True to his words, Wei Wuxian stays at Lotus Pier till the next morning.
As he watches Wei Wuxian leave with Jin Ling on Suihua, watches the distance grow between them once more, it makes something twist painfully in Jiang Cheng's chest.
He strides back into Lotus Pier. Jiang Cheng reminds himself not to expect anything more than what Wei Wuxian had given him the night before. Everything has changed, that at least, was certain between them, and there was no possibility it could return to the way things were sixteen years ago.
Except Wei Wuxian being Wei Wuxian, does exactly more than that.
The next time Jiang Cheng sees him is at a night hunt two weeks later.
Wei Wuxian enters the clearing with the rest of the juniors and waves a hand when he sees Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling. "Jiang Cheng ah!" He bounces cheerfully to him, "how's your wound?"
Jiang Cheng is frozen to the spot.
He had expected multiple scenarios. They would return to ignoring each others' existences at night hunts, and if Wei Wuxian does speak to him they will always remain at a cordial distance. He had expected them to tiptoe along the narrow line between stranger and friend, treating each other as acquaintances even though they knew each other as brothers once, and expects nothing more than that.
What he did not expect, is for Wei Wuxian to start off so casually like they had return sixteen years ago. And maybe Jiang Cheng should have expected Wei Wuixan to always do the impossible.
From the corner of his eye, he sees how Jin Ling's eyes have widened beside him as they flick between the both of them. Lan Jingyi has his mouth agape, and the shock on Lan Sizhui's and Ouyang Zizhen's faces are visible even under the faint moonlight.
Wei Wuixan seems not to notice their reactions, or rather, the lack of them. He grins at Jiang Cheng, "I didn't know the goushe got your tongue too?"
But isn't this exactly what Jiang Cheng wanted? Lotus Pier would not be home without you, Wei Wuxian had said that day. Wei Wuxian had taken the first step towards him, and as much as it had become instinctive for Jiang Cheng to push him away, let the familiar and dependable anger fuel him and drown out the pain and longing, he did not want to do so anymore.
Because when Wei Wuxian had said those words, he realized that was all he had wanted this entire time from him. From all the goading he had edged Wei Wuxian on ever since he came back to life, going to every night hunt with Jin Ling where Wei Wuxian was present, all he had wanted, desperate for it even, was for Wei Wuxian to say:I'm sorry, and, you mean as much to me as I mean to you.
Both of them know that the vast distance stretching between them is riddled with traps. Any wrong step and whatever ground they have covered towards each other would be meaningless. And with all the bloodied history behind them, it is almost expected.
Jiang Cheng should push him away. That is the logical thing to do after all Wei Wuxian had done to him and the Jiang family. But it has been sixteen years, and he is tired, tired of ignoring the small dark corner in his heart that misses Wei Wuxian and burying it under anger and hatred. That is why he's here at this night hunt where Wei Wuxian is, just like how he is at every single night hunt that Wei Wuxian is present at without Lan Wangji.
Right now, Wei Wuxian has taken a gamble by speaking to him. He has taken another step towards Jiang Cheng across the dangerous space and the very least Jiang Cheng could do, is to take his first step too.
And so Jiang Cheng snaps at him, "don't be childish. How old are you?"
Wei Wuxian laughs, and Jiang Cheng says nothing when he sees the nervousness that gather in the corners of Wei Wuxian's eyes bleed away into relief.
When they decide to split off into groups of two, Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling walk off together towards the west of the forest. Throughout the entire time, Jin Ling looks at Jiang Cheng with bright eyes and a huge grin on his face.
Jiang Cheng glances at him from the corner of his eye. "What," he finally says.
Jin Ling's smile only gets wider. "I'm happy for you and Dajiu."
Jiang Cheng looks away and says nothing, too many emotions welling up in his chest.
A horde of corpses surrounds them in the dark of the forest. As they surge forward ferociously, ravenous for human flesh, Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuixan are forced back to back against the swarming crowd. Both of them are panting heavily after cutting down corpse after corpse, so much so that Jiang Cheng's grip on Sandu is beginning to slip from all the blood on his hands.
In hindsight, maybe Jiang Cheng should not have listened to Wei Wuxian's brilliant idea of attracting all the corpses to them using Chenqing, who phrased it quite convincingly as an "efficient and quick way" to solving the issue. In further hindsight, maybe he should have learned his lesson after the amount of trouble he has gotten into in his lifetime that he should never ever ever listen to Wei Wuxian.
Jiang Cheng slashes at yet another corpse that attempts to pounce onto him. "Stop sending all the corpses to my left!" Jiang Cheng shouts at Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian blocks a strike with Chenqing. "I'm trying, but I'm a little preoccupied at the moment!"
With a roar of frustration, Jiang Cheng whips out Zidian. It crackles in the air, purple lighting zipping through its length as it sweeps all the corpses on his left to the ground.
Wei Wuxian somehow finds a moment to turn back to Jiang Cheng with a grin. "I was wondering when you were going to take Zidian out," he says before barely avoiding the swipe of claws at his face.
Jiang Cheng scowls. He steps in front of Wei Wuxian and strikes Zidian across the rest of the corpses.
He turns back to Wei Wuxian, "I wouldn't have to use it at all if you didn't decide to call all the corpses to us at the same time."
Where there was the din of a battle just moments ago, silence reigns over the clearing now. The corpses lay unmoving around them. Wei Wuxian scans them cursorily, blowing a strand of hair that has fallen from its tie during the fight off his face. "Well at least we got the job done," he says proudly, only to receive an eye roll from Jiang Cheng.
It is a full moon tonight, and the moonlight that shines into the forest gives them just enough light to make out the outlines of the trees and grass around them. From here, they can see the lanterns hung on the buildings in the town just a short distance away. It's still early into the night and both of them begin to walk leisurely back to the inn they booked.
By now, they have spent multiple night hunts together ever since the one where Wei Wuxian had spoken to him for the first time. And over time, both of them have become a lot less awkward with each other.
The silence is easily filled as they chatted about the newest gossip, from which sect is having a conflict with which other sect to who's sect leader's son is getting married and did you know the guniang he is betrothed to is actually have an affair with his uncle? They are frivolous topics, safe enough to be spoken between them without stirring up anything undesired by accident. It is as if both of them are treading through a safe passage, trying their best to pretend the traps littered around them don't exist.
When they reach the inn, they realize the juniors have yet to return. Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian had dispatched them to handle the corpses on the other side of the town, agreeing that they needed to learn to be more independent without the constant guidance of their mentors, but it seems they might need more time to deal with them.
Both of them decide to return to their own rooms to wait for their return. Wei Wuxian waves a hand in farewell as he walks off to his room opposite Jiang Cheng's. But before Jiang Cheng can even move to open his room door, he hears someone collapsing onto the ground behind him.
"Wei Wuxian!" Jiang Cheng says in shock as he turns around to pick him up. "What's wrong?"
Wei Wuxian waves a hand as if trying to convey that it is nothing serious, but before he can say anything he winces, his other hand pressing to his leg. It comes away with blood.
He laughs nervously when he sees Jiang Cheng's expression. "Don't worry, it's just a surface wound," he reassures him. He tries to move away from Jiang Cheng's grasp but stumbles forward instead, and if it is not for Jiang Cheng holding him up he would have fallen again.
Now that Jiang Cheng can see Wei Wuxian clearly under the candlelight, he sees the darker patch in Wei Wuxian's black robes that have been soaked in blood. How painful must it have been to put weight on his injured leg in an attempt to walk normally? Across the long distance from the forest to town?
How did Jiang Cheng not notice?
"Like hell it is," he mutters. He jiggles Wei Wuxian's door open, slings Wei Wuxian's arm around his shoulders to take most of his weight as they stumble into the room.
Jiang Cheng puts him down as gently as he can into a chair.
Wei Wuxian smiles up at him gratefully. "Thanks Jiang Cheng. It really isn't serious. I can take care of it on my-"
"Don't move," Jiang Cheng orders and walks out of the room to Wei Wuxian's confusion.
When he comes back, Wei Wuxian is supporting his weight on the table as he stands on one leg and tries to inspect his wound. He looks surprised when Jiang Cheng returns with a cloth and a washbasin filled with water from the innkeeper as if he did not expect Jiang Cheng to return. For a moment, Jiang Cheng's chest clenches tight in pain.
"I told you not to move around, didn't I?" Jiang Cheng says crossly as he plops Wei Wuxian back into the chair, uncaring of Wei Wuxian's protests as he props his leg onto the table.
Jiang Cheng pushes Wei Wuxian's pants and robes up. There are three long gashes up his calf, probably done by one of the corpses. They are deep, and blood trickles from them onto the table.
Jiang Cheng glares at Wei Wuxian. "Nothing serious?"
Wei Wuxian only laughs nervously in answer.
Jiang Chen shakes his head as he squeezes the wet cloth dry and dabs it onto the cuts carefully. Wei Wuxian's leg jerks up and a hiss tears its way past his lips.
"Stay still," Jiang Cheng says, pressing his leg back down onto the table. "You're an idiot. Why didn't you say anything earlier?"
"Aiya," Wei Wuxian frowns. "It's just a small cut. There's no use getting so worked up-"
"Small?!" Jiang Cheng shouts at him.
Wei Wuxian places a finger to his lips and hushes, eyes dating to the walls of the room where other rooms are attached to them.
Right, Wei Wuxian cares if he wakes up some strangers but when he can't even walk it's just a small cut to him. That's Wei Wuxian for you all right.
Jiang Cheng fumes, his nostrils flaring in anger but lowers his voice all the same. "Of course," Jiang Cheng continues, "how could I expect Wei Wuxian of all people to understand the concept of self-preservation…"
As he speaks, he takes out the bandages and herbs from his qiankun pouch. He has learned his lesson after the incident with the goushe but he never thought of all people the first person he would have to use them on would be Wei Wuxian.
"Wow Jiang Cheng, you're so prepared," Wei Wuxian says in that lilting voice that Jiang Cheng knows he's doing on purpose just to piss him off. "As expected of Sect Leader Jiang."
"Shut up." Jiang Cheng says and Wei Wuxian does a zipping motion in front of his mouth even if the corners of his lips are lifted up into a grin.
When the wound is cleaned and bandaged, he puts Wei Wuxian's leg back down onto the ground carefully. "I remember the innkeeper said she has tonic soup brewed," Jiang Cheng says, "I'll bring them to you." He nods to himself. "Good for replenishing your blood."
"You don't have to-" Wei Wuxian begins.
"Don't you dare move from your seat," Jiang Cheng glares at him.
Wei Wuxian puts his hand to his head in a salute. "Yes sir," he says solemnly.
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. He picks up the washbasin and cloth stained red and leaves the room.
When he comes back with a steaming bowl of soup, he is more than relieved to see Wei Wuxian sitting obediently in the chair still. Except, he is swinging his legs back and forth, humming a song under his breath.
Jiang Cheng sighs inwardly. He should not have expected much from Wei Wuxian.
"Would it kill you to sit still for one minute?" Jiang Cheng snaps at him as he puts the bowl down heavily on the table. "You're going to open your wound further if you keep moving."
Wei Wuxian pouts but does as he says. He takes a sip of the tonic and grimaces, sticking out his tongue. "This is so bitter."
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. "Are you a child? Just finish it and be done with it."
Wei Wuxian looks at him with wide eyes and juts his lower lips out.
"What?" Jiang Cheng says. He sits down opposite Wei Wuxian and crosses his arms, "I'm not going to leave until I see you finish it."
Wei Wuxian sighs heavily and takes another spoon of the tonic soup to his lips. "That would have worked on Lan Zhan," he mutters to himself.
Usually, Jiang Cheng detests being compared to anyone, but in this one rare occurrence, he is pleased to hear he is winning and against Lan Wangji of all people. "Too bad for you then," he says smugly.
Wei Wuxian takes the opportunity to roll his eyes back at Jiang Cheng. Who's the childish one now? he seems to say.
As Wei Wuxian drinks, the only sound in the room is of the porcelain spoon clinking against its matching bowl. Occasionally, laughter drifts over to their room from the other customers staying in the inn.
"Do you think the juniors will be back soon?" Wei Wuxian fills in the silence.
"Probably," Jiang Cheng replies, grateful for the opening. "The corpses weren't too difficult to deal with. There were just too many corpses in one go," he says pointedly to Wei Wuxian who still has the cheek to smile at that.
"Speaking of them," Jiang Cheng continues, "I heard from Jin Ling that you told them I was the one who killed the goushe."
Wei Wuxian frowns in confusion. "But you did," he says.
"If you didn't use Chenqing to call the resentful spirits and energy to attack it, I wouldn't have the opening to do so," Jiang Cheng retorts.
"But if you-" Wei Wuxian cuts himself off as he suddenly bursts into laughter. "Do you remember when Lan Zhan and I killed the Xuanwu of Slaughter? I said it was he who killed it and then he said it was me. And now…"
Jiang Cheng looks away, pressing his lips into a thin line. It is this kind of comparison that he hates. Somehow, it feels like he has lost against Lan Wangji, even though he is not sure how or why.
"Anyway," Wei Wuxian says when he finally stops laughing. "Don't you think it's pretty cool both of us have come across two mythical creatures before? I heard the cave is now being called the Goushe Cave."
"I would call that being unfortunate," Jiang Cheng says, disgruntled. "Both times I came across them is when I'm with you, so you're probably bringing me a lot of bad luck."
Jiang Cheng curses himself once the words leave him. The Yiling Patriarch is nothing but bad luck, was how all the rumors went. See how Wei Wuxian repaid the Jiang family when Jiang Fengmian brought him to stay in Lotus Pier and raise him like his own son? He got the Yunmeng Jiang sect massacred by the Wens and then goes to live with them. Anyone who dabbles with resentful spirits is bad luck. Look at the number of cultivators he killed, he even killed his own shijie.
Jiang Cheng thinks frantically of what he can say to salvage this, save them from this trap he has just dropped them both in. He should have been more tactful. God knows the amount of baggage between them, how careful both of them were in their efforts to avoid them. And now he has ruined it all, lets his anger cloud him all because he was angry that he was being compared to Lan Wangji.
But all Wei Wuxian does is smile, punching Jiang Cheng lightly on the shoulder. "I brought you good luck you mean! Because of me, everyone now will know Sandu Shengshou killed a goushe! You're welcome by the way." He quirks a brow at him. "Another achievement to add to your title."
He returns the bowl back to Jiang Cheng empty. "There! Now I'll be as good as new thanks to Sect Leader Jiang's care."
It takes a long moment before Jiang Cheng registers the bowl in front of him and takes it. It takes even longer to find the right words to say. "You should rest," he finally says. "I'll wait up for the juniors."
Grateful for the lack of protest for once, Jiang Cheng helps Wei Wuxian to the bed.
Just before Jiang Cheng can leave, Wei Wuxian calls his name.
The room is dark where Jiang Cheng has blown the fire from the candle out just a moment ago. All he can see is the outline of Wei Wuxian with his cheek prop in his hand, a dark silhouette against the moonlight shining in from the window behind him. "Jiang Cheng ah," he says. "Thank you."
Jiang Cheng thinks it is a mercy that he can't see the expression on Wei Wuxian's face and Wei Wuxian can't see his either. "Nothing to thank," he says gruffly. "If you told me about the wound earlier, I wouldn't have to go through so much trouble."
The outline of Wei Wuxian's cheeks widens, and Jiang Cheng somehow knows that he is smiling.
When Jiang Cheng returns to his own room, he sits down dazedly by his bed. He looks out the window to the full moon hanging in the dark of the night. How many full moons has it been without Wei Wuxian by his side?
He feels lighter than he has ever been for a long time. Maybe as long as sixteen years.
Maybe even longer.
The next night hunt is situated in Yunmeng. The shuigui is harder to deal with than reported and by the time they have gotten rid of it, it is too late for the juniors to fly the long distance back home in the dark.
Jiang Cheng decides to let them stay in Lotus Pier for a night instead of at an inn. He studiously avoids looking at Wei Wuxian's expression when he tells them about the invitation to do so. He also pretends not to see the surprise on the juniors' faces as they look between Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng, and the happiness on Jin Ling's face.
Ever since Wei Wuxian stepped into Lotus Pier with the juniors, he is awfully quiet and avoids looking at Jiang Cheng. It is as if if he takes one look at him or makes a noise, Jiang Cheng would change his mind and throw him out. The juniors glance worriedly at Wei Wuxian every few minutes, but none of them knows what to say about this sudden change in behaviour and knows it is not their place to do so.
Jiang Cheng doesn't even know if it is his place to do so, and even if it is, he doesn't know how to fix it either. What could Jiang Cheng say? Don't worry, I won't kick you out of Lotus Pier even when I have threatened to do so too many times to count?
In all the months since Wei Wuxian had returned, Jiang Cheng realizes this is only the third time Wei Wuxian has been at Lotus Pier and none were done so on his own accord. Jiang Cheng's chest tightens in pain at the thought of it.
Jin Ling is boring holes into him with all the glares he is directing at Jiang Cheng. If it was any other time he would have snapped at him for lacking any respect or manners towards his elders, but this time all he does is pretend not to see them.
He knows he's being a damned coward, but he has already taken another step towards Wei Wuxian by inviting him to stay in Lotus Pier, meagre as it is. He can't spare it in him to take another, selfish as he is.
But at least, Wei Wuxian replies when the juniors speak to him, albeit brief, and that is a relief to all of them.
Since their robes are soaking wet after dealing with the shuigui, all of them are changed into the purple robes of Yunmeng Jiang sect, on the courtesy of Sect Leader Jiang. Seated in the main hall of Lotus Pier as they wait for dinner to be served, Jiang Cheng can almost pretend that they have gone back two decades into the past where Wei Wuxian was still part of the Yunmeng Jiang sect and lived in Lotus Pier together with Jiang Cheng and Jie, where the thought of Wei Wuxian leaving the sect had never once flickered across their minds.
Jiang Cheng holds his breath and watches carefully for Wei Wuxian's reaction when the dishes of Yunmeng specialties are served.
Wei Wuxian's eyes light up when they are placed on his table. He takes each bite almost reverently, savoring them with his eyes closed. He douses it all down with a huge gulp of Yunmeng's finest liquor.
Jiang Cheng feels his shoulders slump in relief. Jiang Cheng had wondered if Wei Wuxian even likes Yunmeng food anymore. He had left Yunmeng for a long time after all, and maybe his tastebuds had actually changed to enjoy Gusu Lan sect's bitter dishes, even if the chances of that is slight.
All the dishes and liquor had been personally ordered by Jiang Cheng to be cooked and taken out respectively for today's guests. Even from Jiang Cheng's seat on the pedestal above them, the redness in Wei Wuxian's dishes compared to the rest of the juniors is visible from a distance. He had told the cooks to add as much spice to Wei Wuxian's dishes.
Jiang Cheng hopes that these can convey to Wei Wuxian his sentiments that he is unable to say in words.
"Wei-qianbei," Lan Jingyi leans over and asks Wei Wuxian teasingly, "how does it feel to finally eat something that isn't Gusu Lan's food?"
From the corner of his eye, Jiang Cheng catches how Wei Wuxian glances at him quickly before turning back to Jingyi. Thinking that Jiang Cheng isn't paying attention at him, Wei Wuxian replies truthfully.
"Feels like coming home," he says.
Jiang Cheng can't sleep. All he can think about is Wei Wuxian back in Lotus Pier.
Jiang Cheng had said nothing when Wei Wuxian was ushered into the guest quarters with the rest of the juniors. It would be logical to assume that Wei Wuxian had thought his old room had been torn down and so had not mentioned it, but Jiang Cheng had heard from the servants that Wei Wuxian had come across his old room on the night he had stayed over in Lotus Pier after the incident with the goushe.
Jiang Cheng curls his knees tight to his chest, as if it would help to keep out the emotions threatening to crash down on him until he is trampled to the hard ground. On the night of the incident with the goushe, Jiang Cheng had been too drained out to care, drained from the fight with the goushe and the emotional whiplash. But now…
He tosses the covers away and gets up. Maybe a stroll would help.
When he steps out of his room, he sees that the candles in the ancestral hall are lit. Jiang Cheng frowns. No one should be up this late in the middle of the night.
Jiang Cheng walks quietly to the door of the hall, even if he already knows who it would be.
He sees Wei Wuxian bow to the ancestral tablets of his sister and parents with joss sticks in hand.
Jiang Cheng inhales sharply, feels his chest squeeze so tight that he can't breathe for a moment. He walks away just as quietly.
Jiang Cheng doesn't fall asleep that night.
No one expected Lan Wangji to be at the night hunt. But apparently he had found some free time on his hands and decided to drop by.
It is quite a sight. The juniors are huddled together while Wei Wuxian stands between Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng like a buffer. Wei Wuxian's damned donkey is tied to the tree just a little distance away, kicking at the dry grass at its feet with its hoof and entirely oblivious to the tension so thick it clogs the air.
The juniors look nervously back and forth between the three prominent figures. They had rejoiced when Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian patched up, but now the tension is back tenfold with another person added into the mix, where said person is the most powerful figure in the cultivation world.
If Jiang Cheng is being honest, he pities them. Because of their elders, they are constantly embroiled in situations like this when at their age all they should be experiencing is the simple joy of night hunts.
All is silent. No one moves. The donkey continues to scratch at the grass.
Wei Wuxian laughs nervously, breaking the silence. He looks between Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji. "Both of you haven't met in a long time right?" He tries to pump as much excitement into his words. "Don't you think this is a great opportunity to get to know each other better now that you guys are…uhm…" He trails off weakly.
Jiang Cheng sees Jin Ling hide his face in his hands. The donkey raises its head and bays as if in laughter.
Jiang Cheng nods to Lan Wangji. "Chief Cultivator," he says.
Lan Wangji nods back. "Sect Leader Jiang," he says. His face is as empty as a blank slate, but Jiang Cheng can feel the animosity radiating off him in waves.
Lan Wangji looks away from him as if he is an ant beneath his boot that isn't worth a second glance at. Jiang Cheng's grip on Sandu tightens.
Wei Wuxian forces another laugh. "The more the merrier right?"
No one replies, and the smile on Wei Wuxian's face freezes. He looks pleadingly to the juniors for help, who shake their heads at him. You're on your own, Wei-qianbei, they seem to say.
The donkey bays again.
Jiang Cheng sighs. It's going to be one hell of a night hunt.
They trek through the forest, with Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji follow behind the juniors wordlessly.
The juniors seem to be used to this arrangement as they lead the way at the front, and it only serves to remind Jiang Cheng that they have had many night hunts with Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, ones that Jiang Cheng do not go on to avoid a situation exactly like this. He wonders how the night hunts are like when Lan Wangji is there with Wei Wuxian and all the things he had missed out on and will never know.
It leaves a bitter taste in his mouth.
Jiang Cheng places himself on the other side of Wei Wuxian and for a long moment, he can feel the searing gaze from Lan Wangji on him. He doesn't deign Lan Wangji with a stare back of his own.
Wei Wuxian tries to spread his attention equally between the both of them. If he speaks to one, he speaks to the other on the other side of him the next moment, as if they are a scale that Wei Wuxian is trying desperately to prevent from tipping on either side.
The air is tense and the juniors are clearly relieved to be at a distance away from them at the front.
Jiang Cheng almost forgets that they are actually here to hunt down a spider yao instead of a silent battle between Lan Wangji and him until they come across it incidentally.
To be more accurate, it pounces onto the person right in front of the group: Jin Ling.
Jin Ling jumps back before it can reach him and slashes at it.
The yao avoids it, scrambling up onto its web attached to the tree above it. Its long spindly legs dangle in the air, blinking its eyes owlishly at them. It has absorbed so much spiritual energy that it is as large as a human.
All of a sudden, dozens of smaller spiders as big as a human skull crawl out from the trees around them. The report had only stated that there was one spider yao plaguing the forest, so it must have laid these smaller spiders recently. Jiang Cheng grits his teeth, this is going to be troublesome.
All of them unsheathe their swords, eyes focused on the spiders' movements.
In the next moment, the spiders lunge onto them.
Blood as black as tar splatters onto the grass and the trees as the cultivators cut them down. Their blades whistle in the air and spiders fall to the ground one after another as they are sliced mercilessly into pieces.
Jiang Cheng sees Lan Wangji cutting down a few spiders in one strike. Jiang Cheng makes a sound of disgruntlement, takes out Zidian and strikes down all the remaining spiders hanging from the trees to the ground.
Both of them look at each other, eyes narrowed.
Suddenly, they hear Wei Wuxian's shout above the noise. Both of them swivel their heads towards him instantly. In the midst of the fight, they have lost sight of the mother spider who has advanced towards Wei Wuxian.
They turn around just in time to see the humongous spider jump onto him.
Both of them rush forward in hopes to stop it before it could reach him even though they know they are too late. "Wei Wuxian!" Jiang Cheng calls out.
Wei Wuxian takes out his talismans and throws them onto the spider smoothly. The spider falls to the ground on its back, writhing with its hairy limbs twisting in the air. Smoke emerges from where the talismans are plastered onto its skin.
Walking up to the enormous spider almost leisurely, he stomps one foot onto its belly viciously and plays a haunting tune on Chenqing. It only takes a few moments before black energy wraps tightly around its frame and a loud crack is heard as the spider's bones are broken.
Its limbs fall to the ground, like petals of a blossoming flower.
Wei Wuxian looks at the two of them standing uselessly next to him. Confusion flickers onto his face for a moment before he moves to hide behind Lan Wangji. "Lan Zhan ah," he says, looking fearfully towards the front. "Protect me from those spiders, don't let them jump on me!"
"Mn," Lan Zhan says, shooting a look of triumph at Jiang Cheng.
Jiang Cheng looks away quickly, feeling nauseous. This is not a competition he wants to win, thank you very much, and promptly distracts himself by slashing at the oncoming waves of spiders.
With the combined strength of the juniors and of Hanguang-jun and Sect Leader Jiang, it does not take long before all the spiders are killed.
Wei Wuxian emerges from behind Lan Wangji's back which he had spent most of the fight hiding behind and pats invisible dirt off his robes. "Well," he says approvingly, "that is a job well done."
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes.
When they return to their meet up point, the donkey bays at Wei Wuxian when it sees him. It kicks its feet into the grass as if in complain that it has been tied up for so long.
Wei Wuxian pats it on the head. "Aiya, Lil' Apple. Such an impatient creature," he says as he smiles up at Lan Wangji.
Jiang Cheng sees Lan Wangji's face soften just a fraction. It smooths out into blankness again the very next second and Jiang Cheng wonders if he had imagined it.
Lan Wangji carries Wei Wuxian up and places him onto its bump. He then moves to untie the ropes from the tree and take up the donkey's reins.
The Lan disciples follow after Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian on his donkey, leaving Jiang Cheng, Jin Ling and Ouyang Zizhen behind.
Wei Wuxian waves back at them in farewell, smiling all the way. The three of them watch them until they disappear from view.
Jealousy twist like vines around Jiang Cheng's chest as he watches their fading figures, curling tight around his ribcage until it hurts. It is another reminder that Wei Wuxian has a family of his own that isn't Jiang Cheng and the Jiang family anymore. The further Wei Wuxian goes, it feels like the distance between them stretches even further.
Maybe they will never be able to close that distance in their lifetime.
Jin Ling watches Jiang Cheng with an expression he can't decipher.
"What," Jiang Cheng snaps at him. "Something on my face?" It comes out more angry than he thought it would.
Jin Ling looks away quickly. "Nothing," he says.
It has been weeks since the disastrous night hunt with Lan Wangji's unexpected presence. As much as Jiang Cheng wants to put it away from his mind for good, it lingers stubbornly at the back of it still. His temper only gets worse as time went on.
Since it has been a while since he last saw Jin Ling and with some free time on his hands, Jiang Cheng decides to pay a trip to Carp Tower. He hopes a change of scenery and some fresh air will do the trick.
He does not expect to see Wei Wuxian there as well.
A couple of emotions passes through him like lightning, too quick and many for him to parse through, before it settles into reliable anger. Where it has already been steaming lowly for weeks, now it flares up uncontrollably.
Wei Wuxian has come here to see his nephew, who he has taken care since he was born, and who's fault is it that his parents aren't around to do so? And Wei Wuxian has never even visited him in-
"Jiujiu!" Jin Ling smiles in surprise. "Weren't you busy with the shuisui incident in Yunmeng? Why are you here today?"
It is as if adding oil onto fire. "Why?" Jiang Cheng snaps at him. "I can't visit my own nephew?"
Jin Ling's smile freezes on his face. He looks at him speechlessly, not knowing how to react to the sudden burst of anger he receives from his uncle for no apparent reason at all.
It only makes Jiang Cheng angrier that Jin Ling doesn't even refute his words. He turns around to leave without even sparing a glance at Wei Wuxian. "Seems like you're having fun either way, so I will leave the both of you to it."
Jiang Cheng storms out of the room, the servants moving out of the way as quickly as they can as if their lives depended on it. But he only gets as far as the corridors before Jin Ling grabs onto his arm.
"Let go of me!" Jiang Cheng shouts at him and tries to swing his hand away from Jin Ling.
Jin Ling stumbles a few steps back from the hit but does not give up. He rushes forward to grab hold of Jiang Cheng again.
"Jiujiu," Jin Ling says. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong." Jiang Cheng says, his lips curling in anger. "If Wei Wuxian is better company than you can-"
"Jiujiu!" Jin Ling raises his voice. It echoes down the long empty corridor.
Jiang Cheng stops talking. It isn't the first time Jin Ling has raised his voice back at him, but this is the first time Jiang Cheng had seen Jin Ling so angry at him before.
"Jiujiu," Jin Ling says again, visibly putting in effort to keep his voice calm. "I was at Cloud Recesses a few days ago to see Sizhui and Jingyi and met Dajiu there. I was complaining to them how I was having trouble with organizing the disciples' training and that I was planning to travel to Yunmeng to ask for your advice. It was Dajiu that overhead and said that I shouldn't trouble you when you're busy with work and that he can help me instead." Jin Ling takes a deep inhale, trying to catch his breath from the long rush of words.
Jiang Cheng's arm is still grasped in Jin Ling's hands but he is rendered motionless by his words.
"Jiujiu, why do you have to be like this." Jin Ling continues. "Even when both of you were ignoring each other he had always asked after your well being and yet you still think-"
Jiang Cheng raises a hand at him and Jin Ling ducks instinctively. "Is that how you speak to you elders?"
Before Jin Ling can retort, a rush of steps can be heard behind them. Both of them turn around to see Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian's brows are furrowed in concern. "Is everything alright?" He pauses, his eyes flicking between the both of them. They shutter for a moment as if he understood something and then musters a smile. "Ah Ling, since it's almost done I think you can handle the rest. It's about time I return to Cloud Recesses anyways. Jiang Cheng," Wei Wuxian says, "don't be too hard on him yeah?"
Wei Wuxian turns around to leave.
"Don't," Jiang Cheng chokes out.
Wei Wuxian and Jin Ling look to him in surprise.
Jiang Cheng swallows heavily. "There's just a misunderstanding. But it's all solved now, right Jin Ling?" He glares at Jin Ling.
Jin Ling nods ferociously. "Right!"
And so they return to the room. Nobody speaks. The awkward silence is only broken up by the servants who enter to serve some refreshments for the visitors.
One of them breaks away to whisper in Jin Ling's ear.
Jin Ling grimaces, looking at the both of them.
Wei Wuxian waves a hand at him. "Go Jin Ling, both of us can handle ourselves."
Jin Ling frowns, "but Dajiu-"
Wei Wuxian smiles reassuringly at him. "We will be fine."
Jin Ling gets up with a huff. "It's…It's just a small matter." His eyes dart between the both of them. "I'll be back soon!" he says it like a promise before hurrying away.
Wei Wuxian chuckles as he watches him leave, taking another swing of the liquor served.
Silence reigns over them again and this time there are no more servants to break it up.
Jiang Cheng exhales heavily. It had been his fault anyways. "Wei Wuxian," he begins guiltily. "About just now-"
"Aiya," Wei Wuxian waves a hand. "It's already been solved between you and Jin Ling right?" He smiles. "Don't worry about it."
Before Jiang Cheng can say anything, Wei Wuxian bounces up to his feet. He beckons Jiang Cheng to the table at the far end of the room away from the doors where the servants are standing on the outside.
"You know," Wei Wuxian says lowly, shifting the scrolls about on the table. The clatter of the wooden scrolls covers the sound of his voice and Jiang Cheng would not have heard him had he not been standing close to him. "The Jin sect has been trying to get Jin Ling to move into the Fragrant Palace now that he is sect leader."
The Fragrant Palace, where all the sect leaders are supposed to stay according to the Jin sect's tradition. Where Jin Guangyao once stayed.
Jiang Cheng had known of Jin Ling's predicament, but he did not expect them to pressure him so soon.
"So is he planning to move in now?" he asks Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian shakes his head.
"I'm not surprised." Jiang Cheng says. "It's only been less than a year since Jin Guangyao died."
Wei Wuxian sighs and looks at Jiang Cheng. "Jin Guangyao is the only other family Jin Ling had besides you." Jiang Cheng wants to say he has you too now, but says nothing.
Wei Wuxian continues, "I would have been more surprised if he had moved on so soon." He laughs mirthlessly to himself, "just because he's sect leader now the Jin sect has forgotten he's still a young boy."
The air between them is heavy with the words left unsaid. Of Qiongqi Dao, of Jin Zixun and Jin Zixuan, of the battle in the Nightless City, of Ah Jie. They are like bubbles in the air, waiting to be pop. None of them reaches over to do so.
Silence falls upon them once more. This time, it is somber.
Cloud Recesses has its first Cultivator Conference with Lan Wangji as the new Chief Cultivator.
Lan Wangji stands at the entrance to greet the sect leaders who have arrived. Lan Wangji's face is carefully blank when he nods to Jiang Cheng. "Sect Leader Jiang," he says, voice devoid of any emotion.
Jiang Cheng nods back. "Chief Cultivator," he says, equally devoid of emotion. Two people can play this game.
Lan Wangji does not spare him a further glance as he greets the sect leader behind Jiang Cheng.
Jiang Cheng snorts to himself. Petty, he thinks, and walks in. He sees a cluster of Lan disciples waiting inside to usher the sect leaders who have arrived.
Jiang Cheng is early, wanting to avoid the crowd coming in later. With few sect leaders coming in at the moment, the disciples chat leisurely among themselves.
They stop talking when they see Jiang Cheng. Sect Leader Jiang's temper is well known throughout the cultivation world and no one dares to volunteer to usher him in. All but Lan Sizhui.
"Sect Leader Jiang," Sizhui steps forward and bows to him, to the looks of gratitude from the other disciples. Jiang Cheng nods to him in acknowledgement.
They move off without another word. The corridors are mostly empty as the rest of the disciples prepare for the conference. Their footsteps are quiet on the wooden floor as Lan Sizhui leads at the front. Cloud Recesses has always been quiet, but now it is silent.
Jiang Cheng looks around but Wei Wuxian is nowhere to be seen, which he should have expected with how quiet it is. Jiang Cheng feels the impulse to ask Sizhui where he is but refrains from it.
He has heard the rumors, and piecing them up with what he heard from Jin Ling, he has known of Sizhui's identity and his relation to Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji for a while now. Distantly, he wonders where Sizhui's uncle is. He knows from Jin Ling that the Ghost General has accompanied them on night hunts sometimes, but he is always absent when Jiang Cheng participates in them. He ponders briefly if he should thank Sizhui for the courtesy of that, but decides not to, for it would most likely than not come off ill-intentioned.
Sizhui stops in front of a room. It is well decorated, or at least as much as it can be that conforms to the Gusu Lan's sect rules of not living in luxury or excess, a room clearly built for the purpose of hosting distinguished visitors. A few sect leaders are already inside, helping themselves to the array of refreshments served.
Before Jiang Cheng can even thank him, Lan Sizhui speaks first. "Sect Leader Jiang," he says. His eyes are plastered to the wooden floor between them. "Ever since the incident with the goushe, Wei-qianbei has become a lot happier even if he does not say it. Hanguang-jun has noticed it as well, even if he will not admit it."
He finally looks up at Jiang Cheng and points to the room. "This is the waiting room." He bows. "I'll take my leave now. Please enjoy the refreshments."
Jiang Cheng never finds the words to thank him as he watches Lan Sizhui leave.
Throughout the Cultivation Conference, Lan Wangji does not spare a glance at Jiang Cheng at all, as if he is as transparent as air, which suits him just fine to be fair.
The only reason why Lan Wangji would even be looking at him is if he is talking, and the only reason why he would be speaking in this conference is if he has a conflict that is dire enough that it needed the aid of the sect leaders for it to be resolved. He rather watch calmly from the sidelines, thank you very much.
Two sect leaders begin to argue about the disputes along their borders. It stretches on for as long as two shichens, and Jiang Cheng spots Nie Huaisang dozing off behind his open fan already.
Seeing that a resolution will not be reached anytime soon, Lan Wangji calls for a shichen long break before they recommence the conference. More refreshments have been served in the visitors' hall, the disciples inform the sect leaders.
The sect leaders leave the conference room in visible relief while the two sect leaders remain to duke it out with Lan Wangji mediating between them. For once, Jiang Cheng feels sorry for him. Just a little bit.
If Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao had been at the conference, Jiang Cheng thinks, the conflict would have been solved in less than half a shichen. Maybe even lesser. At the other conferences Jiang Cheng had been present for over the years, he had seen how Lan Xichen's gentleness paired with Jin Guangyao's glib tongue had been a formidable combination that eased the animosity between the sect leaders and resolved difficult conflicts easily.
Everyone is thinking the same, though no one would speak it into words. Even speaking Jin Guangyao's name has become a taboo in the cultivation world now.
Jin Ling seizes the opportunity to escape the tension and find Sizhui and Jingyi, running off as quickly as he can before Jiang Cheng can seize him and comment on what he could improve in his behaviour and speech during the conference earlier. By the time Jiang Cheng searches for him, a disciple has to inform him where he had gone to.
Jiang Cheng sighs heavily. Well, it is a good thing that Jin Ling has his own friends now.
With all the arguments that had gone on during the conference, he has had enough of the politics and decides to take a quiet walk through Cloud Recesses instead. God knows the arguments he would have to be subjected to again soon enough.
Jiang Cheng has been here multiple times during the past sixteen years on sect leader business but he feels like he is seeing the place with new eyes now. This is the place where Wei Wuxian lives.
He doesn't expect to bump into Wei Wuxian himself.
"Jiang Cheng!" Surprise bleeds away into a huge smile. "I didn't expect to see you here."
Jiang Cheng looks at him. Wei Wuxian has a stick in his hand as he pokes at an ant nest under an overturned stone, just like he did when he had been punished to kneel after getting into a fight with Jin Zixuan for insulting Ah Jie. That had been so many years ago that those times felt like they belonged in another life.
He looks around him. It looks the same as it did when they used to study here. If Wei Wuxian wasn't in the Gusu Lan robes, he would think he had gone back in time.
"What are you," Jiang Cheng says, "twelve?" He looks pointedly at the ant nest and the stick in Wei Wuxian's hand.
Wei Wuxian only grins wider. He pushes the stick into Jiang Cheng's face who flinches away. "Aren't they cute?"
Jiang Cheng moves a few steps away from him. "Don't put that near my face," he says. "It's disgusting."
Wei Wuxian mock pouts. "Don't listen to Jiang Cheng," he tells the red ants crawling on the stick, "he's just mean."
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes.
Wei Wuxian puts the stick back on the ground and Jiang Cheng is glad the ants have finally escaped Wei Wuxian's torment. "What are you doing here anyway?" Wei Wuxian asks. "Aren't you suppose to be at the conference?"
"Your Hanguang-jun called for a break," he replies. He stretches his arms and groans. "Some sect leaders are just so intolerable."
Wei Wuxian looks at Jiang Cheng with bright eyes all of a sudden like he just got a new idea. "Hey, how long is the break?"
"Half a shichen," he glances suspiciously at Wei Wuxian, "why?"
"Plenty of time." Wei Wuxian says. "Let me show you around. They built more buildings here recently to accommodate the new students."
Wei Wuxian bounces off before Jiang Cheng can even reply. Clad in his black and red robes, he stands out as a startling contrast to the blue and white of Cloud Recesses. Although Wei Wuxian had worn the same colors when he went on night hunts, Jiang Cheng had assumed he would be wearing the Gusu Lan sect robes when he is back in Cloud Recesses. Apparently not. Momentarily, he wonders how Lan Qiren's health is faring ever since Wei Wuxian had begun to stay here.
The section of Cloud Recesses that Wei Wuxian brings him to is unfamiliar. He has only frequented the public spaces of it, such as the rooms and halls used for public activities or for meeting visitors ever since it has been rebuilt after the fire, and so he assumes these must be the classrooms and living quarters of the Lan cultivators.
Wei Wuxian points around cursorily, his gait confident as he walks down the winding corridors. This is the new classroom where Lan Zhan teaches the qin to the disciples, he crouches below the window with the top of his head peeking above, this is really useful so I can spy on him sometimes.
He steps on a gray rock placed in the middle of a courtyard. This is a smaller rock that Lan Qiren requested to be chiseled with the first hundred rules. He laughs at that, probably scared I will be a bad influence on the disciples as if a stone with boring rules will work. He kicks it smugly. Jiang Cheng sees a chip of stone break away from his kick and decides not to tell him.
He stops Jiang Cheng all of a sudden along the corridor. Don't step on that plank, he says, it came loose and it's a hassle to fix it back in again. Ah, he laments, I told Lan Zhan about it, but he hasn't had the time to find someone to replace it yet.
They continue down the hallway until it ends in a balcony. Wei Wuxian leans on the railings and points ahead. "And this is the new lake!" he exclaims.
Calling it a lake would be a bit of an exaggeration, but it is definitely much larger than a pond. It stretch towards the furthest building in the distance, water lapping calmly against the stilts holding up the raised platforms above it.
Lotus flowers float on the surface, pink dots against the green. There is a wooden pavilion at one end overlooking the lake. Anyone can see that it was meant to resemble Yunmeng's lakes.
Wei Wuxian smiles, but it is not the usual ones that stretches across his cheeks and crinkles at the corner of his eyes. It is small and quiet. It is one Jiang Cheng has never seen on him before. "Lan Zhan had this made for me and planted the lotuses himself," he says.
Jiang Cheng swallows heavily. "It's pretty," he says, voice choked. Jin Zixuan had done the same for Jie in Carp Tower when he proposed to her, but Wei Wuxian wouldn't have known. At that time, Wei Wuxian had banished himself to Burial Mounds with the Wens and never left Yiling. He had only seen Jie once when they came to visit him before the massacre in the Nightless City.
"Let me bring you to one last place," Wei Wuxian says. He continues forward, and Jiang Cheng follows behind him without a word.
They reach a house a distance away from the classrooms. The plague above is glided in gold with the words 'Jingshi'.
Jiang Cheng looks to Wei Wuxian with wide eyes. "Wei Wuxian, this-"
Wei Wuxian smiles and opens the door.
Jiang Cheng's breath seizes. He doesn't know what he should expect, he can't even imagine it. The illustrious Hanguang-jun together with the notorious Yiling Patriarch, he had seen the mess that Wei Wuxian called his home in Burial Mounds after all.
Jiang Cheng enters after Wei Wuxian.
It is a room that one can easily recognize as belonging to a Gusu Lan disciple. With the books stacked neatly and the qin in the corner, the only object that hints that one of the Jingshi's residents is the Yiling Patriarch is Chenqing stacked next to the qin.
Wei Wuxian pulls Jiang Cheng to sit down at the low table and takes out a jar of Emperor's Smile, pouring it into two cups.
Wei Wuxian pushes one cup into Jiang Cheng's hands who looks up at him blankly.
"Lan Zhan got them for me," he says, thinking that that was Jiang Cheng's confusion. He grins. "How's the tour?"
Wei Wuxian living at Cloud Recesses had been something that no one had even considered with how impossible it would be, including Wei Wuxian himself years ago. As much as Wei Wuxian had always done the impossible, Wei Wuxian living in Cloud Recesses was an impossibility of an impossibility.
The countless rules, the bland food, the mannerisms, everything in Cloud Recesses conflict with Wei Wuxian's way of life. Jiang Cheng had been angry, angry that Wei Wuxian would rather live here than at Lotus Pier, in a sect that seemed to be formed for the sole reason of opposing Wei Wuxian. He had been angry and jealous of Lan Wangji who had in his eyes, stolen Wei Wuxian away from him from Lotus Pier to Cloud Recesses, and angry at Wei Wuxian that he had let him do that.
But Wei Wuxian being Wei Wuxian, had carved his own life here in his own way. And Lan Wangji, the lake and Emperor's Smile. The exemplar disciple of the Gusu Lan sect, who abides by all its rules so strictly, had broken them for Wei Wuixan and accommodated to him in his own way.
"You're happy here," the words burst its way out of Jiang Cheng.
Wei Wuxian visibly startles at his words, before he considers it for a moment and smiles in that same quiet way earlier. " I am," Wei Wuxian says. "I actually am."
Wei Wuxian laughs mirthlessly all of a sudden, looking down at the dark wood of the table. "Sometimes I think that I'm dreaming and sooner or later I will wake up and realize I'm still dead."
It chills Jiang Cheng to the bone to hear him say that. He holds Wei Wuxian's hands. "Feel this?" Jiang Cheng says, almost desperately. "You're not dead, Wei Wuxian. You're alive."
He decides to take another step across the distance. "You deserve this happiness," he says.
Wei Wuxian looks at him for a long moment, stunned. His eyes grow wet with tears before he blinks them away, little tears forming on his eyelashes. He smiles, and removes his hands from Jiang Cheng's grasp only to place them on top of Jiang Cheng's. He squeezes them tight before pulling away. "Thank you Jiang Cheng."
Jiang Cheng looks away. "I'm only speaking the truth," he says gruffly.
He sees Wei Wuxian is still smiling at him so he looks away and coughs into his fist. "Anyway, when are you and Hanguang-jun going to hold your wedding ceremony?"
Wei Wuxian tilts his head to the side in consideration. "Both of us don't feel the need to have that kind of big ceremony, we have already done our three bows after all." He glances at Jiang Cheng cautiously to see how he would react to that.
Jiang Cheng had been angry at Wei Wuxian when he found him doing the bows with Lan Wangji to his parents in Lotus Pier that day. And after that, Jiang Cheng had found out about the golden core transfer from the Ghost General. No doubt that it is one of many bad memories for him, but now he only feels a wave of guilt that if he came a moment too early Wei Wuxian would not have been able to complete the wedding ritual with Lan Wangji.
Jiang Cheng forces his face to remain unchanging and Wei Wuxian continues, glad he has not ruined their conversation with the reminder of it. "Anyways," he waggles his brows at Jiang Cheng, "Lan Zhan and I have already done the deed countless times, it takes out all the appeal of the wedding night."
Jiang Cheng grimaces, turning away. "Please do not tell me things like this."
Wei Wuxian laughs in utter delight at his discomfort before continuing. "But can you even imagine how pissed Lan Qiren would be to see Lan Zhan married to me in Cloud Recesses? He would have a heart attack straight away."
"And now that Lan Zhan is Chief Cultivator and both of us being cutsleeves… well," Wei Wuxian sighs. "We have been through a lot all these years, and with the recent upheaval with Jin Guangyao…best to avoid as much trouble as possible, don't you think?"
Jiang Cheng looks studiously at the swirls in the wood of the table for a long moment. "Lotus Pier is always open," he blurts out, "if both of you ever consider doing one."
He has taken yet another step across the distance.
Jiang Cheng musters the courage to look up at Wei Wuxian. The expression on Wei Wuxian's face only makes him wish he had said it sooner.
"I'll keep that in mind," Wei Wuxian says.
They are on their way to meet another sect for a night hunt together before Wei Wuxian suddenly falls to the ground.
Jiang Cheng quickly goes over to him to pick him up. "Wei Wuxian!" he says, shaking him by the shoulders.
Wei Wuxian does not respond, already unconscious. His face is flushed red and Jiang Cheng places a hand onto his forehead. He is burning up.
Jiang Cheng exhales harshly and carries Wei Wuxian onto his back. He does so easily with how light he is. Sometimes Jiang Cheng forgets that Wei Wuxian is not as strong as he used to be. Mo Xuanyu's body had already been weak in the first place, and without a golden core as well…
Jiang Cheng looks to the juniors who have worry plastered all over their faces. See Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng thinks, they're all worried for you. Why do you always feel you have to keep pushing yourself?
"Wei Wuxian is running a fever," he informs them. "The Qiantang Feng sect disciples are just waiting ahead so all of you can continue the night hunt without us." He hikes Wei Wuxian higher up onto his back. "I'll take Wei Wuxian back to the inn."
"Jiujiu," Jin Ling begins.
Jiang Cheng shakes his head. "I can handle him," he says. "Use this opportunity to foster better ties with the Qiantang Feng sect," he reminds Jin Ling.
Jin Ling sighs and nods resignedly, knowing what Jiang Cheng said is right. With how precarious the position of the Jin sect is today and how inexperienced Jin Ling is, any friendly relations that the Jin sect forms with other sects would be crucial.
Jiang Cheng nods to Lan nods back to him. Although Sizhui is just a young disciple, so much below Jiang Cheng's position of authority, he feels gratified by the sense of affirmation from him. I'm entrusting Wei-qianbei to you, Sizhui seems to say.
Jiang Cheng leaves, knowing the juniors are more than capable to handle themselves.
Wei Wuxian does not wake when Jiang Cheng returns to the inn with medicinal herbs from the physician. Jiang Cheng wipes the sweat off Wei Wuxian's face and neck, rinses the cloth in cool water and dabs them on his face in hopes to lower the temperature.
Suddenly, Wei Wuxian groans and opens his eyes blearily.
"You're finally awake," Jiang Cheng says. "I'll go get some water for you."
A hand tugs on his arm before he could leave. "Shijie," Wei Wuxian croaks out. "Don't go."
Jiang Cheng stills.
Wei Wuxian's eyes are glazed. "Don't go," he says again, voice as soft as a fervent whisper.
Jiang Cheng returns slowly to his spot next to Wei Wuxian on the bed, Wei Wuxian's grip on his arm tight the entire time. Jiang Cheng tries to extract his arm, but Wei Wuxian holds onto it stubbornly.
Jiang Cheng deliberates what he should do for a long moment. "I'm not going," he finally says. Only then do Wei Wuxian's grip go slack as it falls back onto the bed and his eyes close shut.
Jiang Cheng watches him for a few minutes just in case he wakes up again, when all of a sudden Wei Wuxian frowns, hands clutching at the bedsheets. Cold sweat bead on his forehead.
Jiang Cheng doesn't let himself think of what he is doing as he reaches over with a shaking hand and places it on Wei Wuxian's chest, tapping a slow beat just like how Ah Jie had always done for them when they are unable to fall asleep.
Soon enough, the furrow between Wei Wuixan's brows smooths out, his breathing evens, as he falls back into a deep sleep.
Jiang Cheng wishes with all his heart that Ah Jie was here. She would know what to do. She would know how to take care of Wei Wuxian, how to fix this huge gap between them, how to make everything better.
They always had Ah Jie to break both of them up during their fights and patch them back up together. Now, both of them are on their own.
Ah Jie, he looks up and sighs, what are we going to do? If you can just give me a sign, some direction...both of us are flying blind here and I'm scared we will mess up again.
Ah Jie doesn't answer him, just like she had never done so in those sixteen years since her death.
When Wei Wuxian's fever finally breaks the next day, he does not remember anything from the day before.
Jiang Cheng does not bring it up either.
It falls to the Yunmeng Jiang sect to hold the Discussion Conference this year.
Jiang Cheng stands at the doors to greet the guests and watches the Lan sect and their retinue arrive. With Lan Xichen still in seclusion, Lan Wangji represents as the Gusu Lan Sect Leader. When Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji have done the required greetings, Wei Wuxian pops up behind Lan Wangji with a wave. "Jiang Cheng!" he grins.
Wei Wuxian's presence didn't come as a surprise. Jiang Cheng had sent a letter to Cloud Recesses, inviting Wei Wuxian to the Discussion Conference. And Wei Wuxian had replied with a letter of his own, saying he would be there.
Sect Leader Yao sees it all from the side and exclaims, "the Yunmeng Twin Heroes reunited once again!"
Both of them turn to him, startled.
Their reputations have spread over the past few months with all the creatures they have dealt with, and it is not only nice to see their efforts acknowledged so openly, but the words Yunmeng Twin Heroes, left Jiang Cheng feeling warm. Both of them had heard people call them by that title recently and it must have spread to the different sects too. And even if it is Sect Leader Yao who said it now, the acknowledgement of their title by a sect leader is, in extension, an acknowledgment of their achievements too.
They look back at each other and can't help but melt into smiles.
The Discussion Conference opens with an elaborate banquet. The sect leaders and their retinues are invited to the main hall as they are served dinner. It is a feast, and nothing less should be expected to serve the various sect leaders from all over the cultivation world.
Wei Wuxian flocks around and mingles with everyone while Lan Wangji follows beside him loyally. It is a surreal sight to say the least. Less than a year ago everyone was calling for his blood, and now everyone is clinking cups of liquor with him with wide smiles plastered on their faces.
Jiang Cheng sees Wei Wuxian wrap a hand around Jin Ling's shoulders, teasing him about something that makes his ears flush red while his friends laugh beside him. Catching Jiang Cheng looking at him, Wei Wuxian lifts his cup of liquor to him with a smile and downs it.
Everything can change so easily in the blink of an eye, Jiang Cheng thinks, as he raises his own cup to Wei Wuxian.
Jiang Cheng does not get a chance to speak to Wei Wuxian alone. Besides the majority of the days spent in the Discussion Forum with the sect leaders, the only times he sees Wei Wuxian are during the meals where all the guests gather, and even then they are always surrounded with people.
The conference finally comes to an end at the end of the week and Jiang Cheng organizes a competition in the lake behind Lotus Pier to celebrate it.
All sorts of beings, from yao, mo, gui and guai, that can swim through water are released into the lake. The disciples from the various sects are to hunt them down and the sect with the most number of kills wins the competition.
Jin Ling is disgruntled as he seats in the tent with the rest of the sect leaders while he looks on enviously at the disciples getting ready for the game. He replies noncommittally with a grunt when Sect Leader Yao comments on something to him.
Jiang Cheng would reprimand him if he could. He had observed Jin Ling becoming more tactful in his speech and actions during the Discussion Forum compared to other times in the past, but he would need to learn to be more diplomatic when speaking with the sect leaders.
Wei Wuxian lounges beside Lan Wangji, almost sitting in his lap as he drinks yet another bowl of liquor. Jiang Cheng coughs and averts his eyes away hastily.
A crowd has gathered at a safe distance, not wanting to miss a glimpse of the cultivators during this exciting competition. It is not often that Lotus Pier organizes such large scale events after all.
Seeing the crowd, others have seized the opportunity and set up stalls to sell their wares and food on the open ground. Cultivators not involved in the game can be seen strolling through them among the common people. The place is bustling, the air thrumming with excitement.
The drums are hit, signaling the start of the competition. The crowd roars as the boats move out into the open lake.
The Yunmeng Jiang and Gusu Lan sects fare better than the rest. That is to be expected, considering that both of their sects are situated near the waters and handle water creatures more often than not.
Jiang Cheng watches approvingly as his disciples defeat another shuigui, while Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi on the other end of the lake work together to trap a fish yao.
On the other hand, another Jin disciple falls into the lake after his boat was hit by a creature underwater. Other Jin disciples that have already fallen into the waters scramble and call for help. Jiang disciples not involved in the game stand on standby, tasked to rescue the cultivators that can't swim. They glide over in their boats to the Jin disciples when they hear their cries for help.
Jiang Cheng looks at Jin Ling from the corner of his eye and says to him, "I think you should add learning to swim as part of your disciples' training."
Jin Ling only scowls further.
The event ends in a tie between the Yunmeng Jiang and Gusu Lan sects. It is a result everyone can accept and they clap politely in congratulations. After Jiang Cheng has congratulated his disciples on a job well done, he looks across the pier to see Wei Wuxian rubs Sizhui's and Jingyi's head much to their protests. On the other side, Jin Ling barks at his soaking wet and crestfallen disciples about the utter humiliation the Jin sect has faced because of-
Jiang Cheng shakes his head to himself.
Everyone begins to make their way back to Lotus Pier to await the last dinner banquet before returning home to their respective sects.
Jiang Cheng orders his disciples to disperse the crowd and to close the stalls up. By the time everything has been cleared, it is already evening.
The pier is quiet once more, a huge contrast from the din of the event earlier now that everyone is gone. The calm waters reflect the pink and orange of the setting sun in the distance, now a semicircle against the horizon. The breeze from the lake sweeps away the heat of the afternoon, cooling the sweat on Jiang Cheng's neck.
He spots a lone figure under the wooden pavilion at the far edge of the pier away from view, leaning his arms against the balustrade.
Jiang Cheng would recognize Wei Wuxian anywhere.
Jiang Cheng halts for a moment in consideration, before deciding to walk over to him.
He carefully sidesteps the table and chairs built in the middle of the pavilion and leans against the wooden railings beside him. "I thought you would be with Lan Wangji," Jiang Cheng says.
Wei Wuxian doesn't take offence at how Jiang Cheng doesn't call his husband by his title and hums. "I told him I'll see him at dinner later."
Wei Wuxian does not explain more than that and Jiang Cheng does not pry further either. Anyone can see that Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are joined at the hip, anywhere Wei Wuxian went he was bound to have Lan Wangji following beside him. For Wei Wuxian to want alone time away Lan Wangji…
Jiang Cheng realizes today is Wei Wuxian's last day at Lotus Pier before he returns to Cloud Recesses.
Both of them sit in silence as they watch the sun set slowly across the horizon.
"Sizhui and Jingyi have improved a lot in their swordwork," Jiang Cheng says. His eyes follow the tortoise wading leisurely across the lake.
Wei Wuxian nods and the corner of his lips quirk up as he thought of something. "I see that Jin Ling was in a great mood during the competition."
Jiang Cheng sighs exasperatedly. "That boy," he says, "displays all his unhappiness on his face. How is he going to be a sect leader like that?"
Wei Wuxian looks incredulously at Jiang Cheng for a moment before bursting into laughter.
"What?" Jiang Cheng asks confusedly.
Wei Wuxian shakes his head even though he can't stop laughing. "Nothing," he says.
When his laughter finally fades away, he leans his elbows back onto the railings and sighs wistfully. "I remember how both of us used to have the same competitions here with our shidis," he says.
Jiang Cheng's breath seizes and he lets the exhale out slowly. "And you would never take them seriously," Jiang Cheng finds himself saying. "You just kept splashing water on wudi and qidi, knowing they hate getting their robes wet."
He and Wei Wuxian chuckle at the memory.
"They would get so angry and conspire together to topple my raft." Wei Wuxian smiles wryly. "But then I would always jump to yours in time. And then Shijie-" Wei Wuxian stops himself, his eyes going wide.
Silence falls onto the pavilion. A dragonfly buzzes past them.
Jiang Cheng musters all his courage he can summon and pushes the words out, "Ah Jie will bring us lotus and pork ribs soup," his voice shakes, "right to this pavilion when we were done."
Wei Wuxian's eyes are stubbornly fixed onto the far distance, as if he is seeing something other than the empty lake. Tears form in his eyes, his shoulders shaking in grief.
It has been almost seventeen years since Jie had died, but for Wei Wuxian it has only been mere months, Jiang Cheng realizes. The air is thick with too many emotions and words unsaid.
"It doesn't get less painful," Jiang Cheng says quietly, "but it gets easier to handle."
Wei Wuxian chokes on a sob, rubbing the tears that have fallen onto his cheeks away roughly.
Wei Wuxian turns back to look at the sprawling expanse of Lotus Pier behind them. It looks exactly as it did two decades ago, the place both of them had called home and shared their childhoods together.
"Jiang Cheng," he turns to him with tear-filled eyes and says, "it must have been tough all those years alone."
Jiang Cheng feels wetness on his cheek. He touches it with his finger and sees it come away wet. He is crying, he realizes. It feels like the heavy weight on his chest has been lifted. He never knew how much he needed it acknowledged until now. Those long sixteen years, all alone with no one to speak to, no one left who understood how it felt to lose Jie-
He is enveloped in a warm hug. Wei Wuxian has his arms tight around him, like he is scared Jiang Cheng would be gone from his life again. Jiang Cheng feels the very same, and wraps his own arms around him too.
How lucky is he that Wei Wuxian has returned to the living world, and not only that, that Wei Wuxian wanted Jiang Cheng in his life still after all that has happened?
He's not going to let Wei Wuxian go again, Jiang Cheng promises and squeezes Wei Wuxian tighter. Not on his watch.
When both of them finally stop crying, the sun has set and the sky is dark.
"We should get back," Wei Wuxian says, blowing his nose on a lotus leaf he plucked. "The banquet is about to start soon." He begins to walk hastily back to Lotus Pier, "the host can't be absent can he?"
Jiang Cheng does not move from his spot. "Wei Wuxian," he says.
"Hm?" Wei Wuxian turns back. Lotus Pier is a backdrop behind him.
"You can come back to Lotus Pier anytime you want you know." Jiang Cheng says. "It's still your home. Always has been."
They kneel side by side, joss sticks in hand as they bow to the ancestral tablets together for the very first time.
Ah Jie, Jiang Cheng thinks, I'm sorry that it took us so long, but I hope you will be happy to see this.
Because I am too.