes, and pens a letter to a long lost friend.
It’s a sunny morning in Lotus Pier, and Jiang Cheng is alone. It’s far earlier in the morning than anyone else is awake and he’s on the cliff near the border of the woods with his bow and arrow. Lately, he hasn’t had much time to practice his archery, but he’s pleased to find that he hasn’t lost much of his skill when his arrows thud into the bark of the wood with precision and accuracy.
As opposed to wielding Sandu and Zidian in battle, archery has always been relaxing to Jiang Cheng, more of a childhood hobby than an expectation. Archery has good memories for Jiang Cheng. It was less of a task to beat Wei Wuxian in, and more of a game to play with him.
The letter exchanges back and forth between himself and his brother have been slow—while Jiang Cheng may love to poke fun at Wei Wuxian for being Lan Wangji’s trophy husband, the other man is busy with his own work in Gusu, the same way that Jiang Cheng is busy in Yunmeng.
It’s odd, to be talking to Wei Wuxian again—to hear his voice spill from the words on the page (his voice, not Mo Xuanyu’s, although they may be one and the same, now.) It's odd to be feeling so comfortable with sharing light-hearted jokes with the person he has loved and hated for his whole life.
In the midst of his thought, Jiang Cheng hears a rustle of bushes in the woods below him, and on sheer instinct, he draws his bow and lets an arrow fly loose in its direction.
It disappears into the greenery before Jiang Cheng can see where it lands. “Sect Leader Jiang,” a voice calls from the woods. “You’re lucky I can't die again.”
Yunmeng is not a place where Jiang Cheng would have expected to see Wen Qionglin ever again, but there he is, the Ghost General, pale scarred skin bright in the morning sun. He’s holding Jiang Cheng’s arrow in his right hand, twirling it idly between his fingers.
Jiang Cheng’s words freeze in his throat. He must stare for a slow five seconds, at least, until his thoughts start working again. “My arrow, if you will,” is all he thinks to say, and holds out his hand to Wen Qionglin, despite how far away he is.
Wen Qionglin smiles, a small one. “Okay,” he says, and jumps, so far and so high that he makes it onto the cliff next to Jiang Cheng. He hands the arrow over, and Jiang Cheng slides it into the quiver on his back.
The last time Jiang Cheng had seen Wen Qionglin was during a visit to Carp Tower. He had been waiting at the gate to see Jin Ling as Jiang Cheng left, and had tipped his head to Jiang Cheng in acknowledgement. It reminded Jiang Cheng, yet again, how quick young ones are to forgive.
“What are you doing in Yunmeng?” Jiang Cheng asks, as politely as he can manage with a weapon clenched in his hand. He takes the opportunity to set the bow down, as somewhat of a peace gesture.
“Just doing a bit of traveling,” Wen Qionglin replies. “The world has changed a lot since I last took a good look around.”
Jiang Cheng nods sharply in agreement. He thinks of the Wen Qionglin he had first met at the Discussion Conference in Qishan, the one who had helped nurse him back to health after he’d lost his golden core. That Wen Qionglin was so different from the one before him today.
Distantly, Jiang Cheng’s ingrained manners remind him to be a good host. “Would you like something to eat or drink?” he asks, not even thinking about it, until Wen Qionglin starts to laugh.
“I can’t, Sect Leader Jiang,” he says. “I’m not alive, remember?”
“Ah, yes,” Jiang Cheng replies, awkwardly. It seems that Wen Qionglin rather likes making jokes about his undead status. Jiang Cheng’s grateful for that—at least it doesn’t make him feel guilty about it.
“No worries, though,” Wen Qionglin continues. “I’ll just take a moment to rest and be on my way.” He sits down on the edge of the cliff, legs hanging off the side of the rock face. Jiang Cheng pauses for a moment, and then sits down too, leaving at least two feet between himself and Wen Qionglin. From this angle, he notices the sword strapped to the other man’s side.
“You can’t cultivate,” Jiang Cheng says matter of factly. “What’s the sword for?”
“Oh, this?” Wen Qionglin replies, tapping the weapon by his side. “It’s just a regular sword. A hunk of metal, if you will. Just to defend myself from the occasional village mob that thinks I’m a ghost coming to kill them, you know?” He cracks a smile that Jiang Cheng can’t bring himself to return.
“Not really,” Jiang Cheng says. Wen Qionglin just shrugs. It’s disconcerting, really, how much his personality differs from the way Jiang Cheng had assumed. He figures that the timid boy from the archery competition had really died that night.
In retrospect, Jiang Cheng hasn’t ever really talked to Wen Qionglin, besides the fateful encounter at Lotus Pier. He’d agonized over that conversation for years; it had kept him awake through night after night. He unconsciously brings his hand to his chest in remembrance.
While Wen Qionglin had lost his life and his innocence, he had gained strength and confidence. Jiang Cheng wonders if it is possible to have one without the other—is it possible to be powerful without sacrifice?
“You know, Wei-gongzi told me that you’ve been writing to him,” Wen Qionglin starts casually, but when he turns to look at Jiang Cheng, his eyes are piercing. “What are your intentions exactly, Sect Leader Jiang?”
Irritation stirs in Jiang Cheng at the implication—how dare Wen Qionglin suggest that he has any ulterior motive—and then he pauses, reflects, takes a deep breath in, and out, like his doctor advised him. It makes sense that Wen Qionglin would have reservations about him, considering how much vitriol he had shown against the both of them.
“I intend to reconnect with him,” Jiang Cheng replies, honestly. “I’ve…come to a few realizations lately.”
“And they would be?” Wen Qionglin prompts. He still looks suspicious; it makes Jiang Cheng oddly nervous, but he tries not to let it faze him.
“My brother is a good person,” he states. “And...and I miss him. That’s all.”
Wen Qionglin hums under his breath. “Sect Leader Jiang, Wei-gongzi saved my life. More than one time. So you can understand that I am protective of him, yes?”
Jiang Cheng remembers the fury in Wen Qionglin’s eyes when he’d thrust Suibian at him, and demanded that he unsheathe the sword. “Yes,” he replies. He knows.
“Wei-gongzi was the only one there for me, besides my sister, at the worst times of my life.” Wen Qionglin says. His voice is stripped bare with emotion. “I would sacrifice anything for his safety.”
“Me too,” Jiang Cheng blurts out. Wen Qionglin’s eyes flicker in confusion. “I mean, he was the only one there for me too, besides my sister.”
“Ah,” Wen Qionglin replies. “So I’m sure you know how I feel, Sect Leader Jiang.”
“You—you can just call me Wanyin,” Jiang Cheng says. He doesn’t even know why he says it, but it feels right. “No need for formality. We’ve known each other for a long time, right?”
Wen Qionglin smiles. “You spent most of that time hating me, but okay,” he agrees. “Whatever you say, Jiang Wanyin.”
Wen Qionglin’s dry humor is, surprisingly enough, infectious. Jiang Cheng presses his lips together to hide the hint of a smile that tries to bloom there.
“I don’t think I have to say this, but if you do hurt him again, I can’t guarantee your survival,” Wen Qionglin says. It’s a threat he doesn’t need to make. Jiang Cheng’s long since gotten tired of hatred.
“I think Lan Wangji would kill me first, but I’ll keep it in mind,” Jiang Cheng says. Wen Qionglin snorts.
“Yes, that’s true,” he replies. “He’d stab you through with your own sword.”
Jiang Cheng’s hand goes to Sandu on his waist, instinctively. Wen Qionglin notices. “Wei-gongzi ’s been practicing and improving his swordsmanship again,” he continues. “You do still have Suibian with you, right, Jiang Wanyin?”
Of course, Jiang Cheng doesn’t say. It hangs in his bedroom, right beside Sandu. Right where Chenqing used to be.
Wen Qionglin doesn’t need an answer, though. “If you want to make peace, maybe there’s your first step,” he says, and gets to his feet. “It’s been good to see you, but I should be on my way now. A-Yuan’s waiting for me.”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t move, but he does tilt his head up to look at Wen Qionglin. “Good to see you too,” he says, and is pleased to find that it’s genuine. “Feel free to stop by Lotus Pier whenever.”
Wen Qionglin smiles. Despite his ghostly appearance, he still looks like the sun. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he replies, and is gone before Jiang Cheng can blink.
That night, Jiang Cheng takes Suibian off of its stand, and sharpens and oils it to perfection. Then, he plans a trip to see a long lost friend.
The Cloud Recesses is no place for men like Jiang Cheng.
As much as he’d yearned when he was younger, he had never been able to achieve the level of calm poise that the Lan Sect cultivators were prided on. He’s come to terms with it now—after spending so long trying to be someone he was not, it’s odd to not carry a burden of expectations, but he tries to lift the weight off of his chest anyway. His doctor often tells him that he no longer has to be so hard on himself.
When he and Wei Wuxian were children, he would not have believed for a moment that Wei Wuxian would end up married to Lan Wangji, and that he would spend his life in the place that he had scorned the most. Jiang Cheng had believed, more than anything, that the Cloud Recesses was no place for a boy like Wei Wuxian.
But maybe, as he’s been figuring out so often lately, he was wrong. Through his letters, his brother seems happier than he’s ever been. Maybe the place for Wei Wuxian is no longer by Jiang Cheng’s side, but by Lan Wangji’s. Maybe Jiang Cheng needs to learn to be okay with that.
He’s on the steps in front of the entrance to the Cloud Recesses, where Wei Wuxian had told him to wait for him. It’s been five minutes when the soft tapping of shoes on stone signals another person’s arrival, but instead of his brother, the one descending towards him is none other than Lan Xichen.
“Zewu-jun,” Jiang Cheng greets, and bows formally. It’s been a while since he’s seen the other man, considering he had just recently come out of seclusion and resumed his position as Sect Leader.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Xichen replies, bowing in turn. Then, inexplicably, he steps closer and gives Jiang Cheng a hug.
Jiang Cheng has never been hugged by Lan Xichen in his life. “Uh,” he says, frozen in place. “Is everything alright?”
“Everything’s fine,” Lan Xichen says. “It’s just been a long time, Jiang Cheng,” he continues, dropping all formality. “How have you been?”
“Um,” Jiang Cheng starts. He shifts awkwardly in order to hug Lan Xichen back. This is so weird, he thinks to himself. “I’m okay. Uh, doing better, I guess.
“That’s good, that’s good,” Lan Xichen replies. He lets go—Jiang Cheng pulls his arms away like he’s been burned—and puts his hands on Jiang Cheng’s shoulders instead, squeezes warmly. “It’s good to see you again, Jiang Cheng.”
“Yeah, good to see you too,” Jiang Cheng replies, feeling a little nervous for god knows what reason. He’s known Lan Xichen for most of his life.
“Wei Wuxian’s still teaching lessons but he’ll be done in an hour or so. He told me to keep you company before then. If that’s okay with you, of course,” Lan Xichen says.
“Uh,” Jiang Cheng replies, still a little stunned. “I mean, if I’m not interrupting you—“
“No, of course not,” Lan Xichen reassures. “I can afford to spare an hour of time for an old friend.”
When they were younger, Jiang Cheng had rarely considered himself and Lan Xichen friends; although they talked often, the older was always more of an unreachable role model type. Now, however, Jiang Cheng suspects that their respective experiences keep them at the same level—guilt and repentance for a crime half committed.
Jiang Cheng follows Lan Xichen up the twisting steps of the mountain; the Cloud Recesses is still so beautiful, vibrant in all of its gentle glory. Jiang Cheng used to wonder how fake Lan Xichen’s smile was, how he could keep up that false kindness despite the circumstances, but today, Jiang Cheng can’t seem to detect any deception in the perfect lines of Lan Xichen’s face.
Jiang Cheng can’t, never would, fake a smile for the company. So he has to assume that the twitch at the corner of his lips is genuine, that he really does want to smile in return, but he can’t seem to fathom why.
“I see you have Wei Wuxian’s sword with you,” Lan Xichen comments. He’s led Jiang Cheng to a meeting room, where there’s a neat table set with a warm teapot already placed there. “Would you like some tea?” he offers.
“Yes, thank you,” Jiang Cheng replies politely, and Lan Xichen pours it with delicate hands into identical ceramic cups. Jiang Cheng sits at the low table, folding his legs under him. “I saw Wen Qionglin a few weeks ago, and he told me that Wei Wuxian was practicing the sword arts again. I thought it suitable to return his own sword to him,” Jiang Cheng explains.
Lan Xichen hums under his breath as they sip at the steaming tea. “You know, Sect Leader Jiang, I’m rather envious of you,” Lan Xichen says, and Jiang Cheng almost chokes.
“Me?” Jiang Cheng asks, incredulously. “I—” he starts, but is lost for words, “why?”
Lan Xichen looks as poised as ever. “If A-Yao...Jin Guangyao appeared to me now, I would not forgive him. And yet, you are here, to visit a brother you estranged over fifteen years ago.”
Jiang Cheng raises his eyebrows in surprise. Whatever he was expecting Lan Xichen to say, it wasn’t that. “Those are entirely different situations, Zewu-jun,” he replies.
“Are they?” Lan Xichen asks, tilting his head. “Jin Guangyao hurt me, as Wei Wuxian hurt you.”
A sudden surge of protectiveness for Wei Wuxian swells up in Jiang Cheng. It’s a feeling that he hasn’t felt in a long time. “Wei Wuxian’s mistakes were unintentional. I understand that now,” he says, voice firm.
“Ah,” Lan Xichen mutters. There’s a look in his eyes that Jiang Cheng can’t decipher. Maybe Lan Xichen isn’t really as fine as he claims to be. Jiang Cheng has never been very good at giving advice or words of encouragement, but he takes a breath in to speak, anyway.
“Fifteen years is a really long time,” Jiang Cheng says. “Time heals, sort of.”
“Sort of?” Lan Xichen asks.
Jiang Cheng shrugs. “It’s impossible to not be scarred from the past.” He thinks of the discipline whip scar on his chest, and what he’d heard through the grapevine about Lan Wangji’s punishment. “Physically and mentally.”
“Wei Wuxian hurt my brother, too,” Lan Xichen says, suddenly. “How am I supposed to forget that?”
Jiang Cheng remembers how love and hatred can be so painfully similar. “You don’t have to forget to forgive.”
Lan Xichen laughs under his breath. “Easier said than done.”
“Yeah,” Jiang Cheng replies. “It really is.”
They finish the rest of their tea in silence. The breeze brings the sweet smell of flowers through the open window. Jiang Cheng isn’t sure whether the Cloud Recesses is now more beautiful than it once had been, or whether his eyes have become more used to seeing blood flow through water than cherry blossoms.
“Maybe…” Jiang Cheng starts, and then trails off. Lan Xichen looks up.
“What?” Lan Xichen asks curiously. Jiang Cheng begins to regret speaking at all, but he can’t stop now.
“In Yunmeng, I see someone. A doctor. To, um, talk. It’s not really a common practice but it was recommended to me by an attendant of mine,” Jiang Cheng explains slowly. He feels his face start to heat up in embarrassment.
“A doctor…to talk,” Lan Xichen repeats, not judgmentally. “Does it help?”
Jiang Cheng rests his elbows on the table, props his head up on his palms. It’s not the most respectful position, but it helps calm his racing heart. “Yes,” he replies. “More than anything else I’ve tried. It helped me…forgive.”
Lan Xichen’s face softens into a smile. “Helped you forgive Wei Wuxian? Or yourself?”
Jiang Cheng swallows. “Both.”
“Hm,” Lan Xichen says. “I haven't heard about anything like that in Gusu, but I can look into it,” he continues.
“I can ask. If mine knows anyone,” Jiang Cheng offers. Lan Xichen nods.
“Thank you, Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Xichen says. Jiang Cheng straightens up in his seat.
“No problem, Sect Leader Lan,” Jiang Cheng replies. Lan Xichen goes to refill Jiang Cheng’s cup, when a knock at the door interrupts him. Lan Xichen gives Jiang Cheng an indecipherable look, sets the teapot back down on the table, and stands up to go to the door. Jiang Cheng starts to feel nervous—it’s an ugly and uncomfortable feeling for someone as proud as him.
There’s a Lan disciple standing at the door, skinny shoulders bent as he bows to Zewu-jun. He flicks Jiang Cheng a look, and his eyes widen and look away quickly when he makes eye contact with Jiang Cheng. Jiang Cheng can’t help but roll his eyes.
“Wei-gongzi said he’s done with lessons now. Sect Leader Jiang can come with me”—another moment of awkward eye contact—”if he’d like, of course.”
Jiang Cheng rises from his seated position and stretches out his limbs with a groan. “I’m coming, I’m coming,” he says. The disciple looks nervous; Jiang Cheng’s started to feel less pleasure at other people’s fear of him, and more annoyance. He’s trying to be a better person, goddammit.
He follows the disciple across the courtyards, staying a respectable distance behind him. The boy keeps sneaking looks back at him, making sure that he’s still following.
Wei Wuxian is sitting on a wooden bench, on an outcropping overlooking a gradual decline in the mountain. All Jiang Cheng can see is his flowing hair falling over the backrest and the outline of his hands in the sunset.
Under Wei Wuxian’s light, everything else in Jiang Cheng’s life seems to peel away. In this respect, Jiang Cheng thinks he isn’t so different from Lan Wangji, after all.
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian calls, turning over his shoulder. Jiang Cheng waits for the familiar burst of uncontrollable anger that always appears when he sees his brother’s face, but strangely enough, it doesn’t come.
“Hi,” Jiang Cheng says, and waves. Calmness is not a feeling that he knows very well, especially around Wei Wuxian. He’d only ever felt calm in Jiang Yanli’s embrace, and yet—
The disciple bows to them before taking his leave. Jiang Cheng makes his way to the bench, and sits down next to Wei Wuxian. As opposed to the blue and white Lan robes, he’s wearing his traditional red and black.
It’s silent for a long time, Wei Wuxian fiddling with the wooden wind up toy in his hands. Finally, after several minutes, he sighs in satisfaction and twists the back of the toy, letting it go on the armrest. The toy soldier makes its stuttered way across the flat wood, and Wei Wuxian smiles at it.
Jiang Cheng is tired of silence. “Say something,” he asks, almost begging, Wei Wuxian. “Anything.”
“In the Burial Mounds, Wen Qing and Wen Ning grew a lotus pond for me,” Wei Wuxian starts, with no preamble. “Imagine, a place that could barely even support turnips, growing lotuses. I couldn’t believe it either. But they did it, for me, because I asked.” Wei Wuxian turns to look at Jiang Cheng, eyes graver than Jiang Cheng’s seen them in a long time. “Because it was so dark there, and I needed a part of home to keep with me. Can you believe it?”
“No,” Jiang Cheng says, honestly. Growing lotuses is tricky business; the conditions have to be made exactly right for any flower to bloom.
“In Gusu,” Wei Wuxian continues, “it’s too cold to grow them all year round like in Yunmeng. But you’re here at a good time.” He stands up, flicking his robes behind him. “Follow me,” he says.
And Jiang Cheng does, just as he had for their short and sweet childhood, following Wei Wuxian regardless of the uncertainties ahead of them.
Wei Wuxian leads them down a narrow staircase into a lonely garden on the mountainside. A stream cuts through stone and spills into a pool of clear water. The garden is laden in flowers, but most evident are the lotuses floating in the middle of the pond, pink petals in full bloom.
“Wow,” Jiang Cheng can’t help but say. Wei Wuxian smiles proudly and strides forward towards the pool. He carries himself tall, with dignity and confidence, and Jiang Cheng can feel the contentment roll off of him in waves. Even when they were teenagers, his cheeky attitude was undercut by the pressures of their family; now, Wei Wuxian has nothing weighing him down.
When Wei Wuxian breaks off a lotus pod, squeezes out the seeds, and holds one out to him, Jiang Cheng accepts his offer. The seed is bitter, even more so than they would be in Yunmeng, but he doesn’t mind. Neither does Wei Wuxian, who eats the rest of the seeds from his hand happily.
“Lotus Pier would welcome you back,” Jiang Cheng says, impulsively. “The rivers, the flowers, the creatures—they would welcome you.”
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian smiles. “But, would you?”
Jiang Cheng takes a sharp breath in. He imagines turning a corner in his home and catching a flash of red and black, his heart leaping, leaping—
He thinks of what Lan Xichen had told Jin Ling, what Jin Ling had told him. “I would try,” he replies.
Wei Wuxian steps closer to him. There’s a sort of wild light in his eyes that Jiang Cheng hadn’t noticed before. “Jiang Cheng,” he starts. “I missed you, you know. I’m sorry for breaking my promise to you, but I won’t anymore.”
“You didn’t,” Jiang Cheng says. “I thought that you left me, but you didn’t, not really,” he finishes, and rests his hand over his own chest, where his golden core burns. Wei Wuxian blinks, not comprehending for a half a second, until realization dawns in his eyes.
Then, true to form, he tackles Jiang Cheng into a hug. “You awful sap,” Wei Wuxian complains, crushing the air out of Jiang Cheng. “You awful, horrible, foolish, sentimental, brother of mine,” he declares. Wei Wuxian’s not as tall as he used to be; Jiang Cheng feels the tears shed from Wei Wuxian’s eyes on his collarbones.
In his brother’s arms, Jiang Cheng thinks, I missed this. His siblings were always the only ones to accept him with his numerous flaws, and he had lost them both for many, many years. He wonders what Jiang Yanli would think, from whichever beautiful place she is in now.
Wei Wuxian pulls away, sniffs a little and wipes the stray tear off of his face. “Do you want to have dinner with my family, Jiang Cheng?” he asks.
Jiang Cheng coughs. “With Lan Wangji?” he asks. To say that he and his now-brother-in-law were not on good terms would be an understatement. Wei Wuxian huffs.
“He’ll deal with it if I ask him to,” Wei Wuxian says, all too confidently, and pulls Jiang Cheng by the forearm back up the stairs. The sun has started to set, slow and encompassing in the horizon.
“Hey, I haven’t even agreed yet,” Jiang Cheng complains, and Wei Wuxian throws him a scathing look, one that had been all too familiar on his old face.
“As if you would say no,” Wei Wuxian replies and, well, he isn’t wrong.
Wei Wuxian’s home is a distance away from the main buildings, entrenched deeper in the woods and waters of the Cloud Recesses. It’s beautiful though, in a completely different way that Lotus Pier is beautiful.
“Sorry for intruding,” Jiang Cheng mutters under his breath when he follows Wei Wuxian through the door, toes his shoes off at the door.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t seem to hear, but Lan Sizhui, who seems absorbed in his writing, looks up and gives Jiang Cheng a sharp look.
“Welcome back. Dad’s in the kitchen,” he says to Wei Wuxian, and then turns to Jiang Cheng. “Hello, Sect Leader Jiang,” he says, and bows from where he’s sitting. Jiang Cheng nods in acknowledgment.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian calls. “Jiang Cheng’s staying for dinner, if that’s okay.”
Jiang Cheng’s heart rate picks up on instinct. The last time he’d seen Lan Wangji had been in passing at a Discussion Conference, and during customary introductions, Lan Wangji’s eyes had skipped right over him.
Lan Wangji comes out of the kitchen, holding a steaming pot with both his hands. He gives Jiang Cheng a long and scrutinizing look.
“Okay,” Lan Wangji finally says. “Sit down, Jiang Wanyin,” he says, setting the pot down on the low table. The sheer shock almost makes Jiang Cheng laugh out loud, but he manages to keep his mouth shut.
When they sit down to eat, Wei Wuxian starts talking immediately, telling his husband and his son about the happenings of the day. Sizhui opens his mouth to respond once, but Lan Wangji interrupts him with a sharp “No talking while eating.” Sizhui’s mouth snaps closed, but Wei Wuxian keeps talking. Lan Wangji doesn’t seem to care—in fact, he seems to be paying close attention to what Wei Wuxian is saying, even as he concentrates on his dinner.
Contrary to the food Jiang Cheng has previously eaten in the Cloud Recesses, the dinner is spiced quite to Jiang Cheng’s liking. While Lan Wangji takes periodic gulps of water throughout the meal, and Wei Wuxian scarfs it down without even touching his glass, Lan Sizhui seems to enjoy it the way Jiang Cheng does. It’s an observation that Jiang Cheng wasn’t expecting to make.
Dinner passes quickly, and soon, Lan Sizhui is clearing the plates away and taking them to be washed. Wei Wuxian seems tired, and is fully leaning into Lan Wangji’s side. It’s starting to feel awkward, because as much as Jiang Cheng wants to be a part of the family that Wei Wuxian has created, there’s a boundless chasm between them. Jiang Cheng doesn’t know how to cross it without falling through.
“Thanks for dinner,” he says, “but I should be going.”
Wei Wuxian snaps back awake instantly. “It’s late, Jiang Cheng. You shouldn’t go back so late.”
Jiang Cheng shrugs. “That’s fine. I don’t mind.”
“There’s plenty of guest rooms, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian insists. Jiang Cheng opens his mouth to respond, but Lan Wangji turns his gaze on him first.
“Jiang Wanyin,” he says shortly. “Sizhui will lead you to the guest house.” And, well, Lan Wangji is one person Jiang Cheng never desires to argue with ever again.
Sizhui smiles at him politely when he comes back from the kitchen and Wei Wuxian asks him to show Jiang Cheng the guest house. “Of course,” he says. His eyes are soft when they land on Jiang Cheng. It’s been a long time since Jiang Cheng met someone that he didn’t personally wrong at some point in his life.
Jiang Cheng’s already made it to the door when he realizes what he’d forgotten. “Oh,” he says to himself and unstraps Suibian from his side. “I brought this for you, Wei Wuxian,” he says, and holds out the sword to his brother.
Wei Wuxian grins. “I noticed,” he replies, and stands up from where he’s seated, letting go of Lan Wangji’s hand, to take the sword from him. Suibian looks at home by his side. “Let’s practice together again sometime, Jiang Cheng. It’s been a while.”
Jiang Cheng scoffs. “Are you sure?” he asks. “Maybe I’ve finally pulled ahead of you, fifteen years later.”
“Maybe you have,” Wei Wuxian replies, gives Jiang Cheng a gentle smile, and says nothing more.
In the peaceful darkness, Lan Sizhui creates a ball of light in front of them that lights their way. Jiang Cheng follows him in silence.
“My father’s told me a lot about you, you know,” Sizhui starts, still looking straight ahead of them.
Jiang Cheng sighs. He doesn’t necessarily want to explain the extent of his misdeeds to his brother’s son, but he’s been doing a lot of things that he doesn’t necessarily want to do, lately.
“Which one?” he asks in response.
Surprisingly, Sizhui laughs. “Senior Wei, I mean. I don’t remember much from our time in the Burial Mounds, but I do remember when you visited. I don’t think he was ever the same after that, really.”
Lately, Jiang Cheng’s learned a lot about the perceptiveness of children. “Why are you telling me this?” he asks. “Does it not trouble you, knowing the amount of hurt I’ve caused your family?” At this, Jiang Cheng realizes—Sizhui is a Wen. Jiang Cheng has caused his family more hurt than he will possibly ever realize.
Lan Sizhui stops his tracks, and turns on Jiang Cheng so fast that he barely sees it coming. “Of course it troubles me,” he counters. “It torments me, Sect Leader Jiang.” Jiang Cheng wonders how he can still bring himself to be polite with that fire in his eyes. “But I was taught to be kind, and to forgive. So I am kind, in hopes that I will one day forgive you. Do you understand, Sect Leader Jiang?”
In all honesty, Jiang Cheng doesn’t. He was never taught to be kind, or to forgive. He had to learn it all himself, and he had learned it much, much too late. “I understand,” he says anyway. If Sizhui will give him kindness, he will learn to accept it.
With no response, Lan Sizhui turns back around, and continues leading him through the paths. Jiang Cheng can do nothing but follow. Although Sizhui had taken Lan Wangji’s family name, he seems to be far more like Wei Wuxian on the inside than others may believe. Inexplicably, it makes Jiang Cheng smile.
At the guest house, Lan Sizhui bows to him formally, and Jiang Cheng reciprocates. “Good night, Sect Leader Jiang,” he says, and makes a motion to leave, until Jiang Cheng clears his throat.
“Thank you,” Jiang Cheng says, and Sizhui cocks his head in confusion.
“Why?” he asks.
“You are a good friend to Jin Ling,” Jiang Cheng explains, “and for that, I have to thank you. For taking care of him.”
Sizhui smiles, wryly. “You’re welcome, Sect Leader Jiang.”
When it comes to Jin Ling, Jiang Cheng finds it nearly impossible to hold back his feelings. “He’s going to have a hard road ahead of him,” he says. “He’ll need someone like you by his side.”
“Of course, Sect Leader Jiang,” Sizhui says. “Jin Ling is dear to me, as well. I won’t let him fall.”
A long, long time ago, Wei Wuxian had said the same thing to Jiang Cheng, and in the end, it hadn’t turned out the way they’d wanted it. Jiang Cheng had let Wei Wuxian fall without him.
Jiang Cheng is glad to know that Jin Ling will not face the same fate.
“Thank you, Sizhui,” he says candidly. “Good night,” he finishes, and shuts the door behind him.
Jiang Cheng dreams of woods and waters and lotus ponds, and his brother is with him all the way through it. In the morning, he leaves without seeing anyone, but his heart feels lighter than it has for a very long time.
Lotus Pier welcomes him back with open arms.
Jiang Cheng’s most precious memory is of him and his siblings. It’s the last day they spend together before he and Wei Wuxian go away to study at Gusu.
Their older sister is stretched out across the boat, her head in Wei Wuxian’s lap and her bare feet in Jiang Cheng’s. Jiang Yanli is rarely ever this relaxed, only when she’s far away from their parents and the millions of expectations that they have for her. Wei Wuxian is tucking tiny flowers that he picks off of low branches into her hair. It’s a good day.
“I’m going to miss you both so much,” Jiang Yanli says, approaching the topic that they’ve been avoiding all afternoon.
“I’ll miss you more,” Wei Wuxian replies, and looks at Jiang Cheng as if to dare him to prove otherwise.
“I’ll miss you most,” Jiang Cheng argues.
“It’s not a competition,” Jiang Yanli chides, but it’s futile. Everything has always been a competition for them, from racing from the training grounds back to their bedrooms to loving their older sister. Jiang Cheng just huffs under his breath, while Wei Wuxian laughs.
They sit in silence for a while, the boat floating directionless through the lake. Then, in a very small voice, Jiang Cheng admits, “I’m scared. I’ve never been away from home for so long before.”
Wei Wuxian releases a sharp breath. Jiang Yanli sighs and sits up, tucking her feet under her and settling in the middle of the boat. She reaches out to lace her fingers through Jiang Cheng’s own.
“It’s okay to be scared, A-Cheng,” she says. “But you’re brave and smart and strong. And A-Xian will be with you.”
“That’s right,” Wei Wuxian continues, voice a little stronger than usual. “I’ve always protected you, right, Jiang Cheng?”
“Yeah,” Jiang Cheng agrees, “but what if I’m not enough? I’m going to be representing the whole sect but—”
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian interrupts. “You’re going to be fine,” he says. “I’m always the one who gets in trouble, right? You’re the one who has to keep me in line. You’re proper, and totally gentlemanly.”
“A-Cheng,” Jiang Yanli starts. Her voice is warm and comforting as always. “You’ve never once done anything to disappoint us. We’ll always be proud of you.”
Horrifyingly, Jiang Cheng feels tears start to well up in his eyes. “I’m not crying,” he denies on impulse, even as a droplet slides down his cheek.
Wei Wuxian laughs. “Yeah, you’re not crying,” he says, half-jokingly. Jiang Yanli reaches up to wipe the tears off his cheeks.
“It’s okay,” she says. “It’s okay.” And so, Jiang Cheng cries, for all his fear and his insecurities and the all-consuming love he has for his brother and his sister. Jiang Yanli holds his hand through all of it, and Wei Wuxian takes the oars to row them further down the river.
Here, the sunlight soaks into the water, leaving ripples of gold in its wake. Summers in Lotus Pier are beautiful.