Everyone celebrated the end of the Sunshot Campaign differently. Most of the survivors just found a safe place to lie down and sleep like the dead that they were not, by pure chance and luck. Those who still had strength helped to clean up and recover the bodies of their dead. There were revelries too, where wine flowed like blood had for months and months. There was dance and song and good food, raided from the Nightless City's storages.
Jiang Chang sat among them, staring at his food and thinking he was going to be sick.
Wen Ruohan was dead. So were Wen Chao and Wen Xu. The Sun was defeated. He should be happy.
Instead, he only felt hollow.
All around him the colors of dozens of different sects swirled. With a pang, he watched the few purple robes among the yellow of Jin sect, the grey of Nie sect, the white of Lan sect, and all the shades in between and around. None of them knew his pain. None of them knew.
Looking around, he longed to see black robes. He wanted to speak to his brother, even though he knew that Wei Wuxian had his own demons to fight. Today, he had killed thousands with his Stygian Tiger Seal. It was bound to take its toll on him. But they were the Twin Heroes of Yunmeng. As long as they stayed by each other's side, everything would be fine.
Standing, Jiang Cheng waved away the offers of more wine, different food, or warm and willing bodies. He did not want any of it.
Jiang Cheng wandered past tents and open fires where laughter rose like smoke, feeling restless and jittery. The war was over, yet he could not help but think that in this state he would be unable to fight. He had Sandu back, but its blade would waver, guided by his trembling arms. The thought of helplessness made him jump at every flickering shadow, seeing threats where there were none.
When after a long while he still had not even caught a glimpse of Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng turned back. He was tired. Or his body was. His mind was still racing, in a manner that told him he would not get any sleep tonight.
As he made his way back to his tent, futile though it was, he suddenly stopped. Before him were sat three figures, two of which were larger than life, and one of which he did not recognize. Still, it was enough to make him pause. Enough to let him be spotted by one of them.
He frowned, unused to being addressed either so formally – Wei Wuxian only called him by his birthname after all – or so casually. Anyone who was not a-jie or his brother called him 'Sect Leader Jiang' now.
So when the tall, bright figure of Lan Xichen turned towards him, calling his name like that and with a fire-lit smile on his face that rivalled the sun they had defeated today, he could only be drawn in like a moth to a flame.
"Sect leaders," he said politely, bowing perhaps a little deeper than he should. "And- …?"
The man he did not recognize rose to his feet next to Lan Xichen. He was comically short next to him, made even smaller by his simple servants' clothes and his reverent salute.
"This one is called Meng Yao, Your Excellency."
But before he could ask him how in the world a nobody that Jiang Cheng had never heard of was sitting at the same table, as equals, with Chifeng-Zun and Zewu-Jun, the latter had come forward to grip Jiang Cheng's wrist. It was such a bold move that it silenced him right away.
"Wanyin," Lan Xichen repeated, "it is far too bright here, will you come with me? I cannot see anything. I want to see the stars!"
"I, uh- …"
Looking over Lan Xichen's shoulder, Jiang Cheng had just enough time to see Nie Mingjue's exasperated expression and Meng Yao's shock. And then he was being dragged away by Lan Xichen, who still had his hand clasped around his wrist. He had to hurry to keep up with Lan Xichen's long strides, though it did not require much effort.
The fingers on his skin felt burning to the touch, and there was unmistakable strength in the arm all but pulling him along like an unruly child. Jiang Cheng could do nothing but comply.
Eventually, somehow, they reached the outskirts of the camp that they had erected not too far away from the Nightless City. The formerly thickly forested area had been all but burnt down, the trees felled for fuel, to be used as construction materials. It left the surroundings bare and devoid of nature. Yet as they left the glowing shine and warmth of the campsite, it also offered a rare, unobstructed view of the nighttime sky.
"Look, Wanyin! Do you see it? Isn't it beautiful!"
"I'm looking," he said weakly, staring at the blinking lights overhead. There were no clouds, only the spread of stars.
Jiang Cheng had never before taken any time to really look at the sky at night. He knew how to use it to navigate, sure. He appreciated its soft light, useful on hunts, even when the moon was absent, as it was tonight. But he had never looked at it like this, just for the sake of it. It was beautiful, he supposed. Quiet. Serene. And though he could spot the constellations that he had been taught, he rather thought it looked more like someone had haphazardly spilled their collection of pearls.
It almost made him forget that Lan Xichen had, surely in a bout of post-battle madness, grabbed him and dragged him here.
"What do you see?"
The question made him tear his eyes away from the sky. Looking at Lan Xichen instead, no longer fire-lit but softly shaded by the stars above, his heart clenched.
"It's just the stars," he said, shrugging.
For some unfathomable reason, Lan Xichen smiled at this, the corners of his eyes curving.
"Really? I see far more than that. Look again."
Disgruntled, Jiang Cheng let his head fall back into his neck, sighing as his eyes traced shapes in the sky. As the moments passed, his mind gradually started to find patterns and hints of figures hidden in the chaos. There were flowers and animals, monsters and heroes. Entire stories began to unfurl in front of his eyes, some stories that he knew, some that he didn't. For how long he looked at them, he did not know. He only knew that once he turned to look at Lan Xichen, he realized that he, contrary to expectation, was not gazing up at all. His eyes rested softly on Jiang Cheng instead.
Lan Xichen smiled. Between them, his hand was still wrapped around Jiang Cheng's wrist. When he tried to pull away, he did not let go.
"Isn't it beautiful?" Lan Xichen asked, and for some unnamed reason, Jiang Cheng felt his face heat up. No matter how he tried, he could not find any smart, barbed words to refute Lan Xichen's sincere, heartfelt joy.
He could not say anything, not when Lan Xichen approached him, not when he pulled him closer, not when he leaned in and pressed their lips together. He could only stand, frozen, yet thawing with every beat of his heart.
"I have wanted to do this ever since I saw you tonight," Lan Xichen sighed before kissing him again.
Jiang Cheng closed his eyes, not willing to see the expression on Lan Xichen's face. He couldn't. He couldn't do anything.
For as long as he remembered, he had never been in love with anyone. There was just one person, one boy, grown into a man, who would spring to his mind whenever his sister teased him about whether or not he liked anyone. But it wasn't love. It couldn't be. After all, who was he to grasp for the stars? These pearls strewn across the sky; they were not for him. He, who stood in a muddy pond that did not reflect any of the night's beauty.
Now, though, Lan Xichen was kissing him, holding him close. If he did nothing, perhaps he could steal one. Just one star.
Please, he begged in his mind. Just one.
He kissed him back, then, clumsily and inexperiencedly, but neither of them cared. When he was laid on the hard ground, his clothes parted, his skin caressed, he closed his eyes and thought: Just one.
After all, only a fool would reject Lan Xichen. Right? And he wasn't a fool. He had dreamed about this, secretly, but his imagination paled when confronted with reality. It felt so much better and so much worse than he thought. The slightest touch made him whimper embarrassingly, yet when he held onto Lan Xichen's warm body, the pleasure turned into hurt. He could only have this once.
He cradled Lan Xichen's face in the crook of his neck, feeling his fast, hot breathing there. Above them, the stars blinked placidly. Jiang Cheng held his breath, clinging onto Lan Xichen with his arms and legs, allowing himself to be possessive, just this once. Even if it was agony to hold someone he was not meant to keep.
When it was over, Lan Xichen fell unconscious almost immediately. Their bodies were still entwined, and Jiang Cheng was loath to separate them. If he left now, that might be for the best. But he didn't want to just leave Lan Xichen lying here like this, and he couldn't carry him back to camp. So instead, like the coward he felt he was, he tugged his robes closed and drew Lan Xichen's arms around himself. Borrowing his body's warmth, he, too, fell asleep quicker than anticipated.
The next morning, he awoke cold and blinded by the sun's rays. Groaning, he sat up, only to realize with a twinge where he was and what had happened.
Lan Xichen sat not too far away, looking composed, except for the tears staining his cheeks. Jiang Cheng's heart squeezed painfully.
"I am sorry," Lan Xichen said, before he could even greet him. "Jiang Wanyin, I am so sorry. I was drunk last night."
Like ice water being poured over him, Jiang Cheng was forced to face reality. Things were even worse than he thought. He had assumed that this was just post-battle euphoria. That Lan Xichen just wanted some company, not expecting anything else.
But this was worse. This was much, much worse.
"Please forgive me for what I have done, I never meant to- …"
He surprised himself with how cold his voice sounded. Judging by Lan Xichen's flinch, his expression was not much better.
Gathering himself, he rose to his feet, looking down at the other man.
"Forget it. Nothing happened."
"I said forget it."
Unable to bear looking at Lan Xichen's tear-stained face any longer, he turned on his heels, marching back to camp. With every step away from him he felt colder and colder, until he was numb. Back in his own tent, he saw Wei Wuxian lying in his cot, dead asleep.
Jiang Cheng stood next to him for a long while, battling with himself. He wanted to shake him awake. He wanted to tell him everything. He wanted to forget everything, how it felt to be touched, how it felt to be kissed. He wanted his brother to distract him with anything, anything at all, even if it was ghosts and corpses. He wanted to kill something.
In the end, he went to his own cot, collapsing on it like he was a corpse himself. He didn't sleep, only listening intently to his brother's deep, peaceful breathing. Outside, the camp slowly came alive, picking up the pieces after the victory celebration last night.
Jiang Cheng wanted to cry. Yet his eyes remained dry, and his heart remained frozen.
"You look like shit."
To be fair, though this exchange between them was not that unusual, Jiang Cheng knew that his reply was missing some of its usual heat. Most of the time strangers couldn't tell if Jiang Cheng really meant it or not. But this time … Well, he did have his head in the latrine. It took away some of his usual sting.
"Do you need me to hold your hair or something?"
"I said fu- …" Before he could finish his sentence, another wave of nausea had him bending over. Thankfully, his stomach was already empty.
"Whoa, really though, are you alright? Maybe that mantou you had that had been sitting on your desk for a few days wasn't so good after all. Sorry. Shouldn't have goaded you into eating it."
Wiping his mouth, Jiang Cheng righted himself and glared as hard at Wei Wuxian as he could.
"You didn't goad me, you asshole, I was hungry. That mantou was all we had. Or did you want to disturb the auntie in the kitchen? She was ready to throw her sandals at me last time I asked her for a mid-afternoon snack."
"And now you'll have to evaluate what's worse: getting a sandal to the forehead or chucking up your guts!" Wei Wuxian said cheerfully, joining him in sitting on the ground even though it was likely very gross down here. "Really though, are you alright? You haven't been looking exactly peachy for a while now."
"It's fine. Just don't tell- …"
"Don't tell Yanli?"
Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian both jumped. Turning, they looked up guiltily, meeting Jiang Yanli's exasperated and gently worried eyes.
"A-Cheng, you should have told me if you were sick. I could have made you some comfort food," she said, sitting down next to them despite their protests. Her gentle hand brushed aside Jiang Cheng's hair, checking his temperature.
"I said I'm fine, really. This is going to pass," he said, hoping to sound more confident than he felt. Deep down, he knew that this was not just some rotten food or a fleeting sickness. Knowing his luck, it was exactly what he hoped it was not. He was not ready to face the reality of what happened that night, not if it- …
He turned, just in time to squeeze a last bit of bile out of his stomach and into the latrine. The bitter taste of it lingered, even long after he had washed out his mouth and his sister tucked him into bed. She stroked his hair like she used to when he was a child, and for a short while they could both pretend that everything was still alright. That they still had parents, and a home that hadn't been burnt down by their parents' murderer.
By the door, he saw Wei Wuxian lurk, looking back at him somberly. When Yanli had left, he knelt next to Jiang Cheng's bed, eyes hooded.
"I made a promise," he whispered, clasping his hand. "You can't die, alright?"
"Stupid, it's just a bad mantou I ate," he snorted, pulling his hand away and slapping his brother's shoulder.
"Then stop listening to me and eating rotten food, you idiot."
Of course, they were all deluding themselves. Wei Wuxian had known it wasn't just food poisoning, and Jiang Cheng had known that too. Perhaps Yanli didn't know, but then that was a good thing. She shouldn't have to worry about him.
He betrayed himself by checking with the flat of his palm whether his stomach was showing any roundness or not. The thing was, though, that it happened gradually. There was no single moment when he could just tell there was a child now growing inside of him. He'd known the entire time – yet he only really had to confront the truth when Wei Wuxian caught him checking. He broke into cold sweat, meeting his brother's eyes even as he still had his palm resting protectively over the miniscule swell.
"Who is it," Wei Wuxian growled, not asking. There were tendrils of resentful energy coiling around his hand that held onto Chengqing. "It was at the celebratory feast, wasn't it? Tell me who it was, so I can kill them. Then I'll resurrect them and kill them all over again."
"You can't," Jiang Cheng said. He sounded more tired and hollow than he expected. He looked down at his own hand. "And anyway, it wouldn't change anything. I- … I am going to have this child, no matter what. It's mine."
Wei Wuxian looked at him, forlorn and lost.
"We can't tell my sister," Jiang Cheng added, when his brother said nothing. He nodded, mute. "I'll be able to hide it for a while longer, if I don't appear publicly for some time. I'll need your help."
So from then on it was the two of them who knew about the child he was carrying. Jiang Cheng refused to involve a physician, and he did not want to tell anyone else. Not even at the hunt at Phoenix Mountain, where he had to see Lan Xichen again for the first time after that night.
He was just starting to properly show, though it was easy to hide with more elaborate and layered robes. And Wei Wuxian promised to help, though in his case that meant making an even bigger spectacle of himself than usual. Despite it all, Jiang Cheng was forced to sit next to Lan Xichen, who could not even look him in the eye.
Bitterly, he thought about telling him. Not even he was this petty, though. It would ruin what little politeness and courtesy remained between them, and Lan Xichen's avoidance of him made it easy to keep his condition secret. No one else paid attention anyway. Only Jin Guangyao asked him whether the alcohol was not to his taste, to which Jiang Cheng replied with some derisive remark about Lanling's wine that he could not remember after.
Wei Wuxian was busy showing off. Lan Xichen could barely even stand to be in the same room as him. And Yanli was – unsuccessfully – being wooed by that peacock again. Though those were three different headaches, they all helped to lessen his anxiety at being found out.
Back in Lotus Pier, Jiang Cheng could not sleep. Dressed in only his nightclothes, he slipped out of his room, hoping to catch some fresh air. He chose a remote pavilion to sit in, contemplating the reflections of the water around him.
"The lotus are just starting to form their flower buds," he said out loud. "There are new beginnings everywhere."
Of course, there was no reply. But in the last month or so, this had become something of a ritual for him. He would find a remote spot to sit in and just … talk. To his baby, even though they could not hear him.
"So we saw your father again, didn't we? I hope you could not feel how afraid I was. I don't even know why. It hurt enough as it is, even though he didn't even look at me. What do you think he'd say if he knew about you?" He huffed, closing his eyes when a breeze passed by.
He felt ridiculous. Yet at the same time he was able to express things that he had never voiced before. He had talked to his child about some of his insecurities and fears. He had never even mentioned those to his sister, or Wei Wuxian. His two closest people. His only people, until the baby was born. As much as he trusted them, he did not want to burden them with some of the things that weighed him down.
"I love you," he whispered on a breath. He touched his stomach, curling forward as if to protect it. "A-Ya, I haven't even met you. I don't know if you're a boy or a girl. But you are my family, and I love you. I will move the heavens and the earth to protect you. I hope you know that."
He had started calling the child a-Ya in secret. Just between the two of them. His little sprout. His flower bud. It was not enough to express how fiercely he loved this child, no matter what. It was as if his heart was constantly bleeding. He yearned so much to hold them in his arms that it was a persistent, numbing pain. Sometimes he saw someone passing by with a child of their own and his breath would hitch. He wanted to have a-Ya here, with him. He wanted them to grow fast and strong, so that they could protect themselves and stand strong.
"I want you to meet your auntie, a-Li," he whispered. "She will love you so much. It won't even come close to how much I love you, because I hope that she will have her own children in the future. But you will have her heart nonetheless."
He knew that Yanli was exchanging letters with Jin Zixuan now. Her love for that peacock had never really left her heart, so it was only a matter of time before their betrothal was going to be announced again. He was happy for her. But he was going to keep a close eye on Jin Zixuan.
"And there is your uncle Xian, too. He's a bit of an idiot, but he's my brother. Alright? No matter what, we promised each other to always have each other's backs. He knows about you already. I know that from the moment he meets you for the first time on, he will protect you. He will guide you, too. I want you to listen to him, because even though he's an idiot, he's pretty smart. He'll get you in trouble and then out of it again."
With a sigh he lay flat on the ground, unheeding of the cold seeping in.
"And then there's me. I hardly know what I'm doing half of the time. I'm not a nice person. You know, it's not your fault that your father isn't going to be here. It's mine. I was selfish. I shouldn't have- … Ah. But then I would not have you, and I wouldn't miss you for the world."
He stayed up all night talking to a-Ya, recounting stories of his childhood, musing about his future plans that now needed to include a child, dreaming about possibilities that would never come true. In the morning, he got a scolding from his sister for his reckless behavior, and for a moment he thought she might have found out. But she let him go, with a promise of letting him eat soup later.
Everything was alright. Until it wasn't.
Jiang Cheng hadn't left Lotus Pier or his own rooms for anything except his nightly excursions by the time the curve of his belly was undeniable. He had coaxed his sister into staying at Koi Tower with her soon-to-be-betrothed, and Wei Wuxian attended the necessary sect meetings in his place, which left Jiang Cheng to sit alone in his room, talking to his unborn child.
That was when the news reached him. Wei Wuxian had gone rogue, attacking LanlingJin and GusuLan cultivators on Qiongqi Path. He'd taken some of the Wen clan survivors and hid them away somewhere unknown, though possibly in the Burial Mounds in Yiling.
Jiang Cheng could do nothing but seethe in anger and shake with worry. He had no idea what his brother was thinking, no way of reaching him. The panic of not knowing what had really happened, what people were saying, caused him so much stress that he was tempted to throw caution to the wind and go to Yiling himself, even as he was. But he couldn't risk it, not mere weeks before his child was supposed to be born.
He started writing letters, sending none but one. Letters in case the worst happened. Letters to send later. The one addressed to his sister he had a messenger carry to Koi Tower right away.
I will have to go away for a few weeks. Do not worry. When I come back, I will deal with Wei Wuxian.
As soon as the letter was sent, he began packing a bag. A few sets of clothes, a bit of food and water. None of it linked to YunmengJiang sect, nothing that could identify him. He had not been able to wear his purple sect uniform for months now anyway, and there had been no point in wearing his headpiece. There was nothing else to do but to sneak out at night, taking a well-researched route past Yunping to a village where he had heard of a renowned midwife. This was where he was going to have his child.
When a-Ya was born, Jiang Cheng felt both joy and despair like none before in his life. Joy, because he was finally holding his son in his arms. Despair, because he knew that the life that awaited his son was not going to be easy. But he brought him home, declaring him his heir to the rest of his sect, before finally, ultimately, sending the one letter that he dreaded the most.
It was addressed to the council of elders of the GusuLan sect. He had written it in the most formal, flawless calligraphy that he was capable of, informing them of his son's birth. His son, who was also a Lan.
The reply came promptly, urging him to visit the Cloud Recesses together with the child. The elders also made stipulations, namely that they wished to have his one-month celebration held in the Cloud Recesses, and that he should be named by them. They respected the fact that Jiang Cheng had named a-Ya as his heir, but insisted that he be recognized as a Lan nonetheless.
Honestly, Jiang Cheng had not expected anything less. He had expected worse, in fact. He had expected them to tear his infant son from his breast right then and there.
Before going to the Cloud Recesses, however, he had to deal with something else. Else, he knew, he would never be able to go.
Watching his only a few days old son sleep, Jiang Cheng squeezed his eyes shut.
"A-Ya," he whispered. "I'm going to have to leave you for a bit. I promise I will be back. But I have to do this alone. It would be too dangerous for you."
It nearly tore his heart in two as he pressed one last, lingering kiss to his son's cheek. He had hired a nursemaid and two caretakers to watch over him in the meantime. It did not feel like enough.
He was only glad to have left a-Ya back in Lotus Pier when he stepped foot in the Burial Mounds. Despite signs of people living here, it felt more like a gravesite than a place where anyone should be planting crops.
He was right, he thought, looking back. The Burial Mounds were where everything was buried. Everything and everyone died because of that place.
They were unable to have anything but a stilted conversation. Wei Wuxian rejected his help, breaking his promise here. Yanli later died because of what happened here. Because of this place, a-Ling was made an orphan. Here was where he came for the last time, where he lost his brother for good.
Only his son was spared. His last living family. Though he was given a Lan name – and as he grew older, he more and more resembled his father and his Lan family – he raised him as a Jiang. He was not going to lose his son, not to anything. Not the temptations of the outside world, not to dreams and stories, not to blood and tears. Lan Jingyi was his, and his alone.