Wei Wuxian’s wedding is beautiful, as Wen Ning knew it would be.
The surprising part is that he is there to see it for himself, instead of hearing the details from a-Yuan a few weeks later. He’d been certain until the very last moment that Jiang-zongzhu would change his mind about allowing Wen Ning to pass through the gates of Lotus Pier, no matter how many times Wei Wuxian swore he’d agreed. “And if he changes his mind,” Wei Wuxian had said firmly, “Then he’ll have to cope with the embarrassment of seeing me and Lan Zhan bow to each other right outside the gates of Lotus Pier, because you’re going to be at my wedding. And there’s nothing Jiang Cheng hates more than losing face, so it’ll be fine.” He’d given Wen Ning the reassuring smile that meant he was covering up a feeling he didn’t want anyone else to see, and Wen Ning privately resolved to slip away before Wei Wuxian could stop him, if it looked like Jiang Wanyin was going to be difficult. He’d felt Jiang Wanyin’s eyes on him, hard and suspicious, as he’d followed Wei Wuxian into the central courtyard, but in the end nothing was said.
Instead, Wen Ning is sandwiched between a-Yuan and Lan Jingyi as he watches Wei Wuxian exchange bows with Hanguang Jun and pour tea for Zewu Jun. He is beautiful in red, and he’s beautiful when he’s happy, and at Lan Wangji’s side Wei Wuxian is practically glowing, his skin gold against his wedding robes and his smile flashing like silver.
Wen Ning is happy for him. Really.
The banquet is more casual than the feasts Wen Ning remembers from his youth in Qishan, or even than the discussion conferences he attended at the Cloud Recesses and the Unclean Realm. This is not to say it isn’t opulent—Jiang Wanyin appears to have channeled the anger he is visibly barely restraining himself from unleashing on his guests into the wedding decor, so the entire stronghold is draped in red and the lake is bright with crimson lanterns—but Lotus Pier is a more casual place than the strongholds of the other Great Sects. There is a great deal of laughter. Everyone seems happy to be at Wei Wuxian’s wedding, even the people who wanted the Yiling Patriarch dead the year before.
Wen Ning leaves the feast early, before too many people sink deep enough into their cups to remember that a dead man is sitting at the table beside them. He’s avoided causing a scene at Wei Wuxian’s wedding thus far—it would be nice to make it all the way to the end of the trip without an incident. Sizhui tries to come with him, because he’s still a sweet child, but Wen Ning smiles at him and shakes his head. A-Yuan should celebrate with his friends. Hanguang Jun is, after all, something like a father to him.
He leaves the brilliant great hall behind, slipping easily into the blue shadows of the walkways.
It’s tempting to collect his bag from his room and leave Lotus Pier altogether; Wen Ning thinks he might be able to breathe in the quiet of the countryside, away from the lights and laughter. But Wei Wuxian might look for him tomorrow, and a-Yuan almost certainly will, and Wen Ning doesn’t like worrying the people he loves.
Wen Ning does his best to resist that temptation by heading in the opposite direction of his room, towards one of the pavilions at the very end of a walkway, where no lanterns have been lit. The quiet helps, as do the deep breaths of cool air.
Being happy for Wei Wuxian doesn’t preclude feeling a little sorry for himself. He wishes not for the first time that alcohol had any effect on him; he’d really love to get drunk right now. Instead the safest kind of oblivion open to him is meditation. He sits straight-backed on the floor, and tries to empty his mind.
He’s not sure how long he sits there before Jiang Wanyin finds him.
“This area is out of bounds to guests,” Jiang Wanyin snaps, startling Wen Ning out of lotus position.
He blinks up at Jiang Wanyin, returning to himself, and sees that Jiang Wanyin is a little worse for drink, listing against the open wall of the pavilion, his eyes glittering.
“Apologies, Jiang-zongzhu,” Wen Ning says, not moving. “I did not realize you were using the space.” Was Jiang Wanyin looking for him specifically? That’s the only reason he can think of for the sect leader himself to come chase him out of an empty pavilion when the wedding feast he’s hosting is still going on elsewhere in the night.
Jiang Wanyin narrows his eyes, and takes a step closer to him. “I don’t need to be using the space,” he says darkly, “to want you out of it.”
Wen Ning swallows his first response. It is still Wei Wuxian’s wedding, and he does not want to fight with his brother. Ex brother. Former shidi. And make Wei Wuxian unhappy, during his wedding. “I’ll leave,” he says instead, getting to his feet.
“You’d better,” Jiang Wanyin says, and takes another few steps towards him, with the fleet footed surety of the truly drunk. “This was my sister’s pavilion. This was her place.”
Against his will, Wen Ning softens a fraction. He’d liked Jiang Yanli. Liking Jiang Yanli played a significant role in getting him to march to his death the second time. That and wanting to keep Granny Wen and a-Yuan and Wei Wuxian alive. “I’m leaving, Jiang-zongzhu,” he repeats, bows to the slightest possible polite degree, and tries to walk past Jiang Wanyin to the walkway.
Tries, because Jiang Wanyin grabs his arm as he walks by.
Wen Ning really doesn’t want to fight with anyone on Wei Wuxian’s wedding night. He goes still instead.
“Why are you out here anyway,” Jiang Wanyin asks, frowning at him. “He wanted you here, for whatever reason. Practically gave me an ultimatum about it.”
“Wei-gongzi is a loyal friend,” Wen Ning says flatly. He can’t help himself from slightly emphasizing the word loyal, to remind Jiang Wanyin that Wen Ning recognizes his worst flaw. “I’m returning to my room, Jiang-zongzhu.”
Jiang Wanyin’s fingers tighten on his arm. “You could have at least stayed through the whole feast,” Jiang Wanyin snaps. “For his sake. Instead you’re out here in a jealous sulk, trespassing in my—where you don’t belong.”
“How kind of Jiang-zongzhu to tell me what I should do for Wei-gongzi’s sake,” Wen Ning bites back with a significant look at Jiang Wanyin’s lower dantian, and Jiang Wanyin flinches a little. Abruptly he’s tired of playing nice. “Are you going to tell me how to take care of him, next?”
“That’s Lan Wangji’s task, isn’t it?” Jiang Wanyin says with a sneer. “Not yours. No matter how obviously you wish it were.”
Wen Ning shrugs off Jiang Wanyin’s hand like it’s nothing, and Jiang Wanyin looks surprised to see his hand back at his own side. Wen Ning smiles flatly, thinks of how disappointed a-Yuan would be if he got kicked out of Lotus Pier in a rowboat again, and starts to walk away.
He pauses. The last time Jiang Wanyin had referred to him, he’d called him the Ghost General. He looks over his shoulder.
Jiang Wanyin has a strange expression on his face. “I didn’t come out here looking for a quarrel,” he says after a grudging silence.
“No?” Wen Ning asks.
“No,” Jiang Wanyin says, and scowls at him. “I—wanted to—” He hesitates, and lets out a frustrated sound. He seems abruptly more sober than he has since he arrived. “My brother got married today,” he says abruptly. “Everyone back there who isn’t a child or a Lan hates him. I don’t. Want to drink. With people who hate my brother tonight.”
Wen Ning stares at him. Jiang Wanyin scowls at him, and then at the wooden slats under their feet. “I can’t get drunk,” he says after a long pause.
Jiang Wanyin snorts. “How seriously have you tried?”
Wen Ning—hasn’t tried that seriously, actually. He remembers a bowl of Uncle Four’s fruit wine having no effect on him at all, and just thought that was that. “Not very.”
“I have three storerooms of wine,” Jiang Wanyin says, still with an angry edge. “If you wanted to commit to the attempt.” He manages to make the fact that Wen Ning hasn’t been drunk in twenty years sound like laziness.
Wen Ning shrugs, and when Jiang Wanyin starts stomping away towards the storerooms, Wen Ning follows him.
The thing is, he isn’t jealous. Not really. Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji love each other; that’s painfully obvious. It’s not like there was ever a world where he could compete with Hanguang Jun—and if there was, well. He left that world in a Jin prison camp a lifetime ago.
He’s known he would never marry or take a lover for almost twenty years. People don’t fall in love with fierce corpses, and Wen Ning has no interest in paying some poor girl to pretend like his cold hands and black-veined skin don't terrify her out of her wits for an evening.
Honestly, it hadn’t really looked like love was in the cards for him for about a year before he ended up speared on a spirit attraction flag. He’d known there was a good chance he wouldn’t survive the war as soon as he saw Wei Wuxian in Lotus Pier after it fell—the memory of his smile a hot thing in Wen Ning’s chest, the traumatized boy with his hands clenched in Wen Ning’s clothes nothing like the same person, except that Wen Ning wanted to see him smile again. So.
It wasn’t a hard adjustment to make, the way some of the rest of it was: food tasted like a ghost of itself, sometimes he’d forget to breathe and then remember and choke on air as his dead lungs tried to re-inflate, he couldn’t weep no matter how much he wanted to. His body was no longer solely his to command, but a vessel for Chenqing to fill with Wei Wuxian’s purpose. These things were difficult to learn.
“I am your mother and father,” Wei Wuxian teased him once, drunk on Fourth Uncle’s fruit wine. “I gave birth to you myself, out of my own body. Technically my brain, but the brain is part of the body, Wen Ning! That cannot be argued!”
“Don’t repeat that where a-Jie can hear,” Wen Ning advised him, but thought about it later. His parents gave him life, and then he lost it like the careless child he’d always been, and Wei Wuxian gave it back. Maybe that’s why Wen Ning felt bound to Wei Wuxian from the beginning, as soon as Wei Wuxian first noticed him in Cloud Recesses: the obligation resonated backwards and pulled Wen Ning after his life-bearer on a rope of nearly-filial gratitude.
This was fanciful.
The real answer was obvious to everyone except Wei Wuxian, which Wen Ning is thankful for. He’d been young, a beautiful boy smiled at him, and Wen Ning fell so deeply and immediately in love that he dragged his sister and himself and possibly the entire Wen sect off a cliff to keep Wei Wuxian safe.
And now almost twenty years have passed, and against all odds both Wen Ning and the man he’s loved since he was sixteen years old are alive—or nearly so—and Wen Ning is a guest at his wedding. It feels like the twist in a folk tale, the sting at the end of the story: be careful what you wish for.
Jiang Wanyin doesn’t actually lead them to the storerooms. He takes Wen Ning back to his own chambers, and has a servant bring half a storeroom of wine to them. Wen Ning keeps fighting the urge to laugh, just because of how surreal it all is: Jiang Wanyin lounging on deep blue pillows, a jar of wine in his hands, glaring at nothing and everything in front of a beautiful woodcut scene, the lake lapping at the windows and sending a delicate ripple of underwater light through the screen.
It takes Wen Ning eight jars of wine to begin to feel anything, and for most of those eight jars he thought he was wasting the Jiang sect’s wine stores, which was reason enough to keep drinking. By the tenth jar the world is pleasantly soft at the edges in a way he hasn’t experienced in twenty years, and he almost cries. Jiang Wanyin doesn’t bother trying to keep pace with him, which is good, because Wen Ning doesn’t want to save his life again. Instead he sips at his own jar of wine, tossing it back in the same dramatic style as Wei Wuxian, so sometimes half the wine spills down his chin.
“Are you crying?” Jiang Wanyin asks him, and Wen Ning frowns. Pats his cheek with one hand.
“It’s just alcohol,” Jiang Wanyin says dismissively, and passes Wen Ning a fresh jar. Wen Ning unstoppers it, and Jiang Wanyin glares at the jar, like it wronged him somehow. “You can’t really think he’ll be happy there,” he says, accusatory. Wen Ning is beginning to develop a theory that Jiang Wanyin just sounds accusatory at all times. Wen Ning is pretty sure he wasn’t always like this; at Cloud Recesses Jiang Wanyin had been friendly to everyone except his brother, who he scolded constantly. Wen Ning remembers vaguely thinking he was nice.
“What are you talking about,” Jiang Wanyin says, squinting at him. “I’ve never been nice.”
Wen Ning blinks, and sets the jar down. He presses two fingers to his own pulse, just to be sure that he’s not in danger of losing control, but his resentment is quiescent, a low-level hum under his skin. He may have lost his brain to mouth filter, but he is satisfied that he isn’t about to lose his composure and go on a murderous rampage through Lotus Pier. That would definitely ruin Wei Wuxian’s wedding night, and Wen Ning doesn’t want to do that.
“Gross,” Jiang Wanyin says, and takes another dramatic swig of his wine. He has to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand afterward. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“There’s no way in hell he’ll be happy there,” Jiang Wanyin says instantly, although that isn’t a question. “With four thousand rules? With the no talking during meals? The no alcohol? The no running, no sitting weird, no—with Lan-laoshi? And the cultivators whose family members he killed?” He gives a decisive shake of his head. “He’s not going to be happy.”
“He is,” Wen Ning says, and pours himself a fresh draught. “He has Hanguang Jun.”
Jiang Wanyin throws a peanut at him. It bounces off Wen Ning’s forehead. “Love is fine,” Jiang Wanyin says irritably, “but you can’t eat it.”
Wen Ning chokes on his laugh. “What would you know about going hungry?” he says, and Jiang Wanyin glares at him.
“You’re not listening.”
“Wei-gongzi is going to be happy,” Wen Ning explains, more patiently than Jiang Wanyin deserves, “Because Hanguang Jun is going to let him break as many rules as he likes, and no one will stop him because he’s the Chief Cultivator, and because a-Yuan will be there.”
“Who is a-Yuan,” Jiang Wanyin asks, without much interest.
“Nobody,” Wen Ning says, horrified that he’s said anything at all. He pours himself another bowl of wine, to have something to do with his hands besides clapping them over his mouth.
“Hanguang Jun is a fucking hypocrite,” Jiang Wanyin says, with a moody look at the window. Wen Ning wonders if that’s the direction of Hanguang Jun’s guest rooms, if just a few hundred feet away Wei Wuxian is sliding scarlet robes off his shoulders. Probably not. Probably they did that hours ago, and Wei Wuxian is sleeping in Lan Wangji’s arms.
“He’s your brother-in-law now,” Wen Ning points out, to distract himself from this line of thinking, and Jiang Wanyin winces. “You shouldn’t speak ill of him.”
“Don’t tell me how to speak about my own brother-in-law,” Jiang Wanyin says, and then they both remember what happened to Jiang Wanyin’s first brother-in-law, and a tense silence falls.
Wen Ning doesn’t remember his sixteen years of service under Jin Guangyao and Su Minshan, something that he finds alternately relieving and horrifying. He remembers killing Jin Zixuan. He remembers all the rages he went into, before the nails went into his skull. He tore the talisman off himself, to protect Wei Wuxian. In resentment, Wen Ning doesn’t really think, just feel. Chenqing guides him, shows him where to go, what to do. Without the music, all Wen Ning has, in that state, are his feelings. He had loved Wei Wuxian, and hated that they were betrayed. He had hated Jin Zixuan.
“Why,” Jiang Wanyin mutters, pressing the heel of one hand into his eyes.
“Oh,” Wen Ning says. “Well, at Cloud Recesses, he was always nice to me.”
“You thought everyone was nice at Cloud Recesses.”
“He was nice to my sister, too,” Wen Ning says softly. “It wasn’t well-known, and it obviously wasn’t long-lived, but—he liked her. I think.”
Jiang Wanyin is staring at him, a queer, distant look on his face.
“He gave her a comb,” Wen Ning says, remembering. There were a few months during the war, after they’d escaped from a Wen prison but before they’d been thrown into a Jin one, when they’d just gone home to try and keep the Dafan Wens safe. He’d caught her looking at it then, unfolding a little scrap of silk to brush her fingers over a pretty wooden comb. She hadn’t wanted to talk about it, but he’d figured out that an admirer had given it to her at Cloud Recesses. He remembered who their friends were back then, how a-Jie had tried so hard to hold herself apart that she ended up in Jin Zixuan’s company a fair amount of the time, because he was also holding himself apart. He remembered Jin Zixuan making up transparent excuses to talk to a-Jie, Luo Qingyang looking at a-Jie and laughing, but not in a mean way, like she was inviting a-Jie in on a joke. It hadn’t been hard to figure out.
“He—did,” Jiang Wanyin says, and the disbelieving tone in his voice makes Wen Ning bristle. Plenty of people could have loved a-Jie. She was the most beautiful and brilliant person alive. She should have been loved.
“He did,” Wen Ning says brusquely. “She carried it around for a while. And—I didn’t mind that he stopped liking her,” he says, and takes a long, frustrated swallow of wine. The world softens a little more. “I just couldn’t forget that he’d liked her once, and then he let his father throw us into a camp. He was someone we knew, and he completely forgot that we were people. I know that’s not a reason, but I wouldn’t have done it if I’d had my reason. So in that state. I don’t know. I was angry. Wei-gongzi was angry. Su Minshan was playing music, too. But afterward I wasn’t surprised.”
“Shut up,” Jiang Wanyin says in a hoarse voice. His eyes are closed. “Drink more.”
Wen Ning drinks more. So does Jiang Wanyin, and he has to keep scrubbing at his mouth, because he and his brother are both too impatient to pour their liquor into bowls when they’re really in their cups. It turns his lips and chin bright pink, and it makes him look much younger than he is.
“I’m sorry about your sister,” Jiang Wanyin says after Wen Ning doesn’t know how long. He sounds like he’s forcing the words out of his throat. “She deserved more.”
Wen Ning’s heart gives an awful phantom throb in his chest. “She did,” he agrees sharply, and then has to take a few moments to breathe, and get his resentment under control.
“So did mine,” Jiang Wanyin says, just as sharp. His eyes are open now, and Wen Ning recognizes the grief in them. Half bitterness, half rage. He feels the same. “She deserved to be at her brother’s wedding. To watch her son grow up. To have her husband alive and at her side.”
Wen Ning’s chest feels too tight, like his breath and not his heart is the problem. “I’m sorry about your sister, Jiang-zongzhu.” He’s too drunk to hold the rest of the sentence back. “Your sister and your brother both deserved better.”
“You think I don’t know that,” Jiang Wanyin snarls, and drops his empty jar of wine with a thud on the table. “Why the fuck do you think I’m doing this for?”
Wen Ning has no idea what Jiang Wanyin is doing this for. He knows Wei Wuxian has forgiven him, or something like it—that in the two years since they uncovered Jin Guangyao’s plot the two of them have tentatively reconciled. He doesn’t know if Jiang Wanyin ever apologized, or if the tearful non-apology he gave at Jin Guangyao’s temple was the best Wei Wuxian ever got. “I’ve never understood why you do anything,” he says with complete honesty.
When Wen Ning began to wake up, everything felt like dying. It took a long time to recognize that he wasn’t leaving the world, but coming back to it.
It took a while after that for sounds to start making sense, but eventually he heard Wei Wuxian saying his name. He wasn’t speaking to Wen Ning, really—just repeating his name over and over again, in an absent-minded singsong, the way people talk to themselves when they’re working. Wen Ning, Wen Ning, Wen Qionglin. Don’t think you can escape me that easily. I’m very clever and persistent, and you’re just lying there like a lump. Wen Ning, Wen Ning, Wen Ning. Where did I put my—oh, haha, it’s in my hand! Wen Ning wanted to say I’m here, Wei-gongzi, but his mouth didn’t obey him. He listened hard, because listening was at least a distraction from the pain of dying or being born or whatever strange thing he and Wei Wuxian were laboring at between the two poles. Sometimes a-Jie came to talk to him, and that was better because she was speaking to him and not to herself, but also worse because he’d never wanted to hear a-Jie grieving him. Once a child came in and laughed, before Wei Wuxian cried out Not in here, little radish! and then the child’s laughter faded until Wen Ning couldn’t hear it anymore.
And then one day Wei Wuxian said his name twice, very clear and calm, and then said: Someone has come to see you. Clearly as an aside to someone else, he added: he can hear us.
Why is he like this? It was Jiang Wanyin. Or Wen Ning thought so, anyway. It had been a long time since he heard Jiang Wanyin’s voice. People say the dead you raise are all fierce corpses who kill people without blinking.
People? Wei Wuxian laughed, and promptly forgot that Wen Ning could hear him. Maybe he hadn’t fully believed it in the first place. What people have I been raising from the dead?
Over the course of the next half hour, Wen Ning listened to Jiang Wanyin beg Wei Wuxian to come home and turn the living Wens over to the Jin sect. He listened to Jiang Wanyin call him a monster, a mindless puppet no different from the things they killed at Nightless City, no matter how Wei Wuxian explained that Wen Ning’s case was different. He listened to Jiang Wanyin beg Wei Wuxian to put a sword through his chest—to put Wen Ning out of his misery. He listened to Wei Wuxian’s horrified refusal, and Jiang Wanyin’s declaration that he’d do it himself. There was enough time between the declaration and the clear cold note of Sandu being unsheathed for Wen Ning to hope it wouldn’t hurt, or at least not as much as it did the first time. But the pain never came.
Instead there was a dull thump and Wei Wuxian made a soft sound in the back of his throat, and Jiang Wanyin began weeping.
Can’t you see the situation? Do you have to make me say it out loud? Jiang Wanyin’s breath came unevenly, too loud in the quiet of the cave. His voice was pure misery. If you persist in defending them, I won’t be able to defend you.
Wen Ning remembered holding Jiang Wanyin’s unconscious body still while a-Jie worked so hard to save his life that he worried she might collapse from the strain. He remembered every sound Wei Wuxian made on the ground beside them, the agony he suffered for Jiang Wanyin’s sake.
Just leave me then, Wei Wuxian whispered, and Wen Ning could hear the tears in his voice, too. Tell the world I defected. From now on, everything I do doesn’t concern the Jiang Clan of Yunmeng.
After Jiang Wanyin left, Wei Wuxian sat down with his back propped up against Wen Ning’s stone slab and wept, in hitching childlike sobs, like he’d forgotten he wasn’t alone.
When Wen Ning was alive, he’d been very angry at a great many people. Wen-zongzhu, Nie-zongzhu, Wen Xu, Wen Chao, Jin-zongzhu, Jin Zixuan, the Jin guards who tormented and eventually killed him. He would have happily killed any of them, had it been in his power at the time.
Listening to Wei Wuxian cry, Wen Ning felt a rage unlike anything he’d ever experienced pulse in his body, resentment catching in him like sparks in a dry field. Wen Ning could murder Jiang Wanyin without blinking, if his body would obey him again. Wei Wuxian’s breathing shuddered, and Wen Ning felt his fingers twitch at his sides, his toes curling in his boots. He wasn’t sure what would happen if he stood up, but he felt certain Jiang Wanyin would not survive it.
But then a-Jie came back into the cave, and Wei Wuxian stopped crying, and Wen Ning could not so much as raise his eyebrow under his own power.
It was a long time before he would wake up the rest of the way.
“What do you mean, you don’t understand me,” Jiang Wanyin asks, glaring at him. “What’s for you to understand?”
“Why you are the way you are,” Wen Ning says, and he does manage to swallow the rest of what he wants to say: why he forgave you.
From the look Jiang Wanyin gives him, he thinks maybe Jiang Wanyin heard it anyway. “I won’t be judged by a man mooning after my brother on his wedding night.”
Wen Ning glares back at him. “I wish Wei-gongzi the greatest happiness, Jiang-zongzhu.”
“Don’t call me that if you’re going to insult me,” Jiang Wanyin says flatly. “Use my name if you’re already going to disrespect your host in his own home.”
“My apologies, Jiang-zongzhu,” Wen Ning says, and gives him a seated bow, as polite as he can without falling over. “Should I leave?”
Jiang Wanyin snorts, and then makes a quiet disgusted sound and closes his eyes, tipping his head back against the screen behind him. “So what’s it like being dead,” he asks, not opening his eyes.
Wen Ning shrugs, which Jiang Wanyin can’t see. “I can’t really taste food anymore.”
“That sucks,” Jiang Wanyin says, not stirring at all. “He should fix that.”
Wen Ning shrugs again.
“Bet he meant to, and forgot,” Jiang Wanyin continues, which is probably pretty close to the truth. Back in the Burial Mounds, Wei Wuxian was always planning future improvements for Wen Ning’s comfort, ways to perfect his own work—he had a whole notebook full of ideas that would cost more money in materials than the food they needed to survive the winter. That notebook probably ended up in Xue Yang’s hands. Maybe the work went into Song-daozhang instead. “You should remind him.”
“It’s fine,” Wen Ning says, and is surprised to discover that he means it. “It’s not that I wouldn’t like to seem more human, I just—I think I’m done being a project.”
Jiang Wanyin opens one eye to look at him. “You look human,” he says decisively.
Wen Ning raises a doubtful eyebrow, and Jiang Wanyin opens his other eye so he can roll both. “You look dead,” he says bluntly, “but dead people are still people.”
“Fine,” Wen Ning says, not pointing out that this is a very different tune than the one he sang in the past. “I’d like to appear less monstrous, then.”
Jiang Wanyin snorts. “You don’t look monstrous,” he says, like Wen Ning is being ridiculous. Like he thinks Wen Ning thinks too highly of himself. “You have your hair tucked behind your ears. What kind of monster combs their hair?”
Wen Ning puts down his jar of wine, and reaches out to touch Jiang Wanyin’s forehead with one finger. He doesn’t make it that far—Jiang Wanyin catches his wrist an inch away from touching him, Zidian giving a warning crackle. Wen Ning lets him do it, because this will make his point just as well. “See?”
“See what?” Jiang Wanyin says warily, his face perfectly framed by their hands. They’re close enough that Wen Ning can feel the faint warmth of Jiang Wanyin’s breath against his wrist.
Wen Ning flexes his wrist in Jiang Wanyin’s grip. “I don’t feel like a person,” he says patiently. “Too cold. A man once threw up because I accidentally touched his face.”
“You don’t make me want to throw up,” Jiang Wanyin says, and it sounds sincere.
Wen Ning stares at him, but Jiang Wanyin is looking at Wen Ning’s hand, caught by the wrist. He clears his throat, eyes still on their hands. “I never said,” he says roughly. “At Guanyin Temple, when you held the sword spirit back. I. Won’t forgive you for the rest of it, but. Thank you for saving Jin Ling’s life.”
Wen Ning has no idea what to say to that. The silence stretches on long enough that Jiang Wanyin stops looking at his hand and starts looking at his eyes, a defensive look on his face, brows furrowing. “Don’t worry, Jiang-zongzhu,” he hears himself say, softly but firmly. “I won’t forgive you, either.”
Something flashes over Jiang Wanyin’s face, too quickly for him to be able to decipher it, and then Jiang Wanyin is yanking him forward, more or less slapping Wen Ning’s hand onto the side of his neck, and Wen Ning is kissing him.
He has no idea where the impulse came from—he didn’t make a decision. His body just followed Jiang Wanyin’s movement, entirely without his permission, and now Wen Ning has Jiang Wanyin’s lower lip in his mouth, and it’s more than he’s touched anyone in years. He loses a few minutes like that, Jiang Wanyin gripping his wrist hard enough to grind a living man’s bones together, the heat of his body frankly dizzying, warming Wen Ning up.
Unfortunately Jiang Wanyin still needs to breathe, so eventually they have to break apart, both of them heaving in air, even though it’s just habit for Wen Ning. Jiang Wanyin’s eyes are wide and suspicious at the same time, somehow, like he thinks Wen Ning might be playing a trick on him, like Wen Ning might sit back and say this is a terrible idea, which it is, it’s terrible, this is Wei Wuxian’s wedding night and Wen Ning wasn’t going to make any trouble, except—
—Jiang Wanyin’s neck is so hot under his hand, it barely feels real. He just wants to keep touching someone, even if it is Jiang Wanyin. He strokes his thumb along the line of Jiang Wanyin’s jaw, and he can feel Jiang Wanyin swallow against the heel of his hand.
It’s enough of a conversation. Wen Ning leans in to kiss him again, and Jiang Wanyin arches up into him, eager and angry about it. Wen Ning keeps waiting for him to recognize the feeling of a dead man touching him, but it keeps not happening. Jiang Wanyin releases an assortment of half-voiced sounds into Wen Ning’s shoulder, his neck, the warm air between them, but none of them are no.
It’s Wei Wuxian’s wedding night. Wen Ning is drunk, when he thought that wasn’t possible, and a warm person is kissing a spot underneath Wen Ning’s ear that he never knew was sensitive, and that was never supposed to be possible either. It’s so close to what he used to want, it almost hurts—or maybe that’s just because he feels raw, being touched this much after so many years of abstaining. He’s trembling just from the feeling of Jiang Wanyin’s hand on his bare chest.
“Calm down,” Jiang Wanyin says in between kisses, scolding as much as soothing, his scorching hands making little circles on Wen Ning’s skin. “Stop freaking out.” It makes Wen Ning want to bite him, so he does, a sharp nip to Jiang Wanyin’s jaw, and the surprised, high sound Jiang Wanyin makes is worth the embarrassment of the rest of it.
“You calm down,” Wen Ning mutters, and stops the offended noise Jiang Wanyin makes with his mouth.
The first time Wen Ning visited Lotus Pier, after he drugged everyone’s wine and spent twenty minutes doing a frantic search of the main house, certain Wen Zhuliu would wake up and kill him at any moment, he found Jiang Wanyin in a pantry. There were salted pigs strung up by their feet next to him; he was hanging by his wrists, barely in better shape. He’d looked half-dead, and Wen Ning worried he’d finish the job by accident just by untying him.
Instead Jiang Wanyin opened his eyes while Wen Ning was pulling him down, just a fraction, and Wen Ning fought back a shudder, because it looked like absolutely no one was there.
“It’s okay,” Wen Ning whispered as he pulled at the knots in the rope. “I’m here to help. I’m taking you somewhere safe.”
Jiang Wanyin’s eyes slid closed.
He pulled Jiang Wanyin’s arms over his neck, hoped for the best, and brought him back to Wei Wuxian.
Wen Ning wakes up.
It’s early—the light coming in from the windows is pale gray, pre-dawn. Jiang Wanyin is asleep next to him, curled up on his side, defensive even like this. Poets are always saying people look younger when they’re asleep, but Jiang Wanyin just looks tired, the shadows under his eyes more pronounced in the morning light. He’s still close enough for Wen Ning to feel his body heat; the bed is warmer around him than it ever is when he’s alone.
Wen Ning waits to feel shame, or guilt, or just regret. It doesn’t come. He doesn’t feel a sudden new rush of passion for Jiang Wanyin, and his memories are a little blurred with wine, but—he liked it. It was nice.
He sits up, trying to be quiet, but Jiang Wanyin stirs anyway, blinking twice at him before visibly realizing who he’s looking at.
“Oh,” Jiang Wanyin says, and then winces. “Ow.”
“It was a lot of wine,” Wen Ning says apologetically. He feels fine. Probably a perk of being dead.
“You don’t say,” Jiang Wanyin croaks, and sits up, scrubbing his face with one hand. His hair is a wretched tangle on one side. That may be Wen Ning’s fault; he thinks at one point he tried to unbraid Jiang Wanyin’s hair.
“It’s early,” Wen Ning says. It comes out awkward; he doesn’t know what you’re supposed to say when you sleep with someone you sort-of hate, who sort-of hates you, when you liked sleeping with them. “I think I can get back to my room without anyone seeing.”
Jiang Wanyin gives a short nod.
Wen Ning gets out of the bed, and goes to find his outer robes. When he’s dressed, Jiang Wanyin is still just sitting there, hair a twisted mess, his neck still a little pink. There’s a small bruise forming at the hinge of his jaw, where Wen Ning bit him.
“Jiang Wanyin,” Wen Ning says impulsively, and Jiang Wanyin looks up at him, unreadable. He doesn’t have a followup really, so after a very awkward pause he says: “We don’t have to talk about it—ever, and, um, it definitely doesn’t change anything, but—it was nice. I thought.”
Jiang Wanyin stares at him. His face, Wen Ning is delighted to see, goes even pinker. He gives a wordless nod, and then two more. He looks like he might be willing to try it again in the future.
Wen Ning gives him a very correct bow, purely to see the familiar look of irritation cross Jiang Wanyin’s face, and then leaves, taking the most circumspect route back to his own room.
Much later that day, Wei Wuxian finds him, drags him into town, and insists on buying them both scallion pancakes from an old woman who calls him “A-Xian.” He slings an arm around Wen Ning’s shoulders as he eats his share, and then steals Wen Ning’s pancakes when he’s finished, because of course Wen Ning isn’t eating them. He chatters on about the wedding, about Lan Wangji, who is having tea with his brother, about how they’re planning to return to Cloud Recesses for a while but that after that he and Lan Wangji are going to travel together.
“I’m happy for you, Wei-gongzi,” Wen Ning tells him simply.
“I’m happy for me,” Wei Wuxian says, glowing again. “I’m glad you were here to see it.” His face turns serious, just for a second. “Jiang Cheng didn’t give you any trouble, did he? Did anyone?”
“No, no trouble,” Wen Ning says, too fast, and Wei Wuxian gives him a suspicious glance. “I mean it,” Wen Ning says, wishing not for the first time that he were a better liar. He’d rather die than have a single conversation with Wei Wuxian about last night; his death was brief, and Wei Wuxian would bring this up forever. “Nothing went wrong.”
Wei Wuxian shakes a finger at him. “If you won’t tell me, I’ll get it out of Sizhui! You know he caves under pressure.”
“I’m fine, Wei-gongzi,” Wen Ning says, a little amused even if he can’t quite meet Wei Wuxian’s eyes. “Everyone’s fine.”
Wei Wuxian squints at him. “So you’re happy?”
Wen Ning pauses. Thinks of all the things he thought were impossible yesterday, how many assumptions turned out to be false. There are things he doesn’t know about still in the world. There are people he doesn’t know yet who might like him, who he might like. There are small, stupid joys still to discover. “I think I will be,” he says finally, and then immediately ducks his head in mild embarrassment.
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian says softly. He pats Wen Ning’s arm. “You’ll let me know if I can help?”
Wen Ning gives him a small smile. “Yes, gongzi.”
The night after Wei Wuxian’s beautiful wedding, Wen Ning leaves Lotus Pier. He gets a hug goodbye from Wei Wuxian and a-Yuan, a nod from Lan Wangji, and an awkward flush from Jiang Wanyin that he is very glad Wei Wuxian is too distracted to see. He makes plans to meet a-Yuan for a night hunt in a month, and Wei Wuxian tells him to come by Cloud Recesses when they’re done. Jiang Wanyin doesn’t say anything, but Wen Ning sees him absently brush the bruise under his ear with one finger.
He leaves Wei Wuxian’s wedding feeling lighter than he has in years.