When the sun sets in Lotus Pier, the lotus that dot the lake disappear and when Jiang Cheng is little he thinks this means they must be dead. He runs every night to the edge of the docks to say goodbye and then worriedly peers out the windows in the morning. How much must it hurt, to die every time the dark so much as touches you, he wonders. The sea turning its black face to the sky, swallowing the lotus leaves.
Jiang Cheng thinks, the lotus bloom to the sun again because they know he wants them there. This is the conceit of a child, to think the world bends to you, but then, that is what Jiang Cheng is. A child watching a glistening dark that tinges the lotus petals violet. Darkening. Dying.
He learns. The lotus die every night. They come to life in the morning. He wakes and the lotus are in the lakebed again. The way of the world, these simple truths.
See , A-jie says to him. Still there, A-Cheng. Still here .
Come back soon , he tells them fervently and she laughs.
Jiang Cheng finds Wei Wuxian slinking back to the Main House. He squares his feet and his shoulders and when Wei Wuxian sees him, he goes still.
“Where were you,” he says. This is the only question he’s asked his brother since they left their childhood home behind them, burning.
Where were you , Jiang Cheng says. Not, why weren’t you here ? Or, I want you to be beside me . He doesn’t know the words that fit these wants, too big, too frightening to put to words. Not the right ones. Instead, he demands, accuses.
“Did you know they don’t sell Scorch Seeds anymore?” Wei Wuxian says, and then smiles. Small, cajoling. “Ah, I hope the vendor is doing well. His daughter was supposed to take over the business, you know.” When Jiang Cheng stares at him in disbelief, the smile drops. Good. This isn’t a joke.
“Seeds? What the hell are you talking about?” he snaps. “We had a meeting. Where were you?”
Jin Zixun glanced over Wei Wuxian’s empty chair like it confirmed all his sneaking suspicions about him. If it was just that idiot, it wouldn’t bother Jiang Cheng so much. But it wasn’t. Unfit, lazy, drunk idiot, their faces and lilting, polite words said. Unstable, some of them whispered. Those ones scared Jiang Cheng most. And still, still his brother refused to protect himself, throwing aside his sword as though it meant nothing. How can he protect his brother when Wei Wuxian refuses to protect himself? Jiang Cheng could shake him.
Wei Wuxian shrugs. He smells like wine, sweet and cheap. “You guys talked? Solved the issue without me. I figured I’d stay out of your way.”
“You’re head disciple,” Jiang Cheng hisses at him, shoves forward and gets up close as Wei Wuxian’s expression flickers. “That means you show up. Do the work,” he sneers.
Attempt the impossible. He wants so badly for Wei Wuxian to do just that. Get back on his feet. Pull himself together and punch Jiang Cheng in the shoulder, be an eager, flitting presence at Jiang Cheng’s side the way he always has. Not this withdrawn, scarce creature who looks at Jiang Cheng like he doesn’t know he loves him.
Sometimes, Jiang Cheng thinks he dragged a corpse back to Lotus Pier that day. Or that Wei Wuxian has forgotten they’re brothers and something in the Burial Mounds killed his love of Jiang Cheng. Maybe Jiang Cheng killed it himself.
“Head disciple,” Wei Wuxian murmurs and Jiang Cheng doesn’t recognize the look on his face. “Is that me?”
“Are you drunk?” He demands. “Can’t you save it for the night? All I need you to do is show your face before you go off trying to forget what your name is.”
“Aiya, but you know I’d forget my head if it wasn’t attached these days, Jiang Cheng.” Wei Wuxian shrugs but his shoulders don’t come down. “And who wants to see my face these days? You should bring in one of the others.”
“You have to be there,” Jiang Cheng says, voice rising. “No one else is head disciple. Wei Wuxian, that’s you, do you understand?”
Wei Wuxian shakes his head, lightly. His face is distantly pitying like Jiang Cheng is a child misunderstanding a very simple concept. It makes him look extremely punchable.
“Exactly. Don’t you think someone else should be there for these very important things?” Wei Wuxian reasons and Jiang Cheng’s heart thumps mutedly up his throat.
Where are you , Jiang Cheng wants to scream at him.
“I want the words coming out of your mouth to start making sense,” he growls, and Zidian flickers over his hand without him meaning it (so volatile, so willing to hurt and hurt and scar) and Wei Wuxian winces.
“Just,” he cocks his head, casual in a way that cuts Jiang Cheng. “Maybe someone else should be head disciple for a while. And,” Wei Wuxian adds, quickly, like that makes this any better, “if you want to give it back to me, you can, but. For now. Someone else?”
“What?” Jiang Cheng says, cold all over.
“I mean–” Wei Wuxian laughs, and maybe there’s a tint of nervousness to it, but maybe Wei Wuxian hasn’t thought of them as brothers in a long time also, “really? All that responsibility for me? You said, Jiang Cheng, you said, where have you been?”
And before he can continue Jiang Cheng grabs him by his outer robes, a purple one shade from black and Wei Wuxian’s eyes go wide.
“Be where you’re supposed to,” he snaps. “You wear Jiang sect colours, do you understand? If you’re going to wear these colours, act like they’re worth something to you! Act like you belong, or don’t wear them at all.”
The last part slips in and Jiang Cheng closes his eyes. His tongue is a thorn and he can almost taste the blood it draws from Wei Wuxian. He doesn’t take it back.
Wei Wuxian looks stricken. “Right,” he laughs, a weak thing. “You’re right.”
Jiang Cheng lets go, cautiously. But Wei Wuxian doesn’t look like Jiang Cheng just told him he’s part of the sect, that he belongs here, with A-jie and Jiang Cheng.
He scowls. “You’ll be there next week, right?”
Wei Wuxian nods, a dip of his chin that lets them both know he won’t be. Jiang Cheng doesn’t protest this. He’s tired. The war is only beginning but Lotus Pier still needs to be rebuilt. He keeps reaching for his brother only to grasp at empty air and he’s so tired of stumbling in the dark.
“Okay,” Jiang Cheng says simply and Wei Wuxian’s shoulders slope in relief at the clear end of the conversation. Jiang Cheng watches him go and wonders when Wei Wuxian became gladder to go from him than to come to him.
Within a year, Wei Wuxian insults the Jin to Jin Guangshan’s face, runs away with the Wen camp prisoners, and all but starts another war. Jiang Cheng never sees him in purple again. This is , he thinks, as the sects scream for his death and the Stygian Tiger Amulet burns at the heart of his brother and the lake water swells up over the dock boards, a disownment, in the end .
When Wei Wuxian plays his dizi, his hair drifts around him like he’s been set afloat in water, the hems of his robes gliding in the air, darkly graceful. Black as night drawing itself over an opaque lake. The lotus leaves stained. Swallowed up whole. Jiang Cheng waiting for the water to recede, wondering, where are you? Where are you ?
He rebuilds Lotus Pier after it all. Which is to say, Jiang Cheng goes home, finally, and finds the ruins of the place he once loved. He starts sending out letters, more diplomatically worded than he’s managed in his entire life, asking for assistance from branch clans, the Meishan Yu.
What Jiang Cheng wants to do is clamber over Wei Wuxian at the kitchen door as A-jie makes soup, wants to present his mother with the treaty of alliance the sects made before Nightless City and for her to smooth back his hair, wants to watch his father become Gung Gung as he holds Jin Ling and the corners of his eyes go soft in a way they never did for Jiang Cheng.
This is a tragedy in two parts, he thinks, and they sound like the halves of his name. Which one was it again? Jiang Cheng . A-Cheng . Leader . Brother .
Jiang Cheng wants. He waits for the lotus to split apart the water, breaking up, breaking open. In the mornings, the lakebed is still and empty and Jiang Cheng does not, cannot have what he wants. He rolls his sleeves up, refills the clan’s coffers and then empties it for new disciple’s uniforms, distributes their meager food stores and then does it all again when they get new shipments in from the surrounding farms.
Jin Ling’s first words are, Mama? Mama? It sounds like a question and his face reddens in alarm when Jiang Cheng starts crying.
I don’t know , he tells him. Gone away , he says around the leaves splitting up his throat.
Where , Jin Ling asks, barely old enough to toddle after Jiang Cheng on fat baby legs. Old enough to break Jiang Cheng’s heart again and again.
Away from here.
Is she coming back ?
No , he snaps, and then when his nephew bursts into tears out of surprise, Hey. Hey, I’m here. Still here .
Jiang Cheng was never supposed to do this alone. When he dreamed of the future, it was a picture in three parts, golden and setting. A brother and a brother and a sister. The sun coming up and up again and sharp lotus petals peeking up with it. He dreams of the same things now. These dreams which cannot come true and will not come true, which we call wishes. His wish, choking silently, is that he wasn’t alone.
But all Jiang Cheng has is an infant in the hands that murdered his brother and a grave which he is expected to make a home. He does his best, considering–
A-jie, in his arms, blood pooling beneath her the way seaweed makes silhouettes beneath the water. A-jie, smiling at him, at them, and he needs someone to tell him things are going to be okay. At the end of the story, there were his siblings instead of A-jie’s torn mouth and Wei Wuxian’s laugh which splits and splits.
In the morning, the lotus always come to life again. Jiang Cheng’s getting too old for happy endings. He isn’t three anymore, he’s twenty-two with his tongue in his hands, ready to draw blood. The air is viscous and thick and Wei Wuxian smiles from the wound in the centre of him while Jiang Cheng draws him in red one last time.
A wound the colour of–
His siblings die smiling.
In this story, is Wei Wuxian the lotus or the water? Choking or choked? Dying and not dying and leaving and staying and leaving and leaving and Jiang Cheng was never supposed to do this alone.
The lotus, which comes back to life but in order to do so must leave first. Which breaks open. Just: things burgeoning, things breaking apart, the shoreline speckled with closed buds like fists in wait. This is a hand outstretched.
This is where you come back in the late nights and dawn-struck mornings. Where time suspends itself. The water, drawing itself up, the reason you hold your breath at all. Which goes on and on in the night, uninterrupted. Which suffocates and kills and is lived in.
Anytime anyone tries to put Wei Wuxian in a single, definable category, he delights in splintering apart the category between his fingers–the definitions too. Breaking through or just breaking? He loves to defy expectation, that Yiling Patriarch, head disciple, A-xian, who, once, was Jiang Cheng’s brother too.
Life is not a story and so, refuses absolutes. Which is to say: there will be no happy ending.
At the end of the day, this: Wei Wuxian is better than anyone at destroying himself.
Also: Jiang Cheng is always watching. Waiting for the lotus to die. For them to come back. Watching, watching. He has never known how to stop a death than to ask, where are you ?
So again. Where are you ? This is a curse, but only in so far as it is a plea.
“You spend all your time here?” He insists in the Jingshi, aware how much he, Jiang Cheng, jarrs against the white walls, white ceiling, light wooden boarding. “What do you even do?”
“I keep myself busy,” Wei Wuxian defends and hops over to his working desk before shoving a talisman in Jiang Cheng’s face. “See! The wards here are so bad, Jiang Cheng. So bad, you would think they’d get better in thirteen years, but no,” he shakes his head grimly.
“I’m sure the Lan appreciate it.”
“Ah, well, they will! Once I’m done.” Wei Wuxian scratches at his nose. “I figure, you can’t really get mad if someone desecrates your sacred barriers by making them better, right?”
Jiang Cheng snorts. That’s the kind of attitude Wei Wuxian thrived on in Lotus Pier, which thrived on him in return. He can’t quite see Cloud Recesses appreciating it as much, but then, it’s not like he’s been around here much in the past two decades either.
“And really, it’s a net positive if everyone benefits from new wards.” Wei Wuxian says, like if he just keeps talking about barriers and wards and new cultivation techniques they can avoid saying anything personal about themselves at all. “Lan Zhan will approve anyway. Maybe he could convince Lan Qiren?”
“I’m sure the Lan will bend back over themselves to make their Chief Cultivator happy,” Jiang Cheng says.
“They should! But you know, Lan Zhan really deserves it.” And here they are at Wei Wuxian’s favourite topic of conversation. “He’s too good, really, Jiang Cheng. Ah, I’m pretty sure I break at least five rules every time I so much as take a step outside but he doesn’t even mind!”
“You’re a walking violation, of course,” Jiang Cheng says. It escapes him before he can think better of it.
But Wei Wuxian just grins. “I’m Lan Zhan’s walking violation now. I think he likes it. Shameful!” he crows, delighted at the thought. “He makes too many exceptions for me.”
“See which rules need to be broken,” Jiang Cheng says. Nods. “Which can be put away. That’s you.”
Wei Wuxian blinks. “Oh,” he says and then grins like he’s only just realized ‘troublemaker’s’ a compliment from Jiang Cheng.
He scowls. Of course it is. That’s how he meant it in the first place.
“Don’t do that.”
“Do what,” Wei Wuxian says, still doing it. “Smile?”
Stand there. Be there . Let the dawn light catch the spread of your hair like a slow-seeping violet. Jiang Cheng gestures at him wordlessly.
Wei Wuxian keeps grinning anyway. “Jiang Cheng, you know I can’t help it. Oh, but I must be the greatest nuisance Great Sect Leader Jiang ever dealt with.”
“Deals with,” Jiang Cheng corrects. Wei Wuxian, for once, gets it. He stops talking, a quiet, trembling hope in the corner of his mouth.
What does it take, he thinks, to say words that get where you want them, the shredded flesh of a heart bearing itself up on a palm. Oh, just a brother and a still water lake. Thirteen years and names enough to bury.
“Old man Sim came back,” says Jiang Cheng. “Well. He died a few years ago, but his daughter took over the business.”
“That’s good,” Wei Wuxian starts, blinking, wondering how this punch line ends with him.
Jiang Cheng scowls. “Her Scorch Seeds are even better than his. She uses more spices.”
His brother’s eyes light up with recognition. “I’ll have to come back to Lotus Pier sometime. Try them out, if there’s a nighthunt in the area.”
Fuck it. Jiang Cheng’s spent too many years crying over his parent’s grave, tracing A-jie and Wei Wuxian’s steps through the halls of a new Lotus Pier to deal with all this again.
“You should come,” he says. “If there isn’t. If there is. I don’t care. But don’t you dare stay at an inn.” He clears his throat, Wei Wuxian’s eyes shining. “If I so much as hear you were in Yunmeng and you don’t come to see Jin Ling, I’ll break your legs.”
Never mind Jin Ling isn’t at Lotus Pier so much these days, that there’s no real reason for Wei Wuxian to disrupt his life but Jiang Cheng.
“I’ll come for the Scorch Seeds,” Wei Wuxian agrees, weakly.
Jiang Cheng nods and before he can think twice about it, throws him his clarity bell. Wei Wuxian catches it at his chest before blinking fast at the little charm, the thick purple tassel Jiang Cheng tied to it.
“This is yours,” he says.
“I– Jiang Cheng, you can’t,” Wei Wuxian sputters, nearly dropping it. “You don’t want to give this to me.”
A peal of metal rings through the air. Despite Wei Wuxian’s words, his fingers are white around the bell. Only Jiang disciples get the bell. To have one is to be considered good as Jiang. He’d forced one on Jin Ling for his birthday years ago.
“Don’t tell me what I want to do,” he snaps. And then, just to get it through his brother’s thick head, “if you want to get rid of it so bad, give it back to me later.”
Jiang Cheng thinks, at some point he forgot to tell his brother he loves him without wounding them. But then, maybe Wei Wuxian forgot how to listen, too.
He flits away on Sandu before Lan Wangji can get there and doesn’t look back this time. He feels hopeful eyes following him around the bend of the hills as he does, a muted chime ringing between his ears.
Life is not a story. This has been said. So, there are no happy endings. But for this to be said, it must also be mentioned that there are no tragedies either. No absolutes.
The story, instead, goes a little like this: Water in the lotus beds. Lotus beds in the water. Maybe the lotus die every night or maybe this is more a question of why Jiang Cheng thought they went anywhere in the first place.
There is a little boy in the dark, wondering where his parents went, and Jiang Cheng holding his hand. Watching him. Watching. When Jiang Cheng wakes up, he’s there. Always. The water recedes from Wei Wuxian’s dead-boy face.
A two-part tragedy, Jiang Cheng. Wei Wuxian comes home to Lotus Pier, for a time, and hasn’t he learned yet that this story has more than two parts? Some of the best things come in threes. At first, there was him, and A-jie, and Wei Wuxian. And though it’s true this isn’t a story. The night slips away from the sea, the lotus breaching, blooming like fists uncurling. Palms up. Palms up. Jiang Cheng, you will never be given anything if you aren’t poised to receive it.
A story’s genre is decided by its third act.
See , A-jie says. See, A-Cheng? Still here .
They came back , he tells her.
The first thing Wei Wuxian does when he comes to Lotus Pier is gape at the lotus blossoms.
(He didn’t tell Jiang Cheng he’s coming. Next time, Jiang Cheng’s going to yell at him to write ahead so he can actually send a boat and receive him properly at the official’s pier.)
“Jiang Cheng,” he gapes and leans so far over Jiang Cheng thinks he’s going to fall in too. “You put them back! You have no idea how much I missed them.”
He’s going to say something about how, if he missed them so much, why he didn’t come back sooner. Jiang Cheng doesn’t.
He says, “I planted half of them myself. We couldn’t have all these lotus on our robes and swords if they weren’t anywhere else.” Parts of him swell with pride. “All that water and nothing in it. Looks better,” he sniffs.
“Lucky, with the water. I tried in the Burial Mounds, but there wasn’t enough,” Wei Wuxian tilts his head. “This place is a thousand times better than I ever could have made it, Jiang Cheng. Everywhere I look, a good amount of lotus, a good amount of water.”
“It needed to be done,” Jiang Cheng says, uncomfortable. “And don’t say it’s perfect. I made the carpenters put in the wrong amount of space between some of the boards on the outer docks. Watch your feet around them.”
“How can anything be wrong when the lotus are so beautiful?” Wei Wuxian leans toward him, just shy of knocking their shoulders together.
He wants to reach out. He wants to pull back.
Jiang Cheng goes, “No, really. If you don’t watch your step, you’ll put a foot through. And a single wet leg isn’t a good look on anyone.” He says, “And if the wind pushes the water, the lotus roots pull up.”
“What do you mean, ‘so,’” Jiang Cheng crosses his arms. “It’s bad during storms. Water comes up the boards. And if we plant the lotus too far into the water, they’re pulled away.”
“You’ve been struggling,” Wei Wuxian says, joking. Not joking at all.
“You were dead a few months ago,” he snorts. “Like I need concern from you. Talk to me when your fatality rate is the same as mine.”
“You’ll still want to talk to me by then?” Wei Wuxian grins. “No take-backs, Jiang Cheng, you’re stuck with me in the next life.”
“I’m going to break your legs. And then, then I’ll throw you in the lake.”
Wei Wuxian coughs into his arm like it does anything to hide the sharp edge of his smile peeking out.
“I just mean,” his brother goes, “the water takes the lotus. But if there are too many lotus, they choke out the lake.”
Jiang Cheng blinks. “Well,” he says. “It’s a good thing there’s a whole lake, then.”
“Lots of room for both,” Wei Wuxian agrees. “Ah, everything’s so nice here. Except your scowling face Jiang Cheng. You make all this and still scowl like that? You know what I want to see in Lotus Pier? A-Cheng making any other expression for once in his life.”
He grimaces harder at that, which makes Wei Wuxian grin.
“How can I when you give me so much reason to frown,” Jiang Cheng tells him. “Lan Wangji moderating sect meetings and sighing every minute like we don’t all know you were being disgusting right outside like teenagers.”
“I’ll make sure to do it where you can see next time, then.” The face he makes at that is wholely appropriate, he thinks.
“Shut up. Shut up, gross.” He wrinkles his nose. “Why are you like this? I bet your new body doesn’t have your old one’s tolerance. Let’s go shovel so much spicy food down your throat your tongue swells up.”
“Then I’ll figure out how to talk and eat at the same time. Just for you, Jiang Cheng.”
There’s something splitting through Jiang Cheng, light streaming through the water, refracting into a million strains. The edge of light meeting the lakebed. Between the bloody sun, a violet sunset.
He thinks, he thinks, he might do something to Wei Wuxian one of these days. To himself. This wound we call a bearing of self, an offering. Maybe not tomorrow or the day after it. One of these days, a smile.
“So,” the water says, the lotus risen up, the lotus to the water. “Where have you been?”