Jiang Cheng gives up on Zidian - he's not sure how that little shit managed to ward against it, but he did, and Jiang Cheng is going to beat answers out of him later - and switches to his sword, slamming Sandu hard into the doors. He can't believe Wei fucking Wuxian is doing this - at all, or here, in Lotus Pier.
"Wei Wuxian!" he shouts. "If your plan fails it will kill you. If you don't open this door right now, I will kill you myself!"
Lan Wangji arrives at speed, adding his force to Jiang Cheng's on the door.
"Wei Ying!" he shouts, and Jiang Cheng tries not to think about how he's heard that note of desperation before.
He can hear the notes of a flute on the other side of the door, they're going to be too late, he should have known Wei fucking Wuxian was planning something when he turned up without his asshole husband -
The door shatters.
- and now the room is empty, just an array on the floor, the glow fading.
He and Lan Wangji move in unison, jump into the array in unison, and Jiang Cheng tries not to think about how the only times the two of them have ever done anything together they were chasing after Wei fucking Wuxian.
Scowling, Jiang Cheng crouches, sets Zidian sparking and touches it to the array, have some fucking power again -
- and then the power comes up through his feet.
It feels like dying.
It feels like inevitability. Wei Wuxian was always going to be the death of him, he thinks.
He meets Lan Wangji's eyes, because that's something they have in common.
And then it's dark.
It's warm and dark, and things are hazy, but he's vaguely aware that he's not dead. There's a crushing pressure, a cold shock, and sudden, blinding light.
Jiang Cheng's consciousness floats. Things are happening to his body, he's being washed and wrapped in a blanket, someone's holding him.
Awareness of the world around him comes slowly, gradually. It's difficult. His muscles are weak, he can't seem to control his body at all, but he can be patient. His mind is fuzzy, but he has it, and he doesn't need to be able to move to try and meditate.
He doesn't manage very much of it, but it's a start.
He can't form the words to speak, but that might be for the best when he feels someone holding him, and he looks up and sees a little girl smiling down at him.
He knows her.
Plucking words from the stream of sounds around him is also something he's still learning how to do again, but he hears A-Cheng.
He cries, and his sister cuddles him close and says things in a soothing tone.
His mind is still hazy. He can't remember, exactly, how long he's been aching for his sister to comfort his tears, but it's far, far too long.
Time drifts past him. He's getting bigger, and stronger. He learns to sit up on his own, learns to follow the speech of the people around him better. He smiles at his sister, who dotes on him, and smiles at his mother, who... doesn't, as much, but he's just so happy to see her again.
He's honestly surprised when his father picks him up, even as it turns out that it's for swimming lessons. His father carries him into the water, and gives encouragement as Jiang Cheng begins to relearn muscle memory he doesn't ever remember not having, before.
He learns quickly.
When Jiang Cheng can swim on his own, his father stops paying attention.
Jiang Cheng is not surprised.
He learns to walk, and finally he manages to force the babbling sounds he can produce into some semblance of coherence.
"Jiejie," he manages, and his sister hugs him in delight.
He's so little. It's frustrating.
There's only so much he can do without getting tired, even with his golden core already formed. And no-one will let him go anywhere without picking him up and saying things like, "Now now, young master, where are you supposed to be?" and carrying him back.
They let his sister take him places.
He's going to need her help.
He tells his sister, "There's a little boy in Yiling with no parents and he's in trouble. We have to go and find him."
His sister smiles and says, "This is a good story, A-Cheng. Tell me more."
"It's not a story," he says. He's frustrated by his own childish petulance, but he can't seem to stop it. "I'm from the future. I know."
His sister laughs, and he glares, and then she clears her throat and stops laughing, but still has a small, indulgent smile. "Of course, A-Cheng," she says. "And what's this little boy's name?"
"Wei Ying," he says, and his sister's smile freezes. "His name is Wei Ying, and his parents are Zangse Sanren and Wei Changze, and something bad has happened to them. Wei Ying is alone in Yiling and he needs help," he insists.
"A-Cheng," his sister says, and then she looks... thoughtful. Determined. Like herself, not a child.
"Why do you believe me now?" he asks curiously.
"Zangse Sanren and Wei Changze are friends of our parents," she says. "And Wei Ying is their baby. But they haven't been here since before you were born. I remember them because Auntie let me hold Wei Ying. I asked Mother for a brother to keep and then she gave me you," she says, and plants kisses on his face, because she does that, and he can't even make himself object. "I will make a plan, A-Cheng. It's time for your nap soon."
A-Jie hushes him every time he tries to talk to her about it for the next couple of days. Then their mother departs to go night-hunting, and the day after that, at breakfast, she smiles brightly at their father. "Daddy," she says sweetly, "can I take A-Cheng into town all by myself today?"
Jiang Fengmian blinks at her, looking up from the correspondence he's reading. "Hm? Yes, of course." He smiles vaguely. "Have fun."
"Thank you, Daddy!" she says, still sweet.
After breakfast, she holds his hand tightly in hers as they walk out of Lotus Pier. "Do you know the way?" she whispers, and Jiang Cheng frowns.
"I think so," he says. "I - I usually flew on my sword. It's up the river."
A-Jie laughs. "Well. We'll have to manage something," she says.
They get food for the journey in Lotus Cove, because his sister stole a qiankun pouch to carry it in and they can take whatever they want from the vendors, who recognise them and will bill their father for it afterwards. A-Jie stole money, too, but it's best not to waste it, and it would draw a lot of attention for them to actually use the money in Lotus Cove when everyone knows who they are.
They're going to be in so much trouble later, Jiang Cheng thinks vaguely, but it doesn't really seem important.
The problem with everyone knowing who they are here is that, well. Everyone knows who they are. They are noticed. They need an excuse to get away from all the eyes that follow them as they walk around.
"Can we take a boat for a while, A-Jie?" he says. "I'm tired."
"Of course, A-Cheng," she says, smiling. They find an available boat, and his sister puts a propelling talisman on it.
It's not very good. Jiang Cheng frowns at it as they drift upriver. Talismans don't take strong cultivation, usually. His sister is young, but his were much better than this, by her age.
Their parents don't spend enough time with her, he thinks. He's going to start helping her. Even if her cultivation isn't too strong, she could be better than this. Maybe Wei Wuxian can teach her some of his talismans, too. He's really good at them.
They load up on more supplies as they pass the stalls of the riverside sellers. It's a long way to Yiling.
Jiang Cheng dozes for a bit, leaning against his sister's side, and when he wakes up, they're passing beyond the outskirts of Lotus Cove.
"I'm sorry, A-Jie," he says, taking her talisman off the boat. He makes a couple of adjustments, then puts it back.
The boat starts moving much faster.
His sister is staring at him in awe. "Why are you sorry? A-Cheng, you're amazing," she says, and her smile is radiant. She's proud of him. Proud of her three-year-old brother for doing something better than she did.
Jiang Cheng finds that he's angry.
His sister deserves better. And this time he and Wei Wuxian will see that she gets it, he's decided.
They stop at a small village along the river. A-Jie buys less distinctively Jiang outer robes to put over the ones they're wearing. And then she looks closely at the altered propelling talisman, nods, and puts it back on the boat.
It heads up-river even faster.
Jiang Cheng claps for her, but inside, he's outraged.
He didn't know, the first time, but his sister has potential, he's sure of it.
They travel through the night, sleeping huddled together in the boat.
Undoubtedly Lotus Pier is searching for them by now, but they'll be starting closer, with no idea that they could already be so far from home.
Jiang Cheng knows they're getting close when the water starts to seem faintly oily and there's an acrid tinge to the air.
They clutch each other's hands as they walk towards the markets, because they're as good a place to start as any.
"A-Cheng," his sister whispers. "It's so awful."
"I know," he mutters. "Let's just find him." They're both too young and small to do anything, here, but maybe when they're older they can try.
The markets of Yiling are as depressing as the rest of it.
Jiang Cheng finds himself leaning against his sister as he looks around.
Where is he?
Maybe a signal?
He thinks about it. After a couple of false starts, he manages a passable imitation of one of the whistle calls they used during the Sunshot Campaign.
But then he spots a small, grubby figure examining a scrapheap of rotten vegetables, picking over it in apparent hopes of finding something edible.
Jiang Cheng feels sick.
Wei Wuxian always laughed off any mention of his time in Yiling. Somehow, Jiang Cheng had the vague sense that it wasn't this bad, that it was just... just the dogs.
Tugging his sister along, Jiang Cheng hurries over to the little boy.
"Wei - Wei Ying?" he says, because they're too young for courtesy names.
The little boy looks up. "Hello?"
He's too thin, and Jiang Cheng can see scabbed-over wounds through the tears in his filthy, too-small clothes, and yet despite the livid bruise on his cheek the boy smiles the smile that has been etched on Jiang Cheng's heart in love and acid for as long as he remembers.
"It's me," Jiang Cheng says. "It's Jiang Cheng."
"Nice to meet you," Wei Ying says. He picks a watermelon rind out of the rubbish and looks pleased by the grimy dregs of fruit clinging to it. Jiang Cheng jerks forward as he starts to lift it towards his mouth, slapping it out of his hands before he can even think about it.
"Hey!" Wei Ying looks caught between anger and tears. "What was that for?" He goes to scrabble for it again, and Jiang Cheng can't stand it, he can't, he grabs him and pulls him back.
"We have food!" he says. "A-Jie -"
His sister steps forward, pulling a mantou out of her pouch. It's cold, but no worse than that, and she hands it to Wei Ying. There are tears in her eyes.
"Oh," Wei Ying breathes. "Are - are you saying I can have this?" he asks, reaching out but not quite touching.
"Yes. Yes, please eat it," A-Jie says, gently placing it into his dirty hand.
Wei Ying bites into it with relish. "This is amazing," he says, mouth full. He chews too fast and swallows before he's chewed enough. "What did you say your name was, again?" He takes another bite.
Jiang Cheng's stomach drops. "Jiang Cheng," he says, enunciating carefully. "This is my sister Jiang Yanli."
Wei Ying nods. "Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli," he repeats. "I'm very pleased to meet you! My name is Wei Ying. But you knew that. How did you know that?"
For once Jiang Cheng doesn't mind the ways that being three overrides his self-control and discipline so much, because bursting into tears seems like as good a reaction as any to the sudden shock of horror and loss.
Wei Wuxian isn't here.
However this happened...
Wei Wuxian isn't here.
This isn't him.
Jiang Cheng wants to stomp like a grumpy child back to the boat. He should get to stomp like a grumpy child. He is a grumpy child.
But Wei Ying is nervous to the point of panic when he grumps, trying desperately to cheer him up or work out what he did wrong and apologise for it, and Jiang Cheng hates that, so he sighs and tells Wei Ying that it's fine, he's just tired, and Wei Ying relaxes to a cautious friendliness.
They get to the boat and set off back downriver.
A-Jie examines Wei Ying's wounds, and says fretfully that they'll have to take him to the healer when they get home. They're dog bites, like Jiang Cheng figured they'd be, and he's not really sorry to realise that he's still not going to have dogs of his own, in this life; he wasn't planning on it, he's long since lost his love for them.
Last time he was a kid, they were the enemy. Seeing a dog meant alarm, meant trying to keep Wei Wuxian and the dog apart.
And then everyone Jiang Cheng loved died except his nephew, including Wei Wuxian, and every time Jiang Cheng saw a dog he had the same thought - where's Wei Wuxian? Got to keep the dog away from him - and then the shock of grief and rage.
The only dog he ever permitted at Lotus Pier was Fairy. He couldn't let other dogs be around the place. Wei Wuxian would return - somehow, that was a certainty of his life - and if there were dogs at Lotus Pier, then he couldn't come home.
Jiang Cheng could sometimes convince himself he didn't want Wei Wuxian to come home, but he could never have convinced himself that his sister wouldn't want him to. If he'd had dogs there...
She'd have been so disappointed in him.
Trying to think about the past gives him a headache, like the thoughts are too big for his brain. Jiang Cheng watches his sister fuss over Wei Ying, giving him measured amounts of food from the pouch and smiling. (His sister is so brilliantly caring and careful. If Wei Ying has too much food at once he'll be sick.) He watches Wei Ying, inevitably, fall utterly in love with his sister.
She would have wanted Jiang Cheng to find him when he came back like he inevitably would, and he tried. He tried so hard, for so long, and he never managed it. Lan Wangji found him first.
They were both in the array.
Is Lan Wangji here too?
He'll have to deal with that thought later, because it's then that he sees a violet sword glare, moving fast, sweeping low over the landscape - and the sword's occupant spots the boat, apparently, because it veers sharply towards them.
As the rider gets closer, Jiang Cheng sees that it's his mother.
They pull over to the riverbank and get out of the boat.
His mother is angry. Jiang Cheng understands. He tries not to think about Jin Ling, about worrying and the fury when he found the kid was fine. It makes his head hurt worse, and Jin Ling is -
Mother is shouting, and it makes Jiang Cheng's head hurt worse too. Mother got a message that they were missing, and she's been sweeping the river all night, and -
She breaks off. "Who's this?" she demands, and Jiang Cheng wants to throw up. It might be the headache. It might be the snap in her voice, the one that hadn't been there yet, this time.
A-Jie lifts her chin. "This is Wei Ying," she says. Wei Ying is clutching her hand and looks like he's trying to hide behind her. "We wanted to go up the river but we fell asleep and then we were in the wrong place but we found Wei Ying and we're going to keep him because he doesn't have anyone else," she adds, defiant. A-Jie had a lie prepared. It's exactly the kind of stupid story children always tell.
Jiang Cheng expects his mother to be angrier still at the presence of the child she always hated, but her fury drains away and she looks shocked. She takes a hesitant step towards Wei Ying and falls to her knees in the mud, like she doesn't even care that her robes will be ruined.
"Wei Ying," she says. Her voice is soft and shaking. "Wei Ying, where is your mother?"
"She went... away," he says, in a small voice. "She didn't come back."
Deathly pale, Mother reaches out and cups Wei Ying's cheek. "Have you been alone?"
Wei Ying nods. Mother closes her eyes for long moments. Jiang Cheng can see tears.
Jinzhu and Yinzhu are coming in to land.
"Take A-Li and A-Cheng," his mother tells them. She holds out her hands to Wei Ying. "Come, Wei Ying," she says, more gently than Jiang Cheng expects. "We're going to fly home, now."
Jiang Cheng watches his mother lift Wei Ying into her arms and step onto her sword, watches Wei Ying's wide-eyed awe as they lift from the ground.
He's too tired to try to understand the way his mother holds him as if he's precious.
What matters is that he's coming home.
Jiang Cheng's crying again, he realises.
They're going to be together again. All three of them.
It doesn't matter if it's not the Wei Wuxian from before, he decides.
Wei Ying is Wei Ying.