Lanling Jin is the richest of the great sects, but Qinghe Nie throws better parties these days.
Nie Huaisang is turning thirty-eight, and he sent birthday party invitations to all his old schoolfriends from the Cloud Recesses, including Wei Wuxian and Lan Zhan. How he tracked them down after they vanished from the cultivation world, Wei Wuxian may never know.
Wei Wuxian has no social obligations of his own to fulfil, so after delivering his gifts and exchanging words with the host, he leaves Lan Zhan to the Gusu Lan crowd, picks up a full jar of wine, and goes outside.
He crosses the empty great courtyard outside the banquet hall, then sits down by the entrance to the east garden and drinks. He doesn't splurge nearly as much on alcohol these days, but he still appreciates good strong wine when it's offered to him.
He raises a silent toast to Sang-di and drinks.
Not even a few sips into the jar, he hears a jingle come round a corner.
The chime sounds familiar. It's coming from a bell, which is attached to an approaching dog. Medium size, white.
For an instant Wei Wuxian's blood spikes. But the tension fades in a moment, and he gets down on his haunches and buries one hand in the dog's thick, fluffy fur. "Hi there," Wei Wuxian murmurs. "What are you doing here? Is your master around?"
The dog's fur is thick and soft, emanating the faint gold aura of spiritual energy. It looks too healthy and happy to be a stray. Likely, one of the visiting cultivators owns it, and had left it outside for the duration of the celebration.
Two years ago, Wei Wuxian might have run screaming for the gates. Now, he thinks: quite cute, actually.
He hears a voice, distant but drawing closer. "Princess, where did you go? Don't run about everywhere..."
The dog gets up and turns its head in the direction of the voice, letting out a soft whine, tail beginning to wag.
Wei Wuxian thinks, What a name to give a dog.
Then he thinks, What a familiar name.
Wei Wuxian turns around too, one hand still buried in the thick fur at the dog's nape. When he sees who it is he nearly knocks over the wine jar on his other side.
"Wei Wuxian," Sect Leader Jiang says in a strangled voice.
Being caught petting someone else's dog is a very strange experience. Especially when said owner is also your estranged sect brother, who might even have gotten the dog to keep you away in the first place.
Wei Wuxian racks his brains for how to return the greeting, then eventually settles on, "Sect Leader Jiang." Half out of curiosity, half to diffuse the tension, he adds, "She's your dog?"
"He," Jiang Cheng says. "Princess is a he."
"I... got it." Wei Wuxian shuts his mouth before he can make things worse.
Jiang Cheng still looks like he is about to faint at any moment, so Wei Wuxian picks up the open wine jar and holds it out. "Hengshui Old White. Can't compare to Emperor's Smile, but Sang-di still knows how to pick 'em."
Jiang Cheng wordlessly accepts the jar, tips it back, and drinks.
When he hands the jar back, Wei Wuxian asks, "Better?"
Princess nudges his head up against Wei Wuxian's hand, whining softly, and Wei Wuxian obligingly scratches behind his ears. Behind Jiang Cheng is the brightly lit banquet hall in the distance, and the faint sounds of music from the celebration.
Wei Wuxian tries to think of something to say, but can't.
For as long as he and Jiang Cheng have known each other, there was always something to say between them. As children, there had been fights and arguments, alternating tears and laughter, and as they grew up those squabbles had turned to inane banter, insults both friendly and unfriendly, and the very rare serious conversation.
Now that silence has settled between them, it seems impossible to break.
"I should get back," Jiang Cheng says.
Wei Wuxian waits for him to collect his dog and go, but Jiang Cheng doesn't move. He just stands there, one hand on Princess' head, as if waiting for something else to happen.
For a second, time seems to stop.
These days, the wisdom of the people is to not cross Sect Leader Jiang on pain of death. But Wei Wuxian has always placed rather a low value on his own life.
"Come on," Wei Wuxian says, tilting his head in the direction of the east gardens. "Let's take a tour? I actually haven't spent much time in Sang-di's house. Be a shame not to look around the place while I'm here."
They cut diagonally through the wide stone courtyard, the soft chime of Princess' bell the only sound in the growing silence. Early summer in Qinghe, the orchids and dahlias are not yet in bloom, but the gardens are lined with other perennial flowers, and trees and hedges at regular intervals.
Princess trots along by Wei Wuxian's side.
"He seems to like you," Jiang Cheng observes. "Maybe even more than he likes me."
"Nonsense. I'm just a novelty..."
Two years away from the cultivation world, Wei Wuxian isn't as slick with small talk as he used to be. He mentions the weather in Qinghe, then asks how Sect Leader Nie is doing, and bits and pieces he heard secondhand from Lan Zhan about who's building what and who's marrying who.
He keeps up a casual air, but he's second-guessing everything he says. Don't bring up Jin Ling; don't ask Jiang Cheng how the sect is, and don't ask him how he is. From what Lan Zhan has told Wei Wuxian about Jiang Cheng, it's a miracle Wei Wuxian isn't already on the wrong end of Sandu right now, and Wei Wuxian knows how to count his blessings.
And... if there had been offense to be taken, Jiang Cheng also doesn't seem to be taking it. A strange, fragile equilibrium hangs between them, softened by the heady warmth of wine and the veil of quiet night over the Unclean Realm.
At length, Wei Wuxian ventures, "So what's going on in there that's so terrible you have to run out here to escape it?"
"What, I can't just come out to see my dog and for some air?"
It could be true, but since this is Jiang Cheng, it probably isn't. "Well, did you?"
A pause, but not an uncomfortable one. Finally, he continues, "Lan Huan is telling embarrassing stories again and I would rather be elsewhere."
Wei Wuxian can't help it; he smiles. He only hopes Jiang Cheng isn't looking at him, or that the night is dark enough to hide it.
"What are you laughing about?" Jiang Cheng asks, sounding faintly annoyed.
"It's... nothing." But Jiang Cheng seems to be waiting for an answer, so Wei Wuxian continues, "You said the same thing, word for word, at your fifteenth birthday. 'Dad's telling embarrassing stories again and I would rather be elsewhere.'"
Sect Leader Jiang cuts an intimidating figure now, finely honed from years of leading the sect with an iron fist. But beneath his stone-faced expression and fierce presence, Wei Wuxian's shidi is still there. The one who is easily embarrassed, and values his face more than his life.
Inexplicably, that realization makes Wei Wuxian smile.
But Wei Wuxian's also gone and done it now; dredged up Uncle Jiang and who knows what else, and poked a hole through the window paper that he can't patch back.
He waits, heart in suspense, for the other shoe to drop.
But Jiang Cheng only replies, "Instead of telling me to go back, you gave me a jar of wine, and showed me how to climb up the tree outside your room up to the roof."
"And then sat down next to you and listened to you complain all night," Wei Wuxian continues. "The next day, Madam Yu made you kneel on gravel with me. Must have hurt, right? She never makes you do that."
"Mom said if I keep bad company I have to suffer like they do," Jiang Cheng recalls. "Honestly, she made you do that all the time. I don't know how you managed it."
He continues, "That night. Now that I think about it, you ditched, too."
"You know me," Wei Wuxian says. "Never show my face at a party if I can go off and drink on my own instead."
That long-ago night, Wei Wuxian had happened to be hanging out by the lotus pond, too. For some reason, the sight of Jiang Cheng standing on the bridge over the pond, staring morosely into the dark water, had been too much for him to bear.
Up on Wei Wuxian's roof, tongue loosened by strong wine, Jiang Cheng had railed at the night sky about everything from dogs, to the sect motto, to would it really be so much for Dad to be glad of something he's done, just once, instead of unhappy with everything he is?
Wei Wuxian had said quietly, meaning to comfort, not sure if he would get through, "Shixiong thinks you're just right the way you are. Jiang Cheng is just Jiang Cheng. He doesn't need to be anything else."
Jiang Cheng had looked over, punched him in the shoulder and then finished off the wine.
At that time, Wei Wuxian didn't tell him that it was his last jar.
Now, Wei Wuxian isn't sure if Jiang Cheng even remembers.
This late in the day, there isn't much to see in the Unclean Realm. All the buildings are closed up, and no lights are on inside: all the disciples and servants must be either at the party or retired for the night. The trees and flowers in the gardens are probably beautiful by day, but in the semi-darkness they all look grey, and even the occasional colourful shrub seems washed out beneath the silver moonlight.
Something rustles in a hedge that neither of them see, but Princess immediately twists his head and takes off into the undergrowth. "He's a hunting dog," Jiang Cheng says. "Chases anything that moves. Let him be for a bit."
Wei Wuxian peers into the hedge and glimpses a swath of white nosing at the dirt.
"How come you're alright with him now?" Jiang Cheng asks.
"It... got better," Wei Wuxian says. It's not really a reply, but he continues, "You know where Lan Zhan and I live now?"
Jiang Cheng nods. "Lan Huan mentioned."
Zewu-jun visits them regularly; Wei Wuxian thinks he mostly goes to see Lan Zhan, but while he is there, he also sets aside time to take tea with Wei Wuxian. All Wei Wuxian knows about Jiang Cheng's life now he learned from Zewu-jun. It's not strange that the reverse is true, too.
"Turns out quite a lot of people there keep dogs, and bring them to market. At first, I was so scared I made Lan Zhan do all the shopping. But the longer it went on, the more terrible I felt, so I made myself go with him."
Wei Wuxian continues, "After a while, I stopped being scared. Maybe it's being away from all this at last, or maybe it was because Lan Zhan was there with me..."
He stops, realizing he's being long-winded. He bends to scratch Princess under the chin, then smooths one hand down the dog's head. "Anyway, now, I think they're quite cute. How long have you had this one?"
"Two years," Jiang Cheng says. "Lan Huan's idea. He can guard the door."
"It was a good idea," Wei Wuxian replies.
There is a familiar weight to the way Jiang Cheng says Zewu-jun's name; it's the same way Lan Zhan occupies the greater half of his own heart. So Jiang Cheng, too, has found the thing most important to him.
That, too, makes Wei Wuxian's heart feel lighter.
Wei Wuxian has heard a lot of things from Zewu-jun.
The thing about your cultivation partner being the brother of the cultivation partner of your own estranged sect brother - besides having an awful time explaining the convoluted relationship chart to others, and someone always being missing at family dinners - is that news never has far to travel. Wei Wuxian knows all these random details about Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling's life now, and he has no idea how many little embarrassing things of his own Jiang Cheng knows.
One afternoon, over white tea (Zewu-jun's) and wine (Wei Wuxian's), Zewu-jun had calmly informed Wei Wuxian just how Jiang Cheng had ended up back in Yunmeng after the destruction of Lotus Pier. He had said it as calmly as if he had been talking about the weather.
At that time, Wei Wuxian had nearly left for Yunmeng on the spot, fully intending to catch hold of Jiang Cheng and shake him and say, 'Were you just never going to tell me?'
Frankly, he still kind of wants to. But he also recognizes the hypocrisy, and more than that, he doesn't want to open those wounds. He doesn't want another screaming match, and most of all, he doesn't want to see Jiang Cheng upset. Not here, not today, and not during their first non-violent civil conversation in a long time.
So he pushes all those things down and bites his lip so hard he draws blood.
He looks at Jiang Cheng, and wonders if he is doing the same.
For tonight, all those things belong to someone else.
For tonight, they can just pass a wine jar between them and reminisce about a time when things were better, when Lotus Pier was as big as their world got, and the worst thing in life was having to get up for training at 5 a.m. in summer.
The moon comes out from behind the clouds, and the trees and buildings draw long shadows over the ground. They've reached the school area: the library is to one side, several classrooms to the other, all closed at this time of night, and further on Wei Wuxian knows he will find training dummies, archery targets, and perhaps another open courtyard. Even though they are more than 1,000 li from Yunmeng, the estates of the great sects still all have some things in common.
Wei Wuxian spies a tree growing conveniently closer than usual to one of the classroom buildings. His eyes glint, and he tells Jiang Cheng, "Hold my wine."
Jiang Cheng takes the jar. "Wei Wuxian, you're not serious."
"I'm very serious," Wei Wuxian replies.
The trees in Qinghe grow differently. This one has branches that are lower and more horizontal, but also less load-bearing, and it takes a while for Wei Wuxian to figure out a way up. But it feels like a familiar old challenge.
The roofs of the Unclean Realm are solid heavy stone, like the rest of the architecture, and there are no tiles to pull off to peek inside or even sneak inside. A pity. Wei Wuxian hoists himself onto the estate wall, and then onto the roof, then lets out a sigh of relief.
He looks back down at Jiang Cheng, who is staring up at him with an incomprehensible expression. As if possessed, he says, "Coming?"
Somehow they manage to get both themselves and also the wine jar through the tangle of branches and onto the classroom building roof. Down below, Princess has curled up at the base of the tree like a furry white rock, lightly dozing. Jiang Cheng puts a fist to his back and groans, "I'm getting old."
"Tell me about it," Wei Wuxian says.
He lies down beside Jiang Cheng, folding his hands over his chest as he looks up at the night sky. The cool wind of early summer courses over his face and he takes the jar, holds it over his head, and tips. Two years out of practice, he's still got perfect aim.
Jiang Cheng still gets more talkative the more wine he has in him.
Wei Wuxian is still watching every word he says, but it's easier than it was. On some level, he and Jiang Cheng do get along, and for that, Wei Wuxian is grateful.
Confidence bolstered by the liquid courage Wei Wuxian finally ventures, "How is Jin Ling doing?"
It's Jin Rulan now, Wei Wuxian remembers belatedly. Youngest sect leader in generations, who'll go by his courtesy name because it's expected of him, even if he doesn't like it.
There are too many things Wei Wuxian wants to know, but he lets Jiang Cheng lead. Harder to misstep that way.
Jiang Cheng rattles off a list of Jin Ling's accomplishments and accolades with all the manner of a proud parent, and Wei Wuxian nods along. "Two years I haven't seen him, and he's grown up and become sensible, that kid," Wei Wuxian says. Then, "He's done well, following you."
"... He said you taught him to brawl?" Jiang Cheng says.
"Yes. I can't believe you didn't. What boy grows up not knowing how to throw a punch?"
A boy like him, who doesn't have a dad and mum to run back to. A boy like him, who has too many vulnerable spots for ill-meaning peers to prod.
"A gentleman solves problems with reason."
"Even starting to talk like Zewu-jun now," Wei Wuxian says. "Jiang Cheng. Was it the wrong thing to have done?"
Wei Wuxian knows—hopes—Jiang Cheng gets it. Growing up between the Jiang sect and the busy markets of Lotus Pier, they both learned to use words and swords, and also to kick dirt in people's faces when those things didn't cut it.
"Mom used to say you were a bad influence," Jiang Cheng says eventually.
"Heh. She's right. I was, wasn't I?"
Their childhood is filled with all manner of small things from skipping training to catch chickens, to sneaking out after curfew to go down to the docks on festival nights, to playing pranks on Jin Zixuan at the Cloud Recesses. Wei Wuxian was always the one who breaks rules and pulls Jiang Cheng along, until Jiang Cheng couldn't follow him any more.
But Wei Wuxian thinks Jiang Cheng had had fun, too.
"You were," Jiang Cheng says quietly.
Wei Wuxian doesn't expect him to continue, "I don't regret it."
Wei Wuxian pillows his head on his hands, and stares up at the sky so he doesn't have to think about how those words made his breath catch in his chest.
The night is mostly clear, with several drifting clouds, scattered pinpricks and fragments of silver light accompanied by the gibbous moon to one side. Those are the same stars he and Jiang Cheng saw on his roof that long-ago night, and the same shifting constellations Wei Wuxian saw when he looked up from the black depths of Burial Mound.
He doesn't look at Jiang Cheng as he replies, "Neither do I."
The wine jar is empty, and Wei Wuxian holds it upside down and pulls an exaggerated sad face for Jiang Cheng's eyes. But he really is a little wistful, and not just because the wine is gone.
"It's getting late," Wei Wuxian says. "We should go back. Zewu-jun is probably looking for you."
Wei Wuxian jumps off the lowest branch of the tree and lands lightly on the ground. Next to him, Jiang Cheng dusts himself off and tugs his hairpiece back into place.
They go back the way they came, although the way looks very different from the other direction. As they pass through the east garden, Princess goes nosing back in the same hedge, then trots back several minutes with nothing but soil to show for it.
Jiang Cheng says, "Sect Leader Nie talks a lot about you."
Wei Wuxian bends to dust the dog off. "Why does that give me a bad feeling?"
Jiang Cheng coughs. "You've heard the stories of the ugly Wei No-Money whose disciples sell fake talismans to gullible townsfolk?"
"Surely not." Wei Wuxian recoils in horror. "Jiang Cheng, you wouldn't let him..."
But Wei Wuxian thinks: better remembered like this than remembered for the truth.
Jiang Cheng says, "He already did. So go and set the record straight."
"You sure you want me in there telling stories, Sect Leader Jiang? Not worried that I'll talk and talk, and end up remembering that time you got chased by a swan? Or how you challenged a whole gang to a fight and got your ass kicked?"
"You dare?" Jiang Cheng retorts, but there's no real rancor in it. "Besides, it's we got our asses kicked."
"I had no quarrel with that lot. Would I have done anything, if not to keep my precious shidi from taking a beating?"
"I could have taken them! I could have taken the lot! I didn't need you to play the hero..."
Early summer in Yunmeng, Wei Wuxian thinks, had been much like this: evenings frittered away down by the docks, faces turned to the night sky with the warm wind in their hair, pretending not to hear Shijie calling for them so the night wouldn't have to end.
When they reach the courtyard again, Wei Wuxian looks across the empty stone expanse and up at the bright lights of the banquet hall in the distance. The celebration is still ongoing, and the sounds of music and voices are barely audible. He pauses.
"Maybe it's better I don't go after all." Wei Wuxian says. He's been away from the cultivation world so long, he's not sure he remembers how to live in it. "I'll stay and keep Princess company. Go on. Someone's waiting for you."
But Jiang Cheng doesn't move. "Hanguang-jun is waiting for you too, right?"
"Nah," Wei Wuxian says. "Lan Zhan will come find me when he's done. We're used to it."
He ruffles Princess's fluffy head again, and Jiang Cheng watches him with a strange expression. "I'd better not come out and find you took my dog with you."
"Don't worry," Wei Wuxian says, staring down at the dog so he doesn't have to meet Jiang Cheng's eyes, or let Jiang Cheng see the heat prickling in his own. "He's yours, Jiang Cheng, and nobody can take that away from you..."
"... Wei Wuxian."
"Mm?" Wei Wuxian looks up.
And all the breath is knocked out of his lungs when Jiang Cheng hugs him.
Wei Wuxian does drop the wine jar, then. It hits the ground with a thunk and rolls away.
Good thing it was empty.
Warmth spreads through Wei Wuxian's body from the points of contact, alongside the faint, clean scent of lotus flowers. For a moment he just stays like that, feeling the rise and fall of Jiang Cheng's breathing against his chest. Then he brings both arms up to wrap around Jiang Cheng's torso, hands tightening over Jiang Cheng's shoulders. "It's all right," he says into the fabric of Jiang Cheng's collar, not sure if Jiang Cheng hears, but it doesn't strictly matter. "It's all right, okay? As long as you're living well. Everything else is all right."
He closes his eyes and holds on tighter.
When Jiang Cheng lets go, he says, "If you have time, visit Lotus Pier sometime."
He continues, "We've expanded the docks again, and a new meat bun seller has set up shop in the market. And... Princess will miss you."
As if on cue, the dog nudges up against Wei Wuxian's hand again.
"Maybe sometime," Wei Wuxian says. He bends to pet the dog again, the better to cover his smile and the tears in his eyes.
Wei Wuxian is still sitting by the stone steps, idly stroking Princess' head, when Lan Zhan's shadow falls across his face. Wei Wuxian glances up, and sees that Lan Zhan is looking at the dog with a question in his eyes.
"Sect Leader Jiang's dog," Wei Wuxian explains, reaching down to smooth the soft fur one last time before he stands.
Lan Zhan says, "So, you two..."
"We're alright," Wei Wuxian replies.
Alright, Wei Wuxian thinks, is an inadequate word. But over the years he has told Lan Zhan enough about those years in Yunmeng, and Lan Zhan has always understood and accepted, unconditionally, the things Wei Wuxian could not say. For that, Wei Wuxian will always be grateful.
So Wei Wuxian glances back one last time at the banquet hall—the remaining radiance of a world he used to know—and says, "It's a little hard on Zewu-jun to always be the one visiting us. Maybe we should pay him a visit at Yunmeng, sometime."
Lan Zhan nods his assent, and together they go, twin shadows into Qinghe's summer night.