Something is wrong with Wei Wuxian.
The thought takes form in his mind a second before Wei Wuxian disappears under a rushing wave of murky water. Jiang Cheng’s hand tightens instinctively on Sandu, but his heart only takes a beat before Wei Wuxian comes spluttering back to the surface, roaring like a half-drowned demon, his risen form crowned by a wild tangle of hair. Around him, a gaggle of tiny Yunmeng Jiang disciples break out in gleeful shrieks and double on their efforts to make waves, talismans flying haphazardly from their even tinier hands.
The lake that borders the training grounds of Lotus Pier loses itself to chaos. There's no stopping Wei Wuxian when he decides to hijack a lesson and teach force talismans. Jiang Yang, who should have taught their youngest disciples mild cultivation principles, has resigned herself to watching from the sidelines—most likely to ensure that none of her pupils actually drowns.
It looks like great fun, the usually placid waters of the lake looking more like the sea during a storm as Wei Wuxian fights to stay upright with each onslaught, cackling madly and of course not caring that he has completely ruined his new set of robes.
Jiang Cheng huffs.
His mother has paid a fortune to achieve that specific shade of blue, which clearly demands respect, but not too much respect. They’ve been specially made for the upcoming conference in Koi Tower. His mother insisted on showing the proper decorum so soon after Jiang Yanli's marriage. It is, of course, just a pretext to try and make Wei Wuxian follow her wishes. It’s been years since their sister left Lotus Pier, pulling that card is shaky at best, but then it doesn’t change the outcome: she is going to be furious.
Jiang Cheng crosses his arms, layers upon layers of thick fabric that allow no respite for the summer heat pulling across his shoulders. Beside him, Jiang Yang takes a careful step to the side.
“You!” Jiang Cheng shouts. “What are you teaching them? Be serious! Are you planning to ruin another generation of disciples?”
“Aiyah, Jiang Cheng!” Wei Wuxian turns around. His face is split by a smile that shows too much teeth and not enough eyes. “Stop pouting and join us!”
That split second of inattention is enough. Jiang Xuan manages a particularly well-aimed activation and the wave propelled by his talisman takes Wei Wuxian square in the solar plexus, sending him flying into a perfect arch before he hits the water. From the top of his six years, Jiang Xuan stares down at his hands like they don't belong to him. Jiang Cheng smirks. The kid has potential.
“A-Xuan! That was so good!” Wei Wuxian cries out a second after he resurfaces. “Now try to do it again when I'm coming at you!”
In two strides, Wei Wuxian scoops up Jiang Xuan in his arms and dunks him head first in the water. Jiang Cheng watches proudly as the other disciples rally to protect their own, and soon Wei Wuxian is assailed by his students, who try to bring him down, all shrieking with laughter. If possible, the lake that borders the training grounds of Lotus Pier loses itself to even more chaos. The lesson is instantly forgotten, devolving into full-blown horseplay. His brother looks like a madman, wrangling armfuls of boys barely out of infancy into knee-deep water.
His exasperated huff comes only a second later than Jiang Yang's.
“Shall I bring them to order?” she asks.
“You can try,” he scoffs because he knows better than to try reining in his brother when he’s set on some mischief. So, as Yunmeng Jiang’s first disciple inevitably tries and fails to regain control of her lesson, being dragged into the fun instead, Jiang Cheng settles to watch the chaos—and his brother’s face.
The shift is gradual and subtle. He can't imagine anyone remarking on it, but Jiang Cheng has spent too many years watching his brother and despairing at his antics to ignore the way Wei Wuxian’s face goes from childish glee at causing trouble to some off-center expression, happy but not quite there. Content, but slightly bored. Vacant.
Something is wrong with Wei Wuxian—well, something more wrong with Wei Wuxian. Something new.
His hand curls into a fist at his side. No matter. They're expected for Lanling Jin’s conference in less than a month. They might as well depart tomorrow. Their sister won't object to hosting them for an extended trip, and Koi Tower will fix it.
Koi Tower doesn't fix it.
Jiang Cheng blames it on the awful decor. There's something cold about Lanling Jin’s ancestral hold. The sprawling rooms are built to communicate wealth and status, making them cold and sterile. What little warmth and comfort is conveyed like an afterthought, as if the first masters layered gold upon gold and hoped it would compensate for the lack of soul. It does not. Instead, the rooms shine too brightly—like you would go blind if you dared stare at a single spot for too long.
He already misses Lotus Pier. He misses the soft rumblings of a lake nearby and the buzzing sounds of the life it supports. Here, the low rumble of a city hosting too many souls have drowned all that this is natural.
That must be why the smile has not truly settled on Wei Wuxian's face. Even as he bounces a drooling Jin Ling on his hip and together they bend down to examine the (subpar! truly subpar!) lotus plants that Jin Zixuan has planted years ago, the smile does not quite reach his eyes.
“A-Cheng, you look worried,” his sister says.
For fuck’s sake, he’s not worried, he's annoyed, is what he would have said to absolutely everyone but his sister. He has no interest in fighting losing battles.
It's been years, but it still disturbs him to see her draped in various shades of pastel yellow, even if her smile is unchanged, as gentle as it's ever been, and on the lining of her robes, flashes of purples peek through.
Ah. He's too harsh on Koi Tower. It's a dump, but his sister is here and she has at least brought some balance to her husband's pavilion. He can see her additions to the rooms. Some are subtle—an unusual incense burning away, flooding the air with sweet notes of camellia, or figurines made in wood and clay, sentimental trinkets that only hold value to their owner. Some are not—the hangings on the wall pictures blurred renditions of flowers and birds in soft, mellow colors that boldly attenuate the garish golds of the room.
Jiang Cheng brings his teacup to his mouth to allow himself a moment to recoup. The jasmine tea has gone lukewarm and is slightly too bitter, but he sips it slowly, an easy-enough excuse not to use his words.
“A-Cheng,” his sister scolds, but even her prodding is gentle. The upturn of her lips softens the edges of her words to a ruffle of silk. The heavy gold pieces she now wears in her hair have done nothing to sharpen her sweet features. If anything, they legitimize her gentle, open nature, and announce proudly that if anyone dared to ignore her goodness, they would face the wrath of men and gods.
Jiang Cheng can't help but approve.
“You should bring A-Ling back before the idiot drowns him,” he huffs just as Jin Ling's chubby fist grabs a plump head of lotus root and rips it clear off its stem. Wei Wuxian fumbles with the decapitated head, dipping Jin Ling dangerously close to the water. They're almost too far from earshot but it's easy to fill in the snippets of Wuxian's whines as he desperately tries to rejoin the upended parts of the lotus— A-Ling! The peacock planted that stupid plant! What will he say! Oh, you think he'll laugh? Maybe for you, you little gremlin, but not for your uncle! Aiyah, have some pity on your poor uncle.
His sister's gaze turns serenely to survey the chaos and promptly ignores his obvious attempt at deflecting. Marriage and motherhood have made her ruthless. “A-Cheng, won't you tell me what's on your mind?”
Don’t you see that there’s something wrong with Wei Wuxian, is what he would say. How could he impose those words on his sister, so soon after she achieved her hard-won happiness, far away from their mother's spite? She's acted more like a mother to him than Yu Ziyuan. She deserves to be happy, free from his uncertainties and failings.
“Where is that husband of yours?” he asks instead. “Is he not giving you the proper attention? Just say the word, and I'll break his legs.” And this time, his sister accepts the diversion with a soft sigh, and reaches for the teapot. Halfway through the pour, her expression freezes as she glances over his shoulder.
“Play nice,” she whispers, and puts the teapot down, smoothing down her skirts.
“Is it Sect Leader Jin?” Jiang Cheng whispers back. Jin Zixuan's father has only gotten oiler over the years, and his only daughter-in-law has to bear his overbearing attempts at ingratiating himself almost daily. It's an understatement that hides layers upon layers of improper behavior, but if Jiang Cheng acknowledges it, even in the safety of his own thoughts, it will end up into an outright war between two major cultivation sects. Nobody wants that, so Jiang Cheng carefully schools his face before he turns around.
It's not Jin Guangshan in all of his lecherous glory. It's much worse.
Along the path, the Twin Jades of Lan approach.
“Fuck,” he groans, and because Wei Wuxian has been put on this earth to torment him, barely has the time to brace himself before the whole carrousel of shamelessness starts.
“Lan Zhan!” his brother calls out. “You're here! Lan Zhan, come meet my nephew! Have you met my nephew? Of course, you have, but no matter—do so again. Lan Zhan, meet my nephew!”
Unlike Jiang Cheng, Lan Wangji bears the tirade without flinching.
“Wei Ying,” greets Lan Wangji, his eyes intense and unblinking on his brother, then he raises his arms and sinks into a perfect formal bow towards Jiang Cheng's drooling infant nephew. “Young Master Jin.”
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian shrieks, delighted.
Eventually, Lan Xichen makes his way to them. Over the years, Wei Wuxian’s continued harassment of Lan Wangji has forced them into more encounters than strictly necessary. They’re not friends, exactly. Jiang Cheng doesn’t believe Lan Xichen knows how to be friends with anyone, especially not someone like him, but at least Lan Xichen has lost some of the unbearable formality of their first acquaintance, settling on unbearable politeness instead. It’s a minor improvement. Lan Xichen’s gentle enquiries always set his teeth on edge, but his sister takes over smoothly. She serves him tea and draws him into an easy conversation about the conference, Koi Tower's hospitality and for some reason, the season for plums. It promises to be exceptionally good. The weather has been kind this year.
Jiang Cheng listens with half an ear, his gaze drawn to where Wei Wuxian huddles close to Lan Wangji and talks his ear off. Between them, Jin Ling is not wasting the opportunity to discover something new, leaning out of Wei Wuxian's arms, stubby fingers reaching towards the unknown expanse of Lan Wangji’s robes.
“Lan Zhan, he likes you!” Wei Wuxian laughs and his face takes on that expression, when he’s thought about some new trouble. He jumps back a few steps, holding his hand to stop Lan Wangji from following before he carefully sets Jin Ling on the ground, who looks up. From his point of view, Lan Wangji must look like a mountain, immovable and terrifying, and sure enough, Jin Ling’s lower lip pushes out and starts to wobble.
“Ah Lan Zhan, don't be so scary!” Wei Wuxian cries out, squatting to pat Jin Ling's head. “Looking so sour you're going to make both of us cry. Give us a smile!”
A decade ago, his brother's teasing would have earned him a placid glare and a cold dismissal, but Wei Wuxian is like water. Given enough time, the sheer force of his unbearable nagging could smooth down even the sharpest surfaces. The placid glare is still there on Lan Wangji's sour and cold face, but dutifully, Hanguang-Jun squats down too and extends his arms towards Jin Ling.
“Go on, A-Ling,” coos Wei Wuxian, and because despite being a toddler, his nephew has already been thoroughly corrupted by his idiotic uncle, starts crawling.
The conversation between Lan Xichen and his sister's conversation dies down. It’s hard not to watch as Jin Ling slowly, painfully makes his way towards Lan Wangji, his tiny face scrunched up with the effort. It takes a long time for him to cross the short distance. He's only started crawling. Anything and nothing distracts him—a rock, a twig, his own shadow—but Wei Wuxian keeps egging him on with gentle pats on the back and Lan Wangji does not complain at the slow progress, holding out his arms patiently.
“A-Ling, well done!” Wei Wuxian cries out when Lan Wangji finally scoops Jin Ling up, settling him in the curve of his arm. “Wasn't it well done, Lan Zhan?”
“Yes, well done, Young Master Jin,” Lan Wangji repeats dutifully, and does not protest as Jin Ling grabs a handful of pristine Gusu Lan silk and stuffs it into his mouth.
Tension bleeds out of Wei Wuxian's face. His features rearrange into the boyish lines his mother resents so much. His smile widens until the warmth of his eyes boils down to thin slits like the most precious offering. Jiang Cheng is familiar with this face. He's known its familiar patterns for years—since his father brought the husk of a child to Lotus Pier, since Jiang Cheng chased his pups away and Jiang Yanli put a bowl of soup in front of their new brother every evening, and slowly Wei Wuxian understood that there would always be a roof over his head and food on his table for him. Always.
That's what he hoped their early visit would restore in his brother. And it did for a few fleeting moments—for the first glimpse of their sister’s son, for the first taste of their sister’s soup. But now it stays as Wei Wuxian takes his nephew from Lan Wangji's arms before he can have a go at grabbing the forbidden forehead ribbon, peals of laughter ringing too loud in the courtyard.
Oh, thinks Jiang Cheng. Oh no.
The teacup crumbles in his grip. The thin porcelain never stood a chance.
Prior to the conference, a detailed agenda has been circulated, listing with precision the matters to be addressed and the order of speakers. Jiang Cheng has studied it carefully. After all, the agenda neatly summarizes the ongoing issues in current sect politics. A furious battle has been waged on every single detail over months of drafting.
It's easy to spot some winners—Gusu Lan’s call for more resources to deal with refugees from Qishan, and the Qinghe Nie's postulate to extend their influence up to Hengshui Lake to deal with the unusual spikes of resentful energy are each meant to last for two entire days—and some obvious losers—Sect Leader Yao's proposal to settle a border dispute is scheduled for a mere afternoon just before the conference breaks for the official two-day banquet.
Still, he can't make sense of some of the items—why would they even address Baling Ouyang’s request for monetary assistance when they haven't made interest payments for the last open credit in years—but at least he knows enough to recognize the revolting ones—Lanling Jin's plea to integrate an obscure branch of Laoling Qin is just Jin Guangshan's excuse to ingratiate himself to some power-hungry middling lord and get easy access to his daughters.
As the mighty of the cultivation world pour into the lecture hall, the endless list of items is enough to make him slightly nauseous. Salutations only would take up most of the first day and with so many items, the conference is sure to last far longer than the fortnight it's scheduled for.
Jiang Cheng sighs. At least, the seats are comfortable and Koi Tower's hospitality ensures fresh drinks and tasteful dishes to be served steadily during the day, and if the discussions become too stupid, he can slip away and bother his sister and nephew for entertainment.
His own intervention is scheduled for the fifth day. His father was satisfied with the placement of Yunmeng Jiang's main grievance, but his mother took one look at the proposal and scoffed. Maybe because it was granted too little importance, or maybe too much. Who could tell? Knowing his mother, it was probably a mix of the two.
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian hisses from the seat behind him. “Have you seen this agenda? Jiang Cheng, we'll be stuck here for years.”
Jiang Cheng, carefully, ignores Wei Wuxian. Jin Guangshan is sitting too close, already in a deep discussion with his father. By virtue of their new alliance, Yunmeng Jiang has earned a place of honor at the right of their host. Lanling Jin's goodwill in honoring their connection should be admired. After all, no-one would willingly seat Wei Wuxian so close to them.
“Jiang Cheng, why did you make me come here?” Wei Wuxian whines. “Am I being punished? Well, am I?” He sprawls across his desk, popping a candied hawthorn berry in his mouth. “I know you think it's a perfectly fine way to spend your days, but you can't expect me to sit still for that long. Am I wrong? Truly, Jiang Cheng can't expect me to, am I wrong?” Wei Wuxian's voice changes halfway through his rumblings, and it's mortifying that now Jiang Cheng knows why. His eyes fly to the agenda as Lan Wangji takes his seat next to Wei Wuxian. “Lan Zhan! Look at this agenda. Is Wei Ying being punished?”
“Ridiculous,” comes the usual reply.
Characters swim across his eyes. Next time he'll make sure to influence the seating arrangement too.
Salutations end up bleeding well into the afternoon because Jin Guangshan likes compliments too much to keep them moving along, and his guests fear displeasing him too much to cut them short. Wei Wuxian keeps a steady stream of commentary through all of it. He would never admit it, but normally Jiang Cheng would have been grateful for the breaks in the tediousness, but today, he has to consciously unclench his hands and relax his jaw after each of Wei Wuxian's piques. Because they're not meant for him. He knows—he knows that if he were to turn, he would find Wei Wuxian, head on his hand, his full attention on Lan Wangji.
The thing is—
The thing is that Wei Wuxian flirts with anything that may retain a humanoid shape for long enough to be flirted with. For fuck's sake, Wei Wuxian once flirted with the ghost of a courtesan, and it worked. She still tried to drown them on account of her traumatic death, but she first led them to her corpse, discarded in a swamp by a jealous client, and sang for them along the way, her voice a true wonder.
Even if he doesn't like it, first-hand experience has taught him that there can be positive outcomes to shameless flirting.
And he knows—fuck he knows—that Lan Wangji has been a prime target for Wei Wuxian's shameless flirting ever since they crossed the white gates of Cloud Recesses, barely more than boys. Since then, Jiang Cheng has come to expect it. After all, Wei Wuxian thrives on chaos, and who better to annoy than Lan Wangji, Second Twin Jade of Lan, Hanguang-Jun, the paragon of Gusu Lan with its thousand rules, guiding every thought of their disciples with no room for error, directing the most righteous and rigid path of cultivation?
Who better indeed.
The thing is—
This thing is Jiang Cheng always assumed that it was all for show.
Wei Wuxian, he shudders. Wei Wuxian, what the fuck.
Now, he's grateful that his intervention only comes on the fifth day. It gives him some time to gather his wits and deal with whatever new hell Wei Wuxian has dragged him into.
It comes too quickly.
His heartbeat picks up as he stands and bows to Jin Guangshan, even if he’s done the appeal before and knows its words by heart. Thankfully, his voice doesn’t waver as he talks, stealing glances behind him. Wei Wuxian is doodling away, bent over his desk, looking bored and unconcerned, like Jiang Cheng isn't demanding that they integrate Wei Wuxian's inventions into the official curriculum of all major sects.
At first, Wei Wuxian's crafty new techniques spread only between daughter branches of Yunmeng Jiang. Wei Wuxian visited their subsidiaries in person to teach the cultivators, and for a time, it was under control. It was safe. But then a night-hunting party from Lanling Jin used the spirit lure to attract their prey. The array was badly drawn, and before dawn, the entire party died under the assault of a county's worth of evil. It took half of Koi Tower's forces to purge the resentful energy, and when they did, all that remained of Jin Zixun, the night-hunting party leader and Sect Leader Jin's nephew, were clean-picked bones.
In another life, there would have been war.
“Well said, Master Jiang,” says Jin Guangshan. “Lanling Jin supports Yunmeng Jiang's appeal. A formal lecture should be held at Lotus Pier to teach our children these new techniques, make them grow and prevent senseless loss.”
He does not mean it. Not really. But Jin Guangshan, who was the best candidate to lead the cultivation world after the calamity and Qishan Wen’s fall, is afraid. He's afraid that a similar fate would befall him if he sought a path of war and domination like Qishan Wen once did. So he walks one of diplomacy and conciliation instead, and on the issue of Wei Wuxian's tricks, a path of saving face.
It works well. One by one, the Yaos, the Ouyangs, the Qins, the Wangs, they all stand up and approve Yunmeng Jiang's proposal.
Where Lanling Jin and its gold go, others follow.
All, but one.
The room hushes as Lan Qiren stands.
“Cultivators stand as guides for what is just and right,” he says. “The rules of Gusu Lan are clear. Morality is the priority. Therefore, the straight path, the known path, is the only honorable one.”
Damn those upright Lans. They’re bound to have the same back and forth until Jiang Cheng is old and wrinkled. He represses a disappointed sigh. After all, he expected nothing else and he'll be damned if he disturbs the unsteady equilibrium of sect politics over this. Stiffly, he bows to Gusu Lan's master, acknowledging his sect's decision.
But Lan Qiren does not bow back and Jiang Cheng startles because that’s not part of their well-rehearsed bit.
“However—” Lan Qiren pauses to clear his throat and a ripple of whispers goes through the room. Even his father turns in his seat to stare. “However, Gusu Lan has many rules. It is our duty to examine each of them with the appropriate decorum. And so,” he clears his throat again, face scrunched up like he's bitten into an unripe lotus seed. “And so, Gusu Lan recognizes that learning comes first.” Lan Qiren gives him a small, almost imperceptible nod. “If Yunmeng Jiang wishes to submit a detailed proposal of their innovations, then Gusu Lan will review it.”
It's not a yes. It's barely a maybe. But it's not a no.
Jiang Cheng bows again, so fast he's sure he pulls a muscle in his back. Warmth floods his chest. It's not a no, he wants to scream as he turns towards his brother. Wei Wuxian is sitting ramrod straight in his seat, hands clenched together in his lap. He looks as stunned as Jiang Cheng feels, eyes wide and flushed cheeks, but Jiang Cheng only catches half of it. Wei Wuxian's face is turned away, eyes steady on Lan Wangji's profile.
“Lan Zhan, was it you? Did you convince him?” His brother's voice is low, careful. Jiang Cheng barely hears it. Someone else is talking—his father perhaps, or Jin Guangshan.
“Wei Ying invents ingenious tools. All deserving of recognition,” says Lan Wangji. “I have done nothing.”
Wei Wuxian smiles. It's a small thing, delicate and vulnerable, like an open wound. “Lan Zhan, ah, Lan Zhan, thank you.”
“No need,” is all Lan Wangji answers.
From the dais, Jin Guangshan clears his throat. “Is that all, Master Jiang?”
“Thank you, Sect Leader Jin,” Jiang Cheng croaks, and retakes his seat.
It was Jiang Cheng’s idea to push for a lecture in Lotus Pier to impart his brother’s knowledge and soothe their strife with Lanling Jin.
After all, if Gusu Lan did it, why not them?
When he brought the notion to his family is the only time he ever saw his mother and Wei Wuxian in perfect accord. They both laughed in his face.
His father will expect him for dinner, especially given the new development. He should go to him to recoup and discuss the next steps. Now is the time to press their advantage, strengthen their support with their allies and convince the last few stragglers.
Such a happy turn of events, Jin Guangshan said, voice sickly-sweet, but his eyes were sharp and his hand heavy on Jiang Cheng's shoulders.
Go to his father. That's what he should do. Instead, he knocks on the door of his sister's quarters.
Heat spills across his cheeks when the door opens, because it's not his sister standing there. It's her husband.
What is he doing? Intruding upon a married couple after sundown?
He folds himself into a hasty bow. “Master Jin.”
“Master Jiang,” says Jin Zixuan and returns the bow.
For a few moments, they stand frozen like this. Bent in half. Like two idiots.
“Whatever,” he mutters. “I’ll come back tomorrow.”
“Wait,” Jin Zixuan calls behind him. “A-Li would be happy to see you. Won't you come in?”
Just a few years ago, Jiang Cheng would have punched him in the face for using such an intimate turn of his sister's name. He would have trashed him for the presumption of using his sister’s name like that.
The impulse is still there, but he's learned to master it. After all, they have married. They have a son. The only interloper here is himself.
He sits gingerly at the table where his sister has hosted him every day for the past weeks. The rooms feel different, colder and more menacing without her welcoming smile. He clears his throat. “I trust the conference is to your satisfaction.”
“It is,” replies Jin Zixuan. “Yunmeng Jiang honors us with their presence.”
This is so stupid. So fucking stupid.
Jin Zixuan beats him at standing up, but instead of fleeing into their private rooms to fetch Jiang Yanli, he goes to rummage into a low crate, something his sister would never have tolerated in her rooms at Lotus Pier—gold-plated and ostentatious, ugly as hell—and comes back with a jar of wine. Jin Zixuan takes its lid off with care, looking at him expectantly. “While we wait?”
He can’t stand Jin Zixuan. Is he supposed to ignore that fact? The calculation is made quickly in the privacy of his mind. Yeah, tonight, sure he can.
Jiang Cheng holds out his cup wordlessly.
“A-Li might be a while,” Jin Zixuan says as he pours. “A-Ling has been fussy all day. Something to do with his teeth coming out if you can believe it.”
Jiang Cheng cannot, but to be fair, he knows nothing about infants. He tosses back his wine. The jar Jin Zixuan brought to the table is as delicate and ornate as any that would grace Koi Tower's banquet halls, but the wine is nothing like the flowery, sweet stuff Jin Guangshan likes to serve in the evenings. It's dry, potent, like a slap across the face. It surprises him into saying, “you'd better take responsibility.”
“I am,” Jin Zixuan looks away, but it doesn't quite hide his sheepish smile. “At least, I try—I wish I could do more.”
That’s—gross. Why would Jin Zixuan tell him that? At a loss, Jiang Cheng grunts, and gestures for a refill. The second cup is even worse than the first. It burns like he swallowed a handful of chilies. Jiang Cheng gags a little. What the hell is this shit?
“My private stash,” Jin Zixuan explains. “I call it Lord’s Relief.”
What a stupid name. Jin Zixuan is really the worst.
Wordlessly, Jiang Cheng holds out his cup for more.
They drink, passing the bottle back and forth, emptying it by small increments. Jiang Yanli does not appear but the silence is less heavy. It’s far from comfortable, but there's something new in it. Opportunity. Room for growth. Some crap in that vein.
“I should congratulate you,” Jin Zixuan says at length. “You've secured a great success for Yunmeng Jiang.”
A bland thank-you would be the agreeable response, but the words clog in his throat. He's done nothing for Yunmeng Jiang. He has invented none of the things that Yunmeng Jiang is claiming. He has only been born the lawful son and delivered a well-polished speech to yet another conference.
“Don’t get me wrong, I support your proposal,” Jin Zixuan says. “But I never thought Lan Qiren would fold.”
Jiang Cheng nods, and then thinks, screw it.
“He must be drowning in vinegar,” he drawls. “I always thought—if Wei Wuxian came up with a way for all of us to achieve immortality, Lan Qiren would die on the spot just to spite him.”
Jin Zixuan snorts in his own cup. “Then come back as a vengeful spirit to haunt him for all eternity?”
It’s not an impossible prognostic. After all, they were both there for those long months in Cloud Recesses, when Wei Wuxian made an impossible fool of himself.
“Would you blame him?” Jiang Cheng says, and goes to throw back his cup. It’s empty.
Jin Zixuan fetches another bottle of wine, fumbling with the lid for a while and pouring so generously that wine spills over Jiang Cheng's fingers.
“It must be Lan Wangji who convinced him,” Jin Zixuan says and blood rushes to Jiang Cheng’s ears, drowning the memory of his brother’s voice is loud in his head. Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan, was it you? “That would explain why Lan Wangji even showed up to the conference,” Jin Zixuan continues. “Your Wei Wuxian must have annoyed him into giving him his support. If Wei Wuxian clung to me as much, I'd give him half of Koi Tower to make him stop,” Jin Zixuan laughs, like he’s told a good joke.
It takes considerable fortitude not to punch Jin Zixuan’s mouth for the insolence, or hunt Wei Wuxian down to punch his face for fostering such gossip. It's probably because both instincts are equally strong that he does neither. After a breath, he even manages a small laugh. “Everybody knows that Hanguang-Jun doesn't care about sect business.”
“True. I didn’t expect him to even show his face at the actual talks. He barely said two words to my father before asking after unresolved cases.”
“Nothing serious. Just reports of unrestful activity north of the Yiye river,” Jin Zixuan does a weird aborted gesture, like he means to dismiss the subject entirely, but remembers himself just in time—remembers who he's talking too. “Of course, Lanling Jin does not neglect its people. It's only that resources are sparse, and the conference has made great demands on our time.”
“Of course. We all understand the demands of sect affairs,” Jiang Cheng nods solemnly. It's not like Yunmeng Jiang does not do its own share of selection for night hunts, and pours Jin Zixuan another drink.
“What is this?” his sister says from the doorway, smiling as she takes in the table littered with empty bottles. “Am I not invited to your little gathering?”
Jin Zixuan shoots to his feet, crossing the distance in two wobbly steps, and folds himself into his sister's space. Jiang Cheng looks down to study the bottom of his cup carefully. It's the same paper-thin porcelain that is prevalent in Koi Tower. It looks like it would shatter if one glares hard enough at it. Jiang Cheng tries. It doesn't work.
He darts a look up, regrets it instantly. His sister is smiling, one hand tight around her husband's. “Will you stay with A-Ling? You know how easily he scares if he wakes up alone,” she says, voice low, and her hand comes up to cup Jin Zixuan's cheek.
Jiang Cheng looks down and stares at his cup harder. Still, it doesn't shatter. He keeps trying until his sister sits next to him and immediately, she tidies up the table, arranging the empty jars of wine into a neat line. “A-Cheng, I am glad that you are making friends with my husband—”
Jiang Cheng looks up sharply. “I'm not making friends—”
“And you're always welcome here,” his sister continues. “But this is your night, you should be celebrating with Father. With A-Xian.”
Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan, was it you? His brother's voice keeps repeating, again and again, in his head and he can’t help it. The words spill out of his throat like vomit. “I did nothing. I did nothing to deserve it,” he bites out, his voice too loud for the quiet of the night. “He didn't even—Wei Wuxian didn't even—”
He's always known that his sister would move away, that he would lose her. Her marriage meant the death of her first life in Lotus Pier. After all, who would care that Jiang Yanli once was Jiang Cheng's sister when she’s a wife, a mother? But Wei Wuxian was supposed to be his. They were supposed to stick together, the Twin Heroes of Yunmeng. They made a vow to bring glory to their sect. Together.
His cup creaks slightly in his grip. He unwraps his fingers from Koi Tower's delicate porcelain. “Wei Wuxian, he—It was all for Lan Wangji.”
There's a pause, and when Jiang Cheng manages to lift his eyes again, Jiang Yanli's face has gone soft. “Ah, you see it now? A-Cheng, you are a good brother.”
“You knew?” Jiang Cheng freezes. “A-jie, I can’t—A-jie, what the fuck am I supposed to do?”
His sister taps his lips with a finger before her hand comes up to cup his cheek. “How could we judge his heart? Or dare to dictate it?” She smiles, so gently that it outshines all the suns he's ever known. “We can only follow it and hope our brother will trust us with it when the time is right.”
His sister doesn't let him go before he polishes off an entire vat of soup—not hers, but close enough, but he still stumbles out of her rooms because her husband's alcohol is no joke. His head pounds as he makes his way—carefully, definitely not stumbling around some more—to his chambers. It's late, he reasons. He'll make his excuses to his father in the morning. He’s almost there when Wei Wuxian almost barrels into him.
Jiang Cheng flattens himself against the wall, a curse dying on his lips, but Wei Wuxian does not see him, bounding ahead. He's donned the heavy leather-bound outer robe that is more suited for travel, but it's only half-fastened, flapping behind like angry wings.
It does nothing to slow him down.
He’s easy to follow, making no effort to be stealthy. A dozen attendants of Lanling Jin are forced into hasty bows as Wei Wuxian runs ahead, then another, even less respectful one, as they see him following. Too quickly, he understands where his brother is running to.
Waiting in front of Koi Tower's outer gates, Lan Wangji might truly be made out of jade. Under the cold light of the moon, his features are too sharp to not have been shaped by the edge of a knife. His posture too rigid to not have been carved from a slab of stone. He looks like a god, perfect and otherworldly. But then—
Then Wei Wuxian cries out and Lan Wangji comes alive. Small details betray his nature: the white ribbon tangles in his hair as the wind picks up, his chest rises and falls with his breath, and when his eyes find Wei Wuxian's form, they hold.
Jiang Cheng only catches the start of his brother's happy cry, but the rest is easy enough to interpret. Wei Wuxian rocks on the ball of his feet, tilting his face up as Lan Wangji says something too low for Jiang Cheng to hear. Wei Wuxian laughs in response, fastening his outer robe around himself in a few quick tugs, and makes a show of presenting himself for inspection, twirling around like a girl whose parents had just gifted her new robes, arms spread wide like an invitation.
“Wei Wuxian, you're an idiot,” Jiang Cheng whispers as Lan Wangji gives a single nod and leads his brother away into the night.
For the rest of the conference, Lan Wangji's seat remains empty. So does Wei Wuxian's.
Jiang Cheng makes a careful study of ignoring them both.
Upon his return to Lotus Pier, he joins the disciples' drills. To her credit, Jiang Yang does not bat an eye when he shows up to the morning exercise in simple training robes. She even makes a pretty good speech to explain his presence. Honor, humility, and leading by example are all mentioned, and the disciples only fumble for a few seconds to include him into their orderly rows.
It’s not proper. His mother will have his head when she finds out, but Jiang Cheng doesn't care. He just wants to sweat and let his body hurt until his mind goes quiet.
It works. Two days in, he’s reduced to a bundle of sore limbs, abused muscles and a low-grade fear of Jiang Yang's echoing orders. She's leagues more demanding than Wei Wuxian ever was as the first disciple, and by nightfall he’s so exhausted that even his mother's dinnertime rants register as nothing more than white noise.
He sleeps deeply, and does not dream—does not think.
A week. This is what he bargains with himself. For himself.
On the eight morning, he still shows up to the training grounds, but when Jiang Yang gestures for him to join the disciples, he shakes his head and hangs back. Halfway through the training, he finds the youngest disciple—Jiang Bin, the pimply, scrawny son of a lower branch of Yunmeng Jiang—and corrects his footwork.
His fumbling has been bugging him all week.
After Jiang Bin manages the sequence without mistake, Jiang Cheng goes to work. Lan Qiren wasn't kidding when he demanded a full exposé on Yunmeng Jiang’s proposed lecture. At the end of the conference, Lan Xichen left him with a thorough questionnaire on Wei Wuxian's techniques—in the form of a thick stack of paper, all covered with tight, tiny characters—and an invitation to Cloud Recesses for a seminar, scheduled in half a year.
As a boy, all he wanted from life was adventure and glory, to see the world and bring fame to his family. Arranging his brother’s notes for weeks on end is not quite the life he envisioned for himself. But Jiang Cheng knows his duty. He knows that if he doesn’t do it, nobody will. For all that it concerns his own creations, Wei Wuxian has never shown the slightest interest in securing the lecture for Yunmeng Jiang.
Months pass, and the outline of the seminar they’ll bring to Gusu Lan takes form.
Wei Wuxian still hasn’t come back. It’s not that unusual for him to spend extended periods of time traveling and hunting with—traveling and hunting, coming back only to Lotus Pier for festivals and family engagements. There’s always a small riot when he returns—like now, on the last beautiful day of autumn, as the disciples rush towards the outer gates with excited shrieks—and at dinner, his mother’s sour face confirms it.
Jiang Cheng doesn’t bother looking for his brother in his quarters. After all, his mother never wastes time before she doles out a punishment. He goes directly to his family's ancestral hall, hanging back in the shadows.
Wei Wuxian's form has already slumped from the proper seat, brow sweaty and arms shaking under the weight of the bamboo sticks. Jiang Cheng winces. It’s one of his mother’s favorite types of punishment—making his brother hold a bamboo stick for every day he’s been away without permission. This time, it’s—a lot of sticks. Wei Wuxian's face barely shows above the stack, but what peeks through looks content enough, maybe a little bored, and if Jiang Cheng thought he could simply turn his brain off and ignore that thing he learned at Koi Tower, he thought dead wrong. The whole mess comes crushing back onto him in one, big rush.
Lan Wangji, fucking Lan Wangji.
Jiang Cheng ducks behind a pillar and stifles a groan, his fingers pressing hard against his eyelids.
Why didn't Wei Wuxian say anything? Isn't that what brothers are for? Jiang Cheng certainly talked a great deal about romance with Wei Wuxian. Well, he talked a great deal about what ideal romance should look like and the criteria that should guide their search for a wife.
“Jiang Cheng, you’ll stay single all your life if you follow Madam Yu’s list,” Wei Wuxian would always tell him and when Jiang Cheng argued that his list was completely different from his mother's, he would always cackle. “Changing two words doesn’t make it your own, Mama’s boy!”
In retrospect, their discussions on romance often ended in a fistfight.
Still. How could he have missed this?
Perhaps Jiang Cheng's approach to romance is purely theoretical—for now—but Wei Wuxian's is not. He's flirted with every woman below—or above, now that he thinks about it—the age of thirty within a three-hour sword flight of Lotus Pier, charmed the aunties of Yunmeng into giving him free treats so regularly that half of them have started calling in their husband at Wei Wuxian's approach just to save their business, and waxed poetics about each dewy skin, slender neck and finely arched brow he’s come across since he was a sixteen year old twerp.
The practice has made him somewhat of a master of poetry, the rhythm of his sentences perfectly balanced in their simplicity, but their meaning as clear and fresh as the dawning of the day—or something to that effect. Jiang Cheng is no poet.
Nie Huisiang once offered to publish Wei Wuxian’s efforts as an anthology. “Anonymously, of course, to protect your reputation,” he smiled. “The royalties, however, will be very real.”
No. Jiang Cheng would have known if Wei Wuxian had a giant real crush on Lan Wangji. Wei Wuxian wouldn’t have been able to—
The realization comes like a lightning bolt, and this time, he can't help the small groan from escaping his lips.
He does know.
Wei Wuxian has told him. Repeatedly.
Wei Wuxian laughed Nie Huaisang’s offer off just like he laughed all of his literary efforts off. He judged them as undeserving because true art could only be as perfect as its subject, and no dewy skin was as flawless as Lan Wangji's, no slender neck was as elegant as Lan Wangji's, no finely arched brow was as perfect as Lan Wangji’s.
No one compared to the most beautiful man in Gusu, and so the poetry on any other subject could only be subpar.
Fuck, Jiang Cheng thinks and his head thunks against the wooden pillar. Lan Wangji isn't even number one on that stupid list of the most handsome cultivators. Shouldn't Lan Xichen hold the title?
He’s been the world’s biggest, blindest idiot. He should have taken his brother's endless compliments as the massive hint they were. It's just—Wei Wuxian says a lot of words and Jiang Cheng has little patience.
“Fuck,” Jiang Cheng sighs, clenching his jaw. Perhaps he's just imagined all of it. Maybe the past months have been some sort of terrible fever dream, or even a curse, specifically designed to bring out his worst nightmare. He never would have bet his money on it involving Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, but then, the results are unquestionable. He’ll give Wei Wuxian a last chance to show him he’s just goofing around.
Just one last chance.
“Wei Wuxian!” he roars, pushing himself away from the shadows. “Where were you?”
Wei Wuxian does not quite startle, but the stack of bamboo shifts in his arms. There's a tense moment of uncertain equilibrium until the stack finally settles again and Wei Wuxian groans in relief, readjusting his grip. Madam Yu always specifies that if the pile falls, the punishment should be resumed from the start. She's just like that, his mother. “Why, Jiang Cheng, did you miss me?”
“Like damp robes,” Jiang Cheng shoots back.
Wei Wuxian’s smile carves a shallow dimple across his sweaty cheek. “Aiyah, it's good to be home.”
That seems honest at least. Wei Wuxian's eyes go all crinkly, his smile wide, slightly lopsided.
“You should have sent word,” Jiang Cheng says and carefully dislodges one stick from the pile. His mother’s extravagant punishment also specifies that a single stick can be removed after each successful hour holding the pile and that the punishment would end with the last stick. Wei Wuxian is going to be kneeling for a long time. “We have business to attend to.”
“But Jiang Cheng, it's not my fault!” Wei Wuxian whines. “Lan Zhan wanted to go on his own to Yiling! Jiang Cheng, to the Burial Mounds!”
There it is. And it took all of what, a dozen words? Two sentences? They've been reunited for less time than it takes for an incense stick to burn, but there it is. Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji. His fingers tighten around the buttery wood of the bamboo stick. The wave of anger he's expected, but it's the helplessness that almost keels him over. “Wei Wuxian, I can't fucking believe you.”
“Jiang Cheng, was I supposed to abandon Hanguang-Jun? Leave him to fend for himself against fierce corpses walking in daylight, preying on livestock and spoiling crops, that sort of thing?” Jiang Chen rolls his eyes. “Fine, Hanguang-Jun could deal with that sort of thing eyes closed but the rest, Jiang Cheng, what about the rest?” Wei Wuxian counters. “Talking to civilians and finding clues? How is he supposed to collect information if I'm not there to charm them into talking? Really, Jiang Cheng, you have to ask?”
Wei Wuxian adjusts his arms again, shifting the pile of bamboo sticks, and his expression settles back into easy contentment, with a hint of boredom—a good smokescreen.
He's dealt with a pining sibling once. He can do it again.
“Well then, what did you and Lan Wangji discover?”
The day before their departure to Gusu, his father wakes up to the proceedings, meaning that he lifts his eyes from his food, and haltingly says. “Is everything ready for your journey?”
“Yes, Father,” Jiang Cheng says, and before he can say more on the outline of his seminar, his father is already dismissing the subject.
“Good. Yes, good,” he says and looks straight at Wei Wuxian. “Make us proud.”
Jiang Cheng swallows back his words, ignores the flare of pain and jealousy, and finishes his meal.
With their swords, they reach Caiyi quickly. The plan is to rest there for the night and make their way to Cloud Recesses in the morning on foot like it is proper, but as they settle down for the night, Wei Wuxian keeps stealing glances towards the open door.
Jiang Cheng smacks the back of his head. “Wei Wuxian, I’ll break your legs if you try to sneak into Cloud Recesses.”
Wei Wuxian smirks. “Is that a challenge?”
“You want to die?” Jiang Cheng shouts and grabs Sandu to deliver a heartier smack. The innkeeper’s glare stops his hand. He orders a plate of chicken and another jar of Emperor’s Smile to bribe his brother into sitting still instead.
“Don’t embarrass me, Wei Wuxian,” he orders between two mouthful of chicken liver. “This is important.”
Wei Wuxian raises three fingers. “I’ll follow your lead, future Sect Leader Jiang”.
They set out at dawn, and with each step, Lan Xichen's invitation, hidden in the folds of his robes, grows heavier, until it feels like a full stone of lead. Still, Jiang Cheng pats down his chest for the hundredth time to reassure himself that yes, still there, even as the gates of Cloud Recesses appear around the bend. It's a relief to hand it over to the two disciples guarding the entry. His throat feels tight for the few seconds it takes for them to glance over the tight script, before they bow and gesture them to walk on.
Jiang Cheng hesitates, looking up the narrow path that leads to the Cloud Recesses, and for an instant, he's a boy again, sixteen, bitter and insecure.
Wei Wuxian, evidently, does not.
“Jiang Cheng, hurry up!” Wei Wuxian yells and takes up running.
“Wei Wuxian! What did I say?” Jiang Cheng yells back. “Don't embarrass me! No running! No shouting!”
“We're not in Cloud Recesses proper!” Wei Wuxian's laughter carries over the wind. He shows no sign of slowing down, forcing Jiang Cheng to run after him. It’s a close thing, but he manages to catch him by his stupid red hair ribbon before they both embarrass themselves. “Behave,” he pants, and Wei Wuxian only laughs harder.
Cloud Recesses hasn't changed, still impossibly beautiful, but approaching the main grounds in the depth of winter, its beauty is austere and cold, meant to be admired from afar rather than touched. Standing in front of the wall of disciplines, the Twin Jades of Lan are the perfect reflection of their habitat.
Lan Xichen bows first, a gentle smile gracing his lips. “Master Jiang, Master Wei, welcome to Cloud Recesses.”
“It is our privilege, Zewu-Jun,” Jiang Cheng says, bowing back, and beside him, Wei Wuxian's body tenses up.
“Behave ,” Jiang Cheng hisses and tries to pull him back. This time, his hand only comes away with a fistful of dark hair.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian cries out, unnecessarily loud with the way he seeps into Lan Wangji's space. “Lan Zhan, did you ever think I would be allowed back to Cloud Recesses?”
“Wei Ying is always welcome,” says Lan Wangji, which cannot possibly be the truth given that Lan Qiren commands Cloud Recesses, but also cannot be a lie because this is Lan Wangji. It punches a small, shocked laugh out of Wei Wuxian, and nothing more.
Huh. So that's what it takes to shut up Wei Wuxian.
“Shall we start?” Lan Xichen says in the resounding silence, like some sort of benevolent god, and leads them deeper into Cloud Recesses.
The plan for their visit is simple: lay out the main focal points of Yunmeng Jiang's proposed lecture, convince the Twin Jades of Lan to support their proposal, and go home.
Easy, Jiang Cheng thinks, and the stack of supporting documents he's meticulously prepared lands on his desk with a pleasant, heavy thunk.
Within two days, two things become very clear. First, Lan Wangji could hold the lecture himself. His hands are sure as they handle the lures, his strokes on the talismans clean and precise. Despite all of Hanguang-Jun's brilliance, it can't be the first time he's used them.
Second, Wei Wuxian has no intention of helping Jiang Cheng push their agenda. He sits at Lan Wangji's side, keeping, as usual, a constant stream of commentary. Well, commentary is too nice a word for Wei Wuxian's chatter. It's mostly whining about the lack of excitement and the food and the rules, while Lan Wangji taps his thigh twice an hour to remind him to sit up straight.
The plan changes: lay out the focal points of Yunmeng Jiang's proposed lecture, convince Lan Xichen to support their proposal without murdering Wei Wuxian first, and go home.
Less easy, but Jiang Cheng has faced worse odds before.
Lan Xichen, at least, proves to be an attentive and dedicated audience, his questions sharp but thoughtful. They fly through the chapter on talismans in half the time that Jiang Cheng thought would be necessary. Perhaps they’ll be able to wrap up their seminar in record time. Jiang Cheng would not complain. Gusu Lan’s food has not improved with the years.
But then they move on to the chapter on lures and at the first mention of resentful energy, Lan Xichen’s face goes perfectly blank.
Jiang Cheng definitely rejoiced too quickly.
Regarding talismans, Zewu-Jun was just humoring him. Now that they’re onto lures, Jiang Cheng would have better success arguing with a wall.
“Zewu-Jun, look,” Jiang Cheng says through gritted teeth after a week of talking himself into circles. “Theory will only get us so far. Let’s move on to some practice.”
Lan Xichen looks positively outraged. “In Cloud Recesses? No, I cannot allow it.”
Wei Wuxian flops on his back with a low groan.
“Brother,” Lan Wangji speaks up for the first time in days. “One of our patrols found traces of a possessed beast north of Cloud Recesses.”
Jiang Cheng waits for the rest but nothing comes—some explanation, even a question would do. His hand is halfway to his face to rub his eyes in exasperation when he remembers himself.
“Perhaps,” Lan Xichen says after a long silence. “I could tolerate it beyond our border.”
“Hell yes,” cries Wei Wuxian, and is back on his feet and through the door in a second, dragging Lan Wangji behind him.
After some discussion, they plant the lure in a clearing two leagues away from where the Gusu Lan patrol found the freshest trace of their prey—much further than what Jiang Cheng would recommend for his own disciples in a normal night hunt. But they’re not a group of disciples and this is not a normal night hunt.
Jiang Cheng is aching for a fight. The expanded perimeter on the lure guarantees it.
They settle down to wait. The Twin Jades of Lan sit in perfect form (of course, the bastards), sinking into deep meditation as easily as a son of Yunmeng Jiang would wade through water, while Jiang Cheng, arms crossed, watches his brother pace around. The shadows are still long when the forest around them goes quiet, the lure’s flag swelling under a sudden gust of resentful energy.
“Anytime now,” Wei Wuxian barely manages to say, grinning, before a fierce corpse breaks out from the line of trees, groaning and lurching forward and—and crumpling to the ground, cleaved neatly in two by Wei Wuxian’s Suibian.
He does it with a flourish, too. Like the dramatic show-off he is.
“Who are you trying to impress, dumbass?” Jiang Cheng barks, and Wei Wuxian turns to blow him a kiss, just as two new shadows surge behind him.
Sandu shoots into his hand, blade naked under the moonlight, but before he can send it flying, Lan Wangji is there, cutting down the two fierce corpses with clean, meticulous strokes.
Shit. Jiang Cheng didn't even see him move.
“Wei Ying, focus,” Lan Wangji says, and switches his blade for his guqin.
“Where's the fun in that?” Wei Wuxian bumps his shoulder against Lan Wangji, and together they turn to the dark forest, suddenly loud with dozens of swarming raised spirits. For a breath, they stand still. Just for a breath, enough for them to share a glance, before they rush forward like one man.
Sandu is still unsheathed and ready in Jiang Cheng’s hand, but slowly its tip sinks to the ground.
“It's been years since I've seen them fight together,” Lan Xichen says. He's sitting still, sword sheathed across his lap, but his eyes are alert. “They have improved.”
It's an understatement. It's been years for Jiang Cheng too—since the Dafan mountains and the cursed fairy statue, only weeks before Qishan Wen fell and the cultivation world was forever changed. They fought together well then, their skills complementing each other naturally but now—now they look unstoppable. Wei Wuxian's usual offensive style is overwhelming, even more reckless than usual. He leaves his back wide open. Jiang Cheng almost shouts for him to watch out before he understands that Wei Wuxian's carelessness is deliberate. He does not need to guard his back. Lan Wangji does it for him, the resentful spirits pinned down by a single, ruthless note of guqin as soon as they take a step towards Wei Wuxian.
Jiang Cheng returns Sandu to its sheath, bites back a curse, and sits down.
If asked, he’ll deny ever admiring them. Watching them fight, it turns out, is an awful, lonely thing—like watching two people dance without hearing the music, eating a meal without tasting it. Ah, shit, he shouldn't have talked Lan Xichen into expanding the perimeter on the lure. It could be hours before their main prey even shows up.
“You believed that my uncle was the main obstacle to your lecture, didn’t you?” Lan Xichen says,his voice almost too low to be heard over the brutal sounds of fighting. “I will not lie to you, Master Jiang. I have my doubts too.”
No kidding. Could have fooled me with the way Zewu-Jun flinched at every mention of resentful energy, he wishes he had the guts to say. Instead, he clears his throat. “Isn’t it why we’re here? To clear up doubts?”
“Perhaps,” Lan Xichen concedes with a small smile, like he knows exactly what Jiang Cheng was thinking. “I do not question the cleverness of Master Wei's inventions, or their usefulness, only their integrity.” Lan Xichen glances up at the spirit lure. It's brimming with resentful energy by now, wisps of dark fumes swirling above it. Jiang Cheng won’t lie: it’s a scary sight, the evil rolling off it like poisonous fumes. “Harnessing resentful energy, no matter how it is done, will poison the soul and disturb the mind.”
A few paces away, Wei Wuxian cackles, looking way too happy with his blade dark with blood and corpses spread around him like refuse.
Sure it does, just look at him, Jiang Cheng almost says, like a knee-jerk reaction. He doubts that Lan Xichen would appreciate the sentiment. He falls back to his usual bland statement. “It’s true that our proposed techniques use resentful energy, but a cultivator would need to spend each hour of every day using them to affect their golden core. With proper rest and meditation, there is no danger.”
“So Master Jiang keeps repeating. So my brother agrees, but I—” Lan Xichen trails off, coming as close to shrugging as the Lans with their perfect decorum tend to.
It occurs to him that Lan Xichen has never used—would never use any of their lures. His education is too ingrained, his dedication to the righteous path too pure to rely even on whispers of resentful energy. So he does not understand the connection to the flag, how it feeds on his spiritual energy and draws the resentful energy towards his core. Even now, Jiang Cheng feels the whispers of it creep up along his meridians, fading away bit by bit, disintegrated by the slow whirr of his golden core. It’s not even that unpleasant, more of a feeling than a physical sensation.
Jiang Cheng realizes that he’s approached the problem the wrong way.
“It’s not like I want to use resentful energy, you know,” Jiang Cheng says. “But there are only so many cultivators, only so many sects.” Qishan Wen’s fall has disturbed the delicate balance, prompting surges of resentful activity across the land. Still, his father has not changed his approach of night hunts, distributing only the high-profile hunts to Yunmeng Jiang’s disciples, focusing on cases that might bring glory to their clan. How many calls for help are they ignoring? How many people are being ignored by those who should protect them and dying because of it? “Just take a look around, Zewu-Jun,” he says, gesturing to the small clearing littered by liberated corpses of beasts and men. “Would you rather wait and let them hurt people just to satisfy your morals?” He scoffs. “Civilians deserve more than what we give them, and if doing more means getting a little dirty, then it’s fine by me.”
Lan Xichen turns towards him, gaze heavy and considering. He does not speak for a long time, and Jiang Cheng, carefully, does not fidget. “A friend of mine once said a similar thing,” Lan Xichen says, voice low. “He—he had this idea of setting up watchtowers across the land.” Lan Xichen pauses again and shoots him a rueful look. “He would have done anything to protect more civilians.”
“It’s a—ah, it’s an ambitious thought,” Jiang Cheng manages. “Let's keep your friend away from Wei Wuxian. I don’t need my brother to get any new ideas on how to save the world.”
A shadow falls on Lan Xichen’s face. “He is not—He was—” Lan Xichen stammers. “He was in Qishan when—his body was never recovered.”
Jiang Cheng looks away and finds that an apology is more than he can offer.
“The resentful energy is not that bad, you know,” he says just to fill up the silence. “Like a spider climbing up your leg. Gross, but easily swatted away.” In swift motions, he unwraps his wrist guard and before he can doubt his own forwardness, holds out his hand. “Here, see for yourself.”
Lan Xichen recoils. “Master Jiang, surely I cannot—”
Again with the unbearable politeness. Man, sometimes Lan Xichen is the worst. “How are you going to check if what I’m telling is true?” he scowls, just as their prey bursts out of the trees.
It’s an ugly thing, with too many legs and too many teeth. It could have started as a fox, or a big cat, but mostly, it reminds him of a dog. Wei Wuxian must not see the resemblance because he dives straight into the fight, whirling Suibian around. Even with Lan Wangji as support, the fight drags on. The corrupted beast is a vicious thing—forcing Wei Wuxian to retreat several times to avoid losing a limb—and a clever one too. As soon as Wei Wuxian manages to land a blow, it recoils, snout sniffing the air like it’s assessing the odds, and flees.
“Jiang Cheng, hurry up!” Wei Wuxian shouts. “It’s getting away.”
“Since when do you need my help, dumbass?” He shouts back—a courtesy, really—before he grabs Lan Xichen’s hand and fits two of his fingers against his pulse point. Nothing happens, so he squeezes a bit, meeting Lan Xichen’s wide eyes. “They’ll be fine.”
Lan Xichen’s fingertips shift across his wrist, and press down, almost imperceptibly. “Very well.”
He tries to look cool and composed as Lan Xichen’s spiritual energy slowly creeps along his meridians to reach his golden core, but he’s not sure he quite manages. His cheeks feel a bit hot, but Lan Xichen is gracious enough not to comment on them. Good thing he got rid of Wei Wuxian earlier. His brother would not be so kind.
It’s a weird night. Sandu ends up getting some action after all, dealing with a few fierce corpses and possessed hulls of wild animals that stumble into the clearing, drawn by the lure. After a couple of encounters, it’s not that strange to sit back next to Lan Xichen and present his wrist.
“Nothing, huh?” Jiang Cheng breathes out, when the resentful energy finally dissipates with the morning sun, and the spirit lure’s flag goes limp.
Gently, Lan Xichen removes his fingers from his pulse point, and nods, a small frown across his brow. “As you said.”
He stretches, letting his joints pop back into place after a long night of doing almost nothing, and goes to tidy up the spirit lure, carefully stepping over the scattered remains of their prey. They’ll have to send disciples for the clean-up.
Lan Xichen comes to his side, gaze steady on the deactivated lure—just a harmless piece of painted cloth in that form. “Let us go back to Cloud Recesses and rest for the day,” he says. “Tomorrow, if that pleases you, we may move on to the next topic of your lecture.”
Jiang Cheng tries to hide the smugness from his smile, but he’s pretty sure it ends up as a smirk anyway. “Sounds good to me.”
Jiang Cheng thought Lan Xichen would not know how to be friends with someone, especially someone like him.
Their seminar in Cloud Recesses teaches him one thing: it was the other way around.
Yeah. He’s working on it.
Two days later, and three hours deep into a pointless debate on the underlying properties of the compass of evil—he knows the stupid thing like Sandu's hilt, has been teaching it to Yunmeng Jiang's disciples for years, but for some reasons Lan Xichen won't listen—an attendant disturbs them.
“Zewu-jun, if you please,” she says. Her form is perfect—title, bows, and Lan-tailored rigidity—but she has interrupted them without waiting for entry. Wei Wuxian notwithstanding, it's the most impolite thing in Cloud Recesses he's seen for weeks—hell, ever. He waves off Zewu-jun's apologies, and of course, follows.
Somehow, he never learns. Why does he never learn?
Jiang Cheng stares. He's aware he's staring. He's also aware he should be doing something else, like rushing forward and crying out Master Wei. Lan Xichen certainly does.
“Wangji, what happened?”
“A complication in liberating the spirit. Wei Ying was reckless,” Lan Wangji says, like it explains everything. “His spiritual energy is exhausted, but it will recover,” Lan Wangji adds with no strain in his voice despite the heavy burden in his arms. “He will recover.”
Lan Xichen’s face goes soft. “Wangji,” he says, and with two fingers, he pushes Wei Wuxian's matter hair away from his face—where it's buried against Lan Wangji's neck. Lan Wangji. The Second Jade of Lan. Hanguang-Jun. That neck—to seek his pulse. “Wangji, he will recover,” says Lan Xichen even though Wei Wuxian’s skin is chalk-white, his lips blue.
Jiang Cheng should have started screaming by now. Shameless! or unbelievable! would be a good start. He'll get to it in a second. He will.
“Brother.” Lan Wangji's arms tighten around Wei Wuxian's limp form, wrapped like a corpse in what must be one layer of Hanguang-Jun's white outer robes.
“Of course, bring him to his quarters. I'll summon the master healer.”
The diagnosis of the master healer—a withered old woman that barely comes up to Jiang Cheng’s collarbone—is straightforward: exhaustion of the golden core, a serious but reversible condition with enough rest, and a fever, unheard of for cultivators, but common among those lacking a golden core. Common but deadly. The kind that purges entire villages in the winter.
Kneeling at Wei Wuxian’s side, Lan Wangji’s fingers clench into his robes. “What can be done?”
The healer takes one look at Wei Wuxian's unconscious form and fires off half-a-dozen orders in a rapid, if perfectly articulated and polite, succession, the first being to strip him of his dirty clothes.
“I’ll do it,” Jiang Cheng says from the doorway because it should be him. He’s family . Of course it should be him.
He kneels next to the bed, hands hovering over Wei Wuxian’s body. His sister would know what to do. How long would it take to bring her to Cloud Recesses?
The answer is: too long.
Lan Wangji’s hands move to his brother’s collar, pushing the expensive cloth of his own outer robe off his shoulders, revealing the dark red of a single, thin inner robe, crumpled with dirty water and mud, and keep moving to discard of it, revealing a sliver of pale flesh.
“Hanguang-Jun!” Jiang Cheng snaps and bats Lan Wangji’s hands away. “I’ll—I’ll do it.”
“Of course,” says Lan Xichen. “We’ll give you some privacy.”
He gives a pointed look to Lan Wangji. It's a long one, the kind—Jiang Cheng suspects—that covers an entire conversation, but Lan Wangji caves after Lan Xichen secures medicine to be brought in by their healers, and regular checkups, and follows him out of the room.
It's quiet then. Truly disconcerting when Wei Wuxian is in the room.
Jiang Cheng fumbles with Wei Wuxian’s robes, mind blank as he cleans his brother’s clammy skin and dresses him into a spare set of clothes. When he finally adjusts the heavy blankets around him, Wei Wuxian is still deathly pale, but his lips have gained some color, his breathing is deeper, calmer.
But he’s still quiet and it’s wrong. It's all wrong. Jiang Cheng lays a palm on his brother's forehead. The skin is burning up, and beneath it, his upper dantian is lifeless, and as hard as Jiang Cheng tries to follow his meridians, his brother's spirit is absent.
Jiang Cheng takes his hand away, drawing a ragged breath. “You idiot.”
He has a vague memory of a similar scene, his sister sitting at Wei Wuxian's bedside, when he'd just arrived at Lotus Pier, sickly and weak. He tries to replicate her movements, dipping the cloth in water, wringing out the excess and laying it across his brother's forehead, folded into a neat little rectangle. If he slaps it on a little too hard, nobody has to know.
“You're such a pain in my ass, you know that?” Jiang Cheng mutters.
He changes the cloth a few times before the water gets lukewarm. When he goes to call for more, Lan Wangji is standing at the door, clad in fresh robes, but his damp hair has left dark patches on his chest, and his guqin, cradled in his arms, is unwrapped.
“Master Jiang,” Lan Wangji says when Jiang Cheng just stares. “I would play for Wei Ying.”
Refusing does not occur to Jiang Cheng.
He harpoons a disciple to demand water and fresh sheets, and when he turns back, Lan Wangji has already set up his instrument when he turns back. Jiang Cheng sighs, and gives him a wave. Do whatever you want.
Gusu Lan’s technique on the guqin is a skill mastered by few, and Lan Wangji might be one of its best players. Even as nighttime comes and goes, he shows no sign of discomfort, sitting down back perfectly straight three paces away from where Wei Wuxian lays unconscious.
Jiang Cheng should consider it a privilege to hear Gusu Lan’s songs, but around the third round of fortifying, all Jiang Cheng feels is vaguely nauseous. His stomach heaves. His teeth ache. Anyone would wilt under the onslaught of Lan Wangji’s spiritual energy. Note after note, relentless waves of power roll off of him like the rising tide.
Or perhaps what truly gets him is the way Wei Wuxian stirs without waking halfway through the night, and turns his face towards the music and does not move again, two bright spots of color on his cheeks, finally lays relaxed and peaceful in sleep. Jiang Cheng sinks into meditation at that point. It's that or barfing on Gusu Lan's perfectly polished floors.
Seconds, or minutes, or hours later, the sudden break in the music draws him out of his meditative state.
In the bed, Wei Wuxian blinks slowly. “Lan Zhan?” he says, voice like a rasp, and Lan Wangji is already at his side, two fingers against his forehead. “Ah, Hanguang-Jun, you played for so long. I could hear you,” Wei Wuxian teases, but his voice betrays him. It's too weak, barely a rasp. “Were you worried?”
Lan Wangji's hand twitches. Like a spasm, it leaves Wei Wuxian’s forehead and moves across his face, until his thumb presses against the dark bruise under Wei Wuxian's eye, his entire palm enfolding Wei Wuxian's cheek. Wei Wuxian leans into it, his smile shifting into something different, something Jiang Cheng has never seen. “Lan Zhan, ah, I'm fine. It was nothing.”
“Wei Ying's core is still weak. I will play more,” Lan Wangji says, takes his hand away after a few, interminable seconds, and goes back to his guqin.
The slow melody of rest resumes, mellow and sweet, like the world is the same. Like Lan Wangji hasn't delivered the equivalent of a direct punch to Jiang Cheng's face. What was that?
What was that?
Jiang Cheng's body recovers faster than his brain. His hand shoots to Sandu's hilt and he lurches to his feet. “You!”
It’s the only word he can manage, and Lan Wangji's fingers still on the guqin, the last plucked note hanging heavy in the air. He does not speak, but from his vantage point, Jiang Cheng realizes that his ears are bright red.
“Jiang Cheng, were you worried too?” Wei Wuxian says, voice slurred, with exhaustion. “Ah little brother, you do love me.”
The thing is—
The thing is that he loves his idiotic brother. He loves his brother more than his mother thinks he should, somehow more than his father thought he would. He does love his idiotic wreck of a brother.
Apparently, so does Lan Wangji.
Heat rises to Jiang Cheng's cheeks, almost painful—like that time he fell in a lake in the middle of winter and the cold burned his skin. The contrast punches the breath out of him.
Air. He needs air. He wrenches the door open, only to walk straight into Lan Xichen, whose perfect face goes from amiable to worried in a split second. “Master Jiang, is Master Wei—”
“I'm going back to Lotus Pier,” he snaps and shoulders his way past the esteemed Zewu-Jun. “Tell that idiot not to follow.”
He should have stuck to his childish dreams: see the world, find adventure, make his family proud. All of it, but far, far away from Wei Wuxian.
He cannot go back to Lotus Pier because his father expects him to make a good impression on Gusu Lan and secure their lecture. Jiang Cheng is a loyal, filial son. He will do as his father wishes. He won’t go back to Lotus Pier without a promise from Gusu Lan to support their proposal.
Unfortunately, he remembers this as he crosses the gates of Caiyi town.
Well. If he's there already.
At the closest inn, the matron gives him a haughty look as he calls for wine—after all, it’s not even noon—but she brings it to him quickly enough when he slaps down his coins on the sticky table. He asks for six jars of Emperor's Smile, because that's the kind of crap Wei Wuxian would pull, but balks halfway through the second one, his stomach roiling uncomfortably, and goes outside instead, finding his way along the water.
The lake smells all wrong. The water is too clean, constantly refreshed by a strong perpetual current coming straight from the mountains. Lotus plants could never thrive here. If he closes his eyes, though, at least the sounds are not too far off—the rhythm of moving water, dim conservations carrying over its surface, and life buzzing around, teasing the plants. He concentrates on them, his thumb rubbing small circles over Sandu's carved hilt.
He can't go back to Lotus Pier, but when he opens his eyes again, he’s decided what to do.
It’s almost curfew when the gates of Cloud Recesses come into view, but the disciples let him pass without a word, bowing respectfully at his retreating back, no more, no less politely than they did before. Jiang Cheng keeps his head high, stares straight ahead, and keeps walking as if Lan Xichen’s invitation was still in his pocket.
It’s not, and the wall of disciplines looms over him in the growing shadows like it’s mocking him. How many rules have they broken since they’ve been let into Cloud Recesses? Wei Wuxian with his utter shamelessness? And himself with his lack of restraint? But there have been no complaints. Lan Qiren hasn’t shown his face even once.
It can’t be a coincidence, like it can’t be a coincidence that he runs into Lan Xichen two steps into Cloud Recesses proper.
How can he be so impossibly blind?
“Master Jiang.” Lan Xichen bows, like Jiang Cheng hasn’t brushed him off just that morning, ever the gracious host. “Should we resume our discussion in the morning or would you prefer to delay for a day or two until Master Wei recovers—”
Jiang Cheng pushes past him. “Let's talk.”
Lan Xichen doesn't miss a beat. “Of course. Some tea, perhaps?”
The receiving room is far from the understated elegance of Gusu Lan' main halls, or even the cloying formality of the lecture room where they've spent so many hours. It’s small and comfortable. His mother has a similar place, a tiny pavilion built on the lake, where she brings her unwanted guests, lulls them into a false sense of security with sweet wine and loquats before she breaks their spine on her knee in neat, precise halves.
Lan Xichen's hands are steady as he sets out two cups, selects a tin jar of leaves, and brews the tea. Then, he folds his hands on his lap to wait.
A good act. Just like his mother.
Jiang Cheng fixes his posture on the silk cushion, and as his mother has taught him, dives head first into the fight. “I want them to marry.”
Lan Xichen blinks. “Pardon me?”
“Our brothers,” Jiang Cheng clarifies. “I want them to marry.”
“Ah,” says Zewu-Jun and pours him a cup of tea.
Jiang Cheng downs it in one gulp, wishing it was the liquor distilled by the fishwives of Yunmeng, the kind that makes you blind with a fifty-fifty probability, wishing it was any liquor. He should have kept those jars of Emperor's Smile. He paid for those.
“It's been many generations since our clans concluded a formal alliance,” Jiang Cheng continues, because it’s a valid reason, a rational reason. “Just think. It would be beneficial for Gusu Lan as it would be for Yunmeng Jiang.”
In his head, he imagined it as followed: Zewu-Jun considering the proposal and agreeing with a single nod. Then they would have laughed, commiserated together, and spent the rest of the night planning their revenge on their pathetic siblings.
Even in his head, it was a stretch.
Instead, Zewu-Jun sips his cup slowly and says nothing. Halfway through it, he even closes his eyes, like there’s nothing more pressing than savoring the subtle taste of the tea.
His muscles tense up. The familiar curl of anger washing over him, leaving him hot in the face. He bares his teeth. “How long will you let them gallivant together across the countryside? They're in love with each other,” he spits, each word like a needle through its throat—gross, gross . “It's unacceptable. Dishonorable. Let's draw up a formal contract before they can make worse fools of themselves and make a laughing stock of us all.”
Zewu-Jun sighs, and eyes still closed, murmurs a single emphatic,“Ah."
Jiang Cheng slams his hand on the table. “Is that all that you know how to say?”
His shout cracks like a whip in the serenity of Cloud Recesses, but Lan Xichen doesn’t flinch. He breathes in and out slowly once, twice, and then he opens his eyes, gone harder than flint. “Come with me.”
The paths of Cloud Recesses are deserted. Curfew is so imminent that even Gusu Lan's most daring stay away. Lan Xichen's measured steps lead him past the guest quarters, past the lecture halls and the training grounds, into a section of Cloud Recesses that Jiang Chang, first as an invited disciple and then as an honored guest, has known well enough to avoid.
There are no clear markers that indicate where the private quarters of the Lan family begin, but Jiang Cheng understands it all the same. The houses that have hosted the sons and daughters of the most righteous clan lack embellishment, carvings, gold fixtures and rich materials that other noble houses favor. But only a fool would mistake them for anything but what they are: a place of power and honor. There's a stillness, a heaviness, like the air knows that generations of Gusu Lan have slept and cultivated on these grounds.
Jiang Cheng keeps his head high—he, too, is the son and heir of a noble clan—but nobody is there to see him scurry a little bit closer to Lan Xichen.
They walk what lasts an eternity, in silence but for the crunch of gravel beneath their feet. Slowly, another house emerges from the shadows, where the path ends. The house is rather small, but has elegant, pleasing lines. This seems like a place of peace and quiet, forgotten by time.
Above all, it looks lonely.
Lan Xichen turns towards him slowly, and the look in his eyes forces Jiang Cheng’s own gaze to drop.
“This is my brother's home, and before that, it was our mother's,” Lan Xichen says. “There is a story I wish to tell you. Master Jiang, would you listen?”
His parents often tell him that he’s a fool of a boy.
Yeah. They might be on to something.
Lan Xichen escorts him back to Gusu Lan's guest quarters with his usual grace and efficiency, and bids him a good night.
“Zewu-Jun, wait, let me just—” he takes a deep breath. “Zewu-Jun, I was out of line.”
“Do not apologize,” Lan Xichen waves it off, benignly, like one would at an unruly child. “The attention to your brother does you credit.”
Jiang Cheng bristles. “I am not apologizing. It's just that—Fuck. Look,” he groans, searching for words, but his mind is stuck on the fact Lan Xichen has seen it too, whatever nonsense there is between their brothers. He didn't laugh at his proposal. He only explained that, because of a lonely house surrounded by gentians and a family secret Jiang Cheng wishes he was never privy to, he could never interfere in his brother’s choice of a spouse. Perhaps that’s why what comes out of his mouth is: “Why does Hanguang-Jun do nothing?”
Lan Xichen laughs, a little, a small, helpless sound. “Master Jiang, believe me, my brother would do anything if he had any hope of succeeding.” He sighs, tilting his head up to the night, and Jiang Cheng wonders faintly if he should look away. “Would you let me return the question to you? Why does your brother do nothing?”
“I—I don’t—“ Jiang Cheng closes his mouth, opens it, and closes it again because he has never questioned why Wei Wuxian still returns to Lotus Pier for festival and family engagements, knowing that he will face punishment and resentment.
Wei Wuxian was supposed to be his.
“It is past curfew,” Lan Xichen says, not ungently, like an apology, as the silence lengthens. “Let us part us now.”
His ears are still ringing as he finds his way back to his own bed. The rooms are dark and quiet. Jiang Cheng hesitates in front of the thin paper screen that separates their sleeping areas.
“Wei Wuxian—hey, dumbass, are you awake?” he asks, voice pitched low, and when there's no response, he licks his lips once, twice, and with terrible foreboding, rasps. “Lan Wangji?” Then, when nothing happens, somehow louder. “Hanguang-Jun?”
The silence is only disturbed by a faint ruffle of cloth, then with great reluctance. “Mn. Wei Ying sleeps.”
“Good—yes, good,” he stammers, then retreats back to his own corner, settling by the window.
There's no point trying to sleep. His dreams would only produce a field ripe with gentians in bloom and a gilded cage of warm wood and sheer silk hangings. Instead he sits, an elbow resting on the windowsill, and watches the moon travel across the sky. His body betrays him. The sun still wakes him hours later, huddled against the windowsill. His bones hurt as he stands up in a way that feels beyond his years. A tray waits by the door, the food long gone cold.
He's missed breakfast. That too, is probably another rule broken.
Behind the paper-thin separation, there’s a ruffle of cloth. “Lan Zhan, would you play some more?” his brother’s voice comes in barely more than a rasp.
Almost immediately, the music starts.
“Fortifying again?” Wei Wuxian whines. “Hanguang-Jun, have mercy, play something else.”
There’s a pause, and the music changes into another tune, more tranquil than the one before, but no less potent as it carries Lan Wangji’s spiritual energy.
“Rest? Hanguang-Jun, ah, Hanguang-Jun, you’re so boring,” Wei Wuxian laughs. “What am I going to do with you?”
Jiang Cheng escapes. His feet bring him mechanically to his lecture room, where Lan Xichen is sitting in his usual place, reviewing the material. “Master Jiang, good morning,” Zewu-Jun greets, amiable face and immaculate dress perfectly in place. “I’ve had a few thoughts on the compass of evil that I would like to share with you.”
To the best of his abilities—it probably looks more constipated than gentle, he’s been told he doesn’t have a face made for smiling—Jiang Cheng tries to match Lan Xichen’s smile. “Let’s hear them.”
It’s painfully transparent that Wei Wuxian has decided to stall. After all, the sudden interest he’s taken in the lecture is somewhat misplaced since he’s started arguing against his own inventions. But despite Lan Xichen’s cautious prodding and Jiang Cheng’s blunt threats, it’s Lan Wangji who finally manages to put an end to his farce, two weeks beyond the scheduled end of their visit, with a single, final Wei Ying.
“Lan Zhan, you're right. These techniques are perfect. Of course, they are. They’re mine,” Wei Wuxian laughs with a flippant smile that comes nowhere near his eyes, and that concludes their business.
The same night, they take a last dinner together to seal what Jiang Cheng hopes is a done deal. Gusu Lan would probably call it a feast, but with no drinks, no meat, and no conversation, Jiang Cheng can’t be that generous, even if the spread of dishes is somewhat more elaborate.
“Lan Zhan, ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian coos as they take their leave the next morning. “Will you miss me? It’s going to be so cold and quiet here without me. Ah, Lan Zhan, come to Lotus Pier if you're too lonely, okay?”
If the words are silly, Wei Wuxian's expression is not, and Lan Wangji nods once, holding Wei Wuxian's gaze like they’re having an entirely different conversation.
Jiang Cheng wonders how many of those he’s missed. It seems to be Lan Wangji’s preferred form of communication.
Thankfully, Lan Xichen draws him to the side. “Master Jiang, thank you for the stimulating discussion,” he says. “I will reflect on what you’ve said.”
Those words keep bouncing around in his head as he follows Wei Wuxian’s sure steps. He’s whistling, Suibian slung across his shoulders, head tilted up to watch the clouds, like he hasn’t made a pest of himself for days to prolong their stay. He owes it to Lan Xichen—who's not balked at his impudence, who's led Jiang Cheng into Cloud Recesses' belly, uncovered one of its secrets and laid it bare and vulnerable to Jiang Cheng's whims—to also reflect on his words.
Why does your brother do nothing?
“Hey, Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng calls because he can’t go back now, not without an answer. “Last one to get back to Lotus Pier with five marks is the loser?”
Wei Wuxian turns back, the shit-eating grin he's come to know so well splitting his face in half. “Winner gets first pick over dishes for a month?”
“Deal,” Jian Cheng snorts. After two months of Gusu Lan’s food, it’s a worthy gamble. “Ghosts, spirits, and curses, but no demons?”
“Ah Jiang Cheng, are you still mad about the last time I won?”
Jiang Cheng is, in fact, still mad about the last time they've played this particular game. Who comes back with not one, but two demon kills from night hunts? Talk about overachievement. “Don't be an idiot,” he scoffs. “You go east. I'll take west.”
Jiang Cheng takes off without waiting for a reply and flies until he finds a well-lit inn. He orders a pot of jasmine tea and pesters each patron until a grizzled old man tells him of a creature prowling the woods, north of the city, that disturbs the peace of the village’s lumbering business. A short flight by sword is enough to spot the old man's village. He unsheathes Sandu three steps into the forest and keeps his footsteps heavy and loud, sinking into the familiar rhythm of night hunting.
He emerges two days later, covered in dirt and rotten flesh. The villagers do not come out to greet him, so he draws a bucket of fresh for the well to wash Sandu's steel and his face, then flies back to the inn. The old man is long gone, but the owner takes one horrified glance at him before he is ushered to one room. A bath is drawn, and his clothes are taken away to be cleaned and mended. Jiang Cheng bathes, eats an entire pot of stew and drinks two pots of tea before going to sleep. After a full day, he wakes up to his clothes, clean and neatly folded by the door, and a tray of food, with the tea somehow still warm.
He thanks the owner on his way out and takes one step out before a matron approaches him, wringing her hands across her chest, to tell him about a disturbance in her sister's village. He expects a haunting, but finds a curse, deeply rooted in the village's gates. It's grueling work to exorcise it, three days and three nights of constant concentration to purge the evil out of this tiny, inconsequential cluster of houses.
The matron's sister takes both his cheeks in her hands and squeezes his face as a thank you, then forces a meal of spicy beef and pickled radishes on him. He sleeps on the dirt floor, too scared that he'll disappoint her if he leaves, and wonders if Lan Wangji has to deal with that kind of behavior.
In the neighboring village, he finds the next two marks: minor disturbances, restless spirits with barely enough resentful energy to manifest. They dissipate like mist with a few muttered words of power. He doesn’t even need to draw Sandu, but the villagers celebrate him like he's liberated them from a horde of mythical beasts. When he tries to escape before they foist their lifetime savings upon him, the village’s elder grabs his wrist with lightning speed and does not let go until he’s seated at his table, facing a generous spread, all of it still too bland for his tastes, but a definite improvement after weeks spent in Cloud Recesses.
Stuck there, he makes most of the evening, eating until his stomach feels tender, and teaches three girls to fire up warding talismans. The youngest one has never learned to read but she manages to activate one talisman so well that she sends him flying across the room.
Good instincts, he tries to mouth, breath short from the impact but impressed. Against strangers, the talisman he’s handed her reads. He can’t argue with her logic. It takes a full minute to tilt himself back up.
The next morning, he kneels next to the village’s gates to leave the lifetime savings that were in fact foisted on him under a thick layer of protective spells, and he considers how best to bring up the girl’s talent—after all, he is still in Gusu—but then he realizes he’s overthinking it and just fires off a butterfly to Lan Xichen. Listen. Don’t take this the wrong way. There’s a girl here with great promise. With a little guidance, she would do well in Cloud Recesses.
As if they were waiting for him to finish, the man and woman appear just as he steps out of the village’s perimeter. Sandu's naked blade materializes into his hand, glinting in the morning sun like a warning, but the ghosts simply stare, hair matted down their back and features twisted beyond recognition, and clad in garment that must have been threadbare and irreparable even before being soaked with the blood dripping from their gaping throats.
Grimly, Jiang Cheng squares his shoulders. “Show me.”
He spends the afternoon digging into farmland, the unwavering gaze of the ghosts’ glassy eyes an uncomfortable weight on the back of his neck. He finds the man's corpse first, then the woman's, but the ghosts are not satisfied, so Jiang Cheng digs further and finds the crumpled remains of a small child.
Jiang Cheng chooses a lush square of land close-by to dig fresh graves. Apologizing, he collects small squares from the father’s rotting robe before he lays their broken bodies close together. As Jiang Cheng completes the rites, the ghosts finally dissipate with a silent wail, mouths open as wide as their slit throats, eyes fixed on where their child has disappeared below the soft earth, without ever making a single violent gesture towards him.
Jiang Cheng kneels in the dirt for a long time, warding the grave with protective talismans, layers upon layers of them, until the faint spiritual trace of a butterfly teases his cheek.
When Jiang Cheng releases the thin spell, Lan Xichen’s voice comes deep and clear. Master Jiang, of course. But if I may ask, where is here?
Jiang Cheng laughs, fingers digging deep into his arms and sends a response with a location and a warning to take care of warding talismans, then with five tokens in his pocket, he returns to Lotus Pier.
“I won,” mouths Wei Wuxian, from where he’s already kneeling in their family’s ancestral shrine.
“Prove it,” Jiang Cheng groans but barely looks as Wei Wuxian lays out a neat row of tokens that confirm his kills. “What's our punishment?”
“One week for you. Two weeks for me.”
Jiang Cheng sighs. Even in that respect, he can't keep up with Wei Wuxian. “This is all your fault,” he mutters and sinks to his knees next to his brother.
“Worth it.” Wei Wuxian taps the side of his nose. “What am I going to eat first? Let’s see—braised ribs?”
“Don’t you dare!” snaps Jiang Cheng. It’s his favorite.
Wei Wuxian throws an arm around his shoulders. “Of course not,” he straight up lies and bursts into a laugh. “Let’s finish up being punished, eh? Then we’ll eat until we’re sick.”
His brother settles back on his haunches, a small smile still playing on lips, like he’s already tasting the dozen of dishes he’ll finish without Jiang Cheng ever touching them—like he’s content with the life that has been pushed on him, like he hasn’t spent half of it on his knees and in the dirt, like there’s nothing else for him there, not even Lan Wangji.
Lan Xichen’s question is what accompanied him on his hunt, but he is not interested in shaking out the answer out of his brother anymore. The weight of the child's corpse is still heavy in his arms, their parent's faces frozen in eternal horror at their fate crowds his thoughts. Their happiness has been carved away so brutally.
Why does your brother do nothing?
He won’t be satisfied with just an answer.
Back in his rooms, Jiang Cheng pulls out a faded pouch from a small box, hidden in the bottom of a small chest that is stored with his childhood things. The comb is still as beautiful as it was on the day he saw it in the market stall. He squeezes it between his palms until the wood becomes warm.
Wei Wuxian went to Qishan, defying his parents' will to take part in the recovery effort, and emerged from its ruins with Lan Wangji at his side.
Jiang Cheng stayed in Lotus Pier.
When Jiang Cheng demands to take charge of the night hunt assignments, his father acquiesces in the way his father always expresses himself—distant and unaffected, like he wishes he was somewhere else, probably far, far away. Jiang Cheng thanks him and stores the new, small hurt along all the rest to be examined later. When he’s alone. Or ever.
Easily, he selects a few promising cases and sets out.
The first two are straightforward. With a few talismans, Jiang Cheng puts up a temporary barrier around the villages and promises to send back disciples to deal with the paddy ghouls.
The third is a sham. The mayor is an impudent fool, who pretends that the piping hot meal with two different types of meat has been prepared especially for his arrival. Jiang Cheng eats all of it, and when he's finished, asks after the possessed girl. She's brought in like slaughter by the mayor's wife. With her delicate features, she looks barely older than thirteen, but her belly is round enough that it can’t be hidden beneath her homespun robes.
The mayor's face is more pulp than flesh when Jiang Cheng manages to pull himself back and breathe a message into a butterfly messenger. Jiang Yang has barely landed in the village's square before the mayor's wife throws herself at her feet, pleading for mercy.
“Deal with her first,” Jiang Cheng tells Jiang Yang, and takes off on Sandu.
His pulse is still beating erratically when he lands in the fourth case. Yitang is not poor, exactly. Poverty is nothing new. It bleeds everywhere throughout the land. He's used to seeing no more than four planks glued with amateur carpentry and raw hope be called homes. He's learned to stop flinching at the sight of families huddled together on dirt floors, their thin limbs, clunking together like sticks.
Yitang, however, is more than poor. It is desolate, the air thick and foul. It must have been rich once—there’s a well, carefully carved with shapes of Lotus flowers and a stone path curving around a stone that leads to nowhere, set into the ground just for the sake of aesthetics. Once it must have been flanked by rows of young flowers. No, they’re all withered. This village is not a place for life to strive. It is a place where things come to die.
Slowly, villagers emerge from their homes at Jiang Cheng’s approach, and the village’s elder almost falls to his knees, his wrinkly face wet with so many tears and snot that it soaks through Jiang Cheng’s thick robes. His daughter apologizes profusely, refusing to meet his gaze, but her grip is like iron as she drags her father away and takes Jiang Cheng to tour their land.
The smell of rot almost brings him to his knees.
If the leagues of Yitang’s fields ever provided a fertile ground for rice cultures, they have long disappeared under a sprawling, sickly swamp.
Back to the village, Jiang Cheng clasps the elder's shoulder in a firm grip. “Do not despair. Yunmeng Jiang takes responsibility for its people.” he says, trying for gravitas before he draws the daughter to the side. “Write again to my father and ask for help.” He pours the entire of his purse into her hands. “Until then, use this to survive. Do not mention that I’ve been here.”
The letter comes within a week, with simple words and coarse paper but clean strokes. Jiang Cheng slips it between the many folds of his robes and it stays there, growing heavier day after day until the right opportunity presents itself.
It comes at dinner. His sixteen-year-old naive, idiotic self may have believed that sect business was conducted in grand rooms, but he’s grown wiser. Crucial decisions are rarely taken in the sanctity of his family’s hall, but mostly around platters of double-cooked pork belly and marinated sliced tripes.
“Just last month,” his mother barks. “Lanling Jin claimed victory over a herd of possessed beasts that was preying on Laoling. Not a single beast, but a herd, a herd, you hear me?” She has not quite sunken down to waving her chopsticks around like her Zidian, but it's a close thing. “Even Baling Ouyang has managed to unearth an infestation of shadow spirits.” She slams her hands on the table, like it’s the last draw. It might as well be. Baling Ouyang. Jiang Cheng shudders. “Are we to be bested by every clan in the land? Where is the pride of Yunmeng Jiang?”
Around the tables, heads are buried deep in rice bowls, waiting for the storm to pass, the silence carefully studied. Any other day, Jiang Cheng would do the same. But the occasion is too good to pass on. His father is meant to leave for a tour of their daughter-clans soon. Her mother is already riled up, while Wei Wuxian’s mood is mellow—a letter came for him earlier, sealed with a pattern of wispy clouds.
Jiang Cheng shifts in his seat, restrains himself when his hand comes up to adjust the collar of his robes. His tongue is so heavy in his mouth that all he manages is a mumble. “It's not like there are no cases in our territory.”
His mother’s eyes snap towards him like a whip. “What cases?”
Carefully, Jiang Cheng sets his chopsticks down. “Yitang has written again. The elder says that the tradespeople have stopped supplying them for fear of the encroaching swamp. They’ve lost four oxen in their last attempt to rejoin the town.” He licks his lips, pushes on. “He says that they will not try again and that comes the fall, Yitang will starve.”
“Farmers lose land to swamps all the time. Should cultivation sects attend to the every whim of common people?” His mother’s words are harsh. Jiang Cheng used to agree. Cultivation sects are not responsible for the welfare of common people. Bailiffs and mayors—which cultivation sects support—serve that purpose.
It has been years since too much misery and despair have opened his eyes. But that’s not the point.
“Yitang belongs to one of our most productive counties. Five years ago, it produced a tenth of Yunmeng's rice supply. Now, the village can’t even survive off their own—”
“Get to the point, boy,” his mother cuts him off, and Jiang Cheng shudders. His mother's wrath is like being battered by a mountain cascade—stronger men have died from less. “Should I dispatch a patrol for every rumor of unnatural activity within our borders? For every upturned roots and failing crops?” His mother sneers. “How can my son be so foolish? It would be a waste of time even for the useless disciple of any major clan.”
“Lan Zhan would take the case,” says Wei Wuxian, unprompted, halfway through a mouthful of his devil food, red chili oil soaking what once was a perfect dish of spicy chicken liver, and his mother’s mouth closes with a sharp clicking sound.
“You think that Lan Wangji,” his mother says, her voice like a spider crawling up one’s shoulder, “whose record in night hunts must be longer than the entire collection of Gusu Lan's rules, who has won at least half of our tournaments over the past decade, who, not half a year ago, brought down a lower demon in one night, by himself, when the best of Qinghe Nie could not even approach it, would take on the case of—what was it?”
“Yitang,” Jiang Cheng supplies. He'd hoped for this, of course, but one still has to marvel about what a loyal, lovesick idiot his brother is.
“Ah yes—the eminent case of Yitang?”
“He would,” Wei Wuxian's says, eyes soft, gazing down at his bowl like it could sustain him for a lifetime. “And there was no demon, just a group of troublemakers too clever for their own good. Qinghe Nie exaggerated to save face.”
He does not comment on the rest, meaning that the other accounts are all true. After, if anyone knows how Hanguang-jun became Hanguang-Jun, it must be Wei Wuxian who was there for all of it—in the ruins in Qishan and across the land, helping the high as well as the low. In hindsight, it’s so obvious. His brother has been cultivating with Lan Wangji for years. He should really reconsider his observation skills.
“Well, then,” his mother smirks, and Jiang Cheng loves her. He truly does despite it all. He’s sorry to exploit her narrow-mindedness, her ambition. She makes the same quick calculation, although she comes to a widely different conclusion. “Wei Wuxian, if you are so certain that Hanguang-Jun would find this issue worthy of his time, why don't we invite him to Lotus Pier?”
After all, if Lan Wangji is busy exorcising a lowly swamp in Lotus Pier, then he does nothing else.
Lan Wangji comes to Lotus Pier alone, but half of Yunmeng crowds in on the street’s sides to watch him pass by. He cuts an impressive figure, with his guqin strapped across his back and his sword at his hip. His pristine robes, layers upon layers of white cloth, make no concession to the summer sun, tight and immaculate, in a way Jiang Cheng knows must be uncomfortable. But there's no sweat gathering on Lan Wangji’s brow, no frown on his face as he approaches Lotus Pier's first gates.
“Hanguang-Jun,” he calls before Lan Wangji can cross the gates. If he did, then he would have to bring their guest to his mother. There would be tea, polite conversation, and heavens forbid—a thick serving of sect business. It would go on for hours and Wei Wuxian would burn himself to a crisp with impatience.
“Master Jiang,” greets Lan Wangji, but his eyes fly over him, gaining the sharp-edged intensity that feels so much like a physical blow that anybody would recoil—anybody but Wei Wuxian, whose face goes soft and radiant as Lan Wangji includes him in his greeting, the sound of his familiar name like the deepest rumble of thunder.
Ugh, thinks Jiang Cheng and tries to control his face. He doesn't quite make it. It doesn't matter. Nobody is looking at him.
“Lan Zhan, I would have upturned Yunmeng Jiang’s burial grounds years ago if I had known it would bring you to Lotus Pier,” Wei Wuxian teases. It's outrageous, but Jiang Cheng knows his brother—knows how to interpret his jokes and childishness.
Lan Wangji does too. “I am glad you did not. I have come now.”
Wei Wuxian's laughs, a bright, open thing. “Well! Shall we go now? Surely Hanguang-Jun would not waste time before investigating a case? What do you say, Lan Zhan?”
Even as they walk away, somehow, they do not compromise. Lan Wangji's steps remain slow and measured, while Wei Wuxian bounds ahead, but the distance never grows too thin between them. Wei Wuxian smiles and waves left and right, but he does not stray, retracing back to Lan Wangji's side without fail, like a flower seeking the sun, like the tide meeting the shore, and when he does, Lan Wangji’s eyes flare up.
It’s unbearable. Jiang Cheng wants to gouge his own out.
“Wei Wuxian! Mother is expecting her guest for dinner, don't be late!” he remembers to call out, but of course, they don't show up that night. He has no excuse so he says nothing and lets his mother fuel her own resentment. Her glare on the empty seats speaks loud enough.
Jiang Cheng squashes down the wave of regret for what he’s put into motion. They don’t deserve it. But then another day passes, and another, and still they don’t show. The worry is harder to stifle. It’s a swamp, just a stupid swamp in a backwater hamlet. What’s taking them so long?
Because his brother is an asshole, Wei Wuxian reappears minutes after Jiang Cheng sends two disciples to—discreetly—enquire after him. A vein throbs at his temple as he watches his brother approach. At least, this time, he’s coming back on his own two feet, although his robes are dirtied and torn, his hair a wild halo around his face, face set into a serious expression. One step behind, Lan Wangji follows, fresh-faced and unaffected. For all their hatred for unconventional cultivation methods, Gusu Lan must be resorting to some wicked tricks to achieve that kind of effect.
His mother abandons her food and looks up with a smile small that hides an entire storm. “Hanguang-Jun, we meet at last.”
“Madam Yu,” Lan Wangji greets, and Jiang Cheng meets Wei Wuxian’s wide eyes over his bowed back, mouthing where the fuck were you? She’s going to kill you.
Wei Wuxian knows it too. He takes a step forward, carefully angling his body to shield Lan Wangji. “Madam Yu, forgive me. I’ve delayed your guest.”
Madam Yu returns to her food and brings a perfect bite of pork to her mouth, chewing slowly. “I am not surprised,” Madam Yu says. “You've been nothing but a thorn in my side since you've come to Lotus Pier.” Carefully, she sets her chopsticks down. “Wei Wuxian, you're a disgrace.”
They've heard some many variations of that sentence. It might as well as be Yunmeng Jiang’s second motto. Attempt the impossible. Jiang Cheng, be better. Wei Wuxian, you're nothing but a nuisance. It never quite loses its bite, but they've learned to let it sluice over them and deal with the hurt in private.
Lan Wangji, however, hears it for the first time.
“Madam Yu,” he starts, voice sharp, almost loud, but Wei Wuxian grabs his wrist and, without looking up, shakes his head minutely.
“Forgive me, Madam Yu,” Wei Wuxian repeats. “Yitang’s trouble is more complicated than we first thought. There was something fueling the resentful energy. A focus.”
He reaches into his robes to retrieve a small bundle of dirtied cloth and sets it on the floor, gingerly lifting the cloth with the end of Suibian to reveal a piece of a broken sword. The quality of it still shines through the dirt and the rust. It would have been well-made. More than well-made. A weapon worthy of such power and renown it could have brought the cultivation world to its knees.
Near the pommel, the steel shows the detailed carving of a sun.
Fuck, thinks Jiang Cheng, and for once, means it. Trust Wei Wuxian to investigate a swamp and unearth a fucking malediction.
Jiang Cheng remembers his father’s worried face when he came back from his year-long stay in Gusu and recounted a disastrous hunt at Biling Lake. Then an invitation came for indoctrination in Qishan and war was on everyone's lips then. This was just the last straw. His father still argued against it, calling for peace and diplomacy, but discreetly took accounts of the stocks of food and medical supply. What could be done when those most powerful were set on it? Qishan Wen was the greatest of them and Wen Ruohan was greedy. He would not content himself with the riches and land he already had. He wanted it all.
War should have come.
War would have come if another force had not decided to bring down the mightiest of them.
The earth shook first, deep into the night. The tremors of it had been felt as far as Yunmeng. Jiang Cheng remembers sitting up in bed, disoriented and annoyed, not knowing that in Qishan, half of the proudest clan had already been wiped out.
Qishan Wen should have survived the first wave of destruction. They had strong cultivators, dedicated to their legacy and specialized in the healing arts.
But then the mountain woke up.
All major clans sent patrols to assess the damage and provide aid. Among them were Hanguang-Jun, then just Lan Wangji, and Wei Wuxian. They found nothing but death and desolation: prosperous villages drowned in rivers of ashes fueled by the monsoon rain, Nightless City ripped in half by a gaping maw in the earth, noxious gases wafting up from its exposed belly.
It took generations for mighty Qishan Wen to establish themselves as the leaders of the cultivation world, and less than a season for them to disappear entirely.
Whispers ripple across the rooms. The four great clans that remain do not talk about Qishan Wen, content to ignore that they too can die like normal civilians, suddenly and without glory, on the whims of the world.
Slowly, his mother stands. “Wei Wuxian, is this how you repay me? How you repay Yunmeng Jiang? You bring the cursed sun into Lotus Pier?” His mother spits, her voice full of venom. “I should break both of your legs so you may never rise again from your knees!”
Zidian crackles with a thunderous promise of violence and retribution and the threat is real. With his mother, it always is. Jiang Cheng tries to move because he didn’t mean for this, but Lan Wangji is already there, his body primed for action, and Jiang Cheng freezes. He's miscalculated. He should be moving to stand in front of his mother.
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, please,” whispers Wei Wuxian, dragging him back. “Please, it’s okay.” His fingers slide down Lan Wangji’s arm to curl around his hand and give it a small squeeze. The ghost of a smile playing on his lips is carefully wiped away as he turns back towards Jiang Cheng’s mother. “Madam Yu, I await your punishment.”
Lan Wangji does not move. “Madam Yu, I discovered the focus,” he says, standing, immovable, at Wei Wuxian’s side. “If you deem Wei Ying worthy of punishment, then consider us both.”
His mother’s mouth closes with an audible click.
That’s—preposterous. Lan Wangji is a guest in Lotus Pier and a peer, not a rebellious disciple in need of some discipline. He’s the Second Jade of Lan. He’s Hanguang-Jun. She cannot possibly punish him.
Jiang Cheng muffles a horrified laugh, feeling like he's aged years in the span of minutes. It’s preposterous—and clever. His mother cannot possibly punish Hanguang-Jun and so she cannot possibly punish Wei Wuxian, whose fate Hanguang-Jun has tied himself to.
Lan Wangji bends down to pick up the broken piece of the Wen sword, sealing it into a snow-white qianqun pouch. “The focus gone, the resentful energy in Yitang will fade,” Lan Wangji says and retakes his place close to Wei Wuxian, whose face is tilted down to the floor, hair almost hiding how red it is. “I will return and play to accelerate the process.” Lan Wangji does not bow, looking right back at his mother’s murderous eyes. “Madam Yu, if it pleases you.”
What a disaster.
He should not have worried about giving the right impetus or even creating a suitable environment. These two idiots can dig their grave all on their own.
Lan Wangji’s extended stay steadily bleeds into weeks, then into months.
Hanguang-Jun wakes every morning at five, in accordance with Gusu Lan's rules, and takes a short breakfast in the guest hall as soon as it is served. There, he ignores the sweet dishes of pork and fish that Yunmeng Jiang’s disciples usually fight over and favors pickled lotus roots and plain congee.
Despite keeping a wide berth around their guest, Jiang Cheng is aware of these details because the servants keep him updated with a regular supply of reports on Lan Wangji's whereabouts. Most of them don't even complain about their new duty. That's how much they like—and there, he quotes the ancient auntie who's in charge of the guest hall—watching the beautiful, incomparable Hanguang-Jun.
That's how he also learns this is where Wei Wuxian now takes his breakfast. His brother has no reason to attend the guest hall for breakfast, but what surprises him most is to hear Wei Wuxian attends breakfast at all. He has not been up early enough to show his face to their family’s morning meal since he was fourteen. But the ancient auntie pushes a pork bun into his hands and confirms that Wei Wuxian shows up day after day to keep their guest company.
“Such a sweet boy, that Wei Wuxian, but he never stops talking,” the auntie tells him—he has to hide his smirk into his bun—and also reports that Wei Wuxian pushes milder dishes towards Lan Wangji's bowl, even going as far as to ask for boiled tofu. “I could not do it,” she admits, voice lowered and eyes full of tears, like that’s what she feels guilty about.
Then, after breakfast and for most of the day, Lan Wangji attends Yitang’s swamp. Jiang Cheng has no spies there. Any intruder would raise too much attention in this close-knit community, and Jiang Cheng is not stupid enough to send a spiritual spy—Wei Wuxian would sniff it out in a heartbeat. Instead, he relies on the unforgiving demands of hospitality to fill up the blank. Every evening, Wei Wuxian dutifully brings Lan Wangji to their family gathering for supper, and there too, he pushes the milder dishes towards Lan Wangji, but keeps his head down and his mouth carefully shut.
He always does when his mother is around.
Lan Wangji does not know that, and keeps stealing glances at Wei Wuxian, something that almost looks like a frown dragging his forehead ribbon down—surely it translates to full-blown shock on anybody else.
When his mother unfailingly asks after Yitang—the most illustrious case of Yitang, she calls it now—Lan Wangji is the one to answer. “The cleanse is progressing, but slowly. The resentment has sunk deep into the ground,” he says, word for word, day after day. At the beginning, he mentioned his appreciation for Wei Wuxian’s help, but his mother twisted his words and flung them back at him before he could even finish his sentence.
“Oh yes, Wei Ying is a wonder,” his mother said, her tone lingering over Wei Wuxian’s familiar name like a curse. “A true wonder that he brings such shame to Lotus Pier with his wild manners. Wouldn’t your uncle agree?”
Lan Wangji stops bringing up Wei Wuxian’s name during their supper, and quickly learns not to comment on the daily criticism his mother throws at him. A disgrace. A burden. A taint on Yunmeng Jiang’s reputation. Instead, Lan Wangji pushes spicy dishes towards Wei Wuxian, ensures his bowl is never empty, and refills his wine cup without prompting.
Somewhere well hidden in the disciples’ barracks, a parchment keeps track of the betting on why Hanguang-Jun is there, and more recently on why he stays . Apparently, the stakes are pretty low. Most of the money is put on Lan Wangji's good character and inherent drive to do good. Only a few disciples are more cautious and world-weary, and have put their money on some nefarious purpose—spying, derailing their plea for Yunmeng Jiang's lecture, or plain-old political maneuvering. At the bottom of the list, with abysmal odds, a single entry reads Hanguang-Jun stays for love. With a little research, Jiang Cheng finds out that the bookmaker is Jiang Bin—the pimply boy with bad footwork—and with even less intimidation, learns that that single bet comes from him. That boy may not have the best cultivation or physical skills, but at least he's got some observation skills. Maybe Jiang Cheng can use them some day, seeing that he himself hasn’t got any .
The betting is useful, as it ensures that Jiang Cheng doesn’t have to enlist a few disciples to spy on Lan Wangji. On their own, Yunmeng Jiang’s students suddenly develop a vested interest in loitering along the main path, and well, it’s just a coincidence if it matches perfectly with the time when Wei Wuxian escorts Lan Wangji in and out of Lotus Pier, still chattering too loudly, without looking away from the—pretty, so pretty , Jiang Yang muttered when she was first introduced to him, to her and Jiang Cheng’s horror—face of the Second Jade of Lan.
Too bad Wei Wuxian knows Lotus Pier’s paths like the back of his hand. Jiang Cheng would have enjoyed watching him walk straight into a lake.
The bolder disciples even beg to assist with the swamp, but Lan Wangji has not sent for his disciples, content to exorcise a stupid swamp on his own, one fistful of mud at a time, so of course, Jiang Cheng dismisses their requests even if the disciples in question are willing and correctly argue that it’s probably going to take the righteous and gorgeous Hanguang-Jun —again, those are all fucking quotations—the better part of a year to exorcise Yitang’s swamp.
Lan Wangji, however skilled, is just one man.
Well. One and a half man.
Within one week of Lan Wangji's residence in Lotus Pier, a flute appears tucked into Wei Wuxian's belt. It is roughly made, no more than a carved bamboo stick, and when it's played, sounds just a little better than a donkey's dying cry—at least, to Jiang Cheng’s ears, but by then they’re constantly bleeding from the endless compliments thrown at Hanguang-Jun. He’s probably a poor judge.
Still, the flute is not there for show. Jiang Cheng discovers that Wei Wuxian is learning Gusu Lan’s song of rest. During one of his evening rounds, he stumbles upon them practicing in the unoccupied pavilion that was once his sister’s. How dare they use it, was his first thought, bristling at their presumption, but immediately felt ashamed. His sister would have welcomed them. Since then, Jiang Cheng steals glimpses of them playing well into the night. Wei Wuxian is improving, even compared to the clear, pure tones of Lan Wangji's guqin.
Tonight though, the weather is stifling and wet, and Wei Wuxian is not keeping up with Lan Wangji's measured, slow playing. He sprawls on the wooden planks, arms crossed over his face. “Lan Zhan, no more rest,” he whines. “Please, no more. I'll die if you make me play it one more time, I swear.”
The promise of a storm has made the wildlife quiet, and as the elegant tones of the guqin falter, the silence is abrupt.
Wei Wuxian lurches upright, grabbing onto Lan Wangji's sleeve. “Hanguang-Jun, why did you stop?”
“Wei Ying asked.”
“Did I?” Wei Wuxian says, eyes wide. “I didn’t mean it. Lan Zhan, play something else.”
Lan Wangji's fingers hesitate on the strings, but slowly a melody spreads around his sister's pavilion. Jiang Cheng doesn't recognize it, but his education ensures that he understands the tones of longing and devotion despite his lack of interest in the musical arts. Halfway through it, Wei Wuxian slumps against Lan Wangji's back, eyes closed, and his hand comes up to stroke one end of Lan Wangji's forehead ribbon. The idiot is probably not even aware that he's doing it. The fact remains that Lan Wangji lets him.
Jiang Cheng’s jaw aches with how hard it’s clenched.
“Lan Zhan, ah Lan Zhan, such a pretty song,” Wei Wuxian sighs when the last notes ring out. “How dare you hide it from me? What does it do?”
Lan Wangji tucks his hands carefully in his lap. “It does nothing.”
“Lan Zhan! How can you say that?”
“Wei Ying asked.”
“I did, ah, Lan Zhan, I did ask you,” Wei Wuxian teases. “A pretty song that does nothing. How shameless of Gusu Lan’s repertoire.”
Lan Wangji tenses. Jiang Cheng only sees it because Wei Wuxian sits up, his brow caught in a small frown. “It does not belong to Gusu Lan. It is mine.”
“Yours,” Wei Wuxian murmurs, and his hand swipes across Lan Wangji’s back to settle low, around his waist. “Of course,” he smiles, a blinding, unbearable thing. Lan Wangji meets it head-on, like he wants to set himself on fire with it. “Lan Zhan, you’re so good. You're the best. Will you teach it to me?”
Without a word, Lan Wangji's fingers adjust on the strings of his guqin and the melody starts again, slower, inviting to follow, and without missing a beat, the sound of a flute joins the melody seamlessly.
He moves away. There are things no-one should witness. If only his ears were bleeding before, now so are his eyes.
The dragon boat festival is one month away. Jiang Cheng will be patient until then. After that, all bets are off.
In his head, it went something like this: the domesticity of cultivating together in Lotus Pier opening Wei Wuxian’s eyes, pushing him to do something .
Or: the weight of his mother’s scorn forcing Lan Wangji to save his idiotic beloved from a life of torment and neglect.
Again, it was a stretch, but he hoped. He really did.
Hope is for idiots.
Wei Wuxian heads one of Yunmeng Jiang's boats. Jiang Cheng should have taken the command of the other one, but he's called in on a favor and now Jiang Yang sits at its prow, looking like the fiercest of generals, shouting orders to her rowers like they're going to war.
His mother has made her opinion very clear on Jiang Cheng’s choice to abstain, but it doesn’t matter. Racing against Wei Wuxian, victory or loss, she would have thrown a fit either way. He doesn’t find it in himself to care. He has business to attend to and Jiang Yang is a fantastic stand-in. She will do Yunmeng Jiang proud.
Somewhere down the river, a firecracker is lit and a clamor of shouts rise up as the boats launch into the race. Jiang Cheng, mouth still bitter with the remnants of realgar wine, sidles up to Lan Wangji’s side.
“I hear the resentment in Yitang is almost cleansed,” he says into a lapse of the crowd's shouting. “Lotus Pier is in your debt.”
Lan Wangji makes a small noise of acquiescence. After all, he's made the exact same report for days now and Hanguang-Jun does not repeat himself. Still, he allows his gaze to depart from the race to give Jiang Cheng a small nod—peak politeness, he's sure. Jiang Cheng could punch him in the face.
Wei Wuxian's boat is in the lead, and he makes it very clear, shouting like a madman for his team of rowers to keep up the pace, but they’re already flagging. He has led them too fast, too ruthlessly from the start, and Jiang Yang's boat is gaining on them rapidly, piercing the water inexorably.
Jiang Yang is a true asset to Yunmeng Jiang. Yu Ziyuan recognized her talent as a girl and took her away from a life of farming to cultivate at Lotus Pier. She is still young, barely sixteen, but one day, she would be a good wife for Wei Wuxian—a steadfast girl to balance out a chaotic boy. They could have created a strong branch for the Jiang family, their sons and daughters bringing in new blood. He would have married his own children to theirs, strengthening generations to come, all gifted with high cultivation.
Jiang Yang overtakes Wei Wuxian's boat two oar strokes before the finish line, and his brother cries out, hands coming to clutch his damp hair, and then bursts into a laugh, tilted up to the sun.
He looks young. Unburdened.
If his parents drew up the marriage contract tomorrow, Wei Wuxian would not oppose the match. Duty to their family has been instilled in him, in Wei Wuxian, in all of them since birth. It carries centuries of tradition. But then, so was Yunmeng Jiang's motto.
Attempt the impossible.
It will probably get him killed some day.
“Second Master Lan,” he starts. “You must be aching to return to Gusu.”
Lan Wangji answers with his usual noncommittal hum. Is that a yes? A no? Who the fuck knows? Jiang Cheng makes no effort not to roll his eyes. As always, nobody is looking at him. Lan Wangji is distracted, gaze fixed on whatever foolishness Wei Wuxian has initiated, arguing with the rules and demanding a rematch, or dismissing the protocol of the festival entirely to take his robes off and dunk Yunmeng Jiang's disciples into the water. Jiang Cheng wouldn’t be surprised. Wei Wuxian has done it all before.
“Yunmeng Jiang has preyed on your efforts for too long,” Jiang Cheng adds, laying it on so thick that even Sect Leader Yao would pick up on it. “If you wish to return to Gusu, our disciples will relieve you in the morning.”
Lan Wangji inclines his head again, and, amazingly, even graces him with a reply. “No need. I will finish the task at hand.”
Ah, so it was a no. Good. His fingers find Sandu's hilt, palm settling against the metal carvings, more comfortable and familiar than any warm embrace he's ever experienced. It grounds him to say what he needs to say. “Second Master Lan, you do not understand me. I am asking you to leave Lotus Pier.”
Despite their long acquaintance, Jiang Cheng must have exchanged a grand total of ten different words with Lan Wangji, most of them greetings, and thank yous, and other forms of polite nonsense. It could never go further than that because Lan Wangji has never looked at Jiang Cheng twice.
“You thought I would keep silent? Let you play with him?” Jiang Cheng says as Lan Wangji pivots, shifting the intensity of his staring onto him, heavy like a physical blow. “Have you forgotten who he is? Wei Wuxian is my brother.”
“Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan, were you watching?” Wei Wuxian's laughter carries over the water like a song. Lan Wangji's eyes dart towards it, like they have always done since they were sixteen and barely more than boys, and Jiang Cheng has had enough.
“What was your plan, huh?” The anger makes him move, forward and bold, pushing his body into Lan Wangji’s line of sight. “Travel the countryside as rogue cultivators until Zewu-Jun calls you back? Take him to Gusu like a pet until your uncle kicks him out?” The words are exhilarating on his tongue. He puffs out his chest, pushing past his own boundaries, beyond propriety and politics, to take half a step closer and bare his teeth. “Lan Wangji, who do you think you are?”
“Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Wangji hisses like a warning, barely loud enough to be heard above the crowd's chatter, but his knuckles turn white where he clasps Bichen's sheath.
“Lan Wangji, ah, Lan Wangji,” he mocks. “Are you offended that I do not use your title? But how can Hanguang-Jun be Hanguang-jun when he carries himself with such dishonor?” On the opposite bank, Wei Wuxian shouts—a name and an enquiry—but this time, Lan Wangji’s eyes stay fixed on Jiang Cheng. He was right. The weight of those eyes is unbearable. Some instinct in his hindbrain is urging him to relent and present the back of his neck. He dismisses its call easily. Anger has always had a firmer grip on him than reason. “You’ve had your fun, Lan Wangji,” he hisses. “Go back to Gusu.”
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian shouts as he lands next to them, Suibian's blade glinting in the sun for a brief instant before it is returned to its sheath. “I lost, Lan Zhan, can you believe it? I'm heartbroken, just heartbroken! Hanguang-Jun, treat me to some zongzis and console me!” Wei Wuxian steps right up to them, and Jiang Cheng witnesses first-hand how Lan Wangji swallows back his outrage, smoothing out his expression back into the perfect jade-like facade. “Fine, just one zongzi then,” Wei Wuxian says, still playing. “Hanguang-Jun's purse will barely feel it. Surely Wei Ying has earned at least one?”
Jiang Cheng pulls himself away, smoothing out his sleeves. “The esteemed Hanguang-Jun was telling me that urgent business calls him back to Gusu,” he outright lies. “He was just leaving.”
Wei Wuxian’s face falls. “Now? But Lan Zhan—what about my zongzis?” he pouts, but then the humor drops from his expression. “Lan Zhan, did something happen? Don’t go alone, okay? I’ll fly with you. Whatever it is, I’ll help you.”
Jiang Cheng is ready for this. “Wei Wuxian, are you forgetting your duties?” he says. “You’re hosting tonight’s hunt.”
Wei Wuxian groans, arm moving to drape itself across Lan Wangji’s shoulders, but Lan Wangji takes an abrupt step back—like he’s always done when they were sixteen—like he hasn’t done in years—and Wei Wuxian stumbles, mouth going slack for a heartbeat before it is schooled into a weak smile. “Ah, ah—“ he stammers. “Lan Zhan—we can fly together after the night hunt, okay?”
That night in Koi Tower, Jiang Cheng saw Lan Wangji come alive under his brother’s attention. Now, the Second Jade of Lan stands perfectly still, worthy of his name, cold and inanimate, returned to stone.
“Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian tries again, his hand reaching for Lan Wangji’s shoulder.
It falls limp as Lan Wangji takes another step back, and sinks into a bow—low and deferent, textbook-perfect. Wei Wuxian rears back like he just ran full speed into a wall. “No need,” says Lan Wangji when he comes back up, eyes still glued to the ground, and walks away, leaving Wei Wuxian behind him looking like he was just slapped.
Swarms of butterflies fly out of Lotus Pier for a week after the festival, then abruptly stop when no response comes. It doesn’t stop Wei Wuxian from looking up at every fluttering of wings. He almost tackles the poor errand boy who delivers their mail when he draws a pristine envelope from his bag.
Wei Wuxian’s face falls when he turns the letter in his hands. “It’s for you,” he mutters, glaring at the seal. “Why is it for you?”
The letter is from Lan Xichen. It’s long and overwrought in the way Lan Xichen always writes, but by now, it’s not that difficult to pick out the deliberate content from the nonsense.
The first piece of information makes him frown. Master Jiang, it reads, you will be pleased to hear that young Xiang Jia has joined the ranks of Cloud Recesses. As you recognized, she shows great promise, and then he remembers the little girl who managed to send him flying across the room in some backwater hamlet of Gusu’s territory. He smiles, pleased . Her family begged me to thank you for the part you’ve played in ensuring her good fortune, and so Master Jiang, allow me to—he skims the rest, then flies over two packed paragraphs of political fluff until he finds what he’s really looking for. My uncle is reviewing the terms of Yunmeng Jiang’s proposal and since his return, my brother has been assisting him diligently. He's reluctant to seek a night hunt although he’s happiest there. Perhaps if an interesting case were to be presented to him, he would—Jiang Cheng tears his eyes away from the letter, forcing his fingers to loosen their hold on the paper before it tears.
Despite Wei Wuxian’s hungry stare, he tucks the letter in the folds of his robes and says nothing at all.
Summer drags on. His father hoped for kinder weather for the first day of their conference, but it’s bright and sweltering as Jiang Cheng stands next to his father to welcome their guests.
Sect Leader Ouyang and Sect Leader Yao arrive first because of course they do. From afar, they look like angry ducks, waddling across the courtyard as they try to overtake each other and gain the honor of being greeted first. His father's face remains impassive. Jiang Cheng’s does not. He still has a lot to learn about patience and grace, and how to deal with such nonsense.
After hours of bowing and repeating the same greetings, it’s a relief when under the relentless sun of the late afternoon, the delegations of the major clans finally trickle past the outer gates.
Like a ghost summoned by a dark spell, Wei Wuxian slips into the shadows behind them.
Jin Guangshan brings with him what must be half of Koi Tower—the old attendant in charge of lodgings truly accomplished a small wonder in accommodating them all—and spends a good hour buttering up his father with pleasantries. Jiang Cheng doesn't mind. He draws Jin Zixuan to the side and stares him down until his brother-in-law dutifully shares news of his sister and nephew. Jiang Cheng has missed so much—Jin Ling has said his first word, calling for his mother, and skipped the walking stage of his development and gone straight to running.
“He makes you chase him around, huh?” Jiang Cheng smirks, insanely proud.
Jin Zixuan rolls his eyes. “He would do the same to you if you ever visited.”
Jiang Cheng blinks, turning the sentence in his head for another meaning, and finds none. “Then—I will?”
“Good,” Jin Zixuan nods. “A-Li misses you terribly.”
Compared to Lanling Jin, welcoming Qinghe Nie takes no time at all. Nie Mingjue leads the party and greets his father in his usual stilted, rough manner. Behind him, Nie Huaisang already looks bored out of his mind, fanning himself sluggishly.
“Drinks later?” Jiang Cheng mouths to him as they move on and receives a relieved nod, half-hidden behind a fan that looks brand new, painted with bold strokes of yellow and green.
Finally, just as the daylight turns softer, coloring the sky in pinkish, warm hues, Gusu Lan approaches. Their delegation is by far the smallest of the major clans—a handful of disciples, led by Lan Qiren and his heir.
His father greets them carefully, drawing Lan Qiren into a conversation that Lan Xichen smoothly intermediates. After all, the Lans hold the key to Yunmeng Jiang’s lecture, and so close to their goal, it would be a shame to mess it all up. They worked so hard for that lecture. He has worked so hard for it, months and months on end, collecting Wei Wuxian’s work, writing down his ideas and his techniques, arranging them into a consistent treatise, arguing, and arguing and arguing in their favor. He should join the conversation and praise Lotus Pier’s hospitality, its beauty, and how very welcome Gusu Lan’s delegation is. Instead, Jiang Cheng waits for the small lull in pleasantries that signals the end of the exchange and into it, throws, “where is Hanguang-Jun?”
The effect is immediate. He is rewarded not only by a drawn-out harrumph from Lan Qiren but also a small, tight smile from Lan Xichen.
“My brother has been detained in Cloud Recesses,” Lan Xichen says. “He is unable to join the conference.”
By now, Jiang Cheng has developed a pretty good detector for the bullshit coming from Twin Jades of Lan and at that moment, it’s ringing like a bell. He meets Lan Xichen’s gaze straight on and bares his teeth. “Such a shame.”
When they’re gone, he spares a glance behind him, but there’s nothing there. The shadows are empty.
Sect business is an endless repetition. Like day and night. Like the seasons. Like life and death. Well, life and death may be an exaggeration, but it sure feels like dying as their guests start yet another round of toasts, like they’ve done for the first greetings, and for each intervention on policy matters and now, for congratulations.
They keep coming—the Ouyangs and the Qins and the Yaos and the Shens and the Wangs, all of them, one by one—to toast him. His self from ten years ago would have preened under the attention and the compliments. He was even more of a fool then. There's nothing genuine in their praise. It's politics—just the endless politics of the cultivation world. And today, he just happens to be at the center of it.
Today, he made his appeal for the last time, and watched Lan Qiren agree to it like the old man was simultaneously breaking all of Gusu Lan’s rules. Acceptable, is how Lan Qiren qualified their proposal. Hardly a ringing endorsement, but an acceptable from Gusu Lan is apparently worth an endless line of toast from the entire cultivation world. Jiang Cheng throws back another drink and thanks—what’s his name—Shen Xu? Maybe. He’s not sure. Who cares? He’s immediately replaced by somebody else.
“Such a great success for Yunmeng Jiang,” toasts the brother of Sect Leader Yao and Jiang Cheng tips back his small cup of wine, grateful that his mother always orders the servants to water it down in the main table's pitchers.
That's it. They've won.
No more appeals. No more seminars in elegant rooms in the midst of winter. Next summer, Yunmeng Jiang will receive disciples from the major sects and impart their knowledge, shaping generations to come. It's such an unmitigated victory for them. His father has been buzzing for hours, lording over the banquet hall like a king.
Jiang Cheng's gaze sweeps over their assembled guests towards the end of the room. Lan Qiren has already retired for the night, and Lan Xichen sits alone, the jars of wine sitting in front of him untouched as he guards the empty seat at his back, like Jiang Cheng guards the empty one at his side.
Victory feels hollow.
Across the room, Sect Leader Yao pushes himself to his feet.
“Oh no you fucking don’t,” Jiang Cheng mutters, and because leaving early is better than being outright rude, hightails it with just a word of farewell to his father. Unfortunately, avoiding Sect Leader Yao means passing by Sect Leader Ouyang, who harpoons and forces him into a conversation, and then Sect Leader Yao, of course, catches up to him and the two idiots start the whole circus again.
It takes the better part of an hour to free himself, and when he finally manages to put his foot over the banquet hall’s threshold, a voice calls him back.
“Master Jiang,” says Zewu-Jun, “I hoped we might talk in private.”
Jiang Cheng groans and rubs a hand across his eyes, his head pulsing with too much stress and too little drink. He needs to piss and then he wants to find Nie Huaisang for some real, heavy drinking, the kind that knocks him out and ensures he sleeps like the dead, despite what goes on outside his window. “Aren't you going to congratulate Yunmeng Jiang, Zewu-Jun?” he sighs. “Toast to our success?”
“Ah, of course, tonight is for celebrating,” Lan Xichen deflects easily. “But perhaps tomorrow, when—”
“Ah, of course, ” Jiang Cheng parrots back to Zewu-Jun's face, the words spilling on his tongue like venom. “You won’t congratulate me. Should I thank you instead?”
Lan Xichen takes a step out of the banquet hall, angling his body into the shadows, out of sight. “I was not the one who persuaded my uncle,” he says, tone reasonable and deliberate. “Surely Master Jiang knows that.”
Oh, he knows. He knows. “Hanguang-Jun is truly something else. Shaping politics from the comfort of his Jingshi .”
Lan Xichen's expression closes off. Jiang Cheng hates, truly hates that he's able to read it. “My brother has kept himself in seclusion since his return,” he says, his voice pitched low, careful. “He would not tell why he came home so suddenly.”
Jiang Cheng might be a fool and a disappointment, but he is not a coward. “I told him to piss off, is what happened.”
Lan Xichen recoils, and Jiang Cheng thinks, Ah. Of course, I see.
“Ah. Of course, I see,” Lan Xichen says after a pregnant pause.
Jiang Cheng lets out a low, mirthless laugh. “You really don’t,” he says, the memory of a stroll into the underbelly of Cloud Recesses to hear a story he could barely tolerate bitter on his tongue. Perhaps it's his turn to take Lan Xichen on a stroll and share a story. How pathetic. “Shit. Ah, fuck ,” he curses. It's so fucking dramatic and stupid. “Well, come on, follow me, what are you waiting for?”
His sister's pavilion is silent except for the songs of cicadas, but the lanterns are lit, attracting the fluttering shadows of moths. Wei Wuxian makes no effort to hide, slumped against a pillar in plain view of the most travelled path, his legs sprawled before him. His only companions are empty bottles of wine, scattered around him like corpses. Tonight, even the moon has refused him his company, hiding behind thick clouds.
He’s still dressed in the formal robes that were tailored for him in anticipation of the conference. He would have looked handsome and strong in the deep blues and purples if he had actually shown up. Now crumpled around his listless form, they make him look drawn and lonely. Pathetic. Lan Xichen's presence at his back is like an invasion. Jiang Cheng bites on his tongue to keep himself from yelling at him to keep a proper seat and uphold the honor of Yunmeng Jiang. There’s a point to this humiliation.
As if on cue, Wei Wuxian puts the flute to his lips. Tonight, Lan Wangji’s song is a bitter thing, sloppy, dripping with feeling.
He scowls. “It's been like this for weeks since—well, you can guess since when.”
“Master Jiang,” Lan Xichen says. “I do not understand. My brother—”
“I just wanted to show Wei Wuxian what it’s like to lose what should have been his for his entire life,” Jiang Cheng interrupts, and savors it—the truth, at least one facet of it, out in the open in front of a witness. He meets Lan Xichen’s eyes. The song is still playing in the background, the mellow, lovesick, hopeless tone of it, ringing impossibly loud across the still expanses of Lotus Pier's lakes—and Jiang Cheng feels sick.
Damn, he should have brought a jar of wine, or better, stolen some of Jin Zixuan's Lord's Relief. Something more bitter and ass-kicking would do pretty well right now.
“Zewu-Jun once asked me why Wei Wuxian does nothing,” he forces himself to say. “It’s pretty simple. Wei Wuxian does not believe he deserves to want or keep things for himself.” Jiang Cheng does not remember well the time when Wei Wuxian first came to Lotus Pier, only some scattered, bright fragments: Wei Wuxian's smile, bravely in place despite his mother's sneer. His rage when his sister gathered the interloper in her arms instead of him when he'd just lost his dogs. His new brother's laugh while they splashed in shallow waters, seconds before the idiot, who did not know how to swim, almost drowned himself. “My father found him in the streets when he was just a boy, did you know?
Lan Xichen shakes his head. “Only rumors.”
“Yes, well,” he shrugs. His mother has gone to significant lengths to make sure little was known about Wei Wuxian. “Sometimes, I think he’s still waiting for us to kick him out and so—“ he swallows, the sick feeling roiling even heavier in his gut. “Wei Wuxian would do anything for Yunmeng Jiang, handing out pieces of himself like he’s handed over his inventions.” His hands curl into fists. “It may be enough for him, staying loyal of Yunmeng Jiang and pining away like an idiot. But I can’t—I—” he stammers, heat creeping across his cheeks. “That’s not good enough.”
Not good enough for me , he doesn’t say.
Lan Xichen hears it anyway. “Master Jiang, you—” Jiang Cheng whirls around, raising a warning finger, and Lan Xichen trails off and with a quiet smile, only says, “Ah, I see.”
He licks his lips, clears his throat to stop himself from asking whether Lan Xichen truly gets it because if Lan Xichen won’t let him do anything and if Wei Wuxian won't do anything, well—they're running out of options. Instead, he settles for a stony, “do you?”
Lan Xichen nods. “When I return to Gusu, I will visit my brother.”
“Do it soon,” Jiang Cheng scowls. “I swear I’ll end up chopping his hands off if he keeps playing that frigging song every night.”
As soon as he says it, Wei Wuxian brings the flute back to his lips, and—Jiang Cheng is not proud of it—his fight or flight instinct goes full flight. Jiang Cheng turns to flee. “Nie Huaisang has promised me drinks.”
Lan Xichen, the bastard , doesn’t let him get away. He catches his wrist in a gentle grip, there and gone in a heartbeat. “Master Jiang, may I join you?”
Jiang Cheng blinks. “But—but the Gusu Lan rules—”
“I’ve asked to join you, not to drink,” Lan Xichen corrects gently.
For some reason, Jiang Cheng accepts and Lan Xichen ends up sitting primly in his favorite pavilion that overlooks the beautiful expanse of the lakes, nursing a cup of tea between his palms, but he laughs openly as Nie Huaisang spends almost an entire hour making betrayed noises, cursing Jiang Cheng's offsprings down to the thirteenth generation as he tries to hide unmentionable books into his sleeves and specialty alcohol behind his back, successfully doing neither of these things.
It's a good night.
The conference runs its course, their guests leave and Lotus Pier returns to its soothing, familiar rhythm.
Jiang Cheng often hoped that Wei Wuxian would stay in Lotus Pier like he was supposed to instead of running off with Lan Wangji for months on end.
He’d been so jealous, so angry .
Outside his window, the sound of a flute picks up.
Jiang Cheng groans and drags his sheets over his head.
Winter has lost most of its bite, and Jiang Cheng is two nights away from stuffing Wei Wuxian's flute down his throat, when his father summons him.
“I have received the strangest letter,” his father says, gesturing him forward.
Fucking finally , thinks Jiang Cheng, and downs the cup of wine that's set in front of him in one smooth swallow, grimacing at the acrid taste. It's late enough that his father has shed his formal robes, but what gives him pause is that his mother has joined him for the evening, sitting beside him at the low table in her evening clothes, her hair down.
“Lan Wangji writes to us with an offer,” his father chuckles, holding the crisp snow-white parchment between two fingers like it’s going to bite him. “Can you guess what kind?”
Jiang Cheng’s gaze travels from his father's incredulous expression to his mother's. She's not quite smiling, but her eyes are bright. He imagines this is what a wolf looks like when it smells blood in the air.
He knew it would not be easy. He’s ready for this. As if it were the beginning of a hunt, Jiang Cheng's muscles settle into the familiar mixture of anger and violence. He exhales once through his nose and dives forward. “It'd better be an offer of marriage,” he says. “If not, I'll go to Cloud Recesses myself to break his legs.” In the resounding silence, Jiang Cheng makes his hands pour another cup of wine for his parents. “Well,” he drawls when nothing else comes. “Is it?”
His mother recovers first. “Did Wei Wuxian put you up to this?”
Of course, that's what she would think. The first name to come on her tongue has always been Wei Wuxian's. It stings, as it always does, but he’s an expert at ignoring it. Let it sluice over. Examine the hurt later. In private.
“Wei Wuxian doesn’t know.” He gestures vaguely at the letter. “But I’ve discussed the possibility with Lan Xichen. I imagine Lan Wangji has finally made up his mind.” Under his breath, he adds. “Took him long enough.”
“A-Cheng,” his father sighs. He looks like he wants to say more but in the end, he simply raises his wine to his lips.
“You did—? What are you talking about?” his mother sputters, her face wiped of any amusement. She grabs the letter from her husband's hand, crumbling the crisp paper in her fist. “Do you expect me to consider Lan Wangji's offer? It’s preposterous. It doesn't even dignify with an answer.”
“Why not?” Jiang Cheng bites back. “A partner who is economical, strong in cultivation and from a good family, but who remains humble, quiet and reserved,” Jiang Cheng recites. “Doesn't Lan Wangji fulfill all your criteria?”
His mother looks stunned, like she can’t even imagine a world where he would throw her list back into her face. “How can you be my son?” she gasps and turns to her husband, like it’s his fault, but Jiang Fengmian is still busy with his wine and does not look up. “How could he be my son? What have I done to the Heavens to curse me with such a foolish boy?”
It’s nothing that she hasn’t said hundred times before. He knows how to deal with it. Let it sluice over. Deal with it in private.
Huh. He was not ready for this.
“Mother, you've hounded me to find a wife worthy of your standards for years,” he bites out, the words spilling out of his mouth, unbidden and unchecked. His blood is pumping under his skin. He feels hot, sweat gathering underneath his robes and across his brow. “And yet, you want to refuse the Second Jade of Lan who surpasses even your wildest expectations?” Jiang Cheng laughs, and it sounds just like her, bitter and ugly. “Mother, you've done nothing but compare me to Wei Wuxian and found me lacking. If Lan Wangji will not do for him, then I swear that Yunmeng Jiang’s line will die with me.”
The cold winter air hits his heated cheeks, and he understands that he’s stormed out. His hand comes up to rub his eyes and he wishes he could ignore his parent’s argument, barely muffled by the thin walls. A second later, his mother bursts out of the door in an angry cloud of disapproval, tiny zings of electricity coming out of Zidian like the promise of a summer storm.
His father follows close after, brow caught in an unhappy frown. “A-Cheng, you should know better than to rile her up like this.”
He should apologize and say he did not mean. Hot, white shame is washing over him already, pulling him under. Of course, he did not mean it. He’ll do his duty and marry whoever they deem suitable for him, like his father, and he will be miserable, like his father, but Wei Wuxian—Wei Wuxian doesn’t have to.
Jiang Cheng folds himself into a deep bow. “Father, the offer from Gusu Lan is genuine, and a great honor.”
“Perhaps,” his father says, unmoved. “It is also deeply unconventional. What gain is there for us? No bride price to collect. No daughter to bear sons for Yunmeng Jiang. On all accounts, it’s a foolish match.”
“You'll refuse him, then?”
“A-Cheng, think of the future. This peace between the clans will not last. Wei Wuxian should be yours to command. Not Gusu Lan’s. He is your brother, your servant, and your asset.”
Wei Wuxian, his brother, who's done more to uphold the honor of Yunmeng Jiang with his brilliant mind than Jiang Cheng's pure lineage could ever do. Wei Wuxian, who once promised that they would grow up to be the twin heroes of Yunmeng—brothers, together, until their deaths. He’s clung to that idea for so long, but it was a dream only boys could articulate. Now, he knows it could never be. It was only a matter of time before Wei Wuxian's attention was caught by some grander purpose than upholding tradition.
Keeping him as a subordinate was the wish of a foolish boy.
“I know what Wei Wuxian brings to Lotus Pier, but Father, there is something that you are not considering,” says Jiang Cheng. He takes a deep breath, then he talks about the shape of Wei Wuxian's smile and the weight of Lan Wangji's gaze for far, far longer than he can bear, shuddering all the way through. He knows that it is worth it. His father loves Wei Wuxian, freely and simply, in a way that Jiang Cheng will never experience, and so at the end of his rant, Jiang Fengmian goes to his desk, then, gaze vacant, he picks up a brush.
Jiang Cheng does not stick around to watch what his father writes. Sandu materializes in his hand in a heartbeat and he takes off, right there in the middle of Lotus Pier, ignoring the startled shouts of their scouts.
The winter air is ruthless, whipping at his cheeks, tangling his hair, and he surfs on the pockets of warmer air until a destination forms in his mind.
Yitang is quiet, but lights shine through windows—like the villagers have retired for the night but are enjoying their evening away from the cold winter air in the safety of their home. It’s— hard to imagine the villagers of Yitang sitting down to share a meal and stories in the evening, when all he remembers of Yitang is a desolate hamlet holding together by sheer hope. For a moment, he’s certain that he took a wrong turn and landed somewhere else, but no—he recognizes the well with its carvings of Lotus flowers, the odd path carving around a risen stone.
A crash behind him draws away from his thoughts and he whirls around, Sandu half out of its sheath, but it’s just a woman, standing a few paces away, a broken jar of wine at her feet, looking at him like she’s seen a ghost. He stares back, and slowly his eyes abstract from her plump and rosy cheeks, her new, clean robes, and he recognizes the once wraithlike woman whom he promised aid so many months ago.
“Master Jiang,” the elder’s daughter whispers, then to his horror, falls to her knees just as thick tears rush down her cheeks.
Oh no. Anything but that. Hasn’t he suffered enough for the day already?
“What did I do?” he blurts out and crouches, hands hovering awkwardly over her. “What—Please—Please don’t cry—”
“Master Jiang—” she hiccups and grabs both of his hands, bowing over them. “Master Jiang—” she cries harder. “Master Jiang, thank you.”
“What? I didn’t—It wasn’t me,” he stammers, helpless, and tries to extirpate his hands, but her grip is like iron shackles. “Lady—” He breaks off. Fuck. He never thought to ask her name. “Please don’t cry.”
He keeps repeating those words as she cries like it’s the last thing she knows how to do, trying to remember how his sister dealt with his tantrums, but his mind is blank. In the end, he just sits there, letting her clasp his hands, and waits for her to finally regain control of her senses. When she finally straightens, wiping her face with her sleeves, her face is as red as his.
“I mean it, Master Jiang,” she insists, like it’s the most important thing she’s ever said. “You saved us all. Thank you.”
“I didn’t do anything,” he says and finally manages to extirpate his hand. “Thank my brother. Thank—” he chokes on his own spit. “Thank Lan Wangji.”
“I did,” she says, wetly. “But they came thanks to you, Master Jiang, didn’t they?”
It’s impossible for his cheeks to heat up any further. Still, they give their best effort. “I—It’s just—my duty,” he mumbles and sits back on his haunches, rubbing the back of his neck. “Whatever,” he grouses, and the elder’s daughter finally takes pity on him and bends down to pick up the shards of the wine jar.
“This was supposed to be Master Wei’s wage,” she sighs. “He helped with the fields today.”
Jiang Cheng stiffens. “Wei Wuxian is here?”
She nods. “By the fields,” she pauses and a determined look crosses her face. “Would you please stay, Master Jiang? It would be my honor to serve you wine.”
Fuck. He can’t possibly refuse. He’s made her cry .
His brother is just a shadow at the edge of the field. The swamp is gone, replaced by neat rows of rice plants, ready for harvesting and the air smells clean. It’s a beautiful night, peaceful, the kind Jiang Cheng always misses when he’s away from Lotus Pier, so of course, before he can make his presence known, Wei Wuxian reaches into his belt and brings the flute to his lips, intent on disturbing the quiet balance.
Maybe if the day had gone differently. Just maybe. He could have kept his temper.
Nah. Who is he even kidding?
His vision funnels down on the flute. Instinct propels him forward. “No, you don’t!” he shouts and pries out Wei Wuxian’s flute from his fingers, and then he snaps it on his knee and chucks the two neat pieces into the paddy field. They disappear in the still water with a hollow, satisfying plop.
Ah, that felt good, he thinks just before Wei Wuxian tackles him to the ground.
“Jiang Wanyin!” Wei Wuxian roars and his first punch lands straight into his nose. Pain blooms bright and hot, but the anger makes it easy to ignore. He aches for a fight because fighting is what he knows best—hitting things, and cursing, and stomping his feet. He’s been fighting his brother since he was brought into his life. His body takes over, and he swings his fists around like a commoner. He hears more than he sees his fist connect with Wei Wuxian’s face, his belly, his ribs, before Wei Wuxian straddles his chest, pins his arms with his knees, and bears down on him.
“He made it for me,” Wei Wuxian pants between each blow. “Lan Zhan—Lan Zhan made it for me. I thought—I thought—” he shudders, his grip loosening, and Jiang Cheng surges, pushing with his hips to flip them over and deliver his own beating.
They freeze on top of each other. A few feet away, the elder’s daughter is staring at them, clutching her tray carrying cups and wine against her chest like a shield. At least, she held onto her wine this time.
Wei Wuxian rolls off of him almost immediately, smiling widely although it must hurt—blood has pearled down his chin, trickling from a nasty-looking tear in his lip. “Ah, ah, Maiden Zhao, we were just playing.”
The elder’s daughter—Maiden Zhao—gives them a horrified look. “Playing?”
“Yeah,” Jiang Cheng mumbles and sits up, the blood still pumping in his vein, his fingers itching for more violence. “Just playing.”
She kneels down, setting the tray next to her, and reaches forward like she means to touch his face, but her gesture falters halfway through. Instead, she whispers, “Master Jiang, your nose—”
“It’s nothing,” he says automatically, but as his fingers come up to investigate the damage, beneath the adrenaline, the pain finally registers—sharp and hot. Fuck. Definitely broken.
“Don’t worry about him, Maiden Zhao,” Wei Wuxian says, low and fierce. “If anything, it will improve his looks.”
“You!” he shouts, and only the pain lancing like fire through his face—and maybe, just maybe the hard stare of the elder’s daughter—prevents him from launching himself back at Wei Wuxian. He crosses his arms across his chest. “You started it.”
“I started it?” Wei Wuxian gasps. “You started it! You broke my flute!”
“You should thank me! I would have made you eat it if you played that awful song one more time!” He shouts back, and the violent movement makes blood gush down his nose. He groans and tips his head back, cradling his nose. Fuck, it hurts. Maybe that’s why he adds, “Did you think it would make stupid Lan Wangji appear?”
Hurt flashes bright and real across Wei Wuxian’s face, but it’s gone almost instantly as he wipes his mouth, smearing blood across his chin. “Is that wine, I see?” His brother coos, turning away from him, and grabs a jar from the elder’s daughter tray, cracks it open and pours half of it down his throat. “Ah, so good—from your own production?”
Blushing, the elder’s daughter nods, and Wei Wuxian sprawls at her feet, taking another swig of wine, legs spread indecently. His collar dips, exposing his collarbone. “Ah, my dearest Maiden Zhao, as always, you’re too good to me.”
“Wei Wuxian! Are you flirting?” he shrieks. “What would—” Lan Wangji say. What would Lan Wangji say is what is on the tip of his tongue.
His brother ignores him, chattering away with the elder’s daughter and brushing off her concern, and the weight of the day’s events finally sink into his bones.
Don’t worry , dumbass. Lan Wangji has finally taken the proper steps. You’ll be married before the year is out, he should say but—but if he says it, then it will be real. It will be real and final—and Jiang Cheng, despite all of it, despite all he’s done, is not ready. He doesn’t want it. He doesn’t—
So fucking pathetic.
He laughs. It tastes of blood.
“I’ll—I’ll fetch some bandages and—more wine, yes, more wine,” Maiden Zhao stammers and runs away.
“Jiang Cheng—hey, are you—”
“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng orders and grabs the second jar of wine, unpops the cork, takes a deep swallow and spits it all back in the dirt.
Wei Wuxian lets out a hollow laugh. “Maiden Zhao’s wine is an acquired taste.”
“You’re an acquired taste,” Jiang Cheng snaps back and pushes the jar into Wei Wuxian’s hands to focus his spiritual energy into healing his face instead.
Silence creeps back into the late evening, settling over them like a warm cloak. It lasts only for a minute before nature retakes his rights, filling the void with crickets, gusts of wind and rays of moonlight. When his nose is healed, Jiang Cheng breathes deep. It’s what he’s known all of his life—the loud insects, the wet scent of paddy fields. It’s home. He can’t understand why anyone would choose to leave Yunmeng’s district, its lakes and its lush life. He can’t—
“Let’s go on a night hunt,” he whispers. “Let’s find something big and nasty that wants to kill us and kill it before it does. Bring a triumph to Lotus Pier as we were always meant to do.”
“The Twin Heroes of Yunmeng,” Wei Wuxian nods with a small smile. It comes nowhere near his eyes because Jiang Cheng broke his flute and doesn’t feel sorry—because Lan Wangji is nowhere near and Jiang Cheng is too weak to tell him the truth.
He ducks his head. One last time. A last pretense. Then he won’t ask for anything ever again. “Yeah,” he nods, turning his gaze towards the shadowed expanse of Yitang’s healthy, fertile grounds. “And then, we’ll visit A-jie and see who’s A-Ling’s favorite uncle.”
Wei Wuxian downs the rest of his wine. “Aiyah, Jiang Cheng, prepare to lose.”
Wei Wuxian brings him to Yiling. “We’ll find a good hunt here.”
They do find a good hunt, a very good hunt, but an ugly one. Wei Wuxian dives forward like he’s ready to die, and he almost does because Lan Wangji is not there to guard his back and Jiang Cheng remembers almost too late to step in.
Somehow, they do not die and bring back the tale of their success in Lotus Pier, and then to Koi Tower, where their sister welcomes them with the warmest smile, vats of soup and Jin Ling, who’s faster and more agile than a little monkey and never, ever stops blabbering.
His brother smiles and pouts and jokes around without missing a cue, but their sister’s frown deepens day after day.
“A-Cheng,” she tries, three days into their visit, when Wei Wuxian is busy entertaining Jin Ling, which is all the time. The idiot is taking the competition extremely seriously. But he just shakes his head and bids her a good night.
His rooms are quiet, a bit stuffy with the day’s remaining heat. He sits on the edge of the bed and clutches his head between his hands.
I broke Wei Wuxian's stupid flute, he breathes the words into a butterfly and watches it flutter away, brighter than a firefly. He closes his eyes to sleep.
The answer comes to tease his cheek in the middle of the night and he immediately releases the butterfly because he can’t sleep in noisy, smelly Koi Tower.
An accident, I am sure, Lan Xichen’s voice echoes. Master Jiang, it will not be long.
Jiang Cheng flops back across the bed, trying and failing to get comfortable. He misses Lotus Pier. He misses his home like he would miss a limb.
He can’t wait to go back even if he will miss Lotus Pier again soon. Some say that some of the Wens still live, surviving on turnips and raw hope. Jiang Cheng will go to Qishan and find them. He’ll bring the comb and offer it up to them, then he’ll let go of his regrets.
It’s a good plan. Who knows? It might even work.
I’ll go to Qishan when this is all settled, he says into another butterfly, just to make it real, then panics because he did not think this through. His hesitation is already pushing the limits of the spell. He blurts out. I’ll pay my respects to your friend—If I—If you—okay? But the butterfly is already flying away.
Yes, comes Lan Xichen’s voice. Next time we meet, I will tell you more about him.
On the first day of summer, Lan Wangji returns to Lotus Pier. This time, he is not alone, and the entire town crowds on the sides of the streets to watch him lead two neat rows of disciples into Yunmeng. They advance without a sound, like rolling mist on a crisp autumn morning and carry a heavy crate, draped with red silk. The presence of that crate, draped in red, would have caused a small riot on any other day, but somehow the crowd stays silent, in awe and content to just watch the Twin Jades of Lan make their way into Lotus Pier.
His sister's breath catches. She was reluctant to travel—and now he understands why as her hands cradle her expanding belly—and she didn't believe him, not fully, when he finally dug up the courage to explain why she should come. He doesn't blame her. Even months into the discreet negotiations, Jiang Cheng still found his father staring blankly at walls, knuckles gone white, clutching his correspondence. Only his mother took the development in stride, meaning that she said nothing at all, glared at everyone, and stewed on her fury.
There's no denying it now as Lan Wangji leads Gusu Lan's party, clad in heavy, formal robes, with his brother at his side and a crate draped in red at his back.
Lan Wangji has come back to Lotus Pier. Lan Wangji has come back to court.
“A-jie,” he mutters. “Will you make sure that the idiot is around?”
His sister nods once, but she takes the time to smile and lay a warm palm against his cheek before she leaves Jiang Cheng alone to guard Lotus Pier's gates.
Well, not quite alone.
“At some point, you’ll have to tell how you pulled this off,” Jin Zixuan mutters, but dutifully puffs up his chest, like the peacock he is. At first, he argued against his wife’s travel, but when Jiang Cheng reluctantly explained why she should be at Lotus Pier, pivoted so swiftly it’s a wonder nobody got whiplash.
“Ply me with enough of your Lord’s Relief and I might even tell you,” he says, grateful for the support even if it comes in the form of some pumped-up gold-clad bird. Growing up observing a paltry example of matrimony, he’s always thought of marriage as a losing game, either of a family member or of oneself. Jiang Cheng never quite realized he might also gain allies through marriage—even if his siblings’ taste is somewhat lacking.
“Zewu-Jun,” Jiang Cheng greets first, then he savors the pause, lets it lengthen until the silence becomes painful, loaded, and then lets it drag for another handful of full, long seconds just because he can before he bows again. “Hanguang-Jun, welcome to Lotus Pier.”
Tea has been served in front of the secondary hall his mother insisted on to host the ceremony, and Jiang Yang gestures for Gusu Lan party to rest and drink, two spots of color high on her cheeks. Poor girl, she could never quite tolerate being within ten feet of Lan Wangji. Now she has to serve tea to him and his brother.
Jiang Cheng goes inside, his gaze flying over his parents, sitting at the front in great style, to where Wei Wuxian is sprawled across the floors, pushing wooden blocks towards Jin Ling, cooing when his nephew manages to stack more than two. A vein throbs in Jiang Cheng’s temple, and he has to close his eyes, take a deep breath, then another for good measure, before he can move forward.
At least, Wei Wuxian is here.
He takes his place, pokes Wei Wuxian’s ribs—hard—and enjoys the answering yelp. “Sit up, idiot,” he hisses. “We have guests.”
“If it’s Sect Leader Yao, I will make you regret it”, Wei Wuxian grumbles, but doesn’t fight when their sister takes her son away from him and piles him onto her lap.
“As if I don’t already regret every minute I have to spend with you,” Jiang Cheng shoots back and pokes him in the ribs again. “Sit up.”
Wei Wuxian does, slowly, whining all the way. “Why do I even need to be here?” he moans, then under his breath says, “you know I always make it worse for your parents.” His gaze travels to them, sitting at the front, perfectly still and dressed in their best, then back to himself where he sits flanked by his siblings. “It’s not Sect Leader Yao, is it?” he mutters, his lips shifting into a new, carefully fabricated smile. “Jiang Cheng, what’s going on? I swear I’ll—” his voice fizzles out and, except from a breathy, painful “Lan Zhan—” like it’s punched out of him, he says nothing more as Gusu Lan’s party finally walks in.
His brother is an idiot, but he’s not dumb. Lan Wangji at the front, the crate at his back, his brother at his side—it’s self-explanatory.
“No, you don't,” Jiang Cheng snaps and yanks Wei Wuxian back just as he lurches to his feet to flee.
“Let me go—how—Is it Jiang Yang? But she’s so young—he barely said two words to her when he was here,” Wei Wuxian whispers furiously, wrenching his arm back. “Let me go. Come on, Jiang Cheng, let me go,” Wei Wuxian pleads, eyes wild. “Don't make me watch, if it's— if it's not—”
“Of course it is, you moron, who else would it be?” he hisses. Wei Wuxian’s eyes dart towards the entrance, where Lan Wangji has frozen on the threshold. His eyes are cast downward, like he’s hesitating between moving away and running away, like even now he’s not sure of his welcome—for fuck’s sake. Jiang Cheng yanks harder. “I worked hard for this, okay? Don’t blow it for me.”
“Hanguang-Jun,” Jiang Cheng calls. “What are you waiting for?”
For a moment, there’s perfect stillness, caught at an impossible standstill, until Wei Wuxian, slowly sinks back to his knees. “Lan Zhan,” he whispers—more a reflex than a conscious thought—and it must be enough. Lan Wangji takes the last step in the room, allowing his father to make the proper formal greeting.
“Hanguang-Jun, it is an honor to welcome you back to Lotus Pier.”
“Sect Leader Jiang, the honor is mine,” says Lan Wangji, bowing deep, and then proceeds to ignore the protocol that has been followed by their families for generations by turning directly to face Wei Wuxian.
What a dick.
“Wei Wuxian,” Lan Wangji says, and where Jiang Cheng is still holding his wrist, his brother’s pulse goes wild. He releases it like it’s burning. “Wei Ying, I come with gifts.”
Gusu Lan’s disciples spring into action. They take away and fold the red cloth, crack open the crate, and plunge into its belly, passing offerings into Lan Xichen’s awaiting hands. The first—a heavy lacquered box—is handed to his father, whose genteel and always distant composure goes hawklike when he takes off the lid.
“This is highly improper,” his mother grouses, but she still snatches the weighty tome from Lan Xichen’s hands before he can complete its presentation.
Lan Wangji kneels in front of Wei Wuxian, and deposits a small, elongated box between them. “This one is for you.”
Wei Wuxian looks at it like it’s a trap. “Lan Zhan—Lan Zhan, what are you doing?”
“Wei Ying, I have been yours for years,” Lan Wangji says and that’s ugh. Jiang Cheng hides his face behind his hand. He has clearly misjudged Lan Wangji’s lack of shame. It’s one thing to know it, but quite another to hear it out loud. “If Wei Ying wishes, I would make it known to all.”
“Lan Zhan, I—I don’t—you—what?”
Lan Wangji waits patiently for Wei Wuxian to stop sputtering, then says, “In the cold cave, Wei Ying removed my ribbon and tied it around our wrists.”
Wait. He did what? “You did what?”
“In Qishan, Wei Ying called me his soulmate,” Lan Wangji continues, voice calm and composed, as if he’s commenting on the weather rather than baring his heart in front of Wei Wuxian’s entire family. “Ever since we have cultivated together,” he adds. “Wei Ying, did you not realize?”
“You didn’t realize?"
“Wei Wuxian, are you already married?” Jiang Cheng’s vision goes red, but his sister shushes him and draws him back before he can grab his brother and put him in a chokehold. She’s holding a hair piece, a beautiful thing carved in jade so masterfully that it’s almost transparent, and along its sides, protective runes have been etched so finely that they blend like rays of sun. Besides her, Jin Zixuan is holding a wooden bow, stroking the carvings running along its length with reverent fingers. Even Jin Ling is already chewing on the edge of a heavily embroidered silk blanket, where powerful runes to promote the growth of the core and to ward off evil spirits have been stitched with silver thread and the utmost skill and care.
Then Zewu-Jun kneels in front of him and Jiang Cheng forgets all his words as he gazes down at the gift that has been placed into his hands.
Zewu-Jun bows, concluding the formal presentation of the gift. “Please accept this gift as a demonstration of the renewed friendship between Yunmeng Jiang and Gusu Lan.”
Jiang Cheng holds up the jade token. “Is this a joke?”
Lan Xichen’s mouth tightens. He is, Jiang Cheng can tell, repressing a laugh. “My brother and I agree that there could be no other gift for you, Master Jiang,” he says. “We will not forget what you have done.”
It sounds, vaguely, like a threat.
Jiang Cheng’s anger leaves him in one, steady rush.
He’s only expected loss, and now he’s holding a token that would grant him unquestioned entry into Cloud Recesses, the kind that’s only gifted to Gusu Lan’s most precious allies and friends.
What the fuck.
“Wei Wuxian!” He barks because if this drags on any longer, he'll end up hitting someone or worse. “Accept the gifts or I’ll do it for you!” he adds, and when his brother does nothing more than gape, makes a move to grab the box.
That does it. Wei Wuxian bats his hands away and finally lifts the lid with careful fingers.
It’s a flute.
It’s a fucking flute.
Jiang Cheng almost chokes on his laugh.
Compared to the one he broke, it’s beautiful, lacquered in black interlaced with streaks of white and blue, swirling around its body like mist—like Gusu Lan clouds—but even beautifully made, it’s a cheap gift.
His brother’s fingers twitch towards him. He licks his lips, hesitating. “You’ve given all the expensive, irreplaceable stuff to my family and I only get a flute?”
Lan Wangji carefully lifts it out of its case, presenting it across his palms for Wei Wuxian to take. “A song, as well.”
His brother’s cheeks go bright red, his mouth parting on a rough exhale. “Lan Zhan, ah, Lan Zhan, who knew you could be so smooth?” Wei Wuxian says and finally takes the flute from Lan Wangji’s grasp, cradling it in his hands like the most precious offering. A jade charm hangs at its end above a red tassel—not a wedding red, but the exact shade of Wei Wuxian’s hair ribbon. “Lan Zhan, I have nothing to give you in return.”
Lan Wangji shakes his head. It’s small, almost imperceptible. A year ago, Jiang Cheng would have missed it. “I need only your answer.”
Wei Wuxian‘s eyes are steady on Lan Wangji, but wide and brimming with tears, hiding something small like wonder, like hope, like joy. Jiang Cheng’s hand makes a fist around the jade token as the silence stretches and Wei Wuxian says nothing, content to just bask in the blazing intensity of Lan Wangji’s attention.
Jiang Cheng pinches the bridge of his nose. He refuses to be old and grey before he sees the ruins of Qishan for himself.
“For fuck's sake, do I have to do everything myself?” he growls and shoves his brother straight into Lan Wangji’s arms.