The letter comes at dinnertime.
“What is the meaning of this,” Jiang Cheng says, staring at the single page spread out next to his chopsticks.
“It’s a letter, Uncle,” Jin Ling tells him from across the table, through a mouthful of braised lotus roots and rice that he sprays indiscriminately across the dishes as he speaks.
“I know that.”
“About the night-hunt,” Jin Ling continues, still obliviously spraying. “I assume you know what a night-hunt is. Do you know what a night-hunt is? It’s when a group of cultivators come together and -”
“I know what a night-hunt is, brat,” Jiang Cheng snaps, and lets go of the letter so that the edges roll itself back up. Then he narrows his eyes. “You knew this was happening?”
“Lan Sizhui and the other junior disciples invited me along,” Jin Ling answers without looking up. He reaches for the plate of steamed fish with his chopsticks.
“Wait, is that why you invited yourself to dinner today? Not because you were visiting Lotus Pier, but because of this - this night-hunt?” Jiang Cheng splutters.
Jin Ling finally looks up at him, cheeks bulging. He appears to make a conscious effort to chew and swallow before he says, “Well, I mean, yeah,” like that much should have been obvious from the start.
Jiang Cheng stares at Jin Ling for a moment. And then he smooths down the page again and starts reading the letter once more, from the top.
“Uncle,” Jin Ling says, his voice suddenly strangely nervous. “You’re not - I mean, Sizhui and the others have been chasing the - whatever demon or ghost or whatever - for a while. They’re just about to cross into Yunmeng territory, and they know - well, you know - it’s the polite thing, to let you know first. The proper thing. To do. I’ve been told.”
The thing is, it is the polite thing to do. Whatever the Lan Sect is after in the night-hunt doesn’t have anything to do with Jiang Cheng, but now that they’re about to enter Yunmeng, it is the polite and proper thing to do, to notify the sect leader of the fact. The letter is simply such: letting Jiang Cheng - or rather, Jiang Wanyin, the Yunmeng Jiang Sect Leader, know that a party of Lans are close. To let him know that they’re here, and the reasons they’re here, and approximately how long that they would be here. Jiang Cheng doesn’t even have to send back any note of acknowledgement. It’s simply - official correspondence.
Maybe that’s the part that rankles the worst, Jiang Cheng thinks. Official correspondence, written to him in a hand more familiar than his own, using his courtesy name and titles when Jiang Cheng can’t remember the last time he was called by anything other than his birth name by the person signing off at the end, the words crisp and formal and impersonal. If Jiang Cheng squints, he can tell the effort it had required to keep the penmanship as neat as it is, instead of the lazy scrawl he would recognize far easier. Wei Wuxian has always hated these sorts of things, courtesy and ritual and good manners, and yet here he is, making an effort for Jiang Cheng. Because he probably thinks that Jiang Cheng would take any excuse to kick him out. Because he thinks -
Jiang Cheng thinks -
Jiang Cheng abruptly forces himself to stop thinking.
“Uncle,” Jin Ling says again, more nervous. “Just because Uncle Wei - I mean, Wei Wuxian - just because he’s leading the night-hunt, he’s teaching, he’s not doing anything wrong, he even notified you ahead of time -”
“You call him Uncle now, too?” Jiang Cheng barks, before he can stop himself. “This is why you didn’t bring Fairy along with you?”
Jin Ling looks greatly aggrieved by this. “Just because you haven’t fixed your relationship with him doesn’t mean that I can’t!”
“I - you - I don’t -”
“Uncle,” Jin Ling says long-sufferingly, after Jiang Cheng has devolved into incoherency from sheer rage. “Eat something, won’t you? You’ve just been sitting here staring at the letter the entire time, aren’t you hungry?”
“Don’t talk back to your elders!” Jiang Cheng says. He resolutely folds the letter up again and grabs his chopsticks.
Jin Ling rolls his eyes and sets a piece of lotus root in Jiang Cheng’s bowl. “Whatever you say, Uncle.”
The note had been official correspondence. It required no response nor action on Jiang Cheng’s part. It was notifying him of a night-hunt happening in the area, not inviting him to one.
Jiang Cheng finds himself following Jin Ling out of Lotus Pier after dinner anyway.
He tells himself it’s for his nephew’s sake. The note had said that Wei Wuxian - that the Lans - had been following a trail of deadened earth for a while attempting to figure out the cause of such and do away with it, and so far they haven’t been able to construct any concrete theories about what could possibly be causing this wave of failed crops and drought and wildlife falling over dead for no reason they could discern, so Jiang Cheng’s simply following along to make sure that his nephew doesn’t run headlong and yelling into something they don’t know enough about to handle. He’s just trying to keep safe the only family he has left. That’s the only reason.
He bids Jin Ling goodbye at the water’s edge of Lotus Pier, and then dismisses all his retinue, hides behind a pillar in a manner completely unbecoming of a Sect Leader, and watches his nephew mount his sword. After a moment’s pause to give Jin Ling a head start so that he might not be discovered immediately, he mounts his own to follow at a discrete distance.
It’s barely been a few minutes before Jin Ling begins to descend once more, into the thick forest below that borders the eastern edge of Yunmeng. Jiang Cheng frowns, but follows anyway. Wei Wuxian had been this close, the Lan disciples had been this close, and they hadn’t thought to seek shelter at Lotus Pier? Did they not trust his hospitality? Wei Wuxian hadn’t thought to -
“Uncle,” Jin Ling’s voice comes, supremely close to his ear and incredibly dry, “if you wanted to come on the night-hunt with everyone, you could’ve just asked.”
Jiang Cheng jerks and begins spluttering on autopilot, glaring down at Jin Ling suddenly standing in front of him, his arms crossed and eyebrows raised. “I didn’t - I wasn’t - I mean, I was just - I was just in the area!”
Jin Ling stares at him. “You were in the area,” he says, “of a deserted forest that I also happen to be in, the site of tonight’s night-hunt, that you were explicitly informed about several hours ago.”
Jiang Cheng crosses his arms, too, glaring. “Complete coincidence!”
“Well, okay, whatever,” Jin Ling sighs. He sheathes his sword and turns to head deeper into the forest. “Just don’t embarrass me, Uncle!”
“You don’t embarrass me!” Jiang Cheng shouts back automatically, and stomps into the undergrowth. “Where’s - aren’t you supposed to be meeting up here? Where’s everyone?”
Jin Ling mutters something probably insulting and bitchy under his breath, but before he can answer properly, a voice cuts through the dark:
Jiang Cheng tries to pretend that Jin Ling’s face hadn’t lit up at the sound of the voice, his footsteps speeding up minutely, even as something wormy and gross squirms in his chest. He squashes it back down mercilessly, tightens his shoulders, straightens his spine, as a hastily-constructed camp comes into view just ahead, shrouded already by the settling dusk.
“Uncle Wei!” Jin Ling shouts back. And then, “Sizhui! Jingyi!”
This is because Lan Sizhui and another, identically-dressed Lan disciple have popped up in front of them, both looking delighted at Jin Ling’s appearance before realizing Jiang Cheng is at his shoulder. Lan Sizhui sinks immediately into a very proper bow, and Jiang Cheng lifts his chin and pretends not to see him step on the other Lan disciple’s foot until he bows, as well.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Sizhui greets, perfectly polite as he straightens. Their other disciple - Lan Jingyi, Jin Ling had called him - raises his eyebrows at Jin Ling, who just sighs and shakes his head in response. Neither of the Lan disciples appear very surprised to see Jiang Cheng, although he supposes Jin Ling’s presence explains it a little. “Senior Wei didn’t mention that we were also expecting you.”
“That’s because I wasn’t,” Wei Wuxian says, stepping out of a tree somewhere overhead to land directly beside Sizhui. He grins widely at Jiang Cheng, a familiar expression on an unfamiliar face. He looks perfectly at ease as he twirls an unfamiliar bamboo flute in his hand. Not Chenqing. “Is Sect Leader Jiang here to offer his esteemed services on this night-hunt?”
Jiang Cheng clears his throat. “You said in your note you didn’t know what you were dealing with yet,” he says, trying not to look at Wei Wuxian too closely. “I’m just making sure you don’t accidentally get my nephew killed.”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t say anything for a moment. He’s wearing new robes, Jiang Cheng notes, only because he’s staring at the dark sash of it where a Cloud Recesses jade token hangs instead of letting himself look at Wei Wuxian’s face. The material looks sturdy, and expensive, and the cut of it suits him well even as it is is a little more extravagant than Wei Wuxian usually goes for. The colors, however, are red and black as they always are.
“He’s my nephew too, you know,” Wei Wuxian says, his voice deliberately light. He reaches out and swipes a hand through Jin Ling’s hair affectionately, messing up his ponytail even as Jin Ling yelps and reaches up to try and minimize the damage. “Brat, took you long enough.”
“I came here directly after dinner!”
“Oh? On your sword? Does this mean that you’ve been slacking -”
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng interrupts, because he can never help himself when it comes to him. And then he pauses, scrambling, not entirely sure what he’d meant to say. “Your note said - something about rotted earth?”
Wei Wuxian looks at him. The line of his shoulders relax, and he sticks his flute through the side of his belt. “Yep,” he says, probably too cheerfully than the subject really calls for. “Sizhui, Jingyi, get everyone ready to move. Jin Ling, Jiang Cheng, let me show you what we’ve been tracking.”
When Wei Wuxian turns to go, Jin Ling trots obediently after him. Jiang Cheng only lets himself hesitate a second before he does as well, catching up with sure strides.
“It started just outside Caiyi town,” Wei Wuxian says, without looking to see that they’re listening. His voice is entirely serious now. “Several instances of crop failure. One on its own wouldn’t raise suspicions, but several were reported, so Sizhui and Jingyi went to check it out. They thought it was just - either natural, or some kind of buildup from resentful energy, something easy to exorcise. But they didn’t find anything. And when the animals started dying, and when the phenomenon started to spread, there was concern that if it got anymore serious, we’d be facing some kind of sustenance crisis. And then this started happening.”
“This?” Jiang Cheng asks, and by the way Jin Ling digs his elbow indiscriminately into his side, he doesn’t quite manage to restrain the derisiveness in his voice. He goes to open his mouth to scold Jin Ling, but then Wei Wuxian stops walking so abruptly Jiang Cheng almost trips right into his side.
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian agrees calmly. “This.”
Jiang Cheng looks up. He thinks that even if Wei Wuxian hadn’t mentioned it, he would have known immediately that this was the trail that they’d been following, described in the note. He stares at the shriveled trunks of thousand-year-old trees, bare now of leaves and life, the stark brittle yellow of the undergrowth, the dried-out earth revealed beneath. Jiang Cheng spins around to check that, yes, they’d just emerged out of a flourishing green forest, and then turns back around to stare at the complete barrenness in front of them, extending further into the forest than he can see in this dark. He bends down on one knee, and presses a palm against the earth.
“No resentful energy,” Wei Wuxian says. “No energy at all.”
“I can feel that,” Jiang Cheng answers shortly, and then takes a breath. He jerks himself back upright.
“But what caused this?” Jin Ling asks, behind them. He looks disturbed, even with his face set in determination. “It just looks like - all the life’s been sucked out of this place.”
“That’s what it feels like, too,” Wei Wuxian agrees. “No energy at all, not even that of life. The grass might grow back eventually, but these trees might never live again.”
“And you guys have nothing?” The words are too acidic, even Jiang Cheng is aware. He can’t bring himself to take it back.
“Uncle,” Jin Ling hisses, tugging at his sleeve. “You said you would behave!”
“I said no such thing! Who are you to tell me to behave!”
“Not exactly nothing,” Wei Wuxian interrupts. He bends down, taps the end of the flute against the dead ground. “The trail doesn’t seem to be following any set path that we can discern, except vaguely westward. It doesn’t seem to have a concrete destination in mind. It doubles back at multiple points and moves at random. So, not a person, ghost, or a resentful spirit. Not done with intent. No sign of resentful energy, so not a yao, either.”
“A creature, then,” Jin Ling offers eagerly.
Wei Wuxian shrugs. “Your guess is as good as mine. It’s not a creature I’ve ever encountered, if that’s true.”
“You said that this is a trail,” Jiang Cheng says abruptly. “So you’ve been following it. You don’t have any leads?”
Wei Wuxian grins at him. “Of course we do! It’s a trail, so obviously it leads somewhere, so it’s a lead all by itself! Sizhui, are we ready to go?”
“Yes, Senior Wei,” Sizhui answers. Jiang Cheng tries not to yelp and startle, having not noticed Sizhui’s approach - and the rest of the Lan disciples, apparently, now standing in two neat rows behind Sizhui and Jingyi and Jin Ling.
“Then let’s go!”
“That’s it?” Jiang Cheng demands. “We’re just going to - follow this wave of death and destruction? Without any idea of what we could possibly be dealing with?”
Wei Wuxian looks back at him, and shrugs. “You have any better ideas?”
Jiang Cheng does not have any better ideas. They follow the trail.
They don’t take their swords, and nobody so much as raises the question why. Jiang Cheng supposes they already know all about Wei Wuxian’s stupid, noble, heroic, self-sacrificing -
“Uncle,” Jin Ling whispers, “are you doing that thing where you think yourself into qi deviation again? You’re turning red.”
Jiang Cheng makes himself stop thinking. “Shut up,” he hisses back. Jin Ling just frowns disapprovingly at him before dropping back to resume his conversation with the Lan disciples.
“I sent a few disciples ahead before,” Wei Wuxian says, suddenly in step with him, crunching through dead grass together. “To look at the trail from the sky. But it’s spread too far already, and anyway the trail’s on the ground, so it would make more sense to follow it from the ground, just in case we miss anything.”
Jiang Cheng clears his throat. In this body, Wei Wuxian is several centimeters shorter than he’d been, and it throws him off a little even as they’re walking side-by-side like this. “Why isn’t Hanguang-jun here?” he asks gruffly. “If it started in Caiyi, it’s under the Gusu Lan Sect’s jurisdiction. Isn’t he supposed to be wherever the chaos is, or something?”
“Lan Xichen’s still in seclusion,” Wei Wuxian answers easily. “So now he’s got Sect and Chief Cultivator duties to keep up with. I told him I could take a few disciples and make a training exercise of it.” He’s taken his flute from his belt again, has begun twirling it in his fingers the way he’s always done when he’s bored, when he’s anxious, when he’s about to unleash the fury of a thousand undead upon his worst enemies. Jiang Cheng can’t tell which one it is, this time.
He blurts, “You’re not carrying Chenqing.”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t pause when he replies, “I thought that would make you happy.”
In the thirteen years of Wei Wuxian’s death, Jiang Cheng has memorized every dip and curve of Chenqing, the exact shade of its lacquer, the shape that it makes held in his palm. He has memorized the weight of it, the feel of it, has spent just as much time polishing it as he has spent polishing Sandu. He has so carefully preserved and maintained it that when tossed to Wei Wuxian’s hand in the middle of the Guanyin temple, it had played perfectly, with no sign that it had been effectively abandoned by its owner for years. He has made no mention of this to anyone. Probably no one but Lan Wangji knew whose possession the flute had fallen into after the siege, because no one had cared past the fact that they believed Wei Wuxian would never play it again.
And yet Jiang Cheng has not managed to explain to himself why he’d paid such close attention to Chenqing’s upkeep all these years if he, too, believed that Wei Wuxian would never play it again. He has never allowed himself to think about it.
“I kept it for you,” Jiang Cheng says heatedly, before he can think better of it. “If you’re just going to be ungrateful about it -”
“I’m not ungrateful about it!” Wei Wuxian interrupts, sounding anxious. He looks as if he wants to continue, eyebrows furrowed, and then he looks at Jiang Cheng’s face. Whatever he finds on there doesn’t make his step falter, but it makes him swallow and look away. “I’m - I just thought. It means something different to you, than it does to me.”
“It does,” says Jiang Cheng.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t answer. It occurs to Jiang Cheng that although they’ve seen each other a few times since that night in Yunping, it hasn’t ever been for any length of time, and only in passing, at formal sect events where Wei Wuxian is always halfway attached to Lan Wangji’s side like a parasite. A careful veneer of politeness, like the letter Wei Wuxian had sent earlier, has always suffused any interaction they’ve had, a line neither of them wanted to cross, a line that Jiang Cheng had set and Wei Wuxian was annoyingly aware of.
They’re not alone now, either, not with a gaggle of excitable juniors trailing after them. But they might as well be, with the two of them at the head, everyone else absorbed in their own conversations.
“That’s why,” Wei Wuxian says carefully, “I thought you would be happy not to see it.”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t want to analyze how, exactly, he feels about it. Instead, he says brusquely, “Do you not use it anymore?”
“Oh, I use it all the time!” Wei Wuxian exclaims cheerfully. “You can ask Sizhui and everyone! Do you remember the bunnies in Cloud Recesses? Lan Zhan took such good care of them after we left, for all these years, they’ve practically taken over the entire back hills now! I play for them all the time, it puts them in such a good mood, the disciples can come in and pick them right up and they won’t startle at all, and -”
“You play Chenqing for your rabbits,” Jiang Cheng says, just to make sure he’s understood right.
Wei Wuxian beams. The strange bamboo flute in his hand twirls faster. “Yeah, they really love it! I’ve been learning all sorts of folk songs and lullabies .... And then sometimes, when the toddlers in the junior dormitories won’t settle -”
“And children,” Jiang Cheng says. “You play Chenqing for rabbits and children? And you play this - this one on night-hunts?”
Wei Wuxian says, “As long as the intent is right, the instrument doesn’t matter.”
Jiang Cheng has absolutely no idea what Wei Wuxian is trying to tell him. “Well, it looks like a shitty flute,” Jiang Cheng declares vehemently. “I bet it sounds terrible. I’m going to go scout ahead and see if I can tell where this stupid trail is leading,” and then he mounts his sword and lifts into the air, without looking back.
The trail isn’t hard to follow from the skies - it’s a wide stretch of dead earth, after all. But Jiang Cheng keeps near the canopy of the trees anyway even as he pushes his sword faster on ahead, because Wei Wuxian is right - if it’s the earth that’s dying, then it’s naturally going to be the earth which would tell them why this is happening. The yellow of the forest stretches on further than Jiang Cheng can hope to gauge, and a little nugget of worry settles in close to his heart even as he narrows his eyes and strokes his thumb over Zidian on his finger. If Wei Wuxian had tracked this all the way from Caiyi, that means it’s moving into Yunmeng, even if it’s taking a strangely winding path. If it’s moving into Yunmeng, it’ll only be awhile before their own farmers and harvests begin to be affected.
The path is nowhere near straight, seemingly purposeless and aimless, just as Wei Wuxian had said. Wei Wuxian is then probably also right, that this is not the work of someone with malicious intent, but probably of some kind of creature. There is no energy, not even resentful energy, that would no doubt be present if it was the work of some kind of demon or spirit. There seems to be no explanation for this kind of sudden death at all.
Jiang Cheng frowns and directs his sword downwards, so that it barely scrapes clean of the tallest of the living trees surrounding the dead. There’s nothing on the ground but dead, dry earth and rotting leaves; there is no sign of life at all besides the rustling of wind. A strangely concentrated rustling of wind, breezing through dried grass. He squints through the darkness, leans in closer -
Sandu falters beneath his feet.
Jiang Cheng yelps and scrambles for balance, Zidian rippling to life automatically to lash out in front of him at some unseen foe. But there’s no foe, he realizes, even as Sandu tips and wobbles and he tries his hardest to hold on, to land safely, to figure out what’s wrong. There’s no foe. There’s nothing there at all. There’s just him, and dead earth, and Sandu refusing to hold on to his weight when it had never once failed him like this before, Sandu tipping dangerously beneath him, Jiang Cheng reaching for spiritual energy to -
Jiang Cheng reaching for spiritual energy to steady himself, and coming up absolutely, stunningly empty.
Fuck, he thinks, and braces himself to hit the ground. He manages to take the brunt of it on his right shoulder, his arms braced up over his head, and groans as his back slams hard into a tree trunk. When his head stops spinning long enough to him to force himself upright, he finds Sandu lying just a few meters away from where he’d sprawled. Although it’s out of its sheath, it has no glint to it other than that of sharpened metal. When Jiang Cheng reaches for that familiar tug of spiritual energy to pull the sword back to his side, there is nothing there at all.
He has no spiritual energy left. Heart pounding, brain scrambling, he presses two fingers against his wrist, not even daring to think the worst - but there it is, his golden core, Wei Wuxian’s golden core, spinning inside him as it ever is. He simply has no spiritual energy. It’s like he’s had his meridians sealed, or has expended all of it in a fight, although he’s pretty sure neither of those things had happened. He had been fine only a moment ago. It was only when he’d urged his sword closer to the ground that his energy been taken.
“Sect Leader Jiang, we heard a crash, Senior Wei sent us ahead to investigate -”
“Uncle, what -”
“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng snaps. He forces himself to his feet to turn to Jin Ling and Lan Sizhui, waving them off impatiently when he staggers under a wave of vertigo and both of them rush forward as though wanting to help. He steps over to Sandu, returning it to its sheath at his belt. His right shoulder aches something horrible, but at least he can still move it. “I’m not hurt. I just fell off my sword.”
Neither of the disciples react for a moment. And then Jin Ling asks, incredulously, “You what?”
“Something took my spiritual energy,” Jiang Cheng says, and kicks irritably at a dead tree trunk. Zidian has settled back onto his finger, a reassuring weight, even if it’s basically useless decoration now without anything to command it with. “I expect it’ll restore itself, but it’ll take time.”
“Something took your spiritual energy?” Jin Ling demands. “How is that possible?”
Lan Sizhui says, “Sect Leader Jiang thinks it’s the same thing that’s taking the life energy from this forest?”
Jiang Cheng crosses his arms, looks at him. “You’re not Lan Wangji’s favored disciple for nothing.”
Lan Sizhui just smiles at him. “Senior Wei told us to ascertain that nothing was wrong and then wait for everyone to catch up. Is Sect Leader Jiang injured anywhere?”
“No,” Jiang Cheng answers shortly.
“Uncle, that doesn’t make sense,” Jin Ling argues. “If it’s taken your spiritual energy, then why are the rest of us alright?”
“It’s because Jiang Cheng was on his sword,” Wei Wuxian’s voice calls, emerging through the foliage with the four or so other Lan disciples in tow. “Whatever’s stealing energy has to be able to sense it, to steal it. It’ll take life energy if it’s all it can get, but spiritual energy is what really feeds it, probably.” He glances at Jiang Cheng. “Are you -”
Wei Wuxian looks at him like he wants to roll his eyes or needle him about it some more, but then he casts his eyes up at the sky above, revealed through the dead foliage, and makes a noise of consideration in his throat. “How close were you flying?”
“I was trying to get closer,” Jiang Cheng says curtly. “That’s when it happened.”
“Did you see what it looked like?” Jin Ling asks eagerly. “Is it a creature? Is it -”
“I didn’t see anything,” Jiang Cheng interrupts. “It just - I thought the grass was moving strangely, so I was trying to get a closer look, but then I fell and there wasn’t anything there.”
“Hm,” Wei Wuxian says, still staring upwards. And then, “How long until your qi replenishes?”
“A few hours. At least.”
“Hm,” Wei Wuxian says again, and then grins brightly and claps his hands, turning to face the disciples. “Well, that’s that, then! This is where we’re making camp for the night, kids!”
“Wait, what?” Lan Jingyi demands, somewhat rudely. “You want us to sleep here? What if the creature comes for the rest of us? What if it takes our spiritual energy and our life energy?”
“Well, you don’t have to sleep if you don’t want to, but I certainly do. I’m tired, we’ve been walking all day,” Wei Wuxian says reasonably. “And the creature won’t come for any of you, unless you start swinging your spiritual energy around everywhere. Nothing’s happened so far while we’re just walking along the trail, after all.”
“But what if -”
“Hop to it,” Wei Wuxian says loudly, waving his arms at them.
Jiang Cheng settles himself down on the ground in meditation position to wait, as the Lan disciples split themselves up neatly to set up camp. One of them comes over to offer him rations, which Jiang Cheng politely declines on account of how Lan Sect rations always taste like sawdust and ash, and Jin Ling comes over to force a bundle of fabric into his arms and tell him that he’s certainly not setting up Jiang Cheng’s tent for him, uncle or not, because Jiang Cheng’s perfectly capable of doing it himself and he was the one who’d insisted on following along.
Then Wei Wuxian comes over and sprawls beside him and says, in a voice too soft to be overheard, “You’re holding your arm funny.”
Jiang Cheng bites back his instinctive retort of you’re holding your arm funny! and instead grits out, “I landed on it. It’ll be fine once my spiritual energy comes back and I can heal it.”
Wei Wuxian lifts himself up on his elbows and squints at him like he doesn’t believe it, but Jiang Cheng doesn’t look back. The ache isn’t horrible. He isn’t lying. After a moment, Wei Wuxian sighs and reaches into his sleeve. “Here. The rations taste horrible, so I picked these up near Lotus Pier while we were waiting for Jin Ling.”
Jiang Cheng catches the steamed bun Wei Wuxian chucks at him just before it bounces off his face. When he looks up, Wei Wuxian is holding an identical one in his hands, ripping into it with his mouth. He carefully pulls apart the bun in his hand.
“I haven’t poisoned it,” Wei Wuxian says, somewhat exasperated. “You can give it back here if you don’t want it.”
“You already gave it to me,” Jiang Cheng says immediately, and sticks half of it into his mouth in one go. It’s cold, but chewy and not quite stale, and it certainly goes down a lot easier than the rations the rest of the disciples are tucking into. Then he says, “You were near Lotus Pier.”
“Yeah, waiting for Jin Ling.” Wei Wuxian pauses. His voice suddenly guarded, he adds, “We waited in the forest where you met us, don’t worry.”
Jiang Cheng wasn’t worried about that. He doesn’t know what he’d been trying to ask. He glares down at the remainder of the bun in his lap and stuffs it into his mouth, to have something to occupy himself with. When he swallows and finally dares to look to his side, he finds Wei Wuxian has rolled over on the ground, finished with his own bun, and has taken out a stack of talisman paper from his sleeves. Jiang Cheng recognizes the talismans for warding, for protection, for sensing evil. When Wei Wuxian produces a brush as well, flipping through the stack for blank paper, he asks, “What’s that for?”
“Jiang Cheng, you don’t know what talismans are?”
“No, I know that -” Jiang Cheng takes a breath. He tries to modulate his voice. “I meant, why are you making so many?”
Wei Wuxian says, “Well, like you said, we don’t know what we’re up against yet. I’m supposed to be in charge of these juniors, you know, and this is the best I can do without demonic cultivation.”
Jiang Cheng frowns. “But you have a golden core now.”
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian agrees. “Unfortunately, it sort of sucks. I’m working on it.”
“You still don’t carry Suibian.”
“Still can’t,” Wei Wuxian says. His words are flippant, his tone even more so, and he keeps his eyes steady on his brush.
Jiang Cheng frowns harder. “Don’t you want to?”
“I did say that I was working on it,” Wei Wuxian answers mildly, like Jiang Cheng hadn’t raised his voice.
And in the meantime, he’s carrying an ugly bamboo flute, green and rough, not even Chenqing. Between that and his flimsy paper talismans, and then his penchant for running into trouble everywhere he goes, Jiang Cheng doesn’t -
“This creature we’re following,” Jiang Cheng says abruptly, to distract himself from that train of thought. “I couldn’t even tell how far the trail leads, from the sky. It’s a waste of time to just keep following it.”
“Well,” Wei Wuxian says carefully, “did you have another idea?”
“Lure it out.”
Wei Wuxian rolls himself onto his side to regard Jiang Cheng thoughtfully. “With spiritual energy, you mean.”
“It’s what it’s after,” Jiang Cheng says. “It came for me when I was on my sword, but I didn’t see anything, so I think it was moving underground.”
“Underground,” Wei Wuxian murmurs. “That would make sense. It’s the earth that it’s eating, after all.”
Jiang Cheng clears his throat. He says, “So we set a trap. If it wants energy, then we’ll give it energy.”
Wei Wuxian grins at him, bright and unexpected. It makes something in Jiang Cheng’s chest jolt uncomfortably. This, in a forest on the outskirts of Yunmeng, in Wei Wuxian’s company, feels like something too familiar. They’ve done this a hundred times, a thousand times. Before Wei Wuxian had been the Yiling Patriarch, after all, he had been -
But there’s no point thinking about those things now, Jiang Cheng tells himself, forcing himself to look away.
“More talismans, then,” Wei Wuxian says, already redirecting his gaze to the clear night sky, more talking to himself than anything else. “For holding, and entrapment, and -”
“Senior Wei, if it’s making talismans, we can do that for you,” Lan Sizhui says, stepping over to them from the camp that the disciples had constructed.
“Oh, Ah-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian says, flopping over to regard Lan Sizhui fondly. “Don’t worry your little head about it! It’s just a few -”
“Senior Wei,” Lan Sizhui says firmly, and then steps all the way up to them and bodily yanks the stack of paper away from Wei Wuxian while Jiang Cheng stares. “Please. Rest.” He glances at Jiang Cheng, inclines his head in acknowledgement. “Sect Leader Jiang.” And then he holds the papers tight to his chest like he thinks Wei Wuxian’s going to snatch them back, and traipses back to the other disciples, back straight.
Jiang Cheng keeps staring.
“Ahhhh,” Wei Wuxian sighs, leaning the side of his cheek against his hand. “What a good boy! Lan Zhan raised him well.”
Jiang Cheng blinks. In the distance, Jin Ling starts blustering as Lan Sizhui divides up the talisman papers and ostensibly sets them all to work, before settling into a sulk after Lan Sizhui speaks a few quiet words to him. “What?”
“You said Lan Wangji raised him?”
“Of course! He’s Lan Zhan’s son, after all!” Wei Wuxian hums thoughtfully. “And mine as well, you know, since I birthed him.”
Jiang Cheng splutters. “Don’t be ridiculous!”
Wei Wuxian laughs and gets to his feet. “I’m going to go climb a tree. Get some rest, Jiang Cheng. Don’t sleep on that arm of yours, though.”
“I’m not dumb, of course I won’t!” Jiang Cheng snaps, but Wei Wuxian has already disappeared up a tree.
He glares back at the disciples’ camp, where Jin Ling and Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi have their heads bent together over the talisman papers, whispering furiously. The rustling in the tree overhead quiets after a few minutes, and Jiang Cheng settles back into meditation position, resigning himself to waiting out the night alone.
The morning dawns with Jin Ling’s voice in his ear, yelling, “Uncle, wake up!” accompanied by the distant noises of Wei Wuxian whining for five more minutes, just five more - Sizhui, please, be good, just five more -
“Is your spiritual energy back?” Jin Ling asks impatiently, as Jiang Cheng stands to stretch out the stiffness from the night before.
Jiang Cheng frowns and presses a hand to his right shoulder. He’d fallen asleep last night still sitting up, before he could heal himself, without bothering to set up his tent. He channels spiritual energy into his shoulder now, soothing over the strained tendons and pulled muscles. When he’s done, he rotates it a few times, and notes with approval that the pain is mostly gone. “I’m fine,” he answers shortly, and smooths down the front of his robes. “Are we headed out?”
Jin Ling makes a face. “As soon as Sizhui gets Uncle Wei presentable, I guess,” he says. “He always takes a while to wake up.”
Jiang Cheng scowls and looks up. In the tree, Lan Sizhui is bodily wrestling Wei Wuxian into his outer robes. “Just throw him out of the tree.”
“He did spend most of the night awake keeping watch, Uncle.”
Jiang Cheng pauses. “Did he?”
“Who else?” Jin Ling says rudely.
“Don’t take that tone with your elders,” Jiang Cheng snaps, but only half-heartedly. He looks up again, at where Lan Sizhui has secured most of Wei Wuxian’s clothing for him and is now sweeping his hair up into his usual ponytail with terrifying efficiency. “Didn’t he say he was tired? He could’ve asked someone else.”
“Well, you know what he’s like,” Jin Ling shrugs, as if Jiang Cheng has any idea what Wei Wuxian is like anymore these days.
He says, “Jin Ling.”
“Is - is that Lan Sizhui really his son?”
“Well, apparently,” Jin Ling says. “Sizhui calls Hanguang-jun his father. And, you know.”
Jiang Cheng knows. He’s not sure that there’s anyone in the cultivation world who doesn’t. “Why didn’t anyone tell me about this?”
Jin Ling stares at him. “Why would anyone?” he asks, sounding truly confused, and then Jiang Cheng makes to hit him instinctively so he darts away, yelling, back to help the rest of the Lan disciples finish breaking down camp.
Why would anyone? Jiang Cheng thinks. Why would anyone tell him that Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian have apparently adopted a son? Wei Wuxian doesn’t have any ties to Yunmeng Jiang anymore. He hadn’t even deigned to come into Lotus Pier when he’d been mere minutes away. He doesn’t - he doesn’t owe Jiang Cheng this, probably. He might owe Jiang Cheng a lot of other things, but - not this.
“Oh, Jiang Cheng, you’re awake?” Wei Wuxian yawns, dropping down beside him to slump against the tree he’d been up keeping watch in, apparently.
“Some of us don’t have the luxury of sleeping in all the time!” Jiang Cheng retorts automatically, and bites his lip.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t even flinch, busy rubbing sleep from his eyes. “We should get going, then, lots to do today.”
Lan Sizhui, who has come up at Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, smiles at him as politely as ever. It doesn’t reach his eyes.
They follow the trail eastward, doubling back on ground Wei Wuxian and the Lan disciples have already covered, because Wei Wuxian had reasoned that since the creature wasn’t following any set path, as long as they’re somewhat close to where it’s already been, then it should be able to sense them fine, and to keep going west was to move closer to towns in Yunmeng than anyone really wanted to lure an unknown monster towards. They settle close to the borders between Gusu and Yunmeng, finding a large clearing just off the path of forest that the creature had consumed.
“You’ve been tracking this how long?” Jiang Cheng asks, frowning.
“Just under a week,” Wei Wuxian says. “Why?”
“This is close to Caiyi, where it started, isn’t it? The grass should be growing back by now,” Jiang Cheng says, and then points. “But there’s nothing.”
Wei Wuxian narrows his eyes. “Well,” he says. “After we kill this thing, we’ll figure out if there’s a reason for that, or if life will start coming back naturally after it’s dead.”
“What if it never comes back?” Jin Ling asks doubtfully. “What if it’s just - dead?”
Wei Wuxian reaches out and ruffles his hand through Jin Ling’s hand, earning himself a scowl. “Most things in life are hardier than that, dear nephew,” he says affectionately. “Go help the other kids set up the talismans, hm?”
“We’re not kids!” Jin Ling rebukes, but he stomps away to do as told anyway.
“Ah, children, they grow up so fast,” Wei Wuxian sighs, and then follows at a more leisurely pace to make sure everything’s being set up right, leaving Jiang Cheng alone.
The talismans that Lan Sizhui had drawn up with the other disciples last night are being pasted on trees all around the clearing, talismans first for binding and warding, and then for suppression. As a spiritual creature that was taking spiritual power, they’d reasoned that it was probably better not to try taking it on head-on, since as far as Jiang Cheng could tell, there was no warning before he’d had his energy scraped clean and no matter how advanced their cultivation, they had no hope of killing something like this without spiritual energy. No, Wei Wuxian had decided, better to trap it and figure it out first. The juniors would lure it out with their energy first, and then when it showed itself, hopefully it would be distracted enough that Wei Wuxian could activate the talismans and suppress its power -
“Why not me,” Jiang Cheng says bluntly.
Wei Wuxian pauses in the middle of affixing the last few protection talismans around the clearing, turning to look at him. The juniors have already spread themselves out at the perimeter. “What?”
“I can lure it out,” Jiang Cheng says. “Just me. I have the largest reserves of spiritual energy here. It’ll be the least risky and give you the most time, if I’m the one who lures it out, and you and Jin Ling and the others trap it.”
“Uncle, it knocked you off your sword,” Jin Ling says, as if Jiang Cheng needed to be reminded of such a fact.
Jiang Cheng refuses to acknowledge the flush on his cheeks. “It caught me off guard,” he says, trying his best to keep his voice level. “It’s not going to happen again. Wei Wuxian, you know I’m right.”
At Wei Wuxian’s side, Lan Sizhui’s face does something funny before it settles back into his usual disarmingly polite facade. But Wei Wuxian just looks troubled at his words. “Just you, Jiang Cheng? That’s - we don’t even know what we’re dealing with here.”
“I’m the most experienced cultivator here,” Jiang Cheng replies testily. “It makes sense.”
“Jiang Cheng, that’s - dangerous, and reckless, and -”
Everything seems to flash white. Jiang Cheng says, quiet, “Oh, so you’re allowed to play the hero, but no one else is?”
Wei Wuxian’s face goes from shocked to confused to steel determination. “Jiang Cheng, that’s not what I’m saying,” he says, his voice reasonable, clear, stepping forward with his hands reaching out for him, like Jiang Cheng is the one who needs to be talked down and reasoned with. Like he’s the one in the wrong, like he always is, and Wei Wuxian is only trying to help him realize that. “I only meant, since we don’t even know what we could be up against, it might be better to play it safe.”
“Letting me be bait is playing it safe,” Jiang Cheng says, and only realizes that he’s yelling when Lan Sizhui makes a tiny movement at Wei Wuxian’s side, as if trying to step between them, stopped only by Wei Wuxian’s hand on his arm pulling him back.
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian says, exasperated. “You’re not listening to me.”
No one has ever asked Wei Wuxian to be the hero, yet he always has been, Jiang Cheng thinks a little deliriously. Wei Wuxian is always right, Wei Wuxian always knows the best thing to do, Jiang Cheng’s just throwing a temper tantrum. Jiang Cheng’s just being ungrateful. His hand clenches around Sandu’s hilt instinctively, although he doesn’t remember moving his hand to his belt.
“Uncle,” Jin Ling calls, his voice high and anxious and far away.
“My mistake,” Jiang Cheng sneers, before he can stop himself. He doesn’t know if he wants to stop himself. “I forgot that we all have to listen to you, Wei Wuxian. You know best. You’re always the hero, you saved the entire cultivation world, we should all be thanking you on our knees -”
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Sizhui says firmly, still politely, but his eyes are steel. Jiang Cheng recognizes that expression, he thinks. It’s Wei Wuxian’s, through to the core. “You’re going too far.”
“I’m going too far?” Zidian crackles on his finger, flaring to life before he can remember to restrain it, reacting to his own heightened emotions.
Wei Wuxian says, expression suddenly horrified, “Jiang Cheng - !”
And then Jiang Cheng’s grip on his sword has loosed, and he’s being flung through the air for the second time in as many days. His back slams into something hard - probably a tree - and he winces and tries to catch himself as he lands, but doesn’t quite manage it. His right shoulder buckles easier this time, not quite fully healed, and Jiang Cheng shoves aside the white-hot pain that flashes through his entire side as he frantically shoves himself to his feet.
Something has warped the earth of the clearing, making it bulge upwards at random. There is none of the resentful energy that would accompany a spirit or ghost or a demonic creature, but the ground is rippling, a concentrated earthquake beneath their feet. The Lan disciples have all taken to trees, afraid of using spiritual energy to call upon their swords. Although they keep their composure in the way Jiang Cheng is accustomed to from the Gusu Lan Sect, tension strains all their faces.
From the side of the clearing, hand pressed against a talisman like he’d been trying to activate it, Wei Wuxian yells, “Jiang Cheng, are you dead?”
“Fuck you!” Jiang Cheng yells back, with absolutely no heat at all. He’s already determined that most of his spiritual energy is gone, leaving him barely enough to unsheath Sandu, so he doesn’t even bother to try. He stumbles properly upright, finding himself close to the edge of the clearing, the only one on the ground. “Activate the talismans!”
“Can’t,” Wei Wuxian shouts. “It’s still underground, if it won’t show itself, none of these talismans will work.” His voice is shaky with anxiety, although Jiang Cheng can tell, even with his slightly blurring vision, that he’s standing tall, flute gripped tight in his hands, ready to play at a moment’s notice. But there’s no resentful energy here for him to wield. It’s useless.
It dawns on Jiang Cheng that no one ever really wants to be the hero.
He grips Sandu in his sweat-slick hand. The ground ripples, mere meters in front of him, and his eyes narrow as he tracks it. If it lives underground, it probably can’t see well. If it tracks through following spiritual energy, then Jiang Cheng will give it all he’s got. “Wei Wuxian!”
Wei Wuxian hadn’t looked away from him, but now his eyes snap up to Jiang Cheng’s. Understanding blooms on his face, and then grim resolve. “On your mark.”
Jiang Cheng nods. And then he throws himself into the air, unsheathing Sandu in a single, practiced arc.
The ground seems to shake and rumble beneath him, rippling through the air around him. He doesn’t let himself look down. He pulls on his overstrained core, reaching for more, more, just a little bit more, forcing himself higher into the air, forcing himself to hold Sandu steady.
Something howls and wails and thrashes, its body unwieldy, its giant, swollen tail crashing through the surrounding foliage and uprooting trees. The air shimmers with wards just before Jiang Cheng realizes that he’s expended the last of his spiritual energy.
Sandu suddenly weighs a thousand times heavier in his hand, twisting in his fumbling grip; he tries to redirect it to its sheath automatically, then tries to do it manually, but he’s already falling.
The monster screams below him, furious at its sudden restraints. Its giant maw opens, and it twists and trembles and snaps.
Jiang Cheng is falling -
The juniors are already leaping through the air, swords out, ready to take the monster down, but Jiang Cheng is already falling. They’re not going to get there in time, and Jiang Cheng has nothing left to protect himself with but a sword he can’t use, a sword whose weight has sprained his wrist. He braces himself and grits his teeth anyway.
A weight slams into him, black-robed and blurred in desperation, knocking him off-course. The monster wails.
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng gasps, as they tumble down together, roll to the edge of the clearing. “You’re - it wants me, it can’t sense you, you should’ve stayed away, what kind of idiotic -”
“You said it yourself, I’m the only one who gets the play the hero,” Wei Wuxian grits out. His hair is wild around his face, and if Jiang Cheng feels like his entire side has been bruised by Wei Wuxian using his whole body to shove Jiang Cheng out of the way, then Wei Wuxian must be even worse off. His hand closes around the front of Jiang Cheng’s robes, dragging him upright. “Can you stand?”
Wei Wuxian staggers to his feet and grins at Jiang Cheng, despite the situation. “Come on, quick, I think it’s blind but we have to -” And then his eyes go wide.
Jiang Cheng senses it before he feels it, a shadow abovehead. Even as he jerks himself around to face the monster, he can tell they’re not going to get away in time; although it’s been restrained by wards and being distracted by the juniors leaping at it from various directions with all their spiritual energy on display, it still thrashes, and its tail sweeps indiscriminately through the foliage as it struggles against its binds. In this case, its huge tail is slicing downwards through the air, moments away from crushing them both into the ground.
Jiang Cheng doesn’t even have to think about it. He summons strength from reserves he hadn’t even been aware of, and shoves Wei Wuxian out of the way.
His hand closes around Sandu, which had never left his side, even without spiritual energy to command it. Zidian is merely a ring with him like this, but Sandu remains a blade that can be wielded. It takes far more effort than he’s used to, far more effort than he’d thought himself capable of giving after being thrown around like a ragdoll like this, but he grips it in both his hands and thrusts it blindly upwards with as much force as he can muster.
Weight like he’s never felt before slams into his side, knocking the breath out of his lungs, feeling like suffocation. The world goes black.
Jiang Cheng hears the music before he wakes, and then he immediately wishes he’d stayed unconscious.
The guqin stills, anyway. Lan Wangji says, his voice steady as ice, “Jiang Wanyin, you’re awake.”
No, Jiang Cheng thinks, but he opens his eyes anyway. He doesn’t recognize the ceiling. He attempts to struggle upright, but the entire right side of his body feels like it’s been crushed into pulp, and he’s forced to slump back down almost immediately.
“Don’t try to sit up,” Lan Wangji tells him, voice flat. “You’re very hurt.”
“No kidding,” Jiang Cheng mumbles. “Is this the Cloud Recesses, then?”
“Yes.” Lan Wangji strums a single chord on his guqin; the music washes over Jiang Cheng, soothing and calm, like a balm on his wounds. It occurs to Jiang Cheng that if Lan Wangji’s here now, playing for him, that means he’s probably been here a while helping speed up Jiang Cheng’s recovery.
“Is my arm still there?”
“Yes.” There’s a pause. Soft music fills the space in between. Jiang Cheng wants to sit up, but he doesn’t know that he can do that on his own, and he’s certainly not about to ask Lan Wangji to help. “You have a sprained shoulder and three bruised ribs. You should not move unnecessarily.”
“How long has it been since -” Jiang Cheng stops, unsure how to word it.
“You have been in a healing sleep for three days,” Lan Wangji answers perfunctorily. “Wei Ying carried you here, since it is closer than Lotus Pier.” He pauses. “Both of you have been very stupid.”
Jiang Cheng bristles. He braces his hand on the bed he’s lying on, and forces himself upwards despite the immediate screaming pain that flashes white-hot across his shoulders and ribs. “Look, just because you’re the Chief Cultivator now -”
“Jiang Cheng! You’re awake!”
Lan Wangji immediately stops playing and half-turns towards the entrance of the guest room Jiang Cheng finds himself in. “Wei Ying.”
Wei Wuxian bursts into the room, looking like he’d just tumbled out of bed. Maybe he has; Jiang Cheng’s still too disoriented to tell what time of day it is. He beams first at Lan Wangji, who regards him stoically, without a single change in his expression, and then comes to sit down on the bed by Jiang Cheng. It jostles the blankets and makes Jiang Cheng wince, and Wei Wuxian looks horrified, then apologetic, and attempts to smooth the blankets back down over Jiang Cheng.
“I’m not an invalid!” Jiang Cheng snaps, and then winces again when even taking the blankets from Wei Wuxian tugs at his side.
“You kind of are, at least for a while longer,” Wei Wuxian tells him apologetically. “Lan Zhan’s been playing for you, but I don’t think you’re going to be well enough to fly back to Lotus Pier for at least another two days.”
Jiang Cheng sighs, and rubs his palm against his temples. “Where’s Jin Ling? The other juniors?”
“None of them were hurt,” Lan Wangji tells him calmly, before Wei Wuxian can say anything. “Only the two of you.” Another pause. “Because you were being stupid.”
Jiang Cheng says through gritted teeth, “Lan Wangji -”
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian interrupts hastily. “I’m hungry, I woke up too late for breakfast -”
“I left you a tray in the Jingshi.”
“ - but it’s not yet time for lunch, and I’m hungry again!” Wei Wuxian grins, flashing his most winning smile. “Lan Zhan, you wouldn’t make me go hungry, would you?”
Lan Wangji looks at him. Wei Wuxian flutters his eyelashes. Jiang Cheng redirects his gaze pointedly out the window.
“... I will bring more food to the Jingshi,” Lan Wangji says, and then stands. He picks up his guqin, steps forward to brush a hand over Wei Wuxian’s cheek then rests it against the bend of his neck for a few moments, before he turns and sweeps out of the room.
Wei Wuxian sags back against Jiang Cheng’s bed. “He’s mad at me,” he sighs morosely.
“Is that even possible?” Jiang Cheng asks brusquely. “He’s mad at me.”
“He’s always mad at you, though,” Wei Wuxian says reasonably. “But now he’s also mad at me.”
Jiang Cheng clears his throat. “He’s - um. He’ll get over it. You two are - yes. It’s normal for, um. For married people to. He’ll get over it.”
Wei Wuxian eyes him worriedly. “Jiang Cheng, I know Lan Zhan will get over it. Also, I don’t exactly mind that he’s mad at me, it makes - wait, are you trying to comfort me?”
“I hit my head! Multiple times!”
Wei Wuxian sniggers at him, and then he says, “Jin Ling’s with the other juniors, they’re all fine. He’s been waiting for you to wake up before he goes back to Koi Tower. No doubt he’ll want to come in and bother you himself, too.”
“And the -”
“They took out the monster together.” Wei Wuxian smiles at him wryly. “I guess the two of us were sufficient distraction.”
“Lan Wangji said the two of us were hurt,” Jiang Cheng recalls. He frowns at Wei Wuxian accusingly. “I thought I got you out of the way in time.”
“You pushed me into a tree,” Wei Wuxian tells him drily. “I also hit my head.”
“Oh. Um.” Jiang Cheng pauses, wondering if he’s supposed to apologize.
“Don’t worry, I probably would be even worse off than you right now if you hadn’t,” Wei Wuxian says lightly. “My golden core isn’t developed enough to help with the healing process, and all.”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t know what to say in response to this. Wei Wuxian reaches over to the table by Jiang Cheng’s pillow, and takes up the teapot that Jiang Cheng hadn’t noticed before. He flips over one of the teacups waiting on the same tray, and pours, before handing it to Jiang Cheng.
The tea is fragrant and hot, perfectly steeped. “This tea is actually good,” Jiang Cheng says, surprised, after he finishes the entire cup in one gulp. Wei Wuxian reaches to pour him some more, and he lets him. “This might be the only good tea I’ve ever had here.”
“That’s because I made it personally, and didn’t tell anyone else it was for you,” Wei Wuxian answers cryptically. Jiang Cheng frowns, but before he can ask for clarification, he adds, “Cloud Recesses was closer than Lotus Pier, and you were in a pretty bad shape. I hope you don’t mind we brought you here.”
Jiang Cheng says, “Lan Wangji says you carried me here.”
“Not technically,” Wei Wuxian says quickly. “It’s faster on sword, so I got Sizhui to fly you back, I only carried you in here once we were in the Cloud Recesses.” He clears his throat like he’s embarrassed, although Jiang Cheng has never seen him seriously embarrassed about anything before in his life. “Anyway. The doctor will be coming by in a while to make sure you’re healing up okay, and then once you’re cleared to move you can go home.”
Jiang Cheng considers this, and then the hot tea in his hands, and Wei Wuxian sitting beside him, his fists clenched on top of his knees, not quite daring to look up at Jiang Cheng. He licks his lips. He says, “Thanks.”
Wei Wuxian jerks a little. He still doesn’t look up. “Well,” he says, laughing weakly. “It was - faster -”
“The dead earth that the monster ate,” Jiang Cheng says. “Is it growing back?”
“A few of the disciples went back to check, after we got you back here,” Wei Wuxian says. “It’s growing back. It might take a while, it’s a lot of ground to cover, but it’ll be fine, I think.”
“Growing back,” Jiang Cheng repeats. His throat feels strangely thick. “That’s - good.”
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian agrees, sounding unsure.
Jiang Cheng drinks his tea. Wei Wuxian, for once in his life, sits in silence. He fidgets, though, because he’s never been good at keeping still, at being quiet, at letting things go. Jiang Cheng understands; he’s not very good at letting things go, either. After a moment, Wei Wuxian begins, “Jiang Cheng -”
“I kept it for you,” Jiang Cheng says helplessly. He doesn’t know how else to say what he wants to say. “Chenqing, I kept it for you.”
Wei Wuxian finally looks up, and meets Jiang Cheng’s eyes. He places his hand carefully on top of Jiang Cheng’s. The weight is warm, and familiar. Jiang Cheng doesn’t let himself jerk away from it. “I know,” he says, smiling. “Jiang Cheng, I know.”