Actions

Work Header

can people untie themselves, uncurling like flowers

Work Text:

Jiang Cheng knows that he should stop following Jin Ling on his night hunts. The kid will be old enough soon that he won't need his uncle hovering over him.

But after Guanyin Temple, Jiang Cheng is more reluctant than ever to let Jin Ling out of his sight. He can't bear to think of what might have happened if he hadn't been able to find him that night.

The good thing is that Jin Ling is too busy now to go on as many night hunts as he used to, having taken on the role of the sect leader of Lanling Jin. However, he still finds time to slip away every now and again from his advisers—people Jiang Cheng is absolutely keeping an eye on—to go chase monsters with his new friends.

Jiang Cheng finds that, much as he'd like to, he can't really begrudge Jin Ling that. The Jin Sect is largely in disarray, and untangling that mess would be overwhelming for even an experienced sect leader. Jin Ling has generally taken well to his responsibilities, and Jiang Cheng can't bring himself to keep him from his friends, now that the kid finally has some.

Is he happy Jin Ling's new friends are mostly Lan disciples? No, but Jin Lin seems to like them, and they like him, which means they're not as hopeless as one might think. They're also pretty competent for their age, so whenever Jiang Cheng for some reason can't follow Jin Ling, he's not too worried. Jin Ling will probably come back in one piece.

(The fact that Wen Ning usually accompanies them doesn't hurt either, even though Jiang Cheng doesn't particularly like to think about...that. It's all balled up in a mass of bitterness, distrust and guilt, and he has no energy to begin to untangle it all.)

So Jiang Cheng takes care of his sect, keeps an eye on the Jin Sect, and follows Jin Ling as often as he physically can.

He never interferes unless needed. He's slowly getting better at figuring out what qualifies as needed. He's beginning to realize that maybe Jin Ling would benefit from seeing that Jiang Cheng knows he can handle things on his own.

And then, probably one day Jin Ling won't need his uncle's guidance at all. Jiang Cheng tries not to think about that.

So instead of joining Jin Ling, he stays close by in nearby towns and villages, and waits. There are times when he has nothing to do at all, but he knows Jin Ling is aware he's there, and he also knows Jin Ling takes care to always carry his signal flares with him. It's enough.

He's sitting in front of an inn one night, wondering at what point he'll have to give up and acknowledge that he's not needed here. They're close to Yunmeng anyway; he should probably just head home to Lotus Pier. Jin Ling and his friends have had great success recently, and are doing just fine on their own.

Jin Ling might be worried if he can't find him at the village later, though. Jiang Cheng usually stays in different inns from the ones the disciples choose—both to give Jin Ling some face and also so he won't have to run into Wen Ning or the other kids. Jin Ling always comes to find him, though, appearing infuriatingly indulgent as he waits for Jiang Cheng to look him over.

So no, Jiang Cheng should probably stay and wait for his return. He's just considering heading inside to do that, maybe having some late-night tea, when a signal flare lights up the sky.

He's on his sword the very next moment, speeding towards it.

It doesn't take him long to reach a clearing in the forest where the signal came from. He expects to arrive mid-battle, but instead all the disciples are simply standing around in a loose circle, looking anxious. There are sounds of a fight far-off in the distance, getting further away.

Jiang Cheng lands on the edge of the clearing, and grips his sword tight. "Jin Ling!"

The disciples clear his way, and then Jin Ling comes rushing forward, calling for him.

Jiang Cheng allows himself a moment of relief.

Jin Ling looks fine, if frantic. There's some blood on him, but it doesn't seem to be his. He almost collides with Jiang Cheng, and Jiang Cheng has to grasp him by the shoulder to keep him upright.

"Are you alright?" he asks. "What happened?"

"Jiujiu!" Jin Ling says again, his voice panicked. "Jiujiu, it's Wei Wuxian! He's hurt!"

Jiang Cheng freezes.

"What?"

"Come on!" Jin Ling says, and starts dragging him forward by the arm. "He's over here, come on!"

Jiang Cheng lets Jin Ling lead him into the middle of the clearing, his mind oddly blank. He thinks, for a moment, that he must have heard wrong.

There are two Lan disciples huddled together, one on the ground, and one hovering over him. Jiang Cheng doesn't need to see their faces to be able to guess who they are. Lan Jingyi turns around as he hears them approach, and Jiang Cheng is shocked at the open relief on his face. He's used to the Lan kids being rude to him, distrustful, or at most politely cold. He's not prepared to deal with this.

Nearby, there's someone crying. Jiang Cheng's stomach goes cold.

He steps forward, and Lan Jingyi moves out of the way, and there he is. Wei Wuxian, unconscious, lying in Lan Sizhui's lap. He looks paler than normal even under the moonlight, his eyes closed. He's wearing black robes as usual, so the only clue to his injury is Lan Sizhui's hand pressed against his stomach, red with blood.

There's a lot of blood.

Lan Sizhui looks up at him, his breath coming out with a shudder.

"We don't have enough spiritual energy," he says. He still looks very composed, very Lan-like, but Jiang Cheng can see the way his hand is shaking. "Please, I—"

Jiang Cheng ignores the way it sounds like he's begging, as if he thinks this is something he needs to ask for, and gets down on his knees next to them.

"What happened?" he demands.

"There was some kind of creature," Jin Ling says from behind him. "It was coming at me, but I—I didn't see it until it was too late. He jumped in front of me. It got him with its claws."

Jiang Cheng swallows hard.

Of course Wei Wuxian would do something stupid and self-sacrificing like that.

(Of course he would protect Jin Ling. With his life, if he had to.)

He quickly checks Wei Wuxian's pulse—weak, but still there—and then starts feeding him his spiritual energy.

"Keep your hand on the wound," he tells Lan Sizhui. "Unless you need to rest. In that case, someone else should step in."

"I can do it," Lan Sizhui says. Lan Jingyi and Jin Ling both move close to him in a clear sign of support. Lan Sizhui leans back against Lan Jingyi's legs, while Jin Ling crouches down and sets his hand on Lan Sizhui's shoulder.

Jiang Cheng focuses his attention on Wei Wuxian. It's hard to tell the extent of the injury, but at least he's responding well to spiritual energy. He's still dreadfully pale, but when Jiang Cheng checks his pulse again he seems to be faring better.

"Where did he even come from?" Jiang Cheng asks. He hadn't heard or seen anything suggesting that Wei Wuxian was joining the kids for their night hunts.

"We just ran into him," Lan Jingyi says. "He was in the area, and he said he'd come with us."

"Shouldn't he be in Gusu with His Excellency?" Jiang Cheng asks, not even trying to keep the acid from his voice.

There's a clearly uncomfortable silence.

"Wei-qianbei left Gusu," Lan Sizhui says. "He didn't stay for long after what happened at the Guanyin Temple."

"What?" Jiang Cheng asks. "What do you mean, he left? Where the fuck has he been then?"

"Just wandering," Lan Jingyi says. "We think. We've only run into him a few times."

Jiang Cheng throws a sharp look at Jin Ling. Jin Ling shakes his head. "I haven't seen him," he says.

"Why did he leave?" Jiang Cheng asks, turning to Lan Sizhui.

Lan Sizhui keeps his gaze on Wei Wuxian. Normally, Jiang Cheng would expect eye contact from any younger disciple, but Lan Sizhui is pale and obviously very shaken. His hands are still trembling. Jiang Cheng has half a mind to order someone to switch with him, just to give the boy a chance to rest, but from what he has heard from Jin Ling and seen himself, Lan Sizhui is almost as stubborn as Wei Wuxian.

"We don't know," Lan Sizhui says eventually. "He said he wanted to travel."

"He said he was sure we'd meet again," Lan Jingyi says from above. (He's started petting Lan Sizhui's head. Jiang Cheng pretends he doesn't see it.) "And we have seen him around, night hunting. We've asked him to stop by Gusu again to rest, but he always says he'll come next time, and then doesn't."

Jiang Cheng harrumphs. Seems Wei Wuxian's getting well-versed in breaking promises. The thought—that he's not the only one Wei Wuxian's let down—is not as comforting as he'd have expected.

"He's always so happy to see us, though," Lan Sizhui says, his voice quiet. "I wish he'd just—"

Jin Ling squeezes his shoulder. "He was happy to see me, too," he tells Jiang Cheng. "And then—I should have been more careful."

"Where's the thing that attacked him, anyway?" Jiang Cheng asks, looking over at Jin Ling. "Did you kill it?"

Jin Ling avoids his gaze. "No. Wen Ning led it away."

Jiang Cheng holds back a sigh. He had hoped at least something had gone right during this night hunt.

He checks Wei Wuxian's pulse again—it's far steadier now, but he's still not waking up. "How's the bleeding?" he asks.

Lan Sizhui carefully lifts his hand. "I don't—"

"Can we get some light over here?" Jiang Cheng demands.

Several talismans light up at once. Jiang Cheng finally gets a good look at Wei Wuxian's wound, and wishes he hadn't. It doesn't look life-threatening, at least, but the sight of it still makes his own stomach turn. It's a strange thing to think, but he's used to Wei Wuxian getting stabbed. A clean cut, bleeding that's easily stopped, easily healed.

This is not that. It's hard to tell exactly where the wound begins and where Wei Wuxian's robes end. There's blood everywhere.

It's not gushing out, at least, but it hasn't fully stopped either.

"It's bleeding less," Lan Sizhui says. "But it's still—"

"Yeah, I see it," Jiang Cheng snaps.

Lan Sizhui falls silent and Jiang Cheng regrets, as he often does, his own temper.

"We should wrap it," he says, pushing the thought aside.

Jin Ling is the fastest; he rips his sleeve and holds it out to Jiang Cheng, his eyes imploring.

Jiang Cheng takes it and starts bandaging Wei Wuxian's waist. He wouldn't normally bother, but normally the bleeding would already have stopped. Stupid Wei Wuxian and his missing golden core. Except it's not missing, is it, which is the whole damn problem.

Sometimes, since the reveal, Jiang Cheng thought he could feel the fact that the core was Wei Wuxian's, a tightness in his chest. There were nights when it seemed as if he couldn't bear it, undeserving of it as he was. But it wasn't like there was anything he could do to make it right. All he could do was try to live with it.

Lan Sizhui helps him move Wei Wuxian around to get the bandage fastened securely. Wei Wuxian doesn't stir. Jiang Cheng tries not to look at his slack face too much; he doesn't like the way it makes him feel. Concern and anger and a smattering of guilt.

"We need to find him a doctor," Lan Jingyi says.

"There might be someone in the village," another boy says, appearing from the flock of disciples. Jiang Cheng recognizes him as the son of Sect Leader Ouyang. He's wiping away tears, but his voice is strong. "We can go see."

"Why do we need to go to the village for a doctor?" Jin Ling asks. "We're almost at the border of Yunmeng. They have the best healers. Right, jiujiu?"

Jiang Cheng looks at Jin Ling, studiously ignoring the way the rest of the kids gathered around are staring at him, some with curiosity, others with doubt.

Jin Ling is the only one who looks sure of him.

Jiang Cheng turns back to Wei Wuxian—pale and still, his breathing labored—and makes up his mind.

He leans forward and carefully takes Wei Wuxian from Lan Sizhui. There's a moment where he thinks Lan Sizhui will fight him, but then Lan Sizhui sits back and sighs with what sounds like relief.

Jiang Cheng gathers Wei Wuxian in his arms and stands up. The disciples scramble back, their eyes wide.

Jiang Cheng looks over at Jin Ling and nods.

"We're taking him to Lotus Pier."

~

Wei Wuxian's light enough to carry until they reach the river. Worryingly light, really.

Jiang Cheng wishes he could just fly home, but most of the kids are all too exhausted to even think about getting on a sword, and though he's sure of his own strength he's still not quite willing to risk flying with Wei Wuxian in his arms.

The boat trip is uncomfortable—Jiang Cheng is not used to having to watch over disciples from other sects as well, and it seems they do not know what to make of him—but luckily not too long. Soon enough they're docking, and it feels easy to lift Wei Wuxian into his arms again and carry him through the gates of Lotus Pier. He instructs the servants to find rooms for the young disciples and help for any wounded. Jin Ling is vibrating with anxiety next to him, so he sends him to fetch the doctor, and heads to the guest quarters.

Wei Wuxian's old rooms sit empty, still, and Jiang Cheng finds he can't bear the idea of taking him there. He doesn't want Wei Wuxian to think him sentimental, to pity him in any way. He doesn't want Wei Wuxian to reject the gesture, feeble as it would be.

He sets Wei Wuxian down on the bed in the guest room and steps back.

Wei Wuxian looks both better and worse in the candlelight. He no longer appears to be on death's door, nor in danger of bleeding out—Jin Ling's ripped up sleeve has held up well as a make-shift bandage—but there's shadows on his face, a tension deep within. It reminds Jiang Cheng of the time period around the Sunshot Campaign; the way they'd been drained to the bone, battling more than just the Wens.

Leave it to Wei Wuxian to fall back into bad habits, even after getting another chance. Even when it's clear he has people who are worried about him and are hoping for him to come home. Jiang Cheng shouldn't be surprised.

He takes a deep breath and tries to push down the irritation he feels rising inside him.

It's late. He's exhausted and hungry and on the verge of a headache. There's blood on his clothes. He's found recently that it helps him to simply take stock of all of his feelings. It helps him keep control. Or at least a semblance of control. Contrary to what he knows people like to believe, he doesn't actually enjoy having his emotions always on display—even when they're mostly anger.

He takes a deep breath and lets it out through his nose, annoyed at how much that helps.

Wei Wuxian really does look bad. Had Jiang Cheng been in Lotus Pier instead when Jin Ling set that signal off, would he have arrived to a different scene? Would Wei Wuxian have—

Probably not. The kids would have figured something out. And Jiang Cheng is a fast flier.

Still, he's glad they didn't have to find out what the worst case scenario might have been. This is definitely an incentive for him to keep following Jin Ling for a while longer, though, if Wei Wuxian is going to pull any more stunts like these.

He steps forward again to adjust the pillow under Wei Wuxian's head when the doctor hurries in, followed by Jin Ling.

"How is he?" Jin Ling asks immediately.

"Same as when you saw him a moment ago," Jiang Cheng says. He moves back to give the doctor room to work. "Sorry about dragging you out of bed for this, Mingyan."

Jin Ling looks over at him, scowling. Jiang Cheng ignores him.

Lin Mingyan snorts. "Hardly the first time I've had to come patch up Wei-gongzi, isn't it." She gives him a look. "And I dare say it won't be the last."

Jiang Cheng takes a deep breath. "How's it looking?"

She undresses the wound and tsks. "Something slashed him up good, didn't it?"

"How long will it take to heal?" Jiang Cheng asks.

She prods at Wei Wuxian, face thoughtful. "It's not as bad as it looks, at least. Not as many traces of resentful energy as I feared. Blood loss is the main concern, but if he was as strong as he once was, he'd be alright by tomorrow."

"And if he's not?" Jiang Cheng asks carefully.

"A few days more," she says. "You gave him spiritual energy?"

"Of course," Jiang Cheng says. "He was barely breathing before that."

Jin Ling whimpers. Jiang Cheng reaches over and grips his arm for a moment; possibly stronger than he needs to, but Jin Ling still relaxes at the touch.

"Well, he's not in any danger at the moment," the doctor says, her voice firm but calming. "We just need to make sure an infection doesn't set in."

"Should we feed him more energy?" Jin Ling asks her.

"He's had enough for now," the doctor says. "His body's weak enough that we don't want to overwhelm him. It wouldn't help any."

Jin Ling deflates at that. "Oh. But when will he wake up?"

She checks Wei Wuxian's pulse again. "Certainly not until tomorrow. His energy levels are quite drained. Probably were even before this injury. He'll need to rest."

Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes.

"I need someone to help me undress him and clean the wound," Mingyan says.

"I can do it!" Jin Ling says immediately.

"No," Jiang Cheng says. "Go find one of the servants."

"But jiujiu—"

"They're trained for this," Jiang Cheng says. "You're not. You'll just slow her down."

Jin Ling's face falls at that, but he keeps his chin up, his eyes imploring. "Jiujiu—"

"Go," Jiang Cheng says, looking right at him and keeping the eye-contact. "Now."

Jin Ling stares at him for another moment before he sighs and storms off.

Jiang Cheng turns back to Mingyan. She's calmly checking Wei Wuxian's meridians, but she raises her eyebrows at him.

"How's he really?" Jiang Cheng asks.

"What, you think I don't dare to say it in front of Sect Leader Jin?" she asks.

"I think you have a soft spot for him," Jiang Cheng says.

"And I think you're paranoid," Mingyan says. "I haven't been lying. Wei-gongzi is going to be fine."

"He looks terrible," Jiang Cheng says. "He's too thin. You said he's exhausted. Is it—is it his lack of a golden core?"

"Yes," she says simply. Jiang Cheng holds back a flinch. "And no. His body tires more easily since he doesn't have a core. If he'd take better care of himself, it wouldn't be a problem. People do just fine without golden cores, you know."

Jiang Cheng takes in a careful breath and lets it out. "I suppose."

"It's nothing rest and proper food won't fix," Mingyan says. "A week here, not exerting himself and getting regular meals, would do him good."

Jiang Cheng snorts to hide the way something in his chest twinges. "Good luck talking him into that. I imagine he'll be gone as soon as he can move again."

Mingyan sighs. "I suppose you know him best."

Jiang Cheng turns his face away. He's still staring at the wall when Jin Ling arrives with two servants.

"Do you need anything else?" Jiang Cheng asks Mingyan.

"I'll send someone if I do," she says. "You can go."

Jiang Cheng nods, spares one last glance at Wei Wuxian, and takes his leave, pulling Jin Ling with him.

"Shouldn't we stay?" Jin Ling asks, valiantly keeping up with Jiang Cheng as he marches towards his quarters.

"What for?" Jiang Cheng asks. "He's in the best hands. There's no need for us."

"But—"

"He's not in any danger," Jiang Cheng says. "And if the situation changes, I'll be notified. A sect leader trusts his subordinates."

"I—" Jin Ling says. "Yes, I know. But..."

Jiang Cheng slows down when he notices Jin Ling has fallen behind. "What?"

"He'll be alright," Jin Ling says. "Right?"

"Obviously," Jiang Cheng says. "He just pushed himself too hard, the idiot. His body's too weak."

"Oh," Jin Ling says. "Because he doesn't have his golden core?"

He instantly looks like he regrets it, but he also squares his jaw and doesn't take it back.

Jiang Cheng sighs. "Yes," he says. "And because, core or no core, he's always been a fool who doesn't know how to take care of himself."

Jin Ling's expression turns thoughtful and worried, his face gentling around the edges. The furrow between his brows has always reminded Jiang Cheng of his sister. It's only gotten worse—or better, someone might argue—as Jin Ling matures.

"He saved my life," Jin Ling says quietly. "Or, well. I don't know if that would have killed me. But he still saved me, anyway."

"Yes, I am aware," Jiang Cheng says.

Jin Ling's shoulders sag. "Maybe I would have been fine, though," he says. "Maybe he did it for no reason."

"Jin Ling."

"I haven't seen him since the Guanyin Temple," Jin Ling says. "And then we just ran into him and I...And now this happened. And now he's hurt."

"Jin Ling," Jiang Cheng says, voice firm. "He's going to be fine."

Jin Ling nods quickly. "I know."

"And he would have done it anyway," Jiang Cheng adds. "Whether you asked him to or not. That's just who he is. It's what he's always been like."

"Oh," Jin Ling says, looking down.

Jiang Cheng steps up to him and squeezes his shoulder. "Also, he's—he's your uncle. So even if you might want him to stop and think for once in his life, he won't."

It's not exactly what he means to say, but he also doesn't know how to say He's your uncle, and he loves you, and sometimes when he looks at you he sees his shijie, and he'll try to protect you with everything he has.

He doesn't want to promise Jin Ling that Wei Wuxian will be around forever. He doesn't know that, can't trust it. After all, Wei Wuxian has apparently been wandering the land for several months without once stopping by Yunmeng or Lanling. But he believes—knows—that Wei Wuxian cares about Jin Ling, even when he might fail to show it.

Jin Ling's posture relaxes. He looks up at Jiang Cheng and smiles, just a bit. Jiang Cheng has noticed he's started smiling more often lately. It seems those friends of his might be good for something.

"I understand, jiujiu," Jin Ling says, gaze soft yet serious, as if he heard what Jiang Cheng left unsaid.

Jiang Cheng squeezes his shoulder again before letting go. "Good," he says, voice coming out rough. He clears his throat, looking away. Jin Ling has always looked too much like Jin Zixuan, but he's also always had jiejie's gentleness to him. It had gotten lost for a while, as he reached his teenage years, but now, after everything that's happened, it's making a slow return.

There are moments, still, when Jiang Cheng finds it overwhelming. The knowledge of what he has lost and the knowledge of what he still has and therefore can still lose.

Sometimes he distracts himself by focusing on Fairy, who is always shadowing Jin Ling; sinking his fingers into her fur, letting her lick his hand. He realizes he hasn't seen her since they docked at the pier.

"Where's your dog?" he asks.

"I left her with Sizhui," Jin Ling says. "You know, in case Wei Wuxian woke up."

"You heard Lin-daifu," Jiang Cheng says. "He won't be waking up until tomorrow. You can go get her. And let them know how Wei Wuxian's doing."

"Oh, shit," Jin Ling says, eyes going wide. "I almost forgot. Jingyi would have killed me! Thanks, jiujiu!"

He throws himself at Jiang Cheng for a quick hug, bows, and rushes off.

He started doing that after the Guanyin Temple—hugging Jiang Cheng. The first time Jiang Cheng could tell he did it completely without thinking, pulling back as soon as he realized, eyes wide, looking as if he was expecting to get slapped.

Jiang Cheng had been too surprised to react.

Neither of them had said anything. Jin Ling had escaped as quickly as he could, clearly embarrassed. Jiang Cheng had figured it would be the end of it—just a fluke, brought on by the stress Jin Ling had recently been under.

Jin Ling had done it again, though. Jiang Cheng had still not said anything, but he'd also not pushed him away. Jin Ling had clearly read it as the permission it was.

It reminds Jiang Cheng of when Jin Ling was young and would hug him every time he came to Yunmeng. He'd been discouraged from it in Lanling by the elders, but there'd been no qualms in Lotus Pier. And then one day Jin Ling had decided that he was too old for it, and no one had hugged Jiang Cheng in years.

He's lost count of the amount of times Jin Ling has embraced him in the past few months.

Strangely, it feels as if this is something he should thank Wei Wuxian for. He's not sure how he feels about that.

He throws one last look back at the guest quarters where he left his brother, and heads to his own rooms for a few hours of sleep.

~

Jiang Cheng doesn't mean to check in on Wei Wuxian until later, after he's handled his usual morning tasks.

He's annoyed to find himself standing outside the room he left Wei Wuxian in before he's even had his breakfast.

He's arguing with himself about whether to just go in since he's here or leave and come back later, when the door opens. Lin Mingyan pauses, then nods at him, not at all surprised to see him.

"How is he?" Jiang Cheng asks, and then curses himself for sounding so impatient.

"He's doing alright," Mingyan says. "His wound looks good, already healing. I gave him some spiritual energy. He's sleeping."

"Still?" Jiang Cheng asks. "Has he not woken at all?"

"Not yet," she says. "But he's getting there. Always was a late riser, wasn't he?"

Jiang Cheng grits his teeth. "That he was."

Well, that's settled then. Wei Wuxian is fine and still asleep and Jiang Cheng is free to go and get back to work. He's been saving up certain reports to go through when he's feeling particularly annoyed.

He doesn't move. Mingyan steps to the side, raising her eyebrows. "You're welcome to go see for yourself."

Jiang Cheng frowns. "I trust your judgment."

"I know you do, Sect Leader," she says. "But you never know. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes."

He takes a deep breath and lets it out in a rush. Lin Mingyan bows and leaves, the door sitting slightly open in her wake. Jiang Cheng squares his shoulders and goes in.

The windows of the guest room open to a view of the lake, the docks visible in the far distance. It is, arguably, one of the nicer guest quarters—secluded while still providing you with comfort and security.

Wei Wuxian probably won't even notice that Jiang Cheng has accidentally ended up putting him in the rooms reserved for the most esteemed guests. He'll breeze right past it all, probably apologize to Jiang Cheng for something or other, while graciously not mentioning all the things Jiang Cheng should be apologizing for because he's just so selfless, and then he'll leave again.

Jiang Cheng can see it now. He has no illusions about how this will play out.

At the moment, though, Wei Wuxian's in bed, the covers pulled right under his chin, his breathing slow and steady.

He no longer looks unconscious—merely asleep. His face is still pale, and the dark circles under his eyes are even more visible in the morning light, but it's an improvement.

Jiang Cheng ignores the impulse to lift the covers to take a look at his wound—it will be wrapped anyway, and the idea of checking up on Lin Mingyan's work is laughable—and takes a seat on the edge of the bed instead.

He stays there for a moment or two, watching the rise and fall of Wei Wuxian's chest.

He can't remember the last time he had a chance to just sit and look at his brother like this. Not that it was ever really his priority. But it's strange, the way you can miss things you never wanted to do before.

He sighs and leans forward, resting his chin on his hands.

"You're an idiot, you know," he says.

Wei Wuxian doesn't even twitch in response.

"What are you doing, running around like this?" Jiang Cheng asks. "You still think you're invincible, huh? Think no rules apply to you, even the rules of nature? You're a fool."

There's a certain freedom to cursing Wei Wuxian out to his face while he's unable to talk back. Jiang Cheng could say anything and Wei Wuxian can't do anything about it, but also Jiang Cheng doesn't have to watch his face fall in response, his smile turn brittle.

"You're a hell of a lot weaker without your core," Jiang Cheng says. "No matter how much you pretend. Back in the day, you'd be up already, annoying everyone."

And yet Wei Wuxian is also, somehow, fine without his core. He hadn't been at first, of course—Jiang Cheng can see it even clearer now, looking back. Jiang Cheng had been blind in the past, he knows. Unfair and unkind. Sure, he'd seen that something was wrong, but he'd just been so annoyed at Wei Wuxian. Because no matter how lazy or unconcerned he could seem, he wasn't. He'd always been there to help anyone, so what was different now? Why couldn't he help Jiang Cheng? Why couldn't he stay at his side?

Had the only thing that tied him to Lotus Pier really been Jiang Cheng's father? His father and Jiang Yanli, really, and of course since Jiang Yanli had married into the Jin Sect and moved to Lanling, there'd been no reason for Wei Wuxian to remain at Lotus Pier, Wens or no Wens.

"Why did you do it?" Jiang Cheng asks. "Really? Was it because you thought I was too weak to last without a core? Was it because you were actually worried about me? Did you care about me or was it because of what my parents told you?"

He hadn't known he could develop new fears related to Wei Wuxian so many years after his death, but apparently one could never really run out.

He understood why Wei Wuxian had done it—hell, he'd done it himself, hadn't he?—and he understood why Wei Wuxian had never told him, much as it aggravated him, much as he hated it. And yet he couldn't help but fear that the only reason Wei Wuxian had done it was because Jiang Cheng's mother and father had told him his one job was to take care of Jiang Cheng.

Jiang Cheng hated the thought.

He wanted his brother to have sacrificed a part of himself because he loved him, not because of duty, and he hated that he wanted that. Because it made the fact that he'd abandoned Wei Wuxian even worse, didn't it? No matter if he'd had cause, no matter that he could barely see through the haze of his own grief and fury, no matter all of his duties. No matter that in the end Wei Wuxian's actions had led to the loss of their sister.

Jiang Cheng is a master of lying awake at night and going over every single thing he's done wrong in his life. He'd been that way even before Jin Guangyao had given him more to obsess about. He knew it never changed anything.

Just as he knows this: much as he hates it, he misses his brother. And he will have to keep missing him because Wei Wuxian has no reason to return to him.

He hadn't known that missing him now that he was alive would be a wholly different kind of pain from missing him when he was dead.

He's brought out of his thoughts by a quiet whimper. He looks up and finds Wei Wuxian has gone tense, his brows furrowed, face screwed up as if in pain, breath coming faster.

Jiang Cheng leans forward, alarmed. "Wei Wuxian?"

Has he taken a turn for the worse? Has the wound become infected? He should call for the doctor.

Jiang Cheng reaches out his hand and feels Wei Wuxian's forehead. He's a bit warm, perhaps, but it doesn't seem as if he has a high fever. He's about to move his hand to feel Wei Wuxian's pulse, but unexpectedly, Wei Wuxian quiets, his breathing easing. He shifts, his head turning, as if seeking Jiang Cheng's touch.

Jiang Cheng swallows hard.

A nightmare then, perhaps. Nothing to worry about.

Wei Wuxian's eyelashes flutter but he doesn't wake. Jiang Cheng—carefully, slowly—strokes his thumb over Wei Wuxian's forehead, his brows, soothing.

"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian murmurs.

Jiang Cheng snatches his hand away.

Of course, he thinks, pressing his hand against his chest as if it has betrayed him. Of course. What did he expect, really? For Wei Wuxian to want comfort from him?

He stands up and turns his back to Wei Wuxian. He should go; Wei Wuxian is fine and Jiang Cheng's been here long enough. He should be attending to his duties instead of waiting on Wei Wuxian's bedside like a fool.

He's pacing the room, trying to talk himself into leaving, when a servant comes in, falling into a bow. Jiang Cheng realizes he can guess what they're about to say.

"Sect Leader, His Excellency has arrived."

Jiang Cheng steels himself. "Tell him I'll be right there."

The servant hesitates.

"What?" Jiang Cheng asks.

"He wishes to see Wei-gongzi immediately."

Jiang Cheng grits his teeth. How very like Hanguang-jun, breezing in here and just demanding things. No matter that Wei Wuxian hasn't apparently been to Cloud Recesses in months, and therefore it's pretty obvious Lan Wangji has no claim on him.

"Sect Leader, what should I tell him?" the servant asks.

Jiang Cheng turns back to Wei Wuxian. He's sleeping easier again, but he still doesn't look relaxed. Jiang Cheng can't remember the last time he saw him resting well. He'd thought—whenever he allowed his mind to drift—that when Wei Wuxian left with Lan Wangji at least one of them would get some peace. Evidently he'd been wrong.

He turns towards the door. "Let him in."

~

Lan Wangji's face is cold, impassive, and subtly disapproving as always.

It cracks when he sees Wei Wuxian.

He rushes over to the bed without even greeting Jiang Cheng. Jiang Cheng clears his throat loudly.

Lan Wangji falters for a moment, but doesn't stop. He reaches Wei Wuxian's bedside and just stands there, eyes roaming over Wei Wuxian's features. His body is tense; he's almost radiating displeasure. Displeasure and worry.

Jiang Cheng finds, annoyingly, that he can relate. He clears his throat again, even more pointedly.

Lan Wangji turns to him slowly while still keeping Wei Wuxian in his line of sight.

Jiang Cheng raises his eyebrows. "Greetings, Hanguang-jun."

Lan Wangji inclines his head. "Sect Leader Jiang. How is Wei Ying?" There's something in his tone that Jiang Cheng doesn't like. Then again, that's nothing new.

"You can see for yourself," Jiang Cheng says, sweeping out his hand. "Asleep. Healing. Safe."

He puts a certain emphasis on that and watches with satisfaction as something shifts in Lan Wangji's expression.

"What happened?" Lan Wangji asks. "Sizhui informed me there was an accident during a night hunt."

"Then why didn't you ask him for more information instead of storming in here?" Jiang Cheng asks. He figured it would be Lan Sizhui who'd let Lan Wangji know.

"As we are in Lotus Pier," Lan Wangji says, "I am asking Sect Leader Jiang."

Jiang Cheng sighs. "He jumped in front of a disciple to protect them from the prey they were hunting. Got scratched by its claws, the fool. He lost some blood and has been unconscious since."

"What has the physician said?" Lan Wangji asks, voice tight.

"That he's an idiot who has overexerted himself," Jiang Cheng says. "He'll be fine. His wound is healing well. No traces of resentful energy remain."

Lan Wangji's eyes narrow. "Perhaps someone else should take a look at him."

Jiang Cheng takes a step closer. "Excuse me? Do you mean to say that you don't trust the word of the best doctor in Yunmeng?"

"I do not mean disrespect," Lan Wangji says, with a tone that suggests the exact opposite. "I think a second opinion can sometimes be useful."

"And who are you to suggest that?" Jiang Cheng asks.

"As Wei Ying's—"

"As Wei Ying's what?" Jiang Cheng asks, eyebrows raised.

Lan Wangji takes a visible breath and rallies. "As someone who cares about Wei Ying—"

"Don't you dare imply that I do not care about my brother," Jiang Cheng spits out.

"There is no need for implication," Lan Wangji says. "You have made it clear yourself."

"Really?" Jiang Cheng asks. "I was there when my brother got hurt." He steps closer to Lan Wangji, annoyed as always by the fact that Lan Wangji's slightly taller than him. "I was there, when he was bleeding out on the forest floor, in the middle of a group of terrified junior disciples. Where were you?"

He relishes in the way Lan Wangji's expression twists.

"Where were you?" Jiang Cheng repeats. "Why is my brother roaming the country on his own while you sit on a throne in Gusu?"

Lan Wangji's eyes flash and for a moment Jiang Cheng is sure Lan Wangji's about to hit him. They stare at each other in silence, both daring the other to move first.

Jiang Cheng has never been good at this part of the game.

"Why did Wei Wuxian leave Cloud Recesses?" he asks, voice low. "Why do the disciples say he hasn't been back once since he left, even though they've asked him to come and visit?"

Something in Lan Wangji's face changes. "Wei Ying wished to travel," he says. "With my responsibilities, I could not follow him."

"But did you ask him to stay?" Jiang Cheng asks.

Lan Wangji sets his jaw and says nothing. Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. He might not know Wei Wuxian as well as he once did, but he does know that contrary to how Wei Wuxian acts he never assumes he's wanted anywhere unless explicitly told.

"That's a no, then," Jiang Cheng says. "Of course. I should have figured."

"I did not wish to pressure him," Lan Wangji says.

Jiang Cheng begrudgingly accepts the fact that he can't actually fault Lan Wangji for his logic, nor for the respect he clearly has for Wei Wuxian. Still, his inaction has led them to an injured and exhausted Wei Wuxian.

"How honorable of you," he says with a sneer. "But in case you haven't noticed, my brother is an idiot. You need to spell things out for him."

Lan Wangji immediately puffs his chest up. "Wei Ying is the smartest man I've ever met."

"I'm not talking about that," Jiang Cheng says. "He's an absolute moron when it comes to feelings."

Lan Wangji narrows his eyes. "I wasn't aware you were an expert," he says. "About feelings or your brother."

Jiang Cheng steps close to him. "You—"

"Wei Ying is not as foolish as you think," Lan Wangji says. "He is not closed off or bitter, even after everything he's been through. He is open with his affections."

Jiang Cheng squeezes his eyes closed and takes a deep breath through his nose, focused on not punching the Chief Cultivator in the face. Zidian crackles in his hand.

"That doesn't mean," he forces out through his teeth, once he's fairly certain he's not about to cause some sort of inter-sect incident, "that you don't have to make your feelings clear to him."

When he chances to open his eyes again, Lan Wangji is frowning at him. This time, however, it seems thoughtful. Jiang Cheng isn't sure if he's somehow learned to read Lan Wangji's cold, expressionless face better or if he's just being more open than usual. He honestly hopes it's the latter.

They stand like that for a while. Jiang Cheng wishes he could step back and put some distance between them again, but this is his home, dammit, and he won't be the one to retreat first.

"I have made my feelings clear," Lan Wangji says eventually, voice slow but clear.

"And yet you didn't ask him to stay," Jiang Cheng says, more gently than he feels.

Lan Wangji stares at him for a moment more, before his gaze cuts away. Jiang Cheng mentally gives a point to himself.

There's a soft groan from the bed.

They both turn as one towards Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian has his eyes open, having finally woken after managing to sleep through most of their fight. He looks pale and sweaty, his hair matted to his forehead, but his eyes are bright as he takes in the room and spots them. He tries to sit up, but stops with a gasp, hand pressed to his middle.

Jiang Cheng is halfway to him when he realizes what he's doing, and freezes.

Lan Wangji has no such qualms. He helps Wei Wuxian lean against the bed frame, and sits down on the bed next to him. Jiang Cheng notices him reach out towards Wei Wuxian's stomach but carefully draw back before he makes contact.

Wei Wuxian is staring at Lan Wangji with wide eyes. "Lan Zhan? Why are you here?"

Jiang Cheng can't help but snort.

Wei Wuxian's gaze turns to him next. "Jiang Cheng? Why am I—What happened?"

"I should be asking you that," Jiang Cheng says. "I was minding my own business, when suddenly Jin Ling sends up a flare, and I arrive to find a group of terrified disciples and you, bleeding out on the ground, half-dead."

Wei Wuxian laughs awkwardly, looking back at Lan Wangji. "Ah, Lan Zhan, don't listen to him! He's just being dramatic. I'm fine!"

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says. "You were injured."

"It was nothing!" Wei Wuxian says, putting his hand on his chest. "Really! You—I'm fine, really. Why—Why are you here?"

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji repeats again. "You were injured."

Jiang Cheng is getting a headache.

"Okay, maybe I was injured," Wei Wuxian allows. "But I really am fine. You don't have to worry, see. Did Jiang Cheng send for you?"

"Sizhui," Lan Wangji says, and throws Jiang Cheng a brief glance, disapproval evident. Jiang Cheng lifts his brows. He isn't under any obligation to let Lan Wangji know of Wei Wuxian's whereabouts.

"Ah," Wei Wuxian says. He looks back at Jiang Cheng, and smiles his most placating smile. "Don't worry, Jiang Cheng. As soon as I can stand on my feet again I'll go."

"Go where?" Jiang Cheng asks, graciously ignoring the fact that Wei Wuxian has just admitted that he's not fine, actually. "From what I've heard you've been roaming around the land as if you're homeless."

Wei Wuxian's face shutters. Jiang Cheng presses his advantage.

"What are you doing?" he asks. "Why haven't you gone to see Jin Ling, at least? He said he hasn't seen you since the events at the Guanyin Temple."

Wei Wuxian looks contrite. "I don't really feel like sticking my nose in Lanling, yet. I've been hoping to run into him on night hunts. Looks like I finally got lucky!"

Jiang Cheng grits his teeth. "Lucky. Of course. How lucky for you to get torn up by some monster."

"Ah, Jiang Cheng," Wei Wuxian says, rolling his eyes. "You know that's not what I meant. Besides, it was coming at Jin Ling, did he tell you? I had to do something."

"Of course he told me," Jiang Cheng bites out. "Why would he not tell me? But I will tell you this, if you had been taking better care of yourself while you were gallivanting around the world as if you have no one who cares for you, you might have been fast enough and strong enough to not have traumatized your nephew by almost dying!"

Wei Wuxian blinks at him. Jiang Cheng is distantly aware that Lan Wangji is glaring at him again, but he ignores it and holds Wei Wuxian's gaze.

"I didn't—" Wei Wuxian says.

"Didn't what?"

"I didn't almost die," Wei Wuxian says. "I wasn't—" He tries to lean forward, crying out softly as the movement pulls at his wound.

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says. "Careful."

"You're still hurt, you idiot," Jiang Cheng snaps.

"I'm fine," Wei Wuxian says. "I'm...it's fine."

"Is that all you have to say?" Jiang Cheng asks.

Wei Wuxian sighs and looks at Lan Wangji, who is perched on his bedside, looking about ready to just grab Wei Wuxian and carry him out of here.

"Ah, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian starts. "Can you tell Jiang Cheng—"

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says, voice firm. "I need to speak with you."

Jiang Cheng sighs. So Lan Wangji is going to do this now.

"Oh," Wei Wuxian says, furrowing his brow. "About what? Is everything okay?"

And just like that it's clear they've both forgotten he's in the room. Jiang Cheng doesn't want to see this part, but this is still his home and he'll be damned if he lets them drive him out.

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says. "Will you come back to Gusu with me once you're feeling better?"

"Oh, I wouldn't want to—" Wei Wuxian starts. "I mean, if you think that's a good idea? But I wouldn't want to impose."

Jiang Cheng almost—almost—feels bad for Lan Wangji.

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says, and Jiang Cheng can actually hear the sadness in his voice. "You are always welcome. You are never an imposition. You know this."

Wei Wuxian laughs quietly and looks away. He's wringing his hands together. "Lan Zhan, I—"

Lan Wangji interrupts him. Jiang Cheng didn't know he was capable of it.

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says, voice calm and serious now. "I would like it if you decided to come back to Cloud Recesses. It would make me...happy."

Wei Wuxian turns back to him, his eyes going wide. "Lan Zhan?"

Lan Wangji reaches out and takes Wei Wuxian's hands. Jiang Cheng feels his eyes go wide. He looks away, because someone in this room should still have some dignity.

"I want you to know that you are always welcome," Lan Wangji says. "More than that, you are...wanted." There's a pause. "I want you by my side, Wei Ying."

Wei Wuxian makes a noise—something between a gasp and a sigh, something tinged with disbelief and happiness.

Jiang Cheng looks over to see Wei Wuxian's eyes filling with tears, right before a blinding smile takes over his face.

Jiang Cheng takes that as his cue to leave.

~

Jiang Cheng heads straight for his rooms, Zidian periodically sending out sparks as he marches away from the guest quarters.

He should feel relieved. Lan Wangji has arrived to take Wei Wuxian off his hands, after all, and from what he saw it seems this time he will actually be staying in Gusu, so Jiang Cheng won't have to worry about him doing something stupid on his own and getting himself killed.

He should feel relieved.

He doesn't know what he feels.

He doesn't have the chance to sort it out. There are raised voices coming from the courtyard, the sounds of a dispute. He sighs, composes himself as much as he can, and changes direction.

He arrives to see Jin Ling arguing with his friends. He wishes he could be surprised.

Jin Ling's glaring at Lan Jingyi in particular, his sword gripped in his hand. Lan Sizhui and Ouyang Zizhen are eying them both warily, ready to insert themselves into the situation.

Most of the other disciples are gathered together, talking amongst themselves while keeping an eye on Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi. Wei Wuxian's terrible donkey is tied up near them, quietly eating for once, and ignoring the commotion.

"Listen," Lan Jingyi says. "For all we know, he could be dead."

"How dare you!" Jin Ling shouts, already raising his arm.

"Jin Ling, don't," Ouyang Zizhen says, grabbing at him.

"He's being disrespectful!" Jin Ling says.

"I'm not!" Lan Jingyi says, face turned up, arms crossed. "I'm just saying! How do we know—"

Jin Ling tries to pull out of Ouyang Zizhen's grasp. Jiang Cheng wonders if he should intervene in any way. Jin Ling has gotten a lot better at controlling his emotions lately, but he could still use the practice. Maybe then he won't turn out like Jiang Cheng.

"We haven't gotten to see him," Lan Jingyi is saying. "It's anyone's guess how he's doing."

"I got to see him," Jin Ling says. "And he's fine."

"You saw him last night," Jingyi says. "Now he's disappeared into the depths of Lotus Pier. Are we going to get him back? What if—"

"Shut up," Jin Ling says. "You're not the only sect who cares about him!"

The others stare at him. Jiang Cheng can see Ouyang Zizhen's grip loosen.

"Well—" Lan Jingyi starts.

"Jingyi," Lan Sizhui says, his voice calm yet firm. "He's right."

(Jiang Cheng is suddenly transported to the past, to arguments soothed by a careful hand.)

Jin Ling stares at his friends, his chest heaving. Jiang Cheng starts slowly making his way over, careful not to draw their attention yet.

He sees Lan Sizhui take Jin Ling's arm. Jin Ling lets him. "We know you care about him, too," Lan Sizhui says gently. "You, and your uncle. Jingyi was just—"

"Being Jingyi," Ouyang Zizhen puts in. "You know you shouldn't take it to heart."

Lan Sizhui looks over at Lan Jingyi.

"He gets worked up too easily," Jingyi says, huffing. "I'm just trying to help him. He's a sect leader now."

Jin Ling glares at him.

"You should strive not to cause pain to others with your words if it can be prevented," Sizhui says.

Jingyi opens his mouth, then closes it. He looks over at Jin Ling, his expression changing into something quieter.

"I was just messing with you," Jingyi says. "I'm sorry?"

Jin Ling throws his head up. "Whatever."

Jiang Cheng figures he's let this carry on long enough. He strides up to them; as soon as they notice him they all fall into line, bowing, echoing each other as they greet him.

"Jiujiu!" Jin Ling says, face both relieved and embarrassed. "How is Wei Wuxian?"

Jiang Cheng lets his eyes move over them. They stand up straight, no sign of their previous argument remaining.

"He woke up," he tells Jin Ling. He looks to Lan Sizhui. "Hanguang-jun is with him." Finally he stops at Lan Jingyi. "He's fine."

Lan Jingyi has gone red in the face. Jiang Cheng wasn't aware he was even capable of it.

Ouyang Zizhen, meanwhile, is the first to cheer, his smile wide as he grins at Jiang Cheng. "See, he's fine!" he says, turning to the others. "That's great news!" He grabs Lan Sizhui's shoulder and squeezes him close. "He's going to be okay!"

"Thank you, Sect Leader Jiang, for letting us know," Lan Sizhui says.

Jiang Cheng holds his gaze for a moment. Lan Sizhui looks back at him easily, his eyes almost as unreadable as Lan Wangji's. He's still young, though, and his relief at the good news is clear to all. Jiang Cheng thinks of the way the tension had seeped out of him once Jiang Cheng took control of the situation last night.

"You can go and practice your sword forms while you wait to see him," Jiang Cheng says. "Jin Ling, Zheng Yu should be in charge of running the drills today."

"Okay, jiujiu," Jin Ling says, nodding at him. He's smiling as well. Jiang Cheng almost has the urge to smile back.

He ignores it, throws one last glance at the disciples, and turns to go.

"Oh, jiujiu!" Jin Ling says, something curious in his voice. Jiang Cheng turns back and sees Jin Ling holding himself up straight, a sect leader in more than name.

"Yes?" he asks.

"The Ghost General is outside the gates of Lotus Pier," Jin Ling says, "waiting to hear about Wei Wuxian. Should we tell him the good news?"

Jiang Cheng looks at him for a moment. Jin Ling nods at him imperceptibly.

"Go on," Jiang Cheng says, and keeps his eyes only on Jin Ling. "And ask him if he requires anything, and send word to me or to my second in command."

Jin Ling smiles, slight but sure. Jiang Cheng nods and leaves him to it.

He admits he is not ready to let Wen Ning into Lotus Pier yet. But he is starting to realize that Jin Ling's opinion of Wen Ning is just as important—and possibly more so—than his own.

And after all, isn't the man who used Wen Ning, who made him into something he's not, currently resting under Jiang Cheng's roof?

Well. Evidently he won't be for much longer.

Jiang Cheng clenches his fist, Zidian crackling quietly, and goes to get some work done.

~

The next time Jiang Cheng goes to check on Wei Wuxian it is absolutely on purpose and if it's only been a few hours since he last saw him, then that only shows that he's an exemplary host even when the guest in question clearly doesn't deserve it.

He doesn't bother announcing his presence before he slides the doors open—if Hanguang-jun dares to try anything under Jiang Cheng's roof— Well, he wouldn't, really, that would be far more Wei Wuxian's style, but still.

To his surprise he finds Wei Wuxian with his torso bare, submitting to being looked over by Lin Mingyan, with no Lan Wangji in sight.

Mingyan raises her eyebrows at Jiang Cheng. "I wasn't aware sect leaders were exempt from knocking?"

Jiang Cheng straightens his back and tries to keep himself from flushing.

"How are his injuries?" he asks. He peeks at Wei Wuxian's wound—he hasn't seen it after he bound it himself, and it was dark back then, with blood everywhere. It looks a lot better now, though still painful.

"You know I'm right here," Wei Wuxian says, while Mingyan rolls her eyes.

"He's doing quite well," she says, and quickly bandages him up again. Jiang Cheng wonders if he should offer to help, but by the time he makes up his mind she's already done. She stands up and turns to Jiang Cheng. "He should stay here at least until tomorrow if he doesn't want to disrupt the healing process. I'll leave him to you for now, then. Don't let him get out of bed."

With that, she breezes out of the room, leaving Jiang Cheng standing awkwardly at the door.

Wei Wuxian raises his eyebrows. "I kind of thought she'd mellow out over the years."

"Then you're an idiot," Jiang Cheng says. "Also, you can cover up now."

"What?" Wei Wuxian asks. "Oh, oops." He laughs and sits up with a wince, drawing his under robe around himself. He's wearing the white robe the servants dressed him in, his own red one ruined. He already looks like he belongs in the Lan Sect.

Jiang Cheng clenches his fist and looks around the room demonstratively. "So where's your precious Hanguang-jun?"

Wei Wuxian pouts, leaning back to rest against the bed frame. "He went to check on the disciples. They're fine, I'm the one who's injured." He pauses. "They—they are fine, right?"

"No one got hurt," Jiang Cheng says. "Only some scrapes and bruises."

Wei Wuxian lets out a breath. "Good. That's good. And...Jin Ling?"

"Fine, of course," Jiang Cheng says shortly.

Wei Wuxian nods. "Good."

Jiang Cheng weighs it over in his mind, and then says, "He was scared for you."

Wei Wuxian has the audacity to look surprised before his expression turns sheepish.

"Ah," he says. "I didn't mean to—"

"To worry him?" Jiang Cheng asks. "To save his life? To get injured badly enough that you were barely breathing when I got there?"

Wei Wuxian sighs. "It wasn't that bad."

"It wouldn't have been," Jiang Cheng says, "if you had been taking care of yourself!"

He can't help raising his voice. Wei Wuxian only rolls his eyes.

"Don't you start with me as well," he says. "Lan Zhan already lectured me."

He sounds pleased about it, fond and indulgent. Jiang Cheng grits his teeth. "Oh, well, if your Lan Zhan has already handled it then I guess it's all fine."

"It is fine," Wei Wuxian says. "I was fine. Really. I don't know why everyone's so upset—"

"Because they were worried!" Jiang Cheng shouts.

Wei Wuxian blinks at him, mouth hanging open.

"Jin Ling was worried, the rest of the kids were worried," Jiang Cheng says. "Your Hanguang-jun was worried enough that he reached Yunmeng so quickly I have to assume he teleported half the way."

"He's a really fast flier," Wei Wuxian says weakly.

"Whatever," Jiang Cheng says. "If you want to go wander around on your own, you need to at least learn to take care of yourself."

Wei Wuxian's quiet for a while. It's unnerving. "What about you?" he asks finally.

"What?" Jiang Cheng asks.

"Were you worried?" Wei Wuxian asks, looking up at him, and then immediately looking away again. He waits for a beat, then shakes his head, smiling. "Never mind, I don't know why I asked."

Jiang Cheng stares at him. "You're an idiot."

Wei Wuxian shrugs. "I guess I am."

"An absolute moron," Jiang Cheng says. "Why would I worry about you, huh? When you can't even be bothered to come visit."

Wei Wuxian frowns. "You don't want me to come visit."

Jiang Cheng huffs. "That's really what stopped you?"

"Well, yes," Wei Wuxian says slowly. "I didn't want to go against your wishes."

"That doesn't mean—" Jiang Cheng starts, incensed. Zidian crackles to life. He forces it dormant, focusing on slowing his breathing.

Wei Wuxian's gaze moves from Zidian to Jiang Cheng's face, then back again. He doesn't look scared, really, just expectant.

"That doesn't mean," Jiang Cheng tries again, "that you should just assume things, as always! That is not how it's done. You're supposed to send word that you've come to visit and if I don't want to receive you, I will tell you."

"Well maybe I didn't want to show up at the gates of Lotus Pier, just to be turned back," Wei Wuxian says.

"Well as you can see, you're here now," Jiang Cheng says. He lets that sit for a moment. Wei Wuxian isn't meeting his gaze. "What about Jin Ling?"

"Ah, don't ask me, Jiang Cheng," Wei Wuxian says. "I just—I couldn't, okay! I just couldn't."

Jiang Cheng glares at him.

"As you heard," Wei Wuxian says, "I have to abuse your hospitality at least another night. I'm sorry if you—"

"Shut up," Jiang Cheng says, upset and tired by now. "Just—shut up, Wei Wuxian."

"You really need to work on your anger issues," Wei Wuxian says, sighing, almost like a joke.

"I'm trying," Jiang Cheng says, then immediately wishes he could take it back. He knows people can't tell, knows Wei Wuxian will probably just raise his eyebrows, disbelieving. But Jiang Cheng has been trying.

Some days he wishes someone could see that, acknowledge that. But admonishing himself and trying to control his temper is not worth a lot if it still ends up with him yelling at people. In fact, he'd probably feel patronized if someone tried to commend him. Besides, he's not a child anymore, needing someone else's approval.

Wei Wuxian does have his eyebrows raised, assessing him. Jiang Cheng feels small under his gaze and he hates it. He feels known, and he craves it.

"How about you work on your issues and I'll work on mine," he bites out.

Wei Wuxian blinks at him, then laughs awkwardly as always. "I guess that might be a good idea," he says. "I do need to do something about all of this," he says, indicating to himself, "if I'm to go back to Gusu."

Jiang Cheng grunts. "Don't let them talk you into following their three thousand rules. That's madness."

"Haven't you heard?" Wei Wuxian asks. "It's more like four thousand now." He leans back on the bed and winces before his expression clears again. Jiang Cheng's hands twitch.

"I guess," Wei Wuxian continues, "as long as Lan Zhan likes me like this, that's all that matters. Isn't it?"

Jiang Cheng scoffs. "He's an idiot about you. I can't believe he just let you go like that."

Wei Wuxian, thankfully, doesn't point out that that's exactly what Jiang Cheng once did.

"Oh, don't be so hard on him," he says instead. "It was my choice to leave. And I did want to travel! I just hadn't realized it would be so—Well. Never mind that now. It's all in the past already."

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. "It's useless talking to you."

Wei Wuxian laughs. It sounds brittle. "Yeah. I know."

"You could have at least gone to see Jin Ling," Jiang Cheng says, hoping to push the feeling of guilt back Wei Wuxian's way.

"I am sorry about that," Wei Wuxian says, voice sincere. "It just...Ah, but you don't want to hear this."

"Try me," Jiang Cheng says, crossing his arms.

Wei Wuxian folds his hands over his stomach and sighs.

"I was afraid of running into the junior disciples," he says. He's not looking at Jiang Cheng; he's gazing out the window instead. He looks more tired suddenly, face drawn. "They kept asking me to come visit Gusu again, and I just—They're great kids, really. Sizhui's—Well, anyway, it just seemed unfair. I did want to go back. Just...not like this."

Jiang Cheng makes a noise to indicate he's listening. He can't remember the last time they had a conversation that lasted this long. It might not exactly be going well, but he doesn't think he wants it to end yet.

"Maybe it was stupid of me," Wei Wuxian says. "I wanted to be on my own for a bit, figure things out, but it was actually really...lonely? I didn't think it would be."

Jiang Cheng clenches his fist. The idea of Wei Wuxian choosing to be alone, after everything, thinking that's something he should or want to be, is too maddening. Jiang Cheng knows loneliness. Jiang Cheng knows his brother.

"You really are a fool," he says.

Wei Wuxian laughs. "Yeah, I guess."

"You don't have to be alone," Jiang Cheng says. "You have—you have people. People who fucking care about you, don't you see?"

Wei Wuxian shrugs, not looking at him. He lifts his hand to wipe at his eyes. Jiang Cheng's stomach clenches.

"Wei Wuxian—"

"Ah, let's leave it," Wei Wuxian says, waving his hand. He turns to face Jiang Cheng again, a smile back on his face. "This conversation's too much, I'm tired of it. Aren't you, Jiang Cheng?"

Jiang Cheng stares at Wei Wuxian, his stomach sour. He doesn't know why he tried.

Wei Wuxian continues, heedless. "Let's pretend like you already called me an idiot again and I agreed, and now we can talk about something else. How's Lotus Pier? How's the new generation of disciples coming along?"

Jiang Cheng clenches his hand again, then relaxes it. Wei Wuxian might be done with this, but Jiang Cheng still has one more thing to say, and he's going to fucking say it.

"Don't let them change you. In Cloud Recesses."

Wei Wuxian's eyes go wide. "I—"

"You're still from Yunmeng!" Jiang Cheng says. "Don't forget that."

"How could I?" Wei Wuxian asks, voice quiet and gentle.

"You seem to have done a good job so far," Jiang Cheng says, unable to help himself yet again.

Wei Wuxian tilts his head. "Ah, Jiang Cheng. You know you can't tell what lies in someone's heart just by looking at them."

Jiang Cheng looks at his brother's face, his chest tight, his stomach clenching, and thinks of just how well he knows that.

Their silence is interrupted by a knock followed by the door sliding open. Jiang Cheng steps to the side, not even surprised to see Lan Wangji enter, followed by Lan Sizhui, Lan Jingyi, and Jin Ling.

"Lan Zhan!" Wei Wuxian says, his eyes lighting up. "Ah, and the kids! Come here, come here!"

"We're not your kids, Wei-qianbei," Lan Jingyi says, but he's grinning wide. He and Sizhui rush to Wei Wuxian's bedside as beckoned.

"Wei-qianbei, how are you feeling?" Lan Sizhui asks.

"Ah, I'm fine, I'm fine," Wei Wuxian says. "No need to worry." He catches sight of Jin Ling, hanging back, and raises his hand to him. "Ah, Jin Ling, what are you doing so far? Come here, let me see you!"

Jin Ling seems to still hesitate, so Jiang Cheng reaches out and squeezes his shoulder. "He's fine," he says quietly enough that only Jin Ling can hear. Jin Ling's eyes are on Wei Wuxian, but he takes a deep breath and nods imperceptibly.

"Come on!" Wei Wuxian says, smiling. "What do I have to do to get a better look at my favorite nephew?"

Jin Ling walks up to the bedside. "You know I'm your only nephew, right?" he asks.

"And yet you're still my favorite," Wei Wuxian says. His smile is genuine for once.

Jiang Cheng looks away. It's time for him to go.

He catches Lan Wangji's gaze almost by accident. Lan Wangji's expression hardens, as usual. Jiang Cheng stares back at him, daring him to say anything.

He's not surprised that Lan Wangji has already forgotten that were it not for Jiang Cheng, he might also have to be saying goodbye to Wei Wuxian at the end of this.

They glare at each other for a moment more, and then, unexpectedly, something shifts in Lan Wangji's gaze. He lowers his eyes, then turns away, back to Wei Wuxian.

Jiang Cheng leaves the room with his head held high, no matter that no one is watching him go.

~

Jiang Cheng's in the middle of handling the latest correspondence from the Baling Ouyang Sect when Jin Ling appears at his door.

Jiang Cheng raises his eyebrows. "What is it?"

Jin Ling strolls into the room, as if Jiang Cheng's response counts as permission. "Usually people say hi," he says.

Jiang Cheng lets Zidian crackle once. Jin Ling rolls his eyes. The boy has never really been scared of him—Jiang Cheng would call it a disadvantage if it didn't make him feel so warm inside.

"Usually people ask whether they can enter a sect leader's room," Jiang Cheng points out.

Jin Ling ignores this. "I just wanted to catch you before dinner."

"Oh?" Jiang Cheng asks. They're having a bigger dinner tonight with all of the disciples and Lan Wangji attending as well. Jiang Cheng figured it was as good a chance as any to show off Yunmeng hospitality. The cooks have been preparing for it for half the day—after assuring Jiang Cheng that no, it wasn't too much work.

Jiang Cheng was informed by Mingyan that Wei Wuxian is not well enough to join them at the dinner table yet. He tells himself he's glad about that.

Jin Ling draws his shoulders up and lets out a breath. "I just wanted to say I'm glad you were there at the night hunt. If you hadn't been..."

Jiang Cheng has tried not to think about what might have happened if he hadn't been there. More than that, he doesn't want to think about what would have happened if Wei Wuxian hadn't been there. If Jin Ling had gotten hurt...Jiang Cheng can't bear the thought.

He waves his hand. "You don't need to thank me."

"Still," Jin Ling says. "I know that as a sect leader I should be more independent. But I—I'm glad that you're still there for me."

Jiang Cheng clenches his jaw. Stupid child.

"I'll always be there," he says, voice rough. "No matter whether you want me to."

Jin Ling pauses, then smiles. There's something tentative about it, something grown-up.

"I know," he says. "It's just...I've been thinking about how you can never really be sure of anything. But I'm sure about you, jiujiu."

Jiang Cheng regards him, this boy, brash and spoiled and yet careful and kindhearted. Forced to deal with so much at his young age. "You've been thinking about Jin Guangyao," he says.

Jin Ling bites on his lip and nods.

Jiang Cheng is not surprised. He is somewhat surprised, however, that Jin Ling would be willing to talk about it. He really is growing up.

"It's just—" Jin Ling says, then stops, his expression turning frustrated. "I know he was awful. I know that now. And I mean, I never saw the two of you as the same, I always liked being in Yunmeng more—"

Jiang Cheng had suspected that, but it's still gratifying to hear it straight from Jin Ling. He'd always worried that it was just wishful thinking. Why would Jin Ling prefer Lotus Pier—still recovering, with no disciples his age, no one to spend time with, no personal servants to wait on him—to the glory of Lanling. But still, Jin Ling had.

"But I did trust him," Jin Ling says, and his face twists. "I did. I know now it was stupid—"

"It wasn't," Jiang Cheng says. "A lot of people trusted him. I trusted him, Jin Ling, or I wouldn't have left you there under his care. It's okay."

He's found that hard to come to terms with himself. It's no wonder Jin Ling is struggling. (Most of his energy, though, has gone into coming to terms with the revelation about his core. And his main strategy with "coming to terms with it" has been "ignoring it", so.)

"I—" Jin Ling says. His voice breaks. Jiang Cheng feels the urge to hug him. But that's not how it works. "I trusted him. I cared about him. I—"

"You can still miss him," Jiang Cheng says, as gently as he can. "Even if he did terrible things."

Jin Ling closes his eyes. Jiang Cheng watches him breathe, watches him swallow heavily and regain his composure. A moment more and Jiang Chen would have gone to him. Maybe he still should.

"Did you miss Wei Wuxian?" Jin Ling asks. There's something desperate in his tone.

Jiang Cheng draws in a deep breath. "...Yes."

Jin Ling nods, as if something has just been confirmed to him.

They stay there in silence for a while, Jiang Cheng sitting while Jin Ling stands before him.

Jiang Cheng wishes he knew the best thing to say—something about how this might not be the last time Jin Ling will feel like this, and how it's important he doesn't take on too much guilt—when Jin Ling speaks up again.

"You should tell him that."

"Tell who what?" Jiang Cheng asks, confused.

"Wei Wuxian, of course," Jin Ling says. "About you missing him."

Jiang Cheng snorts. "Yeah? And what good would that do, do you think? He's going to leave for Cloud Recesses and I doubt he'll return to Lotus Pier."

Jin Ling sighs. "Jiujiu. You're so smart, so how can you be this stupid?"

Jiang Cheng bristles immediately. "What did you say?"

"You heard me," Jin Ling says. "Tell him you missed him and that he's welcome in Lotus Pier. Then he'll come back to visit for sure."

Jiang Cheng clenches his fist. Zidian crackles lightly, slowly coming to life and curling around his forearm. "And what if he doesn't?" he asks. He wants to snap, but it just comes out tired. "Then what is the point?"

"Well, at least you'll have told him," Jin Ling says. "Isn't that the point? To be honest and to speak up when you can? I mean, that's what I've heard, at least."

"From who?" Jiang Cheng demands.

"From you," Jin Ling says. "It's what you taught me, when I was a kid."

Jiang Cheng swallows hard. It's possible Jin Ling is right. It's the same advice Jiang Cheng himself gave Lan Wangji, he knows. But that was different. It was clear to everyone that Wei Wuxian was absolutely obsessed with Lan Wangji. All Lan Wangji had to do was show that he felt the same.

Jiang Cheng doesn't have that kind of certainty. He may say that he missed Wei Wuxian and Wei Wuxian might only laugh that awkward laugh of his and pretend to have misheard or misunderstood and it won't change anything at all. It will only break Jiang Cheng's chest open and then he'll have to figure out a way to put it back together.

"I told him that he should come and visit Lanling," Jin Ling says quietly.

Jiang Cheng takes a deep breath. Oh, Jin Ling. "I'll see you at dinner."

Jin Ling's face falls. "Jiujiu—"

"Go on," Jiang Cheng says. "Go spend some time with your friends while you have the opportunity."

Jin Ling chews on his lip, then nods, and bows.

"I will take my leave," he says, voice formal once more. "And I hope that you will think about what I said."

Then he hurries out of the room before Jiang Cheng can say anything.

Jiang Cheng leans forward and rests his head in his hands. He is mostly annoyed and frustrated, but there's a quiet, aching pride deep within. He so rarely lets himself think this, as it simply hurts too much, but...he believes his sister would be proud of her son.

~

Dinner is less awkward than Jiang Cheng expected it to be.

It's bound to be at least somewhat uncomfortable, when it's full of young disciples and the only person from Jiang Cheng's generation who is present is Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji, who makes no attempt at conversation and barely responds to any of Jiang Cheng's comments. Jiang Cheng had planned on staying silent himself, but then he realized speaking might annoy Lan Wangji more.

"How do you find the tea, Hanguang-jun? Not too spicy for your palate, I hope? It's one of Wei Wuxian's favorites."

"Say, Hanguang-jun, how are the winters in Gusu? Not too cold, I hope. I'm afraid Wei Wuxian is quite used to warmer weather."

"Hanguang-jun, aren't you terribly busy as the Chief Cultivator? I do hope you still have time for your...private life."

Lan Wangji, frustratingly, fails to rise to the bait.

Jin Ling seems to be enjoying himself at least, talking happily with his friends. Jiang Cheng has taken care to make sure dinner is impressive enough while still having a relaxed atmosphere, so Jin Ling can feel more at ease and won't have to adhere to all of the rules that befall a sect leader. Occasionally he'll spot Jin Ling trying to muffle laughter into his sleeve. Jiang Cheng is glad to have done one thing right today.

Lan Wangji leaves the moment when it would no longer be considered horribly rude, no doubt returning to Wei Wuxian's bedside. Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes and pours himself another cup of wine.

He's contemplating a second serving of dessert—after the days he's had, he figures no one would begrudge him—when Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi approach him. He feels his eyes go wide, and immediately schools his features, before throwing a glance behind them. Jin Ling is still sitting at the table, talking with Ouyang Zizhen. When he sees Jiang Cheng looking his way he sits up straighter and smiles.

(Jiang Cheng is still not used to Jin Ling smiling at him so casually. He had assumed Jin Ling would keep scowling at him for years to come.)

Jiang Cheng turns his eyes back to the Lan boys. They bow at him respectfully and he inclines his head in return.

"Sect Leader Jiang," Lan Sizhui says. "We wanted to formally thank you for your assistance during the night hunt."

Jiang Cheng does not point out that he had been no help with the hunt, itself. He knows what Sizhui means.

He thinks of Jin Ling shouting in the yard, telling the Lan disciples that their sect wasn't the only one who cared for Wei Wuxian.

He nods briskly. "No thanks are needed. I did what had to be done."

"Still," Sizhui says, and smiles. His smiles are as hard to read as Lan Wangji's lack of them. "We are grateful."

He bows again, as does Lan Jingyi. Jiang Cheng wonders if Jingyi is also going to say something or if he's just there for moral support.

"I would also like to thank you personally," Sizhui continues, "for having your sect provide shelter and food for Wen Qionglin in Yunmeng."

Jiang Cheng holds back a flinch. He had, after all, given orders for it to be handled. He's a little surprised that Wen Ning would have asked for anything like that, but he's never had a good read on the man anyway.

He clenches his fist—out of sight of the boys—and nods. "Of course. Please, enjoy the rest of the meal."

Sizhui inclines his head, but doesn't leave. Instead he shoots a look towards Lan Jingyi. Jingyi makes brief eye contact with Jiang Cheng, then lowers his gaze.

"I would like to apologize," he says, "for what you might have heard me say in the courtyard. It was only meant in jest."

Jiang Cheng feels his brows climb high on his forehead.

"I did not mean to imply that Wei-qianbei would come to any harm in Lotus Pier."

Jiang Cheng knows he's the only one to hear the unsaid again, but it smarts all the same. He grits his teeth, and says, "Your apology is noted."

He must not have succeeded in keeping the hurt out of his voice, because both boys look slightly startled—or as startled as Lans ever look. Jiang Cheng tries to not let that upset him even further.

He's saved by Jin Ling joining them. He throws a quick glance at the Lan kids before turning to Jiang Cheng.

"Jiujiu," he says. "Could we talk? There's something I forgot to bring up earlier."

"You're too young to be forgetful already," Jiang Cheng says, eyebrow raised, the tension in his chest easing.

Jin Ling rolls his eyes. "Yes, but apparently I'm young enough to be 'easily distracted'."

"Who said that?" Jiang Cheng demands.

"Are you waiting to see who it is to decide on whether or not you agree with them?"

Jiang Cheng gives him a look.

"It was Jin Changsheng," Jin Ling says, a challenge in his eyes.

Jiang Cheng sneers. "Ugh."

Jin Ling smiles, wide. "Right?"

Jiang Cheng catches the moment when something changes on Sizhui's and Jingyi's faces, when the tension in their shoulders eases as they watch Jin Ling talking to him.

(After all, they are Jin Ling's friends. It seems that however distrustful they may be of Jiang Cheng, they still hold his opinion in regard. That's good.)

"We will take our leave," Lan Sizhui says, Jingyi bowing at his side. Jiang Cheng makes eye contact with Sizhui and notes the gentle smile on his face. It looks sincere enough. Jiang Cheng is under no impression that the kid will ever like him, but it seems their gratitude is not simply for show. He thinks, again, of how relieved they'd both looked when he'd shown up last night.

He dismisses them, and turns to Jin Ling.

"Can we talk outside?" Jin Ling asks.

Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes. "Why?"

Jin Ling shrugs. "Please?"

Jiang Cheng sighs, just to show that he's still Jin Ling's elder and doesn't appreciate being ordered around, but gets to his feet and follows Jin Ling out of the room. Jin Ling leads them to a more secluded area, overlooking the lake.

Jiang Cheng had thought at first that Jin Ling had shown up just to distract him, but maybe there really is something he wants to talk about.

"So, what did you forget to tell me?" he asks.

Jin Ling scuffs his boots. "I have to return to Lanling tomorrow," he says.

Jiang Cheng's stomach clenches.

"I see," he says. "Well, it's a wonder the elders let you stay away for so long."

Jin Ling's face turns sheepish. "I think they expected me back today."

Jiang Cheng looks at him sternly.

"Well, I couldn't just leave," Jin Ling defends himself. "Not with the way things were."

"I am sure the elders will understand that you were concerned for the well-being of a man who saved your life," Jiang Cheng says mildly.

"Oh, it sounds very proper when you say it like that," Jin Ling says, eyes widening.

Jiang Cheng huffs. "You should take an example from your Lan friends. They might be able to teach you how to politely say something that might otherwise be considered rude."

Jin Ling rolls his eyes, then smiles. "They're very annoying about it."

"Yes," Jiang Cheng says. "They certainly are."

Jin Ling's eyes brighten. "I thought you'd scold me for saying that."

"I would scold you if you said it in public," Jiang Cheng says. "However, it is a useful skill to have, and it seems the Lans have mastered it, annoying as it is."

"They're nice, you know," Jin Ling says, head tilted. "When they're not being annoying. Even sometimes when they are."

"Even the loud one?" Jiang Cheng asks.

"I know you know his name," Jin Ling says.

"Yes, because you've complained about him so often."

Jin Ling flushes. "Maybe. Whatever. They're nice. To me. Even when they don't have to be."

"That's good," Jiang Cheng says. He doesn't know how to tell Jin Ling that he's glad he finally has friends, because he's worried it might sound patronizing. Jin Ling had such a hard time making friends when he was younger. (Perhaps this new development is another reason why Jiang Cheng should be grateful for Wei Wuxian.)

"Yeah," Jin Ling says. "I guess it is." He chews on his lip, looking considering. Then he draws in a breath. "Jiujiu, you know I didn't stay just for Wei Wuxian, right?"

Jiang Cheng raises his eyebrows. "Oh?"

"I stayed because I wanted to see if you were okay," Jin Ling says. Before Jiang Cheng can process that, he adds, "Also to make sure Hanguang-jun wouldn't do anything when he found out Wei Wuxian was hurt."

Jiang Cheng inhales sharply, stepping forward. "You brat, do I need to be protected from Lan Wangji?"

Jin Ling shuffles several steps back, eyes wide. "No! Well, yes? I mean—"

"Jin Ling!"

"I didn't mean it like that!" Jin Ling says. "But he's always so rude to you! And you were worried about Wei Wuxian, and some of the other disciples from other clans were being weird, and—I just wanted you to be okay."

Jiang Cheng pinches the bridge of his nose, annoyed and possibly—slightly—overwhelmed.

"You don't have to worry about me, Jin Ling," he says, trying to keep his voice steady. "You're barely sixteen. You have a lot on your plate, and—even though I'm probably biased—I think you're handing it really well so far. You don't need to concern yourself with how I'm doing, on top of everything else."

"But you're my uncle," Jin Ling says quietly.

"Exactly," Jiang Cheng says. "So I worry about you. I look out for you. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Jin Ling says. He bounces on his toes for a moment, then darts forward for a hug. This time, Jiang Cheng is more than prepared for it. He lifts his arms and hugs Jin Ling back, hard. Jin Ling freezes for a moment before he makes a soft sound and squeezes Jiang Cheng even tighter.

Jin Ling's looking at his feet as he finally pulls back. Jiang Cheng taps at his shoulder with his sword.

"Go back to the dinner," he says.

Jin Ling nods, and looks up. His eyes look suspiciously damp.

Jiang Cheng reaches out with his other hand and briefly squeezes Jin Ling's shoulder.

"Thanks, jiujiu," Jin Ling says.

Jiang Cheng shakes his head. "You don't ever have to thank me."

Jin Ling blinks at him, and then smiles. "But I want to," he says.

Jiang Cheng swallows hard. "Go on," he says. "I'll see you later."

Jin Ling bows, still smiling slightly, and heads back to the dining hall.

Jiang Cheng wipes a hand over his face and turns towards the lake. He's not quite ready to go back just yet. Besides, since he's here already there's no harm in taking a moment to go check on Wei Wuxian, just to see that he's still properly being taken care of. Jiang Cheng will not have anyone say he doesn't know how to provide for his guests.

~

Jiang Cheng's almost reached the guest quarters when he hears footsteps and pauses on instinct. He glances around the corner—feeling ridiculous for sneaking in his own home—and sees Lan Wangji striding down the hall, away from Wei Wuxian's room.

Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes, waits for Lan Wangji to disappear from view, and heads right for the door.

Wei Wuxian's head snaps up as he enters—his expression falling for a second, before a small, surprisingly genuine smile takes over his face.

"Ah, Jiang Cheng, thank the gods you're here!"

"What?" Jiang Cheng asks. "Why? What happened?"

"Jiang Cheng," Wei Wuxian says, his voice turning pleading. "Can you bring me more food? Lin Mingyan said it was best if I didn't have anything spicy, so Lan Zhan only added the smallest amount of chili oil to my dishes. And he said I shouldn't eat too much either, but I'm hungry."

Jiang Cheng raises his eyebrows, scoffing. "If you can't even get Lan Wangji to feed you, what makes you think you'll have any luck with me?"

"Ah, Lan Zhan doesn't understand how good the food is here in Yunmeng!" Wei Wuxian says. "I don't know how, he's otherwise the perfect man."

Jiang Cheng makes a face. "Shut up."

Wei Wuxian chuckles lightly. It's not an unpleasant sound.

"Where is your Lan Zhan, anyway?" Jiang Cheng asks. "This is the second time I arrive to find him not at your bedside. I assumed he wouldn't let you out of your sight now that you've—you know—whatever."

Wei Wuxian grins at him. "Now that we've what?"

"Ugh," Jiang Cheng says. "Confessed your feelings, or whatever."

"Ah!" Wei Wuxian cries, grinning even wider. "I can't believe you said that! It looked like you were about to choke on the words."

"Fuck off," Jiang Cheng says. It's strangely exhilarating, to be teased by Wei Wuxian like this again. "So where is he?"

"Oh, he went to check up on Little Apple," Wei Wuxian says. "And to make an appearance at the dining hall to remind the kids that he is still here, so they can't get too wild. You just missed him; he'll be right back."

"He went to check on what?" Jiang Cheng asks.

"Little Apple," Wei Wuxian says. "Don't tell me you don't know my donkey's name."

Jiang Cheng shakes his head. "And you have the nerve to say I'm bad at naming pets."

"Little Apple is not a pet," Wei Wuxian says. "And it's still a better name than Princess for a dog. I see Jin Ling took after you in that regard, as well."

"Have you forgotten that you named Jin Ling after your stupid Lan Wangji," Jiang Cheng says. "It's idiotic that either of you would still have any questions about your feelings towards one another."

Wei Wuxian pouts at him. "You—!"

The door slides open. Jiang Cheng realizes he's wandered over to Wei Wuxian's bedside and takes several steps back, throwing a glare at Lan Wangji.

"You're very familiar with Lotus Pier, aren't you?" Jiang Cheng asks. "If you've forgotten knocking."

Lan Wangji gives him the briefest glance. "Wei Ying assured me it was alright."

Wei Wuxian is beaming at Lan Wangji. "How's Little Apple? Are the kids having fun?"

"She is fine," Lan Wangji says. "She was enjoying some apples, in fact."

"Ah, Jiang Cheng!" Wei Wuxian says, turning towards him. "Your disciples will spoil my donkey! She's already a handful!"

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. He notices Lan Wangji looking at him, his face for once clearly asking one thing — What are you doing here?

Jiang Cheng is getting tired of this. He tosses his head at Wei Wuxian and tells Lan Wangji, "He's still hungry. Considering I'm pretty sure he was half-starving while wandering around on his own after leaving Gusu, I'm not surprised."

Lan Wangji glares at him, as expected, but his expression clears when he turns to Wei Wuxian. He almost looks—gentle. It's awful. "You'll upset your stomach if you have any more right now," he tells Wei Wuxian. "You must rest."

"Ah, but Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian whines. "Please? Won't you have mercy on me?"

"You were hurt," Lan Wangji says. "And if Jiang Wanyin is right—" Jiang Cheng tries not to jerk from surprise "—and you haven't been eating properly, then you must take it easy at first."

Wei Wuxian deflates at that, mumbling something Jiang Cheng can't hear.

"I'm sorry," Lan Wangji says quietly.

Wei Wuxian looks up, his eyes going wide. "Ah, no, Lan Zhan! Don't look so sad! I know you're only looking out for me! It's just I've really missed the food here, but it's fine, it's fine, I guess it wasn't meant to be."

Jiang Cheng crosses his arms, uncomfortable with how dejected Wei Wuxian seems—and with the notion that apparently Lan Wangji currently looks sad.

He'd forgotten how painfully honest Wei Wuxian could be with his words when he forgot himself.

"Perhaps we can take some local spices with us to Gusu," Lan Wangji says.

Wei Wuxian smiles at that. "Ah, Lan Zhan. You're really too good to me."

Jiang Cheng scoffs. Wei Wuxian turns to him, his eyes bright. Jiang Cheng feels immediately on edge.

"You know, Jiang Cheng," Wei Wuxian says slowly. "The kids told me that you carried me all the way to Lotus Pier."

There's something hesitant in his voice. Jiang Cheng bristles. "We took the boats to Lotus Pier," he says. "Obviously."

"But you carried me to the boats," Wei Wuxian says. "You can't deny it, everyone saw."

Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes. "What's your point?"

"I just—" Wei Wuxian says. "Thank you. I wanted to say thank you."

"Idiot," Jiang Cheng says. He sees Lan Wangji puff up his chest and step forward. He valiantly ignores him. "What the fuck are you thanking me for? Not leaving you out there to die?"

"I guess," Wei Wuxian says, tilting his head. "Ah, no, no," he amends quickly, probably in response to whatever Jiang Cheng's expression has turned into—he's sure it's not pretty. "I know you wouldn't do that. Thank you, I guess, for not being afraid of people getting the wrong idea."

Jiang Cheng closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.

"What wrong idea?"

Wei Wuxian is quiet for a while. "Ah, Jiang Cheng, don't make me say it."

Jiang Cheng grips his sword and takes a step forward. "You—"

Lan Wangji is suddenly in his way, staring him down. "Go away."

Jiang Cheng glares at him, incensed. Lan Wangji should be thanking him. If not for Jiang Cheng, he would not even be here in this position, posturing in front of Wei Wuxian.

"Ah, don't fight," Wei Wuxian says. "There's no point, really."

"Sect Leader Jiang," Lan Wangji says, steel in his voice. "Is there a reason for you coming here?"

"Do I need a reason to move around freely in my own home?" Jiang Cheng asks. "A home in which you are a guest?"

Lan Wangji narrows his eyes.

"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says. "Come here, relax. Jiang Cheng was being quite polite, for his standards."

"Oh, fuck off," Jiang Cheng says.

Wei Wuxian laughs. Something in Lan Wangji's face seems to soften.

"Really, Jiang Cheng," Wei Wuxian says. "Of course you can go wherever you want in Lotus Pier. But did you want something? I completely forgot to ask. Is everything okay?"

Jiang Cheng throws one last glance at Lan Wangji and demonstratively steps to the side so he has a clear view of Wei Wuxian again. Wei Wuxian's eyes follow him, a bit hazy but curious.

Jiang Cheng takes a moment—just a moment—to look at him. His hair's a mess, he's somehow gotten sauce on the sleeve of his underrobe, his cheeks are slightly flushed, either from the warmth or the exertion, and he's alive, alive, alive.

Jin Ling's words come to mind, unbidden.

Tell him you missed him.

"I came here to tell you something," he blurts out.

Wei Wuxian mouth parts on an oh. Jiang Cheng feels his own eyes go wide. He didn't mean to—he can't—fuck.

"You did?" Wei Wuxian asks.

"Yes," Jiang Cheng says. "I—yes."

"Alright," Wei Wuxian says. "What is it?"

Jiang Cheng looks pointedly at Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji gazes back at him, face impassive once more. Jiang Cheng discards him and turns to Wei Wuxian, eyebrows raised.

Wei Wuxian rubs at his nose, looking apologetic. "Surely Lan Zhan can stay?"

Jiang Cheng sets his jaw. Of course Wei Wuxian wouldn't ask Lan Wangji to leave, not for Jiang Cheng. He tries not to let it sting.

"Ah, Lan Zhan, what if you close your ears," Wei Wuxian says.

Lan Wangji blinks slowly.

"Go on," Wei Wuxian says. "Just plug your ears for a moment. Please? For me?"

And then Chief Cultivator Hanguang-jun carefully places his hands on his ears.

Jiang Cheng stares. "You know there's a talisman for that."

Wei Wuxian waves his hand. "But he looks so much cuter like that, doesn't he?"

Lan Wangji's cheeks go faintly pink. Jiang Cheng is certain he can still hear them. This is stupid. He can't believe he has to be a witness to this. He can't believe Lan Wangji would do something like this in front of him.

"Well, what did you want to tell me?" Wei Wuxian asks.

"I didn't want to tell you anything," Jiang Cheng says. "It was all Jin Ling's idea."

Wei Wuxian looks curious at that. "And what does my favorite nephew want to tell me?"

"He's your only nephew," Jiang Cheng says.

"That's not the point," Wei Wuxian says. "He's—" He breaks off, his mouth twitching. He looks tired. "I'm glad that I'm alive to see him."

Me too, Jiang Cheng doesn't say.

He knows Wei Wuxian is thinking of Yanli, can tell it from the twist of his mouth, the gentleness in his eyes.

It's his fault that Yanli is no longer here, and Jiang Cheng hates that he can't hate him for it.

"So what is it?" Wei Wuxian asks, attempting a smile.

Jiang Cheng can't say that he missed Wei Wuxian. He can't. It's too raw, too confusing, too painful still. He can't even begin to unravel the feeling, how deep it goes. He hated him and loved him and missed him and wished he would never come back while waiting for his return every day.

But maybe he can say something. Just to make Jin Ling happy.

"If you want to visit Lotus Pier in the future," he forces out, his throat aching with how much he means it, "then you would be welcome."

Wei Wuxian's eyes go wide.

"What?" he asks, voice quiet.

"You heard me," Jiang Cheng snaps, and turns to leave.

"Wait!" Wei Wuxian calls.

"Wei Ying, careful," Lan Wangji says.

Jiang Cheng turns back to see Lan Wangji supporting Wei Wuxian, crouched awkwardly with his arm around him, as Wei Wuxian is struggling to get out of the bed.

Wei Wuxian is staring right at Jiang Cheng. "Do you mean it?" he asks, his eyes bright. "I can come visit? I can pay my respects to shijie and Jiang-shushu and Yu-furen with your blessing?"

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji murmurs, voice low. "Relax. You will upset your wound."

"Jiang Cheng," Wei Wuxian says. "Tell me you mean it."

Jiang Cheng stares at him, throat tight. "I mean it."

Wei Wuxian slumps backwards suddenly, as if his strings have been cut. "Oh," he says. "That's—Okay. Okay."

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says again. His hand goes to Wei Wuxian's forehead, gently brushing away strands of hair.

Jiang Cheng's chest feels too small. "Go to sleep," he says. "I'll see you tomorrow."

Wei Wuxian, impossibly, smiles. "Okay."

Jiang Cheng nods at him and takes his leave. He expects to lie awake for hours that night, but he finds himself sleeping better than he has in months.

~

Wei Wuxian leaves the next afternoon.

Jiang Cheng is standing on the pier, watching the disciples setting up the boats, and tries to tell himself that he's glad to see Wei Wuxian go. Glad to have Lotus Pier return to its usual routines.

He'd assumed that Wei Wuxian would be forced to stay for another day, but Lin Mingyan had cleared him for travel in the morning and it was clear that Lan Wangji was itching to return to Gusu. And Wei Wuxian could never deny Lan Wangji anything, could he?

Jiang Cheng folds his arms and glares at the boats. Jin Ling is set to leave as soon as Wei Wuxian is on his way, and Jiang Cheng doesn't want to think about how quiet the place will be after he goes with his dog in tow. Not that he's seen Fairy much recently; Jin Ling has kept her out of sight just in case Wei Wuxian were to leave his rooms.

His glaring is interrupted by Wei Wuxian calling out to him. Jiang Cheng turns and watches Wei Wuxian wave Chenqing at him as he's making his way down the pier. Jiang Cheng remembers with a sudden clarity how he found the flute at the bottom of the cliff; how he took it back to Lotus Pier and kept it hidden from everyone, hoarding it, hoping for—

"Ah, Jiang Cheng, come to see us off?" Wei Wuxian asks as he reaches Jiang Cheng's side. He's moving slower than usual. Jiang Cheng wishes he'd taken another day to heal before leaving, but it's not like he's going to ask him to stay.

Lan Wangji is talking with his disciples in the distance, though he keeps looking Wei Wuxian's way every now and then as if he's afraid to let him out of his sight. Jiang Cheng is horrified to find that he can relate.

Wei Wuxian follows Jiang Cheng's gaze and grins. "Ah, isn't he great, Jiang Cheng?"

Jiang Cheng valiantly keeps his mouth shut. He feels he should be given some sort of prize for the restraint he's just shown.

"I really can't believe he—" Wei Wuxian says, before cutting off. "Ah, never mind. You hate hearing about this anyway, I know."

Jiang Cheng, again, does not say anything. Some sort of reward, surely. Even if it's something as simple as getting to pet Fairy for a bit, he'd take it. An acknowledgment is enough.

The thing is, yes, he does hate hearing Wei Wuxian waxing poetic about the great Hanguang-jun and whatever their relationship is now. Jiang Cheng is honestly expecting a wedding invite soon.

That is, if they'd even extend him an invitation. He swallows hard, his stomach suddenly sour.

In any case, he hates hearing about it, but that doesn't mean he doesn't want Wei Wuxian to talk to him. He always found Wei Wuxian to be annoying, over-sharing constantly, but it was worse when he stopped. And by that point Jiang Cheng didn't know how to say, "Wait, I know I told you I hate it when you talk, but I don't mind it half as much as the silence."

"I can't remember the last time I took the boat from here to Gusu," Wei Wuxian says. "Could it really have been when we went for our lessons?"

Jiang Cheng grunts in response.

"Ah, that was really..." Wei Wuxian says, trailing off. "That was nice."

He looks subdued, lost in thought. Jiang Cheng's stomach twists. He misses his brother and yet his brother is right here.

Wei Wuxian shakes himself, takes a deep breath, and then winces, crossing an arm over his middle.

"Does it still hurt?" Jiang Cheng asks.

"No, I'm fine, I'm fine," Wei Wuxian says. Jiang Cheng scoffs. "What? Oh, fine, it's a bit tender. But I think it's healed well. When it first scratched me, I really thought for a moment that I was done for. But hey, it turned out fine. I was lucky that the kids are all so brave."

Jiang Cheng glares at him.

Wei Wuxian smiles. "And I was lucky that Sect Leader Jiang was there as well. In fact," he says, and then bows, "thank you for providing care for this humble servant."

Jiang Cheng stares at him, his chest tight, his stomach gone cold.

"Ah," Wei Wuxian says, blinking at him. "Jiang Cheng, stop glaring at me. I'm only trying to be polite!"

"Well stop trying," Jiang Cheng forces out between gritted teeth.

Wei Wuxian frowns and tilts his head. Then his face clears and he punches Jiang Cheng in the shoulder.

It's only a light punch—whether because he's recently injured or lacking his core—but it seems to shake something loose in Jiang Cheng's chest. Just slightly, but enough to notice.

"Perhaps next time," he finds himself saying, "you can stay in your own quarters. No reason for you to be taking up the guest rooms, you're not that important."

Wei Wuxian blinks at him for several moments until his face goes horribly soft.

"Jiang Cheng," he whispers.

Jiang Cheng looks away. "Next time, then, if you're healed, you could also enjoy some Yunmeng cuisine."

He can only hope Wei Wuxian hears what he doesn't say. "You better take care of yourself or else."

"I..." Wei Wuxian says, voice quiet. "I would like that."

Jiang Cheng nods briskly, still not looking at him. He can't bear to see whatever Wei Wuxian's face is doing, especially if it's not what Jiang Cheng's hoping for. If it's just pity or him placating Jiang Cheng.

"Jiang Cheng," Wei Wuxian says.

He's saved, ironically, by Lan Wangji appearing by their side, as if summoned.

Jiang Cheng turns to him and inclines his head.

"Hanguang-jun, was the room that was prepared for you to your liking?" he asks, suspecting that Lan Wangji didn't set a foot in it, but curious to see if he will lie about it.

Lan Wangji blinks at him calmly. "I am sure it was."

"Ah, Lan Zhan refused to leave my side," Wei Wuxian says. He sounds delighted, practically bragging. Jiang Cheng refrains from rolling his eyes. (Honestly, an award.)

He turns away from them both and catches sight of Wei Wuxian's infamous donkey, being led on a string by Lan Jingyi. A perfect match, Jiang Cheng thinks privately.

He has Sect Leader Ouyang's son with him, followed by Lan Sizhui and Jin Ling.

"Kids!" Wei Wuxian says, sounding delighted. "Are you ready for the trip back? I hope Little Apple won't give you too much trouble."

"I'm sure we can manage, Wei-qianbei," Sizhui says.

Jiang Cheng turns to Wei Wuxian, raising his eyebrow in question.

"We decided not to torture Little Apple by putting her on a boat," Wei Wuxian tells him. "I did that for only a few hours one day and she despised it. I thought she was going to run off as soon as we got back on land and leave me without a ride. So Sizhui and Jingyi, the good boys they are, offered to take her by land."

"It will be fun," Jingyi says, sounding as if he expects it to be anything but.

Wei Wuxian laughs, and Lan Sizhui smiles, while Lan Wangji's face does...something strange. Jiang Cheng tries not to think too much about it.

Jin Ling turns to Jiang Cheng, and says, "I'm going to accompany them for a bit before heading off to Lanling."

Jiang Cheng does not point out that the journey directly from Yunmeng to Lanling would take a lot less time. If Jin Ling wants to delay arriving in Lanling by at least half a day then Jiang Cheng supposes that's his right.

"Can I come with you as well?" the Ouyang Zizhen asks, looking hopeful.

"Of course, Zizhen," Sizhui says. "But your father's probably expecting you back by now. I'm sure he's worried."

Zizhen shrugs. "I sent word that I'm okay. I'll come with you until Jin Ling leaves, and then I can head back."

All of the boys look pleased with this idea. It strikes Jiang Cheng again how by their age, he was already head of the sect. He's glad most of the younger generation hasn't experienced such trauma, and it makes him want to protect Jin Ling even more fiercely. He's too late with that, though, so all he can do is be there for support. His failure stings, as always, but it's easier to push it aside when he has Jin Ling in front of him, cautiously smiling at his friends.

"You better set off now if you want to make it to a nice inn before dark," Wei Wuxian says. "And don't have too much fun, okay."

"What do you know about having fun?" Lan Jingyi asks.

Wei Wuxian clutches at his chest. "That hurts, Jingyi, it really does."

"Be careful," Lan Wangji says, his voice deep. "Uphold the sect motto. Do not take unnecessary risks."

"Do not worry, Hanguang-jun," Lan Sizhui says. "We'll be fine. Wen-qianbei is waiting to meet up with us outside Lotus Pier. We won't be alone."

Lan Wangji does seem reassured by that. Jiang Cheng looks over to Jin Ling to see what he thinks of this, but Jin Ling's busy whispering about something with Jingyi, unbothered.

"We shall set off then," Lan Sizhui says. He turns to Jiang Cheng and bows. "Thank you for your hospitality and your help, Sect Leader Jiang."

Jingyi and Zizhen hurry to follow suit, while Jin Ling bows and murmurs, "Take care, jiujiu."

"Travel safe," Jiang Cheng says. He suspects the Lans probably still don't trust him that much, but he can also see they're a lot more open-minded and better with people than the previous generation was. He hopes the boys won't hesitate to ask him for help in the future if it's needed.

"I'll circle back and get Fairy from the courtyard, and then we'll leave," Jin Ling says, looking at Wei Wuxian. "You won't have to see her."

Wei Wuxian blinks at him for a moment. "Ah, thank you. Thank you, Jin Ling. Such a good boy, isn't he, Jiang Cheng?"

"Yes, he is," Jiang Cheng says. Both Wei Wuxian and Jin Ling look surprised for a moment as if they didn't expect him to agree. Jin Ling goes faintly pink.

"Aww," Jingyi and Zizhen say in unison.

"That's so nice," Zizhen says, sounding actually genuine, while Jingyi asks, "Are you embarrassed?"

"Shut up," Jin Ling mutters. "Get the donkey."

Jingyi rolls his eyes and starts dragging the donkey away as Sizhui and Zizhen bow to Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji before following him.

Jin Ling's eyes dart to Jiang Cheng and away. For a moment, Jiang Cheng almost thinks the boy is going to hug him right there, in front of everyone. He can feel himself tensing in anticipation.

Jin Ling, however, bows quickly to all of them again and turns away as well. Jiang Cheng fights off a sudden wave of disappointment. Jin Ling's a sect leader, after all. It would be best if there weren't any public displays of favoritism.

Jiang Cheng's about to turn towards Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji to politely wish them a safe journey when he sees Jin Ling slow his steps.

Then Jin Ling curses loudly, spins around, and throws himself at Jiang Cheng for a hug. He's gone before Jiang Cheng has the chance to embrace him back, running to catch up with his friends. They've all stopped to watch him, their expressions a picture of surprise (Zizhen), delight (Jingyi), and a quiet contentment (Sizhui).

"Jin Ling!" Wei Wuxian calls out. "Can I get a hug from my favorite nephew as well?"

He's teasing, as always, but Jiang Cheng knows him well enough to hear the sincerity underneath.

Jin Ling turns around, arms crossed, face still red. He probably only heard the teasing note, and his hackles are already going up. Jiang Cheng catches his gaze and shakes his head.

Jin Ling pauses. "Maybe if you come to Lanling," he says.

"Ah!" Wei Wuxian says, sounding delighted, his mouth a wide grin. "I'll hold you to that, Jin Ling!"

Jin Ling rolls his eyes, but he doesn't look displeased. He waves quickly at Jiang Cheng and turns to head out with his friends. Jingyi shoulder-checks him, and Jin Ling pushes him into the donkey. All of the boys laugh.

"That's nice," Wei Wuxian says.

"What?" Jiang Cheng asks.

Wei Wuxian shrugs. "Jin Ling making friends. Feeling comfortable enough to hug you in front of everyone. Honestly, I probably wouldn't have had the face for that at his age."

"You have the thickest face out of everyone," Jiang Cheng says.

"Ah, yes, but that's different," Wei Wuxian says. "Anyway, he was such a grumpy and rude child when I first met him, but look at him now. What do you think, Lan Zhan?"

Jiang Cheng feels himself bristling—even though he mostly agrees, he still can't let someone else talk about Jin Ling like that—but before he gets the chance to snap, Lan Wangji says, "His temper is too quick, but he is young. He is doing better as a sect leader than I expected."

"Aw, is that all you have to say?" Wei Wuxian asks. "I think he's growing up really well. He's a good boy."

Lan Wangji pauses. "He did stab you, Wei Ying."

Wei Wuxian laughs at that. "Ah, don't hold that against him, Lan Zhan. I certainly don't." He turns to Jiang Cheng. "I think he will do well to uphold the Jiang Sect motto."

Jiang Cheng tries to ignore the small sting he always feels whenever someone mentions the motto and focus on Wei Wuxian's kind words instead. "He does need to work on his temper," he says. "But he has A-jie's heart."

He sees Wei Wuxian take a deep breath and let it out, a sad smile on his face. Their eyes meet and Jiang Cheng thinks that maybe one day, the hurt won't run quite as deep. Maybe one day they can talk about her and it won't feel this hard.

Wei Wuxian coughs lightly and says, "Anyway, did the Jin Sect even have a motto? I really can't remember. Lan Zhan, do you know?"

Lan Wangji says calmly, "Perhaps it is time for a new one."

Wei Wuxian bursts out laughing. "Ah, Lan Zhan, you have to warn me next time," he wheezes, draping one arm over Lan Wangji's shoulder and clutching his stomach with the other. "Ow, it hurts to laugh."

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says, sounding alarmed, his arm going around Wei Wuxian's waist.

Jiang Cheng stares at them in reproach. On second thought, maybe he's glad they're leaving already. He couldn't possibly deal a moment longer with a Wei Wuxian who is actively encouraged to throw himself at Lan Wangji and a Lan Wangji who apparently, according to Wei Wuxian, makes jokes.

"I'm fine, I'm fine," Wei Wuxian says. "Come on, let's get on the boat, I'll be fine. I can't wait to get to Cloud Recesses and see all of the rabbits. How have they been, Lan Zhan? Have they missed me?"

"Mn," Lan Wangji says, his arm still around Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian leans into him and Jiang Cheng is honestly considering just storming off and leaving them to it when Wei Wuxian pulls away from Lan Wangji with a small sigh.

"Come on, let's go," Wei Wuxian says. "You can hug me on the boat, right?"

"Mn," Lan Wangji says. "As many hugs as you want."

"Oh no, don't say that," Wei Wuxian says, covering his eyes with his hand. Jiang Cheng agrees. "Lan Zhan, you're too good. Let's go, let's get out of Jiang Cheng's hair."

Lan Wangji's levels Jiang Cheng with a blank gaze, as if he's only just remembered again that he's there. Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes.

Lan Wangji inclines his head. "Thank you, Sect Leader Jiang, for your hospitality and for providing care for Wei Ying."

"There is no need for thanks," Jiang Cheng says, voice rough.

Lan Wangji stands up straight, and turns back towards Wei Wuxian. "I will make sure everything is set up," he says. "Then we can leave."

"Okay, I'll be right there," Wei Wuxian says, his voice soft.

Lan Wangji gives Jiang Cheng a quick glance from the corner of his eye, as if telling him to behave. Jiang Cheng feels himself bristle, but then Wei Wuxian steps in front of him with a hesitant look on his face.

"I know you hate me saying so," he says, "but I am grateful. It was...good to see Lotus Pier again. I hope to visit again soon."

Jiang Cheng looks at him and for once does not think of everything standing between them, everything that lies in the past. He hopes that with practice he can start to do that more. He doesn't know if it will be easy, but he thinks it will be worth it.

"Don't forget what I told you," Jiang Cheng says.

Wei Wuxian tilts his head. "You know I have a terrible memory," he says, "but I promise I'll try."

Jiang Cheng swallows hard. "I will, too," he says.

Wei Wuxian smiles. Jiang Cheng smiles back.