Jiang Cheng had never wanted a brother.
He wanted a friend, when he was small, but his mother was quite clear about the importance of standing apart from the other children: it would not do for a future Sect Leader to go getting too intimate with the boys who would one day be his vassals. He must have their respect. He could play with his sister, if he needed a playmate - or, better, he could mind his lessons and practice cultivation.
His father did not disagree to her face, but he took in Jiang Cheng’s sad eyes while the other children splashed and played on hot days, and darted around playing games with sticks and lotus pods, and one day, to Jiang Cheng’s inexpressible delight, he brought home three puppies from the guard dog’s litter and deposited them, squirming and whining, on the mat at Jiang Cheng’s feet. When his mother raised her eyebrow, Jiang Fengmian said that training the dogs would require discipline and patience and dedication, and was an appropriate task for a growing boy who would one day be a Sect Leader. And he winked.
A Sect Leader could have loyal followers, then, even if he couldn’t have friends who were “beneath his station,” only friends who were fellow Sect Leaders. There were boys his mother approved of, future Sect Leaders in other Clans, but of course they all lived far away, and couldn’t come hunting for dragonflies or climbing trees or practicing sword fighting with sticks whenever Jiang Cheng wanted to play. But Jasmine and Princess and Little Love adored him, and they were always ready to play. He didn’t need friends or brothers. He had his sister, who was good for some kinds of games, and he had his dogs, who were good for others.
So when his father returned from the latest of his unexplained absences with tired, red-rimmed eyes and a small grubby boy asleep in his arms, Jiang Cheng did not know what to think. He met Jiang Yanli’s astonished gaze with his head full of questions and an expression of mounting outrage on his face.
He could not remember the last time that his father had held him like that.
He stood in the doorway with his own arms crossed in front of his chest, watching Jasmine and Princess and Little Love bounding gleefully across the wooden floor with tails wagging, barking their welcomes to his father. The strange boy stirred, and then jolted awake, letting out a frantic sound of terror and scrabbling at Jiang Fengmian’s shoulders in desperation as if trying to climb him like a tree, pulling his legs up towards his chest as though he imagined the dogs were going to start scrambling up after him.
“Shush, lad. You’re safe. They’re only puppies, look - just babies, like you are yourself. Nothing to be afraid of.”
Jiang Cheng could not remember the last time his father’s voice had sounded so gentle; he could feel a glower settling over his features that matched the look on his mother’s face.
“Dog!” said the boy, his voice half stifled in the folds of Jiang Fengmian’s clothing, as though the word meant something terrifying. He was half sobbing, like the baby Jiang Cheng’s father had called him - although he had to be at least Jiang Cheng’s age, and more than old enough to stand on his own two feet.
“Come, now - I know your parents didn’t raise you to be a coward, A Ying,” Jiang Fengmian said, coaxingly. Jiang Cheng’s scowl deepened at the stupidly tender note in his father’s voice. “Just look - they love to play. They’re A Cheng’s dogs. They will be your friends too, I promise!”
Jiang Cheng’s eyes narrowed at this assertion. He was not much impressed by the interloper so far, and he felt sure that his dogs had better taste than to be his friends.
The boy only whimpered, and clung to his father more tightly. Jiang Fengmian sighed. He looked from his wife to his children, and his gaze lingered on the puppies for a long moment before he met Jiang Cheng’s gaze.
“Take them to Li Yu,” he said at last. “Have them spend the night with the guards.”
Jiang Cheng’s jaw dropped. “But - father!” he said, outraged, looking over to his mother for support. She was ignoring him.
“So this is how it’s going to be?” she said, tightly. “Cangse Sanren gets herself killed, and takes Wei Changze with her, and now you’re just - taking him in?”
“He has nobody,” Jiang Fengmian said, his arms tightening around the child in his arms. “If we were gone, you would want someone to do the same for A Cheng and A Yanli. You would not want them to be left to fend for themselves on the streets.”
“We would not be gone, because we would not be wandering the world all alone, like reckless idiots, chasing after ghosts and monsters and leaving our children unprotected. We owe her - them - him - nothing.” Her eyes narrowed. “Or is there something more you’re not telling me?”
“You know there is not,” said Jiang Fengmian. He sounded very tired.
“Father,” Jiang Cheng said again, and Jasmine yipped hopefully, her pink tongue lolling from her mouth.
“A Cheng, you heard what I said. Take them to Li Yu, now.”
Jiang Cheng stared, disbelieving, until his mother tilted her head to indicate the door. “You heard your father,” she said.
There was no arguing with that. Jiang Cheng strode off, vibrating with anger, leading his scampering pack of puppies away to the post where the Head of the Guards would be waiting, knowing that his heart was going to break when he had to walk back without them and listen to their confused whimpers.
When he returned to his room, that boy - “A Ying” - was sitting there too, along with a pile of clean bedding. Jiang Cheng recoiled.
“What are you doing here?”
“The man said I should sleep here,” the boy said. He looked slightly cleaner than he had before, but that was the only good thing that could be said for him, as far as Jiang Cheng could see. “They were fighting.”
“You made them fight.”
“I didn’t mean to.” The boy looked miserable. His eyes were darting around nervously. “Where - where are the dogs?”
“Nearby,” said Jiang Cheng, spitefully. “Ready to bite you if I call for them.” He was a little startled by how badly the boy flinched; it made a wave of contempt swell in his heart. Who was so scared of dogs, anyway? “What’s your name?”
“Wei Ying. He said you’re called Jiang Cheng?”
Jiang Cheng nodded curtly. “Why are you here?”
Wei Ying swallowed. “He said - he said that my parents aren’t - that they aren’t coming back this time. They’re dead.” He drew a ragged breath, and Jiang Cheng thought for a horrible moment that he was going to start crying, but he didn’t. His eyes were suspiciously wet, but no tears spilled out. “He said that he was friends with them. That he’s been looking for me.”
Wei Ying gave a helpless shrug. He looked like he’d been wondering that too.
“You can’t sleep here,” said Jiang Cheng, fiercely, thinking about how his father had wrapped this stranger in his arms like he was something precious. “This is my place. I don’t want you here. You’re not my brother. You’re not my friend. Get out.”
* * *
He had been afraid of that this time, knowing only that his father was somewhere doing something important, something that was his duty.
It had been a strange and unwelcome feeling, to find his pleasure at Jiang Fengmian’s return souring so swiftly: his father was alive and unhurt, but he had brought this - person - back with him, and he was treating him like he was made of porcelain, and suddenly Jasmine and Princess and Little Love had to be exiled just so that this - person - wouldn’t have hysterics.
But still. This Wei Ying’s father would not be coming back ever again.
Jiang Cheng tried to imagine that: mother and father both gone, and not coming back. No Jiang Yanli. No home. No dogs. Well - he didn’t have to imagine no dogs, because now he had no dogs, and all because of this stupid Wei Ying, but.
He sighed. He was probably going to be in trouble when they found out that he’d kicked Wei Ying out of his room. He should probably let the boy back inside. It had probably been long enough by now to teach him a lesson.
But when he opened the door, Wei Ying had gone, and Jiang Cheng’s pulse started to race.
He was going to be in trouble. He was going to be in so much trouble.
Jiang Cheng bit his lip, and went to find his sister.
* * *
* * *
“Your father thinks that he can just bring his by-blows here, into my house, and expect me to look the other way,” muttered Yu Ziyuan, glaring out across the water to where Wei Wuxian was laughing in a boat with Jiang Yanli. “He thinks that I have such a thick face that I will just brazen it out, no matter what people say behind my back.”
“Mother,” protested Jiang Cheng, unhappily. “Mother, he isn’t. You know he isn’t. They were just friends, Father and that lady. He said so, on his honour.” He was older now, and he had heard - and, at last, understood - the poisonous whispers about Wei Wuxian’s origins. He knew why his mother was so angry. But Jiang Fengmian was adamant that he had never disgraced his marriage vows, and that Wei Wuxian was not his son. Jiang Cheng had to believe this.
“Honour!” snapped his mother, glowering. “What does he know of honour?”
“Mother, please!” He wished she wouldn’t be like this.
“You should not be so close to that boy,” she said at last. “Even if the gossip is all just gossip, even if he is not a bastard, he’s only the son of a servant. He isn’t fitting company for you.”
“His mother was a cultivator,” Jiang Cheng said, greatly daring. “He isn’t to blame for his parents’ faults, and he works hard, you know he does. Sometimes.”
“He is beneath you.”
“He’s a better fighter than me!” The admission stung, but they both knew it was true. “He’s a stronger cultivator than me!”
“And you will let him outshine you? You will let this boy shame you before your vassals, and steal all your glory? Wake up, Jiang Cheng! You don’t need him!”
“He’s part of our family now. He’s - he’s like a brother to me, even if he isn’t one.”
“He is not your brother, Jiang Cheng. Never forget it. No matter who his father might be, he is not your brother, and you cannot trust him.”
* * *
The first time that he realised that he might, just possibly, want something else entirely was the hottest day of the summer. They had spent the morning diligently training with swords, practicing move after polished move in perfect synch, lunging and leaping and ducking and laughing, and now they were cooling off by swimming in a quiet spot a short way from Lotus Pier, with the skies endlessly blue overhead and pink flowers blooming bright upon the waters.
Wei Wuxian had his head flung back and he was laughing the way nobody else could or did - laughing like the whole world was a glorious joke, laughing like he hadn’t been kneeling before Madam Yu for a beating last night that left scalding red welts standing out brightly against the pale skin of his back and arms even now, and hadn’t slowed him down in practice at all, laughing like had never been happier in his life; and it struck Jiang Cheng with a sudden shock of unwelcome intensity that Wei Wuxian was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
* * *
He was a model cultivator, frustratingly swift and brilliant at swordplay, blessed with a retentive memory and a creative mind. He devoured books, and asked questions about them, and demanded reasons and explanations. He was never satisfied to hear that a thing was so - he always wanted to know why, and whether there might be a better way. He saw things from unexpected angles, cuts corners, reinvented and reapplied. He made Jiang Fengmian beam, and he made him frown, but he very rarely disappointed him. He seemed to be building his whole life around the motto of Achieving The Impossible.
And he was also quite devastatingly, heart-stoppingly beautiful.
Jiang Cheng was a strong cultivator, and he worked hard to improve, but nobody could keep up with Wei Wuxian. He was a force of nature. Everything seemed to come to him effortlessly.
It was difficult to avoid the conclusion that, blood or no blood, Wei Wuxian would have made a much better son and heir for Jiang Fengmian, and Jiang Cheng was fairly sure his father had realised this too - because how could he not? It was always Wei Wuxian’s arrow that flew the farthest, Wei Wuxian’s swordwork that was the swiftest, Wei Wuxian’s talismans that were the most innovative. Jiang Cheng was torn between breathless admiration and bitterest envy, and beyond that there was the constant, prickling awareness that Wei Wuxian was beautiful, and that maybe, just maybe…
Jiang Cheng had no idea what to do with any of this. He wasn’t alone in noticing it, though, that was a certainty; the girls and young women of Yunmeng were open in their appreciation of Wei Wuxian. Oh, Jiang Cheng got complimented too, and some of them flirted with him, which always made him feel both pleased and awkward, but it was Wei Wuxian whom all the eyes followed, Wei Wuxian who knew how to smile brightly back and volley a compliment in return with a wink.
“It’s strange to think of Yanli-jie being engaged,” said Wei Wuxian, dangling his feet over the edge of the boat and dabbling the water with his toe.
Jiang Cheng nodded, peeling a lotus seed.
“Will they arrange your marriage too?” Wei Wuxian asked, idly, and Jiang Cheng felt the most complicated mixture of things. He stared down at the seed pod in his hand blankly, and tried to imagine this inevitable marriage.
“I...suppose so. I mean - yes, that’s what happens. They haven’t decided which Clan would be the best choice for an alliance, so I don’t know who…” his voice trailed away. Somewhere in the world there was a girl who didn’t know she would one day be his wife. He tried to imagine bringing his bride back to Lotus Pier, and doing...whatever one does with a wife, other than having sex. (Sex!) Probably not sneak out of bed to sit in a moonlit rowing boat stealing lotus seeds and talking about the future.
“I bet she’ll be pretty,” said Wei Wuxian. He was lying on his back, staring up at the full moon and peeling lotus seeds without looking at them. “I mean - I know she’ll need to be from a powerful family, and your marriage will be about treaties and things, but I’m sure that Jiang Fengmian will pick you somebody pretty too.” He grinned. “Imagine, some pretty girl stuck married to you!”
“Better than her being married to you!” Jiang Cheng said, reflexively. “I’ll be a Sect Leader. What do you have to offer?”
“My pretty face!” Wei Wuxian said, and stuck his tongue out. “Bah, don’t be so mean, Didi. I know I’m not going to have beautiful maidens from the top clans fighting over me.” He smiled a little as he recited Yu Ziyuan’s mantra. “‘He’s only the son of a servant!’”
Jiang Cheng felt a pang of guilt. “You’re a cultivator,” he protested. “You’re an amazing cultivator. Of course they’re going to be fighting over you! Your mother was trained by Baoshan Sanren!”
“Never mind me,” said Wei Wuxian, shrugging in the way that Jiang Cheng found completely infuriating. “You’re the one who’s going to have his pick of the finest maidens in the land.” He leaned right back, letting his head drop down so he could look upside-down at Jiang Cheng at the other end of the boat. “Do you have a dream girl?”
Jiang Cheng swallowed. “I...uh,” he said. The immediate answer that came to mind was completely unrepeatable.
“Go on, don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it,” said Wei Wuxian, scrambling to right himself and splashing water into the boat in the process as he pulled his bare feet back in. He fixed Jiang Cheng with an assessing look. “All those pretty girls in Yunmeng always making eyes at you - you must have thought about it! You should give Jiang Fengmian a shopping list of everything you want in a wife.” He glanced out at the still waters, as if looking for inspiration. “Beautiful, of course…”
“Of course,” Jiang Cheng agreed, his eyes locked helplessly on Wei Wuxian’s profile.
“What else? Short? Tall?” He dimpled, and made a gesture that communicated curves.
“No,” said Jiang Cheng, too quickly, and then as Wei Wuxian blinked in confusion he added “...I mean...I mean there are lots of ways of being beautiful. Short or tall doesn’t matter.”
“Huh. I suppose that’s true. Pretty girls come in all sizes - you could have a cutie or you could have a queen. So tell me more about this dream girl. Do you have an idea in your head at all? Someone you’ve seen before? I bet you do!”
“I - well. Maybe.” Jiang Cheng had a lot of ideas. Some of them were quite vivid. None of them were ever going to happen.
“Ha! I knew it! Do you think about her at night? You know, when - you know?”
Jiang Cheng could feel his face growing hot. “When what?”
“A Cheng, Didi, we share a room! You know what!”
Jiang Cheng closed his eyes in absolute mortification for a long moment, then said “Yes,” in a stifled voice. “I suppose so.”
“Ha! I knew it! Do you think about her pretty mouth and her pretty eyes and her pretty…”
“I sometimes think about - her,” Jiang Cheng said hurriedly. “About someone. Yes. Fine. It’s normal, isn’t it?”
“Perfectly normal! Do you think about your wedding night?”
“No! I mean - I mean, yes, I suppose - uh - why is this all about me?” Jiang Cheng demanded at last, in desperation, and then a heartbeat later realised that he wasn’t entirely sure he could survive a recitation of what Wei Wuxian thought of late at night, while he...oh, gods.
“You’re the one with a pretty wife waiting for him!”
“Shut up. You’re the one everyone flirts with. You could have a dozen girlfriends by now if you wanted.”
Wei Wuxian looked startled, and then pleased. “Do you think so?”
“Well, obviously! Everyone falls in love with you as soon as you smile at them.”
That provoked a gust of startled laughter. “Now you’re being ridiculous.”
Jiang Cheng was never sure whether it was somehow possible that Wei Wuxian wasn’t aware of the impact he had on other people. He had to realise that he cut a swathe through the hearts of the village maidens every time he walked through the streets of Yunmeng, surely? And he was always ready to trumpet his own conquests when a pretty girl gave him a flower or a fresh fruit, and yet...sometimes Jiang Cheng got the feeling that Wei Wuxian didn’t value any of his specialness, or take it seriously.
“They do,” Jiang Cheng said, softly, wishing it weren’t the truth.
“Well, they must get over it pretty quickly,” said Wei Wuxian, rolling his eyes.
“I’m not so sure about that,” Jiang Cheng said under his breath. There was a pause, in which Jiang Cheng thought a number of very unwise things, and didn’t say any of them.
“Have you ever - never mind,” said Wei Wuxian.
“Have you ever kissed a girl?”
Jiang Cheng wavered for a moment on the brink of boasting, but honesty won out. “No.” There was a pause. “Have you?”
“Ha! Of course, dozens,” said Wei Wuxian, and Jiang Cheng spent a very unpleasant moment torn between rolling his eyes dismissively or taking his words as the simple, miserable truth. There had certainly been dozens of opportunities, but… “No,” Wei Wuxian said, a heartbeat later. “Of course not. I wonder what it’s like, though. Kissing, and papapa.”
Jiang Cheng swallowed. “You could find out,” he said, his voice reedy and rough. After a scalding, endless moment in which he stood upon the brink of a precipice, he added, “There are plenty of girls and women who would be ready to teach you, I think.”
Wei Wuxian gave a startled laugh. “Ready to bed a cultivator, you mean? Even one with no family?” That was not, in fact, what Jiang Cheng meant, but he let it stand. Wei Wuxian pulled a face. “I suppose. But don’t you think it should be - special?”
Jiang Cheng stared at him. “What?”
“I mean - my mother and father…” Wei Wuxian’s voice dropped; if Jiang Cheng didn’t know better he could almost have said Wei Wuxian sounded shy. He almost never spoke about his dead parents. “My mother and father loved one another,” he said, not meeting Jiang Cheng’s eyes. Neither of them made any reference to Jiang Fengmian or Yu Ziyuan. “They used to hold hands, and kiss, and...I don’t remember very many things, from when I was little, but I know they adored one another. Don’t you think it should be like that? Something special? With someone special?” It was difficult to tell, in the moonlight, but Jiang Cheng rather thought that he was blushing.
Jiang Cheng scrabbled for words. He would not have guessed that Wei Wuxian, who was always flirting with everyone, laughing and careless, and who gleefully shared the pornographic pictures he had bought from a travelling salesman in Yunmeng, and who shamelessly speculated about how such positions could be pleasurable, could possibly be such a romantic at heart. It felt like someone had punched him in the chest.
“I - yes,” he said at last, hopelessly. “I think it should.”
* * *
* * *
Maybe he wanted something else, but Wei Wuxian was not like that, and Jiang Cheng shouldn’t be like that - couldn’t be like that, in fact, since he was going to be Sect Leader one day and needed to marry an eligible maiden and carry on the Jiang line. So. Brothers was fine. Brothers was better than fine. He knew that Wei Wuxian would always be by his side, would always have his back. They would both marry beautiful, appropriate young women from cultivation families, and their children would play together, and - it was enough. It had to be enough, even though Jiang Cheng couldn’t imagine feeling anything for any of the girls in Yunmeng, or any of the proper maidens from other cultivator families. Even though sometimes the impulse to just reach out and wrap his hand around Wei Wuxian’s wrist and reel him in was overwhelming, especially when he was yelling at Wei Wuxian for whatever ridiculous trouble he had tumbled into this time, and Wei Wuxian was pouting at him so that the shadow of his jutting bottom lip hid the freckle that lurked just beneath it.
It had to be enough, because this was simply how life worked. He hoped that he and his eventual bride could find a way to be friends, if they could not be in love, but he knew that he would always have Wei Wuxian at his side.
And in the meanwhile - yes, Wei Wuxian liked girls, but he still never fell in love with any of them. He was friendly enough to other boys, but there was never anyone who threatened his friendship with Jiang Cheng. Sometimes, late at night, with moonlight softening the harsh edges of reality and Wei Wuxian dreaming innocently on the other side of the room, Jiang Cheng let himself hope.
And then they went to Cloud Recesses, and Wei Wuxian set eyes on Lan Wangji for the first time, and everything went straight to hell.
* * *
Jiang Cheng could tell at once that Lan Wangji was going to be just the sort of trouble Wei Wuxian couldn’t help provoking. It made him roll his eyes, but that was Wei Wuxian to the bone, and it could be funny at times. Not when it resulted in a beating, admittedly, as it too often did, but some of the best memories of Jiang Cheng’s life had started with Wei Wuxian getting that bright-eyed look, before dragging Jiang Cheng, protesting, into one scrape or another.
So at first he thought this was going to be more of the same - only it would be the Second Jade of Lan, not the Purple Spider, whom Wei Wuxian couldn’t help plaguing. Jiang Cheng would grumble, but he would still secretly enjoy feeling daring as they tumbled into trouble together once again.
But the way that Wei Wuxian looked at Lan Wangji was not the way that he looked at the Purple Spider. He looked at the Second Jade of Lan as though he were a magnificent puzzle nobody else could solve, or a delicious holiday feast arrayed just out of reach. He looked at this Lan boy as though he really were in truth carved from the most precious of jade, and ornamented with gold - and Wei Wuxiang wanted to steal him. Jiang Cheng watched Wei Wuxian’s eyes sparkle with fascination, and his bright smile unfurl, and he felt a terrible, furious envy begin to swell beneath his rib cage. Wei Wuxian had never once looked at him like that, he was perfectly sure. He never even looked at the pretty girls in Yunmeng like that.
“If Lan Wangji were a girl, he would be the prettiest girl I have ever seen,” said Wei Wuxian, meditatively, on their second day at Cloud Recesses.
Jiang Cheng scowled. “Well he isn’t,” he said.
“No. But he’s as pretty as a girl, isn’t he? Such a face! Those eyelashes! The maidens in Yunmeng all swore they would give anything to set eyes on the Twin Jades of Lan, and you can understand it, once you’ve seen them. I think Lan Wangji is the more beautiful, though; I don’t know why everyone talks about Lan Xichen first. Unless it’s because he smiles. Lan Wangji always looks so cold and boring. But he is a very fine gentleman, you can’t deny.”
“A very fine gentleman,” agreed Nie Huaisang, with a sigh. “Perfect. Terrifying, but perfect.”
“He doesn’t scare me,” said Wei Wuxian, shrugging.
“Then you’re an idiot, because he clearly hates your guts,” snapped Jiang Cheng.
“A Cheng! Why so mean, Didi? I think he just takes a while to warm up. He’ll grow to like me.”
Jiang Cheng was very much afraid this might be true.
* * *
If he were Jiang Cheng’s brother - his older brother - he would be the next Sect Leader. Not Jiang Cheng. And while Jiang Cheng longed quite desperately to do his parents proud, the prospect of stepping into his father’s shoes terrified him. He knew that he wasn’t good enough. He knew, in his very bones, that it should be Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian would inspire his men. He would command the respect of other Sect Leaders. He would be able to achieve the impossible.
Jiang Cheng could have accepted the role of second brother gladly. He would have been proud to be at Wei Wuxian’s side, and to follow him into battle. He would have shouted at Wei Wuxian at least as much as he did now, but he would not have felt this terrifying weight of responsibility on his shoulders. He was the youngest child. It should not all be his burden, surely?
But Wei Wuxian was not his brother.
Wei Wuxian was not his brother, and so he was willing to put other people ahead of the Yunmeng Jiang Clan. Ahead of Jiang Cheng. Wei Wuxian was not his brother, and so he was ready and willing to hurl himself into needless danger for the sake of the Second Jade of Lan, or even for Jin Zixuan, whom they both cordially despised. Wei Wuxian was not his brother, but he still expected Jiang Cheng to trust him, and support him unconditionally, and so Jiang Cheng found himself helping the weak and injured escape from the cave containing the Tortoise of Slaughter while Wei Wuxian - Wei Wuxian! - stayed behind and played at being a hero with his wretched precious Lan Wangji.
When he finally saw Wei Wuxian again, unconscious but still breathing in Lan Wangji’s arms, wet hair plastered to his face, skin flushed with fever, chest scarred and bloody and weeping, Jiang Cheng had never been so relieved or so infuriated in his life.
“He’s mine,” he snapped at Lan Wangji, dragging Wei Wuxian out of the other boy’s arms - then felt a twinge of shame as Lan Wangji staggered, looking near to collapse himself. He was not in very much better condition than Wei Wuxian, in truth - his pristine white clothes were bloody and torn and thoroughly ripe, and his pretty hair was lank and tangled. His skin was waxen. Jiang Cheng remembered, a heartbeat too late, that Lan Wangji’s leg had been broken not long ago, and he glanced down, uncertainly, but still did not apologise.
“Good,” was all Lan Wangji said. “He was very brave. He killed the Tortoise of Slaughter.”
Of course he bloody did, thought Jiang Cheng, angry enough to weep as he clasped Wei Wuxian’s limp form to his chest. Of course.
“I must go,” said Lan Wangji. And perhaps Jiang Cheng should have spoken some kind words, should have offered him safe haven or thanks, but - he couldn’t. He wanted to shove him away, watch him stumble off into the forest. He wanted to yell at Lan Wangji that everything had been absolutely fine until he came into their lives.
But he knew it wasn’t true. It wasn’t Lan Wangji’s fault. Still he watched the other boy pick his way off between the trees on shaking legs, and felt a mean stab of gladness to see the back of him.
* * *
If he had been, Yu Ziyuan would have torn the Wens apart before she let them lay a finger on him. Instead, she was smiling tightly at the puffed-up little servant with her poisonous tongue, and agreeing to punish Wei Wuxian for his imaginary crimes against the Wens - the Wens who were punishing children for shooting at kites.
“If the Yunmeng Jiang Sect insists on defending him, it will really make people suspect whether certain...rumours...are really true,” Wang LingJiao had tittered, and Jiang Cheng’s heart had stuttered in his chest at the way his mother’s face darkened.
“What rumours?” he had demanded, daring her to put it into words - but she was shameless.
“You ask what rumours? It has to be those old romantic ties of Sect Leader Jiang…”
And after that it was, perhaps, inevitable that Wei Wuxian would explode with indignant rage, and that Zidian would come snaking through the air to drop him to his knees. Still Jiang Cheng recoiled in disbelief: his mother had beaten Wei Wuxian before, but never like this, with her spiritual weapon. He tried to intervene, sluggish with shock, but straightaway she was threatening him, and Wei Wuxian was trying to protect him, the unspeakable idiot.
“Jiang Cheng, move over! Don’t worry about me!”
Jiang Cheng felt like the whip had fallen upon his own back, but when he flung himself at Wei Wuxian he was shoved violently back out of the way. For a moment both Yu Ziyuan and Wei Wuxian were glaring at him with the self same expression, willing him to stay out of it, and Jiang Cheng froze in wretched obedience, loving them and hating them both.
“I’ve always said that you, you unruly wretch, would bring trouble to the Jiang Sect sooner or later!” his mother snarled, bringing the whip down on Wei Wuxian again and again. Jiang Cheng didn’t know when he himself started to sob; he could barely imagine how much pain Wei Wuxian must be in, to be beaten dozens of times with a spiritual weapon so powerful. It wasn’t fair - and for all her threats, Jiang Cheng was absolutely sure that his mother would not have done such a thing to any son of hers. But Wei Wuxian was not her son, not his brother, and so he was fair game.
* * *
And for a moment, when he saw the Wen dogs heading in the direction Wei Wuxian had gone to buy supplies, it crossed Jiang Cheng’s mind to just let them have him.
Without Wei Wuxian, his parents would be alive, and Lotus Pier would still be free. Or if Wei Wuxian had simply behaved as a brother should behave, and put Yunmeng Jiang ahead of strangers - ahead of the wretched Lan clan - everything would still be normal and safe. Perhaps.
But he couldn’t do it. Even though his heart was boiling with resentment, he couldn’t let them take Wei Wuxian, brother or not. Jiang Cheng had already lost his mother and his father and his home; he couldn’t lose Wei Wuxian too.
So he let them take him instead.
* * *
When he stumbled down the mountain with his new golden core pulsing in his chest, he expected to find Wei Wuxian waiting for him in the spot they’d agreed upon. But he wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there, and he wasn’t there, and he wasn’t there. He wasn’t in any of the other places Jiang Cheng sought him. As the days slid into weeks slid into months, Jiang Cheng’s irritation swiftly melted into fear and then into outright dread - but until he saw the body, he refused to give up all hope.
Jiang Cheng had not expected a day would come when he would be working side by side with Lan Wangji, but the Sunshot Campaign made strange bedfellows. He still did not much like the Second Jade of Lan, but one could not help but respect him as a cultivator, and - he was the only other person who seemed to care what had happened to Wei Wuxian.
And at last, after three endless months in which Jiang Cheng had been forced to grow up the hard way, and learn how to fill his father’s shoes as best he could, Wei Wuxian returned.
But there was a darkness in him now that Jiang Cheng did not recognise, a hardness and a coldness and a cruelty that frightened him. Wei Wuxian still smiled, and his smile was still heart-stoppingly beautiful, but it was brittle and sharp as broken glass, and there was a ruthlessness to him now that hurt Jiang Cheng’s heart.
But he was still Wei Wuxian. Still terrifyingly competent, still brilliant and lethal.
They needed him. They needed this Wei Wuxian, the Grand Master of Demonic Cultivation who could turn the very dead against their own side. It was a filthy, brutal art, but it was one that could win a war, so Jiang Cheng made himself accept it, and told himself that there would be time, once they had won, to try to find his brother once more, hidden in the shell of a man who had walked out of the Burial Mounds.
For now he needed a weapon more than he needed a brother or a friend or - or anything else - if there was to be any kind of future for Jiang Yanli or for Yunmeng Jiang.
* * *
He does not have a sister.
He does not have a mother or a father.
He does not have a best friend or an unrequited love.
He has nothing but dry eyes, a corrosive tangle of guilt and rage, a baby nephew to raise, a Sect to run, and a black flute that will never be used again, which he cannot quite bring himself to burn.