I kneel into a dream where I
am good & loved. I am
good. I am loved. My hands have made
some good mistakes. They can always
make better ones.
-Natalie Wee, “Least of All”
The first hint that anything had gone awry was the letter from Lan Wangji (His Excellency Hanguang-jun, pardon me) that simply said have you heard from Wei Ying?
Jiang Cheng stared at it, a muscle twitching in his jaw. Several responses went through his head in seconds, though first and foremost among them was why the fuck are you asking me?
He did not think he could actually put that in a letter to the Chief Cultivator, though, so he simply wrote back, no. You’re telling me you haven’t been keeping him on a collar and lead in the Cloud Recesses?
He probably shouldn’t have put that in a letter to the Chief Cultivator, either. Too late now.
After he’d sent the message, though, it nagged at him. He’d been assuming for months that Wei Wuxian was tucked away in the Cloud Recesses cozying up to Lan Wangji. It wasn’t that surprising that he hadn’t sent any messages. Jiang Cheng hadn’t been expecting them. Wei Wuxian could do what he wanted, like always, and Jiang Cheng had his own life to live.
Maybe they’d cross paths at one of the Cultivation Conferences, or maybe they wouldn’t. Hopefully they wouldn’t. Jiang Cheng had no idea what he’d say.
Probably nothing. He was very good at that.
At any rate - he’d thought Wei Wuxian was there. If he wasn’t - then where was he? Off wandering around, loose, and Jiang Cheng hadn’t heard anything which was, frankly, more worrying than if he had. Wei Wuxian was not subtle.
Of course, he hadn’t been listening, either. After sixteen years straining his ears for any rumors of anything that had even a whiff of Wei Wuxian, he’d stopped, and now he wished he hadn’t.
What do you think you’re doing, he thought in Wei Wuxian’s direction. What kind of idiotic stunt is this? And now you’ve got the Chief Cultivator distracted and worried. Selfish idiot. How hard is it to write a letter?
Well, Jiang Cheng told himself firmly. Wei Wuxian was not his problem. He was Lan Wangji’s problem now, and he was welcome to him.
He passed word to his network to keep an eye out for a lone cultivator with a black flute, possibly accompanied by a donkey. Don’t do anything, he specified. Just send word if you see him.
There. Good enough. And now he could go back to the work of running his sect in a safely Wuxian-free home, because Wei Wuxian was not his problem.
Two evenings after he received the initial letter (no response, typical), he sent another. He probably just forgot. You know how his memory is. When did you last hear from him?
He didn’t get a reply to that one, either.
The second concerning development was the postscript of a letter from Jin Ling that was largely an outpouring of grievances and frustrations that were altogether too familiar and had Jiang Cheng wanting to go to Lanling and shake some minor sect leaders until their teeth rattled. He was well aware, unfortunately, that it wouldn’t help.
At the end, one line: I haven’t seen Wei-qianbei in a while. I hope you didn’t kill him or something.
Jiang Cheng frowned. He was briefly offended, before deciding that Jin Ling probably didn’t actually think he would’ve (even if he’d spent many, many years claiming that he would, in fact, do exactly that) and was more likely trying to ask the same thing that Lan Wangji had.
Briefly, he thought so you’re talking to everyone except me, is that it, but that didn’t matter, it didn’t. What did matter was that Wei Wuxian was hurting a-Ling with his absence, which was thoroughly unacceptable. If he was going to insinuate his way into his nephew’s life he ought to at least be consistent about it and not just - disappear when it suited him.
There was an uncomfortable, uneasy prickling in Jiang Cheng’s stomach that said something’s wrong. It reminded him of the days after he’d come down from the mountain after - after, and found no sign of Wei Wuxian, no word, like he’d simply evaporated into thin air.
Wei Wuxian was not quiet. He was not unremarkable. He was a presence, intrusive and dramatic, always sticking his nose into other peoples’ business, an eternal plague.
And he cared about Jin Ling. And about Lan Wangji. When he attached himself to people, he did not easily abandon them.
Jiang Cheng wasn’t worried. It was just...worrying. Like a potentially destructive child, it felt safer to know where he was.
Here he was, Jiang Cheng thought irritably, once again, spending too much time and energy thinking about Wei Wuxian. He had other things to do. Other matters to consider. Not your problem, he kept repeating to himself. None of your business.
He wrote another letter to Lan Wangji. If you know where Wei Wuxian is, say so. And tell him to at least send a note to Jin Ling next time he drops off the map.
Then he very firmly shoved Wei Wuxian and everything about him out of his mind.
Three days later, Lan Wangji came in person.
This, Jiang Cheng thought, was the truly alarming development. Lan Wangji had avoided Yunmeng like it was somehow contaminated for the sixteen years between Wei Wuxian’s death and resurrection, barring one very brief visit that had gone spectacularly poorly. No blows had actually been exchanged but not, Jiang Cheng thought, for lack of desire. And other than the most recent visit, which had, again, gone spectacularly poorly, he didn’t seem to have changed his policy, or his opinion of Jiang Cheng as a whole.
Which was fine. Jiang Cheng didn’t need Hanguang-jun’s good opinion. Self-righteous ass.
But he was here now, a faint line etched between his eyebrows, and his posture seemed even more rigid than normal. He stood in front of Jiang Cheng with one arm folded behind his back and said absolutely nothing.
“What do you want,” Jiang Cheng asked bluntly, the uneasy prickling back in his stomach, now crawling up his spine.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said, and then stopped. Jiang Cheng tensed.
“What about him?”
“I don’t know where he is.”
Jiang Cheng folded his hands behind his back so the clenching of his fists was (he hoped) less obvious. “You don’t.”
There was a very brief flash of irritation that was quickly smothered. “No.”
“And?” Jiang Cheng said testily. “Do you think I do? I don’t have him locked in a prison cell somewhere in Lotus Pier, if that’s what you’re asking. I haven’t seen him since I left the two of you in Yunping.”
For a moment Lan Wangji seemed to be thinking, but then his expression resolved and he simply bowed. “Good day, Sect Leader Jiang,” he said, and turned to go.
“Wait,” Jiang Cheng blurted out. “That’s it?” Lan Wangji paused. “You came all the way here, in person, just to - what, did you really think I was holding him prisoner?”
The stretch of silence was altogether too eloquent in its expression of I considered it. A mix of resentment, anger, and indignation boiled up hot in Jiang Cheng’s stomach, but before he could snap Lan Wangji said, “that isn’t why I came.”
“Then why did you? You must’ve known if he didn’t tell you where he was going he certainly wouldn’t tell me. I’m surprised you even let him out of the Cloud Recesses.”
Lan Wangji turned slowly back toward him. His forehead twitched. “I wasn’t going to hold Wei Ying prisoner.”
“Would’ve been smarter,” Jiang Cheng said. Lan Wangji’s hand tightened around Bichen, eyes narrowing, but Jiang Cheng just stared stubbornly back at him. “You still haven’t said what you want from me.”
“Wen Ning is traveling with Lan Sizhui,” Lan Wangji said. Jiang Cheng opted for silence rather than admitting that he didn’t follow what that information had to do with anything. “I don’t want to interrupt them. Yet.”
Oh, Jiang Cheng thought, with slow and unfortunate realization. “You can’t be serious,” he said. “Are you telling me that you came here because you are going to go off chasing after Wei Wuxian, and you want my help?”
Lan Wangji’s face was the texture of ice. “I thought to ask. I regret my presumption.”
Jiang Cheng stiffened. “Your presumption,” he said. Lan Wangji’s dark eyes were cold.
“That you would want to.”
That snatched all the air out of Jiang Cheng’s lungs. He didn’t quite stare at Lan Wangji open-mouthed, but it was a near thing.
“I see I was mistaken,” Lan Wangji said, every word a knife driven into Jiang Cheng’s gut and twisted. “I will not trouble you further with this matter. Sect Leader Jiang.”
The block in Jiang Cheng’s chest broke and he said, too loudly, “that’s not what I meant.”
Hanguang-jun just looked at him, thin-lipped and icy and full of so much judgment. A horrible urge to laugh clawed at Jiang Cheng’s throat and he just managed to fight through it. “You hate me,” he said. “You’ve hated me for years, and you blame me for him dying. You’ve never tried to hide it, and that’s fine, I don’t like you much either. So I’m just a little surprised that you’d - deign to come to me, rather than just going off on your own.”
Lan Wangji was quiet for a long time. “I would have,” he said, eventually. “Zewu-jun suggested that if there was danger, it might be better not to go alone.”
Ah, Jiang Cheng thought bitterly. So I’m your fourth choice. He clenched his back teeth and tried to take a moment before answering. To think.
“How do you even know that something’s wrong?” he asked, stalling for time. Lan Wangji said nothing, just glared at him, and Jiang Cheng glared back. “I’m not saying it isn’t. I just want to know what you think you know.” Lan Wangji’s expression didn’t relax one iota, and Jiang Cheng took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of his nose. “If I’m going to help-”
“Are you?” It sounded more like an accusation than a question.
The words that came to him first were he was mine before he was yours. To Jiang Cheng’s relief he managed not to say them out loud. “Just answer the question.”
“There were letters,” Lan Wangji said after a pause that seemed to stretch several minutes. “And now there aren’t.”
“You mean, he was writing you and then he stopped,” Jiang Cheng said. “He might’ve just forgot.” Lan Wangji pinned him with an ice cold stare. “It’s a possibility, isn’t it?” he insisted. “Wei Wuxian isn’t exactly the most responsible or level-headed person out there. He might’ve just gotten distracted.”
Lan Wangji’s expression darkened. “No.”
“What do you mean, ‘no’?”
Another flash of irritation, now stronger. “Pointless,” he said flatly, and spun on his heel, striding away.
“Fine,” Jiang Cheng said loudly. “Do what you want, and if I hear anything from my people then I’ll keep it to myself. You can go back to Gusu and - pine.”
Lan Wangji stopped. “You’re looking,” he said. The noise that came out of Jiang Cheng was somewhere between a groan and a sigh. Just go, he thought. I can’t deal with you.
“Jin Ling wrote me. After you did.” Lan Wangji still didn’t move, and Jiang Cheng breathed out hard through his nose. “Either stay or leave,” he said forcefully. “I’m done watching you dither about it.”
Lan Wangji turned slowly. He didn’t look pleased.
But he didn’t leave, either.
If you’re playing some elaborate joke on Hangaung-jun and I’m getting caught in the middle of it, Jiang Cheng thought in Wei Wuxian’s direction, I am going to give you a beating you won’t forget.
They sat down for tea like they were facing off for a duel. The servant who poured for them did so almost too quickly and then hurried out, like she feared the eruption of violence. Jiang Cheng didn’t think that was a risk. He was likely to die of sheer awkwardness before Lan Wangji tried anything with Bichen.
Lan Wangji took a slow sip from his cup, set it down, then said, “Wei Ying said he wished to see some of the world.”
“When was this?”
Lan Wangji paused. “Six months ago.”
Almost immediately after the events at the Guanyin Temple in Yunping, then. Jiang Cheng had sent Wei Wuxian off with Lan Wangji and Lan Wangji had promptly let him go bounding off into the wild again like one of the stray dogs he was so afraid of. And about as likely to come when called.
“So you sent him off. Just like that.”
Lan Wangji’s eyes narrowed fractionally. “Wei Ying is not my subordinate,” he said.
He’d have stayed if you told him to. Not if I did, but if you did. “I’m just surprised. The two of you looked inseparable.” He hadn’t exactly meant for that to come out sounding snide. It wasn’t altogether surprising that it did, though. Lan Wangji stiffened, and Jiang Cheng grimaced. “Never mind. So Wei Wuxian went wandering off six months ago, on his own. Did he bring that flute with him?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji said after a moment. Jiang Cheng pressed his four back molars together.
“What about a sword?”
“Not his,” Lan Wangji said. Which he’d known, obviously, because Suibian was still in Jiang Cheng’s room, where it had been since the last time Wei Wuxian had been in Lotus Pier, and where he’d intended on keeping it until Wei Wuxian asked for it back.
“You know there are still people out there who don’t believe that the Yiling Patriarch was innocent,” Jiang Cheng said. He thought he sounded very calm. Lan Wangji’s expression tightened.
“Wei Ying did not seem concerned.”
Jiang Cheng clenched his jaw so hard his teeth clicked. “Of course he didn’t seem concerned,” Jiang Cheng said. “Wei Wuxian’s self preservation instincts could fit in a thimble. A small thimble. And you let him go traipsing off alone with only the most visible and obvious identifying marker as a defense if anyone or anything goes after him? And you’re surprised something might’ve happened?”
He was angry, Jiang Cheng realized. He was angry, at Lan Wangji, because he was thinking I trusted you to at least look out for him.
Lan Wangji looked like he was choking on something. And also a bit like he wanted to bring out Bichen and stab Jiang Cheng with it. He probably wouldn’t, though. Not in Lotus Pier. He ground out, a word at a time, “I didn’t want to.”
“Didn’t want to what,” Jiang Cheng snapped.
Lan Wangji leveled a stare at Jiang Cheng that could have frozen running water. “Let him go.”
“Then why did you?” Jiang Cheng demanded. Lan Wangji expelled a short, sharp breath.
“Because Wei Ying wanted to go.”
Jiang Cheng opened his mouth, closed it, and deflated. It was true, he thought bitterly, that trying to stop Wei Wuxian from doing something he wanted to do was seldom an easy task. He had plenty of experience with that. But he still would have thought...would have expected…
He stared down at his teacup and gritted his teeth and thought what the fuck were you thinking, you idiot, in Wei Wuxian’s general direction. “I see.” Anger prickled in his stomach. Anger and - all right, he could admit it, reluctantly - worry.
“Fine,” he said eventually. “Fine. So he left, but he’s been sending you letters. And visiting Jin Ling. Did you know that?”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji said, which Jiang Cheng thought was probably a yes. For some reason that was profoundly irritating. Maybe the idea that everyone had known but him.
“And how long has it been since you heard from him last?”
Lan Wangji paused. His eyebrows drew ever so slightly closer together. “Three weeks.”
That was a while for Wei Wuxian to be silent. Even in writing. “And you have no idea where he might be.”
“When he wrote last, Qishan.”
But that was three weeks ago. By now...by now he could be anywhere. Or still there. Or-
He glanced at Lan Wangji and very deliberately did not ask if that had occurred to him. He was quite sure it must have, but he was a little concerned that bringing it up might lead to grievous bodily harm.
“Great,” Jiang Cheng said. “Just great. So the only place we have to start is an entire province.”
Lan Wangji shot him a look that could cut. “He mentioned Ganzi Village. But no one there knew anything.”
What Jiang Cheng thought was maybe you just weren’t asking firmly enough, but he supposed Lan Wangji could be very intimidating when he wanted to be. And he didn’t even have to raise his voice to do it.
“So you have nothing,” he said flatly.
There was a very faint flicker to Lan Wangji’s rigid expression, but this time it didn’t look so much like anger. Unnervingly like something more fragile. He didn’t reply, but Jiang Cheng suspected that was as good as agreement.
He took a deep breath. “I’m a sect leader,” he said. “And you’re Chief Cultivator. We can’t just go - haring off on a wild goose chase without at least some idea of where we’re going.” Really, he shouldn’t be considering haring off on a wild goose chase at all.
Not your problem. None of your business. Let Wei Wuxian get himself killed (again), it’d serve him right for being a monumental idiot.
Jiang Cheng pressed his fingers to his temples. “You should’ve kept him in the Cloud Recesses,” he said. “I bet you could think of something to keep him from getting bored.”
Lan Wangji’s ears turned a little pink, though his expression didn’t change. Jiang Cheng made a concerted effort not to think about why Lan Wangji might flush in response to that. “Are you helping or not.”
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng said, after wrestling with himself for several moments. “Apparently.”
I’m probably going to regret this.
But Wei Wuxian was missing, and there was an odd, uncomfortably familiar pulsing of worry that was only getting bigger, and ignoring it forever did not seem likely to make it go away.
Old habits, apparently, died very, very, hard. Though he really should have known that by now.
Damn you, Wei Wuxian. When I find you, I’m going to break your legs for causing me this trouble.
Of course, that was assuming that he was in a condition to take a beating when Jiang Cheng found him. He’d better be. The cultivation world couldn’t take another Chief Cultivator losing it.
It occurred to Jiang Cheng, rather belatedly, that this meant he was going to have to cooperate with Lan Wangji.
Break Wei Wuxian’s legs, to start.
Thankfully, Yunmeng was stable enough that it would be all right for Jiang Cheng to be absent from Lotus Pier, at least for a short time. And apparently Lan Wangji had already lured Zewu-jun out of his seclusion to cover for him in his absence. Jiang Cheng reminded himself repeatedly that he left Lotus Pier not infrequently for a variety of reasons, but for some reason doing it now was making him bizarrely uneasy.
He suspected it probably had less to do with the fact that he was leaving and more to do with the why.
But he wasn’t about to back out now.
With nowhere else to begin, they went back to Ganzi Village. Jiang Cheng thought that calling it a ‘village’ was more generous than it deserved. ‘A collection of houses, and one tiny teahouse-with-two-rooms-upstairs’ seemed more accurate.
The two of them drew a great deal of stares when they arrived. Eyes and whispers followed them closely as they walked through. They seemed nervous, which put Jiang Cheng on edge, though he knew that plenty of ordinary people just were that way around cultivators, and the two of them specifically were fairly recognizable.
Still, some part of him wanted to grab someone and growl what are you hiding, what did you do to Wei Wuxian?
He tried for a little more delicacy than that, not that it made a difference. No one was talking. Questions were met with shaking of heads and a lot of I don’t remembers and I don’t know. Jiang Cheng’s frustration mounted, and the slight pinch between Lan Wangji’s eyebrows probably meant that any other man in his mood would be screaming.
In the end, they claimed both rooms in the teahouse. Jiang Cheng just managed not to tell Lan Wangji that this was hopeless and they needed a better strategy. It wasn’t like he had a better strategy.
This all reminded him too much of the other time searching fruitlessly for Wei Wuxian. He remembered the look on Lan Wangji’s face as he stood over subjugated Wen soldiers and asked, over and over: where is Wei Ying?
They hadn’t been friends, then. But they’d at least been allies with one thing in common.
Jiang Cheng supposed they still did. Sort of. At least, they were both here for the same reason. If only that didn’t just seem to be making things harder rather than easier.
Wei Wuxian had come back then, but he hadn’t come back whole, and nothing had ever been the same after.
“You’re sure he was here,” Jiang Cheng said. Lan Wangji gave him a cold stare. Colder than usual. Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure he had another kind, at least not when it came to him.
Well, Jiang Cheng thought irritably. All right then.
It would have been preferable to eat at separate tables, but there wasn’t enough space to make it work, which meant they were stuck in the same corner as they ate. The silence between them was a stone wall a foot thick.
Jiang Cheng told himself he didn’t care. Told himself that he wasn’t some chattering gossip who needed to fill quiet with words, make conversation for the sake of conversation. Told himself he wasn’t bothered by Lan Wangji’s cold dislike. It was, after all, mutual.
He was going to start climbing the walls of this tiny inn. Or at the very least he wanted to. See what the great Hanguang-jun did with that. Probably just frown disapprovingly and say fucking nothing.
Jiang Cheng swallowed a growl and gave up.
“Is this just how it’s going to be?” he asked bluntly. Lan Wangji’s eyes slowly moved from where he’d been looking at the wall to look at him.
“You know very well what I mean,” Jiang Cheng spat. “You hate me, fine. But if you’re just going to sit there in silence for this entire journey it’s going to get very old, very fast. We don’t have to make small talk. But if you have something to say to me, I wish you’d just go ahead and say it.”
Lan Wangji blinked slowly at him and said nothing. Jiang Cheng made a disgusted noise and stood up with a flick of his sleeves, mouth twisting. “Fine,” he said. “If that’s how you want it to be.”
“Sect Leader Jiang.”
He didn’t turn. “What.”
A very quiet exhalation. “Sit. Please.”
For several long moments Jiang Cheng wanted to say no and stalk away. Give Hanguang-jun a taste of what it was like. But he had said…
He lowered himself slowly back down, meeting Lan Wangji’s gaze with narrowed eyes, and waited to see what he said. It took him a while where he seemed to be thinking, but Jiang Cheng did not let himself fidget.
“In Nightless City, you would have killed Wei Ying.”
That was the question, wasn’t it. He’d wondered, sometimes. Sometimes he couldn’t tell if that was actually what he’d wanted, or if, in that last second before sword met flesh, he’d turned aside. It hadn’t mattered in the end, though. He didn’t say anything.
“Before that, you cast him out of Jiang Sect. That made him fair prey for those who coveted the Yin Tiger Seal.”
Jiang Cheng could feel himself coiling tighter, a horrible mixture of guilt and anger rising up in his throat. It wasn’t just that, Jiang Cheng wanted to protest. He was protecting the Wens. He’d lost control. He killed the Jin Sect heir. But he knew at least some of that had been pretext. That Jin Guangshan had been looking for an excuse from the beginning, and sooner or later would have found one.
And the other thing...he’d needed to protect the sect. Even if he could have tolerated it, he couldn’t allow the association with the Wens to taint his leadership. Jiang Sect had to come first. He hadn’t had a choice. He’d asked Wei Wuxian to come back, almost begged for him to do it, and it had been Wei Wuxian’s choice to cut himself off.
You would have been stronger together.
He pushed that aside. “You can’t make this all my fault.”
“I can make what is your fault, your fault.” Lan Wangji’s eyes bored into him.
“And what about what he did? Wei Wuxian got my sister killed,” Jiang Cheng said tightly. “Maybe he didn’t mean to, but she still died because of him. Jin Zixuan died because of Wen Ning, who Wei Wuxian resurrected. How many cultivators died at Nightless City-”
“He sacrificed his golden core, for you.”
“I didn’t ask for that!”
His voice came out too loud. On the tip of his tongue, I sacrificed myself first and I never expected him to do that, do you think I wanted, do you think I imagined. He clenched his fists so their shaking didn’t show.
Lan Wangji did not react at all to his near shout; did not so much as twitch. Went on, cold and implacable as winter. “Wei Ying forgives you. Wei Ying is willing to let all of this go. I am not.”
Jiang Cheng was choking on his bitterness. He wished he hadn’t asked. He wished he hadn’t started this conversation. It felt as though Lan Wangji had tapped a well directly into all the things he’d been avoiding thinking about for months, for over a decade. A part of his heart screamed unfair, unfair while another, deeper part of him thought but is he wrong? Don’t you deserve this guilt? All your anger, all that time spent evading your part in things, insisting that you were right, that you were always right, no reason to feel guilt, no reason to feel shame.
“And what about you,” he gritted out. “What about what you were doing back then? You spoke a few words, but you stood aside, too. What help did you give, Hanguang-jun? What use were you?”
There. A chink in the wall. A twitch, not quite a flinch. A tightening of his mouth and an angling of his brows. That’s it, Jiang Cheng thought viciously. Now you feel it, too. He meant to stop there, but his mouth just kept going.
“They might’ve listened to you, if you’d spoken up more. The mighty and righteous Hanguang-jun. And you dare, you dare act as though you are the only one who cared, who cares, when he was my brother first.”
He broke off, breathing hard. His heart was beating too fast, hammering against his ribs, and he could feel Zidian sparking on his finger. He wanted to hit something. Wanted to break something. If Lan Wangji weren’t right there, he thought he might’ve, and just paid for it after.
His face had gone back to its usual blank and expressionless façade. “And yet you treat him so coldly.”
Jiang Cheng blinked. “I do? I’m not the one who hasn’t written a single letter giving so much as a greeting.” I’m not the one who walked away, who decided that a bunch of Wen-dogs were more important than his own sect, his own family.
Old wounds died hard.
“He was waiting for you.”
That hit him like a punch to the chest. The air vanished out of his lungs. He opened his mouth and then closed it. His (borrowed, stolen) golden core seemed to throb, once.
He’d been waiting for Wei Wuxian to make the first move. To reach across the gulf between them, to speak first, to open the closed door and say something. And Wei Wuxian had been doing the same, only he probably saw it as stepping back, as giving him space, as though Jiang Cheng hadn’t had sixteen years of space.
This, Jiang Cheng thought with a smothering wave of sudden sorrow, was one of those things that a-jie had always been so good at. Building bridges. Bringing them together. How much they’d relied on her for that.
He’d never appreciated it enough.
Why does it have to be me, he wanted to ask. Why couldn’t it be him? But he knew why. He was the one who had stood at the edge of that cliff with sword drawn. He was the one who had thrown his hatred and anger in Wei Wuxian’s face again and again since his return. He was the one who had walked away in Yunping without saying goodbye.
Why would Wei Wuxian think Jiang Cheng wanted to talk to him, when a lot of the time Jiang Cheng barely knew himself if that was what he wanted?
The shame that swept over him almost took him off his feet, and he remembered very clearly why he’d avoided thinking about this for so long. Because it was too much. Because the fear had always been there that it was something wrong with him. That it was him not being good enough, not being strong enough, not being brave enough, and all the revelations of the past months seemed to make that all true.
Jiang Cheng clenched his hands in his robes and said, “who gave you the authority to judge me?”
“You asked what I had to say to you. I have said it.” Lan Wangji’s face was no longer entirely blank. There was a flame in his eyes very unlike his usual ice, and the line of his jaw was tight. A noxious mixture of fury and guilt bubbled in Jiang Cheng’s stomach and he gave up on holding his ground, lurching to his feet.
“So you have,” he said, voice trembling very slightly, though at least it was anger rather than anything else. “Good. I’m glad we’ve cleared the air. And don’t worry. As soon as this is finished, I’m done. With you and with Wei Wuxian.”
He turned and stalked out into the street, breathing hard, fists clenched, eyes burning. Zidian sparked and he twitched with the urge to lash out, but suppressed it.
There was a fine drizzle coming down that was going to leave him unpleasantly damp in a few minutes. But he wasn’t about to go back inside. Not yet. He wished he could go to another teahouse entirely, but of course that wasn’t an option.
The fury was burning off, leaving only the other thing, and a dull, gnawing sort of misery that sunk into his bones, or maybe had always been there.
What else was I supposed to do, he thought savagely, at no one in particular. He left me first. He walked away first. And I kept waiting, I kept hoping he’d come back but he wouldn’t, he cared more about them than about us, about me-
Wei Ying forgives you. Wei Ying is willing to let all this go.
He couldn’t breathe. His head was pounding. Like a child, he thought, I want to go home, but home was summer on a lake, a-jie’s smile, his brother’s free and clear laughter. Home was more than sixteen years gone and he couldn’t go back.
Jiang Cheng was so tired. The drizzle was starting to be uncomfortable, and he wished he had brought an umbrella.
“Excuse me,” said a voice to his right.
“What,” he snapped, turning. The young woman flinched back a little and hurriedly bowed.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” she said to the ground. “I...have something to say.”
I think I’ve heard enough tonight, he thought bitterly. “Then say it,” Jiang Cheng said.
“You were looking for...someone,” she said. “Earlier. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?” Jiang Cheng fell still.
“Yes,” he said, turning toward her. “Do you know something?” His voice came out sharp, sharper than he meant it too.
“Tell me,” he said, taking a half-step toward her. “Speak, now.”
“The...person you’re looking for,” she said. “He was here. But he went north.”
Jiang Cheng stared at her. “North,” he said. “You...why didn’t you say this before? Why didn’t anyone-”
“He didn’t leave alone,” she said. Still looking down, and Jiang Cheng could tell there was something she wasn’t saying, that she both wanted and didn’t want to say, or was afraid to say. He twitched, took a deep breath, and shoved the tangle of feelings rising up back down.
“Who did he leave with?”
She shook her head. He could see her quaking a little, and glanced toward the inn, wondering if he should bring Lan Wangji out here. He dismissed the idea immediately. “I don’t know,” she said. “They weren’t from here. They-” She stopped, glancing over her shoulder.
“What,” Jiang Cheng said, fighting to keep his voice level, “happened.”
“They fought,” she said. “He killed one of them-” her voice shook harder, “-but the other ones knocked him out and took him away.”
The blood in Jiang Cheng’s veins turned to ice. “Who,” he said, and couldn’t keep the harsh edge out of his voice anymore. “Who were they?”
“I don’t know-”
“Do you know where they were going?”
Another shake of the head. “They didn’t say.”
Wei Wuxian was weaker now than he had been once. But not weak. It seemed unlikely that ordinary people could drag him off against his will. Jiang Cheng’s breath hissed out, curses boiling up that he swallowed back down with an effort. Through gritted teeth he said, “and why did no one think to mention this earlier?”
“They said...they said if anyone came looking to stay quiet or they’d come back and kill everyone.”
Jiang Cheng was going to crack a tooth. Zidian crackled and the young woman’s breath caught, her shaking increasing, and he doubted it was just the cold rain.
“They won’t get the chance,” he said, his voice barely sounding like his own. “They’ll be dead first.” North. It wasn’t much, but at least it was a direction. And a lead.
“Thank you,” he managed to say, before he turned on his heel toward the inn. The door banged when he flung it open, his heart thundering in his ears. He could feel people staring and snarled, “what are you looking at.”
Lan Wangji was still sitting where Jiang Cheng had left him. He stood, slowly, picking up Bichen.
“Jiang Wanyin,” he said, voice even colder than it had been.
“I found something,” Jiang Cheng snapped.
Lan Wangji tensed. “What is it,” he said.
Jiang Cheng cast a brief glance around them, considered waiting, and decided that everyone here deserved to be a little scared, because if they’d said something when Lan Wangji had been here before then-
“He was here,” he said flatly. “Some people - cultivators, probably - took him north.”
Lan Wangji fell very still. He looked at Jiang Cheng, and then slowly around the room, which was very quiet.
“I see,” he said. It was only the suddenly white-knuckled grip around Bichen that betrayed anything. “Then we’ll be leaving.”
Jiang Cheng started to nod, then stopped. His heart was still pounding, a horrible urgency telling him to get on his sword and go, now, stop delaying, it had already been too much time.
“No,” he grated out, forcing himself to walk over to Lan Wangji. The change in expression was minute, but the danger was obvious to anyone with eyes. Jiang Cheng made himself keep going, lowering his voice. “It’s dark. We’d be traveling blind. Tomorrow, when it’s light. We can try to get more than just a cardinal direction.”
Lan Wangji just stared at him. Jiang Cheng stared stubbornly back, though his chest felt tight. Three weeks, Lan Wangji had said, since last word. What if one night did make the difference? But they needed more information. The girl could have been lying, sending them in the wrong direction.
Maybe he should just charge through the town right now and shake everyone in it until more information fell out.
It’s not their fault. They’re just trying to protect themselves, murmured a voice that was eminently reasonable and also very easy to ignore.
Lan Wangji looked like he was fighting an internal battle. At length, movements perfectly measured, he set money down on the table, turned, and walked up the stairs. Jiang Cheng cast one more glance around the room before following him up. Lan Wangji had paused in the door to his room.
“Jiang Wanyin,” he said, not turning. “What did you hear?”
“Not much more than I said. That Wei Wuxian was here, that there was a fight, and he got knocked out and dragged away north. No names or identifying marks, or at least she didn’t say, but considering no one mentioned any of this earlier-”
He shook his head. “Nothing else,” he said, voice thick with frustration. “Just - north.”
A slight twitch by Lan Wangji’s eye. A spasm of anger and worry. “Then tomorrow we will see what else we can learn.” He paused, and then added, “we will find him,” with a cold finality that accepted no alternative. Then he stepped into his room and closed the door behind him.
And what if we don’t, Jiang Cheng thought. What then? Or what if the only thing left to find is–
Don’t you dare, Wei Wuxian, he thought, setting his jaw. Don’t you dare die before I have the chance to yell at you for being such a goddamned idiot.
In the morning, on mutual and unspoken agreement, he and Lan Wangji split up to do further investigating. It was easier that way.
It seemed the word spread quickly. If the villagers had been nervous of them before, now they were downright terrified. Jiang Cheng thought he ought to feel guilty, but he didn’t, really. At least it meant that everyone was in a hurry to talk. Not that they had much information to give.
But they admitted that Wei Wuxian had been here. That he’d stayed for a couple days to deal with a minor haunting. The people here didn’t seem to know quite what to make of him. The name was familiar, after all, and though word had spread of the Yiling Patriarch’s exoneration, this far out it was muddled and confused. The reality, though, certainly didn’t resemble the old legends.
He remembered hearing some of those stories when Wei Wuxian had been dead. A couple times he’d wanted to laugh, though every time the urge was followed by a stabbing pain that more than killed the urge.
Pushing that thought and all accompanying feelings away, he was about to stalk over to the next stall - the shopkeeper studiously avoiding looking in his direction - when he heard the sound of a guqin.
He spun on his heel and broke into a run heading toward it, hand on Sandu ready to draw, but when he rounded the corner there were no ghost puppets or monsters, just Lan Wangji with his guqin, apparently ignoring the audience that was gathering at a slightly less than discreet distance.
Scowling, Jiang Cheng strode over to him.
“What’re you doing?”
Lan Wangji did not look in his direction. “Inquiry.”
Jiang Cheng jerked a little, and immediately felt like an idiot. He should’ve thought of that. The girl had mentioned that Wei Wuxian had killed one of his attackers. That didn’t automatically mean he could be reached, but it was a possibility, and Lan Wangji had the means to try.
“Right,” he said shortly. “Fine. Have you gotten any answers?”
“Mm.” Lan Wangji looked down at the strings and played a few bars, then paused. Jiang Cheng watched the strings, but they remained still.
He heard a whisper behind his back and turned to snap, “what are you looking at?” The watchers immediately made themselves scarce, at least for the moment.
“Nothing,” Lan Wangji said. “No answer.” His voice was level, mostly even, but Jiang Cheng thought he caught just the slightest trace of disappointment. His own hopes, small as they’d been, fell.
Then one note, and another, and a third. Jiang Cheng tensed.
“Was that an answer?”
Lan Wangji frowned and didn’t respond aloud, just plucked out another question. This time the answer came more quickly.
“Mn.” Lan Wangji paused, then played another question. Jiang Cheng settled back on his heels and let out an irritated sound, scowling at nothing in particular. It seemed he was just going to have to wait until Hanguang-jun decided it was time to share. He occupied himself by thinking of increasingly vulgar insults he was never going to share and trying not to fidget. And glaring at the periodic onlooker who drifted hopefully back to gawk.
He hated feeling useless. Like a sidekick. (Should be used to that, shouldn’t you?)
After what seemed like a brief eternity, Lan Wangji swept the guqin away with a wave of his hand and stood, robes, naturally, as pristine as ever.
“Are you going to share now?” Jiang Cheng asked, not bothering to try sounding less annoyed than he was.
Lan Wangji leveled him with a long, frosty stare before he said, “do you want to hear it?”
Jiang Cheng was going to bring out Zidian and damn the consequences. He might die but at least he might die momentarily satisfied. “Yes. Obviously.”
Lan Wangji tucked an arm behind his back and began walking toward the northern edge of town. Jiang Cheng’s jaw spasmed, but he followed him a moment after.
“They came here hunting him.”
Jiang Cheng’s stride hitched briefly, though he didn’t let it stop him. “Hunting Wei Wuxian,” he clarified, waiting for the very slight nod. “Why?” The anxious bubbling had begun again in his stomach, murmuring he’s already dead, they killed him weeks ago. He glanced at Lan Wangji’s hand clutching Bichen, knuckles white.
“They were paid. Not cultivators. Mercenaries.”
Jiang Cheng let out an involuntary scoff. “That seems unlikely.”
“Spirits cannot lie to me.”
Of course not, Jiang Cheng thought irritably. “How the hell does a band of ordinary mercenaries overcome the Yiling Patriarch? Even without-” He cut off before he said either his sword or a golden core because either way was going to put them too close to things Jiang Cheng was not interested in bringing up.
“Surprise. Poison.” Lan Wangji’s voice was flat, but in the way that a glassy lake before a storm was flat. Jiang Cheng’s jaw creaked when he clenched it.
“Ah.” He took a deep breath and added, “who paid them?”
Lan Wangji paused. “No name. But a meeting place.”
Jiang Cheng almost tripped over his own feet. “You couldn’t have started with that? Where?”
“An inn in Guoliang.”
Jiang Cheng stopped. “And do you know where that is?”
Lan Wangji stopped. Jiang Cheng took a slow breath in. “So that’s a no, then,” he said. “Unless you asked the spirit for directions?”
Lan Wangji slowed. Turned his head very slightly.
“I guess I will, then,” Jiang Cheng said. “Unless you just want to waste time flying around guessing which one is the right town.”
Lan Wangji turned the rest of the way toward him. He did not look pleased. At all.
“Has Hanguang-jun has developed the instincts of a messenger pigeon?” Jiang Cheng went on, though he probably shouldn’t. “And a comprehensive mental map of the area? ”
Lan Wangji’s mouth tightened minutely, but only for a moment before his expression was perfectly smooth once again. “No.”
“Then I,” Jiang Cheng said, “am going to go ask someone to tell me where we are going and how far it is. Do you think you can wait until I get back to charge off?”
Lan Wangji’s eyes snapped briefly. “Yes.”
“Glad to hear it,” Jiang Cheng said. There was something very surreal about being the person who was restraining Hanguang-jun from what certainly seemed like impulsivity. And the fact that he was acting so, and Jiang Cheng knew why, made him feel...something. He wasn’t going to look too hard at what. “I’ll be right back.”
Jiang Cheng got them the directions. He wasn’t very polite about it, but given how tense Lan Wangji was at the moment, he wasn’t sure he would’ve been better.
And at least they knew where to go next, which meant they didn’t have to wander around at random.
Guoliang was slightly larger than Ganzi Village, not that that was saying much. There was only one inn, which made that part of it simpler.
“I’ll ask the questions,” Jiang Cheng said. Lan Wangji glanced in his direction, and Jiang Cheng said, “believe it or not, people seem to find me less intimidating than you. And I know you don’t like talking to people anyway.”
It was a good thing he didn’t expect any gratitude, because he didn’t get it. Just a slight nod. Jiang Cheng’s jaw spasmed, but he shoved his temper down and went inside. He hadn’t spent almost two decades as a sect leader without learning a little restraint. It was just that it got a great deal harder to exercise it around Hanguang-jun.
The innkeeper spotted them immediately and blinked, staring goggle-eyed for a moment before visibly shaking himself and hurrying over. “Gongzi,” he said. “How can I serve you?”
“Do you have two rooms available?” A quick nod. “We’ll take both.”
The innkeeper looked both baffled and delighted, and Jiang Cheng wondered briefly if he was about to quote a vastly inflated price, but the number he gave seemed fair enough. His eyes kept going back and forth between them, and to their swords, and to Lan Wangji’s headband; clearly he was dying to ask and just holding himself back.
“We’ll take a meal, too. And wine. One bottle.” He turned and strode over to one of the tables, sitting down. Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes after the innkeeper, then sat down as well.
“You didn’t ask.”
“Better to order first and then ask than just barge in and demand answers,” Jiang Cheng said. “What is it about Wei Wuxian that makes you lose all your vaunted manners?”
Lan Wangji’s nostrils flared very slightly. “Concern.”
It was a gift, the way that he could convey so very much in one word. No wonder he didn’t need to use many. Jiang Cheng pressed his back teeth together and stayed silent until they were served.
“We’re here looking for someone,” he said, “and received word that he may have been here.”
“Here?” The innkeeper laughed, a bit nervously. “We don’t often see important people like yourselves in Guoliang. Who are you looking for?”
“A man about our age,” Jiang Cheng said. “Tall, most likely wearing black with a red ribbon in his hair. Probably not alone.”
The innkeeper looked from him, to Lan Wangji, to Bichen, back to him, and his eyes suddenly went very wide. Jiang Cheng held in the urge to groan. “Don’t think about it and just answer the question,” he said.
“I didn’t realize-”
“The question,” Jiang Cheng repeated, with a bit more of an edge. The innkeeper stammered a little.
“I think I remember - yes, a few weeks ago, with four others,” he said. “They were - meeting someone, they said-”
The innkeeper shook his head, eyes wide, and Jiang Cheng took a breath through his nose. “And the man with them?”
“Seemed - I thought he was drunk,” the innkeeper said, speaking rapidly and edging back. Jiang Cheng did not turn to look at the expression on Lan Wangji’s face. Or it might’ve been the expression on his face. Or maybe both. Drunk. Drugged seemed more likely, and that would certainly explain why he hadn’t escaped, if they were just keeping him unconscious or next to it. “They didn’t stay long-”
“Did you see who they met?” The first words Lan Wangji had spoken, and they came out weighted like stones and backed by the cold promise of imminent doom.
“No,” the innkeeper said, “no, I didn’t.”
Jiang Cheng bit back a growl. “Do you know anything that might be relevant?” he said roughly, temper simmering.
The innkeeper opened his mouth and then closed it. Then opened it again. “Well-”
“Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Wangji said, as though he wasn’t on the verge of - well, maybe not losing his temper but the closest thing to it Hanguang-jun did. Jiang Cheng gritted his teeth and exhaled loudly.
“There are rumors,” the innkeeper said slowly, and Jiang Cheng both thought there always are and perked up with hopeful interest. It might have nothing to do with anything, but at least it was something.
“About?” Lan Wangji said.
“There was a house that belonged to an old family, a bit less than two days’ travel to the northwest of here,” the innkeeper said. “In one night they were all slaughtered, and since then it has been empty - supposedly.”
Jiang Cheng just kept himself from snapping what does this have to do with Wei Wuxian, hoping that they were going to get there soon.
“Supposedly,” Lan Wangji said, toneless.
“Some say...some say that a group of cultivators moved in some years ago, in secret,” the innkeeper said. There was something a little artful about his pause, Jiang Cheng thought sourly, before he added, “demonic cultivators.”
Jiang Cheng stiffened, almost instinctive revulsion and anger sweeping over him. It was a reaction he’d spent years cultivating and not, he thought, an entirely unwarranted one.
“So you think it was these people they were meeting,” Jiang Cheng said, forcing his voice to be something approximating level.
“Well...considering who you’re, ah, looking for-”
Jiang Cheng could see, out of the corner of his eye, the very slight darkening of Lan Wangji’s expression and cut him off. “Two days’ travel to the northwest, you said,” he said, and if there was an edge to his own voice no one needed to know why. “Do you know anything else? How many people there are supposed to be, or any defenses…”
The innkeeper cast a nervous glance in Lan Wangji’s direction and shook his head. “Like I said,” he said. “It’s only rumors. No one here goes near there.”
Well. It wasn’t completely useless. Not much, but it wasn’t nothing. “Great,” he said. “Thanks.” To Lan Wangji, he just said, “let’s go, then. We’re wasting time.”
Lan Wangji looked like he wanted to say something and only reluctantly decided against it. He inclined his chin, barely, turned, and swept back out into the street.
“Sect Leader,” the innkeeper said, half a question, like he wasn’t quite sure Jiang Cheng wanted him to know. He didn’t, exactly, but it was a bit late for that. “You are...that was…”
Jiang Cheng wrestled with himself for a moment before he said, “Wei Wuxian? Yes.”
A little bit of color drained out of the man’s face. “Ah,” he said. Jiang Cheng felt his upper lip curl a little as he thought really? He was semi-conscious, a drugged captive and you’re still afraid of him?
There were several things he thought about saying. We’re here helping him, not hunting him, was one. Haven’t you heard the news yet about how he’s not the world’s enemy anymore? was another. He held back both, though some part of him was unreasonably, unexpectedly annoyed.
He followed Lan Wangji, relieved to find that he hadn’t already flown off on his sword but was, apparently, waiting.
“So,” Jiang Cheng said. “Demonic cultivators.”
“I do not care who they are.”
Jiang Cheng’s mouth pressed into a grim line. “No,” he said. “I guess it doesn’t matter, does it.” He rolled his shoulders back. “Are we leaving or not?”
“I was waiting for you.”
Jiang Cheng sometimes wondered if Lan Wangji was trying to piss him off or just didn’t care if he did. Maybe a little bit of both. “I’m here now,” he said. “Let’s get moving. We’re still three weeks behind.”
There was a very faint tightening around Lan Wangji’s eyes, and the moment the words were out Jiang Cheng wished he hadn’t said them. It just reminded him, too, of how long it had been, and all that could go wrong in that amount of time, and might have already. It felt like they were getting close, and in getting close like he was having to face, to recognize, the possibility he’d been trying studiously to avoid ever since learning that Wei Wuxian had been taken.
If Wei Wuxian was dead - what would that do to Lan Wangji? To Jin Ling?
What would it do to you?
He half-turned toward Lan Wangji, on the point of opening his mouth to say - something, he wasn’t sure exactly what, but the words died in his throat. He wasn’t going to be the one to acknowledge it aloud first.
He wondered if he’d be able to drag Hanguang-jun bodily back to the Cloud Recesses if he needed to. Lotus Pier would be closer, but trying to deal with a grief-stricken Chief Cultivator was not at the top of Jiang Cheng’s want-to-do list.
Stop it. Stop making contingency plans. Stop assuming the worst. He’s fine. He’s going to be fine. The last time you see him alive won’t be walking away, everything you want to say shriveling on your tongue. It doesn’t end like that.
Of course, Jiang Cheng knew very, very well how easily it could, indeed, end exactly like that.
Two days travel walking was significantly less than that flying, or would have been if they hadn’t hit a rather substantial snag a couple hours in.
“Stop,” Lan Wangji said abruptly, the first word he’d spoken since leaving Guoliang. Jiang Cheng came to a halt.
The expression on Lan Wangji’s face was one of intense focus.
“It’s a trap,” he said. Jiang Cheng tensed immediately, head swiveling in a semi-circle and fist clenching, ready to unleash Zidian if need be.
“Hm,” Lan Wangji said, and descended without answering. Jiang Cheng grimaced at the air, but followed suit.
“Are you going to explain?” he asked. Lan Wangji sheathed Bichen, still quiet, and Jiang Cheng took a deep breath so he didn’t say anything too precipitous. He tried to focus, to center himself and extend his senses, but there was nothing…
His eyes snapped open. Nothing. The same kind of nothing he remembered feeling before, most recently in the Burial Mounds, and before that...
Some deep place in him went cold and he half-turned to look at Lan Wangji, who was staring straight ahead, mouth a thin line.
“Is it...some sort of array?” he asked. “Designed to seal spiritual pathways temporarily?” He did not weight temporarily more than necessary. Absolutely did not.
“Something like.” Lan Wangji’s eyebrows knitted together and smoothed out. Jiang Cheng looked for marks that could be broken, but if there was an array - and there must be - it wasn’t here. There must be some kind of area of effect. How large?
“Hm,” Lan Wangji said again, and then he was walking forward with long, smooth, measured strides, his jaw set.
“You don’t think maybe,” Jiang Cheng started, but Lan Wangji’s stride didn’t so much as hitch. Jiang Cheng swore under his breath, flexed his fingers on Sandu’s hilt, and started forward, back teeth pressed together. It felt a little like having a bucket of cold water dumped on his head, at first, and then it was just the cold, hollow feeling, the life sucked out of his veins, the familiar thrum of energy evaporating-
Not sealing, then. Draining. That was. That was much worse.
Temporary. It’s temporary.
“How has no one noticed that this is out here?” Jiang Cheng asked, needing to distract himself.
“It is remote. Qishan is poorly attended.” Lan Wangji looked like he was hardly noticing the effects. Maybe the great Hanguang-jun was immune to such petty, mortal things as discomfort or fear. That was probably about right. His skin wouldn’t be crawling, he wouldn’t be tense and jumpy, wondering what they were supposed to do if something attacked them, if there was a whole nest of ghost puppets out here…
It couldn’t be the whole area, he reminded himself. The people here would want to be able to use their golden cores - unless they weren’t, unless they were relying, like Wei Wuxian had (did), solely on other means of cultivation. Then they’d be facing a fight at the end of this without their best weapons, and here Lan Wangji was walking them into it.
Calm down, he thought viciously to himself. You’re going to be fine. Stop being such a weakling.
His golden core (Wei Wuxian’s golden core) was still there. It wasn’t gone. He’d been drained before, just from exhaustion. This wasn’t any different. It would come back. It would come back.
He realized he’d stopped, his heart thudding rapidly.
“What,” he said, too harshly and too loudly. Lan Wangji’s eyes narrowed a hair, but only for a moment before he was inscrutable once more.
“My spiritual energy is already returning,” he said.
Well, good for you, Jiang Cheng almost snapped, before he recognized that thing Lan Wangji did where he said something that seemed unrelated but made sense once you could put together the context he hadn’t bothered to provide. He paused, took a breath, and centered himself.
It was returning. Slowly, but it was - not a full affected area, then, just some sort of boundary.
He was ashamed of the force of his own relief. When he thought he had his face back under control, he looked at Lan Wangji and forced out, “mine as well,” in lieu of a thank you. He wasn’t even sure a thank you was owed. It might not’ve been a kindness.
There was - something, in Lan Wangji’s expression. Damned if Jiang Cheng could tell what it was, though.
“Probably triggered some kind of warning, too,” Jiang Cheng said. “They’ll know someone is coming.”
Lan Wangji’s face froze over. “Mm,” he said. He didn’t sound like the idea bothered him. Jiang Cheng resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Next time he heard someone say something about Lan Wangji being a restraining influence on Wei Wuxian he was going to laugh.
He checked on the level of his spiritual energy, exhaled, and said, “I guess we’re walking, though.”
That very slight nod, again. Jiang Cheng did some quick calculations in his head and determined that they probably had maybe a day’s journey left still. If that marker belonged to the people they were looking for - and it seemed that there was at least something to the rumors - then it was a very early warning - which probably meant it wasn’t the only one.
But at least it probably also meant they were getting close. Close-ish. Or at the very least, there was someone here with something to hide.
Jiang Cheng hoped one of those things was Wei Wuxian.
A wave of ghost puppets attacked them a few hours later - not a large group, and they weren’t particularly strong, so even at half strength he and Lan Wangji dealt with them with relative ease. After running into a second string of traps, they slowed their progress considerably, moving more cautiously. Jiang Cheng’s conclusion was that whoever was here was tricky, and had a decent store of knowledge, but was not particularly strong.
Lan Wangji seemed to have exhausted his interest in speaking. Not that Jiang Cheng minded, exactly, except that it left him with nothing but his own thoughts to consider, and those were not things he wanted to dwell on at the moment. Too many of them were about Wei Wuxian, and he’d wanted to be done thinking about Wei Wuxian after walking away from him in Yunping. He’d told himself he could be, too.
A-Cheng, said a-jie’s voice from his memories. You have to bring a-Xian back.
She’d always loved him. She’d loved him so much it had killed her.
The thought drifted across his mind: she would be so upset if she could see us now.
A brittle, bitter part of him wanted to laugh.
He wondered what Lan Wangji was thinking about. Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he’d mastered the art of emptying out his entire head and there was just vacant space between his pretty ears.
“What do you think they want from him?”
Damn. He hadn’t meant to be the one to talk first. Though of course if he’d waited for Lan Wangji they’d probably be dead before that happened.
“I don’t know.”
Jiang Cheng held back a growl. “I didn’t ask what you knew. I asked what you thought.”
“I assume nothing.”
Jiang Cheng ground his teeth until he could answer without snapping. What do you want from me, he wanted to say. What do you want me to say, anyway, but he wasn’t going to ask that. He’d made the mistake of opening that door and he wasn’t going to do it again.
He supposed it didn’t really matter what Wei Wuxian’s kidnappers wanted from him. It could be anything - probably demonic cultivation related, the way things were going. He’d thought originally that revenge was more likely - someone coming after Wei Wuxian for something or other that he maybe-had-maybe-hadn’t done. This was actually better. Wanting something from him meant they were less likely to kill him.
Of course, Wei Wuxian was not particularly prone to doing what other people wanted, and now Jiang Cheng was thinking about the ways that people might try to convince him to do what they wanted, and now he wanted to hit something.
He became aware, slowly, that Lan Wangji had his head turned in his direction, and that Zidian was sparking menacingly.
“What,” he snapped.
Lan Wangji just looked slowly back forward without answering. Jiang Cheng held back a hiss.
Wei Wuxian was sturdy. He’d survived the Burial Mounds, hadn’t he?
(Three months, alone, surrounded by resentful energy and restless ghosts, coreless.)
Jiang Cheng shoved that off into a corner where he didn’t have to consider it, at least not right now, but that just left his thoughts spinning around other things, none of which were any better. He cast about for something other than Wei Wuxian.
“So Sect Leader Lan is out of seclusion now,” he said. Lan Wangji’s eyes slanted in his direction.
“Yes,” he said, in a tone that suggested this was not a line of conversation Jiang Cheng should pursue. Jiang Cheng pressed his lips together and decided to pursue it anyway.
“Was that you?”
“I do not gossip about Lan Sect business.”
Jiang Cheng’s mouth snapped closed. His fingers tightened around Sandu. Fuck you, he thought. Fuck you very much.
But he took the hint and stopped talking. He probably should have stopped sooner.
They came to a halt, eventually, when night fell. Lan Wangji built a fire while Jiang Cheng swept the perimeter and laid down a protective array, though all seemed fairly quiet, at least so far. Then they just sat across from each other in the same silence they’d been living in since Jiang Cheng’s last abortive attempt at conversation.
He didn’t know why he even tried. He didn’t know why he’d even agreed to this. No doubt Hanguang-jun could’ve handled fine all on his own, sweeping in for a gallant rescue, and Jiang Cheng wouldn’t have to be out here, alone with one of his least favorite people in the cultivation world.
He made a list, briefly, setting aside anyone who was already dead, which didn’t help his mood but was at least a distraction.
Jiang Cheng tried to imagine if he’d said no to Lan Wangji’s request for help. He’d be back in Lotus Pier right now, comfortable with a warm pot of tea, sleeping in his own bed.
You’d be lying there awake worrying about damned Wei Wuxian. Wondering what had happened to him. Wondering what was happening to him, like you are right now.
What kind of desperate idiot - even a demonic cultivating kind of idiot - would dare lay a finger on Wei Wuxian, knowing that the great Hanguang-jun stood with him? Even if the towering reputation of the Yiling Patriarch wasn’t enough, surely that ought to be - but of course, Hanguang-jun hadn’t been there. Wei Wuxian had been alone. Vulnerable.
“How could you let him leave,” he said, his voice thick.
He was aware of Lan Wangji falling still. Stiller than usual. “I told you. Wei Ying said he wanted to go. I was respecting his wishes.”
“Fuck his wishes,” Jiang Cheng said with feeling. “When have Wei Wuxian’s wishes gotten him anywhere good?”
Lan Wangji somehow got even stiller. His eyes were in shadow, and he said nothing.
“I’m right,” Jiang Cheng said fiercely. “You know I’m right. If you’d asked, he’d’ve stayed.”
It was what he’d thought before, in Lotus Pier. Saying it now, it tasted as bitter as it had felt to think then. And sounded it, too.
Lan Wangji said nothing. Jiang Cheng’s fists clenched, waiting, but he stayed where he was, unmoving, barely seeming to breathe.
“If you had just-” Jiang Cheng broke off, registering that Lan Wangji had spoken. He hadn’t moved, still sitting straight-backed with legs crossed, staring straight forward, but he had spoken. And what he’d said-
“I know,” Lan Wangji said, his voice quiet but heavy. “If I had said...I didn’t.”
Jiang Cheng stared at him. He opened his mouth to say some variant on I told you so, but nothing came out.
“I knew it was dangerous. For him.”
The great Hanguang-jun! an undeniable part of him wanted to crow. Admitting to a mistake! But for some reason, he didn’t pounce on the opportunity.
“I thought about it. About asking. But I didn’t.” A pause, the silence only broken by crackling flames. “I convinced myself he would be safe. And eventually he would return.”
Jiang Cheng looked over his shoulder like there might be someone else around who could handle this. Of course, there wasn’t. He turned back. “Well,” he said, a little spitefully, “clearly you were wrong.”
Lan Wangji raised his eyes but did not reply, and almost immediately Jiang Cheng just felt petty and foolish. He looked away again, scowling, and did not say I don’t understand how you could get him back after all this time and just let him walk away.
If he were Lan Wangji he would’ve tied Wei Wuxian up and dragged him back to the Cloud Recesses with that Silencing Spell so he couldn’t argue. If he were Lan Wangji, pining all these years for a dead man-
He thought of Chenqing that had been tucked into a chest in his room, wrapped in cloth for sixteen years. Safely out of sight but he was always at least slightly aware of its presence, and through it the presence of its master and creator. The awareness at the back of his mind that he had never mentioned it to anyone. Never destroyed it, as he should have a spiritual tool of demonic cultivation.
Just left it there, like it was waiting for someone to claim it.
Jiang Cheng exhaled loudly. “It doesn’t matter now.”
The look Lan Wangji gave him was a mixture of scathing and dubious, both so subtle they were nearly unnoticeable. But he probably wanted them to be seen, or they wouldn’t have been noticeable at all.
“All that matters is getting to the bastards who took him,” Jiang Cheng said.
Lan Wangji’s expression went blank. Dangerously so, Jiang Cheng thought. “Yes.”
“We can’t be far now.” His voice sounded harsh and a little strange. “I’m surprised he hasn’t freed himself by now. Maybe we’ll get there and he’ll just be sitting there waiting for us to show up.”
Lan Wangji’s face stayed blank, but the silence that hung there left room for the unspoken you know how likely that is. Jiang Cheng reminded himself again that Wei Wuxian had clawed his way out of the Burial Mounds. That he’d clawed his way back to the world of the living after dying.
(He’s weaker now than he used to be.)
Jiang Cheng shoved all his fear and uncertainty down and sat down stiffly across the fire from Lan Wangji. “Go to sleep,” he said. “It’s hai hour, isn’t it? I can’t believe you’re still awake. I’ll watch.”
Lan Wangji looked at him for several long seconds like he was measuring Jiang Cheng, and it was all he could do not to straighten further under the inspection. Finally, Lan Wangji nodded and closed his eyes. Oh, good, so you trust me that much, Jiang Cheng thought, but he kept his mouth shut.
Everything he was feeling was a tangled knot in his chest, and he wished he could just make it go away, but he didn’t think that was going to happen anytime soon.
They ran into two more groups of ghost puppets, neither particularly large or difficult to deal with. Lan Wangji didn’t even bother with his guqin.
When they reached the old manor house, the door was closed and locked. Lan Wangji stared at it like it might open if he intimidated it enough. Jiang Cheng considered knocking and decided it wasn’t worth pretending that they were here to be nice.
It was possible, he was aware, that Wei Wuxian wasn’t here at all. That this was completely unrelated and they were on the wrong track entirely. But he had an itch in his bones that said this was it.
The doors opened for Zidian. “All right,” he said loudly, stepping through, “who’s going to answer some questions?”
“Stop right there.”
Jiang Cheng was surprised enough that he actually did stop. He heard Lan Wangji’s quick, sharp inhale before he registered the reason for it. They were standing in a small courtyard in front of a house that had seen decidedly better days. There were only seven people there, which wasn’t that bad odds, except that one of them was holding a hostage, a knife to his throat.
It was Wei Wuxian.
Jiang Cheng’s mouth went dry. He looked horrible - unconscious, barely any color left in his face, a gag shoved in his mouth (keeping him from whistling, smart, Jiang Cheng thought, and then hated that he’d thought it). There were welts visible under the ropes binding his wrists and blood on his chin, a ring of bruises around his neck under the knife that wasn’t quite splitting the skin. ‘Half-dead’ wouldn’t be far off the mark. Might be generous.
Rage rose up, hot and choking. Meanwhile, next to him, he could’ve sworn he felt the temperature plunge. The sound that emerged from Jiang Cheng’s throat was an inarticulate snarl. His estimation of the people in front of them went from already dead to alive for three weeks too long. But he couldn’t-
He remembered Jin Ling at the temple, a line of red across his neck, frozen in helpless, impotent fury. He remembered the matching line across Wei Wuxian’s neck. He hadn’t been there to see it made.
Lan Wangji was vibrating like one of his guqin strings and with the same amount of tension. “Let him go.”
The one holding Wei Wuxian gave him an incredulous look. “Do you think I’m stupid?” he asked. Yes, was Jiang Cheng’s immediate reaction. Very.
“I will not ask again.”
“Hanguang-jun,” Jiang Cheng said tightly. “Wait. Do you want them to kill him?”
Lan Wangji’s head turned slowly. His eyes narrowed. But he didn’t move, at least, and if his hand was on Bichen’s hilt, it remained sheathed.
“What do you want,” Jiang Cheng asked.
Jiang Cheng let out an involuntary ha before he could stop himself. Lan Wangji’s gaze was back on Wei Wuxian like there was no one else present. “That’s not going to work.” He tried to get a better look at Wei Wuxian himself. To gauge how bad it was. How much danger he was in, aside from the immediate. “What do you want him for, anyway?” He didn’t really care. It didn’t really matter. Mostly he was just trying to figure out a better next move that wouldn’t get Wei Wuxian’s throat slit.
Wake up, Jiang Cheng thought angrily. Wake up and work with us here.
“We want the Yiling Patriarch’s help,” said the one who seemed to be their leader, the one holding Wei Wuxian. Jiang Cheng glanced pointedly in his direction.
“Interesting way of asking,” he said tightly. Lan Wangji still looked like a dog straining at the end of a leash, but at least it hadn’t snapped yet.
“I did ask,” the man burst out. “Before, but he refused. Said he couldn’t do it. But he was lying, he brought back the Ghost General, I’ll make him bring back my wife.”
Jiang Cheng almost said he didn’t, technically, apparently Wen Ning wasn’t actually dead, but he didn’t think the distinction actually mattered.
“Right,” Jiang Cheng said flatly. “How’s that going for you? Should ask around how trying to make the Yiling Patriarch do anything usually works out.”
The man holding Wei Wuxian scowled. He itched to draw Sandu, to stop talking and just…
But that knife. Very close to Wei Wuxian’s vulnerable throat. One resurrection was unlikely enough.
He glanced at Lan Wangji. The intensity of his gaze could’ve bored holes in stone; Jiang Cheng was a little impressed that it wasn’t having more of an effect. Or maybe the man was just that stupid and was mistaking stillness for relaxation. Also possible.
“Why are you here?” One of the other cultivators asked. “Didn’t you kill him?”
As always, that hit him like a punch to the stomach. Harder, now, when he was looking at Wei Wuxian in front of him in the condition he was. With Lan Wangji standing next to him and his fresh and acute awareness of his judgment and condemnation.
“That’s not relevant right now,” he grated out. “The point is-”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji interrupted, a faint note in his voice that would probably have been anguish in anyone else’s. Jiang Cheng’s head jerked around to see Wei Wuxian’s eyes open to slivers, some dim awareness visible.
He made a muffled noise and the man holding him looked down. Wei Wuxian twisted violently; Jiang Cheng let out an alarmed shout drowned out by a flash of blue light and a wailing scream.
Wei Wuxian was sprawled on the ground and covered in blood, and for a moment Jiang Cheng’s heart jumped out of his chest before he realized that the man who’d been holding him was the one screaming, clutching at the stump of his wrist, and Lan Wangji was really making a habit of that, wasn’t he?
Jiang Cheng couldn’t hold it against him, and with Wei Wuxian free there was no reason to hold back anymore.
He almost wished the fight lasted longer. It would’ve been more satisfying.
In a flurry of robes, Lan Wangji was kneeling next to Wei Wuxian, who was apparently once again unconscious, severing the binding ropes from wrists and ankles and reaching out with a hand that Jiang Cheng could have sworn trembled. Jiang Cheng did not hold his breath, waiting.
The tension and strain bled out of Lan Wangji’s back all at once. He didn’t slump like a normal person, but it was the closest thing that Jiang Cheng suspected he ever did to it. Jiang Cheng hadn’t been holding his breath, so he did not let it out in one relieved exhale, certain even before Lan Wangji said anything that they hadn’t been too late.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said quietly, barely audible, a tone in his voice that felt like a donkey had kicked Jiang Cheng in the chest. It was longing and relief and love compressed into two syllables, and he thought he could choke on it. Lan Wangji extracted the gag gently from his mouth and began transferring spiritual energy through his fingers.
Jiang Cheng took a step forward, ready to offer - something, to help, but Lan Wangji shifted very slightly to block him without saying a word or stopping what he was doing. Not a donkey, Jiang Cheng thought. A horse.
“So he’s. All right,” Jiang Cheng said, voice halting.
Jiang Cheng went rigid, panic surging like bile. “What do you mean, no-”
“He has been a captive for weeks. Beaten. Starved. He is not all right.”
Jiang Cheng tried not to wince with limited success. “But he’ll get better?” He hadn’t meant that to be a question. He would. Wei Wuxian was alive and therefore he would be fine, because that was how Wei Wuxian was, he was always - fine.
(That’s what you told yourself then, wasn’t it, even when you knew it wasn’t true.)
“Hm,” Lan Wangji said. The flow of spiritual energy stopped and he began to gather Wei Wuxian’s battered body into his arms. There was an ache in Jiang Cheng’s stomach and he half took a step forward.
“Lotus Pier has physicians-”
Lan Wangji’s stare pinned him in place. Bichen was sheathed again, but those eyes could’ve cut too. He looked at Jiang Cheng like he was a threat. A fist clenched around Jiang Cheng’s throat.
“I can manage from here,” he said.
No, Jiang Cheng wanted to say. No. You don’t get to do that. You don’t get to just take him away.
The words he’d thrown at Lan Wangji in the inn, just a few days ago: as soon as this is finished, I am done. With you and Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian was alive. He’d be safe with Lan Wangji. That was what he’d come to do, and it was done, and now he could go home. Back to Lotus Pier, alone.
“Fine,” he said, voice brittle. “Take him and go. Keep better track of him this time.” He paused, then stalked over and pulled Chenqing out of the dead man’s belt. For a half a moment he just stared at it, thoughts sticking, the half formed idea if you take it with you he’ll have to...
“Here,” he said, thrusting it in Lan Wangji’s direction. “He’ll want this.”
Lan Wangji adjusted Wei Wuxian and took the flute without a word. Jiang Cheng gritted his teeth and moved back away, idly scanning the room like there was anything to see that wasn’t corpses and stray talismans. He felt Lan Wangji cast him one last searing gaze before he left.
Then it was just Jiang Cheng standing among a group of dead bodies. One of them was still moving, he realized, and he felt himself walking over, one step at a time.
Jiang Cheng used his foot to roll him to his back. He was going to die soon, arm severed cleanly at the elbow and bleeding freely. “Sandu Shengshou,” he said desperately. “Mercy-”
“Idiots,” Jiang Cheng said, his voice flat. He adjusted his grip on Sandu, raising it to point at his chest. “You should never have touched Wei Wuxian.”
He didn’t fly back to Lotus Pier. He went to Koi Tower instead, exhausted to the bone, a deep unhappiness lodged in his chest.
Jin Ling greeted him, scanning his face with obvious worry. “Jiujiu, what are you-” He broke off, and adjusted. “Koi Tower welcomes you, Sect Leader Jiang.”
Jiang Cheng bowed back, though it still felt odd treating his nephew so formally. He recognized the need. “Thank you. Can I borrow a moment of your time to speak in private, Sect Leader Jin?”
The crease in his brow deepened. “Of course,” he said immediately. “Do you want-”
“Honestly,” Jiang Cheng said, interrupting without really meaning to, “I could use something to drink.”
Worry was rapidly developing into alarm, but Jin Ling nodded. “You heard him,” he said to a nearby servant, his voice turning a little snappish. “This way, jiu - Sect Leader Jiang.”
Once they were alone, Jiang Cheng dropped heavily to the ground and put his head in his hands.
“Jiujiu,” Jin Ling said slowly. “What is it? Did-” He stopped, and when Jiang Cheng glanced up at him he looked very young. “Did something happen to…”
The name stayed unspoken. Like Jin Ling was worried about the reaction just to him asking. Jiang Cheng’s lips twisted. “Wei Wuxian is fine,” he said, which wasn’t completely true, but would probably be true enough soon. The Lan Sect had physicians aplenty who were probably perfectly competent.
Jin Ling didn’t look like that calmed him. “I wrote to Lotus Pier. Jiang Hai said you weren’t there.”
“Hanguang-jun came and requested my assistance looking for Wei Wuxian. He hadn’t heard from him in a while and was...concerned.”
Jin Ling leaned forward a little. Jiang Cheng wondered how close the two of them were. And why he hadn’t known. Had Jin Ling thought he’d disapprove? “So something was wrong,” he said, and sounded both nervous and oddly relieved. “I thought - what happened?”
Jiang Cheng stared at a corner of the room. “He...got into some trouble. Hanguang-jun and I tracked him down and he took him back to the Cloud Recesses.”
“What kind of trouble? Where were you? Why are you-” He stopped again, guiltily, but Jiang Cheng knew what the question was. Why are you here? Why are you here and not there?
Jiang Cheng shook his head. “Hanguang-jun was perfectly capable of carrying him home on his own.”
Jin Ling’s brows furrowed. “Carrying? Was Da- Wei Wuxian hurt?”
Jiang Cheng pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes for a moment before he let them fall. Were you going to call him ‘da-jiujiu?’ When did that happen? How much have I missed?
How much am I going to keep missing?
“He’ll be fine.”
Jin Ling was frowning at him. “I want to go,” he said abruptly.
“Go where,” Jiang Cheng said.
“The Cloud Recesses,” Jin Ling said. He had that set to his mouth that Jiang Cheng recognized, unfortunately, from the mirror. Why, Jiang Cheng thought of saying, but didn’t. He knew why. It was the same reason for the pulling in his own chest that was trying to draw him to the same place.
“What, are you asking for my permission?” he asked. “You can go where you want.” It came out petulant and irritated. Jin Ling just gave him a look.
“You could come with me.”
“I’ve been away from Lotus Pier too long as it is.”
Jin Ling snorted loudly. Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes in his direction.
“Nothing. Go back to Lotus Pier if you want to. I’m going to the Cloud Recesses.” Jin Ling stretched. “You can come or not come.”
Jiang Cheng scowled. He could feel himself doing it, and tried to stop, but couldn’t quite manage it. He thought about Wei Wuxian’s unconscious body folded into Lan Wangji’s arms and a twisting, panicky feeling kicked up in his chest. “Hanguang-jun probably wouldn’t let me in, anyway,” he said. He meant it to come out dry, but it just sounded bitter and unhappy.
Jin Ling frowned. “He wouldn’t actually throw you out,” he said. He did not, Jiang Cheng noticed, argue with the essence of his assertion. Well, it wasn’t like His Excellency Hanguang-jun was subtle about his dislike.
“I wouldn’t be so sure.” Jiang Cheng shook himself, glaring at a corner of the room. “It doesn’t matter. I’m going home.”
He didn’t move. Jin Ling’s frown was gone and he was just giving Jiang Cheng a patient look that reminded him, painfully, of a-jie. He managed not to squirm under it as he might have with a-jie, though, which was fortunate. “What.”
“Nothing! Do you want to stay here overnight or are you leaving now?”
Jiang Cheng could feel the back of his neck getting hot. “Are you telling me to leave?”
“No,” Jin Ling said, “but since I won’t be here and Sect Leader Yao is I thought you might want to.”
“Because you’re going to the Cloud Recesses.”
“Mmhm.” Jin Ling stood up with a firm nod. “I’ll see you later, Jiujiu.”
“Wait,” Jiang Cheng grated. Jin Ling’s eyes were a little too wide. A little too innocent. Jiang Cheng breathed out loudly. “I…”
He couldn’t say it.
“It would be nice to have company traveling,” Jin Ling said. Jiang Cheng was deeply, pathetically grateful. He jerked his head in a nod.
“Then I guess I’ll come with you.”
Jin Ling smiled at him. “Thank you, Jiujiu,” he said, and very nearly bounced off, clearly satisfied with himself. Jiang Cheng sighed. He knew when he’d been played. He also knew that he was relieved to be going.
Hanguang-jun would just have to cope.
Nobody actively tried to keep him out. It was Lan Xichen, not Lan Wangji, who greeted them, with a smile though he still looked tired, haunted. “Sect Leader Jiang,” he said. “Sect Leader Jin. We weren’t expecting you.”
“Zewu-jun,” Jin Ling said, with a bow, and then on its heels, perhaps a little too quickly, “I’m here to see Wei Wuxian.”
That didn’t seem to come as a surprise. Lan Xichen did glance toward Jiang Cheng, who had noticed that I but did not speak up. “I will have to see if he’s ready to take visitors,” he said after a moment. Jin Ling’s eyebrows furrowed, but he didn’t say anything until Lan Xichen excused himself, when he rounded on Jiang Cheng.
“You made it sound like he was fine,” he accused, the worry back again. That made him look like a-jie, too, even if he didn’t sound like her.
Jiang Cheng gave an awkward shrug. “I didn’t get much of a chance to assess before Hanguang-jun snatched him away.”
Jin Ling let out an annoyed huff. “Unbelievable,” he said, not very under his breath. “The two of you are just…” He trailed off. Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes.
“Are just what,” he said.
“Hopeless,” Jin Ling said. “Honestly.” Jiang Cheng bristled.
“It’s not my fault,” Jiang Cheng said defensively. “Lan-er-gongzi is the one who always-” He snapped his mouth closed. You sound like a child. He took a breath through his nose and said, “it doesn’t matter. It’s not like he’s-”
Jiang Cheng cut off. Dead, he’d been about to say, but something caught in his throat and he was briefly looking down, watching Wei Wuxian disappear into the abyss. A fist squeezed his heart and that alarming, irritating panic flared back up. He shoved it down.
Lan Xichen returned soon, his very faint smile apologetic. “My apologies,” he said. “My brother says that Wei-gongzi is resting and he does not want to wake him. If you wish to wait, may I offer you tea?”
Would that answer be different if I weren’t here, Jiang Cheng wanted to ask, but maybe he didn’t want to know the answer. Jin Ling looked like he wanted to argue, but heaved a sigh that was more appropriate to his age than his status.
“We’ll wait,” he said, with a pointed glance in Jiang Cheng’s direction. “Thank you for the offer, but - is Lan Sizhui here?”
“Not at the moment. We expect him and Wen Ning to arrive tomorrow.” Lan Xichen’s eyes glanced briefly in Jiang Cheng’s direction. His jaw tightened, but he said nothing. Jin Ling looked disappointed.
“Oh. All right.”
“I do not believe Lan Jingyi is in class at the moment,” Lan Xichen said. “And I am sure he would be pleased to see you.”
Jin Ling brightened. “I’d like to-” he stopped, cleared his throat, and bowed. “I’ll do that, then,” and turned, walking off with a deliberate sedateness that didn’t particularly suit him. Jiang Cheng felt a smile pulling at his mouth.
It faded when he turned back to Lan Xichen, the two of them staring awkwardly at each other. “It’s...good to see you again,” he said at length. Lan Xichen inclined his head.
“And you, Sect Leader Jiang,” he said. Nothing had changed obviously, for the most part, but there was a warmth that had gone out, or at least gone to embers. Jiang Cheng was still a little impressed that Lan Wangji had managed to coax him out of seclusion at all, though he wasn’t going to comment.
“That tea you mentioned,” Jiang Cheng said after what felt like an eternity of silence. “I’d...have some.”
The Cloud Recesses was too quiet. The Lan Sect was too quiet. Jiang Cheng felt like shouting just to break the silence; it didn’t usually bother him this much but right now it felt like it was scraping on his last remaining nerve. There was an itch between his shoulder blades.
He hoped the tea would help.
The tea did not help. His entire body felt like one ever-tightening knot. He wanted to punch someone, but there was only one person here who might deserve it, and he didn’t have a death wish.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Xichen said eventually, after they’d both been quiet for some time. “You don’t need to worry.”
“I’m not worried,” Jiang Cheng said.
Lan Xichen was polite enough not to argue directly. He just said, “Wei Wuxian has been well taken care of. Wangji is just…” He paused, seeming to be choosing his words carefully. “Cautious.”
Does Wei Wuxian know I’m here? Jiang Cheng thought. Does he not want to see me? He made a sort of “hmph” noise to indicate he’d heard.
Your brother hates me. I suspect he wouldn’t let me within thirty li of Wei Wuxian if he could help it. He didn’t say that either.
“You don’t need to stay,” he did say. “I don’t need entertaining, if you have other things to do.”
Lan Xichen paused a moment, then stood. “I’ll tell Wangji to inform you when Wei-gongzi wakes,” he said.
Jiang Cheng’s lips twisted. “Don’t bother,” he said. “I’m just here because Jin Ling asked.”
“Mm,” Lan Xichen said, and left without saying anything further. Jiang Cheng stared down at his empty cup, teeth grinding. What right does he have, he thought. He can’t give me orders. Chief Cultivator or not-
He suspected it was a stupid idea, but that didn’t stop him from standing up, throwing open the door, and stalking toward the Jingshi with a stride that had several alarmed looking juniors skittering out of his way.
He stopped in front of the door to steel himself, set his jaw and shoulders, flexed his hand to remind himself of Zidian’s presence, and knocked. From inside, the sound of a guqin ceased.
There was no further answer. Jiang Cheng deliberately did not look over his shoulder to see if anyone was watching him and said, “It’s me. Sect Leader Jiang.”
More silence. Jiang Cheng gritted his teeth. “At least come out here and tell me to leave if that’s what you want,” he said through them. “But don’t ignore me, Hanguang-jun.”
He thought he heard a voice say something, and then someone else answering, and stiffened, anger flaring up along with something else. Resting. Right. He almost took a step back and left right then, but held his ground. Like an idiot, probably, but he’d never been good at walking away from a fight, and whether or not swords were involved, this was a fight.
At length, footsteps, and the door opened. Lan Wangji stepped through quickly and closed the door behind him, saying nothing.
“Well?” Jiang Cheng said.
“Why are you here.”
It wasn’t a question. Jiang Cheng took a deep breath so he didn’t say anything too impolitic, then another one so he didn’t yell. “Why do you think.”
“I couldn’t say.” Lan Wangji’s eyes bored into him like he was trying to leave holes in Jiang Cheng’s body.
“Not to talk to you, that’s for damn sure.”
“You came with Jin Ling.”
Jiang Cheng tried not to bristle at the familiarity. “Yes,” he said. “I came with him. What of it?”
“Mn.” Lan Wangji’s displeasure was so obvious that he must want Jiang Cheng to see it, though he would have been aware of it anyway. The man could radiate displeasure like a miasma. “Why are you here.”
Jiang Cheng sucked in a breath. “What are you,” he said, voice coming out a sneer, “Wei Wuxian’s bodyguard?”
“If I have to be.”
That hurt, somewhere deep and already sore. He didn’t quite take a step back, mostly because he made a concerted effort not to. He jerked his head at the door. “He’s awake, isn’t he?” Lan Wangji said nothing. “What do you even think I’m going to do? Why would I attack him now?”
Lan Wangji’s eyes narrowed by just a hair. “You don’t have to.”
Jiang Cheng held in a snarl, if only just. “Don’t have to what.”
“Attack. To hurt.”
Jiang Cheng froze. Lan Wangji also...not froze, but he went still - stiller. The door behind him had opened a little, Wei Wuxian listing against one side and looking like the last thing he should be was vertical.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said, a thread of distress in his voice as he turned toward him. “You were resting.”
“Mm. Now I’m not.” He was looking hazily at Jiang Cheng, mouth tipping into a lopsided smile. “Jiang Cheng, oh Jiang Cheng,” he said. “No shouting in the Cloud Recesses.”
Jiang Cheng blinked at him three times. The knot in his chest abruptly loosened. “You look terrible,” he blurted out.
Lan Wangji’s eyes narrowed in his direction. “Ai-ya. Do I really?” Wei Wuxian said mournfully. “Lan Zhan, you didn’t tell me.”
Wei Wuxian stayed where he was. “If I move I’ll fall over,” he said. “Better stay here, I guess.”
Jiang Cheng itched to push Lan Wangji out of the way, grab Wei Wuxian, and shove him back into a bed. Lan Wangji shot Jiang Cheng a look like this was somehow his fault.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said, in a precise echo of his tone. “I hope you’re not being mean to Jiang Cheng. I know he was shouting but he can’t help it, that’s just what his voice does.”
Jiang Cheng gaped at him. Lan Wangji looked like he would be doing the same thing, if he ever gaped at anyone.
“Mm,” Wei Wuxian said. “All right. I actually think I am going to fall over now.”
The list turned into a topple. Jiang Cheng jerked forward, but Lan Wangji got there first, and he immediately tried to pretend he hadn’t moved. Lan Wangji looked from him to Wei Wuxian, clearly trying to calculate how he was going to get him back to bed without allowing Jiang Cheng to help.
He let out a sound between a growl and a huff and moved to open the door more to give him room to maneuver. “There,” he said flatly. “Now just - don’t let him be stupid, all right?”
“I’m never stupid,” Wei Wuxian said. Jiang Cheng snorted.
“Right,” he said. “Sure.” He meant to walk away. He was going to, but his feet stayed right where they were, eyes on Wei Wuxian’s face.
“Don’t just stand there,” Wei Wuxian said blurrily. “I mean, unless that’s what you wanted to do. Then it’s fine.”
Jiang Cheng half opened his mouth to say actually, I was just leaving, and Lan Wangji cut in. “Close the door behind you, Sect Leader Jiang,” he said, voice frosty. Jiang Cheng stared at him, but Lan Wangji did not acknowledge it, apparently occupying himself with gently manhandling a protesting Wei Wuxian back in the direction of the bed.
Jiang Cheng tried not to think too much about the fact that there was only one.
“Rest,” Lan Wangji was saying, in a tone that Jiang Cheng, personally, would not have tried to argue with. Wei Wuxian, naturally, did.
“Ah, Lan Zhan, don’t look like that, I’m fine-”
“Stop arguing with him,” Jiang Cheng said sharply. “You just about fell over a second ago. Stay put or I’ll break your legs and you won’t have a choice.”
Lan Wangji’s head swiveled around and his eyes narrowed in Jiang Cheng’s direction with sudden murderous intent. Wei Wuxian made a muffled noise of dismay. “You’re on his side now?” he said. “The two of you are ganging up on me?”
Lan Wangji glanced back at Wei Wuxian, murder shifting back to a frown. “No one is ganging up on you.”
“Are so.” Wei Wuxian looked like he was working very hard to stay even sort of upright and conscious. “Look at you. Even making the same face.”
Jiang Cheng’s head whipped toward Lan Wangji, who turned to stare at him just as quickly. Wei Wuxian let out a laugh that turned into an ow. “Oh, that was - that was good,” he said. “You looked so…” he wavered, blinked a couple times, and then said, “maybe rest is a good idea.”
“No, really?” Jiang Cheng said. Lan Wangji gave him another sharp look, but Wei Wuxian let out a nearly silent laugh.
“Don’t leave too fast, though. Lan Zhan said…” he trailed off, slumping back against the support of Lan Wangji’s arms. Jiang Cheng glanced away, embarrassed. On the tip of his tongue, said what, but Wei Wuxian was now absent the world of the conscious.
Now would be a good time for him to leave. Jiang Cheng did not.
“If you aren’t leaving,” Lan Wangji said lowly, hovering over Wei Wuxian like a brooding hen, “then sit.” There was little tone in his voice, but it was enough to make clear what his preference was.
Jiang Cheng sat. He waited while Lan Wangji touched his fingers to Wei Wuxian’s wrist, checked his breath, and finally, gently, tucked him back under the blankets. He had to look away, something twisting painfully under his sternum.
The tenderness of it. The ease.
But he wasn’t going to leave now.
Don’t leave too fast. Lan Zhan said…
“What did you say,” he asked, voice flat.
Lan Wangji paused, then turned and straightened, giving him that cold stare of perfect condemnation that made Jiang Cheng want to wither in front of it. He made himself just stare back.
“Why are you here,” Lan Wangji said, for the third time. Jiang Cheng clenched his jaw, opened his mouth, closed it, and controlled himself so he didn’t shout.
“I’m here to see Wei Wuxian,” he said.
“Mn.” Lan Wangji walked over with slow, measured strides and sat down opposite him.
“Do you think I’m lying, Hanguang-jun?”
Lan Wangji blinked slowly, once, and then said, “you said you were done.”
He had said that. If he’d said that to Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng thought, it wouldn’t have mattered. He would’ve accepted that it was just words. He did that: had known for a long time how to hear what Jiang Cheng wasn’t saying in what he did say. What he meant, and didn’t mean, and meant but also didn’t mean.
Lan Wangji heard what he said and took it as simple truth.
“I guess I’m not,” he said, in lieu of what he probably should say. “I’m here, aren’t I? You left very quickly. I had no way of knowing-” He stopped, glancing toward Wei Wuxian.
Another of those slow blinks. “Did you doubt that I would care for him?” Lan Wangji’s voice was very calm, but Jiang Cheng did not make the mistake of thinking that meant anything.
“No,” Jiang Cheng snapped. “That’s not it. You haven’t answered my question.”
“I did not hear a question.”
Jiang Cheng stared at him in disbelief. His jaw worked. Finally he said, “what did you say?” this time inflecting it with an exaggerated tone of question.
“Mm.” Lan Wangji’s expression was a study in neutrality. “When?”
Jiang Cheng wanted to strangle him. He closed his eyes for a moment to try to control himself. “You don’t have to like me,” he said. “I don’t care. But don’t-” he stopped, voice stopped in his throat. Lan Wangji just looked at him, heavy with judgment.
The words burst out of him like water breaking a dam. “Do you think you’re the only one who mourned?”
The moment it was out he wanted to panic and bolt. That he didn’t, Jiang Cheng thought, deserved credit that no one here was going to give him.
“He could have died,” Jiang Cheng said before Lan Wangji could respond. “Because you let him wander around alone-” ah, perhaps shouldn’t have said that; too late now, “-and I would never have-”
Oh, no, he was definitely stopping there.
He took a harsh breath in and finished, “if Wei Wuxian wants me to leave he can tell me himself. But I won’t take it from you.”
Lan Wangji seemed to be wrestling with something. At least, that was what Jiang Cheng thought was going on. “He won’t,” he said at length. Jiang Cheng scowled.
“Won’t tell you to leave.”
Jiang Cheng glanced toward the bed and said nothing, because none of the responses that came to him were nonchalant enough.
“I will never like you.”
“Fine,” Jiang Cheng said tightly. “That’s not news.”
“I may never forgive you.”
“I don’t care about your forgiveness.”
“But…” Lan Wangji’s lips turned down very slightly at the corners before his expression smoothed back out. “Wei Ying calls you his brother.”
He stopped there. This is your warning, his eyes said. Fuck this up and I will come for you. No second chances.
Jiang Cheng looked back at him with mouth set. “Yes,” he said, as firmly as he could. “That’s because he is.”
It took some doing - and Lan Xichen’s intervention - to pry Lan Wangji away from Wei Wuxian long enough for Jiang Cheng to talk to him alone. Though naturally once they were alone, Jiang Cheng didn’t say anything. His voice appeared to have gone back to Lotus Pier without him.
Wei Wuxian was eating soup in unexpected silence, grimacing after every bite like it had offended him.
“What’s the matter,” Jiang Cheng said finally, because he had to say something.
“It doesn’t taste like anything,” Wei Wuxian said. “Like everything here, if nobody intervenes. Which apparently nobody did. You’d think the Lan Sect never heard of spices.”
“Serves you right,” Jiang Cheng said. Wei Wuxian gave him a wounded look.
“For what? What did I do?”
Several answers to that question popped into Jiang Cheng’s head, too many of them serious. He shoved those aside in favor of saying, “you got yourself beaten up and almost killed, like an idiot.”
“It wasn’t my idea.”
This was weird. It was weird, and they were both pretending it wasn’t, like nothing had changed, like everything was the same as it had been, and Wei Wuxian was good at it and Jiang Cheng thought he should probably just let him be good at it and go along and not try to - bring anything up. But it nagged at him.
He fell quiet, turning to look at a corner, though he could feel Wei Wuxian looking at him.
“Jiang Cheng,” he said at length, voice quiet, almost gentle.
“Don’t,” Jiang Cheng said.
“You don’t even know what I was going to say.”
Jiang Cheng scowled at the corner he was staring at. “You don’t have to say anything. You know you worried Jin Ling.”
“He said.” Wei Wuxian sounded a little fond. “Loudly. He sounds like you.”
Jiang Cheng looked sharply back at Wei Wuxian, wondering if that was meant to be an insult - to him, or Jin Ling, or both. He had the sneaking suspicion that comparisons between them usually were. But the expression on Wei Wuxian’s face was just one of wry, slightly rueful affection, though it vanished quickly when he saw Jiang Cheng looking.
You worried me. There, on the tip of his tongue, though it was gone a moment later. He felt like he was choking on all the things he wasn’t saying. “I hope you learned your lesson about traveling alone.”
“Me? Learn a lesson?” Jiang Cheng gave him a poisonous glare, and Wei Wuxian smiled at him. “Ai-ya, Jiang Cheng. Don’t worry.”
Of course I’m going to worry. “I wasn’t worried. I just don’t want Hanguang-jun coming to bother me about going on another rescue mission.”
Something flickered across Wei Wuxian’s face and the smile slipped away like melting snow. “Of course, of course.”
Jiang Cheng grimaced. “No, that’s not-” he cut off, lips twisting. What do you want from me, he thought, anguished, but Wei Wuxian would probably deny wanting anything. He was waiting for you. He exhaled harshly through his nose. “What did Lan Wangji say about me?”
Wei Wuxian eyed him, again in unexpected silence. That was just how he was now, though, wasn’t it? He was quieter, more subdued. Not the same person he had been. None of them were.
“That you went with him. Looking for me.”
“That was all?”
Wei Wuxian cocked his head a little to the side. “Was there something else he should’ve said?”
Jiang Cheng took a moment to consider Wei Wuxian - to consider his brother. He was doing a good job of acting normally, for the most part (doesn’t he always), but there were still shadows under his eyes and a slight curve to his shoulders, not quite a defensive hunch. Jiang Cheng didn’t know what might’ve happened during the time he’d been gone, and he probably wasn’t going to ask, but he did suddenly regret that his captors had died quickly.
He cleared his throat. “He practically said he thought I was holding you prisoner.”
Wei Wuxian made a sort of ‘pff’ noise that didn’t clear the slight pinch between his eyebrows. “Lan Zhan, oh Lan Zhan. Sorry about that.”
“Don’t apologize,” Jiang Cheng snapped. “It’s not your fault that Hanguang-jun-” He stopped. Wei Wuxian set down his half-eaten bowl of soup, and Jiang Cheng said, “finish that.”
Wei Wuxian ignored him. Of course. “Maybe I should ask what Lan Zhan said to you.”
Jiang Cheng turned his eyes back to the corner he’d been glaring at before, his temper at a low simmer, something that wasn’t anger twisting alongside it.
“Your-” Jiang Cheng made a gesture. “Hates me. If you didn’t know that, you should.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Wei Wuxian made a face. “He doesn’t know you.”
“I don’t think he cares to.” Jiang Cheng jerked his head to the side. “It doesn’t matter.”
It sounded like a sincere question. Jiang Cheng made himself look back at Wei Wuxian, and he did indeed look serious.
“It’s not like it’s going to change,” Jiang Cheng said. “And you’re-” he made another gesture, though not even he was sure what it was supposed to mean. “It just doesn’t. I don’t need him to like me. Though it’d be nice if he stopped acting like-” He stopped short again.
Like I’m going to hurt you. Like I don’t deserve to be in your life. Like he’s so much better than me (just because he is).
Is that what you think, too?
“I didn’t get any dogs,” Jiang Cheng said. Wei Wuxian twitched a little at the word ‘dog’ and then gave him a very strange look.
“I didn’t-” Jiang Cheng huffed. He could recognize how that transition might not have made sense. “You know people used to say your old room was haunted?”
Wei Wuxian’s eyebrows twitched up, though he still looked a little confused. “Huh. Really?”
That hadn’t been clear, either. Jiang Cheng took a deep breath through his nose. “I know you were visiting Jin Ling.”
His expression turned wary. “I might’ve stopped by.”
Jiang Cheng’s mouth spasmed. “If you’re going to be living here now it’s about the same distance to Lotus Pier as it is to Koi Tower.”
Finally, understanding dawned. “I guess it is.”
He was starting to become very familiar with the details of that corner. “Your...he said you were. Waiting. For me to...say something.”
There was another long silence. At length Wei Wuxian said, “whatever Lan Zhan said, you don’t need to-”
“Of course I don’t need to,” Jiang Cheng interrupted. “You think I’d let him make me do anything? That’s not - I just didn’t realize you were too stupid to realize on your own-” No, that was wrong. He could almost hear a-jie saying a-Cheng, say what you mean. “Come visit.” Almost. “I want you to come.”
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian said quietly. His voice sounded a little unsteady. Jiang Cheng didn’t want to look at him. His eyes were stinging.
“Your soup is probably getting cold,” he said, too quickly. “Then it’ll just be cold and tasteless, and I’ll make you drink it anyway.”
“Ah, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said, and there was that thread of fondness again. “Why do you have to be so vicious?”
Jiang Cheng scowled at him. Briefly there was, once again, that disjunction between the feeling of utmost familiarity and the feeling of strangeness. He tried to let both go and just...take it for what it was. That could be something.
Enough to build on.