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The Beginner's Guide To Moving On

Chapter Text

There’s something… off about Jin Ling this morning. Perhaps it’s the way he’s tilting his head, widening his eyes in an attempt to look younger and more innocent than he is. Jiang Cheng’s nephew is sixteen going on seventeen, and the boy’s every waking moment is spent trying to figure out how to become more of a man – or at the very least, act like it.

That he’s behaving in a way completely opposite is the first clue that something’s not quite right. Jin Ling only pulls out this expression when he wants something. And Jiang Cheng is pretty sure he’s not going to like it.

His worst fears are confirmed when Jin Ling opens his mouth.

“Uncle…,” he begins, dragging the last syllable in something that could have been a whine if Jiang Cheng hadn’t made damn sure years ago that the brat never whined in front of him. “Can we go to the Cloud Recesses?”

Jiang Cheng’s eyebrow goes up and he represses a sigh. He expected something like that.

“Please?” Jin Ling adds. His eyes go even wider, and he’s fucking pouting now, looking for all the world like a puppy begging for a bone. “It’s Sizhui’s birthday today, and I want to give him something. Jingyi said they don’t celebrate birthdays in Gusu, and that’s fucking outrageous.”

“Watch your mouth,” Jiang Cheng corrects automatically. He might cuss like a sailor, but no son of Jiang Yanli is going to use such foul language. Not if he can help it.

Jin Ling ignores him, and continues.

“He’s turning eighteen today, and that’s super special; apparently in Gusu when that happens you get your own jingshi and swap out your forehead ribbon for a different one. To show you’re a man or something. I don’t really get the big deal, but there you go.”

The words all come out in a rush. It’s too early for this and Jiang Cheng’s head is spinning trying to follow everything. Jin Ling has never been a morning person, much like his uncle. Said uncle notes with a sinking heart that he hasn’t seen the boy this excited since the day he received Fairy.

So that’s the way the wind is blowing. He should have seen this coming; after all, he’s been raising the kid ever since he was a toddler still in diapers. The sudden interest in the guqin, the constant litany of “Sizhui says…”, the blushing and stammering whenever the Gusu Lan sect is mentioned, followed by indignant shrieking and an abrupt topic change – Jin Ling’s favourite diversionary tactic.

Really, Jiang Cheng’s an idiot for not seeing this earlier, but then he’s a master of denial. He’s not that stupid: he’s seen the longing looks and the obvious excitement whenever they have to make a diplomatic visit to the Cloud Recesses, but he’s been steadfastly ignoring the niggling feeling in the back of his mind that tells him this could become a problem.

Oh, well. The damage is already done. He crosses his arms in a vaguely threatening pose Jin Ling has seen too many times to be intimidated by.

“And why must we go? Surely you don’t need me to come along on something so simple as a visit to another sect?”

Jin Ling fidgets. “But it’ll be awkward if I go alone,” he says petulantly.

The urge to roll his eyes is difficult to squash, but Jiang Cheng gives it a valiant attempt. He lets his hands fall to his sides again before he sighs.

“Very well.”

The answering squeal from Jin Ling almost makes him regret it. He really does spoil that boy.

 


 

The journey to Cloud Recesses is a short one, and silent. Despite his excited jabbering earlier, Jin Ling seems to have noticed his uncle’s foul mood, and wisely keeps his mouth shut. Jiang Cheng is thankful for the quiet. It gives him time to collect his thoughts before he goes back to that place. Before he sees him again.

The Yunmeng Jiang Sect Leader’s relationship with his adopted brother is… complicated, to say the least. Since the earth-shattering revelation that Jiang Cheng’s golden core is not, in fact, his own, the two of them have been attempting to reconcile. Things are better than they used to be, but thirteen years is a long time to hate someone and Jiang Cheng doesn’t know how to deal with its absence.

For a long time after the debacle at Luanzang-Gang, that hate was the only thing keeping him going. He’d lost his entire family, and been saddled with a baby nephew he had no idea what to do with, on top of his responsibilities as Sect Leader. Rebuilding Lotus Pier had been the work of years, and he’d had to fight back tears every time he saw the burnt-out husk of the home he’d grown up in. It had taken years, too, to stop seeing Ah-Jie in Jin Ling’s face, to stop thinking that’s her smile when his nephew laughed, to find a box big enough to hold all the heartache and lock it away where he couldn’t find it. Sometimes he’d find it a struggle to get up in the mornings, and nothing, not even Jin Ling’s crying or the mountain of responsibilities was enough to push him to face the world.

But then he’d think of Wei Wuxian. Of his adopted brother who had turned his back on Jiang Cheng’s family and destroyed everything he had ever loved, and he’d think I have to fix what he broke. Then the hate would come bubbling up again and Jiang Cheng would clutch it to himself, would cradle it like he cradled Jin Ling in the throes of his nightmares because that was the only thing that didn’t hurt. And then he went on.

Now, he’s floundering. Now, all he’s got is the bone-aching sadness that got dredged up from its cozy little box when Wei Wuxian came crashing back into his life. Surprise, motherfucker, because it’s been thirteen years and he’s only now discovering that time hasn’t dulled the pain at all.

Jiang Cheng shakes himself out of his thoughts. His life doesn’t have room for self-pity in it. He’s better than this; he has to be.

Ah-Niang’s voice rings in his ears. Get your head out of your ass, boy. You’re a Sect Leader now – act like it! He nearly smiles, but catches himself before a grin can slip out. He has an image to uphold, after all.

It’s not long before they arrive at the Cloud Recesses. The infamous cliff wall has more carvings than he remembers from his time here as a child. Yet more rules to follow – he’s heard the count is up to over four thousand now. Good thing he’s a visiting dignitary and doesn’t actually live here – the stuffiness would kill him. Jin Ling, too.

Idly, he wonders if he ought to send his nephew to study under Lan Qiren’s watchful eye for a few months. Gods know the boy needs the discipline, and he’d be glad of the opportunity to see Lan Sizhui every day.

The thought is pushed abruptly out of his mind when two figures appear at the entrance of the building itself. The shorter one, clad all in black, fairly bounces down the stairs and skids to a stop in front of Jiang Cheng, leaving his taller partner to walk towards them at a far more stately pace. Wei Wuxian looks different, of course, in the body of a disgraced former cultivation disciple, but his cheeky grin is the same. Blinding as ever.

It only gets wider when he sets eyes on Jin Ling.

“Nephew!”, he yells, and moves as if to go in for a hug. Jin Ling, startled, hides behind his other uncle, who resists the urge to hit something. By this time, Lan Wangji has reached them. His trademark blank expression doesn’t falter as he puts a hand on his husband’s shoulder.

“Wei Ying, shouting is prohibited in Cloud Recesses.”

“That’s right,” Jin Ling says sulkily. He doesn’t like being touched, which is something both he and Jiang Cheng have in common. “And don’t call me that.”

It looks like an argument is about to break out and as much as Jiang Cheng loves those, yelling at other people is less fun when you’re not the one doing it.

“Alright,” he snaps. “Just do what you came here to do, and go find Lan Sizhui.”

Luckily, Jin Ling listens and scrams without another word. Which means that Jiang Cheng is now alone with Wei Ying and his expressionless husband. Fucking wonderful.

This is what he’s been dreading the whole way here. The tension in the air is palpable, and it’s so awkward Jiang Cheng wants to run away and hide. He’d never show it, of course, so he cues up his frostiest tone and cocks an eyebrow.

“Good to see you again,” he says.

Wei Wuxian’s smile dims a bit at the cold greeting, and Lan Wangji puts his arm around him. It’s a protective gesture, even though his expression doesn’t change; the message is loud and clear. Hurt him, and I’ll tear out your entrails and feed them to you. Okay, maybe he’s embellishing a little. It’s more like just don’t. Hanguang-Jun is a man of few words, and it’s doubtful he’d waste them on Jiang Cheng.

The grin comes back in full force.

“What are you doing here?” Wei Wuxian asks, in an effort to diffuse the tension. Then he realises how that sounds, and backtracks hurriedly. “I mean, why’d you decide to visit? Is there some sort of inter-sect diplomatic meeting I haven’t been told about?”

“No, actually. Jin Ling told me it’s Lan Sizhui’s birthday today, and he wishes to deliver his congratulations in person.”

The words are stiff and formal, and Jiang Cheng aches for simpler times, when he and his brother-in-all-but-name were joined at the everything, and a look was all it took to have an entire conversation. But too much has happened since then, and it shows.

They devolve into polite, if stilted, conversation about the children, and how their respective sects are doing. The Gusu Lan sect leader, Lan Xichen, is still in seclusion after the whole Jin Guangyao mess, and Lan Qiren and Lan Wangji are running things in his absence.

Honestly, Jiang Cheng can’t blame the guy, though he is a little envious. There have definitely been times in the past thirteen years where he’d love to have done the same thing, but he hadn’t had the safety net to fall back on that Lan Xichen obviously has. The lack of a family and a toddler to raise was a definite disadvantage, but somehow he wouldn’t trade Jin Ling for the world. Irritating as he can be at times.

“…alright with you?” Wei Wuxian asks. With a start, Jiang Cheng suddenly realises he’d zoned out at some point during the conversation and lost the thread of discussion. He tunes back in with an effort.

“Excuse me?”

Wei Wuxian heaves a theatrical, put-upon sigh, like repeating a sentence for his dumb little brother is some great trial to be overcome.

“I said, Hanguang-Jun and I are going down to Caiyi village to pick up some stuff. Are you coming or not?”

“Depends. What are you buying?”

A waggle of the eyebrows, followed by a leer. “Stuff.”

“Mmm,” agrees Lan Wangji.

Well, Jiang Cheng knows what that means, and hell if he’s going to be there for it. Third-wheeling is uncomfortable as shit. He’ll just stay up here where it’s nice and quiet, and he can be single in peace. He says as much to the happy couple (but only the first part – he’ll never live it down if Wei Wuxian figures out he’s less than content with his bachelor status).

The Second Jade of Gusu gives another “hmm” before dragging his partner away, Wei Wuxian throwing out a quick goodbye before they disappear around a corner and out of sight. Jiang Cheng allows himself a quick smile before his customary scowl makes a reappearance. He’s managed an entire conversation without blowing up or someone getting hurt. That’s a win, in his book.

He turns towards the entrance to Cloud Recesses. There’s a quiet corner behind the disciples’ dormitories that he remembers from his student days with his name on it. Maybe a nap is in his future. It has been a while since he’s been able to relax.

Just then, the great doors burst open, and a small, white-clad figure darts out.

“LAN JINGYI!!!”

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng hasn’t heard Lan Qiren yell since his own student days at the Cloud Recesses, when Wei Wuxian was consistently sending him over the edge. And everyone knows how that turned out. That Lan Jingyi – an actual Lan, no less! – could achieve the same result as a teenaged Yiling Patriarch is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

The kid tears full-tilt towards Jiang Cheng and shoves something furry into his chest. He brings his hands up to catch it before it drops and the thing fucking squirms. Holy shit.

“I’m so sorry, Sect Leader Jiang. Please take it. Lan Qiren is mad at me and I need to hide.” Jiang Cheng looks down at the thing he’s holding. It’s a rabbit. What the hell is Lan Jingyi doing with a bunny?

The teen looks like he’s freaking the fuck out, and the panicked expression on his face almost makes Jiang Cheng laugh. Years of practice at controlling his facial expressions saves him, however, because as funny as this is, even he’s not cold-hearted enough to laugh at such obvious suffering.

“Hanguang-Jun asked me to look after his rabbits while he and Senior Wei went out and Sizhui was busy so I had to do it by myself. I was doing a good job, I swear. I had all of them in an enclosure but this one got out and I’ve been chasing it all over.”

Now that he’s mentioned it, Jiang Cheng notices that Lan Jingyi does look very red, flushed and panting like he’s run several hundred-yard dashes. Or in this case, chased a freedom-loving rabbit across Gusu’s massive campus. He continues to ramble, obviously not wanting to be mistaken for not having done his job.

“I tried, you know, I really did, but did you know bunnies are really fast?”, Lan Jingyi asks mournfully. “Then it got into Lan Qiren’s study and knocked over an entire bottle of ink and ruined some important documents and I’m in so much trouble. Please don’t sell me out, Sect Leader Jiang. He’ll kill me if he finds me!”

The last part comes out in a wail and the absurdity of the situation hits Jiang Cheng full-force. He can’t remember the last time a Lan asked him for something, much less to cover for one after drawing their master’s ire. The opportunity is too good to pass up – after all, he’s received too many punishments from Lan Qiren himself to not want to get one over on him. It’s petty, but hey, he’s still got a scar on his back from the old man’s punishment whip. He’s allowed to be petty.

The rabbit is wriggling now, trying to escape his hold. He shifts his grip to hold it tightly around the middle.

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell. Now scram, kid, before I change my mind.”

Lan Jingyi thanks him profusely, and dashes off in the opposite direction, presumably to try to become one with the trees. Jiang Cheng sighs. He’s probably going to regret this.

That much is confirmed when the doors open again and another figure in white steps out. His steps are full of the Gusu Lan sect’s characteristic grace and elegance, but the man’s face is red with fury and the end of his beard is quivering a bit. Lan Qiren looks exactly like he did over a decade ago, down to the creases in his forehead and the still-jet-black hair. He stalks down the stairs and approaches the other sect leader.

Jiang Cheng’s too old and too powerful now to be cowed by his wrath (that it’s not directed at him doesn’t hurt either), so he stays put, bringing his other arm up to conceal the rabbit behind the long sleeve of his robe. Its fur is soft and smooth against his skin, and the small animal squirms a little in protest. He smooths his features into placidity.

“Good morning, Master Lan,” he greets the other man.

Lan Qiren gives a slight bow in return. “Good morning, Sect Leader Jiang. Forgive my abruptness, but have you seen Lan Jingyi?”

“Oh?”

“The boy has managed to make a mess of several crucial letters, one of which was to have gone to Yunmeng. I apologise, but it seems that our correspondence is to be delayed for some days yet.”

With no small amount of puzzlement, Jiang Cheng wonders at the contents of that letter. He hasn’t sent anything to Gusu in recent weeks that would warrant a reply, and when he thinks of important events that might be coming up, his mind draws a blank. Oh, well. He’ll just have to wait.

“No, Master Lan. Unfortunately, I have not seen the boy,” he replies. He’s a better liar than he used to be, but Nie Huaisang has informed him repeatedly that he is far from a good one. Apparently, he has too many tells.

Lan Qiren scowls. “Hmph.”

Then he bids his goodbyes and walks away, in a direction about fifteen degrees off from where Lan Jingyi went. Once he’s far enough away, Jiang Cheng takes out the rabbit, which has thankfully ceased its wriggling.

Small, beady black eyes bore into his face. He strokes the long brown ears absently, feeling how they twitch under his fingers.

“What on earth am I going to do with you?”, he asks it. The bunny, of course, does not reply.

 


 

He ends up taking it to the little garden he’d originally planned on inhabiting. It’s a nice, quiet place, boxed in by walls and the back of the disciples’ sleeping quarters – all snow-white of course. Everything in Cloud Recesses is so fucking pristine. Anyway, there’s a fountain in the corner, and the ground is covered by a perfect green lawn that’s only broken up by a few fallen leaves from the apple tree at one wall.

Obviously a nap is now out of the question, with an over-energetic rabbit to look after. He fixes it with a baleful glare; its nose twitches in response. The damn thing’s already shown a penchant for getting into trouble, so he’ll have to keep an eye on it until either Lan Jingyi or Hanguang-Jun comes back to collect it.

The rabbit goes down on the grass, where it scampers back and forth. Jiang Cheng himself sits down on a bench carved out of white stone, placed near the fountain.

Few other people know about this place – at least the ones not native to Gusu. He’d discovered it by accident his second month here as a disciple, after Wei Wuxian had dared him to walk on the dormitory roof. There had been a rain a few hours prior, and the surface was slippery. Never all that graceful to begin with, he’d fallen off and landed in the small garden.

It had taken him close to half an hour to figure out how to get back to the dorms – the Cloud Recesses were a maze if you didn’t know exactly where you were going, which was what made it so difficult to attack.

After that, he came back here whenever he was upset, or needed to think about something. It was where he went after the fight with Jin Zixuan that had gotten Wei Wuxian sent back to Lotus Pier, when he’d had to stay behind for another two weeks to finish out the semester.

Jiang Cheng misses it in a way. Not the indignation and the loneliness – that has never really gone away – but the space, the room to think without disturbance. It’s rare that he gets any time to himself nowadays, what with parenting Jin Ling, night hunts and sect leader duties. He supposes it’s at least partly his fault – he wouldn’t be having half as much trouble if he wasn’t so involved with everything that goes on in Yunmeng. If he were more like Jin Guangshan, well…

The rabbit pokes at his robes, sniffing the folds as if looking for something to eat. He pets it absently, then stifles a yelp of surprise as it darts away and makes a mad dash towards the garden’s exit.

Damn it. When Lan Jingyi told him that rabbits move fast, he wasn’t really counting on finding out for himself. He pulls himself to his feet and gives chase, cursing the kid as he runs. It’s his fault I’m in this mess in the first place. He knows he’s under no obligation to look after the damn thing, that if it goes missing it’ll be Lan Jingyi’s ass in the fire, but if that’s Hanguang-Jun’s rabbit, he’s not taking any chances.

He’s not ashamed to admit he’s a little afraid of the other man. Over the years, Lan Wangji has built himself a reputation of being where the chaos is, of finding the biggest, baddest, nastiest situation and throwing himself headfirst into it. And he always, always comes out on top. Now that the truth has come out about his relationship with the one-time Yiling Patriarch, Jiang Cheng is moderately sure that part of this lack of caring was born from a semi-death wish after Wei Wuxian kicked the bucket.

Considering that it was Jiang Cheng who killed him, he really doesn’t want to give the Second Jade of Gusu any more reason to hate him. It’s not like he likes having to back down every time he has a confrontation with the other man, but there are people who still need him around, so he’s not planning on dying just yet.

There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the rabbit’s running route; it leads him through twists and turns in the corridors so convoluted that Jiang Cheng is pretty sure he’s lost. This is not how he planned on spending his day. He makes a grab for the furry monster every twenty steps or so, but it seems intent on evading capture, darting just out of reach.

He keeps at it, though. Damn thing’s got to run out of steam eventually, and he’s pretty confident in his own stamina.

The corridors are long and twisty, and the only sounds are his harsh breaths and the soft ‘scritch’ of the rabbit’s tiny claws on the stone floor. Thank the gods that there’s no one around to witness this humiliation. Then stone changes to slatted wood, the halls get longer, and suddenly a small cottage appears out of fucking nowhere. The bunny stops dead.

They’re in a part of Cloud Recesses that Jiang Cheng’s never seen before. Here, the narrow white corridors open up onto a large garden – much larger than the one they were in before. There are flowers everywhere, from daisies to daffodils, roses and peonies and carnations in rows upon rows of brightly-coloured blooms.

It should be a riot of colours, but everything is neatly ordered, and there’s a colour scheme for maximum impact. It’s so very… Lan.

Jiang Cheng takes advantage of the rabbit’s momentary stillness to lunge forward and grab it firmly with both hands. It wriggles like an eel, but he holds determinedly on to the squirmy ball of fluff. He’s not letting it go again; not after last time.

“Fucking stay still, you stupid rabbit!”, he yells in frustration.

He suddenly sounds very loud in the previously-quiet garden. Yes, Jiang Cheng knows he is screaming at a rabbit, which is not the smartest thing he’s ever done, and yes, he is very much aware of what he sounds like. But he’s never claimed to be good at controlling his temper and what he loathes more than anything else in the world is something that will not listen to him.

“Who’s there?”

A voice rings out, and Jiang Cheng freezes. Fuck, some part of his brain thinks. He may be a visiting sect leader, but this is Lan home turf, and as such, he is bound by their rules as long as he is here.

Stupid as they may be, he’s probably broken at least ten with this little stunt: yelling and swearing and running and probably breaking into whatever part of Cloud Recesses this place is. Since he’s never seen it before, he’ll hazard a guess that it’s prohibited and oh shit he’s screwed.

The owner of the voice rounds the back of the cottage and comes into view. Tall, slim, dressed all in white… Jiang Cheng’s inner panic intensifies. This is worse than he thought. Much, much worse.

The cottage obviously belongs to Lan Xichen, Gusu Lan sect leader, sworn brother of Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao, who, in mourning for his fallen brothers, has locked himself into seclusion. Seclusion that Jiang Cheng has just broken.

Chapter Text

Okay, stay calm. You’ve been in worse situations before. Jiang Cheng thinks about what he knows of the other man. Zewu-Jun has a reputation of being gentle and kind, slow to anger and forgiving when he finally does. All good things, but he remembers Wei Wuxian telling him that Lan Xichen had once gotten pissed at him. His adopted brother’s exact words had been: “it was one of the scariest things that’s ever happened to me”.

The man’s been living as a hermit for nearly a year now. Who knows what that’s done to his temper.

Nevertheless, Jiang Cheng’s not a coward. He didn’t rebuild his sect from the ground up to become one of the most powerful in the world by shying away from confrontation.

He lets his expression smooth into one of polite disaffection and gives a shallow bow. They are equals here.

“Zewu-Jun. Good morning. I apologise for intruding on your private quarters.”

The other man inclines his head, and Jiang Cheng gets his first good look at him. Lan Xichen, though he appears so similar to his younger brother Lan Wangji that many have difficulty distinguishing between the two, has held first place on the list of cultivators published every year for over a decade. His appearance has not declined at all, even after a year of being locked away from the rest of the world.

He is still clad in the characteristic white-and-light-blue uniform of the Gusu Lan sect, but his flowing black hair is tied back only in a loose ponytail. The signature forehead ribbon rests above his eyebrows, though the knot that holds it in place is much less elaborate than the one his brother uses.

Clearly, he is not dressed to receive visitors, but if he is surprised to see Jiang Cheng, he hides it well. The smile on his face is genial as ever, though it does not seem to reach his eyes. In fact, there is an air of melancholy about him that was not there a year ago, and it hits Jiang Cheng for the first time that this could very well be the reason Lan Xichen no longer associates with society.

“Sect Leader Jiang,” the other man replies. “An unexpected pleasure to find you here.”

Jiang Cheng searches Lan Xichen’s expression for hints of sarcasm and finds none. Odd, but then he has cultivated a reputation for being genuinely kind. He and Hanguang-Jun may look similar, but the older of the two is near-infinitely more personable.

He pulls himself out of his thoughts just then, realising that he’d better give an explanation for being in this very obviously prohibited place without permission. It would be the height of rudeness not to do so, and while he is not known for being the epitome of manners, to behave in such a way would reflect badly upon his sect.

Holding up the rabbit, he forces an apologetic smile. “It’s rather a long story, I’m afraid, but suffice to say I accidentally came into temporary guardianship of one of Hanguang-Jun’s rabbits. It… well, it rather got away from me.”

To his surprise, Lan Xichen actually laughs. It’s a nice sound, deep and melodic, and it eases the sadness that clings to him like a cloud.

Jiang Cheng feels the tips of his ears flush a little red with embarrassment. He does suppose it is amusing, to some degree, though humiliating. Sect leaders are supposed to be dignified, and the thought of one chasing a rabbit all over a school campus is decidedly not.

“As I am, the thing I have most of is time. Perhaps you can tell me more of this story. It promises to be an interesting one.”

 

 

Lan Huan studies the man in front of him carefully. Jiang Wanyin is tall – nearly as tall as he is. Handsome too, with well-defined features and a sharp jawline, but his famous scowl usually detracts from that. Not today, however.

Today, he simply looks tired. There are faint dark circles under his eyes from lack of sleep. He is at least five years Lan Huan’s junior, but he stands as if bearing the burdens of someone much older, though his posture is impeccable as ever.

He remembers meeting the other man at sect leader gatherings, with the others like Nie Huaisang in attendance. (He avoids thinking about Jin Guangyao. That wound is still too fresh, too painful to poke at.) The Yunmeng Jiang sect leader does not stand out in his memory, though he was always easily the youngest person there; they have never had overmuch contact, rarely speaking to each other outside of the formal contexts in which discussion was necessary.

Briefly, he wonders why that is, before the other man starts speaking. He was not wrong – it is a funny story. Lan Jingyi is easily the most excitable of the current disciples, though full of character and courage. He’s heard tell that the boy is afraid of the corpses they hunt, but participates eagerly in night-hunts in order to overcome his fear.

“And that,” Jiang Wanyin finishes, “is how I ended up here.”

There is a slight smile on his face as he strokes the rabbit’s furry ears. It is strange to see the infamous Sandu-Shengshou without his scowl, but this new expression suits him. He thinks the other man looks rather like his mother; though he’d only met the Violet Spider a few times before her untimely death, the woman left a strong impression. They have the same nose, and the same soft mouth that hides the same sharp tongue.

Lan Huan extends his hand and after a slight hesitation, Jiang Wanyin passes the rabbit over. Its white-spotted brown fur is soft and silky – his little brother’s pets are obviously well-cared for. He doesn’t recall seeing this one before, but Wangji’s visits are infrequent (as dictated by the rules of their sect) and he rarely brings his pets along, preferring to spend time with his brother alone.

Animals are alright, he supposes, but he likes people better. Or he used to, anyway. Now, he thinks Wangji might be on to something. Animals are simple, uncomplicated; if you treat them well, they’ll do the same to you. People, even the ones you think you love, are liable to stab you in the back if they think it will bring them some benefit.

When did I get so cynical?

He banishes the thoughts before they can settle in his bones and grow bitter. It’s growing harder to stave off those feelings; isolated here as he is, there is little to occupy his time, and often all he can do is think.

“It’s beautiful up here.” The other man is attempting small talk. It’s awkward, and Lan Huan gets the feeling that Jiang Wanyin doesn’t do this very often. “Especially the flowers.”

“Yes, they are, aren’t they? They were my father’s, actually.”

Qingheng-Jun had been the first of Lan Huan’s family to go into seclusion. He’d spent more than half his life locked away in this very cottage by his own design, doing penance for sins no one understood why he’d committed. His father had wasted so much time punishing himself for his decisions, but Lan Huan had always thought that his people were the ones who were truly suffering under the weight of that punishment.

The man had left his younger brother to run the sect, and his two young sons to raise themselves. Now the older of those two sons was following in his father’s footsteps.

Jiang Wanyin looks up. Storm-grey eyes meet his, and he thinks the other man might understand some of what he feels.

Before the beginning of the Sunshot Campaign – even before Lotus Pier burned to the ground, there had been whispers about the then-Yunmeng sect leader. Jiang Fengmian had disliked his only son, it was said, going out of his way to avoid interaction with the young disciple, instead favouring his adopted older son, Wei Wuxian.

Lan Huan had been only a teenager himself then, but he remembers the rumours.

He sets the rabbit down, and it dashes into the flower bushes. Rabbits eat leaves, he remembers too late. Oh, well. Worst-case scenario, it will give him something to do.

He decides to continue talking. It’s been a while since his last visitor; to be honest, he’s glad of the company. Sect Leader Jiang will be leaving soon anyway, so he might as well make the most of the time he’s got.

“You know, when my father first came up here, he decided to plant every clan flower in this garden, so that all the sects would be represented.”

The other man’s eyebrow goes up.

“I don’t see any lotuses,” he says curtly.

Of course not. The Jiang sect’s signature flowers require copious amonts of water to grow. The ones here are all planted in earth.

“There’s a pond behind the cottage – you’ll find some there. I can take you to have a look, if you’d like.”

That gets a sharp nod. Jiang Wanyin seems ill at ease. No wonder – they’ve never been close, as Lan Huan has thought before. He suddenly remembers that the other man used to live here, was sent, as a teenager, to the Cloud Recesses to train like so many of his peers.

There is a quick flash of a memory, of a day hunting water ghouls in Caiyi village. Wangji excited for the first time about a boy he liked, a basket of sweet persimmons, and a fierce, serious boy dressed in purple, hovering in the background behind his much-more-obvious older brother.

It’s surprising that he hasn’t thought of this before, but back then, Jiang Wanyin only existed in conjunction with Wei Wuxian. Lan Huan had mostly paid attention to the latter, because his little brother seemed to have taken a shine to the boy. Why does that make him feel… guilty?

They round the back of the small building, coming in full view of a circular pond. Lan Huan turns to look at his companion, who remains silent as ever, though there is a light of appreciation in his eyes.

This extension of the garden is beautiful, much like the rest of the Cloud Recesses. Its allure is different, though, slightly wilder. Less tame. Ponds are much harder to maintain than dirt gardens, and it shows. Where the other flower bushes have been manicured to within an inch of their lives, the lotuses and water lilies that grow on the surface of the clear water have been allowed to sprout in clumps.

It is uncontrolled, it is disorganised, and it is Lan Huan’s favourite part of the grounds he lives on these days.

From the look on Jiang Wanyin’s face, he feels much the same way.

“Personally, I like this area the best,” the Gusu Lan sect leader says, sitting down on a conveniently-placed stone bench at the edge of the pond. A duck quacks from somewhere near a particularly thick patch of duckweed.

The other man joins him on the short bench. There is little space for two grown men, especially with Lan Huan’s broad shoulders from hours of handstands as a disciple that he keeps up with even now, but he finds he doesn’t particularly mind. Despite Sandu-Shengshou’s reputation for coldness and spite, he’s been nothing but pleasant company thus far.

The man in question pulls something out of the pocket of his robes. It’s white and round: a rice cracker.

Lan Huan is puzzled. Why would anyone carry that around with them, especially for a visit to another sect? He must not be as good at concealing his surprise as he’d thought, because Jiang Wanyin pulls a face.

“Don’t ask.”

Long fingers deftly break the thin cracker up into small, even pieces. He offers Lan Huan half of them and tosses the rest into the pond. Loud quacking suddenly fills the air as two more ducks appear and all three lunge for the food at once, bickering among themselves.

He understands now. Mimicking the other man, he throws in the rest of the cracker. The two of them watch as the ducks gobble up their meal. Then, finding no more, they return to their business.

The sun is warm overhead, just past its zenith and settling into early afternoon. Neither man says anything, content to simply enjoy the quiet atmosphere. Lan Huan leans back against the bench, enjoying the light, and the presence of someone else by his side, however fleeting.

There is a smile on his face, but it seems less false than usual.

Chapter Text

It’s another few hours before the sun begins to dip slowly towards the horizon, painting the sky in shades of orange and purple only slightly lighter than the Yunmeng Jiang sect’s robes.

They spend the time talking, Jiang Wanyin filling Lan Huan in on the goings-on of the world outside the cottage. Lan Huan shares his younger brother’s stories of life in the Cloud Recesses: the recent intake of new disciples, Lan Jingyi’s attempts to master the guqin (that have thus far met only with failure), Wei Wuxian’s latest shenanigans…

The other man goes very quiet at the last one. He listens with laser-like focus, but there is an odd expression on his face that Lan Huan can’t decipher. It is as if he is thirsty for information about his estranged brother, but unable to admit to himself that he misses him. Jiang Wanyin is warring with himself, and it is a fight he cannot help but lose.

The conversation is interspersed with long silences, too, when they come to the end of one topic and have not yet begun the next. The quiet is not uncomfortable; there is no awkward rambling to fill the gaps, and it is strangely peaceful for the lack of tension.

Lan Huan, for all his apparent optimistic attitude, is one who enjoys calm. This sort of interaction suits him. These days, he cannot sustain a conversation for long.

It’s too draining: the constant questions about his mental state, how he’s feeling (that is a can of worms he’s not going to open) that he can barely bring himself to brush off with a gentle smile and subtle topic change. He’s fine, thank you very much, because the leader of the Gusu Lan sect lets challenges and heartbreak roll off his back like water and forges ahead regardless. It’s how he’s dealt with his mother’s death, his father’s murder, and every crisis since.

It’s also a complete lie, and he can’t keep it up these days. Pretending is just too exhausting. He’d rather not be seen at all than have the others get a glimpse of him this way, broken and tired. Part of his mind whispers that he is a coward, but he ignores it. He’s good at ignoring things, now.

It didn’t used to be that way. People used to say he was perceptive, and it was true. He was the only person to be able to read his brother, to look past Wangji’s blank exterior and see the intense emotions he hid inside. But maybe he’s always been blind. How else could he have failed to see what Jin Guangyao had become? Or perhaps that part of his sworn brother was already there, had always been there, and he hadn’t realised…

No, we’re not going there.

He focuses on the here and now – the sound of Jiang Wanyin’s deep voice, the smooth glimmer of sunlight reflected on the water, the faint scent of lotus flowers and lilies.

When the sky begins to grow dark, the other man stands up.

“It is getting late,” he states obviously. His pale fingers twist absently at the silver ring around his right forefinger. It seems to be a habit. “I need to collect my nephew.”

Lan Huan gets to his feet as well.

“Of course,” he says. “If you wish to return to Lotus Pier before nightfall, you must leave soon.”

Together, they return to the garden at the front of the cottage. Both of them had forgotten about the rabbit, and they share a look tinged with panic. Lan Huan does not want to be responsible for losing his brother’s pet the first time he’s met it. From the looks of it, neither does Jiang Wanyin.

By a mutual, silent agreement, they both sink to their knees, and begin searching the bushes for a hint of brown fur. At least the other man’s robes are dark, he thinks ruefully. It’s going to be a nightmare to wash dirt stains out of his white uniform. Good thing there’s no one around to scold him for dirtying his clothes.

A smile comes to his face, along with an image of a red-faced Lan Qiren, his beard and mustache trembling. With his father out of the picture, it had fallen to his uncle to discipline him and his brother. Always a quiet, obedient child, Wangji was scarcely any trouble at all. He, however, had been a different story.

They poke around their respective flower bushes for a few minutes, before Lan Huan’s frantic searching is interrupted by a cry of “found it!”. Jiang Wanyin stands, a struggling ball of fluff in one hand, the other brushing off the knees of his robes.

“Damn rabbit,” he mutters. There are tiny flecks of dirt on his face, which Lan Huan finds ridiculously endearing, despite his gruff manner. The rabbit paws at his hand, trying to get free, and he strokes its neck until it calms down. Like this, Sandu-Shengshou looks little like the legendary fierce sect leader he is, and rather more like one of the older disciples on a day off.

He notices Lan Huan staring at his face and wipes at it with a corner of his sleeve.

“I suppose I’d better go back then.”

Lan Huan imitates his little brother. “Hmm,” he says.

 


 

They say goodbye in the garden, since Lan Xichen can’t leave the tiny grounds the cottage sits on. Both of them keep to the manners that have been ingrained in them since childhood; it is everything a diplomatic parting between two sect leaders should be.

Jiang Cheng supposes Lan Xichen truly is as much of a saint as he’s rumoured to be – Zewu-Jun has managed to put up with him for an entire afternoon and remain as calm as ever. As much as he’s unwilling to admit it, that is quite a feat.

As he’s walking back through the winding corridors, following the directions the other man has given him, he remembers the soft feeling that took root in his belly during their time at the pond. It feels… it feels rather like the warm glow of friendship he used to share with Wei Wuxian, once upon a time, when things were simpler.

He’s forgotten that feeling in the long years since. The leader of the Yunmeng Jiang sect doesn’t have time to have friends. He fulfills his duties, cares for Jin Ling, goes on night hunts to maintain his skills, and that’s it. There are only so many hours in a day, after all.

Now that he thinks about it, his life seems rather empty.

For over thirteen years, Jin Ling has been the only bright spot in his life. As much stress as raising a child that is not his pretty much single-handedly has given him, it’s also brought him untold amounts of joy. He was there for the kid’s first words, first steps, first night hunt, first everything. He knows how much of a privilege that is, especially since the price of it was his big sister’s life. (That price was too high to pay for anything at all.)

But his nephew’s growing up now. He’s sixteen and already a sect leader, and Jiang Cheng’s heart fucking aches for him, because he knows how hard it is to bear such a heavy burden so young.

The boy is brave and immature and mischievous, but most of all, he’s so, so bright, and Jiang Cheng loves him for it. Being sect leader takes all that brightness and hardens it, turns it from a bonfire into a focused laser, into a weapon you have to learn too fast how to wield. Being a sect leader means power, but that’s dangerous, because there are always people who want to take it from you. Who are willing to use any means necessary to do it.

Jiang Cheng knows all about those kinds of people. He’s killed his fair share.

That’s not what he wants for the child he’s raised. That’s not what Jiang Yanli would have wanted her son to grow up to be. Hell, it’s one of the reasons he decided to take Jin Ling in the first place. The only other option for guardian was Jin Guangyao and fuck no he was not going to let that scumbag get his paws on his nephew. That sad excuse for a human being would have turned the kid into an exact carbon copy of his twisted self: power-hungry and ruthless.

As he is, Jin Ling may be a bit of a spoiled brat (Jiang Cheng takes full responsibility for his failings as a pseudo-parent), but he could have been infinitely worse. He has a good heart and a desire to protect people, and Jiang Cheng will do anything to keep it that way.

Not that he’d ever tell the boy that, of course. Another one of his failings.

Sometimes he wishes he could, was able to say “I love you” without his throat freezing up on the first word, could pull Jin Ling into a hug the way he wished his father had done with him without his arms locking into place by his sides.

But he can’t. He doesn’t know why, and he wishes he did because Jin Ling is so much like he was at that age, all sharp edges and sullen looks hiding an insecure little boy that screamed look at me please. Please be proud of me.

So he tells him the only way he knows how: he hovers behind him, a shadow-like presence that will always keep him safe even if the boy doesn’t know it. Barks out orders and threats to break his legs because that’s how he says “you’re important to me”.

The rabbit is a warm presence against his arm, tucked securely in the crook of his elbow, reminding him that there are other things in the world besides his existential misery. True to form, it makes another bid for freedom once they reach the entrance of the maze they’d entered that morning. This time, however, it fails.

Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji come into view in minutes, making their way up from Caiyi Village. That was a long shopping trip if he’s ever seen one. Doesn’t seem very successful either – neither one of them is carrying any bags – but then Jiang Cheng knows better than to think that means anything. He was the unfortunate victim of one of Wei Wuxian’s many pranks too often in his childhood to ever assume that his adopted brother is empty-handed.

“Hey! Jiang Cheng!”

An excited voice shouts his name loudly. Speak of the devil. There’s a smile on the other man’s face as he ascends the last few metres of he slope, an arm looped through his husband’s.

Jiang Cheng sighs a little inside. It’s times like this he feels his bachelorhood acutely. They’re so fucking perfect together. Wei Wuxian with his effervescence and sunny personality, Lan Wangji with his stoicism and his touch-my-partner-and-I’ll-fuck-you-up attitude. Damn.

It’s enough to put the scowl back on his face, dragging it out from wherever it’s been hibernating for these past few hours. Lan Xichen’s presence may be calming, but Lan Wangji certainly is not.

Somebody shoves something into his free hand. It’s round and waxy, and when he looks up, Wei Wuxian is grinning and biting into a persimmon. There is juice running down his chin, all over his hands. Lan Wangji wordlessly removes a handkerchief and passes it to him.

“C’mon,” he says, around a mouthful of fruit. “Eat it.”

He waggles his eyebrows. “You know you want to.”

Instead, Jiang Cheng slips the persimmon into a pocket in his robes. He wonders if Wei Wuxian remembers that persimmons are his favourite. Then he holds the rabbit out to Lan Wangji, who shows no sign of surprise that another sect leader has wound up with one of his pets.

“Tell Lan Jingyi to be more careful when babysitting.”

He nearly laughs when Wei Wuxian almost chokes. And it’s not breaking his promise not to rat out the young disciple – all he promised to do was keep Lan Qiren from finding out where he was hiding. Anyway, it’s Hanguang-Jun’s rabbit.

Footsteps sound from somewhere nearby, and Jin Ling appears out of nowhere, dragging a reluctant Lan Sizhui behind him. His nephew’s face is flushed and the other disciple’s forehead ribbon is askew – what is up with those things? – so Jiang Cheng takes it to mean that congratulations are in order for later.

Another man would probably be concerned that he’s raised a boy who very obviously likes other boys, but honestly, Jiang Cheng couldn’t care less at this point. He’s already got one cut-sleeve in the family; what’s another? If the kid’s never going to have any heirs, well, that’s the Lanling Jin sect’s problem. As long as Jin Ling is happy.

He supposes he’ll have to give his nephew The Talk later. And another, different, talk might be in order for the Lan boy some other time. Possibly with Zidian out. Once he’s confirmed that this is the boy Jin Ling wants, of course – he only wants to have to do this once.

Jin Ling fixes the other disciple’s forehead ribbon so it’s no longer crooked, and Lan Sizhui goes even redder than before. Then they let go of each other’s hands (they’ve been holding hands this entire time holy shit it’s serious) and Jiang Cheng watches as they say their goodbyes. His nephew scuffs his boot against the floor while Lan Sizhui smiles gently, and he can’t help but be reminded of a man in the same white-and-blue uniform with a similar smile on his face.

It was sadder, though, than the one Jin Ling is staring at like it holds the whole world. He’s glad the children have the chance to find happiness for themselves. Hopefully they won’t make the same mistakes as their elders, or have to face the same hardships.

Finally, he and and his nephew turn to leave. They must make an odd pair, he thinks as the Cloud Recesses slowly disappear from view: a tall man dressed all in purple, and a young boy in gold.

Jiang Cheng has his regrets, he knows, and one of them is Jin Ling. But if he had to choose his greatest achievement, that would be Jin Ling too.

Chapter Text

It is only when the sky is dark and Jiang Cheng is safely in his bed that the nightmares come. These days, they are his constant companions, but somehow they are worse whenever he leaves Lotus Pier, as though the comfort of home wards off some of it.

In his dreams, he is always younger.

Not for him the grisly visions of future possibilities that seem to plague others in the night and leave them shaking when they wake; his past is horrifying enough. His dreams are made all the worse for the fact that they have, in fact, happened, and are not just imaginary horrors that disappear with the morning light.

Tonight, he dreams of the night Lotus Pier burned to the ground, the night he lost his parents.

He is seventeen and shivering with cold and the aftershocks of the lightning from his mother’s whip. No, it’s his now – she pressed it into his hand and told him to run before she turned to face the fierce men with the sun on their robes and death in their eyes. He and his brother are crouched in the shadows behind a charred wall in the burnt-out husk of what used to be his home.

There are bodies piled as far as the eye can see and even higher, covered in their own blood and entrails, all dressed in the purple robes that are so familiar to him. The same robes that he wears, even now. He recognises some of their faces: Ming Ru, who loved tangyuan, little Wang Song from the village, who raced with the bigger boys even though he came dead last every time…

They were people, once. People he’s seen every day since he was a child – children who played with him, servants who advised his father, instructors who helped his mother train the disciples in the courtyard.

He watches the Wen dogs as they drag the bodies across that same courtyard, looks on as they toss torches on the piles of dead flesh and rags that go up in smoke. There is nothing that they have not destroyed. He wants to scream for them to stop, but his brother’s hand is over his mouth, and he finds he can’t make a sound.

Then Wen Zhuliu, the worst of them all – he knows what he’s doing is wrong, that traitor, why doesn’t he stop – kicks another corpse, and it turns over so Jiang Cheng can see its face.

It’s his mother, and he suddenly notices his father’s dead body, kneeling on the floor in a pose he recognises as the one they use to pray to the ancestors during funerals. His hands are outstretched towards his wife, but there is no sign of love in either of their faces because all that is there is the slackness of death.

Jiang Cheng has wished all his life that his parents would stop fighting, but now, he would give anything in the world for them to scream at each other again. For his mother’s eyes to blaze with fury, for his father to storm out of the room.

That bastard Wen Chao kneels down and spits on his father’s corpse, and Jiang Cheng isn’t even afraid anymore. He should be. He’s surrounded by enemies stronger than he is with only his brother as backup, his home is in ruins, half of his family is gone and he should be shaking from fear as well as cold but all he feels is anger.

There is fire in his veins but it feels like ice and burns the same way. All he can see is the bodies of his family, his friends, his loved ones, and the people who murdered them looming over them like they’re fucking proud of what they’ve done.

How dare they? How dare they take what was never theirs? How dare these monsters come into his sect and destroy his place and slaughter his people?

He vows vengeance.

If they do not fear the sun, he will teach them to fear the lightning. He will massacre them as those dogs have massacred his people. He will burn their homes as they have burned his. For every drop of blood they have shed, they will pay. For every life they have taken, they will pay.

Nothing can keep him from this.

He wakes drenched in sweat, the covers tangled around his ankles, a hand over his own mouth. His breaths thunder loud in the silence of the room.

Outside his window, Lotus Pier sits hale and whole as it has been these past thirteen years. It looks just like it used to before, because he insisted they recreate it exactly during the rebuilding process. The only fires are the tiny flames dancing in the lanterns along the river, but he can taste ashes on his tongue, can smell the scent of burning flesh like so much cooked pork. It takes everything he has not to throw up.

The freezing fire is still in his veins, pumping through him with every beat of his heart. Familiar, like an old friend, or a cherished companion. People are fickle, but the anger has never abandoned him, and it never will.

He pushes down the sadness that always comes with the memories, grasps hold of the fury instead. Then he throws on his outer robes over the thin white inner ones he wears to sleep, knots the tie at the front securely to keep them from opening, and picks up Sandu from where the sword lies on his bedside table, within easy reach if he ever needs it during the night.

The door swings shut soundlessly behind him. The hinges are kept oiled specifically for this reason. Jiang Cheng never sleeps past four in the morning – his nightmares don’t let him – but everyone else needs their rest, especially if he wants a fully functioning sect during the day.

The air is cool as he makes his way down to the practice yards. It’s the tail end of January, the beginning of spring, so while the weather is nowhere near warm, it’s getting there. (Too fucking slowly, in his opinion.)

No one else is ever up at this hour, so the only sounds are his footsteps on the flagstones as he reaches the corner where the practice dummies are set up. Nothing fancy, just straw-stuffed potato sacks with wooden arms and legs, as well as a thick pole in the centre to keep its torso and head in place. Mostly the older disciples use them for sword exercises, to hone their skills at striking a target; it shows in the numerous patched-over holes in the cloth where straw bits poke through.

He chooses a clear patch of floor in the centre of a circle of dummies, and begins to warm up. First, he starts with the simple drills, combinations of three or more basic moves that every disciple is required to master in their first year of training. His body moves through the familiar forms, the moonlight glinting off the surface of Sandu’s blade.

Without a fire or even a blazing torch, there is little light to see by, but Jiang Cheng’s night vision is better than most, and he became accustomed to fighting in the dark during the Sunshot Campaign, where he participated in his share of night skirmishes.

He finishes this set and moves on to the next, slightly more complicated one. The motions come easily, more so than when he first memorized them as a teenager, and he finishes quickly, going onto the next set, and the next.

The fire inside him blazes higher as he thrusts and parries, darts forward and backwards and side-to-side in a dizzying flurry of moves that seems like a dance. The world narrows to his body and the sword in his hand, striking out at an imaginary opponent as his pulse pounds in his ears and his muscles burn with the sweet exertion of the fight. Another few sets and Zidian joins the fray, arcing through the air as it sends out tendrils of deadly violet lightning.

Jiang Cheng loves this, the battle-thrill singing in his veins. Each move turns that rage inside him into a weapon deadlier than Sandu, and for a moment as he’s fighting, it feels like something close to joy.

He knows the names that get whispered behind his back. How could he not? Torturer. Murderer. Madman.

His reputation was established during the Sunshot Campaign, where he left fields full of corpses in his wake; some gutted and bleeding out as they struggled vainly to keep their intestines inside themselves, others screaming as they clutched at the charred stumps of limbs he’d seared off with his whip, and still more who’d seen their comrades slaughtered in front of them and had run themselves through with their own fucking blades rather than face him.

People called him insane because of his bloodlust and the crazed grin on his face as he cut down swathes of soldiers on the opposite side. He thinks he might be mad, too, because he knows what he’s done is wrong. But it’s the only thing that makes the pain feel good.

 


 

Miles away, Lan Huan can’t sleep either.

Members of the Gusu Lan sect are famous for their strict sleeping schedules and impeccable biological clocks: they go to bed at exactly nine o’ clock, and wake up at precisely five the next morning.

If one were to lock a Lan in a windowless room for a long period of time, said Lan would still be able to know exactly how many days had passed since the beginning of their imprisonment by their cycles of sleeping and waking. Many count this among the strange and impressive abilities possessed by members of their clan, such as marathon handstands, stellar poker faces, and committing murder with guqin strings as their only weapons.

It is one of the constants of the universe. The sun rises in the east; a Lan sleeps eight hours.

Lately, though, Lan Huan has been having trouble sticking to this habit ingrained in him since childhood. He lies awake in his bed for hours, unable to drift off. When he does, he sleeps fitfully, until the dreams that disturb his slumber claw him back into wakefulness.

It is just after one such cycle that Lan Huan finds himself at three in the morning, staring out the window at the waning moon. Barely a sliver of it is still visible; in another few nights it will disappear completely.

His nightmares aren’t always the same. Most often, he dreams about his sworn brothers – the crazed look on Nie Mingjue’s face as he flew into his killing rage and was then summarily put down like a dog that had bitten one person too many, the shock and betrayal (but also a kind of resignation) in Jin Guangyao’s eyes when Lan Huan ran him through with his sword.

Those nights are the worst, because they bring up every painful feeling he squashes down during the day, as if his subconscious is taking revenge for the constant suppression by lashing out at night when his guard is down.

Other times, he dreams of things he’d thought were far behind him. His father’s death, his own desperate flight from the Cloud Recesses, carrying the books that were the true treasures of their sect. Sometimes his childhood makes a reappearance: leading Wangji by the hand as they twisted through the corridors that now separate him from the outside world, in search of the parents they rarely got to see.

If this is what he sees when he closes his eyes, he would rather keep them open.

He forces himself to think about other things, before he gets drawn past the event horizon into that black hole from which there is no escape. If he begins to recall, if he begins to remember, he’ll never stop – he’ll live forever in the past he could not change. And then what use will he be to anybody?

What use are you to anyone right now, part of him asks sarcastically. The question cuts deep, and he shoves it back inside the little room in his head that he reserves for the things he can’t think about. Closes the door and locks it, and realises that the room isn’t so little anymore.

The air inside his bedroom is suddenly stifling, but he doesn’t get out of bed. Instead, he shuts his eyes tight and turns over on his side. Because he is a Lan, and Lans get up at five in the morning, and this is just about the last bit of his identity left that he can be sure of.

Chapter Text

By the time the sun comes up over Lotus Pier, Jiang Cheng is done taking out his frustrations on the straw-filled practice dummies and is ready to start the day. He’s bathed, changed and made himself presentable, and is now in his office, tackling a worryingly tall stack of papers perched precariously on the edge of his desk.

Sandu is within easy reach, of course, though it’s not likely to see any use. Gods, had being sect leader involved this much paperwork when his father was running things? He does have to admit this is partially his own fault for being out all day yesterday; he’d gotten very little done, and now he’s paying the price.

Breakfast is a rushed affair, brought in by a servant who scurries out of the room again once the tray touches the table. It puts him in an even worse mood, and he glares harder at the papers in front of him. He knows the help are all afraid of his famous temper, but do they have to be so damn obvious about it? It’s not like he’s going to bite their heads off for nothing.

(He pointedly does not think about the time he spent ten minutes yelling at a servant because he’d broken his concentration while he was engaged in writing a letter to Nie Huaisang. The man had started crying five minutes in.)

Jiang Cheng eats while he writes, careful to keep any crumbs or spills off the pristine official documents. The breaks between mouthfuls are punctuated by the occasional curse as he reads a letter written by a particularly idiotic individual.

Contrary to popular belief, Jiang Cheng doesn’t spend all his time in grand, mysterious meetings with the leaders of the four great clans. Part of his job as sect leader is liaising with the heads of the tiny villages all over Yunmeng, understanding their woes and helping them fix their problems. Sometimes the issues are important, affecting the general wellbeing of a significant number of his people, like the drought that is currently plaguing one of the western villages, or the cattle famine that struck a number of the more central towns six years ago. Other times, however…

He mutters an oath under his breath as he reads a missive lamenting the unusually high number of same-sex marriages that have been taking place lately in a farming village. Yes, he knows this is going to affect the birth rate and possibly the amount of food they can produce later on, but what the fuck is he supposed to do about it?

Waltz in there and demand that they all sign divorce papers? Not bloody likely.

Fucking idiots, these people.

As the day wears on, a throbbing pain begins to build between his temples. It’s not an unusual occurrence, especially on the days he spends reading letters and composing responses, and as headaches go, it’s not too bad. He’s had worse, so he ignores it.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it goes away, and his temper steadily worsens leading into the afternoon. The servants all notice, obviously – they’re the ones who have to clean up the mess when he starts throwing things. He’s careful not to break anything too expensive, though.

Finally – fucking finally! – he’s done for the day. His mail is in three neat piles: things he’s read and might need later, letters he’s written that he’ll get someone to send out this evening, and stuff he does not need and will absolutely never need ever again, which he is only too happy to let the help cart off to be incinerated.

Jiang Cheng stands up, pushing his chair back and shaking his right hand to rid himself of the cramps he gets when he’s been writing too long.

Now, onto the next order of business. He is absolutely not looking forward to this. Yesterday’s promise to himself rings in his ears again, taunting. There are some things single uncles should never have to say to their nephews, and the talk he’s told himself he’ll give is one of those things. This should be Jin Zixuan’s job, damnit. For the umpteenth time, he curses the bastard for dying so young.

Who the hell decided he was qualified for this, anyway? He can’t even get a fucking date – Jin Ling’s got a leg up on him there.

Oh, well. The kid has to hear this from somebody; it might as well be him. He shudders to think of what would happen if he allowed the boy’s other uncle, Wei Wuxian, to shoulder this responsibility.

Idly, he wonders who does it for the Gusu Lan sect disciples – Lan Qiren? Now that is a great mental image. If he has to say, he thinks Lan Xichen would be the best person for the job. The man is just so calm and approachable.

Jiang Cheng steers his thoughts back on topic. The longer he puts this off, the harder it’s going to be.

Alright, man up, he tells himself. Don’t chicken out like a wuss.

He grabs Sandu like he’s heading into battle (that would actually be preferable at this point) and marches out of the room, his robes swirling behind him.

It takes him barely any time at all to find Jin Ling. His nephew is, predictably, outside at the archery range. Though he’s inherited his father’s ridiculously fancy sword, the bow seems to be Jin Ling’s favourite weapon. It makes sense in a way – it lets him stand back and shoot at things that annoy him from a safe distance.

“Jin Ling!”, he barks.

The kid’s next shot is off, hitting the outer ring of the target with a ‘thunk’. He drops the bow and turns around, his eyes wide and arms crossed defensively over his chest.

“I didn’t do anything, Uncle. I swear!” Jin Ling protests automatically, but Jiang Cheng cuts him off.

“I don’t have time to hear this. We need to talk.”

 


 

 

Just minutes later, the two of them are sitting in Jiang Cheng’s quarters. He’s decided the office is too formal for the things they need to discuss. He’d rather not do this in Jin Ling’s room either, so his nephew can’t kick him out if he gets too embarrassed. He has ridiculously thin skin, that kid.

“What did you want to talk to me about?” There’s a pout on Jin Ling’s face. He’s not going to make this easy, is he?

“What’s your relationship with Lan Sizhui?”, he returns. Jin Ling splutters indignantly and turns beet-red, and Jiang Cheng gives him a look that says I can see through your bullshit. Don’t fucking test me.

“W-we… he’s… we’re…”

Jiang Cheng resists the urge to bury his head in his hands. This is just painful.

“Alright, alright, I get the picture. Now, how far have you gone?”

The flush on his nephew’s face reaches epic proportions. He makes a noise like he’s choking, and Jiang Cheng resists a deeply-buried urge from years ago to pat him on the back to make sure he can breathe. Instead, he narrows his eyes.

“Answer the goddamn question, Jin Ling.”

A few seconds later, the boy manages to get something out that sounds vaguely like human speech. But Jiang Cheng doesn’t speak ‘mumbling teenager’, so he snaps at the boy to speak up.

He’s not looking at his uncle when he says, “um… we’ve kissed a couple times.”

Praise every god and goddess in the heavens. This could have been infinitely more awkward.

“Congratulations,” he says tersely. Jin Ling’s head snaps up. His mouth hangs open and he’s gaping like a fish. Jiang Cheng lets the word hang in the air for a few more moments, savouring the look on his nephew’s face. It’s the only remotely enjoyable thing about this situation. Then he continues.

“I assume you know what comes after?” His tone is sardonic, but inside he’s praying that the anwer is yes. It would be just his luck that Jin Ling is the only sixteen-year-old boy in the world who hasn’t yet figured out how sex works.

Thankfully, the kid nods. This is getting more uncomfortable by the minute. For both of them.

“Okay, kid, listen up. I’m only going to say this once.” Jiang Cheng desperately hopes that’s true. “There are three things I’m going to tell you, and you better remember them, because if you forget, you’re the one getting screwed over.”

“One: don’t ever let anyone pressure you into doing something you’re not comfortable with. Especially your first time. Tell whoever it is you’re with to stop, and don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Hit them if you have to.”

Jin Ling is looking at him with an expression that holds a mixture of awe and horror, like he’s watching two horse-riders going full speed crash into each other before someone inevitably breaks their neck. This is a fucking disaster, is what it is, but he hopes at least some of this information makes its way past Jin Ling’s thick skull.

“Two: take your damn time. It’s not a race – make sure everyone’s having a good time before you do anything. If the other person wants to stop, you stop. If both of you want to go ahead, go slow. Trying to rush things is how people get hurt.”

“Three: make very, very sure both you and your partner are safe. There are some diseases that can be transmitted that way if you’re not careful, and some of them are nasty. You might ignore it now, but you’ll regret it later. How do you think your grandfather died? Let me tell you, it wasn’t a fucking cold. He had women all over the place; picked up all kinds of shit. He got sloppy, and it killed him.”

His nephew’s eyes go wide at that little detail. The official story was that Jin Guangshan had died of an infection, and that’s what most people believed. But as a sect leader, Jiang Cheng is privy to all sorts of information others would love to keep secret. Including the business of other sect leaders.

He knows this might be going a little overboard, but scaring the kid straight has worked for him so far. Maybe if Jin Ling knows this kind of thing has consequences, he’ll be more inclined to listen.

“Got it?”, he asks. Jin Ling nods wordlessly.

“Any questions?”

Emphatic head shaking follows.

“Good,” he says gruffly. “Good talk. Now we can both pretend this never happened and move on with our lives.”

Jin Ling takes that for the implied dismissal it is and escapes from the room so fast it’s like his feet are on fire. Jiang Cheng doesn’t blame him; he hates to imagine what it would do to his reputation if this ever got out.

To be honest, he was flying by the seat of his pants throughout the entire conversation. Confession time: Jiang Cheng is even more of a virgin than his nephew, given that he’s never had a girlfriend, or even a date that lasted more than fifteen minutes.

If that’s not fucking tragic, he doesn’t know what is. Actually, it’s more pathetic than anything else.

What more confirmation does he need that no one will ever want him?

He knows it’s his fault. There’s something wrong with him; always has been. He knows he’s an asshole, and not the good kind, either – the kind whose flaws people can overlook because their virtues outweigh their bad qualities. He’s rude and caustic and more than a little paranoid, yells too much and smiles too little, and there are whole parts of him that nobody in their right mind would touch with a ten-foot pole.

Jiang Cheng is the leader of one of the four great sects and rich as sin. One of the most powerful men in the world, and even that can’t tempt anyone into putting up with him for half a fucking hour.

Yesterday was the first time in years that he’d been able to be around another person who wasn’t either related or bound to him by ties of service or politics. He resolutely does not think about how Lan Xichen’s smile made him feel (it’s been so long since he’s had an expression like that directed at him).

It couldn’t last, anyway. Zewu-Jun is in seclusion, cut off from the outside world. It was only an accident that they were able to meet at all, and that set of circumstances is not likely to happen ever again. But that’s not the main reason.

It couldn’t last, because sooner or later, Jiang Cheng drives everyone away.

Chapter Text

The next few days are rather uneventful – or as much as they can be when one is living with a sullen teenager. Jin Ling has been avoiding his uncle like the plague, shuttling between the archery range and his room, where he locks himself in like a hermit crab and refuses to come out. Jiang Cheng doesn’t think the boy has fully recovered from the embarrassment yet.

Other than that, however, business is as usual around Lotus Pier. Jiang Cheng’s waking hours are filled with reports to be filed, people to meet, and one on occasion, a night-hunt in a nearby fishing village to get rid of a particularly stubborn water ghoul. He goes alone on that one, and feels much better after unleashing his pent-up frustration on the poor unsuspecting corpses in the lake.

He is a busy man these days, which leaves him little time to brood. It’s a nice change. Exhaustion takes him when the day is done, and the nightmares come less frequently. He dreams less about fire and blood – an aching loneliness takes their place, but he’s familiar with that. He can deal.

A letter arrives with the rest of his mail one Friday morning after breakfast. It is much like the rest, sealed in a plain white envelope. The paper inside, however, is rather fine and officious-looking.

The maid who brings in the mail every morning passes the letter to Jiang Cheng, who closes his long fingers around it.

“It’s from Gusu, sir,” she says respectfully. Jiang Cheng frowns, unfolding the paper. Indeed, it has been sent from the Cloud Recesses, addressed to ‘Sect Leader Jiang Wanyin’. The sender’s name is inked in perfect, flowing black calligraphy. Lan Qiren.

That unfortunately means he can’t send this letter straight to the trash. What could the acting Gusu Lan sect leader want? With some difficulty, he recalls Lan Qiren’s words to him during his and Jin Ling’s brief visit only a few days ago.

several crucial letters, one of which was to have gone to Yunmeng.

Was this one of the ‘important documents’ Lan Jingyi (and that troublesome rabbit) had ruined? He decides to read on. If Lan Qiren thinks it’s important, it must be.

The letter is nearly four pages long, printed on both sides in the other man’s neat script. He skims through it once to catch the gist of it, then reads it again – more slowly this time – to sieve out the important details.

The first page is mostly pleasantries, thanking Jiang Cheng for taking the time to read this correspondence and apologising for any disturbances to his schedule. Naturally, he regards it with suspicion.

It sounds like he’s being buttered up for something, and a sinking feeling in his stomach tells him he’s probably not going to be happy about it.

Then he gets to the second page – the meat of the letter. His suspicions are confirmed as he reads on, and his head begins to ache again.

Lan Qiren is requesting his presence in the Cloud Recesses in two days for a gathering of sect leaders. The others have all been sent for, including Nie Huaisang and the old advisor who is standing in for Jin Ling as the head of the Lanling Jin sect until the brat comes of age. Jiang Cheng has, however, been asked to bring Jin Ling anyway, in order for him to meet with the rest and familiarise himself with the workings of inter-sect politics.

There will be a series of meetings over the course of a week, mostly having to do with relations between their respective clans – even the smaller houses will be involved. Lan Qiren is calling for unity, apparently. The objective of the gathering is supposedly to discuss future partnerships and alliances, to strengthen all the sects as a whole.

All of the clans must stand united, the letter concludes. A mere fifteen years have passed since the Sunshot Campaign. We must not allow something like it to come to pass once more; much of the damage both during and since could have been minimised if every one of our great houses had stood together to combat the threats that faced us all. I hope you will consider this proposal; not solely for the good of one sect, but for the good of all.

When he comes to the end of the letter for the third time, Jiang Cheng puts the paper down and gives a rude snort. Not fucking likely. It’s admittedly a good idea, all the sects working together and getting along, but this is real life, not some rose-tinted fantasy world with unicorns that shit rainbows.

The sect leaders are a bunch of rich, entitled assholes, most of them over eighty and so sunken in their ways that they wouldn’t notice a new idea if someone clobbered them over the head with it. The only thing that’ll happen at this gathering is a great deal of shouting, as every man tries to negotiate a better deal for himself and his own sect.

Alliances are all well and good, but while everyone likes the thought of having someone else come to their aid in times of trouble, people are decidedly more reluctant when it’s them risking their necks for an outsider.

Fifteen years ago, the sects did unite against the Qishan Wen clan (that name still makes his blood boil, even inside his own head). But that was a unique case; all of them were being threatened, and they needed every bit of manpower they could muster to protect themselves from the enemy.

Self-interest is a very powerful motivator. Without it, however, they have absolutely no hope of getting anything done. Lan Qiren is an idiot if he thinks otherwise. Or maybe the stress of running the Gusu Lan sect for thirty years has finally driven him senile.

Jiang Cheng sighs and picks up a fresh piece of paper anyway. He can’t refuse an invitation from another sect leader – not without looking rude – and if there’s one thing those stuffy asses in Cloud Recesses set great store by, it’s manners.

He might as well see how this all plays out. It’s not like he’s got much else better to do.

 


 

 

Lan Huan is out in the garden again. Since the day Sect Leader Jiang crashed into his quiet, peaceful bubble holding a rabbit and cursing up a storm, he’s pruned every flower bush twice over, replanted some of the bamboo saplings on the north side of the cottage, and removed several large clumps of duckweed that had started to take over the pond. He’s also practiced his handstands and sword work, cleaned and re-cleaned his house, and spent hours every day plucking the strings of his guqin trying to find a melody that doesn’t sound mournful.

Still, he’s been restless for the past few days.

The pond behind the cottage is as beautiful as ever, but sitting by it alone feels strangely… empty, now that he knows how it feels to sit by it with someone else. There’s a part of him that seems to have woken up, that can’t sit still anymore, not even when he meditates and tries to calm down.

Calm. It’s what he’s always been good at. It’s what his family is good at – remaining stoic and unflappable no matter the situation. Oh, they all go about it in different ways: his uncle with his strict demeanor, Wangji with his blank expressions that few others can read – even little Sizhui, who’s learned to keep his emotions under control. Lan Huan himself uses a beatific smile to portray an unruffled exterior to the world.

Even going into seclusion was supposed to be a way to help him regain his inner tranquility. The sameness of every day, the lack of external disruptions, the absence of other people: a recipe for a peaceful environment.

But for some reason, Lan Huan can no longer sink into the peaceful trance he used to put himself in to go about his day. Every sight, every sound, every smell is jarring. Everything reminds him of the way the world felt when he used to experience it with other people.

Is his calm really so fragile, that just a single visit from one unexpected person is enough to shatter it? He should be able to go back to his quiet, repetitive routine, but he can’t. And this is what discomfits him most of all.

A shift in the air and the sound of footsteps breaks his reverie. Lan Huan’s little brother stands at the entrance to his secluded space, just in front of the corridor that leads to it. His hands are clasped together at his front, hidden by the ends of his long sleeves.

Anyone else would say that Lan Wangji looks expressionless, as usual, but Lan Huan can tell that his brother is happy to see him.

It’s not difficult, really; Wangji has emotions just like anyone else, feels things just as fiercely, if not more so, for all that he hides them behind a blank mask. All it takes to unearth that storm of emotion is to look a little deeper, but so few bother to do so. It is sad that people are so shallow.

The look Wangji is giving him right now, for instance, is easy to read. The slight, almost imperceptible uptilt of the corners of his mouth, the smoothening of some of the shallow furrows around his brows – all of that says that his younger brother is pleased to see him.

“Welcome back,” says Lan Huan, smiling gently. The other man nods, and the two of them move into the little cottage.

The house’s layout is simple: two rooms – a bedroom and a large space someone else might call a living room – furnished with a small, well-stocked kitchen. Lan Huan keeps ingredients there, of course, and he cooks his own food. He’d learned the skill when Meng Yao had taken him in, back when he was on the run from the Wen clan.

It was about the only thing he’d been able to do to repay his host. He was hopeless at washing clothes, and Meng Yao had been too particular about the positions of each and every one of his few things to allow Lan Huan to clean his rooms.

He carefully tamps down the thing in his chest that twinges whenever his traitorous mind brings up Meng Yao. Not Jin Guangyao, or Lianfang-Zun, as he came to be known later on, but the boy from the brothel who’d opened his home up to a stranger lying half-dead on the side of the road.

Wangji has been inside these rooms often enough to be familiar with the layout, so he barely looks at his surroundings as they move into Lan Huan’s living room and sit down on a straw mat. His light golden eyes stay focused on his older brother, watching him as if to discern any emotion that deviates from the norm.

“How is everything in Gusu?”, prompts the elder of the two. He may have gone into seclusion, but he likes to stay abreast of the current happenings elsewhere. If a true emergency arises, he will re-enter society in a heartbeat. The needs of his people come before his personal desires, always.

But Wangji has little to tell him. The only thing of interest he conveys is that Lan Qiren has invited all the sect leaders to Cloud Recesses for a gathering on inter-sect diplomacy.

“That is very intriguing indeed.” Lan Huan pauses for a second to think it over. “I only hope it goes well. If it works, it could mean greater unity.”

And a stronger, more cohesive cultivation world. Hasn’t that been his dream all these years? It was one of the reasons he and his two sworn brothers had decided to form the Venerated Triad. Nie Mingjue, the leader of the Qinghe Nie sect; Jin Guangyao, head of the Lanling Jin sect; and himself, the Gusu Lan sect leader. They were to look out for each other and all of their sects, not just their own.

Look how that turned out, a voice whispers in his ear. Lan Huan does his best to ignore it. His own failures shouldn’t stand in the way of a brighter future. Especially not with something so important.

“It was Wei Ying’s idea,” says Wangji, looking rather smug. Lan Huan can guess who passed it on to their uncle, then. He’s not surprised, honestly; the one-time Yiling Patriarch is full of ideas, and many of them are good ones.

“How is he, by the way?”, he asks, trying to sound nonchalant. When his baby brother answers with a “good”, he looks happier than Lan Huan has ever seen him.

Married life seems to agree with Wangji. There is a glow to his features, and his eyes are much brighter now. There is little left in him of the dead-eyed man who had replaced Lan Huan’s brother in the thirteen years after Wei Wuxian was killed at Luanzang-Gang. That man had carried nothing but misery and bitterness, and he’d been so cold Lan Huan had wondered if his heart had frozen.

The Wangji of the present is much milder. He is calmer even than he used to be as a child. In his teenage years, a single instance of rule-breaking was enough to drive him to draw Bichen and challenge someone to a duel. Now, he simply glares until the offending party submit, trembling in their boots.

It is as if the coldness of those thirteen years has dimmed the flames inside him. The boy with the fiery temper is now slow to anger, and when he does, the raging inferno of his youth has been replaced with an icy chill.

It scares Lan Huan a bit. How could it not? This is his baby brother, the little boy he’d held when he was having nightmares, when he asked in a broken voice why their parents never wanted to see them. Since he fell in love with Wei Wuxian, so much about Wangji has changed.

Lan Huan wonders how much of it was unconscious on his part, and how much was an effort to mold himself into the kind of person he believed Wei Wuxian would want. Loss changes people, alters them irreversibly, but Lan Huan is afraid his brother may have lost too much of himself in an effort to get back the person he loves.

He won’t voice that fear, though. Wangji looks too happy, too contented, and he can’t bring himself to spoil the mood. Instead, he tells the other man about Jiang Wanyin’s out-of-the-blue arrival, and the pleasant afternoon where they sat together by the pond and fed the ducks.

His brother listens intently, obviously interested by the story, though his brow furrows and his eyes narrow whenever Sandu-Shengshou’s name is mentioned. Lan Huan knows Wangji dislikes the other sect leader, whether it’s for his prickly demeanor or his tumultuous relationship with Wei Wuxian. The Second Jade of Gusu Lan is borderline territorial when it comes to his husband, which seems rather unhealthy and is yet another reason for Lan Huan to worry.

He pushes it to the back of his mind. He spends far too little time with his younger brother as it is; he’d rather not waste any of it thinking about things he can’t control.

For now, he relishes one of Wangji’s rare smiles as he describes the trouble-making rabbit and the short, heart-attack inducing period he and Jiang Wanyin spent madly searching for it in the flower bushes. It is blinding and so, so beautiful and he thinks he would give anything in the world to keep his brother smiling like that. Worries and all.

Chapter Text

He was right. This is going to be a fucking disaster. It’s five in the morning, and Jiang Cheng is cranky as hell, because he hasn’t had time to do the sword exercises he’s accustomed to completing before he starts the day. And to top that all off, he’s had to wake up at two, which is a bit much even for a chronic insomniac like him.

Jin Ling is no better. Anyone who says youths have more energy and are more adaptable is clearly on something, because teenagers – especially sixteen-year-olds who apparently “need their beauty sleep” or some shit – have to get their eight hours to turn themselves into anything resembling functional human beings.

Jiang Cheng’s nephew is currently glaring at the world through half-closed bleary eyes, while a crowd of people bustles around him, scrambling to get the last preparations in order for their visit to Cloud Recesses. The man himself almost feels sorry for them, since they’re up well before dawn as well, undoubtedly disrupting their biological clocks.

That pity abruptly disappears when he remembers that most of them will be able to go back to sleep once he and Jin Ling are safely out of Lotus Pier. And considering the length of time they’ll be gone, those little shits will be able to slack off for a whole week without him here to yell at them. They’ll almost certainly be glad to see the back of him.

The past two days have been a flurry of activity. Jiang Cheng’s been run off his feet making arrangements for people to take over in his absence. While in Cloud Recesses, he will still get letters and correspondence from Yunmeng, of course, but he won’t be there in person to deal with the little details that crop up in day-to-day life.

There have been a couple times where he very nearly said fuck it and decided that if the sect can’t run itself for a week while he’s gone then it probably deserves to fall apart. But he always caught himself before he reached that point. The Jiang sect is far too important for that – besides, what would his father say if he knew what his son was thinking?

Probably something about how I still don’t understand the spirit or the values of a proper sect leader.

He sighs, then gets jarred out of his thoughts when someone tells him it’s time to go.

The preparations this time have been much more complex than the hasty ones involved in Jin Ling’s last-minute decision to go to Gusu, seeing as the latter was an informal visit to celebrate a friend’s birthday and this is an important diplomatic mission.

Of course he has to bring a damn doorgift.

Giving a curt nod to the staff as a goodbye, Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling begin their journey to the Cloud Recesses. Hopefully, nothing too disastrous will happen in the coming week and they’ll be able to return and resume life as per normal, Jiang Cheng thinks rather optimistically.

Famous last words.

 


 

 

A few hours later – a short distance, really, considering that it can take days to travel to some of the other sects – the two of them are ascending the last bit of the mountain trail that ends at the Cloud Recesses. The buildings come swiftly into view, low blue-roofed structures painted a soft white that look like actual clouds, contrasting with the stark gray cliff wall covered with rows upon rows of neatly carved characters. The word ‘no’ is repeated so often it’s almost funny: no drinking, no shouting, no running…

The whole place looks exactly as it did when they left just a few days ago. Lan Qiren is standing near the entrance to receive them, as is custom when welcoming visiting dignitaries. Jin Ling is still barely half awake, but is aware enough to greet the Gusu Lan sect leader politely in return when the other man bows and utters a few pleasantries.

Jiang Cheng does the same, though his greeting is longer and much more formal. The older man looks annoyingly chipper despite his usual sombre expression, but then this is his home, Jiang Cheng thinks sourly. He didn’t have to get up at an ungodly hour and then spend nearly six hours on the road in order to arrive before midday. And anyway, everyone knows the Lans get up at five as a matter of course.

Waving an elegant hand, Lan Qiren beckons one of the older disciples in the blue-and-white robes of the Gusu Lan sect over. There is a brief exchange in muttered tones too low for Jiang Cheng to grasp, and then the disciple is leading him and Jin Ling towards one of the smaller buildings.

It is a low structure, perhaps two stories high, with a wide base and an elaborate peaked roof. Jiang Cheng has been here several times over the years – it’s a dormitory of sorts for visiting sect leaders. At its maximum capacity, it can house all twenty in sufficient comfort to appease even the peacocks from the Lanling Jin sect.

He suppresses a shudder. Given the blood that runs through his veins on his father’s side, it’s a small miracle that Jin Ling didn’t turn out that way.

In that respect, Jin Guangyao was actually the only tolerable one of the lot, probably due to his exceedingly humble beginnings as the son of a prostitute in one of the city’s more popular brothels.

The young disciple – from the looks of it, only about a year older than Jin Ling – shows them to what Jiang Cheng supposes must be their quarters. He stops outside the doorway, bows deeply and respectfully, and disappears without another word. Typical Lan behaviour.

Each of them has their own set of rooms, both tastefully decorated in the Lan colours of blue and white. Are there only two colours in this godforsaken place? All the sect leaders’ quarters look to be identical. Jiang Cheng grudgingly admits that this is a good idea: it symbolises that here, everyone is on equal ground, regardless of their own personal status or the strength of their sects. It bodes well for the meetings throughout the rest of the week – perhaps they’ll be able to accomplish something after all.

His and Jin Ling’s quarters are located adjacent to each other, and the wall separating them is thin enough to yell through if necessary. Jin Ling is predictably excited about having his own set of rooms. During previous visits long enough that staying over was necessary, he and his uncle always had to share due to his young age. Now that Jin Ling is older and about to become a sect leader, he is afforded greater courtesies because of this.

Jiang Cheng, too, is enjoying the extra freedom and space this allows him. He’ll still have to keep a close eye on his nephew to make sure he stays out of trouble, but it’s still preferable to sharing a room with a moody teenager for a week.

He remembers all too well the early days of the constant juggling between sect leader and father figure. Unwilling to drop the kid off at the Lanling Jin sect for his grandmother to spoil, he’d had to take him along to various meetings – and on a few memorable occasions, the annual inter-sect gatherings, the location of which shifted every year. Jin Ling had repeatedly kept him up half the night crying, unused to such unfamiliar surroundings, and the looks the other sect leaders gave him the next morning when he showed up to meetings with dark circles around his eyes and a baby in his arms…

It had dredged up old insecurities from his youth, fears that he was inadequate, a constant terror that he’d screw up somehow and make the Yunmeng Jiang sect the laughingstock of the cultivation world. Well, he’s glad all that’s over now.

Jiang Cheng opens the small case that he’s brought with him and begins to unpack. Clothes go in the modestly-sized closet in the bedroom; his toothbrush, comb and razor, he sets out on the short ledge near the sink in the toilet. He moves over to the tiny kitchen and does a quick inventory. It contains rice, fruit, vegetables, even a small amount of meat (chicken, mostly).

A head – Jin Ling’s – pokes through the doorway.

“Uncle,” he says. There is a pleading tone to his voice that Jiang Cheng decides then and there that he needs to train out of him. “I’ve unpacked already. Can I go, please?”

To find Lan Sizhui, the question finishes, unspoken. It’s only been a few days since Jiang Cheng gave his nephew the talk that had him blushing and stuttering like a twelve-year-old girl. If Jin Ling is willing to bring his boyfriend up again so soon, it must mean the boy is invested in the relationship.

Jiang Cheng nods sharply, and Jin Ling’s face lights up.

“But you have to be back before two-thirty,” he barks, before the kid can run off. The first meeting starts at three, and he wants to give them some leeway to get ready. Much as he hates to admit it, his nephew takes nearly as long to primp as a society lady. Jin Ling must get it from his father’s side – after all, Jiang Cheng’s Ah-Jie never cared too much about what she looked like beyond how it reflected on their family.

Jin Ling agrees happily, and dashes off to go find Lan Sizhui. In this moment, he looks so excited, so much like Jiang Yanli did on her first real date with Jin Zixuan. It hurts for a second, but then the boy is gone from the room, the gold of his robes flapping behind him. If Lan Wangji and Weiwuxian’s adopted son breaks Jin Ling’s heart, there will be absolute hell to pay.

The older man sighs. Of all the people in the world, why did his nephew have to pick that one? Even Lan Jingyi would be less problematic.

 


 

 

With nothing else to do, Jiang Cheng spends the next two hours wandering around the Cloud Recesses, re-familiarising himself with the place. Little has changed since he was a student here, despite the fact that the sect had been burned down as part of the Wens’ reign of terror. Exactly as Lotus Pier was.

A series of images flashes behind his eyes.

…flames licking at wood and the charred corpses of his friends, reaching towards the night sky… purple robes spattered with blood… a firework blooming in the sky in the shape of a sun…

…the scent of burning flesh…

His mother screaming.

He shakes the memories away. Tells himself to move past it. It’s been over fifteen years, and he’s not a seventeen-year-old weakling anymore. When the rage threatens to overwhelm him, he forces it down with an effort.

Don’t fucking do this. Not now. Not here.

The Wens… the Wens are all gone. He’s killed every last one of them. They’re dead. They’re gone. He keeps walking.

Without realising it, Jiang Cheng’s feet take him to the courtyard, where the disciples are practicing their swordwork. There are kids from all the different sects, their robes reflecting their origins. Gold for the Lanling Jin sect, black for Qinghe Nie, purple for his own Yunmeng Jiang disciples, and others from smaller houses in orange, blue, green, and so on. He watches them carefully, noting their technique, though he can’t help but compare them with Jin Ling.

The results are pleasing. Jiang Cheng’s nephew is good, much better than most of the disciples here, but the rest aren’t too far behind. As a whole, their movements are clean and precise; while lacking in fluidity, that will come with experience.

He stays at the edges of the courtyard, careful not to be noticed. It would be a terrible idea to disrupt a class on his first day here.

Hanguang-Jun walks between the rows of disciples moving through their sword forms, correcting a thrust here, a parry there, a disciple’s grip in a tricky motion. Handsome and expressionless as ever, he hardly ever talks, simply directing the class through well-timed looks. His features are a perfect mirror of his brother’s, but where Zewu-Jun is gentle and approachable, Lan Wangji is a stone-cold bastard.

As if feeling Jiang Cheng’s eyes on him, the older man looks up and straight at him, sending him what looks to be the ‘death glare of doom’. Jiang Cheng’s hackles rise.

He’s been in a bad mood all day, and what is this guy’s fucking problem anyway? Jiang Cheng is here at the request of Lan Qiren, the man’s own goddamn uncle. And here Lan Wangji is, giving him this look that says I want you gone. Jiang Cheng doesn’t even actually want to be here! Hell, he’d leave right now if he could.

The only reason he’s even at Cloud Recesses in the first place is because he’s sick of being the only person who gives a shit about his sect. He’s fucking tired of having to fight all the others at the yearly gatherings who think they can take Yunmeng’s place in the four great clans if they can cow the young Jiang sect leader who has no family to back him up.

And most of all, he wants better for Jin Ling when the boy finally takes the reins of the Lanling Jin sect. The others will eat him alive if things continue the way they are now.

Jiang Cheng wants to storm up there and punch Lan Wangji in his blank fucking face. Hands clench into fists at his sides, and he thinks he might actually do it, staring disciples be damned. But his father’s voice echoes in his ear.

Control your temper, boy, the ghost of Jiang Fengmian says. While alive, the man was renowned for being calm and collected enough that he wouldn’t have been out of place among those who wore the white robes of Gusu. There is a time and place for anger, but it is rarely when you would most like to release it.

The first time his father said this to him, Jiang Cheng had been twelve and worked-up over something he can no longer remember. Then the Jiang sect leader slid his gaze over to his scowling wife and uttered those words, and all the fight went out of the young disciple. Jiang Cheng felt very small then, and very sad, and couldn’t quite explain why, even to himself.

That had been the tantrum of a boy. Now, the man clenches his fists tighter, until his short nails dig into his palms hard enough to leave marks. He chooses the most venomous from his impressive repertoire of glares and shoots it at Hanguang-Jun, then turns around and stalks off, fuming.

Soft footsteps echo in the corridors as Jiang Cheng takes a right, then a left, and another right. He is heading for the tiny garden that was his refuge as a student. Perhaps by the small fountain, he might not be quite so angry. It is always peaceful there.

But just as he turns another corner, he collides with a lithe, muscled chest. Black and red fill his vision, and he looks down into the face of someone who is both a stranger, and the person who has known him the longest in this world. Wei Wuxian.

Chapter Text

The other man lets out a surprised ‘oof!’ and grabs Jiang Cheng’s forearms to steady himself. Jiang Cheng’s first instinct is to recoil from the touch, but he lets Wei Wuxian use him to regain his bearings.

He’s always had little in the way of physical contact. His parents had never hugged him much – the only times Jiang Cheng’s mother ever held him was in his fuzzy memories of early childhood, and that last, desperate embrace by the water’s edge. He remembers seeing his father engulf another child in a hug when he was ten years old, and realising he could count on one hand the times he’d received the same.. Jiang Yanli, for all her sweetness and steady affection, rarely held him either.

Over time, Jiang Cheng learned to convince himself that he disliked the touch of other people. If only because he received it so little that it was better to believe he’d never wanted it in the first place.

His older brother had been the exception to that rule. Oh, it wasn’t that Jiang Cheng was special – Wei Wuxian was just an extremely tactile person. He could hardly go five minutes without slinging an arm over another’s shoulders, or a slap on the back during a particularly heated conversation.

But that was okay, because Wei Wuxian was bright like the sun, and it felt so good to have some of that warmth directed at him.

Now, that same boy in Mo Xuanyu’s body grins up at him and gives a startled laugh. It feels a little strange to see that familiar smile shining out of a stranger’s face.

“Hey, Jiang Cheng! I didn’t see you there!” Wei Wuxian laughs, and something in Jiang Cheng’s chest tightens at the sound. His long hair is up in a ponytail, tied back with a red ribbon. It falls to curl around the lobe of his ear. “You here for the sect leader gathering?”

The sect leader in question nods. “I received an invitation from Lan Qiren two days ago asking me to come. Jin Ling is here as well.”

“That’s great! Sizhui has been really excited to see him – Jingyi too, but that’s different, you know?”

Jiang Cheng snickers.

“Jin Ling lasted about five seconds before he ran off to go find a certain someone,” he admits, loosening up a little at the easy, familiar banter. “After we returned to Lotus Pier the other day, I talked to him about it.”

The meaning of the words takes a few minutes to register. Then, a choking sound escapes from Wei Wuxian and he doubles over, his face bright red with poorly-repressed laughter.

“Oh…” he says, in between gasps and cackles of mirth. “Oh, that’s priceless. I’ll bet the Young Mistress was so embarrassed.”

The automatic response, of course, is a curt ‘don’t call him that’, but it’s said without any real heat. Wei Wuxian takes another few minutes to collect himself, then asks the question he always asks whenever they see each other.

“How are you doing, by the way?”

The question is casual, but Jiang Cheng freezes up immediately. Just like that, the moment is gone and there they are again, no longer brothers but two strangers trying to navigate a conversation and failing miserably.

This was a mistake, and Wei Wuxian knows it.

“Fine.”

“I’m really excited for the gatherings this week,” he says, recognising Jiang Cheng’s closed-off response for what it is and desperately trying to salvage the situation. “Lan Zhan said I could sit in as his husband and all, even though I’m not a sect leader. I think this could be really good for all of us, you know – not just some sects, but for everybody. We’ll all have backup if something goes wrong, and we won’t have to face problems on our own anymore!

His eyes are lit up now, and Jiang Cheng watches the passion on his animated face.

“Lan Zhan was really into it when I suggested it to him. He thought it was a great idea.”

Jiang Cheng’s brain short-circuits.

“Wait. You’re saying you came up with this?”

The ex-Yiling Patriarch flinches at his incredulous tone like it’s a physical blow. Hurt flashes briefly in his eyes. Then he recovers, plasters on another blinding grin, though his tone remains more subdued.

“Yeah,” he replies. “I thought all the sects needed to come together, for unity and stuff. I told Lan Zhan about it, then he passed the idea on to Lan Qiren. I never actually thought the old man would go through with it – he never listens to me about anything! – but well…”

His shoulders go up in a shrug, arms spread in a universal gesture that means ‘shit happens, I guess’.

Of fucking course this was Wei Wuxian’s idea. Who else would be so damn selfless to think of something that would help so many people, and actually figure out a way to carry it out?

Sure, all he’s done is say a few things to the right people, but he’s actually gotten Sect Leader Lan’s notoriously prickly uncle to agree to something, and that’s a miracle in and of itself. And now Jiang Cheng’s here, again, dragged into this whole thing because of another one of Wei Wuxian’s schemes. Just like when they were kids.

There’s an ugly thing churning in his gut that feels a litle bitter and a lot like jealousy. He tries his hardest to squash it down and shove a heavy weight over it so it’ll flatten and he can pretend it’s not there, and he tries not to be disappointed when that fails.

(He’s thirty-four and a fucking sect leader and he’s still envious of his older brother. Pathetic.)

But it’s not Wei Wuxian’s fault. He doesn’t deserve Jiang Cheng’s hatred; not for this. This is Jiang Cheng’s problem, and he’ll deal with it himself.

“Well, congratulations, I guess,” he offers. The other man visibly brightens at the praise. “Personally, I hope it goes well. For all our sakes.”

The conversation lasts a little while longer before beginning to fizzle out.

Checking the time, Jiang Cheng mutters a curse.

“It’s almost two-thirty,” he says, by way of explanation. “I told Jin Ling he’d better be back before then. I’ll break that little shit’s legs if he’s late!”

A laugh from his side tells Jiang Cheng exactly what Jin Ling’s other uncle thinks of that remark.

“A while ago, the kid told me that you never actually follow through on that threat. I know you only do that for Jin Ling’s own good. Don’t worry – your secret’s safe with me.” Wei Wuxian winks dramatically. “I won’t tell anyone you’re really a big softie under there.”

Before he can think about what he’s doing, Jiang Cheng elbows the other man like he used to when they were young and his brother said something particularly stupid. Wei Wuxian yelps in surprise, then elbows him back.

Jiang Cheng gives his iciest glare.

“I assure you, you have completely misjudged both my character and intentions.”

“Yeah, right.”

Out of the blue, Wei Wuxian lunges forward and wraps his arms around the taller man. There is a sudden rush of warmth that Jiang Cheng feels even through his thick robes, and he tenses up suddenly.

“Take care of yourself, little brother,” says the man who was once Yunmeng’s brightest disciple. His tone is gentle, and uncharacteristically serious.

With an effort, Jiang Cheng relaxes his muscles. Allows his own arms to come up to fit awkwardly over Wei Wuxian’s back.

“You too,” he whispers back, and it surprises him how much he means it.

 


 

 

As promised, Jin Ling comes back at exactly two-thirty. He is out of breath from sprinting through Cloud Recesses from wherever the hell he and Lan Sizhui have been for the past couple of hours, but he looks happy, content.

Even though Jiang Cheng is pretty sure he’s going to receive a complaint from Lan Qiren about his nephew breaking about a dozen sect rules with his behaviour, he keeps his mouth shut, and keeps the snark to a single eyebrow raise that garners a flush in response. Jin Ling gets defensive easily, and he’s certainly not going to be the one to rain on the boy’s parade. Anyway, with the meeting that’s going to take place in just half an hour, he’s probably going to need every scrap of positive feeling he can get.

They spend the next twenty minutes getting ready in silence, then when both of them are prepared, they make their way to the appointed meeting-place.

The location where the gatherings will take place over the next week is a large walled pavilion far away from the student quarters and class buildings. It is a place Jiang Cheng has visited a few times before during the Gusu Lan sect’s turn at hosting the annual sect leaders’ convention.

Jin Ling, however, has never seen this part of Cloud Recesses before, and looks around with curiosity, drinking in every tiny detail.

Places have been set up around the pavilion in a rectangular formation, each with their own small table holding a pot of tea and an empty bowl. In any other sect, the pot would contain wine. However, this is the home of the Lans, where any form of alcohol is prohibited.

Jiang Cheng smirks inwardly at the disappointment on some of the other clan heads’ faces. Ironically enough, Gusu is famous for its quality booze, the ever-popular Emperor’s Smile – Wei Wuxian’s favourite drink. Doubtless the others had been hoping to get a taste for free, as compensation for having to come all this way.

He ought to get a jar or two for the staff back home. Maybe that would ease their disappointment a little when he finally returned.

To Jiang Cheng’s surprise, all twenty sect leaders are present, excluding Lan Xichen. He spots Nie Huaisang on the right, hiding his face behind an elaborately-painted fan.

Lan Wangji is here as well (of course), looking as though carved from jade as he kneels, motionless, behind his table. He doesn’t even spare a glance for Jiang Cheng as the two of them enter and take their seats side by side.

Jin Ling, however, receives a courteous nod. Owing mostly to his… friendly relationship with the other man’s son, Jiang Cheng would bet.

This behaviour is deeply petty, and it’s amusing in its own small way. Who would’ve thought even the illustrious Hanguang-Jun was subject to the whims of his emotions like the rest of the mere mortals?

The other sect leaders file in, some looking road-weary, others as though they’ve been taking advantage of the Gusu Lan sect’s hospitality for a few days. Lan Qiren himself enters from a side door.

When everyone is seated, the acting Lan head opens the meeting.

“I thank you all for your willingness to come here, especially those who arrived on short notice.”

He inclines his head in a respectful gesture, and everyone else returns it. At Jiang Cheng’s prompting glare, Jin Ling bows instead, as befits his much younger age. It matters little that he is already a sect leader in name and will fill the role as well in due time – seniority is everything in the world they live in.

The Lanling Jin sect elder seated on Jin Ling’s other side looks on with approval. No one seems to have been offended yet.

That’s good. Baby steps.

Lan Qiren continues. “By now, you all know why our sect has called this meeting. We aim to promote inter-sect unity and in doing so, increase prosperity for all involved. It is our hope that you will join us.”

Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang share a look. This is awkward as fuck. Both of them – and a few of the others here – have been under Lan Qiren’s tutelage before. They still remember his droning during lessons, and the way his face went purple with rage when a student (mainly Wei Wuxian) had talked back to them. He’d had them doing lines numerous times, too, and now he’s politely requesting things from them? This is surreal.

The older man finishes his speech and sits down, stroking his beard absently. The room is quiet for a second, then the noise level abruptly rises as a great deal of people try to talk at once.

Unexpectedly, it is Nie Huaisang who resolves the issue. He snaps his fan closed and brings it down hard on the table. The resulting ‘smack’ shocks everyone into silence, and he waves a hand at an orange-robed man who looks to be over two hundred. He takes it as his cue to resume talking.

“How do we know that what you say is true, Master Lan? Small houses such as mine have suffered before, but few others, including the Four Great Sects, show themselves to be willing to aid us.”

The old man laces his bony fingers together as he speaks, and many of the others around the room find themselves agreeing. Another – a stocky middle-aged man in blue – speaks up as well.

“Too many times, we have formed so-called alliances with other sects, only to be ignored when trouble arises. This ‘unity’, as you refer to it, seems to stand only in times of prosperity, but fails when it is truly needed.”

This time, it is a white-haired man wearing green robes who opens his mouth.

“Marriage alliances have not worked for centuries. How are we to ensure our sects’ interests are looked after if we must perpetually take care of the needs of others?”

One of the only female cultivators at the table – a youngish woman barely over a hundred – looks up and crosses her arms over her chest.

“Equality is another issue if this is to go forward. What measures shall be put in place to ensure all our clans will receive the same protections and benefits? I will not have my sect looked down upon because a woman happens to be leading it!”

The discussion grows more heated as nearly everyone in the room has a go at why the idea of a cultivators’ union is a pipe dream. Irritation scrapes its claws over Jiang Cheng’s skin.

This, this is exactly the reason he thought this gathering would not work. They all have valid points, but the other sect leaders are too busy complaining about the situation to try to think of a solution. From the looks of it, Jin Ling is thinking much the same thing as he twiddles his thumbs in his lap. His brows furrow towards the vermilion mark on his forehead as he listens to the conversation.

Jiang Cheng scowls and pours himself a bowl of tea. He drinks deeply, emptying it, then slams the bowl down on the table, much as Nie Huaisang did with his fan.

The room quiets again.

“If I may,” he says coldly, sweeping everyone in the room with the frosty glare that made him famous as that guy you do not mess with. “Perhaps we might direct our efforts to thinking of a solution instead.”

Chapter Text

The meeting goes a bit better after that. The sect leaders quit shrieking and actually sit down and discuss the issue like civilised people. No solutions have yet been put forward, of course – that’s a little too much to hope for, even for the supposed leaders of all the sects in the cultivation world.

However, by the time the meeting is over, they do actually reach some sort of consensus on the ground rules for this twenty-way partnership that Lan Qiren has proposed. The ideal arrangement is a sort of board or council, on which every sect would have a seat, equal say, and be subject to the same rules as all the other clans. Each sect would be held in check by the other nineteen, which would help prevent events like those leading up to the Sunshot Campaign.

It’s a nice idea, and Jiang Cheng is actually pleasantly surprised by the progress they’ve made thus far. A fucking miracle, is what it is, that they have – wonder of wonders – managed to get all the sect leaders to agree to a set of standards. Actually upholding them, though, is going to be the tricky bit.

There’s a saying that his mother used to recite to him when he was a child. “Give someone an inch, and they’ll want a foot. Give them that, and they’ll ask for a mile.”

Tackling the sect leaders is the same way – each and every one of them will try and see just what they can get away with. Once they find that out, they’ll keep on pushing until they can do whatever they damn well please without facing the consequences.

That was true for Jin Guangyao, and it was true for Wen Ruohan; Jiang Cheng is pretty sure by this point that it applies to most of humanity. His Ah-Niang had certainly thought so.

They’ll have to figure out a way to enforce the rules they set so that everyone is held accountable for their actions. Otherwise, those rules will become meaningless and everything will go right back to normal. And what everyone has more or less agreed on is that they don’t like the way things are.

Finally, they adjourn the meeting. Lan Qiren sounds the gong that signals the end of it, and everyone stands up to leave. They’ve barely scratched the surface, but Jiang Cheng guesses that’s what the rest of the week is for.

It still seems too optimistic, though. He thinks they’ll probably need another fortnight at least to get anything done, much less finalise any agreements.

They’ve been in the pavilion for hours by the time Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling finally go outside. The sun has set almost all the way; only a sliver of gold remains above the horizon. Everything is cast in shadow, and the lights of Caiyi Village at the foot of the mountain are already lit.

Some of the sect leaders mill around outside the doorways, chatting amongst themselves. Those that actually enjoy each other’s company, that is. Two of the younger cultivators are attempting to flirt with the woman who spoke up during the first, disorganised part of the meeting. They are not, however, meeting with much success.

Jiang Cheng’s been on enough failed dates to recognise a disaster when he sees one, and sends up a ‘thank you’ to the heavens that he doesn’t do that anymore. Jin Ling turns to look at whatever it is he’s watching, smirking when he follows his uncle’s gaze to the unfortunate pair.

The older man narrows his eyes at his nephew, who remains oblivious. He’s going to have to teach the brat not to laugh at people with relationship troubles. It’s self-preservation, really, now that the kid’s got a boyfriend and he’s still single as fuck.

The two of them head back to their quarters, and get stopped on the way by Lan Jingyi. He lights up when he sees them, grinning and dashing over to make a hasty bow.

“Sect Leader Jiang! And the Young Mistress!” The young disciple looks rather like a puppy wagging its tail, all wide eyes and excited smiles. Jin Ling huffs a little at the nickname, but there’s no real anger in it. At this point, it’s more a term of affection than anything else.

“Senior Wei’s been looking for you,” he says. “Oh, and thank you Sect Leader Jiang! Lan Qiren didn’t catch me after all – well, he did in the end, but it took him two whole days, so I only had to copy the sect rules fifteen times instead of fifty!”

He exclaims the last bit cheerfully, with the air of someone so used to getting into trouble that any respite from it is greeted with relief.

“You’re welcome,” says Jiang Cheng gruffly, although he’s not quite sure that writing out over four thousand Lan sect rules fifteen times is any sort of bonus at all. And knowing the lunatics he calls a clan, Lan Jingyi will probably have to complete all that while holding a handstand position. Crazy fuckers.

Though it does explain where that prodigious arm strength comes from. He’s heard (eternally scarring) stories from Wei Wuxian about what Lan Wangji does with his arms in private that he never wants to hear again. He remembers how he’d noticed Lan Xichen’s broad shoulders when they were seated side-by-side in the latter’s garden.

It seems to be a result of nurture rather than nature, since everyone knows the rumours that Lan Sizhui isn’t actually a Lan by birth and he can benchpress with the best of them.

Lan Jingyi gives another jerky bow before attempting a semi-graceful exit down the corridor. The kid’s coordinated enough, Jiang Cheng thinks, but he tries too hard to mimic the easy elegance of the rest of his sect. He’s built for running places, not walking sedately towards them.

When he’s gone, Jin Ling glowers.

“Do we have to go?”, he asks rather sullenly. Jiang Cheng hears the silent plea in his voice.

Jin Ling still isn’t quite comfortable with his other uncle. Wei Wuxian is too free with his touches, too easy with his affection, and the boy isn’t used to receiving attention like that. It’s probably Jiang Cheng’s fault, like so many other things. His nephew is too much like him; always has been.

But Jiang Cheng nods, gives a stern ‘yes’, and keeps from frowning when Jin Ling sighs in disappointment. Regardless of his own feelings on the matter, Jiang Yanli would have wanted her son to be close to both his uncles, not just the one who raised him.

He tries not to feel bitter about that.

The two of them make their way to the training grounds. Even though Lan Jingyi didn’t give them an exact description of Wei Wuxian’s whereabouts, he can usually be found there, giving tips on fighting techniques to young disciples overawed by the infamous Yiling Patriarch.

Practice is finishing up for the day when they get there. The sun has finally set all the way, and even with the lanterns, there isn’t enough light to see properly for training to continue. The disciples are packing up, storing the practice dummies in neat rows in a tiny shed. Noise is kept to a minimum, of course.

They find Wei Wuxian sitting in the fork of a tree, watching the proceedings below. He’s got a blade of long grass in his mouth and is attempting to whistle around it. When he sees them, he jumps off the branch, landing gracefully on his feet.

“How’d it go?”, he asks, grinning broadly. There’s a hint of nervousness in his smile. Of course there is – the gatherings were his idea. “Lan Zhan’s got some stuff to do, so he’s not here right now. He’s talking to Old Man Lan about tomorrow’s meeting.”

“Surprisingly well, actually. We actually had a real discussion like adults instead of screeching at each other.”

Jin Ling jumps in. “It was pretty cool. There was a lot of shouting in the first few minutes, but then Uncle glared at them and sort of told them to shut up and be productive, and after that, it got better.”

That gets a chuckle from Wei Wuxian, who reaches out to ruffle Jin Ling’s hair. Unexpectedly, the boy lets him do it.

Huh. Maybe there is hope for a relationship after all.

“Nie Huaisang is a lot more involved than he used to be,” says Jiang Cheng. “I think he’s realised the jig is up and he can’t go on pretending to be useless anymore.”

“Oh, that’s an idea! I’ll talk to him later. Maybe he can lend me some dirty magazines, just for old times’ sake.” Wei Wuxian leers, and Jin Ling flushes red. “There’s some stuff Lan Zhan and I have been wanting to try.”

At least some things haven’t changed. Jiang Cheng’s thick-skinned brother is still as shameless as ever. Oh gods, please fucking stop. He cringes internally. Poor choice of words.

There are some things you never want to picture any of your relatives doing, especially if it’s with someone with whom you share a mutual hatred.

…And it gets worse.

“Or you might want them, Jin Ling. You know, Sizhui didn’t turn out all stuffy like Old Man Lan. He has me for a parent, after all. And Lan Zhan is actually pretty adventurous.”

“Wei Wuxian!”, he barks before Jin Ling spontaneously combusts of embarrassment. His nephew is making a noise like he’s dying and Jiang Cheng is seriously concerned that might happen. He didn’t suffer through sixteen years of tears and sleepless nights raising this kid just so Jin Ling’s other uncle could kill him. “That’s enough.”

The shorter man pouts. “Buzzkill,” he sniffs.

“Anyway, I was looking for you ‘cause Lan Zhan wants to let his big brother know how the meeting went, but he’s busy and won’t be able to talk to him before nine. He told me you ran into him the other day and didn’t kill each other, so you know the way.”

“Why can’t you do it?”

It’s barely perceptible, Wei Wuxian’s shoulders slump a little.

“I don’t think he likes me all that much,” he says. “Talking to me always makes him sad. I think I remind him of things he’d rather not think about.”

This has obviously been beating him up for a while. For some reason, Wei Wuxian’s brother-in-law doesn’t want to talk to him, and it’s hurting him, because he badly wants to be accepted by Lan Zhan’s family, since he has so little left of his own.

Other people might not notice, but Jiang Cheng grew up with him. He may have spent thirteen years hating Wei Wuxian, but he’d spent a decade before that as his older brother’s defender, distracting Ah-Niang when she got angry, cleaning up the aftermath of Wei Wuxian’s more outrageous pranks. Even chasing dogs away when they sent him into a panic. The instinct is still there, after all this time.

“Alright,” Jiang Cheng says finally. The other man brightens immediately, and thanks him. Jin Ling has left by this point, probably gone back to his quarters to sulk and berate the heavens for giving him relatives like this.

“Oh! I nearly forgot!” Wei Wuxian rummages in the folds of his robes and brings out a plain white ceramic jar with an equally plain blue lid. He passes it to Jiang Cheng, who hefts it experimentally. The jar is heavy for its size, and sloshes like there’s liquid in it. “Lan Zhan also asked me to get you to pass on Zewu-Jun’s favourite tea.”

Jiang Cheng hums a reply. It’s just a small favour; not too big a deal. They say goodbye to each other for the night, and go their separate ways, Wei Wuxian probably heading back to Lan Wangji’s jingshi, and Jiang Cheng to Lan Xichen’s quiet little cottage. The two of them will undoubtedly meet many times in the next week. Jiang Cheng finds that’s not as daunting a thought as it once was.

It’s fully dark now, but Jiang Cheng has no difficulty picking out the path that will lead him to where he wants to go. There are lanterns scattered everywhere, burning a soft yellow, and the moon overhead casts everything in a silver glow. Cloud Recesses perches at the peak of a mountain, so the stars look closer than they do back home, bigger and brighter somehow.

He makes his way through the twists and turns of the corridors. Jiang Cheng has always had a good sense of direction; it serves him well on night hunts, and in times like these.

It’s a little past eight o’ clock when he finally reaches the end of the maze. The luminous white walls open up onto the cottage and its little garden. There are only a few lanterns along the edge of the path – the space is small and fire is dangerous to have around plants.

The house is lit from inside, though, a cheery yellow glow spilling out through the windows, onto the rows of flower bushes. Since the garden is empty, Jiang Cheng supposes that Zewu-Jun must be in the cottage instead.

For some reason, his heart beats a little faster in his chest at the thought. He’s never been inside Lan Xichen’s rooms before, and for good reason. Isn’t there some sort of rule against that here?

Annoyed, he takes a deep breath and tries to squash his racing pulse. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work that way. His body is harder to shut up than his emotions.

He clenches his hand into a fist and knocks on the door.

“Who’s there?”, a voice calls out. Jiang Cheng remains stubbornly silent until a few moments later, when Lan Xichen opens up.

A look of surprise flashes across his face for a split second, before the First Jade of Gusu’s trademark gentle smile superimposes itself on his handsome features.

“Sect Leader Jiang,” he says smoothly, welcoming. “What an unexpected pleasure. Come in.”

Chapter Text

When Lan Huan hears a knock on his door, his first thought is that his brother is here. His heart gives a little leap at the thought. Wangji told him that he would come by every day this week to give a short report on how the meetings had gone, and any headway they were making in clan unity.

His little brother had been so excited. From the time the two of them were small, the only thing Wangji wanted was the betterment of their sect, and everything he did worked towards that goal. The only thing that deviated from it was, well, his relationship with the ex-Yiling Patriarch and demonic cultivator. Lan Huan still isn’t entirely sure how he feels about that.

“Who’s there?”, he calls, more out of habit than anything else. It’s unexpected when only silence answers instead of his brother’s low voice, pitched in a familiar “hmm”.

Perhaps the visitor is someone else? Lan Huan banishes the thought before it can take root.

Few others care enough to visit him, isolated as he is. Lan Qiren is one of them, but he rarely comes, and never at night, especially so close to the end of the day. Maybe Wei Wuxian would, if Lan Huan hadn’t driven his brother-in-law away months ago by making the other man’s first visits as uncomfortable as their sect’s strict rules on politeness allowed.

He ignores the faint twinge of regret he feels at that.

Putting the last of the dishes from dinner on the rack to dry, Lan Huan moves out of the small kitchen and over to the door. It clicks when he unlocks it, then gives a soft wheeze as it swings open.

Jiang Wanyin is standing outside his house, a white ceramic jar dangling from the long fingers of one hand, the famed sword Sandu strapped to his slender waist. There is a fierce scowl on his face as he looks Lan Huan up and down, and the First Jade of the Lan sect is suddenly very aware of how he must look.

His once-spotleess white sleeves are rolled up to the elbows, creased and flecked with water and dish soap. His hair hangs down his back in the loose braid he wears to sleep, and his forehead ribbon is ever so slightly crooked.

Lan Huan is a mess, and he knows it.

The other man, by comparison, is dressed impeccably, the crisp folds in his formal violet robes as severe as the expression he wears, which is quite a feat.

Lan Huan tries not to let the surprise show on his face. He is, however, only partially successful, judging by the way Jiang Wanyin cocks his eyebrow before Lan Huan manages to get his expression under control.

“Sect Leader Jiang, what an unexpected pleasure,” he says, struggling to infuse his voice with his usual good humour. Emphasis on ‘unexpected’. Where is Wangji? What could have possessed Sandu-Shengshou to visit him at this hour, out here in the middle of nowhere?

Still, Lan Huan is a sect leader – of the Gusu Lan sect at that – and he remembers his manners. Any visitor, no matter how sudden, cannot be turned away at the door.

“Come in.”

Jiang Wanyin dips his head in acknowledgement and follows Lan Huan into the living room. The younger man looks ill at ease here, in the living quarters of a near stranger, but he takes Lan Huan’s lead and seats himself on a straw mat.

“I apologise for the disruption,” he says, dark eyes flashing. “I understand that this is a late hour by the standards of your sect, and so I will not keep you longer than necessary.”

In Jiang Wanyin’s expression, Lan Huan can see that the other sect leader is rather uncomfortable with the situation. As he well should be. There are very few things that would justify barging into the rooms of a cultivator in seclusion, especially in the Cloud Recesses, where manners are everything.

The previous occasion was an accident, of course, but such circumstances should not have been repeated. And anyway, there is nary a rabbit in sight.

“It is my understanding that your brother has agreed to report to you on the progress of the sect leaders’ gatherings. However, Hanguang-Jun is otherwise engaged at the moment, and your brother-in-law has requested that I be the one to give the account of the day’s events in his stead.”

Interesting. Lan Huan internally berates himself for not considering earlier that Wangji would be too busy to spend time with him. Lately, his brother has been run off his feet with all the planning and preparation for this event, and though Lan Huan has tried to help with some of the paperwork, there is little he can do from inside these walls.

It was inconsiderate of him to expect Wangji to make himself available to update him, on top of all his extra duties and responsibilities. Though Wei Wuxian was thoughtful, Lan Huan supposes, to make sure he was caught up anyway.

“Thank you,” he replies.

The other man didn’t have to come all this way just to visit him, even to fulfill Wei Wuxian’s request. Jiang Wanyin’s relationship with the reincarnated necromancer is famously even rockier than Lan Huan’s own. And he looks tired.

Lan Huan understands. After all, he’s sat through the exact same gatherings year after year, listening to the others bicker about stolen land and petty challenges between cultivators trying to one-up each other. He knows how tiring these meetings can be.

The two of them have been leaders of their own sects for about the same amount of time, despite the difference in their ages. Lotus Pier burned down only a few months after Cloud Recesses had, and both of them were thrust at an early age into a responsibility neither was ready for.

Lan Huan had been twenty-one at the time, barely able to call himself a man and have the elders nod instead of smile patronizingly. Jiang Wanyin had been only seventeen, too young to do the same.

As he listens to the other man describe the day’s events – which seem to have turned out remarkably well thus far, as no serious arguments have yet broken out – Lan Huan wonders why they never became close. They had faced similar situations: their parents murdered in the Wens’ reign of terror, homes razed to the ground; yet Lan Huan cannot recall any point in the last fifteen years where they had discussed anything more meaningful than the agenda for the day’s meeting.

Perhaps it had been that infamous temper, or the bitter scowl that looked far too at home on the face of someone so young. Lan Huan remembers the stories that were told in whispers cut off when Sect Leader Jiang entered the room, of how he’d laughed as he slaughtered entire armies with his adopted brother by his side, and later, dragged men and women into his sect as fodder for his whip. The bodies, it was said, were never found.

But then, what right does Lan Huan have to judge another’s grief? He, who locked himself away and hid from the world when things got too hard, when too much was taken from him. It is not his place to sit on a high horse and pass judgement, because he left his family to deal with the mess he’d left behind, and Jiang Wanyin has not betrayed his.

He pulls himself out of his thoughts when he notices the other sect leader gazing expectantly at him, as though waiting for his opinion. Lan Huan was not so lost in his own head that he could not follow the report, and so he gives it.

“The discussion seems to be progressing rather well,” he says, smiling. Wangji ought to be pleased. “I look forward to hearing more about the gatherings as the week goes on.”

The other man nods gruffly. Over the past few minutes, his scowl has lightened a few shades, but his expression is still far from friendly.

“The meeting was much more productive than I had expected,” he admits. “But it could have gone better if the others hadn’t spent so much time moaning about how often things went wrong in the past. I swear, if I hear one more old man complain about his failed marriage alliance…”

He trails off, the furrows between his brows deepening. Lan Huan can’t help it; he laughs. He knows it might be construed as ill-mannered to laugh at another sect leader, but he can picture the aged Sect Leader Liu, with his perpetual squint, waxing endlessly in his croaky voice about his marriage to an esteemed female cultivator that had produced only daughters, with nary a male heir in sight.

But amazingly, Jiang Wanyin is not angered. Instead, his thunderous expression lightens, like storm clouds clearing away to reveal sun and blue sky. He is rather handsome when he is not scowling – or rather, when he is scowling less severely.

Abruptly, Lan Huan thinks of the supposedly-unspoken rule that is passed around in the sects outside Lotus Pier. Whoever you mess with, do not mess with the Yunmeng Jiang sect; whoever you piss off, do not piss off Jiang Wanyin.

The language is rather crude, but it gets the point across. Lan Huan wonders if any of the people who utter it have seen Sect Leader Jiang like this, awkward and open and surprisingly young.

The man in question holds out his hand – the one with the jar in it. With the other, he rubs the back of his neck, which has gone rather red.

“Wei Wuxian asked me to pass this on to you. He said Hanguang-Jun would like me to ensure that you receive the tea he usually gives you.”

“Thank you,” Lan Huan says, taking the jar.

His chest goes a little warm. Of course Wangji would remember. This tea is his favourite, made from the leaves of a flower only grown in Caiyi Village. He can’t purchase it himself anymore, but his brother makes sure to bring a box or two along with him when he visits.

It is unusual, though, for him to send it in a jar. Normally, he gives Lan Huan a supply of tea bags so he can make it himself when the mood strikes, but the container is heavy with liquid.

He meets Sect Leader Jiang’s eyes, gray like the surface of a lake before a storm.

“Would you like some?”

The other man hesitates, and for a moment, Lan Huan thinks he’s going to refuse. After all, Sandu-Shengshou has many enemies; he is, understandably, a very paranoid man.

But then he nods and gives a faint “yes, please”, and that is that.

Setting the jar down on the floor, Lan Huan rises and walks into the kitchen. He comes back out with two large mugs, plain blue-and-white without handles. Jiang Wanyin watches silently as Lan Huan kneels on the mat once more and pours the tea, then holds out one mug, which he takes.

He sits, the container clasped between his hands, resting on his thighs, while the Lan sect leader takes a deep drink from his own mug. Lan Huan frowns.

“This tastes different from the tea Wangji normally sends,” he says. It’s not bad – just different, sweeter, with a sharp undertone that is unfamiliar to him. Even tepid, it makes a strange heat blossom in his chest, and Lan Huan decides he likes it. It makes him feel warm. He downs the rest of his tea.

Sect Leader Jiang looks down at his own mug, shrugs and raises it to his own mouth. He takes a sip. Then swears.

“That’s not tea.”

 


 

 

Jiang Cheng is going to kill Wei Wuxian. He’s going to stab him right between the ribs, then tie his adopted brother up with Zidian and set the lightning on ‘high’. After that, he’s going to hang the dumbass over a nice, toasty campfire and roast him slowly.

The idiot has put wine in the jar. Not even the expensive stuff; no, this is the dirt-cheap swill that gets sold in roadside stalls with an alcohol content of too fucking much, and now Zewu-Jun, the First Jade of Gusu, the leader of the Lan sect and the highest-ranked cultivator in the whole damn world is drinking it.

The poor sod in question doesn’t even know the kind of trash he’s putting into his body, just sitting there holding his fucking gigantic mug – who even owns cups that big? – and staring at Jiang Cheng like he’s never fucking tasted alcohol in his life.

“Oh,” he says mildly, those dark gold eyes wider and more innocent than any grown man’s have a right to be.

Then Jiang Cheng remembers something Wei Wuxian told him a couple months ago about how he and Hanguang-Jun had gotten together. In between the kissing and the touching and the parts Jiang Cheng really wanted to scrub from his memory forever, there had been a few things that stood out.

Alcohol, like literally everything else that’s fun in this world, is prohibited in Cloud Recesses. So naturally, the Lans have shit alcohol tolerance.

With Jiang Cheng’s luck, this actually is the first time Sect Leader Lan has touched any form of alcohol whatsoever. And it’s all his fault. Well, technically, it’s Wei Wuxian’s, but Jiang Cheng was the one who delivered the jar, and now any and all consequences are going to come down on his head because that’s the way the world works and he’s so fucking screwed.

“Oh,” Lan Xichen repeats.

He sets the mug down, now empty, and gets to his feet. He sways a little, unsteady, then his eyes roll back in his head, his eyelids flutter closed and he pitches forward, completely fucking unconscious.

Jiang Cheng scrambles to his feet just in time to catch the taller man as he falls.

Zewu-Jun is as limp as a rag doll and weighs about a ton, because underneath all those yards of pristine white cloth, he’s muscled like a racehorse. His chest is solid against Jiang Cheng’s, and when his arms come up to steady the other man, his fingers skim over hills and valleys of taut muscles in his back.

The Yunmeng Jiang sect leader is suddenly very aware of every inch of Lan Xichen’s warm body pressed against his, the huffing breaths against the side of his neck where Zewu-Jun’s head is slumped, the scent of roses and peonies from the garden outside that clings to his clothes.

No one has touched Jiang Cheng in a very long time, and never like this, pressed full-body up against another human being. It’s so very warm, and his pulse rockets through his veins. For a moment, the icy fire within him dies away, replaced by a feeling like sitting beside a fireplace in wintertime.

Then he realises what’s going on. He’s got another man in his fucking arms, passed-out drunk from one mug of cheap wine, and this is not a situation Jiang Cheng ever thought he’d be in. Automatically, he lets go.

Lan Xichen drops like a stone, hitting the floor with a loud ‘thunk’. A feeling a little like guilt settles in his stomach, and Jiang Cheng winces in sympathy. That’s going to hurt like a bitch when he wakes up tomorrow.

What am I going to do now?, he thinks to himself.

“Fuck,” is what he says out loud.

Chapter Text

For the next few minutes, Jiang Cheng just sort of hovers awkwardly over Lan Xichen as his brain goes into panic-mode. Inwardly, he’s running through a list of all his misdemeanors ever since he’s arrived here at Cloud Recesses, and said list is frighteningly long.

Breaking Zewu-Jun’s seclusion without prior notice of visitation – not once but twice, if his last visit is to be counted. Drinking in Cloud Recesses, getting Sect Leader Lan drunk in Cloud Recesses… It goes on.

Finally, Jiang Cheng recovers his head and tells himself to calm the fuck down. He’s not a damn disciple anymore. He’s a grown man, for gods’ sake, a war veteran and sect leader – this behaviour is absolutely disgraceful.

Jiang Cheng takes a deep breath and, now calmer, looks back down at the unconscious man lying on the floor in front of him. His neck is bent at an uncomfortable angle, head lolling towards his shoulder, and one of his arms is squashed beneath him. It’s a terrible position to be in, and Lan Xichen is undoubtedly going to be sore tomorrow if he spends the night like this.

The guilt sitting in Jiang Cheng’s gut grows a little heavier at the thought. Damn his conscience. He should have shut it up long ago.

(Frankly, he’s surprised he still has one, after all the shit he’s put it through over the years. Its reappearance is unexpected, but not entirely unwelcome.)

Jiang Cheng should leave the other man here, he really should. Excessive physical contact is probably another one of the many things that are prohibited in Cloud Recesses, and if Lan Xichen is anything like his brother, he’ll freak the fuck out if he discovers that Jiang Cheng has so much as poked him in his sleep.

Jiang Cheng tries to convince himself that it would bother him, too, to touch Zewu-Jun, even to carry him back to bed where he’d be more comfortable. He resolutely refuses to think about whether the attempt is effective.

In the end, he settles on a compromise. He’s not going to princess-carry Sect Leader Lan into his bedroom – that would be embarrassing for the both of them, not to mention the fact that even with Jiang Cheng’s considerable strength, Lan Xichen is really fucking heavy.

Instead, he grabs a couple cushions from the reading area over by the bookshelves. Without thinking too much about what he’s doing, Jiang Cheng lifts the other man’s head off the floor and shoves one under his neck.

Jiang Cheng’s woken up on the floor enough to know that too much time spent on hard surfaces is hell on your tailbone. If he’s going to do this, he might as well go the whole hog.

He turns Lan Xichen over – just a little bit, enough to free the arm trapped under his body – and places the other cushion under his waist. Then, he steps back and surveys his handiwork. The position the taller man is in, though far from ideal, is at the very least much more comfortable than his initial state.

The guilty feeling lessens a little, but it doesn’t go away completely.

Sighing, he gets to his feet, collects the two mugs and the jar, and enters the kitchen. The tiny space is, as expected, very neat – a reflection of Lan Xichen himself. There are dishes drying on a wooden rack next to the sink, herbs growing in baskets suspended from the ceiling in places where the light would fall through the window during daytime.

The whole place smells of rosemary and thyme, and a hint of basil, though Jiang Cheng isn’t quite sure what they’re all are doing here. Gusu cuisine is famous for its blandess and lack of strong flavour, and these herbs are basically the opposite of that.

He sets the jar down next to the sink and begins to rinse out the mugs. Once that is done, he sets them aside to dry and opens the ceramic jar that caused all this trouble in the first place.

The smell of cheap liquor, probably distilled in someone’s basement, assails his nose. It’s strong and suspiciously sweet, and Jiang Cheng holds it closer to his face, far enough away so that he doesn’t choke on the fumes.

His idiot of an older brother added copious amounts of syrup to the wine, probably thinking that it would cover up the taste of alcohol, especially to someone who had never tried it before. Absolutely disgusting. Jiang Cheng shakes his head, renewing his vow to skewer Wei Wuxian the next time he sees him.

Then he upends the damn jar over the sink, watching the brown liquid sluice down the drain, and rinses the entire container out for good measure. Judging from Lan Xichen’s face while he was drinking the ‘tea’ earlier, the other man had actually enjoyed that shit. Jiang Cheng supposes it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Fucking Lans. They’re all insane, the whole lot of them. (He’s lost count of the number of times he’s thought that.)

A noise outside in the living room draws Jiang Cheng’s attention. His hand briefly slips on the wet surface of the jar, but he manages to catch it before it falls and shatters in the sink.

Oh, no. What’s happening now? This night is just one disaster after another with no respite in between, and Jiang Cheng thinks it might actually be a good idea to curl up into a ball and die.

But of course, he can’t do that.

He sets the jar down on the counter with the mugs and dashes outside again, praying that nothing too catastrophic has yet occurred.

He’s been here before, he knows. This is almost like when Jin Ling was a toddler and breaking things left and right, putting the rest in his mouth so he could see what they were. The only way to keep the brat out of trouble was to hold him at all times, but little kids squirm, and if Jiang Cheng set him down for so much as a second, he crawled off at the speed of light and had to be hunted down before he destroyed something important.

But this isn’t his baby nephew. This is a very buff, very grown adult man whose cultivation level is even higher than Jiang Cheng’s own, and the number of things that could potentially go wrong in this scenario is so very astronomical that Jiang Cheng wants to hit something.

When he gets to the living room, Lan Xichen is already upright, his hand pressed against the wall for support. The cushions are in a heap on the floor. The other man’s liquid gold eyes are wide open and blinking against the light, and he’s looking at Jiang Cheng with a curious expression on his face that for some reason sends shivers down his spine.

Oh, good, he’s awake. No wonder – it was just one mug of wine; it couldn’t have kept him knocked out for very long. Now they can go back to normal and pretend this never happened.

“Sect Leader Jiang,” he chirps cheerfully, and Jiang Cheng freezes. Because first, no one who calls him by that title has ever sounded so happy to see him, and second, at this precise moment, Zewu-Jun sounds exactly like Lan Jingyi high on chicken wings and too much sugar. (Don’t ask him how he knows that. Please. Just don’t.)

Then the ever-graceful, perpetually poised Lan Xichen takes a step towards him and staggers a bit, righting himself only after a few seconds. His smile is even more blinding than usual, lips curled across those perfectly white teeth, but Jiang Cheng’s heart sinks.

Fuck, he thinks, for what may be the thousandth time tonight. Sect Leader Lan is absolutely shitfaced.

 


 

 

His head is spinning as he takes a step towards the man in purple. No, that doesn’t seem quite right. His head can’t be spinning on top of his neck – that doesn’t make any sense. The world must be spinning instead, twirling around like the top he taught Wangji to play with when they were small. Yes, that’s much better.

Everything feels floaty and light, like the inside of a cloud. All the things that hurt inside him are gone, floated away, or maybe they’re not gone – just covered up by clouds until he can pretend they’re not there anymore.

Lan Huan likes clouds, he thinks.

The man in purple looks angry, and something else. His eyebrows are drawn down to a crease in the middle of his forehead, and his pretty mouth is set in a downward slash.

Worried, Lan Huan realises. The man looks worried.

That’s not right.

Lan Huan wants to tell the man not to be sad, because everything feels nice and okay, and sadness isn’t nice or okay at all. He doesn’t like it when people are sad. He wants the man to smile, because he looks like he’d be really pretty when he smiles, and because then he won’t be sad anymore.

Dimly, he thinks that’s not true. People who smile can also be sad, and sometimes looking happy covers up the deepest, darkest sadness of all.

But then the thought gets swallowed back up by the white, fluffy clouds and everything feels good again.

 


 

 

When Jiang Cheng’s brain regains full function, the first thing he registers is that Lan Xichen’s forehead ribbon is crooked. No, not exactly; it had been crooked before. It’s almost completely undone now, and Lan Xichen’s bangs, normally tucked neatly underneath it, are escaping in long black wisps.

The second thing is that the man in question is staring at him intently, as if trying to decipher a puzzle. That focused stare is completely at odds with the wide grin on his face, and Jiang Cheng is instantly on edge.

“Sect Leader Jiang,” the other man repeats. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

He tilts his head to the side like a confused bird.

“Your forehead ribbon is crooked.”

“Oh!”, Lan Xichen exclaims, and reaches around the back of his head to grasp the ribbon. He gives it an experimental tug, and the thing comes apart in his hand.

It’s long and white, patterned with light blue threaded clouds, and Zewu-Jun stares at it for a moment before wrapping it around his forehead and attempting to tie it back. Though his fingers are long and dexterous from years of playing the guqin, he eventually loses to the alcohol he downed only minutes ago and gives up after a few failed tries.

But he doesn’t let that faze him. The Lan sect leader turns his gaze and that smile back on Jiang Cheng, and it’s like he’s hit over the head with the force of it.

“It seems that I am unable to accomplish this task at the moment. Would you help me?”

Lan Xichen holds out the ribbon, and Jiang Cheng has no choice but to take it. It’s either that or say no to another sect leader, and that would probably look exceedingly rude. Anyway, it’s not like it’s hard. He ties his own hair back all the time, and he was the one to tie Jin Ling’s until the kid was old enough to do it himself.

Jiang Cheng has heard that the Gusu Lan sect members attach some sort of special significance to their forehead ribbons, but for the life of him, he can’t remember what it is. He just hopes he hasn’t committed a mortal offense by touching one, as he winds the long strip of cloth around the other man’s forehead and ties a knot.

“There,” he says roughly, trying to salvage what’s left of his dignity. It’s in shreds by this point, so he’s not sure whether it matters. “Done.”

Zewu-Jun brings a hand up to his forehead and feels the ribbon, then follows it to the back of his head and fiddles with the knot. Seemingly satisfied, he thanks Jiang Cheng, and then…

And then he grabs Jiang Cheng’s hand and drags him outside.

Like all cultivators, Lan Xichen has calloused hands from hours of sword practice and in his case, playing the guqin and xiao every day for years. They are warm and strong, and though the feeling of someone else’s hand in his is unfamiliar, Jiang Cheng finds that it is not entirely unpleasant.

“Look at the sky,” the other man says. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

Overhead, the moon is barely visible. While the new moon passed a few nights ago and the yellow outline is fattening steadily, little of it can be seen behind the wispy clouds gathering in the distance. It will rain soon, in three days at most, but for now the weather remains clear.

“I suppose so.”

Then the warm grip disappears from around Jiang Cheng’s hand. Startled, he watches as Lan Xichen leaps from the ground up onto the fucking roof. He wobbles there for a moment, regaining his balance, then totters on over to the beam in the centre where the roof’s sloping sides meet in a peak.

“Get down from there!”, Jiang Cheng yells. But Lan Xichen doesn’t listen.

The highest-ranked cultivator in the entire world steps on the wooden beam and puts one foot in front of the other, arms flung out and tongue between his teeth like a little kid who’s been dared to walk the edge of the gutter.

Oh, gods in heaven. He’s going to get himself killed.

Jiang Cheng jumps up onto the roof behind him and grabs Zewu-Jun’s arm, pulling him down until he has no choice but to collapse into a sitting position, his ass parked on the beam and his legs dangling over the side of the roof.

“Sect Leader Lan, you should probably stay here,” says Jiang Cheng, his voice unsteady.

He feels as though he’s talking to a particularly disobedient dog. He has no idea what the other man is going to do next. It might even be something that could get them both killed.

“The stars are so bright tonight. Can’t you see them?”

“Mmhmm.”

“The clouds are pretty, too. Like you,” Lan Xichen says. Jiang Cheng’s brain short-circuits. “You’re pretty.”

What the fuck? All that alcohol must have fried something in the other sect leader’s head, because there is no way any self-respecting man would ever be caught dead saying something like that, drunk or sober. Even Jiang Cheng’s mother would have sooner started whacking people with Zidian.

Heat rushes into Jiang Cheng’s face, and it feels like he’s burning. He’s pretty sure his cheeks have gone as red as Jin Ling’s did a few days ago, though it’s probably well hidden by the moonlight.

Jiang Cheng remembers being amused by his nephew’s embarrassment then. Karma is a bitch, he thinks. Well, he’s not laughing now.

Zewu-Jun must be so fucking wasted right now, if he’s saying things like that. It’s the only logical explanation. People spout weird shit all the time when they’re drunk.

The taller man doesn’t seem to notice Jiang Cheng’s indignant sputtering. Instead, his gaze is drawn to the silver bell tied to his waist, shaped like a nine-petaled lotus flower and shining in the moonlight. The symbol of the Yunmeng Jiang sect. His sect.

Jiang Cheng only figures out Lan Xichen’s interested in the thing when an arm shoots out and grabs at it. His fingers are clumsy and Jiang Cheng bats him away easily, but by this time, his heart is hammering in his throat and he can’t control the jittery feeling thrumming through his body.

“Please don’t touch that.”

His voice is soft. Most people might say it’s a dangerous sound, but right now, Jiang Cheng doesn’t feel very dangerous. His skin feels too tight for him and his hands are shivery; there’s something crawling up his spine that feels like panic and something he can’t name.

“Why not?”

Lan Xichen’s doing the confused head-tilt thing again, eyes trained on Jiang Cheng’s face like he holds the secrets to the entire universe. He sounds excited, and curious, and Jiang Cheng figures screw it, it’s not like it’s a secret anyway. He takes a deep breath.

“The bells… For people from Yunmeng, the bells we wear are very special to us. They represent our family: those we have lost in the past, those closest to us now, and those we will love in times to come. The bell is something very… personal to many of us, especially my family.”

Lan Xichen nods carefully. He’s an intent listener, and it feels like he understands Jiang Cheng’s shitty, halting explanation. He can tell he’s not doing a great job, but he forges on ahead regardless.

“Giving your bell to someone is a sign of deep…” – here, he struggles with the words – “… love, and affection for the recipient. Trust, as well. When my sister married Jin Zixuan, she gave him hers to wear during the ceremony.”

Jiang Cheng’s throat hurts suddenly, as if he has a cold, and he has to swallow a few times before it goes away.

The wedding had been beautiful, his sister laughing and radiant in her red dress, looking up at her new husband with such complete love and adoration in her eyes as he pushed back her scarlet veil and clasped her hands in his. Wei Wuxian had tried not to cry when the gilded peacock he’d made fun of for months promised to protect their Ah-Jie for the rest of their lives, and Jiang Cheng had only sniffled a bit as he watched the two of them bow to the tiny figurines of the gods and the markers that represented their parents.

Now, seventeen years older and exactly jack shit wiser, Jiang Cheng knows he’ll never have that. He’ll never stand in front of an altar with his hands by his sides and his pulse pounding in his ears, and see a glint of silver – his – against red robes as the person he loves walks towards him.

He’ll never have that, because everyone he’s ever loved has walked away instead. All he knows how to give is anger, and so he’ll keep his bell and his heart because no one will take them.

Jiang Cheng feels a calloused hand pat his a few times, and he remembers that Lan Xichen is an older brother too, used to giving care and comfort, even to someone as stonefaced as Lan Wangji.

“The stars are bright tonight,” Zewu-Jun repeats. Then he rests his head on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder and closes his eyes.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng doesn’t know how he gets through the rest of the night. After that moment, it’s all kind of a blur, honestly.

What happens is that Zewu-Jun falls asleep against Jiang Cheng’s shoulder, and no amount of shaking will wake the other man up. He realises that this means it’s probably nine o’ clock now, and Lan Xichen isn’t going to budge until five tomorrow morning, unless Jiang Cheng moves him himself.

Which is not going to happen. Jiang Cheng swears on Zidian, Sandu and all the gods he worships – including a few he doesn’t – that that is not going to happen.

He sits on the roof, ass going numb and fingers losing circulation due to the night-time early spring chill, the First Jade of the Gusu Lan sect fucking sleeping on him (it’s the only warm spot, but he refuses to shift closer). Lan Xichen can fall off the roof for all he cares. He’s not going to move. Absolutely not.

In the end, Jiang Cheng lasts about fifteen minutes before he gives in.

As he throws Lan Xichen over his shoulder – he may be behaving like a softhearted wuss, but he has lines, damnit; he’s not going to carry him like a fucking bride over the threshold – he thinks wryly that there might be a few reasons that Jin Ling is the way he is. And not all of them have to do with the fact that he’s related to Jin Guangshan.

The drop back down to solid ground is a short one, as the cottage is rather low. But with the added weight of a passenger, the landing is harder than Jiang Cheng expects, and the impact makes his knees buckle a little. The other man doesn’t even shift in his sleep, and Jiang Cheng thanks the heavens for small mercies.

The last thing he needs – either of them need – is for Lan Xichen to wake up and notice the position they’re in. It would hardly be dignified for Sect Leader Lan to find himself thrown over another man’s shoulder like a sack of potatoes, and even more mortifying that Jiang Cheng is the one carrying him.

He struggles a bit getting them through the doorway and into the cottage – the opening is narrow and there are two of them. Going single-file isn’t quite possible, either, considering that one of them is unconscious. Someone’s head bumps against the doorframe, and Jiang Cheng’s pretty sure he’s going to have a bruised elbow tomorrow, but finally they’re in the house, almost none the worse for wear.

Sect Leader Lan is over an inch taller than Jiang Cheng, so the toes of his boots drag on the floor as the smaller man wanders all over the cottage trying to find the bedroom. The floor plan is tiny and Jiang Cheng has little difficulty, but it might have been nice to be informed beforehand.

Not that Jiang Cheng has any desire to go into Zewu-Jun’s bedroom. None at all. Poking around in another cultivator’s sleeping quarters – especially a fellow sect leader – is rude and improper. It goes against everything Jiang Cheng was raised to be.

Jiang Fengmian spent years ingraining in him the manners a sect leader was supposed to have, the proper way to treat other cultivators. Jiang Cheng admits that over the years, he’s ignored many of those lessons, but he’s always tried to make his father proud. He’s not sure that the man woud be, if he could see his son now.

Nevertheless, Jiang Cheng can’t exactly let Sect Leader Lan sleep on the floor in his own house. It’s partly his fault that they’re in this mess.

He knows his older brother – he should have at least checked the jar for suspicious substances before he handed it over. And anyway, he’s already brought the other man down off the roof. Might as well bring him the last few feet into his own bed.

They come to the door that opens into the room where Lan Xichen sleeps. Like the rest of the cottage, it’s small and tidy. Bookshelves line the walls, stacked with scrolls rolled neatly up and tied with blue ribbons. A guqin leans against one of the shelves, meticulously polished, the strings shining in the light.

On a little nightstand next to the bed, Jiang Cheng spots Zewu-Jun’s famous xiao, Liebing. Its carved white jade surface looks innocuous, but he’s pretty sure that the flute’s owner is perfectly capable of killing someone with it, if he so chose.

Not for the first time, Jiang Cheng wishes he had any scrap of musical talent whatsoever.

Growing up, he’d been incredibly jealous as Wei Wuxian mastered one instrument after another, able even to command the dead by playing a single tune on his dizi. Jiang Cheng, however, could only make a sound like a dying chicken the few times he’d tried.

When he became frustrated and the noise worsened as he blew harder, Ah-Jie laid a graceful hand on the bamboo flute. She smiled gently and suggested that maybe his talents lay in other directions, then asked if he’d like some lotus root and pork rib soup.

That was the first time the sweet liquid had been cloying on his tongue, and Jiang Cheng swallowed the bitterness he thought he could taste. He chewed on the lotus roots instead, and politely refused when Ah-Jie offered both him and his brother seconds.

Jiang Cheng can sing, though. It’s not like he can use it as a weapon, and so it’s also not something he’s ever told anyone, even his brother, who would be suitably impressed but cover it up with a flippant remark that singing is for girls. He doesn’t need to hear that, and anyway, it’s nice to have something about himself that no one else knows.

When Jin Ling was younger and crying because he missed his parents, Jiang Cheng had sung to him. Wordless tunes, children’s songs he remembered vaguely from his own scattered childhood, anything and everything that came to mind, until the sobbing kid went back to sleep.

Jin Ling doesn’t remember any of this, of course. Otherwise Jiang Cheng might have to beat it out of him.

(He’s not serious about that, obviously. He’d never actually lay a hand on his nephew. The constant threats to break his legs are just that – threats, and even the brat knows it.)

Jiang Cheng looks away from the xiao. Rather ungracefully, he lets Lan Xichen fall onto the bed, and after a few minutes of arguing with himself, finally kneels down and pulls off the other sect leader’s boots before arranging them neatly at the foot of the bed.

He’s not a fucking nanny, and the fact that he’s doing this for another man even older than him is just downright embarrassing. His only consolation is that if Wei Wuxian’s stories are anything to go by, Sect Leader Lan won’t remember any of this in the morning.

But for some reason, that thought isn’t as reassuring as it should be.

Jiang Cheng looks down at the unconscious man, laid out on top of his covers in what probably isn’t his natural sleeping position. Lan Xichen’s well-defined features are slack and relaxed with sleep, the corners of his mouth tilted upwards even now from years of smiling at everyone around him. His braid has flopped over one ear, and covers nearly a quarter of his face.

It’s easy to see why this man ranks highest on the list of male cultivators, and has done for years. Jiang Cheng can’t really begrudge him the position.

Zewu-Jun probably has hundreds of women throwing themselves at him. Over the years, Jiang Cheng has heard the increasingly outrageous stories of marriage proposals that circulate like wildfire, centering on the First Jade of Gusu. Some of them are actually really fucking funny – nearly as disastrous as his own failed matchmaking attempts – and have provided him with hours of amusement.

He wonders if Lan Xichen has spent nearly as much time laughing at the rumours about him. Doubtful. Sect Leader Lan is too damn polite to do something as crass as delight at another poor sod’s misfortune. Joke’s on him – that’s where Jiang Cheng gets most of his entertainment these days.

That’s probably not it either. The other man most likely doesn’t spend any time thinking about him at all, not that he should. Years of political gatherings and one or two civil interactions do not a friendship make. Even though they’re kind-of-sort-of brothers-in-law now.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t even know why he’s thinking about this. It’s not like he cares.

He spots a calligraphy brush lying across a pad of paper on the tiny desk next to the door. There’s an inkpot in the top left corner. It will have to do. He pens a short message to Lan Xichen, and blows on it a couple times for good measure. Then he leaves it on the man’s nightstand, weighing it down with the xiao, for him to find in the morning.

He exits the cottage immediately after, without a backward glance.

It’s a short walk back to his quarters, but by the time he enters the building that houses all the visiting sect leaders, most of the lights are out. Jin Ling’s is as well, which is natural, Jiang Cheng supposes. The next meeting is early tomorrow morning, and though his nephew made a valiant effort not to show it, the journey up from Lotus Pier was a long one.

It might also have something to do with their surroundings. The Lan sleeping habits seem to be contagious, since even the clan leaders Jiang Cheng knows usually stay up long past midnight look to have made an effort to turn in early.

Staying as silent as possible – which is pretty damn quiet, thanks to the practice he’s had with his usual habits – Jiang Cheng lets himself into his rooms and lights a couple lamps, washing himself quickly before finishing up his usual end-of-day ritual.

He normally rinses his hair in the mornings, so all he does tonight is remove the pins and cloth that hold it in its usual severe bun. Runs a brush through it to work the tangles out, and ties a loose braid to keep it out of his face in his sleep.

That done, he tackles the short stack of papers that has piled up on a corner of the desk. He might be away from home, but the duties of a sect leader never cease. The clan elder he’s tasked with running things in his absence has sent him a report of the day’s events, and he skims it.

Nothing important. The other letters all continue in the same vein and finally, half an hour later, he’s done.

Jiang Cheng blows the lamps out and crawls into bed. The mattress is unfamiliar but not uncomfortable; at any rate, however bad it could be, he’s slept on worse. A sect leader he may be, but during the Sunshot Campaign, no one had the time or energy to spend on luxuries. He bedded down on the ground in the tents like everyone else, and didn’t complain about it.

His thoughts turn to the day’s events.

The meeting went well – as well as could be expected, as he’s already established in his numerous discussions with people who were not present at the time. He’ll have to talk to Jin Ling about it later, see if the brat’s learned anything. At least he looked like he was paying attention during the gathering. Perhaps Jiang Cheng will quiz him on it.

His nephew’s eighteenth birthday is only drawing closer and he needs to be prepared when that happens. He knows Jin Ling, with the shortsightedness of the very young, thinks it’s far away yet, but a year is not a long time, and the cultivation world is a hard one for a young man on his own.

What is he going to do, when Jin Ling becomes the Lanling Jin sect leader in more than name and finally moves to Koi Tower?

In his head, he knows that he’ll continue with his own duties and life will go on, but somewhere in his chest, he can’t shake the hollow feeling that eats away at him when he thinks about how empty Lotus Pier will be without the boy he’s raised. Without the shrieking and childish laughter, and Fairy’s barking as he chases Jin Ling through the halls.

It’s odd, and so fucking ironic that he thinks he’d laugh if it didn’t make him want to scream. Seventeen and a single father he hadn’t planned on being, all Jiang Cheng had thought was what am I going to do with this kid? Now he’s thirty-four, and the only thing going around in his mind is what am I going to do without him?

He turns over on his side so he’s facing the window. He can see the sky outside, and the words he heard over an hour ago echo in his ears.

The stars are bright tonight.

Jiang Cheng has never been close to Lan Xichen, but somehow, the words feel like hope. He whispers them to himself, and they ease the ache in his chest.

Chapter Text

When Lan Huan’s biological clock forces his eyes open at five in the morning, he feels, simply put, like death warmed over. There’s a pounding in his head that throbs in perfect sync with his pulse, his eyes feel like they’ve been dipped in glue and allowed to crust over, and his mouth tastes cottony and foul, as if a small animal crawled onto his tongue and decided to expire.

He rolls over in bed, too uncomfortable to get up just yet. The sudden movement makes the earth tilt and a sharp bolt of pain flare through his skull. Lan Huan bites the inside of his cheek until it passes.

His stomach is roiling as it hasn’t been since he discovered he was allergic to shellfish and spent an entire weekend bent over a chamber pot. But Lan Huan hates vomiting, hates the loss of control and the feeling of his stomach muscles spasming, so he swallows a few times and tries to force his innards to calm. The dryness of his mouth makes the task rather difficult.

It’s another few minutes before he feels any sort of confidence whatsoever that he can move without the contents of his insides making their way outside. Finally, he pushes himself up off the bed and gets hesitantly to his feet.

The short journey to the bathroom makes his headache intensify, and though Lan Huan’s night vision is better than decent, he still has to light a lamp in order to see.

The inevitable brightening of the small room sends little lightning bolts sparking behind his eyes. It is this newest discomfort that finally pushes Lan Huan’s sleep-fogged brain to the realisation that no, this pain is not normal.

Is he coming down with something?

He presses a hand to his forehead in much the same way as he used to do with Wangji when they were children and his little brother was sick. Though the skin feels cool against his aching forehead, his temperature is no higher than normal.

Why, then, does he feel so truly terrible?

He runs through the symptoms he has experienced since he woke up. Dry mouth, headache, aversion to light… And the last thing he remembers from the night before: downing a glass of sweet liquid that felt warm in his chest, and Jiang Wanyin’s deep voice saying “that’s not tea”.

Lan Huan has never uttered a single curse in his entire adult life (not counting his short-lived teenage rebellious phase) and he is not about to start now, but the absurdity of the situation is admittedly taxing his self-control.

From what he can tell, everything he is currently experiencing is the result of alcohol consumption. A hangover, as most people call it. And as his uncle would say, the aftermath of a terribly stupid, ill-conceived, uncultured action.

He splashes water on his face, rinsing his mouth with it as well. The cool liquid does make him feel better, though the light is still piercing when he opens his eyes to blink away the water.

Lan Huan washes up quickly, then moves back out into the bedroom, lighting a few more lamps to see by. He is surprised by what he finds.

His boots have been arranged neatly at the foot of the bed, though he can’t find the robes he wore yesterday anywhere. He looks down at himself. Oh, he thinks. He’s still wearing them.

In the kitchen, the two mugs he retrieved last night have been washed thoroughly and are now sitting on the drying rack. The ceramic jar, as well, has been cleansed of all incriminating traces of alcohol.

Lan Huan’s rooms are perfectly in order, his things are arranged neatly, and it is obvious that he had no part in any of it. He normally places his boots adjacent to the wall before he goes to sleep, and without fail, always puts the dried dishes away in the cupboard for the night. He is also wearing yesterday’s robes, which is something he usually avoids doing, if he can help it.

It is becoming abundantly clear that whatever happened last night, Jiang Wanyin was the one to deal with the aftermath. Probably also the one who had helped him to bed, if the awkward position he had woken up in was any indicator. Lan Huan generally doesn’t move in his sleep.

An image abruptly comes to mind, of the dour-faced sect leader bustling around in his tiny kitchen, drying dishes like a kitchen maid. Tugging his boots off in the middle of the night.

Lan Huan’s face flushes with embarrassment, and he thanks some unknown power that there is no one around to see.

What happened last night? Did he do anything humiliating? The entire sequence of events is a mystery to him – a massive black blank that begins after he’d taken that drink, and ends with him waking up in his bed with the headache to end all others.

Did he–? No, a quick check reveals he’s still wearing his trousers.

Then Lan Huan berates himself for even thinking that a possibility. He has more self-respect than to sleep with a near-total stranger while intoxicated – or at least, he thinks he does – and Sect Leader Jiang doesn’t seem the type to take advantage of a man not in complete control of his faculties. Yell at and lose his temper with, yes, but not… other things.

He meanders back into his bedroom and for the first time, catches sight of a small piece of paper on his desk, weighted down by Liebing. It’s a note, left by Sandu-Shengshou.

Sect Leader Lan, it reads in large, bold writing that looks vaguely familiar, I apologise for tonight’s events.

That does not sound good. Of course, it could mean any number of things. He decides to read on. Knowledge is better than ignorance, in all cases but a few.

I had not known that the jar I brought you contained a rather strong wine, and was under the impression that it contained tea instead. I assure you, I will be having words with my brother – and your brother-in-law – as he was undoubtedly the one behind this.

At that, Lan Huan cannot help the sigh he lets out. Of course it was Wei Wuxian. Even with twenty other sect leaders in attendance, no one in Cloud Recesses loves mischief-making as much as the former Yiling Patriarch. Though Lan Huan has absolutely no idea what would possess him to do such a thing.

Having been informed of the responses of members of the Gusu Lan sect to alcohol: in the event that you remember nothing from tonight, I feel obliged to let you know that nothing untoward happened this evening. However, it might be wise to avoid liquor in the future, should you wish to preserve your reputation.

The note ends with those ominous words, signed off with the man’s courtesy name scrawled hastily below. The meaning itself is innocuous, seemingly a piece of friendly advice between colleagues, but the tone is warning. Almost threatening.

If what Jiang Wanyin says is to be believed, nothing happened last night – at least, nothing that would hurt him or his sect if it were to get out. (Lan Huan is assuming here that the two of them have similar definitions of the word ‘untoward’.) So why would Sect Leader Jiang threaten him?

And why now? What would be the purpose of menacing another sect leader at a gathering meant to promote inter-sect unity? It makes little sense. The churning in his stomach is slowly fading away, only to be replaced by the cold, slimy feeling of dread.

What did he do last night?

 


 

 

For once, Jiang Cheng’s nightmares don’t wake him. Instead, he’s dragged reluctantly into consciousness by the sound of the door opening. He doesn’t even have time to open his eyes before his nephew’s voice fills the room, banishing the last dregs of sleep.

“Uncle, what are you doing still in bed? The next meeting starts in half an hour!”

Jiang Cheng starts at that. Aw, fuck, he thinks as he looks out the window to find sunlight streaming in. That was the best sleep he’s had in ages, and this is what he wakes up to? Oh, well.

Jin Ling is standing near the doorway, his arms crossed over his chest, features set in a scowl. He taps his foot impatiently, looking every inch the young master, and Jiang Cheng bristles.

He’s the adult here; where does his nephew get off talking to him like that?

“Don’t take that tone with me, young man,” he says, but the effect is somewhat spoiled by a barely-repressed yawn.

“Sorry, uncle.”

At Jing Ling’s contrite expression, Jiang Cheng turns his fury onto a more appropriate target.

“That fucking dumbass,” he mutters, as he dresses hurriedly. He checks the time – no, he’s running too late for a bath. He’ll just have to wait until the meeting is over. This is all his brother’s fault. If he hadn’t pulled that stupid stunt last night–

“Who?”

Jiang Cheng shrugs on his outermost robe, buckles his belt and glares at his nephew.

“Wei Wuxian. I swear, when I see that little bastard again, I’m going to kill him.”

The sudden change in topic seems to have left Jin Ling reeling. His brows furrow in confusion, and he suddenly looks exactly like Jin Zixuan after one of their more successful pranks.

“What does that have to do with anything?”

Jiang Cheng snorts. “Don’t ask stupid questions. Lesson number one: anything that goes wrong, anything at all, is almost always Wei Wuxian’s fault.”

“I still don’t get–”

“Please, just shut up.”

Ignoring Jin Ling’s affronted expression, he yanks the door open and makes a mocking ‘after you’ gesture that doubles in meaning as ‘get the fuck out of here’. Once the kid is out of the room, he grabs Sandu and buckles on his sword belt, then walks out into the hallway, locking the door behind him.

They’re cutting it close, but they manage to make it to the pavilion mere minutes before the designated meeting time. From the looks of it, they’re not the last ones there either. A few of the sect leaders used to later hours shuffle in, and both uncle and nephew watch them take their seats from where they’re kneeling at their own places.

Lan Qiren bangs the gong, and the meeting begins.

Almost immediately, it becomes apparent that today’s discussion is not going to go as smoothly as Jiang Cheng previously (stupidly) hoped. Instead, the sect leaders present devolve into squabbling as tensions run high and everyone begins accusing everyone else of trying to rig the new system’s set-up for their own benefit.

Suggestions – even perfectly good ones – get shot down simply because some feel that they will have to make concessions.

The head of the Qin sect, located on the eastern coast, posits a system for areas facing food shortages to receive aid from sects going through more plentiful times. Everyone else shoots the poor man down, pointing out that his sect will never have to make any contributions to that effort, due to its distinct lack of fertile land for farming.

(For the record, Jiang Cheng thinks it’s a pretty decent idea, actually. So does Jin Ling.)

The twenty sect leaders – the most powerful cultivators currently alive – are behaving like a bunch of petty, squabbling children. And they can’t even do anything about it. Every time they – meaning Lan Qiren, Jiang Cheng, Nie Huaisang and a few of the more sensible heads – attempt to get the discussion back on track, someone drives it off the rails again with more complaints and accusations.

It’s absolutely exhausting. It’s also what Jiang Cheng had expected going into this series of gatherings. Yesterday was a fluke, an anomaly. This is never going to work.

Out of the corner of his eye, Jiang Cheng can see Jin Ling flagging. The boy is scowling, though he’s doing his level best to hide it, clearly frustrated by the behavior of his elders. Under the table, his fingers are digging into his bent knees and he’s shaking his leg back and forth, albeit discreetly.

Jiang Cheng can tell his nephew desperately wants to tell them all to shut up and get along, and he tries not to sigh. This is the way the world really works, kid.

It’s sad, how quickly the boy is being disabused of the idea that he can make a difference, even by becoming a sect leader. The ones he sees now are so fucking ineffectual.

Yes, a sect leader can do pretty much anything within the confines of their own sect, but only on their own land, and only if it doesn’t affect anyone else. Over the years, Jiang Cheng has tried to show Jin Ling that there are things he can do to make life better for the people under his jurisdiction, but this meeting is quickly becoming a crash course in the downsides of the system.

It’s almost impossible to get any sort of joint project going between any of the sects, especially something as major as this, affecting all of them.

Jin Guangyao himself, loathsome as the man was, had been a prime example of this. His viewing towers had been a good idea that actually benefitted the people of the sects – not just cultivators – but he had faced so much opposition for even the one good thing the bastard had done in his tenure as sect leader that the struggle almost hadn’t been worth it. Even now, there is talk of tearing the towers down.

Jiang Cheng sighs inaudibly and gives it up as a bad job. There’s no point listening to this garbage. It’s just giving him a headache.

As the others argue, he feels a pair of eyes on him from across the room. Even after all this time, he’s still not used to the sensation of being stared at. It’s unsettling, like icy fingers ghosting across his spine.

He turns his head slightly in the direction the gaze is coming from, and sees him. Lan Wangji.

The older man is staring at him with the same, inscrutable expression as always, but there is a frightening intensity there that Jiang Cheng has never had trained on him. It’s almost like… Jiang Cheng can’t really tell, with Hanguang-Jun, but it’s almost like the other sect leader is trying to figure him out. See past him – through him – into his interior, into the soft, squishy parts of him that wouldn’t hold up to a sword.

Jiang Cheng has spent most of his life constructing a hard exterior. An exoskeleton, if you will, that rises in sharp points and covers every inch of him, even his heart. It’s so familiar to him that he can’t take it off anymore. And now Lan Wangji is trying to see through it.

That is disconcerting, to say the least.

The Second Jade of Gusu has never made any effort to understand him before. He’s still not sure if that’s even what the other man is trying to do. Their relationship is very much stab first, talk later.

So what the fuck is he doing right now?

Chapter Text

The meeting drags on for what feels like hours, but is probably only a little over two. In that time, Hanguang-Jun only takes his eyes off Jiang Cheng for the last fifteen minutes or so. It’s a highly disturbing experience.

For the first time in a while, Jiang Cheng feels very exposed, like he’s some sort of specimen being dissected under a magnifying glass while someone sits by and takes notes. He can’t quite figure out why Lan Wangji is doing it, either.

Is it because he met with the man’s brother yesterday? Or because he accidentally got Zewu-Jun drunk? He shudders to think of what Lan Wangji might do to him when he gets ahold of that little piece of information. Disembowelment may not be wholly out of the equation. Jiang Cheng resolves to think of last night’s events as little as possible.

Despite the unnerving scrutiny of the world’s second-ranked cultivator, Jiang Cheng manages to follow the gist of the meeting, slow-moving though it is. They have accomplished very little by the time the gong sounds to signal the end of the gathering, most of it having been spent on petty arguments.

During the meeting, no less than three sect leaders have issued challenges for private duels to ‘defend their honour’, or some shit like that. In reality, said duels are just pissing contests where heads who feel that they – or their sects – have been slighted in some way whack each other with swords until they feel better. The fights are also totally immature and completely childish.

(Jiang Cheng very pointedly does not think about the fact that he has participated in more than his fair share over the years. He’s won most of them, too.)

There is a familiar tension in the air as the attendees file out of the pavilion. It’s the same kind that has hung between them all for years during the annual inter-sect gatherings. Everyone here hates everyone else and what each other stands for, because every face here today represents yet another shackle on each sect’s power and influence.

It’s not just for selfish reasons, either, despite the amount of time Jiang Cheng spends whining about it in his own head. Cultivators live long lives – most get to see their two-hundred-and-fiftieth birthday unless they’re very unlucky – and have memories nearly as long. That’s a lot of time to form and bear grudges. Nearly all of the people here have suffered personal losses at the hands of people from other sects, and the bitterness that sprouts from that makes it nigh-impossible to work together.

Qin Huanglun, the leader of the Qin sect whose suggestion, like so many others, was shot down earlier? He was the father of Qin Su, the late wife of the previous leader of the Lanling Jin sect. Her husband pushed her to suicide, and Qin Huanglun is still grieving his daughter’s death.

There are others, too. Jiang Cheng is the recipient of a dangerous amount of enmity himself, for obvious reasons – which makes those who hate him rather disinclined to listen to anything he says. But it’s too late to regret the things he’s done.

Lost in his thoughts as he is, Jiang Cheng only tunes back into the real world when Jin Ling asks permission to wander around Cloud Recesses. That’s code, he thinks, for allowing his nephew to visit his boyfriend. Which reminds him: he hasn’t seen the youngster around lately, which is rather strange. Before the events at the temple of Guanyin, it had seemed as though Jiang Cheng couldn’t take fifty steps without running into Wei Wuxian and his posse, which included Lan Sizhui. Now, the kid is nowhere to be seen.

It’s rather suspicious, now that he thinks about it. Is he deliberately avoiding him? Possibly, though it doesn’t seem like a particularly smart move.

Jiang Cheng knows he has a formidable reputation and a legendary temper, but is it really a good idea to hide from the parental figure of the person you’re seeing? It’ll just bring more trouble down on the boy’s head in the long run, though Jiang Cheng supposes rather bitterly that when your adoptive parents are Hanguang-Jun and the infamous Yiling Patriarch, you can get away with pretty much anything.

And it’s not like Jiang Cheng knows anything about dating etiquette, as his subconscious fucking loves to remind him.

Still, what could it hurt? He gives Jin Ling an absent-minded “yes” and watches as the boy practically leaves a dust trail in his wake as he disappears to god-knows-where.

Jiang Cheng knows it’s a dick thing to think, but he figures this relationship could benefit his nephew politically too. So far, it’s given him an in with the Gusu Lan sect – a powerful clan in their own right, and one of the Four Great Sects of the cultivation world – and when Jin Ling ascends to his seat in the Lanling Jin sect, he’ll need all the help he can get. Moreover, unless Lan Xichen has kids in the foreseeable future, Lan Sizhui is all set to inherit the mantle of sect leader. As alliances go, it’s not a bad one.

Now, if only that didn’t mean Jiang Cheng has to visit Cloud Recesses on a regular basis, it would be a match made in heaven.

Footsteps come up behind him, startling him out of his reverie. But before Jiang Cheng can react, there’s an arm swinging itself around his shoulders, and a boisterous laugh sounds in his ears.

“Hey, Jiang Cheng! What’s up, little brother?”

Speak of the devil, and he appears. Jiang Cheng sighs and turns around to face Wei Wuxian. As usual, the shorter man is wearing his customary red-and-black robes, standing out among the other white-clad inhabitants of Cloud Recesses. Lan Wangji follows only a short distance behind him, Bichen strapped to his side, impassive as ever.

Hanguang-Jun has been making it clear that he’s unwelcome since the moment he stepped foot in this place and frankly, it’s grating on his nerves.

Jiang Cheng has half a mind to go up to him, fist a hand in his robes and ask, at the top of his lungs, what the fuck all the staring just now was about. But he doesn’t. Instead, he clenches his fingers in his own robes and counts backwards from ten.

He will not make a scene, out here where anyone can see them. It wouldn’t be right, would reflect badly on his clan, would show everyone that the Yunmeng Jiang sect leader can’t even control his own temper.

Ah-Niang had told him when he was little that any personal disagreements had to be resolved just like that – personally. Never get into a fight where other people can see you, she’d said. You are a sect leader, and you must behave like one.

And Jiang Cheng listened to her. For years, he tracked his enemies to dark forests on night-hunts and settled their disputes with harsh blows that only the trees and unlucky forest animals bore witness to. He unearthed demonic cultivator after demonic cultivator and only let Zidian loose when they were back behind the walls and closed doors of Lotus Pier. Even insisted on holding his duels with other sect leaders in a quiet place after midnight, away from prying eyes.

Jiang Cheng did everything his mother told him to do, and it still wasn’t enough.

Because he had been seventeen and exhausted from running ten days without a rest, and all he’d wanted to do was curl up with the big brother he’d just saved from certain death, his big brother who had killed a centuries-old demon in a cave with only the help of another teenager while Jiang Cheng ran from the bastards who had put them there in the first place. His father had been disappointed and his mother enraged, and they’d fought about him outside in the courtyard where everyone could see and know that no matter what he did, or how hard he tried, Jiang Cheng wasn’t good enough. Was never going to be.

His mother had broken her own rules because of his inadequacy. But Jiang Cheng isn’t going to let that happen again.

So he swallows his anger and indignation, and turns to Wei Wuxian. He doesn’t want to look at Lan Wangji right now.

“Yes?”, he asks, his voice sharp, even to his own ears. Wei Wuxian doesn’t seem to notice.

“Can we talk to you for a bit?”

“Only if he leaves,” says Jiang Cheng, shooting a glare at Lan Wangji. The other man’s bland expression tightens for a moment, but when Wei Wuxian nods at him, he seems to get the message and disappears behind a corner.

Now the two of them are alone in a quiet corridor. The tension is nearly thick enough to cut with a knife, and the once-Twin Heroes of Yunmeng stand in front of each other, neither of them sure what to say.

“Let’s go for a walk,” Wei Wuxian suggests with all the cheerfulness he can muster. He knows that Jiang Cheng is uncomfortable with interactions in public places – has since they were young, because Yu Ziyuan had given him the same spiel about saving face for their sect. He simply chose not to listen.

Jiang Cheng nods. They walk through the hallways together, nodding at the few disciples they encounter on the way, who bow and move to the side to let them pass. Finally, they come to a set of rooms that seem to be uninhabited. Jiang Cheng recognizes them as the lecture halls where they used to sit and listen to Lan Qiren’s droning as students. To stay awake, Wei Wuxian had resorted to reading shitty romance novels under the table. Jiang Cheng had dug his nails into his palms and done his best to pay attention.

The older man closes the door behind them as they enter, and Jiang Cheng can’t help but feel a sense of foreboding. He tries to squash it, and is mostly successful.

“What did you want to talk about?”

Wei Wuxian scratches the back of his neck sheepishly.

“Actually, Lan Zhan wanted me to ask you a favour. He’s going to be really busy the whole of this week, ’cause the meetings and stuff are apparently going to be a whole lot harder to keep on track than we thought. So seeing as you’ve already gone a couple times…”

“You want me to keep visiting Zewu-Jun to give him the reports.”

Jiang Cheng’s tone is flat, but only because he’s making an effort to keep the irritation out of it. He raises his eyebrow, taking in Wei Wuxian’s expression – the grin he wears when he’s asking for something he knows he probably won’t get, and is plowing on ahead anyway.

“Every day?”, his brother adds hesitantly. “Please?”

Suddenly, there’s a pressure in his lungs and Jiang Cheng can barely breathe. It feels as though there’s something burning hot wrapped around him, squeezing, crushing him in its hold, and the temperature inside him rises to match. He explodes.

“You do know I have other things to do, don’t you? Outside of running errands for you and your fucking husband? Who – by the way – hasn’t spoken a civil word to me since I got here! I came to this thrice-accursed place on your request and left my sect on its own, despite the fact that that is where I’m supposed to be, because I happen to be the one running it!”

He’s breathing hard by the end of it, spitting the words with as much vitriol as he can infuse them with, but the crushing feeling in his chest is nowhere near lifted and though Wei Wuxian’s eyes are wide with the shock of his outburst, he’s not even halfway done.

His older brother has been back in this world for less than two years; their relationship isn’t even close to being fixed, and he thinks he can just ask Jiang Cheng for favours? That Jiang Cheng will just leap to do things for him, just like when they were kids and he spent nearly all his free time cleaning up Wei Wuxian’s messes?

He remembers a year ago, when they stood in the temple of the goddess of mercy, he reminded Wei Wuxian of the promise he’d made when they were seventeen and their family was still whole. And his brother said, “I’m sorry”, and walked away. Just like that.

It fucking hurt. It hurt so bad that Jiang Cheng almost cried when he hadn’t in years, because the one person he’d so naïvely thought would always stand with him had turned his back on him again. For real, this time. Still, he accepted it, because coming in second-place to his older brother is something he’s been doing ever since he was ten years old, and it’s still better than being nothing at all.

But Wei Wuxian doesn’t get to do this. He doesn’t get to tell Jiang Cheng that he’s not worth the effort, and then ask him to do things for him. For Lan Wangji, who Wei Wuxian had put first, before Jiang Cheng, and now always will. For the Gusu Lan sect he joined when he decided that Yunmeng wasn’t fucking good enough anymore.

His brother looks hurt now, like every word Jiang Cheng’s just said is a dagger scoring right across his heart. And Jiang Cheng, for all the rage he feels, nearly falters. Because he’s conditioned to respond to that look – to scoot closer protectively when Wei Wuxian is down, to turn his fists and razor-sharp tongue on the person who’s made his always-cheerful brother look like he’s about to cry. But this time…

This time, he’s the one putting that expression on Wei Wuxian’s face. And the words keep spilling out like boiling oil, burning and blistering everything in their path.

“You know, I thought you’d changed. That maybe you’d finally grown up a bit, stopped being so selfish.”

He laughs, and it’s a horrible, jagged sound.

“Well, I was wrong, wasn’t I? What you did last night just proves it. I did my fucking job, delivered the report like you asked me to. But it wasn’t enough. It’s always like that with you – nothing’s ever enough. You just keep pushing and pushing; it’s like you’re trying to see how far you can go, how far everyone else will go for you. You couldn’t draw the line at a goddamn report, could you? You had to mess with that jar, knowing I would be the one to deal with the fucking consequences!”

“It was just a prank,” Wei Wuxian protests, but Jiang Cheng cuts him off.

“It always is with you! Gods, you don’t even see how – how immature you are. Everyone else can go to hell, can’t they, as long as Wei Wuxian has a good time!”

Jiang Cheng can see the exact moment the other man snaps. Throughout his little rant, Wei Wuxian’s face has been steadily draining of all colour, the look in his eyes sharp like broken glass. But then a switch flips, and suddenly his brother is yelling too.

“I was trying to help, you dumbass! You’re so uptight all the time, and Lan Xichen’s just gloomy, so I figured both of you needed to lighten up a bit. But gods forbid I do something good, right? Everything that goes wrong is somehow my fault, never mind that I just wanted you to be happy! I don’t know why I’m even trying, if you blame me for every little thing!”

“Maybe you shouldn’t!”

Jiang Cheng doesn’t mean to say it; he really doesn’t. It’s like the words have a mind of their own, and they fly out of his mouth as easily as he does on Sandu. But they’re barbed when they land, and he can almost see the way his thoughtless scream tears at his brother, sinking deep into his skin and ripping through any flesh it finds.

“You don’t have any room to talk,” Wei Wuxian roars. His ponytail has come nearly all the way undone, and the ends of it are shaking with the force of his rage. The same rage that raises corpses and decimates his enemies. The rage that turned him into the Yiling Patriarch.

“You stand there and talk about how I destroy everything that I touch, but you can’t judge me. You think I don’t care when I hurt people? Of course I fucking do! Everything I’ve ever done has been to help people, including you. I was willing to go my entire life by your side, as your servant, because I cared about you.”

“You want to talk about heartless? Well then, let’s talk about you. I may hurt people by accident – I know I have, and I regret it – but you? You’re no better. In fact, you’re even worse than I am. Because you hurt people to make yourself feel better. You’re not even a whole person, Jiang Wanyin!”

“Shut up! Shut up!

Jiang Cheng can’t… he doesn’t even know what he can’t do. There’s so much. He can’t listen to this anymore, because every part of this is wrong.

I cared about you. Past tense. Cared.

Jiang Wanyin. It sounds so wrong, coming from Wei Wuxian’s mouth. It’s the first time he’s ever called Jiang Cheng by his courtesy name, instead of his given one. He’s the only person in the world who doesn’t do that. Not Jiang Cheng. Jiang Wanyin.

But that’s not even the worst thing about this. The worst part is that Wei Wuxian is right. Everything he’s saying, even though it feels so awful it makes Jiang Cheng’s teeth and bones ache with the wrongness of it, is completely and utterly the truth.

He’s a monster. He’s not even a whole person. He’s killed entire families, burned buildings to the ground, tortured people simply because he wanted to. Because it fed the fire inside of him, made it burn higher, hotter, until it swallowed him whole and he couldn’t tell where the fury ended and he began.

Wei Wuxian is right. But hell will freeze over before Jiang Cheng admits it to anyone but himself.

He yells something – he doesn’t even know what – and Wei Wuxian yells something back. And now they’re hurling insults at each other, dredging up recent and old childhood hurts and grievances, like snakes spitting poison right where they know the other hurts the most, right where they know lay each other’s insecurities and wounds both scabbed over and so deep they haven’t even started to heal.

The two of them have known each other too long; they can do too much damage, because Wei Wuxian knows Jiang Cheng better than anyone and Jiang Cheng spent the better part of his childhood listening to his big brother’s secrets. And each of them wants to hurt the other as badly as they too have been hurt, so now they scratch and bite and tear at each other with the ferocity that only two people who have loved each other can bear to show.

Jiang Cheng barely registers when he pulls Sandu out. It’s mostly reflex at this point, that he draws his sword when he feels threatened. But Wei Wuxian leaps back at the sudden hiss of metal, the glint of the blade as it catches the light, and Jiang Cheng is abruptly reminded that Wei Wuxian is unarmed, that his golden core isn’t his own and is weak as hell, and so he’s basically defenseless.

This information barely has time to sink into Jiang Cheng’s brain before a hand pushes into his chest and suddenly there is someone standing between him and his adopted brother. A tall figure in white, with a sword strapped to his waist.

“Stop,” says Lan Wangji.

His expression looks blank, but his mouth is pinched together. It’s subtle, and Jiang Cheng almost doesn’t recognize it through the haze of rage and pain that mists his mind, but it’s there, and the ability to recognize tiny details like this has saved Jiang Cheng’s life more than once on the battlefield.

“Stop,” he says again, and somehow they do, without even the need for the infamous Gusu Lan silencing technique. As if both of them recognize that they have gone too far this time, inflicted too much damage that may never be repaired.

Then Hanguang-Jun grips his husband by the wrist and drags him out the door, and the two of them vanish from sight as it swings closed behind them. And Jiang Cheng is alone, with no one to watch him. No one to see anything he does.

He sinks to his knees and covers his face. No, he’s not crying. Absolutely fucking not.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng kneels on the floor for the better part of an hour. His legs begin to cramp in the first half, and go numb in the second, but he can’t bring himself to move. Inside, he feels hollow, like the bitter, angry words he and Wei Wuxian hurled at each other tore him open and bled him out, and so he holds his position on the cold stone floor until his body matches the way he feels inside.

He should be angry. He should be furious, even. He wants to – he wants to rage at Wei Wuxian for everything the other man has said, for sitting on his fucking high horse and judging him, finding him unworthy.

But he can’t.

He wants to summon that cold fire from where it always hides simmering in his gut, to coax it to a blaze and let it consume him, burn him from the inside out until he feels as though he could burn the world with him. He wants that old, comforting hate back, from those thirteen years when Wei Wuxian was nothing to him but a nightmare figure, the traitor that turned his back on him and destroyed his world. He wants so many things.

But Jiang Cheng can’t do any of them.

He can’t start a bonfire when he’s nothing more than a snuffed-out candle, cold and lonely, dripping wax solidifying around a charred-black wick. There’s nothing left in him. Just numbness, and an aching feeling that he’s just fucked everything up.

And for what? A stupid report? A jar of wine? A daily visit to a man whose friends turned on each other and then on him, before finally dying and leaving him to pick up the pieces?

What the fuck is wrong with him? They were doing so well, their relationship nothing like it used to be but getting there, like a gaping wound painstakingly stitched up with spidersilk, fragile and delicate. And then Jiang Cheng went and ripped it open again, leaving nothing but torn flesh and fraying threads.

Yesterday, they’d been talking politics and teasing Jin Ling together. Wei Wuxian had hugged him, and Jiang Cheng squeezed back. They were making progress.

Then Jiang Cheng started the argument, and everything went to shit.

And Jiang Cheng did start it. Regardless of what Wei Wuxian had done, what he’d said that made Jiang Cheng so mad he couldn’t see straight, what insults were flung back afterwards, those first ugly words had been all him.

Why did it matter anyway? Why couldn’t Jiang Cheng just suck it up, sigh and agree to his older brother’s latest request, as he did so many times in their shared childhood? Why couldn’t he just brush off Wei Wuxian’s latest dumb prank, like every other one he weathered before it?

Control your temper, his father had emphasised time and time again. But he wasn’t able to – he lost it, just like he had when he was a stupid little boy, playing at being a man. And now he’s a man, playing at being a whole fucking person.

It always comes back to that, doesn’t it? To Jiang Cheng, and how there are pieces missing from him where there shouldn’t be. Strength. Compassion. Love.

He scrubs at his face frantically, and he’s surprised when his hands come away dry. His eyes feel hot, though, and swollen, his cheeks faintly sticky where the salty dampness dried ages ago.

Jiang Cheng hasn’t shed tears in years, but even such a length of time can’t erase the knowledge that he’s not a pretty crier. His face always goes blotchy, and his skin too tight. If he leaves now, everyone in Cloud Recesses will know that the leader of the Yunmeng Jiang sect has been bawling like a fucking baby.

He’s retained power, kept his sect at the top thus far only by a combination of cunning, ruthlessness and brute strength. He can’t afford to show weakness, especially not now. There’s Jin Ling to think about. Jiang Cheng can hardly help his nephew gain the others’ respect if he himself is on the verge of losing it.

So he sighs, gathers the shreds of dignity he hasn’t yet wept onto the lecture hall floor, and stands up. Or he tries to.

After kneeling for so long, he’s lost all feeling in his legs. His knees buckle the moment he puts his full weight on them, and it’s only by bracing himself against a nearby side-table that he keeps himself from crashing to the floor.

“Fuck,” he mutters as he regains his balance. His voice is so hoarse it’s almost funny. Pins and needles assault his lower half, and he sways a little as he totters on over to the small bathroom tucked away at the back of the hall, near Lan Qiren’s massive oak desk.

The water is cool against his over-heated skin. He splashes his face a few times, until the tight feeling has gone away and he’s sure his cheeks and nose are more or less one colour, rather than white overlaid with red splotches. He also rinses his mouth, because a couple tears have found their way into his mouth sometime during the last hour, and despair tastes fucking nasty.

When he’s finally satisfied that he can pass for a normal human being, he dries his face with a corner of his sleeve and walks out the door, leaving the empty lecture hall behind.

 


 

Jiang Cheng honestly doesn’t know where he’s going. Right now, all he’s doing is wandering aimlessly through the halls of Cloud Recesses, his feet taking him through turn after turn without really thinking about it.

All he’s decided is that he’s not going back to the rooms he’s been assigned.

The next meeting isn’t until tomorrow, so Jin Ling is probably out doing gods-know-what. Most likely with Lan Sizhui and oh fuck no Jiang Cheng really doesn’t need to think about that kid right now. There’s really a very low probability that he’ll run into his nephew if he stays in his rooms for the rest of the day, but Jiang Cheng doesn’t want to take that chance.

He’s not sure he can handle himself around Jin Ling right now. And he definitely doesn’t trust the kid not to go poking if he thinks something is wrong.

For all the brat’s rudeness and excessively thin skin, Jin Ling sometimes cares too much about things he has no business thinking about.

Anyway, the thought of remaining confined in a room – even a nice one – for the rest of the day makes Jiang Cheng’s chest go tight and his skin itch. He’s not claustrophobic, but right now he’s not in the mood to lie in bed and stare at the ceiling for hours on end.

He needs to be outside. Maybe that will soothe the hollow ache that has settled low in his stomach, and the throbbing pain currently building between his temples.

Perhaps he could hit something. Work on his technique with Sandu until his muscles burn with the exertion and he can’t think of anything else except the sword in his hand and the ‘thunk’ it makes when it connects with the target. Then a bath.

Yes, that sounds like an excellent idea.

He tunes back into his surroundings, intending to head to one of the smaller courtyards to practice his swordwork where no one will see him. Intead, he finds himself in a stretch of corridor that looks suspiciously familiar.

The white walls and open ceiling are exactly like every other hallway in Cloud Recesses, but somehow, without Jiang Cheng noticing it, the stone floor has changed to slatted wood under his feet. The passage itself is narrower, too, as befitting a place where nobody comes.

There is a garden just beyond the part where the walls branch out into open space, only metres away from where Jiang Cheng is standing. Rows and rows of bushes studded with flowers, planted neatly in straight, orderly lines. Peonies, carnations, roses, and more.

Jiang Cheng stops dead. This place is familiar. He’s already been here twice before. Once by accident and once last night, holding a jar of wine and thinking it was tea.

Damn it, he thinks. An instinct tells him to turn around and run away, to get the fuck out of here before the man living here notices that there’s an intruder in his space. But it’s too late.

Because the man in question is in the garden, kneeling between a rose bush and a row of sunflowers, dark head bent over the green leaves. Before Jiang Cheng can disappear, he looks up. His eyes lock immediately onto Jiang Cheng’s face, and they seem to glow in the sunlight.

Zewu-Jun gets to his feet gracefully, as always. Long fingers brush dirt of the knees of his robes, and Jiang Cheng recognizes the clothes from the night before. The other man raises his hand in a tiny wave.

“Sect Leader Jiang,” he says, smiling gently. “Good afternoon.”

 


 

Whatever Lan Huan expected this morning when he told his pounding head to be quiet and went outdoors to tend the garden, this wasn’t it. He’s spent most of the hours since then watering the flower bushes and pulling up weeds. There is sweat on his brow and dirt under his fingernails, and Lan Huan is wearing the same robes Sect Leader Jiang saw him in yesterday.

He is clearly in no state to receive visitors, far from the poised and elegant creature most probably expect the Gusu Lan sect leader to be. Frankly, this is embarrassing. Jiang Wanyin keeps catching him at the most inopportune times – this is what, the third occasion now?

Granted, it would help if Lan Huan ever knew he was coming, but the other man has the unfortunate habit of appearing when he is least expected. And seeing Lan Huan at his worst.

Though the sun is already directly overhead, Lan Huan is no closer to remembering the events of last night than he was when he woke up before dawn. The night he spent under the influence of whatever had been in that jar remains the same frustrating blank as before. He can’t decide whether that’s a good thing.

Still, the memory of the note left on his bedside table this morning haunts him a little. Should you wish to preserve your reputation. Lan Huan has the sneaking suspicion that more happened during those hours than the other man has told him.

In the present, Sandu-Shengshou is standing in the corridor outside his house, looking as though he would rather be anywhere else. But before long, the uncertainty in his face vanishes, to be replaced by the man’s famous scowl. His hands are lost somewhere in the folds of his robes, but Lan Huan imagines that they are clenched into fists.

In this moment, it is nearly impossible to reconcile this frowning, ill-tempered man with the one who fed ducks by the tiny pond out back just last week. Or the one who probably helped Lan Huan to bed last night.

It is, instead, easier to imagine such a man leaving a threatening note by the bedside of a rival sect leader.

Lan Huan abruptly thinks back to an hour ago, when Wangji came by. His little brother had been uncharacteristically agitated, and Lan Huan nearly panicked before remembering that Wangji was a fully-grown man, second highest on the list of cultivators and married to the Yiling Patriarch. (Though the latter was probably a cause for concern rather than reassurance.)

During the short visit, the other man said little, only that he would be too busy to come by for the rest of the week. He and Wei Wuxian had asked Sect Leader Jiang to visit instead to keep Lan Huan updated, but the younger sect leader would not be coming.

Wangji left after only a few minutes and remained tight-lipped throughout the entire conversation, but Lan Huan had enough practice reading his brother that he could glean information from between the lines.

Something had happened. Something big, probably between Jiang Wanyin and Wangji’s husband, and now Wangji was upset because of it.

In the present, Lan Huan studies Sect Leader Jiang as he enters the garden. He is unusually pale, and though he maintains his impeccable posture, his movements lack a certain confidence that Lan Huan has come to associate with the other man. No – not quite confidence. Assertiveness.

His scowl, too, despite being as fierce as ever, seems rather half-hearted in the set of its lines. Fragile, somehow, like a layer of glass placed over the top of an empty box. There is little anger in the expression; only weariness, and perhaps… defeat.

Lan Huan is many things, some of which are now obsolete. Sect leader, son, uncle, nephew, mentor, friend. But before all of that, Lan Huan is an older brother.

Before his duties included diplomatic missions to other sects, or twenty-page reports missing a last important signature, he’d soothed scraped knees and cut fingers, held Wangji in his arms as he rocked him to sleep. He’d wiped tear-soaked cheeks and slept curled around his baby brother to chase the nightmares away. Even though Wangji hasn’t needed any of those things in years, instincts like those don’t just go away.

And right now, the look on Jiang Wanyin’s face is triggering every last one of them.

Chapter Text

This is ridiculous, Lan Huan thinks. It isn’t enough that he is grossly overprotective of his blissfully married, high-powered cultivator of a younger brother, an acting sect leader in his own right. Of course, those protective instincts just have to extend to everyone within eyeshot who looks to be in even mild distress. Including – notably – Sect Leader Jiang: Sandu-Shengshou, one of the most feared men in the entire world.

Sometimes Lan Huan questions his own sanity.

Still, he can’t stop himself from inviting the other man inside, and offering him tea as well. Jiang Wanyin accepts cautiously, as he did last night, though he makes sure to take a sip of the steaming liquid before Lan Huan brings his own mug to his lips, casting a pointed glance at Lan Huan as he does so. As if he’s checking that there’s no alcohol in the drink offered to him.

It’s rather rude, but Lan Huan can’t find it within himself to be offended.

“So, Sect Leader Jiang, what brings you here today?” He asks politely, as though he’s simply conducting small talk, but he actually is rather curious about the answer. “My brother informed me earlier that you would no longer be coming.”

“Oh.”

Jiang Wanyin’s severe expression remains unchanged, but a hint of red rises to his cheeks. At least he has the decency to look embarrassed about dropping by unannounced. Again.

“Wei Wuxian and I… had a small disagreement this morning,” he says haltingly. Lan Huan maintains his genial smile, though he has the feeling that said disagreement was anything but small.

“Regarding…?”

“Personal matters.” The reply is grim, though delivered in a perfectly professional tone. If he didn’t know better, Lan Huan would think the other man was grinding his teeth. “However, I will honour your brother’s request regardless, if this arrangement is amenable to you.”

Lan Huan inclines his head, though something in his chest gives a little leap at the thought. A daily visitor – at least for the duration of this week. He loves Wangji’s visits, he really does, but Lan Huan has always been what many call a ‘people person’. Which his younger brother decidedly is not.

Jiang Wanyin is the only other person Lan Huan has seen in a year. He may be surly and unpersonable, but it’s a small price to pay for the promise of company. Interaction.

A tiny voice in his head tells him that if he’s miserable, it’s because he’s brought it upon himself. Lan Huan ignores it and takes a gulp of his tea instead. The hot liquid scalds his tongue, turning his mouth painfully numb. He ignores that too.

“That would be excellent, yes.”

The other man puts his mug down and gives a report of the events of the meeting. Lan Huan listens in growing dismay, coupled with a familiar sense of resignation. Yesterday’s meeting had been too good to be true, indeed. Now that the sect leaders have reverted to their natural state of anarchy, it will be difficult for Wangji and the others to keep them on track.

Still, he holds out hope that it is possible for change to be made. He has faith in his little brother; after all, Wangji has proven time and time again that he can do anything he sets his mind to. This is the man who waited thirteen years for the person he loved to come back from the dead.

(Sometimes Lan Huan wonders if his baby brother would do the same for him, were he in Wei Wuxian’s position.)

But he listens with a smile on his face anyway, as Jiang Wanyin describes the three separate challenges issued during the meeting, all for ridiculously trivial reasons. The disdain in the other sect leader’s voice when he details the back-and-forth sniping between the rest of the clan heads is audible, and Lan Huan struggles not to laugh when he notices that Sect Leader Jiang’s tone and inflections change slightly as he repeats each person’s words. As if, unconsciously, he’s mimicking the speakers.

He relaxes more as the conversation progresses. When it becomes clear that Lan Huan isn’t going to probe further about the aforementioned “small disagreement”, the atmosphere lightens.

Suddenly, Lan Huan realises that he’s almost comfortable with the other sect leader. The tension between them has lessened until it’s barely there – or as little as it can be, between two near-strangers who know each other only in a political capacity. And the tenuous relationship of a pair of brothers-in-law.

The realisation hits him like a bucket of freezing water drawn from the Cloud Recesses’ cold springs. A chill washes over his entire body, sending a shock through his system.

His stomach tightens. Comfortable. Lan Huan can’t be comfortable, not with anyone besides his brother. Not after what happened with Jin Guang– with him. He feels as though he’s sliding down a cliff wall, hands scrabbling frantically for purchase on the rough stone but unable to hang on, nothing but empty air beneath his feet.

Lan Huan can’t trust anyone except Wangji. He isn’t allowed to. He can’t allow himself to.

(He’s been on the cliff for over a year, and there are hands, so many hands, reaching out to him. But he can’t take any of them, because the moment their fingers brush, they crumble away. Sometimes he’ll reach out to grasp one, press their palms together in a prayer for salvation, but then the hand lets go, and he’s falling, falling, falling with no one to catch him. He knows, because this is what he sees in his dreams. His nightmares, over and over again.)

It’s a struggle to keep the soft smile on his face, and he can feel it hardening. Becoming brittle, like dried-out eggshells.

He needs to escape, to find a ledge that is solid under him before he falls again. Because the hands are still reaching out, and he can’t afford to give in to the desire to take one. Lan Huan changes the subject.

“What exactly happened last night, Sect Leader Jiang? I confess, I remember very little of the events that transpired. I did receive your note this morning, but the exact details still elude me.”

Yes, this is good. A safe topic. Lan Huan can hardly be tempted to trust a man who has threatened him, and it will do him good to remind himself of that. Not to mention, he really does need to find out what happened last night. If it has given a rival sect leader blackmail material, well, that really doesn’t bear thinking about.

Surprisingly, a flush creeps its way up Jiang Wanyin’s neck.

“Nothing untoward,” he replies, echoing the words from the note. “There was a, ah… mishap involving the roof. You climbed up, and I brought you down. Nothing more.”

Well, this is unexpected. He can see how that might be damaging to his reputation, should it happen again in the future. It’s now Lan Huan’s turn to be embarrassed.

“Nothing more?”

“You may have been asleep at the time,” the other man admits. “On the way back down, I mean.”

Instantly, every drop of blood in Lan Huan’s body is redirected to his face. He tries to suppress the blush, but the growing heat in his cheeks is telling enough of his lack of success.

“I see,” he says faintly. “Until just now, I was unaware I had behaved so… improperly. I apologise for any inconvenience that may have caused you.”

The other man lifts his tea, long since gone cold, to his mouth and downs all of it in a single swallow. The situation is obviously nearly as awkward for him as it is for Lan Huan. The thought is rather comforting, although he still wishes he’d changed the subject to literally anything else.

“There’s no need. I simply wished to give you a piece of friendly advice. To my knowledge, those from your sect do not handle alcohol well. It is not something to be ashamed of, it just is. That said, I do hope you watch any gifts from your brother-in-law carefully, from now on. This isn’t the first time he’s pulled something like this.”

The reference to Wei Wuxian as ‘your brother-in-law’ is jarring. It is the first time Lan Huan has heard it, and for a moment, he wonders what went on between the two of them to make Jiang Wanyin act this way.

Then his brain catches up with his heart, and he registers the meaning of the statement.

The other man hadn’t been threatening him at all, simply passing on a recommendation he thought would be helpful. Guilt snakes through Lan Huan’s insides. When did he start assuming the worst of people? His tendency to see the best in others has always been his most positive attribute. When did that change?

He re-assesses the man seated opposite him.

Even with his obvious embarrassment, Jiang Wanyin is much more at ease now than he did when he first entered the garden. Despite this, the other sect leader looks tired. His face is wan, and the melancholy look that so triggered Lan Huan’s protective instincts, though fainter now, still hasn’t gone away.

Lan Huan feels the overwhelming urge to do something ill conceived and ridiculous, like nag at him to go back to his rooms and sleep. Which would undoubtedly be a truly terrible idea. Jiang Wanyin most certainly would not appreciate being mothered, especially by another man a scant four years older than himself.

He forces the strange compulsion down with an effort.

“How were you feeling this morning?” Jiang Wanyin’s voice drags Lan Huan out of his thoughts before they can swamp him again. “I don’t mean to pry, but sometimes when one… overindulges the night before, waking up the next morning can be rather unpleasant.”

Lan Huan startles himself by chuckling. ‘Unpleasant’ was one way to describe the lancing pain and stomach-churning nausea that greeted him when he opened his eyes only hours earlier. And a particularly mild way at that.

“It was not a nice experience,” he admits ruefully. “Why is alcohol so popular, then, if it leaves the drinker feeling like that?”

The answering laugh Jiang Wanyin emits takes Lan Huan by surprise. It’s a deep, mirthful sound. Something inside Lan Huan warms when he hears it – the same something that reminds him that Sandu-Shengshou probably laughs only rarely.

“Of course you wouldn’t know,” the other man replies. Though the words are condescending, his tone is anything but. “I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but most people tend to remember their experiences while intoxicated. I know first-hand that it can be a very good feeling, at least in the moment.”

“First-hand?”

“Yes, actually. Alcohol isn’t prohibited in Lotus Pier, you know. That’s one thing we have over you Lans.”

Lan Huan winces, but there’s a smile behind it. “I’m not sure my headache this morning would agree with you there.”

That gets a disdainful sniff, and a haughty comment of “lightweight”. Lan Huan nearly laughs again. He’s only seen Jin Rulan a few times at various annual gatherings – and never since he decided to go into seclusion – but right at this moment, Jiang Wanyin looks exactly like his nephew whenever Lan Huan saw the child avoiding his peers. It’s such a perfectly Lanling Jin sect gesture to make.

Lan Huan wonders who got it from whom. Did Jin Rulan inherit it from his uncle, or was it the other way around?

But quickly, the contempt turns to concern.

“I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of a ‘hangover remedy’, have you?”

Lan Huan shakes his head. When he was younger and on the run from the Wen soldiers, sharing a room above a brothel with a boy named Meng Yao, he’d known some of the workers there turned to liquor to dull the pain of the ‘services’ they had to provide. Often, they complained of headaches the next day, but never had Lan Huan heard of anything that could ease the effects of too much alcohol.

“Is it something medicinal? I’m not sure I could make anything like that – I grow my own herbs, but I don’t think any of the ones I have possess such properties.”

“No,” Sect Leader Jiang scoffs. “No fancy plants required. The best cure for a hangover is actually just food. The greasier the better.”

He pauses for a moment, as if reliving some memory.

“Eggs are good. Pork, too. Everything should be fried and thoroughly salted.”

Lan Huan blanches. No wonder he’s never heard of such a cure. Food in Cloud Recesses is as bland as possible, salt and spices kept to a minimum to encourage discipline among those who live there. It’s easier to regard worldly pleasures as less important if they are also less pleasurable. Before Lan Huan left Gusu for the first time, he had never even tasted anything fried.

What Jiang Wanyin is describing so casually is something that would probably give Lan Huan’s uncle a heart attack if it were ever put in front of him. It is an utter travesty by Gusu Lan sect standards, an affront to their very way of life. Lan Huan immediately wants to try it.

“Can you make it?”, he ventures cautiously.

“Sure. My broth– Wei Wuxian used to drink too much all the time. Then he’d wake up the next morning and do nothing but complain. Ah-Jie used to make breakfast for him when he got like that; sometimes when she wasn’t there I took over just to shut him up.”

Just then, Lan Huan’s stomach lets out an embarrassing growl: the result of hours spent outside on an empty stomach, on account of the nausea he felt this morning. It’s past time for lunch, and he still hasn’t eaten yet. He flushes a little, tugs at his sleeves self-consciously. That was terribly undignified, he thinks. If Shu-Fu ever caught me behaving like this, he might have an aneurysm.

Jiang Wanyin meets his eyes. There’s a hint of laughter in those gray depths, but it’s not the mocking kind. It’s warmer somehow. Friendlier.

Suddenly, Lan Huan is on the cliff again and a hand is reaching out – a hand wearing a silver ring with a purple stone. But instead of waiting, the hand closes the distance and wraps itself around Lan Huan’s own. This time, it doesn’t let go.

“Would you like me to make you some?”

Lan Huan smiles.

“Thank you. I’d like that very much.”

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng has made a mistake. He realises this the second the words leave his mouth.

Would you like me to make you some?, a voice in his head mocks, simpering and annoyingly high-pitched. He’s a fucking dumbass, is what he is. Who the hell barges uninvited into another sect leader’s house in the middle of the day, tells him that he’s witnessed probably the most embarrassing thing said sect leader has ever done, and then offers to make him lunch? Jiang Cheng must be losing his mind. Not that he ever had much of one to begin with.

But surprisingly, Lan Xichen doesn’t tell him to sod off and leave him alone. Actually, it’s not surprising at all – Zewu-Jun is famous for his unending patience and ridiculously even temper – but that doesn’t mean it should be humanly possible. The man is like a fucking saint.

Instead, he gives Jiang Cheng that guileless expression, like a baby deer, or a puppy that’s been promised a belly rub. (Jiang Cheng curses himself for the image that creates.) Those dark gold eyes wide and gentle, a soft smile spreading across his face. As far as Jiang Cheng can tell, it’s genuine, and the thought throws him for a loop.

The last person to smile at him like that…

His sister’s face appears behind his eyes, all high cheekbones, large eyes and long lashes, the ever-present curve to her lips that made everyone around her want to match it. The ribbons she wore in her hair, how she used to braid it every morning and taught him to as well.

Jiang Cheng blinks, and the image is gone. Just a phantom of the past.

Then Zewu-Jun goes and says he’d actually like Jiang Cheng to cook for him, and he’s dragged back into the present because holy crap, this is a thing he’s going to do. He can’t really say no, now that he’s offered, and definitely not with the other man looking at him like that. He looks so fucking happy to have Jiang Cheng and his distinct lack of social skills in his kitchen, cooking up the world’s greasiest hangover food. It’s surreal.

Here’s the thing: Jiang Cheng isn’t that great a cook. His Ah-Jie may not have been a powerful cultivator or a world-renowned beauty (which is utter horseshit in his opinion – Jiang Yanli was the most gorgeous woman to ever live), but she could kick ass in the kitchen. Jiang Cheng… not so much.

He’s good enough to keep himself alive, though considering that Wei Wuxian’s survived this long without poisoning himself with the slop he calls food, the bar is pretty low. Advanced dishes like the soup or roasts his Ah-Jie favoured are way out of his league, but simple stuff is alright. Jiang Cheng can handle eggs and pork in someone else’s tiny kitchen, no problem. Probably.

He makes his way into the aforementioned kitchen, Zewu-Jun following behind him curiously. Jiang Cheng asks where he keeps his cookware and utensils, and the other man directs him to a set of cupboards. The stuff he needs is stacked neatly inside the small space, and he’s careful not to disturb the order when he takes it out. Everything here has its proper place, and Jiang Cheng doesn’t want to be the one to mess it up.

He’s said before that the kitchen is tiny, but knowing it and feeling it are two very different things. There’s just the right amount of space for one person to maneuver, but two tall, broad-shouldered adult men are too much for it to handle. From anywhere in the kitchen, there is at most a foot between Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen at any point in time, and though the other man is trying his hardest to be unobtrusive, Jiang Cheng is acutely aware of his presence.

Zewu-Jun is standing in the far corner of the room, giving Jiang Cheng the most space possible (which really isn’t much) to work as he roots around in the shelves for eggs, salt and cooking oil. Lots of it. Disappointingly, there isn’t any pork, though he does come up with a dried sausage. It’ll have to do.

He cuts the sausage into thinner slices, sets a wok on the stove and pours in a large volume of oil, laying a few pieces of lachang at the bottom with his other hand when the oil begins to hiss and sizzle.

As the meat cooks further, Jiang Cheng can feel eyes following him attentively. He doesn’t turn around – no need to make this any more awkward than it already is – but Lan Xichen’s gaze reminds him of his own as a child, perched on the kitchen counter to watch his sister cook.

His mother used to scold him for wasting time away from practicing sword drills, but Ah-Jie let him taste-test once the dish was halfway done and was always happy to have him there, even though she often had to reach across him for the knives and he sometimes sat on the recipe book by accident. The memory makes him smile.

“Why are you frying the sausage? Can’t it be eaten outright?”

The question, though sudden, doesn’t surprise him. Zewu-Jun has fixed that laser-like focus on the pan on the stove and the cooking oil burbling merrily in it.

“It’s something my sister taught me: frying the lachang in oil makes it richer than it would be we’d left it as it is, even though it’s cured already. Yes, it’s unhealthy, but the greasier the better, remember? Just don’t eat this every day.”

He finishes and flips the sausage slices over so they can begin cooking on the other side. Then Jiang Cheng’s brain catches up to his mouth and his face flames as he realises how he sounds. Oh gods, he’s speaking to Zewu-Jun the same way he used to explain things to Jin Ling when the boy was younger and asked questions incessantly. He’s using the same tone on Sect Leader Lan that he used to use on his four-year-old nephew when he asked why the sky was blue.

Luckily, the other man doesn’t seem to take offense. It’s a nice change – Jiang Cheng is used to rubbing people the wrong way every time he opens his mouth, whether he means to or not. The perks of hanging out with a Lan, he supposes.

Then reconsiders when he recalls Hanguang-Jun’s ice-cold glares, and the perpetual disapproving twist to Lan Qiren’s mouth. Perhaps it’s just this Lan.

The cultivator in question gives an answering hum and nods.

“Thank you for the instruction,” he says formally, and Jiang Cheng ducks his head to the side to conceal a smirk. The lachang is done now, crispy and brown on both sides. He uses a pair of chopsticks to pick the round slices out of the pan, setting them on a clean plate beside the stove. With his other hand, he cracks an egg and lets it drip onto the pan, the runny white mixing with the leftover oil and solidifying almost immediately.

Another three eggs are done in the same way while he continues explaining.

“If you do it like this, you don’t need to use a different wok when you’re done with the sausage, see? Some of the fat stays in the oil and you can use it to flavour the eggs.”

Lan Xichen listens intently, head tilted to the side as he tries to see around Jiang Cheng to what’s going on in the pan. This sort of thing is obviously very new to him, Jiang Cheng thinks with a grimace, remembering the flavourless food he and the other disciples used to eat when they studied at Cloud Recesses all those years ago.

Yunmeng cuisine is far superior, in his humble opinion. At least it tastes like something.

Jiang Cheng steps back to survey his handiwork. Not too bad, he thinks. There haven’t been any serious catastrophes, apart from a minor incident when the oil got a little too hot and spattered all over the pan. He’s also avoided making a total fool of himself in front of Zewu-Jun, which is a win in his book.

“How did you do that?”, the other man asks. There’s something like amazement in his tone. “I tried making a stir-fry once; almost set the whole kitchen on fire. Meng Yao wouldn’t let me anywhere near the stove after that. Even now, the best I can do is steam fish and vegetables,” he finishes sadly.

Jiang Cheng represses a snort. That means Lan Xichen can cook about three-quarters of the traditional Gusu diet. He says as much out loud, and is rewarded with a quiet laugh.

“I appreciate the compliment.”

“Oh, that wasn’t a compliment.”

They take the plates out to the living room. There’s a small table in the middle of it that doubles as a dining table, and they set the food down there. By now, the whole cottage smells of fried meat, and Jiang Cheng is abruptly reminded that he didn’t have time to eat anything this morning. But he offered to make food for the other man, not have lunch with him, so he minds his manners and keeps his mouth shut.

Unsurprisingly, Lan Xichen seems to notice. His fingers, long and nimble from years of playing both the guqin and the xiao, tug at the hems of his sleeves.

“Would you stay and eat with me? I’m not sure I can finish all this myself,” he says softly. Jiang Cheng knows that’s a lie. He’s seen the other Lan sect members at mealtimes. “I don’t mean to presume on your time – you probably have other things to do – but if it’s not too much trouble?”

All of a sudden, he’s at a loss for words. Jiang Cheng hasn’t been invited to do anything in years. Most of his friends were lost to him when the dogs from the Qishan Wen clan attacked Lotus Pier, but even before that, he’d never been particularly close to anyone who wasn’t his immediate family.

As a child, his temper and status as the sole heir of the Yunmeng Jiang sect had dissuaded the other kids from befriending him. His only companions had been his three dogs, until his father brought Wei Wuxian home and made him chase them away. After that, his adopted brother was the closest thing Jiang Cheng had to a best friend, even though he wasn’t, technically speaking. Even when they were teenagers studying together in Cloud Recesses, Nie Huaisang – the third member of their little trio – was more Wei Wuxian’s friend than Jiang Cheng’s.

He can’t remember the last time someone asked him to do something that wasn’t a favour.

The feeling Lan Xichen’s request sparks in him is strange. But it’s a good kind of strange, like his first successful flight on Sandu, age fourteen.

“Of course it’s not. I’ve been looking for an excuse to avoid all the paperwork from Yunmeng, anyway.”

Really? Jiang Cheng winces at himself. He’d been aiming for casual and flippant; hopefully that didn’t come off as desperate. Meanwhile, Lan Xichen sinks gracefully to his knees and picks up a pair of chopsticks. Jiang Cheng follows suit, though he’s aware that his motions lack the other man’s fluidity.

“I know how that feels. It just piles up, doesn’t it? Sometimes I feel as though I’m signing my life away every time I have to put my name down on another report. Even though I have so much time on my hands now, most of it gets taken up by all the forms sent my way.”

Jiang Cheng frowns. “I’d thought…”

He trails off, unable (unwilling) to complete the sentence. It sounds rude, even to his ears, but Lan Xichen just smiles kindly.

“You thought being in seclusion meant not doing anything, correct? It’s alright, most people make that assumption. Though it’s not fully true.”

“Fully?”

“Well, yes, there are a great many duties a sect leader cannot fulfil while in seclusion, as you would know. Diplomatic visits to other sects, for example. Clan gatherings.”

The First Jade of the Gusu Lan sect picks up a piece of sausage and takes a small bite. A grin breaks out on his face, and he makes an appreciative noise. Then he continues, his expression returning to its usual genial placidity.

“But there are other things I can do in here. I handle all – or at least most – of the paperwork involved in running our sect; Shu-Fu and Wangji cooperate to manage the rest. Public relations and the like.”

At the mention of Hanguang-Jun, Jiang Cheng can’t suppress the tiny frown that appears between his eyebrows.

“Do you miss it at all? Your other duties, I mean. Paperwork is one thing, but for me, the best part of being a sect leader is the physical bit. Getting to talk to the village representatives, meeting the other clan heads for negotiations. It’s the only part of the job that makes me feel like I’m doing something.”

Jiang Cheng forces himself to stop talking when he sees the other man go still, his chopsticks freezing halfway to his mouth.

Fuck, he’s stepped in it this time. Why does he keep putting his foot in his mouth around Lan Xichen? What is it about Zewu-Jun that makes him say stupid shit he’s not supposed to?

It’s an unwritten rule not to question another cultivator’s decision to seclude themself, no matter how long the period of isolation. When Qingheng-Jun, Lan Xichen’s father, resolved to sequester himself away from the outside world for the rest of his life, it had set some tongues wagging. But no one ever dared to talk about it outright.

“I’m sorry,” he says, feeling like a total dick for the implied accusation he’s just shot at a man who’s been nothing but nice to him from the time he first came crashing into his home. “I overstepped, and I apologise.”

It looks like it takes an effort for Zewu-Jun to open his mouth, and the words that come out sound painful. But his smile never wavers.

“There’s no need. You’re right, I do miss it. In many ways, managing the sect hands-on was better, both for Gusu, and for myself.”

“Then why don’t you?”

“Because I have reasons, Sect Leader Jiang.”

Suddenly, Lan Xichen looks very tired, and much older than his thirty-eight years. His smile no longer gentle and cheerful, but sorrowful, melancholic. Defeated.

“I have my reasons, and they are selfish ones, but mine nonetheless. And as much as I regret it, I can’t leave this cottage and rejoin the rest of the world. I just can’t.”

Chapter Text

“I just can’t,” Lan Huan says. An aching weariness has settled in his bones, the kind he usually feels after a long night-hunt, or a skirmish back in the days of the Sunshot Campaign.

Jiang Wanyin remains silent, uncertain of what to say. What can anyone say to something like that that isn’t a curse or an accusation? Lan Huan has heard it all before. Oh, no one dares to talk about it to his face – that would be gross misconduct and a massive breach of propriety – but there are plenty of places where people are loose with their tongues, where the young son of a disgraced sect leader can overhear things he’d never wanted to about his father.

He knows what people think of clan heads that go into seclusion. Unreliable. Selfish. Weak.

At sixteen, he stood in a marketplace and listened as two cultivators cursed his father for abandoning their sect. They called him a coward, and Lan Huan hated himself because deep in his heart of hearts, he had agreed with them. He doesn’t know what that makes him now.

The quiet in the room stretches long, like a bowstring pulled tight until it is on the verge of snapping. Lan Huan can barely even hear the other man’s breaths. But it does not feel like he is alone. The air is too thick for that, heavy with a sense of what feels like expectancy. Both of them waiting for something to give, for the other to speak.

By right, if this strange silence were a contest, Lan Huan should win. His family is known for their tight-lipped self-control, every member a master of their body that gives nothing away unless they will it. Sect Leader Jiang is not like him. Sandu-Shengshou is a man ruled by his emotions. He should be the one to lose.

But it is Lan Huan who breaks first.

“The first time I met Chifeng-Zun, I was nine years old. It was at one of the annual sect gatherings; Shu-Fu had brought me along for the first time because he thought I was old enough to learn something from it. Wangji was still too young, so he stayed home.”

Jiang Wanyin is twisting his ring around his finger – a gesture, Lan Huan has noticed, that he repeats when he’s uncomfortable. He looks Lan Huan in the eye, unblinking, a stern set to his mouth. There is no pity there. For that, Lan Huan is grateful.

“Nie Mingjue was only twelve, but he was already so much bigger than I was. Nearly as tall as some of the adults. And his cultivation was so strong. He walked around Bujing-Shi with his dao strapped to his waist; you can imagine how impressive it looked to a nine-year-old.”

His lips twitch upwards almost imperceptibly at the memory of his Nie-Dage as a scowling preteen, shoulders thrust back and spine straight as a rod in order to seem as imposing as possible. Back then, his impression of the other boy had been coloured by hero-worship, for only through the lens of someone much younger could such a child be considered imperious and awe-inspiring.

The man across the table says nothing, only leans closer. His storm-cloud eyes have softened somewhat, but even with all his practice reading his brother’s expressions, Lan Huan can’t determine the emotion in them.

“The afternoon of that first day, some of the older disciples from the other sects – three or four of them a bit older than I was – pushed Huaisang around a little. He was very young, just turned five, and smaller than most other children his age.”

“When his brother heard, he was furious. The adults had cautioned us all to behave, but Mingjue didn’t care. He thrashed those boys all by himself, even though he knew that he was the heir of the host sect and had to give his best performance. Was punished for it, too. He was whipped so badly he couldn’t sit down for the rest of the week. Huaisang didn’t even know what was going on; he wanted his brother to hold him and cried when Mingjue scolded him for it.”

Lan Huan looks down at the food, long since gone cold. Where is he going with this? He’s just rambling, pulling up memories from years ago and seeing how time has faded them. There’s no point to all of this, no purpose his words have to fulfill.

Surprisingly, Sect Leader Jiang has something to say.

“I remember when we were all studying in Cloud Recesses, Nie Huaisang was the worst slacker of all of us. He hated the lectures with a passion, but he still studied anyway. He was always complaining about how his older brother would break his legs if he failed a test.”

There’s a ghost of a smile on his lips, but the laugh the memory gets from Lan Huan is jerky and painful, as though it’s been torn out of him.

In his dreams, sometimes, he can see a young Huaisang, trailing after his big brother. Mingjue, who slapped Huaisang’s chubby, grabbing hands away from his robes but stole fruit to give to him when the younger boy was sick. And other times, he sees himself, too – a younger version sparring with his Nie-Dage, teaching Huaisang how to do handstands.

Once or twice, he’s dreamed of more recent events. Himself giving advice, Huaisang thanking him with a hug and calling him “Xichen-Ge”. Those are the worst, because he wakes with the urge to squeeze back, expecting to see a pair of large, dark eyes set in a face mostly hidden by a fan. Then he remembers, and it leaves him hollow.

The boy he saw as a little brother never really needed his counsel anyway, and every time he pretended to was only a step in his plan to avenge his real older brother. Just a means to an end.

For thirteen years, Lan Huan has been just a means to an end.

Out loud, he says, “I’ve known Huaisang since he was five years old.” He laughs again, and it sounds like a sob. “I called him Didi. He came to me for advice for over two decades, asked me about girls and how to run a sect, and I told him because he was my brother.”

Something flashes across Jiang Wanyin’s face, but it’s gone before Lan Huan can identify it. Not harshness, exactly, nor vulnerability. His expression suddenly looks… strangely open, his emotions not stripped and laid bare for the world to see, but rather as if the other man has just unlocked a door, and allowed Lan Huan to see inside.

He understands, Lan Huan realises.

Jiang Wanyin understands, because he knows how it feels to have a brother turn on him, to put him last and use him as a stepping-stone to achieve a goal. That he now knows it was a misunderstanding doesn’t change the fact that for thirteen years, he believed it the total and absolute truth.

“If I can’t trust that, what can I trust?”

 


 

The words ring in Jiang Cheng’s ears, even after Lan Xichen lapses back into silence.

What can I trust?

Isn’t that how he felt for so long after his Ah-Jie had died? When he believed Wei Wuxian had betrayed him and destroyed everything they’d ever loved?

There are no words for the feeling of being forsaken by a brother. It’s like being stabbed in the abdomen, but at the same time there’s a noose around your neck and the floor has just dropped out from under you, and the only purchase your feet can find is a bed of glowing coals. So you feel your soles blister and burn while you choke on your screams instead of on the rope, and all the while the only thing you can think about is why did he let me fall?

But there is no anger on Zewu-Jun’s face. Not even a hint of accusation. Only a terrible, all-consuming sadness and a pain that is etched into his very bones.

Lan Xichen has been betrayed by a brother – not once, but twice. He has been lied to and manipulated by two people who were supposed to care about him, but who only wanted to destroy each other. And he doesn’t even hate them.

Jiang Cheng can hear it in his tone. The way he says Nie Huaisang’s name.

He doesn’t deserve it, Jiang Cheng thinks. A sudden black rage fills him at the thought of his one-time schoolmate. Nie Huaisang has shattered this man, this kind soul who only wanted to help. He took his love and defiled it, used it as a sword when it was meant to be a shield, and in the process, ran his brother through with it.

(Just like you.)

(Shut up.)

“It’s not your fault,” says Jiang Cheng. The words surprise him, and from the way the other man jerks at the sound of his voice, they startle Zewu-Jun too. But he means them.

“It’s not your fault,” he repeats. Lan Xichen’s eyes are wide, dark and hurting, and Jiang Cheng needs him to understand, because he can see now that the other sect leader blames himself. “Nothing you did caused this. Nie Huaisang made the decision on his own, and it was his fuck-up, not yours.”

Jiang Cheng knows he’s being inexcusably rude by swearing in front of another clan head, but he can’t stop himself, and he doesn’t think he wants to. It’s not like he hasn’t broken enough Lan sect rules already. And disobeying one more stupid restriction isn’t important; this is.

The man seated across from him is horribly broken, has had it done to him by people he loved – and for some reason, still loves – and he thinks it’s his fucking fault. It’s not, and Jiang Cheng needs him to know that; he needs it like he needs water and air and Sandu strapped tight to his waist.

“This is life and it’s shit, but you don’t deserve it. You never have, so don’t think for a second that you’re somehow to blame for what’s happened to you. You’re a good man, Lan Xichen.”

His breathing is harsh and loud in the small room. There’s an anxious little part of him that’s deathly afraid he’s said the wrong thing, but a larger part has long since said fuck it, and the rest is totally on board with that. And Zewu-Jun…

Zewu-Jun is staring at him like Jiang Cheng has just professed his undying love while standing bare-ass naked in a freezing lake in the middle of winter. His mouth is hanging open, and the topic of conversation has long since stolen the gentle smile from his face, but there’s something in his expression that looks like– hope?

But now those liquid gold eyes look even more watery than normal, the lids are shuttering over them madly and oh gods those are actual fucking tears he’s blinking back. Damn it to hell; Jiang Cheng’s just made Sect Leader Lan cry. His brain is screaming at him to ‘ABORT MISSION’, but the damage is already done, and he feels like a massive douchebag.

It’s the least he can do to turn away when Lan Xichen lifts one hand up to cover his face, wiping his eyes discreetly with a corner of his sleeve. Jiang Cheng pretends not to hear the hitch in his breath, or the tiny little sniff he lets out before the hand is lowered again.

Then Jiang Cheng hears a “thank you,” so soft it’s nearly a whisper, and he thinks he’s imagined it for a second until Lan Xichen looks up again.

The corners of his eyes are red, but the other man beams at him and it’s like standing in sunlight on a summer day, so fucking bright that he can’t look away. Unlike the sun, though, it doesn’t hurt to look at him.

When the moment ends, it’s by silent agreement that both of them pick up their chopsticks and resume eating. The food has cooled, but it still tastes pretty decent and for a while, the only sounds are the occasional ‘clink’ of wooden chopsticks as they knock together.

To an observer, it might seem as though nothing has happened. That the two sect leaders are exactly where they were fifteen minutes – and yet an eternity – ago, sitting at a table and sharing a meal. A pair of strangers, playing at being friends. But now, everything has changed.

Now, they might actually be friends.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng is surprised when the sun goes down and he can no longer see Lan Xichen’s face clearly in the dark. The light’s been fading slowly for hours now, and both of them barely noticed until it finally disappeared all the way and they suddenly needed candles to see more than the outlines of furniture.

Since Jiang Cheng spectacularly put his foot in his mouth – which ended quite well, actually, though he hopes not to make a habit of it – they’ve long since finished lunch. The dishes have been washed, dried, and put away neatly in the cupboards (Jiang Cheng’s noticed that Lan Xichen has a thing about stuff being neat and orderly, like almost everyone else in Cloud Recesses, with the exception of perhaps Lan Jingyi).

The two sect leaders have been talking since then, about everything and nothing. It’s been hours, and it reminds Jiang Cheng of the afternoon they spent together last week, feeding the ducks by the pond until the moon rose. Something is different now, though. The silences shorter between topics, the stories they share more personal.

Before, they had talked mostly about other people. Jiang Cheng had spoken about politics, about the world outside the cottage that Lan Xichen wasn’t privy to. In turn, the other man had told him about the things Wangji spoke of when he came to visit: recent night hunts, the ridiculous pranks his husband pulled, the juniors’ latest misadventures.

Today, seated in the living room of a cottage most people don’t know exists, Jiang Cheng learns that Zewu-Jun is hopeless at all but the most basic of household chores, that he hated jielan as a child but loves it now, and that last night was the first time he’s ever touched so much as a drop of alcohol in his life.

Lan Xichen learns things about him, too. Like how Jiang Cheng throws things when he’s angry – but always little knick-knacks that are easy to clean up, which is why his office is full of them – and how he once walked the entire length of the wall surrounding Cloud Recesses shirtless on a dare when Lan Qiren was away (Jin Ling would love to hear that story, but Jiang Cheng threatens Lan Xichen with death and dismemberment if it ever makes its way to his nephew’s tender ears). They swap childhood disasters and stupid stories about their siblings, and Jiang Cheng unwittingly ends up with quite a bit of decent blackmail material on Lan Wangji.

(Apparently, Hanguang-Jun liked to suck on his toes as a toddler. Who knew?)

There are things they don’t talk about, of course. Lan Xichen shies away from any mention of his sworn brothers. Jiang Cheng steadfastly doesn’t acknowledge his time as a hostage in Qishan, and the way his father sometimes pretended he didn’t exist.

But other than that, it’s good. Jiang Cheng can’t remember the last time he just sat and talked with another person like this, for no reason at all other than because both of them wanted to. It feels fucking fantastic. But he can’t say that, obviously; his reputation as a prickly bastard doesn’t maintain itself.

By the time he leaves the cottage, the stars are already out, the lights of Caiyi village shining in the distance. Lan Xichen walks him to the edge of the garden like the perfect gentleman he is, and when Jiang Cheng grumbles about not being a teenage girl on a date, the other man just gives a low little laugh and waves goodbye.

Jiang Cheng must be going soft in his old age, because his chest is warm like he’s just downed a whole glass of baijiu. He will, of course, deny this vehemently if asked.

He makes his way back to his rooms and closes the door behind him. First order of business: a bath. He hasn’t washed his hair in two days, which should be alright since he’s in Gusu, where it’s slightly colder, but Jiang Cheng likes feeling clean. If it’s a hangup from his days on the road during the Sunshot Campaign when water was scarce and no one bathed more than once a week, then it’s one he hasn’t examined too closely.

The water is hot and soothing against his skin. He lets out a contented sigh. Dips his head under the surface, and spends the next ten minutes working the tangles out of his wet hair.

 


 

 

Jiang Cheng is just shrugging on a clean set of robes when the door flies open. A gold blur dashes into the room and skids to a halt.

“Where have you been?”, Jin Ling asks. He fixes his uncle with an indignant look. “I’ve been searching all over for you!”

In as calm a voice as Jiang Cheng can muster, he replies. “I’ve been in here.” He glares at Jin Ling pointedly. “Taking a bath.”

“But I looked in your rooms just now, and they were empty!”

“Perhaps you shouldn’t have looked, then. Really, Jin Ling, I thought I taught you to knock when entering someone else’s room.”

Jin Ling’s gaze drops to the floor. “Sorry, Uncle.”

But any hope that Jiang Cheng has of his nephew being suitably chastened goes out the window when Jin Ling raises his head and meets his eyes again.

“So where were you?”

“None of your business,” he answers curtly.

Uncle.

He relents. Damn it. “I was visiting Zewu-Jun,” Jiang Cheng says nonchalantly. Or what he hopes passes for it; he’s always been a shit actor.

Jin Ling’s eyebrow goes up in an arch that looks too familiar for Jiang Cheng to be entirely comfortable with. He gives him a suspicious look.

“I see.”

Against his will, Jiang Cheng feels his own eyebrow rising. “You see what, exactly, you little brat?” Jin Ling doesn’t respond. “What did you want with me, anyway?”

He swears the boy smirks a little at his defensive tone. Watch it, kid. Even if the threat of broken legs no longer holds much weight, Jiang Cheng has too many embarrassing stories of Jin Ling as a baby, all the way through to his teens. His nephew will live to regret this.

“I, uh, Sizhui wants to talk to you.”

Ah, so we’re on a first-name basis now, are we? Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes. “So why, pray tell, is it not Lan Sizhui barging into my rooms at this precise moment?”

He emphasises the other boy’s surname and Jin Ling flushes. He stumbles over his next words, face a bright pink. It’s a lovely contrast with the gold robes.

“We–we came here to find you at first, but you weren’t in, and then we looked all over the place and still couldn’t find you, so I suggested we split up. Sizhui went to talk to Wei Wuxian. He thought he might know where you were.”

“Why would–” Jiang Cheng cuts himself off before he can speak the words on the tip of his tongue. If Jin Ling let his boyfriend talk to Wei Wuxian, he must not know about the argument. And if that’s the case, then Jiang Cheng would certainly rather it stay that way.

At his nephew’s quizzical look, he mutters, “never mind”.

“So, what did Lan Sizhui want to talk to me about?”

“I, er, don’t actually know. He just said it was really important and that he had to speak with you. Something about needing to do it before Wei Wuxian pissed you off too badly.”

Too late, Jiang Cheng thinks, his heart giving a little lurch. Then he preoccupies himself with wondering whether those were the Lan disciple’s actual words. Probably not, but he hopes so, if only for the sake of being contrary.

He stands up from where he’s sitting on the bed in one fluid movement, and levels Jin Ling with his best stare – the one that implies a heavy-duty eyeroll without him actually moving his eyes. It’s a very handy trick.

“Let’s go then,” he says impatiently. “We don’t have all day, and I have paperwork to fill out when we get back.”

Jiang Cheng grabs Sandu from his bedside table and buckles it on, much as he did when Jin Ling rousted him from slumber this morning. The sword is a comforting weight against his thigh.

“You don’t need–”

“Yes I do,” Jiang Cheng interrupts in a tone that brooks no argument. Eyeing him apprehensively, Jin Ling slips out the door and waits for him to follow. When Jiang Cheng turns the key in the lock, they set off.

They end up in the lecture hall that Wei Wuxian led Jiang Cheng to this morning, the very same place where the two brothers fought and ripped each other apart. Lan Sizhui is standing in the centre of it, face turned down, obviously deep in thought. It’s obvious who picked this meeting place, and Jiang Cheng enourages the urge to give another epic eyeroll to drown out the way his stomach drops at the familiarity.

Lan Sizhui looks up when they enter the room, and for a moment, a look of utter apprehension flits across his face before being subsumed under a blank mask just like his father’s. The son’s is decidedly less skilled, however; Jiang Cheng can see the tremble in his fingers and the quiver of his lips, subtle though it is. He looks terrified, poor kid. Doesn’t mean Jiang Cheng’s going to go easy on him.

When the two boys’ eyes meet, it’s like a moment right out of one of those damn romance novels Wei Wuxian used to make him read so he’d have someone to angst about the plot and characters to. A gooey expression takes over Jin Ling’s face, and Jiang Cheng is about seventy-five percent sure a pink fluffy unicorn is about to ‘poof’ into existence and start shitting rainbows. He watches Lan Sizhui more closely, though, and is gratified when the other boy breaks out into an equally idiotic grin.

Jiang Cheng’s nephew really is stupid-in-love, but at least his boyfriend is right there with him.

Jin Ling flashes Lan Sizhui a look that Jiang Cheng recognizes as ‘good luck’, and with a murmured ‘bye’, darts out of the room. Leaving the two of them alone.

There is utter silence in the hall; Lan Sizhui sounds like he’s barely breathing, or at least, breathing so softly that it’s inaudible. Neither of them says a word.

Jiang Cheng takes the opportunity to look the boy up and down. Lan Sizhui is the same height as Jin Ling, nearly as tall as Jiang Cheng himself. He has none of his adoptive parents’ features, his nose slightly longer than Lan Wangji’s, his eyes grey instead of Wei Wuxian’s brown. Still pretty enough to be a Lan, Jiang Cheng thinks sardonically. He knows the kid’s a decent fighter – and he is still a kid, even though he now wears his hair down in the style of Gusu’s adult male cultivators rather than a child’s ponytail. His face is narrow and fair, and he’s curved his mouth into a gentle smile that reminds Jiang Cheng of… someone else.

Jiang Cheng redirects his thoughts to the person in front of him, whose smile has been getting more strained by the second.

So this is the boy who’s corrupting his nephew.

“Sect Leader Jiang,” says Lan Sizhui, breaking the silence. He dips low into a formal bow, every mannerism full of grace and poise. A Lan through and through. “Good evening.”

Jiang Cheng nods back at him wordlessly.

Be intimidating, he tells himself. But not an asshole. He’s still the leader of the Yunmeng Jiang sect, and the kid in front of him is probably going to be the Gusu Lan clan head someday. He can’t afford to sour relations between their sects just because he wants to scare Jin Ling’s boyfriend a little.

“I apologise for taking up your time, but I needed to speak to you regarding Jin Ling.”

Jiang Cheng crosses his arms in front of his chest. Ah, so that’s what this is for. He’d thought so. Well, he’s a master of interrogation techniques, and this is the perfect opportunity for that one-on-one conversation he’d been considering last week. Lan Sizhui is going to talk to him, is he? He’d fucking better.

He crooks his index finger so that Zidian catches the light, glinting dangerously, and allows a few violet sparks to leap from it. Lan Sizhui’s genial expression thins, and Jiang Cheng watches his throat convulse as he swallows.

Rude, he will not allow himself to be. But that is no reason not to put the fear of every god in the heavens into the boy trying to date his kid.

Jiang Cheng grins, and his lips curl back over his teeth in a way he’s very aware can be described as wolfish.

“Speak away.”

Chapter Text

Lan Yuan feels like his heart is about to beat right out of his chest. He is acutely aware that he’s alone in a room with Sect Leader Jiang with the door locked; he is equally aware that that is probably the worst decision he’s ever made.

“Uncle doesn’t like to have important discussions in front of other people,” Jin Ling had said, nodding sagely. And like an imbecile, Lan Yuan had listened, wanting to make a good impression on the other boy’s guardian by considering his preferences. It’s only now that he realises there’s probably a good reason for those preferences. He should have considered that his survival is infinitely more important than making a good impression.

He’s going to beat you to death with Zidian and then toss the body in the river, a voice in his head supplies. It sounds suspiciously like Wei Wuxian. They’ll never find your corpse, the voice continues helpfully.

Lan Yuan has definitely been spending too much time with his adoptive father. But even that is precious little comfort – Wei Wuxian was nowhere to be found when Lan Yuan had panicked and needed advice on handling Sect Leader Jiang.

Now, standing in front of him, Lan Yuan is pretty sure no one can handle this man. Sandu-Shengshou is over six feet tall – a little shorter than his Ah-Die – but every inch of him radiates the kind of aggression that Lan Yuan’s almost never seen his Ah-Die show. Only when Wei Wuxian, and sometimes Lan Yuan, is being threatened; Jiang Wanyin has it turned up to ‘maximum’ all the time.

His lips peel back in a menacing grin, and light flashes off his ring. Zidian, the weapon used to torture countless demonic cultivators to death. The whip of purple fire that had ended the lives of so many members of the Qishan Wen sect. Lan Yuan’s sect.

A shiver runs down Lan Yuan’s spine. The hairs on the back of his neck prickle. He counts backwards from ten, just as his Ah-Die taught him to do, takes a deep breath to calm his racing heart, and fights the urge to touch the sword at his side.

He can’t know, he reassures himself, trying to quell the irrational fear that’s twisting his stomach into knots. No one knows, except for his Ah-Die, Wei Wuxian, and his uncle, Lan Xichen. And Jin Ling.

He’s known for nearly a year now, since they first began their relationship. It was the first thing Lan Yuan told him, after he had gathered up the courage to kiss Jin Ling, and overcome his shock when the younger boy kissed him back.

He pulled Jin Ling aside and confessed to him, in low hushed tones, who he was: the last living member of a sect that had wrought nothing but death and destruction, that had burned entire sects to the ground for no reason other than that they could, that had killed Jin Ling’s own grandparents. Lan Yuan told Jin Ling his greatest secret – the one that had been eating him up inside since the day he found out about it – because it was better for him to know now, when Jin Ling could still back out, than later, when the discovery could wreck so much more. When Jin Ling’s rejection would destroy him along with their – friendship? – with whatever this was that was blooming between them.

“I understand if you’d rather not see me again,” he whispered, and he’d half-believed it too. But Jin Ling scoffed, said “fuck that”, and pulled him in for another kiss.

Later, face still beet-red, shocked at his own boldness, Jin Ling declared to Lan Yuan that he wasn’t his family, that he shouldn’t let the dead run his life. And that was the moment Lan Yuan realised that he was head-over-heels in love with the young heir to the Lanling Jin sect.

Unfortunately, his biggest obstacle to that is now standing right in front of him, looking like he wants to rip Lan Yuan into little, tiny pieces for even daring to look at his nephew. He can’t know, he repeats to himself one more time, fortifying his defenses and attempting to channel his Ah-Die’s legendary calmness.

As Jin Ling says, no matter what he might have been born as, he’s a Lan now. And he’s going to act like it.

“Sect Leader Jiang, I believe you are aware of the… relationship between myself and Young Master Jin?”

The eyebrow lift that follows his question is impressive, to say the least. Lan Yuan can definitely see where Jin Ling gets that habit.

“Quite,” Sandu-Shengshou says coolly. He drops the smile, his face reverting to its customary scowl. It’s odd that Lan Yuan finds that a little less unnerving. “I do, however, confess myself confused.”

“Confused?”

Lan Yuan’s palms start to sweat. Suddenly uncomfortable, he shifts his weight a little, so subtly that it’s almost imperceptible. A gleam appears in Sect Leader Jiang’s eyes, and Lan Yuan realises that the older man was watching for the movement. He’s enjoying this, making Lan Yuan squirm under his scrutiny.

That knowledge bolsters him somewhat. Lan Yuan has never been one to back down from a challenge; he likes to think he gets it from his Ah-Die, and his reputation of ‘being where the chaos is’. Suddenly, he feels a lot better about his ability to handle the situation.

“Yes. What do you hope to get out of it? This, ah, liaison with my nephew? The heir to the Lanling Jin sect, one of the most powerful clans. And by far the wealthiest. Quite the match, isn’t it? Very… politically advantageous.”

The other man’s voice is steel. It drops a register, going dangerously low. Despite his newfound confidence, Lan Yuan has to suppress a shiver. Jiang Wanyin is not a man to be trifled with, especially for someone like himself.

He forces a placid smile, trying his best to mimic his uncle. Lan Xichen exudes an effortless sense of amiability that makes him seem impervious to others’ verbal attacks and psychological games. Or perhaps his unwavering kindness simply makes everyone else feel guilty for even attempting to bully him. Regardless, it’s a trait Lan Yuan has always admired.

“Indeed,” Lan Yuan returns. “But that is not why I have chosen to pursue him.”

“Oh?”

“Young Master Jin is one of the best people I know. He is brave and kind, and though he can be arrogant, he has a good heart and does not hesitate to stand up for what is right. He is also exceedingly dedicated to the ones he cares about. I imagine that is something you understand as well.”

Lan Yuan feels jittery, the way Jingyi sometimes gets after he’s eaten too many sweets when Lan Qiren isn’t looking. There’s a feeling fluttering in the pit of his stomach, slithery and elusive like the moment after he discovered that Wei Wuxian was his adoptive father.

Sect Leader Jiang pauses for a moment. His expression is unreadable, even to Lan Yuan, who has spent nearly all of his childhood attempting to decipher Lan Wangji’s facial cues.

“That may be so. But what can you offer him? What do you have to give him that he would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere? Gifts? Jin Ling is a future sect leader; he will want for nothing. Protection? For all his youth, he is a powerful cultivator in his own right, and he will only improve with time. A future? You are not a woman; you cannot give him an heir. I know Jin Ling’s worthiness, Lan Sizhui, but you have not yet convinced me of yours.”

His words are insulting, yes. If Lan Yuan had been raised in any other sect, he might be having a hard time reining in a desire to punch the older man in the nose. But he is a disciple of the Gusu Lan sect, the adopted son of Hanguang-Jun, and so he has been trained to look past simple surface meanings, to see things as they really are.

And Jiang Wanyin, for all his abrasiveness and apparent rudeness, is not looking down on him. Rather than condescension or animosity, there is something reserved about his tone. Almost calculating.

Lan Yuan is standing on the edge of a precipice, the tips of his boots stuck out into empty air, an inch or two of heel the only thing keeping him on solid ground. A single gust of wind could push him over; send him falling to his doom. This is it, the crucial moment – make or break.

He takes the plunge.

“I understand the issues you speak of. I have considered every facet of them. And here is my answer: it is true that I cannot give him any of those things. Neither do I wish to. Jin Ling is his own person; I will not attempt to shower him with gifts or shield him from the world.”

Here, he emphasises the other boy’s birth name, pointedly omitting the honourific. Sandu-Shengshou stares at him in stoic silence.

“I wish only to stand by him when he faces conflict, to let him know that he is not alone. You say that I cannot give him an heir – that is biologically impossible. But I am eighteen years old. Jin Ling is sixteen. We have our lives ahead of us to solve that problem. And is it not his choice, in the here and now?”

His voice rings clear in the quiet hall, unwavering.

“I have chosen Jin Ling, Sect Leader Jiang. I ask you to give him the chance to choose me as well.”

A faint light shines in the other man’s eyes. Lan Yuan has the feeling that he’s just gone through a test of some sort, and his performance has been met with approval.

Jiang Wanyin tilts his head, face settling into the familiar lines of a frown.

“Very well then, Lan Sizhui. I think I may grow to like you.”

A weight has been lifted from Lan Yuan’s chest. He feels so much lighter now, as if he could leap five metres in the air if he tried. Though he senses a ‘but’ coming.

He is proven correct when the sect leader opens his mouth again.

“But if you break my nephew’s heart, I will make the fate of every demonic cultivator that has dared to show their face in the last fourteen years look like child’s play. There are worse places to die than Luanzang-Gang.”

With those chilling words, Jiang Wanyin sweeps out of the lecture hall in a whirl of purple robes. Lan Yuan lets out a breath he didn’t even know he was holding. Only now does he realise that his legs have been shaking the entire time.

That was the single most terrifying experience of my life.

“Jin Ling,” he calls. “You can come out now.”

The other boy’s head appears in the doorway. The vermilion mark between his brows seems brighter than usual.

“Well? Do you still have all your limbs?”

Jin Ling stalks into the lecture hall, his characteristic swagger only half-hearted. Despite his gruff tone, he looks Lan Yuan up and down, eyes alight with poorly hidden concern.

Lan Yuan laughs. And laughs. And laughs some more. It’s not even that funny, but he can’t stop himself, and Jin Ling’s little indignant huff, him crossing his arms across his chest, just triggers something inside of Lan Yuan. He laughs until his stomach hurts and he’s clutching a nearby desk for support because his legs are made of jelly. He’s faced flesh-eating ghouls and soul-sucking zombies – the nastiest creatures the underworld has to offer – and a ten-minute heart-to-heart with Jin Ling’s uncle has scared him more than all of those things combined.

“This is very undignified, you know,” says Jin Ling. Lan Yuan can see he’s pouting, just a little. “Not behavior befitting a Lan. In fact, I’m sure you’re breaking at least three different sect rules right now.”

He wipes tears from his eyes and hiccups as the laughter slows to a stop. He’s so lucky to be alive right now.

“I think–” Another hiccup cuts him off. “I think your uncle likes me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Sizhui,” Jin Ling scoffs. “He doesn’t like anyone.”

Lan Yuan descends into another round of hysterics.

Chapter Text

The nightmares come again tonight. After two nights of dreamless sleep, Jiang Cheng should have known it was too good to last. He’d thought today was a good day, all things considered, but then he’s had good days before, and that never seems to chase away the awful things he sees during the nights.

Tonight, he dreams of being seventeen again, in the days after his home burned down and he witnessed his parents’ murder.

Wen Zhuliu’s hand is planted firmly on his chest, a searing heat emanating from the point of contact, turning his blood to fire. He screams; it feels like something inside him is melting – a white-hot pain that sets all his nerve endings ablaze.

And afterwards, nothing. Just a hollowness in his chest where his golden core used to be. Yes, it hurts. There are little lightning bolts of agony that spark inside him at any sudden movement, sometimes without provocation, but they are like the phantom pains of a severed arm. Only this is worse.

For a cultivator, a severed arm is nothing. Hell, Jiang Cheng’s heard of the story of Xiao Xingchen and his lost eyes, and how he’d still managed to go on night-hunts and slay fierce corpses. Because his cultivation had been strong, and the lingqi inside of him had been able to compensate for his lack of vision.

But a cultivator without a golden core is no cultivator at all. All his life, Jiang Cheng has trained and trained and trained, trying to strengthen his abilities, trying to be good enough and strong enough to make his parents proud. To make his sect proud.

And now all of that is gone, because all that Jiang Cheng was has been ground to dust beneath a Wen-dog’s heel, and he is nothing. An artist whose hands have been cut off can learn to draw with their feet, or hold a brush in their mouth to get the paint on canvas; a musician who has lost their voice can learn to play the guqin, or the xiao. But he is not either of those things. He is a cultivator without a golden core, missing the only thing about him that is valuable, and so that makes him worthless.

(Jiang Cheng has known that to be true for nearly all his life, but to have the reality of it thrust in his face, with no hope of ever improving the situation, is nearly too much to bear.)

The rain is pouring down and he is walking through the forest with his older brother. Both of them are soaked to the bone. Wei Wuxian shivers and Jiang Cheng’s teeth are chattering, but the chill that wraps itself around his skin is nothing compared to the feeling of emptiness inside him.

Jiang Cheng wakes up to skin prickling with cold, covers tangled around his ankles where he’s kicked them off in the middle of the night. His stomach is heavy with despair, slimy and settling in his innards to weigh him down.

There is a voice whispering low in his ear, spilling out words like ‘worthless’ and ‘cripple’ and ‘weak’. They burn like poison and sound like truth, and they slither down to join the oily mass in his gut that grows larger with every insult.

His golden core pulses inside his chest, warm and glowing and bright where it belongs, but Jiang Cheng wants to rip it out of him because it doesn’t belong. It’s not even his – his strength belongs to Wei Wuxian, was taken from Wei Wuxian, and the thing that’s protected him, that he’s relied upon for the past fifteen years doesn’t even belong to him.

He’d thought that he’d finally gotten strong enough, powerful enough to leave behind the angry little boy who was never as good as he was supposed to be. That he’d finally earned the recognition and respect he’d worked so hard for. But fate’s a bitch, isn’t she, and Jiang Cheng’s life has been nothing but a cosmic joke since the day he was born. He’s a fool to ever think it could be otherwise.

Instead, now he knows that that little boy never really grew up, and the strength he’s worked a decade and a half to build is never going to be enough to win back his self-respect, because the only thing that’s ever given him confidence is also a huge fucking lie.

The anger is back now, filling him up to the brim, but even that isn’t strong enough to burn away the hopelessness sitting in his stomach. His hands are trembling, and suddenly he’s consumed with loathing so strong he can’t feel anything else. He isn’t sure who it’s directed at. It might be himself.

The walls are closing in, and his chest feels like it could explode at any moment, like a child’s ball pumped too full of air. The voice in his ear is dying away now, though the silence is too loud in its absence. Jiang Cheng almost wishes it would come back.

He thinks he might be going insane.

 


 

 

The practice yard is empty this early in the morning. It’s not even three yet, and no one else is up. One thing about Lan sleeping habits is that they leave no room for insomniacs. Go to bed at nine, wake up at five, without fail. An assured solid eight hours of sleep every night – sounds fucking fantastic. Lucky bastards.

For the next three hours, Jiang Cheng doesn’t think; he just moves. Runs forwards and backwards through every sword exercise that he knows, mixes and matches techniques he’s been taught and those he’s picked up over the years. He hacks and slashes, thrusts and parries, pulls out all his tricks but never, never does he exert his lingqi. His cultivation techniques remain unused; Zidian stays in ring form the entire time.

On some level, he knows he should practice that too, with all the other stuff, but everything in him shies away at even the thought of it. Instead, he launches himself into a backflip, and pushes everything else to the back of his mind.

When he’s finished, Jiang Cheng is breathing heavily and covered with a sheen of sweat, but he’s let out almost all his aggression and the rage in him has finally been wrung dry. Small enough now that he can fold it up and tuck it back behind a curtain, where he can pretend it’s not there.

He sheathes Sandu and straightens his robes, heads back to his assigned quarters to wash up and get ready for the day ahead.

Then he rouses Jin Ling, who looks strangely smug for a teenage boy who’s been woken up before nine. His nephew won’t say what about, but Jiang Cheng has a sneaking suspicion that it has something to do with the conversation he had with Lan Sizhui yesterday.

Damn it. He knew he was being too soft. Should have thrown in some more theatrics. Maybe thundered a bit.

But the kid was so fucking earnest, had said all the right things and clearly adored Jin Ling. Plus, he’d trotted out those puppy eyes, somehow exactly like his uncle’s without being either the same size or shape, and Jiang Cheng just couldn’t muster the desire to bully him.

Oh, yeah. He’s definitely gone soft. At the ripe old age of thirty-four, too.

Well, he’ll just have to make up for it by redoubling his efforts to threaten Jin Ling. (Which doesn’t really work, because he has to tell his nephew thrice to quit smirking before Jin Ling stops looking like a cat that has managed to swallow a particularly obese canary. Jiang Cheng fucking hates cats. Dogs are vastly superior in every way.)

Meanwhile, Jiang Cheng does his best to make Jin Ling hurry, which he is clearly not built for. The kid takes four tries to do his hair in a manner that he finds satisfactory. Four tries. To tie a damn ponytail. If the entire cultivation world didn’t know that he raised Jin Ling himself, Jiang Cheng would be tempted to pretend they’re not related. Gods know the kid is clearly Jin Zixuan’s spawn.

Finally, after what seems like an eternity, Jin Ling is ready, and the two of them leave the building that contains the sect leaders’ quarters. They make their way to the pavilion with about ten minutes to spare – plenty of time – and take their seats with a minimum of difficulty.

Here we go again, Jiang Cheng sighs. Another three hours discussing unity with a bunch of people who hate each other. Oh, joy of joys.

But then he thinks about what comes afterwards, and he lets himself acknowledge that the meeting might not be so bad.

 


 

 

Contrary to popular belief, not all Lans are morning people. Lan Huan certainly isn’t. It’s seven in the morning, and he’s been up for two hours and about four cups of strong tea, which is all that fits in the pot. Unlike his brother, who gets up at five and is immediately ready to face the world, Lan Huan requires some waking up first.

At least, when he gets a good night’s sleep. Which he has, surprisingly, for the first time in weeks. Maybe months, not counting the night he spent unconscious from ingesting alcohol.

His dreams last night were peaceful, free from the blood and death that so often haunts them. It is a rare gift, and Lan Huan intends to treasure it.

The sun is just peeking above the horizon, spilling light onto the wooden floor when Lan Huan pulls himself up into a handstand position. Everyone in Cloud Recesses goes through these exercises every day – it’s one of the reasons their sect is known for their prodigious arm strength – but Lan Huan likes doing them at dawn best.

He likes watching, upside down, as the sky lightens from indigo to pink, then back to a shallow blue, while the first golden rays of sunlight fall to earth. It is quiet and beautiful, the only sound the chirping of the birds nearby.

Shu-Fu would say that taking such pleasure in a worldly occurrence is frivolous. But then, Lan Huan thinks wryly, Shu-Fu is not here at the moment.

His arms are just beginning to burn when a knock comes on the door to the cottage. Lan Huan is startled for a moment, but regains his balance before he can fall over with an undignified ‘thump’.

“One moment,” he calls, retracting his legs and standing back up. His heart beats a little faster at the thought of who could be at the door. But no – it’s too early for that, not even ten o’ clock yet. The meeting isn’t supposed to end until eleven.

He doesn’t know why his stomach sinks a little in disappointment.

Still, whoever this is must be someone new. Wangji knows not to visit him this early, and anyway, his little brother should be preparing for today’s gathering at this present moment. Lan Huan smoothes his features into a placid, smiling expression. He takes the few steps over to the front door and unlocks it, pushing it open. The sight that greets him is one that he had not expected.

There, standing on his doorstep, hair up in a messy ponytail and wearing a sheepish grin, is Wangji’s husband, the Yiling Patriarch. Wei Wuxian.

The grin falters at the surprise on Lan Huan’s face, but it returns in full force as quickly as Lan Huan wipes the shock from his countenance, once again burying it under a genial look.

“Good morning,” Lan Huan greets politely.

The other man takes a deep breath, obviously gathering courage to do something. Inwardly, Lan Huan is confused. Why is Wei Wuxian here, never mind at seven-thirty in the morning? Why does he look so nervous?

Wei Wuxian is almost subdued as he opens his mouth.

“Good morning, Sect Leader Lan. I’m here to apologise.”

Chapter Text

The words hit Lan Huan with the force of a charging ox. Wei Wuxian, apologise to him? Why would he – oh.

“Come in, then,” he says, his tone mild. He retreats back inside the cottage and the other man follows him hesitantly.

It’s not the first time Wei Wuxian has been here – he had been a frequent visitor for the first few weeks of Lan Huan’s seclusion, had come with Wangji hovering over his shoulder like a concerned mother hen. It was a strange change, watching the younger brother Lan Huan had helped raise pour all of his heart and soul into taking care of another person. At least it had been, until the pregnant pauses and stilted silences that filled the spaces in their conversation (that Lan Huan allowed to fill those spaces) became too much for the younger man.

After that, his visits became ever more infrequent, until they finally dropped off altogether. Lan Huan has not allowed himself to voice the relief he’s felt since then. It is uncharitable and unkind, to think such things of the man who makes Wangji happy.

(He remembers a time when the only thing his little brother felt was despair. That had been Wei Wuxian too.)

“Have a seat, Young Master Wei,” he says, polite but formal. Obediently, Wei Wuxian sits down on the straw mats laid out on the floor. His manner is almost meek.

Instead of joining him, Lan Huan goes into the kitchen and fills two mugs with the weak tea he keeps in the pantry. As he does so, he catches sight of the white-and-blue ceramic jar that Jiang Wanyin delivered to him two nights ago, now empty and dry. Unused. A strong urge to pour the tea into it and take it outside for Wei Wuxian to watch bubbles up within him.

It is only through sheer force of will that he does not indulge it. No, that would be simply petty behavior. And in very poor taste.

But, a small childish part of him insists, rubbing its hands together gleefully, it would also be very much fun.

Lan Huan ignores it and carries the mugs out into the living room, where Wei Wuxian is waiting quietly. The bright grin has wilted somewhat, his shoulders hunched inwards, and his hands shake when he takes the tea than Lan Huan offers him.

“So, what did you come to speak to me about?”

Lan Huan settles into a kneeling position of his own, resting the warm mug on his thighs. Across from him, Wei Wuxian takes a cautious sip of his tea, relaxes a little when it does not burn his tongue. Then he sets the mug down, and begins.

“I am so, so sorry for what I did the other night.” The words come out in a torrent, rather like unstoppering a dam. Lan Huan wonders how much effort it took to pull the plug out in the first place. “The stunt I pulled with the alcohol and the tea – it was awful of me. I shouldn’t have done it, especially not here. I meant it to be a harmless bit of fun, but I went overboard; I made you break your own sect rules, and I know that’s not something that’s easy to forgive.”

The other man’s eyes are fixed on Lan Huan’s own, unwavering. He sees regret in them, and realises that it is sincere. The tightness that has been gathering in Lan Huan’s chest loosens a little.

“I’m so sorry,” Wei Wuxian repeats. “Please don’t blame my brother for it. He didn’t know, I swear. I tricked him as much as I tricked you, and he had some… words to say about what I did. It’s not Jiang Cheng’s fault.”

For the first time, Lan Huan notices the dark purple shadows blooming like fresh bruises under the younger man’s eyes. He looks tired, and suddenly Lan Huan remembers the way Jiang Wanyin looked yesterday, when he first entered the cottage. Drained and exhausted and absolutely destroyed. As if everything good had been squeezed out of him like an over-wrung sponge.

Lan Huan knew something had happened – just not exactly what. And now Sect Leader Jiang’s older brother is sitting in front of him, looking as though he didn’t manage even a wink of sleep all last night. As though he was kept up.

It doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together, and Lan Huan has always been told he’s of above-average intelligence.

Both men obviously had a fight yesterday – “some words” doesn’t do it justice, either. And over what? Over him? A pathetic excuse for a cultivator – for a sect leader – who locked himself away from the world when everything got too hard?

Lan Huan immediately recoils from the thought. No – it’s wrong; it’s bad to think that way. To think the entire world revolves around him and his problems. It’s written in the sect rules, number one thousand and twenty-three: one must not harbor selfish delusions of one’s own importance.

There must be another reason. There has to be.

His chest aches, so he opens his mouth instead. His cheeks are sore from smiling.

“I know. I do not fault him.”

As Wei Wuxian huffs a breath of relief, Lan Huan remembers the fear that gripped him when he awoke that morning to find he remembered nothing from the night before. When he found the note that he thought meant he’d somehow disgraced his sect. The cold terror that ran down Lan Huan’s spine and the sting like pulling ice away from where it sticks to bare skin, because Jiang Wanyin had talked to him, drank tea with him, smiled at him.

Lan Huan digs his nails into his palms. Lets the bite of it jolt him back to the present. Somehow that hurts less.

His brother-in-law is smiling again. It is not like his other smiles, carefree and bright, or else forced and tacky, like day-old polish scrubbed over a worn table to make it look new. This is raw, honest. Open, as though Lan Huan’s assurance that Wei Wuxian’s little brother is not to blame has lifted a weight off his shoulders.

“Thank you. And again, I’m sorry.”

Lan Huan thinks back to yesterday afternoon – the conversation he shared with the younger sect leader. At first, Jiang Wanyin had clammed up at even the mention of Wei Wuxian, had gone terse and taciturn when he suddenly remembered that the story he was telling involved the man in some way. But later, as the hours wore on, he became freer with his words. Talked about his childhood and the pranks his older brother had pulled with the adoration of a younger sibling.

And now, Wei Wuxian is here. Trying, however clumsily, to absolve the other man of the consequences of something he did.

It reminds Lan Huan of himself, in a way. In their youth, he had his small rebellions – smuggling chili oil up from the village to put in the elders’ dinner. Wangji, ever the studious, obedient one, had nonetheless looked at his big brother with large, silent eyes and followed where his schemes took them.

But when the elders found out, when push came to shove, Lan Huan always stepped forward and told the truth. Took the blame, the silencing punishment, the lines and the sometimes-beatings, so that Wangji would be spared.

He softens a little. Allows his stiff smile to be replaced by a more genuine one.

“I accept your apology,” says Lan Huan. He swears he hears a “thank the gods” from Wei Wuxian, but it’s impossible to prove, and he’s not going to attack the other man’s dignity that way.

It must be difficult enough to come all this way to beg for forgiveness. For the Yiling Patriarch, once among the most powerful cultivators in the world, to say the word “sorry” to a man whose cowardice is agreed upon by every sect.

The same petty voice from earlier reminds him that it is no less than what Wei Wuxian richly deserves. Please be quiet, he tells it.

Thirteen years, it hisses back. Thirteen years that Wangji was a wreck, that he barely spoke and barely ate and never smiled. He played Inquiry every day until his fingers bled, fought the elders, scarred himself over and over and over again. He shattered, and you were the one who had to pick up the pieces.

Stop it.

The voice continues, louder than before. You were the one who brought him food every day and watched him to make sure he forced it all down. You were the one to bandage his hands when the skin broke and the blood seeped through. You were the one who saw him cry.

He clenches his fists again, feels the crescent-shaped indentations form in the flesh of his palms. The voice falls silent.

This is his problem. He knows that now.

Wei Wuxian died. It wasn’t his fault, and Lan Huan is a horrible person for blaming him. The man was dead, a spirit left to wander the ghostly realm and the nine springs, while there was no one to burn paper money and food and shelter for his ghost. But he’s moved on.

Wangji was the one who had to deal with the aftermath. The one who lost the person he loved, who mourned for him with a grief so strong it nearly destroyed him. Part of his soul was cut out that day, and it didn’t start to heal for thirteen years. But he’s moved on, too.

Why is Lan Huan the only one who hasn’t?

Why does he still wake up with his brother’s name on his lips, with the urge – no, the need – to see him, to know that he’s alright, because he’s terrified that Wangji is going to hurt himself again, and he won’t be there to stop it?

Why does he, too, feel as though a piece of him is missing? One that Wei Wuxian’s return couldn’t fill in, since Wei Wuxian was never a part of him to begin with?

Lan Huan wants to scream and cry and rage at the world, but especially at himself. Instead, he waits until his guest finishes his tea and escorts him to the door. He only closes it when Wei Wuxian disappears around the first bend in the corridors.

Exhausted, he leans against the door, back pressed to the wood. And he breathes.

In, out.

In, out.

Just how his father taught them.

In, out.

Then he hauls himself upright and walks to the kitchen to wash the mugs. Trudges back to the centre of the living room. The floor is washed gold with sunlight, but there are thick, dark grey clouds gathering on the horizon. It’s going to rain later.

Lan Huan sets his hands flush against the wooden floor, letting the heat of it warm his palms. He kicks his legs into the air, back into a handstand position. Just as he was before.

This time, he holds the pose until acid builds in his muscles and his arms are trembling so violently that he’s uncertain of his balance. It’s a long time, but shorter than usual, which is telling of his mental state.

Afterwards, he gets up and goes to his desk to write reports and fill out the pile of forms someone left on his doorstep while he was asleep. Liebing, his xiao, is balanced precariously on the tiny nightstand beside his bed, so close to the edge that it might roll off at the slightest gust of wind.

The note from yesterday morning is still there where Lan Huan left it, pinned underneath the jade flute. The letters are bold, the strokes slashed with a certain amount of aggression, but the writing no longer looks ominous or threatening.

Lan Huan rearranges Liebing, then picks up the small paper square. He folds it, tucks in into an empty drawer, and smiles.

Chapter Text

The meeting, Jiang Cheng thinks, is going much better than he’d expected. It’s still not productive, by any definition of the word, but it’s closer to the calmer atmosphere of the first day that yesterday’s tense, hostile one.

There are a couple reasons for this.

Firstly, sometime yesterday afternoon, the three pairs of cultivators, who had challenged each other during the gathering earlier, squared up and duked it out in the practice courtyard. Lessons were put on hold for the occasion, and so the disciples got to watch as the most-venerated clan leaders pummeled each other with swords and fists. It was an entertaining spectacle, and very, very public.

Jiang Cheng didn’t see any of this, of course, holed up in Lan Xichen’s hanshi as he was, but Jin Ling, who was dragged along to watch by Lan Jingyi, is rather forthcoming with the details.

(By this, he means that his nephew spends fifteen minutes rattling on about every single blow dealt during the duels. And also giving his own opinionated remarks on some of the sect leaders’ fighting skills. Rather loudly, too. Jiang Cheng has to shush him repeatedly to avoid dirty glares from the others as Jin Ling whispers to him.)

Returning to the point, by the time today’s meeting starts, a firm hierarchy is already established between those who were the most argumentative yesterday. The six challengers, not coincidentally, were among them.

Now that the battles have been fought and won (or lost, depending on one’s perspective) in full view of everyone, no one can dispute the participants’ relative strength.

And so yesterday’s losers are cowed and meek, while the winners are too smug to kick up much of a fuss during the discussion. Thus, the meeting progresses as smoothly as anyone can hope. Jiang Cheng thinks sardonically that this is why challenges are allowed during these events.

There’s only so much testosterone buildup one can take, after all.

The air cleared, the convocation can now get back to important business. A few more ideas are put forward and this time, everyone seems to be more receptive. Surprisingly, the majority supports a suggestion made by the middle-aged leader of the Wu sect, a moderately sized clan located at the foot of a large mountain.

He’s proposed a coalition of sorts, signed by the leader of every sect, agreeing to join forces – military and otherwise – to protect each other, in the event that one of their number should attack another clan. The alliance would fight with the injured party in order to subdue the aggressor, and bring that sect to justice. It is a sensible idea, and it garners murmurs of agreement when Sect Leader Wu sits back down.

Nie Huaisang fans himself lazily. Today’s fan is black silk, the beast head motif of the Qinghe Nie sect painted across the fabric in gold.

“An excellent suggestion, Sect Leader Wu,” he drawls, his voice smooth like oiled glass. “But such a thing would require a great many hours of work to maintain it. I confess that as a fellow sect leader, I find my existing duties… time-consuming. There are only so many hours in a day, and I already feel as if I am being pulled in many directions at once.”

He gives a self-deprecating laugh. “Of course, I may be alone in this sentiment. Forgive me.”

Jiang Cheng looks around. Sees many of the others nodding. His skin prickles in irritation. Nie Huaisang has always been a lazy little shit, even during their schooldays. He’s tempted to call him short-sighted, but after everything that was revealed at the temple of Guanyin, Jiang Cheng isn’t sure he can say that about someone who played a thirteen-year long game that successfully fooled the entire cultivation world. The others, then. He has no qualms about calling them narrow-minded.

Can’t they see that this could make everything better? That it could keep a repeat of the Wens’ rise to power from ever happening? Could save lives, even entire sects?

He remembers being seventeen, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Lan sect leader, a man a scant few years older than him. Begging Jin Guangshan to take a stand, to help them fight so that they all could live. Threatening him, even, because he knew that without the support of the Lanling Jin sect, they were outnumbered, and they would lose. And everything Jiang Cheng had worked so hard to hold together after the siege on Lotus Pier would collapse into dust.

Now the sect leaders have an opportunity to prevent something like that in the future, and they’re worried about how much time they have to relax? This is a joke. A fucking joke.

Jiang Cheng seethes inwardly. There’s a hurricane inside him, the rain lashing at his skin, the wind pounding his ribcage, demanding to be let out. He bites his tongue and holds it in.

The expression on his face is growing blacker and blacker with every minute that passes, with every person that doesn’t step forward to call Nie Huaisang out on this bullshit. He itches to do it, to be the one to yell at them all for being lazy, self-centred fuckers who for all their blabbing about their sects don’t actually give two shits about them. But that right there is the reason he can’t. He stands up, and everyone in this room will just disagree with him on principle.

Thunder rumbles faintly outside, the sound muted by the pavilion’s thick walls. It mirrors exactly what he’s feeling.

Beside him, Jin Ling twitches. His hand goes to his knee like he’s about to stand up, and Jiang Cheng nearly grabs his robes to pull him back down. The kid’s too young for this, he thinks, panicked. Jiang Cheng brought him along to watch – he’s only been mired in this swamp of a political scene for two-and-a-half days; there’s no way he’s going to be able to traverse it without getting bogged down.

Jin Ling is only sixteen years old. The others won’t take him seriously. Worse, Jiang Cheng’s nephew hasn’t yet learned how to curb his sharp tongue. If he offends someone today, the results could be catastrophic.

But as he gets to his feet, it dawns on Jiang Cheng that he can’t do anything about it. This is Jin Ling’s decision to make, his test to pass or fail. Yes, he may only be sixteen, but he’ll be sect leader in just over a year. If Jiang Cheng interferes now – if he pulls Jin Ling back into his seat or shushes him like a child – that will be the other clan heads’ first impression of him. An immature youngling to be silenced by his elders.

And that would be worse than anything Jin Ling could possibly say to alienate the others.

For the first time, Jiang Cheng can’t protect him. This is something the kid has to do on his own; somewhere he has to go where his uncle can’t follow. And Jiang Cheng is not ashamed to admit that that scares the living shit out of him.

Jin Ling clears his throat.

“Sect leaders, if I may,” he begins. Jiang Cheng is comforted by how smooth his voice sounds. How poised and confident. “Sect Leader Wu has a valid point; however, so does Sect Leader Nie. The duties you speak of are a heavy burden indeed, and any extra weight may be difficult to bear.”

He pauses here, straightening his posture to look taller. “Thus, may I suggest a compromise? A delegate appointed by the leader of each sect and sent to compose the board you speak of? They would be representatives of their respective clans – mouthpieces for the sect leaders, if you will – and any conclusions reached by the council during meetings would be fed back to their superiors. This has the potential to lighten the workload of everyone here today; would that be amenable to everyone who agrees with Sect Leader Nie?”

Jin Ling sits gracefully back down, and whispers fill the room. And they’re good whispers – murmurs of agreement and “Young Master Jin has made an excellent suggestion”.

Holy mother of mercy Guanyin-Pusa, the Heavenly Emperor and all four Dragon Kings of the Sea.

Jiang Cheng can see Jin Ling’s hands trembling. Tiny ripples form at the surface of his tea as he lifts the cup to his mouth and drains half of it in a single swallow. A surge of emotion fills Jiang Cheng, cool relief mixed with something else. It’s hot and scorching, floods his lungs and every corner of his body, and he nearly forgets how to breathe.

He says nothing for the rest of the meeting – what little of it is left – only raises his hand in assent when Lan Qiren calls for a vote on Jin Ling and Sect Leader Wu’s proposal. As do most of those present: the majority the suggestion needs to go forward. He keeps his mouth shut when the gong sounds to signal the end of the gathering, and everyone stands to leave.

It is only when they are finally out of the pavilion, standing alone outside the wooden doors, under the awning that provides a shelter from the driving rain, that Jiang Cheng rests his hand on his nephew’s shoulder. The boy turns, startled by the contact.

He looks into Jin Ling’s eyes, sees uncertainty there. Pride in his achievement, a hope for praise, acknowledgement. Fear that his uncle will be angry with him.

Jiang Cheng’s heart breaks a little.

“Good job,” he says, and Jin Ling lights up at the gruff words. Jiang Cheng can almost see the way the boy holds them – like they’re embers. Gingerly, as if they might burn, though he warms his hands against them all the same, sidles closer to bask in their dim glow.

But nothing more comes. Jin Ling’s face falls a little in disappointment, and Jiang Cheng nearly chokes as he tries to pull up words that refuse to come out at the bitter slump of his nephew’s shoulders.

“Thank you, Uncle,” he manages. And then he walks away, his footsteps both softer than usual and too loud at the same time.

As Jiang Cheng stares at Jin Ling’s retreating back, he thinks of all the things he can’t say out loud. Tries to think them loud enough that the boy can hear them.

I’m proud of you, Jin Ling. I’m so, so proud of you. Your mother and father would be, too.

 


 

 

Outside the tiny cottage, lightning flashes. A boom of thunder follows close behind it, and Lan Huan tries to ignore the incessant roar of rain buffeting the roof. He is curled up in a hard wooden chair, having finished his paperwork for the day, a book on the greatest musicians of the last millennia open in his lap.

It’s not the most entertaining read, but it’s engaging enough, and it’s one of the only books in the cottage that he hasn’t already finished ten times. Lan Huan shifts a little in his chair so that the armrest isn’t digging into his back. Looks out the window.

He closed it, of course, when the first drops began falling. He’s not particularly good at housekeeping, and so the last thing he wants is water all over the floor that he will have to clean up later. But even with the window shut against the wind, there’s little Lan Huan can do about the mess the spring storm is making of the garden.

He sighs a little. The rain outside is coming down in sheets, so thick he can barely make out the edges of the white walls where the corridor that leads to this small part of Cloud Recesses ends. It’s probably going to drown the peonies, at the very least; Lan Huan is going to have to replant them when the storm ends. The lotuses will be alright, though. They thrive in this sort of weather.

Turning back to his book, he attempts to bury himself in the words, in stories about people who lived long before his time, and who died before it too. History is normally one of his favourite subjects, but today, he just can’t concentrate.

Seemingly of their own volition, Lan Huan’s eyes drift towards the clock set on the table in the middle of the room. It’s past twelve already. The meeting should have ended by now; perhaps–

Another crack of thunder cuts off his question before he can finish it. That’s as good an answer as any, Lan Huan supposes. He sighs again, determinedly not thinking about the sinking feeling in his stomach that cannot be explained away by simple disappointment at not hearing how the meeting went.

No one would be out in this weather if they could help it, especially not to visit him. No one sane, anyway. It would be much wiser to simply stay indoors, where it’s warm and dry, rather than to brave the downpour outside–

A sharp knock on the door cuts off Lan Huan’s train of thought for the second time in as many minutes. He fairly throws his book down on the table and half-runs towards the door, throwing it open to gusting wind, and a deluge that sprays his face and hair with water droplets, and…

And Jiang Wanyin, standing under the tiny shelter on his equally tiny front porch, clothes completely soaked and clinging to his skin. He’s scowling, water dripping off his chin to add to the puddle on the wooden floor below, and he looks uncannily like a half-drowned cat. Lan Huan must be desperate, then, because a bright warmth blooms in his chest at the sight, and he catches himself before he can think that this is the best thing he’s seen all day.

Lan Huan is almost expecting to hear a yowl when he opens his mouth, but all that comes out is Sect Leader Jiang’s familiar deep voice, pitched low and irritable.

“You people need to invest in a fucking roof.”

Chapter Text

He’s lost his fucking mind. That’s all Jiang Cheng can think as Lan Xichen ushers him inside his (lovely, warm, dry) cottage and closes the door behind him against the wind and rain. What in hell’s ten courts possessed him to leave civilization – the pavilion and the network of buildings in Cloud Recesses that actually have covered walkways – to walk all the way out here in the middle of fucking nowhere? He’s gone insane; that’s the only reasonable explanation. No one goes to this much trouble to give a report.

The pouring rain was absolutely brutal. By the time he was even halfway to the cottage, he’d already been soaked all the way through to his underclothes. And because it’s spring, the water was fucking cold. Like little icy needles pricking at his skin.

So now he’s inside Lan Xichen’s house, dripping all over his clean hardwood floor, well aware that he looks like a wet dog. Hell, he feels like a wet dog. It’s not the most flattering he’s ever looked.

But the other man barely even notices the trails of water Jiang Cheng is leaving in his living room. Or if he does, he doesn’t say anything. Jiang Cheng spots a thick book lying open on the table, an uncomfortable-looking wooden chair pulled up next to it.

Despite the lingering wetness from the freezing spring rain, he feels his cheeks flush with embarrassment. Sect Leader Lan was obviously busy before he showed up, or at least enjoying himself reading. He hadn’t needed Jiang Cheng barging back in here (for the third time – this is getting to be a habit now, one he needs to break) and making a mess of his home. Probably doesn’t appreciate it either; Jiang Cheng knows he wouldn’t.

“I-I’m sorry to intrude,” he says, cursing himself for stuttering like an anxious teenager. What is it about these situations he keeps getting himself into, that they always make him act like a complete idiot?

“Don’t apologise,” Lan Xichen replies. He smiles kindly, showing straight teeth and– is that a fucking dimple? Oh, damn. If this were any other sect leader, Jiang Cheng would probably revel in the chance to make their life as inconvenient as possible. But with Zewu-Jun, he just feels guilty. “Besides, I said you were welcome to visit every day, did I not?”

Jiang Cheng just nods dumbly. His wet clothes are sticking to him, pressing the water against his skin. It’s really uncomfortable. And cold. Very cold.

“Thank you for deciding to visit. With the rain…” Lan Xichen pauses, glances down for a split second. He blinks, and all of a sudden, he looks a little shy. “I wasn’t sure you were going to come.”

The tone of his voice is even, but Jiang Cheng can hear so much unabashed, undisguised relief in it. It’s baffling, and his knees go a little weak at the thought that it’s directed at him. Because he bothered to come.

He opens his mouth to reply, to say something like of course I was going to come, I don’t back down on my promises. Something flippant and callous, that wouldn’t betray the flutter in his stomach at the other man’s words. Instead, he shivers.

Not a tiny one, either, the barely-noticeable kind. The cold seeps out of his clothes, worms its way into his bones, and Jiang Cheng shakes with it. His teeth knock together, and rather than actual human words, he produces an awful clacking sound that makes him cringe inwardly.

How humiliating, he thinks, even as his body continues to tremble. He feels soggy and frozen and miserable, and this is not the ideal state for him to be in in front of another sect leader. He’s supposed to be poised and in control of himself, gods-damnit, not quivering like a child with a nightmare.

Lan Xichen’s brows pull together. With the little crinkle in the centre of his forehead, he looks… concerned.

“You’re cold,” he says, stating the obvious.

Jiang Cheng grits his teeth in an effort to stop them from chattering. His body’s a fucking traitor. “N-no.” He knows he’s being stubborn, but he refuses to admit weakness. Not like this.

“Are you alright?”

“I’m fine.”

The other man’s gaze drifts towards his clenched teeth, and the way he’s hunched in on himself, shivering pathetically. Lan Xichen gives him a reproving glance, those golden eyes chiding him. Clearly not, they seem to say.

Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow defiantly. Which is quite a feat, all things considered. But the other man doesn’t seem to be impressed.

“You need a bath,” he states firmly. “You can use mine.”

What? Jiang Cheng’s brain stutters to a halt. What. The. Fuck? Is Sect Leader Lan really asking him to take a bath in his house? He eyes Lan Xichen suspiciously. That ramrod-straight spine, the broad shoulders, the extra inch he has on Jiang Cheng; he cuts an intimidating figure, standing like that. Commanding. And the tone – it’s like he’s daring Jiang Cheng to argue with him.

Holy shit, he’s serious about this.

“I’m fine,” he insists, though he knows it’s a weak retort when Lan Xichen can actually see him shaking. “I’ve got a job to do; I can do it.”

“You won’t be able to do anything in this state, Jiang Wanyin. Much less give a full report on a political situation.” He looks almost exasperated, as though he’s chastising a younger sibling for not eating properly. Lan Xichen, a mother hen. Who knew? His voice is steely when he continues, and there’s a look in his eye that sends a tremor down Jiang Cheng’s spine.

(Of course it’s because he’s cold. What else could it be?)

“You do need to bathe, and get warm. You’ll catch a cold.”

Jiang Cheng wants to laugh at the absurdity of the situation. He almost does, but finally manages to get his mirth under control, covering it with a sarcastic snort. “It’s just a little rain. Besides, I can’t afford to get sick.”

He knows he’s messed up when a smug smile spreads across Lan Xichen’s face. Oh, yes; he walked right into this one.

“Exactly,” he says, widening his eyes and tilting his head in a manner that reminds Jiang Cheng uncomfortably of another night. Of cheap wine hidden in a jar and sitting on the roof looking at the stars.

No, don’t go there. He desperately tries to think of something else, anything else, and tells himself he’s imagining the heat that pools low in his stomach at the memory of another person’s body pressed against his. Instead, he allows his mind to wonder if anyone else has ever seen the First Jade of Gusu like this, smirking and self-satisfied like he’s pulled one over on someone.

And apparently, that poor sucker is Jiang Cheng.

He sighs. Gives it up as a bad job. He can’t refuse any longer; rejecting another cultivator’s hospitality is a grievous offence. Especially another sect leader, and doubly so if that sect is the Gusu Lan clan. Ever the sticklers for propriety.

With very poor grace, he huffs out a “fine”. At that, Lan Xichen’s grin loses its smug note, though it only spreads wider. He looks genuinely pleased, and Jiang Cheng’s chest gives a little twist.

Ignoring it, he turns on his heel and heads for the bathroom. Stops abruptly when Lan Xichen’s voice rings out behind him again, strangely loud, even over the clamour of the rain outside.

“Your clothes,” he says. Still smiling, but there is a faint pink tinge to his cheeks that Jiang Cheng chooses not to mention.

“What about them?”

“They’re wet. You can leave them to dry here, if you want.”

“What do I wear, then?”

The taller man ducks his head, flushed even redder than before. Jiang Cheng swears he can almost see the blood rushing to Lan Xichen’s face. There’s an answering warmth in his own cheeks.

“I have… spare robes. If you don’t mind. They’re clean, and haven’t been worn in a while. You could… you could wear them. If you want.”

By the third repetition of the phrase, Jiang Cheng knows he’s been thoroughly suckered. Hook, line and sinker. The highest-ranked cultivator in the entire world is looking at him like a fucking puppy, asking if Jiang Cheng will wear his extra clothes like it’s some big favour and not Lan Xichen saving his sorry ass from hypothermia. He cannot say no. He physically can’t. He doesn’t think anyone could, in his position.

No one’s that heartless.

He nods, face on fire even though the rest of him feels like he’s been trapped in a giant ice block from the neck down. As Zewu-Jun disappears into his bedroom in search of the spare robes, he thanks the gods that no one is here to witness this complete and utter travesty. Wei Wuxian would–

Jin Ling would snicker at him ‘till kingdom come. Behind his back, of course. The brat’s not yet quite daring enough to risk drawing his uncle’s ire.

Lan Xichen emerges from the doorway, a neatly folded pile of clothing in his arms. White, with the swirly little blue cloud designs that Jiang Cheng’s been making fun of for years. It dawns on him that he’s actually going to do this. Bathe in Sect Leader Lan’s house. Wear his clothes.

This is a terrible idea.

He takes the pile anyway, manages a gruff “thank you” before he escapes into the small bathroom that he found in his exploration of the cottage a mere two nights ago. Hopefully, it won’t cross Lan Xichen’s mind to ask how he knows where it is.

 


 

 

The water is scorching hot by the time the tub is full, steam rising from the surface. It raises the temperature of the whole room by a few degrees. Jiang Cheng’s clothes are no longer sopping wet, having shed most of the excess on Lan Xichen’s floor, but the material is still damp and restrictive.

He strips down and everything that was soaked on the way here comes off. Which basically means every article of clothing he has on him. He folds his robes as neatly as possible, glad to no longer be weighted down by the sodden material, and sets them to the side of the sink. He’ll dry those later.

His underclothes, though – those he’s going to have to put on again after the bath, wet though they might be. Jiang Cheng’s dignity has taken a battering today (it’s still being pounded into the ground, he thinks with a grimace); he flat-out refuses to borrow Lan Xichen’s underwear. He has lines, damnit.

He blames the steam filling every crevice in the room for the red he can just feel creeping along the tips of his ears. It has nothing to do with the mental image his stupid, traitorous brain has decided to inflict on him. Nothing at all.

Jiang Cheng lets out a hiss when his foot finally touches the water. After spending so long in wet clothes that leached the warmth from his body, the steaming bathwater burns like a blue flame licking along his skin. He scrambles in anyway, heedless of the white-hot sting that spreads to every point of contact with the water.

The tub is small, like everything else in this cottage. The top of it comes up to a little above his knees when he’s standing, and he has to scrunch his legs up against his chest so all his limbs will fit. Now, the only thing poking out is his head, and he hunches slightly to submerge his shoulders as well.

It’s utterly glorious. He’s up to his neck in sweet, sweet warmth and he’s not cold (or shaking) anymore, and the hot water relaxes knots in his muscles he didn’t even know he had. He lifts a hand to touch his face, and the skin feels like ice against his fingers.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t want to move, but his hair is still rain-wet and his head is still freezing. Reluctantly, he folds his legs upwards until they’re out of the tiny wooden container, then eases forwards so he can lie flat on his back so his face is submerged.

When that’s done, Jiang Cheng sits back up and tucks his legs in again. He stays in that position until the water goes cold.

Chapter Text

As the minutes tick by and Jiang Wanyin does not emerge, Lan Huan becomes increasingly distracted. Agitated, even. He returns to his uncomfortable chair and tries again to immerse himself in the pages of his book, but he cannot stop himself from looking up, again and again, at the bathroom door.

To what end? Honestly, Lan Huan doesn’t know. He knows he would be able to hear if it opened, so this constant checking is simply an exercise in futility. And destroying his focus.

What was he thinking? Ordering Sect Leader Jiang into the bath as if he was a disobedient child, forcing him to wear Lan Huan’s clothes like a–

His brain stalls. Do not complete that sentence.

Possessive boyfriend, his mind supplies helpfully, and Lan Huan abandons his book in favour of burying his face in his hands. This is something Wangji would probably do to his husband. In other words: a disaster of epic proportions. How is he going to be able to look Jiang Wanyin in the eye after this?

Lan Huan shouldn’t have done this – he really shouldn’t have. Jiang Wanyin is a grown man and a fellow sect leader to boot; he can take care of himself. It’s not Lan Huan’s place to tell him what to do, how to live his life.

Only the younger man had looked so cold and shivery and miserable, and every big-brother instinct in his body had shouted at Lan Huan to take care of him, because he was freezing and doubtless going to get sick as a result. Add that to the fact that he was only in such a state because he had tried to visit Lan Huan, so naturally Lan Huan felt guilty on top of everything else. Of course he hadn’t been able to stop himself. It was only to be expected.

Who is he trying to fool? Jiang Wanyin is a fiercely independent man, and Lan Huan’s latest stunt has probably offended his pride. And his dignity.

Lan Huan swipes his hands across his face, sighs and shifts his position to something more refined. When he’s sitting up straight, feet touching the floor instead of pushed up against the armrest, he picks up his book and attempts to read the same line he’s been going over for the better part of fifteen minutes.

Again, without success.

He’s just about to give up and start pacing instead when the bathroom door opens and Jiang Wanyin steps out. Lan Huan’s mouth parts a little in surprise. He looks… really good.

The borrowed robes hang a little loose on the younger man’s slightly smaller frame, especially in the shoulders, but that’s to be expected. The silver lotus-shaped bell has been untied from his original uniform and now dangles from the belt around his narrow waist.

The violet robes of the Yunmeng Jiang sect are a beautiful colour, to be sure, but they are also very dark, lending the wearer a sense of intensity that borders on fury. Out of them, Jiang Wanyin looks gentler somehow, softened, less a deadly weapon and more a young man. There is something in his face – a look he has about him – that Lan Huan has never noticed before: something almost pure about the way Jiang Wanyin looks at the world from behind his eyes, blue now instead of grey.

(Lan Huan can’t figure out what it is, and suddenly he wants to know. To watch him until he understands.)

The other man hovers outside the bathroom for a moment, as if unsure of what to do, before finally deciding to come into the living room. His steps are halting, less confident than usual, unused to the dress-like design of Lan sect robes rather than the trousers favoured by his own clan.

Lan Huan knows how it feels. The strange sensation of wearing clothes that are not your own, that do not come from your home. He remembers plain white robes without cloud designs, and the matter-of-fact voice of a boy saying “your clothes are too recognizable – you have to blend in”.

“I wasn’t sure what to do about my own robes,” Jiang Wanyin says, his tone almost apologetic. “I left them in the bathroom to dry, if that’s not too much of an imposition.”

A smile tugs at Lan Huan’s lips. “Don’t worry, it’s not.”

He pours tea for the both of them and carries it out. At this rate, he’s going to have to make more – much more, if he keeps receiving visitors as he has the past few days.

The two of them lapse into silence as they drink their tea, and Lan Huan takes the opportunity to continue studying the other sect leader. He looks different, Lan Huan thinks, and it isn’t just the change of clothes. It isn’t his imagination, either. Jiang Wanyin is calmer than Lan Huan has ever seen him, expression loose and relaxed. The ever-present tension in each line of his body is diminished to almost nothing, and his legs are curled beneath him graceful as a cat, instead of the rigidity Lan Huan has become accustomed to.

His hair is down, too, and it should have been the very first thing Lan Huan noticed, but for his preoccupation with the way Jiang Wanyin looks in his clothes. (That came out wrong, but it also makes Lan Huan’s chest warm, even though the tea isn’t hot enough to warrant such a reaction.) The cloth that holds it in its perpetual severe bun is gone – probably drying in the bathroom with the rest of his clothes – and the raven-black hair flows loose down his back, still wet.

It comes down past his waist, a little shorter than Lan Huan’s own, and the part of him that isn’t in shock notes that that is very long indeed. No one has ever seen Jiang Wanyin with his hair down.

(A few years ago, Lan Huan had the misfortune of being in the same eating house as a group of cultivators who made crude suppositions about whether Sect Leader Jiang would keep his hair tied up when he was in bed with his wife. Lan Huan had blushed very hard at the inappropriate comments, and was thankful when the speakers finally paid and left.)

Even now, he has to fight to keep the red from rising to his cheeks, and the other man eyes him strangely, as if sensing his embarrassment.

“Thank you for your hospitality,” he says instead, choosing not to mention it. “You’ve gone… above and beyond.”

Lan Huan laughs. “It was the least I could do,” he says lightly. “You came all the way out here to visit me, after all.”

“That’s true. I’ll give the report, then. Today’s meeting was rather eventful.”

Oh, yes. The report. The reason Jiang Wanyin is here to see him. He’d forgotten. It hits him like a physical blow to the stomach, and his chest goes unbearably tight. He’d forgotten until the younger man reminded him.

That they have a job to do, a political relationship to maintain. That they aren’t simply here to talk, or here because they want to be, but because they have to be. That they’re leaders of two completely different sects, and not just friends.

Lan Huan forces himself to breathe. In, out. In, out. In, out. Pushes away thoughts of silk fans and guqin lessons, familiar voices calling him “Xichen-Ge” and “Er-Ge”. Reminds himself of “it’s not your fault” and “you don’t deserve it” and “you’re a good man, Lan Xichen.”

It’s all right, he tells himself. Just because they are sect leaders, it doesn’t mean that they cannot also be friends. The two are not mutually exclusive. He’s fine. Everything is fine.

“Is there something wrong?”, the other man asks, those clear blue eyes boring into his own. There is concern there, hidden behind the brusque manner. Genuine, not contrived to play to Lan Huan’s emotions. Jiang Wanyin is honest, sometimes painfully so. He would not do such a thing. He may not even know how.

Lan Huan lets out a breath, eases his lips into a soft smile.

“There’s nothing wrong.”

“If you’re sure,” Jiang Wanyin says. His shoulders relax and he begins. The report is not long, but it is not short either, and Lan Huan anchors himself in the rise and fall of the other man’s voice as he describes the events of the morning. Sect Leader Wu’s proposal and Nie Huaisang’s protests, and Young Master Jin Ling’s sudden suggestion of compromise. Jiang Wanyin does not mince words – he lays everything bare on the table, gives Lan Huan the facts for him to pick over and come to his own conclusions.

Not once does he tiptoe around the subject of Nie Huaisang, even though Lan Huan can hear the disapproval clear in his tone when he brings up the sect leader’s not-so-subtle attempt at manipulating the gathering in his favour. For that, Lan Huan is grateful.

There is pride there, too, when Jiang Wanyin describes the way his nephew stood up in front of everyone and commanded attention. He does not voice it aloud, but there is an undercurrent of emotion in his voice, warm and gentler than most people could ever imagine.

And then it is over. Both of them have long since drained their tea, but neither brings up the possibility of refilling it. Lan Huan blinks, considering.

“Well,” he finally says, “I am glad to see that there is progress, at least.”

“Not enough.”

“Don’t say that,” he replies automatically. Lan Huan is caught off guard by his own friendly retort. The other man simply raises his eyebrow. “I only mean that optimism is a useful trait to have, is all. There are few things in this world that cannot be made to move along more smoothly with a positive attitude.”

Jiang Wanyin smirks. “I am merely being realistic. We are three days into what was supposed to be a weeklong gathering, and only now are we finally getting somewhere. We cannot hope to reach an agreement, draw up sufficient plans and lay the groundwork for the arrangement itself in the time that remains to us.”

“Fair enough. You do have a point. Still…”

“As for yourself, my dear esteemed Sect Leader Lan, that is a rather realistic view of optimism, don’t you agree? Very pragmatic of you.”

Lan Huan opens and closes his mouth a few times, but nothing comes out. Unable to think of an appropriate argument, he smiles ruefully.

“I concede defeat, my dear esteemed Sect Leader Jiang.”

Now it is Jiang Wanyin’s turn to be speechless. His face flushes, the emphasis Lan Huan has placed on the last part of the sentence turning the tone far more intense than the careless words the younger man doubtless imagined them to be. His own words turned against him.

Still, he has a point. His logic is sound, and Lan Huan turns his argument over in his mind for a few moments. It bears reflecting on later, when Lan Huan is alone with his thoughts.

Jiang Wanyin is still floundering, so Lan Huan decides to take pity on him.

“Your hair,” he says. “It’s very long.”

Not the most tactful segue, perhaps, but this is Lan Huan’s house, and he does not particularly want to pass up an opportunity to satiate his curiosity. There are some perks to being a sect leader on one’s home ground, after all.

Blue eyes widen at the sudden change in subject. “Yes, I suppose it is.”

Excellent comment, Lan Xichen, that persistent little mind-voice mocks him. Not glaringly obvious at all.

He ignores it.

“Is it a Yunmeng custom to keep it up like that? I’ve always wondered.”

“Not really. It’s more for practical reasons, to be honest. When he was little, Jin Ling used to pull my hair. He liked to hold things, you see.” Jiang Wanyin smiles. An honest-to-gods actual smile that shows perfectly straight white teeth, and lifts his whole face into an expression that looks like the first rays of sun on a clear morning. “It was all right until his teeth began coming in and he started to chew on it.”

“I can see how that would pose a problem.”

And then he laughs. It’s a deep, rich sound, and the most honest profession of mirth – or any sort of enjoyment or happiness, really – that Lan Huan has ever heard from him.

I want to hear that again, says the little mind-voice. Lan Huan can’t find it in himself to disagree.

Chapter Text

The laugh comes out of left field. Really, it does. Jiang Cheng’s not the type to chuckle at his own jokes – or to chuckle at all. Scowls are more his thing. But he has the image of chubby two-year-old Jin Ling shoving a fistful of Jiang Cheng’s dark hair into his mouth fresh in his mind, and Lan Xichen’s deadpan expression and unexpected sarcasm just send him over the edge.

Huh. He never knew Lans could be funny. Except for Lan Jingyi, of course, but that kid holds the unfortunate title of “the most un-Lan-like Lan to ever Lan”, so he doesn’t really count. Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh, but still.

Lan Xichen is the leader of the Lan sect, the First Jade of Gusu, the eldest of Old Man Lan Qiren’s favourite nephews. He’s supposed to embody the Lan spirit in copious quantities, to be an unfeeling golem with a single facial expression. What he’s not supposed to be is sardonic and smart-assed, and he’s definitely not supposed to smile like that when he gets Jiang Cheng to laugh like he hasn’t in ages.

That smile crinkles the smooth skin at the corners of his melted-gold eyes and makes them shine, and it’s almost as if all the light in the world has suddenly decided to beam out of a single person. It’s so, so easy to see how this man holds the position of the cultivation world’s most sought-after bachelor when he grins like that, because objectively speaking, he’s really fucking attractive. Objectively speaking.

And Jiang Cheng could be jealous. He could despise Lan Xichen for being flawless and untouchable, so far away from the other mere mortals like him that the Lan sect leader might as well be the sun, but he doesn’t.

Because Lan Xichen isn’t flawless. He can’t cook and he likes feeding ducks, and he gets blackout drunk off of one mug of cheap wine and proceeds to be really fucking excited about everything. He cries and he’s insecure sometimes, and he worries about his asshole of a brother, even though he shouldn’t. Behind the placid smile and seemingly unshakeable demeanour, he’s just a person.

So even though Jiang Cheng could technically hate him, he actually can’t. And that’s a nice feeling.

He can’t remember what it’s like to not be angry all the time – it was so long ago that he’s swept it to the back of his mind with all the other trash he’s collected over the years. But when he’s here, in this tiny living room of a cottage with a flower garden, getting sassed by Sect Leader Lan of all people, he feels that again. Calm. At peace. As though he’s been caught inside a tornado for years and has finally reached the centre, and the winds raging around him have stilled.

Is this what it’s like to be happy?

And oh, shit; he’s not prepared for that question. Because that means that he’s been miserable all these years on his own, and the only thing he needed to feel like a whole human being – a whole person – was someone else. It means that all this time he’s been fighting to be his own person, to claw his way out from under the shadows of his parents, his sister, his brother, was wasted. Because he’s a fucking leech, a climbing vine that can’t do anything on its own, that winds itself around the tallest, strongest tree it can find and grows upwards to reach the sun, all the while leaching nutrients from the soil and killing the tree that’s keeping it alive.

Jiang Cheng isn’t a climbing vine. He’s not. He doesn’t need anyone; he’s independent, he’s just fine on his own. Everything is fine.

But a tiny, traitorous part of his mind asks timidly, we can still have friends, right? Lan Xichen is our friend, isn’t he?

And Jiang Cheng is weak, because he can’t say no.

Lan Xichen is still smiling at him. Jiang Cheng wonders if smiling that much has given him cheek muscles to rival his trademark Lan arm strength. He twists Zidian around his finger, and allows the familiar rotating motion to soothe the turmoil within.

Unexpectedly, the other man changes the subject again.

“You know, you’re not my first visitor today.”

“Oh?”

Lan Xichen looks at him steadily, unwavering. “Wei Wuxian came this morning, during the meeting. He wanted to apologise.”

Jiang Cheng’s head is spinning. Wei Wuxian? What was he doing here? They haven’t spoken at all since their fight yesterday, and even though Jiang Cheng has done his best to push it all out of his mind, he can’t help the ache that runs through him at the reminder.

He doesn’t say a word, too preoccupied with the thoughts racing around in his head, but Lan Xichen seems to understand that he needs to know more.

“He told me that the, ah, mixup with the tea and wine was merely a prank on his part; not with any intention to offend. The former, you had already informed me; I myself had surmised the latter prior to Wei Wuxian’s visit. He was very adamant, however, that he clear up certain… possible misunderstandings.”

“What?”, Jiang Cheng croaks. His voice sounds rough even to his own ears, as though he hasn’t used it in weeks.

“Wei Wuxian came for you. He thought that I might blame you for everything that had happened. So he came to me to apologise, and to tell me that you had nothing to do with it. He asked me, repeatedly, not to blame you.”

The other man’s eyes are soft, and he’s looking at Jiang Cheng with an odd emotion in them. It’s warm and a little sad, but it’s not sympathy, so Jiang Cheng doesn’t feel the immediate urge to wreck something.

But why? Why would Wei Wuxian do this? Why would he seek out Lan Xichen specifically to ask forgiveness, when he’s apologised for maybe five of the innumerable pranks he’s pulled since both of them were children? Why, after the raging, screaming argument in the lecture hall where they’d ripped each other to shreds?

Jiang Cheng doesn’t know what to feel. On some level, he registers that Wei Wuxian protected him; that he humbled himself before his brother-in-law to say that the prank was his fault and Jiang Cheng had nothing to do with it.

But he can’t wrap his mind around it, can’t understand because Jiang Cheng had torn into him, had raged that he was selfish and immature and destroyed everything he touched. And Wei Wuxian had yelled back, called him heartless and a monster, and he’d been right. Didn’t that make Jiang Cheng wrong?

It’s always that way, isn’t it? One good and one bad, one right and one wrong, always and forever. If Wei Wuxian is right, then Jiang Cheng must be wrong. (It was usually that way when they were growing up. Yet sometimes Wei Wuxian was wrong, and that cheered Jiang Cheng up a bit because then he got to be right.)

Only one of them can be right; the other has to be wrong.

That knowledge was what fueled Jiang Cheng, kept him going all those years while Wei Wuxian’s body rotted in Luanzang-Gang. The pain and the death, the screams of the people he tortured – he blocked it all out and kept going, because Wei Wuxian had been wrong to choose demonic cultivation, and so Jiang Cheng was right to do what he was doing. To utterly obliterate everyone who followed in Wei Wuxian’s footsteps.

But now? Now Lan Xichen is in front of him, telling Jiang Cheng that he was right too, that Wei Wuxian had known it and listened to him. But that can’t be.

He startles when Lan Xichen’s voice cuts through his thoughts.

“–Wanyin? Sect Leader Jiang?”

Jiang Cheng blinks hazily. Oh, he thinks. Lan Xichen is addressing him. He sounds very concerned, almost worried. Then Jiang Cheng blinks again, more aggressively this time.

“I’m fine,” he says, in as gruff a tone as he can manage. “Just… thinking about something.”

The older man hums a little in response, but the troubled expression doesn’t go away. Still, he keeps silent, letting Jiang Cheng decide where the conversation should flow. Or if he even wants to talk at all.

A rush of gratitude fills him.

This consideration, this allowance for what he wants is something foreign to him. He’s so used to people barging in and steering the discussion to where they want it to go, or else sealing their mouths shut out of fear of what he might do if they speak out of turn. Jiang Cheng has never had someone hand him control just because they thought it might be more comfortable for him. Because he might want it.

He doesn’t speak for another full minute, too busy collecting his scattered thoughts. When he finally decides on something to say, he opens his mouth.

“Have you ever fought with your brother?”

Once the question is out, Jiang Cheng immediately wants to retract it. What kind of dumbass question is that? Everyone fights with their siblings. A good deal of Jiang Cheng’s childhood was characterized by him and Wei Wuxian constantly sniping at each other. When they were really young, he even had a couple arguments with Ah-Jie of all people, the most sweet-tempered person on the planet.

But Lan Xichen shakes his head.

“Not really. There are occasions on which we don’t see eye-to-eye, but we’ve never fought, per say.”

Jiang Cheng’s jaw drops. For a moment, he completely forgets about the hurricane of raw emotions swirling in his chest.

“You’re shitting me, right?”

He winces at the curse that flies out of his mouth. Fuck, he thinks. That’s the first rule of propriety tossed right out the window. Just fantastic. Jiang Cheng half-expects Lan Xichen to narrow his eyes, say “swearing is prohibited in Cloud Recesses”, and force Jiang Cheng to sit his ass down and copy Gusu’s four-thousand-and-some sect rules. But he doesn’t. Instead, he grins.

“I do not lie. As you may remember, telling untruths is prohibited in Cloud Recesses.”

Honestly, Jiang Cheng doesn’t know why he’s even surprised anymore. Lan Xichen is nothing like he’d expected him to be, even as they sat through war councils and years of boring sect gatherings together.

Then the other man continues, expression sobering. “The only time we’ve ever truly disagreed on something – the closest we’ve ever come to real conflict – was after the battle in Nightless City. Before Wangji fought and injured thirty-three of our clan elders.”

Because he was defending Wei Wuxian. The words remain unspoken, but Jiang Cheng can hear them as clearly as if the older sect leader had shouted them. It always comes back to that, doesn’t it? To Jiang Cheng’s older brother, and the way knowing him upends the world.

“You were worried about him.” It’s not a question.

“I was. Still am, in fact. It’s one of the reasons we rarely argue: Wangji and I have a rather… unique relationship. We may be a few years apart, but people tend to see us as a single unit.”

“The Twin Jades of Gusu.”

“Exactly. Growing up, other than Shu-Fu, we only really had each other. Even when Wangji was a baby. I helped raise him – we’re very close.”

There’s a lump in Jiang Cheng’s throat. It hurts to swallow, the way it does in winter sometimes, before he spends the next week coughing his lungs up. He doesn’t want to say anything, but he has to. The need is right there, buried and itching under his skin, but he can’t scratch it out. Maybe if he just talks, it will go away.

He knows Lan Xichen will listen. He won’t change the subject or go quiet and unresponsive like his father, or tell him to shut up and quit whining like his mother used to.

Ah-Niang, I’ve been trying. I’ve been trying so hard, but it’s not working. I’m so angry all the time, and I think it’s getting worse.

“We used to be, too. Before everything.”

He doesn’t say who ‘we’ is. He doesn’t need to.

Jiang Cheng has no idea how much the other man knows. The stories he told yesterday – Wei Wuxian had been in enough of them that he should have some idea of their relationship in their youth, and it’s not like it’s a secret that they grew up in the same household. Still, Jiang Cheng has never come out and said it explicitly.

He does now.

“Wei Wuxian was my brother – you know that. Everyone knows that. But he was also my best friend. Even though it was a long time ago, it’s–” Jiang Cheng searches for an appropriate word and comes up empty-handed. He’s never been good at expressing himself. “It’s a lot,” he finishes feebly.

He’s said almost nothing, yet Lan Xichen is nodding like he gets it, and suddenly Jiang Cheng realises that it’s not nothing at all. This is the most he’s opened up to anyone in years, and he’s not wrong. It’s a lot, and it leaves him feeling strung-out and hollow, as if the confession was physically ripped out of him.

But it’s a good kind of empty, like a bowl of poison that’s been poured away, and now he can finally be filled again. Maybe this time with something better.

“It is,” Lan Xichen says. “It’s a difficult situation, the one you’re in. The one both of you are in. It’s painful. But I think both of you are trying, and that counts for something. And it will improve. I have faith in you.”

Despite himself, Jiang Cheng feels the corners of his mouth twitch. It’s the first time someone’s ever said that to him.

Chapter Text

It’s a lot.

That is simultaneously the most vague and the truest thing Lan Huan has ever heard. It’s the same for him. The feeling that hits him sometimes, makes him think that too much has changed too fast. Often when it catches up to him, he can barely breathe, because it’s only been a year but really it’s been thirteen, and things aren’t the same as they used to be.

He’s not the same person he used to be.

Sometimes a new peony or carnation buds in the garden outside, and he forgets and thinks Guangyao would be so excited to see this. But then it all comes rushing back, and he suddenly remembers that Guangyao-who-loves-flowers is also Guangyao-who-led-their-first-sworn-brother-to-his-death, and Guangyao-who-murdered-his-own-five-year-old-son. Then the feeling crests over Lan Huan like a wave, and it’s nearly an hour before he can manage to flail far enough upwards to break the surface.

So Lan Huan gets it. Sometimes everything is a little too big, and you feel a little too small, like you’ll never be able to get past it all and move on, or even to swallow the fact that it happened in the first place. It’s overwhelming.

He’s never voiced this aloud, of course. He’s a sect leader – supposed to radiate strength and stability, not be an absolute mess of a human being. Wangji might get it, would probably understand, but his little brother has already been through so much and Lan Huan doesn’t want to burden him with his problems. It’s safer to keep them locked away inside of him, in a tiny cage with iron bars and the biggest padlock Lan Huan can find. Because then they can never get out and hurt anyone again, and Lan Huan can pretend that they’re not there at all.

(He’s always been a little too good at lying to himself.)

It’s easier too, to ignore his issues than to acknowledge their existence. And Lan Huan imagines that Jiang Wanyin is the same way.

The other man is just as scarred as he is, if not more. The crushing burden forced onto too-young shoulders, the stabbing pain of the betrayal of a brother and the hollowness of losing loved ones – Lan Huan is familiar with it all. And so is Jiang Wanyin. But he has never had what Lan Huan has. A brother and an uncle, remnants of the family destroyed when his sect burned, but family nonetheless.

All Jiang Wanyin has are ashes, and the child he raised on his own.

He is angry, always – that much Lan Huan can see. His temper is legendary, as much a weapon as his famed whip Zidian, or his sword Sandu. It is enough for people to fear him, to clasp their hands together when Jiang Wanyin’s name is mentioned and pray that they never cross him.

Lan Huan was never one of those people (cowardice, too, is prohibited in Cloud Recesses). But Jiang Wanyin is right in front of him, and that fiery, incandescent rage that is one of his defining characteristics is gone. Snuffed out, like a candle flame that has burned too far down the wick.

And behind the anger, behind the scowls and snarls and the threatening crackle of violet lightning, the other man is vulnerable. He is tired, overwhelmed; he feels too much, and for the first time, Lan Huan realises something that the people who are terrified of him will never know.

Jiang Wanyin’s fury is a mask. A hard, thorny, impenetrable shield that he puts up so no one will ask questions. So all everyone sees is the wrathful sect leader, and no one will ever look closer to get a glimpse of the frightened, grieving little boy inside. But it is also more than a disguise. Because he has been wearing it so long that it has sunk into his skin, seeped into his blood and now it pulses in time with his heart. It is part of him, and he cannot take it off.

Lan Huan knows, because this is the story of his smile.

But somehow, some way, there is a crack in Jiang Wanyin’s mask. Made perhaps by his brother, or by the man himself. (Lan Huan isn’t egotistical enough to presume that it might be him.) The crack runs deeper than the skin, all the way down to the bone, and Jiang Wanyin has shown it to Lan Huan.

The younger sect leader is caustic and prickly, a tiger with a sore tooth that roars at anything that moves; but now the tiger has opened its mouth so that Lan Huan can see and understand. Lan Huan might just be a little awed, because such an action is brave and trusting and so much more than he deserves.

So when he tells Jiang Wanyin that he has faith in him, it’s only the least he can do. Even though his heart beats faster and louder in his chest at the other man’s answering expression, the corners of his mouth quirked upwards in something that would be a grin on anyone else.

And when they finally say goodbye at the edge of Lan Huan’s garden, as he waves and Jiang Wanyin turns to disappear back into the maze of corridors, of course Lan Huan’s smile is brighter and more genuine than it has been in over a year. It’s only right, after all.

 


 

 

Jiang Cheng is already halfway back to his own quarters when it registers in his stupid, vegetable-mush mind that he’s still wearing Lan Xichen’s robes. If he even has a mind, that is, since he’s obviously fucking brain dead.

He’s had on three layers of another man’s clothes for almost an hour now, and yeah, they’re kind of weirdly comfortable, in a billowy, swishy way. But not so much so that Jiang Cheng would fucking forget to change out before he left.

Instead, he’s standing alone in a deserted corridor, gussied up like some prissy little Gusu Lan disciple. All he’s missing is the damn forehead ribbon. To make matters worse, his own (perfectly comfortable, thank you very much) Yunmeng Jiang sect robes are sitting in a pile in Lan Xichen’s tiny bathroom, and Jiang Cheng’s dumb ass has also forgotten to tie his hair.

In short, he looks like Wei Wuxian when Lan Wangji has gotten him up too early after staying up too late, and fuck that is so not a thing he needs to be thinking about right now. Gods, he’s doing the walk of shame without even having gotten laid. What a nightmare.

This is all Lan Xichen’s fault, he thinks sourly. But it’s not – not really. The other sect leader has been in seclusion for a year, cut off from all human contact except for his brother and probably his uncle. Who are both Lan sect members. Not to mention that this is his home turf. He’s undoubtedly used to seeing white robes with fucking cloud patterns left and right, and it’s Jiang Cheng who’s the weird one for wearing fucking purple.

He deflates a bit. Gods damn it. Jiang Cheng’s to blame, isn’t he? He’s messed up big this time.

Irritated with himself, Jiang Cheng twists his ring around his finger. Quit the pity party and man the hell up, he thinks. You’re the one who dove headfirst into this steaming garbage heap; now get yourself out.

The way he sees it, he has two options. One: turn around right now, before anyone else can see him standing here looking like an idiot, and head back the way he came. Knock on Lan Xichen’s door and says “hey, you know I only left about five minutes ago, but I’m back now, because I left my clothes in your sink and I don’t really want to walk back and have people look at me like I slept with someone I shouldn’t have”. All while he tries not to keel over from embarrassment – for obvious reasons.

Okay, maybe Jiang Cheng only has one option. Which is: to shore up the last remaining vestiges of his dignity, grit his teeth and just waltz back into his rooms like nothing is wrong. Perhaps not exactly like that – he’s likely going to have to do some fancy maneuvering to make sure nobody sees him (or, failing that, recognizes him), but he can pull it off. Probably.

But once he’s done that, he’ll be home free. The gathering was scheduled to last a week, and Jiang Cheng had enough foresight to remember to bring a few changes of clothes. Then he can return to the little cottage tomorrow – when it’ll be less awkward – to give his report and pick up his robes.

And anyway, it’s only good manners to wash the things you borrow from other people. He can return Lan Xichen’s robes tomorrow, too.

The longer Jiang Cheng reasons with himself, the more convinced he is that this is a good idea. Possible loss of face in front of a few Lan disciples he can cow into silence with a few well-placed glares versus certain humiliation in front of the Lan sect leader? No contest.

Possible humiliation it is.

His mind made up, Jiang Cheng sets off in the direction of his assigned rooms. This is going to go perfectly well, he assures himself. No humiliation, possible or otherwise, will be necessary.

You fucking coward, a tiny – but rather vocal – part of his mind hisses mutinously. You’re just afraid of making yourself look stupid in front of the only friend you’ve managed to make in over thirty years.

Well, that’s my business, isn’t it? Jiang Cheng shoots back. Shut your trap if you don’t have anything constructive to say.

(He will neither confirm nor deny the pathetic little warmth that maybe-blossoms in his chest at the admission that even the angrier parts of him think of Lan Xichen as his friend.)

He’s back in the main section of Cloud Recesses now. There are buildings on either side, rather than the blank white walls of the corridors. Thankfully, there are few people milling around, and even fewer actually walking to a destination. A few disciples stroll past, a mix of different sects, but Jiang Cheng isn’t paying attention to the colour of their robes as he darts behind the nearest wall.

Gods, he feels ridiculous. He’s not conducting espionage, for heaven’s sake, simply trying to avoid a potentially inconvenient – and very, very awkward – situation.

When the kids are a safe distance away, Jiang Cheng continues along the path to the sect leaders’ quarters. There are no other obstacles in his way. Once or twice, he catches a glimpse of black fabric out of the corner of his eye. A flash of red. But when he turns to look, it’s gone, and Jiang Cheng is left feeling as though he’s missing something. Some sort of puzzle piece crucial to an understanding.

Finally, he reaches his destination: the short, white building he’s been living in for the past three days. He’s never been more relieved to get indoors in his life as he is as he slips through the front doors and into the long hallway.

Jiang Cheng counts the doors as he passes by them. His room is the seventh, a good number.

…five… six… sev–

His mental countdown is cut short when the eighth door – Jin Ling’s room, he realises, too late – opens and the sounds of boyish laughter fill the air. Three teenagers pile into the hallway, which is too small for the sheer amount of space that more-or-less seventeen-year-olds take up. Not to mention one very shell-shocked adult.

Fuck, Jiang Cheng thinks, reaching for his door so he can throw himself inside before the kids can process that he’s there. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens.

“Sect Leader Jiang!”, two voices chorus at the same time. One bubbly and excited, almost shouting, the other more reserved.

“Uncle!”, another says, just a beat slower, surprise evident in the tone. Great. It’s Lan Jingyi, Lan Sizhui, and, oh joy of joys, his nephew. And all of them, every single one, is looking at Jiang Cheng with an expression of complete mystification. As if he’s just told them that the earth is flat and they’re standing on the edge.

Jin Ling is the first to break the momentary silence.

“What are you wearing?”

Chapter Text

This is an unmitigated disaster, Jiang Cheng thinks as he stares at the three kids in front of him in dawning horror. His smart-assed brat of a nephew, the Gusu Lan sect’s darling and it’s resident troublemaker, all gathered together to bear witness to one of Jiang Cheng’s most spectacular fuck-ups in recent history.

This is infinitely worse than getting caught by a couple of no-name disciples he could have threatened with death and dismemberment in exchange for silence. In fact, these three idiots – they’re everywhere these days, gods damn it – are probably the worst people who could have stumbled upon him in his disheveled, improperly dressed state.

Except for Hanguang-Jun, that is. But then, on second thought, the other man would probably just fix him with a look that’s too polite to be a glower, turn on his heel and go off in the other direction to find his husband.

So maybe Jiang Cheng’s initial assessment of the situation was correct and he’s as massively screwed as it is possible for him to be. And so close to being home free, too. He really does have the shittiest luck.

All of this flashes through his mind in the time it takes for Lan Jingyi to open his big mouth and worsen the situation to the tenth degree.

“Those are our sect’s robes,” he gasps, and Jin Ling’s expression briefly shifts to his ‘no shit, dumbass’ face before reverting to his current favourite mode, which appears to be ‘what the actual fuck?’ Then the Lan sect disciple’s eyes widen. “Those are Zewu-Jun’s robes!”

The exclamation comes out in a near shriek, and Jiang Cheng wonders how long it would take him to dig a hole big enough to curl up and die in, and if it would be possible to do that before he spontaneously combusts from embarrassment. Of course Sect Leader Lan’s robes would be instantly recognizable to any cultivator from his sect, and of fucking course Jiang Cheng just happens to be stuck in a crowded hallway with two of them. One of who has all the self-awareness of a dung beetle in the middle of lunch.

You know, up until this moment, Jiang Cheng used to kind of like Lan Jingyi. Mainly because he was funny and routinely pissed Lan Qiren off so much he spat blood. Jiang Cheng could totally get behind that. Now, well, Jiang Cheng never thought that he’d actually agree with Old Man Lan on anything, but Lan Jingyi is a devil child. A menace to society.

Lan Sizhui, on the other hand, is simply wearing an expression of mild surprise. This is all new information to Jin Ling, though, and the kid’s eyes just about bug out of his head.

Shit. Jiang Cheng was a teenager himself not that long ago – he knows how their minds work. Their creative, filthy little minds that without fail manage to find the worst, most dramatic explanations for all but the simplest of things.

And Jiang Cheng is just standing here like a deer that knows it’s about to be shot at, with the look of absolute guilt plastered all over his face, his fucking hair down and wearing someone else’s clothes.

He panics. Of course he panics. It’s completely justifiable. Anyone would in this situation.

But for anyone, panicking would entail rushed apologies and a stream of garbled nonsense, interspersed with “please, I can explain” and “this is not what it looks like”. It would mean an ice-cold spike between their ribs and a tight feeling in their chest as their mind runs through each and every thing that could go wrong and at least eight different worst-case scenarios.

For Jiang Cheng, that’s not the case. Oh, he feels the latter, all right; he’s just as paranoid as the next guy. But the former? Never. Jiang Cheng just doesn’t do sheepish and timid, or bashfully contrite. It’s not in his repertoire of personality traits.

What he does get, however, is angry.

It’s not the kind of blood-boiling fury that swallows him sometimes, that hazes his vision and tints it red, makes his fingers itch for Zidian. No – this is thinner, more brittle. Just a little sharper and tinged with mania, because it’s not a whole emotion; just a suit of armour that fits over the bits of him that are freaking the fuck out and makes it out like he’s losing his temper instead of his sanity.

“Mind your own goddamn business,” he snaps irritably. “There is nothing going on between Sect Leader Lan and myself. Nothing at all. And even if there was, it is none of your concern – any of your concern. Do I make myself clear?”

Jiang Cheng can feel the fire in his eyes blazing brighter as he talks, his words barbed and landing with the sound of Zidian cracking against bare skin. The three junior disciples seem to pick up on the animosity in his voice, shrinking a little. Even Jin Ling edges back a fraction of a step.

Lan Jingyi has gone pale, his lips pressed together, tight and colourless. Jiang Cheng notes with a petty sense of satisfaction that the calm on Lan Sizhui’s face is more forced than usual.

You think you can make me uncomfortable, you little shits? I’ve been threatening people for longer than any of you have been alive.

All three of them nod, even though Jin Ling’s is a beat slower than the other two.

“Uncle–“, he tries, but Jiang Cheng silences him with a glare.

“None of you will speak a word about any of this, to anyone. Not to your classmates, and especially not to your illustrious Hanguang-Jun.” He spits out the last three words like an insult. “If I hear so much as a whisper, I will make your lives very, very unpleasant.”

More frantic nodding. Lan Jingyi looks a bit like a chicken with his head bobbing up and down like that, Jiang Cheng notes with a hint of amusement. He takes a step forward.

In unison, the kids shuffle backwards. Jiang Cheng doesn’t think they even notice that they’re doing it.

“Good.”

Before he can take in the identical expressions of pure relief on their faces, Jiang Cheng stalks back to the door of his own room, pulls it open and then slams it shut behind him. Outside, in the hallway, there is silence. Then, a couple seconds later, the sound of three pairs of feet shuttling off down the hallway, footsteps becoming fainter and fainter.

Just as quickly as it came, Jiang Cheng’s anger evaporates. His knees go weak, and he slumps against the wooden door, his breaths coming quick and hard, as though he’s just run from one end of Cloud Recesses to the other.

Now that the rage is gone, the anxiety simmering underneath it is allowed free rein. The chill of it seeps into his bones, spreading into every nook and cranny of his mind. His stomach sinks.

Oh, for the love of Rulai-Fo, he thinks wildly, his inner voice coloured with faint hysteria. Without the presence of the three teenagers, the logical part of his mind has time to run through the entire conversation, and is slowly coming to the conclusion that he has dug a nice, big hole for himself indeed. Jiang Cheng is royally fucked.

Because just now, while he was too riled-up to think straight and just blurted out whatever popped into his brain based on instinct, Jiang Cheng acted nothing but defensive. Accusatory. And everyone knows that when someone responds to a question with defensiveness and accusations, they’re probably lying. Or at least have something to hide.

Nice going, idiot. He’s just offered himself up as cannon fodder, hasn’t he?

 


 

 

It’s only when they’re out of both eyeshot and earshot of Jin Ling’s uncle, the three of them tucked away in a remote little corner, sitting beneath Sizhui’s favourite willow tree, that they finally feel safe enough to let out a collective sigh of relief. Jingyi huffs and sprawls out on the neatly cut grass, body half-in-half-out of the shade of the willow tree.

“I thought we were going to die,” he says dramatically, the back of his hand pressed against his forehead as though he’s about to swoon like one of the maidens in those romance novels Wei Wuxian likes so much. “I thought he was going to taser us with Zidian and throw our corpses down the mountain, where we’d roll into the river and no one would ever find us.”

“Oh, be quiet, will you?”

Jin Ling snorts, even as his own stomach quivers with remembered dread, still tied up in knots. He hasn’t been afraid of his uncle in years – not since he figured out that the older man never actually followed through on his threats to break Jin Ling’s legs slowly and painfully – but the look in his eyes, the deadly edge to his voice, had scared Jin Ling shitless. Triggered every single one of Jin Ling’s instincts to scream sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up.

“Oh, of course the Young Mistress isn’t scared. He’s your uncle! He’s not going to disembowel you. Me, on the other hand–”

Jin Ling interrupts.

“Sizhui was there too, and you don’t see him complaining, you little sissy.”

“Excuse me, but have you forgotten who Sizhui’s parents are? Hanguang-Jun and the Yiling Patriarch? Ring a bell? Both of you were safe, and you know it. I’m just a nobody disciple; if one of us were to end up gutted and floating lifeless down the river, I’m the obvious choice. I have a right to be terrified, thank you very much.”

Jin Ling gears up to fire off another scathing retort, but before he can open his mouth, Sizhui’s familiar deep voice cuts in.

“Please calm down, both of you,” he says. Though he sounds exasperated at their bickering, Jin Ling can see the fond warmth in his eyes. It sends a little thrill through him, and for once, Jin Ling doesn’t care that that makes him sound girly.

But of course, the moment doesn’t last long before Jingyi senses an opportunity to change the topic, and leaps headlong after it. As per fucking usual. A devious light comes into his eyes, and for a moment, Jin Ling’s friend resembles nothing so much as a mischievous forest imp, the kind that likes to play tricks and steal people’s underwear when they’re not paying attention. (Don’t ask.)

“Do you think there’s something going on with Sect Leader Jiang and Zewu-Jun?”, he asks, eyes wide and innocent, even though he knows very well what’s about to happen.

Right on cue, Sizhui gives him a reproving look. “Jingyi, it’s rude to talk about others behind their backs. Besides, it’s against the sect rules.”

The other boy pouts, and Jin Ling is reminded for a second that he really, really loves his boyfriend. Though he should have expected that wouldn’t keep Jingyi quiet for long. Nothing can, once the idiot gets going. And for some reason, he’s warmed to the topic of Jin Ling’s uncle.

“But you guys all saw it too, right? I wasn’t imagining the entire thing? Sect Leader Jiang was really-actually-for-sure wearing Zewu-Jun’s clothes?”

Jin Ling can feel his face getting hot on his uncle’s behalf. “What about it?”, he counters defensively, even though he was wondering much the same.

“Hah! I knew it! It was real!” Jingyi pumps his fist in the air, looking triumphant, and, Jin Ling thinks, a little ridiculous. Then he frowns and turns to Sizhui. “Hey, you’re the smartest. What are the odds of a collective hallucination?”

“Don’t talk shit about my uncle!”

The other boy raises his hands in a placating gesture. “Relax, I wasn’t doing anything like that. It’s just – I don’t know, don’t you find it a little strange? His hair was down, Jin Ling. That’s, like, impossible or something. Or at least unheard-of. Just saying, but no one shows up in someone else’s clothes unless they were doing something.”

All three of them go silent for a moment, considering what something might mean. Jin Ling shudders.

“Fuck you, Jingyi. I did not need that mental image.”

Bless his pure, pure soul; Sizhui puts a sympathetic arm around Jin Ling from where he’s sitting, leaning against the tree trunk. Jin Ling scoots closer so his back is pressed against his boyfriend’s chest and he’s practically sitting in the older boy’s lap.

Jingyi rolls his eyes, obviously bitter about being the third wheel in their little trio. Then his mouth pulls into a wicked grin. “You know, Jin Ling, your uncle’s actually kind of hot.”

“Go on, say that to his face, I dare you.”

“No can do, my flowery friend. I like my head just fine where it is, thanks.” Jin Ling scowls at the jab at his sect robes, and the peony embroidered on the front. “Seriously, though, has Sect Leader Jiang been acting any different lately? Like, anything that could be attributed to… you know.”

The young heir to the Lanling Jin sect folds his arms in front of his chest. “I don’t see why you’re so interested in my uncle’s social life.” He absolutely refuses to call if a love life. No. Just, no. But Jingyi is giving him that pleading look that makes him look like an excited puppy begging for a treat, and Jin Ling is weak for that face. He can feel Sizhui against him, practically vibrating with curiosity as well, just too polite to voice it. Jin Ling relents.

“I wouldn’t call it different, exactly, but he started visiting Sect Leader Lan a couple days ago, when we first got here. Giving reports on meetings and stuff like that. Since then, he’s – I don’t know – he’s been a little less angry? He doesn’t yell as much, I guess?” Now that Jingyi’s mentioned it, there has been a steep decline in threats to the bones in Jin Ling’s legs these past few days, but he’d chalked it up to a general improvement in mood.

Suddenly, though, he finds himself wondering what could have caused that. Damn it. He’s been spending too much time with Jingyi, if he’s getting to be this nosy.

“You think it has something to do with Zewu-Jun?”, Jin Ling asks. Rather rhetorically – he knows where Jingyi stands on the matter. Said Lan disciple hums, suddenly thoughtful.

“I didn’t take Sect Leader Jiang for someone who would be interested in men.”

“It does seem to run in the family,” comments Sizhui. Jin Ling rounds on him. Fucking traitor.

“I thought you were supposed to be on my side,” he says, outraged.

His boyfriend tugs lightly on the ends of his ponytail. “Just looking at all the facts.” Unbelievable. (And entirely too reasonable.)

Jingyi reaches over from where he’s lying undignified across the grass, and flicks the tip of Jin Ling’s nose before he can dodge. “Just look at it this way, Young Mistress. Sect Leader Jiang spends more time with Zewu-Jun, he gets happier. He gets happier, you suffer less. Everyone wins, see? And as a bonus, you get a new uncle.”

Jin Ling doesn’t even try to suppress the indignant wail that escapes him at that utterly bone-headed logic. “I don’t need a new fucking uncle! I already have three!”

“You have to admit, there are far worse choices. I love Hanguang-Jun and all, but Zewu-Jun is like, the nicest person on the planet. No offense to your dad, Sizhui.”

“None taken.”

“Anyway, the point is: you’ve kind of hit the jackpot with this whole thing. I say you shouldn’t look this gift donkey in the mouth; get them together as soon as possible. Official dating, wedding, cultivation partnership – the whole ball of wax. But don’t panic, we’re only too happy to be of assistance.”

Jingyi rubs his hands together gleefully, a manic look on his face that Jin Ling has come to know means he’s plotting something. Jin Ling’s stomach sinks, but he doesn’t have the energy to argue. He turns to Sizhui instead.

“Are you hearing this?”

Sizhui smiles helplessly. A single dimple appears in his right cheek, and just like that, Jin Ling knows it’s over. He’s not going to win this one. But he’s got to make it look like he tried, at least.

“Really? I thought you were terrified of my uncle. Now you’re going along with Jingyi’s insane plan to get him hitched to yours?”

“I’m still terrified of him,” Sizhui admits. “But yes.”

Jin Ling buries his face in his hands. Well, he put up a good fight. “You’re a great help. Really useful. Thank you.”

It’s as good as a white flag, and Jingyi grins at his victory. He sits up, back suddenly ruler-straight in the impeccable posture Lan Qiren has been trying for eons to drill into his thick skull. Lowers his voice to a whisper so Jin Ling and Sizhui have to lean in to hear it.

“Here’s the plan…”

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng spends the rest of the day doing paperwork and feeling sorry for himself. It’s mindless work, and for once, he’s grateful for the monotony of filling out forms and putting his signature down on what seems like every piece of paper in Lotus Pier. It keeps his mind off his latest monumental fuck-up, and how he’s undoubtedly going to suffer for it later, if he knows Jin Ling at all. (And he does; he raised the brat. Unfortunately.)

When the pile of bureaucratic bullshit on his desk finally dwindles away to nothing, he rises. Stretches out the kinks in his neck, and begins to take off the robes that started this whole mess in the first place.

The outermost layer comes off first – the flappiest one, not secured by the belt, then the middle layer with its blue cloud designs – the one that gives the Gusu Lan uniform its characteristic look. The inner robe is warmer, made out of a thicker material to withstand the perpetual chill that comes with building one’s sect at the top of a fucking mountain.

Jiang Cheng makes a mental note to have all the robes washed later, and drapes them over the back of a chair so he won’t forget. For the first time, he notices that the cloth smells different from his own clothes. Instead of the familiar scent of the lotus soap that is used in Yunmeng, Zewu-Jun’s robes smell of rosemary and sage. The herbs that Lan Xichen grows in his cottage, dangling from the kitchen ceiling in little wicker baskets.

It’s different, a little strange, but not in a bad way.

Then Jiang Cheng realises that he’s been standing in his room for the past ten minutes, wearing nothing but his under-clothes and staring into space, yards of pristine white cloth crumpled in his hands. He lets go abruptly, as if dropping a hot coal, and jumps back, a heat in his cheeks that he’s glad no one is here to see.

It’s the lack of sleep, he tells himself firmly. He hasn’t been sleeping well lately, and it’s making him act like an empty-headed dunce.

Jiang Cheng puts on his own clothes, and resolutely ignores the little part of him that’s laughing at him hysterically, because Jiang Cheng hasn’t slept well in years.

 


 

 

The night – and the morning that follows – goes pretty predictably, in the scheme of things.

Jiang Cheng has a nightmare, wakes up from the throes of said nightmare, then heads down to the empty courtyard to take his frustrations out on practice dummies and imaginary enemies. After that, he returns to his rooms, makes himself presentable, and then rousts Jin Ling from his usual teenager pseudo-coma to get ready in time for today’s meeting.

It’s all very… mundane. It should unsettle him, how easy it’s been for him to fall into a routine here, the way he has back at Lotus Pier. How similar it all feels. Yunmeng is his home, has been since he was born, since he watched it burn down to ashes and smouldering ruins, then built it up anew to a shining city with his own two hands, watered it with his own blood and sweat and tears. Yunmeng is all of what Jiang Cheng is; how, then, is there so little of him in it?

But it doesn’t matter, not really. As long as he keeps his sect running smoothly, nothing matters.

As Jiang Cheng hears his nephew clattering about in his room, he pushes those thoughts to the back of his mind. He’s going to need all his wits about him for the day ahead. Today’s meeting is undoubtedly going to be taxing, and after yesterday’s clothing debacle, he’ll have to be on guard to disable any rumours floating around.

A cold feeling knots in his stomach at the thought. Jin Ling would never willingly do anything to harm him, and Lan Sizhui is the type to keep his mouth shut when speech is unwarranted. It’s Lan Jingyi who’s the wild card here. The kid is a loudmouth, and that’s enough to set Jiang Cheng on edge, but he’s also accustomed to getting into trouble and hiding it. It could blow either way, to be honest, and that’s what he doesn’t like.

Unpredictability is one of his pet peeves – right in the top spot on the list, as it so happens. Just ahead of insubordination and public displays of affection. Jiang Cheng fucking hates when things are out of his control. Especially a ‘thing’ this important.

If Lan Jingyi blabs about what happened yesterday, speculation would spread like wildfire. Jiang Cheng knows how quickly people jump to conclusions, rushing to outdo each other by coming up with the most outlandish, most improbable explanations and conjectures. Everything would go haywire before he could clear it up by explaining that the whole thing was a misunderstanding, and by then, it would already be out of control. The damage would already be done.

Everyone who knows Jiang Cheng also knows that he cares quite a bit – no, a lot, actually – about his own reputation, which would assuredly take a beating from the incident. But more than that, he’s not the only person it would affect, and somehow, that makes it even worse. Affairs are all too common in the cultivation world – one needs to look no further than Jin Guangshan, the dearly departed asshole, for proof of that – but one involving two men? Two sect leaders, no less, of two of the four great sects?

It would be ruinous. The scandal alone would turn both their clans inside out. Lan Xichen’s name would be dragged through the mud. His uncle would be furious with him – not one, but both of the twin Jades of the Lan sect?

Never mind that nothing even happened. Never mind that Jiang Cheng doesn’t even like men in that way, and he’s pretty sure Lan Xichen is the same. All the masses care about is feeding their wild imaginations and starving curiosities, never mind that they’re ruining the lives of actual people. Just like fourteen years ago–

A knock on his door snaps Jiang Cheng out of the panicked spiral of his thoughts. He suddenly realises that he’s sitting on his bed, his hands twisted together so tight he can barely feel them, Zidian somehow worked off his finger and gripped between his thumbs and forefingers as though it’s a prayer object. Offered up in exchange for – in exchange for what? Peace of mind?

He nearly scoffs at that. Jams the ring back onto his right hand where it belongs, barks out an “I’m coming!” and sweeps out of the room.

Jin Ling is waiting for him in the hallway, hair tied up the way Jiang Cheng taught him when he was five years old, his arms folded across his chest. Looking every inch the young mistress that Lan Jingyi teases him for being. Both of them are quiet on the way down to the pavilion, Jin Ling’s expression calm and unruffled as Jiang Cheng has never seen it. It must be Lan Sizhui’s influence.

Despite that, however, there is a distinct air of smugness that hangs over Jin Ling like a cloud. Jiang Cheng can feel it radiating off him in waves, though it shows neither in the kid’s face face, nor in his body language.

Fuck, he thinks, because he remembers this. Jin Ling gets it from his father. Back when they were still children, still young and innocent and ignorant, Wei Wuxian used to pull the most outrageous pranks on Jin Zixuan, sending him off into red-faced, spitting fits of rage. But afterwards, when Jiang Cheng’s older brother was off doing his (admittedly well-deserved) time in the discipline room with Lan Wangji, the golden peacock would strut around for days, practically reeking of victory. Though his face was always fixed in a perfect mask of piety and humility.

It seems to be a trait of Lanling Jin sect members, unfortunately. And Jiang Cheng is pretty sure that this time, it’s directed at him. Fuck, he thinks again. Something’s going to go wrong. Something always goes wrong.

But as the two of them walk through the corridors of Cloud Recesses, no one turns to whisper when they pass. There are no hissed gasps, wide eyes or gaping jaws, only the usual hum of conversation between cultivators and disciples. No one side-eyes Jiang Cheng suspiciously; they simply give a nod and a small polite bow, and continue on their merry way.

Jiang Cheng feels himself relax a little. Apparently, news of yesterday’s incident has not, in fact, been spread all over Cloud Recesses. Which means that Lan Jingyi hasn’t sold him out, and probably won’t in the near future.

Praise the gods. The relief is nearly tangible, but Jiang Cheng doesn’t let it show. No need to clue anyone in that anything out of the ordinary has taken place. I swear, he promises himself, I will not do anything that stupid ever again.

It’s a foolish pledge, he knows. Jiang Cheng has always told himself not to make vows that he can’t fulfill, and if there’s something he’s good at, it’s making poor decisions. His whole life is basically a testament to that. But it doesn’t mean he isn’t going to try.

He and Jin Ling near the pavilion. They’re slightly early today, so few people are here, milling outside the structure. The ones that are present are already seated inside, waiting for the gathering to begin.

Jiang Cheng spots a familiar silhouette by the door. Tall, dressed in white, his head canted to the side as he talks to someone, and for a moment, Jiang Cheng’s faulty heart leaps in his chest before he remembers that Lan Xichen is in seclusion, and this is his brother, Lan Wangji. Who conveniently hates Jiang Cheng’s guts.

The Yunmeng Jiang sect leader draws closer, Jin Ling beside him, and finally makes out who it is that is speaking with Hanguang-Jun. Wei Wuxian.

The shorter man is pressed up against Lan Wangji’s much taller frame, hanging off his arm as the two of them whisper to each other. They look like yin and yang; the Yiling Patriarch’s black robes next to the Lan Second Jade’s white ones, a pair of young lovers wrapped up in each other’s existence. Wei Wuxian is looking at Hanguang-Jun like he is his entire world, as though nothing is real aside from the man in front of him.

For a moment, the split second that Jiang Cheng witnesses this, standing in broad daylight in a place he was invited to, he feels like an intruder. A thief breaking into someone’s home to steal something he has no right to.

But then Wei Wuxian looks up, and the moment is over. He pries himself away from his husband – a brief look of displeasure flashes over Hanguang-Jun’s blank face as the two of them break apart – gives a shallow bow, and vanishes. Just like that. He steps into a little patch of shadow, and suddenly he is gone, leaving the three of them standing there, staring at nothing.

Lan Wangji grunts softly and moves away, and Jin Ling glances up at his uncle.

“What was that?”, he asks, as though Jiang Cheng is supposed to know how his older brother’s mind works. As though he’s supposed to be able to fucking read him.

Instead of responding, Jiang Cheng strides into the pavilion and sits down. Jin Ling has no choice but to follow suit. He asks again, and this time, Jiang Cheng tells him to be quiet.

He understands now, what that was. How Wei Wuxian looked up and met his eyes, and that was all he needed to break away and disappear as though he had never been there at all. Jiang Cheng has known the other man since they were both ten years old, has seen him walk and stagger and sprint, seen him sway side to side and stagger drunkenly. He’s watched Wei Wuxian run aimlessly without direction, run towards something and away from something.

And now, Wei Wuxian is running away from him.

Chapter Text

For the next three hours, Jiang Cheng does his best to focus on the meeting. It’s not bad, not like it was on the second day they were here. Now that they’ve laid out the groundwork, things go much more smoothly, especially with the suggestion that Jin Ling made yesterday.

The sect leaders are actually agreeing with each other, and for once, no one looks like they want to kill anyone else. Of course, there’s Sect Leader Kun, who always looks like he wants to kill someone. He doesn’t really count, since he barely talks anyway and prefers to keep his threats silent, so he’s easy to ignore. Nie Huaisang is relatively subdued today, the reason for which, Jiang Cheng thinks, is pretty fucking obvious. It’s not every day that an established sect leader gets shut down by a sixteen-year-old in a room full of his colleagues.

It’s also really damn embarrassing. At least on Nie Huaisang’s side. Jiang Cheng can’t bring himself to feel pity though, because it was his nephew on the contributing end of the smackdown.

All in all, it’s good. The twenty of them select the representatives for the Council – as the others have taken to calling it – and each sect’s candidate meets with approval from the rest. They then set times, dates and venues for them to meet on a biweekly basis.

By the time the gong sounds for the end of the meeting, Jiang Cheng has convinced himself that he’s managed to forget the awful way his stomach clenched earlier, when he’d realised Wei Wuxian was avoiding him. He tunes out the voice that reminds him that they haven’t spoken since the argument, and maybe all the progress they’ve made in repairing their relationship over the past year has gone to naught, and they’ll never speak to each other again.

It’s no less than Jiang Cheng deserves.

It’s then that Jin Ling makes a move to leave, and Jiang Cheng has to call after him to stop before he runs off and disappears. The kid can go anywhere he wants, but Jiang Cheng wants his nephew back before dinner. He’s been putting it off for far too long, what with so many unexpected things cropping up left and right, but he needs to talk to Jin Ling properly, one-to-one without his friends around.

They do this all the time, back at home in Lotus Pier. Eat together so that Jiang Cheng can check on Jin Ling’s progress in his studies and cultivation. Lately, due to the daily meetings, they haven’t seen each other as much, what with Jin Ling constantly disappearing with Lan Sizhui and all.

Jiang Cheng is partly to blame as well, he supposes. His stomach twinges a little in guilt at the thought that he’s neglecting his nephew, and he resolves to spend more time with the kid. Even if he has to drag him away from his boyfriend to do it.

Jin Ling agrees hurriedly and, as per Jiang Cheng’s expectations, vanishes practically into thin air. The older man sighs. Teenagers. He doesn’t remember ever being like that when he was that age – he spent nearly all his free time training and studying, trying to get his cultivation level up so he could be as good or better than everyone else. The remainder of his leisure hours was usually spent attempting to talk Wei Wuxian out of his more… daring shenanigans. Sometimes going along with them, if the idea wasn’t too bad. If it wouldn’t get them into too much trouble.

But then Jiang Cheng never had a significant other, the way Jin Ling so obviously does. Didn’t even flirt with the village girls, the way his brother did.

(The few times he smiled at them, they didn’t smile back. So why bother trying?)

He heads back to his rooms and picks up the robes he borrowed from Lan Xichen just yesterday, now washed and neatly folded. The old woman in charge of the laundry had looked at him strangely when he brought another sect leader’s clothes to her and asked to have them cleaned, but she did it anyway and kept quiet about it.

It’s a wonder, really, how tight-lipped people are in Cloud Recesses, probably because talking about people behind their backs is prohibited (like almost everything else). Gossip is slow to move here, if it does at all. Which is one of the few aspects of this place Jiang Cheng actually likes.

Privacy is a wonderful thing.

As he passes through the winding corridors, making turn after turn of the route that is now becoming familiar to him, Jiang Cheng toys with the possibility of instituting sect rules of his own. An interesting idea, to be sure, a way to control the behavior of his sect members, but it would never work. The people of Yunmeng are far too independent and headstrong for that. There would be open rebellion within the month. For decades – centuries, perhaps – Lotus Pier has operated on a code of ‘do whatever you want, so long as no one gets hurt or killed’, pretty much relying on its inhabitants’ own moral compasses to stay functional.

It’s worked so far; or at least, Jiang Cheng thinks so.

He tosses the thought aside once the slatted wood path ends and opens up onto the garden. The ground is still a little muddy, on account of how hard it was heaving yesterday, and the flower bushes look a little less manicured than normal, though most of the broken twigs have already been snapped cleanly away and removed.

Lan Xichen answers the door barely five seconds after Jiang Cheng knocks. His hair is tied neatly back, the cuffs of his robes rolled up to his elbows, and his fingertips are smudged with ink, dark against his ivory skin. He greets Jiang Cheng with a smile – is it his imagination, or is that grin brighter than usual? – and an unhurried request for him to enter.

Jiang Cheng complies, and seats himself while the other man pours tea and sets out a mug for each of them. It’s calming, familiar even; though it’s only the fourth time they’ve done this, Jiang Cheng already feels at ease in the routine of these daily visits.

He reaches for the feeling he had this morning – the cold sinking of his gut at the thought that he could so easily fall into life in a place outside his home – but it’s not there. Instead, all there is is the warm comfort of the tea as it slides down his throat and settles inside him, chasing away the lingering chill.

Lan Xichen takes his own seat. They do away with pleasantries and dive straight into discussion – odd, for a meeting between two sect leaders, but then whatever it is they’re doing isn’t exactly official, and it gets dull after they’ve repeated each other’s titles for the third time. Jiang Cheng gives his report, and as per usual, Lan Xichen listens. Nods in all the right places, gives a ‘hmm’ where appropriate, and of course, expresses satisfaction over the progress the convocation has made.

When that’s over, Jiang Cheng finishes off the rest of his tea, and the older sect leader’s eyes zero in on the bundle of white cloth tucked under his arm. Jiang Cheng is almost ashamed to admit that he’d forgotten it was there the whole time, engrossed as he was in explaining the happenings of today’s meeting.

“I see you’ve brought something with you today?”

Jiang Cheng colours. He brings out the robes, still folded neatly, only slightly creased from the walk here, and passes them to Lan Xichen.

“These are yours,” he says finally, as the other man takes the bundle and sets it in his lap. No shit, idiot. “Thank you for the hospitality you so kindly extended yesterday. Especially for the clothes you lent to me.”

Gods damnit. Jiang Cheng can’t even say that without blushing. What is he – a teenage girl? But Lan Xichen is still smiling gently, not even a trace of mockery in his eyes. Jiang Cheng’s mouth suddenly feels very dry, and he has to swallow a few times before he can speak again.

Pull yourself together.

“I thought it prudent,” he continues, as formally as possible to disguise his embarrassment, “to have them washed before returning them to you.” Better. Maybe he can make it through this without looking like an utter fool, after all.

“Thank you,” replies Lan Xichen, and his voice is filled with nothing but sincerity. Then he gets smoothly to his feet. “One moment, please.”

Holding the folded cloth, he leaves the room and vanishes down the short corridor. There is silence for a few moments, before he reappears. This time, the stack of fabric in his hands is a dark purple. Jiang Cheng instantly recognizes them as his own robes, and the heat in his cheeks rises.

He’s already stammering out an apology by the time Lan Xichen sits down again, rambling something about having forgotten to collect his clothes before he left yesterday. Without a doubt, Jiang Cheng already has made a fool of himself, and only about fifteen minutes into his visit, too.

He should have known better than to tempt fate like that.

The other man cuts him off just when he’s really getting going, somehow managing to do so in a manner that isn’t rude at all. Jiang Cheng couldn’t be more grateful.

“There’s no need to apologise,” Lan Xichen says smoothly, the corners of his mouth pulling upwards as though he’s laughing at something. It’s probably Jiang Cheng. Oh, yes, definitely him. “The circumstances were, ah, unusual ones. I might have done the same, were I in your position.”

The anxious knot in Jiang Cheng’s chest loosens at the easy way the acceptance falls out of the other man’s mouth.

“Besides, it wasn’t any difficulty. I took the liberty of having your robes washed as well. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do it myself. I’m rather unaccomplished in the domestic sphere, I’m afraid.”

Despite himself, Jiang Cheng smiles at that. He’s not exactly a domestic goddess either.

“Don’t worry,” he says. The lightness of his tone surprises him. “I’ve discovered that the lady responsible for such things is very competent.”

“Thank goodness. When we lived together, Meng Yao did all the laundry. I tried once; ended up ripping three sets of clothes before we agreed I was better off staying away altogether.”

Jiang Cheng notices the way Lan Xichen’s voice hitches before the birth name of the late Lanling Jin sect leader, then skips over it like a stone across the water. But the curve of his lips never wavers, and there’s a fondness in his dark gold eyes that remains untouched by hurt. Even so, the atmosphere in the room thickens.

The younger man casts about for something to alleviate the tension. His eyes alight on the low writing desk in the middle of the room, piled high with sheafs of paper. A pot of ink, and a simple wooden calligraphy brush, the tip now dry.

“Doing paperwork, I see,” he comments, lifting an eyebrow. By now, the action is more habit than skepticism, though he reserves his better versions of such expressions for situations where they are needed.

“A necessary evil in lives such as ours. My uncle once said that a sect is built on a sturdy stack of documents.” Lan Xichen lets out a self-deprecating chuckle. “It’s what I do these days.”

“I don’t envy you. My own stack is probably lying in wait on my desk as we speak.”

“Getting higher by the minute,” the older man finishes, grinning. In solidarity, Jiang Cheng thinks. Laugh because the only other option is to wallow in your own misery, and all that. He knows he takes a rather dim view of life, but paperwork is the bane of Jiang Cheng’s existence. He’d much rather enter a forest filled with fierce corpses and hit things.

Eventually, his curiosity gets the better of him. The only experience he has with running a sect is his own, and he’s always wondered about the duties of other clan heads.

“If I may ask, what is it about?” He phrases the question as politely as possible, waving at the sheets lying across the desk, covered in graceful, swooping strokes that he recognizes as Lan Xichen’s ridiculously elegant handwriting. The black ink matches the stains on Zewu-Jun’s fingers.

Jiang Cheng is respecting a response in much the same vein as the subjects of the documents he receives from his sect, and the taller man does not disappoint.

“Land deals, mostly. Reports on the general situations of a few of the villages in Gusu, now and then.”

Jiang Cheng nods. It seems that even between very different sects, there are some things that always remain the same.

Then Lan Xichen hesitates for a moment. His hand reaches up to grasp at his collar. The gesture is strangely nervous, a contrast to his usual poised demeanour. He looks as though he is considering something, contemplating whether or not to say it out loud.

Jiang Cheng remains silent, though he unconsciously leans forward a little in expectation. This is obviously important for the other sect leader – a piece of information he normally wouldn’t share.

After a while, he seems to come to a decision. His chest rises as he inhales deeply, and then he points to a document. One at the very centre of the small wooden table. The writing on it isn’t his. In fact, though the calligraphy brush is set neatly right next to the paper, it looks as though Lan Xichen hasn’t even touched it.

“That isn’t one of them,” he says. “It’s different.”

“What is it?”

“It’s a formal request from my sect’s Council of Elders. They want me to begin looking for a wife.”

Chapter Text

The moment the words leave Lan Huan’s mouth, he wants to swallow them back down and pretend he never said anything. Why did he bring that up? It isn’t necessary, isn’t related to Jiang Wanyin in any way other than the surface level ‘oh, another sect leader is going to try to get married’ sort of disinterested comment.

More than that, this issue is private. Between himself and the Council of Elders – the foremost authority in his sect. Lan Huan may be sect leader, but the Council has enough power to force him to make this decision if need be.

He’d received the missive this morning, looking innocuous enough among the other letters and forms in the daily stack of papers he had to look through. He hadn’t recognized it for what it was until he opened it, and was already halfway down the first page before the meaning of the words truly sank in.

The Council has come to the conclusion that it is in the best interests of all involved, if Sect Leader Lan were to wed as soon as possible, the last line read. A woman of good family and status, and a high cultivation level, able to bear children and continue the line.

The whole letter was written in much the same way: cool and clinical, like a soldier’s report on a military mission. The threat implicit, hidden between the lines, but Lan Huan could see it clear as day. After all, he was brought up to look beyond the obvious.

The elders were – are – pressuring him. To participate in xiangqin matchmaking efforts, to find a wife, preferably within a short time frame, and produce an heir to be the next sect leader. As his father did.

Lan Huan has been staring at the letter all morning, trying to muster up a response. Long before Jiang Wanyin arrived, the characters had seared themselves into Lan Huan’s brain. He thinks he should have felt shocked. Angered, even, that the elders are sticking their wizened fingers into his personal life, meddling with it, handing him a piece of paper that says ‘get married’ and expecting him to hop to it. Like a dog that has been sent off to fetch a bone.

He should have been furious, that even this little shred of control, over when and whom he chooses to spend the rest of his life with, is being wrested away from him. That such an order has been dropped in his lap without so much as a ‘by your leave’.

But he didn’t. He couldn’t. Feel anything, that is. The only thing that welled up in his chest was a foglike numbness. Detachment.

Then Jiang Wanyin came and started asking questions, and suddenly there was a lighthouse in the mist, a formless, bright, shining thing that pierced through the fog. A single thought – no, a need – that said tell him. Get it out. Lan Huan doesn’t know why he listened. Why he’s letting this angry, bitter man witness his loss of control.

“Oh,” says the man. “I…I’m not sure how to respond to that.”

Lan Huan is at a loss for words. Of all the things he’d expected the willful, fiercely independent leader of the Yunmeng Jiang sect to say, that was not one of them.

The two of them sit in silence for a while, neither of them knowing what comes next. What should come next, by the rules of propriety and etiquette drummed into the both of them since birth. Neither of them has ever been in a situation like this before, and those rules don’t cover what to say when one’s fellow sect leader – a colleage, a co-worker – confesses to being pressured into marriage.

Or, Lan Huan thinks dryly, when one is confessing to being pressured into marriage.

Then Jiang Wanyin speaks again, his tone uncharacteristically soft. “What do you think about all this?”

Again, Lan Huan is thrown for a loop. In the Gusu Lan sect, questions are rare. There are rules, and there are protocols, and every member knows to follow them. Knows to do what they are told without argument, knows not to waste words on asking why when they already know how. Though Lan Huan has made countless choices in the thirty-some years since he was born into this clan, has had even more decisions made for him, rarely has he been asked how he feels about them.

No one has said such a thing to him in a long time. And Lan Huan suddenly feels the urge to answer.

“I knew it was coming. Something like it, anyway. As a sect leader, I need an heir.” It sounds so matter-of-fact and unfeeling, so much like the wording in the letter. The words taste like cotton and nothing.

“Your brother–”

“My brother is happily married. To a man. Such a union, however loving, will never produce children. Lan Sizhui may be their son, but he is not of the Lan bloodline. He is not mine, either.”

Lan Huan leans his weight away from the other man, rocking back onto his heels like a child who has been seated for too long. Jiang Wanyin’s brow furrows, his lips purse. He looks uncomfortable speaking of marriage and children. As though it’s not quite a foreign concept, but so far removed from him as to be nearly alien.

Another pregnant pause swells between them, like a soap bubble blown by a child, growing larger and larger until it pops.

“Do you want to get married?”

“It doesn’t matter what I–”

The younger man fixes him with a glare that Lan Huan has never before seen – or wanted – directed at him. Those slate-grey eyes glint like light shining off the blade of a sword. There is steel in his voice as he asks again, quietly, “do you want to get married?”

Lan Huan feels the answer building at the base of his throat, pressing on his tongue. No, it isn’t my choice warring with yes, I need to. I have to want it. It’s my duty. But what finally spills out isn’t either of those things.

“I don’t know.”

 


 

 

For the first time in a long time, Jiang Cheng doesn’t know what to do. Sure, he’s been caught off guard a couple times, been backed into a corner seemingly with no way out, but he’s always had options. Give up or go on, run or fight. Even when they were in a life-or-death situation and the only thing he could do was go along with whatever crazy idea Wei Wuxian had cooked up, he always had something. A plan of some sort, no matter how insane.

Now, the circumstances aren’t nearly as dire. And Jiang Cheng draws a blank.

What is he supposed to say to that? He’s never been good with other people – his own numerous failures in the matchmaking department attest to that. Along with his distinct lack of friends apart from the man in front of him, who, despite the calm exterior he’s projecting, is practically vibrating with nervous energy.

How can Lan Xichen not know? It’s not like he’s hesitating on proposing to a girlfriend he’s had for ten years – this whole thing is as cut and dry as any situation can be. Do you or do you not want to get hitched to a woman you’ll probably meet all of three times before the ceremony?

It’s a simple yes or no.

It’s also a really shit situation, from where Jiang Cheng is sitting. Not the marriage part itself – it’s common enough, especially among high-ranking cultivators like them – but the fact that Lan Xichen is getting forced into it. That he can’t even decide that he’s ready, or that he wants it. He’s the leader of the Gusu Lan sect – one of the most powerful men in the world. What’s the fucking point, if a bunch of old geezers can just march into his life and tell him what to do with it?

The few times Jiang Cheng tried the whole matchmaking thing, it was pretty damn awful. But it had at least been his choice. Lan Xichen doesn’t even have that.

The least Jiang Cheng can do is try to understand.

“What do you mean by that?” He winces as the question leaves his mouth. He’s tried to gentle his tone a little, but it still comes off sounding accusatory. Not what he was going for.

The other man hesitates for a second before answering.

“I should be upset. This wasn’t my idea in the first place. But… I’m not. I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense.” He rubs at his face with his palm, turning into his hand as though he’s ashamed.

“It’s all right,” Jiang Cheng offers awkwardly. “You don’t owe anyone an explanation. Least of all me.”

“It’s just– I don’t want to fight it. The thing is, this is the best option for me. People from my sect, they – we – love once in our whole lives. We meet someone, and that’s it, that’s the person we’re going to spend the rest of our life with. There’s never anyone else.”

Lan Xichen is floundering, stumbling over his words; sounding nothing like his usual composed self. And for a moment, Jiang Cheng thinks of Lan Wangji, playing Inquiry every day for thirteen years while he waited for Wei Wuxian to return. The thirty-three lashes he suffered to protect him, and the three years it took to recover. Jiang Cheng thinks, too, of Lan An, the famed founder of the Gusu Lan sect, who left the clan he had built and retreated into a temple for the rest of his days to mourn his wife’s passing.

The older sect leader is still smiling, but it’s a shrunken thing, small and sad and wistful. “My father was that way. Shu-Fu used to tell us that he looked at our mother like she was the brightest star in the sky, and he fell like a comet plummeting to earth. And it–”

He pauses. Takes a shuddering breath.

“It destroyed him.”

Comprehension dawns on Jiang Cheng in the wordless quiet that follows. Lan Xichen is afraid. Jiang Cheng can see it in the way his fingers tremble, how he clasps his hands to cover the shaking. He’s fucking terrified. Not of the arranged marriage he’s being pressured into, but of the only other option that could lead to the same outcome. Love.

Yet he continues. “That’s what happens to the people in my family. What the elders are suggesting – it’s a sound proposal. It’s the best thing for the Gusu Lan sect. A marriage doesn’t need to be based on love. But if we can respect each other, that’s good enough.”

Good enough. Jiang Cheng blinks, and a flash of memory lights the backs of his eyelids. A hot summer day, the smooth curved wood of a bow pressing into his twelve-year-old palm, an arrow clutched in his other hand. Wei Wuxian’s laughing face crumpled as he tried not to cry, Jiang Cheng forcing his spine ruler-straight even while he wished he could shrink into nothing. Ah-Niang shouting, and the perfectly ironed creases that stood out in the robes on Ah-Die’s retreating back.

Is he not your son? Am I not your wife? Are we not good enough for you?

Everything in him recoils at the thought. Good enough? Not fucking likely.

Then he imagines white cloth in place of the violet, a forehead ribbon fluttering where there is nothing in the memory. Another woman where his Ah-Niang stands, features blurry. A different child, shoulders broader from hours of handstands, mouth set in a somber line while his eyes swim with tears. And Jiang Cheng’s chest aches, like it’s hollow where his heart should be and he’s only now realising it.

It’s wrong, he realises. This shouldn’t be Lan Xichen’s future. It can’t be.

But he can’t say any of this. Can’t get it out without sounding sour and controlling, because Jiang Cheng has never known what to say to make people not hate him.

He finds himself wishing for more tea, so he could have something to drink instead of wallowing in strained silence.

Xiangqin is bullshit,” he says flatly. “Take it from someone who knows.”

Despite it all, Lan Xichen chuckles. Short and sharp, but amused all the same, somehow managing to slice right through the tension between them. Jiang Cheng feels his lips twitch upward at the sound, and suddenly the spike of bitterness in his gut dies down to a low thrum.

“I’m sorry,” the other man replies then, immediately serious and respectful. “I should not have made light of that. It was inappropriate.”

Considering all of your dating disasters, are the words that go unspoken, but not unheard. Jiang Cheng has to repress a snort, and he takes advantage of the brief lull in the storm of his emotions to shove them all back in their box where they belong.

He waves his hand. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve made my peace with it. That’s the thing about official matchmaking channels – they’re not meant to work out anyway.”

“I thought that was what they were for?”

“In theory, yes. In practice, it’s more like they try to find someone who fits as many of the criteria for status as possible while ignoring everything else.”

Lan Xichen scrunches up his eyebrows, looking both thoughtful and disillusioned at the same time. “That sounds… unfortunate. I take it you don’t put much stock in traditional methods of arranging marriages, then.”

“No, I don’t. And I don’t see why anyone else would, either. Two people are pushed together based on their astrological charts and family positions, and are somehow supposed to spend the rest of their lives living out of each other’s pockets? Doesn’t exactly scream ‘fairytale ending’ to me.”

“It’s not supposed to,” Lan Xichen corrects him. “It’s not all about passion and unending devotion, you know. Sometimes happiness is stability, knowing there’s someone you can trust.” There’s some sort of revelation there, but before Jiang Cheng can fully grasp it, the older man’s amber eyes widen as the conversation catches up to him. Oh, fuck.

“Are you a romantic?”

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng’s knee-jerk reaction is instant denial. “What? Fuck, no,” he retorts, trying to sound as vehement and outraged as possible. It doesn’t seem to be working, though, because Lan Xichen gives him a slow smile and cocks an eyebrow. Damn it. Jiang Cheng should really stop doing that in front of people. They’re stealing all his best expressions.

Against his will, warmth crawls up his neck and into his cheeks. He folds his arms across his chest defensively, hoping he doesn’t look as much like a child throwing a tantrum as he feels. “Maybe.”

The other man’s eyes sparkle with mirth, and for some reason, Jiang Cheng doesn’t feel as angry that he’s being made fun of as he probably should.

“It’s not anything to be ashamed of,” says Lan Xichen kindly, though he looks as if he’s struggling not to laugh. “I simply… didn’t think you were someone who would take such a view of the world. Forgive me for being mistaken.”

The heat in Jiang Cheng’s face reaches inferno levels.

How is it that every time he and Zewu-Jun have a private conversation, they wander so thoroughly off track? Every interaction they’ve had since the day Jiang Cheng first wandered into the garden has been utterly unexpected, wildly inappropriate under any circumstances between two sect leaders. But somehow, it seems natural. To exchange childhood stories, feelings of betrayal, to talk about love, of all things, with someone he can only barely consider a friend.

Even now, Lan Xichen has managed to coax out of Jiang Cheng a side of himself he’d thought he’d never admit to anyone, even on his deathbed. And it’s not earth-shattering at all; it’s just another thing the other man knows about him.

Why does everything with Lan Xichen feel so easy?

“I’m not ashamed of anything,” Jiang Cheng shoots back, just to be contrary. “I don’t hide who I am – it’s just easier to let people make their own assumptions, and I can’t be bothered to correct them.”

“Besides,” he adds, almost as an afterthought, “most of them don’t understand anyway.”

The smile on Lan Xichen’s face turns serious, though the light in his eyes stays. Jiang Cheng finds that he looks just as appealing this way – aesthetically, of course.

“What don’t they understand?”

“It’s– I know it’s not all just sunshine and rainbows. I know not everyone who marries for… for love gets a happy ever after. It’s hard, and I know that. You have to try to make it work, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Lan Xichen nods, and Jiang Cheng feels a little ridiculous. For fuck’s sake, he’s getting all worked up while giving a speech about love – an area that the whole cultivation world knows he has depressingly little experience in. But the other man is looking at him with this intense focus, like there’s nothing else he’d rather be listening to. Like he actually cares what Jiang Cheng thinks.

So he keeps talking. “A lot of people don’t get that. They think that believing in love means believing everything ends great a hundred percent of the time, and that’s not realistic. But expecting that two people who are basically strangers will be able to settle down and have kids without wanting to strangle each other at the first viable opportunity? Thinking that everything afterwards is going to turn out just fine and dandy? That’s not realistic either.”

Jiang Cheng is aware that he’s ranting now, but Lan Xichen still seems transfixed and he’s not quite done yet.

“And maybe sometimes people who care about each other fuck up and end up hating each other, but at least they’ll have tried to make things work out first before it all crashes and burns. It’s a damn sight better than not caring enough to try at all.”

There. He’s said it. He’s finally fucking said it – the daydream of a stupid child who struggled not to cry at night, wondering if everything would be better if his mother didn’t spend hours screaming at his father. If Ah-Die did more than sigh and turn away when Ah-Niang was upset and angry with him.

If Ah-Niang didn’t grab Jiang Cheng’s shoulders and thrust him in between the two of them while she yelled for her husband to listen. If he didn’t have to watch Ah-Jie’s eyes slowly grow redder as the quarrel grew louder. If…

There are so many ‘if’s, and Jiang Cheng thinks he could drown in them.

His mind is miles away; he doesn’t even realise it until fingers brush against the back of his hand. It’s that touch, more than anything else, that yanks him back to the tiny living room in a corner of Cloud Recesses, that anchors him to his body.

His hands are shaking. Trembling a little, possibly because of everything he’s feeling right now. Jiang Cheng just wants it to stop.

And then there is a touch, warm against his knuckles, his wrist. Roughened with calluses, but somehow so fucking graceful, delicate even. He looks down; Lan Xichen’s hand is laid over his, palm pressed to Jiang Cheng’s skin.

The hand is connected to an arm, which apparently turns out to be connected to the rest of a whole human being, and as his gaze travels upward, Jiang Cheng fixes on the other man’s face. His eyes are burning, gold heated to a molten liquid, but there is something soft in them, mild instead of searing.

The gesture should be awkward, should be thoroughly improper considering their standings and situations, but it’s not. It feels like comfort and safety and somebody cares, and in this moment, the raging storm in Jiang Cheng’s head quiets.

All that’s left is peace. Calm.

Lan Xichen doesn’t break eye contact as he says again, “I’m sorry.”

“What for?”

“For being one of those people who don’t understand. I didn’t know, but I think… I think I see now.”

After that, what can Jiang Cheng do in response besides smile helplessly? His eyes sting and water, and he curses himself for it. Oh no you don’t, you sappy fucker.

Then Lan Xichen seems to realise that his hand is still resting on Jiang Cheng’s, and he withdraws it, that soft look still shining out of his face. Without the warmth of skin-to-skin contact, Jiang Cheng’s hand suddenly feels cold. A little bereft, as though something’s supposed to be there but isn’t.

He curses himself again. Buries the feeling.

Clasping his hands together again, Jiang Cheng clears his throat to break the silence. “You’re probably wondering why I even tried the whole xiangqin thing in the first place, since I obviously don’t believe in it.”

“You’ve found me out,” the older sect leader says lightly. “I am rather curious about that.”

“But you don’t need to tell me if you don’t want to,” he adds, hurried. His cheeks are dusted a light pink, and it’s actually kind of cute. In the way that dogs and other small animals are cute, naturally.

“It’s fine. It’s just, talking about it, it seems kind of strange. I mean, I went through the whole thing three times. I have to have thought it was worth it at some point, right?”

“That’s what one would assume, yes.”

A laugh bubbles up in Jiang Cheng’s throat, and he only barely manages to catch it before it slips out. He feels weightless, like he could push off the ground and keep rising for all eternity. Like he can do anything. “Honestly, I don’t really know why I did it. I think, like you, it was mostly the clan elders who persuaded me to try.”

Lan Xichen stiffens, his posture growing rigid.

“I wasn’t as–” angry, bitter, jaded – “skeptical as I am now, else I never would have gone along, but even back then, it didn’t seem like a good idea. There were too many things that could go wrong, and my heart just wasn’t in it.” He shrugs, barks a laugh that’s meant to come off as self-deprecating but really just sounds sad. “Jin Ling was still a baby then, and his parents had just died. Women weren’t exactly lining up outside Lotus Pier to deal with that.”

And I was a mess, he doesn’t say. That was the main problem. The women – the female cultivators who had tried to reach out weren’t enthusiastic about looking after a squalling child that wasn’t theirs, sure, but some had been willing to work around it. It was Jiang Cheng himself they couldn’t deal with.

All the baggage, the issues he won’t let himself acknowledge. The constant, burning anger that was his only real friend for the past fourteen years. He’s not exactly a fantastic fucking catch.

But the other man just watches him intently, as though Jiang Cheng is a puzzle he can’t figure out how to solve. Curiosity simmering in his expression, unaccompanied by the cloying, sticky sweetness of sympathy.

“I half-assed my application,” he admits. “Threw in some bullshit requirements I figured the ideal wife of a sect leader would have, and washed my hands of the whole thing.”

A soft chuckle makes its way to Jiang Cheng’s ears. It’s a nice sound, low and deep, fuzzy round the edges like a worn blanket, and satisfaction curls deep inside his gut. I did that, a pleased little voice purrs in his hear.

He doesn’t have the time to shut it up before Lan Xichen is speaking again. Jiang Cheng makes an effort to ignore his windbag of a subconscious, and realises he’s being asked a question.

“I’ve been wondering what a man like yourself would look for in a wife. Forgive me if this is too personal – I don’t mean to pry – but what were the requirements?”

Oh, damn. He should have seen this coming the moment he mentioned it. Naïve of him to assume that Zewu-Jun’s morality floats too high above the ruckus of the mortal world for him to appreciate a good piece of gossip.

Briefly, Jiang Cheng considers saying no, backing out of the conversation before he reveals more than he wants to about himself, because Jiang Cheng’s insides are even uglier than the rest of him, and everyone who’s ever taken a good look has run away screaming. But hey, he’s a grown-ass adult man; he can handle a little rejection. It’s not like Lan Xichen’s going to tell anyone.

Hell, Jiang Cheng is going to let himself be reckless. Just for today.

“The usual. Good family, low to mid-tier cultivation level, physically attractive, decent spending habits.” Then Jiang Cheng ducks his head, abruptly overcome with embarrassment. Recklessness is not a good look on him. “And she had to treat Jin Ling well.”

Great. Just great. He knows the requirements were shallow. Every red-blooded male’s fantasy of a subservient wife catering to his every need, come to life. Ah-Jie would probably give him the tongue-lashing of the century if she knew. And that would be nothing compared to what Ah-Niang would do to him.

But gods in heaven, when that fucking matchmaking form was staring him in the face, Jiang Cheng’s mind had gone blank. He didn’t know what he wanted, what kind of person he’d want to spend the rest of his life with, because the simple fact was that despite their claims to the contrary, no one had ever been willing to do the same with him. And even if he had known, a piece of paper wasn’t going to help him find it.

So he said ‘screw it’, and filled in the most generic description of an ideal wife he could think of. The last requirement – the one about Jin Ling – was the only concession he’d made to himself. The one thing he was absolutely sure he wanted. Needed.

Still, Lan Xichen probably thinks he’s a massive douchebag right now. Jiang Cheng can’t exactly disagree. He wonders what that says about him.

But the other man takes him by surprise. Another grin tugs at the corner of his mouth.

“I think that’s very admirable. Not many people in your position would consider a child, much less use that as a basis for the acceptance of a potential partner. You care for your nephew.”

It’s a statement, not a question, said with such assurance and faith that Jiang Cheng is momentarily struck dumb. That’s what Lan Xichen took away from everything he’s just said?

Of fucking course he loves Jin Ling; the brat’s his sister’s son. But more than that, he’s Jiang Cheng’s kid. How could he not love him, not take his wants and needs and wellbeing into consideration? His nephew is worth more to him than some nameless woman who fills a set of criteria he wrote down on a whim. Jin Ling is everything.

Jiang Cheng fixes the man opposite him with the steeliest glare he can manage. “I do not need admiration for doing my duty to my family. Nor do I want it. And anyone who would not do the same is a spineless rat who does not deserve the ones they claim to love.”

Chapter Text

Lan Huan is taken aback by the pure frigidity of Jiang Wanyin’s tone. It’s a direct contrast to the heat raging in his eyes. His voice has dropped a register, and his pupils are blown wide, the black swallowing the grey whole, colour high in his cheeks. He looks dangerous like this, on the edge of the fury he is so known for.

Distantly, Lan Huan registers that the other man is glaring at him – that that fury is being turned on him – but that realisation is drowned out by the little buzzing voice that whispers that in this impassioned state, the Yunmeng Jiang sect leader is really very attractive. It’s that same voice, persistent and irritating, that reminds Lan Huan that he’s taken other lovers before. Men and women both.

Please be quiet, he begs it, even as liquid heat pools in the pit of his stomach. His face flushes involuntarily. Lan Huan hopes that Jiang Wanyin thinks it’s from embarrassment at his verbal misstep. He truly hopes so.

“I– I apologise,” he manages to get out, voice wavering despite his best efforts to keep it steady. “I meant no offense by it. It’s simply that I rarely see such open devotion, especially within high-ranking cultivator families.”

The spots of pink on Jiang Wanyin’s cheeks spread, creeping down his neck, and his eyes widen a little in what looks like surprise. It is as though the younger man hasn’t even considered that his behavior – his obvious concern for a child that is not his – might be unusual. As though he cannot fathom anyone thinking otherwise.

It is… oddly endearing. To see someone as notorious, as feared as Sandu-Shengshou show such dedication to his family that he goes up in arms at the mere insinuation that it might be possible not to care as much as he does.

Lan Huan thinks he should be offended; after all, the other sect leader is being rather disrespectful. But he finds that he doesn’t feel insulted at all. Instead, he is simply curious.

What is it about this man that makes him who he is? How can he harbor two sides of himself, both so different: the fearless, wrathful cultivator who feels nothing but bitterness and rage, and the young man who loves his family and feels so very much? Lan Huan might be tempted to believe that they are two separate people, if he hasn’t seen with his own eyes that they are one and the same.

The man in question tenses, walls going up. His left thumb and index finger twist the silver ring on his right hand – a gesture Lan Huan has noticed that he repeats often, especially when he is ill at ease.

“I, too, am sorry,” he says after a moment, his voice lacking its characteristic sharpness. “That was extremely ill-mannered of me; I was out of line. It will not happen again.”

Abruptly, every hint of anger goes out of him at once, like air escaping from an inflated bladder. Jiang Wanyin slumps, almost imperceptibly, seeming almost ashamed of his loss of control. Lan Huan can’t help the faint curl of disappointment in his stomach, though he tries valiantly to ignore it as he rises to pour more tea.

By the time he sits back down, the other man seems more collected. More secure in his hold on his own emotions. He accepts the refilled mug, steaming as Lan Huan hands it to him, with grace, and sets it aside to cool. Lan Huan takes a sip of his own drink and winces at the heat.

Then Jiang Wanyin opens his mouth to speak. “It was rather difficult for the matchmakers to find someone who fit every item on the list I gave. In the end, they could only rustle up three candidates, and when none of them worked out, that was the end of that. The elders didn’t bring it up again.”

It’s as though their previous tense interaction never even occurred. The other sect leader’s expression has iced over, his face blank, all traces of emotion wiped away. Lan Huan feels a pang of loss, and covers it up by downing another scorching mouthful of his tea. He can barely feel his tongue anymore.

“Was that what you were hoping for?”, he asks carefully. Jiang Wanyin is so volatile, a stack of dry kindling piled high in the middle of the woods. A single spark could set him alight, and though the flames would be beautiful, Lan Huan isn’t sure he wants to see what a forest looks like when it burns.

“Not exactly. I suppose– I suppose I wanted to see how it would all pan out. If I might have been wrong.”

I wanted to be. The words are cold and logical, seemingly emotionless, but Lan Huan has spent all his life prying feelings from people who do not like to show them. He can hear the sadness there, the disappointment, undercut with a longing so strong that it nearly overtakes him, forcing itself down his throat and into his lungs, and Lan Huan can barely breathe.

A longing to be loved – that’s what it is. Of that, Lan Huan is certain. Everything he’s learned about Jiang Wanyin until now only confirms it. The way he talks about his nephew, the way a fire lights in his eyes when he speaks about caring. Trying.

Something barbed catches in Lan Huan’s throat, piercing his flesh as he tries to swallow. He’s known this man for years, since they were both nothing more than children. They have run side-by-side into battle, fought simultaneously for scraps of respect in a world they were too young for, grown up watching each other live out their lives in a mirror of their own. And Lan Huan has never seen this. Never seen anything more than a cold, cruel shell of a cultivator who ruled his sect with an iron fist, never seen past the anger and the rage to catch a glimpse of the man hoping desperately for someone to love him.

It’s not worth it, his mind thinks, even as his heart twists within his ribcage. It sounds beautiful, and in another life, Lan Huan might even have hoped for the same. But he’s seen first-hand how love destroys, how it sinks its claws into its victims, ripping them apart if they draw closer together, or farther apart. How its roots burrow into the soil of everywhere, tearing up the earth when it finally self-destructs. How its wings spread wide to block out the sun, to block out the light so nothing else will ever grow in its shadow.

Love is a nightmare creature. Lan Huan knows it with every bone in his body. He also knows that sometimes even when people care, they don’t try. And they let things fall to pieces because they don’t know how to fix them, and there are consequences.

There are always consequences, in the aftermath.

When Lan Huan was six years old, and Wangji was three – too young to understand much of anything – he asked Shu-Fu why they only ever visited their mother once a month, when all the other children saw theirs every day. The end of Shu-Fu’s beard twitched, and Lan Huan usually laughed when that happened, but today it wasn’t funny. Your mother did a bad thing, Ah-Huan, Shu-Fu said, his voice solemn and somber, sinking like a stone. And she has to be very quiet for a while. So she can’t see you and Wangji, because she’s being quiet.

What about our father? Then Shu-Fu’s mustache drooped, which was something Lan Huan couldn’t remember seeing before. He smiled too, which was also something that hardly ever happened. But it was sad, and it drooped at the edges, just like Shu-Fu’s mustache.

Your father loves her, Ah-Huan, came the reply. Lan Huan didn’t understand why Shu-Fu kept repeating his name. He loves her, so he’s keeping quiet with her. They’re together, you see, because they love each other.

That was the first time Lan Huan realised that love hurt. Because their mother and father loved each other so much that they didn’t have any left for him and Wangji, and that was why it couldn’t be all four of them keeping quiet together. It had been summer then in the Cloud Recesses, but all he could think about was how cold that made him feel.

Now that Lan Huan is older and a little wiser, the cold feeling still hasn’t gone away.

He thinks he understands where Jiang Wanyin is coming from, but that isn’t for him. Lan Huan believes in love, but he doesn’t have faith in it. All it ever seems to do is mess everything up.

“Thank you for your insights,” he says. He feels sluggish, as though he’s just surfaced from a long time spent under the water of the cold springs. And before his slow-moving brain can catch up with his mouth, he says, “I hope you can find someone who fills your requirements.”

Jiang Wanyin cocks his head, giving him an unreadable look.

“Your real requirements.”

Then Lan Huan’s mind finally begins to run at its normal pace, and he suddenly feels a terrible urge to lock himself in his room and refrain from coming out for the rest of the afternoon. That was… not inappropriate, per say, but it was strange. Certainly not something one would say. Ever. In any context.

But the other man is smiling. He seems lighter, somehow, as though a burden has been lifted from his shoulders. “What are yours?”

Lan Huan can only stare dumbly as he attempts to process the question.

“My–?”

Your requirements. For the xiangqin procedure. You didn’t think I was the only one who had to make a list, did you? It’s standard protocol.” Jiang Wanyin is relaxed now, smirking, more at ease than before. The suddenness with which he switches between aloofness and warmth makes Lan Huan’s head spin.

It also keeps him off-balance enough not to notice that the man seated opposite him has correctly deduced that Lan Huan is going to go through with his original plan anyway, regardless of their earlier – rather heated – conversation.

“I– Well, I– ”

“–you?”

“I don’t know,” he finally admits. Dear founders, his face is burning. And was he stuttering just now? “I haven’t given much thought to it.”

Distracted, he realises. He’s so distracted that he doesn’t even have room to slip back into the frigid water that claimed him not five minutes ago. Normally, once he begins to think about it, he’ll be sucked in, and no matter how many times something hauls him out again, he’ll keep spiraling, downwards and downwards, for the rest of the day. Lost in his own thoughts. His memories.

But it seems that this time, he’s managed to drag himself back onto dry land.

“You have to have some idea of the person you want to spend the rest of your life with,” states Jiang Wanyin, somehow managing to convey an eyeroll without even moving his eyes. It’s impressive. “Otherwise you wouldn’t even be considering this whole matchmaking thing. Clusterfuck, whatever.”

If the younger sect leader were anyone else, Lan Huan might give him what Lan Jingyi has dubbed ‘the smile of passive-aggressive disapproval’. After all, cursing is another one of the things prohibited by their sect, and most other cultivators seem to respect that, at least in front of Gusu Lan clan members. Not the head of the Yunmeng Jiang sect, apparently. But Jiang Wanyin’s foul mouth is just another side to him, a different facet of the man himself that’s as much a part of him as his fiery temper.

Lan Huan doesn’t mind. He finds it inexplicably liberating.

“Honest.” He blurts out the first thing that comes into his head. “Whoever it is, they have to be honest.” The other man nods in understanding, and Lan Huan continues, encouraged. “Loyal. I’d like them to be loyal.”

“Anything that might be easier for the matchmakers to pick out? Not personality traits?”

He frowns. “It doesn’t matter. Not to me, anyway. It’s not really important.”

“What is, then?”

Pausing for a moment, Lan Huan turns the question over in his head. Those traits – yes, they’re necessary, crucial, actually; but the thing he needs most is still sitting inside him, silent and unsaid. He huffs out a breath. Makes a decision.

“They need to put duty first, above all else. The fate of our family, our sect. Nothing, nothing is more important than that.”

Jiang Wanyin goes quiet, as though he’s considering what to say. Then his internal argument seems to come to some sort of resolution. “I think the whole time I was going through the motions, I knew that no matter what happened, or how good the fit was, I wasn’t going to go through with it.” He offers the words like a poor man presenting the last of his meager coin – as though they are precious, guarded. Lan Huan thinks they might be.

“The person I described – the person I said I wanted,” his voice hitches, “wasn’t a wife. It was my sister.”

Gold eyes widen in understanding. “Your nephew needed a mother.”

“Yes,” he says simply. “But I still wouldn’t have done it.”

“Why?”

“Because then I would have had to have children. And I didn’t want to do to Jin Ling what my parents did to me.”

It’s a confession. Short and sharp, but it hangs in the air long after Jiang Wanyin has finished speaking. The power of it would bring Lan Huan to his knees, if he were still standing. Lan Huan recognizes it for what it is: a truth for a truth. Paying him back for the parts of himself he’s just bared.

But what Jiang Wanyin has shown him is so raw. It feels as though the younger man has stripped himself down to the bone, and allowed Lan Huan to take a look. It doesn’t seem fair.

More. He needs to give more.

“My parents were a disaster,” Lan Huan says. It’s the most informal, the freest he’s ever been with his words, and even though it hurts to acknowledge, it’s true. Opposite him, Jiang Wanyin chokes on a laugh. It’s not that funny – especially considering, well, everything – but Lan Huan finds that his own laughter comes easier than expected.

“We’re both pretty fucked up, aren’t we?”

“Just a little bit.”

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng ends up staying for lunch. And well into the afternoon. They don’t plan it that way – it’s just something that happens. Talk turns away from the heavy stuff, as though they both recognize that they’ve said enough for one day.

And then Lan Xichen asks if Jiang Cheng is hungry. Like an idiot, he says yes. He can hardly be blamed for it; he forgot to eat breakfast this morning in favour of arriving at the meeting-place as early as possible, and it’s now mid-day. Of course he’s hungry.

Jiang Cheng wasn’t counting on Lan Xichen’s response, however. The older sect leader practically beams, like his own personal fucking sun, and asks Jiang Cheng if he’ll teach him to fry vegetables so they can eat lunch together. Alarm bells immediately begin to sound in Jiang Cheng’s head as he remembers the conversation they had not three days ago. I tried making a stir-fry once; almost set the whole kitchen on fire. Those were the exact words spoken, and Jiang Cheng doesn’t really want to be responsible for Cloud Recesses going up in flames. Again.

But Lan Xichen is giving him this look, one that Jiang Cheng interprets as ‘say no and you’ll immediately feel like you’ve kicked a baby seal’, and fuck damnit, Jiang Cheng absolutely does not need to feel like even more of a garbage human being than he already is. So it’s with an air of resignation, and the apprehension of a man walking to the gallows, that Jiang Cheng acquiesces.

Fast forward fifteen minutes, the kitchen is in chaos, and it’s every bit the disaster Jiang Cheng predicted it would be. For the record, he still has no idea how they got here.

What happened was this: unwilling to leave Lan Xichen, the self-proclaimed domestic failure, to his own devices, Jiang Cheng opted for controlled supervision instead. Like the responsible adult he is. He gave directions and the other man followed them, while Jiang Cheng watched over his shoulder to make sure nothing went terribly wrong. It was progressing relatively well, the qingjiang-cai leaves sizzling merrily in the wok, and for once, Jiang Cheng allowed himself to entertain the possibility that they might manage to make it through this successfully. Without any tragic mishaps resulting in injury and potential loss of life.

Of course, that was the moment that everything went to hell.

The oil spattered suddenly, bubbling and bursting, and Lan Xichen let out a high-pitched noise that Jiang Cheng was certain was an honest-to-gods shriek. Someone knocked over something with a series of loud crashes, and then the stove was on fucking fire, smoke filling the room, and the kitchen was altogether too small for two grown men when one of them was losing his shit.

Which is where they are in this current moment. Red and orange and yellow tongues of flame shooting up towards the ceiling. Blistering heat radiating from the wok, where the unfortunate qingjiang-cai has probably long since blackened and turned to ash. Lan Xichen panicking, and Jiang Cheng only barely managing to hold him back from dumping a bucket of water over the stove long enough to grab a nearby bag of salt and pour that on the flames instead.

White grains spill across the counter, onto the floor, but Jiang Cheng can’t bring himself to give a flying fuck, not when the fire has finally died away with the addition of the salt. Lan Xichen is leaning against the counter, a shell-shocked expression on his face. He’s not moving – and he’s in the way – so Jiang Cheng doesn’t feel bad in the slightest when he pushes roughly past the other man, grabs the wok by the handle and practically tosses it into the sink.

“You,” he bites out, rounding on Lan Xichen, “are never allowed within ten feet of a stove. Ever. Again.”

As if on cue, the oil in the wok gives a last, pathetic hiss. The vegetables are past saving, stuck to the bottom of the pan and charred beyond all recognition. And they’re smoking.

Lan Xichen nods timidly. The only thing his face shows is a faint look of horror. “Never,” he agrees.

“Not even in your house.”

Vigorous head shaking. “Not even in my house.”

Then Jiang Cheng follows his gaze to the stone panel behind the stove. Once white, it’s now burned almost completely black, the panels around it streaked with soot. Lan Xichen blinks. “I don’t even know what I did wrong,” he says forlornly.

Jiang Cheng’s knees go soft, and he slumps against the sink. His shoulders begin to shake; he doesn’t even make an effort to stop them. A hand moves to cover his face, and then Lan Xichen is leaning over him, all thoughts of the recent disaster seemingly forgotten.

“Are you alright?”, he asks, concerned. That’s when Jiang Cheng can’t hold it in anymore. His hand falls, the shaking intensifies, and he starts to laugh. He laughs until his stomach convulses and aches, until he’s wheezing and gasping for breath. It’s not laughter of relief – that they’ve only narrowly managed to avoid death by grease inferno – but rather pure, unadulterated mirth. And all the while, Lan Xichen is looking at him with an expression that radiates confusion and screams ‘what the hell is going on?’ But at the same time, there’s also a tiny, bewildered smile on his face.

As though Jiang Cheng’s amusement makes him happy.

Stupid fucking fuzzy thoughts, he thinks, without any heat, as he struggles to get himself back under control. Gods, he hasn’t laughed that hard in a long time.

“I can’t believe,” says Jiang Cheng, in between heavy pants, “that you managed to start a fucking fire while cooking vegetables.”

Lan Xichen doesn’t say anything, just folds his arms across his chest in a defensive pose. His smile turns down a little at the edges, his bottom lip jutting out, and holy Guanyin-Ma he’s pouting. Zewu-Jun, the esteemed leader of the Gusu Lan sect, known for its strict rules and the iron self-discipline of its disciples, is pouting because Jiang Cheng pointed out that he’s a shitty cook.

This is too good.

“I was watching you the whole time, and I still don’t know how you did it.”

The other man shifts his weight awkwardly. “Can we please not talk about this?”, he pleads, dark gold eyes round and huge as dinner plates. Jiang Cheng must be going soft, because he relents.

“Alright, alright,” he says, taking pity on the poor soul who looks like he’s about to expire from humiliation any minute. “Now, will you help me clean this up, or are you going to set anything else on fire?” Okay, so maybe he’s not quite done teasing the older man just yet.

Lan Xichen’s brows knit together. It’s the closest thing Jiang Cheng’s ever seen to a scowl on the normally unflappable sect leader. Even though he can tell it’s half-hearted and formed mostly from discomfort, the sternness in Zewu-Jun’s eyes, the steely set of his mouth… It’s kind of hot.

Where did that come from?

With an effort, Jiang Cheng pushes the thought away and buries it. Finally, he shuts up, rifles around for two towels and, passing one to Lan Xichen, they start the long, agonizing process of putting the kitchen to rights after the mess they’ve just made. They wipe down the wall, cleaning away the soot streaks, and Jiang Cheng makes the other man clean the stove while he tackles the wok. It’s hard – the vegetables have left a crusty residue on the metal bottom, and oil stains are stubborn little bastards – but they eventually settle into it. Then Lan Xichen says something, Jiang Cheng says something back, and before he knows it, he’s laughing again, hard enough to cramp his midsection, and this time, Lan Xichen is laughing with him.

It takes them nearly three hours to return the kitchen to a state that doesn’t look like a tornado blew through it. By then, both of them have pretty much given up on anything resembling lunch. Interestingly enough, neither brings up the possibility of another attempt at cooking.

When the two of them finally deem each other’s handiwork satisfactory, they emerge into the living room, tired and probably smelling of smoke. It’s an effort to execute a controlled descent into a seated position instead of a graceless flop – Jiang Cheng manages it only through sheer force of will; it might be his imagination, but even Lan Xichen’s movements seem a whole lot less elegant than usual.

The younger man stretches out his arm, sore from scrubbing out stubborn residue from the bottom of a wok for the better part of three hours. As a cultivator, he’s in good physical shape – in his position, he needs to be – but household work uses a whole different set of muscles than sparring and sword drills, and it’s not something he does often, for obvious reasons. It fucking burns.

Across from him, Lan Xichen is rotating his wrists in tiny circles, working out the kinks in his joints. Jiang Cheng figures he hasn’t had to clean up after himself very much – it showed in the kitchen, when Jiang Cheng had to teach him how to properly wipe away grease stains so they wouldn’t leave a sheen of oil on the countertop – but he went along rather gamely, all considered. Didn’t even put up a fuss over getting his hands dirty.

And make no mistake – fire clean-up is filthy. Jiang Cheng knows that much from his own disastrous first attempts at cooking back in his teenage years. The soot gets everywhere, all over your clothes, and you somehow end up with grease stains in places they have no business being. For all his apparent poise, Lan Xichen is no exception.

The ink smeared on his fingers has long since been replaced with burnt-black oil that refuses to come out no matter how many times the older man washes his hands. There are spots spattering his once-pristine white robes that Jiang Cheng is pretty sure aren’t all water, and loose tendrils of his hair are sticking to his face, damp with perspiration. Lan Xichen is the First Jade of the Gusu Lan sect, used to looking perfect at all times (or at least, that’s what Jiang Cheng is allowing himself to think). Right now, he’s a mess, and he still looks the part of the lauded “most handsome bachelor in the cultivation world”.

It’s not fucking fair, is what it is. But the thought is lacking its usual bite, and the familiar spike of jealousy that sometimes – okay, usually – accompanies it just isn’t there.

Jiang Cheng looks down at himself. His clothes are just as disgusting, perhaps more so, but at least they’re not white, so the grime doesn’t show as much. That’s one thing about Gusu Lan sect robes: they’re so easy to get dirty. He has no idea how Lan Xichen keeps his so spotless all the time. Maybe it’s some sort of sect secret.

“I need a bath,” he mutters, wrinkling his nose.

That draws a laugh from the other man. “I would not be amiss to one myself.”

Lan Xichen still insists on walking him out, apologizing non-stop as he does so for putting Jiang Cheng through that disaster and promising never to do it again. Jiang Cheng snickers at him the whole way.

They say goodbye at the end of the garden, and Jiang Cheng makes the long walk back to the main portion of Cloud Recesses feeling lighter than he has in ages. Gods, he hasn’t laughed that hard since… he’s not sure, actually. Finally, he reaches the building where he’s been staying for the past three nights.

He really, really wants a bath, but he made Jin Ling promise to have dinner with him, and the sun’s already starting to go down. A dark blue cast is slowly sweeping over the sky; a few of the younger disciples are lighting the lanterns that line the walkways for people to see by. As much as Jiang Cheng might want to skip out on this right now in favour of getting cleaned up, it’s been too long since he had a proper talk with his nephew, and he doesn’t want that to continue. He’s also still hungry.

Quickening his steps, Jiang Cheng heads to the corridor where both their rooms are located. He bypasses his own quarters and knocks on Jin Ling’s instead, hoping that the boy is inside so they can get this over with.

No such luck. Only silence answers, and Jiang Cheng curses under his breath. The brat’s not home. There’s no surprise there – he’s probably off somewhere with Lan Sizhui, maybe the other obnoxious Lan kid as well. Honestly, Jiang Cheng should have seen this coming.

Damn it. This is going to be tough. He’s going to have to find Jin Ling. And as he knows from experience, his nephew is very, very good at disappearing when he needs to. Fuck.

Chapter Text

As loud as Jin Ling is, one would think it would be relatively easy to find him. Unfortunately, as Jiang Cheng is rediscovering, that’s not the case. So far, he’s looked everywhere he can think of: the mess hall, the gardens, the training grounds – but the kid is nowhere to be seen.

He’s going to break his nephew’s fucking legs, he fumes as another Lan disciple he’s dragged over to question scurries away, looking furtively over his shoulder as though Jiang Cheng might suddenly sprout fangs and lunge after him. Jin Ling swore he’d be back for dinner, gods damn it; Jiang Cheng didn’t raise him to go back on his word like this. When Jiang Cheng finds the brat, he’s going to be dead meat.

The disgruntled sect leader rounds another corner and bumps right into Lan Jingyi, who for once isn’t tearing full-tilt along the corridors, but rather walking at a pace that is only slightly faster than sedate. Thank the heavens. Jiang Cheng has no desire to add being bowled over by an overexcited disciple to the list of things that have gone wrong today.

Said disciple jumps back at the collision, momentarily losing his grip on a frankly terrifying tower of books. The stack teeters, then falls like a great tree being cut down in a forest, and with a resounding crash, there are suddenly books all over the floor.

But when Lan Jingyi’s eyes finally flick upwards from where they were previously fixed on his books, he doesn’t even move to pick them up. Instead, he bows and stutters, “Se– Sect Leader Jiang,” then falls silent.

Jiang Cheng quirks an eyebrow, waiting for the kid to say something other than his title, which is so painfully obvious it barely counts as a comment at all. If anything, the small action seems to terrify him even more. Lan Jingyi shuffles his feet and blurts out a rushed apology for not looking where he was going, ducking his head with embarrassment.

It’s the second time Jiang Cheng has seen Jin Ling’s best friend number two in as many days. The first instance being the absolute wreck that was yesterday, when Jiang Cheng made a total fool out of himself in front of three teenagers, one of whom just so happened to be this one. And Lan Jingyi was definitely not this – well, for lack of a better word – meek yesterday. No, as Jiang Cheng found to his detriment, the kid had been a nightmare. A demon child straight out of the Ten Palaces of Hell, shamelessness on par with Wei Wuxian himself.

But now? Now, Lan Jingyi is blushing beetroot-red, on his hands and knees picking up the numerous books scattered on the ground, all while nattering on non-stop about both everything and nothing at the same time.

Everything, as in every topic under the sun, shuttled back and forth between so fast it might be giving Jiang Cheng whiplash. Nothing, in that none of it means anything at all useful. Not even a little.

Rambling. He’s rambling, and Jiang Cheng has interrogated enough people to recognize a diversionary tactic when he sees one. But then again, on second thought, Lan Jingyi doesn’t seem quite subtle enough for diversionary tactics. It’s much more likely that the young Lan disciple has done something, and is now feeling irretrievably guilty about it, and equally nervous that someone might find out what it is. Flinty gray eyes narrow at the thought.

Lan Jingyi is acting sketchy as all hell. He’s definitely hiding something.

He’s also still talking by the time he’s finally collected all his books into a massive, jumbled mess, cradling it in his arms as though it’s a newborn child instead of a pile of bound papers held together only by sheer willpower and the Gusu Lan clan’s prodigious arm strength.

“–wasn’t careful and I’m really, really sorry, Sect Leader Jiang!”, Lan Jingyi gushes hurriedly, apologetically. He bounces his books around, resettling them into a more comfortable position. Then he gives another bow, back straight and head dipping past his waist, as is only proper when addressing the leader of another sect. “I’ll, uh, just be going now.”

He flashes a grin that peels back his lips, revealing all his teeth. Another red flag. Jiang Cheng grew up in a family of smiling people; he knows how to spot a fake grin when he sees one.

He could stop Lan Jingyi and question him if he wanted to, maybe give the boy his best icy glare until he cracks and spills the beans. But he’s obviously got somewhere else he needs to be – the books are a testament to that, thick and heavy and looking like they weigh more than he does – and anyway, Jiang Cheng has more important things on his mind.

“Not so fast,” he says, just as Lan Jingyi looks about to beat a hasty retreat. The disciple’s eyes widen and he clutches his books tighter to himself. By the gods. Jiang Cheng isn’t going to attack the kid. Why is he looking at Jiang Cheng like that? “Where’s Jin Ling? Have you seen him?”

“I think– I think he might be at the cold springs.”

The reply comes stammering and uncertain, and Lan Jingyi practically runs away when Jiang Cheng waves a hand at him in a dismissive gesture. I think he might. Could he get any less specific? Well, it’s something at least, which is better than nothing.

Jiang Cheng sets off for the cold springs.

 


 

 

Even though the last time he stayed in Cloud Recesses for longer than two days was over a decade and a half ago, Jiang Cheng has always had a pretty decent memory. It therefore stands to reason that he’s also rather confident in his ability to remember where everything is, and from there, find his way around. Well, he was, at least.

The cold springs seem to be the one exception to this rule. Which is understandable, as it was one of the few places in Cloud Recesses that Jiang Cheng never visited as a disciple. It was more or less an unspoken rule – there were surprisingly few of those, since most of the rules were explicitly stated, if not written down – that only Gusu Lan sect members used the cold springs. Or, it definitely seemed like it. The alternative would be that no one else could stand the frigid water, which was also a distinct possibility.

Like almost all of the other rules in Cloud Recesses, this unspoken one was also one that Wei Wuxian broke. He’d confided to Jiang Cheng that it was exactly as everyone said: fucking freezing, and that was that. But Jiang Cheng isn’t thinking about that right now.

The point here is that even with his near-perfect memory of the layout of this infernal place, the fact remains that he cannot find his way to somewhere he’s never been before. Basic logic, really. Although Jiang Cheng has never been one to allow himself to be led by something so trivial.

He wanders around the maze that is Cloud Recesses for a good fifteen minutes, without any clear idea of where he’s going or how to get there. Of course, there are disciples milling around in the corridors, any one of whom could, and would, probably provide this information if asked. But again, of course, Jiang Cheng doesn’t do that.

No, far be it for him to ask anyone for directions. His little mental voice snarks at him from some cozy corner on the inside of his head, but he’s gotten good at ignoring it. Ignoring himself. Whatever.

Stubborn asshole, it chides. Should have asked the Lan disaster when you had the chance.

Another voice speaks up. That’s mean. Don’t call the poor kid that. It sounds suspiciously like Wei Wuxian’s pet zombie, Wen Qiong-something-or-other, soft and meek and impossibly heart-eyed. Jiang Cheng tamps down the anger that threatens to rise within him at the memory of the Wen man, eyes red, heavy iron chains clanking at his wrists, black veins snaking across his skin.

Great. He’s losing control of his own mind. Even the voices in it are people he hates. Fan-fucking-tastic.

He keeps walking.

Finally, his efforts are rewarded when he turns a corner and trees appear in front of him instead of white stone walls, tall and wide and green. The path he’s on cuts between two of them; he follows it, raising a hand to push a particularly low branch out of the way.

Unlike the buildings of the main complex, there are no lanterns to drive away the darkness in this area. The only light comes from the moon, silvery and unexpectedly bright, and through the thick plant growth, a reflective shimmer to Jiang Cheng’s left tells him where the springs are. He follows it, his footsteps near silent even here, where dry fallen twigs and crunchy dead leaves abound.

Despite that, it’s nowhere near quiet. Sound springs up all around: the chirping of cicadas, the soft lapping noise of water, and the background whisper of the wind in the leaves.

There’s nobody here. Obviously Lan Jingyi gave him false information. Jiang Cheng wants to smack the kid for wasting his time. He has better things to do than traipse around in some pseudo-forest on a wild goose chase, searching for someone who wasn’t even there in the first place.

He’s about to turn back, when suddenly, he hears hushed voices drifting through the trees. Human voices. They’re too soft for him to make out anything that’s being said, but Jiang Cheng recognizes the distinct cadence and timbre of the one that belongs to his nephew.

Oh, he thinks. Lan Jingyi was right. His irritation towards the teenage Lan disciple abates slightly, only to be redirected towards Jin Ling. Night has long since fallen – it’s well past the time his nephew said he’d be back. But instead, he’s out here. In the leafy-ass end of nowhere, where Jiang Cheng now is because Jin Ling couldn’t be bothered to keep his word.

So, yeah, one might say that the leader of the Yunmeng Jiang sect is a teeny, tiny, miniscule little bit pissed.

He stalks through the trees, silent as a wraith and raging like an angry spirit, ready to give his nephew a piece of his mind. Maybe break the brat’s legs. Or chew him out to kingdom come. Jiang Cheng isn’t picky.

But as he emerges from the last line of trees, the moonlight striking the rippling surface of the water reveals a sight that stops him short. Oh, yes, he’s found the cold springs. And he’s definitely found Jin Ling.

Two figures are pressed up against the willow tree near the edge of the pool. Or rather, one figure is pressing another up against the tree trunk, the other clinging to them, back flat against the wood. The top halves of their robes are pushed down, bunched around their hips, and in the dim, silver light, Jiang Cheng can barely make out white and gold – the latter belonging to the smaller figure, the one pushed up against the tree.

Oh, fuck. Jiang Cheng’s heart stops in his chest.

That’s his gods-damn nephew, sucking face with Lan Wangji’s son, who is currently running his fucking hands all over Jin Ling’s bare chest, both of them clothed only from the waist down. Now that Jiang Cheng knows what’s going on, the forest suddenly seems much quieter than before, and he can hear the utterly indecent noises coming out of both their mouths, assaulting his ears and turning his face what he’s pretty sure is an appalling shade of mauve.

Jiang Cheng has spent years of his comparatively short life raising this kid. He’s changed Jin Ling’s diapers, dodged projectile vomit and nearly been impaled several times over the course of his early archery training. That, he could handle. That was all part of rearing children – not the child he fathered, though his nonetheless.

But this? Jiang Cheng most emphatically did not sign up for this.

Then Jin Ling makes a noise that sounds like a dying cat and brings his leg up to hook around Lan Sizhui’s waist, and hell no, Jiang Cheng is not watching this. No fucking way.

Resisting the urge to cover his eyes and run away, he grits his teeth. Makes his footsteps heavier as he strides forward, deliberately stepping on a few twigs just to hear them crack. The two teenagers jump apart at the sudden noise.

Jiang Cheng can see the exact moment they finally notice he’s there. Jin Ling’s eyes go wide and he shoots up, pushing off the tree he’s been leaning on to stand upright. Only he overestimates the force involved and pitches too far forward. He stumbles, and Lan Sizhui grabs his arm to make sure he doesn’t fall.

Both of them scramble to pull their robes back on, attempting to return themselves to at least some semblance of propriety. As Lan Sizhui hikes his sleeve back over his shoulder, Jiang Cheng catches a glimpse of a dark splotch on his collarbone, in the shape of a four-pointed star. Then the young disciple pulls his robes closed, and the mark disappears again.

“What in the eighteen levels of hell are the two of you doing?”

Chapter Text

There are times that Jin Ling appreciates being alive, despite all the complaints he spouts to the contrary. Moments like petting Fairy, shooting a fierce corpse right through the eye, kissing Sizhui in the moonlight. It’s the little things. But right now, all he wants is to crawl into a nice, damp cave somewhere and die. Preferably far, far away from his uncle.

His uncle who is currently glaring at him, jaw clenched and arms folded across his chest, demanding an explanation. Jin Ling’s blood turns to ice in his veins, the pleasant thrumming warmth from the feeling of Sizhui’s strong hands on his skin dying a cold and painful death. He is acutely aware of his disheveled state, hair mussed and robes loose, and the fact that his uncle must, at some point, have seen him bare-chested and practically groping another disciple.

Fuck. This is shaping up to be the worst night of Jin Ling’s life.

What is his uncle even doing here, anyway? The two of them picked this spot specifically so no one would show up. Sizhui had said that no one besides the Gusu Lan disciples used the cold springs, and anyway, it was too early in the spring for even them. Also, Jin Ling doesn’t have to be back til–

Oh, he thinks faintly as realisation washes over him. Oh, no. He takes back everything he thought before. This whole situation just got a hundred times worse.

No wonder his uncle is angry. Actually, from the look on his face right now, ‘angry’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. He looks furious, and it’s all Jin Ling’s fault because he’d promised to be back in time for dinner and then didn’t show up, and when his uncle went looking for him, he found– he found…

The last shred of self-preservation remaining in Jin Ling’s brain tells him not to finish that sentence. Though nothing in this world is enough to guarantee that Jin Ling will still have his life – or all four limbs – intact when this is over.

Holy shit. His uncle is going to murder him. If he doesn’t die of shame first.

Oh, gods. The tips of Jin Ling’s ears heat as he remembers all the embarrassing noises that had spilled from his lips, how he’d let Sizhui push him up against the tree and kiss him stupid. Did his uncle really see everything?

A terrible, horrible feeling in the pit of his stomach tells Jin Ling that yes, he did.

Next to him, Sizhui smiles weakly. “Good evening, Sect Leader Jiang.”

Good evening? Good fucking evening? That’s Sizhui’s response to the famously ill-tempered Sandu-Shengshou’s legendary death glare? Jin Ling can’t tell whether it’s exceedingly brave or very, very foolish. Possibly both. He loves his boyfriend, he really does, but sometimes he questions Sizhui’s sanity. That much close proximity to Wei Wuxian must have some sort of undocumented long-term impact on the brain.

His uncle’s stony gaze flicks from Jin Ling to Sizhui next to him, who squirms a little under the weight of that intense stare. Jin Ling feels a bit like a pig that has been taken off the spitroast after hours of being slow-cooked over a blazing fire, only to watch its neighbour meet the same fate.

“It’s not,” his uncle snaps irritably. “I won’t ask again: what are the two of you doing? I came all the way out here to find you, Jin Ling, you better give me a fucking excellent explanation.”

Now, Jin Ling is a far cry from the tiny child he used to be – in fact, he’s shot up nearly four inches in the past year alone, putting him at only a little more than an inch shorter than his uncle – but the leader of the Yunmeng Jiang sect is fucking terrifying when he gets like this, as Jin Ling well knows. So he has no qualms about admitting that he’s nearly shaking in his boots.

His mouth goes dry, tongue tying itself in knots. He wants to shake his head in answer, seeing as he can’t get anything out in the way of words, but he knows that would be even worse than saying nothing at all.

Surprisingly, it’s Sizhui who answers. Or perhaps not so surprising, seeing as he seems to be labouring under the delusion that Jin Ling’s uncle actually likes him, which is complete and utter bullshit. “We… we were…”

Damn it, Sizhui. That’s not an answer. Jin Ling resists the urge to bury his face in his hands and pretend he’s invisible.

“Yes? Out with it.”

It’s painfully obvious that Sizhui has no idea what to say next. He’s struggling, fumbling with his words, and there’s a very scary fully-grown adult male cultivator glaring down at him like some sort of pissed-off god of death. A stormy look on his face that says who is this little shit, and why does he think he can defile my nephew?

As much as Jin Ling wants to stay out of this conversation (that looks more like an impending massacre), as said nephew, this isn’t something he can sit out. He has obligations, and he can’t exactly abandon his boyfriend to suffer his uncle’s wrath alone.

Swallowing a few times, he gathers up the nerve to speak. “We were, uh, wrestling.”

The moment the words are out of his mouth, he wishes he’d listened when his instincts told him to shut up. Really? That’s the best you can do? His uncle clearly thinks the same way, as his eyebrow nearly disappears into his hairline.

“With your mouths?”

Jin Ling hates it when his uncle gets sarcastic. It makes it so much harder to argue with him, because he can’t even resort to his usual tactics of defensive yelling and blustering until his uncle starts yelling back. Meanwhile, Sizhui turns to look at him, face carefully blank. Despite the lack of expression, Jin Ling knows that look. It’s his nice going, dumbass face – the one he uses when either Jin Ling or Jingyi does something stupid, and he has to pull them out of the fire. Well, Jin Ling doesn’t see him coming up with any better ideas.

“Uh… yes?”, he responds. The hole is dug, the coffin prepared. Now he just has to lie down and wait for death to take him.

But his uncle just gives a snort of disgust. “No shame, any of you,” he mutters, almost to himself. “All of my family members. Every single fucking one.”

Jin Ling can’t help but wince. He knows who else that refers to. And it’s a bad day indeed when his uncle compares him to Wei Wuxian.

Then, louder, the older man continues, his voice taking on a steely note. “I’m not an idiot, boy. I didn’t raise you to be one, either. Now, would you care to tell me exactly why you are out here, after dark, in the middle of nowhere, instead of back in the main buildings where you’re supposed to be?

Jin Ling opens his mouth – frankly, without a clue as to what the proper response would be – but his uncle doesn’t even let him answer. He addresses Sizhui instead, expression hardening like diamond.

“And you. You’re supposed to be the responsible one. Eighteen now, is it?” He holds Sizhui’s gaze until the older boy nods slowly. “Hm. An adult. Act like it.”

A mutinous feeling wells up in Jin Ling. That’s hardly fair, he wants to retort. It wasn’t Sizhui’s fault I didn’t make curfew. He’s not even from your sect – you can’t yell at him. But he tamps it down and traps it in his throat. Because the thing is: he can.

Though Sizhui is a Gusu Lan disciple, he’s also courting Jin Ling, and that puts Jin Ling’s uncle, as his guardian, within his rights to say almost anything he wants to his nephew’s boyfriend.

Said man looks Jin Ling in the face, eyes glittering and piercing even in the soft light cast by the moon, as if daring him to argue. And Jin Ling knows immediately that he is totally, irrevocably fucked.

 


 

 

Hours later, back in his rooms, Jiang Cheng flops onto the bed with a sigh. The paperwork he’s been ignoring all day is piled ominously on his desk, as if threatening to multiply and crush him in his sleep. But he keeps on ignoring it. It will still be there tomorrow anyway, and he deserves a break after the day he’s had.

Gods, his head hurts. He closes his eyes, turns onto his side, as though that will quell the pounding between his temples. It doesn’t.

In the next room over, Jin Ling isn’t making any noise, even through the thin wall. Jiang Cheng doesn’t know whether to be grateful for his nephew’s uncharacteristic lack of noise, or guilty.

Back at the cold springs, he’d scolded the boy. He’d scolded the two of them, in fact – both Jin Ling and his technically-adult boyfriend. It wasn’t unusual, per say; Jiang Cheng has been chewing Jin Ling out for his misdemeanours ever since the brat could understand words (and admittedly, a bit before that, too). This time wasn’t even particularly severe, considering he didn’t make Jin Ling cry, which hasn’t happened in years.

Still, Jiang Cheng can’t stop thinking about Jin Ling’s subdued demeanor – his slumped shoulders and shuffled footsteps – when Jiang Cheng marched him back to his rooms in the visiting sect leaders’ building. About his nephew’s sullen silence when he informed him in no uncertain terms that he was grounded until further notice. Until you can prove to me that you are trustworthy, he’d said.

It was the right thing to do, he thinks. Jin Ling went back on his word, showed himself to be incapable of keeping the promises he makes, even something as simple as this. How is he going to earn and hold the faith of other cultivators, other sect leaders, if he can’t even adhere to a curfew?

This is for his own good.

But the low hum of the voice in the back of his mind tells him otherwise. It’s getting more vocal these days, doubting his every move, his every word and action. This time, it whispers that Jin Ling is sixteen now, almost seventeen. Almost a man.

You can’t keep treating him like a child, it says. One day, he’s going to start resenting you. Its voice is slimy, oozing across the surface of his thoughts and coating everything with an oily black sheen. Hell, maybe he already does.

Jin Ling is a child, he protests automatically. A child who’s been through too much already – his parents dead, replaced by a mess of a man who shouldn’t even be allowed around other human beings – but still a child. Still young, and sheltered from most of the horrors of the real world. Jealousy. War. Greed. Things Jiang Cheng looked in the eye, ran with and against when he was barely older than Jin Ling is now.

Is it any wonder that he wants to shield his nephew from it all?

He won’t see it that way, hisses the voice. You can’t even admit it to yourself, can you? This isn’t about that. About wanting to protect him, and all that shit you love to spout to yourself to make you feel better. It’s not about him, the way you like to pretend it is.

It’s about you. You, and all the ways you’re fucked in the head.

Jiang Cheng wants to tell it to shut up. To pull the covers over his head and clap his hands over his ears so he can block out the slithery sounds of the awful words it keeps saying. But he can’t because it’s in his head.

It’s in him. It’s his own mind, and it’s true.

He’s going to hate you, the voice continues, heedless of Jiang Cheng’s efforts to silence it. When he’s grown, he’s going to walk away, just like everyone else. And it’ll be because you pushed him there.

Chapter Text

The next morning goes much the same as the ones before it, the meeting running smoothly. There is a distinct lack of death threats, which is always a plus, and the three hours come to an end without any major disruptions. It’s as bland as a day could possibly be, and for once, Jiang Cheng is thankful for the lack of excitement after all the tumult of the day before.

The only thing that puts a damper on the calm, easy mood is that Jin Ling is avoiding him. His nephew is already absent from his quarters when Jiang Cheng comes by to wake him up, bed made messily and boots gone from their place by the doorway. He’s seated at the pavilion before Jiang Cheng arrives, and discreetly doesn’t make eye contact with his uncle during the meeting itself. Afterwards, he scurries off again, presumably back to his rooms, where Jiang Cheng ordered him to remain last night.

It’s not obvious, but the way Jin Ling ducks his head, gaze sliding away from his uncle’s as he retreats in the opposite direction makes Jiang Cheng’s heart ache. He tries to snap out of it by attempting to convince himself that the kid is just awkward, embarrassed about last night, but the black mood has sunk its claws into his skin and refuses to let go.

It hangs about him like a shroud; he flares up at the smallest things, the fire rising in him at the barest provocation. Even the disciples can tell that something is amiss. They jump out of his way as he stalks through the corridors, scattering like rice grain spilled onto the floor, and don’t stop to greet him. He’s fine with that. It’s not like his existence needs acknowledgement from boys barely halfway through puberty.

He knows who he is, thank you very much, his name and his title, and he doesn’t need them parroted back to him ten consecutive times as though delivering some novel information.

All the same, his skin prickles and itches with a feeling he can’t name. And behind all that is an urge to say something, do something, go somewhere – a tiny cottage in the far recesses of this white-walled hellhole, because the rest of it is driving him fucking insane. He wants – gods, he can barely admit this to himself – but he wants to see Lan Xichen. To talk to him, because for some reason, the other man feels safe, in a way that Jiang Cheng hasn’t felt in a long while.

Like he doesn’t have to be angry all the time. And right now, he wants that so badly his hands are shaking with it.

His head feels full, buzzing with thoughts he can’t control. He attempts to shake them off and clear his mind; it works only partially – they slide back, just under the surface, a low hum instead of a roar but there all the same. He keeps walking.

The route to the part of Cloud Recesses reserved for cultivators in seclusion takes Jiang Cheng past most of the main buildings and through the training yard, which at this time of day, is packed with disciples. Instructors, too, leading them in exercises to improve their forms and movements.

Jiang Cheng remembers those drills, those days where he stood in the courtyard for hours on end, getting his technique corrected and his stance picked apart. He doesn’t miss them at all.

Soon, the quadrangle and everyone in it vanish from view. The path turns another corner, taking Jiang Cheng between two of the buildings reserved for lessons, and suddenly, a figure appears in the middle of the stone track.

Black and red. That’s the first thing that Jiang Cheng registers about the person standing in front of him. Their robes, dark like the night, and the colour of their belt and sleeves, a bright red that stands out and screams look at me. Commands attention and holds it, and its fitting because that’s what this person does best.

Jiang Cheng stops dead. His breath catches in his throat, and hidden within the wide sleeves of his robes, his hands clench into fists.

It’s Wei Wuxian.

 


 

 

“H-how have you been?” Wei Wuxian shifts awkwardly, voice cracking on the ‘how’. He looks like shit, circles under his eyes so large and dark that for a moment, Jiang Cheng is reminded of the moment he’d seen him back for the first time, newly shoved into Mo Xuanyu’s body, face caked in makeup that made him look like the madman his host had been. Pale, too, like he hasn’t slept in ages, maybe since the argument.

Gods. Did he do that? Did he hurt his brother that much?

Who is he kidding; of fucking course he did. That’s what Jiang Cheng does, after all – hurts people – and Wei Wuxian has always been too damn selfless for his own good. Has always taken everything to heart, shouldered everyone’s pain and suffering and made it his own so no one else has to feel it.

It’s one of the reasons Jiang Cheng’s always hated him. (And loved him, too.)

He clasps his hands behind his back, squaring his shoulders as though he’s about to go into battle. “Fine.”

Wei Wuxian breathes out at that, a hiss of air that Jiang Cheng can’t figure out the meaning of. “That’s good.” It comes out like a croak. There’s a flash of something in his eyes and Jiang Cheng can’t read that either, and it sends a lance of pain shooting into his lungs because he used to be able to look at his big brother and see everything.

Now, he wears a stranger’s face, makes unfamiliar expressions and feels so fucking far away, but he still talks like Jiang Cheng’s big brother and smiles like him too, and it makes everything sting just that little bit more.

Pain – pain is all right, though. He knows how to deal with pain, has since before he can remember. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a broken limb or a wound no one else can see: the principle is the same. You ice it until it goes numb, and then you push on and keep going.

He does that now, lets his voice frost over like the surface of a lake in the dead of winter, cold calm settling over him. “You knew that already,” he says flatly. “You’ve been following me.”

And it’s true, he realises, even as the words leave his mouth. The whirl of black and red at the corner of his eye two days before, so quick he thought he’d imagined it. And yesterday, the way the other man positioned himself at the mouth of the pavilion, only to flee like a startled cat once Jiang Cheng showed up.

Wei Wuxian flinches. “Jiang Cheng, I–”

He stops. Jiang Cheng waits for him to say more, but he doesn’t, and that’s okay, because Jiang Cheng doesn’t think he’d be able to hear it anyway. Instead, Wei Wuxian’s words cycle around and around in his head, echoing and reverberating until there’s nothing else except the sound of them ringing in his ears.

Jiang Cheng. His stomach unclenches, his knees going slightly weak with relief. Still his name. His birth one, not the one the rest of the world calls him, not a title, or a courtesy. Not the one that Wei Wuxian hurled at him in anger a mere three days ago, that cut into his skin and hollowed out his insides. Just his name – the name his brother has called him by since they were ten years old.

It’s stupid, that something as small and silly as being called the right name can make everything feel better, steadier, can make the world stop spinning – or at least slow down – for a little while. Jiang Cheng started calling his older brother by his courtesy name when he first received it, after all; yet when it was Jiang Cheng’s turn, Wei Wuxian said fuck that and went right on with his birth one, disregarding all the norms and rules of etiquette that said otherwise. And though Jiang Cheng protested for months afterwards, he didn’t really mind as much as he pretended to.

Hearing it again now, it’s grounding. Safe. As though maybe – just maybe – there might be hope for them.

(Gods, does he hope so.)

Finally, Wei Wuxian looks up again. The corners of his mouth twitch as though he’s attempting to muster up a weak smile, and not quite succeeding. “I have been following you.”

“Why?”

“It’s just, the argument– these past three days have been the shittiest I’ve felt in a long time,” he admits, and it feels like a confession. “I had to make sure you were okay. I didn’t want– I couldn’t leave things like that. Not with you. Us.”

Jiang Cheng can’t help the sharp intake of breath that follows. He doesn’t know how to feel, to respond to this. He hadn’t wanted it either, hadn’t wanted to leave with the air still soured between them, thick with anger and shouted words they hadn’t meant to say but had still meant. Yet he’d resigned himself to it anyway, because that’s what they do: they hurt each other and then they bury it under the rest of their gods-damned baggage and pretend it never happened.

“Why?”, he asks again. He can see by the way the older man’s eyebrows crease that he doesn’t understand. “This–” he gestures between them – “isn’t something we do. I yell at you, you yell at me, and it ends there. We don’t sit around in a circle and talk about our feelings.”

“Yeah, well, maybe we should. Maybe we should start changing the way we do things, because I’m fucking sick of the way things are.” Wei Wuxian raises his chin, meeting Jiang Cheng’s eyes. “Look at us. We haven’t even really talked to each other in years.”

Jiang Cheng’s mouth goes dry. His fingers itch for Zidian, and he starts to feel as though he’s being backed into a corner. Helpless. He doesn’t want to talk – not now, not about this, not with him.

“Where’s Hanguang-Jun?” He changes the subject clumsily, trying for an icy tone. It doesn’t work; his desperation is too obvious. “He must be looking for you.”

“Don’t do this, Jiang Cheng. It’s not going to work. We’re having this conversation.”

He recognizes this voice. It’s Wei Wuxian’s big-brother voice, the one he used to use on the very rare occasions that Jiang Cheng had done something stupid, and he was playing the responsible one. Jiang Cheng hasn’t heard it in years. Irritation flickers in his stomach, and he latches onto it, fans the flames to try to get it to burn higher.

He scowls. “Fine, then. Say what you want to say, and leave.”

“Jiang Cheng, please–”

“You said you wanted to talk. Go ahead. Talk.”

Wei Wuxian’s face falls, disappointment etching itself into the lines in his face. He fiddls with the end of his ponytail. It’s a terrible habit; one he refuses to get rid of. “I–” he breaks off again, as though his words are failing him. Then he takes a deep breath, and starts over.

“I’m sorry for everything I said, alright? And maybe you don’t give a shit – maybe my opinion doesn’t mean anything to you – but I said some pretty awful things. And they weren’t right, not at all.”

It sounds stilted, unnatural; like the older man is dragging each syllable out from his throat to lay them bare in the space between the two of them. Jiang Cheng listens in stoic silence.

“After everything, after Lan Zhan pulled me away, I had time to think about everything I’d said to you. And you know what? The moment I got my head back, the moment I could think clearly again, I regretted it. Because none of it was true. You’re not a monster, Jiang Cheng. You’re not – you are a whole person, and I was a fuckwit to say otherwise, or even think it.”

“And I know this doesn’t erase anything, but I’m sorry for going off like that and trying to hurt you. I’m so, so sorry.” Wei Wuxian twists a lock of hair around his finger. A sheepish gesture, but there’s nothing shy about the gaze he fixes on Jiang Cheng, steady and unwavering. “There; now I’ve said it. Just like you wanted.”

There is guilt in his eyes. Shame. He’s doing it again, Jiang Cheng thinks, taking all the blame and responsibility and shifting them onto himself. Such a fucking martyr, even now. It used to piss Jiang Cheng off, used to make his blood boil because Wei Wuxian always had to be so noble, so selfless, so gods-damned heroic. Just a year ago, he would have been fuming, would have lost his temper by now and kick-started another shouting match. Another argument that would have ended in screaming and insults just as bad as last time, maybe worse.

But something’s changed since then. Jiang Cheng isn’t as angry as he used to be. He can’t find the fury, can’t stoke the embers into a towering inferno the way he used to. Instead, he’s just tired.

Gods, he’s so fucking tired.

“I don’t want to fight anymore.” And then he freezes, because that’s not what he was going to say. Wei Wuxian, though, straightens up. Quits twirling his hair around his finger. “Look – it’s not just your fault; it’s mine as well.”

When his older brother looks like he’s about to protest, Jiang Cheng raises a hand to cut him off. “That much is true, at least. I started it, so I’m partly to blame for what happened when you continued it.” He rubs the hand over his face. “I said my fair share of shit, so don’t pretend like it was all you and your dumbass hero complex.”

“But for what it’s worth, I’m sorry too.” And Jiang Cheng means it. Of course; he never says things he doesn’t mean. But he never says all of what he means, either, and that’s one of the reasons he’s such a fucking mess. “You’re not selfish–” (he’s always known that) – “or heartless–” (that’s almost laughable; if anything, Wei Wuxian has too much heart)

The other man’s cheeks slide slowly upwards, pulling his mouth into a small grin. “Immature?”, he asks slyly. Jiang Cheng can almost see the wink he’d give if they were sixteen again.

It’s not much of an olive branch. More like… the first blade of grass poking through the heavy crust of winter snow. It’s so delicate. So fragile. A tiny green thing, nearly lost amidst the sea of white, that might not even survive if this new spring proves false. If the cold returns to drown it again.

And in this moment, Jiang Cheng knows, deep in his bones, that they’ll never go back to the way things were. They’re not sixteen anymore, young and naïve and determined to follow each other to the ends of the earth, secure in their belief that nothing will ever tear them apart. Now, they’re so much older, and yet so little wiser, battle-hardened men clutching at the tangled threads of how everything used to be. It hurts, this loss of innocence, but Jiang Cheng hasn’t been innocent for a long time and neither has Wei Wuxian.

All that’s left is acknowledgement. Acceptance that time runs forwards, not backwards, and sometimes the seconds-minutes-years that slip through your fingers can never be gathered up again.

A long, long time ago, the two of them would sit at Ah-Jie’s feet and watch her sew. Occasionally, the string would get tangled – a mess of colour that knotted and looped and ran back over itself – and she wouldn’t be able to untie it. When that happened, she’d pull out a pair of scissors and say, in her soft voice like the first notes of a xiao on a warm summer morning, sometimes the thread can’t be fixed, you see. Sometimes you have to cut it out, and start all over again.

It was never going to work, what they’ve been doing this past year. There’s too much shit between them, too much water running too fast to shore up the bridge already crumbling into hunks of driftwood. They can’t ignore it all forever, no matter how hard they try.

But maybe now, they can clear it all away and rebuild. It’s nowhere near perfect – in fact, far from it – but it’s something, at least. A little green leaf, living in spite of all the death that surrounds it.

“You’re pretty fucking immature,” Jiang Cheng replies. And then he smiles.

 

Chapter Text

“You’ve changed,” Wei Wuxian says later. He’s dragged Jiang Cheng back to the main building complex – against his will – and they’re now sitting in the living room of Hanguang-Jun’s jingshi, eating the incredibly bland food that the older man had brought up from the kitchens for lunch. The (currently absent) Second Jade of the Lan sect will undoubtedly be pissed as all hell to discover that Jiang Cheng was in his living quarters, but Jiang Cheng frankly doesn’t give a shit.

In fact, it adds a sort of spice to the whole encounter. Riling up Wei Wuxian’s stone-faced husband is an art form; one Jiang Cheng is a master of. Not to mention that this was all Wei Wuxian’s idea anyway.

Jiang Cheng swallows the steamed cabbage he’d put in his mouth prior to his older brother’s statement. Thank fucking gods they ordered in – Wei Wuxian’s cooking deserves its own circle of hell. His eyes narrow.

“What do you mean by that?”

Even as he finishes chewing, the corners of the other man’s mouth twitch. “It’s hard to put my finger on it,” he admits, “but something’s definitely different about you. You’re – I don’t know – you’re less… snappy.”

“Snappy?”

“Yeah,” he replies, gesturing with his chopsticks. It’s incredibly rude, but such a Wei Wuxian thing to do that Jiang Cheng lets it slide. “You’re calmer or something. I can’t really explain it, but it’s like you’re not as angry all the time.”

“You’re imagining things,” Jiang Cheng retorts. A grin spreads across Wei Wuxian’s face. It’s… almost knowing. Which is ridiculous. Wei Wuxian doesn’t know anything. About anything.

“I’m not imagining things.”

“Yes, you are.”

“Am not.”

“What are you – eight? You’re such a fucking child,” Jiang Cheng retorts. He refuses to let this display of immature dumbassery go on any longer. If Wei Wuxian had his way, they’d be here arguing back and forth for hours. Not exactly the most productive use of Jiang Cheng’s time.

But the other man just beams brightly back at him. “Screw you,” he says, his tone lacking any real heat. At Jiang Cheng’s subsequent scowl, he lets out a snicker. “Oh, wait. I forgot – that’s someone else’s job.”

A waggle of eyebrows follows, along with a leer that’s probably meant to be filthy but just makes him look foolish. Despite that, Jiang Cheng feels all the blood in his body get redirected to his face.

“Shut up,” he snaps, but it’s ineffectual, because Wei Wuxian’s shit-eating grin stretches even wider.

“So, you and Zewu-Jun, huh?” He picks up a clump of rice and pops it in his mouth. “I have to say, I did not see that coming.”

Wei Wuxian’s hand reaches across the table, chopsticks pointed towards Jiang Cheng’s bowl, and he slaps the offending limb away before it can get too close. “It’s nothing like that,” he says defensively, hoping to the gods that his face isn’t too red right now.

“Really? I saw you the other day, you know.” The other man gives up on stealing Jiang Cheng’s food, going for his own this time instead. “Wearing his clothes.”

“It wasn’t anything like that,” he repeats, beginning to feel like a parrot. “I visited him and it was raining, so he insisted I change clothes. That was all.”

Yeah, okay, now that he says it out loud, that sounds rather… suspicious, to put it mildly. Judging by the rather impressive smirk Jiang Cheng’s older brother is displaying, Wei Wuxian thinks so too.

Damn it to hell. Why did he have to bring this up? And why now, of all times? Jiang Cheng isn’t emotionally prepared for this.

“Sure,” the other man says, not sounding even remotely convinced. Then his eyes light up like he’s just realised something, and Jiang Cheng’s stomach sinks. Oh, no. “Hold on – you’re still visiting him? After–” he makes a vague circling motion with his hand – “everything, I thought you weren’t going to keep doing that.”

The leader of the Yunmeng Jiang sect resists the urge to cover his ears like a child and sing over his brother’s obnoxious, teasing voice. How is he supposed to explain this – whatever this is that’s going on with him and Lan Xichen? Political alliance? Friendship? He doesn’t even know himself.

There’s nothing to explain, he thinks resolutely. The whispers in his ears can just fuck right off, thank you very much.

“Well, I am,” he says out loud, tamping down his chaotic thoughts. “And anyway, I thought you’d assumed we were fucking,” he scoffs. “Why are you so surprised that I’m seeing him–”

He stops dead when he registers the words that have just left his mouth. Shit, that came out wrong. A triumphant expression steals across Wei Wuxian’s face, so insufferably smug that Jiang Cheng would want to punch it off him if he wasn’t so completely paralysed with horror.

He backtracks hurriedly. “That’s not what I meant,” he blusters, attempting to cover his panic with an admittedly sub-par glower. But it’s too late. He’s rammed his foot so far down his throat that he’s never going to be able to pull it out again without rearranging his own intestines.

In this moment, Jiang Cheng’s older brother looks just as demonic as he did during his stint as the Yiling Patriarch. Obviously there are gods in this world, and they have forsaken Jiang Cheng’s sorry ass in favour of laughing at his misery because of all the increasingly embarrassing, awful things that have happened to him since he left Lotus Pier, this is by far the worst.

Wei Wuxian is fucking cackling at him, head thrown back and loud, high-pitched noises escaping his open mouth. Jiang Cheng curses at him, but he just laughs harder, gasping for breath in between howls.

Gods damn it. He almost wishes they were fighting again. Almost.

Finally, the hysterics slowly die down and the older man sobers up a little. Not enough, though – the glint in his eyes is still all too amused for Jiang Cheng’s peace of mind.

“Your face,” Wei Wuxian gets out, still huffing with mirth. Jiang Cheng’s stomach sinks further into his bowels. He lifts a hand and claps it to his aforementioned face, fingers spread on his cheek and palm over his eyes.

It’s enough to set Wei Wuxian off again.

 


 

 

“What I don’t get is why you’re being so uptight about this.”

It’s after lunch now, and Wei Wuxian is lounging on a bench next to the wall, all four limbs sprawled out like a cat napping in the afternoon sun. It’s a two-person couch – ostensibly intended to also fit Lan Wangji’s ass and the massive stick he stashes up it – but the one-time demonic cultivator has commandeered the entire thing, spreading himself out to fill every available space.

It took him the rest of their meal to finally calm down, though a stray giggle did escape him now and again, and now that the dishes have been left in the kitchen (Jiang Cheng isn’t touching those – someone else can clean them up), he’s happy and relaxed, lying across his husband’s furniture like it’s a throne.

And needling Jiang Cheng, of course. Can’t forget about that. No, Wei Wuxian’s life is not complete until he’s made his younger brother’s as difficult as possible.

Honestly, Jiang Cheng should have escaped when he had the chance. Except for the fact that he had no chance, because Wei Wuxian has a grip like a vice, and the bastard’s been following him around for days and knows his fucking schedule. Now he’s pestering Jiang Cheng for details about his apparent nonexistent relationship with his gods-damn brother-in-law.

Jiang Cheng wants to kill something. Preferably Wei Wuxian.

“Look, could you fucking drop it already? There’s nothing to tell.”

And there isn’t. With Wei Wuxian’s incessant pestering, Jiang Cheng’s been forced to spill the whole story, leaving out the bits about Lan Xichen’s application to the matchmaker – that’s the other sect leader’s secret to tell. Nothing even happened anyway; Wei Wuxian got himself all worked up over nothing.

At least, that’s what Jiang Cheng thinks. His older brother seems to have quite a different opinion. He can’t imagine why.

“I mean,” Wei Wuxian continues, running his mouth yet again, obviously unable to accede to what was a stupidly simple request to just drop it, “you said you’re friends with the guy, right?”

He looks at Jiang Cheng expectantly, and the unfortunate man in question has no choice but to nod reluctantly, glaring at him all the while.

“Then why do you keep telling me to stop talking every time I bring him up?”

“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng answers automatically.

Wei Wuxian folds his arms across his chest. “See? You just did it again. There’s something you’re not telling me.”

Clearly, not even Jiang Cheng’s best death glare can get Wei Wuxian to keep his mouth closed once he gets going on something. He uncrosses his arms, lifting a hand to his face to stroke an imaginary beard like he’s pretending to be some sort of Confucian scholar. Or Lan Qiren.

Then his hand stills mid-stroke. His eyes widen to comically large proportions.

“Oh,” he says. “Oh.”

Jiang Cheng forgets to maintain his glare, brows furrowing in puzzlement instead. “What?”

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says again, only pulling himself out of whatever ‘enlightened’ stupor he’s fallen into when Jiang Cheng snaps at him to explain himself for the second time.

“My gods, Jiang Cheng, do you actually like Zewu-Jun?”

Jiang Cheng gives him an unimpressed look. “Of course I like him, dumbass. We’re friends. He’s decent company, and he doesn’t ask dumb questions. Unlike some other people I know.”

An outraged gasp comes from the couch where Wei Wuxian is now sitting up, back straight and at full attention. “First of all, that was uncalled for,” he says, his hand pressed to his chest like he’s about to swoon like a maiden in an opera. Then he looks back at Jiang Cheng, rakes him over with his eyes as though he’s looking for something, and throws up his hands when he doesn’t find it.

“Second of all,” he continues, “you’re hopeless. Absolutely hopeless. The question wasn’t ‘do you like him as a friend?’, genius. I was asking you if you like him.”

He gives Jiang Cheng a significant look, and it takes a solid second for the understanding to hit him. When it does, he recoils.

“Fuck, no,” he spits out less than a moment later. In his defense, Jiang Cheng can’t help the profanity – it’s a knee-jerk reaction to a ridiculous question, one that feels like a sharp branch digging into his skin. He’s not even attracted to men. Why would Wei Wuxian think that?

A tiny (but disproportionately loud) voice in his head notes that it’s not like he’s ever looked at anyone. Hell, he’s only spared more than a glance for maybe three or four women over the years, and one of them was his sister.

You could be, it whispers, soft and silvery. Anyway, you can’t argue that Lan Xichen is easy on the eyes.

That’s not the point, he retorts. Then he realises he’s arguing with himself like a lunatic. Great. Just great.

“What part of ‘we’re friends’ do you not understand?”, Jiang Cheng asks aloud, his tone as cutting as he can make it. This is utter bullshit. Irrationally, he feels as though he’s being backed into a corner, Wei Wuxian’s endless questions coming like a barrage or an interrogation, closing in on him until his skin is too tight for his bones and he wants to crawl out of his body to find a new one. Something that can move, away from the scrutiny.

Jiang Cheng fucking hates interrogations.

“Yeah, but–”

“But nothing,” he interrupts, staring down Wei Wuxian in the way he’s been told makes him look almost exactly like his mother at the height of her ‘pissed off drill sergeant’ moods. It’s a look that Wei Wuxian – both of them, in fact – have been conditioned to respond to; to see it, shut up and acquiesce to the demands being made of him. The older man quails in the face of the full force of it.

“Alright, alright, I’ll drop it.” He raises his hands, palms facing forward, in a gesture of surrender. His robes rustle as he shifts his position on the couch, leaning back to get more comfortable.

It’s an open invitation to change the subject, and Jiang Cheng is almost desperate to take it. But not quite.

Instead he stands, smoothing out the near-invisible creases in his violet robes. Wei Wuxian starts, makes a move to get to his feet, but Jiang Cheng waves a hand at him to tell him to sit back down.

“There’s no need for that. I just have…something I must do.”

His older brother’s mouth opens as if to say something. Probably to protest how Jiang Cheng has no engagements planned for this afternoon, or even the rest of the day. Or anything else he needs to prepare for.

But then he speaks, and the words that come out of his mouth are completely unexpected. “Are– are we okay?”

His voice is small. Soft and quavering, like a child needing reassurance, even though Wei Wuxian has always been the elder of the two of them. The more fearless. Jiang Cheng allows himself a tiny smile.

“Yes,” he says. “Yes, we are.”

He hears Wei Wuxian’s relieved sigh echo through the room as he takes his leave of Hanguang-Jun’s jingshi.

When the door closes behind him and he walks out into the winding pathways of Cloud Recesses, Jiang Cheng feels lighter than he has in a long while. We’re okay, he thinks, and for the first time in over a year, it doesn’t feel like something he has to convince himself of. Just something that is.

He could have stayed. Could have taken Wei Wuxian up on his offer of continued conversation. He might have, even. But this is a good place to end things off, at least today. It is enough for now.

And anyway, Jiang Cheng has an appointment to keep.

Chapter Text

The door opens barely five seconds after Jiang Cheng first knocks on it, revealing Lan Xichen’s high cheekbones and amber eyes, widened like a startled cat. The corner of his mouth is red and there’s a faint imprint of a line in his lower lip, as though he’s been biting it.

“Oh,” he says, blinking owlishly when his gaze settles on Jiang Cheng. The lines of his body soften. “You’re here.”

The older sect leader invites Jiang Cheng inside, pours twin mugs of tea as has practically become their custom over the past few days, all while Jiang Cheng fills him in on the details of this morning’s meeting. It’s quick and efficient – a proper report – but somehow, it manages to seem almost perfunctory. Technically perfect, down to every last detail, but something about it feels rushed, even to Jiang Cheng, who’s doing the talking. As though they’re trying to get it out of the way for something else.

As though the reports are no longer the main goal of Jiang Cheng’s visits.

Lan Xichen can feel it too – Jiang Cheng knows he can. But neither of them brings it up. The balance between them is still too new, too fragile, and neither man wants to upset it.

When Jiang Cheng comes to the end of his description of the day’s events, he stops talking to sip at his tea. It’s still hot, but not too much so, and the warmth soothes his throat as it goes down.

The other man has already finished his, and those long, graceful fingers turn the mug over in his hands as he considers Jiang Cheng’s words. The gathering this morning was decidedly uneventful, negotiations running slowly but smoothly as the convocation of sect leaders hashed out benefits and compromises. Jiang Cheng can’t imagine what he would want to say about it.

But the next words out of Lan Xichen’s mouth aren’t about the meeting.

“You came late today,” he notes, brows slightly pinched together in a way that creates the smallest crease between them. “Did something happen?”

There is concern in his voice. Of course there is, and when Jiang Cheng glances at the clock on the side table, he can see that Lan Xichen is right. He is late; he usually comes straight here after the meetings, and now the hour hand is already creeping towards the horizontal position.

A sudden stab of guilt assails Jiang Cheng. He doesn’t know why – he’s showed up, hasn’t he? So what if he’s a little late? It’s not like they’ve set a time for these things. But the heavy feeling doesn’t go away, and he busies himself with the mug in his hands, staring at the brown surface of the tea as though it holds the answers to the universe.

“No, not at all. I was simply… detained for a while.”

“Oh,” Lan Xichen says again. The word holds a strange note, and Jiang Cheng can’t help but look up at him. It’s a mistake, because their eyes lock, blue with dark gold, and a pulse of something sharp and hot runs all the way through him.

“I thought you weren’t coming,” is the next thing he hears, the admission so soft it’s nearly a whisper. And Jiang Cheng must be hallucinating, must be imagining the sadness in it, because there’s no fucking way anyone should sound so dejected at the thought of not seeing him.

He can’t look away.

Wei Wuxian’s insufferably smug voice floats by his ear, and Jiang Cheng can almost see the expression that goes along with it, also insufferably smug. So, you and Zewu-Jun, huh?

The words are like a bucket of cold water straight to the face, with the bucket tossed over afterwards for good measure. Jiang Cheng snaps out of whatever trance he’s been in almost immediately, his hand jerking so hard it’s a good thing his tea is nearly finished, or it would end up all over the front of his robes.

The other man gives him a worried look, brows still furrowed but the eyes beneath them soft, and Jiang Cheng stutters out empty reassurances that he’s fine and nothing’s wrong, all the while cursing himself and his stupid, stupid dumbass older brother for planting these thoughts in his head. Because all of a sudden, it’s like a lever has been pulled, and now Jiang Cheng is so very aware of the man seated opposite him. Every move that he makes, every breath he takes, a constant hum buzzing over every one of Jiang Cheng’s nerves.

Fuck. This is all Wei Wuxian’s fault, Jiang Cheng thinks viciously. It’s completely normal, is what it is – an ordinary response to the insinuation that one is maybe in love with one’s best – and possibly only – friend. He’s simply… alert, is all. Paying more attention. Of course.

He raises the mug to his lips and downs the last of his tea, then sets it down on the floor where he’s less likely to have another fit and drop the damn thing. It clears his mind a little, though the hum is still there, beneath the surface, difficult to ignore now that he’s noticed its presence. He’ll manage.

“I was talking to Wei Wuxian,” says Jiang Cheng finally, in an effort to move past his idiotic display. It works, and Lan Xichen is successfully distracted with asking about what happened. How it went. Their status now.

And underpinning it all, the unspoken question: are you all right?

It’s strange, because coming from anyone else, that would have Jiang Cheng spitting flames, up in arms and verbally eviscerating anyone who dared to think that he couldn’t handle his life perfectly fine on his own, reducing them to a shaking, quivering mess cowering away out of fear for their life. But from Lan Xichen, it doesn’t sound like a challenge or an accusation, or another jab at his competence. It’s just a question, but it’s soft and warm and soothes all the sharp edges that Jiang Cheng usually uses to rip everything around him apart.

So instead of snapping irritably back at the other man’s concern, Jiang Cheng answers his questions. He tells him everything – minus the part where they’d talked about him (obviously, Jiang Cheng isn’t that stupid), and allows himself to feel like a cat basking in the sun of Lan Xichen’s smile when he realises they’ve reconciled.

“I’m happy for you,” Lan Xichen says when he’s done. Jiang Cheng can tell he means it, too, because he’s doing the head-tilt thing again and his eyes are all crinkled up at the corners – it’s so fucking unfair that they don’t just disappear into a line when he grins like everyone else. “Anyone can see that the two of you love each other very much.”

“Yeah, well, we may not be related by blood, but he’s still my brother. And he’s all I’ve got, other than Jin Ling, that is.”

The other man hums, sensing the subject change for what it is. “Speaking of Young Master Jin, how is he? Wangji says he’s become quite close with Sizhui lately.”

The memory of last night – his nephew leaning against a tree, bare to the waist with the other boy’s hands on him – surfaces in his mind. No, no, Jiang Cheng thinks fractically and forces it back down.

“That’s the understatement of the year,” he mutters, before he can think about what he’s just said. The moment it catches up to him, he flushes bright red. Oh, fuck. “Sorry. That just slipped out.”

But Lan Xichen is leaning towards him, hands splayed out over his knees to support his weight. There is a glimmer of interest in those dark gold eyes that makes the prim, proper First Jade of the Gusu Lan sect look almost mischievous.

“No, please do go on.”

“You’re a fucking gossip, aren’t you? I can’t believe this.”

“There’s very little else to do in here,” the other man points out reasonably. “Come on, Jiang Wanyin. Indulge my curiosity.”

Jiang Cheng isn’t sure whether to be impressed or mildly horrified. He settles on a mixture of both. Gods, it really is always the quiet ones, isn’t it? But now that he’s mentioned it, he can’t exactly back out. He’s not a coward. Much.

Two minutes later, he’s relaying the story of last night’s horror show to an increasingly amused Lan Xichen, who has long since given up trying to maintain a neutral expression and has now graduated to hiding a shit-eating grin behind one long-fingered hand.

“…So there he is, in the fucking forest in the middle of the night, with his robes half off and fucking marks sucked into the side of his neck, and the little shit tells me they were wrestling. Wrestling.” Jiang Cheng pauses in his tirade to take a breath, and sees Lan Xichen is no longer covering his smile.

A sharp noise escapes him, and Jiang Cheng recognizes what it is even before the older man can think to bite it back. A snicker. Lan Xichen is snickering at him. He should be indignant at the very thought, but all he feels is a pleased little warmth fluttering in his chest.

“At the very least, I thought he’d be able to come up with something better.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the precise moment Sect Leader Lan absolutely fucking loses it and dissolves into helpless laughter, the half-restrained chuckles escalating into full-blown howls and guffaws. Jiang Cheng has always hated it when people laugh at him, but despite it all, he can’t help the way the corners of his mouth twitch upwards.

It’s a beautiful sound. He wants to make Lan Xichen laugh like that again, just to hear it. He doesn’t say that, of course.

“I’m glad my suffering amuses you,” is what comes out instead, dry and sardonic. Perhaps too much so, and Jiang Cheng freezes for a second before the other man’s smile stretches wider as he struggles to get his breathing under control.

When he finally does, his eyes are dancing with poorly disguised mirth. “It’s not your suffering that holds my attention so, Wanyin. But Young Master Jin –” he sighs – “that poor boy.”

Jiang Cheng gapes. Gods, Zewu-Jun’s sense of humour is even worse than his own. No wonder he acts so prim and proper all the time; Old Man Lan would probably have an aneurysm otherwise. “You can’t be serious,” he scoffs. “I’m never going to be able to unsee that.”

“But imagine how much worse it was for him. I know if Shu-Fu had ever walked in on me like that, I would have expired on the spot. As it is, I can only imagine the trauma.”

Jiang Cheng opens his mouth to argue that it’d been Jin Ling’s fault anyway, when the meaning of the other man’s words catches up to him. His brain stalls.

“You– you’ve–?” The words refuse to come, no matter how hard he tries to finish the sentence. Finally, he lets it trail off into the air rather than continue to embarrass himself further.

Luckily, Lan Xichen seems to know what he means. Jiang Cheng isn’t sure he could vocalize it even if he tried.

The older sect leader lets out a low chuckle. “I’m thirty-seven, Wanyin. And contrary to popular belief, cultivators from my sect aren’t actually emotionless automatons. We have… desires, like anyone else.”

A lump forms in Jiang Cheng’s throat, strangely heavy. His mouth suddenly feels very dry and he swallows a couple times to rid himself of the feeling. It doesn’t quite work.

Well, that’s just fantastic then, his brain snips at him. Great fucking job. You’re more chaste than cultivators from fucking Gusu. And their founder was a damn monk.

He feels a blush warm his cheeks as Lan Xichen looks him up and down, blinking slowly, long lashes sliding lazy over cat-gold eyes. The feelings in his stomach are a mix he can’t identify, a cocktail that both confuses and frightens him. Or it would, if Jiang Cheng were a man to be frightened of his own emotions.

Which he is decidedly not.

A look of realisation crosses the older man’s face. “You haven’t, have you? Been with anyone?”

This time, Jiang Cheng looks away, mortified. It’s one thing to bring up such thoughts in the privacy of his own head. It’s another one entirely to hear someone else voice them. Particularly someone like Lan Xichen, who nods as though Jiang Cheng’s silence is answer enough.

It probably is. Denial is a skill Jiang Cheng is well versed in, but only when it comes to himself; he’s never quite been able to fool other people. It’s yet another one of his shortcomings. There are oh-so-many of those.

His only consolation is that, across from him, Lan Xichen is going equally red. His head dips a little, gaze cast towards the floor and he says, “I apologise for overstepping. It’s none of my business.”

“Damn right it’s not,” Jiang Cheng barks out gruffly, too embarrassed to care that he’s being rude. Well, there go the last shreds of his tattered dignity. He represses a sigh. It put up a good fight, but he’d known it was doomed years ago. It was a lost cause, really, ever since a three-year-old Jin Ling had thrown up on him during one of their annual inter-sect gatherings.

Lan Xichen had been the only one not snickering behind his hand. Even took the toddler back to his nurse so Jiang Cheng could go clean himself up. Jiang Cheng wonders why he remembers that.

Honestly, it’s no wonder he hasn’t “been with” anyone yet. He’s a total fucking disaster.

A shaky exhale from the man in front of him jolts Jiang Cheng out of his thoughts. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Lan Xichen is holding back laughter, and Jiang Cheng immediately goes on the defensive.

“The hell you laughing at?”

“Nothing,” the older man says, shaking his head, the corners of his mouth upticked despite himself. “It’s just… it could be worse, you know.”

Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow, challenging. “How?”

“At least you’re not Jin Guangshan.”

Chapter Text

When Jiang Wanyin chokes on nothing but air, Lan Huan almost brings himself to regret his comment. ‘Almost’ being the operative word.

Truth be told, it’s rather refreshing, to be so open around another person. Lan Huan’s personality has always lain more to the mischievous side, to sarcastic comments and quick retorts, and a penchant for dirty humour he developed during his months with Meng Yao. A personality much like Lan Jingyi’s, now that he thinks about it, which is perfectly fine for a young disciple only distantly related to the family that heads their clan.

For Lan Huan, the sect leader himself, it is… less so.

And thus, from a young age, he had to learn – painstakingly – how to comply with each and every one of their sect’s near-five thousand clan rules, how to walk with grace and talk with reserve, contenting himself with only the occasional subtle joke to indulge his desire for humour. It had to be subtle. Always.

Years ago, Lan Huan had found it stifling. Suffocating, even, to have to bite back almost everything he had to say, to rein in his emotions and present a placid smile to the world instead, but he’d had to, for the sake of his family and his sect. And eventually, he grew used to it. It felt less like drowning and a little more like breathing underwater, sucking liquid into his lungs and drawing out what oxygen he could, and he could almost pretend that that was the way he was meant to be, and always had been.

But now, it’s like he’s finally broken the surface, been allowed to take in air again, and he’s forgotten how good it feels, how light and easy it is to not have to fight to fill his chest. To breathe.

He doesn’t know why he feels so comfortable like this, talking to Jiang Wanyin of all people, showing him a side of Lan Huan that no one’s seen in years. A side of himself that by now, even Lan Huan can barely remember he has. Perhaps it’s the other man’s background: the youthful shenanigans Jiang Wanyin owned up to during their conversation only a few days ago, his childhood spent by the side of Wei Wuxian, the reigning holder of the cultivation world’s title of ‘most shameless’. Perhaps it is the man himself – this hurricane of a person, hot-tempered and defensive with a tongue as sharps as the steel blade of a sword, who carries around rice crackers to feed to ducks and talks for hours about falling in love. Who curses to make Lan Huan feel better and walks through downpours to keep his promises. Who somehow without even trying, has managed to worm his way into Lan Huan’s friendship after Lan Huan swore never to trust another person again.

It’s a kind of delicious irony that locked away from the outside world, this is the most open he’s ever felt.

That, however, does not change the fact that man in front of him is turning a truly concerning shade of red and Lan Huan fears that if he does not do something soon, he might lose his hard-won new friend. He decides to take pity on him, choosing to remain silent to allow Jiang Wanyin to catch his breath.

A short while later, the younger man does return to normal, although a light flush still dusts his cheeks. It’s not surprising that he’s shocked, Lan Huan thinks wryly. He doesn’t usually speak this freely (brazenly) around – well, around anyone, really. The change in demeanour is probably incredibly jarring for the poor man.

The aforementioned man raises his hands, palms facing upwards, in surrender. Something jolts in Lan Huan’s stomach; Jiang Wanyin has never submitted to anyone, at least not of his own free will. Or not that Lan Huan knows of.

“Why is everyone around me like this?”, he grumbles. “Did Wei Wuxian poison the water supply?”

Despite his words, the other man is not truly angry, and Lan Huan chuckles again. “Perhaps you simply surround yourself with a certain kind of person.”

“And why the hell would I do that?”

“Perhaps you secretly enjoy suffering,” Lan Huan says, relishing the way Jiang Wanyin lets out a little huff through his nose and crosses his arms over his chest again. It’s extraordinarily endearing, considering that the man doing it is a full three decades of age and then some, and a respected cultivator and sect leader to boot.

And an innocent.

Now it’s Lan Huan’s turn to colour. Despite the slight ribbing, he really wasn’t expecting that admission, that answer to the question he’d asked. Least of all from Jiang Wanyin. The other sect leader had seemed so jaded, so world-weary, so mature. A holdover from having to grow up too much, too fast, Lan Huan supposes. He’d just assumed that would have extended to other areas as well.

Yet it makes a certain kind of sense, too. Orphaned and pressed into fighting a war at seventeen, then becoming a single parent scarcely two years later, it was no wonder Jiang Wanyin had never found the time for something as mundane as a partner. In fact, it would have truly been a surprise if he had.

A pang of sympathy stirs in Lan Huan’s chest, accompanied by something else he can’t identify. How much has Jiang Wanyin missed out on because of the hand life has dealt him, because of all the things he’s had to do and sacrifice? How much of the world has passed him by because there is always something bigger, something more important that needs his attention instead? But it’s a fruitless question, because Lan Huan already knows the answer: too much.

It’s the story of all their lives, really – the men and women of their generation. Children of war, lives torn apart by fire and death and knowing little else, just trying to figure out how to navigate the peace they gave their youths to restore. It is every one of them, but Lan Huan thinks the burden weighs heaviest on the man in front of him, because he had to bear it alone.

Lan Huan feels his melancholic thoughts spiraling, and reels them back in with an effort. He leans forward, pushes himself to his feet; at Jiang Wanyin’s questioning look, he explains that he’s going to pour them some more tea. Yes, tea. One of the (few) unspoken rules in Gusu is that nearly every problem can be solved with a pot of tea. Maybe two, if the situation is dire enough to require it.

He enters the kitchen and then minutes later, emerges with ceramic teapot in hand. His guest has changed positions since Lan Huan left. Jiang Wanyin is now perched behind the only corner of Lan Huan’s tiny desk that isn’t piled high with reports, scribbling on his own – notably smaller – stack of paper with a brush he’s produced seemingly out of thin air.

His legs are folded beneath him in a pose much less formal than the kneeling position that’s customary for meetings between sect leaders, more suited for comfort than decorum. The violet sleeves of his outer robes are rolled up to the elbow, exposing strong, corded forearms lithe with sinew rather than bulging muscle. His brow is furrowed in concentration, those blue-grey eyes focused on the words on the paper in front of him.

It’s surprisingly domestic. The other sect leader looks so at home here, as though this cottage is his too and he’s just come back from–

Lan Huan drops the teapot.

It hits the ground and shatters, breaking into pieces with a crash and a surprisingly high-sounding clatter. Suddenly, there are pottery shards of varying sizes all over the floor, chips scattering like dust between others almost as large as Lan Huan’s fist, jagged at the edges and wickedly sharp. Lan Huan can make out half the teapot’s handle there, over near the chair leg; to the left, the intact spout.

To make matters worse, the pot had been nearly full when he dropped it. Still-steaming tea seeps out from between the shards, trickling into the gaps in the floorboards.

“Fuck,” says Lan Huan, looking down at the mess. Then he claps a hand over his mouth. Oh, no.

Jiang Wanyin, who had been in the process of jotting down a line of characters, jerks up at the noise. His eyes go wide when he takes in the teapot, now lying in myriad pieces all over the floor.

“I’m sorry,” Lan Huan says apologetically. “I hadn’t meant to say that; it just slipped out.”

The other man makes a disbelieving noise and cocks an eyebrow. And just like that, all Lan Huan’s hopes that his brief, surprise-induced exclamation had gone unheard sink right through the floorboards along with his tea.

“So you can make jokes about orgies, but you can’t say ‘fuck’?” Jiang Wanyin turns his gaze to Lan Huan, who’s still standing there frozen, covering his mouth. “What kind of logic is that?”

The world moves in cycles, Lan Huan is discovering, because it’s now his turn to blush like a village maiden receiving her first compliment. He shouldn’t have laughed at the younger man earlier. He really shouldn’t have.

It’s nigh-impossible to talk around the heat in his cheeks; made doubly so by the fact that Jiang Wanyin has put down his brush and is now walking towards him, stepping carefully over the wet spots and pottery fragments, and it’s difficult for Lan Huan to look anywhere else. His tongue feels too large for his mouth when he says, “vulgarities are prohibited in the Cloud Recesses.”

“And the things you said earlier weren’t vulgarities?”

“Not explicitly, no.”

“Oh, loopholes. That’s fucking fantas– oh, wait.” The shorter man pauses for a moment as though he’s just realised something. One corner of his mouth quirks upward into a lopsided grin. “What’s the punishment for breaking the rule?”

Why does that matter? “Copying out the first half of book one of the Gusu Lan sect rules while doing a handstand,” he recites instead of voicing his question. “Three times, with periodic checks for neatness of handwriting and legibility. Shu-Fu dislikes coarse language.”

“And have you ever had to do it?”

“Not that I can remember. Why?”

“I think,” Jiang Wanyin says, still grinning, “that I’ve been a bad influence on you.”

Briefly, Lan Huan goes quiet in consideration of what he’s just heard. The guilt of breaking a sect rule twists in his stomach and then dissolves, melting into a puddle and draining away. It leaves him feeling strangely light.

“Yes,” he agrees. “Shu-Fu will probably hate you for it.”

“For what – tainting his precious nephew? You seem to have been doing that just fine on your own. In fact, I’m not completely sure you’re not the one tainting me.”

“Oh, fuck you,” replies Lan Huan. It’s missing something, so he adds, “asshole.”

The answering bark of laughter that Jiang Wanyin lets out is sharp and bright, like a firework on the first night of the New Year. It assuages any doubts Lan Huan has about his use of those words, forbidden by his sect but now that he’s said them, seeming so mundane and ordinary.

“See? All you’re doing is proving me right.”

Lan Huan bends down to pick up a particularly large piece of the broken teapot. The edges are razor-sharp, liable to cut into skin at the slightest pressure, but Lan Huan uses his fingers to pinch the centre of it.

“I don’t make the rules,” he says softly. The contrast in volume between their conversation before and his voice now makes the room feel smaller somehow. The air within its four walls feels charged. With what, Lan Huan can’t tell.

Jiang Wanyin reaches forward and plucks the shard from his hand. Carefully, he lays it at the edge of the table. And then, equally quietly, he responds with, “no, you don’t.”

“But you can.”

Chapter Text

It’s late in the day, and the training yard is empty. Wei Ying has lived in Cloud Recesses long enough to know that most of the disciples are currently cooped up in afternoon classes, probably trying not to drift off to the sound of Old Man Lan’s incessant droning about rules and the ‘proper’ way to do things. Gods know Wei Ying himself had given into the impulse a few too many times, and received more than his fair share of reaming out because of it.

But Wei Ying is no longer a disciple, and so he’s been here for the past hour instead, taking advantage of the free space available to train and work on his cultivation level. Reincarnation was great and all, but Mo Xuanyu’s body was nowhere near the standard of his original one – either in muscle definition or golden core development. Or height, which is the one thing that truly aggravates Wei Ying about his new vessel. It only takes practice and a certain amount of time to make up for a low cultivation level, or a lack of muscles. But a lack of height? Not so much.

Eventually, Wei Ying tires of bashing practice dummies with Suibian and practicing forms he’d mastered in his teenage years – which, much to his dismay, Mo Xuanyu had never committed to muscle memory. So he packs up, puts everything away as neatly as he can, and sets off to find his husband.

In all honesty, Wei Ying thinks as he makes his way through the mostly-empty corridors, the two of them haven’t been spending as much time together lately. Lan Zhan is just so busy these days, what with the weeklong gathering Cloud Recesses is hosting, and he and Lan Qiren are basically running the entire thing by themselves. Yes, it may have been Wei Ying’s idea in the first place, but though he’s done his best to help out, there’s only so much of the burden he can take off his poor, overworked husband’s shoulders. Wei Ying’s skills, after all, lie mostly in killing things and controlling their spirits.

And so they barely see each other during the day, Wei Ying avoiding the visiting cultivators (most of whom likely want to sever his head from his body) and Lan Zhan spending hours in meetings and discussions with his uncle, coming back only at night. Just in time for them to collapse into bed together, and then wake up again for the cycle to start anew.

It’s a stark contrast to their usual days together: exchanging lazy kisses in the morning, sharing their meals with a table of gawping disciples and Lan Zhan’s uptight uncle glaring at the place where their fingers intertwine. Lan Zhan by his side, and Wei Ying by his.

He hates it. Okay, maybe ‘hate’ is a strong word. More like ‘severely dislike’. Yes, that’s better. Wei Ying severely dislikes not being able to see his husband for more than half an hour a day. It feels like a part of him is missing.

Much like the way he’d felt after his and Jiang Cheng’s argument the other day. Well, not exactly, seeing as Lan Zhan is his lover and Wei Ying would probably rather die than picture his brother doing half the things Wei Ying has allowed his husband to do to him. Not to mention that Lan Zhan would probably go ballistic and garotte Jiang Cheng with a shiny-new set of guqin strings.

But still.

It’s easy to joke about it now, to make light of his relationship with his brother after their reconciliation only hours ago. People have always said that Wei Ying moves on too fast, recovers from what should be major blows to his emotions and bounces back with a smile and a witticism at the ready. Maybe that’s true. Maybe he’s just as void of feeling as their idea of him. But Wei Ying’s jokes have always been of the ‘if-he-doesn’t-laugh-he’ll-cry’ variety, and humour has often been his only defense against tragedy.

He’d never tell Jiang Cheng this, but the last few days since the argument have been absolute hell. He barely slept, ate only when Lan Zhan or Sizhui forced him to, the words he and his brother had thrown back and forth at each other circling like carrion vultures inside his head.

Jiang Cheng, teeth bared, his hand on his sword in the pose Wei Ying has seen directed at so many members of the Wen clan. It’s always like that with you – nothing’s ever enough.

Himself, seeing red, his own hands balled into fists by his sides. You’re even worse than I am.

Round and round it had gone, a veritable parade of insults that each tore a new hole in Wei Ying’s barely scabbed-over heart, interspersed with thoughts that never lessened the pain, only carved the wounds deeper and filled them with a cold black sludge.

What if this is it?

What if we never speak to each other again?

What if the last thing I’ll ever say to my little brother is that he’s a monster?

The poisonous thoughts had consumed him, drowned him, made him barely able to breathe, because for all that Wei Ying has started a new life away from Yunmeng, Jiang Cheng has always been the one thing he could never let go of. The boy he grew up with. The man who fought by his side.

It took every ounce of courage he possessed to apologise after their fight. Wei Ying is a master of denial, and the fight had started over such a little thing, hadn’t it? A jar of wine. A good-natured prank.

Except it hadn’t been about the prank at all. No, that was just the catalyst, the last straw heaped on top of all the crap that was their fragile relationship, and it had crumbled under the strain, the bridge between them too weak to hold with all the water flowing against it. Wei Ying can admit now that this had been a long time coming, because putting on a smile for the world and pretending everything’s okay has never seemed to work out as well for him as he thinks it will.

He’s not going to make that mistake again this time, he promises himself. He’s not foolish enough to think that they’re going to go back to the way they were as teenagers now that they’re talking to each other again. And maybe it’ll take a while to get there, or maybe they never will, but if there’s one thing Wei Ying doesn’t know, it’s how to stop trying.

He turns a corner, and the pavilion where the sect meetings have been held the past few days comes into sight. The couple times Wei Ying has been here, the pavilion itself and the area around it have all been decently crowded, sect leaders milling about and talking to each other. At the moment, it’s empty, the meeting having ended hours before. But Lan Zhan’s got to be around here somewhere, discussing tomorrow’s gathering with Old Man Lan.

(Wei Ying conveniently forgets that his husband has reminded him countless times not to call his uncle that. It’s not like it’s important.)

“Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan!”, he calls, poking his head through the entrance to the pavilion. There’s no one in there, and he withdraws, pouting.

Then he hears a sound. Quiet, low, undulating, and he abruptly realises that it’s been there the whole time. He steps closer to the source of the noise. Voices. More than one; from the sound of it, they belong to adolescents.

He’s creeping around the edge of the pavilion – honestly, Wei Ying doesn’t even know why he’s bothering to be quiet, but it just feels like he should – when a shriek pierces the air.

“We’re not doing that!” The exclamation is pitched high and familiar. Wei Ying recognizes that voice – it’s Jin Ling’s. A frisson of confusion runs through him. What’s his nephew doing here?

There’s a pause, and then another person whines, “but you said you were in.” That’s Lan Jingyi. Wei Ying is getting more puzzled by the minute. ‘In’ on what? What the hell is going on?

“You did say that,” chimes in someone who sounds like Ah-Yuan, calm and reasonable as usual. Wei Ying spares a moment to think that his adopted son sounds very persuasive indeed, and he doesn’t even know the subject of conversation. No, he’s not being biased. Not at all.

He comes around the back of the circular building, where three teenagers are sprawled in the grass. Jin Ling is leaning on Ah-Yuan, who doesn’t seem to mind the younger boy’s added weight, his arm tucked contentedly over Jin Ling’s chest. Lan Jingyi, however, is lying on his stomach a few feet away, fiddling with a blade of grass.

All three of them seem deep in discussion. Or plotting. Yes, that’s more like it – they’re definitely plotting something. Wei Ying feels his curiosity prick, and flattens his back against the pavilion wall before they can notice him. He wants to hear this.

“Come on! The two of you can’t always be ganging up on me,” Jin Ling protests, giving Ah-Yuan’s arm a swat. “It’s not fair.”

Lan Jingyi rips the blade of grass into two.

“Well, he’s not wrong,” says Ah-Yuan, at the same time as Lan Jingyi opens his mouth to say, “ah, but life isn’t fair, Young Mistress Jin.”

To which Jin Ling promptly replies that Lan Jingyi can go and do something anatomically impossible with his guqin, and they devolve into petty squabbling. Poor Ah-Yuan looks on helplessly as his boyfriend and best friend toss insults at each other, unwilling to pick a side. He doesn’t even make a move to break it up – he’s probably too used to being in the middle of their arguments to even bother.

Kids. A pang of nostalgia hits and Wei Ying smiles ruefully, remembering better times. Easier ones. But as much as he’d like to watch his son and nephew behave like children, it doesn’t look like they’ll get back on topic any time soon. And he really, really wants to know what they were talking about.

Stepping softly, Wei Ying peels himself off the wall and strides up to the three of them. For a moment, they’re so engaged in their arguing that they don’t even notice him.

“What’s all this about?”

The effect is immediate. The teenagers’ heads snap up, their eyes wide and spines suddenly ramrod-straight. Jin Ling’s mouth hangs open mid-sentence, whatever he was saying dying on his lips.

See? Wei Ying thinks to himself. I can totally command a room.

Sizhui recovers first, the shock on his face smoothing over to make way for a guileless smile. “Senior Wei!”

Lan Jingyi nods emphatically, even though Wei Ying notes with no small amount of amusement that the other boy hasn’t really said anything worth agreeing with. Then Jin Ling finds his voice.

“What are you doing here?”, he asks brusquely. The kid sounds so much like Jiang Cheng that Wei Ying has to suppress a snort. It’s all in the tone, really, and the arms crossed over his chest as though he’s either defending himself from something or gearing up to chew someone out. Possibly both.

At that, the snort finds its way out.

“Can’t I just drop by to visit my son and favourite nephew?” Then, glancing over at Lan Jingyi, “and my favourite troublemaker?”

Going by the looks on their faces, none of them are convinced.

“I’m your only nephew,” Jin Ling corrects.

Wei Ying waves his hand. “Semantics. Alright, fine,” he says. “If you must know, I was looking for Lan Zhan. Have you seen him anywhere?”

When the teenagers all shake their heads, he heaves a sigh. “We haven’t slept together in days,” he complains. “He promised every day.”

Jin Ling’s face contorts in an expression of horror. Slowly he edges himself behind Ah-Yuan, whose Lan Xichen-esque serene smile is beginning to peel around the edges.

Satisfaction blooms sweet in Wei Ying’s chest. He may no longer be able to hide behind Mo Xuanyu’s reputation of being a lunatic, but shamelessness has its benefits, and he’s always loved to watch other people squirm. Even his own relatives. Especially his own relatives.

(And maybe this will show Jin Ling that he has nothing to be ashamed of, loving Wei Ying and Lan Zhan’s son.)

He folds his legs and collapses onto the grass, bringing him level with the three teenagers. With a flicker of pride – tinged with annoyance –he notices that Ah-Yuan is now taller than him. But not by much.

“So,” he says, grinning brightly, “what have you boys been plotting?”

Chapter Text

The next couple days pass quietly, without incident. Jiang Cheng trains in the mornings, attends meetings and scolds his nephew. Wei Wuxian meets him for breakfast before the conferences start, where the Yunmeng Jiang sect leader spends one or two very awkward hours trying not to gag on his porridge as his older brother steadily inches closer and closer to his husband throughout the meal, eventually ending up half-seated on his lap.

They trade barbs and tease each other, and Jiang Cheng and the second Jade of the Gusu Lan sect have a couple staredowns (which Lan Wangji somehow manages to win every time, the bastard) while Wei Wuxian eggs them both on by turns and gives Hanguang-Jun some downright filthy kisses when Jiang Cheng looks away first.

It’s… it’s good.

Nothing like what they had before, of course. Back when Lan Wangji was barely a smudge in the picture, and mornings were filled with Ah-Niang’s sword drills and the smell of lotuses that always accompanied Ah-Jie’s cooking. When Jiang Cheng didn’t wear his mother’s ring around his finger because it was on hers instead; didn’t twist it every time Wei Wuxian came a little too close. But it’s good, because even though their conversations can get awkward, at least they’re not tense.

And once, Wei Wuxian insists that the children join them and it’s even better. Jin Ling holds hands with Lan Sizhui under the table; though Jiang Cheng still doesn’t entirely approve of his nephew’s choice in men, he allows himself to smirk when Lan Jingyi complains about being a perpetual third wheel. Then when Wei Wuxian makes a snide comment about Jiang Cheng’s “questionable relationship status”, he kicks his brother in the shin.

If his smirk grows into a real smile at the indignant screech that follows, then that’s nobody’s business but his.

He visits Lan Xichen in the afternoons, too. Ducks out after meetings and makes his way to the little cottage, avoiding Wei Wuxian’s smug grins and the judgemental looks Jin Ling’s inherited from his father.

The other man is usually doing paperwork in his living room when Jiang Cheng arrives, but one day Jiang Cheng finds him on his knees in the garden, pruning the dead leaves off a bush full of peonies. He always smiles at Jiang Cheng, sets down whatever it is he’s doing right then and stands to make tea for them both. Then Jiang Cheng gives his report and they spend hours talking about everything and nothing at the same time.

And that’s… that’s good too.

 


 

 

It’s the sixth day of the conference – the second-last day Jiang Cheng is scheduled to be at Cloud Recesses – when he broaches the topic of cultivation.

They’re in Lan Xichen’s living room, sheafs of paper in neat piles on the floor, the two of them sharing the Gusu Lan sect leader’s ridiculously tiny wooden desk as they work their way through their respective stacks of paperwork. They’ve been here for the past hour now, content to work in silence in each other’s company. It’s definitely not the longest Jiang Cheng’s ever spent settling administrative matters and he’s normally a very focused person, but the question has been gnawing at him for days now.

“How do you train?”, he asks, taking advantage of a lull in the other man’s concentration in which he has to re-wet his calligraphy brush with ink. “Here, I mean. There’s no one to spar with.”

Jiang Cheng realises too late that that’s probably not the most tactful thing to say to a man whose old sparring partner was most likely murdered by one of his best friends, and clenches his fingers around his own brush. “Never mind. Forget I said anything.”

Lan Xichen gives a soft, sad smile, and Jiang Cheng feels like kicking himself. “No, it’s all right. It’s a good question.” He sets down his brush with barely any sound at all.

“I do cultivate, if that’s what you’re asking,” he answers wryly. “And yes, it is more difficult to train…alone than to spar with another person. But I make do, since as you said, there is no one around.”

Jiang Cheng waits a moment, but the older man shows no sign of going back to his pile of forms. He’s simply looking at Jiang Cheng, watching as if to see what will happen next.

“How, then?”, he repeats, his curiosity finally getting the better of him. Lan Xichen seems like a very neat person – the quick glimpse Jiang Cheng had of his bedroom that night is a testament to that – but training equipment, targets, dummies and the like, take space to store. Time to maintain. And Jiang Cheng has seen neither hide nor hair of any one of those things.

The other sect leader shrugs. “Simple exercises, mostly. Small things, like doing handstands, medidating, running through sword forms. Playing the guqin.”

He shrugs again, the gesture casual and unbefitting someone of his status. Jiang Cheng would know. His mother spent weeks – and countless scoldings – training him out of the habit. Yet somehow, Lan Xichen makes it look elegant. Then he blinks.

“Oh, yes; and Liebing as well,” he says, referring to his xiao. The jade flute that is his secondary weapon, a contrast to the guqin favoured by his uncle and brother, and the rest of his sect. Jiang Cheng frowns.

Liebing is one of Lan Xichen’s most prized possessions. It’s the only one of the myriad instruments he plays to have a name, and he keeps it on his bedside table. Right next to where he sleeps. Yet the statement about his xiao seems almost like an afterthought, tacked on as though he’d only barely remembered it was there.

There’s something jarringly wrong about that, about Lan Xichen nearly forgetting to mention his flute in favour of his unnamed guqin. Liebing – one of the things that sets him apart from the rest of his family; one of the things that marks him as him.

There’s something wrong about it, but Jiang Cheng can’t see what it is. Cold wisps begin to gather in the pit of his stomach.

Then he notices Lan Xichen is looking at him strangely, head tilted to the side and liquid gold eyes studying his expression. With an effort, he shakes away the odd cloud that seems to hang inside him.

“How long has it been since you sparred with a partner?”

The other man pauses, considering. “A little over a year,” he says finally.

Huh. That’s surprising. “Not even with your brother?”

“Wangji never offered.”

Jiang Cheng refrains from saying ‘you could have asked’. He can read the reply to that well enough in the slight slump of Lan Xichen’s shoulders. The other man doesn’t want to ask for anything, any help. Even if it’s from his family.

Now, where have I heard that before?, his subconscious snipes. Jiang Cheng tells it to be quiet if it’s not even going to stay on the topic at hand.

Especially if the help is from his family, Jiang Cheng realises. Lan Wangji is so settled in, so happy being married to Jiang Cheng’s older brother, so very content to spend every waking moment with Wei Wuxian after thirteen years of waiting. Lan Xichen doesn’t want to be a burden.

That’s bullshit, Jiang Cheng thinks before he can stop himself. You could never be a burden.

Maybe he should say it. Maybe Lan Xichen needs to hear it. But Jiang Cheng doesn’t say things like that. Hell, he doesn’t even think them. What the hell is wrong with him right now?

“Do you miss it?”, he asks instead.

“…A little.” Then a beat, a sigh. And after that, the truth. “Yes.”

Jiang Cheng weighs his options. Honestly, for all his pushing, he’s not sure what to do with this information now that he’s got it. No – that’s a lie; he’s just being a pussy. There’s really only one thing he can do.

He gets to his feet, holds his hand out to the other man still sitting puzzled on the floor.

“Spar with me?”

Lan Xichen takes his hand. The paperwork can wait.

 


 

 

Jiang Wanyin lunges at him, sword point level with his heart, and Lan Huan leaps backwards to block it. Shuoyue comes up, meeting Sandu and twisting it aside almost before Lan Huan can think about it. The sword moves like an extension of his arm, slicing precise arcs through the air, dancing and striking like a snake. Blood hums in Lan Huan’s veins, pounds in his ears. His world narrows to two swords, the man in front of him and the small circle of grass that is their battlefield.

He is alive with it. And that is what he feels right now, a weapon in his hand, matching his skills and strength with an opponent whose ability matches his own. He has not felt like this in a long time.

Lan Huan launches a counter attack of his own, and they devolve into a flurry of blows, each trying to slip around the other’s defenses, to land a strike faster than the other can block it. There is none of the ring of naked steel that Lan Huan has come to expect from his bouts with other cultivators. Instead, the air is uncommonly silent, both of them having wrapped their blades in cloth before their sparring began.

It is not a practice popular among cultivators. The extra weight tends to unbalance the sword some, and fighting with padded blades carries a decidedly lower level of drama to it, but Lan Huan finds it is one he prefers. Neither he nor Jiang Wanyin truly has the wish to hurt each other, and so dulling their blades allows them to spar no-holds-barred. To come at each other with everything they have, holding nothing back, and not worry about injuring the other.

Lan Huan is tired of worrying about hurting people.

Indeed, he thinks as the younger sect leader pulls off a particularly convincing feint and manages to slip his sword under Lan Huan’s guard – which Lan Huan only blocks at the last second – he doesn’t have to, with Jiang Wanyin. The two of them have fought side-by-side before. During the Sunshot Campaign, back in the Nightless City; when they were travelling together, amassing an army to take on the Qishan Wen sect. Ever since they were young, Lan Huan has always known that Jiang Wanyin is a good fighter. There’s a reason they call him ‘Sandu-Shengshou’, after all: the Sacred Hand of the Three Poisons.

But fighting beside him is different from fighting against him, and Lan Huan wonders why he’s never considered it before. He’s never considered a lot of things about Jiang Wanyin, actually. Still, this is something he should have seen.

The man moves like a hurricane, a relentless volley of blows that never seems to stop, each strike swift and powerful and nearly as precise as Lan Huan’s own. He fights like rage personified, at times cold and calculating, and others burning with heat. And this is with just his sword. Zidian remains a silver ring on his right index finger, as per the terms of their agreement not to bring their secondary weapons into the mix.

Lan Huan is beginning to realise that nothing about Jiang Wanyin is ‘just’ anything.

It’s exhilarating, fighting with him. Their styles are so different: Lan Huan knows his own is by the book, technically perfect – or so his uncle has said – and preferring skill and precision to power. Jiang Wanyin is a wildfire, devastating and seemingly uncontrollable, as though he’s perpetually sunken into the sort of battlelust-trance he’s seen in warriors pushed past their limits.

Lan Huan knew someone who fought like that, once. Like he could cut down everyone in his path with the force of his fury alone. He had been great. And then he sank into that trance and it wouldn’t give him up, and he never came out the other side.

A cold jolt of fear runs down Lan Huan’s spine. He hesitates for a moment, his sword slowing mid-swing as its momentum carries it forward without the power of his arm behind it. It’s all the opening his opponent needs to strike at Lan Huan’s unprotected side. The blade is coming faster than Lan Huan can even see; it’s that which snaps him into action. His brain starts working again and his instincts take over.

And they decide: to hell with Lan technique and skill. To hell with honour and perfection – those things might keep him safe enough in the cultivation world, but it was the back-alley brawls he’d fought in with Meng Yao by his side that truly taught him to survive.

In a world without honour…

Victory is all there is.

He throws himself to the side, hitting the grass. But it doesn’t matter because at the same time, he kicks his legs out and sweeps in a circle, taking Jiang Wanyin by surprise and knocking him to the ground too.

The other man recovers quickly; he’s no stranger to fighting dirty either. And then they’re on each other, trading blows at a speed Lan Huan has only experienced with one other person when not in the heat of battle. His vision tunnels and blurs all at the same time, and suddenly the man facing him is different.

Violet robes are replaced with black edged in gold, shoulders broadening, hair flowing loose from a ponytail instead of tied tight in a bun. The nose is stronger – more hawk-like – eyes flinty and deeper-set beneath thicker brows.

It’s Chifeng-Zun, Lan Huan’s First Sworn Brother. His Nie-Dage. Lan Huan’s breath catches in his chest; his throat closes around nothing.

And for a moment, time stops and everything exists around Lan Huan at once. Every possibility, every memory, every dream he’s ever had, and Nie Mingjue is right there, brandishing that saber that Lan Huan can barely even lift. There’s a smile curving his mouth, normally set so stern in daily life, the one he reserves for Lan Huan. The one that says you and I, we are as good as each other, and let me give you what you need.

And Lan Huan’s response is always, always, I already have it.

He can feel it, taste it there on his tongue, and he wants to say it badly. So badly. But then the world spins back into focus, the earth shifts under him and it’s not his Nie-Dage, but Jiang Wanyin whose sword is pressed against his ribs. Whose neck is at the point of Lan Huan’s own blade.

“A stalemate,” whispers Lan Huan. Their heads are bowed so close together that the other man can hear him anyway. Jiang Wanyin nods once, careful not to scrape Shuoyue along the fragile skin of his neck. He swallows and his throat bobs.

“In a real fight, we’d both be dead,” is his answer. Delivered in a quiet voice, rough like it’s been scraped along gravel.

The pressure of Sandu is gentle along his ribs, but it is there nonetheless. Lan Huan can feel it when he breathes.

“It would appear so.”

“You’re shaking,” Jiang Wanyin says in response. His eyes travel up to Lan Huan’s own – away from where his sword point meets the fabric of Lan Huan’s robes – and they’re blue, not black. The colour of the sky a little after sunset instead of at midnight.

Lan Huan realises that he’s right. Only the discovery doesn’t do much for him; he’s suddenly achingly exhausted, as though all the energy he managed to muster up for their sparring session has drained out of his bones. He can’t even bring himself to be shocked. Not when it feels like there’s something quaking right in the core of him, and he’s shaking so hard he fears he might come apart at the seams. Just split, like a rag doll filled to bursting with the tiny beans his mother used to stuff them with.

Perhaps it might feel better. Lan Huan doesn’t know. He’s so tired.

He can’t hold his arm up anymore; Shuoyue falls to the ground with a muffled ‘thud’. And then every bone in his body turns to liquid and he begins to fall too, unable to keep himself upright. But he doesn’t hit the ground.

Instead, another sword drops to the grass, and Lan Huan is surrounded by warmth. Steadied by the weight of someone else’s arms around him. It’s Jiang Wanyin, smaller than him but so very fierce, not fearless but brave, and Lan Huan sags into his hold. Goes limp because he can, and there’s someone there who will let Lan Huan lean on him without asking. Who will catch him – has already caught him – without offering first.

And Lan Huan lets himself fall apart.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng can feel the other man shaking. Full-body tremors that wrack him where he’s pressed against Jiang Cheng, his face turned into Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. It can’t be comfortable; Lan Xichen is an inch or two taller than him, and Jiang Cheng’s arms are thrown awkwardly around his torso so that the man’s own arms are flattened to his sides.

Then he feels it. Hears it, too. A dampness seeping through the cloth of his sleeve, muffled hitches of breath, quiet and bitten back. Sobs. Muffled but there.

Lan Xichen is crying.

The bottom drops out of Jiang Cheng’s stomach, and something twists in his chest that feels like it might be his heart. Oh, hell. Lan Xichen is fucking crying. It’s not even the first time Jiang Cheng’s seen it – and isn’t that sick, that he’s seen the ever-optimistic, always-smiling leader of the Lan sect shed tears not once but twice – but this is infinitely worse than watching him wipe discreetly at his eyes. Because now he’s sobbing into Jiang Cheng’s shoulder, enough that his fucking sleeve is wet, and Jiang Cheng doesn’t know how to fix this.

Hell, he doesn’t even know how this started. One moment they were sparring, and he’d felt absolutely amazing, on top of the world, and he could tell the other man was experiencing the same adrenaline rush. And then he was just gone. His eyes went vacant, and Jiang Cheng’s seen enough people scarred permanently from war to recognize when someone is somewhere outside their body, seeing something other than what’s in front of them.

Lan Xichen had sagged like a puppet whose strings were cut, and if Jiang Cheng hadn’t reacted, hadn’t caught him in time, he’d have hit the ground and gone rag-doll-limp. Flopped there on the ground like he didn’t care that he’d fallen, and there’s probably some sort of metaphor there that Jiang Cheng’s too thick-headed to pick up on, but all he knows is that it’s wrong.

What the fuck is he supposed to do?

The other man lets out another shuddering sob, and Jiang Cheng pushes his panic to the back of his mind, firmly ignoring the nagging voice that reminds him that he’s absolute shit at comforting people.

This isn’t about you, he tells himself sternly. The voice is right, though. Just ask Jin Ling. Half the time he’d tried to soothe his nephew’s childhood scrapes and bruises, he just ended up making the kid cry harder. And whatever Lan Xichen is so obviously suffering from right now, it’s not a fucking grazed knee.

Jiang Cheng pats the older man’s back with one hand, as soothing and un-awkward as he can make it. For a while, they just stand there like that. The taller sect leader’s legs are jelly, Jiang Cheng thinks, because his knees are still buckled and he’s a dead weight leaning on Jiang Cheng, who’s the only one keeping both of them upright at this point. It’s uncomfortable as anything, but he can’t move. Not right now.

Eventually, the other man gets his shaky feet back under him. Stands up using Jiang Cheng’s arm as a support and pulls back slowly, scrubbing at his face ineffectually with the end of one wide sleeve.

Now that it’s no longer buried in Jiang Cheng’s shoulder, he can finally get a good look at Lan Xichen’s face. It’s obvious that he’s been crying. His cheeks are damp, those amber eyes glassy with a sheen of tears, and there’s a crease on his forehead where it pressed too hard into the seam of Jiang Cheng’s robes.

An “are you okay” is on the tip of Jiang Cheng’s tongue, but it dies before it can reach the open air, because the answer is already perfectly fucking obvious to anyone with two brain cells to rub together. Nothing about this is okay. Nothing at all.

So he waits. For Lan Xichen, who turns to the side as if to hide his face, as though Jiang Cheng doesn’t have a drying wet spot on his robes from Lan Xichen’s tears. As though he can pretend nothing happened.

He knows what Ah-Jie would do if she were here. You don’t have to hide, she’d say, voice gentle like the ocean, a wave that washed away worries and concerns like lines etched in the sand.

And then she’d put her hand on his shoulder or face, or pull him into a hug. The right kind this time – the proper kind.

But Jiang Cheng isn’t his older sister. Doesn’t have her patience or calm demeanor, as much as he wishes he did. He isn’t kind like her, either. He gets frustrated too easily, loses his temper and ends up making everything worse. The best thing he can do for Lan Xichen is keep his mouth shut and wait.

It is Lan Xichen’s show, after all.

It’s a solid minute before the other man gathers the composure to turn back to face him again, and another thirty seconds before he removes his hand from his face so Jiang Cheng can see the lingering traces of salt-water hanging heavy on his lashes.

There is a pang of something Jiang Cheng can’t name.

“I’m sorry you had to see that,” Lan Xichen says finally, voice quavery like a newborn foal just learning to stand. He clasps his hands together at the front of his robes. The knuckles go white within seconds. “It was inappropriate–”

Shut up.”

The vehemence with which Jiang Cheng cuts him off surprises the both of them. Gold eyes widen at his words. Somehow, though, beneath the shock of his own runaway mouth, Jiang Cheng finds the drive to continue. Or perhaps it’s just that he can’t stop himself.

“Don’t you dare say that. Don’t you dare apologise. Don’t fucking act like you’re worth less because you let yourself cry.”

(You massive fucking hypocrite.)

“I–” Lan Xichen’s voice hitches. “I’m sorry,” he finally gets out, visibly taken aback. Jiang Cheng glares at him some more.

“What was that?!”, he hisses back. “You scared the shit out of me!”

“That wasn’t my intention. I’m–”

“I swear, if you say ‘I’m sorry’ one more time, I’m going to break both your legs. Now answer the gods-damned question.”

The other man blinks. Then, soft as a whisper, “it’s nothing. Really. I’m fine.”

He manages a smile, but it’s watery as hell and faker than Madame Jin’s eyelashes. Jiang Cheng sees through it in a heartbeat.

“Really,” he repeats, skepticism heavy in his voice. “You were crying over nothing. You collapsed because you’re fine.”

Somewhere in the back of Jiang Cheng’s mind, he registers that this is a really bad idea. Lan Xichen obviously doesn’t want to talk about this; would rather deny something that happened less than five minutes ago than allow it to be brought up again. And it’s selfish, so selfish – even worse than what Wei Wuxian did to him all those years ago – but he has to know. Because he remembers the way his brain whited out in fear when Lan Xichen broke down, how he hadn’t even thought about it and his arms shot out to catch the other man when he started to fall. He needs to know.

If Lan Xichen doesn’t get this out of him, it’s going to break him. And Jiang Cheng can’t let that happen.

“I’m fine,” the other sect leader insists again. How could Jiang Cheng ever have mistaken him for a saint? He wants to throttle him.

“Like hell you are. Now spill, before I make you.”

 


 

 

Lan Huan wants to laugh at the absurdity of the situation. Sandu-Shengshou trying to threaten him into talking about his feelings. If he’d been told two years ago that this is what his life would be like, he wouldn’t have believed it.

But he’s not lying – that’s the thing. He’s fine. Absolutely and completely fine. There’s nothing wrong with him.

Great. Now you’re even lying to yourself, a voice whispers in his ear. That’s a violation of sect rule five hundred and six. And sect rule one thousand four hundred and thirty-seven.

My, my. What would your uncle think?

Lan Huan doesn’t even have to ask himself that question. The answer is already laid out for him, in the tightness of Shu-Fu’s mouth the few times he has come to visit; in the stony look in his eyes when he fixes them on Lan Huan. It always sends shivers down Lan Huan’s spine, because behind the worry and the concern for his wellbeing, he can see his uncle’s disappointment. His resignation.

It didn’t matter how hard he tried with you, did it? You’ve turned out just like your father.

He can feel himself beginning to fracture. There’s something building in his chest, something awful and splintered, and his eyes feel hot again.

Why is Jiang Wanyin doing this? Why is he pushing so hard at the walls Lan Huan has so painstakingly erected around his still-battered heart? Doesn’t he know that the dam could break?

But then, the voice reminds him, the walls are already cracked, have been since the moment Lan Huan built them. The water is leaking in, slowly and inexorably, and sooner or later Lan Huan is going to drown in it.

Perhaps he’d rather it be sooner.

He closes his eyes, but they burn anyway behind his eyelids. He’s such a coward. Nie Mingjue would be so disappointed; he loathed cowardice more than almost anything else. It was one of the reasons he and Ah-Yao were always fighting. If he could see Lan Huan now, would he hate him too?

Jiang Wanyin hates cowards as well. Does he think that Lan Huan is disgusting? Lan Huan never wanted to be weak. He never wanted anyone to see him cry.

The thing in his chest crawls up into his throat. And Lan Huan knows there’s nothing there – not really – but it’s so heavy that his throat goes tight with it and suddenly he can’t draw enough air into his lungs. It feels like walls are closing in on him, like his arms and legs are cramped in on each other, which is ridiculous because they’re out in the yard and he’s standing up straight and holy gods in heaven the air is running out and he can’t breathe–

Loud noise pounds in his ears. His mind shutting down, shriveling up like a fruit left to dry in the sun and retreating back into his body. Down, down down…

His legs weaken – from lack of air? – and then he’s not standing anymore, but sitting on a hard surface. His knees drawn up to his chest, head tucked between them, trying to make himself small so maybe the tiny box he’s trapped in will feel a bit bigger.

He can feel every bit of it, but it’s like it’s happening to someone else. The only thing that seems real is the burning in his lungs and the ugly thing inside his chest that refuses to go away.

A voice cuts through the haze.

“Holy shit, what’s wrong?” It’s familiar and it’s coming from next to him, but it sounds far away, like someone talking through a tube. “Oh fucking gods I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to – tell me what’s wrong. Just talk to me. Say something.”

Desperation. The voice is filled with it, and there’s an answering pull in Lan Huan’s chest that makes it go even tighter. No air no air no air–

There are two hands on his shoulders and the voice is speaking again. It sounds calmer now, steady like a rock in a current, the river parting around it.

“Just breathe, all right? Can you hear me?”

Lan Huan wants to say ‘yes’ but that requires air he doesn’t have. The thought sends him spiraling again, panicking because he can’t even say anything right now. He can’t speak and he’s useless, can’t respond to such a basic question; can’t do anything worthwhile at all.

“I’m sorry. That was a stupid question.” Is it? Isn’t this his fault? The thought that it might not be boggles Lan Huan’s oxygen-starved brain. “Nod if you can hear me.”

With difficulty, Lan Huan complies.

“Good. You’re good. Now just breathe, okay? You’re going to be fine. Just listen to my voice, and you’ll be fine.”

The hands start to rub circles into Lan Huan’s back, and the voice begins to count. One, two, three, all the way to ten, with pauses in between before starting all over from the beginning. It’s an effort for Lan Huan to slow his ragged gasps for breath, to get them under control enough to match them with the numbers, but he tries.

He wants to be fine. He wants it so badly.

The voice is like an anchor, that rock in the raging current and Lan Huan is a boat, the rope between them the only thing keeping him from drifting away. And slowly, he begins to come back to himself.

The first thing he registers when his consciousness resettles where it’s supposed to be is that the voice does, in fact, belong to someone he knows. Jiang Wanyin. Which isn’t much of a surprise, now that he thinks about it, because Jiang Wanyin was indeed the person Lan Huan was talking to before…well, before.

The second thing is that the other man is crouched down beside him. The hands on Lan Huan’s shoulders hadn’t been a figment of his imagination, another hallucination manufactured by his own wretched mind.

Jiang Wanyin seems to notice when Lan Huan’s breathing finally evens out, because the hands still and turn awkward. Despite this, he lingers a few moments longer before pulling away.

It’s silly, but Lan Huan almost misses the contact. The grounding of it; the reassurance.

Instead of voicing that, he raises his head. Unfortunately, he does so too fast for his brain to keep up and so his vision goes dark for a second. He blinks the spots away and focuses on the man next to him.

Whatever he expects to see, the naked relief on the younger sect leader’s face isn’t it. It takes him by surprise. That expression is reserved for Jiang Wanyin’s nephew, and on rare occasions, his brother. Not Lan Huan. Never him.

“I’m so, so sorry.” Jiang Wanyin sounds utterly shaken. “I shouldn’t have pushed you; you were right not to want to talk about it. It– it was your business. I had no right to pry and–” he runs his hand over his face – “I’m sorry.”

There is a pause filled only by silence. Lan Huan doesn’t know what to say. He could be angry. He could – the other man is correct in his statement that he had no right whatsoever to interrogate Lan Huan – and maybe he should, but he can’t muster up the energy.

And anyway, it wasn’t Jiang Wanyin who sent Lan Huan into a– a panic attack. A fit, his traitorous mind supplies. No, that was his own doing. His own weakness. He just isn’t strong enough to deal with his own emotions.

Pathetic.

“It’s all right,” he says finally, once he finds his voice again.

The other man’s expression shifts from shock to anger. Lan Huan doesn’t understand how he can change gears so quickly. It’s giving him whiplash.

“No it’s not,” he spits out, so venomously that Lan Huan feels as though he’s getting scolded rather than reassured. Which might perhaps be the point of the entire exercise. “You weren’t fucking breathing, Xichen. I thought you were going to pass out.”

“It’s all right.”

“Stop saying that! Stop trying to pretend you’re okay when you’re not. No one panics like that when everything’s fucking fine.” The other man is red-faced – and not from their sparring session earlier – his blue eyes wide and wild, alight with such strong emotion that it leaves Lan Huan’s head spinning. “You can’t just let me – let people walk all over you like this. You can’t keep bending over backwards to please everyone but yourself.”

“Get angry. Or – I don’t know – cry again or something. Just…don’t pretend like you don’t feel anything.”

As if on cue, Lan Huan feels tears gathering at the corners of his eyes. Gods above, why is he crying so much?

“When we were sparring,” he blurts out, “I– I saw him. Chifeng-Zun.”

The sect leader beside him freezes. “I told you, I was wrong. You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to.”

“No.” Lan Huan injects as much steel into his voice as he can in his sorry state. “No, you were right. I can’t keep– I have to say something. Or else I think I might go mad.”

Jiang Wanyin keeps quiet as Lan Huan tells him everything. It’s not smooth, of course; he pauses in too many places for that, but there’s really no good way to tell someone that your imagination hallucinated your dead older brother in their place. As Lan Huan talks, the tension radiating off the other man becomes almost palpable.

“I see him everywhere,” he confesses, voice now a whisper. “I want it to stop.”

And I don’t want it to stop. Not if it means never seeing him again. I don’t know what I want. No, that’s not quite right. “I want him back.”

I want him to be alive again. I want him to never have died in the first place. I want things to go back to the way they were.

A flicker of gold edges at his memory: Ah-Jue frowning, arms crossed defensively over his chest as he let Lan Huan convince him to let Ah-Yao play the guqin to calm him. The strange smile that had tugged at Ah-Yao’s face when he finally acquiesced. Lan Huan had thought it simple satisfaction at the time, but now that he revisits the memory there is an oily edge to it. A sheen of victory that should have been out of place on the face of a brother.

I want things to go back to the way I thought they were.

“I know,” is his response. Coming from anyone else, it would feel false. But Lan Huan remembers the rumours that ran wild for thirteen years, following the other man wherever he went, about the demonic cultivators Jiang Wanyin took back to Lotus Pier. Just because maybe – just maybe – one of them might be him.

And the flute, too. Chenqing, the one everyone thought was a trophy of his triumph against an enemy, but was really so much more than that. A memorial.

There’s no ‘but’ that follows Jiang Wanyin’s statement. No ‘it’s been over a decade already, you should have moved on by now’ that no one says, but Lan Huan can feel hiding behind their bowed heads and sympathetic smiles.

“He wasn’t just a brother to you, was he?”, the other man asks. The implication is hidden unspoken in his words. Lan Huan freezes, because nobody knows this, not even Shu-Fu. Not even Wangji.

His throat is dry as he looks at Jiang Wanyin. There is no judgement there, only a fragile sort of softness that Lan Huan has caught glimpses of over the past few days. The kind of emotion that most people believe the Jiang sect leader incapable of.

“No, he wasn’t,” he replies.

Nie Mingjue had been a brother to Lan Huan. But he’d also been his childhood crush, his best friend. His first love.

“That fucking sucks.”

Lan Huan blinks, and something wet rolls down his cheek. He lets out a laugh but it comes out halfway to a sob, and it’s such a perfect symbol of everything he’s become. He can’t hold back anymore, suddenly his tears are falling like rain, and he wants to be ashamed enough to stop them but he can’t. He guesses he doesn’t have as much control over his emotions as he thought he did.

A handkerchief is pressed into his hand and Jiang Wanyin inches over almost imperceptibly. Just so his knee touches Lan Huan’s side where he’s still hunched in on himself like he can make himself small enough that the world will forget he’s there. There’s no excuse this time, of having to catch him as he falls or steady him when he stumbles. This touch is purely meant to offer comfort.

As Lan Huan cries, and the other man stays, silent, beside him, it’s clear that Lan Huan was wrong, seeing Nie Mingjue in Jiang Wanyin. For all their similarities, their gruffness and viciousness in battle, their guarded smiles and the tiny, subtle shows of feeling that can only be seen if one knows where to look, they’re different. As much as Lan Huan loved his brother, Nie Mingjue only ever saw the world in black and white, only ever split people into heroes and villains. There was no in-between for him. No room for bad people to do good deeds, for a righteous man to make a mistake that cost an innocent their life.

What was it that Jiang Wanyin said?

You can’t keep bending over backwards to please everyone but yourself.

Isn’t that what Lan Huan is doing? Always asking himself what Shu-Fu would think of him, what his father would think, what Wangji would think. What Nie Mingjue would think. His elder brother has been his standard for so long, the yardstick by which Lan Huan measures right and wrong.

As a child, Lan Huan thought Nie Mingjue perfect. He looked up to the older boy, idolized him even. And now… Now it’s been twelve years going on thirteen, and Lan Huan is discovering that time and the tragic circumstances of his death have built the man up in his mind, flawless and towering, larger than life. But righteous as he was, Nie Mingjue had his own weaknesses. He wasn’t perfect; not by a long shot.

And Lan Huan doesn’t have to be either.

Chapter Text

Honestly, working anywhere near another person makes Jiang Cheng’s productivity go to shit. He eyes the stack of finished papers on his side of the desk he’s been sharing with Lan Xichen for the better part of an afternoon. It’s one of two such piles – the other being his unfinished work, which is depressingly the higher of the two.

He’s always been this way, now that he thinks about it. Which is one of the reasons why he could never get anything done during his own student days at Cloud Recesses – Wei Wuxian was always hovering somewhere nearby, tapping his foot or humming out-of-tune under his breath and generally being noisy and distracting. Jiang Cheng has never done well with distractions.

Though there’s nothing quite so distracting as watching another sect leader collapse in front of you, then proceed to have a full-blown emotional meltdown (which you instigated, the idiot that you are) and spend the better part of an hour sobbing into your shoulder. Yes; that’s definitely difficult to ignore.

The faint sound of water splashing into a basin is loud enough to be heard. Said teary sect leader is currently out of the room, shut away in the tiny water closet down the hall and probably washing his face clean of all evidence of the aforementioned emotional breakdown. Which means that Jiang Cheng has been left alone to stare at his mostly-undone paperwork and contemplate his own mistakes.

This is all his fault, really. For once, absolutely none of the blame can be pinned on anyone else. And for once, Jiang Cheng has absolutely no desire to shift it.

His heart had nearly fucking stopped when Lan Xichen’s breathing went ragged and gasping. The moment when it halted altogether was one of the most terrifying of Jiang Cheng’s life. It wasn’t even because it was Jiang Cheng’s fault – it was just the sheer, mind-numbing terror of watching the other man get lost somewhere deep inside his own mind. Out of reach. Undoubtedly remembering something from his past and getting sucked into the memory until he couldn’t pull himself back out.

Panic attacks, Jiang Cheng thinks they’re called. He doesn’t really know, which is ironic and kind of funny because – surprise, surprise – they’re not exactly uncommon for him either. But it’s different when it’s just him; simply another side effect of his shitty life. The memories feel like drowning, yes, but Jiang Cheng was raised by the river and he knows how to hold his breath.

Watching it happen to Lan Xichen, though, is something else entirely. He isn’t supposed to suffer like that; he shouldn’t have to. He’s never done anything wrong in his fucking life, and the world is a cruel, cruel place because Lan Xichen is good – anyone with eyes can see that – and he doesn’t deserve a godsdamned bit of it.

Jiang Cheng pushed him to that. Because he couldn’t keep his stupid mouth shut, couldn’t leave well enough alone, and so he pushed and pushed until Lan Xichen fell right over the edge. It’s not the first time, he knows. Jiang Cheng hurts people; it’s what he does. He yells vicious insults and hurls obscenities mixed with barbed truths, lashes flesh with lightning and then pours salt in the wounds. And he doesn’t regret it. Not in the moment, not after, not ever.

So why did it seem like the world would shatter when he made Lan Xichen cry?

(He doesn’t think he wants to know the answer to that question.)

There is the sound of a door opening and the sect leader himself steps back out into the hallway. Every trace of his previous loss of composure has been utterly wiped away; his forehead ribbon is fixed neatly in place, his eyes no longer red and puffy, his cheeks dry. He looks…perfect. Unruffled, like someone who would earn the title ‘Jade’ and actually live up to it. Not at all like someone who’s spent the last half an hour alternating between unintentional self-suffocation and uncontrollable sobbing.

The younger sect leader’s heart is suddenly beating too fast. He looks away and sobers instantly when his thoughts take a darker turn. Lan Xichen cleans up so well, so quickly. It’s like nothing’s happened at all, and Jiang Cheng wonders if this has gone on before. If Lan Xichen has ever broken down quietly in his room before a Council meeting, has ever had to pick up the pieces of himself on his own, and no one even noticed.

Jiang Cheng has never noticed anything amiss. Perhaps he should have.

But it’s not Jiang Cheng’s business to care. He doesn’t know why he does.

Gods, he’s turning into Nie Huaisang. Doesn’t fucking know anything these days.

Lan Xichen crosses the room in a few strides, returning to the tiny desk they’ve been sharing. Or at least, they were sharing. He stays standing though, and Jiang Cheng has to look up from where he’s kneeling on the floor, brush in hand. Yards of white cloth fill Jiang Cheng’s vision. Have Zewu-Jun’s shoulders always been that broad?

It’s not his imagination, because he remembers when he had to borrow the other man’s clothes. Loose in the upper body, bagging slightly around his own shoulders. And he’s seen the way Lan Xichen fights, if not the countless sets of handstands he probably does daily. Definitely not his imagination.

“I don’t suppose we’ll be getting any more work done today,” the older sect leader says, smiling ruefully. It breaks Jiang Cheng out of his thoughts and he realises he’s been staring.

Jiang Cheng sets the calligraphy brush down and rearranges the various papers so all their edges align. Then he crosses his arms over his chest. “You’re probably right.”

They stare at each other awkwardly for a second, neither of them sure what to say next. Lan Xichen folds his arms in an unconscious mimicry of Jiang Cheng’s own pose.

Even like that, made smaller, Lan Xichen still takes up so much space. For the first time, Jiang Cheng notices how the top of his head almost brushes the rafters that hold up the low ceiling. That he barely took three steps to cross the whole living room, and this is the largest single space in the house. It’s so fucking small, and Jiang Cheng’s been here often enough over the past few days that he’s used to it, but he’s never thought about what it means until now.

He’s overheard conversations between some of the disciples, about their sect leader and how he hasn’t left this place since he first retreated from the public eye over a year ago. Even though like everything else, there are varying degrees – most cultivators in seclusion still roam relatively freely within the headquarters of their own sects – Lan Xichen seems to have gone immediately for the most extreme option: total isolation.

He doesn’t half-ass anything, does he?

And it’s Lan Xichen’s choice if he wants to live like the monk the founder of his sect was, but as Jiang Cheng looks around the living room of the tiny cottage, he finally sees it. Really sees it.

There’s nothing here; not for anyone who doesn’t wish to spend the rest of their days wasting away in a dead-end corner that barely anyone knows exists. Not for anyone who isn’t waiting for death and halfway there already, and if there’s one thing Jiang Cheng can say about Lan Xichen, it’s that the other man is full of light and life, and no sadness can take that away from him.

It’s not right. He thinks of spending a year here, staring at the same four rooms, the same neat, brightly-coloured rows of flowers in the garden, the same weed-green surface of the pond outside. Left alone with his thoughts day in and day out, unable to distract himself with conversation, with terrifying the servants, with scolding Jin Ling and watching his every move. Just a visit from his brother maybe three times a week; one from his stern-faced uncle if he’s lucky. It feels like the air is being squeezed out of his lungs.

Seclusion is bullshit, Jiang Cheng thinks, for what isn’t the first time he’s said it but the first it’s held more than an empty sense of observation. It doesn’t fix anything, doesn’t make anything better – hell, it doesn’t even help with ignoring everything that’s wrong, because the only thing seclusion does is hide problems from everyone else, all the while making sure you never forget they’re there.

He’s acknowledged Lan Xichen as his friend. Maybe the only friend he’s ever had, and is ever going to. He’ll be damned if he lets him live like this.

The thought brings with it resolve, a kind of reckless determination that Jiang Cheng hasn’t felt in a long time. He ignores the voice in his head that reminds him that he made Lan Xichen cry less than half an hour ago by pushing too hard, and do you really want to do that again, you absolute idiot? Because yeah, maybe he fucks up everything he touches, but he can’t just sit by and do nothing while his brother-in-law self-immolates in despair, and maybe this is the one thing he can do right.

“Do you–” Jiang Cheng’s throat is too dry and it comes out like a croak. He tries again. “Do you want to go somewhere?”

“Excuse me?”

Feeling rather useless, he waves his hand, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the door. “Outside. Somewhere in the rest of the Cloud Recesses. Somewhere that isn’t here.

“But…I’m in seclusion.”

“So?”

“What do you mean? I can’t leave here.”

Jiang Cheng scoffs. “Who said that? There are no rules against cultivators wandering their own sect headquarters. And anyway, you’re the fucking Sect Leader. Who’s going to tell you ‘no’?”

The other man’s eyes go wide, revealing both his irises in their entirety. Twin golden rings.

“But that wasn’t the question. I didn’t ask you if you can go anywhere; I asked you if you want to.”

“I–” Lan Xichen pauses, struggling for words. Jiang Cheng waits for him to continue. He takes a deep breath, but it’s a long time until he lets it out again. “I do.”

There’s an expression on his face that holds something like longing. Jiang Cheng becomes acutely aware of their difference in position. Lan Xichen standing; him kneeling on the floor letting the other man look down at him, and for fuck’s sake he’s never let anyone look down on him in his life except for Nie Mingjue because that guy had a frankly ridiculous number of inches on him–

He scrambles to his feet, as dignified as he can make it while simultaneously trying to get upright as fast as possible. Then he’s standing right in front of Lan Xichen and he remembers too late that the older man is still taller than him. For some reason, that doesn’t rankle as much as it should.

“Well, then. Where would you like to go?”, he asks, trying for gruffness that just isn’t there.

Lan Xichen considers for a minute. Then, when Jiang Cheng thinks he might not respond at all, he opens his mouth. “The cold springs.”

Well, that definitely wasn’t the answer he was expecting. “Why?”

“I miss it. I used to go there sometimes to clear my head. Barely anyone goes there, you know. And I have a lot of good memories of that place. Wangji and I – when we were young, the cold springs were where we learned to swim.”

“Let’s go, then.” The words are out of Jiang Cheng’s mouth before he can take them back. And he finds he doesn’t want to, because Lan Xichen is looking at him like he’s grown an extra head, but also like that head is really fucking attractive, because there’s surprise on his face but it’s a good kind of surprise. It’s not a look Jiang Cheng’s had directed at him very often. It makes something under his skin glow.

Lan Xichen smiles, and it feels like a reward in and of itself. “Thank you.”

That feels like a gift. One Jiang Cheng is probably unworthy of, but he finds he’s too weak to reject it. And he can’t help but smile back.

Chapter Text

It takes longer than expected to get Lan Xichen out of the house. He gets nervous as they’re leaving and nearly chickens out, and there’s a brief moment of panic as Jiang Cheng worries that the other man is going to lose it again. In the end, though, he calms down enough to tell Jiang Cheng what’s bothering him. And gods in heaven, it’s so fucking sad it makes Jiang Cheng’s chest physically ache.

People. That’s all he says, and then he turns his face away and shutters his eyes closed like he thinks Jiang Cheng won’t want to look at him anymore. It’s a single word – basically nonsense – yet Jiang Cheng can read it like it’s a whole book.

Lan Xichen is afraid to be around people. Perpetually smiling Lan Xichen who is the biggest people-person Jiang Cheng knows, right after Wei Wuxian. It’s another injustice in a line that’s already too damn long.

Nevertheless, Jiang Cheng somehow manages to convince him that everything’s going to be fine. (He almost applauds himself for that – clearly, he’s better at spouting bullshit than everyone else gives him credit for.) And then the two of them are outside and wandering through the twisting corrdors that lead back to the main complex.

It’s strange, walking the by-now-familiar path with someone else. He can tell it’s strange for Lan Xichen, too. Having been stuck inside a tiny corner of the place for over a year, he’s looking around at the plain white walls like he’s never seen them before. Like it’s overwhelming for him, suddenly being outside when the only thing standing between it and him for the past twelve months has been his own determination to stay secluded.

When they come into sight of the main building, the first thing Jiang Cheng notices is that there are people there. Disciples milling around the classroom blocks in Gusu Lan sect robes, one or two boys here and there in the yellow and black of Lanling and Qinghe respectively. Lan Xichen seems to have noticed as well. He freezes, and Jiang Cheng comes to a halt beside him.

He doesn’t need to turn his head to know that the other man’s back is stiff as a plank, tension etched into every line of his features. A hand slips into his own, clutching at it like a lifeline. Every instinct Jiang Cheng has tells him to let go, to recoil from the unfamiliar touch. Instead, he forces himself to relax.

You talked him into it, he tells himself sternly. After everything that’s happened today, Lan Xichen has more than earned the right to a little human comfort. And if that means that Jiang Cheng has to hold his hand, well then he’s going to suck it up and hold Lan Xichen’s godsdamn hand.

He returns what he hopes is a reassuring squeeze, and lets Lan Xichen lead him down a path he’s never noticed before. By some miracle, they manage to keep out of sight of the disciples – thank the heavens for that. Jiang Cheng does not want to be one of the poor suckers fattening the rumour mill, especially not with the suspicious way his older brother and the three idiot children have been acting these days. Holding another sect leader’s hand – Wei Wuxian would never let him live it down.

And if he didn’t already think they were – together, the voice in his mind whispers, sounding smug – then this would do it. Even though he and Lan Xichen are friends. Just friends. Yes. Very much so.

Friends hold hands all the time, don’t they?

His stupid, traitorous thoughts keep him sufficiently distracted that he doesn’t even notice that they’ve reached the woods that border the cold springs until Lan Xichen ducks under a branch that he fails to register and it hits him in the face. He gets a mouthful of leaves for his trouble and the other man, who is by now standing on the other side of the tree, covers the lower half of his face to hide what is undoubtedly a smirk.

Jiang Cheng whacks the branch out of the way irritably, stepping past and rejoining him while his other hand rubs at his mouth.

“Smug bastard,” he mutters under his breath. Surprisingly, his temper doesn’t flare at the choked-off laugh that is Lan Xichen’s reaction.

They’re no longer holding hands, he notices too late. Dumbass. Of course they’d let go once the kids were out of sight and the older man’s nerves could settle. He clenches his fingers into a fist.

“Have you ever come here before?”, asks Lan Xichen. The snort that escapes Jiang Cheng can hardly be helped.

“I was here the other day. With Jin Ling and Lan Sizhui.”

The other sect leader’s smile grows wider. “Oh, yes. How could I forget?”

“That’s right – how could you? You’re a terrible friend.”

Lan Xichen slides Jiang Cheng a mischievous grin. “I suppose I’ll just have to make it up to you, then.”

“What–” Jiang Cheng nearly trips over a rock and spends a moment regaining his balance. All the blood in his body flows into his face at once. “What the fuck does that mean?”

“Nothing,” he says innocently, grin turning instantly guileless. Jiang Cheng’s eyes narrow, but he lets it drop.

Another half a minute of walking, and the leafy greenery opens up onto a small rock pool. It looks different in the daytime. Less unearthly than it was the only other time Jiang Cheng’s ever been here, more grounded in reality. The afternoon sun shimmers across the surface of the water, and it’s clear all the way down to the shallow bottom.

It looks…it honestly does look rather like a swimming hole, the kind a young Lan Xichen might have gone to with his brother. Spent hours there playing in the water, heedless of how freezing it probably is, given that it’s called the ‘cold springs’ and all. Jiang Cheng glances over at his companion, whose face is turned up to the sky like he’s soaking in the sunlight. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense if Jiang Cheng thinks about it, because the cottage gets just as much sun as the rest of Cloud Recesses.

Perhaps it’s just the way things are in Lan Xichen’s head. Maybe everything about the outside feels just that much better when you haven’t seen it in a year. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and shit.

So Jiang Cheng just stands there while the older man takes in his first view of the world outside his cottage for the first time in months. It’s awkward, but well, this is his place; they’re here for him.

He honestly expects Lan Xichen to sit down or something, maybe pull his boots off so he can dip his toes in the water or something sappy and normal like that. But that’s not what he does. Instead, his hands go to the ties on his robes.

He pulls, and his belt comes loose and falls to the ground. Then he peels himself out of his outer layer of clothing, leaving him in only the fitted white inner robe–

Jiang Cheng’s poor brain sputters like a guttering flame and promptly dies on him. The Lan sect leader is honest-to-gods stripping in front of him like there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, shedding his fucking clothes all while the serene smile on his face never falters.

His voice briefly deserts him and he’s left gaping like a fish as Lan Xichen’s long fingers reach for the ties on his inner robes. Jiang Cheng suddenly rediscovers his ability to speak.

“The hell are you doing?”

The question sounds shrill, uncharacteristically high-pitched, and Jiang Cheng feels his face flame red. Lan Xichen just turns those amber eyes on him and says calmly, “I’m going swimming.”

His fingers pinch the string and tug; the knot unravels and then he shrugs the garment off his shoulders. It falls in a heap at his feet, joining the rest of his outfit and Lan Xichen is suddenly divested of his last layer of clothing, standing bare to the waist in the afternoon sunlight. Only a thin pair of white linen trousers still cover his – um, modesty.

At this point, though, Jiang Cheng is seriously wondering whether Zewu-Jun has any of that left.

Lan Xichen kneels down to fold his robes, then stands up again and makes his way over to the water’s edge. He slips in, making barely a sound as the clear water slides over toned muscles and unblemished skin like white jade, even though it has to be cold as fuck. Droplets cling to his shoulders and arms and his entire upper body is on display, yet he stretches out unself-consciously and holy fuck why can’t Jiang Cheng look away?

He stands rooted to the spot as the older man removes the pins from his hair and sets them neatly on the perfectly-folded squares of clothing. Lan Xichen cocks his head and fixes Jiang Cheng with a stare.

“Aren’t you coming?”, he asks in that same guileless tone. Oh, no.

The bottom drops out of Jiang Cheng’s stomach. Shivery cold begins to creep up his spine.

He hadn’t considered this, when he’d brought up leaving the cottage and agreed to Lan Xichen’s suggestion of the cold springs. He hadn’t thought it might include–

Stupid. You fucking idiot.

His fingers itch for Zidian. He can’t. Not this. Something thick and heavy settles in his chest, right below his heart where it is and no, no, no he can’t show it to anyone he can’t let anyone see.

“No,” he says curtly. Guilt adds itself to the dark emotions swirling in his gut at the way Lan Xichen’s smile dims. But he can’t do this, not even if it makes him feel like a complete and utter bastard for dragging Lan Xichen out of his house and then leaving him hanging. He just can’t.

The other man tries again. “I thought people from Yunmeng were amazing swimmers.” His tone is light and teasing, but it makes something in Jiang Cheng’s throat shrivel up and die.

“I can swim,” he snaps back, and hates himself a little when his sharp tone makes the other man flinch. “I’m just not going to.”

Why does everything always blow up in his face? Why can’t he be normal for once, just do something nice for another person and not hurt them when it invariably pokes at things he’d rather ignore? He’d been doing so well, too – had almost managed to forget it was there (because he’ll never truly be able to forget it, but he could do almost). Why is he so…so–

“Are you all right?” Lan Xichen’s voice is gentle. Jiang Cheng would rather it be grating. He’d rather it spark hate in him, instead of the all-too-familiar feeling of letting someone down. This was supposed to be about Lan Xichen, not him.

“I’m fine.”

“Are you sure? Is there something wrong? Was it something I said? I’m sorry.”

Oh, there it is. The anger finally resurfaces, and Jiang Cheng grabs onto it with both hands, uncaring that it’s at himself.

“No. I’m fine,” he says again. “I’m coming.”

He clenches his teeth so hard they hurt. Then he turns his back on the other sect leader. Loosens the ties on his robes and tugs them off in short, jerky movements.

You’re a coward, the voice in his mind tells him. He wishes it would shut up.

You’re disgusting, and now he’s going to see how worthless you really are.

Didn’t you swear to yourself that you’d never let anyone see? Pathetic.

He doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing, but the voice spurs him on. He wants so badly to prove it wrong, but how can he? Nothing’s ever gone right for him before. Why would it this time?

Now he’s just as bare as Lan Xichen, covered only by a pair of black pants from the waist down. He can feel the other man’s eyes on his back, concerned and soft, and he wishes he could pause this moment right before everything goes to shit. Wishes he didn’t have to turn around, but he does because he’s backed himself into a corner that he can’t get out of, and he knows it’s his own fault but that won’t stop him from wishing it never happened.

He drags it out. Of course he does. He’s a coward, after all.

His fingers tremble as he removes the pins in his hair that keep it up. Trying to steady his hands only makes the shaking worse, so he bears it as he finally undoes the violet ribbon and his hair falls loose down his back, onto his shoulders, over his chest.

And then he turns around.

Chapter Text

Lan Huan knows something’s wrong the first time Jiang Wanyin says ‘no’. It’s in his voice – a hollow quaver that he doesn’t think the man himself even notices. Then the younger sect leader snaps at him and his suspicions are confirmed.

It’s puzzling, to say the least. Mere minutes ago, everything was fine. They’d been teasing each other. Jiang Wanyin had laughed. Now something has changed. Everything is decidedly not fine, and Lan Huan can’t figure out out why.

More than anything, it’s worrying.

Lan Huan has just come back out into the world for the first time in over a year after getting pulled out of a panic attack. He’s still shaky and emotional, and not yet in a good enough place mentally to comfort himself. Much less someone else. If the other man breaks down, he’s not sure what he’s going to do. He still doesn’t trust himself not to start crying again.

But Jiang Wanyin says “I’m coming” and puts his back to him, and suddenly his robes are slipping off his shoulders. Lan Huan’s eyes can’t help but follow the curve of his back, the sharp lines of his hips revealed to the afternoon sunlight. His skin is smooth, slightly darker than Lan Huan’s from the warmer climate of Yunmeng, and Lan Huan’s throat constricts as he swallows.

His own skin feels very hot and very tight, and for once, he doesn’t notice the freezing temperatures of the cold springs.

There’s no time to dwell on it, however. Jiang Wanyin turns around to face him and–

Oh.

No wonder he didn’t want to.

The Yunmeng Jiang sect leader’s chest looks as though it was split open by a bolt of lightning and sewn back together again. A thick, ropy scar runs diagonally from just below his right shoulder to a little left of his navel, ridged and familiar. Yes, Lan Huan has seen it before: thirty-three times on his little brother’s back. The unmistakable brand of a discipline whip, meant to mark forever.

Then Lan Huan looks closer, unable to help himself, and his breath catches in his throat. The rest of Jiang Wanyin’s chest is a mess of scar tissue, a network of raised, white ridges zig-zagging over the larger one that bisects the man’s torso. Almost as though drowning it out. Or covering it up.

But somehow, the whip scar still shines through, the first thing Lan Huan sees, even past the dense silver lines. Lines too precise and perfectly straight to have been made with anything other than a blade. The water feels cold again.

What happened to you?

Whatever Lan Huan was expecting, it wasn’t this.

 


 

 

Lan Xichen’s gasp rings loud in the quiet. Jiang Cheng doesn’t have to look to see his expression – he already knows what he’ll find. Disgust. Horror. Everything he sees every time he looks in the fucking mirror. Pity, perhaps. If he’s lucky.

Cold settles in the pit of his stomach, bottomless and fathomless. It’s lead-heavy, dragging at his bones. He knows what he looks like, knows his torso resembles one of the practice dummies they let advanced disciples whale on once they get good enough at their sword forms.

It’s his own fault, he thinks, tasting bitterness in his mouth.

Jiang Cheng lowers himself into the water and takes a place at the far side of the pool. Gooseflesh breaks out across his skin, but he ignores it. What’s the point? He’s already so fucking cold.

He doesn’t even look at Lan Xichen once. Just keeps his head ducked, staring at the water’s surface, at the ripples that form from the rise and fall of his chest. His scarred, disfigured chest.

Nobody’s ever seen; nobody even knows. He’s never allowed them to. What could he say? Would he give voice to the shame that’s settled in his marrow for nearly two decades, that lives in his heart and has now sunk roots into every part of him since he was seventeen? The shame that he is?

Not fucking likely. A hysterical laugh bubbles in his chest. Oh yes, he’s made of weakness, but he can’t show anything but strength to anyone else. Can’t let them see, he thinks mockingly, even though everyone around him has always been able to see right through him. They’ve always known exactly what he’s worth, even when he couldn’t see it himself.

See? I’m always right, the voice in his head says smugly. The weight of Lan Xichen’s gaze rests heavy on his back, his face, anywhere but his chest, and suddenly Jiang Cheng can’t take it anymore.

“Just go on and fucking stare, all right? We both know that’s what you want. Please; don’t constrain yourself on my account.” He spits the words like acid, but they sound pathetic even to his own ears.

“Wanyin–”

Gods, even with just two words, Lan Xichen’s concern is audible. His tone is comforting. Reassuring. It just makes Jiang Cheng angrier. He doesn’t need (deserve) to be handled with kid gloves, to be treated like something soft and breakable. Like a small forest animal that will run if it hears a raised voice.

As if on cue, the voice returns, slithering through his mind. It’s nasally, higher than normal, and Jiang Cheng’s brain whites out at the very sound of it.

You stupid, worthless brat. He’d know that voice anywhere. It’s seventeen years gone, but it’s long since been inked into his memories. Bled into his dreams, where he can never forget it. Never stop hearing it.

What a fucking disappointment. I would pity you. But it would hardly be worth the effort.

Every muscle in his body tenses, because he knows what comes next. Pain sparking white-hot; every bruise, every cut an agony without the golden core in his chest that was his last defense. And he is hollow inside, the absence an empty space. It is meant to break him but it only makes him angry – angry enough to fill up that space with rage and hatred and vows of vengeance that are hard to keep up when he is pinned to the freezing stone floor, the ropes around his wrists tight enough that his fingers go numb.

All the while that nasally voice keeps on fucking monologuing, and he regains just enough awareness to think that huh, he sounds like one of the villains in Wei Wuxian’s novels. Right before the voice starts again, insults dripping like poison. He wants to ignore them, but they’re everywhere, seeping into his eyes and ears until nothing else exists.

“Shut the fuck up,” he forces out through gritted teeth. His hands are over his ears – when did that happen? – like he can block out the voice if he just presses hard enough, but it’s inside his head. It’s inside him.

Guess you really are as stupid as they say, hmm? Couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you? Couldn’t get it into your head that you’re not strong enough to fight back. You’re not even strong enough not to scream.

Everything is dark. Jiang Cheng realises he’s closing his eyes, squeezing them shut so tightly that he can’t see any light at all.

No wonder even your own father didn’t want you.

There’s a touch on his shoulder, soft and fleeting. He forgets where he is; doesn’t think, just reacts. Then Zidian is no longer a ring, but solid in his hand and he can feel the power thrumming through it. He lashes out – once, twice – wanting to hurt, to fight back, to make the fucking dog on the other end feel as much pain as he’s dealt out.

None of his blows connect, his limbs moving sluggishly through – is that water? – and it brings him out of his trance. Light streams through his now-open eyelids. His face is contorted into a snarl, an expression he’s sure makes him look half feral. He’s standing waist-deep in the fucking cold springs of all things, in the Cloud Recesses.

And, standing right opposite him, breathing hard, arms raised in a defensive pose, is Lan Xichen. The leader of the Gusu Lan sect. The man he thinks might be his best friend. The man he’s just attacked.

His gut twists. It’s all the warning he gets before he’s vaulted out of the water and finds himself bent double on the grass beside the pool, retching. His stomach spasms again and again, but nothing comes up.

He wants to crawl out of his skin. To find a new body maybe, one that is faster and stronger and better, so he can leave behind everything that ties him to his old one. So he can pretend, even for a little while, that he could be someone else.

Even after the dry heaves stop, shudders continue to wrack his body. He’s shaking so hard he barely even notices when someone comes up behind him. A hand hovers over his shoulder again, but hesitant this time. Wary. When it finally comes to rest on his bare skin, he shivers again. His face is wet, he realises. Jiang Cheng swipes at his eyes angrily, even as his abdominal muscles ache from the hell he’s just put them through.

“Wanyin?”

His name is a question, the tone the same as before, laced with worry and a new hint of cautiousness. Jiang Cheng has never hated himself more than he does in this moment.

The other man shifts so that he’s standing in front of him, hand still on his shoulder as he lowers himself to his knees. It’s all Jiang Cheng can do to gasp out a litany of “I’m sorry”s, throat burning and chest feeling as though it’s been wrapped with iron bands and squeezed. Is this how it feels to beWei Wuxian? If so, he needs to apologise to his brother.

“It’s all right. It’s all right.” Lan Xichen sounds like he’s shushing a bawling infant – ordinarily, the comparison would be insulting enough to send Jiang Cheng into a state approaching murderous rage. But something inside of him has been rubbed raw and bleeding, and he clings to the offered comfort like a drowning man thrown a life raft.

Lan Xichen pulls him into a hug. Jiang Cheng falls forward ungracefully, slumping against the other man, their arms thrown around each other’s shoulders. Chests pressed so close together that Jiang Cheng can feel the other man’s heartbeat, his smooth skin. He wonders if his own feels like a woodcut, or something worse.

Eventually, the shaking subsides. Jiang Cheng pulls back, and so does Lan Xichen, who holds on just a half-second longer than necessary. They’re sat back on their ankles just like in the cottage barely half an hour ago, yet Jiang Cheng feels so wrung-out, like a washtowel hung out to dry. Both their pants are wet – it’s uncomfortable to say the least, but neither moves.

“I’m sorry,” he says again, mouth dry. “I didn’t mean– I shouldn’t have attacked you. I didn’t know–”

“Please don’t say sorry.” A ghost of a smile curves the older sect leader’s mouth. His words are strangely reminiscent of the ones Jiang Cheng used to scold him, back in the cottage earlier today. “It’s not your fault.”

Things really do come full circle.

“You were…somewhere else. Weren’t you? The way I was?”

I don’t want to talk about it.

But Lan Xichen isn’t demanding anything, isn’t asking Jiang Cheng to spill his pathetic life story. He’s just there. He puts his hand on his shoulder and hugs him as though Jiang Cheng didn’t fucking come at him with Zidian not three minutes before, and his voice is full of something soft and sad that isn’t pity. It isn’t sympathy either, and Jiang Cheng is simultaneously distrustful and in awe of it. He wants to know what it is, what it feels like. To understand.

And anyway, he owes him.

He lets out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. “Yes. I was.”

Chapter Text

He can still hear Wen Chao’s voice taunting him. It’s that more than anything else that pulls the words out of him, in an effort to drown it out.

“I was seventeen,” he begins. “Got myself captured by Wen Chao and his merry band of douchebags. It’s not important how. But I– it was right after the siege at Lotus Pier. I was half out of my mind.”

The siege at Lotus Pier. Pretty words, cool and detached. It sounds better than the night they burned my fucking home to the ground and slaughtered everyone I knew. Jiang Cheng thinks maybe part of him died that night along with his parents, a little sliver of his soul scraped away with every body that he saw in that courtyard.

He couldn’t count them all.

“They took me then.” He lets out a bitter laugh. “There weren’t even that many of them. We were on the run; Wei Wuxian wasn’t around and I couldn’t fight them off on my own. Some cultivator that makes me.”

Lan Xichen blinks. “You were only seventeen,” he says, like that makes a damn bit of difference. Like it mattered when those dogs loosed themselves on him like a pack of wolves, slashing and tearing at a stupid, stupid boy too weak to fight back. Who’d never stood a chance in the first place.

Wei Wuxian might have, he thinks. But then the whole point of it all was to make sure his older brother never had to find that out.

Send in the weaker prey, the one more easily captured. So the strong might slip past to fight another day.

He laughs again. “Didn’t mean anything to them, did it?” I should have been stronger. I should have– “They dragged me back to Lotus Pier anyway. Or what was left of it. There wasn’t much of anything, just ashes.”

The other man’s grip on his shoulder tightens until it’s almost painful. The pressure is grounding. It keeps Jiang Cheng from slipping away again, and he welcomes it. Lan Xichen must be thinking of his own home. How the proud, isolated Cloud Recesses too had fallen to the Wens, the scum of the earth, and how the young heir to the sect was forced to run until it was nothing but smoke in the distance.

Both of them had had to. Jiang Cheng was just the one who got caught.

Everything suddenly appears before him, clear as the day it happened.

His hands were bound, his mouth gagged, a guard on each side hauling him along the corridors of the husk that was once his home. Scorch marks littered grey stone walls, wood ones burned away entirely. Bloodstains on the floor where the surface was scuffed from a fight. Someone’s severed hand.

He made himself look, took in all the destruction the Wen-dogs had wrought upon his home, breathed in the stench of decaying flesh and burnt remains, of bodily fluids and fear. Then they threw him in the armory.

It was empty; they’d taken every weapon the Jiang sect owned and distributed them among their own men. His family’s steel, in the hands of this filth. It made his stomach turn.

No. The room wasn’t quite empty. There was someone waiting for him. Wen Chao. His harpy of a mistress nowhere to be seen; thank the gods for small mercies. But his lips were peeled back in a smirk, the same kind he’d worn when he kicked the body of Jiang Cheng’s mother in the head. He didn’t look like he was going to be merciful.

The two guards untied the rope that bound his hands together and shackled him to the floor, his limbs splayed out. Then they retreated from the room and Wen Chao called in Wen Zhuliu. Wen Ruohan’s faithful pet cultivator. The man who’d killed Jiang Cheng’s Ah-Niang.

His vision blazed with hate. He struggled against the restraints, screaming obscenities through the gag. Wen Chao just laughed. Wen Zhuliu didn’t even react.

“Finally some spirit,” Wen Chao exclaimed. His voice was just as weaselly as the rest of him. “You know, I almost didn’t remember who you were. So…obedient, so quiet. Such a good little hostage, always did what you were told. I was beginning to think you were as spineless as your father.”

That bastard. Jiang Cheng renewed his struggling, chains clanking, pulled taut by the force of his pulling. But they held firm, and Wen Chao stepped closer. Took hold of his face, fingers digging harshly into his jaw.

“That’s hardly the way to treat your betters. I’m disappointed. I thought your mother had taught you better.” His grin spread across his face. “Well, I’ll just have to teach you some manners.”

He released Jiang Cheng’s face. Jiang Cheng could already feel the bruises beginning to form where his hand had gripped him. Wen Chao moved back. Turned to Wen Zhuliu.

“You know what to do.” Almost as an afterthought, he waved his hand. “Oh, and remove the gag. I want to hear him scream.”

Then Wen Zhuliu’s hand reached inside his chest, and the pain began.

The memory ends. Jiang Cheng’s still talking. He didn’t even notice before, but the words are spilling out of his mouth and suddenly he can’t stop them. And there’s more, so much more.

“He took my golden core. You already know that part. Hell, the whole fucking world knows it. It’s not like it’s a secret.” He pauses, swallows a few times to rid his mouth of the taste of bile. Lan Xichen, who hasn’t said a word this whole time, shifts slightly. “But after that, well.”

“Wen Chao did what he liked with me. Said I was his– his property. Like some sort of toy. He liked the power trip, the sick fuck. Liked having a sect heir under his thumb, to do what he pleased with. Even gave his bitch girlfriend a turn. She saw it as compensation–” he spits the word – “for the whipping my mother gave her.”

The other man’s expression is horrified, growing more so with every word Jiang Cheng speaks.

“He let her watch,” he says, suprisingly steady even though he feels like he might explode, “when he did this.”

He doesn’t even need to say what this is. Of their own accord, Lan Xichen’s gaze drifts downwards towards the scar. The big one on his chest; his greatest shame made flesh. The older sect leader’s eyes are soft and sad, and Jiang Cheng has the inexplicable urge to rip the emotion from him. To strip the gentleness away and replace it with something jagged and ugly. Something that hurts. He doesn’t understand. Why does he want so badly to be hated?

(He doesn’t. Not really. But he more than deserves it.)

“It’s fucking pathetic, don’t you think?” His words are hard and cruel, directed at himself. They sink into his skin like they belong. “He only used the discipline whip once. Once, and I screamed so loud they heard me in the courtyard. I cried, you know, like a baby. Yelled for my parents.” He shakes his head. “Pathetic,” he repeats.

“They couldn’t save me. I couldn’t save myself. I was too weak to keep Wen Chao from branding me like I was a fucking cow.”

“You weren’t weak. You aren’t now, either.” Lan Xichen interrupts Jiang Cheng’s tirade for the first time in what feels like forever. There is steel in his expression under the softness; it screams shut up and listen. Jiang Cheng falls silent. “You were just a child, you were grieving, and there were more of them than you. There is no shame in losing to that. Nor in being captured.”

His head is spinning. It’s never occurred to him not to be ashamed of the scar on his chest, of the lash that marks him as property of a Wen. Maybe the worst Wen of them all. But – no, Lan Xichen can’t be telling the truth. He’s wrong.

Lan Xichen’s own little brother had borne thirty-three of these scars voluntarily, dealt to him by his clan elders. But that was different. Hanguang-Jun’s scars came from courage. From fighting to protect the man he loved against everything, even the people he was supposed to answer to. There is only honour in something like that. His scars are battle scars, marks of his devotion.

Jiang Cheng’s just signifies his own worthlessness. If a Wen is scum, lower than dirt, what does that make him?

He hates Wen Chao, Wen Zhuliu, every last member of that accursed family. For doing this to him, for stripping him down to nothing and grinding him beneath their heels. For taking away his home, his family. For making him less than nothing. A dog, to the dogs of the earth.

Lan Xichen can’t even see. He is too pure, and it makes him blind.

“There is nothing but shame,” says Jiang Cheng honestly. He gestures to his chest. To the smaller scars that lace over the largest one. “These? I did these to myself, out of the shame you say doesn’t exist.”

“Why?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It does to you. Otherwise you wouldn’t have done it.”

Wouldn’t he? Of all the things Jiang Cheng’s done to himself, this– he isn’t ashamed of this. But no one else would understand. They’d look at him with pity, the braver ones with disgust.

How could you carve yourself up like this?

You must be so lonely, if your only solace is in pain.

But the pain wasn’t the point. It never had been. They wouldn’t understand. They’d never been marked like livestock, with a whip instead of a knife that hurt even more and somehow cut even deeper.

“Please,” Lan Xichen says, voice whisper-soft. It sounds like a prayer. “I want to understand.”

And by the ten palaces of hell, Jiang Cheng can’t refuse him. “You know discipline whip mark scars can’t be removed. They remain forever on the body of the punished.”

The other man nods.

“Well, I tried. I tried everything to get rid of this. The first few years, it was the ordinary treatments: oils, ointments, salves. Nothing worked. Then–” his breath hitches – “then one night, I’d had a little too much to drink, and I realised that there was one thing I hadn’t tried. I used a spiritual knife, the kind I knew would leave a mark if I…cut deep enough. And I tried to cover up the scar.”

He forces his lips to twist into a smile. It probably looks more like a grimace. “As you can see, that didn’t do anything either. It just turned me into even more of a wreck.”

“I hate them; I do. Not because they’re shameful. Because they didn’t work. I thought that if I could drown it out, at least the scars would be my own. But instead I lost to Wen Chao again, and I still have to see it every time I look in the mirror.”

Jiang Cheng is breathing hard now, the truths that have been forced out of him leaving him shaking like a house ripped through by a tidal wave. His fists are clenched tight, knuckles white and nails digging into his palms. It stings. He clenches them tighter.

Then another pair of hands is on his. Lan Xichen’s noticed. Of course. Slender, callused fingers curl around his right, prying open his hand. A thumb that isn’t his ghosts over his palm, back and forth across the angry red crescents his nails have left in the flesh. The older man moves on to his other hand, repeating the process.

“Hey, listen to me, all right?” Everything about Lan Xichen right now is soothing. Despite himself, Jiang Cheng can’t help but comply. “That’s it,” he says as Jiang Cheng’s hands relax.

“You don’t have anything to be ashamed of. Not your scars, not your losses.”

“But they’re disgusting.”

Jiang Cheng is taken aback by his own raw honesty. But Lan Xichen shakes his head. “Nothing about you is disgusting. It’s not wrong to hate what was done to you. But you shouldn’t let it twist you into hating yourself. You were a child. There’s nothing wrong with being afraid.”

“But I’m still afraid!”

Jiang Cheng nearly claps a hand over his mouth. He hadn’t meant to say that. He’s never even thought it. But he didn’t know until it came flying out of his mouth, how true that statement is.

“I’m still afraid,” he whispers again. “It’s been so long, and he’s dead – they’re all dead; I killed them all – but I’m still so scared. He made me know what it’s like to have nothing, to be nothing, and I haven’t been able to forget that. I can’t. And I’m terrified it’s going to happen again. No matter how old I get, or how powerful, how far away it all seems, I’m always afraid.”

He looks up and meets the other sect leader’s gaze. Lan Xichen’s expression melts, sadness painting every angle of his face. Not because of him; for him. His eyes go a little glassy. “Fuck, Wanyin.”

The way Lan Xichen says his name, low and filled with emotion, does something to Jiang Cheng’s insides that is completely at odds with how raw he feels.

“You’re– you’re not nothing,” he says fiercely. “You’ve never been nothing. You’re strong and you’re a fighter; you don’t run away from your problems, you face them head-on. I’ve seen it. You see things that are impossible, and do them anyway.”

The Yunmeng Jiang sect motto. Jiang Cheng blinks, and a tear rolls down his cheek. Know it is impossible, and do it anyway. Not just attempt the impossible, but conquer it. His father said once that Jiang Cheng didn’t live up to the words. Wasn’t the embodiment of them, the way a sect leader should be.

“I don’t know how you– how anyone could go through something like that and do the things you’ve done. You rebuilt your sect from nothing, with no one to help you. You raised your nephew like he was your own child; it’s obvious every time you talk about him how proud you are of the man he is. He’s going to be a great sect leader, and you helped him get there.”

Lan Xichen stares him straight in the face. His eyes are the brightest gold Jiang Cheng has ever seen.

“The past may have been horrible, but it’s in the past. You don’t belong to it, or to Wen Chao, or to anyone but yourself. You don’t have to be afraid anymore.”

Jiang Cheng lets go, and cries. Of fucking course he does.

Chapter Text

 “Why weren’t we friends, before?”, Jiang Wanyin asks later, when the redness has more or less retreated from his eyes.

By some unspoken agreement, they haven’t gone back in the water. Neither have they bothered to put their robes back on; it’s one of the first warm days of the spring, and both of them are taking advantage of it, lying half-clothed across the grass that borders the springs, soaking up the golden sunlight. It’s rather unseemly, Lan Huan reflects, for two sect leaders to be sprawled on the dirt in such an undignified manner, side-by-side with shoulders almost touching, but this is the position that requires the least energy. And honestly, it has been a very trying day.

Lan Huan turns his head to look at the other man. His eyes are closed, chin tipped back to face the sky. It’s almost as if he’d never spoken. But Lan Huan knows he didn’t imagine the question.

“What do you mean by ‘before’?” He rolls the word on his tongue. Lan Huan is not unintelligent; he already knows the answer. He just wants to hear Jiang Wanyin say it out loud.

The younger sect leader’s eyes open, lashes fluttering, and he turns over on his side to face Lan Huan properly. Lying here, all Lan Huan can see is blue, deep as the water on the far side of the lake that lies outside Caiyi Village.

“Everything. Before the Sunshot Campaign. Before the fires. When I was– when Wei Wuxian and I were studying here.” Jiang Wanyin’s bottom lip finds its way between his teeth. He worries at it, the flesh going white beneath the pressure.

It’s oddly endearing. And unfamiliar.

But– no, Lan Huan realises, a strange feeling shooting through his stomach. It’s not. He’s seen that absent, nervous gesture before. On a teenager, long-limbed and gangly, face still the soft, rounded edges of adolescence rather than an adult’s sharp edges; not yet quite grown into himself. Quiet and reserved, always following behind someone else – his father at the yearly sect meetings, and later at school, his older brother. Lan Huan hadn’t known he remembered that. Or even that he’d known it in the first place.

Then he realises that he’s staring, and the rhythm of his heart feels alien in his chest. A little harder than usual. A little too quick.

“Well,” he attempts to say through the sudden dryness in his mouth, “there was the fact that you were a few years too young for me.”

The laugh that comes from the other man has clearly been startled out of him, but it makes Lan Huan’s insides go warm all the same.

“Asshole,” Jiang Wanyin says, the barest trace of affection in his voice. Then he takes a breath, and when he lets it out again, he sounds more serious. “After that, then; when there was peace, more or less. The thirteen years my brother was gone. Why weren’t we–” he seems to struggle with the word – “why were we never close?”

“I don’t know.”

But that’s not quite true, is it? There’s a multitude of reasons for it, just like there were so many reasons for his friendship with Nie Mingjue, with Jin Guang– with him. The thought hurts his heart as it rises, unbidden, but he lets it come. There’s no one answer he can give, no one thing he can point to and say that’s why he cared about me, or that’s why I loved him. There’s no that’s why we never mattered to each other.

There are so many, but he goes with one he thinks might make sense out loud. And not just in his own head.

“I think,” he tries again, “maybe we were just different. Or we started out different, and didn’t reach a point where that mattered less than trying to know each other.”

Jiang Wanyin doesn’t ask different how? and so Lan Huan doesn’t have to explain.

“What changed, then?”, is what he does ask. “I’m still from Yunmeng, and you’re still from Gusu. I’m still your younger brother’s age, and you’re still the leader of a sect that’s more like a monastery than a clan of cultivators. We’re no less different than we were before.”

He thinks we’re friends now, the little voice in his head comments. For once, it doesn’t sound snarky or sarcastic or cutting. Funny, how the only person it ever quiets down for is Jiang Wanyin, a man renowned for his vicious tongue and fiery temper.

There’s a realisation there, but it hangs just out of reach. Like a jar on the highest cupboard shelf, or a word read years ago in a book long since forgotten.

Lan Huan looks at the man beside him. Allows himself to see him – really see him, the way he never had in the before of the other man’s question.

“For all of that, I’m starting to realise how much we are the same.”

There’s a sharp intake of breath, and it’s Lan Huan’s turn to roll onto his side so he’s facing Jiang Wanyin. Lying down like this, they’re eye to eye, neither of them higher or lower than the other.

“I don’t think that’s true,” the younger man confesses, his eyebrows furrowed into a frown. “You’re so–” he pauses for a second, searching for words. Makes a frustrated noise when he comes up with nothing. “You’re kind. You’re good. You don’t try to hurt people,” he says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

“But I do hurt people.”

“Yes, you do. And so does everyone else on this fucking planet. I’m not saying you’re perfect; no one is. But you try, and hell, that’s more than almost anyone can say. Including me.”

“You’re braver than I am,” Lan Huan says. For once, it doesn’t cost him anything. “Even when it seems impossible, you keep fighting. Even when it’s hopeless.”

Blue eyes widen. “I lose a lot,” admits Jiang Wanyin. “Sometimes more than I win.”

“But you try.”

The echo of his own words stops the other sect leader short. Unconsciously, his hand drifts towards his chest. Towards the scars tracing his skin like map-lines on parchment.

They’re faded, but they’ll never go away. It’s been too long, the cuts too deep, made with weapons that were always meant to mark forever. And there are too many of them. The younger man was afraid to show them to him, perhaps for good reason. He’d called them hideous, disgusting.

But there’s barely two inches separating the bare skin of their torsos, and Lan Huan isn’t cringing away. He doesn’t even want to.

The air is charged. The promise of…something hangs between them. For a moment, Lan Huan keeps his silence, unwilling to break the moment. Waiting for something to happen.

Then Jiang Wanyin speaks, and shatters it. “That’s all I can do. All either of us can do, I guess. Maybe you are right after all.”

“About what?”

“We are the same. But different, at the same time.” Red tints the other sect leader’s cheeks, and Lan Huan feels an inexplicable pang of loss for the youth neither of them really got to have. For the quiet, studious boys who yearned for their parents’ love and approval, and watched their mothers and fathers die before they ever truly received it. “I’m glad.”

“What for?”

“You’re very kind, you know, Lan Xichen.” It’s not an answer – just a repetition of something he’s already said. It leaves Lan Huan’s head spinning even as something in his chest flutters at the compliment.

And then Jiang Wanyin smiles. The perpetual furrow between his brows smooths and his entire face lights up. He is unpracticed at the expression, surely –the entire cultivation world swears up and down that Sect Leader Jiang hasn’t so much as looked pleased in years – but it is bright and so, so beautiful. It makes warmth bloom in Lan Huan’s insides, and– oh

Gods in heaven, oh please no.

The world shifts. Like a key into a lock, and even though Lan Huan hasn’t moved at all, everything settles into place. The shivery feelings the other man’s presence provokes, the way just knowing his visits will come makes Lan Huan’s heart beat faster, the lingering touches even Lan Huan couldn’t understand why he was drawing out…

He’s in love with Jiang Wanyin. The thought seems slightly tinged with mania.

I’m in love with Jiang Wanyin.

He looks the other sect leader more fully in the eyes, searching for something that will deny the realisation that has just crashed into him with as much force as any fierce corpse. Clear blue eyes look back, holding something that isn’t quite innocence – how could it, this is Sandu-Shengshou he’s talking about – but it’s pure. Raw. Strong as a summer storm, and unadulterated as the winter’s first snow.

Lan Huan wants to kiss him.

And that’s a bucket of ice water all over again, because this is a mess. A complete, unmitigated disaster because Lan Huan’s already sent in his application to the matchmaker and Jiang Wanyin is his best friend. His best friend, who is a man and his brother-in-law and doesn’t like other men.

Which would pose a problem, since Lan Huan is undoubtedly very much male.

By Yu Huang, Lan Huan is absolutely, spectacularly fucked. And no, that mental imagery is not helping at all, thank you very much, because the man he’s just realised he’s in love with is less than an arm’s length away and wearing only a thin pair of trousers. This is not the time to be thinking about things like that.

“Are you all right?” The question jolts Lan Huan out of his stupor, bringing him back to reality.

His face flames red, and he stutters out a “yes” before he’s on his feet again and throwing his robes back on like his life depends on it. Gods, he can barely look Jiang Wanyin in the eye, but he can’t look away from him either.

“I– I just remembered. I need to go back to do something. I – um, I’m sorry.” He knots the final tie holding his robes in place and bows apologetically.

The smile is gone from the younger man’s face, his eyes crinkled with what looks like concern. Lan Huan feels something pull in his chest, an answering tug on the strings that hold him together. The moment that registers, the bottom drops out of Lan Huan’s stomach.

This is worse than he’d feared. Much, much worse.

Then he gives another hasty bow and retreats, turning his back on the cold springs and the man still standing there, shell-shocked at the drastic turn Lan Huan’s mood has taken. He almost runs back to his cottage, barely even registering the lack of disciples along the corridors – thank the heavens for small mercies – and locks the door behind him.

He leans against the smooth wood, heart thudding hard as though he’s just sprinted all the way across the Cloud Recesses. He hasn’t – the cold springs aren’t that far away from his secluded cottage and he maintained his speed within the bounds of propriety, albeit narrowly – but he might as well have, from the way his pulse pounds in his ears.

Lan Huan lifts shaking hands to his forehead, skimming his fingertips along the smooth cloth band he finds there. It usually calms him, but today it’s not enough. He undoes his forehead ribbon – the pride of his sect, what’s wrong with him? – and tangles his fingers in it, breathing deep and slow to calm the mounting panic swelling within him.

This can’t be real. This can’t be happening. Not to him, never to him. Lan Huan isn’t– isn’t supposed to be like this. This is all wrong.

A fist clenches, crushing the delicate ivory cloth within it. There will be wrinkles later. Lan Huan presses his fist against his chest, feeling the thumping of his racing heart. Counting the beats.

Shu-Fu is going to be so disappointed in me, he thinks wildly. His throat is tight. It turns out I’m even more like my father than I’d thought.

His father, who locked himself in seclusion after his wife’s trial and sentencing before the Council. His brother, who gravely wounded thirty-three clan elders defending the Yiling Patriarch, his future husband. Lan Huan was supposed to be the normal one, the ordinary one. The one who stayed sane and above it all, just like his Shu-Fu. Above love.

He resists the urge to throw back his head and laugh. Excessive noise is prohibited in Cloud Recesses.

Love. The kind of love that burns like a forest fire, that licks greedily at any scrap of fuel and swallows it whole. The kind that decimates entire square miles of trees in days and leaves only a scar upon the earth in its wake. Their family’s greatest curse.

(Some say it’s their greatest blessing, but blessings don’t get people killed.)

Later, Lan Huan will protest that he hadn’t meant to fall in love.

Chapter Text

Most people who know Wei Ying know that he has a reputation. Of course he does; he’s the Yiling Patriarch, even though he’d like to think he’s put all that behind him. Still, although he’s rather less…well, insane, than he used to be, it’s rather well-known that Wei Wuxian loves mischief. So much so, in fact, that he’s apparently the ‘chaos’ in his husband’s title of ‘being where the chaos is’.

Which is what makes his current situation so utterly shocking.

Wei Ying is bored. Extremely unlikely, he knows – Lan Zhan once told him that nothing is ever boring around him. But somehow, this week is managing to do the impossible.

He’s barely seen his husband for six days. Not a lot, considering Lan Zhan waited thirteen years for him, but it’s the principle of the matter. And wasn’t that the whole point of getting married? So they’d actually be able to be with each other?

Hmph. Wei Ying knows the cultivation conference was his idea, but honestly, he’d had no idea things like that were this much trouble to organise. His cultivation partner is away practically all the time, buried deep in discussion with Lan Qiren about logistics, hosting details, schedules and gods know what else. It’s enough to make his head spin.

One of the myriad reasons why he isn’t a sect leader, Wei Ying thinks wryly. He’ll leave the nightmares of planning to people like his husband and younger brother; plans tend to go awry when he’s involved in them.

But that still leaves him short a husband for a week, and maybe he’s been spoiled by living with Lan Zhan for over a year, but he needs someone next to him to fall asleep now, damnit. This just isn’t doing it for him.

His mental litany of complaint is interrupted by a loud knock on the door of Lan Zhan’s jingshi.

Ooh. A guest. Wei Ying perks up, interest spiking. It’s probably one of the kids. Ah-Yuan, maybe, with Lan Jingyi. Could be Jin Ling, too. His nephew hasn’t yet sought him ought of his own volition, but anything’s possible.

“Coming,” he yells, rising from his position on the floor from where he’s been attempting handstands for the past half hour with little to no success. Lan Zhan likes picking him up like he weighs little more than a bag of rice – and don’t get him wrong, that is very hot – but Wei Ying would absolutely love to be able to return the favour one of these days.

But maybe that’s going to have to wait a little longer.

He opens the door to a wall of purple and a familiar scowl. It’s weird to be glared down on, instead of glared up at. Even after a whole year, there are still some things about this new body that get him every time.

“Little brother!”, he greets, feeling his face break out into a grin. His new guest is definitely not one of the kids, but perhaps this is even better. Jiang Cheng, come to him. It’s a day for the records. “Come in, come in.”

Wei Ying ushers his shi-di inside his house like the gracious host he is– okay, it’s more like he grabs his sleeve and drags him into the living room, slamming the door behind him so Jiang Cheng can’t suddenly change his mind and escape. Jiang Cheng’s eyes widen even as his lips purse into the expression of perpetual disapproval he wore throughout most of their childhood. Strangely, Wei Ying’s heart warms to see it.

He shoves his younger brother onto the sofa and takes up his own favourite spot, which just so happens to be right next to him. Jiang Cheng’s nose wrinkles, but he doesn’t push him away. Smirking, Wei Ying pats his knee.

“Tell your shi-xiong what’s wrong,” he says, his tone confiding, like Jiang Cheng’s about to tell him a secret.

Jiang Cheng splutters. “What the fuck do you mean, what’s wrong? I didn’t even say anything! There’s nothing wrong!”

Wei Ying taps the side of his nose and shakes his head in mock disappointment. “You’re a terrible liar, Jiang Cheng. I know you didn’t come here for a social call. You’ve got your oh no I have emotions and I don’t want to talk about them face on. Except you’re here, so you obviously want to talk. Now spill.”

“I never– I don’t–” Jiang Cheng throws his hands up in the air. “I don’t know what I even expected, coming here. Sorry to bother you, I’ll just be going then.”

He stands up as if to leave, but Wei Ying grabs him by the seat of his pants and drags him back down to the couch. Then he rolls over and sits on his younger brother. By all logic, this should not work. Mo Xuanyu’s body is two inches shorter than Jiang Cheng’s and – even with all the exercises Wei Ying’s been doing lately – about twenty pounds lighter, all of it muscle. But Jiang Cheng doesn’t flip him off, just goes very still and oddly docile.

It’s unlike him. Any other time, Wei Ying would pry into why that is, but he’s not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Or gift donkey. Whatever.

“You’re not going anywhere,” he tells Jiang Cheng sternly, pinning with his best glare. (One that pales in comparison to Jiang Cheng’s own range of displeased expressions, each with its own ranking of ‘pissed-off’. But again: whatever.) In keeping with the oddness of today, Jiang Cheng nods.

“I’m going to get off you now. If you run or otherwise do anything idiotic, I’ll tell Lan Zhan you pissed me off and let him deal with you himself.”

“Keep your pet husband away from me.”

“Only if you behave. Promise you’ll behave.”

Wei Ying’s little brother rolls his eyes, acquiesces and – with an exasperated sigh that would make Lan Qiren’s beard quiver in envy – curls his pinky finger around Wei Ying’s outstretched one. Finally satisfied, the ex-demonic cultivator rolls off him.

“So,” he says, straightening his robes just for something to do, “what drove you to come all the way out here? Do you need help with something?”

Silence is his only answer. Jiang Cheng looks down at his lap, where he’s twisting Zidian around his index finger. Wei Ying really hates that habit. Then, “I wanted to ask you something.”

What the fuck?! Did the world turn on its head when he wasn’t looking? Wei Ying almost chokes on his own spit. His little brother – his stubborn, hardheaded, fiercely independent little brother – is asking for advice? From him?

Jiang Cheng’s spent so long insulting his life choices – no, not insulting, but disparaging them – that the statement sounds almost too good to be true. To be his big brother again, not just some shadowy figure in his life that he once called shi-xiong, but really and truly his big brother…

Doing big-brother things, like sitting on him when he’s being stubborn, dragging him into and out of trouble, teaching him about things Wei Ying’s done first because he’s older. It’s been so long since he was the first person Jiang Cheng ran to when he needed help. Wei Ying swallows around the sudden lump in his throat.

When did that get there?

Okay, play it cool. You’ve got this. Don’t mess up.

He gives his most winning smile, the one that can sometimes almost get Old Man Lan to turn that almighty frosty look elsewhere. “Ask away. I’m listening.”

“It’s…about Lan Xichen. We went to the cold springs today, and…something happened.”

His brother isn’t meeting his eyes, colour high in his cheeks. He’s having difficulty getting the words out. Wei Ying does an internal victory dance. I knew it! Now I just have to figure out how to tell Lan Zhan–

Then Jiang Cheng’s statement catches up to him.

“Wait a second – did you just say you went to the cold springs today? As in, outside of the secluded area?” Wei Ying’s voice is rising in pitch and volume, disbelief evident in every syllable.

Jiang Cheng blows out a breath, though his face is even pinker than before. “Yes.”

“And he went with you?”

“Yes.”

It’s Wei Ying’s turn to be lost for words. “That’s–” fanstasic. Amazing. Impossible. Lan Zhan’s been trying for over a year to get Zewu-Jun to leave that godsforsaken house. And Jiang Cheng did it in a week.

“–really big,” he finishes weakly. “I can’t even– Lan Zhan will be so happy.”

Jiang Cheng growls. Actually growls. “It wasn’t for him. And that wasn’t even the point. Gods, why do you always have to get so side-tracked?”

And ouch, if that didn’t hurt just a little bit. Wei Ying tries not to wince. His brother doesn’t mean him any harm; or at least he doesn’t think so. He’s just…upset.

Why is he upset?

Wei Ying takes a deep breath, then lets it out again. As calmly as he can manage, he asks, “what is it?”

His brother goes a very interesting colour as he tries to figure out an appropriate response. “I don’t even know,” he says finally, sounding frustrated and like he wants to hit something. “We were…talking, and then he just panicked or something. He turned white and started mumbling something about having to go, then he turned tail and ran away.”

That gives Wei Ying pause. It doesn’t sound like Zewu-Jun at all. And Jiang Cheng is currently twisting his ring around his finger like he’s screwing on a bottle cap, the scowl on his face instantly recognisable as that one he gets when he’s worried about something and doesn’t want to admit it. Or someone, Wei Ying’s brain suggests unbidden.

There’s something else there. Something Jiang Cheng isn’t saying. But Wei Ying knows better than to push his luck. He’s fortunate that Jiang Cheng’s even come to him with this much.

Eventually, he decides on amother question. Hopefully that’s a suitable response. “So. What do you want me to do about it?” Then Wei Ying makes a face, realising what he’s just said. “I mean, you came looking for me for something, right? What do you need me to do?”

The stubborn set of Jiang Cheng’s jaw gives way. He deflates, suddenly looking very tired and uncertain.

“I don’t know. I don’t know why I came here, okay? I guess I just thought that – hell, I’m not sure what I was thinking – I thought you might know what to do. Maybe you could tell me something. Never mind; it was a stupid idea anyway.”

Oh, Jiang Cheng. Wei Ying’s heart aches a little, but in a warm sort of way. I’m glad you trusted me enough to think I could help, even if you don’t know why. You deserve to be happy; you do. And so does Zewu-Jun.

I’m so glad you’ve found someone to care about the way I care about Lan Zhan. That’s all Shi-Jie ever wanted for you, you know. She’d be so proud of you. I’m proud of you too.

Now if only you’d open your eyes and realise it, you thick-headed asshole.

“It’s not,” he says firmly, trying to conceal the watering in his eyes. “Tell me everything – I want to help you. Both of you.”

 


 

 

When Lan Zhan returns to the jingshi at a quarter past eight that night, Wei Ying is waiting up for him. It’s not like it’s hard – he’s always been a night owl, and the Gusu Lan sect’s ridiculous bedtime schedule isn’t something he’s picked up over the past year.

He’s in the bed they picked out, the two of them – a simple, sturdy carved oak that doesn’t creak too loud, even when Lan Zhan gets a little rough – wearing his nightclothes, a book in hand. He hasn’t been looking at the words for the past fifteen minutes, but he still feels as though his attention has been stolen when Lan Zhan enters the room.

His husband is beautiful. Wei Ying thinks that every time he sees him, even after months of marriage. Not just outwardly – though that had admittedly been what drew Wei Ying to him when they were children – but on the inside as well. Straight-laced, rule-following, self-disciplined Lan Zhan – he’d thought the man uptight and full of himself for years. But since finally getting to know him, he’s realised that Lan Zhan is righteous, really and truly, unlike anyone Wei Ying’s ever known. He follows rules because he believes it’s the right thing to do, and when he thinks a rule is wrong, he strikes out on his own without hesitation.

How did I get so lucky?, he wonders as he pulls Lan Zhan into a kiss. What could a mess like me have done to ever deserve someone like you?

But he doesn’t voice the thought, much as he would like to. It makes Lan Zhan unhappy when he brings up his feelings of inadequacy, and then Lan Zhan will try to convince him that no, Wei Ying, you’re the one who is too good for me, and Wei Ying will get upset to because how can Lan Zhan not see how amazing he is? It’s a cycle – one they’ve been trying to break ever since their seventh argument and seventh subsequent round of makeup sex over it – because both of them believe they don’t deserve the other.

When in reality, they’re the only people who could ever make each other happy.

So he smiles softly up at his husband, draws him hot water for a bath, and brushes Lan Zhan’s hair in between lazy kisses, because Wei Ying likes taking care of him and Lan Zhan likes to let him. It’s sweet and domestic, everything Wei Ying never thought he’d have. It’s everything he could ever want.

Later when they’re lying in bed, too tired for anything more tonight, Wei Ying brings up all he discussed with Jiang Cheng earlier in the day. Lan Zhan listens quietly the way he does everything else, though Wei Ying can sense the rollercoaster of emotions his husband is going through as the story progresses.

Most people think Lan Zhan is expressionless and unfeeling. It couldn’t be further from the truth, but only if one knows how to read him. Luckily, Wei Ying is one of the privileged few Lan Zhan feels comfortable enough around to let his guard down.

And right now, Lan Zhan is feeling…a lot. Elation that his big brother has finally – finally! – taken that first big step out of the tiny cottage he’s locked himself in for the past year. Worried and tense, because said brother apparently panicked over nothing and not-quite-ran away shortly after. But most of all, he’s feeling a whole lot of something that Wei Ying can’t quite pin down. He’s not entirely sure it’s good.

When Wei Ying reaches the end of the account, he falls silent. Lan Zhan, too, is very quiet. Probably an error on Wei Ying’s part; he knows Lan Zhan never initiates conversation if he can help it–

“Why him?” His husband’s voice rings out in the dead air. Wei Ying’s head snaps up to look at him. He knows what Lan Zhan is asking (why was it Jiang Cheng who managed to get Lan Xichen out into the world again), knows that tiny little quaver in his voice that only shows up when Lan Zhan is feeling too much for him to deal with.

Oh. Wei Ying gets it now. He wants to pound his head against the wall. Why didn’t he notice this before?

“Lan Zhan,” he murmurs, sliding his hands up over his husband’s chest and sides to wrap his arms around his back. “Are you jealous of Jiang Cheng?”

No response. Lan Zhan turns his head into the pillow, hiding half his face. It’s not a no, and Lan Zhan doesn’t lie.

Wei Ying gently cups his jaw, tilts him so he’s looking his cultivation partner straight in his golden-glaze eyes. He gets a head-shake in answer, signalling that Lan Zhan doesn’t want to talk about this. But the thing about Lan Zhan is that he doesn’t just use words to communicate.

My brother, his eyes say, lashes fluttering and sad, he hurts. He’s been hurting so much for so long; I want him to be happy. I tried – I’m trying – to help him be happy. I’m trying so hard. Why aren’t I enough?

A piece of Wei Ying’s heart tears away at the look on his husband’s face. Defeated, resigned, self-loathing. Lan Xichen’s seclusion isn’t just locking the world away from him, it’s also locking him away from the people he cares about, who care about him. Like Lan Zhan. The man’s own little brother.

It’s hurting him, too. Wei Ying’s heard the way Lan Zhan talks about his brother, how he looks at him. Lan Zhan’s said before that Wei Ying is his whole world; if that’s true, then Lan Xichen is the gravity that keeps him anchored there. Lan Xichen is his hero.

Shimmying up on the bed so that he’s level with his husband, Wei Ying plants a soft kiss on his cheek. Then the other. And then he leans forward, brushes his lips against Lan Zhan’s forehead. Whispers against his skin.

“It’s not your fault. You haven’t done anything wrong. It’s just that sometimes, you can’t help someone all by yourself. You’re a good brother; you are, and you are needed, but maybe he needs other people too.”

As he speaks, the tightness in Lan Zhan’s muscles drains away bit by bit, until he’s practically sinking into the bed. Wei Ying keeps talking, knowing that’s what the other man needs to hear right now. Telling him he’s a good brother, a good friend, that he’s enough but maybe not everything Lan Xichen needs, and that’s okay. This won’t solve all their problems – they’re probably going to repeat this time and again, but Wei Ying will say it as many times as it takes for Lan Zhan to know that none of this is his fault.

Finally, when the taller man is calm – at least, relatively speaking – Wei Ying nuzzles into his arms. His tone takes on a more playful note.

“So, your brother and mine, then?”

Lan Zhan chokes. “My brother–?!”

Laughing, Wei Ying nudges him. “And I thought I was the oblivious one. Still jealous, Lan Zhan?”

“Not jealous.” A pause, and then, “I must speak to my brother.”

Chapter Text

By the time the knock comes on his cottage door the next morning, Lan Huan has taken a bath, filled out the rest of yesterday’s paperwork, meditated, and done enough handstands to leave his arms aching. He has finished two pots of tea and is currently working on a third, courting danger with a fourth brewing on the kitchen stove. He had hoped all this work might increase his productivity and clear away the dregs of the realisation-induced panic from last night. Unfortunately, he was only half right.

It is seven in the morning, and Lan Huan is still panicking.

Not in the same way he did yesterday – thankfully, the gods at least aren’t that cruel – he can still breathe, still maneuvre all his limbs, still function. He’s thrown himself into his work, and that’s perfectly fine, but it feels as though his soul has come untethered from his body and is now floating somewhere above the peaks of Cloud Recesses. Try as he might, he can’t reel it in and tie it back down again.

It’s a little upsetting, this loss of control. But at the same time, it’s oddly reassuring that he can barely feel anything at all. That he’s completely aware that he’s panicking, but in the absence of that particular brand of chest-crushing fear, he can almost ignore it in favour of other things.

Like the letter currently demanding his attention.

Esteemed sect leader, it reads in graceful calligraphy, perfect, flowing curves that come from years of mastery of the art, we are grateful to have received your response so promptly. Delighted, as well, to hear that you have much the same view of this most important matter as ourselves.

The hairs on the back of Lan Huan’s neck prickle. The wording is…familiar.

He flips to the end of the letter, checks the way the writer signs off and the order of the signatures below it. Lan Fusha.

An image of a wrinkled, white-bearded face surfaces in his mind’s eye. A blank expression, his arms crossed, a glint in his eye as the man watched the discipline whip come down across Wangji’s bare back. Leaning on his own cane, his leg and side still healing.

Spineless, Shu-Fu has called him before, usually accompanied with a disdainful sniff, but sturdy enough not to bend when he has enough people backing him. It is not as though that is difficult for him, seeing as he is the eldest and most senior member of the Lan Council of Elders. Indeed, the unofficial head of it.

Below his name, there are over thirty signatures, each belonging to one of the Elders. The entire Council’s names are on this letter. Lan Huan skims the contents, and his heart stops beating for a moment.

Oh, he thinks. Out loud, he says, “I think I’m going to need some more tea.”

He stands up to retrieve the pot he’s left on the kitchen stove, freezing when a sharp knock sounds at the front door. The pounding in his chest resumes, only now easily twice as fast as before.

It’s too early – the sun has barely begun to rise, the conference isn’t even close to starting yet. What is a visitor doing here? Lan Huan isn’t supposed to have any guests until much later, he’s supposed to have hours to compose himself and get his nerves under control, pretend that nothing is amiss–

A second knock doesn’t come, and Lan Huan is beginning to grow confused. A patient guest, then, or a courteous one. Lan Huan’s most frequent visitor over the past few days is decidedly neither of those things.

Setting the letter down, Lan Huan makes his way to the door and pulls it open. His brother’s sombre face greets him. Wangji’s expression has been carefully smoothed over, but there are the beginnings of a crease between his brows where they are just slightly pulled together.

Lan Huan swallows back a startled exclamation. “Didi, it’s good to see you,” he says instead. He doesn’t fight the way the corners of his mouth pull into a smile, despite the twinge of worry that runs through his chest at the sight of Wangji’s frown.

“Hmm.”

Ushering his brother inside, Lan Huan pours what has to be his fifteenth cup of tea for them both as they seat themselves on the floor. He takes the opportunity to look Wangji over even as his brother does the same to his house, taking in the neat stack of finished paperwork covering only half the desk, the second set of calligraphy brushes Lan Huan washed last night and left out to dry.

Then he turns his gaze back to Lan Huan, peering at him over the rim of his mug as he sips at his tea. He hums a little in place of words, boring into him with eyes only a few shades lighter than Lan Huan’s own.

He knows. Lan Huan isn’t sure where the thought comes from, but it makes his stomach sink all the same. For as much as people call Lan Huan a ‘brother-reader’, they often forget that for the two of them, the ability to see inside their brother goes both ways; it’s just that Wangji has always been a little less vocal about what he finds.

Wangji is the person who knows him best in the world, and he knows. Any faint hope Lan Huan has been harbouring that he might be delusional goes up in a puff of smoke.

It’s real, then. Lan Huan’s untethered, drifting soul slots back into place with an awful jolt. His palms go clammy, despite the heat of the clay mug grasped between them.

“You left,” Wangji states bluntly. Lan Huan starts at the sound of his voice. His brother uses it more now, speaks just a bit more often instead of keeping his stoic silence, but sometimes it still takes him by surprise.

“You heard?”

“Wei Ying told me.” Lan Huan blinks. Wei Wuxian? How did he– that’s right; his brother. The beginnings of irritation prickle in his gut, until the memory of yesterday surfaces. The concern on Jiang Wanyin’s face, the worry in his eyes Lan Huan barely registered through his panicked haze as he all but ran away. The annoyance turns to shame.

“Good,” says Wangji, no trace of uncertainty in his voice. “It was good for you.”

“You– you really think so?”

His little brother fixes him with another stare. “Yes.”

Wangji has never been the kind of person to emote, but all the same, Lan Huan hears the words unspoken. I’m glad. You should come out more.

I miss you.

There’s a lump in Lan Huan’s throat. He makes no effort to clear it. He wants so badly to say back, I miss you too, but he doesn’t. Because that would invite questions he can’t answer.

The past whispers in his ear. Wangji’s six-year-old voice, high and clear and curious, back before he learned to bury it beneath recited clan rules and monosyllabic responses. Why won’t Ah-Die come to visit us? When is Ah-Niang coming back?

Gege, what do you mean, Ah-Niang isn’t coming back?

“I guess it was,” he says instead, half out loud and half to himself. And he realises it’s true. It had been so long since he’d ventured beyond the walls of his secluded little space; he’d forgotten what it was like to be in a place he didn’t already know by heart, every ant-nest and grass-blade of it.

The disciples, too. He’d watched them grow up, then he was gone for a year and suddenly they’d shot up like weeds, their features sharper and voices deeper, hardly recognisable.

He wonders how Sizhui is doing. Little Sizhui he’d taught to do handstands, now eighteen, a full-fledged cultivator in his own right. Lan Huan wasn’t there for his birthday.

Maybe next year, he thinks. The thought takes him by surprise. When did he start seeing his seclusion as something with an end? When did he start believing that that end was in sight?

The answer rises behind his eyes, a figure in purple robes and a fierce scowl, but Lan Huan shoves it down.

Gege?”, Wangji asks, and suddenly Lan Huan is thrown back ten, twenty, thirty years, to a little boy with dirt on his cheeks and tears in his eyes. “Are you all right?”

His brother hasn’t called him that in so long. He’d almost forgotten how it sounds. Wangji’s voice is plaintive and small, and like always, Lan Huan hears everything he isn’t saying.

Are you like me, he’s asking. Lan Huan can’t help but think of the scars on his baby brother’s back. The tears that streamed down his face when the whip fell, even as he bit through his lip to hold back his screams. Is that why you never called me disgusting, when you found out how I felt about him?

Is it hurting you the way it hurt me?

Maybe deep down, Lan Huan has always known this was the way things were going to be. Maybe every desperate bid to keep control of his fickle Lan heart was always going to lead to this last, greatest betrayal. It’s the way of their family, after all. He wants to scream.

But he doesn’t. He shoves the urge deep down – like he does with everything else these days – and takes his brother’s hand, because Wangji is sad, and he has to fix it. That’s what big brothers are supposed to do, isn’t it? Fix things?

How do you fix what’s wrong when you’re the thing that’s broken?

For the first time, Lan Huan can’t answer his brother. He can’t look him in the eye and say he’s fine, because Jiang fucking Wanyin has shown him he’s clearly not. And apparently, he’s a worse actor than he’s always thought because everyone else seems to know it too.

“How did you know,” he begins, as gently as possible, knowing he’s answering a question with another question that’s not much of an answer at all, “that it was worth it?” That he was worth everything you had to give? How could you stand it, knowing that even that might not be enough?

Wangji’s fingers are calloused from a lifetime of playing the guqin, even more so than Lan Huan’s, rough where they cracked and bled over the sleepless nights of thirteen years. They squeeze tight around Lan Huan’s palm, even though the lost nerves mean that Wangji can barely feel his brother’s hand.

Lan Huan remembers the first time Wangji got a papercut; the solemn look on his face as the blood welled up. The intensity in his eyes as he watched Lan Huan carefully wipe it off and wrap a completely unnecessary bandage around the tiny wound. The next time Lan Huan cut himself on a practice sword, Wangji insisted on being the one to bandage it.

Even now, Wangji is still trying to take care of him. Guilt churns Lan Huan’s stomach, even as it is tempered by warmth at the concern.

Would it be so bad to be selfish? Just this once?

His little brother seems to be struggling with his words. Explanations, he’s always had trouble with. They’re too long for him; it’s not that he can’t say them, but just that he finds it difficult to choose the perfect words in the perfect order when there are so many he needs to say. Wangji has always wanted everything to be perfect.

(Lan Huan is sorry he can’t be.)

Finally, he settles on something and opens his mouth. It’s easy to tell, though, from the set of his lips, that he isn’t quite happy with it.

“I was afraid,” he says at last. “Of everyone. What they might think. But I was more afraid of losing him.”

Wangji drains the last of his tea. Looks away from Lan Huan, to the calligraphy brushes laid neatly out on the desk. It’s the most Lan Huan can recall him ever saying at once, at least since he reached adulthood.

“You love him,” Wangji says. It’s simple, devastating. Asking who doesn’t even cross Lan Huan’s mind. He sits there, frozen, unable to move or speak. He doesn’t say yes. But he doesn’t say no either, and Wangji takes that for the admission it is.

Lan Huan’s heart aches. Surprisingly, it’s that that makes his throat come unstuck. “You don’t like him.”

“No.”

“I’m scared. Wangji, I’m scared.”

“Good.” It means you still care about what happens to yourself. I’m glad. I’m glad he can be there for you, even if I can’t. Even if I hate him. I can bear it, if he’s helping you.

He stands, turns to leave. Before he can lose his nerve, Lan Huan whispers a “thank you”. Wangji’s eyes shine with what Lan Huan recognises as a smile.

You’re welcome.

And then he’s gone, leaving only a closed door in his wake.

Chapter Text

 

The next morning, Jiang Cheng wakes with the feeling that something is coming to a close. It’s the last day of the discussion conference, he realises, still half-asleep, and it’s enough to jolt him to wakefulness. Seven days. It’s been seven days, but it feels like an eternity ago that he came to Cloud Recesses.

It feels like so much has changed since then, but he can’t put his finger on what. The conference itself? His initial projection has held true; they’ve laid the groundwork for an inter-sect Council and the measures it will implement, but it’s nowhere close to becoming a reality. Whatever’s changed, it isn’t that.

He dresses, does his morning drills, and comes back to roust Jin Ling, who sleeps like he’s in a coma. It’s only then, waiting for his nephew to get ready, that Jiang Cheng finally figures it out.

It’s him. Somehow, over the course of the past seven days, Jiang Cheng has changed. He’s fought with his brother, made up with him, built a tentative sort of friendship with the secluded Lan sect leader – how he managed that is still beyond him – and has watched as Jin Ling took his first teetering steps towards manhood, towards growing up away from his uncle’s watchful eye.

It’s a lot. It feels almost overwhelming, because Jiang Cheng’s been stuck in limbo for over fourteen years, ever since Wei Wuxian died. Now everything is changing so fast it takes Jiang Cheng’s breath away, but for some reason, he hasn’t yet come completely untethered. And strangely, he feels more alive than he has since he was eighteen.

It’s like he’s been barely surviving, just trying to make it from one day to the next, and now he’s living. Jiang Cheng can’t figure out the difference, but he knows that there is one.

Eventually, though, Jin Ling manages to wrestle himself into something resembling respectability, and Jiang Cheng has to stop wool-gathering and get his ass in gear for the week’s final meeting. A fleeting sense of loss hits him at that thought, but he doesn’t have time to dwell on it because they really need to go.

When they get to the pavilion, it’s already half-full. It’s not indicative of lateness; it’s just that today, everyone seems to have felt the need to show up early. It’s the last day after all, and for some reason, people have decided to be on their best behaviour. Quite illogical on their part, Jiang Cheng thinks, even as he takes his seat and pours himself a cup of tea. If they haven’t been behaving themselves all week, what use will politeness on the last day achieve?

But he keeps that thought to himself.

The meeting itself continues in much the same vein. The atmosphere itself is one of finality; no arguments break out (which Jiang Cheng is thankful for because listening to stupid people snipe back and forth gives him a headache) and everyone is so very civil to one another. As if they haven’t been practically at each other’s throats all week.

The hypocrisy is unnerving.

Finally, the meeting adjourns, though the discourse itself is nowhere near its end. The sect leaders each agree to send in four representatives to continue the finalisation of the accords and to form the Council. Then Lan Qiren bangs the gong.

Just like that, it’s over. No fanfare, no fireworks. That’s how they do things in the Cloud Recesses.

As everyone streams out, Jiang Cheng’s head is whirling with preparations for his and Jin Ling’s departure. Packing, last-minute notices to send out, the goodbye to Wei Wuxian he can’t avoid if he doesn’t want to be harrassed about it for the next three months. And oh, on the subject of goodbyes…

Lan Xichen’s smiling face worms its way into his thoughts. Is Jiang Cheng supposed to visit him one last time? Should he?

A voice in his head states, very reasonably, that today is the last day of the conference after all. He still needs to report the events of this morning’s meeting.

His brother can do that. Wei Wuxian only asked you because Hanguang-Jun was busy, anyway. You probably shouldn’t go.

The voice tells him to shut up, much less reasonably. It’s only polite, Jiang Cheng thinks. After imposing on him for a whole week, it’s only proper that he bid his host goodbye, and he didn’t to Lan Xichen yesterday. But still…

The mention of yesterday dredges up the memory of Lan Xichen’s panic, and worry curls through Jiang Cheng’s gut. Everything had been going – if not well then at least more or less alright – and then Jiang Cheng called him kind and apparently that triggered the Lan sect leader into freaking the fuck out. Hell, the guy practically tripped over himself in his hurry to get away.

The growing sense of guilt in his chest wars with the need to see if Lan Xichen is alright. If he’d made it back to his cottage in one piece, without getting ensnared in his own mind again, dragged so far down he forgot how to breathe.

Which had also been Jiang Cheng’s fault. Damnit.

Maybe Lan Xichen doesn’t want to see him again. Maybe like everyone else, he’s finally realised that Jiang Cheng is only tolerable in small doses, and has decided he’s seen entirely too much of the little Jiang Cheng has to offer.

Jiang Cheng wouldn’t blame him. Still, the thought makes his heart hurt entirely too much for a friend he’s only had for the better part of a week.

It’s not about you, he reminds himself sternly. That much has always been true, ever since he was a child. And anyway, you’re not much of a friend if the only thing you ever do is remind him of things he’d rather forget.

“Uncle?” A tug comes on his robes. “Uncle!”

Jin Ling’s voice. Jin Ling’s hand, too, pulling on his sleeve, the same way he used to when he was a toddler and saw something interesting. Uncle, look!

With a jolt, Jiang Cheng returns to reality. His nephew has come to a stop in front of him, looking at him with a mixture of concern and annoyance. He seems to have been calling Jiang Cheng for the past several seconds, getting progressively more frustrated at his uncle’s lack of response.

“Are you even listening to me?”, Jin Ling huffs, arms folded across his chest. Every inch the prissy young master. An inexplicable wave of fondness crests over Jiang Cheng, accompanied by a swell of irritation.

“What?”

The response is automatic, snapped out before Jiang Cheng even realises what he’s saying. He glances around, noticing for the first time that they’re a good distance from the conference pavilion, in one of the long, empty corridors that run vein-like through the Cloud Recesses.

Abruptly, the apparent annoyance drains from Jin Ling’s expression. He swallows.

“I told you I wanted to talk to you about something,” he says, no longer sounding petulant. His eyes large and serious – Ah-Jie’s eyes.

Despite that, Jiang Cheng feels his own eyes narrow. He sighs. “What did you do this time?”

A brief flash of hurt surfaces on his nephew’s young face before it’s hidden away again. That look is like a punch to Jiang Cheng’s gut; he immediately wants to retract the words, but it’s too late. He’s seen the mask Jin Ling uses to conceal his emotions. Jiang Cheng wonders who the kid got it from, and the answer to that hurts even more. It was probably him.

“Nothing, Uncle,” says the boy, gaze cast downwards.

“Then?” Jiang Cheng tries to gentle his tone. He’s not sure how successful the effort is.

“I just– I was just wondering if I could stay here.” Jin Ling’s words are muffled by the angle his head is tilted at, but Jiang Cheng hears them all the same. Something cold takes root in his stomach. “After the conference is over. I mean, now that it’s over.”

His voice sounds like it’s coming from very far away. Suddenly, the cold spreads to the rest of Jiang Cheng’s body. “Why?”

Jin Ling almost flinches. Almost. Jiang Cheng sees how his body tenses. It makes him feel hollow. “I was thinking that maybe I could go to school here. You did, didn’t you, Uncle? When you were my age? With Wei Wuxian, and Hanguang-Jun? And my father.”

“Hmm.” There’s nothing else that Jiang Cheng can say. Nothing he dares to. Jin Ling wants to leave. Jin Ling wants to leave him.

He should have seen this coming.

Jin Ling seems to take his grunt as a signal to continue. His head lifts, the words coming faster now. “Everyone says the Cloud Recesses is a good school, and I could learn things here. Like you did, like Sect Leader Lan did, and all the other sect leaders. Sizhui is here too, and Lan Jingyi. I can’t count all the times you’ve said I need to learn discipline, and this place has over four thousand rules, so I guess that helps in some way…”

His nephew goes on, rapid-fire chatter turning to white noise in Jiang Cheng’s ears. Jin Ling is making many good points, compelling arguments and well-reasoned ones, if a little choppy. But Jiang Cheng can barely hear them over the sound of Jin Ling is leaving.

He’s always known this would happen. Has been preparing for it, even. But he thought he’d have a bit more time first.

“…thought it would be a good idea.” Jiang Cheng tunes back in just in time for Jin Ling to look askance at him, pleading for his permission. There’s something in his eyes, something hopeful, because of fucking course there is. He wants to say no, he really does. Wants to wrap Jin Ling in his arms like he’s two again and wailing at the world, crying for his parents, and tell him I won’t ever let you go. But he can’t.

His nephew’s too old for that now; and anyway, Jiang Cheng should never have been in that position in the first place. He’s not the boy’s fucking father. They buried that poor sucker in the ground years ago.

“Alright,” he says, because that’s all there is to say. It sounds like someone else’s voice. “You can stay.”

“Really?” Then the kid blushes. “I mean, that’s it? You’re not going to argue with me? Or scold me for asking at the last minute or anything?

“I could do that too, if you’d prefer.”

“No, no, that’s good. Thanks, Uncle.” The childlike excitement in Jin Ling’s expression is the final twist of the knife. No – not the final. Another; just another. The knife never stops twisting, not for Jiang Cheng.

Dully, he says, “I’ll inform Sect Leader Lan, then, about lengthening my stay. If you are to remain here, some of the logistical details need sorting out first. I’ll get it settled, and then you can start here for the new school year.”

Jin Ling mumbles something that Jiang Cheng can’t quite make out. It sounds vaguely like that’s what Jingyi was counting on, the crazy bastard, but that can’t be right. Jiang Cheng is on the verge of snapping at his nephew to repeat himself, when the brat thanks him again and disappears down the way they came, muttering to himself the whole while.

Then he’s gone, with only the memory of his words to remind Jiang Cheng that he was ever there at all. It hits him that soon, that’s what his life is going to be like.

He twists Zidian around his finger, but the gesture doesn’t do any good. The ring doesn’t even throw off a few comforting sparks. You brought this upon yourself, it tells him, the metal glinting accusingly under the late morning sunlight. The voice sounds like his Ah-Niang.

With an effort, he forces his feet to move forward. He’s going to have to visit Lan Xichen after all, he supposes.

Chapter Text

When the knock finally comes on his door just before noon, Lan Huan can’t help the sense of relief that floods through him, or the anticipation fluttering in his chest. Mixed with a healthy dose of guilt, of course, because self-flagellation is the Lan way and Lan Huan doesn’t deserve the happiness that his traitorous heart so stupidly craves.

He came, he thinks, even as his stomach dips with the knowledge of he’s going to say goodbye. And for the last time, too.

There will be no more afternoon conversations, no one sharing his too-small writing desk and grumbling absent-mindedly about paperwork as Lan Huan listens with half an ear. There will be no one to splutter at Lan Huan’s terrible jokes, or scold him when he sets the kitchen on fire.

No one to remind him you can do this; and this, and this too. To ask him what do you want? and listen for the answer.

His thoughts are horribly maudlin, he realises. It’s been all of seven days. No one person could have changed his life so completely in such a short time. It’s not possible.

There’s another knock on the door, this time sharper, more impatient. Lan Huan goes to open it, and at the sight of Jiang Wanyin’s characteristic glower, he remembers too late that the motto of the Jiang sect is do the impossible.

Or some derivative thereof.

To his eternal shame, Lan Huan doesn’t even have to reach for the smile that spreads across his own face. He ushers the younger man inside, pouring the first two cups of what looks to be Lan Huan’s seventh pot of tea this morning. At least, he thinks it’s his seventh; he lost count somewhere around pot number five.

As Jiang Wanyin recounts the events of the meeting – the last meeting, Lan Huan’s mind can’t help adding – the tension that Lan Huan had noticed before seems to bleed out of him. His posture relaxes, the scowl on his face smooths until there’s barely a crease left between his brows.

Still, Lan Huan can tell there’s something amiss. Something in the way he holds himself, loose but not quite relaxed, like a snake coiled up and waiting to strike. Or dart away. With Jiang Wanyin, it’s difficult to tell.

The question is on the tip of his tongue, but he keeps silent. That’s how they work, after all; Jiang Wanyin pushes, and Lan Huan waits. And somehow, between the two of them, they manage to stumble into each other.

Finally, the younger man comes to the end of his recounting. There is a swelling in Lan Huan’s chest that feels like a bubble about to pop. This is it, then. There are no more meetings, no more reports to give, no more excuses for the Jiang sect leader to come find Lan Huan in his cottage in the middle of nowhere.

Is he going to leave?

But his eyes flicker to the floor, then back up to Lan Huan, though he still doesn’t look him in the eyes. When he takes a breath and begins to speak, it isn’t to say goodbye. (Lan Huan is stupidly grateful.)

“I have a request to make,” he says haltingly. The sun spills in through the windows, splashing across his face. His eyes catch the light and they shine. Blue, so blue, and Lan Huan digs his fingers into his thighs to hide their trembling.

“Go on.” Lan Huan does his best to smile. Anything, he wants to say. He feels like a fraud.

“I’ve decided to send Jin Ling to study at the Cloud Recesses. Well, really he decided for me, but I have been considering it for some time, and the two of us agree that would be best for his education to come here.” It’s almost imperceptible, but his voice hitches on the word ‘agree’. “I would like to discuss the matter with you, if you’re amenable.”

And just like that, it’s back to business. But that’s not what catches Lan Huan’s attention, and just like before, he chooses not to comment.

Instead, he offers cautiously, “student negotiations take time.”

“That is why I am extending my stay here.” Jiang Wanyin’s ridiculously blue eyes flicker with something Lan Huan can’t identify. Despite all his best efforts, Lan Huan’s treacherous heart leaps.

“Oh. How long?”

“Another week perhaps. Shorter, I think – maybe four days, at minimum. I would like…” He trails off, seemingly embarrassed. Red rises to his cheeks and Lan Huan realises that that is a very good look on him. “I would like to make the arrangements with you.”

“Not my uncle?”

“No,” he says. “You’re far more reasonable, and much less likely to scold me if I curse in front of you. Your uncle would demand I write lines, at the very least.”

“Ah, I see. You’re taking advantage of me.” The tight feeling in Lan Huan’s chest lightens at the soft laugh that escapes from the other sect leader.

“It’s you or your relatives. I much prefer you,” Jiang Wanyin says. There is nothing in his voice but sincerity. “And Jin Ling’s education is important.” To me. Lan Huan can hear the unspoken words as clearly as if he’d shouted them.

His chest warms. His attempts to quiet it do not meet with much success. But as Lan Huan studies the man opposite him, he finds his limbs still tense, his jaw still set as though he’s preparing for a fight.

Lan Huan cannot keep silent any longer.

“Is there something wrong?”

Jiang Wanyin recoils. “What?”, he responds, taken aback. Then he seems to recover himself. “No. Nothing’s wrong.”

His voice is flat. Lying is prohibited in Cloud Recesses. The words bubble up in him and Lan Huan has to bite his tongue to hold them back.

“Are you sure? I can see, you know. Something’s troubling you.” He keeps his tone gentle, soothing. The one he used whenever Wangji had a nightmare and didn’t want to tell him about it. Then, too late, he remembers that what Jiang Wanyin hates more than anything else is being patronised.

Oh, well.

“Nothing’s wrong,” he says again. Stubbornly, as though he’s trying to convince himself more than Lan Huan. “I’m fine.”

“I thought you told me not to say that. It was good advice.”

The younger man sets his jaw. “That was different.” His eyes are full of sadness, and Lan Huan’s chest aches for him. Right beneath his ribs; the same place Jiang Wanyin has his scar. Scars.

“It’s all right to ask for help, you know.”

“I do know that.”

“Even when it comes to you.” Lan Huan tries to ease the sting of the words with a smile. He’s not sure it works, because the other sect leader’s shoulders slump, his gaze falling to the floor.

Truthfully, Lan Huan understands. It’s easy to offer help to other people, to listen to their troubles and lend a hand to fix them. But being on the other end is so much harder. There’s always the fear of looking weak, of confessing your worries or sadness and having someone say that’s not worth it. It doesn’t matter.

Because the thing is, it always matters.

Jiang Wanyin’s voice is gruff when he finally replies. “It’s nothing I haven’t dealt with before. I can handle it on my own.”

There’s a note of finality in there, of determination, so Lan Huan decides to let this go. If only because the other man seems to have taken his point to heart. Though he has yet to actually follow his own advice.

Baby steps, he tells himself. Jiang Wanyin is learning. They both are.

“If you’re sure,” Lan Huan says at last. The other man makes a noise of affirmation.

They sit in silence for a while, neither of them having anything to say, but it’s not uncomfortable. They’ve long passed the point of awkwardness and stuttering around each other – blew through that somewhere around the first time Lan Huan ended up sobbing on Jiang Wanyin’s shoulder for half an hour – and it makes Lan Huan’s heart hurt with how easy it is to be alone with him. How it makes Lan Huan feel almost like a person again.

Then, finally, the other sect leader looks over at Lan Huan’s desk, papers piled high in a neat stack on the right side of it. His eyes alight on the lone scroll sitting innocuously in the centre, half-unrolled. The only letter Lan Huan has barely touched.

Ah, yes. He was wondering how long it would take for the younger man to notice that, and also half-hoping that he wouldn’t. But now that he has, well, Lan Huan can’t help but feel a sense of relief that he’ll be able to tell someone about it. To get it off his chest.

“That,” Lan Huan begins, answering Jiang Wanyin’s unspoken question, “is the Council’s reply to the letter I sent out a few days ago. It contains the matchmaker’s response and the list of female cultivators that the Council thinks suitable.” To be my wife, he doesn’t say. The thought tastes like ashes in his mouth.

The other man is staring, dark eyes wide and looking at Lan Huan like he can see through him. And gods, everything’s a mess, isn’t it, because here Lan Huan is talking about his future wife and all he can think about is how he wants Jiang Wanyin to look at him like that always. Like Lan Huan is the only person in the world.

What if– maybe he–

Lan Huan cuts the thought off before he can finish it, and tamps down the pang in his chest that feels a little too much like hope. He isn’t his brother, Jiang Wanyin isn’t his, and fairy-tale endings are too few and far between for a man like him.

“Would you like to see?”, Lan Huan continues instead. He doesn’t know why he’s doing this to himself.

Wordlessly, the other man stretches out a hand and Lan Huan passes him the paper. He unrolls it. Lan Huan watches his eyes flick down the page, scanning the names and the Council’s remarks. He’s actually reading it, and from the furrow in his brow, is putting some consideration into how. For some reason, this matters to him.

Lan Huan tries not to think about how that makes him feel.

When he’s finished, Jiang Wanyin hands the scroll back to him. He settles back on his heels, fixing Lan Huan with his focused gaze anew. This time it’s piercing – Lan Huan would almost say clinical, except for the strong emotion that seem to infuse everything the other man does – and Lan Huan feels as though he’s being studied. Examined, though it still remains unclear what for.

“The guy who wrote that is an asshole,” Jiang Wanyin says finally. Bluntly, perhaps too much so. Caught off-guard, Lan Huan can’t help but chuckle.

“What makes you say that?”

“You can just tell.” Lan Huan raises an eyebrow, and the younger sect leader huffs. “That, and I remember him from a couple sect meetings. The war ones too, from the campaign. A bit bloodthirsty, wasn’t he, for one of you Lans?”

Lan Huan hums. He refuses to either confirm or deny this.

“Of course, it’s not like I have any room to talk.”

“He was the one that pushed the hardest for Wangji’s punishment after… after Nightless City.” He doesn’t know what compels him to say that, but the words burst out of him regardless. “I still haven’t quite forgiven him for that.”

And now he’s organising your marriage. Gods, what a nightmare.”

Lan Huan laughs again. Even to his ears, it sounds bitter. “I guess you could say that.” He gestures at the scroll, and the characters on it. “What do you think, about the recommendations? I’ve never done this before, and, well, I haven’t left the Cloud Recesses in a year, so…”

He waves a hand vaguely, feeling foolish. Everything about this situation is frankly ridiculous. Lan Huan is sure that if he cared more, he’d be appalled with himself. But to be honest, he doesn’t have the energy to.

“Give it over,” Jiang Wanyin calls, and Lan Huan obliges. The other man unrolls the scroll, placing it between the two of them so Lan Huan can see. In this position, their knees are brushing. It takes all of Lan Huan’s (admittedly impressive) focus to concentrate on the paper itself, rather than that.

“I don’t know all of them, but I do recognise a few,” says the younger sect leader, dipping his head to look at the characters. A few stray hairs escape from his severe bun, wisping around his face. He points at the third name on the list that spans over thirty female cultivators – thirty! – jabbing his finger at the inked characters. Wu Xiumei.

“I remember her from my first try at this thing,” he remarks. “Can’t imagine why she isn’t married yet; I thought she was pretty all right.”

Lan Huan can’t help the tinge of sourness that creeps into his voice. “Then why didn’t the two of you work out?”

Luckily, Jiang Wanyin doesn’t seem to pick up on it. “We had a, um, misunderstanding.”

Lan Huan’s eyebrow shoots up. “Now this I have to hear.”

The other man turns faintly red. He ducks his head to hide it, but the tips of his ears are flushed pink. Despite himself, Lan Huan’s heart goes a little soft at the sight.

“You have to understand that I’d never been on a date before,” Jiang Wanyin begins, still looking like he’d very much like to crawl into a hole and die of embarrassment. Oh, this is going to be good. “No one had coached me on the proper etiquette; I was barely nineteen, so everything I knew about courtship was from Wei Wuxian’s shitty romance novels–”

Lan Huan can’t help himself. “Wei Wuxian’s shitty romance novels? Not yours?”

“Shut up. Do you want to hear the story or not?”

“Sorry,” replies Lan Huan, not the least bit repentant.

The younger man glowers at him, then sits up a bit straighter and continues. “Anyway, everything was going fine until the end of it, and then I made the mistake of trying to kiss her goodbye.”

A noise escapes Lan Huan’s throat without his permission. He’s not sure, but he thinks it sounds like a dying cat. “You– oh,” he gasps, struggling to reign in his laughter. Jiang Wanyin’s glare grows fiercer even as his cheeks grow pinker. He’s nearly the colour of a ripe pomegranate by the time Lan Huan manages to get himself under control again.

“Are you done yet?”, he asks, but there is less anger there than exasperation, and Lan Huan can detect a faint hint of fondness in his voice.

“My apologies.”

“You better be fucking sorry. She punched me afterwards, you know. Damn near broke my nose; I couldn’t breathe right for a week.”

Lan Huan tells himself very firmly that he is not going to laugh. He is very proud of himself when only a tiny puff of air escapes his mouth. “I see,” he says, as seriously as he can. And then, “I’m surprised the two of you aren’t already married.”

“She didn’t want anything to do with me after that,” Jiang Wanyin tells him, shrugging. “Honestly, I can’t blame her.”

“I like her already,” Lan Huan replies with a laugh.

“You would, wouldn’t you? She’s very…opinionated. Your Council would probably hate her if you two actually were to marry.”

Lan Huan sobers up at that. If you two were to marry. If Lan Huan binds himself for life to a woman he knows nothing of besides what others have told him.

It’s everything he’s always wanted. Clean, neat, over and done with quickly; just a round in the matchmaker’s sitting room and then a wedding. He doesn’t think he’d even cry when the veil was lifted. Everything bloodless, no sacrifice and destruction and scars for both parties (and everyone around them) to bear. It’s everything he’s always wanted, he thinks again.

But now it’s staring him in the face, and for the first time, Lan Huan realises that it isn’t that cut and dry. There’s no love in an arranged marriage, just stilted formalities and an awkwardness that only fades with years of companionship.

He always thought he’d be all right with that. But now, he’s not sure anymore.

Chapter Text

There is no protocol for this, Jiang Cheng thinks, the names of the cultivation world’s most eligible bachelorettes in his hand. For over a decade, he’s barely spared a glance at the list that gets published every year. He’s had neither the time nor the inclination to care, and now suddenly he’s going over it with a fine-toothed comb, evaluating potential wives for Lan Xichen. Who just so happens to be the leader of the Gusu Lan sect.

Jiang Cheng feels like a gossipy fishwife as he wracks his brain for any details about the women on the list to share with Lan Xichen. The man’s been in seclusion for over a year; as little as Jiang Cheng is likely to know, he probably knows even less.

Still, he can’t help but wonder if he’s overstepping his bounds here. These aren’t his affairs – this isn’t even his sect! – and Jiang Cheng has no right whatsoever to interfere in the selection of the future mistress of Gusu. Lan Xichen’s Council would probably rend him limb from limb if they were to find out.

But Lan Xichen asked him for advice, and strangely enough, Jiang Cheng finds himself willing to give it. He doesn’t know what prompts him to actually admit to that embarrassing story about the date that was his first encounter with the horrors of the cultivation world’s matchmaking machine. It’s not something he goes around telling people. For obvious reasons.

(Mostly because it’s really fucking humiliating.)

Yet the look on Lan Xichen’s face when he heard it – the surprised smile, the warm amusement, the choked-off laugh he let out, like he could barely contain himself… Perhaps the humiliation was worth it, if it got him to smile like that.

Then a strange expression takes over the other man’s gentle features, like he’s thinking about something very far away. Something very sad. His smile falters and his eyes lose their shine, and suddenly Jiang Cheng wants nothing more than to bring it back.

He really must be getting soft then, as to his horror, his mouth opens of its own volition and suddenly he’s telling Lan Xichen about the rest of his matchmaking disasters. The woman whose name he’d forgotten because Jin Ling was sick and kept him up all night crying, which then made him sick too. The meeting he’d shown up to right after a night hunt, covered in blood and cursing to the high heavens at the idiot who’d missed the fucking flesh-eating zombie and shot him instead. Who had also happened to be his prospective date’s beloved older brother.

Please stop, Jiang Cheng’s last functioning brain cell begs his motor mouth. You’re destroying all our credibility. Not to mention our dignity.

What dignity?, the voice in his head shoots back, and carries right on with it.

But as Jiang Cheng talks, he notices Lan Xichen coming back to himself. His gaze getting less far away, his smile growing a little more solid. Lan Xichen gets lost in his thoughts a lot, he’s noticed. Needs reminding sometimes that he exists. That he’s real.

Jiang Cheng guesses that if the price of that is the last of his self-respect, well then Lan Xichen can have it. It’s not like he was using it.

By the time he’s done, the other man is grinning and laughing again, countering Jiang Cheng’s embarrassing stories with a few of his own – the more ridiculous proposals he’s received from more than a few smitten cultivators, both male and female. All of them unsolicited.

Jiang Cheng knows them all already, of course. As he’s said before, they’re highly entertaining and the sort of gossip he doesn’t mind indulging himself in. (Without anyone else’s knowledge, obviously. It wouldn’t do to have his sect thinking that he’s some sort of rumour-monger.)

But to hear it from Lan Xichen is something else entirely. He was there, for starters, and stories are always better from the source. More than that, though, much like he is at everything else, he’s a gifted storyteller. His train of thought flows logically and coherently, and he recounts events with the same wicked sense of humour that has so surprised Jiang Cheng over the past few days.

He’s just getting to the end of a particularly colourful story involving a very determined merchant’s daughter, three mountain goats and a Lanling Jin sect member’s underwear, when Jiang Cheng – who at this point, is practically suffocating himself trying to keep from laughing – sees the perfect opportunity for revenge. He takes a deep breath, holds it for a second to make sure it doesn’t come out as a giggle or something equally inane, and cuts in.

“I’m surprised the two of you aren’t already married,” he says. A wicked smirk plays on his lips as Lan Xichen gapes at him.

“I can’t believe you would say something like that,” the older man exclaims, hand over his heart in a gesture of mock offense. “You have no idea what she asked me to do.”

“What did she ask, then? Enlighten me.”

“Well, she– she –” As he splutters his way through his non-explanation, for the first time, Lan Xichen turns bright red. Blood fills his cheeks and flushes his face, and Jiang Cheng’s mouth inexplicably goes a bit dry. It’s a good look on him.

Jiang Cheng scowls inwardly and endeavours to ignore himself.

“Yes?”

Lan Xichen’s head dips. Finally, he mutters shyly, “she asked me to do something rather inappropriate with Liebing. To her, I mean. I thought she was going to eat me alive.”

“Your xiao?” Jiang Cheng is the very picture of confusion. “What would she want with that?”

The older man colours further, mumbles something indecipherable. For some reason, something clicks into place in Jiang Cheng’s brain and suddenly, he gets it. Mortification floods him. His ears go as hot as Lan Xichen’s face must feel.

A sour feeling curls in his chest too, at the thought of some nameless, faceless woman doing that to his friend. Or his friend doing it to her. The sourness intensifies. Jiang Cheng yanks it out by the roots, shoves it in a box and sits on the lid. (In his mind, at least.)

“Oh,” he says faintly. “I’m sorry I asked.”

Despite how embarrassed he must feel, Lan Xichen still finds it within himself to laugh at him. That’s good, Jiang Cheng thinks, surprised at how little anger he feels – actually, he feels none at all. Lan Xichen has a nice laugh. Deep, low and honest, and it makes his polished-gold eyes melt and shine.

Where the hell is all this coming from? Jiang Cheng halts his thoughts before they can lead anywhere strange. Well, stranger. He’s not a poet; what’s with all the metaphors? And why the fuck is he using them to describe Lan Xichen’s eyes of all things?

He must be going insane. There’s no other explanation for it.

Jiang Cheng changes the subject. “Speaking of Liebing, do you play often?”

It’s a clumsy attempt at diversion, but Lan Xichen seems to take it in stride. He tilts his head, considering.

“Sometimes,” he says, a cloud passing over his face. “Less than I used to.”

“Why is that?”

“It just doesn’t really feel…right anymore.”

Oh. Even as his brows draw together, Jiang Cheng’s stomach drops in understanding. Of course it wouldn’t feel right – his xiao is a reminder of his brothers. His lost brothers, the ones who hurt and killed each other, who used him as a go-between, a toy to push around in the dark. And now the lights have come on again, the children have left, and the toy is just now discovering that somewhere along the line, someone has broken it.

Playing – even just touching – Liebing must feel like pressing on an open wound with a palm full of salt. Jiang Cheng had felt the same way every time he so much as looked at Chenqing. Every time he was reminded that it was there.

(He had carried it around everywhere.)

It’s yours, he wants to say to Lan Xichen. It’s yours, and you can’t let them take that away from you, do you understand? You can’t let anyone take it from you, because then they’ll just keep taking and you won’t have anything left.

Nothing left that’s his, because it will all be theirs, and he won’t be able to touch it anymore. It’s already started. It won’t stop, not unless Lan Xichen gets out fast.

But Jiang Cheng doesn’t say any of this. He’s not talented with words, not the way Lan Xichen is, and he doesn’t know how to say it without messing everything up and sounding like a complete and utter asshole. Or thoroughly failing to get his point across.

“How about your guqin?”, he asks instead. His father’s voice whispers in his ear. Start small. Understand the situation before you change anything.

Lan Xichen’s lips curve into a tiny smile. “That, I play more often. Nearly every day.”

Jiang Cheng doesn’t know what he’s supposed to say in response. A nice “oh”, maybe. Perhaps a grunt, or some sort of inane comment or platitude, and that will be that. But what actually comes out of his mouth is, “would you play now?”

That amber stare is back, levelled at Jiang Cheng with the intensity of a man trying to solve a puzzle. Jiang Cheng shifts uncomfortably. He doesn’t know what on earth possessed him to say that. It’s a stupid request. It’s not like him to say something like that.

He can just imagine the merchant girl from Lan Xichen’s story asking the same question, hands pressed to her chest like a plea, coy and starry-eyed and impossibly wicked at the same time. Please, for me?, she’d ask, fluttering her lashes. Jiang Cheng’s stomach turns at himself.

Pathetic. Disgusting.

“You don’t have to,” he says hurriedly, feeling rather like someone trying to run backwards and tripping over an unfortunately-placed tree branch. “Never mind. Forget I asked.”

For a second, Lan Xichen’s stare intensifies. Then he gets to his feet. Walks down the hall and disappears into what Jiang Cheng knows is his bedroom. “One moment,” he calls from the inside.

Just when Jiang Cheng is beginning to sink to the depths of confusion, he reappears. A long wooden slab cradled in his arms, the light glinting off its polished surface, seven strings laid over the top of it. His guqin.

Why?, Jiang Cheng thinks. Lan Xichen is well within his rights to refuse such a ridiculous request. Why would he acquiesce? Surely it can’t be just because Jiang Cheng asked.

The other man returns to his previous position opposite Jiang Cheng, bringing his legs underneath him in a single fluid motion. Even after a week in his company, Jiang Cheng has not stopped noticing his seemingly effortless grace, though he has long stopped envying it.

Such elegance is something he can never hope to emulate. It’s much easier to simply admire instead.

Lan Xichen sets his guqin atop his knees with the ease of years of practice. Long fingers fiddle with the ends of the seven strings, making fine adjustments to the tuning. Jiang Cheng knows from countless night-hunts alongside Lan disciples that those strings are razor-sharp; that they can sever a man’s head from his spine as easily as any sword.

“Does it have a name?”, he asks. It’s a legitimate question this time. Most people from Gusu name their guqins if they have them. He’s never heard of Lan Xichen’s instrument having one, but one never knows. Perhaps he named it when he was young and is embarrassed of it now.

Gods know Jiang Cheng himself has never advertised the names of his childhood canine companions. He gets enough grief from Wei Wuxian as it is for Princess, Jasmine and Love. His older brother has never listened to his perfectly reasonable argument that he’d been all of eight years old at the time.

But Lan Xichen shakes his head. “I never quite got around to it,” he says. “I think I used up all my creativity naming Liebing and Shuoyue, and by the time I was ready to start thinking about my guqin, I’d had it for so long that it felt redundant.”

A smile cracks the corner of Jiang Cheng’s mouth. “It’s only redundant if you decide it is.”

“What do you think I should name it, then?”

Jiang Cheng looks back at him, stunned. “Me?” No one ever, ever asks Jiang Cheng to name things. No one who knows him, anyway. Hell, even Ah-Jie asked Wei Wuxian to name Jin Ling. That had stung a bit; he’d like to think he could have done a bit better than Jin Rulan.

That’s a fucking girl’s name. And Jin Ling hates it.

“Yes, of course. This was your idea,” Lan Xichen points out logically.

Jiang Cheng goes quiet for a while, wracking his brains. Unbidden, his hand goes to Zidian, twisting it around his finger. He really needs to get rid of that habit – it’s a massive tell.

He draws a blank. What the fuck is he supposed to name a musical instrument? He doesn’t even play anything. Not even the dizi, which is a pretty Yunmeng instrument in and of itself, much less the guqin. That’s a purely Lan clan thing.

He’s just about to give up and tell Lan Xichen that this is a terrible idea – in fact, he’s opening his mouth to do that very thing – when a name pops fully-formed into his head. Without thinking, he blurts it out.

Yongwan.”

Always smiling.

Lan Xichen’s features spread into the same smile Jiang Cheng has named the guqin for. Not his usual one, the one he uses on everyone, the one that’s made him famous as the pacifist, the peacemaker. No; this is softer, special somehow. The one he reserves for things that make him truly happy.

“I like it,” he says. His fingers rest over the strings. And then he begins to play.

Chapter Text

The cottage fills with the sound of music. Every note Lan Xichen’s hands pluck from the strings swells within the small space. The melody is simple and slow, but heart-aching all the same. It speaks of melancholy, of long days and nights waiting alone for something he isn’t sure will come.

It’s the kind of song that demands to be heard. But more than that, to be listened to. It reaches inside your chest and wraps around your soul, so tangible it hurts.

Jiang Cheng knows little about music – next to nothing, in fact – but what he does know is that Lan Xichen is very, very good. He was already familiar with that fact, of course, seeing as the talent of Gusu’s Twin Jades has ever been lauded as incomparable. But it is quite a different thing, hearing it for himself.

The notes taper off, high and sweet, scattering to the air like flower petals in the wind. The song ends. A hush descends over the room for a moment as the sound of it fades, and Jiang Cheng doesn’t even dare to speak.

Rare for him; yet there is a kind of magic in music well-played that cannot be explained away by golden cores and cultivation levels and lingqi. Jiang Cheng can’t use it – not for lack of trying – but he sure as hell can feel it.

Lan Xichen has woven a spell here, with just a few plucks of a few strings. It is nearly impossible to imagine what he could do with his own favoured instrument. His xiao, Liebing, which he no longer plays.

It is an incredible loss. But then who would hear it anyway, all the way up here, with Zewu-Jun behind closed doors in the middle of nowhere? No one would hear. No one would know. And so no one would care.

(Cares, perhaps. Present tense. After all, isn’t it true that no one knows?)

There is a lump in Jiang Cheng’s throat. He can’t tell whether it is from the music or something else. Perhaps he was wrong after all, he muses to himself, as the silence stretches long between them. He cares. For however much that is worth – or however little – Jiang Cheng cares.

(Then again, perhaps that is the same as saying it matters to no one at all.)

“What song was that?”, he asks in an effort to drag his thoughts away from the horrifyingly maudlin turn they’ve taken. His voice is still hushed, though, and he hates it more than a little, but he can’t bring himself to speak any louder.

Lan Xichen rubs at a nonexistent speck of dust on his guqin’s – Yongwan, since he’s apparently going with Jiang Cheng’s suggestion – mirror-polished surface.

“I wrote it. And no,” he adds, looking at Jiang Cheng with an indecipherable expression, “it doesn’t have a name either.”

Well, that raises a million and one questions, doesn’t it? When, why, what for, how, and so on – and probably not a single one appropriate. Who for, too, which might be the worst of the lot, but a question that circles in Jiang Cheng’s mind regardless, because if there’s anything he learned from hanging around Wei Wuxian during his older brother’s “artistic phases”, it’s that there’s always some sort of inspiration that goes along with creation. Usually in the form of another person.

It’s called a muse, little brother, Wei Wuxian had said countless times as he wrote about this girl, or that girl who had caught his passing fancy. He thought himself in love with them in every poem that he wrote. Always a new poem, a new girl.

Then one day in Cloud Recesses he wrote five in a row about Lan Wangji’s smile – rare as a white lotus in winter (Jiang Cheng had had to excuse himself to go throw up) – and well, that was the end of that. Really, on hindsight, Jiang Cheng should have seen all this coming sooner.

But he’s getting off-topic. The point here is that people who create things draw inspiration from other people. People important to them. People– usually people they love. For some reason, the thought sparks a strange disquiet in Jiang Cheng. He can’t imagine why.

He already knew that Lan Xichen had harboured…romantic feelings for Chifeng-Zun before his untimely death, and he’d been as close as anything with his third sworn brother until the full extent of his machinations were revealed. Even though Jin Guang– that man was a piece of shit who, Jiang Cheng privately thinks, got what was coming to him, he was still Lan Xichen’s piece of shit. Familial connections, ties of affection between siblings and friends go a long way.

Thirteen years carrying a flute he couldn’t play. Of course Jiang Cheng would know.

He’s not jealous or anything, he tells himself resolutely. What is there to be jealous of? The answer is: absolutely nothing. He’s simply…confused, is all. Concerned for his friend’s wellbeing. Yes, that’s it.

“What’s it about?”, he asks. The song, he means. The sadness, the haunting melody like seeing ghosts around every corner and not knowing if they were figments of your imagination, or flesh-eating ghouls lying in wait. That had to come from somwhere, after all.

He keeps an eye trained on Lan Xichen’s fingers, watching for tension, for the knuckles going white with strain. He’ll back off if it comes to that – they’ve had too many close calls over the past two days for Jiang Cheng to be comfortable pushing his boundaries.

“I wrote it six months after I went into seclusion,” the other man replies. “It’s not about anything – it’s more a feeling than anything else.”

Jiang Cheng looks up, his eyes meeting Lan Xichen’s golden ones. There is pain there, and a gentle sort of sadness. Even in his grief, Lan Xichen is gentle. Beautiful.

“This isn’t the future I’d imagined for myself,” Lan Xichen says unexpectedly. His head dips as though studying his guqin intently, and the light coming in through the window casts his features in a golden glow. For the first time, Jiang Cheng notices that the other sect leader has a scar just above his eyebrow. Tiny and feather-white, an imperfection hidden amongst flawlessness. “When I was young, I mean. Still a child.”

“I thought I’d be married by now. With children, maybe, and Wangji would have found a nice, quiet boy from our sect who made him smile and didn’t mind how little he talks.”

His expression is longing, his eyes strangely misty. It’s easy for Jiang Cheng to imagine, that rosy never-there life. The inevitable this-will-be that the kid Lan Xichen had been had thought he’d have, long before everything went to hell.

“Rusong would be Sizhui’s age this year,” the older man says, and Jiang Cheng’s memory conjures up a hazy image of a five-year-old with a bright laugh, tugging on his father’s golden sleeve, always reaching for that stupid floppy hat. A small hand clutching Jin Ling’s even tinier fingers, slowing down for his baby cousin’s unsteady steps. “Mingjue probably would have had a son or daughter. And when the children were old enough, they’d all be sworn brothers and sisters, just like us.”

Jiang Cheng glances down again, at Lan Xichen’s fingers. They’re trembling. An urge takes him, hard and fast and sudden, to lay his hand over the other sect leader’s. He only barely manages to resist.

“This isn’t where any of us thought we would be,” he says instead. That, at least, is a safe statement. Jiang Cheng sure as fuck hadn’t expected to be leading his sect at seventeen after watching his parents murdered. Hadn’t factored in a life as a single parent to his orphaned nephew, either. “But we’re still here, aren’t we?”

He doesn’t know who that’s directed at: Lan Xichen or himself.

Truth is, Jiang Cheng has never put much thought into his future. Oh, he plans ahead, certainly – weeks, months, years, even decades – for the Jiang sect and the future of Yunmeng. But not his own. That sun-soaked life Lan Xichen is describing like a happy memory has never even entered his mind. He’s always been too busy just trying to make it from one day to the next. One foot in front of the other, crossing whole miles before he even thinks to look up.

But he remembers a game he and Wei Wuxian used to play. One of them would ask the other, “how do you think you’ll die?”, and the other had to answer. Like everything else, it was Wei Wuxian’s idea. They came up with increasingly outlandish scenarios for months before one of them inevitably got bored and they forgot about it.

Despite the ridiculous answers he gave back then, trying desperately to outdo his older brother’s much-lauded creativity, Jiang Cheng had, as a kid, always assumed he’d go in the most mundane way possible. Ideally, surrounded by friends and family, passing peacefully in his sleep.

The very thought seems ridiculous now. He doesn’t know the last time he had that fantasy. He doesn’t even know when it began to change.

Because now when Jiang Cheng thinks about his death, it isn’t soft or peaceful or sentimental. Just…going on a night hunt one day and not coming back. No one would mourn him, of that Jiang Cheng is certain. A few, maybe – Jin Ling and his brother – but none more. More than a couple assholes might even dance on his grave.

Funny how when he pictures it, he’s never any older. There are never any more lines on his face than there are now, than there have been since he was twenty years old.

“Yes, we’re still here,” Lan Xichen says. He’s still staring at his guqin, tracing patterns on the wood, and Jiang Cheng hears the words he isn’t saying as clearly as if he’d shouted them.

We’re still here, but they’re not.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t even have to ask who ‘they’ are. Everyone they’ve lost over the years – lost to war or hatred or scheming, or their own ignorance and pride. Their parents, brothers, sisters, friends. The people they used to be.

Do you ever– It’s on the tip of Jiang Cheng’s tongue, but he swallows it back before it can escape. He doesn’t want to hear the answer to that question. He knows his own, of course. He knows what he would give not to be the last of his family, the last Jiang standing when the war was won and the dust cleared. Everything. Everything.

(It wasn’t supposed to be him. His mother, father, sister, but not him. He doesn’t deserve it.)

“It’s not wrong, you know. That it’s you.” Jiang Cheng’s throat is dry. He doesn’t know where the words are coming from. Lan Xichen’s fingers still. “If– if it had to be anyone, I’m glad that it’s you.”

What is he even saying? This isn’t like him at all. This isn’t something Jiang Cheng does – he doesn’t just go around telling people I’m glad that you’re alive, or any of that sappy bullshit. That’s Wei Wuxian’s job. Jiang Cheng just sits down and shuts up and fights harder to make sure they stay that way.

“It scares me sometimes,” the other man replies, voice nearly a whisper. “It’s so very lonely without them. I have Wangji still, and Shu-Fu, but it’s hard to remember all the way up here.”

When the memories rise up and pull you under, and the thin thread tying you to all you have left is barely anything against the weight of everything you’ve lost. Then eventually you choke on it all and somewhere in the struggle for air you forget to hold on and it slips out of your fingers, or you hold on too tight and it snaps, and you’re left sinking anyway. Drowning.

Yeah, Jiang Cheng knows the feeling. Knows it well enough to recognize the swell of the memories just before they come for him, well enough to know that the only way to escape the tide’s pull is to swim as fast and far as possible in the other direction, and pray that he makes it to the shore before it catches up.

(He works through the flashbacks, writes papers and papers and slashes open practice dummies by the dozens until his muscles burn enough to drive away the phantom chill of shackles on his skin. Until he’s breathing hard enough that the panting is exertion and not because he can’t fill his lungs for the panic.)

Lan Xichen hasn’t figured it out yet. He still thinks he can wait it out, or sort through his head somehow until everything’s right back in its proper position. He hasn’t yet realised that that’s not how it works; that the only way to keep feeling like everything’s fixed is to keep on working like nothing was ever broken.

You can run on a broken leg so long as you don’t stop. But you can’t lock yourself in a room with a tsunami and think you’ll ever be able to come out again.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t know why he cares so much. Hell, maybe it’s just because he sees in Lan Xichen the same fucking problems that have made his life a shitshow since before he hit eighteen, and he wants – no, he needs – to believe that someone can make it out of this mess. If anyone can, it’s Lan Xichen. Jiang Cheng just needs to know it’s possible.

It’s not because he doesn’t know what he’ll do if Lan Xichen doesn’t make it. It’s definitely not because after all he’s lost, he can’t lose Lan Xichen too. Jiang Cheng’s heartless – everyone knows that. Jiang Cheng doesn’t think things like that.

“Then leave,” he says.

The words fly out of his mouth before he can even think about them. And oh shit, because it’s one thing to think that Lan Xichen needs to get out of this place before it sucks away the last dregs of his happiness – his fucking will to live – and completely another to say it out loud. That’s a line Jiang Cheng doesn’t get to cross.

Yet he hasn’t just crossed it. He’s obliterated it entirely.

His subconscious screams at him. You fucking idiot!, it shrieks. You can’t say that! And now you can’t take it back! Just look what you’ve done; take a look at the aftermath of another one of your absolutely marvelous decisions.

But the words are still coming, and Jiang Cheng is powerless to stop them. “Why are you still here, then, if it makes you so miserable?”

This is nothing like Jiang Cheng’s ever done before. It’s not the first time he’s ever lost control of himself – far from it – but it’s never been like this. There’s no red haze, no all-consuming anger, no desire to maim or maul. Just questions that won’t stop coming, and a growing sense of horror.

Across from him, Lan Xichen has begun to shake. When Jiang Cheng chances a glance at his face, all the colour has gone out of it, like a faded robe washed too many times.

“You wouldn’t understand.” The reply sounds jagged, like it’s being clawed out of him. For all Jiang Cheng knows, it might be.

It strikes at something deep in his chest, something a little too close to where his core sits bright and burning and just right, but somehow always wrong. Right underneath his ribs, where he’s still seventeen and his father is telling him you don’t understand.

Why would he, Jiang Cheng thinks, not expecting an answer. He never has before. That’s what everyone says. Angry as all hell and too fucking bitter to live – that’s him; no room for guilt or regret or any of the emotions you have to show to convince everyone else there’s an actual person under there.

He knows Lan Xichen doesn’t mean it like that. Doesn’t mean for it to hurt, of course. Lan Xichen never wants to hurt anyone, and that’s his problem, really. He’d be so much better off if he didn’t care. But it stings. Gods, does it sting.

“Maybe I would.” Chin up, back stiff, look straight ahead. Ah-Niang’s voice rings in his ear. “Try me.”

This is unbelievable. They’d been getting along so well, and now Jiang Cheng’s gearing up for a fight. Typical. He ruins everything he touches, as per usual. And Lan Xichen…

Lan Xichen is staring at him, white-faced and trembling. He looks like he might cry again, but his jaw is set. Good. At least he’s standing up for himself. Even if it is against Jiang Cheng.

“I’ve told you: I can’t leave. It’s not because I don’t want to, because I do. Believe me, I want more than anything to be able to leave this place. I want to be able to get it together enough to go back outside.” He’s breathing harder now, voice growing stronger with every word. He’ll be shouting soon, if he keeps it up. “But look at me.”

Jiang Cheng hasn’t so much as glanced anywhere else for the past ten minutes.

Look at me, Wanyin,” the older man says again. The colour is creeping back into his cheeks. “I’m a mess. Do you remember yesterday? How long it took me just to gather up the courage to step outside? I can’t even speak to anyone outside of my family anymore without panicking.”

You’re talking to me, Jiang Cheng wants to say. But doesn’t, because this is very obviously not what calm is supposed to look like. Following that, he remembers the numerous times over the past few days where something he’s said or done has sent Lan Xichen off the edge, and is very glad that for once, he’s managed to keep his damn mouth shut.

And then Lan Xichen says something that turns his entire world upside down.

“The world– I don’t belong out there. There’s no place for me in it anymore.”

There are twin spots of pink high in his cheeks, his eyes are shining with unshed tears, and every word strikes true. These are his thoughts, raw and unvarnished. This is what he really believes, with all his heart. He’s ripped his chest to shreds to bare his soul, and for the first time, Jiang Cheng sees it for the wreck it is. Tattered and torn. Giving up.

It fills him with anger. Not righteous anger – there’s no cause he’s championing, no monster to slay or demon to send right back to the depths of hell. Only a man. A man he’s always thought perfect, even in his little imperfections; flawless. Better, somehow. But now the rose-coloured fog has lifted from his eyes, and Jiang Cheng sees someone broken and battered, giving in because he can’t bear to fight any longer.

He should be disgusted. After all, Jiang Cheng has always fought, even when it was hopeless – isn’t that the motto of his sect? Yet the anger welling up in him is clean. As untainted as he’s ever felt.

It’s not weakness that he sees in Lan Xichen, but something else. Something he can’t put a name to.

“That’s the biggest load of horseshit I’ve ever heard.” Pain flares in Jiang Cheng’s right hand, and he realises his nails are digging into his palm hard enough to draw blood. It grounds him. “There’s always somewhere to go. You think there was a place for all of us, after the war? Or during, before all the sects got our collective shit together? I don’t know if you remember this, but there wasn’t. We made one.”

“I told you, I don’t belong–”

“Yunmeng isn’t even supposed to exist anymore, Xichen.” It feels like tearing something out of himself to admit it, but the other man needs to hear this. More than that, it needs to be said. And who but Jiang Cheng will say it? “Maybe you’ve forgotten, but I haven’t. The others – Jin Guangshan – wanted to strike us from the annals, give our territory to my mother’s clan. Well, fuck that.”

“And Nie Huaisang,” he adds, before Lan Xichen can get a word in edgewise. “I don’t like him, but then nobody does. He doesn’t belong. Most of the Nies are mad with battlelust half the time, can barely see past the ends of their dao the rest of it; and there he is, with his fans and his plots and schemes and little tricks no one else sees coming. But you know what? He’s still here, and he’s not going anywhere.”

By the time Jiang Cheng pauses to draw a breath, there is silence from the only other person in the room. Lan Xichen is struck dumb, mouth slack with shock. Jiang Cheng is crossing all the lines here, telling Lan Xichen these things. But they’re the truth. Pure and unvarnished, the same as Lan Xichen told him only a few moments ago.

He deserves that respect. Lan Xichen deserves it and more, but this is all Jiang Cheng can give him. He hopes it is enough. (Knowing Jiang Cheng, it won’t be. It’s never enough.)

“So don’t tell me that there’s no place for you and expect me to believe it. You want help making one, I’ll help. I’ll keep you updated on everything you’ve missed since you’ve been gone. I’ll leave Lotus Pier open for you if you need it. I’ll whip your whole Council’s ass with Zidian if I have to.”

After that torrent of words, Jiang Cheng struggles to find the next ones to continue. But he forges on ahead anyway, because even if he fucks this up, he’ll have tried.

“But just– just stop hiding, Xichen. You don’t need to.”

Chapter Text

The words crash over Lan Huan with all the strength of a hurricane.

You don’t need to hide. The younger man says it with such vehemence, such sincerity and utter belief, as though he can make it true through the force of his will alone. Lan Huan almost believes him, because if anyone can accomplish such a thing, it’s Jiang Wanyin.

It sparks something like relief in him, even as a maelstrom of other emotions swirls through his chest. Guilt, disgust, self-loathing. It burns him to admit how low he’s sunk. Lan Huan has never been prideful – that’s another one of the myriad things prohibited in the Cloud Recesses – but he’s always striven to keep some basic modicum of self-respect.

This, now, is shameful. Humiliating. So broken he can barely leave his tiny cottage, can’t bring himself to brave the outside world as an inhabitant rather than an infrequent visitor, and he can’t even deny it. He’s admitted to it in front of someone else; not just anyone, but another sect leader.

Lan Huan was fully prepared for censure, for revulsion to creep into the other man’s voice the same way it had into Mingjue’s whenever he so much as mentioned Guangyao. Jiang Wanyin – much like his elder brother was – is a man who respects strength. Abhors weakness, too, and Lan Huan has confessed to the very worst kind of all: cowardice. Giving in to his own fear.

Then the other man began his tirade, and Lan Huan couldn’t help the way his shoulders hunched inwards, vainly trying to soften the inevitable blow. This is it, he’d thought, as Jiang Wanyin sat there and tore apart his words. It’s obvious, isn’t it; this is why I can’t – shouldn’t – have friends. It always falls apart sooner or later.

It just happened to be sooner this time.

But that wasn’t the point at all. No; even as he rejected Lan Huan’s statement, he didn’t reject Lan Huan himself. He offered–

There’s always somewhere to go.

You want help making one, I’ll help.

A lump grows in Lan Huan’s throat, pressing on his airways. Following that dramatic declaration, the younger man’s eyes bore into his own, frighteningly intense. So dark they’re nearly black, crackling like lightning in his narrow face. There is no deception there, nothing but fierce determination.

And for what? To help him?

He cares, Lan Huan realises, like a crack of thunder on a cloudless day. For some reason, he cares about Lan Huan, doesn’t want him locked away in seclusion for the rest of his life. He wants him to leave, to go back into the world, to fight and carve out a place for himself anew so that he can belong somewhere again. To be brave.

And Lan Huan wants. He wants to be brave for Jiang Wanyin, because of the faith he can see in the younger sect leader’s eyes, the pure conviction written in the lines of his face. The others…they all look at him with resignation. Solemn acceptance and thinly-veiled disappointment. Even Wangji, for all that he loves his brother, must wish that he were stronger.

Yet Jiang Wanyin is the only one who says it. The only one who breaks every rule of propriety and common courtesy to challenge him, to dare him to try.

(Lan Huan falls a little bit deeper in love with the sharpness of his tongue and the fire in his heart.)

His eyes feel damp, and he blinks back the tears before they can roll down his cheeks. Lays his hand over his face, just for a moment, so the other man won’t see him struggling for control, and uses it to wipe away the lingering wetness around his eyes.

“I–” he chokes out at last, his voice thick – “I don’t know what to say to that.”

To his surprise, Jiang Wanyin’s mouth curves into a small smile. He reaches out and lays a hand over Lan Huan’s, now half-tangled in the strings of his guqin. Lan Huan’s brain stutters to a stop.

“Just say that when you get out of here, you’ll come see me for a change.”

What can Lan Huan do but nod and promise him that? Such a small thing, when it’s becoming harder to deny that he would give Jiang Wanyin anything he asks for. Anything at all. It terrifies him.

“And…thank you,” he says, once he’s gathered up the courage to speak the words.

The younger sect leader looks taken aback, and Lan Huan’s chest aches a little, because when was the last time someone thanked this man? Probably a long, long time ago, if his reaction is anything to go by. Lan Huan needs to do it more often.

“What for?”

“Everything,” he breathes. Jiang Wanyin’s mouth parts in surprise and Lan Huan shocks himself with how much he wants to kiss him. He dips his head, hiding the ugly flush he’s sure has overtaken his face. “What you said – about leaving – I’ll…I’ll try.”

“Then that’s enough.” The response is so earnest, and everything Lan Huan’s never known he needed to hear. You’re enough. It makes his head feel light.

He could do it, he really could. He could walk out that door right now, go back out into the Cloud Recesses proper and tell Shu-Fu he’s ready to come home. He’s been able to all this time. And though the thought of returning to society still fills him with trepidation, it’s less this time. Less than a year ago, a month ago. Less than yesterday.

Soon, he tells himself. The word rings of truth.

 


 

 

That night, Lan Huan has a very confusing dream.

He is alone in a very long hallway – so long he cannot see the two ends of it. It is near completely dark: there are no torches or sconces, only the single candle Lan Huan is holding, the wick already halfway burned down. Though the air is still, the flame flickers and jumps, casting pitch-black shadows that writhe across the floor.

Footsteps sound to his left. Lan Huan whirls around. The light from his single pitiful candle barely reaches three feet away; still, he can see the shine of eyes in the dark. Then the other person finally comes into view.

Tall. That’s the first thing Lan Huan registers. Large and hulking, his shoulders even broader than Lan Huan’s, the top of his head nearly scraping the low ceiling. Then his profile: thick eyebrows and a hawk-like nose.

It’s Mingjue. His elder brother.

“Mingjue-xiong,” he says. This is a dream; he knows it. It must be.

The other man raises his head, and Lan Huan is surprised by how young he looks. Barely twenty-five, just as he had the last time Lan Huan saw him. It’s Lan Huan who’s older now.

“Ah-Huan.”

And that’s the moment Lan Huan’s heart shatters into little tiny pieces. Of course this is a dream. Mingjue never called him that, even when he asked. When they were both young and foolish, and thought they had all their lives ahead of them. To hear it now, after everything…

He knows he should turn away. The past has no business haunting him still, is what Shu-Fu would say. But it’s been so long, and Lan Huan has always been weaker than he should be.

So he stays. Holds still when Mingjue reaches out, brushes his cheek with his fingers. The touch is cold.

Before his eyes, Mingjue’s skin pales to bone-white. Black veins creep out from his collar, up his neck, blooming like thorns across his face. Through it all, his hand stays flattened against Lan Huan’s cheek. There is so much brute strength in those fingers. Lan Huan once saw him snap the wrist of a cultivator who had called Huaisang useless just like that, the bone giving way like rotting wood. But Mingjue doesn’t so much as twitch.

Lan Huan finds that he can’t move.

“I’m sorry, Dage,” he whispers. “I’m so sorry.”

“Let go, Ah-Huan. You have to let me go.”

He wants to protest that Mingjue is the one holding on to him; but he isn’t, not really.

“I didn’t see – I should have seen– I’m so sorry, I failed you.”

“None of that,” the other man tells him. Stern but gentle – Lan Huan can see it, even though his eyes are now red and glowing like a fierce corpse’s. It’s still Mingjue. It’s only a dream, but it’s still Mingjue. It feels so real.

“It’s time for me to go, Ah-Huan.”

“No, please–” He’s begging, he knows, but desperation fills his chest. His older brother can’t leave him, not like this. Because somehow, Lan Huan knows that this dream will be the last time he ever sees Mingjue. “I miss you. I don’t want to forget what you look like. I don’t want to forget the way your voice sounds.”

In his dreams, Lan Huan speaks his thoughts. He says what he would never dare to say out loud in the real world.

Mingjue’s grim face melts into a sad smile.”You won’t.”

“You can’t know that.”

“You won’t,” he says again. His hand falls from Lan Huan’s cheek. “You need to leave, Er-di. Go back out into the real world.”

“Dage–”

Lan Huan tries to protest, but Mingjue shushes him with a look. The same look he’d give when Lan Huan was doing something frustrating, or trying to get him to talk to people. Sometimes they were one and the same.

“Take care of Huaisang for me.”

With that, he turns away. Lan Huan almost cries out, but his voice fails as Mingjue’s long legs carry him back into the dark. And all around him, the shadows begin to dance more wildly than before. Reaching towards him, leaping and flickering as they encroach on his tiny circle of light.

For the first time in a while, Lan Huan looks down at his little candle. The flame has burned almost all the way down the wick by now. The wax, clear and running, fills the dish to the brim. As he watches, the single bright point of light reaches the liquid and disappears, leaving him in total darkness.

The wax overflows. It spills across his hands, warm and scorching, solidifying where it touches his skin. He holds on tighter, tighter, even as his mind tells him to let go…

 


 

 

He wakes up with his heart pounding, hands tingling with the phantom heat of the wax from his dream. Outside, the sky is dark, but only as it is at five in the morning. He’s slept through the night.

Rare for him, and even rarer on a night like this. Where dreams steal into his sleep, digging up faces from long ago. His heart feels hollow, though, as though something has been scooped out of it, leaving only an empty space where that something used to be.

Mingjue is gone. That, at least, he is sure of. Lan Huan will never see him again, not even in his nightmares. That used to be the only thing that made them bearable. Getting to see him again. To see Guangyao again, his mother and father, all those he has lost. And now one of their number is gone from his dreams, and still absent from his life.

Suddenly, powerfully, Lan Huan longs to be held. For someone to hold him, the way he so often held Wangji when he was little and struggling to sleep. Or even someone to hold, to cling onto him, curled tight around him like a warm blanket.

He wants someone to tell him everything will be all right. The trouble is, he’s not sure he can be all right.

There’s always somewhere to go, Lan Huan hears again, Jiang Wanyin’s voice echoing inside his head. It eases the longing somewhat, like a candle holding the dark at bay, just like the one in his dream. Fragile and all-too-easily extinguished.

He prays it won’t go out.

Chapter Text

The next day, Jiang Cheng seeks out Lan Xichen in his little cottage. For hours, they discuss Jin Ling’s lesson plans, and Jiang Cheng can almost forget the pain in his chest that flared to life when his nephew first announced his desire to remain in Cloud Recesses. Lan Xichen looks better today – at least more than he did yesterday – which isn’t saying much, really, because he may not have cried but he sure got pretty fucking close.

They make plans and go over details; Jiang Cheng amends the lesson schedule they’ve worked out three times before he’s finally satisfied. (Lan Xichen just crosses his arms and struggles not to laugh at him, the bastard.) He makes arrangements for Jin Ling to share a dormitory with the other disciples – because the brat needs to learn some social skills, damnit, it’s a wonder he’s managed to make two friends as it is – and talks the other sect leader into agreeing to give Jin Ling one-on-one lessons on leadership.

He knows what he must look like to everyone else: paranoid, obsessive. Over-protectiveness is the least offensive of the traits he could be accused of having. He’s a frenzied mess right now, needing everything to be absolutely perfect, down to the last detail.

But this is Jin Ling. Ah-Jie’s little boy. The child Jiang Cheng has raised on his own since he was barely more than one himself. The brat is growing up, he’s leaving, and if this is one of the last things Jiang Cheng will ever get to do for him, then it’ll damn well be perfect. Or at least, as close as he can get it.

At some point, Jiang Cheng looks up at the clock and discovers it’s already late afternoon. He arrived here more or less at mid-morning, and the discussion has been going on since then, uninterrupted for hours. A quick inspection of the other sect leader shows that Lan Xichen is as poised and composed as ever, but Jiang Cheng knows that his discomfort is often hidden, and the both of them are about due for a break anyway.

“That’s enough for today,” he says quietly when Lan Xichen reaches again for the teapot that Jiang Cheng already knows is empty. The other man gets to his feet with an audible sigh, supporting most of his weight on one leg. At Jiang Cheng’s quizzical look, he sighs again.

“Pins and needles,” he explains. “I can’t feel my right foot.”

There’s a light dusting of pink on his cheeks like he’s embarrassed, and Jiang Cheng chuckles for a second before standing as well. He, too, nearly falls over as the blood rushes back into his legs. It’s Lan Xichen’s turn to laugh at him, and Jiang Cheng pulls a face.

“I’m not made to sit still that long.”

“Oh, stop complaining,” Lan Xichen shoots back, comfortably teasing. “This was your idea in the first place.”

Jiang Cheng can’t think of a good answer to that. He settles for a grumpy “shut up, old man,” and immediately knows it was the right choice when Lan Xichen lets out a sound of amusement.

“I’m only four years older than you,” he points out. “Hardly on my death bed yet.”

Then his expression sobers. He looks right into Jiang Cheng’s eyes and says, “I’ve been thinking about what you said yesterday.”

Jiang Cheng said a great many things yesterday. He’s not quite sure which one. The puzzlement must show on his face, because Lan Xichen takes a deep breath.

“About me leaving here,” he clarifies, tilting his head to glance out the window. The sun is lowering itself towards the horizon, casting the peonies just outside in a golden glow.

Jiang Cheng tenses. Truly, yesterday was not his proudest moment. Calling the older sect leader out on his self-isolation, going up in arms about places and belonging (like he knows so much about that), practically giving a speech… Yes, definitely not his proudest moment. Jiang Cheng’s no good at speeches.

“And?”, he asks, when no further words are forthcoming.

Lan Xichen hesitates, as if choosing his words slowly. Carefully.

“I will,” he finally says. “I’m going back at the end of the week.” His back straightens, squaring his shoulders like he’s steeling himself for something.

“Why?”

“I– I need a little more time. Just a few more days, to figure a few things out.”

He shuts his eyes tightly. Jiang Cheng’s brow furrows.

“That’s not what I was asking,” he says, gentling his voice as much as he knows how. “I was asking about your decision. The reasons for it.”

“Oh,” says Lan Xichen, eyes suddenly open again, wide and blinking. The sun catches them and turns them the exact shade of the honey sold in the marketplace in Lotus Pier. “My reasons.”

“I’ve neglected my duties for long enough, don’t you think? I can hardly call myself a sect leader if I don’t, well, lead my sect.” He’s trying for levity, Jiang Cheng can tell. He’s afraid of this decision, much as he was yesterday. What Jiang Cheng doesn’t get is why he’s choosing now to make it.

His incomprehension must show on his face, because all the air abruptly goes out of Lan Xichen. It’s like a switch has been flipped; the open expression on his face shutters, and his shoulders curve inwards slightly. So slightly that his posture barely changes, but Jiang Cheng hasn’t been spending nearly all his free time for a week watching Lan Xichen for nothing, and so for him, the tiny shift is louder than a scream.

There’s no way his gods-awful speech yesterday prompted this kind of reaction. Absolutely no way.

“I had a dream last night,” the other man confesses. Of course. Yet there’s no curl of satisfaction in Jiang Cheng’s stomach at the confirmation that he was right. Just a strange sort of sinking feeling that’s almost hollow.

“I saw…someone I lost a long time ago. And he told me –” Lan Xichen cuts himself off. Then breathes deep and starts again. “I realised that it’s time for me to move on.”

Even without him mentioning it, Jiang Cheng can hazard a guess at who Lan Xichen’s mysterious dream-figure was. He doesn’t feel angered by it, he tells himself, or disappointed. Or anything at all, really, other than relief. This is Lan Xichen’s choice to make. And he’s glad of it, because the other man deserves to leave this place. But despite everything he said yesterday, he can’t help poking at it.

“Is this your decision?”, he asks. Then, unable to stop himself, he adds, “or his?”

Opposite him, the older sect leader goes still. Jiang Cheng can see him warring with himself, the conflict in his eyes, and wants to kick himself for the question.

“Does it matter?”, Lan Xichen asks in reply, the sound of something broken in his voice. “As long as I do it, does it matter whose decision it is?”

“Maybe not to anyone else, but it will to you. You’ll know.” And that does matter.

“I’m glad you’re returning to your position,” Jiang Cheng says unexpectedly. “But only if it’s because you want to.”

There’s a sharp intake of breath from the other man, so sharp it’s almost a hiss. His reply, when it comes, is quiet, and Jiang Cheng nearly has to strain himself to hear it.

“I do want to. I don’t– I don’t want to be my father.”

Lan Xichen hangs his head. Jiang Cheng can see what such a simple admission has cost him. Its weight in shame and guilt. It twists something in his chest, because Jiang Cheng understands. The shame is his own as well; the guilt too. For as much as he admires his Ah-Die, as much as he tries every day to be the kind of sect leader Jiang Fengmian would have wanted him to be, he doesn’t want to be his father either. Not in any of the ways that count.

Even with Jin Ling, he emulates his mother’s parenting. Her high expectations, her harsh punishments when he fell short, her sharp words and cutting tongue. And maybe that means Jin Ling believes his uncle doesn’t like him very much, but Jiang Cheng would rather die than make the kid think he doesn’t love him.

For Lan Xichen, it’s completely different and yet exactly the same. The older man is no fool – Jiang Cheng would wager half his sect’s gold that Lan Xichen has always known exactly what rumours circulate about his family line. Father and son both.

(He doesn’t know much about Lan Xichen’s mother, but there’s enough hearsay for him to figure out that whatever happened to her, it was nothing good.)

“You’re no coward, Lan Xichen.” The words burst out of him without warning. And even as Jiang Cheng curses his lack of control over his own mouth, a tiny part of him is glad of it, because it’s the truth. More than that, though, it’s the truth that Lan Xichen needs to hear.

The other man looks away. “So that is what they’re saying about me these days. I’d guessed, but I didn’t know for sure.”

It’s the closest to bitter Jiang Cheng’s ever heard him. A smile curves his lips, but it’s a twisted mockery of the one he usually wears. Something in Jiang Cheng’s chest clenches painfully at the sight. Lan Xichen is beautiful, always, especially when he’s smiling, but not like this. Never like this.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t know what to say to that. It stands to reason; he’s never been good with his words anyway.

“Let them talk,” he says eventually. “They’re in no position to judge what they can’t understand.”

Lan Xichen’s gaze drifts back towards him. The smile on his face turns melancholic. “And do you judge, Wanyin? Do you think me spineless? Pathetic? Unable to move on?”

Though his words are accusatory, his tone is anything but. They sound, to Jiang Cheng, as though they are meant not for him but for Lan Xichen himself, listing weaknesses to convince himself of his own worthlessness.

“Whether or not I judge you and your decisions is not something you should care about.”

“Why?”, Lan Xichen asks in response. “Because you don’t understand? I think that out of all the people I’ve ever met, you would understand the best.”

There’s something there, hidden beneath the surface of Lan Xichen’s reply, but Jiang Cheng can’t see it. Yet he can make out the faint shape of it, like the dark silhouette of a water ghoul deep under a lake. It’s big. Very big. A lump grows in Jiang Cheng’s throat.

“If you leave – when you leave,” he manages, “it needs to be on your own terms. Not mine, or your uncle’s, or anyone else’s. Yours.”

“But yesterday… why?”

It’s nearly incoherent, but Jiang Cheng gets the gist of the question anyway. Lan Xichen is looking at him like he holds the answers to all the questions in the universe, like if he can just answer this one everything will be okay again. Jiang Cheng aches to tell him that’s not the case.

“You needed to see. It’s a choice you have to make –” here, Jiang Cheng pauses. When he finds his voice again, he continues: “you do need to make it. But when you do, it needs to be your decision.”

He knows it sounds ridiculous, the logic convoluted and nonsensical – even contradictory – but it’s the best he can do. And when Lan Xichen nods, he knows that the other man has heard what he’s been trying to say.

“Thank you,” is his answer. Jiang Cheng’s eyes follow the bob of his throat as he swallows. “I…I think I understand.”

It is so, so tempting to ask him if he means it, if he’s going to leave or stay – it’s all a mess, confusing and jumbled-up inside of Jiang Cheng’s head, but he keeps his mouth shut. He’s said enough on the subject as it is. Whatever Lan Xichen does next is up to him.

“Good,” he replies.

(That doesn’t mean Jiang Cheng doesn’t have a preferred outcome.)

Chapter Text

The sun has begun to set by the time Jiang Cheng finally leaves the little cottage. As always, Lan Xichen walks him to the edge of it, gaze lingering on his back as Jiang Cheng turns and disappears into the maze of corridors that lead back to the main buildings of the Cloud Recesses.

On the way back, he thinks about all they have discussed. By now, he’s gone over Lan Xichen’s words to him in his head nearly ten times. It’s giving him a headache, and so he turns his thoughts over to the conversation they had in the morning. His entire reason for still being on this damn mountain, in fact.

Truth be told, organising Jin Ling’s education here is harder than he thought it was going to be. Lan Xichen might be the most cooperative, nicest soul in the world, but that doesn’t change the fact that while Jiang Cheng has thought about sending his brat of a nephew here to study in the past, he’s never actually planned for it.

And Jiang Cheng…is not good with things he doesn’t plan for. They stress him out. Which is rather unfortunate, because all that life has thrown at him thus far has been things he most emphatically did not see coming. He really ought to be better at dealing with them.

Still, the fact remains that while Jin Ling is staying in this school, he damn well better learn something. It’s been some years since Jiang Cheng was a student here himself – he vaguely recalls sitting through Lan Qiren’s lectures on the different ways to dispose of various monsters and demons – and though he’s retained most of the information he learned back then, it’s all sort of been internalised to the point where he doesn’t really think about it before he uses it. Which is good in a fight, but it makes him next to useless as a teacher, and only marginally more useful when it comes to designing lesson plans.

He turns down another one of the winding corridors, heading to a part of the complex he hasn’t been in since his own school days. The Cloud Recesses boasts an impressive library – the largest collection of books in the world, in fact – which makes sense, given the general scholarly nature of its inhabitants.

Jiang Cheng recalls the shelves that line Lan Xichen’s living room wall, and the slight sagging of the wood under the weight of all the books it holds. Of course they’re all big readers.

Personally, Jiang Cheng isn’t one. Mostly, he just doesn’t have the time. When he does, well, reading has never been very enjoyable for him. It carries too many associations from his teen years, where if he wasn’t holding his sword it was a book in his hand instead, flipping through the pages, committing whole chunks of it to memory in the hope that maybe – just maybe – it would be enough. Enough to help him do decently on Lan Qiren’s next test, enough to show his father that look, Ah-Die, I’m working hard. I’m doing what you want. I’m being good.

Yeah. He’d rather not relive that feeling, thank you very much.

Still, necessity calls, and Jiang Cheng can crack open a damn book just fine when he wants to. The Cloud Recesses library is massive – he can find a couple scrolls about zombie-slaying techniques. No problem.

 


 

 

Thirty minutes – and at least fifteen scrolls – later, Jiang Cheng revises his previous statement: it’s a huge fucking problem.

Not with finding information. No, that bit’s easy. In fact, the issue is that it’s too easy. There are so many goddamn books lying around that it’s like looking through a haystack to find a specific piece of hay rather than a needle.

He looks down at where his finger has come to rest on another book – something or other about Cultivation Techniques for Intermediates (the Lans are fucking terrible at naming, is what he’s discovered in the past half hour of browsing through the life’s work of a good number of their ancestors) – pulls it off the shelf, cracks it open, and sighs.

Useless. Half the stuff in here, Jin Ling already knows. The other half, even Jiang Cheng doesn’t know. It’s the same with most of the other books he’s come across thus far. They’re all either full of basic information that most thirteen-year-old disciples have already mastered, or spouting the most obscure shit Jiang Cheng has never heard of in his life. Or, in the case of this particular scroll, an odd mixture of both.

He puts it back. Then he glances down again at the pile of books in his arms, considers for a moment, and puts it all back.

(Okay, maybe his time here hasn’t been completely ill-spent. He’s got a better idea of what his nephew needs to learn than he did half an hour ago. But still, he can’t help feeling like this was a waste of time.)

Jiang Cheng sighs again. At this hour, the library is completely empty. All the disciples are usually eating in the mess hall if he remembers correctly. Sometime in the next few minutes, he’s supposed to meet with Jin Ling for dinner as well.

He’d better go, then. The kid will pitch a fit if he’s late. Not, of course, that Jiang Cheng will let him get away with that, with Jin Ling’s recent misadventure at the cold springs so fresh in his mind. But Jiang Cheng has to set an example.

Just one more book, he thinks. He’ll just check one more, and then he’ll go.

It’s a familiar decision; he can’t count all the times he skipped meals to study or train on his own as a teenager. That stopped after the first few months of their stay in Cloud Recesses, though. With him and Wei Wuxian practically living out of each other’s pockets, his brother noticed after the second time Jiang Cheng passed out in the practice yard after-hours, and quickly put an end to that.

Jiang Cheng scans the titles of the books in front of him. That one there – General Tactics To Relieve Possession – looks promising. He sort of remembers Lan Qiren mentioning something like that in class one day. Or perhaps he was talking about demonic cultivation.

He considers for a moment, then shrugs and reaches for the book anyway. There’s always tomorrow.

The book is difficult to pull out. Everything on the ridiculously long shelf is packed so tightly together that it’s nigh impossible to remove any one thing without sending the rest of them toppling. Jiang Cheng gives it a go anyway and tugs on the spine.

The corner slides free, and for a moment it looks like there won’t be a problem at all. Until something catches, there’s a bit of resistance, and then suddenly Jiang Cheng’s effort to overcome it sends half the contents of the shelf sprawling across the floor.

There are books everywhere. Some lying half-open, others at least conveniently closed, thank the gods, and somehow, one of them has ended up underneath another shelf entirely, face-down and open.

Fuck!”, he swears explosively, and is glad that there is no one around to hear him when the sound echoes in the enclosed space. Good fucking job, he remarks to himself, before bending down to pick up the mess he’s made.

He does the easy ones first, moving on to the books that have fallen farther away, muttering curses to himself all the while. Finally, he’s only left with the one under the opposite bookshelf.

Jiang Cheng lowers himself to his knees and stretches a hand underneath the lowest shelf. It’s dusty and frankly rather disgusting – trust him to find the one part of Cloud Recesses that isn’t completely spick and span – but his fingers close around the pages after only a few seconds of feeling around. He pulls it back out.

The cover is nondescript, simple brown leather with a few elegant characters written on it in ink. Genealogies Of The Cultivation Sects. Utterly boring. The only remarkable thing about the book is its size: its thickness measures nearly Jiang Cheng’s whole hand.

Still, it belongs to the Lan sect and he’s a guest here, so it’s politeness that makes him flip the book over to smooth out any pages that may have been crumpled in the fall. He glances down, running his fingers over a crease in the page, and can’t help taking in a couple of the words.

The book is open to a page on the Wen clan. He sees Wen Ruohan’s name there. Wen Xu. Wen Qing and Wen Ning. Wen Chao. Below that, a note added in lighter ink, about Wen Zhuliu’s addition to the family annals.

His fingers still. Something sparks inside of Jiang Cheng, hot and stinging. He wants to close the book, but his eyes are drawn to the inked-black characters. He wants to snap it shut, but he can’t look away.

The genealogy is comprehensive, listing the birthdates of every person it names. The names of their weapons, their courtesy names, their distinguishing features. The details of their deaths.

Wen Chao. Killed in Nightless City by the Yiling Patriarch, Wei Wuxian.

Bile rises in Jiang Cheng’s throat. He remembers the sting of the discipline whip as it hit his skin. The burning came later, after, but at first, all he could feel was the sharpness of it.

He forces himself to look away. Tells himself to close the book, and forces his uncooperative fingers to obey. But before they can, he catches sight of another line of characters, far below, at the bottom of the page.

Wen Yuan.

The name sounds familiar. Born eighteen years ago. Eighteen years and two weeks, almost to the day.

Birthmark located on the collarbone. Shaped like a star with four points.

That, too, sounds familiar. Where–?

Fingers of ice stroke his spine. He knows. He has seen it before, on a moonlit night by the cold springs. His nephew, caught with his hands all over another boy, blushing and stammering. And the other boy, panicked, pulling his robes over his bare chest. Obscuring a birthmark on his collarbone. It was barely a moment, but he knows what he saw. A four-pointed star like ink on his skin.

The boy. Lan Sizhui, two weeks after his eighteenth birthday. Lan Yuan.

No – Wen Yuan.

The pieces fall into place with a sickening clarity. Wei Wuxian’s insistence that the boy was adopted. The caged look in his eyes as he avoided saying where from. Wei Wuxian’s ties with the Wen clan. Wen Ning’s protectiveness. The boy’s own avoidance of him that can’t be explained away by simple apprehension of a protective future in-law.

No. No. It can’t be.

But even below that, there is a note. Adopted into the Gusu Lan sect. Son of Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian.

It can’t be. They’re all dead. Jiang Cheng killed them all.

He feels heat on his skin. Phantom flames caught on the wood of his home, splintered and burning like so much kindling. Licking at flesh. Dead flesh – all the people that he used to know, piled into mountains in his mother’s training yard.

It can’t be. All these years – he’s safe. He has to be.

Zidian sparks on his finger. But the sparks don’t fall to the paper beneath. They don’t catch, not like they did that night. Not like they do every night in his dreams.

It can’t be. But it is.

The flames work their way inside him. Into his lungs, choking him so he can’t breathe. It’s fine. He can already feel his mind detaching from his body, not shrinking inside him but floating away, untouchable. Soon he won’t feel anything at all.

Distantly, Jiang Cheng finishes smoothing out the crease in the paper. He shuts the book. Places it back on the shelf. Then he stands up and leaves.

Somewhere far away and faded, he can hear screaming.

Chapter Text

“Where is he?”, Jin Ling asks impatiently, arms folded across his chest. “It’s been twenty minutes already.”

Sizhui, from where he’s sitting across the table, a book in hand, gives him a look. “Ten, Jin Ling. It’s been ten minutes.”

Even so, Jin Ling’s eyebrows pull into a frown. For the past twenty – ten, then – minutes, he’s been in the room he and his uncle agreed to have dinner in, waiting for said uncle. It’s not a big concern; or at least, it wouldn’t be if the uncle in question was Wei Wuxian. But his Jiu-jiu

Jiu-jiu is never late.

In fact, he’s so frequently early to everything that Jin Ling is used to yelling back when his uncle scolds him for showing up late, because he’s usually on time and it’s just Jiu-jiu being unreasonable. The whole of Lotus Pier knows that he gets up at three every morning, for gods’ sake. Probably to catch wandering disciples out of bed or scold a stray servant on the night shift, is what Jin Ling’s always thought.

(For the past few years, though, he’s had a nagging suspicion that it might be something else. But his uncle has vehemently denied it at every turn, so Jin Ling is content to keep his assumptions.)

The fact remains that Uncle is always, always on time or early. Not showing up to a meeting ten minutes after the stipulated time is very far out of character for him, especially with how much he likes to nag Jin Ling about punctuality. He says as much to Sizhui, who then fixes him with a placid smile.

“If you’re so worried about your uncle, perhaps you should go look for him,” Sizhui suggests reasonably. Entirely too reasonably. Jin Ling flushes automatically.

“I’m not worried about him!”, he protests. “It’s just…not normal, is all.”

A lame finish. It’s true, though. Jin Ling doesn’t need to worry about his uncle; Jiu-jiu can take care of himself. But it’s strange, and Jin Ling doesn’t like not knowing what’s going on.

“If you say so,” is Sizhui’s response. By this time, he’s set his book down. He doesn’t even look surprised when Jin Ling stands up anyway and walks out of the room without so much as an explanation – just follows behind without a word.

From there, it’s only a short walk back to the corridor where Jin Ling and his uncle’s rooms are located. Jin Ling spends most of it trying to come up with reasons why Jiu-jiu would be late.

“Maybe he’s sleeping,” he suggests to Sizhui, who is remaining very quiet and expressionless. It looks as though he’s trying not to laugh. Jin Ling goes on regardless. “If he’s been sleeping this whole time, I’ll scold him, I really will. All this time he’s been lecturing me on punctuality–”

They reach Jiu-jiu’s room, and Jin Ling stops abruptly outside the door. It’s slightly ajar, a sliver of candlelight cast on the floor beneath the crack. A prickle of wrongness slides over Jin Ling’s skin.

Whether he’s in his room or somewhere else, Jiu-jiu always locks his door. He never leaves it open, and he makes everyone who wants to come in knock at least twice before they enter. The hallway is completely quiet too, which isn’t that unusual in and of itself, but for some reason, it adds to Jin Ling’s unease.

He knocks twice on the door and waits for the inevitable ‘come in’. It doesn’t come.

Jiu-jiu?”, he calls. There’s no answer. He tries again and gets the same results. A glance back at Sizhui gives him no explanations either. (He doesn’t know why he expected it to.)

Jin Ling sets his palm against the door and pushes it open slowly. The hinges don’t even creak. He steps into the room after it, though Sizhui stays out in the hall. Jin Ling can’t really blame him – his uncle really is quite terrifying, if you don’t know how to handle him. Not that Jin Ling does either, but he’s got a better idea than most.

Add that to Sizhui’s “special situation” and well, it’s understandable why he might want to avoid Jin Ling’s uncle if possible. It’s already half a miracle his boyfriend has followed him out this far.

Turning his attention from the doorway, Jin Ling takes in the rest of the room. It’s not empty, as he’d first thought from the quiet of the corridor outside. The bed is made perfectly, not a single wrinkle on it anywhere, because that’s not where the room’s occupant is.

His Jiu-jiu is sitting cross-legged on the floor between the bed and the table. He’s still in his formal clothes, Sandu strapped to his waist as well. His eyes are closed, head bowed as if meditating. Jin Ling can’t hear his breathing, though, and alarm bells begin to sound inside his head.

There’s something wrong with his uncle. Something very wrong, apparent from the way he hadn’t even looked up when Jin Ling came in. But worse than that: when Jin Ling looks further down, Jiu-jiu has Zidian out in whip form, held loosely in his right hand while the razor-sharp end is wrapped tight around the fingers of his left. And it’s crackling, throwing violet sparks brighter and farther than Jin Ling’s ever seen it do outside of a real fight.

Something’s happened, and Jin Ling doesn’t know what. His stomach fills with lead.

Jiu-jiu?”, he calls again, and when Uncle doesn’t respond, he lays his hand on his shoulder.

His eyes snap open. Jin Ling almost breathes a sigh of relief, but then he catches a glimpse of the look in them. Vacant, empty, like he’s seeing things that aren’t really there. Like he isn’t even really there.

The dread turns to panic. He’s never seen Uncle like this before. Like a shell without the person in it. Whatever Uncle is – strict, by turns snappish and downright wrathful, but always argumentative – he’s never just blank. He’s hard to predict but easy to read, and Jin Ling is suddenly terrified because he doesn’t know what this means.

“I came to tell you it’s time for dinner,” he says. His voice is wavering but he can’t bring himself to hate it right now. His uncle would hate it even more. He’s told him countless times to speak with confidence, you hear me? No one’s going to listen to a sect leader who doesn’t sound sure of himself.

Uncle doesn’t react.

This can’t be that serious, he reasons with himself. Nothing’s happened recently to set Uncle off – Jin Ling’s been relatively well-behaved for the past few days, and everything was fine this morning when Uncle woke him up and kicked him down to Caiyi Village to buy a few jars of Tianzi-Xiao for the servants back home. Even his relationship with Wei Wuxian has been on the mend lately, as embarrassing as Jin Ling’s other uncle is. Jin Ling’s overreacting. He has to be.

But the pounding of his heart doesn’t slow. If anything, it speeds up.

He turns back to the doorway, where Sizhui is standing now, having come halfway in to watch the proceedings with a strange look on his face.

“Sizhui,” he says helplessly, hoping his boyfriend will somehow know how to fix the situation. But Sizhui doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t have time, because at the sound of the name, the atmosphere shifts and Uncle is on his feet, Zidian suddenly unwound from his left hand and held out in front of him like he’s going to use it.

Jin Ling cries out. Uncle’s left hand, now free of the whip, hangs by his side. There are slices on his skin where Zidian has cut into it; as Jin Ling watches, blood wells up to the surface. It’s running down his fingers, but Uncle doesn’t even notice.

His eyes aren’t empty anymore, but this is no improvement, because all Jin Ling can see in them is fire. Sizhui comes in and stands beside him, though Jin Ling sees his mouth tighten.

“Sect Leader Jiang,” he says, and Jin Ling marvels at how even his voice is, “are you all right?”

Uncle’s head whips towards him so fast Jin Ling almost feels an answering pain in his neck. The blood drains from his face and Uncle goes pale, his eyes still burning with fury. He looks…inhuman.

“Get away from him,” he says, cold and cutting.

“Uncle–” Jin Ling protests, at the same time Sizhui says, “Sect Leader Jiang–”

“Shut up.” Uncle cuts them both off. He looks past Jin Ling like he isn’t even there; looks at Sizhui like he wants to rip his head off his shoulders. “Filthy Wen-dog.”

He says it low and soft, but Jin Ling hears every word. Cold washes over him head to toe, like he’s been dropped in an icy river with armour weighing him down.

No.

He knows.

Next to him, Sizhui’s face is the same colour as his robes. He’s trembling. Jin Ling wants to reach out for him, to hold his hand or something until he stops shaking, but he doesn’t know what his uncle will do. He wants to think everything will be fine, that Uncle will calm down and they can talk everything out, that Jin Ling can explain that this was all a misunderstanding and everything will be fine. That Uncle won’t do anything, will listen because they’re family, because he loves Jin Ling and Jin Ling loves Sizhui and everything will be fine.

But Jin Ling isn’t a fool. He’s grown up with Jiu-jiu’s rages. He’s seen Jiu-jiu return from some other place and sit in on his lessons with blood on his face that isn’t his. Jin Ling used to point it out nervously to him afterwards, and Uncle would wipe it off with his sleeve like it was sweat, a look of disgust written all over his face. All through Jin Ling’s childhood, those were the only times he was ever truly afraid of his uncle.

He’ll kill Sizhui. Jin Ling knows he exaggerates things a lot, but this isn’t one of those times. He’s really, truly afraid for Sizhui’s life.

Jiu-jiu, calm down. We can talk this out–”

“Shut up,” Uncle snaps again, still not looking at him. “He should be dead. He should be rotting in the ground with everyone else in his filthy fucking family.”

Jin Ling hardly dares to breathe. Beside him, Sizhui’s shaking intensifies. Oh, gods. Oh, gods.

How could this have happened? Everything was fine, and then–

He doesn’t even know what went wrong. He doesn’t know how to fix this. Jin Ling knows the Wens are a sore point for Sizhui, knows Sizhui hates that all everyone else sees in his family is murderers and monsters. Even hates himself a little for it, too. Jin Ling also knows that his uncle is one of those people who sees Sizhui’s family that way, that that’s how he’ll see Sizhui too.

This is his fault. Sizhui told him when they first got together that he should run as far and as fast as he could in the other direction, because nothing good could ever come of getting involved with a Wen. And Jin Ling didn’t listen, because everyone knew that Sizhui was as good as it was possible to be, and how could anyone ever think otherwise? Sizhui’s blood didn’t matter, he said, only who he was as a person. It wasn’t wrong – Jin Ling still believes that much – but he realises now that no one else will see it that way.

He was stupid, and now Sizhui is going to pay. This is all his fault.

Jiu-jiu, please. Listen–”

But just like every time before, his uncle doesn’t let him finish. He takes a step forward, just so maybe his uncle will look at him and listen, but as soon as he gets close, Uncle’s left hand flies out and pushes him away.

Jin Ling stumbles with the force of it, catching himself against the wall. That hurt. He looks down; there’s a bloody imprint on the front of his robes, scarlet against gold in the shape of a palm and five fingers. The blood isn’t his.

“Shut the fuck up,” Uncle says for the third time. He sounds dangerous, murderous, and Jin Ling realises that he hasn’t yet raised his voice above normal speech. He almost wishes he would yell. “Don’t fucking protect him. He’s not worth it. He’ll get you killed – it’s what they all do. Or maybe, if you’re really lucky and he really likes you, he’ll kill everyone you love instead.”

Suddenly, the tension that’s been building inside of Jin Ling snaps. This is his uncle, yes, but that’s Sizhui. Sizhui, who’s never hurt anyone in his life, who only ever raises his sword in defense of the innocent, who uses his guqin to make polite noises at spirits and carries Jin Ling back when he gets hurt on night-hunts.

“Don’t talk about him like that! Sizhui isn’t – he’s not any of the things you said! He’s not a monster, Uncle, and you don’t get to treat him like he is!”

It bursts out of him, loud in comparison with his uncle’s near-whispered accusations, and he’s petrified for a moment before it gets swept away by righteous anger. Sizhui doesn’t need to hear this shit, and Jin Ling would be no kind of a boyfriend at all if he just stood here and let him take it. Even from the man who raised him.

His uncle only laughs hollowly, the empty look back in his eyes. Inexplicably, it’s coexisting with the rage, and for all his own indignation, Jin Ling suppresses a shiver.

“Oh, but he is. He’s a Wen; they destroy everything they touch. They burn it until there’s nothing left.” Zidian crackles even louder, like dry logs placed over a fire. “They killed your grandparents, you know. Your father. Your mother.”

Jin Ling swallows against the lump rising in his throat. It doesn’t do any good – the tears spill over anyway. He hates them, hates how weak they make him look in the face of his uncle’s strength. Why can’t he just listen?

“But Sizhui didn’t! He was only a baby when my parents died, he didn’t do anything!”

He hears Sizhui swallow, too, and then he’s crying. That shouldn’t be happening. Sizhui isn’t supposed to cry. Nothing should ever make him have to.

Uncle’s arm twitches. Zidian lashes out. Suddenly, the desk splits in half. There are scorch marks on the wall. Jin Ling trembles, but doesn’t back down. He can’t. He and Sizhui are good cultivators – Sizhui especially – but neither of them are at Jiu-jiu’s level yet. If Jin Ling can’t stand up to him, Sizhui might end up like that desk.

“Maybe not,” his uncle replies. “But he will. They always do. Your father–”

“You’re not my father!”

Everything goes silent. Sizhui’s eyes widen. Jin Ling’s heart almost stops. He hadn’t meant to say that. It just…came out.

But the biggest change is in his uncle. It’s like he was a ball filled with air, and Jin Ling’s come along and poked a hole in him. All the anger rushes out – Jin Ling can see it leave him – leaving only that terrifying blankness. Zidian reverts to ring form, even as a drop of blood oozes from the cuts on his hand and hits the floor.

“You’re right,” he says. It’s even softer than before. “I’m not your father.”

“Uncle–”

“Get out.”

“­Jiu-jiu, please–”

“I said, get out. You want to run around with a Wen, be my guest. But don’t come crying to me when he crushes everything you hold dear. As you said, I’m not your father. I’m just the lucky bastard who got called in to be your fucking last resort.”

“Stop it, please Uncle, just listen to me–”

He takes a step closer, uncaring that he’s begging, that he’s sixteen and crying in front of his uncle like he’s five years old again. He can fix this, he knows it, Uncle just has to listen and everything will be okay again. If he can just make him listen.

Jiu-jiu shoves him again, leaving another bloody handprint.

“Get the fuck out!”

Gone are the threatening whispers; he roars. There’s a hand on his sword and Sandu emerges from its sheath, the first three inches of gleaming steel. Jin Ling is sobbing so hard he thinks he might throw up, and this is the worst fight he’s ever had with his uncle in his whole life.

For the first time, he’s the target of Sandu-Shengshou’s legendary rage. His uncle, who is the only living blood relative he has left. The man who taught him to walk, to shoot a bow, to fly on a sword.

Jin Ling grabs Sizhui by the arm and runs out of the room.

Chapter Text

After Jin Ling leaves, Jiang Cheng trashes his room. He uses Zidian to reduce the ruined desk to a stack of firewood, good for nothing more than kindling. But it’s not enough. It doesn’t soothe the rage in his soul, or the awful feeling that everything good and pure that he has left has just been destroyed.

So Jiang Cheng siphons his spiritual energy away from his hands, lets Zidian revert back to ring form. And proceeds to smash everything breakable in the room.

He doesn’t use his lingqi. That would be cheating. And besides, he doesn’t want to think about the golden core sitting in his chest right now – not now, not ever. Instead, he uses his hands and his feet. He throws things; he kicks them; he demolishes a chair, a shelf and all the dishes in the kitchen until splinters and porcelain shards litter the floor.

When he’s done wrecking the furniture, Jiang Cheng punches the wall. He’s strong, but it’s stone and so the impact jars every bone in his arm, all the way up to his teeth and sends a shockwave through his entire body. He feels his knuckles crunch and knows they’ll be healed by tomorrow.

It’s that that brings him out of the mindless haze he’s fallen into somewhere between Jin Ling’s departure and his current sorry state. Gods, Jin Ling. He cradles his bruised (and probably swelling) hand against his chest and sags against the wall.

Jin Ling and the Lan boy. No – the Wen boy. Jiang Cheng can feel himself getting angry again, but it’s tempered with despair. His nephew’s words ring in his ears.

You’re not my father!

He looks down at his hands, one cut and one bruised, one half going purple and the other still weeping blood, slower now that it’s begun to dry and congeal. All these years, Jiang Cheng has always known where he stands. He isn’t Jin Ling’s father, no; the boy was right about that. He’s not his mother, either. And he’s been fine with that – those aren’t his roles to fill.

His job is to make sure Jin Ling is safe and happy. That’s it. Jiang Cheng thinks of his nephew’s tear-stained face, the hitches in his voice as he begged him to listen. The way he flinched away from him like he thought Jiang Cheng would strike him, even though Jiang Cheng has never, ever hit his nephew. He’s a failure at even that one simple task, but then what else is new?

And the Wen boy, Wen Yuan…

The old rage rises in him at the name, just as it always does, accompanied by Wen Chao’s grinning face. That clan took everything from him: his family, his home, the last fragile bits of innocence he’d managed to cling onto after seventeen years. They took everything.

And yet, the people Jiang Cheng loves keep choosing them. Always. First his brother, now his nephew. Why? Is his everything worth so little?

There, sitting on the floor in a borrowed room, surrounded by the wreckage of borrowed things in a sect that is not his own, Jiang Cheng realises for the first time the true source of his hatred. It’s not just what they did to him, though that is part of it. What they took from him…he never had it in the first place.

He’s blamed them all this time for the loss of his mother, his father, his sister, his brother, because it was easier to believe that they’d been taken from him. That they’d wanted to stay, that they never would have left him if they’d had the choice. It was easier to blame the Wens for taking that choice away from them, than it was to acknowledge that everyone on his long fucking list had had that choice, and their answer hadn’t been him.

His mother had wanted him to be strong more than she’d wanted him to be loved. His father – well, his father had been walking away from Jiang Cheng since before he was ten, and nothing he did was ever enough to make him turn back around.

Ah-Jie… Ah-Jie had loved him, he knows. Really and truly. But he’d never been her first choice. Had never smiled bright enough, never laughed loud enough to be first in her heart, and when she finally found the love she deserved with that golden fucking peacock, her youngest brother fell even further behind.

He doesn’t blame her – them, really – for leaving him behind. Hell, sometimes he wishes he could do the same. But it hurt. It hurt too much for him to acknowledge, and so he turned it into another reason for him to hate someone other than himself.

It still hurts. Everything hurts – a jumbled-up mess of rage and pain and sadness like a fog so thick Jiang Cheng can barely see his hand held out in front of him. It’s so loud inside his head.

He wants it to be quiet for a little while.

Jiang Cheng lurches to his feet, walks towards the only corner of the room he hasn’t touched this whole time. There are jars there, the wine he asked Jin Ling to run down to Caiyi Village and get this morning to take back for the servants when he leaves. He’s had alcohol before – been drunk before too, obviously, the hideous patchwork on his chest is proof enough of that – and he knows that despite the haze of hangovers and bad decisions the morning after, the night itself is sweet relief. He just wants to stop himself from thinking, and no one’s here to care how he does it.

(It’s better than the other option.)

He kneels and reaches for the first jar. Tells himself just enough to forget. Just for a little while.

 


 

 

Three – no, is that five? – jars later, and Jiang Cheng can’t remember why he was so upset in the first place. But it doesn’t quite seem to have worked, because the awful blue haze hasn’t gone away and he still feels like shit. With the added bonus of misplacing every bit of coordination he might once have possessed, losing his balance when he tries to stand up, and falling to the floor when his foot goes here instead of there.

It takes him another two tries, but he finally gets himself upright again. He should go to bed; really, he should, because the alcohol and everything that has happened today that he can’t remember has made him so very tired. But he looks over at the bed, the only thing unbroken in the wreckage that is the rest of the room – when did he do all of that? – and the thought of sleeping here turns his stomach.

Jiang Cheng also knows, somehow, that if he goes to sleep now, the nightmares will come. He’d rather stay up all night instead.

And so he pushes off the wall and staggers out of his room, trying to lock the door behind him but struggling to fit the key in the lock and eventually giving up. There’s nothing worth stealing in there anyway, not unless one has a taste for broken chair legs and the jagged handles of broken teapots.

He turns right and starts walking – slowly, more clumsily than not, arm thrown out against the wall because his balance has been shot by all the wine he’s drunk. He doesn’t know where he’s going, doesn’t have a destination in mind, but there’s an itch in his veins so he keeps walking anyway.

Only a tiny part of him is still aware enough to hope that no one sees him.

 


 

 

Lan Huan is in the living room, putting things away and getting ready for bed when the front door makes a noise like someone’s crashed into it. Not hard – just like they simply weren’t looking where they were going and met a wall instead of the next step in their path.

He pauses with his hand on a stack of documents he’s just finished signing off on. Who could be here at this time of night? It’s a little after nine; the only reason he isn’t already asleep is that there had been two more reports he’d wanted to get through and he’d delayed his bedtime a few minutes to meet that goal. No one else in Cloud Recesses would even dream of being out-of-doors at this time of night – the rest of them are probably all in bed themselves.

Lan Huan moves the documents to their proper place and makes his way to the door. He opens it.

“Hello?”, he’s about to say, but it turns into an undignified yelp when something large and heavy pitches into his arms. No – make that someone.

Muffled cursing comes from the person he’s kind of-sort of holding. It’s that and the familiar violet of the intruder’s robes that clue Lan Huan into who this is. Shock takes root in his chest.

“Wanyin?”, he asks, taking hold of the other man’s shoulders and pushing him backwards so Lan Huan can see his face. “What happened?”

The younger sect leader looks – pardon Lan Huan’s language – frankly, like shit. His face is pale, eyes bloodshot and in the dim light spilling from the inside of the cottage, Lan Huan can see clear streaks shining on his cheeks.

Jiang Wanyin barely seems to notice his own tears. He mumbles something incoherent, then his knees buckle and he grabs onto Lan Huan’s shoulder to steady himself. Out of the corner of his eye, Lan Huan notices a flash of red. Before the other man can protest, Lan Huan has taken his hand off his shoulder and is examining it.

The skin is streaked with blood, dried and sticky, and there are long, thin slices in it, as if Jiang Wanyin was holding on too hard to the blade of a knife. Those definitely weren’t there this afternoon. Lan Huan’s stomach twists.

He reaches for the man’s other hand, but Jiang Wanyin pulls it out of reach.

“M’okay,” he insists, words slurred. It’s the first thing he’s said that Lan Huan’s been able to recognise as human speech. “S’just a little cut. No big deal.”

Lan Huan’s worry intensifies.

“Wanyin, are you drunk?”

“No?”, he says, but it comes out like a question. He clenches his fist, and a sharp gasp escapes his mouth. “Maybe?”

Oh, no. This is bad. This is very bad. Lan Huan has absolutely no idea how to handle this. And there’s obviously something very wrong with Jiang Wanyin, even though he doesn’t know what it is.

He reaches for the cut hand, and surprisingly, the other man lets him take it. He pries it open, unfolding the fingers to lessen the pressure on the gashes. Jiang Wanyin doesn’t even make a sound.

Then Lan Huan pulls back. Another tear is running down the other sect leader’s cheek. He doesn’t seem to notice that one either. Lan Huan’s heart twists in tandem with his stomach, and he can’t resist reaching up to wipe it away.

At the contact, Jiang Wanyin lets out a soft, broken sound, then immediately looks angry at himself for showing such weakness. Lan Huan is torn between laughing and crying himself. This man, always fighting. Doesn’t he know Lan Huan won’t judge him? Heaven knows he’s seen Lan Huan cry enough times.

He grasps Jiang Wanyin’s forearm, and the other man lets himself be tugged into the living room he was in just this afternoon. Lan Huan doesn’t have any chairs – except the one, but it’s more appropriate as a torture device and hardly counts as furniture – so he makes him sit on the floor. As Lan Huan retrieves bandages and salve from a barely-opened drawer near the bookshelves, he watches the younger sect leader out of the corner of his eye.

Jiang Wanyin is looking around the room as though he’s never been in it before, eyes wider than he’s ever seen them. Now and then his gaze breaks and darts to Lan Huan, where it remains for another few seconds before slowly drifting back to the sparse furniture. He is by turns vulnerable and terrifying. Lan Huan can’t stop his mind from circling right back to that first question: what on earth has happened to make him react this way?

When he returns with the medical supplies and seats himself, he takes Jiang Wanyin’s hand again. Spreads a thin layer of salve over the wounds – the other man doesn’t even hiss at the sting – and bandages it. He does the same with Jiang Wanyin’s other hand, once the man stops being stubborn and shows it to him. It’s horribly bruised; the first two fingers are swollen far beyond their normal size.

It will be down by tomorrow – Jiang Wanyin’s high cultivation level will have taken care of it – but right now, it must hurt.

Lan Huan doesn’t want him to suffer any more than he needs to.

Then, suddenly, a strange nosie escapes Jiang Wanyin’s mouth, halfway between a gasp and a strangled cry. Lan Huan’s head jerks up. The other man is staring at him, the look on his face the most lucid he’s been tonight.

“Did you know?”

His voice is clear but wavering. As though he’s afraid of the answer. But Lan Huan can’t understand what he’s so afraid of. Can’t even understand what he’s asking.

“What do you mean?”, Lan Huan asks back, keeping his tone as gentle as possible, the verbal equivalent of the healer’s soothing touches he’d been attempting to mimic with the salve and bandages.

But the other man doesn’t reply. Just turns his face away as though that were answer enough. “Of course you did.”

His shoulders have begun to shake. Lan Huan reaches out for him, but his hand stills in midair. He remembers what happened last time. He wants to hold him, to comfort him, but he doesn’t know how far gone Jiang Wanyin is into his own mind, and that alone stays his hand.

“What are you talking about, Wanyin?” Lan Huan fights to remain calm. “I’ll answer any question you have; you just have to tell me what it is you want to know.”

“I shouldn’t have come here. I don’t know what I was thinking–”

As a matter of fact, Lan Huan too would like to know what he was thinking. He doesn’t say it, though. And when Jiang Wanyin makes an abortive movement as if to rise, Lan Huan does the only thing he can think of. He grabs his wrist again, holds firm so the other man isn’t going anywhere. In his inebriated state, Jiang Wanyin won’t be able to break his grip.

“Tell me what’s wrong.” Lan Huan means to sound stern and commanding, but it comes out like a plea. It’s those words that do it. He can see the exact moment something breaks in Jiang Wanyin’s eyes.

“It was a lie!”, he yells, and it’s like a dam has broken. “It was all a fucking lie! Years and years – I thought they were all dead, but there’s always more of them.”

He’s shouting now, uncaring that his voice is ringing, deafening, within the narrow walls of Lan Huan’s tiny living room. And Lan Huan…

Lan Huan’s blood turns to ice. Has he found out – does he know? No, he can’t. It’s a secret that only a few are privy to. Him, Shu-Fu, Wangji and his husband. Sizhui himself. Not even the elders know.

How?

“Why?”, the other man asks, but Lan Huan can barely hear him for the roaring in his ears. Oh, gods. What has Jiang Wanyin done? Has he hurt Sizhui? Has he– oh, gods.

“They killed everyone. They took everything. Why do they get to survive when we didn’t?”

It’s that that shocks Lan Huan back to reality. Instantly, he knows that his worries, if not unfounded, are at least untrue. This isn’t a man in the throes of murderous rage. The blood on his hands is his own, not Lan Huan’s nephew’s. This is a man broken, who has had his carefully pieced-together world ripped apart for the umpteenth time and is dealing with it the only way he knows how: lashing out.

Lan Huan should have realised how deep it ran. He had an inkling of it the other day by the cold springs when Jiang Wanyin fell apart in his arms, desperately muttering to himself about how they were all dead, how they can’t hurt him because they’