Chapter 1: The Unburied Things
Murder. Murder was definitely the best option.
Lan WangJi stepped towards him, placing his hand on Wei WuXian's shoulder. Wei WuXian glanced up at his husband. He was sure his eyes were glowing red. Fury surged through him. The poor messenger took a step backwards, though it wasn't his fault at all. Still, he was dealing with Wei WuXian, and even if society was now targeting Jin GaungYao's memory as the cause behind every rotten crop and rogue donkey, the rumors of the monstrous YiLing Patriarch lingered in memories. Especially in moments like these, when one look at Wei WuXian's face would tell you he would indeed very much like to unleash a hoard of corpses on a certain someone. But that someone was not this messenger.
"Can you tell us what happened?" WangJi asked, fingers tightening.
Wei WuXian let out his breath. His jaw ached from clenching it so tightly.
"Jin Ling survived an assassination attempt."
The moment those words were spoken, the wispy shadows dancing along the walls, prompted by flickering candlelight, transformed into grasping ghost hands and furious ghouls. Panic bit into Wei WuXian.
"I-I just know someone broke into his bedchamber," stammered the messenger. "And—and the young master told me to come here and—and tell you before you heard and came rushing over and made fools of yourselves, and he said to tell you that in those words exactly." The poor boy's shoulders slumped.
In spite of the situation, Wei WuXian let out a snort. He shook his head at his husband. WangJi's brows remained drawn together. "At least he hasn't lost his temperament."
"Someone probably tried to kill him for acting like a young mistress again," commented Lan JingYi. "Ow!" He clutched his shoulder.
Lan SiZhui had smacked him. He winced when WangJi's gaze fell on both of the boys. "My apologies. No matter what Jin Ling behaves like, that's terrible—he's the head of the Jin sect."
"Yes, and with the chaos, he's vulnerable," Wei WuXian mused. He clutched his forehead. And like it or not, the boy's personality hardly won him friends. Even if he was making progress. Progress was a slow climb, and somethings you got tired. Ask Wei WuXian; he would know.
It'd been six months since Jin GuangYao died, since the truth came out, since Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi married. And thanks to the reputation of Jin GuangYao's crimes, everyone was either expecting Jin Ling to be the good Jin spark amidst the snow, a shining bright yellow example since he was descended from a legal marriage as opposed to that disgusting rascal Jin GuangYao who crawled his way out of a brothel and muddied the Jin name, or they were expecting Jin Ling to be as rotten as his uncle, but concealed in a freshly painted coat.
It's too much for a boy his age. Wei WuXian swallowed. He thought of his brother, Jiang Cheng, when he'd become the leader of his sect too young, not much older than Jin Ling was now. "Is Jiang Cheng there?"
"Indeed. He wants to remove Jin Ling to Lotus Pier, but Jin Ling is—" The messenger twisted his hands. "Not having it."
It wouldn't be a good look, even if it was smart for his safety. Wei WuXian met WangJi's eyes. The people would surely say Jin Ling was merging more with his Jiang heritage from his mother, than the Jin sect was at risk of vanishing like the Wen sect, that they deserved to vanish after the tarnishing Jin GuangYao had said, and what was the life of one small boy if it meant the salvation of cultivators everywhere?
No one needed to study to excel in leaps of logic.
"What if we invited Young Master Jin to study here in the Cloud Recesses for a few weeks?" opined Lan WangJi.
Wei WuXian relaxed. People would still object, surely, but—it was less risky.
"Here?" squawked Lan JingYi, hopping to the side. "Ow! Stop kicking me, SiZhui!"
"I think it's a very wise idea, HanGuang-Jun," SiZhui said with a straight face. Firelight glowed orange over his cheeks. "We already night hunt with him, JingYi. Quite frequently."
"Yeah, but last time he called me a—" Lan JingYi saw WangJi's eyes narrowing and straightened. "Never mind."
"We should extend the invitation to Jiang Cheng as well," Wei WuXian pointed out, looking up at his husband. Because he'll be bitter if he thinks I'm doing it because I can protect Jin Ling better.
He couldn't protect him more, not really. And Jiang Cheng adored their nephew even if every other sentence out of his mouth was how much he was looking forward to breaking the kid's legs.
WangJi nodded. "JingYi, SiZhui, any more rudeness or violence and you'll be copying our sect's rules twice." He swept out of the room, Wei WuXian on his heels. They strode over the grounds. Two bunnies sniffed at their robes, darting around the grass and towards a tree.
Wei WuXian raced towards the rabbits, catching them. "Look, look—hey!" One of them bit his finger. He dropped them, holding his hand up. Red dribbled down. "I'm bleeding."
"Your fault," responded WangJi.
"Oh! So you choose a bunny over your husband?" Wei WuXian feigned offense. "Ah, WangJi, you cruel—" He shut up.
WangJi turned. Behind him, his uncle scowled at the both of them, disapproval seeping out of his very existence. Even the stars twinkling above dulled, as if not to offend the man's contented misery and self-righteousness.
"Uncle," WangJi greeted him.
Lan QiRen's scowl deepened, fists curling, the reminder that his protege had run off and married the world's villain who had no concept of discipline hitting him like a strike from a whip.
"We received word that—"
"About Young Master Jin? I heard."
"I believe it'd be wise to invite him to—"
"Visit his uncle?" Lan QiRen's eyes bored into Wei WuXian, who managed a sickeningly sweet smile. The man's hatred had never bothered him. Lan QiRen hated anything with dents in it which, unfortunately, was literally everyone.
"Train with SiZhui, JingYi, and our other disciples," WangJi stated, straightening as if to stand up even taller than he usually did. Wei WuXian shivered. WangJi looked even more magnificent, bathed in moonlight. "We might invite Jiang Cheng as well. It would show the cultivation world that the other sects do not see fault in the Jin sect as a whole, but merely in the person it belongs—"
"Very well," Lan Qiren said.
Wei WuXian blinked. The man had backed down rather easily, not even protesting that all the sects would be gathering in the Cloud Recesses for a discussion conference the next month. In all likelihood he hoped that having Jiang Cheng around might keep Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi quiet at night. Nice try, no chance. He clapped his hands together, rushing over to clasp WangJi's shoulder. "Thank you, Lan QiRen."
The man looked at him like a decaying snake.
"You do know what inviting Jin Ling here means," WangJi commented.
Wei WuXian frowned, standing on tiptoe. This new body was so frustrating sometimes, like when he had to peer up to meet his husband's eyes. "What?"
"Fairy will be coming along." WangJi regarded him.
Wei WuXian couldn't hold it back. Not even the threat of Lan QiRen was enough to compare to this level of fear. "Oh, fuck."
He's doing this to show me up.
Ha. As if. Jiang Cheng knew that wasn't the case, and the mere fact that it wasn't the case and that thought popped into his head anyways meant that he was, in fact, shown up. Without Wei WuXian even trying.
But they would go, of course. Because there was no better option, even considering Lotus Pier, and judging from the glower on Jin Ling's face, if he dragged the brat there his nephew would just run away anyways. Jin Ling did what he wanted. Then again, Jiang Cheng supposed he could. He was the leader of the Jin sect, after all.
When Jiang Cheng became leader of the Yunmeng Jiang sect he was desperate for someone, anyone, else. To tell him what to do, to show him, to listen to him even. And no one, not even Wei WuXian, was there.
Of course Wei WuXian wasn't there because of he'd given Jiang Cheng his golden core. Jiang Cheng's hand drifted towards his chest. He resented it. And yet, he needed it.
The conundrum chaining him to his brother all his life, dragging gratitude out of him when it was never demanded. I wish you had demanded it.
"We'll leave in the morning," Jiang Cheng said. "Keep Fairy with you." And set him on your other uncle if you can when we get there.
Fairy barked at hearing her name. She wagged her tail, trotting behind Jin Ling. She'd apparently bitten the people who broke into Jin Ling's bedroom, taking out one of their throats. It was a shame both of them had died, because that way they couldn't interrogate them, find out who really was behind it. Jiang Cheng sincerely doubted two servants of Jin GuangYao's were the masterminds. Then again, the whole scheme seemed so poorly planned out that who even knew anymore?
"And what would you do if I hadn't killed them?" Jin Ling had shot back. "Torture them like you used to torture everyone you thought was Wei WuXian?"
Brat. Jiang Cheng had no patience. Maybe it was good to be taking him to the Gusu Lan sect.
No. He wanted to be patient with him. He watched Jin Ling storm back to his room, Fairy on his heels.
You liked Jin GuangYao more.
And now you like Wei WuXian more.
And it's my own fault.
If only the fact that he knew that also fixed things. Instead it just made things worse. There wasn't really a way to dig yourself out of the Burial Mounds you'd thrown yourself into unless, of course, one was Wei WuXian, and Jiang Cheng, despite having his brother's golden core, was definitely not.
He heard whispers as he passed through the hallways at Koi Tower. Some whispered Jin GuangYao might have come back just like Wei WuXian had. Some murmured that maybe the person who hired those ragtag assassins was Wei WuXian, and maybe that was why Jiang Cheng was going to the Cloud Recesses—to question the Yiling Patriarch in person. Others added those were definitely Jiang Cheng's thoughts, but coated it with a sardonic laugh, implying they thought Jiang Cheng half-mad.
Was this how you felt, Wei WuXian? Jiang Cheng wondered, locking himself in his room. The air felt cold, and the fire in the fireplace had burned mostly to ash. Only a few embers glowed tangerine. They all fear me, and at the same time, they mock me.
I thought that was what I wanted, and—
Power was, as it turned out, about as comforting as a plate of dog shit after a day of hard work.
He slept with Zidian around his finger, and his other hand clasped around his finger. When he woke, he slipped into Jin Ling's room. Fairy bounded up to him, panting.
At least you're happy to see me. He scratched the dog behind the ears. "Let's go, Jin Ling."
Jin Ling yawned. "Whatever."
"Don't be so rude or I'll break your legs."
Jing Ling heaved Fairy into his arms. No small feat since Fairy appeared to hardly be missing out on meals. Jiang Cheng remembered always sneaking scraps of roast meat for his puppies, before his father gave them away.
They flew off on their swords. Jin Ling sighed. "Why does it take so long to get there?"
"Complain again and I will turn these swords around," Jiang Cheng responded.
Jin Ling ignored him. He looked so much like his father. But when he laughed—rare for Jiang Cheng to hear—he sounded like his mother.
I miss you, A-jie. But I'll keep him safe. I promise.
They landed in the Cloud Recesses. They'd have to get jade tokens to allow them passage in and out. Jin Ling's lips curled as he took in the four thousand rules carved into the rocks, proclaiming the Gusu Lan sect's righteousness and shaming everyone else. Bragging rights forever embedded in their headquarters. Not that it kept them from getting burned down once, but it wasn't like Jiang Cheng could judge a place by having been burned down once.
He hated the smell of smoke to this day.
The sun broiled overhead as they entered. Jiang Cheng had taken two steps before he heard Jin Ling shriek, and then Wei WuXian screamed.
He'd gone to hug Jin Ling. And then Fairy jumped at him, friendly. But Wei WuXian cowered behind his—well—his husband.
Husband. Someone who committed to him for life. Life.
"Lan WangJi," Jiang Cheng ground out.
"Fairy!" howled another voice.
"Jin Ling!" exclaimed a third. Those two disciples appeared, one of them running unceremoniously towards Fairy and grasping the dog in a huge hug, and the other smiling politely at Jin Ling.
"Now Fairy is preoccupied, so please grace us with your presence," said Jiang Cheng sourly.
Wei WuXian looked skeptical, peeking out from behind Lan WangJi's shoulder. "I'm glad to hear you're both okay."
"I wasn't at risk."
"But you went to save him. That's—"
"My duty as his uncle."
Lan WangJi's eyes narrowed. Jiang Cheng swallowed. It wasn't that he was intending to be so rude. He just—he just—
I've fallen and I can't get up. I don't have your talent, brother.
"I don't think the threat is—dealt with," Jiang Cheng said, changing the subject. "Though whoever set it up clearly wasn't very intelligent."
Lan WangJi nodded. "We agree."
We. Of course. The two of them. Married. Together. Two men, married, together, happy, sleeping in one bed, married.
Despite the sun and the warmth of the cup of tea soon ushered into his hand by Wei WuXian as the three disciples ran off to chase rabbits with Fairy, Jiang Cheng still felt cold.
"I see," commented his brother.
Lan WangJi sighed, pushing his cup of tea away from him. Jiang Cheng had gone to speak with Lan QiRen, and Wei WuXian was off chasing rabbits with the kids—or more likely, planning some kind of night hunt. Lan WangJi was not as dense as he might seem. "I hope we're able to figure it out soon."
"You will," assured Lan XiChen.
Lan WangJi slid his eyes around the room. It was devoid of cheer, devoid of his brother. It reminded him of how his father lived in his seclusion.
He never saw the man laugh. So Lan WangJi swallowed his laughter too, until Wei WuXian helped him remember it. He never saw the man break a rule, so he kept them until he learned the man had loved one who broke a fundamental one. His father punished himself all his life, and Lan WangJi followed in his steps, atoning for what, he didn't know, and never lightening his father's burden. Nor his mother's.
He did not want Lan XiChen to follow that same path. Because Lan XiChen smiled.
He was the only one who did, after Mother died. And while Lan WangJi never did, he found comfort in those laughs.
What happened with Jin GuangYao was not your fault.
But it wasn't so simple, was it?
"You're thinking of Father, or Mother?" questioned Lan XiChen. He shifted on the bamboo mat he sat on, crossing his legs.
"Both," Lan WangJi replied. He could never hide anything from Lan XiChen. He was a language only Lan XiChen was able to read. And Wei WuXian, now.
Lan XiChen almost smiled then. Lan WangJi watched. "I suppose both of us are more like both of them than Uncle would have liked."
Mother was a murderer.
Mother was their mother. She kissed him, she held him, she wanted to raise him, she played games with him, she read to him, she teased him even when he didn't know how to laugh. He knew she loved him, she and Lan XiChen. And when she was gone, he focused on trying to make Lan QiRen and his father focus on him, love him too, even if he never acted like it. If he was good enough.
Until Wei WuXian showed up and changed everything.
"You're happy," commented Lan XiChen.
Lan WangJi nodded. "I'm married." His words came soft. He wouldn't say this with anyone else. He was married, and every day Wei WuXian reminded him of this fact. Every night, they slept in each other's arms. Every day, he was loved, and he got to love.
"You deserve this kind of happiness, Lan Zhan," said his brother, reaching out and clasping his wrist. "You and Wei WuXian. No matter what Uncle says or does. As it turns out, you were not the one who was close with a rabid murderer after all."
"He did murder," replied Lan WangJi.
"It was more Jin GuangYao's fault." Lan XiChen closed his eyes. Outside, the light from the windows dulled to a mauve with magenta tips. "Will Wei WuXian and Jiang Cheng survive under one roof? Or, more accurately, will the Cloud Recesses burn down again? I'm afraid I don't want to be living in the woods again." A joke.
Jin GuangYao helped you when you ran. Lan WangJi shook his head. "Jiang Cheng does not hate Wei Ying."
"I know." Lan XiChen sighed. "I'm not sure he knows that, though."
"Wei Ying does."
"I meant Jiang Cheng." Lan XiChen rubbed his chin. "Ah, what am I saying? I'm the least likely person to be able to give solid advice or insight right now. I'm supposed to be concentrating on my own—"
"How 'dreadfully boring,'" said Lan WangJi. "According to my husband."
His brother arched an eyebrow. "You like saying that. 'My husband.'"
"Mnn." He couldn't deny it.
Lan XiChen laughed. "I'm glad. But, in truth, I just think of Father and Mother constantly."
"Did she ever tell you what she felt?" The question burst out before he could consider how rude it might appear.
Lan XiChen frowned. "No. I wonder. Often."
Did she feel guilty, for the life she'd taken?
Did Father feel guilty for loving her? For fathering two sons?
Did he wish they didn't exist? Did he wish he'd killed her? Did he wish he didn't love her? Or did he just accept?
Lan WangJi never once felt guilty for loving Wei WuXian. Except when he was first coming to terms with how he felt, long before Wei WuXian became the grandmaster of demonic cultivation.
"I miss them," admitted Lan XiChen, and Lan WangJi opened his mouth to agree, and then realized he wasn't sure whether XiChen was talking about their parents, or about Nie MingJue and Jin GuangYao, his sworn brothers who'd killed each other.
Perhaps it didn't matter.
Lan XiChen sat in silence, Lan WangJi with him, counting his heartbeats. The sky outside turned dark, and still no one moved to light a candle.
Lan WangJi knew the feeling well. Moving would be to acknowledge one was still alive, still able to move, able to do something, but not able to save the ones that mattered most. He'd felt it for so many years after returning from the Burial Mounds. But at least he had SiZhui, Wen Yuan, Lan Yuan, to raise.
Maybe they should encourage the disciples to converse with XiChen. Lan WangJi resolved to mention it to Wei WuXian.
"Is it hard to trust?" Lan WangJi inquired.
Lan XiChen's lips curved. "Not you."
There are things you'd like to ask them. But there was no way to ask his brothers. And no way to ask their parents either.
And yet, Lan WangJi had long since learned burying the dead did nothing to stop the questions, the whispers, the hope from seeping out, infecting the living. The things more powerful than resentful energy, because the dead never stayed buried for long, even if they did not turn into spirits like A-Qing or return like Wei WuXian.
Chapter 2: Climbing Up Slippery Slopes
Thank you all for reading, and for your kudos/bookmarks/comments! I really appreciate it.
"But he already has people trying to kill him!" protested Lan SiZhui. He kept his voice down, but his eyes bored into his friend's. "It's not a wise decision, JingYi!"
Jin Ling folded his arms as Lan JingYi shrugged. "We'll have Wen Ning with us. We all know he'll protect him with his—well, not his life, but you get what I mean."
"Don't insult the dead," snapped Jin Ling. It still felt strange, like tiny ants crawling all over him and biting him, when he defended Wen Ning, as if his parents were watching him, and he'd never know if they approved or disapproved. Well, considering his mother died to save Wei WuXian and Wen Ning was so close to him, she would probably approve.
His father? No idea. His father supposedly loved Jin Ling's mother, though, so maybe he'd come around. "And I'm going," Jin Ling added with a huff. "My uncle doesn't need to know. I'm the head of my sect anyways; we're equal."
"He's still your elder!" gasped SiZhui.
Jin Ling shrugged. "And if I succeed more in night hunts, I'll garner more respect, which will keep people from thinking they can easily dispose of a little boy. Which is definitely what he's thinking anyways. That this happened because everyone thinks I'm weak." He tightened his grip around his bow. The sling of arrows rested on his back.
SiZhui blanched. "That's not true."
He snorted. "Have you met my uncle?" Jiang Cheng didn't need to say it. But Jin Ling kept quiet what he thought was the reason behind that belief.
"I mean, you were the one constantly threatening to send your uncle in to fight your battles, as far as I recall," mused JingYi.
"I meant that it's not why this happened," SiZhui cut in. "Or, they might think so, but you're not weak. They're weak for believing that."
Jin Ling blinked. He didn't quite know what to say. "Thanks."
SiZhui nodded, tugging at his hair. Jin Ling knew this one basically seemed like an adopted son to Wei WuXian and HanGuang-Jun, and he had to wonder why. Was it because SiZhui was so mature and patient, rather like Lan XiChen? As opposed to how snippy and competitive JingYi and Jin Ling were? Had SiZhui earned it?
How can I earn Jiang Cheng's respect? He knew he had the man's love. But he wanted more than just obligatory love for the spawn of his beloved shijie and her husband.
I want you to love me. Who I am.
And it'd start by succeeding on night hunts. Jin Ling adjusted his sling of arrows. "Let's go."
SiZhui swallowed. JingYi grinned at him, and Jin Ling grinned back. I'll show you up, bitch.
They slipped out of the Cloud Recesses, Jin Ling using the jade token JingYi had procured for him. SiZhui and JingYi had permission to night hunt; Jin Ling did not. Jin Ling spotted the store that was reputed to sell Emperor's Smile and eyed it as they passed. Maybe he could persuade Wei WuXian to help him sneak a taste. Just a taste.
Wen Ning met them at the forest's edge. Even though he was a corpse, when he looked at Jin Ling, Jin Ling almost imagined the Ghost General's eyes lit up. His fingers stretched out towards him. "I'm glad to hear you're okay."
Jin Ling nodded. "Me too."
Wen Ning let out a small laugh. He couldn't really smile, but that was enough. Jin Ling smiled for him.
"What are we up against?" questioned SiZhui, clutching his sword.
Wen Ning shrugged. "You will see." He seemed to specialize in discovering night hunts for them that would test their abilities, but intervening before anything became too dangerous. Or so SiZhui had said.
The night passed by, silver moonlight strengthening and then waning, Jin Ling growing increasingly confident after he caught more and more ghouls.
"Ready to head back?" Wen Ning finally asked them. Jin Ling glanced at the others before nodding.
"Good job," Wen Ning said, looking directly at Jin Ling. He straightened. Something warm glowed in his stomach.
"What's that?" questioned SiZhui. His voice sharpened. An owl hooted in the distance. Leaves rustled.
Jin Ling followed his gaze to something stuck on a tree. He didn't see the big deal. "Spirit attraction flag." Stop trying to scare us.
"I know, but—"
"I didn't put that there," said Wen Ning.
Jin Ling barely registered the words before he heard footsteps dragging through the leaves, crunching them and snapping twigs.
"So—" started JingYi.
"Get back," ordered Wen Ning. "I'll hold whatever it is off, okay?"
"No, it's not okay!" Jin Ling fumed. He was sick and tired of—
"Jin Ling," said SiZhui, tugging at his arm. "Your uncle—"
Who gives a shit? But he bit his lip and let SiZhui drag him along. Howls erupted through the woods, and the sound of tearing. He hoped Wen Ning would be able to take them—it wasn't like he could die again, being a fierce corpse—Wen Ning could kill hundreds of them, if that was even necessary.
I wish my parents were fierce corpses.
Wen Ning hated himself for killing Jin Ling's father. Jin Ling knew that. He'd intended to die again to atone for it, and to protect Wei WuXian. And instead he'd dedicated himself now to protecting Jin Ling. But he never looked at him like a burden.
What if they tear him apart?
Wei WuXian will stitch him back together.
And then the acrid scent of smoke wafted to Jin Ling's nostrils. He stopped.
"What is it?" panted JingYi.
"Smoke," said Jin Ling. "Do you smell it?"
If they burn him to ash, he can't come back.
But it's corpses, not—they can't—they aren't conscious—but who put the flag there?
"We'll wake up Wei—" started SiZhui, but Jin Ling had already turned on his heel.
He tripped over a rock but kept going, twinging ankle be damned. He splashed through a stream. "Wen Ning! Wen Ning!"
Where are you, you stupid fucking corpse?
Smoke filled the air, powdering out any sky. Bright orange light snapped against the budding dawn, obscuring everything. He coughed. His lungs ached. The heat was— "Wen Ning!"
"Why don't I have parents?" he asked Jiang Cheng once, when he was around four, sitting on his uncle's lap at Lotus Pier and watching a girl swim with her father.
Jiang Cheng flinched. The sun burned Jin Ling's eyes as his uncle took moments to answer. "Because a monster named Wen Ning killed them."
"Where are you?" shouted Jin Ling. "Wen Ning!" Nausea seized his stomach. He doubled over, retching. Vomit burned his mouth.
"Jin Ling!" a voice screamed behind him.
He whirled around. SiZhui?
The boy staggered towards him, the white cloth of his robe singed and blackened. He covered his mouth, hacking.
"I can't find him!" Jin Ling eked out. An ember stung his cheek. He slapped it. His hair—
"We have to leave—"
"I'm not leaving!" Don't leave me, Wen Ning! He looked about, eyes desperately digging through the smoke—was that a tree or thicker smoke—a corpse or—half a torso—
"Jin Ling, look out!" bellowed SiZhui, wrenching him to the side. They stumbled back over a log and then Jin Ling was tumbling, falling, flipping over a stone that smacked his teeth and send salted blood streaming down his throat. He crashed into what felt like mud. And water. No fire. Coolness.
He gasped, pushing himself up. SiZhui lay next to him at the bank of the river. Not moving.
"SiZhui!" He grabbed him. A pulse. His sword was back up the bank—
Where three pairs of white, empty eyes met him. Gurgles, too. Three corpses, frantic to escape the fire, had stumbled onto them.
Wei WuXian curled up next to his husband, blanket warm over them. He closed his eyes. SiZhui and JingYi should be out on their night hunt, Jin Ling safe in his room—though he personally bet the chances of Jin Ling actually staying put were around zero. Though the brat should.
"He's too much like you," Lan WangJi had mumbled earlier in the night, when he debated whether or not to check, just in case. "Would you drag him back?"
Probably not. And so Wei WuXian had crawled into bed, wriggling close to Lan WangJi and smirking. "How can he be like me? We're not blood-relatives, and I only—"
"He just is," WangJi insisted. "Jiang Cheng must be cursed."
For that, Wei WuXian had bitten him hard.
He didn't know why he was awake before Lan WangJi, which meant it was definitely before five in the morning. Maybe because he couldn't stop thinking about the fact that he and Jiang Cheng were under the same roof, wondering what might happen, what he wanted to happen.
I miss him.
Something slammed against their door. Wei WuXian yelped, jumping. WangJi didn't stir.
"HanGuang-Jun! Wei WuXian!" screamed a voice. "Wake up, oh please wake up, for the love of—fuck!" The bangs echoed.
Wei WuXian levitated out of bed. "JingYi?" He yanked his pants up. WangJi sat up behind him, rubbing his eyes.
JingYi launched himself into the room the moment Wei WuXian opened the door. Of course, by then WangJi was already standing, fully alert, grasping Bichen. JingYi's hair hung half out of its ponytail, his forehead ribbon askew. Soot smeared his cheek.
Something went horribly wrong.
"Jin Ling—SiZhui—" JingYi said, and that was all he needed to say. Wei WuXian grasped Chenqing, and WangJi grabbed him by the waist, yanking him onto his sword.
"Wake up Jiang Cheng!" hollered Wei WuXian.
"Fuck!" shouted JingYi again in response, but he started running. WangJi shook his head at the swear. In the distance, Wei WuXian spotted smoke, curled and bleeding over the rosy dawn. He tightened his grip around his husband's waist.
"Wen Ning wouldn't have let—" he tried to reassure himself.
Things get out of control.
Someone was prepared. Wei WuXian gritted his teeth. He was going to kill whomever wanted to harm his nephew—and if they'd hurt his son, or his friend—
"There," said Lan Wangji, aiming towards the ground. Wei WuXian glanced down and saw three corpses, and what looked like a dozen others staggering their way, bearing down on a boy in yellow and a boy in—well, gray, but it should have been white. Jin Ling stood in front of the lump that was SiZhui, but all he had was a single arrow in his hand and no bow. SiZhui's sword glittered on the bank, meters above and no help whatsoever.
Wei WuXian landed behind the corpses. Lan WangJi slammed down in front of the boys, aiming Bichen. Notes flew from Chenqing, sizzling in the glistening air. Wangxian. He was playing their song. He backed up, watching as the corpses turned towards him, stumbling after him.
Wen Ning—where is Wen Ning?
He couldn't fear that yet. Wei WuXian squeezed his eyes shut, focusing on the notes of the song his husband wrote.
A clunk. And then a shriek from the corpses, and thuds as heads flew.
Jiang Cheng, face twisted in a mask of fury. His eyes dug daggers into Wei WuXian, who gulped as his brother hacked apart the last corpse.
Wen Ning appeared, grasping SiZhui's sword and handing it back to him as Lan WangJi helped the boy sit up.
"You're okay!" shrieked Jin Ling. "Where were you? I was—"
"I could ask you the same thing," Jiang Cheng interrupted, striding back towards his nephew. "I told you to stay put, and you deliberately disobeyed—"
"I didn't mean for things to get out of control—someone—" started Wen Ning.
"That sounds familiar," retorted Jiang Cheng with a snort.
Wen Ning lowered his head, shame riddling his shoulders.
"Uncle," protested Jin Ling. He coughed, wrapping his arms around his chest. "I had to—they were—it was my decision, not theirs—"
Wei WuXian was impressed. Jin Ling taking responsibility? Good boy.
"And someone is trying to kill you!"
"You put your friends in danger! You—"
Jin Ling flinched.
"Jiang Cheng," interrupted Wei WuXian. "Maybe we should hear what happened first, or—"
"Hear what happened?" Jiang Cheng arched a brow, his hand clutching his sword so tightly his knuckles looked white. "Ah yes. After you charged in here to play the hero without waking me."
"JingYi—" Wei WuXian spotted the boy, having arrived with Jiang Cheng. He raised his hands.
"Taking him here was a bad idea," Jiang Cheng said. "He knew that you would defend him. That's why he wanted to come here! And you playing the flute? Your bad example—"
"Excuse me?" shrieked Jin Ling. "Wei WuXian is not my example—"
"Jiang Cheng," Wei WuXian said quietly, running his fingers along the holes in the flute, but not blowing into it. "Let's discuss this privately." Not in front of Jin Ling. Because Wei WuXian did not want to point out the obvious: that Jin Ling had been disagreeable since long before Wei WuXian showed up in Mo XuanYu's body.
"Shouldn't you be happy you're the one who got to play the hero and kill them?" asked JingYi. "Since you've got a golden core, we didn't have to rely on Master Wei's—"
Everyone turned to glare at him.
"JingYi," warned Lan WangJi, his voice so ominous Wei WuXian felt a flicker of cold fear. Wen Ning looked as if he wanted to die again. Jin Ling's lips curled in anger. SiZhui glared.
Jiang Cheng's grip on his sword slackened. He studied his boots.
How do you even know about that? Wei WuXian wanted to scream.
"You're going to write a long apology note and spend the next month copying all the rules of the sect," Lan WangJi stated. "And that's only the beginning."
"Don't bother," Jiang Cheng managed.
"I am bothering."
JingYi shrunk. Jiang Cheng looked as if he wanted to scream. There was no winning, no way to preserve his pride. Either he let the insult stand or he let someone else defend him.
"Jiang Cheng," whispered Wei WuXian. "I did not tell him—"
"I know," replied Jiang Cheng, without looking at him.
"I did," whispered Jin Ling.
Kids these days! Please think of yourselves a little more and shut up or lie!
"Because it doesn't matter!" shouted Jin Ling. "I don't think it matters—it shows how—you're—strong—it doesn't—" He turned away, crossing his arms.
Oh. Now Wei WuXian understood. It doesn't change what he thinks of you at all, Jiang Cheng. You're still his uncle, too strict, too sour, like a bitter grape, and still the person Jin Ling loves most in the world.
But he knew his brother, and Jiang Cheng was far more likely to take it as a sign the boy had no love for him whatsoever.
"I hear things are already a disaster," Lan QiRen's voice came.
Jiang Cheng ignored him, leaving Wei WuXian to deal with his uncle... in-law. HanGuang-Jun had taken Lan JingYi away for punishment. And Lan SiZhui and Jin Ling were sent to rest.
Wen Ning shuffled back, clearly knowing he wasn't welcome inside the Cloud Recesses. But at least he had been looking after Jin Ling. Albeit irresponsibly. You already saved our lives once, why do you have to keep doing it? Especially since you know you can lose control?
Okay, there was no logic to his thoughts. Jiang Cheng stormed towards his room.
He remembered being there as a disciple himself, convinced Lan WangJi hated Wei WuXian. Wei WuXian would sneak out and get them all Emperor's Smile wine, and Jin ZiXuan would irritate Jiang Cheng far more than Wei WuXian was remotely capable of. To think A-jie wound up marrying him after all. And Nie Huiasang would stammer and fail at every subject, and yet. Somehow he was the one who knew everything in the end. Jiang Cheng rested his chin on the windowsill.
Did the fact that Lan JingYi knew mean that Lan QiRen knew? Jiang Cheng could not bear it if so. He wanted to explode. He might as well throw himself off the cliffs of the Cloud Recesses. When he was little watching the clouds from the waters of Lotus Pier, he used to imagine clouds being soft and fluffy to catch him, and wanted to fall up into them. Except he knew from flying on swords now that they were cold and wet, fog up high.
Maybe if he'd told his father that ridiculous daydream, he would have earned his response. Attempt the impossible. The Yunmeng Jiang Sect's motto, after all.
Or maybe his father would have thought him too feminine for such a silly daydream. He wondered what his father would say if he was alive to see Wei WuXian was a cut-sleeve and married Lan WangJi. Mother would have scoffed and muttered about what a disappointment he was. And then sent them a wedding present.
She loved you, too, Wei Ying. But for whatever reason, she hadn't been able to be nice to Wei WuXian. Because he symbolized her rejection in favor of the long-dead CangSe SanRen? Because she knew Jiang Cheng needed her to advocate for him?
So was it my fault she didn't act like she loved you? Did it hurt you? Is that why you cut out your golden core and always had to play the goddamn hero?
He loves you. You're his son, Wei WuXian had insisted years ago.
He just doesn't like me. He doesn't like my mother, so he doesn't like me.
But he'd thought there must be something he could do to earn it. Even now, he was still thinking it. Your grandchild is making protecting him hell for attempting the impossible. I hate those words. He pinched Zidian, in its ring form around his finger.
Jiang Cheng dragged himself out of his room. Jin Ling's door was closed. Good. He needed to rest. Jiang Cheng walked across the grounds, the dewy grass brushing against his boots.
Fairy let out a bark, scampering across the grounds towards him. Jiang Cheng knelt, scratching the dog behind its ears. "You idiot dog. Useless. You should've gone with your owner and protected him."
Fairy growled. Jiang Cheng shrugged, but the dog didn't run away. She still licked Jiang Cheng's face.
"Disgusting," said Jiang Cheng. "You've done it now."
Fairy wagged her tail.
"You're getting fat," Jiang Cheng warned. Jin Ling had a habit of rewarding his dog for, oh, everything.
Fairy flopped over. Jiang Cheng rubbed the dog's belly as the dog rolled around.
"Fairy seems happy," commented a voice behind him.
Jiang Cheng glanced up to see Lan XiChen. "ZeWu-Jun." He'd hardly seen the man since the night at the temple, when Jin GuangYao died.
"I heard there was chaos last night." Lan XiChen leaned back against a tree.
"Blame Wen Ning." I do.
"Uncle won't be happy they're still hunting with that fierce corpse."
"Couldn't you talk to the children?" asked Jiang Cheng. Lan XiChen was still reasonable after all. Maybe he'd have an ally.
"I can't think of a reason they would listen," replied Lan XiChen, fingers tugging on the ends of his forehead ribbon. "Considering one of my sworn brothers killed the other and manipulated the whole cultivation world including myself. Trust isn't something I've encouraged in myself."
Jiang Cheng had no idea what to say. It made sense? It didn't? "You're too harsh on yourself."
"Am I?" Lan XiChen arched his eyebrow. He looked just like his brother. "You were quick to accept reality—or what we thought was reality—when your brother—"
Jiang Cheng frowned. Fairy whimpered when his hand stilled, and he went back to patting the dog. "I'm not sure that proves your point." You played on the worst of all of us, Jin GuangYao.
He would never forgive that man. Did you just want to make everyone hate themselves and you as much as you hated yourself?
"Fair enough." Lan XiChen bowed his head. "For what it is worth, I am truly sorry for the troubles my brother has visited upon Jin Ling. He never deserved any of this. If there is anything I can do, please let me know."
Jiang Cheng blinked. Fairy rolled over, getting up and streaking towards the residence. Jin Ling must be up. "Thank you." He hadn't expected that, but then again he shouldn't be surprised; Lan XiChen had always been the most upstanding of citizens. "You could start by helping the students learn to mind their tongues."
Lan XiChen frowned. He opened his mouth.
"Never mind, I understand why you don't think you should be interacting with them." Jiang Cheng rubbed his chin, getting to his feet. "Do you see your brother often?"
"And his husband?" Lan XiChen had seen right through him. "WangJi does visit. So does your brother."
Jiang Cheng said nothing. A butterfly came and landed on his shoulder. He smiled.
"If I were to emerge from my seclusion and try and make up for things," Lan XiChen said. "I wouldn't even know where to begin."
Jiang Cheng arched his brow. Relatable.
"I often wonder how you began," said Lan XiChen. "After what happened to Lotus Pier and your sect. I admired that."
"Hm?" Jiang Cheng flinched. He hadn't been expecting Lan XiChen to bring such a topic up. And he did not want to discuss it. I was only able to go on and seek revenge, seek to make the world right without Wens, because Wei WuXian gave me his fucking core! "I only make things worse." He watched as the butterfly took off, fluttering its wings and flying away.
"You came here," said Lan XiChen.
"And just made things worse with what happened at the night hunt," Jiang Cheng said. His blood boiled at the memory. I lost my core.
I'm that weak.
"You didn't leave," Lan XiChen said. "As long as you're alive, you can try."
"Then why are you shutting yourself up?" demanded Jiang Cheng.
Lan XiChen opened and then closed his mouth. He sighed. "I'm afraid."
The words hung in the air, simple and unmistakable. Jiang Cheng couldn't help it. A laugh cracked from his lips.
Words he never said. Words he lived, breathed, dreamed.
Are you trying to make me feel like shit? You should have been in charge of punishments when we were students here, rather than your brother. You're good at cruelty.
Lan XiChen nodded at him. "Have a good stay, Jiang WanYin."
Chapter 3: Closed Doors
Thank you for reading! Enjoy drunk Lan XiChen.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Lan JingYi diligently worked to copy the sect's rules while in handstand. Lan WangJi nodded, stepping past him. That comment really was too cruel, though if Lan JingYi hadn't said it, Lan WangJi might have.
No, he wouldn't have. But it was there inside him, lurking. Frustration with Jiang Cheng. He gave up everything for you and you helped kill him once already.
Of course, that kind of resentment wasn't likely to vanish overnight. Lan WangJi had never been in a situation where someone expressly favored his brother over him, or him over his brother. But he did know what it was like to stand outside even when it was raining, wishing your parent would open the door, welcome you in, dry you off, and the feeling that sank into your bones when you finally gave up because, whether they were dead or their guilt was too great, they never opened the door for you.
"We have to find out who is doing this," Wei WuXian blurted out the moment they were alone. "I can't risk Jin Ling or Jiang Cheng. They're—"
A pathetic idiot if they thought that flag would actually work? "What are you thinking?" asked Lan WangJi. A breeze caressed his face, sending a lock of Wei WuXian's hair fluttering across Lan WangJi's face. One of Lan WangJi's rabbits scurried over and he knelt, picking it up and scratching its ears.
"Your bunnies hate me," complained Wei WuXian.
"You always joke about eating them."
The bunny turned its head away from Wei WuXian. Lan WangJi smiled.
"There it is!" proclaimed Wei WuXian, prancing in front of him.
"Your smile." Wei WuXian flashed his, sunlight gleaming off his teeth. "Every time I see it, Lan Zhan, I think about—"
"What are you thinking?" Lan WangJi interrupted. "To find out who is targeting your nephew?" Because he could gather a guess that it involved risking himself, his own life, and Lan WangJi had had it with Wei WuXian sacrificing himself. I lost you once. I will kill you if you put yourself in that position again.
When he woke in the mornings, sometimes he still took a moment to breath him in, remind himself the body there was inhabited by Wei WuXian, that he was alive again, that he wasn't only alive but loved Lan WangJi—something he had never once considered was even possible, not since those days after the Nightless City massacre.
"Simple. We know who the most likely person is, and that's he's capable of it, but still I'm not sure it would be him," said Wei WuXian. "He was very targeted with his whole plan, you see, and this is haphazard, to the point where I wonder if whomever's doing it has any desire to actually kill Jin Ling or simply wants to terrify him. But still, the person with the most likely motive is obvious to all of us."
"Inviting Nie HuaiSang here would—"
"We go to him," said Wei Wuxian, beaming. "And then Jiang Cheng can have some time alone, too, with Jin Ling."
Lan WangJi sighed. I knew it.
At least it isn't your life you're risking. Just one of your more important relationships.
Still, he was right that someone would need to sit down with Nie HuaiSang, even if they both knew the man's answer would be "I don't know, I really don't know, I just don't know." Yet between the two of them, Lan WangJi was confident they could figure out the truth.
"You're leaving?" blurted out Jiang Cheng when they told him. Was that a flicker of a scowl on his face? "Well, good luck."
He was probably assuming Wei WuXian hoped to steal all the credit and Jin Ling's gratitude. Was there no way to win with this man's affections?
No, there wasn't. Because Jiang Cheng was convinced he'd already lost, every time.
"Before we go," proclaimed Wei WuXian, digging under the floorboards in Lan WangJi's room and holding up three jars of Emperor's Smile.
"Three?" ventured Lan WangJi.
"It is time," declared Wei WuXian. "To cheer up your brother, because by heaven and earth Lan JingYi and SiZhui need him while we're gone."
"They survive my uncle."
"They still need him." Wei WuXian winked. "And you do, too."
Lan WangJi blinked. Well, you need your brother too, but there's no logic to either of you.
Lan XiChen's eyes popped when he opened his door to find both of them standing there, Wei WuXian's arms laden down with jars of Emperor's Smile. His jaw dropped. "Brother!"
"It's forbidden, yes, yes, I know, but I didn't bring it in here. Lan Zhan was the one hiding it in his room."
Lan WangJi slid his eyes towards his husband.
"You can't even blame me for it; I was dead."
"It was for you anyways," cut in both brothers.
"Still your own choice." Wei WuXian fluttered his eyelashes. "Can we come in?"
Lan XiChen stood back, allowing them in. He swallowed. "I heard you're heading to pay a visit to Nie HuaiSang." His voice came flat.
Wei WuXian plopped onto a sitting mat. Lan WangJi settled down next to him. "What do you think of that?"
"I would say there is no chance he is involved, but I don't think I can trust my judgment, nor his abilities, very well," Lan XiChen responded. Wei WuXian twisted the lid to one of the jars off.
"I will fall asleep," warned Lan WangJi.
"True, and you should be awake. At least for now. Later then." Wei WuXian slid the jar towards Lan XiChen. "Did you know, ZeWu-Jun, when your brother gets drunk he falls asleep, and then forgets everything. He stole chickens with me once. Actually he stole the chickens. I didn't even ask him to and told him not to, and he did it anyways. He graffitied a wall, too."
Lan WangJi decided he'd tie Wei WuXian up extra tight that night.
Lan XiChen looked at the jars as if they were a poisoned brew. "I'm supposed to be in seclusion."
"Which means no one will know, and also that you've already screwed up enough that one drink can't affect your purity much." Wei WuXian winked.
"You do not have to drink," said Lan WangJi, but his brother had already taken a swig and coughed.
But his brother did not double over and fall asleep. If anything, XiChen's eyes were sparkling and he looked flushed, awake. Lan WangJi and Wei WuXian exchanged a glance.
"Please watch out for SiZhui while we are gone," Lan WangJi ventured.
"Of course!" exclaimed his brother. "He's basically a nephew to me! I know how you love your nephew, Wei WuXian! I can imagine! You'd do anything to protect him!" His voice rose and rose, finally cracking.
Wei WuXian blanched.
I'd rather he fell asleep. "This is your fault," Lan WangJi stated.
"Jin Ling is very loved by his family," said XiChen. "It was nice to see. Until..."
Lan WangJi swallowed.
"I thought Jin GuangYao loved Jin Ling!" complained XiChen. "He bought him that dog!"
"Fairy," supplied Lan WangJi. Wei WuXian blanched at the mention. He gulped more wine.
"Yes, Fairy!" XiChen pounded his fist against the floor. "To have him threaten his life—I never thought—I was such a fool, such a—"
"Don't blame yourself," cut in Wei WuXian. He turned to his husband. "Is he always like this?"
"Do I look like I see him get drunk regularly?" hissed Lan WangJi.
"I don't know; you were clearly looking at porn and getting ideas and storing liquor in your room!"
"You were?" exclaimed XiChen, staggering to his feet. "WangJi! How—is it still here?"
Lan WangJi was not letting his brother leave to look for porn in their library. He could just imagine his uncle's reaction. "Sit back down, brother." He put his hand on XiChen's shoulder.
"Oh, I suppose I should…" XiChen stumbled. "I miss him, you know? I miss him!" He said it as if it were the most beautiful news in the world, and also the most terrible, hand pressed against his heart, eyes fixated upon the ceiling as if it was made of stars.
Of course. He was your brother.
"Jin GuangYao?" ventured Wei WuXian.
XiChen nodded. "I do! He—if he lived—I wanted him to live—why did he save me?"
Lan WangJi froze. Something didn't seem quite...
"He said it himself," offered Wei WuXian. "He never once thought of hurting you. You were probably the only person who never looked down on him, whom he never had to prove himself to—"
"Did he think I hated him?" XiChen's eyes beseeched them. His hands grasped his brother's wrists. WangJi winced at the force. He'd leave bruises. "Did he? I stabbed him. I stabbed him!" His nails dug into Lan WangJi's skin.
Lan WangJi swallowed. "You stabbed him because Nie HuaiSang—"
"We could no longer trust him," broke in Wei WuXian.
"It hurt," said Lan XiChen, almost as if he was begging Lan WangJi. "It hurt."
"I can tell," he replied. What are you—
"I'm the worst disciple and worst sect leader in history. All I can think of when I'm here in seclusion is—him—and I—why am I such a fool? For all I learned, I—I wish I had discipline whip marks on my body, because it would mean I—tried—but he was—he would have killed—he tried to—I don't know what to do." His brother fell forward, head slamming into Lan WangJi's shoulder. His own shoulders shook. Something damp seeped out. "I want them!"
Discipline whip marks? Like—mine? The thirty-three marks of shame he bore all his life? Why?
"Did you feel the same way about him that your brother feels about me?" asked Wei WuXian, even as what his brother was saying hit Lan WangJi in the chest. He gritted his teeth. You do.
"I don't know!" XiChen's chest heaved. Lan WangJi lifted his arms, placing them around his brother. "I don't know, I don't know, I sound like Nie HuaiSang—how can I not know? After all the grief I gave you for not knowing, not realizing, I—he—"
He pulled back, reaching for the jar of wine. Wei WuXian pulled it away, sliding it behind him. "I think you've had enough."
Lan WangJi clutched his head. You…
"He's gone," moaned XiChen. "And he was a monster. And he killed our brother—and—I still—I want him back."
You… like me and WuXian?
His brother had never treated Lan WangJi differently in all the years following that incident in the cave. He'd never once acted like he thought WangJi disgusting, even if he never pretended he didn't know Lan WangJi liked men, as his uncle pretended.
You loved him.
"If he were here, I'd be just as likely to hit him as to embrace him. I'd always forgive him. Even if I couldn't trust him anymore." Tears slid down XiChen's face, dripping off his chin. "Uncle will break my legs."
"You cannot help how you feel," stated Lan WangJi. Even if the whole world thinks him a monster. Even if he was a monster.
He was also a person.
"I wanted to see him heal... his arm, his hand gone. His soul. I wanted—" XiChen sucked in his breath. "I still want—I wish—thank you. Thank you both, for being happy, to you both, it's—" His head slumped. "I can see it still exists. Without you two, I think I'd—no wonder Father stayed here forever. If I leave, I'll see. I'll see he's not in the world anymore, instead of about to visit—I want—" His mouth twisted. "I did, didn't I? I loved him." His eyes met WangJi's.
He didn't know what to say.
"I am a disappointment," proclaimed XiChen, clutching his skull. "More so than Father, more so than Mother, I am not worthy of the—" He tugged at his head ribbon. "Why do I still have this stupid thing? I'm—"
Lan WangJi's hands went out to still his brother's. "Leave it. It's okay."
You've always had to be strong. When Mother died. When Father died, and when you were hiding from the Wen Sect, when I ran off with Wei WuXian and fought you for him, when Nie MingJue died, and when you realized what Jin GuangYao was truly like, and now when Jin GuangYao died…
"You do not want whip marks," added Lan WangJi, helping his brother lie down. "They hurt."
Wei WuXian snorted. XiChen almost smiled, but he made no move to get up again. "I've heard."
"You're punishing yourself too much," whispered Lan WangJi.
His brother's eyes didn't land on him. Instead they traveled to his husband. "Aren't you angry, Master Wei? The man who—who—"
"No," replied Wei WuXian. "In all my dealings with you, Lan XiChen, you have never been anything but fair. It's not as if I did nothing." He folded his hands, the wine forgotten behind him.
"I thought it would be easier for WangJi if you died. I was wrong, and I—when you returned—I—"
Lan WangJi's chest tightened. Do we have to go here? WuXian, you are never giving my brother alcohol again!
"He's what you had," Wei WuXian said. The firelight flickered across his face, his black robes. "I am actually very grateful to you, ZeWu-Jun, for not letting HanGuang-Jun be alone all those years."
A lump grew in Lan WangJi's throat.
XiChen closed his eyes. "I want him back."
He wouldn't be coming back, though. Jin GuangYao's spirit was locked in that coffin with Nie MingJue, both of his brothers. So you are locking yourself in this place.
I was secluded to heal. You are secluded to die.
I will not let you.
It is not up to me.
It never ends, does it?
"Don't die," said Lan WangJi.
"Wouldn't dream of it," said XiChen, his lips pursing.
"Did you know?" Wei WuXian ventured when they left a few hours later, most of the wine untouched. Rabbits raced around them. The moon glowed overhead, stars dotting the hollow sky.
Lan WangJi shook his head.
Did anyone know?
He doubted it.
"WangJi?" prompted Wei WuXian.
His hand reached up to his face. Dry. But his eyes must be misting, judging by how his husband's face blurred.
Wei WuXian held him. Lan WangJi let his head drop to his shoulder, the same as XiChen had just done with him. "I can't save him. Anymore than I could have—saved you—"
"But you did," Wei WuXian said. "And, okay, I helped. I came back, and—I wish I had come with you here, instead of—continuing that path. I would have, if I could go back, but—"
"My father never emerged," said Lan WangJi.
"But your father had Lan QiRen," Wei WuXian said, pulling up his husband's face, cupping his jaw. "Your brother has you."
His fist flew out the moment Jin JingYi turned the corner.
"No fighting allowed in the Cloud Recesses!" squeaked SiZhui, his head still wrapped in a white cloth to cover the gash. It looked like he had two head ribbons now.
Jin Ling scowled, withdrawing his fist. JingYi hunched over. "Why'd you say that?"
"He's my uncle! You can't insult him!"
"You do, all the time!" shot back JingYi.
"Well, that's because he's my uncle!" Jin Ling scowled. "And he's not weak! It's not his fault that he lost his golden core any more than it's—than it's the fault of ZeWu-Jun or Lan QiRen that the Cloud Recesses got burned down by the Wen-dogs!" Everyone was losing to them back in the day. They'd killed his grandparents.
He couldn't hate Wen Ning anymore, but he could still dislike Wen Chao and Wen RouHan and Wen Xu and that whole motley crew of pathetic so-called rulers.
Why were they terrible rulers? A voice that sounded an awful lot like his uncle's wormed his way into his mind. Jin GuangYao's. Because they were arrogant. They thought themselves the sun, they thought they alone gave light and warmth to the world. They didn't think of anyone who wasn't born with their name.
They were only people, in the end.
Were you talking about them, or my other grandparents, your father?
He'd never know.
"It isn't Sandu ShengShou's fault," agreed SiZhui.
"I know," muttered JingYi. "I just—don't like how he treats either of you! Wei WuXian, or you!" He glowered. "Or HanGuang-Jun! He always acts like—like—"
Like you're beneath him.
"Like he has incomplete information?" asked SiZhui. "Attacking his brother at the Siege of the Burial Mounds, when he had no idea—we probably have incomplete information, too. We don't know what's going on in Sandu ShengShou's mind—it wasn't like Wei WuXian told him. Lots of things go wrong when there are things left unsaid even if they're left unsaid for good reasons."
JingYi snorted. He stormed off across the grounds.
Jin Ling cast SiZhui a side glance. "Thanks."
SiZhui shrugged. "Welcome."
"Are you going after him?"
"He'll come back after he thinks for a bit." SiZhui settled down.
Jin Ling joined him. He wasn't sure why. No, he didn't want to be alone.
"Do you get mad at your uncle?" questioned SiZhui. "For being—hard to—" His face reddened, as if struggling to choose the right word.
"Hell yeah," said Jin Ling. "All the fucking time."
SiZhui's face turned redder. "Swearing is—"
"Forbidden, yeah, yeah." Jin Ling folded his arms and flopped back. "It's only worse since my other uncle died. Or was killed. And was revealed to, you know, be evil. He worries more about losing me."
"I heard Jin GuangYao put a zither string to your throat."
A dog woofed. Jin Ling sat up. "Fairy!" The dog bounded over to him, settling down next to him. Jin Ling rested his head on the dog's side, closing his eyes against the soft fur. "Sometimes I wonder if he thinks I'm evil."
"Like my uncle." Jin Ling pried his eyes open, meeting SiZhui's. "What if he thinks I'll be just like him? He wasn't exactly a huge fan of my father either. He called him a princess once. I heard him."
SiZhui scowled. "I don't think that."
"You don't think so?" Jin Ling pushed himself up. Fairy whimpered and Jin Ling returned to patting the dog. "But then why do people want to kill me? Maybe they think they're justified, and I'll turn out—"
"I don't think you're evil," SiZhui blurted out. "I mean—I don't think blood makes someone good, or bad. Look at Wen Ning. He's a Wen. And he's our friend." SiZhui studied the tiled floor, running his fingers along the edge.
"Besides, if your uncle took you here, he clearly thinks whoever's trying to harm you is evil," added SiZhui.
"I know. He would never hurt me." Jin Ling watched the shadows coagulate on the ceiling as flames leaped in a fireplace behind them. "He loves me—I just wish he liked me." If you repeat that I'll kill you.
Somehow he didn't feel like he needed to utter the threat, though.
Something slammed against the side of his house.
Lan XiChen pried his eyes open. He still felt fairly tipsy, but WangJi and his husband had left.
What did I say?
His eyes widened. Oh no!
Had he told them about Jin GuangYao? How he wished the man was alive, even if he would never be with him, because he was someone Lan XiChen loved?
I only ever wanted the best for you, and I only ever thought the best of you.
Maybe the latter was his gravest mistake.
Lan XiChen rose and splashed water onto his face. His cheeks still felt like they were ablaze. He would never wash away the memory of Jin GuangYao's face when his sword went into him, the horror he felt seeping through his bones, the fact that he no longer doubted that Jin GuangYao had tried to hurt him—until he spoke, and it was worse than if he'd laughed and told Lan XiChen he'd always hated him.
But did I do anything?
I never once thought of hurting you!
He couldn't fault Nie HuaiSang his revenge. If someone had murdered Lan WangJi, he—he wouldn't bear it. But Lan XiChen was too tired.
His entire life was losing. Losing his mother. His father. The Cloud Recesses to the Wen Sect's fire. The library. Nie MingJue. Now, Jin GuangYao, the one who sheltered him when he fled the Cloud Recesses, praying WangJi was unharmed. And then he saw WangJi about to die, flying off with Wei WuXian, and he didn't understand, and he saw his brother admitting it, voice echoing in the cave: it is exactly what it looks like.
And in that moment his fear he would lose his brother to an angry mob dissipated, and he grieved, because he thought he had lost his brother. That was probably why he'd been relieved when Wei WuXian died. Until he saw the pain on WangJi's face, and he knew.
If you got involved in war, you hurt and you were hurt. There were no clean hands.
And so he'd stopped hating Wei WuXian. Until the man came back as Mo XuanYu and tormented WangJi with flirtations, and then Lan XiChen realized, again, that not everything cruel was malice, but sometimes ignorance.
Like my stabbing you, Jin GuangYao. I didn't know. I genuinely thought you had—tried to hurt me.
Was saving me your way of proving that you were telling the truth? Or telling me you forgave me? Or both?
Am I selfish for needing the latter?
Well, he couldn't remember details of his conversation with WangJi and Wei WuXian, but at least he trusted them. There certainly weren't any other people he could ask questions like these to. Maybe his father never emerged from seclusion because he couldn't face the world.
How could I?
I wish I could tell you. I loved you. When he tended to Jin GuangYao's wounds, watching him writhe in pain, pant, sweat pouring from his temples, his hand missing, poison in his other hand, and the agony of where he was—the brothel that abused his mother—seeping from his eyes, Lan XiChen could only pray that he wouldn't make a move. He wanted A-Yao to live. He wanted to care for him. He wanted to know why, and in that moment he knew he would not let him be executed, not if he gave up, no matter what it cost.
Just stop fighting, and let me help you.
He had, and it hadn't mattered.
Why didn't you let me help you before?
I never thought you disgusting. Not even when I heard what happened. With A-Su, if you'd just told me... I would have helped her. I would have helped you.
Is it my fault you didn't realize that? Was it the fault of the people who ran that brothel? A-Yao, A-Yao...
A sob echoed from outside. Lan XiChen stiffened his shoulders. He strode towards the door, cracking it open.
A cloud of white. JingYi, from the looks of it, huddled a few zhangs away, holding onto two rabbits and crying into their fur.
"Are you all right, JingYi?"
JingYi leaped to his feet, shrieking. The rabbits scattered. He whirled around. "ZeWu-Jun!" He bowed, flustered, ponytail waving around his face.
"I presume you've finished copying for the day," Lan XiChen observed.
Jingyi nodded, wiping at his face.
Poor kid. "You don't have to hide that you're crying," Lan XiChen said.
"Huh?" JingYi's jaw dropped. "I mean—ZeWu-Jun, I—"
"I cry a lot in there," said Lan XiChen, tipping his head. To hell with those rules about crying, the unspoken ones beaten into each boy's body since birth. "Is there something upsetting you?"
"You—cry?" eked out JingYi. "Oh! No. I mean—"
"You should just apologize to Jiang Cheng," said Lan XiChen. "And to Jin Ling, as well. In front of Lan SiZhui, so he knows you're serious." He's like your brother, isn't he?
JingYi's lip trembled. "What if they laugh in my—"
Lan XiChen frowned. "Then you can decide what to do if that should happen."
JingYi kicked at a rock. "Sorry, I threw one pebble earlier and it hit your house."
Lan XiChen lifted his brows. "So that's what woke me up."
"You were asleep? But it isn't nine yet."
Lan XiChen decided not to mention the wine. "Go back and apologize. Sincerely. You'll feel better." I'd give anything to be able to apologize for being so blind.
You were so good at twisting your words. Did you want me to doubt you forever? To suffer forever?
I can't know. I'll never know. He, who had prided himself for so much of his life on his knowledge.
"What if they hate me?" JingYi ventured.
Lan XiChen met the boy's eyes. "They won't." He doubted even Jiang Cheng would. The man was not half as hateful as he was scared.
don't worry; they won't be gone long. but nhs is a character i dearly love so i'm excited to write him.
Chapter 4: Measured and Found Wanting
Lan XiChen suffers his worst memories, and the juniors misuse the cold spring.
The last time Lan XiChen remembered seeing such a look of twisted disgust on Lan QiRen's face was when WangJi pulled out his sword, the sound shrieking through the cave, and Lan XiChen knew his suspicions had been correct. And still, he felt fear seep into every fiber of his muscles.
He's not just a peer to you.
The life Lan XiChen kept seeing spark in his brother's eyes, the life he'd seen fade to embers after Mother's death and then come back, roaring and flaming, when more students his age showed up just like Lan XiChen thought it would, wasn't just because he wasn't alone. You fell in love with him.
And that must have been even more isolating for WangJi. Lan QiRen would never approve. He'd be disgusted to learn WangJi harbored feelings for another man, and WangJi's increasingly stringent behavior over the past years suddenly made sense too: WangJi thought that he could make up for it, if he was better in other ways.
If it makes you happy, if it makes you alive, I cannot call it wrong just because I do not understand.
So Lan XiChen felt. But when WangJi attacked them, wounding all thirty-three disciples who had come to save him, Lan XiChen thought Wei WuXian a poison, just like Lan QiRen said. When his brother returned to take his punishment, Lan XiChen remembered the nausea surging up in him.
You're home. Thank God.
Run! You'll be hit thirty-three times!
Why do you have to be so good, WangJi?
Lan XiChen had wanted to run himself when they forced WangJi to kneel. His brother kept his eyes closed, and Lan XiChen wanted to imitate him. He did not want to watch. He did not want it to happen at all, but it had to—because—because—
Lan QiRen couldn't even handle it. He'd seen the agony smoldering in their uncle's eyes, the shock of it all. His uncle had looked away as the discipline whip cracked through the air again and again.
But Lan XiChen could not, would not let his brother bear it alone. His brother, his companion since childhood, the one he could always turn to, the one he could protect, the one his mother and father would want him to protect, as the eldest, if they could tell him so.
He did not let himself cry as the whip cracked through the air thirty-three times. He did not let himself vomit as the stench of bitter blood hit his nostrils. He did not let himself look away each time his baby brother's skin split open, a scarlet welt marking him for what he'd done for someone he loved. He was the one who almost screamed out when WangJi slumped after about twenty lashes for them to stop, stop, just fucking stop. He wanted to run in and cover his brother's body with his own, take the last thirteen for him, but he couldn't.
Afterwards, he was the one who carried WangJi to their house for seclusion. He put the poultices on his back, fingers shaking.
"Why?" he'd demanded, hating himself for asking just what he'd vowed he wouldn't, because there was no question.
Because you love him.
"Whether what Wei Ying did was right or wrong, I can't say," he'd rasped. "But no matter what… I am willing to be bear all the consequences with him."
Lan XiChen could only think that he'd failed his brother, failed to protect the one he used to tease, the boy he loved more than his own life. But he was wrong.
WangJi was his little brother, yet he was the one teaching Lan XiChen what love was. He'd still thought WangJi would overcome it, though. But when he'd heard WangJi dragged himself to the Burial Mounds after Wei WuXian had died, he knew.
Removing someone you love from this earth doesn't really remove any of your love for them.
In Lan XiChen's own seclusion, even now, he breathed in his father.
When WangJi staggered back with Wen Yuan, renamed Lan Yuan, drunk and begging for a flute, burning himself to show Lan XiChen just how much agony he was in, Lan XiChen made his decision. And so Lan Xichen vowed as he sat there in that house, his brother's blood smeared on his knuckles from having torn his healing wounds in his quest to save A-Yuan, the pungent scent of herbs in the air, watching WangJi grit his teeth against the pain, that he would learn what it meant to love someone like that.
If you love him, I will learn what it means to bear it with you.
I don't want you to be alone anymore.
WangJi would fade in and out from the pain, trying not to cry out when Lan XiChen changed his dressings. "You can, you know," he managed.
"Can what?" rasped WangJi, looking up at him, his eyes begging.
"You don't have to be quiet back here. Uncle won't hear." It won't make you weak. You've been silent too long, and it's only led to more scars.
WangJi said nothing, biting his lip so hard blood dribbled down his chin.
"I am sorry," whispered Lan XiChen.
"You were worried for me."
"And you—" Loved him.
"He will return."
"Probably," Lan XiChen admitted. "And what will you do?"
He never heard the answer spoken, not that he needed to. Instead, his brother finally let out a muffled scream as Lan XiChen lifted a stuck bandage.
"XiChen," his brother once murmured, a few months later when he developed a fever. "You're still here."
"Of course I am."
"Why?" His eyes beseeched Lan XiChen, looking for an answer from someone he trusted.
And Lan XiChen no longer cared. His brother was asking whether he was disgusting, whether Lan XiChen was angry, and he couldn't let him spend another second wondering. "Whether what you did was right or wrong," Lan XiChen replied. "I am willing to bear it with you."
His brother's eyes drifted shut. Lan XiChen wiped the sweat from his brow. "Thank you," mumbled WangJi.
"I'm sorry," whispered Lan XiChen.
Those days, Lan XiChen turned to Jin GuangYao and Nie MingJue. More so Jin GuangYao, since he was by far the more empathetic one, whereas Nie MingJue contemplated emotions on a scale of what was the most fightworthy and righteous.
"Sometimes there are no right answers," Jin GuangYao had replied once, a somber look stealing his face.
Now Lan XiChen wondered. Were you thinking of Qin Su? Your son? If A-Yao had told Lan XiChen, would he have borne it with him?
I only know that I wish I could talk to you.
"I knew this was a terrible idea from the start," proclaimed Lan QiRen, drawing Lan XiChen back to reality. A breeze wafting through the air. WangJi's rabbits hopping around. The Cloud Recesses, without a cloud in the azure sky above.
"What is the problem?" asked Lan XiChen.
"Your brother and his—his—" Lan QiRen's face swelled red. "Him went to the Nie Sect. The Jiang Sect is already here, and—"
"It's not like it's a surprise," said Lan XiChen. "Everyone will be coming for the Discussion Conference anyways, but I'm quite certain everyone knew after that day at the temple. They're married, Uncle, there's—"
His uncle let out a snort and muttered something that contained the words "shameless."
WangJi could do with less shame. And Wei WuXian, sure, fine, he could use some more.
They were good for each other. Lan XiChen squinted up at the sun. "WangJi's smiling." More than he'd ever seen his brother smile, and he didn't want to live without it, never again. "He wants to protect his nephew by marriage. There's only nobility and loyalty in that."
"Hmph!" Lan QiRen's eyes narrowed. "You're one to talk about loyalty, Lan Huan."
Lan XiChen stiffened. Because I killed him? Or because I trusted the wrong person?
He pressed his lips together. It was the latter, but I thought the former, proving the latter.
"Happiness doesn't make someone righteous," Lan QiRen said. "Or have you forgotten our sect's motto?"
Be righteous. So easy to state, but four thousand rules later, and he still had no idea how to do it. "I would never forget," Lan XiChen stated. His pulse hammered in his throat. Would you hear me out? Am I going mad in my seclusion? But he was not going to let Lan QiRen say or do anything to wreck WangJi's married bliss. "But suffering makes righteous, does it? I wonder how all those whip marks beat WangJi for—what, exactly? Unless it was never wrong in the first place for him to love—" It's not wrong. It's not wrong for him, it's not wrong for me, it's okay, it's okay.
If I am not perfect, don't you love me? Didn't you love your brother? Why else would you raise me and WangJi? Surely not for your own ego.
What am I to you?
Am I anything to you? To Father? Mother's gone… is it just WangJi I matter to, now that Jin GuangYao is dead?
His uncle glowered at him. A flock of birds cawed, landing on the branches of a tree above them. He shook his head. "I would never have guessed the two of you would turn out to be such—"
His chest tightened. "Uncle—"
"Your mother's blood is thick." Lan QiRen turned on his heel, stalking off.
Lan XiChen gaped after him, watching him go. Lan QiRen's words struck harder than a discipline whip, cutting him to his core. Our mother, the murderer.
The one who taught me how to toss grapes into the air, catch them in my mouth… who always laughed.
Did his uncle view that as a sign of unrepentance? Lan XiChen heard a laugh fracturing his own mouth, bitter and cold. Yes, I'm a cut-sleeve too. For someone far worse than Wei WuXian, and he's dead.
No one is righteous here.
"That didn't strike me as amusing," commented a voice behind him.
Lan XiChen whirled around. The flock of birds took flight, vanishing into the shards of light from the sun. He shaded his eyes. "Jiang WanYin."
The man stepped out from behind a nearby tree, bangs falling damp around his jaw, as if he'd come from bathing. Oh, that was right—Jiang Cheng knew his way around.
"You heard that," Lan XiChen commented.
"It sounded familiar." Jiang Cheng's lips twisted.
"My mother murdered my father's mentor," Lan XiChen said.
Jiang Cheng froze. His eyes bulged.
"He wasn't in seclusion to be holy. It was to repent." Sometimes, I'm afraid it was because of he was a coward. Lan XiChen swallowed.
Jiang Cheng arched his brows. "Well, well. So the holy Lan sect has some skeletons in its pavilions."
"You won't tell."
"No," agreed Jiang Cheng. "I wouldn't." He leaned back against the tree.
"He used to be so proud of us," said Lan XiChen. "My uncle. Now, I don't think we're anything to him but reminders he failed. WangJi with your brother, me with mine."
"Why are you admitting that to me?" demanded Jiang Cheng. "You don't—we don't—"
"Hm? Oh." Lan XiChen lifted his shoulders. "I suppose I mostly talk to myself nowadays." He snorted, watching a spider dig its way through the verdant grass. "I'd love to put a silencing spell on my own mind." Did you ever feel like this, after you helped kill Wei WuXian?
I am going mad.
Jiang Cheng flicked a caterpillar off his shoulder. "Well, now everyone knows my golden core was melted away. If Jin Ling told your disciples, the whole world knows."
"That's not—" Lan XiChen scowled.
Jiang Cheng shook his head. "JingYi is too much like Wei Ying. He'll say whatever he thinks."
Lan XiChen could only nod. In the distance a dog barked happily. Fairy, he presumed.
"If you are a failure," said Jiang Cheng. "What could I be? At the very least no one knows that you're a disappointment."
"I wish people knew," said Lan XiChen. "I wish everyone knew." I could have some answers, then. Maybe.
Jiang Cheng rubbed his face. "I don't follow."
Lan XiChen couldn't answer. His throat clamped up, as if an invisible thread tightened around it.
"Everyone always knew I was lesser than my brother," said Jiang Cheng. "Even to our father."
Our father. Not my father.
"Even now." Jiang Cheng let out a huff. He leaned his scalp against the bark of the tree. Dirt would surely catch in it.
"Do you wish they were still alive?" asked Lan XiChen.
Jiang Cheng's eyes snapped towards him, umber fire. "Of course."
"I have so many things to ask them," said Lan XiChen. "Why. What do you think of me. And can you please tell me if kicking in my sleep is a hereditary trait or if I'm possessed every night, because at this point I really don't know why I wake up halfway across my floor."
Jiang Cheng let out a chortle. He shook his head. "My father would hate me for what I did to his favorite son. You know I used to think maybe he'd love me? If he saw what Wei WuXian had done to YanLi… but no. YanLi died doing what our clan is supposed to. Attempt to impossible."
"Haven't you always been attempting that?" asked Lan XiChen. "And the fact that it's impossible crushes you."
"Excuse me?" Jiang Cheng jolted away from the tree.
Lan XiChen held up his hands. He remembered when they were boys, watching as Jiang Cheng ran after Wei WuXian, watching his every move the way WangJi watched XiChen's every move. "You've always been trying to be your brother. But it's impossible for you to be someone else. I remember when WangJi followed me around, coping each and every breath I made, every stroke of my pen, every thing I put into my mouth, every movement with my sword—it lasted for about a month, and then Mother started laughing, and she teased WangJi, and she told him that she wanted two sons, not one in two bodies, and she asked me what I'd done to possess him."
Jiang Cheng scowled. "Well, I wish my father had wanted two sons. He wanted one, and it was Wei WuXian, with his mother, not mine. He didn't love her. And he didn't like me, and even Wei WuXian saw it. I wanted—I wanted—" He closed his mouth. His lips and knuckles whitened.
You wanted him to love you.
Lan XiChen was reminded of Jin GuangYao, chasing after his father. And then when he realized the man would never love him, he broke. "I'd say you kept hoping, kept trying. Hence, you've always been about attempting the impossible. You just never should have had to be, and it wasn't fair that the most simple things were impossible."
You just wanted someone to look up to you, to see you as worthwhile, as something other than trash.
And you wanted to be loved. Both of you.
Jiang Cheng's mouth fell open.
"I can't keep four thousand rules," admitted Lan XiChen.
"No one fucking can."
Lan XiChen recoiled. Jiang Cheng smirked as if to say, point proved.
You are more like your brother than you know.
The sound of bickering drew closer. Jiang Cheng exhaled. "They're at it again."
"I'm sure Lan QiRen plans to have them all silently—"
"Ah yes," said Jiang Cheng, rubbing the back of his neck. "That's what your brother suggested. That you help teach them. I know you're in seclusion, but—"
"WangJi suggested that?" Lan XiChen's mouth fell open. How can I teach? I'm a disaster. I'm not worthy of—
"Jin Ling blames me for Wei WuXian and HanGuang-Jun leaving here," Jiang Cheng said, crossing his arms. A scowl embedded itself into his face.
"Ah." And no matter how Jiang Cheng insisted it wasn't because of him, he couldn't very well imply to Jin Ling that it was because they wanted to protect him, could he? You are just as sacrificial as your brother.
"It's you or Lan QiRen," Jiang Cheng added, a blade in his voice.
WangJi… Lan XiChen sighed. "I'll meet you out here at noon. Bring them down. And bring the dog."
"The dog?" questioned Jiang Cheng.
He nodded, offering no explanation, because if he did it would just be because Jin GuangYao picked it out that day, because Fairy curled up next to him, and his face lit up like he was a child himself.
And, I want to pet it.
"Did he really kick HanGuang-Jun out of his own home?" demanded JingYi.
"JingYi, I told you," said SiZhui with a sigh. "HanGuang-Jun would not have left for so petty a reason."
Jin Ling sighed as he followed after them. Fairy trotted alongside them, tail wagging happily. Of course the dog was happy. She'd gotten treats from Lan XiChen, who had given the dog most of his lunch.
"She's gonna get even fatter," proclaimed JingYi.
"Fairy is not fat!" protested Jin Ling. He was going to punch this kid again if he—
"SiZhui?" prompted JingYi. Jin Ling glared at the other boy, whose face turned red.
"She's happy?" offered SiZhui, his voice a squeak.
"Traitor," grumbled Jin Ling. From the night hunt the day before and their training, both he and Sizhui still had bruises, and so SiZhui had suggested they bathe in the Gusu Lan sect's special healing spring. And by that Jin Ling just presumed they meant the water was cold, in which case he really wasn't sure he wouldn't rather let his bruises heal naturally, but he didn't want to sit in silence or worse, have his uncle try to talk to him.
Jiang Cheng was the reason Wei WuXian had left. Jin Ling could tell. He was still bitter. But thus far he hadn't lectured Jin Ling for telling JingYi and SiZhui about the golden core, and Jin Ling couldn't understand why not.
Have you given up on me or something?
"Fairy, no," said Jin Ling when they undressed by the pool. A shimmer from the ice-cold water reflected in the air. "You can't come in with us."
Fairy's tail fell. Ears drooped. Eyes widened. The dog looked about to cry. Jin Ling was suddenly certain he was the worst monster who ever lived.
"Fairy can come in with us," SiZhui interjected. "I mean, if you're okay with it, Jin Ling."
When did you stop using 'master' for me? Well, no matter. He didn't mind. "Okay, Fairy, but it's cold so don't blame me."
"She has a layer of fur and a layer of—"
A splash. SiZhui's arm had shot out, pushing JingYi in. His face reddened. Jin Ling smiled and slipped in. The water was really chilling, sucking away any trace of warmth, but it soothed his bruises and the burn on his hand that he hadn't shown anyone because he didn't want their fretting to annoy him. He kept his eyes to Fairy, who barked happily and swam over to him, cuddling up, and away from the other boys. It didn't matter that they were all boys. Especially now that his uncles were—like that. Not that he minded, but if rumors got out about him too—the association with Jin GuangYao was enough to taint his image enough for someone to want him dead—
"How are you doing, Jin Ling?" ventured SiZhui. His chest glistened above the water, droplets like pearls on his skin.
"Huh?" Jin Ling blinked. "You saw my—"
"No, not training. I meant with the—everything." SiZhui slunk lower into the water. "People who are trying to hurt—"
"Kill," corrected Jin Ling. "You might as well say it. They're just as power hungry as my—other—uncle. I guess."
But he still missed Jin GuangYao. The man used to always dote on him, bringing treats for Fairy, having Qin Su buy him the best clothes, tell him he could do it, he could succeed, he'd be a great leader someday, that his father would be proud of him, how his father truly loved his mother.
You never had that.
SiZhui sighed. He lifted his hands, pressing them to his cheeks.
"I'm mad they won't let me handle it on my own," Jin Ling said, Fairy abandoning him to swim towards SiZhui. "At least Jin GuangYao thought I was capable."
"Wei WuXian definitely thinks you are," SiZhui hurried to assure him. Fairy popped up next to him, and he scratched behind the dog's ears. "He talks about you all the time."
"He does?" Jin Ling had no idea.
"It's annoying," said JingYi. "He says we're like each other in personality—"
"That's not what I meant," moaned SiZhui, turning his head, hair floating behind him like a black silk curtain. "He probably just—there are things—"
"Well, he has a lot to deal with, too," snapped Jin Ling. "I mean, some people still hate the YiLing Patriarch. And Lan QiRen definitely hates him, and Jiang Cheng can't seem to decide if he hates or loves him."
"Both," said SiZhui.
"I think he loves and hates him," said SiZhui, face flushing again. He studied the water, as if he didn't want to say anything more.
"You can speak your mind, you know," Jin Ling said. "I don't care."
"We can help you," offered SiZhui. His eyes met Jin Ling's, eager. Fairy licked SiZhui's cheek, and SiZhui laughed, pushing the dog back.
Jin Ling's stomach fluttered. "Huh?"
"Investigate. Try to figure out what's after you—who—why—so that your uncles won't—you're our friend, so—if you wanted our help we'd gladly—I don't mean to imply that you're not capable on your own, I just thought—" SiZhui was positively stuttering.
"Is it too cold?" asked Jin Ling. He was starting to adjust to the temperature, but maybe SiZhui was more sensitive. And he needed to stop thinking so much about his uncles. It wasn't like they defined him. He was not evil because Jin GuangYao was—even if he never was. And he wasn't a cut-sleeve just because Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi were! He didn't need to think about how they felt or thought to care about them. He nodded to himself.
"N-no, it's fine."
Jin Ling had never had friends before these two. In fact, usually people like Jin Chan beat him up. He probably didn't have very many allies. He was probably trying to sabotage himself again.
Is it my fault?
I want friends. I really want friends.
He met SiZhui's eyes, his brow wrinkled with concern. He nodded. "Okay. Help me."
JingYi popped out of the water next to SiZhui, splashing him. "Boo!"
SiZhui shrieked. "Don't do that!"
JingYi splashed his friend.
"These baths are for meditating and healing!"
"And tormenting you!" shot back JingYi. SiZhui yelped.
"Oh, Fairy," called Jin Ling oh-so-sweetly. Fairy surged towards JingYi, and SiZhui laughed.
"Oh no," said a familiar face, a fan covering his lips but not able to disguise the words.
Wei WuXian exchanged a glance with WangJi. WangJi solidified his face into that familiar stern look, the one that everyone would think was just his face that never changed, as if it was as carved in stone as the Gusu Lan Sect's four thousand rules. But since his revival, Wei WuXian had discovered that Lan WangJi's expressions changed all the time. You just had to study more carefully. Everything, from the degree of flatness of his words to the slight tremble of his lips, mattered, and right now it suggested that he was concerned.
"Nie HuaiSang," proclaimed Wei WuXian. "How nice to see an old classmate!"
Nie HuaiSang gave a cough. "Yes, yes, very nice." He snapped his fan down, face pale as milk and the hair over his temples dampened with sweat.
The three of them stood around in the middle of the bustling street, the smell of meat burns wafting through the air, the sizzle of hot oil, the laughter of children and clanging of bracelets on wrists. Wei WuXian wished they had brought Little Apple, but WangJi insisted flying on Bichen would be faster, and Wei WuXian would want to snuggle up to his back anyways. He wasn't wrong.
"Aren't you going to invite us for a cup of tea?" Wei WuXian chimed in, slinging an arm around Nie HuaiSang, whose cheeks turned even whiter. Now Nie HuaiSang just looked dead. Almost like his brother's corpse. "Don't worry, Nie MingJue is resting—"
"He's still dead," snapped Nie HuaiSang. He broke free, turning to stomp off in a huff. Wei WuXian took it as a cue to follow. WangJi sighed, falling in step behind them.
"Don't you have something to ask me?" Nie HuaiSang finally asked as he stepped into his residence. "You would not have come here for just a simple catch-up."
No "I don't know." Wei WuXian was almost impressed. He crossed his arms. "You heard about the attempt on young master Jin's life."
Nie HuaiSang gave a start. His eyes bulged. "I didn't."
Wei WuXian settled down next to Lan WangJi. "Really?"
"Really!" Nie HuaiSang's hands flew up. "I heard—that the two of you married—congratulations—"
"Thank you," Lan WangJi replied, ever diplomatic. A servant brought over tea, and Nie HuaiSang hurried to pour it. His hands shook.
So you do know why we're here. Wei WuXian decided to wait a bit before bringing it up. "How have things been here? Is there peace, now that ChiFeng-Zun has—"
"He's still dead," Nie HuaiSang interrupted, clutching his chin. "No matter what." He said it like a bewildered child asking a parent where their other parent had gone.
"I want my mom and dad!"
The scream from Jiang Cheng cut through the years, striking Wei WuXian's ears like a blow from Zidian. Wei WuXian stared into his cup of tea, steaming, warm, and he couldn't even more a single finger to pick it up.
WangJi, too, stiffened, and Wei WuXian remembered hearing about how he waited for his mother to open the door, to welcome him inside, long after she died.
"I'm sorry," said Wei WuXian.
Nie HuaiSang sniffled.
"These fans look very nice," said Wei WuXian, gesturing to several hung on the walls, painted with golden roses and deep crimson and plum butterflies. "I presume you decorated them?"
Nie HuaiSang nodded. "I did."
"You always had a talent for it."
Nie HuaiSang blinked. Wei WuXian wondered how many compliments he'd been given in his life. "It must be a comfort he took his killer with him. Quite clever of you, though I don't know if you aimed for precisely that."
Nie HuaiSang choked on his tea, spilling the boiling liquid on his robes. He yelped.
"Are you all right?"
"Fine, fine," wheezed Nie HuaiSang. "I—I don't know what you're talking about, Wei WuXian, I don't know, but it's a shocking—"
"Drop the pretense," said Wei WuXian. "You orchestrated all of it."
"I don't know, I don't know, I wouldn't—"
WangJi exhaled, placing his teacup down. "Breathe, HuaiSang. Neither of us plan to harm you, nor instigate any form of revenge."
Unless you plan to hurt Jin Ling. Then all bets were off, at least in Wei WuXian's mind.
"But I didn't, I couldn't—"
"Let me guess," said Wei WuXian, leaning forward. "You were always smarter than your brother—than hell, anyone—gave you credit for. You didn't do well in school not because you were terrible, but because you didn't care. You'd much rather have been painting, dancing, decorating fans. But you also couldn't bear to let your brother down. He was your protector, your hero."
You never wanted to measure up to him. You never cared. You just wanted to live a quiet life.
"You couldn't bear what happened to him."
Nie HuaiSang's lips trembled. "I'm not following."
"Yes, you are, so stop it," said Wei WuXian. "You're smarter than anyone ever gave you credit for. We know you orchestrated this to kill Jin GuangYao for what he did to your brother. You wanted revenge and you got it, tricking WangJi's brother, your brother's brother, Jin GuangYao's brother, into killing him. The most painful death for a traitor who killed a brother, to die by a traitor, am I right?"
"I don't know what you're—"
"Stop shaking your head; I'm right and you know it."
Nie HuaiSang let out a whimper. His gaze darted to Lan WangJi. "HanGuang-Jun—you can't possibly—"
"I do believe it," said WangJi. "But you misunderstand, HuaiSang. Again: neither of us plan to harm you."
Nie HuaiSang blinked. His brow furrowed.
"It isn't a trap," added WangJi, exasperated.
"I don't know—"
"Your brother would be proud," remarked Wei WuXian.
"No," said Nie HuaiSang, his shoulders slumping. Wind rushed out of him. "No, he wouldn't be. He wasn't a fan of sneaky tactics. He preferred brute force."
A confession. Wholly unsatisfying, however. Well, he's dead and you're not. But that would be insensitive especially coming from someone who once died himself. "The two of you would have made quite the imposing duo for the Nie Sect."
"Why are you here, if not to exact revenge?" Nie HuaiSang burst out. "I don't know why you would be here; I really don't know, I don't know why—"
"Lan XiChen has never blamed you," said Wei WuXian. "Probably because he'd never handle anything happening to WangJi very well. He actually got pissed at me that night in the temple, did I tell you that, WangJi? When I said I didn't know of your feelings."
WangJi's lips curved into a smile. Nie HuaiSang's jaw fell open at the sight of it. He leaned forward, blinking, rubbing his eyes as if the smile was an illusion. When it wasn't, he raised his fan to cover his gaping mouth.
"I want to ask you if you would know who might want revenge on the only surviving member of the Jin family," said Wei WuXian. "Well, that we know of." He picked up the tea to drink. It was cold, bitter.
Nie HuaiSang's eyes bulged. "It could be anyone. Jin GuangYao hurt a lot of people."
Nie HuaiSang slammed his teacup down, snapping his fan closed. "You think I could harm someone who is innocent?" His lips pressed together in a grimace. "I don't know how someone could, I wouldn't, I don't know how people do that!"
"Who is innocent?" remarked WangJi, voice dark.
"Didn't you encourage Mo XuanYu to sacrifice himself?" Wei WuXian held up his arms, showing Nie HuaiSang the body he was in. He remembered those scribbles on paper, Mo XuanYu's desperate writings about how miserable his life was, how he just wanted to matter and instead the only person whom he'd felt he mattered to kicked him out and he was sent back to hell in shame.
"I don't know what you mean!"
"You do," WangJi said softly.
"And you're alive because of it!" Nie HuaiSang cried, pointing at Wei WuXian. Finally, Some kind of admission.
"Yes," said Wei WuXian. "I am."
Someone always has to die for someone else to live, or so it feels like.
Why? Why why why why why?
Nie HuaiSang sputtered. "You think—you—that I hated Mo XuanYu? He was not involved, I don't—"
"I think you didn't care about him at all," Wei WuXian retorted. "He was a leaf to brew your tea."
Nie HuaiSang clamped his hands over his face.
"But you save Sisi," said WangJi quietly.
Wei WuXian turned to gape at his husband.
"Didn't you?" asked WangJi.
Nie HuaiSang's lips twisted. "I don't know." Instead of the frantic tone trembling his voice, it came defeated this time.
"What do you mean?"
Nie HuiaSang gulped. "Did I save her? I set her free, but—do you think many people will give a woman like her a place to go? A prostitute with a cut-up face? I knew Jin GuangYao would not harm her. She was his mother's friend. And I set her free to—to—"
"If that upsets you," said Wei WuXian. "Then why don't you do something about it?"
Nie HuaiSang shook his head. "You don't—"
"Hire her to stitch, or weave, or cook, or something," said Wei WuXian. "HanGuang-Jun married a former villain; I think you hiring an ex-prostitute to work in your kitchen would be somewhat less of a scandal."
"My face is less thick," snapped Nie HuaiSang.
"That is a lie," said WangJi.
"How are you any better?" demanded Nie HuaiSang, focusing on Wei WuXian. "You gave all those Wen-dogs hope and then you—you let them down, you—I never showed myself to her, she doesn't know me, I don't owe—"
This is you. This is who you really are.
You turned to fans and beautiful art to distract yourself, but you always saw. Wei WuXian's stomach cramped up. He remembered those corpses in the cave at the Burial Mounds. SiZhui's granny, reaching for him, and he didn't even recognize her at the time. You don't want to let her down. Or your dead brother. Or your people.
I failed them, and they still—saved—
"You owe no one anything," said WangJi. "Now that you've repaid your debt to your brother."
"There was never a debt," Nie HuaiSang cut in, as if Lan WangJi's words were toxic. "He was my brother. That we didn't have the same mother never mattered. He used to carry me around on his shoulders, make me fly—he was my brother!" His voice shattered. He clutched his hand over his mouth, the fan lying limp on his lap. "Meng Yao was evil. He ruined everyone's life—his father's, yours, and you were my friend, my brother's, he was going to take your brother down with him, Lan WangJi. I knew it, and I couldn't do anything, but you always were—you always—" He wrapped his arms around himself, rocking back and forth. "Mo XuanYu was desperate."
"And so you might as well have killed him," snapped Wei WuXian, still sickened from the Wen sect memories. And he wanted to lash out. It was familiar, this feeling, and it grabbed him, still smeared its filth on him.
Nie HuaiSang cowered. "No!"
"If you'd had any courage," said Wei WuXian. "You would have tried to help him and gotten him to—"
"I don't have it! You act like it's a choice, but I've never—" Nie HuaiSang curled his fists. "I wouldn't hurt Jin Ling! I'm not involved!"
Wei WuXian glared. He hated what was pulsing through him right now, why his hands were shaking. Was it possible there was some trace of Mo XuanYu left, angry he'd been used for revenge? No, it couldn't be. But—
He remembered sitting in that cave, despair biting into each of his limbs.
Would someone please tell me just what I'm supposed to do now?
When everyone hated you, when there was no hope—
Wei WuXian liked to think, in his happier moments, that Mo XuanYu would be happy he was using this body so well with WangJi. And in a moment like this he could only think about what hollowness the boy must have felt, shuttered away from any kind of future, huddled in a barn and cutting himself, using his own blood to write his story's final chapter.
And he saw fear in Nie HuaiSang's eyes. "I'm not going to tell anyone. No one in the cultivation world will know, unless you want to use to to command respect. Taking down the worst villain the world has ever seen—"
"He was only the worst because he killed my brother," said Nie HuaiSang. "I never hated you, Wei WuXian. But you killed lots of people's brothers, too. "
And you have no desire to be a villain yourself. Wei WuXian swallowed.
Me dying again would accomplish nothing.
Dying the first time didn't accomplish anything, either.
Jin GuangYao dying has just hurt Lan XiChen, and you? You haven't changed at all.
"I would not hurt Jin Ling," Nie HuaiSang stated again. "I don't know who would, I—" He clasped his mouth, laughing bitterly. "You won't believe me, will you? But I don't. I would not hurt him. There's no point. My brother's been avenged. Still dead, but avenged. I don't know who would. I really don't know."
"And what will you do now?" questioned WangJi. His voice was not as flinty as normal. He spoke like he did years ago.
Come back to Gusu with me.
Nie HuaiSang shook his head. "I don't—" He gulped. "—know." He met Wei WuXian's eyes. "But please, Master Wei, I would not hurt—"
"All right, all right, I believe you," Wei WuXian cut in. He wasn't sure in actuality, but he wanted this man to shut up. He wanted them all to shut up. He could see it in his mind: Wen Chao, begging, voice altered, legs shredded, blood scalding him, tortured. And then Wen Ning's dead corpse. Wen Qing sobbing, the most proud woman besides Madame Yu he'd ever known begging him. And Wen Yuan, crying in fear.
I thought it was just about revenge for our family. I thought it was about freedom for us all.
I lost control long before I lost control of Wen Ning and he killed Jin ZiXuan.
Nie HuaiSang heaved a sigh. He interlocked his fingers, still trembling as he avoided their eyes.
"It is still your fault," stated Wei WuXian. But he did not mean to anger the man, or to hurt.
Nie HuaiSang's head flung up, staring. "It's Jin GuangYao's! I did it so—so everyone knew!"
"Yes," said Wei WuXian. "But if anything happens to him, you'll have to live with it for the rest of your life. It's not easy." Help us.
"Which is why you're threatening me now?" shot back Nie HuaiSang, chest heaving. "Because Jin Ling is Jin ZiXuan and Jiang YanLi's son? And you have to live with their deaths on your conscience? I cleared your name; isn't it enough?"
"I'm asking for your—help!"
"I don't know how to help you! I wouldn't know!" Nie HuiaSang turned away, hiding his face behind a fan again.
It's never enough.
Wei WuXian felt an arm around his shoulders, pulling him away. WangJi. He stumbled.
"If I hear anything I'll let you know!" Nie HuaiSang called feebly after them.
"What is it?" snapped Jiang Cheng. The library smelled of must and paper, parchment and ink.
"Uncle?" Jin Ling poked his head around the corner. "Can I talk to you?"
Jiang Cheng cast the book he was reading down instantly. He scrambled to sit straighter. "Of course."
Jin Ling trotted in, Fairy behind him, flapping his tail. The dog bounded straight for Jiang Cheng, panting. Candles flickered soft against the wall, golden and orange. He could almost imagine himself here as a youth, Wei WuXian his sworn brother sneaking in porn and Emperor's Smile.
"I want to go on another night hunt in two days' time," Jin Ling said, beaming as Fairy put both his paws on Jiang Cheng's shoulders and adopted the most plaintive expression.
This is blackmail. Jiang Cheng scowled. "Jin Ling—"
"Fairy will be with me, and SiZhui and JingYi too," Jin Ling rushed to say. "And Wen Ning. I'd stick close with them. I was thinking, we could even invite some of the other disciples from my sect—Jin Chan and the rest."
Fairy barked, rubbing his fluffy head against Jiang Cheng's chin. I wish you actually liked me instead of trying to get me to do whatever Jin Ling wants. Still, it was good the boy had a dog who loved him. Jiang Cheng wrinkled his nose. "I thought you hated them."
"They're not that bad," Jin Ling said innocently. Too innocently.
One of them might be related to whomever's trying to kill you. Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes.
"Wen Ning would rather lose his—well—whatever is left of his life than let me die," said Jin Ling. "I'll keep him with me. I'll tell him not to leave my side, even if I'm doing the hunting—how else am I supposed to make you proud?" He stopped, face reddening.
"By not dying," retorted Jiang Cheng. His heart pounded.
Dad, Dad, are you proud now?
You would never be proud of me.
And I love you anyways, and I hate you for that.
Jin Ling huffed, folding his arms. "Please."
Shit. The boy did not usually ask. If he refused he'd probably go anyways. "If you die I'm bringing you back to break your legs," warned Jiang Cheng.
Jin Ling's eyes lit up. "Thanks, Uncle!"
And he took Fairy and they two of them immediately left, leaving Jiang Cheng standing, watching them go.
"He reminded me of his mother in that moment," commented a voice.
Jiang Cheng whirled around. "You again?"
"I needed to get a book for the lessons." Lan XiChen carried three in his arms. "I didn't know Jiang YanLi well."
"He does remind me of her," said Jiang Cheng. "And of his father." The pompous brat Jin ZiXuan was. Well, at least in the end Jin ZiXuan realized it wasn't about Jiang YanLi being worthy of him, but him being worthy of her.
She looked so beautiful on their wedding day, robed in scarlet, cheeks glowing with a kind or iridescent light, and in that moment Jiang Cheng couldn't help but wish Wei WuXian was able to be there despite the fact that they'd already dueled once. And the moment Jin ZiXuan's eyes fell on her, the way he could hardly move his mouth—Jiang Cheng knew that look.
You felt like nothing compared to her.
Which he was. But Shijie was always too humble to see that. She beamed at him, and he, too, began to glow.
Jin Ling was born after about a year. Jin RuLan, named just as Wei WuXian had suggested.
"He reminds me of you most of all," said Lan XiChen.
Jiang Cheng snorted. "How unfortunate."
"He was asking you to praise him just now."
Jiang Cheng rose, slamming the book shut. "Had he done anything worth praising?"
"He's attempting to quell any rumors he might have fled to protect his life by inviting the Jin Sect to hunt with him. He's showing awareness that he is not his sect, but he does bear their burden; that he will protect himself, but that they matter too. I'd say that's a good leadership quality."
Jiang Cheng didn't know what to say. It was war when he became the leader of the Yunmeng Jiang sect. His fingers rose to stroke Zidian, still wrapped around his finger like it had wrapped itself the day Mother sent him and Wei WuXian away.
She'd embraced him that day. Never before. Never after.
"People will whisper anyways," said Jiang Cheng. "Even if we snuff out this threat. Because he is Jin GuangShan's grandson, Jin GuangYao's nephew—"
"And you? What do you think?" Lan XiChen regarded him.
"Of course blood doesn't define someone—"
"Doesn't that apply to Wens, too?"
Jiang Cheng's kindness vanished. "They killed your father."
Lan XiChen's face fell. "Forgive me; that was too harsh."
"Why would you bring up the Wens?" demanded Jiang Cheng. Suspicion rose, gooseflesh on his arms.
"Wen Ning is around Jin Ling," Lan XiChen reminded him. "People will bring that up, too."
Wen Ning saved—
My life. Wei WuXian's life. My golden core. Jin Ling's life. My life again.
"Do you still hate him?"
If I don't, am I disappointing them again?
But they are dead.
"I'll shut them up," said Jiang Cheng.
"If you vouch for Wen Ning, it would help. Your hatred has a reputation, so if you say and show that you—"
"I didn't ask for your advice." Jiang Cheng clenched his jaw shut. Okay, Lan XiChen had done nothing to draw out such rudeness.
Lan XiChen hung his head. "Forgive me. And I came here to ask your help."
Lan XiChen pressed the three books into his arms. "I think it's helpful for you to instruct the students as well. With me. It'll give my uncle less objections, and you have much you can teach them."
Jiang Cheng sputtered. "Are you—but you said you were—they liked you—"
"And they'll like you, too," Lan XiChen concluded, grinning. "And now, back to seclusion."
Thanks for reading! I promise there is more plot next chapter.
Chapter 6: The Curse of a Hundred Holes
Thank you for reading!
"What are the chances Jiang Cheng is lurking in the distance?" whispered Lan JingYi as the three of them prepared for their night hunt. Fairy bounded along behind them.
"High," replied Jin Ling, testing the tip of one of his arrows. But he didn't really mind. His uncle had agreed to his idea, at the very least, and had been decent in classes the past few days. "He just worries about me." He's my only family, but I suppose I'm his only family too.
No, they still had Wei WuXian. But for years they didn't, and Jin Ling had had Jin GuangYao, and a sect who adored him, and Qin Su, Mo XuanYu—aunt and uncle, even if he never treated Mo XuanYu like anything other than a hindrance for Jin GuangYao's time and attention.
Was this how you felt for years, Jiang Cheng? Losing everyone?
"What about your parents?" asked Jin Ling. "Do they worry about you?"
JingYi shrugged. "Yes, no, maybe, I think so but they've kind of accepted I'm going to do what I want."
SiZhui moaned. Jin Ling gaped. "Wow, you're awful."
"I don't have them," SiZhui said quickly. "I don't remember their faces, or anything about them. I have some vague memories of my grandmother, though—an image or two I remember. I remember—other people far more."
Jin Ling swallowed. "I don't remember my parents either." He tightened his grip around his sword. His father's sword. An owl let out a lonely cry, sound warbling in the air around them.
"I wish I did," SiZhui whispered. His eyes flickered to Jin Ling as if afraid he'd mock him for such a vulnerable admission. His words hung in the air, naked and writhing.
Jin Ling swallowed. Fairy pressed against his leg. "Me too."
Not even JingYi could make a sardonic comment.
"Well, well," called a voice that send sand pouring down Jin Ling's spine. He gritted his teeth. "You three finally showed up."
Jin Chan. The bigger boy appeared, grinning. "Thought you'd be adopting a head ribbon instead of the vermillion mark by now, Jin Ling. Isn't your entire family basically the Lan Sect now? First your cut-sleeve uncle, and now the Jiang Sect's leader—"
"Jin Chan, it's been only a few days," JingYi snapped. He stepped forward, his foot slightly in front of Jin Ling's as it to say I'll kill him if he comes for you.
Jin Ling smirked. He was used to Jin Chan and his merry band of morons showing up and threatening him, mocking him, tearing him apart and telling him he had no hope of ever leading the Jin Sect, of living an honorable life, of bringing any kind of renown to his parents' names. And until Wei WuXian had helped him out that time, he'd always faced them alone.
But he wasn't alone anymore. Lan SiZhui and JingYi stood on either side, jaws set, identical ice in their eyes.
"Excuse me," interrupted a voice. "Master Jin?"
Jin Ling turned. Wen Ning appeared. Jin Chan let out a whimper, stepping back. Apparently even the Ghost General's saving them in the cave at the Burial Mound hadn't warmed him up to the fierce corpse.
Wen Ning's voice adopted the sheen it took on whenever, if he could, Jin Ling imagined he'd be smiling. "There are plenty of creatures loose in these forests. I've performed a check and there is no risk like last time."
"What happened last time?" demanded Jin Chan.
"Nothing," SiZhui said, biting back a smirk.
"I think we have the right to know. Unless you want us to die? Invited us here to die, like the fucking Wens?"
"Shut up!" Jin Ling snapped. He was not telling Jin Chan more details about someone trying to kill him and how he ran back to the fire to save Wen Ning.
"You'll be another Wen. My father says so. Another Jin GuangYao."
Stupid boy. "Pick one; I can't be both."
"Wasn't Jin GuangYao?"
Jin Ling gritted his teeth. Jin GuangYao...
"Besides, you're friends with Wens now, aren't you?" Jin Chan snorted.
Jin Ling's chest heaved.
"Your father would be so disappointed. Friends with his own killer?"
Wen Ning lowered his head. No, no, Jin Ling would not accept this! "Shut up," said Jin Ling. "You know nothing, Jin Chan. Wen Ning's got more noble blood in his dead body than you do in that oversized body of yours!"
Wen Ning's head snapped up. He gaped. SiZhui's eyes shone.
I mean it. "Let's hunt," said Jin Ling, sniffling as he stalked ahead. "I didn't invite you to insult me, Jin Chan. If you really think you're so special, go capture the fiercest thing on this mountain."
"I will!" howled the boy, turning and rushing in the other direction, his toadies with him.
JingYi split off with them later on, winking. He planned to tail the boys, see if there was anything to be overheard in their conversations. It was all they could think of to investigate, until they mastered paperman techniques like Wei WuXian had used to investigate Jin GuangYao. But if anyone saw them practicing such a thing, they'd be in such huge trouble Jin Ling would place money that Jiang Cheng would actually break his legs.
Wen Ning seemed to be following Jin Ling, but trying to keep to the shadows. And SiZhui stuck by him, Fairy trotting behind them both. Jin Ling stuck out his lower lip like he was annoyed, but really, it was comforting. Especially after last time.
By the end of the night hunt, Jin Ling won their wager with more corpses slain and demonic creatures captured. Okay, SiZhui's help and especially Wen Ning's was instrumental, but still. And they'd gotten a bit more practice with the papermen. It had to be him, Jin Ling insisted. Not JingYi or SiZhui, even though SiZhui was clearly the most talented among them.
I may be threatened right now, but I'm not weak. Jin Ling held his head up, a smile on his face.
Jin Chan scowled. "You only won because he was helping you." He pointed to SiZhui.
"Did you hunt on your own?" asked SiZhui innocently. "HanGuang-Jun recommends against it."
Sarcasm. I like it. Jing Ling smirked. Jin Chan's friends shuffled their feet and muttered.
"Ah," said JingYi, leaning back against a tree. "Seems like you had plenty of help too. Even more than Jin Ling. And yet you still came in second. Oh, excuse me, third. I came in second. And I did hunt on my own."
Jin Chan's face reddened. "I wouldn't be citing HanGuang-Jun as an example. A cut-sleeve?"
"Do not insult HanGuang-Jun," snapped SiZhui, his voice darkening.
"Why? I just said he was a cut-sleeve. And he is. He married another man. Why does that offend you so much? Are you pretending it isn't happening?" Jin Chan's lips pulled back into a grin as he honed in on his prey. "Or are you a cut-sleeve too? Is that why you go hunting with Jin Ling, and why I heard the two of you whispering and giggling together?"
Jin Ling's face felt cold. He turned to see SiZhui's mouth opening, his eyes widening in shock.
What did you hear? If he knew about the paperman...
"I couldn't get close enough, but it did look like they might be touching hands at one point," added Jin Chan.
When we exchanged papers... Still, he was relieved Jin Chan didn't know about their plan.
"Stop it," said Wen Ning.
"Or will you murder me? Put your hand through my heart? A cut-sleeve for a sect leader; I've never heard of such a disgrace. At least HanGuang-Jun is a second son."
I am not! SiZhui is not! "Take it back," Jin Ling ordered. He yanked out his sword. "Apologize to SiZhui!" His heart pounded. Of course. Of fucking course the one time he actually had friends Jin Chan would want to take it away from him, poisoning everyone to think it was something shameful instead of just—just—
He's there for me!
A smirk spread across the boy's face, teeth gleaming as he realized he'd struck a nerve. "Protecting your lover?" crooned Jin Chan. "How very—"
Jin Ling swung. Arms wrapped around his waist. SiZhui, holding him back. JingYi rolled his eyes and instead of helping Jin Ling as he struggled, he grabbed Jin Ling too.
"It's okay; I don't care!" SiZhui insisted.
"His arms around you must feel nice—"
"Shut the fuck up!" screamed Jin Ling. SiZhui said it was fine, but did he really believe that? Would he be angry if Jin Ling didn't at least try? And Fairy, why aren't you growling or biting him? Stupid dog!
"Maybe it's a family trait—"
"I'm not like that!" Jin Ling shouted. "I wouldn't be! And neither would SiZhui!" SiZhui was good, SiZhui was smart and rational and everything Jiang Cheng would want Jin Ling to be, and yet his uncle wasn't thrilled with the boy because of his love for Wei WuXian and HanGuang-Jun.
"Get lost!" JingYi bellowed. "Or I'll—" He charged at them. Wen Ning stepped closer.
They vanished, swords flying high in the air.
SiZhui released him. Jin Ling glared. "You should've let me punch him! He's just a shit-mouthed—"
"I don't care what they say about me," SiZhui said. "They even—disrespected HanGuang-Jun—they're—but if you fight, your uncle will be—"
"Who gives a damn?" roared Jin Ling. He sent his father's sword into a tree. Bark scattered. How do friends work? Why am I so bad at figuring it out?
"He was trying to provoke you," said Wen Ning quietly, but Jin Ling could hear the shame riddling the corpse's voice, and he wanted to cry. Please don't think I hate you!
Why is everything falling apart?
Wen Ning put his hand on his shoulder. Jin Ling gulped in air.
"Jin Ling?" ventured SiZhui.
"Not commenting on the cut-sleeve part, but would it really be so bad, in other ways, to be like HanGuang-Jun and Wei WuXian?"
Jin Ling scowled. "That wasn't the point! To everyone, that's all they see now about them—"
"But is that right?" persisted SiZhui.
Right? Wrong? Who gave a damn. All he knew was that he did, begrudgingly, love Wei WuXian and by default that meant HanGuang-Jun too. His head hurt. "I want to sleep. Let's go home."
"It went well," Jin Ling said even as he ignored Fairy and stormed to his room.
"He caught the most," SiZhui told Jiang Cheng, voice apologetic.
Jiang Cheng waited outside his nephew's room, but his nephew hollered for him to go away. Brat, speaking to his elders that way? He threatened to break Jin Ling's legs and stomped down to the grounds, lingering on a bridge.
I wish you were here, Wei Ying. He wanted to ask him what to do. No, he didn't. No, he needed to.
I don't know what to do. I'm hopeless. Useless. Worthless. The chant took up in his head again.
"You'll be useless. Worthless. Beyond hope." And JiaoJiao's cackles formed a beat as Wen Chao smirked in the distance. "Hold him down."
Hopeless. Useless. Worthless.
A hand, reaching towards him, and his screams wouldn't do anything, and still—the impossible, impossible, melt your heart Wen ZhuLiu—
Hopeless. Useless. Worth—
"I heard it went well," called a voice.
Jiang Cheng wasn't surprised. Maybe he wandered in this direction on purpose. It wasn't like anyone else was around. "Well enough that Jin Ling shut me out again."
Lan XiChen sighed, leaning over the mossy edge of the bridge. Two ducks swam below. For once no rabbits were in sight. "I heard what happened from Wen Ning."
"Wen Ning?" Jiang Cheng stiffened.
"He wanted to tell you, and he stopped by my place to ask, and I said I didn't know what you'd feel about that. In the future, if you would like him to report, he offered to."
Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together. "He saved Jin Ling's life in that temple. And mine."
Lan XiChen watched him, silent.
"And I still hate him sometimes." Jiang Cheng sighed. It doesn't make sense. Do you think I'm stupid and petty for it? For still struggling with Wei WuXian when he's the reason I'm not hopelessuselessworthless?
"It's hard to halt that feeling," Lan XiChen said. "Do you want to know what he said?"
"Tell me." Jiang Cheng watched as the two ducks dove down.
"Jin Ling got into a fight with Jin Chan, who was trying to provoke him, and Lan SiZhui stopped him."
It figured. "SiZhui's a good influence," said Jiang Cheng. At least the boy had friends now.
"He is," agreed Lan XiChen. "And an orphan too. They can relate."
Well, so was Jiang Cheng. He curled his hands around the bridge's railing, moss cushioning his palms against the solid bridge. "What happened to SiZhui's parents?"
"We aren't sure."
Jiang Cheng's brow crunched. "How can you not know?"
Lan XiChen studied him, and Jiang Cheng had the sensation that he was being weighed again, measured, and he didn't like it. Not you, too!
"WangJi plucked him from the Burial Grounds," said Lan XiChen finally. "He had a severe fever and didn't remember anything until recently, when Wen Ning started talking to him. As for his earlier childhood, Wei WuXian knows some things, but for his past in the camp, we don't know."
Lan XiChen's words slammed into Jiang Cheng. He gaped. "He's a Wen."
"His name is Lan Yuan."
"But it was Wen Yuan?" Jiang Cheng's mind churned. His temples throbbed. Did Jin Ling know? Probably, the little brat. Did Wei WuXian know from the start? Did Lan WangJi hate him because of Lan Yuan too?
Let them die. They're Wen-dogs.
I don't care what I have to do, so long as I get to kill the damned Wens!
Lan XiChen did not reply.
Jiang Cheng could not hate Lan SiZhui. The boy was too sweet, always polite, loyal to HanGuang-Jun, never rude to Jin Ling. And still. And still, he was—the reason—
Jiang Cheng's ire found a new target. He glared. "Why are you telling me this?" demanded Jiang Cheng. "Testing me? Seeing what I will do? You know good and well I'm not going to go strike off that kid's head. And yet you're still—why are—this, the thing with the books and me teaching them—you're just trying to make me into whom you want me to be, right? A good man who learned forgiveness? Well, what if I don't want to be that?" Why can't I be angry? Someone let me be angry! Someone! "Repressing every single thing you feel doesn't seem to have gotten you anywhere. At least your brother has stopped doing that."
Lan XiChen's face whitened.
Shit. Jiang Cheng bit his lip so hard he drew blood. He spat a wad into the water. What could he say? Sorry you made poor choices in whom to trust? Sorry I just rubbed that in your face?
Hate me. Go ahead. Feel angry. He met Lan XiChen's eyes, curling his fists. But ZeWu-Jun seemed to have lost his ability to speak. He opened his mouth, and he closed it. His teeth clacked once, but he couldn't force a word out.
Jiang Cheng waited.
"I don't know how else to show I care," whispered Lan XiChen.
"Why would you?" retorted Jiang Cheng.
"They killed my father, too."
He let out a bark of a laugh. "You still had your family!"
"And I was a danger to them, so I ran and ran in to Jin GuangYao." Lan XiChen's voice shook.
Jiang Cheng swallowed. He remembered when Wei WuXian vanished, how he refused to believe he was dead, told himself he was just doing it to keep Jiang Cheng safe.
You'd lost your golden core.
"Those months on the run were the worst of my life," Jiang Cheng said. "At that point, anyways."
He'd had far worse ones, since.
"I'd say the same," Lan XiChen agreed.
The ducks' heads popped up from the water. Jiang Cheng closed his eyes. He wouldn't apologize. He wouldn't. But hopefully Lan XiChen knew he didn't hate him, either. His calmer voice should be enough, no?
"Jiang Cheng—please do not reveal Lan SiZhui's—"
"I wouldn't," Jiang Cheng cut in. "He's Jin Ling's friend." And no matter what Jin Ling revealed about his uncle, no matter how many times he locked the door, his stomach clenched and he wanted to vomit whenever he thought of the boy hating him. I love that kid.
"Thank you," said Lan XiChen, and he smiled.
You killed lots of people's brothers, too.
Wei WuXian flopped onto the bed at the inn they were staying at, burying his face in the crook of his arm. Stupid Nie HuaiSang. Or really, the problem was that Nie HuaiSang wasn't stupid.
He saw Jin ZiXuan's face in his mind, draining of blood, Wen Ning's hand through his chest, and the horrific realization that it was all his fault clamping onto him. Jiang YanLi… Shijie…
"Wei Ying." Lan WangJi sat down next to him.
"'Mnn' is my line."
Wei WuXian rolled his eyes and his body, peering up into his husband's eyes. "What?"
"Is what Nie HuaiSang said bothering you?"
Wei WuXian shrugged. "Do I seem the sort who would let the Head-Shaker bother me?"
"You seem the sort who always laughs and pretends things are flippant, when really you're dying to say something." Lan WangJi's gaze bore into him. "I remember you telling me that men did these sorts of things all the time, and I shouldn't worry about it, and I thought that you'd slept with me because you wanted to thank me and that I was the worst sort of cur, to use you like that."
Wei WuXian snorted. "You were drunk. We both were, but I was more sober than you. The one who did wrong that night was me. I should have just asked."
Poor Lan WangJi really thought he'd remembered what happened in the cave, but Wei WuXian had no memories of any confessions there. I hurt you in my ignorance.
He shifted, laying his head on WangJi's lap. He remembered the question he'd wanted to ask back then, the night they first had sex. He could ask now. "Lan Zhan, what do you think of me?" He cleared his throat.
I'm an idiot; we're married.
And I still want to know. "I mean, I know you love me. But—"
Instead of "pathetic," like he feared, he felt WangJi sigh. "I think... you are someone worthy of love. I think you are someone who makes the world better by living. I think you seek to convince everyone else of your own worth, but don't hope to convince yourself."
Well then. "That's too deep; I'm going to need some wine."
"No. Not tonight." WangJi smiled. His hand rested on Wei WuXian's scalp.
Fine. It was bubbling up even without the wine. "I killed a lot of people in the Nightless City. You had to know I had—lost it then. Why did you go with me? You confessed then. Why, because you knew it was the end?"
"I don't know," WangJi admitted.
Then WangJi continued. "I hoped not, but—I thought maybe if I confessed—there wouldn't be an end—I never expected Uncle nor XiChen to find us. And if it had to be the end, then I wanted to support you. I didn't want you to face that alone. I knew you hadn't cast that curse on Jin ZiXun, and I knew you were suffering." He stopped.
"I've never heard you say so much," teased Wei WuXian, craning his neck, the back of his head rubbing WangJi's thigh. His throat closed. "I—"
"I wish I had gone with you earlier. To Gusu, when you asked. I wish—I wish—" This sticky feeling inside him, swelling and sliming him—he felt dirty, dirtier than that time he and Lan WangJi slept together without communicating properly. He felt like beating a tree, like the time Lan WangJi had kissed him while he was blindfolded. I took advantage of the fact that I was powerful. That I was stronger, and they hated me for it, and I wanted to use it against them because they'd never seen me as anything other than a sword and then a flute.
"I would have taken any punishment, if it meant Shijie would be alive."
"I did not want to punish you."
No. He'd wanted to save him. I was selfish. It was all about me. I was in pain, I was being torn apart by resentment before the energy tore at me.
No, I was scared.
"I'm ashamed," he croaked out.
WangJi's face stiffened. Wei WuXian closed his eyes. Shame pressed into him, hotter than any branding iron.
"Then I'll bear it with you," whispered WangJi. "I meant what I said in that cave, even if you did not remember."
"I can't live with myself if something happens to Jin Ling."
"Nie HuaiSang not being involved just makes me feel worse."
"I want Jiang Cheng to laugh with me again, call me an idiot and slap me, but all the while I know he loves me." Wei WuXian's eye sockets burned. He couldn't pry his lids open. "I miss him… more than I miss Jiang YanLi, more than Jin ZiXuan. I never forgave Jin ZiXuan, though, for how he treated Jiang YanLi before he fell for her. I suppose it's fitting that Jiang Cheng can't forgive me." He buried his face in WangJi's abdomen, feeling the taut muscles rising and falling with his breaths. "Why is it so much easier to talk to the dead than the living?"
Jiang YanLi shoved him out of the way of that sword. Did she hate him for killing Jin ZiXuan?
Maybe, but she loved him too.
"When I gave up my golden core, I knew," Wei WuXian mumbled. "I know it would be harder to maintain things with him, but I wanted—I didn't tell him for him, his pride, and I didn't tell him because I still wanted—him in my life."
I wanted to be your right-hand man. I wanted to support you. I wanted you to be close to me, because I hated that year living on the streets, running from dogs and gnawing on melon rinds already turning brown from the sun.
I knew we couldn't be the two prides of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect anymore, but I couldn't let it go.
His eyes stung. Something hot slid down his cheek. "I miss him."
"I know," replied WangJi again. His lips landed on the back of Wei WuXian's skull.
Wei Wuxian stuck his head lower, rubbing his chin against WangJi's crotch. He felt him harden. He wrapped his arms around WangJi's waist. "I'm not coming up." His fingers went for the strings of WangJi's robes.
His husband caught his hand. "Were you not just saying that communication—"
"Sex is easier." Wei WuXian lifted his head, huffing. He blew a strand of hair from his face, peering into his husband's eyes. "WangJi… fuck me."
WangJi reached out, stroking Wei WuXian's jawline. "I'm here."
"I know, but you are not fucking me."
WangJi scowled. "Pathetic."
"That's better." Wei WuXian threw his arms around his neck, pressing his mouth on his. And when WangJi was sensitive, not biting, just running teeth along his tongue and lips, hands sliding up and down his chest, his lips moving down his neck, kissing just over Wei WuXian's pulse, he understood.
WangJi undressed them this time, slowly. His thumbs hooked around Wei WuXian's hips, angling him. Wei WuXian pulled him close, sweat forming on their chests.
"You know," Wei WuXian panted, feeling WangJi stiffen inside him. "I know why you're being—gentler than normal."
"You express yourself through sex," continued Wei WuXian. "That's how you—it comes out—all your emotions—your frustration—your selfishness—you get to do what you want because I like it when you do what you want—you get to be creative—explore—tie me up because you feel trapped and you want me to be more restrained—live—you love me—ow, ow, stop pinching—okay, no, pinch me right there—"
No matter what, you're here with me.
I miss him. Please help me.
I love you.
When Lan XiChen heard a swear interrupt his meditation, which if he was honest had already been interrupted by the imagined conversation he was having with Jin GuangYao because damn if that man would allow him to pursue any kind of righteousness even after death, he didn't even really have to ask. "JingYi?"
The boy sheepishly opening the door. He was carrying a squirming brown rabbit in his arms. "I tripped over it and now I think its paw is hurt and HanGuang-Jun will kill me."
"He will not." Lan XiChen rose, examining the poor bunny, which tried to bite him. Damn you. "Nothing a little ointment won't fix." It was just a scrape.
JingYi heaved a sigh of relief. He clutched his knees, crouching down over the rabbit.
"You were coming here anyways?" Lan XiChen inquired, digging through his satchel to pull out the ointment. The boy kept stroking the rabbit's ears, mumbling apologies.
Lan XiChen knelt, rubbing ointment into the bunny's foot. The animal glared at him, lips trembling in fury, as if to say that Lan XiChen was not WangJi and therefore was an imposter.
"How long with HanGuang-Jun and Wei WuXian be gone for?" asked JingYi.
"I'm not sure." Lan XiChen regarded the boy. Why do you keep coming to me? I'm hardly the sort you want to turn to for advice. Shamed for trusting the wrong people, being tricked into killing the person I cared for, and oh, I'm a cut-sleeve too.
He knew why JingYi kept coming, didn't he? Jin Ling had Jiang Cheng, and SiZhui was basically Wei WuXian and HanGuang-Jun's son. JingYi was looking for someone to look up to. But I can hardly mentor you. Jiang Cheng would be better.
"If I tell you something can you not tell your uncle?" asked JingYi.
Lan XiChen froze. The rabbit glowered, lips rising as if threatening another bite. He resumed his ministrations. "It depends. If it compromises safety or the honor of our sect, then no."
"Honor," snorted JingYi. "What the fuck does—I'm sorry—what the—what does that even mean anymore? HanGuang-Jun's gone and married the Yiling Patriarch and everyone's happy for them. I am too. They love each other. But so many people, like my parents, regard that as shameful but I can't—I can't see it like that. They love each other. They're both good people and they care about being righteous."
Wei WuXian would probably fall over dead if he heard that. Lan XiChen wondered whether he'd be pleased or horrified. Likely both.
"So I don't even know what that means!" JingYi finished, scowling. The bunny turned to him, rubbing his head on JingYi's palm. "We have four thousand rules and I still don't know what it means to be righteous. I'm a bad Lan—"
A small chuckle rose in in Lan XiChen. The young really do lead the elders, sometimes.
"What? Why are you laughing?" JingYi frowned, tugging at his unruly ponytail.
"You are being righteous," said Lan XiChen simply. "Right now. You're asking yourself what is right and what is wrong, and you're weighing things. You don't think HanGuang-Jun and Wei WuXian's relationship is anything but righteous, do you?"
JingYi's mouth opened and closed. He swallowed. "It's good."
"Because… they love each other and it makes them happy, and—"
"What is not righteous," Lan XiChen said. "Is hurting other people. And hurting yourself, because you are a person too. It's hard to know, so you have to constantly change, whether based on circumstances or—you have to be open." I think.
JingYi blinked. "So in some cases the rules wouldn't apply?"
"It's more like the spirit would apply," Lan XiChen corrected. Or am I just saying this to feel better about myself? He had no idea.
"Well, yesterday, at the fight," JingYi said. "It started because Jin Chan called SiZhui a cut-sleeve and implied he had feelings for Jin Ling, and Jin Ling was basically gonna skewer him."
Lan XiChen winced.
"He probably said it because of HanGuang-Jun and Wei WuXian," said JingYi. "So is that hurting people?"
"It would be hurting themselves to deny it," replied Lan XiChen. "And it isn't as if it's as uncommon as people—"
"Yeah, but—" JingYi's face reddened. "You knew about your brother? For—a long time? And you kept it a secret?"
Lan XiChen's head was spinning. Where was this going? Why were kids so confusing? "Yes."
"SiZhui does have feelings for Jin Ling," JingYi blurted out. "I know he does. He's not good at hiding it, but he's not going to like—harass Jin Ling—but I—" He clapped his hands over his mouth. "You won't tell, right? Since it's not hurting, so no honor is at risk—"
Lan XiChen's mouth hung open. "No, no, of course not." SiZhui?
Well, he thought with a wry smile. Uncle is going to experience another generation of his best disciples disappointing him.
And, of course, SiZhui's heritage only complicated things. Lan XiChen remembered Jiang Cheng calling him a good influence for Jin Ling. Would that still stand?
"I don't think Jin Ling would feel the same and it frustrates me because—I don't want SiZhui hurt! He's my best friend! He's my brother, or he might as well be, and he—" JingYi curled his fists. "I don't know what to do or say to help him."
Lan XiChen swallowed. All those years watching the sorrow stirring in WangJi's eyes. When he arrived at the Cloud Recesses with Master Mo, for the first time in thirteen years, Lan XiChen saw that sorrow gone. He'd never guessed it was because Mo XuanYu was now Wei WuXian.
"I want him to be happy," JingYi whispered. "And I'm worried about what Lan QiRen would say. And I'm worried about what Jin Ling would do if he found out. And so SiZhui will probably never say anything because it isn't right or whatnot, but then he'll be miserable."
Was this what it was like for his uncle? Watching his proteges repeat their father's mistakes. But… WangJi hadn't. He was living now.
I want to live, too. I want to come out of seclusion.
What if I haven't learned enough?
I've learned nothing at all, if I'm honest. Besides that I loved Jin GuangYao. And now his every waking through was tinged with that knowledge, or illuminated by it, depending on his mood.
"Let him know," said Lan XiChen. "That you are his brother, and you will support him in his quest for—happiness." Why is righteousness so separate from that? Can't they be the same thing, with a little care and work? Don't we all want them? "And if you want my advice," he added. "A lack of communication between my brother and the Yiling Patriarch—well, Wei WuXian appears to have truly thought my brother disliked him and wanted to punish him. Jin Ling at the very least doesn't appear to think that of SiZhui." There's some progress there, isn't there?
JingYi frowned. "You think he should tell him?"
"I don't know," Lan XiChen said honestly. His chest throbbed. "I just—know that things left unsaid have a way of tearing a person apart." Like the holes curse, the one Su She cast on Jin ZiXun to start all of this.
Because things left unsaid between him and Jin GuangYao didn't make him feel full.
They made him feel empty.
Lan WangJi rose before Wei WuXian and readied their things. He knew what his husband would say when he woke—well, after he had food anyways.
Wei Ying hadn't had a home since Lotus Pier burned down. He wasn't welcome anywhere, dragging around the stench of his own self-sacrifice and the dead with him. And Lan WangJi wanted, more than anything, to make a home for him. He knew he was WuXian's home, wherever they went, but he wanted the Cloud Recesses to be home as well.
And if Jiang Cheng would ever get over himself, maybe Lotus Pier as a secondary home. Maybe.
Lan WangJi had never really appreciated the value of a home until his mother died. And then Lan WangJi remembered standing outside, waiting for her door to open, for her to welcome him with a hug and a laugh, teasing him for his oh-so-serious expression, patting him on the head, and being unable to comprehend how cold the Cloud Recesses were after she was gone. Lan XiChen was the only one who smiled at him on the regular.
Until Wei WuXian popped in, bouncing around like a flippant, errant brand of whatever, grinning at him, playing trick after trick on him, and he didn't understand how someone could do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, and how a part of him flickered with jealousy anyways, because the boy's zest for lift was contagious. Even if Jiang Cheng outwardly scowled and complained, Lan WangJi could see how much he looked forward to his brother's antics. And Lan WangJi looked forward to them, too. Wei WuXian didn't fear Lan WangJi and keep his distance, whisper about how righteous he was and regard him as a pillar instead of a person. He kept trying to make a sinner out of Lan WangJi, unaware just how much he was succeeding just by virtue of being his prankster self.
He knew from their time in the library. He muted Wei WuXian, but he couldn't really mute him, because Wei WuXian never stopped trying to reach him.
His uncle had dragged him aside one night, lecturing him. "Stop focusing on Wei WuXian!"
Panic flared inside Lan WangJi. Had Lan QiRen realized? "He's obnoxious—"
"Yes, and if you ignore a pest, they go away!"
And irritation surged up in Lan WangJi, but not at Wei WuXian, but rather that Lan QiRen called him a pest.
He'd punished Wei WuXian so harshly that time as a way of punishing himself. It was fitting he had to kneel too, receive the strikes, but he saw the fear in Wei WuXian's eyes and knew the boy hadn't a malicious bone in his body. He didn't want Lan WangJi to be hurt. And he wanted Wei WuXian to be righteous. I don't want you hurt! If you don't follow the rules, people will—people will—
It was fitting, karmic really, when his brother sent Wei WuXian to recover in the baths. A punishment for Lan WangJi, under the guise of helping. As Wei WuXian stripped, jumping into the water and swimming around, offering to be friends, Lan WangJi's heart was beating so loudly he feared Wei WuXian could hear it. He tore his eyes away, refusing to look, thanking every energy around that the water was so cold his body couldn't flood his face with blood.
I can't be your friend.
It'll lead you into sin.
You wouldn't be my friend either, if you knew how I felt. I don't deserve it.
I'm so dirty.
But when Wei WuXian pranced away, he felt clean. When he tore his hair ribbon away at the archery competition, he felt free, even though he immediately felt the weight of all the rules carved into the rocks falling onto him, pulverizing him. Why am I the worst sinner of all?
Follow the rules. Follow them. You will be righteous. You are working hard. You will get there. You will.
And when Wei WuXian was sent away for fighting with Jin ZiXuan, Lan WangJi had to admit it to himself.
You aren't this way because you're uncaring.
You're like this because you care too much for others.
He remembered waking up in the Cloud Recesses and wanting to bash his head against a wall, worrying he should seclude himself already, because he woke up hard, a dream of another man in his arms, sharing alcohol with him, laughs, a gentle kiss. Lan XiChen worried aloud for Lan WangJi as he threw himself into his studies, trying harder and harder, reaching and reaching, and still that bright sunlight, the righteousness he wanted, was too slippery.
It had never been a formed thing in the first place, but he did not know it then. All he knew was that he didn't want the approval in Lan QiRen's eyes to fade to ash, and he did not want to demean his father or mother's memories, his very existence. He owed them, he owed them all.
He wished he could care less, like Wei WuXian.
Am I righteous enough yet? Do I deserve to exist? Did my mother deserve to die? Did she deserve forgiveness? Mother, Father, Uncle—help me!
In the Cloud Recesses, following the orders meant a burned library, and he ran forward, refusing to move when he was ordered to stand aside, because the books that were his friends in his brother's absence and even more since Wei WuXian had left were there. The rules, funnily enough, never addressed what would happen if two rules contradicted each other. Submit to authority, and honor tradition. What if authority butchered? What if tradition was a rope? What if?
These were the sort of questions Wei WuXian would ask.
He remembered a swarm of Wen Sect guards charging him, the snap and twist of burning pain as his leg broke. In the cave with the monster tortoise, where following the rules would have led to death, the death of an innocent named MianMian. And leaving Wei WuXian to receive his punishment meant Wei WuXian died alone on the Burial Mounds.
The moment he heard Wei WuXian playing WangXian on Dafan Mountain, he felt something surging through him, something he hadn't felt in thirteen years. A desperation. Please don't lose yourself again.
I don't want to lose you again.
As much as I can help it, you won't be alone. And I'll make sure you know it, this time. I won't leave. I won't scorn you. I won't even lecture you.
I just want to be with you.
And so he'd leaped in front of Zidian when Jiang Cheng sent the whip flying at them. And when Wei WuXian ran anyways, he wanted to scream out, but he still couldn't make a sound. But when the whip didn't work, when Wei WuXian climbed to his feet still in Mo XuanYu's body, acting indignant, he realized. You didn't possess anyone.
Are you glad to be alive, still?
He soon realized he was, but if Wei WuXian hadn't been, Lan WangJi would have tried to show him life again. The moment the joke about being attracted to HanGuang-Jun came out, he knew Wei WuXian was still himself, and he knew that he remembered what happened in the cave after the Nightless City. He knew Wei WuXian's cruel mocking of his attraction was really just to sacrifice himself again, trying to shove Lan WangJi away to protect him. He knew Wei WuXian was not malicious.
Except he'd been completely wrong about the memories, the mocking. Wei WuXian had no recollection of that day, and no idea that Lan WangJi even liked him, much less loved him.
"What are you thinking?" mumbled Wei WuXian, waking up.
"Hm?" Lan WangJi glanced down at his stirring husband.
"You have a contemplative look on your face." Wei WuXian pushed himself up on his elbows. A strand of hair stuck to his cheek.
Lan WangJi plucked it away. "Do you want to go home?"
Wei WuXian nodded. "Jiang Cheng will be mad we weren't gone longer." He exhaled. "And made no progress."
"We did. We ruled out Nie HuaiSang."
When they landed in the Cloud Recesses, Lan WangJi's ears immediately picked up the sound of bickering. And it did not sound like teenage bickering, though the three boys were huddled behind a thick bush, listening to the ruckus.
Lan WangJi and WuXian exchanged a glance, hurrying. Lan XiChen stood in front of Lan QiRen, whose face was swelling more purple than the color of Jiang Cheng's robes. Jiang Cheng stood between them, his finger rubbing Zidian.
"You're back!" Jiang Cheng exclaimed, almost choking on his words. But there was a glow to his words. He cleared his throat. "We weren't expecting—"
"Nie HuaiSang isn't involved," said Lan WangJi. WuXian's gaze darted between his uncle and both of their brothers. "What is going on?"
"I was telling Uncle that I wish to end my seclusion," stated XiChen. He met WangJi's eyes, and there, for the first time, was the smoke of shame.
Do you think I would judge you for this?
"Your desire to end it shows you have not properly—"
"In all due respect, he's a sect leader," cut in WuXian. WangJi cringed. "He can make his own—"
"I am still his elder!" Lan QiRen's finger jabbed out at WuXian. WangJi took a step forward, wishing he could shield his husband from the words that were surely coming. Words were the sneakiest weapon of all. "You are—you are the least worthy person to speak on this! You know no concept of shame!"
"I'm aware; try again," WuXian replied. A lie.
Stop asking him to verbally flog you to protect my brother and yours! Because WangJi knew Lan QiRen would be all too happy to oblige.
"Your influence encourages insubordination and no matter how everyone's scorn seems to have shifted to LianFang-Zun, I haven't forgotten your—"
"If I may, Lan QiRen," interrupted Jiang Cheng. He bowed respectfully. "Seeing as ZeWu-Jun's—ignorant mistakes, not done in cruelty—were fundamentally affecting my family in terms of harm, should my opinion not matter? I think ZeWu-Jun can offer Jin Ling quite a bit of worthwhile instruction while we are here. I would like to see him end his seclusion and instruct the boy."
WangJi's mind churned. So Jiang Cheng was actually helping Wei WuXian? You do love him.
"I—suppose—" Lan QiRen clenched his fists. He cast Wei WuXian a disgusted look. "Very well, then. XiChen, your judgement was until recently impeccable. I'm going to trust you here."
"Thank you, Uncle," Lan XiChen said quietly. A bird chirped from the trees above them, a cheerful melody.
No one moved just yet.
The song stopped.
"Uncle," said Lan WangJi. His heart pounded like he was drunk. With what he was about to say, he might as well be. "Do not treat my husband like this again."
WuXian's mouth fell open. "Lan Zhan!"
Jiang Cheng stumbled back. XiChen clasped his face.
"What?" Lan QiRen's eyes bore into him.
"You've been nothing but rude to Wei WuXian since he was studying here," said Lan WangJi. "You allowed me a second chance, you're about to allow XiChen one—why won't you allow him one? What has he really done besides not worship the ground you walk on? Isn't pride forbidden in our sect's—"
WuXian was wheezing, his fingers covering his mouth. Lan WangJi heard rustling from the bushes. The juniors. Great.
Why not go the full way, then?
"I love him," WangJi said. "I will not let him suffer the same fate my mother did, alone forever with her mistakes until she died, only seeing her children once a month and my father whenever he could face her and himself. He saved her life, but what life was that? Wei Ying has another chance at life and I want it to be a good one. I want a good one for myself, too—and by good I mean righteous, too."
Lan QiRen's eyes flashed. His voice cracked. "I see you've been bitter at me since your childhood."
"No. That's not it at all." But Lan WangJi didn't know how to convince him. If he could even try. J
Jiang Cheng and XiChen looked at each other like they wanted to fly away on their swords.
"People let people down. I let you down. He let me down. I let him down. But I love him. If you believe in redemption, it should apply to all, or to no one." He tightened his grip around Bichen. His uncle glared at him like he'd stabbed him in the back.
"Lan QiRen," whispered WuXian.
"You, shut up!"
"No, I won't!" cried out WuXian. "I mean, I will after this, but—I am sorry. I am sorry I didn't listen to you, I am sorry I made you feel disrespected, I am sorry you feel I stole your nephew from the righteous path. But I assure you he does what he wants to do, and when he makes up his mind, there's no stopping him. He's stubborn, just like you." He bowed.
Bow? You're bowing? He just insulted you!
Lan QiRen trembled. Probably from rage. His gaze surged through all four of them. Lan WangJi refused to hunch a shoulder, give him anything that suggested fear. And then Lan QiRen stalked off.
"WangJi," whispered Lan XiChen.
I never had to pretend, to strive, to be enough for you, WuXian. I saw that when you kept trying to entice me to be your friend even though I made my displeasure in your conduct obvious. I never had to earn.
He glanced to Jiang Cheng. You never had to, either, and yet you're angry about it. But you do love your brother.
Thanks for reading! What will the fallout be?
Chapter 8: Sinking, Swimming, Floating
Enjoy a feel-good chapter. As always, thank you for reading!
Jiang Cheng rubbed his head. He'd spent the next few hours practicing with Sandu and wondering whether he was imagining stabbing Lan QiRen, Wei WuXian, himself, or the words Lan WangJi had said that circled around and around in his mind, pecking and gnawing like vultures.
He hauled himself to the cold spring. A bath in the cold springs would probably help him settle his mind, meditate. At the very least concentrating on how cold he was instead of the boiling rage inside of him would be a relief.
Why did he say those things?
Jiang Cheng didn't understand. Wei WuXian had—was—
A second chance.
If he deserved one, then—
Jiang Cheng stripped and dove into the pool of water. The icy sensation soothed his muscles, wrapped itself around him like a discomforting robe. He wished it could enter his skull, soothe his mind.
And then he heard a familiar giggle.
Footsteps crunched. And the giggle resounded again. Jiang Cheng shrank back against the rocks. This can't be happening.
"Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, carry me!"
Jiang Cheng almost choked on nothing but his own horror. The only thing worse than Wei WuXian coming while he was bathing was Wei WuXian bringing his husband there, because Jiang Cheng did not trust Wei WuXian not to flirt or way, way, worse in front of—
Damn it, fuck it, shit, shit shit. His clothes were on the other side of the pool. Even if he leaped out now, he wouldn't be able to robe himself and hurry away before they saw him. Jiang Cheng grimaced, jaw aching, and sank half his face below the water.
"It appears we have company," commented a voice.
Huh? Jiang Cheng lifted his face. Lan XiChen stood there with his brother and Wei WuXian. Oh, hell, thank God. Because at the very least he trusted Lan WangJi not to get terribly—personal—with his brother while his own brother was right there.
"Jiang Cheng!" Wei WuXian exclaimed. His eyes lit up, and then he dropped his gaze.
"Do you mind if we join you?" asked Lan XiChen, voice pleasant as always. Lan WangJi said nothing. His gaze lacerated Jiang Cheng.
I imagine you have even harsher words than what you said to your uncle for me. About how I don't understand nor appreciate sacrifice.
If you knew what I did, would you say them? If you knew, would you hate me even more, for condemning Wei WuXian for not telling me about giving me his golden core, when I never told him that I lost it saving him?
He was always trying to earn his place in our family. And I just made him feel like he had to earn it even more.
Jiang Cheng lifted his shoulders. "It's your home."
"We're tired from traveling so far," Wei WuXian babbled, stripping down. "And, to be honest, I've been harassing my husband and he made me promise to actually meditate but we both know it's a lie, which is why he begged Lan XiChen to come along."
Jiang Cheng was not so gross as to wonder who had the biggest—no, he was definitely watching. But it wasn't like he was a cut-sleeve. He just wanted reassurance that he was the—
Nope, Lan XiChen. He scowled.
"Ah, Lan Zhan, it's so cold!" whined Wei WuXian, clinging to Lan WangJi's neck as he lowered the both of them into the water. Wei WuXian instantly became like a mermaid, swimming around. He glanced at Jiang Cheng and then glanced away.
"Have you seen your uncle?" Jiang Cheng asked Lan XiChen.
He shook his head. "He is meditating." He studied his fingers, opening them and allowing the water on the surface to flow between them.
"I meant what I said," Lan WangJi said, voice icier than the water.
"So did I," Jiang Cheng countered. His heart thumped, and in spite of the cold, his fingers and toes felt warm, too warm, bloated even. "Lan XiChen would be a good teacher for Jin Ling, considering the boy's planning another night hunt for tonight."
"Is he?" asked Lan XiChen. "But I didn't even know."
"Yes, well, he doesn't listen to any concerns, so maybe you could help with that."
"Like me, I think he's hopeless," Wei WuXian opined.
"No one asked you," Jiang Cheng snapped.
Lan WangJi's face frosted over. He stood, water dripping off him.
"I didn't mean that," Jiang Cheng cut in quickly. Now his face was burning and he could feel Lan XiChen's eyes on him. "I only meant—"
"You meant it," Wei WuXian said. "I know I don't know him like you do. You raised him, and the reason you had to raise him was my fault."
Jiang Cheng gritted his teeth. Now he felt worse. "Can you stop doing that, for fuck's sake?"
The Lan brothers cringed at the swear.
"Huh?" Wei WuXian blinked.
"Your martyr complex. You believe it. Yes, I raised him. Yes, it was your fault—partially. And yet he likes you. He respects you. He—"
"You're jealous?" demanded Lan WangJi.
"That's not what I said!" Now he felt like frigid hands rose up to strangle him. He sank lower in the water. "Oh, forget it."
"No," said a soft voice. Lan XiChen's. "What were you going to say? Young Master Wei—forgive me, WuXian—isn't careful with his words, so why should you need to be even more careful? What were you going to say?"
I need to beat him even in that.
No, that wasn't it at all. "I don't—want to see you doing that. I don't want to see you suffering—"
"Because you can't bear that he's better—" Lan WangJi started, his voice like fire now, a flaming sword cutting and burning.
"WangJi," interrupted Wei WuXian. He watched Jiang Cheng, his eyes softer than normal.
Shit. The words stuck to his throat, painful to peel away. They left him bleeding, salt and bitterness dribbling down his throat, but he meant them, he meant them with every bit of spiritual energy he had. "I don't want to see you hurting yourself."
You don't have to flog yourself to atone. Constantly. Flogging yourself for my father adopting you. His eyes landed on Lan WangJi's scarred body. Jiang Cheng's hand drifted up to the scar on his own chest, the one fucking Wen Chao had slashed him with, laughing all the while. "Let this shame the useless runt."
This mark was for you, Wei WuXian.
He could not tell Wei WuXian, because Jiang Cheng didn't want his brother to hurt himself even more for it.
When he heard Wei WuXian was torn apart, he felt no relief. He just hoped he wouldn't come back. And he'd laughed. Of course you tore yourself apart in the end.
"I didn't want to see you hurt yourself, either," Wei WuXian whispered.
Jiang Cheng hung his head. His hair fell loose, covering his eyes. I know.
And yet you did hurt me. YanLi, our parents—
They hurt me too. Our parents. You knew that, right? Because they hurt you, too.
Something too hot ran down his cheek. Fuck, fuck—he did not want to cry—not in front of the Lan brothers again—
A splash. Now cold splattered his face.
"Whoops," said Wei WuXian, blinking innocently.
Jiang Cheng glowered up at him. You're helping me disguise it.
I'm not letting you be rude alone.
He kicked water up at Wei WuXian, who yelped. And then a grin slid across his face. This was how they used to spend summers at Lotus Pier, splashing each other, getting into fights. One time they even got YanLi to join in, and she won because they let her, and then she pushed them in for letting her win.
Wei WuXian threw more water at him. Lan WangJi stared, as if he didn't comprehend the point of a splash fight and was watching his most holy place be desecrated. Which he was.
Wei WuXian leaped behind Lan WangJi. "Lan Zhan! Protect me!"
Jiang Cheng hesitated. If he—
Water cascaded over the two husbands. Lan XiChen treaded water beside them. He winked at Jiang Cheng.
"Traitor!" cried out Wei WuXian.
Lan XiChen lifted his shoulders as if to say, wasn't me. And then he sent more water splashing at his brother. Lan WangJi's mouth fell open, and for the second time in his life, Jiang Cheng heard Lan WangJi laugh.
"WangJi, I'm going to drown your brother," declared Wei WuXian. "Okay?"
"Mnn." Lan WangJi swam aside.
The four of them shrieked and splashed like they were children again. The waters were so much colder than Lotus Pier, but swimming, his legs and arms focusing on keeping him upright, Jiang Cheng almost forgot it. Two against two was an even match.
Your husband is good for you, brother.
When they finally hauled themselves out of the water, they were all smiling, all four of them. Their teeth clacked from the sudden temperature of the air, and the laughter bubbling out of them.
It feels good to smile.
Until he heard Wei WuXian letting out a whimper.
Jiang Cheng spun around, his pants on but his tunic still in his hands. Lan QiRen gaped at them.
Wei WuXian's shoulders shook from repressing his laughter. Jiang Cheng's face burned.
"XiChen, you may leave your seclusion," Lan QiRen stated. Each word came chipped. "Do not make me regret it."
"I won't, Uncle," Lan XiChen insisted.
And when Lan QiRen had left, the first person who laughed at the absurdity of what poor Lan QiRen must have seen was Lan XiChen.
"Hey Wen Ning, Wei WuXian's back. You should visit him," Jin Ling said, landing with a thump onto the soft grass. Apparently locals were complaining about some walking corpses in a forest nearby. He hadn't brought Fairy this time, which he sincerely hoped Jiang Cheng did not discover. But Fairy seemed like she wanted to sleep.
"How is he?" asked Wen Ning.
"He didn't find any information on who's trying to kill Jin Ling," reported JingYi. "Shame, since I'd like to be hunting them instead."
Jin Ling scowled. "It's been over a week and nothing has happened since the fire incident." Maybe they had given up.
"If they're willing to go so far as to kill in the first place, I doubt they're the type to give up easily," SiZhui told him when Jin Ling suggested that.
Wen Ning's face darkened. "Or they're biding their time."
Jin Ling scowled. With the upcoming Discussion Conference, whoever was there would surely show. He knew that. And if they hadn't given up—
I can't have Jiang Cheng or Wei WuXian protect me so obviously. I have to be strong. I'm the leader of a sect!
I'll be vulnerable.
But if they had given up, he wouldn't necessarily care if they were found or not. Jin GuangYao had done so many wicked things. Of course people hated him. But I'm not like him. Let me prove it!
Night hunting success would be a start. Jin Ling tossed his ponytail. "Let's go."
Wen Ning looked as if he was about to lecture Jin Ling some more, but he suddenly couldn't. His eyes turned to SiZhui.
"The silencing spell works on corpses?" questioned Jin Ling.
SiZhui rubbed the back of his neck. "Apparently. I'm sorry, Wen Ning, I just—he needs to concentrate now, and—"
Wen Ning looked positively terrifying. Resentful energy spilled from him. "See you!" Jin Ling blurted out, grabbing SiZhui's arm and dragging him through the trees. JingYi split off with Wen Ning again.
JingYi had said he didn't hear anything that would make him suspicious of Jin Chan or the other boys, but he couldn't know for sure. They did seem to believe Jin Ling deserved it, though, for his attitude.
Which… Jin Ling's heart grew heavy in his chest. He gulped. "Hunting with Wen Ning isn't going to help, is it? At the Discussion Conference. My reputation."
SiZhui was quiet. "No," he finally admitted.
The word lashed Jin Ling. "I don't care," he declared. "I don't. Let them—I'm not going to do what everyone thinks is right instead of what's actually right. That's what Jin GuangYao did. I don't care. I don't care about how close I am with Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi and I don't care about Wen Ning being like a—a big brother at this point. Fuck them if they care." He kicked a stone into a tree. "Does that make me a bad leader?"
"I don't know," whispered SiZhui.
"Say something more than that. Tell me what you really think." He whirled around. "I want your opinion, SiZhui."
I trust you.
SiZhui swallowed. "I think—no. To some maybe, leaders should take the wishes of their people, but—if they all want the wrong thing—like Lan WangJi stood against everyone in Koi Tower, and in that cave, for Wei WuXian, because they wanted to attack—well, he didn't even know if it was the wrong person exactly, some of them were justified in their hate. You can't even make everyone happy so—do what you think is right."
Jin Ling snorted, but he mulled the words over. "Is that what it mean to be righteous?"
SiZhui lifted his shoulders. "I suppose."
"You 'suppose.' And still you're the best person I know," Jin Ling said. SiZhui almost stumbled over a root. Jin Ling's arm shot out to catch SiZhui's arm. "SiZhui, they won't say anything if you're with me. You're an equal in their eyes, but—let's be honest and never repeat this especially not to JingYi—you're a stronger cultivator than me. I can't have Jiang Cheng protecting me, I can't have Wei WuXian—so you stay with me and protect me." His heart hammered in his chest. They stopped between two trees, silver moonlight drifting down on them from above, setting SiZhui's onyx hair aglow. "Please?"
I'm scared. I want it to be over.
If I die, I'm a bad leader, right?
It's all so confusing.
SiZhui's face whitened. "But we're not from the same clan."
"We can be brothers," Jin Ling blurted out. "You and me. Just like—like Chifeng-Zun, ZeWu-Jun, and LianFang-Zun were. Except, you know, without the murder. JingYi's not mature enough to sit with me yet and be respected, but you could—you have a good reputation, SiZhui."
SiZhui's hair ribbon fluttered through the breeze, its ends tapping Jin Ling's face. He waited, throat aching. Please.
"I can't be your sworn brother," whispered SiZhui.
Jin Ling's chest clenched. Numbness overtook him. I'm not enough, again.
He stared at SiZhui. I really didn't expect that. A creeping sensation replaced the numbness, trembling as it eked its way into his arms and legs. He lowered his head. "I'm—sorry."
"No!" cried out SiZhui. "No, no, Jin Ling—it's not because of—it's not because of you, or anything, I—"
"I just meant that—"
"It's me!" SiZhui insisted, grasping Jin Ling's shoulders so that he would look into his eyes and see that they were misting over. "It's me, okay? It doesn't have to do with you. I just—don't want to bring shame to you, or—"
Jin Ling didn't follow. "You mean because of what Jin Chan said? Who gives a rat's—"
"He's right," SiZhui said.
Jin Ling blinked. "About what?"
SiZhui's face twisted in anguish. He let of of Jin Ling, stumbling back. "What he said," he repeated, meeting Jin Ling's eyes. "He's right about that—for me." And then he ripped his eyes away from Jin Ling, turning away and shuddering.
About—what he said—
Wait, what? "You're a cut-sleeve?"
Leaves rustled above them. SiZhui wrapped his arms around himself. He still couldn't look at Jin Ling.
"You're a—" Jin Ling tried to fit the pieces together. "For—me?"
SiZhui gave an almost imperceptible nod. "I cannot be your brother not because I don't like you, but because I—like you too much." He squeezed his sides. "I'm sorry, Jin Ling. I really am. I'm—"
Jin Ling was still reeling. "Does—anyone know?" SiZhui was like Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi's son, maybe that was—no, it wasn't blood—how—
"JingYi," SiZhui said softly. "That's it. I'm—sorry. I'm—I never meant to make you uncomfortable—but after what you said about—doing the right thing no matter what—you had the right to know." He bowed his head. His shoulders trembled.
"You like me." Jin Ling said it aloud. SiZhui squeezed his eyes shut. "Romantically? Like, kissing and all that?"
Even in the moonlight he could see SiZhui's face turning red. "I'm sorry."
"Stop saying that," Jin Ling snapped, and SiZhui stiffened. He made a snuffling noise. "No, no, not like that—I didn't mean—you don't have to apologize, it's—not wrong, right? HanGuang-Jun married my uncle. Why do you have to act like it's—"
He remembered the blood pumping through him when he saw SiZhui in the cold spring, the way SiZhui smiled, and how Jiang Cheng had never caught Jin Ling with a pornographic book because, well, he wasn't interested. He always thought he'd be more interested when he'd established himself in the cultivation world a little more.
What if I don't like women?
"Because you've always been disgusted—"
"I asked you to be my brother," Jin Ling cut in. "Because I wanted to rely on you the rest of my life, SiZhui. Because I know I could."
Jin Ling stomped his foot. "Stop apologizing! I don't know how to do this!" He clutched his hair, wanting to rip it out of his scalp.
I might like you I don't know but you—you like me—I've earned your—even though I'm weak and bitter and you know I'm angry all the time and disgusted but—
"SiZhui," said Jin Ling. "Look at me."
SiZhui tilted his gaze up. Tears ran in two neat paths down his cheeks, dripping off his chin. How was he neat and orderly even when he cried? Jin Ling usually had snot and tears mingling in smears all over his face.
Jin Ling's fingers went out. He brushed them, messing the wet tracks up. SiZhui flinched. "That's not—helping, Jin Ling."
"Can't you see I'm not disgusted, idiot?" snapped Jin Ling. "I don't know how else to tell you!"
"You're not?" A note of hope filtered into SiZhui's voice. "You're really—not?"
"Of course not. You like me even though you thought I'd hate you so—why wouldn't I like you even though—" He rubbed his fingertips, moist with SiZhui's tears, together.
The corners of SiZhui's lips lifted. His eyes sparkled.
You trust me.
You believe me, instantly.
When I think of someone I want to night hunt with the rest of my life, it's you. He remembered Wei WuXian's confession in the temple. Well, fuck it, he couldn't say half of those things because they didn't make sense or were too awkward—but—didn't HanGuang-Jun—
He stepped closer. And he stood even to SiZhui, grasping the boy's shoulders and pulling him closer. He squeezed his eyes shut. His lips met something soft. No, not soft enough. That was a nose. He lowered them, tilting his head to brush SiZhui's lips.
"What—" SiZhui managed, pushing him back. "What—are you—"
Jin Ling met his gaze. "I wanted to kiss you. I like you enough to want to kiss you." He thought of another line from Wei WuXian's speech. "It can't be anyone else but you. I'm also stealing that line from my uncle, but—"
"You?" whispered SiZhui.
Jin Ling nodded.
SiZhui's eyes looked like they were about to float out of his head. "You like me?"
Jin Ling nodded again.
SiZhui threw his arms around him, holding him tight. He lifted his head up, and their lips met again, and Jin Ling felt something shiver its way down his spine, something that set his nerves tingling and calming all at once. He opened his mouth, allowing SiZhui to press deeper. And his hands dug through SiZhui's silken hair, clutching the hair ribbon.
You inspire me.
"Well, well," intoned a voice that sounded so much like Jiang Cheng Jin Ling shrieked, leaping back. SiZhui gasped. His lips were swollen.
JingYi smirked at them. Wen Ning stood behind him. "We caught three corpses each. You... caught each other?"
"We still win," retorted Jin Ling. His gaze caught Wen Ning's. Not a word.
Wen Ning nodded.
"You seem happy," Jiang Cheng remarked.
Jin Ling stiffened. Dammit. He did not want his uncle to know that he'd been snogging SiZhui. Fairy barked, looking as if she was smiling too. Stupid spiritual dog! "The night hunt went well."
Jiang Cheng's lips pressed together. "That's all you can say? 'It went well?'"
Jin Ling gulped. His palms were sweating. "What do you want to know? It was just—corpses and stuff. Nothing exciting to talk about." He pushed past his uncle. "Come on, Fairy."
He expected Jiang Cheng to yell after him, threaten to break his legs for being disrespectful, but he didn't, and Jin Ling almost wished he had.
He stepped into the sunlight flooding the Cloud Recesses. His fingers rose to his lips, tracing the soft skin. A smile broke through. I kissed SiZhui.
And I like kissing him. And he likes me. Jin Ling wrapped his arms around himself, repressing the urge to jump up and down in excitement. He tilted his face back, feeling the golden warmth press against his cheekbones. He wondered what his mother, what his father, would say if they were alive.
Judging from everything Wei WuXian and Jiang Cheng said about Jiang YanLi, she'd make lotus soup for SiZhui and welcome him with open arms. His father? Well, Jin Ling had heard the words "princess" and "peacock" thrown around. Along with phrases like "like father, like son."
Would you be ashamed of me?
Would I find you annoying? I wish I had the chance to know.
I miss you, Daddy, Mommy. His hand closed over the sword he carried at his side, his father's sword. Do I have the right to miss you? I don't even remember you.
But I do miss you.
"Do you miss your family, SiZhui?" he asked a few nights later, when they were sitting outside in the dusk, watching rabbits hop around and sniff their feet, noses wiggling. Fairy was even letting the bunnies climb all over her, the dog flopped over as if she only cared about becoming one with the soft grass. "I know you don't remember them, but—"
"I remember—some things," SiZhui said, running his fingers through the rock they sat on. "Not my parents. My granny, though."
"But do you miss your parents anyways?" Jin Ling asked, leaning back against SiZhui. So what if they were outside? They sat on a granite boulder secluded by trees. Interlocking branches formed a verdant ceiling. A few holes revealed a mauve sky, and the first few twinkles of starlight.
"Yes," SiZhui admitted, voice small. "I wish—I wish I remembered what they looked like."
"Me too," Jin Ling said. SiZhui rubbed his shoulder. "I kept thinking of what they'd think of you. I mean they'd love you, but—like—"
SiZhui let out a little laugh. Jin Ling liked the sound of it. It was like the gentle bubbling of a stream. His muscles relaxed, and he closed his eyes.
"I heard once I looked like my father," SiZhui added.
"That's cool." Jin Ling opened his eyes, looking up into SiZhui's face. "Must've been good-looking, then."
SiZhui laughed again. Jin Ling felt warm. "Since when are you so good at flirting?"
I am? "I don't know. You're the one who hangs out with Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi like they're your parents. They pretty much are, I guess. I'd think you'd be better."
SiZhui wrinkled his nose. "Their flirting is more like—well—" His face turned bright red.
"Ooh," cooed Jin Ling. "Like what?"
"Just—a lot of affection and promises to—and then they lower their voices so I can't hear but sometimes I still can and I want to scrub out my ears."
Jin Ling cackled.
SiZhui grinned. "It's good to see them happy, though," he concluded. "HanGuang-Jun was always so—careful with me, and caring, but he never smiled, and now—"
"Yeah, yeah. I'm happy for them, too." Jin Ling reached up. "Kiss me."
"I want to get better at it."
SiZhui giggled, but he leaned down. Jin Ling pulled him lower so SiZhui hovered over him, lips closing over Jin Ling's. He liked this. He didn't have to prove himself. A rough edge of the boulder jabbed into the back of his skull, but Jin Ling didn't care. He just cared that SiZhui's arms held him, squeezed him tightly, that he almost couldn't tell what was his mouth and what was SiZhui's. SiZhui's lips drifted from his mouth and Jin Ling was about to protest when he felt them on his neck, and—ah—he liked that, the pressure there.
"I've seen these marks on their necks," admitted SiZhui, fingers tracing the nape of Jin Ling's neck.
"Good," said Jin Ling. "Then can I give you one?"
SiZhui nodded, sitting back. Jin Ling pulled himself up, pressing into SiZhui's neck, the same spot, right under his pulse, fingers digging into SiZhui's shoulder, nipping with his teeth. "There." A red splotch marred SiZhui's neck. He tugged at SiZhui's hair. "Hair will cover it from prying eyes. Namely, your parents and my uncle."
SiZhui nodded. His face suddenly paled.
"What?" asked Jin Ling.
"No, no, not at all," SiZhui said. He clenched his fists. "Jin Ling, I need to tell you something."
Jin Ling frowned. "What—"
"The person who told me I look like my father told me I looked like his cousin and it's Wen Ning, the one who told me, not the cousin I mean, that's my dad." SiZhui blurted it all out at once.
Jin Ling blinked. "What?"
"I'm not a Lan. I mean. I am now. But—they renamed me—I was rescued from the camp where Wen Ning—with my grandmother—they took me to the Burial Mounds, that's where I remember a few things about Wei WuXian, and the corpse who came at me when we were trapped in the cave there was probably my grandmother; I wish I remembered her face without all the blood—"
"What?" Jin Ling eked out. He tried to follow SiZhui's shaking voice. "You're—a Wen?"
"The Wen-dogs killed your grandmother and grandfather, who died protecting Weu WuXian, and then he protected them anyways." Jiang Cheng's eyes sparked with fury whenever the Wens came up."They're vermin, and the earth is better without them."
SiZhui nodded. "HanGuang-Jun found me after—I'd hid in a tree and had a fever; I didn't remember anything until—last year, and I—" He stopped, curling his fists. "Can you—are you angry?"
I've been kissing a Wen?
My uncle's gonna be pissed.
Your family killed mine, and mine killed yours?
I'm friends with Wen Ning! I love Wei WuXian! Why would you think that I'd even be—
"Why didn't you tell me?" Jin Ling demanded. "Do you think I'm some kind of stupid—" Did you think I was like Jiang Cheng? That I would hate you for that? Do you really think so little of me? Do you think I'm—
"I'm sorry!" SiZhui scrambled back. "I didn't mean to—I should have told you earlier—"
Jin Ling's jaw dropped. "I'm not—it doesn't have to do with—"
"I'll go now—"
"Wait—that's not it at all!" Jin Ling shrieked, but SiZhui was already rushing away. Are you really so embarrassed about being a Wen? Why would you think I'd care?
A heavy realization pressed into his shoulders. I just fucked up.
"Sit down," ordered WangJi after Wei WuXian had been trying to dig a tangle out of his hair for the past twenty minutes. WangJi grabbed a comb and a jar of oil.
"Oil? We'll have to use a tub later," teased Wei WuXian. "And you can tie me up with your hair ribbon."
"Mnn." WangJi tugged at Wei WuXian's hair, but it didn't hurt. He was gentle. Wei WuXian liked his touch on his scalp. It set his entire body on fire.
"How are preparations for the conference?"
"It's keeping Uncle busy," WangJi said.
"Have you talked since?"
Wei WuXian swallowed. He felt WangJi's hand squeeze his shoulder and knew. I shouldn't blame myself.
It's so hard to break out of this habit.
Everyone always told him he was so powerful, so talented. Did I think I controlled the world?
You've made your own choices. And you chose me. He sighed. "Jiang Cheng seems to be warming up."
"It's hard to have that final conversation, though. I don't know when he'll want to. I feel like I shouldn't press. Either way, I'm the one more in the wrong—"
"He helped kill you," WangJi pointed out.
"I caused Jin ZiXuan and Shijie's deaths."
"What?" Wei WuXian twisted to glance into his husband's face. "What're you thinking? Tell me."
WangJi sighed. "Caused being the key word. You are responsible for ZiXuan's, but not for YanLi's. She did not give her life for the two people she loved most in the world after her husband and son to spend their lives hating each other. Respect her choice." He released Wei WuXian's hair. "All done."
Wei WuXian brightened. "That's true." His fingers pulled through his hair, free now. "Thanks."
Respect her choice.
But it killed her.
Was this how you felt when I—
A knock came at th door to the jingshi. Wei WuXian glanced over his shoulder again. WangJi's brow creased. They weren't expecting anyone.
"Hello?" Wei WuXian called. "Who's there?"
WangJi rose, heading for the door. No one answered. He cracked it open. And then he flung it wide. "Jin Ling?"
Wei WuXian had seldom heard such alarm in WangJi's voice. He peered over.
But it wasn't Jin Ling. SiZhui stood there, tears streaming down his face. He opened his mouth, and all that came out was a croak. He shook his head.
"Did someone hurt you? Or him?" Wei WuXian was already on his feet. He'd tear whoever it was—
SiZhui shook his head. WangJi tugged the boy inside. His shoulders shook, but no more sounds emerged. Wei WuXian grabbed SiZhui, tugging him over to a mat and forcing him to sit. SiZhui hung his head, tugging all his hair to cover one side of his neck. Wei WuXian put his hand on his shoulder, and the boy leaned against him, crying.
WangJi looked helpless, desperate. He began to make tea, glancing over at SiZhui with his mouth half-open. When it was done, he set the teacups down in front of them, setting on SiZhui's other side, and gingerly stretched an arm out to hold the boy, too.
"SiZhui," Wei WuXian said when his sobs finally stopped shuddering. "What happened?"
SiZhui pulled back, wiping at his face with his sleeves. "I just—messed up and I—"
"You broke a rule? You?" Wei WuXian gaped. "What did you do?"
"No—not that—" SiZhui covered his mouth. "I just—"
"You do not have to talk about it," said WangJi.
Wei WuXian narrowed his eyes, but SiZhui nodded.
You just need someone to cry to right now.
SiZhui gulped the tea. "Do you—think I'm a bad person?"
"What?" Wei WuXian demanded as WangJi's eyebrows drew together. "Who—"
"No one. I was just wondering."
"Lying is against the rules—" Wei WuXian started, but WangJi shook his head. Okay, fine. "What made you ask that?"
"I'm a Wen, so—" SiZhui twisted his hands. "Can I ever—will people always think—"
"No one knows," said WangJi. "And if they did, and they judged you on the basis of your name—"
"They judged LianFang-Zun on the basis of his mother being a prostitute. Sect leaders are based on blood. Why—"
"Well, it's stupid," said Wei WuXian. "If half the people hadn't judged Jin GuangYao on that, maybe he wouldn't have lost himself to an insatiable need to prove himself." And earn Jin GuanShan's love.
He never could.
"He's right," said WangJi. "It is… dumb."
"If people do turn on you for that and not on the conduct of your character," said Wei WuXian. "I can always kill them. I'm joking. But you should know that no matter what, WangJi and I are—"
We love you.
You really might as well be our son.
"A-Yuan," he said, calling the boy by his childhood name. "You don't even have to be perfect. WangJi still loves me and I, well, you know how much I fucked up."
"Could you not swear?" hissed WangJi.
"It's hard." Wei WuXian stuck his tongue out at his husband. SiZhui let out a small laugh. Success.
WangJi rubbed SiZhui's back. The boy sniffled again. "He is right though. His words are just—unconventional."
He needed a goddamned flute, and when he found one, he needed flute lessons. Jin Ling glared at the white jade flute in his hands. How do I summon Wen Ning?
He'd gone to SiZhui's room, but JingYi said he wasn't there, and he couldn't find him, and there was no chance in hell he was going to Jiang Cheng or Wei WuXian. Not for this. How did you misunderstand so badly? How did I give you that impression?
Okay, he had an idea of how he'd given that impression. Turns out you couldn't kiss away a past of being a brat. I'm a bad person.
The flute notes sounded horrid. Jin Ling slammed it onto the rock. It chipped. He gaped. "Oh, come on!"
"You rang?" came a voice from behind him.
Jin Ling spun around. "Wen Ning!" You came; you really came! He launched himself at the fierce corpse, grabbing him in an embrace.
Wen Ning stumbled slightly. "Jin Ling?" His voice wavered.
Jin Ling couldn't hold it back. His eyes burned. "I thought you weren't going to come." He pulled back, gulping. He wondered how long it'd been since Wen Ning had any kind of embrace.
Wen Ning still looked stunned. "I—are you all right? I'd always come—" He didn't know what to say. He was so awkward.
"I hurt your cousin," Jin Ling managed. "And I don't know how to make it better."
"My—" Wen Ning lowered his chin. "I see. He told you."
Jin Ling nodded. "And he acted like—he thought I hated him—and I was more mad that he didn't tell me sooner, not at that!" He curled his fists. "I don't care. I love you, and I love him—it doesn't matter to me!"
Wen Ning's mouth hung open.
"But I didn't tell him that—I had to make it about me." Jin Ling pounded his fist on his thigh. Wen Ning moved to stop him, but he held himself back, muscles clenching. "What if—why didn't he tell me—did he think it was because I would look down on him? And then I did, but not for that, and it's all—" He clutched his hair.
"Why did you summon me?" whispered Wen Ning.
Jin Ling lifted his tear-streaked face. Because I don't want to lose him. "I… don't know how to apologize."
Wen Ning's mouth hovered open. "What?"
"I don't know how to apologize," Jin Ling repeated. "In a way that shows I mean it. And—you do."
Wen Ning reached for Jin Ling. His hand, cold, landed on Jin Ling's shoulder, but it was still comforting. "You simply say 'I'm sorry.'" He frowned. "But I did not say it to you."
"You didn't need to," Jin Ling said, sniffling. "You almost died for me. I mean. Well. You couldn't die. You know what I mean."
Wen Ning looked as if he wanted to smile. "In your case, words wouldn't suffice. But in this case, it was words that messed up, so words can help. And actions. I think Wen Yuan wouldn't have been so upset if he wasn't afraid of himself, anyways."
Jin Ling frowned. "SiZhui's not afraid." Wen Yuan…
He liked how it sounded.
"I think he is," Wen Ning said softly. "I used to think I was the only—fearful one, and it made me weak, and then I realized everyone is afraid, but it comes out differently." He met Jin Ling's gaze. "SiZhui loves you. I know he does. Tell him you are sorry. Thank him for trusting you. Thank you, and I'm sorry. Those were the words my sister used to always say every person—"
"Has to say two cringe-worthy phrases in their lifetime?" Jin Ling interrupted, heart thudding. "Wei WuXian said that to me once."
Wen Ning nodded.
Jin Ling hesitated, and then put his arms around Wen Ning again. "Thank you. And I'm sorry."
I'm sorry they did this to you. You never deserved to die in that camp, to be treated as if you were less than human. Neither did SiZhui, even if he doesn't remember the worst of it. He had no idea what the camps were like, but he knew enough of what happened to the people Jiang Cheng thought were Wei WuXian and tortured to find out the truth. He knew enough what happened when someone wasn't considered a person.
That's why you did this, isn't it, Jin GuangYao?
You were a person to me.
You were my uncle.
You were never a bastard or a prostitute's son. Or rather, you were, but I still loved you. Why were you so lost?
"I'm sorry," whispered Wen Ning. "And thank you."
Jin Ling snuck back into the Cloud Recesses with his jade token, leaving the broken flute. Oh well. He'd wait until morning to find SiZhui. No, he wouldn't. He had a decent idea where SiZhui might be and knocked on the door to HanGuang-Jun's jingshi.
"Yes?" moaned Wei WuXian, opening it.
"Hi," said Jin Ling.
"Did someone try to kill—"
"No," snapped Jin Ling. "I'm looking for SiZhui. I said something earlier and he misunderstood and I wanted to tell him I was sorry."
Wei WuXian blinked. "He's asleep. I can wake—"
"No," interrupted Jin Ling, shoulders slumping. "I'll… talk to him in the morning." He wondered whether Wei WuXian had any notion of what the relationship between them actually was. "Good night."
Wei WuXian stepped outside. "I'm proud of you, Jin Ling."
He frowned. "You are? Huh? What even for?" He resisted the urge to beg him to say it again. So few people said it. He could always do better, be better, but here Wei WuXian was saying—
Wei WuXian nodded. "You are more mature than I was at your age."
"That isn't a high bar," retorted Jin Ling.
Wei WuXian laughed. "True."
Jin Ling hesitated.
"Do you think I can be a good leader?" Jin Ling looked up into his uncle's face—the body of one uncle, the spirit of another. "I—haven't always—I know people don't like me. I haven't given them much reason to. I was mean to Mo XuanYu, even, and now who even knows if he harassed Jin GuangYao or just really liked him and knew too much. But I—" And I called him a cut-sleeve. Now I'm one, too.
"You will be," Wei WuXian said immediately, grasping Jin Ling by his shoulders.
Confidence rose. Jin Ling beamed. I will? "I—want to make my dad proud. He never got the chance to lead, but—" Could I make him proud?
"He'd have been a good leader," Wei WuXian said. "Well, once he got over himself, which he did. He was—" He stopped, and anguish passed through his face.
"Do you want to say you're sorry?" prompted Jin Ling.
Wei WuXian nodded. "I am. I never meant to—he came to help me, trying to mend family rifts. He was a little princess just like you when he was younger, he couldn't articulate his feelings, he said your mother was boring and I got booted from the Cloud Recesses after he told me he didn't like her and said I ought to ask Jiang FengMian to marry her myself if I thought she was so great, and that he treated me better than his own son anyways."
He what? Jin Ling gaped. Dad? No—you—
I'm annoyed with you! He fought the urge to stomp his foot.
"Jiang Cheng's been through a lot," Wei WuXian said. "But your father—sit down, Jin Ling. I want to tell your a story about soup, and battles, and mistaken identity, and a hunt in which your father wound up having to scream in front of everyone that he liked her, and then he still had only hurt her."
"What?" Jin Ling sank down next to Wei WuXian, who told the story of his parents' romance.
"He really did love her."
"Wow," Jin Ling said. "I—never knew that. Not most of it. Uncle Jiang told me the basics about the broken engagement, and that they loved each other, but not the details."
"No one wants to speak ill of the dead."
Why's that considered ill? It's true. "Hearing that makes them feel more alive, though. More like I know them." Jin Ling pulled his knees against his chest. Dad and I would have liked each other. I'm sure of it.
"They adored you," said Wei WuXian. "Just from their personalities, I know they adored you. Even if you were the worst person alive, they'd love you. Your mother saved me when I was one of the worst people..."
Jin Ling closed his eyes. He felt arms around him, carrying him someplace soft like clouds, and he thought he could hear the laugh of a girl across lotus-filled waters, and the chortles of a man holding a peony, trying desperately to impress her, and when they saw him, they smiled.
Thanks for reading!!!
Lan WangJi woke at five in the morning like he always did. Lilac and rose light filtered in through the windows. WuXian snored lightly next to him, one arm stretched across Lan WangJi's chest. His other hand was hooked around Lan WangJi's shirt, clutching it like it was his lifeline. As expected.
WangJi peered over to see two lumps on the floor. SiZhui they'd invited to stay after the boy finished crying. He was supposed to stay in the other room, but Wei WuXian had dragged blankets over to the floor, insisting SiZhui could sleep there for the night, and WangJi hadn't minded. He couldn't help but wonder if this was what it would be like to grow up in a family that loved each other, two parents and a child.
From the looks of it, Jin Ling was curled up on the floor too, wrapped in another blanket like a caterpillar cocooning itself. WangJi rubbed his eyes. When did Jin Ling get there?
SiZhui was sitting up too thanks to the Lan internal clock, disoriented and taking in his surroundings. His eyes were still swollen and bloodshot, but they widened when they saw Jin Ling.
Lan WangJi's eyes narrowed. What was that bluish mark on SiZhui's neck?
The boy quickly tugged his hair forward to cover it.
Lan WangJi felt dumbfounded. He had no idea how to handle this, but the pieces were definitely starting to fit together and he preferred it when they made no sense. His head ached. Well, he didn't want SiZhui to feel alone... but still.
SiZhui got to his feet.
WangJi tried to pull out something to say, anything. Could he—tell WuXian, or—how to approach this—
"Mmph?" asked Jin Ling as the floorboards creaked under SiZhui's feet. "Oh!" He sat bolt upright, blinking rapidly.
"Mrrrrrrrrr," moaned WuXian, clamping his fists over his ears. Lan WangJi gripped WuXian's wrists, removing them. "Mm?"
"Wei WuXian let me in," Jin Ling blurted out, staring at SiZhui. "I went to talk to him last night, after talking to—Wen Ning."
At the sound of his name, WuXian sat up with Lan WangJi's help. "Huh?" He yawned. His hair flopped over half his face. "Is it even morning yet?"
"For us," replied WangJi.
"So, no." WuXian rubbed his eyes.
"I'm sorry," Jin Ling insisted. "I didn't meant to—say that. Like that. SiZhui. I'm really sorry." He bowed his head, chin tucking in towards his neck.
Well. Lan WangJi nodded. So the boy was growing, just like his uncle had. And like his other uncle was hopefully doing. Maybe Lan WangJi wouldn't entirely disapprove.
SiZhui gulped, nodding. "I know—I—overreacted. I'm sorry too, Jin Ling."
Jin Ling grabbed him in a hug. "Thank you."
SiZhui let out a little laugh.
"Why's it so early?" mumbled WuXian.
Lan WangJi was asking himself the same question, but for another reason. Our son has feelings for Jin Ling. And Jin Ling has feelings for him.
Is it a good match? Lan WangJi stroked his chin. If it went wrong, it'd be messy for sure. And if Lan QiRen found out—but they were still teenagers, kids really, they surely weren't getting too ahead of themselves. He'd hidden the pornographic material in the library; SiZhui couldn't have found it.
JingYi could have.
He pressed his lips together.
"I better go find Fairy," Jin Ling muttered. SiZhui nodded, trotting after him.
"Why're you frowning?" asked WuXian, clutching WangJi's shoulder. "It looks like you're solving some sort of complex ethical dilemma." He closed his eyes. "I'm glad they're getting along again."
"Me too," said Lan WangJi. He would talk about it with WuXian after the Discussion Conference. And then they could talk to SiZhui. Because it wouldn't be easy for either of them if they planned to continue—Jin Ling being a sect leader, SiZhui being a Wen by blood. But they'd clearly made it through some sort of argument.
Uncle will think we corrupted them.
We did not. Lan WangJi settled down next to WuXian, pulling him against his chest and breathing in his scent as WuXian drifted back to sleep, stroking his hair.
I never thought I'd be allowed to have this. You, in my arms. Happiness. Marriage.
SiZhui, if you want it, it'll be complicated, but you can have it. I'll make sure of that.
He helped his uncle with the preparations later that day, while Jiang Cheng and XiChen taught the students. WuXian tried to help out, too, but Uncle wasn't particularly welcoming. He was barely grunting in response to anything Lan WangJi said.
"Uncle," Lan WangJi finally tried. I worked so hard for your approval.
I always had it, and I was insatiable. I wanted more.
I wanted to prove to you I was not my parents.
But I love him.
Lan QiRen ignored him, discussing seating arrangements with another disciple. Something hot stabbed into Lan WangJi's fingertips. Please, Uncle.
Even you are afraid of being ignored?
I am, I am.
All the students had been afraid of him, but not Wei WuXian. No matter what he did, WuXian treated him like a friend.
You deserved better than my cold treatment. Though now there was a balance. WuXian was the fire that warmed him, and he was the rain that soothed the fires that scorched too hot.
"Lan QiRen," interrupted Wei WuXian. "Your nephew was talking to you."
No! Lan WangJi cringed. "Wei Ying—"
"I don't care how you treat me, Lan QiRen," Wei WuXian finally burst out. "I don't, I don't, but I do care about how you treat him! You're the only father he's ever known! You—he—I know people are going to hate me forever! I've always known that, since my parents died! And I know what he's taking on by marrying me: I know there's a cost. But you—you who claim to love him—not from you! Belittle me, scorn me, laugh at me—well, you don't laugh—ignore me, whatever. I don't care. But don't ignore him!"
Lan QiRen gaped at him. The other disciples scuttled around.
"He's not your brother," added WuXian, chest heaving. "You loved your brother? Or did you hate him?"
"How dare you—of course I loved—"
"You lost him because of you," WuXian informed him. "You failed him. He needed you, and you let him hate himself. But you can't admit that you played a role in making him feel he'd never be forgiven, so he never emerged from seclusion, because you can't—no, you don't want to—admit you weren't righteous in that decision, and that the rules didn't work there!"
His words reverberated like a rockslide. The dust of the impact seemed to suffocate everyone within earshot. No one moved. No one breathed. Lan WangJi gaped.
"Take responsibility," said WuXian. "I'm trying. It's really fucking hard though." And he stomped away.
Lan WangJi swallowed.
"We will talk after the conferences," Lan QiRen said finally to him, before sweeping away. Still decorous. Still proper.
Lan WangJi felt something splash on his hand, and realized he was crying.
Jin Ling sat with SiZhui outside, under one of the trees. Flower petals fluttered through the air, sweeping around SiZhui's cheeks. He still struggled to look at Jin Ling.
"I meant it," Jin Ling said. He tried to remember one of the other things Wei WuXian had said. Your father needed to wait for your mother to work through it in her own time, and he couldn't force it. "It really doesn't matter to me. I like you, Wen or Lan."
"I know," SiZhui replied.
Jin Ling blinked. "You do?"
SiZhui nodded. He turned to study Jin Ling. "I'm sorry, too. I—I—I don't know what to—" He curled his fists.
"Wen Ning said you'd forgotten."
SiZhui swallowed. "Mostly. But—I always remembered 'Wen' being my surname. I assumed it was a dream though, a nightmare—but it was real."
Jin Ling didn't know what to say. "Was it scary? Finding out?"
"I don't know." SiZhui bit his lip. "I'm still—the Wen Sect did such terrible things—especially to your family, and I—"
"It doesn't matter—"
"It does; you've said it yourself, you miss them, they're dead—"
"Well, so are yours!" shouted Jin Ling, balling his fists. SiZhui flinched, and guilt clamped down on his stomach. "I didn't mean to yell."
"It does matter."
Stop being like Wei WuXian and taking all the blame! Jin Ling hunched his shoulders. "Well, then I forgive you. If you want to shoulder an entire dead sect's burdens feel free, but I'll burn them. The burdens, I mean, not the sect—whatever." He swallowed. "Or I'll help you."
"You have enough burdens."
"Well, you're not one to me, ever think of that?" Jin Ling gulped. "SiZhui, do you not really like me? Is this because you don't want to be with me, or—"
"No!" SiZhui shook his head. "I only meant—aren't you scared at all? For the Discussion Conference? For what people will think? And me—"
"Not if you're by my side." Jin Ling snorted. "Okay, even then. Yes. But don't tell JingYi. Or anyone. But with you by my side, I feel better." His voice cracked. "I really like you, SiZhui. I wasn't making it up." I want you to believe me.
SiZhui closed his eyes, taking Jin Ling's hand and interlacing their fingers, leaning his head on Jin Ling's shoulder. Jin Ling let out his breath, relaxing.
"JingYi had a suggestion for stress. I told him no."
"So I will like the suggestion?"
"Let's do it."
Jiang Cheng was hardly surprised to hear that Wei WuXian had finally let loose on the stiff Lan with that infamous tongue of his, but he was surprised when Lan QiRen stormed into his chambers late at night to tell him that Jin Ling had been caught drinking Emperor's Smile.
Jiang Cheng levitated to his feet. "I'll break his legs."
"You drank it when you were younger here!" Jin Ling cried out when Jiang Cheng saw him. His eyes were bloodshot, and he was stumbling. JingYi was laughing hysterically, and SiZhui sat there, moaning. From the sour odor, he'd already thrown up.
"Who told you that?" Jiang Cheng demanded.
"You did," Jin Ling mumbled. "'Member? I do. You an' Wei Wu-Ying and Huai..." He scowled instead of finishing the names.
"You're all copying rules tomorrow," Lan WangJi's voice interrupted. "In handstand."
Jiang Cheng's blood boiled. How irresponsible was the boy? If word of this got out, it'd look bad not just on Jin Ling, but the Lanling Jin Sect as a whole, Jiang Cheng and the Yunmeng Jiang Sect, not to mention the Cloud Recesses and Lan XiChen as a leader of the Gusu Lan Sect! After XiChen's generosity, too! "To do this just before the Discussion Conference, when you're a guest—" Jiang Cheng began. Each word came hot, sharpened.
"You really think you're gonna keep everyone in the cultivation world from bringing alcohol in here?" Jin Ling slurred. "Bet we're just the first."
"Yes," Jiang Cheng lied.
"Lying's also against the rules." Jin Ling smirked, knowing he'd won.
Why do you hate me so much? Jiang Cheng turned and stormed out. If he stayed, he might actually throttle the brat. But if he went back to his room, he'd punch the walls and cause property damage. And hurt his hands.
"I heard there was chaos," remarked Lan XiChen when Jiang Cheng barged into his room instead.
Jiang Cheng pinched the bridge of his nose. "They're foolish." The room smelled of sandalwood and orchids. Candles were lit, but only a few. Long shadows slid across the floors. The shades covering the windows were pulled up, allowing fresh air to pour in. A soft breeze set the shadows swaying.
"They're kids. But yes." Lan XiChen sighed.
"Did you ever drink?" Jiang Cheng asked. "When you were a teenager?"
"Not on purpose, and not here. When I went to visit the Nie Sect—MingJue and I did. It was against the rules, but we did it anyways." A ghost of a smile flickered across Lan XiChen's face. "And I know quite well myself that you did. Here."
Jiang Cheng scoffed. "You did?"
Lan XiChen lifted his shoulders. "We are still human."
"Well, your uncle's going to say it's more evidence of my brother's influence—"
"I don't know," Lan XiChen said. "I don't know, anymore. Perhaps we can blame it on the spirit of Jin GuangYao, which somehow escaped its coffin confinement."
Jiang Cheng blinked, leaning back against the wall. "Please tell you you're joking."
"I'm joking," Lan XiChen cast him a smile, but his eyes looked sad. No doubt it was still hard for him.
"I remember after Wei WuXian—after the Siege of the Burial Mounds," Jiang Cheng said.
Lan XiChen regarded him, setting his hand down on the windowsill. The window behind him was dark, no moonlight tonight. The shadows stilled. "Did you regret it?"
There was no simple answer. A yes, a no, neither, both.
"I was too angry to regret it," Jiang Cheng admitted. "I was too—"
I'd lost everything.
My parents. My golden core. My sister.
I blamed him.
He hung his head. He'd fought so hard, and for—for what, exactly? To prove he mattered? To prove he wasn't weak? To prove it wasn't his fault he'd lost them, when no one had ever blamed him/
What if the fighting itself proved he was weak?
"You should have known you could never equal him!" Wen Ning's rebuke stung, echoing in his mind. He twisted Zidian, wrapped in a ring around his finger.
"I missed him," Jiang Cheng admitted. "But I wouldn't—I didn't think I did at the time. I was too angry."
"You would rather be angry than admit you still cared for him?" Lan XiChen's voice held no condemnation.
"I—yes." Jiang Cheng hated how petty it sounded. "I—" He'd killed how many people with torture? Not even Wei WuXian had done that, despite the rumors that he believed back then. Or did he? Did he just not think, because it justified him? "Sometimes—I wonder if I—"
"You didn't want other people's company. You wanted your anger. You wanted your own justification. You wanted to finally be the best, the most righteous.. You wanted to be strong enough to have it all matter, to have not a shred of your pain be in vain because if it was to make you the most righteous, it would be worth it, and yet at the same time you wanted that pain, that loneliness, to kill you, because there was nothing else you'd ever known." Lan XiChen's eyes bore into Jiang Cheng's.
How dare you?
Fuck... fuck me.
He wanted to lash him with Zidian, tell him no, scar him with the words that were burning and snarling as they struck him. "I wanted—answers."
Why did you do it, Wei Ying?
I looked for you to kill you.
I looked for you to tell me: why?
I looked for you to tell me it wasn't because of me.
And because you lost your core, and turned to demonic cultivation because of that, it was, in the end, because of me.
When he killed those people, was it because he wanted to save the world, protect others from the same loss, or because they were not Wei WuXian?
He was the epitome of not righteous. He might as well be slathered in blood. But—but— "You relate? Is that how you feel?" In some way?
"No," Lan XiChen said. "I think that was—how he felt. Jin GuangYao." He lowered his head.
What? Y ou can't compare me to that sister-fucking son of a whore!
"Sometimes I wonder," Lan XiChen said. "I spent—in my seclusion, I think more of what he must have felt than why I didn't do anything earlier. It's hard. It's easier to pretend I didn't know, but—I still—I understand what you were saying, for me, for him, both, I suppose."
Jiang Cheng's heart pounded. "You want to know why."
Lan XiChen nodded, approaching him. His hand brushed Jiang Cheng's shoulder.
Jiang Cheng closed his eyes. A breeze set his hair fluttering against his cheek. "Why a sworn brother would—"
"And why I was so blind," Lan XiChen admitted. "I trusted—I wanted—I suppose WangJi and I were not so different, after all, and neither were Wei WuXian and I."
"Hmm?" Jiang Cheng didn't follow that, but he didn't mind asking. He opened his eyes.
"You heard him. He'd never thought about hurting me. He used to make comments, and I—I wouldn't understand them. I—" Lan XiChen squeezed his eyes shut then, hand tightening on Jiang Cheng's shoulder as if he needed the other man to hold him upright. "I loved him. I really loved him. If he'd survived, I—I wouldn't be able to let him die. And I only—he still saved me, and am I disgusting for being happy for it?"
Jiang Cheng felt as if all the blood and spiritual energy surging within him were sucked away, leaving him just skin and bone. Did you really mean—not like that—
"I suppose Uncle has reason to be disappointed in the people his nephews chose to love—not just men, but—"
Jiang Cheng smacked Lan XiChen's hand away from him. "You—"
Lan XiChen's eyes met his, blinking rapidly. "I—"
He shoved him. His palms flew out, smacking the man's chest. "Why?" The shout erupted from his throat, scraping it raw. And Lan XiChen, cultivation so high, yet caught completely unaware, defenses lower than they'd ever been except with Jin GuangYao and Nie MingJue, stumbled back. "Why would you do that?" Not you! Not you!
Lan XiChen fell, knees knocking into Jiang Cheng's legs. Jiang Cheng's already hollow-feeling body gave out. He tumbled down on top of him.
Jiang Cheng froze. Lan XiChen stared up at him, eyes wide and shocked, hair ribbon askew. He always looked so put-together, even in the temple. Not now. His cheeks were flushed, his chest shuddered, and his lips twisted in shame. "I'm… sorry."
I'm the one who knocked you over. Jiang Cheng hated it, hated it, hated it. Why was he always being apologized to, when he needed to— "Shut up!"
His face was centimeters away from Lan XiChen's. Neither of them could hide any of it. The anguish, the shame, the anger, the regret. Lan XiChen's breath was warm on his cheeks. Jiang Cheng's bangs hovered down, brushing Lan XiChen's eyes. His knee was directly... directly between Lan XiChen's legs.
This was awkward. Jiang Cheng wanted to explode into a million particles of dust. He tried to get up, planting his hand on Lan XiChen's chest. The man winced. "Sorry." Well, there. He said it. Not for that. Oh, whatever! He accidentally pulled Lan XiChen's hair next by planting his hand on it. Tie it up next time! "Sorry again!"
Lan XiChen reached out, grasping his wrists and pushing Jiang Cheng to a sitting position, really straddling him, off his hair, several long strands of which lay torn to the side. He gestured.
Jiang Cheng stumbled back to his feet. His face was burning. "That was not on purpose."
So at least he knew Jiang Cheng was too proper to do anything of the sort.
"Your temper got the best of you. It happens. And you never meant to shove me, and you would never be so forward." Lan XiChen chuckled.
He could only imagine if Wei WuXian heard such a quip. "That's not funny."
"I'm really sorry," managed Lan XiChen, still lying there. "But—I can't help how I feel about A-Yao."
Stop! I wanted to respect you! Jiang Cheng covered his face. "It's disgusting! He was disgusting!"
"He did disgusting things, and he was still someone I loved." Lan XiChen pushed himself up to a sitting position then, winching as he traced his scalp. He met Jiang Cheng's eyes. "I don't care if that's wrong. No: I don't think it's disgusting."
"Why not?" Jiang Cheng demanded.
"I—" Lan XiChen snorted. "I suppose whether it is right or wrong doesn't matter. I'd be willing to accept all the consequences with him."
"I don't understand!"
Lan XiChen looked up at him. "Yes, you do."
"Excuse me?" Jiang Cheng was practically screaming.
"Not the same love, but in the temple—you came to save Jin Ling no matter what he'd done wrong in sneaking out—"
Jiang Cheng didn't understand. No, he did. And there were two phrases that would be appropriate, but he couldn't force either one up his throat and out his mouth.
"Is that Jiang Cheng?" Wei WuXian wondered, watching as a figure raced across the grounds.
WangJi rubbed his face. "What's he doing?" Alarm tinged his voice.
Jiang Cheng's arms went out, pummeling a poor innocent tree again and again. The branches shuddered. Hell, even some leaves tumbled down.
Well, Wei WuXian had to intervene before his brother used Zidian to scar the poor tree for life. "Shidi!"
That should get a reaction. Except it didn't. Jiang Cheng kicked the tree.
"What'd the tree do to you?" Wei WuXian hollered, running over.
Jiang Cheng turned to gape at him. "What are you doing here?"
"We were walking back to our room," Wei WuXian stated. "And we saw that a tree apparently practiced demonic cultivation or—"
Jiang Cheng barked a laugh. "You always have to make it about you?"
Wei WuXian shut his mouth.
"I didn't mean that." Jiang Cheng cussed. "I—I don't hate you for that. I don't hate you at all."
Wei WuXian blinked. Was this—could they—but no, it looked like Jiang Cheng was struggling with himself, his jaw trembling like there was something else he wanted to say, but he couldn't quite release himself to say.
And then he understood.
"It's okay," he heard himself tell his brother. "You don't have to say it now. But—I do want to hear it eventually."
Jiang Cheng swallowed. He nodded. And two words came out: "Thank you."
Wei WuXian nodded. There was nothing else to say.
Jiang Cheng rubbed his face, accidentally streaking dirt over it. Wei WuXian winced. "Dirt?"
Jiang Cheng shrugged. "It's not like the juniors are around, and I don't have Lan QiRen's respect anyways."
"You do more than any of us do," said Wei WuXian.
"No," said Jiang Cheng. "I don't care for his respect."
WangJi's eyes bulged.
"Make Jin Ling copy down extra rules," Jiang Cheng instructed, turning to leave. "Please. For disrespect."
"Seems fair to me," WangJi agreed. "Jiang Cheng?"
"Yes?" Jiang Cheng stopped.
"Jin Ling loves you. And he needs you. He's scared."
Jiang Cheng hesitated. He nodded at last, and headed back towards the residence.
"He wasn't enraged over Jin Ling," Wei WuXian remarked once Jiang Cheng was out of earshot.
"Don't you remember when you abused an innocent tree?" asked Wei WuXian. "A hunt, a blindfold, a stolen kiss—"
WangJi looked even more nonplussed. "I don't—"
"Jiang Cheng's in love," Wei WuXian proclaimed.
Thanks for reading! Have a great weekend!
Chapter 11: Melted Confidence
Thanks for reading!
If Jiang Cheng was in love with someone, there was only one person who appeared a viable candidate to Lan WangJi. And Lan WangJi was not happy about it. He was not happy at all.
First, SiZhui and Jin Ling. Which he liked the idea of. But now…
"Why are you not sleeping?" demanded Wei WuXian, sipping on the jar of Emperor's Smile that they had confiscated from the juniors. "It's past nine, WangJi."
Maybe he wanted some alcohol. No, no, he didn't. He kept a scowl on his face.
"Okay." Wei WuXian gulped the last of the wine and wiped his mouth, heading over to plop down next to Lan WangJi. He snuggled up to his chest. "Wanna tell me what's going on?" He batted his eyelashes, craning his neck back to gaze up into his husband's face.
He could not resist. "Your brother," managed Lan WangJi.
"And my brother."
"Yes?" Wei WuXian did not appear to put it together. Lan WangJi arched his brows. "Oh—oh! No, no, Jiang Cheng's never expressed interest in men—"
"Neither had you, before me," Lan WangJi pointed out.
Wei WuXian tittered, grinning. "Yes, but—Jiang Cheng—what makes you—"
Lan WangJi exhaled. "Who else is there? It's surely not my uncle."
Wei WuXian studied the ceiling, brow creased. "Couldn't be be someone at home, or—"
"No, and you know it. They talk a lot."
Wei WuXian tapped his chin. "So, my brother—likes your brother—then does your brother—" He clapped his hands together. "Well, that's great!"
"Is it? It's your brother."
"Yes, and—" Wei WuXian's face fell. "Okay, he's emotionally—not well-developed—but he's making some steps. Even tonight, he made some steps. And let's not forget I'm—"
"You are no worse than he is," Lan WangJi cut in.
Wei WuXian swallowed.
"Can I talk to him?" asked Lan WangJi.
"Are you going to threaten him?" Wei WuXian wiggled his eyebrows.
"Maybe." Not really. But XiChen had just had his heart broken. By Jin GuangYao. He couldn't stand seeing anguish riddling his brother's face again.
Then again, Lan WangJi remembered the scowl on XiChen's face when he arrived back at the Cloud Recesses, Wei Ying unconscious on his back, rushing for medical supplies as he held him. Wei WuXian's side had been cut through by Jin Ling's sword, and Lan WangJi laid him down on the bed in a secluded room, the red blood of someone he loved slicking his fingers.
"You will be okay," he whispered to Wei WuXian's unconscious form, just like he had to him years before, after the massacre in the Nightless City. He knew it was going to end, and still, he couldn't leave him. You are not what they say you are. You're more than just that.
"WangJi." His brother's voice broke through the curtains. Lan WangJi did not even turn around, holding WuXian's limp hands, passing spiritual energy to him.
It looked the same as before.
"WangJi," XiChen said again.
He looked over his shoulder and swallowed.
"I'm not here to make rash decisions, but I will take your—what is happening for confirmation of what I've heard." XiChen exhaled. "He is Wei WuXian, isn't he?"
Lan WangJi nodded. He had never lied to his brother.
"And you've known?"
He nodded again.
XiChen's jaw set. "And he's been teasing you for—"
"Has been mocking you, and still you care about him?"
Lan WangJi had no answer. He saw no malice in Wei WuXian's actions. Maybe he thought Lan WangJi liked the teasing. Maybe he liked it. Did it matter? Either way, he loved him. "Mo XuanYu was—"
"I know about Mo XuanYu, brother; he harassed Jin GuangYao." XiChen held his temples.
"He did not steal his body." Lan WangJi brushed a lock of hair off Wei WuXian's forehead. A bloody streak marred his skin. "I won't let them have him."
"I know." XiChen stepped forward, kneeling next to Lan WangJi. "I know how to heal, too. Let me help." He reached for the pungent poultices, and Lan WangJi knew he was helping Wei WuXian for him.
This time, he wouldn't have to protect him alone.
At the time, XiChen thought Wei WuXian was cruelly taunting Lan WangJi. Neither of them realized he didn't remember the Nightless City's aftermath at all.
Jiang Cheng was in pain, too. Lan WangJi knew that well. He just—wanted to protect his brother from ever feeling his own sword cut his heart, because the night he found the love of his life was the night his brother lost his.
Wei WuXian rested his chin on Lan WangJi's shoulder. "My brother and your brother—hey, do you think my brother even knows? He's awfully dense."
"No idea." Lan WangJi pushed his husband down.
Wei WuXian squirmed under him and grinned. "Well, I've got the better looking brother."
Lan WangJi snorted. He tugged downWei WuXian's pants, lowering his lips. Wei WuXian sucked in his breath, fingers digging through Lan WangJi's hair. "Ow, ow, Lan Zhan, my mouth's tired tonight—"
"Quiet," he teased, gripping Wei WuXian's thighs. I just—want to make you happy tonight.
You make me so happy. Just being able to be with you.
The next morning, Lan WangJi waited outside Jiang Cheng's room. The man blinked as he emerged. "You were not whom I expected."
"I wager it was my brother whom you expected."
"Excuse me?" Jiang Cheng rubbed his forehead, scowling.
You don't know. Well then. Lan WangJi folded his arms. It would have to start somewhere.
"He told you our argument?"
"He did not. I presumed it from your lacerating the tree last night."
"Oh. Well." Jiang Cheng lifted his shoulders. But his gaze darted along the wooden floor, skittering as if ashamed.
My brother would never make you feel as if you weren't enough. Don't make him feel that way.
"Jiang WanYin," said Lan WangJi.
He looked up.
"Let's put the past behind us," said Lan WangJi.
"You mean that I helped kill the person you love?"
"You'll never fully put it behind you."
"Yes," said Lan WangJi. "I will. Because the person I love loves you, so much."
Jiang Cheng swallowed. The dawning light illuminated his features. "And you think I hate my brother?"
"No," said Lan WangJi.
Jiang Cheng nodded.
"I didn't say it in time," Lan WangJi forced himself to say, dredging up the filthy words. "I—regretted it. Not saying it—if he'd known there was someone by his side—if I didn't put my own righteous reputation first—my own fear of him rejecting me—" We are the same.
Jiang Cheng flinched. "Are you telling me to talk to him?"
He didn't know what he was telling him. The truth, he supposed, would be the best option. "Eventually. But you could start by talking to my brother." Lan WangJi folded his hands. "He appreciates your company."
Jiang Cheng twisted Zidian around his finger.
"Shall we wake up the hungover juniors?" inquired Lan WangJi. "I believe Fairy could be of use."
Jiang Cheng laughed. "So you have a mischievous side?"
"Tell Wei WuXian to make some spicy congee," said Jiang Cheng. "For them, for breakfast. It'd suit. Oh, and play your guqin, but wrong."
Lan WangJi nodded. "They'll learn."
"My brother never did."
"Why?" wailed Jin Ling when Jiang Cheng released a bunny into the room the juniors slept in, sending Fairy barking like mad. "Why is this happening?"
"Spicy congee for breakfast!" crooned Wei WuXian. Lan WangJi strummed his guqin to a horrific, warbling tune.
"I hate you!"
"You're lucky," warned Jiang Cheng as the boy clutched his skull, moaning. SiZhui's face pinched as if nauseated. A weird bruise marked the boy's neck, as if he'd fallen on something. On his neck. Strange. Jiang Cheng dismissed it. "When WuXian and HuaiSang and I got drunk once, Lan WangJi had WuXian punished the next day. With discipline rulers."
JingYi made a rude gesture.
"Do that again and you may find yourself on the wrong end of one," warned Lan WangJi.
No, you wouldn't. You don't hit people anymore, Jiang Cheng thought. JingYi slumped as if he wasn't worried at all.
Jin Ling pulled himself to his feet. Jiang Cheng opened his mouth to lecture his nephew on how his actions were shameful for a sect leader, and then he stopped.
How many nights did Jiang Cheng cry alone, hit himself in the face for crying, scream in his mind for his mom and his dad, when he couldn't say them out loud?
I don't want to be a sect leader!
And the only people who knew it—Wei WuXian and Jiang YanLi—would never call him on it. They waited for him to come to them, and he never had.
Jiang Cheng hauled Jin Ling to his feet. Fairy lurked in the corner, away from a nervous Wei WuXian. Jiang Cheng put his arm around Jin Ling's shoulders. His nephew frowned.
Me too. Still.
"Get yourself ready," Jiang Cheng said. "We'll have dinner together. We'll—talk." I'll give you some advice whether you like it or not.
I don't want you to feel alone. He squeezed Jin Ling's shoulders. The boy blinked at his uncle. WuXian beamed in the background, and then ran screaming when Fairy bounded towards Jin Ling. He thought of his old puppies, the ones long dead, that his father had given away to protect Wei WuXian.
It wasn't fair, but there was no fair solution.
I wanted you to have the childhood I couldn't. And your parents—but that wasn't your fault—that wasn't—
He remembered what Lan XiChen had said when he arrived with Jin Ling. If the cultivation saw your support…
For his brother. His reputation for hating Wei WuXian was strong. Too strong.
Not anymore. He was going to show everyone at this Discussion Conference. You are my brother. Jin Ling is our nephew.
I will not let anyone harm him.
And at least Jin Ling had two good friends. And a third. Jiang Cheng set his jaw and marched outside. Wei WuXian called after him, but he waved his hand. We'll talk later.
This is what I can do to protect you. Be the best person I can be. He used his jade token to head into the town. He was never very talented with music, not compared to the Lans or to his brother, but he tried to play his flute anyways.
Am I trying demonic cultivation?
No, no he wasn't.
"J-Jiang—Ch-Cheng?" stammered a voice.
He spun around, seeing Wen Ning shrink back. The corpse looked as if he wanted to crawl into the earth as opposed to face Jiang Cheng.
"I was calling for you," Jiang Cheng acknowledged.
Wen Ning was frozen. "I—I—" His stutter appeared to have resurfaced.
We killed your sister, too. Jiang Cheng closed his eyes. "Wen Ning, will you help guard Jin Ling at this conference? We haven't caught whomever was trying to—and while they haven't made any moves lately, I can't rest. He's the only—blood relative I have left, and I—I've raised him since he was a baby. I can't risk him."
"You want my… help?" Wen Ning's voice wavered.
Jiang Cheng gulped. He nodded. The trees rustled their leaves above them, and Jiang Cheng could almost hear his sister murmuring, and Wen Qing as well, the girl who'd given him his golden core back.
"Why are you asking me? You c-can surely—and your men—" Wen Ning wrung his hands. "Master—I mean—"
"Wei WuXian did not ask me to ask you. I decided to." Okay, with some prompting from XiChen, but not for a few weeks. Jiang Cheng gritted his teeth. "Do you resent me?" He snorted. "Of course you do."
"Not for the core." Wen Ning met his gaze. "Never for that." He swallowed.
Jiang Cheng bit his tongue. It tastes salty.
"I always—used to act like a kicked puppy. Wen Qing used to say as much to me. And then—we were called Wen-dogs, treated like less than human, and I—it was terrifying."
I'm apologizing to a Wen.
But SiZhui was a Wen too, and he wasn't going to let anything cause a problem for Jin Ling and his friendships with SiZhui and JingYi. If it eventually came out and everyone saw Jiang Cheng accepted him—accepted Wen Ning, Wei WuXian, all of them—I have power. I should use it properly.
"I don't think either of us ever had very much confidence," confessed Wen Ning. "Neither did Young Master Wei, but—he didn't care that he had no confidence. You and I, we cared. Care." He shifted his gaze downwards, unable to look at Jiang Cheng anymore.
Jiang Cheng's heart pounded, blood pumping warm through him like it wouldn't through Wen Ning, because they killed him like a dog. When he'd saved Jiang Cheng and Wei WuXian. "I suppose."
Wen Ning's hair ruffled in the breeze. "I will protect Jin Ling with everything I can."
"Thank you." Jiang Cheng exhaled. He spotted several familiar jars at a vending stall nearby. "Tell me, were you the one who bought alcohol for Jin Ling last night?"
"I wasn't." Wen Ning cleared his throat. "But—he did ask. JingYi snuck out in the end, from what I understand."
Jiang Cheng snorted. "SiZhui and JingYi will be by his side, too."
Wen Ning nodded. "Whatever I am needed to do."
"Thanks," he said again, shifting. He wanted to hide again. He held out a jade token to Wen Ning, his fingers tracing the corpse's cold skin as he dropped it in. "I will see you in a few days, then." He turned to leave.
"Jiang Cheng," called Wen Ning.
He knew what he was going to say. And he didn't want to hear it.
He clenched his hands. "What happened with—my sister—her husband—Wei WuXian has taken responsibility for it. You don't need to." Jiang Cheng walked away.
Lan XiChen leaped to his feet when Jiang Cheng appeared in his doorway. A container of ink clanked as it fell to its side, spilling black everywhere, staining the mat, Lan XiChen's clothes, the parchment, covering the words. XiChen swore.
Jiang Cheng scrambled to help. But the only thing he could find to mop it up was more parchment, already written on. He wound up just standing there, nose wrinkled.
"It's all right," Lan XiChen managed, staring at it. "We can just—leave it for now."
Shit. How do I ruin everything? Jiang Cheng rubbed the back of his neck. "I came to—tell you I spoke to Wen Ning," Jiang Cheng hastened to say. "As you suggested. He'll be protecting Jin Ling. Not in the conference, but outside it. I don't care what your uncle says. If he wants to fight with Zidian, so be it. This is my nephew's life on the line."
Lan XiChen's lips parted in a smile. "You—wow."
He scowled. Did XiChen have to sound shocked that he'd spoken to Wen Ning? Jiang Cheng's throat ached. "Well, anyways."
"You don't need to apologize," XiChen said.
"It is not your fault for loving him."
"And it's not your fault for hating him. Most would, given what he took from you."
Words stuck to Jiang Cheng's throat. He wasn't sure which one to say. He nodded instead. "When the conference is over, I plan to talk to my brother." There. A subject change. A shift, really. Not completely different.
Lan XiChen wiped a palmful of ink onto his white robes and winced.
"Better not let your uncle see," Jiang Cheng pointed out.
Lan XiChen actually chuckled. "True."
"He should have told you about your core."
He should have?
Jiang Cheng blinked. Was someone—actually—stating that his feelings mattered?
"When WangJi finally told me about what he—felt for your brother—I wished he hadn't—spent so many years in quiet self-loathing and I—I am sure Wei WuXian just wanted to spare you from that, but there are things—you can't protect people from. You know that well, though. You learned that too early. So did we."
Something cracked inside him, something leaking ink onto his clothes, too. But he was the only one would could see the dark stain spreading, cursing him, feel its cold viscosity dripping down. If he could just—speak—
"But—I never told him."
There. The words were out there; his tongue had formed them.
Lan XiChen blinked. "Told him what?"
The words came out a squeak, like a little boy's voice. "I lost my core to save him."
Jiang Cheng remembered it. He hoped he wouldn't get caught, but if he died, he died. He just couldn't let them take Wei WuXian. He'd lost almost everyone he loved, and he'd almost choked the life out of Wei WuXian for saving Lan WangJi and Jin ZiXuan—the person each of his siblings would later marry, even if Jiang Cheng had no idea back then. And he hated himself for that, because Wei WuXian wouldn't even have the decency to get mad at him for it.
I want what I do to matter! Don't deal with me no matter what!
But what he'd done never mattered.
And like hell if he was going to lose the person who loved him most, whom he loved most, the one who was still alive. He really thought he could escape them, dodge down an alleyway. And he almost had. And then three Wen guards jumped out of a window. They'll terrorized the inhabitants to get inside, cut him off.
And they bound him, gagged him, dragged him back humiliated, mocking his lack of talent. And the entire time he wondered whether Wei WuXian would find his corpse with his parents, if he would take over the Yunmeng Jiang Sect then. And he better, or else Jiang Cheng would haunt him from the grave.
Remembering any of it hurt. Jiang Cheng shook. He reminded himself he was in the Cloud Recesses, not a charred husk of Lotus Pier.
"Tell me," Lan XiChen said, and when Jiang Cheng opened his mouth, he couldn't keep it in anymore.
"Is this the son?" one of the guards demanded, throwing Jiang Cheng down on the ground in the place that had been his home since birth. Ash smeared his knees. Instead of lotus, he smelled soot. They ripped his gag out. He coughed, spitting black. The guard yanked his head back.
"Well, well," crooned Wen Chao, his scrotum-face twisting in a sneer. "JiaoJiao, what do you think?"
"Obviously," that bitch purred. "It's him."
"Come back for your parents' corpses? What a good son." Wen Chao patted his head. "I understand your bitch mother whipped my JiaoJiao. Will you do the honors, my sweet?"
"It'll hurt more if you do it." She held out the discipline whip.
No! He'd be marked forever if they used—Jiang Cheng tried to scramble back, but they held him in place, those guards, fingers digging into his shoulders.
The whip cracked.
A sting snapped against his chest. Nausea surged. His clothes tore. He doubled over. He gagged, forcing himself to swallow his vomit.
"He isn't fit for leadership," Wen Chao said. "Look how much a single strike breaks him down!" His grip tightened on Jiang Cheng's hair, twisting, pinching, pulling.
"Keep saying whatever you want. I'm still going to make sure the mistake that was you ever trying to cultivate is rectified. But keep you alive long enough to lure your brother back here."
"Make some sense, you damned—"
And then he saw Wen ZhuLiu, and Jiang Cheng knew. He bucked, trying to wrench himself free. "You—you can't—"
"I can. I'm a Wen."
"You can't! I'm—he's not—I—stop! Stop; don't come any closer, don't—I'll kill, I'll kill you—"
"You can't. You will be useless, worthless, hopeless—like you always were, and now everyone will know it." Wen Chao grinned. "That's what the sun does. It shines and exposes flaws—"
His words were so ridiculous Jiang Cheng wanted to laugh, be he couldn't, not with this—
"Should I gag him?" asked a guard when Jiang Cheng tried to bite him.
"No. Let him scream."
"Fuck you!" Jiang Cheng shouted. He wouldn't, he wouldn't scream, not now, he wouldn't dishonor—in front of his parents' corpses—
Wen ZhuLiu raised his hand.
"Please don't!" shouted Jiang Cheng. He hated himself, he hated himself, he'd never hated himself more. "Please don't do this. Please don't—anything—I'll do—I'll—"
Wen ZhuLiu's hand landed against his chest. And he felt it. All the energy he'd worked so hard to cultivate, all his spiritual powers, draining, melting, shuddering and dissolving. And he screamed and he screamed, the sound tearing through because there was no shame greater than what he felt right now.
And everyone around him laughed. When they left, they were whispering between chortles: "did you hear who he called for?"
Come save me.
But they were dead, and he might as well be, and so they had died for nothing.
Jiang Cheng swallowed. His knees were pulled against his chest, huddling like a child, his legs a shield from Wen ZhuLiu's hand which existed now only in his memories. And Lan XiChen sat next to him, hand on his shoulder blade.
Lan XiChen was quiet. Jiang Cheng slid his gaze towards him.
"Why didn't you tell him?" XiChen asked.
"Would it change what then happened?"
"No, but it matters."
What I did mattered? Jiang Cheng pressed his face into the crook between his knees.
"I watched them beat WangJi," XiChen said. "And I couldn't even—" His voice caught.
Which time? When the Wens burned it down? When he tried to save my brother? Both?
"In some ways, you're braver than me," said XiChen.
Jiang Cheng snorted. "No, I was scared. Scared of losing another person."
"But you still acted. That's brave. I could have stopped them from attacking—but I was afraid. Of lots of things."
Jiang Cheng turned his face to see XiChen's again. XiChen's hand still rested on Jiang Cheng's back. His eyes glistened with sincerity.
They sat together in silence, both of them breathing, things unspoken but still said between them. The things no one spoke of: shame, grief, regret. And hope.
Chapter 12: Guarded
Thanks for reading! Some (fairly mild) nsfw this chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Everyone was arriving. A flood of humanity, yellow and black and purple and white, sparkles amidst snow and heads and clouds and lotuses. Jin Ling couldn't stand any of them. He stood with Fairy and thought about how dogs were clearly better than people. Except SiZhui. And, okay, JingYi too. And his uncles. Whatever.
He didn't like how they looked at him. A sad child, orphaned yet again, betrayed by his uncle. A boy who had just almost been killed and who the hell even know who wanted him to die, because lots must. A young mistress inheriting a leadership role he didn't have the skills to succeed at.
"I forgot how high up this is!" coughed a voice.
Jin Ling turned to see Nie HuiaSang hiding half his face behind a fan as per usual. "Welcome."
SiZhui looked less welcoming. Doubtless he hadn't forgotten his parents' suspicions of Nie HuiaSang.
"I wanted to stop by and—tell you how glad I am that you are all right," Nie HuiaSang stated, pinching the skin around his wrists.
"Yeah, you'd probably be dead if it were you," Jin Ling responded. SiZhui winced.
Nie HuiaSang looked down at his feet. "Yes, well… I am staying at an inn in town tonight—is HanGuang-Jun or Wei WuXian—"
"Not that I know of," said Jin Ling. Not in the Cloud Recesses? The old man must really hate you. "I'll tell them you arrived—"
"Tell them I want to speak with them," Nie HuiaSang cut in, voice—well, not forceful, but he was trying. His words fluttered at the end, and his shoulders slumped.
"If it's about who was trying to kill me I'm right here," Jin Ling said.
"I don't know that it is, I really don't know—I just—" Nie HuiaSang stumbled back. "I'll—be going now."
"Watching him, I feel better about my leadership abilities," Jin Ling remarked. SiZhui lowered his head. "What? Too mean?"
"No," SiZhui admitted. Dark clouds brewed above them, as if a thunderstorm lurked. Figured. What a promising omen for the Discussion Conference.
But he had SiZhui by his side. Jin Ling brushed his fingers against SiZhui's elbow, reassuring himself that he was there, he had chosen Jin Ling, he forgave him, he liked him. And Jin Ling resisted the urge to hop in joy. He didn't need the sun to actually appear to feel warmth flowing through him.
"How long do we have before it rains?" wondered Jin Ling.
"What are you wanting to do?" questioned SiZhui.
Jin Ling shrugged. "Can we kiss?"
SiZhui's face still reddened, but his eyes shone. He tugged Jin Ling into a secluded area, deeper into the surrounding forests, so no one would find them.
Jiang Cheng has been kind to him the past day, telling him that he knew how he felt, supporting his decision to have SiZhui by his side, and pointing out to a concerned HanGuang-Jun that it didn't matter what he said because he was the cut-sleeve here. Okay, Jin Ling was too. But Jiang Cheng didn't need to know that just yet.
"We probably won't get to do this during the conference," complained Jin Ling, lying on his back in the damp grass, SiZhui's lips pulling from his. "Just—in case someone's—"
SiZhui sighed. "I know." His fingers traced Jin Ling's jaw.
"Do you think my uncles will have to—behave themselves?" Jin Ling smirked. "You know, when Wei WuXian confessed to HanGuang-Jun, he told him he wanted to sleep with him every day. But they will both die if anyone hears them, so they can't. If they don't, do you think it'll fall off—"
SiZhui laughed. He cupped his palm behind Jin Ling's neck, covering his mouth again and silencing him. Jin Ling shifted. His knee hit something, and his eyes widened.
"Sorry," mumbled SiZhui. But he was laughing.
"I guess we can find out if yours falls off." Jin Ling sat up, pulling SiZhui close and parting his lips with his. "Or…"
SiZhui's brow wrinkled.
"We could try," Jin Ling suggested.
"Jin Ling, we're still—I mean, you're sixteen, I kissed you only a few days ago, I—"
"And I'm leading a sect," said Jin Ling. "If I want to sleep with someone, plenty of people have at my age. But…" His voice trailed off. "Do you want to wait? Because we can." He could just jerk off to the thought of SiZhui when he got back to his room.
Will I be able to marry SiZhui someday? If we want to get married?
Yes. He knew it, just as surely as he knew people would expect him to marry a woman, make babies to carry on his name. But my uncles adopted you. We can adopt. He chuckled.
"What?" SiZhui asked.
"Have I ever told you that Wei WuXian confessed to HanGuang-Jun by telling him 'back then, I really wanted to sleep with you?'"
SiZhui's eyes popped. "He what?" And he was giggling, clutching his knees.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to say that to get you to—"
"What was his reaction?"
"This." Jin Ling threw his arms around SiZhui and planted his lips on his again. Thunder rumbled in the distance. He pulled back. "Actually at first he was startled and my uncle was threatening to kill everyone, so that had to—when he stepped away, anyways—"
"He seems much happier with Wei WuXian around," admitted SiZhui. His fingers dug through Jin Ling's ponytail. "Like he makes him remember why life is worth—"
"Like you do for me," said Jin Ling. "I thought—I thought—they were gross, and I thought I couldn't—earn what I needed to earn, and I was mad I needed to earn it, but you never—you weren't gross, and you never made me have to earn—even when I fought with JingYi—" His face burned. He closed his eyes. I'm really glad I met you.
SiZhui pushed him down. Their kisses grew deeper, more intense. SiZhui's fingers dug under his robe. Jin Ling arched his back. "What're you—"
"Let's try," SiZhui whispered. "I'm—I'm tired of—holding myself back—not remembering, denying—you never—"
Butterflies flapped in Jin Ling's stomach. SiZhui's hair fell over him, mingling with his own, no longer distinguishable. His hair ribbon—he took it off, wrapping it around Jin Ling.
Their hands interlocked. Jin Ling wondered whether everyone was this nervous usually. Or was it just that the circumstances were so tense, with the Discussion Conference? No, they made him want shelter. And SiZhui was like a shelter. And the way SiZhui looked at him, eyes wide and laughs ready, awkward and blushing, but not shy, he knew that he was a fire inside a shelter.
The sky darkened to a bruising purple, with flashes of gold. Jin Ling lay back, SiZhui on top of him, waist between his legs. "Are you okay?"
"Go ahead," Jin Ling managed. And then he pulled SiZhui's head down, kissing him. It felt instinctual, their bodies joining, the most natural thing in the world. Jin Ling held SiZhui's damp shoulders, soft hair falling over his arms, and he thought of the day he formed his golden core and it felt like it was always a part of him dormant that was now awake, life giving and special, something to be proud of and to be humble of all at once. And he knew his face, if it looked anything like SiZhui's, had to be scrunched, and there was hardly any pride left, but there was in how he held SiZhui and SiZhui held him.
Rain fell when they were both gasping, snapping them out of their state. SiZhui rolled off of him, gaze never leaving him. Rain plastered his hair to his forehead.
"That was... fun," Jin Ling managed. Such an inadequate word.
But he didn't need to come up with the right one. SiZhui kissed his palm, and Jin Ling knew SiZhui knew what he meant.
Both of them scrambled to change into their clothes, lightning snapping in the sky above. Mud caked their clothes and parts of their bodies. Jin Ling grinned at SiZhui as they raced back. He stopped before the main streets of Gusu. "Oh." He tugged off the hair ribbon and tied it back on SiZhui's head. "But I can take that whenever I want, now?"
"Pretty much," SiZhui confirmed.
"What are the two of you doing out here!" shrieked JingYi's voice. "I've been looking all over for you!"
"We—got caught in a rainstorm?" offered SiZhui.
JingYi gaped at both of them. "Your tunic is on backwards, Jin RuLan."
"Oops," said Jin Ling. "And don't call me that."
"Considering the circumstances I'll call you what I want. Follow me," said JingYi. "I have to keep the two of you out of sight. And, for the record, you two owe me your lives or at least the skin on your backs, because certain people are patrolling the streets looking for you."
"What?" both of them squeaked.
"HuaiSang wants to see us?" questioned Wei WuXian. He glanced towards WangJi.
WangJi's eyes narrowed.
Does he have information? Both of them sprang to their feet. WangJi hoisted him onto Bichen.
"Where even is Jin Ling?" wondered Wei WuXian. The sky churned with clouds, swelling with rain about to flood down on the Cloud Recesses.
WangJi shook his head. A frown crossed his lips.
They found Nie HuiaSang pacing the room in the inn. A collection of fans sat on his bed, so ornately and intricately painted that the tapestry on the walls looked bland in comparison. He spun when they appeared. "Oh!"
"You wanted to see us?" asked Wei WuXian.
"Hello, HuaiSang," WangJi said, nodding in respect.
HuaiSang wrung his hands, blinking rapidly. Rain started to tap at the ceiling.
"Are you poisoned?" blurted out Wei WuXian. "Or—"
"No, no, I don't know, I mean—"
"You don't know if you're poisoned or not?" Wei WuXian arched an eyebrow.
Nie HuaiSang yanked his sleeve up. Wei WuXian paled. A curse mark spread up his forearm from his wrist.
"If it comes for me, I don't have the cultivation to—" Nie HuaiSang gulped. "Since I did help, in theory, you clear your name, I was—wondering if you could—"
The man was still afraid. "We're not going to just let you get slaughtered," said Wei WuXian, rolling his eyes. "What happened? What did you offend?"
"I don't even know," Nie HuaiSang said miserably, plopping onto his bed. His shoulders hunched, he rocked back and forth. "I was just—I went to the castle again, the ancestral burial ground, you remember it, but I—"
"Cut apart any more corpses?" Wei WuXian couldn't resist.
"No. I don't know, I don't know, I really don't know." Nie HuaiSang lifted his face, tears building in his eyes.
"Why did you go there, then?" asked WangJi. He settled onto the floor. Wei WuXian dropped onto his lap. Nie HuaiSang could deal.
"I wanted to—just see—I—without my brother, and with everything—with him finally at peace, I thought—I don't know who else to turn to!" Nie HuaiSang clutched his face. "I thought if maybe I went there, I'd have some idea of what to—how to lead, but I don't. I'm still—a failure." He kicked the floor with the toe of his boot.
Wei WuXian froze. He'd never heard Nie HuaiSang use such a disparaging term for himself. Usually the man just focused on the beautiful things he could create, the fans, not worrying about his low cultivation.
Unless you did it all to cope.
You can't bear to let Nie MingJue down, even though he's dead.
You want to make him proud.
For all Nie MingJue's talk about breaking his brother's legs, Wei WuXian suspected their relationship was more like Jiang Cheng's with Jin Ling, but with slightly better communication. You adored each other.
You don't want him to be gone.
"And then someone—" Nie HuaiSang gulped. "Someone hit me over the head, and I didn't even see them coming, and when I woke up I had—I had this mark, and I don't even—"
Wei WuXian rubbed his temples. "Do you have any remote idea?"
Nie HuaiSang shook his head. Tears dripped down his face. He wiped them with his sleeve. "I don't want—to die."
Wei WuXian swallowed. "Well, I can't say I'd recommend it."
"I asked Sisi to come and cook," said Nie HuaiSang. "She accepted."
"Good," said WangJi. Thunder rumbled in the distance.
"I knew Mo XuanYu," said Nie HuaiSang softly. "He was eager to please. He was sweet. He didn't deserve—"
"Did he actually harass Jin GaungYao?" wondered Wei WuXian. "I've often been curious. Or was it another one of LianFang-Zun's lies?"
"Not a lie, and not the truth," Nie HuaiSang insisted. "He—Jin GuangYao was the only one kind to him. Mo XuanYu didn't understand manners, he didn't sleep well, he preferred learning painting to cultivating, but he tried to do well, he really did. And no one liked him because he was so eager to make them happy. It made them want to make him unhappy for some reason. People are like that. They don't like insecure people who reveal their weaknesses."
So you turned yours into a strength, a disguise.
"But Jin GuangYao cared about him. He really did. He helped him, and then no one could make fun of him, not with his protection. And then Mo XuanYu kissed Jin GuangYao once. He could have simply lectured him, cut off contact with him, but he made a big deal of it because he—he'd done the same thing that happened to Jin GuangYao when he fell in love with his half-sibling. Except Mo XuanYu knew he was his brother when he did it, and Jin GuangYao kicked him out for it. I don't believe he hated him for it, though."
Jin GuangYao kicked Mo XuanYu out, banished him, because he was just like him. And he couldn't bear the reminder. Wei WuXian felt sick.
"But Mo XuanYu was just lonely," said Nie HuaiSang. "He liked the attention. And now he's dead because I knew he was thinking of—"
Taking his own life.
So you could have yours, and so I could have mine, and so your brother could rest.
Wei WuXian suddenly felt as if the Nightless City was closing in. He could smell the blood, feel the writhing bodies, feel the utter and complete horror and despair gnawing at him.
When he was torn apart at the Siege of the Burial Mounds, he almost felt like it was a relief, to have it over, and then the horrifying realization struck him: I am about to die.
I don't want to die!
And then, blinding pain, red and black, nothing, waiting.
"I know I did something unforgivable," said Nie HuaiSang. "I didn't stop him. Do you think he would ever forgive me? My brother wouldn't. He'd be ashamed of that, even if it was the only way to get—to bring peace—to stop—"
"I don't know," Wei WuXian said softly. "I can't say. I never knew Mo XuanYu."
"I did not want him to die. Or Qin Su. I was—too scared to take him in, or warn her myself. And too—" Nie HuaiSang grimaced. "You might want to consider—who has been used to attack Jin Ling."
"Hm?" Wei WuXian wasn't prepared for the conversation slinging back around.
"Servants," said Nie HuaiSang.
"Jin Ling's own—"
"Yes, but were they Jin GuangYao's before—"
"No," cut in WangJi. "They were not. And as for the fire, we have no idea whom—"
"Someone disposable," said Nie HuaiSang. "The servants, and whomever lit the fire—probably another servant. Look for someone who uses people, who is not close to people."
"So someone like you," said Wei WuXian slowly. "Who is not you?"
"Yes." Nie HuaiSang met his gaze. "They clearly have no problem going after a proxy of Jin GuangYao and they are using proxies in the servants. They are probably not a very powerful person, but they have enough power to disguise it." Rain pattered down outside, striking the window. He jumped. "And can you please help me when it comes to this curse mark?"
WangJi nodded. Wei WuXian ran through a list of people in his mind. "Why are you telling us now?"
"Because I presume they'll strike this week." Nie HuaiSang shivered.
Not if Wei WuXian could help it. He and WangJi, and Jiang Cheng and XiChen, they could save Jin Ling. He believed it.
"Oh," said Wei WuXian. "Let me see your arm. WangJi, is this the sort we need to have a virgin guard the door to protect against, or—"
"Probably." WangJi sighed. "I will find SiZhui again." Last time they dealt with this type of threat, SiZhui had done the duty.
"You can't?" cried out Nie HuaiSang.
"I'm married," WangJi pointed out. Wei WuXian howled with laughter.
But SiZhui appeared to be off with Jin Ling and JingYi. Night hunting, Wei WuXian supposed. Oh well. Early start for them, though, and poor timing with the conference. Then again maybe Wen Ning thought it best to keep Jin Ling away? He'd ask later.
Good thing there was one person who could still do the virgin guard duty.
Jiang Cheng scowled as he sat by the door of the inn, sword in hand, waiting for some kind of—who knew what. All to help Nie HuaiSang. Pah!
He slumped back, tapping his foot. Of course, Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi got to sit inside. And Jin Ling was off—wherever. Irresponsible, that boy. Even if he was scared. Jiang Cheng needed to give him another talking to before the conference began the next day.
"It has to be you!" Wei WuXian had insisted.
"Why?" Jiang Cheng demanded. "Don't tell me it's because I'm the strongest. I know it's for some other reason." And then guilt crashed into him: what if it wasn't?
Wei WuXian bowed his head and mumbled something so fast Jiang Cheng had to ask him to repeat himself. "It has to be a virgin, and you're the most competent virgin here."
Jiang Cheng fought the urge to kill the brother he was determined to reconcile with.
When they were younger, they used to joke about sex, talk about when they'd have it. Now he was in his thirties and hadn't found anyone. Wei WuXian had died, and come back.
I wanted someone to love me.
Not like my parents. I wanted a marriage that was happy.
Jiang Cheng fought the urge to close his eyes. Rain gushed from the clouds above, and light flashed again. Thunder stomped, the ground trembling underneath him. Jiang Cheng squinted. In the lightning, he thought he'd seen a figure in the distance.
He rose, sword in one hand, Zidian in the other.
"I'm no spirit," called out Lan XiChen's voice.
Jiang Cheng relaxed. "You!"
"Me," XiChen confirmed. His hair was plastered to his face, water soaking his robes. "I heard you were on a night hunt."
"Pretty much, except it's more like I'm the prey." And he was not going to tell XiChen why it had to be him. That was information Jiang Cheng preferred to keep to himself. Though he wondered if XiChen would view it as him not living, being afraid to repeat his parents' mistakes, being afraid to grow up, afraid he'd forget them, or as a sign of him being righteous, wise for wanting to marry for love, wise to wait.
I don't even know what it is myself.
"It was join you or speak with my uncle," XiChen informed him, settling down next to Jiang Cheng. "I chose to run away."
Jiang Cheng turned his head towards him.
"You know," said XiChen. "After what you told me last night—"
"I haven't told my brother yet."
"I know, and it wasn't about that." XiChen swallowed. "I often—if I hadn't let my guard down around Jin GuangYao, I wouldn't have lost my spiritual powers—I might've been able to prevent all the lives that were lost in the temple from—I might have—and then you could have told him you knew in your own time."
Jiang Cheng snorted. "You have an optimistic opinion of me, Lan Huan. I never would have." It was for the best.
XiChen pulled his knees up towards his chest. He rested his chin on them.
"What was it like?" Jiang Cheng asked. "Realizing—that you'd—that he'd—"
"Wei WuXian's dog Wen Ning killed Jin ZiXuan!" And he'd punched the first person who told him that, a servant. He didn't believe it. He couldn't hear it. Because if that was true, then he'd lost the man he loved as a brother forever. And if Wei WuXian wasn't around, who else would believe in Jiang Cheng?
He told himself he was enough when he led the siege to kill his brother. Until A-Jie died, he still believed—still wanted—
I wanted even after she died.
I thought if I was free of you, I would be enough.
I thought if I killed you, I would die too, and wasn't that was I deserved?
"I couldn't believe it," XiChen whispered. "Even with the evidence WangJi and Wei WuXian showed me. I didn't—I thought surely A-Yao would—and he pulled out a sword and stabbed himself. I thought he wanted to die, and I couldn't let him, and when I felt him hit me, felt my powers lock, I—I still looked up at him like I thought he would—change his mind." His breath caught. "I don't think I ever felt such—shame when I saw him then kill someone, when he told me we were going to the temple and pulled me along on his sword." He snorted. "Except for now, because even then, I still hoped. I was afraid, but I hoped."
"I know," said Jiang Cheng.
"I was a coward."
Yes. But. "And brave," said Jiang Cheng. Brave, for believing in his brother. Cowardly, for refusing to face the truth. Both true.
XiChen swallowed. His eyes glinted in the darkness.
Something rustled. Both of them leaped to their feet, drawing out their swords.
The bit with Nie HuaiSang (and the whole plot about needing a virgin guard) is based on a yet-untranslated extra in which WWX and LWJ do indeed have to make LSZ guard a door while they wait inside. I probably got some details wrong/was deliberately vague on a lot of them.
Next chapter is a pivotal one. :D
"Fierce corpses?" asked Lan XiChen, even though he knew the answer. Ah, shit. Now Jiang Cheng might think that he was condescending to him. Which really wasn't his intention. He held his flute, the jade cool against his palm.
"Yes," Jiang Cheng responded, taking a step back. "What the fuck did Nie HuaiSang do?"
"Nothing Nie MingJue would be proud of," offered Lan XiChen. He almost smiled.
Jiang Cheng snorted. "Well, at least he did something."
It was always impossible to earn Nie MingJue's good opinion back once lost. But HuaiSang had never lost it. Lan XiChen knew how much ChiFeng-Zun loved his brother.
Why couldn't you forgive Jin GuangYao, brother?
He was scared and wasn't raised with people telling him he could, but rather that he couldn't.
Jin GuangYao, why couldn't you be honest with Nie MingJue? Why weren't we enough? We both loved you. I loved you. He did love you too.
Why wasn't it enough?
Lan XiChen hooked his flute. His grip tightened around his sword.
"If I die for one of your schemes, Wei WuXian, I will personally come back and haunt you," grumbled Jiang Cheng.
"We won't die."
"I know. It felt good to say though."
Lan XiChen chortled. A corpse sprung at him, and he pushed back against Jiang Cheng, using him to help launch himself forward, slicing.
Do I make you proud, Nie MingJue? Saving HuaiSang?
How was your hatred of the Wens any different than his hatred of those who personally wronged him? Were you so afraid to be a person that you couldn't see beyond their name?
Wen Ning… SiZhui…
We were no better than the Wens. Jin GuangYao, slippery as he was, knew that. No wonder he played both sides, serving as a spy under Wen RouHan. Maybe you were more righteous than we were. Because at the very least, you weren't blind.
What even was righteousness? Was it justice to murder those who had murdered you, murder those related to them? How was what Nie MingJue had done so different from what Xue Yang did to the Chang clan?
And I helped. And we condemned him for it—sure, Xue Yang's reasoning was more petty according to what Wei WuXian had said, but—Xue Yang never had as much as they had in the first place—
There is no one righteous, not one.
Our righteousness is what we create together.
Panting, XiChen wiped his blade on the ground. He turned to Jiang Cheng. "Unharmed?" He knew he would be okay.
Jiang Cheng nodded, swiping sweat and rain from his forehead. His eyes widened.
Lan XiChen hesitated. He knew that phrase—Jin GuangYao—
"Fuck!" Jiang Cheng grabbed Lan XiChen's shoulder, wrangling him to the ground. He kicked him back. Swords clanged. A second later, and the fierce corpse lay on the ground, gone. Jiang Cheng clutched his shoulder, blood seeping through. It splattered his throat.
Lan XiChen sprang to his feet. His hesitance—his cowardice— "Jiang Cheng!" Panic clawed up his throat. He grabbed the man.
Jiang Cheng gaped back. "It's—not a bad wound." He tapped the correct acupressure points, halting the bleeding.
"Oh." Lan XiChen reached out, using his white sleeves to wipe away the crimson staining Jiang Cheng's throat. "I am sorry. I—the phrase reminded me of what HuaiSang said in the temple—I know you are not—I know you wouldn't do anything like that, the circumstances aren't the same, I—"
"I don't fault you," Jiang Cheng interrupted. "It's understandable."
Even in my weakness. Lan XiChen lowered his head. If something had actually happened to Jiang Cheng, he—
I couldn't let that happen again.
His hand still lingered on Jiang Cheng's throat. He could feel his pulse beating against the palm of his hand. You're alive.
I'm not fine.
"You don't have to hate yourself," snapped Jiang Cheng. He blew out his breath like it irritated him. "It's—I really do understand. And it was fine. I was here. Just make sure you get over it before you go out night-hunting, or get a partner to cover you. Since I don't know if you can get over it."
His tone wasn't rumbling with thunder. Lightning struck nearby, illuminating his face in a bluish-silver glow. You can't get over it.
You never did.
You looked for him, hoping, hating, him, you.
"You will be okay," Jiang Cheng added, face reddening.
Lan XiChen tried to nod. His head wasn't moving, as if his skull was screwed into his spine. "So will you."
Jiang Cheng almost smiled.
How many people have seen your smile?
He could trust again. He trusted Jiang Cheng. He wasn't broken. He wasn't ruined. He was—he was—
He lifted his hand away from Jiang Cheng's neck, studying the blood. Raindrops dripped down skin, washing it clean.
And there was only one thing left to say, since I'm sorry would probably be greeted by a snapping Zidian and a scowl, and Lan XiChen much preferred his smile. "Thank you."
Jiang Cheng opened his mouth as if to scoff, demand for what? And then he shut it.
You're enough. You've been enough.
Lan XiChen didn't know who moved first, if he returned his hand to Jiang Cheng's neck or if Jiang Cheng snatched his shoulder to squeeze it in comfort, or—but it did not matter. Their lips met. Just a brush at first, and then deeper, both of them opening their mouths, pressing in, breath warm on each other's faces, teeth scraping sensitive skin, fingers tensing, digging into their holds.
I'm kissing Jiang Cheng.
Jiang Cheng's arm wrapped around Lan XiChen's shoulders, holding him close. Jiang Cheng tasted sweet somehow, floral. He was fumbling, clearly, not very experienced, less so than even Lan XiChen if he had to guess. But he was learning, and willing to let Lan XiChen see him learn, and that—Lan XiChen's heart swelled. His breaths came quicker.
The sound of footsteps crunching jolted Lan XiChen out of his reverie. He jumped back, sword in hand. Jiang Cheng copied his movement.
Wen Ning stood there, hair plastered to his neck and face, sputtering. "Y-you—I—Master Wei asked me to—I mean—"
"The threat is done for, unless Nie HuaiSang has offended far more than he knows," Lan XiChen replied, dignified as ever.
"Oh." Wen Ning tried to find words. "Big storm tonight."
"You can go—find them and tell them," said Lan XiChen. "Actually, you should too, Jiang Cheng. I'm—I need to—help my uncle with preparations." He glanced at Jiang Cheng. Later? After the Discussion Conference?
Jiang Cheng nodded. "We'll talk later." He smiled, uncertain, and then his smile relaxed as Lan XiChen smiled back. You're happy.
"Not a word," promised Wen Ning. "I swear it, ZeWu-Jun—"
"It's fine," Lan XiChen said.
He exhaled. I—we— There was so much to think of. He was still mourning. And Jin Ling—what would Jin Ling think? He'd never been very kind to the notion of cut-sleeves. But...
I'm happy, too.
Lan XiChen did not help his uncle. Instead, he went back to his room and paced back and forth, wringing his hands, replaying each moment. And then he slept. And when he woke, it was to someone pounding on his door, and it was not yet five judging by the darkness coating the room. In fact, Lan XiChen would guess it hadn't been longer than a half hour of sleep.
What if it was Jiang Cheng? He scrambled to open the door.
Wei WuXian stood there, arms crossed.
"Hello," Lan XiChen said, but not before his face turned bright red and he knew not even night would disguise it.
"Hello," Wei WuXian said sweetly, slipping inside and shutting the door behind him.
"Is Nie HuaiSang—"
"Oh, he's well. Asleep and safe. Grateful too. Thank you for helping Jiang Cheng."
He knows. He definitely knows. And if he knew, WangJi would know.
"Wen Ning seemed a bit—anxious," Wei WuXian said. "But he didn't tell me anything. He kind of didn't have to. He's not very good at hiding emotions even as a corpse. Like shock, or embarrassment. His stutter returns." Wei WuXian stroked Chenqing, hanging from his hips.
Are you actually threatening me? Lan XiChen laughed. He knew Wei WuXian was not serious, but he was definitely playing up the angle, because he cared about his brother.
Wei WuXian snorted too. He dropped his hands. "No, but actually. What happened between you and my brother?" He winked. "Oh, how the tables have turned. I now get to ask you this."
He'd been so angry with Wei WuXian back in that temple. "We kissed," Lan XiChen admitted.
Wei WuXian clasped his hands over his mouth, hopping up and down.
"I'm excited," said Wei WuXian. "I heard all the female cultivators blacklisted him after he came up with a terrible list and was dumb enough to tell them they did not meet his requirements. Let me tell you them. You don't meet all of them either—well, you don't meet one."
"What?" Lan XiChen felt confused.
"Sit, ZeWu-Jun." Wei WuXian plopped down like he owned the place. He patted the mat across from him. "My brother is a complicated person. His requirements are, and I quote: 'naturally beautiful'—you are—"
"Thank you?" managed Lan XiChen. His skull must be cooking his brain from embarrassment.
"'—graceful and obedient, hard-working and thrifty, coming from a respected family'—all of these are definitely describing you—'cultivation level not too high, personality not too strong, talking not too much, voice not too loud, spending money not too much. And must treat Jin Ling nicely.'" Wei WuXian leaned forward, eyes glimmering. "You're great with Jin Ling, and you're so proper in everything. Then again your brother was so proper until we got married, and then I found out he likes tying me up, poor me."
"I—" Lan XiChen did not want to know this.
"Really the only one that you don't fit is 'cultivation not too high,' but let's be honest. He only says that because he's insecure and doesn't want to be shown up. But that's not relevant because you've never made him feel like he had to prove himself. You've only ever treated him with respect."
Lan XiChen felt like his head was spinning, and he loved it but he was still disoriented. "We just—kissed once—"
"Was there tongue?"
"That's a yes," Wei WuXian concluded. "Look. I want you to be happy and WangJi already threatened Jiang Cheng, but subtly, so now I'm here to help."
"I don't even know," Lan XiChen croaked. "He—I—there's a lot of baggage—" But I want.
"For both of you. Oh, my brother loves dogs. He names them after prostitutes, though. Not actually prostitutes. Just names that sound like prostitutes' names because he's got a soft fluffy heart. Jasmine, Princess, Love. They got sent away because I was scared and—it was so—he was heartbroken. Get him a dog; it'll keep me away from you both so that's something to—"
"I think that would break his heart," Lan XiChen interrupted.
Wei WuXian shrugged.
He couldn't bear it if you were to step away. "Why do you think he never got a dog, not in all these years?"
Wei WuXian's shoulders froze. "He told you as much?"
"No." It seemed obvious. He never knew how to feel.
Wei WuXian sighed. "Well—"
"Your brother is a good man," said Lan XiChen. "But he did some terrible things." Just like Jin GuangYao.
But it's not too late. He's still alive.
I will stand by his side, if he will have me.
"He is a good man," Wei WuXian confirmed.
Lan XiChen wondered if Jiang Cheng would tell Wei WuXian soon. He hoped so. The man deserved to know. Wounds that weren't acknowledged only festered. He would know.
"They kissed," Wei WuXian reported when he entered his room. Lan WangJi sat up. It was a nearly sleepless night, which would surely not serve WangJi well during the conference. Oh well. Wei WuXian felt rested in another way.
Wei WuXian climbed into bed next to WangJi, snuggling up against him. "Your brother seems to really like him."
"Good." WangJi exhaled.
He thought about bringing up what Lan XiChen had said about Jiang Cheng, the dogs, everything. But he couldn't just yet.
He closed his eyes to the sound of WangJi's heartbeats and the feel of him stroking Wei WuXian's hair.
It was barely five in the morning when Lan WangJi shook him awake. Exhaustion tugged at Wei WuXian's eyelids, at the sinews sewing his joints together. He let out a grumbling sound.
"Wei Ying," said WangJi. "Come in!"
A creak. The door opening.
Why're you letting whoever it is inside? Wei WuXian sat up, wondering if SiZhui and Jin Ling had another fight. He covered a yawn.
Jiang Cheng stood there. Oh.
"Jiang Cheng," said Wei WuXian, heart thumping so loud he was sure Jiang Cheng could hear it. His brother would surely thrash him with his words if he heard about what he and XiChen had talked about—but he'd know it was in good fun, and—
"Are you all right?" asked WangJi.
Jiang Cheng's lips were pressed together in a thin line, his eyes rimmed by shadows betraying little sleep on his own part. His brows were drawn together as if he was in the throes of the most agonizing migraine.
"No one slept; we're not all right," Wei WuXian tried to joke. Dispel the tension. Anything. What is going on?
"Thank you for your work last night," WangJi said. "If you want to discuss plans to protect Jin Ling—"
"No—I mean, yes, but not right now." Jiang Cheng sat on the foot of their bed. How presumptuous. Not that Wei WuXian minded, and he couldn't exactly get up at the moment, as he was more in the habit of sleeping sans clothing these days. "I want to talk to you, Wei Ying."
"I'd gathered," Wei WuXian joked. "Or else you wanted to participate in our marriage, but alas, it's happy and adding a third person would not work; I don't like sharing—"
WangJi glanced at Jiang Cheng. "I can silence him."
"How rude!" Wei WuXian pushed his husband.
"No need." Jiang Cheng almost smiled. He then hung his head. "I wanted to tell you something."
"I already spoke to Lan XiChen—"
"You what?" yelped Jiang Cheng. His eyes bulged. "He—"
"Mmph!" Wei WuXian struggled to talk. "Mm! Hrm." No sex for you tonight, Lan Zhan!
"No matter," said Jiang Cheng quietly. "It does seem like everything I expressed disgust with you for, was really just—I wind up—" He clutched his forehead.
"Hmmmm?" Wei WuXian pounded his fist on WangJi's thighs. "Hrmph!"
Anguish riddled his brother's face. "HanGuang-Jun, I want—him to be able to speak. I've never minded."
"That is a lie," replied WangJi, but he lifted the spell.
Wei WuXian exhaled. "Divorce."
WangJi kissed the top of his head.
"Are you done?" asked Jiang Cheng.
Wei WuXian nodded. But really, he was procrastinating and his brother knew that.
I'm so afraid of what you have to say. He bowed his head.
"In the temple," said Jiang Cheng. "I yelled at you. I scolded you—for not telling me about the core."
Wei WuXian closed his eyes.
"You don't need to be."
"No, shut up, you don't understand." Jiang Cheng let out his breath. "I blamed you. It wasn't your fault, but it was—I—I always thought if I was more like you, I would earn my father's approval. I thought—" He squeezed his fists. "I didn't go back for my parents' bodies. Our parents. I didn't go back for them. That is not why I was caught."
Wei WuXian blinked. Jiang Cheng couldn't meet his eyes. His shoulders hunched. "What?"
"I wasn't that stupid. But I—I—I did it because I saw the Wens searching the town, after you'd gone out. I knew they would find you. They were going to find you and I couldn't handle losing you too. I ran out, I distracted them, and I—they caught me and they dragged me back." Jiang Cheng's voice cracked.
He was crying.
Again. Wei WuXian could hardly breathe. Air felt like particles of glass, slicing his lungs. It's true. He knew it. WangJi sat stiff, but his face shocked.
Jiang Cheng gulped. "I did it to save you—I never wanted to tell you because—I wanted to blame you, and yet I know it wasn't your fault, and I—if I told you, then—even if I was like you, always sacrificing, why did it turn out badly for me, and not for you?"
I got ripped apart in a backlash. Limb from limb.
But it wasn't immediate, and he'd never been open about it.
If he was more open, he'd laugh less.
If he was more open, more people would see that he was a boy scavenging the streets.
If he was more open, everyone would know that he brought rot wherever he went. The streets, Lotus Pier, the Burial Mounds.
He felt WangJi's hand on his arm. Not anymore. "Jiang Cheng…"
Jiang Cheng wiped at his eyes. "You were all—I had left. Mom, Dad—A-Jie was still there, but you were—I couldn't lose either of you. And you understood, you meant it when you said we'd be the Two Prides of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect, and I believed you—and I—you—my entire life, I've just wanted to be able to protect you like you protected me." He shook his head. "I couldn't. I—A-Jie could, my mother even could, my father—and I—"
"It's not your fault," said Wei WuXian. "I—" Used laughter as smoke.
You knew I was hurting, even then. You always saw.
"You did protect me," Wei WuXian managed. "You saved me. Thank you—"
"It was easier to hate you," Jiang Cheng whispered. "But—no matter what I said, Wei Ying, I know you loved my sister. I know you loved my parents, even my mother. They knew it too."
"You—" Wei WuXian swallowed. "You were never inferior to me. Never, Jiang Cheng. It's not just that I didn't see you that way—it's that you were never inferior. What is physical talent anyways? You had a good heart. You loved—"
"I'm sorry," Jiang Cheng eked out. "For—killing—for-I just wanted to prove I was the better son. As if they could only love one. No, not even to them, to the world—you weren't—I know you weren't—what they said. It was all a petty grudge!" He sent his fist slamming into their bed.
Wei WuXian leaped forward, grasping his wrist. "Don't hurt yourself!"
Jiang Cheng gaped at him. And then his face turned bright red. "Put some clothes on!"
WangJi covered Wei WuXian with a blanket. "Thank you, Jiang Cheng. For saving him."
They would not have let me live if they'd caught me. They wouldn't just have melted my core. I'd be killed. I wasn't a Jiang.
Jiang Cheng nodded. And then Wei WuXian threw his arms around his brother. And Jiang Cheng returned his embrace, holding him tightly, and Wei WuXian could hear his brother's heart beating fast, and then slowing, like his fear was finally seeping away.
You forgive me. Neither of them felt like they deserved it, and neither of them had to.
And sure as hell we're going to make sure Jin Ling is too.
Well, you gotta know that promise has gotta be disrupted now...
Thanks for reading!
"I'm really sorry," Jin Ling blurted out the next morning when he came across his uncles. Jiang Cheng, Wei WuXian, Lan WangJi, and Lan XiChen all looked as if they hadn't slept. At all. Jiang Cheng's eyes were even red.
Okay, Jin Ling hadn't slept either, but that was because he snuck into SiZhui's room and he and SiZhui lay awake talking until JingYi threatened to suffocate them both with a pillow he held at ready as a threat. And even then Jin Ling's heart pounded too hard, spurred by running over everything that happened again and again in his mind, for him to drift off into dreamland.
I liked it.
I'm really a cut-sleeve now.
He didn't care. It was worth it. He felt something inside him, warm and powerful, like a golden core except stronger, something that couldn't be pulled out or melted no matter what, because those memories existed.
"There's no cure for it!" he'd once taunted Mo XuanYu.
Well, thank God.
"We had no idea you were looking for us," SiZhui added. "We were—studying—"
Lan XiChen arched an eyebrow. "Studying."
"For the conference," Jin Ling put in. "I don't want to look like a fool, even if I am young."
"What were you studying?" Wei WuXian asked pleasantly.
Traitor! Jin Ling would not have expected this from this uncle. "Um—"
"We were with Wen Ning," SiZhui said.
"How interesting," said Jiang Cheng, voice darkening. "Considering I was with Wen Ning."
Oh shit. Jin Ling gulped. Wait, what? You?
Lan WangJi said nothing, but his gaze bore into both of them. Jin Ling suddenly felt stripped, exposed. He glanced at his feet. Fairy blinked up at him.
"Stay safe today," Jiang Cheng added. "SiZhui, thank you for agreeing to watch out for him."
"We'll become sworn brothers," SiZhui said. "JingYi too."
Why are you lying? Jin Ling stiffened. My uncles are married! We can too.
But we can't say it now. This really is the best explanation.
SiZhui lowered his chin. Jin Ling squeezed his elbow. It's all right.
He supposed he was studying after all. Learning how to mince words. And this way JingYi could join them as well. He really did plan to become sworn brothers with JingYi. That way he could hit him at will.
The conference proceeded well. Jin Ling ignored the stares and whispers about his uncle. There was not much he could do. At least, not until that night.
"Okay," said SiZhui after dinner, when they sat in his room, Fairy snuggling up to Jin Ling as if she was worried. JingYi definitely was. He kept gulping some of the Emperor's Smile their uncles hadn't found.
Paperman. Jin Ling could do it. He was confident. Okay, SiZhui was better. But it had to be him.
"Please be careful," whispered SiZhui, clutching his hand.
"I will." Jin Ling pecked him on the lips.
Paper Jin Ling fluttered along the hallways, creeping closer to where the Jin Sect members would be drinking and eating. Okay, not drinking. Wine was forbidden. Still, those jugs of water looks suspicious. Poor Lan QiRen, but really the man should have known.
Someone talk about me already!
He spotted Jin Chan sitting with some of the other boys his age and wriggled his way closer.
Boring. They were talking about porn. I've had sex and you haven't, losers.
"Did you see how Jin Ling keeps the Lan disciples with him at all times?" asked a boy Jin Ling didn't know well. "Is he really that afraid? I can't blame him, except it seems like the Jin Sect doesn't have a real leader."
Fuck you! Being a paperman was frustrating. Jin Ling wanted to give him a paper cut.
"He's not a good one," said Jin Chan, tossing a grape into his mouth. "Did you know, he acts just like his uncles. It's like he has no personality of his own. My dad says he's like his dad, but at least his dad turned out decent until Wei WuXian and that Wen-dog murdered him. And now he's just like Jiang WanYin whom no one likes and you watch, he'll turn out just like Wei WuXian too."
Excuse me? Jin Ling felt his blood boiling. I'd be lucky to turn out like either of them!
"But you have to admit Jiang WanYin is terrifying," said the other boy. "As long as he's looking after him, I can't imagine how—"
"He's a monster no better than Wei WuXian."
No better because they're both awesome, you stupid coward! Disrespectful, bratty, immature—
He'd gotten too close. His paper sliced Jin Chan's finger. The boy yelped.
Yelping from a paper cut? Satisfied and yet knowing this was Not Good, Jin Ling began to hurry away.
"There's some sort of paperman!" Jin Chan leaped to his feet. "It's gotta be the YiLing Patriarch! Again! Remember what he did at the last—"
"Jin Chan," stated one of the adults. "What are you—"
Jin Ling hated being so small. He slunk towards the door.
"There's a paperman! Look—"
And everyone's eyes turned to him.
Apparently mastering the technique was not all what Jin Ling should have been focusing on. Stealth was another necessary skill.
He took off. Everyone lunged. And a cloud of dust blew through the air.
That's no coincidence. Jin Ling scrambled to return to his body. The dust confused the other cultivators, and when he staggered back to his body, blood and dust staining the paper, SiZhui yelped.
"I failed," Jin Ling eked out. "Except Jin Chan definitely seems like he could be—but I don't know—they'll be going after my uncle now!"
"Your uncle? Which one?" yelped JingYi.
"I'll explain later!" Jin Ling leaped to his feet. He stumbled. SiZhui caught him. "Fairy, go find Wei Ying! Protect him!"
Fairy barked, running off, and then Jin Ling remembered that Wei WuXian was more terrified of dogs than death itself. Why am I so incompetent?
"JingYi, can you get Jiang Cheng—"
"On it," JingYi confirmed, taking off.
"We're going to have to tell them about the paperman," Jin Ling managed. "But—we can't tell them who was—"
SiZhui dragged him by his arm. Jin Ling understood. We'll figure it out.
I'm scared though. He wiped at his eyes.
"It's okay," SiZhui said, halting. His hands clutched Jin Ling's shoulders.
What are you doing? We can't halt, we—
"It really is okay," SiZhui whispered. "You're strong enough. You are."
You mean it. He could hear the conviction in SiZhui's voice. Jin Ling met his eyes. He nodded.
"Hey!" bellowed a voice.
Jin Ling whirled. Jin Chan!
"Your uncle is going down," Jin Chan shouted.
"Excuse me?" Jin Ling yelled back. "Not by the likes of you!" He snatched his sword hilt, marching towards him.
"I know it was your uncle," panted Jin Chan.
"What was what?" demanded Jin Ling. He had to feign ignorance. For Wei WuXian's sake. The man barely had his reputation back! And Jin Ling had risked it...
"A paperman! Spying on us, probably to protect you, because you're an incompetent fool who can't protect himself! But that'll look really good on the Lan Sect, inviting people here to spy on them!"
"You're not making any sense!" Jin Ling bellowed at him. Voices tittered around them. People were coming. His heart pounded. A dog barked. Fairy!
"Do you have a reason to be spied on?" asked SiZhui, voice icy.
"You!" Jin Chan glowered at Jin Ling, ignoring SiZhui. "You—you're worth nothing without Wei WuXian, and without Jiang WanYin! With both of them as your uncles, not to even mention Jin GuangYao, that prostitute's son, how could you not be the most incompetent, evil, twisted, corrupted fool that—ah!"
Jin Chan's scream rent the air. He doubled over, blood pouring from his nose. SiZhui stood there, blood smearing his knuckles.
You… punched him? Jin Ling gaped.
"You bitch!" Jin Chan screamed, voice gurgling.
Jin Ling stepped in front of SiZhui. "Fighting's not allowed in the Cloud Recesses!"
"But it's fine for a Lan—"
"What is happening?" demanded a voice.
Jin Ling spun to see Lan WangJi dragging a crying and shaking Wei WuXian, Fairy trotting obediently behind them. "Fairy, come here!"
The dog obeyed. And, of course, Jiang Cheng arrived with Lan XiChen, JingYi panting behind them, and Jin Chan's father and others from his sect. Jin Ling paled.
"He punched me!" Jin Chan pointed at SiZhui.
"You told Jin Ling he was nothing," said SiZhui.
"You're copying in punishment," Lan WangJi told SiZhui, but his voice was gentle. Wei WuXian still hid behind him at the sight of Fairy.
"You!" Jin Chan's father pointed at Wei WuXian. "A paperman was spying on us tonight—we all know how you spied on Jin GuangYao—is this what the Gusu Lan Sect invites guests here for—"
"A paperman?" Wei WuXian's jaw fell open. And then he clamped it shut. His gaze, along with Jiang Cheng's and Lan WangJi's, slid to Jin Ling and SiZhui.
"Don't try to deny it!"
"It's a specialized technique, to be sure, but I'm not the only one who knows it. That being said after dying once I rather relish each breath, and I'm not going to waste time denying it when you have made up your mind." Wei WuXian crossed his arms.
Jin Chan's father glared.
"Please, there is no evidence—" started Lan XiChen.
"I did it," interrupted a voice. "To atone for my past mistakes, I'm trying to protect Jin Ling."
"You!" shrieked the crowd. "How could you—a jade token—you—"
Wen Ning stepped forward, in front of Jin Ling. True shame crawled through Jin Ling, heavy and sticky. He gaped. Why?
"Can a fierce corpse even possess a paper—"
"I can," said Wen Ning.
You stirred up the dust.
You were watching me.
"A Wen-dog protecting you?" spat out Jin Chan. "Jin Ling, you're really shameless!"
"He did not know," cut in Wen Ning.
Which was true. Still. Jin Ling glowered at him. And he knew. He knew he had to perform, and he hated it, and the words he spoke cut his throat. "I can take care of myself, and SiZhui and JingYi are here as well."
Wei WuXian's gaze darkened. He clearly knew what was going on. Jiang Cheng stroked Zidian.
"We will send him away," said Lan XiChen, glancing at Wen Ning, who nodded. "Immediately. I will lead him out to ensure it."
Wen Ning produced the jade token. He handed it over. Lan XiChen escorted him. The crowd began to disperse.
"I will talk to them," Jiang Cheng said, striding after Jin Chan's father. Jin Ling felt lower than scum on the bottom of someone's shoe.
I hate this. I hate myself.
"Come with us," said Lan WangJi. "JingYi, SiZhui, Jin Ling." He led them back to their rooms, Wei WuXian lingering behind in fear of Fairy. Jin Ling ordered Fairy to the corner of the room instead.
They waited in silence. Sweat prickled at Jin Ling's temples.
Lan XiChen arrived first. "Wen Ning will be temporarily barred from the Cloud Recesses. I'll give him his token back when the Discussion Conference is over. " He rested his forehead in his palm. "We'll have quite the explanation to give Uncle."
"Jin XiaoFang wouldn't listen," Jiang Cheng reported when he arrived. "Told me he didn't want to listen to a coreless, pathetic leader."
No! Horror bit into Jin Ling. What did we do? He never wanted Jiang Cheng—such an insult—why was his uncle even repeating this? "He's wrong!"
Jiang Cheng said nothing. He crossed his arms and glared at Jin Ling.
"Wen Ning is not angry with you, Jin Ling, SiZhui, JingYi," said Lan XiChen. "He told me to tell all three of you that, and to stress it with you, Jin Ling."
He wished Wen Ning was. But of course he wasn't. Because Wen Ning felt he deserved to be scorned and hated, and Jin Ling put him in a position where he would be again. Jin Ling hung his head. His eyes stung.
"Jin Ling?" ventured Wei WuXian.
He sucked in his breath. "I just wanted—to—do the right thing. I wanted to figure it out, I didn't want anyone to get hurt—Wei Ying, I sent Fairy to you to protect you—"
"Wait, you were the paperman?" Wei WuXian rubbed his temples.
"I thought it was SiZhui," Lan WangJi admitted.
"I taught him," SiZhui whispered.
"I helped," admitted JingYi.
"Good," said Lan XiChen. "The three of you intended brothers are taking responsibility together." He and Lan WangJi exchanged a glance.
"Uncle, I am really sorry," Jin Ling said, lifting his head even though his skull felt weighted with bricks. "Both uncles. All uncles. I—you aren't—you—"
Jiang Cheng reached out and rested his hand on Jin Ling's shoulder. No threat to break his legs. No threat at all.
Jin Ling's eyes welled up.
"Thank Wen Ning for me," Jiang Cheng said to Wei WuXian. "I know you will see him later."
Wei WuXian nodded.
You're thanking a Wen? Jin Ling poked SiZhui. There's hope.
"Sleep," commanded Lan WangJi. The three of them scrambled to obey. But Jin Ling could still hear the adults talking in muffled voices outside the door even as Fairy pressed her furry side against him because like hell if he wasn't letting the dog on the bed tonight.
"...It's probably best if Jin Ling lies and insists he didn't know," admitted Jiang Cheng. "Otherwise they'll assail him with Wen-sympathizer accusations."
"It's simplest," said Lan XiChen.
"I can say I ordered him to," said Jiang Cheng. "Quite clearly, Jin Chan's father already hates me. I might as well take the blame. Then that will set the path for them accepting the likes of Wen Ning, if they see I can."
"Jin GuangYao would be proud of such a plan," commented Wei WuXian.
"There are no right options," said Lan WangJi. "For every evil he did, Jin GuangYao understood that."
Jin Ling squeezed his eyes shut. I wish there was.
But it did seem like Wei WuXian and Jiang Cheng were working together without snark and snipes. Jin Ling buried his face in Fairy's fur, holding her close. Please.
"These juniors are making us look well-behaved," complained Wei WuXian. "Well, me and my friends. You were always well behaved."
"In public." Lan WangJi shrugged. He felt exhausted.
"It is sweet Jin Ling thought to try to protect me," Wei WuXian remarked, lying back on their bed. "Except, of course, a dog was not the way to do it."
Wei WuXian had started screaming so loudly Lan WangJi thought someone was performing lingchi on him. Turned out it was just Fairy kneeling in front of him like it was offering its services. Sadly they were rejected, but the dog didn't leave, and that was when Lan WangJi knew something was wrong.
"Why are you so afraid of dogs?" Lan WangJi finally asked. He pulled Wei WuXian closer, pressing his face into the crook of his husband's neck.
"When you lose too many fights to them over food when you live on the streets, you'd be afraid too," Wei WuXian retorted. "Plus I used to see people get mad dog disease sometimes. I'd always be scared for weeks after getting a bite that I'd wind up drooling until I drowned too." He licked Lan WangJi's throat as if to tease him.
That sounded terrifying. "There were no rules there."
"No," agreed Wei WuXian. "The fastest and strongest survived, and you had to steal, and sometimes you couldn't, and then—people got sick and died all the time. I used to wish I could die with them, but I didn't want to die either. I just didn't want to be alone. But the other vagrants weren't really—welcoming. They mostly had warnings. When Jiang FengMian found me, I thought he was one of those creepy brothel owners, but he offered to buy me a melon and I thought I could run if I needed to. It took awhile until I believed him."
Lan WangJi rubbed his fingers in circles around Wei WuXian's shoulders. His husband let out his breath.
You don't have to run anymore.
A knock on the door.
"Oh, come on," whimpered Wei WuXian. "We're never getting any sleep. Lan Zhan, your uncle can never host again. I'm done."
Lan WangJi sighed. He heaved himself up to answer the door.
"I didn't know if you were asleep, I'm sorry, I—"
"Oh great," said Wei WuXian, sitting up. "HuaiSang?"
The Head Shaker trembled. "I heard there was—a problem—and after all the help you gave me last night—"
"Help us by letting us sleep," pleaded Wei WuXian. "I beg of you. Mercy."
Nie HuaiSang blinked. "Well, I wanted to—tell you—I wasn't completely honest yesterday."
"Oh fuck," said Wei WuXian. Lan WangJi felt ice settled in his veins.
"I didn't lie! I just—I do know who told me to be at the castle that day," insisted Nie HuaiSang. "Well, I don't know who he was. I really don't know. I just know where he was from. He said—it was related to everything that had happened with Jin GuangYao. I thought it odd because—as far as I'm concerned it's over. But I went, and then woke up with a curse mark."
"So, someone who knows of your involvement?" Wei WuXian demanded. Lan WangJi rubbed his jaw.
"I don't know, I really don't know. I don't think so. He likely just thought I would be upset to learn who really killed my brother and seemed to think I would act in a way I didn't. I just know that he was wearing clothes that suggested he was a servant of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect." Nie HuaiSang cringed, as if expecting an explosion from Wei WuXian over this.
The Yunmeng—a servant?
"But they did not have a silver bell," added Nie HuaiSang, his gaze hardening. Lan WangJi suddenly had a feeling HuaiSang was letting them see what hid behind his fans and his constant act of ineptness. After all these years.
"Imitate the Jiang sect," Lan WangJi supplied. "To stir up enmity between the Yunmeng Jiang Sect and the Qinghe Nie sects."
"Take advantage of the already-stirring chaos," said Nie HuaiSang. "If connected to your assassin—"
"Why would you think it is?"
"Chaos," said HuaiSang. "Now there are murmurs about the Gusu Lan sect's lack of proper hospitality—allowing a Wen corpse—"
Lan WangJi felt something stirring inside him, hot and slithering like a burning serpent. "You are saying Jin—"
"It's just a theory; I don't know, I really don't know—"
"And we can't make an accusation rashly," Wei WuXian mused.
Lan WangJi nodded. He side-eyed HuaiSang. "And why are you telling us this?"
"Because you really did help me last night, even though I—" Nie HuaiSang swallowed. He hunched his shoulders.
"What do you want?" asked Wei WuXian. "After this is over, if it is—"
"I want our sects to survive," Nie HuaiSang interrupted. "That is all. And—" His gaze brightened. "We could get dinner together."
Dinner? Lan WangJi frowned.
Wei WuXian swallowed. He nodded. "Of course, HuaiSang. Old friends."
HuaiSang pulled out his fan, eyes glowing. He nodded. "I'll let you sleep, now."
He's so lonely. Lan WangJi met WuXian's gaze and knew his husband had realized it, too.
He could walk your old path.
He won't. We won't let him.
The next morning, Lan WangJi avoided his uncle's gaze. He whispered to his brother, and Wei WuXian to his, that they needed to talk privately as soon as they could.
Jin Ling, SiZhui, and JingYi all avoided their gazes. Lan WangJi rolled his eyes, sitting down next to his husband. He did not care about the strange looks cast at them. He searched the crowd for the face he was looking for—
And, of course, there Jin Chan's father, Jin XiaoFang, was, arguing with Lan XiChen about the rudeness of the Gusu Lan sect. Lan WangJi gritted his teeth.
"The Gusu Lan Sect has never been anything but hospitable," stated Jiang Cheng. "Sit down."
"You are part of my sect," Jin Ling said. "Take a seat."
"Why would I obey someone who is rude to his own uncle?"
Wei WuXian sucked in his breath. If Jin Ling lost it now—
"Take a seat," Jin Ling said. "I didn't stutter."
"They're too hospitable," called out Jin Chan. His father glared at him, gesturing for the boy to keep quiet.
Wei WuXian nodded, but Lan WangJi's heart picked up pace, pounding and shuddering like he was drunk. Because even as Jin XiaoFang took his seat, Jin Chan's gaze latched onto not Jin Ling, but Lan SiZhui.
"Take a seat, too, or I will throw you out of the sect. I am not kidding," Jin Ling said, rising.
"You? Or will you have your Wen-dog do it for you?"
"Wen Ning is—"
"I wasn't talking about him," said Jin Chan. His finger rose, pointing at Lan SiZhui. "I was talking about Lan Yuan, or, excuse me, Wen Yuan."
I'M SORRY FOR THE CLIFFHANGER
Chapter 15: Standing, Still
I'm updating a day early because I felt badly about the cliffhanger, but, well, this chapter ends on one too so... I'm sorry!!
I do want to warn that the latter half of the chapter involves some homophobia from one character.
Jiang Cheng couldn't believe what his ears were telling him. The rest of the room had erupted into a murmur that hummed so loudly he couldn't think. It felt like a guqin string vibrating in his brain, shredding it.
SiZhui blinked at everyone, horror slowly growing on his face as the meaning of what just happened seeped into him. His mouth fell open. His eyes widened. His brows rose, his jaw trembled, he stumbled back.
For so long he'd been the junior everyone respected, whispered about in approval. And now almost everyone in the entire conference stood, some with hands on their swords, lips curled in hatred. SiZhui turned to Jin Ling, and Jiang Cheng could hear again.
Jin Ling said nothing. His face reddened.
Lan WangJi moved first, leaping in front of Lan SiZhui, guqin at ready. Jiang Cheng had never seen such fury simmering in his eyes. Wei WuXian followed his husband, yanking out Chenqing. Fairy growled from right behind Wei WuXian, and Wei WuXian didn't even flinch.
Your child is in danger.
Jiang Cheng heard the voice beside him, but he didn't register that the accusation was directly at him until he turned and saw Lan XiChen, Liebing in his hand. Lan XiChen's eyes were raw, reddened, as if someone had tried to peel the sheen protecting them back, as if Jin GuangYao stood before him and not Jiang Cheng. And his brow broke. "You!"
You think I told? Me?
He would never. SiZhui was Jin Ling's friend, sworn brother soon enough—removing him would even endanger his nephew—that's it, that's what someone's trying to do!
Jiang Cheng glared at Jin Chan and his father. He unwound Zidian. He glanced at Wei WuXian. If anyone tries anything, I have your back.
Wei WuXian nodded.
But Lan XiChen—he thinks—XiChen wasn't looking at Jiang Cheng anymore. He was looking away, out at the sea of faces, his shoulders shaking. From another betrayal.
I didn't tell anyone!
How could you think that of me? Didn't it matter? Did none of it matter? We kissed—don't I matter?
No. Of course he didn't. Jiang Cheng had lost again. Figured.
But now was not the time. He had to protect the kid. JingYi clutched SiZhui's arm.
"What is the meaning of this, ZeWu-Jun?" roared a voice. "First Jin GuangYao murders your other sworn brother, and now your disciple is a filthy Wen—"
"Do not," cut in Lan WangJi, his voice like the river surging in a storm. "Call Lan Yuan filthy."
"But he's not Lan Yuan, is he?" shouted one voice.
"Is he? Maybe they're lying!" cried out someone from the Jin sect, pointing.
"Quiet!" thundered Lan XiChen. Jiang Cheng turned to see Lan QiRen standing, face ashen, suddenly looking very, very old, as if his beard was made of steel and pulling him towards the ground. And he made his way towards his nephew.
I swear on the graves of my parents if you make the slightest— Jiang Cheng tightened his grip on Zidian.
But Lan QiRen stood next to Lan XiChen, chest heaving and silent. Lan XiChen nodded. "A-Yuan was taken into our sect when he was a toddler. He had a fever; he has no recollection and he is an orphan—"
"And yet," said Jin Chan. "There's a record in your genealogy in your library identifying a 'Wen Yuan' who became 'Lan Yuan.'" The teenager crossed his arms over his chest, smug.
Shit! Why do you morons have to write everything down?
"Indeed," said Lan XiChen. "We rescued him after the Siege of the Burial Mounds. He was the only survivor."
"How do we know that?" wailed a female cultivator. "Maybe—"
Blood boiled inside Jiang Cheng.
"Are you all truly ready to accuse a child?" demanded Lan XiChen. "Of what, even? SiZhui only recently learned of this—he is a righteous boy, our most talented pupil, trained by HanGuang-Jun—"
"The cut-sleeve who married the YiLing—"
Does nobody remember what happened with Jin GuangYao?
Apparently not. Not when it was convenient to forget it, not when blood surged and directed them towards a target.
"I am a Lan disciple," SiZhui said suddenly. "I am, and I—"
"How would we trust—"
"We all know better—"
"He was probably the one targeting the Jin boy—"
"I'm your sect leader!" bellowed Jin Ling. His eyes met Jiang Cheng's, Fairy's too, and Jiang Cheng knew that the boy would no longer call out for his help. But he still needed it, wanted it.
And you still have it. Jiang Cheng nodded, heart pounding. Whenever you cry, I'll answer. You can do this.
Jin Ling drew in his breath. "I am the leader of the Linling Jin Sect! And you're accusing someone I consider like—like my sworn brother, whom I trust more than anyone else in this world. I knew this. Recently. SiZhui told me himself."
He did? Jiang Cheng was impressed.
"I'm not changing my mind," Jin Ling declared. "He's my friend. The Wens have been gone for how many years now? I'm the person here with the most reason to hate them of anyone! To hate Jin GuangYao, to hate Wen RouHan, to hate—" He shook from head to toe. "They're gone! Except him. The Wens aren't responsible for your problems any more than the YiLing Patriarch ever was, any more than Jin GuangYao is now. We are!"
Electricity sparked down Jiang Cheng's spine, as if Zidian was alive inside it.
He's your grandson, Mom.
"This disunity is our fault! We've let things—tear us apart, but it's not—he's been raised a Lan, he is a Lan, he is whom he wants to be! Jin ZiXuan wasn't horrible for having Jin GuangYao as a brother! Unless you want to say my father was corrupted by nature of his blood?" Jin Ling grasped his sword. "If you do, then you, the same people who adored Jin GuangYao and now hate him—for reason—then you have to give SiZhui the same chance! He's not defined by his heritage any more than I am by mine!"
Lan XiChen's knuckles were white on his flute. Jiang Cheng heard each accusation against Jin GaungYao strike XiChen, and there was nothing any of them could do.
"Sect Leader Jiang," said Nie HuaiSang, tottering to his feet, fan waving wildly as if to keep from fainting. "You, too, have a reason to hate the Wens. You've always hated them the most of anyone, save for my honored, departed brother." His gaze bore into Jiang Cheng's, and for a moment, he looked far more like Nie MingJue than he ever had before, something like righteousness knitting his skin together. "And you go to great lengths to protect your sister's son. Tell us. Tell us what you think."
"I trust my nephew's judgement. And I trust the Lan Sect as well, and I trust my own observations of Lan Yuan's character, in which I have nothing to complain about," Jiang Cheng said. "I don't want to hear another word about this." He took a step back, and then he sat back down.
Lan XiChen would likely think it was because he didn't care.
You think—you really think—that I— The accusation shredded something inside Jiang Cheng. You think I betrayed you. And he hadn't even said anything last night when the stupid man called Jiang Cheng coreless, knowing that it was impossible to keep a secret. Regardless of which junior told, or Wen Ning, or HuaiSang... does it even matter?
Nie HuaiSang sat down with a sigh. And then Jin Ling pulled Lan SiZhui and JingYi down next to him, Fairy laying her head across SiZhui's lap.
The cultivators lowered themselves, one at a time. Wei WuXian realized he was standing mere centimeters from a dog and fled.
And the conference resumed, but Jiang Cheng heard none of it. XiChen wasn't looking at him. And he kept hearing that word in his mind.
His blood tried to boil itself, but he didn't have the energy. He really should have known, though. He was never going to be good enough. Somehow, some way, something would fuck things up. If it wasn't him, it was his fucking luck. His brother, the Wens, some petty Jin. And him. And always him. Who was he kidding?
Hopeless, useless, worthless HOPElessUSElessworthLESS—
Why can't I have something?
When the conference ended, Jiang Cheng escorted his nephew to his room. He glanced down at Jin Ling, who kept his head high.
I do. I do have something. I have you.
What if Lan XiChen told him that Jiang Cheng told on SiZhui? But he hadn't. He really hadn't. Surely Jin Ling would believe him.
Would he? Why would he? He was hardly kind to the boy in words. Deed, sure, but—
I want you to know it. Even if—even if I don't get to say it again. Even if you never want to hear from me again.
"I'm—proud of you."
Jin Ling almost tripped over Fairy. He blinked up at his uncle, and his eyes shone.
"Your mother would have been crying in pride," Jiang Cheng said. "Your father patting her shoulder, smiling. Your grandparents, too—my mother would have been bragging about how strong you were—"
You did what I should have done years ago. For Wei WuXian.
You are teaching me.
Jin Ling grabbed him in a hug. Jiang Cheng sucked in his breath. He didn't know what to do, where to put his hands, what to—
"Thank you, Uncle," Jin Ling said. "But really, I just asked myself what I thought you'd say." He followed SiZhui and JingYi and Fairy into their room.
The boy was lying.
No, he wasn't.
Jiang Cheng reached up and touched his cheekbones. His fingertips came away wet.
"Jiang Cheng!" Wei WuXian scrambled down the hallway towards him, face dark. "I've called Wen Ning back—they can suck it; fuck that prejudiced promise—" His hands were shaking.
SiZhui really is your child, and you're ready to burn down a sect to protect him.
Mom would be proud of you, too.
"We need to figure out how they—it has to be them behind Jin Ling's—and HuaiSang's—"
Wei WuXian tugged Jiang Cheng into the jingshi. Lan WangJi and XiChen already sat there. And HuaiSang and Lan QiRen, who both rose.
"We were discussing protective measures," Wei WuXian explained.
HuaiSang covered his face with a fan. XiChen arched his eyebrows, but he still wouldn't look at Jiang Cheng.
"No, we weren't," said Lan WangJi. "The conversation had shifted. We were discussing something else."
"I'll be off now," said Lan QiRen. "Wen Ning, I am sure, can protect Jin Ling and Lan Yuan. Just make sure no one knows he's back at the Cloud Recesses."
So you've agreed to a lie and a broken promise?
"I'm glad to hear it," HuaiSang wheezed.
"HuaiSang has a different theory," Wei WuXian hurried to say. "That someone is trying to stir up chaos between sects—" He explained about the Jiang sect disguise.
Jiang Cheng's jaw dropped. He clutched the silver bell that hung from his waist, rolling it around in his palm. "But what happened today felt personal."
"It did." Wei WuXian blew out his breath. "Hey, what were you discussing if the conversation shifted since I went to get Jiang Cheng?"
Lan WangJi folded his hands.
"My brother told our uncle that today's mess was all his fault," Lan XiChen supplied.
Jiang Cheng almost keeled over as he went to sit. Wei WuXian gasped.
"Not in so many words," Lan XiChen said.
"I told him that this was the result of passive righteousness," Lan WangJi said. He met his husband's gaze. "I told him that this is the result of four thousand rules carve into inanimate rock, instead of living it. It's not righteousness at all. It's cowardice to write rules without considering why someone would be compelled to break them."
Lan WangJi's words dug into Jiang Cheng's bones. He nodded.
"We were all about to fight in the Cloud Recesses to protect SiZhui," Wei WuXian said. "Even your uncle."
"Why?" Lan XiChen's voice finally asked. It cracked. "Why did you tell—last night, did you really think you could trust Jin—"
"What?" Wei WuXian whirled to his brother.
Jiang Cheng leaped to his feet again. His chest heaved. Lan WangJi's face darkened as he registered his brother's words. And finally, Jiang Cheng's blood boiled.
"Why bother telling you anything?" Jiang Cheng spat out. "You've already made up your mind!" He turned. I'll let the three of you solve everything.
"It wasn't Jiang Cheng!" burst out Wei WuXian.
Jiang Cheng froze. You, of course—
"There's no way! He wouldn't endanger a child's life! Especially not one so close to Jin Ling's!" Wei WuXian was actually shouting. "Didn't you hear what Jin Chan said? It's in your own sect's fucking genealogies! In that stupid library!"
"Why are you so convinced you'll be betrayed again?" demanded Wei WuXian. "Jiang Cheng is no traitor—"
Jiang Cheng let out a brittle laugh. "Did you forget the Siege of the Burial—"
"I didn't forget! I'll never forget! I'll just stand beside you anyways!" Wei WuXian grabbed Jiang Cheng's shoulders, forcing him to face him. His lips twisted. "I just know that you didn't betray XiChen's confidence, and—I'm—I won't lose you again!" Spittle flew from his lips.
You—lose me? Jiang Cheng couldn't even look past Wei WuXian's face at the Lan brothers. He only saw his brother's desperation, his fear, and he felt his own panic and despair, and he knew this was what Wei WuXian felt on the Burial Mounds. Why bother? Why not be the villain you've already made up your mind I am?
Because there were two hands clutching his shoulders now.
We both died then, didn't we? To our worst instincts. You, literally. And me, I was privileged enough to live, but live dead.
Wen Ning had more life than I did.
"You won't lose me," Jiang Cheng choked out.
Wei WuXian blinked. And Jiang Cheng wilted, holding his brother to keep from completely collapsing. His face pressed into Wei WuXian's neck, his shoulder, breathing in the spicy scent he always had, even now in a new body. He felt numb, and alive in every nerve, he felt cold and hot, he felt broken and soothed, he felt lost and at home, arms around him even if everything else was so unfamiliar. "Thank you."
"I'm sorry, too."
Lan WangJi finally cleared his throat. Jiang Cheng pried himself away from his brother. When had they knelt down? Why were they both crying?
"Well," said Lan WangJi. "Jiang WanYin. Did you tell anyone of SiZhui's heritage?"
Jiang Cheng met his gaze. "No."
"I believe you," said Lan WangJi. As simple as that.
Jiang Cheng nodded. And then he turned his gaze to Lan XiChen, who sat stricken, loathing on his face. But not for Jiang Cheng. For himself.
It was like looking into a mirror. Jiang Cheng knew that feeling. It was the GuanYin temple all over again. You were wrong; you were so wrong.
What does it mean if the most righteous things you did were the most evil?
You were not so angry at Jin GuangYao as you were at yourself.
Jiang Cheng met Lan XiChen's eyes.
"I am sorry," whispered Lan XiChen, but it was clear he had no expectation of forgiveness.
And Jiang Cheng didn't know what to say.
You aren't hopeless, useless, worthless.
I wish you thought I wasn't.
"We also didn't mention this last night," said Wei WuXian slowly. "But whoever told Jin XiaoFang about Jiang Cheng's core... none of us would have told. And I don't believe any of the juniors would have. The more obvious answer is that Jin Chan or Jin XiaoFang is behind what's been going on, and they overheard that time at the brook."
"Forget my core," said Jiang Cheng, exhaustion gnawing at his chest. "I don't care. Let them know." He didn't mean it, and he wished he did. But... "I want to catch these people. I don't want them hurting Jin Ling again."
"I don't want them hurting anyone again," Lan WangJi said.
"I'm sorry," mumbled SiZhui. Fairy's head rested on his lap, tail slapping the floor.
"You have no reason to be sorry," Jin Ling retorted. "Fuck them. Fuck all of them." He crossed his arms.
He hated this. Even for what he said, even with people allowing SiZhui to stay—it was wrong this had happened in the first place, and protecting SiZhui physically didn't protect him from words. And the words hurt the worst.
"Arrogant… princess like his father… peacock… flaunting his wealth… no mother to teach him… Jiang YanLi would have been ashamed of his behavior…"
But according to Wei WuXian, his own father had insulted his mother not just once, nor twice, but three times before he confessed publicly, and it still took time. And his father tried to reconcile Wei WuXian with their family. He learned. And Jiang Cheng meant it when he said his father would have been proud of Jin Ling.
If I was, so what? Can't I do better?
If I was perfect, humble and talented, you still would have died.
Jin Ling wrapped his arms around SiZhui's shoulders. SiZhui laid his head on Jin Ling's shoulder.
"And, goodbye," announced JingYi. "See you later." He scrambled out of the room.
"We're not going to start fucking with you around!" yelled Jin Ling after him. Oh well. He swallowed. "I wish I was better at knowing what to say. But I don't."
I can't scrub it away. Today happened. Even with what I said—what they said still was said, too—
All I can do is sit here with you.
SiZhui sniffled. "That's okay."
For all Jiang Cheng's anger at Jin Ling being made an orphan, had he considered the Wen children who were orphans too? War is horrible.
But his uncle had stood up for SiZhui today. He had Zidian ready. He wasn't going to let his reputation stand in the way of SiZhui's wellbeing.
Uncle, you really are my inspiration.
I want to be like you.
I want to be better.
You are doing better.
"Thank you," whispered SiZhui.
"You don't need to thank me," Jin Ling said. "I'll be here. I love you."
"Yeah, well, not really, but someday everyone will know. I can't wait to see Jin Chan's reaction in a few years when I marry a Wen. In a ceremony. We're not eloping like Lan WangJi and Wei Ying did. I want to see you in a scarlet robe."
SiZhui snorted. "You just want me to see you in a scarlet robe."
"Maybe." Jin Ling tossed his hair. "You'll have to control yourself, though, you know. Or people will talk. No ripping it off me until that night—"
SiZhui shoved him. They both laughed.
"And hey," Jin Ling added, reaching out and lacing both his hands through SiZhui. "My uncle likes you."
SiZhui smiled. He leaned closer, lips brushing Jin Ling's.
"I do have to ask," Jin Ling added. "Where did you learn how to—"
"HanGuang-Jun had a collection of erotic—"
SiZhui's face reddened. "He does! I found it once and—thought it was—but then when he married Wei—"
"Well, thank him for me."
"No way!" SiZhui moaned. "Thank him yourself!"
"I will," Jin Ling teased. "In twenty years." He grabbed SiZhui's shoulder blades, pulling him on top of him. SiZhui's mouth covered his. Fairy whimpered, backing away.
Oh shut up, stupid dog. Jin Ling brushed the ends of SiZhui's head ribbon, the strands decorated with embroidered clouds tickling his neck.
SiZhui sat up, straddling him. He untied the hair ribbon and reached down, tying it like a ribbon around Jin Ling's ponytail. "It's yours."
Jin Ling swallowed. Someday he'd have one made for SiZhui with the Lan Sect's clouds and the Wen Sect's sun. I don't want you to be ashamed of being a Wen. He sat up, pressing himself against SiZhui, digging through the boy's now-loose hair. SiZhui's hands gripped his waist. Fairy snuffled. And then she barked.
"Huh?" Jin Ling blinked. "Fairy, stop—"
Jin Ling whirled. SiZhui's robes were half-hanging open, Jin Ling had a bruise on his neck—and Jin Chan stood there, along with a crowd of other disciples, one of whom held JingYi. JingYi's eye was swelling as he struggled. And they weren't all kids.
Jin Chan's lip lifted in a sneer. "Well, well."
Jin Ling didn't have time to say or do anything. Hands grabbed him, yanking SiZhui away from him. "Fairy—"
The dog yelped, darting around Jin Chan and scrambling away—but then Jin Chan kicked her. Fairy shrieked.
"Cut-sleeve—disgrace—so that's why—"
The voices all blurred together. Jin Ling reached for his dog, his friend, his lover—someone—no one was coming—just us—
Hands yanked at his hair. His scalp stung. Something wet like spit slapped his cheek. An elbow landed in his eye. He could hear SiZhui screaming for him. A boot landed in his back. His face hit the floor. Hands grasped him, yanking his arms behind his back.
"What is going on?" bellowed a voice. The doors slammed open. Electricity snapped.
He knew that sizzling sound. Jin Ling craned his neck, struggling to look up. His cheek stung from a scrape, salted tears burning in the wound.
Jiang Cheng stood there, more enraged than Jin Ling remembered even at the GuanYin temple. And so stood Wei WuXian, Lan WangJi, and Lan XiChen, all with weapons ready, swords and instruments, killing intent spilling through the air. He didn't understand how they knew. How they came here. No one would have gotten them.
And then he saw who stood behind them. Wen Ning! You came back!
Still, three people were holding him down, even more holding SiZhui—Jin Chan had kicked SiZhui in the crotch, and the boy was moaning, and vomit splattered his white robes—and there was no way they were getting out of this.
Chapter 16: Threads and Ribbons
I'm updating early again because of the cliffhanger :P
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Wen Ning had burst into the jingshi. "Come with me, now!"
There could only be one, or really three, causes behind the corpse's panic. All four of them grabbed their weapons, whipping through the Cloud Recesses after Wen Ning. Jin Ling! Lan SiZhui! Lan JingYi!
Jin Ling's room was crowded with cultivators from the Jin Sect. One of them twisted Jin Ling's arms behind his back. Jin Chan. Jin Ling's hair hung around his face, disheveled. SiZhui's face was screwed up in pain, and judging by the blotch on his cheek, someone had spit on him. His hair streamed around him—
Lan WangJi's gaze fell on Jin Ling's drooping ponytail. A cloud-embroidered ribbon hung from it. And in that moment Lan WangJi knew the situation was far worse than what he'd thought.
Wei Ying's mouth hung open. He, too, had seen it. XiChen closed his eyes for a moment, face somber.
Jiang Cheng's brow crumpled, still not realizing. "Get your hands off your sect leader—"
"Why should we? We saw what happened the last time a man of dubious morals, the son of a whore, led our sect!" shouted Jin Chan. "We all saw! Now we have a cut-sleeve—"
"Do not insult—" Zidian sparked.
"They were kissing!" Jin Chan insisted, face red. "I saw them! Wen Yuan had his hands under your nephew's tunic!" He kicked at Jin Ling.
Jiang Cheng's mouth dropped. He didn't believe it, most likely. Lan WangJi gritted his teeth. If the man turned against SiZhui...
"Fuck off!" snarled Jin Ling, glaring up at the boy. "This is my private—"
"And I came to apologize, in front of people, and found—"
"You did not come to apologize!" Jin Ling bellowed. "That's a lie! You—" He gasped, looking to his uncle.
Jin Chan twisted his arm. Jin Ling cried out.
"Stop!" screamed Jiang Cheng. "You little—"
"I thought you hated cut-sleeves!" Jin Chan spat on Jin Ling.
Jiang Cheng looked as if he was going to rip the boy's tongue out. "If you don't get your hands off my nephew, and if your minions don't follow suit with their hands on Lan SiZhui, and if they show either of them any more disrespect, you're going to find out just what I hate!" Zidian snapped and sparkled in the air. "And JingYi too!" he added.
Lan JingYi glowered at Jin Chan, face bruised.
I failed to protect you. All of you. Lan WangJi's heart pounded. SiZhui—
SiZhui, I already knew about you and Jin Ling.
SiZhui, I wish I could protect you more.
SiZhui, I'm glad you are happy.
"I'm not lying!" Jin Chan bent down.
Lan WangJi's eyes swept the crowd. No sign of Jin Chan's father. In fact, it mostly appeared to be servants from Jin Chan's household. You did come here to trap them.
Jin Chan's lips came dangerously close to Jin Ling's ear. "Tell him. Tell your proud uncle just what shamelessness you have. Tell him—"
"What shamelessness I have?" bellowed Jin Ling. "I didn't burst into my sect leader's private chambers! I didn't lead my servants here under the guise of doing the right thing and apologizing to someone I'd publicly attempted to humiliate—only to wind up humiliating myself—when I really just wanted to get revenge! Petty revenge, too!" His chest heaved. He spat up at Jin Chan.
Jin Chan snorted. He yanked at the hair ribbon, holding it up.
Jiang Cheng's face paled.
"Yes, so what?" snapped Jin Ling.
Excuse me? Lan WangJi was not expecting this at all. WuXian rubbed his temples.
"So what? So—"
"Why should I be ashamed?" Jin Ling cried out. "You act like it's such a wrong thing—I'm not ashamed! I'm not at all! I'm only—only ashamed I didn't say this before everyone today! I love him! I love Lan SiZhui, Lan Yuan, Wen Yuan! I love him, and I don't care how you hate that! You've got a lot of nerve acting like it's disgusting when HanGuang-Jun and his husband are right here, and ZeWu-Jun, and—you're the disgusting one, Jin Chan! You're the shameful one! I am not ashamed of him, or of me, or of loving him! Never!" His voice cracked.
Jiang Cheng looked as if his soul had been sucked out of him. Zidian retreated to a ring.
Lan WangJi watched. SiZhui's eyes shone with tears, but also with something else. You really do love him.
"How beautiful," whispered Wei Ying. Because why would he focus on the fact that there were armed people holding the juniors down when such a profession of love had just been made?
"You really think it's shameful?" Jin Ling shouted. "Well, I don't! It's just—love!"
"Release them," ordered Lan WangJi.
Jin Ling wasn't looking at Jiang Cheng. Lan WangJi's chest tightened. Your uncle's no different.
"Why?" demanded Jin Chan. "They were breaking the rules!"
"And your authority to punish them is where, exactly?" asked Lan XiChen pleasantly. "SiZhui is part of our sect, and Jin Ling is our guest. If we want to, we will work it out. It is not your business, and you have no authority here."
Jin Chan's lips pulled back, revealing his teeth. He looked like he was about to scream.
Lan WangJi's heart pounded. What is happening?
Could this boy really be behind all of those attempts on Jin Ling's life and reputation? A boy, wanting chaos in the cultivation world? Why? For his own ambition? What about HuaiSang?
"Jin Chan," whispered one of the servants. The man's grasp of SiZhui's shoulder loosened. JingYi scrambled to his feet, free. He clutched his sword, eyes furious.
"Don't! You can't!" Jin Chan's cry came desperate, shrill.
"Release him," said Jin Ling. "And my dog. And me, too. Judge me on my actions for the sect, not on whom I love."
"Everyone chose to disregard Jin GuangYao's birth circumstances and—"
"I am not Jin GuangYao!" Jin Ling scowled at Jin Chan. "I will make amends for the wrongs he committed, as much as I am able to without crippling the Jin Sect! SiZhui and I have worked out a plan—budgets, and everything!"
Truly? Lan WangJi was impressed.
"He is not Jin GuangYao," stated Lan XiChen. "I of all people can state that. And if you are implying I should be ashamed that my own brother Lan Zhan loves another man, I assure you I am not. We've seen how thinking outside the box can save us many times thanks to Wei WuXian. Rules are a part of the Gusu Lan Sect's heritage, but our application of them is changing. His love for Wei WuXian makes him a better person, and I daresay the same about Wei Ying's love for him. I'm proud of both of them."
A lump grew in Lan WangJi's throat. And you, too, loved another man. And maybe love yet another one, now.
You can't say that. Not just yet. Society is changing too slowly.
But you will, in less dire circumstances.
"Release them right this second, or Wen Ning will tear you to pieces, and no one will stop him," Jiang Cheng finally managed. Wen Ning swiveled to glance at him as if to counter that he surely wouldn't tear a child apart.
"Indeed," came another voice. "Release him, and apologize to my nephew and his husband."
"Lan QiRen?" yelped Wei Ying.
It wasn't just Lan QiRen. The older man stepped into the room followed by men wielding sabers, and a man wielding a fan. Nie HuaiSang lifted the fan away from his lips just long enough to flash Wei WuXian a slight smile to assure him.
What do you know?
Wei WuXian kept watching SiZhui, still held down. He needed to get to him, get to Jin Ling, drag them both away. He trusted Jiang Cheng to get Jin Ling.
"Sect Leader Nie," breathed Jin Chan. "I—"
"Why don't you tell the truth?" prompted Lan QiRen. "Lying is, after all, prohibited in the Cloud Recesses."
"What are you—" Jin Chan's hand wavered. And then he yanked out a sword. Jin Ling yelped, but the sword wasn't kept to Jin Ling's throat—still—again, again—
"Lan Zhan," whispered Wei WuXian. His husband nodded, moving to the side.
"It doesn't take more than a glance through genealogy," said Nie HuaiSang.
"What do you know, you head-shaker—"
Wei WuXian immediately caught on to what HuaiSang was doing. "Insulting another sect leader? To his face? Yours must be quite thick."
The crowd began to murmur.
HuaiSang's fan covered his lips, but Wei WuXian could imagine a smirk there. "I really thought your intention was to create chaos and division between the sects. It wouldn't be hard to do—all you had to do was count on Jiang Cheng to hate Wei WuXian and his husband and thereby, the Gusu Lan Sect, put a curse mark on me and count on me to blame the Yunmeng Jiang Sect, and stage enough chaos over attempts on Jin Ling's life—attempts that were rather pathetic. But that wasn't your goal at all, was it?"
It wasn't? Wei WuXian caught Jiang Cheng's eyes. His brother's brow furrowed.
"Sect Leader Nie—"
"I don't know a lot," said Nie HuaiSang. "But I-I-I do know how to read, to spend time quiet, watching and observing." He swallowed.
This is the most confident you've ever sounded in your entire life.
"You were never targeting Jin Ling at all, at least not as a sect leader. You don't have any enmity with the Lanling Jin Sect. You were targeting the one who loves him the most, the one whose sect you tried to frame by dressing a servant up as a member, the one you tried to drive division between his brother and—"
"Me?" Jiang Cheng's voice darkened. "What's this got to do with me?"
"Leave my uncle out of it!" shouted Jin Ling.
Wei WuXian's heart pounded. He didn't understand. Why would—
"Servants," said Nie HuaiSang. "Ten years ago, a servant who raised Jin Chan's father, who was more like a father to his father, a grandfather to Jin Chan—went to Lotus Pier. He was never heard from again."
Lan WangJi sucked in his breath. Jin Ling struggled. Jiang Cheng stared.
"He blamed Jiang Cheng, of course," said Nie HuaiSang, as if everyone needed it spelled out. "Probably unfairly, I don't know, but—"
Probably not unfairly.
Because Wei WuXian recognized the ashen hue of Jiang Cheng's face. You tortured him, thinking he was me, didn't you?
"How shameful you used servants yourself to try and harm Jin Ling," said Lan QiRen. "No better—"
"What is happening?" demanded a voice. Jin Chan's father, Jin XiaoFang. Wei WuXian stiffened. "Jin Chan!"
"Your son has been targeting Jiang Cheng at your direction," burst out Jin Ling. "My uncle! You cowardly—piece of—"
Jin Chan held the sword to Jin Ling's throat now. "Dad—that's not—don't blame him; you can't blame him!" The scream erupted from the boy's throat, raw. A droplet of crimson appeared on Jin Ling's throat.
"Don't you touch him!" bellowed Wei WuXian. Wen Ning readied himself. If it came down to that—please no, please don't make us act like monsters again!
I won't let you hurt him no matter what. I can't.
"Jin XiaoFang," said Lan XiChen, clasping his hands together. "Tell your son to—"
"Let him go," ordered Jin XiaoFang.
Jin Chan blinked. He stumbled back, lifting the sword. Jin Ling hesitated, and then scrambled to Jiang Cheng's side. Lan SiZhui straightened, having been released at the same moment, stepping towards Lan WangJi.
"Dad?" ventured Jin Chan.
"Is what they are saying true?" demanded the man, his voice flinty and unyielding. And a horrible, toxic sensation spread through Wei WuXian. He wished his heart would slow, fear pumping it through him, but it wouldn't.
"I—" Jin Chan's mouth opened and closed. "Dad?"
His father glared at him. "You've brought shame to our entire—"
"But Dad!" the boy shrieked. "I—you—I saw how angry you were! You loved Fan Mao! He raised you! You said as much when he died! When they announced the discussion conference—you said—you said—you wished it was Jiang WanYin's soul locked in a coffin for eternity, you said you wished—you wished—"
"As if my shidi hasn't lost almost everything?" snapped Wei WuXian. "Except Jin Ling—now me—he's been alone—"
His brother still looked down at Zidian. Jin Ling reached for his uncle, but Jiang Cheng didn't so much as blink.
"Is that an excuse to make everyone else alone?" bellowed Jin Chan. "That's what you said, that's what you said, Dad! I thought—I thought—why are you looking at me like that? Dad! Dad, please—he did it because he hated you! Why would you even defend—"
"I love him," Wei WuXian said. "He's my shidi." His stomach clamped, throat tightening like he was about to vomit. Jiang Cheng, look at me!
The worst kind of public humiliation, and it wasn't undeserved. Still—
"You targeted me because my uncle loves me?" demanded Jin Ling. "You bastard—"
"You are," eked out Jin XiaoFang. "—a disgrace, not worthy of being called my son—how could you think I would want—you've brought such shame to our—"
"But you said 'who does he think he is, punishing people from other clans for his own brother's evil'—Dad!" Jin Chan was crying now. He moved towards his father, and his father looked away, straight towards Jiang Cheng.
And Wei WuXian knew where he'd seen this scene before. Embedded in Jiang Cheng's eyes, trembling in his clipped voice, stiffened in his hunched shoulders, every time Jiang FengMian—
No, not quite. He did love you.
Jin XiaoFang—does he love him at all?
Jin Chan leaped for his father, reaching for his sleeves, and his father shoved him away.
A boy, tumbling down stairs.
Jin GuangYao—Meng Yao—
Lan XiChen's face was whiter than the color of his robes.
I put Jin Ling in danger, when I wanted to save him. The whole reason Jiang Cheng hunted down Wei WuXian was because he wanted to protect his nephew—who knew what else he could lose—
No, it wasn't. It was to protect himself. It was to prove he was better.
It was never about Jin Ling.
Jiang Cheng loved his nephew, though. He did, enough for them to see it. And they targeted him for his love, and for his hate.
He didn't even remember that servant. There were so many of them, nameless faces all insisting the same thing "I am not Wei Ying!"
Why did I kill them? Why didn't I let them go?
Because I never got to see him die. Because I didn't want people to know, and because I did. I wanted to be feared.
Jiang Cheng had never felt such shame before in his entire life. It struck his entire being, wrapping around him and shocking him like Zidian, marring him forever like the discipline whip scar on his chest.
I never was a good man.
"My apologies, Sect Leader Jiang. I may never respect nor like you, but I respect your authority. My son is not worth enmity between our sects. Master Jin RuLan can decide what to do with him." The man bowed.
A bow? Why are you bowing to me?
I killed your servant! Your pseudo-father!
I—I am a murderer.
"What are you doing?" shrieked Jin Chan as hands closed over him. "Get away from me! No! Dad! I want my Dad!"
And those words jolted Jiang Cheng. His knuckles ached, remembering a neck they'd wrapped around. He saw the silver bell dangling from his waist, glinting in the light from the candles. He saw Jin Ling's face, terror, and he saw Jin Chan lunge with his sword at the only person who was around him whom he could reach—
Jiang Cheng leaped just as Bichen blocked the blow. Jin Ling's sword met with Bichen, the force of two swords against one knocking Jin Chan back on his ass.
Jiang Cheng froze, gasping. SiZhui and Jin Ling grasped each other. Wei WuXian ripped Jin Chan's sword away from him.
Murmurs sounded. "Execution… imprisonment… lucky HanGuang-Jun didn't strike him dead… too harsh, the discipline whip it is—"
Jin Chan was crying, writhing on the crowd, screaming wordlessly now. And still his father looked away, jaw set, disgust in his eyes.
What would drive a child to do something like this?
"Haul him to his feet; he'll—"
"No!" Jiang Cheng shouted.
Anguish tore through him, feeling as if it was prying limb from limb. And he turned to face the crowd, standing in front of the boy.
He hung his head. His shoulders slumped. How do you still have energy to fight, Wei WuXian? Time and time again.
I'm so tired.
"If what the boy says is true—" And he knew it was. "—I will take responsibility for it. Let his crimes be on my head."
Shock rippled through the crowd. Lan XiChen gaped at Jiang Cheng.
He couldn't see his face. Black hair covered his eyes, veiling him. But Lan XiChen didn't have to see then to know what he was feeling, the utter guilt and horror, the shame seeping from him, because there was no way to restore a life. Unless you were Wei WuXian and Wen Ning, and even that was—not perhaps ideal nor to be encouraged.
How many Wens did I kill?
How many at the Nightless City—the Wens who died on the Burial Mounds, second chance taken from them because Wei—because WangJi—because I—
Jin GaungYao, I miss you.
You shoved me away. You wanted me to live.
I want to make you proud. I'm sorry I left you alone. I won't do that, ever again.
And Nie MingJue, I want to do the right thing. What it is just changes. I think you'd understand, eventually.
"I will take responsibility," Jiang Cheng repeated. "For the crime against their servant."
A sect leader, taking responsibility for a servant.
"And for all the others."
All of them?
But people still needed him, as a sect leader, the last survivor of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect—
Whether what he did was right or wrong, I don't know.
I just know I am willing to bear the consequences with him.
Jiang Cheng moved to drop to his knees. And a tether holding Lan XiChen back snapped. Lan XiChen surged forward, grasping him, keeping him upright.
"XiChen!" His uncle's voice. Jiang Cheng looked up at him, gaping.
"And I will accept the consequences with him," said Lan XiChen, his voice ringing. "We all knew, and we did nothing. HuaiSang was not leading the Qinghe Nie Sect at the time, nor was Jin Ling leading the Lanling Jin Sect. If Jiang Cheng is to be punished, let me take it with him."
"You don't have to atone—" hissed Jiang Cheng.
"I'm not," Lan XiChen said, meeting his eyes. And he looked past Jiang Cheng then, past the three juniors who huddled together in shock, and met his brother's eyes.
WangJi had looked up to him all the time. But he'd never quite looked like this, terror in his eyes, and yet something else too.
"The child who—"
"Exactly," said Lan XiChen. "A child. Whose father appears to be more responsible than he is."
"I knew nothing!" shouted Jin XiaoFang.
"Clearly not," remarked Wei WuXian. "At all."
"Wait," said Jin Ling. "I get to decide, don't I? Since it's my sect!" He pushed himself to his feet, tugging SiZhui up with him.
"He'll go easy on him since it's his uncle."
"He won't accept his uncle as payment."
"I will go easy on Jin Chan because he's a kid," snapped Jin Ling. "He has to stay at the Cloud Recesses and study for a year. If Lan XiChen agrees."
Lan XiChen blinked. "I—"
"Oh, and my uncle will have to write a formal apology."
"You think words can—" snarled Jin Chan. "I don't want your pity!"
"I don't care what you want. You have it anyways, and I don't want to deal with you. Oh, and apologies can't fix anything, but nothing can fix this, so at the very least it's a start!" Jin Ling glared. Fairy barked. "And he can't torture anyone else. The end."
"The discipline whip—" began Lan QiRen.
"Is hardly a mark of shame, but it would still hurt," said Jin Ling. "Suffering for no reason has no place in the Lanling Jin Sect anymore. Next."
One more chapter (it's a loooong one though). Thank you for reading, and for your support!
The room emptied out. Lan QiRen barked orders, Lan XiChen directing calmly in contrast.
Lan WangJi hesitated, and then followed his uncle. "I'll be back," he promised Wei WuXian. His husband nodded.
"WangJi?" Lan QiRen stopped in the hallway, footsteps clacking and echoing as people escorted Jin Chan away.
Did we make things worse, or better?
When he was a little boy, he could ask his uncle. Is this right, or this one? And his uncle would never refuse to answer him, because WangJi would always listen and obey. He was really the perfect sculpture for Lan QiRen.
No, I never was. I merely wanted… He swallowed.
We'll make them better. It will just be hard. "Thank you," said Lan WangJi. For helping us. HuaiSang went to you, and you—listened to me this time.
Orange light from the candles flickered across Lan QiRen's face. He nodded. His hand reached out as if he wanted to grip his nephew's shoulders, but couldn't quite, not yet. Still, he spoke. "I'm sorry."
A lump grew in Lan WangJi's throat. He had only felt this lump a few times. The GuanYin temple. When he and Wei WuXian bowed and married each other.
When Mother died.
"You did well today. So did your brother. And your husband."
The words patted Lan WangJi on the head, like his uncle used to when he was no taller than Lan QiRen's waist, determined to master the most advanced techniques despite his age and size. Was this the first time Lan QiRen had acknowledged Wei WuXian as Lan WangJi's husband without a sneer, without disgust?
"The Lan Sect founders would be proud," Lan QiRen added.
We're still here. We won't let you and XiChen deal with this mess alone, and you know it, don't you? Now, you do.
Would his father be proud? Lan WangJi didn't know, and he didn't want to ask. He doubted Lan QiRen even had an answer for him. In all likelihood that was a question keeping Lan QiRen up at night.
You miss him still. You wanted him back.
You might still want him back.
"Thank you," he said again, because he didn't know what else to say. I'm sorry I let you down? He wasn't, not at all, so there was no way he could say that. Lying was forbidden, after all. His heartbeat picked up, almost as if he was drunk, but he hadn't had a drop of wine in weeks.
Lan QiRen regarded him, and it might have been the moonlight, silver creeping over orange, but it looked to Lan WangJi as if his lips parted in a smile.
He ventured back to the jingshi, where as he expected WuXian had hauled SiZhui. Jiang Cheng, XiChen, JingYi, and Jin Ling all sat there too. And Wen Ning, too.
"He has arrived," proclaimed Wei WuXian, patting the seat next to him. "Now to begin our epic scolding session." He spun to face the three juniors.
Lan WangJi sighed. How pathetic to tease them now. He dropped down next to his husband.
"Am I going to be punished?" whispered SiZhui.
"No," said XiChen. "I'm the leader here. You will not be punished for falling in love. Never again." He wasn't looking at Jiang Cheng, but Jiang Cheng was definitely eyeing him. Lan WangJi rubbed his chin.
SiZhui hung his head. The marks on his neck were definitely apparent now. Jiang Cheng clutched his forehead at the sight. His mouth opened and closed as he and Wei WuXian gestured towards each other, Wei WuXian shrugging as if he didn't understand and Jiang Cheng incensed as he patted his neck. Wei WuXian scratched his head.
"But—" SiZhui began. "We—"
"You are still so young," blurted out Wei WuXian, suddenly getting with Jiang Cheng was saying. "You—SiZhui! Lan Yuan!"
"Did we have to tell them that?" interrupted Jin Ling, voice dry. "Oh well. I'm a sect leader. I get to do what I want."
"That is not how this works," snapped Jiang Cheng. "You are a guest here. The Cloud Recesses forbid—"
You're also moving so fast. Then again, Lan WangJi had moved too slowly, so what did he know? "Stop trying to punish yourself, Lan Yuan."
SiZhui lifted his head, meeting Lan WangJi's eyes.
"You do not have to apologize for your birth," said Lan WangJi. "Or for your life, or for your name."
Both Wei WuXian and Jiang Cheng looked to him, eyes wide. Lan XiChen closed his eyes, giving a small nod.
"See!" Jin Ling pointed at SiZhui.
"You knew," Wei WuXian said suddenly, gesturing to Wen Ning.
Wen Ning glanced at Jiang Cheng, speaking to him. "I did."
Jiang Cheng swallowed. "It's not a problem."
Hm. Lan WangJi nodded.
"I'm really sorry," JingYi said. "I—tonight I went out, and ran into that crowd—and I tried to distract them, but they—said something about HanGuang-Jun and I got mad and punched them and then they overwhelmed me, still insisting they had good intentions when I knew they didn't, or at least Jin Chan didn't, and Wen Ning went to get—"
"Thank you for getting us," XiChen said. "JingYi, it's okay. You are learning."
JingYi scowled, pulling his knees up to his chest. "I shouldn't have lost my temper."
"No, you shouldn't have," XiChen agreed.
"People are gonna talk now," said Jin Ling. "And I don't care. Though maybe I should."
"Anyone in the Yunmeng Jiang Sect who talks has to deal with me," Jiang Cheng said. He sighed as if realizing he maybe was not in the best position to pass judgement. And he looked to Jin Ling, who gulped. "I'm proud of you."
"Even if you think it was foolish of me to—"
"I'm a cut-sleeve," Jin Ling said bluntly.
"Hmph," said Jiang Cheng. "That's a stupid term. I'm glad you found someone who loves you and whom you love." His voice cracked. XiChen clutched his knees. "Jin Ling—"
"I'm sorry I made you feel like you couldn't tell me things." Jiang Cheng looked as if necessity was sticking its arm down his throat and prying the words from his mouth, but the more he spoke, the more color returned to his face, the more he sounded confident.
Jin Ling's lips curled. "Huh?"
"It's my fault. I am sorry. But in my whole life—you are the thing I—the person I—am the most proud of."
You see him as your son, not as your nephew. Lan WangJi looked to SiZhui. He and Wei WuXian felt the same.
"I'm glad you stood up for me today," said Jin Ling. "Thank you. And—thank you for helping Jin Chan with—" He stopped. Neither of them seemed to quite know what to say.
"I would never be ashamed of you," said Jiang Cheng. "No matter what you do."
Jin Ling cringed. "Okay, I get it."
Lan XiChen arched his eyebrows. Jiang Cheng hung his head at the rejection.
But it wasn't a rejection at all. And then Jin Ling scooted forward and threw his arms around his uncle. Jiang Cheng let out a soft gasp, and he clung to the boy.
Wei Ying leaned against Lan WangJi's shoulders, beaming, and Lan WangJi felt himself smile, too.
Jiang Cheng had lots of things to say. About his father, his mother, the years diving with Wei WuXian at Lotus Pier, the years he spent hating himself and hating his brother.
I could never heal while I hated you.
But they could wait. Jin Ling needed to sleep. The last day of the conference was tomorrow, and judging by—well, everything—there would be much to talk about. Jiang Cheng felt a headache creeping in from the back of his skull just thinking about it.
But Jin Ling had forgiven him. Wei WuXian, too. And he thought A-Jie would be proud. Of all of them. Even him. He hoped, anyways.
"Jiang Cheng," said Lan XiChen, pausing outside his door. "Can we—talk?"
Jiang Cheng nodded. Lan XiChen tipped his head, gesturing that he wanted to go to his own rooms. Fine.
He had no idea what to say to this one. Lan XiChen went to make tea and Jiang Cheng waved him off. He lowered himself to the sitting mat, wary. Part of him wanted to stay on two feet, protected, but he was so tired, and he knew Lan XiChen knew it.
Lan XiChen heaved a sigh, sitting across from Jiang Cheng. He met Jiang Cheng's eyes. "I am sorry."
"Why?" The question broke from Jiang Cheng's lips before he had the chance to really consider it. What was he even asking?
Why did you think I betrayed you?
Why did you offer to take it with me? Was it to atone? To beg forgiveness? To force it? Haven't you seen my reaction to sacrifice? It's not a good one.
"I am afraid," whispered Lan XiChen. "That hasn't changed, in all the time you've been here. I am afraid of myself, and I am afraid of Jin GaungYao, and I am afraid of everyone out there, and I—"
"Am afraid of me?"
"No." XiChen met his eyes. "Not you." And then he squeezed his eyes shut. "Maybe. But—it isn't because of—there is no real excuse, really. Only that I'm scared, and I leaped to conclusions and they were—the wrong ones. Last time I believed someone because I loved them, it—"
Jiang Cheng sucked in his breath. "Love?"
"Well, of course. I wouldn't kiss someone if I didn't—well, not again." Lan XiChen frowned, tugging on his hair.
Wait, again? Jiang Cheng's eyes narrowed. "How many people have you kissed?"
"It was on a dare once. I don't even remember her name, but she seemed to like it. Jin GaungYao looked disappointed after I did it."
"Your uncle would be horrified." Jiang Cheng smirked. Well, you were my first kiss.
"WangJi would be horrified."
"I doubt it; Wei Ying once told me WangJi kissed him while he was blindfolded the day of the hunt and he never knew until—"
"He did?" Lan XiChen's mouth fell open. And then he lowered his head. "Jiang WanYin, Jiang Cheng, I—thank you. For showing me that I could move on, that I wasn't broken—that I could—but it's up to me. And I made a wrong choice. And I do not expect you to forgive me. You needed me then and I—accused you." He snorted. "Actually, no. You didn't need me. But I—"
"Just shut up and listen to me," snapped Jiang Cheng. "I'm the last person who has the right to be angry at you for leaping to conclusions with someone—" He stopped.
"I didn't think you'd forgive me," XiChen admitted, his words cutting at Jiang Cheng. "But I—I stood up there not because I didn't think you could take it, but because I didn't want you to think you were alone. You don't have to forgive me. You don't have to—"
Lan XiChen's mouth fell open. But he did, in fact, shut up. Jiang Cheng didn't even feel guilty.
"Do you listen to your brother at all?" demanded Jiang Cheng, heart pounding. "I—you don't have to spend your life apologizing and atoning. You aren't hopeless. You aren't useless. You aren't worthless." His voice shook. "I understand where you're coming from."
Lan XiChen swallowed. He tilted his head. "It's not the first time I've heard you say those words. Hopeless, useless, worthless."
Don't distract me! I'm trying to say something important here! And yet... "Wen Chao said them to me when he—when—" Jiang Cheng twisted Zidian around his finger.
"No, listen to me. The reason you aren't hopeless, useless, worthless is you, Jiang Cheng. You don't have to earn it: you just aren't. You care, a lot. You learn and you strive and you don't even need to strive so much, because even when you were at your worst Wei WuXian and Jin Ling still loved you so much. You aren't. You just aren't, and you don't have to earn it." Lan XiChen's lips trembled.
Jiang Cheng felt something breaking inside of him, the last remnants of a filthy wall, and he sucked in the air, breathing in the clean scent of sandalwood and the soft smell of flowers. "And you don't have to earn my forgiveness."
Lan XiChen froze.
"If you bear my consequences with me for the things I did that were wrong, so wrong, so unforgivable—" Jiang Cheng tried not to imagine what he'd done to that servant. And others, countless others. Who was the monster?
He led a siege because he needed there to be one.
He led a siege because he was afraid to look down in the water at lotus pier, and see his face and the symbol of his sect both reflected, and no one else.
He led a siege because he knew that was what he would see.
"Then I will bear yours with you," Jiang Cheng said. "Even if they were against me." I'd stand on the Burial Mounds for you. I'd travel to a temple and a coffin for you. For you.
Two perfect teardrops slid down XiChen's cheekbones. "Thank you." And he reached out his hand, choosing.
Jiang Cheng took it. Lan XiChen tightened his grip. Jiang Cheng moved closer. His free hand wrapped around the back of XiChen's scalp. He lowered his lips to the teardrops, first one, then two, and then XiChen's lips. He felt more tears and snorted. "I can't keep up."
XiChen let out a small laugh.
You're so beautiful. The eldest jade of Lan.
XiChen pressed into Jiang Cheng's mouth as if he wanted to climb inside Jiang Cheng. But Jiang Cheng didn't want that. He wanted XiChen's arms around him instead of his own. Lan XiChen pulled back, beaming at him, like he was proud to him him in his arms, cheeks beaming, eyes shining and wet.
"Are you still afraid?" asked Jiang Cheng.
Lan XiChen smiled. "Yes."
"Me too." Jiang Cheng kissed him again, mouth warm and full. XiChen fumbled with Jiang Cheng's hair, undoing the tie, the braids. It cascaded down his back, and XiChen ran his fingers through it. He reached up for his forehead ribbon.
Really? Jiang Cheng blinked. XiChen fastened it around Jiang Cheng's loose hair.
You really want me. You love me. Me. He kissed XiChen's temple.
XiChen slid his lips down Jiang Cheng's throat, tugging at his tunic. He traced the whip scar. Jiang Cheng swallowed. His lips felt tingly and swollen.
Lan XiChen kissed it then, starting from the end, sliding his tongue along to the other end of the scar.
"You don't have to do that—it's ugly—"
"It's a scar for someone you love. No different than WangJi's and I've heard Wei WuXian calling them beautiful." Lan XiChen winced. "And then I ran away because I did not want to hear more."
Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. Heat spread through his body, his face and lips, his torso and lower. "How far did you get with that girl?"
"I just kissed her. There was tongue for about a second and then it felt too strange to me."
Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi can find someone else next time they need a virgin guard. Jiang Cheng pushed XiChen's robes open. He remembered his list of requirements and almost snorted.
Your cultivation is higher than mine.
It's not that I don't mind; it's that I actually love that.
He pulled XiChen on top of him. XiChen paused. "Are you sure?"
Jiang Cheng nodded. "I don't mind looking up to you." Because you've never looked down on me.
XiChen's fingers traced his jaw. Trousers came off after boots, and still they kissed. Jiang Cheng found a spot by XiChen's hips that made him gasp. XiChen kept returning to his scar, and then focusing on his navel.
They started with fingers, and Jiang Cheng almost wanted to laugh at himself. He'd never let himself be this vulnerable before. He'd never thought he would. But this—this was bravery, more so than trying to slaughter a brother he hadn't even tried to understand. He wrapped his arms around XiChen, pulling their chests together.
"Is it—okay?" XiChen managed. "Are you—does it hurt—" His face red, he stuttered as he tried to manage words.
Jiang Cheng arched his body, forcing XiChen further inside him. He panted. Sweat glistened on XiChen's face, lit by firelight and moonlight from the window. His lips twisted in what almost looked like a grimace, but it wasn't. He kept saying Jiang Cheng's name, all his names because of course, WanYin, Sandu ShengShou, gasping, and Jiang Cheng let his neck fall back, letting go even as he gripped Lan Huan tighter, control something completely unnecessary between them, limbs tangled and a mess on his thighs and abdomen and both of them, hearts beating so hard they could feel them beating under each other's skin.
WangJi gave Wei WuXian a skeptical look when he got up at five in the morning with him. But he had his reasons.
Sure enough, after a dart to Jiang Cheng's empty rooms, he returned grinning. "I think your brother's going to be splitting his time between Lotus Pier and the Cloud Recesses."
WangJi nodded. "Good."
"Ha!" Wei WuXian wrapped his arms around him. "They deserve each other. I mean that in the best way."
"I know," replied WangJi.
"They should be up soon." WuXian practically skipped towards Lan XiChen's room.
WangJi's face paled. "Wei Ying!"
"What?" Wei WuXian asked, blinking innocently. The soft golden sunlight drifted through the windows. He stretched his arms out. "I merely want to congratul—"
"Jiang Cheng will break your legs and I will not stop him."
"You will unless you want to be celibate for the next few weeks."
WangJi narrowed his eyes.
The door swing open. Jiang Cheng and Lan XiChen exited together, both smiling. Lan XiChen was still retying his forehead ribbon.
"Oh no," said Jiang Cheng.
"Good morning!" called Wei WuXian. He winked, wriggling his eyebrows.
"I love you, but you're annoying still," said Jiang Cheng.
"Ow!" WangJi had stepped on his toes.
"Thank you, WangJi," Lan XiChen said.
"But I wanted to talk to you, ZeWu-Jun," called out Wei WuXian, hurrying after him. He grasped XiChen's arms.
XiChen shook his head, but his face stayed gentle, like ghosts were finally exorcised. "What about?"
"Let's go a ways away." Wei WuXian led him out through the Cloud Recesses, past a bunch of bunnies. "If I give you the money, will you buy Jiang Cheng a puppy?"
XiChen's eyes widened.
"He deserves one, and I'm the reason he lost his," Wei WuXian said. "And he hasn't been able to get one since. And even if I'll be terrified I'll still visit Lotus Pier, and—" He swallowed. "It'd make him happy."
"Why are you trying to sacrifice yourself again?"
You damn Lan brothers. "I'm not this time. I really think he would want one and—maybe if it was a nice puppy I could. Eventually. Handle it."
"You don't have to face all your fears."
"No, but some I think I can," Wei WuXian countered.
Lan XiChen nodded. "Okay, then." He sighed. "You know, when Jin GuangYao bought Fairy, I was with him."
"Oh?" Wei WuXian listened.
"He chose the puppy that snuggled up to him. He really liked that dog." Lan XiChen sighed. "Puppies are so—nonjudgmental. I can see why Jiang Cheng loved them, too."
He was so lost he was willing to kill even Fairy in the end.
But he found himself again, to save you.
"ZeWu-Jun," said Wei WuXian. "Thank you."
Lan XiChen blinked. "What for?"
"For making my brother happy. Puppy or no puppy."
Lan XiChen smiled. "He makes me happy, too. He makes me remember to fight, that the world isn't over yet."
He's the fire to your water. You can calm him, and he warms you up. When you combine, no one can withstand you.
The conference proceeded as normal. Lan XiChen disappeared after everyone else left, Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling sticking around for a few more days. Jin Chan was in handstand, copying rules until Lan WangJi's watchful eyes.
XiChen returned with a ball of black fluff in his arms. Wei WuXian lurked behind his husband, watching as he lifted the puppy and tapped Jiang Cheng on the shoulder with its furry paw.
Jin Ling saw first. He shrieked.
Jiang Cheng turned around. His eyes widened. "What—"
"I found a litter of puppies," said Lan XiChen. "Actually I went looking for one. This one was the smallest. All the others had found homes already."
Lan WangJi glanced down at Wei WuXian. He smiled.
Jiang Cheng lifted the puppy, eyes huge like he was a child. The puppy let out little bark.
"What'll you name it?" hollered Wei WuXian. "It'll be something ridiculous," he hissed to WangJi.
"Angel!" Jiang Cheng yelled back.
Jin Ling grinned, SiZhui next to him. Fairy approached, sniffing.
"You know Jiang Cheng is basically a dog," said Wei WuXian. "Ferocious but soft and sweet."
"You're not scared of him."
"I am, but I love him enough." Wei WuXian swallowed. "If you hold that puppy, maybe I can pat it. Maybe. Because I trust you'll yank it away if it tries to eat my hand."
WangJi looked down at him. He shook his head. "Pathetic."
"Oh, we're back there again?"
WangJi was smiling, though. He led the way across the grass, reaching out for the puppy. Wei WuXian screwed up his face, closing his eyes as he reached out.
Its fur felt soft. It quivered.
His eyes cracked open, watching the puppy hide its head in the crook of WangJi's arms. You're just as afraid of me?
Jiang Cheng snorted.
"Fine then." Wei WuXian snatched one of Lan Zhan's bunnies as it hopped around. "And I didn't even threaten to eat you, Angel." He nuzzled the bunny. "This could be you!"
Jiang Cheng took Angel back. Angel was clearly never going to have to walk ever in its life.
The bunny nibbled Wei WuXian's fingers. He yelped, but it didn't hurt so much as tickle.
"Wei Ying," said WangJi.
"Not you," said WangJi. "I named the rabbit after you. He's one of my older ones."
Jin Ling burst into laughter. Even SiZhui chuckled.
"Oh?" Wei WuXian lifted Wei Ying the Bunny into the air and stared at him. It stared down at him, twitching its nose. "Contest for your owner's affection."
"No," said WangJi.
You always had to have a Wei Ying to take care of, didn't you? They must have reminded you of me.
Angel must remind Jiang Cheng of his old puppies, and him. And yet, Jiang Cheng was smiling. Fairy retreated to where Jin Ling now sat, legs thrown across SiZhui's lap which was definitely against the rules, nudging herself between them.
No need to worry, Fairy.
No one's forgotten here.
Wahhhhh it's all over now! Thank you to everyone who read/left kudos/commented! I really appreciated it, and found it very encouraging.