“Protect zongzhu!” Cries went up around the clearing where they’d managed to corral the beast. Jiang Cheng could see it, hazily, through the gap between two of his disciples, its large, feline head rearing back, nostrils flaring around a long breath of wind.
His head spun. His sword hand – Sandu, where was Sandu? – was pressed against the gaping wound in his side, four long gouges that split him open deeper than he cared to currently investigate. His entire body felt like it was on fire, pain radiating up and out from the wounds on his abdomen. His mouth felt dry, his body lax, tired, his hand soaked through with blood.
He tried to focus his spiritual energy – what was left of it – inward, to slow the bleeding, but even Wei Wuxian’s core had been no match for the creature that was presently creeping closer and closer to where his disciples shielded his body with their own.
Black spots appeared across his vision, and he heaved in a long, shaking breath. Was he going to die here? Bested by a creature that looked like a very angry overgrown cat? On Yunmeng lands no more than a day's trip by sword from his home? Was he going to die surrounded by the group of junior disciples he’d brought with him for what was supposed to be a routine night hunt? Were they going to die trying to protect him?
Was he a failure after all? Had his shī gē given up his golden core for nothing?
Funny, as he lay there, bleeding into the grass, the frantic cries of his disciples around him, that the last thing his brain would conjure up was the music of a qín and the clank of chains.
There were flashes of light, an angry screeching of a qín, and a screamed, “Wen-qianbei, behind you!” in a voice just familiar enough to scratch the surface of Jiang Cheng’s consciousness.
There was silence, then whispered murmurs, a frantic plea of: “Please, Lan-gongzi, save him.”
Jiang Cheng drifted deeper, lulled to rest by soothing music, a hand – neutral, not warm, not cold, just present – pushing hair tenderly away from his forehead as he did.
When Jiang Cheng woke – with effort, his eyes were crusted with sleep and his eyelids were the heaviest thing he’d ever lifted – he was on his back, staring up at foliage, his head propped up on something soft. It was dark, and he could faintly see stars through the leaves. There was a crackling fire a few feet from him, a welcome warmth, as Jiang Cheng found himself dressed in an unfamiliar inner robe. It was grey, and the fabric was soft, if not as soft as his typical attire.
“Jiang-zongzhu, you’re awake.”
Jiang Cheng flinched at the voice. The flinch, of course, pulled at the wounds on his stomach – right, giant, gaping wounds from the giant leopard monster that tried to eat him. Jiang Cheng decided that investigating how he was still alive was more interesting than locating the source of that voice. As carefully as he could, he pushed aside the borrowed robe and glanced down at his abdomen, which was wrapped in what looked to be strips of familiar purple fabric. He wasn’t, by some miracle, bleeding any more.
“You weren’t healing,” the voice said. “Not fast enough. I had to…” A long pause. “You’re very lucky A-Yuan was here. He’s a fast learner.”
Instead of looking up, Jiang Cheng growled out, “Where are my disciples?” If his companion was...anyone else, he’d feel inclined to sit up, to bow, to thank them for saving him. Instead, he just stared at the sky, empty.
“A-Yuan took them back to Lotus Pier. Many of them were shaken up, a few were hurt. He will return as soon as he can with an actual doctor and more help.”
Jiang Cheng closed his eyes for a moment, breathing in a long breath of cool night air. He held up his right hand, Zidian crackling faintly, and then let his hand fall. “It had to be you,” he breathed, though his heart wasn’t in it.
“You’re lucky it was me.” The words were whispered softly. There was no malice in them, no cruel intent. It was a statement of fact. “You’re lucky jiě jie was the best doctor in the world, and that she thought highly enough of me to share her knowledge. You’re lucky A-Yuan was here, and willing to listen to me tell him how to put you back together.”
“That makes a second time you’ve been involved in that, then,” Jiang Cheng said bitterly.
“Involved in what, Jiang-zongzhu?”
“In putting me back together. At least this time you didn’t have to tear apart Wei Wuxian to do it.”
The words hit their mark, and Jiang Cheng realized far too late that the barb intended for Wen Ning was going to affect him just as deeply. The foliage and the stars above him swam as tears gathered in his eyes. He resisted the urge to sob, conscious of the pain still radiating from his side. Moving, he suspected, would hurt quite a bit.
“Wei-xiong made his choice.” Wen Ning said. “He loved you – loves you still.”
The part that hurt the most is that Jiang Cheng knew that. He knew that it had all been done for love, just as he’d handed himself over to the Wen patrol for love. Just as he’d stood beside Wei Wuxian as long as he could – until Wei Wuxian once more made an irrevocable choice for the both of them. Just as a-jiě had run onto a battlefield in her mourning robes – for love.
Love, in Jiang Cheng’s experience, was the fastest route to death.
“I should have been given a choice,” he whispered a long time later, when the stars had stopped swimming.
Wen Ning was silent for a long time. “Neither of us can go back and change the past. But, if it had been jiě jie, I’d have done the same thing that Wei-xiong did.”
Deciding abruptly that he no longer wanted to go down the path those emotions led, Jiang Cheng remembered that he’d nearly died today – not twenty years ago, not sixteen, mere hours ago. “What happened to the – the leopard thing?”
“Fēng shēng shòu,” Wen Ning answered. “The wind-born beast. Sizhui figured it out the third time it woke up after we thought it was dead. Easy enough to kill once you know how to do it, but impossible otherwise. Its hide is impenetrable.”
Jiang Cheng clenched his jaw. “And how did it die?”
“Massive head trauma.” There was a laugh in Wen Ning’s voice. “You have to break its jaw so it can’t open it, and then crush its nostrils so it can’t breathe. Then you just bash its skull in until you’re sure sure it is dead.”
“Charming.” Jiang Cheng huffed, wincing at the pull of his wounds. “Was he hurt? Lan Sizhui?” Were you? Can you be hurt?
“He was preoccupied keeping you alive. I took care of the Fēng shēng shòu.”
Jiang Cheng turned his head finally, begrudgingly, towards the fire. Wen Ning sat beside it, poking at it gently with a rather long stick. “Thank you, Wen Qionglin,” he said, the words ash in his mouth.
Wen Ning’s facial expressions were muted, a far cry from the bright, excited boy that Jiang Cheng had met in the Cloud Recesses a lifetime ago, but the corners of his lips curved just slightly and he gave a nod. “You should go back to sleep, Jiang-zongzhu. Your body needs to heal. I will keep watch. Nothing will harm you.”
Inexplicably, Jiang Cheng believed him.
Jiang Cheng woke to a sear of pain and his own screams. There was a shadow over him suddenly, firm hands on his shoulders, pressing him back and down. “Relax, Jiang-zongzhu, breathe.”
As the red haze of pain faded from his vision, Jiang Cheng could make out the outline of Wen Ning, the sentient fierce corpse kneeling next to him, impossibly strong arms pinning him against the ground by his shoulders. His abdomen seared, and he brought his hand down to touch the bindings, thankful to find that he hadn’t torn himself back open. “I...what?”
“You probably tried to roll over in your sleep,” Wen Ning said gently. “But also, the pain relief might be wearing off. I can give you more, if you’d like.”
Jiang Cheng distantly realized that if he’d been asleep for most of the time since his fight with the Fengsheng Shou, his spiritual energy had probably returned enough for him to dull the pain on his own. Instead, however, he nodded, squeezing his eyes closed again.
The pressure on his shoulders subsided for a moment. A hand slipped between Jiang Cheng’s head and the soft object beneath it – perhaps a bundle of clothes, it was hard to tell in the dark. Jiang Cheng allowed Wen Ning to tilt his head up and press a cup of bitter liquid against his lips. He swallowed it down with a grimace, thankful for the water that he was given next, swallowing great gulps of it – he hadn’t realized how dehydrated exsanguination could make a man.
A moment later, as Wen Ning was laying his head back down gently, Jiang Cheng said, “Thank you.”
The water and the taste and the gentle hand on the back of his head had all distracted him, momentarily from the pain, and suddenly Jiang Cheng – what the fuck? – wanted that again. He wanted Wen Ning to put his hand back, so Jiang Cheng could be sure he was there – that anyone was there.
Nothing will harm you.
Jiang Cheng had believed Wen Ning when he’d said that. Believed him enough to allow himself to sleep – sleep his body desperately needed to heal. And now he wanted… contact? With a man that… he’d blamed for all of it, for so many years. If Wen Ning hadn’t been so nearly killed maybe Wei Wuxian would have stayed. Maybe things could have been… different.
Could you blame a man for his own downfall? Jiang Cheng had blamed Wei Wuxian for his for years, but the man had thrown himself off a cliff. That was different from the near-death of a genuinely good man at the hands of soldiers drunk on power.
A genuinely good man. Jiang Cheng blamed whatever medicine Wen Ning had fed him. Or he tried to, but as his brain rifled back through memories: gods how did he have so many memories of Wen Ning, he couldn’t come up with a single time that he’d ever been anything but… good.
“Wen Qionglin,” Jiang Cheng said, lifting his hand to place gently on Wen Ning’s shoulder. “Could you… make sure I don’t try to move again?” he asked, grimacing slightly.
Wen Ning’s face pinched, a small expression that, in another context, might have been funny. “Are you sure, Jiang-zongzhu?” he asked. “I had been keeping my distance for your comfort.”
“You don’t make me uncomfortable,” Jiang Cheng said, his head spinning slightly. He was surprised by the words, but the surprise didn’t make them untrue. “I just… please. Moving could… I don’t want to tear…” Words, gods words were so hard.
“I understand,” Wen Ning said, still kneeling at Jiang Cheng’s side. “I will ensure you don’t move.”
“Thank you,” Jiang Cheng murmured. “Thank you, Wen Ning.”
Faintly, in the low light, as his eyes slipped closed, Jiang Cheng thought he might have seen the ghost of a smile.
Jiang Cheng woke a second time to screeching.
Sadly, it was not some unfortunate wild animal. It was not a child who had stumbled across them in the woods, a sentient fierce corpse and a wildly underdressed sect leader. It was not a ghost, and it was not a dream.
It was, he realized very quickly, Jin Ling.
“I cannot believe you left him alone with that thing!”
And just to make things worse: “Āi yā, Jin Ling, don’t be so rude. He saved your life once, you know.”
Jiang Cheng wondered quietly if his wounds were still serious enough to kill him. Could he jump to his feet and twist just right and rip out all the work Lan Sizhui had done to put him back together? Would he bleed out fast enough that he could die rather than deal with the people who Lan Sizhui had apparently deemed were ‘more help’?
“Wen-qianbei was the best choice to stay with Jiang-zongzhu,” A third voice, which must be Lan Sizhui, said definitively. “The disciples he had with him were young, and it is unlikely that Wen-qianbei would have been well received when he arrived asking for help. So, yes, I left him with Jiang-zongzhu because he was capable of keeping him safe.” A pause. “He is the reason your jiù jiu is alive. And we know that he didn’t kill your father on purpose. So maybe you should try being grateful for a moment, or do they not teach that in Lanling?”
Jiang Cheng raised his hands in a slow, sarcastic clap. “I didn’t even know a Lan could speak that many words in a row,” he said dryly.
“Jiang Cheng, you’re awake!” Wei Wuxian exclaimed, entering Jiang Cheng’s field of view. “How do you feel?”
“Like a giant cat tried to take a piece out of my side.”
“A giant cat successfully took a piece out of your side,” Wen Ning said, standing just over Wei Wuxian’s shoulder.
“Would you like to sit up, Jiù jiu?” Jin Ling asked, shouldering past Wei Wuxian to squat beside Jiang Cheng. His face was a delicate blend of bravado and genuine concern. It made Jiang Cheng smile.
“I would like to not lay on the ground anymore,” he huffed, accepting Jin Ling’s hand and clenching his teeth through the pain of sitting up. The pain eased as another pair of hands pressed against his back, lowering the strain in his side. Jiang Cheng glanced over his shoulder to see Wen Ning watching him with a critical eye. Jin Ling glared at him.
“Jin Ling, let it go for now,” Jiang Cheng said softly.
“Jiù jiu?” Jin Ling cocked his head to the side, his forehead furrowing around his little red Jin dot.
“I would be dead, A-Ling.” Jiang Cheng turned to Wen Ning with a brief nod.
“We should get Jiang-zongzhu to Lotus Pier.”
Jiang Cheng’s head whipped around, blinking rapidly to ensure that his eyes were seeing what he thought they were. “I didn’t realize injured sect leaders were important enough to warrant personal visits by the Chief Cultivator.”
Lan Wangji’s face remained a stoic mask.
“I asked Fù qīn to come.” Lan Sizhui said, a shadow at the Chief Cultivator’s side. “To ensure the Fēng shēng shòu was adequately put to rest.”
Jiang Cheng wondered how many of the rumours about Lan Wangji were true. He supposed, if they were, there were few more qualified to play songs for the dead than he was. “And was it?”
“It has been eliminated,” Lan Wangji intoned.
“Sizhui is a great student, of course it was.” Wei Wuxian said awkwardly, his lips pressed into a thin line. “Can you stand? Can he stand?” The second question was directed at Wen Ning, whose hands were still on Jiang Cheng’s back. Jiang Cheng tried not to feel overwhelmed by the sudden influx of people who seemed to, to some degree, give a shit about him.
“Would you like to try standing, Jiang-zongzhu?” Wen Ning asked politely. “I can take most of your weight.”
Jiang Cheng glanced around, unsure that he really had a better option. “I would like to get back to Lotus Pier, and I suspect standing is going to be advantageous in that regard.” Belatedly, he added, “So yes.”
Agonizingly, Wen Ning lifted Jiang Cheng to his feet, the pain from the wound in his stomach flaring brightly, but as promised, the other man kept his hands firmly under Jiang Cheng’s shoulder, and – with a surprising lack of effort – Jiang Cheng could tell Wen Ning was supporting most of his weight.
Jiang Cheng, now standing, was very aware of how horrible he felt, and probably looked. He was dressed in borrowed grey robes, his own pants and boots crusted with his own blood. The upside of major blood loss, however, was that his head was already spinning, making it very hard to care that he was underdressed. “I expect this is going to be exceedingly unpleasant so, let’s just get on with it.”
“Are you sure, Jiù jiu?” Jin Ling asked, “You look terrible.”
Jiang Cheng closed his eyes for just a moment, wondering if dealing with Jin Ling was punishment for all that he and Wei Wuxian had put a-jiě through all those years ago. “Laying on the ground probably isn’t going to help me look any less terrible,” he grunted. “If Wen Qionglin doesn’t mind offering me his assistance, I would like to go home.”
“It’s no trouble.” Wen Ning said, motionless behind Jiang Cheng. The only sign of his presence was his firm grip on Jiang Cheng’s torso.
Jin Ling glared once more and then spun to head away, muttering something about trusting monsters.
“Wen-qianbei isn’t a monster,” Lan Sizhui said, looking at Jiang Cheng. “You know that, right?”
“It’s okay, A-Yuan,” Wen Ning said. “A conversation for another time.”
Jiang Cheng studied the young Lan cultivator for a long time. Considered the man – the man, the person behind him. A part of Jiang Cheng – the part that felt for his nephew, who had lost so much at such a young age – wanted to hate Wen Ning. A part of him had hated Wen Ning for more than a decade. But the other part of him, quieter, deep inside, reminded him that Wen Ning had once been just like him: someone’s dì di, someone’s family.
“I know,” he said, forcing the words to unstick from his throat. “I know he’s not a monster.”
The trip back to Lotus Pier was quiet after that. Or well, quiet aside from Jin Ling and Wei Wuxian’s bickering.
Wen Ning, as a rule, tried very hard not to take any of the vitriol that was spewed towards him too seriously. When he’d first been returned to consciousness, it had been hard to cope with the weight of all that had happened: Jiě jie’s death, the death of the Wen sect entirely, his own existence and subsequent imprisonment. He’d begun then to focus on what he had left: Wei Wuxian, who had cared enough to keep him alive when anyone else – jiě jie included – would have lacked either the motivation or the ability to do so. Lan Sizhui, Wen Yuan, the last surviving member of a once-proud family.
That didn’t mean that barbs didn’t still land. Wen Ning had been made fun of his entire life, the butt of jokes any time jiě jie wasn’t around to protect him. He’d been ridiculed, called every name under the sun, beaten physically until he’d grown enough to defend himself. The world had tried its damnedest – even going so far as a stake through his gut – to turn him against it.
Wen Ning refused. There was good in the world and Wen Ning believed he could be a part of it.
Wen Ning looked up, attempting a warm smile in Sizhui’s direction. “Sizhui!”
Sizhui smiled back. He was tired, Wen Ning knew. The last few days had been hard, and coming across the Jiang disciples, a mortally wounded Jiang Wanyin and the Fēng shēng shòu had all taken a toll on him. “Jiang-zongzhu is asking for you,” he said softly, his hand fidgeting in its grip on his sword.
Frowning, Wen Ning blinked and stared at the ground of the wooden dock he stood on, just outside of Lotus Pier. Jiang Wanyin had been unconscious by the time they’d made it to Lotus Pier, a combination of pain and the injuries themselves. Wen Ning had gently transferred him into Lan Wangji’s sure grip and then settled in to wait outside of Lotus Pier.
He hadn’t forgotten his last visit here. He never would.
“Are you sure?” Wen Ning asked, in what was probably very obviously a stall for time. Sizhui wasn’t someone to lie or pass a false message.
“He asked for you by name, shū shu,” Sizhui confirmed with a small nod of his head. “His actual wording was far more… colorful.”
Wen Ning could imagine. With a nod, he motioned for Sizhui to lead the way. Ignoring whispers was a part of Wen Ning’s life, but what surprised him, as they wandered through Lotus Pier towards the family wing and what must be Jiang Wanyin’s chambers, was the lack of them. A few disciples stared, but in large part, no one said his name. It was almost more uncomfortable than the opposite.
Jiang Wanyin was propped up against the carved lotus that made up the headboard of his bed, surrounded by pillows, his skin freshly washed and dressed in a set of purple and silver robes made of a material that suggested they might be for sleeping. He had a tray across his legs, on which a half-empty bowl and spoon sat, along with a small selection of fruit.
Jin Ling sat on a stool beside the bed, and glared up at Wen Ning as he entered with Sizhui. Jiang Wanyin glanced at him briefly before looking at Sizhui. “Thank you, Lan-gongzi,” he said pointedly. “A-Ling, perhaps you and Lan Sizhui should go and get some rest.”
“But jiù jiu –”
“That wasn’t a suggestion,” Jiang Wanyin said curtly. “Get out of my rooms.”
“Jiù–” Sizhui seemed to get the memo, because he grabbed Jin Ling by the shoulders and directed him out of the room with a small tip of his head in Jiang Wanyin’s direction.
When they could no longer hear the indignant squawking of Jin Ling, Wen Ning watched Jiang Wanyin’s demeanor change completely. He exhaled a long breath, his shoulders slumped, his head tipped down towards his chest and he swallowed hard. After a moment of silence, he looked back up at Wen Ning, motioning with one hand towards the stool beside the bed.
Wen Ning, who had been perhaps more distracted than he expected by observing the change in the sect leader, settled onto the low stool somewhat awkwardly, folding his hands in front of him. “You asked for me?” he asked.
“You’re here for two reasons,” Jiang Wanyin said, eyes back on the bowl of medicine on his tray, his lip curled in disgust. “Three, I suppose.” Wen Ning allowed the silence to linger, unsure of the appropriate response to that. Eventually, Jiang Wanyin lifted the bowl to his lips and drank the remainder of the medicine with a grimace and then turned to Wen Ning. “First, you’re a very good Jin Ling deterrent,” he half-laughed, half-scoffed as he said it. “And he’s enough of his mother’s son to hover.”
“Jiang-guniang was very kind,” Wen Ning said softly.
“Jiě jie was the greatest woman to ever live,” Jiang Wanyin said, and Wen Ning could hear the undercurrent of emotion beneath his words. He disagreed – he had his own jiě jie after all, but he understood the sentiment wholeheartedly. “A-Ling is like his mother in many ways but also…”
“You need rest and relaxation,” Wen Ning said, nodding. “I understand.”
“The second reason is because you’ve kept me alive this far, and I’d like you to consult with Lotus Pier’s doctor on her treatments.” Jiang Wanyin said. Wen Ning’s eyes went wide as he stared at him. Jiang Wanyin raised an eyebrow but continued. “If you’re amenable to staying in Lotus Pier until I’m recovered, that is.”
“I – Are you –” Wen Ning took a breath out of habit and then said, “If Jiang-zongzhu is sure, I’d be happy to consult on his recovery.” He couldn’t help the insecurity that slipped into his voice. “Is… Jiang-zongzhu sure?”
Jiang Wanyin stared at Wen Ning for another long, silent moment, the air between them thick. “Wen-guniang was very kind,” he said finally, his lips pressed into a thin line. “And a very accomplished doctor.” He hesitated for a moment, reaching for a slice of fruit and popping it into his mouth to chew thoughtfully. When he’d swallowed he said, “She gave me reason to trust her. And I would like to trust you.”
Wen Ning felt the urge for tears he could not cry slide into him once more. He bashfully looked away from the sect leader, staring at the ground, at his own hands, at the chains encircling his wrists. He would be blushing, he was sure, if he had the capacity for it. “I wish Jiang-zongzhu no harm,” he settled on.
“I believe that,” Jiang Wanyin said. “Or I’d probably be dead already.”
“You said three reasons,” Wen Ning remembered suddenly, looking up. “Three reasons for me to be here.”
Jiang Wanyin nodded, his own hands fumbling against one another in his lap. This silence, stretching on long enough that Wen Ning was concerned the sect leader might have fallen asleep, was the longest of them so far. Wen Ning watched the hinge of Jiang Cheng’s jaw twitch, watched his throat work to swallow, his eyes shift across the room. Wen Ning wasn’t sure what could be more impactful than being asked to oversee Jiang Wanyin’s treatment and stay in Lotus Pier, but he braced himself for impact anyway.
“I would like to get to know you,” Jiang Wanyin said, turning to face Wen Ning, his chin jutting out proudly. “I was fond of your sister. Wei Wuxian is fond of you. Jiě jie believed in being kind to everyone.” Jiang Wanyin sighed deeply. “Nearly dying seems to have given me a difference in perspective. So, if you’re amenable, I would appreciate a chance to understand you better. To understand how things happened, from your perspective.”
Wen Ning was surprised at how much like forgiveness this sounded, but he found himself nodding anyway. “I’d like that.”
Jiang Cheng had spent the better part of the last twenty years being extraordinarily mad at the entire world. Everything had been simpler like that: it was easier to hate everything and everyone than it was to parse the complex web of feelings that came with his existence. For so many years, all that had mattered was running his sect and raising Jin Ling – doing the best that he could on both accounts.
Now, Jin Ling was a sect leader. Far from grown, but with his own responsibilities, many of which Jiang Cheng could no longer help him with. The Jiang sect was – giant felines aside – alive and flourishing. Wei Wuxian was inexplicably back from the dead. The true villain underlying all of the chaos had been revealed. And Jiang Cheng was still… angry.
Particularly, at the moment, his anger was directed at Lotus Pier’s doctor, a stout woman who, despite her distance from the main Jiang Clan line, seemed to have inherited all of its stubbornness. “You were torn open and bleeding not four days ago. Zongzhu, forgive me, but you need your rest.”
“I need to run my sect,” Jiang Cheng frowned, shaking his head. “I have things to do that cannot be done from my bed. I’m not dying.”
“You nearly did,” the doctor said, bowing low. “You nearly did, zongzhu, and that’s not something I want to risk.”
“He could go for a walk.”
Jiang Cheng had nearly forgotten, in his ire towards the doctor, that Wen Ning was even in the room. He turned towards him, masking a wince at the tugging in his gut as he did. If he let on how much pain he was still in, they’d never let him out of this gods-forsaken room. “Wen Qionglin?”
Wen Ning gave a brief almost-smile and turned towards the doctor. “I would be happy to accompany Jiang-zongzhu on a walk. I can keep a close eye on him, and if anything happens, bring him directly to you.”
The doctor eyed Wen Ning warily, but, like everyone else in Lotus Pier, had been given strict instructions to treat Wen Ning with respect. Jiang Cheng wasn’t a stupid man – he’d nearly died, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that were it not for Lan Sizhui and Wen Ning, he would have. “He’ll need to walk slow. And if he starts hurting, you might have to carry him.”
“I can assure you that won’t be a problem.” Wen Ning gave a clumsy bow. “I’ll take good care of him, dài fu.”
The doctor threw one last withering look in Jiang Cheng’s direction and then left, muttering as she did about stupid sect leaders and their guests. Jiang Cheng chose to ignore her words for now, elated at the idea of getting out of the bed, out of this room for reasons other than bathing and relieving himself. “Thank you,” he managed, giving Wen Ning a sharp nod. “I’m losing my mind.”
“Fresh air is good for healing,” Wen Ning offered, folding his hands in front of him. “I’m afraid I’m not much help with dressing.”
“I can dress myself,” Jiang Cheng said stubbornly.”I’ve been dressing myself since I was a child.”
He could not, it turned out, dress himself. He made it through tying on inner robes before lifting his arms and twisting became too painful to continue. Wen Ning, without so much as a laugh, managed to find an outer robe that didn’t require complicated fastenings, and he helped Jiang Cheng pull his arms through it. Jiang Cheng was exhausted by the time he’d managed to dress but was determined to see the sunshine.
“Jin-zongzhu and Sizhui made it to Koi Tower safely,” Wen Ning said, meandering along with Jiang Cheng at an agonizingly slow pace. Every step hurt, but the sun was warm, and being on his feet felt good. “They sent one of those golden butterflies. It arrived while you were asleep.”
Jiang Cheng turned to Wen Ning with a single raised eyebrow. “The butterfly delivered its message to you?”
Wen Ning nodded.
Interesting. “Lan Sizhui must have sent it then. Typically, the messages are only able to be heard by their intended recipient.”
“Ah.” Wen Ning nodded. “It didn’t seem to have been from Sizhui, but I could be wrong. Regardless – they’re safe.”
“As safe as anyone can be in that snake pit.” Jiang Cheng muttered. A moment later – a moment too late – he remembered that Wen Ning had spent an unfortunate amount of time as a prisoner of the Jins. He blinked a few times, stopping to lean against the wall. “What was it like?”
Jiang Cheng glanced around them. Wen Ning was nearby, and they were in the center of Lotus Pier – if there was anywhere in the world that was safe, it was here. He closed his eyes. “Being imprisoned by Jin Guangyao. What was it like?”
“Ah.” Jiang Cheng could hear Wen Ning shuffling. “Fuzzy,” he answered finally. “I don’t remember most of it. Dark, I think. They didn’t…” He paused long enough that Jiang Cheng considered opening his eyes. “Wei-xiong made me what I am. He gave me back control of myself. Jin Guangyao and Xue Chengmei, they did what they had to do to turn me back into a puppet. I only really remember the things that happened after Wei-xiong came back.”
Jiang Cheng tried, for a moment, to imagine what sixteen years of darkness might have felt like. He wonders abstractly if it was all that much different than sixteen years of anger, only to decide that yes, there was a difference. Jiang Cheng had, at least, been free. With a heavy sigh, Jiang Cheng opened his eyes. “Could you take me back to my room, please, Wen Ning?”
Wen Ning gave a small nod, and gently, but effortlessly, lifted Jiang Cheng off his feet, heading back fast enough to make Jiang Cheng’s head spin. Reclined once more in his bed, his eyes drooping from the effort of the walk and being awake, Jiang Cheng turned his head towards Wen Ning, who had taken his place on the small stool beside the bed. “We all made mistakes back then. If I had known – if I had realized –”
“We can’t change the past, Jiang-zongzhu.” Wen Ning, and his ineffably calm demeanor, soothed an ache Jiang Cheng hadn’t noticed. Something internal, something deeper than the burning of his stomach. “There are many things that happened that shouldn’t have.”
Jiang Cheng fell asleep to the gentle quiet of his room, and the knowledge that nothing would harm him there.
Wen Ning was woken in the middle of the night by a sharp rapping on the door to his room. Woken, of course, was a relative term. Wen Ning didn’t really have to sleep, but he did, out of habit and to feel normal, lay down during the night and close his eyes. Some days, he considered asking Wei Wuxian to create something that would actually offer him the quiet empty-mindedness of sleep.
But, he hadn’t yet, and so it was a matter of seconds to throw open the door – fully dressed – and force a smile on to face the tiredJiang cultivator at the door. “Has something happened?” Wen Ning realized – too late, perhaps – that there were very few reasons for him to be bothered during sleeping hours. “Is Jiang-zongzhu okay?”
The young cultivator – an apprentice of the doctor’s, now that Wen Ning had gotten a good look at her – nodded. “Zongzhu sent for you. I’m supposed to tell you ‘only if it’s no bother.’” The girl bit her lip and stared at the ground. “Wen-daifu, is it a bother?”
Wen Ning stopped breathing for a moment, at the casual use of the title. Dài fu. His sister had been the best doctor the Wen clan had ever known. To be called dài fu now felt like a knife in his heart. She should be here. She would have been here, taking care of Jiang-zongzhu, if she hadn’t – if he hadn’t –
“Wen-daifu?” The young cultivator asked. Both she and Wen Ning knew that she was loath to return to Jiang Wanyin’s quarters without Wen Ning, and Wen Ning certainly had nothing better to do at such an hour. Closing the door he gave his best approximation of a smile and nodded, following her through the quiet of Lotus Pier towards the Sect Leader’s chambers.
Wen Ning heard Jiang Wanyin’s voice long before he reached the room, breaking up the silence with curses and frustration. Wen Ning picked up his pace, stepping around the young cultivator and entering the bedchamber without hesitation.
“Wen Qionglin, there you are.” Jiang Wanyin’s face was pale, and the Lotus Pier doctor was blocking Wen Ning’s view of his abdomen. “I need…” Jiang-zongzhu bit off another curse and stared at the ceiling. Wen Ning finally made it close enough to see that the doctor was wiping away blood, and re-suturing the wounds closed.
“He needs a babysitter,” the doctor said, making no effort to cloak the annoyance in her voice. “I took him off the sedative for sleeping, at his request –”
“It’s not safe for me to be sedated every night, what if something happened?”
“–and he managed to try to roll over in his sleep and tore himself back open.” The doctor tied off the stitches and wiped the wound, and Jiang Wanyin all but howled. “You’re a cultivator, you can take it.”
Wen Ning still didn’t quite understand why he was there, if the danger was already past – Jiang Wanyin appeared, once more to be back in one piece. “How can I be of assistance?” Wen Ning asked, folding his hands in front of him.
“I don’t want to have to be knocked out to sleep,” Jiang Wanyin said, though, the fight seemed to have gone out of his voice. “In the forest, you helped make sure I didn’t move. Would you…” Jiang Wanyin sighed. “Would you be willing to do that again?”
The doctor finished packing away her supplies, and pressed two vials into Wen Ning’s hands. “One’s for the pain, and one is the sedative. He sleeps just fine on the sedative, don’t let him fool you.” She patted Wen Ning on the shoulder – unfamiliar, but comforting affection – and departed.
Wen Ning blinked a few times and then looked down at the bottles, handing the pain tincture out to him. “I can stay and make sure you don’t move,” Wen Ning said, as Jiang Wanyin downed the contents of the bottle. “But, in the forest, the way I kept you still was… well I laid with you.”
Jiang Wanyin’s face did it’s best approximation of a blush given the blood loss. “So then lay with me,” he said, moving gingerly until he was laying on his back. He blinked a few times, his head rolled to the side so he could look at Wen Ning. “Surely you don’t sleep dressed like that.”
Wen Ning glanced down at his clothing. It was… the only set he had. The other set was in even worse shape, his best inner robe never had been returned to him by Jiang Wanyin, and this one, at least, was spelled by Sizhui to stay clean. “I don’t…” There were any number of ways to finish the sentence: I don’t sleep, I don’t have other robes, I don’t know if this is proper, I don’t know if you actually want this. “If you were sleeping fine on the sedative, why not just take that?”
Jiang Wanyin frowned. No – Jiang Wanyin pouted. “I’m tired of being intoxicated all the time. I can sleep just fine as long as I don’t move. And I always feel so groggy in the morning.” Jiang Wanyin narrowed his eyes. “I need to get back to running my sect, and I can’t do that if I’m always so fucking tired.”
Wen Ning nodded, unsure of how to respond.
Thankfully for him, something in the pain tincture seemed to have loosened Jiang Wanyin’s typically tight lips. “You know where my wardrobe is, Wen Ning. Find something that will fit that’s suitable for bed and get in here. I’m tired.”
Wen Ning set the bottle of sedative down on the table and drew in a habitual, steadying breath. “If you’re sure, Jiang Wanyin.” It was almost, almost like they were friends, moments like this, when Jiang Wanyin forgot himself and used Wen Ning’s name. When there was no hint of fear, no edge of wariness or self-hatred.
It took a few moments, but Wen Ning eventually found something from Jiang Wanyin’s clothing assortment that would both fit, and that Jiang Wanyin agreed was suitable for bed – Wen Ning had long lost track of what was and wasn’t suitable for bed. In the end, Wen Ning ended up in a loose, jewel-toned purple robe with a pair of soft grey trousers, slipping into the bed beside Jiang Wanyin after extinguishing the candles.
Wen Ning was hesitant, but Jiang Wanyin made an annoyed sound, and Wen Ning slowly crept closer until he could reach to place his arm firmly across Jiang Wanyin’s shoulders. It was awkward, and not. The bed was comfortable, Jiang Wanyin smelled clean, and with his enhanced vision, Wen Ning saw the soft exhale and the slack relief on Jiang Wanyin’s face.
“I remember the first time I met you, that day in the Cloud Recesses,” Jiang Wanyin whispers, as if there is someone else to wake in the room. “You were terrified, but hopeful. Wen Qing – she handled the situation with as much grace as she could, always. Even when we showed up in Yiling, even when it put her life at risk.” Jiang Wanyin dragged in a breath and then let it out, chest shuddering.
Seemingly out of nowhere – some combination of the drugs and the sleepiness and the pain – Jiang Wanyin said, “You’re so unfailingly good, Wen Ning.” Jiang Wanyin turned towards him, their faces inappropriately close. “And the world was so cruel.”
Wen Ning pressed his lips together, letting the memories and Jiang Wanyin’s words wash over him. It was a lot, coming from a man who Wen Ning was sure hated him. Coming from a man whose life had been upended because of Wen Ning. “You should rest, Jiang Wanyin.”
“Just Wanyin,” he managed, his eyes blinking slowly as he fought sleep. “You’re in my bed, I think that earns you the right to call me by my name.”
Wen Ning was not so sure. He was in Jiang Wanyin’s bed to do a service: to keep him safe, keep him steady in his sleep. He wasn’t sure that Jiang Wanyin, sober, would agree with his medicated counterpart. But still, “As you wish, Wanyin.” It was strangely intimate – aside from Sizhui there is not a single person that Wen Ning referred to by name.
“Goodnight, Wen Ning.” The words were a whisper. “Thank you.”
Wen Ning, more unsure of the situation now than he’d been at any point since being summoned to Jiang Wanyin’s side the first time, simply attempted a smile that it was too dark for Wanyin to see, and whispered. “Goodnight.”
It becomes routine – in a way that Jiang Cheng was too comfortable to object to, and too uncomfortable to discuss. Every evening, as they retired for sleep, Jiang Cheng asked if Wen Ning would stay with him, and every night he did. There was never an objection from him, never a hesitation. He stayed in Jiang Cheng’s bed, holding him firmly across the shoulders, and Jiang Cheng slept soundly: safe, from everything including himself.
Today, Wen Ning had begrudgingly allowed himself to be measured for new clothing. Jiang Cheng may have still been mostly stationary – though daily walks helped – but he could send letters, and the tailor had come at once upon his request.
Wen Ning looked adorably bashful, standing in the center of Jiang Cheng’s sitting room, holding his arms out so the tailor can measure his arm span and chest circumference with a piece of worn string. Jiang Cheng pointedly did not investigate the concept of putting Wen Ning and adorable in the same sentence. “Jiang-zongzhu, I really don’t know that this was necessary, when I am no longer here, I’ll have no use for fine clothing like this.”
“A comfortable, well-fitted pair of sleep clothes are always useful, Wen Qionglin,” Jiang Cheng said from his place on the low daybed. He also ignored pointedly the pang in his chest at the concept of when I’m no longer here and then grew increasingly annoyed with himself for having any emotional pangs about the statement at all. Wen Ning was there while Jiang Cheng healed: this was always a temporary arrangement.
Wen Ning pressed his lips together and sighed. A morbid part of Jiang Cheng wondered how many years, after your body no longer needs it, did one continue to breathe and make expressions of the breath. “But the rest?” Wen Ning asked, shaking Jiang Cheng from his thoughts.
“Consider them gifts,” Jiang Cheng said, distractedly, staring down at the papers to find something… to distract himself with. Because he absolutely was not going to say ‘You’ll need them if you stay here.’ Wen Ning – The Ghost General – was not staying here once Jiang Cheng no longer needed him. “A thank you.”
Wen Ning furrowed his brows in Jiang Cheng’s direction, but remained silent.
Jiang Cheng wished, for once, that he would not. It would be easier to ignore the thoughts in his own head if Wen Ning kept talking. Still, he was finally being given work to do, and while the tailor worked diligently, he settled in to do it.
The tailor left before long, leaving Wen Ning and Jiang Cheng to what had very unexpectedly become a comfortable silence. Jiang Cheng looked up across the room towards Wen Ning, who was staring out a window. “What kinds of things do you like to do, Wen Ning?”
Wen Ning turned to him with wide eyes and blinked them a few times, before staring down at his hands. “I used to like archery. Practicing with the sword. Learning from jiě jie, cooking. I never did enjoy reading or art much.” He looked up, cocking his head to the side. “Why do you ask, Wanyin?”
Jiang Cheng warmed at the name. He had insisted: in private, there was no need for formality, not after… everything: the life saving, the quiet admissions, the bed-sharing. “You often seem bored,” he answered, organizing his papers. “I could arrange for you to practice archery, or cooking, or you could spend more time with the dài fu – although why you’d want to be around that miserable woman is beyond me.”
“Jiang-daifu makes your pain tinctures, you should show her more respect than that,” Wen Ning said, but there was no bite behind his words. Maybe Jiang Cheng was imagining it, but the corners of his lips seemed to curl up into an approximation of a smile. “I’m really fine, I assure you. As long as I can see the sunlight, hear animals? It’s all I really need.”
Ah. This was the cost, Jiang Cheng decided, biting his tongue to keep from speaking as he turned back to the messages he was meant to be replying to. This was the cost of Wen Ning’s years as a puppet – as a monster, under someone else’s control. He had always been good natured, helpful, determined, but now, he was just thankful to be free. The cost of a war.
“Would you like to start our walk a little earlier today, Wen Ning?” Jiang Cheng asked, forcing his lips into a smile that he wasn’t sure made it to his eyes. “I’m feeling pretty good today, we could try a longer route.”
Wen Ning nodded, hurrying across the floor to help Jiang Cheng rise. His stomach was healing – it wouldn't be long before he was back to normal, but transitions were still the most difficult: the damned cat really had done a number on him. Wen Ning made it feel effortless though, taking Jiang Cheng’s weight, so the only work left to be done was relax and breathe as his wounds resettled to their new position.
Wen Ning still kept close, but no longer had to hold onto Jiang Cheng as they walked, this time further than they ever had, away from the hustle and bustle of Lotus Pier and into quieter parts. Jiang Cheng stopped on the edge of a dock, looking out over the water, hands folded at his back, his hand empty. His qi had recovered, but not yet enough for him to wield Sandu or Zidian comfortably: his body still needed all that he could give it.
Besides, he had a weapon at his back anyway, forged by his shī gē and then set loose on the world. Until he wasn’t. “Where will you go, when you leave?” Jiang Cheng asked without turning around.
“Wherever Sizhui is, probably,” Wen Ning answered, almost immediately. “Or wherever I’m needed. I’m still alive for a reason, and the only reason I can think of is to help. I’m not a cultivator any more, I’ll never be a dài fu; I am as likely to snap a bow in half as I am to hit a target. But I can still help. I can still defeat evil and protect people. So, I’ll go where I’m needed – with or without Sizhui.”
Jiang Cheng ignored the burn of emotions in his eyes as he nodded. He had no right to ask Wen Ning to stay here, no right to chain him down, to become another master, another captor. “Well, you may not be protecting me from evil, but I have appreciated your help. Your presence is… reassuring.” Jiang Cheng watched as the sky was painted with soft pinks and oranges as the sun set. “And you will always be welcome in Lotus Pier, so long as I’m it’s master.”
The soft gasp behind Jiang Cheng startled him, but he pointedly gave Wen Ning a moment before he turned around to face him. When he did, Wen Ning said, “thank you, Wanyin.” His lips curled into that almost-smile that Jiang Cheng had become so fond of. “It’s been a nice change of pace, being here. I like being helpful.”
Jiang Cheng’s face slid into his own smile. “I’m as surprised as you are about this, but it’s been a pleasure having you here, Wen Ning.”
Glancing briefly at the feet, his face still pasted in that soft, almost-smile, Wen Ning gave a small nod. “We should head back,” Wen Ning said, offering his arm. “We’ve already been out longer than normal. I don’t like to see you in pain.”
Jiang Cheng hesitated for just a moment, but then gave in, allowing Wen Ning’s stability to serve as a balm to his nerves and rolling emotions.
They walked back to Jiang Cheng’s chambers with only the rising sound of night-time insects and far-off birds to break the silence.
It took two months after being attacked by the fēng shēng shòu for Jiang Wanyin to be fully recovered. Wen Ning found himself strangely sad to leave Lotus Pier, with a new qiankun pouch full of the wardrobe that Jiang Wanyin had gotten made for him, medicines and herbs from the dài fu: “So you can save more lives, Wen-daifu.” He once more donned his traveling cloak and spelled chain weapons, set to leave in the early morning for Koi Tower, where Sizhui was waiting for him.
Jiang Wanyin saw him off, dressed, despite the hour, in his fancy, complicated regalia, one hand adorned with Zidian and the other grasping Sandu. The path out of Lotus Pier was quiet at this time of day, the sun just above the horizon, the world awash in orange and shadows. Wen Ning stopped just short of the small boat that Jiang Cheng had arranged for him. “I’m glad you’re well again, Wanyin.”
Jiang Wanyin – who had been strangely quiet this morning – nodded. “Thank you for all your help in making me this way again.” He stepped closer, glancing around them, and then bringing his hand up to rest against Wen Ning’s arm. “I meant what I said, about you always being welcome here.”
Wen Ning glanced, but did not stare, at the hand on his arm. Zidian glinted in the sunlight. Jiang Wanyin was always so much warmer than Wen Ning was, especially in the cool morning air. “I’ll remember.” He stared at the Sect Leader.
He was not sure which of them moved – though he’d bet it wasn’t him, but for half a breath they were pressed together, lips to lips, chest to chest, and then it was over. Wen Ning’s eyes were wide, and Jiang Wanyin’s cheeks were vibrantly, viciously red. Neither of them spoke, and then Wen Ning leaned in once again, pressing his lips as gently as he could against Jiang Wanyin’s, pulling him effortlessly against his body, soaking him in.
“I won’t ask you to stay,” Jiang Wanyin said, once he’d caught his breath, making no effort to move from the circle of Wen Ning’s arms. “I won’t make you my prisoner. You’ve earned your freedom, after all you’ve been through.”
Wen Ning’s chest felt tight, and he leaned his forehead against Jiang Wanyin’s. “I’ll come back.” He pressed a quick, soft kiss to Jiang Wanyin’s lips. “I’ll come back soon, and often.”
Jiang Wanyin finally pulled away from Wen Ning’s grasp, and Wen Ning let him go, staring at him for a long moment. “See that you do,” Jiang Wanyin’s smile – for how rarely Wen Ning got to see it – was beautiful, his face lit by the rising sun, his eyes shiny in a way Wen Ning would never mention. “I’ll see you soon, A-Ning.”
Wen Ning gave a brief nod, turned, and stepped onto the boat, waving once more before he rowed away. And if he stopped, once he was far enough to be out of eyesight, to touch his lips and wonder if this wasn’t some kind of strange dream, well, that was between him and the lotuses.