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Progress (with a little nudge)

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The gentle sound of the qin is soothing as it fills the hall, but when it’s joined by the flute Jiang Cheng tenses. For so long he’s associated that sound with everything wrong with the world. The flute falters on a few notes and Jiang Cheng forces himself to relax, reminding himself that this is just a performance, simply some after dinner entertainment requested by Jin Ling of his two visiting uncles in a way that implied he didn’t really care when he actually cared a great deal. Next to him, Sizhui had straightened with a hopeful glint in his eyes. Wuxian, of course, smiled at his nephew and adopted son before turning to Wangji to seek his permission. No words were exchanged, but something clearly passed between them because a moment later Wuxian stood up and bowed to Jiang Cheng as he requested permission for himself and Wangji to give a small musical performance. Since the children asked and they looked so earnest and Wuxian had such a hopeful look on his face Jiang Cheng said yes.

Taking a deep breath he focuses on the melody, nothing like the music he remembers when Wuxian uses his demonic cultivation. It’s soft and soothing, perfect for winding down at the end of the day, though it’s marred by the occasional mistake on the part of the flute. When Jiang Cheng looks closer he notices Wuxian’s hands are trembling. It occurs to him that though he has heard Wuxian play his flute around Lotus Pier, this is the first time his brother is aware that he’s listening. As he watches, Wangji, not missing a note, takes his eyes from his qin to frown at Wuxian. Like before, no words are uttered, but as Wuxian’s eyes meet Wangji’s his hands stop trembling and the notes of his flute become smooth and steady. A smile tilts Wuxian’s lips and Jiang Cheng is impressed by the sense of calm he hadn’t thought possible that settles over Wuxian as he focuses on Wangji and the music they are creating. Jiang Cheng almost feels like he isn’t meant to witness this, like he’s intruding on an intimate moment. Then the eye contact breaks and Wuxian’s eyes flit first to Sizhui, then Jin Ling. Something in Jiang Cheng’s chest tightens when he realizes his brother is deliberately avoiding looking at him. It’s his own fault, Jiang Cheng reminds himself. He put off inviting Wuxian back to Lotus Pier for so long that Jin Ling finally threatened to do it himself. This is the second visit so far and very little progress has been made.

Apologizing isn’t something Wuxian and Jiang Cheng have ever really done much of without being made to by Yan-li. Wuxian had never seemed to have a problem recognizing Jiang Cheng’s intentions though and so they’d covered it up by picking fights with each other that they both knew neither of them meant anything by. But that was a long time ago. Too much had changed for them to just fall back into that old familiar pattern. Wuxian still teases him, but there’s something stilted about it, like he’s holding back, afraid to push too far too fast and reinspire Jiang Cheng’s anger with him. Jiang Cheng isn’t sure what to do about it. He can’t even figure out how to tell Wuxian that he and his family are of course welcome to stay within Lotus Pier itself rather than a nearby inn. It’s inconvenient, considering that when visiting they typically spend the whole day at Lotus Pier anyway. But perhaps it’s also for the best. Jin Ling and Sizhui get along very well, spending their time training, exploring Yunmeng, and getting into trouble. But that means that it’s often just Jiang Cheng, Wuxian, and Wangji alone together and that is… not going well.

Wangji, surprisingly, is actually the easier one to deal with. Despite the fact that they’ve never gotten along that well, Jiang Cheng has sixteen years of awkwardly attending the same events and running into each other while supervising night hunts to fall back on. He doesn’t particularly enjoy dealing with Wangji’s unnerving silence, but it’s familiar. In some ways dealing with Wuxian is familiar as well, but in a way that makes his heart ache for a time they can’t return to. It’s all the unsaid things between them. It’s the differences Jiang Cheng sees in his brother’s behavior. It’s the shadows that sometimes pass over him, only eased by Wangji’s voice softly calling his name or his hand gently settling on Wuxian’s. Some of these changes, Jiang Cheng thinks, have been present long before his resurrection, probably as far back as the three months he’d been forced to survive in the Burial Mounds just after giving up his golden core. Three months in a hellscape that should have devoured him and instead Wuxian had taken the Jiang Clan motto to heart and done the impossible, clawing his way back out. Jiang Cheng closes his eyes, chasing those thoughts away. He doesn’t want to think about such things right now.

When he opens his eyes again, Wuxian is looking at him, a hint of fondness in his eyes. Jiang Cheng has missed that dearly, missed his older brother. The music comes to a close. Sizhui starts clapping immediately and Jin Ling quickly forgets his noble bearing to join in. Wuxian smiles and makes a show of thanking them, but his eyes keep darting to Jiang Cheng. Releasing a slow breath, Jiang Cheng claps politely a few times, acknowledging the beautiful performance and both his brother and Wangji’s skill with music. The flute still puts him on edge- how could it not after so many years of associating it with hatred and anger and pain and the loss of his beloved older sister?- but if they’re actually going to make this work, then Jiang Cheng needs to suck it up and start making more of an effort. He thought of how much Yan-li would hate to see them at odds. She had loved Wuxian until her dying breath and had been one of the only people who had never lost faith in him. She would want them to mend their relationship.

“I’ve never heard that song before,” Jiang Cheng comments. Wuxian looks up from where he’s just sat down, so close to Wangji that the only indication of where one robe ends and another begins is the contrast of the colors. Jiang Cheng doesn’t sigh, but it’s close. He shouldn’t be surprised that Wuxian is the type of person to so openly show affection for the one he loves. His brother has always been like this. Still, it’s a stark contrast to the respectful distance Yan-li and Jin Zixuan had maintained in public settings. Plenty of loving gazes and holding of hands and the occasional gentle touch, sure, but certainly not sitting so close to each other in public like this. But appropriate or not, Jiang Cheng refuses to scold the behavior. After everything his brother has been through he deserves happiness and Jiang Cheng doesn’t want to do anything to step on that.

“Lan Zhan composed it,” Wuxian says, glancing at Wangji with pride. “So far, to my knowledge, the two of us are the only ones who know it.”

Wangji, predictably, does not comment on this, but instead says, “It’s late.”

“Ah, so it is,” Wuxian agrees. He knocks his shoulder against Wangji’s and adds, with a teasing smile, “It’s almost your bedtime! Come, A-yuan.” He stands and stretches. “We should head back before Lan Zhan is forced to curl up on a patch of dirt on the side of the road!” It’s on the tip of Jiang Cheng’s tongue to suggest that if that’s the case, then they should save themselves the trouble and just stay the night here. In fact, tomorrow they should just move all their things to the guest house and not bother with the inn anymore because Lotus Pier has plenty of room for the clan leader’s visiting brother and his family. But as Wangji and Sizhui stand, bowing with Wuxian to their hosts, the words get stuck in his throat. Perhaps Wuxian prefers it this way, prefers the physical distance from Lotus Pier because he’s not ready to truly return here, to his home. It’s all the excuse Jiang Cheng needs not to say anything as he and Jin Ling escort their guests to the gate.

Wuxian hugs Jin Ling goodnight without hesitation. Initially, Jin Ling had been a bit thrown by how open this particular uncle was with his affection, but now he seems to relish it. Jiang Cheng has always wondered how affectionate those at Carp Tower were towards his nephew. He knows many there had bullied Jin Ling and while Jin Guangyao had certainly never had a problem buying Jin Ling anything he wanted or speaking up in his defense, Jiang Cheng couldn’t picture him ever hugging the boy. When Jin Ling had been little, Jiang Cheng had made a point of showing his nephew the affection he himself had been denied by his own parents, but somehow it had gotten harder when Jin Ling got older. The last time Jiang Cheng hugged his nephew the way Wuxian currently is was years ago. It makes him think of Yan-li, who would have been a loving, attentive mother. She had years of practice showing care and affection to her two younger brothers, so it would have been no problem for her to do the same for her son. Jiang Cheng can never give Jin Ling his mother back. But, he thinks as he watches Wuxian step back and smile softly at his nephew, Wuxian is a very close second.

Jin Ling turns away to say goodnight to Sizhui and Wuxian turns to Jiang Cheng. His smile remains, but it dims, just a bit, with something that might be a combination of nerves and sadness.

“Jiang Cheng,” Wuxian says and bows. Jiang Cheng wants to tell him to stop it, stop being formal, stop being nervous, stop acting in this odd, restrained manner, go back to being the brother he used to chase through Lotus Pier. Instead, he bows in return, first to Wuxian, then to Wangji. He’s not sure, but as Wuxian calls Sizhui to his side and turns to leave, Jiang Cheng thinks the smile may have been tinged with disappointment.

Two steps out of the gate Wuxian pauses and turns back. “Lan Zhan?” he calls because Wangji hasn’t moved from where he’s standing in front of Jiang Cheng.

Without turning to look at Wuxian, Wangji simply says, “Go.” Wuxian stares at Wangji’s back for a long moment, eyes darting briefly to Jiang Cheng. Then he nods and starts walking up the road, urging Sizhui along with a gentle hand on his back.

“If you don’t make it back,” Wuxian calls over his shoulder, “I’ll come look for you along the side of the road first thing in the morning!” Jiang Cheng isn’t sure, but he thinks he might’ve seen the corners of Wangji’s mouth twitch upwards in what passed for a smile. They stand in silence for so long that Jiang Cheng has to start fighting the urge to fidget. Jin Ling eyes them for a moment before deciding their staring contest isn’t interesting and wandering off. The silence continues. Jiang Cheng is about to demand to know what Wangji wants when the man finally speaks.

“He will not ask for what he does not think he deserves,” Wangji says, nods respectfully, and at last follows after Wuxian and Sizhui, who Jiang Cheng can see have stopped to wait up the road. Jiang Cheng turns away, irritated. What is that supposed to mean? With night closing in around him Jiang Cheng decides to put it from his mind.

Or at least, he tries to.

Jiang Cheng is lying in bed later, trying to fall asleep, when he finally blows out a frustrated breath and gives up. Wangji’s words won’t stop bouncing around in his head. He will not ask for what he does not think he deserves. The only part of that statement Jiang Cheng feels confident he is understanding correctly is that it refers to Wuxian, but in Jiang Cheng’s experience his brother has never had a problem asking for things. Or at least, he realizes, he didn’t used to have that problem. Jiang Cheng thinks of the Wei Wuxian he knows now, the one who acts so restrained around him, as if he’s always afraid that Jiang Cheng will change his mind and disown him again. He thinks of all the time Wangji has spent chasing after Wuxian and wonders how long it took his brother to understand that Wangji wasn’t doing it out of obligation, but because he can’t imagine being anywhere but at Wuxian’s side. He thinks of how everyone but Wangji and Yan-li turned their backs on Wuxian. Then he thinks of how in the Nightless City he had told his brother to go to hell right before killing him. Jiang Cheng thinks about all of this and then feels stupid. Of course Wuxian always questions whether or not he was the right to ask for things, even something as simple as a bed in Lotus Pier. Frowning, Jiang Cheng gets up and dresses before he can change his mind.

It’s still early enough that the main floor of the inn is a little crowded. Jiang Cheng doesn’t expect to see Wangji- it is after nine- but he’s a little surprised when he spots Sizhui alone, reading as he absently snacks on some peanuts. No matter. If Wuxian has also decided to turn in early (which Jiang Cheng sincerely doubts, based on his brother’s typical sleeping habits) then he isn’t above waking him up. They can come down and have a drink together or maybe even step outside so that it’s just the two of them, like it used to be. Jiang Cheng is surprised by the brief surge of jealousy, an echo of what he’d felt back during the Lan lecture at Cloud Recesses when Wuxian had seemed like he was spending more time trying to get Wangji’s attention than he had with his siblings. Shaking his head, Jiang Cheng approaches Sizhui.

“Where is Wei Wuxian?” he asks without preamble. Sizhui blinks and looks up from his book, so surprised to see Jiang Cheng standing there that he forgets about any sort of polite greeting.

“Upstairs with Hanguang Jun,” Sizhui answers slowly. “But-”

“Thank you,” Jiang Cheng interrupts. It’s rude, he knows that, but he can apologize to Sizhui later. Right now he just wants to get this over with. Sizhui probably wasn’t going to tell him anything he needed to know right now anyway. Probably just something about how Wuxian is drunk, which certainly doesn’t surprise someone who grew up with him. Or maybe something about how he should be quiet so as not to disturb Wangji. It doesn’t matter. What matters is finding the right room. When he does, Jiang Cheng knocks and waits. And waits. Frowning, he knocks again.

“Wei Wuxian,” he calls, though not too loudly, just in case there are people sleeping in the rooms around him that wouldn’t appreciate being woken. “Let me in.” Again, nothing. Jiang Cheng double checks that he has the right room, then puts his ear to the door. He can hear… something. What exactly the sound is eludes him, but the room is definitely occupied, which means his brother is ignoring him.

“Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng calls again, accompanied by more knocking. Still nothing. Jiang Cheng scowls at the door. He listens closely again and is positive he hears Wuxian say something, possibly Wangji’s name, followed by what might have been a laugh, though one Jiang Cheng can’t say he’s ever heard from his brother before. Fine, if Wuxian wants to ignore him then Jiang Cheng will just make that impossible. He throws the door open, takes two steps in, ready to snap his brother’s name in irritation, and freezes as he finds himself confronted with the sight of Lan Wangji’s bare naked ass. A moment later the covers are pulled up. His mind refuses to work. Words completely abandon him. The very foundation of the world seems to crumble under his feet. He’s in so much shock over the fact that he has now seen Wangji’s naked backside that at first it doesn’t even register with him that Wuxian is gaping at him from beneath Wangji and that he is most likely also completely naked under the covers. Jiang Cheng realizes he should have waited for Sizhui to finish speaking.

Several more long, agonizing moments of dead silence pass. Wuxian opens his mouth a few times like he’s going to say something, but Jiang Cheng thinks his brother is just as shocked by the situation as he is. Under different circumstances it would be funny to see Wuxian at a loss for words for once, but it’s hard to appreciate the moment when Wangji’s ass is seared into Jiang Cheng’s memory. God, how is he supposed to ever look Wangji in the eye again? How is he supposed to run into him at public events and greet him without remembering that one time he saw the man’s naked ass? He’s not even sure he’ll be able to look Wuxian in the eye after this. He feels like he’s seen something forbidden.

“Clan Leader Jiang.”

Jiang Cheng startles, finally pulling his eyes away from the spot where just moments before he had seen something not meant to be witnessed by any person except for Wei Wuxian. Wangji is looking at him as if he isn’t still holding himself perfectly still over Wuxian’s reclined form. As if they’re having tea on a peaceful afternoon or socializing at a Cultivation Conference. As if two of the three people involved in this situation aren’t naked in bed together.

“Please wait downstairs while Wei Ying and I dress,” Wangji calmly requests. Jiang Cheng nods, mostly because he still hasn’t regained the ability to form words. Then he walks back out, closes the door behind him, and goes downstairs. He’s tempted to just leave the inn altogether, but Sizhui seems to have been keeping a lookout for him and quickly waves him over to his table where there are now a number of jars of liquor that Jiang Cheng knows weren’t there before. Sizhui says nothing as Jiang Cheng takes a seat, just opens one of the jars and helpfully pours Jiang Cheng a cup.

He waits for Jiang Cheng to go through half the jar before saying, “I did try to warn you.” He sounds far too amused for Jiang Cheng’s liking. He’s trying to figure out what to say to that when Wuxian arrives, thankfully alone. He’s dressed a bit haphazardly, clearly having rushed. He might have run a comb through his hair a couple times, but it’s completely unbound in a fashion Jiang Cheng can’t even remember when he last saw. Sizhui has cracked open his book again, keeping his eyes focused on it, but he does push another one of the jars towards Wuxian. Wuxian grabs it, opens it, and immediately downs the entire contents. Sizhui pushes another jar over. Wuxian opens this one as well, but doesn’t drink from it just yet, instead looking at Jiang Cheng. Jiang Cheng clears his throat.

“I, uh, apologize for my… interruption,” he says.

“I did try to warn him that he should wait down here,” Sizhui helpfully supplies, sounding like the only thing holding back his laughter is the years of Lan clan upbringing he had in Cloud Recesses. Rather than answer, Wuxian takes a deep drink from the jar, mumbling something as he wipes his mouth. Jiang Cheng catches something about how cheeky kids are these days, as if Wuxian had never been a cheeky kid himself.

“Jiang Cheng,” Wuxian says, mostly composed though there's a hint of redness to his cheeks that doesn't have anything to do with liquor. “Was there something you needed?” Jiang Cheng clears his throat and looks away. Here comes the hard part. It’s such a simple request and yet at the same time it isn’t. There was once a time where he had been determined that Wei Wuxian would never again set foot in Lotus Pier, but he pushes that from his mind. Instead, he keeps his focus on the open affection Wuxian freely bestows on his nephew and how upset Yan-li would be if he chickened out now. It strengthens his resolve. If he can’t bring himself to do it for his own sake just yet, he’ll do it for Jin Ling and his sister.

“It’s ridiculous to stay out here at an inn when there is plenty of space available at Lotus Pier,” Jiang Cheng says, unable to quite look Wuxian in the eye. Sizhui looks up from his book. Wuxian stares.

“Ah, that’s very generous of you, Jiang Cheng,” Wuxian finally manages to say. “That would give us plenty of opportunities for a repeat of tonight’s awkward situation.” It’s not an outright refusal, but it’s not acceptance either. Jiang Cheng thinks it’s an offer for him to rescind the invitation because, he realizes, Wuxian is assuming he’s doing this out of some kind of obligation. He considers, just for a second, giving up, but then he thinks that if Wuxian doesn’t feel comfortable accepting the invitation on his own behalf, perhaps he would accept it on behalf of his son. It probably shouldn’t require jumping through so many hoops for the two of them to get through what is honestly a very simple conversation.

“I’ve been thinking,” Jiang Cheng begins, pausing to down another cup of wine. “Jin Ling and Sizhui greatly enjoy each other’s company.”

“They do,” Wuxian agrees, unable to stop himself from glancing at Sizhui with a fond smile.

“It seems like it would be far more convenient for them if you were staying at Lotus Pier.” Jiang Cheng waits, watching Wuxian closely. Several emotions cross his brother’s face, too fast for Jiang Cheng to puzzle them out. He makes eye contact with Jiang Cheng, reads what they’ve both left unspoken, and smiles.

“I think you’re right, Jiang Cheng,” Wuxian says. “Tomorrow we’ll bring our things to Lotus Pier.” Jiang Cheng frowns, ready to insist they just get it over with tonight so he can go to bed knowing the situation is for sure dealt with instead of wondering if one of them will come up with some excuse tomorrow to back out. Seeing this, Wuxian explains, “Lan Zhan went to bed and it’s a pain to wake him up.” It probably isn’t, but Jiang Cheng hears the unspoken words. I will come, but I need some time. Jiang Cheng nods.

“Very well. I will see you in the morning then.” He stands and is pleased when instead of the more formal bows he’s been receiving recently, Wuxian remains seated and simply nods respectfully. Progress, he thinks. And alcohol, of course, but sometimes progress needs a little nudge. Jiang Cheng heads towards the door.

“Does this mean I can come back up to the room?” he hears Sizhui ask.

“Of course, I said Lan Zhan is asleep, didn’t I?” is Wuxian’s mildly indignant response. “Do you think I was lying for Jiang Cheng’s sake? Come on, you need your sleep.”

Jiang Cheng pauses on the edge of a decision. To hell with it, he decides. It seems to him like a lot of his and Wuxian’s problems might have been solved by a bit more honesty and communication and he’s just drunk enough to follow that line of reasoning over to the stairs where Wuxian has paused, waiting.

“Something else you need, Jiang Cheng?”

Jiang Cheng reminds himself that he is a highly respected clan leader, not a coward, and says, “I enjoyed this evening’s performance.” Wuxian’s eyes widen, just a bit, his lips parting in surprise. Then he regains his composure.

“Lan Zhan’s skill with his qin is unparalleled,” Wuxian says softly. It’s equally a compliment of Wangji’s skill and an excuse for Jiang Cheng not to acknowledge the other instrument that accompanied the qin. Jiang Cheng has already come this far so he refuses to back down.

“The performance would not have had nearly the same effect without your flute,” Jiang Cheng says and immediately sees that those simple words mean the world to his brother. Yes, Jiang Cheng thinks he can learn to love the sound of a flute again, just as he is learning to love Wuxian again. Although, when he thinks about it, he doesn’t think the love was ever really gone. It was just hidden under his hurt and anger and sorrow. But he thinks Wuxian was right back in the Guanyin temple. It’s time to let all of those things go and instead put his focus on nurturing the love that has been trapped there for so many years. For Jin Ling’s sake, for Yan-li’s. For his own.

Wuxian’s eyes are shimmering, but the tears don’t quite fall. Instead, he steps slowly and deliberately into Jiang Cheng’s space and hugs him. Jiang Cheng doesn’t hug back- this time- but when Wuxian pulls away his smile hasn’t faltered. Things will never be as they once were, especially without Yan-li. There is no erasing the past.

But that shouldn’t stop them from moving forward.