Talking has never come easy to him. Expressing emotions, showing vulnerability but also understanding someone else's struggles – it was too much. Quietness was his friend; he felt comfortable alone, in silence, like he was used to. He could vaguely remember a voice shouting at him and the sense of calmness that radiated from his chest once he was alone in his room. But he couldn't avoid confrontation and neither he could stop talking to his sister or Meng Yao.
They have already been infinitely patient with him. They simply took him home, no questions were asked, and never left his side; they wanted to be there for him in case he needed something but they were not overbearing nor they expected him to talk. It was – nice. He never felt this way before.
“So,” he cuts himself off instantly. He didn't really know what to say. Yanli and Meng Yao looked at him, Yanli's hand still midair as if she was scared that moving it would've scared him away. Meng Yao placed his cup of tea on the table before clearing his voice.
“You're probably wondering about what happened at the ball...” he started but this time he was cut off by his older sister. Has he said something wrong?
Yanli took his hands in hers while looking at him with a smile painted on her face. “Do not feel obligated to tell us if you don't want to.”
Jiang Cheng relaxed unconsciously like most of the times when his sister was near. “Okay. I don't feel obligated, I want to share. If you don't mind.”
“Of course we don't.” Meng Yao was quick to say.
The young heir exhaled weakly before nodding. “When I disappeared from the ballroom it was because I saw someone. It was – well, it was Wei Wuxian.”
Yanli gasped. Meng Yao just arched an eyebrow but kept quiet, wanting to hear more about what he had to say.
“I – I didn't want to see him. Then I accidentally bumped into Mingjue and Xichen, in the Nies' private garden it was – it was a mess. I'm shocked he hasn't called for my execution yet.”
After all, they killed Wanyin for less in the game. Jiang Cheng took another shaky breath to calm himself. He couldn't say what was really on his mind, his rage, his fears; he had to play a role, he was Jiang Wanyin now, he was supposed to hate Wei Wuxian, to love Nie Mingjue, to resent Lan Xichen, to trust Nie Huaisang, to... be the villain.
He had a new duty, making sure Wanyin had a nice reputation was his full-time job now. Wanyin would be remembered with love, this time, not with fear and disgust anymore. Jiang Cheng would make sure of it.
“Why was your dress dirty?” Meng Yao's voice sounded icier then usual, even Yanli looked at him perplexed.
“Oh,” he totally forgot about that “Wei Wuxian ran after me, we, huh, stumbled on the dirt I guess.”
If looks could kill, Jiang Cheng was sure Meng Yao would probably split in half the world's population.
“Are you... alright?” Yanli whispered gently while caressing his knuckles with her thumb. He nodded. Personally, he found Wei Wuxian annoying but he didn't really have anything against the guy. However, he was more than enraged on Wanyin's behalf to think critically about him.
“Yes.” he managed to smile “I'm fine.”
Yanli nodded absentmindedly and sipped her tea in silence.
The next day the sky was cleared of every cloud, the sun was shining brightly with no shame, the birds sang happily and everything seemed fine.
It wasn't, of course.
Jiang Cheng knew something was wrong the moment he opened his eyes in the morning. It was just a mere sensation he could just shake off, but the appearance of his butler made him fidget.
Su She cleared his throat. He looked like a mess; red face, his whole black tuxedo all wrinkled like he just got out of a really bad fight. Jiang Cheng gulped.
“Young master,” the butler said, irritation clear in his voice. Surprisingly, it didn't seem like it was directed at him this time. “the duke wants to receive you.”
Ah. Fantastic. Was he about to get yelled at? Maybe even beaten up?
“You shouldn't go, young master.” he added, tone softer.
Jiang Cheng shook his head. “It's fine, Su She. The quicker I do this, the better.”
Su She just snorted. “Do not come crying to me then, I warned you.”
The heir rolled his eyes before shooing him out of the room. He took his time to gather his hair into a bun and dress up, using the time to think about what could've triggered the sudden request of the duke.
Without getting any answers, he simply left the room and followed his butler to the duke's personal studio. Su She knocked twice and announced his presence then he opened the heavy door, letting the heir step inside.
Immediately, Jiang Cheng's eyes fell on his poor excuse of a father – he was dressed in a deep blue, almost black, and he had a soft expression on his face. Weird. Following his father's gaze he noticed a silhouette on the sofa. The person turned around and Jiang Cheng's breath stopped for a second. It was –
“Jiang Wanyin” the duke called him, his smile disappearing the moment he laid eyes on his son, “come here to greet A-Xian.”
Different emotions flashed trough Jiang Cheng's mind but only one stayed: anger. All the dialogues of the game came to mind, all the things he had done to Wanyin, the bad words exchanged between the two. Was it irrational, to feel this angry on behalf of someone else? He didn't care.
“Wanyin.” the other greeted him.
“What are you doing here?” Jiang Cheng grunted. He specifically tried his angry stare more then once in the mirror just to be sure to play the part right. He perfected it way too easily. “Shouldn't you be on the run with those Wen dogs?”
“Jiang Wanyin!” the duke immediately came to the other boy's rescue.
“No, it's – it's fine.” Wei Wuxian was quickly on his feet and was now standing between the two “He's right anyways.”
Jiang Cheng scoffed. “I always have been, you simply never believed in me.”
“Manners!” Jiang Fengmian screamed “Get out.”
He stomped off the room. He paused briefly, making eye contact with his butler who simply shrugged. He did warn me.
The dukedom was in chaos.
Wei Wuxian was back, Wei Wuxian who committed treason, Wei Wuxian who now had immunity thanks to the support of Jiang Fengmian and, by default, of all his allies and as if all of this wasn't enough – young master Jiang was nowhere to be found.
The young man felt horrible. Really. Seeing Jiang Wanyin after almost four years was like receiving a punch in the guts. He was not the same boy he used to be, no, he was now a fine and defined gentleman, worthy of his title as heir of the Yunmeng Jiang dukedom. His eyes were sharper, his posture was stiffer, his hair longer and even his speech sounded odd, foreign to his ears.
Wei Wuxian didn't realize how much he changed; he had always took his presence for granted, knowing that despite everything he was still Wuxian and Wanyin was still Wanyin, and they were friends and loved each other. He didn't even consider the other's feelings, not even once. Only when he saw his old friend looking at him as if he was a monster before running away, only then he realized his mistakes.
Wanyin changed just like he did. He bowed to Jiang Fengmian, unable to express the mixture of feelings inside him, and went to find Wanyin. They've been friends for more than a decade and no matter how much he looked different, he was still the same Wanyin. Without thinking twice, he ran to the lotus pond in the courtyard. Wanyin used to go there every time he was upset, certainly he would be there.
As if of cue, the back of Wanyin's head was now visible. He was standing near the edge, slightly bend over to touch a floating pink petal, his rosy cheeks puffed because of the effort of staying balanced on his toes. Wei Wuxian gulped – Wanyin changed.
Wei Wuxian shook his head and cleared his throat, startling Wanyin. He looked back at him, the soft and focused expression disappearing to let his brows furrow and his forehead wrinkle. Wuxian felt a sting to his heart but paid it no mind.
“What do you want?”
Not that he expected a warm welcome but still, it didn't really help his bleeding heart.
“I – uh, I'm here to talk.” he whispered. Being serious has never been one of his skills, it has always been easier to just joke about something and never letting serious topic get too near, but he'd try his best for him.
“Well, I'm not stopping you from talking, go ahead.” Wanyin looked annoyed.
“I – Well, I – You –“ words tripped over his tongue, too eager to say everything that he bottled up over the years “Do you hate me?”
Wanyin's laugh was cold, icy and sent a shiver down his spine. The younger fixed his glare on him, purple and gray mixing together like their inner torment.
“Really? Oh no, I'm actually so happy you left me in order to save strangers. I felt such joy when you said you'd always be there for me and then you left me without a second thought!” sarcasm pouring in his words. Then, Wanyin scoffed at himself, a self-deprecating half smile brushed over his expression.
“I don't hate you.” he whispered “You're not worth hating.”
“I did what was right!” Wei Wuxian was fed up “They were innocent people, how can you expect me to stand there and watch them die?”
“I didn't expect you to do nothing! I know you were right! But I thought we could've done this together. I thought you'd come to me, tell about what you wanted to do and maybe we would've found another way.” anger was clear in Wanyin's voice.
“You... you hate the Wens.” Wei Wuxian stated, quite dumbly. Wanyin almost smirked.
“Yeah, I do. And you thought I wanted them dead because I am the big bad Wanyin, right? Well, guess what? I don't give a single damn about those dogs, they're just kids and elderly. But I am evil, wicked, you couldn't even have a conversation with me about this.”
Wanyin got up on his feet. “Listen. I don't care about what you want to do. Just don't mind me anymore and go back to your Wens, they probably need you more than I do.”
Just as the Jiang heir turned around to leave, Wei Wuxian grabbed his wrist with force. The other man stilled as the grip on his limb tighten.
“Stop running away from me!” he screamed “I came back, didn't I? I came back for you. Wanyin, I just want to make things better between us. Can't we at least try? You used to be all I had.”
He sighed. “Why would you even try? You didn't even denied what I said about you seeing me as evil. You're a righteous man, don't meddle with scum like me.”
“You're not-” the older stuttered “I don't think you're evil. Stop playing the victim, for fuck's sake. You hated them so much, was it that wrong of me to think you'd hurt them?”
Jiang Cheng was a bit taken aback. He didn't realize he was victimizing himself that much but, as much as he hated to say that, Wei Wuxian was right. Wanyin was no saint and neither was Jiang Cheng. Still – it hurt no less.
“It doesn't really matter now, does it? I was a villain, I still am. That's why I want you to leave me the fuck alone.”
“Why are you being so fucking difficult?!”
They were shouting at each other so loudly Jiang Cheng was honestly surprised no one found them. Perhaps they were hiding themselves, scared and thrilled at the confrontation between two ex-brothers in arms.
“Oh, I am being difficult now? Wei Wuxian – you ruined everything. Don't waste my time on trivial things like this.”
Wei Wuxian scoffed. “Trivial? Is our friendship so unimportant to you?”
“It's not! That's the point! Oh my God,” he took a deep breath “Wei Wuxian, you were my everything. How can I- how can you-”
He could feel tears forming in the corner of his eyes. He bit his tongue and blinked rapidly. The last thing he wanted to do was to cry in front of someone else, especially if that's someone was a man that hated his guts.
“Wanyin, Wanyin please, look...” he whispered “Please don't cry, I'll leave you alone, just... don't look at me like that.”
“Stop fighting me. And listen.” he tried to put a hand on his shoulder but the younger took a step back, distancing himself from the other. “Okay. No physical contact. Fine. But listen to me!”
“I can listen just fine from here.” he mumbled.
Wei Wuxian rolled his eyes but he couldn't really not smile at that.
“Okay,” he started again “I'm not good at this. I'm not gonna ask for forgiveness from you. I don't even expect us to go back as best friends – not yet, at least. But I want to stay by your side. Really.”
Wanyin stayed silent for a minute. Wei Wuxian's heart was beating like crazy, so afraid to lose him again.
“You're back in the dukedom. Do as you please.”
Wei Wuxian beamed at him. “Really? Can I?”
He looked like a puppy. Which was terribly ironic since he had been scared of dogs since he was a little kid. But the analogy was spot on – he was like a golden retriever waiting for his owner to throw a ball.
“That doesn't mean we're fine. But, I suppose... we can talk. And spend time together. Maybe.”
The older smiled even more widely. “Hugs too?!”
“Let's not get over ourselves now.”
Jiang Cheng needed to clear his head. He was confused and angry. What was going on? Wei Wuxian was not supposed to come back, not even once. The Jiang dukedom was just a mere memory for him, something he'd never get to see ever again. Then why was he here? Why wasn't he with Lan Xichen?
But most importantly, why was he so damn adamant about fixing his relationship with him?
He didn't know why he said those stuff. He always had a soft spot for dogs, so maybe that was it.
Wanyin would've wanted it. He would've loved it. Maybe that was why.
Wei Wuxian never cared about Wanyin in the game, he never inquired about his whereabouts or health and only when Wanyin inserted himself in the narrative, finally he paid attention to him. Jiang Wanyin – the real one – has waited for this moment for years. He wanted nothing more then to re-conciliate with his old friend.
The game, the secret route he had been playing before coming there, showed Wanyin's desire to help but his inability to go against his father and rest of the nobility. Who was he, after all? Only an heir, a weak and spoiled brat that could be easily replaced. His dukedom was burned down by the war, he couldn't afford anything reckless.
Wanyin loved him so much he would try again and he'd do his best to make Wei Wuxian see how worthy he was of his friendship. Jiang Wanyin, before being a scum villain, was just a naive little boy who wanted to be loved.
He felt a headache coming and grunted.
“A-Yin,” his sister called him from the other side of the garden “there's an important missive for you.”
He gave her a puzzled look and she simply shrugged. “It's from the palace.”
Jiang Cheng felt nauseous. Maybe his little prank went too far, Meng Yao was a bit disrespectful so maybe – ah, that was a letter for his execution. He could feel it. He was going to die.
With trembling hands he opened the letter and skimmed over the text.
Dear Jiang Wanyin,
how are you doing? I've heard about Wei Wuxian. I cannot say I'm happy to hear that. Your father vouched for him and so did all the nobles who are allies with the Jiangs. I'm afraid my hands are tied, it's a very delicate situation.
I know Wei Wuxian can be quite a lot and I personally don't trust him. So I have magnanimously decided to send my best guard, Lan Wangji, to aid you.
Your Nie Mingjue.
He crumpled the letter dumped it on the ground. Now that was a disaster. Maybe an execution would've been better.
Lan Wangji, Xichen's younger brother, royal guard, ice-cold assassin who does everything the crown prince orders him to do – also known as the prince's dog, thanks to Jiang Cheng himself. He already tried to chop off his head once and if all of this wasn't enough, this whole situation was just simply wrong: Lan Wangji never did this in the game.
Jiang Cheng started to pace around. Of all the letters that stupid prince could've written he had to send this? And – how can someone sound so self-absorbed trough a fucking letter!? That bastard –
Yanli read it over his shoulder with him. “Oh, deary... we better not tell Wei Wuxian anything.”
Wei Wuxian's timing, as always, was impeccable.
“For fuck's sake.”
Yanli, sweet sweet angel, actually greeted him. She was happy he was back, even if she felt a little disappointed by his previous actions.
Jiang Cheng ignored him and that made him pout. “We were just leaving. No need to follow us everywhere.”
“Hey, A-Yin, what's this?”
Fuck. The letter is on the ground.
Jiang Cheng tried to quickly tore the letter from his friend's hands but unfortunately for him Wei Wuxian was stronger and simply held him back with one hand while reading.
Wei Wuxian's brows furrowed. “What the fuck!?”
Jiang Cheng sighed. Now he had a real headache.
“How dare he say that? I'd never hurt you!” he kept screaming “Jesus, why does everyone seems to think I'm such a wreck?”
“Because you are.” Jiang Cheng snapped, taking the letter back “You don't need to worry, I'm sending Lan Wangji back as soon as he arrives.”
His friend smiled at that. “You're worried about me? You don't need to.”
No, he mentally sighed, I'm worried about me.
Eleven endings. Eleven times Lan Wangji killed him. He shivered.
“I suppose he knows now...” Yanli commented “Maybe it's better this way. It's good to not have secrets between us.”
Jiang Cheng sighed for what felt like the 100th time that day.
Tea time with his sister got exponentially worse every time someone opened the door. At first, it was Meng Yao that claimed “Wanyin wasn't paying enough attention to him”. Then, Wei Wuxian, who simply wanted to be a menace.
And then, Su She.
“As His Highness ordered, Lan Wangji has arrived.”
Jiang Cheng paled. Already? Was his demise that close? He survived humiliating the crown prince and fighting with Wei Wuxian but he was going down because of a fucking royal guard.
“Wanyin, you okay?” his ex friend asked him.
Jiang Cheng nodded.
The butler almost growled at other boy, then he scoffed and left the room.
“Why do I feel like he doesn't really like you?” the Jiang heir asked jokingly. He knew he'd get a lecture from the man himself when he'd find him alone again.
Wei Wuxian shrugged. “You should've seen him when I first came here. He ran and screamed at uncle Jiang, he was really mad. He kept saying that he clearly wasn't thinking about his children. He was worried you'd be hurt.”
Jiang Cheng was surprised to hear that but then he remembered how disheveled he looked that day and how he softly told him not to go. Without noticing it, he began to smile.
“I suppose I... have to greet our guest, right?” he asked no one.
“I can come with you if you need me.” Yanli tried.
He shook his head. He had already asked her so much.
“It's fine just... let me do this alone, will ya?”
They didn't leave him alone.
Wei Wuxian didn't want to leave his side after their little talk at the lotus pond which would've been fine if Meng Yao also hadn't had the same idea. To top this all, Su She was always glaring at the two of them and Meng Yao, in retort, was clearly displeased by Wuxian's existence.
Lan Wangji was just the cherry on top of all this mess.
He had been staying at their dukedom for some days. He was sent from the crown prince himself so no matter how hard he tried to throw him out, they had to oblige and take him in.
He was silent, a constant quiet presence in his everyday life. If he was drinking tea with his sister, he was there. If he was practicing his sword, he was there. If he was merely talking with anyone, he was there. The most annoying part was that he almost never talked. Jiang Cheng would've preferred if he just straight up insulted him, at least he would know what was going on inside his head.
Jiang Cheng was just waiting for the right moment to tell him to go back again. He tried to write a letter and cursed at himself for suddenly being unable to write something.
He was in the garden, drinking Oolong tea by himself, Lan Wangji silently watching over him. Wei Wuxian appeared out of nowhere, a big smile on his face, and ran towards him.
“A-Yin! Yinyin!” he started to call him that as if they were children again. As soon as he reached the table, the glowing white blade of Wangji's sword was on his neck.
“No,” he stated, looking like an ice statue “you cannot sit near him. Orders of the crown prince.”
His friend was fuming. “Oh, is that so? I don't care about his stupid orders!”
Jiang Cheng spit his tea. “Wei Wuxian? You're literally a traitor, don't say that.”
“Shameless.” Lan Wangji gritted, his grip on the hilt tightening and the tips of his ears were becoming a little red. “Unforgivable.”
Jiang Cheng just couldn't believe what was going on. Why can't he just catch a break?
Wei Wuxian was not finished riling up the guard. He talked as if he didn't have a blade pointed at him: “I'm his friend. The crown prince has no right to tell me what to do or not, only Wanyin can!”
“He's your prince you have to listen to him.”
“And Wanyin doesn't want you around either.” Jiang Cheng told Wei Wuxian, but got ignored.
If it wasn't such a terrible situation, Jiang Cheng would've almost been glad to hear the guard talk. It was the most words he had ever said in a day since when he first came.
“I only take orders from A-Yin. You and your crown prince can take my sword up your as–“
The man didn't finish his sentence. The guard pushed him on the ground and was now towering over him, anger written all over his face. Jiang Cheng didn't know what to do. He got up from his chair and walked over the duo but then Wei Wuxian kicked the other, startling him, and rolled out of his clutch. He took the chair where Wanyin was previously seated on and broke it on the guard. Jiang Cheng rushed away from the scene – he couldn't do anything to help either, too weak and inexperienced.
Wangji rotated his sword in air, awakening its hidden powers. In the game, there were many magical artifacts. Bichen, Wangji's sword, was one of them – it had the power of turning into dust even the strongest material. Its power wasn't always activated and only Lan Wangji was able to wield it. He brandished Bichen and pointed at the other man; luckily Wuxian dodged the blow and the table turned into thin dust instead.
Jiang Cheng gulped, feeling all of his strength leaving his body.
Wei Wuxian also took something out of his pocket.
The youngest man felt his heart stop again; he didn't know he was carrying it with him. Chenqing was another artifact, one that Wei Wuxian stole from Wen Ruohan himself once he killed him during the war, a dizi that had the power of creating and controlling swirls of fire to use against the enemy. Just after playing one note a big flame was already surrounding the guard.
As the two continued their mad duel, Jiang Cheng was thinking of ways to stop it. He looked around; a maid was on the ground screaming in pain as a butler held a cloth on her bruise, others were coughing uncontrollably, two maids were shivering and crying. Jiang Cheng took a deep breath before letting his rage come to him, blurring all his common sense.
How dare these idiots harm his people, who did nothing wrong!? They really didn't care about their surroundings.
“Hey, you fucking idiots!” he got up as soon as he saw the two of them stop to catch their breaths. The grass was burned, the flowers looked grilled and every piece of furniture was turned into dust. Jiang Cheng didn't have any weapon on him and even if he did he wasn't confident enough to actually use it. If he were to die like that, at least he'd be doing the right thing.
“Stop what you're doing!” he screamed, arms crossed. The two men looked puzzled.
“If you wanted to fight so bad you should've said so, I could've easily arranged a public arena so at least you would've entertained us! You –“ he pointed at Lan Wangji, who had the decency to look a little ashamed “came here to protect me yet look at the mess you've made! I don't care about what the prince says, you're not the best guard but a stupid little asshole. And you –“ it was now Wuxian's turn “you're part of this dukedom but you keep acting as an outsider. I could have easily told him to back off. There was no need to fight.”
Everyone was paralyzed, too afraid to talk back. How can words be more powerful than actions? In the eyes of the two men, Wanyin looked like a tiger ready to strike his prey. In the eyes of the servants, he was an angel that came down from the sky to save them. In reality, he was just tired.
Jiang Cheng, enraged, just kept going. “I'm the highest authority here so shut up and listen to me. Lan Wangji, you'll be going back to the palace with a letter of complaint that you'll give to Mingjue. In person.”
“But-” Wangji flinched and tried to stop the heir but Jiang Cheng just gave him a nasty glare.
“I said shut the fuck up. Or do you want to be turned into a fucking chair!? You know, since you destroyed them all!”
He didn't really know where all this confidence came from but it reminded him of the first time he had seen Lan Wangji. Truly, people never change.
“Wei Wuxian” he kept going “do you have a blindfold on!? Do you know see our poor servants shivering in fear? Zhou-jie is bleeding! Do not use your strength on trivial things like this.”
He wasn't quite finished yet. “How can you call yourself noble and righteous when you're inflicting pain on the weak? I'm disappointed in both of you. This is not a war.” he hissed, venom dripping from his voice “So, Lan Wangji piss off and Wei Wuxian, clean this fucking mess.”