“So,” Jin Ling said. He seemed to be thinking about something. Dithering about something, really, picking at his food, and Jiang Cheng recognized all the signs of him trying to figure out how to bring something up that he thought would make Jiang Cheng angry. Which, whatever it was, it probably would; Jin Ling knew him pretty well. He waited, and Jin Ling fidgeted in a most un-sect leader-like way. “So,” he said again.
Jiang Cheng sighed. “Spit it out, a-Ling,” he said.
“I need some advice,” Jin Ling said. Jiang Cheng set down his chopsticks and straightened.
“Is one of the minor sect leaders giving you trouble?” he asked, not quite able to keep the tense note out of his voice. Jin Ling shook his head.
“It isn’t about sect business,” he said. Jiang Cheng frowned, scanning through his memories to see if there was some girl he’d heard Jin Ling mention, though it seemed unlikely that Jin Ling would come to him for that kind of advice.
“What, then?” Jin Ling fidgeted again. Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together and said, “did you get someone pregnant?”
Jin Ling’s eyes went wide. “No!” he said at once. “No, I didn’t - that’s not-” He was flushed bright red, and finally blurted out, “what am I supposed to give Hanguang-jun for a wedding present?”
Jiang Cheng stared at him. He went over the words once, and then again, taking several very long moments to parse what they meant. Then a few more seconds to try to make sense of what they meant. There was a look of dawning dread on Jin Ling’s face.
“And why,” Jiang Cheng said slowly, “do you need to give Hanguang-jun a wedding present?”
Jin Ling’s eyes darted toward the door. “Um,” he said.
“Jin Ling,” Jiang Cheng said. “Is there something you want to tell me?”
Wei Wuxian met him at the entrance to the Cloud Recesses, smiling. “Hey, Jiang Cheng,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting-”
“You’re getting married,” Jiang Cheng said, voice flat.
Wei Wuxian blinked at him. “Yes?”
“You,” Jiang Cheng said, enunciating every word very carefully, “are getting married.”
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian said, expression beginning to turn wary. “That’s...happening.”
Jiang Cheng took a deep breath so he didn’t shout. He felt vaguely as though if he shouted Lan Wangji would appear from thin air, Bichen conspicuously visible. So he was going to keep his voice controlled. “When?”
“We’re still choosing a date,” Wei Wuxian said slowly, the wariness intensifying. He took a very small step back; Jiang Cheng tried very hard not to be upset about that, too. “I was going to tell you-”
“I’d certainly hope so,” Jiang Cheng interrupted, though he kept it to a hiss rather than anything louder. Wei Wuxian winced.
“All right, all right,” he said. “Don’t be mad, Jiang Cheng. It’s not going to be anything fancy.”
Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together in a hard, thin, line and reminded himself that he did not actually want to hurt Wei Wuxian right now. Or, well, he did, but he wasn’t going to. “Is that so.”
Wei Wuxian eyed Jiang Cheng like he was considering taking another step back. “Well, it is Gusu Lan Sect. And Lan Zhan doesn’t exactly want a spectacle. We thought just something quiet at the Cloud Recesses-”
“Absolutely not,” Jiang Cheng said.
First Wei Wuxian looked surprised. Then his eyes narrowed. “Jiang Cheng. Do you have a problem with me marrying Lan Zhan?” he asked, a bit of an edge sliding into his voice. Jiang Cheng gritted his back teeth and took another deep breath. He was not going to lose his temper. He was not…
“No,” he said.
“Then what, exactly, do you have a problem with?”
Jiang Cheng worked his jaw. Took a deep breath. Said, “you can’t get married at the Cloud Recesses.”
Wei Wuxian’s expression did something strange, sort of like Jiang Cheng had slapped him. “I don’t think that’s up to you,” he said, voice tight and smile even tighter, “even if Lan Qiren would probably support you.”
Jiang Cheng took a step toward Wei Wuxian, fists clenched at his sides, and said through his teeth, “you’re not some - Gusu Lan Sect disciple.”
Wei Wuxian’s face did that funny thing again, and this time Jiang Cheng recognized it as hurt. It wasn’t like he hadn’t put that expression there before. But he was angry, and Wei Wuxian was stupid, and why didn’t he get it? “What are you trying to say, Jiang Cheng?” Wei Wuxian said, and now he just sounded tired. “You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to come. I don’t know why-”
“If you’re going to get married,” Jiang Cheng ground out, “then you’re going to damn well get married at Lotus Pier.”
Wei Wuxian blinked once. Again. Then: “what?”
“I said,” Jiang Cheng said, more loudly and more slowly, “you’re going to get married at Lotus Pier.” Wei Wuxian just stared at him, and Jiang Cheng stared back, eyes narrowed, jaw set, and entirely ready to argue on this if Wei Wuxian tried to object.
“You want me,” Wei Wuxian said slowly, “to have my wedding. To Lan Zhan. In Yunmeng.”
“At Lotus Pier. Yes. Was I not clear enough for you?” Jiang Cheng snapped. “I can try to say it with simpler words.”
The look Wei Wuxian gave him wasn’t quite a scowl. “I understood what you said,” he said. “Just…”
Jiang Cheng’s hackles went up. His chin lifted. “What,” he said. “Lotus Pier isn’t good enough for Hanguang-jun?”
Wei Wuxian opened his mouth, closed it, and shook his head. His eyes began to get a bit shiny. “That’s not...Jiang Cheng,” he said. “I’d…”
“If you don’t want to,” Jiang Cheng said, “just say so.” Ignoring the clenching feeling in his chest when he said it.
“I’m not a member of Jiang Sect anymore,” Wei Wuxian said faintly.
Jiang Cheng jerked his shoulders in a shrug. “That’s fixable,” he said irritably.
“It is?” Wei Wuxian said. His voice sounded a little funny. And his half smile was - oh, great. On the verge of tears. Which had Jiang Cheng’s eyes burning, too. Idiot, he thought, and wasn’t entirely sure who he meant. Wei Wuxian paused and said, “you’re sure.”
Jiang Cheng snorted. “Do you think I’m joking?”
Wei Wuxian laughed, sort of. “All right,” he said. “All right. Obviously I have to talk to Lan Zhan-”
“I will,” Jiang Cheng interrupted. Wei Wuxian’s expression flickered a little.
“Oh,” he said. “Hm. Really?”
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng said. A little bit of dread churning in his stomach, but he slammed it down. “He can just try to argue.”
Wei Wuxian’s expression went from vaguely unsure to pained. “Jiang Cheng…”
Jiang Cheng leveled him with a glare. “Look,” he said. “He might be Chief Cultivator and the great Hanguang-jun and your - husband-to-be, but you’re-” just say it- “-my brother and I am not letting Gusu Lan Sect throw some bland, small, pathetic excuse for a ceremony.”
There was a lump in his throat. Wei Wuxian was staring at him a little like he’d never seen him before. Shut up, Jiang Cheng thought, even though he hadn’t said anything.
“Besides,” Jiang Cheng said, “it’s not like I need your permission to talk to Lan Wangji.”
Wei Wuxian heaved a sigh. “No,” he said, sounding resigned. “I guess you don’t.”
“Hanguang-jun,” Jiang Cheng said stiffly. Lan Wangji just looked at him, expression cold and impassive and, as usual, impossible to read.
“Jiang-zongzhu,” he said, after a slightly too long pause.
Wei Wuxian let out a slightly nervous laugh. “Well,” he said. “Now that we’ve got the greetings over with, maybe we can sit down and have some tea?”
Jiang Cheng didn’t move. Neither did Lan Wangji. “I assume you are here for a purpose,” he intoned, with a clear subtext of so get on with it and get out.
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng said. “Obviously.”
Wei Wuxian cleared his throat. “I was saying,” he said. “Tea? Anyone?”
“Jin-zongzhu happened to mention something about a wedding,” Jiang Cheng said.
“Mm,” Lan Wangji said. Jiang Cheng ground his molars and inhaled slowly through his nose. All right, he thought. Fine.
“Yunmeng Jiang will be hosting it,” he said. “Of course.”
Lan Wangji’s eyes narrowed fractionally. Out of the corner of his eye, Wei Wuxian was beginning to look a bit panicked. He, Jiang Cheng thought, could deal with it. This was between him and Hanguang-jun, and Hanguang-jun was not going to win.
“Why,” Lan Wangji said.
Jiang Cheng’s nostrils flared. “Why?” he asked. “I’d think it was obvious.”
“It is not.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said. “What Jiang Cheng is trying to say is-”
“Wei Wuxian is a disciple of Jiang Sect.”
Lan Wangji’s eyes narrowed another hair. “I was given to understand that was no longer the case.”
Jiang Cheng glared at him. “You were misinformed,” he said, which wasn’t true right now but it could be true again, if he decided it should be. Wei Wuxian was looking back and forth between them like he was trying to decide who his best candidate for interference was going to be.
“Mn,” Lan Wangji said. Somehow his expression had gotten colder.
“Also,” Jiang Cheng said, “I’m sure that Elder Lan would rather not have the quiet of the Cloud Recesses disturbed by a wedding ceremony.”
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said. “Maybe Lan Zhan and I should talk this over. Alone.”
Jiang Cheng ignored him. Lan Wangji glanced in his direction and said, “yes.”
“No,” Jiang Cheng said. “This is not me asking, Hanguang-jun. This is me telling you how it is going to be. I am going to throw this wedding, and I don’t care what I have to do to make that happen.”
Absolute silence. Wei Wuxian let out another nervous laugh. “Right,” he said. “Right, then.” He wrapped a hand around Lan Wangji’s arm and gave him a little tug. “Let’s...we’ll get back to this later. Right?” The look he threw Jiang Cheng was a mixture of pleading and desperate. Lan Wangji still didn’t move.
“Wei Ying,” he said. Just that, turning his head a little to look at him, and Wei Wuxian looked back, and some very quick conversation passed between them without a word. Wei Wuxian’s expression went stubborn. Lan Wangji’s eyebrows furrowed, then smoothed out, and he said, “please.”
Wei Wuxian made an unhappy face. “That’s unfair,” he said, but sighed and turned toward Jiang Cheng. “Don’t leave without saying goodbye, all right?” he said. “I have something for you.”
Jiang Cheng tried not to acknowledge the funny little flutter in his chest. “Right, fine,” he said. So he was being left alone with Hanguang-jun. That was fine. Better, probably. It wasn’t like he needed Wei Wuxian to fight his battles. He’d just get in the way, anyway.
“If the two of you get in a duel you know your shufu is going to make it my fault,” Wei Wuxian said to Lan Wangji. “So...don’t?”
Lan Wangji stared at Jiang Cheng for a moment, then turned fully toward Wei Wuxian and drew him into what seemed like a very pointed kiss. Jiang Cheng looked away, pressing his lips together. When he looked back Wei Wuxian looked a little flushed and a little dazed, and Jiang Cheng could feel his face getting hot.
“Are you done?” he asked.
Lan Wangji ignored him, his attention focused solely on Wei Wuxian, who gave him a weak-looking smile before he turned and bounced away with one last glance over his shoulder. Lan Wangji gazed after him, icy face softening, though that was gone the second he turned back toward Jiang Cheng.
Jiang Cheng braced himself.
“You do not get to tell me how to have my wedding,” Lan Wangji said, slow and measured, every word perfectly clear.
“It’s not just your wedding,” Jiang Cheng said. “It’s his, too.”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji said. “It is.”
Jiang Cheng was going to pretend he had no idea what Lan Wangji was not saying out loud, though he was excruciatingly aware of it. “Have you ever planned a wedding before, Lan-er-gongzi? Has anyone in your family planned a wedding? Because I have.”
Lan Wangji just stared at him for several very long seconds. “Why,” he said. Jiang Cheng’s hackles went up.
“Why do you want to host this wedding.”
Jiang Cheng’s nostrils flared. He took a deep breath. “I’m going to pretend,” he said stiffly, “that you didn’t ask me that question.”
Lan Wangji fixed him with a glare that probably could’ve cracked stone.
“I’m not going to let you marry Wei Wuxian in some tiny, private, nothing ceremony,” Jiang Cheng said aggressively. “He deserves better than that.”
Lan Wangji’s expression somehow got even colder. “Yes,” he said. “He deserves better than you.”
Jiang Cheng rocked back, feeling like Lan Wangji had just punched him in the stomach. Or stabbed him, maybe. He straightened up quickly, though, not about to let him see how much that had hurt. He didn’t care what Hanguang-jun thought. His Excellency could go fuck himself.
Jiang Cheng took a breath and a risk. “If you’re so fussed about what Wei Wuxian deserves,” he said tightly, “why don’t you try asking him what he wants? Or is that not as important as your issue with me?”
Lan Wangji stared at him. Jiang Cheng stared back. His stomach might be in knots and he might very badly want to turn around and walk out of the Cloud Recesses and never say another word to Lan Wangji again, but he wasn’t going to do it.
“Hm,” Lan Wangji said, finally.
“Well?” Jiang Cheng snapped.
He thought he saw Lan Wangji’s eye twitch. Maybe. “I will ask,” he said, after several more very long beats of silence. “If Wei Ying does not want this…”
Jiang Cheng set his teeth. Surely Wei Wuxian wouldn’t just cave if Lan Wangji looked in his direction. And Wei Wuxian did like the idea. Or it had seemed like it. Sure, maybe the last time he’d been in Lotus Pier had been an unmitigated disaster, but…
“Great,” Jiang Cheng said. “Call him back here and ask, then.”
“That is a private conversation.”
“So you can browbeat him into doing what you want?” Jiang Cheng said. Lan Wangji’s eyes snapped.
“Jiang Wanyin,” he said, beginning to look like a stormcloud. Jiang Cheng clenched his hands into fists.
“Hanguang-jun, Elder Lan wants to know if- oh.” Lan Wangji pinned him with one hard glare and then turned to look at the junior standing awkwardly a little ways away, looking back and forth between them.
“Can it wait?” Lan Wangji asked, voice altogether too level.
“Probably?” That sounded like an almost hopeful question.
“Then it will wait. Tell Elder Lan that I am discussing some matters with Jiang-zongzhu.”
“I’ll do that,” the junior said, a little high-pitched, and departed at a pace just short of a run. The interruption, at least, did seem to have defused the immediate threat of violence.
“I,” Lan Wangji said, measured and deliberate, “will speak to Wei Ying. And I will respect his wishes.”
Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes. “But?”
Lan Wangji just looked at him. Long, and hard, and silently. Then bowed, formally and properly and not an iota more or less than was appropriate. “Jiang-zongzhu,” he said, and turned, folding one arm behind his back, and glided away.
He could catch up. He could yell after him. Every fiber of his being rebelled against letting Lan Wangji get the last word. But he was pretty sure anything he did would actually be worse than letting him have the last word.
He took a deep breath, let it out. Fine, he told himself. Fine. That could’ve been worse. He’d made his point. Wei Wuxian had to know that a Yunmeng wedding would be better, especially since Jiang Cheng actually knew what he was doing. Maybe he didn’t have Jin money this time around - though if he asked Jin Ling…
Right, Jiang Cheng thought. This was going to happen, and it was going to work, and it was going to be perfect.
And Lan Wangji could choke on a lotus pod. As long as he did it after the wedding.
Wei Wuxian had bought him some Emperor’s Smile - smuggled into the Cloud Recesses, though Lan Wangji probably let him bring in as much as he liked - and a packet of herbs he swore would help him relax. Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes. “What,” he said, “you think I need to relax?”
Wei Wuxian’s smile faltered a little, and Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure if he wanted to shake himself or Wei Wuxian more. “Everyone needs to relax sometimes,” Wei Wuxian said.
“Whatever,” Jiang Cheng said. And then added, with some difficulty, “thank you.”
The smile came back with a vengeance. The relief in it made Jiang Cheng’s stomach twist. “Ai-ya. It’s nothing. Safe trip back, all right?”
“Hm,” Jiang Cheng said. He turned to go, then stopped, opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again. “When were you going to tell me,” he said.
A brief and awkward pause. “Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian started to say, but he made an annoyed noise and shook his head.
“Never mind. Forget it,” he said, and stalked off, leaving the Cloud Recesses behind with the vague feeling like he should have said something else. He didn’t know what it would be, though.
So maybe things between the two of them were still weird. Maybe he could count the number of conversations they’d had since Guanyin Temple on one hand and have room left over, and most of those had been stilted and awkward and uncomfortable, and maybe Wei Wuxian hadn’t been back to Lotus Pier since Lan Wangji had carried out his unconscious body, but still.
First things first, though.
He snagged Yin Zhihao, the current Head Disciple, on his way in. “I need to reinstate someone as a disciple of Jiang Sect,” he said.
Zhihao paused. “Reinstate someone?” he said slowly.
“That’s what I said,” Jiang Cheng said, then forced his tone to moderate. Just because Lan Wangji put him in a bad mood didn’t mean he had to take it out on anyone here. Zhihao, at any rate, didn’t deserve it; maybe someone else would by the end of the day.
Zhihao paused again, a bit longer this time. “Who are you reinstating?” he asked, with careful delicacy. Jiang Cheng could not decide if he appreciated it or was annoyed by it.
“Wei Wuxian,” he said. A couple people passing by turned their heads; Jiang Cheng glanced in their direction and they picked up their pace. He focused back on Zhihao, who was giving him an odd look, though it cleared up quickly. A little too quickly.
He bowed. “Yes, Jiang-zongzhu,” he said. “I’ll see to it.” He seemed, Jiang Cheng thought, almost pleased. He started to narrow his eyes, stopped himself, and made a small gesture of dismissal.
It was an odd feeling, Jiang Cheng thought. Ripping Wei Wuxian out of the sect had been - hard. Impossible, really. A part of him always thinking right up until the end…
It looked like putting him back was much easier.
That was probably going to be the only part of any of this that was easy, though.
Jiang Cheng retreated into a private room and sat down, reached for a brush and paper, and stopped, staring into the middle distance.
The guest list was going to be a nightmare. Whatever Lan Wangji said about something quiet, they were talking about the marriage of Hanguang-jun, new Chief Cultivator, and the notorious and until recently universally reviled Yiling Laozu. Everyone was going to want to be there. There’d be political implications to leaving anyone out, and they’d probably just show up anyway. Maybe Hanguang-jun didn’t care about politics, and he could probably get away with that, but Wei Wuxian couldn’t exactly afford to give more people reasons to hold a grudge.
Besides, better to not act like they were trying to hide something. Not a spectacle? The concept of this marriage was a spectacle in itself, and if they didn’t give people something to look at then they’d just make something up. They’d probably have the Yiling Laozu bewitching Hanguang-jun into his obedient sex slave before the day was out.
Unbelievable, that neither of them had thought of any of this.
Zewu-jun probably would have, but apparently he was in seclusion now. That was going to be a problem, too. Was he going to come out for his brother’s wedding? Was he going to be offended if he wasn’t involved in his brother’s wedding? Had anyone asked, or were they just waiting for his nephew to mention it out of hand in casual conversation-
Jiang Cheng took a breath and stopped grinding his teeth.
At least having to invite everyone meant not having to think about who to invite. It also meant there were going to be a number of people present who had been key participants in the campaign to kill Wei Wuxian. Hopefully everyone would be on their best behavior, at least, though Jiang Cheng didn’t know if Yao-zongzhu had a ‘best behavior.’
Probably no one would be stupid enough to actually start something, at least. It’d help to have Lan Xichen there, if he was feeling up to it. To stand there and look calm and approving, if nothing else. Surely he could come out for a day or two for that.
Jiang Cheng started writing a to-do list for himself. Tomorrow he’d start considering decoration, and thinking about expenses - draft a letter for Jin Ling, maybe. It wasn’t as though Lotus Pier lacked money, but he remembered being stunned by the expense of a-jie’s wedding. He didn’t want to be fussing about budget, but he also didn’t want to get any nasty surprises.
Even now, his thoughts tripped a little thinking about a-jie. Picturing her all dressed up for her wedding, absolutely resplendent-
Maybe this was a terrible idea.
Jiang Cheng set down the brush and stared at his notes. He and Wei Wuxian had spent hours upon hours planning Yanli’s wedding. Every detail, with only the husband to be filled in, and he was mostly incidental anyway.
In the end, Wei Wuxian hadn’t even been there.
And a-jie wasn’t here.
Like water welling up from an underground spring, the grief arrived. Old and familiar but also fresh all over again, now, like he’d been thrown back in time, and for a dizzying moment he wasn’t sure who he was mourning. Then the world settled back in and he was back where he’d been, in Lotus Pier, alone.
Not entirely, anymore.
Jiang Cheng rubbed his eyes. He pulled out the Emperor’s Smile Wei Wuxian had given him and set it down. “She should be here,” he said to it. “And you should’ve been there.”
He drank the whole bottle by himself and regretted it in the morning.
It had been three days without word from the Cloud Recesses. Jiang Cheng was going to give Hanguang-jun one more before going back in person and informing him that since he’d already committed time and resources, it was too late for him to refuse.
He was in the middle of writing down his response to a land dispute when one of the servants hastened in to announce that Jin-zongzhu was here, followed shortly by Jin-zongzhu himself barging unceremoniously in.
“What did you do?” he demanded. Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes.
“Hello to you, too, Jin-zongzhu,” he said pointedly. Jin Ling scowled at him.
“Jiujiu,” he said firmly, “did you go to the Cloud Recesses and yell at Wei Wuxian?”
Jiang Cheng blinked, jarred out of his annoyance, and realized that his brush was about to drip ink on the page. He set it down quickly. “Why? Did he complain to you?” A twinge went off in his chest that he decided was definitely anger.
“No,” Jin Ling said shortly. “He didn’t.”
“Who did?” Jiang Cheng asked, hands curling into fists. If Lan Wangji had said anything to his nephew…
“Lan Jingyi wrote me asking-” Jin Ling stopped, as if realizing that whatever he’d been about to say was perhaps unwise. Jiang Cheng’s eyes narrowed further.
“Asking what,” he said. Jin Ling pressed his lips together.
“He was wondering if you’d been to the Cloud Recesses, because Hanguang-jun has been in a bad mood for days,” Jin Ling said in a rush, “and he heard something about you being there, and Jingyi said he’s always like that after…”
He trailed off. A muscle twitched by Jiang Cheng’s eye. “After he talks to me,” he said. “Is that what you were going to say?”
Jin Ling winced. Jiang Cheng wondered absently what a bad mood looked like on Lan Wangji. Probably, he thought nastily, not that different from a good mood.
“And I accidentally told you about the wedding-”
“Because Wei Wuxian didn’t tell me,” Jiang Cheng said, under his breath and through his teeth.
“-and it seemed like you might’ve...done something.” Jin Ling glanced over his shoulder like he was suddenly wondering if he could make a run for it. Jiang Cheng stared at him, jaw working, and got to his feet.
“I did go to the Cloud Recesses,” he said.
Jin Ling’s shoulders slumped and his face fell. “Jiujiu,” he said. “I don’t think I was supposed to know, Wei Wuxian just has a stupid big mouth and can’t keep a secret.”
Another twinge that was definitely, absolutely anger. Oh, sure. Can’t keep a secret. He can when it matters, apparently.
Jin Ling was still talking. “I mean, Sizhui knew, but Jingyi didn’t, so it’s not like everyone-”
He took a breath through his nose. “I went to the Cloud Recesses to tell Wei Wuxian that he is getting married at Lotus Pier,” he said. Jin Ling’s mouth snapped closed.
Why is everyone so surprised by that, Jiang Cheng thought irritably, though he was very aware why. It still irritated him, for some reason. “He’s been officially reinstated,” he added, just to get that out of the way, too. He’d been a little worried about that - how the other disciples would react - but mostly they just seemed a bit...smug, about it.
“Oh,” Jin Ling said after a while. “Really?”
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng said. “Really. Lan Wangji couldn’t plan a party to save his life. Lan Xichen is in seclusion. It seems to me that there was an obvious wisdom to my handling it.” He sounded defensive. He had no reason to sound defensive, certainly not to Jin Ling.
Jin Ling nodded. “That makes sense,” he said. Jiang Cheng squinted suspiciously at him.
“Of course it does. But Hanguang-jun was not...immediately enthusiastic about the idea.” Jiang Cheng snorted. “To say the least. So I’d say that’s why the mood.”
“Well,” Jin Ling said, and then stopped.
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng said. “I am aware that it’s personal, and about me. I don’t care. I’m still hosting the damn wedding.”
“Okay,” Jin Ling said. Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes more.
“Nothing!” Jin Ling said. “Nothing.”
“What,” Jiang Cheng growled.
Jin Ling scowled at him. “Why are you acting so weird?” he demanded. Jiang Cheng opened his mouth to say that he was not acting weird, registered how it would sound if he did, and stopped himself.
“What do you mean,” he said instead. Jin Ling’s mouth twisted into something perilously close to a pout.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s just - weird.” He paused, then said, sounding a bit hopeful, “does this mean you and Wei Wuxian are going to stop being so awkward around each other?”
Almost certainly not, was what Jiang Cheng thought. He glared at his half-finished decision and said, “I have to finish this. Are you staying for dinner, or did you just come here to interrupt my work and defend Wei Wuxian?”
Jin Ling’s face turned a little pink. He cleared his throat. “I would be honored to stay for dinner,” he said.
“Glad to hear it,” Jiang Cheng said, and pointed at the door. “Now get out. And tell one of the servants to inform the kitchens.”
Jin Ling got. Jiang Cheng shuffled the report under a few other things and wrote half a letter to Wei Wuxian instead that opened with how are you? and only got worse from there. He ended up tearing the whole thing to shreds and spent the time before dinner laying out a potential seating chart instead.
In the end, he did not have to go to the Cloud Recesses. Wei Wuxian came to him. He did not send a letter ahead of himself. He also did not come directly to see him, but instead went to an inn and, according to the disciple who had noticed him and was the only reason Jiang Cheng was aware of his presence at all, purchased a room there.
Jiang Cheng gave himself a little while to calm down before he left. He glanced briefly at Suibian where it was resting innocently on a shelf, turned resolutely away, and went out to meet the Yiling Laozu.
He found Wei Wuxian, predictably, drinking. He was sitting alone (Jiang Cheng checked twice to make sure that he was, in fact, alone, and Lan Wangji wasn’t hiding behind a screen somewhere). Jiang Cheng stood in the doorway and just looked at him. His stomach hurt.
At length he stalked over and sat down, not-quite-slamming Sandu onto the table. “Wei Wuxian,” he said. Wei Wuxian tensed, though when he looked up he was smiling, and his voice sounded light.
“Hey, Jiang Cheng,” he said.
“What are you doing,” Jiang Cheng said. Wei Wuxian’s expression flickered. His eyes went toward the door and then back to Jiang Cheng, though his smile held.
“Stopping for a drink before going to pay my respects to Jiang-zongzhu,” he said. “I thought you might be busy and didn’t want to interrupt, so…”
“If you’d written a letter I’d have known to expect you,” Jiang Cheng said. Wei Wuxian’s eyes drifted sideways and he shrugged.
“That’s true, that’s true,” he said, and didn’t offer an excuse as to why he hadn’t. Jiang Cheng had a guess, though, and didn’t like that he had a guess.
“You’re not planning on staying here, are you?” he asked. Wei Wuxian gave him that smile, the one Jiang Cheng really didn’t like. It was still a smile but it wasn’t a proper one. Not really.
“I don’t mind,” he said. “I don’t want to impose-”
Jiang Cheng hissed like a snake and Wei Wuxian cut off. He jerked to his feet. “Impose,” he said, and shook his head sharply. “Get up.”
Wei Wuxian blinked at him. “I haven’t paid for-”
Jiang Cheng slapped some silver on the table - almost certainly more than Wei Wuxian’s liquor had cost, but whatever. Wei Wuxian looked from it, to him, and got up. He followed Jiang Cheng meekly out, or as meekly as Wei Wuxian did anything.
“Da-shixiong,” Shen Li said with a bow when they passed through the gates. Wei Wuxian’s head whipped around, eyes widening. Jiang Cheng felt a deep, warm swell of satisfaction and thought, somewhat obscurely, so there.
“Come on,” Jiang Cheng said harshly, grabbing his arm and picking up his pace, because he could already see other heads turning and sense what was going to happen. He did not want to lose Wei Wuxian to a group of Jiang disciples who had, apparently, decided that Wei Wuxian was definitively one of their own once again, and probably a number of junior disciples who didn’t remember Wei Wuxian as anything other than the Yiling Laozu but were certainly going to be curious.
Wei Wuxian who opened his mouth, closed it, and let Jiang Cheng half drag him inside without saying anything else. He looked like someone had clubbed him half senseless, and Jiang Cheng took advantage of his seeming abstraction to march him to the locked room no one had used for a very long time and shove him into it.
Wei Wuxian stumbled a little before he caught himself. Jiang Cheng closed the door firmly and leaned against it in case he got any ideas.
“‘Da-shixiong?’” was the first thing Wei Wuxian said, a little faintly.
“I reinstated you as a disciple,” Jiang Cheng said. “It’s up to them what they call you.”
Wei Wuxian blinked a couple of times, unsettlingly like he was trying to control the urge to cry. He seemed to catch himself. “Huh,” he said. Jiang Cheng shifted.
“I said I was going to.”
Wei Wuxian opened his mouth and then appeared to think better of whatever he’d been about to say. “So you did,” he said, something a bit odd in his voice. “You did say that.”
“What were you thinking, anyway,” Jiang Cheng said. “Getting a room at an inn. Do you know what Lan Wangji would do to me if he found out you were in Lotus Pier and staying in an inn?”
Wei Wuxian grimaced. “It’s not like I was going to tell him,” he said, which didn’t help. Jiang Cheng scowled.
“Well,” he said, “now you can tell him that you stayed in your room.”
Finally (idiot) Wei Wuxian seemed to register his surroundings. He turned around to stare at Jiang Cheng, who stared back at him with his mouth set thinking go ahead, just say something.
“Ha,” Wei Wuxian said finally, with a weak laugh. “I didn’t see any warning signs.”
Jiang Cheng pursed his lips. The door had been locked, sealed, and warded right up until he’d come back from Guanyin Temple. Then he’d removed all of it, like somehow Wei Wuxian would know that he’d done so. Had it cleaned out and refreshed like it was expecting a guest. “What, do you want me to put one up?”
Wei Wuxian’s laugh was a little stronger. “Sure, why not,” he said. “Scare the juniors.”
“No one’s going to be scared of you,” Jiang Cheng said. “Not once they actually see you.” Wei Wuxian gave him a suspicious look, like he was trying to decide if he should be insulted or not.
“Anyway,” Jiang Cheng said. “I’m surprised to see you away from the Cloud Recesses without His Excellency. I wouldn’t expect him to let you out alone.”
Wei Wuxian frowned at him. “Lan Zhan isn’t like that.” Jiang Cheng snorted.
“Right,” he said. “Sure. So does he know you’re here or is he going to accuse me of kidnapping you?”
Wei Wuxian’s eyebrows furrowed a little, and then he just sat down on the bed - his bed - and said, “of course he knows I’m here.”
Then I’m even more surprised you’re here on your own, considering I think he thinks I’ll kill you if he’s not hovering, Jiang Cheng thought bitterly. “Good,” he said.
Wei Wuxian crossed his legs and said, “Lan Zhan agreed to have the wedding here.” He wasn’t smiling. He didn’t sound happy about it. Jiang Cheng tensed, his stomach clenching.
“Finally,” he said, “I’ve been waiting to hear from him for days. Does he have any idea how long it takes to plan a decent wedding?”
“Probably not,” Wei Wuxian said, though he still wasn’t smiling. He seemed to be thinking something through, and it was making Jiang Cheng tense and anxious and irritable. What’s your problem, he wanted to snap, and just barely stopped himself.
Finally, Wei Wuxian shook himself and looked up at him, the smile finally back. “Anyway,” he said. “I appreciate it. Really.”
“Do you?” Jiang Cheng blurted out, before he could stop himself, and then wanted to curse. Wei Wuxian blinked.
“Never mind,” Jiang Cheng said, frustrated. “I have-” sect leader business, he meant to say, but he didn’t. There was a quiet but familiar voice at the back of his mind that said you’re doing it again.
Wei Wuxian shifted. “Jiang Cheng,” he said slowly, “I really was going to tell you. I just wasn’t…” He paused, and laughed, sort of, but not like it was funny. “Well, I didn’t want to put you in a weird position. Which, so much for that, I guess-”
“What’s that supposed to mean,” Jiang Cheng said. Wei Wuxian’s expression pinched a little, and Jiang Cheng took a step toward him. “No, really. What weird position did you think you were going to put me in?”
“I didn’t want you to feel...obligated,” Wei Wuxian said.
Jiang Cheng felt the sudden and acute urge to break something. “Obligated,” he said flatly. “Obligated to what?”
There was a flicker of concern on Wei Wuxian’s face, like he’d realized that he’d possibly made a mistake. “Well,” he said slowly, “to…” he paused, eyed Jiang Cheng, and said, “do something like host a wedding, I guess.”
Jiang Cheng stared at him. He took a deep breath, and then another one, and then said, “Wei Wuxian,” the words a little garbled.
The concern this time was more than a flicker. Jiang Cheng balled his hands into fists, turned on his heel and left. It wasn’t just his temper that was simmering, but something else, something painful and raw and obligation, why did it always have to be about obligation and debts and-
You’re still calling me that, he thought dizzily. You know you’re the only person who does, these days? He picked up his pace.
“Jiang Cheng, wait.”
He was so stupid. So, so, fucking-
Wei Wuxian grabbed his arm. Jiang Cheng whirled around and very nearly punched him in the face; he caught himself just in time, then wished he hadn’t caught himself.
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said, eyes a little wide. “What-”
“I’m not obligated to do a damn thing for you,” Jiang Cheng snarled. Wei Wuxian blinked once, then nodded.
“I know,” he said. “I know, I’ve never thought you were.”
Jiang Cheng took a step forward and jabbed a finger toward his chest. “I don’t owe you,” he said. “We’re even. You said.” Wei Wuxian hadn’t really, and he was wrong, anyway, but Jiang Cheng wasn’t going to get into that right now.
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian said slowly. “That’s true.”
Jiang Cheng glared at him. “So if I do something for you,” he said, “then I’m doing it because I want to, aren’t I? Is that so hard to get? Do you think I don’t know what I want to do or not do?”
Wei Wuxian had that look on his face again like Jiang Cheng had clubbed him.
“Or do you get to make all my decisions for me by choosing what I do and don’t get to know?”
Oh, Jiang Cheng thought. He hadn’t really - put that together. Wei Wuxian recoiled, ‘clubbed’ changing to ‘stabbed.’ Jiang Cheng held back a groan and pulled roughly free of Wei Wuxian’s grip; it wasn’t hard.
“That’s not…” Wei Wuxian trailed off, and glanced away. “I wasn’t trying to keep a secret. I just didn’t really know how to bring it up.”
“Easy,” Jiang Cheng said. “Write a letter. ‘I’m marrying Lan Wangji.’ That’s all you had to say.”
Wei Wuxian winced. “It seemed like just...dropping that on you out of nowhere would be maybe...a lot.”
Out of nowhere. Right. Because it’s not like you’ve been talking much otherwise. Jiang Cheng clenched his teeth. “Well,” he said flatly, “now I know, and I’ve already started some of the planning, so it’s a damn good thing Lan Wangji got his head out of his ass.”
Wei Wuxian made a noise like he was choking on his tongue. Jiang Cheng was, perhaps, a little pleased by it. “Uh,” he said.
“And you,” Jiang Cheng said, and then cut off. He didn’t really know what he’d meant to say. He knew what he wanted Wei Wuxian to say, but he wasn’t about to ask.
Wei Wuxian pressed his lips together and said, “I had to talk him into it, a little.”
Jiang Cheng scowled at a pillar. He said he’d go along with what you wanted. So what did you say when he asked if you wanted to get married here? No. He had no interest in sounding pathetic.
“I told him,” Wei Wuxian said slowly, “that I’d never really planned on getting married but if I had, I would’ve pictured it in Lotus Pier.” He paused, his throat moving as he swallowed, and his voice was quite a bit smaller when he added, “at home.”
There was, quite suddenly, a lump in Jiang Cheng’s throat. At home. It was stupid, that those two words could hurt him that much.
If that’s how you feel then why did you leave, he thought with a kind of angry desperation. Why did you never come back? Why did you tell me to cut you off and acted like we never mattered?
He remembered that moment at Nightless City when he’d been staring down one of the spirits attacking everyone around them, poised to attack, only to watch it turn and move away. I think da-shixiong remembers us, one of the disciples had said, sounding relieved, and the knot of feeling in Jiang Cheng’s chest was too much to hold, because Jiang Sect had been there, he’d been there, standing with a crowd swearing to kill Wei Wuxian, and the spirits under Wei Wuxian’s control weren’t touching a single Jiang disciple.
“Right,” he said. His voice sounded weird. Sort of strangled. “I guess that worked.”
Wei Wuxian’s smile was crooked and weak, and he looked away fast, over toward the lake. “I appreciate it,” he said after another moment.
“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng said. “I just don’t want to see what the Lan Sect thinks a wedding is supposed to look like. There couldn’t even be any alcohol, do you realize that?”
Wei Wuxian’s smile warmed and got a little easier. “That would be pretty bad.”
“Yeah,” Jiang Cheng said. “It would be.” He was going to need to drink to get through an entire feast with Lan Wangji. At least he’d probably be pretty busy making calf eyes at Wei Wuxian to glare the whole time.
There were several things he was thinking, but all of them were getting stuck before they came out of his mouth, from you should see how excited the junior disciples were to hear the Yiling Laozu is a member of the Jiang Sect now to does this mean you’re going to start visiting me?
He didn’t say any of it. Instead he said, “so are you staying for dinner or do you have to turn around and head back so Hanguang-jun doesn’t worry?”
Wei Wuxian made a face at him somewhere between a grimace and a pout. “He’s really not like that.”
Jiang Cheng just shook his head and rolled his eyes. If Wei Wuxian didn’t see it, he was just more of an oblivious idiot than Jiang Cheng had already known.
He couldn’t even blame Lan Wangji, not really. Not all things considered.
There was just some prickly part of him that got annoyed when he thought about it. Lan Wangji hovering over Wei Wuxian the way he did. Always right there ready to step in and intervene. Like he’d take on the whole world for Wei Wuxian’s sake.
It left a bad taste in his mouth. He wasn’t going to think too hard about why.
“First of all,” Jiang Cheng said over dinner, “Lan Wangji is an idiot if he thinks you’re going to have a small wedding.”
Wei Wuxian blinked at him and stopped chewing. “Uh,” he said. “I mean. Who’s going to want to show up?”
Jiang Cheng stared, incredulous. “Everyone,” he said. “Everyone is going to want to show up. You know you’re marrying the Chief Cultivator, right? Hanguang-jun the Chief Cultivator?”
Wei Wuxian looked a bit uncomfortable. “I know, but-”
“And you,” Jiang Cheng said, “are probably the most notorious cultivator, certainly alive right now, maybe ever. Unless you want to piss off more people than are already pissed off at you-”
“If they’re already pissed off at me does it really matter?” Wei Wuxian asked. Jiang Cheng ignored him.
“-then everyone’s going to have to be invited.”
Wei Wuxian looked pained. “Everyone.”
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng said ruthlessly. “Besides, it’ll cut down on the rumors. If you act like it’s some embarrassing secret then that’s what people will think.”
Wei Wuxian’s mouth set. “I don’t care what people think about me.”
“What about what they think about Hanguang-jun,” Jiang Cheng said. “And besides, you not caring what people think about you is part of what got you killed the first time around. Are you trying to go for a second? Because I’m pretty sure you only get one resurrection.”
He’d thought about that a few times after Guanyin Temple. Knowing it was unlikely, with Lan Wangji hovering as he clearly intended to do, but it only took one lucky cultivator with a grudge.
Wei Wuxian wavered. Jiang Cheng hammered it home. “Besides,” he said, “I’m not going to have anyone saying Yunmeng Jiang is cheap.”
“Lan Zhan isn’t going to like it,” Wei Wuxian said.
“Lan Zhan will know I’m right if he has an ounce of political sense,” Jiang Cheng said. He paused. “Which maybe he doesn’t.” Wei Wuxian frowned at him, and Jiang Cheng said, “it’s not his worst quality.”
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said. He didn’t sound angry, but he didn’t exactly sound happy, either. “You remember I’m going to marry him, right?”
No accounting for taste, for either of you, Jiang Cheng thought, but bit it back. He didn’t think it would come out right. “Who were you going to invite, anyway?” Jiang Cheng asked.
Wei Wuxian’s face did something weird. “Just a few people.”
Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes. “Meaning?”
Wei Wuxian glanced at him sideways and took a large bite of food rather than answering. “This is good,” he said, too loudly. “Even adding spices to Gusu Lan dishes doesn’t save them. Somehow they just taste like - bland but with some spices.”
Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes. “Wei Wuxian.”
He exhaled. “Well, Jin Ling, obviously,” he said. “A-Yuan - that is, Lan Sizhui-”
Jiang Cheng frowned. A-Yuan. That sounded familiar. “The Lan junior who was at Guanyin Temple? Lan Wangji’s favorite?”
Wei Wuxian paused for a half a second and Jiang Cheng thought immediately he’s not telling me something. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s him. Lan Qiren, which I thought was risky - I’m worried he’ll qi deviate the first time he sees me in red, but we can’t not. Zewu-jun, hopefully.” He paused. Jiang Cheng’s stomach felt tight.
“That’s it,” he said.
“No,” Wei Wuxian said slowly. “I mean, obviously not, there was you too.”
Jiang Cheng stared at him. “What,” he said, “is it.”
Wei Wuxian took a breath and let it out. “Wen Ning,” he said. “He’d...he will need to be there, too.”
Jiang Cheng held his breath so he didn’t say absolutely fucking not. Then another second so he didn’t say that thing is setting foot in Lotus Pier again over my dead body. Then another to not say did you forget that he killed Jin Ling’s father or do you just not care because you decided to adopt the Wens as your new family?
He gritted his teeth and said, “what does Jin Ling think about that? Have you told him?”
Wei Wuxian’s mouth twisted a little. “He’s...working on it.”
Working on it, Jiang Cheng wanted to snap, but then he thought of Guanyin Temple and Wen Ning’s bare hand clutching Baxia, keeping it from striking down at Jin Ling. His shoulders dropped and he grimaced at one of the walls.
He could feel Wei Wuxian watching him and didn’t look to see what look was on his face.
“You want me to invite the Ghost General to a wedding where every cultivator of any station will be present.”
“No,” Wei Wuxian said. “I want Wen Qionglin to be at my wedding.” His voice was quiet, but the correction - and it was a correction, Jiang Cheng thought - was clear enough. His grimace deepened.
“If Jin Ling accepts it,” Jiang Cheng said, “and you feel it’s necessary, I...suppose...he can come.”
Even just barely looking at him out of the corner of his eye Jiang Cheng saw Wei Wuxian relax with profound and obvious relief. “Thank you.”
What would you have done if I refused, Jiang Cheng thought, but there was absolutely no way he was going to ask. He was too afraid of the answer.
“Zewu-jun,” he said after a couple moments. “Have you...spoken to him?”
“I haven’t,” Wei Wuxian said after a couple moments of silence. “Lan Zhan has. But he doesn’t tell me what he says.”
“Does he know his brother is getting married?” He thought the emphasis was subtle. By the way Wei Wuxian glanced at him, maybe it wasn’t.
“He knows,” he said.
“And?” Jiang Cheng pressed. Wei Wuxian’s mouth twisted and he shook his head.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Like I said, Lan Zhan doesn’t tell me what they talk about.”
Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together, frowning. “Hm,” he said. Wei Wuxian gave him a cautious, skeptical look. “If I gave you a letter, would Lan Wangji give it to him?” he asked.
Wei Wuxian blinked. “A letter? Saying what?”
Jiang Cheng pinned him with a glare. “That’s my business. Well? Will he, or will he throw it out because it’s from me?”
Wei Wuxian winced. “If you write him a letter, I’ll make sure Zewu-jun gets it,” he said. Jiang Cheng jerked his head in a nod. Wei Wuxian went back to eating. They both fell silent, and the silence was suddenly awkward.
“Why’d you come here in person, anyway?” Jiang Cheng asked abruptly. “You could’ve written, if Lan Wangji couldn’t bring himself to.”
Wei Wuxian glanced at him and was quiet for what felt like a while. Jiang Cheng just kept himself from fidgeting, or snapping what, determined to wait him out. “Should I have done that?” Wei Wuxian eventually asked.
“Would’ve been faster,” Jiang Cheng said. Something went through Wei Wuxian’s eyes very quickly, and Jiang Cheng had the unsettling feeling that he would have known once what it was but didn’t now.
Then again, Wei Wuxian had been good at hiding things from him for a long time now.
“I guess it would’ve,” Wei Wuxian said.
Jiang Cheng poked at his food, glaring at it, annoyed though he couldn’t quite have articulated why. It was silent again, the kind of quiet Jiang Cheng associated with family dinners when he was a child and a-niang and a-die were both there, a quiet that was waiting to break in some kind of unpleasant way, it was just a question of how and when.
“You didn’t answer the question,” he snapped, eventually. Wei Wuxian twitched, just a little.
“Well,” he said. “Someone told me Yunmeng was nice this time of year.”
“That’s not a reason to,” Jiang Cheng said irritably, but he trailed off, suddenly feeling like a complete idiot. He cleared his throat.
“You didn’t have to wait for an excuse,” he said. His voice came out sounding a little funny. Wei Wuxian, who had just taken a bite of chicken, promptly choked on it. “Don’t die,” Jiang Cheng snapped.
“Been there,” Wei Wuxian wheezed, which Jiang Cheng did not find funny. He coughed a couple times and thumped his chest.
“If you wanted to come,” Jiang Cheng said, “you could’ve just. Done that.”
Wei Wuxian coughed once more, cleared his throat, and said, “okay.” Jiang Cheng frowned at him.
“That’s all you have to say?”
Wei Wuxian scratched his nose, making a bit of a face. “It’s nice of you to say so?” Jiang Cheng glared at him, and Wei Wuxian rocked back. “Ai-ya, Jiang Cheng,” he said. “It’s just last time I was here-”
He stopped. Jiang Cheng’s stomach swooped and he looked away from him. His throat closed and for several moments he had to work on clearing it so he could speak.
“Things have changed,” Jiang Cheng said. “Obviously.”
“Right, right,” Wei Wuxian said. “Obviously. I just figured things might still be - complicated, for you, and I didn’t want to make them worse.”
Didn’t want to make them worse, Jiang Cheng thought bitterly. Like by leaving me sitting here stewing about what ‘forget about it’ and ‘it was in another life’ meant? Of course things are fucking complicated and of course you make them worse, that doesn’t mean-
“You’re still such an idiot,” Jiang Cheng said. “I guess some things don’t change.”
Wei Wuxian laughed, maybe a little weakly.
“You’re a Jiang disciple now,” he went on. “So you’d better not spend all your time hiding up in the Cloud Recesses. I expect you to make yourself useful here at least sometimes.”
Something brightened in Wei Wuxian’s eyes. “Got it,” he said.
“Don’t you dare teach anyone demonic cultivation,” he added quickly, with some alarm. The look Wei Wuxian cast him was almost wounded.
Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes at him but decided to take him at his word. For now.
“And…” he paused, and took a deep breath. He felt for a moment like he was going to be sick. Or maybe just going to cry. “Before you leave. Make sure you pay your respects at the family shrine.”
Wei Wuxian blinked. His expression wobbled and his eyes got very shiny. “Of course,” he said, voice faint. “I wouldn’t...I wouldn’t leave without doing so.”
Jiang Cheng jerked his head in a nod and swallowed convulsively a few times. “Good,” he said harshly. “Why aren’t you eating your dinner, anyway? Is the food not good enough?”
Wei Wuxian shook his head quickly and shoveled a bite into his mouth, and Jiang Cheng took the moment that gave him to collect himself and shove the tangled mess in his chest into a mental closet.
“Now,” he said, “have you chosen a date, yet? I need to know the timeframe I’m working with.”
Wei Wuxian stayed for three days and left Jiang Cheng exhausted and also strangely bereft. The whole thing had been - strange. Or maybe it had been strange because it hadn’t been strange. Somehow, Wei Wuxian seemed to have changed alarmingly little.
Though Jiang Cheng doubted, to a certain extent, how much of that was real. Maybe he’d just been trying to make it the same, to make it easier for them both. That sounded like Wei Wuxian.
Jiang Cheng wasn’t completely sure whether to be grateful for that or wish he wouldn’t.
The senior disciples were loudly and obviously thrilled to have their shixiong back - or most of them were, and anyone who wasn’t was staying quiet. The juniors were just morbidly fascinated at this point, though Jiang Cheng suspected they’d end up won over before long. Wei Wuxian had always been good with the juniors.
Jiang Cheng could not tell if the ache in his chest was bitterness or nostalgia. Probably both.
Why did Lotus Pier seem so quiet? He didn’t like it. It reminded him too much of the early days of rebuilding. It reminded him of the months (years) after a-jie’s death, when a part of him was always half expecting to turn a corner and see his sister, his brother, standing there smiling, all of it a terrible dream.
He went to Koi Tower to see Jin Ling, who was clearly surprised but also at least happy to see him. “Jiujiu,” he said. “What’s-”
“Let’s go night hunting,” Jiang Cheng interrupted, keenly aware of the listening ears that infested Koi Tower. He’d planted a few of them there himself, ever since Jin Ling was young. Jin Ling gave him an odd look.
“I haven’t heard about anything strange-”
“No harm in checking,” Jiang Cheng said loudly. “Come on.”
Jin Ling shook his head, rolled his eyes, and called Fairy. He waited until they were out in the woods before saying, “okay, Jiujiu, what are you being weird about now?”
Once again Jiang Cheng barely managed to bite back I’m not being weird and instead said, “I was just going to tell you that the wedding is officially to be held in Lotus Pier.”
Jin Ling blinked twice. “Oh,” he said. “That’s the big secret? I thought that’d already been decided.”
Jiang Cheng hissed. “Yes,” he said. “It is a secret still, until I figure out the best way to make the announcement, so don’t go telling anyone else.”
There was a brief pause before Jin Ling said, “before you make the announcement?” Jiang Cheng narrowed eyes in his direction and Jin Ling said, “I just assumed that’d be from...Hanguang-jun.”
“Well, he hasn’t, has he?” Jiang Cheng said. “Apparently he was planning some kind of semi-private affair, so he probably wasn’t going to say anything, and still won’t unless I make sure he does.”
Jin Ling had a look of growing consternation. “Oh,” he said. “Right. Is that all you wanted to tell me? Because you did already tell me that was the plan.”
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng said, “it was, but-” He glared at a tree.
Jin Ling seemed to be thinking about something. “Zizhen said he heard that the Yiling Laozu was in Lotus Pier last week,” he said slowly. Jiang Cheng’s stride hitched momentarily.
“It sounds like you don’t need to work on building a network of informants,” Jiang Cheng muttered. “You already have one.”
“A what?” Jin Ling said, which made Jiang Cheng wince, and then “it’s not a network of informants, they’re - friends.”
“Whatever,” Jiang Cheng said. “They have big mouths. Yes, Wei Wuxian was in Lotus Pier. What of it?”
Jin Ling said nothing. Jiang Cheng turned his head to look at him and found him smiling.
“What,” he said, a little more loudly.
“Nothing!” Jin Ling said, still smiling. “Was it a good visit?”
Jiang Cheng squinted at him suspiciously. “I guess,” he said. “It was fine.”
Jin Ling nodded. “That’s good,” he said. He sounded pleased with himself, for some reason. Jiang Cheng stopped.
“What are you so happy about?” he asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” Jin Ling said cheerfully. Jiang Cheng bristled.
“Brat,” he said. Jin Ling just hummed and whistled for Fairy, who came trotting over and circled around his legs.
“Every time Wei-qianbei was here he asked about you,” Jin Ling said abruptly. “How you were doing, and what things were like in Lotus Pier, and stuff like that.”
Jiang Cheng felt the oddest warmth welling up in his chest. He huffed. “He bothers you too much,” he said. “Doesn’t he understand that you have responsibilities, now? Just because he’s at liberty to do as he pleases doesn’t mean the rest of us are.”
“It’s fine,” Jin Ling said. “It’s kind of funny, actually. He makes some of the minor sect leaders nervous when he’s just sitting in the same room.” His smile looked - affectionate. “It makes them a lot easier to deal with.”
Jiang Cheng coughed so he didn’t smile. He could picture that easily enough, and there was a small and undeniable satisfaction to imagining the cultivators eyeing Jin Ling as potentially easy prey noticing Wei Wuxian lounging conspicuously in Koi Tower and thinking twice. He couldn’t hover too closely now without undermining Jin Ling’s position, but Wei Wuxian was different.
Maybe he shouldn’t be thinking good about the idea of the Yiling Laozu lurking like a bad omen in the corners of his nephew’s court, but it was, perversely, a little reassuring.
He didn’t trust anyone in Koi Tower. Or most of Lanling. But he did, Jiang Cheng realized, trust Wei Wuxian. At least when it came to Jin Ling’s safety. Maybe not some other things, but Jin Ling - yes. It was a slightly unnerving thing to realize.
Jin Ling was giving him a weird look again.
“Hm,” Jiang Cheng said. “I suppose it might.”
Jin Ling hesitated, opened his mouth, and then closed it. His eyebrows furrowed. He seemed to be struggling with something, and Jiang Cheng waited to see if he’d come out with it without prompting or if he’d need a push.
“Jiujiu,” he said at length, “are you...glad Wei-qianbei is back?”
Yes, was Jiang Cheng’s first and immediate thought. He pressed his lips together, because it wasn’t that simple, wasn’t that easy. “Why?”
Jin Ling glanced away, over toward Fairy. “Just wondering.”
Jiang Cheng inhaled slowly. He glanced over his shoulder, half checking to see if anyone was following. No. Mostly. Yes. It depends on when you ask. “Yes,” he said, because that was the truest answer he had, even if it felt strange giving it. “I...am.”
Out of the corner of his eye Jin Ling seemed to relax. “Oh,” he said. “Okay. That’s good.”
Jiang Cheng frowned at him. “I don’t think I’m the one acting weird.”
Jin Ling’s face turned pink. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means you’re acting weird,” Jiang Cheng said. “Why are you so interested in how I feel about Wei Wuxian being back? It’s not like what I think about it makes a difference.”
Jin Ling looked down at his feet. “It makes a difference to me,” he said under his breath. Jiang Cheng opened his mouth and then closed it.
He remembered the twisting, unhappy feeling he got when a-niang and Wei Wuxian had been in the same room, and what popped into his head was you really have become your mother, haven’t you.
He smothered a wince. “Jin Ling,” he said, voice a little strained, and then stopped. Cleared his throat. “It’s good,” he said awkwardly. “That your...that he comes here to see you.” He paused, then added, “it’s good that he makes them nervous, too. They deserve it.”
Jin Ling brightened. “That’s what he said, when I pointed it out,” he said. “Well, actually he asked if I thought they were nervous enough because he could always try to make them more nervous, if I wanted.”
This time the cough muffled a laugh. He could picture that. Could hear it in Wei Wuxian’s voice. Jin Ling grinned at him, and Jiang Cheng thought achingly what if it had been like this, what if it had been all of us, together, what if-
He started walking again, laughter dying unvoiced.
“Did you know-” Jiang Cheng paused, cleared his throat. “He was going to come. To your one month ceremony. Hanguang-jun sent the letter inviting him. It would’ve been…”
Jiang Cheng didn’t know what would’ve happened. He’d known even then that there was scheming going on, but he’d thought, desperately, if he just comes here and sees a-jie with her beautiful son then he’ll stop this madness, he’ll give it all up and come home.
It wouldn’t have been that simple, of course. Wei Wuxian never would have given up the Wens without a fight, and Jin Guangshan would never have let him walk away safely. But on Qiongqi Path, when everything had gone wrong and Wen Ning had killed Jin Zixuan and Jin Zixun, Wei Wuxian had been there because he’d wanted to see Jin Ling.
There was a strange look on Jin Ling’s face, a desperate sort of wanting that made Jiang Cheng’s chest hurt. “It wouldn’t have been safe,” Jiang Cheng said, “but...Wei Wuxian wanted to see you.”
You. My nephew. And his.
Jin Ling’s eyes were a little shiny. “Oh,” he said. You didn’t know this? Jiang Cheng thought, but then, of course he didn’t. Why would anyone have told him? He wouldn’t have, couldn’t have, and no one else would probably think it mattered. But it did matter - had mattered then and mattered now.
He cleared his throat. “Anyway,” he said. “I just thought you should know that.”
Jin Ling swallowed hard a couple of times and then said, “thank you,” his voice a little too high. Jiang Cheng just nodded, and tried to pretend his own eyes weren’t stinging.
Jiang Cheng sent four possible versions of an invitation to the Cloud Recesses, to the attention of Wei Wuxian. He did not put Lan Wangji’s name down. He received three letters back, one in Wei Wuxian’s scrawling, semi-legible hand and one in Lan Wangji’s perfectly precise characters. The third was Zewu-jun’s.
Jiang Cheng read Wei Wuxian’s first.
Jiang Cheng, it said. I thought the second one was best but they were all a little formal. I think Lan Zhan has stronger opinions, though, based on all the scribbling he’s doing right now. Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together. I told him what you said about everyone needing to be there and I was right, he didn’t like it. I think his letter might be about that, too. Sorry in advance.
Anyway, I hope you’re not stressing yourself out too much. Have you tried the herbs I gave you? I can send you more if you want. Wei Wuxian, disciple of Jiang Sect.
Jiang Cheng caught himself smiling a little at the signature and cut himself off. Then took a deep breath and picked up Lan Wangji’s considerably longer letter.
Jiang-zongzhu, it began.
I’ve enclosed copies of your proposed invitations with my edits. They are extensive. I do not recall asking for your input on this matter.
I would also like to address the matter of the proposed guest list. Your political concerns have been noted, but I do not intend to accept those who have previously attempted or achieved harm upon Wei Ying at our ceremony. If you are concerned about the political risk to Jiang Sect, then you are welcome to rescind your offer so as to avoid the impression that you approve.
Privacy is not secrecy. And any who would be tempted to rumormonger are welcome to attempt to do so to my face. I am capable of dealing with any trouble that may arise, and perfectly willing to do so for Wei Ying’s sake. You need not feel the same.
The back of Jiang Cheng’s neck was starting to feel hot.
To be perfectly clear: I have not forgotten the hostility the majority of the people you propose inviting bore toward Wei Ying, and I am not interested in giving them the idea that they are permitted any involvement or say in our marriage, let alone the opportunity to celebrate it.
To be clearer still: I only granted allowance for your attendance to begin with, Jiang-zongzhu, on account of Wei Ying’s somewhat inexplicable loyalty.
Jiang Cheng’s chest felt tight. His teeth were clenched and the paper was crumpling in his fist. He forced himself to set it down, smooth it out, and finish reading.
You are welcome to reply to this letter with any further concerns.
Respectfully, Lan Wangji.
There was a roar locked in Jiang Cheng’s chest. He wanted to break something. He wanted to go to the Cloud Recesses and break Hanguang-jun’s perfect fucking face. He wanted to-
Lan Wangji might as well have sent a knife. This, Jiang Cheng thought, this is a declaration of war. This is him flexing his muscle. He’s pushing me, and I’m going to push back, because I’m right, I’m right and it’s not about them celebrating, it’s about rubbing their noses in the fucking fact that things have changed and the Yiling Laozu isn’t their scapegoat anymore, he’s safe, he’s protected the way he wasn’t before by the Jiang Sect and Lan Sect both.
He put his face in his hands. You need not feel the same, the characters swam behind his eyes, and, Wei Ying’s somewhat inexplicable loyalty, and concerned about the political risk to Jiang Sect.
Good to know that in writing, anyway, Lan Wangji could be as verbose as anyone. That was more words than he’d ever heard him say aloud.
He felt a little sick.
Jiang Cheng went back and reread Wei Wuxian’s letter again, that Wei Wuxian, disciple of Jiang Sect, but it didn’t really help.
He took a deep breath, let it out, and reached for the third letter. It was shorter than both Lan Wangji’s and Wei Wuxian’s.
Thank you for your letter.
Regarding your question: I had not intended to involve myself. I am certainly not offended at you taking on this duty; I remember the splendor of Jiang-furen’s wedding well, and know that the planning is in capable hands.
My seclusion is voluntary and has no designated end date. I appreciate your thoughtfulness in reaching out to me. I hope you are well.
Regards, Lan Xichen.
Well. At least one of the Twin Jades was living up to their reputation of reticence and restraint, Jiang Cheng thought bitterly, if not the one he wanted to.
But that was unacceptable. Lan Xichen couldn’t just - not come, and that was what Jiang Cheng was pretty sure no designated end date meant. Lan Wangji’s brother had to be there. Not just because it wouldn’t be right for him not to be, but because his presence would give even more of an official imprimatur to the whole thing, and also Jiang Cheng was going to need someone who wasn’t him to deal with Lan Wangji. It was fine if he wasn’t interested in having input into the details, but for him to just - not come?
Jiang Cheng was aware that he was thinking about this to avoid thinking about what Lan Wangji had written, and how he was going to respond to it. Because he was going to have to respond to it.
And he had no idea how.
He started with what felt like the easiest letter.
I am well, thank you. I am sending along some concepts for decorations; I would be grateful if you would look them over. Your respected opinion would be welcome.
He looked at what he’d written, scowled, and then added, does your brother know you’re not planning on coming to his wedding?
He sealed that one before he could think better of it and moved on to Wei Wuxian’s, though of course he ended up just staring at a blank page with no idea what to write.
I haven’t tried the herbs, he wrote. But I’m going to need a lot more of those to deal with your future husband through this process, let alone the rest of your life.
No. He tore that off and started over.
Thanks for your input. You were right about Lan Wangji’s strong opinions, but he can go fuck himself. We’re going with the second option.
Absolutely not. Jiang Cheng pushed himself back and lowered his head down to rest on the table. Why was this so hard?
I haven’t tried the herbs, he wrote again. But you should probably send me more anyway. Your husband-to-be is a nightmare who can’t keep his opinions to himself. Do not show him this letter.
He tried to think of something else to add, but couldn’t come up with anything, so he just wrote Jiang Cheng and called it good.
Lan Wangji hated him. Jiang Cheng knew Lan Wangji hated him. He’d never been subtle about it. But it appeared that Wei Wuxian’s return might actually have escalated hostilities.
Hanguang-jun, he wrote, and then stopped. Fuck you, he imagined adding. Respectfully, Jiang-zongzhu.
He pressed his teeth together.
You agreed to allow me to host and plan this wedding. That means that its particulars are no longer yours to decide. I am giving you opportunities to provide input as a courtesy, not as an invitation to seize control, particularly as you apparently have no understanding of the political dimensions of what you seem to see as a personal matter.
It is precisely because of Wei Wuxian’s history that it is important this marriage be seen as a sanctioned one. I would very much hope you could recognize that.
I invite you to come and continue this conversation in Lotus Pier. I’ll explain further to you the political nuances you missed when you arrive.
There, he thought savagely. Choke on that, Lan-er-gongzi.
Lan Wangji did come to Lotus Pier, and he came alone. The two of them stood in the courtyard that was suddenly and rather conspicuously quiet, everyone around them finding somewhere else to be.
“Jiang-zongzhu,” Lan Wangji intoned.
“Here on your own?” Jiang Cheng said. “Left Wei Wuxian locked in a room in the Cloud Recesses, did you?”
Lan Wangji’s mouth twitched, barely, with displeasure. “I did not want to put Wei Ying in the position of feeling the need to defend you.”
A very small, very foolish part of Jiang Cheng perked up and said you think he’d defend me? but he smashed it ruthlessly into paste. “Thoughtful of you. Do you think you can bring yourself to drink Lotus Pier’s tea or would you rather argue right here?”
Lan Wangji’s fist tightened like he was trying to strangle Bichen. “I am here to have a conversation. As you requested.”
“I’m sure it’ll be a completely civil conversation, too,” Jiang Cheng said aggressively. “Are you coming in or not?”
Lan Wangji came inside. He accepted tea in silence, his expression once again utterly immobile. Jiang Cheng stared back at him, bound and determined to wait for him to speak first.
“You wrote to my brother,” Lan Wangji said. Not the opening he’d expected.
“Are there rules against that?”
“Not rules. Seclusion is not to be disturbed lightly.”
“I guess I thought his younger brother’s wedding might count as important,” Jiang Cheng said. He caught a flicker of expression, briefly, barely, but not enough to pin it down as any specific emotion. Lan Wangji lifted his tea, took a small sip, and set it back down.
“Wei Ying tells me that he was welcomed here as a disciple of Jiang Sect.”
“That would make sense,” Jiang Cheng said, “seeing as he is one.”
“Mn.” Lan Wangji took another sip of tea. Jiang Cheng waited.
Lan Wangji was here to talk and he could damn well talk, otherwise he could go back to the Cloud Recesses and keep any other opinions about his wedding silent.
“You offered to explain to me things you believe I missed,” Lan Wangji said after what felt like an eternity of heavily weighted silence. Jiang Cheng was almost relieved.
“Yes,” he said. “I did. Since apparently what you know could fit in a drop of dew.”
This time there was not so much as a twitch. “I know enough. What I consider important is less.”
“Maybe you should reconsider what you think is important,” Jiang Cheng said. “You may have noticed that we live in a society.”
Lan Wangji set his tea very quietly down. “As I said in my letter-”
“You think I’m putting political concerns of Jiang Sect ahead of Wei Wuxian’s happiness.” He didn’t say, and yours, because Lan Wangji’s happiness was, frankly, none of Jiang Cheng’s concern.
“Mn,” Lan Wangji said eloquently.
“That isn’t the point,” Jiang Cheng said.
Lan Wangji’s eyes sharpened. “I think Wei Ying’s happiness is very much the point.”
Jiang Cheng took a breath through his nose. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Yes, I - no,” Jiang Cheng said. “No, I don’t disagree. I’m just saying that your marriage is inevitably political, and you can’t make that go away by ignoring it.”
Lan Wangji’s eyes hooded. “I can refuse to allow others to use it for their own political goals.”
Jiang Cheng blinked. “What?”
Lan Wangji laid both his hands on the table. “It is interesting,” he said, “that the Jiang Sect has chosen to reclaim Wei Ying now.”
“What is that supposed to mean,” Jiang Cheng snapped, his hackles rising. Lan Wangji just looked at him for several long moments, utterly expressionless. Jiang Cheng’s stomach started to burn.
“Mm,” Lan Wangji said, and looked away, reaching over to pour himself more tea.
“Do you think I’m - trying to get some kind of political advantage-”
Lan Wangji said nothing, so conspicuously he might as well have shouted yes, that is exactly what I think. Jiang Cheng’s teeth clicked together.
“This isn’t about me,” he snarled. “And this isn’t about you, either. This is about Wei Wuxian and the fact that I’m not-”
He cut himself off. Lan Wangji was still regarding him with the cold disdain that made Jiang Cheng want to thrash him. Just knock him down and punch him in his perfect face. It was a nice fantasy.
“Is it,” Lan Wangji said. Jiang Cheng lifted his chin.
“Yes,” he said. “It is.” He pressed his lips together and then said, “you heard what Jin Guangyao said. About his isolation back then. If we-” Oh, he wanted to choke on that we- “-do this right, then everyone is going to see that Wei Wuxian has the public support and protection of two different great sects. And the more people see that, the more real it is. That’s why everyone - even the people you don’t like - has to be there. Not because they deserve to celebrate, or whatever. Because their presence at this wedding is going to make them see the proof that things have changed.”
Jiang Cheng sucked in a breath through his nose. “You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to be happy about it. I’m glad to hear you’re so excited to stand between Wei Wuxian and anyone who wants to look at him funny, but personally I’d rather keep people from looking at him funny to begin with.”
He still couldn’t read Lan Wangji’s expression. Jiang Cheng glared at him and did not add it’s not about Jiang Sect politics, I’m not using him, he’s my brother and I’m just trying to keep him safe, maybe it’s too late but I can’t change what happened then, I can only change what happens now.
Fuck if he was going to say any of that to Hanguang-jun. Ever.
Lan Wangji poured himself more tea. Jiang Cheng clenched his fists in his lap.
“I explained this to Wei Wuxian when he was here,” he said.
“Yes,” Lan Wangji said. “He told me. Wei Ying and I differ on the matter of letting go of certain past behaviors.”
That was absolutely pointed, Jiang Cheng thought, and he was not going to acknowledge it. “He understood the necessity.”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji said. Jiang Cheng exhaled slowly.
“Look,” he said, “to be perfectly honest, I don’t like it either. I’m the one who is going to have to deal with them most. And if anyone causes trouble you have my blessing to do whatever you want to them, it’s not like anyone is going to stop you.”
Lan Wangji’s eyebrows drew ever so slightly together and then smoothed back out. He took another sip of tea.
“I will take this under consideration,” he said. Jiang Cheng gritted his teeth.
“Under consideration,” he said. “We need to make the announcement. Before word gets out on its own.”
Lan Wangji leveled him with his steady, ice-cold glare. “I said,” he said, “that I will take this under consideration.”
Jiang Cheng counted to three, and then to five, before he said, “you just don’t want to admit that I’m right and you know it.”
Maybe he should have counted to ten.
“Perhaps you are correct that it would be most politically expedient,” Lan Wangji said. “But I remain unconvinced that advantage would be worth the price.”
“Why,” Jiang Cheng said, the words exploding out of him, “did you agree to let me handle this at all if you’re just going to second-guess every decision I make?”
Lan Wangji’s lips thinned. “Because it was what Wei Ying wanted.”
“Seems like that would be a good enough reason to not get in my way.”
“It might be,” Lan Wangji said. “If I believed that you had his best interests at heart.”
Jiang Cheng felt that like a sword in his chest. He wasn’t surprised. Couldn’t be surprised. After all, that had been the thrust of this entire conversation, hadn’t it? Of every conversation he’d had with Lan Wangji since Wei Wuxian’s return. He deserves better than you. I only granted allowance for your attendance to begin with, Jiang-zongzhu, on account of Wei Ying’s somewhat inexplicable loyalty.
It would be easier if it weren’t for the other things. Wei Wuxian choosing to stay at an inn rather than at Lotus Pier. Hesitating to tell him about his marriage.
Easier if it weren’t for the aching, gnawing guilt in his stomach.
“What do you want me to say,” he ground out.
“Nothing,” Lan Wangji said. “I have very little interest in what you say.”
Jiang Cheng’s fists clenched in his robes so hard he felt something tear. “People think you are a perfect gentleman,” he said. “Courteous and righteous. They have no idea that you’re a complete and utter bastard.”
Lan Wangji looked up at him, expressionless.
“Show yourself out,” Jiang Cheng said. “I’ve had enough of you.”
He turned on his heel, not caring how rude it was, not caring how it would look, not caring about anything except for the need to get away from Lan Wangji before he did something extremely foolish, like, say, snapping Zidian at the Chief Cultivator.
He retreated to his chambers and started a letter that began do you think I brought you back into the sect for political advantage and continued with would you stop your husband if he tried to kill me, and he managed to stop it there before it got any worse.
He made a note to visit a tailor. He needed to talk to one about Wei Wuxian’s wedding clothes - he already had some ideas - and he should probably commission himself a new set of robes as well while he was at it.
Maybe he could persuade Wei Wuxian to wear something in his hair other than just that ribbon. He was not going to have his brother outshone by Lan Wangji. He’d definitely look better in red.
He received a message the next day. I will accept your decision on the guest list. The language for the invitations will be at my discretion.
Jiang Cheng probably could try to fight the latter. But he’d take the victory on the former.
That message was followed shortly by another one that said it is very important to me that you and Lan Zhan not kill each other. I will bring you back and I don’t really want a fierce corpse for a husband or a shidi.
Tell your Lan Zhan that, Jiang Cheng thought sourly, and went back to evaluating the sample menu he’d requested.
The announcement and invitation went out to all four corners of the cultivation world that Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian were to be wed next spring - eight months to plan, and Jiang Cheng would have liked longer, but it would have to do. It struck like an earthquake, like Jiang Cheng had known it would.
Two men. Marrying. And the identities of the pair: the Yiling Laozu, formerly dead, lately resurrected, somewhat vindicated, now marrying Hanguang-jun, Chief Cultivator, second young master of the Lan Sect. At a ceremony hosted by, of all people, Jiang-zongzhu, whose hatred of the Yiling Laozu had been legendary for years.
Nobody quite seemed to know what to find most shocking about the whole thing.
The eager responses rolled in.
“People keep trying to ask me questions,” Jin Ling said. “They think they’re being subtle about it. But they’re really not.”
Jiang Cheng frowned. “Ask you questions?”
“About you, mostly,” Jin Ling said. Jiang Cheng scowled.
“What about me?”
“I think they’re confused,” Jin Ling said. Jiang Cheng’s felt his scowl deepen.
“About what,” he said, though he was quite sure he knew, and the look Jin Ling gave him said that he knew he knew. Some horrible part of him still wanted to hear it voiced.
“You know what everybody says,” Jin Ling said after a few moments, and Jiang Cheng wanted to wince at the carefulness in his voice. “And you did kind of...have a reputation.”
That, Jiang Cheng thought bitterly, was probably the nicest possible way that Jin Ling could’ve put everyone thinks you killed him and you’ve spent the last sixteen years hunting for any remnants of his soul and executing every demonic cultivator you find.
His chest hurt.
“Things change,” he said roughly.
“I know that,” Jin Ling said, and that was actually a relief to hear, that at least his nephew understood. Even if sometimes Jiang Cheng didn’t think he did. “Don’t worry,” Jin Ling said after a moment. “I just repeat ‘reinstated as a disciple’ a few times, and if they keep pushing I say they can just ask you if they’re that curious, and that usually shuts them up.”
Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure if he should find that funny or not. He did find it a little funny. Reluctantly. “Hm.”
Jin Ling snuck a glance at him over his tang ou. “You never answered my question,” he said. “About a gift.”
Jiang Cheng’s lips twisted. “I don’t think I’m the best person to ask about a gift for Hanguang-jun, all things considered.”
“Who else am I supposed to ask?”
“Why don’t you ask that Lan Sizhui boy,” Jiang Cheng said. “He’s his favorite, maybe he’d have an idea.”
Jin Ling made a face. “He might, but...that feels weird. He’s basically Hanguang-jun’s son.”
Jiang Cheng couldn’t have said exactly what made him think it. Something about basically Hanguang-jun’s son and the vague familiarity when he’d heard a-Yuan and the feeling that Wei Wuxian was hiding something from him.
He took a deep breath through his nose and let it out slowly. Somewhere in his memories was a toddler clutching at his leg and an old woman hustling over to sweep him away. He’d never really let himself think about that boy.
What he felt now was a blend of exhaustion and a little bit of relief. And a vague sense of betrayal. Were you going to tell me? he thought in Wei Wuxian’s direction. Or was that another secret you were going to keep forever? What’d you think I’d do, kill him now?
Maybe he didn’t want to know the answer to that.
“Jiujiu?” Jin Ling said.
Jiang Cheng shook himself. “What?”
“You just got a...look.”
Pressing his lips together, he shook his head. “It’s nothing,” he said. “I just...thought of something.”
“That’s vague,” Jin Ling said.
“This Lan Sizhui,” Jiang Cheng said. “He’s a...friend of yours?”
Jin Ling hesitated. “Yes?” he said, sort of like it was a question. Then, more firmly, “yes.”
Jiang Cheng breathed out slowly through his nose and said, “that’s good. He seems like less trouble than the other Lan boy.”
“Jingyi,” Jin Ling said. “He’s - not terrible.” His face brightened a little, though.
Jiang Cheng knew well that Jin Ling had never...had much in the way of companionship. Rather the opposite. Despite his position, he’d been a target for others his age. Now...they were a bit older than him, but it seemed he’d managed to find his way into making some friends. Perhaps in large part because of the ordeal they’d gone through together, but just the same.
He thought of himself and Nie Huaisang and Wei Wuxian, the three of them together at the Cloud Recesses, and felt a deep and sudden pang like he’d taken a knife between the ribs.
What happened to us, he thought, but he knew the answer to that.
“That’s good,” he said, his throat a little tight. “As long as they don’t cause you any trouble. It’ll serve you well to have - loyal friends in other sects. Even Ouyang might be a minor sect in Yunmeng, but it is still worthwhile to have those connections.”
Jin Ling gave him an odd look. “Yeah,” he said slowly. “I...guess.”
Jiang Cheng cleared his throat. “It seems to me that Hanguang-jun’s…” He couldn’t say son. “...ward would be an ideal person to ask. Certainly better than me.”
Jin Ling eyed him. “The two of you really hate each other,” he said.
“Mm,” Jiang Cheng said.
“Jingyi thinks you’re going to try to kill each other before the wedding.”
It’s possible. “Does he.”
“Zizhen says you’ll wait until afterwards.”
Jiang Cheng looked up at the ceiling. “You’ve done a lot of discussing this, have you.”
Jin Ling shifted. “I’m on your side,” he said with sudden vehemence. Jiang Cheng turned toward him, and Jin Ling lifted his chin. “Even if I guess Hanguang-jun is going to be...sort of my uncle. Ish.” A flicker of uncertainty, like he wasn’t quite sure if he should say that, but Jiang Cheng didn’t object. “I’m still on your side.”
Despite himself, Jiang Cheng was warmed. Maybe it showed on his face, because Jin Ling nodded firmly and looked back at his dessert.
If Lan Sizhui was a-Yuan, that meant that he was...sort of Wei Wuxian’s son. He’d certainly acted like he was, back in...back in the Burial Mounds, when Jiang Cheng had visited. And if now he was Lan Wangji’s, then…
That meant he was, or was going to be, Jiang Cheng’s nephew.
He wasn’t entirely sure what to do with that.
The Wens were a ghost. The origin and cause of so much that had gone wrong in his life. If it weren’t for the Wens, his parents would still be alive. He would never have lost his golden core and Wei Wuxian would never have transferred his, would never have fallen into the Burial Mounds, never turned to demonic cultivation.
Yanli would have been safe. Jin Ling wouldn’t have grown up an orphan.
But - it had been sixteen years. There were only two Wens left, and one of them only sort of counted as ‘alive.’ This Lan Sizhui, Lan Yuan - he’d been a child. He hadn’t fought in the war. He seemed like - a decent boy. He was kind to a-Ling.
He was, in some way, his brother’s son.
Jiang Cheng ground the heels of his hands into his eyes.
How many people knew? he wondered. Couldn’t be many. There were plenty of people who still treated the Wen name like a curse, same as he did. Had. Did. Lan Wangji had clearly been careful to keep his origins a secret. Did Lan Xichen know? Lan Qiren?
In the end he supposed it didn’t really matter. He hadn’t known, and he did now.
How many more secrets are you keeping, he thought bitterly in Wei Wuxian’s direction. How many other things are you not telling me?
What was the point of any of this if Wei Wuxian wasn’t going to trust him?
A toddler clinging to his leg. He remembered when Jin Ling had been that age. Loud and fractious and prone to unexpected fits of temper or tears. He’d seemed so fragile - Jiang Cheng had woken again and again from dreams in a cold sweat, certain that something terrible had happened, terrified that something would.
Jiang Cheng retreated to his rooms and sat down hard, leaning his elbows on his knees and his face into his hands.
What does it matter now? He’s more Lan than Wen, the perfect head disciple, Hanguang-jun’s little protege.
Was that bitterness?
He wanted to talk to him. He didn’t know what he’d say.
Hello, Lan Sizhui. I understand that Hanguang-jun adopted you in the wake of the massacre of the rest of your family. You are going to be something like my nephew now, and you are good friends with my other nephew, so I think I should know you better.
He felt, for some reason, bereft. Like he’d lost something he’d never even known he could lose. And he hadn’t even lost it, it wasn’t like Lan Sizhui was dead, but-
Jiang Cheng groaned.
No, he thought miserably. No. He wouldn’t say anything, would he. Maybe there would’ve been a time when...but there was no point now.
The response from Nie Huaisang did not come as a surprise - he was the leader of the Nie Sect, after all. Its contents, however, did. Or rather, as a slight surprise.
Jiang-zongzhu, it began. I expect I will be attending, though you might confirm with our esteemed Chief Cultivator and his husband-to-be. Jiang Cheng frowned at that, but read on. If I may say so, I was happy to see that Yunmeng Jiang will be hosting the celebration.
Jiang Cheng frowned at that, too, but decided to let it go.
Should Jiang-zongzhu be interested, he would always be welcome in the Unclean Realm. It would be good to catch up with an old friend.
Best wishes and good health, Nie Huaisang.
Jiang Cheng set the letter down and frowned at the whole thing.
Objectively speaking, it wasn’t weird. It was just that - they’d hardly spoken in years, outside of formal occasions and periodic exchanges concerning sect business, though even those had been relatively few. It wasn’t that he disliked Nie Huaisang, just that - they’d never had very much in common to begin with, and he’d been busy, leading Jiang Sect and half-raising Jin Ling and…
He hadn’t really put in the effort to keep up their friendship past the level of friendly acquaintances, and it’d never seemed like Nie Huaisang was inclined to do so either.
Jiang Cheng had a sneaking suspicion now that Nie Huaisang wasn’t as useless as he acted most of the time, though he had no actual basis for thinking it. But it was just a suspicion, and the sense that maybe his presence in Guanyin Temple had not been wholly accidental.
You might confirm with our esteemed Chief Cultivator and his husband-to-be. That suggested they might know something more, and possibly weren’t happy about it, and Jiang Cheng was just a little annoyed that he hadn’t been read in on that, either.
On somewhat of a whim, he wrote back telling Nie Huaisang that he appreciated the invitation, and would be pleased to take him up on it, and that the sentiment was returned: if ever Nie-zongzhu was in the area he would of course be welcomed at Lotus Pier.
Two weeks later Nie Huaisang showed up at Lotus Pier.
“Jiang-zongzhu!” he said, waving his fan, and Jiang Cheng blinked a little at his enthusiasm.
“Nie-zongzhu,” he said, giving him a slight bow. “Welcome.”
“Thank you,” Nie Huaisang said, bowing back. “How are you, then? All’s well here?”
“Well enough, yes,” Jiang Cheng said. “And in Qinghe?” He felt hopelessly awkward, stilted, and didn’t know how to shake the feeling. Nie Huaisang snapped his fan open and smiled like he noticed nothing strange.
“Good, yes,” he said. “At least as far as I know, ha. But I’m not here to talk business! I’m here to catch up with an old friend.”
Jiang Cheng kept himself from squinting at Nie Huaisang. “Oh,” he said, and felt a bit like an idiot. “Well - come in. Would you like tea? Or…?”
“Tea will do nicely,” Nie Huaisang said. Jiang Cheng signaled a servant and requested tea, then walked with Nie Huaisang to one of the receiving rooms and sat down. Nie Huaisang sat down across from him and folded his fan, setting it down and blinking at Jiang Cheng.
“So,” Jiang Cheng said, and then trailed off. “You’re...you came just to talk?” He managed not to add to me?
Nie Huaisang nodded. “It’s been too long, hasn’t it?” he said, still seemingly oblivious to Jiang Cheng’s discomfort. “Years. But getting that invitation reminded me.”
“Reminded you of what?”
Nie Huaisang tapped his fan against his leg and said, “being back at the Cloud Recesses. You, and me, and Wei Wuxian.”
Jiang Cheng managed not to flinch. His throat went briefly dry and he cleared it before saying, “that was a long time ago.”
Nie Huaisang’s smile was faint and nostalgic, but Jiang Cheng thought he caught a trace of bitterness there, too. “Simpler times, hm?”
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng said. “Simpler.” He remembered Wei Wuxian even then chasing after Lan Wangji, all his attention suddenly focused in his direction, and the sudden and painful jealousy of watching it happen.
“Do you ever think about it?” Nie Huaisang asked. Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together.
“Think about what?”
“Back then,” Nie Huaisang said. “In the Cloud Recesses. Getting drunk in Wei-xiong’s room.”
I try not to, Jiang Cheng thought. “Getting caught and whipped,” he said. Nie Huaisang laughed.
“Ahh, yes, yes,” he said, smiling, though Jiang Cheng thought there was something a little sad about it. "You would think the hangover was punishment enough! But apparently not. And of course Wei-xiong always pestering Lan-er-gongzi. Maybe we should have known, hmm?”
Jiang Cheng’s lips twisted. “I knew.”
Nie Huaisang’s eyes widened. “Oh?”
“I knew Wei Wuxian was obsessed with him, anyway,” Jiang Cheng said. “I guess I didn’t assume it was going to go anywhere.” He should have known better. Wei Wuxian was easy to like, most of the time.
“And here we are,” Nie Huaisang said with a bit of a laugh.
Jiang Cheng looked down at his tea. “Yeah,” he said. “Here we are.”
They both fell quiet. There was something different about Nie Huaisang, Jiang Cheng realized. It took him a moment to pin down, but he realized that it was a new...calmness. Steadiness, or certainty. He shifted.
“Nie-xiong,” Jiang Cheng said slowly, “what did you mean when you said in your letter that I should confirm with Lan-er-gongzi and Wei Wuxian about your attendance?”
Nie Huaisang made a sort of ‘hm’ noise in the back of his throat. “I suspect that neither of them is very fond of me at the moment,” he said, with a bit of a smile that struck Jiang Cheng as rueful and a little sad.
Jiang Cheng frowned. “Why not?”
“Lan-er-gongzi on his brother’s behalf, I suspect,” Nie Huaisang said. “And Wei-xiong on Lan-er-gongzi’s.”
“On his brother’s behalf?”
“Mmhm,” Nie Huaisang said.
Jiang Cheng kept his expression neutral. “But you might well have saved his life by warning him,” he said, keeping his eyes steady on Nie Huaisang’s face.
“I might have,” Nie Huaisang said. “But I couldn’t be sure after what I saw, and to kill his sworn brother, even after all he’d done…” There was something about the way he looked at Jiang Cheng when he said that that made him want to flinch. He didn’t let himself look away.
Remembering what Wei Wuxian had said about the oriole behind you.
“Jin Ling still grieves him as well.”
“Understandable,” Nie Huaisang said. “He was his xiao-shushu. He shouldn’t have been there to have to witness...everything.”
“No,” Jiang Cheng agreed with some vehemence. “He shouldn’t have been. It was a terrible night, and he could have died himself.”
“It is a blessing that he didn’t. ”
Jiang Cheng studied Nie Huaisang for several long, long moments. And decided to let it go. He just didn’t have the energy to wonder, or to press. “I’ll remind them both,” he said, “that at the very least the optics of not having the Nie sect leader present would be...poor.”
“Will that be a convincing argument?” Nie Huaisang asked. Jiang Cheng made a face. He didn’t mean to do it, and felt himself doing it, and tried to stop it.
“I guess we’ll see.”
“You and Lan Wangji do not have the most harmonious of relationships, do you,” Nie Huaisang said. His expression was open and innocent and Jiang Cheng was suddenly very suspicious of it.
“Not exactly,” he said shortly.
“Ah, well,” Nie Huaisang said. “I’m sure it will work out.”
Jiang Cheng felt his expression pinch, and tried to control it. “Mm,” he said.
“Hopefully, anyway,” Nie Huaisang said, flipping open his fan. “For the sake of familial harmony.”
Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together and carefully did not say I’m pretty sure that’s a lost cause. “I guess we’ll see.”
Nie Huaisang’s eyes crinkled toward a smile. “I guess we will,” he said. “I wish you the best of luck with all the wedding arrangements, Jiang-zongzhu.”
“Thanks, Nie-zongzhu,” Jiang Cheng said. It came out sounding drier than he meant it to, but Nie Huaisang’s eyes just crinkled further, and if he was laughing it was silent and hidden behind his fan.
With six months left before the wedding, Wei Wuxian came back to Lotus Pier, this time not alone - not Jiang Cheng’s choice, but it was wedding business and he supposed he couldn’t leave Lan Wangji out of it entirely. Wei Wuxian did not get a room at an inn, this time, so perhaps that was progress.
Hanguang-jun, Jiang Cheng thought darkly, would probably rather the inn.
When he met them at the gate, Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji stared coldly at each other for several long seconds until Wei Wuxian laughed nervously.
“Ai-ya,” he said. “The two of you. Jiang Cheng, it’s good to see you again!”
Jiang Cheng pried his eyes away from Lan Wangji, resenting breaking eye contact first but at least he had a good excuse. He looked over Wei Wuxian and frowned at what looked like a stain on his shoulder.
“Is that blood?” he asked.
Guilt crept into Wei Wuxian’s expression. Lan Wangji’s head swiveled around, eyes narrowing, and he immediately moved toward him.
“I’m fine!” Wei Wuxian said immediately, almost squawked. “It’s just a little-”
“What happened,” Jiang Cheng growled, taking a stalking step nearer only to come to a halt when Lan Wangji moved between them.
“Ahh, it’s nothing,” Wei Wuxian said. “I didn’t even notice-” He glanced back and forth between them and shut his mouth. Jiang Cheng didn’t know what the look was on Lan Wangji’s face. He knew what the one was on his own.
“Physician,” Jiang Cheng said. “Now.” And rounded on Lan Wangji. “What were you thinking?”
Lan Wangji tensed, half turning toward him, and Wei Wuxian grabbed his arm. “Hey,” he said. “It’s not Lan Zhan’s fault-”
“Were you not paying attention?” Jiang Cheng said. “How long has he been bleeding and you didn’t notice?”
“I’m right here,” Wei Wuxian said.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said, turning back to Wei Wuxian and ignoring Jiang Cheng. “What happened?”
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian said again. “You remember that hunt last week with the yaoguai?”
Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes, a nervous, nauseous anxiety kicking up in his chest. Where were you, he wanted to snap at Lan Wangji, even though logically he knew Wei Wuxian wasn’t helpless, that he was a grown man who could take care of himself, mostly, more or less.
Lan Wangji’s face was dark. “You said it was better.”
“It was! Or I thought so. But I stumbled just now getting off Bichen and I think last night we maybe-” He glanced at Jiang Cheng and coughed. “Mm.”
Jiang Cheng could feel his ears and the back of his neck getting hot. “Don’t stop there on my account,” he snapped. Wei Wuxian shot him an anxious look.
Lan Wangji’s nostrils flared and for once, Jiang Cheng thought, that expression was not directed at him. On the other hand, Wei Wuxian didn’t look nervous, just sort of pained. “Lan Zhan,” he said, not quite a whine. “It’s really-”
Jiang Cheng moved forward again, this time dodging Lan Wangji’s attempt to block him, and just grabbed Wei Wuxian’s arm to start bodily dragging him inside. “I said,” he said, “physician. You can argue with Hanguang-jun later.”
“I’m not arguing,” Wei Wuxian said weakly, at the same time as Lan Wangji said, “Jiang Wanyin, let go of Wei Ying.”
“No,” Jiang Cheng said, and kept moving, because that seemed like the best way to keep Lan Wangji from physically attacking him. “You didn’t notice that he was bleeding.”
“I didn’t say anything-”
“Of course you didn’t,” Jiang Cheng growled. “You wouldn’t. Idiot. How bad is it? No, don’t answer that.”
“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng said. With the hand that wasn’t holding Wei Wuxian he caught a passing servant. “Tell Xiao Yanyu to come to Wei Wuxian’s room to deal with an injury from yaoguai - teeth? Claws?”
“Claws,” Wei Wuxian said. A little faintly. Jiang Cheng looked at the servant to make sure she’d gotten that, and waited for her nod.
In his brief pause, Lan Wangji had caught up.
“Jiang Wanyin,” he said in a tone of warning, and now Jiang Cheng got to ignore him.
“Unbelievable,” he said. “You…”
Wei Wuxian seemed to have finally decided to stop talking. Lan Wangji appeared to decide that Jiang Cheng did not intend his betrothed any immediate physical harm and appeared at his other side.
Jiang Cheng did not quite manage to shut the door to Wei Wuxian’s room in Lan Wangji’s face, even if he sort of wanted to. He did manhandle Wei Wuxian to sitting by the table, started to pull his robes away from his shoulder, glanced at Lan Wangji, then remembered that Lan Wangji had almost certainly seen a lot more of Wei Wuxian than a bare shoulder.
Then tried to forget that thought and just moved on.
Wei Wuxian seemed a little dazed, or was maybe just making the wise choice to stay still and quiet for once in his life. His shoulder had been bandaged, and the work looked good enough. It had still bled through. Jiang Cheng glared at Lan Wangji, who was glaring at the bloodstain like he could intimidate Wei Wuxian’s blood back into his body.
Wei Wuxian cleared his throat.
“It looks worse than it is,” he said tentatively.
Jiang Cheng made an involuntary noise that wasn’t quite a snarl. Wei Wuxian winced and said quickly, “seriously! Tell him, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji just looked at Wei Wuxian for several long moments. Wei Wuxian smiled at him, and finally he said, “I believed that was true.”
“Last week, you said,” Jiang Cheng said, starting to work on the bandaging. “And it’s still-”
“Ai-ya,” Wei Wuxian said, twitching away from Jiang Cheng’s hands. “That doesn’t mean anything. I just don’t heal so fast anymore.”
“Anymore?” Jiang Cheng said, peeling back the last layer of bandage, and it didn’t look - as bad as he’d been afraid of. Just ordinary claw marks, mostly healed except for one that had probably been the worst that looked like it had broken open. Jiang Cheng glared at Lan Wangji again.
It was his fault.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said, a trace of something Jiang Cheng couldn’t pin down in his voice.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said. “Really, I’m fine. Don’t be upset.”
Maybe, Jiang Cheng thought irritably, if you weren’t so preoccupied defiling my brother you’d have noticed. Aloud, he repeated, “anymore?”
There was a silence. Lan Wangji was now giving Jiang Cheng a stare that was even colder than normal. Wei Wuxian cleared his throat.
“Well,” he said. “You know.”
Jiang Cheng set his teeth. “No,” he said. “I don’t. Anymore, since when? Since coming back? What else-”
Jiang Cheng’s throat closed. He looked at the raised, red marks where some monster had torn Wei Wuxian’s shoulder open. Imagined him down and bleeding - or, no, still standing, Chenqing at his lips, he wouldn’t collapse until it was over. Probably to faint into Hanguang-jun’s waiting arms.
Wei Wuxian was staring at a corner of the room. Lan Wangji was glaring at Jiang Cheng. Jiang Cheng wanted to get up and walk away.
Instead he set his teeth and said, “since when,” because he wanted someone to fucking say it.
“Since he gave you his golden core.”
Of course it was going to be Lan Wangji. Naturally. Lan Wangji, looking at him with an expression that said as clearly as anything that he did not believe Jiang Cheng was worthy, and that he would rip the core out of him and give it back to Wei Wuxian without hesitation if he thought it would work.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said quietly. Jiang Cheng stood up and avoided looking at Wei Wuxian, holding Lan Wangji’s gaze instead.
“Xiao Yanyu should be here soon,” he said tightly, and left. His chest was hurting again. He wanted to scream, or throw up, or break something.
I didn’t want this, he wanted to say. I didn’t ask for this, don’t blame me when I didn’t even know, but that was only half of it. Maybe not even half.
This felt like another thing he should have noticed. Another sign he should have picked up on. If he’d just been paying closer attention-
Anger and misery and frustration and worry, all tangled up together, choking him. He couldn’t breathe.
Jiang Cheng went for a walk. He made his way to the lake, and after some consideration took off his boots and outer robe and waded in up to his mid-calves. The water was warm from the sun and he sort of wished he could just throw his entire body into it.
Was it always going to be like this? Stumbling into traps, tripping over familiar skeletons, slicing himself open on the edges of old hurts. Was there really such a thing as leaving the past behind? He still felt stuck in it, unable to move, and every time he thought he might be finally dragging himself free something pulled him back.
He wanted to let it go. Maybe he didn’t know how. Maybe he never would.
Retreating into his office, Jiang Cheng left orders that he was not to be disturbed for the rest of the day.
That night he dreamed about Wei Wuxian.
They were standing in the path where they’d fought their duel. Jiang Cheng’s arm throbbed with pain and Wei Wuxian was standing with his hand pressed to his side where Jiang Cheng had stabbed him. They’d had to make it look real, and that meant blood, but Jiang Cheng’s stomach still lurched with a sense of wrongness, of worry.
He gritted his teeth and started to turn away, but something stopped him.
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said. He looked too pale, all the color drained from his face, and there was blood coming out of his mouth. He swayed.
“What’s the matter with you,” Jiang Cheng said. Wei Wuxian blinked slowly at him and then fell to his knees.
Sandu fell from Jiang Cheng’s hand and he lunged without thinking, catching Wei Wuxian, who blinked owlishly at him.
“Huh,” he said. “Did you have to stab me quite that hard?”
“It had to be convincing,” Jiang Cheng said, glancing over his shoulder to make sure no one was looking, that they were still alone.
“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian said. “It’s...going to be convincing.” It felt like he was getting heavier. More of his weight slumping against Jiang Cheng and he could only support him with one arm. It shouldn’t be that bad. Shouldn’t be that serious, he’d seen Wei Wuxian recover from worse, this wasn’t…
He was bleeding a lot.
His eyes slipped shut. “Jiang Cheng,” he said, voice slurring. “It’s…”
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng said, his heart hammering against his ribs. “Stop being so dramatic.”
Wei Wuxian didn’t answer. His breathing was shallow and getting shallower, and Jiang Cheng tried to channel spiritual energy into him, but it didn’t seem to be working, like he wasn’t absorbing it properly, like he was a sieve and Jiang Cheng’s energy was water.
“Sorry,” Wei Wuxian murmured. “Tell shijie…”
He went limp before he finished the sentence.
“No,” Jiang Cheng hissed. “No, don’t you dare, Wei Wuxian-”
He woke up, for a moment dizzy, dazed, half thinking no, that’s not right, I saw him in Yiling with a-jie and then no, that’s not right either, he died at Nightless City and then, finally, he settled on where and when he was.
And then just lay there staring up at the ceiling and wondering what the fuck that was about.
It didn’t take him that long to put together, though.
I just don’t heal so fast anymore.
He could, Jiang Cheng realized, have killed Wei Wuxian then. In a staged duel. By accident. Because Wei Wuxian didn’t have a golden core sustaining him, providing him with energy to draw on. He’d wounded Wei Wuxian in the confidence that he knew what he could take, but he’d been operating without the full understanding that whatever his newfound power, there were ways in which Wei Wuxian was more fragile than the man he’d grown up with.
He could’ve bled out on the way back to the Burial Mounds, dead before anyone found him, and it would have been an accident.
His lungs suddenly felt very tight, like he couldn’t get a full breath. He got up and paced across the room one way, then another.
He hadn’t known, Jiang Cheng reminded himself. He couldn’t have known. And Wei Wuxian hadn’t died, anyway, he’d been fine.
How would he even have found out? It seemed doubtful any of the Wens would’ve said anything, since if anyone knew that the Yiling Laozu was gone there’d be no one protecting them. A scenario spun out in his head where he tried to get in touch with Wei Wuxian before a-jie’s wedding to no response. He’d probably just assume that Wei Wuxian was blowing them off. Ignoring them.
Would he have gone then to yell at him about it?
Jiang Cheng’s pacing got faster. A-jie would still be alive, he thought wildly. And Jin Zixuan, he’d be alive too. Jin Ling would’ve grown up with both his parents. Jin Guangyao wouldn’t have become Chief Cultivator.
Better, Jiang Cheng thought wildly, it would’ve been better, maybe for Wei Wuxian too, before - before he was so consumed by his damned demonic cultivation-
A-Cheng, how did a-Xian die?
Jiang Cheng stopped. He swayed forward and then back, his heart pounding.
She might have forgiven him. Or she might not. She’d loved Wei Wuxian so much, too much, enough that she’d thrown herself into a battlefield for him, given her life for him.
And what about you?
He remembered how he’d felt after watching Wei Wuxian fall. Turning his back and walking away, his body unspeakably heavy, eyes stinging, chest and stomach full of coals. Furious and sick and aching, and he’d been angry, burning with incandescent rage and despair, and even then it had felt like a knife twisting in his gut every time he heard someone talk about how Sandu Shengshou had killed the Yiling Laozu.
If it had been an accident, if it had happened then when Wei Wuxian hadn’t done anything unforgivable-
(Still hasn’t, apparently, look at you now-)
He was outside and halfway across the courtyard before he realized that he probably did not want to walk in on Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, together, possibly in a state of undress. He was trying very hard not to think about that, and had no interest in actually witnessing it, not to mention that Lan Wangji would probably run him through first and ask questions later. Besides, what was he going to say?
I could’ve killed you. Wei Wuxian wouldn’t say that’s true, you could’ve, I just got there first but Jiang Cheng would know he was thinking it, and that wouldn’t be the point anyway.
The panicked energy drained out of him all at once and he was left just standing there staring at nothing. What’s wrong with you, he thought viciously. It’s just a stupid dream your brain spat out. Don’t make anything of it.
He wasn’t, though. He knew it didn’t necessarily mean anything. It didn’t need to. It was just - a realization and a fear.
It was too late to say anything now.
And wasn’t that, Jiang Cheng thought unhappily, the story of so many things.
He walked back to his room and didn’t sleep. He took out Suibian instead and polished it, slowly and deliberately, and it felt a little like a punishment.
He hid in his office the next morning, too, eating an early breakfast so he could be sure to avoid Wei Wuxian. Naturally, he showed up anyway, waltzing in as though the door wasn’t closed.
“I’m busy,” Jiang Cheng said, studying a blank piece of paper as though it was of vital importance.
“Mm-hm,” Wei Wuxian said. “Sure. Are you avoiding me?” His voice was light, but Jiang Cheng thought he could hear something else there, too, and held back a wince. He looked up.
“Some of us have jobs to do. Shouldn’t you be resting?”
“I’m not dying,” Wei Wuxian said. “You and Lan Zhan, I swear.”
Jiang Cheng felt his face spasm. “I’m sure Lan-er-gongzi would be delighted by that comparison.”
Wei Wuxian looked briefly like he wanted to wince, then just sighed and scratched his nose. “There are some things that Lan Zhan and I don’t agree on,” he said.
“Remarkable,” Jiang Cheng said flatly.
“You’re one of them,” Wei Wuxian said.
Jiang Cheng wished that wasn’t such a relief to hear. He kept his mouth clamped shut and his eyes directed somewhere over Wei Wuxian’s left shoulder.
Wei Wuxian inhaled. “That was unfair.”
“What was,” Jiang Cheng said.
“What he said to you.”
“He didn’t say anything,” Jiang Cheng said. “Just the truth. Right? That was the truth. That you don’t heal as quickly now because you don’t have a golden core.”
Wei Wuxian made a face. “Well, yes,” he said. “But Lan Zhan doesn’t always need to...say things. In words.”
Jiang Cheng didn’t mean to say it. It came out anyway. “You mean about how he doesn’t think I was worth it?”
Silence. Jiang Cheng cursed. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter. Just-”
“You were,” Wei Wuxian said. Then corrected, “are.”
Jiang Cheng’s throat closed. It felt like he was going to choke.
“I’ve never regretted it,” Wei Wuxian went on. “I’ve never thought it wasn’t worth it. I’d have done anything to save your life. And seeing what you’ve done I just think that’s more true. You rebuilt Lotus Pier. You raised Jiang Sect from the ashes. You-” Wei Wuxian swallowed hard. “You at least half-raised Jin Ling.”
Something twisted in Jiang Cheng’s chest. He felt sick.
“If I’d ever wondered,” Wei Wuxian said, “I’d know even more now it was the right choice.”
Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together. His eyes prickled. “You should have told me,” he said. “You should have asked, I didn’t-”
I didn’t agree to this. I didn’t want this.
Wei Wuxian looked away. “You would never have agreed.”
“You’re right!” Jiang Cheng said. “I wouldn’t have! But wouldn’t that be up to me?”
Wei Wuxian’s eyebrows knitted together. “I needed to take care of you and shijie-”
“I was trying to take care of you!”
Wei Wuxian blinked at him and Jiang Cheng promptly wished he could swallow the words back. He directed his eyes firmly down at the blank paper and wished there was something on it he could read. Anything.
“Jiang Cheng?” Wei Wuxian said softly, after a moment. He closed his eyes.
“After...after Lotus Pier fell,” Jiang Cheng said. “You’d gone out to get medicine for a-jie, for her fever. I went out and I saw…there were Wen soldiers. They were heading toward you, and I…”
He was glad he couldn’t see the expression on Wei Wuxian’s face.
“They would’ve killed you,” Jiang Cheng said. “I couldn’t…I couldn’t let that happen.”
The room was very quiet. “That’s why you left,” Wei Wuxian said, his voice strange. “I thought it was for Jiang-shushu and Yu-furen’s bodies.”
Jiang Cheng shook his head mutely. He waited, but Wei Wuxian was quiet.
“And then,” Jiang Cheng said, and his voice was getting rough, “you went and just - threw it away. Like you’re the only one allowed to make sacrifices-” He cut off. His nose was burning along with his stomach.
“You never said,” Wei Wuxian said.
“Of course I didn’t,” Jiang Cheng snapped. “You’d’ve just - blamed yourself. Like I can’t make my own decisions.”
“You were going to die,” Wei Wuxian said, and Jiang Cheng did open his eyes, finally, and look at him. There were tears shining in his eyes and sliding down his face. “You weren’t eating, you were just lying there, giving up, Jiang Sect needed its heir, shijie needed you, I-” His hands were clenched in his lap. “I needed you. And you needed it more. I knew I could manage, one way or another, but you-”
“I was too weak, is that it?” Jiang Cheng burst out, and he knew that wasn’t fair, wasn’t the point, but it still-
“You were dying,” Wei Wuxian said again, his voice rising.
“And it’d be better if you did?”
Jiang Cheng rocked back. Wei Wuxian looked like he wanted to slap himself.
“I mean,” Wei Wuxian said, “ultimately,” and Jiang Cheng didn’t know how he could make himself smile but he still managed it, and Jiang Cheng wanted to throw up on his lap.
“Shut up,” he said. “Just - shut up.”
Wei Wuxian, to Jiang Cheng’s immense relief, shut up.
“You don’t get it,” Jiang Cheng said. His voice shook. “You don’t - what, do you think Lan Wangji grieved for sixteen years because it was fun? Do you think a-jie-” He almost choked on her name, but pushed through it. “-do you think she’d think that? That she’d say it was a fair trade? She sacrificed herself for you.”
Wei Wuxian flinched.
“You’re so stupid,” Jiang Cheng said. “Just-”
His voice strangled in his throat. He looked away again, and silence fell, and stayed. He waited for Wei Wuxian to break it; he didn’t, and Jiang Cheng looked back. He was staring down at his hands lying loose in his lap.
“I just wanted…” he said, finally, and then let out an unhappy little laugh. “You and shijie both, huh? I wanted to protect you and in the end…”
He trailed off. The tears in Jiang Cheng’s eyes spilled over. “Maybe we wanted the same thing,” he said.
“Oh, no,” Wei Wuxian said. “Don’t cry.”
“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng said wetly. “You started it.” He inhaled shakily. “I hated you,” he said. “I hated you so much and I still-”
Maybe he’d run out of words for the day, because those two got caught in his throat. Wei Wuxian was looking at him like he’d heard them anyway.
“Thank you,” he said, finally. Jiang Cheng looked away, dashing his sleeve across his face.
“I don’t want to hear it.”
“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian said. Jiang Cheng glared at him through a scrim of tears. “I can’t say I wouldn’t do it again,” Wei Wuxian said. “And I still don’t regret it. But I’m sorry I hurt you.”
Jiang Cheng just looked at him for several seconds, then said, “that’s a shit apology.”
“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian said after a moment. “I guess it is.”
Neither of them said anything for a while. Jiang Cheng imagined getting up and going around the table and dragging Wei Wuxian to his feet, grabbing him by the shoulders. In his head he pulled him into a hug like he hadn’t in years upon years and said - he didn’t know what he’d say.
Something that would somehow set everything to rights.
“So don’t,” he said eventually. Wei Wuxian gave him a weird look, and he said, “don’t apologize. And don’t thank me. Just-” he cleared his throat. “-if you get the urge to do something stupid and self-sacrificing again, do me a favor and throw yourself in the lake. Or whatever the nearest body of water is.”
Wei Wuxian blinked and let out a startled-sounding laugh. “Ai-ya,” he said. “All right, all right. I’ll remember that.”
“Good,” Jiang Cheng said savagely. “You’d better.”
Wei Wuxian reached out across the table and brushed away tears, rested his hand lightly against his face, and it was so familiar it hurt. “Jiang Cheng,” he said.
“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng said again.
“Absolutely not,” Wei Wuxian said. “When have I ever done that?”
“Never when you should, that’s for damn sure,” Jiang Cheng said. Oddly, something seemed to have loosened in his chest, like he’d found a spot to start picking open the knot that had been there for a long, long time. When he met Wei Wuxian’s eyes there was an unbearable fondness there that nearly undid him.
“Jiang Cheng, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said. “You’re not regretting reinstating me already, are you?”
Jiang Cheng swallowed past the lump in his throat and said, “no.” And then after a moment added, “never.”
He could feel the back of his neck getting hot. The fondness just got more intense.
“Now get out,” Jiang Cheng said. “We’re going to talk to my tailor this afternoon.”
Wei Wuxian blinked. “Your tailor?”
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng said firmly. “I’ve been showing him some designs, and I can’t decide between a few different fabrics.”
Wei Wuxian was staring at him again. “Designs,” he said. “What designs?”
“For your wedding clothes,” Jiang Cheng said. “Lan Wangji is on his own, but I’m not going to have you looking like a beggar.”
Dropping his hand, Wei Wuxian sat back. “Well,” he said after a moment. “You’ve really got everything in hand, don’t you?”
There was something a little funny in his voice. Jiang Cheng leveled him with a stern gaze.
“You told me I could plan your wedding.”
Wei Wuxian’s expression had turned a little pained. “Do I get some input on what I wear to my own wedding?”
“Maybe,” Jiang Cheng said. “It depends on the input.”
Wei Wuxian looked like he wasn’t sure whether to laugh or make a face.
“I have a sample menu for you to try, too,” Jiang Cheng said. “That’s for tomorrow.”
“You have a schedule all worked out,” Wei Wuxian said.
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng said. “I do. That’s why all of this is called planning.”
Jiang Cheng was delighted to be able to tell Lan Wangji that he couldn’t come to the tailor, you don’t get to see what he’s wearing yet, don’t you want it to be a surprise?
“Besides,” Jiang Cheng said, casting a scathing glance at Lan Wangji’s robes, “I think I’m better equipped to know what I’m doing here than you are.”
Wei Wuxian’s expression went nervous and he said, a little too brightly, “all right, let’s go! Lan Zhan, I’ll be back soon.”
It would have been beneath him to look smug, so Jiang Cheng didn’t.
Wei Wuxian actually liked some of the designs Jiang Cheng had come up with. That was how he put it, too, and Jiang Cheng scowled at him and said, “obviously, I know what I’m doing,” when what he really meant was I know you. He’d put a lot of thought into it, about not just what would look good but what would suit. It had to be the right shade of red, for one thing, and Jiang Cheng was gratified to see that he’d gotten that right from memory alone.
Fingering one of the fabric samples, Wei Wuxian glanced sideways at him and said, carefully, “these are all very nice, but isn’t it a bit...much?”
Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean?”
Wei Wuxian scratched his nose, looking the closest thing he ever did to self-conscious. “Well...expensive.”
“Do you think I can’t afford it?” Jiang Cheng said a little tetchily, and Wei Wuxian shook his head.
“No! No, not at all. Just…”
“Do you want me to look cheap?”
“Of course I don’t,” Wei Wuxian said. “But you’re dressing me like-”
“You’re marrying the Chief Cultivator,” Jiang Cheng interrupted. “And you’re my brother. If you’re wearing anything but the highest quality it’ll just make me look bad. So stop complaining and just tell me which one you like best.”
Wei Wuxian had a funny look on his face. Before Jiang Cheng could figure out what it was, though, it changed into a smile. “Okay, okay,” he said. “What about this one?”
Jiang Cheng scowled at it. Plain red. The texture was good, but no detailing of any kind. “Absolutely not,” he said. “I thought I’d already taken that one out of the running.”
Wei Wuxian glanced at him sideways. “This one?”
“No,” Jiang Cheng said. “No, that’s not right.”
“Do you want me to tell you what I think or am I just supposed to stand here and look pretty?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“Who said you were looking pretty,” Jiang Cheng said. “If I’d known you had such terrible taste-”
“-in fabrics and men-”
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said, and there was a note of genuine displeasure that entered his voice. Right. How dare he say a bad word against Lan Zhan.
He didn’t like the ugly jealousy that rose up, though not liking it didn’t make it go away. He tried to push it down. He picked up one of the fabric swatches and set it down.
“I know, I know,” he said, suddenly tired. “I’m just glad I'm not the one marrying him.”
He saved your life, and stood with you, and was the one holding on when I was the one pushing you over the edge, and I have no right, no right at all.
You were mine first and you were supposed to be mine always. Twin Prides of Yunmeng.
“Jiang Cheng?” Wei Wuxian said, quieter, gentle in a way that made Jiang Cheng want to flinch.
He shook his head. “Nothing,” he said. “I guess if he makes you happy.”
When he made himself look at Wei Wuxian again, that funny look was back. It cleared quickly, again, and he leaned in and bumped his shoulder against Jiang Cheng’s. “Oh, he does,” he said, with a slow, lascivious smile. “He absolutely does. When he-”
“Ugh, stop,” Jiang Cheng said, shoving him. “I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to think about it. Please never make me think about it again.”
Wei Wuxian laughed, and Jiang Cheng sort of hated that it felt like he’d done something right.
Dinner with Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian was...it felt silly to call it an ordeal. Jiang Cheng had been tortured. He’d fought in a war. His entire family had died.
Approaching this particular experience, his primary emotion was still ‘dread.’
It wasn’t as bad as he’d feared. Lan Wangji seemed to be on his best behavior - Jiang Cheng thought sourly it was probably because Wei Wuxian was there. Of course, his best behavior was apparently cold silence.
That did not seem to put Wei Wuxian at ease, if the way he talked slightly too much and too loudly was any indication.
Finally, Lan Wangji’s stubborn silence began to itch at him and Jiang Cheng turned in his direction and said, “so is your brother helping you with your preparations, Lan-er-gongzi?”
Wei Wuxian looked a little panicked. Lan Wangji lowered his chopsticks and regarded him, expression unreadable.
“Zewu-jun has other matters that concern him.”
Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together. “Is that so.”
Wei Wuxian cleared his throat. “This fish is really good,” he said. “Is there more of it?”
“I am capable of attending to my own preparations,” Lan Wangji said, still toneless.
“I’m sure you are,” Jiang Cheng said. “I assume he’s at least planning on attending.”
Something flickered in Lan Wangji’s eyes. Wei Wuxian tensed. “Ah,” he said, but Lan Wangji spoke over him.
“That is his choice.”
Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes. “Surely he won’t skip his own brother’s wedding.”
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said, with a mixture of desperation and warning. “Maybe now’s not the time to talk about this?” Lan Wangji set his chopsticks down entirely and placed his hands in his lap.
“Jiang-zongzhu’s opinions are not relevant in this matter.”
Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together. “It just seems to me like-”
Wei Wuxian coughed loudly, several times. “Whoops,” he said, with what sounded like an exaggerated wheeze. “Inhaled some water, hang on-”
“I am not inclined to attend Jiang-zongzhu’s opinions on fraternal matters.”
Oh, ouch. Jiang Cheng probably should have seen that coming. He still took a sharp breath in. Wei Wuxian was looking increasingly distressed again, and he opened his mouth to snap something back, he hadn’t quite worked out what it was, when he noticed something about the set of Lan Wangji’s mouth. Not anger, for once. Or cold condescension.
He was upset.
Jiang Cheng directed his gaze at one of the walls, suddenly feeling...all right. Guilty. He pressed his lips together.
“It’s not about fraternal matters,” he said finally. “Seclusion or no, he’s a sect leader. It won’t look right to have every other sect leader there and not Gusu Lan’s.”
Lan Wangji’s expression settled back into its more usual unreadability. He picked up his chopsticks again. Wei Wuxian’s shoulders slumped a little, and Jiang Cheng tried to escape the feeling that he’d put his foot in it in a way he hadn’t meant to.
Everyone, including Wei Wuxian, was very quiet for a while.
“That Lan Sizhui of yours,” Jiang Cheng said to his fish abruptly. “When is he going to visit Lotus Pier?”
Wei Wuxian’s head came up sharply; Lan Wangji just stilled for a moment and then resumed his steady pace of eating.
“Um,” Wei Wuxian said. “That’s up to him, probably.”
Jiang Cheng huffed. “Well, tell him to get on with it.”
“Um,” Wei Wuxian said again. Lan Wangji was staring at him; Jiang Cheng pretended not to notice.
“Jin Ling speaks well of him,” he said, still to his fish.
“That’s good,” Wei Wuxian said, sounding a bit uncertain.
“And…” Jiang Cheng pushed forward. “It seems he is to be - some sort of nephew. I would like to actually meet him as such. Properly.”
He still didn’t look up. The fish was positively fascinating. And it was very good. Not wedding feast material, but still good.
“I’ll tell him you asked,” Wei Wuxian said finally. He saw Lan Wangji glance in Wei Wuxian’s direction like he wanted to object, but he didn’t. At least not out loud. At least not in front of Wei Wuxian, or maybe not in front of Jiang Cheng.
“Good,” Jiang Cheng said. His own voice sounded strange. “You do that.”
He’s not your blood, something shouted at the back of his mind. He’s a Wen. What are you doing? Jiang Sect’s dead are rolling in their graves.
Wei Wuxian isn’t my blood either, Jiang Cheng reminded it. I still decided he’s mine. And if I can deal with having Wen Ning in my house - which I’m going to have to - what is this boy, still practically a child?
My nephew, maybe.
He could do this. And he would.
He got to have this.
Jiang Cheng had no idea how he’d found out, but Jin Ling turned up around mid-morning of the next day. Wei Wuxian was with the junior disciples and Jiang Cheng was trying not to worry about it; he wasn’t actually sure what Lan Wangji was doing. Probably hovering over Wei Wuxian. Or meditating.
Who knew what Lan Wangji did in his spare time, other than those two things, and, Jiang Cheng supposed, playing the guqin.
“A sect leader should travel with a proper retinue,” Jiang Cheng told Jin Ling.
“I’m just visiting my jiujiu,” he said. “It’s not sect business.” He looked around. “Where’s Wei Wuxian?”
“Oh,” Jiang Cheng said, a little sourly. “I see how it is.” Jin Ling shot him a look.
“Do you know how often I get to see both of you at the same time?” he said. “I think it’s happened once. Maybe twice. And both times you just avoided each other as much as possible.”
Jiang Cheng opened his mouth to protest that wasn’t true, then closed it. He supposed it might be. For some reason he felt a bit guilty about that. “You know Lan Wangji is here as well?”
“I know,” Jin Ling said. Jiang Cheng gave him a suspicious look and Jin Ling smiled innocently at him.
So. Jiang Cheng thought a little ruefully. Jin Ling did have some kind of network beyond just his friends after all. He wondered how much of it was inherited, and hoped Jin Ling had done some very thorough vetting of his agents.
“Anyway,” Jin Ling said, “How is it going?”
Jiang Cheng felt his face spasm. Great. Wei Wuxian arrived bleeding, Lan Wangji immediately found a way to rub my face in my unworthiness, I dreamed about Wei Wuxian dying, I had yet another excruciating conversation about the past-
“That bad,” Jin Ling said, a mixture of pained and sympathetic. Jiang Cheng scowled.
“Uh huh,” Jin Ling said. Jiang Cheng glanced around, realizing suddenly what was missing.
“You didn’t bring Fairy?”
Jin Ling gave him a weird look. “No? I knew Wei-qianbei was going to be here. And she doesn’t like flying much anyway.”
Jiang Cheng supposed he shouldn’t be surprised by that thoughtfulness. Jin Ling had a good heart. He wondered if Wei Wuxian would notice. He hoped he appreciated it.
“So where is he?” Jin Ling said.
“With the juniors,” Jiang Cheng said. “Hopefully not teaching them anything that’s going to have to be beaten out of them later.”
“Wei-qianbei is a good teacher,” Jin Ling said, and then looked a bit like he regretted saying it. Jiang Cheng shot him a sharp look.
Jin Ling looked fidgety. Jiang Cheng resisted the urge to ask Jin Ling if Wei Wuxian had been teaching him demonic cultivation - he’d ask Wei Wuxian later. “Unbelievable,” he muttered under his breath.
“It’s interesting!” Jin Ling blurted out. “And useful, things that I can use if I can’t access my spiritual energy, and spells he says he made up-”
“He probably did,” Jiang Cheng said. “He used to do that a lot.”
“Ah, I thought I heard my nephew’s voice,” said Wei Wuxian’s, immediately preceding the man himself bouncing into the hall. “Jin Ling! It’s good to see you.”
Jin Ling scowled, but it looked like he was trying to hide a smile. “You say that but you haven’t been to Koi Tower in ages,” he said.
Lan Wangji strode in a few steps after Wei Wuxian at his always measured pace. His eyes raked over Jiang Cheng and went to Jin Ling, who straightened like he was under inspection.
“Jin-zongzhu,” Lan Wangji said, his bow impeccable.
“Hanguang-jun,” Jin Ling said back, and then glanced toward Wei Wuxian a bit nervously, like he was looking for a cue. Jiang Cheng resisted the urge to step defensively closer to him.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said. “So formal! Jin Ling is going to be your nephew, too.”
And you’d better be nice, Jiang Cheng thought fiercely. It occurred to him that he wasn’t the only one in this room who’d stabbed Wei Wuxian and there was some possibility that Lan Wangji remembered that. No, not ‘possibility.’ Jiang Cheng was fairly certain Lan Wangji remembered the face and name of everyone who had so much as given Wei Wuxian a dirty look.
“Mn,” Lan Wangji said, straightening, and gave Jin Ling a long look. Jin Ling somehow stood even straighter. Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes at Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian glanced between the three of them, then skipped over to Jin Ling and flung a familiar arm around his shoulders. “A-Ling, a-Ling,” he said, and something funny went off in Jiang Cheng’s chest hearing it. “I didn’t know you were coming here!”
“Neither did I,” Jiang Cheng said, a bit dryly. Jin Ling’s ears turned a little pink.
“Sect business,” he said.
“Mm,” Lan Wangji said coolly. “We wouldn’t want to interrupt.”
Jiang Cheng glared at Lan Wangji. “If you were interrupting I would have told you,” he said. Wei Wuxian glanced between the three of them again. He tugged on a lock of Jin Ling’s hair.
“Ai-ya,” he said, to Jin Ling. “It’s all right! You don’t have to pretend. I know why you’re here.”
Jin Ling’s ears got pinker and he jerked away from Wei Wuxian, swatting at his hand. “Cut that out,” he said. “Idiot.”
“You wanted to see me!” Wei Wuxian said, beaming. “Your-” he paused, briefly, glanced toward Jiang Cheng, and then said, “second favorite uncle. Obviously Jiang Cheng gets first place, but I’m a solid second. Sorry, Lan Zhan, you’re going to have to be happy with third.”
Jiang Cheng thought he caught just the smallest twitch of Lan Wangji’s mouth toward a smile. “Mm,” he said.
Jin Ling scowled. “Shut up,” he said. “You’re - ugh.”
“Absolutely,” Wei Wuxian said, returning to Lan Wangji’s side. Jiang Cheng felt another little pang in his chest, briefly imagining a world where Jin Ling had grown up with this, with Wei Wuxian and with a-jie and Jin Zixuan, all the family he should have had.
He shoved that away and focused on what was here and now.
“We have work to do,” he informed Jin Ling. When he opened his mouth he added, “no, you can’t come. I know you can keep yourself busy for a few hours.”
“Why can’t I come,” Jin Ling asked.
“Because you’re going to be a guest,” Wei Wuxian said. “This is just the boring preparation stuff. Nothing worth hanging around for.”
Jin Ling scowled at him. “Don’t tell me what’s not worth hanging around for,” he said.
“Jin Ling,” Jiang Cheng said. Jin Ling looked at him, his scowl deepening, and then heaved a sigh and turned back toward Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji.
“Hanguang-jun,” he said with a bow. And then after a pause, “Wei-qianbei.” Then scowled at the latter. “I’d better see you at Koi Tower soon.”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Wei Wuxian said, and something turned in Jiang Cheng’s chest at the fondness in both his voice and his face, like a dog rolling over to show its belly. He chose to try to ignore it.
Lan Wangji’s eyes followed Jin Ling out. Jiang Cheng planted his feet.
“Do you have a problem with my nephew?” he asked.
Wei Wuxian’s face went from fond to alarmed in the blink of an eye. “What? No, of course not, why would-” He looked at Lan Wangji, and his eyebrows furrowed. “Lan Zhan?”
Lan Wangji seemed to be considering something. To Wei Wuxian, he said, “Koi Tower.”
Ah, Jiang Cheng thought, bitterly satisfied. So he’d been right about that.
Wei Wuxian made a sort of ‘pff’ noise. “It was fine! And now it’s a family tradition.” He grinned at Jiang Cheng, who felt his eye twitch and did not grin back. Lan Wangji’s eyes swept to him as if daring him to say something.
“He was a kid,” Wei Wuxian said. “And he’d just had a very bad day.”
Lan Wangji’s gaze moved from Jiang Cheng back to Wei Wuxian, and some of the stoniness softened.
“And Sizhui likes him,” Wei Wuxian said.
“Yes,” Lan Wangji said after a few moments. “That’s so.”
His searing glance in Jiang Cheng’s direction made it very clear that this apparent forgiveness for the stabbing of Wei Wuxian did not extend past Jin Ling. That was fine. He hadn’t really expected it to.
As long as Hanguang-jun didn’t try exacting revenge on Jin Ling, or something.
“Anyway,” Jiang Cheng said loudly. “As I told Wei Wuxian, I have a couple of sample menus to show you. If you don’t mind.” He made it very clear with his voice that he did not particularly care if Lan Wangji minded. Wei Wuxian’s expression twitched.
“I hope you made allowances for the tender tastebuds of the Gusu Lan Sect,” he said, voice a little too light to be entirely convincing. Jiang Cheng made a sort of ‘mm’ noise and met Lan Wangji’s eyes squarely.
“I did my best to consider their unique sensitivities,” he said. “I suppose we’ll see how it suits Hanguang-jun.”
“Ahh,” Wei Wuxian said.
“Jiang-zongzhu is considerate,” Lan Wangji intoned, in a way that clearly expressed that he thought Jiang-zongzhu was no such thing. He just managed to keep himself from saying Jiang-zongzhu is vying for sainthood by dealing patiently with you at all.
And if maybe the soup he served Lan Wangji was a little spicier than he suspected would be tolerable, Jiang Cheng thought he could be forgiven for taking some slight satisfaction in locking eyes with Lan Wangji and watching as he failed to completely control his face.
“Too spicy?” Jiang Cheng asked. Lan Wangji struggled visibly between throwing the taste buds of the rest of his sect into jeopardy and admitting defeat.
“Yes,” he said at length, grudgingly. Wei Wuxian’s frown in his direction was full of suspicion, but Jiang Cheng just nodded and said, “we’ll try something else.”
He’d almost - almost - suggested spare rib and lotus root for a soup course. But it wouldn’t have been right. That had always been a-jie’s gift, her offering, her comfort. Maybe Wei Wuxian would feel differently, but to Jiang Cheng it felt a little like its presence would only magnify her absence.
“This is a lot of food even for a magnificent feast, isn’t it?” Wei Wuxian said, scanning the menu. Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together.
“This again,” he said. “Yes, it would be. For one feast.”
Wei Wuxian blinked. Lan Wangji’s eyes narrowed.
“I’m not asking for a week of your valuable time,” Jiang Cheng said. “Three nights, two days. That’s all.”
“That’s-” Wei Wuxian choked a little. “All?”
Jiang Cheng fixed his eyes on Lan Wangji. “In deference to Hanguang-jun’s stated preference for moderation.”
Wei Wuxian coughed loudly, something that sounded a little like ‘moderation,’ but Jiang Cheng ignored it.
“We are not Jin Sect, to glory in ostentation,” Lan Wangji said.
I could show you ostentation, Jiang Cheng thought. “I’m aware.”
“Jiang Cheng, you’re really too generous,” Wei Wuxian said. Lan Wangji made a sort of noise like he wanted to object.
“The festivities-” Jiang Cheng swallowed hard, and forced himself onward. “The festivities surrounding a-jie’s wedding lasted for a full week. Do you want me to look like I am scorning Hanguang-jun?”
Something strange happened to Wei Wuxian’s face. Jiang Cheng had the feeling he ought to know what it was, or what it meant, and couldn’t quite put it together. Lan Wangji glanced at him and furrowed his brows, but then Wei Wuxian said, his voice a little funny, “of course I don’t want that.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said.
Wei Wuxian smiled at Lan Wangji just a little bit too quickly and a little too bright, and then turned the same one on Jiang Cheng. “Three nights, two days,” he said. “Sure. Sounds great. Thank you, Jiang Cheng.”
Why did that leave a funny taste in Jiang Cheng’s mouth? He wasn’t sure suddenly if he’d done something wrong or right, or what it might have been. Lan Wangji was frowning at Wei Wuxian instead of at him, at least right now.
Jiang Cheng looked away. “You’re welcome,” he said. “Like I keep telling you, I’m not going to have anyone thinking that Yunmeng Jiang is cheap.”
It took him a good two hours to put together that it was probably the fact that he’d mentioned a-jie’s wedding. The one they’d spent countless hours together meticulously planning. The one Wei Wuxian hadn’t been able to attend.
That last time the three of them had all been together and alive and relatively happy was in a courtyard in Yiling, a-jie absolutely radiant in her wedding dress. Wei Wuxian giving Jin Ling his courtesy name.
Looking back from now, it felt like looking at children in the path of a rockslide, unaware of what was bearing down on them, such a short time away. Oblivious.
Jiang Cheng envied them.
It’d been...not a terrible day. They’d gotten some things done. Dinner with the four of them went...decently.
He hadn’t seen much of Wei Wuxian with Jin Ling since Guanyin Temple, but it appeared he’d missed a fair amount there. A fair amount of - bonding. Oh, of course Jin Ling scowled and snapped and called Wei Wuxian an idiot multiple times, but Jiang Cheng could see it.
Maybe because it felt familiar in a way that both warmed him and left him feeling strangely sad.
Jiang Cheng was just sitting outside and savoring the cool evening air when he heard Wei Wuxian’s voice saying, “it’s not good for him to just be alone all the time.”
“It is his choice,” said Lan Wangji. Jiang Cheng could hear them getting closer and wondered if he should move, or say something, but then they stopped and he...stayed where he was. A little bit of guilt twisting in his stomach - really, going to eavesdrop on a private conversation, are you - but he’d been here first anyway.
“All right, but what if it’s not a good choice? What if it’s just making things worse?”
“Still. It is not my place.”
“It could be my place.” Silence, and Wei Wuxian let out an explosive sigh. “Okay, okay, I know. But…”
“He grieves.” Jiang Cheng blinked. There was more tone in Lan Wangji’s voice than he thought he’d ever heard. “It would be...unfair.”
Wei Wuxian was quiet for a while. A miserable part of Jiang Cheng wished he could see them. Wondered what they were doing. He knew the way Lan Wangji looked at Wei Wuxian, and the way Wei Wuxian looked at Lan Wangji, like there was no one else in the world.
It’d been that way for a long time. He’d seen it happening as far back as the Cloud Recesses and he’d hated it, resented it-
He was envious of it now, how easily that love seemed to come.
“Is this what it looks like when the two of you are fighting?”
“We aren’t - fighting.”
“It’s weird. There’s no yelling. I’m used to a lot more yelling.”
Lan Wangji made a bit of a ‘hm’ noise. “Yes,” he said. “I imagine.”
Jiang Cheng felt himself scowling and tried to stop.
“Lan Zhan,” said Wei Wuxian after another long silence, and it was quiet and gentle and Jiang Cheng’s chest hurt like someone had taken his lungs in their hands and squeezed. “He loves you. Have you actually asked?”
Silence. Jiang Cheng didn’t need to be able to read Lan Wangji to get that answer, and he almost snorted.
“If you asked him to come I bet he would say yes.”
“He would. I do not want to ask.”
Another few moments of silence. Jiang Cheng shifted, the guilt coming back, and then fell very still when Wei Wuxian said, sounding rueful, “you’re supposed to be the one with a good relationship with his brother.”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji said. Jiang Cheng realized he was leaning forward and made himself lean back.
“I know, I know,” Wei Wuxian said. “But he’s trying. Really.”
His stomach hurt. “Mm,” said Lan Wangji, excruciatingly skeptical. Wei Wuxian laughed.
“Lan Zhan, oh Lan Zhan,” he said. “So stern! You’re not like that with me.”
“Of course not,” Lan Wangji said. “You are Wei Ying.” And there it was again, the intensity of tone: warmth and affection and tenderness and the hands holding Jiang Cheng’s lungs squeezed tight. Jade statue Lan Wangji with his icy demeanor and he just melted for Wei Wuxian, and it seemed to be so easy.
Why wasn’t it easy for him?
Wei Wuxian made a noise that was almost a whine. “That’s unfair,” he said. “You can’t just do that.”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji said. It sounded like he might laugh. Jiang Cheng lurched to his feet and found himself walking toward their voices. He knew he should leave, should walk away and go to his room and sit there alone thinking about he’s trying.
But he didn’t. Walked forward and rounded the corner and there they were, Wei Wuxian sitting on the railing of one of the walkways and Lan Wangji in front of him, Wei Wuxian looking up at his husband-to-be with that bright and unrestrained smile that felt like a guqin string snapping in Jiang Cheng’s chest. His fingers rested against Lan Wangji’s cheek and he leaned toward him with his whole body and kissed him, still smiling into it.
The warmth radiating from Lan Wangji made him realize even more how cold he was by contrast around Jiang Cheng. And Wei Wuxian...looking at him like this, Jiang Cheng realized how tense he was around him, even still. How much he was still holding back.
You’re an intruder, murmured a voice, bitter and resentful and sad. You don’t belong here. You don’t get to be a part of this.
Wei Wuxian saw him first and his eyes widened a little, breaking away. Jiang Cheng felt his face spasm and turned on his heel.
“Jiang Cheng!” Wei Wuxian sang out, and Jiang Cheng clenched his back teeth. “What’re you doing?”
“Taking a walk in my house,” Jiang Cheng said, turning slowly back around. Wei Wuxian was still sitting on the railing, but Lan Wangji had turned, and moved to stand very slightly between him and Jiang Cheng. “Sitting like that you’re just asking to fall in the water.”
“I can swim,” Wei Wuxian said, unconcerned.
“Jiang-zongzhu,” Lan Wangji said. He jerked his head in a nod.
“Hanguang-jun,” he said. “I’ll leave you to it.” He could hear it in his own voice and wanted to wince. The sulkiness. The irritation. He sounded childish and he hated it. He saw Wei Wuxian’s smile fall.
Good to know you think I’m ‘trying,’ Jiang Cheng thought, and then felt petty and childish. He looked at Lan Wangji instead, whose eyes were narrowed. “What,” he said sharply in his direction, but he said nothing.
Wei Wuxian glanced quickly back and forth between them and jumped down from the railing. “Did something, um. Happen? Is Jin Ling all right?”
“Jin Ling is fine,” Jiang Cheng grated. “Though it’s a good thing he didn’t see the two of you. Absolutely shameless.”
Wei Wuxian laughed brightly. “Mm. If you think that was shameless-”
Lan Wangji’s ears turned a little pink, but the warmth in his expression - in his everything - was gone. “Is it shameful?”
Jiang Cheng frowned. “What?”
“Ahh,” Wei Wuxian said, and this laugh sounded a little nervous. “Lan Zhan! You’re going to make me blush.”
“I am not ashamed,” Lan Wangji said. He drew a little closer to Wei Wuxian, and Jiang Cheng was suddenly remembering another confrontation, another night. “If there is shame here it is not mine.”
“Then whose,” Jiang Cheng said. He was calm. He wasn’t going to lose his temper. He was calm.
Lan Wangji’s eyes were utterly blank of expression. He said nothing.
“Lan-er-gongzi,” Jiang Cheng said, voice tightening a notch. “If you are trying to imply something-”
“I did not mean it to be implication.”
Wei Wuxian grabbed onto Lan Wangji’s arm. “Okay!” he said. “Okay, I think that’s - we’ll just go and-”
“Say what you mean, Hanguang-jun,” Jiang Cheng said more loudly. Wei Wuxian was beginning to look genuinely alarmed.
“Jiang Cheng,” he said.
“No,” Jiang Cheng said. “I’m done with his - snide asides. You hate me. I get the picture. The feeling’s mutual. But this is my home and I will not accept your passive aggressive bullshit in it.”
Lan Wangji regarded him with that same maddening, cold, indifference. Wei Wuxian glanced back and forth between them and cleared his throat.
“Lan Zhan,” he said. “Let’s go.”
“Jiang Wanyin should understand,” Lan Wangji said, “that there are consequences for his actions.”
“I think he knows,” Wei Wuxian said, pained. “Lan Zhan, it’s-”
Jiang Cheng’s temper boiled up and over. “No,” he said. “By all means, Lan-er-gongzi, tell me what you think I need to understand.”
Wei Wuxian let out a nervous laugh. “Jiang Cheng, I don’t think…”
“It changes nothing.”
Jiang Cheng set his teeth. “What do you mean.”
“I think I have been clear.”
“Try again,” Jiang Cheng said, almost a snarl. “I can’t read minds.”
Lan Wangji blinked once, slowly. “All of this,” he said, “changes nothing.” He paused, but only for a moment.
“You do not deserve forgiveness,” he said.
Jiang Cheng jerked like Lan Wangji had slapped him. That was how it felt, a little: sharp and dismissive at the same time, and so matter-of-fact, like it wasn’t even a question, like it was obvious and Jiang Cheng should’ve already known. “That’s up to you, is it,” he said, though his voice came out a little thin.
“You do not deserve his forgiveness,” Lan Wangji said.
Shut up, Jiang Cheng wanted to say. Shut up and get out, but it suddenly felt like he couldn’t talk at all. Every word he might’ve said gone. The weight of Lan Wangji’s gaze felt like a mountain falling on him.
Finally, he made himself move, taking a jerky step forward. “Do you think I care what you think?”
“Care or do not. That changes nothing either.”
“Would the two of you just-”
Jiang Cheng sneered, nausea building in the pit of his stomach that kept trying to tell him he’s right, you know. “So that’s it, then. You’ve appointed yourself judge of me.”
“I have not appointed myself anything. Wei Ying protects me, and I protect him. From any threat, regardless of its source.”
Jiang Cheng heard himself make a noise. “You-”
Wei Wuxian moved, interposing himself between them, his eyes catching Jiang Cheng’s. For a moment he braced himself but then Wei Wuxian turned, his back to him, facing Lan Wangji.
“Lan Wangji,” he said, and his voice was quiet but firm, “stop.”
Lan Wangji’s expression fell still. “Wei Ying,” he said, and Jiang Cheng did not know how to read the tone in his voice.
“I know,” Wei Wuxian said.
Lan Wangji’s mouth twitched. Turning down at the corners. Jiang Cheng couldn’t see Wei Wuxian’s face but he knew they were doing that thing where they were talking without saying anything. Jiang Cheng’s hands were balled into fists and he could feel himself shaking.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said again, “that’s enough.”
“No,” Lan Wangji said. “Never.”
“It is,” Wei Wuxian said. “For me.”
Jiang Cheng took a step forward. “If Lan-er-gongzi has something more he wants to say to me-”
“He doesn’t,” Wei Wuxian said, eyes still fixed forward. Lan Wangji’s expression flickered, then stilled. He looked away. Wei Wuxian’s shoulders dropped.
“Lan Zhan,” he said.
“I will be in your room,” Lan Wangji said, and turned, walking slowly away. Unhurried as ever. Wei Wuxian stared after him, and it occurred to Jiang Cheng that he had just seen an argument between the two of them. It hadn’t really looked like an argument. But he was pretty sure that was what it had been.
I’m used to a lot more yelling.
Wei Wuxian sighed and turned toward Jiang Cheng. “I’m sorry,” he said, quietly.
Jiang Cheng shook his head jerkily, feeling suddenly off balance. “I don’t need an apology from you.”
“Still.” Wei Wuxian paused, glancing in the direction Lan Wangji had gone before turning back toward Jiang Cheng. “I don’t blame you,” he said. “I never have.”
Jiang Cheng’s eyes burned and what he thought, first and foremost, was, you should. He’s right. I’m not you, I can’t just let go of all of it-
(What happens if you do?)
“Whatever,” he said, voice rough. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It matters to me,” Wei Wuxian said. Perfectly serious. Jiang Cheng stared at him, and Wei Wuxian’s expression softened into one of those smiles, fond in a way that somehow hurt. “I’m marrying Lan Zhan. But you’re still my brother.”
He reached out and patted Jiang Cheng on the shoulder. He almost flinched, but he didn’t, and didn’t shove him off, just held still like if he moved the moment would break. “I don’t need you to defend me from him,” he said.
“I know,” Wei Wuxian said. “But aren’t I allowed to want to?”
That - hit. Somewhere. Like something. Like he’d wanted to hear that without really knowing that he’d wanted to hear it, and now that he had it settled somewhere in his chest like a balm on a wound he’d almost stopped noticing.
He cleared his throat. “When have you ever cared what you’re allowed to do,” he said. Wei Wuxian beamed at him, and Jiang Cheng scowled back, and he’d missed this, he’d missed this so much, and some tentative part of him murmured you can have it back if you just let yourself reach for it.
Lan Wangji found Jiang Cheng sitting with Jin Ling, who was asking for advice under the guise of complaining. Jiang Cheng saw him approaching and tensed, quickly looking for a black-and-red clad shadow and finding him alone. Jin Ling broke off and looked over his shoulder.
“Oh, no,” he said, and then looked like he regretted saying it. Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together.
“We can finish this conversation later,” he said to Jin Ling, who looked pained.
“Maybe I should stay,” he said, reluctantly. Jiang Cheng snorted, though he was touched in spite of himself.
“I don’t need protecting from Hanguang-jun, a-Ling,” he said.
“I’ll go find Wei Wuxian,” Jin Ling said, which was not a vote of confidence. He stood as Lan Wangji approached, and bowed. “Hanguang-jun.”
“Jin-zongzhu,” Lan Wangji said, returning the bow. Then turning toward Jiang Cheng. “I would speak with Jiang-zongzhu privately.”
Jin Ling glanced at Jiang Cheng once again. Jiang Cheng gave him a nod. Lan Wangji didn’t scare him, and even if he did he was hardly going to hide behind his nephew.
“Thanks, Jiujiu,” Jin Ling said after a moment, and left them there. The silence that fell was heavy, almost palpable.
“Are you going to sit,” Jiang Cheng said eventually. Lan Wangji sat. Jiang Cheng scanned his face but couldn’t get any hint of what he was thinking. How did Wei Wuxian always seem to know?
The silence stretched again. Jiang Cheng bit back the urge to ask what do you want, why are you here.
At length Lan Wangji said, “Wei Ying wishes me to apologize.”
That’s not an apology, Jiang Cheng thought. “Is that so.”
“He feels I am unfair to you.”
The back of Jiang Cheng’s neck got hot and he wanted to find Wei Wuxian and shake him and say I can fight my own battles, damn you, but that...wasn’t the point, he didn’t think. “Does he,” he said, voice flat.
Silence. Jiang Cheng laid his hands on the table. “Feel free to tell Wei Wuxian that I’m not concerned about your good opinion and neither need nor want your apologies.”
“You would not receive them.”
Jiang Cheng twitched, stung. “Good thing I wasn’t holding my breath, then. Is that all you wanted to say?”
Lan Wangji was quiet again. He seemed to be thinking very hard about something. Finally he said, “Wei Ying cares for you a great deal.”
That odd, stupid flutter in Jiang Cheng’s chest. “What’s your point,” he said defensively.
Lan Wangji was quiet again, for a while, and Jiang Cheng was just about to snap at him to spit it out, already, when he said, “you do not say what you mean.”
Jiang Cheng stared at him. “What?”
“Wei Ying told me so. But it is both ways.”
“Lan-er-gongzi,” Jiang Cheng said, “you might have to use a few more words if you want to make any sense.”
Lan Wangji gave him one of those searing cold glances, but it only lasted a moment. “You shout at him. Berate him. Threaten him. But he trusts you and turns to you for comfort.”
What? He let out a strangled sound, not quite a laugh. “You think Wei Wuxian-”
“Not Wei Ying. Jin Rulan.”
Jiang Cheng blinked. Frowned.
“Mn,” Lan Wangji said again. And then, “it is possible he understands something I do not.”
Still staring at him blankly, Jiang Cheng said, not really thinking, “big of you to admit that.”
There was briefest flicker of a frown, but mostly Lan Wangji’s expression remained placid. After another long silence he said, “Wei Ying’s happiness matters.”
“You aren’t making any sense,” Jiang Cheng said bluntly. Lan Wangji gave him one of those catlike blinks.
“Do you agree?”
Lan Wangji just stared at him for several moments longer, then nodded, and started to stand.
“Wait,” Jiang Cheng said. “What just - why are you here?”
“To plan our wedding.”
“You know very well that’s not what I meant,” Jiang Cheng said, not quite a snarl. “Why did you come and talk to me like this, today?”
Lan Wangji’s gaze was as even as ice on still water. “I do not like you,” he said. “I do not forgive you. But it seems Wei Ying does, and has. For that reason I will tolerate you.”
“Oh, thank you,” Jiang Cheng said bitterly.
Lan Wangji regarded him. “Perhaps,” he said, “like Jin Rulan, he understands something I do not. I suppose we shall see.”
He did stand, then, and turned. Jiang Cheng stood with him.
“Lan Wangji,” he said loudly. Lan Wangji paused. Jiang Cheng took a breath through his nose and let it out. “It’s...good. Your watching out for him. Heaven knows Wei Wuxian needs-” someone to keep him from getting himself killed. He caught himself before saying that. “-someone to get him out of the trouble he gets himself into.”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji said. No more than that, of course, but Jiang Cheng thought maybe he was pleased.
Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian left, though the latter at least would have to be back soon for more work with the tailor. Jiang Cheng found himself looking forward to it.
He was perfectly content, however, to keep as much of his business with Lan Wangji as possible confined to written communication.
Jin Ling stayed another day, though he disappeared midway through it when Ouyang Zizhen arrived. Jiang Cheng just managed not to demand to know what they were doing. Jin Ling was a sect leader now, he reminded himself. Ouyang Zizhen was - responsible enough. He was not going to hover.
He folded up his latest attempt at a seating chart (it kept fluctuating, partly, Jiang Cheng could admit, depending on his mood) and glanced down at the letter he’d begun, though all he’d written so far was Honored Zewu-jun.
What he kept thinking about was that look on Lan Wangji’s face, slight but still there, and considering how much his face usually showed, that said something.
He picked up the brush.
May this letter find you well. I understand that you expect your seclusion to preclude you from attending Lan-er-gongzi’s wedding to my brother. I am asking you to reconsider. It will look strange to have three of four great sect leaders present, but not the last. The goal is to deflect rumors, not foment them, and I fear what others might make of your absence.
He paused. That was plain enough reasoning, he thought, and Lan Xichen was a canny politician. He would understand.
But it didn’t feel like enough.
Jiang Cheng had no idea what the situation was between Lan Wangji and his elder brother. They had always been a united front without so much as a trace of discord. There was barely a trace now.
And he should probably just stay out of it.
I hope you will also think of your brother. He tells me I cannot advise on fraternal matters but I am pretty sure about this one.
Lastly, consider me, your future brother-in-law. I need at least one other capable adult sect leader present for the sake of my remaining sanity.
I have enclosed a possible seating chart. Please let me know your thoughts. Respectfully, Jiang-zongzhu.
There. He set that paper aside and picked up another; this letter went faster.
Wei Wuxian - make sure Zewu-jun receives and reads the letter I sent him. Is there any way you can make sure he replies, too? And stay out of trouble. I need you in one piece at least until the wedding and then you can get yourself torn up as much as you want. Jiang Cheng.
He marked both to be sent, then picked up Sandu. He’d heard word of some sort of disturbance in one of the villages to the east, and had a feeling that he was going to want something to keep himself busy the next few days. It’d been a bit since he’d gone on a proper night hunt, and in Lotus Pier he suspected it would feel too quiet, too lonely.
The hunt was relatively uneventful. He half expected to be interrupted in the middle by a familiar pair, but it seemed they’d taken another route back to the Cloud Recesses.
You’re pathetic, Jiang Cheng thought, but mostly it was just tired.
Eight months to prepare for a very important wedding, Jiang Cheng thought, had not been long enough.
Lately he was fretting over how to adapt to suit a marriage that was anything but traditional while trying to maintain some semblance of familiar ritual. He’d asked Lan Wangji for his input on the ceremony and gotten back a letter that said, in essence, you made this a problem, send me a proposal and I will send you back a detailed critique of everything wrong with it. He tried with Wei Wuxian, too, who wrote back telling Jiang Cheng that he was thinking too much and as long as the three bows were in there he didn’t really care about the rest of it.
And today he was trying to arrange how he was going to house everyone who was going to show up - the list of attendees grew almost every day, and Jiang Cheng was fairly certain at least some of the people who hadn’t responded were going to show up anyway. Lotus Pier was going to be bursting at the seams.
Of course, just now Lotus Pier was on the verge of flooding, rain coming down in sheets, thunder rolling ominously interspersed with flashes of lightning. Another time it might have been soothing - these kinds of storms were intimately familiar, part of the rhythm of Jiang Cheng’s life - but just now it was only distracting.
“Yes,” he said to the knock on his door. Ye Xiaofan poked her head in, looking a little damp.
“Zongzhu,” she said. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but I was just in town. There’s a Lan disciple at the inn.”
Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together. A Lan disciple visiting Lotus Pier, and they hadn’t bothered to stop by to pay respects. Maybe they were just taking shelter from the rain, but… “Why are you telling me?”
Ye Xiaofan hesitated, which meant she was going to tell him something he wasn’t going to like. Jiang Cheng felt his expression turning toward a scowl. “It’s not Hanguang-jun, is it?” If the man had come here and insulted him like that-
“No,” Ye Xiaofan said quickly. “Not him. Young. And he’s with...someone else.” She cleared her throat and glanced at a corner. So she thought he really wasn’t going to like this.
“Who,” he said, though there was already a nauseated churn in his stomach, burning in his chest.
“The Ghost General,” she said, after another, very long, pause.
A Lan disciple. Accompanied by the Ghost General. Well, that explained why he hadn’t come by. Jiang Cheng’s back teeth ground together hard enough that his jaw started to ache.
“Thank you for telling me,” he said finally. “Go home. Stay dry.”
She bowed and left. Jiang Cheng stood, then sat, then stood again.
Was this a test? The disciple was probably Lan Sizhui. He hadn’t heard any word from the boy since he’d told Wei Wuxian to tell him to visit, which had been itching at him. Several times he almost wrote him himself, but the silence that had followed his invitation deterred him.
And now he was here, accompanied by Wen Qionglin, Wen Ning, murderer of a-jie’s husband. Was Lan Sizhui seeing if Jiang Cheng would still welcome him? Saying if you want me you must accept him, he wouldn’t, he couldn’t, he’d agreed to have Wen Ning for Wei Wuxian’s sake but that didn’t mean he had to embrace him, accept him, forgive him.
A whisper of a thought: he saved Jin Ling. He stopped Baxia from killing him. He saved your life.
Every fiber of his being rebelled.
The disrespect, the gall. He’d forbidden Wen Ning from Lotus Pier, and Lan Sizhui, Wen Yuan, brought him right to Jiang Cheng’s door.
He got up, took an umbrella, and walked out into the storm. What are you going to do when you get there, asked a quiet voice, measured and reasonable and unconvincing. Kick them out of Yunmeng? Lan Wangji will eviscerate you. Wei Wuxian will never speak to you again.
He kept going. Walked to the teahouse. Opened the door. Stood there, umbrella dripping and the bottom of his robes wet.
There they were. The boy he remembered, round-faced, possessed of both Lan Wangji’s poise and a warmth that reminded Jiang Cheng more of someone else. Wei Wuxian. (A-jie.) And with him, visibly self-conscious, a young man he remembered even better.
And he was young, Jiang Cheng realized, staring at him. Young when he’d died, and now he’d never age.
Wen Ning must’ve felt him staring, because he turned. His eyes immediately widened and he scrambled to his feet; Lan Sizhui turned and started a little, rising more slowly.
“Jiang-zongzhu,” he said with an impeccable bow, eyebrows just a little creased. It wasn’t quite a question.
He felt frozen. What was he supposed to say now?
“The storm caught us by surprise,” Sizhui said. “We weren’t planning to-”
Jiang Cheng took a sharp breath through his nose and said, before he could think too much about it, “if I remember correctly I told Wei Wuxian to tell you to come to Lotus Pier. I did not mean you should stay at an inn.”
Lan Sizhui glanced at Wen Ning. Wen Ning looked at Jiang Cheng. Jiang Cheng looked at a wall.
“I won’t have anyone slighting my hospitality, saying that I failed to give the first disciple of the Lan Sect,” he was going to choke on this, dammit, “or his - traveling companion a proper welcome.”
What do you think you’re doing, snapped a voice that sounded a great deal like his mother. He managed not to flinch, just glared at them both. Wen Ning hadn’t relaxed, but he looked thoughtful, now, rather than nervous. His gaze steady. He was too pale, black lines tracing up his neck from under his clothes, but in certain lights, Jiang Cheng thought, he could probably pass for an ordinary, living human being.
Lan Sizhui glanced at Wen Ning, then bowed again. “We would be pleased to accept your hospitality, Jiang-zongzhu,” he said. “For us both.” There was maybe the slightest emphasis on that second part, like he was confirming. Jiang Cheng pressed his back teeth together for a moment, then jerked his head in a nod.
“Good,” he said flatly. “Glad to hear it.”
He had the servants bring tea. He didn’t exactly know what else to do. The pair of them looked a little bedraggled - they must indeed have been caught out in the storm by surprise. They were also both looking at him, apparently waiting.
For what, Jiang Cheng had no idea.
“So,” he said. “You were on a night hunt?”
“Yes,” Lan Sizhui said after a moment. “A nest of spider monsters. We dealt with them, but then the storm started and…”
And they’d taken shelter in the nearest inn, Jiang Cheng gathered. He wondered if they’d meant to come here or if it’d been - poor luck.
“Hm,” he said. He’d wanted to talk to Sizhui - his sort-of maybe nephew - but this wasn’t quite how he’d imagined the circumstances, and now that he was here he had no idea what to say. That seemed about right.
“How is the planning for the wedding going?” Wen Ning asked. His voice was quiet but clear. Jiang Cheng twitched and pressed his lips together, a brief and mostly involuntary spasm.
“Fine,” he said. His voice sounded short, harsh, and he wanted to flinch. He took a breath through his nose and said, trying to moderate his tone, “it keeps me busy.”
Wen Ning dipped his head in a nod. “I’m sure,” he said, sounding - sympathetic. “Based on what I hear from Wei-gongzi, it seems it’s all very stressful.”
Jiang Cheng blinked. “He’s...stressed?” Wei Wuxian never sounded like it in his letters. And hadn’t when he was here with Lan Wangji, either, except when they’d been arguing and he was trying to mediate, which...had been most of the time. He wanted to sigh.
Wasn’t that just Wei Wuxian all over.
The way Wen Ning looked at him made Jiang Cheng think he knew exactly what he was thinking, which made his hackles rise. “I think so,” he said mildly. “Not that he complains. But it must take a lot of work to put together such an event.”
Jiang Cheng squinted suspiciously in his direction. “Yes,” he said. “It is.”
Lan Sizhui took a small sip of his tea. He looked excruciatingly self-conscious. Not nervous, at least - Jiang Cheng didn’t think he could’ve handled nervous. But like he didn’t quite know what he was doing here.
Yeah, that was fair. Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure what he was doing here either.
He switched his focus in Lan Sizhui’s direction and fished around for some kind of safe subject. “I understand you’ve been spending time with Jin Ling,” he said.
“I have been,” Lan Sizhui said. “Less, now that he’s busy with his duties as a sect leader, but when he has time.”
He was so polite. So - poised. Maybe it was a Lan thing. Or maybe Lan Wangji was just a better pseudo-parent. That, he thought bitterly, was probably it. “I know he appreciates it,” Jiang Cheng said, and then realized that Jin Ling would probably rather he didn’t say that. Lan Sizhui’s lips turned a little up toward a smile, though.
“I’m glad,” he said. Jiang Cheng nodded, but that avenue of conversation seemed exhausted.
This was somehow worse than dinner with Lan Wangji.
He glanced toward Wen Ning, who was holding his tea but not drinking it. Jiang Cheng frowned at it. “You don’t like the tea?” he said, a little testily.
“Oh,” Wen Ning said. “No. I just don’t.” He paused, and there was a profoundly awkward silence in which Jiang Cheng filled in eat or drink, because I’m technically sort of dead. He remembered a-jie in all her finery walking over and handing him a bowl of soup. Had she known he couldn’t eat it?
She would’ve done it anyway, probably, for the gesture.
“Ah,” he said. More silence. This was terrible.
He thought he saw a flicker of sympathy on Wen Ning’s face. Or maybe pity. “ Jiang-zongzhu,” he said. “I think I’ll go for a walk.”
Jiang Cheng’s first urge was to snap at him that Lotus Pier wasn’t his to wander around, but of course he’d invited him in to begin with. He pressed his lips together into a hard, thin line and said, “it’s pouring rain.”
“I don’t mind.”
“Fine,” Jiang Cheng said after a moment. “Do what you want.”
Wen Ning stood, bowed, smiled warmly at Lan Sizhui with a nod that looked encouraging, and left. Jiang Cheng looked after him, wondering if this might actually be easier with him there. Probably not. His feelings about Wen Ning were too much of a tangle to pull apart, and looking at him set his teeth on edge. He owed him and his sister for all they’d done. He hated him and his sister for all they’d done.
He turned back toward Lan Sizhui, who set down his tea.
“I meant to come to pay my respects tomorrow,” he said, sounding apologetic. “I didn’t intend to offend you.”
Jiang Cheng could feel his expression turning toward a scowl and made an attempt to stop it. “I’m not offended,” he said, which wasn’t true. Lan Sizhui looked down at his tea and didn’t say anything. Jiang Cheng tried not to flounder. “I’d just-” Dammit. “I’d just like to know why-” He hitched for a moment, then pushed onward. “-members of my own family keep choosing to get rooms in an inn rather than making use of available guest rooms that are much higher quality.”
Sizhui glanced toward the door through which Wen Ning had exited, which Jiang Cheng supposed was an answer to that question. A dull ache settled in his stomach.
All of them, he thought. So interconnected. Tied together by obligation and debt and blood and pain and love. Inseparable.
I’m trying, he wanted to shout. Can’t somebody acknowledge that I am trying, that it all happened so fast, that I’m stuck, trapped sixteen years in the past and I don’t know how to let it go.
He felt like a child throwing a tantrum.
“I know who you are,” he said. His voice came out rough. Lan Sizhui paused and set down his cup, his expression settling into something serious, his chin lifting slightly.
“What do you mean?” His voice was still mild, polite, but there was a hint of something harder underneath. A will of steel. Someone could mistake this soft-spoken young man for gentle, but Jiang Cheng suspected it’d be foolish.
“Your name was Wen before it was Lan,” Jiang Cheng said, careful to keep his voice even. “Wasn’t it? Wen Yuan.” A-Yuan.
“Yes,” Lan Sizhui said after a long pause.
Jiang Cheng let out a sigh. He’d said it aloud, now. There was no pretending he didn’t know. No acting like he wasn’t aware that he was sitting across from the last living Wen, in Lotus Pier that the Wens had destroyed. That he’d invited him in, called him family. He felt sick.
A toddler clinging to his leg. Too skinny for his age. You’re farming on a mountain of dead bodies. Can you really eat that stuff?
What was the point?
He jerked his head in a little up-down nod. “Tell your - tell Wei Wuxian to stop trying to keep secrets from me. He’s not actually very good at it most of the time.”
Lan Sizhui’s expression did something complicated and hard to read, then he smiled. “I’ll tell him.”
“Good,” Jiang Cheng said roughly. “He’s an idiot. I don’t know-” He cut off before he said what he thought I was going to do, and instead just shook his head. “Anyway. Next time you’re caught in a rainstorm near Lotus Pier don’t waste your time going to an inn.”
Lan Sizhui bowed. “Yes, Jiang-zongzhu,” he said solemnly, but Jiang Cheng had the sneaking suspicion that he might be laughing at him. He could feel himself starting to scowl and gestured at his half full cup of tea.
“Drink that before it gets cold,” he snapped. “Out in a storm like this - if you get sick I’ll never hear the end of it.”
Lan Sizhui’s smile was warm and seemed to come easily. After everything. Despite everything.
Were we ever like this? Jiang Cheng thought. Wei Wuxian with his bright and beaming smile. A-jie with her gentle touch and voice. And him.
Grief opened a pit in his stomach. He looked away.
Lan Sizhui took a sip of his tea. “I still don’t remember a lot,” he said, voice quieter. “About...the Burial Mounds. But I get flashes, sometimes, of what it was like. And I remember there were lotuses there.”
Jiang Cheng remembered that too. Remembered walking through the trampled ruins after they’d been plundered of what little there was to take, and seeing the pond, the plants torn up, crushed into the mud, and he’d stood there staring at them until his eyes started to burn and he wanted to scream.
Lan Sizhui’s eyes were cast down, his mouth set in a small frown, and for a moment Jiang Cheng thought he was glimpsing something that lived behind that warm smile, the same way something had often lived behind Wei Wuxian’s.
I’m sorry, he thought, and half wanted to say, but it got caught in his throat and he couldn’t quite force it out. I’m sorry for the part I played in what happened to you.
Jiang Cheng cleared his throat. “I don’t suppose you’re going back to the Cloud Recesses soon.”
“I might,” Lan Sizhui said.
“Let me send you with some lotus seeds,” Jiang Cheng said. “If that idiot can grow them in the Burial Mounds then-” He cut off. For some reason his eyes were stinging.
“Thank you,” Sizhui said. Jiang Cheng jerked his head to the side.
“Don’t thank me,” he said. “Just-”
There was so much he needed to say, and as always he didn’t quite know how to say it. On the tip of his tongue: you remind me of her. Someone you never knew, that you share nothing with, but somehow something in you makes me think of her, and I hate it, I hate it.
It makes me want to embrace you.
Lan Sizhui was looking at him again. Unreadable as Hanguang-jun always was. Jiang Cheng looked away.
“Know you are welcome here,” he said. “That if you come, there will be a place.”
I’ve lost too much, he thought. I can’t get the old things back. I have to find new ones.
Two months. Two months and it still felt like there was so much he needed to do and he had no idea how he was going to get it done.
He was still wrangling with the tailor about Wei Wuxian’s robes and striking the perfect balance between sleek simplicity and appropriately dazzling magnificence. He’d spent nearly a full month arguing with Lan Wangji about the details of the ceremony itself, and how to deal with the lack of a technical bride. He still hadn’t heard for certain if Zewu-jun was attending, and was choosing to assume for his own peace of mind that he was.
He tried the herbs Wei Wuxian had given him, but just ended up falling asleep and having very weird dreams.
Jiang Cheng was braced and ready for the next time Wei Wuxian visited with Lan Wangji in tow. Determined that this time he would not let Lan Wangji’s pettiness and dislike get to him. He would be professional.
“At least you’re in one piece this time,” was the first thing he said to Wei Wuxian.
“Yep,” Wei Wuxian said cheerfully, spinning Chenqing absently around his fingers. “It’s how I spend most of my time, actually.”
“These days,” Jiang Cheng said, maybe a little sourly. For some reason Lan Wangji gave Jiang Cheng a hard look.
“Jiang-zongzhu,” he said, bowing.
“Hanguang-jun,” Jiang Cheng said, returning the gesture. Wei Wuxian glanced back and forth between them.
“Well!” he said, a little too loudly. “I’m sure you’ve got quite a to do list for us, is that right? Jin Ling says you’ve been very busy.”
JIang Cheng wondered if that was how Jin Ling had actually phrased it, or if it’d been more like what he’d said to Jiang Cheng himself, which was, ‘jiujiu, you’ve gone crazy.’ Admittedly he had, at the time, been muttering about lantern placements.
“I manage,” he said stiffly. “There is business to discuss, though we don’t have to begin immediately, if you’d like a bit to recover from your journey.”
Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian looked at each other for a moment. Jiang Cheng couldn’t see Lan Wangji do anything, but Wei Wuxian shook his head, barely. Lan Wangji’s lips pressed together.
Would you like me to go somewhere else so you can have this conversation aloud like normal people, was what Jiang Cheng thought, but he kept his mouth shut and did not examine too closely what bothered him about that seemingly effortless nonverbal communication.
It seemed to be settled, though, because Lan Wangji brought his hands together and bowed. “Jiang-zongzhu,” he said. “I expect we will speak soon.”
Jiang Cheng startled a little. “You’re leaving?”
“Not leaving,” Wei Wuxian said. “Just going to go recover from the journey. And warm up the bed a little, right?” He grinned at Lan Wangji, whose ears turned pink. Jiang Cheng coughed loudly and he glared at Wei Wuxian, who beamed back at him.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said. It sounded, to Jiang Cheng’s ears, a little pained.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said, turning that beaming smile on Lan Wangji, who, Jiang Cheng noticed, seemed to melt like snow in summer. One edge of that was satisfying; the other sort of hurt.
He left the two of them alone.
“Are you that shameless around Lan Qiren?” Jiang Cheng asked. Wei Wuxian laughed. Hard, throwing back his head, hand briefly on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder like he needed it for balance though it was gone quickly (too soon).
“He’d die,” Wei Wuxian said. “Literally, I’m pretty sure, and then I’d really be in trouble. Mostly he just prefers to pretend I’m not there.”
Jiang Cheng frowned. “Lan Wangji lets him treat you like that?” he said. Apparently Wei Wuxian heard something in his voice, because he gave him a kind of puzzled look.
“I don’t want them to fight about it.”
He fights me about everything, Jiang Cheng thought, but he won’t defend you from his own family. “Hm,” he said. Wei Wuxian’s eyebrows furrowed.
“Nothing,” Jiang Cheng said. “Never mind. Was there something you wanted to say you didn’t want Lan Wangji around for?”
“Can’t I just want to spend a little time alone with my shidi?” Wei Wuxian said lightly. Jiang Cheng felt the back of his neck getting hot and scowled at him.
“Why do I think there’s something else.”
“I don’t know,” Wei Wuxian said. “Why do you?”
Jiang Cheng could feel himself getting tense. “Wei Wuxian,” he growled. “You’re making me nervous. Whatever it is, just-”
“Zewu-jun is coming to the wedding,” Wei Wuxian said. Jiang Cheng blinked.
“That’s...good,” he said slowly. Wei Wuxian’s expression pinched a little and then relaxed. “Isn’t it?”
“Yes! Yes, it’s good, though it does mean that…” Wei Wuxian paused and then said, “it just means that Lan Zhan is going to be, um, touchy, in some ways.”
“When is he not,” Jiang Cheng said before he could think about it. Wei Wuxian frowned at him.
“Whatever,” Jiang Cheng said. “Touchy in what ways?”
“Lan Zhan is...a little protective of him,” Wei Wuxian said carefully. “He says…” He paused, and then exhaled and said, “he’s worried about what people might say to him. Or around him.”
Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together. “I can’t control what people say.” Unfortunately. He was just hoping if people were going to say anything about Wei Wuxian they’d have the brains to keep it out of Lan Wangji’s earshot.
“I know,” Wei Wuxian said. “I’m just telling you. And…” He grimaced a little. “Nie Huaisang.”
Ah. Lan-er-gongzi on his brother’s behalf. “I’m not going to disinvite a sect leader, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Wei Wuxian made a face. “I thought you’d say that.”
“So what do you want me to do about it?” Other than, he supposed, rearrange the seating chart. Again.
“Nothing,” Wei Wuxian said after a moment. “I just thought you should probably know. So at least you weren’t surprised.”
Jiang Cheng resisted the urge to press his fingers to his temples. “Nothing’s ever simple with you, is it,” he muttered. Wei Wuxian’s expression flickered a little and there was that smile again, trying a little too hard.
“Someone has to keep you on your toes.”
“I don’t think someone does,” Jiang Cheng said. He shook his head a little. “Thank you for telling me, I guess. Was that all or was there something else?”
“That was all,” Wei Wuxian said after a moment. “If you want to get started working I can go get Lan Zhan and-”
“No,” Jiang Cheng said quickly, grabbing Wei Wuxian’s arm before he could start drifting off, and then added quickly, “no need to rush him. I-” He twitched his shoulders and tried to find a way of saying what he was trying to say that wouldn’t make him choke on his tongue.
This time the smile that bloomed wasn’t trying at all. “Do you just want to spend time alone with your shixiong, Jiang Cheng?”
“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng snapped, glaring at him. “Who would? I was just going to say that-”
He didn’t have an excuse ready.
Wei Wuxian grinned at him. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go swimming.”
“You’re joking,” Jiang Cheng said.
“Nope,” Wei Wuxian said. “Not in the least.”
He wasn’t. They went swimming, and when Wei Wuxian splashed Jiang Cheng in the face Jiang Cheng shoved Wei Wuxian under the water, and Wei Wuxian grabbed his ankle and yanked him down too. It was like years bled away in seconds, and he was startled by the sound of his own laughter.
When Lan Wangji rejoined them, Jiang Cheng did not miss the way that he gave Wei Wuxian a quick looking over, again as though he needed to affirm that Jiang Cheng hadn’t done something to him. It made something twist in Jiang Cheng’s stomach, souring his good mood all over again.
Amazing how Lan Wangji could have that effect.
“All right,” Jiang Cheng said. “By the time you leave we need to finalize the menu, the seating chart, and the decorations. I will be taking Wei Wuxian back to the tailor for a final fitting, and we also need to speak to what other ornamentation he is going to be wearing.”
“You know I’m right here, don’t you?” Wei Wuxian said. “It’s important to me that you know that.”
Jiang Cheng scowled at him. “Is there anything else?”
“I understand that Sizhui came to Lotus Pier,” Lan Wangji said. Jiang Cheng glanced in his direction.
“You heard correctly,” he said after a moment.
“You invited him and Wen Qionglin to stay.”
I did do that. Jiang Cheng felt his expression turning toward a scowl and fought it. “What of it?”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji said. Wei Wuxian, though, beamed at him like he was proud and Jiang Cheng felt his ears getting hot.
“If you have something to say, Lan-er-gongzi, please.”
“He doesn’t,” Wei Wuxian said, elbowing his future husband in the ribs. “I was glad to hear he stopped by! And that you had a nice dinner, the three of you.”
He wondered if that was how Wen Ning had described it. A nice dinner. Sure. “Hm,” he said. Lan Wangji was giving him one of those slow, piercing lookings-over again. Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together and glared back at him.
I haven’t done anything wrong and you can’t say I have. I don’t need to defend myself against you for this.
He thought, defensively.
“He’s a very polite young man,” Jiang Cheng said at length. Wei Wuxian beamed even more brightly.
“Isn’t he?” he said. “All my early good influence, I assume.”
“Doubt it,” Jiang Cheng said. “You’ve never been a good influence in your life.”
Lan Wangji’s eyes narrowed, but Wei Wuxian laughed. “True, true,” he said. “But wherever he gets it, the point is that he’s very good.”
Wei Wuxian hadn’t mentioned the lotus seeds, Jiang Cheng realized with a sudden burst of anxiety. Had Lan Sizhui not given them to him? Or had he not liked them after all? Jiang Cheng had no idea how he could’ve gotten the wrong idea but this was Wei Wuxian - he could probably find a way.
And he couldn’t just ask. How pathetic would that be?
He shoved all of that down and focused on Lan Wangji, who let out another “mm,” and then said, “he said that you were hospitable.”
“Of course,” Jiang Cheng snapped. “What did you think I was going to be? He’s my nephew. Or nearly. I wasn’t going to have him sleeping outside, or on the floor.”
“And Wen Ning?” Wei Wuxian asked, and his voice sounded more serious. Jiang Cheng tried not to tense, or twitch, or snarl, the reactions all almost reflexive.
“What about him?” he asked roughly.
Something tight and anxious softened a little around Wei Wuxian’s eyes. “You weren’t going to have him sleep outside?”
“I decided against it,” Jiang Cheng said. “For Lan Sizhui’s sake.” He couldn’t quite look at Wei Wuxian, suddenly and absurdly self-conscious. “It seemed likely he wouldn’t be separated from his - chaperone.”
“Cousin,” Wei Wuxian said. The correction seemed pointed. Jiang Cheng made a dismissive gesture.
He could feel himself being watched by two pairs of eyes. Weighed, and judged, and his hackles rose, but before he could snap anything the moment passed.
“Ah, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said, sounding fond. Jiang Cheng scowled.
“Nothing, nothing,” he said. “So! Seating chart, decorations, or menu first?”
They began with the seating chart, which Jiang Cheng hastily adjusted to accommodate Lan Xichen. He could see Lan Wangji scanning his work looking for something to object to, but it seemed even he couldn’t find anything. That’s right, Jiang Cheng thought with slightly vicious satisfaction. I do know what I’m doing, you bastard.
He was tempted to bring up Zewu-jun’s change of heart, but decided it would probably be better to not.
Things went overall...astonishingly well. Lan Wangji voiced minimal objections, and his weighty, judging glances seemed perhaps slightly less frequent. Wei Wuxian, probably in consequence, seemed more relaxed. They moved through their business efficiently and with relative ease.
Jiang Cheng caught himself waiting, repeatedly, for the other shoe to drop.
It was a relief to separate to take Wei Wuxian to the tailor for his final fitting.
“You and Lan Zhan seem to be doing better,” Wei Wuxian said cautiously from behind the privacy screen. Jiang Cheng shifted.
“It’s fine,” he said stiffly.
“Uh huh,” Wei Wuxian said. “Guess that’s an improvement over ‘terrible.’”
Jiang Cheng scowled. “I don’t care what he thinks of me.”
“Mm,” Wei Wuxian said. “It’s just being around the two of you is kind of painful sometimes.”
Jiang Cheng felt his scowl deepen. “I’m not going to apologize..”
“I’m not saying you should!” Wei Wuxian said. “I just…” He trailed off, and let out a sigh. “Never mind.” Jiang Cheng felt a little twinge of guilt and pushed it away. He was trying to be civil. It wasn’t his fault that Lan Wangji seemed determined to loathe him as though Jiang Cheng was responsible, personally, for everything bad that had ever happened to Wei Wuxian.
Whatever. He could live with that just fine.
“Are you almost done in there?” he asked.
“Just a moment more, zongzhu,” said the tailor. Jiang Cheng huffed and crossed his arms, lips pressed together.
When Wei Wuxian stepped out, Jiang Cheng took a moment to thoroughly congratulate himself on his good taste. He had known what he was doing. A red outer robe, of course, with gold detailing on every edge, and - in a small concession - black for the inner robe. A wide belt again with red and gold, and a narrower one with black tassels.
He’d let the underclothes he had also commissioned be black as well. There was only so much he could expect Wei Wuxian to tolerate.
He looked, Jiang Cheng could acknowledge, very handsome. Though he was never going to say so aloud.
“Your ribbon doesn’t match,” he said. Wei Wuxian made a face at him.
“That’s what you’re starting with?”
“Well, it’s true. Turn around,” Jiang Cheng said. Wei Wuxian turned, slowly, and Jiang Cheng nodded his approval, turning toward the tailor to say, “you did well.”
“Thank you, zongzhu,” he said with a low bow. “As always, we are honored to have you as a patron.”
Wei Wuxian was looking down at himself with a little bit of a crinkle in his brow. “I feel,” he said, “very overdressed.”
“Good thing you’re not going out in it,” Jiang Cheng said. “Take it off. It’s staying here until the wedding.”
Wei Wuxian squinted at him. “What do you think I’m going to do, climb trees in it?”
“I wouldn’t put it past you.”
The look Wei Wuxian gave him was wounded; Jiang Cheng stared back at him without sympathy, and Wei Wuxian heaved a sigh and retreated back behind the privacy screen.
“You didn’t say what you think,” Jiang Cheng said after a moment.
“I wasn’t sure it was relevant,” Wei Wuxian said, a little waspish. Jiang Cheng said nothing, though he felt a bit of a twinge; a moment later, though, Wei Wuxian added, “they’re beautiful, Jiang Cheng,” his voice softer.
“Of course they are,” Jiang Cheng said.
Jiang Cheng fidgeted and grimaced at the screen, safely where Wei Wuxian couldn’t see him. “You’re welcome,” he said. “Of course.”
Do you remember talking about what a-jie would wear, he imagined saying. Do you remember us talking about her jewelry, how she’d do her hair-
And now it’s you.
His eyes prickled and he took a deep breath to control himself and beat back the sudden feeling of loss. Oh, get over yourself, he thought angrily.
“You’re going to have to do better than a ribbon, you know,” he said. “I’m taking you to look at hair ornaments next.”
“Yes, Jiang-zongzhu,” Wei Wuxian said, meekly. Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes.
“Shut up,” he said. “Yiling Laozu.”
Wei Wuxian threw the belt at him, and Jiang Cheng got that feeling in his throat again like there was something lodged there, choking him. Made, maybe, out of all the things he’d done and couldn’t undo, everything he’d buried for the last decade and a half and more, and all the things he wanted and couldn’t have...
You are not, he told himself, going to cry.
He’d cried on Wei Wuxian enough recently. More than. Which made him think about the last time he had, and now he felt like he was going to lose it.
Thankfully, he did not. At least he could hold it together that much.
It had been an extraordinarily long day. Or it felt like it had. But though he’d collapsed into bed relieved to be done with it, now Jiang Cheng was just lying awake and staring at the ceiling, his thoughts going around and around in endless, aimless circles. Everything that still needed to be done. Everything he’d already finished. Going over and over his mental checklist wondering if he’d missed anything, forgotten anything.
Nothing came to mind, but of course he might not remember that he’d forgotten it.
Eight months hadn’t felt like enough time to get ready. It still didn’t, but there was something else, too, wasn’t there: the same feeling, like he was being left behind again. He was only just beginning to get Wei Wuxian back, and soon he’d be Lan Wangji’s, married, and how long would it take for him to just - forget to visit, or decide he wasn’t worth it, or-
He turned on his side, jaw tightening.
Stop it, he thought. Stop it. But he couldn’t, couldn’t not think about how happy Wei Wuxian was with Lan Wangji, how he smiled at him, relaxed around him, trusted him completely. It wasn’t like that with him. Maybe it never would be. Maybe there was too much between them to ever-
His chest hurt.
It’s a wedding, not a funeral, he thought angrily, but then that made him think of the fact that Wei Wuxian hadn’t had a funeral when he’d died, which brought back the guilt, which made him angry because he shouldn’t have to be guilty, especially not when it was a good sixteen years too late and Wei Wuxian was alive now. Alive and getting married.
Restless, sleepless, Jiang Cheng rose, dressed in the most casual clothes he could get away with, and went out. He didn’t think about where he was going until he got there: the dock where a-jie in particular had loved to sit, jutting out over the lake. The moon reflected bright in the water, providing enough light that he could see the end of it was already occupied.
He stopped for a moment, hesitating, then propelled himself forward.
“What are you doing up,” he said.
“Ahh, just sitting,” Wei Wuxian said, turning his head to look at Jiang Cheng over his shoulder, smiling. “Lan Zhan’s asleep.”
“It’s the middle of the night,” Jiang Cheng said.
Wei Wuxian’s smile wavered a little, though his voice was still light when he said, “Ai-ya, Jiang Cheng, this dock’s big enough for the both of us, isn’t it?”
“I-” Jiang Cheng broke off, pressed his lips together. “That’s not what I meant. I just figured…” He trailed off.
What keeps you awake at night? he couldn’t ask. What haunts you that brings you out here?
“What are you doing up,” Wei Wuxian asked after a few moments of silence.
Too much. “You,” Jiang Cheng said. “Trying to anticipate the kind of stunts you might pull I’ll have to deal with. I can’t believe Lan Wangji is volunteering to make you his headache.”
Wei Wuxian laughed. “Yeah,” he said. “Me neither.”
Jiang Cheng shot him a frown but didn’t have a ready response before Wei Wuxian was moving on. “I really do appreciate it, Jiang Cheng. Everything you’re doing.”
He jerked, turning his gaze out over the water and scowling. “What was I supposed to do?”
“You could’ve done a lot of things,” Wei Wuxian said. “Or not done. No one would have judged you.”
Jiang Cheng’s scowl deepened. “That’s not the point.”
Jiang Cheng held back the urge to groan. You think I know?
“None of this was...you didn’t need to.”
“I know I didn’t,” Jiang Cheng said. “I already said-”
“I don’t mean about owing or not owing,” Wei Wuxian said. “I mean…” he trailed off. “You don’t have to prove anything. Or earn anything.”
Don’t I? Jiang Cheng kept his mouth shut.
“I just want you to know.”
How do you do it, Jiang Cheng wanted to ask. How do you manage it, letting go, walking away, moving on. After everything, why are you the one less haunted by it all?
“It really doesn’t bother you,” he said abruptly.
He could just make out the odd look Wei Wuxian gave him by the moonlight. “What ‘it’?”
“All of it,” Jiang Cheng said helpfully, helplessly. “Everything that happened. Everything that happened to you. And what I-” What I did. What I didn’t do.
His throat closed around the words.
“I wouldn’t say it doesn’t bother me,” Wei Wuxian said after a while. “But I don’t want to let it own me, either. I want…” Wei Wuxian trailed off, then said, quieter, “I guess I want to believe there are ways to move forward.”
Are there? Jiang Cheng swallowed hard.
“I’m happy for you,” he made himself say, even if the words tasted a little bitter, even if there was something half a lie in them. “That you get to...have this.”
Even in the dark, Wei Wuxian’s beaming smile was like sunlight. “Ah, Jiang Cheng,” he said. “That’s so sweet of you to say!”
“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng mumbled. “I could still push you into the lake.”
Wei Wuxian scooted closer and bumped him with his shoulder. “You won’t.”
“Watch me,” Jiang Cheng said, but without heat.
You, me, and a-Cheng, said a-jie’s voice in his ear. We must stay together, and never separate.
He’d never learned how to let go, but he’d been the one left behind anyway.
I want to believe there are ways to move forward.
Whenever he imagined himself happy, he imagined himself backward. What would happen, he wondered, if he tried the other way?
It was here.
Jiang Cheng had spent the last eight months with most of his waking hours consumed by planning and arranging and organizing a wedding, and now it was time and he almost couldn’t believe it. It still felt like he was going to blink and this would all be some sort of surreal dream, and he’d wake up…
Maybe, if he was lucky, it’d be the morning after Guanyin Temple. If he was less lucky, it’d be a year and a half ago.
So far, though, he hadn’t woken up, and the guests were starting to trickle in. Or flood in, more accurately. Almost everyone appeared to want to be early, no doubt so they could make sure they didn’t miss anything.
And everyone was full of opinions. Praise for the decorations, the splendor of Lotus Pier, the generosity of the Jiang Sect-
And opinions about the bridegrooms. Less-than-subtle gossip about how long this had been going on. Curious glances at Jiang Cheng amid speculation concerning Wei Wuxian’s reinstatement as a Jiang Sect disciple. Probing questions about the circumstances surrounding Wei Wuxian’s return - or, more often, less questions than wild rumor-mongering.
“I’ve heard he never died all,” he heard Yao-zongzhu say to an attentively listening disciple. “All those years after Nightless City, in hiding, Yunmeng Jiang and Gusu Lan collaborating to keep the secret.” Jiang Cheng felt his face pinch and resolutely turned his back.
Jin Ling’s arrival, even if it also meant the arrival of the rest of Lanling Jin, was a relief.
“Are you going to kill someone before Wei Wuxian even gets here?” he said, the first moment they had alone. Jiang Cheng glared at him.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I didn’t think it was a stupid question,” Jin Ling said. He fidgeted slightly, expression turning slightly worried. “Sizhui’s not here yet, is he?”
“No,” Jiang Cheng said. “None of the Lans are. I presume he’ll be coming with Hanguang-jun and Wei Wuxian.” And Wen Ning. Jiang Cheng was not looking forward to that. For multiple reasons, not solely on his own behalf.
“Oh,” Jin Ling said. “I...figured out what I’m giving them.”
Jiang Cheng raised his eyebrows. “Oh?”
Jin Ling bit his lip. “It might be stupid.”
Privately, Jiang Cheng thought that if Lan Wangji dared be anything less than immensely grateful for Jin Ling’s gift then he was going to have things to say. He just waited, and Jin Ling said, “it’s a stand. With a place for a guqin and - and a flute.” His eyes moved a little to the left. “I asked Sizhui to make sure the wood would be the right kind for the jingshi and that there’d be a place for it, and he seemed to think it was a good idea but maybe he was just being polite, and I know it’s not gold but…”
He trailed off. Jiang Cheng just looked at him, a small smile pulling at the corners of his mouth, and Jin Ling flushed. “What?”
It was thoughtful, and personal, and useful. Not customary like a comb or a mirror, but then-
“I think it’s a good choice,” Jiang Cheng said, and Jin Ling’s shoulders slumped in abject relief. He rallied quickly, though, drawing himself back up.
“I’d better go,” he said, “Good luck, Jiujiu. You can do it.”
He patted Jiang Cheng on the shoulder and scampered off. “Of course I can!” Jiang Cheng shouted after him. “Brat!”
But he was smiling.
Of course, the smile only lasted until he was intercepted by one of his disciples informing him that an argument had broken out between a Nie and Jiang disciple.
“Over what?” Jiang Cheng demanded. She avoided his eyes.
“Some...things were said,” she said. Jiang Cheng waited, pressing his lips together, and she added, “regarding da-shixiong.”
Jiang Cheng took a breath through his nose, clenched his fist, and reminded himself that he could not allow any political explosions to occur under his watch. At least not large ones.
On the other hand, he was briefly, vindictively pleased that his disciples had quite clearly adopted Wei Wuxian firmly as one of their own once again. He was even more pleased to see that it was one of the juniors who wouldn’t have known him as anything other than the Yiling Laozu before a year ago. And to see that the Nie disciple seemed to have come out of the spat worse off.
Somehow he doubted it was going to be the last disagreement he was going to have to manage. But he could only hope it would be the worst.
The arrival of Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji was a stone tossed into an already muddy pond. The sight of Lan Xichen with them, visible in public for the first time since Jin Guangyao’s downfall, was a boulder.
Wen Ning in their wake, the Ghost General himself, was a horse trampling through.
Everyone - everyone - gave him a wide berth, which he appeared to pretend not to notice. Lan Sizhui, Jiang Cheng noted, hovered protectively next to him as though ready to step in and defend a man who was capable of fighting a small army on his own.
He greeted all of them formally in Sword Test Hall, starting with Lan Xichen, who was polite but distant, slightly removed. Jiang Cheng observed Lan Wangji’s eyes on him, a very slight downward turn to the corners of his mouth, followed by a sweeping glance around the room that paused, very briefly, on Nie Huaisang. Lan Qiren with them had a pinched look around his eyes like he was barely reining in the urge to send someone to copy Lan Sect’s 3000 rules.
Lan Wangji was courteous, more or less, though in the precise way that made it clear it was an effort. Wei Wuxian beamed at him so brightly it was almost blinding. Jiang Cheng greeted Lan Sizhui with a carefully measured easing of formality that made Wei Wuxian’s smile broaden even more.
Then he and Wen Ning were looking at each other.
In finer clothes, his hair combed and pulled back, if it weren’t for the black lines on his skin he almost could have been the boy Jiang Cheng remembered - the one who had with his sister taken their family in during some of the darkest days of their lives.
His gaze was level and clear. He looked steady and sure of himself.
“Wen Qionglin,” Jiang Cheng said carefully. “Be welcome as our guest in Lotus Pier.”
He thought he saw Wei Wuxian’s shoulders slip down. Wen Ning bowed. “Thank you, Jiang-zongzhu,” he said. “I am honored by your welcome.”
There, Jiang Cheng thought. Hopefully if that little performance wasn’t enough to head off anyone who might be inclined to think the Ghost General was an abomination that should not walk upon the earth, his fearsome reputation would cover the rest.
He glanced over at Jin Ling, just to check on him, and found him staring at Wen Ning with an expression on his face of determined fearlessness. After Jiang Cheng closed the formal greetings, he saw him marching over to Wen Ning with his face set, and tensed, moving a little closer, ready to intervene.
“Jin-zongzhu,” Wen Ning said, turning to him and bowing. Lan Sizhui stepped up next to him.
“Jin-zongzhu,” he said. Jin Ling shot him a frown and then turned back toward Wen Ning, drawing himself up.
“Wen Qionglin,” he said, words precisely enunciated. “I wanted-” he cut off, and then said, “thank you,” in a rush, all at once.
Wen Ning looked, very briefly, surprised. Then he smiled. “You don’t need to thank me,” he said. “I would not want any harm to come to Wei-gongzi’s nephew.”
Jin Ling’s mouth trembled, very briefly. Jiang Cheng settled back on his heels, relaxing.
After a long moment, Jin Ling jerked his head in a very quick nod. “That’s all,” he said, and walked very quickly away. Lan Sizhui glanced at Wen Ning, who nodded, barely, and he turned and followed Jin Ling.
Well, Jiang Cheng thought. All right, then.
He lost track of Wei Wuxian, which was fine - he was more interested in having a chance to talk to Lan Xichen, and was relieved to manage to catch him in a moment when Lan Wangji was distracted.
“Zewu-jun,” he said. “It’s good to see you again. I am pleased you were able to join us.”
Lan Xichen’s smile was warm and seemed to come easily, but Jiang Cheng still thought he looked tired. “Thank you, Jiang-zongzhu. I am grateful for all the work you’ve done to arrange this celebration, and I know Wangji is as well.”
Jiang Cheng let out an involuntary snort. “Mmhm,” he said, and Lan Xichen’s lips flickered just a little toward a more genuine smile that touched his eyes. “I know,” he went on, and then cleared his throat, and thought, no. It’s not yours to step into anything between him and his brother.
Probably you should figure out yours, first.
He cleared his throat, awkwardly. “Will we be seeing you more, after this?” he asked cautiously. Lan Xichen’s expression remained placid and hard to read; it had never occurred to Jiang Cheng, foolishly enough, that his pleasant smile could be as much a mask as Lan Wangji’s cold stare.
“Not prior to the end of this year,” he said. “This is a pause in my seclusion, but not a termination.”
There were things Jiang Cheng wanted to say and didn’t quite know how to speak. Are you happy for him? was among them. Are you jealous of him? was another.
I’m sorry; I know how it is to feel like you should hate someone and still mourn them.
“The year’s end will be?” he asked.
Lan Xichen was quiet for a few moments and then said, “Wangji is very capable, but the burden of sect leadership has always been mine.”
“I confess I’m glad to hear it,” Jiang Cheng said honestly. Lan Xichen gave him a look that moved from considering to a slightly more genuine smile.
Lan Xichen, Jiang Cheng realized, wasn’t so much older than he was, or Lan Wangji. He’d always seemed so remote, even after Jiang Cheng’s ascension. Older, more experienced, more capable during a time Jiang Cheng felt as though he was scrambling for control.
Maybe they’d all been pretending.
“You should talk to Jin Ling,” he blurted out. Lan Xichen frowned very slightly.
“Jin Ling,” Jiang Cheng said, adjusting. “I think he would like to talk to you.”
“Is that so,” Lan Xichen said. He didn’t sound skeptical, exactly, just mildly confused. Jiang Cheng tried not to huff.
“I think that…” He tried to figure out how to put this delicately, and finally said awkwardly, “he misses his xiao-shushu.”
He looked away quickly so he could pretend not to see Lan Xichen flinch. He recovered quickly, though something had closed behind his eyes when Jiang Cheng met them again.
“Ah,” he said. Jiang Cheng controlled the urge to grimace, and after a moment Lan Xichen smiled again and said, “I’m sure he does. If you would excuse me, Jiang-zongzhu…?”
Jiang Cheng didn’t control the urge to wince. “Of course, Zewu-jun,” he said. “Please, enjoy yourself.”
He watched him move away, hoping he hadn’t fucked that up too badly. Fortunately, Wei Wuxian’s accosting him and dragging him away prevented him from dwelling on it too long.
“Jiang Cheng!” he said, decidedly louder than necessary. “You do know how to throw a party, don’t you. And it hasn’t even started yet.”
“Where’s,” Jiang Cheng started to ask, but ah, yes, there he was. Lan Wangji, appearing to hover less than a foot away. Jiang Cheng tried not to let his face freeze too much.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian said, also louder than necessary, and Jiang Cheng wondered if he was somehow already drunk. “Isn’t this all so nice?”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji said. His eyes turned to Jiang Cheng, and if his gaze wasn’t overtly threatening murder anymore, it was still several degrees below ‘cool.’ “Jiang Wanyin has performed his duties admirably.”
Jiang Cheng took a breath through his nose and did not say anything in return. He turned pointedly to Wei Wuxian. For a moment he thought he looked distressed, but then he was smiling again and Jiang Cheng thought he might have been projecting.
“Can I ask one thing?” he said, directing it in his direction alone. “Try to keep your hands off each other in public. At least until after you’re officially married.”
“I don’t know,” Wei Wuxian said. “That’s asking a lot, Jiang Cheng.” Jiang Cheng scowled at him.
“We can mind our own behavior,” Lan Wangji said.
“Sure,” Jiang Cheng said, barely glancing in his direction. “Then do it.”
“Heh,” Wei Wuxian said. “We will! We will. Don’t worry, Jiang Cheng, I’ll behave.”
“That’ll be the day,” Jiang Cheng said. Lan Wangji’s eyes narrowed in his direction.
Oh, calm down, Jiang Cheng wanted to snap at him, but he thought better of it. Just a couple more days of this, he told himself. Then he could ignore Lan Wangji to his heart’s content.
(Not if you want to keep talking to Wei Wuxian, you can’t. He pushed that aside, down into the pit of things he wasn’t feeling right now, or possibly ever.)
“Try to stay away from Yao-zongzhu,” he said. “I don’t want to have to wash his blood off the floor when Hanguang-jun stabs him for saying something stupid.”
“He won’t,” Wei Wuxian said.
“Mm,” Lan Wangji said, extraordinarily noncommittal. Jiang Cheng bit back the urge to laugh. Wei Wuxian didn’t.
“Lan Zhan!” he said. “Not in Lotus Pier, anyway.”
Jiang Cheng thought he caught a flicker of a smile, barely, at the corner of Lan Wangji’s mouth, and his chest hurt like he’d been punched in it.
“I have things to do,” he said abruptly, and walked away. He hadn’t gone five strides before he felt like a miserable idiot, but he wasn’t going to turn around now.
And if that, Jiang Cheng thought with a twinge of exhaustion, wasn’t the story of his life, he didn’t know what was.
Hosting a banquet played merry hell with the ability to enjoy one, which was nothing Jiang Cheng hadn’t already known, but it had been a while. Certainly since he’d hosted a banquet of this size and magnificence. It felt like he was trying to keep track of a thousand things at once.
At one point he caught Nie Huaisang out of the corner of his eye approaching Lan Xichen, only to be headed off by Lan Wangji. Jiang Cheng had no idea how he’d known. Some kind of sixth sense about his brother the same way he seemed to have for Wei Wuxian, maybe. For a moment the two of them just stared at each other, then Nie Huaisang smiled, fan snapping open, and moved off again.
Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together and contemplated the possibility that he was going to have to play some kind of mediator between the Lan and Nie Sects, now. It wasn’t an appealing feeling.
He spotted Wei Wuxian talking animatedly to a vaguely familiar looking female cultivator; her husband beside her looked a little dazed and very overwhelmed. Their clothes marked them both out as belonging to none of the sects present, but Wei Wuxian certainly seemed familiar. Jiang Cheng frowned at them both, trying to figure out where he knew her from.
He didn’t figure it out then, but she approached him later and bowed, along with her wide-eyed husband. “Jiang-zongzhu,” she said. “It’s been a while.”
Jiang Cheng stared at her blankly. I’m sorry, he started to say, but then his brain adjusted slightly, putting her in gold robes, and he said, “Mianmian?” A moment later he winced, searching his memory for her name, and managed to find, “Luo-guniang. Welcome.”
“This is my husband,” she said. “Fang Shihong.”
“Zongzhu,” her husband said. Overawed, Jiang Cheng thought. Mianmian didn’t offer a sect, which...he wasn’t exactly surprised. She’d left the Jin pretty emphatically. After that, finding another sect to take her in would’ve been hard, even if she’d wanted to, and Jiang Cheng had a feeling she hadn’t.
For a reason, Jiang Cheng thought, and hated the brief, familiar sting of shame.
“Welcome to you both,” Jiang Cheng said. To Mianmian, he added awkwardly, “you’ve been well?”
“Yes,” she said. “Very much so. We have a daughter at home with my husband’s mother, and I have continued night-hunting independently.”
Jiang Cheng’s nod felt a little jerky. “It sounds as though you’ve made a fine life for yourself.”
She turned her head and smiled a little in her husband’s direction; the light touch on his arm was subtle but seemed to relax him a little. “I have. But when I heard the news…”
Mianmian looked over her shoulder, and Jiang Cheng followed the direction of her gaze to Wei Wuxian, his arm slung around Lan Wangji’s shoulders with abandon, laughing.
Jiang Cheng took a deep breath. “It’s...good to know,” he said stiffly, “that Wei Wuxian has - friends.” He was going to say outside the sects but decided to just leave it there.
Then he saw Ouyang-zongzhu drifting over in the direction of Wen Ning and Lan Sizhui and said, “excuse me,” as he was already moving to intercept.
That did involve engaging in a brief and painfully awkward conversation where he tried to talk only to Lan Sizhui while not actively ignoring Wen Ning’s presence. Jiang Cheng wasn’t entirely certain how gracefully he managed it, but he was quite certain it was better than the alternative.
He ran into Nie Huaisang later, who seemed astonishingly sober as opposed to the state of most of the attendees, with the exception of the Lans.
“Jiang-zongzhu! Things seem to be going well,” he said pleasantly. “I congratulate you.”
Jiang Cheng had a vague feeling he was being laughed at. Or at least teased. It occurred to him too late that the exasperated look he gave Nie Huaisang was perhaps somewhat less than befitting of his dignity.
Nie Huaisang smiled warmly at him. “I mean it,” he said. “That’s no small accomplishment, all things considered.”
“Please stay away from Lan Xichen and his brother, for the sake of my sanity,” Jiang Cheng said. Nie Huaisang’s smile flickered, tightening briefly, but it held.
“Rest assured, Jiang-xiong,” Nie Huaisang said, “I have no interest in disrupting Wei-xiong’s wedding celebrations.”
“Thank you,” Jiang Cheng said with profound and genuine gratitude. The amusement returned to Nie Huaisang’s expression.
“Of course,” he said. “You seem tense, Jiang-xiong. Might I suggest some of the Lotus Wind wine? It’s excellent.”
“I’ll take the suggestion under advisement,” Jiang Cheng said flatly. Nie Huaisang laughed and slipped away.
Jiang Cheng realized eventually that Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji had disappeared, and decided not to wonder where to. He thought he saw Jin Ling throwing up in a vase with Ouyang Zizhen rubbing his back, so apparently he’d been appreciating the Lotus Wind wine.
Three nights, two days.
He could do this.
The day before the wedding ceremony, and no one was dead yet. Or if they were, Jiang Cheng didn’t know about it, and he didn’t want to.
Jiang Cheng was surveying the tables laid out for the feast when Lan Wangji came striding toward him with a look of - no, there was only one word for it, panic on his face.
“Have you seen Wei Ying,” he said without preamble. Jiang Cheng blinked.
“No,” he said. “Not...recently. But I haven’t been looking.”
Lan Wangji’s agitation was unnervingly visible. “I can’t find him.”
“What do you mean, you can’t find him,” Jiang Cheng said.
“He isn’t in Lotus Pier.”
Jiang Cheng blinked. Frowned. “That’s ridiculous,” he said, though the back of his neck started to prickle, his stomach tightening. “Did you check-”
Jiang Cheng hesitated. “He probably just went for a walk,” he said.
Lan Wangji shook his head. “Wei Ying would have told me.”
Jiang Cheng raised his eyebrows. “Maybe not. Maybe he needed a break from your constant hovering.”
Lan Wangji’s face froze. His eyes chilled.
“You’re panicking over nothing,” Jiang Cheng said, though it felt like Lan Wangji’s unease was starting to infect him. “When did you last see him, a couple hours ago?”
“This morning,” Lan Wangji said.
That was actually...a little surprising. The two of them were obnoxiously inseparable, or it seemed that way. Especially right now. Jiang Cheng wished they were a little more separable. It’d be nice to actually talk to Wei Wuxian without his hovering shadow.
But maybe even he needed a break sometimes.
Lan Wangji’s nerves really were getting to him. “That’s not that long ago.”
“Something is wrong,” Lan Wangji said with conviction.
Jiang Cheng caught himself going over the list of who had arrived. Who was here, and who might - but that was ridiculous. Absurd. No one would dare.
His stomach felt tight.
“I’m sure he’s fine,” Jiang Cheng said. “Wei Wuxian can take care of himself.” The moment the words were out of his mouth he thought of all the times he hadn’t and went cold. Still, he made himself scoff. “What are you even thinking,” he said, “that someone - kidnapped him?”
Lan Wangji’s expression was blank and somehow also eloquent.
“No,” he said firmly. “Who would be that stupid?” Immediately he thought of Yao-zongzhu but no, this wasn’t his style. It was more Jin Guangyao’s style, but of course he was - not a likely culprit.
“Who would,” Lan Wangji said, but it was a different kind of question.
Jiang Cheng’s chest was getting tight. He’s fine. He’s just gone off somewhere, on his own, without a word, and when he shows up again I’m going to break his legs. After the wedding, though. He’s fine. Nothing’s happened. Nothing’s-
Lower down a panicky voice saying not now not now not now.
“All right,” he said. “Okay. Let’s - he’s not defenseless. If someone tried to - do something, there would’ve been a fight.”
“A trick to lure him away,” Lan Wangji said. Jiang Cheng felt a little ill. He could picture it, someone spinning some story about needing help, Wei Wuxian of course leaping at the opportunity, maybe they’d said there was no time, he needed to come right away, and he could picture it, all too easily, Wei Wuxian wasn’t defenseless at all but caught by surprise by enough people-
Lan Wangji’s expression was still frozen, but Jiang Cheng suddenly thought he could make out a panic in his eyes that he could understand perfectly. Raw terror, barely hidden.
Jiang Cheng took a deep breath. “Have you asked anyone else? What about your Sizhui? Or Jin Ling?”
Lan Wangji shook his head. “I found you first.”
A niggling thought began at the back of Jiang Cheng’s mind. “I haven’t seen Jin Ling yet today,” he said. Lan Wangji gave him a look that bordered on incredulous. Probably as close as he ever got.
“Have you seen Lan Sizhui?”
Lan Wangji’s eyes narrowed, but Jiang Cheng could see the anxiety intensifying. “Jiang Wanyin. Are you trying to say something?”
“Lan Jingyi?” Jiang Cheng pressed. “Ouyang Zizhen? Have you seen any of them?”
Lan Wangji’s expression flickered. Jiang Cheng saw understanding beginning to dawn.
“Is it possible,” Jiang Cheng said, and he could hear his voice getting tighter, “that their whereabouts and Wei Wuxian’s might be the same?”
For once, Jiang Cheng thought, that glare directed in his direction wasn’t actually directed at him. He resisted the urge to put his head back and groan. Jin Ling, he thought, if this was your idea, so help me-
“Where would they go,” Lan Wangji said.
Jiang Cheng shook his head. “Hunting, probably. Wei Wuxian can’t fly so they probably didn’t go far.” Unless one of the juniors had taken him on their sword. He had better be tied up and gagged when they found him or Jiang Cheng was going to - all right, he couldn’t break his legs right now but after tomorrow, definitely. If this was his idea…
“I’m going to kill him,” Jiang Cheng said through his teeth, and then wondered if that had been unwise phrasing, under the circumstances. Lan Wangji shot him a look.
“No,” he said.
“Right,” Jiang Cheng said flatly. “He’s going to be your problem now, you get to do it.”
“Wei Ying is not a problem,” Lan Wangji said, but there was a little bit of something in his voice that suggested he was, perhaps, reconsidering that stance.
“Uh huh,” Jiang Cheng said. “I’m going to go find him.”
Jiang Cheng thought he might be getting better at reading the way ‘displeased’ looked on Lan Wangji’s face when it was short of actively ‘angry.’ “I will join you.”
Jiang Cheng felt his eyebrows climb up his forehead. “Really,” he said. Lan Wangji just looked at him, and he shook his head. “Just don’t try to make this my fault. This is Wei Wuxian making a run for it all on his own.”
Lan Wangji’s expression flickered briefly. Jiang Cheng breathed out through his nose and cast his eyes up. “If you’re worried he’s having second thoughts,” he said, “you’re even more of an idiot than I gave you credit for.”
Eye snapping in his direction, the corners of Lan Wangji’s mouth turned slightly downwards. “I am not.”
“Not worried, or not an idiot,” Jiang Cheng said, and started walking. “Come on, let’s go. I have an idea of where they might be.”
He could feel Lan Wangji staring at his back, but didn’t acknowledge it. He thought he might be getting better at that. Or maybe the stares were a little less deadly.
Nice to know Hanguang-jun might be warming up to him.
They’d gone after a lake monster that had been recently sighted in a nearby lake; Jiang Cheng had been planning to send someone to take care of it, but it hadn’t been a priority considering the lack of human inhabitants nearby that were under threat.
When he and Lan Wangji found the pack of them - Jin Ling, the three others, and Wei Wuxian - it had already been dealt with, though they were all soaking wet, and Jin Ling was picking algae off his robes, wrinkling his nose at it. Lan Jingyi was flopped on his back on the grass.
“And then Wei-qianbei,” Ouyang Zizhen was saying to Lan Sizhui, who, sitting cross-legged next to Lan Jingyi and looking a little bemused, interrupted, “yes, Zizhen, I remember, I was there.”
Wei Wuxian was sitting on the ground nearby wringing water out of his hair and grinning. Very definitely not kidnapped, or injured, or dead.
Jin Ling noticed them first. His eyes went huge.
“Jiujiu!” he said too loudly, and four other heads whipped around. In other circumstances Jiang Cheng might have found it a little funny. At the moment, his eyes were fixed on Wei Wuxian, who had frozen like a rabbit under the eye of a hawk.
“Ahh, haha,” he said, “hey, Lan Zhan. Jiang Cheng.”
Lan Wangji had stopped next to Jiang Cheng. “Wei Ying,” he said. Wei Wuxian grimaced.
Lan Sizhui started to his feet and bowed to them both. “Hanguang-jun, Jiang-zongzhu,” he said. “We-”
“Sizhui,” Lan Wangji said, and Lan Sizhui stopped talking. Lan Jingyi made a face like he’d just seen someone get slapped.
Wei Wuxian stood, slowly. “Is everything all right? Did something happen?”
Jiang Cheng sucked in a breath. “Did something-”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji interrupted. “You didn’t say you were leaving.”
Wei Wuxian blinked, then smiled, though the expression looked a little nervous. “I, ah, did say I was going to go spend some time with Sizhui…”
“No,” Lan Wangji said. “You didn’t.”
“I did! I swear I did!”
“No,” Lan Wangji said again, more firmly. “You didn’t.”
Jiang Cheng fixed his eyes on Jin Ling, who glanced around like he was hoping to see someone else for Jiang Cheng to glare at. “I left a note,” he said defensively.
“Um,” Jin Ling said. “Under the door of your office?”
Where he would have found it eventually, probably. But after they’d been long gone, at best, considering how much time he’d spent there the last couple of days (very little). “You didn’t,” he said, “consider telling me what you were doing?”
“It was my idea,” Wei Wuxian said. “I heard about the monster and I thought-”
“No it wasn’t,” said Ouyang Zizhen, and then immediately looked like he regretted speaking when both Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji looked in his direction. He drew himself up, though. “It was our idea. You can’t take credit for it.”
“That’s right,” Jin Ling said quickly, though his ears were turning an interesting shade of red. “And as a sect leader,” he added quickly, and Jiang Cheng snorted.
“Ah,” he said. “Is that the capacity in which you absconded to go monster hunting?” Jin Ling faltered. “In that case,” Jiang Cheng said ruthlessly, “you should know it is proper etiquette to inform the sect leader of the territory where you are hunting of your activities. As I’m sure you are aware, Jin-zongzhu.”
Lan Jingyi let out a “ha!” Immediately Lan Wangji’s gaze turned in his direction and his eyes widened. “Hanguang-jun!” he said. “We were just-”
“Jingyi,” Lan Wangji said. “Silence.” Lan Jingyi’s mouth snapped shut and he looked like he was trying to disappear into the ground.
“Hanguang-jun,” Sizhui said. “I-”
“Sizhui,” Lan Wangji said again. Just that. Sizhui wilted.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Wei Wuxian said. “Whoever’s idea it was, they were just trying to do me a favor, and I could’ve said no, so if you’re going to be mad then be mad at me.”
“I can be mad at more than one person,” Jiang Cheng snapped. Almost on top of him, he heard Lan Wangji say, “yes.”
After a brief, silent moment, Wei Wuxian started laughing. The juniors all stared at him like he’d lost his mind. Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes. Lan Wangji’s mouth twitched toward a very small frown and then he began to look concerned.
“Wei-qianbei?” Ouyang Zizhen said cautiously.
“Well,” he said, broke off, laughed a little more, and then said, “well, you’re not angry at each other right now, anyway.”
Nobody else seemed amused, except for maybe, briefly, Jin Ling, though he glanced at Jiang Cheng and the expression faded quickly.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said. He flopped back down in the grass.
“If all I had to do to get you to agree on something was disappear for a few hours,” he said, still smiling. Jiang Cheng’s face got hot.
“Hanguang-jun thought someone had attacked you,” he snapped, hands bunching into fists. “Hurt you.”
Wei Wuxian looked a bit like Jiang Cheng had dumped water on his head. He jabbed a finger in Wei Wuxian’s direction. “The least you could do is leave a note, considering your history of - reckless behavior-”
He was becoming aware of the fact that most of the juniors were staring at him now like he’d started babbling nonsense. Other than Jin Ling, who had relaxed a little.
“Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Wangji said. “That is enough.” Jiang Cheng’s mouth snapped shut and he turned toward him, irritated, but it didn’t really sound like reproach, and the expression on his face - while difficult to read as ever - was lacking the familiar glare. Instead his eyes were just fixed on Wei Wuxian.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said, not quite a whine.
They just stared at each other. Jiang Cheng cast his eyes skyward and rounded on the juniors again.
“All right,” he said. “You’ve had your fun. Now go.”
Ouyang Zizhen didn’t need to be told twice. Lan Jingyi opened his mouth, looked over at Lan Wangji, and closed it. Lan Sizhui gave him a little nudge and they went as well. Jin Ling held his ground, mouth set.
“Jiujiu,” he said. “I’m not a baby. I don’t have to tell you where I’m going.”
“Clearly you knew I’d feel it was important, if you at least made the gesture of leaving a note.”
“I know you worry,” Jin Ling said, which made Jiang Cheng twitch but he couldn’t deny it. “Still.”
Jiang Cheng exhaled loudly. “I know you might be bored, or restless,” he said. “But-”
Jin Ling glanced over toward where Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji were standing a little ways away, then looked back.
“He needed a break,” he said, with unexpectedly vehement defiance. Jiang Cheng blinked.
Jin Ling scowled. “I said Wei-jiujiu needed a break. From everything.”
“Everything,” Jiang Cheng said slowly, with a bit of a sinking feeling.
“Yes!” Jin Ling said. “You and Hanguang-jun glaring at each other all the time, everyone here watching everything he does like he’s going to start summoning demons any second, trying to make sure you and the - Wen Qionglin are in the same room as little as possible - everything. And I just thought-”
“You thought,” Jiang Cheng said, a funny guilty feeling starting in the pit of his stomach. Jin Ling’s ears were bright red.
“I was trying to help.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said, and Jiang Cheng was either getting better at reading him or he was really affected, because he sounded distressed. “Why didn’t you say?”
Wei Wuxian looked pained. “I didn’t want to make a thing out of it. Everyone’s stressed, I know that, you’re worried about Xichen and Jiang Cheng has been putting this whole thing together-”
Jiang Cheng pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Yeah,” he said after a moment. “Yeah, all right. I’m going back to Lotus Pier. I have decorations to finish setting up. Hanguang-jun?”
Wei Wuxian, Jin Ling, and Lan Wangji all turned their heads to look at him. Lan Wangji’s eyebrows drew very slightly together.
“Are you coming?” Jiang Cheng prompted. Fixing Lan Wangji with a stare and trying desperately to communicate maybe Jin Ling has a point, your kid is pretty smart too, might be they know what they’re doing.
Lan Wangji’s glance in Wei Wuxian’s direction was positively anguished. Wei Wuxian opened his mouth, probably to say something stupid, and Jiang Cheng turned to bark, “Jin Ling.”
“Make sure you get this idiot back well before dark, and don’t let him try to skip out on tonight’s feast.”
“I won’t!” Wei Wuxian yelped.
“Good,” Jiang Cheng said. “Lan Wangji?”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said again.
“It’s fine, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said soothingly. Lan Wangji still looked pained. “Really, it’s fine. You don’t need to-”
“Mn.” Lan Wangji took a step back, slowly, and then turned, equally slowly, to face Jiang Cheng. He nodded, barely, and drew Bichen.
“Right,” Jiang Cheng said. “See you later. Don’t do anything inordinately stupid.”
He thought for a moment that Jin Ling’s expression was a little proud, but of course that was absurd.
In the air, Lan Wangji was silent. Jiang Cheng almost felt sorry for him.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m pretty sure Wei Wuxian is constitutionally incapable of being mad at you.”
“That isn’t my worry,” Lan Wangji said after a long pause.
“Well, good,” Jiang Cheng said. “Because that’d be ridiculous.”
“He should not have to mediate.”
It’s sort of what he does, Jiang Cheng thought about saying. Not like a-jie did, not the same way, but still. “It’s not like anyone asked him to.”
Lan Wangji shot him a searing look that said with perfect eloquence no one had to. Which was true but also not the point Jiang Cheng was trying to make. He just sighed and turned his eyes back forward. They flew the rest of the way to Lotus Pier in silence.
When they landed, Jiang Cheng sheathed Sandu and started to march back to pick up where he’d left off. “Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Wangji said before he could, and he stopped, a muscle by his eye twitching.
“Wei Ying is very fond of you.” He sounded like he wanted to choke on the words. Jiang Cheng almost tripped over his own feet.
“The fuck are you talking about,” was what he said, unfortunately.
“You will not abuse that fondness.” It wasn’t a question. Jiang Cheng’s face spasmed and it was probably a good thing he wasn’t actually looking at Lan Wangji.
“It’s not up to you to tell me how to behave, Hanguang-jun.”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji said. “Perhaps.” Jiang Cheng clenched his fists, forced them open, and turned to face him.
“Look,” he said. “You might be marrying him but if you think that’s going to get rid of me then you’re going to have to think again. So get used to that now, would you?”
Lan Wangji just regarded him for several very long moments before he said, “it seems I will have to.”
Jiang Cheng blinked. Lan Wangji nodded, barely, then turned, tucked his arm behind his back, and glided off like an overgrown swan on a lake.
That had sounded almost like acceptance, Jiang Cheng thought. Not that he wanted Lan Wangji’s acceptance. Or needed it. The man could still go fuck himself.
But if Jiang Cheng wanted Wei Wuxian in his life - and he did, apparently, for some reason - then he was going to be stuck with him. It’d be nice not to go around expecting Hanguang-jun to find an excuse to stab him.
Wei Ying is very fond of you.
Stupid, Jiang Cheng thought, how much that made his heart hurt, like it’d suddenly gotten too big for his chest.
Jiang Cheng felt as though he was trying to be everywhere at once. He had a newfound sympathy, he discovered, for Jin Guangyao.
Now and again he considered the vague possibility that he’d been manipulated into volunteering for this, but decided that was decidedly unlikely and not a very Lan Wangji or Wei Wuxian thing to do.
The second banquet was underway. Wei Wuxian was in attendance (Jiang Cheng had seen him earlier, head together with Wen Ning), and he looked as though the break had done him good. So far Jiang Cheng had managed to avoid doing more than exchanging cursory greetings with Lan Wangji, which was a relief; acceptance or no, Jiang Cheng didn’t think they were ever going to be friends. Or possibly even friendly.
He had a brief and innocuous conversation with Lan Xichen - perhaps it was wishful thinking that the man seemed a little less melancholy than he had. Jiang Cheng hoped he had talked to Jin Ling. It seemed like it might be good for them both.
Look at you, meddling in other peoples’ business. Isn’t that what you always told Wei Wuxian not to do?
Apparently this was his family now, though. That was different.
He caught a Yiling Laozu in a snatch of conversation and tensed, veering in that direction to ensure there was no brush fire he needed to stamp out before Lan Wangji noticed it. A quick check didn’t show him anywhere in the vicinity, but Jiang Cheng sometimes suspected that Lan Wangji had a preternatural ability to sense when Wei Wuxian was in trouble, and he didn’t want to know if that extended to potentially unkind gossip.
“--to know what Jiang-zongzhu is thinking,” he heard, and could see the speaker now: a Nie disciple, huddled with Ouyang-zongzhu. Better than Yao-zongzhu, but probably not by much. At least it wasn’t both of them. “This is a travesty.”
“I can’t believe we’re meant to celebrate anything about this,” the Nie disciple was saying. “If it weren’t enough that it’s - him, what do you make of the power play it clearly is?”
Jiang Cheng reined in the urge to barge in and demand what that was supposed to mean. So far, none of this was particularly dangerous. It made him want to shake the cultivator until his teeth rattled, at least, but he had better self control than that. Marginally.
“What do you mean?” Ouyang-zongzhu asked.
“Jiang and Jin Sects are already close,” the disciple said. “And now a marriage alliance - at least, sort of one - between Jiang and Lan Sects? Where does this leave Nie Sect?”
Ouyang-zongzhu shook his head. “No, no,” he said. “You have it all wrong. This isn’t a marriage alliance at all. It’s obvious that Wei Wuxian’s being accepted back into the Jiang Sect is just a show.”
Jiang Cheng tensed. He made himself take a deep breath.
“Lan Sect clearly made some sort of deal to save face, so that Hanguang-jun wasn’t going to marry someone without any status or affiliation. Bad enough that he’s opted for the Yiling Laozu, but-! I wouldn’t worry about any alliance.”
It doesn’t matter, Jiang Cheng told himself. It doesn’t matter. One Nie disciple and Ouyang-zongzhu, no one’s going to listen, don’t start something over this-
Then he saw Lan Wangji.
Lan Wangji, who had clearly overheard the same conversation he had, and looked as though he was about to murder someone. Certainly as though he wanted to. Jiang Cheng couldn’t decide if it was good that he was alone (Wei Wuxian hadn’t heard it) or if it would have been better if he was there (to hold him back, maybe, since Wei Wuxian only seemed to mind people talking badly about people other than himself).
He took a sharp step forward, feeling vaguely as though he ought to head off the killing of another sect leader in Lotus Pier, and Lan Wangji’s eyes moved to him.
Slowly, seemingly a muscle at a time, he relaxed. His eyes pinned Jiang Cheng to the ground and he just stood, and stared.
Watching, Jiang Cheng realized.
Waiting to see what he’d do. To see if he’d intervene.
Don’t. You don’t need to.
But that was the point of all this, wasn’t it? All this show to make sure-
He locked eyes with Lan Wangji and nodded, slowly. Then caught a servant’s eye and signaled for a cup.
He raised his voice, augmenting it just slightly to say, “I call for a toast!”
Conversation died down slowly, heads turning in his direction. Jiang Cheng waited, making sure out of the corner of his eye that Ouyang-zongzhu and his Nie companion were paying attention.
“I thank you for joining me for this happy occasion,” he said. “It is an honor to host all of you as guests to celebrate with us.”
Jiang Cheng paused for just a moment. He noticed Nie Huaisang, fan open, his eyes curiously intent, and briefly wondered what he was thinking, but he pushed that question away for now. It occurred to him briefly that it was too bad both he and Huaisang were childless, for the sake of binding Nie Sect to Jiang Sect as well, and then immediately recoiled from that thought for several reasons.
Also, not the time.
“To a closer relationship between Yunmeng Jiang and Gusu Lan,” Jiang Cheng went on. “And to a joyous union between Hanguang-jun, one of the Twin Jades of Lan, and our first disciple, my shixiong, Wei Wuxian.”
He raised his cup and drank. When he lowered it, he noticed Wei Wuxian looking at him, expression a little odd.
He looked quickly away at Lan Wangji instead.
Good enough? he thought irritably. Lan Wangji was not, of course, holding a cup of his own. But he did nod, very slightly, before thankfully removing his gaze.
Jiang Cheng couldn’t help it. He was a little pleased with himself.
And a little annoyed that he was pleased with himself. It wasn’t like he hadn’t handled difficult political situations before. Plenty of them. Worse than this by far.
It was just-
The look on Wei Wuxian’s face had been sort of - surprised. Like he hadn’t expected Jiang Cheng to say that, even though he should’ve, obviously. It wasn’t anything he hadn’t said before.
Maybe he just hadn’t expected him to say it where other people could hear. Loudly. Pointedly.
Well, he had now. Hopefully Wei Wuxian would remember it.
And everyone else, but maybe him most of all.
The celebration itself, beginning with the first toast, seemed to move with dizzying speed. Jiang Cheng kept holding his breath, waiting for something to go wrong, some horrible disaster to strike, a marauding monster or army of fierce corpses to attack-
The worst thing that happened the first night was Yao-zongzhu opining loudly that Wei Wuxian was very lucky to be marrying so far above his original station; Jiang Cheng noticed that he and Lan Wangji glared at him almost in synchronicity, as did Jin Ling.
But overall: nothing exploded. No one tried to kill anyone. Liquor flowed freely, the dancers were matchless, the weather was perfect. The bridegrooms were as handsome and well-matched a pair as anyone could hope for, with eyes only for each other. No one said the words ‘Yiling Laozu,’ at least not in Jiang Cheng’s hearing (or, presumably, Lan Wangji’s), and if Wen Ning wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms no one seemed inclined to give him any trouble, either.
Everything seemed to be going well, and it was making Jiang Cheng very nervous, filling him with the unaccountable conviction that he’d invited disaster by overreaching.
But apparently, at least this once, the universe seemed to have decided that things could work out the way that Jiang Cheng wanted them to, and he sat with his hands folded in his lap and watched as Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji bowed to each other, taking in Wei Wuxian’s absolutely radiant smile. The happiest, the realest, he thought he’d seen since before the Sunshot Campaign began.
He glanced over to where Lan Xichen was sitting and found his expression warm, smiling, unbearably full of feeling. Looking at his own brother with naked pride and love. Good, Jiang Cheng thought, and then looked back at his brother and his newly minted husband.
He’d been right, Jiang Chang thought, eyesight a little blurry. Wei Wuxian did look better than Lan Wangji in red.
Jiang Cheng woke up the morning after the wedding with a splitting headache and an odd feeling of loss. It was over, he thought, staring up at the ceiling. Wei Wuxian was married, and he was leaving with Lan Wangji.
It’s not like he’s dead, he reminded himself, and then sort of wanted to wince.
He got up and made himself some tea, his body reminding him vociferously that he no longer had the alcohol tolerance of his youth and had to pay for it more now. Most of the guests would be leaving today, or the day after; he wondered when Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian were planning to disappear. Probably before too long. Lan Wangji, at least, wouldn’t want to stay longer than necessary. He was not exactly one for crowds.
Lotus Pier was going to seem very quiet for a while.
Jiang Cheng dressed and left his room without any real intentions, but it probably shouldn’t have been surprising that his feet brought him to the family shrine. He stood in the doorway for a while, just looking at it, eyes moving from one tablet to another. Lingering on Jiang Yanli.
He stepped over the threshold and walked in. Lit the incense and knelt, then bowed.
“A-die,” he said after a moment. “A-niang. I hope you approve. Or at least I hope you don’t disapprove. A-niang - I know how you felt about him. But you put him on the boat with us, too. And he’s…” He trailed off, his eyes going to the incense.
“A-jie,” he said. “Your a-Xian is married now. To Lan Wangji. Can you believe that? You should see them with each other. It’s ridiculous. They’re so-”
Jiang Cheng closed his eyes for a moment.
“Happy,” he said, quieter. “Wei Wuxian is so happy. With him. And here I am, and do you know what I am? Jealous.” He let out a laugh. “I know, I know. ‘A-Cheng.’ I can almost hear you sometimes.”
He looked up, fixing his eyes on the characters of her name.
“I hope you were watching. It was a splendid wedding. Of course it was, I planned it. Just like yours. A-Ling cried.”
Jiang Cheng took a deep breath. “You should have been here,” he said. “For this. You should have been here, for-” He swallowed hard, his nose burning. “For him.”
He startled, jerking up and looking around. Wei Wuxian was standing there, hovering just outside. “How long have you been standing there?” Jiang Cheng demanded, the back of his neck getting hot.
“Not long,” Wei Wuxian said. He had a funny look on his face, a little like he was nervous, a little like he wanted something. “I didn’t mean to sneak up on you.”
“Where’s your husband?” Jiang Cheng said, making a point of looking behind him.
“Just me,” Wei Wuxian said, with a little smile. “I was coming to…” He paused, and glanced behind Jiang Cheng at the shrine. He realized that this was the inverse of the last time the two of them had been here together. The words he’d thrown at Wei Wuxian then, and while he knew Wei Wuxian had come here since, those words suddenly still seemed to be there, on the floor between them.
“What are you waiting for, then?” Jiang Cheng said. Wei Wuxian glanced at him, and then at the shrine.
“Were you talking to shijie?” he asked, voice very quiet. For a moment Jiang Cheng tensed, a current running through him, almost instinctive, don’t, don’t talk about her, you don’t-
But it faded quickly. An old instinct, and one that he - that he didn’t want anymore.
Let it go.
“Yes,” he said, a little hoarse. His eyes prickled. “I wanted to...she would have wanted to be there.”
Wei Wuxian looked away, but not before Jiang Cheng saw a flash of pain. “She should be here,” he said, hushed, and Jiang Cheng wanted suddenly to say I don’t blame you either but he couldn’t quite. He knew it was true and yet some part of him still, even now…
“A-jie wouldn’t…” Jiang Cheng swallowed hard. “She would’ve been happy. To see that you were.”
Wei Wuxian gave him a small, sad smile. “Jiang Cheng…”
“No,” he said. “Listen. I…”
It was so hard. Always so hard, and he’d always had a-jie to help, to reach out to him with one hand and Wei Wuxian with the other and pull them together, the three of them, and how they’d splintered now. But Wei Wuxian was here, and he was here, and standing in front of a-jie’s memorial tablet he felt something break.
“Wei Wuxian,” he said, choking a little. “Come here.”
Wei Wuxian stepped over the threshold.
Let it all go.
It felt like it had been a lifetime. He still remembered how it felt, though, to wrap his arms around Wei Wuxian and hug him, hard, like he would have once and hadn’t expected to again. He felt the catch of breath, the tensing, and squeezed his eyes closed and thought just a second and then if he doesn’t-
He did. And Jiang Cheng had forgotten this, the way Wei Wuxian hugged you, with his whole body. It felt - it felt safe.
Tears welled up and spilled over.
“You’d better come back,” he said. “I don’t care what Lan Wangji wants. Bring him if you have to-”
“He’s my husband,” Wei Wuxian pointed out. His voice was muffled.
“Whatever,” Jiang Cheng said. “Just-”
Don’t leave me again.
“Just you wait,” Wei Wuxian said. “You’ll wish you hadn’t said that. You’re going to get sick of me.”
You have sixteen years to make up for, you ass, Jiang Cheng thought, but that was a little too honest, and he couldn’t. Not right now. “I’ll just throw you in the lake. Hanguang-jun can fish you out.”
“Hmm,” Wei Wuxian said. “That’s okay. It’ll be very romantic. He’ll sweep me up in his arms and-”
“Ugh,” Jiang Cheng said. “Stop it.”
He didn’t let go. Turned his head, instead, pressed his face against his brother’s shoulder, and closed his eyes. A piece of his heart settled slowly back into place.
This, he thought. Like this. One step, then another.
He’d rebuilt Lotus Pier. He could rebuild this, too. And this time he wouldn’t be doing it alone.