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everyone else is spring bound

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What Jiang Cheng wanted to do, more than anything, was to go home and take a nap.

Unfortunately, that was probably not in the cards just now. Probably not for the next several months, at least. What a mess. The Chief Cultivator and leader of Jin Clan disgraced and then dead, Lan Xichen’s dazed eyes didn’t bode well either, and Jiang Cheng was about to be beat out for the title of youngest sect leader in living memory. All in less than a single day.

No, Jiang Cheng had a feeling things were going to be busy for a while.

Oh, yes, and Wei Wuxian was back, and apparently mostly innocent of almost everything he’d been accused of. Not entirely, but the worst of least hadn’t been directly his fault. The Yiling Patriarch was not, in fact - despite what many varied and loud voices might have said for over a decade - the source of all evil.

Jiang Cheng had the advantage of at least having known all along that Wei Wuxian didn’t drink the blood of babies. That would put him ahead of some people, though having a new target would probably help everyone else adjust easily enough. And the constant presence of Hanguang-jun hovering like an overgrown hawk poised to strike anyone who made a wrong move in Wei Wuxian’s direction would likely take care of the rest, or at least keep anyone from trying anything openly. So that was...fine.

No. It is not fine. It is really not fine.

He walked away from Guanyin Temple with a-Ling in tow. Jiang Cheng could see the slightly stunned look in his nephew’s eyes, like he hadn’t quite absorbed everything that had happened. All the more reason to get him away from here before it fully hit him, and not hang around amidst the blood and ruin and death.

He kept himself from looking back. Undoubtedly it was his imagination that made it feel as though his golden core was somehow pulsing, but it didn’t feel like he was imagining it. It felt real, and strange, and deeply uncomfortable.

“Are you sure you want to leave now?” Jin Ling asked again. Jiang Cheng scowled at him.

“Yes,” he said. “I’m sure. I want you to see a healer.”

Now it was Jin Ling scowling at him. “I don’t need a healer.”

“Did I sound like I was asking what you thought?” His eyes kept catching on that thin red line where the guqin string had cut flesh, triggering that painful clenching feeling in his chest. Jin Ling’s scowl darkened further, his shoulders drawing up, and Jiang Cheng took a deep breath. “I just want certain.”

“Fine,” Jin Ling said, grudgingly, but he relaxed a little. Maybe, murmured a voice that sounded a bit like his sister, you ought to try expressing your concern as concern more often, rather than anger.

I think that would just confuse him, Jiang Cheng thought wryly.

Of course, he was going to have to be careful moving forward. Jin Ling was going to have a difficult road ahead of him, proving himself as a leader and rebuilding Lanling Jin Sect. An even harder time than Jiang Cheng had. At least in public, they were going to be equals, and for the sake of Jin Ling’s position he would have to remember that.

In public. When it was just the two of them - he was still Jin Ling’s uncle. And Jin Ling was going to need that, too.

You’re still avoiding it. Again.

So what if I am? Jiang Cheng thought. It’s been a long day. It’s been a long week.

It’s been a long sixteen years.

That nap kept sounding better and better, and also receding further and further into the distance.

He probably should have brought Jin Ling back to Koi Tower, but he didn’t. They flew back to Lotus Pier instead, and Jin Ling was either too out of it to object or just didn’t want to.

He made it five hours, all the way there, and through an inspection by a healer before he broke down and cried. Hard and desperately, like his world had just broken apart (Jiang Cheng knew that sound) and of course that was exactly what had happened. Honestly, Jiang Cheng was impressed he held out as long as he did. Maybe it just took that long for it all to sink in.

Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure it’d sunk in for him yet. It wasn’t so much that it seemed out of the realm of possibility - Jin Guangyao was clever, and everything he’d said had made a kind of warped sense. It was just that it was...a lot.

At least Jin Ling let him hold him, as Jiang Cheng had when he’d been small and woke crying from nightmares. He wouldn’t ever admit it, but it did him no small amount of good, too.

“It’s over,” he said heavily, when the worst of the storm had blown itself out. “It’s all over. You’re safe.”

Jin Ling hiccuped. “I know,” he said wetly. “That’s not it.”

No, he supposed it wasn’t.

“He did all those bad things,” Jin Ling said, dashing a hand across his eyes. “I shouldn’t be - I shouldn’t feel-”

Oh, did Jiang Cheng know how that felt. He cleared his throat. “He was your uncle,” he said.

Jin Ling took an unsteady breath. “I wish…” He trailed off. Hunched his shoulders, closing in on himself. Jiang Cheng groped for the right words.

“You haven’t done anything wrong,” he said finally, hoarsely, because it was one of the things he wished someone had told him. “It’s not your fault.”

If anyone should have seen, it should have been him. He was supposed to be a sect leader. (Never mind that no one else had, either. Not even Lan Xichen.)

“I know that,” Jin Ling said, but his shoulders relaxed a little. “I just-” He paused, and then said, quieter, “I don’t understand.”

Neither do I, Jiang Cheng thought, though he didn’t really think they meant the same thing. “You don’t need to understand right now.”

Jin Ling turned a little toward him, his eyes puffy and tear tracks down his cheeks, looking younger than he had in years. “Do you?” he asked, sounding almost hopeful. Like he believed, or wanted to believe, that his jiujiu could make sense of the senseless.

The thing was - the thing was that he could, sort of. Could see how bitterness and frustration, the sense of never quite being good enough, of never living up to a seemingly arbitrary standard someone else had set, could gnaw at a person until there was nothing left but hatred and resentment.

In another world…

He shook his head a little and said, “I don’t know.”

Jin Ling looked disappointed. His gaze dropped again.

“I’m going to be Sect Leader now, aren’t I,” he said.

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng said. “You will. But you won’t be alone.” He swallowed the lump in his throat. “I did it, when I wasn’t much older than you are now. So can you.”

Jin Ling glanced sideways at him. There were new shadows in his eyes, Jiang Cheng saw. A new weight on his shoulders. In less than a week, he’d aged a year. This isn’t what I wanted for you, he thought with a burst of anger. It’s not fair. You were supposed to be safe.

His best laid plans, as usual.

“I’m not you,” Jin Ling said. It sounded like an admission of guilt.

“A good thing, too,” Jiang Cheng said before he thought about it. Jin Ling gaped at him, then laughed, then looked like he wasn’t sure if he was allowed to laugh. “You’ll do fine,” Jiang Cheng said roughly. “And you’ll have allies.” Jiang Cheng would make sure no one thought they could take advantage of Jin Sect’s vulnerability. He doubted Qinghe Nie Sect would be a problem, and Gusu Lan…

He thought, maybe, Jin Ling would be able to count on their support. If someone mentioned it to Hanguang-jun.

He snagged on that, briefly, then forced it aside for later consideration.

Jin Ling’s glance in his direction looked thoughtful. “I guess so,” he said.

It occurred to Jiang Cheng that this was more, and more openly, than he and Jin Ling had talked in years. It felt...strange. But good.

Maybe you should try it more often, murmured a voice that sounded a bit like a-jie’s. Jiang Cheng made a face to himself.

Don’t count on it, he thought.

Maybe they’d come out of this all right.

There was a sword on the floor of his room.

It wasn’t a surprise. He’d left it there, after all. Thrown it down before bolting like it might bite him, and now he was back, and it was still there. Suibian, lying innocently on the ground, safely sheathed.

Jiang Cheng stared at it for a long time, then gingerly picked it up. He grasped the hilt, hesitated, and pulled.

The blade slid out smoothly, just as it had every time he’d tried. Just as it didn’t for anyone else.

The lump was back in his throat. He sheathed the sword again and this time set it carefully on the bed, staring like it might answer his unspoken questions if he looked at it long enough.

He felt so stupid. Like a trick had been played on him, and everyone had been laughing behind their hands. Like Wei Wuxian had been laughing at him. But-

But he knew that wasn’t true. Wei Wuxian hadn’t said a word. He could have held it over Jiang Cheng’s head a thousand times, and hadn’t. Jiang Cheng probably never would have known, if it weren’t for Wen Ning. Wei Wuxian said it was in the past, it was another life like it was that easy, like he hadn’t mutilated himself for Jiang Cheng’s benefit and at a monstrous cost. Like he’d never regretted or had second thoughts about it. Just think of it as my repayment.

Jiang Cheng pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes.

He should have noticed. Should have put it together. Unbelievable. Stupid Wei Wuxian. Stupid, self-sacrificing, selfish Wei Wuxian. Who did he think he was to just make that decision? Jiang Cheng could strangle him.

Not that he was going to. The great Hanguang-jun would probably run him through the second he so much as twitched in Wei Wuxian’s direction.

His mind was still turning, too. It must’ve been easy for Wen Chao to take Wei Wuxian captive, to throw him into the Burial Mounds to die. He couldn’t have put up much of a fight without his golden core, and probably weak from whatever Wen Qing had done to make the transfer. So that was his fault, too. If that had never happened, would Wei Wuxian have made the Yin Tiger Seal? Would he have turned to demonic cultivation? Would-

Jiang Cheng groaned and slammed the door closed on that entire line of thought. There was no point in wondering. What had happened, happened, and there wasn’t any going back and changing it, so he was just going to have to live with it.

Easier said than done.

He picked up Suibian and set it back down, then picked it up again and went to retrieve supplies for polishing it. It probably didn’t need the attention, considering how long it had gone unused, but it just...seemed like he should. Jiang Cheng very deliberately did not consider why it seemed like it mattered. It just...did.

At least that ritual was familiar enough that he could mostly stop thinking while he went through the motions. That gave him a bit of a reprieve, though it was over too soon, and he was back where he’d been trying not to be, going in circles.

There was a stupid part of him that was hurt. That kept thinking why did you go away with him, why didn’t you come back with me, even though he knew very well why. It wasn’t like it was complicated. One of them had stood up and defended him against the entire cultivation world; the other, to say the least, hadn’t.

And Jiang Cheng hadn’t forgiven him, either. Not by a long shot. He didn’t have to. He still had every right-

Realizing that he was scowling at nothing, Jiang Cheng took a deep breath and made himself relax.

It wasn’t as though anyone was going to argue with him. Wei Wuxian would shrug and accept it, and Lan Wangji would probably give him one warning glower and then ignore him as much as possible. Jin Ling - Jin Ling had very recently stabbed Wei Wuxian.

(You have that in common, now.)

Anyway, it was fine. Nothing that he couldn’t handle.

Just his brother back from the dead and his self-conception turned upside down and a fresh ache in his chest that told him he’d been an idiot to walk away without saying goodbye.

The next day, Jiang Cheng accompanied Jin Ling back to Koi Tower, and it was all he could do not to lurk constantly, protectively, at his side. Doing so would only undermine his very fledgling authority. There was already a risk that he would be seen as propped up or controlled by someone else, and Jiang Cheng would not let anyone call him his nephew’s puppetmaster.

It was hard, though. Not to hover at his shoulder and glare at anyone who so much as looked at him funny. Not to think how small, how young he looked, how vulnerable.

But he was holding his own, and Jiang Cheng’s chest swelled with pride, though he probably didn’t really deserve much credit. It seemed a little as though Jin Ling was managing in spite of Jiang Cheng’s fumbling efforts at parenting rather than because of them.

The other sects arrived shortly thereafter for an impromptu Cultivation Conference, unplanned but clearly necessary. Jiang Cheng noted Lan Xichen’s absence, his brother in his place - his brother, alone.

Now that was a surprise. Jiang Cheng caught himself glancing around like Wei Wuxian might just be lurking in the shadows somewhere, hiding behind a pillar, but he was nowhere to be seen. Just Lan Wangji, stone-faced and impossible to read as always.

Where is he, Jiang Cheng wanted to demand, the moment they came face to face. Where did you put him, you bastard. There was a possibility, of course, that Wei Wuxian had just had a modicum of sense that told him not to show his face in an already tense situation, but that seemed unlikely.

“Hanguang-jun,” he said instead, stiff but polite.

“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Wangji intoned. For the past sixteen years he had treated Jiang Cheng with cold courtesy at best, and at worst, and certainly more often, ice-cold, barely disguised disdain. Jiang Cheng’s stomach soured; it seemed that hadn’t changed.

You can’t keep blaming me for him dying when he’s not even dead anymore, Jiang Cheng thought, but he didn’t say it, and he supposed it wasn’t true anyway. Just because Wei Wuxian was back didn’t mean he hadn’t...

His chest hurt, abruptly. He tightened his jaw and said, “Zewu-jun. Is he…”

“Zewu-jun is in seclusion,” Lan Wangji said. Jiang Cheng thought of the look he’d seen in Lan Xichen’s eyes as he sat in front of the ruins of Guanyin Temple, a sort of lost and desolate thing, and held back a wince.

“Ah,” he said, and struggled for more words. He didn’t manage to find them before Nie Huaisang drew up next to them, fan in hand.

“Hanguang-jun!” he said brightly. “Always good to see you, always...and you, Sect Leader Jiang, of course. You came alone?” The question sounded perfectly innocent, but Lan Wangji tensed.

“Not alone,” he said.

“Oh, haha, of course not,” Nie Huaisang said. “I meant-”

Jiang Cheng cleared his throat loudly. “Sect Leader Nie,” he said, wondering if Nie Huaisang truly wasn’t noticing the warning signs of Lan Wangji about to...all right, not lose his temper, but certainly he wasn’t happy. “I wanted to ask you about…” He groped for something to ask about, and was coming up blank. The smile Nie Huaisang gave him seemed almost pitying.


“Excuse me,” Lan Wangji said, and vacated the premises. Jiang Cheng exhaled, closing his eyes for just a moment before he opened them again.

“Don’t ask,” he said. Nie Huaisang blinked at him.

“Ask what?”

“About…” he made a gesture. “You know. Him.” Jiang Cheng grimaced. “Wei Wuxian.”

“Why not?” Gods. He knew the man wasn’t stupid - or at least he was fairly sure he wasn’t - but he certainly acted like it sometimes.

“Because,” Jiang Cheng snapped, and then reined himself in and said, more soberly, “Wei Wuxian is a bit of a touchy subject for a lot of people. Maybe if Zewu-jun were here, but as it is…”

Nie Huaisang snapped his fan open. “Ah,” he said. “I see. So this is a diplomatic request.”

Why did Jiang Cheng feel as though he was being made fun of? “Sure. Something like that.”

“Of course, of course. Well, then, if you think it’s best.” He paused. “So you don’t know either?”

Jiang Cheng stiffened. “Know what?” he demanded, a bit too loudly. He caught a few heads swiveling in his direction, and then just as quickly looking away.

“Where Wei Wuxian is,” Nie Huaisang said evenly. His eyes looked just a little too intent. Jiang Cheng huffed.

“No,” he said loudly. “And I don’t care. He can do whatever he wants. It’s not my problem.”

Which it wasn’t. At all. Let Wei Wuxian cause trouble. Get himself killed again by pissing off the wrong person without the great Hanguang-jun around to defend him. Whatever.

Jiang Cheng resolutely marked the uneasy squirming in his stomach as decidedly irrelevant.

The choice of Lan Wangji as Chief Cultivator was almost inevitable, and felt a little like desperation. Everyone needed some kind of assurance that things were going to go back to normal, or at least not get worse, and given the man’s unimpeachable reputation he probably seemed like the safest choice.

Mostly unimpeachable. People seemed in a hurry to forget their doubts about his behavior with respect to Wei Wuxian, however, and Jiang Cheng heard Sect Leader Yao loudly proclaiming that he’d been certain all along that Hanguang-jun had known what he was doing and had never doubted him for a moment. Jiang Cheng caught himself wrinkling his nose before he controlled his expression.

He noticed a few other people doing the same thing he had: glancing around what they probably thought was surreptitiously like they thought Lan Wangji might be hiding Wei Wuxian in his robes. Or like he might appear in a puff of smoke, perhaps.

The feast experience. The food was as delicious as ever. The atmosphere was hopelessly awkward. The trust between sects had been badly fractured, and there was a general aura of...shame-facedness. They’d all been tricked, led by the nose, and they all knew it, and no one really wanted to admit it. Lan Wangji was stiff and uncomfortable, Jin Ling was trying very hard to look sure of himself, and Nie Huaisang seemed oblivious. Jiang Cheng was just…

He didn’t know, exactly. There was still a bit of a feeling of unreality. Like he’d missed a step going downstairs.

He saw Jin Ling excuse himself and go out, and after a few moments followed him. It didn’t take too long to find him in one of the rock gardens, his shoulders a little slumped, though he shot to his feet, straightening, the moment Jiang Cheng cleared his throat.

“Sect Leader Jin,” he said, bowing, carefully proper. Jin Ling’s expression flickered but after a moment he bowed back.

“Sect Leader Jiang,” he said. And then grimaced. “Does it,” he started, and then cut off.

“It gets easier,” Jiang Cheng said. Considered for a moment, glanced over his shoulder, and then said, “I felt a little less like I was pretending after my first year.” He took a deep breath. “Your mother would be proud.”

His voice came out sounding a bit funny. Jin Ling looked down, but only for a moment before he straightened up again. “Thank you,” he said. Jiang Cheng waved it off.

“I’m just saying. Since she’s…” Not here. Once again, a-jie’s absence hit him like a sword through his chest. It still did, sometimes, even now. Old grief suddenly fresh again. He had a feeling it was going to be like that for a while, given...everything.

Jin Ling hesitated, then said, “I thought he would come.”

Jiang Cheng didn’t have to ask who he meant. Me, too. He felt a burst of anger, though, for the hurt he could hear that Jin Ling was trying to hide. When he saw Wei Wuxian again he was going to give him a beating for hurting his nephew’s feelings.

Except he wouldn’t, because Lan Wangji would kill him. Well, he’d at least yell at him.

Except he probably wouldn’t do that, either, because there was every possibility that Wei Wuxian was going to avoid him for the rest of both of their lives, which would be understandable, and certainly easier, but still felt like...not what he wanted.

“He’ll show up,” Jiang Cheng said roughly. “Just you wait. When it’s most inconvenient for you. It’s probably good he’s not here right now. He’d just create problems for everyone else, like always.”

Jin Ling’s eyebrows furrowed. “Wei-qianbei isn’t that bad,” he said, the words half a question. After a moment he added, “maybe.”

Jiang Cheng resisted both the urge to scowl and the urge to sigh. Instead he said, “that’s not the point. I just meant you shouldn’t think anything about it.” He hesitated, struggling with himself, then sighed and said, “he’ll come, a-Ling.”

Jin Ling did scowl, embarrassment poorly masked. “I don’t care,” he mumbled. “Whatever.”

He’ll come, Jiang Cheng thought. Just like he would’ve to your first month celebration, even though it was a risk, even though it was dangerous, he would’ve walked into a trap just to see you, he missed a-jie’s wedding but he didn’t want to miss you.

He couldn’t begrudge that, not really. Or, he could, but a sensible part of him knew it could only be a good thing for Jin Ling to have the Yiling Patriarch on his side, and not just because of his possible influence on the new Chief Cultivator.

Also because Wei Wuxian could be, if he wanted, a very dangerous man in his own right, and Jiang Cheng didn’t think anyone was going to completely forget it.

As before, Jiang Cheng kept his ears open for word of Wei Wuxian.

He didn’t have to wait all that long. One thing Wei Wuxian had never been was subtle, and given his notoriety, word of a wandering, solitary cultivator with a flute traveled fast.

Idiot, Jiang Cheng thought. What are you doing, walking around on your own, you know you’re not invincible, don’t you? You know there are plenty of people who still know you as the dread Yiling Patriarch? No sword, no Yin Tiger Seal, what are you thinking?

He worried, and that made him irritable. Annoyed at Lan Wangji, too, for letting him (never mind that Jiang Cheng knew very well that trying to stop Wei Wuxian from doing what he wanted was a futile enterprise).

Perhaps a month and a half after the events at Guanyin Temple, Jiang Cheng received a letter from Lanling in Jin Ling’s hand. Wei-qianbei was here, it said. He apologized for not coming before. We went on a night hunt together. I had to leave Fairy behind. It was weird, but not bad. I asked if he’d gone to see you and he laughed and said no, he didn’t want to get thrown in the lake. I said I didn’t think you’d do that.

I hope I’ll be able to come to Yunmeng soon but we’ll see. Everything is very busy.

Jiang Cheng read it twice, lips pressed together. So Wei Wuxian was visiting Lanling, was he? Taking Jin Ling on night hunts. Apologizing. Well, that was nice.

He knew, somewhere in his gut, that he was being stupid. That he was, not to put too fine a point on it, jealous. And that one sentence stung more than it had any right to. He laughed and said no. Like it was a funny idea, that he’d come to see his own brother. Ridiculous.

Anger was safe. Annoyance was safe. The thing underneath wasn’t. The one he’d spent years and years ignoring.

Hurt. The inescapable feeling that he’d been abandoned.

All these years and it still ached.

Of course, it occurred to Jiang Cheng, Wei Wuxian had never really left him, and wouldn’t: not as long as his golden core resided in Jiang Cheng’s body. He veered away from that, hard, still not quite able to think about it for long. Afraid what might happen to him if he did.

He wrote back: Good. He should be sorry. I hope you’ll be able to come soon, too, but if you can’t I’ll come to you. If you need anything, just ask. He paused, and then added, I wouldn’t throw him in the lake. You can tell him that if he shows up again, and also if anything happens to you on a night hunt I will kill him even if Hanguang-jun kills me afterwards.

There, he thought. Good enough.

If you want him to come visit you could just say so, murmured a little voice that sounded like a-jie, but he shook it away. If Wei Wuxian didn’t want to come, he didn’t have to, and Jiang Cheng was fine with that.

Six months after the events at Guanyin Temple, Jiang Cheng went back to Lanling to visit his nephew. He waited that long to give him the chance to settle in without Jiang Cheng hovering over him, and to make sure that the shockwaves rippling across the rest of the cultivation world weren’t going to damage things in Yunmeng.

Jin Ling seemed stressed, which wasn’t surprising. He also seemed happy to see him, though his greeting was carefully formal, Sect Leader to Sect Leader. Jiang Cheng waited until they were behind closed doors to embrace him, which seemed to catch Jin Ling a little by surprise; he didn’t hold on very long, and the gesture felt more awkward than it should have.

“How is everything,” he asked. “Is anyone giving you trouble?”

“It’s fine,” Jin Ling said, a little too quickly. Jiang Cheng frowned at him, and he looked away, scowling at a corner. “I can handle it.”

“I didn’t say you couldn’t,” Jiang Cheng said carefully. “Let me guess. The smaller sects think they don’t have to listen to you. They’re trying to push you around because they think they can control you.”

Jin Ling’s ears turned pink. “That’s-” he cut off, abruptly.

Jiang Cheng shrugged. “There were people who tried as much with me. You just have to show them that you’re serious, you mean what you say, and they can’t ignore you.”

“I tried,” Jin Ling said with a mixture of frustration and anguish. “But they act like I’m being unreasonable, or don’t know what I’m talking about. But politely. And if I get mad at them they’ll just say it means I’m immature and don’t have any manners.”

Jiang Cheng remembered all of this. How maddening it had been to be dismissed, how closely he’d had to watch everything he did, how often it just didn’t seem to work. And how alone he’d felt the whole time. “Just…” He breathed out, acutely self-conscious.

“You are the Sect Leader. Make sure they know there will be consequences if they don’t recognize that. Be firm. Try to be fair. And in the end...let them say what they want.” His voice hardened. “People always will. And you have to - at least pretend it doesn’t matter. If you let other peoples’ opinions control what you do, you’ll just end up making choices you regret.”

Jin Ling seemed surprised; Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure what to make of that, or what he was surprised about. He cleared his throat. “That’s my advice, anyway.”

Jin Ling nodded, slowly. “Thank you, uncle,” he said. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, “that last part. Wei-qianbei said...sort of the same thing.”

The first thing that Jiang Cheng felt was a flash of envious anger. “You asked him for advice?” he said, voice rising sharply. Jin Ling’s chin came up.

“I didn’t ask,” he said. “He just said. It was annoying.”

“Typical,” Jiang Cheng said. “Always poking his nose in other people’s business.”

The second thing was a twist of unhappy guilt. Because of course Wei Wuxian would say that; it was what he’d done, after all. What he wanted, what he thought was right not caring what other people said, and meanwhile Jiang Cheng had let his fear of what the other sects would think drive a wedge between them. For Jiang Cheng that advice was some he wished he’d been given; for Wei Wuxian it was practiced.

The third was-

“So Wei Wuxian was here again?”

“Yeah,” Jin Ling said after a beat of quiet. “He stopped by a couple weeks ago.” He looked shifty. Jiang Cheng recognized the expression well from Jin Ling’s boyhood as the one he had when he’d gotten into something and didn’t want Jiang Cheng to know about it.

He narrowed his eyes. “Did something happen?”

“No!” Jin Ling said quickly. “He barely even stayed for a day this time.”

Jiang Cheng’s eyes narrowed further. “‘This time?’”

Jin Ling’s ears went pink again. “As opposed to last time,” he said quickly.

Jiang Cheng took a deep breath and let it out. “Jin Ling,” he said, “how often has Wei Wuxian been visiting you?”

“Why does it matter to you?” Jin Ling burst out. “I’m not a baby. I can make my own decisions about who I talk to or don’t talk to.” He sounded very, very defensive. Jiang Cheng opened his mouth, then closed it.

It matters because he’s trouble and trouble follows him. It matters because he’s reckless and stupid and you could get hurt because of that.

He knew both of those were unfair, and not entirely true. He knew Wei Wuxian wouldn’t put Jin Ling in danger, not deliberately. He knew the real answer was: it matters to me because I’m his younger brother, we grew up together, and he hasn’t visited me even once.

“It doesn’t matter,” he muttered. “Does he bring Hanguang-jun with him, then?”

“No?” Jin Ling said slowly, his eyebrows furrowing. “Just him and the donkey.”

Well, Jiang Cheng thought a little spitefully, at least there was that. Though it didn’t actually make him feel any better.

“I can tell Wei-qianbei that he should go see you next time he shows up,” Jin Ling said.

“Who said I wanted to see him?” Jiang Cheng snapped, too sharply. “He can go where he wants.”

Jin Ling had that look on his face again, like he wanted to say something but wasn’t sure if it would be smart. So he was learning to restrain himself, anyway. “Do you really still hate him?” he asked.

You don’t? How quickly the young forgave, Jiang Cheng thought. Or at least, the young who weren’t him; he’d never been so good at that. He understood, though: Jin Ling was young, and short on friends, and had always been lonely in a way Jiang Cheng hadn’t known how to fix because he’d been lonely too. The honest answer for himself was I don’t know. I don’t know what I feel at all.

“It’s complicated,” he said. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter. As long as he doesn’t get you into trouble.”

That brought back the scowl. “I can handle myself,” he said, as he’d been saying since he was twelve. Jiang Cheng shook his head and didn’t say everyone thinks that, right up until they can’t. Especially Wei Wuxian.

He sat down that evening and wrote a letter. Wei Wuxian, it said, Jin Ling says you’ve been visiting him at Koi Tower and giving him advice. I don’t know why you think anyone should take your advice. I haven’t heard anything about you being in Yunmeng. Are you too good for us now? I would’ve thought you’d be spending all your time in the Cloud Recesses, anyway.

Staring down at what he’d written, Jiang Cheng sighed and tore it up. It wasn’t saying what he wanted it to.

He wasn’t sure how to say what he wanted to, or maybe didn’t know what he wanted to say.

As the season was starting to turn, at a teahouse on the way to Koi Tower, Jiang Cheng happened to overhear someone mentioning that she’d heard from her uncle’s nephew’s brother that the Yiling Patriarch had been killed, again.

Before he was aware of deciding to do so, Jiang Cheng was on his feet and standing over their table. “You heard what?” he demanded. All three women stared up at him, looking startled and a little affronted, until one of their eyes widened and she popped to her feet.

“Sect Leader Jiang!” she said, bowing low. “I’m sorry - I meant no offense-”

What did you hear,” he growled.

The story was muddled and semi-coherent, but Jiang Cheng gathered that there’d been some sort of incident further north where Wei Wuxian had been attacked, ambushed in the middle of a night hunt. Jiang Cheng’s heart was galloping and his chest felt tight, a horrified panic gnawing on his heart. He wrung the name of the nearest town out of the women, offered a cursory and abrupt thanks, and sped off.

By the time he arrived, he was frantic, edgy, tense. He barged into the first teahouse he saw and demanded to know if the rumors he’d heard were true.

The proprietor stared at him, looking stunned. “I - who are you?”

“That doesn’t matter,” Jiang Cheng snapped. “Is it true? Was Wei Wuxian killed?”

“ far as I know,” he said.

“The ambush,” Jiang Cheng said. The proprietor looked blank and Jiang Cheng held back the urge to snarl. “Come on.

He was starting to look afraid, now, and stammering, and Jiang Cheng made a disgusted noise, turning on his heel and stalking out. There was a stream of curses rattling around his brain. Stupid, he thought. Stupid, reckless, practically asking for this to happen.

Jiang Cheng spent a fruitless afternoon searching in expanding circles for something, some sign of...but while he found what looked like the results of a scuffle, there was nothing else. No body. Jiang Cheng stared at the disturbed area, trying not to hyperventilate.

It was getting dark. He stalked back, grinding his teeth the whole way, and got himself a room at the inn. By the nervous sideways glances he was getting, he suspected he’d been identified, but thankfully no one actually tried to talk to him.

He sat down on the floor, crossed his legs, and took a deep breath.

No body meant no confirmation. Rumors could say anything. It might not even be Wei Wuxian at all.

Should he send word to the Cloud Recesses? Had Lan Wangji already heard? If he arrived and Jiang Cheng was here he’d probably assume it was his fault, somehow.

He didn’t sleep. The next morning he went out to look again and almost smacked into the object of his search limping back into town, looking battered, pale and bloodstained but very definitely alive.

“Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng said. It came out sounding angry. Wei Wuxian jerked back two steps, staring at him with wide eyes for a moment before he slipped into a lopsided smile.

“Ha,” he said. “Hey, Jiang Cheng.”

The wave of relief almost made him stagger; the wave of anger that followed it helped steady him. “What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded, closing the two steps and grabbing his arm - or, he tried, but Wei Wuxian pulled away so fast he actually tripped and fell over. Jiang Cheng froze and stared at him, and Wei Wuxian stared back.

“Well,” he said after a while, managing a reasonable facsimile of a normal tone, “this is awkward.”

Jiang Cheng’s entire face pinched. “What happened?

Wei Wuxian hauled himself back to his feet and made a rather pointless attempt to dust himself off. “Oh, you know,” he said, evasively. “What’re you doing here? Not that you shouldn’t be, it’s just...unexpected!”

Jiang Cheng clenched his teeth and counted to seven. “Can you walk the rest of the way back?” he barked.

“That’s what I was planning on doing,” Wei Wuxian said. “I think Lil’ Apple ran off.” He sounded very disappointed by that. It took Jiang Cheng a moment to figure out that was probably the donkey’s name.

“I meant-” Jiang Cheng huffed, and shook his head. “Come on. I have a room, since I figure you don’t. Do you even have any money?”

Wei Wuxian was giving him an odd and vaguely suspicious look that Jiang Cheng opted to ignore. “I have some,” he said. “And I had a room, though I guess probably not anymore.”

“Let’s go,” Jiang Cheng said, turning and marching - slowly - back to the inn. Wei Wuxian limped after him in uncharacteristic silence.

“I can,” he did start to say when they walked inside, and Jiang Cheng interrupted him to say, “no.” Up the stairs, into his room, closed the door. Took a deep breath, and stared fixedly at one of the walls.

“So,” Wei Wuxian said. “Uh. Are you going to tell me what’s going on? The suspense is killing me.” Jiang Cheng glanced sharply over his shoulder; the grin suggested that last part was supposed to be a joke.

That’s not funny, Jiang Cheng thought. Aloud he just said, “do you need someone to look at - you?”

“You’re looking at me now,” Wei Wuxian said. Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes and he held up his hands. “Hey! Don’t look at me like that. I’m all right. Could definitely be worse.”

That wasn’t particularly reassuring, but Jiang Cheng decided not to push it. For now. He went back to wrestling with what to say.

“Why are you here?” Wei Wuxian asked, a little quieter. “I know there were some weird happenings here - that’s why I showed up - but nothing serious enough to get your attention, I wouldn’t think. We’re not even in Jiang Sect territory.” He seemed to be feeling his way around something, more cautiously than Jiang Cheng would’ve expected from him. He wasn’t entirely certain what.

“That’s not it,” he said. The words were right on the tip of his tongue. Why couldn’t he just say them?

“I hope you didn’t come all this way just on my behalf,” Wei Wuxian said with a smile that didn’t quite reach all the way to his eyes.

Jiang Cheng ground his teeth and finally, finally, managed to spit it out. “Someone said you’d died.”

“I mean,” Wei Wuxian said, and Jiang Cheng heard himself snarl.

“I mean just now,” he said. “That some people had attacked and killed you.”

Wei Wuxian shrugged, then winced. “They put in a good effort, anyway,” he said. “I figured I’d already done that, though, and it would’ve just been boring to go through it again.”

Jiang Cheng’s fists clenched with the nearly overpowering urge to strangle him. “I thought you were dead,” he said. “Some women said - and I looked but you weren’t - how long has it been?

“I’m not actually sure,” Wei Wuxian said. “It’s a little blurry. It took me a couple days to get back here, anyway, so I guess...maybe five days? Or six?”

Jiang Cheng didn’t quite gape at him. There was a lot, he thought, that was glossed over in there. Enough that he didn’t even know where to start, and wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to ask. There was a cold kind of horror in his stomach. “Who was it?”

“Cultivators,” Wei Wuxian said. “No, I don’t know who, or where from. I don’t think it’s important.” He looked, for just a moment, very tired, but then he quickly shook it off and smiled again. “Anyway, I got away, didn’t I?”

Jiang Cheng sat down on the bed, hard, and put his face in his hands.

“Jiang Wanyin?” Wei Wuxian said after a few seconds.

Oh, he thought wearily. So we’re back to that. “I can’t believe,” he said, “that Hanguang-jun ever let you out of the Cloud Recesses on your own.”

“Hey!” Wei Wuxian exclaimed. “I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean.”

“It means,” Jiang Cheng said, dropping his hands, “that you’re a magnet for problems, and a lot of people still don’t like you very much, and you’re on your own. I expect you to be an idiot, but I thought Lan Wangji was smarter.”

Wei Wuxian straightened - or started to, winced, and just narrowed his eyes, mouth set. “Sect Leader Jiang,” he said tightly, “say whatever you want about me, but he deserves your respect.”

Right. Because Wei Wuxian would let Jiang Cheng punch him in the face but gods forbid he said anything about Hanguang-jun. Before he caught his mouth, though, he said, “not if he doesn’t realize having you wandering around unsupervised is a recipe for disaster.”

Silence. Perhaps that had not been the best thing to say.

“It wasn’t up to him,” Wei Wuxian said finally. His voice was suddenly quiet and unexpectedly serious. “If you have an objection about me being out and about unsupervised, don’t put it on Lan Zhan.”

Jiang Cheng opened his mouth to snap something back, then shut it. None of this was going how he wanted it to. Not that he really knew how he wanted it to go. This was the trouble with being around Wei Wuxian: it put all of his thoughts into a muddle and left him floundering.

It hadn’t, he thought a bit unhappily, always been like that.

“I-” he stopped. They stared at each other in silence. Finally, Wei Wuxian heaved a sigh.

“Okay,” he said. “You thought I was dead. I’m not. There’s no need for you to stick around being uncomfortable.”

“Don’t tell me what to do, Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng snapped.

“Don’t get offended! I was just suggesting.”

“I don’t need your suggestions,” Jiang Cheng said. “I already paid for another night. It would be a waste of money to not stay.” An insignificant amount. But that wasn’t the point. “And someone else could show up and come after you, and it’s not like you could put up much of a fight the way you are now.”

“Thank you,” Wei Wuxian said, sounding just a little offended.

“I’m right,” Jiang Cheng said. Wei Wuxian studied him for several seconds and then seemed to relax; it wasn’t until he did that Jiang Cheng realized how tense he had been. He smiled, though again it didn’t look quite real.

“Sure, sure,” he said. “Whatever you say. I’m not going to be very interesting, though. All I’m going to do is sleep.”

“That’s a good thing,” Jiang Cheng said. “You’ll annoy me less that way.”

Wei Wuxian looked as though his own laugh startled him. “Don’t count on it,” he said. “I’m pretty good at annoying you, Jiang Cheng.”

Jiang Cheng could not - or at least did not - smile. Even if he wanted to, maybe. It was just relief. Jin Ling would be sad, for some reason, if Wei Wuxian died, and Lan Wangji would find a way to make it Jiang Cheng’s fault.

Wei Wuxian’s sleep seemed a little more like unconsciousness. Jiang Cheng adjusted the blankets over him without thinking, then scowled and stood up, walking away. Turned back and stared at his battered erstwhile brother.

“You’re so stupid,” he said.

He breathed out hard through his nose and went to search the market for an apothecary.

“Jin Ling said you’ve been visiting him,” Jiang Cheng said, while Wei Wuxian wolfed down everything on the table within reach like he hadn’t eaten in days. Which, Jiang Cheng thought with a chill, he probably hadn’t. He paused when he spoke, though.

“Mmhm,” he said. “When I’m in the area. He said he’d break my legs if he heard I was there and I didn’t.” He paused, and added, “wonder where he learned that threat.”

“Hm,” Jiang Cheng said.

Wei Wuxian propped his chin on one hand, momentarily pushing aside his food. “He’s a good kid,” he said, gaze oddly intent. Jiang Cheng twitched one of his shoulders. He almost said he takes after his mother but - he couldn’t.

“He is,” he said. For some reason when he said it, it sounded defensive. He paused, then said, “what about Qinghe? Have you been in that area?”

“I’ve been a little bit of everywhere,” Wei Wuxian said. “Just going where the road is. Free as the wind, you know.”

“And Yunmeng?”

There was a very pregnant pause for several seconds. “Maybe,” Wei Wuxian said cautiously.

“But not Lotus Pier.”

This pause was even longer. “I wasn’t sure that would be a good idea,” Wei Wuxian said.

That hit him like a sword through his chest. So maybe it wasn’t exactly surprising, but it was still - it still hurt, more than it should have. It was fair, it was understandable, maybe he was even right. And yet.

“Why not,” he said, because he wanted to know what Wei Wuxian would say. He looked at Jiang Cheng blankly like he didn’t quite understand the question.

“Well, I’ve heard I’m a disgrace and a traitor to the Jiang Sect,” he said eventually. “Also, last time I was there Lan Zhan had to carry me out. So…”

Jiang Cheng did not wince. He did not. And he wasn’t going to feel guilty, either. Couldn’t, not now, or he’d do something stupid like start crying.

“That was before…” He trailed off. “Never mind. I’m just saying if you wanted to, you could. Just if you were in the area. It’s prettier than the Unclean Realm or Koi Tower.” There he was sounding defensive again.

Your room is still there. You could come and stay for a little while. It wouldn’t be like old times, but it would be something new, and maybe that would be all right.

Wei Wuxian was giving him sort of an odd look, his head cocked a little to the side. “All right,” he said after a few moments. “Good to know.”

Jiang Cheng jerked his head in a nod and cleared his throat.

“You should be more careful,” he said.

“Ai-ya,” Wei Wuxian said, exaggeratedly aggrieved. “You’re lecturing me? Who’s the older brother here?”

“Me, now,” Jiang Cheng said. “And I’ve always been more responsible.”

“Hm,” Wei Wuxian said. Jiang Cheng scowled at him.


“Nothing, nothing,” Wei Wuxian said, too innocently. “You’re very responsible.”

“You-!” Jiang Cheng huffed, glared.

I missed you, he couldn’t say. I hated you. I mourned you. I missed you.

Wei Wuxian did come to Lotus Pier.

He didn’t come alone.

“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Wangji said. Jiang Cheng’s face felt frozen. He was sure he was imagining the ‘you bastard’ that felt like it was always silently tacked on to the end of his name, with him. Fairly sure.

“Hanguang-jun,” he said. And did not try very hard to avoid the subtext of ‘insufferable ass.

They stared at each other. Jiang Cheng was not going to look away first.

“Ah, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said. “I told Lan Zhan I was visiting Lotus Pier and he insisted on coming.” Lan Wangji’s eyes slanted in Wei Wuxian’s direction, very briefly, before snapping back to Jiang Cheng. He wondered if that counted as breaking eye contact first. “He never really got to visit, and he agrees with you, too.”

Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes. “Agrees with me about what,” he said, because he didn’t feel like saying he did visit, actually, once, while you were dead. It was probably the most uncomfortable conversation of my life.

“That I shouldn’t travel on my own,” Wei Wuxian said. His pout in Lan Wangji’s direction was almost certainly an exaggeration.

“Hm,” Lan Wangji said. His eyes narrowed in Jiang Cheng’s direction. “I didn’t say that.”

“We-ell. Not in so many words, but the look on your face...”

Jiang Cheng moved his gaze to look at Wei Wuxian, because he was the one talking, and so it didn’t count as looking away. “So you went back to the Cloud Recesses?”

“Stopped by,” Wei Wuxian said. He sounded evasive. Lan Wangji gave him a hard, frowning look.

“Hm,” he said again, with a slightly different tone.

“For a while,” Wei Wuxian amended. Jiang Cheng looked back and forth between them with the unpleasant feeling like he was missing something, and the equally unpleasant feeling that he resented it.

“You are both...welcome,” Jiang Cheng made himself say, aloud. “Hanguang-jun. You honor us. With your visit.”

Lan Wangji bowed stiffly. “Thank you,” he said.

This, Jiang Cheng thought miserably, was going to be excruciating.

Lan Wangji did leave them alone eventually, with obvious reluctance and a long, steady look in Jiang Cheng’s direction that seemed to say try anything and I will kill you. Jiang Cheng set his teeth and met his gaze levelly, thinking as hard as he could this is my home and you can’t bully me in it. Lan Wangji just turned and walked gracefully away.

Leaving him and Wei Wuxian alone sitting across from each other.

There were several things Jiang Cheng wanted to say. Did you have to bring him with you was one; is he here because you don’t trust me was another. He glared at a corner in silence instead.

“So are you going to be living in Gusu now,” he said eventually.

“Nothing’s settled for sure,” Wei Wuxian said. “Lan Qiren still looks like he’s going to choke whenever he sees me, ha, and there’s still too many rules. But Lan Zhan’s very convincing.”

I just bet he is, Jiang Cheng thought a little spitefully. But some part of him was relieved. “Mmhm.”

“And hey! All I have to do is go to Caiyi and I can have Emperor’s Smile whenever I want. Speaking of - I brought you some.” He leaned back, sprawling as usual with his hopelessly poor posture. “You have no idea how hard it was not to just drink it myself.”

Something twisted in Jiang Cheng’s chest. “I bet, since you’ve always been so bad at self-restraint.”

It sounded more bitter than he meant it to. Wei Wuxian’s smile flickered and died out, and Jiang Cheng jerked his gaze away. “Thank you,” he said stiffly.

“You’re welcome.” Wei Wuxian paused, then said, “I didn’t get to say last time. Things look really good here. You’ve been good for Lotus Pier.”

“Surprised?” Jiang Cheng said, and why, why, did everything have to keep coming out as so hostile? He didn’t want it to. It just seemed to - happen.

“No,” Wei Wuxian said quietly. “I’m not.”

Jiang Cheng felt something crumple. His eyes burned and still, for a moment, he thought angrily and I did it alone, I did it without anyone, without you, because, but mostly he just...ached. Because Wei Wuxian should have been there. With him, next to him, and maybe he could’ve been, if Jiang Cheng had tried, if he’d found some way to keep them from being driven apart so neither of them were standing alone. Then maybe, maybe-

The weight of years crashed down on his shoulders and he looked away. “Good,” he said roughly. “Glad to hear it.”

“Jiang Cheng…”

He swallowed hard, told himself it’s not that hard, you coward, and said, “I’m glad you came to visit.”

The slight surprise that showed briefly on Wei Wuxian’s face stung. He changed it to a smile quickly enough. “Of course.”

Like it was that easy. Maybe it was, for him. Everything had always been easy for Wei Wuxian.

(Yes, and then the entire cultivation world turned against him and he died. Very easy indeed.)

Jiang Cheng sighed. “You and Hanguang-jun…” He choked a little, cleared his throat, and made himself say, “it’s...good. That you have him.” To make himself feel better, he added, “you really do need someone keeping an eye on you.”

The corner of Wei Wuxian’s mouth tipped up just a little. “See? You agree on so much it’s hard to know why you glare at each other like a couple of jealous wives.”

Jiang Cheng’s face heated up. “I’m not-” He cut off, scowling again. “Very funny. He hates me. Not that I care. It’s because of you, you know.”

Wei Wuxian seemed, of all things, embarrassed. “Well-”

“He always made it clear he blamed me,” Jiang Cheng said. “I don’t think we’d exchanged four words in a row before you...since...everything.”

Embarrassment changed to something rueful and vaguely unhappy. “It’s a good thing you don’t care, then,” he said. Jiang Cheng’s lips twisted.

On the tip of his tongue again: did you ask Lan Wangji to come here with you because you don’t trust me?

“I’ll talk to him,” Wei Wuxian said after a few moments of silence.

“Don’t bother,” Jiang Cheng said. “It’s not important.”

“Hey, don’t tell me what’s not important,” Wei Wuxian said, sounding indignant. “I get to decide what’s important or not important. And it’s not good for my brother and my - whatever to be at odds.”

Jiang Cheng’s eyebrows crawled halfway up his forehead. “Your ‘whatever’?”

“Um.” Wei Wuxian - shameless Wei Wuxian - looked suddenly like he wanted to bolt. The urge to laugh bubbled up in Jiang Cheng’s throat.

Unbelievable,” he said, with feeling.

Wei Wuxian recovered quickly, his chin lifting. “If you’re going to say something,” he said testily, no trace of a smile anymore, “then say it now and don’t ever again.”

Jiang Cheng felt a bit of a pang. “I wasn’t going to say anything,” he said. Wei Wuxian looked skeptical, but he subsided slowly.

No wonder, Jiang Cheng thought. No wonder he spent thirteen years in mourning robes, no wonder he threw everything to the wind for you, in retrospect it seems obvious.

There was something oddly unhappy to the thought.

Belatedly, he realized the other thing Wei Wuxian had said: my brother. He’d said it before, casually, and now again, and Jiang Cheng still hadn’t managed it. Always slower, he thought, though this time more tired than bitter. Always going behind.

I’m sorry, he wanted to say. And thank you. But he couldn’t, not quite, like there was something in his throat blocking the way.

“It’s good you’ve been talking to Jin Ling,” Jiang Cheng said. “He needs - people.”

“Ah, he’s got you for the good advice,” Wei Wuxian said easily. “He needed a bad influence.”

Jiang Cheng scowled at him. “Nobody needs a bad influence.”

“Untrue,” Wei Wuxian said. “If you’re going to have a good example there should be a bad example too.”

“That is not how that works.”

“Of course it is! I mean, look at you. Shijie was a good example, I was a bad example.” He gestured. “See?”

For a moment Jiang Cheng felt like he’d been slapped. It was the first time he could remember Wei Wuxian bringing up Jiang Yanli between them since Jiang Cheng had found him and Lan Wangji bowing at the shrine. It took his breath away, and like an old friend the anger rose up, don’t speak of her, she should be here and it’s your fault she’s not. But then he registered the stricken look on Wei Wuxian’s face and thought, maybe, he was feeling her absence too. Like a hole in the room with no air in it.

They stared at each other in perfect silence, a gulf opening between them again where one had been closing a moment ago.

“Wei Ying.”

How, Jiang Cheng thought. How does he do that? Wei Wuxian twisted around.

“Lan Zhan,” he said. Lan Wangji’s eyes paused on Wei Wuxian, sweeping over him like he was ensuring he was unharmed, before moving to Jiang Cheng.

“It’s late,” he said. “We should go to sleep.”

“Late for you,” Wei Wuxian said. He cast Jiang Cheng a look. Jiang Cheng stood up, tensely.

“Go ahead,” he said. “I have to see to some - things.”

He bowed, and left them there, well aware that it might look like he was fleeing and determined to tell himself, with limited success, that he wasn’t.

Jiang Cheng ended up retreating to the docks, where he sat down on the end of one and took off his shoes to put his feet in the water, staring at the night sky reflected there. He imagined a-jie sitting next to him, her soft smile, her hand on his shoulder.

A-Xian is your brother, he could imagine her saying. It’s not disloyal for you to still love him. You are not betraying me.

It feels like I am, he imagined saying back.

It wasn’t his fault, A-Cheng.

Maybe he didn’t kill you, but he was the reason you died. I can’t just let that go, I can’t-

But he wanted to, didn’t he? And he could, or he’d start to, but then he’d end up grabbing on again because the only thing that had been stable, the only thing that had been sure for such a long time had been his hatred and his anger.

He owed Wei Wuxian more than he could ever give back in this lifetime. Forgiving him felt like betraying his sister’s memory. Not forgiving him felt like trying to walk with a thorn in his foot. He was just - stuck, caught like a demon in a spiritual net.

Jiang Cheng thought of the way Wei Wuxian looked at Lan Wangji, with warmth and trust and love, and the aching, sick jealousy he had no right to feel returned. He felt a little like a child watching someone pick up a toy he’d abandoned and suddenly realizing that he wanted it back.

Oh, A-Cheng. This doesn’t have to be complicated.

“But it is,” Jiang Cheng said aloud, very quietly. “Wanting to fix something isn’t the same thing as being able to do it. Maybe we’d both be better off to stop trying.”

His stomach hurt when he said it. Even in his own voice it didn’t sound convincing.

Wei Wuxian was talking to the younger disciples, and Jiang Cheng was trying very hard not to panic about it. He wasn’t going to start teaching them the fundamentals of demonic cultivation in Jiang Cheng’s front yard. (Probably.) He wasn’t going to corrupt them indelibly within a couple of hours. (Probably.)

He hadn’t heard any explosions yet, anyway. And he was trying not to hover. Trying to show a little trust. Supposedly, he was writing a letter to Jin Ling, but he hadn’t gotten further than a single character.

“Sect Leader Jiang.”

Great, he thought, tensing. You.

He looked up. “Hanguang-jun,” he said. The other man’s face was impassive as usual, impossible to read or guess what he was thinking.

“Did you want something?” Jiang Cheng prompted eventually, though he’d planned to wait until Lan Wangji spoke first.

“Yes,” Lan Wangji said, and then was quiet again. He seemed to be thinking. Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together, this time determined to wait him out. Eventually, Lan Wangji breathed out through his nose and said, “you are...trying.”

Jiang Cheng’s hackles went up immediately. “What is that supposed to mean?”

Lan Wangji’s nose wrinkled very slightly. It occurred to Jiang Cheng that there was a possibility this was as difficult for him as it was for himself. Somehow, that was a relief; at least he wasn’t the only one at a loss. “Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said eventually. “He...cares about you.”

For some reason, Jiang Cheng thought he heard, and his hackles came up further even as part of him perked up and thought did he say that? like some kind of lovesick maiden. Pathetic.

“And?” Jiang Cheng said aggressively.

Lan Wangji’s expression pinched. He looked like he would rather be fighting a fierce corpse than having this conversation, which was a feeling Jiang Cheng could sympathize with. “He forgives you.”

I don’t. That was plain, too. Jiang Cheng’s teeth ground together. He doesn’t have anything to forgive me for, he wanted to snap. I’m the one who has to forgive him, and I haven’t, but that wasn’t exactly true in either direction, was it? “I still don’t know what your point is.”

A flash of anger, very briefly, and very slightly, though that was probably as good as a shout from anyone else. Jiang Cheng did look away, then.

“Wei Ying didn’t ask me to come.”

Jiang Cheng stilled. “He didn’t,” he said, slowly.

“No. I asked.”

“Oh,” Jiang Cheng said after a pause. Some part of him was...relieved. Though the rest of him… “Why?” he asked, though he was fairly certain he knew the answer.

Lan Wangji’s gaze was level and hard. “I did not trust you with him.”

It was unexpectedly blunt, and took Jiang Cheng aback. He opened his mouth, then closed it, then said, “I told Wei Wuxian he could come here.” It shouldn’t have sounded defensive. He had no reason to be defensive.

It still came out defensive.

Lan Wangji did not seem impressed. “Mm.”

“I don’t care what you think,” Jiang Cheng said, which was patently untrue. “Wei Wuxian is my brother. Not yours. Our relationship is none of your business.”

“It is if it puts him in danger.”

Jiang Cheng gritted his teeth and said, “I’m not the one who sent him off wandering alone when there are still plenty of people who want him dead!”

The silence was profound. Almost as soon as it fell Jiang Cheng wished he hadn’t said anything. He pinched the bridge of his nose. “This is pointless.”

“You are trying,” Lan Wangji said. He sounded skeptical, now, but also almost like it was a question. Jiang Cheng bristled, but he was, wasn’t he? Was trying, it just wasn’t enough, and he didn’t know what he was doing anyways.

He looked away, scowling. Silence fell, again.

“So,” he said finally. “You and Wei Wuxian.”

Jiang Cheng was starting to realize that Lan Wangji did have expressions. They were just...subtle. This one was less so: a little bit of pink on the tops of his ears. “Mn,” he said.

He didn’t actually have anything to follow that with. Except- “Is”

A little more pink. “Mmn.” A long pause. “Yes. And no.” It was almost defiant. Say something. I dare you. Jiang Cheng held back the urge to sigh.

“All right, then.” He paused, and then made himself - force the words out. “Thank you. For...looking after him. When I didn’t.”

Less than ten words. It felt like he was being strangled. But he did manage to say them.

Lan Wangji seemed surprised. It was a little gratifying to get a real expression out of him; it was a little galling that he was surprised, though not particularly unexpected. He was a little surprised.

It was as much as he could say, though. At least right now, when he couldn’t quite manage I wish we could have spoken before now. I wish I had been able to talk to you then, to admit that it hurt, that I was grieving, to share that with someone rather than clinging to anger and bitterness until it swallowed up everything else.

I wish I’d been brave enough to do as you did.

After several moments of study, Lan Wangji said, “I should have done it sooner.”

But at least you did it, Jiang Cheng thought. He looked at a corner of the room. It was still, he thought, an admission of fault. A bending, maybe, that allowed, you are not the only one who made mistakes.

Silence, again. They were both, it seemed, grasping for words they didn’t quite have.

“The Cloud Recesses are not,” Lan Wangji said at length, “so long a way from Lotus Pier.”

It wasn’t an invitation. Not quite. And it wasn’t as though Jiang Cheng thought he hadn’t been allowed - he could hardly be forbidden.

But it was still...something.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Jiang Cheng said. Lan Wangji bowed gracefully and walked away.

Well, Jiang Cheng thought ruefully, that could have gone a lot worse. He wasn’t sure it had gone well, exactly, but it’d at least been better than most of their recent conversations. He should probably try to take that as good enough.

Lotus Pier felt very quiet after Wei Wuxian had gone. Too quiet. It was as though he’d taken up a space Jiang Cheng had scarcely noticed was empty, but now he was noticing, and he didn’t like it.

He wrote another letter to Jin Ling, and kept Wei Wuxian out of it until the last line, when he simply said Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-jun were here briefly last week.

Good, said the letter he got back. Finally. Jiang Cheng scowled at it and almost wrote something harsh about respecting his elders, but he sighed and let it go.

A restless loneliness nagging at him, he found an excuse to visit Koi Tower only to, after a brief greeting, find himself a bit at loose ends while Jin Ling dealt with an internal dispute. He did notice that his nephew looked sturdier, more sure of himself, a new poise in his posture and bearing. He was learning. Jiang Cheng still wished he wasn’t having to do it so young.

He went on a walk by himself out into the woods with no particular direction, his thoughts for once relatively quiet, shoulders sliding down from a tense set he hadn’t realized they’d had.

At least until he heard voices approaching and saw two figures walking in his direction, at an angle where their paths would intersect, one in white robes and the other in black. He recognized the Lan disciple as one of the pack that had been following Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian around, though he couldn’t remember his name. He wasn’t alone, though, and Jiang Cheng definitely remembered the name of his company.

Jiang Cheng stopped dead, fist clenching around Sandu. Halfway through his next step Wen Ning noticed Jiang Cheng and stopped too. The Lan boy halted with him and followed the direction of his gaze to Jiang Cheng. His eyes widened.

“Sect Leader Jiang,” he said, recovering quickly and bowing.

Get out, Jiang Cheng thought, a muscle twitching in his jaw, but this wasn’t Lotus Pier and he didn’t have the right to throw someone out of it. Wen Ning looked back at him, eyes level and calm. In the shadows under the trees you could almost - almost - mistake him for normal.

“What are you doing here,” he said flatly.

“Wen-xiong is with me,” said the Lan disciple. “We’ve been traveling together.”

Jiang Cheng clenched his teeth so hard together he thought they might crack. “A-Yuan,” Wen Ning said quietly. “I think Sect Leader Jiang and I need to talk.”

I’d rather not, Jiang Cheng thought, but he wasn’t going to back down. Though there was an uneasy sort of dread at the prospect of having a conversation with Wen Ning. Maybe because the last one had been so spectacularly, memorably horrible.

Nothing Wen Ning had said then had been wrong. That was what had been worst about it.

The Lan disciple - A-Yuan? that name pinged something at the back of Jiang Cheng’s mind, but he couldn’t focus on it - hesitated, a small frown between his eyebrows. Wen Ning finally turned his eyes away from Jiang Cheng and gave him an encouraging smile.

“It’s fine,” he said. “I’ll be right there.” There was an unmistakable warmth and affection in his eyes when he looked at the junior disciple.

“All right,” A-Yuan said, and bowed to them both before turning and walking away with perfect Lan sedateness, only slightly spoiled by one glance back over his shoulder.

Something clicked in Jiang Cheng’s head. “‘A-Yuan,’” he said. Wen Ning’s head swung back around. “What’s his full name?”

“Lan Sizhui,” Wen Ning said.

Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes. “Not ‘Wen.’”

There was a brief, dangerous flash and Jiang Cheng tensed, but it was gone quickly. “No.”

He remembered a child clinging to Wei Wuxian’s leg in the Burial Mounds. If he guessed - if that boy had survived the extermination of all the rest of the Wens - he would be around twenty now.

Jiang Cheng breathed out slowly. “Lan Sizhui,” he said. To long for. He controlled the desire to wince. “I see.”

“Do you?”

“Yes.” Did Wei Wuxian know? Probably. Some part of him thought I should have but he knew, of course, why he hadn’t. If he had known…

He didn’t think he actually would have done something, but he probably would have felt like he should.

Wen Ning relaxed a little at a time. There was nothing hostile about his posture, just the same resolute determination that he’d seen in Lotus Pier when he was standing in front of Jiang Cheng, holding out Suibian and telling him to draw it. Jiang Cheng remembered a shy young man with a bit of a stutter; the lines of black on his skin weren’t the only difference now.

“You wanted to talk,” Jiang Cheng said.

“I thought you did.”

“I don’t,” Jiang Cheng said, though that wasn’t entirely true. It was and it wasn’t. He did and he didn’t. It would be nice, he sometimes thought, to actually know what he wanted.

It wasn’t Wen Ning’s fault. Jiang Cheng could understand that, sort of. Wen Ning had been used, and he hadn’t had a choice in the matter. His sister, his clan, everyone he knew had been killed. He hadn’t asked to be brought back in the first place.

And yet-

Wen Ning was still looking at him. Waiting.


A slight shake of his head and he turned to go. Jiang Cheng squeezed his eyes closed and said, “your sister.”

Wen Ning stopped and glanced back at him, expression wary again. Oh, gods. “She…” He wrestled with himself. “What she did. For me.” Would he ever be able to think about this without wanting to run away to some indefinable place where he could escape even himself? “She was…”

Wen Ning just watched him, mercilessly silent. Jiang Cheng wanted to curse him.

“I can’t thank her,” he said. Why was this so hard? “I’m...sorry. That I didn’t help her.” Keep going. “Or you.”

He stood there, rigid, waiting.

Wen Ning didn’t smile, but something in his face relaxed. “We made our choice, too,” he said. It sounded, to Jiang Cheng’s ears, like we didn’t expect anything else. That made it worse, somehow. Especially when he added, “we wanted to help Wei-gonzi, after what he did for us.”

Jiang Cheng was fairly sure that wasn’t meant as a rebuke. Wen Ning had already demonstrated that when he gave one of those, it wouldn’t be subtle. It still felt a little like one. Jiang Cheng wondered if he was ever going to not feel guilty again.

He really did miss the righteous anger sometimes.

“Right,” he said. “Fine. That’s all I wanted to say.”

I wish you hadn’t told me about the golden core. I wish I’d stayed in ignorance forever, believing Baoshan Sanren really restored mine.

I wish you’d told me sooner.

Wen Ning seemed to be thinking. “Jie didn’t want to do it at first,” he said. “But Young Master Wei insisted. He said it was the only way, that you’d die otherwise, and jie was the only one who could make the transfer.”

Jiang Cheng stiffened. “Why are you telling me this?” he snapped. “Do I need to know more about how great and generous Wei Wuxian is?”

“That’s not the point,” Wen Ning said. “That was never the point.” He bowed respectfully. “Good day, Sect Leader Jiang. Thank you for your apology. And for what it is worth...I’m sorry, too.”

Jiang Cheng rocked back on his heels, opened his mouth, then closed it. For what? he thought wildly. What do you have to apologize to me for, but no question came out of his mouth.

“Also,” Wen Ning said after a brief pause, “if you wanted another nephew...I think you could have one.”

What’s that supposed to mean? Jiang Cheng wanted to shout after him as he walked away, but he was fairly sure he knew. He also wanted to ask then what was the point, but he was fairly sure he knew that, too.

Wei Wuxian sent him a letter that said a great deal while also saying almost nothing, and closed with you should visit Nie Huaisang, if you haven’t.

Jiang Cheng was tempted to just write back with the one word why. He had a feeling he could guess, though, because it sounded a little like the addendum he’d put in the letter to Jin Ling a few weeks ago: what happened to those juniors you were running around with? I haven’t seen any of them lately.

Meaning, Wei Wuxian was saying: Jiang Cheng, you need more friends.

To his frustration, it wasn’t a terrible idea. After all, if they were supposed to be rebuilding trust between the four major sects, he ought to actually try to build some of that trust. Which meant actually...talking.

He hated it when Wei Wuxian was right.

Jiang Cheng sent a politely worded note and received a politely worded one back in return saying that he would, of course, be welcome, and the Unclean Realm would be happy to have him.

The first thing that struck him was that Nie Huaisang seemed calmer than he’d seen him in some time, more sure of himself. His smile was friendly and he welcomed Jiang Cheng as though they were old friends rather than people who had been classmates once.

“How are things in Yunmeng these days?” he asked.

“Good,” Jiang Cheng said, a touch awkwardly. “Relatively quiet. After all the upheaval-” He broke off, remembering that the upheaval included the murder of Nie Huaisang’s elder brother. Nie Huaisang just regarded him with equanimity, however, and he finished weakly, “some things seem to be going back to normal.” More or less. If the new state of the world could be called normal.

Jiang Cheng wasn’t entirely sure he knew what that meant anymore.

“That’s good to hear,” Nie Huaisang said. “And what do you make of our new Chief Cultivator?”

That question caught him a little off guard. “It’s...Hanguang-jun,” he said slowly, a little warily. He thought he saw a spark of humor in Nie Huaisang’s eyes as he snapped his fan open.

“So it is.”

Jiang Cheng squinted warily in his direction. “I don’t think anyone could object.”

“Some might,” Nie Huaisang said. “I heard he is planning to make some...changes. People don’t always like those.”

Jiang Cheng picked up his cup so he had something to do with his hands. “Hm,” he said.

“Some might say there are corrupting influences on him.”

Jiang Cheng stiffened, sitting up straighter. “Who says,” he said, a slight note of aggression creeping into his voice. Maybe more than slight. Nie Huaisang’s eyes studied him over his fan.

“I take it you aren’t concerned?”

Of course I’m concerned. I’m concerned about a lot of things. I’m concerned all the time. “Not about what you’re suggesting, no,” he said tightly. “And I don’t particularly appreciate your suggesting it, Sect Leader Nie.”

Are you really going to get defensive of Wei Wuxian’s extremely dubious honor? Are you really going to do that?

Nie Huaisang examined him for several more moments in which Jiang Cheng just glared, and then closed his fan again and said, “well, that’s good.”

Jiang Cheng blinked. “What?”

“That’s good,” Nie Huaisang repeated. “That you’re not concerned.”

Jiang Cheng had a sneaking suspicion that he’d missed something, somewhere. “Hm,” he said again, and, “yes?”

It shouldn’t have been a question. It sounded like a question.

“I think we’ve all had enough stress lately,” Nie Huaisang said brightly. “No need to go borrowing more trouble, right? More tea?”

“I...sure?” He’d definitely missed something. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” There was something, Jiang Cheng thought. Something about Nie Huaisang’s face. He couldn’t quite pin it down, though. “I think you are wrong, though.”

Jiang Cheng stiffened again. “Wrong about what,” he asked.

“Things going back to normal,” Nie Huaisang said. “They won’t, I don’t think.”

Jiang Cheng frowned. “You don’t sound like that bothers you.”

“Change can be good.” Nie Huaisang opened his fan again, waving it in a languid motion. “I, for one, will admit to substantial curiosity about what Hanguang-jun does. I’m not certain everyone realized who they were choosing.”

“Meaning?” Jiang Cheng said.

“A righteous man, concerned with justice and protecting the weak,” Nie Huaisang said.

Jiang Cheng frowned a little. He didn’t particularly like the description, but he couldn’t exactly argue with it either. “That’s always been his reputation.”

“True,” Nie Huaisang said. “But what happens when you put someone like that in charge?

Jiang Cheng considered that. Then considered it again.

“I see,” he said slowly. Nie Huaisang’s lips curved in a bit of a smile.

“It’ll certainly be interesting.”

Jin Ling kept sneaking unsubtle glances in Jiang Cheng’s direction. Jiang Cheng wondered if he thought he wouldn’t notice, and considered trying to wait him out, but it was beginning to just feel ridiculous.

“What is it,” he said, sipping his tea without looking over.

Jin Ling didn’t quite fidget, but he looked like he wanted to. “You and Wei - Wuxian,” he said, and with the brief pause Jiang Cheng couldn’t help but wonder what he’d been going to say. “You’ve been...talking.”

Intermittently. Mostly through letters. Half the time I don’t know what to say when I see him, and the way he looks at me makes me want to yell at someone, probably him. He just grunted in acknowledgment.

“I asked Lin Zhihao and he said you don’t scowl as much lately.”

Jiang Cheng caught himself before he scowled. “Is that so.”

Jin Ling seemed to be struggling with something. Jiang Cheng let him, and eventually he managed to come out with, “it always seemed like you hated him so much.”

Is there a question in there? Jiang Cheng grimaced inwardly. “I did.” He did not say, I do.

Jin Ling’s eyebrows furrowed. “But…” Jiang Cheng waited. He didn’t particularly want to have this conversation, but he was having a lot of conversations he didn’t want to have, lately, and this one seemed important. “You knew who he was, when you imprisoned him with Zidian and told me to keep watch. You could’ve killed him. Other people when you even suspected-”

He stopped. Jiang Cheng stared down at his hands. Jin Ling wasn’t wrong, and logic said that was exactly the case. Because he had known, and he could have, and sixteen years of practicing said he would, and yet then, in that moment, he hadn’t. Had left Wei Wuxian alone with no more than a fifteen-year-old boy on guard who didn’t even know who he was guarding. He hadn’t even been surprised to come back and find him gone.

Angry, yes. But not surprised.

“It’s complicated,” Jiang Cheng said, which he was well aware was a cop-out of an answer. The dirty look Jin Ling gave him agreed. With a brief spark of humor he added, “you’ll understand when you’re older.”

Uncle,” Jin Ling said.

Jiang Cheng grimaced. “Sometimes,” he said, after a long quiet where he could feel Jin Ling getting increasingly impatient, “you can hate and love a person at the same time.”

“I know that,” Jin Ling said. “But it really seemed like…”

He trailed off.

I didn’t want it to be complicated. I wanted it to be simple. I wanted to convince myself there was no regret or guilt or grief, nothing but the purity of righteous anger and hatred.

“It wasn’t a lie.” Not the whole truth, but not a lie either.

“And now?”

Isn’t that the question. “And now what?”

Jin Ling paused, made a face, and said, “never mind.”

“What is it,” Jiang Cheng asked more sharply.

Nothing,” Jin Ling said, some color rising in his face. “It doesn’t matter.” His fists were clenched in his lap. Jiang Cheng waited and he said, “you should just actually come to Lanling at the same time.”

“I wasn’t,” Jiang Cheng started to say, but realized a moment later that wasn’t what Jin Ling was saying, not really. And wasn’t the question he was trying to talk around. Is it all right that I’m spending time with him, was the question, and what he was saying…

Jin Ling had grown up with two uncles and few friends. He’d lost one of the former, and if he seemed to be gaining some of the latter…

Was it so surprising that he would want to gather what family he had around him?

“I would, if Wei Wuxian ever told me when he was visiting,” Jiang Cheng said, hoping it would be an answer to the unspoken question as well. Jin Ling relaxed.

“He never tells me either,” Jin Ling said. “Or, almost never. It’s annoying.” He couldn’t quite hide the relief and happiness in his voice, despite the words. He paused, and then added, “I’ll make sure he doesn’t bring Hanguang-jun.”

Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes. “He can bring whoever he wants.”

Jin Ling nodded soberly. “It’s all right,” he said. “Hanguang-jun is very intimidating.”

“I’m not-!” Jiang Cheng cut off with a growl when he noticed that Jin Ling looked like he was trying not to smile. “Impudent brat,” he said. “You watch it.”

Jin Ling did not seem in the least bit troubled.

He went to the Cloud Recesses, and stood at the entrance staring at the wall of rules like they might tell him what to do. He hadn’t come here for anything other than formal occasions for a long while, and he sort of wanted to turn around and go home now.

Don’t be a coward, he thought angrily, and began climbing up, braced more than a little like he was walking into a fight. He hoped that wasn’t going to be the case. He was fairly sure that wasn’t going to be the case. He’d told Wei Wuxian he was coming.

What are you afraid of, idiot? Getting glared at by Lan Wangji?

Maybe. Maybe he was. So what? He definitely wasn’t the only one.

Perhaps halfway up he ran into a gaggle of juniors in a huddle. He paused and waited for them to notice him; when they did their eyes went wide and they scrambled to look attentive, collected, and focused. Jiang Cheng kept his lips from twitching.

He accepted their greetings, ignored the curious stares that attempted to be furtive, and dismissed them, though his eyes caught on one among their number.

“You,” he said. At least six of them turned, and Jiang Cheng said, “Lan Sizhui. Wait.”

One of the other juniors paused and half turned back, his eyes moving back and forth between the two of them; Jiang Cheng fixed him with a look and he gave another quick bow and not-quite-fled, though with a few more glances back.

I’m not going to bite him, Jiang Cheng was tempted to say. He supposed he did have a reputation.

He turned his attention back to the boy in front of him. He was a boy, still - a little older than Jin Ling, and close to the same age he and the others had been when the war began. Even knowing that Lan Sizhui didn’t share a drop of blood with Lan Wangji, Jiang Cheng felt like he could see the resemblance. It was in the eyes, the somber expression, though Lan Sizhui was...softer. Less cold. Watchful, though, with an air of being older than his years.

Jiang Cheng wondered how much he remembered. Probably better if it was less.

“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Sizhui said with an impeccable bow. “Welcome to the Cloud Recesses. I know Hanguang-jun and Wei-xiong are expecting you. I can tell them-”

“No,” Jiang Cheng interrupted. “That’s not necessary.” He paused, and said, “are you meant to be doing something?”

“No,” Lan Sizhui said, not quite a question. “Not at the moment.”

“I would…” he exhaled slowly. “Speak. With you.”

The boy stood very straight, not even a hint of a slouch. “I am at your service, Sect Leader Jiang,” he said.

Jiang Cheng turned away, folding one arm behind his back and thinking through, and discarding, several possible beginnings. Finally he said, “we met before. Do you remember?” He could almost feel the quizzical look cast at his back, and added, “when you were - very young. You might not. It wasn’t - a very long meeting.”

He hadn’t really known what to do with the fact of his existence at the time. The reviled Wen remnants, consisting of the elderly and hungry laborers. And a child toddling around the Burial Mounds. So, as with many things he hadn’t wanted to think about, Jiang Cheng had tried to ignore it.

“I’m not sure,” Lan Sizhui said, sounding apologetic and a little uncertain. Jiang Cheng should turn to look at him, but this was easier. “A lot of my memories of...the time before I came to the Cloud Recesses are very unclear.”

“Ah,” Jiang Cheng said, some part of him obscurely disappointed. “It doesn’t matter. As I said, it wasn’t a very long meeting.”

“All right,” Lan Sizhui said slowly.

“I’d - come to visit your…” What was Wei Wuxian to him? Uncle? Older brother? Father? He decided to set that aside. “To visit Wei Wuxian.” He felt an expression - a smile, maybe, though it didn’t feel like much of one - pull at his mouth. “I asked whose child you were and he said, ‘mine.’”

Lan Sizhui was very quiet, and Jiang Cheng felt himself scrambling to fill the silence. “I just about - he must’ve known what I’d think. Laughed at the look on my face. But it was...he acted like it was as true as if he’d - known your mother.”

He did turn, finally, and found Lan Sizhui staring at him with those large, dark eyes. Listening, silent and intent. He remembered a lively boy, chattering, smiling; he’d resembled Wei Wuxian more then than he did Lan Wangji now.

“He was always good with the younger disciples of Jiang Sect,” Jiang Cheng said, the words yanked out of somewhere deep in his chest. “Wei Ying was.”

It felt strange. He hadn’t actually used that name in anything other than disrespect for a long time, and it tasted odd on his tongue now. He almost immediately wished he’d said something else. But it was out now. He wondered if he could get used to it again.

A little crease appeared in Lan Sizhui’s forehead. “Sect Leader Jiang,” he said slowly.

“I hope,” Jiang Cheng interrupted, pressing on, because he was worried if he stopped he might not be able to start again, or might just make a break for it. “That you know…” He might just make a break for it anyway. “Any family of Wei Ying’s-” easier, the second time- “-and friend of Jin Ling’s would receive a welcome at Lotus Pier, regardless of the occasion.”

Lan Sizhui hesitated, then bowed. “Thank you,” he said. “I am grateful for the invitation.”

Polite children, Jiang Cheng thought, might be harder than disrespectful ones. He took a breath and said, “and I suppose...any family of yours would…” Another breath. “Would be welcome. Also.”

Don’t make me regret this, he thought vehemently, vaguely in Wen Ning’s direction.

Lan Sizhui’s smile was a sun coming out from behind clouds. “Thank you, Sect Leader Jiang,” he said with another bow.

“Yes. Well.” If you wanted another nephew, I think you could have one. Easier said than done, it seemed like. Well, progress. “I wanted to make sure you were aware.”

He tried to imagine, just for a moment, if he’d known about this earlier. If he would have been able to approach Lan Wangji, the two of them raising orphaned children (almost) alone, and find some kind of common ground.

It seemed unlikely. It also seemed like yet another lost chance that brought with it a wave of melancholy.

He brushed it away with only a little bit of effort. He already had too many regrets. There was no need to add more now. All he could do was try not to make new ones.

He shared a meal with Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian in the Cloud Recesses at the latter’s invitation; by a slight twitch of the former’s mouth, he hadn’t been asked about it. Jiang Cheng resisted the urge to sigh.

It went...all right. Less awkwardly than the last time. Lan Wangji was taciturn as usual, and Jiang Cheng didn’t feel very chatty either, but Wei Wuxian talked enough for three of them, if perhaps with a kind of urgency that suggested he knew the silence needed filling.

Jiang Cheng watched them together, the familiar ache nestled under his sternum at how natural it seemed between them, how aware they were of each other. The subtle way Lan Wangji hovered seemed suddenly less like overprotective looming and more like an anxious need for reassurance, and Wei Wuxian’s constant intrusions into his space looked less like intrusions and more like a response to that need.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said into a brief pause, and Wei Wuxian turned toward him immediately. Lan Wangji laid a hand lightly on his arm, and the two of them just...looked at each other. Some tension softened around Lan Wangji’s eyes, and Wei Wuxian smiled in his direction, and Jiang Cheng wondered bitterly if anyone would notice if he left the room.

They both turned back toward him. Something seemed to have been settled, but Jiang Cheng had no idea what it was.

He wasn’t going to ask.

“Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Wangji said, his tone little different, and it was all he could do not to tense. But all he said was, “would you like more tea?”

He looked down at his empty cup, and then back at Lan Wangji. “Thanks,” he said. Lan Wangji nodded. Poured. Folded his hands in his lap. His gaze was level, but seemed...perhaps less harsh.

Jiang Cheng stared back at him, a little at sea.

Wei Wuxian bounced to his feet. “I’m going for a walk,” he announced. Wait, Jiang Cheng almost said, alarmed, no, don’t you dare, but he was already out the door and gone.

What do you want, Jiang Cheng thought, but he pressed his teeth together before it burst out.

“Wei Wuxian is no longer a part of Jiang Sect,” Lan Wangji said.

“It may surprise you that I already knew that,” Jiang Cheng said. Lan Wangji’s eyes narrowed briefly before his expression smoothed out again.

“He still considers you family.”

Jiang Cheng wondered vaguely if he could still go after Wei Wuxian and drag him back here. “What of it.”

Lan Wangji shifted very slightly and it occurred to Jiang Cheng that he seemed...uncomfortable. Nervous? Surely not. “Mn,” he said, what sounded like to himself. Then, “I am not asking for your approval.”

“Of course you aren’t,” Jiang Cheng said. “Why would you do that?”

Lan Wangji made a quiet noise, barely audible, of frustration or annoyance. His eyes fixed somewhere over Jiang Cheng’s right shoulder, his posture even more rigid than usual.

Oh, Jiang Cheng realized, slowly. Oh.

“This is about you and...Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng said slowly. Lan Wangji’s quiet noise was even more muffled. “Your...thing. That’s what you’re - not asking my approval about.”

Lan Wangji appeared to be finding a point on the wall behind him very interesting. The back of Jiang Cheng’s neck felt a little hot.

“Did he put you up to this?” he demanded.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said. It was hard to say if it was a denial or an assent.

“Ridiculous,” Jiang Cheng said. “I’m not his father. Or his Sect Leader, as you pointed out. He knows that, right? Is this some kind of joke-”

“No,” Lan Wangji said. That was firm. He paused, and then said, “it is - unconventional.”

Unspoken, but then, so is Wei Wuxian.

Jiang Cheng took a deep breath and let it out in an almighty sigh. There’s no accounting for taste, he sort of wanted to say, but he wasn’t sure that Lan Wangji wouldn’t stab him for it. “What do you want me to say,” he asked. “That you don’t not have my approval, since you don’t need it?”

Lan Wangji’s eyes peeled away from the wall and went back to Jiang Cheng’s face. “I don’t want you to say anything.”

He does.

Jiang Cheng caught himself trying to scowl and made himself stop. “I’m pretty sure anyone would be proud to have the great Hanguang-jun as a brother-in-law,” he said.

All right. He probably could have said that better. Still, he thought that just for a moment, the great Hanguang-jun looked pleased. Also relieved.

Out of curiosity, Jiang Cheng asked, “what were you going to do if I said no?”

Lan Wangji blinked slowly, like a cat. “Convince you,” he said, voice perfectly level. “Wei Ying says I’m very convincing.”

Jiang Cheng stared at him. He honestly could not tell if that was a joke or a threat.

“I see,” he said. Then paused. “Did Wei Wuxian put you up to this?”

“No,” Lan Wangji said, after several seconds. “He did not ask. But it was. Important.”

“Was it,” Jiang Cheng said after a brief pause.

“Do you doubt that?”

How can I not, Jiang Cheng thought. How can I not doubt, I spent years just knowing that he abandoned me and then took everything from me, choosing strangers over me-

Dying, and leaving me on my own.

He said nothing.

“You shouldn’t,” Lan Wangji said.

“Easy for you to say,” Jiang Cheng said, before he could stop himself. Lan Wangji leveled him with a hard look, and he deliberately did not flinch. Because he was right, he knew he was right, and it was just - old hurt that made him deny it now.

Why did he keep pushing this away? Why couldn’t he just let it go?

It’s all right, a-Cheng. The fury, the resentment, the heartache. You don’t need it anymore.

“You’re lucky,” Jiang Cheng croaked through the lump in his throat. To his relief, Lan Wangji did not ask why, just lowered his eyes and said, “yes.”

Wei Wuxian showed up outside his window as Jiang Cheng was starting to get ready to sleep.

“What are you doing,” Jiang Cheng hissed.

“I brought Emperor’s Smile,” Wei Wuxian said, which was not an answer.

Jiang Cheng hesitated, then stepped back. “Get in here,” he said. “Do you want Lan Qiren to hate you even more?”

Wei Wuxian grinned at him and climbed inside, holding out the two bottles of liquor like a peace offering. “Probably impossible.”

“I wouldn’t test that.” Jiang Cheng sighed, and took the offered alcohol. “I was going to sleep.”

“All right. I can always go and drink alone.”

“You gave these to me. I’m not giving them back.” Jiang Cheng sat down. “Does your…” he paused, and hesitated, and decided to just move on. “Does he know you’re here?”

“Lan Zhan is sleeping,” Wei Wuxian said easily. “Nine at night to five in the morning, every day. I haven’t been able to change that. It’s very frustrating.”

Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together. “Fine,” he said. “Sit down. If you want to talk-”

“Or we could just drink in silence,” Wei Wuxian said. “That sounds like it would be awkward, but if you’d rather.”

Jiang Cheng scowled at him and poured two cups. In silence. Wei Wuxian sat down - sprawled, more like, though he managed to make it look comfortable.

Did you want to talk?” Jiang Cheng asked.

“Did you and Lan Zhan have a good conversation?”

“Maybe,” Jiang Cheng said after a few seconds. “He might’ve threatened me. I couldn’t tell.”

“Huh,” Wei Wuxian said.

“It’s - whatever. It’s not-” Important.

(Do you doubt that?)

He sighed. It seemed like he was doing a lot of that, lately. Changing out the yelling for sighing. He wasn’t sure it was an improvement.

Lan Wangji makes you happy, he thought. You relax around him. He loves you. I don’t have the right to begrudge you that.

“Does he know about what happened?” he asked abruptly. “When you were attacked.”

“Which-” Wei Wuxian cut off, winced, and said, “no, he doesn’t, and he doesn’t need to.”

“Which what,” Jiang Cheng said, storm clouds building. “Was that going to be ‘which time’?”

Wei Wuxian’s face screwed up a little. “It’s fine! I’m fine, aren’t I?”

There was a growl lurking at the back of Jiang Cheng’s throat. “I’m going to tell Hanguang-jun,” he said, “and then you’re going to tell me what happened, and we’ll see about people who think they can just - with impunity-”

“Not with impunity,” Wei Wuxian said. Jiang Cheng cut off, and Wei Wuxian raised his eyebrows and cocked his head a little to the side. There was no smile anymore, and Jiang Cheng recognized the darkness in his eyes, something cold and a little vicious, though he blinked and it was gone. He pulled out the black flute and set it across his knees. “I’m not helpless, Jiang Cheng. I was surprised the first time. But I can defend myself.”

A small chill crawled down Jiang Cheng’s spine. He opened his mouth and then closed it. Wei Wuxian was looking at him with a calm, level gaze, and Jiang Cheng realized that he was being...not tested, exactly. But maybe, a little.

He should be angry. He should be furious. He’d spent years railing against demonic cultivation, raging against anything that so much as smelled of it. But…

Without Wei Wuxian’s demonic cultivation, they might’ve all died in the Burial Mounds. Or in the fight with Jin Guangyao. His tactics had turned the tide against Wen Ruohan.

They’d kept him alive on the road.

Jiang Cheng looked down at his cup and drained it in one go. “Good,” he said, flatly. “If you’re not going to be careful, at least you can not be stupid.

Wei Wuxian’s shoulders relaxed slowly. “I’m brilliant,” he said. Jiang Cheng glared at him, but it was half-hearted at best. After a brief pause Wei Wuxian added more quietly, “please don’t tell him. Lan Zhan worries enough as it is.”

Jiang Cheng scrutinized him. I can’t blame him, he thought. I think he has every right to worry, all things considered. Though it was a little hard to picture the seemingly perpetually unruffled Lan Wangji worrying.

Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng supposed, brought that out in people.

Just be careful, he almost said. I feel like you’re not taking this seriously. You got a second life. I don’t think you’ll get a third. It felt too serious. Too honest.

“I guess now I have something to hold over your head,” he said. Wei Wuxian’s eyes widened.

“Jiang Cheng! You wouldn’t!”

“Watch me,” Jiang Cheng said. “I just might.”

“You are too cruel,” Wei Wuxian said in a profoundly aggrieved voice. “That’s so unfair.”

“I guess you’d just better not piss me off,” Jiang Cheng said. There was a brief flicker of doubt in Wei Wuxian’s eyes, but apparently he’d managed to hit the right tone because it went away quickly. Or else he was just hiding it. That was possible, too. “The worst he’ll do is lock you in the jingshi, and you’d deserve it, anyway,” he added.

The expression Wei Wuxian gave him could only be described as a pout. The infamous Yiling Patriarch, Jiang Cheng thought with a slight sense of surreality, was pouting at him. He scowled back, and for a second they could have been sitting in Lotus Pier, bickering over nothing real, and any second now Jiang Yanli would walk in and look at them and sigh. A-Cheng, a-Xian, what is it now?

The moment passed quickly, and Jiang Cheng looked away, the good humor draining out of him. He poured himself another cup of Emperor’s Smile but didn’t drink it, a lump settling in his stomach.

Wei Wuxian’s eyes strayed away from Jiang Cheng, down to the flute still resting across his legs. Six things rose up in Jiang Cheng’s throat, and all of them got stuck there.

“Why did you keep it?” Wei Wuxian asked abruptly. “Chenqing, that is. I expected it would’ve been burned, or destroyed, but it’s in nearly perfect condition.”

It was a question Jiang Cheng had asked himself once or twice over the years, when he glanced over at the corner where he’d hidden the flute, safely out of his own or anyone else’s eyesight. It had been the only thing left of Wei Wuxian after his fall; the only remnant of his evil, a tangible artifact of demonic cultivation. It should have been destroyed. He should have destroyed it. But instead he had taken it and hidden it away and told no one that he had it.

Jiang Cheng had told himself, once or twice, that it was a lure. That if Wei Wuxian returned, he would come for the flute, and then Jiang Cheng would have him. Or, other times, that it was a trophy: proof of his death and defeat. Then why hide it, a nasty whispering voice had always asked. Wouldn’t either purpose be better served by having it on display?

It had been the only thing left of Wei Wuxian after his fall. Maybe that had been reason enough.

He shrugged awkwardly and said nothing.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Wei Wuxian said. “I appreciate it. It was just a surprise.”

“It would’ve been a waste,” he mumbled, though it sounded weak. It wasn’t like anyone else would’ve used the damn thing. Or, well, if they’d wanted to, it wasn’t like Jiang Cheng would let them.

“Well,” Wei Wuxian said after a brief pause, “thanks. It’s good to have it back.”

“Whatever,” Jiang Cheng said. “You should be grateful. I could’ve thrown it out a hundred times.”

“I’m lucky you’re sentimental,” Wei Wuxian said. Jiang Cheng stiffened.

“I am not-” he started to say, but stopped when he noticed the slight gleam in Wei Wuxian’s eye, and huffed, with feeling. “Idiot.”

There were still so many things they hadn’t talked about, and maybe never would. Jiang Cheng didn’t know if he’d ever tell Wei Wuxian what had happened with the Wens; how he’d ended up captured in the first place. It would feel like making an excuse, somehow. Like he was trying to balance the scales when they would probably always be unbalanced.

Maybe that didn’t matter. Or maybe it should at least matter less.

“Have you ever regretted it?” Jiang Cheng asked abruptly, and wanted to curse at himself. Wei Wuxian’s eyes moved back to his face.

“Regretted what?” he said, a little too innocently. Or maybe giving Jiang Cheng the chance to back out of the conversation. He was tempted to take it, and annoyed that he was tempted. He charged stubbornly ahead.

“Giving me your golden core.”

Had he actually said that aloud, before? That precisely, to anyone? Unadorned, direct, plain language, just the thing itself - he didn’t think he had. And he knew why, too, because his stomach was suddenly full of bees and he wished, fervently, that he had taken the out. Too late now.

Wei Wuxian’s expression fell. “No,” he said. “Never.”

Just like that. No hesitation, not even a pause to think. Then again, Jiang Cheng supposed Wei Wuxian had had time to think already, since he’d been aware of the transfer in the first place, and now he was slipping into that same unfair bitterness that was so easy and comfortable to live in.

“Never,” Jiang Cheng repeated, because it was hard to believe that.

“I have a lot of regrets, but that’s not one of them.”

“Not once,” Jiang Cheng pressed. “Not even when-”

“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said, “why do you keep asking? Do you want me to regret it?”

“Of course not,” Jiang Cheng snapped back. “Don’t be ridiculous. I just don’t-” Understand. There was a sour taste at the back of his throat that said of course you don’t, he’s better than you in this, too.

It’s a gift. Are you really so ungrateful as to hate him for that?

He scowled at a corner. He should - he should say something, but once again couldn’t quite string together the right words. They scattered like birds every time he tried to gather them.

“I told you,” Wei Wuxian said slowly. “It’s in the past, now. You don’t need to-”

“For you it is,” Jiang Cheng said. “For you it’s history, another life, whatever. For me it’s-” Inescapably present. There, inside me, under my heart, sustaining me. “-not.”

“Give it time,” Wei Wuxian said. “Your memory is better than mine, so give it - five years? And it’ll be ancient history for you, too.”

Jiang Cheng gritted his teeth. “I’m serious,” he said, stung.

“So am I!”

It’s not funny,” Jiang Cheng said, lurching to his feet and standing over Wei Wuxian, fists clenched. “You have no idea how it felt, how it feels, and you’re treating it like a big joke. This is my life, do you understand that? What I’ve built everything on and it turns out it was a lie, that it wasn’t me, it was you all along-”

His eyes were burning and he was going to start crying, and he’d been doing so well. Jiang Cheng twisted away.

“It wasn’t,” Wei Wuxian said. “It was still you. Maybe it was my golden core, but all the work was still you.”

Jiang Cheng wanted to curse, or throw something, or both. He managed to do neither. “Stop it,” he said.


“Stop being so…” he trailed off, turned back around, and sat down again, hard. I hate you, he thought, but he didn’t think it’d be taken the right way if he said it. He sighed. “Never mind.”

“We don’t have to talk about this,” Wei Wuxian said. “Now, or ever. I mean, that was my original plan and I’m fine with going back to it.”

Jiang Cheng was suddenly very tired, and very sad, and wished very, very much that he could just go back and redo the last sixteen years all over again.

Wanting to fix something isn’t the same thing as being able to do it.

“I miss a-jie,” Jiang Cheng said, somehow managing to push the words out past the strangling in his throat. “All the time. Still.”

“I know,” Wei Wuxian said. “So do I.”

It sounded like a confession. Jiang Cheng realized, abruptly, something that should have occurred to him long before: for Jiang Cheng it had been sixteen years and more since his sister’s death. For Wei Wuxian it had been less than three.

For him it was still fresh. And if Jiang Cheng still wrestled with the idea of forgiveness...maybe he wasn’t the only one.

The sword had been meant for Wei Wuxian, after all. Jiang Yanli might have chosen to save her brother. He hadn’t chosen to be saved.

Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together. Three months searching, hoping; sixteen years searching, dreading.

“She should be here,” he said. Wei Wuxian’s shoulders came up just a little.

“I know,” he said again, sounding tired.

Jiang Cheng took a long breath through his nose. “This would be easier with her here,” he said, and to his relief it came out the kind of rueful he meant it to. “She’d just...make soup and give us that look. And that would be that.”

Wei Wuxian glanced at him and then let out a little huff of a laugh. “You’re right,” he said. “That was how it always worked. It was the soup. Maybe I should try making some.”

“Absolutely not,” Jiang Cheng said immediately. Wei Wuxian gave him an offended look.

“Excuse you. I’m a perfectly - serviceable cook.”

“Serviceable,” Jiang Cheng said skeptically. Wei Wuxian frowned at him.

“You should see what I can do with a turnip.”

“No, thank you,” Jiang Cheng said. “I think I’ll pass.”

Wei Wuxian’s smile was a little uneven and a shadow of its old self. But it was still a smile, and it softened his face, reached his eyes and smoothed away some of the unhappiness that had set up there and still lingered across a second life. Jiang Cheng’s heart did something funny in his chest.

Go on, then, a-jie said.

“I missed you,” Jiang Cheng said. “I hated it. I was - so mad about it. But I missed you.”

For a moment Jiang Cheng thought Wei Wuxian was going to make a joke. He wasn’t sure if it would have been a relief or just infuriating. Then he got up, wordlessly, came around the table, and sat down next to Jiang Cheng, shoulders not quite touching.

“I’m here now,” he said.

Something in Jiang Cheng’s soul slotted quietly into place. A knot that had been there for years released.

Maybe, maybe, this was going to be all right.