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(too many) resented sacrifices between you and i

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From a young age, Jiang Cheng knew love was not for him. Before even his earliest memories, it was taken as indisputable truth: that love came with an endless list of rules and conditions and expectations; no matter how hard he tried, he would — he could never fill. It was bitter and harsh to digest but it wasn’t a lie, and he could not stand for self-imposed ignorance — no matter how sweetly given, not anymore. Throughout his childhood, it was a given that his mother was harsh but cared and his father was cold and seemingly uncaring, both as unaffectionate as the other.

Then, he came, Wei Wuxian, or at the time, Wei Ying.

It was no surprise that his father continued to be non-communicative with him but for Wei Ying? His father’s love and attention were almost fixated on him, showering him with easy affection whenever he pleased; being held, defending anyone who spoke against Wei Wuxian, indulging his every whim. At the same time, his father ignored Jiang Cheng. There were no head pats for him, no hugs, he barely even smiled in his direction. Everything he thought his father was came crashing down.

Logically, he understood Wei Ying had to be treated carefully, he had been orphaned and on the streets for years (everything Jiang Cheng had, Wei Ying didn’t) — but his chest twisted at the casual, nonchalant love shared and he didn’t know why. Was he resenting his father or Wei Ying? His stomach lurched at the idea of both: how could he? His duty was to be filial, always. And even now, with so many years past, how could Jiang Cheng even begin to resent him? Sixteen years, attempting time and time again to hate Wei Wuxian, the impossible. Hating himself for failing such an easy task and finally at that Yunping temple, finding out that all of his efforts were for nought, it ached.

But yes, his father’s love for Wei Wuxian, a child not his own (though there were constant rumours) made sense — it was understandable. Once you let yourself know Wei Wuxian, he was so easy to love. He drew people to him like moths to a flame. (Those who came too close were bound to be burned.)

Jiang Cheng was hard to love. His thorny exterior hid an even thornier interior. He could count on one hand the number of people who love him — no, who’s he trying to kid? On a single finger — Jin Ling, his A-Ling. His nephew. His beloved Jiejie’s son. The boy (almost a man) who Jiang Cheng loved so fiercely, with all his being, that he could barely form the words. His only forms of expressions were empty threats showing his love. (Jin Ling must, he must, he must know he is loved; that he is cherished. There could be no doubts.)

Though Jiang Cheng knows only one who continues to love him, with the last remaining cracked parts of his heart, he loves his sect unconditionally (if they didn’t love him back, it was of no great matter — he loves them regardless). He has done everything, sacrificed everything, so his sect would flourish and live, and if that weren’t love? What else could it be?

At the beginning of those sixteen years, Jin Ling and his sect were the only reasons he hadn’t swallowed a vial of poison to finally cease. (He’s always aware of exactly where he could find it.) But now, they were both able to survive, with no true need of him, and he could finally rest. Over the years, he has fulfilled his first promise as Jiang-zongzhu to never let Yunmeng Jiang collapse (and burn) again — with or without a Sect Leader.

His sacrifices for the Jiang sect were vast and plentiful and he can’t regret them. His reputation; his free time; his little hobbies; his relationships, that were half self-sabotaged anyway; and the worst sacrifice — Wei Wuxian and his love.

When Jiang Cheng was young and foolhardy, to his very bones (to his core) he knew Wei Wuxian loved him and in return, he loved him unreservedly. They gave up their golden cores for each other, and there, he thinks, you could pinpoint the time things shifted, things changed. When did Wei Wuxian stop loving him? Did transplanting his core into Jiang Cheng displace all Wei Wuxian’s love? He must have regretted it in the blink of an eye. When Wen Zhuliu had crushed his core, the fiery warmth from the torture had come seeping out, a cold void echoing through his meridians. Even then, Jiang Cheng hadn’t regretted it — with a harsh certainty, he was conscious that if Wei Wuxian were here, he would be dead already. But as everyone said, they were different, and in different circumstances. It would be natural to want it back especially after he realised how little Jiang Cheng was worth.

Maybe… maybe, Wei Wuxian hadn’t given up then. He was always so righteous, doing whatever he thought was right. When Jiang Cheng prioritised his (it was theirs, Wei Wuxian had promised—) fledgeling sect over the Wen remnants, it only emphasised how conditional love was, and yet Jiang Cheng couldn’t blame him. At the Siege of the Burial Mounds, he had ordered his disciples to capture only. In the end, practically just a handful remained. Too little and too late.

A small, tiny part of him still wanted to believe that Wei Wuxian still cared for him, still loved h— He refused to entertain the thought. He made it crystal clear. He remembered Wei Wuxian’s words at Lotus Pier, “Let’s be brothers in our next life.” He remembered Wei Wuxian’s words at the temple, “Really, let’s forget everything from that previous life. I’ve put it all behind me.” It was certain that Wei Wuxian wanted nothing to do with him, and Jiang Cheng couldn’t bring himself to try and only get rejected.

At the very least, Wei Wuxian looked after Jin Ling on night-hunts. He knew because Jin Ling would write to him every single time and ‘sneakily’ mention Wei Wuxian was also there. He’d also ‘offhandedly’ ask if Jiang Cheng wanted to know how Wei Wuxian was doing or if he’d like to come along the next time. Nice try, A-Ling. But, the thought of Wei Wuxian protecting Jin Ling soothed a small piece of him. Good, that’s Jin Ling sorted.

Looking back down, the documents spread out on the table, brought him back to himself. These pages, filled with handwriting he found more familiar than his own. He could pinpoint the moments where Wei Wuxian had switched hands to rest the other — one hand somewhat neater than the other — and a habit the calligraphy teachers had constantly berated him over. The shorthand Wei Wuxian had come up with during their childhood when their seats had been moved apart and communications had to be diminished to small notes flicked over heads. How could Wei Wuxian still be so embedded in his heart even now, still be constantly thought of? All this knowledge he should’ve forgotten still there, hiding, coming out at the most minimal of ideas. Years ago, he would felt anger: how dare Jiang Cheng remember his br— Wei Wuxian fondly when he betrayed them all? Can’t he renounce him in return? (Why can’t he hate him?)

He absently traced the almost illegible scrawls, Zidian sparking at his wrist. His anger (his grief) overshadowed by the knowledge of what he was about to do — the sheer hypocrisy of his actions.

How many years had he spent hunting demonic cultivators? He had thought, why would Wei Wuxian let go if he didn’t know he was going to survive? (Now, it was clear.) The demonic cultivators who had murdered entire families, who had sacrificed their children to increase their powers — those he killed easily, no need to test Zidian against them. Some demonic cultivators he’d found almost by chance, the ones who used demonic cultivation to protect a younger sibling or family — he had made them swear never to cultivate that way again, too conscious of how corrupting it was; offering to take them to Lotus Pier, where they could become a disciple, staff or stay at the orphanage. (In this, he wouldn’t force their choice.) Almost all returned to Lotus Pier with him.

(From a certain point of view, the rumour of demonic cultivators never leaving Lotus Pier was true)

When she wakes up, A-Jie will be a better Sect Leader than him. Besides, before him, she was the sect heir — if her golden core wasn’t under the constant strain of her sickly body, Jiang Cheng may not have became the heir. She’ll receive his body with his trained strength and his and Wei Wuxian’s nurtured core, and no one could come against her, nothing would be able to defeat her — her strength of will has always been so strong, cracking only with Jin Zixuan’s death.

He desperately hopes A-Jie will be happy with his body, she deserves the best — he’s not entirely sure that his body is the ‘best’ but he wouldn’t ask another to do this. A strong body is better than nothing, right? Hopefully (maybe even childishly so), she won’t be disgusted or horrified by his body. Jiang Cheng has always hated that scar — so large and so ugly. A sign of his devotion, and in the end, pointless.

He has already written orders to his second-in-command, the morning after he creates the ritual, he will receive it: it outlines his commands to follow A-Jie in what she asks, for example, if she doesn’t wish to become Sect Leader, she can abdicate — his heir has been picked out for years either way. His sect is loyal to Yunmeng Jiang and he knows it will be left in good hands. If he had a last request of his Jie, it would be to check-in for Jin Ling. Jiang Cheng knows that Jin Ling would appreciate knowing his mother; as a child, he was always hungry for stories — Jiang Cheng had managed a few stories through tear-filled eyes in the dead of night — and A-Ling would love his mother. He’d finally get his ‘maternal education’ if it wasn’t too late.

He’s still hesitant on the matter of Wei Wuxian. He wants him to react badly, messily — crying, yelling, anything to show he cared even a little about Jiang Cheng. But. Wei Wuxian no longer cares. His actions and words have all shown that he’s washed his hands clean of the Yunmeng Jiang sect; so far he’s kept to it: avoiding Lotus Pier, visiting a grand total of once after Yunping — and only because he passed out. Then he was off again, practically the second he woke up. He didn’t avoid Jin Ling though — which was good, Jiang Cheng approved. It showed that Wei Wuxian still loved A-Jie, and once again, good. So, Wei Wuxian will probably, hopefully, react happily to seeing A-Jie again. And that’s all he dares ask for.

He wanted his family to be happy and alive and if this is what it took, that was fine! He’d sacrificed himself before and it failed miserably, only elongating his bro— Wei Wuxian’s death by a mere few years. And at the expense of Wei Wuxian’s golden core. Knowing that this time, his meagre sacrifice would work; his family would be alive and safe and happy, he was determined.

“Zongzhu? It’s getting late…” The voice of his second-in-command called, knocking at the door. Jiang Cheng huffed automatically in response, rolling his eyes, Jiang Zhiyun always did this — the second he heard the third geng was struck, he would come and bother him to sleep. He wasn’t sure if it was out of some sense of duty or… he didn’t know. He had complained heavily at the beginning but now, he could admit to himself it was nice, being taken care of in this way.

“At least, I’m in my quarters. What about you?” Jiang Cheng responded, somewhat soothed by their routine.

“I’m going straight back to my own, zongzhu,” Jiang Zhiyun laughed softly, both fully aware of each other’s routines. “Good night.”

Jiang Cheng replied, softer than usual, “Goodbye, Zhiyun.”

Jiang Zhiyun was one of the many rogue cultivators who Jiang Cheng had personally recruited during the Sunshot Campaign. Surprisingly enough, after the war, he had stayed. Of all his people, he thinks this would be the one he feels the most guilty about leaving behind — Jin Ling would gain a mother; Wei Wuxian wouldn’t give a damn but Zhiyun? He may only become Sect Leader, depending on A-Jie’s decision. Jiang Cheng waved the rest of his worries away, Jiang Zhiyun was loyal to whoever sits on Lotus Pier’s throne — he would adapt easily enough. Much the same for the rest of Yunmeng, they would adjust to this new course, just as they had done so before.

 


 

A-Ling,

I don't say this nearly enough but, I'm proud of you, A-Ling. You have done so well and I love you.

Sorry I wasn’t the parent you deserved.

Your Jiujiu

 

Wei Wuxian,

You'd be welcomed in Lotus Pier if you wanted to. Don’t misunderstand, you’re still an asshole.

I .. Take care.

Jiang Cheng

(Look after our nephew)


 

Wei Wuxian’s eyebrows knitted together, from a lot of experience, he could tell that the handwriting was unmistakably Jiang Cheng’s, but it didn’t show any signs of being an official letter, no Yunmeng Jiang seal or anything, just his own name. Perhaps it was a personal letter, written for no reasons Wei Wuxian could think of. It could be a simple letter saying ‘Stay away from Lotus Pier.’ Of course, he could deal with it if it was but it was different having a letter saying to stay away, rather than just yelling — if it were in person, he could almost trick himself into believing that Jiang Cheng didn’t mean it; the shake of his voice from anguish rather than rage. Letters were physical proof which couldn’t be written impulsively... He shook his head, trying to dislodge those thoughts. Why was he hesitating so much?

With ‘steady’ hands, he opened the letter, and almost dropped it in shock. What?

It was a short letter. Succinct, as expected. But the content was definitely not.

He was allowed back? He would be welcomed back? Wei Wuxian thought — he knew — Jiang Cheng hated him — when Wei Wuxian messed up and landed himself in the healing quarters, Jiang Cheng couldn’t even look at him. As an apology, he had run off the first chance he had.

‘If you wanted to.’ He scoffed audibly. If he wanted to? Being back at Yunmeng — who wouldn’t want to return? Like he’d said in that inn with Jiang Cheng, “Even in my dreams, I return to Lotus Pier,” Jiang Cheng hadn’t heard him but for Wei Wuxian, it still rang true. Compared to his nightmares, the easy, familial dreams of Lotus Pier ached so much worse, seeing Shijie, Jiang Cheng and him altogether, knowing it could never happen again — it made him cry so much harder too. The only benefit in this sense was waking up to Lan Zhan comforting him. Gusu was nice and Lan Zhan was truly amazing, but he sorely missed Lotus Pier and it wasn’t the same — the people, the atmosphere, the climate even! In the deepest recesses of his mind, he could admit that Yunmeng was his first home — no matter how it had changed from his memories. After his dreams, he squashed those feelings, vehemently. But with this letter… hope rose in him, unbidden.

Rereading it, eyes finely combing each word, sending it to memory. Wait. There’s something strange, a little off. The unsteadiness of Jiang Cheng’s handwriting. The frankly, out of the blue letter. And what exactly was said … he was too caught up in the first sentence to register the rest of the letter. The well-wishing and his command to look after Jin Ling — whilst calling him their nephew! How surprisingly sweet! But worry thrummed in his chest — what had sparked these words? Was he sick or merely worrying about Jin Ling?

Wei Wuxian pressed his lips together. He would have to question Jiang Cheng, directly to his face — he was welcomed to Lotus Pier after all. That was practically permission! His face returned to a small smirk, changing to a larger smile once he realised that Lan Zhan could drop him off at Yunmeng. He would see two of his favourite people in one day!

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian practically bound in from his to Lan Zhan’s study, slightly more subdued from his lingering worry.

“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan greeted as he looked up from his Chief Cultivator work with a small smile that quickly faded, eyebrows creasing, “Wei Ying? Is there something wrong?”

How—! This man! How could he tell so quickly and easily? He truly was his zhiji. “Aiya, Lan Zhan! How could you tell? Ah— never mind! Let me just show you.”

He passed him the letter as he moved to climb into Lan Zhan’s lap. Ah, how comfy, like normal.

“I'm really worried, zhiji!” Wei Wuxian pointed to the unstable ‘Take care.’ “See how shaky Jiang Cheng’s handwriting is? And how sweet he’s being?” — he gestured incoherently, trying to make his point — “The ‘you're still an asshole’ seems so hastily written too! I'm not entirely sure he even means it.”

“Mn.” Lan Zhan sounded somewhat doubtful, sounding more approving as he said, “Jiang Wanyin seems to be trying.” — his voice turned tender, addressing Wei Wuxian — “Will you need me to bring you there?”

Wei Wuxian laughs, “You’ve read my mind! Aha, would you mind if we go quickly?” — He leaned backwards, resting lightly on Lan Zhan’s chest — “Not to be any trouble! I’m just worried.” He fidgeted with his hands slightly.

“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan said softly, bringing Wei Ying’s focus towards him, “Wei Ying, you could never be any trouble for me.” He pressed a kiss to Wei Wuxian’s forehead, where a Lan ribbon would have sat.

Wei Wuxian’s face erupted into a blush, his face buried in his hands, “Lan Zhan! You can’t just say these things! Give me a warning at least! My heart can’t take it!”

Lan Zhan hummed, amused, “Warning: I” — prying Wei Wuxian’s hands away, he kissed his forehead again — “love” — another kiss— “you.” Another small kiss.

Wei Wuxian could already picture Lan Zhan’s self-satisfied expression.

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian cried out, giggling, a smile on his face, “I didn’t mean it that way!” Though his heart was full, anxiety still curled around it, waiting.

 


She was floating, adrift; only tied to the physical world by the heady scent of copper — blood. No knowledge of who or where she was.

From the stench of blood, she would have assumed the air around would feel similar, thick with some sort of bloodlust. But no. This atmosphere… it was familiar to her. At this moment she knew nothing, but her instincts told her she was safe. They told her she was home.

“Jie. Jie.” The voice was insistent, almost demanding but strangely she knew it was worried, sad. “Jiejie, I’m so sorry. But. You can see A-Ling again! You’ll see how much he’s grown — I know you’ll love him and he’s… he’s a great kid. I love you, A-Jie, please take care.”

She remembered.

The heartache from A-Xuan’s death.

A-Ling’s constant crying that made her want to break down.

The visceral need to make sure that no more of her family would die.

In Nightless City: looking. Searching for both her brothers. Then. The adrenaline sharpened view. A boy, barely a man, brandishing a blood-covered sword, proclaiming a need for revenge. Pushing A-Xian away.

No one else in her family was allowed to die.

Red, red, red. So much. Only the sound of blood rushing in her ears. She could taste it, smell the blood hanging over the battlefield. The feeling of wetness: blood or tears — she couldn’t tell.

We are the closest three; nothing can separate us.

For leaving you — my little brothers, my son — I am sorry but I cannot regret.

In the lotus position the body was in, water splashed onto her — Jiang Yanli’s — clasped hands. Large; rough; achingly familiar, but wrong, wrong, wrong.

No no no. Why can I see A-Cheng’s hands like this? These can’t be his hands — these freckles, these light scars she recognised meant nothing. She can’t, she won’t allow it. Who was she if she could let this happen?

Her brother’s hands started trembling. She ached with the need to console, to help him. But she couldn’t. It wasn’t possible because these were her hands now — she flinched at the thought.

Trying to distract herself from his — hers — his hands, she looked to the ground and saw thick strokes of blood all around the body she inhabited. The blood was fresh and she tried not to think about the source though the answer was blindingly obvious — the blood under their fingernails had not been fully washed out.

Hand-drawn, an almost perfect circle surrounded her, not fully dry. Questions swirled in her head: was this how she came back? Through this array? Why wasn’t her didi stopped—

She remembered how even in her death-addled mind she recognised that the atmosphere seemed familiar. Of course, it did. It felt like him. Her brother. The circle seemed to be where most of the ‘feelings’ were emanating from. Hovering her — their hand over a stroke of blood she felt warmth, possibly from A-Cheng’s remaining spiritual energy. She registered that in the circle there were countless written incantations — all in her didi’s neat, careful script. A-Cheng’s calligraphy was always beautiful — quite the opposite to her other didi’s. She huffed, amused before feeling ice cold. A-Xian…

The thought struck her, shaking her from her mood, she knew how A-Cheng was (dead, seeing how she was in his body— ) but how was A-Xian? A-Ling? She'd left him with Muqin and as much as Yanli trusted those in Jinlin Tai — not much, in all honesty — she trusted her more; Jin-furen would look after her mother’s grandchild. She vaguely remembered the last remnants of Jiang Cheng telling her that A-Ling was alive so…

A-Xian… She wasn’t sure he was alive. The last moments she could remember didn’t bode well for his continued survival — if Yanli was going to survive this, she couldn’t allow herself to hope. Hah. So much for staying together, never parting. She buried her face into her hands, breathing shakily. She broke her promise — their promise — first, and now? Jiang Yanli was the only one remaining.

 


Wei Wuxian was let into Lotus Pier.

No shouts. No complaints. Nothing he could’ve possibly expected before — he was welcomed back! If he wasn’t so tense, Wei Wuxian would be incandescently happy — his wildest and most wistful dreams of years finally being fulfilled.

It’s been so long, Wei Wuxian though, trailing his fingertips on the various carvings of Lotus Pier’s namesake; easily recognising the style of the carver. After the Sunshot Campaign and before everything truly went to shit, this was one of the few tasks he had managed — back then he hadn’t the heart to help with the martial arts — and one that he was proud of. What he had actually done in those days to help the sect was very little and his responsibilities were practically all shirked, the scent of sulphur and alcohol trailing him everywhere. These arts were easier to deal with. The artisan who had done these lotus carvings worked briefly with the Nie sect on the day of the massacre so, thankfully not everyone was lost. Most of this wing — the Sect Leader’s — had been lost to ashes, only the blackened stone foundation remaining.

He had been directed towards this wing by the Jiang disciples — newer or older disciples he couldn’t tell, and a part of him ached, once he had known all of them, now he wouldn’t be able to pick them out in a crowd even if he tried — and had waved off their worries; yes, he knew how to get there; no, he didn’t need any help; yes, I’m allowed — have you seen this letter saying so; no, blah, blah, blah; it’s all good, I’m fine.

Thinking about it, the lack of proper supervision was strange. It warmed him from the inside out, it really did — Jiang Cheng, in a way, still trusted him! — but, it was too good for Wei Wuxian to believe in, it was too lucky. He didn’t know how or what but something was bound to go wrong. He’d been overwrought with anxiety since that letter and he desperately, desperately hoped his anxieties wouldn’t come true.

Turning the corner, into the quarters, Wei Wuxian heard muffled gasps, short and bordering on sobs. Jiang Cheng? He thought, confused and instantly on guard, hurrying to the doors, only to see they were slightly ajar. Finally, he registered what that tinny, slightly sweet smell was: blood.

He roughly flung the doors open, instantly drawn to the unrecognisable blood-drawn ritual then to the body of his brother facing him, eyes wide and red-rimmed, face incomprehensibly soft.

“You’re not Jiang Cheng.” Wei Wuxian pronounces, eyes flicking to the array. This feels familiar, he thinks, detached. An array drawn in blood, a person different than the way they were yesterday, and mysterious circumstances.

Jiang Cheng’s body looked up, face still frozen in an expression that Jiang Cheng would never wear as Wei Wuxian continued, “You’re not much of an evil spirit are you? And what did Jiang Cheng even wish for you to do? Take revenge? That’s what everyone’s demands are.” — At this he scoffed harshly, blinking away traitorous tears — “Who would he take revenge on and why would he ask someone else to do it! He’s strong enough to fight his own battles— wait. This can’t be why he invited me here— revenge on me? It makes sense— no. He must’ve gotten the spell wrong! Jiang Cheng wouldn’t have sacrificed everything on a chance.” Wei Wuxian’s loud proclamations had devolved into frantic mutterings, pulling wildly at his hair and even the body-snatcher itself seemed to be getting mildly worried, the expression both natural and unnatural on Jiang Cheng’s face.

Wei Wuxian scrutinized the array again and could’ve almost laughed. The circle and incantations both perfectly painted — it really could be called beautiful! A true work of art! It was so well done it looked as if it would be impossible for Jiang Cheng to have made a mistake but then who — oh. The pieces all fit. Looking at the body he pictured another face with that exact same look. Her.

“Shijie?” He breathed, voice laden with horrified realisation.

 


 

In a small orphanage in Yunmeng, a young girl startled awake, unexpectedly alive and breathing, “A-Jie, take care…”

Chapter Text

 

Through her brother’s eyes, Jiang Yanli studied the intruder, his horror displayed prominently. The man was evidently familiar with her didi — even using his birth name. Though in all fairness, many of her and her brother’s generation did so, but she imagined that towards the man that held the title of Jiang-zongzhu they would only refer to him as such, and only Jiang Wanyin if they were close enough.

Jiang Yanli didn’t recognise him, if he was of their generation, she should’ve known him. Someone younger then. Cultivators’ ages were always hard to estimate, especially when someone was powerful, examples floated through her head: the deceased Wen Ruohan had looked like he was 20 years old for decades; his sons looked older than him.

That was beside the point, for now, Jiang Yanli was completely lost, and she had no idea in how long she had even been de— gone. She knew A-Ling “grown,” but how old was he? An adult? A teenager? Why did her brother do this? To her, to A-Ling? She bit her lip, the guilt coursing through her; shouldn’t she be grateful? Be thankful? A-Cheng had sacrificed himself for her. (Did she deserve it?)

Calm down, focus, she reminded herself.

The man did seem slightly familiar: the shape of his eyes, the angle of his jaw — both instantly reminding her of A-Xuan. But, in other ways, beyond his features, she felt that she knew him: the cadence of his voice, the way he dressed, the rapid speed of his mind jumping from point to point. She could conjure up so many similarities with ease. But he couldn’t be, A-Xian surely had died, and he didn’t look like the stranger.

But who was he; the person who assumed A-Cheng had wanted revenge on him, so much as to use himself? If he was A-Xian, how could he think that of him; A-Cheng had given himself up to bring back her, not to wreak havoc and kill others, all for her to live. She rubbed his chest, his golden core throbbing, reacting to her misery, no longer her brother’s pain.

If the man knew A-Cheng hated him, it would make sense for him to already be dead — what could he have done that was so bad, yet he still lived? A-Cheng would have had to love him; Yanli knows — knew — her brother since she was young, it wasn’t in his character to deliberately hurt the ones he loved. How did the man betray Jiang Cheng so incredibly, ultimately he couldn’t bear to kill him. She understood so little of the world she was brought back to and she had so many questions, with the only one who could possibly answer them gone. Regardless of how frenzied the intruder became when he realised she wasn’t her brother, she was mistrustful of him — how harshly had he hurt her didi?

A glint of light caught her eye; lying dormant on the edge of the table behind the man was Zidian, the Meishan Yu’s heirloom, its silver coils motionless. Next to it was a distinctive sword, purple scabbard with snakes as its guard and a frog as its pommel: A-Cheng’s sword, Sandu. The sight of it, abandoned, stung her eyes. Both her didis, the moment they had received their swords, they’d carried them around everywhere they could. It had changed after the Campaign, A-Cheng no longer carried his with childish excitement and pride and A-Xian had seemed to have abandoned Suibian in exchange for Chenqing — a beautiful flute, she had agreed, but different. Her attention fell back to Zidian, it had fallen into the hands of enemies once before, and had almost done so too many times in those few months before she had left for Jinlin Tai. Family, some had tried to bargain, lusting over the sheer power of Zidian. Debt, some had tried. It could not fall into others’ hands.

Zidian is a first-class spiritual weapon and was nearly too smart. Her mother, the Violet Spider, taught her how to use it when Yanli was very young, before A-Xian and before they wrote her off as a cultivator (and a daughter to take pride in), even now, her stomach still churns at the memory. After that, Mother no longer looked at Yanli the same. It was a little colder, a little more bitter. With practised ease, she shrugged off the old pain.

Sometimes, it served as motivation to be better, other times, it quashed it. She wouldn’t ever show it, not to her little brothers, both constantly crushed by Mother’s wrath, but at the worst of times, Yanli could be so resentful that it frightened herself — at least Mother still thought they could strive to be better; she had given up on Yanli long ago. She might’ve groaned aloud, she couldn’t allow herself into that rabbit hole again. They were familiar thoughts, old and bitter friends now, and, she huffed under her breath, they plague her even past death.

Jiang Yanli knew how to revive Zidian from afar, how to stop its sparks from paining its master, her Mother’s common techniques and strategies on its use — after her Mother’s death, Yanli had taught Jiang Cheng how to use it. After all, in the beginning, no one else had known how to or was willing to help him. Her memories guided them both through it but after a while, they had to find other ways. The price to pay for asking their maternal cousins for help in this was high but in the war, it was sorely needed.

She flexed Jiang Cheng’s hands, scrutinizing the possible-Jin-relative for signs of awareness, but he still seemed in a state of utter shock; slow blinks, eyebrows furrowed, a tensed jaw. An urge rose in her, an ache to soothe him.

Yanli, as far as she could remember, loved to help (to be needed), to make other people feel better and be eased. Cooking, of course, was useful — both of her didis would relax, brief looks of shared contentment that she cherished. Yanli wasn’t naturally gifted in cooking, not exactly coming out of the womb with a saucepan in hand, but when she came to the cooks, tiny and determined, pleading them to teach her how to make A-Cheng feel better, they had acquiesced.

Her first attempts were admittedly terrible, but by the end of A-Cheng’s illness, her soup had vastly improved. By now, she had cooked that soup hundreds of times and she could probably cook it in her sleep. Pork rib and lotus root soup; there were countless fond memories she had associated with it, surrounded by her family.

Could she help? Help the stranger when her mere existence was the cause of his pain? Useless, weak, the words whispered in her head, in the voices of A-Niang and other cultivators from other sects; the taunts that had echoed behind her throughout her life. Wearily, she ignored them, she had always hoped that they would leave by themself but they never did. She eyed the man, apprehensive if she would only hinder him.

She stood up stiffly, uneasy in the body that wasn’t her’s, telegraphing each move for the man’s benefit. But the man flinched, instinctively and inelegantly retreating, and crashed directly into the table behind him. Jiang Yanli watched his hands clamour wildly behind him, looking for stability, and she cursed inwardly when his hand pressed onto Zidian sparking a blinding purple. Some part of her sighed in relief, it hadn’t sealed itself like some spiritual weapons were prone to do when their master di— What on earth.

They both stared, at a total loss for words as Zidian reanimated, weaving up and around the man’s wrist, recognising him as a user. As a master.

Who are you?

The man looked up at her from staring at his wrist, the snake curling comfortably around it as Yanli belatedly realised she said it aloud, the man — the stranger, the Jin-relative, the man that A-Cheng loved — replied with a shaky, quiet “Shijie?”

And with that, the hastily constructed foundations she made when she arrived in her didi’s body crumbled.

“A-Xian?” She whispered, covering Jiang Cheng’s mouth with his hands, feeling tears drip onto their hands.

Oh gods, it made so much sense. His clothes, his mannerisms, everything that made Wei Wuxian himself was all there. Even his complex relationship with A-Cheng and how quick he realised she wasn’t their brother — it was embarrassingly obvious. She had felt, deep-down that A-Xian had died, no possible way for him to live yet. He may not have been in the right body but it was him. One of her didis had survived. She was not alone, stuck in the body of her other little brother.

Jiang Yanli moved closer, stretching their arm closer to A-Xian’s face, his eyes (or the eyes of the man he was in) enormous. She hadn’t seen him in so long, maybe the last time before she died was in Yiling, when she and A-Cheng snuck out of her fitting in Yunmeng with her wedding dress in tow. Even now, Jiang Yanli could remember how fully A-Cheng had thrown himself into everything: the rebuilding of Lotus Pier and Yunmeng in general, and her wedding — she had tried to dissuade him, tried to get him to focus purely on the former but he insisted, the look in his eyes wide and teary, practically begging her to let him arrange it. So, she let him; ignoring the vestiges of guilt when she saw how tired he became, a truly destructive combination.

When they were all young, she saw how many plans and ideas of her wedding her dearest brothers had created. So many, and those were just the ones she knew of. Every couple of months she would see them frantically whisper to each other, pointing at different decorations, stealing bits of red and gold fabric — sometimes they did this at conferences — and she would always know they were planning a different wedding. She could easily admit, that they were adorable in their single-mindedness. (When she told them that, they scrunched up their faces and denied it — she simply laughed in response, it only made her point: adorable.)

At some point, she had suggested making plans for A-Xian’s or A-Cheng’s wedding, but they disagreed, and A-Xian swore he’d never marry (“I’ll always stay by your side Chengcheng!”) and they ran off. A week after that, A-Cheng was working on a “very important” project that Wei Wuxian couldn’t see, under any circumstances! (The designs for the wedding robe were beautiful!) The multitude of books and scrolls with all their plans had, of course, all burned in the massacre.

Jiang Cheng had managed most of the planning stages with the aid of her brother-in-law, Jin Guangyao, so he wasn’t as alone as he thought he’d be. A-Cheng had reluctantly conceded to Jin Guangshan’s demands, unwilling to damage Yanli’s relationships with Lanling Jin.

The times when A-Cheng had asked for Yanli’s input when she sat in during a planning session without Jin Guangyao, she could sometimes see A-Cheng turn to his right and instinctively start arguing with an absent Wei Wuxian. The multiple moments he did, he’d briefly look as if he was stabbed and carried on, quietly adding details on the plans that sounded as if A-Xian had or would have proposed.

When her — A-Cheng’s hand had finally made contact with her brother’s face, he flinched. She instantly dropped her hand as if burnt. The look in his eyes — the emotions were indecipherable.

“Shijie…” Pain was etched on his face as he looked up at her, “Ah… Jiang-guniang,” he corrected, already trying to close himself off, just like he had in Yiling. His fingers twitched slightly like he wanted to lift her hand back up, to rest against his face, in the same position they’ve been so many times, but so intrinsically different this time. Both in the bodies of other people, years later.

“It will always be Shijie for you, A-Xian. But do you know what happened?” She asked gently, burying her emotions, and saw him shrink down on himself, possibly from guilt.

“I — Shijie” — he wrung his hands, his tumultuous emotions caused Zidian to spark — “I don’t know what happened! We haven’t talked in a while! I only just received a letter from him telling me to come here and —” He broke off, squeezing his eyes shut, an anguished noise coming from his throat.

 


 

Jiang Cheng’s head throbbed.

This would, usually, not be something out of the ordinary. Except, he wasn’t sure if he should be able to have a headache. If he remembered correctly, shouldn’t his soul be ripped apart?

Did something go wrong? He had very slightly changed the array. Just a bit. Otherwise, it didn’t work at all when he had tried it before. He sighed aggrieved, it shouldn’t have changed the entire outcome.

Congratulations on being a failure! Again! A cheerful, annoying, familiar voice taunted him. In response, he groaned, resisting the powerful urge to tell it to shut up, covering his head with the blanket — in the back of his head, he absently registered that they were itchier than usual.

Something else was strange. Where the fuck was he? He wasn’t in Lotus Pier, the gentle splashing on water and the all-consuming scent of lotus was nonexistent. If he was somehow kidnapped from his quarters in the middle of the night, why was he left unguarded in a bed? If they went through the effort of taking him, shouldn’t they be warier? Be somewhat scared? If they weren’t doing him a boon, he might have tried to file a complaint. Great kidnapping skills, terrible execution; would not recommend.

Oh, shit — his golden core! Not again, not again, not again —

He sat up immediately, away from the gentle warmth of the bed, suppressing his instinctual panic as he breathed in deeply, meditating to feel his core. It was … weaker than normal? Much weaker — it may have been the repercussions of his failed ritual but his core itself felt smaller, not the lack of spiritual energy in his veins. If he didn’t know better, he would say it felt like the golden core of his younger disciples.

He looked down and finally registered his body. “His” body, that is. What the fuck.

The hands were tiny! Like Jin Ling’s when he was a preteen. A child’s hands. He moved his hands, watching the little hands in front of him move too. It was absurd. Jiang Cheng scowled, the expression coming to his face less easily than it used to, he scowled deeper in response.

Well, the hands weren’t his, that was certain. His own hands were darker than these, and when he was a child, he didn’t have this many freckles on them or those tiny scrapes on only one hand. So it wasn’t a case of simple de-ageing and kidnapping.

Did someone summon him while he was trying to summon his sister?

Ah. The pieces came together. No one had summoned him — if they had he’d be on the floor surrounded by a bloody array — but what Jiang Cheng had done was foolishly mess around with an untested array, that was almost completely different from the original. It wasn’t much of a surprise that he fucked up.

His theory was instead of destroying his soul to bring his sister’s back to the living, he just swapped it with her reincarnated soul.

Jiang Cheng’s A-Jie, his jiejie, had been reborn? He should have known somehow. He would have repaid his sister tenfold, in any way he could, as her brother, he had a responsibility to help! If he had known, he would’ve given her the best life — she deserved it. He would give anything, do anything, to make his family happy.

An awful idea came to him, his stomach sinking immediately. What if his ritual fucked up? What happens if a soul had to be sacrificed, no matter what?

He had such high hopes before! Gods, it must be a punishment for him, his arrogance thinking he could surpass life and death, and they chose the perfect one. This time, he killed his sister — no, not even that. He caused her soul to never reincarnate, to be erased utterly from existence. There was no doubt about it, no possible excuses to be made, not like last time — it wasn’t, it couldn’t be his fault that Wei Wuxian had died, smiling at him like he had already forgiven him, like he was doing him a favour. That terrible look in his eyes when he had died, Jiang Cheng telling himself that this was Wei Wuxian! How could he die? (His gege was supposed to be invincible.)

Jiang Cheng was never one for willful blindness.

As so many had judged him — so fucking righteous in their staunch belief of mere rumours — he was a monster.

How come every single time he gave himself up, it failed? (Would he ever be enough?) He had failed then, and it failed now. He should have known that his actions always always had consequences. For the people he held close, it blew up on them (with death). It seemed dramatic, pointlessly so even, but for his parents, Wei Wuxian, A-Jie, and too many of his people. All gone. His guilt could never be absolved — it was his responsibility to carry, his duty.

A drop of water fell onto his Jiejie’s small hands. The room wasn’t leaking, was it? He raised his eyes to the ceiling, and felt the salty dampness on her cheeks, tears falling faster with his realisation.

His chest — her chest — grew tight, the same it had moments before Wen Zhuliu crushed his core, at least A-Jie still had one.

How… How did A-Jie form a golden core? Was her reincarnation part of a sect? (A detached part of himself joked, hopefully, that it wasn’t Pingyang Yao.) Or born from rogue cultivators?

He scanned the room, more settled in the idea of investigating demonic cultivators and resentful ghosts than his feelings. The situation wasn’t the same, but the motions were reassuring.

The furniture wasn’t anything particularly out of the ordinary; not of the best quality, but not awful either. It wasn’t in the usual style of the Jin, Nie or Lan sects; if anything, it seemed familiar, close to home.

There was another bed in the small room, a couple of belongings haphazardly piled nearby on a table, bed roughly made. He pressed his lips together, a roommate. (A sibling?)

He diverted his gaze to A-Jie’s side of the room, drinking in the signs of her life. Sitting neatly on the other side of her bed, there was a cloth toy; some of its stitching crooked — a child’s work — but you could clearly see it was well-loved. Jiang Cheng huffed slightly, a faint smile teasing at the corner of his mouth, leaning over to pet the toy dog. Of anything, he would’ve thought her reincarnation would avoid dogs even subconsciously, out of respect for their brother — they had both chased off multiple dogs for Wei Wuxian, after all — but apparently not.

Jiang Cheng swung his legs off the bed, frowning when he swayed where he stood. Walking — hobbling, to be honest — towards the table, he saw small scraps of wood and a carving knife, wood chips littering both the ground and the table. Ah, that’s where those scars on her hand were from. He picked up a lotus-shaped — or so he assumed — wooden figurine, one of the many flowers on the table. Most looked as if they had been started, then immediately discarded. There were some other wooden figures: some snake-like figures — was that Zidian? Or was he looking too deeply into things?

It was a topic often discussed, both in and out of the cultivation world, how much do people remember from their previous lives? Jiang Cheng had never paid much attention to those hypotheticals, always busy with other things. Training and getting Wei Wuxian out of trouble, then afterwards being Jiang-zongzhu. If he had known that the topic would have more relevance, he may have listened before. So much in just the room itself brought up questions: the cloth dog could be brushed off, the carvings as well. But it seemed too coincidental. Some part of A-Jie must have remembered some things.

As anybody would say, Sandu Shengshou wasn’t one for sentiment. He slipped a wooden lotus up his sleeve; no one would know.

“Xiao Ya!” A female voice called out, her voice did sound familiar but Jiang Cheng, unfortunately, could recognise too many. It was sometimes helpful, but mostly annoying.

He turned around, away from his sister’s desk, catching the eye of the woman. He knew her — Chen Jia, Chen-a’yi, the owner and main caretaker of the orphanage in Jiangling. She was one of the surviving cultivators in his parents’ generation — sixth shidi’s niang — who defended Jiangling in the Sunshot Campaign, initially absent at the beginning of the war, and a few years later, returned to Jiangling to aid in the orphanage project.

(Jiangling? On sword it would barely take barely more than a shichen to return to Lotus Pier, he could see if A-Jie had really returned — )

“Chen-a’yi,” he faltered, ducking his head in a faint bow.

“Li Ya, you flatter me!” She teased, ruffling Li Ya’s hair. Jiang Cheng fought the urge to shake her hand off. “I’m glad you’re up now! All of us were worried when you fainted last night.”

“...I will be sure to reassure them,” he said, hastily plastering a smile on his face, “I feel better now.”

That look she gave him… it wasn’t much of a praise for his acting skills. He avoided her searching gaze by studying the floor panels. He wasn’t sure how to respond, if he was still in his actual body, she probably wouldn’t have this conversation with him. And it was well-known what sort of person he was, so he never really had to put effort in playing nice in a kind manner… more specifically, pretending to be his own sister. These really were unforeseen circumstances, having to act like his dead sister.

“Go rest, Xiao Ya, you look terrible,” Chen Jia joked, taking out a red ribbon from her sleeve, “I’ll tell the others not to disturb you. And you left your hair ribbon downstairs — try not to forget! I know how much you like it.”

She soon left without another word, the flick of her robes resounding loudly in the silence of the room, leaving Jiang Cheng alone in the centre of the room, hand clenched tight around the blood-red ribbon. (Like a life-line.)