There’s a creak at the door that makes him stir. No one would try and come in so early, Jiang Cheng knows. No one at Lotus Pier would come in without knocking, he thinks, and the shuffling that follows alerts him to his feet. He grabs Sandu, holding it tightly as the door opens further, flooding streams of light into the room. He moves to tackle the shadow before it yells out.
“Jiang Cheng! What are you trying to do?! Kill me? You would really do that to your own shixiong?” He cries, and of course, there’s one person who lives here who absolutely wouldn’t knock.
“Wei Wuxian,” he scowls. “What in the world are you doing in my room so early in the morning? I thought you were an attacker!”
“What,” his mouth curls into a smile. “Why would you think that?”
“I don’t know,” Jiang Cheng grumbles, hoping to change the subject. “Why are you here, anyway?”
“Well, I was going to escort you to your surprise.” He says, and there’s something behind his eyes that Jiang Cheng doesn’t like. It’s the inherent sense of mischief that he has fallen for far too many times, one that’s landed him on his knees, begging his mother for forgiveness. The kind that bemused his A-Jie and left his father with his smiling face, longingness buried in the depths of his eyes. It’s never a good thing.
“Surprise? What is it?”
“Well, what’s the point of a surprise if I spoil it for you!” Wei Wuxian grins, and starts unravelling the leather straps around his wrists. “Come on.”
Jiang Cheng glances at strap in his hands. What exactly was he planning to do?
“Come on. I need to blindfold you to take you to your surprise.”
“No.” He responds plainly.
“Oi, why not?” Jiang Cheng’s suspicious gaze doesn’t waver. “Don’t you trust me?”
“Wow, A-Cheng, I’m wounded. As if I’d ever do anything to hurt my beloved shidi.” He says, still holding out the straps. “If you don’t come with me, Shijie will be sad.”
His face changes. How much damage will he cause if he even got A-Jie involved? Wei Wuxian looks at him stubbornly, and Jiang Cheng finally rolls his eyes, turning to let the fool blindfold him. He feels Wei Wuxian’s palms lay flat on his shoulders, guiding him out of his bedroom. “Where are we going?”
“It’s a surprise.” He repeats, jerking Jiang Cheng suddenly to avoid collision with his desk.
“If you say that one more time, I’ll break both your legs.”
“I thought I was the one attacking you.” Wei Wuxian says mockingly, stifling a laugh as Jiang Cheng grabs his arm for balance to walk down a flight of stairs. Jiang Cheng has a vague idea of where he’s going, but Wei Wuxian seems intent on throwing off the scent. He spins him around a few times, just to make sure he loses track of the direction they’re headed in, and Jiang Cheng grits his teeth. It’s far too early for this.
Wei Wuxian seems to notice his annoyance, stopping him in his tracks. “It’s okay, it’s okay, you big baby. We’re here. You can see it now.” Jiang Cheng rips the blindfold off before the sentence is over.
They’re in the courtyard in front of Sword Hall. He should’ve known. However, it looks – different. It’s decked out, long sheets of gold and royal purple layered over the entrances. The lotuses are in full bloom as if summer hasn’t ended, the reflection in the water bleeding wonderful hues of blue, pink and green. This is, ostensibly, a celebration.
He loves it when Lotus Pier looks like this. Beautiful, vibrant and in full bloom. Despite how early it is, young disciples circle the grounds, sweating from their efforts to decorate their largest pavilion. Many of them wave at him with gleeful expressions. His sister exits the main hall, her eyes lighting up as she sees him. “A-Cheng! You’re awake!” She gathers her skirt in her hands and rushes over to them.
Jiang Cheng gives her a small smile, open-mouthed, still stunned at the grandiose display before him. Wei Wuxian nudges his shoulder. “Well, nothing to say, Jiang Cheng?”
He glances at him. “For me?” he asks, kind of stupidly, but Wei Wuxian’s eyes soften.
“Of course!” His sister grabs his hands. “A-Xian planned the whole thing. He even woke me and all the disciples up at five to get a head-start.” He sees Wei Wuxian’s cheeks heat up from the corner of his eye.
“Shijie…” He says, looking flustered from all the accusations, as some of the disciples nearby give him little remarks of disapproval.
“I love it,” he says, a sudden surge of emotions coursing through him. “I love it so much. Thank you, Wei Wuxian, A-Jie.”
His sister beams at him. Wei Wuxian, shamelessness forgone, breaks eye contact. “Well, that’s good.”
“Happy Birthday, A-Cheng.”
It’s kind of silly, really, how much Jiang Cheng used to like his birthday. Even as a fifteen-year old, the giddy feelings of attention and excitement never let him go. It was one of the few days his parents’ constant bickering didn’t get to him, the few days his sister loved him and Wei Wuxian equally. He loved the feasts that spread across Lotus Pier, the looks on the disciples faces as they devoured the best food Yunmeng had to offer. He loved the gifts, the foreign snacks he’d receive from incoming guests, his sister’s thoughtful and charming handicrafts, the beautiful Jiang antiquities he’d receive from his parents.
At the best of times, he’d even like the pathetic excuses for gifts Wei Wuxian would slide across to him – a lotus seed pod, ‘for good luck’ as if they weren’t surrounded by them; an unopened bottle of sword oil he’d clearly just picked out from his own collection, and one terrible year, where his gift was apparently ‘letting him win a swimming race’.
His birthday banquets were never ostentatious – they weren’t Lanling Jin, after all, but it was always enjoyable.
At least, they were, until he turned fifteen. That was the last true celebration Lotus Pier held in his honour, before everything went wrong. Before Lotus Pier burned. Before his parents were humiliated and murdered in their own home. Before he was tortured by the Wens, who tied him down and melted his golden core, leaving him with a fate worse than death.
Before he lost his innocence. Before he lost his sister. Before he caused the death of his lifelong companion.
He doesn’t really look forward to his birthday anymore.
He’s turning 35. He watches as the room fills with the people he holds the closest to his heart, slowly sinking into the comfort of their faces. His father, telling he’s proud of him – something he never told him while he was alive. His mother, smiling a genuine, loving smile at him, holding his hands in one of hers as most mothers would, her other lightly placed on his cheek. “Look at you. So handsome, I can’t believe how much you’ve grown.” Her gentle reassurance fills a hole in his heart he had long forgotten he had. It’s also how he knows it’s a dream.
He truly gets it though – from his sister, who smiles at him warmly and holds his hands in her own, just as she had 20 years ago. She’s aged beautifully, adorned in silks with gold braided into her hair. He wonders, silently, if this is what she would have looked like if her stint as Madam Jin was any longer. If this is what she would look like as she saw Jin Ling blossom into a capable and mature sect leader, if she got to grow old with her husband.
“A-Cheng,” she smiles, reaching for his robes. “I can’t believe you still have these.”
He looks down at what he’s wearing. It’s the robes she had gifted him for his 15th birthday. He smiles as his sister’s fingers trail up to the embroidery on his chest. “I did this myself; you know.” She says wistfully. “I stayed up many nights learning how to embroider our Sect symbol. You were turning fifteen, you needed more robes worthy of a Jiang Sect Leader.”
“I remember.” He says, glancing down at the work adorning his clothes. All her efforts had paid off. The work was intricate and beautiful, and his heart swelled with pride at the fact that no one in the world, not even Wei Wuxian, had anything like it. He’s surprised it still fits so well, fitting comfortably across his now far larger torso. Realistically, he knows these robes would barely stretch around him anymore. He also knows that these robes were burned with the rest of his belongings as he watched, Wen Zhuliu’s hands encircling his wrists, Wen Chao’s maniacal cackling in the distance.
His sister suddenly smiles wider. “A-Xian is here!”
He turns to see a figure in black running towards him. It’s odd, really, to see him with his old face, now that he’s in Mo Xuanyu’s body. As similar as they look, Mo Xuanyu has no happy, unrestrained twinkle in his eyes. Those died with Wei Wuxian. Thankfully, this time, there is no Lan Wangji trailing behind him, glaring at Jiang Cheng with eyes of pure hatred. It’s just Wei Wuxian, running towards them, Suibian hanging at his waist.
He should have known what was coming.
“A-Xian,” his sister smiles, placing her hand on his shoulder as he finally approached. “Are you here to wish Jiang Cheng a happy birthday?”
“Of course,” Wei Wuxian nods. “It’s my beloved shidi’s birthday, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” It sounds so genuine and honest, so honest the words burn themselves onto his skin. Wei Wuxian was good at my many things, but falsehood was not one of them. He looks happy, like he belongs there. His jaw is sharper, there are small lines sprouting at the outer corners of his eyes – situated and sunken from years of unrestrained laughter. Jiang Cheng realizes this version of Wei Wuxian has grown older with them, laughing, talking and reminiscing, as if their lives hadn’t taken a disastrous turn.
It feels too normal. Too natural – like the dream was reality while their actual lives were the current, unending nightmare. Even as his heart swells at the sight of his siblings, happy, grown up, and normal, celebrating his life like it’s worth the gesture, he can’t stop the feeling of guilt swirling in his belly. It’s a dream, Jiang Cheng thinks. Allow yourself to enjoy this. At least in your dreams, everything feels right.
So, he does.
“You better not,” Jiang Cheng says, his cheekbones rising as he tries to fight a smile. “No excuses this time, you have to give me an actual gift. You can’t just hand me a Lotus Seed pod and call it a day.”
Wei Wuxian grins at him, that same dreaded glint in his eyes. “Don’t worry A-Cheng, I’ve got just the thing.”
His sister placates him with a smile, but suddenly, Wei Wuxian’s robes fall to the floor. He grimaces, but no words leave his throat. His sister stands there, the same calm smile on her face, as Wei Wuxian draws Suibian, and splits open his own abdomen.
Jiang Cheng can’t bear to see the blood. There’s so much, drenching his trousers and pooling around the floor. He feels bile rise to his throat as Wei Wuxian’s eyes fill with tears, the cruel sound of his screams sealed within his mouth, almost like a Lan silencing spell. He watches as molten golden energy manifests from the slit of his stomach, into his red palms. He tries to look at his sister, tries to make her stop him, but she’s no longer there.
She’s been replaced by Wen Qing, standing there and transferring his golden core into her bare hands. She looks broken and tired, staring plainly at Wei Wuxian as he bleeds out. “Wei Wuxian. There is no going back now.”
“I’ve made my choice,” Wei Wuxian says, staring right at Jiang Cheng. “Jiang Cheng, I hope you like your gift this time,” he says, rather grimly, and Jiang Cheng knows he’s trying to smile, even seconds away from demise.
“I don’t –,” Jiang Cheng croaks out, finally speaking up, his eyes welling up with tears. “I don’t want this! I didn’t ask you for this!”
“It’s your birthday, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian says, and he’s slurring now, and Wen Qing is approaching nearer with his golden core. “Please use your present well.” He falls to the ground, still buckets of blood leaving his body, staining the tips of his shoes. His body betrays him as he tries to lean forward, paralysed with fear.
Wen Qing pokes him with something that makes his eyes close, and the last thing he sees his Wei Wuxian’s lifeless, coreless body on the ground, bleeding and grey, closer to death than he ever felt.
He wakes up in his bed, tears pooling onto his pillow, Wei Wuxian’s core pulsing through his body. He stares into his wrist and closes it, then shifts his eyes to the door, trying so hard to go back 20 years, trying so hard to hear Wei Wuxian shuffling outside his door.
He’s in bed for far longer than he wishes to be. The door does not open.
When he finally makes it out of his room, he sees his oldest disciple, Zhang Yang, smile at him openly. “Sect Leader! Happy birthday!” she smiles, bowing graciously. He gives her a curt nod, dying to change the subject – walking briskly into the corridor, her following close behind.
She’s currently the closest thing they have to the Head Disciple. Their current Head Disciple, whose name was conveniently never scratched off the register, was currently gallivanting around Gusu, doing God knows what. But Zhang Yang was competent, creative and kind – her father was in Jiang Fengmian’s entourage, and she was only a child when Lotus Pier burned. Her cultivation however, blossomed as an adult, and she was strong enough to teach and take on their army of bumbling young recruits. Jiang Cheng understands, rather belatedly, that she was perhaps one of the only people in their current crop of senior disciples who had the patience to deal with his demands.
Her loyalty and skill demand her promotion. Her one lacking quality – the fact that she isn’t Wei Wuxian – does not.
She smiles at him expectantly during the walk to the courtyard, rattling on about his duties for the day. There’s always so much work and so little time, and he’s almost tuned her out completely once they reach the main courtyard. He stops in his tracks.
As it was almost 20 years ago, the entrance to Swords Hall is adorned in purple and gold, flowers blooming around them as if winter wasn’t around the corner. The tables lining the sides are filled with presents and sweets and food, and the senior disciples gather in front of the entrance in a neat square. He briefly glances between them, hoping to see his sister run out of the entrance at the sight of him. With no avail, he turns to his left, and instead of Wei Wuxian’s expectant expression, he’s greeted by Zhang Yang’s smiling face.
“Since you mentioned you were not interested in having a banquet, the disciples and I wanted to do something for you,” she smiles, and walks over the front of the crowd. As clearly rehearsed, they bow in unison, and the chorus of ‘Happy Birthday, Sect Leader Jiang!” fills the open space.
Jiang Cheng’s mouth goes dry. “Thank you, all of you,” he finally says. “It is very kind of you all to do this for me.” Conversation and laughter erupt in the vicinity, and Jiang Cheng plasters a smile on his face. No one has done this for him in years, and the nostalgia and kindness stings. He has long felt anything other than regret.
“Also,” Zhang Yang continues, “You have a visitor, Sect Leader.”
Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow, attempting to quell the hope that rises in his chest. He wouldn’t, would he?
He wouldn’t, he realizes, when he hears Fairy’s little bell and the clopping of her feet.
“Jiujiu!” Jin Ling enters, and the disciples bow to greet them. He gives them a proud little nod and turns his attention to Jiang Cheng. “Happy birthday.” He bows, and Fairy arrives to nuzzle at his feet. Jiang Cheng saw him little over two months ago, but every time he sees him, he fails to account for how much he’s grown. He’s the spitting image of his father, standing straight, pompous and proud, but there’s a softness in his eyes which is unmistakably his sister’s. He wonders if Wei Wuxian has noticed too.
“I see the esteemed Sect Leader Jin has decided to grace us with his presence,” he drawls, and it’s far more sardonic than he intends it to sound. Jin Ling’s face, which he just thought was maturing with a spell of adulthood, crumples into a childish frown.
“As if I wouldn’t come here on your birthday,” he says, eyebrows draw so close together they nearly cover the vermillion dot on his forehead. Jiang Cheng waves him off, but he can’t help but also smile. He misses having Jin Ling at Lotus Pier. He’d fought tooth and nail with Madam Jin to make sure his only living relative got to spend half the year at Lotus Pier, for his sister and his family, and more selfishly, for himself.
It was Jin Guangyao, the bastard himself, who finally managed to create the arrangement they could both agree on. Jin Ling spent three months in succession at each place before he was returned, and Jiang Cheng found that the gaps at Koi Tower grew incessantly longer as he did. He wishes he could stay longer, but it’s a privilege to get even a day with him, so he tries not to complain.
“Please send breakfast for Sect Leader Jin and I to the dining hall,” He says, and guides his hand to let Jin Ling walk ahead of him. Fairy, of course, follows. “And once that is done, enjoy the festivities.” He glances at Zhang Yang, “who knows when next you’ll get the chance?” Their faces, in unison, break into glee, and Jiang Cheng allows himself to smile as he walks away.
As they take their meal, Jin Ling rambles about Koi Tower, the stress of being a Sect Leader, the demands that lay upon his desk. Jiang Cheng sighs and nods, adding a snide remark every few seconds, and wonders who he had to speak to like this when he was in the same position. Once they finally cease that conversation and dig into their food, Jiang Cheng looks up at him.
“Since you have come all the way, perhaps it makes sense to arrange a banquet today.”
Jin Ling’s eyes widen, stopping mid-sip of his soup. “Tonight?”
“Of course,” Jiang Cheng says, suspiciously. “When else? Surely few would care about the short notice?” How impossible it would be to make the sudden trip from Gusu, he thinks. Thank goodness.
“Oh…actually, I had – “
“What, you can’t possibly be going home before tomorrow? Is there something you must to in Lotus Pier?”
Jin Ling frowns again, and his face grows infinitesimally smaller. His voice is suddenly softer, like a child caught in a lie, and the words fall quietly out of his mouth, “…Night Hunting.”
“Oh!” Jiang Cheng barks out a laugh. “I see, so you are not here for your jiujiu’s birthday after all. You came to play with your little friend. Ouyang Zizhen again, is it?” He remembers the young man’s youthful face and wide, nervous eyes, every time that he has come to visit Lotus Pier since the incident at Yiling.
His father had beamed with pride at the blossoming friendship between his son and the Jin Sect Leader. While Jiang Cheng knows these networks would prove useful in the future, he resents the idea of sharing his only nephew’s limited time with someone else.
“No!” Jin Ling says, breaking his train of thought. Fairy sees his distress and places her head on his knees. His palm, almost instinctively, rushes to place itself between her pointed ears. “When Zizhen asked me, I said no, because it was your birthday. But then, Sizhui said he was coming here and I haven’t seen him since he was presented –“
Jin Ling keeps talking, but Jiang Cheng hooks onto one word. Sizhui. Lan Sizhui. The illustrious Lan heir, Hanguang-Jun’s beloved adopted son, who was presented as the future Lan Sect leader by the Chief Cultivator himself last spring, Wei Wuxian beaming as he watched from the other side of the room.
That was the last time Jiang Cheng saw either of them. Wei Wuxian seemed to only briefly participate in the conference, as a bystander, Chenqing in tow, the empty seat to Lan Wangji’s left cold and longing. He’d greeted Jiang Cheng with as much vigour as he could, but then proceeded to linger around him at a distance, too focused on his beloved Lan Zhan and his heir apparent to notice Jiang Cheng’s anxiety.
Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure what statement they were trying to make. Lan Sizhui had been at Lan Wangji’s side for years, and several rumours had popped up, about the illicit affairs of the Second Master of Lan, and the possibility of a bastard son. Lan Wangji, being the pinnacle or feigned sophistication, didn’t feed into these. They all died soon enough, but Jiang Cheng always knew they weren’t true. Lan Wangji did not sire a son through a wayward affair with a low-born woman. Lan Wangji, unfortunately, only had eyes for his brother. The seat and cup at Lan Zhan’s other side that lay empty was surely meant for Wei Wuxian – and Jiang Cheng wondered, regretfully, if this was how they planned to announce their partnership to the cultivation world.
They didn’t. Instead, Wei Wuxian chose to leave his seat and simply watch the announcements from the back, before giving them both a disgustingly warm and affectionate look, turning on his heel, and leaving the Lanshi. Lan Qiren, who sat close to Lan Wangji, breathed a sigh of relief at his exit, as did many of the cultivators who were still not preoccupied by the Lan heir’s dubious origins. Lan Qiren’s reaction further instigated Jiang Cheng’s hypothesis that Lan Sizhui’s future was not the only announcement they were planning to make. Other than a pathetically small wave to him and Jin Ling, Jiang Cheng was yet to receive any answers.
Jiang Cheng has arguably made his peace with the fact that he’s resigned to a side character in Wei Wuxian’s life. Resigned to small, awkward waves, bits and pieces of conversations between him and Lan Wangji, rumours around the nature of their relationship and his contribution to the origins of the Lan heir. He hates it more every second – but it was his choices that lead them here, Wei Wuxian, as usual, was ready to sacrifice their relationship for Jiang Cheng’s sake. Because he can’t deal with the guilt of having Wei Wuxian around. Because he can’t fathom the burden of his mistakes. He’s resigned to watch his brother’s life from the sidelines, hearing about it from anyone but himself. As it always was, and always will be.
But still – if his relationship with Lan Wangji is how it was when they left Guanyin temple – whatever, as he had put it - that makes the Lan heir, Lan Wangji’s ward, the closest thing Wei Wuxian will likely ever have to a son.
Lan Sizhui, the Lan heir, is Wei Wuxian’s son.
It certainly wouldn’t surprise him. Their reactions to each other at the Guanyin temple – his attachment to the Ghost General, all of it reeks of a closeness even someone as flagrantly affectionate as Wei Wuxian wouldn’t share with just anyone. Jiang Cheng was one of the people at the conference who was yet to tear his eyes away from Wei Wuxian – and the face he made while looking at Lan Sizhui was blooming with unabashed and unincumbered pride, unmistakably an expression Jiang Cheng waited his entire life to receive from his father. Lan Wangji, distant and cold as he is – changed his expression for Lan Sizhui as early as Jiang Cheng remembers seeing him, and Jiang Cheng knows, knows all too well, that expression was previously saved for Wei Wuxian alone.
“Jiujiu?” Jin Ling looks at him, face shrunken in concern again, and Jiang Cheng realizes he’s been uncharacteristically silent since Jin Ling began his excuses.
“Lan Sizhui – he’s in Yunmeng?” Jiang Cheng says, his face blank, still staring into his soup.
“…yes. As I said. Someone invited Hanguang-Jun to catch a spirit causing trouble in the outskirts of Yunmeng. He was busy with Chief Cultivator duties and though it was time for Sizhui to go on his first solo mission.”
“And you graciously offered to help?” Jiang Cheng almost rolls his eyes.
“I wanted to help. He’s my friend, and we’ve both been too busy to see each other as of late. I was really looking forward to it…” He cheeks heat up, as if he alone was embarrassed with this sudden declaration.
Jiang Cheng sighs. “Was he planning to stay here? In Lotus Pier?”
“Of course not!” Jin Ling says, almost far too quickly. Jiang Cheng can’t help but feel affronted.
“Why? Is Lotus Pier not hospitable enough for your friends to stay in?” He already knows that’s not the reason.
“No – jiujiu, you know why he’s not coming here.”
“Spell it out for me,” he spits. “As the future Lan Sect Leader, he should know it’s his duty to acquaint himself with the major sect’s patronage, especially if he’s in the area.” It’s not. He’s never offered and was never inclined to. Hanguang-Jun’s work over two decades, even after Wei Wuxian’s return, has led him to Yunmeng several times. Not once has he stepped foot in Lotus Pier. There is no reason for his heir not to do the same.
“He is staying at an inn. He’s still a Lan, jiujiu. He will not come unless he is asked to. And he obviously thinks you don’t want him here, because of – “. He stops mid-sentence, and even Fairy’s bell stills to thicken the silence.
“Say it,” Jiang Cheng demands. Jin Ling gives him a pained expression.
“Because of his relationship to Wei Wuxian.” He finally says. “You must know already that Sizhui considers him his father,” he doesn’t. “He doesn’t think he’s welcome on that basis alone. He didn’t say that, of course, but it’s very obvious.”
Jiang Cheng’s stomach churns. So, he was right. Lan Sizhui is, ostensibly, as much a son of Wei Wuxian as he is of Lan Wangji. Yet another important fact about his brother he had to hear from someone else’s mouth, something Wei Wuxian preferred to tell even their bratty, mouthy nephew over himself. He hates it, he hates it so much.
“Well, clearly I have given the wrong impression. Guess I better clear it up. Wouldn’t want to insult Lan Wangji’s heir with my behaviour, after all. His excellency, our Chief Cultivator would not be pleased with that, would he?” He says, rather bitterly, and Jin Ling raises an eyebrow suspiciously. Jiang Cheng hasn’t been as open with his distaste for Lan Wangji recently, due to his high position. His opinions on him, however, have remained almost entirely the same.
“What are you suggesting, jiujiu? Would you like me to invite him tonight?” He says, still eyeing him like it’s all an elaborate joke. Jiang Cheng does not appreciate this.
“No need. I’ll tell him myself.” Jiang Cheng’s lips curl into a bitter smile. “I’ll be joining you on your night hunt tonight.”
Jin Ling is understandably miserable about their current predicament. His eyes had bugged out when Jiang Cheng expressed that he was coming, and he’d made it clear enough to his nephew that it was not a request. Jiang Cheng can’t remember the last time he went on a night hunt just with friends. Of course – the two children with Jin Ling are not his friends, but there’s a familiar pit in his stomach once he and Jin Ling get off their swords to greet the two Young Masters at the entrance of the small village.
“Jin Ling!” Ouyang Zizhen smiles, rushing over to them. His eyes are bright and filled with excitement, and he’s about to hug his friend, before he sees a light run through Zidian. Jiang Cheng seems to have a sedating effect on teenagers.
“Sect Leader Jiang!” He says loudly and bows so quickly his hair almost hits Jin Ling in the face. Jin Ling looks at him apologetically. “How kind of you to drop Sect Leader Jin off for our night hunt!”
“I am coming along,” Jiang Cheng says, raising his eyebrow. “I hope that’s not a problem.” Zizhen trembles.
Lan Sizhui seems to have caught up, and he reaches them with a big smile. “Of course not,” he says, unbelievably polite. He bows at the both of them. “It’s an honour to have you both join us, Sect Leader Jiang, Sect Leader Jin.”
Jiang Cheng grunts in agreement while he and Lan Sizhui exchange pleasantries. He eyes him closely, his long hair tied neatly in a knot at the top of his head, a pale blue coat over his stark white robes. His sword in his hand and qiankun pouch lie comfortably off his waist – and if it wasn’t for the gentle smile on his face as he spoke to Jin Ling, Jiang Cheng would have thought he was in the presence of a young Lan Wangji.
The ornate forehead ribbon he now wears distinctly matches the one he’s seen both Lan Wangji and Zewu-Jun wear. He’d changed his once he was declared an heir, invited into the exclusive club of Lan leaders past and present. His face is still youthful, his eyes are kind and his voice soft. He reminds him more of Lan Xichen, Jiang Cheng thinks. His placid, ever-present smile and the gentle grace of his movements – he radiates warmth and kindness, unlike the cold radiance of Lan Wangji.
He’s realised, however, after the incidents at Guanyin Temple, that Lan Xichen’s warm smile was as much of a mask as Lan Wangji’s cold disapproval – but Lan Sizhui’s is genuine, he’s young, innocent and content, untainted by the trauma life will inevitably throw at him. He sees the same in Jin Ling, who forgave and accepted Wei Wuxian into his life the second he was deemed innocent. He ran after him after Guanyin temple, attempting to fix the wounds that were formed against his will. It’s almost poetic that Jiang Cheng was the one to hold him back. Jin Ling is young, forgiving and flexible, and both him and his friends are yet to learn that those qualities are mutually exclusive with their youth. It’s a lesson he learnt far too early.
Despite this, there’s still an untouchable quality about Lan Sizhui – separated, private and removed, which makes him indistinguishable from the Lans that came before him. No one in the world would be able to tell he wasn’t Lan Wangji’s biological son. Jin Ling is absolutely taken by him. Jiang Cheng is almost forgotten as they’re deep in conversation, until Lan Sizhui laughs openly about something Jin Ling is definitely not as amused by.
Perhaps he isn’t that much like Lan Wangji after all.
Lan Sizhui turns his attention to Jiang Cheng and bows once more “Sect Leader Jiang, I almost forgot. Happy Birthday, Jin Ling mentioned it was today.” Ouyang Zizhen clearly panics and does the same. Jiang Cheng nods at them wordlessly.
“If I had known earlier, I would have asked Jin Ling or Senior Wei what would have been an appropriate present to bring.” Jiang Cheng almost frowns openly. His niceties were making it harder to be around him. Jiang Cheng knows he told Jin Ling he invited himself on the pretense of welcoming Lan Sizhui to Yunmeng – but both he and his nephew know he’s here to satisfy his curiosity. To know, finally, what this Lan heir was like – what he was to Wei Wuxian, and through that, what he was to him.
This was the easiest way to see who he was. Outside the paranoid, hardened gaze of Lan Wangji and the distractingly painful presence of Wei Wuxian, he could decide for himself who Lan Sizhui was, and who he was to him. They don’t have a history, or a complicated past, but Jiang Cheng is magnetically drawn to the little living family he has left. He wonders bitterly if this young man is indeed an immaculate copy of Lan Wangji. That fills him with more dread than he’d care to admit.
“It’s fine.” He says, trying to ignore the reference to Wei Wuxian. Jin Ling still eyes him nervously. “Now are we going to begin, or will you be chatting with each other all night?”
This seems to set them off, and Jiang Cheng follows them into the village. They approach a little hut where two greying old women serve them tea.
“Young Masters, Sect Leader, we are honoured to be in your presence.” The one serving them says. “My name is Lin Fa, and this is my sister, Lin Fey.” They greet the women and cut right to the chase.
“Our town is a humble farming community. It is inhabited mostly be the elderly, we take care of the children and pregnant women, since most of our sons and daughters work in greater Yunmeng.” Lin Fa says. “We were established many decades ago, by our father, Lin Fengxing and his brother, Lin Fanying.”
“Recently, as I said in my letter,” Lin Fey nods at Lan Sizhui, “Our village is being attacked by Demon of some sort. It has been wandering through the forest and has killed six guards so far. We don’t understand why they’ve chosen to attack us. Most of our cultivators are in the city, and neither of us have a strong enough golden core to take on a monster. We thought Hanguang-Jun, or his son could help.”
“Of course,” Lan Sizhui nods. “A demon should be no problem for us, all of us have beaten plenty before.”
“Oh, but Young Master, this one is different,” Lin Fey claims, placing her hands tightly on her lap. “It is twice the size of a regular monster and has enough malevolent energy. Its anger is so vested, it tore down multiple houses. Many of our families have been displaced. We have no idea what brought this monster here, we live a peaceful life.”
“Is there any reason for resentful energy on the land? Since you said there were few cultivators, it’s possible the demon could be feeding off malevolence in the soil.” Ouyang Zizhen asks, suddenly invested.
Lin Fey and Fa look at each other. “Well, there is something, though it shouldn’t be an issue now…after all these years.” Lin Fa frowns.
“Our father actually founded this town with his brother. His brother was a natural-born cultivator, but he was extremely reckless with his practices, and his wayward ways led to a falling out between them. Our father killed his brother over the disagreement.”
Jiang Cheng freezes, and he sees Jin Ling glance at him from the corner of his eye. Lan Sizhui seems to be trying hard to do avoid doing the same.
“We were only three years old then. In a fit of rage our father had killed him, and his brother’s blood was spilled over the soil.” Lin Fa continues. “That was almost 60 years ago, though. I can’t imagine something happening now, even decades after their deaths.”
“I see.” Lan Sizhui nods. “Well, the demon was likely simply wandering past, and found years of resentful energy to feed upon. Its inexplicable how he got so big, but these kinds of regrets are often impossible to forgive.” His words are a knife to his throat. He remains silent. “We will scout the area tonight and catch it. We will slay the demon and it will not bother you anymore.
“Thank you, Young Master.” They say together. “You are truly the waking image of Hanguang-Jun.”
Lan Sizhui smiles, muttering his thank you as they leave the house.
Jiang Cheng isn’t much of a passive fighter.
He’s usually at the front lines, slashing through trees or whatever’s in between him and the monster. He doesn’t usually account for his surroundings, since his disciples and Jin Ling know it’s best to leave him at a distance. However, having three times the number of Juniors around, he has to be careful.
Even with him around, it’s unlikely for Jin Ling to take a back seat. So, watching him carefully listening and nodding along with Lan Sizhui’s plan without complaint or defiance is really new to him. Ouyang Zizhen, as nervous as he may be around Jiang Cheng, is confident and smooth with his swordsmanship, and the three of them disperse with little to no pretence. Lan Sizhui explains their call of action to Jiang Cheng with a hint of weariness, but his voice remains cool and collected.
“We’re going to each roam the three checkpoints,” He says. “Since we’re fortunate to have you and your Zidian around, it would be smarter for you to be closer to the trap. The nets I brought may not fit the creature if he’s as large as they describe, so I hope I can count on your help with that.”
Jiang Cheng cocks an eyebrow. “Fine.” He doesn’t know how he feels about following the instructions of a child, but he’s the one who impeded on the hunt. “Though I assumed you’d want to carry out the final catch. There’s no reason to leave me with all the glory on your first mission, Young Master Lan.”
Lan Sizhui gives him a small smile. “There is no glory to be earned, Sect Leader Jiang. Simply duty alone.” Jiang Cheng almost rolls his eyes. That’s possibly the most Lan thing he’s ever heard.
“Fine. Give me a flare when you see him near.” Lan Sizhui nods and with a flick of his wrist, his guqin appears in front of him.
“I’ll be luring him in from the village entrance. Once he comes in, I’ll subdue him, you can use the change in music as the signal.”
Of course, Jiang Cheng thinks. Lan Wangji’s son carries around the same bulky guqin, playing it with ease at every possible moment. Even he can’t fault the kid’s plan, and Jin Ling gives him another suspicious look while they head to the checkpoints. It’s smart and simple – and involves far less violence than anything he would have come up with. They’ll catch the beast and seal it, and then the night hunt will be over.
The beast is far larger than any of them expected. It reaches the middle branches of the tallest surrounding trees and it’s too big for any of the nets Lan Sizhui had set up. There’s a fast and immediate change the in the music that he plays, and Jiang Cheng is immediately aware that the Lan heir has suddenly gone on the offensive.
If Jin Ling’s call from the other checkpoint is any indication, that is not a good sign.
Zidian crackles with interest, and Jiang Cheng heads towards where the beast’s sounds have heralded him. He sees Ouyang Zizhen fly back against the try with the force of one of its paws, and then proceed to scramble back on his feet. Jin Ling races towards the other side to defend Lan Sizhui as he continues to use music to subdue the beast, with moderate effects at best.
He runs towards it, Sandu drawn, and slashes at its thighs. “That worked! Jiujiu!” he hears Jin Ling call over the beast’s screams. Zidian strikes the beast again in the same spot, and the music suddenly stops.
In a flash of white, unmistakably reminding of Lan Wangji, Lan Sizhui’s guqin has immediately been replaced by his sword. He leaps into the air and slices at the beast’s shoulder, and another groan of pain escapes its mouth. It moves its paws into the air to snatch Lan Sizhui, but he escapes in due time, but not without a gash at his arm.
“Sect Leader Jiang!” he cries. “There’s something wrong! Let’s all try and lead him to the nets!”
“Can’t you see the size of this fucking thing?” Jiang Cheng yells back. “It won’t fit!”
“I have a plan!” The Lan heir says, and dives into the beast’s vicinity, once again narrowly escaping his attacks. “Jin Ling! Young Master Zizhen! Trust me!”
“Jiujiu!” Jin Ling snaps. “Listen to him! Give me your Zidian!”
Jiang Cheng has no time to be bitter. He listens to the children and slides the Zidian off his wrist. Jin Ling grabs it and bounces off a tree, climbing up the beast’s neck. As an extra line of defense, he takes Suihua and slices across the beast’s eyes. There’s another pained growl from the demon before Jin Ling has Zidian wrapped around his neck. Lan Sizhui draws a talisman in the air and slides it forward to the beast’s limbs, and Ouyang Zizhen immediately follows his lead. Jiang Cheng begins slicing between the trees to clear the way before he realizes what the talisman is.
It’s Wei Wuxian’s binding.
The thread wraps around both the beast’s wrists, and at his movement, both Lan Sizhui and Ouyang Zizhen go flying forward. Lan Sizhui uses the momentum to rearrange himself and stab the monster with his sword and uses his bound hand to slap a muscle atrophying talisman to his stomach. The monster freezes, and the groan escapes his throat slowly as it attempts to fight off the talisman.
“Perfect,” Lan Sizhui grins as he turns to see the path cleared for them. “Let’s move him towards the net.”
“I still don’t know how he’ll fit,” Jin Ling says and escapes his current position, throwing Zidian back at his uncle. “His head was suspiciously light for a demon.”
“I know,” Lan Sizhui’s eyebrows knit together. “He isn’t exactly hard to drag, either. It’s like he’s a wolf in a demon’s body.”
They lead the beast like a dog to the nets, until he’s standing in the middle. There’s a sudden rustling, which Jiang Cheng assumes is Ouyang Zizhen, but his sudden shout in the background says otherwise.
He realizes a second too late that the Talisman was ripped off its belly.
He doesn’t know how, but it suddenly moves forward, reaching immediately for Lan Sizhui. Jin Ling steps in and delivers a blow that sends his decapitated paw flying towards him. He draws Sandu again, immediately slashing at him again, before he spares a glance at the separated paw.
It’s shrunk to a quarter of its original size.
“Lan Sizhui! You were correct!” he yells. “There’s something wrong with the body!”
“What?!” Lan Sizhui holds his sword in both hands against the beast’s teeth.
“It’s a shapeshifting talisman!” he realizes as the words come out of his mouth. “This isn’t a demon – it’s just a regular beast disguised to look like one!”
“We’ll need to find and destroy the talisman for him to return to his original size, then!” Zizhen calls out from where he is.” Jiang Cheng’s face curls into a smile.
“Hold him back.”
He races towards the beast’s head, and beckons Lan Sizhui off his face and to his shoulder. Jin Ling and Zizhen use what’s left of the binding spell to tie the beast’s limbs to surrounding trees. “Use your guqin and tell me where the magic is coming from, I’ll take care of it from here.”
He uses Sandu to drag a long stripe of blood across the beast’s front. Lan Sizhui closes his eyes and settles on a nearby branch as he plays the strings carefully. Jiang Cheng brutalizes the beast mercilessly, letting Sandu dive deeply into his neck. The skin is thick and hard to break, and Jiang Cheng knows it’s only a stalling method.
“It’s in his left knee!” Lan Sizhui finally calls, and Jiang travels down his body, feeling it’s final thrashes as he hacks it’s knee off in a clean movement. The beast roars, and he sees Jin Ling and Zizhen struggle to maintain the binding talisman to keep him down. It’s just in time when Jiang Cheng plucks the talisman out from the wound and burns it to dust in his bare hands.
The beast’s screams turn to whimpers it he shrinks down to its original size. It’s a dog, barely bigger than Fairy, cooing as it bleeds from several torn appendages. Jiang Cheng throws it in the net for good measure.
“What the fuck.” Jin Ling says, out of breath as he falls to the forest floor. “Are you trying to tell me that thing was a puppy all along?”
“Far from it,” Lan Sizhui shakes his head. “Someone placed the talisman under his skin to turn him into what looked like a demon. There are barely any cultivators in this area, they would not have noticed.” He turns to Jiang Cheng. “Thank you, Sect Leader. I’m so glad you came. We would never have noticed without you.”
Jiang Cheng sighs as Jin Ling tosses Zidian back to him. “Yeah, you wouldn’t have.”
Lan Sizhui bites his lip. “Though, who would do such a thing? To possess a beast, it’s clearly pre-meditated.”
The rustling appears again. Jiang Cheng suddenly realizes there’s someone else surrounding them. The other three hear the sound too, and Jiang Cheng throws Zidian forward. He hears it loop around something and Jin Ling rushes to grab whoever it caught. Jiang Cheng hears laughter in the distance.
“Oh ho,” the ghost says. “Looks like you caught us.”
“Who are you?!” Jin Ling says. “How dare you haunt these innocent townsfolk in this way? How dare you use this poor dog for your misdeeds?”
The ghost whistles. “I’m so sorry. What are you going to do? Kill me? I’m afraid it’s too late for that. I’m sure those petulant children must have told you already. My brother got to me first.”
“Petulant children?” Zizhen frowns. “Are you referring to Madams Lin Fa and Fey? They are grandmothers!”
“Oops,” the ghost says. “Forgot how long it’s been.”
“Why have you returned?” Lan Sizhui says. “After all of these years, it’s clearly too late to take revenge now!”
“It’s never too late, Young Master.” The ghost spits back, wriggling within the Zidian. “It took me so long to feed off the resentment and come back, I’ll be damned if this village isn’t destroyed.”
“Why?” Lan Sizhui asks pointedly. “You say your brother killed you, then why take it out on these innocent villagers? Why destroy the village as well? He died years ago.”
“Because if it wasn’t for the damn village, I wouldn’t have died! My idiot brother, righteous as he was, soiled my plans for becoming a Sect Leader! He killed me because he was jealous! He didn’t have my power! He was willing to settle for a pathetic little farming village when we promised to be together forever! Because he knew I’d be able to overthrow Yunmeng Jiang! He was scared!” the ghost rambles maniacally.
“This man has lost his mind,” Jiang Cheng shakes his head. “Your brother did you a favour, going so easy on you.” The words burn as they leave his mouth. “My grandfather would have had your head on a spike if you even tried to thwart Yunmeng Jiang.”
“Oh,” the ghost grins. “Sect Leader Jiang, are you? How honoured this humble farmer is to be in your presence. Are you also the one who killed your brother? You were the talk of the town for that at one point! How history repeats itself!” Jiang Cheng grits his teeth.
“You shut your fucking mouth,” Jin Ling snarls. “Don’t say another word.”
“Jin Ling is right.” Lan Sizhui says, “Do not speak of what you do not understand. We can seal him to the tree, and then he won’t be able to escape. These villagers are respectful. They will keep the talismans on.”
They drag him to a dead tree. They pass by the net which holds the former beast, now dead, blood pooling on the floor.
“Aw,” the ghost pouts. “Who knew a Sect Leader and three Young Masters could be so cruel. That was some child’s pet, you know.”
“Who you tried to turn into a demon,” Zizhen says. “You aren’t even strong enough to do your own dirty work.” He’s right. The ghost has low spiritual energy, even resentful. Even his cultivator status didn’t make him stronger.
“Oh really! I’d think again about that!” he says, as they try and seal him to the tree. The preparations are almost complete as his body is resorbed into the bark. “Perhaps it’s not too late to go through with my original plan. After all, I’m sure I can take revenge on behalf of your brother as well.” He grins devilishly, staring at Jiang Cheng, and there’s a brief cut of wind before he’s submerged, and a sword, his sword, flies towards Jiang Cheng’s body.
He’s frozen. He doesn’t know how he could be so unprepared for such an obvious move. Too distracted once again, too haunted by the mere mention of his brother to move in time. He braces himself for the wound. The sword never comes. There’s a loud screech, undoubtedly from Jin Ling, and the ghost’s maniacal cackling ends as he’s finally sealed into the tree. Jiang Cheng doesn’t feel any pain. He doesn’t understand why. He finally does once he glances down to see where the sword went.
Lan Sizhui had jumped in front of him.
Jin Ling throws himself at where the Lan Heir’s body was bleeding out. It’s only now that he’s close enough, Jiang Cheng can see the wounds the beast had left on his arm. The sword had buried itself to the hilt near his abdomen, right above where his golden core was.
Jiang Cheng could feel the pain in his gut after all.
“Sizhui! Lan Sizhui!” Jin Ling screams, and his eyes are wide and teary. The blood has begun to seep into his pale robes. “Lan Yuan!” Jin Ling cries again. “What the hell were you thinking!”
Lan Sizhui mumbles a response so soft only Jin Ling can make it out; and loses consciousness. Zizhen has rushed to his side as well. He immediately begins transferring his spiritual energy to Lan Sizhui, but he’s too young and too weakened for that to have any real effect. Jiang Cheng has forgotten how to move.
What in the world would possess this young man to jump in front of him? They had nothing beyond a polite and diplomatic relationship between clans. This was the first solo mission he had ever been on. He looks carefully at Lan Sizhui’s face and he looks hurt and so painfully young, and Jiang Cheng feels the familiar feeling of guilt pool in his stomach. He looks different. There is no layer of calm enveloping him, and his face is no longer devoid of the youthful vulnerability the Lans struggle so hard to possess. He no longer looks like a young Lan Wangji.
He looks at his face, the bleeding red of his robes, and sees nothing but Wei Wuxian.
Jin Ling’s hand is on his chest, and he’s crying openly now, and Zizhen has to hold his arms to keep him from shaking Lan Sizhui’s body. The young Lan’s face shrinks in pain, and the gentle rise and fall of his chest at least lets them know he’s still breathing. Jiang Cheng is the adult here, watching his nephew sob recklessly as his friend lies injured on the floor. Injured because of him. He has to do something.
“Ouyang Zizhen,” Jiang Cheng says, face placidly blank. “Get up. Go give the Lins a report on what just happened. A-Ling. Help me lift him up and get on your sword. We’re taking him back to Lotus Pier.”
The ride is bumpy and uncomfortable, Lan Sizhui hanging off his arm as Jin Ling follows shortly behind them. Every few minutes the child will whimper quietly, and they’re lucky they’re only a short flight away. Jin Ling, for the most part, has stopped crying, and he’s told Ouyang Zizhen to report to Lotus Pier the second he’s done.
The guards collect Lan Sizhui from his arms and look to him for further instruction. “Take him to the medical wing immediately. He’s injured.”
He follows them but stops Jin Ling in his tracks. “A-Ling, go to the dining hall, and ask them to make something for you and Young Master Ouyang to regain your strength. Then you may join us in the medical wing to fix your injuries.”
“But, jiujiu –“
“I wasn’t asking. Go eat something and come back.” Jin Ling looks affronted and younger than he has all day.
While they heal Lan Sizhui’s wounds, he sits outside the room. The disciples rush to bring him chairs, but he waves them off and sinks to the ground, burying his face in his hands. He looks up to see a pair of feet in front of him. It’s Zhang Yang.
“A disciple ran to my quarters to tell me you had returned, and I met Sect Leader Jin and Young Master Ouyang in the dining hall. They told me what happened,” she slides a warm cup to tea into his hands. He lets it sit, burning the pads of his fingers.
“Did they,” Jiang Cheng mumbles. She’s still in her sleeping robes.
“I thought it was wise to draft a letter to Hanguang-Jun tonight, and you will find it in your study. You may review it and send it off tomorrow.” Jiang Cheng nods. She doesn’t know there’s a second letter to draft, and he doesn’t tell her.
“I will. Let them finish the surgery. You may go back to your room.”
She nods, but doesn’t move, and finally sits down next to him. There’s several moments of silence before she says, “How bad was it?”
“He’s young,” is all he has the courage to say. “He’ll recover.” He doesn’t know who he’s trying to convince. The tea grows cold in his hands.
“He will.” She nods. “It’s probably just the shock of being injured. He’ll get used to it.” We all did, he thinks.
“Get the disciples to prepare rooms for the Young Masters.” He says, and she nods again.
“Which one should I clear for Young Master Lan’s impending recovery?”
“Two doors to the left of mine.” He says quickly. The words escape his tongue without his consent.
“Oh. But that’s,” she stops. That’s Wei Wuxian’s old room, she doesn’t say. Why would you let the Lan heir reside there when we have plenty of guest rooms available?
“Make sure it’s hospitable for the Lan heir. We will move him there tomorrow.”
His surgery goes well. He has to force Jin Ling and Ouyang Zizhen from camping outside the medical wing all night, and he sends them with strict instructions to their rooms. Unable to sleep with the looming fear lingering around him, he heads to his study to examine the letter Zhang Yang has drafted.
It’s fine, he thinks, and he rewrites it with further details about Lan Sizhui’s injuries. He fails to write to Lan Wangji that he received the wound by jumping in front of an attack meant for Jiang Cheng; but assures him the wound is being treated by the best healers Yunmeng has to offer.
He knows already that it won’t be enough.
He volunteers Lotus Pier to accelerate his healing, offers his grandest apologies that the precious Lan heir was injured on his watch. He seals the letter so it can be sent in a few hours. He opens another piece parchment and stares it with dread. There’s no way around it, he supposes.
Dear Wei Wuxian.
He wakes up with a knock at the door. He lifts his head off the table, where it rested right next to the letter for Wei Wuxian. The door opens and Jin Ling is on the other side. “Jiujiu?”
Jiang Cheng rubs the tiredness from his eyes and begins sealing the letter. “A-Ling.”
“Did you fall asleep at your desk?” Jiang Cheng shakes his head. “Zizhen has already flown back to Baling. He was supposed to go home last night, and his father is livid.”
“I wasn’t going to let either of you leave Lotus Pier in the state you were in.”
“I know.” Jin Ling looks at his feet, and his hands move behind his back. “Disciple Zhang told me Sizhui was moved to Wei Wuxian’s room. His surgery went well. He’s going to be fine.”
“I know.” Jiang Cheng says as he rises from his chair, letters in hand. “I’ve written letters to Hanguang-Jun and Cloud Recesses to indicate his stay will be extended until he gets better.”
“And how long is that?”
“Three weeks.” Jin Ling’s eyes widen.
“That long? I’ll have to return to Lanling far earlier than –“
“Of course. You will leave today, as you planned. Your Sect Leader duties require you. Your friend will be fine.”
“What? Are you afraid we won’t do a good enough job taking care of him? That I’ll hurt him even more?” The words slip out faster than he planned. Jin Ling’s face grows smaller.
“No…that’s not what I meant.”
“Clearly, it is. I understand why Hanguang-Jun of all people would be hesitant to leave him in my care. There is no reason for you to fear for his safety, simply because he’s Wei Wuxian’s child,” he says bitterly. He knows what he’s thinking. Of course, he’s thinking being in Yunmeng will be of greater risk to his beloved friend. Jiang Cheng’s the reason he’s so terribly injured in the first place, isn’t it?
“Jiujiu. I’m not afraid for Sizhui’s health. I know he will be fine. But will you?”
Jiang Cheng feels the colour drain out of the room. But will you? Why wouldn’t he? Hadn’t he asked to join them? Hadn’t he been the one to impede on this reunion – just to prove to himself that Lan Sizhui’s existence didn’t matter to him? Because he was just like Hanguang-Jun, just like the man who hates Jiang Cheng down to the very fibre of his being, just like the man Jiang Cheng destroyed the life of all those years ago.
If he were just like Lan Wangji, Jiang Cheng could dismiss the nagging voice in his head that said he’s family, and you have close to nothing left. Jiang Cheng could have left the night hunt with the unanimous truth about Lan Sizhui: he wasn’t his family. He wasn’t like Wei Wuxian, he was moulded and shaped by Lan education to be the same stuffy, emotionless, powerhouse of a teenager Lan Wangji once was. He was just some kid, some future Lan leader, an heir, more Lan Wangji’s than Wei Wuxian’s, whatever the nature of their relationship may be.
But Lan Wangji would not have thrown himself in front of that sword. Lan Wangji’s son would have never bled out on the floor to save Jiang Cheng from the imminent threat of death. Never in a million years would he do something as reckless and self-sacrificial.
That was Wei Wuxian, through and through.
Lan Sizhui was Wei Wuxian’s son.
There’s so much he wants to say. I won’t be fine. I won’t be fine because once again I have a child in my care who I don’t know, whose life I’ve had a hand in destroying. He’s hurt and lost and away from home because of me and all I can do is hope he’ll be okay. He’s my nephew and chances are I will never learn the first thing about him. There’s a part of Wei Wuxian I haven’t destroyed, and he’s fallen right into my lap all these years later.
“I’ll be fine,” he says instead.
Jin Ling says goodbye to Lan Sizhui before he leaves. He hasn’t woken up yet, Jiang Cheng knows, but he doesn’t dare enter the room. Before Jin Ling gets on his sword with Fairy, he hands Jiang Cheng a little box. “It was a present, for your birthday. I was going to give it to you after the hunt.”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t open it. He gives him a disconcerting nod before he flies away. He fumbles around for the next few hours. He eats, visits the disciples, speaks to the doctor, and tries to catch up on his sleep. He lingers by the door of Wei Wuxian’s room for hours without opening it.
He only realizes how long it’s been once he sees a disciple bring him dinner. “Shall I take it inside?’ he says, with an air of nonchalance, and Jiang Cheng realizes he’s far too young to realize why he’s been waiting outside the room. He finds himself nodding and the disciple brings the tray inside.
“I brought some porridge; I’ve left it on the table with a heating talisman in case Young Master is interested.” He says brightly, holding the tray to himself. Jiang Cheng nods and waits until he’s out of earshot before standing in front of the door. It’s been almost 20 years since he’s been in this room. It had been sealed up, and yesterday was the first time anyone ever went in since his sister had died.
She had cleaned it so diligently. She’d go in and rearrange the files on the desk, change the sheets, dust the shelves. He’d tell her there was so need, he wasn’t coming back, the maids could go do it, but she refused – and insisted on doing it herself. To a certain extent, Jiang Cheng understood. This room at the time was the only correspondence they had with Wei Wuxian; and being inside it made her feel closer to him.
To the contrary, now, being inside made him feel sick.
The smell of the food was masked almost entirely by the spell of the spirits and alcohols they must have used to clean Lan Sizhui’s wounds. His arm is in a sling and his robes are open, and his abdomen is covered in layers of bandages from the surgery. The room, however, looks exactly like he remembers.
Even with the shelves dusted and sheets changed – Wei Wuxian’s room was always cluttered. It looked lived in, owned. Even when he was far away. Jiang Cheng wonders briefly if his room in the Cloud Recesses is the same. He remembers almost immediately that Lan Wangji would not let him live like that. He suddenly feels sick again.
The papers are still stacked on the desk, there’s a bottle of ink, dried and useless. His shelves are lined with books and sword oil, and Jiang Cheng wonders again if he kept those up just to maintain the act of having a golden core. There are notes and talismans stacked into baskets on the shelves, and there’s still a pair of shoes under his desk. He never had a chance to take all his things with him to the hellhole he once lived in. Perhaps it was fair that these things littered around him had found comfortable residence in Jiang Cheng’s nightmare of a life.
He can close his eyes and see his sister, carefully and anxiously rearranging the materials on the desk. She’s wearing some of the beautiful robes she’d received as engagement presents from Lanling Jin, too ornate and too extravagant for these menial tasks. He’d look back further and see Wei Wuxian sitting on the floor by his bed, writing or planning something devious, scribbling intently with his brush for a new talisman, a letter to Cloud Recesses, or some elaborate prank he’d eventually rope Jiang Cheng into. He’d see him, Suibian in hand, carving something stupid into the panelling, something stupid and pointless that would outlast his existence in the world. He’d see him, after he returned from the Burial Mounds, a completely different person, screaming from nightmares that echoed through the walls of his room, huddled under his sheets. Jiang Cheng always made it to his door when he heard his pained screams, but he never asked what he was dreaming about.
A part of him still doesn’t want to know.
He sighs and walks over to the bed, taking a seat next to his food. He watches Lan Sizhui as he sleeps, peaceful and young, the pained expression no longer on his face. It’s the first time he’s seen him without his forehead ribbon, and Jiang Cheng can see just how young he actually is. He’s a child, barely older than Jin Ling, barely older than him when Wei Wuxian died. It’s possibly the worst injury he’s received so far.
He knows it’s not possible, but he looks just like Wei Wuxian. Everything from the softness of his cheeks to the way his hair splays across his pillow, or how comfortably he seems to rest in his childhood bed, but Jiang Cheng is stunned by the resemblance. It fills Jiang Cheng with a flood of warmth he has long forgotten how to recognize. He thinks for a minute that his mind may be playing tricks on him.
He brushes his hair out of his eyes, sees the young man flinch at the contact, and goes back to where he was standing. He stares at the supplies the disciple has placed on the table. His food, some water, and the rest of his belongings. Next to them are a pair of guest disciple robes which stare back at Jiang Cheng almost viciously, and he’s drawn to go and pick them up. They must be washing his robes, he thinks, but his feet move back with the robes in his hands.
He’s suddenly in front of Wei Wuxian’s closet. He opens it and is immediately ambushed by the dust that flies out. He looks across, at the series of red and black robes stacked up on the shelves, still neatly folded as they were 20 years ago. Wei Wuxian didn’t much favour variety in his fashion choices, but if you’d looked at him long enough, you’d be able to tell the difference between the various robes he wore. He pulls out one to check the state of it. It’s fine, somehow, not even musty from its decades of imprisonment. He shakes it out, folds it carefully, along with the bright inner robe, and put its down in place of the purple disciple robes that laid on the desk.
When the disciple comes to collect the plates, he’s greeted with piles and piles of robes that are meant to be washed, and Jiang Cheng is still sitting exactly where he was, a watchful eye on the sleeping child, when he returns the next morning.
Jiang Cheng is not sure when he fell asleep. When his eyes open, he’s staring at Wei Wuxian’s empty bed. He jolts for a second and his eyes move to the other side of the room, where the Lan heir stands, still in his healing clothes, hunched over the bowl, holding the spoon in his good hand. The spoon drops back into the bowl as he covers his mouth, quickly swallowing the mouthful of food.
“Sect Leader Jiang!” he says, bolting upright. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to wake you up! I was really hungry, so I started eating the food left for me,” he scrambles, and Jiang Cheng holds out his hand to make him stop.
“Sit back down.” He says and stands up. Lan Sizhui scampers back to the bed. Jiang Cheng brings the tray to his bed and places it on his lap. “You should have just woken me up. It’s dangerous to stand so quickly after your operation.”
Lan Sizhui’s ears turn pink. “I’m sorry, Sect Leader. I was just afraid you may have been here all night.”
“It’s fine.” He was right. “How are you feeling?”
Lan Sizhui seems to perk up. “A lot better, actually, thanks to the surgery. The healers were excellent. I barely feel any pain.” Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow.
“The healing must have worked then.” He says, and the question itches on his tongue. He doesn’t get a chance to ask.
“Yes. Splendidly. At this rate, I should be out of your hair soon enough.” Of course, Jiang Cheng thinks. He’s going to try and fast track his recovery. Just like someone else he knows.
“You will not,” he says plainly. “The doctor said your recovery will take three weeks. You will be spending those three weeks here, in Lotus Pier.”
Lan Sizhui’s eyes widen. He looks more frazzled now than he had during the climax of the night hunt. “Three weeks? Sect Leader Jiang, you’re too kind, but there’s no way I can put Yunmeng Jiang out like that – “
“Young Master Lan,” Jiang Cheng says, and there’s more annoyance in his tone now. Lan Sizhui seems to notice. “You will be spending your recovery for the next three weeks at Lotus Pier. I have already informed Hanguang-Jun of the same.”
“But he isn’t currently in the Cloud Recesses.”
“The letter should have reached him in his residence in Laoling by now.” Jiang Cheng says coolly. “A letter has been sent to Wei Wuxian in the Cloud Recesses as well. They will understand and agree that you’re better off making a full recovery before you make your return trip to Gusu. There is no need to worry. You are not being held hostage.”
“No – no, of course not, Sect Leader. But I can’t take advantage of your kindness any longer that a few days, it is unbecoming of me.”
“Well, is it not unbecoming of me if I let a future Lan Sect Leader go home while he’s injured? Especially since the injury was caused by my ignorance.” Jiang Cheng continues, and he gets up to indicate this argument is over. “Take your time. I’ll get them to send you more food to eat. You’ve been asleep for a whole day, make sure to eat enough. If you would like to send a letter yourself, I will send one of my senior disciples to transcribe it for you.”
Lan Sizhui looks like a defeated child. He nods quietly, murmuring a thank you as he watches Jiang Cheng get to the door.
“If you need anything, do not be afraid to ask. There is a change of clothes for you on the desk.”
He’s in Lanling, staring at the mirrored walls of his permanent guest room. He hates being here. He wishes Jin Guangyao would just bring Jin Ling to Lotus Pier himself, but he knows that’s not why he’s here today.
He’s here for a wedding. Jin Guangyao’s wedding.
It’s a grand affair, as he’d expect. No grander than his sister’s, but Lanling Jin is seemingly ostentatious even in the weddings of their bastard children. Jiang Cheng straightens out his collar and heads to the banquet hall and braces himself for more pain than he ever signed up for.
Jin Guangyao, annoying as he is, is beautiful. He looks wonderful in red, his peaceful, placid smile ever-present on his face. He’s dressed to the nines like a future Sect Leader, and the only person more radiant than him is his bride. She’s smiling happily, sparing longing glances at her husband which are visibly unreturned.
She doesn’t hold a candle to his sister, of course. For years ago, he’d sat in the same place as Qin Su’s family, two memorial tablets and an empty seat next to him, with Jin Zixuan pouring him tea, his heart full and empty at the same time. Now he sits at a table at the forefront of the Jiang Disciples, as their cups are filled with golden liquor and plates filled with more food than they’ve ever seen in their lives, watching the couple exchange pleasantries with all the families who have attended.
As bright as the couple may be, there’s something other than brat he’s babysitting during this wedding that holds his attention. Across from where he can see, the Lans are sitting, the white heads of the disciples behind them blooming like pale orchids. As they raise their cups to the couple, he sees, both Lan Xichen and Lan Qiren sip their alcohol before expectantly burning it with their golden cores, but Lan Wangji, rude and unpleasant as he is, just places it on the table as if he’d rather not take the effort.
It’s not the first time he’s seen Lan Wangji since his seclusion. While he doesn’t bother presenting himself at cultivation conferences, he saw him once at the Unclean Realm, visiting the Red Blade Master. He looked fine, okay, even, staring at Jiang Cheng with cold, uncaring eyes, cursing his very existence. Any remainders of his grief hidden behind that solemn and perfect face, and Jiang Cheng so deeply resented the fact that he could remain so calm, so normal, his caring brother and uncle facilitating his healing, pulling him out of the darkness that enveloped him. Jiang Cheng didn’t have a loving family to help him through his grief. He didn’t have the privilege to disappear for three years and become himself again. Jiang Cheng had nothing. He was alone.
Lan Wangji’s face, looking at Jiang Cheng like he’d violated him with every breath he continued to take, daring to be alive while Wei Wuxian was dead, was the last thing Jiang Cheng remembered from that night. He’d drunk himself stupid; and woken up on the floor of one of the guest rooms, tears dried on his cheeks, with Nie Mingjue glaring at him during their morning meal.
He’s seen him a few more times since then, and his fear of confrontation has lessened to a cruel emptiness looming in his stomach. It’s not any easier, it just hasn’t gotten worse. But today is different.
Because today, Lan Wangji hasn’t spared him even a fleeting glance. His eyes are fixed on the child that sits between him and Lan Xichen, staring deeply into his little cup of water, talking to him with a familiarity he’s never seen anyone but Wei Wuxian possess. Lan Wangji nods curtly at something the child says, and Lan Xichen laughs, placing a hand on his back. Rarely ever did people bring children with them to weddings. Even if they did, the children would be in the back with the disciples, as child minders or parents, but this child sits in between the Twins Jades of Gusu as if that’s a daily affair. This child was invited. This child sits politely and proudly, like he’s an heir, his little hands on the table as he awaits his food, his forehead ribbon tied neatly around his head.
The Jins have been equipped with enough of gossip to last them the entire ceremony.
Jiang Cheng can’t help but stare amongst the masses, as the child eats his meal quietly as Lans should, even as Jin Ling smacks his thighs while asking him for a name. He wishes he had an answer. He hears passing murmurs that this child is the bastard son of Lan Wangji, claimed by the Lan sect, invited by the groom himself.
He could laugh. Lan Wangji, the virtuous and sophisticated Second Young Master of Lan, having a wayward affair with some young maiden or seductive courtesan, was as incredulous as it was impossible. Jiang Cheng has known for long enough, against his better judgement, that Lan Wangji only has eyes for his late brother. Anyone who’d been around him long enough to tell would know the same. But this child, who bore such a significant resemblance to him, was so strikingly familiar, that Jiang Cheng could barely handle it.
He’s no son of a hidden maiden or private courtesan. Jiang Cheng has seen this child before, and he doesn’t know where.
He numbs the questions on his tongue as he sees the couple make their way to the Lans; and sees a pained expression flash across Lan Xichen’s face as they all greet them politely. Jin Guangyao leans over to talk to the child, holds his little hands in his, and the child looks up at him with a nod. They turn over to Lan Wangji, who listens to the bride undoubtedly shower him with praise and thank him for coming. He nods politely and doesn’t respond, and redirects his attention to the child, likely to accost him for fiddling or slouching. The child straightens up immediately, watching the couple move to the next table.
Jiang Cheng is still staring wordlessly as the couple finally approach his table, and Jin Ling jumps up at the sight of his xiaoshu. It seems he’s finally gotten over the trauma of having to leave his dog outside for the feast.
“A-Ling, are you well?” Jin Guangyao asks, that same sickly smile on his face. Jin Ling nods with certain vigour, and Jin Guangyao turns his head to Jiang Cheng. “I trust you are enjoying the festivities as well, Sect Leader.”
Before Jiang Cheng can mutter some noise in agreement, tearing his eyes away from the Lans, Jin Ling asks the question that the entire banquet demands an answer to.
“Xiaoshu, who is that child?” He points straight at the child that sits at the Lan table. Lan Xichen, whose eyes have been lingering on the couple for a while, seems to jolt in a bit of panic with Jin Ling’s pointing fingers.
“A-Ling, it’s rude to point,” Jin Guanyao closes his little fist. That wasn’t the answer Jin Ling wanted. Seeing the tantrum coming, Jin Guangyao ceases his ambiguity. “He is Hanguang-Jun’s son, A-Ling. Go meet him later, okay? He’s a good child.”
Jiang Cheng snaps back to reality. Hanguang-Jun’s son. Lan Wangji has a son, somehow, who looks about 7 years old, now swallowing nervously as giant plates of food pass him by, the noise in the banquet increasing tenfold as the alcohol begins to kick in with the masses. Jiang Cheng is so focused on his small movements he barely registers as he wishes the couple the best of luck in their marriage, and they move on to the next table.
He’s so busy staring, he ignores the plate of food that sits in front of him, his glass of liquor refilled and emptied again, and Jiang Cheng barely even notices as he commands that a disciple watch over Jin Ling while he stands up. He’s still staring as Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen begin talking to the child, who shakes his head nervously, Lan Wangji’s hand gently stroking the back of his head. He looks so familiar – so familiar that Jiang Cheng’s mind creates connections that aren’t there – the gentle slope of his nose, his serious expression, all identical to the men on either side of him. But there’s more – there’s so much more, his large, soft cheeks, his bright eyes and the quick curve of an easy-going smile, and Jiang Cheng is immediately reminded of someone else. His despair only grows when the child, clearly nervous, moves his finger to scratch his nose. Jiang Cheng’s near enough to hear a majority of their conversation, and stops blindly in his tracks, feeling the floor crumble beneath him.
Lan Xichen clearly notices him, but Lan Wangji’s gaze is too fixed on his brother to notice.
“No, brother, I don’t…” Lan Wangji says, and he’s gripping Bichen in his other hand.
“He’s just overwhelmed, Wangji.” Lan Xichen gives him a warm smile, and Jiang Cheng belatedly realizes it’s been very long since he’s been on the other side of that expression. “Let me take him out for a walk in the gardens. It will only be a few minutes. You can use this time to reconnect with Sect Leaders you haven’t met since your seclusion.”
Lan Wangji’s face warps into a frown. “Okay. But please, not for long.”
Lan Xichen shakes his head. “Of course not. We’ll be right back, won’t we, Sizhui?”
The child, Lan Sizhui, nods. “Yes, Hanguang-Jun.”
Sizhui. Lan Sizhui. Sizhui, “to recollect and long for”. Jiang Cheng feels sick to his stomach. Sizhui. Lan Sizhui. Hanguang-Jun’s mysterious son. Sizhui, to recollect and long for. Lan Sizhui. Sizhui.
It’s so obvious, and that makes it worse. This mysterious child’s existence is itself an homage to Wei Wuxian, and that’s a secret the Jins will never figure out. He hates it with his entire being. He doesn’t move. He doesn’t move, just stands frozen as Lan Xichen leads the child out to the gardens, and he doesn’t move until he hears Nie Huaisang call for him.
“Brother Jiang?” he turns to Nie Huaisang’s large, worried eyes, “Are you okay?” His gaze moves to Lan Wangji, who looks incredibly uncomfortable as Sect Leader Yao talks to him, completely uninterrupted.
“No,” Jiang Cheng says, and he turns back to his table. He looks at his seat, empty, the disciple speaking to Jin Ling as he picks at his food. He’s alone again.
He turns on his heel and bolts out the door.
The Koi Tower gardens are vast. They’re beautiful, but they’re gratuitous. Much like most of Lanling Jin themselves. It doesn’t take Jiang Cheng long to find Lan Xichen, holding Lan Sizhui’s hand as he skips across the gardens. They haven’t noticed him yet. He prefers it that way.
“I’m sorry, Zewu-Jun,” The child says, looking down at his feet.
“It’s okay, Sizhui. I understand that celebrations at Koi Tower can be overwhelming. They are so different from the ones we have, aren’t they?” he says kindly to his nephew.
Lan Sizhui gives him a small laugh. “I have never seen so much food in my life, Zewu-Jun! And so many people!” His anxiety seems to transform into fascination now, and Jiang Cheng watches as he raises him arms to express the magnitude of difference.
“Truly,” Lan Xichen smiles wider. “Since we are alone, you may call me as you usually do.”
“Okay, Huan-shushu,” Lan Sizhui grins, and Jiang Cheng’s reaction nearly gives him a way. He’s never heard anyone call Zewu-Jun with his first name, and hearing it from the mouth of a child, calling him shushu, is somehow worse.
They walk around the grounds, Lan Sizhui marvels at the large variety of tropical flowers he’s seldom seen in Gusu, he bounces around the grounds with the energy any child, even a Lan, should have. After a while, he stops in his tracks, and looks at his uncle, his Huan-shushu, seriously. “Is Fu qin alright?” Jiang Cheng almost scoffs. Fu qin. Of course. Un-fucking-believable.
“He’s okay.” Lan Xichen responds. “He is sometimes overwhelmed, just like you, Sizhui. He would not have come along if A-Yao had not invited him personally. He is afraid for you as well. There are many things he’d rather expose you to in due time. He wants an easier life for you than we had.”
“Like what?” Lan Sizhui frowns, and there’s a morbid, child-like curiosity in his eyes.
“There are people your fu qin does not like, who do not like him. While that dislike may not extend to you, he wants to keep you safe from them. At least until you’re old enough to form your own opinion on them. Or, if the time comes, to defend yourself.”
Lan Sizhui’s face twists in discomfort. “Like who?”
Jiang Cheng’s bumbling masochistic side decides this is the time to reveal himself.
“Like me,” he says, his own morbid curiosity getting the better of him. He can’t see the child’s face from so far away, he can’t see the leftover traces of Wei Wuxian that are inexplicably embedded into his features, and he shuffles into the dim candlelight.
Hearing the voice, Lan Xichen grabs his sword and pushes Lan Sizhui behind him. His face softens once he sees who it is, though not entirely. He’s still on guard. “Sect Leader Jiang, how long have you been there?”
“Long enough,” Jiang Cheng wanders closer. “I apologise for my rudeness. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” He’s lying through his teeth, and he knows Zewu-Jun can tell, but he doesn’t confront him on it. He finally lowers his sword, giving Jiang Cheng a smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Doesn’t your nephew require your company inside, Sect Leader?” He says, and Jiang Cheng can finally see Lan Sizhui’s face. There’s no fear in his eyes where he hangs off his uncle’s robes, just cold suspicion. He’s Hanguang-Jun’s son, indeed.
“No more than yours,” Jiang Cheng says. Lan Xichen finally shows some reaction to that, swallowing deeply as he moves Lan Sizhui to the front.
“If I knew Hanguang-Jun had a child, a son at that, we’d have sent you the best gifts from Lotus Pier,” he goads, his eyes now fixed on the young Lan. Seeing his face clearly now, Jiang Cheng attributes any resemblance to pure coincidence. He knows he’s probably wrong.
“Ah, well. You know my brother. He isn’t much for ceremony.” Lan Xichen’s hand gently lands on Lan Sizhui’s shoulder. Jiang Cheng almost laughs in utter disagreement. “Sizhui, introduce yourself to Sect Leader Jiang, please.”
Lan Sizhui nods and turns to Jiang Cheng, bowing politely. “This Lan disciple is Lan Yuan; courtesy name Lan Sizhui. It’s an honour to make your acquaintance, Sect Leader Jiang.” Jiang Cheng huffs at the rehearsed response. They clearly planned for a scenario like this.
“Well, introductions aside,” Lan Xichen gives him a kind expression. “Sizhui and I will see you at the Banquet. It is about time we were returning anyway.”
Back at the banquet, he drinks his way through the sight of Lan Wangji’s gritted teeth at his brother’s recollection of the events. He falls asleep in the Jin guest rooms, Wei Wuxian’s unmistakable laughter from the young Lan’s mouth the last thing on his mind.
As Jiang Cheng wakes up in his bed, he begins to long for the dreamless sleep he’d had before the night hunt. He avoids Wei Wuxian’s room and goes straight to his study, skipping breakfast and the interactions that may come with it. There’s a letter left on his desk, on Gusu Lan Sect stationery.
Dear Jiang Cheng,
I’m writing this to you in the middle of the night, I hope this reaches you in due time. I’m absolutely in shock at what has happened. What would possess something as menial as a vengeful ghost to stab A-Yuan? If I were there, he would have never seen the light of day again. I wish I hadn’t listened to Lan Zhan and just come along.
I’m glad you were there. It would have been difficult for the children alone to carry him to Lotus Pier. I understand that you’d like him to stay, but for your sake, I’d suggest otherwise. Let me speak to old man Qiren and ask him if I can send Lan Jingyi or one of the other disciples to pick him up. But those children are too inexperienced with the sword, and ironically, only Sizhui would be able to pick himself up amongst that lot. As you know, I can’t fly myself, and I can’t ask Wen Ning to pick him up either.
In any other circumstance, Lan Zhan would come running, but the civil disputes in Laoling have kept him so busy he’s been unable to respond to even my letters. I don’t know how long it will take for him to see yours. But knowing him, he certainly will not allow A-Yuan to stay in Yunmeng for all of three weeks. It’s far too much. He would get too worried.
Worst comes to worst, I’ll request Zewu-Jun to pause his seclusion and come and collect him himself. Hopefully it should not come to that. I look forward to your response.
Regardless of all of this, I hope you had a good birthday. I was thinking of sending a gift, but there’s nothing I can find here that you would enjoy.
He observes the juxtaposition of Wei Wuxian’s messy handwriting on the pristine white parchment of Gusu Lan, and almost rips the letter in half. There’s nothing in it of value, and Jiang Cheng reacts almost disproportionately to the fact that Wei Wuxian, so focused on Lan Wangji’s worry, would let that injured young man fly all the way to Gusu. Wei Wuxian, who, like everyone else, had so little faith that Jiang Cheng could take care of the Lan heir, would rather drag Zewu-Jun out of seclusion to avoid it. He’s so sure Lan Wangji will be worried about leaving his precious son at Lotus Pier that he can speak for him; and thinks he’d rather abandon his Chief Cultivator duties to fly across the country and pick him up. Anything but having him recover in the comfort of Lotus Pier, in the blood-soaked hands of Jiang Wanyin, who killed Wei Wuxian and is too violent and unrestrained to nurse a child who gravely injured himself protecting him.
Why let Wei Wuxian’s son spend three weeks in the place where he grew up? He belongs to Gusu Lan now, just like Wei Wuxian. He’d rather waste his time as a black dot in the flawless celestial prison that is the Cloud Recesses, making loving eyes at his Lan Wangji, than return to his home. His brother can be abandoned, just like Lotus Pier. None of it matters anymore.
The birthday wish is tepid and clearly an afterthought. He isn’t having it anymore. He can walk around Lotus Pier as if there isn’t a Wei Wuxian-shaped hole in his life, but he does not have space for the crack that has settled itself as Lan Sizhui. He’s had enough.
It seems you have misunderstood what I meant in my last letter. Please convey this message to Hanguang-Jun as well. I’m sure he’ll take it better if it comes from you. This wasn’t a request.
Lan Yuan will remain in Lotus Pier for the rest of his recovery. He intercepted an attack that was meant for me, and it is my duty as both an elder and a Sect Leader that I repay him for his nobility. You, Hanguang-Jun, Zewu-Jun or whoever, can come as many times as you wish to pick him up, and you will be relegated to a room of your choosing to stay, and you may collect him after he has recovered.
His wounds are still fresh, and he can barely move, it is unfair and frankly barbaric for you to suggest he make the trip now. He is a child, and he will take time to get back on his feet. The healers at the Cloud Recesses are no more dedicated and qualified than those at Lotus Pier, and I guarantee that neither they, nor I, will cause him any harm.
It is fortunate that I am not interpreting your impatience to take him away as a judgement of my hospitality. You of all people should know that Lotus Pier has always accepted guests, and nursed several injured soldiers back to full health, many of whom were of equal status as your Lan heir.
He will be fine. And if your precious Lan Zhan is still so worried, tell him he can shove his entitled good-for-nothing attitude up his –
He crosses out the last line, and rewrites and sends a letter with a similar sentiment.
That night, when he enters the room, Lan Sizhui is still comfortably asleep in Wei Wuxian’s bed. Jiang Cheng checks to see if his fever has broken; and covers him with an extra blanket for good measure.
It’s the next morning when he intercepts the tray from the cheerful disciple. He grins and says he’ll send his breakfast up to the room as well, and Jiang Cheng doesn’t protest as he knocks on the door. There’s a distant “come in!” before he enters and sees the child in an uncomfortable position.
“Oh,” Jiang Cheng says, as he enters. Lan Sizhui’s wearing the black robe, his inner robe still white. His hair is a mess as he attempts to use his uninjured hand to tie it back as he usually does. Seeing who opened the door, the child is immediately embarrassed, and he drops his hands, his work pointless, hair falling loose on his shoulders.
“Sorry, Sect Leader Jiang. I thought it was Lu Shen.” Jiang Cheng blinks, and assumes Lu Shen is the disciple who has been helping him out.
“It’s fine,” Jiang Cheng sighs, and places the tray down next to him. “I thought I would give you some company. I could leave if you want.”
“No, no, please stay.” Lan Sizhui shakes his head. “I’m just sorry I’m not exactly presentable. I haven’t really been able to do much to my hair with,” he gestures at the sling. “This.”
“You can leave it open if you want.” Jiang Cheng shrugs, “I’m not particularly bothered. Unless…would you like some help?”
Lan Sizhui seems stunned at the request. “Um, sure. Why not?”
He retrieves the comb that’s next to him. Lan Sizhui turns his back to accommodate him, and Jiang Cheng begins to section it off. While he combs through his soft hair, he absentmindedly thinks about the last time he did this for someone. It’s been years, surely, not since Jin Ling was eleven or twelve. He did it patiently, no matter his constant movements, the way he’d crib incessantly if Jiang Cheng accidentally pulled too hard.
Every time he did it, he wondered how his sister ever managed with him and Wei Wuxian. Jin Ling’s hair was always a tangled, knotted mess, impossible to pull apart, usually caked with dirt. He’s sure he was the same as a child, and Wei Wuxian was undoubtedly worse. A-Jie would comb their hair in succession and braid his hair back, and the sensation always made Jiang Cheng feel relaxed and ready to start his day. She’d given up on braiding Wei Wuxian’s hair since his would always come undone, and his penchant for changing up his hair was far more consistent than with his clothes. He’d been shocked when he’s opted for something close to a Yunmeng style close to the ends of his life. It was the only proof he had that he missed them in his new home.
Lan Sizhui’s hair is nothing like that. It’s soft, controlled, and tangle-free, the way Jiang Cheng assumes any Lan’s should be. He barely needs to comb it to take its shape, and it holds a braid far better than Wei Wuxian’s ever did. He remembers the struggle at the inn before they left for the Cloud Recesses, trying to get his hair presentable enough for the strict Lan Clan Standards. He’s sure now, that he walks around with only that shabby ponytail, his red ribbon distinct in the crowd of white.
He really hasn’t done this in a long time.
“What is it?” Jiang Cheng says as he hears the young Lan hum. He’s absentmindedly been braiding his hair in Yunmeng style, and he wonders if that will be an issue. He can barely remember the complicated knot that was either on his or Lan Wangji’s head, and there’s a selfish part of him that wants to see how it looks. He indulges it.
“Nothing,” Lan Sizhui replies, as if he’s going to shake his head. “I was just thinking that no one has done this for me in a very long time.”
Jiang Cheng sighs, partly in relief. “Did someone tie it for you when you were younger?” Lan Sizhui nods gently as to not displace the style.
“Zewu-Jun when I was very young. Hanguang-Jun taught me what I usually do, though.”
Jiang Cheng almost laughs, the thought of Hanguang-Jun struggling with a toddler’s hairstyle the way he himself had was too amusing to ignore. He’s sure he excelled at it, unfortunately, as he did in everything else. “I haven’t done it either, since Jin Ling was younger.”
Lan Sizhui’s giggles. “That must have been challenging.”
Jiang Cheng snorts. “It was.”
He grabs the red ribbon on the table with a pang of guilt; and admires his finished work. “I did it in Yunmeng Jiang style. I hope you don’t mind.” Lan Sizhui leans over to take a look at himself in the mirror.
“It’s great!” Lan Sizhui smiles, and Jiang Cheng almost lets his guard down for a moment. He looks so much like Wei Wuxian. His bliss is shattered when Lan Sizhui places the forehead ribbon in hand. “Sorry,” He says sheepishly. “That’s the last step.”
Jiang Cheng sighs and ties it around his head with far less finesse than he did earlier. Lan Sizhui thanks him regardless. They sit and eat their breakfast in comfortable silence, and Jiang Cheng tries his best not to project Wei Wuxian onto every rogue movement.
Jiang Cheng has spent more time in the last few days in Wei Wuxian’s old room than he has in the last 20 years. Their mornings remain the same, and Jiang Cheng does his hair with little to no frills, and they make small talk until the ribbon slips away from his fingers. Jiang Cheng continues his work and oversees the disciples training, and he shares his meals with Lan Sizhui.
It’s only a few days after they’ve solidified their routine, Lan Sizhui slowly becomes healthier and more autonomous. It’s by the end of the fourth day he finally asks.
“These clothes I’ve been given, and this room…they, belonged to Senior Wei, right?” He asks, and the earnest eye-contact is enough to push Jiang Cheng over the edge.
He sits in silence for a few moments before Lan Sizhui looks like he’s given up. “What gave it away?”
“Well, the clothes were fairly obvious,” He smiles brightly. “Senior Wei has quite distinctive tastes.”
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. “Still the same there, I’m guessing.” Lan Sizhui nods with a laugh.
“He’d described the room to me once with a lot of detail, but the carvings were what gave it away.”
Jiang Cheng furrows his brows. “That nonsense he wrote on the panelling?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say it was nonsense…it was definitely drawn by him, though.”
Jiang Cheng stands up to go look, and Sizhui’s moves to accommodate him. Of course.
The panelling has been slashed with nonsense like “Wei Wuxian was here!” and little crosses, little games Wei Wuxian had created for himself. There was a talisman drawn to rid of nightmares, and Jiang Cheng feels a surge of guilt as he remembers what it’s for. He wonders if he’s done the same to his bed in the Cloud Recesses.
He wonders if he still needs to.
There’s a bunch of small and insignificant drawings of the three of them together, and Jiang Cheng resents how quickly he recognizes himself. He’s drawn like a demon, with horns and a long tongue, and he curls his hand into a fist at the sight of it. He’s sure Wei Wuxian was young when he drew that, and Lan Sizhui seems to assure him of the same from the back, but Jiang Cheng can’t help but simmer in his anger.
There are a few things about his sister, a number of obscene drawings and signatures, a drawing of a bunny…which leads to what can only be described as a shrine.
The words ‘Lan Zhan’ have been repeated so many times, it’s like Wei Wuxian was trying to expel him from his system. There are drawings of him, little stick figures in his forehead ribbon, and even a fairly accurate sketch of Bichen on the side. There’s even what looks like the characters for ‘soulmate’. Jiang Cheng doesn’t know whether to be smug or disgusted.
“He’s been obsessed from the start,” Jiang Cheng says, and his annoyance allows him to speak freely. “This is so weird! Who does something like this?”
Lan Sizhui laughs into his free hand, clearly amused by his reaction. “It seems he was infatuated.”
“He was obsessed. He was even younger than you when it started. Lan Zhan this, Lan Zhan that,” He rolls his eyes. “If he was sitting and scribbling his name into the walls of Lotus Pier, there was no need for him to talk about him all the time!” He’s gone off before he even realizes, and Lan Sizhui lets out a loud laugh, the loudest he’s heard so far. He seems positively tickled about this fact, and Jiang Cheng wonders briefly if it’s an inside joke. There was a time they had enough to speak in code.
“That is really sweet. It seems he hasn’t changed at all,” He says, mostly to his hands. Oh, he thinks, and he swallows the sigh of relief.
Jiang Cheng lets out a sound of disapproval, but even he can’t help the smile that creeps onto his face.
Jiang Cheng arrives at his study a day later, only to have Zhang Yang hand-deliver two letters to him. He doesn’t need to ask who they’re from.
He opens Wei Wuxian’s first, only to breathe another sigh of relief.
Dear Jiang Cheng,
I understand what you mean. Perhaps I was being short-sighted. If A-Yuan’s recovery is on way, it’s better not to move him around too much. Lan Zhan may not agree but I think I may be able to convince him. I’ll try my best, but I’m not sure if my second letter to him will reach him before this one gets to you.
Before I give you the satisfaction of changing my mind, I received a letter from A-Yuan as well. I assume he sent one to Lan Zhan too. He seems happy to recover in Lotus Pier. I’m sure Lan Zhan will consider that above all else. It seems he has been enjoying your mealtimes together. He also mentioned that it was his recklessness that got him injured in the first place. You must have really brought something out in him, Jiang Cheng, since the Lan Sizhui who left Gusu was far from reckless.
Try and fatten him up with good Yunmeng food as much as you can. He eats far too many vegetables. I might just be tempted to take his place.
It’s the playful nonchalance of the letter, this time, that stands in steep contrast to the pristine white stationery. He’s not sure what he means by his last sentence. He sighs anyway; and braces himself for the worst.
I hope this letter finds you in good health. First of all, I apologise for the trouble my heir has caused you over the last week. In his letter, he described in detail the actions that led to his injury, and I apologise sincerely if he has put you in a difficult position.
I was halfway through a response to your letter when Wei Ying’s second message arrived. You may understand my concerns with leaving Lan Sizhui there for three weeks, since it is too much to ask of anyone, let alone the Yunmeng Jiang Sect. I have, since reading about your recent correspondence, decided to change my stance.
Since it is important to Wei Ying that he spend the rest of his recovery at Lotus Pier, I will spend my intended time in Laoling before coming to collect him. In that case, I do humbly ask you to take care of my son until I arrive. Hopefully he will not cause you any more trouble.
Wei Ying suggests that I am in your debt.
Chief Cultivator Lan Wangji
Jiang Cheng sometimes thinks he knows Lan Wangji better than anyone. His politeness and feigned sophistication are nothing but a cheap filter to mask the mannerless fuck that lies within. That’s a side reserved specifically for Jiang Wanyin. He laughs momentarily at the thankless letter, at the grumble of Wei Ying suggests that I am in your debt; and rips it to shreds.
He throws the pieces in the air and lets them cascade onto his desk; and basks in the satisfaction of something finally going his way.
When he enters Wei Wuxian’s room again, he is disappointed to see Lan Sizhui’s arm out of the sling. He’d gotten into the routine of doing his hair, and it’s the closest he’s felt to family in years. Lan Sizhui seems happy regardless, showing him his mobility. “The sprain and the wounds seem to be recovering!” he smiles. “It seems I can relieve you of the task of doing my hair now.” He stretches his hand behind his head.
“If you must,” Jiang Cheng says, trying his best not to sound disappointed. His disappointment washes away once Lan Sizhui proceeds to do his hair the same way he did.
“I like the way it looks,” Lan Sizhui grins.
Jiang Cheng takes a moment to respond.
“It suits you.”
Lan Sizhui smiles. The clothes fit him better than he’d expected. He’s shorter than Wei Wuxian was at his age, but the trousers seem to fit him perfectly. The picture he paints in his outfit takes him back 20 years.
“These clothes are also really comfortable,” he adds, almost reading Jiang Cheng’s mind. “Though, I’m not as used to the tapered sleeves. They do help with movement, I’m sure.”
Jiang Cheng nods. “They may not look as graceful when you fight as your Gusu Lan robes, but the Yunmeng Jiang fighting style is a lot more dynamic.”
Lan Sizhui beams. “You’re right! I’d love to try that out once I’m better.”
“Perhaps towards the end of your stay.” Jiang Cheng nods. “Sizhui,” he says, and stares directly at the young Lan’s gentle face. “May I call you that?”
“Of course, Sect Leader Jiang.” He nods, and the sincerity is hauntingly familiar.
“You must be tired of being holed up in this room all week. Let’s eat in the dining hall today.”
He realizes when they’re downstairs, that Sizhui has yet to see anything of Lotus Pier outside of Wei Wuxian’s room. His eyes are wide and curious as he takes in the sight of the beautiful flowers that bloom even as brisk November air cuts through them.
“Lotus Pier is truly worthy of its reputation, isn’t it?” Sizhui says, and Jiang Cheng holds his shoulders back with pride.
“Of course. Cloud Recesses is not the pinnacle of beauty, you know. If come in the spring or summer, it’s even better.” His potential invitation burns on his tongue, but Sizhui seems pleased, and nods.
“I haven’t seen so many lotuses in such a long time. Jin Ling had said that Lotus Pavilion in Lanling was created in its image, but it hardly comes close to the real thing.”
“It doesn’t,” Jiang Cheng agrees. The gesture from her husband was more than enough for his sister, but Lotus Pavilion truly cowers in the presence of the real thing. Jiang Cheng has spent most of his life trying to return it to its former glory, and he’s glad he’s at least come close. “Perhaps when you’re more able to walk around easily, Zhang Yang can take you on a tour. This is hardly the extent of its beauty.”
“It’s exactly how he described it,” Sizhui says warmly, and the words echo in his ears. He described it to him? “Down to the marbling of the tiles.”
“Does he…” Jiang Cheng can’t stop himself. “Does he talk about it often?”
He’s not looking at Sizhui, but he can feel his eyes linger on the side of his head. “All the time.”
Jiang Cheng is no longer used to eating in the dining hall. He’s been unable to eat there often since Jin Ling was younger, unable to stand the presence of being there alone. It’s too quiet, and too empty – in a room that was once filled with noise – the incessant chattering of Wei Wuxian, the gentle laugh of his sister and father, even his mother’s biting remarks. The silence feels deafening, it feels wrong.
He still has it cleaned daily, and he still eats there when Jin Ling comes, but those occasions are rare, and on most days he’d end up taking all his meals in his study or bedroom. Bringing Sizhui in here feels a bit too intimate and a bit too filial, but for some reason, it doesn’t feel wrong.
It seems appropriate since this is his first proper Yunmeng meal, and Jiang Cheng might have taken Wei Wuxian’s advice. Make sure to fatten him up with good Yunmeng food.
They sit comfortably as Sizhui takes in his setting, and Jiang Cheng is able to see the workings of his eyes as he attempts to compare the real thing to the image in his mind. The disciples bring them their food, and Jiang Cheng is pleased to that it’s the lotus root and pork rib soup.
“Thank you,” Sizhui smiles and nods at the disciple, who in turn smiles and places the side dishes in front of him. “Oh, wow, that smells really good.” He lifts the lid off the bowl.
“It is a family recipe,” Jiang Cheng says, and thinks of his sister. The chef makes a good imitation of her soup, but it’s an imitation, nonetheless. There’s still enough bitterness on his tongue to know how different it tastes.
“Lotus root and pork rib soup?” Sizhui says brightly. Jiang Cheng furrows his brow.
“I’m guessing Wei Wuxian has told you about it before.”
“He has, it’s his favorite.” Sizhui nods as they start to dig in. “Oh, wow. This is so good. He’s correct – it’s so much better in Yunmeng!”
Jiang Cheng frowns again. “You get this soup in Gusu?” No wonder Wei Wuxian has no reason to come back.
“We don’t. Our weather isn’t as kind to growing water-borne plants.” He shakes his head and savours another spoonful. “Hanguang-Jun orders Lotus Root specially; and makes it himself. I won’t tell him this one is better though. He’s always kind enough to make extra for me.”
Jiang Cheng is so shocked the spoon drops from his fingers and clatters against the bowl. Wei Wuxian has the Chief Cultivator cooking for him? Wei Wuxian, the shameless trout that he is, has the stuffy, arrogant Hanguang-Jun making him his favorite meals in the Cloud Recesses? He doesn’t know how to react.
“Hanguang-Jun…Lan Wangji – Chief Cultivator Lan Wangji knows how to make this soup?” Lan Wangji knows how to cook, period? The thought of Lan Wangji in the kitchen, his hair tied behind his back is as amusing as it is incredulous. Isn’t lying against the Gusu Lan rules? There’s no way Sizhui is being honest.
Sizhui nods earnestly between spoonfuls. “He picked up a Yunmeng cookbook during his travels.” Jiang Cheng sputters with laughter. “He makes it every time Senior Wei is sad or misses home.”
This knocks him out of his laughing fit. Lan Wangji, the pathetically caring cultivation partner that he is, sits and spoils Wei Wuxian with his childhood favorites exactly A-Jie did. He even bought a cookbook and studied it carefully to learn how to do it. In any other situation, Jiang Cheng may have even broken far enough to find that endearing.
But he doesn’t. Lan Wangji goes to make him his favourite soup when he’s sad or misses home. Because Wei Wuxian can confide in Lan Wangji, tell him when he’s sad or homesick or recovering from his anguish, so Lan Wangji can do something to help. Wei Wuxian tells him things, things he was never able to tell Jiang Cheng.
If he misses home enough to send Lan Wangji into a cooking frenzy, ordering vegetables from across the country – he could just come back home. That was always an option, you just chose to ignore it.
“Sect Leader Jiang?” Sizhui asks, his face full of concern again. It breaks him out of his trance.
Jiang Cheng swallows. “I’m glad you think this is better.” The smile is back on Sizhui’s face. “He misses home – does he ever?”
Sizhui looks at him honestly. “Of course, he does,” he says, and it’s so simple and truthful that the pit in Jiang Cheng’s stomach grows. You are the one who is haunting this place, a voice in his head says, and he tries his hardest to suppress it. Sizhui speaks again. “This is almost as good as I remember. I had it once, when I was young. I don’t remember how it was, but I remember loving it.”
“You had it as a child?” Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes. How long has Lan Wangji been making this soup?
“Yes! I think Ning-Shushu brought it for me…” Ning-Shushu? The Ghost General? Of course. Leave it Wei Wuxian’s son to call a corpse uncle, but his actual sworn brother Sect Leader. Sizhui looks at him expectantly, as if preparing for a response. Jiang Cheng picks up nothing, he doesn’t understand.
From the corner of his eye, he sees Sizhui sigh softly.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” He says, and now Jiang Cheng is annoyed at his title. Huan-shushu, Ning-shushu, Sect Leader Jiang. Even Wei Wuxian had called his father Jiang-shushu. He doesn’t like the discrepancy. “Do you mind passing me your chili oil?” he says, before nibbling at his vegetables.
“What.” Jiang Cheng looks at him. The Lans are known for their notoriously bland palates. He’d suffered through the food at the Cloud Recesses, and they’ve had chili oil with their side dishes the whole time?
“Yeah,” Sizhui’s ears go pink. “Not that the food isn’t well seasoned! It’s great! I actually really like spicy food, so when I’m not in the Cloud Recesses, I prefer to enjoy it…”
Jiang Cheng slides the bowl across to him. “You aren’t troubled by spice?” He remembers, with certain enjoyment, Lan Wangji’s red face after accidentally biting into something Wei Wuxian had soiled with his extra-spicy tastes.
“Not at all.” Sizhui smiles. “Most of the disciples prefer less spicy food, so I didn’t ever want to cause the chefs trouble, but since Senior Wei has his around, he always offers when we eat together.”
“Oh.” Jiang Cheng says. Of course, he’s found a way around it.
“It is delicious,” Sizhui says, and Jiang Cheng glances wearily at his plate. “Though anything is better than what Senior Wei calls his cooking.”
It’s been a long time since Jiang Cheng heard his own laughter echo in this room.
There’s a loud cackle of laughter from the hallway towards the dining room. “Jiang Cheng!” Wei Wuxian laughs mercilessly. “I can’t believe you didn’t see it coming! You’re so silly!”
They walk into the dining hall, and A-Jie is looking at them both expectantly. Their parents are away, somewhere, and Jiang Cheng is 12 years old, so Jiang Cheng runs into his sister’s open arms for comfort. “This idiot is bullying me again!”
“A-Cheng, don’t call him an idiot.” His sister scolds, but Jiang Cheng knows she isn’t really angry. She rubs his back and looks at Wei Wuxian. “A-Xian, what happened?”
“Nothing, Shijie,” Wei Wuxian grumbles. He’s suddenly guilty. “Just a prank, that’s all…Jiang Cheng is taking it too seriously! I returned your clothes, didn’t I! It’s not like I actually let you walk back from the lake naked! I just wanted to see if you’d consider it!”
“After half an hour!” Jiang Cheng cries. “It was almost dark out!”
“Yeah, and then no one would see you naked in the dark, would they?”
“You two,” A-Jie shakes her head, but it’s easy to see she’s trying to fight a smile. “A-Xian, you’re far too old for these kinds of pranks.”
Wei Wuxian pouts. “I’m sorry, Shijie! I won’t do it again.”
A-Jie continues to rub Jiang Cheng’s back. He melts into the comfort of her warmth. “You should apologise to A-Cheng, not me.”
“…I’m sorry, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian says, and he looks away. “I won’t do it again.” Jiang Cheng knows the apology still isn’t for him.
“You better not!” Jiang Cheng turns to him, raising his hand.
“Hey! Don’t even think about hitting me now! I already apologised!”
“I’d hit you anyway!”
“Okay, Okay,” A-Jie finally lets out her laugh. “We can continue this fight after we eat, okay? A-Xian, look, I made your favourite.”
“Wow! Shijie! You’re the best!” Wei Wuxian gives her a large, toothy smile, and Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. Of course, even though he messes up, he gets his favourite food. A-Jie always spoils him.
They begin to eat, and Jiang Cheng feels his body flood with warmth, even after he spent half an hour in the freezing lake. He’s never placing a bet with Wei Wuxian again.
“You two,” She shakes her head again. “What am I going to do with you? When I have a child, am I still going to be mothering you?”
“You could just not have a child,” Wei Wuxian shrugs and smiles. “You could just have me forever!” He plays it off as a joke, but Jiang Cheng knows he’s probably serious.
“Aha, since my XianXian is only three years old,” A-Jie indulges him, ruffling his hair. “But doesn’t he want a little nephew or niece?”
“Not if they’re like that peacock,” Wei Wuxian sticks out his tongue in disgust, and A-Jie gives him a reprimanding look.
“Aiya, don’t say something like that, A-Xian. You will have to be the favorite shushu of both mine and A-Cheng’s children, won’t you?”
“Obviously I will be the favorite uncle of your future son, Shijie,” Wei Wuxian changes his tune. “But Jiang Cheng’s? Those little demons will hate me.”
“And they’ll be right to,” Jiang Cheng retorts, crossing his arms. “Also, why is he to be the favorite uncle for yours? Won’t I be the favorite?” He says childishly.
“You will, you will. For mine and A-Xian’s children, Cheng-shushu will be the best uncle!” His sister smiles.
“It’s a good thing then,” Wei Wuxian nudges him, “that I’m never having kids.”
The wave of memories hits him as he walks around Lotus Pier. Never having kids, he thinks sourly as he looks at Lan Sizhui next to him. He’s learnt quite a bit about him in the last few days.
He likes spicy food. He’s lived with the Lans since he was four. His sword, Qingyu, was a gift from Zewu-Jun. Gentle rain, he thinks, is really the perfect name for his sword. Soothing and graceful, but also a deceiving antecedent for thunder. He knows every inch of Lotus Pier, despite never having visited in the past. He knows and asks Jiang Cheng for retellings of so many stories he hasn’t recalled in years. He knows about A-Jie, the names of his parents, senior disciples who have long since passed.
He’s not picky with his food, he walks with the grace and gentle pride of every Lan leader before him. He tactfully and reasonably argues his points, and he’s clever and witty and really, ideal company. The disciples love him. They crowd around him as he sits on a chair, not wanting to stress his wounds, watching him play the guqin. Jiang Cheng can hear notes through his study window, and they are far more pleasant than the lousy cheers that follow. Jiang Cheng recognizes the song. He doesn’t know from where.
“It is a love song,” Sizhui smiles as he tells them. Many more disciples are now far more invested.
“Brother Lan, did you write it? About someone you love?”
“No, no,” Sizhui shakes his head. “It was taught to me by someone I know.”
They are walking along the pier after their night-time meal – at his suggestion, where he learns how close he really is to Jin Ling. He speaks about him as fondly as he does Wei Wuxian, and his words are laced with the kind of patience Jiang Cheng could never even strive to have. Jiang Cheng hates the warmth that grows against his will. His nephew, his bratty, arrogant nephew, finally has a friend – friends – who will be a positive influence on him. He wonders briefly if the responsibility alone has not brought up a far more respectable, mature side of Jin Ling.
They approach the memorial room, and Jiang Cheng feels his stomach twist. He’s thought about A-Jie a lot recently. Sizhui is littered with the shadows of Jiang Cheng’s past, and there’s so much of him that reminds him of his sister. It’s ridiculous, Jiang Cheng thinks, since they’ve never met, but Sizhui radiates the kindness and warmth only she was capable of. Perhaps he’s misreading things.
Perhaps it’s simply been too long since someone has treated him like family. Sizhui slows down his pace to a stop. Jiang Cheng stops with him. “Sect Leader Jiang,” he says, and Jiang Cheng turns to look at him.
“I wanted to ask you if I could go in. To pay my respects.”
Jiang Cheng swallows. He remembers the scene like it was yesterday. He’d watched Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji bow and pay respects to his fallen family and felt what he thought was pure rage course through his veins. Little did he know, it was so much more than that.
It was so many years of resentment and misplaced anger and misunderstanding, none of which he truly understood. So many years of heart-wrenching pain that left him feeling worthless and alone. So many years telling himself he hated Wei Wuxian, hated who he became, so many years thinking it was by choice. He spent so many years, drunk, grovelling at his family grave, hating himself for wishing to see Wei Wuxian walk in behind him. He’d stare at the display and curse his own existence for wanting so bad to commission a memorial tablet for him.
When he finally did, he smashed it to pieces in the first ten minutes.
He hated himself. He hated what happened, he hated what he did. He hated the debilitating grief that consumed every moment of his life. He hated the happy memories in Lotus Pier which were stained with blood, he hated waking up every morning in the husk of what was once his home. He hated Lan Wangji as much as the man hated him, hated him for being the bigger man, hated him for being able to process his pain while Jiang Cheng’s world crumbled around him. In the worst of times, he even hated Jin Ling, only a baby, completely reliant on him, forcing him to be alive when he no longer wanted to live. In every one of these shameful moments, he was cruelly confronted with the truth.
He couldn’t hate Wei Wuxian. No matter how hard he tried.
When he found out about his sacrifice, he realised why he couldn’t. His body was aware of his sacrifice even when his mind wasn’t – and this internal battle didn’t seize until the night at Guanyin Temple. His shame still lives on, however, still reeling from his actions, fuelled by endless years of regret. He’s convinced now, that they will never stop. But in Sizhui’s eyes, there’s something he hasn’t seen in years.
He’s greeted with drinks and liquor and snacks the second he enters the Lotus Pavilion. He ignores them all, here for one thing only. He wants to see his sister.
It’s the longest since the Sunshot campaign that he hasn’t seen her. His work as a Sect Leader and rebuilding Lotus Pier alone keeps him busy, at least. He wants nothing but to be smothered with her affection, and that’s something no amount of Jin pleasantries will keep him from.
“A-Cheng!” He hears, and Jin Zixuan has to hold her arm to prevent her from running towards him. He holds his hands out as well, stopping her, grinning as he runs across the room to give her a hug. He has to hunch over to wrap his arms around her shoulders.
She’s huge. He searches for another way to say that, but all he can manage is, “You’re huge.”
“A- Cheng, you’re so mean!” she says, but there’s laughter behind her voice. She’s glowing, and her robes do the same, loose and shimmering over her extended stomach. “The baby is one month away, I had to make room, you know.”
Jin Zixuan exchanges a short greeting with him; and bids his wife a reluctant goodbye. A-Jie, as usual, is calm as ever, but he seems to be frazzled enough for the both of them. “He’s too stressed,” A-Jie shakes her head. A disciple pours them tea and serves them food, and she’s discouraged from even lifting a finger. “He’s so scared for me; he didn’t even want to let me cook for us today. I’m fine, you know?”
Jiang Cheng laughs. “Of course, he’s worried, A-Jie! You must rest!” She waves him off.
“How can I rest if my A-Cheng has finally come to visit me, after so long?”
Jiang Cheng gives her a warm smile, and they continue to talk. They catch up about everything at Lotus Pier. Jiang Cheng tells her what he has rebuilt, and she asks him pointed questions about disciples, her old friends and handmaidens, and how they’re coping. She’s so considerate of other people, even when she’s growing a person. She tells him about the gifts she’s received, the way the Jins have been spoiling her, and how happy she is. How much she loves Lotus Pavilion, how it’s her home away from home.
It fills him with more joy than he’s felt in ages. He misses her so much. He still hears her laughter down the halls, still sits in her room whenever he feels lonely. Lotus Pier has grown colder since her departure.
Her face suddenly contorts with discomfort, and Jiang Cheng leaps to his feet. “A-Jie, are you fine? Is it the baby? Someone! Call Jin Zixuan and the nurse!” he calls out, and she makes grabby hands at him.
“A-Cheng!” she laughs through her pain. “It’s fine! He just kicked me pretty hard. He’s quite the prideful young master already. The baby still has a while to come, don’t worry.”
Jiang Cheng frowns, but sits back down. “You can feel him kick?”
She smiles back at him and nods. “Kick, move around, move his little arms. He’s quite a fighter. Just like you were with A-Niang.”
He looks at her with wide eyes. “Really?”
“Really! Would you like to feel?”
Jiang Cheng’s eyes widen even more. “I can?”
“Of course!” he moves over, and she guides his hand to her stomach. “He always reacts when I eat. He’ll be a picky eater, just like his father.” She laughs. As she speaks, almost in response, Jiang Cheng feels her skin ripple under his hands.
“Woah.” Jiang Cheng says, and he truly thinks this might be the most amazing thing he’s ever seen. The fact that his sister, barely a cultivator, was the strongest person he’d ever met. She’d been talking and understanding this Young Master Jin Rulan even before he was born. Even the Lan’s renowned ghost communication technique couldn’t do that. It’s outstanding.
She smiles wide at him, but her face suddenly falls. Jiang Cheng thinks it’s another kick, but he feels nothing. He moves his hands away.
“I’m sorry, A-Cheng.” She says. “I just, I miss him so much.” Her eyes begin to well up with tears. Jiang Cheng wonders if the pregnancy hormones have made her more maternal. If it’s that, he truly wonders why he’s tearing up too. “Do you think he’s lonely up there? Without his family?”
“No,” he says, shaking his head. “He has a new family now.” He thinks briefly of the child who clung to his legs, Wei Wuxian speaking to him with an unfamiliar gentleness. The faces of the old Wens, of Wen Qing and Wen Ning, and last, the face of Lan Wangji, defending him at Koi Tower without question.
“I just hope he’s happy,” She says, and wipes her tears away. Before he knows it, she’s wiping his away too. He sighs.
“I hope so too.” She gives him a wistful smile. She holds his hands in hers, and he feels instantly better. Wei Wuxian has no idea what he’s missing.
“A-Cheng, did you bring any spicy pickles with you from Yunmeng?” she says seriously.
“No…did you want any, A-Jie? I can send you some when I return.”
“Please! I’ve been craving them for ages! They’re so good! I remember even when A-Niang was pregnant with you, she couldn’t stop eating them.”
Jiang Cheng snorts. “That explains a lot.”
Hope and fear were the only emotions humans could never control. Jiang Cheng has long lived without an inkling of the former.
When he sees Sizhui, hope in his eyes, the fear of rejection creeping up his neck, all he can say is, “Take your bath first. I will be waiting here in an hour.”
He hasn’t said something like that to anyone but Jin Ling, and Sizhui looks stunned, as if that was anything but what he expected, but he nods quickly and says, “Of course.” While the world may think he’s simply traditional, or paranoid, Jiang Cheng could say with confidence that he was neither. He just needs a little time before Sizhui returns.
He dusts the graves himself, despite having already done so this morning. He lights another stick of incense, goes to the kitchen and replaces the offerings for each tile. He then opens the back door; and enters another room he seldom visits to receive council from the departed disciples. He finds what he’s looking for fairly easily, and he bows in respect for the dead before bringing the tablets into the main room.
He places the memorial on either side of the display. The tablets read, still quite clearly, Wei Changze and Cangse Sanren. He had them made with the rest of the tablets that were destroyed by the Wens. Mostly for his father, who had cherished them dearly. But also, in case Wei Wuxian ever changed his mind about getting married. He knows he would have wanted them there.
He lights another stick of incense. He claps his hands together and prostrates himself in front of the memorials.
“A-Die, A-Niang,” he begins. “My loving A-Jie, respected cultivator Cangse Sanren, and Former Head Disciple Wei Changze. The young man I will now introduce is my shixiong, Wei Wuxian’s son.” He takes in a deep breath.
“He is the best of his father, and he has been shaped greatly by the teachings of the Lan Sect and His Excellency, Lan Wangji. He has even been declared worthy of being their future Sect Leader by the elders of the Lan Sect. Much like the rest of his family, he is a strong, noble, and highly talented cultivator. While Lan Sizhui has adopted the Lan name, he exemplifies the Jiang Clan motto with great integrity. I hope you can accept him into our family, as I have, and bless his future and the road he has ahead.” He bows again and stays down for a moment.
Of course, a child pops out of nowhere, he hears his mother’s voice. My lady, any child of Wei Wuxian will always be welcome at Lotus Pier. A-Cheng, his sister’s voice rings in his ears. I’m proud of you. Give A-Yuan all my love and more.
He swallows deeply and gets up. He bids his sister another goodbye, and longs once more to feel the comfort of her presence. He turns to leave, and sees Lan Sizhui standing at the door. He’s in his Gusu Lan robes again. Mourning clothes, as Wei Wuxian once called them. It doesn’t matter. He’s still the shadow of Wei Wuxian, and that’s never going to stop.
He walks to the entrance. “You may go in now.” He says, and cuts past him. Sizhui thanks him for his kindness again; and enters. Before he’s completely inside, Jiang Cheng turns back around.
“Lan Yuan!” the young man looks at his feet at the sound of his given name; spinning to face Jiang Cheng, revealing his wet eyes. “I thought eavesdropping was forbidden in the Cloud Recesses.”
“We’re in Lotus Pier, aren’t we?” is all he says, and Jiang Cheng lets out a broken laugh as he makes the trip back to his study.
At the end of a fortnight, Jiang Cheng finishes up his work early, and finds Sizhui in the library. “Come with me,” he instructs. “We can go see the sunset at the lake.”
Sizhui nods back at him, placing the book back in the shelves. He gently gets to his feet, places his sword back in his hand, and follows Jiang Cheng out. Jiang Cheng ignores the excitement bubbling inside him. The Pier is his favorite place in the world, and he hasn’t gone to see the sunset in a long time. When Zhang Yang had given Sizhui a tour, it had been in the middle of the afternoon, and he still hadn’t seen it.
He’s sure he’s going to love it.
Even as children, they would lose themselves in the bright orange hues of the receding sun. Even at the worst of times, the vast expanse of the lake always felt so much bigger than him, and that was enough to make him feel a little better. But as work and loneliness crept their way into his adult life, he’d found that the sunset was lacklustre without someone to share it with. As with everything he’s done since he told Sizhui to stay back, it’s mostly just for him. He needs it.
They’ve gotten to the point where Jiang Cheng is comfortable being around him. He can read his expressions, even the ones that are not central to his parents, and he knows his next move. He’s begun carrying around Qingyu again, but Jiang Cheng doesn’t ask why. Perhaps it’s to feel less like a patient. He’s wearing the robes Wei Wuxian once called his favourite.
He’s trying his hardest to ignore the feeling that he has a week with Sizhui to fix the repercussions of 16 years of regret. He knows that’s an unfair amount of pressure to put on this child, who walked into his life with no real intention to stay, but the feeling eats him alive. This is your second chance, he thinks. You finally got it.
But every time he lets himself dwell on this, he finds ways to see more and more about how Sizhui isn’t Wei Wuxian. He’s too kind and too gentle, too refined around the edges. He doesn’t laugh as much, he’s quieter, and too fond of studying. He’s devoured most of their library in the span of days, he’s not picky with his food. He’s stunned with loud noises and he loves dogs. He has a weakness for sweets and he still doesn’t drink alcohol. He has too many friends, with letters from Cloud Recesses, Lanling, Baling and many other places coming in every day, he has an entire life outside Lotus Pier which Jiang Cheng will never get to lay his eyes upon. He can’t even align these traits with Lan Wangji, since most of his traits are far removed from what he remembers from their teen years.
It makes him angry. He doesn’t know why but he knows it’s not fair. He shouldn’t be doing this. But every time it gets clearer, he sees the forehead ribbon wrapped around his head and realizes that no, this is not your brother, he’s just in his clothes, he just bares a passing resemblance to him. They’re just similar enough to keep Wei Wuxian’s shadow lingering in his wake, but at times Jiang Cheng wonders if he’s forcing the connection.
He sees the spicy food, the love for music, the extent to which he cares for his weapon, the kindness and laughter and quick wit, and wonders if it’s all a major coincidence. That Lan Sizhui was just Lan Wangji’s favourite disciple, a smart and competent kid who was worthy of the Lan mantle. He wonders if the kindness he’s received was similarly extended to Wei Wuxian, and whether the man had just attached himself to it after being deprived for so long. He wonders if Wei Wuxian just liked him because he reminded him of their sister, of her easy smile and unending warmth.
He really doesn’t like the doubt. He’s missed the ignition of hope coursing through his veins.
There is, however, something that eliminates it completely. Lan Sizhui is in Lotus Pier; and he’s here because of him. He’s here because he took the brunt of an attack meant for Jiang Cheng, and Jiang Cheng still doesn’t know why. He doesn’t understand why, beyond the self-sacrificial nature he’d developed as Wei Wuxian’s son. He wants to know, but he doesn’t know how he should ask.
“Woah,” Sizhui says, and Jiang Cheng turns to face him. His mouth is agape, and his eyes are wide, and he can see how the bleeding colours of the sunset paint his skin with warmth. “This has to be the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen.”
Jiang Cheng’s face softens. He looks at him, and the questions dance at the tip of his tongue. He clears his throat, but Sizhui doesn’t notice. His arms are limp on the side, and his eyes are fixed on the reflections of the lake. He swallows.
“Thank you for asking me to stay. I’m just so happy I got to see this.” Sizhui says suddenly, but he’s still fixed on the view.
“A pretty sunset is making you happy about your injury?” Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow.
“No. I’ve had a really good time the past few weeks.” He says, and it’s the same sincerity Jiang Cheng has become familiar with. “Lotus Pier is really so beautiful and welcoming.” He smiles again, and his head cocks slightly to the side. “I’m so happy that Senior Wei got to call such a wonderful place his home.”
Jiang Cheng’s mouth goes dry momentarily, as it always does at the mention of Wei Wuxian. But it’s temporary. The floodgates open. The dam has broken, there’s no stopping him now. He has to know.
Sizhui finally tears his eyes away from the sunset, which slowly dissolves to dusk. He seems stunned by the fact that Jiang Cheng had turned to him completely. There’s suddenly more distance between them than there has been since the beginning of his stay. “Yes?”
“Why did you jump in front of the sword?”
“Sect Leader Jiang, I don’t –“
“Don’t argue. Just answer.”
Sizhui’s face crumples into a frown. “Sect Leader Jiang, I don’t have a reason. I didn’t think I needed one.”
Jiang Cheng looks at him, stunned. That wasn’t what he was expecting. “How noble, Young Master,” he says, and it’s mean and biting. Sizhui looks cornered.
“You’re young,” Jiang Cheng says, and it’s as condescending as it sounds. “You’ll have to learn that not everyone’s worth saving.” Sizhui looks at him with big, accusatory eyes, shocked at his deprecation.
“Would you rather I had let you die?”
I died a long time ago, he almost says. He’d just have finished the job. He bites his tongue, and looks away, eyes downcast. “Sandu Shengshou.” Sizhui says, and there’s more conviction than he’s ever heard in his voice. Jiang Cheng looks back at him blankly. His expression is still disgruntled, and his lips are in a thin line.
“I may never understand the reasons you had for killing my father. But he didn’t need one to save your life, and neither did I.”
Jiang Cheng has to stop himself from gawking at him. The young man is the closest he can possibly be to anger, his free hand balled into a fist. A gust of wind knocks through them. Jiang Cheng laughs.
He laughs and laughs until his stomach hurts. He hugs himself and wheezes until he can no longer breathe. Sizhui’s gaze cuts through him as he struggles to keep standing. “That’s utter nonsense,” he pants, “you’re his son after all.”
Sizhui’s lips twist back into a frown. “Sect Leader Jiang.”
“What? Got more wisdom for me?” He says. Of course, Sizhui blames him. Who doesn’t? He’s given up. It’s fine. This week will end; and this pretend family he’s found in Sizhui will die with it. He’ll go back to leaning over the edge of the hole Wei Wuxian left within him. There’s nothing left in him but hollow laughter and regret.
“Senior Wei’s letter insisted I come home immediately. I refused. I could have handled the flight back.”
“You couldn’t have.” Jiang Cheng says stubbornly.
“I could have, and we both knew it. It wasn’t unbecoming of me to not accept your gratitude. It was unbecoming of me to leave you alone when your wounds were clearly worse than mine.”
Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes, but his heart stops in his chest. “What are you trying to imply?”
“That you’re tired. You’re hurt. And you never say anything, even though you have people who want to help.” Jiang Cheng scoffs. “Jin Ling, your disciples, Senior Wei.” Jiang Cheng’s hands ball into fists. “He thinks you need space. He’s not going to realise you don’t until you let him know. He cares. They all care. I care.”
“And what were you planning to do? Play your guqin until I’m fine again? I hate to break it to you, but I don’t need to be healed, especially not by you.” He snaps, and malice drips from his voice. You’ve ruined it, Jiang Cheng. Like you ruined Wei Wuxian. Like you ruin everything. “Congratulations, you’re truly a Lan! You pretend you understand everyone’s hardship, but you’re really just trying to place yourself above them. You don’t care. You don’t know me at all. You don’t understand what it’s like.”
Sizhui stays calm, but there’s a storm behind his eyes. “I remembered your face.”
“I remembered your face. I didn’t before, not until I told you I couldn’t stay.”
“Lan Yuan, what the hell –“
“I remembered your face, because it was the same one you made when I first saw you.” Jiang Cheng tries to cut in, but he isn’t allowed. “And no, it wasn’t at the wedding where you followed Zewu-Jun and me to the gardens. I was younger. Three, maybe four. You told Senior Wei to come home with you, and he refused.”
Jiang Cheng’s bottom lip quivers. He closes his eyes, and the memory starts to materialize behind his lids.
“You fought near the blood pool. You told him to come back home. He said no. You asked him to return to his real family and he didn’t. I was hiding behind Ning-shushu’s bed. I was too small for either of you to see me. Senior Wei came back after, injured and upset. He never told any of us why. I was young. I used to hug people’s legs when I liked them. I did not like you. But I thought if I did, you’d stop being so mean to Senior Wei. To – ” he breaks. “Xian-gege, as I called him then.”
Jiang Cheng feels bile rise in his throat, the phantom feeling of the child’s little arms wrapping around his legs tethering him from running away. He’d shooed him away like he was a stray begging for scraps, and Wei Wuxian scolded him like a disgruntled parent before he was sent running towards an old Wen. “Stop,” he whispers, barely audible, and Sizhui hears him, but is now beyond his veil of kindness.
“I didn’t understand!” his voice breaks. “I was too young. But I do now. I know what it’s like to feel abandoned. I know what it’s like to have no family, it happened to me twice before I even turned five. Hanguang-Jun found me and took me back to Cloud Recesses before your men did. You’re wrong, Sect Leader Jiang. I’m not truly a Lan,” his breath hitches in his throat. His eyes suddenly fill with tears. “And as happy as I am that you introduced me to your family as such – I’m not a Jiang. I was born a Wen.”
Jiang Cheng can’t breathe anymore. There’s another weak attempt at protest, but it’s trapped in his throat. His chest seizes and his vision gets blurry. He’s a Wen. He’s a Wen. He’s a disgusting, despicable Wen who Lan Wangji hid for years. His clan killed your family. His clan took your golden core. His clan is the reason Wei Wuxian gave you his own. He’s the child from the Burial Mounds. The one you had long since forgotten, his life meaningless and a curse like the rest of them. The one Wei Wuxian spoke to as his own. He’s the Wen that lay forgotten while the rest were slain. He’s a child who would have died at his hand if Lan Wangji hadn’t gotten to him first. Lan Yuan – Wen Yuan’s next words reverberate in his ears.
“Hanguang-Jun took me in. He gave me a chance to have a family again. I wanted to do the same for you.”
He can’t take it anymore. He screams, loud and in anguish, and Sizhui finally stops talking. He screams so loud the birds at the dock fly to shelter. Jiang Cheng looks at him, his eyes brandishing a pathetic, teary plea for mercy, his chest still heavy with loud, shattering cries, and no longer sees Lan Wangji. Even the strongest cultivator of their generation, the one person who hated Jiang Cheng as much as he hated himself, could never reduce him to this. He would never have the power to render him so completely helpless.
That was Wei Wuxian, through and through.
He runs. He doesn’t know how long he stares at Sizhui – Wen Yuan – before his feet move before him. He’s still crying – and he feels like a petulant child throwing a tantrum. He runs, runs back to Lotus Pier, the ground caving under him. He leaves Sizhui unmoving, exactly where he is. If he died right now, his soul would shatter into more pieces than they could ever find.
He runs past the disciples who call after him. He runs into his room and locks himself in; and slaps a silencing talisman on the door to mask the noise. He screams. He screams and screams until his throat is hoarse and he’s out of breath. He screams louder than he had when he held his sister’s lifeless body in his arms, he screams louder than when he’d passed out drunk in the rubble of Wei Wuxian’s memorial tablet. He screams louder than he did when Wen Ning told him the truth of what happened to Wei Wuxian.
He screams at the faces of everyone he’s lost, screams at them for leaving him, screams at them for not taking him along. He screams at the Wens, all of them, he screams the way he wanted to when the Wens stuffed a rolled piece of cloth in his mouth so he wouldn’t bite off his tongue. He screams the way he wanted to when Wen Qing spared him no more than a fleeting glance before walking towards her own execution. He screams the way he wanted to when his newly widowed sister cried into his shoulder. He screams at Lan Wangji, for every condescending, disgusted look that’s ever come his way, treating him like a speck of dirt on his pristine white robes. He screams at him for treating him like he deserved, like he was better off dead, all while he was raising a fugitive. He screams at him for luring his brother away from him with every strum of his instrument.
He screams at Wei Wuxian, for being a curse on his life since the day he walked into it. He screams at his golden core embedded in his body. He screams at him for getting a second chance at life and still choosing to leave Jiang Cheng out of it. He screams at him for abandoning him even though he promised to stay by his side forever.
He saves what’s left of his throat for Wen Yuan. He’s coughing and sputtering and vomiting on his floor, but he screams at Lan Sizhui. He screams at him for mending a hole in his heart only to rip it out once more.
He doesn’t have any water. He downs every bottle of alcohol he has in the room before smashing the bottles on the wall, falling asleep in a puddle of his own vomit and the broken pieces of glass, wishing someone would try and piece him together.
When he wakes up, he’s in his bed. He doesn’t know how he got there, and who opened his door and cleaned his room. His hair is damp and his head splits in pain with the worst hangover he’s ever had. He can’t stomach the thought of food, so he drowns himself in the comfort of a bath. It’s freezing cold. He doesn’t feel it.
He dips his head into the water and stays there for a minute, sighing softly to himself. He doesn’t want to get out. He doesn’t want to face Wen Yuan in general, especially after his confession yesterday. Especially after his reaction yesterday. He knows the disciples are talking. Gossip is very much not forbidden in Lotus Pier, and they’re probably bubbling in concern or excitement at the way he'd broken down yesterday. Whoever cleaned him and placed his limp body on the bed was sure to talk, and he can’t even blame them after leaving the room in shambles.
He doesn’t want to work. He’s tired and broken and sad, but he knows that staying in his study is the only way he’s going to completely ignore the questions that are extended to him. He knows that burying himself in bureaucratic nonsense is the only way his eyes will not wander to Sizhui’s face, staring at him intensely as he rubbed salt on every one of Jiang Cheng’s open wounds. Jiang Cheng knows he goaded him. He knows he asked for it. But he didn’t have to tell Jiang Cheng who he was. He didn’t have to tell Jiang Cheng about where he came from. He didn’t have to break down his trauma and outline every single one of his regrets, peeling back the layers of his outer shell until he was bare, exposed and vulnerable. Most importantly, he didn’t have to be right. He didn’t have to figure out everything he had expertly hidden over the 20 years; and lay it out on the pier as he watched. He didn’t have to ruin this fantasy they’d created over the last two weeks of them having a simple relationship, no baggage of their painful pasts attached.
He really didn’t need to tell him the truth.
And Jiang Cheng doesn’t know what to do with it. Jin Ling is close enough to him to already know, so that card has already been ripped out of his hands. The Ghost General – Ning-shushu, he’d called him, has spent enough time hovering around those Juniors. If Jin Ling knows, the others do as well. Barely anyone alive would believe him, and he doesn’t know what he can do.
There’s a cruel part of him that knows he can use this information to discredit the Chief Cultivator. He can reveal his secret, watch his face contort in discomfort as the masses finally turn against him, for harbouring a war criminal in the Cloud Recesses all this time. He can use it to prove once and for all that Hanguang-Jun isn’t untouchable, he has a weakness, and that weakness is Wei Wuxian. His obsession with and unchanging love for him was always bound to be his downfall, and there’s no way his sect could shield him with their own punishments this time. They’d abdicate his position and give it to someone else. He knows the major sects will form a rebuttal. A four-year-old child isn’t a war criminal, and there’s no way Lan indoctrination hasn’t made him a loyal and trustworthy heir. It’s true, he knows. Wen Yuan is far from a threat. Their contributions would make sense, they’d be effective and truthful and logical.
But it’s not as if Sect Leader Yao and the other minor clans have ever understood logic.
A part of him knows it’ll do nothing of major significance. At best, Lan Wangji loses the façade he’s managed so well to maintain, and the world will see him the way Jiang Cheng does. At worst, he’s ruining the child’s life for good, setting him up for expulsion from the clan or even possible execution, and Wei Wuxian will truly, finally, hate him.
He wonders if then, his life would finally be better. If he wasn’t burdened by Wei Wuxian’s utter nonchalance and beaten with the true, miserable hatred he deserves, if his lonely, pathetic life will finally be worth pursuing. Or, more likely, will the remaining pieces of him simply crumble to dust, finally crushed by the regret that weighs them down?
The distant strum of Lan Sizhui’s guqin reaches his ears. As he finally exits the tub, he knows they will.
He’s holed up in his study for four days. He returns to his room at odd hours in the night to avoid running into Sizhui. He walks past Wei Wuxian’s room fast enough that he barely hears his footsteps. He’s gotten his meals delivered to his door, and Zhang Yang is the only one bold enough to open the door and see if he’s alive. Three days more, he thinks, and Sizhui will go home. He’ll go back to his life and you’ll go back to your own.
He tries, despite his ongoing anguish, to not feel disappointed. He’s missing something he’s never had, and it’s been so long that he’s even had a companion, that he’d even settle for someone like him. A Wen.
He still hears the chattering in the courtyard. Zhang Yang seems to have made it her personal mission to make sure he eats in the dining hall to make sure it’s used, even without Jiang Cheng, and he hears them from his desk outside the room. He hears a small banquet thrown in his honour in one of the disciple’s rooms, the way he, Wei Wuxian, Nie Huaisang once had in the Cloud Recesses. It’s loud and warm, and he can hear their vehement protests from downstairs as Sizhui refuses every drink that’s handed to him, as he insists on ending the festivities far too early for Yunmeng standards.
They’ve grown attached; Jiang Cheng thinks. They like him enough to shower him with attention every day, and Jiang Cheng is sure he doesn’t feel lonely even while he’s being ignored. He sighs and dismisses the warm feeling of satisfaction that blooms in his chest.
He hears his guqin, playing a series of songs – in the courtyard, through the walls, from right outside his door. It gets to the point where he’s sure he’s imagining them, the way the chords run relax him no matter how he tries to drown them out. He doesn’t dare leave, still locking himself in, even as the sounds grow clearer, till he’s sure the young man has camped outside his door, playing until their inevitable confrontation.
Only on the fourth night, he gets the courage to check. The music plays into late hours in the evening as he studies a register and reviews night hunt reports. He knows the songs well enough now – there are three he remembers from tune alone. The first one, the love song the disciples beg to hear. The second is the Lan song of Clarity. He wonders, belatedly, if the third is something Sizhui composed himself.
The music stops for hours, and Jiang Cheng decides now is the only window he has to escape his study for a chance to sleep. What he doesn’t expect, is to see Sizhui in front of his door, guqin on his lap, fast asleep. It’s the first time he’s seen him since his outburst. He’d expected it to be more climactic – with him throwing him out of Lotus Pier or officially cutting his ties with the Lans. But there’s nothing.
He sleeps calmly, peacefully, with stiffness only a Lan would possess. He’s not a Lan, though, the voice inside his head screams. He’s a Wen. He’s the only surviving Wen. He frowns uncomfortably, but he can’t tear his eyes away, so he stands where he is, completely still, trying not to wake him up. He takes a long, hard look at his face. It’s still the same – youthful, soft, and kind. He’d expected the worst, for him to warp into the image of a malevolent Wen Chao, but it’s seems his fears were unfounded. He still looks the same. Young, injured, and vulnerable – but just in a different way.
He breathes softly, and Jiang Cheng feels the cool early winter draft flow through the corridor. He wonders if he has the strength to wake him up, even though he has no intention to confront him now. He sighs, sure he’ll get sick, and retreats into his office to retrieve the quilt he kept on his chair in the winter.
He drapes it over him, and Sizhui fumbles, and Jiang Cheng moves back suddenly, afraid he’s truly woken him up. But he hasn’t. His forehead ribbon is crooked, and Jiang Cheng moves to adjust it, fixing it gently so it’s parallel to his eyebrows once again. Sizhui simply grumbles at the touch, and a faint apology escapes his mouth. He looks troubled again, and so, so painfully young, and Jiang Cheng watches him carefully as he speaks in his sleep. “I’m sorry, Sect Leader,” he says, and his eyebrows knit together. “I’m sorry, Jiang-shush…” he says, and his voice trails off.
Jiang Cheng’s heart seizes in his chest. He gives him one more solid look before he gently adjusts the blanket to cover him completely, closing his study door behind him.
It seems the disciples aren’t the only ones who’ve gotten attached.
It’s his birthday again. He doesn’t know which one, but he’s younger than he is now, standing in the courtyard as his sister runs out of the Sword Hall to meet him. She’s gorgeous, the way she always was, and he sees Jin Ling, as he was when he was 3 years old, finding his footage, trailing shortly behind her.
“A-Jie!” He smiles, and she runs to give him a hug. Jin Ling reaches behind her, and he tugs at her skirt to get her attention back on him. A spoiled, pampered little child. Just like his father.
“Happy Birthday, A-Cheng!” She grins; and holds his hands in hers. “Oh, you look so handsome! Every time I leave you it’s like you get taller.” She reaches out to pat his head. She looks so happy. Jin Ling toddles up to him and punches him in the knee. Seems like the closest thing he’ll get to a birthday wish from the brat. “A-Xuan sends his regards, he’s sad he couldn’t make the trip.”
Jiang Cheng shakes his head. He’s probably not. “It’s fine, A-Jie. I’m happy enough to see you.”
“A-Cheng, I feel so left out! I planned all this, you know!” There’s a familiar voice behind him, and his sister looks at him with a smile. It’s Wei Wuxian.
Jiang Cheng knows it’s a dream when he sees him catch up to them in his old body. Still in his black robes, Chengqing at his waist, Wei Wuxian grins at him. Jiang Cheng knows, like all the others, this peaceful dream life with his siblings would also end in bloodshed, just like it did before. He smiles at the sight of him anyway. “Sandu Shengshou!” Wei Wuxian calls. “Happy Birthday! Are you happy to see your surprise?”
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. “If I knew the Yiling Laozu was my birthday present, I would’ve appreciated all the Lotus pods you’ve handed me over the years,” his sister giggles. Jin Ling has climbed into her arms, but he’s suddenly reaching out to come down excitedly. “Why are you here, anyway? I thought your duties as the new Madam Lan are keeping you busy at the Cloud Recesses.” He says, and Wei Wuxian sticks out his tongue.
“Madam Lan, I wish. If Old Man Qiren heard you say that, he’d truly go into Qi Deviation.” Wei Wuxian shook his head. “I wanted to come and wish my shidi; you know! A-Yuan wanted to as well!”
Jiang Cheng now sees what Jin Ling was making grabby hands at. There’s a young boy hiding behind Wei Wuxian’s legs, his large eyes peeking through, a little forehead ribbon around his head. “A-Yuan!” His sister smiles and puts Jin Ling down. The child runs towards him so quick that A-Yuan takes a step back, shy from the number of eyes now on him. Wei Wuxian blocks Jin Ling’s attacks with his legs, and he laughs as if he’s created a game, Jin Ling running headfirst to get past his legs.
“A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian says, placing his hand on his little head. “Greet your family.” Jiang Cheng sighs softly at the declaration as A-Yuan shyly steps forward to walk into his sister’s open arms. She pinches his cheeks and asks him questions about his life, about Hanguang-Jun, how he likes the Cloud Recesses, his new home.
A-Yuan responds to everything politely, and even manages to provide solace to a Jin Ling who grabs at his hair and clothes to get his attention. Jiang Cheng realizes far too late that this is a world where he still had his family, they were still alive and well – living happily, watching their children grow. A-Yuan turns to greet him, and he smiles.
He’s no longer the shabby, dirty child in the Burial Mounds. Lan Wangji’s rogue visit and promise to protect the Wens had led the lot of them to the Cloud Recesses, and much to everyone’s surprise, their courtship was as revolutionary as it was successful. Wen Yuan – Lan Yuan, now, was officially intercepted into the Lan Family. He looked the part too; his little forehead ribbon and white robes make him look like the sheer mirror image of Lan Wangji.
The child bowed at him to wish a happy birthday, and Jiang Cheng kneeled down to speak to him.
“I wish we could have met like this,” He says, and Lan Yuan looks at him with confusion. His siblings look at him wearily, and he stares back into their concerned eyes. He wishes he had this, he thinks, he wishes this lovely future hadn’t been ripped out of his hands. He wishes he’d swallowed his pride and asked Lan Wangji for help. He wishes he’d believed more in his brother.
He wishes, as he strokes the side of Lan Yuan’s full cheeks, his eyebrows still knitted in concern, that someone had given him a chance to have a family again.
Just as the thoughts materialize in his head, the scene before him disappears. He’s still on his knees, but the ground beneath him has crumbled, but he’s still upright, floating in darkness, his hand dropping to his side. He doesn’t stand a chance. He’s completely alone.
“You’re not.” He hears; and turns around to see Lan Sizhui in front of him. He’s still in Wei Wuxian’s clothes – and his face is hardened, his eyes glazed over like it was on the docks. “Hanguang-Jun gave me another chance to have a family. I wanted to do the same for you.”
“I want to, Sizhui! I really – I really do. But I can’t!” he cringes. “I ruined everything when I let your father die!” He says to him, finally saying the words that were trapped in his screams. “It’s too late for me.” He looks at Sizhui with a cold, quiet desperation, and it’s only then his smile returns to his face.
“It’s never too late, Jiang-shushu.” Sizhui says, and Jiang Cheng’s eyes flicker as his face shifts, and suddenly, he’s staring at Wei Wuxian, as he is now.
“Here’s your chance, Jiang Cheng.” Wei Wuxian smiles down at him. “It’s not too late for us. It never was.”
Jiang Cheng’s heart plummets to his stomach. “But – but how, how can you forgive me for everything I’ve done?”
“You little fool. I never blamed you in the first place.” Wei Wuxian’s grin doesn’t waver as he reaches his hand out to him.
The years of loneliness resound in the echo of his little laugh as Jiang Cheng’s face breaks into a teary smile. Finally, breathing a sigh of relief, he abandons his pride and reaches back.
He wakes with a sharp knock on the door. Finally, ready to face whoever’s on the other side, he neatens himself up before asking them to come in. It’s Zhang Yang.
She walks in, looking at him suspiciously. “Sect Leader, did you sleep here again?”
Jiang Cheng snorts. Guess it’s far too easy to tell. “No,” he says anyway, and goes back to shuffling things on his desk. She continues to tell him about the work they’re doing today, and what they have left to teach the disciples.
“Hanguang-Jun sent a letter saying he’s returned to Cloud Recesses. They will arrive here in 3 days.” Jiang Cheng turns his head to her and nods. Three days. “Lan Sizhui asked if he could join our training today. I asked the doctor to check him before saying yes. It seems he’s recovered enough for a little exercise. I told him he was welcome to.”
Jiang Cheng sighs, remembering what he had to told him during the first few weeks. “Fine.”
“Sect Leader…” she begins, and Jiang Cheng braces himself for the question. Are you okay? Why are you ignoring him? Why are you hiding in your own home? He doesn’t know how to answer any of those. “You haven’t overseen practice in 4 days. Perhaps if you have time, you should come today. The disciples need your guidance.”
Jiang Cheng wrinkles his nose; but can’t decide whether or not she’s right. “I’ll see,” is all he says, and Zhang Yang turns to leave the room. “Disciple Zhang,” he says, and she whips back around to look at him.
“You have hereby been promoted to Head Disciple. I will make the changes to the register. Please inform the rest.”
She stares at him before processing the promotion, before bowing and thanking him profusely. He nods wordlessly and opens the new disciple’s register on his desk once she leaves, and finally places the symbol next to her name. He sees Wei Wuxian’s signature, and it’s still there, where it belongs, and decides now is not the time to officially cross it out. It feels superfluous, but he sighs, using this little task as the first, monumental step towards closure.
The training has begun. He’s been hearing the chants and shouting for an hour, but he stares blankly at an empty piece of parchment, willing himself to respond to Sect Leader Yao’s obnoxious letter. He twists his lips at the thought of going downstairs, watching Lan Sizhui fight alongside the Jiang disciples – and decides he’s better off inside.
He abandons the letter and browses through his files, before a small box falls at his feet. He looks at it with confusion before he realizes it was the gift Jin Ling had given him on his birthday. The gift he still hadn’t had the chance to open. He looks at it carefully before he opens it, and his eyes widen once he sees what’s on the inside. He swallows deeply as he takes it out, examining its intricate design before he closes his eyes, wishing he had just opened it earlier.
It was a Jiang Clarity bell. A bell with a loop and a little purple tassel, devoid of the spiritual energy it had from its owner. It once belonged to someone who was already dead.
It was his sister’s.
Jin Ling must have found it while looking through her old room, and has regifted it to him, knowing what it means. His heart grows fond as he looks at it, thinking about how it hung at her waist, showing the world she was a Jiang before anything else. He’s surprised Jin Ling is even able to part with it. He looks at it carefully and remembers how much family had meant to his sister, and how much and how unconditionally she loved him.
He almost smacks his forehead when realization washes over him. He places it back in the box and jumps to his feet. Training isn’t over just yet.
Training is mostly over, but it’s turned into something far different. He walks into the courtyard to see Sizhui ruthlessly sparring with a Junior, calling out instructions to improve his form as he moves swiftly around him. He fights almost exactly like Lan Xichen, graceful and slight, but with an almost uncanny brutality. The battle ends with Sizhui knocking the sword out of the disciple’s hands, smiling as he tells him what he could work on.
“He’s good, isn’t he?” Zhang Yang says, appearing mysteriously by his side. “They’re far too used to fighting each other. They know all their moves. Throwing him into the mix keeps them on their toes.”
He nods, watching as the next disciple comes up to Sizhui. A whistle blows, and Sizhui cuts into him, and the swords clash as he moves to increase the disciple’s range of attacks. This fight is even shorter, and it ends with the Junior disciple hunching over, hands on his knees as he tries to catch his breath. “Brother Lan, you’re fantastic even at this! I’ve never been beaten so easily before!”
A couple of surrounding disciples snort and deny this claim, and apparently, he’s not tired enough to lean over and smack them. Sizhui laughs brightly and places his hand on his shoulder. “Your form and swordsmanship are good. You must simply avoid panicking when you can’t predict your opponent’s next move -,”
He’s interrupted by one of the surrounding disciples’ finally noticing Jiang Cheng, and all of them are thrown into a bumbling frenzy as they attempt to greet him. Jiang Cheng sighs as Sizhui eyes him carefully from where he is, not sure on where they stand. Jiang Cheng doesn’t try and clear it up.
“What, is training over?” he snaps, looking at one who immediately stands up straight. “All of you can’t fight with Sizhui, so spilt into groups and spar each other!” Sizhui nods as the rest of them fumble to be on his team, and he notices that the strongest ones get first choice. Jiang Cheng doesn’t tear his eyes off of him, watching closely as he tears through his best fighters, leaving each of them a sweating, fumbling mess after training. They all seem excited for the opportunity to fight him regardless; and thank him as he gives them short tips on how to be better.
He’s good, Jiang Cheng knows. His movements are fluid and versatile, and few of these disciples know about the Lan Sect fighting style. But there’s something different about the way he fights. He’d noticed it during the night hunt – Lan moves are fairly defensive, but Sizhui’s are not. He dives into frontal offensive attacks the same way Wei Wuxian once did, and more than half of his signatures are entirely his own. Even at such a young age, he’s mastered the craft enough to be creative – and it shows.
Once all the groups are done, they gather around him to shower him with praise again, and Sizhui blushes modestly and tells them to stop. Excessive Praise is Forbidden, Jiang Cheng scoffs, before his newly appointed Head Disciple clears her throat next to him. “Lan Sizhui.” She says. “If you’d do me the honour, I think I might need to make up for the incompetence of my other disciples,” She glares at the group.
They grumble at her, crossing their arms in defence, but Sizhui seems more than agreeable. “Of course,” he smiles, and there’s a glint in his eyes Jiang Cheng has long learnt to fear from his father.
It seems the powerful Lan heir is finally fighting an equal. They’re equated on strength, skill and speed – and she has the benefit of being several years his senior. The disciples roar in excitement, as she slides across, her sword slicing past his face, her form absolutely immaculate. Jiang Cheng knows what she’s doing.
The female Lan disciples are trained separately, and they’re forbidden to interact with the men during their training. Lan Sizhui has probably never in good conscience fought a female disciple, especially not one as strong as Zhang Yang. He’s hardly holding back – but it’s new, and he fumbles for the first time that day as her sword twists in her hand.
He’s had enough practice now to understand how the Jiangs move, but it’s clear he’s mostly unmatched as she almost knocks Qingyu out of his hands, and the disciples cheer as she finally gets the upper hand.
And then, something changes.
He moves so fast she can barely see him, and she’s knocked down to the ground in a rapid flash of movement. It’s nothing like the graceful movement he’d applied earlier, it’s fast, efficient, and if he was taking it seriously – it was possibly deadly. She recoils, her sword still in her hand, but it seems Sizhui’s closing in to step on it to keep it down. Jiang Cheng almost intervenes – as that form of disrespect is not allowed in Lotus Pier, especially not during training. Even Wei Wuxian wouldn’t stoop that low.
He doesn’t though. He uses her shorthand balance while rising to knock her sword out her hands, and she looks at him, almost confused as to how she lost.
Sizhui smiles. “That was so much fun! You’re truly amazing, Senior Zhang! You’re so fast, I could barely keep up. I can’t wait to get to your level of skill. Please let us do this again sometime.”
“Truly,” she says, but she’s looking at him in surprise. She can’t believe she lost, even though she’d been at a much higher level. The disciples all stand in stunned silence. Zhang Yang finally laughs and slumps her shoulders. “You’re really as brilliant as they say.”
There are murmurs of agreement from the crowd, and they continue to make amicable conversation before Jiang Cheng steps in. “I guess I’m next, then.” The murmuring stops.
Sizhui stares at him in silence as the disciples openly gawk. Even Zhang Yang, who at this point is used to his whims, stares back in mild horror.
“Sect Leader Jiang…” he starts, but Jiang Cheng already places his hand up to shut him up.
“You beat most of my Juniors and my head disciple. Clearly that means you have the skills to be my opponent,” He slides Zidian off his wrist and places it in Zhang Yang’s hands.
“Sect Leader Jiang, of course I’m not – “
“No need to be modest, Young Master Lan. It’s been a while since I’ve done this.” He stretches his arms. “It might even be fun.” Sizhui looks at him suspiciously, as if he knows exactly what this is about. Jiang Cheng smirks at him. “Come on. I’ll be insulted if you refuse, especially after we’ve offered such kindness to you during your recovery.”
Sizhui gulps and nods, and Zhang Yang eyes him again before they spread out to give them space. Before the whistle goes off, he looks Sizhui right in the eyes and says, “Don’t hold back.”
He doesn’t. He goes immediately defensive, blocking every single one of Jiang Cheng’s attacks with graceful ease. That’s not what he wants though. He wants to push him as far as he did earlier – to see where that move came from, to see at what point he really starts protecting himself. He spins in a move reminiscent of Lan Wangji as he blocks Sandu once again, sliding across the floors to hold him back.
Jiang Cheng is going easy on him, of course. It would reflect poorly if he ragefully attacked such a young man, but he works faster than Zhang Yang did, Sizhui’s eyes tracing every movement. They’re silent as they fight – Sizhui has no need to comment on his form or the fluidity of his movements, much to Jiang Cheng’s amusement.
He smiles again when Sizhui finally does something fun, coming at him straight, and Jiang Cheng hits him hard enough to send him back. He’s panting, and Jiang Cheng’s not sure just how long they’ve been going – but he’s getting tired now.
He watches as Sizhui loses his breath with every extension of every move, and the moments where he’s got enough freedom to attack are fewer and fewer. Qingyu’s a very good sword, much like Suibian was – and Sizhui’s golden core is strong enough that his energy seeps through Sandu. He’s very close to a worthy opponent.
They’ve been fighting for long now – far longer than a spar should go on for, and Jiang Cheng finally begins to lose some of his footing. Sizhui seems to notice, and he returns to full speed. It’s crazy almost, how antithetical his personality is once that sword reaches his hand. He’s fast again, but Jiang Cheng is still stronger, and there’s another close call where Qingyu almost flies out of the ring.
Sizhui’s desperate now, and his shallow movements return. Jiang Cheng risks losing to watch where they come from, and as Qingyu flies near his face to throw him off, he realizes where he’s seen it before.
The quick, rapid movements, the rough sleight of hand. The humiliating end results Sizhui modifies – saving the opponent from the feeling of being left almost entirely at their attacker’s mercy - they’re all reminiscent of a style of fighting no one has used in years.
Those are Wen moves.
His body snaps into survival mode as remembers how close Sizhui was to the Ghost General – who grew up training with Wen boys, including Wen Zhuliu, who did the same to him – stepping on his sword with his other foot on Jiang Cheng’s neck as he proceeded to melt his core. His mind fogs and he leaps forward, unaware of his movement before he realizes where he was.
He can’t see. There are gasps from the crowd, but his eyes are still closed, his memories playing clearly behind him. He can’t look. He knows he has lost control. He knows he moved too hard, he knows Sizhui is hurt. He holds out Sandu, his hand shivering, unable to process what he might have done.
He’s probably injured again. Hanguang-Jun will return to find his son immobilised yet again, and he’ll demand Jiang Cheng pay for his crimes, Wei Wuxian standing behind him, glaring at him with nothing but hatred. He’s lost control and hurt his family. His fate is sealed, no matter what revelations he may have come to on his own.
“Sect Leader Jiang?” He hears, and he finally opens his eyes to see his sword is clean and bloodless, and there’s no one in front of him. There are more gasps from the disciples, and a loud echo of ‘the Lan heir even knows Yunmeng techniques?!’. He turns around quickly to see Sizhui crouching behind him – pausing their spar for Jiang Cheng’s disassociation. Only now does he realise what actually happened.
His sword would have pierced him straight where his wound from the night hunt had healed. It would have, if Sizhui hadn’t used a disorienting blow from Qingyu to misdirect his impulsive move. That wasn’t a Lan technique. That wasn’t even a Wen technique. That was a technique created by his own father.
Jiang Cheng laughs. He looks at Sizhui’s concerned little face, dives in for another attack, and laughs. “Where the hell did you pick that up?” he laughs when Sizhui blocks him again, jumping to his feet.
“Hanguang-Jun!” Clash. “He taught me.” Clash. “Yunmeng techniques!” Clash. “When I received my sword.” SIzhui blocks him repeatedly, but his face is changing. The concern and weariness have vanished, and he’s fighting back with full force.
“And how did he know my father’s technique? How?” Jiang Cheng smirks and surges forward, and Sizhui holds Qingyu in both hands to defend himself, a full smile on his face now.
“How do you think?” he grins, and Jiang Cheng knocks his ankle back with his foot in a final blow, finally sending Qingyu flying out of Sizhui’s hands. “He said it was important for me to know them as well and taught me what he remembered before getting me a book,” He says, smiling up from his place on the ground, unaffected by his first loss of the day.
“How romantic,” Jiang Cheng’s voice drips with casual annoyance as he reaches his hand out to help Sizhui get up. The crowd of disciples erupt in cheers. Finally, he thinks, as Sizhui takes his hand with ease. I have won.
It’s later that evening when Jiang Cheng moves to find Sizhui, only to be directed to the docks. He sighs. It seemed Jiang Cheng had ruined his initial view of the Yunmeng sunset, and he’s just about to ruin it again. He walks to the pier and sees a figure in black sitting on the edge. He leans over, his feet in the water, and as he gets closer, Jiang Cheng can see the red ribbon in his hair, and if he stood there for a minute longer, he’d have felt Wei Wuxian never left.
It’s a good feeling, he thinks. But it’s a bandage on a wound that has yet to be stitched up, and the time has arrived for him to bid the familiar comfort of his pain goodbye. He swallows, and watches for just one more minute – savouring his cruel nostalgia, before he clears his throat.
When the figure turns, for once, he abandons his hope to see Wei Wuxian. Instead, he sees Lan Sizhui – he really, really, sees him, without the lingering shadows of his parents. Without the ghost of Jiang Cheng’s past clouding his judgement. And what he sees is a strong young man with a gentle face, who is ready to face the future even with the horrors that linger in his past. He belatedly realizes they once had a lot in common – the same wide-eyed curiosity about the word outside their clan, the same tantalizing desire for responsibility before it’s forcefully thrust upon them.
“May I join you?” He asks, and Sizhui looks at him with a smile. He’s not wearing his forehead ribbon for once – and he spots it bundled next to him, possibly wet from cleaning.
Jiang Cheng contemplates standing by his side as he sees Sizhui’s bare feet sway in the water. But he sighs and kneels down instead, taking off his boots and dipping his feet in next to him. Sizhui seems amused by this, and he stifles a little laugh.
“I haven’t done this in a long time,” He grumbles, and Sizhui looks down at his own feet.
They sit in comfortable silence for a little while, watching the sun dissolve into the horizon. A few more beats pass before Jiang Cheng speaks again. “It seems I must apologise to you. I have done you a great injustice.” He folds his hands in his lap.
“There’s no need to apologise.”
“There is, and I don’t care if your humility passes my own,” he says, far too quickly, and Sizhui’s face grows small. “You were right, about my wounds being worse than yours.” He laughs bitterly, and watches as his toes make little ripples as they rise out of the water. “I had just gotten so used to having them, I didn’t even notice.”
“Sect Leader –“
“Let me finish.” Jiang Cheng places his hand up to silence him. “You tried to give me a chance. I was wrong to not offer you the same courtesy. I have been so preoccupied in trying to see my brother in you that I forgot to look at you as more than the sum of your parts.” Sizhui’s eyes widen at the accusation. “And that was not something you deserved, Lan Sizhui. I am sorry.”
Sizhui’s face goes through many emotions before it lands on a placid smile. He looks back at the view. “We grew lotuses there, you know.”
Jiang Cheng takes a while to understand what he means. “In the Burial Mounds? How is that…is that possible?”
“I doubt it, but isn’t that the Jiang Clan motto? Attempt the impossible? Because Senior Wei really tried.” Jiang Cheng scoffed. “And after months of trying, they got one of the seeds to sprout.”
“Oh?” Jiang Cheng mumbles. He’s not sure where this is going.
“I was a child. I had never seen anything like it before,” he says with a soft exhale. “I yanked the one good sprout of the soil. Senior Wei scolded me so badly I burst into tears.” He sighs. “He finally had a piece of his home up there, and I just, shattered it to pieces.” He sounds wistful, almost as if he still felt guilty.
Jiang Cheng frowns. A piece of his home. “But angry as he was, when I apologised, he – he forgave me so easily. And just like that,” he stares into the water with a distant smile, “the flowers soon began to bloom.”
“He actually did it?” Jiang Cheng asks, stunned, and Sizhui nods.
“They weren’t nearly as big or as beautiful as the ones here, and really, Senior Wei was a terrible farmer,” he laughs. “But they did. And he was so happy.” Sizhui smiles at him. “I hope you understand that I don’t hold your reaction against you. I never would. But I meant what I said. No matter how much damage your home succumbs to, it is always waiting to be rebuilt.”
“And what if it’s too late?” Jiang Cheng says quietly. His words both soothe and sting.
“It’s never too late, Jiang-shushu.”
Jiang Cheng’s breath hitches in his throat as Sizhui repeats the words from his dream. “Jiang-shushu?”
“I’m sorry…” Sizhui’s ears grow darker in the orange haze. “It slipped out.”
“It’s fine. You may call me that if you wish.” Jiang-shushu, he thinks. He’s officially inherited his father’s former title. He doesn’t bother to hide the smile that creeps onto his face.
“Really? Jiang-shushu,” Sizhui tests. “I would like that too.” Jiang Cheng ignores how warmth blooms in his stomach; and reaches for his sleeve.
“I wanted to give this to you.” He reveals the wooden box, and hands it to Sizhui. “It is a Jiang Clarity bell. It stores the spiritual energy of its owner; and helps aid tranquillity. You must have seen A-Ling use it before.” Sizhui nods, beaming at the gesture. Before he can open his mouth to thank him, Jiang Cheng speaks again. “This one once belonged to my older sister. It is now yours.”
Sizhui face warps with displeasure. “Your – older sister? Jin Ling’s mother? Jiang-shushu, I can’t possibly keep this.”
“It was given back to me, and now I am passing it on.” He pushes the box into his hands. “If she were alive, she would have wanted you to have it, since A-Ling already has his own.” Sizhui bites his lip. “Use it well.”
Sizhui takes a long, wistful look at the bell before taking out of the box. “Thank you, Jiang-shushu. I, I’m so happy to have this.”
“It’s fine,” Jiang Cheng looks back into the water as his cheeks begin to heat up. Sizhui loops the bell around his belt; and beams as it chimes for the first time since his sister’s death.
They sit in silence as the dusk falls upon them. Before it’s time to leave Sizhui picks up his forehead ribbon, running his fingers along to wring out any more water that it may have soaked. “It got a bit dirty during practice today,” Sizhui explains. “So, I wanted to clean it before we had dinner.” He proceeds to tie it around his head. Jiang Cheng sticks his hand out.
“Give it here, I’ll tie it for you.”
Sizhui smiles and hands it over. Jiang Cheng takes it and moves to kneel behind him, his feet dragging water onto the wooden floorboards of the pier. He begins to weave the ribbon into his hair, like he had done in Sizhui’s first week here.
“I never understood why Gusu Lan always wore these,” He mumbles, and he can see Sizhui’s cheeks raise with his smile.
“It’s a bit like the clarity bell in that aspect,” Sizhui says. “A special symbol to identify your sect. It also helps you self-regulate.”
“I see,” he says, generally uninterested in Gusu Lan traditions.
“It’s very important to us,” he says. “It’s a sign of loyalty and fidelity, too. No one but you or your significant other should be able to touch it.” Jiang Cheng frowns, remembering the face of a very disgruntled Lan Wangji when Wei Wuxian had brazenly ripped off his forehead ribbon.
“Your significant other? But Wei Wuxian had pulled – oh,” he says, mostly to himself. He frowns. “What the hell did he do?”
“I heard about that, it was, very bold,” Sizhui coughs. “Senior Wei hasn’t changed a bit.”
“Not at all,” Jiang Cheng mumbles. He finishes up Sizhui’s hair, and lets it fall down his shoulders. “Why did you let me do your hair with it, then?”
“Family is okay too.” He says nonchalantly, finally lifting his feet from the water.
Family, he thinks, as they both put their shoes back on. He’s okay with that, too.
It’s the last day.
He and Sizhui wander the courtyard, awaiting Hanguang-Jun’s arrival. The disciple rush to say their goodbyes, giving him bags and bags of food and little trinkets from town. They’d already gone shopping the day before, and Sizhui had bought a tasteful number of souvenirs for his friends back home. His qiankun pouch has several companions now, bags and baskets of food he’s somehow going to carry back to Gusu. Jiang Cheng had made sure someone stuffed some fresh lotus roots in his bags, just in case Lan Wangji was planning to order extra for Sizhui.
They sit near the steps of Sword Hall when a disciple comes to them, a bowl of lotus seeds in his hand for them to eat. Before they begin to peel them, Jiang Cheng places one in his hand. “You know, it’s considered good luck to keep one of these in your pocket.”
Sizhui smiles back at him; and pulls out a shrivelled one from his pocket. “I’m afraid I’ve got all the luck I can get, Jiang-shushu.” Jiang Cheng smirks at him before he peels it open instead.
There’s a pang in Jiang Cheng’s heart to see him back in his Gusu Lan robes. A part of him wanted to pack Wei Wuxian’s robes and send them with him to Gusu, but he decides he’s better off keeping them. Perhaps they’ll be useful if he decides to come back. Jiang Cheng doesn’t know how to ask aside from dropping vague hints about Lotus Pier in spring, but he refrains from asking him outright.
The night before, Sizhui had revisited the memorial room, Wei Wuxian’s parents’ memorial tablets still where he left them. Jiang Cheng had listened this time, as he thanked them for their impending blessings, and he asks them to keep his family safe. He’d assured A-Jie that he’d keep her clarity bell in his care, and Jiang Cheng heard as it chimed against his hip.
Jiang Cheng feels the same melancholic feeling he’d felt every time Jin Ling had to go back to Koi Tower. He’d sit in his study, bask in the unfamiliar silence, and wallow in his loneliness. “I will write,” Sizhui says suddenly. “During the next cultivation conference, please stay back for some time.”
Jiang Cheng blinks at him. “In the Cloud Recesses?”
“Yes. You are welcome there any time.” Jiang Cheng swallows and nods, though he’s pretty sure that’s decidedly not true. They sit and eat their snacks for a while before someone comes to inform them of an arrival.
“Sect Leader Jin has arrived,” he says, and Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes. Jin Ling never mentioned he was coming.
They get up to greet him, and Jin Ling walks in, Fairy surprisingly not behind him. “Lan Sizhui! You’re walking again!”
“Jin Ling,” Sizhui smiles. “Yes! I was well taken care of. I didn’t know you were coming. What a pleasant surprise.”
“Of course, I would come to see you off,” he mumbles, crossing his arms across his chest. “I didn’t even bring Fairy in case Wei Wuxian showed up!” Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. “Jiujiu, hello.”
“Oh?” Jiang Cheng scoffs. Jin Ling has finally noticed him. “You fly all the way to meet your friend, and all I get is a measly hello? Glad to see how much you remember your jiujiu.” Jin Ling makes a face.
“Sizhui, I’m sorry you were stuck with this fellow for three weeks. I really tried to take you to Koi Tower, but he didn’t listen.” Jin Ling shakes his head. “He can really be a handful. It’s good you are so patient.”
“I can be a handful?! Speak to your uncle with a little decency, you brat.” Jiang Cheng smacks his shoulder. Jin Ling huffs and looks away.
“Jin Ling, he’s correct. You should speak with more respect. Jiang-shushu made sure I had a very comfortable stay.” Sizhui nods, moving towards him. His interest is clearly peaked by the way he’s addressed, but his eyes suddenly narrow at the bell at his waist.
For a minute, Jiang Cheng is worried he’ll react sourly, and call him ungrateful for passing on such a thoughtful gift. He glances at him for a moment, before his eyes shift back to the bell. However, his shock seems to fizzle, and he looks at Sizhui again. “I see. Next time, stay at Koi Tower, okay?”
“I’m sure he’ll make sure to get injured only around Lanling from now on,” Jiang Cheng shakes his head. Jin Ling frowns at him dismissively.
Sizhui continues to tell him about his stay, Wei Wuxian’s room, the training sessions with the Jiang disciples. Jin Ling tells him about the reaction of the Lins, as heard from Ouyang Zizhen after the night hunt. There’s another disciple who alerts them of Hanguang-Jun’s arrival, and the three of them make their way to the gate.
Hanguang-Jun, even with Jiang Cheng’s flagrant distaste from him, is truly an enigma. He walks like he's floating on air, and his veil of unapproachableness never really breaks, no matter where he is. And it remains now, as he walks towards them, Wei Wuxian waving by his side, a Lan disciple he recognizes as Lan Jingyi trying his absolute hardest not to run towards them.
Lan Jingyi’s brisk walk places him far ahead of the two, and he’s the first to greet them. His face breaks into a massive grin at the sight of Sizhui, and he begins to run the second he’s out of Lan Wangji’s line of sight. Jiang Cheng blinks, and in a flash of light Sizhui is mauled, Lan Jingyi hugging him so tightly Jiang Cheng’s worried about his wounds.
“Lan Jingyi!” Jin Ling calls. “Be more careful! He’s just recovered!” Lan Jingyi looks back at him in disgust.
“Oh, you’re here too.” He says flatly at the sight of him. He goes back to hugging Sizhui, whose arms flail at the side, words muffled into Lan Jingyi’s chest. “Sizhui!” he cries, closing his eyes. “This is the longest I’ve gone without seeing you in my entire life! I missed you so much!”
He pulls away to look at his face, and his face warps in concern. Sizhui’s hair is out of place, forehead ribbon askew, and he’s still catching his breath after the tight embrace. “You look terrible, Sizhui. Will you be okay to fly?”
“He’s a mess because you attacked him!” Jin Ling is ignored.
“I’m okay,” Sizhui laughs and fixes himself up. “I just wasn’t expecting that. I missed you too, Jingyi!” Jingyi’s bottom lip trembles, and his hands almost reach to grab him back into a hug. Sizhui seems to stop him before he can. Wei Wuxian whistles from the distance, and Lan Jingyi’s eyes grow wild.
“Oh no, Sizhui. He’s coming. While both you and Hanguang-Jun were away, he was so bored, he bullied me the whole time! Please never leave Cloud Recesses again! I can’t handle it!” Jiang Cheng snorts. So, this is how the Yiling Laozu spends his days in the Cloud Recesses. Bullying his son’s little friends.
“Lan Jingyi! Are you complaining about me again?” his voice rings out as they draw nearer. “You’re exaggerating again, it was only a prank!”
“A prank?!” Lan Jingyi scolds, appalled. “Who does that?! How could you steal my robes from the Cold Springs! It’s almost winter! I was freezing! You terrible mon– Oh, Hanguang-Jun. Hello!” he bows sharply, interrupting the tirade of insults as they finally reach the gates.
“Ah, ha – so you can insult me anytime, but not in front of Hanguang-Jun? I see, you’ll definitely pay for that, Lan Jingyi.” Lan Jingyi freezes, possibly the way he had while he exited the cold springs. Jiang Cheng feels his pain. It seems Wei Wuxian always finds a target. He makes an involuntary noise, and everyone but Hanguang-Jun seems to suddenly take notice of him.
Lan Jingyi, who flushes red with embarrassment, suddenly bows to greet him. Jiang Cheng has the urge to roll his eyes. He’s been ignored in favor of Sizhui all day.
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian says. He looks different. Healthier now than the last he saw him, his hair tied with a loose red ribbon, now at the base of his neck. It’s dishevelled and far too casual, but it suits him well. “A-Yuan!” he says, in a completely different tone, and moves to smack his palms together on either side of Sizhui’s face, like he’s a child, pushing his cheeks together till Sizhui wrinkles his nose, making a polite noise in protest. “A-Yuan! Do you know how worried we were!? Your first mission alone and you get stabbed?! How could you be so impulsive? You’re lucky I -”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji speaks for the first time since they arrived. The mention of his name alone seems to shut Wei Wuxian up. If only if it was that easy for everyone. Wei Wuxian sighs, frowning as he pulls Sizhui into a hug. It’s not quite as hard as Lan Jingyi’s, but there’s something threatening about the hold Wei Wuxian has around his shoulders.
“Don’t you dare scare us like that again,” He frowns, sounding like a disgruntled mother, and Sizhui nods against his chest. “Lord knows what would have happened if Jiang Cheng wasn’t there,” Wei Wuxian glances back at him. Jiang Cheng doesn’t move.
“I’m not useless, you know!” Jin Ling says.
“Yeah, yeah, sure.” Wei Wuxian says teasingly, hold still tight around A-Yuan’s shoulder. “Nice to see you too, Jin Ling. Is that fat beast of yours here as well?” He says, and he’s trying his hardest to play it cool, but his hands begin to shake the mere mention of a dog.
“She is not fat!” Jin Ling cries. “I can’t believe I was nice enough to leave her behind for you!”
“Oh, what a lovely nephew I have,” He says, and reaches out to ruffle his hair. Jin Ling, still peeved, recoils in disgust. Wei Wuxian finally lets go of Sizhui, who immediately goes to greet Lan Wangji.
“Are you well?”
The conversation ends, Lan Wangji nodding at him with an unreadable expression, Sizhui smiling back at him wholeheartedly. Jiang Cheng is somehow sure this is exactly what all their conversations are like. Wei Wuxian nudges him, and he turns to face them.
“Sect Leader Jin. Jiang Wanyin.” He bows at Jin Ling; but looks at Jiang Cheng as he ponders whether or not he’s worth the effort. Apparently, he’s not, since he just goes back to looking at Wei Wuxian, who seems to be fiddling with Sizhui’s robes.
“Lan Wangji,” he says, and Lan Wangji doesn’t dignify that with a response. Jin Ling bows back reluctantly, clearly noticing the tension between the both of them.
“Jiang Cheng, thank you for taking care of Sizhui,” Wei Wuxian looks at him.
“It’s fine, Wei Wuxian,” he says, but he doesn’t look satisfied with that response.
“When I was up eating in the Cloud Recesses, I was super jealous of all the delicious food he’d get to eat here," Wei Wuxian sings, and pinches Lan Sizhui’s cheek. “You didn’t even fatten him up as I asked.”
“Senior Wei,” Sizhui complains, leaning away to free himself from his hands. Hmph, Jiang Cheng thinks. It seems he plays the role of an embarrassingly affectionate parent well enough for both of them.
Lan Wangji looks at his family fondly as Jiang Cheng just nods, unaware of what to say as he is surrounded with all these people. Wei Wuxian looks at Lan Wangji expectantly, but he’s begun staring into nothingness. Wei Wuxian nudges him, with a little whisper of ‘Lan Zhan’, under his breath, but Lan Wangji remains unmoved. The spectators watch in curiosity.
Finally, he snakes his arm behind his back and pinches the back of his arm, and Lan Wangji’s lip twitches in annoyance, finally giving Wei Wuxian a reaction. He looks up at Jiang Cheng, his expression blank, as he lets out a clearly rehearsed sentence of gratitude.
“Jiang Wanyin,” Wei Wuxian is already sighing in dissatisfaction, “Thank you for taking care of Sizhui.” He looks pained. Jiang Cheng doesn’t know whether to laugh or be offended. He doesn’t know how genuine gratitude pinched out of a grown man can be. Considering Wei Wuxian’s involvement, he clearly had to be talked into even this.
Lan Jingyi clearly stifles a laugh, and Jiang Cheng shakes his head. “Like I said. It’s fine.” There’s a noise from behind them, and Jiang Cheng sees Zhang Yang run up to them. He furrows his brow, since this wasn’t planned, and makes room for her once she steps up to them.
“Hanguang-Jun, Former Head Disciple Wei Wuxian,” She bows. “My name is Zhang Yang, I am the daughter of Zhang Yue, and the current Head Disciple of the Jiang Clan.” Wei Wuxian raises his eyebrows at her in pleasant surprise. “We are honoured to have you both here at Lotus Pier. Your excellency, our disciples would be honoured to make your acquaintance. If you would join me, they are waiting in front of Sword Hall to greet you.” Jiang Cheng gives her a quizzical look. So, this was planned. Just without him. “Lan Sizhui,” she continues. “I’m sure they would also like to bid you a final farewell. They have really taken a liking to him, Hanguang-Jun.”
Hanguang-Jun looks troubled. Wei Wuxian nudges him again. “Lan Zhan, that’s so great. You should go say hi. Since they’ve taken the trouble.” Lan Wangji looks at him, and then back at his cultivation partner, and Jiang Cheng digs his fingers into his palm. You don’t need to stand guard. He bites his tongue. “Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says. “Come on, go! You too, Sizhui!”
Sizhui seems to be far less conflicted, and he follows them with a smile. Lan Jingyi goes too, still babbling next to his friend, and Wei Wuxian looks at Jin Ling. He looks back at him, but also turns towards his retreating friends, and Wei Wuxian laughs. “Go, go, you go too. No need to be with your boring uncles anyway.” He shoos him away, and Jin Ling gives him a resounding pat on the shoulder before he runs after them.
All of a sudden, they’re alone, and though that’s what he wanted, the dread washes over him like it hadn’t before. “Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian crosses his arms. “I came all the way, and you don’t even say hello.”
“Wow. I’m touched, what a shidi I have.” He frowns, pushing him lightly.
“I wasn’t expecting Hanguang-Jun to bring his lackey,” Jiang Cheng says, raising his eyebrows.
“Did you really think he’d come to Lotus Pier without me, Jiang Cheng?”
He didn’t. “Who knows.” He shrugs. Clearly you have no desire to come here. Who would’ve thought saving face for Lan Wangji was all it took to drag you back here?
“I wouldn’t have let him.” Wei Wuxian says stubbornly.
“Oh? Is that the influence you have on the Great Hanguang-Jun?” he says dryly. “Is he so taken by you that he wouldn’t dare visit your childhood home without you by his side?”
“Yes.” Wei Wuxian fiddles with Chenqing. “Why else would he have married me?”
Jiang Cheng freezes, his arms falling limp to his side. His dry, evasive mask suddenly crumbles, and he looks at Wei Wuxian in pure shock. “What – what the hell did you just say?”
“I said yes.”
“I meant the thing after that, you idiot –“
Wei Wuxian sighs and looks down. “Lan Zhan and I are married.”
Jiang Cheng feels his pulse rise and his eyes bulge out of his head. He should have expected this. He really should have expected this. The empty seat and cup at the last cultivation conference, the casualness with which Sizhui regarded them together – the fact that Lan Wangji was cooking Yunmeng meals for him up on that mountain. The words bubble in his throat, but all he can seem to muster is, “When?”
“Um,” Wei Wuxian moves his hand to scratch his nose. “A while after the incident at Yunping? I think it’ll be two years next spring.”
“Two years?! Wei Wuxian, what the absolute fuck is wrong with you?” Jiang Cheng roars. “How are you telling me this just now!” Zidian sparks and Wei Wuxian takes a step back, raising his hands.
“I wanted to tell you at the last cultivation conference but, there were all these people around, and Lan Zhan was annoyed that I pulled out at the last second, even though all the Lan elders were more than happy about keeping it a secret for a little while longer…” he mumbles, but he still doesn’t get it.
“You were planning to tell me right before you announced it to the entire cultivation world? I’m so fucking honoured, Wei Wuxian, but I think you’re giving me far too much special treatment!”
“I didn’t say anything because it was the same day Sizhui was announced as the new heir! I didn’t want to take attention away from him; or give anyone an arbitrary reason to turn against him simply through his association to me.” Wei Wuxian lets out an exasperated sigh, suddenly defensive, but Jiang Cheng is determined to break him down.
“So, you were so worried about the kid you’ve allowed yourself to be Lan Wangji’s dirty secret for two years? Again, what the hell is wrong with you?!”
“It isn’t like that! Lan Zhan would’ve told everyone a day later if he had his way, he’s already let everyone in Cloud Recesses know. Look, I’m the reason we haven’t exactly spread the word, and you know the Lans wouldn’t say a thing, they’re all far too good for gossip.” You’re proving your own point, Wei Wuxian. “I wasn’t about to tell you this in a letter.”
“No, you weren’t about to tell me this at all,” Jiang Cheng says, and his tone has gone from angry to plain, unbridled hurt. Wei Wuxian, as usual, seems to notice. “My brother got married, and I was going to hear about it from a bunch of gossiping Jins, just like when I heard he had a son.”
“Jiang Cheng – you know it’s not like that,” the words leave his mouth as if he’s not sure himself. “It wasn’t a big thing, you know how we felt about each other, it was – it was the next step, okay? We didn’t even do anything, we got married in a field during our travels, alone – I thought it was safe to spare you the gruesome details. I know you need – “
“Space?” Jiang Cheng snaps, Sizhui’s words echoing in his ears, and Wei Wuxian’s mouth closes. “Well, let me make it clear for you. I don’t need space. It was a big thing. And if it’s you, I want to hear all the fucking details! I don’t care how disgusting they are! Do you understand, Wei Wuxian, or shall I repeat myself?”
Wei Wuxian looks at him, eyebrows raised, as if he’s processing his outburst. The early pangs of regret in his stomach disappear as the corners of his mouth twitch upwards into a small smile. “Understood, Sandu Shengshou,” He nods, and suddenly, his elbow rests on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. “Your shixiong will keep you updated.”
Jiang Cheng grumbles a response, crossing his arms again. “So, are we just going to stand here, or am I allowed to go inside, too?”
Jiang Cheng sighs and starts walking in, leaving Wei Wuxian to slip when the shoulder supporting his elbow disappears. He follows him anyway, hands behind his back, as they get to main courtyard, where Lan Wangji is still talking to some disciples. A few female disciples surround the three young men, piling even more baskets of snacks into Sizhui’s and Lan Jingyi’s hands. Sizhui protests, but Lan Jingyi seems delighted, laughing and gazing at his new gifts.
“Oh, wow, they really like him,” Wei Wuxian says, snorting as Lan Jingyi attempts to place some of the packets into a qiankun pouch, most of the buns going up his sleeve. He says something to Jin Ling that the Sect Leader is very reactive to, and the girls around them burst into coy giggles. “It’s like looking into a mirror.” He says proudly.
“Don’t flatter yourself, Wei Wuxian,” He narrows his eyes. “No one ever liked you this much.”
Wei Wuxian looks affronted. “That’s unfair,” he turns his gaze towards Lan Wangji, “At least one person did. And he spoils me every day.” Jiang Cheng immediately rolls his eyes. “What! You literally just said you wanted details!”
“I said nothing of the sort,” He says, and attempts to scowl, much to the resistance of his face.
“Jiang Cheng!” Wei Wuxian whines, but turns to look back at Sizhui, the same disgustingly affectionate look in his eyes. “Besides, you were with him for three weeks…you should know by now, it’s impossible not to spoil that one.” Jiang Cheng’s eyes fixate on the clarity the bell that hangs at his waist. He hears Wei Wuxian gasp, clearly doing the same.
“Perhaps you’re correct.”
They’re there for far longer than they intent to be. Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-Jun spend a few moments in the memorial room, and comes out with red eyes, clearly reeling from the sight of his parents’ memorial tablets. The three Juniors are stuck in an animated conversation for so long that Lan Wangji has to clear his throat to remind them they must leave.
“Lan Zhan, I’m hungry,” Wei Wuxian sings. “Let’s get some food in all of us before we go, I’m sure these two are starving.” They’re probably not, Jiang Cheng thinks, but Lan Wangji nods with the semblance of a smile. “Hey, Jiang Cheng, is Chang-popo still selling noodles in town? It was my favourite place to eat in Yunmeng, I wonder if we can go there for a meal.”
“Chang-popo is still there, her daughter is running the shop now,” Jiang Cheng scoffs at the thought of three pristine Lan disciples dining in the hole in the wall noodle shop they frequented in their youth, as cheap as Wei Wuxian was. Just eat here, he almost says, but realizes he can’t do everything in a day.
“I guess it’s time to go then,” he smiles. “See you, Jiang Cheng. I’ll keep what you said in mind.” Lan Wangji looks mildly troubled at this, but he doesn’t seem bothered enough to voice it. Jiang Cheng nods, looking away. Sizhui walks up to him, smiling widely. His hair is up as it usually is, but he doesn’t fail to notice the braids that go up to his hair ornament, and he coughs into his fist to hide his smile.
“Thank you for everything,” Sizhui bows. “It was really good to spend time with you.”
Jiang Cheng finally cracks a smile at him. “There is no need to thank me. It was a pleasure.”
Sizhui’s face flashes, and before he knows it, he’s being wrapped in a hug. He’s far more stunned than anyone watching – which is saying something, because Bichen almost slips right out of Lan Wangji’s hand. Finally gaining back his bearings, he sees Wei Wuxian, who stares at the both of them, mouth agape. He slowly raises his arms to hug him back, almost unsure. He can’t remember the last time he’d gotten a hug. There’s a part of him that really doesn’t want to. He hugs him back hesitantly, and Wei Wuxian’s face transforms into a shaky smile.
When he finally pulls away, they bid the rest of them goodbye. As they turn to leave, he hears Jin Ling pipes up. “Jiujiu…” he starts, and Jiang Cheng knows exactly where this is going.
“Don’t say a word,” he says haughtily, and Jin Ling releases a snort that sounds suspiciously like a laugh.
As he sees them walk a few feet away, a thought occurs to him.
“Lan Yuan!” he calls, and the four of them turn, looking back at him. Jin Ling raises an eyebrow. “You are welcome at Lotus Pier anytime! If I hear you’re in Yunmeng and staying at an inn, I will break both your legs!”
Sizhui’s face splits into a grin. Wei Wuxian’s does not. “Jiang Cheng!” he cries. “You cannot threaten the Lan Heir like this!”
“Wei Wuxian,” He snarls, though his menacing tone is long gone. “I can threaten my nephew however I want.”
Wei Wuxian’s shoulders slump in shock. “Huh?”
“Thank you, Jiang-shushu,” Sizhui says, nodding at him.
“Huh?!” Wei Wuxian repeats, and Jiang Cheng can’t help the feeling of amusement that washes over him.
“And don’t forget to bring the idiot with you,” He instructs, and looks pointedly at Wei Wuxian, who simply glances back and forth between Sizhui and his brother, betrayal and shock apparent on his face.
“Really?” Lan Jingyi interrupts this charade. “You’re so kind, Sect Leader Jiang. Or wait, should I also call you Jiang-shush – “
“I was talking about the other idiot, Lan Jingyi,” Jiang Cheng bites, and Lan Jingyi frowns and shrinks into himself. Wei Wuxian’s face seems to soften at this.
Sizhui laughs into his palm. “I definitely will, Jiang-shushu. Thank you.”
Jiang Cheng nods at him, acknowledging Wei Wuxian’s wave before he turns back around. Lan Wangji seems to still, lagging behind a few steps to stare at him intensely, expressing his silent disapproval. Jiang Cheng’s lips curl into a smirk as he finally turns away, floating above the ground to catch up with his family.
As they disappear in the distance, Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling retreat to Sword Hall. He helplessly ignores the satisfaction blooming in his gut. He’s beginning to grow accustomed to the absence of regret.