The cave with the abandoned offering plate that Jiang Cheng had discovered during one of his late-night walks has, over the years, been cleaned out and fixed up, less because of any intentional piety on Jiang Cheng’s part so much as being a victim of his need to have things to do.
“‘What do you want,’ he says.” Jiang Cheng sweeps a broom viciously over the cave’s spotless floor. “Now he asks? Who gave him the right?” he mutters, as though he hasn’t spent what sometimes feels like his entire life waiting for someone, anyone, to ask him that very question.
The guardian lion sits on its haunches at the cave’s entrance, idly licking a paw.
“He fucks off for who knows how long to do who knows what before swanning back in like nothing’s happened,” he snaps out, not for the first time. He’s also aware that it’s maybe not exactly a fair description, except for the ways in which it is also, in fact, accurate.
“Am I cursed?” he demands, waving a hand in the guardian lion’s general direction. “I’m cursed, aren’t I? Show me which immortals I pissed off and let me have a word with them!”
The spirit wipes its damp paw over an ear, unconcerned. Not that Jiang Cheng expected any different. As he glares at the front of the cave, he sees a much smaller spirit - some kind of plant, judging by the bark-like texture of its skin - peek around the side of the entrance with enormous, marble-like eyes. A second later, three similar heads pop up around it.
“Can I help you?” he asks grumpily.
The four round little heads all look at each other, then back at Jiang Cheng, before suddenly ducking back behind the rock like startled rodents. A moment later, several tiny hands tip a bunch of ripe mulberries onto the ground.
“For the offering plate?” Jiang Cheng asks, confused, until the guardian lion looks at him, then the mulberries, and then back at him as though to say, Really?
He leans the broom against the cave wall and sits crosslegged at the cave entrance beside the lion. The little plant spirits have disappeared. The mulberries taste perfectly sweet-tart, a little warmed from the morning sunlight. Some of that warmth seems to settle in his chest and core. Not for the first time, Jiang Cheng has the very secret little regret that this couldn’t be his life: no sectarian politics, no lingering shadow of the war, just wandering the land he loves so much and occasionally settling disputes between spirits and mortals like the wandering cultivators he still sometimes dreams about.
“I want him back,” Jiang Cheng abruptly tells the guardian lion still lazily grooming itself beside him. “But I can’t even look at him without feeling…all of it. All at once.” He can’t help a sharp laugh at his own ridiculousness. “Maybe we can arrange it so that we only ever talk with a literal wall between us.”
Ha. And he’d once described Jin Ling’s early teenaged attempts at poetry to his Spiders as ‘overwrought with heavy-handed symbolism.’
For the first time in years, Jiang Cheng wonders, What might Zewu-jun advise? Possibly because Jiang Cheng had been very aware of Lan Xichen’s absence at breakfast that morning. It hadn’t been unexpected, not even really disappointing because ultimately it meant Lan Xichen wasn’t trying to keep up that badly forced politeness with Jiang Cheng. Just…notable.
Unfortunately, Jiang Cheng couldn’t even begin to guess what someone like Lan Xichen might advise, so he asks himself instead, If Jin Ling were in my place, what would I advise him? And somehow, reframing it that way makes it easier for the voice of practicality to speak up.
Well, dumbass, if you can’t talk face to face, then find a way to talk indirectly.
“I suppose it’s too much to hope that his calligraphy’s gotten any better after being dead for all this time.”
He can almost hear his mother saying that this is a stupid idea, a cowardly one, or maybe that’s his father reminding him once again that he doesn’t understand what it takes to keep moving forward in the face of impossible odds, but it’s hard to care anymore. If this is what it takes to lay this particular fierce corpse to rest after sixteen years, then that's what he'll do.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. It takes more wasted paper and ink than Jiang Cheng will ever admit to before he finally seals the letter and sends it off to the Cloud Recesses.
I want to have back the brother that swore we’d be brothers again in the next life. I don’t know if he’s still there or if that was a lie, too. I don’t know how to talk to you. Every time you speak, I don’t know if I’m hearing truth or lies.
I want to see you. I don’t trust either of us enough to do so anytime soon. I don’t know how to change that except to start here, on paper.
Swear that you won’t lie to me anymore, by word or by omission.
Swear that you won't take away my ability to make my own choices ever again.
It’s late afternoon when Jiang Cheng sits down to tea again with Lan Xichen. They’re outside in the Rain Pavilion, listening to the river’s waves against the wooden posts underneath them.
Jiang Cheng, upon arriving second, had intentionally seated himself to the side of the table rather than across from Lan Xichen. That small impropriety allows a whole incense stick’s worth of time to pass without forced small talk. They both look out over the river, occasionally refilling teacups as it occurs to them, and when the stillness starts to make Jiang Cheng feel restless, he stands up, gives Lan Xichen a nod, and walks away with a word being exchanged between them.
“What was that about?” asks Jiang Xin, who catches up with Jiang Cheng on the crowded main boardwalk.
“What was what about?”
“You and Zewu-jun sitting in total silence that whole time.”
“Spying on me?” Jiang Cheng asks casually, easily sidestepping a laborer with a load of lumber precariously balanced over his shoulder.
Jiang Cheng snorts.
“At least you didn’t break him this time,” she quips, trailing close in his wake.
“I didn’t break him at all. Jin Guangyao managed that all by himself, and more thoroughly than anyone except maybe Lan Wangji could possibly manage. Speaking of Lanling Jin, have we gotten anything from Koi Tower yet?”
“Yes,” Jiang Xin explains. “The formal celebration of Sect Leader Jin’s coronation is set for a month from now during the week of the full moon.”
Jiang Cheng has three reactions, one right after the other: pride for his nephew first, then terror and the familiar sudden need to drag the boy back to Lotus Pier and hide him from the world, and finally the realization that Wei Wuxian will no doubt want to attend and Jin Ling will most likely want him there as well. He makes sure none of these reactions show on his face.
“We’ll need to think of an appropriate coronation gift for the brat,” he replies, calm.
She snorts. “Golden gilt, perhaps? I think there might still be a few rocks in Koi Tower left untouched.”
“That’s my nephew.”
“And you certainly didn’t help, did you, or maybe I dreamed up those four hundred deity-catching nets during some kind of fever.”
“Lin Zhang!” Jiang Cheng calls out to one of the fish vendors lined up along the boardwalk on the river’s edge.
“Sect Leader Jiang!” the fisherman calls back while his wife waves distractedly with a knife in her hand. Sunlight glitters off the silver scales scattered over the blade. In the corner of his eye, Jiang Cheng sees a tiny river spirit sneak off with a wisp of qi from one of the fish in the bucket at the wife’s feet. “Welcome, welcome! What can these humble ones do for you today?”
“I see you’re still hauling in the catch and yet your son isn’t here.” Jiang Cheng nods at the netting piled in the bottom of the narrow boat docked behind the vendor’s stall. “I was thinking Jiang Xin might be able to lend a hand.”
“Sect Leader,” his Spider hisses as the couple enthusiastically thanks him for his generosity while goodnaturedly cursing their teenaged son for disappearing on them, probably mooning over the eldest daughter of the local innkeeper and making a fool of himself twice over.
Jiang Cheng smirks at his Spider’s scowl as she ties up the loose layers of her clothes, baring her trousers underneath to wade into the water and help pass over the fishing nets, and walks on alone.
He nods his acknowledgement at various shopkeepers and some of the laborers as they bow or call his name in greeting. Since the evening he walked through Lotus Pier and finally recognized that his sect is happy, is thriving, it’s been easier to see it among the commoners as well. They rarely tease and joke with him the way they had with Jiang Fengmian, but they don’t avert their eyes from him, either, the way he’d seen commoners do when Jin Guangshan deigned to come down from his heavenly palace and step upon mortal earth or whatever. The villages have grown as he’s managed to expand the trade networks, and unusually fewer famines and floods have limited the number of attempted uprisings even from Yunmeng’s minor sects. All auspicious signs.
Eventually, in the village proper, he takes a sharp turn away from the main road and follows a path around several houses towards a large field, beside which sits a modest, walled-in complex of three long buildings arranged around a small courtyard. Children of varying ages and genders have spilled out of the complex’s open gates, the older ones engaged in chores while stepping over the younger ones, who crouch over sticks or chase each other with giggling yells.
He’s sure that one of the adult helpers is already running to find the matron of this orphanage, so he takes an opportunity to scrutinize the kids. None of them seem to be limping, wincing, or otherwise giving any signs of serious injury, and the only bruises he sees are the irregularly-shaped ones on shins, knees, and elbows that are normal for tiny people who are constantly running and falling in fast-growing bodies. A few kids are sitting more quietly in corners, but none of them are alone, and none of them are setting off Jiang Cheng’s internal alarm talisman of ‘child in turmoil,' honed over the years with Jin Ling and his youngest disciples.
(It’s not that he actively distrusts the matron. He’d personally chosen her for this, after all. But while the integrity of a head of household absolutely sets the standard for everyone under the roof, it doesn’t actually guarantee the same integrity in every person under that roof, and Jiang Cheng doesn’t believe in taking unnecessary chances anymore when it comes to having power over small, vulnerable souls.)
“Sect Leader Jiang.”
The matron is an older woman, built like an ox from a lifetime of carrying children around on her broad hips and enormous baskets of rice on her back in the paddies. Her face is lined from age and weather, serious but not unkind. After daily interactions with Song Hu’s rather irreverent style of attempted mothering, Zhang Yihua’s sternness is always a relief.
“Madam Zhang,” he replies, nodding courteously in response to her bow. The attendant at her side, a young woman newly of marrying age, bows deepest.
“You are, as usual, a surprise,” Madam Zhang says wryly. “You’re here for our supply list?”
“Yes.” He takes the small scroll that the young woman timidly holds out for him. “Is everything well?”
“Except for the usual bumps, bruises, and coughs, yes. Two infants have been adopted, and yes, before you ask, I screened the families myself and two of my assistants still drop in on those households. Some of those merchants have had their men sniffing around for free labor again, but the security arrays your disciples set up for us have been doing their job.”
Jiang Cheng’s eyes narrow. “Which merchants?”
“None I recognize, so probably no one local. If any of us manage to get any descriptions, I’ll make sure to get them to you.”
“Thank you.” It’s common enough, merchants and sometimes farmers looking for ways to entice orphaned children and teens into helping out with simple but tedious or dangerous labor that they have no intention paying for afterwards, and occasionally for crueler purposes. One of the downsides of maintaining such lucrative trade routes is the number of non-local merchants, shippers, and others passing through the area, many of whom either don’t know or don’t care about certain rules that Jiang Cheng strictly enforces among the permanent residents here.
“Do you plan to test the children?” Madam Zhang asks.
“Not today, but I’ll do so soon.” It’s been over a year since he last checked the children’s spiritual veins to see who has cultivation potential. “I’ll send you word beforehand this time so that I don’t entirely ruin your day’s schedule.”
“This one is grateful for Sect Leader Jiang’s thoughtfulness,” she replies in the same dry tone.
As he leaves, he catches sight of two young boys, the older one laughing loudly while the younger runs after him crying, “Gege! Gege, stop, wait for me! You always go too fast!”
“Really?” Jiang Cheng pauses just long enough to thunk his boot pointedly against the ground. He sees a crossroads spirit laughing silently but obviously at him, rolling around on top of a large rock from where the path meets up with the main road ahead. “I sent a fucking letter to him already,” he whispers in the spirit’s general direction. “The roads between us are already open and the next step is his. Don’t you go giving me omens like that.”
The crossroads spirit giggles itself off the rock, disappearing just before it hits the ground. Jiang Cheng stares at the empty space where it was, wondering why the hell the local spirits would give a shit about the state of his relationship with Wei Wuxian.
Is it about the demonic cultivation? There’d been a handful of spirits he’d had to settle with prayers and offerings after a demonic cultivator had sworn a disciple’s oath to him. But that had mostly been in the beginning, when Jiang Cheng’s own emotions over the whole thing were a little more, well, charged, perhaps, than they are nowadays.
Speaking of oaths… is it about Wei Wuxian’s broken oath? But the crossroads spirit was laughing in a way that didn’t seem malicious, and the guardian lion itself had essentially ignored Jiang Cheng while he’d been yelling in the cave about the whole situation. Neither of those things suggested an actual problem. But then again, meddling spirits didn’t have to be resentful to fuck everything up for the living mortals.
To confirm anything, Jiang Cheng would either have to try finding a spirit willing to communicate straightforwardly (highly unlikely), pull out his yarrow stalks (terrible idea, Jiang Cheng was a shit diviner), or find a proper diviner or priest he trusted to be impartial about, oh, the deeply personal relationship between Sandu Shengshou and the Yiling Laozu (hilarious to even contemplate as a possibility).
Jiang Cheng turns his face up to the sky, closes his eyes, and lets out what’s surely the longest mental groan in the history of mankind under the Jade Emperor’s feet.
For no real reason, that night is a bad night. This is the kind of nightmare that makes waking up slow and hard, a gradual process that feels like Jiang Cheng is clawing his way up a steep hill with thick, slimy mud streaking his face, choking him and trying to drag him back down into sleep and the horror waiting there.
He sits on the edge of his bed in the dark of his bedroom, hands curled into fists in the blankets, until his breathing and pulse slow back to normal and he’s starting to shiver from the sweat drying under his sleep clothes. Eventually, moving like a much older man, he uses a cloth dampened from the water pitcher at his bedside table to wipe off the sweat, changes into fresh clothes, and heads out towards the piers.
It takes a while to realize that the human shape sitting out in the Rain Pavilion isn’t one of the disciples on the night security shift, which is terrible, because now Jiang Cheng has to make a decision while he’s tired and hurting: does he try sharing company with Lan Xichen and deal with whatever the consequences of that might be, or does he walk on and pretend he saw nothing?
There’s no tea at the table. No neat little finger-foods. Just Lan Xichen, draped in so much white and exhaustion that he could be a ghost. Jiang Cheng sits beside him on the same side of the table, facing towards the river, in more of a sprawl than he ever allows himself in front of someone outside his own sect.
“You want to talk about it?” he asks mildly. Lan Xichen is kneeling and upright, hands cupped in his lap, but the lines of his formal posture aren’t perfect.
It takes a little while, but then Lan Xichen murmurs, “No.”
“All right.” Jiang Cheng lets his head fall back against the railing, stares out over the water and the way the stars’ reflections shiver and dance in it without a moon to drown out their quiet lights. All he can see of Lan Xichen’s face is the corner of his jaw and the back of an ear.
“Did you know the stars sound like bells when their light hits the water?” he says without meaning to. Nights are never wholly silent, filled with the sound of the river and all the nocturnal creatures both above and within the water, but it’s still softer than the daytime hum of human life, and his voice is quiet enough not to break the peacefulness.
“What do you mean?” Lan Xichen asks.
Jiang Cheng shrugs uncomfortably. “Well, you know. Spiritually, that is. Not literally. Obviously. I must’ve read it somewhere or something.”
“I’ve never heard such a thing, but I imagine it would sound lovely.”
It is, Jiang Cheng doesn’t say, even though he hasn’t heard it since that first qi deviation.
“I’ve always enjoyed Yunmeng Jiang’s bells,” Lan Xichen goes on, unexpectedly, in a thoughtful tone. “When I was old enough to begin accompanying my father to the other sects, it was always Yunmeng’s festivals that I secretly enjoyed most.”
“In some ways, Yunmeng Jiang felt the least like Gusu Lan. Qinghe Nie’s discipline is familiar, in its own way, and Lanling Jin’s emphasis on cultivating beauty isn’t too dissimilar to the Lan aesthetic appreciation, even if ours is shaped by our history of asceticism rather than sensuality. But discipline in Yunmeng seems like…more of a tool than a fundamental truth, one that can be picked up and used when necessary and then set aside when it’s no longer the most useful approach. Or rather, it’s understood differently enough here that I didn’t always recognize it. As a child, that difference was…both exciting and unsettling.”
Lan Xichen suddenly flicks a sidelong look at Jiang Cheng. “Apologies, Jiang Wanyin. I didn’t mean to imply anything about your sect’s discipline.”
“I know, it’s fine,” Jiang Cheng replies, although he had indeed had to tell that ugly voice in his head to knock it off.
“You mentioned both bells and festivals. I’m guessing you’re referring to our Lotus Blooming Festival.”
“Indeed. It was the first time I’d visited Lotus Pier. I must have been maybe seven or eight years old? Which means you would’ve been barely walking, I imagine.”
Jiang Yanli hadn't been far apart in age from Lan Xichen, though. Neither of them mentions this.
“I remember thinking how strange it was to be in a place where the sky was so big, no mountains or tall trees to block it out, and so much water, and so much noise, and commoners walking so easily among cultivators. And then the bianzhong were brought out.” Lan Xichen tilts his head to give Jiang Cheng a faint smile. “As you can tell, it left quite an impression on me.”
Jiang Cheng gives a small laugh. He loves the Dragon Boat Festival for his own selfish reasons, but he loves the Lotus Blooming Festival just as much because it’s unique to his sect: a celebration of the first lotuses of the annual blooming season where the music always involves bells in some way and almost every person old enough and strong enough to swim spends the entire day in or around the water. It’s like one of his ancestors looked around and said, Everything that makes Lotus Pier special, but more, and also everyone gets a day off of chores. He’s never actually told anyone that it’s his favorite, though.
“I’ve been wondering, why bells?” Lan Xichen asks. For all that he never turns to face Jiang Cheng directly, he seems unexpectedly willing to chat.
Jiang Cheng shrugs a shoulder. “Pragmatically speaking, probably because our sect’s founding ancestor married a bell dancer. I’m sure you know that even the rudest of bells can be helpful against low-level resentment.”
“A pragmatic application of his wife’s skill that indicates how much he must have respected her. Even, perhaps, how much he cared for her. A surprisingly romantic tale.”
Jiang Cheng had always thought so. He’d said as much, once, to Wei Wuxian, and promptly been teased for taking the magic out of romance by making it practical. Jiang Cheng had been too stung to ask why those two things had to be mutually exclusive when it meant taking a simple, common object that a lover favored and making it so integral to a whole sect’s cultivation style and identity, and then there’d never been any reason to bring it up again. He'd eventually concluded that maybe it's only romantic to people whose every action isn't already objectively amazing. It’s weird that a Lan, renowned for their maudlin depths of romanticism, might agree with Jiang Cheng.
The quiet conversation fades into a comfortable, natural silence. Jiang Cheng slouches a little lower, breathing deep and steady, and eyes the upright lines of Lan Xichen’s back. Yu Ziyuan had been a stickler for posture, often rapping her children’s knuckles to remind them to sit properly like most parents seem to, but he suspects it wasn’t drilled into them the way it is in the Cloud Recesses.
The two of them sit there in easy quiet until the eastern sky begins to lighten and Jiang Cheng gets up to head back and change into proper clothes before breakfast. Lan Xichen stays behind, looking out over the water like a lonely ghost waiting in the pre-dawn mist.
Wei Wuxian’s response comes that morning, much sooner than Jiang Cheng had dared to expect.
Whenever I said those things about being brothers, I always meant them. Every time.
I swear I won’t intentionally lie, by word or omission, and if there’s something I can’t tell you, then I’ll say that.
I swear I won't intentionally take away your ability to choose again.
Wei Wuxian’s careful inclusion of ‘intentionally,’ the caveat that there might still be things he’s hiding, are obvious. But instead of being a way to dodge responsibility, Jiang Cheng sees them as clarifications grounded in their shared reality. No sweeping, idealistic promises here that are well-intentioned but impossible to uphold when tested. Not anymore.
It’s that, more than almost anything else that Wei Wuxian could have written, that lets Jiang Cheng believe that this is possible.
But that hope - because, gods, that’s what it is, isn’t it - fucking hurts, and he has to set the letter aside and put his palms over his face to hide the twisting in his expression. He’s alone in his office, but he still can’t bear not to hide his face.
It takes a while for him to pull himself together, find something comprehensible in the mess of his thoughts. He wants to ask about the golden core, but the first time he tries to put that on paper, his hand starts shaking and he starts going away from his body in the way he usually only does when he thinks too hard about the Wens’ torture.
So, still too soon for that, then.
The letter he finally sends off with a messenger before walking into his afternoon meeting, after wasting even more parchment and ink than before, is short:
Why did you leave?
The five-year cycle of the annual cultivation conference continues to turn among the Great Sects, and with the Unclean Realm having just hosted, Lotus Pier has just under a year to plan for its own turn. A year may seem like a long time to most, but Jiang Cheng has never allowed his sect to slack off.
“Why can’t we just reuse the plans from last time?” asks Song Hu.
“We can’t just reuse the plans we’ve already used,” Jiang Cheng snaps.
“It’s not an unfair question,” breaks in Jiang Li as he unrolls the scroll that describes the plans in question from four years ago. It’s written in Jiang Cheng’s hand and summarizes everything that had been put into place the last time that Lotus Pier hosted. “At the very least, it can be used as a template, but we’ll shake up some of the security protocols so that they’re not predictable to anyone who was paying attention to them last time. We can keep some of the more popular items on the food menu as a base and switch out the rest for new novelties. I imagine we can resurrect some of the arrangements we negotiated with the local common village for supplies and surplus guest housing.”
“Yes, that,” Jiang Cheng says, a little sulkily.
“Sect Leader Jiang, I know that you’ve usually steered the conference preparations. Would you prefer to do the same this year?”
Jiang Cheng almost says that he’ll continue overseeing the preparations, but then he stops. He sees his Spiders, who have tirelessly worked to keep Lotus Pier’s security nearly impenetrable; his head disciple, whose teenaged anxiety has been tempered into a levelheaded thoroughness in maintaining his sect’s discipline; his head housekeeper, who keeps her humor without sacrificing a sliver of her competence in keeping the sect fed, clean, and healthy; his financial officer, methodical and discrete and ruthlessly loyal; his primary advisor, the only other surviving Jiang by both name and blood whose voice of reason has kept his council mostly in line for years. One of the few things his parents had ever agreed on when it came to running a sect was the importance of surrounding one’s leadership with competence.
“This time, Uncle Li, I think I’ll leave the preparations in others’ capable hands.”
The collection of surprised stares he gets would be offensive if Jiang Cheng weren't also a little surprised at the words coming out of his mouth.
“Y-yes, Sect Leader Jiang,” Jiang Li stammers before visibly catching himself and clearing his throat awkwardly. “My thoughts are to have Jiang Xin and Jiang Jia work on reconfiguring past security. Yang Xiu, you’ll need to speak with the seniors and decide what kinds of competitions and demonstrations can be prepared for. Song Hu, the sooner you’re able to provide inventory of any needed bedlinens, tablecloths, and hospitality concerns, the sooner we can order them and make sure they’re on time. We can also stagger the orders over a longer period to avoid overtaxing the treasury. Jiang Ya, we’ll need to know the current status of the treasury and granaries plus projected income over the coming year so that we can figure out what kind of budget we’re working with. I’ll meet with the council to see what agreements can be brought back and what new ones will need to be negotiated.”
“We should be able to augment the budget by stepping up with night hunts,” Yang Xiu muses aloud. “We’re pretty good about keeping up with requests for cultivator support, but we might be able to - “
Jiang Cheng listens to his people bounce ideas off one another and occasionally argue, and feels emotion expand in his chest like flowers that open for the early morning sun.
“Bring me any final drafts for approval between now and the conference,” he reminds them, and slips out of his office into the much quieter hallway. It takes him a moment to realize that with all of his various heads of staff and sect occupied in taking care of the start of the next conference’s planning, he doesn’t have anywhere immediate to be.
He has a free schedule. A schedule that is free. An agenda with no actual agenda.
Jiang Cheng blinks himself back to the present and finds Lan Xichen standing in front of him, a bit of distance between them.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes. I’m fine, I just realized that I, uh. I have nothing to do at the moment.”
As they stare at each other, Jiang Cheng starts to notice some subtler details that suggest the ghostliness wasn’t just a trick of the pre-dawn light. Lan Xichen is still as pale as when he arrived several days ago, despite the bright sun that lingers even now into autumn, and he still looks like he’d keel over if Jiang Cheng scowled at him too hard, probably because he hasn’t been showing up to any communal meals once Jiang Cheng made it clear that it wasn’t an obligation. There’s no musical instrument, sword, or book in his hands, and now that Jiang Cheng is thinking about, he doesn’t recall seeing anything left out in the guest quarters during his brief visit that first evening.
This son of a bitch is still wallowing.
“I was wrong,” he says abruptly. “I have everything to do at this moment, and I could use your help.”
Lan Xichen blinks at him. “I…I don’t know that I’d be the best support - “
“Nonsense. It concerns our sect library, which, to be blunt, probably makes you the best possible support of anyone currently within Lotus Pier. Walk with me.”
It’s the first time that Jiang Cheng’s been directive with Lan Xichen since the man showed up, and he’s curious to see what happens. Lan Xichen hesitates, glancing back down the corridor from which he’d come, before glancing back at Jiang Cheng, who just raises an eyebrow and starts off towards the library. Soon, footsteps echo after his. He lets himself feel a burst of smugness before tucking it away to someplace unseen.
“A little while ago our archivist made a list of texts that need to be repaired, if possible, or rewritten, if necessary,” he explains as they walk. “Yunmeng Jiang relies more on oral instruction than Gusu Lan, which means that although we need fewer manuals for disciples, the disciples get less practice in calligraphy and composition.”
Lan Xichen doesn’t respond. Jiang Cheng eyes him surreptitiously, but doesn’t say anything else until they reach the library.
No sect has a library as grand as Gusu Lan’s, of course, but Jiang Cheng likes to think that Yunmeng Jiang has nothing to be ashamed of. It rests on a raised foundation over solid ground rather than the river, its large windows letting in plenty of light but with thin linen curtains dimming it enough that it won’t damage the books. The tables are more spaced out than they are in the Cloud Recesses, with more large cushions, mostly because Jiang Cheng’s disciples are more likely to fidget, pace, or even literally roll around while spending long hours in here. It’s probably stupid, and his mother never would’ve tolerated such behavior, but his healers did point out that such things aren’t unusual when it comes to physical cultivators, and overall his disciples don’t whine about studying as much as they used to.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” acknowledges his head archivist, a senior disciple with relatively weak cultivation but a passion for books so strong that occasionally she has to be extracted from the library by her martial siblings. She looks up from the blank book she’s writing in and startles. “Oh, uh. Zewu-jun.”
“Jiang Xiaowei,” Jiang Cheng replies as she stands and bows. “What’s the status of the restocking?”
“Asking for Sect Leader’s pardon, but I estimate that we’re about a third of the way through the changes we currently have planned.”
“Only a third? It’s been four months,” he says, a bite in his tone. When she winces and opens her mouth to argue, however, he gives her a quick wink outside of Lan Xichen’s line of sight, which makes her stop out of sheer surprise. “How long could it take?”
“Aah, well,” she says slowly, obviously trying to guess what the hell Jiang Cheng is playing at, “this disciple, um, apologizes. For the delay.”
“Where are the other calligraphers?” he pushes. “Perhaps I need to remind more senior disciples what happens when they don’t keep up their practice.”
“If I may, Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Xichen breaks in softly, “perhaps I might offer assistance?”
Jiang Cheng raises his eyebrows at him. “You’re still officially in seclusion from any duties. I won’t have Gusu Lan accuse me of exploiting their recovering sect leader for labor.”
“I appreciate your consideration, but it’s no bother, and anyway, I’ve always found this sort of work to be rewarding, in its own ways.”
Jiang Cheng stares hard at him before sighing. “Fine. But the moment you wish to stop, do so.”
Lan Xichen’s small smile is amused. “As you wish, Sect Leader Jiang.”
Smartass. But also, ha! Lan Xichen is now committed to doing something productive and thinks it's his own idea.
Jiang Cheng hovers while Jiang Xiaowei gets Lan Xichen set up at a desk with an old botanical dictionary that’s losing its binding and the supplies he needs to repair it, and then he pulls her aside.
“Keep an eye on him. Make sure he’s kept busy, but don’t let him use it as an excuse to avoid eating or going outside once in a blue moon. The only texts I don’t want him handling are the sect’s cultivation manuals.”
“Of course, Sect Leader Jiang,” she murmurs back. “But why is Zewu-jun here? Doing a disciple’s chores, no less?”
“An excellent question,” he says unhelpfully. “Let me know if anything happens.”
“Is there anything specific I should be looking for with him? Or simply anything that appears out of the ordinary?”
He really hasn’t been giving his people enough credit, has he? “The latter.”
“Yes, Sect Leader Jiang.”
There. Now he isn’t distracted by the thought of Zewu-jun wandering Lotus Pier in the background like a lost soul. Unfortunately, no new crises have developed or nephews spontaneously appeared in the last half-shichen or so, which means Jiang Cheng is once again standing in the hallway with free time on his hands and wondering what the hell he’s supposed to do with it.
This time, Wei Wuxian’s response takes a few days to arrive, and it does so after the communal breakfast when he’s settled into his office.
I left because I was becoming a danger to you and Shijie. If I could honor my debt to Wen Qing and Wen Ning for saving you twice over, then at least I could be doing something worthwhile. I know I was only making everything harder for you by staying. It would all be worth it if meant you could be happy.
The characters for ‘Shijie’ are written with too much ink, as though he’d let the brush sit too long in one place on the paper. Jiang Cheng’s mind feels like that brush, frozen mid-motion and bleeding out so much thought that it all blurs into a thick, dark mess.
Numbly, he’s feeling vindicated for limiting their conversation to letters. If Wei Wuxian were looking him in the eye and saying, in that earnest way he sometimes has, that he believed Jiang Cheng would be happier without Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng genuinely doesn’t know what he would do.
The sun is setting when Lan Xichen steps out alone out of Lotus Pier, armed only with an unnamed sword and the nervous advice of the head disciple.
“He doesn’t like it when people see him upset,” Yang Xiu explained quietly after closing the office door to ensure their privacy. “He might…well. If he’s still upset, he might try to scare you off. Zewu-jun, just stay here. Sect Leader Jiang will return in his own time.”
Of course he would - Jiang Wanyin wouldn’t just walk away from his sect like that and never return. But not everyone who isolates themselves actually wants to be isolated. Or maybe Lan Xichen doesn’t know what he’s doing at all and will just make things worse.
He finds Jiang Wanyin sitting on the pebbles of the riverbank with his arms around his knees. When Jiang Wanyin turns his head at the sound of Lan Xichen’s footsteps, the red of his eyes and the flush on his face gives away that he’s been recently crying.
“Might as well sit down,” Jiang Wanyin sighs. “Heavens know you’ve already seen me at my worst.” He snorts. “Twice.”
Presumably he means at Nightless City and Guanyin’s temple. Lan Xichen sits at his side, caught a bit flatfooted by Jiang Wanyin’s calm after all the uncomfortable looks and advice that the disciples had given him.
“Yang Xiu send you out after me?”
“It was my idea to come,” Lan Xichen admits. “He suggested I give you your space instead.”
It occurs to Lan Xichen that he’s seen Jiang Wanyin cry more than any other sect leader, except for Nie Huaisang, who doesn’t count because Lan Xichen no longer knows what’s real and what isn’t in the man he used to call a little brother. He remembers an eighteen-year-old Jiang Wanyin with an infant Jin Ling in his arms, standing in one of the pavilions and looking like his grief might turn to violent madness.
(He’d been looking at the wrong man for that conclusion, hadn’t he?)
“Do you want to talk about it?” It sounds trite, and worse, Lan Xichen mostly asks it so that he doesn’t have to hear the inside of his own head for a little while.
“Of course not.” Jiang Cheng’s voice is edged, but the edge has been turned inwards. “Would you, if your brother told you that he'd believed that him walking away from your family would make you happier than if he’d stayed?”
Lan Xichen’s breath catches. The thought of Wangji kneeling in front of him in the Hanshi and saying, sincerely, that Lan Xichen would be happier if…
But Wangji himself had been happier when he left, hadn’t he? He’d kneeled in silence for three years while his cultivation slowly healed his broken body, not even allowed to see his adopted son. And as soon as he’d been released, he’d taken night-hunts of increasing length and distance from the Cloud Recesses, chasing rumors of the man he loved but whom the whole world hated. It was Wangji who'd been happier away from Lan Xichen.
“No,” Lan Xichen whispers. “No, I wouldn’t.”
They listen to the rhythmic burbling of the river washing over the pebbled shore. Some fishermen pass into view, well out of earshot.
Jiang Wanyin says, in voice dropped low like a confession, “He’s always flown higher than anyone else I’ve known, like he’s never known the chains of mortal woes. Which he has. But they don’t stay locked, for him. He’s always found a way out, except for the one time he didn’t and he died for it. But those chains are all I know and I don’t know how to bring him back without breaking him in like you do a horse."
It doesn’t sound like Jiang Wanyin is asking for advice, which is good, because Lan Xichen has no idea what he’d say. Like Jiang Wanyin, he's only ever known the weight of a sect of hundreds of people and thousands of ancestors, of complicated parents and the kind of legacies they choose to wrap around their children’s necks, of loyalties torn by conflict and lies. Until recently, the privileges of his position had seemed like a fair exchange. But he's also seen exactly what happens when someone does chain down another.
Without really meaning to do so, he says, “My father kept my mother locked away. For my family, love has never meant freedom.”
There's an awkward pause.
“...Huh. That’s fucked up.”
Nie Mingjue had put an arm around Lan Xichen like a protective array and spoken confidently of the unjustness of Qingheng-Jun's treatment of his family. Jin Guangyao had smiled sadly and said nothing, just taken Lan Xichen’s hands in his own. Wei Wuxian had been nonjudgmental and uncharacteristically serious, but still clearly thinking about Lan Wangji, not Lan Xichen.
Lan Xichen doesn’t know how he would’ve reacted to the sheer artlessness of Jiang Wanyin’s response any other time, but right then, it hits hard on those ancient, childhood walls like a flood breaking its constraints, and he finds himself laughing until it turns to sobbing. “Yes, it is fucked up, isn’t it?” he gasps out between sobs. Mortified but unable to stop, he lifts an arm to hide his face behind his long sleeve.
He hears a soft sigh and the crunch of shifting pebbles, and then Jiang Wanyin is sitting at his side just close enough for their shoulders to touch. It’s the most physical contact they’ve ever had between each other outside of the rare occasion they picked each other up off a battlefield or knocked the other out of the way of a sword.
“Why did he keep her locked up?” Jiang Wanyin asks, calm.
No one's ever asked him that before.
“Because she’d murdered his teacher and marriage was the only way to keep her from execution. I don't know why she did it. But Father…I was told that he never came to terms with his own choices, so Mother was kept locked in a cottage until she died when Lan Wangji was still a child. After the marriage, Father went into seclusion up until he died.”
“And then you became sect leader.”
Lan Xichen tries to get a hold of himself, tuck it all back down where he usually places these things, but he’s just too tired. He’s not even sure where it’s all coming from. This wound is old and, he thought, scarred over, but now all he can think about is seeing a tiny Lan Zhan kneeling in the snow in front of a door that will never open again, his own small hands trying and failing to pull his baby brother upright. For the first time, Lan Xichen thinks about himself, the child too old to be cuddled like the younger one, expected to keep himself in check so that the adults didn’t feel burdened by a child they said should be old enough to know better.
He’s never known what his father was actually thinking, and he never will, but the old platitude he’d tell himself, One cannot pass judgment without full knowledge of the situation, now sounds like an echo of the same platitude that he’d use to ignore some of more questionable actions he'd witnessed from Jin Guangyao.
Jiang Wanyin volunteers, “Before the Sunshot Campaign, I’d been courting Wen Qing.”
Lan Xichen chokes with surprise.
“No one else knew. Well, maybe Wei Wuxian did, later. I don’t know if Wen Qing ever told him. Before the end of the war, I told her that I could keep her safe in Lotus Pier but not the rest of her family. Not with Yunmeng Jiang so weak at the time, and not when her sect had killed mine in the first place. She chose to remain with her family.”
Lan Xichen lowers his sleeve to find Jiang Wanyin looking out unseeing over the river.
“I knew she’d make that choice. It’s one of the reasons I, ah, cared. For her. I had to offer anyway.” Something too bitter to be amusement twists his mouth. “I understand the desire to want to force someone to be safe, regardless of how they feel about it. But either way, the end result is seeing someone you care for get broken. Kill their spirit with control and call it love, or watch them die at someone else's hands in their freedom."
Jiang Wanyin flicks a brief glance at him. “From what you describe, I could understand why your father did that. That doesn’t make it any less cruel.”
“My clansmen tend to either downplay the...consequences of his actions, or to condemn him for them entirely.”
Jiang Wanyin snorts. “Of course they do. For one, he was your sect leader, so filial duty will take priority for some of them. But even setting that aside, people never allow others to just be human instead of, I don’t know, a bodhisattva or a demon. Nothing in between. Nuance is too hard to wrangle with, so it's better make them sound perfect or like evil incarnate depending on which story makes the best weapon. Death just makes the whole thing easier because then people aren’t around to defend themselves.” He stops and makes an odd expression. “Most of the time, anyway.”
Philosophy is good. It’s abstract, allows a person to step back from the immediacy of a broken heart without looking away entirely. Lan Xichen latches onto it. “Wouldn’t refusing to elevate a person’s achievements or to condemn their cruelties mean that your own integrity is compromised?"
“Why?” Jiang Wanyin scowls. “People like you and Wei Wuxian, running around thinking that justice and goodness are concrete things that you can find and hold onto. Break that rock over there and show me a grain of justice, then! People will just keep redefining this abstract concept according to whatever best suits them and use it as a shield to hide from criticism.”
“Then do justice and goodness not exist?” Lan Xichen whispers.
“How would I know? I haven’t ascended, have I? I’d rather spend my time making sure my people are fed and protected. I just don’t trust anyone who says that they’re acting in the name of an ideal, especially one that seems to enjoy changing its own definition.”
“I once told Wangji that rules cannot define the limits of justice. That rules are not universal, nor do they allow for every nuance of human experience.”
“You're right. They don’t. What matters is the impact of a person’s actions. If one man saves a drowning child out of compassion and another man does it because he wants the village to praise him, what’s the difference to the rest of the world when a child is saved either way?”
Lan Xichen doesn’t agree, really, but he understands where Jiang Wanyin is coming from.
“You know," he says thoughtfully, "it sounds to me like your struggle isn’t about being responsible for breaking someone you love because it's the only way to love them, but instead, figuring out what actions you can take to demonstrate that love without putting them in a cage for it.” After a moment of consideration, Lan Xichen risks adding, "You seem to assume that love can't happen without control. While I can't speak to your experiences which taught you that, I'd argue that from I've witnessed from a distance, you've been managing that with Jin Rulan for the last thirteen years well enough."
From the corner of his eye, he sees Jiang Wanyin open his mouth, pause, and close it again, looking somewhere between surprised and disgruntled. It’s better than the earlier sadness that looked like it’d been welling up from inside his bones.
“Yes. Well. Fine.”
Lan Xichen smiles a little to himself. Some time passes with that silence that seems to come so naturally between them.
“You know that it applies to you, too?” Jiang Wanyin says suddenly. He makes an annoyed sound. “No, that didn’t make sense. What I mean is, even if Jin Guangyao didn’t want to harm you, it doesn’t change the fact that he did, and that he broke his promise never to do so again more than once just while we were in that fucking temple. Even if he wanted to keep you safe, he put you in a cage to do it. Invisible cages made of lies and manipulation count, too. Maybe more than physical cages. At least physical cages let you see and understand why it hurts so much.”
“Aah,” is all Lan Xichen can manage. Jiang Wanyin really doesn’t pull his punches, does he?
Jiang Wanyin pretends that he can’t see Lan Xichen crying again, but when the tears slow down after a while, he says, “Will you join me for dinner tonight?”
Dinner is quiet and pleasant in Lan Xichen's guest quarters. They don't talk about anything deeper than literature and disciple training. Afterwards, Jiang Cheng sends his letter.
You better be there for Jin Ling’s coronation celebration.
Jiang Cheng wakes up from a sound sleep with a shudder and jerks upright, hand outstretched to catch Sandu flying off its rack. The guardian lion is pacing impatiently by the bed, and the darkness of his bedroom is lit up by a chaotic swarm of the little lights that he associates with the household gods.
“Fuck,” he snaps out as he flies out of bed and towards the door. “Take me there.”
He sprints after the guardian lion through the halls. He realizes they’re heading towards the Ancestral Hall the same moment that a sudden cry goes up from the disciples on the security night shift and the great bell in the main courtyard starts its deep, rolling ringing. As soon as he gets to open air, he leaps onto Sandu in a smooth movement, bypassing the winding paths of the wooden walkways entirely and shooting straight for the Hall like a star.
“Stop him!” he hears a disciple yell up ahead.
“Oh, what the fuck!”
Jiang Cheng throws himself off Sandu and onto the wooden pier mid-flight, rolls over his shoulder, catches Sandu in hand as he rolls up onto his feet, and brings the sword down against a man with a mask over the lower half of his face trying to dash outside of the Ancestral Hall’s doors. The masked man isn’t able to dodge completely and lets out a reflexive shriek as the sword manages to catch him on the arm, sending him staggering into one of the rotating doors, snapping wood and silk.
Zidian cracks mercilessly through the air and down onto the masked man, coiling tightly around his midsection and one arm. The man shrieks again, and his free hand slaps down on his own chest before Jiang Cheng can stop him. There’s a flare of red light and the masked man coughs up a mortal amount of blood before slumping in Zidian’s coils.
“Don’t you dare,” Jiang Cheng hisses. He yanks the body within reach and swiftly strikes several acupoints. The body jumps like lightning just ran through it, but the man’s eyes remain blank and staring, already dead.
Jiang Cheng wrenches open the man’s dark, nondescript clothes. A sulfurous smell seeps out. A talisman reeking of resentment lies against the body’s skin, its edges blackened like it’d been briefly lit on fire. “Mother fucker!”
“Sect Leader Jiang!”
He looks up to see a number of disciples gathered around with pale faces.
“Sect Leader Jiang, it’s Long-xiong!”
Jiang Yinglong. Jiang Cheng jumps to his feet and shoves his way into the Hall, where Jiang Yinglong is lying on his back on the floor and Feng Chang is kneeling over him, hands pressed to his shixiong’s abdomen to try staunching the blood that’s spurting out between his fingers.
“We’ve already called the healers,” someone says breathlessly, and Jiang Cheng nods while dropping to his knees on Jiang Yinglong’s other side. He presses a few acupoints, less harshly than he had with the intruder, and the blood slows a little.
“What happened?” he demands.
“Night shift found the intruder. It was just the one,” Feng Chang replies tightly. “Jiang Yinglong took a blade for Ying-shidi just as you got here and caught the intruder trying to escape.”
“Where’s the blade?”
“Right there. The intruder pulled it out but dropped it.”
At least it hadn’t been pulled out because one of his disciples hadn’t been paying attention to their field medicine training, Jiang Cheng thinks furiously.
“Keep your hands there,” he says, and grabs for the blade lying within arm’s reach. It’s a knife slim enough to fit inside a sleeve, the steel darkened with soot so that it wouldn’t reflect light as easily; an assassin’s knife, not unlike the one that habitually lives at the back of Jiang Cheng’s belt. The blood covering it makes it impossible to tell whether or not poison had been added to its edge.
“The healers are here!” someone announces. Jiang Cheng steps back so that Healer Liu can rush in, kneeling at Jiang Yinglong’s side and curtly explaining to Feng Chang how they’re going to switch off without letting too much more blood spill. Healer Shao is right behind her, waiting for Feng Chang to pull away and Healer Liu to immediately take position over the wound before he drops down beside her.
“Sect Leader Jiang.”
He hadn’t even noticed his Spiders appearing. “Jiang Xin, escort Feng Chang and the other disciples to the healing wing, then send Jiang Ya over here. Jiang Jia, I want you and Jiang Ya to look at the body. See if she can figure out why a demonic cultivator is fucking around in my Ancestral Hall. I want to know how and why.”
“Yes, Sect Leader Jiang,” they respond immediately.