“Wei Ying!” Jiang Cheng’s voice rang out through the courtyard, a mixture of anger and poorly-hidden amusement colouring his tone as he began to chase his older brother through the halls of Lotus Pier and Yanli followed after them, shaking her head, resigned to cleaning up the mess the two caused with their antics.
Maids leapt out of the way, small yelps escaping their mouths as the two young masters went sprinting past, Wei Ying laughing gleefully as he managed to swing himself around the courtyard, causing his younger brother to skid into a wall, foul curses being spat out as he pushed off the ground to continue with the chase, even as their older sister tried to catch his sleeve.
The chase led the two out onto the pier and Wei Ying glanced at the water, cool as autumn began to paint the trees red, back at his younger brother who’d managed to corner him in a vulnerable position. Sensing his advantage, Jiang Cheng began to edge closer, forcing his brother towards the end of the pier.
Wei Ying smiled hesitantly at his brother; eyes hopeful even as he frantically tried to think of a way to escape his current predicament. He thought back wistfully to the loud shriek, higher than he’d ever expected, that Jiang Cheng had let out when he’d slipped the eel down the back of his younger brother’s clothes. It had warmed his heart but now, with that same younger brother advancing menacingly, he almost regretted his actions. Almost.
“Shijie, you won’t let A-Cheng threaten me like this will you?” Wei Ying turned to the only recourse he had left, the only person who may still protect him from Jiang Cheng’s wrath.
Wei Ying was further distressed when Yanli merely smiled, slightly helplessly, as Jiang Cheng shrugged off her hand and advanced another step. He turned back to his younger brother, wondering if he could convince him not to harm him. The waves lapping lazily at the pier were cold, he knew this from experience and was eager to avoid a repeat of it.
“Ah…Jiang Cheng, it was only a little eel, surely you can let it go-“ Wei Ying’s words were cut off when he let out a shriek higher than Jiang Cheng’s earlier as his brother shoved him in the chest, causing him to overbalance and plummet into the water below. Jiang Cheng stepped back hastily after the push, getting himself out of range of Wei Ying’s flailing limbs before he could be pulled into the water with him. The resulting splash cut off Wei Ying’s wails, but they quickly restarted as he broke the water’s surface, coughing and spluttering, though that didn’t slow down his complaining.
“Jiang Cheng!” Their father’s voice cut through the air and Wei Ying watched as Jiang Cheng’s smile slipped off his face in an instant and he immediately helped haul him back onto dry land. Jiang Cheng turned to face his father, bowing deeply as Yanli went to wrap Wei Ying in a blanket she’d picked up before chasing after her younger siblings. “Is this behaviour befitting a future sect leader?” Jiang Cheng had heard that many times in his life, but it had been from Yanli, softly reprimanding with a smile on her face, or Wei Ying, his bright smile and foolish quips taking the sting out of the words.
From his father, the current sect leader, it caused Jiang Cheng’s face to flush red with a mixture of shame, embarrassment and anger, a flush that only deepened when his mother approached, face thunderous, Zidian sparking at her wrist and Jiang Cheng knew that this would quickly spiral out into more yelling between his parents with him at the centre of the anger even as he wasn’t the target. In an attempt to appease his father, defuse the rising anger, prevent his parents from tearing into each other, Jiang Cheng turned to his brother and bowed.
“I apologise Wei Ying for my actions against you, please accept this one’s humble apology.” The formal language was stilted and heavy against his tongue, but Jiang Cheng hoped they’d be enough to cut through the growing tension, ease his parents’ ire. He was wrong.
Madame Yu let out a chocked, indignant sound of rage before her hand curled around Jiang Cheng’s wrist, dragging him away from the scene. The hand she had used to grab her son was the one that Zidian resided upon and Jiang Cheng forced back the sounds of pain that wanted to escape as purple sparks bit at his wrist, burning the tender skin.
He was hauled into his mother’s private rooms and he sprawled on the ground from the rough treatment, struggling up onto his knees, unsure if she wanted him kneeling or standing. To his surprise she yanked him up off the floor, fury burning in her normally cold eyes. He stumbled as he tried to steady himself and his mother scowled down at him and Jiang Cheng pulled down the sleeve of his shirt, hiding the fresh burns on his wrist. Before he could speak, the dam seemed to burst and his mother’s ire poured forth, cold as ice and burning.
“Never bow to that brat! You are the sect leader’s first-born son, you will lead this sect one day, that brat will never be more than your servant, don’t you dare bow to him!”
“But father taught us that when an apology is needed-!” The crack shattered through the air and Jiang Cheng went sprawling onto the floor, cheek burning red, cupping the area as if in shock but before he could react his mother yanked him to his feet once again.
“You will not bow to that brat. You will obey your mother. You will call him Wei Wuxian from now on, it is too familiar for you to use your given names with one another.”
“But-!” Jiang Cheng flinched at his mother’s glare and he bowed instead, the filial piety instilled since birth, as well as the stinging in his cheek quelling his protests, and he left the second his mother dismissed him, disappearing into his room where he glanced at his face in the mirror, wincing at the clear red mark against his face. While he was alone, he pulled up his sleeve to see star-shaped burns against the soft flesh of his wrist, each one a perfectly formed burn from Zidian’s sparks and he frowned, knowing he couldn’t go to the healers without having to explain where the wounds came from. He heard a knock at the door, and he yanked his sleeve down before calling out for the person to enter. Wei Ying slipped in, face missing his customary smile, in fact he looked sheepish and uncertain.
“Jiang Cheng? Are you okay?” Jiang Cheng straightened his spine, trying to emulate the sternness of his mother, or the easy poise his father possessed, he doubted he was pulling it off as Wei Ying’s expression didn’t change, still worried and Jiang Cheng pulled his sleeve more securely down, ensuring the marks were hidden from view.
“Why are you asking me this? Do I not look okay?” Internally Jiang Cheng winced at the sharpness in his voice, but his brother was more than used to his moods by this point, shrugging off the abrasive tone and placing a cool hand against the redness on his cheek.
“Where did you get this?” Jiang Cheng panicked at the question, unsure of what to say, how to deflect but luckily, he didn’t have to as they were called for training and the subject was dropped for now.
Jiang Cheng learnt to love winter. In reality he didn’t enjoy the season with the biting winds, so different to the warm summers in Lotus Pier, and the oppressive darkness that seemed to never lift. However, he soon learnt that at least in the cold months no one wondered why the young master was bundled up in so many layers it seemed as if he couldn’t use his golden core to keep himself warm. Though the rumours caused his cheeks to flush with fury, the snide remarks made him want to lash out and snarl, he kept his temper in check the best he could, trying to be a dutiful son, striving for a word of praise from his father or a kind word from his mother. He managed to earn neither, but he had Yanli and Wei Ying beside him, their presences soothing him when he was ready to throw himself into his latest scrape and it was enough for now.
It didn’t work so well in the long hot summers. Where Jiang Cheng was burning up while training, face more red from heat than exertion but he still refused to take off his heavy robes. Wei Ying tried everything he could to get him to give in, asking, goading, threatening- nothing worked. His younger brother simply turned away and continued to go through the sword forms that their teacher had demonstrated. His face had a deep flush decorating his cheeks with far too much sweat beading on his forehead. Wei Ying had abandoned his long-sleeved robes at the first opportunity, exposing his skin to what little breeze there was gratefully.
“Jiang Cheng aren’t you warm?” Wei Ying’s voice was sharp with worry as he watched his brother wipe the sweat from his face for the umpteenth time. “Don’t you know that you could become too hot like this?” Before Jiang Cheng could reply Wei Ying was tugging at his robes, trying to take them off by force, trying to open Jiang Cheng’s eyes to how terrible it would be to overheat.
“Wei Ying enough!” Jiang Cheng’s voice cracked out like a whip and his brother’s hands stilled immediately before retreating from him as if he’d been burnt. Jiang Cheng winced internally at the reaction he’d inflicted but couldn’t hold back the relief he felt as Wei Ying backed off-“
“Jiang Cheng!” As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t stop the flinch that seemed to be ingrained into him when his mother called out his name. He turned away from his older brother and hurried after his mother, not noticing the concern aimed at his back from Wei Ying.
Jiang Cheng coughed out the blood that welled in his mouth as Zidian coiled around his arm and burnt, searing into his flesh as his mother stood above him, fury blazing in her eyes. Even when he’d seen her screaming at his father, even in their worst fights, he’d never seen her this furious, never seen such raw, visceral anger in her eyes. Zidian wound tighter around his forearm and he bit back the howl that he wanted to let out, tried to be strong but he couldn’t prevent the tears from spilling down his cheeks, stinging as they trickled down his face, staining his skin. His mother scoffed from where she stood, Zidian retracting, leaving a deep burn on her son’s skin, more star shaped burns surrounding the main burn that wrapped around his forearm.
“What have I told you?” When Jiang Cheng didn’t speak, kneeling silently by her feet she struck him around the head, harsh and sharp. The blow made Jiang Cheng’s head ring, spots dancing in front of his eyes but he forced his throat to work, tried his best not to disappoint his mother any further.
“Not to call Wei Ying, Wei Ying-“ Jiang Cheng was cut off by another blow from Zidian, this one cutting open his back and this time, he couldn’t hold back his howl. It cut through the air like a blade and from where he was training, Wei Ying’s head snapped up, unsure as to what he heard but when the noise didn’t sound again, he returned to his sword forms, committing them to memory. By the time Jiang Cheng came back to join him in the courtyard, the sound would have slipped his mind entirely.
Meanwhile, within Yu Ziyuan’s chambers Jiang Cheng knelt before his mother, tears wet and eyes sore, blood trickling from his mouth as he trembled. His chin was gripped by cold fingers and forced up to look at his mother’s face, features as cold as jade and twice as hard. There was no warmth in her gaze and her eyes demanded an answer.
“Not to call Wei Wuxian by his given name.” The words were breathed out as if Jiang Cheng had no air left in his lungs, as if he could barely force himself to speak. His mother nodded once before throwing him his robes and sending him back to his room.
Jiang Cheng sat on his bed, his mother’s words ringing in his ears as he tried to patch up the whip mark on his back the best he could without help. This is to teach you to be strong. You cannot be a sect leader if you cannot endure pain. That stray your father loves more than you can never be your brother. He smoothed the slave on his back the best he could before winding the bandages around his arm and back, hiding the medical supplies under his bed, out of sight of the maids or anyone else who might be in his room. He pulled his robes back on and re-joined his brother in the courtyard. If his sword forms were shaky as the moves pulled at his wounds, if he stumbled as his head span from his mother’s blows, no one noticed and the scars beneath his robes remained hidden.
The two boys sat on the pier, swinging their legs in the water, the cool inviting water that lapped enticingly against their feet and Wei Ying, never one to resist temptation, pulled off his robes easily, stripping down to his last layer, a thin pair of shorts, before diving into the water. He emerged with a sigh, a blissed-out look on his face as he tugged at his younger brother’s foot, trying to convince him to enter the water as well.
“Jiang Cheng…” Wei Ying’s voice pulled into a long noise that most would call a whine if coming out of a younger child and that he’d defend as his persuasive voice, but Jiang Cheng didn’t budge. “Jiang Cheng come on, don’t be a boring adult! The water feels so nice, come join me!”
Unbeknownst to Wei Ying, Jiang Cheng’s mind was full of panic, not knowing how he could avoid revealing the scars that littered his skin. The small star shaped ones that covered his wrists, the coiled scars around his arms, the whip lashes that decorated his back. His hands were curled into tight fists as he tried to think of a way out of swimming with his brother, avoid revealing his shame, his weakness. Jiang Cheng’s violet eyes flickered from side to side, panic hidden beneath layers and layers of frustration that he directed at his older brother.
“Do not whine Wei Ying, we’re too old to swim like children, I earned my courtesy name only a few weeks ago.” Wei Ying flopped backwards into the water with a groan, throwing up a big enough splash to wet the hem of his brother’s robes. “You-!” He was cut off by Wei Ying’s laughter.
“Ah Jiang Cheng you will always be my baby brother, always little A-Cheng, never Wanyin to me.” Warmth blossomed in Jiang Cheng’s chest at Wei Ying’s words and he felt tears prick at his eyes, before he could react, respond to his brother’s words, his arm was firmly grasped and he looked up to see his mother towering over him, a new rage in her eyes. He stood and turned his back on Wei Ying without another word, knowing if he lingered too long, his brother would try and intervene, pulling himself into Jiang Cheng’s troubles. He let his mother pull him away, widening the gap between the two young boys.
The sound of his mother’s palm striking her son hard enough to send him crumpling to the floor rang throughout the room, loud enough that Jiang Cheng wondered how no one else had heard it. He had little time to ponder the however, when Zidian can crashing down onto his back, searing into his skin even as it tore apart his skin. The smell of burning flesh filled the room but neither occupant reacted, both all too used to the smell by now. The whip came down again, landing on exactly the same spot, searing into the freshly broken skin and his skin blistered under Zidian’s heat. Jiang Cheng choked on his own blood, but he didn’t scream.
His eyes stung with tears, but he didn’t let them fall.
After three more strokes his mother pulled his face up to look into her eyes and the blistering ferocity in his mother’s eyes made Jiang Cheng flinch as she snarled in his face.
“Wei Wuxian, Wei Wuxian, call him Wei Wuxian!” When she released his chin, Jiang Cheng slumped to the floor, bleeding, burnt and broken but he refused to reply. It was childish and weak, but he couldn’t stop calling his brother Wei Ying, he couldn’t relinquish that bond between them and push him away, he refused to. His eyes met his mother’s and she saw the defiance, the fierce, unwavering loyalty to that street rat her husband had brought home and she prepared to lash her son again before she stopped and glanced down at her son. “Wei Wuxian is stronger than you in everything isn’t he?” Jiang Cheng went deathly still, hurt lancing through him but more than that, fear, chilling and icy in his veins. “How much would it take to make him stop calling you Jiang Cheng?” Jiang Cheng’s blood froze in his veins and he struggled to his knees before his mother, prostrated upon the floor in front of her as he begged.
“Mother no- you can’t do this to him please-!” He got a scoff in return and he tried again, voice breaking with fear on the words as he spat them out as fast as he could. “Wei Wuxian- I won’t disobey you again, Wei Wuxian to me!” His mother halted and she stared down at her son, kneeling at her feet and she nodded.
“Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng.” Were her last words before she ordered her son out and Jiang Cheng limped back to his room, feeling as if he’d lost the war, even though he’d never had a chance at winning it.
“Wei Wuxian!” The second the words left his lips his brother froze, mid laughter, mid movement, he went deathly still and when he turned back to face Jiang Cheng his face was paler than usual. He searched his little brother’s face for any emotion, any kind of indication that he was playing a joke, but Jiang Cheng’s face lacked any laughter, he looked cold and stern. He looks like his mother, the thought flickered through Wei Wuxian’s mind and he laughed nervously.
“Ahh….Jiang Cheng…too old to call me Wei Ying?” If Wei Wuxian looked a little closer, he’d be able to see the pain in his brother’s eyes, but he only heard the dismissive tone of his voice.
“Even if you want to be a child forever I don’t.” The harsh words bit into his brother, Jiang Cheng could see that, but he couldn’t say anything else, not without hurting Wei Wuxian with his weakness.
“Ahh…I see how it is now. My didi is too grown up for his poor gege, Jiang Cheng how could you hurt me like this?” Something loosened slightly in Jiang Cheng’s chest at his name, his birth name, being said by his older brother, it made him feel safer, like they could still be brothers.
“Jiang Cheng what happened?” Wei Wuxian stared in open horror at the scars that littered his younger brother’s skin, like his skin had been repeatedly sliced open and then burnt.
“Wen torture methods.” Was all he received in response, his baby brother staring blankly up at the ceiling, silent and broken, a few tears trickling slowly down his cheeks as he stared at the ceiling, content to waste away. Wei Wuxian placed a hand over his brother’s forehead, soft and gentle, vowing he’d do anything to keep him alive.
Just a few months later, things began to unravel.
“Jiang Wanyin!” His courtesy name. Coming from the mouth of the man he’d once called his brother, once been his closest friend, the one he trusted with every one of his secrets, calling him Jiang Wanyin. Jiang Cheng could hear blood rushing through his ears, could hear a long-lost voice laughing, ah Jiang Cheng you will always be my baby brother, always little A-Cheng, never Wanyin to me. He scoffed to himself even as his heart twisted in his chest as he hurled poisonous words at his brother- at Wei Wuxian- the Yiling Patriarch. Just another promise he broke.
“Wei Ying!” For the first time in years, Jiang Cheng watched as his older brother stop still because he called out his name. His first name, the one that Jiang Cheng learnt before any other. He twisted Zidian around his finger, not noticing how one of the sleeves of his robes began to ride up his arm. Wei Wuxian- Wei Ying turned back to face him, Lan Wangji’s eyes were narrowed at him suspiciously, hand on Bichen’s hilt until Wei Ying pressed a hand against his wrist, pushing him to take a step back.
“Jiang Cheng…what is there left to say?” His brother looked tired and wan, his ever-smiling face devoid of any joy and Jiang Cheng felt the words stick in his throat. Suddenly a memory washed over him, Yanli’s soft smile and gentle hands cupping his face as she wiped away his tears after his latest fight with Wei Ying.
“A-Cheng, in your life, you must learn to say two important things.” Jiang Cheng looked up from where he was scrubbing at his face, pout securely fixed on his face.
“What words?” He asked, curious despite his lingering resentment.
“Thank you, and I’m sorry.” Yanli’s hands were so gentle as she kissed him on the forehead and she’d never let her brother know it, but she was laughing at his little scowl for months afterwards.
Yet now, when he needed the words the most, they deserted him, stuck deep in his heart and no amount of coaxing could draw them out. Wei Ying sighed softly and began to walk away, but before he was out of earshot he startled when a hand grabbed his wrist, holding him in place as Jiang Cheng managed to force out some words.
“Wei Ying- take care.” Wei Ying’s eyes were wide with surprise but then a faint smile spread across his face, fragile but still there, and Jiang Cheng looked up to Lan Wangji, his face as stoic as ever but he nodded once, firm and unwavering and a knot in Jiang Cheng’s chest loosened at the promise that there would always be someone at his big brother’s side, even if- even if it wasn’t him.
As Jiang Cheng walked away, Wei Ying noticed his sleeve had ridden up further and he spotted scars on his wrist, small star shaped scars, he wracked his brain, trying to remember where he’d seen them before, they looked so familiar to one’s he’d had to treat before. It wasn’t until a week later, where he looked down at his own wrist and recognised the same star shaped scars on his own wrists, but he couldn’t recall where he’d picked them up, he called down to Lan Wangji from where he was perched up a tree.
“Ah, Lan Zhan, do you know where I got these scars?” He gestured at his wrist and the other man nodded.
“Mn, Zidian.” Zidian? Wei Ying thought, forehead furrowing in confusion, if I got these from Zidian-
“Are they from Jiang Cheng?” His partner’s eyes darkened at the mention of the Jiang sect leader, but he shook his head.
“From before.” His answer only confused Wei Ying further, if the scars came from Zidian, but not from Jiang Cheng, they’d have to have been inflicted by the weapon’s last owner, Madame Yu but if that was the case, how did Jiang Cheng have so many? From what Wei Ying had seen from only a quick glance, Jiang Cheng’s wrists and lower forearms were littered with the marks, and each one was so prominent, almost as if they’d been placed there deliberately-!
Wei Ying nearly fell out of his tree at a sudden realisation knocked his world off its axis. Waves of memories of his childhood in Lotus Pier came rushing back, specifically the months following his courtesy name, the months following Jiang Cheng receiving his own, the sudden change from Wei Ying to Wei Wuxian from his little brother.
Jiang Cheng pulled his sleeve more securely down-
His cool hand against the redness on Jiang Cheng’s cheek. “Where did you get this?”-
No one wondered why young master Cheng was bundled up in so many layers-
His little brother still refused to take off his heavy robes-
Jiang Cheng couldn’t stop the flinch that seemed to be ingrained into him when his mother called out his name-
A howl cut through the air like a blade and from where he was training, Wei Ying’s head snapped up, unsure as to what he heard-
As he tugged at his younger brother’s foot, trying to convince him to enter the water as well-
Wei Wuxian stared in open horror at the scars that littered his younger brother’s skin, like his skin had been repeatedly sliced open and then burnt-
Wei Ying stumbled down from the tree, before the contents of his stomach were emptied onto the ground. Coughing and retching, everything he’d eaten that day came up and Lan Zhan rushed over to help him, but Wei Ying could only stare into the distance, so many things clicking into place at once. Madame Yu’s fury, Jiang Cheng’s poor performance in training, as if he was contending with other issues, the sudden change of intimacy between them. Wei Ying’s stomach turned as he remembered the scars on Jiang Cheng, there had been so many, each one brutally inflicted-
Wei Ying looked up to where his partner was clutching at his arm, concern written clearly all over his face and he patted at Lan Zhan’s arm reassuringly, waving off his concern as he forced himself to his feet and over to Lil Apple. He began to pack their belongings onto the small donkey, and Lan Zhan, without prompting, cleared their campsite efficiently, causing a wave of love to swell in Wei Ying’s heart and he squeezed Lan Zhan’s hand in gratitude before answering the unasked question hanging in the air.
“We have to go to Lotus Pier.” Jiang Cheng, I’m coming home.