The sky weeps for weeks.
Jin Zixuan stands by the window of his son's nursery, holding him as he sleeps peacefully despite the pitter-patter of rain, and contemplates placing his son down so he may rest himself. Seconds turn to minutes and so on, yet he remains standing by the window. Occasionally, he catches glimpses of his mother and wife, both women walking through the rain with their umbrellas - sometimes talking and sometimes in silence.
In these moments to himself, with only his sleeping son present, Jin Zixuan thinks about life as it is
and what it should be.
He thinks about the radiant smile on Yanli's face when he informs her of inviting Wei Wuxian to their son's first-month celebration before she could extend the invitation herself. He thinks about the look of horror on her face when he returns from chasing after the supposed escort group sent to ensure Wei Wuxian's safe arrival to Koi Tower; covered in blood and sobbing himself as he carries the thin, limp body of her shidi, her brother, in his arms until he falls to his knees in front of her. He thinks of when he silently watched her clean all blood from Wei Wuxian's person, hands ever gentle and eyes glossy with tears, so that he is presentable for his funeral.
(Wei Wuxian was supposed to arrive with his personal escort, the Ghost General, and present his gift to A-Ling. He was supposed to stay at Koi Tower for at least a week before making an excuse to leave - knowing that many find his presence uncomfortable. He was supposed to reconnect with Yanli and their brother. He was supposed to - )
He thinks about how the news reached Lotus Pier before he has a chance to truly comprehend what has happened because Jiang Cheng arrives in a fury of purple lightning in the middle of the night, demanding to see the body of his brother before he's even fully through the door. He thinks about Jiang Cheng standing silently next to the bed which Wei Wuxian's body rests upon, fingers reaching out to touch grey, cold skin. He thinks about how Jiang Cheng promises to care for the remaining Wen remnants as best he can - as his last gift to his brother - despite how uncomfortable he will be. He thinks about Yanli hugging her brother as he finally weeps over his promise.
He doesn't question what he hears.
Days after Jiang Cheng departs for Lotus Pier with demands that Wei Wuxian's body is delivered immediately, something strange happens inside the room holding Wei Wuxian's body.
Some witnesses describe it as a storm of resentful energy.
Others claim demonic presence.
In the end, Wei Wuxian's body is encased by black diamond - unpenetrable by any sword or saber or talisman.
He cannot be moved from the room.
The next day, Koi Tower receives word that the Burial Mounds have been swept clean of the Wen remnants. All evidence of their, and Wei Wuxian's, presence is completely gone. It infuriates his father to lose out on any of Wei Wuxian's hand-written notes of his inventions, but he has the decency to not speak his mind in front of his daughter-in-law. Rather, he sulks on the sidelines with beautiful women draped about him.
Jin Zixuan wishes his father weren't so horribly selfish.
At some point, during all the commotion, his half-brother throws himself at his feet and begs for forgiveness.
And he comes clean.
To Jin Zixuan, first, and then Yanli. His wife has a forgiving nature whereas her brother will be less forgiving when he finds out. Jin Zixuan learns to accept many things about their father that night - lying, greed, murder, and manipulation - but most importantly that their father has a desire to become greater than Wen Ruohan through the use of Wei Wuxian's inventions.
Jin Guangshan wanted Wei Wuxian dead or, at least, under his control.
"Perhaps," he recalls his wife saying, "it is best those notes remain lost and unfinished. I have no desire to see A-Xian's work used for evil."
To associate his father with evil, Jin Zixuan finds it hard to disagree with her.
"You are right, Madam," Jin Guangyao says this as he uses the sleeve of his golden robe to wipe away the red vermilion mark from his forehead.
Jin Zixuan knows what this means. "Where will you go?"
His half-brother smiles lightly. "I will spend the rest of my life atoning for my actions while trying to fix my relationship with someone who matters greatly to me." He looks at the red smudge upon his otherwise clean robes. "I will no longer be father's puppet."
He bids them farewell.
Jin Zixuan has not seen or heard from his half-brother since. He hopes that is a good thing. Their father makes it well-known he is displeased with Jin Guangyao's disappearance but neither he nor Yanli speaks on it. Rather, Yanli merely expresses her concern while remaining falsely pleasant with her father-in-law. Her smiles, once naturally sweet, are far more calculated when she is near anyone who expressed in the past, or presently, their distaste of Wei Wuxian.
He later learns of the abuse his half-brother was subjected to under their father's hand.
The talk of Jin Guangyao's disappearance never truly dies down. Primarily because Jin Zixuan knows his father believes Jin Guangyao somehow capable of removing what is essentially Wei Wuxian's coffin on display.
Their father has no respect for boundaries -
"A-Xuan, are you well?"
Jin Zixuan turns slowly at the gentle voice of his wife, A-Ling lets out a small sleepy sound as if he is aware his mother is near. "I am well," he responds as she draws near and easily situates herself pressed against him without disturbing their sleeping child.
"He sleeps well when you hold him," Yanli whispers.
"He's slept well for months now."
During the commotion involving Wei Wuxian, A-Ling refused little sleep. His screams carried across Koi Tower, putting wailing ghosts too shame. He was inconsolable by everyone. It was only when Jin Zixuan unintentionally passed the room holding Wei Wuxian while trying to calm down his son did A-Ling miraculously settle down. Since then, he has slept peacefully every night. Yanli expressed, in the quiet and security of their bedroom, that perhaps Wei Wuxian's spirit soothed A-Ling and continues to do so.
At the least expected times, Jin Zixuan swears he can hear the distant sound of a flute.
But when he stops to actually listen for it, he hears nothing.
"Come to bed."
He doesn't protest when A-Ling is removed from his arms and placed in his bassinet. He does, however, sag in Yanli's hold when she hugs him tightly, her ear pressed against his heart. She smells of rain and fading perfume. She smells of home and comfort and love. He holds her close for several moments and then pulls away. Yanli takes his hand and leads him out of the room, asking the servant just outside the door to their son's room to watch over A-Ling as they rest.
Jiang Yanli spends the night watching her husband toss and turn in his sleep, sweat clinging to his brow and tries her best to soothe his troubled mind with soft hands and even softer words. Sometimes, he mumbles about her and A-Ling. Mostly, it's about her dearly departed younger brother. Zixuan had promised her, the night after she had given birth, that he would find a way to make amends with A-Xian; for she desperately wanted her remaining family with her during one of the most important, and happiest, moments of her life.
Her husband had told her of the group sent to "escort" her brother; that the group could be considered a small army on its own. He has expressed his disbelief that there were any good intentions after what he witnessed. An ambush. An ambush was set for her brother. A-Xian's fierce corpse, the Ghost General, slaughtered many of them. Jin Zixun, despite being the leader of the group and primary believer that her little brother had cast upon him a horrifying curse, still suffers silently in his quarters.
"He didn't touch me," Zixuan tells her quietly when they are alone, "because Wei Wuxian shoved me aside. The damage was done by then. I thought he would have killed me if not for noticing that cursed seal, the one Wei Wuxian used to control the corpses. I could tell - could tell that he didn't want to leave his master with me but he couldn't leave the seal there." He had broken down in her arms that night. "I just wanted - I just - " She could only hold him, reassure him, when he begs her to forgive his failure of bringing A-Xian to her, alive and well.
When Jin Guangyao had stepped forward, confessing to his involvement, she had thought to strike him as her heart was at it's lowest. The thought of hitting anyone never occurred to her until then. But, she stopped herself. Jin Guangyao acted on orders in hopes of being recognized for his work and devotion in the eyes of his father. She cannot bring herself to fault him for that - having to bear witness to similar instances involving A-Cheng.
This bitterness she feels, Jiang Yanli stores it in her heart.
She knows that many see her as an obedient woman, unaware of the darkness that lurks within the minds of men in power and solely devoted to her husband. She is, of course, devoted to him but he is just as devoted to her. Under just two years of marriage and Zixuan has helped her become far more aware of the political climate than what the Jin Sect Elders or nobles would deem appropriate.
"I will not keep you in the dark," he promised her, the night of their wedding, and has kept to it.
For now, she will keep a close watch on her father-in-law.
Empty wine jars are scattered around him.
He drinks alone, most nights, and sometimes he is joined by the silent and wary Wen Qing. He can't blame her. After all, he has cursed her and her remaining family to unforgiving ruins and forsake their savior when he allowed his feelings of anger and betrayal overtake him the last time they met. Now, he's their savior. He, who vowed to bring an end to all Wens, now feeds them and clothes them and provides them shelter.
Uncomfortable laughter escapes between his wet lips at the thought of what Wei Wuxian would say if he saw him now.
"Getting soft on me, eh, Jiang Cheng~?"
"Shut up," Jiang Cheng tells this false image out loud.
He imagines his laughter, loud and carefree, filling the room of which he sits. He imagines a thin presence next to him, leaning against him with no sense of personal space. He imagines an arm wrapping around his shoulders, solid and reassuring.
"You don't even grace me with your ghost, Wei Wuxian?!" He snaps to the empty space in front of him. "How typical of you."
"Xian-ge is here?"
Jiang Cheng startles.
On the other side of the room, where the door is located and barely opened, Wen Yuan can be seen poking his head inside just a bit. The older man watches him scan the room with hope in his eyes and feels as if he greatly let the child down when his bottom lip begins to tremble when he doesn't see his "Xian-ge." To be caught in such a state by a child is bad enough, but to be unable to console him when he seems on the verge of crying is a whole other type of humiliation.
He gets to his feet and moves closer to the door slowly as to not frighten the little boy. Large eyes stare up at him and he sighs before crouching "No, he isn't here." It's possibly the worse thing he's said in a while. "I'm...sorry."
Wen Yuan sniffles. "I want Xian-ge!"
Not knowing what else to do, Jiang Cheng sweeps him off his feet and walks back over to his place at the table. Wen Yuan doesn't struggle or demand to be put down. Rather, he settles easily in his lap and sniffles quieting against him purple covered chest. It's not long, Jiang Cheng notices, before the little boy falls asleep. His tiny hands clutch onto Jiang Cheng.
"X - ," Wen Yuan yawns, " -ge."
Are you seeing this, Wei Wuxian? I'm his replacement until you come back!
Wen Yuan, Jiang Cheng is quickly coming to realize, is a very determined child. The little boy follows him around Lotus Pier, curious and quiet most of the time. When it's time to speak to his advisors, Wen Yuan is right there next to him, tugging on his sleeve and quietly asking to be picked up.
Jiang Cheng obliges.
How can he say "no" to a child with such trust in his eyes?
It's times like these that make Jiang Cheng wonder where Wen Qing stays that such a child can move about on his own unsupervised. Most of the Wens do not leave their quarters on the edge of Lotus Pier, either from fear of harassment or "taking up more space" (as Wen Qing has mentioned once). Jiang Cheng is pleased to know that he holds the entire loyalty of his disciples, for they have not questioned why the remaining Wens are there nor question if they're required to tend to their needs.
Some female servants have been assigned to that section of Lotus Pier.
There are only 20 or so Wens, mostly consisting of the elderly, as opposed to the 50+ Jiang Cheng knew Wei Wuxian was protecting in the beginning. He never questioned why so few remain now but he has seen the look in Wen Qing's eyes when she's tending to one old man called "Uncle Five." He has a good guess though - the Burial Mounds are not suitable for living, no food will grow there and no water will be properly sourced. They have no funds to buy medical supplies nor anything to trade.
Those 30 or so missing Wens probably died of starvation or illness or injury.
It's...quite sad when he thinks about it; that they and Wei Wuxian stayed for so long under harsh circumstances.
Where else could they have gone? A traitours thought flashed across his mind. You wouldn't have taken them in.
Wen Yuan snuggles close, yawning cutely.
"Naptime," he declares out loud once his meeting in over.
You would have only taken him in.
Jiang Yanli smiles gently when her husband runs his fingers through her hair, humming softly under his breath.
Zixuan has resolved to spend more time with her and their son than be anywhere near his father - especially if the older man is speaking ill words against her deceased brother. He still has trouble sleeping and often gets up in the middle of the night to leave the room and go to their son's room to simply hold him and relax. If he happens to fall asleep in there, she doesn't mind. She even suggests they have a bassinet within their own room just in case.
"You fall asleep easier when you're with him," she tells him one night. "And if holding him helps, then please don't stop on my account."
Right now, he sits with her under a tree near the pond in the garden. She's pressed against his side, A-Ling in her arms, and speaks softly to their precious child.
"You're going to be sweet little boy, aren't you?"
But despite her words, their son's gaze does not settle on her but on the empty space next to her. Something has caught his eye since they've been outside. He still smiles, small hands waving around in the air, but he doesn't look their way unless either of them put themselves in his direct line of sight.
"What has you so curious today, A-Ling?" Jiang Yanli turns to glance next to her and sees nothing, not even a leaf or bird.
"Mother considers us lucky," Zixuan states quietly. "For him to sleep so peacefully, with little effort, is a blessing."
"...he'll...when he's older..."
"What did you say, dear?" She asks. "I wasn't paying attention."
Blinking, Zixuan pushes a stray hair behind her ears. "I was speaking about a comment my mother made about A-Ling."
"And after that?"
He looks confused. "I said nothing after."
It must've been the wind.
"What - " Her husband stops talking just as he starts, shaking his head.
"Darling?" She sees a flush develop on his cheeks and giggles into the sleeve of her golden robe and then become concerned when he looks as if he contemplating his next choice of words carefully.
"Should," he speaks slowly, "we hold some sort of funeral for Wei Wuxian?"
Jiang Yanli remains silent for a moment, merely rocking their son while he holds a length of her hair in his tiny hand. "I...am unsure. A-Xian's body cannot be moved from that room. The room is not very big." She feels the sting of tears and inhales shakingly. "Who would a-attend?" Jiang Yanli pulls one hand away from her son to wipe at her eyes. "Aside from us and A-Cheng, who else would attend with no ill will? No others would be permitted," and she doesn't need to clarify.
Who would speak kind words about her dear brother?
Who remembers him from the days before the Wen Sect descended like an unholy plague?
Who, besides her immediate family?
I remember his smile, she thinks, before Yunmeng burned, before mother...and father...
"I didn't mean to make you cry, A-Li." Zixuan wraps his arms around her and their son, holding them securely. A-Ling doesn't cry from the movement or closeness. "It wasn't my intention."
Lan XiChen watches over his brother as he sweats through another fever, another infection, and another night of nothing but pain. He sleeps on his stomach, eyes shut tightly and fingers clenching white bedsheets with such intensity that he is sure his younger brother will rip them soon enough. Every now and then, he can here Wangji mumble the name of the young man who fell from grace, whom he risked his life to protect. And Lan XiChen doesn't know what to say to that.
He doesn't want his brother to suffer because of his unrequited feelings and the actions of another. But Wangji has made it clear, with his act of defiance, where he stands in this new war of what is righteous and what is evil. However, despite all that has happened and all that has been laid to ruin, he cannot find it in his heart to label Wei Wuxian as 'evil.' Regardless of the younger man's path of cultivation, he has witnessed the love Wei Wuxian holds for his family - even when it was announced that he is no longer a part of the Jiang Sect.
Witnessing the clenched fists and harsh stares of Jiang Cheng when someone speaks poorly of Wei Wuxian is all the evidence needed for Lan XiChen to know that he aches for the man he calls brother to return home.
He is conflicted, still, because his own brother lies before him in a state of utter devastation.
"I don't believe he is right or wrong," he recalls his youngest sworn brother stating weeks earlier. "From what I know, his cultivation has always been high. To see it convert to something such as what he does now begs the question of 'why.' Why does Wei Wuxian cultivate the demonic path, knowing that it will harm him and tarnish his reputation? Does your brother know? He defends him while the rest of the world wants him destroyed."
Can love make you so blind to the actions of he who claims your heart?
There is a gentle knock that disturbs his thoughts.
"Forgive my intrusion, Sect Leader, but a letter has arrived for you." The young disciple hands him the letter, hesitating to salute upon glancing at the only bed in the room, and leaves once dismissed with a nod.
The letter is from Lanling, the waxed seal of the white peony proving thus, and written in the elegant style of Jin Guangshan. As Lan XiChen reads the letter, his hands start to tremble but he wills himself to not rip the letter as it wrinkles within his tight grip. And then, like a string cut, the letter slips from his hands and drifts to the floor slowly. He watches it as it goes down and stares, for only a moment, as it rests on the floor.
All at once, he hunches over and covers his face in despair.
Oh, Wangji. Will I ever be able to spare you from the world's cruelty?
Rejoice, Sect Leader Lan, for Wei Wuxian is dead!
He sobs into his hands.
Jin Zixuan chases after the sound, desperate.
There, he thinks, and races around a corner.
Nothing can be seen.
He takes one shaky step back, and then another, and again, until his back hits the wall and he slides down like an unstoppable waterfall. It's pitch black outside, the moon covered by dark clouds, and utterly silent except for - ♫. Jin Zixuan flinches when that sound drifts through the halls once again. First, closer, and then further away in the next second. It pushes and pulls at him, not physically but something else entirely.
It isn't sinister, either, but not peaceful.
He can't describe it, but he hears the melody often when he is alone. And, sometimes, when he is with his son It's gentle, then rapid, then calm, then fire, and so on. As if the player cannot make up their mind on what sort of melody they want to produce. It's a melody he thinks he's heard before. But he can't place it. It's not like what Wei - not like what he plays. All of his pieces, when controlling corpses, have a harsh flow. What other choice did he have if he is using resentful energy to control the masses?
But only he hears this melody.
Not his wife nor mother.
No servant or disciple.
No one but him!
Why me? He looks at his hands. Why me?
Guilt eats away at him when he looks up to see the worried expression on his beautiful wife's face. Yanli is in her nightwear, hair down and over her shoulder in a loose ponytail, with a blanket over her shoulders. As he moves to get up, she takes a seat next to him on the white stone floor. He tries to protest against her draping the blanket over both of them - the floor is cold during the night - but ultimately gives up when she curls into his side.
"What can I do to ease your mind?"
He feels ashamed. He should be the one to do the comforting, not be comforted himself. "I...don't know what's happening. No one else," Jin Zixuan slumps against her, just a bit, "can hear the music."
"It torments you," she whispers.
"It's not malicious," he responds just as softly. "It's just...uncomfortable."
"We will have to find the source," Yanli speaks gently, her forehead pressing into his shoulder. "Seeing you like this, it worries me greatly. I pray you will have peaceful nights return to you."
He presses his lips to her forehead, to her cheek, to her nose, and finally, her lips.
They're cold, but soft, and she relaxes into it, into him.
Face heating up, he speaks the words written in the stars: "Truly, I am blessed to have you, A-Li."
Tiny, fists wave at him.
A toothless smile is directed at him, only for him.
He will cherish like every other one gifted to him.
The room is dark, no light from the moon, as A-Ling is the only light needed. Ten perfect fingers. Ten perfect toes. Eyes like his mother. Hair like his father. Gold draped around the around and his bassinet, toys made of the finest materials and clothes sewn of the highest quality - for such a young child, he is treated like a little king. Bright, beautiful eyes stare up at him. It's as if he's waiting for what is owed him.
Laughter follows, drifting about with ease.
The sound of a flute carries throughout the room.
A-Ling falls asleep in a matter of minutes.
Wen Qing writes by candlelight deep into the evening, fingers aching due to her tight grip and the fast pace she has set herself. Somewhere outside Lotus Pier, probably in the nearby forest, is her brother - watching and waiting. If not for herself and the rest of their remaining family, then for the unrealistic return of Wei Wuxian. It is still hard for her to grasp at the idea of such a powerful man falling to his demise by his own free will.
Or, perhaps, not difficult at all to grasp.
After all, Wei Wuxian made the choice to disregard his own glowing reputation and cut his connections to his sect in order to help her find her brother - already dead then - and free the rest of the surviving Wens and take them to the only place they could find some semblance of peace. He is, by all intents and purposes, a good man with grey morals. To lose him...is hard.
He was a friend, and their savior.
And now Jiang Cheng has taken on that role - to honor that man he calls "brother."
"Where is Wei Wuxian?" She asked when the sect leader appeared just outside the small residence the Wens had built from scratch, had put their remaining pride into. "Where is he?" But all she receives is a tight expression and Jiang Cheng's gaze falling to the ground, unanswering. She felt her heart stop for a moment, unthinking. It's worse when she hears A-Yuan calling out to her. "What happens to us now?"
They could have - should have - died that night. There aren't many of them left. They would have been easy pickings.
"I promised him," is what she is told. Jiang Cheng tried to maintain his pride that night but failed. A few tears had escaped. He merely tells her to gather the rest of her people and pack only what is necessary. "You're coming to Lotus Pier. You'll...be safe. I'll keep you safe. My disciples won't speak a word. They are loyal to me. There will be no Jin nor Nie or Lan demanding your head."
Since their stay, everything has been much more pleasant. Their threadbare robes have been replaced with high quality, soft robes. They no longer split small meals among them. They don't have to risk drinking contaminated water and medical supplies are always at her fingertips. The nights are warm, there's enough space for them to spread out in the living area given to them, and they can once again relax.
Or try to.
One of the biggest surprises come from A-Yuan's attachment to Jiang Cheng. The little boy is unapologetic with his clinginess. He follows after the Jiang sect leader without care. He's demanding and he knows it. This, she is sure of, comes from his desire to be around Wei Wuxian. That man often talked about Lotus Pier, of the Jiang family with a wistfulness.
She looks down at her notes, a string of thoughts regarding qi deviation. She had just started wondering about reversing such a problem after remembering a conversation she once had with Wei Wuxian. They had been sitting in his cave, a flat stone between them used as a table, discussing possible uses of resentful energy after she discovered that he was able to heal small wounds on himself. It's both amazing and concerning.
"Perhaps," Wei Wuxian started with a small smile, "it is possible. I can learn to cultivate a healer's path. I have managed to restore life within some of the surrounding trees."
"It's a ridiculous concept," she had told him then. "The high chance of leaving behind a mark of resentful energy could have long-term effects."
Wei Wuxian's smile only grew. "But, I am quite lucky to have the best healer alive to teach me - should it be possible. Besides," he continued, "I do love experimenting. And," his gaze grew distant, "achieving the impossible."
You were close to something, Wen Qing thinks as she glances at the box in the corner of her room where all hand-written notes of Wei Wuxian are stored under several seals created by the Jiang Cheng - to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands.
Lan XiChen has never seen his little brother cry.
Not when their mother died - kneeling in the snow waiting for her to appear because he had not understood death at the time. Not when their father died attempting to save Cloud Recesses from burning - their relationship with their father has always been strained, but he was still their father and he is still missed dearly. No, he has never seen his brother cry -
- until now.
Wangji doesn't sob loudly nor make little hiccups sounds when taking in slow breaths. He doesn't hunch over and cover his face in despair. No, he openly cries before him. Tears stream from his eyes non-stop, dripping from his chin to hit the soft white sheets covering his lower half. He doesn't look Lan XiChen in the eyes as he unleashes his sorrow silently.
Lan XiChen wants to gather his brother in his arms and hold him, reassure him that everything will be fine. It won't be. He has long since resigned to watching Wangji suffer for his love of Wei Wuxian, not by his own choice but by the request of his little brother to not interfere. Falling in love at the tender age of 15 isn't unheard of, but even he understands that Lans' only love once.
Somehow, someway, Wei Wuxian has taken his brother's heart prisoner.
Propped up against pillows, he knows his little brother's grief outweighs his physical pain. The scars on his heart heavier than the ones running crisscross on his back. Had he not try to leave after learning of their elders' agreeing to aid Jin Guangshan in leading a strike against Wei Wuxian - something Lan XiChen was vocally against for the sake of his brother - then he would have avoided this. But even he, nor their uncle, could convince him otherwise.
It's been months since he's seen his brother fully awake and aware of his surroundings.
It made telling him what happened to Wei Wuxian even harder.
Remembering what led up to this only made the situation worse.
"Do not attempt to inform Wei Wuxian," Elder Ann had announced from where she and 32 other elders stood in the way of Cloud Recesses' only entrance and exit. "He only brings death and destruction to all that go near him."
"Does not," Wangji had responded defiantly. There was a fire in his eyes as the elders tightened their group to make it more difficult for him to leave.
"He has bewitched you, Wangji," Elder Tang snaps. He seemed the most upset by the act of defiance. "He is not worth any punishment you'll receive in an attempt to aid him." Lan XiChen remembers the terrible sneer up Elder Tang's face. "Your loyalty is to Gusu Lan, Wangji. Not to some boy who cares not for those affected by his actions."
Still, Wangji tried to leave. Lan XiChen recalls pleading for his brother to stop trying to leave Cloud Recesses, that Wei Wuxian is resourceful and will survive if he so desires, but his pleads fall to deaf ears. When the Lan elders attempt to confine Wangji with force, he uses guqin against them and severely injures all 33. He had never seen Wangji regard their elders with such anger and distaste before.
Nor could he stop him from leaving.
He made it to the Burial Mounds but Wei Wuxian wasn't there, only an elderly Wen informing him of Wei Wuxian's departure for Koi Tower. Wangji was leaving the Burial Mounds to go after Wei Wuxian when he was confronted by Lan XiChen and their enraged uncle. He didn't flinch despite the harsh words falling from their uncle's lips. He did protest when senior Lan disciplines tried to claim his sword and guqin but was ultimately apprehended and bound by talisman created by their uncle, his cold silence as he was brought back to Cloud Recesses did not mask the heartbreak in his eyes - knowing full-well that Wei Wuxian is out of his reach once again.
His resentment showed on his face when they entered Cloud Recesses.
He wouldn't even speak to Lan XiChen nor glance at their uncle as the older man spoke.
He didn't blink when he was informed of his punishment nor did he acknowledge how Lan Xichen, and even their uncle, protested such a deadly punishment. Lan XiChen had openly cried as his brother was whipped while at the same time, ashamedly, praising his brother's silent strength as he did not flinch nor look away from their uncle who stands to the side, lips tights but eyes pained. His defiance only served to anger the elder in charge of giving him his punishment.
However, Lan XiChen will never forget the sight of his brother kneeling, back torn to pieces, with blood straining his once pristine robes and the stone beneath him. No, he forced himself to remember the sight. His self-imposed punishment for not being able to protect his little brother.
But now, seeing Wangji cry like this, the tightness in his chest is worse than what he felt watching his little brother gracefully bare his punishment. If he could take away all of Wangji's pain, the physical and emotional, he would in a heartbeat. He loves his brother so dearly. His pain is Lan XiChen's pain. Oh, how he deeply regrets telling him so soon.
But what's done is done.
"Brother," Lan XiChen's inner turmoil ceases at the soft call, "what do I do now?" Wangji looks at him, appearing so young and lost. He looks to him for answers that Lan XiChen doesn't know he can provide. It's as if they are young again and he's being asked why their mother isn't living her cabin when it's time to visit her.
So, with a great desire to provide even the smallest bit of comfort, he replies: "Live for him, Wangji."
Wangji looks at his clenched fists.
"Brother - "
"And," he interrupts gently, "when you are better, play Inquiry." New strength appears in Wangji's eyes when he finishes speaking. It's so quick Lan XiChen feels a bit lightheaded.
Part of him feels as if he just made a huge mistake.
Jin Gua - No, Meng Yao remains silent as the taller man across from him, his eldest sworn brother, reprimands him for not eating much throughout his days since he has arrived in the Unclean Realm looking much like he did during the Sunshot Campaign, simple robes with half his hair up. "If you're going to stay here, you will not starve yourself!" Nie Mingjue's voice echoes around the room they are in, face twisted in anger.
"Yes, da-ge." He is wholly submissive before this man.
The very sight of him upon his arrival displeased Nie Mingjue, he knows, but the Sect Leader did not outright dismiss him. Rather, he ordered a few of his disciples to prepare a room near his own - to Meng Yao's concealed shock - and then brought him to a receiving room where he ordered him to eat whatever the servants brought them. The food was plentiful but it has always been hard for him to consume a lot, it has only gotten worse.
Being unable to eat even a quarter of what was brought to him only further displeased Nie Mingjue.
"I only wanted to apologize to da-ge," he states once asked why he came. "For being untrustworthy and for not trusting when I should have." He had paused then, when Nie Mingjue's eyes narrow, and shrinks into himself a bit. "I have done something awful, in an attempt to gain recognition from my father, but he only played me like a fool." It is then, within that firelit room, where anxiety claims his heart, that he informs his eldest sworn brother of his involvement in Wei Wuxian's death.
It spills out like an unstoppable waterfall. He blinks back tears, but the sting remains. He confesses that he doesn't know how to approach Lan XiChen about this. Their cherished sworn brother undoubtedly knows of his brother's affections for Wei Wuxian and the thought of the demonic cultivator dying before such affections are acknowledged only makes him feel ill.
"Why do you come to me with this knowing how I will respond?" Nie Mingjue had gone through several severe expressions before settling on neutral. It was nerve-wracking to see him so calm despite hearing his confessed sins.
"Because da-ge will tell me what I need to hear, not what I want to hear."
And that had been enough for Nie Mingjue it seemed. His eldest sworn brother remained silent for the rest of the meal before sending him to the room provided for him. Every day since then, Meng Yao remains to himself. He does see Huaisang from time to time, but the younger boy doesn't approach him. His eyes are distant when he's near, his fan covers his face as he walks by. His brother must have informed him.
Meng Yao cannot blame him for this cold treatment.
Wei Wuxian was his friend, a close friend, and he recalls a time when Nie Mingjue stated that Huaisang has unwavering loyalty to Wei Wuxian regardless of his ruined reputation.
He sticks to the library, mostly, because it's out of the way. If he's not there, he often finds himself wandering the courtyard late at night. These quiet moments are either pleasant or rotten. He is left to his own thoughts and they can take unfortunate turns. Because he tends to avoid even the Qinghe disciples, he often avoids eating.
That is Nie Mingjue's problem tonight for he had confronted Meng Yao on his way to his room.
"Do you think dying of starvation will rid you of your sins?!" Nie Mingjue asks through clenched teeth. "Answer me!"
"No, da-ge. I merely do not have much of an appetite these days."
"Don't lie to me!"
That makes his head snap up. He isn't lying. "I am telling the truth! It's hard for me to eat, da-ge. It's been difficult for me to eat for months!" Meng Yao regrets raising his voice instantly when he sees the older man's hands form fists.
"Because of your guilt," Nie Mingjue snarls. He's a loaming force over him. "You can't expect me to believe you're trying to atone for your actions when you refuse to eat, which only makes things worse for you! That's not atoning!"
Meng Yao swallows, and hates - hates, hates, hates - how his eyes start to water. "Then what should I do?!" He gets right up in his face. "Wha - " his voice cracks, " - should I do?! Please, tell me. I will do it. Do I not deserve to suffer, da-ge?!" His voice takes on a desperate tone and then he's suddenly back away, hands coming up to wipe away a few fallen tears. "What can I do?" This comes out more of a whisper than a question directed at the man in front of him.
"You can start by eating with me every day, so that you do not starve yourself out of guilt," Nie Mingjue begins, voice sharp (leaving no room for argument, not that Meng Yao would engage at this point), "and in a few weeks, we will travel to Yunmeng where you will confess your involvement with Wei Wuxian's death to Jiang Cheng. Of all people, he should be made aware of this and be aware of whose orders you were acting on."
Meng Yao inhales sharply, but knew, deep within his own heart, that he wouldn't be able to avoid that confrontation.
He likely won't leave alive.
Nie Mingjue nods, the tension finally leaving his form. "Rest tonight. I expect to see you at breakfast in the morning." He leaves without an answer.
Once he is alone, Meng Yao covers his face and simply shakes.
He remains standing for several minutes, alone and uncertain of what the future holds.
-At this point, Wei Wuxian has been dead for just over 3 months.
-Lan Wangji learned of the ambush Jin and Lan set up for Wei Wuxian while he traveled along Qiongqi Path, attacked Lan elders when they tried to force him to remain in Cloud Recesses, and failed to reach Wei Wuxian in time.
-He has since been in and out of consciousness since his punishment up until now.
Watching yet another young woman drape herself over his father's lap, Jin Zixuan wills himself to bite his tongue about the indecency once again. On his right, silent and cold, is his mother. To his left, his distant but polite wife, and before them a table filled to the brim with food. A-Ling is sleeping safely in his room (and he would much rather be there than here). A celebration had been called forth when it was announced that Jin Zixun's curse of 'Hundred Holes' had been lifted.
His cousin still bares the impact for having been under the curse so long but seeing him smile genuinely gives Jin Zixuan a bit of peace. Surely, since Wei Wuxian has been dead for months now, there will be no ill will towards him anymore - if only regarding that. If the demonic cultivator had placed the curse on Jin Zixun, it would have immediately lifted the moment after he drew his last breath.
Which begs the question of "who."
Jin Zixuan has a few suspects. His cousin never really left his boisterous self behind in his youth. He is loud because he wants to be heard. He's in charge of discipline because he wants to be in charge of discipline. He will soon have a wife because he wants to have a wife. And Jin Guangshan indulges him. Of course, since Jin Zixun is his favorite, obedient nephew.
He first thought was of his half-brother. Whether he goes by Jin Guangyao or Meng Yao doesn't matter, but he knows his half-brother to be clever, and spiteful when it suits his agenda. He also knows that his half-brother could place a curse on someone and leave, no longer a suspect because he isn't a face seen in a long while nor his name spoken unless their father falls to another drunk rant.
It would have been clever given all the attention focused on Wei Wuxian at the time. But he's never experienced any ill-will between his half-brother and their cousin. In fact, he recalls times with Jin Zixun sought out Jin Guangyao's mind with regards to discipline methods that wouldn't leave lasting damage on the body and remembers the easy praise that would fall from his half-brother's lips when Jin Zixun performs beyond mediocre cultivation.
The next person he suspected was Su She.
Su She hadn't always been successful in hiding his disdain for Jin Zixun. Sometimes, when he thinks no one is watching, he glares openly at his cousin. There's enough hatred, enough resentment, to last the boy a lifetime. It is possible that the boy is acting on orders of Jin Guangyao, but his gut tells him otherwise. Jin Guangyao confessed to his involvement in Wei Wuxian's death to appease their father. Did he act through Su She? Are both Su She and Jin Zixun pawns in this game of 'recognition?'
Jin Zixuan blinks, leaving his theories to rest for now, and turns to his wife. Yanli is gazing up at him, eyes shadowed with distaste, as she places a hand on his thigh just beneath the table. He sees her glance between his father and mother, unhappy with the blatant disrespect to her mother-in-law. Yanli has developed a close relationship with his mother, the older woman one of the few connections she has to her own dearly departed mother.
"Do you wish to retire for the night?" He asks quietly.
Jin Zixun is laughing loudly on the other side of the room, surrounded by senior disciples and pretty women. Even though his skin is covered from the neck down, and the heat in the room is reaching an almost unbearable height, he is in good spirits. Jin Zixuan doubts he will take offense if he and his wife leave before the party is over.
"Have they figured it out?" One drunk disciple asks loudly, attracting all eyes. "Who did it?"
"Was it really Wei Wuxian?" Another drunk disciple follows up.
Feeling his wife tense at his side, Jin Zixuan moves to soothe what will definitely turn into a disastrous conversation.
He is just opening his mouth to respond - "Of course."
Jin Zixuan very much desires to throttle his father but is surprised to see an uneasy look appear on Jin Zixun's face.
"Oh?" One maiden at his father's side asks, her breasts pressing tightly against his arm. "Is it true?" He pulls her closer, clearly relishing in her giggles.
"Wei Wuxian was a master inventor," Jin Guangshan insists. "His dive into demonic arts would have surely led him to prolong any curse he set after death."
Abruptly, Yanli gets to her feet. Her sudden movement causes the room to fall to silence. "Please do not make assumptions about my dead brother, Sect Leader Jin. A-Xian is many things, good and complicated, but he would not continue the suffering of others out of his own free will." She salutes her father-in-law, who is openly gaping at her along with the women at his side, and then salutes Jin Zixun. "Please rest well tonight, Jin Zixun. I am glad you are well."
Jin Zixun stutters out a reply at best.
He watches his wife exit the room, head held high, and feels nothing but pride.
As conversation slowly goes back to normal, he hears his father say: "She's still sensitive to Wei Wuxian's death. Forgive her, dears."
Without hesitating, Jin Zixuan turns to his mother. "I am retiring for the evening. I wish you a good night."
"I am glad you turned out nothing like your father," is her only verbal reply.
She reaches out to stroke his cheek gently and then departs herself without sparing a glance at her husband.
Jin Zixuan moves to his cousin, who is still surrounded by disciples and entertainment girls, and claps him on the shoulder. "I'm glad you live to see another day, cousin."
Jin Zixun smiles but it doesn't reach his eyes. "So am I, cousin."
Bidding him a 'goodnight,' Jin Zixuan leaves the room to seek out his wife.
She doesn't know how long she's been in the room.
Jiang Yanli sniffles into the sleeve of her robe. She is standing before the encased body of her younger brother and feels deep sorrow
and anger. She knew, in the back of her head, that A-Xian would be mentioned during the feast. She thought she was prepared to listen to the disgusting words of surrounding Jin disciples and that of her father-in-law.
But she wasn't ready to hear those words.
She doesn't know if she'll ever be ready.
Stepping forward, she rests her hand upon the black diamond cover shielding her brother from the elements of time. She sees his distorted features and longs to stroke his cheek, to tell him he will always have a place in her life, to go home to Lotus Pier and thrive with their brother. She longs to have him hold A-Ling, to have him watch her son grow up to be a fine young man, to tell A-Xian to start a little family (to tease A-Cheng to start one of his own, too) of his own so there will be her own little nieces and nephews to spoil.
"A-Xian," shes whispers among the ill-lite room. "I miss you so much. Beyond words. A-Cheng misses you, too. He has a hard time expressing it but we wanted you to come home." Her eyes sting with tears she tries to hold back but fails to do.
"...please...d - "
She whirls around at the sound of a faint voice but quickly accepts that she is alone. The door is firmly shut. The room isn't cold, but the black diamond encasing her brother is freezing. Or so she has been told. Other cultivators have to wear gloves to touch it, but she does not. She only feels heat. The black diamond is rough to others but smooth to her.
It's said to be filled with resentful energy and dangerous to approach.
But Jiang Yanli feels safe. Secure. Even in death, she knows deep in her hear that A-Xian would never hurt her.
She sniffles once again, robe coming up to whip at her eyes. "A-Xian, I want you to come back."
Turning around, she sees her husband approach with their son in his hands. Little Jin Ling is wide awake but silent. He gazes around the room expectantly until his eyes fall on her and he starts to wiggle, making soft distressed noises. Jiang Yanli moves to take him, holding his closer until he settles in her arms. She then feels strong arms wrap around her, her husband holding both of them - an anchor to her drifting sorrows.
"I didn't find you in his room or ours." Jiang Yanli feels him press a kiss into her hair. "This...is the only other place I could think of."
"I'm sorry for how I acted," she apologizes. "I should have been more polite."
"I would never ask you to deny your feelings, A-Li, and certainly not before my...father. There is no excuse for how he spoke."
She feels a little bit better knowing that she won't be held accounted for being disrespectful to her father-in-law. She spoke her truth. And even if she were brought before the entire Jin Sect to apologize, she would refuse outright. Rather, others should bite their tongue knowing how close she was - is - to the "fearsome Yiling Patriarch."
She will not say that part out loud.
"I should still apologize to your cousin. And mother. Perhaps the other disciples. It was rude to draw attention to myself," she concedes.
"My mother has, and always will, find your strength admirable. As for Jin Zixun, he understands." There's a silent 'I think' following that response. He pulls back to look her in the eyes. "And I care not if any of those disciples were offended tonight."
Before Jiang Yanli can speak, A-Ling starts to wiggle in her arms. His wiggling increases as she moves away from her younger brother's encased body. Distress fills her when A-Ling opens his mouth and lets out a huge wail. Another follows, and another. He is soon hiccuping and wiggling fiercely, his tiny fists waving in the air.
"A-Ling," she says with worry. "What's wrong, little one?" But A-Ling isn't looking at her. His golden eyes look beyond her and her husband, to the only other being in the room, and releases another sob.
Suddenly, Jiang Yanli feels Zixuan becomes tense beside her.
Much like blowing out a candle, A-Ling's crying ceases. He lets out like hiccups, cheeks as red as the small vermillion mark on his forehead, and reaches with chubby hands to something beyond her and her husband.
A-Xian, she thinks immediately and turns towards her brother's body. A-Xian, are you here? A-Xian... Desperation seeps into her, filling every pore. She steps forward. Then again. And again. When she is right next to the black diamond encased body, A-Ling has settled quietly in her arms. So much so that he lets out a sleepy yawn and snuggles closer.
"Do you hear that?" There, too, is desperation in Zixuan's voice. "A-Li, please tell me you hear that." He releases a shaky breath.
"Was that...was that music, A-Xuan?" She is unsure of what she heard.
It sounded too garbled to be described as music.
Zixuan pulls her close, but his eyes remain on their son. "It's his flute, A-Li. I know it. I remember the sound. I'll never forget it."
Bowing her head to rest against his shoulder, Jiang Yanli begins to speak: "A-Xian, if you're hear...please let us know. Are you helping A-Ling sleep at night?" For long moments, there is nothing beyond the sound of three living people breathing in the room. Jiang Yanli sags against her husband, slow tears slipping down her face.
She feels foolish for being hopeful.
Even if A-Xian's spirit is nearby, she can't contact him. Her cultivation is subpar at best and she can only use simple talisman. She'd have no way to contact him, knows of no one who would be willing to attempt to contact him, and refuses to trust so easily. Rumors have already spread that cultivators have gathered at the Burial Mounds to try and summon his spirit only to trap him and then completely destroy his existence.
She won't play a part in completely ending her younger brother.
The notes of Inquiry drift gently throughout Cloud Recesses, unassuming to most but effectively haunting Lan XiChen to his core. There is regret to his haste to console his brother as he now sits within jingshi playing the song over and over again in hopes of contacting Wei Wuxian's spirit. Wangji unsuccessful attempts do not deter him.
His desire to make contact with his deceased love bleeds into his pain of knowing that he was unable to say 'goodbye' to Wei Wuxian in person.
"He will never know rest," Lan Qiren stands beside him, posture the most defeated Lan XiChen has ever seen.
Wangji has not engaged in any conversation, verbal or silent, with their uncle since his ability to think and speak coherently returned. Even when uncle comes with him to visit, Wangji doesn't acknowledge his presence. He only greets Lan XiChen and speaks no more until their uncle takes his leave to allow Wangji to speak comfortably.
"Uncle, he mourned mother for years. I don't believe he ever properly mourned father." He eyes his uncle's clenched fists but persists. "But...Young Master Wei is - was - different to him. More than I think you realize."
"Wei Wuxian was a bad influence. He had no respect for authority. He chose to walk the unrighteous path. He let resentment cloud his heart."
Lan XiChen closes his eyes when Inquiry fades only to begin again. There is some truth to that. He recalls how Wei Wuxian was during the Sunshot Campaign; almost like an attack dog under the orders of Jiang Cheng. Both consumed by revenge. Both quite willing to dirty their hands to make Wens suffer. Both ready to lead the next army.
And yet - "I cannot help but think we should have offered more patience - aid - when his resentment grew beyond claiming revenge for the Jiang Sect. He was not in his right mind. And it was war, uncle."
"He would not listen to reason," Lan Qiren immediately replies. "We cannot save everyone, XiChen."
Sighing, Lan XiChen finally opens his eyes and turns to his uncle. "Wangji saw something in Young Master Wei that was worth protecting, uncle. Somehow, someway, he believed Young Master Wei could come back from the demonic path. He never lost faith and I do not believe he ever will."
"And he suffers for it."
He suffers for a lost love, Lan XiChen wishes he could say as Inquiry ends for the umpteenth time.
Instead, he replies with: "And he will continue to suffer, uncle, because Wei Wuxian" - is someone he cherished beyond any sound reason - "is someone who became dear to him and he never had a chance to say 'goodbye.' Much like he didn't have the opportunity to say 'goodbye' to mother."
His uncle does not respond nor does Lan XiChen expect him to.
Inquiry begins once again.
Meng Yao remembers Yunmeng from his youth, all bright skies and relatively friendly people. He remembers walking alongside his mother as they ran errands for the headmistress of Lotus' Devotion. He remembers how much his mother was favored by high-level cultivators, how men would fight over her publically and how she would be forced into a room with two or three at a time.
He also remembers the cruel words other entertainment women have spoken when her back was turned. He remembers the tiny pearl his mother rubbed between two fingers when she's anxious; a trinket left behind by his deceitful father. And, of course, he remembers when she filled his head with the hope that his father would come for him one day. She had gifted him that pearl before she died.
These days he wishes he passed with her.
The world is often heartless - and he has done little to soothe its ragged edges. Meng Yao blames his mother for pushing him to say better, do better, be better. If she were just content with the 'decent' life they had, she wouldn't have died begging him to find his father and gain recognition. What he has done up until now...the blood on his hands now...the trust he was given so freely yet destroyed so quickly, it's a mess he will have to fix.
He started with Nie Mingjue who, until he entered the Jin Sect, had been as close to him as can be. Meng Yao tarnished their relationship in favor of the finest luxuries and the false friendliness Lanling Jin portrayed (excluding his half-brother and his wife), of parental love he was made to strive for at a young age, of claiming a birthright that involved stepping on others to reach the top.
Nie Mingjue's temper is widely known. He took a risk in seeking out the older man, his oldest sworn brother, and ask for forgiveness. It had not come easy. Even when he did attend meals were Nie Mingjue is present, they did not speak to each other much. It becomes even more difficult when Nie Huaisang sits with them. The youngest Nie brother is not as subtle as he thinks when it comes to his hatred.
His fan hides a lot but never his eyes.
The boy has also joined them in traveling to Lotus Pier. Meng Yao can think of a few unsavory reasons why, but Nie Huaisang claims it's to visit Jiang Cheng and reminisce about the "old days" of their boyhood. And maybe, to an extent, there is some truth to that. After all, plenty has mentioned in the past how Nie Huaisang, Jiang Cheng, and Wei Wuxian was close friends of sorts.
However, Meng Yao truly believes Nie Huaisang wants a front-row seat to the spectacle Jiang Cheng will make out of him once he reveals the truth - and his involvement - of Wei Wuxian's death. Nie Huaisang is sneaky in his own right, clever in ways that his older brother is unaware of, and as sadistic as Meng Yao has been in the past when he served as a spy for the leaders of the Sunshot Campaign.
No doubt he will enjoy the severe words, threats, and possible whipping Jiang Cheng will unleash on to the man who had a downfall in his brothers
If I live beyond today, I hope to enjoy the taste of fresh lotus seeds.
When a disciple of Qinghe Nie arrived three days prior to inform him of a visit from the Nie sect leader, Jiang Cheng panicked. If the man - whose hatred for the Wens outweighed his own months previously - caught wind of the Wen remnants in Lotus Pier, would he demand their heads? Would he bring an army to take them by force?
Lotus Pier isn't fully rebuilt yet.
And if it's not about the Wens, then what else could bring the older man to Lotus Pier? There is no particular closeness between himself and any of the other sects, save for his friendship with Nie Huaisang (though strained in these past few years from lack of communication, among other things) and the fact that he is Jin Zixuan's brother-in-law (having no relationship with his other in-laws in Lanling Jin). He respects the man and leadership, but it ends there.
The messenger spoke with urgency and the letter, although written formally, had a tone of regret.
He informed Wen Qing of the visit and, more or less, ordered her to keep her family to their secluded rooms at the edge of Lotus Pier and to keep an eye on Wen Yuan. Although their sun robes have been burned to ash, no doubt Nie Mingjue would recognize Wen Qing from the many battlefields he had been on. She is a renowned healer. Skilled in ways others are not. Bold. Sharp-tongued. Her face easy to spot in a crowd.
Still, he has things taken care of.
Despite his mixed feelings, he won't allow harm to come to the Wen remnants.
He made a promise - "Sect Leader," a junior disciple races into the main room where he sits upon his lotus-shaped throne. "Sect Leader Nie has arrived with his party."
Jiang Cheng closes his eyes, nods, and then opens his eyes to look at his disciple. "Bring them here. After that, ensure that the east wing is ready to receive them for the week." The disciple salutes but doesn't leave just yet. "Do not allow them near the north wing." He says this in his 'no-nonsense' tone. "Am I understood?"
The junior disciple salutes again. "Yes, Sect Leader."
He waits, no longer than a full minute, before Nie Mingjue is standing in front of him as tall and massive as he has always been. But what quickly takes Jiang Cheng's attention away is seeing Jin Guangyao standing behind him, uncomfortable but determined, and Nie Huaisang, who stands behind Jin Guangyao as if entrapping the shorter man. There's a gleam to his friend's eyes. He'd go as far as to say it is malicious.
"Sect Leader Nie, I trust your journey was pleasant and that my disciples treated you well upon your arrival?"
Nie Mingjue nods. "Yes." His hulking form is tense. "But I assure you, this is no ordinary visit."
"Of course not," Jiang Cheng replies. "You have little to do with me unless necessary." He sees the other sect leader's lips twitch in amusement. "Your brother, on the other hand, is someone I would have expected a visit from sooner, but that's neither here nor there."
Nie Huaisang places his folded fan against his chin. "I would have visited sooner, but I didn't want to distract you from your duties nor...speak on things you'd otherwise leave in the past."
Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow at him before turning to the disciples who brought the Nie party before him. "Bring us tea."
"Sect Leader Jiang, as I've said, we are not here on a friendly visit. And," he glances at his own party and the few Jiang disciples and servants within the room, "this discussion should only be heard by myself, Sect Leader Jiang, Jin - Meng Yao, and my brother. Allow my party to rest until this evening and," he again glances at Jiang Cheng's people and does not finish his statement.
Tea is brought a moment later.
"Leave us," Jiang Cheng orders those who serve under him.
Nie Mingjue barks out his own order. When the room is empty, save for the four of them, Jiang Cheng is quick to send silencing talisman to each wall to ensure no one listens in. "Sect Leader Nie, I must confess that you have brought me great concern with your letter. And to request that only the four of us be present for whatever you intend to tell me only greatens that concern."
"It is not I who needs to speak with you directly," Nie Mingjue responds.
Jiang Cheng watches him turn his gaze to Jin Guangyao, the man's eyes firmly fixated to the floor. He has been silent since entering the room. Jiang Cheng is still surprised that the smaller man is traveling with the Qinghe Nie party. There are no golden robes on him and no vermillion mark to indicate high status. He's dressed similarly to the other Nie disciples but doesn't carry the same pride.
"Well, Jin Guangyao, if you have something you must say to me, then speak."
"I request that Sect Leader Jiang call me 'Meng Yao.' I no longer affiliate with the Lanling Jin Sect."
"Why?" He cannot help but ask.
Jin - Meng Yao bites his bottom lip. He's nervous, Jiang Cheng thinks.
"My departure from the Jin family relates to why we are here today."
Jiang Cheng waits for him to continue, but it seems the man is having trouble choosing his words.
"Speak," Nie Mingjue all but barks at Meng Yao. "This trip will not be wasted."
This only serves to increase the growing discomfort in his chest.
"Allow me to help," but there is no kindness in Nie Huaisang's voice as he stares at Meng Yao (of all surprises, that one sticks out the most to Jiang Cheng). "This meeting is to discuss Wei-xiong."
An icy shiver runs up Jiang Cheng's spine. "Wei Wuxian has been dead for several months. What can you possibly have to say about that?" It's as if someone is picking at a fresh scab.
"Yes," Nie Huaisang begins, "what can you possibly have to say about that, Meng-gongzi?"
"A-Sang." Nie Mingjue's tone stops his brother from carrying on. Even then, Jiang Cheng can see the gleam in his friend's eyes brighten.
As far as Jiang Cheng is aware, the friendship between Nie Huaisang and Wei Wuxian wasn't close nor loose. There was a good balance deriving from mutuals complaints about work and study at Cloud Recesses, the drinking the three of them partook in late at night, and the teasing about training the following morning. But after Wei Wuxian was kicked out of Cloud Recesses, Jiang Cheng assumed their friendship drifted to an end. That doesn't seem to be the case.
Then again, Nie Huaisang has expressed interest in some of Wei Wuxian's ideas in the past.
"Wei Wuxian's death was not the result of lost control, Sect Leader Jiang." Meng Yao spoke quietly, but in a room so still, his voice echoes effortlessly off the walls and the words spearhead into Jiang Cheng's mind.
He reflexively twists Zidian while maintaining eye contact with Meng Yao. "Wei Wuxian experimented with resentful energy without a care for his own wellbeing." The words stab at his own heart. "It makes sense that something would backfire on him." He is rationalizing it for himself rather than the other men in the room.
He is often careless. He places himself in danger a lot. He dives headfirst without thinking about what lurks underneath the surface. Jiang Cheng's thoughts race. No, he thinks, no no no. Resentful energy is dangerous. I told him that. Zidian crackles with purple lightning, drawing him back to the present. Meng Yao looks at him with sympathy -
- and regret.
"If he didn't die from backfire, then what?" But Jiang Cheng has an idea of what will be told to him before the other man even opens his mouth to respond.
"Wei Wuxian was set up," Meng Yao answers. "300 Jin disciples were sent to confront him on Qiongqi Path as he traveled to Koi Tower to celebrate Jin Ling's first month. I was the catalyst for his death."
It happens in a haze, with rage and despair unleashing from his very being.
One moment, he's sitting on the lotus-shaped throne.
The next, the end of Zidian is wrapped around Meng Yao's neck and the smaller man is being dragged across the floor to where he is.
"Sect Leader Jiang," Nie Mingjue's booming voice cuts through the fog surrounding his mind but his grip is unrelenting.
Jiang Cheng looks down. Meng Yao is struggling to breathe, his small hands gripping futilely at Zidian. His fingertips are cracked and bleeding from the lightning acting on his rage, lasing out carelessly. A small - but truly sadistic - part of him wants to continue to watch Meng Yao struggle for his life. His lips are starting to turn white.
To enter Lotus Pier with this confession, he should expect no less than the treatment thrust upon him.
A hand grips his trembling wrist - he didn't even realize he was shaking - and he turns to see who is holding him. Nie Huaisang's eyes are remorseful but his hold is firm. Jiang Cheng has never seen his friend look like this before, his mind immediately pulling up those times in Cloud Recesses where Nie Huaisang whined about failing his exams or cried over a ruined fan he spent all morning painting.
"My feelings for Meng Yao mirror yours, Sect Leader Jiang, but I do believe you should let him finish speaking."
They stare at each other, assessing one another. In front of them, Meng Yao still whithers on the ground with Nie Mingjue by his side but untouching. It takes several minutes of simply matching Nie Huaisang's calm breathing before he retracts Zidian and pulls away from Nie Huaisang's now loose hold on his wrist. He pivots on his heel and returns to his seat.
"Speak," he commands. "And don't you dare leave anything out." Or else goes unsaid as Zidian crackles in an almost taunting way.
With shaky hands, Meng Yao pushes himself up but remains kneeling. He moves away from Nie Mingjue's hovering form. His eldest sworn brother remains near him but does not ask after his wellbeing (even if it seems like he wants to). Even with his throat burning, he swallows the bile that had been rising since Zidian left his neck. Meng Yao massages his throat while attempting to sort out the mess in his head.
"Sect L-Leader J-Jiang," he manages to push out from dry, cracked lips. He tastes metallic on the back of his tongue. "My father's s-sole desire, since the Sunsh-shot Campaign, is to make a claim on W-Wei Wuxian." Meng Yao breathes in and it hurts so much but he forces himself to continue (out of fear or determination, he doesn't know, it all blends together). "Not in the i-inappropriate sense," he's quick to amend when Jiang Cheng's face darkens with disgust. "His desire stems from having Wei Wuxian work for him or to kill him and claim his inventions."
"Why?" Jiang Cheng asks but Meng Yao suspects that the Jiang sect leader knows the answer to that question.
But he indulges the man who, moments ago, was intent on suffocating him to death. "Wei Wuxian's use of resentful energy was a driving force for the rebellion's victory during the Sunshot Campaign. His inventions - the talisman, in particular - could end large groups of Wens within a matter of minutes. It has also been said that he can remove golden cores at will*."
Jiang Cheng inhales sharply, his eyes boring into Meng Yao's. "Continue."
"My father may not outright say it, but he wishes to make Lanling Jin as great, or even greater, than what Qishan Wen was. And he wanted to start doing that by - "
" - obtaining Wei Wuxian as an asset."
Jiang Cheng appears calms but Meng Yao knows he is anything but.
He knows rage is boiling under the Jiang sect leader's skin.
He has felt that way before.
"And how did he expect to achieve this?" It is not Jiang Cheng who spoke but Nie Mingjue and Meng Yao finds some relief in that.
"By offering Wei Wuxian things he'd have a hard time refusing, da-ge."
"Like what?" Jiang Cheng snaps.
Meng Yao drops his gaze to the floor. "Supplies dropped off routinely at the foot of the Burials or a place where the Wen remnants can stay without being harmed." He hears Jiang Cheng curse softly. "The conditions of the Burial Mounds should have made the place uninhabitable but he's managed to do fine since claiming it as his." He opens his mouth to speak more but closes it, not knowing how Jiang Cheng will react to the other thing his father would have offered.
"Speak!" The irritation is back full-force.
"He would have offered him a place at Koi Tower so that he can be near your sister, knowing how much he adores her and how far he would go to keep her happy."
Jiang Cheng's face falls blank.
"If that is the case," Nie Huaisang starts, "then why did he send an army to Qiongqi Path to ambush him?"
A good question asked by a man who only wishes to see him suffer more.
"He learned quickly that Wei Wuxian wouldn't be easily swayed and he also believed that Wei Wuxian placed the curse of 'Hundred Holes' on Jin Zixun, given their...issues in the past. Jin Zixun is his favorite nephew."
"How do you come into play then?"
Meng Yao licks his lips. "I'm the one to inform my father of when Wei Wuxian planned to travel along Qiongqi Path and who would be with him. Zixuan disclosed such information with me, because he personally sent the invitation, and then I informed our father."
"Why?" Again, it is Nie Huaisang who speaks.
"For the same reason I did every tiresome or petty or atrocious action under his command," he responds. "Because he told me to. Because I wanted my father to give me the recognition I spent my entire life striving for."
"And in the end, you became his pawn."
Nie Mingjue moves closer to his side, silent and large, to hover. Whether it's protection or not, Meng Yao doesn't know. He moves to speak again but his eldest sworn brother beats him to it. "My belief is that Wei Wuxian indeed lost control of his demonic cultivation on Qiongqi Path. He, along with one fierce corpse, was ambushed by 300 Jin disciples. Jin disciples specialize in archery. That's 300 arrows ready to fire at him. He must have thought Jin Zixuan betrayed him. How he actually died is unknown to us but Jin Zixuan or any of the surviving Jin disciples would know. Perhaps, even, your sister."
"If Wei Wuxian lost control, betrayal would be a good enough reason. He hasn't been the same since..." Jiang Cheng trails off, pursing his lips into an angry frown. He shakes his head. "I saw his body before whatever happened to it, happened. There was a hole in his chest. From what? I don't know." Meng Yao sees him glance at their untouched tea, surely cold now, while tapping his fingers in a contemplative manner on his armrest.
"Sect Leader Ji - "
"What I do know is this," the Jiang sect leader interrupts with ease. "My sister and I wanted him to come home because he belongs here, safe and healthy and alive. He belongs in Lotus Pier now, but I can't even give him a proper burial because his body cannot be moved. You," he addresses Meng Yao in a soft, deadly voice, "played an active role in killing my brother regardless of your reasons. It is taking everything in me to not whip you until your blood stains my floor. Meng Yao, you may live to see another day but I will never forgive you."
Closing his eyes, Meng Yao bows his head.
"However," Jiang Cheng continues, his voice steady and Zidian once again crackling with life, "you will aid me in putting an end to your father."
His head snaps up. "Sect Leader Jiang?!"
"Do you know what you're saying?!" Nie Mingjue asks, disbelief as clear as the skies outside the room. "Plotting murder in front of witnesses?!"
Jiang Cheng merely raises an eyebrow as he stands up, arms crossing over his chest; a perfect picture of being unimpressed. "I distinctly remember Sect Leader Nie stating that the Wens should pay for our fallen with their own lives. A life for a life, no? So, it's only fair that I claim Jin Guangshan's life because Wei Wuxian lost his. Unless," his voice returns to that deadly softness, "you'd be willing to give up Meng Yao?"
"I," but Meng Yao doesn't even know how to formulate a reply to that.
Since entering the room, since filling that purple whip wrap around his neck, he didn't expect to leave the room alive.
His eldest sworn brother moves until he is right next to him, his answer clear.
"Sect Leader Nie, Nie Huaisang, make your choices where you stand. Either help me or do not get in my way."
"Sect Leader Jiang, please rationalize this." Meng Yao sees Nie Huaisang move to once again grab the Jiang sect leader's wrist, this time more gently. "You're openly discussing murdering a sect leader."
Jiang Cheng looks at Nie Huaisang, but his mind is obviously made up. "Jin Guangshan wants to replace Wen Ruohan, Nie Huaisang. He has the wealth to do so. Are you going to stand by and let it happen?"
Something breaks across Nie Huaisang's face; sorrow and shame. Of course, Nie Huaisang did not participate in the Sunshot Campaign due to his cultivation never reaching the level of his brother's nor any level that would have been useful. He certainly felt guilt when his brother left with the other sect leaders to lead the rebellion with all the Nie disciples while he remained safe and secure in the Unclean Realm.
"If we do this," Nie Mingjue begins, "and we're discovered - "
"I will take the blame and the shame," Jiang Cheng states immediately. Meng Yao watches as the Jiang sect leader shakes himself free from Nie Huaisang to move towards the nearest window. "For now, enjoy the luxuries Lotus Pier can provide." It's a dismissal if he's ever heard one.
His eldest sworn brother isn't happy but salutes respectfully. "Let's continue this later." He nods once at Meng Yao before heading out.
"I do hope we can catch up, Sect Leader Jiang." Nie Huaisang also leaves without sparing Meng Yao a glance.
Meng Yao raises his arms to salute when Jiang Cheng's voice has him freeze in place.
"Does my sister know?"
"Yes, Sect Leader Jiang. She and my half-brother were the first to know."
He sees Jiang Cheng tense but the man does not turn to face him. "Be grateful that my sister takes after our father, Meng Yao. Now, get out."
Meng Yao salutes properly this time and leaves.
"Tell me why you decided to leave the Jin sect?" Jiang Cheng asks later that evening. "You had luxury upon luxury at your feet. What would compel you to confess to my sister and her husband, to Sect Leader Nie, and then myself? You must have had some idea of how we would respond."
Meng Yao cannot decipher his tone, but his hand raises to touch his battered neck. Sect Leader Jiang’s eyes follow the motion, but his face remains blank. He would go as for as to claim the sect leader bored with him. Or even unimpressed.
He doesn’t expect Jiang Cheng to spare him anything but hatred.
Dinner had been served a while ago but most of the food, unfortunately, remained untouched. The tea has long since gone cold with no one to help themselves within the hour it had been served. The tension in the room increases when Meng Yao bows his head, visible fingers trembling as the shorter man clutches the fabric of his robes.
"Self-preservation, Sect Leader Jiang. And guilt. Both reasons are equal."
Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes at him, fingertips drumming against the table between them. "Well, at least you're honest with me."
"I have no reason to lie," Meng Yao replies. "I've come this far, haven't I?" Maybe he spoke out of turn with his follow up statement as Jiang sect leader's hands, entwined together with elbows resting on the table between them, shake with tension.
Sweat forms along his brow.
"Your own guilt is eating you alive? Good. You have no pity from me." Meng Yao manages to not flinch. "You said your father intended to sway Wei Wuxian to his favor but ultimately choose to kill him in hopes of helping Jin Zixun. When Wei Wuxian's...body was brought to Koi Tower, what did your father do? I'm sure he had several disciples ready to experiment on his body."
His words could be considered outlandish to the average man but to the men in the room, they are not to be taken lightly.
"He could not find the time to be alone with Wei Wuxian's body, Sect Leader Jiang." Meng Yao states this slowly, less concerned with keeping the man calm and more concerned about reassuring his own beliefs of the situation. "Madam Jiang would not allow anyone near his body and you arrived shortly after he was brought to Koi Tower and, upon your departure, his body was encased in what I believe to be a last-ditch effort to ensure no one can tamper with his physical being."
Jiang Cheng's eyes flicker from his face, to his eldest sworn brother, and then back to him. "And his spiritual presence? Do you believe Jin Guangshan is attempting to contact Wei Wuxian’s spirit?"
"I cannot say. As far as I'm aware, no one has been able to make contant with Wei Wuxian's spirit."
Though, his spirit may have already been summoned and trapped.
"We will be traveling to Cloud Recesses," Nie Mingjue states. His eldest sworn brother has already mentioned wanting to see Lan XiChen in person since the news broke out. "I will speak to Lan XiChen about it. His brother may be able to do what other's cannot."
"See to it that I am made aware of your findings," Sect Leader Jiang responds.
Meng Yao hears Nie Huaisang open his fan. He resists the urge to jam his fingers into his ears to avoid hearing the younger man speak. Every word spoken to him is laced with poison. "I've always wondered what Sect Leader Jin's obsession with Wei Wuxian stemmed from. What exactly would he have extracted from Wei-xiong’s body? Frankly, with his fearmongering, I'm surprised he is not sending groups of disciples to every town in hopes of finding the Wen remnants. Without Wei Wuxian's protection, they're easy targets for the cultivation world."
Despite the hostility between himself and Nie Huaisang, he does bring up a good point.
“Whose to say he isn’t doing it discreetly?” Turning to his oldest sworn brother, Meng Yao can see the conflict in those eyes. “Jin Guangshan is far cleverer than he portrays. I do not trust him.”
“And that is why he needs to be removed. Permanently.”
Nie Huaisang sighs. “Sect Jiang Leader - ”
“Lan, Nie, Jiang, and Jin. The four remaining major sects, two of which have openly stated that they can not trust one and one that has not been in contact with the other three for quite some time – as far as any of us know. One of the four is attempting to recreate a tyranny and yet we sit here, like fools, questioning if we should take action as that sect is steadily achieving its goal with its wealth and influence.”
“Again,” Nie Mingjue begins, hands pressed flat against the table, “you are openly discussing murdering a sect leader. If you succeed and you are found out, it’ll bring a great dishonor to your family.”
“It is a dishonor I will shoulder,” Jiang Cheng replies calmly. “You cannot sway me, Sect Leader Nie.”
There is no feeling left in his fingertips.
They are numb and bloody and he’s sure if he were to pluck another strong, he will slice all the way to the bone. He has played Inquiry a total of 30 times. He would play more, double that amount; in fact, if it weren’t for the broken string hanging on the side of his guqin, swaying with the chilly wind. He is not wearing thick robes suitable for such a cold night but the cold doesn't bother him.
He doesn’t know how long he has been sitting directly in front of the cold spring, but he cannot find it in himself to move. It’s quiet. Here – he is left to his thoughts in peace. Here – he doesn’t feel the heavy stares of Lan elders. Here – he is free to exist without being a burden to his family. Here - he is free to search for Wei Wuxian without facing direct judgment.
He cares not for what is said behind his back.
Gossip is not permitted but that has not stopped the Lan disciples.
“Lan Zhan, it’s not fair for you to heal yourself in the Cold Spring without telling me!”
Lan Wangji clenches his fists, ignores the blood dripping to the ground, as a familiar burning sensation builds in his eyes. Every night, he is drawn to the Cold Spring. He steps outside after curfew, knowingly breaking the rules, and lets his feet carry him to this location.
There is nothing visibly special about the Cold Spring. It merely speeds up the healing process of one’s wounds and regulates their cultivation to ensure they don’t enter qi deviation. Since receiving his lashes, he has yet to enter the Cold Spring despite his brother’s desperate pleas.
The scars on his back are proof of his devotion to Wei Wuxian; to the elders of his sect, to his disapproving uncle and frantically worried brother, to the cultivation world. He does not regret challenging the Lan elders nor leaving to aid the man the cultivation world once called “hero” but now condemns. Wei Wuxian is worth 33 lashes.
He is worth more.
“Lan Zhan, let’s be friends!”
Lan Wangji gets to his feet.
He will need to replace the string of his guqin.
"Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan!"
He needs to replace the broken string.
"Lan Zhan, look at me!"
"Wangji, have you decided to rest for the evening?" He turns towards the softly spoken question. His brother stands several feet away from him, tired and uncertain. A tightness grips at his heart. His brother has been the most supportive in these dark times. A pillar. A light. Lan Wangji is grateful for the mere presence of his brother, his aura bright and soothing - even if he does not outright say this. Truly, as everyone states, his brother knows his feelings best.
"No rest. Need to fix." He holds up his guqin as evidence.
Lan XiChen's gaze shifts from his guqin, to his face, and then his fingers. He hears his brother inhale sharply. The older man closes his eyes, breathes in and out, and then offers a sad smile. His eyes take on a glossy sheen. "Wangji," he speaks gently after a moment, "I know you wish to play Inquiry again, but it is quite late. You need your rest. A-And," he hears the break in his brother's voice, "big brother will bandage your fingers, okay?"
Feeling as if he let his older brother down, Lan Wangji nods once.
"Okay," Lan XiChen's smile doesn't reach his eyes, "let's head to your room. Do you need me to carry your guqin?"
He squeezes the instrument to himself. "No. I can carry."
Nie Huaisang watches his brother leave in a huff, retiring for the evening with a dark cloud over him. Meng Yao follows behind him after saluting both him and Jiang Cheng. He did not offer a salute of his own, seeing no need to, but he does stare after Meng Yao until he is out of sight. Once left alone with the Jiang sect leader, Nie Huaisang closes his fan and sags.
"If you're tired, you can return to your rooms. We can...catch-up in the morning."
He laughs. "Is this your way of kicking me out, Sect Leader Jiang?"
Jiang Cheng frowns. "No," he says. "You just seem tired." There is hesitancy in his posture. It's as if the man is unsure of how to speak or act in front of him when he's not projecting "harsh, scary sect leader" like his own older brother. Nie Huaisang doesn't like this hesitant Jiang Cheng. He much prefers the outspoken Jiang Cheng from his youth or the vengeful, whip-wielding man from earlier in the day.
"I'm not tired. Rather," he sits up properly and folds his arms over the table, "I'm relieved to be alone with you." Jiang Cheng coughs into his fist suddenly. "Do you require fresh tea, Sect Leader Jiang?"
"Don't call me that when we're not in the presence of your brother," the other man states, no room for argument in his tone. "And no. I'm not thirsty."
Nie Huaisang nods. "Jiang-xiong," he says easily and, for a moment, he imagines them in the Orchid Room of Cloud Recesses. "Tell me, Jiang-xiong, what do you intend to do about Jin Guangshan? As my brother mentioned, he is far more clever than he portrays. How do you expect to get close enough to put an end to him? He's surrounded by Jin disciples or young maidens during most hours of the day."
Jiang Cheng doesn't reply right away.
In fact, his eyes narrow at him as he assesses him in the candle-lit room. When he does speak, it's not what Nie Huaisang expects. "I meant what I said when I spoke to Meng Yao early in the afternoon. He should be grateful that my sister takes after our father. And, though she may forgive him for being a willing pawn in his father's plans, that does not mean she harbors any pleasant feelings for her father-in-law."
"You mean - "
"She is the daughter of the Violet Spider and yet people dismiss her as fragile."
"My brother used to say we should watch out for the quiet ones. You never know what they're plotting." He smiles are the Jiang sect leader. "Truly, Jin Zixuan is blessed to have such a woman as his wife."
"At this point, I wonder what Jin Zixuan feels for his own father." Jiang Cheng flicks a stray hair away from his eyes. "Madam Jin does not care for her husband, but Jin Zixuan...I don't know. You did not see the look on his face, Nie Huaisang. He looked as heart-broken as my sister." He sighs. "My sister told me he had sent the invitation to Wei Wuxian before she could even ask him to. That's...I know he tried to make it work. He loves my sister and only wished to make her happy."
Nie Huaisang offers a small, comforting smile. "Things will get better with the passing of time."
"And with Jin Guangshan's death," Jiang Cheng responds immediately. "He was a coward during the Sunshot Campaign, spoke poorly of my parents, and killed my brother. Our brother," he corrects and Nie Huaisang doesn't know if he's speaking about him and his sister or three youths who studied in Cloud Recesses - one always complaining about the amount of work given, one always sneaking out to cause mayhem, and one who was always roped into saving the day.
He doesn't ask for clarification.
At some point, he has considered Wei Wuxian a close friend, another brother, and when they began - no.
He will not think about that right now.
"Tell your sister to slip a tasteless, scentless poison into his tea."
"I'm not in the business of making death peaceful for men who don't deserve it."
"You want it to be bloody?"
Jiang Cheng snorts. "The mess won't be mine to clean up so why should I care?"
"I must say, Jiang-xiong, you have become quite the violet beast of your own."
"Violet beast?" At this, Jiang Cheng sends a sharp grin his way, canines sticking out. "I am my mother's son."
Nie Huaisang spins his fans on the table. "What will you do then?" He asks the same question as before.
"For now, let Jin Guangshan bask in his apparent victory."
"You will wait?"
"I never intended to kill him right away. It would be to telling. I have to be wary of allies and grudges outside of my own." Zidian sparks with life. "When the time comes, I want to taste his devastation weeks after I bring about his downfall. Mark my words, he will suffer first. Then I'll kill him."
Finally gaining an idea of Jiang Cheng's intentions, Nie Huaisang is ready to move the conversation to something else and starts off with an easy-to-remember memory of their days in Cloud Recesses. "Do you remember when we stayed up late developing ways to fight off hordes of corpses? You and Wei-xiong would tease me about hiding behind one of you while the other would strike down the corpses."
There is relief in Jiang Cheng's eyes when he changes the topic. "I remember Wei Wuxian telling you to use your fan as a distraction by throwing it at them and you got upset and went into a rant about how long you spend painting your fans."
He laughs. "All my fans are important to me! I would never just throw one away so easily!"
Jiang Cheng smiles.
It's small but genuine and Nie Huaisang feels victorious.
There's a sound, not unlike laughter, drifting about the wind.
Jin Zixuan glances around the garden, local trade reports spread out before him, with A-Ling resting on a blanket to his side and thinks about leaving his work alone until a later hour. That sound, the possible-laughter, it really haunts his every step. It follows him, wraps around him, and leaves him breathless. At times, he feels at ease. Other times, he wishes he were deaf.
If it really is Wei Wuxian, he wonders if this is some sort of punishment for failing him.
Him, his wife, and their son.
It's been half a year since Wei Wuxian's death and he still remembers the look on the other man's face when he comprehended what happened in a split second, from the way red eyes glanced down to the arm sticking out of his chest covered in blood to the thin trail of blood slipping out of the corner of his mouth. Jin Zixuan still remembers the weight of Wei Wuxian falling into his arms, trying to speak through the pain and only managing a small, barely heard sentence. He had been so light despite the thickness of his threadbare robes.
A lack of supplies.
Was the water even safe to drink?
"I j-just wanted...to see...h-smile," and then he froze up, eyes wide, and Jin Zixuan watched those red eyes fade to familiar silver before the younger man's body goes limp, and his eyes stare up at him unseeing. The Ghost General let out a terrifying, earth-shattering roar and he's sure that, had the Ghost General not notice the seal of his master on the ground and opted to take it and leave, that nobody would have lived to tell the tale.
The laughter rings through his ears and he hears, faintly, A-Ling 'coo' softly; his little fists waving in the air as he stares up at something Jin Zixuan cannot see. If it is Wei Wuxian, then he is grateful - to an extent. Punishment for his own failure is understandable, but bringing happiness to his son is a gift he will cherish. The nights are peaceful. His son sleeps for long hours and rarely cries when awake. Jin Zixuan has not told his wife but he swears he hears music coming from A-Ling's room late at night.
Pushing his work aside, Jin Zixuan leans done until he is lying on his side. A-Ling looks at him, large eyes gazing calmly up at him as small spit bubbles form at the corner of his. Without much thought, Jin Zixuan wipes them away with the tip of his pointer finger. A-Ling will no doubt bear a strong resemblance to him, from the top of his head to the heels of his feet; "But you'll have your mother's smile," he tells his infant son.
Jin Zixuan closes his eyes, a shiver running down his spine, and breathes out slowly. "Thank you," he whispers.
The following sound of laughter is so close to him, he feels as if he need only tilt his head slightly to glance at the space on the other side of A-Ling's blanket and expect to see him there.
"You're really something, Wei Wuxian."
You're here. You have to be.
This is not a figment of his imagination.
It can't be.
The wind carries the scent of summer flowers. There is no sickly sweetness about them; only showcasing life and the beauty of nature. The birds sing their songs softly as if not to disturb those within the garden walls. This is his personal garden that so few have access too. There are talismans in place as security, but if Wei Wuxian really is here with him then those talismans are useless.
Perhaps, to him only.
Wei Wuxian is not one for rules.
He spends a moment watching over his son as the little one tries to fight sleep.
"It's alright, A-Ling," he states quietly. "You can take a nap. Papa is here."
Jin Zixuan brushes a couple of tiny strands to the side. "I'm not going anywhere," he states firmly.
I'm not going anywhere, he repeats silently.
Just as he's drifting off, a loud explosion rocks the very foundation he and his son are lying upon. Jin Zixuan grabs his startled, quickly wailing son before leaping to his feet. Immediately, as another violent tremble erupts beneath his feet, he hears desperate screams outside his private garden. The ground rumbles again, causing him to stumble back into someone, but when he turns to see who is with him no one is there.
No one is there despite feeling hands grip his shoulders.
A wave of hysterical resentful energy suddenly washes over the garden. Jin Zixuan clutches his sobbing son to his chest and tries to make sense of what's happening when he's forcefully turned around and shoved towards the entrance of the garden. Heart beating wildly in his chest, Jin Zixuan manages to make his way to the front of the garden despite the aftershocks of the explosion and resentful energy lashing out at him as if whips; yanking his hair and ruining his clothes. He covers A-Ling as best he can.
The sound of a flute, as clear as the day had been several minutes ago, cuts through the chaos. The notes are rapid and high-pitched. Easily recognized by anyone who fought in the war against the Wens. There is a command to obey in those musical notes. The resentful energy snarls in retaliation. It wraps around pillars and trees and squeezes them; draining stability and life with ease.
Mouth dry and panic gripping his heart, Jin Zixuan tries to convince himself that he doesn't need to look over his shoulder. He doesn't need to look. He needs to leave. He needs to look for his wife and his mother. He needs to get A-Ling to safety and figure out what happened. He needs to go. Jin Zixuan doesn't need to look.
He keeps moving forward.
She's resting in her favorite chair by the open window when she feels the first violent shake. The heavy golden decorations on the wall next to her crash to the floor under the force. Jiang Yanli leaps to her feet just in time to avoid being struck in the head by one of the white gold peonies hanging from the ceiling above her. The weight of it would have surely killed her. At the first sound of cracking, she's rushing towards the exit; heart beating rapidly.
Jiang Yanli makes it to the door of the room and turns around to look back just in time to see the floor crumble as easily as squeezing little clumps of balled dirt in one's hand. Her chair, the small table next to it where her empty tea set was placed, the decorations - all of it gone in the blink of an eye. The cracks on the floor grow bigger, reaching her and her husband's bed. She watches, hands clinging to the door frame for support, as the bed soon falls along with the weakened floor. Her vanity and A-Ling's spare bassinet quickly join it.
Soon, the ground rumbles beneath her feet and she's taking off.
The hallway of which her and Zixuan's room once rested is completely clear but when she rounds the corner, she has to duck to avoid colliding with a scared Jin servant. The impact of what happened has left this hall filled with dust and smoke, large chunks of stone make it difficult to maneuver throughout it, and the screams of fearful servants and disciples suddenly overwhelm her. Jiang Yanli starts ushering those around to the ground level while doing her best to remain composed.
"If you can fly, please take as many with you as possible!"
"Maiden Jiang," one young disciple calls out to her over the chaos, but she ignores it and hopes the young boy will forgive her rudeness. "Maiden Jiang, you must come with - "
Jiang Yanli shakes her head and continues on. "Help those around you!"
Where are they?!
Jiang Yanli's hoists up her robes as best she can and runs. "Z-Xuan?! A-Ling?!" The further she heads away from safety, the more aware of the shaky surroundings she becomes of. "A-Xuan?!" The walls have collapsed on both sides of her, revealing the inner-quarters of high-ranking disciples. There is fire and building smoke.
Please, she thinks desperately, let them be safe!
When she rounds the corner, she covers her mouth in horror. Her eyes fill with tears. Jiang Yanli moves forward slowly, careful of where she steps. There are...bodies crushed underneath stone. There's blood. She hears crying and pleas for help. Swallowing down the bile rising in her throat, she continues to move forward and finds two Jin servants. A woman is trying to remove stone from on top of another woman's leg.
"Maiden J-Jiang," the one whose leg is beneath stone, "you should not be here." She cannot be much younger than herself.
"Neither should you." Jiang Yanli looks to the servant. "Together," she tells her calmly. "One, two, three - lift!" They don't manage on the first try but succeed on the second. Without hesitating, Jiang Yanli unties the sash that holds her outer robes closed and uses it to bandage the bleeding leg. Together with the other servant, they manage to get the woman to her feet where she heavily leans on her friend.
The floor shakes, but it's not as violent as before. "Maiden Jiang, we must leave!"
"What are your names?" She asks while shrugging off the thick gold robe and tossing them to the side in hopes of being able to move faster.
"Qwan Siu," the injured woman answers.
"Ling Maiyu," the other answers while adjusting her hold.
"You must take your friend to safety, Ling Maiyu." Jiang Yanli starts moving past them. "She will need to be treated."
"Maiden Jiang?! Going that way is dangerous!"
Jiang Yanli looks over her shoulder. "I must carry on. My husband and son are missing. Please, care for her until you both are safe!" Another aftershock hits. She stumbles but doesn't go down. And she doesn't turn back to the alarmed cries of the women behind her; again, hoping for forgiveness for being rude. The smoke is growing thicker as she presses on. "A-Xuan, can you hear me?"
He said he would be in the garden. Is he still there?!
" - Li?"
Squirting through the smoke, she moves forward. Her heart skips a beat when she sees a familiar face through the black smoke and rubble. Only the face of her husband and the top of A-Ling's head can be seen behind a pile of stone keeping them separate. Tears of relief stream down her dirty cheeks. Once she's close enough, she meets the watery gaze of her husband before looking down at her wailing son and longs to hold him safe and clean in her arms.
She longs to hold them both.
"You're okay," Zixuan tells her when she looks back up. "You're okay." He inhales and coughs immediately.
"I'll climb over," she tells him.
"No," he responds urgently. "It's not safe back this way. Take A-Ling and go." He's already hoisting their son over the large pile where she's reaching out instinctively.
Suddenly, the floors shake viciously and her husband is forced to drop their son into her waiting arms.
"A-Xuan!" Jiang Yanli screams when giant pieces of the ceiling start falling. The amount of dust and rubble, coupled with the thick black smoke and the sobs of her frightened son, forces her to duck behind the large pile and brace herself.
There's ringing in her ears.
And then silence.
He should be crushed under stone.
He should be feeling excruciating pain.
There should be blood on his fingertips.
But even in this crouched position, where he hears only his heavy breathing, he feels nothing by cold feathery touches against his exposed skin. Something akin to a light blanket cloaks him but when he opens his eyes, all Jin Zixuan sees is a dense black mist surrounding. His eyes widen when he glances up and sees what would have crushed sitting atop the black mist.
This, he starts to think, is...harnessed resentful energy. It's tamed. But how can -
The mist shifts slightly and then Jin Zixuan sees red.
Not just any red.
He's staring into the red eyes of Wei Wuxian.
He looks the same as he did the moment before he died, but faded. Jin Zixuan can see through him. Those red eyes are filled with so much emotion, it forces him to gulp but he maintains eye contact. Wei Wuxian tilts his head. It's not mocking for his eyes roam over Jin Zixuan - assessing him. The black mist moves against his skin in a comforting manner.
Wei Wuxian just saved his life.
Wei Wuxian has saved his life a second time.
Wide-eyed, Jin Zixuan watches him flick his pale wrist and the pieces of ceiling are flung several feet behind him. He watches as the young man - spirit? - turns around and raises his hands, the resentful energy swirls around them as the stones blocking him from reuniting with his wife and son is shifted and then moved out of the way completely. From there, he can see Yanli sitting on her behind while their son is clutched protectively to her chest.
"A-Xuan," her relieved voice washes over him. He wastes no time moving forward to gather her in his arms and press kisses to her forehead and temple and shower the same self-reassuring kisses to their son. "A-Xuan," she whimpers against his chest. "You're okay. You're okay." He holds her until her sobs subside. When she pulls away, Jin Zixuan has to stop himself from keeping her from leaving his side.
But he knows she must do this.
Wei Wuxian is still with them but maintains his distance. His red eyes flicker back and forth between the two of them before settling on Yanli. Only then, and although small, he smiles. A-Ling is no longer crying. Rather, the infant stares expectantly at Wei Wuxian. The spirit before them is surrounded by resentful energy. Unlike the chaotic mess in the garden, the resentful energy covers Wei Wuxian's form gently - as if protecting him.
"A-Xian," his wife breathes. "Thank you. Thank you so much, A-Xian." Her words take on a watery edge. "I'm so grateful you haven't truly left us."
The spirits' smile turns sad, his eyes apologetic, but he doesn't speak.
"Wei Wuxian," Jin Zixuan speaks. Those red eyes snap to him, instantly guarded. "Thank you...for all that you've done. I wish - " But Wei Wuxian shakes his head.
Wei Wuxian moves his lips but no words are heard.
"A-Xian," Yanli shakes her head, sorrow deep, "I - we can't hear you."
There's a slump to his figure now.
Then his form starts to flicker like a dying flame. Slow at first, and then rapidly.
Panic surges forward, not from the wavering form of the spirit, but from the alarm on Wei Wuxian's face. That alarm morphs into despair and then to grim acceptance. Before their very eyes, Wei Wuxian fades from sight; all smoke and dust disappearing with him. Sunlight breaks across the hall. From this, Jin Zixuan instantly becomes aware of the damage around them.
Reality has settled.
"A-Li," he speaks gently when his wife doesn't budge from her spot, "we need to relocate. This area is not secure."
"He was right there."
"I know, A-Li."
"He was right there," she repeats. "And now he's gone." Her small form shakes with grief. "He's gone. I want him back, A-Xuan. He has to come back."
Jin Zixuan gathers her close, spares the spot where Wei Wuxian stood moments ago a final glance, before carefully nudging his wife along.
The sound of a flute does not haunt the walls of Koi Tower following the explosion.
It's been just over a month since I've updated, so here's the rundown of where I've been: 1) I went to Disney World with my mom, 2) I got sick almost immediately after getting back (and then everyone else in my family followed suit), 3) I'm working on my work visa (which is very time consuming to anyone who has ever had to apply for a visa at any point in their life), and 4) I work (which, as some of you must know, takes higher priority).
On top of that, I've been thinking about where I want to take this story...plus, I have two (2) new MDZS fic ideas (I know, I know, sue me).
Anyway, let's hope I can stick to updating every week or every other week.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It is a cloudless, chilly day when Jin Zixuan buries his mother beneath her favorite magnolia tree in the large garden at the back of Koi Tower. Unlike the minor burials of disciples and servants, Madam Jin's burial was grand - buried in the finest silk, flowers decorating her hair, expression peaceful, makeup covering the bruises that so vibrantly covered her skin when she was found among the rubble. Her sword was not among her.
It is missing.
He denied it at first.
His mother is a strong woman, a skilled cultivator in her own right. Unbreakable. Undefeated. She put a sword in his hand and taught him how to fight, placed him on her lap and taught him the history of their sect until he was big enough to sit beside her, comforted him when he stressed about A-Li's violent illness while with child (something very few know about). She raised him to be a good man, a better man.
Even as she's being buried, his father is nowhere in sight. Only a few hushed rumors indicate his whereabouts at the popular brothel in town. Jin Zixuan silently vows to have that, and all others, removed once he takes his place as Sect Leader. His father can travel elsewhere if such activities bear importance over his own wife's burial.
He had taken his father's place while A-Li had taken his own. He had leaned down to kiss her brow and give parting words of sorrow, had watched A-Li place a white peony in her hands, had forced back tears (feeling lost, deceived).
Jin Zixuan loves his mother.
And what he knows is this: The explosion was not an accident.
There is now a large fracture running down the center of the black diamond case covering Wei Wuxian's body. It distorts his face, as if looking into a cracked mirror, but no physical harm appears to have taken place on his being. Vines made of resentful energy cluster around the edges of the case - thorns large and dangerous - like the vines of a demon's rose bush.
Fitting, perhaps, given the man's reputation among the cultivation world. The room which holds Wei Wuxian's body is completely unharmed save for the damage done to the case. It is surprising given the explosion is speculated to have happened above or near the room. It is still cold upon entering the room, still dark and gloomy.
Someone attempted tampered with Wei Wuxian's body.
The room which holds his body is undamaged, yes, but one unidentifiable body was found near the black diamond case. The body is completely stripped of skin - only underlying charred muscle remains. No hair or clothing left behind. No possessions; not even a sword. Blood, which should have been left behind for such a violent death, was nowhere to be found. The body had been drained dry.
Privately, Jin Zixuan believes the death is fitting.
He lost his mother.
He almost lost his wife and child.
He, himself, would have quite likely died if not for Wei Wuxian.
"If your brother has not been made aware of this, I will send him a letter." Word travels fast now that things have settled to some semblance of normality. He would not be surprised if Jiang Cheng showed up in the middle of the night demanding to see his sister and nephew - to affirm their safety with his own eyes. "I apologize for not sending a letter sooner. I was just trying...to make sure preparations were taken care of."
A-Li takes his hand. "It's alright. I understand. A-Cheng will understand as well."
His wife's faith in her brother's ability to remain calm, to be understanding, is admirable but mute.
He has somehow been pulled into a game of peek-a-boo with a child he has occasionally seen around Lotus Pier since the Nie party's arrival. The boy is small, probably no more than three or four, with no real sense of propriety. He sticks his tongue out at passing disciples and giggles when they make dramatic mean faces at him (for fun, no ill intent behind them), steals apples from the fruit baskets brought back from town when he thinks no one is looking, and seems to roll around in the dirt a lot.
Purple robes are filthy in a matter of minutes.
(A sort of blink and you'll miss it.)
Now, as Meng Yao sips his tea outside and alone, he expects the child's head to pop up from a bush or from behind a tree. The boy does not draw near despite Meng Yao motioning for him to join him. Caution like that, he thinks, is important to have in this cold and cruel world. He hears the giggles to his left but does not see his little follower.
So there he sits, quietly and at relative ease, as his one-child audience watches from a nearby location.
A gentle breeze shifts the hair over Meng Yao's shoulder, tickling his neck, but he does nothing to put it back in place. After such a tiring morning, his hair has all but fell from the half ponytail he put it in. Really, he should just let his hair down and be done with it until he retires for the evening. Somewhere in Lotus Pier, probably developing a plan of his own, is his eldest sworn brother. The man continuously fusses to Meng Yao about keeping his appearance neat.
("Eat right! Brush your hair! Get better clothes!")
Meng Yao's inability to pick a side - to stand with his eldest sworn brother and try to logically bring about the downfall of Jin Guangshan or to stand with the man whose brother he targeted for selfish reasons and all but killed - has him unable to sleep, unable to be in the presence of both at once, unable to voice an opinion in fear of backlash. Such stubborn, stubborn men. And, of course, Nie Huaisang is no help at all.
It is hard to believe that such a clumsy, unwillingly child turned into a cold, sharp-tongue young man.
He hears another giggle.
Among his tea is a covered plate of flaky honey cookies (the ones that melt on the tongue). He uncovers them and sighs out loud. It comes off sad, lonesome, and a bit dramatic. He is nothing is not a good actor. "Oh dear, I have far too many cookies to eat by myself. If only someone would join me, then they wouldn't go to waste."
There's a gasp.
Then gentle footsteps sound off from behind him.
Meng Yao does not turn around. Rather, he picks up a cookie and dunks it in his tea. He is quick to eat it before it dissolves in his teacup or all over his fingers. When a tiny hand appears on his tray, where two fingers walk up to the plate of cookies, he cannot help but smile while picking up his teacup and taking another sip.
"You may take more, little one," he speaks when only one cookie disappears from view.
All this time, Meng Yao keeps his gaze forward.
To look to his left would break the game the child is playing.
He has no desire to break another heart.
In no time at all, half the cookies are gone with himself only eating two. He hears a quiet "Thank you," from behind and offers an equally as soft "You're welcome," and shares a small smile with his now-empty teacup as small feet scurry off in delight.
A single leaf drifts in the wind and it is at that moment that Meng Yao realizes he is being watched. His glances up slowly, to appear calm and in control. Across the yard, being mostly covered by a window and face distorted from the shade of a dove tree, is a person staring directly at him. They are wearing purple Yunmeng Jiang robes, indicating their affiliation, but he does not see a bell around their waist.
Not a disciple.
When their eyes meet, Meng Yao feels his heart skip a beat.
Something about those eyes seems familiar.
The person is gone.
Jiang Cheng is in the middle of escorting Nie Mingjue to Lotus Pier's library when he hears the pitter-patter of small feet racing to his location. He stops abruptly, heart beating wildly in his chest when little Wen Yuan - of all unwanted persons to be running about - starts racing down the hall as fast as his tiny legs allow him until he runs smack into Jiang Cheng's legs. The little boy looks up, eyes sparkling with glee, and proceeds to step back and thrust his small hands out.
Hands that happen to be holding the crumbling pieces of what was once his own father's favorite snack. "Look!" Wen Yuan states happily. "The pretty man gave me cookies*."
Blinking, Jiang Cheng is quick to regain control of the situation despite his nerves running rapidly across his back and the cold sweat developing on his brow. He leans down and plucks the child from the floor, uncaring of cookie crumbs gathering on his robes, and turns to Nie Mingjue. "Sect Leader Nie, please forgive me for this interruption. The young one is supposed to be supervised. At the end of this hall, take a left and the entrance to my family's library is within. I will take him back to his caretaker and be with you shortly."
He's already turning back the way they came before finishing his statement.
"Of course," and Jiang Cheng internally cringes at the curiosity heard in the older man's voice.
Jiang Cheng makes quick strides towards the edge of Lotus Pier, the location of which he houses the Wen remnants, and tries his best to remain calm. Gripping his robes tightly (bits of cookie having fallen from the boy and leaving his hands sticky but empty), Wen Yuan is quiet until they are outside the room assigned to Wen Qing. Before Jiang Cheng can curtly knock on her door, the little boy tugs on the collar of his outer robe.
"A-Yuan in trouble?" His voice is quiet; afflicted with guilty understanding.
"You deliberately disobeyed me when I specifically told you to not leave the sight of your...aunt." Jiang Cheng looks down, eyes narrowed. "I am not happy."
Wen Yuan lowers his head.
After three firm knocks to Wen Qing's door, he listens for the shuffle of feet and the click of the door being unlocked. Jiang Cheng barely sees Wen Qing's face before the boy is yanked out of his arms and held securely in hers. He watches Wen Yuan rubs his red, teary-eyed face against her chest but remains quiet aside from a soft hiccup every now and then. She, on the other hand, seems unperturbed in his presence.
He steps forward, she steps back, and then the door is closed allowing them privacy.
"You were supposed to keep an eye on him."
"I fell asleep," she answers dully, "and he snuck off." Her words are accompanied by a slight jostle to the boy in her arms. "I went to look for him until it was too dangerous to push forward. He is only a child and bears no recognizable traits associated with the Wen sect's main family. Others will brush his presence aside as they always do."
Annoyance, Jiang Cheng thinks, will be his downfall one of these days.
"While he may not share any recognizable traits, he is still a curious child who has a lot to say. Do you understand how serious this is? Nie Mingjue's hatred of the Wen sect is known far and wide! What if he were to introduce himself as 'Wen Yuan' if asked for his name?"
Wen Qing holds her head high. "Is Nie Mingjue so heartless that he would strike down an innocent child without question?"
"You - "
"I thank Sect Leader Jiang for returning A-Yuan to me. I will make sure he does not wander off from now on."
It is a dismissal.
If he did not have a prominent Sect Leader waiting for him in the library, he would stay and talk sense into this woman! Instead, he glances around the room. The chest holding Wei Wuxian's notes has been moved to the table near the window but remains unopen despite he, himself, showing her how to open it. Said table is littered with borrowed scrolls, books, and personal handwritings.
Jiang Cheng sighs. "Just...keep him with you until they're gone." With that, he turns around and leaves.
As he walks away, he hears the click of the door lock.
You sure know how to pick them, Wei Wuxian.
There is nothing but complete darkness surrounding him.
He blinks (does he blink?), as if to clear his vision, but everything remains as is.
There is no wind.
The is no sound.
He looks down and cannot see his fingers nor his feet.
No long strands of dark hair.
But - oh - he aches.
Beyond anything, he aches.
His head...he can't feel it.
He can't lift his arms.
They aren't there.
But his head aches.
His fingers - they aren't there - ache.
does he have a heart? aches.
There is no physical shape to him.
No body he can manifest.
So why does he hurt?
Why? Whywhywhywhywhywhywhyw -
Or, he thinks he does.
Does he inhale?
♪♫♪♪ - Ying
A voice -
♪ Wei ♫♪♪ - Ying
Is that -