Wei Wuxian sleeps, and wakes.
He wakes in a bed in the healers’ quarters, rather than in his own bed in the jingshi. That’s only a surprise for a moment: it takes no longer than that for him to remember collapsing, that morning, into Lan Zhan’s swift and certain arms, his sudden and awful dismay. He’s been here ever since, he remembers. Lan Zhan had been at his side, a steady presence even later in the day when he began to drift in and out of consciousness. Eventually Wei Wuxian had begged him to take a break, to go and find Sizhui, whose usual cheerful calm had been broken by a stricken look he could not hide when he saw his Wei-qianbei lying in the healing bed.
What he doesn’t remember is Jiang Cheng. But Jiang Cheng is here, nevertheless, sitting at his side with two fingertips pressed to his wrist, a textbook picture of an energy transfer.
“Jiang Cheng?” he says. His voice is hoarse from sleep. Yesterday the curse had only made him a little drowsy, a little tired. Today it’s been a struggle to keep his eyes open; he stopped trying to hide it around noon. “What are you doing here?”
“Hanguang-jun contacted me.” Jiang Cheng’s voice is flat, unreadable. “Last night. He told me about the curse.” Oh, that can’t be good.
What did the Lan healer tell him? Jiang Cheng can’t possibly think this will be a brief affair, one quick transfer of energy and it’s over – not while Wei Wuxian feels this dragging, echoing hunger sapping his strength, a yawning blackness opening under him like a mouth –
“When exactly were you going to tell me,” Jiang Cheng says, very drily indeed, “that you were under a curse that will kill you if you receive any spiritual energy from a golden core that isn’t your own?”
Well, he wasn’t.
The curse is a brutal one. No-one knows who first designed it – even the Lan library, which Lan Qiren has been tearing through for the past day, doesn’t have that detail – but Wei Wuxian, for his part, thinks its designer must have been a truly vengeful person. It drains the victim’s spiritual energy, slowly, and then faster and faster. And any infusion of spiritual energy from outside will have an adverse effect – at first a small one, but after a while, anyone else’s energy will become deadly.
It’s designed to be hell on the person’s loved ones. To force them to watch the victim die by inches, knowing that anything they do to help will kill their beloved that much faster. Wei Wuxian –
Well, it’s not as if he’s first in Jiang Cheng’s heart any more. But he wasn’t going to invite Jiang Cheng to watch that, nonetheless.
“Jiang Cheng,” he says, trying to think of some words that will solve this, some clever phrase that will tie the whole situation up in a bow. It feels as if the thoughts are slipping out of his head, fish in a stream. A gap he can’t stop up. “It’s not…” Jiang Cheng’s brow furrows. It’s not a big deal will not go down well. “It’s not like that.”
“It’s not like what?” Jiang Cheng’s mouth twists. “Because it sounds to me like you needed spiritual energy from a golden core your body wouldn’t reject in order to live, and even though there was a golden core like that available, somehow it slipped your mind to contact the one person who had it.”
“You know my memory is terrible,” Wei Wuxian tries to say, but when his mouth starts to shape a laugh, he’s too tired to make a sound. It comes out as a huff of breath.
“I know your terrible memory,” Jiang Cheng says, deliberately, “better than anyone. You didn’t forget.” He speaks as if he knows he’s right. He is.
It’s not like it hadn’t occurred to Wei Wuxian. That there was a golden core out there that used to be his, one his body would know and recognise, whose power it would welcome even through the deadly haze of the curse. It was almost too neat, really. As if he’d taken his golden core out and put it away, to save for later. That wasn’t –
That wasn’t what he’d done it for. Not so he could call it in, like a debt, snap his fingers and have Jiang Cheng come running. He hadn’t given it like that, like something he could take back any time he needed it.
“I wouldn’t…” Wei Wuxian says. That unwanted debt sits like a weight on his throat. “I wasn’t going to ask that of you.”
Jiang Cheng raises one brow, just the way his mother used to. He says, acidly, “It’s a good thing Hanguang-jun doesn’t have your qualms.”
No, Lan Zhan wouldn’t have any scruples about this, Wei Wuxian thinks. Not when it would keep Wei Wuxian alive. It’s been hell, all day, watching Lan Zhan try to be calm and safe for him, and knowing that underneath all that is a deep, unsettling panic. Like hands reaching out frantically for a Wei Wuxian who’s slipping out of their reach.
“Where is he?” Wei Wuxian asks.
Jiang Cheng’s eyes flicker to the door. “The next room. With that protégé of his, Lan Sizhui. The kid wanted to stay in here with you overnight, but Hanguang-jun talked him out of it.”
Oh, thank heaven. “Good,” he breathes. Sizhui would have done it, too. He’d been so frightened when he learned about the curse, no matter how he tried to hide it. Thank heaven he listens to Lan Zhan – and that Lan Zhan has him to look after, has someone to console whose need will keep him away from Wei Wuxian’s side for more than five minutes. Maybe the two of them will be able to get each other to sleep.
Wei Wuxian tries not to want Lan Zhan’s presence back. He hates being sick. When other people are around, he can laugh and be flippant and forget it in how hard he’s trying to make them forget it, but this curse has him so exhausted he can’t even do that. He can’t help but betray how bad he feels. When he’s really ill, he wants company, like a child; then he wants them to go away so he doesn’t have to see them worry. But not badly enough to send them away. That, he can’t bear. He hates this.
Jiang Cheng must hate it, too. Being here, pressed down under the weight of an obligation he never asked for. But he sits still in his chair, and his fingers never leave Wei Wuxian’s wrist.
* * *
Wei Wuxian sleeps, and wakes.
It’s a little darker, now. There are deep shadows all through the room, in the folds of the bed, in the gaunt hollows of his own hands. The knife-sharp slant of Jiang Cheng’s cheekbones. Because Jiang Cheng is here, because… Wei Wuxian thinks for a moment, sleep-mazed… because Lan Zhan summoned him. That’s right. Jiang Cheng is here to keep him alive: as soon as he thinks it, Wei Wuxian can feel spiritual energy streaming where their skin touches, a river in full spate.
“Jiang Cheng?” he says. “How long…?”
“A while,” Jiang Cheng says. That doesn’t mean anything, Wei Wuxian thinks. It could have been minutes or hours. Once he would have known, but somewhere in the years of being dead he lost the knack of reading between Jiang Cheng’s lines.
There’s no paraphernalia around, no debris. What has Jiang Cheng been doing to entertain himself? He can’t exactly have got up to practise sword forms. But there’s no paper and ink to be seen, nothing he could use to draft treaties or answer correspondence. A strange look for the relentless, overachieving sect leader of Yunmeng Jiang.
“All this time on me,” he murmurs. “Jiang Cheng, you didn’t have to.”
“What else do you think I’d be doing?” Jiang Cheng demands. His voice is quiet, but the lack of volume can’t cushion any of its sharp edges.
“Aren’t you busy?” Wei Wuxian thinks of the dock at Lotus Pier, swarming with people. “I thought you had a sect to run.”
“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng says, without heat. The words and tone are painfully familiar: a knife sliding smoothly into its accustomed place in the rack. “Jiang Shao can handle it. How bad at choosing disciples do you think I am?”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t say anything. A tense silence descends, and he knows they’re both thinking of him. Maybe Jiang Cheng is thinking of how Wei Wuxian was foisted on him, a first disciple chosen ahead of time. Or maybe he’s thinking of all the times he chose Wei Wuxian, even so, and how that turned out.
“You didn’t have to come so far,” he whispers, as if to himself. “Not for me.”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t look at him. His face is turned towards the window: in the dark, the line of his cheekbone is a tight, keen edge. More like a knife than ever.
His fingertips are soft, brushing Wei Wuxian’s skin.
* * *
Wei Wuxian sleeps, and wakes.
He notices Jiang Cheng’s presence more by spiritual energy than by sight. It’s dark enough now that if he didn’t know the features of Jiang Cheng’s face like the back of his hand, they’d be indistinguishable. But there’s no mistaking the energy flooding steadily into Wei Wuxian’s emptying spirit veins. He feels awful, as if he needs that energy very badly.
It must be some kind of… oh yes, the curse, that’s right. He’s tucked away in the healers’ quarters, and Jiang Cheng has been here this whole time, feeding him energy even as it drains out of him. Bailing water out of a sinking boat.
He says, “Jiang Cheng?”
“What?” says Jiang Cheng, sharply. As if he’s busy, and Wei Wuxian has interrupted him. Or – Wei Wuxian feels a memory unfold, moth wings in the night – as if he was asleep, or wanted to be, before Wei Wuxian bothered him. Wei Wuxian used to do that a lot. He was always more of a night owl than Jiang Cheng.
“Are you tired?”
“You ask me this now?” Jiang Cheng makes a scornful tchah sound. “You?” He gestures towards Wei Wuxian with his free hand, as if there’s some meaning Wei Wuxian should take from it. Some reason it makes no sense for Wei Wuxian to ask.
He does look tired, though. Not in his body – Jiang Cheng’s cultivation these days is so strong, he’d have to stay awake for a month or two before there’d even be shadows under his eyes. But there’s a way he sits when he’s tired out by something. There’s something about the way he holds his head.
“Maybe you should take a break,” Wei Wuxian says, cautiously.
Jiang Cheng laughs. It’s not a happy sound. “The curse came for your intellect first, huh?” He gestures at Wei Wuxian again. “Tell me what you think would happen, if I cut off the energy flow now to go take a break.”
“It wouldn’t be so bad,” Wei Wuxian says, and in the moment he even believes it. Jiang Cheng’s been pouring energy into him for this long already: that has to count for something. He can’t quite think enough to remember if that’s how the curse works, if that amount of energy would slow it down for long enough, but surely… surely he could hold out for a bit, right? “I’d be all right.”
“Liar,” Jiang Cheng says. His voice is dispassionate, but there’s something brittle in the delivery. “You might as well just tell me you want a break.”
“I don’t –” Wei Wuxian protests, after a moment of bewildered silence. Jiang Cheng isn’t making any sense. Right? Or is it just that the curse is making it hard to think again?
Jiang Cheng sighs. “Look,” he says. “Bear with it. It’s keeping you alive, is it so hard to bear? I’ll be gone when the curse is broken, and we can leave all of this in the past. Like you wanted.”
“I didn’t,” Wei Wuxian mumbles, trying to muster the energy to dissent, to explain, but a great wave of tiredness seems to be looming like a black wall over his head. “I didn’t… it’s not like that. I didn’t mean it like that…” I didn’t want that. He’s never really been able to want that, even when he thought he should.
He was just so tired of being the sharp thing Jiang Cheng hurts himself on. So tired of trying to blunt his own edges, and failing, and failing, and failing –
Like he must have failed, now, for Jiang Cheng to be looking at him like that. With that piercing, hurt look in his eyes, sharp as a paper-cut.
The borrowed energy flows at his wrist, calm and ceaseless.
* * *
Wei Wuxian sleeps, and wakes.
He comes out of sleep slowly, staring around. He can hardly see anything: it’s night. Some nocturnal bird is calling, far off. These aren’t his quarters – they’re the healers’ quarters, yes, that feels right. He’s here… oh yes, the curse. And someone is passing him spiritual energy. Should they be doing that–? Oh, it’s Jiang Cheng. That seems odd, but then again it seems right, somehow. He must have explained, earlier, must have told Wei Wuxian why… Wei Wuxian knows all the information is there in his head, if he could just remember…
“Jiang Cheng,” he rasps, “what are you doing here?”
Jiang Cheng does not look up. “Saving your miserable life,” he says. “You don’t remember?”
He doesn’t sound happy about it at all. He can’t have wanted to be dragged away from Lotus Pier to save Wei Wuxian, and it must sting doubly that he’s in this position because of that unasked-for golden core, the one his wayward shixiong stowed in him secretly in the darkest days of his life. He looks tense, very still in that way that says he’s almost vibrating with the need to be elsewhere.
“You don’t have to,” Wei Wuxian says, almost by instinct. Let the rein slacken, let the bird fly from the hand, to seek open skies and bigger prey…
Now Jiang Cheng does look at him. “That’s what you think,” he says. The words are so few – Jiang Cheng used to be so talkative, once, so easy to read. But the bitterness is clear. What did I do to you? Wei Wuxian thinks.
He gazes back at Jiang Cheng, as if meeting his eyes could unknot this thing between them. Jiang Cheng turns away. His fingers stay in place, unmoving, above the place where Wei Wuxian’s pulse beats.
* * *
Wei Wuxian sleeps, and wakes.
He doesn’t remember where he is. He has to be told, in Jiang Cheng’s curt, bitten-off words. Out of respect for the hour, Jiang Cheng speaks quietly. What he says of curses makes sense: it explains the immense, dragging fatigue that seems to sap Wei Wuxian of his words and his ability to string thoughts together.
His presence in the room makes less sense, until he explains it. Then it makes too much sense. The golden core that was supposed to be a gift, free and clear, transformed into some monstrous obligation.
This isn’t what I wanted, Wei Wuxian thinks, and realises he’s said it aloud when Jiang Cheng scoffs, “Yes, you’ve said as much.”
But it can’t have worked, whatever Wei Wuxian said, or Jiang Cheng wouldn’t still sound like that. Surely. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” he says, exhaustion slurring his consonants together. “It should… should have gone differently…”
Jiang Cheng lets out a strange, half-breathy, half-wet noise. Wei Wuxian can’t quite work out if it’s mocking, or pained, whether it’s a scoff or a sob. “What ‘differently’?” Jiang Cheng says. “Wei Wuxian, tell me one thing you would have done differently in all of this.”
That wasn’t how I meant it, either, thinks Wei Wuxian. He can feel his every action closing in around him, like a trap. And he’s too tired to bite and claw his way out of it.
“Not like this,” he murmurs, almost as much to himself as to Jiang Cheng. “Not… not to indebt you. It was supposed to be yours. Not… something you came back to give back.”
Jiang Cheng shakes his head. “You really don’t want to take anything from me, do you,” he says bitterly. “Even now.”
“That’s… not the point,” Wei Wuxian counters, though getting the words out is a struggle. “It wasn’t for me.” Jiang Cheng isn’t looking at him. “I didn’t give it so you could,” he grits his teeth, “could bring it back for whenever I happened to need it!”
Jiang Cheng’s head seems to snap towards him. “You didn’t give me a say in getting this golden core at all,” he says harshly. In the silence of the room, every word seems to reverberate with venom. “You don’t get a say in what I do with it.”
Wei Wuxian stares at him, helplessly.
“Be quiet, Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng says, very quietly. “You’ll hurt yourself worse.” He turns his head away again.
Wei Wuxian has never heard his voice quiet like that before. He wonders if Jin Ling has. If it was the voice that carried him as a baby, out of Lanling and back to Lotus Pier, bleak and broken.
At his pulse point, the flow of energy is constant. Calm.
* * *
Wei Wuxian sleeps, and wakes.
Half-wakes: his eyelids are so heavy, it’s hard to open his eyes and keep them open. Where is he…? His eyes grow used to the darkness, after a while. He’s in the Cloud Recesses, he thinks, but Jiang Cheng is at his bedside. So maybe this is a dream. It doesn’t make sense that he would be in Cloud Recesses and that Jiang Cheng would be there.
He has these dreams, sometimes. Dreams where Jiang Cheng appears, young and old at the same time. He’ll speak with him and not know which version he’s speaking to. A young Jiang Cheng, in robes of gentle green, will turn around to reveal the adult’s wounded fury, Zidian lashing out from his wrist; an older Jiang Cheng, well-dressed with his hair scraped harshly back, will suddenly dissolve into tears, his eyes terribly young.
This Jiang Cheng is here, with him, and a strand of hair has come loose at his temple the way it used to. But the young Jiang Cheng never dressed as richly as this. A dream, Wei Wuxian thinks.
“A-Cheng?” he whispers.
Jiang Cheng jerks as if he’s been struck. But the flow of energy between his fingers and Wei Wuxian’s spirit veins never falters, and – how long has he been doing that…?
He explains to Wei Wuxian how they both came to be here. Wei Wuxian can’t really keep track, but he tries, all the same. It’s not a dream, but it feels as strange as one. Like a folktale mothers would tell their children, the sect leader rushing to save his brother, the one man in the world who could…
But if it’s real, then it’s terrible. Jiang Cheng, sleepless, passing energy to a man he can’t even call brother any more… And it’s been rough on him, surely. When the moon passes across a window, it shows tear tracks on his face.
Wei Wuxian tries to tell him he’s free to go home. Jiang Cheng cuts him off. “Shut your mouth,” he says. “Before I shut it for you. For once in your life, Wei Wuxian, be quiet.”
Wei Wuxian, instinctively, wants to argue back. But there’s a note in Jiang Cheng’s voice like broken glass. Like something shattered, something too painful and dangerous to touch.
He drifts off again, to the steady, thrumming passage of energy to his wrist.
* * *
Wei Wuxian sleeps, and wakes.
He’s warm when he wakes up, so he’s not in Yiling. There’s someone touching him, someone whose thigh is close by his head; there are fingers, laid gently over where the blood beats in his wrist. So he’s safe, if there’s someone there, he’s home.
He curls closer, opens his eyes. It’s the dead of night, but he knows that figure. Jiang Cheng is here… that’s good. It’s good that Wei Wuxian knows where he is. It’s not good when Jiang Cheng runs off on his own, it never bodes well… Images fold and unfold in Wei Wuxian’s head, laid over his eyes like a sheer veil, like fabric blowing in the wind. Jiang Cheng running into a field, hurling himself away from Wei Wuxian.
“Jiang Cheng?” he croaks, blearily. How is he still awake, when Wei Wuxian’s eyelids are so insistent on closing? “A-Cheng, what are you doing still awake?”
Jiang Cheng twitches. Was that a flinch? “Passing you spiritual energy,” he says, “to keep you alive.” So that’s what those two fingers are doing.
His voice is odd. Not shaky, but there’s a sound in it Wei Wuxian doesn’t like. Jiang Cheng shouldn’t sound like that. And he won’t look at Wei Wuxian: his face is turned away.
“How long…?” He twists, trying to get a better look at Jiang Cheng. “Shouldn’t… someone relieve you? You need sleep…”
“They can’t,” Jiang Cheng says, voice louder, clearer, but brittle. He’s still looking towards the window. “You’re under a curse. Anyone else’s spiritual energy will kill you, but I can give you energy because it’s from your own golden core.”
That makes sense, but it doesn’t seem right. It’s Jiang Cheng who needs the golden core, isn’t it? That’s why Wei Wuxian gave it to him, it’s supposed to stay with him, so Wei Wuxian knows where it is, knows he’s safe.
“Shouldn’t…” Wei Wuxian murmurs. “You shouldn’t spend that on me, it’s… for you…” Jiang Cheng is the sect leader, he’s supposed to be out there, shining, blazing with spiritual energy. Not draining himself dry to pass it back to Wei Wuxian. “Jiang Cheng, it’s okay, you should rest…”
“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng says, but he always says things like that. That shouldn’t stop Wei Wuxian.
“I’ll be fine,” he says, though it comes out quieter than he meant, almost soundless. Where did his voice go? “You don’t… you don’t have to stay with me, you can go –”
“No, I can’t,” says Jiang Cheng, and, “I said, shut up.” The ache in his voice is so sharp that it seems to ache in every nerve in Wei Wuxian’s body. He still won’t look at Wei Wuxian, why won’t he look back?
Don’t let him feel like this, some memory advises Wei Wuxian, don’t let him go like this, he’ll run off, he’ll get hurt…
But that doesn’t make sense, does it? It’s staying next to Wei Wuxian that Jiang Cheng gets hurt. “Jiang Cheng, it’ll be okay,” he tries to say. “You’ve been awake all this time, you… you need the sleep more…”
“Wei Wuxian, I’m warning you –”
“It’s fine,” Wei Wuxian tries to tell him. His voice isn’t working the way it should, nothing is. “You need to rest, you should go… I’ll be all right –”
“No, you won’t!” Jiang Cheng whips round to look him in the face. His eyes are very black and very bright in the moonlight. His face is taut, as if every sharp and unforgiving line of it has been stretched and pinned in place; and in every line of it is pain. “Do you not know what ‘curse’ means? Do you not understand the word ‘dying’? I’m the only thing keeping you alive. If I stop, even for one second, I’ll have to watch you die. Is that what you want? Again?”
He’s shaking. He turns his face away, to the window. “Wei Wuxian,” he says, and his voice is suddenly very far away, like a sound carried on the wind. “Do you really want to get away from me that badly?”
“No,” bursts out of Wei Wuxian’s throat, a sob, before he can stop it. His eyes are filling with water. Come back, come back, don’t turn away from me again. His free arm reaches out almost without his leave, to grab hold of Jiang Cheng’s sleeve, to stop him from… Wei Wuxian doesn’t know what. The image of Jiang Cheng, running against the wind and rain, is burning-bright in his head.
His arm is too weak; it falls back. He has to fall back on his voice. “Don’t…” The words come to his lips without permission. “Not like that, don’t go… Shidi, don’t go…” He can’t stop seeing it in his head. Jiang Cheng in that field, running from him. Leaving him.
Next to him, he feels Jiang Cheng move. His leg is moving, he’s getting up – Wei Wuxian reaches out again and grabs onto Jiang Cheng’s arm, but his fingers are too weak to dig in. “Don’t leave me,” he says, “don’t, shidi, I didn’t mean it…”
Jiang Cheng’s grip on his wrist tightens. He moves, and Wei Wuxian feels a weight settling onto the bed, next to his head. An arm lifting him. His head settles into a lap; the hand settles back on his arm again.
“Don’t leave me,” Wei Wuxian says, into the fabric of Jiang Cheng’s outer robe. “Don’t leave me, shidi, don’t leave.”
“I won’t,” says a broken voice, somewhere above him. A thumb is rubbing at the muscle of his shoulder.
Wei Wuxian says, again, “Don’t leave me.” His eyes close. The lap beneath him is a warm, breathing weight. Jiang Cheng had been so cold and still, in that coma, lying motionless in the boat.
The stream of energy, unbroken all this time, lulls him back to sleep.
* * *
Wei Wuxian does not wake. He shifts, he twitches. He breathes easy. Someone’s fingers are in his hair, stroking gently. That means he’s safe. That means everything’s all right.
He remembers fingers in his hair like this, before. He remembers someone fixing it for him, pulling it into a knot, a braid. He remembers crawling into a bed, where someone stroked his hair until he could sleep again.
He sleeps, now.
* * *
When the curse is broken, it’s Wei Wuxian who sees Jiang Cheng off, walking him to the entrance of Cloud Recesses. He’s tired and shaky, still, but he can walk upright again. It feels like a miracle.
At the gate, Jiang Cheng steps forward, and Wei Wuxian stands back. Jiang Cheng looks at him, eyes piercing. His hand reaches out – hesitates – grazes Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, just once.
“You’re too thin,” Jiang Cheng says.
“Give me a break,” Wei Wuxian says, “I’ve just been cursed. It’s not as if they don’t feed me here, you know.” The words, the tone, are familiar like an old habit, but they feel strange to put on. Like a coat you put away long ago, that you’re surprised to find still fits.
Jiang Cheng makes a scornful noise. “For the Lan definition of food,” he says. “I remember what that’s like. If you’re eating your fill at that table, I’ll eat Zidian.”
Wei Wuxian grins before he can help it. “Lan Zhan cooks for me,” he says. “It’s his table I eat at.”
“Tch,” says Jiang Cheng. “Lan Zhan, nothing.” There’s no rancour in the words. He and Lan Zhan had shared a strange glance, before they parted. “Don’t tell me you don’t miss Yunmeng cuisine.”
It’s not phrased like a question, but it sounds like one anyway. And that – that’s something Wei Wuxian can answer, right? Something they can agree on? One principle they still share, the objective superiority of Yunmeng food?
And the truth is, he does miss it. Lan Zhan makes food that suits his tastebuds, but he can’t make it exactly the same as they used to back home, every granny and auntie mixing the seasoning by guess and feel and long experience.
“I do miss it,” Wei Wuxian admits. “I miss the spices. They’re not the same anywhere else no matter what you do with them.”
Jiang Cheng lets out a little Hm! of satisfaction. He steps away from the gate. They look at each other in silence, a moment.
“Try hard to stay well,” says Jiang Cheng.1 And departs.
* * *
Two weeks later, a packet of Yunmeng spice mix arrives in the post.