This is the lie:
Jiang Wanyin fought his brother at the Burial Mounds, and cast him out of the Jiang clan forever. He severed the bonds of brotherhood because Wei Wuxian has turned his back on the righteous path.
This is the truth:
Jiang Cheng sobs in the dark when the healers leave him. He can't let his A-Jie see him like this, not with her wedding so close and so much on her mind. It isn't the pain that brings him to tears, he's lived through worse than a broken arm, it isn't even the fight because the both know it isn't real.
Except that it is.
Everyone will hear about the battle, and his words after, about the young sect leader who cast out his brother. He knows this is the only thing he can do to protect them, all of them, but it still digs between his ribs like a knife. He knows this is what his brother asked for. Things can never be the same after this. They can never be what they were before. Even if he can find a way to help protect his brother and the Wen's, even if he could get the older men to just listen, this will be a stain, a fissure between them that can never heal. Because his brother, who he looks up to, his brother who he loves, has another family now. He chose the Wen over the Jiang, he chose Wen Ning over Jiang Cheng. He knows, in his heart, it's not fair to think of it that way. What happened to the Wen's was horrible and dishonorable, but it doesn't make it hurt him any less. It doesn't change the fact that his alone.
And the truth of it is, he has been for a while. Wei Wuxian never came back to him, after those long months, just something wearing his skin. There was a smile on his face during the war the Jiang Cheng didn't know, something predatory and dangerous. Something frightening. He wishes he had made his brother go to Gusu, like Wangji had asked. They had forged a companionship while they looked for Wei Wuxian, the two people in the world, besides his A-Jie, who cared what happened to his brother. But it had dissolved quickly with Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji's friendship had soured.
Jiang Cheng had pushed him about his sword but it was never really about his sword. It was about how pale he looked, drawn and worn out, the edges of him bleeding like ink smeared before it could dry. Wei Wuxian didn't sleep. He didn't eat, the only stomach he seemed to have was for liquor. He brother paced the Lotus Pier like a caged animal, hiding behind his jokes and smiles that didn't reach his eyes. Jiang Cheng was watching his brother die from a illness he can't name, from a wound he can't heal.
So when his brother finds purpose again, who is he to deny him, no matter how much it hurts?
Jiang Cheng takes his sword to his brother to save Wei Wuxian's soul. In the end, it doesn't matter. In the end, his family still breaks. In the end, his brother still dies.
This is the lie:
Jiang Wanyin slaughtered his Wei Wuxian at the Nightless City. He is the hero and Wei Wuxian is the villain.
This is the truth:
Jiang Cheng did not really think his brother would die, he only meant to stop the fighting. Wei Wuxian had always been the embodiment of the Jiang motto. Wei Wuxain had always lived impossibly. If anyone could live through such a fall, it's his brother.
So he searches. Tirelessly. It's all he has.
They won't let him take his sister's body, at first. They say she should be laid next to her husband. He snaps and snarls, foaming at the mouth like a rabid animal, until they back away, too afraid of his bite. It's Jin Guangyao, who convinces his father to let her be taken to the Lotus Pier. But it comes at a price. Jiang Cheng is not allowed to see the child, his nephew, for months, years, after that. Jin Gunagshang never gives without taking something away.
So he throws himself into searching. He combs the bottom of the cliffs, the Burial Mounds, any and every place he can think of that his brother might drag his broken body to heal his wounds. In a moment of desperation, he even asks, more demands, to search the Cloud Recesses. Hanguang Jun has not been seen in many months, supposedly in seclusion. A convenient excuse to hide Wei Wuxian away while he heals.
Zewu Jun flinches away from the request like he's been struck and something in Jiang Cheng's soul echoes, sees and understands the pain in Lan Xichen's face. There is a broken body on the back of the mountain and it isn't Wei Wuxian's.
In the end, after months and years of searching, all Jiang Cheng has to show is that damned flute. He hates that they call him a hero. He hates that they speak of that day with such reverence. He hates his brother, for losing control, for letting go, but he doesn't hate any of it half as much as he hates himself.
This is the lie:
The Lotus Pier has always been a weight, good for tipping the balance of policy this way or that, but not much else. Jiang Wanyin will grow into his leadership, as his father did. Even the strongest storm blows itself out in time.
This is the truth:
He builds the Lotus Pier up, the first time, to be just as it was. He does it with his own two hands, working side by side with those who are still left. People see their clan leader among them and they start to talk. They see his scars, and they tell the story of how he got them. He fought the Wen and survived. He killed Wen Chao and Wen Zhului. The Lotus Pier is safe and it's master is one of them. With the other sect's, he can be too sharp, too stand offish, he doesn't move easily among them the way his sister and brother do, but among his own people, he is known, and his beloved. He looks at the Lotus Pier and smiles, finally feeling safe for the first time since he lost his parents.
Then Wei Wuxian defects and he wakes one morning to find Jin men inside his palace. They do not even ask, they simply enter, and it shakes him to his core. They are cordial, a man with a yellow peony thanks him for his cooperation, thanks him for being ever so accommodating, and bile nearly chokes him. It's too much like the way Wang Lingjiao spoke to his mother, told her to beat his brother like an animal, told her to take his hand. Wei Wuxian is not here, but what if he were, Jiang Cheng thinks, would they not ask him to do the same? What would he say?
His new second is a tall, broad fisherwoman about the same age named Xiao Shih. There are so few discples left of fighting age. Her father and brother were killed when the Lotus Pier was taken, her mother and grandmother were killed in the aftermath; she and sister were saved, only because they had been out night fishing when attack had happened. In the Jiang clan, even cultivators share the labor. It is the only thing that saves them, in the end, that those who can ride a sword can also pick lotuses, and fish, and work the land. She's a cultivator of some talent, quiet and even tempered, but she's not Wei Wuxian, she doesn't work in perfect rhythm with her clan leader. But she comes close. She's good with a sword and she doesn't shy from hard, brutal work or his harder, more brutal temper. She's got a wife of her own and that quells much of the gossip. She watches and she listens, she hears more than people give her credit for, when they see her arms made strong and hands made rough more from hauling nets than from sword work. But most of all, she's angry. Her anger is not like Jiang Cheng, explosive and obvious. Her anger is a dragon, that rests beneath the shallow water; it strikes hard and fast. If his anger sears flesh, her anger breaks bones.
When that Jin have left, Jiang Cheng alls his second to his quarters.
“This won't happen again,” Jiang Cheng snarls.
And Xiao Shih nods, something dark in her eyes.
“What is your plan?”
They stay up long into the night, discussing. The Lotus Pier is not a place, Jiang Cheng knows that, it's a people. His people and he will die before he lets his home become a burial ground for them again. So he plots, he plans. He will make his home a fortress and he will be her keeper. No one will ever walk uninvited into his palace again.
To make sure of it, Jiang Cheng becomes his mother made over, with none of his father's calm distance. His rage is a tempest and he wears it openly. As he becomes her, he begins to understand her. He thinks of the rage that lived under her skin, the escaped in the sharpness of her tongue. She was a force of nature, captured and held to a land that was never hers, to serve under a husband content to be mediator. She was not perfect, he knows that, and she hurt him in ways he will never heal from. But if nothing else, she made him strong, she made him unbreakable. There is nothing they can whisper behind his back that can cut him more deeply than her words used to. There is no greater pain they can cause him than the scars he already bears. He has no one left to loose, aside from Jin Ling and his nephew is swaddled carefully in the shroud of his importance to the Jin.
There is a sense of clarity that comes with the knowledge that he was never meant to be the sort of man his father wanted him to be. He burns the picture of that man to nothing, and from the ashes of it, he rises as the son his mother would have wanted. He wears his mother's anger and her love as his armor, sees it ever morning when he fits Zidan around his wrist. He forges himself into a man he thinks she would be proud of. He is vicious. He is merciless. He is unwavering. He becomes Sandu Shengshou.
Wen Chao's raid on the Lotus Pier was merciless. There are only a few dozen people of fighting age left, and fewer still with any cultivation. The war has wheedled the numbers even further. But what they do have, are young bodies, long memories, deep scars, and bellies full hate. They are like him, his first vanguard, young and hungry and tired of being left at the whims of so called greater men. They are orphan's who remember what it was like to come home and find their parents dead, to see the bodies of children slaughtered. People come from the surrounding towns and swear their loyalty to him, to help him push back the darkness that still haunts the edges of their world. Under his leadership, the cultivators of the Yunmeng Jiang become more than just cultivators: they become a reckoning.
He hunts dark cultivators with the snarling ferocity of a hunting hound. If there is evil in a place, he will find it. He will sniff it out and pull it up by the roots. His quest leaves a trail of blood and bodies, clothed in black. They say it is because he hates dark cultivation, which he does, but more than that, he hates the things they say. His Wei Wuxian is a dark, festering wound in his soul. Wei Wuxian got his sister killed. Wei Wuxian is the reason he is alone. But he didn't eat children, or rape women or spend his life in service of things designed to hurt and maim and ruin lives. He did not teach men the things he learned in the dark, he had no school of cultivation. He took on too much power, he lost control, and it tore him and everything around him apart. That is tragedy enough. So he leaves the bodies as a warning: this is what happens to liars and thieves.
He makes men afraid to cross him and he makes sure every person in the Lotus Pier from the highest of cultivators to the youngest of children, learn to swim. Because his mother was strong too. For all her faults, Madam Yu was strong and fearless and brave. She still died, stripped of her power, body left to hang in the doorway of her own home. Jiang Cheng has endure much, has pushed his body beyond the point of what most men can endure, more than once. But he's not fool enough to think himself invincible. Somewhere in the world there is someone who is stronger, someone who is faster, better prepared or maybe just lucky. So he makes sure that, even if he were to fall, the Lotus Pier will not fall with him. Everyone knows how to swim across the lake to safety, how to hide on the shadows of the piers and tread water for hours. If the enemy ever attacks the Lotus Pier, they will find it empty. If they are ever taken again, he will not have the bodies of children stacked up and left out like carrion. He will not have his people hung from the rafters, like pigs in a slaughter house. Those images still haunt his dreams. Every solider knows how to move silently through the shallows, how to hid in the mud and reed without making a sound. The enemy never thinks to look in the water.
He builds himself in the image that should have been his mother's. He becomes titanic, mythic in his rage, that burns brighter as the time passes. He crafts himself into a legend they can no longer speak down to, belittle, and ignore. Each year that passes, it becomes less a mask, less a carefully crafted persona, and more and more it becomes him. Down to his bones. The greater clans stop waiting for his storm to blow out, they simply fasten the shutters and wait for him to pass.
This is the lie:
No woman will marry Jiang Wanyin. He is too callous, too rude, too picky. He is incapable of love.
This is the truth:
After a few year the letters about courtships and betrothals stop coming and the matchmaker's refuse to work with him. They call him difficult, and too picky, but the truth is he already has a wife. She is the Lotus Pier and the Yunmeng Jiang are his family, his children to protect. Besides, how can he begin to explain that he has only once felt the heat of desire, deep drowning pull of affection once in his life, for a woman who is not dead and gone. Scorned because he was childish, because he was too afraid to stand up to old men who had fought less, lost less. Burnt to ash and he did nothing to save her. Wen Qing is a wound he holds close to his heart, a mistake he can never make up for, a loss that can never be forgiven. She was good to him and he repaired her with cowardice. He will never marry because this is his curse: he will see too much or too little of her face in every woman who approaches him.
So he seals away that part of himself, like he has so much else. He puts Wen Qing into a box on a shelf, next to his love for his sister, his love for his brother, his father, his mother, to collect dust, never looked, lest the sharp edges cut him open. If they cut him, he's not sure he'll ever be able to stop the bleeding.
Jin Ling is four when he comes to the Lotus Pier. With winter came a terrible cold making it's way around the Koi Tower, that means a week of stuffy noses and a lingering cough among the adults, but three children die from it in a fortnight and Jin Ling is heir, so Jin Guangyao has his nephew flittered off to Yunmeng before his grandfather is well enough or maybe sober enough, to complain about it.
Jiang Cheng is twenty four and the unwanted father to an unhappy child. The boy is spoiled in a way that is deeply sad; his given anything and everything he wants because it keeps him quiet, keeps him from being a problem. He is a difficult child, he screams and he throws things and he bites, the nurses are afraid to hold him because of it. His is given things in place of love, in place of affection. They are the two things he needs most and the two things Jiang Cheng is wholly unprepared to give.
But he learns. He is there when Jin Ling wakes in the night, howling from nightmares. He wakes half the Lotus Pier that first night. The women scatter when Sandu Shenshou shows up at the door, apologizing profusely for the noise, that they will get the young master to quiet down. He pushes through them, and takes his nephew in his arms. The boy kicks and screams, yanks on his uncles hair, refusing to be placated, refusing to be still.
Jiang Cheng lets him. He carries him through the Lotus Pier, leaving a room full of nurses unsure whether or not to follow. One sour look from him sends them away with hasty bows. He marches to a part of the Pier he has left untouched since his A-jie passed. Jin Ling still cries, beating his small fists against his uncle's chest. Finally, he sits in the shade beneath the awning of his sisters private pier and balances the boy on his knees.
“Stop crying,” he says, his voice firm and too sharp.
Jin Ling startles for a moment at the tone, but the silence is shattered a breath later, as the child screams louder and tries to wiggle out of his hold, red faced. He must be nearly ready to passed out, at least, Jiang Cheng hopes.
But no, he reminds himself, this is a child. His sister's child. A child who, for three and a half years of his little life, has been passed around like a doll and when the adults got bored of him, they shuttered him out of the way. They gave him to people who's job it is to serve him, not care for him. Jiang Cheng takes a breath, tries again. He loosens his hold on Jin Ling, not enough that he can wriggle away, just enough to shift the boy so he's cradled against his uncle broad chest. He strokes the mussed hair and it makes his heart hurt. The last time he had held his nephew like this, he'd been an infant. His sister had smiled and teased him for his nervousness. The memory aches and he can hear the pain in his voice.
“A-Ling,” he asks again, his voice gentle as it has been in years, “What's wrong? Why are you crying?”
The boy hiccups and looks at him, confused. He rubs his wet face on his uncle's robes and pouts.
“I want to home,” he whimpers, his lip quivering, “I don't like it here. I want to go back to my uncle.”
That stings. That Jin Guangyao is likely the only adult A-Ling has in his life that seems to care for him, now that Madame Jin has passed. He doesn't know Jiang Cheng, he doesn't know this stranger who's spirited him away in the night. He tries to remember what his sister would do, when he was small and upset. He rubs slow circles on A-Ling's back.
“I know,” he says gently as he can muster, “but home isn't safe for you right now.
Jin Ling's takes a sharp, deep breath and Jiang Cheng Braces himself.
“This was your mother's home once, did you know that?” He says, standing and walking his nephew to the edge of the pier, “She was my A-jie, so I am your uncle too. When I was your age, she used to bring me out here to catch fireflies in the spring. She taught me how to swim in this very lake.”
Jin Ling sniffles, set up a little bit and rubs at his eyes.
“My mother lived here,” he asks, in a voice so small, far too sad for a child so young, and it crawls under Jiang Cheng's skin, roosts under his ribs. Of course no one has told him. They move this like a rag doll; as long as he is safe in body, they care little about him.
“She did, before she married your father. Her name was Jiang Yanli and she was more beautiful than a lotus blossom.”
Jin Ling rests his head on Jiang Cheng's shoulder and puts his thumb in his mouth and Jiang Cheng fills the silence with stories of his A-Jie, walking slow circles until his nephew's breath evens out with sleep. He doesn't take the boy back to the nursery, he has a bed put for him in his own rooms and he's close at hand when the nightmares come calling. He sends the nurses back to the Koi Tower the next morning, by lunch, he has his own small army of aunties willing to care for the boy when he can't.
Jin Ling spends much of his childhood on his uncle's hip, and when he grows to big to want to be carried, he spends it at his uncle's side. He's still loud, emotional, brash, spoiled, and Jiang Cheng only knows how to love him in his sharp way, in his desperate need to protect his nephew from the things that were placed on his own shoulders too young, the weights that nearly broke him. He has been too hollowed out by love and the loss of it. His heart is scared and heavy thing, broken and cobbled back together so many times. But what is left of it beats for A-Ling, and for his people, and that is enough.
This is the Lie:
Wei Wuxian is dead and he is never coming back.
This is the truth:
His brother is right there in front of him, he knows it, as surely as he knows his own heart beat. No mask can hide Wei Wuxian from him, they are two parts of the same soul. Wei Wuxian is alive.
This is the Lie:
Jiang Wanyin hates Wei Wuxian.
This is the truth:
Jiang Cheng wants to hate his brother. But he can't and he hates himself for that.
He strikes Wei Wuxian with Zidan and beneath all the years of distilled rage, his stomach gives a sick twist, as his boyhood self shields his brother with his body and begs his mother to stop.
He corners him with Jin Ling's spirit dog and he hates the way Wei Wuxian's terror makes him feel, sick and wrong and cruel. Wei Wuxian killed his sister, his A-jie, who had loved and defended him, even to the end. Wei Wuxian made Jin Ling an orphan. Wei Wuxian broke every promise he had ever made to Jiang Cheng. He shouts that he wants him to die a thousand deaths, and he screams inside because, no matter how badly he wants too, he knows in his heart he doesn't mean it.
He watches his nephew stab his Wei Wuxian and suddenly he's a teenager again, faced with an impossible choice. He's a boy crying alone in the dark because he loves his brother enough to cut him out of the clan, to free him from this impossible responsibility. He's twenty, and orphan with twin holes in his heart and only one body to bury.
Jin Ling's fingers drop the sword and Jiang Cheng is down the stairs, not chasing his brother, but pulling his nephew into his arms, holding him to his chest when the tears come, as he knows they will. He holds Jin Ling while he sobs and he knows this is the harvest of all his hatred. He ha always known he was a poor replacement for a father, and not he has failed to protect the only son he will ever have from the pain of trust, betrayal, and loss.
This is the lie:
Jiang Wanyin's gold core is not his, but his brother's, put in his body by Wen Qing and her brother.
This is the truth:
It's not a lie.
He knows it in his bones, that the power that ripples through him was not born of him. He never questioned it, assumed it was because the power was returned to him by divine means. But a small, frightened part of him tells him he has always known that wasn't true, that he was afraid to look too closely.
He looks at the sword in his hands, the sword no one can draw but him and his world snaps into perfect, startling clarity, so sharp it cuts him to ribbons.
His brother sent him up the mountain that day, blind and he trusted him, as he had trusted him in all things. His brother betrayed that trust, made a choice for Jiang Cheng that he never would have allowed if he had known, and being robbed of that choice makes him angry. His brother had lied. Wei Wuxian's need to play the hero had nearly killed him, had permanently crippled his cultivation, and he'd lied about it. Over and over again. After the war, he'd prowled the Lotus Pier like a wounded animal, trying to gnaw it's own leg off, and Jiang Cheng could do nothing but watch him rip himself to shreds. He refused to explain what happened to him, where he's been. How arrogant could he be, to think he could handle a loss like this alone, to pretend it never happened? Jiang Cheng shutters, remembering the emptiness.
And suddenly, for the first time in years, the storm of his anger, patters itself out into a shower of sorrow. How could his brother believe in him so little? How could he lie, and lie, push away the people who loved him more than anything? Had his brother really thought him so weak? So ineffectual? Wei Wuxian filled himself with darkness and he smiled and laughed around it, like a mouth full of broken glass. He fooled them and fooled them, and when he couldn't fool them anymore he found someone else to take care of. When had they become that; two people who didn't even know each other enough to see that one of them was dying, until it was too late?
The night, in the dark, he weeps for his brother for the first time in sixteen years.
This is the lie:
Wei Wuxian betrayed the Yunmeng Jiang, after all they had done for him.
This it the truth:
One day, you'll be clan leader, and I'll be your second, just like my father was for yours
It was a mantra of his childhood, words that Jiang Cheng let play over and over in his mind when he was young, we he felt small of inadequate, when he felt like a failure. It was hard not to be jealous of Wei Wuxian, who seemed to excel at everything from sword work to making friends. But his brother, who was so good, was never the one that compared them. His brother, though he was arrogant, and pushy and they always fought, his brother would never let other people insult his skill.
“I'm your right hand,” he said, bumping their shoulders where they sat on the pier, their feet dangling in the water, “My gifts are your gifts.”
Now his brother sits across the temple and Jiang Cheng can not look at him.
Jin Guangyao, who he's known so well for so many years, who he had counted as something close to a friend, if only for A-Ling's sake, spits back his every inscrutably back in his face. He knows he's being baited, he knows he is, but he can't help the way it all rises up and chokes him, despite Xichen's warnings. His eyes keep flickering to his brother, who's face's take on a panic look when Jin Gunangyao mentions Subian. The way his face pales when he looks from Jiang Cheng confirms everything he's known to be true since he woke up on the mountain with a new core, his body crackling with more energy than it ever had before; that this was not a power of his own making.
Jin Guangyao see's the wound the truth has left in him, how heavy all these years of guilt and hate and grief have bowed Jiang Cheng's shoulders and he presses his fingers into that wound until it wells blood. It's not a fight he expects to loose; Jin Gunagyao is fast and clever, but Jiang Cheng has brought up fighting a fast and clever opponent.
But then the blade if flying for his brother and everything narrows. The turn of his sword is instinctual, muscle memory, but he over extends and Jin Guangyao takes his chance. The wound isn't overly deep, but it drops him all the same. He can feel not the damage that's been done inside his body, that's cut off the flow of energy, weakened him while he was angry and not looking, just as Zewu Jun had said. He feels like a fool, even as he tugs hard on his core, trying to pull the spiritual energy he needs to heal.
He can hear them whispering, it grates on the inside of his skull, while the wound in his chest throbs in time with his heartbeat.
“How many times did I warn him not to tell?” Wei Wuxian breaths, voice dripping with sorrow and Jiang Cheng wants to strangle him.
“Not to do what?” Jiang Cheng asks his brother, his own voice cold and sharp as broken glass as he tries to draw some of the strength he doesn't feel into the set of his shoulders.
His brother looks at him like a rabbit in a trap, hair disheveled, eyes wide and unsure. There is blood on his throat, leaving dark spots on the collar of his black robes. He looks so much younger, in the moment, and a primal part of him wants to comfort his brother. He has lived a life Wei Wuxian has not, he's grown into the man his brother never got to be. Jiang Cheng's parents raised him to be a leader, they raised Wei Wuxian to be a shield and it broke him. Wei Wuxian was expected to live impossibly, it was never a luxury that was offered to Jiang Cheng. But instead of letting the people who loved him help him repair himself, he pushed them away. He broke promises. He lied, and he made others lie to. He made choices that changed lives for other people, because he thought he knew better. Perhaps it was for the best of intentions but it sits in Jiang Cheng's stomach like a stone. He knows he should be grateful but he isn't'. He spent years carrying a cage in his heart, full of hate and grief. Now the truth makes him feel like a fool, to have all his achievements thrown in his face. That everything he's done has been with a power he never asked to be given. It feels like just as much a violation as loosing his core, in many way, that this thing that lives inside him was put there through a lie. He killed Wei Wuxian a thousand times in a thousand faces, and now here he is, sitting across from his brother, who looks so lost and so scared.
“Wei Wuxian, you're so selfless,” he says, his voice dangerously even, “did all the good deeds and had to bear the burden of not letting others know. So touching.”
It's cruel and he doesn't care. He's hurting and he wants Wei Wuxian to hurt too. Wei Wuxian who refused to acknowledge his own pain, ever, even when it destroyed the things around him, frayed his relationships to nothing. His pride always won out. Always the infallible hero. Wei Wuxian won't meet his eyes, shifts uncomfortably.
“Should I be kneeling and crying when I thank you?” Jiang Cheng barks at him, and revels in the way his brother flinches. It feels like purging a wound.
“Uncle please,” Jin Ling starts, and Jiang Cheng shrugs him off.
“I didn't ask you to thank me,” Wei Wuxian says, almost petulantly.
“That's right, doing good deeds and never asking for repayment, such grace. Not like me,” he sneers and Wei Wuxian looks aways, “No wonder when father was alive, he kept saying that you were the one who truly understood the Jiang motto. The one with all skill.”
Wei Wuxian meets his gaze finally.
“Enough,” he says in a tone that sounds almost scolding and something in Jiang Cheng shatters.
Since when does Wei Wuxian get to act like an older brother? After he left? After he lied? Sixteen years Jiang Cheng has carried the weight of his brother's sins. Of his brother's failures. Of the lies and half truths that have been snapped together in startling clarity. His shoulders are tired, and he won't be spoken to like an errant boy.
“Enough WHAT?” he snarls back, “You say it's enough and then it's enough? You know what's best, you're better than me at everything. Talent. Cultivation. Spirituality. Nature of Mind. You understand them all. Then what am I?”
It's a mistake and he knows it. He doesn't have the strength to fight Wei Wuxian right now if he tried. But he needs to fight someone, something, or the weight of the grief in his chest will suffocate him. Jin Ling is plucking at his robes.
“Clan Leader Jiang, be careful not to go to far,” Wangji warns and Jiang Cheng wants to claw his face off.
What good has restraint ever done him? Restraint is what got the Wen pushed into a prison camp. It's what got them slaughtered like animals and hung from the city walls. Restraint is what saw Wen Qing burnt to nothing. Restraint lost him his home, his brother, his family.
Lan Xichen hand settles on his knee, warning him to be careful, to be mindful of his injuries, so calm and infuriatingly kind, despite the fact that suffered the greatest betrayal so far today. He know's the older Sect leader is right, his chest is on fire, his heads spinning and he can't seem to get enough air. It doesn't matter. The storm he has carried in him for sixteen years has come loose, it's pouring out of the cracks in him.
“Why, Wei Wuxian? Tell me why!” He snarls.
“What why?” he brother asks, with all the audacity to look confused.
It hits Jiang Cheng like a slap in the face. That his brother has never once thought about the questions that have haunted Jiang Cheng for a decade. Had they not given him everything? Had Jiang Cheng, the clan's own heir, not looked to him for leadership. He snaps and snarls, drags out the names and deaths and offenses to lay at his brother's feet. Jiang Cheng buried his sister alone. He spent the long nights with Jin Ling held against his chest to stave off the child's night terrors, not his parents, not Jin Zixuan. Not his sweet sister Yanli. They were dead, because of his brother's folly. Wei Wuxian broke a promise and it stripped Jiang Cheng of everything. How day he look at him and ask what why?
“Wei Wuxian, who broke his promises first, and betrayed the Jiang Clan?” he growls, like a wounded, wild thing, ready to bite, “Who said, when I became clan leader, you would be my right hand. That you would beside me, no matter what. So what if Gusu had Twin Jades, Yunmeng would have twin prides. You would never betray our clan. Who said that?”
Wei Wuxian looks at him and Jiang Cheng feels himself shaking apart. There is no anger in his brother's, just a deep, terrible sadness. Tears well in his eyes and Jiang Cheng wants to put his hands around his brother's throat and squeeze until he kills him properly this time. He want to close the distance between them and pull his brother into his arms and never let him go. He loves him and he hates him and he's so, fucking angry at him. For breaking his promises. For leaving for so long. He's screaming, and it hurts, but he's been hurting for years. Now he needs answers.
Instead, Wei Wuxian looks at the floor. His jaw works like he means to speak, a single tear runs down his cheek.
“What happened in the end?” Jiang Cheng says coldly, turning the knife, “You went and protected outsiders instead. Wen Clan members no less. You just defected without hesitation. And what about my family? You've done all the good deeds, but all you bad deeds were made involuntarily? What exactly were you unspeakable predicaments! You never told me anything! You treated me like a fool!”
He struggles to his feet, but Jin Ling is catching him, tugging at him, begging him to be still. He knows he should listen, he doesn't care. If he keeps this inside him, it will kill him all the same. He doesn't make it more than a step before he crumbles to his knees, but he's there, in Wei Wuxian's face, where his brother can't look away from him. He will look at him. He will answer for the sixteen years of grief Jiang Cheng has carried because of him.
“Should I not hate you? Can't I hate you? Why does it seem like I should be apologizing to you? Why does it seem like all these years, I've been the fool? Should I be so out shown by your radiance that I can't even open my eyes? Shouldn't I hate you?” he screams, and it a broken sound he hates to hear coming out of him.
Lan Wangji reaches for his blade, and Jin Ling is sliding between his uncles.
“Please Hanguang Jun, my uncle is injured,” he pleads.
Jiang Cheng snaps out a challenge anyway, unable to stop the torrent of anger. It's been beating at the walls of his heart for sixteen years and now that it's free he is powerless to stop it.
Wei Wuxian puts his hand on Lan Wangji's, stilling him instantly, infuriatingly calm. He looks no older than he did the day he died, than the day he sat and had soup with him and A-jie, so she could show off her wedding dress. And sitting there, in the blood slick floor of the temple, the rain beating outside, the storm in Jiang Cheng's heart finally blew itself out.
He feels shaky and weak, and not just from is injury. He feels hollow, scraped out and he hates how hot the tears are on his face.
“Why Wei Wuxian,” he sobs before he can stop himself, “Why didn't you tell me?”
“Because I didn't want to see you like this,” he brother answers, after a breath, in a voice that sound so young, so broken.
“You said before that when I became clan leader, you would be my right hand.That you would support me forever. That you would never betray the Yunmeng Jiang. You said those things yourself,” Jiang Cheng pleads again.
His brother catches his gaze, finally.
“I'm sorry. I broke my promise,” Wei Wuxian says, in a voice that is so gentle, so earnest, it digs into his younger brother like a knife.
Jiang Cheng laughs weakly at himself. He is Sandu Shengshou. He's a clan leader, a war hero, a father in every way that matters. He's fought so many battles, carries so many scars, and yet here he is, seeking an apology from the very brother he killed sixteen years ago. And now that he has it, he's not sure what to do with it. He looks at the temple floor and the absurdness of this place and what's happened tonight strikes him. The Chief cultivator is holding them hostage, and Jiang Wanyin wants is big brother to say he's sorry.
“With everything that's happened tonight,” he chides himself, “ and still want you to tell me sorry. How delicate a person am I?”
Wei Wuxian shakes his head and Jiang Cheng can only see his brother as he was all those year ago, haunting the Lotus Pier like a ghost who's body had gone yet. He'd been filling the empty hole where his core was with fights and booze, and Jiang Cheng had never noticed. He'd spend sixteen years thinking his brother had lost control and what about what that lost control had cost him. He had never really thought Wei Wuxian would die at the nightless city, he thought he could find him, nurse him back to help. But when there had been no body and no soul, that had felt like final betrayal and he'd fed his soul, and Jin Ling's on that anger ever since.
“I'm sorry,” he whispers.
“You don't have to say sorry to me,” Wei Wuxian offers, with a said, lopsided smile, “Take it as my repayment to the Jiang Clan.”
He closes the distance between them and rests a gentle hand on Jiang Cheng's arm, his thumb stocking slow comforting circles into the shaking muscle as he speaks. His smile is small and sad and suddenly the chasm of the year between them is gone. This is his brother, who he loved, who he would have died for, who he was captured for, who he gave up his life for. And in the end, his brother did the same. Everything else will matter tomorrow, the tangled knot of anger, betrayal, rejection, jealousy, loneliness, and fear that he will have to start untangling. But in the moment, even in the storm of everything that has happened tonight, and what will happen if Jin Guangyao does or does not get what he wants, his brother is here. His brother knows him better than he knows himself, just like always. There are tears on Wei Wuxian's face, but he reaches up to brush Jiang Cheng's away instead.
This is the lie:
Broken things can never be fixed.
This is the truth:
Jiang Cheng loves his brother as much now as he did that day he lured the Wen away in Yiling. It is, and was, a self destructive sort of love, one that understands only actions but chokes on words. He's tried for years to suffocate the flame of it, been burned by it, but still it lives. He feels the warmth of it in his breast as he watches his brother across the courtyard. There are a million things he wants to say still, all of them resting like ash in his mouth.
The time will come when he can speak to his brother again, when they can sit down and untangle the knot of hurt that lives between them. Not today, not with everything that's happened, but one day.
Jiang Cheng goes back to the Lotus Pier to lick his wounds, to help Jin Ling move through all the loss he's suffered in the last handful of days. He's younger even than Jiang Cheng was when he became clan leader, and he needs someone at his side who cares for nothing but his wellbeing.
The days become weeks and months and the temple seems like a dream. The world has changed so much, so quickly. Lan Wangji becomes Chief Cultivator by unanimous decision. Lan Xichen goes into seclusion on the mountain with no indication when or if he will come back. Nie Huaisang is still the head shaker to some, but to anyone in the temple that night, he is viewed with a carefully renewed respect. The Jin are splintered but with the Jiang at his back, there is little infighting before Jin Ling takes his place on the throne. His uncle is still Sandu Shengshou and now he has another uncle, the Yiling Patriarch.
The first note comes a few weeks after the temple. It's short but the scrawl is familiar.
I've been traveling of late. The world is so much bigger than I remember. I hope you're well.
They show up regularly after that, rarely longer than a few lines, about the weather or some creature he's faced, but sometimes they are accompanied by pressed flower or a hastily drawn sketch of some landscape. One arrives with a preserved butterfly in the strangest shade of blue, wrapped carefully in thick paper. They are stilted and awkward, a correspondence between two people who have grown apart, who don't know each other anymore, but would like to. It's a start. Wei Wuxian's letter to Jin Ling are longer, and he reads them to his jiujiu every chance he gets. Wei Wuxian visits the Koi tower to see his nephew, but like ships in the night, he is coming as Jiang Cheng is going; their paths never cross.
It's a cool day in spring when Jiang Cheng finds his brother at the doors of the place that used to be his home. He's thin and tired, but he looks healthy and hale in a way that he hasn't in almost twenty years. His smile reaches his eyes again.
“Can I come in,” Wei Wuxian asks, sheepishly.
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes, but smiles and steps aside.
“Welcome back,” he replies, “We've missed you.”
This is the truth: He means it.