“A-Cheng, A-Xian, taste this for me.”
Dutifully, Jiang Cheng takes the spoon from your outstretched hand. You know that soup cannot mend a family, not one as broken as this, but even so, you’re going to try.
Even if you’re the most broken of any of you.
Jiang Cheng makes no move to pass the spoon on to Wei Wuxian. You reach for it, he backs away from your touch by instinct, the spoon falls.
Wei Wuxian dives forward and catches it inches from the floor. “Needs more peppers,” he comments.
“Don’t listen to him, it’s perfect.”
And instead of their normal bickering, Wei Wuxian simply passes back the spoon, a familiar smile on an unfamiliar face. “It’s perfect, Shijie,” he repeats.
You believe them, but you wish you could taste it, too.
You leave the pot simmering on the stove. Something calls you, not the distressing, sickening pull of the stygian tiger seal, but something familiar. You’ve always felt so much for your family, but as a corpse--their energy, their blood, you can feel it, and Jiang Cheng is not the only one calling out to you right now.
You find Jin Ling sitting on the pier. Maybe he was looking out over the water once, but now, his arms are wrapped tight around a large black and white dog, face buried in the fluffy fur. You’d smile if you could.
“A-Ling.” Reaching out to touch him was a mistake. Instinct moves his hand to his sword, Zixuan’s sword. “A-Ling, it’s me.”
“M-mom, I—” Your son’s voice cracks as he sheaths your husband’s sword, your son who is almost a man, who was only one month old the last time you held him.
“It’s alright,” you say. “I know I’m dead.”
He wipes his tears away with a furious brush of his fist. “You’re not! Don’t say that!” But as much as it’s true that you’re here , talking with him, very much like a living person, as much as this should have been a happy reunion, his words can’t change the truth.
“I’ll sit here with you,” you say. “Dinner will be ready soon.” He stares over the lake and doesn’t answer. Maybe he thinks you’re trying too hard, and maybe you are. It’s not just that you’re a corpse; thirteen long years stretch out between you, and you wish--oh, how you wish you knew your son. “This is your dog?” you ask. “What’s their name?”
Again you want to smile, it’s so familiar. “A-Cheng gave him to you?”
He shakes his head. “Little Uncle did.” Then he turns on you, eyes blazing. “You didn’t mean it, did you? He can’t really be the one who did this to you!”
Who did this to you? A nameless boy mourning his brother took your life. Wei Wuxian himself raised you, though he never knew it, consumed in the moment by the Stygian Tiger Seal. You don’t remember that time either, but Jiang Cheng does. It was Jin Guangyao who took you, then, saved you not knowing what Wei Wuxian might do next and whether you might prove useful. A boy you didn’t know was the one who restored your consciousness, some time later, thinking you would be his key to finally overpowering Wen Ning. He killed her husband, who could resent him more than that? Xue Yang had reasoned, and for a good while, he’d been right. And Jin Guangyao had overseen that, too, and Jin Guangyao had been the one who left you there unconscious.
“You’re--you’re confused, right? I mean--you’re friendly with Wen Ning and you’re acting like Wei Wuxian coming back from the dead is a good thing, like they’re not the ones who killed Dad, and you’re saying my little uncle is the one who kept you locked away, you’re--you’re just some ghost who’s tricking everyone, you aren’t really even my mom, are you?” He storms away, or tries to. The effect is somewhat ruined when he has to stop and pull on Fairy’s collar as they stop to sniff you curiously.
You’re probably the first corpse the dog has seen who isn’t an enemy.
You don’t follow Jin Ling. You don’t know what you would say. It was easy, you think, being a mother to two little brothers, but to your own son? Besides, he has every right to be angry right now, and every reason to wish he could direct that anger anywhere but its rightful place.
So you sit with your feet in the water, just like when you were a girl, but you can’t feel it tickle your feet. A cloudless, moonless night, but you don’t feel the cold. Don’t notice how the water seeps up the hems of the dress Jiang Cheng fetched out of storage for you, and don’t notice the passage of time, either, until Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian together come and fetch you.
When they bring you inside, you don’t feel the warmth, either. But Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng are looking at each other without your urging, and soup is ready. “A-Jie!” Jiang Cheng exclaims. “What happened?” That’s when you realize you’re drenched to the bone.
“Oh, I didn’t--nothing—”
“This is normal,” says Wei Wuxian. “I remember when Wen Ning used to…” He breaks off. “Jiang Cheng, did you keep any more of Shijie’s clothes?”
“Most of them went to Koi Tower.”
“I’m really fine,” you say, and it’s true but you’re still dripping pondwater all over the floor.
Jin Ling probably would have stayed outside all night if Jiang Cheng didn’t forcibly drag him in to the table. He sips the soup you spoon out for him, and keeps opening and closing his mouth like there’s something he wants to say, but can’t.
“Is it--alright?” you ask. “I don’t remember what it’s supposed to taste like,” and you shouldn’t have said that, because all three of them stop eating and look like they want to cry. Even Jin Ling, so, you suppose that’s something.
“It’s perfect,” Wei Wuxian chokes out.
And then you feel that pull—
“A-Xian, bind me!” you manage. You’re just aware enough to see the terror on their faces, to hear Jiang Cheng’s betrayed shouting, Wei Wuxian’s protests of innocence, before he does as he should and shuts Jiang Cheng out as he plays his flute and guides you down to nothingness.
When you come to, they’re all staring at you. You don’t know how long it’s been, but there’s no more steam rising from the untouched soup. “Mom! What happened? Are you okay?” Jin Ling grabs your hands tight as if your cold touch doesn’t matter.
You know what they must have seen: black lines darkening on your skin, eyes going white, mouth drawing back into a vicious snarl. You know how jarring it was to see it on Wen Ning’s face, and it has to be so much worse for them. “I’m alright,” you say, first. “It’s the Stygian Tiger Seal. Someone was using it just now. I don’t think they know I exist--it wasn’t directed at me. This was just…I happened to be caught.”
“I destroyed the Stygian Tiger Seal!” Wei Wuxian protests.
“Xue Yang remade it.” You don’t know if it’s Xue Yang who has it now, but you remember the things he did with it before. “The Stygian Tiger Seal made me,” you say. “I’ll always be compelled to obey its commands. It’s only because I was locked in Koi Tower that I didn’t…” You stop. Jin Ling doesn’t need to hear those things, nor does Jiang Cheng. Wei Wuxian...he might, but now isn’t the time.
“You--you were in Koi Tower?” Jin Ling’s voice cracks, and now you realize, all his anger from earlier, it wasn’t for you at all. “You were in Koi Tower the whole time, and I--and I didn’t even know--I could’ve—”
“A-Ling, there’s nothing you could have done.” Should you tell him? “I saw you once,” you decide to say. “Xue Yang was trying to provoke me. He told me you were dead. It worked. That was the only time, of all the times we were forced to fight, that was the only time I ever defeated Wen Ning. But it was too much. They couldn’t calm me down again no matter what Jin Guangyao said, so he had to bring you to me to prove you were still alive. All the other young masters have seen corpses, don’t you want to too, A-Ling? It must have been something like that. You were--you were so scared, but you were there. ”
The more you say, the paler Jin Ling’s face grows. “Mom--why didn’t you say something?”
“A-Ling, you were three.”
Purple lightning flashes in Jiang Cheng’s hand, as darkness deepens around Wei Wuxian. You could always count on a common enemy to unite those two. “The seal is the first step,” says Wei Wuxian. “Then Jin Guangyao.”
“The seal is in the hands of some nobody,” Jiang Cheng counters. “Don’t let it distract you.”
“You saw what happened to Shijie just now! That was without even trying. Jiang Cheng, if someone were to truly use it to turn her against us, I wouldn’t be able to stop them.”
“...the seal first, then.”
Wei Wuxian caught on fast; you’re as dangerous a weapon as he said. It’s why, after freeing Wen Ning, you made no attempt to escape yourself. Back then, you only could have hurt Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling, but now, with Wei Wuxian back, now that a decade has passed and you’ve been all but forgotten, now you stand a chance. “I can direct you to it,” you say. “After that, I’ll only be a hindrance. A-Cheng, will you let Wen Ning help you?”
He grimiaces, but nods. “If you’ve made your peace with him, then so be it.”
You don’t want this. You don’t want to send them off to fight, not when you just found each other again. You want what this night should have been. Your son takes your hand again, his hot blood racing, his pulse burning into you. “Mom, after we get the seal, I’ll—” Invite you back to Koi Tower properly, as his mother, as a lady? He knows how impossible that would be. You’ll stay at Lotus Pier in secret, you suppose, or join Wen Ning in his wanderings. “--I’ll eat all the soup you want to make for me!”
“You had better,” says Jiang Cheng, smiling grimly. He shares a look with Wei Wuxian. This moment is too familiar to all three of you, you realize, and that gives you hope.
This time, you all know what’s at stake. This time, you will not lose each other again.