“Jin RuLan,” Jiang Cheng spits, and he says Jin Ling’s courtesy name with such emphasis it’s like a curse. Wei WuXian wonders if he’s ever used it before, knowing who’d come up with it. He wonders if he’d ever told Jin Ling the provenance of his name, and if that is why Jin Ling chooses not to go by it. “So help me, if you don’t open this door you’re going to be missing a lot more than your legs when I’m done with you!”
Wei WuXian had stopped being scared of Jiang Cheng when he’d been nine years old and the dogs had been sent away. But even he takes a step back at the poison in Jiang Cheng’s tone, the anger flashing like lightning in his eyes.
“Well?” Jiang Cheng snaps, turning to round on Wei WuXian. The door hasn’t budged even an inch under his forceful pulling. “Don’t tell me you can’t find a way out.”
When he sneers, there’s no hint of Jiang FengMian in his face. The color of his eyes, the point of his nose, the curl of his lips—they’re all from Madame Yu. If things were anything like they used to be, Wei WuXian might’ve remarked on it.
As it is, Wei WuXian spreads his hands and goes to try the door. As he expected, there’s a strange tugging sensation at his golden core when he tries to exert power against the door. When he tries for resentful energy, it dissipates like smoke.
He spares a thought to be proud of Jin Ling and Lan SiZhui, even though their childish antics are probably going to lead to Wei WuXian’s second death.
Wei WuXian bites down on his lip, manipulating energy this way and that, approaching the lock like a puzzle. But after a few moments, he steps back in defeat.
“Giving up?” Jiang Cheng demands, and his anger pitches his voice higher.
Wei WuXian wonders if he reigns in his temper in front of the other Jiang Sect members, and it’s only him who gets the full force of Jiang Cheng’s anger. Then he remembers Jiang Cheng’s constant threats to Jin Ling, and snorts.
Jiang Cheng hisses like steam escaping from a kettle, and turns back to try the door himself. There’s a flash of his own strength—achingly familiar—but then he begins to kick at the door, using nothing more than his physical strength. Sandu Shengshou looks oddly impotent without his namesake sword at his side, without Zidian on his finger. There’s a circle of pale skin there, like he doesn’t remove the ring even in his sleep.
“You didn’t have to give Jin Ling permission to use Zidian,” Wei WuXian remarks, without thinking. “Then he couldn’t have taken it from you.”
“What do you know about it?” Jiang Cheng stomps away from the door, pacing in the small, enclosed space of the room. If both Jiang Cheng and Wei WuXian were lying down, the length of the room wouldn’t accommodate them. No matter where Jiang Cheng tries to go, Wei WuXian is in his way.
Wei WuXian spreads his hands, balancing on the balls of his feet as he moves in graceful arcs away from both Jiang Cheng’s steps and his ire.
Finally, Jiang Cheng throws up his hands. “Why don’t you wear a goddamn sword, even now?”
A sufficiently powerful sword, like Sandu or Suibian, could tear through the magical lock and release them within moments. But of course, Wei WuXian hadn’t carried the sword on this particular journey to Lotus Pier. He’s not sure where Suibian ended up, after everything. The sword wasn’t his first concern at the time.
“My strength isn’t what it was,” he admits, trying for ruefulness.
Jiang Cheng blanches, eyes narrowed in rage. “Useless,” he hisses, before turning away again.
When Jiang Cheng turns away from him, Wei WuXian is struck by how much he’s grown, since Wei WuXian’s last life. When Jiang Cheng is facing him, he focuses on what is painfully familiar—the flashes of light in his eyes, the pull of his lips. But with Jiang Cheng turned away from him, all Wei Wuxian can see is the breadth of his shoulders, the width of his arms even under loose sleeves, the utterly straight posture. He looks like he hasn’t relaxed in more than twenty years, and all the while has been growing stronger, more intimidating, angrier.
It doesn’t suit him, Wei WuXian thinks mildly. The strength, maybe, but not the tension. He considers himself a bit of an expert, these days, since finding out just how skilled Lan Zhan is at giving massages.
The thought of his cultivation partner calms his thoughts, sets him at ease. Wei WuXian drops to the floor, folding his legs and laying his hands against his knees.
Within moments, Jiang Cheng’s circuit has turned him back around to face Wei WuXian.
“What are you doing?” he demands, the hot anger still blowing steam through his words.
Since inhabiting Mo XuanYu’s body, Wei WuXian has heard Jiang Cheng level accusations, deliver curses, hiss in frustration, and force himself to be even to save face for his sect. All of these things would’ve been familiar, if Jiang Cheng wasn’t missing something that Wei WuXian had always known him to have. But like a tongue sliding over the place where a fallen tooth had been, the answer to what that it is is out of Wei WuXian’s reach. His mind can’t settle on what he’s thinking of.
“Waiting,” he replies simply, to Jiang Cheng’s less-than-polite question.
Jiang Cheng grinds the ball of one foot against the ground, leather shoes sliding against the beautifully-tiled floor. “Waiting for what, exactly?”
Wei WuXian can’t help the smile when he says, “The young ones will get bored eventually and let us out. And if they don’t, HanGuang-Jun will be back by then, and he’ll do it for them.”
He wonders if Lan SiZhui had thought about Lan Zhan’s reaction when he agreed to help Jin Ling with this plan. Lan JingYi is also involved, certainly. Both Lan disciples have no problem pushing Wei WuXian, within reason. But they live and die by Lan Zhan’s approval, so this move is indeed risky. Just what were they hoping to achieve, that would make it worth it?
Jiang Cheng half-turns away from him with a sharp tut of disgust.
“What?” Wei WuXian cocks his head. “It’s true.”
“I didn’t realize you were so content to let Second Master Lan do everything for you now,” Jiang Cheng says with another sneer. It’s almost like the way Madame Yu used to talk about him, but somehow different. With Madame Yu, it was as though Wei Ying was fulfilling her expectations that he be reckless and unpolished and lacking in all ways. But with Jiang Cheng… “You never would’ve been so complacent, before.”
Ah. If Madame Yu was confident that Wei Ying would never be anything but what she thought of him, then Jiang Cheng is disappointed that Wei WuXian has fallen below his expectations. The latter sits worse than the former, a heavy shadow falling with weight across Wei WuXian’s shoulders.
“They’re just young,” he tries again, trying to appease some concern Jiang Cheng hasn’t even voiced. “Probably playing a prank on you. Why waste energy worrying so much about it?”
Jiang Cheng opens his mouth to retort, but then another thought forces its way in front of the first and he bursts out, “Playing a prank on me? Aren’t we both locked in here, idiot?”
Wei WuXian lifts his hands, raising his index finger like he’s about to conduct a lesson. He’s grown more into these mannerisms, the more the young ones come to him for advice and stories. He finds he likes that quite a lot.
“Yes, but knowing what they do about us, who would that be worse for? Everyone knows Sect Leader Jiang would be angered the most by being locked away with the YiLing Patriarch.”
He states the facts with as much distance as he can. Because that’s what they are, facts. There’s no point in being upset by them, because if there’s one thing that’s constant and true in this world it’s Jiang WanYin’s hatred for Wei WuXian.
“Maybe they only want you dead, have you considered that,” Jiang Cheng says coldly. He’s backed up so that he’s leaning against the wall, facing the west side of the room while Wei WuXian, from his seated position, looks north. “And even if you are right, it’s only because you have no shame whatsoever.”
He really doesn’t have a response to that. In Jiang Cheng’s mind, Wei WuXian has shamelessly returned to the place of his worst crimes, at least in spirit. The deaths of Jiang FengMian, Yu ZiYuan, Jiang YanLi and even Jin ZiXuan are housed here, where the one who survived them lives.
Again without thought, Wei WuXian says, “Well, if Jin Ling wanted me dead, he’s given up several good opportunities already. Why risk your wrath in the bargain?”
He almost says, He hasn’t grown up to be as short-sighted as his father, has he?, before he manages to bite down on his tongue. Somehow, even with the topic, talking to Jiang Cheng makes him want to poke fun at Jin ZiXuan like they used to, long, long ago. Even though now, it’s entirely inappropriate. He’s already made that mistake once, taunting Jin Ling about having no mother to teach him. He’s not going to make it again, when Jiang Cheng might actually strangle him with his bare hands. Of all the deaths he’s foreseen for himself in this second life, that would likely be the worst.
“Of course he’s smarter than his father,” Jiang Cheng snaps. “I taught him.”
Wei WuXian bites down on his tongue. “I—I didn’t say that!” he insists.
“I know that look on your face,” Jiang Cheng mutters. “You didn’t have to.”
Wei WuXian hadn’t sensed Jiang Cheng’s eyes on him at all. Now, when he turns his head, Jiang Cheng is still starting resolutely at the western wall. How had he read so much on Wei WuXian’s face? Especially now that it’s a different face altogether from the one he’d known?
For the first time, Wei WuXian is struck by the thought that perhaps he doesn’t understand Jiang Cheng as well as he’d always assumed.
He’s used to new knowledge tilting his world on its axis, and usually welcomes such developments if they come with more understanding. But with Jiang Cheng, it’s as though he’s staring at a single tree and trying to discern the quality of the forest. There’s knowledge he should have that is no longer there, and that aches as much as losing his ability to cultivate had. It’s the same sort of sensation—losing a vital part of one’s being.
“Mm,” Wei WuXian says, noncommittal. “Whatever that nephew is after, he likely won’t release us until he has it.”
He’d certainly had to plan this well enough. He’d invited Lan SiZhui not to Golden Carp Tower, but here to Lotus Pier, and then had told Lan SiZhui to invite Wei WuXian along. Wei WuXian hadn’t realized that until they’d arrived, and SiZhui had told them, actually, he was invited to the Jiang Sect’s residence. Wei WuXian had thought he’d wanted to check out the market stalls and eateries, having heard so much about them. At that point, there was no choice but to follow him, Lan Zhan walking in step beside him. When they’d arrived, Jin Ling had rushed to meet them at the gates, glancing over at Wei WuXian with a satisfied, resolute expression.
Clearly, quite a bit of thought has gone into this plan. Jin Ling had managed to get Zidian away from his uncle, to push him into this chamber without even his sword. And then he’d gotten Wei WuXian in and sealed them in. On his own power, that would’ve been impossible.
Such energy deprivation chambers were designed to test a cultivator’s strength without access to the energy of the world around him. Only the most intense sects who placed strict importance on martial studies even bothered to prepare such chambers. Wei WuXian didn’t remember Lotus Pier having one, but Jiang Cheng must have ordered it built sometime during or after the SunShot Campaign. He likely would’ve had reason to, then.
Perhaps this cunning is a Jin family trait, and both Jiang Cheng and Wei WuXian are powerless to discover Jin Ling’s true motives.
It’s been so long since Wei WuXian considered himself a member of the Jiang Sect, but he thinks that they all are similarly flawed in their straightforwardness. All those rumors about Madame Yu and Uncle Jiang had come about because neither was very good at hiding their true intentions or emotions. The entire cultivation world had known how they felt about each other, what had caused strife in their relationship like stones dropped in a river. And the biggest disturbance had been Wei WuXian himself.
He knows Jiang Cheng doesn’t want his apologies. But Wei WuXian doesn’t know what else to say to him.
Jiang Cheng lets out an impatient tut. “You really are just going to sit there and wait, not saying anything?”
Wei WuXian blinks. He hadn’t intended to be silent, but his thoughts had come up to swallow him. He shakes his head now, trying to look at Jiang Cheng and see him as he is, without the ghost of his younger self flickering over him.
“What do you want me to say?” Wei WuXian tilts his head to one side, balancing his chin against one hand. He means it to come off playfully, to disperse some of the white hot tension between them. Instead, his voice comes out high and strained.
Even in profile, Jiang Cheng’s expressions are easy to see. His face contorts, eyebrows pulling painfully across his brow as he glares at the opposite wall, mouth pressing into a line so thin his lips all but disappear.
“Why don’t you tell me? Aren’t you so good at deciding what I want?”
He knows a rebuke when he hears one, but Wei WuXian isn’t sure what he’s done to deserve this barb, in particular. Once, he would have joked that Jiang Cheng is just so easy to read, and simple besides. Doesn’t everyone know what he wants? To live up to the expectations placed upon him as heir to the Yunmeng Jiang clan, and nothing much more than that.
But Jiang Cheng had levelled those words at Wei WuXian like an accusation. And nowadays, he’s trying not to accept accusations that he hasn’t rightly earned.
“If that’s something you take issue with, why don’t you tell me what you want, instead,” Wei WuXian says carefully. He folds his hands in his lap, long black sleeves draping over the edges of his fingers.
Jiang Cheng hisses from between his teeth, and a muscle in his arm tenses like he’s about to strike Wei WuXian. Instead, he turns on his heel to face the opposite wall, muttering to himself.
“As if anyone cares, as if it matters,” he says, voice dropping each word like pebbles into a dark lake, where no one can see where they land. “You’ll do whatever you want to do, whatever it will do to me.”
They’re no longer talking about making idle conversation. And anyway, they were never very good at that. As soon as Wei Ying arrived in Yunmeng, they’d been at odds. It was only when a deeper bond was forged between them that they actually managed to get along.
Jiang Cheng and Wei Ying were never meant to be strangers, or mere acquaintances. They’re no good at such things.
“I can’t do much to you, anymore,” Wei WuXian offers lightly. “You’re the leader of one of the most powerful sects, and I’m a mid-level cultivator at best, only tied to GusuLan by association.”
He knows the rest of the world doesn’t believe it, but he truly isn’t the YiLing Patriarch anymore, not in the ways that truly matter. His reputation might proceed him, but he’s long since left the sins and regrets of his past where they belong, along with all the other ghosts.
Jiang Cheng turns so quickly that Wei WuXian is surprised he doesn’t give himself whiplash. His face is pale with rage, his eyes dark and burning with inner fire.
“How dare you.” He’s trying to keep his voice level, but it cracks like lightning across the night sky. “How dare you sit there with that stupid expression on your face, and say such fucking lies. How are you not dying of shame?”
Jiang Cheng’s fists are clenched at his sides, knuckles white. But no matter how tightly he holds himself together, Jiang Cheng can’t disguise how he’s trembling with rage.
Wei WuXian blinks, biting down on the inside of his cheek. He’d thought that he could face Jiang Cheng’s ire, his disdain, all the guilt he wants to heap upon Wei WuXian’s shoulders. After all, isn’t that what he deserves? He won’t let Jiang Cheng kill him, because his life isn’t his own, and even this borrowed second chance he’s irrevocably given to Lan Zhan. He won’t make Lan Zhan go through losing him again, not even for Jiang Cheng’s sake.
“If there’s anything left unsaid between us,” Wei WuXian starts, raising a hand as though to put up a barrier between himself and Jiang Cheng’s anger.
A noise like the water in a teapot coming to boil splits through the air, and for a moment Wei WuXian can’t tell where it’s coming from. Then he looks and sees Jiang Cheng’s lips pulling back from his teeth as he lets out that sharp and desperate sound in laughter.
“When have you ever bothered to say anything to me?” Jiang Cheng demands, taking a step forward. “You hide behind the Second Young Master of Gusu, you speak to my nephew instead of to me, you make yourself a nuisance across the world but never come to Yunmeng! There is much left unsaid, Wei WuXian, because you’ve never said anything at all!”
Wei WuXian’s brows knit together, and he speaks before his mind catches up to the hurt he feels at Jiang Cheng’s words. “You don’t want me to speak to you,” he blurts out.
Jiang Cheng stiffens. He looks as maddened, as furious, as he did the night he’d found Wei Ying and Lan Zhan paying respects to Jiang FengMian and Madame Yu. But there’s another emotion lingering in the corner of his eyes, the tight pull of his lips. Wei WuXian thinks he’s a fairly astute judge of people, but he can’t figure out what that half-hidden emotion is.
“You’re right,” Jiang Cheng says finally. He turns back around to face the wall. “So just shut up until Jin Ling gets tired of this stupid game.”
He sits down on the floor, but instead of Wei Ying’s relaxed posture he sits with his back perfectly straight, tension held in his shoulders and neck. He’s silent for long moments, either fuming or meditating or envisioning all the ways he might kill Wei WuXian.
Wei WuXian still doesn’t remember the finer details of his first death. Everything from that time is a blur, punctuated by fleeting moments of clarity. He doesn’t remember Lan Zhan caring for him, or facing the elders from Gusu. He does remember hiding A-Yuan away, when he’d realized there was no saving the rest of the Wen clan. He remembers the sensation of death, the relief of his thoughts and emotions scattering so that he wouldn’t have to carry them any longer. He knows—or thinks—that Jiang Cheng was there, in that moment. He doesn’t remember how he felt about that at the time, if he had it left in him to feel anything at all. But looking back, he almost hopes that Jiang Cheng took some satisfaction in that moment. There’s no other member of the Jiang clan left to offer atonement to.
Jiang Cheng holds his silence far longer than Wei WuXian expects him to.
They’d fight often, as children, though never quite as badly as the first few days when Jiang Cheng threatened to set his dogs on Wei WuXian. Those fights afterwards got less and less important, their arguments more easily solved when they both realized the annoyance of not speaking wasn’t worth whatever they’d been fighting about. Wei Ying was stubborn, but Jiang Cheng had been worse as a child. He would never admit he was wrong, but would eventually punch Wei Ying in the shoulder and order, “You have to be on my side, again.”
The thing of it is, Wei WuXian had always been on Jiang Cheng’s side. He didn’t—still doesn’t—make promises idly. When he told Jiang Cheng that he would be his subordinate, and stand by his side, he’d truly meant it. How could he have envisioned how their lives would diverge?
His feelings had been wild, scattered things when he’d first emerged from the Burial Mounds. But even then, having become the YiLing Patriarch, he still wanted to be by Jiang Cheng’s side. It wasn’t by his own choice that YunmengJiang had disowned him. He didn’t set out to cut away at the thick rope of connection between him and Jiang Cheng, one strand at a time, until the line between them was so thin and taught it could do nothing but snap.
He sighs, turning his senses inwards as he sits in the tense silence of the chamber. His golden core, sufficient but not necessarily strong, pulses dimly within his chest when he pulls at it. He can’t access it in any real sense, wouldn’t be able to fly on a sword if he had one or exorcise a spirit. Even though he hasn’t relied on a golden core in a long, long time, the sensation is still unsettling.
Out of the corner of his eye, he glances at Jiang Cheng. The sect leader’s lips are pursed so forcefully they’ve turned white. His hands are settled on his knees, gripping so tightly that the purple fabric beneath his fingers crumples. Wei WuXian can see the rise and fall of his chest—it’s erratic, uneven, his breath whistling out from between his teeth.
“Are you sick?” Wei Ying blurts out, leaning closer without actually closing any of the space between them.
Jiang Cheng blinks open his eyes—they’re bloodshot. “I thought I told you to shut up.”
But it’s evident in his voice now, too. It’s high and strained, angry but not in the usual way. Jiang Cheng’s words can cut like a whip through the air, sharp and sudden. That anger had developed later, growing colder and sharper over time after his parents died, and then his sister. The first time Wei WuXian heard his voice after he’d been recalled to life, he almost didn’t recognize it.
Now Jiang Cheng’s words are pained, like they cut his throat as he says them. He’s never had a problem telling Wei WuXian to shut up, before, so something really must be wrong.
Wei Ying reaches out to press his fingers against the inner part of Jiang Cheng’s wrist, to check the rate of his pulse and his temperature. His skin is clammy, his heart hammering away much faster than it shoulder. Wei Ying can register nothing else before Jiang Cheng forcibly yanks his arm back.
“Don’t touch me!” His arm curls against his chest. At first, Wei WuXian thinks that he’s just trying to keep as much space between them as possible. Then, he realizes that Jiang Cheng is clutching at his robes, as though trying to grasp something that sits between his ribs.
“If you’re not well—” Wei WuXian starts to say.
“I don’t need your help,” Jiang Cheng spits, turning further away from him. He curls in on himself, upright posture finally abandoned. His breath is audible now, air sucked in between his teeth and lost from his lips just as quickly.
Wei WuXian grits his teeth. It’s hard for him to be angry with Jiang Cheng, even when he’s frustrated. He doesn’t feel that he has the right to be angry, not when he carries the weight of everything that’s happened between them. How can he be angry, when he’s the one who’s wronged Jiang Cheng so much?
But this is just ridiculous. There’s no one else around to help Jiang Cheng, and he obviously needs that help. Anyway, it’s not as if he could be an angrier with Wei WiXian, not when he’s already wanted him dead once or twice before. Wei WuXian has nothing to lose.
Pushing his sleeves back from his hands, he rises on his knees to lean over to Jiang Cheng. Danger flashes in Jiang Cheng’s eyes, but Wei WuXian ignore sit as he grabs Jiang Cheng’s wrists and holds on tightly, pulling the other man’s arms away from his chest so that he can get a better look at him.
But when he finally sees Jiang Cheng’s face clearly, there isn’t anger branded across it as usual. Instead, it’s panic. His eyes are wide, pupils shrunken as looks at everything and nothing at once. In Wei WuXian’s hold, he thrashes, falling backwards and trying to kick Wei WuXian away from him.
Unfortunately for Jiang Cheng, Wei WuXian has sparred with him enough times to know how to handle him. How often had they thrown down their swords on the training field, and just grappled with each other, using any leverage they could get to pin the other? Those fights were messy and often brutal, but Wei WuXian knows how to win them.
It’s more difficult, because Mo XuanYu’s body doesn’t have the length or weight of Wei WuXian’s original one. Still, he manages to get his weight over Jiang Cheng, still holding him down by his wrists, forcing his arms to his sides.
Jiang Cheng doesn’t fight back in the way he’s supposed to. There’s none of his usual strategy, the hot defiance he always used to display when trying to best Wei WuXian at anything. Instead, he jolts like he’s been struck by lightning, and hisses, “Let go! Let go of me, Wei WuXian!”
“Just tell me what’s wrong!” Wei WuXian demands instead, keeping all his weight bearing down on Jiang Cheng. He knows they can never be confidantes, anymore, but isn’t this a bit extreme? Why is Jiang Cheng being so damn stubborn?
“Get off me!” Jiang Cheng screams. “I can’t breathe!”
Wei WuXian’s weight is on his legs, not his chest. There’s nothing about the way they’re positioned that should impede Jiang Cheng’s breathing, except for the fact that he’s working himself into more and more of a state.
“Calm down,” Wie WuXian says, as calmly as he can. “Just focus on breathing, nothing’s wrong—”
“Now you want to talk me through it?” Jiang Cheng is laughing instead of screaming now, but the sound is no less disturbing. “I told you to say something—to keep me distracted—”
Wei WuXian blinks, trying to decipher what Jiang Cheng means. Is that what Jiang Cheng had been trying to do? Coax him into conversation? He knows Jiang Cheng is a harsh personality, but surely even he could realize how utterly backwards his strategy was. Didn’t they teach future sect leaders all sorts of pretty manners and ways to converse? Did Jiang Cheng just not bother to deploy such things with him?
He’s silent too long, thinking. Jiang Cheng’s hands curl into fists, knuckles going white. His head falls back and hits the wall, but he barely seems to notice.
“I can’t feel it,” he groans, hands clenching and unclenching like he’s trying to grasp hold of something. “I can’t feel it, and I can’t do that, I can’t lose it again—”
He’s making no sense, and that honestly scares Wei WuXian. Not knowing what else to do, he releases Jiang Cheng’s wrists. Taking a deep breath, he slaps Jiang Cheng across the face.
Jiang Cheng startles, but no murderous look overtakes him. Instead, he presses his hands against the center of his chest. He’s still laughing in that unnerving way. “Shouldn’t you understand? No, you can just sit there like it’s nothing, like it never meant anything to you…”
There’s something so hollow in his voice that it aches. Wei WuXian never wants to hear Jiang Cheng sound like that ever again. The last time—it had been when he’d woken up in Lotus Pier, when it was still under the Wens’ control. He’d punched Wei WuXian with no power, had laughed self-mockingly when he’d revealed what had happened to his golden core.
It was only a few days after he’d lost his parents. The despair of seeing Lotus Pier burn was compounded by the knowledge that he’d lost all ability to avenge it.
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei WuXian says forcefully, trying to get his attention. “Jiang Cheng, it isn’t gone. It’s just because we’re in this deprivation chamber.”
His own core—the one that had once been Mo XuanYu’s—doesn’t feel gone, exactly. Just very distant, like it’s the sun viewed from underwater. Even if he swam up and breached the surface, he wouldn’t be able to reach it.
Now that he thinks he knows what Jiang Cheng is saying, Wei WuXian spares a thought to be insulted. “It didn’t mean nothing to me.”
How could Jiang Cheng even think that? Wei WuXian doesn’t regret giving up his golden core—it was the least he could do for Jiang Cheng, the only thing he could do—but so much might’ve been different if it hadn’t happened. Maybe he never would have been caught by Wen Chao. Maybe he never would’ve fallen into demonic cultivation. Maybe it wouldn’t have poisoned his mind, led him to kill Jin ZiXuan and Shijie…
Or maybe, another side of him thinks, Jiang Cheng would’ve been slaughtered by the Wens just as his parents were, and YungmengJiang would never have recovered. Maybe there would’ve been no way to turn the tides of the SunShot Campaign, and even Lan Zhan would have died, his fingers bloody from continuing to fight in a battle he couldn’t win. Maybe Wei WuXian would have had to watch other people he loved die, just as brutally, and been just as responsible.
He shudders, shaking his head. He can’t think like this. There’s no changing what happened. He and Lan Zhan, they’ve decided between them. The past is past, no matter how much pain and regret dwell there. They have each other, and the joy of their lives spent together, now. Wei WuXian can’t regret the choices that brought them back together, let them finally be happy.
“It didn’t mean nothing to me,” Wei WuXian says again, sincerely. “How could you think that?”
Jiang Cheng is pressed up against the wall in the cramped chamber, hands lifted to shield his face as he trembles. “Shut up,” he says. “Shut up, shut up, I don’t want to hear you lying to me.”
Incensed, Wei Ying grabs him by the shoulders and shakes him. “I’m not lying! When have I ever lied to you?”
Jiang Cheng slaps his hands away, his breathing still ragged but his eyes clearing slowly, like the fog slowly dissipating from over the lakes of Yunmeng. “You lied to me about the whole thing, you bastard. You let me think I could get my own core back!”
Wei WuXian’s heart drops. He had lied about that. But Jiang Cheng would not have survived without a golden core, either because the Wens would have finished him off or because he never would’ve recovered his will to live.
Biting down on his tongue, Wei WuXian still asks, “Am I supposed to apologize for saving your life?”
Jiang Cheng laughs, hands covering his face. “Of course not,” he sneers. “Wei WuXian always does best. Always knows best.”
Is this what he was talking about earlier? That Wei WuXian had given him his golden core without telling him, without asking?
“You never would’ve taken it,” he says stubbornly. “You never would have agreed, if I hadn’t lied about it.”
Jiang Cheng sits up abruptly, knocking Wei WuXian back onto the floor. Wei Wuxian’s head hits the opposite wall, pain vibrating down from his skull.
“You’re right,” Jiang Cheng says, chest heaving. “I wouldn’t have agreed. I wouldn’t have let you do it. And you took that choice away from me!”
Wei WuXian scrambles upwards. They’re both on their knees, facing each other, but Jiang Cheng looms over him. It’s been so long since they looked each other in the eye, since they stood shoulder to shoulder.
“You would’ve died,” Wei WuXian says. His own breath is choking him. “You weren’t recovering. You didn’t want to recover, until I told you you could get your core back.”
“And so you let me rebuild my life on a lie?” He laughs that hollow, terrible laugh. “You never would have told me, would you? You would’ve let me run around like a fool for all eternity, never knowing whose power was within me.”
Wei WuXian frowns. It’s not as if he gave Jiang Cheng any greater ability to cultivate. He just ensured that he’d be able to access the power he already had, that he’d worked so hard to build his entire life.
“I hate you,” Jiang Cheng spits, when Wei WuXian stays silent.
Ah. Back to where they began, then.
He looks straight back at Jiang Cheng. “I know.” He doesn’t hate Jiang Cheng in return, but he has no idea what word he’d put to what’s between them, now.
Jiang Cheng’s lip curls. Emotions war over his face, all quickly subsumed by his wild anger. He moves so quickly that Wei WuXian can barely track him, coming straight at Wei WuXian and grabbing at him.
There’s no space for Wei WuXian’s usual fancy footwork, no cultivation to draw on. Wei WuXian is pinned against the wall, hands grappling at Jiang Cheng’s arms as the other man’s hands grip tightly around his neck.
“I hate you,” Jiang Cheng says again, grip so tight that Wei WuXian can hardly draw breath. “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!”
He cannot let himself die, and yet he does not know how he can possibly placate Jiang Cheng. Everyone knows of Jiang WanYin’s hated for the YiLing Patriarch. How many innocent, uninvolved souls had he torn apart over the years, destroying them because Wei WuXian was beyond his reach?
“I know,” Wei WuXian wheezes out, again, trying to pull Jiang Cheng off of him. “I know, I’ve tried to leave you alone—”
“What would that help?” Jiang Cheng demands. His face is flushed, normally pale skin a fiery, irritated red. “Would that bring my parents back? Would that make Jin Ling no longer an orphan? Would that spare me all the humiliation, all the despair you’ve caused me?”
No, Wei WuXian tries to say, but he can’t push the word out from between his lips. There’s no air left in his lungs, his head pounding, his vision blurry.
Jiang Cheng’s grip is no longer tightening, but it doesn’t slacken, either. Wei WuXian thinks they might be suspended in time.
He remembers Jiang Cheng looming over him like this as rain fell around them. Jiang Cheng, his face contorted with rage, screaming. And then, something instead of him breaking, and his screams becoming terrible, heart-wrenching sobs. Those sobs had eventually given way to whimpers, the small, pathetic noises of a child who does not know what to do, who has no way to express the enormity of feeling within him.
Wei WuXian has been wrong about Jiang Cheng before. But right now, he looks like that same young man he’d been, consumed with rage because the pain of losing his parents and his home and his entire sect had been too much. The anger had been a shield for loss, and pain, and sadness, and Wei Ying hadn’t been able to recognize it quickly enough.
He tugs at Jiang Cheng’s wrists, loosening the other man’s hold just enough that he can speak. “I know,” he says, voice hoarse. “I know, I’m sorry. If I could take it all back, somehow, have it all work out…” He doesn’t finish the thought. He can’t make another promise he would never intend to keep, even if it’s impossible.
He can’t take the deep breath he needs to, not with Jiang Cheng’s hands still around his neck. “It doesn’t work like that,” he says finally. “I can’t give my life to bring Shijie back, or anyone else.”
No one is more seeped in death than he is. Out of Wen Qing’s desperation and his own rage, he’d brought Wen Ning back. But he could never have done the same to Jiang YanLi, even if he wasn’t half-mad by that point. Jiang Cheng never would have accepted that. It wouldn’t be the sort of life Shijie would have wanted. And besides, how could he have tried, believing what he did about Wen Ning?
“I hate you,” Jiang Cheng says again, voice small and seeming very far away. Something wet lands against Wei WuXian’s cheek.
Instead of repeating that he knows, Wei WuXian lets his eyes fall shut. “What for, this time,” he asks tiredly.
The hands around his throat shake him roughly, causing Wei WuXian to cough and sputter.
“Because,” Jiang Cheng says, his voice as indistinct and sharp as the wind, “I don’t know if I could do it. If I could kill you and bring A-jie back, or any of them—” He cuts himself off, drawing ragged breaths like he’s the one being choked and not Wei WuXian.
“You—you—” He sounds sick with his own feelings. “I want to kill you! I want to hate you, Wei WuXian! But even if it would put everything back to how it was—I can’t. I can’t make that choice. I wouldn’t trade you, for them! And I should, I should want to! Why can’t I just want you gone?”
His tears are hot as they land on Wei WuXian’s cheeks.
For his own part, the famed YiLing Patriarch, the talented fourth-ranked young master, the cultivation partner of HanGuang-Jun, the scourge of the entire cultivation world… Wei WuXian is stunned into silence.
For so long, he’s thought that Jiang Cheng would tear him apart with no new provocation, for no other reward than the satisfaction of seeing him fall. Jiang Cheng had tortured other demonic cultivators for the crime of even trying to imitate the YiLing Patriarch—but he doesn’t actually want Wei WuXian himself dead? Who would believe that?
Jiang Cheng is sobbing, now. His hands go limp around Wei WuXian’s neck, and he falls forward like a puppet who’s strings have been cut. Before he can hit the ground, Wei WuXian reaches for him, pulls him close.
This is dangerous, he knows. Jiang Cheng is unsettled by the deprivation chamber, not in control of himself or his emotions. Who knows if he even means half the things he’s saying? But he’s in distress, and Wei Ying is the only one here with him, and he can’t let a person he once cared for so much to suffer that alone.
Jiang Cheng is broader than him, too much so for Wei WuXian to comfortably embrace. Instead, he grips Jiang Cheng’s shoulders and holds him upright.
“You don’t have to worry about me,” Wei WuXian says softly. He tries for a smile, but it’s strained, like when he would try and convince Jiang Cheng that his injuries weren’t really much to worry about. (If they weren’t serious at all, Wei WuXian would exaggerate his pains and make Jiang Cheng care for him. It was only the real hurts that had to be hidden, downplayed.) “I don’t wish to cause you any more trouble, or grief. We can just be… strangers, again.”
Have they ever been strangers? His first awareness of Jiang Cheng was when he’d been brought back to Lotus Pier, told he’d be staying there from now on, told that Jiang Cheng would be a great friend to him. It had taken them some time to get there, but Wei WuXian had never not known Jiang Cheng. His deepest, most fragile memories, of his parents and the life before Lotus Pier, are too indistinct to really count. For as long as Wei WuXian has had an identity, Jiang Cheng has been part of it.
Jiang Cheng is shaking, his sobs subsiding into noisy, undignified sniffling. He pushes Wei WuXian away, disgusted. “How can you be so stupid?” he demands. “Stop saying impossible things.”
Wei WuXian laughs ruefully. He should have expected this. No solution he can offer Jiang Cheng will fix things, or even clear the board of the debts owed between them.
Jiang Cheng’s face twists, and he pushes back so that there’s more space between them. His chest is still heaving like he’s breathing against the pressure of a heavy weight. “So stupid,” he mutters, almost to himself. “I should never have believed you in the first place.”
Wei WuXian blinks. Why is Jiang Cheng talking in riddles, again? He never used to be this difficult to figure out.
Jiang Cheng drags his hands across his face, like he can wipe away all the emotions he’d bared to Wei WuXian. “I tell you I hate you a hundred times, and you don’t say it back even once. Am I so beneath your notice, now?”
How laughable! Jiang Cheng is the leader of one of the preeminent cultivation sects. His cultivation is second only to ZeWu-Jun’s and HanGuang-Jun’s. Who else is there to rival him, now? Sheer power has never been Nie HuaiSang’s strength, and Jin Ling is still growing into his own. Wei WuXian’s reputation exaggerates the extent of his abilities, now. He could spend a decade cultivating Mo XuanYu’s golden core, and perhaps then reclaim his old strength. He has demonic cultivation, true, but he won’t draw on the most dangerous, powerful techniques. Not anymore. Even if Wei WuXian were the most powerful rogue cultivator on earth, he could not stand in comparison to Jiang WanYin’s influence, wealth, and power. So why is Jiang Cheng spouting this nonsense?
“But I don’t hate you,” Wei Ying offers, after a moment’s thoughtful silence. Why would he say something he didn’t mean? It has nothing to do with whether he notices Jiang Cheng—because with very few exceptions, there is no one he has to take more notice of. Since he’s returned to life, there have been many distractions. But since Guangyin Temple, his life has slowed down. He’s devoted that life to Lan Zhan, to the two of them. But that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten Jiang Cheng, or the closeness they once shared.
“I know many people still hate me,” Wei WuXian continues. He lets his thoughts flow freely, scratching at the back of his head. “But I don’t hate them for that. I know there are people I’ve wronged that I don’t even remember. And not many care that when I harmed them, I didn’t intend it. I won’t ask for forgiveness I haven’t earned. But how can I hate them, when I understand?”
Lan Zhan has been trying to change his thinking, on some of these points. When they lay in bed together and Wei Ying is wrapped in Lan Zhan’s arms, Lan Zhan will tell Wei Ying that he has done more than enough to deserve happiness. That he is good, and that he has only ever tried to do good.
Wei Ying wants to believe Lan Zhan, when he says these things. But those good thoughts are shadowed by a voice that might be Jiang Cheng’s, telling him that there’s nothing he can do to make up for the lives he’s destroyed, the pain he’s caused.
And isn’t Jiang Cheng sitting here in front of him, a mess of anger and pain and grief, even more proof of that?
“Do you think you understand me?” Jiang Cheng demands, cold and quiet. His dark eyes look searchingly at him.
Wei WuXian shrugs, spreading his hands. “I understand why you would want me dead, even if I don’t want you to kill me.” He doesn’t say, again. He’s glad he doesn’t remember the details of the first time.
An irritated noise leaves Jiang Cheng’s lips, something like a snort and a huff, but perhaps more dignified. “You aren’t worth the grief killing you would cause me.”
Wei WuXian purses his lips. That’s true—Lan Zhan, at least, would not tolerate it. There’s someone who undeniably would miss him, would avenge him, would protect him before it came to any of that. Wei WuXian may grieve over what he has lost in Jiang Cheng, but he would never give up what he has now in exchange. The thought brings him more peace than anything he could say to Jiang Cheng would.
“No,” Wei WuXian says. “I suppose I’m not.”
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes, disgusted.
“If Jin Ling was locking you in here to orchestrate a coup and name himself Head Cultivator, he would have done better to trap you with Nie HuaiSang and ZeWu-Jun, not me.”
Lips pressed into a fine line, Jiang Cheng does his level best not to dignify Wei WuXian’s supposing with a response.
“He’s a bit young for political plots, don’t you think? What have you been teaching him, Jiang Cheng?”
“Never to listen to Wei WuXian’s stupid ramblings,” Jiang Cheng snaps smartly.
Wei Ying laughs before he can help himself. “Ah, only the intelligent ones, then. Sound advice.”
Jiang Cheng waves a hand at him dismissively, like he has no patience to engage in childish back-and-forth. And maybe he doesn’t. Jiang Cheng has had a lot longer to grow up than Wei WuXian has.
Jiang Cheng turns towards him, face slightly more relaxed than usual, lips parted like he’s about to speak. Before he can, there’s the grinding sound of stone against stone, and then the door to the chamber opens a crack, a harsh line of glaring light streaming in.
Jiang Cheng hisses, raising a hand to shield his eyes. “What—”
Jin Ling stands in the doorway as someone else pushes the door open entirely. The bright light of the outer chamber haloes him in warm, golden light. His arms are crossed over his chest, but his expression isn’t defiant. Instead, there’s something keen and empathetic in his eyes.
Wei WuXian looks at him and thinks Shijie, and his heart aches so sharply he’s sure he’s just been pierced through by an arrow.
“Jin Ling,” Jiang Cheng growls, pushing himself up onto his feet. “What is the meaning of this—”
Their nephew bows deep at the waist, eyes to the floor. “Apologies, Jiujiu. The door was stuck. We did our best to get you out as quickly as possible.”
Wei WuXian lets out a laugh before he can stop himself. Who is Jin Ling trying to fool? He’d pushed them in here, without weapons or tools, and locked the door behind them! All three of them must realize that this was intentional, that they all know it was intentional.
As Jin Ling rises from his bow, he passes something over to Jiang Cheng. A moment later, Jiang Cheng is twisting Zidian back into its familiar spot on his finger. Purple sparks flare around it briefly, and then the ring goes dormant once more.
Zidian recognizes its true owners, the ones its current wielder approves of. Wei WuXian wonders, briefly, if Jin Ling knows the significance of the fact that he can take Zidian from his uncle, if Jiang Cheng ever told him that most intimate of Zidian’s secrets.
“A place like this is very dangerous, Jin Ling,” Wei WuXian says, stretching his hands behind his head once he has gotten to his feet. “You shouldn’t play around with it, you know.”
Jin Ling scrunches his nose, looks very much like he’d like to snap something back at Wei WuXian. Instead, he lifts his chin in the air. “Jiujiu used to stay in here all of the time. I knew you would be fine until we could get you out.”
Wei WuXian startles at that revelation. Not being able to access his golden core had sent Jiang Cheng into a panic—why would he have spent so much time in the deprivation chamber willingly? Was he training himself, in case a time came when he lost his core again? But after Wen ZhuLiu’s death, no one could have done such a thing to him.
Jiang Cheng’s nose is in the air when he strides past Jin Ling into the more open pavilion, barely sparing Wei WuXian a second glance. He doesn’t contradict Jin Ling’s blatant lie, either.
Jin Ling glances back at Wei WuXian, lips pressed together like he’s thinking hard about what he might ask. Does he want to know what happened, for all the time Jiang Cheng and Wei WuXian were stuck in here, together? How would Wei WuXian even answer?
Finally, Jin Ling lets out a heavy sigh and turns on his heel to follow Jiang Cheng.
As Wei WuXian steps out into the pavilion, he sees two figures in pale robes waiting for him. Lan SiZhui bows deeply, and with far more sincerity than Jin Ling. But he doesn’t offer a verbal apology, or any sort of explanation. He, too, is looking at Wei WuXian like he’s only just holding back from demanding more information.
Lan WangJi extends a hand towards him, two of his fingertips just brushing over the tender skin of Wei WuXian’s neck. “You’re hurt.” His eyes are cloudy, ready to build to storms if the situation calls for it.
Wei Ying waves him off, though he ducks in close, feels the strong, comforting line of Lan Zhan’s body against his. “I got into an argument,” he offers. “But it’s something I had to handle on my own.”
Lan Zhan does not contradict him.
That night, as the three of them head back to Gusu, Wei WuXian glances back at Lotus Pier. Amber lights are lit along the pavilions, but only a few inner rooms are illuminated at this time of night. He wonders if Jiang Cheng is in one of them. He wonders if Jiang Cheng is watching him leave.
Not for the first time, he wishes things were different between him and Jiang Cheng. He thinks of Jiang Cheng’s tears, his frustrations, the ghost of an involuntary smile on his lips. Could Wei WuXian fix things, between them?
Like a particularly difficult invocation or a complex seal, the question lingers in the corner of his mind, demanding he give it attention and discover the solution.