"Why would one person like another person? I’m talking about that type of like? Isn’t it like tying a noose around your own neck?”
A-jie had never answered Wei WuXian’s question. And with all that had happened afterwards, Jiang Cheng had almost forgotten about the question altogether. Had almost forgotten about her altogether.
No. Not true. He had never truly forgotten about her. As busy as he’d been, as tired and frustrated as he got with the rebuilding of his Sect and the lack of help from Wei WuXian, there were still moments when he looked around Lotus Pier and wondered...wondered what she would think of it.
What she thought of him.
Would they ever see each other again? Had she taken that comb? Or was she already dead too? Had she been among the screams, the pleads of mercy he had heard?
He knew now, the answer to these questions.
Because she had taken it, had kept it, but hadn’t used it. Because she doubted him, because she knew his limits, because in her eyes...in her eyes he was weak. Well of course, she had only ever seen him when he needed help, hadn’t she?
Why would one person like another person? That type of like?
There was no good reason. It just...was.
Isn’t it like tying a noose around your own neck?
Yes, yes it was. But she had untied the knot, slipped the rope from around his neck, freed him from it.
Released him from a promise, an obligation, a responsibility.
He had other responsibilities. Plenty of them. He should feel grateful, that he no longer had to keep this promise made in a moment of weakness. To a woman who didn’t want him, for whom he wasn’t enough...a woman he should not still want.
Responsibilities. He was Sect Leader of YunMeng Jiang. She was a Wen. It was impossible to begin with, made even more impossible now.
Impossible. Wei WuXian had always been the one to manage the impossible.
“In this world, it’s the three of us that’s closest.” A-jie had said.
“I won’t leave Lotus Pier. I won’t leave you and Jiang Cheng.” Wei WuXian had said, vowed? Promised?
Or were those just empty words too? The same as when he promised to support Jiang Cheng as Sect Leader? As his father had supported Father?
But Wei Changze had also left Father in the end. For a woman too. They even had a son.
Jiang Cheng’s fist closed around the comb that had been returned to him. Had she chosen Wei WuXian? Had Wei WuXian in turn chosen her?
Wei WuXian was the one who she asked about, even in that prison when he had cut off the chains. Wei WuXian was the one who she asked to help rescue her brother. Wei WuXian was the one she had been looking for even in Qishan.
But of course. Wei WuXian had saved her brother, had saved her relatives before too, hadn’t he? Why shouldn’t she trust that Wei WuXian would risk everything to do it again?
Was history to repeat itself? If they were to die, though, it would not be on some night hunt. Only fear of the Burial Mounds and of Wei WuXian himself prevented the Jins from attacking right now. But even that fear could be overcome. That was how the SunShot Campaign came to be, after all. When fear turned to anger and resentment.
Resentment. Jiang Cheng was no stranger to it. If they were to die…
Good heavens, there was already a child, wasn’t there? Not that the Jins would spare him either. But if the child survived, just as Wei WuXian had...would Jiang Cheng be as magnanimous as Father had been?
He knew the answer to that question too.
He had always been more his mother’s son.
He went back to the Burial Mounds, just as he and Wei WuXian had planned. He unsheathed Sandu, while Wei WuXian twirled ChenQing.
He could feel Zidian lighting up too, saw Wei WuXian glanced at it warily.
Of course. Zidian has been Mother’s. She had used it to whip Wei WuXian at Wang Lingjiao’s command. Had almost succeeded in killing Wei WuXian with it. Mother had felt no remorse, had...had probably been wanting to punish Wei WuXian like that for years.
Jiang Cheng had so many reasons to be angry. He really could treat this fight as a real one. Could really reject Wei WuXian, could really wash his hands of her. He could. He’d done it before too. Had wrapped his own hands around Wei WuXian’s neck and squeezed. Had let her walk away from him time and again. But…
But the noose was of his own making. And he had yet to free himself from it. Even now, the comb was still a steady presence next to his heart.
He was not Father. Nor was he Mother.
He threw Sandu onto the ground.
Wei WuXian looked at it in shock, “what are you doing?!”
“Is it her?”
“The one you like,” Jiang Cheng asked, doing his best to keep despair at bay.
“What are you talking about?!”
“I heard your question to A-jie. She’s the one, isn’t she? The noose around your neck? Why else would you risk everything?”
Wei WuXian gaped at him.
“And she obviously thinks well of you too. Her brother is the most important person in her life to her. She...she entrusted you to help her, help them. She…”
He had to pause, to keep the tears at bay.
He shook his head, “you don’t have to elope, as your parents had. Come back to Lotus Pier. Bring her. Bring all of them if you must. As your...as your wife, as my sister-in-law…she...she falls under my protection too. A-jie will help too; she’s always wanted a sister, I think.”
“You...but you said, the others, they…”
Jiang Cheng glared, “ I am the Sect Leader of YunMeng Jiang. They get no say in this internal matter.”
“They could destroy you, destroy everything you’ve been trying to build.”
Ah. So Wei WuXian wasn’t completely oblivious.
“They can certainly try.” Jiang Cheng looked at ChenQing, then back up into Wei WuXian’s face, “you promised. You promised to support me. As your Sect Leader, I am asking...no, I am commanding you to stand with me.”
Wei WuXian was quiet for a long moment before saying, “you’re doing this for her, aren’t you.”
It wasn’t a question.
Jiang Cheng gritted his teeth to keep from commenting.
“I had suspected,” Wei WuXian shared, “back in Mount Dafan…”
“It doesn’t matter,” the words slipped out before he could stop them, “she chose you.”
A look of understanding settled on Wei WuXian’s face, “oh Jiang Cheng…”
“I don’t want your pity.” Jiang Cheng declared, “Will you stand with me or not?”
“She won’t agree.” Wei WuXian said confidently, “she doesn’t think of me in that way.”
“ That way.”
Wei WuXian looked sad, “it’s not her.”
“Not her? Then why would you…”
“Because she needed help,” Wei WuXian answered, “because she and Wen Ning had helped us, despite the risk to themselves. Because she had been imprisoned and he had been beaten for it. Because we, because I, owe them debts.”
“And what of your debt to YunMeng Jiang? To my parents?”
“Jiang Cheng…” Wei WuXian looked even sadder now. “I’m trying to save you. Don’t you see? All I’ve ever done...all I’ve ever done was bring trouble, bring calamity to Lotus Pier. Madam Yu was right...it’d be better if Uncle Jiang had never found me.”
And here Jiang Cheng thought he was the only one with self-esteem problems.
“I’m not kicking you out of YunMeng Jiang,” he declared stubbornly, “the disciples still view you as Head Disciple. You are still...annoyingly popular with them despite your behavior in recent months.”
“You don’t get to run away and hide,” Jiang Cheng said angrily, “you don’t get to make me answer all the inquiries. For once in your life, Wei WuXian, you get to clean up your own mess.”
“And Wen Qing?”
He’d marry her himself to save her. But she had made it clear that it wouldn’t be something she’d want.
“Sister,” he said, even though it was breaking his heart again to say the word, “sworn sister. Much as Jin GuangYao sheltered ZeWuJun, she sheltered us. And her brother had...as you reminded me, he ensured that my parents could be buried properly. He can be our brother.”
“Even though he’s…”
“Can you fix him or not?”
Wei WuXian hesitated, which really did not help Jiang Cheng’s temper.
“I...can. But he...he still wouldn’t be all...normal.”
“Does she know?”
Wei WuXian rubbed the side of his nose, “she’s never exactly asked…”
Jiang Cheng shook his head. “We’ll figure it out. When we’re all back in Lotus Pier.”
He sent off a Jin butterfly to Carp Tower.
“Who was that to?”
“A-Jie,” Jiang Cheng answered.
“She’s still in Carp Tower?”
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng answered tightly.
Wei WuXian frowned, “and you let her stay there?”
Jiang Cheng glared at him, “she’s made her choice.”
“Then what was the message for?”
“She’s not married yet.”
“Married?” Wei WuXian looked alarmed.
“Married.” Jiang Cheng repeated.
“To the Peacock?”
Jiang Cheng just glared at him again before picking up Sandu and sheathing it, “well, shall we?”
“Shall we what?”
Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes, “pack up, go back to Lotus Pier.”
“You’re serious.” Wei WuXian looked surprised.
Jiang Cheng snorted and just started walking up the path again. He once again surveyed the makeshift houses and the freshly tilled patches of ground. The villagers stopped in their tasks and turned to stare again.
He didn’t see her though.
“She’s with Wen Ning.” Wei WuXian’s voice was soft.
Wei WuXian smiled down at the child wrapped around his leg, “Ah, A-Yuan, aren’t you supposed to be with popo?”
“Uncle Four,” A-Yuan shared.
Good heavens, the child even had dimples.
“Well, then, let’s get you back to him.”
A-Yuan shook his head, “want to play with Xian gege.”
“Stay,” Jiang Cheng told Wei WuXian, “I’ll go talk to her.”
Wei WuXian looked doubtful, “are you sure that’s a good idea?”
No. It was likely a terrible idea, one of the worst ones he’s ever had, second only to his decision not to walk away from this...this mess. And if he did, then what? A-jie would leave him once she married. Wei WuXian would stay in this forsaken place. He’d be...Lotus Pier would feel so empty, wouldn’t it? More than anything, Jiang Cheng was afraid of being alone. He had felt so alone, in those days when he didn’t have a Core. The loneliness had persisted during the months of the war. He could not bear to be alone again.
He didn’t answer Wei WuXian, just set his jaw and walked towards the cave entrance. It yawned wide, dark and menacing...the last time he had walked into a cave in the company of a Wen, he had barely made it out alive. And though he had his sword with him again...it was ineffectual against what awaited him inside, wasn’t it?
She was sitting at his brother’s side, gazing with such despair and sadness into the cage of talismans. He had never seen her look like that. She had always been so collected, so confident, so…
He despised the defeated expression on her face, abhorred the slump to her shoulders, hated that she looked like she had been crying.
She turned and her eyes widened.
How could she still manage to look so beautiful even cloaked in so much despondency? How did she manage to glow even in the gloom of this place?
Her lips parted, but she didn’t seem like she was capable of speech.
“Come to Lotus Pier,” he said without preamble, “bring your brother. Bring your people.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Stop being a Wen. Be a Jiang.”
“Be a Jiang?”
He nodded, “yes. I am offering my protection.”
“Wei WuXian was right to remind me that we still owe you a debt.”
“It’s already been paid,” she insisted, “when you released me.”
He shook his head, “that was just for my life. My sister’s, my brother’s, those have yet to be paid. And there’s the bodies of my parents too. Though that debt is more towards your brother.”
Her brother who whimpered, “hurts...hurts…”
She looked into the cage, her expression so full of hopelessness.
“Be...be my sister.”
She turned toward him sharply, “your what?!”
He tilted his chin stubbornly, “sworn sister. You’ve made it obvious that you don’t...you don’t think of me that way. And Wei WuXian says you don’t think of him that way either. He certainly doesn’t think of you that way. Since you won’t marry either of us, you’ll just have to be our sister.”
She was quiet for a long moment before saying, “the world...they’ll turn on you.”
He shrugged, “we’ll see.”
“You want me to stake my safety, the safety of my people, on...on…”
“You’d rather stay in the Burial Mounds instead?” He interjected, “where the very soil, the very air, is likely poisonous? You may be able to stand it, but what about the others? They’re just the young, the elderly, and the weak.”
“They’re survivors,” she argued stubbornly.
Oh yes, they had survived whatever calamity had befallen Mount Dafan, hadn’t they? Twice even.
“Why won’t you let me help?”
She stayed silent.
“You let Wei WuXian help,” he rephrased, “why am I different?”
“You’re Sect Leader Jiang,” she said quietly, tiredly, “you can’t afford foolish heroics.”
He scowled, “I really think that’s for me to decide.”
She studied him for a long time before saying, “the Wens have destroyed Lotus Pier, have ruined you once already. I can’t…”
“So you’d ruin, destroy Wei WuXian instead?” He asked sharply.
She looked away from him, back towards her brother, “I…”
“He is already mistrusted,” he shared, “they’re already dubious of his abilities, already speculating that he’s...he’s becoming the next Wen Ruohan. The Seal he created, that he still keeps...they say it’s the last Yin Iron piece.”
“You want me to examine him, evaluate him, treat him,” she said, her voice dull.
“You’re a healer,” he reminded her, “you’ve already treated A-Jie and me. You have the opportunity to collect the whole set now.”
She looked at him with a frown, “I can’t tell if you’re joking or not.”
“Come to Lotus Pier,” he said again, “find out.”
She asked him something unexpected then, “do you know what you’re doing?”
No. No he didn’t. Not really. A part of him definitely wondered if he’d regret it.
“I’m trying to save my brother from himself.” He answered instead, appealing to the part of her that felt driven to help, even when she shouldn’t. “He’s always been too idealistic, too optimistic. He thinks that good intentions are good enough. I know otherwise.”
Her expression was as inscrutable as...as when she had returned the comb. He dreaded her rejection, knew that it would shatter him for good this time. If she said no...some part of him would die, he knew that with certainty.
He blinked at her, certain he had misheard. “Beg pardon?”
She stood, again holding herself so straight, so strong, so confidently. “It may be the biggest mistake I’ll ever make. It may be the biggest mistake you’ll ever make. But...alright.”
He took a breath before nodding, “well then. Shall we?”
She looked at him oddly for a moment before nodding curtly in return, “we shall.”
A-jie was waiting for them in Lotus Pier.
Jiang Cheng was honestly surprised that they hadn’t been attacked on the way home.
Wei WuXian was looking around himself as though...as though he had expected never to see this place again. Idiot.
The Wen Remnants were looking around themselves as well.
Not Wen Qing though. But then, she had an ill child to sooth.
“What’s wrong?” A-jie asked immediately.
“He doesn’t seem to like boats,” Wen Qing shared as A-Yuan made a whimpering noise in her arms, his face still hidden against the crook of her neck.
“Ah.” A-jie made a sympathetic sound, “you must all be tired. I’ve had some simple dishes prepared. A-Xian, will you lead them to the banquet hall?”
Wei WuXian snapped to attention, “of course, Shijie.”
A-jie turned towards Wen Qing, “I’ve had rooms prepared. The little one would probably like to rest for a bit first. If you’ll follow me?”
Wen Qing hesitated, “A-Ning…”
“He should rest too,” A-jie said gently.
Jiang Cheng wordlessly gestured for two of the disciples to carry the gurney.
Wen Qing glanced at him briefly before turning back towards A-jie, “thank you.”
A-jie just smiled, “we’re sisters, now, aren’t we?”
“Sisters…” Wen Qing murmured, “I’ve...I’ve never had a sister before.”
A-Jie’s smile broadened, “me either. But I think I’ll like it very much.”
Wen Qing tentatively smiled back, “I think I will too.”
Jiang Cheng watched them go. His heart ached. How he wished…
But she was here. She was here. Alive. Breathing. Unharmed, as far as he could tell. Though he couldn’t help but recall that she had bruises not just on her wrists back on Yiling. Should he have let her go then? If he had been more insistent…
He suppressed a sigh before turning to the rest of the disciples, “this decision I have made, it will not be a popular one.”
“They’re just civilians,” one of them said, sounding thoughtful, “none of them even own a sword.”
His words were met with nods from his companions.
“They’re of YunMeng Jiang now,” Jiang Cheng said solemnly, “and YunMeng Jiang protects their own.”
His disciples all straightened, “yes, Sect Leader.”
Jiang Cheng nodded, “to the training field, then. We must prepare for the worst.”
Jiang Cheng read through the summons that had arrived from Carp Tower.
He didn’t bother to stand up from the Lotus Throne as he answered, “No.”
“No?” Jin ZiXuan looked startled.
“No.” Jiang Cheng repeated, “my sister may be marrying you soon, but that does not make me your father’s subordinate. I may be young and inexperienced, but I am a Sect Leader of a Great Sect too. I do not , will not answer to LanLing Jin. Particularly in this private, family matter.”
Jiang Cheng nodded curtly, “yes. Family matter. Tell your Father that YunMeng Jiang is perfectly capable of solving our own problems. We do not want nor need outsiders to interfere. As for the guards that had been killed...I offer my apologies. But they had attacked my brother first. Wen Ning just acted in self defense.”
“They sheltered us, after the fall of Lotus Pier. Wen Ning was the one who snuck me and my parents right from underneath Wen Chao’s nose. They were imprisoned for it, treated as traitors because of it. They may bear the Wen name, but they never shared in the Wens’ crimes. They are of YunMeng Jiang now. Any slight to them, I will see as a slight to me.”
“I see.” Jin ZiXuan paused, “and the Seal?”
“Why should we hand it over?”
Jin ZiXuan frowned.
“I am not my father,” Jiang Cheng informed him, “I fought in the war too. I know what people are saying about Wei WuXian. They’re wrong. Truly idiotic and foolish if they believe Wei WuXian of all people would go down such a dark path. We’ll find a way to destroy it.”
Jiang Cheng lifted an eyebrow, “what else should be done with it?”
Jin ZiXuan looked thoughtful.
“If there’s nothing else,” Jiang Cheng started to say dismissively, only to be interrupted.
“Jiang guniang...is she...that is, Mother wondered if…”
“The auspicious date has already been chosen,” Jiang Cheng said, “we will still honor it, if LanLing Jin does as well.”
“But of course. Why wouldn’t…” but Jin ZiXuan fell silent too.
Well. He was a Sect Heir too. And the optics on this marriage now…
“A-jie’s life was also preserved because of them,” Jiang Cheng noted, “she is in possession of a gentle spirit and a kind heart. But she is also most protective of her family.”
Jin ZiXuan didn’t make any verbal response, but he did bow before departing.
Jiang Cheng let out a breath before going to find Wei WuXian. They really did need to talk about the Seal. Even if he had implied that he’d let Wei WuXian use it to defend Lotus Pier...it really wasn’t a realistic solution.
“Ow! Wen Qing! So abusive!”
Jiang Cheng paused outside Wei WuXian’s room at such an exclamation.
“Oh please,” Wen Qing’s voice was stern, “I know for a fact that these needles don’t really hurt that much. At most they may pinch a little.”
“I still don’t see why you have to use needles of all things.”
“Do you want to die of qi deviation?”
There was a moment of silence, before Wei WuXian said, “you didn’t tell Shijie, did you?”
“Nor Jiang Cheng.” she must have shaken her head.
Jiang Cheng. She had used his name. This noose around his neck will never disappear, will it?
Wei WuXian let out a long breath, “I still don’t regret it.”
“Even though you’re actively dying?”
“Isn’t that what the needles are for?”
She sighed, “that’s just a short term solution. The Seal...it really is sucking your very life force from you. Had you not made that sacrifice, you might have had more time.”
“I still don’t regret it,” Wei WuXian repeated.
“Because you’re a self-sacrificial idiot,” she told him.
“You’d do the same for Wen Ning.”
“You had said that back in Yiling too.” Her voice was quiet.
“I know it’s asking a lot,” Wei WuXian was subdued too, “for you to continue to lie to both of them.”
“You’re my patient. I’ll keep your confidence.”
“He was your patient too. It bothers you, doesn’t it? That you never asked for consent?”
“Your brother...I should not have let him help. Sooner or later, he’ll regret it.”
“Yes...no...I don’t know.”
Wei WuXian sighed, “Qing jie…”
“It’s just the calm before the storm,” she sounded so grim, “something’s going to break soon.”
“I’ll destroy it,” Wei WuXian said after a moment, “once...once I return Wen Ning to you. It’s...it’s the last thing I’ll do with it.”
“I...I don’t know if I want you to bring him back anymore.”
“He won’t ever be normal, will he?”
“You did. But...but I’ve just been clinging on to a fool’s hope, haven’t I? I know the extent of his injuries. I know that he was barely clinging to life by a thread. I know...know that it’s resentment that’s keeping him tethered to this world right now. A-Ning...A-Ning had always been so good, so driven to do the right thing. I...what am I doing? Condemning him to an existence? Chief Cultivator had threatened...had threatened to turn him into a puppet. Now, by my own selfish desires...I…” she cleared her throat, “I wish I could talk to him. I wish...I wish I could ask him…”
Silence reigned, and then Wei WuXian said thoughtfully, “maybe you can…”
“Inquiry,” Wen Qing repeated, sounding a little more hopeful. “Do you think he would…”
“He…” Wei WuXian paused a little, “he let us go. At QiongQi Pass. He had let us go.”
“So he had.”
“He...he told me...at Phoenix Mountain...he told me he still was...”
“Just...just was. Is. Well, maybe not anymore.”
Another silence then she asked, “do you want to find out?”
“Yes...no...I don’t know.”
Jiang Cheng tiptoed away; he had heard enough.
He sent a relatively straight-forward message to Cloud Recesses.
Wei WuXian is dying .
They buried Wen Ning in a hidden glade in the woods nearby Lotus Pier. A quiet but lovely place. Appropriate for a boy whose very name meant peace ( 宁) and beautiful forest (Qionglin 琼林) .
Wen Qing was wearing white, her complexion pale despite the heat of the flames as she burned paper money for her brother’s trip to the afterlife. Her relatives knelt in a half circle around her, chanting prayers for their departed. Even little A-Yuan seemed to understand the solemnity of the occasion.
Wei WuXian stood to the side, his eyes on the swirls of smoke, his expression so very subdued. Lan Wangji watched Wei WuXian, his brows furrowed just faintly, but his eyes revealed clearly his worry.
A-jie sighed from next to Jiang Cheng, “I do not know if I could be as strong in her shoes.”
Wen Qing had asked for privacy. She spent almost a whole day conversing with her brother’s spirit via Lan Wangji and his guqin. Her eyes were definitely red-rimmed when she left the room and retired to her own. The next morning, she summoned her relatives so that they could each say their goodbyes too.
“I should have asked,” Jiang Cheng murmured, “if she would have wanted to bury him in Mount Dafan.”
A-jie looked at him carefully, “A-Cheng…”
“It’s not safe though,” he continued, “as it is, we may still be attacked at any minute.”
“I wrote to ZiXuan,” A-Jie shared after a moment, “to ask for a delay.”
“We’re in mourning still, aren’t we? For our parents and now for our brother. A-Qing should not be alone.”
“She wouldn’t be.”
“The two of you can barely take care of yourselves,” A-jie commented softly, “let alone...she carries such heavy burdens, insists on carrying them all by herself. And now the light of her world has just been extinguished. She should not be left alone, in the dark.”
As she must have been, back in Yiling. Three months was a very long time, wasn’t it? Wei WuXian had spent it alone too. Alone, in the dark, becoming one with the darkness.
No. Not quite. Wei WuXian had his own light too.
Wen Qing’s relatives left, but she lingered. Knelt and gazed at the gravestone. As still as a statue herself.
A-jie went to her side, knelt softly on the ground next to her before wrapping her arms around her.
Wen Qing still didn’t move a muscle.
“It’s alright to mourn,” A-jie murmured, “you do not have to be so brave at all times.”
It took a moment, but then Wen Qing’s expression and bearing both crumpled and she clung to A-jie. “I promised him...I promised to take him away from QiShan...I told him I could cure his illness. I failed, on both accounts. I failed...in so many other ways too.”
“You asked what he would have wanted.” A-jie said softly, “you honored his choice.”
“Choice…” Wen Qing shook her head, “I’ve made so many wrong choices.”
She lifted her head to look at Wei WuXian.
He was kneeling too. “I said I’d destroy it.”
He held a half of the Seal in each hand. “It might have helped us win the war, but...it’s a curse, isn’t it? No one should have such powers.”
A cracking noise sounded in the glade.
Wei WuXian’s brows furrowed, his eyes glowed red, wisps of blackness radiated from him.
He gave a gasp as one of the halves seemed to have dissolved in his hand.
He looked down at blood soaked fingers, wrapped it around the other half, concentrated again.
It too was destroyed. But Wei WuXian collapsed, would have fallen but for Lan Wangji catching him.
Wen Qing moved quickly to assess him. “Oh.”
Wei WuXian smiled a little, “it’s alright, Qing-jie.”
“You knew.” She sounded heartbroken but also angry.
“I made it,” he reminded her.
A tear fell down Wei WuXian’s cheek, “I’m sorry Lan Zhan. You really do deserve a better soulmate.”
“Shijie...I’m sorry for making you cry again. I’m sorry for breaking my promise to stay with you.”
“Wei WuXian, what did you do?” Jiang Cheng demanded.
“Ah shidi, I’m sorry for leaving behind another mess for you to clean up. Take good care of Qing jie, won’t you?”
But Jiang Cheng never got the chance to answer as Wei WuXian’s eyes closed and his whole body went limp.
Jiang Cheng stared at SuiBian. He remembered how the sword had sealed itself when they found it in Qishan. Lan Wangji had checked. Jiang Cheng hadn’t though. Had he checked then…
He reached, grabbed hold of the hilt with one hand and the scabbard with the other. Paused.
Wei WuXian hadn’t died. Not for lack of trying. He and the Seal were linked in such an intimate way, after all. It stole of his life while also sustaining his life. A most awful symbiosis.
Was their brotherhood not the same?
He pulled. SuiBian only gave a little bit of resistance before the blade reflected the light of the lanterns.
Jiang Cheng stared. His own reflection stared back.
So. He had proof now.
He replaced the blade, set the sword back on his desk.
He heard a sound, halfway between a sob and a laugh. Was he the one making such a noise?
Wei WuXian had kept his promise after all.
His body still lived, even if barely, according to Wen Qing. She was doing all she could to keep it stable. He still breathed, even if it was shallow. He still had a pulse, even if it was faint.
But Wei WuXian’s spirit wasn’t there, no matter how much, how insistently, Lan Wangji played Inquiry.
Where had it gone?
Did they want to know?
Lan Wangji had left, but not back to Gusu. Burial Mounds. Why would Wei WuXian return there though? To that accursed place where his life became intertwined with, inseparable from resentment? Ah, but maybe he really was there, precisely because of that bond.
Three months really was a long time, wasn’t it? For both of them to become someone else. For both of them to become soldiers, killers. It may have been a war, but...but they were both so capable of ruthlessness, of anger, of vengeance, weren’t they?
No. Not true. He was, yes. Jiang Cheng knew himself well enough to know that he was, deep down, a creature of anger, of violence. Sandu ShengShou, a title he had earned justly.
But Wei WuXian...Wei WuXian still wished to help. Wei WuXian had seen the Wen prisoners standing in front of the archery targets and had felt indignant at the injustice of it. Wei WuXian had not hesitated to help Wen Qing. Not because of debts owed but because…
“Someone has to care.” He had said, even back at Muxi Mountain.
No wonder Father had always favored him. No wonder Lan Wangji chose him. Wei WuXian was good in a way Jiang Cheng would never be.
It was a mockery, almost, that he could wield SuiBian if he truly wished to. But it wasn’t his sword. Wasn’t his Core.
He went to find Wen Qing. She was in the library, as expected. Researching. Not that she’d find much. Lotus Pier’s library might not have been burned, but the works collected had always focused more on tales of adventure and travels. Their founder had been a rogue cultivator, after all.
“Would it help?” He asked, before he lost the nerve, “for you to put it back?”
She paused, looked up to meet his eyes, “put what back?”
“The Core. His Core.”
She had schooled her expression into an inscrutable one again. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He held out SuiBian, “Pull it.”
“Pull it,” he insisted again.
She stared at him a moment longer before placing her hand on the hilt and tugging. It didn’t budge, not that Jiang Cheng had expected it to. Not that she had expected it to either.
“Lan Wangji couldn’t either,” he shared, “and if I were to ask A-jie, she wouldn’t be able to either, would she? Nor any of the disciples.”
She looked down at the book in front of her.
His heart sank, even though the truth had been before him this entire time.
“But I can.”
She did not ask him to prove it.
“He had once said that eavesdropping was beneath the dignity of a Sect Leader. I hadn’t intended to eavesdrop, either time. But I still heard.” His grip tightened on the sword, “if it would help, do it.”
She shook her head, “I can’t.”
“You have my permission this time,” he said, not without great irony. He still had scars, even if they were faded. Even she could not completely erase them though. Particularly not the one she had given him. It was small, particularly compared to the whip marks he still bore, but it held more significance to him.
She looked back up, repeated, “I can’t.”
“You are Sect Leader Jiang,” she reminded him yet again.
He was. He had responsibilities, duties, obligations…
And yet...he was Jiang Cheng, Jiang Wanyin too.
“Is that the only reason?”
She shook her head, “it wouldn’t help. Even with a Core...he’d still just be an empty shell. His spirit, his soul, the true essence of him would...would still be...be lost.”
Lost. Weren’t they all lost in some way? Cast adrift by the chaos of the world? Unmoored by the consequences of their own actions and sacrifices?
“I lost mine so he could be saved,” he confessed.
Her eyes widened, “what?”
He didn’t think he’d ever share this secret. “Exactly what I said. I distracted them so he wouldn’t be captured. But I’ve never been as fast, as nimble as him. They caught me. They…”
His voice trailed away. Well, she knew well what had been done to him, didn’t she?
She sounded sincere too.
He shook his head. “In the grand scheme of things...you’ve been punished, haven’t you? You’ve lost your brother for ruining mine. That makes us...even, does it not?”
Something flickered in her eyes. Even. It was the word she had chosen to use, back in Yiling, wasn’t it?
“Does it?” She asked.
“Do you regret it?”
The same question Wei WuXian had asked her. Would she give the same answer?
“I don’t know.”
It sounded honest.
He breathed out. “LanLing Jin should leave us alone now. With the Seal gone. With you brother buried. With Wei WuXian...indisposed...lost.”
Lost. What an apt term.
“But in case they do not…you should train too. I don’t expect you to fight to kill. But someone has to protect A-jie in case there is an attack. You are...the two of you are sisters.”
“Sisters,” she repeated.
“Not the way I had hoped,” he admitted, “but...but Wei WuXian had asked me to look after you. Even had he not, I…”
He cleared his throat, “A-jie needs someone to support her. I’ve never been good at comforting others.”
“And you think I am?”
Another unexpected question.
“You’re a healer, aren’t you?”
“I’ve always done better with the concrete, with flesh and bone,” she stated, “with knives and needles than with…”
“You seemed to have done fine with A-Yuan.”
“A-Yuan is a child.”
“Aren’t we all? We’re all even orphans, aren’t we? Including Lan Wangji.”
She studied him a moment longer before saying, “I’ll try.”
He nodded, “thank you.”
Her voice made him turn back, “yes?”
“I...I really am sorry.”
He almost asked her to clarify. “I’ll try to forgive you.”
A lie. He had already forgiven her. Anyone else and he would have held a grudge, would have raged, would have...would have struck out to hurt. But she…
Well, surely she had been punished enough too?
She bowed her head and he returned to his study.
Well, not quite. He stopped by Wei WuXian’s room first, to return the sword.
She looked up, her eyes so shadowed, “A-Cheng…”
She must have looked like this in Yiling too.
“We’ll find a way. He’s...he’s not gone, just...just lost. We’ll find him again. And then I’ll break his legs for making you cry.”
“Oh A-Cheng.” She didn’t smile, but did reach for his hand.
“He’s still with us. Just…”
“Lost,” she murmured. “Do you remember, A-Cheng, when he first came to Lotus Pier?”
“When he had run away because I didn’t want to share?”
“You still helped me look for him, though.”
“Because Father would have been upset.”
A-jie shook her head, “I don’t believe that.”
Jiang Cheng looked at Wei WuXian. He looked so peaceful. So still. It was unnatural.
“You told us we were brothers. Insisted upon it.”
“Because you are.”
Jiang Cheng squeezed his sister’s hand. “In this world, we just have each other. That’s always been the case, hasn’t it? Even when Mother and Father had been alive.”
“A-Cheng…” she sounded so sad again.
“We still have each other. And more besides.”
Jiang Cheng knew that tone of voice. He had been wondering when A-jie would get around to asking finally.
“She declined.” He answered before his sister could ask.
She sighed. “We are so much alike, aren’t we?”
“She’s alive, safe. I’m going to do my best to keep her that way. That’s all that matters.”
“I wish I could tell you that it gets easier.”
He shook his head, “it’s enough.”
She probably didn’t believe him. He appreciated that she just hugged him instead of saying so.
Lan Wangji returned from the Burial Mounds. Tired, sullen, heartsick. Wen Qing assessed him, stuck her needles into him too, to dispel the lingering resentment.
Unlike Wei WuXian, Lan Wangji did not utter a single word of complaint. He was so still, stared so stoically into nothing, that he really appeared to be carved from jade.
A-jie set a bowl of soup on the table when Wen Qing was done.
“Will you stay?”
Only his eyes moved.
“You’re welcome to stay,” A-Jie said softly.
Lan Wangji looked at Jiang Cheng.
“She’s right. Your presence here could only help.”
“Help whom?” Lan Wangji finally spoke.
“Everyone.” Jiang Cheng stated. “You, him, us.”
Most of the minor Sects had severed ties for Jiang Cheng’s choice. Sect Leader Yao had even told Jiang Cheng that his father would have been ashamed of him. Jiang Cheng had disagreed.
It wasn’t much of a loss, anyways. The Yao Sect was even worse off than the Jiangs.
The Great Sects, except for LanLing Jin, had yet to make official comments.
Lan Wangji was silent, likely thinking the matter over, before stating, “I will stay.”
Jiang Cheng nodded, “your brother?”
“Xiongzhang...xiongzhang will understand. He wanted me to befriend Wei Ying.”
Lan Wangji met his eyes, “soulmate.”
Jiang Cheng nodded, “very well. A-Yuan will be happy.”
Lan Wangji blinked.
“He needs a father figure.”
Lan Wangji had that small furrow between his brows again.
“Wei WuXian thought of him as a son,” Wen Qing said softly.
Lan Wangj’s expression didn’t change, but he still managed to exude grief.
“A-Xian’s just lost,” A-Jie declared, “we’ll find him again.”
Lan Wangji didn’t sigh, but he did nod.
And that was that.
A year passed. A-jie finally married.
Neither Lan Wangji nor Wen Qing attended the wedding. They stayed behind in Lotus Pier, just in case.
Jiang Cheng returned early from Carp Tower, found them in A-jie’s favorite pavilion.
Lan Wangji nodded at him but did not pause in playing his guqin.
Wen Qing looked up briefly from her book but did not speak either.
Jiang Cheng poured himself a cup of wine, but did not yet drink.
They probably made for a strange trio. And yet, it still was appropriate. He still had an older sister, an older brother. There was still a YunMeng Trio.
The one person who united them, who had brought them together, still lay asleep, was still lost. Wen Qing had managed to find a way to put him in semi-stasis. No lost muscle tone for Wei WuXian, when he eventually woke.
When. Not if.
“A-Yuan needs a courtesy name,” Wen Qing broke the silence.
“SiZhui.” Lan Wangji replied readily, without interrupting his song.
Appropriate. The child had been ill. A fever that stole many of his memories. None of his Xian gege though.
“Romantic.” Wen Qing commented.
Lan Wangji just continued to play.
“Lan SiZhui?” Jiang Cheng wondered.
“Yes,” Wen Qing answered.
Lan Wangji finally paused, his fingers stilling over the strings. “Lan SiZhui?”
Wen Qing nodded, “he should not have to bear the burden of the Wen name.”
“He is Wei WuXian’s son.” Jiang Cheng noted.
“Lan SiZhui,” Lan Wangji repeated before nodding and resuming his song.
“How was the wedding?” Wen Qing asked Jiang Cheng.
“I imagine so.”
“But A-jie’s happy.”
“Yanli jie deserves to be happy.”
They each retreated to silence again.
Lan Wangji stood next, “Nine o’clock soon. Good night.”
She waited until Lan Wangji was out of sight before speaking again, “will you be next?”
“To be married.”
Such a question…
He finally downed his wine, grimaced a little at its strength.
“Uncle Four’s newest brew,” she shared.
“I wouldn’t know,” she said primly.
She didn’t drink. He had learned that about her. And why would she? She had spent her life being so in control of herself. Her life and that of her brother’s probably depended on it.
He poured himself another cup.
“I made an offer once,” he shared. He could always blame the wine later. “I was rejected.”
He poured a third cup, stared at the liquid. “She became my sister instead.”
The sound of his name, falling from her lips, made him look at her again. It really was unfair for her to be so beautiful still. She had gone back to wearing red. White was so impractical for a healer, after all. And it had been a year.
“Do you forgive me?”
“My brother is still lost.”
“Yours is still gone.”
“I know,” she repeated, in a more subdued manner now.
“Do you regret it?”
“I...I don’t know.”
He drank the wine. “Then I don’t either.”
She frowned, though whether in confusion or annoyance he couldn’t tell. He still had such a difficult time reading her.
“You didn’t stay, for the festivities.” She commented.
“I don’t feel much like celebrating.”
“You prefer to drink alone instead?”
“I’m not alone.” He pointed out, “you’re here, aren’t you?”
She plucked the cup from his hand before he could drink again.
“What are you…”
She downed it in one gulp, made a disgusted face. “I don’t understand the appeal.”
“The wine or your company?” The wine was definitely at fault.
She narrowed her eyes at him a moment before admitting, “both.”
“It’s strong.” He stated.
“The wine or me?”
“You’re wrong,” she said, even as she poured another cup.
“About you or the wine?”
She drank, still wincing at the burn, “me.”
He took the cup from her, “you don’t drink.”
“Maybe I should start.”
“Don’t. It’s a terrible habit.”
“You drink much less than he had.”
“I’ve always had more sense.”
He drank before admitting, “maybe not. At least, not in this.”
She reached for the cup again, but he turned to keep it from her grasp. “One of us should stay sober.”
“Must it be me?”
“ My sister got married today.”
“She’s my sister too.” She said as she grabbed the wine jar itself and drank directly from the spout.
He stared at her, “Wen Qing…”
Her cheeks were unnaturally flushed as she stared back, “it really does taste awful.”
“I think that’s enough for you.”
She shook her head, “I think I can understand the appeal now. Everything’s gone fuzzy and…”
She actually giggled when he reached, unsuccessfully, for the wine, “there’s two of you now.”
She took another drink before frowning. She removed the lid and turned the container upside down, shook it a little. “Ah. All gone.”
She let him take it from her this time.
“Can you walk?”
“I think we should both call it a night.”
“Hmm.” She staggered to her feet, “no celebrating?”
“I don’t feel much like celebrating.”
She nodded and tried to walk, but stumbled and would have fallen but for him catching her.
She looked up at him, eyes somewhat glazed, “you’re strong.”
She was much too close.
“Can you walk?” He forced himself to ask again.
“Of course I can!”
But she was definitely unsteady.
He sighed before picking her up in his arms.
“Oh!” She clung to his neck reflexively. “See! Strong.”
“You’re not exactly heavy.” He said as he started walking towards her room.
She giggled again, “is that a compliment, Sect Leader Jiang?”
He bit his lip to keep from saying something he shouldn’t, particular when she laid her head against his shoulder with a contented sigh.
He thought she had fallen asleep. Her eyes were closed, after all, as he set her on her bed. She didn’t even protest when he slipped off her shoes before tucking the blanket around her.
“Stay…” her hold on him was slight.
He turned back towards her. Her cheeks were still flushed, though her eyes seemed more focused now.
“Don’t tempt me.”
She tilted her head, “Is that what I’m doing?”
He clenched his hands into fists to keep from tucking away a random strand of her hair. “Yes.”
Her eyes closed again as her hand dropped from his sleeve, “I’m sorry.”
He stayed a moment longer, but she did not open her eyes nor speak again.
He still couldn’t resist bending down and kissing her forehead. “Good night, Wen Qing.”
She did not stir, even though he could tell she wasn’t actually all asleep yet.
He forced himself to stand, to walk away, to cross the threshold and close the door. He did stand a moment, head pressed against the wood, before sighing and returning to his own room.
She was still alive. And safe. And here. It had to be enough.
“Yanli jie is with child.” Wen Qing informed them over dinner one day.
“Already? They just got married.”
“It’s been a few months.”
Jiang Cheng made some wordless grumbles.
“Congratulations.” Lan Wangji offered politely.
“A-Yuan will have a cousin soon.”
Lan Wangji blinked, “yes.”
“If it’s a boy, I know what Wei WuXian would name it,” Jiang Cheng speculated.
“What?” Wen Qing asked, genuinely curious.
“Of course he would,” she commented dryly, though she looked amused too.
Jiang Cheng shrugged, “it’d even be a good name.”
“Suggest it to Yanli jie then.”
“I think I will.”
Lan Wangji made a huffing noise.
They both looked at him.
“You approve then?” Wen Qing asked.
Lan Wangji didn’t quite roll his eyes, but he did look amused, “Sect Leader Jin might not appreciate it.”
“Chief Cultivator now,” Jiang Cheng reminded him.
“Sect Leader Jin.” Lan Wangji repeated, voice full of steel.
Jiang Cheng snorted. “Isn’t holding grudges against Lan rules?”
“I’m not in Cloud Recesses anymore.”
“Poor Master Lan. He would be appalled.”
“Shufu...shufu had never been fair to Wei Ying. Always just saw Cangse Sanren rather than Wei Ying himself.”
“Sometimes...sometimes I wonder if that wasn’t also true of my parents.”
It should have been odd, to exchange a look of understanding with Lan Wangji.
“No wonder he felt like he was expendable.”
Trust Wen Qing to speak so bluntly and so honestly.
“Wei Ying is not…” Lan Wangji started to say, his voice defensive.
“I didn’t say he was,” Wen Qing interjected smoothly, “he is brave and clever and heroic. But much too self-sacrificial for his own good.”
Is. Not was.
Well, for all that Lan Wangji wore white all the time, Wei WuXian was not truly gone, was he? Just...lost.
“Would you like to visit Cloud Recesses with me?”
Wen Qing looked openly surprised, “what?”
“The Library Pavilion is without parallel.”
“I still have a token.”
“But I don’t.”
Lan Wangji didn’t quite shrug, “I wanted to show A-Yuan the rabbits.”
“A-Yuan is your son.”
“And you are my sister.”
Wen Qing looked at him a moment before turning towards Jiang Cheng, “could I?”
“You don’t need my permission.” He told her. Even though it was...nice, that she thought to ask for it. “Lotus Pier is your home, not your prison.”
At least, he hoped Lotus Pier had become her home.
“And I know HanGuangJun will keep you safe.”
Not that he wouldn’t still worry.
Something softened in her expression before she turned towards Lan Wangji. “If it would not be too much trouble.”
“No trouble,” Lan Wangji said with certainty.
And even if it was, Lan Wangji would ignore it, wouldn’t he? His devotion to Wei WuXian was…
Well. He had a noose around his neck too, didn’t he?
They went. Jiang Cheng tried not to yell at the disciples too much. He didn’t think he succeeded.
He pretended not to see the looks of relief on the disciples’ faces as A-Yuan made an appearance.
“Finally back? Where’s your Rich gege and gugu?”
“Library, with books. So many books.”
The child nodded, “Lan shushu let us borrow them.”
So kind, was ZeWuJun.
“What brings you here?”
“Kites!” The child pointed upwards.
“Yes, kites,” Jiang Cheng agreed, “for target practice.”
“Both your Xian gege and your Ning shushu were quite skilled. When you’re a little older, you’ll get to learn too.”
“I will?” A-Yuan beamed at the prospect.
“Yes.” Jiang Cheng said, “for now though, shall we see which one of your shixiongs can shoot the highest and furthest?”
“Will they get a prize?”
Jiang Cheng shrugged, “it’s just practice.”
“Oh, but there could still be a prize!” A-Yuan insisted.
“What would the prize be?” Jiang Cheng asked curiously.
A-Yuan scrunched up his face in thought.
Jiang Cheng glared at the disciples who turned towards them curiously. They obediently turned back to the task at hand.
“Candy!” A-Yuan at last decided. “Gugu only lets me have candy on very special occasions.”
“Your gugu is very conscientious about keeping you healthy.”
“Oh. Well. Gugu is a healer.”
“Hmm, yes. The best healer in the world.”
A-Yuan beamed, “she really is, isn’t she? She makes all my booboos go away just like that!”
Jiang Cheng didn’t quite smile back; he had a reputation to uphold, afterall.
“Candy it is,” he declared before yelling at the disciples, “alright, put your best effort forward!”
Jiang Cheng took A-Yuan to the pier market, to pick out the candies for the prize. The child was well-liked. Like Wei WuXian, he was easy-going, personable. Like Lan Wangji, he was unfailingly well-mannered, polite. Like Wen Qing, he had such curiosity and thirst for knowledge.
“We should find a present for gugu, too. It’s her birthday today.”
“Oh yes,” A-Yuan said knowledgeably, “Popo and Uncle Four both said to remind you.”
A-Yuan nodded before tugging him in the direction of a stand, “Gugu doesn’t like things to be too fancy though. She’d much prefer something practical.”
Jiang Cheng looked at the row of combs, “I don’t think…surely she already has one.”
A-Yuan frowned a little before moving to the next stand, “these are pretty! Shiny too!”
“Does your gugu like shiny things?”
“Ah. Maybe not.”
Amongst the various bejeweled hairpins, however, one simple one stood out. Jiang Cheng reached for it. The wood was strikingly similar. He didn’t have to pull out the comb for comparison.
Before he could think more of it, he told the shopkeeper, “this one.”
A-Yuan looked at it, “pretty.”
“Do you think your gugu will like it?” Jiang Cheng asked as he paid.
“She’d probably prefer a book.”
“Oh.” He stared at the carved lotus blossom. It was rather presumptuous of him, wasn’t it?
“But it is pretty,” A-Yuan offered. “Like gugu.”
“She is very pretty, isn’t she?”
A-Yuan tilted his head before smiling again, “come on, Jiang shushu, we must go deliver the prize now!”
Neither Lan Wangji nor Wen Qing were at dinner. Jiang Cheng sighed and gave instructions to the servants. Together, they walked towards the library.
Sure enough, the two of them were surrounded by books and scrolls.
They looked up at him. Lan Wangji blinked as the servants set out the dishes on a nearby table.
“Thought you might be hungry.” Jiang Cheng shared.
Wen Qing put down her brush, “we could probably use a break.”
Lan Wangji looked stubborn for a moment before relenting.
“I heard it’s your birthday,” Jiang Cheng told Wen Qing.
Her chopstick paused in midair a moment, “heard from whom?
“How would you like to celebrate?”
She shook her head, “no need to fuss.”
Lan Wangji slid something across the table, “from xiongzhang. So that you may consult the Library Pavilion anytime you wish.”
Wen Qing looked at the jade token, “oh. But…”
“He appreciates your input regarding ChiFengZun.”
“ChiFengZun?” Jiang Cheng asked curiously.
“ZeWuJun apparently regards me as some sort of expert on qi deviation.”
“Aren’t you?” He asked her reasonably.
Wen Qing didn’t answer as she took another bite of her meal.
“For you,” Jiang Cheng said, laying the hairpin next to the token.
She stared at it then back up at him.
“You are of YunMeng Jiang,” he reminded her.
“I already have a bell.”
He shrugged, “it’s your birthday.”
She tied the token at her waist, but did not yet touch the hairpin, “thank you.”
Lan Wangji excused himself, after the dishes were cleared, no doubt to help tuck A-Yuan into bed.
“He’s having a guqin made.”
Wen Qing nodded.
“Yes. ZeWuJun even gave permission for him to wear the official forehead ribbon.”
She breathed out, “he will have a bright future.”
“You are still his gugu.”
She didn’t say anything for a moment. Then, she picked up the hairpin, held it out to him, “place it in my hair?”
He did, trying to ignore that she was once again too close as he did.
“Take a walk with me?” She requested of him.
“It’s your birthday,” he said again.
“Does that mean you’d give me whatever I asked for today?”
He looked into her eyes. He’d give her whatever she asked for any day.
She looked away first, rose to her feet, “a walk.”
He stood as well.
They wandered the familiar paths in silence at first.
“Lotus Pier really is very beautiful,” she noted.
“Very humid, though.”
“I’m used to it.”
“It’s hard to breath, sometimes, because of how moist the air is.” She continued, “I hadn’t realized, until we went to Gusu, that it was so. Everything is just slightly damp, all the time...even with the sun as bright as it is.”
“Especially with the sun as bright as it is,” he corrected.
“Yes, that would make sense.” She agreed after a moment of thought.
They walked in silence some more.
“I like stormy days better.” She shared suddenly.
“The storms are usually brief.”
“Yes. But still beautiful in the intensity of their fury.”
He paused and she stopped on the path with him. She wasn’t looking at him though.
“What are you trying to say?”
She looked at him with a slight frown, “how are you not angry with me?”
“Why should I be angry with you?”
“What I did...to Wei WuXian, to you...what my people did...to Lotus Pier, to the world…”
“Do you regret it?”
There was such turmoil in her eyes. “I…”
“It’s not a simple yes or no, is it?” He said softly, in a tone of voice he’d never use with anyone else, “but I forgive you. And not just because it’s your birthday.”
“You should hate me, should...should yell at me, hit me….”
“I do hit you,” he said, “not lightly either.”
“Sparring doesn’t count.”
He sighed again, “do you want me to? Would it help with your sense of guilt if I did yell at you, did strike against you?”
“It’s what you should do.”
“I’ve never been quite what I should be.” He shared, “Not for Father. Nor for Mother.”
“And for me?”
“I don’t know what I should be, with you.”
“What do you want to be?”
He sighed again, “you know the answer to that question.”
“I’m a terrible sister,” she said after a long moment, “my little brothers, both of them, suffered the consequences of my inadequacies.”
“Is that what you want to be, with me?”
“Is that not what I am, with you?”
He shook his head, “What do you want to be?”
“I...I don’t know.”
He breathed out, resumed the walk, “when you figure it out, let me know.”
He didn’t look to see if she’d catch up, just kept going forwards. It was the only direction he could move.
He didn’t turn to look at her. “I know.”
“I’ll find a way to heal Wei WuXian.”
“I know you will.”
“For...for not hating me.”
“You made all this, all of Lotus Pier as it is now, possible.”
“Wei WuXian…” she started to protest.
“It was Wei WuXian’s sacrifice, yes. But you enabled it. You made the impossible possible.”
“Well,” she said after a moment, “I am of YunMeng Jiang now.”
“And that will not change. Whatever happens...as long as I draw breath…”
“Thank you,” she said again.
They parted ways, shortly afterwards. He didn’t feel like returning to paperwork or his own room though.
The sun had set, though the air remained humid. He walked to the edge of the lake, shed his outer layers, and waded into the water.
He’d always liked swimming. Appreciated the silence that the water afforded. Everything was just a little bit more subdued beneath the surface, the world and all its pains and sorrows just a little bit more distant. He treaded water for a moment, before laying on his back, letting the waves buoy him. He could find peace, find calm, here in the water. Sometimes, he just wanted to stay. Stay and pretend...pretend everything was as they should be. That his parents were proud of him. That Wen Qing did love him. That things could be simple. That...that he could have all that he wanted.
He forced himself to become upright, dragged himself back to shore, collected his weapons and his clothing.
It was fine to dream. And even if it wasn’t, he’d never stop dreaming.
Attempt the impossible. He was trying. Nothing said he’d achieve it though.
Jin Ling, Jin RuLan, was a very loud baby. Most unlike either of his parents.
“More like his uncles,” A-Jie remarked, causing Wen Qing to hide a grin.
They had debated whether or not to have Wen Qing attend this celebration at Carp Tower at all. It may have been two years since the incident at QiongQi Pass and Chief Cultivator had stopped calling for the deaths of the Wen Remnants, but Wen Qing was not exactly a civilian. She may have been imprisoned for much of the war, but she had still been in charge of a Supervisory Office.
“I can’t hide forever,” Wen Qing had argued, “and I’ll stick close to Yanli jie. She’s Young Madam Jin now. She must hold her own authority within Carp Tower.”
Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji had both frowned at her.
“I wear the YunMeng Jiang bell and the Gusu Lan jade pendant. And Yanli jie will no doubt make it a point to call me Qing meimei,” she reminded them, “attacking me would just be foolish.”
“I’ll stick with the womenfolk anyways,” she added, “out of sight of all the Sect Leaders who may take offense at the presence of a Wen.”
She didn’t even wear red. She chose a soft shade of orchid.
“A good compromise, I thought.” She informed them when she emerged from her room.
“And a nod to A-Ling’s courtesy name?” Jiang Cheng wondered.
She smiled at him. “Maybe.”
Lan Wangji had looked amused.
So here she was, cradling the baby in her arms like a natural. Jiang Cheng couldn’t bear to keep looking at the sight, but neither could he bear to look away. He had always been his own worst enemy, hadn’t he?
“Let A-Cheng have a turn,” A-Jie said.
“No.” Jiang Cheng said quickly, “I’ll drop him. And Wen Qing finally got him to fall asleep.”
“Exactly why you should take advantage,” A-Jie said reasonably, “while he is calm and asleep.”
But too late. Wen Qing was already showing him how to hold his arms and where to support A-Ling’s head.
“Don’t be so tense,” she advised, “he’ll wake.”
He tried. He really did. But A-Ling was just so...small. “I don’t want to drop him.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Wen Qing told him, “you’re even sitting.”
He would have retorted, but his eyes were trained on his nephew, his attention arrested by the miracle of this little life in his arms. “Hello A-Ling. I’m your jiujiu.”
He did not see A-jie and Wen Qing exchanging smiles.
Even though it was billed as a celebration for baby Jin Ling, this gathering was still not devoid of politics. Indeed, Jiang Cheng found himself envying Wen Qing, who could remain with A-jie.
Would Sect Leader Yao never shut up? It wasn’t like he even had anything important to say.
And really, what did Jiang Cheng care about the feud between the Ouyang and Qin Sects over some riverway rights?
So long as they left YunMeng Jiang alone.
Chief Cultivator had treated him wearily for the first year or so; Jiang Cheng’s little speech to Jin ZiXuan had apparently made him appear dangerous. But since he’d perfected his image of sullen displeasure and kept his mouth shut during most of these meetings, Chief Cultivator seemed to think of it as no more than acting out from a petulant child.
Jiang Cheng met Lan Wangji’s eyes briefly. Ah. So the other was just as bored. Even ZeWuJun’s smile seemed a little frozen in place. ChiFengZun, of course, scowled even worse than Jiang Cheng did. And Nie HuaiSang of course hid behind his ever present fan. It wouldn’t surprise Jiang Cheng if Nie HuaiSang was actually asleep. Much as he had napped during most of Master Lan’s lessons.
The afternoon dragged on, full of petty squabbles and pointless posturing that really tried Jiang Cheng’s patience. And he wasn’t even expected to form any opinions or find any solutions. Why would anyone want to be Chief Cultivator?
But then Chang Ping stood and asked for something unexpected.
Justice. For his family. They had been slaughtered too. Not at the hands of the Wens but…
Yes. Jiang Cheng remembered. XueYang had been a worse flirt than even Wei WuXian had been.
Was it his imagination or did Chief Cultivator seem reluctant to address the matter?
He met Lan Wangji’s eyes again.
Oh yes. The other was suspicious too.
“And how do you know it’s him? Do you have any proof?”
Lan Wangji’s eyes narrowed.
“He was found at the scene of the crime!” Chang Ping insisted, “surrounded by the dead!”
“By…” Chang Ping hesitated a mere moment before saying, “by HanGuangJun.”
Smart man, Jiang Cheng thought, for not mentioning Wei WuXian. Even if Lan Wangji’s reputation also suffered a blow for his insistence on staying in Lotus Pier.
“Wei Ying is my husband,” he had declared at a similar conference two years ago, “I will not leave his side. I will raise our son to honor his father.”
Brave, brave man, was Lan Wangji. Stubborn too.
Lan Wangji stood, “yes. I was there. But Xiao XingChen and Song ZiChen were the ones who actually apprehended him.”
Chief Cultivator hid his displeasure well, “I see. Then perhaps we ought to find Xiao daozhang and Song daozhang and ask for their accounts.”
“Perhaps we should,” Lan Wangji said evenly.
“Are you volunteering?”
Lan Wangji inclined his head, “it would be my honor to bring evil to justice.”
“So righteous.” Chief Cultivator commented, not without a hint of irony.
Lan Wangji remained impassive, “That is Gusu Lan’s motto.”
“Very well then.” Chief Cultivator turned towards Chang Ping, “does that satisfy you? HanGuangJun himself will take on the case.”
Chang Ping did not look completely satisfied, but he did bow towards Lan Wangji, who bowed back before sitting down again.
Jiang Cheng did not have a good feeling about it at all.
“It’s a trap,” he told Lan Wangji, when they were back in Lotus Pier, “I don’t know how, but that’s just the feeling I have.”
“XueYang is dangerous,” Wen Qing added, “he had been close to Wen Ruohan. Even closer than I had been. He...he possesses knowledge regarding Yin Irons and resentful energy that no one should have. Wen Ruohan had even suspected that he had his own piece.”
“Wei Ying searched him in YueYang. He did not find it.”
“He’s clever,” Wen Qing shook her head, “a mad genius in every sense of the phrase.”
“Should they not all be destroyed now?” Jiang Cheng wondered, “the Seal...surely that was the last piece?”
“He’s still dangerous,” Wen Qing insisted, “he’s not unskilled with the blade. And he has perfected the use of corpse poisoning powder. And more besides. His grasp of toxicology is no less than mine.”
“I’ll be careful,” Lan Wangji promised.
“I’ll make some antidotes,” Wen Qing offered, “I have some familiarity with his work. They won’t be foolproof, but should be able to counter most poisons.”
Lan Wangji nodded as he said again, “I’ll be careful.”
“You have the signals?”
“Don’t hesitate to use them.”
“I have 分寸 (responsible, good judgement, knows his limits).”
Jiang Cheng still frowned, “I know you do. Still...don’t leave A-Yuan an orphan again.”
And Lan Wangji was a man of his word, wasn’t he?
YueYang. It really wasn’t that far from Lotus Pier.
Night had fallen again. The Chang estate’s gates were shut and strange sounds were coming from within the walls again.
It was considered most impolite to fly directly into someone’s courtyard, but Jiang Cheng really thought they’d be forgiven this breach in conduct.
Lan Wangji was fighting Xiao daozhang, whose eyes were covered with a length of cloth, almost like a Lan forehead ribbon. Indeed, he could almost be mistaken for a Lan in his robes of white. Chang Ping’s eyes were unfocused, his movements jerky but deadly, as he raised his sword against his petrified servants.
But even the ones he had already killed didn’t stay dead but advanced on the living.
Ah, so not just his servants. A child. Probably no more than ten years old.
Zidian flew through the air and restrained Chang Ping.
Wen Qing sent a blast of energy that made Chang Ping freeze before she raised a xun to her lips and started to play.
Her brows furrowed as Chang Ping still snarled and made attempts to break free of his binds, as the other puppets also resisted her influence.
XueYang himself finally made an appearance. He was grinning, “Ah Wen guniang. How splendid! You have come to play as well!”
Wen Qing didn’t answer, just continued to play.
“It’s not going to work, you know,” XueYang said with a laugh. “These little tricks of yours. My handle over it is much more advanced than even Wen Ruohan’s had been.”
Jiang Cheng attacked him with Sandu.
“Oh I remember you,” XueYang laughed, sounding delighted, even as he met Sandu with his own sword. “You were with Wei WuXian, weren’t you? Such a brilliant man he had been. He could have been great. Indeed, he could have been someone even I would admire. I was so curious to see what he’d do with that Seal. He disappointed me though.”
Wen Qing had been right, XueYang was a skilled fighter. He wielded his sword with unrestrained cruelty. He fought not even to wound, but to kill.
Jiang Cheng found himself losing ground.
And still XueYang smiled and laughed, “he didn’t know, though, did he, just what kind of power he held in his hands. Yin Irons scattered to the four winds, but all energies flow to XuanWu. A pity. We could have been friends.”
Jiang Cheng didn’t believe that. He wasn’t about to waste his breath saying so though. Particularly not as Sandu flew out of his hand.
XueYang pointed his sword almost lazily, “Ah, I haven’t killed anyone so directly in a long time. I usually like to have some fun first, you see…”
He didn’t get to finish, though, as Wen Qing’s silver needles suddenly grew out of his neck. And just as suddenly she stood between them, Sandu in her hand, the tip pushed into and through XueYang’s heart.
The man’s lips opened in an ‘oh’ of surprise.
“I should have done this to Wen Ruohan too,” she told him. “I have learned from my mistakes.”
XueYang looked to be laughing even as he slumped over onto the ground.
Wen Qing reclaimed her needles.
“Dead.” She told Jiang Cheng as she returned his sword.
He took it from her. “Lan Wangji.”
There was still the sound of steel clashing with steel.
Her hands glowed before fire sprouted from her fingertips and surrounded XueYang.
“What are you doing?”
“There’s one more piece. He has it on his person. It doesn’t matter where, this fire will burn him and, hopefully, it too.”
He frowned, squinting through the gaze of fire, “he seems unharmed.”
She looked at him with something dark in her eyes, “it was made to burn spirits and souls, not the physical body.”
“Wen Zhuliu or Wen Ruohan?” He asked.
“Does it matter?”
She was also a Wen.
“You’re a healer.”
She turned back to the flames, “a wound must be cleansed before it can begin to heal.”
He stared at her profile. She was capable of such violence, such destruction too.
He saw something golden at the edge of his vision. A cage. Not unlike the one Wei WuXian had cast back in Mount Dafan. Ironic, to see it in use again.
“Go help Lan Wangji,” she told him. “I’ll make an end of things.”
There was the sound of unearthly screams before an explosion rocked the estate. He and Lan Wangji were both flung against a wall.
Jiang Cheng distinctively felt a bone break. His ears rang, even though everything else was deadened silence. He shook his head to clear it.
The Changs were mostly unconscious. Xiao daozhang as well.
Gingerly, he got to his feet, to see a blur of white already moving.
He looked. Wen Qing.
He found himself at her side.
She was cradled in Lan Wangji’s arms. “Qing jie?”
She remained limp, her eyes closed. Lan Wangji frowned, started to feed spiritual energy directly into her.
“Like Wei Ying.”
Jiang Cheng staggered. “No.”
Lan Wangji looked briefly at XueYang’s body. “I really hope that was the last piece.”
Jiang Cheng took deep breaths to keep from panicking, “I’m taking her back to Lotus Pier.”
“Is fine. I can do it. She...she needs to be kept safe.”
Lan Wangji looked at him solemnly, “very well. I will deal with the Changs and Xiao daozhang. Chief Cultivator has assigned me this task, after all.”
“We were never here,” Jiang Cheng agreed.
Lan Wangji nodded.
Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure how he made it back to Lotus Pier. Wasn’t sure how he managed to hold her, keep feeding her his own spiritual energy, and guide Sandu at the same time. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was…
She still breathed. Shallowly, yes. Her pulse was still intact. Even if it was faint.
“Not you too,” he murmured, begged really, “not you too. Please. Stop leaving me. For once...for once, stay. Please.”
He wakes eventually, to the sound of his name.
He checks Wen Qing’s pulse first. He didn’t know how to interpret it, just knew that it was still present.
He looked, “A-Jie.”
She hugged him close, “Oh A-Cheng.”
He didn’t quite realize he was crying until he felt his sister wipe at his cheeks.
“My brave A-Cheng.”
He shook his head, “I can’t lose her. A-Jie. I can’t.”
“I know, A-Cheng, I know.”
“Even if she doesn’t need me, or want me, I...I still…”
“You’ll find her again. You’ve found her time and again, haven’t you? The heavens would not make your paths cross so often if it didn’t have plans for the two of you.”
“I wish...I wish I could believe it. I really do.”
“The red string of fate may become tangled, may become stretched, but it always holds true.” She insisted.
“Is there such a link between us?”
She placed a hand over his heart, “Is there not?”
The noose wasn’t just around his neck, was it? Was this how Lan Wangji felt too?
She nodded, “he caused quite the commotion when he showed up at Carp Tower with XueYang’s corpse.”
“Recovering. Qing meimei’s antidotes worked well, not that anyone else knows. Lans cannot lie, but Wangji is known for his terseness. It’s enough that he apprehended XueYang red-handed, as it were.”
“Cloud Recesses. He is...physically well, but...the quietness and peacefulness there will be good for him.”
And he’d fit right in, wouldn’t he?
He looked back at Wen Qing, “may we now finally have peace.”
“It’s what she’d want too, isn’t it?”
He held her hand in both of his, “it’s not her fault. Any of it.”
A-jie sighed before standing, “I’ll go make some soup.”
Jiang Cheng heard her leave. He lifted Wen Qing’s hand to his lips, “you still owe me an answer. I’ll wait for it. No matter how long it takes. I’ll wait.”
“Mount Dafan.” Jiang Cheng said to Lan Wangji, “that’s where we need to go.”
Lan Wangji set down his brush. “It’s where it all started, isn’t it?”
“Then, if she’s not there...we retrace our steps. Every place that had held a Yin Iron pace. Nightless City itself if we have to.”
“Neither of them are in Cloud Recesses. I checked.”
Even though Cloud Recesses was where it all started too. Had it been love at first sight for Lan Wangji too? He’d never ask, though. He didn’t really need to, did he?
“Can you afford to leave Lotus Pier for so long?”
“A-jie will look after things. With her here, with A-Ling here...even if the Jins wished to retaliate, they’d be hard put to find an excuse.”
“You believe, then, that Sect Leader Jin wished to shelter XueYang?”
“And make use of him much as Wen Ruohan had? Yes.”
“Xiongzhang trusts him.”
“ZeWuJun thinks the best of everyone.”
Lan Wangji did not disagree.
Lan Wangji picked up Bichen, “let’s go.”
They saved QiShan for last. In retrospect, perhaps that’s where they should have started.
Lan Wangji frowned at the strings of his guqin.
Jiang Cheng, who had learned a few phrases from sheer repetition, heard only chaos, a cacophony of notes.
“So many,” Lan Wangji murmured, “so many voices.”
The plains were barren, even more so than when they had fought the last battle here. But not empty.
“So much pain.” Lan Wangji added.
“Our fault.” Jiang Cheng answered, “we all bear fault. We were all blinded by rage, by vengeance, by…”
“By resentment,” Lan Wangji completed the thought.
“What is right and what is wrong? What is white and what is black? Wei Ying had asked me. I did not have an answer then; I’m not sure I have an answer now.”
“Light and dark. Yin and Yang. One cannot exist without the other.” He was the darkness to Wei WuXian’s light, wasn’t he? He had always been in Wei WuXian’s shadows.
And Wen Qing? Is that how she had felt too? A-Jie had called Wen Ning the light of Wen Qing’s world...the way she had looked at him, back in YueYang…
They were both creatures of darkness, shaped by violence and cruelty, weren’t they?
They were the Yin to Lan Wangji and Wei WuXian’s Yang.
It did not make the love, the all encompassing obsession, he felt any less meaningful. It might have started with attraction, with infatuation, with curiosity, but now that he saw her more clearly...he knew. They were well matched. He’d do more to convince her of it, once...once he found her again.
Lan Wangji set his fingers to the strings, played a sound of command.
Always Wei WuXian’s name.
No longer a command. A request, a plea.
Oh yes, he and Lan Wangji shared a similar heartache, didn’t they?
There was no answer.
Have any of you seen Wei Ying?
I’ve been looking too.
Who are you?
Jiang Cheng could feel his hands shaking.
“Come home,” Jiang Cheng said, “please.”
Lan Wangji plucked some notes.
I am home.
“No,” Jiang Cheng shook his head, “You may have lived here, you may have grown up here, but it was never more than a prison, was it?”
It still is. Not just for me.
“I know. And I’m sorry.” It wasn’t a question, though.
“What can I do? To bring you home?”
Rest. Peace. For all those still trapped here.
“Alright.” He’d have personally killed Jin GuangShan if that was what it took.
Wei Ying really isn’t here?
“There’s one more place,” Jiang Cheng reminded Lan Wangji, “also in QiShan.”
Jiang Cheng nodded. “Will she stay here? Wait for our return?”
It’s my turn.
He could ask her to explain. She couldn’t lie, not now, not like this. He could find out, finally, what she thought of him, if she had made a decision. He just had to ask.
He didn’t. Even now, he was still a coward.
It took them most of the day to move away the boulders that still blocked the entrance.
The cave was still dark. And now it stank too. The putrid smell of rotting flesh, of death.
Could spirits still smell? He hoped not.
At last! What took you so long?
Lan Wangji looked like he might actually start to cry.
The strings continued to vibrate, another cacophony of sounds and notes, but somehow cheerful, upbeat, excited.
“He’s here then? It’s really him?”
Lan Wangji asked a question, didn’t translate for Jiang Cheng this time.
Wei WuXian provided an answer.
Lan Wangji’s fingers were shaking. “Yes.”
“Can he leave this place?”
Lan Wangji asked.
"He’s been trying.”
Jiang Cheng frowned. “They’re all destroyed now. What more could tether him?”
“He doesn’t know.”
Jiang Cheng looked at the remains of the monster. Yin Irons, scattered to the four winds, but all powers flow to Xuan Wu. That was the difference, wasn’t it? This particular piece had been inside a living creature.
“As big as it is, it’ll take too long for it to decay completely.”
“You really think…”
Jiang Cheng withdrew some talisman papers, “shall we find out?”
“It’s still partially submerged in water.”
“Ask Wei WuXian. He’s always been full of crazy but effective ideas.”
He hoped spirits couldn’t feel heat either.
He and Lan Wangji camped outside the cave. It still took three days and three nights for the carcass to burn. But burn it did.
Yes! I’m free!
“Let’s see how far he can travel?”
Apparently all the way back to Lotus Pier.
“I don’t know,” Lan Wangji admitted.
He pulled out his guqin again, “Wei Ying?”
But there was no reply.
“Did he get lost?”
It was by chance that Jiang Cheng was looking at the bed at all. Wait. Did Wei WuXian’s fingers twitch?
Yes! He hadn’t just imagined it.
He approached the bed, carefully pulled the needle from Wei WuXian’s forehead.
“Wei Ying?” Lan Wangji was also watching carefully now.
“Lan Zhan?” Wei WuXian’s voice was raspy, his eyes remained closed, but he did indeed speak.
Wei WuXian slowly opened his eyes, “am I dead?”
“You idiot!” Jiang Cheng couldn’t help but exclaim, “do you know how much A-jie has cried? I’m going to break your legs! For real this time!”
“Lan Zhan won’t let you.” Wei WuXian retorted.
Wei WuXian’s expression softened, “Lan Zhan.”
Good grief. Were they just going to say each other’s names?
“And when exactly did the two of you get married?” Jiang Cheng demanded. “As your Sect Leader, I don’t recall ever granting permission.”
“Yes.” Lan Wangji answered steadily.
“Are you sure I’m not dead?”
"Since Cloud Recesses,” Lan Wangji explained.
“I don’t remember…”
“The cave. When Lan Yi’s guqin attacked. The Lan forehead ribbon is sacred. Only parents, children, and significant others may touch.”
“Soulmate,” Lan Wangji insisted, adding, “fated one.”
Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes, “I’m going to fetch A-jie. And your son.”
“A-Yuan.” Lan Wangji shared, “Lan Yuan. Lan SiZhui.”
“Wen Qing gave permission.” Jiang Cheng said.
“And where is she?”
“What’s she doing there?”
Jiang Cheng sighed, “I’ll let your husband explain.”
“I thought you haven’t granted permission.”
Jiang Cheng snorted, “idiot.”
Lan Wangji enlisted his brother’s help to put the Wen spirits to rest.
ZeWuJun had looked so sad once the situation was explained to him.
As he stood on the barren plains and listened to the voices around him, he actually cried.
“Do not take advantage of your position to oppress others. Do not disrespect the elder, nor the younger. Do not bully the weak. Do not fear the strong. Do not hold grudges. If others lose to you, do not look down on them. Do not create damages. Love all beings. Uphold the value of justice. Shoulder the weight of morality. Embrace the entirety of the world. Be fair. Be just. Be generous…Wangji, you did well to remind me.”
The Lan disciples spread across the field, into the surrounding woods, into the abandoned city itself.
It was of course going to take more than a day.
Such wounds were easy to inflict, but much more difficult to heal.
Even the stoic Lans looked weary.
“Children, women, elderly...I should have protested harder,” ZeWuJun said softly when he took a break too.
“Not just Wens,” Lan Wangji shared, “the dungeons...Wei Ying is controlling the resentment, dispelling it.”
“Qishan could have become another Burial Mounds.”
“You are but human too,” Jiang Cheng reminded him. He didn’t really have to be here. It wasn’t like he could play any musical instruments, but he had almost turned a blind eye too. Had turned a blind eye, until it was Wen Qing who would have been affected. And even then...he had come so close to...
ZeWuJun looked at him thoughtfully, “YunMeng Jiang was the only Sect brave enough to protest.”
Jiang Cheng shook his head, “Wei WuXian was the only one brave enough to do something about it.”
“Yes. And he could have paid such a heavy price for it. I...I doubted him too.”
“His intent was good, but the way he went about it was...rash, reckless, impetuous.”
ZeWuJun smiled a little, “He would not be Wei gongzi otherwise, would he?”
“The opposite of what a Lan should be.”
Lan Wangji made a sound of disagreement, “Wei Ying’s heart is pure. His spirit is righteous.”
ZeWuJun nodded, “All our rules...what good are they if we don’t live up to them when it really matters?”
“Survival,” Jiang Cheng commented, “is it so wrong to prioritize self preservation?”
“Ah,” ZeWuJun sighed a little, “and once we survive? We must be able to live with ourselves, too.”
Jiang Cheng didn’t speak anymore. Had he ever thought beyond survival? He must have. Otherwise, why would he cling to the dream of her still? And Wen Qing? Had she ever thought about living? Truly living?
He wandered around Nightless City. It still glowed red. Like embers in a fire. He remembered the fire springing from her fingertips, remembered the flames reflected in her eyes, remembered the redness of her gown. Red like blood. Blood had been spilt here, must have drenched these stones. And for what? He had thought he’d feel satisfied, once he saw Wen Zhuliu and Wen Chao dead at his feet. But the moment of triumph had been brief. It passed, leaving him feeling...empty. Their deaths did not bring his parents, his shidis, the Lotus Pier of his childhood back to him. Their suffering did not erase the torture, the hurt he had suffered. Death was an end. It was the living that must continue to suffer.
The fire burned the spirit, the soul, not the body. But she had killed XueYang’s body too. With his sword. He knew not to read more into it than he should. Her sword was lost. His was available. It was only practical. And yet…
He wanted her to have it all. His sword, Zidian, his heart, his spirit, his soul. Would she want it, though? Any of it? Because all of him included his scars, his imperfections, his darkness too.
He came upon a room that smelled faintly of medicine. There were still bunches of herbs hanging from the ceiling. There were the shattered remains of different containers littered on the ground.
He hadn’t meant to speak out loud. This space had to have been hers though. The organization was similar to her current workroom in Lotus Pier after all.
“I don’t know if you’re here. If you’re still lingering. Or if...or if you’re resting, at peace finally. With your brother. With...with your parents. The family you have already lost...As you deserve to be. But I...there are words I should have said to you. There are things I should have told you. But I...I’ve never been good with words. I’m even worse with feelings that aren’t anger or impatience or annoyance. I just…”
He took a deep breath, took out that familiar bundle of blue silk, cradled it in his palms, “would you take it back? If I summoned the courage to offer it to you again? Would you...would you take it and...and keep it this time?”
He waited, trying not to feel too foolish.
“I am a fool, aren’t I? You’re blunt enough to tell me. Were you just sparing my feelings by never saying the words? If that’s the case...thank you. Thank you for being kind. Thank you for...for...I never thanked you, did I? I told you I forgave you. But I never...I never thanked you. For...for any of the times you helped me. I…”
He cleared his throat, “I am also sorry. For...for not looking for you. For...for letting you go, each and every time. For...for not being brave enough or strong enough or certain enough or...or just enough. I want to be. I wanted to be...for Mother, for Father, for...for A-Jie...even for Wei WuXian. I never managed it. They all...they all either left or chose someone else. I chose you. I choose you. I don’t...I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t know how to tell you...I just…”
There was a beam of light shining through the window, casting the room in a golden glow. The sun must be setting.
He sighed, but before he could close his fingers around the comb, a golden butterfly landed on it.
He stared at it for a moment, watching its insubstantial wings flutter in the air. “What news do you bring to me from A-Jie?”
But it wasn’t A-jie’s voice that spoke in his ear.
“Come home. I’m waiting.”’
He didn’t even bother telling Wei WuXian, nor Lan Wangji, just stepped onto his sword and made haste for Lotus Pier.
A-jie met him in the front courtyard with a smile, “she’s waiting.”
She handed him a flask of wine, “she said to give you that. Uncle Four’s newest brew.”
He took it with shaking hands.
She was sitting in the pavilion, two cups before her on the table.
He set down the wine.
“You don’t drink.”
Her expression was still unreadable. “Maybe I should start.”
“It’s a terrible habit.”
She tilted her head, “but it enables me to say things I wouldn’t otherwise say.”
He filled each cup. They each drank.
She refilled the cups, emptied hers again, “it still tastes awful.”
“What did you wish to say?”
“I’m not sure I’ve had enough.”
He took the bottle from her, “Wen Qing.”
She played with the cup, eyes downcast. “I almost went. The Lans...they are good listeners, they offered such sincere apologies and played such soothing tunes of rest. And I did want to rest. To...to see A-Ning again. To see my parents. To...to escape the burden of being a Wen. The world wouldn’t mourn me anyways.”
Before he could protest, she met his eyes again, “But A-Yuan would. Yanli jie would. Uncle Four and popo and…”
“And me. I would mourn you.”
“You would, wouldn’t you?”
“I’d channel it into anger and probably violence though.”
“You would, wouldn’t you?” She repeated. It was still a rhetorical question.
“What made you stay?”
“I’m always leaving you,” she answered, “I could never choose you.”
She paused, “no. Not true. I chose you. I chose you over Wei WuXian. I ruined him, destroyed him, much as Wen Chao had ruined you, destroyed you. Just as deliberately, perhaps, but also...also different. I released you, let you go, at the price of completely breaking Wei WuXian. I severed the ties that bound him to the most important things in his life as surely as I had cut the links to his Golden Core. I could not let you help because...because you are different from him. Because...because I chose to save you. Over and over again. Even when I didn’t understand why.”
“And now...I stayed.”
“To be my sister?”
She released the cup, “no.”
She held out an open palm to him, “offer it to me again.”
“Will you keep it this time?”
“Why don’t you find out?”
There was a challenge in her eyes. The same spark that made his breath catch each time they sparred.
“All yours,” he said, setting the gift in her hand, as he couldn't, back in Yiling.
She nodded solemnly as her fingers closed around it, as though she understood his meaning. But of course she did. She was clever like that.
“I’ll keep it safe,” she promised as she tucked it close to her own heart.
“Even if it breaks, shatters, splinters, it’s still yours.”
“I’m a healer, not a woodcarver.”
He couldn’t help but smile. He’ll always be the more sentimental one, won’t he?
She tilted her head, “the last time I saw you smile was in Cloud Recesses, before...before everything.”
“Don’t get used to it.”
She smiled too, just slightly, as though...as though she liked his sharpness. “This could be a mistake.”
“The worst one you’ll make, the worst one I’ve made?”
“Then so be it.” He’d willingly hang via the noose that he had chosen to keep around his own neck.
She reached for the bottle and he didn’t stop her. She refilled their cups, raised hers into the air, “Then so be it.”
Her cheeks were flushed again, her steps unsteady. She didn’t resist when he lifted her into his arms this time either.
Her eyes were focused, though, when he laid her on the bed. “Stay.”
“It’s not proper.”
“You’re still tempted.”
“Stay.” She repeated.
She shifted to the inside of the bed and closed her eyes, “You won’t actually take advantage. Especially since I’m not quite sober.”
He waited a moment before putting aside his sword and Zidian, removed his belt and the outermost layers of his clothing, tugged off his boots, and slipped beneath the covers next to her.
She curled against his side with a little sigh, “it’s good to be home.”
He kissed the top of her head, “good night, Wen Qing.”
He dreamed of fire. Dreamed of her surrounded by flames. Dreamed of her turning into dust and floating away with the breeze even as the fire continued to rage greedily.
He woke with a gasp and the feeling of soothing fingers running through his hair.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
He turned towards her. The room was dark, but her eyes were bright.
She nodded. “I understand.”
And she probably did. She’d seen and experienced plenty of losses and frightful things too.
“Are you sober now?”
“Good.” He pressed a kiss to her forehead, to each of her cheeks, to the tip of her nose. “Stop me if you wish, I’ll listen and obey.”
She didn’t stop him though, not even when he pressed his lips against hers. She still tasted faintly of wine. Surely he’d be the one to become drunk now.
Somehow she was laying beneath him now, arms wrapped around his neck, cheeks flushed again but eyes still so bright, so focused.
“I’ve always done better,” she reminded him, “with what’s tangible and solid and real.”
“There is no going back.”
“I know.” She repeated. “The path only leads forward.”
“What I feel for you is not any less real for being intangible.”
She shook her head, “you’re here. I can touch you, hold you, feel you. That’s more than enough.”
He kissed her again, let his hands roam more freely.
“Teach me?” He requested.
He nodded, “how to be good to you, how to be good for you, how to take care of you.”
“Only if you do the same for me.”
“You’re here. In my arms. Willingly. It’s enough.”
“Oh Jiang Cheng.” She kissed him first this time, “thank you for waiting. I’m sorry it took so long. I won’t leave you again.”
To keep from crying, he focused on the shape of her beneath his hands, the feel of her skin against his lips, the sound of her breath catching here and there. “Stay. Be mine.”
They married. A modest ceremony. Surrounded by their family. People who truly wished them joy. She looked as beautiful as ever in red.
“The world will not look kindly on this match.” She reminded him when he flipped the veil from her head.
“I don’t much care what the world has to say.” He informed her.
She smiled faintly, “you’re Sect Leader Jiang. You must care.”
“And you are Madam Jiang. Any slight to you is a slight to me. Who would wish to risk the combined fury of HanGuangJun and the Yiling Patriarch anyways?”
“Only fools,” she agreed.
“It does not trouble you,” she asked after they drank the ceremonial wine, “that your heir will bear Wen blood?”
“Not yet. But it’s inevitable.”
“Should it trouble me?” He asked as he helped pull ornaments from her hair.
“Should it not?”
“Dafan Wen is not the same as Qishan Wen.”
Her hands settled over his before he could undress her fully. “Wait.”
His arms fell obediently to his sides.
She reached for the ties of his clothing. “You’re wearing red.”
“It’s the appropriate color for a groom, is it not?”
She pushed the cloth from his shoulders, “I much prefer you in purple.”
She pushed and he let himself fall onto their bed. The sheets were red too. As was the canopy. Just for tonight. But the color didn’t make him think or blood or fire this time.
She settled over him, her lips caressing each scar, each marking of his imperfection.
His hands felt the smoothness of the silk that was still wrapped around her, felt the warmth of her beneath the softness of the fabric.
She looked up at him slightly, “let me take care of you tonight?”
“You are my bride.” He tried to protest.
She kissed the scar at his lower dantian and he couldn’t help but shiver. “But I want to.”
His hands cupped her face, “I can deny you nothing.”
It wasn’t anything she didn’t already know.
She still turned slightly to kiss the center of his palm, “good.”
There were still fools. Jin ZiXun for one.
“I was in a coma!” Wei WuXian responded to the accusation incredulously.
“You’re a filthy demonic cultivator! How do we know you really were in a coma?”
“Excuse me?” Jiang Cheng demanded of him, “are you accusing me of lying?”
Jin ZiXun lifted his chin, “and what if I am? You married a Wen. ”
“Then you are accusing me as well,” Lan Wangji said, his hand already on Bichen’s hilt.
Jin ZiXun hesitated a moment before crossing his arm, “yes.”
“Lans do not lie,” Lan Wangji said tightly.
Jin ZiXun sneered, “you still call yourself a Lan? Falling into the company of the likes of him?
“Without Wei Ying, the war would have been lost.”
“Wei gongzi also destroyed the Seal,” ZeWuJun’s expression was relaxed, his tone deceptively mild.
“So he says.”
“ I believe him,” ZeWuJun said, his polite smile not dropping but his eyes sharpening.
“I don’t care,” Jin ZiXun insisted, “he cursed me. I demand he remove the curse.”
Wei WuXian sighed and started to pull at his clothing.
“What are you doing?!” Jin ZiXun demanded.
“Proving my innocence,” Wei WuXian said calmly as he showed everyone his bare chest, “such a curse should create a backblow.”
“Are you satisfied?” Lan Wangji glared at Jin ZiXun as he moved to stand in front of Wei WuXian.
Wei WuXian smirked, “Lan Zhan is the jealous sort.”
“Who else could it be?”
“I don’t know,” Jiang Cheng told him dryly, “who else could you have offended?”
Jin ZiXun scowled.
“You’re really not very bright, are you?” Jiang Cheng remarked bluntly. “My wife happens to be the best healer in our generation, if not in the whole cultivation world. Had you asked politely, A-jie would have asked her to see if there’s a cure for what ails you. Small chance of that now.”
“You wouldn’t have asked her?” Wei WuXian asked him.
Jiang Cheng snorted, “After he insulted pretty much everyone I consider family?”
“Ah,” Wei WuXian agreed, “good point.”
“Only A-jie would be able to convince her, anyways,” Jiang Cheng added.
Even Lan Wangji nodded his agreement.
“Good luck,” Jiang Cheng told Jin ZiXun, “it’s the only thing that can save you now.”
“This isn’t over,” Jin ZiXun told him.
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng told him, drawing upon all the arrogance and dismissiveness of his Mother, “it is.”
“Don’t you walk away from me!”
Jiang Cheng ignored him.
“I’m talking to you!”
“Jin gongzi,” ZeWuJun said politely, “the conference is about to start. Should you really wish to, I’m sure Chief Cultivator will allow you to air your grievances in front of a jury of your peers. This matter should, of course, be thoroughly investigated. Your life is at stake, after all.”
“I know it’s Wei WuXian!”
“Idiot.” Wei WuXian muttered as they walked into the meeting hall.
“It’s a good thing you’re wearing SuiBian again.” Jiang Cheng muttered at him as they settled in their seats.
“Wen Qing insisted. She’s scary.”
“Yes, she is.”
“Must you look so satisfied?”
Jiang Cheng shrugged, “she’s my wife. I’m always proud of her.”
“Like you’re not the same,” Jiang Cheng retorted.
Wei WuXian ignored his teasing, “I could probably figure out a way to trace the origin of the curse.”
Wei WuXian rubbed the side of his nose, “whoever cast it must have been quite angry and upset. So long as there’s resentment present, I can try.”
Wei WuXian shook his head, “maybe if he had said please.”
Certainly never going to happen.
The meeting was as boring as usual.
“Something’s wrong with ChiFengZun.” Wei WuXian suddenly whispered.
“Look at Nie xiong.”
Nie HuaiSang was, for once, not sleeping. He was still hiding behind his fan, but his knuckles were white as they clutched at the object. His head was definitely turned towards his brother. Jiang Cheng would bet that he was frowning.
ChiFengZun was scowling like normal, but he seemed a bit more restless.
“Baxian’s angry,” Wei WuXian observed quietly.
“Baxia’s always angry.”
“Something’s different. It wants to kill.”
“It always wants to kill.”
“Different,” Wei WuXian murmured again, “It’s in control today, not ChiFengZun.”
“What does that mean?”
Wei WuXian frowned, “nothing good.”
“If it comes to it, can you control it?”
“Should we notify Wen Qing?”
No sooner had Jiang Cheng discreetly sent off a butterfly than ChiFengZun sprang out of his seat and raced towards the exit.
“Da ge!” Nie HuaiSang could move surprisingly fast when he put his mind to it. His fan hit the ground with a clatter, but he didn’t seem aware as he raced after his brother.
Jiang Cheng and Wei WuXian exchanged a brief look before they followed.
“Da ge! Da ge please!”
ChiFengZun’s eyes were wild and both of his hands were around Baxia’s hilt.
Wei WuXian wasted no time in setting ChenQing to his lips while Jiang Cheng wrapped Zidian around ChiFengZun.
Baxia vibrated as it flew out of ChiFengZun’s grasp towards NieHuaiSang.
Jiang Cheng gritted his teeth. ChiFengZun was strong, even when he wasn’t wild and mad like this.
He saw a flash of purple out of the corner of his eyes before ChiFengZun’s struggles seemed to lessen. But even Wen Qing’s needles seemed to have difficulty controlling him completely. She moved steadily towards him anyways, and hit certain pressure points that froze him in place finally. Jiang Cheng knew better than to release Zidian though.
There was the joint sound of a guqin and xiao. Songs of Clarity. He recognized the notes from the many times Lan Wangji played for Wei WuXian.
The redness within ChiFengZun’s eyes seemed to recede slowly.
Wen Qing assessed him with a frown before pushing a pulse of energy into his forehead, causing him to collapse onto the ground finally. She withdrew her needles and placed them in new locations.
Jiang Cheng walked to her side, careful to keep a tight hold on Zidian.
“How is he?”
“Very close to qi deviation,” she shared grimly, “I put him in stasis.”
“Is it safe to move him?”
She turned towards ZeWuJun, “Should be, yes.”
A shrill note from ChenQing followed by a clattering noise made them turn and look.
There was a black cloud hovering over Baxian. Wei WuXian’s expression was one of great concentration as he tried to maintain control.
Wei WuXian looked at Lan Zhan but did not stop playing.
But Lan Wangji seemed to understand even without Wei WuXian having to speak. “Who does it seek?”
Wei WuXian tilted his head a little.
Lan Wangji looked. “I see. Can you dispel it?”
Wei WuXian shook his head minutely.
“Then let it return from whence it came.”
Wei WuXian frowned.
“You reap what you sow.”
Wei WuXian still hesitated.
Lan Wangji looked at his brother before turning back towards Wei WuXian, “xiongzhang...we will help xiongzhang.”
Before Lan Wanji could reply, however, Jin GuangYao sank to his knees. “Er ge...er ge...I didn’t want to. You believe me, don’t you? I didn’t want to hurt da ge.”
“Father made me. You believe me, don’t you, er ge?”
“Er ge. I didn’t want to...I didn’t…”
“But you still did,” Lan Wangji stated.
“San ge…” ZeWuJun wasn’t the only one who looked heartbroken. “You…”
“I altered the song,” Jin GuangYao admitted, “I…”
“The song. The song you taught me?” Nie HuaiSang was shaking.
“Why? San ge...why?”
“Because he would have killed me.”
Nie HuaiSang shook his head, “But he didn’t. Da ge...he didn’t.”
“He didn’t listen to me. No one ever listens to me. They just assume...they just make use of me and then...and then throw me away when I reveal my humanity.”
“Even you, er ge. During the lessons, I wished you had asked me to stay. After the war, I wished you would have offered me a home, as I had offered mine to you, such as it was. Instead…”
“I thought you wanted to be recognized by your father.”
“I did.” Jin GuangYao admitted, “But that was before he kicked me down the steps of Carp Tower on my birthday. As it is, I am still nothing but a servant. Jin GuangYao. Even my very name...in his eyes, I’ve never been his son. But what other choice did I have? I’ve never had a choice. My whole life...my whole life I looked for a way out, a way to rise above what I am. I thought you could be my savior, but I couldn’t count on even you. I’ve only ever been able to rely on myself.”
“A-Yao, if you had just told me…”
Jin GuangYao shook his head. “Would it have mattered?”
“Of course it would have. I...I care about you.”
“Enough to go against my father? Enough to become tainted by associating with the son of a whore?”
“A-Yao…you know I never thought of you like that.”
Jin GuangYao shook his head, “the world would have never stopped reminding you. Until one day...even you would look at me with disgust and blame for tarnishing your good name. Besides, your position has been precarious enough with your brother’s choices.”
He turned toward Lan Wangji, “I hate you, for your selfishness.”
He turned towards Wen Qing, “and I hate you, for surviving and obtaining what I could not.”
He turned towards Wei WuXian, “but most of all, I hate myself. Hate this life that has never been my own. But I will make a choice for myself now. Let it end. Let it all end.”
But Jin GuangYao wasn’t looking at ZeWuJun anymore. “I’m tired. I want to rest.”
Jiang Cheng felt Wen Qing slip her hand into his.
“A-Ning had said those words too,” she said softly.
The moment Wei WuXian stopped playing, the dark cloud flew towards Jin GuangYao. His eyes glowed red for a split second before he collapsed with an agonizing scream.
But Jin GuangYao was already gone.
Nie HuaiSang looked down at his own hands, which were holding Baxia. The saber was embedded in Jin GuangYao’s chest. He released it with a gasp.
“Wei Xiong…” Nie HuaiSang’s eyes filled with tears. “I…”
Wei WuXian tugged him into his arms, “it’s alright, Nie Xiong. It’s alright.”
“Shhh.” Wei WuXian parted his back, “it’s alright.”
“What is the meaning of this?!”
They had an audience.
ZeWuJun drew himself to his full height, his eyes blazed with fury. “Chief Cultivator. That is what I would like to know as well. Accusations have been made that I would like to clarify.”
He turned towards his brother, “Wangji. Anchor me.”
“I need to know.”
Lan Wangji hesitated a moment more before bowing his head in acquiescence.
A tear rolled down ZeWuJun’s cheek as he ended Empathy.
ZeWuJun shook his head, “I must also bring evil to justice.”
“I accuse you, Sect Leader Jin, of harboring the fugitive XueYang despite knowing his misdeeds. You further used your own son to destroy your political opponent, my da ge, a war hero. Your hands are dirty even if you did not do the actual deed. I demand that you be made to pay for your crimes.”
“Now look here, young man, you can’t just…”
ZeWuJun looked stonily at Sect Leader Qin, “I may be young but I am also a Sect Leader. Of a Great Sect even. I have kept my silence to the detriment of so many lives. No more. I will live up to the Lan motto now. Righteousness is the just, if not the simple, path. No one, not even Chief Cultivator, is above the law.”
“Handing one man such powers is just asking for trouble,” Wen Qing stated, “Wen Ruohan had been a monster of your making too.”
Her pronouncement was met with sounds of protest. Jin ZiXun of course insulted her again.
She paid them no mind, “the truth is not pleasant to hear. You may ignore it if you wish. As you ignored the simmering dangers for years, decades. Sooner or later, though, the consequences of your inactions will catch up to you.” Her lips twisted wryly, “I would know.”
Jiang Cheng squeezed her hand. She gave him a grateful look before saying, “help me move my patient to somewhere more comfortable?”
Sect Leader Jin looked like he’d protest again, but ZeWuJun managed to shepherd all of them back towards the banquet hall.
They were still shouting and yelling when Jiang Cheng made his way back as well. The minor Sects who had been starting to be oppressed by LanLing Jin were finding their voices to air their grievances too. Sect Leaders Qin and Yao had always been louder, though. A part of Jiang Cheng wondered if both XueYang and Jin GuangYao, from the depth of the underworld, were laughing at the chaos that had been unleashed.
But ZeWuJun was immovable. His brother was the one called HanGuangJun, but ZeWuJun was not without his own stubborn determination to illuminate truth.
Nie HuaiSang, as grief stricken as he still looked, also demanded justice for his da ge. He was also young, even younger than Jiang Cheng, but he was acting Sect Leader of Qinghe Nie while his brother lay indisposed. He very much showed his heritage in the words he wielded as well as his brother had always wielded Baxia.
Jiang Cheng, on principle, rendered his support.
As, did, interestingly enough, Jin ZiXuan.
“Father, neither you nor Mother ever treated A-Yao fairly, even though he was my brother.”
“Brother...ZiXuan…” Sect Leader Jin looked shocked.
“ Your mistake, yes.” Jin ZiXuan admitted, “evidence of your shortcomings as a husband and...and a father. But A-Li always treated him kindly and helped me see that he deserved better. I’m only sorry I never acted on such truths. And now...now it’s too late.”
“You would choose him above your own father?”
“What is right is not always simple,” Jin ZiXuan said, such sadness in his eyes, “or easy. But I do not wish for A-Ling to inherit a LanLing Jin that is known for its arrogance and cruelty. We are more than that. Even the Wens had been more than those things.”
“ZiXuan…” Jim ZiXun also looked shocked.
“You are my cousin,” Jin ZiXuan told him, “and fought bravely besides me during the war. But you are also a bully. Any of your victims could have cast the curse. Even someone within Carp Tower.”
It was probably the most words Jiang Cheng had ever heard the Jin Sect Heir say.
“I am your son, father, and bound by filial duty to obey and honor you. But I am also the future leader of LanLing Jin and a father myself now. I would like to do better than the example you have set for me.”
Will wonders never cease?
Things were far from resolved that night, of course. The shift of power may have started, but Sect Leader Jin had spent years gathering political capital. He would not be so easily toppled.
They were no closer to a resolution as the next day drew a close. Before they dispersed, however, Madam Jin strode into the room with all the grace of a fearless warrior.
“Your daughter,” she informed Her husband in a voice that resonated through the chamber, “is with child. By your son.”
Stunned silence met her words.
“I have no daughter.”
Madam Jin actually sneered, “she’s likely not the only bastard of whom you have no knowledge.”
She turned towards her son briefly, “you’ve never been ignorant of your father’s deficits.”
“Impossible.” Sect Leader Qin stated.
“Your wife,” Madam Jin told him, “is distraught. She had also been unwilling. But she could not overpower him, drunk as he was. She was also too frightened, too ashamed to tell you. You have not been a good husband either.”
She turned again towards her own husband, “I’ve had enough. For years I’ve suffered. For years I’ve let you humiliate me. When always, you’ve needed me more than I’ve needed you. LanLing Jin was on the verge of ruin, from your atrocious spending and gambling habits. Your father arranged our marriage for the wealth my family could provide. Wealth that I painstakingly maintained these many years. Wealth that I now control. Indeed, I don’t need you, never needed you. I let you play your little games, but now I tire of them and of you. From this day forth, Jin GuangShan, you and I are strangers. Carp Tower no longer welcomes you.”
“Woman! You can’t!”
“Oh but I can,” Madam Jin interjected, in a voice of vindictive glee, “and I have. The elders already agreed to name ZiXuan as Sect Leader. I come today to release you of all your duties and obligations. Now you can spend time with your whores and your wines to your heart’s content. I no longer care. You have lost enough face for LanLing Jin. You are no longer welcomed in any of our lands or holdings.”
Things were resolved rather quickly after that. Public opinion could be such a fickle thing.
The Lans did go to QiongQi Pass. The resentment there was not as strong as it had been in QiShan, but still enough.
Jin ZiXuan went with them and personally burned paper money in front of the mass graves.
Sect Leader Qin returned home alone.
Madam Qin entered a nunnery, to leave worldly matters behind and try to find peace.
Qin Su lost her child from the shock of everything. Though perhaps that was for the best. She didn’t go home, but rather remained in Carp Tower as A-jie’s companion. She fairly doted upon A-Ling.
“She has a good head on her shoulders,” Wen Qing told Jiang Cheng, “even if her heart chose wrongly. She had served as a healer’s assistant during the war too. She could easily learn more should she wish it.”
“The heart’s choice is under no obligation to make sense.”
Wen Qing sighed, “no, it’s not.”
He kissed her lightly, “but sometimes it still works out.”
She reached for his hand again, “Wei WuXian and I will be going with Nie HuaiSang back to the Unclean Realm.”
He nodded, he had expected as much. “You don’t need my permission. I’m your husband, not your warden.”
She looked at him for a moment before saying, “I have been fortunate. Jin GuangYao was right about something. I survived. You saved me.”
“Only because you let me.”
“I never thought I’d be a wife,” she shared.
“Are you happy to be my wife?”
She moved to straddle him before kissing him deeply, “what do you think?”
“I’ve always been afraid to assume, with you.”
She shed her inner robe, letting it pool at her waist, and placed his hands at her waist, “then let me show you.”
Her skin was so soft, so smooth. The change in her breathing, the slight tremors in her body as he touched her told him clearly the answer.
They were neither of them good with words, both preferred to communicate their feelings through the physicality of their relationship. He didn’t need to hear the words though. She had stayed. She had let him have the privilege of being her husband. The noose was tied around her neck too.
Jiang Cheng was alone in Lotus Pier.
Wei WuXian had stopped by briefly, mostly to collect A-Yuan. Lan Wangji was back in Cloud Recesses, doing his best to support his brother. A-jie was in Carp Tower, providing a steadying and calming influence after the events of the Hundred Blossom Banquet.
It occurred to Jiang Cheng, as he looked over the lotus lake, that he had never actually been alone in Lotus Pier before. He had felt alone, lonely, yes, but he had not truly been alone.
It was temporary, of course. But even so…
He disrobed and plunged into the water. It still brought him peace, gave him a sense of belonging.
He didn’t even have to pretend for certain things to be true. The Peacock was still not worthy of A-jie, but he was proving to be a good and principled man. He really was driven to be a better husband and father than his own father had been. Wei WuXian had never stopped being his brother. Jiang Cheng had also gained another one in Lan Wangji. Wen Qing was his, as much as he had always been hers. He also had Uncle Four and popo’s approval. They were not his parents, but they were still his elders, family. Their opinions mattered to Wen Qing and thus also to Jiang Cheng.
A lie. Or rather, not the complete truth. They were good people. Generous, forgiving, open-hearted despite the unfairness that life and fate had seen fit to bestow upon them.
He really wasn’t so alone anymore.
He still floated on the surface of the water, closed his eyes against the brightness of the sun and let himself drift with the waves and currents beneath his back.
There was peace to be found. Now even within himself.
It took three months before Wen Qing decided it was safe for ChiFengZun to be woken. During that time, Wei WuXian spent some time at the Nie family burial grounds to try to understand better the curse of their sabers.
“He’s got some ideas,” Wen Qing told Jiang Cheng on her return to Lotus Pier, “but he said he’d like to investigate more.”
“Shouldn’t cultivate for at least the next year, to allow his system to reset. I’ll check on him once a month or so. But Nie HuaiSang is actually a quick study when he actually applies himself.”
“Keeping his brother well would definitely be a good motivator.”
She nodded her agreement.
He moved to stand behind her and pulled the pins and ties from her hair.
“What are you doing?” She asked, but more curious than offended.
“Taking care of you,” he answered as he carded his fingers through her hair.
She handed him the comb, which he used to untangle knots.
“Your shoulders are tense,” he told her as he started to massage them.
“You’re a quick study too,” she sighed.
He kissed the top of her head, “I had a good teacher.”
He could feel her starting to relax.
“A-Yuan decided Nie HuaiSang would be his Fan gege.”
“Of course he has.”
“They paint together. It’s frankly an adorable sight.”
He did not have to look to know she was smiling.
“A-Yuan is a natural healer then?”
“Yes. So much better than I am at soothing wounds of the spirit and heart.”
“Wei WuXian should take him to Cloud Recesses.”
“Not in seclusion.”
“Lan Wangji talked him out of it?”
“There is still much to do.”
She turned to look at him, “which means you must have been busy too.”
He shrugged, “just politics.”
“Which you hate.”
“I’m still not expected to say much. That helps.”
“Let me guess, you’ve been swimming pretty much everyday?”
“Well, you haven’t been here to distract me.”
She reached for one of his hands and kissed the palm. “I’m back now.”
“Surely you’ve missed me?”
There was that spark of challenge in her eyes again, but also a smile that hovered around her lips.
He reclaimed his hand but just so that he could lift her into his arms again. “I have.”
She leaned her head against his shoulder, “I thought so.”
He did not ask if she had missed him. The answer was obvious in the impatient way she pulled at his clothing.
“Welcome home,” he told her afterwards, fingers once again stroking through her hair.
She pressed a kiss to his chest, “it’s good to be home.”
Lightning flashed and thunder rolled. Jiang Cheng paid the storm no mind though, but just continued to pace.
“You’re going to wear a groove into the wood.” Wei WuXian complained.
Wei WuXian sighed, “she’ll be fine.”
“You don’t know that.”
“She’s strong. And a healer. She’s helped deliver babies before. She knows how it goes.”
“Knowing and doing are very different things.”
“She’ll be fine,” Wei WuXian said again. “Popo and A-jie are both with her. She can be in no better hands.”
Jiang Cheng paused briefly, “I can’t lose her. If I do...it’d be my fault.”
“Why must you always think so negatively?” Wei WuXian complained.
Jiang Cheng looked woefully at the closed door, behind which Wen Qing was likely suffering pain. He didn’t hear any screams though. Was that a good or a bad thing?
“Trust your children to be born in the middle of a thunderstorm.”
“She likes storms.”
Wei WuXian snorted, “of course she does. Else she wouldn’t have married you.”
Jiang Cheng didn’t say anything, just went right back to pacing.
“Urg,” Wei WuXian complained, “you’re making me dizzy.”
“You wouldn’t understand.” Jiang Cheng said sharply.
“Maybe not,” Wei WuXian admitted, “but don’t forget that I care about her too.”
Jiang Cheng rubbed at his temples, “why must childbirth take so long?”
For once, Wei WuXian didn’t have an answer.
“Have you thought of names?” He asked instead.
“Of course we have,” Jiang Cheng said indignantly.
“For both of them?”
Jiang Cheng glared, “yes.”
“Twins.” Wei WuXian shook his head. “Actual twins.”
“More than double the chance of complications.”
“Such a pessimist!”
Jiang Cheng didn’t answer because the door had finally opened.
“How is she?” He asked his sister anxiously.
“Tired.” A-jie looked exhausted too.
She smiled a little, “yes.”
“Can I see her?”
There was still the faint scent of blood in the air, but the smile on Wen Qing’s face stole his breath. She had a bundle in each arm.
“A-Cheng, come meet your children.”
He didn’t remember walking across the room. “They’re so…”
“Small?” She suggested.
He tore his eyes away from the little faces to meet her eyes, “perfect. Just like their mother.”
“Oh A-Cheng. Don’t cry.”
Was he crying? He wiped at his face.
Lightning flashed again, and though his children stirred and opened their eyes curiously, they did not fuss.
“Fearless, aren’t they?” Wen Qing was looking at them so proudly.
“Just like their mother,” he repeated.
She smiled at him, “would you like to hold them?”
“I don’t want to drop them.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, her voice full of fondness, “you’re sitting.”
Popo and A-jie helped settle the precious bundles in his arms.
They may be small but their weights were so solid. Grounding.
“Hello little ones,” he told them, around the lump in his throat, “I’m your father.”
He didn’t see the smile Wen Qing and A-jie traded this time either.
He looked back up to meet Wen Qing’s eyes, “I...you...thank you.”
“I know.” She said.
Of course she did.
Why would one person like another person? That type of like?
There was no good reason. It just was.
Was it not like tying a noose around your own neck?
Yes. Yes it was.
The string around his neck, around his heart, around his soul, the one that bound all of him to all of her, was red.
It had been tangled, stretched, but it still held true. Would always hold true.