Even when Wei Wuxian was dead, Jiang Cheng’s life revolved around him. It revolved around how Jiang Cheng spent his days following the slightest whisper of demonic cultivation, in how Jin Ling’s extended presence in Lotus Pier was a sore reminder of Jiang Yanli’s absence, in how Jiang Cheng could not sleep without nightmares of that day atop that cliff in the Nightless City, and in how no one ever set foot down an entire hallway of Lotus Pier because it leads to Wei Wuxian’s room.
These days, Jiang Cheng’s days have settled into a calm, mundane routine. He no longer hunts demonic cultivators, knowing they are all scams and none of them are his brother. Jin Ling is a sect leader now, with his own advisors, and no longer has time to flounce around Lotus Pier to escape Jin Chan. An entire wing of Lotus Pier has seen some sorely needed maintenance despite remaining otherwise untouched as it awaits a former Head Disciple who will never return home.
But the nightmare remains: of Wei Wuxian’s last moments and how Jiang Cheng made it that way.
Only now, sometimes, the Wei Wuxian in Jiang Cheng’s dreams speaks. This is how you repay me for giving you my golden core, Wei Wuxian says in his dreams. You could never achieve anything without me. It is not a taunt — never a taunt — which makes it all that much worse when Jiang Cheng jolts awake, breathing heavily, knowing that for all his mother (and later himself) claimed that Wei Wuxian owed Yunmeng Jiang an unpayable debt, it had become the other way around.
It cannot be a taunt if it is true , Jiang Cheng thinks as he drags himself out of bed in the middle of the night to hack training dummies into splinters.
Wei Wuxian’s core has only strengthened over the years in Jiang Cheng’s body. It has been over a decade since Jiang Cheng has felt true exhaustion, Wei Wuxian’s golden core reliably pumping spiritual energy through Jiang Cheng’s veins to keep Jiang Cheng’s body in pristine condition.
Even dead, Wei Wuxian was protecting Jiang Cheng.
Jiang Cheng hates it.
The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. Before Wei Wuxian died, while Wei Wuxian was dead, and now after Wei Wuxian has been brought back to the world, there remains a Wei Wuxian shaped hole in Jiang Cheng’s heart that he never learned how to deal with.
Even when the cultivation world celebrated him for killing the Yiling Patriarch, when they lauded his dedication to wiping out the heretical path and praised his swift judgement on fledgling demonic cultivators who could barely summon a rat’s corpse, Jiang Cheng never escaped Wei Wuxian’s shadow. Not entirely.
Jiang Cheng’s interactions with Lan Wangji during the sixteen years were few and far between, both harbouring too much blame and resentment for the other to ever reconcile the tentative friendship they had established during the Sunshot Campaign.
But Lan Wangji had seen through what no one wanted to see, had seen Jiang Cheng for the fraud he was. That fateful day on Dafan Mountain had been the most words he had exchanged with Lan Wangji in more than sixteen years.
It was fitting that Lan Wangji got his happy ending with Wei Wuxian as a reward for his steadfast loyalty to his memory all these years while Jiang Cheng languished in his own regret. Regret for actions not taken, regret for actions taken.
For over a decade, Jiang Cheng mocked and scoffed at Lan Wangji for stubbornly clinging to his mourning robes. As if Wei Wuxian could ever be worth such devotion, Jiang Cheng had thought as he ignored the way his stomach twisted. As he pretended he wasn’t jealous of Lan Wangji’s ability to broadcast his grief to the entire world while hiding behind the pure white of Gusu Lan when Jiang Cheng could do nothing but shield himself in his Yunmeng purple. Lan Wangji got to shed his mourning robes, but Jiang Cheng was left to drown in his grief for a brother who was no longer dead but still lost to him.
It had been just over a year since the Guanyin Temple when Gusu Lan sent out a missive announcing the marriage between Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian.
Jiang Cheng had thrown the paper into the lake and told himself it was fine. He was fine. He had not been invited, but it was fine. Lan Wangji never asked for his blessing but why would he? Wei Wuxian was not his to give away. Wei Wuxian had not even bothered to write his own letter to tell Jiang Cheng.
Beyond that single announcement, the only letters Jiang Cheng is receiving from Gusu are trade disputes and invitations for guest disciples.
He hasn’t heard anything from Wei Wuxian since the Guanyin Temple, two years ago.
He hasn’t heard much about Wei Wuxian in general. It seems Wei Wuxian has finally learned something about subtlety and keeping his head down.
Most (all) of Jiang Cheng’s updates on Wei Wuxian’s life and whereabouts come from Jin Ling. How humiliating, to have to ask his nephew for updates on his own brother.
And whose fault is that? Jiang Cheng forces his thoughts aside.
It isn’t as if he doesn’t know that Wei Wuxian is his fault. Wei Wuxian may have pushed him away first, but Jiang Cheng had let him.
In the early morning, Sect Leader Jiang Wanyin, Jiang Cheng, A-Cheng , hugs his knees to his chest on the docks of Lotus Pier as he watches the first rays of sun break through the horizon.
Jiang Cheng hasn’t been alive for very long, a rather short time for a cultivator of his pedigree. But he has enough regrets for several lifetimes over.
There is nothing he wants more than to see Wei Wuxian, to talk to Wei Wuxian again without the ever-present Hanguang-jun hovering in the background, to reconcile. To be brothers again.
But he has no idea where to even begin.
It begins with an interesting new embroidered silk scroll hanging in Baling, on the wall of Sect Leader Ouyang’s reception room.
Jiang Cheng is in Baling for his bi-annual negotiations with Sect Leader Ouyang over lake borders and fishing rights.
Ouyang Zizhen is also present, sitting on the side and observing. A stack of paper, brush, and ink sit beside him because he is supposed to be studying. While Jiang Cheng and Sect Leader Ouyang review the lake territory and fishing boundaries, it is supposed to be a lesson in inter-sect diplomacy for Ouyang Zizhen.
Jiang Cheng pays Zizhen no mind. He knows Zizhen is one of Jin Ling’s friends despite what Jin Ling says, along with the two Lan disciples who are so often seen at Lan Wangji’s side. Jiang Cheng has no strong opinions towards Ouyang Zizhen, even though Ouyang-gongzi is clearly not paying attention to their discussion.
He raised Jin Ling; he knows how teenagers are.
What catches Jiang Cheng’s attention is the nature of the embroidered art. Unlike the floral branches and wispy landscapes usually depicted in embroidery, these new threads display abstract humanoid lumps and garish colourings.
The oddest scroll of silk art Jiang Cheng has ever seen is hanging right behind Sect Leader Ouyang’s head.
By no means is Jiang Cheng a connoisseur of fine art. He is not Nie Huaisang, who collects fine art the way Jiang Cheng collects regrets. He is also not Wei Wuxian, who painted everything in sight in their youth. Not for the first time, Jiang Cheng regrets that Wei Wuxian’s countless paintings were all lost when Lotus Pier fell.
Jiang Cheng is no artist but, like any member of the gentry, Jiang Cheng is well versed enough in the arts to know that silk embroidery is intended to reflect the serene beauty of nature, to replicate the stillness of nature. The act of artistic creation is a practice of self-cultivation, an expression of inner peace in the attainment of cosmic balance.
It is not intended to depict a person falling into water.
Ouyang Zizhen looks rather smug when he catches Jiang Cheng staring at the outlandish silk scroll.
“Is Sect Leader Jiang interested in Baling Ouyang’s new silk scroll?” Ouyang Zizhen’s tone is polite, but Jiang Cheng grew up with Wei Wuxian and raised Jin Ling. He recognizes when he is being secretly laughed at by a teenager.
Still, Zizhen is much more pleasant than his father and Jiang Cheng does not have it in him to begrudge the youth a little fun. “The design is very unique.”
“It is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece stitched by a reclusive new artist,” Ouyang Zizhen says. He puffs out his chest with pride.
“Blasphemy, more like,” Sect Leader Ouyang grumbles. He does not turn around but the flare in his eyes makes clear exactly how he feels about the silk scroll hanging behind him. “My son has brought back several pieces of sacrilegious embroidery all stitched by a fraud. This brat has no respect. Won’t tell me where he gets such monstrosities, no matter what punishments I threaten him. It is humiliating, to greet such honourable cultivators as yourself under such sacrilegious art.”
“Yet you do not take it down.” Jiang Cheng is not looking for a fight, exactly. What he really wants is to be done with Sect Leader Ouyang so he can return to Lotus Pier and continue wallowing in his own regrets. But, old habits die hard.
Luckily, Sect Leader Ouyang is happy enough to complain that he does not realize the subtle insult Jiang Cheng has dealt him. “Can you believe the Chief Cultivator allows the Yiling Laozu to corrupt Gusu’s youth? To lead nighthunts? My son received an enhanced sticking talisman from the Yiling Laozu himself on a nighthunt and stuck it on this eyesore. No matter what I do, it won’t come off.”
Jiang Cheng has to bite his tongue when Sect Leader Ouyang spits out Yiling Laozu. No matter how little respect Jiang Cheng has for Sect Leader Ouyang, Wei Wuxian is not worth causing a diplomatic incident over. The cultivation world cannot withstand another major conflict. Even now, they are all still reeling from the revelation that they had all been pawns in Jin Guangyao’s little game all these years.
Isn’t that why you lost him in the first place? An unwanted voice intrudes on Jiang Cheng’s thoughts. Why he willingly lives in the place with 4000 rules instead of at your side? You call him your brother yet you care about your sect more than you ever cared for him.
“Sect Leader Jiang?” Zizhen asks, his brush dripping splotches of dark ink on the paper before him.
With a deceptively steady voice, Jiang Cheng allows the mask of indifferent fury he has worn for twenty years to settle back in place. Glaring at both Sect Leader Ouyang and Ouyang Zizhen, Jiang Cheng says, coldly, “Do not speak of Wei Wuxian. He has no business in our discussion.”
“Apologies, Sect Leader Jiang!” Sect Leader Ouyang says a little too loudly and much too boisterously. “It is good to see that not all of the Four Great Sects have lost their minds in regards to the Yiling Laozu Wei Wuxian. He may have been the wronged party once, but we cannot let our guard down around practitioners of the heretical path!”
Jiang Cheng cringes. That is not what he meant, but he does not correct Sect Leader Ouyang’s misunderstanding.
(He wishes he had Lan Wangji’s boldness when it came to standing up for Wei Wuxian.)
Zizhen frowns, but says nothing. He is more observant than his father, and is aware that his father has misinterpreted Jiang Cheng. Being friends with Lan Sizhui and Jin Ling also makes Zizhen privy to more information about Jiang Cheng’s relationship with Wei Wuxian, and lack thereof, than Jiang Cheng would like anyone to be.
“Hanguang-jun will keep him in line,” Jiang Cheng says brusquely. As much as anyone can control Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng doesn’t say.
He wishes Wei Wuxian was here to defend himself, instead of gallivanting around Gusu being shameless with his husband.
But he has earned his happiness, Jiang Cheng tells himself as he prepares to waste his afternoon in Baling, and you have not.
Nie Huaisang carries a new fan with odd embroidery.
That is not unusual. Jiang Cheng does his best to meet Nie Huaisang for tea every other month as old friends. Nie Huaisang has no shortage of exquisitely painted and meticulously embroidered fans in rich silks, smooth satins, and even the occasional fragile paper fan that is treated with the utmost care.
What makes Jiang Cheng suspicious is the amateur needlework of the fan.
Unlike the whispy woods and vibrant flowers favoured by Nie Huaisang, this fan depicts a fish.
Animals, even fish, have been known to make an appearance on Nie Huaisang’s fans. But they have always been elegant, majestic portrayals designed to showcase the mastery of the artist to weave threads in such a manner that the colours are near perfect replicas of the authentic animals. Live animals, so realistic that the ripples of the silk created the illusion of moving in the open breeze whenever Nie Huaisang whips out a fan.
But this fan depicts a dead fish.
At a glance, Jiang Cheng can tell that the silk is of a high quality. Sturdy, yet thin and brightly dyed. The embroiderer is clearly a skilled artist as well: the colours are carefully blended together to create the realistic illusion that Jiang Cheng is familiar with. But the embroidery itself is messy.
There are at least two loose threads that have not been properly tied down sticking out of the dead fish. The edges of the fins are jagged, as if the sewer was inexperienced with balancing the thread to create a smooth outline. Instead of the masterful double-sided embroidery that is standard for fans, the opposite side is a tangled mish-mash of haphazardly tied silk that barely holds together.
It is most unusual that someone with so little experience with needlework would use such expensive materials.
And it is greatly suspicious that Nie Huaisang, of all people, would carry such an amateur design.
Nie Huaisang sees how Jiang Cheng looks at his fan suspiciously but says nothing to sate Jiang Cheng’s curiosity. Jiang Cheng suspects the benefactor of Nie Huaisang’s fan is the same silk artist behind Ouyang Zizhen’s mysterious art.
He is no connoisseur of silk embroidery, but he is not completely senseless. Silk artists have such pride in their work; it is more or less impossible that there is more than one silk artist who is willing to make a living with the chaotic needlework of Ouyang Zizhen’s silk scroll. Even if Jiang Cheng had not gotten a close look at the Ouyang scroll, the combination of inexperienced needlework with the absurdity of Nie Huaisang’s fan is enough to make Jiang Cheng suspicious.
Nie Huaisang, who Jiang Cheng now realizes notices everything, shakes the fan with one hand while he sets out their cups with the other.
“Jiang-xiong.” Nie Huaisang sets the fan down as he pours them both wine.
Watching Nie Huaisang pour wine is always an experience. On a good day, Jiang Cheng is hit with a tidal wave of nostalgia and deja-vu. Watching Nie Huaisang pour wine into a pair of cups has never stopped being eerily reminiscent of their days as guest disciples in Cloud Recesses. They never bothered pouring for Wei Wuxian back then because the lout chugged wine down his throat straight from the jug.
Today, it is an especially sentimental experience. Normally, they share a jug or two of a unique Qinghe blend from Nie Huaisang’s cabinets or a classic Yunmeng brew Jiang Cheng would bring with him.
(In a locked cabinet in Jiang Cheng’s office, there contains the Hefeng wine that Wei Wuxian invented and brewed himself so long ago. It sits in a cabinet, unseen and untouched.
Sometimes Jiang Cheng wonders if he should share one of the few remaining jars with Nie Huaisang, a salute to their past.
He never does.)
Today, Nie Huaisang holds a familiar white jug that Jiang Cheng has not seen in years. Decades, even.
“Jiang-xiong?” Nie Huaisang asks, observant as ever. He pushes a cup towards Jiang Cheng. “Do you find my selection of liquor offensive?”
Jiang Cheng shakes his head, glad that Nie Huaisang knows him well enough to not take offense. “Excuse my surprise. I didn’t expect to be served Gusu liquor today. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a jug of Emperor’s Smile.”
Now that Jin Guangyao is out of the picture, Nie Huaisang no longer hides his perceptiveness behind incompetence. Even if he has never been as quick-witted as Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng is not an idiot. He always had his suspicions about the relationship between Nie Huaisang and Jin Guangyao, but it did not involve Yunmeng Jiang. Despite their ongoing friendship, Nie Huaisang also never volunteered information about Jin Guangyao to Jiang Cheng. Therefore, it was not Jiang Cheng’s business.
From Lan Wangji and Nie Huaisang’s stilted greetings at conferences, it is clear to Jiang Cheng that Lan Wangji still eyes Nie Huaisang with suspicion.
(Even though he only rose up to become Chief Cultivator and marry Wei Wuxian thanks to Nie Huaisang.)
(But Lan Wangji nearly lost his brother due to Nie Huaisang’s machinations.)
Jiang Cheng has no such reservations. They were close enough friends at Cloud Recesses for that relationship to blossom into a solid comradery during the Sunshot Campaign that has never wavered since.
Nie Huaisang plays innocent mind games with Jiang Cheng and Jiang Cheng yells back empty threats of bodily harm. It is the only relationship Jiang Cheng has that is not fraught with tonnes of emotional baggage.
They both have their secrets, but they will not turn on one another.
Taking a large sip from his cup, Jiang Cheng immediately chokes on the nostalgia of the liquor. Even if he only enjoyed Emperor’s Smile for a very short duration of his life, his time as a guest disciple in Cloud Recesses had been the happiest time of his life. There have been happy moments since, but never for an extended duration the way Cloud Recesses had been.
He swallows quickly. Despite being an experienced drinker, Jiang Cheng still lets out a cough.
Nie Huaisang smiles his cryptic smile, saying nothing about Jiang Cheng’s uncharacteristic blunder but making sure Jiang Cheng knows that he noticed. “Wei-xiong was here just last week, travelling alone,” Nie Huaisang takes a small, elegant sip from his own cup. “He graciously gifted me a crate of Emperor’s Smile.”
“Alone?” Jiang Cheng says, incredulous. “Wei Wuxian travelled alone?”
“Wei-xiong is free to travel as he pleases,” Nie Huaisang hums, gently shaking his fan a couple times. Jiang Cheng’s eyes narrow; he knows Nie Huaisang is intentionally misinterpreting the question.
“Hanguang-jun allows Wei Wuxian such freedom?”
“Hanguang-jun has no reason to keep Wei-xiong secluded in Cloud Recesses.”
“Nie Huaisang,” Jiang Cheng eyes his cup for half a second, still well over half full with Emperor’s Smile, before throwing his head back and pouring the remaining liquor down his throat. “You know Lan Wangji.”
“I do know His Excellency,” Huaisang says with an infuriatingly pacifying smile. “In fact, I would go so far as to say that I know His Excellency better than you, Jiang-xiong. The discord between you and the Chief Cultivator is not a secret.” He takes another calculated sip, their twenty-some years of friendship having rendered Huaisang immune to Jiang Cheng’s scathing glares.
“One does not need to be close to Lan Wangji to see he has an overprotective streak wide enough to stretch beyond the mountains and seas,” Jiang Cheng scowls, thinking about Lan Wangji at Wei Wuxian’s side for the rest of their lives. “There is little Lan Wangji would not do in the name of protecting the weak. Hanguang-jun does not hesitate to place himself as a shield between the chaos and those who need protecting. He would happily declare war and turn his back on us all if it was necessary to protect a righteous cause.”
There is a brief pause as Nie Huaisang gives Jiang Cheng a pointed look and Jiang Cheng processes his own words.
“He has turned his back on us,” Jiang Cheng amends, remembering that day on the steps of Carp Tower when Wei Wuxian was exposed and Lan Wangji stood firmly at his side. Lan Wangji, who stood steadfast and refused to allow Wei Wuxian to push him away while Jiang Cheng could only watch from the top of Carp Tower. “Lan Wangji has already turned his back against us to defend Wei Wuxian and he would do it again. Without hesitation.”
“Yes. We are in agreement, then, Jiang-xiong.”
“Then how can you claim that Lan Wangji has no reason to keep Wei Wuxian locked up in Cloud Recesses? Wei Wuxian has no sense of self-preservation. He picks fights he knows he will lose just for fun. We both know Wei Wuxian throws himself head first into trouble with no regard for the consequences. He punched Jin Zixuan in the face. He is the Chief Cultivator’s spouse but Wei Wuxian is incapable of acting alone without creating a diplomatic incident.”
“What Hanguang-jun protects most fiercely is Wei-xiong’s happiness,” Huaisang sips his liquor again, his first cup still far from empty. “No matter how much he may want to keep Wei Wuxian bound to his side, he would never imprison Wei-xiong like that. It would make Wei-xiong sad. And you should give Wei-xiong more credit. He is reckless, but he is not careless. His choices have always been calculated, even when brash, and he has much more to lose now.”
Jiang Cheng pours himself another cup of Emperor’s Smile, filling the cup to the brim before throwing the whole cup back. A little bit spills over the edge, trickling over Jiang Cheng’s fingers.
He pretends his heart doesn’t twinge, that he isn’t hurt by the (accurate) implication that Wei Wuxian didn’t care about him enough to be careful back then. That abandoning Jiang Cheng and all of Yunmeng had been an acceptable sacrifice for the Wens.
Wens to whom Jiang Cheng owed more than he could ever repay, yet he still cannot move beyond all they took from him.
(He knows this isn’t really true, and that Wei Wuxian never stopped caring. He only stopped outwardly caring because he thought Jiang Cheng had stopped caring. Because Jiang Cheng let Wei Wuxian believe he stopped caring. But it has always been easier to push the blame onto Wei Wuxian than to face his own inadequacies.)
“The problem is, Jiang-xiong,” Nie Huaisang pauses mid-sentence. He says this with indifference, fingers tapping against the side of his cup. Jiang Cheng braces himself; he recognizes this tone as one that precedes Nie Huaisang dropping an unwanted truth bomb. “You see Wei Wuxian as a weakness, as someone who is weak, and not for the capable cultivator he is.”
“Wei Wuxian is not a cultivator,” Jiang Cheng says without hesitation, then winces because whose fault is it that he can no longer cultivate?
“A demonic cultivator is still a cultivator, Jiang Wanyin.” Nie Huaisang takes another dainty sip of his Emperor’s Smile as if he has not driven Jiang Cheng halfway into an existential crisis.
Pouring himself another cup, Jiang Cheng doesn’t address the fact that Nie Huaisang is technically correct.
He doesn’t need to.
Nie Huaisang already knows he is correct.
“The idiot has no spiritual energy,” Jiang Cheng says instead, ignoring how his (Wei Wuxian’s) golden core flickers with a burst of energy inside him.
“Jiang-xiong, even without a golden core we both know that Wei-xiong isn’t weak.”
And thanks to Jin Guangyao, so does Zewu-jun, Jiang Cheng thinks bitterly. Jin Guangyao had always been all too observant of others’ vulnerabilities and all too willing to spill the secrets of others, even if very few could see beyond his lowly birth and his ever-present smile.
(But that was the problem, wasn’t it? No one was willing to see beyond Jin Guangyao’s birthright.)
Jiang Cheng decidedly refuses to consider what might have happened if Jiang Fengmian never gave Wei Wuxian the chance to cultivate, the chance that Jin Guangshan never gave Jin Guangyao.
Setting his fan down, Nie Huaisang leaves it open so Jiang Cheng can clearly see the haphazardly stitched dead fish. The colouring is impressive, Jiang Cheng begrudgingly admits, even if it is a dead fish and the stitching itself is a disaster.
There is a message Nie Huaisang is trying to send but Jiang Cheng is not receiving it.
“Did you notice,” Nie Huaisang keeps talking as Jiang Cheng tries not to look like he’s staring too hard at the fan, “you called Wei Wuxian someone who needs protecting.”
“Did I, now.” Jiang Cheng’s eyes flicker back to Nie Huaisang’s face. He responds flatly even though he very much realizes what he had inadvertently insinuated. His glares do much of the talking for him.
Annoyingly, Nie Huaisang is much like Jin Ling in that even Jiang Cheng’s harshest glares have been rendered impotent. “You see Hanguang-jun as his shield. As if that is their entire relationship.”
And Nie Huaisang isn’t wrong. Unfortunately, he is all too correct.
But Jiang Cheng cannot afford to see Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji’s relationship as anything closer because that would solidify the reality that Wei Wuxian is no longer of Yunmeng Jiang. It would only strengthen the already irrefutable reality that Lan Wangji is, and was, more loyal to Wei Wuxian than Jiang Cheng could ever be.
Jiang Cheng knows the facts, that Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian are cultivation partners and that Wei Wuxian has married into Gusu Lan, but it has been long enough since he has seen them together that it does not feel real yet.
Perhaps anticipating Jiang Cheng’s rapidly depleting levels of emotional control, Nie Huaisang abruptly changes the topic. He grins. “I notice that you have been admiring my new fan, Jiang-xiong.”
Looking at the fan that is now back in Nie Huaisang’s hand, Jiang Cheng can’t help but voice his curiosity. “I did not know there are silk artists who are willing to depict lifelessness. It is viewed as a bad omen, is it not?”
“Neither did I,” Nie Huaisang responds cryptically. “But who am I to turn away such a generous gift?”
“The artist is not prolific but his work is priceless. He takes no commissions but simply creates as inspiration strikes. He is notoriously selective.”
Jiang Cheng blinks at Nie Huaisang, once, twice, then grabs the entire jar. His full cup is right there, but he ignores it. Taking a page from Wei Wuxian’s book, he throws his head back to pour the remaining alcohol straight down his throat from the jar.
He needs to be far more drunk if he is going to be listening to Nie Huaisang talk about art.
When Jiang Cheng sees Lan Wangji donning a flowy silk scarf with a pattern of misshapen rabbits embroidered along the hems, he assumes it must be a gift from Wei Wuxian.
As far as Jiang Cheng can recall, Jiang Cheng has never seen Lan Wangji wear any sort of accessory or ornamentation that was not strictly required of him. Even in the harsh winds of Gusu’s winters, Lan Wangji’s golden core is easily strong enough to keep him warm without a scarf.
Certainly Lan Wangji does not need to be wearing the scarf, given that the silk is draped loosely over his shoulders and is thin enough to have no practical function.
So, the rabbit scarf must be a gift from Wei Wuxian, otherwise the Chief Cultivator would not dare wear something so informal. More likely: a joke gift that Lan Wangji took seriously because as far as Jiang Cheng is concerned, there is no evidence that Lan Wangji knows what a joke is.
(Jiang Cheng wonders if Wei Wuxian also had a run-in with the mysterious artisan who fashioned Ouyang Zizhen’s splash and Nie Huaisang’s dead fish. Subtly taking a closer look, Jiang Cheng still can’t tell. He does not have the eye for detail Nie Huaisang and Wei Wuxian have. The rabbits, while unusual, are quite cute and inoffensive. They line the edges of the scarf in various positions, alternating between dark and light.)
They are in Lotus Pier, Yunmeng’s scorching summers further making Lan Wangji’s choice of accessory obsolete, for a meeting. Even at the tail end of the season, a Yunmeng summer is no time to be wearing a scarf, no matter how thin.
A window has been left open in their meeting room, allowing what little breeze there is into the sweltering heat.
What they should be doing is discussing a new trade route between Gusu and Yunmeng for merchants because Lan Wangji wants Yunmeng’s lotus roots and Jiang Cheng wants Gusu’s money.
What they are actually doing is staring at each other, equally unimpressed, and neither willing to make the first move to begin the discussion.
This is the first time Jiang Cheng has been forced to interact with Lan Wangji directly, with no one else around, since that battle in the Nightless City.
As high ranking cultivators, Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji have regularly found themselves at the same formal gatherings and celebrations. But Zewu-jun had been the Sect Leader then and Hanguang-jun had not been the Chief Cultivator. During the sixteen years, Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji mastered the art of evading one another. Jiang Cheng’s dealings with Gusu Lan were primarily through the exponentially more affable First Jade and Zewu-jun knew his brother well enough to never assign Lan Wangji on any night hunts nor intersect missions near Yunmeng.
They had an unspoken agreement and they had found their balance.
Leave it to Wei Wuxian to unbalance that tentative peace.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Wangji finally says. “We are in your territory. Do you intend to begin negotiations?”
A plate of dried lotus seeds sits on the table between them. Lan Wangji had turned down the offer of tea but Jiang Cheng is not so uncouth as to serve his guest nothing, even when the guest in question is Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng knows the lotus seeds will go untouched.
Jiang Cheng bristles. There is nothing wrong with what Hanguang-jun says and his tone is perfectly polite. Too polite. Hanguang-jun addresses him like he is an afterthought.
Because that is what you are: an afterthought. Why would the great Hanguang-jun pay attention to you when Wei Wuxian is his husband, his cultivation partner? Wei Wuxian: who created an entirely new cultivation path and a genius whose power you’ve always leeched upon.
“Apologies for keeping the revered Hanguang-jun waiting.” Jiang Cheng ignores the perceived slight because that’s all it is: perceived. Just as Jiang Cheng hides himself behind anger, Lan Wangji shields himself behind a wall of impenetrable politeness.
Unrolling a map between them, Jiang Cheng points at where the river feeds into Gusu.
“My advisors have proposed the best shipping route is on land, following the path of the water.”
Trapped in a negotiation with Lan Wangji reminds Jiang Cheng of why he disliked Lan Wangji even before the Sunshot Campaign. He disliked Lan Wangji even before Wei Wuxian’s attention was dominated by Lan Wangji.
For all his moral standing, Lan Wangji is a literal pillar of righteousness. He is exactly as responsive to disagreements as an actual jade pillar and is so overbearingly polite that it is almost disrespectful.
Unlike Jin Guangyao, Lan Wangji does not even pretend to take dissenting propositions into consideration. At this point, just over two years after ascending to the position, every Sect Leader has been forcefully and very publicly shut down by Hanguang-jun at least once.
It is not that Lan Wangji does not accept criticism. Lan Wangji is an excellent listener and it is evident that Lan Wangji follows the guidance of others in his proposals when it suits his purposes.
But as a consequence, Lan Wangji has done nothing to make the recovery easier politically. Hanguang-jun pushes policy after policy, upending long standing — if outdated — practices and uncovering corruption. He is a hurricane of righteousness, extinguishing all flames of avarice.
The people, who already adored Hanguang-jun, only revere him more for his efforts.
The Sect Leaders can’t not respect Hanguang-jun’s cultivation level and are still more than a little apologetic for their castigation of Wei Wuxian after Jin Guangyao’s deeds have come to light. But it is an open secret that everyone, including Lan Wangji himself, is just waiting for Lan Xichen to come out of seclusion so Lan Wangji can step down.
After all, Lan Wangji is possibly the only person worse at diplomacy than Wei Wuxian.
“What does Gusu need such frequent shipments of lotus roots for?” Jiang Cheng asks, if only to keep the silence from stifling him.
Not expecting Lan Wangji to dignify his question with a response, Jiang Cheng looks up from the map startled. “Soup?” He repeats incredulously. “You need Yunmeng lotus roots for soup?”
Lan Wangji nods. “Wei Ying enjoys lotus root soup.” He pauses. Something in Lan Wangji’s expression shifts but Jiang Cheng is not well read enough in the expressions of Lan Wangji to know what it is.
When Lan Wangji does not continue, Jiang Cheng allows his mind to be overwhelmed with several thoughts at once. It is not a proper soup without pork ribs, his mind screams at him. How dare Wei Wuxian betray A-Jie’s memory with a soup that isn’t hers? Why live in Gusu if all he wants is Yunmeng cuisine?
Why doesn’t Wei Wuxian come here himself if he wants lotus root and pork rib soup so much?
Hasn’t Lan Wangji found an endless supply of lotus root and pork rib soup by now?
It is the final thought that Jiang Cheng focuses on. He has not been inside Cloud Recesses, or in Gusu, since the Guanyin Temple. However, no matter how much he denies it when Jiang Cheng asks, Jin Ling visits Cloud Recesses often and he brings back gossip that reaches Jiang Cheng’s ears.
Unlike Jin Guangyao, Jin Ling is not at all adept at keeping his mouth shut.
“Didn’t you construct a lotus pond in Cloud Recesses for Wei Wuxian?” He spits out Wei Wuxian’s name angrily because anger is easy and Lan Wangji has no business intruding on Jiang Cheng’s relationship with his former brother.
But doesn’t he? Lan Wangji is Wei Wuxian’s soulmate, the one who knows him best, who has sworn to protect Wei Wuxian’s life. Even from you. Especially from you.
“Wei Ying wished to build a lotus pond for himself. I only gave him the space.”
Thinking about what must be a flourishing lotus pond behind the Jingshi surprises Jiang Cheng with how much he despises that image. He has no doubt Wei Wuxian has succeeded; even briefly, he saw the lotus pond in the Burial Mounds before it was all razed to the ground.
Yet, the image of Wei Wuxian sitting comfortably in the Jingshi as Lan Wangji attends to his every whim makes Jiang Cheng’s heart clench uncomfortably. Wei Wuxian can probably see his lotuses through the window as he shamelessly throws himself at Lan Wangji. Just like he always has.
“So Cloud Recesses has its own lotuses. Lotuses that come with roots. What do you need Yunmeng lotus roots for?” Jiang Cheng parses his words like a question despite knowing perfectly well that Yunmeng and Gusu have always traded their lotus roots.
“Our pond is small. Lotuses do not grow easily in Cloud Recesses,” Lan Wangji does not really answer the question, but speaks as though Jiang Cheng should already know the answer.
Jiang Cheng hates it.
Nothing Hanguang-jun says is an insult, but each word that leaves Lan Wangji’s lips feels like an inside joke that only Lan Wangji is laughing at.
“Despite what you think of me, Lan Wangji, I am not stupid,” Jiang Cheng says through gritted teeth. “I know lotuses grow in Gusu, even without Wei Wuxian. Cloud Recesses may be on a mountain, but not all of Gusu lives your Sect’s ascetic lifestyle.”
“Wei Ying says the texture is different in Yunmeng.” Reaching for one end of the sheer scarf, Lan Wangji carefully lifts it to smooth out the silk before allowing it to drape over his shoulder. The end pools in his lap.
“What does it matter, if you aren’t even making the soup properly?” Jiang Cheng snaps. “It can’t be a real Yunmeng dish without meat. Has the great Hanguang-jun considered that maybe he is not infallible and is in fact making the soup wrong?”
Briefly, Lan Wangji’s eyes flash dangerously but his expression remains otherwise unchanged. “The problem is not the soup. Yunmeng’s mild climate is most suitable for lotus roots to be used in soups. Gusu’s climate is harsher. The lotuses grow stringier roots that are best prepared as fried slices.”
They glare at each other, both refusing to give in to the other. Jiang Cheng has to fight the ever growing urge to bury his face into his hands and scream.
The truth is, neither of them really care about the lotus roots. They both know that regardless of whatever malice they spit at each other this afternoon, whatever unspoken secrets they decide to air out, Jiang Cheng will still walk away with a pouch full of Gusu Lan coin and Lan Wangji will still leave with a written agreement for a shipment of lotus roots. But arguing about the quality of Gusu versus Yunmeng lotus roots is easier than talking about the real source of their mutual antagonism.
But Hanguang-jun can’t even respect the terms of a proxy fight. “You should not hurt Wei Ying more.”
“Me!?” Jiang Cheng spits. He clenches his fist, more hurt than he is angry. Zidian rests along his hand, unbothered by Jiang Cheng’s hurt. “Wei Wuxian killed my parents, my sister. It is his fault my home burned because of his stupid martyr complex. Because he couldn’t leave you alone. And you say I am hurting Wei Wuxian?”
Lan Wangji’s eyes narrow. Whereas before Lan Wangji’s gaze simply implied that Jiang Cheng was simply someone he could not see eye to eye with, the way Lan Wangji’s lip quirks downward is a clear sign that he definitely knows something Jiang Cheng doesn’t. “You speak as though Wei Ying does not share your pain.”
Jiang Cheng wants to snap, wants to call Wei Wuxian the scourge of the earthly realm, an embarrassment to his parents’ legacy, a traitor with fleeting loyalties. None of this is true and if it were Wei Wuxian sitting at this table, he would know what Jiang Cheng is trying and failing to say with words.
Come home, Jiang Cheng’s heart pleads to an absent audience. Lotus Pier has been too quiet without your pranks these past twenty years. You promised to be my right hand, just as your father had been for mine. Your loyalty is to protecting the presently weak, whoever they may be, even if they had been aggressors in the past.
For once, let me share your pain like a real brother.
Haven’t you given up enough?
But it is Lan Wangji who sits before him instead, a man who could have been his brother-in-law if things had not deteriorated as they have.
A man with emotions as closed off to the world as Jiang Cheng, who hides behind rules of rigid propriety instead of hollow fury. Just as he had done with Jiang Cheng, somehow Wei Wuxian had weaseled his way into Hanguang-jun’s heart.
Congratulations, Wei Wuxian. You sure know how to pick them.
“Do not presume you understand what Wei Wuxian has done to Yunmeng Jiang,” is what Jiang Cheng says instead. He is relieved that his voice does not quiver, even though Wei Wuxian’s golden core is strumming distressed jolts of energy through his meridians.
Jiang Cheng means what he says. Wei Wuxian’s absence is loud in Lotus Pier. There are not many who remember him as Yunmeng’s head disciple, even fewer who remember Wei Wuxian as an instructor, and no one dares to talk about Wei Wuxian. But his absence is felt all the same. Wei Wuxian shaped Yunmeng Jiang and Lotus Pier into what it is today with his absence, even if Jiang Cheng and a handful of his advisors are the only ones who know.
Another silence settles between him and Lan Wangji. It is Hanguang-jun’s style, to leave his interlocutors to suffocate in long silences.
The table is just low enough for Jiang Cheng to watch as Hanguang-jun clasps the end of his scarf between his fingers, gently tracing the embroidered rabbits bouncing along the edge. Lan Wangji’s fingers stroke the little rabbits so softly, so tenderly, that Jiang Cheng feels like he is intruding on something private.
Which is ridiculous, given that Lan Wangji is the only other person in the room and a scarf is only a piece of fabric.
But it feels like he is intruding on a private moment. Lan Wangji’s expression has not changed yet he feels softer, somehow.
As he has felt this entire conversation, Jiang Cheng has a strong suspicion that he is missing an important piece of the puzzle but does not know where to even begin to find it.
Finally, after Jiang Cheng has nearly driven himself to qi deviation from stress, Lan Wangji releases his scarf and looks back at Jiang Cheng.
“Wei Ying has little family in this world,” is all Hanguang-jun says in response.
For once, Jiang Cheng knows exactly what Lan Wangji is saying.
Tersely, they make it through their discussion and come to an acceptable agreement between both parties. Hanguang-jun continues to be as unflappable and unpleasant as ever and Jiang Cheng does not flip over a table. But only barely.
A week after Lan Wangji leaves Lotus Pier, Jiang Cheng realizes that he is...lonely.
It is not a new revelation. Jiang Cheng has been lonely for a long time, even more so now that Jin Ling is busy being a Sect Leader and he is no longer persecuting attention seekers claiming to be the Yiling Laozu.
Pathetic. As if Wei Wuxian would associate himself with such incompetence.
But, despite the general unpleasantness of dealing with Lan Wangji, it was...nice. It was nice having company with someone who could understand you, even if the only thing Jiang Cheng had in common in Lan Wangji was missing Wei Wuxian.
Only one of us misses Wei Wuxian now.
Meeting with Lan Wangji only rekindles the loneliness that Jiang Cheng has been keeping at bay.
As the Chief Cultivator trying to enact massive changes, Hanguang-jun travels often. Usually Wei Wuxian will tag along, as Jiang Cheng has heard from several disgruntled Sect Leaders and a secretly pleased Jin Ling. But even when he is travelling alone, there is a husband eagerly awaiting his return in Cloud Recesses. Knowing Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji will return to his home — their home — in Cloud Recesses to find Wei Wuxian waiting to throw himself at Lan Wangji in a mockery of peaceful Gusu Lan domesticity because Wei Wuxian has always been absolutely shameless.
Wei Wuxian would break, and has broken, the laws of nature to be with Hanguang-jun.
Jiang Cheng isn’t jealous. Of course not. He is perfectly happy with Lotus Pier, the home he rebuilt all by himself after Wei Wuxian abandoned him. He is surrounded by the few men who survived the burning of Lotus Pier and the subsequent bloodshed, by junior disciples who have been adopted off the streets in cities across Yunmeng, by the youngest disciples who are just beginning their lives as cultivators who have been born and raised in Lotus Pier.
He is respected in his home and has no doubt of the fealty of his own cultivators.
But...they do not love him. Not the way his parents and A-Jie and...and Wei Wuxian once did.
It has been peaceful in Yunmeng and his senior disciples and advisors are more than capable of handling any incidents that arise. Deciding that he has not threatened to break enough legs recently, Jiang Cheng takes off on Sandu and heads for Lanling.
Jin Ling is not expecting him, but it will be a good lesson for the brat on how to properly accommodate unexpected visits by high-ranking cultivators without causing a diplomatic incident.
Jiang Cheng has just passed the border into Lanling when he sees a middling sized border town and decides to descend. He intends to grab a drink and perhaps purchase another toy for Fairy.
Before Jiang Cheng can even enter the town, he sees two unfortunately familiar faces. One is more familiar than the other.
Wen Ning and that Lan disciple — who Jiang Cheng recognizes as Jin Ling’s friend — are heading towards him, heading out of the town.
It is unseemly for a Sect Leader to flee so with his feet rooted to the ground, Jiang Cheng waits to see what they do. They see him but to Jiang Cheng’s surprise, there is no change to their movements — not even the slightest falter.
Do they not fear confrontation, or do they not expect confrontation?
The Lan disciple — Sizhui, Jiang Cheng remembers — is wearing a belt that catches Jiang Cheng’s attention. Unlike the standard plain white belts of Gusu Lan disciples, Lan Sizhui is wearing a belt lined with unusual little shapes. As they approach, Jiang Cheng watches as those indistinct shapes slowly meld into the form of little rabbits, reminding Jiang Cheng of Lan Wangji’s scarf.
Jiang Cheng does not understand Wei Wuxian’s obsession with rabbits, but this must be another gift from him. The rabbits look exactly the same as Hanguang-jun’s rabbits and follow the same alternating dark and white pattern.
A few steps later and Jiang Cheng can see more silhouettes take form into the shape of...turnips?
Squinting, Jiang Cheng sees that they are undeniably turnips.
A most unusual choice for silk embroidery, but Jiang Cheng has already seen Nie Huaisang waving around a fan depicting a dead fish.
Sometimes it is easier to not ask questions.
Jiang Cheng really does not want to turn to Wen Ning, remembering how their last two encounters had ended. But Jin Guangyao is dead, Nie Mingjue has been properly put to rest, and Wen Ning cannot surprise him with Suibian twice.
(Suibian is sitting on the windowsill of Jiang Cheng’s room, a constant reminder of what Wei Wuxian gave up for him.)
It would be rude to ignore Wen Ning, even if Wen Ning would not take offense.
He still doesn’t like Wen Ning, exactly, but Jin Ling has gone on enough night hunts with Wen Ning present and has relayed enough stories about Wen Ning that Jiang Cheng does not think as poorly of him anymore. Jiang Cheng still does not approve of Wen Ning’s existence, but it is difficult to hold a grudge against someone who was ready to — without hesitation — slice through his own hand to hold Baxia’s saber spirit at bay.
(Jiang Cheng is grateful for Jin Ling's new friends in helping him to become less isolated, grateful that they treat Jin Ling as an equal and not someone to be pitied or taken advantage of. If it just so happens that Wen Ning is often present during Jin Ling's nighthunts with those friends, then that is no one else's business.)
Not even Jiang Cheng can deny the tragedy of Wen Ning’s fate, having been used as the pawn by every conceivable party only to be left undead and shunned.
Except you did.
Even now, Wen Ning remains vulnerable to the music of Chenqing — and of others — and will remain susceptible to the control of others for the remainder of his existence.
Perhaps if you had done something back then, if you had been willing to listen to Wen Qing, Wen Ning’s fate could have been avoided.
Wen Ning is holding a large basket, its contents hidden by a silk blanket.
The embroidery is more subtle, shades of red on more red. Despite Jiang Cheng’s lingering distaste for the colour of red — the red of Qishan’s sun where it was imprinted everywhere during the indoctrination, the red glow of Wei Wuxian’s eyes during the Sunshot Campaign, the red of A-Jie’s blood as it spilled over Jiang Cheng’s hands, the red of Chenqing’s tassel as it fluttered in the wind, following Wei Wuxian to his death —
Jiang Cheng does not like the colour red, auspiciousness be damned, but even he can agree that the mish-mashed shades of Wen Ning’s blanket are quite tasteful.
He remembers a time when two figures in red freely roamed Cloud Recesses, once with a sturdy bow who saw the world with open eyes and the other with secrets tucked close to her heart.
And then Jiang Cheng jolts. Physically, he takes a step back.
In looking at Wen Ning’s blanket, Jiang Cheng realizes that he has seen that pattern of layered red before. Red threads are blended into a pattern of chrysanthemums, mimicking the countless petal layers in a single chrysanthemum blossom.
Jiang Cheng had half expected to make out Qishan’s sun in the fabric, given that Wen Ning is still a Wen. But, more rationally, Jiang Cheng knows there is no sun because Wen Ning was never loyal to Qishan Wen. His loyalty was always to his sister, and later to Wei Wuxian. Wen Ning snuck behind Wen Chao and Wen Ruohan’s backs several times even before the Sunshot Campaign, something that Jiang Cheng has learned to recognize and appreciate after it was too late. The Dafan Wen branch was very different from Qishan Wen.
But the flowers...the chrysanthemums remind Jiang Cheng of memories he does not want to remember, of feelings he has buried deep within his heart that were never intended to be resurrected. They remind him of someone else who he wronged deeply, whose hidden kindness he took advantage of without ever knowing. Without ever thanking her properly.
More than anyone, Wen Qing knew how much of a failure he was, how much he lacked in comparison to Wei Wuxian, but she never treated Jiang Cheng any differently. She knew best just how much Jiang Cheng owed to Wei Wuxian and never said a word.
And now it is just another debt that Jiang Cheng will never be able to repay.
He is no longer in love with her. Maybe he never was. Jiang Cheng’s grasp of emotions is tenuous at best and limited enough that he isn’t entirely sure what he felt for Wen Qing. But he does know that he would have been happy if she had kept his comb.
(He still has the comb, locked in the depths of his desk and hidden beneath a false bottom. The comb has resided there for over twenty years. Like its intended recipient, the comb will never see the light of day again.)
Unlike Chenqing, which Jiang Cheng forced himself to look at day after day to polish and tune and to maintain the instrument in peak condition, Jiang Cheng has not looked at the comb in over twenty years. Just the knowledge of the comb’s existence is enough to weigh on him.
He still remembers the day Wen Qing died, when he did nothing but stand by and watch. Even in the crowded room of cultivators crowing for her death, Wen Qing had held her head high and found Jiang Cheng. For a moment, she had met his gaze, nodded once, and never looked upon him again.
Jiang Cheng pulls himself out of his thoughts just as Wen Ning and Lan Sizhui approach him where he is standing in the middle of the road.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” they greet in twin bows. They have left a respectful distance between themselves and Jiang Cheng.
Wordlessly, Jiang Cheng bows back. Not only does he have nothing to say, his throat feels like he has just swallowed sand. Even if he had wanted to speak, Jiang Cheng isn’t sure he could have forced the words out.
The three of them stand there, looking at each other, all waiting for another to make the next move.
It is just as well that it is the Lan disciple who finally breaks their deadlocked silence. There is certainly enough baggage between Jiang Cheng and Wen Ning that neither of them are quite sure how to address the other.
“If this disciple may be so forward, what brings Sect Leader Jiang to the Lanling border?” Lan Sizhui asks softly, hands clasped before him in the perfect image of a Gusu Lan disciple. Figures, given that this is a boy raised by Hanguang-jun himself.
Jin Ling has certainly never looked so earnest in his life, nevermind the genuine sincerity that radiates off of Lan Sizhui.
And while Jiang Cheng could easily be rude, scoff, and scorn Sizhui’s politeness, he does not want to do that.
Jiang Cheng has his differences with Lan Wangji, but he is learning that the conflicts of the past should not be inherited by the youth. He is learning that it is not the responsibility of the next generation to avenge the wrongs of the past. It is a lesson he has been learning since he was a boy, cowering in the corner with Wei Wuxian while Yu Ziyuan and Jiang Fengmian screamed at each other over who was the rightful heir, who deserved more attention, how the only true loyalties are those drawn by blood.
It is a lesson that Jiang Cheng is still learning.
“Lan-gongzi,” Jiang Cheng says, pointedly using the title for a son of the gentry, verbally acknowledging Sizhui as Hanguang-jun’s. “I am on my way to Carp Tower.”
Before he can think too hard, Jiang Cheng plunges ahead. “Wen-gongzi,” he looks at Wen Ning directly and nods slightly before turning back to Sizhui.
“Sect Leader Jin will be glad to see you,” Sizhui continues, pleasant as ever. “This disciple understands that Lotus Pier is surrounded by lotus flowers, but Carp Tower’s lotus pond is still in bloom.”
“Is that where you are coming from?” Despite everything, Lan Sizhui is surprisingly pleasant to talk to. There is a quality to him, an underlying innocence, that makes Jiang Cheng want to talk to him.
There is something oddly familiar about this innocence, but Jiang Cheng isn’t sure why. Whatever it is, Jin Ling definitely does not have this trait.
Nodding, Sizhui continues, “We are passing through Lanling. Sect Leader Jin has a standing order that should I, Lan Jingyi, or Ouyang Zizhen set foot in Lanling, we must spend at least one night at Carp Tower or else he would tell Fairy to bite us.”
Even after two years, hearing others address Jin Ling as Sect Leader Jin is still jarring.
Sometimes, despite having lived through Jin Guangyao’s entire tenure as Sect Leader Jin, Jiang Cheng still thinks of Jin Guangshan when he hears someone calling for Sect Leader Jin.
“Were you at Carp Tower with Wen-gongzi?” Jiang Cheng asks, making his voice as even as possible so Sizhui and Wen Ning will not think he is interrogating them.
Well he kind of is, but not maliciously.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Wen Ning finally interjects, the first thing he’s said in this exchange. “I am no longer a gongzi. My sect has been gone for a long time.”
Wen Ning does not speak unkindly, nor is he forceful like he had been in Lotus Pier, holding Suibian out and cajoling Jiang Cheng to unsheath it.
Jiang Cheng still feels like he’s been pushed into Yunmeng’s lake.
Ending Qishan Wen is not a secret the way his (Wei Wuxian’s ) golden core was, nor is it as fresh in his memory as it must be for Wen Ning, but Jiang Cheng has only gotten around to understanding the ramifications of what they — what he — did recently.
It is just another mistake that Jiang Cheng learned to regret only after it became too late to change anything.
“Where are you headed now?” Jiang Cheng diverts the topic instead.
“We are on our way to Yiling to pick up some items for Senior Wei.”
“You are running errands for Wei Wuxian? In Yiling?”
“Senior Wei doesn’t know we’re going to Yiling. He only knows as far as Lanling.”
If this were Jin Ling, Jiang Cheng would call him a brat and threaten to break his legs but it would not be anything unusual. Jin Ling has always had a penchant for being somewhere other than where he said he would be.
However, Lan Sizhui is not Jin Ling and Jiang Cheng is frankly a little surprised that this child, a model Gusu Lan disciple raised by Lan Wangji himself, is capable of such deception.
“It has been a long time since I was a guest disciple in Cloud Recesses,” Jiang Cheng says, suspicious. “But doesn’t your sect forbid deception?”
Lan Sizhui smiles, guileless as ever. “Hanguang-jun knows where I am. Senior Wei simply didn’t ask further.”
Sizhui has a familiar glint in his eye that Jin Ling has whenever he is planning something.
Jiang Cheng decides it is not his problem.
“If I may be so bold, Sect Leader Jiang, Senior Wei has entrusted me with a message should I run into any cultivators from Yunmeng in my travels.”
“A message.” He does not mean to sound cold, but he has not spoken to Wei Wuxian since the Guanyin Temple. He was not even invited to their wedding. And frankly, he is a little terrified of what secrets Wei Wuxian may intend to drop. “And you are certain it is intended for my ears?”
Everytime he thinks Wei Wuxian has reached the end of his own capabilities, Wei Wuxian further exceeds the limits of possibility.
Even if he doesn’t want to be, it is difficult to not be a little wary of Wei Wuxian.
“Sect Leader Jiang, Wei-gongzi specified that the message reach your ears.” Wen Ning speaks up again, swinging his basket gently from side to side. He looks so innocent, despite the dark lines crawling up his neck, with his big eyes and stilted movements.
With no way to decline without further driving their non-existent relationship into further disrepair, Jiang Cheng sighs. “Let’s hear it.”
“Senior Wei wishes to inform you that your family is bigger than you think, should you wish it to be so.”
After hearing the words leave Sizhui’s lips, Jiang Cheng’s mind shuts down.
Is...is this an admission that Wei Wuxian misses Yunmeng?
Vaguely, he is aware that he exchanges a few more pleasantries with Lan Sizhui and Wen Qionglin before they go off on their way, but at no point is Jiang Cheng’s mind present for any of that.
Just before Lan Sizhui and Wen Ning escape earshot, Jiang Cheng hears Wen Ning say a faint, “A-Yuan...”
It shocks his mind back into his body.
Your family is bigger than you think.
As a Sect Leader, Jiang Cheng had been present for Lan Sizhui’s naming ceremony. He knows that Lan Sizhui is Lan Yuan.
“Lan Yuan...Wen Yuan?” He whispers this, as if saying this aloud will make it easier to comprehend.
Because for all Jiang Cheng wishes he could forget about the Burial Mounds and ignore the Wen settlement Wei Wuxian had sacrificed everything for, the Burial Mounds remains a vivid memory.
A-Yuan, he remembers the child Wei Wuxian had ridiculously tried to claim he gave birth to.
I’ll bury him with the radishes to grow him brothers and sisters, Wei Wuxian had proudly claimed over a bowl of Jiang Yanli’s pork rib and lotus root soup.
Radishes, like Lan Sizhui’s belt.
There were a few rumours about Lan Wangji’s sudden disappearance and the sudden announcement of Lan Wangji’s son as heir to Gusu Lan, but there was enough chaos in the aftermath of the Nightless City and Wei Wuxian’s death that Lan Wangji’s mystery child had largely gone unnoticed.
By the time people did notice, it was already past the acceptable period for such questions.
Jiang Cheng is certain that he was not supposed to make this connection. That Wei Wuxian had only been trying to extend a tentative olive branch between the two of them, to see if there was anything left to be salvaged.
Wei Wuxian has protected Wen Yuan for this long — Lan Wangji for even longer. Wei Wuxian would not share this knowledge so freely if Jiang Cheng had not overheard Wen Qionglin.
Wen Yuan, Jiang Cheng ponders as he unsheaths Sandu, drink and dog toy intentions long forgotten.
The Wen name is still a burdensome one to bear. Even Jiang Cheng, especially Jiang Cheng, still feels his insides roiling whenever the name Wen is mentioned. But, it is time to start moving on from the past. Jiang Cheng decides Sizhui is a good boy anyway, despite who he was born as.
If I play my cards right, maybe, one day, he would call me Shushu too.
When Jiang Cheng arrives at Carp Tower that evening, he is surprised by just how well Jin Ling’s staff have been trained. He has barely stepped off Sandu when Jin Ling rushes out to greet him with surprise. Surprise, but no alarm. It only takes two successive snaps of his fingers for a waiting maid to nod and rush off to prepare Jiang Cheng’s usual guest room.
Even though he wants nothing more than to speak to Wei Wuxian, to act on this tentative lifeline that hangs so close within his grasp, Jiang Cheng does not do anything.
Not because he doesn’t want to reach out. For days, then weeks, he sits in his office, staring at blank pages with a brush in hand and surrounded by crumpled papers stained with ink.
Neither of them has ever been good at communication, but they had always known everything the other wanted to say. Now, Wei Wuxian feels like a stranger and there is so much unresolved baggage between them that Jiang Cheng does not have the slightest clue how to even begin.
And it is not only his relationship with Wei Wuxian that is on the line now, but the existence of an entire nephew.
It is this matter that dominates Jiang Cheng’s thoughts day and night, the question of how to approach Wei Wuxian.
The longer it takes Jiang Cheng to respond, the more Wei Wuxian will take the silence as an outright rejection of the olive branch. Jiang Cheng knows this, yet time keeps dragging on and he still has not sent a letter because none of the words he puts to paper encapsulate how he feels.
And Jiang Cheng is terrified that he will say the wrong thing, and sever what little is left between them.
When he attends the next cultivation conference, it is still the matter of Wei Wuxian that dominates his thoughts.
At the next roundtable conference hosted in the Unclean Realm, Lan Xichen makes his reappearance. For two years, no one has seen Zewu-jun outside of Cloud Recesses since the Guanyin Temple. Having temporarily delegated his duties as Sect Leader to Lan Wangji, Lan Xichen has been in complete seclusion for the first year.
Lan Xichen’s seclusion ended just before Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian’s wedding because he was a good brother whose support never wavered, but he had refrained from making an appearance outside of Gusu until now.
“Zewu-jun,” Jiang Cheng takes the opportunity to engage Lan Xichen in conversation once Sect Leader Ouyang is distracted by someone else.
Politically, as the leader of one of the Four Great Sects, Jiang Cheng can’t not greet Gusu Lan without causing a diplomatic incident. Personally, Jiang Cheng genuinely likes Lan Xichen’s level-headed demeanor and calm aura.
Dealing with Lan Xichen is also a significant improvement from Lan Wangji who does not care for politics, and cares for Jiang Cheng even less.
Given Lan Wangji’s penchant for insulting Sect Leaders to their faces, Jiang Cheng is genuinely shocked that no one — especially Sect Leader Yao — has sent him complaints and lists of grievances against the Chief Cultivator during Zewu-jun’s absence. But, unlike Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji has the sense to hide behind Gusu’s rules, his own stellar reputation, and a wall of malignant politeness. Lan Wangji does not care for politics, but he is smart enough to pretend to care.
“Jiang Wanyin,” Zewu-jun bows. “Wangji tells me that Yunmeng has been flourishing since I was there last.”
“Our crops have been bountiful this year. We will have much to offer Gusu Lan,” Jiang Cheng knows that his first shipment of lotus roots should have arrived in Cloud Recess before Zewu-jun left for Qinghe. You see, Wei Wuxian? I am trying, even if I don’t know how to send you a letter. “I am glad to see Sect Leader Lan has emerged from his seclusion.”
If Lan Xichen’s smile seems more tired than it was before Jin Guangyao’s deeds were uncovered, Jiang Cheng pretends he knows nothing of it. If anyone has the right to be tired, it is Lan Xichen who has lost both his sworn brothers, who was used as a pawn by Jin Guangyao and Nie Huaisang, whose unfaltering trust in his brother led to the disintegration of his trust in himself, and who must deal with Wei Wuxian and Lan Qiren living under the same rules.
Jiang Cheng is not the only one who has experienced terrible loss.
“I thank you for your patience in communicating with Wangji in my absence. I understand you have a difficult relationship.” Xichen pauses here, almost imperceptibly but just long enough for Jiang Cheng to realize Lan Xichen knows exactly just how difficult his relationship with Lan Wangji is and why it is so difficult. He continues, “Still, I am grateful that my brother has been so accommodating of my shortcomings as I took the time to self upon myself and my mistakes.”
Yunmeng Jiang has no rules against lying so Jiang Cheng does not feel bad at all when he tells Lan Xichen that, “Hanguang-jun was a pleasure to host in Lotus Pier.”
Zewu-jun huffs, amused, knowing that Jiang Cheng is lying for his benefit. “Is that so?” He says in a tone that would be teasing from anyone but a Lan.
“Please inform Hanguang-jun that he and his husband are welcome to visit anytime.”
His heart jumps.
Jiang Cheng is surprised at himself, at how easily this invitation slides off his tongue and even more so at how much he means what he said. He can deal with Lan Wangji — he would be happy to deal with Lan Wangji if it means he might be able to have a proper talk with Wei Wuxian.
It has been too long since they have talked without someone (usually Wei Wuxian) getting stabbed, whipped with Zidian, collapsing, or literally dying.
“Wei Wuxian will be happy to hear that.”
Jiang Cheng can hear his heart pounding ringing in his ears. Far too defensively, Jiang Cheng says, “Zewu-jun is very confident in his words. It sounds as though you have grown to know Wei Wuxian well to speak with such surety.”
With a noncommittal hum, Lan Xichen clasps his hands behind his back. Like Wangji, Xichen’s shrugs are more implied than physical. “Wangji and I have had our disagreements throughout the years but the bond between brothers is not so easily cut.”
Aside from Jiang Cheng, Lan Xichen knows best how difficult it can be to turn against a brother who has already turned on you.
Jiang Cheng hates that he is a little jealous of Zewu-jun for still having a brother to rely on, that the choice to enter seclusion had been a viable one for him when Jin Ling was barely more than a child forced to take on the burdens left behind by the mistakes of his elders.
Jin Ling has done well enough in the snake pit of Carp Tower, holding onto Lanling’s power and prestige as best he can without Yunmeng’s interference. But, it would have been easier if he hadn’t been so alone.
Although Jiang Cheng had never cared much for Jin Guangyao, for Meng Yao, Lianfang-zun had still been something of a father figure to Jin Ling and one of the few people in Carp Tower Jin Ling could trust.
Even Jiang Cheng had trusted Jin Guangyao to raise Jin Ling for several months of the year.
If Jin Ling had not been so adamant that he could do things without Jiang Cheng’s interference, and if Zewu-jun had not whisked himself away into seclusion so quickly, Jiang Cheng would have encouraged Lan Xichen to talk to Jin Ling. They lost the same person, someone in whom they had placed their trust and had repaid them with betrayal.
It would also be nice for Jin Ling to build relationships with Sect Leaders who he isn’t related to even if at this point Lan Xichen is more or less an uncle by marriage.
Instead both are alone in their grief, just as Jiang Cheng had once been.
( Jiang Cheng knows that Jin Ling is in contact with Wei Wuxian. He has his suspicions that Jin Ling has been seeing Wei Wuxian more often than he lets on. Jiang Cheng still doesn’t know if he trusts Wei Wuxian but he doesn’t not trust Wei Wuxian, which is more than he can say for the entirety of Lanling. And, Wei Wuxian is the one person as dedicated to protecting A-Jie’s legacy as Jiang Cheng.)
It is an odd thought, the realisation that Lan Xichen is now Wei Wuxian’s brother by marriage which is arguably closer to Wei Wuxian than Jiang Cheng has ever been.
A lull in the conversation falls between them and Jiang Cheng allows his gaze to drift a little.
“Zewu-jun’s insights are invaluable as always,” Jiang Cheng says, peering over Xichen’s shoulder and noticing Jin Ling talking to a couple minor sect leaders who aren’t much older than him. Jin Ling looks very adult, adorned in full Lanling gold and extravagant Jin Sect Leader regalia, conducting business with his equals. A-Jie, I hope you’re proud. He’s all grown up now.
“I am honoured that Sect Leader Jiang values my thoughts in spite of my shortcomings.”
How is it that Lan Xichen can face his mistakes so easily when Jiang Cheng is still drowning in repercussions of his own mistakes from over twenty years ago? Xichen does not falter when he acknowledges his missteps, but Jiang Cheng has never learned how to face his own flaws. He wants to be defensive, to protect himself from the consequences he brought about, to be the wronged party even though he knows he made choices — mistakes — that pushed Wei Wuxian further down his heretical path.
With his eyes briefly lowered, Jiang Cheng notices that Lan Xichen carries a new qiankun pouch, embroidered with the same abstract needlework Jiang Cheng had seen before. It rests on Xichen’s hip, hanging off his belt along Shuoyue and Liebing.
“Are those clouds?” he asks, quickly diverting the conversation and his mind from the bubbling discord in his chest.
Despite his clear surprise at the sudden question, Lan Xichen glances down at where his new qiankun pouch rests on his hip and responds, “Yes. I find the asymmetry of the slight imperfections rather relaxing. It is a fine reminder that the standards we hold ourselves to should not be stagnant.”
Nodding, Jiang Cheng runs a finger over the curves and grooves of Zidian. It is a comforting motion and reminds him of A-Niang, even though he has never really grown out of the fear of underachievement.
With such an abstract shape, the erratic needlework would have been quite inconspicuous if not for the stray threads sticking out where they had not been tied and cut properly.
“Where did you purchase it?” Jiang Cheng allows his arms to fall to his sides. Fidgeting is a sign of nervousness, of a lack of confidence, and it is a weakness.
“It was a gift.”
“Do you know anything about the artist?” Keeping his tone steady, Jiang Cheng acts like it is just a superficial curiosity and not a question that has been hovering in the back of his mind since he saw Ouyang Zizhen’s ridiculous scroll.
After a pause, Xichen chooses his words carefully. “The artist is highly selective,” he says, echoing Nie Huaisang’s sentiments. “He creates as inspiration strikes.”
Narrowing his eyes, Jiang Cheng allows his displeasure to be conveyed. There is something that Lan Xichen is not telling him but Jiang Cheng cannot ask directly. Instead, all he says is, “That is rather unorthodox.”
At that moment, Nie Huaisang passes by. He is a short distance away, giving orders to a Nie disciple, but his eyes fall on Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen as he walks past.
A flash of remorse crosses Nie Huaisang’s face before he can hide behind his fan (this time a proper fan depicting an elegant forest).
Glancing to his side, Jiang Cheng notices how Zewu-jun’s ever-present smile is suddenly very strained.
Relations between Gusu Lan and Qinghe Nie are not Jiang Cheng’s problem, but he was also there in the Guanyin Temple when Lan Xichen ran Jin Guangyao through with his own sword on the warning from Nie Huaisang. Jiang Cheng is not so naive as to rule out the possibility Nie Huaisang was simply using Lan Xichen as a means to extract his revenge on Jin Guangyao, but it is difficult to rebuke Nie Huaisang for avenging his brother.
Likewise, it is difficult to castigate Lan Xichen for being upset with how the events in the Guanyin Temple played out when in the end, it was his sworn brother’s blood that coated his blade and stained his hands.
And...they are the closest people he has to friends.
Once Nie Huaisang is out of earshot, Jiang Chang pointedly asks, “Have you spoken with Nie Huaisang?”
He knows that he is being a hypocritical hypocrite amongst hypocrites. He is okay with this knowledge.
Giving Jiang Cheng a wary look, Zewu-jun shakes his head once. “Sect Leader Nie has extended Gusu Lan’s invitation in the Unclean Realm for three days beyond the conference.”
Jiang Cheng notices how Huaisang has become Sect Leader Nie. So that’s how it is .
“If I may be so forward,” Jiang Cheng pushes ahead, ignoring every warning going off in his head, “I think you’ll find it worthwhile.”
“My brothers said the same,” Xichen deliberately emphasizes his brothers. “In any case, I have accepted Sect Leader Nie‘s generous invitation.”
Ignoring how his heart pulses with jealousy and how his mind demands to know why Zewu-jun still has two brothers when you have none, Jiang Cheng smiles his carefully practiced, diplomatic Sect Leader smile. “I am glad to hear that. I am optimistic that Zewu-jun and Sect Leader Nie will find such a meeting fruitful.”
“I thank you for your faith,” Lan Xichen slides his own Sect Leader mask back on and smiles blandly. “But Jiang Wanyin, there is someone in Cloud Recesses who I believe is waiting for a letter.”
Lan Xichen is a valued senior whose advice Jiang Cheng greatly values, but Zewu-jun is a terrifyingly effective Sect Leader.
Touché, Sect Leader Lan. Touché.
(It kills Jiang Cheng, that it is so easy to navigate such a delicate conversation with Lan Xichen but so difficult to send Wei Wuxian a single sheet of paper.)
It takes another two weeks until Jiang Cheng finally sends a letter to Wei Wuxian.
He foregoes a greeting and his signature, trusting Wei Wuxian to recognize his writing and the Yunmeng Jiang seal on the envelope.
Do you remember the first promise I made to you?
Before he can second guess himself again, Jiang Cheng all but throws the paper at his head disciple and barks out orders to have it sent to Cloud Recesses as soon as possible.
Then he does his best to push it out of his mind by drowning himself in paperwork and pushing more intensive drills on his disciples.
It doesn’t work.
It is the fall now. Trade agreements for the harvest have been signed long in advance so the paperwork dries up quickly. Yunmeng’s farmers are more than capable of tending to their own harvests so there is little work that requires the sect leader to oversee. And his disciples can only undergo so many consecutive days of intensive Yu Ziyuan-approved drills before Jiang Cheng risks driving his disciples into qi deviation.
With too much on his mind and not enough work to distract him, Jiang Cheng goes straight to Lanling because there is always too much happening at Carp Tower.
Again, Jiang Cheng is surprised by how efficiently Jin Ling and Carp Tower’s staff respond to his sudden, unannounced visit. It is almost as if there are staff whose jobs are dedicated to waiting for unexpected visitors.
“Carp Tower wasn’t this efficient when Jin Guangyao was in power,” Jiang Cheng remarks to Jin Ling as they watch a pair of maids scurry off.
“Xiao Shushu didn’t have as many unexpected visitors,” Jin Ling counters.
“How can Carp Tower have so many unexpected visitors now?”
Jin Ling gives Jiang Cheng an unimpressed look. It....is a fair point, Jiang Cheng acquiesces; he always kept Jin Guangyao informed of his visits.
As they head towards Jin Ling’s private sitting rooms, they pass through a hallway lined with massive tapestries of silk embroidery.
This is not the first time Jiang Cheng has walked down this hall nor is this the first time he has seen the tapestries. The tapestries have always been there, unchanged, another ostentatious reminder of Lanling’s wealth. But, this is the first time he is paying so much attention to them.
They are vibrant, the colours painting the gaudy golden walls with flashes of colour and skilled craftsmanship. There are fluorescent peonies, chrysanthemums, osmanthuses, lotuses, all painstakingly sewn into shape. There are animals too: majestic tigers and graceful herons. Most fittingly, there are several tapestries depicting proud peacocks flashing their embellished tails.
Jiang Cheng pushes thoughts of a different peacock, one dressed in gold and married to Jiang Yanli, out of his mind.
The carefully practiced needlework is what Jiang Cheng is accustomed to seeing in the presence of Sect Leaders and high ranking disciples. It is a far cry from the amateur stitching of Zewu-jun’s new qiankun pouch.
All this time, Jiang Cheng still has not forgotten about the strange embroidery that has been floating around.
It does not occur to Jiang Cheng who the source of this mysteriously widespread amateur embroidery is until after he is ushered into Jin Ling’s room when he sees a new cushion placed neatly on Jin Ling’s chair.
It is slightly better made than most of the odd embroidery he has seen, but it is still a far cry from the meticulous expertise of lifelong practitioners of silk embroidery. It would not be out of place in a peasant’s home but Jin Ling, in spite of Jiang Cheng’s best efforts, is still a Jin and Jins do not settle for anything but the best.
Unless it was a gift from someone Jin Ling cares about.
Like a wayward uncle who regularly achieves the impossible, as if the laws of nature have made an exception just for him.
A wayward uncle who intrudes on others without ever announcing his intentions, forcing Jin Ling to put together an entire system of emergency precautions and train his staff for unexpected visitors.
A wayward uncle who embroiders lotus flowers on Jin Ling’s cushions because he knows that Jin Ling, despite his birthright, has always been more at home in Lotus Pier than in Carp Tower.
Like most conundrums in Jiang Cheng’s life, both the cause and the answer is Wei Wuxian. Because fucking Wei Wuxian is the source of this mysterious embroidery because of fucking course he is.
When, the fuck, did Wei Wuxian ever pick up embroidery!?
Jiang Cheng’s intuitive fury towards being surprised quickly thaws into something more vulnerable.
Wei Wuxian never thought to make anything for me.
Why would he, when we aren’t even speaking?
Jin Ling stares at Jiang Cheng, realizing that the cushion Wei Wuxian gifted him is out in the open, that Jiang Cheng has definitely seen the cushion and realized who it is from, and that he may have broken his uncle.
He is trying very hard not to panic because not only is Jiang Cheng still a Very Important Sect Leader whose death in Lanling would definitely cause a succession crisis, Jin Ling really does not have all that much family left to lose and it would be really fucking nice if his Jiujiu did not die in his room.
“Jiujiu?” Jin Ling prods, concerned that Jiang Cheng is suddenly undergoing a qi deviation.
With how crushed his chest feels, with how uncomfortably his heart is twisting, Jiang Cheng may as well be going through a qi deviation.
But, he knows what it is like to have your core dissipate within you, to lose control over your carefully cultivated spiritual energy, and what he is feeling now is not that.
This is just the feeling of all the emotions that he has been running away from finally catching up to him.
“I need to sit down,” Jiang Cheng says breathlessly, dropping himself like a rock into the nearest chair.
It is practically a law of nature, by this point, that Wei Wuxian will always manage to catch Jiang Cheng by surprise.
Wei Wuxian being the one behind the onslaught of amateur embroidery amongst high-ranking cultivators suddenly explains everything Jiang Cheng has observed over the past months. Of course Ouyang Zizhen will be mysteriously proud of his ridiculous silk scroll if it was gifted to him by Wei Wuxian, along with a worryingly strong sticking talisman. Of course Nie Huaisang serves Gusu’s infamous Emperor’s Smile to Jiang Cheng while flaunting a fan that he would otherwise never be seen with if Wei Wuxian had recently dropped by.
Of course Lan Wangji wears a scarf in Lotus Pier in the blistering heat if it has been hand-crafted by his beloved husband.
Of course Lan Sizhui dons a belt that both matches the scarf worn by the man who raised him and is adorned with a reminder of an earlier family. And who else would give Wen Ning such a thoughtfully tailored blanket, who else was still alive who had known Wen Qing well enough to remember the chrysanthemums that adorned her red Wen robes but Wei Wuxian?
Zewu-jun is a bit of a surprise, that he would indulge Wei Wuxian so, but Jiang Cheng cannot deny the evidence he has seen with his own eyes any more than he can pretend he didn’t hear Lan Xichen didn’t call Wei Wuxian a brother.
And of course Jin Ling went to seek out Wei Wuxian. It is an open secret: a thing that Jiang Cheng has known this entire time even if they have both done an admirable job of dancing around the topic. Jin Ling has so little family and Jiang Cheng can hardly begrudge him for reaching out to the only other person who knew A-Jie as well as Jiang Cheng.
He is only a little jealous that Jin Ling was able to do what Jiang Cheng couldn’t: reach out to Wei Wuxian.
Jiang Cheng remembers his youth in Lotus Pier, when Wei Wuxian was still at his side and his family was still alive. Back then, Wei Wuxian regularly gave little gifts to him and A-Jie and A-Die, and even sometimes to A-Niang. They were small things, little paper cuts and rough sketches. Sometimes a pretty rock or a pressed flower.
(If Jiang Cheng still has some of those little trinkets in a box tucked in the wall behind his desk, then that is neither here nor there.)
Wei Wuxian never had much to give, but he never had to go out of his way to find oddly appropriate gifts when he could make them himself.
While Jiang Cheng had been wallowing in his own self-pity over everyone he ever cared for abandoning him, Wei Wuxian had been out there rebuilding his relationships one by one through ridiculous gifts that would be offensive had they come from anyone else.
But none for me.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Jiang Cheng finally says, pressing his fingers into his temples.
“Who says I’m looking at you like anything?!” Jin Ling snaps back. Despite his harsh words he is at Jiang Cheng’s side, hovering. His forehead is creased with worry.
“Like I’m going to qi deviate on the spot.” Leaning backwards, Jiang Cheng tilts his head until it rests on the chair’s ornate backing. He closes his eyes.
“Are you not qi deviating?”
“Do I look like I’m qi deviating!?”
“Well you don’t not look like you’re qi deviating!”
“You!” Cracking open one eye to glare, Jiang Cheng shakes his finger mock-threateningly at Jin Ling. “One of these days I’ll really break your legs.”
Despite being a Sect Leader now, there still remains some of the petulant child as Jin Ling crosses his arms and pouts. “Dajiu wouldn’t let you!”
Both of them freeze.
It is a test.
Jin Ling is watching Jiang Cheng carefully, waiting to see how Jiang Cheng responds.
“You think,” Jiang Cheng says slowly, in a low tone, “that some talismans and a stupid flute can stop me from breaking your legs?”
At first, Jin Ling’s face falls at the harsh words but he quickly realizes that Jiang Cheng has not said anything about Dajiu. Tentatively, Jin Ling pushes further. “Dajiu would let me hide in Cloud Recesses.”
“Ha! You think Lan Wangji would let you in so easily?” Jiang Cheng carefully does not mention Jin Ling stabbing Wei Wuxian. That is a can of worms that Jiang Cheng would like to wait at least another twenty years before he even considers opening it, thank you very much.
With absolute confidence, Jin Ling says, “He would if Dajiu asks.”
“You have such faith in your Dajiu. Have you already forgotten who raised you?”
Calling Wei Wuxian Jin Ling’s dajiu feels...a bit odd because it is something Jiang Cheng has not dared to think about for a long, long time. But he doesn’t dislike it and it is already growing on him.
“Why not? Dajiu has never threatened to break my legs.”
Spluttering because who raised Jin Ling to be such a brat?, Jiang Cheng sits back up properly. The lotus embroidered cushion is directly in front of him, sitting there innocently as if it didn’t just rearrange Jiang Cheng’s entire life a little bit.
Without either of them knowing, Wei Wuxian has been slowly creeping his way back into Jiang Cheng’s life.
Calmer now, Jiang Cheng realizes that it has only been mere weeks since he was last in Carp Tower but this cushion had not been here then.
Wei Wuxian has been in Carp Tower recently, and perhaps even regularly, yet Jiang Cheng never once run into him.
As it has always been, Jiang Cheng is still chasing after Wei Wuxian and perpetually falling behind.
Jiang Cheng desperately needs to see Wei Wuxian now.
He stays in Lanling for the night.
Once he has adequately assured Jin Ling that he is not going to qi deviate mid-flight, Jiang Cheng hops on Sandu early enough to rival Gusu Lan’s waking time and flies towards Cloud Recesses from Carp Tower.
He arrives near the entrance of Cloud Recesses in the early afternoon, the sun high in the sky. He is sure his hair is a mess, tussled from flight, and he is drowning in his own sweat underneath his several layers of purple robes.
Jiang Cheng doesn’t care; his need to see Wei Wuxian trumps his own vanity.
In another throwback to their past, Jiang Cheng is once again denied entry into Cloud Recesses by the Lan disciples on duty. Even now, as a Sect Leader, Jiang Cheng cannot enter Cloud Recesses without a jade token or a written invitation.
Unlike Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng is not shameless enough to argue with disciples over rules they have no control over. Nor does he intend to sneak into Cloud Recesses with alcohol past curfew. Instead, he simply nods, asks the disciples to inform Wei Wuxian that he will be in Caiyi if Wei Wuxian wishes to see him, and prepares to go have a nice long cry alone in the woods before making his way back down the mountain.
In a rare stroke of fortune, Jiang Cheng hears Wei Wuxian’s voice just as he is stepping away from the entrance.
“Jiang Cheng?” Wei Wuxian blurts out in disbelief. His gaze lingers just long enough on Jiang Cheng’s wind-tussled appearance to make Jiang Cheng feel self-conscious before Wei Wuxian immediately straightens his posture and bows. “Sect Leader Jiang,” he amends, remembering that he is no longer Jiang Cheng’s brother and has not been for a long time.
“Wei Wuxian. Aren’t you going to invite me in?”
Internally, Jiang Cheng winces. This is not how things are supposed to go. He is supposed to be talking to Wei Wuxian, not scolding him. He isn’t angry, so why are his words so angry?
Because anger is easier than hurt.
The two disciples who are watching this exchange cringe at Jiang Cheng’s harsh demand.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” one of the disciples says politely, but firmly. Jiang Cheng notices how the disciple’s grip on his sword tightens and wonders when the Lan disciples began to protect Wei Wuxian as one of their own.
Wei Wuxian holds a hand up, stopping the disciple from continuing. “Don’t worry, Lan Qingchun,” he says with a composed smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “Anger is just how people communicate in Yunmeng. Don’t take Sect Leader Jiang’s yelling to heart.”
Insulting the place that raised you?! Undermining my authority? Except Wei Wuxian is not wrong. Jiang Cheng is well aware that the household of anger he, Wei Wuxian, and Jiang Yanli had been raised in was not normal. But anger was always Yu Ziyuan’s favoured method of communication and Jiang Cheng is more like his mother than he would like to admit.
“Come, Sect Leader Jiang,” Wei Wuxian says distantly, the politest Jiang Cheng has ever heard him. “I’m just passing by. Are you here to see Zewu-jun? I can bring you to the Yashi.”
Mutely, Jiang Cheng shakes his head.
I’m here to see you, you fool, he wants to say, but the words are stuck in his throat.
But isn’t that why they broke in the first place? Their inability to be honest with one another?
“Are you here for Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian continues when Jiang Cheng doesn’t speak. Wei Wuxian strokes his nose, the same way he always did when he was at a loss. “Lan Zhan didn’t tell me about a meeting with you though…”
“No.” His voice sounds weak, especially to himself, but Jiang Cheng forces the words out. It is time that he pushes himself to be honest with himself, with Wei Wuxian.
When Jiang Cheng doesn’t follow up with anything else, Wei Wuxian’s words suddenly take on a worried tone. “Is it Jin Ling? Did something happen at Carp Tower? Did Jin Chan try to pull something?”
Jiang Cheng is a bit jealous of how easily Wei Wuxian broadcasts his emotions to the world, of how Wei Wuxian can simply allow him to express what he feels as he feels.
That’s not true. Wei Wuxian hides his emotions better than anyone, behind a smile and a joke.
“I…” Jiang Cheng cuts himself off. He really does not know how to convey his feelings in words, but he does know how to give an order. Straightening into his Sect Leader posture, Jiang Cheng says, “We need to talk,” with more confidence than he feels.
The two Lan disciples have been dutifully standing guard at the gate, pretending they haven’t been hanging onto every last word passed between Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian.
“Oh.” Wei Wuxian sounds surprised that Jiang Cheng would want to talk to him, but his expression is unreadable. “Come. I know a place we can talk.”
Wei Wuxian leads Jiang Cheng down the path leading into Cloud Recesses. The tension between them is palpable, but neither speak.
Following a couple paces behind Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng finally gets a good look at how Wei Wuxian has changed. In Mo Xuanyu’s body, Wei Wuxian is a little shorter and his shoulders a lot thinner. His black robes are lined with a deep blue, subtly marking him as a member of Gusu Lan but only to those who know to look. It clashes with the red ribbon tied in his hair yet this look suits Wei Wuxian.
Yunmeng purple looked better on him, Jiang Cheng thinks a little smugly.
Instead of the main path that leads directly into the heart of Cloud Recesses, Wei Wuxian takes Jiang Cheng down a side path that circles around the main buildings.
Even for Cloud Recesses, the path is eerily quiet.
“The junior disciples have taken a liking to you,” Jiang Cheng finally says when the silence between them becomes too much. This is not what you came to talk about, Jiang Cheng’s mind screams at him, but he hasn’t the slightest inkling where or how to even begin. His brother was once the person he knew best. Now, a complete stranger would be easier to talk to. Sect Leader Yao would be easier to talk to.
Through a forced grin, pretending to be unaffected by the heavy atmosphere between them, Wei Wuxian speaks. “I know. It drives Old Man Lan insane that his own clan juniors prefer my lectures to his.”
They are nearly side by side, yet separated by a chasm of lies and betrayals and loss spaced across twenty years.
In another life, Jiang Cheng would have playfully shoved Wei Wuxian and told him to stop bragging. In this life, the present truce between them is precarious at best and Jiang Cheng is terrified that he will tip the perilous balance to the wrong side.
But, Jiang Cheng has to try. “You have been seeing Jin Ling.”
Jin Ling is not the neutral topic Jiang Cheng hoped it would be. Wei Wuxian freezes, his mask of forced politeness hiding his thoughts nearly as well as his jokes and alcohol had in the past.
“If Sect Leader Jiang wishes for this humble one to cease communications with Sect Leader Jin, this disciple shall willingly oblige.”
They have barely started talking but the cold, detached politeness coming from Wei Wuxian snaps something inside of Jiang Cheng. Between the two of them, Jiang Cheng has always had the shorter temper. As much as Jiang Cheng had hoped to have an amicable discussion, placid pleasantries had never been how they communicated.
It is no surprise that Jiang Cheng exploded then.
“Will you stop,” Jiang Cheng roars, drawing the attention of a trio of passing junior disciples.
Wei Wuxian quickly shakes his head at the disciples when they raise their swords, gesturing that everything is under control.
It wasn’t. Neither Wei Wuxian nor Jiang Cheng knew what they were doing, but the Lan disciples didn’t need to know that.
Jiang Cheng does not miss the concerned glances the disciples share amongst themselves as they scurry away. Grandmaster Lan must be beside himself, Jiang Cheng thinks. If his relationship with Wei Wuxian weren’t so fraught, Jiang Cheng would have found it hilarious that Gusu Lan’s disciples have become so devoted to Wei Wuxian.
“Will those disciples be tattling on you to Hanguang-jun?” Jiang Cheng says, no longer trying to hide his bitterness. “Should I expect that husband of yours to whisk you away now?”
All Wei Wuxian says is, “Gossip is forbidden in Cloud Recesses.” He sounds like a model Gusu citizen and acts like one too as he peacefully continues walking. Only the tightness of his shoulders betray his underlying tension.
Jiang Cheng hates it.
I’m never going to marry into Lan Sect, Wei Wuxian had claimed to Jiang Cheng with such surety in their youth.
Yet Wei Wuxian now walks alongside Jiang Cheng wearing robes lined in Gusu's colours while speaking with a detached politeness as if Jiang Cheng is just another Sect Leader and not the boy he grew up as brothers with.
“Jin Ling…” Jiang Cheng tries again, softer, once the disciples are long gone and the buildings are out of sight.
“Does Sect Leader Jiang disapprove of my correspondence with Sect Leader Jin?”
Grabbing Wei Wuxian’s arm so he stops walking, Jiang Cheng forces Wei Wuxian to turn around and actually look at him. “Stop talking like that! You’ve never talked like this in your life and a year of marriage suddenly turns you into the perfect Gusu Lan spouse!?”
“A spouse must represent one’s cultivation partner accordingly.” Wei Wuxian shakes his arm out of Jiang Cheng’s grasp. He frowns. “My actions reflect upon my husband.”
“Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng is surprised at hearing such words come out of Wei Wuxian’s mouth but he pushes his surprise aside to focus on the matter at hand. “Talk properly!”
“Am I not talking properly? How do you want me to talk?” Finally, to Jiang Cheng’s relief, Wei Wuxian drops the overbearing politeness and allows a frustrated sharpness to enter his tone.
“Like a human!”
“What’s that supposed to mean?!”
Pausing, Jiang Cheng realizes that he and Wei Wuxian are in each other’s faces, like they had been throughout all of the Sunshot Campaign. How sad is it, that the temporary regression in their exchange is an improvement on their current relationship?
“Talk to me,” he says while looking directly at Wei Wuxian, “like you talk to Jin Ling.”
Warily, Wei Wuxian narrows his eyes as if he thinks Jiang Cheng is going to whip him with Zidian if he says something wrong.
Given the nature of their last few encounters, Wei Wuxian’s paranoia is not entirely unreasonable.
“Why?” Wei Wuxian asks, his hands fiddling with his wrist guards.
It would be easier to just never speak to Wei Wuxian. Even at the best of times their relationship was mired in half-truths and unvoiced worries and buried resentments.
But Jiang Cheng is so very lonely.
And it’s not that Jiang Cheng doesn’t know that Wei Wuxian is still there, waiting for him to make a move. Lan Sizhui, Lan Wangji, and Lan Xichen have told him enough.
Wei Wuxian is standing right in front of Jiang Cheng, right now, waiting for Jiang Cheng to do something. To say anything.
Perhaps it might be easier to abandon this entire endeavor, to push Wei Wuxian from his mind again, but Jiang Cheng does not want that. Jiang Cheng never really wanted to let Wei Wuxian go in the first place.
So, he braces himself and pushes ahead.
“You speak to him like he’s family. And I…” Jiang Cheng pauses and takes a deep breath. His palms are clammy, clenched inside his sleeves. “Brothers are supposed to be family.”
“Jiang Cheng?” Wei Wuxian’s eyes are wide as he looks at Jiang Cheng with suspicion and...and hope?
“Two years, Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng says, hiding his shaking hands inside his sleeves. “It has been two years and not once have you set foot in Yunmeng.”
It is still early enough in the morning that most of the Lan Sect is preoccupied by lectures, by sect duties. No one is there to witness how Jiang Cheng’s eyes become misty.
“I”ve taken the juniors on nighthunts to Yunmeng,” Wei Wuxian admits carefully, testing the waters to see how Jiang Cheng responds.
“So that’s how it is,” Jiang Cheng smiles mirthlessly. He can hear his heart thumping in his ears, Wei Wuxian’s golden core strumming spiritual energy in response to his distress. “It’s only Lotus Pier that you’ve moved on from.”
“Jiang Cheng! We were just passing through, nothing worth disturbing a Sect Leader over. Yunmeng Jiang disciples pass through Gusu all the time.”
“But what about a brother?” Jiang Cheng asks, his voice breaking. You’re not just a disciple, Wei Wuxian. “Would you disturb a brother?”
They’ve only exchanged a handful of words but Jiang Cheng’s eyes are already embarrassingly wet. Wei Wuxian is faring no better but they both ignore this.
“We’re not doing this here,” Wei Wuxian says abruptly, turning around to continue down the path. Jiang Cheng’s heart is about to shatter until Wei Wuxian continues speaking. “We are not talking about this without backup.”
He doesn’t know what backup Wei Wuxian is referring to, but Jiang Cheng decides to push aside his own trepidation and follows Wei Wuxian. This is the closest they have come to making amends since Wei Wuxian’s first life.
A few steps later, Wei Wuxian looks back to see if Jiang Cheng is following him. Jiang Cheng is right on Wei Wuxian’s heel — but it hurts that Wei Wuxian no longer trusts whether Jiang Cheng would follow him without question.
It is a fair suspicion, given that Jiang Cheng did turn his back on Wei Wuxian when his support was needed the most.
Or did Wei Wuxian abandon me first when he didn’t trust me with knowledge of the golden core transplant?
Jiang Cheng doesn’t know when their loyalty to each other turned into betrayal either.
“Should I expect Hanguang-jun to sweep in and rescue you?” Jiang Cheng speaks so they do not drown under the weight of unspoken words. Twenty years of silence is enough. “Are those disciples from earlier spies sent by Hanguang-jun to supervise your safety?”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Wei Wuxian says noncommittally, as if Jiang Cheng isn’t a little terrified that he will have come this far only to run into an immovable wall of Lan Wangji’s overprotectiveness. “I don’t need Lan Zhan to rescue me from anything.”
Jiang Cheng thinks otherwise, given the several times he has watched Lan Wangji intercept blows intended for Wei Wuxian over two lifetimes.
Wisely, Jiang Cheng does not say what he thinks about Lan Wangji. Instead, he is distracted by a looming fir tree that he has never seen before. “Have we been in this part of Cloud Recesses before?”
“Probably not,” Wei Wuxian casually brushes a low hanging branch to the side as he passes by. He waits for Jiang Cheng to walk through before releasing the branch. “Nie-xiong and I used to sneak down this path to go fishing.”
And then Jiang Cheng remembers a meal they shared back in the early days of their short time as guest disciples. Wei Wuxian had returned with fish to pair with A-Jie’s pork rib and lotus root soup and Jiang Cheng had scolded him for making Yunmeng Jiang lose face with his careless attitude.
Back then, Jiang Cheng had been so stressed about what Lan Qiren would do if he found out about Wei Wuxian’s extracurricular fishing.
Now, Jiang Cheng regrets never taking the risk to join Nie Huaisang and Wei Wuxian in their extracurricular fishing.
Wei Wuxian leads Jiang Cheng to an open clearing, just at the foot of a rocky slope. A bubbling stream flows by, feeding into the main brook that flows through Cloud Recesses.
At the edge of the stream, a donkey brays grumpily, languidly chewing a mouthful of crisp, green grass. Someone has left a bucket of apples leaned up against a nearby tree.
“Sit,” Wei Wuxian says from where he has already plopped himself down on the ground, fine robes spilling all over the grass. His posture is as bad as ever as he leans back on his hands. “And wait.”
Confused, Jiang Cheng opens his mouth but is harshly shushed by Wei Wuxian before he can make a sound.
With a frown, Jiang Cheng kneels in the grass. He is mindful of his robes and holds his posture as rigidly as possible. Even if Wei Wuxian is the only one around, Jiang Cheng cannot afford to look any less than the powerful Sect Leader he is — even if he is already more dishevelled than any Sect Leader should be.
(He’s not entirely convinced that Lan Wangji has not spent spies after them.)
Moments pass in stillness. It is peaceful, with only the loud chewing of the donkey and the steady rustle of the stream interrupting the silence.
Watching as Wei Wuxian quietly swings his feet left and right, Jiang Cheng is about to ask Wei Wuxian what exactly they are doing when Wei Wuxian holds up his hand again.
He points at a rustling bush.
To Jiang Cheng’s surprise, a snow white rabbit hops out from under the bush. It is followed by another, then another, until there is a steady line of rabbits hopping towards him and Wei Wuxian.
As the rabbits circle them, Jiang Cheng looks at Wei Wuxian in disbelief. “Rabbits?” He asks incredulously, allowing the judgement to seep into his voice.
“Aren’t they great?” Wei Wuxian grins as one hops into his lap. “These are the descendents of the rabbits Lan Zhan and I found in Lan Yi’s cave back in the day.”
(Jiang Cheng remembers an afternoon long ago, when he and A-Jie spent an afternoon with Wei Wuxian doing nothing except playing with rabbits.
Back then, Jiang Cheng had asked where the rabbits had come from.
Back then, Wei Wuxian had said it was none of Jiang Cheng’s business and that he simply happened upon them.
Like many things in their lives, the truth had come out far too late for it to change anything.
Jiang Cheng had been annoyed with Wei Wuxian and his penchant for keeping secrets then, especially over something as benign as rabbits. It is too late for regrets now, but Jiang Cheng wishes he had been brave enough to push Wei Wuxian a little further, to find out if Wei Wuxian was ever willing to share his secrets even when they had trusted each other.
Wei Wuxian used to hide his true loyalties behind little white lies to protect himself until they accumulated into a tangled mess of half-truths that brought upon his demise. Now he wears his loyalties on his sleeves.
Jiang Cheng used to take Wei Wuxian’s words at face value, too scared to push, only to end up pushing Wei Wuxian away anyway.
They have both learned their lessons.)
“Rabbits.” Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes at the rabbit cautiously sniffing his robes. His mind is swirling with how different things are now. Oddly enough, it is now when they are most distant that they are the most honest with each other.
“They didn’t like me at first,” Wei Wuxian says, intentionally ignoring Jiang Cheng’s judgement. “But I’m always with Lan Zhan when he feeds them so we’ve reached a truce.”
Jiang Cheng’s heart hurts as he remembers how happy he had been that afternoon twenty years earlier, surrounded by his siblings and excited to return home. Things began falling apart shortly afterwards, but their youthful selves had no way of knowing that. None of them could guess the grief and suffering that awaited them. Not even Wei Wuxian had, when he laughed as he threw a little rabbit into Jiang Cheng’s arms.
Back then Jiang Cheng had caught the rabbit without hesitation, unworried about letting his guard down in front of his family despite his initial assertion that playing with rabbits was unmanly. His reluctance was brief and it was easy to shove aside his own insecurities to do something as juvenile as cuddling a rabbit.
The ease of letting down his guard before Wei Wuxian was left in the past.
Wei Wuxian does not throw him a rabbit, leaving Jiang Cheng to sit with rabbit-less arms as the rabbits sniff at him with caution.
It was easy to get over himself then, when Wei Wuxian was there to cover his weaknesses. Jiang Cheng isn’t sure what to do now, now that Wei Wuxian is his weakness.
Now, Jiang Cheng tentatively offers a finger to a rabbit as he flatly says, “Why am I sitting in a field of rabbits.”
Wei Wuxian understands the question, even if it is not phrased as such.
Gently stroking between the ears of another rabbit who has already climbed into his lap, Wei Wuxian looks at Jiang Cheng with such an earnest expression that Jiang Cheng nearly forgets that Mo Xuanyu’s body was not originally Wei Wuxian’s.
Jiang Cheng looks up from his rabbit, who is now cautiously sniffing his outstretched fingers. “You are using Hanguang-jun’s rabbits as a shield between us?”
He tries not to sound hurt.
“Not a shield,” Wei Wuxian ignores Jiang Cheng’s flash of vulnerability, knowing that they are not quite in the right headspace to address emotions yet. “Whenever Lan Zhan and I have to talk about something serious, we do it with the rabbits. It calms both of us, and the rabbits are so cute. Plus,” Wei Wuxian adds with a cheeky grin, “if it gets too serious I just threaten to eat a rabbit and Lan Zhan threatens to eat me instead.”
(Twenty years earlier, when Jiang Cheng asked if Wei Wuxian wanted to eat rabbit meat, Wei Wuxian had covered the rabbit’s years. “Little rabbits can’t hear that kind of language!” Wei Wuxian had said, offended.
Watching as another rabbit circles around his robes, Jiang Cheng smiles bitterly.
How times have changed.)
Jiang Cheng decides he does not need to know what Lan Wangji ‘eating’ Wei Wuxian is supposed to mean.
“So we are going to talk with rabbits?” Jiang Cheng had expected a tense yelling match in Cloud Recesses. Perhaps it would be in the Jingshi, or even in the Yashi. Not...this.
Wei Wuxian nods.
As the rabbits continue to poke their little furry heads from underneath the bushes and out behind the tree trunks, neither Jiang Cheng nor Wei Wuxian say anything. The atmosphere is tense, but the steadily churning stream in the background works wonders at diffusing much of it.
“You know,” Wei Wuxian prompts after enough time has passed for his bottom half to be buried under a wiggling blanket of rabbits and neither of them have spoken, “Lan Zhan once buried Lan Sizhui with the rabbits.”
It is difficult to imagine the austere Hanguang-jun with any child, nevermind doing something as silly as burying the child in rabbits. But Jiang Cheng remembers his encounter with Lan Sizhui, A-Yuan, and remembers how surprisingly pleasant a child raised by the two most insufferable people has grown up to be.
This reminds Jiang Cheng of the Lan disciples they ran into earlier.
“Seriously,” Jiang Cheng says as he carefully rearranges his rich purple robes around him. He tucks the silk neatly under him without drowning any rabbits. “Will those disciples tattle on me to Hanguang-jun?”
“Definitely,” Wei Wuxian laughs as he picks up the nearest rabbit to cradle in his arms. Seeing how Jiang Cheng’s face twists in consternation, he adds, “Don’t worry, Lan Zhan won’t bother us until curfew.”
Jiang Cheng highly doubts that, given Lan Wangji’s notorious overprotection of Wei Wuxian and blatant dislike for Jiang Cheng. But he remembers Nie Huaisang’s words, that Hanguang-jun protects Wei-xiong’s happiness above all else, and sets aside his apprehension as best he can.
It is a small thing, but Jiang Cheng chooses to trust Wei Wuxian’s word.
“I saw the cushion you made for Jin Ling,” Jiang Cheng says instead, taking baby steps towards what he really wants to talk about. Each word feels like glass churning in his throat, yet it is liberating once the words are out.
“He kept the thing?” Wei Wuxian says, eyes widening with genuine surprise. “I thought he would just shove it into a closet somewhere never to be seen again. Or even burn it. It doesn’t exactly match up to Lanling Jin’s standards for home decor.”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t know how to tell Wei Wuxian that not only did Jin Ling keep the cushion, but it is displayed prominently in Jin Ling’s private sitting room perched against the armrest of Jin Ling’s favourite chair. It is true that the unsophisticated needlework very much clashes with the splendid grandeur that adorns every inch of Carp Tower, but that does not stop Jin Ling from treasuring a gift from his Dajiu.
“I didn’t know you could sew,” Jiang Cheng says, redirecting the conversation.
“I didn’t know I could either! But, as much I appreciate Mo Xuanyu giving me his body, this body has a much weaker constitution than my old one.”
Even with the rabbits and the meditative gurgling of the stream, it is far from comfortable between them but Jiang Cheng finds it easy to sink into the familiarity of listening to Wei Wuxian tell a story.
Like many of his other endeavours, embroidery was an accident.
It wasn’t as if Wei Wuxian wasn’t already very busy inventing talismans, teaching juniors, leading nighthunts, and avoiding Lan Qiren.
But the problem with Mo Xuanyu’s body, aside from its stubbornly low cultivation, is that it is rather frail. It is not a surprise, given that Mo Xuanyu spent most of his life malnourished in addition to the abuse he suffered from the Mo family and at Carp Tower. And his body is much stronger now, after Wei Wuxian’s rigorous training and regular meals. But it still leaves Wei Wuxian susceptible to seasonal illnesses, phantom pains, and it is easy to overexert what little spiritual power he has.
(Wei Wuxian is working on it. But a golden core can only grow so fast, even with his best efforts and very enthusiastic dual cultivation.)
Even when he does take the junior disciples out on a winter night hunt, Wei Wuxian tends to return with a stuffy nose and cough.
Consequently, Wei Wuxian spends significant portions of the winter in the Jingshi, buried under a mountain of blankets with a fire burning in every room because he is always cold and only leaves to teach his classes. Lan Wangji does as much work as he can at Wei Wuxian’s side, reading documents in bed and drafting new proposals as Wei Wuxian rests his head on his husband’s lap.
But inside the Jingshi, there is little Wei Wuxian can do for entertainment. Having invented enough new talismans to have exhausted Gusu’s supply of talisman papers, Lan Wangji brought out some fine threads of silk and a needle. Surprising everyone, most of all himself, Wei Wuxian actually enjoyed it and was reasonably adept at embroidery.
“Lan Zhan doesn’t like it when I say it this way, but I think it’s nice to stab something repeatedly. It’s cathartic,” Wei Wuxian quips, a familiar teasing glint back in his eyes, “I get stabbed so often, it’s nice to be the one doing the stabbing instead.”
“Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng hisses, shoving the memory of Sandu drawing Wei Wuxian’s blood from his mind. He pushes the subsequent image of Jin Ling using Suihua to draw Wei Wuxian’s blood even further out of his mind.
It was Hanguang-jun’s suggestion that Wei Wuxian turn his embroidery into small gifts for people after scraps of silk began to pile up in their home.
To Wei Wuxian’s surprise, the people who he gifted his embroidery too were genuinely happy to receive it — even Lan Xichen.
Wei Wuxian jokes that it is only because Hanguang-jun’s glare is too scary and it would be an insult to reject a handmade gift from the Chief Cultivator’s spouse, no matter how crudely made.
Jiang Cheng knows that it is because Wei Wuxian is someone who inspires lifelong loyalty in his personal relationships. Everyone gifted with his embroidery is someone Wei Wuxian holds in close trust.
That’s why everyone but you has his embroidery.
Ignoring the self-deprecating voice of blame that has been his companion for his entire adult life, Jiang Cheng listens to Wei Wuxian.
“It takes a real silk artist months to create a single piece, but I cheat a little and no one says anything. I don’t tie the threads properly and it’s not double sided and the silk master in Caiyi gives me dirty looks whenever I walk by, but I like it. It’s creative, not destructive. And I needed that.”
Jiang Cheng hums thoughtfully. Logically, he knows that he is not the only one who is still not over the traumas of their youth — Lan Wangji’s overprotectiveness didn’t develop out of nowhere and there are reasons Nie Huaisang has been seen with his saber since the Sunshot Campaign ended.
In practice, they all walk around pretending like they are fine, that everything is fine, that their pasts do not continue to haunt them.
Unlike Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng isn’t quite ready to give voice to his own demons yet. He isn’t sure if he ever will be. “Still causing trouble for others, eh? You haven’t changed.”
“You haven’t either,” Wei Wuxian responds, looking at the rabbit to avoid Jiang Cheng’s gaze, “You still need to yell before you can talk.”
“And you’re still bothering Hanguang-jun,” Jiang Cheng counters, wishing Wei Wuxian would look at him. “Still shamelessly hanging off him.”
Wei Wuxian simply shrugs, conceding the point. “It worked out in the end, didn’t it?”
A past Wei Wuxian might have argued back, but they have all grown up.
“I’m surprised you waited a year before running off with Hanguang-jun,” Jiang Cheng speaks because Wei Wuxian does not look like he is going to say anything further and because Jiang Cheng was genuinely surprised it took a year before they announced their marriage. “Did the righteous Hanguang-jun really live in sin for an entire year?”
He doesn’t want to address what his lack of embroidered gift means, the golden core, A-Jie, the Wens, or anything that came between them. But, he can ease his own curiosity as to why Lan Wangji did not elope with Wei Wuxian immediately when they had walked out of the Guanyin Temple side by side.
Wei Wuxian blinks at him, slowly, and tilts his head confused as a rabbit nibbles the ends of his hair. “We didn’t live in sin.”
“That year before you married?” Jiang Cheng looks back down at the rabbits in his lap. The first shy rabbit has multiplied. He is not drowning in rabbits like Wei Wuxian, but he has a good five or six nestled in his robes. Wei Wuxian was right: rabbits are a good shield.
“I was travelling. Wandering. I needed to find myself, feel real again, and Lan Zhan needed to decipher Jin Guangyao’s books and take on Sect Leader duties while Zewu-jun was in seclusion. We all needed some time to heal on our own, alone, to find our footing in this new world.” Wei Wuxian tilts his head ever so slightly and the sun glints off his face at just the right angle so that Mo Xuanyu’s already youthful body looks even younger, like the age they had been back when they were still visiting guest disciples.
Even so, Mo Xuanyu’s body is older than Wei Wuxian’s body ever got to be.
Once again Jiang Cheng is struck by just how much and how little growth Wei Wuxian has gone through. Wei Wuxian’s consciousness has only enjoyed a little over twenty years of consciousness, yet the years during the Sunshot Campaign and in the Burial Mounds have aged Wei Wuxian enough that his lack of lived experience is only noticeable if you know where to look.
“And Hanguang-jun just let you go? Without supervision?”
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian sounds exasperated, “I can take care of myself.”
No you can’t, Jiang Cheng wants to scream. You take on too much and you let it rip you apart.
But Jiang Cheng also has to admit that Wei Wuxian is anything but weak. Arguably, he was the strongest of them all. But, knowing that Wei Wuxian went so long without a core — knowing that Mo Xuanyu’s core is still leagues away from where Wei Wuxian’s core had been — makes it difficult for Jiang Cheng to reconcile the sheer power of the Yiling Laozu with the Wei Wuxian who collapsed into Lan Wangji’s arms in Lotus Pier.
This is why Wei Wuxian was so quick to throw away his golden core: because you see a life without spiritual power as one not worth living whereas Wei Wuxian learned to make power for himself.
“Lan Wangji looks at you as if he wishes he could lock you in a padded room to keep you safe,” Jiang Cheng says as if he doesn’t also worry about Wei Wuxian’s carelessness. Even at his most resentful, when he drove Sandu into the rocks on that cliff, Jiang Cheng knew that he didn’t really want Wei Wuxian to die.
“And Lan Zhan is a good husband who would never do such a thing.” Wei Wuxian has a distant look on his face, as if he has been reminded of something. Whatever he is thinking, Wei Wuxian does not share it and Jiang Cheng does not push to find out.
“A good husband who marries in a secret ceremony that no one is invited to?” Jiang Cheng doesn’t doubt the depth nor the sincerity of Lan Wangji’s love for Wei Wuxian. After the very public spectacle that was Carp Tower, there are not many who do. Still, it is hard not to be a little suspicious of such a high ranking cultivator holding such a private wedding.
(And maybe Jiang Cheng is still hurt that he was never invited to see his own brother's wedding, that he was never given the opportunity to poor tea for Lan Wangji.)
Wei Wuxian shrugs, already aware of the assumptions people might draw from such an impromptu and nontraditional union. “It wasn’t a secret on purpose. We just didn’t want to wait any longer.”
“So you risk offending all the Sects?”
“Sect Leader Yao would be more offended if he were forced to bestow well-meaning and auspicious blessings for my marriage.”
Jiang Cheng releases an exasperated sigh. “This is why no one likes you.” He doesn’t say this with affection, exactly, but it is on the cusp of teasing.
“Lan Zhan likes me enough,” Wei Wuxian shrugs contentedly.
“You and Hanguang-jun are infuriating,” Jiang Cheng decides. “I don’t know how Zewu-jun puts up with you.”
Even though Jiang Cheng’s words are harsh, Wei Wuxian smiles. They are slowly picking up pieces of their old routines as Wei Wuxian relearns how to respond to Jiang Cheng when he hides his feelings behind anger.
“Zewu-jun is the best,” Wei Wuxian gently tugs the ends of his ribbon out of an eager rabbit’s mouth. “He doesn’t say anything when Lan Zhan brings me Emperor’s Smile.”
“And what does Grandmaster Lan have to say about this?”
“What Old Man Lan doesn’t know won’t hurt him.” Plucking a long blade of grass between his fingers, Wei Wuxian nudges it at one of the many rabbits nestled in his lap until one takes it between its teeth. “There isn’t much an older brother wouldn’t do for the happiness of their younger brother,” Wei Wuxian adds.
They both know he is no longer only referring to Lan Xichen.
By the stream, Lil’ Apple kicks a medium sized rock into the water. Neither Wei Wuxian nor Jiang Cheng notice the subsequent splash. They are buried too deep in their own thoughts.
“Shijie wasn’t supposed to die,” Wei Wuxian says miserably, finally broaching one of the many topics they have been dancing around. The tears that have been steadily pooling in his eyes finally break free. Jiang Cheng wants to lean forward, to wipe away Wei Wuxian’s tears the way Wei Wuxian did for him in the Guanyin Temple. But...Jiang Cheng doesn’t move.
He tells himself it is because he doesn’t want to disturb the rabbits that are comfortably resting against his legs.
(He knows that it is because he is still too much of a coward to do so. They are still on unsteady footing. Wei Wuxian has Lan Wangji to wipe his tears now and Jiang Cheng doesn’t want to overstep.)
Before they died, it was always Jiang Yanli who wiped Wei Wuxian’s tears. Jiang Yanli had been the glue holding them together, holding their entire dysfunctional family together. They were already cracked long before she died, but it was her death that led them to fall apart.
Without Jiang Yanli, it didn’t take long for their relationship to crumble.
As a bold rabbit pushes its head between Jiang Cheng’s fingers, Jiang Cheng remembers when Wei Wuxian offered to bring a rabbit back to Yunmeng.
How can the rabbit be happy in Yunmeng, separated from his family and loved ones?, Jiang Yanli had asked in response.
Absentmindedly stroking the rabbit that invited itself into his hand, Jiang Cheng feels a tear escape from his eye. He had become the rabbit all alone in Yunmeng. He loved Yunmeng and Lotus Pier was his home — and Jiang Cheng would never choose to live anywhere else — but his loved ones had all abandoned him. Even before the Nightless City, Yu Ziyuan and Jiang Fengmian were already dead. Jiang Yanli had married Jin Zixuan, married into Lanling Jin, and Wei Wuxian had escaped with the Wens.
Jiang Cheng had been abandoned in Lotus Pier for a long time.
“You left me alone,” Jiang Cheng says, stroking the rabbit’s back. “You and A-Jie both.”
“I’m sorry.” Lowering his head, Wei Wuxian avoids Jiang Cheng’s gaze.
Clenching the fist that bears Zidian, Jiang Cheng takes deep breaths to keep his energy under control. He suspects that the slightest spark from Zidian will send Wei Wuxian running for Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng has come too far to let his temper ruin everything now.
“Apologies won’t bring back A-Jie.” As soon as the words leave his mouth, Jiang Cheng realizes his mistake. They aren’t the way they used to be; Wei Wuxian doesn’t know that Jiang Cheng doesn’t mean the vitriol he spews anymore.
Seeing Wei Wuxian flinch, watching the anguish — the grief — flash in Wei Wuxian’s eyes, Jiang Cheng quickly backtracks. “A-Jie made her choice,” he adds in a more pacified tone.
Miserably, Wei Wuxian plays with a lock of hair that has escaped his ribbon. His fingers loop the thin strands one over another with none of Wei Wuxian’s usual dexterity. They leave behind a thin, lumpy braid that sticks out of his head at an odd angle. “Shijie wasn’t supposed to be there. She wouldn’t have been there if it weren’t for me,” Wei Wuxian says, staring at his hair instead of looking at Jiang Cheng. His tone is resigned, as though he has accepted the burden of blame for himself.
And maybe it is a little bit his fault, but Jiang Cheng has had twenty years of blaming Wei Wuxian. He is tired.
For years, Jiang Cheng has been telling himself that it was Wei Wuxian’s fault that Jiang Yanli died. It was easier than facing the reality that A-Jie had been more willing to die for Wei Wuxian than she had been willing to live for Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling.
Who was Wei Wuxian, to steal all of A-Jie’s love from her blood brother and son?
(Who are you to be blaming Wei Wuxian when it was A-Jie’s love to give? )
Now, Jiang Cheng understands that it wasn’t just Wei Wuxian whom A-Jie had been willing to die for. It was her family. Jiang Yanli had faith that Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian would be able to do the right thing, to continue to be a family even in her absence.
She had so much faith that her younger brothers could work it out and Jiang Cheng had let her down.
Wei Wuxian hurts just as you do. He hurts more than you do because he knows it’s all his fault —
“It wasn’t your fault,” Jiang Cheng says, looking down at the rabbit under his fingers. Wei Wuxian looks up, stunned. In his surprise, his entire body shifted which startled several rabbits out of his lap. “A-Jie chose to take the sword for you.”
After so many years of using Wei Wuxian as a scapegoat, Jiang Cheng is surprised at just how much he believes his own words.
In a different life, Jiang Cheng might have accused Wei Wuxian of being self-centred for believing everything was his fault. In that life, Wei Wuxian would have laughed it off with a silly joke — "this attitude is why you’re still single, Jiang Cheng!” But in this life, the mere thought of such an accusation only makes Jiang Cheng feel even more hollow.
For as long as Jiang Cheng has blamed Wei Wuxian for everything that went wrong, Wei Wuxian has been blaming himself.
As he watches several more tears trickle down Wei Wuxian’s cheeks, Jiang Cheng realizes that he always relied too much on others to do the emotional labour for him. He had taken it for granted that A-Jie and Wei Wuxian would always know what he meant until Wei Wuxian suddenly didn’t.
The problem with Jiang Yanli’s death is that they all underestimated just how much they needed her to be a family. Everyone overlooked her because she wasn't a powerful cultivator, but Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian only grew into their power because A-Jie had always been there in the background. She encouraged them when they failed, held them together while they fought, taught Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng to rely on each other while they learned.
And then she was dead and all her lessons died with her.
“Shijie wasn’t supposed to be there,” Wei Wuxian simply repeats, fingers pulling apart his braid. Seeing the strands that Wei Wuxian is yanking out in his haste, Jiang Cheng winces.
“A-Jie believed that we could still be a family. It wasn’t just about you, Wei Wuxian.” It feels odd that Jiang Cheng is the one giving advice. It is yet another reminder of all the growing Jiang Cheng has done while Wei Wuxian was dead.
Looking directly at Jiang Cheng, allowing Jiang Cheng to see his puffy eyes and wet cheeks, Wei Wuxian asks, “Do you think Shijie would still be alive if Uncle Jiang had never brought me back to Lotus Pier?”
“Weren’t you the one who said that everything is in the past?” Jiang Cheng answers with a question of his own. He doesn’t have an answer for Wei Wuxian, and he’s a little bit terrified to begin thinking down that path again. Twenty years of that kind of thinking is enough.
Something wet hands on Jiang Cheng’s hand, startling him. He had been so preoccupied with watching Wei Wuxian, with thoughts of A-Jie, that he didn’t notice when his own tears escaped from him.
Wei Wuxian barks out a bitter laugh. It is nothing like his laugh on the rooftop in the Nightless City, when his mind was already half lost to the resentful energy, but it is similar enough Jiang Cheng shudders. “I meant that about the golden core and I was serious. You were never supposed to find out and I am perfectly happy to never talk about this again.”
“You didn’t have to do it,” Jiang Cheng says. Like Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng’s tears are now freely trickling down his face.
“”Yes I did,” Wei Wuxian says with absolute certainty. “It was what I owed you.”
Jiang Cheng isn’t sure if he agrees, but he is not ready to be convincing Wei Wuxian of his self-worth and he suspects Wei Wuxian is not ready to be convinced of his own worth. Deciding to leave that issue for Lan Wangji, Jiang Cheng redirects the conversation.
There are enough lies and half-truths between them that they might need another twenty years to tangle. Knowing that reconnecting with Wei Wuxian means being honest, being vulnerable, Jiang Cheng decides to tell Wei Wuxian about the Wen guards at the market in Meishan.
“I thought I was a good brother, ready to sacrifice my life for you,” Jiang Cheng adds at the end as he watches Wei Wuxian’s face shuffle through several expressions — shock, then anger, then guilt, before finally landing on resignation.
“But you did,” Wei Wuxian smiles through his tears that are refusing to slow. “Don’t you see, A-Cheng? That was the problem. We were too willing to throw away everything for each other instead of building each other together.”
“When did you get so wise,” Jiang Cheng grumbles with no malice. “Don’t forget that I’m older now. Respect your elders.” They both ignore how raw Jiang Cheng’s voice is, strained with nearly twenty years of pent up emotions finally being released.
“Don’t give me too much credit,” Wei Wuxian says, tears still streaming down his face as he tries to joke. “I had to die first.”
“Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng snaps half-heartedly, too relieved at hearing Wei Wuxian joking again to be too bothered with what he is joking about.
“It’s true! After...after Mo Xuanyu,” Wei Wuxian hesitates, his death still difficult to talk about. It is easy to joke about his death; when people don’t take it seriously, it is easier to pretend it wasn’t real. Except, it was all too real. “After everything,” Wei Wuxian continues, “I spent a lot of time with Xichen-ge.”
Despite presently crying with Wei Wuxian over Hanguang-jun’s secret field of rabbits, Jiang Cheng’s heart clenches at the familiar address. He knows Wei Wuxian has not replaced him, not in his heart nor anywhere else, but it is a stark reminder of how their past familiarity cannot ameliorate their current unfamiliarity. When did Wei Wuxian become so familiar with Sect Leader Lan?
Oblivious to Jiang Cheng’s inner turmoil, perhaps intentionally so, Wei Wuxian continues. “Remember how we used to joke so much about Chief Cultivator being a fancy title with no real jobs to do back when Wen Ruohan and Jin Guangshan were in power? But Lan Zhan is too good to act like his predecessors. His days are very busy, in meetings, reading documents, and drafting proposals. Lan Zhan’s nights are mine, but his days belong to everyone else. At first, Grandmaster Lan Qiren wouldn’t give me anything to do. I think he hoped that if no one ever saw me, he could pretend I wasn’t here.”
Jiang Cheng stays silent, nodding along and making sounds to show he is listening as he watches his fingers bury themselves in the soft of Lan Wangji’s rabbits. He knows Wei Wuxian has more to say.
“And Cloud Recesses isn’t bad when Lan Zhan is here. But I was lonely when Lan Zhan had important Chief Cultivator things to do. As it turns out, I can’t stand the quiet.”
“You never could,” Jiang Cheng scoffs, remembering a much younger Wei Wuxian in his own body who confidently claimed he would never marry into Gusu Lan.
Yet here we are.
Wei Wuxian sobers. “Not like that. That was because I was young and immature. This is different. There were...” looking away, Wei Wuxian stops. Jiang Cheng watches how Mo Xuanyu’s body shudders as Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath before continuing. His voice is hoarser than before. “There were voices that didn’t exist and sometimes I’d just end up sitting there, staring at a wall, for an entire day because all I could hear were those voices.”
“So Lan Wangji brought you to Zewu-jun,” a horrifying realization dawning upon Jiang Cheng.
“Exactly,” Wei Wuxian nods, looking down at his hands which are resting on his lap. His fingers have been unconsciously pulling at the hems of his fine silk sleeves the entire time. “Don’t say it’s my cultivation,” Wei Wuxian quickly adds, defensive, “It’s not.”
“How can you be so sure?” It’s not that Jiang Cheng doesn’t believe Wei Wuxian — he does. Jiang Cheng’s own mind tormented him ceaselessly in the days after Lotus Pier fell, and even more so after watching both his older siblings perish in the Nightless City one after the other. He remembers the days of the Sunshot Campaign, Wei Wuxian’s hyper abrasive attitudes and the over consumption of alcohol. Jiang Cheng remembers Nie Huaisang’s confusion when the previously tactile Wei Wuxian recoiled from his touch.
But, Wei Wuxian has always been the older brother. Even if it is only by a few days, there is an invincibility younger siblings always believe their older siblings have.
“I know because Lan Zhan played all the Songs of Clarity for me. It helped everything but that.”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t say anything. He has nothing to say.
A light gust of wind breezes through the field. As Sect Leader, most of Jiang Cheng’s hair is pinned tightly in a bun and impervious to gentle breezes but Wei Wuxian’s loose ponytail catches in the wind. The long strands drift in the air freely, unrestrained, much like the man it is attached to.
(Jiang Cheng tries not to think too hard about how different Mo Xuanyu’s straight locks are from Wei Wuxian’s original waves.)
“Xichen-ge has a lot of stories, did you know?” It is Wei Wuxian who breaks the silence. A rabbit, slightly smaller than the others, is cradled close to his chest. “He’s very good at telling them and it was good to hear something real. I started feeling real again.”
Not for the first time, Jiang Cheng is realizing just how much of himself Wei Wuxian had given to a world that had forsaken him.
“You are real,” Jiang Cheng says, barely above a whisper. “You have to be real.” Because Jiang Cheng cannot lose his brother a third time, not when they are so close to being brothers again.
Wei Wuxian simply smiles a wet smile. “Xichen-ge and Lan Zhan had a hard time after everything happened in the Nightless City. They worked hard for their relationship.”
The words are vague but Jiang Cheng understands. He had seen Lan Wangji drawing his sword on other cultivators, using his guqin to defend Wei Wuxian and raising Bichen against the others. He and Wei Wuxian were not the only brothers to have taken opposing sides.
But the Twin Jades of Lan remained Twin Jades while the Twin Heroes of Yunmeng shattered.
“I told Zewu-jun that you and Hanguang-jun are welcome in Lotus Pier,” Jiang Cheng says, desperately, needing Wei Wuxian to know Jiang Cheng didn’t want to forsake him any longer.
“I know,” Wei Wuxian shoulders are shaking slightly, the rabbit in his arms squirming in displeasure. He sets the rabbit back in the grass. “Xichen-ge said.”
“You never came,” Jiang Cheng says, more vulnerable than he has sounded in...in a long time. He feels vulnerable, raw, but the words come easily when it is just him and Wei Wuxian in a field of rabbits.
“I wasn’t sure if you meant it, or it was just politics. Sizhui told me he ran into you and delivered my message. He said it went well but then I never heard anything.”
Jiang Cheng wants to hit himself for taking so long to write so few words. “I sent you a letter.”
He doesn’t like being so emotionally vulnerable, but there is a comfort to no longer hiding what he feels.
“I never received a letter.” Wei Wuxian turns his head slightly, careful to not disturb the rabbit that is enthusiastically gnawing on his hair.
“It...took a while to write,” Jiang Cheng admits, turning his face away. Years of being a Sect Leader has trained his posture to be impeccable in the presence of others. Even as Sect Heir, Jiang Cheng could never imagine doing something so carefree as rolling around in rabbits, soiling his robes without care. Still, there is a serene quality to the back mountains, even if he cannot allow himself to act as freely as Wei Wuxian.
“What was I supposed to write?”
“I don’t know, something? Anything to let me know you don’t completely hate me?”
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng says, ignoring the fresh tears that are pooling in his eyes. “I found out my brother got married through a standard announcement penned by Lan Qiren. What was I supposed to say to that? What was I supposed to think, except that you hated me?”
“Why would you think I hated you?” Wei Wuxian asks from under a pile of rabbits, a fresh bout of tears breaking from his eyes.
Jiang Cheng’s first reaction is still to protect his secrets. He wants to, but he and Wei Wuxian have spent too long being dishonest with each other.
Closing his eyes, Jiang Cheng says, “For abandoning you to Jin Guangshan’s whims. For doing nothing when they dragged your name through the mud. Even Lan Wangji defended you then, but I did nothing.”
“I could never blame you for that. You said you wouldn’t protect me. I knew what I was getting into, what I was turning my back on. I broke our promise, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian wipes his face with his sleeve. “I can’t blame you for what I did to myself.”
Jiang Cheng’s first reaction is still to protect his secrets, to go back to pretending it is still all Wei Wuxian’s fault like he has been for twenty years. He still wants to — Wei Wuxian has made it so easy for Jiang Cheng to blame him — but Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian have spent too long being dishonest with one another. “I said I wouldn’t protect you because I couldn’t protect you! I had just barely rebuilt Lotus Pier and you saw how Jin Guangshan was just waiting to absorb Yunmeng. I wanted you to come back, I would have welcomed you back if you’d asked.”
Wei Wuxian looks surprised. “I thought I wasn’t worth the burden,” he says as the tears that have been quivering on his lashes finally escape.
“You’re an idiot,” Jiang Cheng says with no malice. “Besides,” Jiang Cheng adds miserably before he can stop himself, “you chose them over me.”
“Because I couldn’t let them die! Wen Qing and Wen Ning did so much for me. What else am I worth, except to be the shield?”
At that moment, Jiang Cheng realized that they had always been doomed to misunderstanding one another.
And he was beginning to understand how Wei Wuxian had given up his golden core so easily, as if it was a debt he owed Yunmeng Jiang. His life only mattered as much as he could protect others.
You idiot, don’t you know how much I loved you? How much I missed you?, Jiang Cheng wants to scream.
“I did hate you,” Jiang Cheng confesses quietly, just barely above a whisper. Wei Wuxian looks crushed until Jiang Cheng continues. “I hated you but only because it was easier than hating myself.”
By the way Wei Wuxian wraps his arms around himself, Jiang Cheng can tell that Wei Wuxian would rather be hugging a rabbit. But his grip is too tight and his shoulders too tense so he hugs himself instead.
“I should have told you about the core earlier,” Wei Wuxian says quietly, abruptly. Jiang Cheng is briefly shocked by Wei Wuxian’s words. It is not the words themselves that surprise him — Wen Qionglin and Jin Guangyao have ensured that — but this is the first time Wei Wuxian is finally acknowledging what he did with his own words. This is Wei Wuxian addressing the truth with his own words and it makes the core transfer all that much more real.
“You can tell me now,” Jiang Cheng says before he can think about what he is saying. “You can tell me everything now.”
“No I can’t,” Wei Wuxian says with finality.
Thinking that Wei Wuxian is still trying to keep his secrets, Jiang Cheng is about to snap with real anger. Before Jiang Cheng can make a sound, Wei Wuxian reaches over to cover Jiang Cheng’s hand with his own as if he had anticipated this response, interrupting Jiang Cheng’s tirade before it can even begin.
“Not because I don’t want to,” Wei Wuxian is quick to add. A darkness clouds his eyes. It is different from the jarring vermillion glow when he uses resentful energy. It is something heavier, deeply ingrained into him. “I tried to tell Lan Zhan once. It didn’t go well. I kept trying because Lan Zhan asked and I’m so tired of keeping secrets. But it...didn’t go well.”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t tell Jiang Cheng about how he had barely even started the story when he burst into heavy, ugly sobs. Not that it took much to trigger Lan Wangji’s overprotective instincts, but Wei Wuxian had been wracked with hard enough sobs that he was barely breathing. Only Wei Wuxian’s desperate gaze stopped Lan Wangji from collecting his husband into his arms and sweeping into the infirmary.
He doesn’t tell Jiang Cheng, doesn’t know how to tell Jiang Cheng, that he only got as far as telling Lan Wangji about leading a blindfolded Jiang Cheng to the foot of the hill before he pushed Lan Wangji away to vomit over the edge of their bed.
He doesn’t tell Jiang Cheng about how Lan Wangji had stopped him there and held him in his arms so tenderly. Lan Wangji had given Wei Wuxian warm water, peppered him with kisses as he wiped away his tears and cradled Wei Wuxian’s body against his own chest. He whispered loving reassurances and tender understanding to assuage the deeply rooted anxiety over the lost golden core that Wei Wuxian could not escape from, even after death.
“I think my mind still isn’t ready to talk about it,” Wei Wuxian tries to explain. “I want to tell you. Jiang Cheng, please believe that I do. I don’t want to hide anything anymore. Not from you, not from anyone. I’m so tired of secrets, but I can’t talk about this.”
Wei Wuxian says this with such desperation, pleading Jiang Cheng to understand. Watching this kind of desperation from Wei Wuxian...despite everything they have endured, it is so heart wrenching that even if Jiang Cheng had intended to force Wei Wuxian to tell him, he would have lost his resolve.
“I suppose some secrets are still unavoidable.” Jiang Cheng doesn’t mean to sound as disappointed as he does. After all these years, he has finally re-established a connection with Wei Wuxian, tentative and strained as it is. He is terrified that he will sever this new bond with his instinctive anger or a careless word.
His terror is not helped by Wei Wuxian’s own silence. For a long moment, Wei Wuxian closes his eyes so he does not have to see Jiang Cheng’s face before quietly speaking. “If you want to know, you can ask Wen Ning. He knows better than me. My memories are...already spotty, at best, but Wen Ning was there and saw everything that happened. I’ll write him a letter. He’ll tell you everything, if you want to know.
“But...regardless of what Wen Ning tells you, it is water under the bridge between us. I meant what I said, in the Guanyin Temple, when I said we were even. It’s been twenty years. We can leave it in the past now.”
Instinctively, Jiang Cheng wants to scream that it hasn’t been twenty years for him. It’s been just over two years since Wen Ning presented Suibian to him.
But, Jiang Cheng also knows Wei Wuxian is right.
He can let the golden core hang over them like he had his parents’ death, the burning of Lotus Pier, and Jiang Yanli’s death. Or he can leave it in the past, where it belongs, so he can see Wei Wuxian as his equal again. Only without the weight of past debts and sacrifices can they try to be brothers again.
“Water under the bridge,” Jiang Cheng repeats. He isn’t quite sure what he’s trying to say but Wei Wuxian still understands.
In the background, Lil’ Apple meanders over to the apple bucket. Instead of ducking down to pick an apple, Lil’ Apple kicks over the bucket to sniff for the freshest apple. Wei Wuxian laughs as they watch Lil’ Apple nose through all the spilled apples.
“Did you know Xichen-ge actually tried to set me up with Lan Zhan when we were fifteen?” Wei Wuxian grins, pretending that his face is not still wet with tears.
“Really? Zewu-jun?” Jiang Cheng says with a playful skepticism that he hasn’t felt since he was a guest disciple.
Wei Wuxian nods. “Then he hated me after the Nightless City because Lan Zhan stopped talking to him.”
“Lan Wangji?” But the pieces start coming together in Jiang Cheng’s mind. Lan Wangji’s sudden and unexplained three year disappearance, Lan Xichen’s strained expressions during conferences in that period.
“But we’re okay now. I told you, Lan Zhan and Xichen-ge worked hard to rebuild their relationship. It would have been too easy for them to let it fall apart. But they fought for it,” Wei Wuxian says quietly.
Jiang Cheng hears the unspoken question. “I’m willing to fight now,” he says, the most certain he’s been about anything since…since he gave himself up to the Wens.
Slowly, carefully so as not to startle the rabbits, Wei Wuxian rises to his feet. Like Jiang Cheng, his eyes are still filled with tears, but they are also brimming with hope.
With his shadow looming over Jiang Cheng, Wei Wuxian extends a hand to help Jiang Cheng to his feet.
Jiang Cheng takes it without hesitation.
A stronger breeze blows by and Wei Wuxian shivers. He wraps his arms around himself again, pulling his outer robes around him tighter.
“We should go back to the main pavilion now,” Jiang Cheng says, unimpressed at Wei Wuxian’s attempt to disguise his shivers. “Hanguang-jun might actually murder me if you get sick out here.”
Wei Wuxian protests. “I told you, Lan Zhan’s not like that!”
Jiang Cheng allows himself to be quietly satisfied when Wei Wuxian follows him anyway.
Even though he is technically a guest, albeit a definitely uninvited and possibly still unwanted one, Jiang Cheng ends up walking Wei Wuxian to the Jingshi.
He says it is because Hanguang-jun will have his head if Wei Wuxian gets a bruise on his way back, but he knows that he is not ready to part with Wei Wuxian yet.
“Your embroidery…” Jiang Cheng doesn’t know how to ask for something, doesn’t know how to convey what he wants, but he has already spent the better part of an afternoon crying with his ludicrous brother (brother!) in a field of rabbits that belong to the Chief Cultivator.
He doesn’t have all that dignity left to lose.
“Would it,” Jiang Cheng pauses, struggling to convey himself. “Your embroidery. That is.”
Wei Wuxian watches Jiang Cheng choking on his own words, uncertain if he should say anything. “Jiang Cheng? What’s wrong?”
“Fine,” Jiang Cheng says unconvincingly. He tries again. “If you have the time,” he coughs, pretending to clear his throat, “I wouldn’t mind if you wanted to sew something for me.”
To Jiang Cheng’s surprise, Wei Wuxian flushes. Wei Wuxian, who shamelessly paraded before every major cultivator in Lan Wangji’s underclothes, is now guiltily looking at a point behind Jiang Cheng’s left ear.
“Lotus Pier is important to me,” Wei Wuxian says slowly, thinking carefully about each word that leaves his mouth. “You’re important to me, Jiang Cheng.”
Jiang Cheng nods. He has nothing to say but his heart fills with a relieved pride that Wei Wuxian has not forsaken Lotus Pier or Yunmeng Jiang.
“One of the earliest pieces I made was this handkerchief with little bells and lotuses. It’s pretty terrible, even by my standards of butchered silk art, but I thought about you when I was making it.” Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath. This conversation is no easier for him than it is for Jiang Cheng. “It’s yours if you want it.”
Jiang Cheng’s heart, already sore from all Wei Wuxian had put it through, takes another blow. Once, twice, Jiang Cheng blinks slowly as his mind tries to keep up with what his heart has already processed.
It is only mere seconds that Jiang Cheng pauses for but it is a long enough lull that Jiang Cheng sees Wei Wuxian’s face begin to fall and he realizes that each moment he spends relishing the offer is another moment he leaves Wei Wuxian hanging in that terrible uncertainty.
“I would like that very much,” Jiang Cheng says quickly, not allowing this to be another letter. It is possibly the most sincere thing Jiang Cheng has ever said in his life. That Wei Wuxian still cared (cares ) enough to have made Jiang Cheng something even when they weren’t on speaking terms — Jiang Cheng does not have the slightest clue what he is feeling, but it is good and for the first time in many, many years, Jiang Cheng feels hope towards the future of his relationship with Wei Wuxian.
Jiang Cheng furiously blinks back tears because he is a Sect Leader and he has an image to uphold. It is one thing to cry when the only audience is Wei Wuxian, some rabbits, and a donkey. It is another thing to cry openly in public where members of another sect can see him.
Fortunately, Jiang Cheng is saved from his own humiliation when Wei Wuxian is distracted by a familiar figure in white.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian perks up instantly, seeing his husband pass by.
“Mn,” Hanguang-jun walks up the porch, stopping at Wei Wuxian’s side. “Wei Ying,” he looks at Wei Wuxian the same way he has always viewed Wei Wuxian: with such intense devotion that Jiang Cheng wants to hit himself for taking literal decades to recognize what that look meant.
“Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Wangji nods at him.
Jiang Cheng could be, maybe even should be, offended at Lan Wangji’s disregard for propriety, at the blatant favouritism for greeting Wei Wuxian first instead of the actual Sect Leader. But Jiang Cheng’s heart is still feeling a bit mushy and he lets it go.
Watching the tender way Lan Wangji looks at his brother, Jiang Cheng feels at ease. Disgusted, still, because that is his brother and what the fuck does Lan Wangji think he is doing with his brother? , but at ease.
Because regardless of how Jiang Cheng might personally feel towards Lan Wangji (bitter? Resentful? Bitter resentment that doesn’t really feel as bitter nor as resentful anymore? ), Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian were clearly good for each other.
“Hanguang-jun,” Jiang Cheng nods back, but Lan Wangji’s attention has already left him.
“Wei Ying, you will catch a cold,” he says with disapproval, eyeing the thin robes Wei Wuxian is wearing.
Jiang Cheng remembers his conversation with Nie Huaisang. See, Nie-xiong, Jiang Cheng thinks smugly, Hanguang-jun is plenty overprotective.
“It’s fine!” Wei Wuxian protests lightheartedly. “It isn’t winter yet!”
“Mn.” Lan Wangji ignores Wei Wuxian’s protests and takes off his mantle.
“A-Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says softly with blinding adoration as Lan Wangji wraps Wei Wuxian in his own cloak.
It is disgustingly sappy, but Jiang Cheng finds he does not mind as much as he thought he would. He must be getting soft in his old age.
After Lan Wangji returns to whatever new radical proposal he was working on, cloakless, Jiang Cheng sits with Wei Wuxian in the Jingshi. The fire is crackling loudly, filling the room with warmth, but Wei Wuxian keeps Lan Wangji’s mantle wrapped snugly around his shoulders anyway. To his credit, Jiang Cheng only rolls his eyes twice, too giddy to be truly annoyed because he has been welcomed into his brother’s marital home!!
On the table, Lan Wangji has left them dinner that has been kept warm with a talisman. There is enough food for the two of them. Jiang Cheng feels his stomach growling in anticipation at the seasoned, aromatic dishes that are so unlike standard cuisine in Cloud Recesses. Even a jar chili oil sits in the middle.
Jiang Cheng still doesn't like Lan Wangji, but he begrudgingly accepts that perhaps he can re-establish a new, temperate relationship with Lan Wangji now that they are brothers-in-law.
(Just as he suspected, he can see the lotus pond Wei Wuxian planted through the Jingshi’s windows. Seeing the familiar leaves now only fills Jiang Cheng with more contentment, realizing that Wei Wuxian had genuinely been at home in Lotus Pier.)
Having left the heavy emotions with the rabbits, they talk about everything and nothing for several more hours until Jiang Cheng has to leave for Yunmeng, otherwise he’d have to stay the night and none of the good guest chambers are prepared.
( Jiang Cheng could sleep in the Cold Springs overnight for all he cares, but he is learning that he should not be greedy with Wei Wuxian’s attention.)
With a burden of twenty years lifted from his shoulders, Jiang Cheng walks out of Cloud Recesses with a bounce in his step. Sandu is unsheathed for him to fly back to Lotus Pier.
(And carefully folded in his qiankun pouch is a little piece of Wei Wuxian’s questionable needlework that is Jiang Cheng’s very own.)
“Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng yells from where he stands on Sandu, floating in the air. Turning around, he sees Wei Wuxian still standing at the gate. “There are still no dogs in Lotus Pier!”
He sees the wide, unrestrained grin that spreads across Wei Wuxian’s face at his words before he flies off.
Jiang Cheng trusts Wei Wuxian to understand what he means.
He has a brother again! And nothing is the same as it was, and Jiang Yanli and Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan are still dead, but he and Wei Wuxian have sewn the seeds of reconciliation.
If the Twin Jades of Lan could do it, then so can the Twin Heroes of Yunmeng.