Jiang Cheng can’t get Jin Guangyao’s words out of his head.
It’s been almost a year. Things have settled as much as they’re ever going to settle. Madame Jin is leading the sect until Jin Ling is older, something Jiang Cheng feels guilty about being as relieved about as he is. Lan Xichen is in seclusion still, leaving Lan Wangji to act as both as the Lan sect leader and the Chief Cultivator. He’s still not totally sure how that last one happened, but he’s pretty sure after the last three people who held the title were Wen Ruohan, Jin Guangshan, and Jin Guangyao it’s possible that everyone’s just running with the idea that it’s a cursed position and Lan Wangji is welcome to it.
Wei Wuxian is in Cloud Recesses. Apparently he and Lan Wangji call each other husband now, but if there’d been a ceremony then he hadn’t been invited to it. He’s almost entirely sure that the only reason Lan Wangji agreed to take the position of Chief Cultivator was to better protect Wei Wuxian from – well, everything.
They still haven’t spoken since the temple. It’s mostly his fault, he knows, because Wei Wuxian has come to Yunmeng several times. Jin Ling has seen and even gone night hunting with him. Jiang Cheng knows this even though no one’s ever told him because those are the nights that Jin Ling leaves Fairy behind. The only reason he lets his nephew get away with that is if Wei Wuxian can’t handle something, having Fairy there is hardly going to make a difference.
Jin Ling doesn’t say anything about it, but he knows that Jiang Cheng knows, and he always spends a moment too long looking at him before he leaves and when he comes back, as if he’s trying to give him the space to ask, to let Jin Ling talk about his other uncle, the one he’s forgiven and for some reason Jiang Cheng hasn’t.
But Jiang Cheng never does. He just nods at Jin Ling and says nothing.
It’s been nearly a year and he can’t get Jin Guangyao’s words out of his head.
Jiang Cheng has always known he’s his mother’s son and it used to terrify him.
He has her temper, her cold temperament, and as an adult he understands his mother better than he had as a child. He has an ocean of contempt for everyone around him and his affection always ends up coming out as anger, and that’s been true his whole life. He used to stuff it down, try to control it, because he may have loved his mother but he hadn’t wanted to be like her. He’s learned to use it in his time as sect leader, to not bother pretending to care about things and people he doesn’t. If he has a reputation for being loud and disagreeable, good. It means the other clans don’t try and pull things over him anymore, they don’t try to flatter or cajole him into doing what he doesn’t want to do because they know it won’t work. He doesn’t have the patience for any of that crap.
He holds on too tightly to the people who matter to him, like trying to hold sand in his fist, the tighter he holds them the faster they leave him. Not that he’s tried all that hard to care about anyone these past couple decades, he’d learned his lesson about that. Except for his nephew. He got lucky when it came to Jin Ling. He may be a mischievous, disobedient brat determined to scare his uncle into an early grave, but just like his mother he sees through Jiang Cheng’s bluster and takes what he means over what he says.
He’s lost everyone else, in one way or another. And according to Jin Guangyao, it’s his fault.
Could he really have prevented it all? Was he partly to blame for the way everything had gone so horribly wrong? If he’d only believed in Wei Wuxian, if he’d only been willing to stand up for him, could it all have been avoided? Would Jin Ling have grown up with actual parents and not one uncle who didn’t know what the fuck he was doing and another uncle that had probably been sabotaging any progress he’d made at turning Jin Ling into something resembling a well functioning kid?
The rumors and snarky comments about Jin Ling’s lack of proper parenting had stopped. He wonders if that’s because they’d been fueled by Jin Guangyao. Or maybe it’s because now he’s the nephew of the Yiling Patriarch.
Jin Ling has grown a lot this past year. Maybe it’s because Jin Guangyao is gone. Maybe it’s because Wei Wuxian is here and when it comes to parenting, like everything else their whole lives, he’s better at this than Jiang Cheng is.
He can’t stop thinking about it, and he can’t face Wei Wuxian with that still running through his mind, so he hasn’t. How can he look his brother in the face knowing that he could have prevented all this suffering if only he’d fought for him? How can he look at himself?
It’s gotten to a point where he knows he can’t keep living like this.
So he decides that he won’t.
When it comes to doing the impossible, he used to know only one person who could manage that, and it’s the one he’s not speaking to. But now he knows of one more. Not that anyone told him of course, because as usual no one tells him fucking anything, but even he can put two and two together.
Nie Huaisang ducks behind his fan before Jiang Cheng has even finished asking his question and he doesn’t even bother to restrain himself from rubbing at his temples. “I really don’t have the patience for your theatrics right now.”
“When do you have the patience for anything?” Nie Huaisang mutters, but snaps his fan shut, only to start tapping it against his open palm a moment later. Jiang Cheng starts mentally counting down from a hundred. That’s never helped him before, but there’s a first time for everything. “You know I’m not – I took the ritual from Wei Wuxian’s notes. I didn’t make it myself.”
“You understood it,” he says simply. It’s more than he could have done, more than anyone else could have done. Even Lan Wangji doesn’t fully understand demonic cultivation and all of Wei Wuxian’s strange inventions. “You’re really telling me, after everything that happened, that Wei Wuxian hadn’t tinkered with the idea at all.”
His fan comes back out again, hiding his face, but when he peeks over it he looks thoughtful. “Maybe. For you.”
He raises an eyebrow.
Nie Huaisang taps the center of Jiang Cheng’s chest with his fan. “You and Wei Wuxian share a core. It’s possible that I could – but it would be risky.”
“That’s fine,” he answers. It’s clearly not the answer Nie Huaisang was expecting.
“Why does this matter to you?” Nie Huaisang asks after a long, tense moment where Nie Huaisang looks surprised and Jiang Cheng tries not to show how offended he is by that. “Why should I do it? It could kill you. It probably will kill you, and I’m not likely to live long after in either case.” He blinks, and Nie Huaisang clarifies, “Wei Wuxian will kill me for taking you away from him. It won’t matter to him that he’s barely seen you since he’s been back.”
Jiang Cheng closes his eyes at that, just for a moment, and when he opens them again Nie Huaisang almost looks thoughtful. “That’s why.”
It’s not all of it, but it’s part of it. The other part is maybe he can fix this. He’d thought that everything that had gone wrong had been too big, too unmanageable for any one person to help, but Jin Guangyao thought differently. And regardless of the type of man he’d been, he’d consistently been right about things like this, easily moving people like game board pieces time and time again.
If it’s possible that he can save his sister, that he could save Jin Zixuan, that he could save Wei Wuxian – well, then he has to try, doesn’t he?
Nie Huaisang’s fan snaps open again, hiding the smile that Jiang Cheng can see in his eyes. “Very well.”
Nie Huaisang is actually a little scary. It’s not even a month later that he travels to Lotus Pier and slaps a scroll onto his desk, flush with victory and eyes alight with an intelligence he doesn’t usually let himself show.
It’s possible, but for Jiang Cheng alone. There are limitations.
He can’t go back before the core transfer, since him having Wei Wuxian’s core is what makes this all possible in the first place. But it’ll need to be at a time when he’ll be in the same physical location as Wei Wuxian, he’ll need to have him in his eyeline for this to have the best chance of working.
Doing it right after the golden core transfer is too much of a risk, since technically he’d be in his eyeline, but only if Jiang Cheng was capable of opening his eyes before Wei Wuxian left, which doesn’t exactly seem likely. Which means that it’ll have to be on the night that Wei Wuxian killed Wen Chao
“But he’ll already have,” Jiang Cheng starts, then cuts himself off.
“He’ll have spent those three months being tortured in the Burial Mounds,” Nie Huaisang says grimly. “I know. But it’s not like there’s any point in you going back if he hasn’t. Without Wei Wuxian’s demonic cultivation, we never would have won the war.”
Jiang Cheng flinches. It’s true, after all. Wei Wuxian had won the war for them, and they’d destroyed him for it.
“Okay,” he says, quietly letting go of the idea that he can save his parents, save all those that had died at Lotus Pier. He’ll just have to save Wei Wuxian and hope that’s enough to save everyone else.
“We’ll need Wei Wuxian here to do the ritual,” he says, “but you’ll have no trouble with that.”
He won’t. If he invites Wei Wuxian to Lotus Pier, he knows that he’ll come. He knows that, even after everything, even past the point any reasonable person would hate him, that his brother still loves him. He knows Wei Wuxian will be nervous and excited and happy to step back into his home, even if he thinks Jiang Cheng will yell at him again. “Why are you doing this?”
For once, Nie Huaisang is completely serious. “Because you’re going to save my brother.”
It’s not a request, or a question. It’s a statement. It’s what’s going to happen as far as Nie Huaisang is concerned.
Jiang Cheng nods and says, “Yeah,” anyway.
It’s only fair. If Nie Huaisang is going to help him save his brother, then Jiang Cheng can help him save his.
Wei Wuxian is smiling and happy, hanging off of Lan Wangji’s arm and talking excitedly to Jin Ling.
Seeing how thrilled he is to be invited back to Lotus Pier, without a hint of bitterness or resentment, makes Jiang Cheng want to curl up and die somewhere. Apparently Wei Wuxian is incapable of holding literally anything against him.
Except maybe what he’s about to do.
He only feels a little bit bad about drugging everyone’s tea. Even after a year of not being on the run, Wei Wuxian is still too easy for him to pick up, and he doesn’t think he can blame that entirely on the bland food of Gusu Lan. Even though he’s been dead for sixteen years, Wei Wuxian still seems like his annoying big brother, knowing everything and being better than him at everything. Except now, when he’s too light in his arms and his head is against Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. Like this, Wei Wuxian almost reminds him of Jin Ling.
Nie Huaisang barely glances up when he comes in and places Wei Wuxian carefully on the table in the center of the room. He uses Zidian to tie Wei Wuxian to the table. He has to be awake for this and Jiang Cheng has to be sure he won’t be able to get up and stop him.
“Are you ready?” Nie Huaisang asks. “Remember, pour your whole core into it. Don’t hold anything back.”
“I know,” he bites out, then lets out a slow breath. “Thank you. For this.”
He hides his face behind his fan again then says, “Good luck,” before slipping out the door.
Jiang Cheng uses a jolt of spiritual energy to wake Wei Wuxian up, watching his face slowly blink to awareness. “Jiang Cheng?” he asks as he looks around. “What’s going on?”
He doesn’t answer. He just gets to work, slicing thick wounds over the center of his palms.
He sees the exact moment Wei Wuxian recognizes the sigils, the placements, everything. His face drains of color and he struggles against Zidian, although of course it doesn’t budge an inch. “You can’t do this! It’s too dangerous! How did you even – it doesn’t matter, stop, it’ll kill you!”
“If this doesn’t work and I never see you again,” Jiang Cheng starts, and then has to pause to swallow, “then I’m sorry. And thank you.”
Wei Wuxian stills, mouth dropping open, but then he just fights against his binding even harder. “JIANG CHENG! Don’t do this, stop, please-”
He slams his hands against the sigils, pushing every last drop of spiritual energy he has into them.
Everything goes dark.
He’d thought there’d be some in between state, like waking up after a long sleep.
Instead one moment he’s listening to his brother pleas, and the next he’s crouched on a roof next to Lan Wangji, staring through a hole in the roof and just barely able to see Wei Wuxian through it.
His first thought is stunned, thrilled surprise that it worked.
His second is how young they are.
Cultivators as powerful as they are don’t age, not really, not if they don’t want to. But there is a weight to them, a presence that they take on as the years pass. But all of that is gone now. They’re barely older than Jin Ling.
Gods above, what was anyone thinking, letting them spearhead a war campaign? Probably that they didn’t have a choice, but still. He doesn’t even let Jin Ling night hunt on his own, and right then he can almost forgive his parents for trapping them on a boat and sending them away. He’d do the same thing in their place.
His third thought is that he must have been an actual idiot at this age not to see how close Wei Wuxian was to breaking. Just a glimpse of his face through a crack in the roof is enough for him to see that something is wrong, to see his brother’s normally expressive face closed off and tainted with rage.
But that’s not exactly fair. Wei Wuxian had been keeping it from him, and it’s not like he’d been in the best head space back. Or now. It’s possible that he’s the least well adjusted of his siblings, which is saying a lot what with Wei Wuxian right there, and explains more than a couple of things about Jin Ling. Besides, he’d knowns something was wrong back then, but Wei Wuxian wouldn’t talk to him, and he hadn’t known what to do about it. He still isn’t entirely sure what he’s going to do about it.
Even though he’s seen all this and more before, it still sends a chill down Jiang Cheng’s spine. He’d almost forgotten how powerful Wei Wuxian was with the Stygian Tiger Seal. He’s powerful without it, still someone that no one is quite willing to cross even when he’s supposedly retired and settled down with his husband and son, but with the seal – Wen Zhuliu is one of their strongest enemies, and Wei Wuxian is just playing with him.
Last time, when Wen Zhuliu had reached for Wei Wuxian, he’d been terrified he was going to watch his brother’s golden core get crushed right in front of him and hadn’t understood why Wei Wuixan was just standing there.
This time he knows it’s because Wei Wuxian doesn’t have a core. He knows that Wei Wuxian is planning to let Wen Zhuliu grab him just so he can watch the look on his face when Wen Zhuliu realizes that he doesn’t have a core to steal, and then he’s going to kill him. But Lan Wangji is right next to him, so he can’t let that happen, because then he’ll know that Wei Wuxian’s core is gone.
Even if he’d been willing to let Wei Wuxian handle it, Lan Wangi isn’t, bursting through the ceiling as Wen Zhuliu is inches from grabbing his brother’s throat. Jiang Cheng does just as he did last time, pulling Wen Zhuliu back with Zidian and stringing him up with one of the rafters. He’d let him suffocate last time, but he doesn’t have the patience for it this time around, and he has a better grasp on Zidian than he did the before anyway. He sends a surge of spiritual energy though Zidian and yanks his arm back. The whip cuts through skin and bone, slicing Wen Zhuliu’s head clean off, and both his head and body fall to the ground even as Zidian retreats back to curl around his wrist.
Now they’re all staring at each other, Wei Wuxian’s eyes wide and his mouth parted in surprise as he looks between Wen Zhuliu’s beheaded corpse and Jiang Cheng.
Suibian burns against his back, but he can’t bring himself to do as he did last time and throw it back to him, not when he knows that Wei Wuxian can’t wield it. He means to ask the same question as he did before, to ask where he’s been because there’s no good reason not to ask him, even though he already knows the answer.
He’d had plans. He’d thought about this. But now that he’s standing in front of his brother again, back in a time before everything between them had gone to shit, he can’t think of them. He doesn’t throw the sword, he doesn’t ask any questions, instead he does the one thing he’d done right last time.
He marches up to Wei Wuxian, who flinches as if he’s expecting a blow. Jiang Cheng doesn’t let himself dwell on that before he wraps his arms around Wei Wuxian’s shoulders and crushes him against his chest.
Fuck, he’s so thin, he’s almost worried he’s going to break him. Jiang Cheng doesn’t realize he’s that out loud until Wei Wuxian lets out a soft sound that might have been a laugh once. “I,” he has to stop and clear his throat, because his eyes are burning, and he’d managed to not be an absolute embarrassment last time around, but it looks like that’s off the table for this one. “You,” he starts, but doesn’t know where to go from there. He doesn’t know whether to try and tease him about being gone so long or to get genuinely mad about it, isn’t sure which one will get his brother to really open up to him this time, and he feels stuck, paralyzed at the idea of making the wrong move.
Wei Wuxian’s arms tentatively come up around him, something that hadn’t happened last time, and it turns out that he’s rather pathetic, because even with everything, even being an adult two decades his senior, something unclenches in his chest at being held by his big brother.
He presses his face into the crook of Wei Wuxian’s neck, trying to at least hide his reaction from Lan Wangji. Mostly Wei Wuxian smells like clean sweat and oranges, for some reason, but underneath all that is the faintest whiff of sulpher, left over from the demonic cultivation he’d just used.
“Hey,” Wei Wuxian says, rubbing circles into his back, “is everything – are you – is it Shijie? I thought-”
“A-jie’s safe,” he says, and nearly breaks down into actual sobs at being able to say that. A-jie is alive. This time she’s going to stay alive. “But you – I thought – and we heard,” he gives up, shaking his head and just clinging to Wei Wuxian even more tightly. He’s a little bit worried that he’s going to crack a rib, and also that he looks insane, but he’s not just crying for Wei Wuxian being gone for three months, but for all of them, for all the suffering and shit that he has to prevent, and for not doing this the first time, for not stubbornly clinging to his brother back then until he’d hugged him back.
Instead of tensing, or becoming uncomfortable, Wei Wuxian relaxes in his arms, and somehow the balance is shifted, with Wei Wuxian cradling him against his chest instead of the other way around. Of course, he’s an idiot, his brother has always been more comfortable taking care of others than he was at being taken care of. “I heard about what you’ve been doing. Fighting, and building the Jiang Sect back up. Thank you.”
Mostly he’d just recalled all the members of their clan who’d been away from home and recruited some more from the civilians of Yunmeng. It wasn’t much, but it was enough that they weren’t actually wiped out, it’s enough to build them into a large clan again one day. “It would have been easier with you,” he says, which is true. He’s not good at talking to people, and he’d been too scared to let A-jie do it, so it’d most been him trying to convince people to follow him, which he wasn’t spectacular at. He’d felt Wei Wuxian’s absence most keenly then, when he knows his brother could have charmed all those people into following them into their clan and the war with both hands tied behind his back.
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says, “I don’t know about that, all I do is cause you trouble anyway.”
Jiang Cheng finally pulls back, rubbing his arm over his eyes. The ritual worked, neither of his siblings are dead, and he’s going to keep it that way. There’s no reason for his tears. “I’ve missed you getting me into trouble! That’s what happens when you’re away too long,” he says, pushing his shoulder, and the skin around Wei Wuxian’s eyes softens, just a little.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. Jiang Cheng has to work to keep his face straight. After the way he’d carried on for so long, he’d forgotten how angry Lan Wangji had been in the beginning. “We have your sword.”
A flicker of something and then it’s gone. Jiang Cheng can’t even begin to interpret it and he has all the context for it this time around. “Oh?”
“Right, sorry,” he slides the sword out his belt and holds it out to him. “We raided the Wens and got them all back. Here, I’m getting sick of people always asking about why I have two swords anyway.”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t take it. “You’ve just been carrying Suibian around this whole time?”
He hadn’t asked last time, either not getting the implication or not caring. “Well, what was I supposed to do with it? Stick it in a trunk? Of course I carried it.” He’d wanted his brother by his side and he’d been half convinced that having Suibian at his hip was as close as he’d ever get, but there’s no way he can say that to Wei Wuxian.
“What if you never found me?” he asks, and his voice is teasing but his eyes are serious. “Were you going to just carry it around forever?”
Would he have? Would he have carried around a reminder of his dead brother for the rest of his life? Well, he’d kept Wei Wuxian’s damn flute, kept it in his room and held it when he felt lost, and that was when he’d thought his brother had gone mad.
“Probably, yeah,” he says, then uses Suibian to whack Wei Wuxian in the arm. “Asshole! You were always planning to come home, weren’t you?”
Wasn’t he? Or if they hadn’t found him would Wei Wuxian have ended the war from the shadows and just never left them?
He nods, just once, but it’s enough that Jiang Cheng can breath again. He takes Suibian, looking it over, and then steps closer to stick it back in Jiang Cheng’s belt. “Here, my arms are tired, you carry it.”
He rolls his eyes and crosses his arms, but doesn’t protest. Pressing the issue of Suibian last time had been one of the things that drove them apart and he’s trying really hard not to make the same mistakes twice. “You learn a couple tricks and get lazy, I see how it is.”
“Wei Ying.” Even Jiang Cheng wants to stand straighter at Lan Wangji’s tone. “Carry your sword.”
Wei Wuxian, or course, isn’t affected at all and barely restrains himself from rolling his eyes. “I’m tired.”
“Been busy these past couple days?” Lan Wangji asks. “Was it you who killed all the Wens?”
Jiang Cheng had thought Lan Wangji was angry when he’d been here last, but he’s got two more decades of experience reading other people now, and it turns out he’s terrified.
Wei Wuxian looks at his nails, disinterested. “So what if it was?”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t realize he’s stepping in front of his brother until he finds himself the focus of Lan Wangji’s angry gaze. He doesn’t personally care if his brother and his brother’s future husband have this fight, except he does, because he cares about his brother and knows that this misunderstanding was something that ended up making things harder for both of them. Lan Wangji loves his brother. If Jiang Cheng can get him on his side, on their side, keeping Wei Wuxian out of the Burial Mounds and out of too much trouble might just be that much easier. “Enough. So what if he did? It’s what we were planning to do after all. Why do you care if he did?”
“The way he did it,” he hisses. “These wicked tricks-”
No, it’s talk like that that caused the problem to begin with. “You’ve seen practitioners of wicked tricks before. They get all twisted, both inside and out. Does my brother look twisted to you?” He pauses, glancing back over his shoulder at Wei Wuxian, who’s looking at him a little startled, some of his hard edges giving way to surprise. “Well, I suppose he’s pretty ugly, but that can’t be helped.”
Wei Wuxian actually cracks a smile. Maybe he can do this.
Lan Wangji shakes his head. “The toll it takes on the body and mind-”
“How much worse can it get really?” he asks, trying to channel his brother, since he’s the only he knows who can get a rise out of Lan Wangji, and he needs him to lose his temper if he’s going to show Wei Wuxian that Lan Wangji isn’t angry for the reason his brother thinks he is, that he isn’t angry at all.
Wei Wuxian makes a sound that could be taken as a laugh at that.
“This isn’t a joke!” Lan Wangji insists, then looks over his shoulder at his brother. “Come back to Gusu with me.”
“If he decides he wants your help, or if I decide he needs it as his sect leader, that’s one thing,” he says, mostly trying to get the idea that Lan Wangji is trying to punish him out of Wei Wuxian’s head, “but he belongs to the Jiang Clan. He hasn’t even seen our sister yet, and you already want to take him away? For what? To treat him for an illness he doesn’t have?”
“No one has ever used this type of cultivation without it harming them,” Lan Wangji says, a hair’s breath below shouting. “Do you truly care more about winning this war than about Wei Ying? Will you watch him sicken and die just for his power?”
He snarls, Zidian sparking to life on his hand, and then Wei Wuxian is in between them, a hand on both their chests as he shoves them apart. “Hey hey hey, okay, everyone calm down!” Wei Wuxian almost doesn’t look brittle anymore, smiling uncertainly as he looks between them. “I’m not going to sicken and die, Lan Zhan.” Wei Wuxian hadn’t called him Lan Zhan the first time they were here. “I know what I’m doing. Jiang Cheng, put Zidian away, Lan Zhan didn’t mean that.”
“I did,” Lan Wangji says, and Jiang Cheng doesn’t need the Zidian, he’s going to wring this twerp’s skinny neck with his bare hands. “How can he call himself your brother if he won’t put your well being above his ambition?”
“Technically, we’re not-”
Jiang Cheng isn’t going to let Wei Wuxian finish that sentence. “I trust my brother, that’s why! If he says he’s controlling it, then he’s controlling it, and you don’t get to whisk him away and hide him in your stupid freezing healing springs just because you’re worried. I’ve been worried practically since the day he moved in! The first thing he did was run away and worry me half to death and then the idiot went and broke his ankle and he’d been with us only a few days. I’ve been worrying about him for fifteen fucking years, so get over yourself!”
He’s never really gotten into a proper argument with Lan Wangji before, so he hadn’t known that he’d get under his skin like this. They’re still glaring at each other which means he almost misses it when Wei Wuxian takes his hands off both their chest and covers his face with them. His shoulders shake and for a horrified moment he thinks Wei Wuxian is crying, that somehow he’s managed to fuck up even more than last time, but when he lowers his hands he sees that he’s laughing.
Jiang Cheng doesn’t know how long it had taken for Wei Wuxian to laugh the first time around.
He’s not naïve enough to think that it’s enough, that a moment of humor means that his brother is any less lost or hurt, but he can’t help smiling at it, at seeing Wei Wuxian happy even if it’s just for a moment.
“Alright, alright,” Wei Wuixan says, holding up his hands like they’re both a pair of wild animals. Jiang Cheng can see his offense reflected in Lan Wangji’s face. “No one’s taking me anywhere, alright? It’s fine. I don’t think drowning me in a healing spring will do any good anyway.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, but it’s not as sharp as it was before. Clearly Jiang Cheng’s not the only one affected by his brother’s laughter.
Whatever he was going to say is interrupted by a whimpering in the corner of the room and they all turn to look.
Right. He’d nearly forgotten about Wen Chao.
“Lan Wangji,” he says formally, like they hadn’t just been at each other’s throats moments earlier. “Please leave us. This is a matter that should be left to the Jiang Clan.” Lan Wangji’s lips press into a thin line and his back goes even stiffer than normal, which he hadn’t thought was possible. He takes pity on him. “I’m sure we’ll see you in Qinghe. He won’t disappear again. I won’t let him.”
Lan Wangji looks from him to his brother and back, and it almost seems like he wants to say something, but he only nods and bows before going out the door.
Wei Wuxian lets the silence stretch between them for a moment before asking, “Are you guys always like that? You got along at Cloud Recesses.”
“We didn’t talk at Cloud Recesses,” he corrects. And besides, he’d kind of hated Lan Wangji back then too. Wei Wuxian had been obsessed with him and Jiang Cheng had been freaking out that Wei Wuxian was going to choose irritating the Second Jade of Lan over coming home to Lotus Pier. It’d almost be funny if it didn’t make him want to start crying all over again. “And no, but we haven’t had anything to fight about before. We were both just running around trying to find you.”
He ducks his head then looks back up. “Thanks. For – for. You seem – I thought you’d be less okay. With this.”
“I’m not okay with it,” he answers, probably too honest by the way Wei Wuxian’s face drops. “I just know better than to think that that’s enough to stop you. If you’re going to do something weird and dangerous, I prefer being nearby. It makes it easier to clean up whatever mess you inevitably make.”
Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes and knocks his shoulders into Jiang Cheng’s before the levity drains from his face. He jerks his chin at Wen Chao. “What are you going to do about him?”
Last time he’d just stuck his sword in Wen Chao’s heart and been done with it. This time he crosses his arms and shrugs. “Finish what you started.”
“What I,” he touches his flute. “Are you sure? Don’t you want to-”
“He killed our family,” he says, hard. “You were planning to make him suffer. You’ve already made him suffer. So finish what you started. You are as much of Yunmeng Jiang as I am. Revenge carried out by you is revenge carried out by me.”
For some reason, he’s still hesitating. “Lan Zhan wasn’t all the way wrong. This stuff can be dangerous for you.”
“Can you control it or can’t you?” he demands, and he isn’t playing fair, but he doesn’t care. “As long as it’s you what do I have to worry about?”
“Nothing,” Wei Wuxian answers, almost before he’s finished speaking. He stands a little straighter and steps in front of Jiang Cheng, lifting his flute to his mouth.
If his stomach rolls a little as the night wears on, he keeps it to himself.
Compared to what his brother endured for those three months in the Burial Mounds, this is nothing. Compared to everything his family has suffered now and had suffered in the future he won’t let come to pass -
Compared to that, this is mercy.
It’s dawn by the time Wei Wuxian finishes. They leave Wen Chao’s corpse cooling in pieces. He’s tired, of course, but Wei Wuxian looks exhausted, looks small in the morning light with the flute tucked back into his sash. He’s talking about walking back to Lotus Pier, and Jiang Cheng had been okay with that last time, but last time they hadn’t spent hours torturing someone.
“No,” he says, and Wei Wuxian gets a stubborn set to his mouth that Jiang Cheng ignores. It turns out that Jin Ling got that look from Wei Wuxian, because he knows neither he nor A-jie look like that. He’d been ascribing it to Jin Zixuan, but he sees now that that was a mistake. “You look like shit, we’re not walking back home. I don’t even trust you to take your sword, honestly.” He unsheathes Sandu and steps onto the hilt, holding out his hand for Wei Wuxian. “Come on, at least this way I can make sure you don’t take a wrong turn and get lost for another three months.”
“I’m not a kid,” he mutters, but his shoulders have loosened. “Maybe I want to walk through Yunmeng again after so long away.”
He rolls his eyes. “Maybe I don’t give a shit. Come here.”
Wei Wuxian’s lips quirk up in an almost smile. He’s still a brat though. He jumps up onto the sword instead of just taking his hand like a normal person. Jiang Cheng huffs out an irritated breath, but just reaches out to grab his brother around the waist. The last thing he needs is the idiot falling off.
The flight to Lotus Pier is relatively quick, which is probably for the best, since a couple times he’s almost certain that Wei Wuxian has fallen asleep standing up. Lotus Pier is still under construction, but the first thing he’d fixed had been their home, which was probably selfish of him, but he doesn’t care. He couldn’t stand seeing it as the Wens had left it.
“Come on, your room is in the same place,” he says, tugging on Wei Wuxian’s arm like he really is a little kid.
He shakes his head. “Shouldn’t I – I should pay my respects. To Uncle Jiang and Madame Yu.”
“You should go to bed,” he says firmly. “You’ve had a long night. They’re not going anywhere.” Wei Wuxian swallows and looks away. Jiang Cheng tries to ignore the stab of guilt in his chest. For him it’s been twenty years since his parents died, but for Wei Wuxian it’s been only months, and it’s not like he really would have had any time to process or mourn while in the Burial Mounds. He grabs Wei Wuxian’s arm and yanks him towards the family shrine. “Fine, but then you’re going straight to bed, understand?”
“You’ve gotten bossier while I was away,” he says, and for a moment Jiang Cheng worries if he’s doing this all wrong, if he should try and be soft like A-jie, which would be a disaster because he literally has no idea how to do that and also probably everyone would think he’s possessed.
But when he looks back, Wei Wuxian is smiling at him, so he only rolls his eyes. “It comes with the territory of being Sect Leader. Some people in this family actually do as I say, it’s a novel experience.”
Wei Wuxian keeps smiling until they get to the shrine, and then he’s back to looking small and exhausted. The sooner they get this over with, the better. Jiang Cheng lights the incense and kneels next to his brother, bowing with him to his parents.
He doesn’t know if Wei Wuxian is too tired to keep his voice as low as he intends to, of if it’s because Jiang Cheng is paying more attention to his brother than he did last time, but he hears him mumble just like before, except this time he can understand it. “You asked me to keep Jiang Cheng and Shijie safe. I did it. You can rest now.”
His whole body goes cold and his mind snaps back to that day so long ago, to holding Wei Wuxian’s hand tightly in his own and begging his parents not to send them away. He tries to imagine saying the same thing to Lan Yuan, his pseudo nephew who he’s only met a few times, as his parents said to Wei Wuxian that day, and it makes bile rise in the back of his throat. He hasn’t though it much since. There’d been a lot going on, and he hadn’t taken it to heart.
Wei Wuxian clearly did.
He shouldn’t say anything. Wei Wuxian obviously hadn’t meant for him to hear that.
“I hate that Dad said that to you,” he says. Wei Wuxian startles, looking at him with wide, fearful eyes, but even that’s not enough to make him keep his mouth shut. “It was one thing for Mom, who’d always been awful to you, to say something like that, but I can’t believe Dad did that. What was he thinking? He should have told me and A-jie to take care of you too.”
Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “No! I – Jiang Cheng, they’re right here! Of course they told me to protect you, don’t be stupid!”
He only raises an eyebrow before turning to his parent’s tablets and bowing once more. “Mother. Father. I love you. I honor you. I miss you. But your last words to Wei Wuxian were cruel and I’ll never forgive you for them.”
“Jiang Cheng!” Wei Wuxian roars, eyes narrowed in anger. His scandalized glare would be funny under other circumstances. “Apologize to them!”
He shrugs, unrepentant. “They should have told me and A-jie to take care of you too. You’re not our bodyguard, you’re our brother. A-jie was right. We have to take care of each other.” Seeing Wei Wuxian with that vulnerable look in his face makes him feel itchy all over. “Starting with getting some proper sleep.”
He goes to stand up, but Wei Wuxian grabs his arm and yanks him back down. He has to shove down the urge to just wrap his brother in Zidian and toss him into bed. “Hey, I’m serious! Apologize to you parents!”
“I won’t,” he says. “I know I’m a coward for not saying anything to them when they were still alive, but that doesn’t mean I’ll forgive them for saying those things to you.” He’s spent too much time wondering about what he could have done to help Wei Wuxian after he got back from the Burial Mounds and probably not enough time wondering about what he could have done all the years before that, when his mother had been so cruel to Wei Wuxian and his father – well, he’d thought that Wei Wuxian was his father’s favorite, the son he’d wanted that Jiang Cheng could never be, but then he’d said those horrible things to Wei Wuxian, and he doesn’t know anymore.
“You’re not a coward!” Wei Wuxian shouts, which surely isn’t appropriate behavior in their ancestral shrine, but since Jiang Cheng isn’t looking to make this situation worse, so he doesn’t point it out. “Who called you a coward? I’ll beat them up! No one talks about Jiang Cheng like that!”
It’s so close to something he would have said before everything that Jiang Cheng can’t help but smile. It’s clearly the wrong thing to do, Wei Wuxian getting even more upset. He reaches for his flute and Jiang Cheng’s certain he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it. He grabs his brother’s wrist. “Hey, calm down. No one called me a coward. I’m just saying I should have stood up for you more.”
Wei Wuxian’s shaking his head, but he doesn’t pull his arm away, so there’s that at least. “I don’t want you fighting with your parents. I never did.”
That was part of the problem. Maybe if he’d managed to stand up to his mother none of this would have happened. Maybe if had, his mother wouldn’t have felt that she could whip his brother half to death and Wei Wuxian would have been able to stop that flare from going off.
But he’ll never know, and that line of thought isn’t fair to himself anyway. He’d been almost as scared of his mother as Wei Wuxian had been, and the few times he’d tried to stand up for himself his mother had smacked him back down, never mind him trying to defend the boy she’d hated. Regardless, that’s not something he can change, and this is. Being this honest about his emotions is going to leave him covered with hives or something later, but not talking about his feelings hasn’t exactly done him any favors in life.
“I know,” he says, “but it’s not about what you want, shockingly. It’s about what I should have done as your brother.” Wei Wuxian is shaking his head again, but Jiang Cheng doesn’t have the energy to continue arguing with him about it. He hadn’t spent the night using demonic cultivation, but he still hasn’t slept, and he’s exhausted. He uses his grip on Wei Wuxian’s wrist to pull him to his feet. “It’s time to get some sleep. I’ll order you as your sect leader if I have to. I can do that now, you know.”
Wei Wuxian has that look on his face, and he’s not going to let this go, of course. “If you don’t tell your parents you’re sorry-”
“I can respect my parents and not agree with them,” he says, tugging Wei Wuxian out of the shrine. He lets him, so there’s that. “If you really want to change my mind, you’ll have better luck after some sleep. You look half dead, I can’t take you seriously like this.”
Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes, but doesn’t fight him anymore as he marches him to his room. He pushes Wei Wuxian though the door, in his rebuilt room with as much of his old things as they could salvage and new replacements for everything else, and there’s a moment where Wei Wuxian looks around and smiles, both too small and too soft to be anything but genuine, before he starts pulling off his robes.
Jiang Cheng has delivered his brother to his room, he should go to his own and go to bed, but he’s hesitating. The first time around he’d slept like shit the first night Wei Wuxian was back at Lotus Pier. He’d kept having dreams that he’d woken up to find Wei Wuxian gone, and it had taken several long minutes each time for the bitter misery to lift from his chest, to remember his brother was just down the hall. Wei Wuxian didn’t leave last time, and there’s no reason to think he’ll do so this time, but he still asks, “You’re going to be here in the morning, right?”
Wei Wuxian pauses, looking up as if he’s just realized Jiang Cheng is still in the doorway watching him. “Yeah. I’ll be here.”
“Just because I told Lan Wangji that we’d see him at Qinghe,” he says, because he has some pride, he’s not a little kid. “And A-jie is there too, and you have no idea how – well, she’s going to want to see you, is all.”
“Jiang Cheng,” he says, not exactly warm but with a softness around his eyes. “I’ll be here in the morning. I promise.”
Wei Wuxian has only ever broken one promise, and while it was a pretty big one, Jiang Cheng is inclined to believe him anyway. He’s always inclined to believe him, had been up until Jin Guangyao had manipulated him into thinking Wei Wuxian had been responsible for their sister’s death.
“Okay,” he says. He still doesn’t leave. He doesn’t know why. Wei Wuxian’s eyebrows dip together in concern and Jiang Cheng shakes his head and says, “Sleep well, Wei Wuxian.”
“Sleep well,” his brother echoes, and Jiang Cheng forces himself not to turn around and check that he’s still there. Obviously he’s still there.
It’s not until he’s in his own room that he realizes Suibian is still shoved into his belt. He almost goes back to leave it in Wei Wuxian’s room, but instead he just leans it against the wall. It’s not like Wei Wuxian can use it anyway, and maybe this way he can take on some of the responsibility when people question his brother about not carrying his sword.
Even with the assurance that Wei Wuxian is going to be there when he wakes up and the tiredness he can feel down to his bones, it still takes him a long time to fall asleep.
He misses Jin Ling. He hopes that he doesn’t fuck this up so badly that his nephew is never born. He hopes he doesn’t make all this even worse than last time. It’s not like he has a great track record in that area.
He misses Wei Wuxian, even though he’s just down the hall, even though he’s closer than he’s been in a long time.
Wei Wuxian would know what to do, would have all the answers to fix this, because he always does. Even though Jiang Cheng knows better, it doesn’t stop it from feeling true
No matter the time or place, Jiang Cheng can’t shake the idea that his older brother can fix anything, and it’s a feeling that doesn’t do him any good.
This time, after all, he’s going to be the one to fix things.