Wei Wuxian, sprawled against a fence post at the edge of a pier, is satisfied, lazy, more than a little drunk. He’s missed Yunmeng wine. It’s strange being back here within rights, and he keeps catching himself relaxing into old patterns and then remembering that actually, he is no longer a disciple of the sect; he and his husband will sleep in one of the rooms assigned to the visiting Lans, it is not his place to correct the juniors’ sloppy footwork when he sees them drilling, and he is no longer allowed within the heart of the inner sect. Regardless, though his marriage is of questionable legitimacy, no one dares to dispute it; he goes where Hanguang-jun goes. And sometimes, Hanguang-jun goes to Yunmeng for a minor conference. And Wei Wuxian is required to attend. And Wei Wuxian, frequently, forgets just how strong the Yunmeng wine is - especially when compared to the exquisite but gentle Gusu brews that he’s become accustomed to of late.
At the moment, his entertainment is watching a scuffle between several junior disciples on the far side of the wide courtyard. He’s fairly certain Jin Ling is not supposed to be here, or at the very least is here as a nephew rather than a sect leader; Jin Ling, for his part, seems thoroughly unconcerned by the notion that speaking too sharply to other sects’ disciples could be manipulated into justification for another petty war. (Wei Wuxian takes another swig from his jar.) He can place most of the kids involved, though his own good a-Yuan is still kneeling neatly at his seat inside the main hall, a place behind where Lan Zhan would be sitting if some minor sect leader hadn’t seen fit to steal him away for who knows how long and for no reason that Wei Wuxian can discern; he recognises the brave unfilial little Ouyang who stood with Wen Ning against his own father’s wishes, and a-Yuan’s loud Lan friend who Wei Wuxian is secretly incredibly fond of. A clump of Jiang disciples, all of whom are slightly younger again than any of the visitors, seems torn between the two axes of whatever argument Jin Ling has managed to create between himself and his friends. They have stars in their eyes. Wei Wuxian resists the urge to snigger.
Someone shifts to Wei Wuxian’s left, and he snaps to attention all at once - as quickly as his wine-addled body will allow, at any rate. “Here to watch the kids fight?” he queries, not looking over, because surely whoever it is will not move against him. It’s easy to become complacent in Lotus Pier, despite his many enemies within its bounds. “I’ll catch you up if you want - I think a-Ling, that’s Jin-zongzhu,” my nephew, you know , he doesn’t say, because that is maybe too tenuous, “dared to insult the virtuous beauty of one of the Ouyang kid’s pet birds, and fuck, I can’t even remember his name , but -”
“Can’t even handle your fucking drink any more,” grumbles a too-familiar voice, and all at once the jar of wine is tugged from Wei Wuxian’s grasp. He stiffens, caught between the ingrained urge to protest - like a snotty elder brother - and the learnt fear that he’s been taught through death and resurrection. The most coherent thought that he can gather is that he is really too drunk to have this conversation now .
“Jiang Cheng,” he greets with his brightest grin, and looks over at last. His - the Jiang sect leader is splayed upon the dock beside him, back against the next post in the fence, eyes shadowed. Wei Wuxian fights back the surge of worry; this man is no longer his concern. “Here to throw me out again? I was only watching them argue, you know. I had no part in this!”
“I don’t doubt it,” Jiang Cheng says coolly, but he doesn’t shout, which is … a win. So is the jar of Yunmeng wine, which he replaces on the planks between them; the wood is not as worn as Wei Wuxian remembers it being, but the gesture is still unambiguously a peace offering. Drink your wine, Jiang Cheng says, and you can stay this once.
Wei Wuxian takes up the jar. Drinks his wine. Stays, just this once. He fixes his eyes on the arguing juniors - “shut up ,” Jin Ling is blustering, apoplectic with rage, and he kicks the Ouyang boy on the shin. “I’m going to break your fucking arms!”
Wei Wuxian snorts into his jar at that, bumping his shoulder into Jiang Cheng’s conspiratorially. (This tentative truce between them is tangibly new, and perhaps he’d be a little more careful of it if he were a little less intoxicated.) “Sometimes it’s very very obvious who raised that kid,” he tells Jiang Cheng, fighting past the swell of and who didn’t get to that threatens to surface in his throat. “It was always the legs with you though. I wonder where he got ‘arms’ from.”
“Shut up!” Jiang Cheng grumbles right back, and then seems to balk as he catches the way his words match Jin Ling’s nigh-perfectly. “Why are you like this!”
Wei Wuxian raises an eyebrow. “If you say so, shidi.” The honorific is a subconscious thing, one he catches too late. “Uh. I mean.”
“Who are you calling your shidi!” Jiang Cheng snaps. Wei Wuxian’s chest jumps into his throat for a moment - he’s known Jiang Cheng’s anger before - but then Jiang Cheng elbows him in the side, and everything in him relaxes into the familiar pattern of ribbing. Wei Wuxian elbows him back harder, undignified as always. Jiang Cheng yelps, clears his throat, and continues - “What with your marriage and your Hanguang-jun, you’re practically a Lan now. Should I expect you to wear their colours the next time you visit?”
“You know I never wear any sect’s colours even when it is expected,” Wei Wuxian snarks back. There’s perhaps a modicum of truth in it, but mostly he’s just searching for a way to contradict anything Jiang Cheng says. Like a brother would. That thought lodges into the corner of his mind and rests there, easing the sting of the half-serious argument that hits too close to home, and he doesn’t know if he should welcome it. A daring irreverence springs to his lips. “And what makes it your business, Jiang-zongzhu?” He ducks his head and cups both hands around his wine jar, parodying a courtesy.
Jiang Cheng punches him in the shoulder. The Yunmeng wine goes flying into the lake, and Wei Wuxian clutches halfheartedly at it with his right arm while rolling his left shoulder in affronted pain. “Shut up ,” Jiang Cheng snaps. “And don’t call me that, you - you absolute idiot.”
Across the open quadrant, the juniors’ argument devolves into blows. Jin Ling’s face is bright red. He tries for the trick Wei Wuxian taught him once, in the grounds of Jinlintai, and his Lan friend laughs in delight before evading the move with the ease of long familiarity.
Wei Wuxian glances over, only to see Jiang Cheng’s eyes fixed on the scuffle too. “You showed him that,” Jiang Cheng mutters darkly.
It’s Wei Wuxian’s turn to be caught off-guard. “How did you know?”
“When we were younger,” Jiang Cheng grumbles. “You’d use it against me. Every time.” He pauses, before that bloody-minded determination appears in the set of his scowl - the expression he wore whenever he chose to forge ahead and damn the consequences - and he adds, “A-jie said you did it because you knew it got on my nerves.”
The silence sits for a panicked moment. Wei Wuxian tries to remember how to set aside his grief and guilt in their familiar compartment, but his mind will not cooperate. A-jie rings in his ears.
“She was right,” Wei Wuxian offers, words small and choked. “You know. You used to get so pissed, it was hilarious.”
Jiang Cheng glowers. “I’ll throw you into the lake.”
“You can try.”
“Alright!” Jiang Cheng says, threatening, and raises his arm towards Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian can’t quell his instinctive flinch, but he can laugh it off as an evasive maneuver, rather than a protective mechanism he’s learned to avoid Zidian’s touch.
He’s not so sure Jiang Cheng didn’t see past him, knowing as he does what it looks like when panic flashes in his eyes. But he can only try.
They can only try.
Wei Wuxian searches for a distraction, and one arrives in the form of his perfect son, Lan Sizhui of the impeccable robes and even more impeccable timing. He’s descending the steps from the discussion hall across the open courtyard, with a faintly bemused expression. The other junior disciples - namely, Jin Ling and his two friends, because the Jiangs aren’t actively participating in the fighting so much as they are enabling - draw apart hastily, and Jin Ling straightens his askew hairpiece as the Ouyang kid tugs at his robes abashedly. “Sizhui,” greets the other Lan gleefully, with absolutely no element of shame. Wei Wuxian likes that one.
A-Yuan regards the three of them with a skeptical expression. “What are you fighting over?” His soft voice and fond, exasperated sigh draw uncomfortable parallels in Wei Wuxian’s mind, for the briefest moment, before he stuffs that line of thinking into a box where it will never see the light of day again. (Maybe he’ll take it out in the jingshi later. Lan Zhan will listen. Wei Wuxian is trying to get better at that, too.) “Jin Ling, did you insult Zizhen’s birds again?”
“Aw,” Wei Wuxian stage-whispers to Jiang Cheng. “He knows them so well.”
Jiang Cheng clears his throat and says nothing.
“And so what if I did!” Jin Ling throws back in a-Yuan’s face, adorably rattled. Aw. Wei Wuxian wants to pinch his cheeks. “They’re ugly birds! He just has them because he hero-worships Nie-zongzhu for no good reason!”
Ouyang Zizhen - that’s his name! - shouts something back about Nie Huaisang being a prominent proponent of the arts. Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng huff laughs in unison.
“Guys! This is not that serious,” a-Yuan offers. “You could try to stop arguing for five minutes? Or maybe just while we’re in Lotus Pier and all of us are visiting disciples representing our sects?”
Wei Wuxian opens his mouth, coming up with a boast on the fly about how the boy he raised is a polite and courteous gentleman, while the boy Jiang Cheng raised is an angry little toddler - he thinks he has the measure of this conversation now, and it’s about poking irreverently at the things that still bleed between them, acknowledging them by laughing them off - but he never articulates his half-formed tease before Jin Ling is speaking again, and -
“Just because you’re my cousin doesn’t mean you get to patronise me,” Jin Ling says loudly.
A-Yuan doesn’t miss a beat. “Just because you’re my cousin doesn’t mean you can use that to contradict me every time I say something you don’t like,” he counters.
It takes a moment for the kids’ words to sink in. Wei Wuxian spends that delightful moment planning what he was going to say about Sizhui being polite and courteous compared to Jin Ling, and then it hits him.
He laughs, abrupt and performative, because he’s used to sinking into an acted front when things like this hit too close to home. “Wow,” he says, somewhat garbled. “I wonder where they got that into their heads.” He’s always watched his words, always been careful of slipping into informality that wasn’t his to have - even if he felt closer to a real brother than a shixiong to Jiang Cheng, that did not mean his sentiments were returned. He truly, honestly cannot place where a-Yuan might have picked up the idea that he and Jiang Cheng were -
“Lan Zhan probably taught our a-Yuan that,” Wei Wuxian says quickly. “I mean, I didn’t - it’s not like I would ever say that, you know.” He gestures between Jiang Cheng and himself, staring straight ahead, wishing for the jar of wine - at the bottom of the lake by now - or anything to fiddle with beyond the hem of his robes. (Chenqing is hidden in a qiankun pouch in his sleeve. He is forbidden from taking it out within the boundaries of Lotus Pier.) “I’m not the kind of person to ask for punishment when I have no need to bear it, you know.”
Jiang Cheng is silent for longer than is comfortable, and Wei Wuxian resists the urge to look over. Hopefully he’s smoothed things over, and Jiang Cheng won’t kick him out again, or do anything rash like draw his sword because Wei Wuxian dared to claim a position in his life that he had no right to. Lan Zhan would overreact. It would be a disaster. Across the courtyard, the juniors have moved on from their argument, smoothed over by a-Yuan’s presence - Wei Wuxian is very proud of that boy, even if he has no idea where he gets it from - and Wei Wuxian dares to relax, crisis averted.
“Yeah,” Jiang Cheng says gruffly. “I wouldn’t - I’m not the one who - you know.” He clears his throat again. “Neither. Anyway. They’re kids. They’re bound to be stupid.”
“I’ll talk to a-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian agrees. There’s a sinking feeling in his stomach, but he’s long since accustomed to it. He stands - somewhat wobbly on his feet - and crosses the courtyard without looking back.
Wei Wuxian should be calling him Sizhui, probably; he says it’s embarrassing to get called a-Yuan in front of his friends, but Wei Wuxian has elected to ignore his son’s (his son’s!) qualms in favour of being as obnoxious a father (a father!) as possible. A-Yuan it is. “A-Yuan,” he calls, and descends in the manner of a diving bird to sweep his son into a spinning hug. “I need to talk to you.”
A-Yuan squirms in Wei Wuxian’s grip, unimpressed. “Wei-qianbei -”
“None of that!”
“ Wei-qianbei -”
“I refuse to answer to that,” Wei Wuxian trills.
A-Yuan sighs, ever the put-upon teenager. “ Baba -”
“- what do you want? I’m busy.”
Wei Wuxian sobers, as much as he’s able while the thrill of the Yunmeng wine lingers in his blood, leaving him loose-limbed and affectionate (and petulant, as Lan Zhan likes to put it). “You’re not supposed to call Jin Ling your cousin,” he whispers. “For propriety’s sake - Jiang Ch - Jiang-zongzhu doesn’t like it.”
A-Yuan pushes Wei Wuxian off him and rolls his eyes. He’s rebelling against authority! Wei Wuxian is so proud! “Baba, are you drunk?”
“I am very practiced at the art of drinking without being or getting drunk,” Wei Wuxian says magnanimously, “that is not what you should be focusing on here, a-Yuan. Also you should tell Jin Ling, but like, quietly, when you’re not in front of everyone.”
One of the other kids clears his throat - it’s the loud Lan, whose name Wei Wuxian is physically incapable of recalling. “We can hear you,” he says bluntly. “Also Sizhui is right, you’re drunk. Also you’re wrong!”
Wei Wuxian spins on his heel to face the kid. “Shh. Hey, did I ever get around to telling you that you’re my third-favourite Lan?”
“You’re my third favourite Lan. After Hanguang-jun and -”
“Don’t say it,” a-Yuan protests.
“Hey, idiot,” Jin Ling interrupts, before Wei Wuxian can finish his sentence. For a moment, Wei Wuxian is convinced that it’s Jiang Cheng standing here - not his nephew - and he snorts a kind of laugh that gets lost between his chest and his nose. “What are you saying? Why shouldn’t I get to call him that if I want?”
Wei Wuxian, somewhere beneath the haze of self-assuredness and comfort that he likes to inhabit whenever he can get his hands on actual wine, can sense the awkwardness that rises in the air around them. (Most of the little Jiangs have scurried off now - it wouldn’t surprise him if Jiang Cheng told them to avoid him - so it’s just him, a-Yuan, Jin Ling, the other Lan and Ouyang Zizhen, and one very brave purple-robed kid who looks even younger again than Jin Ling.) “It could lead to unfortunate misconceptions,” he tries - formal language tends to make Jin Ling frustrated enough that he gets distracted. “Listen, I’ll explain this to you another time -”
“What misconceptions? That you and jiujiu actually care about each other?” Jin Ling says petulantly.
Wei Wuxian balks.
“ Jin Ling, ” comes Jiang Cheng’s voice from behind Wei Wuxian, and even as he snaps to a more proper posture, he finds it in himself to be grateful for the interruption. Jiang Cheng has crossed the courtyard too, imposing with the moonlight behind him. Wei Wuxian approves. “What are you talking back about?”
“You’re both being stupid,” Jin Ling says. (Ouyang Zizhen muffles a laugh with his sleeve.) “Sizhui! Back me up!”
A-Yuan shifts from foot to foot, uncomfortably, before seeming to arrive at a decision and squaring his shoulders. Wei Wuxian blinks. “Actually,” a-Yuan says, “Jin Ling is right.”
“See,” Jin Ling snaps, and looks Jiang Cheng right in the eye. “Just because you don’t want to admit that Wei-qianbei is your -”
“But we could be a little more tactful about this,” a-Yuan interjects, to no avail -
“- brother,” Jin Ling finishes uncompromisingly, “doesn’t mean we have to be as stupid about it as you guys are being.”
Wei Wuxian blinks again. Because blinking is a thing that human eyes do, not because he’s tearing up or anything. “You should really,” he says, and his voice cracks, what the fuck, “not talk to your elders like that, Jin Ling.”
Ouyang Zizhen laughs again. Which is fine, but he could be a little more covert about it.
Jiang Cheng clears his throat aggressively. “Jin Ling,” he snaps. “Come with me -”
“ Yes -”
“Wei Wuxian was a disciple of YunmengJiang,” Jin Ling says stubbornly, and Wei Wuxian freezes - the echo of a memory is superimposed over Jin Ling’s voice now, one that he cannot place for the space of a breath but then hits him like a flood of icy water even as Jin Ling continues. “He grew up with you and with my mother -” Wei Wuxian forgets how to breathe - “you were like real siblings.”
Wei Wuxian is not on Phoenix Mountain again, he is not - there is no resentful whispering in his ears, Jin Zixun is long dead, and he is not the only one. But he hears Jiang Yanli’s fierceness and loving conviction in her son’s.
Almost against his will, he catches Jiang Cheng’s eye; he sees his own stunned stare reflected in Jiang Cheng’s. The world, around them, has not stopped. One of Jin Ling’s friends whispers something to another; the lake laps against the stilts holding up the piers; Jin Ling himself mumbles something into the sudden silence. Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng stand frozen.
Jiang Yanli is dead. Wei Wuxian has had many years to make his peace with this, and when her last breath sometimes claws its way out from under the bed in the jingshi on the longest of the winter nights, he is able to look it in the eye and say you are not my fault, not entirely. He is older. He is surer. He is more at peace than he has ever been.
Jiang Yanli is dead, and her child bears her onwards; Wei Wuxian is a fool for not seeing it before now. Her son brings with him hurts from his parents’ legacies, as of a child crying for his father while clutching an ostentatious golden sword to his chest; he carries the ways of the uncle who raised him, in his temper and his threatening and his weakness to compliments. But he leads the sect that should have been his father’s. Claims the family that should have been his mother’s. He speaks Jiang Yanli’s words and Wei Wuxian doesn’t think he even knows it, narrowing his eyes in bemusement as he is; that’s the furrow of Jiang Cheng’s brow that Wei Wuxian sees in his nephew’s scowl.
He is claiming what’s his, Wei Wuxian thinks, and the truth of it staggers him.
“I am not crying! I am not,” Wei Wuxian says, more for his own benefit than anyone else’s. “Jin Ling, you little brat! You don’t even know what you said, do you?”
“What,” Jin Ling replies flatly.
Jiang Cheng looks away from Wei Wuxian; he at least is owning his tears, rather than blinking them angrily back as is Wei Wuxian’s habit. “She would be very irritated with us,” he says fiercely. “Being stupid.”
“Hey! Speak for yourself,” Wei Wuxian demands. He isn’t within arms’ reach of Jiang Cheng, but if he were he’d swipe his brother on the shoulder -
Someone coughs. Wei Wuxian thinks it’s a-Yuan. The moment breaks.
Jiang Cheng is rolling his eyes now, but there’s a somewhat teary smile on his face that Wei Wuxian doesn’t think he’s seen since … before he died. (He doesn’t know if Jiang Cheng hasn’t smiled, or if Wei Wuxian is no longer one of the people who he feels safe letting see it.) “Hey,” Jiang Cheng snaps, turning to the assorted juniors who are still watching. “Go somewhere else.”
A-Yuan bows pointedly to Jiang Cheng and then Wei Wuxian, and the other juniors hasten to follow his example before he leads the flock of them away like good little ducklings. (The single starstruck Jiang disciple trails behind them, still wide-eyed.) Jiang Cheng scuffs his foot at the ground. Wei Wuxian tugs at the neat leather cuffs around his wrists. He doesn’t particularly want to be the one to break the silence this time, but he’s about to say something anyway - one of them has to - when Jiang Cheng beats him to it.
“I’m only going to say this once,” Jiang Cheng says, low and quiet. There’s a vulnerability to him that Wei Wuxian has quite literally never seen before. “A-jie knew you were our real brother before I did. It’d be disrespectful to keep trying to prove her wrong.”
Wei Wuxian’s first instinct is to laugh. His second is to mock the intimacy of the moment by overperforming it ( aw, didi, that’s so sweet, he would have crooned, once - when he was younger). He pushes both of them away and clears his throat forcefully; Jiang Cheng can decide not to shout. Wei Wuxian can decide to be honest. “I’m really glad you think that.”
“Yeah, well.” Jiang Cheng shrugs. “I don’t know if you still - do hugs, you’d have good reason not to after I -”
Wei Wuxian decides that he does not want to hear the end of that sentence. He takes a forceful step, tugs his brother into a hug, and waits.
Jiang Cheng makes a hiccoughing sound. He’s … probably crying; Wei Wuxian, being unable to see his face, can’t quite tell. What he can do, though, is hold his brother through it. “You’re okay,” he says, blinking fiercely, and tries to think what Jiang Yanli would say.
(“A-Xian,” she says gently, rubbing soothing circles into the small of his back. “You don’t have to pretend it’s okay. It’s only me, you can be honest.”
Wei Wuxian, young and soft, grins up at his shijie through tears. “Thank you,” he tells her.
“I’ll always be here,” she promises.)
“It’s only me,” Wei Wuxian says thickly. He tries the soothing circles. “It’s only me, a-Cheng, don’t worry. Why are you so cut up, huh?”
Jiang Cheng huffs something that sounds like “I’m not crying”.
“You don’t have to pretend that,” Wei Wuxian says softly. “Idiot.”
“You’re the idiot,” Jiang Cheng counters into his shoulder.
“I’m the idiot,” Wei Wuxian agrees, “and you’re stuck with me, so don’t worry! After all, we have empirical evidence that even death can’t kill me.” He draws away, gives Jiang Cheng a pat on the shoulder, and grins at his brother through maybe one or two tears. “I’m not going to leave you behind, okay?”
Jiang Cheng laughs softly. “I’ll hold you to that. That’s a threat.”
“Sure it is. Anyway! Lan Zhan is probably waiting by now,” Wei Wuxian says, and takes a step backwards. He will not drop ‘didi’ just yet; even he knows it is a little too soon for that. He doesn’t say It’s good to know we are brothers. He does not say I miss our sister; thank you for grieving her with me; I am sorry. Instead, he says “I have to go now, but I’ll see you tomorrow”, which just about sums it up.
“Yeah. You’ll be here tomorrow,” Jiang Cheng says roughly. “Or else.”
“I’m not going to run away in the night!”
“I wouldn’t put it past you!”
“You wouldn’t put anything past me,” Wei Wuxian protests, pouting. “Because I’m a menace.”
“True. You’re a horrible brother. Go away,” Jiang Cheng agrees.
Wei Wuxian makes his way back to the guest room he has been assigned, ready to cry on Lan Zhan’s shoulder for a solid hour and have his perfect husband soothe him until he falls asleep. He thinks he’ll feel better, after that. The Jiangs can wait until the morning.
“Don’t you dare leave with the Lans,” Jiang Cheng demands, kicking the door open at too early in the morning.
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian shouts, not yet wholly awake. He has a splitting headache. “What the fuck do you want?”
“You can survive a week without your husband,” Jiang Cheng shouts right back. Wei Wuxian is certain they are disturbing the other guests; he is also incredibly hungover and cannot find it in himself to care. “You’re staying. Don’t even try to argue.”
“Fucking - what?”
“Thanks,” Jiang Cheng says savagely, and turns to leave.
For a moment, Wei Wuxian expects to hear their sister’s fond, exasperated voice, but it does not come. Instead, Wei Wuxian is the one to break the silence. “Jiang Cheng,” he repeats, and rubs his eyes. Lan Zhan isn’t there, having risen at fucking earlier-than-early like he always does; it’s just the two of them in the room. “Thanks.”
“Whatever,” Jiang Cheng sniffs, but he bares his teeth in a half-smile.
“I mean it.”
“You’re a dick.”
“Lan Zhan to has plenty to say about that,” Wei Wuxian counters. Jiang Cheng cringes, furious, and slams the door in his face. Wei Wuxian fights to keep his eyes open before his headache makes him give up, and he relaxes back into old patterns and the bed and the new-old version of his childhood home.
Things aren’t going to be the same, of course. Lan Zhan is somewhere outside, seeing to Chief Cultivator things, waiting for him; in a week, Wei Wuxian will return to Gusu. But he does not have to be only one thing. He can be a husband and a father and a brother. And an uncle, if Jin Ling has anything to say about it.
It’s far too early to be awake, on a lazy golden Yunmeng morning, and Wei Wuxian has a horrible headache.
He is more at peace than he has ever been.