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World Where Roses Bloom

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It has been a few months after the mess at Guanyin Temple. At his sparsely decorated office in Lotus Pier, Jiang Cheng was rubbing his temples, trying to will away the throbbing in his head and quench the nauseating roiling of his stomach. He had been constantly having nausea, migraines and dizziness for a few years now, but it was getting worse. He would have to choke down some bitter-tasting shit to get past it. Jiang Cheng cringes and holds back a gag at the thought.

"Son of a-"

"Sect Leader Jiang!" A disciple bursts into the office without knocking.

"What is so important that you make such a racket?" Jiang Cheng is scowling, he would have shouted, but he knew his head would not thank him for that, lest he finds his breakfast making a reappearance. He schools his expression into a harsh scowl, eyes narrowing and flinty.

The disciple audibly gulps, his hands wringing each other and complexion pallid with fear.

"The Yiling Patriarch is here! Along with Hanguang-jun and Zewu-jun, they are waiting at-" The nervous disciple continues blabbering, sweat beading his brow.

Jiang Cheng feels the throbbing in his head intensify and hit him in a wave. He swallows a whimper of pain, his eyes closing to attempt to hold off the assault against his head. The action did not go unnoticed by the disciple, who started tittering about how Jiang Cheng did not need to receive the trio if he wasn't feeling well.

"-should rest."

"I'll meet them, stop your fussing and scram." Jiang Cheng snaps as he scowls fiercely down at the disciple. The disciple disappears in a flurry of purple robes.

Wincing, Jiang Cheng stands up and almost staggers from the dizziness. Great, dizziness, nausea and a migraine. A fucking great combination. He scowls and then plasters what he hopes is a neutral expression, before striding out of his office to the entrance of Lotus Pier where the trio waited.

Wei Wuxian has always been the same. Brighter than the fucking sun, noisy and always a shit-eating grin on his face. It was no surprise that even with his new body, he was still chattering away animatedly and waving his hands around. Hanguang-jun expression was as expressive as ever, which was, not at all. He was giving the occasional nod while Wei Wuxian rambled. Zewu-jun was smiling, but for some reason, it was rubbing Jiang Cheng the wrong way. It looked too...fake. Like Zewu-jun was just smiling for the sake of smiling and not because he wanted to.

As they caught sight of him, Wei Wuxian's voice trailed off and a crease appeared between his brows.

"Zewu-jun, Hanguang-jun," Jiang Cheng bows to the two alphas in greeting, seeing black spots dance across his vision. Dangerous, he thought. It wouldn't do to pass out in front of them, would it? He could barely think of anything more embarrassing.

"Wei Wuxian," he adds, as an afterthought.

Wei Wuxian grins brightly at him. "We're here for the Lantern Festival, you said we could come to visit Lotus Pier!"

He remembered. Looking at the three men in front of him, including the problematic Yiling Patriarch. He cursed himself vehemently for setting himself up for trouble. He really knew how to make things worse for himself, didn't he?

But then, how could he not try to fix things? After he learned that the golden core in his chest was given to him by Wei Wuxian, after all that happened in Guanyin Temple, he couldn't find the strength to continue hating him. So, as they were leaving, Jiang Cheng tells Wei Wuxian that he could visit Lotus Pier if he wanted to.

"Right. Let me show you your rooms." He says curtly and strides away.

He hears Wei Wuxian loudly telling Hanguang-jun and Zewu-jun about the things that they would be able to do in town, with lanterns, Yunmeng Cuisine and fireworks. He walks mechanically, back straight and face set in a deep frown.

Hanguang-jun and Wei Wuxian disappears into Wei Wuxian's room, he gave them separate rooms, he didn't want to traumatise his disciples. Jiang Cheng finds himself standing next to Zewu-jun.

Zewu-jun's scent floated around him, calming his raging migraine and abating his dizziness and nausea a little. His scent was refreshing, he smelled like winter and spring breeze, with hints of the flowers that grew in Cloud Recesses.

"What are you doing here?" Jiang Cheng winces, and tries again, "Apologies, aren't you supposed to be in seclusion?"

"Wei-gongzi has told uncle that we were coming here for official sect business, thus I was allowed to go." Zewu-jun explains mildly.

"Isn't lying prohibited in Cloud Recesses?" Jiang Cheng scoffs, amusement colouring his tone.

"Yes, but Wei-gongzi said it was for the greater good, so I went along with it."

So Wei Wuxian had coerced the two Jades of Lan to break a rule? He was such a bad influence. He wouldn't want to be in Wei Wuxian's shoes when Lan Qiren found out. He wasn't surprised that Hanguang-jun would go along with it. He and Wei Wuxian were basically inseparable. But Zewu-jun? He mulls over what he knew of him.

"-ould you like to go with us to celebrate the Lantern Festival in town?"

"What?" Jiang Cheng replies eloquently, then his brain catches up. Flushing, he says the first thing that comes into mind. "No."

"You can show us around town, and it would be pleasant to have you there," Zewu-jun is saying, warm golden eyes boring into his.

Is Zewu-jun actually trying to persuade me to go? Jiang Cheng thinks incredulously. Why would anyone want his company, anyway? He knows very well that he's bad-tempered, snappy and wasn't nice to be around. So why was Zewu-jun trying to make him go with them?

He looks at the alpha opposite him. Zewu-jun stood taller than Jiang Cheng himself, and he had a slim figure, gorgeous face, and fucking puppy eyes. Ugh, stupid brain. Why did he have to picture Zewu-jun as a puppy? Jiang Cheng knew very well that he was absolutely weak for them. Fine, whatever, if Zewu-jun wanted him to go, then he would. Jiang Cheng steadfastly ignored the warmth that bloomed in his chest.

"Let's meet at the gates at sunset, please tell your brother and Wei Wuxian for me." Jiang Cheng nods to Zewu-jun, before walking back to his office to fret over the outing.

_____________________________________________________

Jiang Cheng worries, he gnaws on his bottom lip until it turns pink and then red with blood. He taps his fingers on the table in a steady rhythm.

Contrary to popular belief, Jiang Cheng is not an alpha. He knew he seemed like one, heck, he acts and thinks like one. How could he give in to the omega's cravings of affection and love? He couldn't, not after he had worked so hard to get the reputation that he had now.

Jiang Cheng admits that sometimes, just sometimes, the rumours and gossip hurt him. He had feelings too, as repressed as they may be. "Ruthless, cruel, murderer," they whisper as he stalks past them. "Merciless, callous, heartless," More whispers follow. "Inhumane," he hears. Zidian crackles. He clenches his fists.

He kept the fact that he was an omega to himself. When Lotus Pier was razed to the ground, his parents lying lifeless on the ground, Lotus Pier fell to him. He couldn't show weakness, being an omega would have let other people look down on him and say that he was not fit to be a leader. He didn't need any more complications, his age already put him at a disadvantage. After all, who would have wanted to follow a young boy, barely a man, who had severe anger issues?

He wouldn't have, Jiang Cheng thinks, laughing self-deprecatingly. Right. He needed to stop this useless self-pitying. What did he need to get from town again? Suppressants, he reminded himself. Jiang Cheng presses a hidden button at the side of the table and a clicking sound is heard. He pulls a drawer, which is empty, then lifts the base to reveal a secret compartment.

He lifts a nearly empty pouch out onto the table, and taking two pills, he wraps one in paper and slips it into his robes. He then swallows the other one, grimacing at the bitter taste. This was getting harder to take. He puts his suppressants back and tries to refocus on his work, only managing to be partially successful.

Time crawled by. Jiang Cheng felt hyperaware of his migraine worsening, the throbbing intensifying and the nauseating feeling hitting him like a heavy Gusu Lan book. Screw this, he wasn't going to worry about stupid affairs when he felt this bad. He was going out for a walk.

In the open, Jiang Cheng's tense shoulders relaxed fractionally. He wanders near a lotus pond, sitting on the bench, hugging his knees as he stares at the beautiful pink blossoms, the lithe dragonflies dancing across the water. It was peaceful, he realised, eyes slipping shut and drifting off.

Jiang Cheng awoke to a churning stomach and loud voice in his ear. He cringes, covering his ears as Wei Wuxian's loud voice and abrasive scent assault his senses. Cracking his eyes open, he saw Wei Wuxian staring at him in barely concealed concern.

"-re you okay?"

He grunts and uncovers his ears. He sees Hanguang-jun a little behind Wei Wuxian, and Zewu-jun beside his brother. Ugh, he didn't have the mental capacity to deal with them now. Wei Wuxian was leaning nearer and nearer, his eyebrows furrowed. Jiang Cheng acts like a startled rabbit, scooting away.

Unfortunately, the sudden movement made the nausea worse. Jiang Cheng closes his eyes. He could deal with this, he would not vomit, he would not. And then Wei Wuxian had to go even closer. Wei Wuxian's scent was not unpleasant per se, but it was so strong that he could puke. He breathes shallowly. Do not move. He warns himself. Do not.

And then Hanguang-jun moves closer and his scent mingles with Wei Wuxian's. Jiang Cheng lurches to the side, gripping the bench with white-knuckled fingers as he retched. A thin stream of bile and stomach acid made an appearance, but he hadn't eaten since morning, and the meager meal he ate had long been digested. Unable to vomit anything else, he continues heaving.

He feels a warm hand on his back and a soothing scent drifts around him before the world goes black.

______________________________________________________

Lan Huan already regrets this. He regrets allowing Wei Wuxian and his brother to convince him to go with them to Lotus Pier to celebrate the Lantern Festival held annually.

He didn't regret leaving seclusion. In fact, he wants to see the celebration of the Lantern Festival. He just regretted having to accompany Wei Wuxian and his brother. Looking that the subjects of his thoughts, his left eye twitches.

Wangji is staring at Wei Wuxian, lips quirked. To others, it may not be any different from his usual impassive face, but to Lan Huan, who can read his brother like the back of his hand, is a fond smile. Lan Huan barely refrains from rolling his eyes. In fact, if he was a lesser man, he would have screamed in frustration at how dense both of them are.

Lan Huan stands on Shuoyue, looking at the trees below them as they whizz towards Lotus Pier. When was the last time he left Cloud Recesses? With the exception of Guanyin Temple, he couldn't remember the last time he left for leisure.

Guanyin Temple. Meng Y-

He mentally chastises himself, don't think about that, the wound is still too fresh, it hasn't even closed, don't go prodding at it lest it reopens. Then he thinks about Sect Leader Jiang. When Wei Wuxian came crashing back to life, his existence revealed so many secrets. Lan Huan remembers the crushed expression on Sect Leader Jiang's face, when he was told of what Wei Wuxian did.

Lan Huan remembers feeling empathetic towards the man, who had screamed and raged and cried. He still feels for him, it wasn't easy to hate someone for 13 years and then learn that that person had sacrificed so much for him. Lost in thought, Lan Huan is vaguely aware of their arrival at Lotus Pier.

After they land, Lan Huan sheathes Shuoyue, walking towards the gates of Lotus Pier. He looks behind to see Wangji and Wei Wuxian so close that they're nearly brushing shoulders. He resists the urge to shudder and quickens his pace, gliding with purpose, with his white robes flowing gracefully.

"Could you inform Sect Leader Jiang that we have arrived?" Lan Huan says as he smiles politely at a Yunmeng disciple.

"Yeah! Tell Jiang Cheng to get his ass here!" Wei Wuxian calls out boisterously.

"Mnn."

The disciple looks cowed by their attention, eyes flickering nervously as he looks at them. His eyes widen as he recognises them, and freezes.

"Hey, didn't you hear us, we want to see Jiang Cheng!" Wei Wuxian is grinning, advancing on the disciple as he stares at them, still unmoving.

"I-I heard, I'll go to get Sect Leader Jiang now!" The disciple ducks away from Wei Wuxian's friendly pat and rushes off, presumably to get his sect leader.

"I hardly think that making him that nervous was needed, Wei-gongzi." Lan Huan plasters a genial smile on his face and turns to Wei Wuxian.

"It was obviously needed! Don't you know that if someone stares at you with those big froggy eyes, they need someone to snap them out of it! Right, Lan Zhan?!"

"Mnn," Wangji's eyes are filled with warmth.

"-need to help others overcome their shyness, so-" Wei Wuxian's voice trails off, becoming softer and then fading.

Lan Huan sees Sect Leader Jiang striding up to them. He can see why Wei Wuxian had stopped talking.

Sect Leader Jiang looks haggard, his lips pressed in a thin line, with barely hidden exhaustion and pain lining his sharp features. His body tense and eyes somewhat glazed, he didn't look at all well. Lan Huan also noted that the other man's face was gaunt, and moved gingerly as if he was injured.

Lan Huan sees Wei Wuxian try not to frown, and sees his hands twitching at his sides, as if trying to resist touching the Jiang Sect Leader. He could imagine how his fellow Sect Leader would react if Wei Wuxian tried to touch him. It definitely wouldn't be pretty.

"-show you your rooms." Sect Leader Jiang says.

While Wei Wuxian rambles about fireworks and what not, Lan Huan smiles and nods at intervals while observing Sect Leader Jiang. He sees that the younger man is squinting, eyes trained on the ground. He also seems to walk off-balance, as if he had problems steadying himself. As they moved out of the sunlight into the corridors, he could see Sect Leader Jiang's shoulders relax, his walk becoming more assured and confident.

Wangji and Wei Wuxian disappears into Wei Wuxian's room, and Lan Huan is left standing outside with Sect Leader Jiang.

Lan Huan is suddenly struck by the fact that Sect Leader Jiang had no scent. Ever since the Lotus Pier Massacre, all traces of the faint scent that Sect Leader Jiang once had was gone. He was jostled out of his thoughts by a curt question.

"What are you doing here?" Lan Huan turns to look at the other man, and sees him wince, before saying, "Apologies, aren't you supposed to be in seclusion?"

"Wei-gongzi has told uncle that we were coming here for official sect business, thus I was allowed to go." Lan Huan explains. So Sect Leader Jiang cares about feelings? He certainly didn't come off that way. Lan Huan is surprised that Jiang Cheng would make an effort to sound polite, even if he didn't want to be.

"Isn't lying prohibited in Cloud Recesses?" Was Sect Leader Jiang amused?

"Yes, but Wei-gongzi said it was for the greater good, so I went along with it." Lan Huan replies. Was it bad that he went along with Wei Wuxian's plan? He knew Wangji wouldn't protest, just follow Wei Wuxian's lead. But him? Perhaps Sect Leader Jiang might think badly of him. His fingers twitch in anxiety and he finds himself blurting.

"Would you like to go with us to celebrate the Lantern Festival in town?" Lan Huan mentally scolds himself. Good going, let's just act like we know Sect Leader Jiang well enough to invite him out. What does Sect Leader Jiang even do in his free time? Train? Probably tend to Yunmeng affairs. Or maybe kick kittens? Lan Huan stifles a hysterical giggle at the thought of Sect Leader Jiang kicking kittens, then immediately feels guilty. Sect Leader Jiang wouldn't be that cruel.

"What?" Pink spreads across Sect Leader Jiang's face and Lan Huan stares. "No." He says resolutely, eyes narrowed.

"You can show us around town, and it would be pleasant to have you there," Lan Huan finds himself saying. Horrified, he immediately shuts his mouth. There was no going back. He hopes that Sect Leader Jiang would not rebuke him too harshly.

Lan Huan sees several emotions flit across Sect Leader Jiang's face. Surprise, suspicion, then something he could not decipher, the expression then changes into one of resignation, and Lan Huan compares it to Wangji's face whenever Wei Wuxian gets up to mischief. Did he just compare Sect Leader Jiang to Wangji? Right, he needs to stop.

"Let's meet at the gates at sunset, please tell your brother and Wei Wuxian for me." Sect Leader Jiang nods to him, before he disappears in a flurry of purple robes.

______________________________________________________

Lan Huan finds himself walking with Wei Wuxian and Wangji in the gardens of Lotus Pier. It was late afternoon, the sky bleeding into evening, with the hues of orange and pink beginning to sweep across the sky.

He had meditated for a while, trying to calm himself before going for the Lantern Festival. Then, after he grew bored of staring at the walls, Lan Huan leaves his room and knocks on Wei Wuxian's door.

"Zewu-jun! What are you doing here?"

"Wei-gongzi, would you be so kind as to show me around Lotus Pier?" Lan Huan smiles down at a flustered Wei Wuxian.

Wangji materialises at Wei Wuxian's side. "Brother," he greets.

"Wangji, shall we go sightseeing? Lotus Pier is known for its beautiful scenery."

"Mn."

Lan Huan was awed by the delicate pink lotuses in the ponds, each with varying shades. He looks at the clear water, the gleaming wings of the dragonflies, and hears the soft rustling of the water reeds. A wave of peace and contentment washes over him, and he smiles softly.

"Look! Jiang Cheng is on that bench!" Lan Huan sees Wei Wuxian's face light up, and he looks where Wei Wuxian is pointing. Wei Wuxian rushes over to the bench, while Lan Huan and his brother follows at a more stately pace.

Lan Huan soon realises that something was not quite right when Wei Wuxian did not try to do anything in his usual boisterous way, instead placing a palm over Sect Leader Jiang's head and frowning. He had expected Wei Wuxian to try to push Sect Leader Jiang off the bench to wake him up, or something along that line. He had been prepared to react to that particular situation, in case Sect Leader Jiang flew into a rage or unleashed Zidian on Wei Wuxian.

His mouth dry, Lan Huan shares a look with his brother and increases their pace. As he catches sight of Sect Leader Jiang's face, Lan Huan is more convinced that his fellow Sect Leader wasn't well. Sect Leader Jiang's features were drawn in pain and he lay in a fetal position, clutching his stomach.

"Lan Zhan! Zewu-jun! Something is wrong with Jiang Cheng!"

Lan Huan sees Sect Leader Jiang's eyes flutter open before his expression turns to one of discomfort. The other man clasps his hands over his ears, cringing away from Wei Wuxian. His eyes were glazed over and he didn't seem aware of the surroundings. Was he delirious from pain? Or was it the after effects of sleep? Lan Huan finds himself frowning in contemplation.

"Are you okay?"

Sect Leader Jiang makes a soft sound, and then uncovers his ears slowly. His eyes were trained on the ground, and Lan Huan sees him edging away from Wei Wuxian. Then Wei Wuxian tries to get nearer and Lan Huan sees Sect Leader Jiang lurch away, and immediately close his eyes after.

Then Wangji moves, and everything happens at once. The pale man scrambles to the side of the bench and throws up, gagging and retching while his white knuckles clamp on the side of the bench. Lan Huan winces and moves to Sect Leader Jiang. Lan Huan places a hand on his back, and feels himself wrapping his arms protectively around the thin waist as the other goes limp.

Lan Huan carefully lifts the younger man up bridal style, and motions for Wangji and Wei Wuxian to follow him. He looks down to see Sect Leader Jiang's pale face, and feels his heart tighten with worry.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng struggles. He tries to find the light, but it eludes him. He feels as if he is drowning, and desperately attempts to claw his way up to the surface, to take a gulp of much needed air. Dimly, he registers his fingers twitching weakly, and he moves them to catch hold of something to anchor him. He finds his hands full of soft fabric.

Hazily, Jiang Cheng feels himself being cradled against a muscular chest, and strong arms are wrapped around him, making him feel protected. He leans into the warmth, stifling a sound as he inhaled the pleasant scent of the person carrying him. He is lulled back into sleep by the gentle rocking motions and steady thumping of the person's heart.

Jiang Cheng is jostled back to consciousness when he feels the warm arms leave him. No, don't go. He wants to cry. He remembers the soft fabric he is clutching and holds on to it, refusing to let go. He heard soft voices and grips the fabric tighter, involuntarily letting out a soft sound that was a mix between a whine and a whimper. He feels the warm body above him still and hears a sigh, before his fingers are gently distangled from the soft fabrics and put on the bed.

The softness of the mattress that Jiang Cheng was put on did not give him any comfort. Not safe. He curls up into a fetal position and tucks his knees in before falling into an uneasy sleep.

The second time Jiang Cheng comes back from unconsciousness, he finds that he is able to open his eyes. He cracks an eye open and immediately cringes at the blinding light that greets him.

"How are you feeling?" A gentle voice asks.

"Like a bunch of fierce corpses trampled me, or, like shit." Jiang Cheng groans as he tries to sit up. He rubs at his temples, easing the insistent pounding. He was confused. What had happened? Surely he didn't-

"Oh goddammit." Jiang Cheng mumbles as the events of the past hours hit him all at once. He had thrown up in front of not just Wei Wuxian, but Zewu-jun and Hanguang-jun as well? Could he be more of an embarrassment? He could picture his mother looking down at him, her sharp features drawn with displeasure.

Jiang Cheng hears a light chuckle, and he looks at the direction of the sound, squinting as his eyes refocused. Zewu-jun stood with his back to him, and the sound of stirring could be heard in the silence. Zewu-jun's silky raven black hair dances in tune with his movements, showing nothing but grace and elegance. The alpha's scent floats in the room, a refreshing reminder of spring and winter and flowers, which Jiang Cheng found comforting.

Jiang Cheng looks down at himself, and flushes. His hair was a mess, he didn't doubt that. His vibrant purple robes were wrinkled and creased, and he tries to adjust them self-consciously. He brings a hand up to his hair, grimacing at the numerous strands of hair that no longer stayed in his bun.

Mentally shrugging, Jiang Cheng unties his hair, and lets his dark locks tumble over his shoulders. He runs his fingers through his hair, prying apart tangles and knots while trying to arrange it to give some semblance of neatness.

Jiang Cheng looks up to see Zewu-jun staring at him, his eyes wider than usual and lips parted. Zewu-jun blinks, and then smiles. He is holding a tray with a bowl and approaches Jiang Cheng.

"Here, I asked a physician to examine you and she prescribed this medicine, I followed all her instructions accordingly." Zewu-jun explains as he lifts the bowl off the tray along with a rounded wooden spoon.

Jiang Cheng stares, dumbfounded. Zewu-jun would go to such trouble to brew medicine for him? He thought that Zewu-jun would just leave him with the physician and go and do whatever he does. Like petting rabbits? A snide voice interjects. Jiang Cheng tries not to think of Zewu-jun and rabbits. Scowling mentally, he tells his inner voice to shut up.

"Many thanks." Jiang Cheng nods as he takes the medicine and downs it in a few gulps.

"-would clear the head, and also flush out any toxins in your body in a few hours."

Jiang Cheng freezes. Toxins? Oh fuck, he was screwed. He knew that his suppressants were considered by many to be a toxin. Especially since it gave so many side effects to the person taking it. But Jiang Cheng didn't have a choice, it was either that or let his secret be found out. How much time did he have? Right, a few hours. He remembers the the pill he slipped into his robes as backup. Awkwardly, hesitantly, he opens his mouth to ask-

"Can you draw me a bath?" Oh. My. God. He did not just say that. Fuck, what was Zewu-jun going to think? Jiang Cheng might be coming off as a weird asshole now, one who pukes all over the ground in front of esteemed guests, then faints into the arms of said guest, then makes the guest brew medicine for him. And he dares to ask the guest to draw a bath for him!

Your stupidity knows no bounds.

Shut up!

Seriously, could you get anymore embarrassing? Asking Zewu-jun to prepare a bath for you as if he's some kind of servant?
Shameless! You're no better than Wei Wuxian!

You're right! I'm not better than Wei Wuxian, I'm not a self sacrificing person who wants to play the goddamn hero all the time!

Yeah, you're worse, petty and hateful, unable to even get anyone to stay for you. Remember how Wei Wuxian chose to leave you for the Wens? You're useless. The only reason why you're still alive is because of his sacrifice to give you his golden core!

Jiang Cheng breathes heavily, his nails digging into his palms. He could feel crescent shaped marks beginning to form, and beads of blood beginning to drip out. He feels Zewu-jun's gaze burning him, and he tries to calm down. Not now, he could not afford to lose any more face in front of another Sect Leader.

Angrily, Jiang Cheng shoves the loud voices away, into the back of his mind, and exhales, finally gaining the courage to look at Zewu-jun. Zewu-jun has a tiny crease in his brow, but otherwise had maintained the same gentle smile that he was known for.

"Sect Leader Jiang, I will draw a bath for you. Please wait a while here and do not move. You are still weak." Zewu-jun says, his warm golden eyes boring into Jiang Cheng's stormy blue eyes. Jiang Cheng blinks and nods in acknowledgement. He supposed that he shouldn't be surprised. The alpha was known to have the patience of a saint, after all.

As Zewu-jun disappears out of the room, Jiang Cheng fishes in his robes before finding the pill that he had stashed away. He takes it out triumphantly and hurriedly unwraps it before popping it into his mouth and swallowing. It was harder than usual to swallow it. Jiang Cheng swore that he could feel it sticking to his gullet as he swallowed hard to force it down.

He leans back against the wall and sighs. Did he ruin Zewu-jun's visit? Zewu-jun had left seclusion to attend and participate in the Lantern Festival, but he ended up having to take care of Jiang Cheng and save his annoying ass. He would have to find some way to make it up to Zewu-jun.

______________________________________________________

Lan Huan is puzzled. He gazes at the bundle in his arms, whose fingers reach out to grip his robes. A soft whine makes him sigh. Sect Leader Jiang's face was scrunched up, and Lan Huan didn't know how to react. He couldn't very well carry Sect Leader Jiang until he woke up, could he? He places him on the mattress gently, and pries his robes away from the stubborn fingers of the younger man.

Lan Huan sees the younger man's brows furrow, and he curls up into a fetal position. Lan Huan feels his heart clench in empathy, his fellow Sect Leader seemed in dire need of comfort, and it was making Lan Huan's big brother instincts rear up. It surely wouldn't hurt to-

"Zewu-jun!"

Lan Huan startles, and draws his hand away from Sect Leader Jiang. Wei Wuxian stumbles into the room, panting as he gestured to the stranger beside him. Wangji follows gracefully, with not a hair out of place.

"Yunmeng Sect's best physician," Wei Wuxian hurries to Sect Leader Jiang's bed, gazing at the purple clothed man with a frown.

The physician takes Sect Leader Jiang's hand to take his pulse, her eyes closing in concentration. Lan Huan stares at him, waiting. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Wei Wuxian fidgeting. Then, the physician sighs, puts back Sect Leader Jiang's hand and turns to face them.

"Sect Leader Jiang seems to have been poisoning himself for quite a long time. I believe, with the extent of internal injuries that I estimate, if he doesn't stop, it could very well lead to death." The physician says grimly, her eyes sharp and tone flat.

Lan Huan hears a strangled gasp beside him. He sees Wei Wuxian's eyes fill with tears before he rushes out of the room. He shares a glance with Wangji, whose pursed lips indicated stubbornness. Lan Huan just sighs and turns away. He hears Wangji's footsteps fading.

"Miss, you said that Sect Leader Jiang poisoned himself. Could you elaborate on the poison?" Lan Huan asks politely.

The physician's disapproving stare after Wei Wuxian and Wangji changes to one of wariness as she looks him straight in the eye.

"How are you related to Sect Leader Jiang?" The question is blunt, sharp and direct.

Lan Huan is taken aback, not used to being addressed so bluntly. He flounders for a moment before he finds his voice. "Sect Leader Jiang is a fellow Sect Leader and acquaintance." He offers, unsure what answer the physician wanted.

Even after you carried him and was going to-

"Please talk to him when he wakes up, I can only do so much for him with this medicine to purge the poison." The physician's tone is heavy, her eyes sad as looks at Lan Huan.

"I will prepare the medicine for Sect Leader Jiang now." She bows and makes to exit the room.

"Let me do it." Lan Huan hears himself saying, and he is surprised to find that he wants to help his fellow Sect Leader. He steels himself and asks, "How does one prepare the medicine?"

Only to be unprepared for the knowing grin the physician flashed him.

______________________________________________________

"Can you draw me a bath?"

There was a beat of silence before Lan Huan's brain came back to life with sparks and fizzles. Did Sect Leader Jiang just ask someone he barely knew to prepare a bath for him? Had he been anyone else, Lan Huan would have felt offended that the younger man was asking him to do what was deemed as a disciple's job. However, Lan Huan finds a warmth spreading through his chest.

The ridiculous feeling of wanting to care for the prickly Sect Leader was still very much poignant. Lan Huan didn't think that he would appreciate it at all, but he would do as the other man requested.

Lan Huan sees the widening of the other's stormy blue eyes. Lan Huan leans closer in concern, and he stops abruptly. Was that-?

The bitter scent of a distressed omega.

He feels the pieces fall in place. Sect Leader Jiang is an omega! Who is taking suppressants to keep his secret, and harming his body by taking that suppressants just to keep the secret. Lan Huan feels his brows furrowing in spite of his best attempts to keep his face neutral.

Stunned by the realisation, Lan Huan offers the younger man a reassuring smile. He needed to think about what he should do. Right, the other had requested a bath to be prepared.

"Sect Leader Jiang, I will draw a bath for you. Please wait a while here and do not move. You are still weak." Lan Huan requests, unhappy at the thought of the fiercely proud man attempting to walk and then collapsing because of weakness. Pacified by the ensuing nod, Lan Huan leaves the room.

As Lan Huan busies himself with making sure that the amount water in the bath was enough and that it was the right temperature, he ponders on what to do with his new-found knowledge. He didn't doubt that Wei Wuxian would come back to confront Sect Leader Jiang about his apparent poor health. Once he was comforted by Wangji, Lan Huan thought dryly.

Lan Huan considers his knowledge of suppressants. There were some in the cultivation world that allowed omegas to skip heats, some allowed omegas to hide their scents. Others would allow the omega to ignore their instincts. There was also one that did all three. He remembered how his heart had nearly stopped as he read about the side effects of suppressants.

Many physicians did not recommend suppressants to omegas as it inevitably harmed their bodies, and many only allowed the taking of suppressants for a year at most. Lan Huan feels his stomach clench at the thought of Sect Leader Jiang taking the suppressants for more than a decade. As he was familiar with how the cultivation world saw omegas as leaders. Most looked down on them, saying that an alpha or beta would be a better leader.

Of course, Lan Huan had never thought about omega leaders being lesser than alphas or betas. However, not everyone thought like him. Lan Huan chuckles bitterly. Once he had learned of Jin Guangyao's many evil deeds, his once optimistic view of the world and people were shattered. He likens the feeling to him taking the blindfold off his eyes for the first time and seeing how truly screwed the world is.

Lan Huan remembers being crushed, when he usually tried to see the best in people, he now saw their flaws.

It's better this way, no one will be able to hurt you after this.

I know.

Lan Huan blinks and shakes off the melancholic thoughts gathering around his head. He realises that he had been staring at the water for a good time. And dipping a finger in, found that it has gone cold. Lan Huan pours more hot water into the bath before going to get Sect Leader Jiang.

He finds the man staring out of the window, his hair still down. He resists the urge to smile as the knowledge that he was the first to see Sect Leader Jiang with his hair down dawns on him. Stepping closer, Lan Huan frowns. Wasn't there a scent that he caught just now? Where did it go? Sect Leader Jiang couldn't have-

Lan Huan resists the urge to smack himself in the head. Of course, the younger man would have back up suppressants on him. Sandu-Shengshou was known for his merciless fighting and violent temper, but he was also known as a careful strategist when need be.

I guess it would be easier if Wei Wuxian comes barging in for an interrogation.

______________________________________________________

"Will you be going back to seclusion after this?"

"I...haven't thought about that."

"You should stay for a while, there would be another festival coming up soon, and it's only right that you get to enjoy it after how I bothered you."

Lan Huan opens his mouth to protest that the younger man wasn't bothering him before the words sink in and he shuts his mouth with a snap. He feels a blush crawling up his neck and hopes that the other man wouldn't notice.

Did he invite me to stay?

"I accept your invitation, Sect Leader Jiang." Lan Huan smiles warmly, and he feels light-hearted. Frankly, the thought of seclusion was horribly unappealing, and besides, he still had the urge to ensure that the other Sect Leader was alright.

Sect Leader Jiang looks taken aback by Lan Huan's easy acceptance and smile. He blinks, and Lan Huan notices that Sect Leader Jiang's cheeks were dusted with red.

"You can call me Wanyin. We've known each other for so long anyway." He hears a gruff voice say.

Lan Huan feels his smile growing softer and more sincere. "Then please call me Xichen."

He sees Sect Leader-no, Jiang Wanyin's cheeks flush a darker red. Lan Huan idly notes that he had an uneven blush. Which was actually kind of cute-

In the way that animals and children were, obviously.

The quiet moment was interrupted by the sound of a door being violently flung open. Lan Huan startles sees Jiang Wanyin jump at the sound. As his heart returns to its normal pace, he sees Wei Wuxian striding up to them, a determined expression on his face. Lan Huan sees Wangji silently trail behind Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian glares at Jiang Wanyin, his hands on hips. His eyes held a hint of red, and his lips are pressed into a thin line.

"We need to talk."

Chapter Text

"We need to talk."

Jiang Cheng feels emotions bubbling up in him. Like Ah-jie's pot did when they were young and she was learning to cook- Who did Wei Wuxian think he was? He sure as heck didn't see him as a brother anymore.

You still do.

Shut the fuck up!

Wei Wuxian looks daggers at him, his mouth pursed and arms crossed. Jiang Cheng feels exposed and vulnerable, and he crosses his arms. He shoots Wei Wuxian a death glare, feeling his body tense and heart beat faster. He also obstinately ignores the twist of anxiety in his stomach that had nothing to do with the nausea that he had experienced before.

The tension was palpable in the room, it seemed to gather and twist with a will to choke the occupants.

"The physician said you were poisoned for a long time." Wei Wuxian grits out, his fists clenched at his sides. "I know you Jiang Cheng, you're not an idiot, so why are you doing this to yourself?!" Wei Wuxian's voice increased in loudness and intensity.

Jiang Cheng fights the urge to flee. His omega instincts had surfaced for a while before he had taken the suppressant, and he knew that it would take some time to repress all the omega instincts thoroughly. He also knew that if he got too agitated, the suppressant would not be able to block his scent.

"Why do you care?" Jiang Cheng hears himself saying, infuriated. Just what gave Wei Wuxian the right to poke his nose into Jiang Cheng's business? He gave up that right long ago when he decided to abandon the Jiang Sect for Wens. The old hurt and pain and betrayal all comes rushing back at once, overwhelming him and pulling him under.

He remembers the day when Wei Wuxian told him to give up on him. He remembers the all-consuming loss that enveloped him, the betrayal he felt.

Didn't you say you would stay by my side forever? Am I not enough? Why would the Wen clan be more important than me? Am I not your brother, the only kin you have left in this world?

No, you were never enough. You will never be enough.

He remembers staring at the then alpha's retreating figure. I still haven't told you that I presented- I need you here with me- Please don't go- His fingers are trembling violently, and he squeezes his eyes shut, trying desperately not to cry. He feels a part of him shatter and die. He buries it along with the parts of him that died with his parents, his sect, his sister-

Jiang Cheng is brought out of his memories as he feels a hand touching his shoulder. Horrified, Jiang Cheng realises that his eyes were filled with tears, and that he was breathing erratically. He turns and sees Lan Xichen right beside him. Lan Xichen's eyes shine with concern, and his gentle smile is nowhere in sight. Jiang Cheng lets the alpha's comforting scent calm him, before turning to Wei Wuxian and scowling.

"I...you need to take care of yourself, Jiang Cheng, the physician said you could die," Wei Wuxian sniffs, swiping a hand across his rapidly reddening eyes.

He could die? Jiang Cheng feels like laughing. Why would he care about living when he doesn't even feel that he's alive? Jiang Cheng feels a bitter smirk twist his face. There didn't seem to be anything left for him. Other than Jin Ling, he had no friends, no family, no one to care for. And Jin Ling was already grown up, so why should he continue living?

I would much rather join A-jie and A-niang, he thinks despairingly, the waves of loneliness crashing over him again.

"And why exactly should I care?" Jiang Cheng says, all traces of anger gone, it left him numb, his tone flat and empty.

He feels the arm on his shoulder tense, before relaxing and after giving him a reassuring squeeze, redrawing. Jiang Cheng ignores how he immediately misses the warm presence.

Wei Wuxian seems to be at a loss for words. He splutters and stares at Jiang Cheng as if he had never seen him before. "What happened to you, Jiang Cheng? You wasn't this...this bitter before." Wei Wuxian's eyes are pleading, already welling up with new tears.

Well perhaps, if you have stayed, you would know.

Jiang Cheng just scoffs and gives Wei Wuxian another bitter smile. "It's too late to ask, isn't it?"

Wei Wuxian's lips quiver, and Jiang Cheng looks away, unable to stomach the fact that his ex-brother was upset because of him.

He thought back to the time when they were young, ignorant, and untouched by all the hurt and pain and deaths. He would always give in to Wei Wuxian's urgings to play a prank, or to clean up after his messes. He never liked to see Wei Wuxian get upset, so he tried not to let A-niang know of Wei Wuxian's misdeeds lest she punishes him harshly. And the only time Jiang Cheng saw Wei Wuxian upset is after A-niang's punishments.

The room was silent, the tension so thick that it could be cut with a knife.

"Selfish." He hears Hanguang-jun say.

Jiang Cheng couldn't stifle the hysterical giggle that escaped him. He was selfish, wasn't he? He always thought of himself and placed himself first.

He should have thought of others, what they would do, how would they react to his death? He knows there will be some that celebrate, and they would dance on his grave, rejoicing that the vicious Sandu-Shengshou was finally dead. Most would be apathetic, he didn't know anyone well enough for them to mourn over his death. But Jin Ling- his heart clenched.

Maybe Jin Ling wouldn't mourn him after all. Why would he? Jiang Cheng was well aware of his horrible parenting, his explosive temper, his cruel tongue. His nephew must be glad to get rid of him so that he wouldn't have to hear any more threats from Jiang Cheng about breaking his legs.

Jiang Cheng didn't see how he was being selfish, he really didn't. No one would miss him. And he says as much to Hanguang-jun, whose brows furrow even more as Wei Wuxian's tears start falling faster.

Jiang Cheng mentally snorts, those two were so oblivious that even a blind man could tell that they were pining after each other. He then sighs again, feeling drained. Jiang Cheng remembers that there was another person in the room, and turns to looks at Lan Xichen, who had been quiet throughout the conversation.

Lan Xichen seemed to be deep in thought. His warm golden eyes were glazed over and he didn't seem to be paying attention to what was happening.

"It's fine, you don't need to care, just go on and enjoy your life in Cloud Recesses," Jiang Cheng offers, resigned to the fact that Wei Wuxian, for some unfathomable reason, still cared about him, even after Jiang Cheng killed him.

He's so fucking infuriating selfless, I wish he would care more about himself and stop playing the hero all the time.

Jiang Cheng feels a ghost of a smile appear on his face. He looks at Wei Wuxian, even in a foreign body, he was the same, always so righteous, fighting to do what is right.

Still caring for me even after how I treated him.

"I wish to speak to Sect Leader Jiang alone, please grant us privacy." Lan Xichen says, his tone even and polite.

Hanguang-jun inclines his head and takes Wei Wuxian by the arm, pulling him out of the room. A few beats after they leave, Lan Xichen glides over to the bed Jiang Cheng had been sitting on and sits opposite him.

Jiang Cheng tries to hide his shock, but fails as a gasp escapes him. He stares wide-eyed at Lan Xichen's intense gaze, sees the crease in his brow and the slight downturn of his lovely pink lips.

"Xichen, what-"

"Wanyin, I know your secret."

______________________________________________________

Jiang Wanyin's eyes go wide, and Lan Huan can see the myriad of emotions that skim across his face, the tension that forms around his eyes and mouth. The younger man stiffens, and tries to shrink away from Lan Huan but makes a visible effort to force himself not to.

"What secret?" Jiang Wanyin scowls, but Lan Huan notices the flicker of fear in his eyes, and the minuscule action of reaching for Zidian on his index finger.

"You are an omega." Lan Huan states, making sure to keep his voice even and non-threatening. The words seem to flip a switch. Jiang Wanyin goes from wanting to flee to gearing up to fight.

"So what? Are you going to expose me, Zewu-jun?" Jiang Cheng hisses menacingly. His eyes flash with violent rage, the stormy blue eyes taking on a darker hue. Lan Huan thinks that if Jiang Wanyin was a cat, he would be spitting and hissing madly, with claws out and ears flattened.

"No, but I would like to know why you don't seem to care about your life." Lan Huan says, his tone gentle and soft, trying to avoid riling up Jiang Wanyin further.

He sees Jiang Wanyin's murderous demeanour change to one of distress, and the younger man avoids Lan Huan's gaze, instead staring at his hands.

"You wouldn't understand."

The words are mumbled, and Lan Huan barely catches it, but he feels a pang in his heart. He feels his heart ache, twist and squeeze all at once.

Because Lan Huan does understand.

God help him, but he understands the emotions that Jiang Wanyin has, because he has them too. When he thinks about Da-ge, how he was murdered by Meng-Jin Guangyao and he thinks of Nie Huaisang, how he was just a tool for them to achieve their means. He thinks of Wangji, now that Wei Wuxian is back, is happiest that he has ever seen his little brother, happier because of Wei Wuxian rather than anything Lan Huan could ever do for him.

Lan Huan knows how his heart, mind, and soul feels so hollow, so aimless. Like he was drifting, he couldn't find a purpose, a reason, anything to do.

Lan Huan is lost. So is Jiang Wanyin.

"Believe me, I do." Lan Huan says, placing a hand on Jiang Wanyin's own. He realises belatedly that it is the hand that Zidian is on, and feels mildly surprised when a shock didn't come from the volatile spiritual weapon.

Jiang Wanyin finally looks at Lan Huan, and his eyes are dark and wet. Lan Huan smiles sincerely at him, and Jiang Wanyin attempts a weary smile.

Lan Huan strokes the soft skin of Jiang Wanyin's hand before withdrawing his own. He makes an attempt to lighten the atmosphere.

"Since Sect Leader Jiang is currently in ill health, I should stay at Lotus Pier to look after him." Lan Huan is smiling again, and he sees Jiang Wanyin advert his eyes and turn his face away, but the sudden rosiness of his cheeks indicated embarrassment. Mentally chuckling, Lan Huan resolves to make Jiang Wanyin blush again. He notices how cute the younger man is, how he turns shy and reserved before snapping back to his straightforward and blunt persona.

"Wanyin, please don't take the suppressants anymore. It does so much damage to your body. And as much as you may feel like no one cares about you, you still have a chance to form relationships with others, and a shot at happiness," Lan Huan pleads.

He's a hypocrite. After all that has happened to him, the betrayal, the sense of helplessness, the urge to do something, Lan Huan still cannot find the light out of the tunnel he is in. But that doesn't mean that Jiang Wanyin couldn't.

Jiang Wanyin is strong, so strong. He saw his sect being razed to the ground. His peers and friends slaughtered. His parents' last breaths leaving their body. And yet, he rose from the ashes, the destruction, the pain. To rebuild his sect, to continue to raise an orphan, to face life head-on, with bull-headed stubbornness and a will not to give up. He shouldn't be giving up now.

Lan Huan would not let him.

Jiang Wanyin heaves a shuddering breath. He brings a hand up to his face, and Lan Huan's heart aches as he sees silent tears falling. Before he can stop himself, he leans forward and brushes the tears away, feeling his eyes sting in turn.

"I won't take the suppressants anymore." Lan Huan hears a rasping whisper, and his heart lifts, he beams at the younger man.

"I'm glad to hear that, Wanyin," A watery laugh is heard.

"I will be here for you if you need anything," eyes full of a mix of emotions bore into his, and Lan Huan can make out gratitude, along with empathy.

In the silence of the room, Lan Huan feels his mind still, heart slow, and feels at peace.

____________________________________________________

 

"Zewu-jun, how is my br-Jiang Cheng?"

"Wei-gongzi, Sect Leader Jiang is fine, you need not worry."

"I...how can I help him?"

"Support, Sect Leader Jiang needs to know that he is not alone."

A defeated sigh.

"Jiang Cheng always pushes me away, he always had," Wei Wuxian mutters lowly, as he paces.

Lan Huan sighs. What could he say? Even if he wanted to point out how Wei Wuxian's role in the negative headspace Jiang Wanyin is in, Lan Huan knew that Wei Wuxian was not to blame. Even if he was the catalyst.

"Perhaps you should try harder then." A look from Wangji. Brother, no. He pushes on, "You left him when he needed you the most, and because of that, he is still hurting." Lan Huan's tone is frosty, his eyes hard.

"I did what I thought was right!" Wei Wuxian's voice rose in volume, his hands were clenched into fists, and he stares Lan Huan down, his eyes blazing with fury.

"I never said what you did was right or wrong. I said that there were consequences to your actions, one of which is Sect Leader Jiang's mental state." Lan Huan feels unfamiliar emotions bubbling up in him, the emotions burning in his stomach. Is this what anger feels like? It was liberating, to say the least, the anger kept his other thoughts away, intent only on the cause of his ire.

What was is about Jiang Wanyin that made Lan Huan want to protect him from the world. Was it the fierce spirit that was being snuffed out? The quick and agile mind? Or the sharp and painfully honest tongue? Either way, Lan Huan has not felt such determination in a long time.

I will ensure that Jiang Wanyin finds happiness.

Wei Wuxian flounders, his eyes dimming. "I never wanted to hurt him."

A beat of silence.

"I couldn't stand aside and let them be killed!"

"...I admire how righteous you are, I know it wasn't easy to make such a decision either." Lan Huan offers with a solemn nod.

It is true, he admires Wei Wuxian, with his need to defend the weak and helpless. He admires his courage to be defiant, even when the odds are stacked against him. He admires Wei Wuxian's selfless sacrifices, and above all, he admires Wei Wuxian's need to stay true to himself.

It was unfortunate for things to have turned out this way, but it was due to unfortunate circumstances, and no one could shoulder the blame.

Except for Wen Ruohan and his cronies, of course. They ruined so many lives and took away so many more.

Wei Wuxian exhales heavily. He looks at Lan Huan, and Lan Huan recognises that look. It was the look of an older sibling, trying to care for the younger one, but to no avail.

Lan Huan wore that same expression on his face for thirteen years. He remembers trying to get Wangji to eat, to drink, to take care of himself. For thirteen years, Wangji only wanted to play Inquiry. He would pluck the strings of his guqin until droplets of blood splattered on the snow-white surface. And it was all for the man standing in front of him, looking at him with that expression-

Lan Huan wouldn't wish that on anyone.

"Don't give up, Sect Leader Jiang still cares for you."

Chapter Text

Lan Xichen had extended his stay at Lotus Pier indefinitely. Jiang Cheng does not know what to feel about that. On one hand, he was happy to have Lan Xichen's company, because Zewu-jun was one of the few people in the world to not make his blood prickle in irritation. On the other, he was wary of what this entailed in their relationship.

Ever since their conversation where Lan Xichen had persuaded Jiang Cheng to stop taking suppressants, Jiang Cheng had felt the air between them shift, from one of polite indifference to something warmer and more genuine. He could see the warmth and concern in Lan Xichen's eyes whenever Jiang Cheng talked to him.

Jiang Cheng didn't know whether to be annoyed or gratified to have someone care for his wellbeing.

There was a knock on the door.

"Enter." Jiang Cheng frowns, what was the problem now?

A disciple peeks in nervously. "Sect Leader Jiang, Sect Leader Jin is her-"

"Uncle!" Jin Ling barges in and bows in greeting. He pants and tries to catch his breath by taking in deep gulps. At Jiang Cheng's mystified expression and slight frown, Jin Ling folds his arms across his chest.

"Zewu-jun said you collapsed the other day." Jin Ling's eyes dart over Jiang Cheng's face, as if searching for something. Whatever it was, Jin Ling seems to have found it, as he relaxes.

Jiang Cheng ignores the fondness that blooms in his chest as he looks at Jin Ling. Jin Ling has mirrored a lot of his own mannerisms and likes and dislikes. He hears the unspoken words. Are you okay?

"You brat, are you hoping that I'll die soon?"

"No uncle! Of course not!" Jin Ling defends himself indignantly. His face scrunches up in an affronted expression as if the idea has greatly offended him. "I just...I thought you were...I don't know, injured or something!" and then he adds, albeit in a softer voice, "I haven't seen you in a while."

Jiang Cheng feels his frown melt away and a smile tugs at the corners of his mouth.

Jin Ling, I missed you too.

After choosing to step up as the leader of the mess that is Lanling Jin Sect after Jin Guangyao's demise, Jin Ling had been bombarded by many requests, duties, and problems that he needed to take charge of. This left Jiang Cheng feeling irked at the burden that was placed on his nephew's young shoulders.

Worry also ate at him. He knew of the volatile situation that Jin Ling was in when he took up leadership. The clan elders and council members were akin to hungry vultures, and they would push and prod Jin Ling to accede to their selfish demands so that they would stand to gain. And yet, Jiang Cheng is proud of Jin Ling. He sees his nephew maturing rapidly, learning how to navigate political waters. He sees the fire that burns in Jin Ling's eyes, the scorching determination to prove himself.

Your parents would be so proud of you, A-ling.

Jiang Cheng stands, he takes Jin Ling's hands and pulls his nephew closer to him, ignoring the squawks of protest that Jin Ling lets out. He squeezes Jin Ling's shoulder and promises. "A-ling, Jiu Jiu will always be here for you if you need me." He sees tears brim in Jin Ling's eyes and a quiver of his lips before he is tackled into a hug, and sighing, Jiang Cheng wraps his arms around Jin Ling. Jin Ling's scent of honey and summer breeze comforts Jiang Cheng, lulling his heart into a gentle thumping.

He even cries like A-jie, the brat.

______________________________________________

Later, after Jin Ling is reassured that Jiang Cheng is not dying, he leaves with a promise to write and visit soon.

Jiang Cheng wanders around Lotus Pier, taking advantage of the moment of peace before everything will inevitably go to shit. Again.

Lotus Pier stands tall and beautiful, the motif of the nine-petal lotus adorned the walls and corridors. A wave of melancholy washes over Jiang Cheng. As much as he had tried to rebuild Lotus Pier after the massacre of his Sect by the Wen Clan, it was never the same. There were little things he noticed, the people were different from the past, as was the food.

And sometimes, Jiang Cheng feels lonely. He feels as if he is the only person who remembers the past, the original taste of A-jie's lotus root and pork rib soup, the last person from a forgotten generation.

A-niang, are you proud of me now?

Absently, with his mind clouded with thoughts, Jiang Cheng continues walking. He is broken out of his thoughts as he hears a loud hiss and a growl. He whips around to find a cat crouching in the bushes, its ears flat against its head and teeth bared.

Jiang Cheng takes a few cautious steps away, and the cat stops hissing. Cats are not common in Lotus Pier, but they weren't rare either. It was unusual for a cat to be so hostile to a human. He notices that the cat seems to avoid putting weight on its front paw and trying to move with the other three.

The cat then flops to the ground, it's eyes round and pupils constricted. Jiang Cheng squats down, and slowly approaches the cat. He sees that the cat's paw is stained with red, slowly dripping blood, and he winces.

"Look here, you're hurt, I can clean that wound up and it won't hurt anymore."

A hiss. And a flash of sharp fangs.

"Come on, I won't hurt you." Jiang Cheng keeps his voice low and calm, trying to coax the cat to come out.

Another hiss, but it was softer and more...unsure?

The cat didn't look like it wanted to go anywhere. Jiang Cheng huffs in exasperation, tugging on his bangs as he contemplates. He couldn't in good conscience leave an injured animal, could he? The cat could be easy prey for whatever predators that lurked around, and would most likely die.

Screw it. He's going to bring the cat back to his room and clean it up.

How was he going to do this though? The cat is in pain, agitated and likely to scratch or bite him.

Unless...

Jiang Cheng stands up and begins to unfasten his belt. He lays it on the ground along with the silver bell before removing the vibrant purple outer robes, so that he's left standing in his inner robes. He hopes that no one would see him in this state of undress.

He approaches the cat, continuing to talk to it in a quiet tone, trying to convey that he meant no harm and was absolutely not going to throw his robes over it and pick it up-

The cat thrashes, screeching in fear and anger, and Jiang Cheng wraps it securely in his robes. He picks up the angry cat bundle and puts his hands as far as the cat's mouth as possible. He groans mentally, with all the noise the cat is making, he is sure to attract unwanted attention while he is dressed inappropriately.

Thankfully, the cat seemed to be worn out from pain and exhaustion that it stopped screaming at the top of its lungs. Miraculously, Jiang Cheng goes unseen by anyone as he tries to sneak back into his room with a cat bundle in his arms.

"You know, you're quite cute when you're quiet."

A low growl.

"Once I bandage your wound, I'll let you go and we'll never have to see each other ag-"

"Wanyin? Who are you talking to?"

Jiang Cheng startles and nearly drops the cat. Lan Xichen was staring at him with a bemused expression on his face.

"I...I," He stutters, unable to find words to say.

Lan Xichen eyes roam over his face, and then his body. Jiang Cheng feels a searing fire sweep across his cheeks as he looks down and sees his state of undress.

"Is that a cat?" Lan Xichen's eyes twinkle with amusement, and he ignores Jiang Cheng's spluttering, instead coming closer to observe the pliant bundle in his arms. "I did not know Wanyin likes cats." Lan Xichen observes, a small grin forming on his face.

"I do not like cats!" Jiang Cheng protests hotly. Miffed at the knowing smile, he defends, "It is injured, so I brought it back to tend to it."

"Let's do it together then." Lan Xichen smiles, and Jiang Cheng resists groaning in exasperation. He resigns himself to spending more time with Lan Xichen and shrugs off the happiness that comes with that thought.

______________________________________________________

 

Whatever Lan Huan was expecting, it wasn't this. Jiang Wanyin stands opposite him, his face flushed and eyes wide. Lan Huan's eyes sweep over the younger man's body, noting how his inner robs brought attention to his lean and angular stature. Lan Huan smiles, deciding to ignore the improperly dressed state for now.

"Is that a cat?" Lan Huan hears flustered protests and he can't help but chuckle mentally. The younger man was really full of surprises. He moves towards Jiang Wanyin to take a closer look at the cat that the younger man had deemed special enough to rescue. "I did not know Wanyin likes cats." Lan Huan raises his eyebrows, flashing a grin at the other man.

"I do not like cats!" Jiang Wanyin scowls, his tone going higher pitched. Lan Huan tries to prevent his lips from twitching, but he fails, as the other shoots him a venomous look and staunchly declares. "It is injured, so I brought it back to tend to it."

"Let's do it together then." Lan Huan feels his grin grow wider, and gestures for Jiang Wanyin to go to his room. Jiang Wanyin eyes him warily but accedes to his unspoken request.

Lan Huan shuts the windows and doors moving the furniture around so that the cat would not have be able to hide or escape if it attempts to.

Jiang Wanyin places the cat down, his face set and lips pursed. The cat seems to get shocked to life, immediately yowling loudly and squirming about. Lan Huan deftly unwraps the cat bundle and nearly crinkles his nose at the sorry state of the younger man's robes.

The intense purple robes of the Jiang Sect Leader was littered with scratches. The claw marks were deeply etched, and it looked like it was beyond saving. The cat thrashes, trying to get to its feet. Lan Huan approaches it, and the glaring golden eyes of the cat immediately shot to his own. The stormy gray fur stands up, and the cat bares its fangs.

Undeterred, Lan Huan sits on the floor and waits for the cat to calm down, motioning for Jiang Wanyin to sit beside him. The younger man looks unsure, but follows his actions. He sits beside Lan Huan, and they are a good distance away from the cat, who flicks its tail in a rather alarming manner.

As Jiang Wanyin settles next to him, Lan Huan is hyperaware of the sweet notes beginning to creep into the other's scent. Discretely, Lan Huan tries to decipher the various things that made up the scent.

Jiang Wanyin, by all means, was not soft. He was not the omega that society had proclaimed as ideal. In fact, he was nearly the opposite of all the standards.

It was necessary for any respectable alpha in the cultivation world to bond to an omega. However, when the family of the alpha goes to search for an omega, there are certain requirements that the omega has to meet.

The omega should be well educated, and should have studied and passed all the Gusu Lan examinations with flying colours. They should not talk too much, but should be able to haggle with the shopkeepers in the market. The omega should be thrifty and careful with the family's money. The omega should also know how to manage house affairs, along with having a set of skills such as embroidery and child-rearing.

They must also be demure, and respectful of the alpha's demands. They should possess fine culinary skill, and be able to prepare food from various cuisines such as bland congee in Gusu to spicy dishes from Yunmeng. Upon tasting the dish cooked by the omega, people should be crying out a "Wah!" in wonder.

They should have round hips that show their ability for child-bearing, along with a slim and willowy figure, so that they are easy on the eyes. They should have a soft, calming voice capable of calming the most aggressive of alphas down.

The omega should not talk too much, and the alpha's family should have to prompt the omega to talk, to say something, anything. The omega should also not walk quickly, but small and dainty steps, so that everyone may know of their industriousness, and graceful manners.

If the omega has met all of these requirements, if the stars are aligned and the signs for marriage is auspicious, the alpha's family can heave a sigh of relief and say to the omega. "You are just what we have been looking for."

After all, this was the alpha's family, and they are entitled to their sense of pride.

Lan Huan snorts. It wasn't a surprise why Wen Ruohan had nearly exterminated most of the Sects because of their incredibly backward thinking. For the Gusu Sect, they did not consider the society's standard when choosing an omega to bond to. Instead, they were more relaxed, allowing the alpha and omega to decide if they wanted to bond before having the families of both parties arrange a marriage.

As for the Yunmeng Sect, Jiang Wanyin was known for his intolerance for discrimination against omegas, instead allowing the omegas in his Sect free reign of who they wanted to bond and marry to. Oftentimes, Jiang Wanyin had to stare down another Sect Leader in meetings when they were busy ridiculing omegas. In retrospect, Lan Huan realises that the younger man's the protectiveness of omegas made a lot of sense.

He tries to stop a fond smile from breaking out as he looks at Jiang Wanyin. The other man was eyeing the cat warily, and the cat stares right back. A huff and an averted gaze. Lan Huan chuckles, and stops at the sight of an indignant glare. He observes the cat, it seemed to have calmed down considerably. Looking into its gleaming golden eyes, Lan Huan blinks and is thrilled to receive a slow blink in response.

Lan Huan grins and cautiously stands up, going to his bedside. Where did he put his supplies again? He finds the bag filled with food supplies, and takes a piece of dried meat from his bag. Edging closer to the cat, Lan Huan holds the meat out as an offering. The cat huffs, and flicks its tail, looking at Lan Huan with distrust before snatching the piece of meat from his hand.

Lan Huan eyes the wound on the cat's front paw. A pot of boiling water was at the corner of his room. Lan Huan takes a cloth and dips it inside the boiling water, waiting for it to cool before approaching the cat with the cloth in tow. He dabs at the wound gently, and the cat flinches while looking away, its ear twitching. Expecting a vicious scratch or bite, Lan Huan is surprised at the calm countenance of the cat. He shrugs mentally, it was just as well, he didn't desire to be in any pain.

Lan Huan gestures at Jiang Wanyin to feed the cat a piece of meat from his satchel. The younger man approaches warily, holding out the piece of meat gingerly. Lan Huan guides the other man's hands and revels in the spark of warmth that the action had given.

The cat seemed content, its wounds were going to heal, it had food and warmth. It blinks lazily, and yawns widely in both of the Sect Leader's faces, before stretching out on the floor.

Jiang Wanyin's brows are scrunched up, and he tilts his head at the cat, but Lan Huan suspects that the cat had been owned by humans before. The cat also seemed fairly intelligent, more so than ordinary animals.

"Wanyin, do you want to name the cat?"

"What? No! Don't you know that if you name something, it'll stick to you forever?"

"But it's cute, look at its wide golden eyes, plus, it'll be a good companion for you."

"I don't even like cats!"

The cat meows loudly, its ears pricked and tail swishing.

"Alright fine! It can be called Kai Xin Guo then!"

"Kai Xin Guo? Isn't that pistachio?"

Jiang Wanyin narrows his eyes as he glares at Lan Huan. He folds his arms across his chest, scowling fiercely. "Lan Xichen, are you judging my name of choice?"

Lan Huan shakes his head lightly and gives an amused huff.

Jiang Wanyin stabs a finger in the direction of the cat. "Your name...is now Pistachio."

Chapter Text

"Sect Leader Jiang, Zewu-jun requests for you to meet him at the gate of Lotus Pier."

Jiang Cheng glances up from the stack of papers on his desk and frowns heavily at the disciple. He gives a curt nod, acknowledging the disciple's words. After relaying the message, the disciple bows, and leaves.

He eyes the ball of fluff lying in the corner of his office, its tail neatly wrapped around its body, and covering its nose. Jiang Cheng makes his way briskly to the cat, and he strokes the cat in a smooth even motion until he hears an annoyed meow. The luminous sun-gold eyes of the cat open and a baleful glare is directed at Jiang Cheng.

"Hey, isn't it time for you to go back home? I never intended on keeping you, you know."

A yawn in his face and a lazy flick of its ears.

Jiang Cheng picks the cat up, ignoring its loud protests and annoyed swishing of its tail. After cleaning the cat's wounds and feeding it, it certainly seemed much happier, and didn't so much as scratch Jiang Cheng when he pets it or picks it up. Strangely enough, the cat adored water, and Jiang Cheng would find the cat staring out of the window at the various ponds and bodies of water.

Jiang Cheng then realises that he was carrying a cat to meet Zewu-jun, and he had no idea what the other man had wanted to see him for.

I must be going soft in the head, that's the only reason why I'm doing such ridiculous things.

Snorting in contempt, he shakes his head at himself but continues carrying the ball of purring fluff as he strides towards the gate of Lotus Pier.

Jiang Cheng sees the man in question standing by the entrance of Lotus Pier. He strides over and tries to ignore the furry bundle in his arms. Lan Xichen's face breaks out into a dazzling smile, comparable to the sun, and the corners of his eyes crinkle. Jiang Cheng feels his lungs constrict. Breathless, he stares at Lan Xichen.

When was the last time someone looked so pleased to see me?

"What...what did you want to see me for?" He mentally slaps himself. Pull yourself together, you damned fool. A voice that sounded strangely like his mother's rang in his ears. "Was there a reason for you to meet me here?"

Lan Xichen nods serenely, and stretches a hand to pet Pistachio, to which she eagerly responds by purring and rubbing her head against his fingers. Jiang Cheng gives the cat a dirty look. Why, that little traitor!

"I was thinking that we could go to town together, after all, we didn't get to go the last time." Lan Xichen beams at Jiang Cheng and looks so fucking hopeful that Jiang Cheng couldn't help but give in, again.

"Alright, but I don't have any money on me, let me go get my-"

"No need, I'll pay for whatever you need to buy. Let's get going now while the sun is still high."

Lan Xichen smiles at Jiang Cheng's unimpressed stare. The white-robed man gestures politely for Jiang Cheng to go first. Resigning himself to an entire day of carrying a cat around while in Lan Xichen's company, Jiang Cheng huffs softly.

As they walk, he admires the grace which the First Jade of Lan possesses, with steps as light as the breeze which whips around them, tossing the other man's hair around playfully. Jiang Cheng nearly trips over a rock as he stares, mesmerised by the way Lan Xichen embodied sheer elegance.

"Wanyin, your scent is becoming more noticeable."

Jiang Cheng freezes, and he suddenly finds Pistachio's fur very interesting. Did Lan Xichen find his scent repulsive? Omegas, especially those who are unhappy or distressed, have a distinct note of sharp bitterness in their scents. He definitely wasn't fucking happy, so he had to have some trace of his mental and physical state in his scent.

"How doe-what does it smell like?" He cringes that the stutter that escapes. There, what a way to make yourself look dumb. You know that scents are somewhat subjective to individuals, and you're asking Lan Xichen what he thinks of your scent?

Jiang Cheng wasn't expecting the other man to pause, staring at him while pursing his lips in thought. As he replies, his voice is unusually hesitant. "I suppose that Wanyin's scent is similar to thunderstorm and rain, along with lotus flowers."

"Do you like it?" Jiang Cheng blurts out, and immediately clamps his mouth shut while grimacing in sheer mortification. Did he just ask Lan Xichen, fellow Sect Leader of Gusu Lan and top bachelor in the Cultivation World if he liked his scent?

Lan Xichen had so many omegas throwing themselves at him. Those omegas were mostly of a higher caliber, and Jiang Cheng could not compare to them. He braces himself for a polite laugh, because Lan Xichen is a gentleman, he wouldn't mock Jiang Cheng or ridicule him-

He wasn't prepared for Lan Xichen to step right into his personal space and lean into his neck. Jiang Cheng feels his brain stutter to a stop and gasps quietly.

So close. Lan Xichen is so close!

He feels a warm exhale before a low voice mutters a "Yes."

Lan Xichen does not redraw but presses closer until Jiang Cheng could feel the tip of the other man's nose grazing the sensitive skin of his neck. Jiang Cheng feels warmth radiate from Lan Xichen's body and goosebumps that breaks out as Lan Xichen continues to inhale his scent.

W-wait, this needs to stop!

Sharp claws sink into Jiang Cheng's hand, and he yelps in pain, and as quickly as it started, the moment was over. Lan Xichen swiftly retreats, his eyes dark and dilated. He eyes Jiang Cheng with concern. Pistachio glares at him, hissing. He must have squished her too tightly against his chest when Lan Xichen was...doing whatever he did a few moments ago.

"It's...it's fine! Come on, let's stop wasting daylight." Lan Xichen gives him an unconvinced look but does not protest, instead nodding and following Jiang Cheng as he leads the way.

______________________________________________________

 

"Wanyin, look, this would make a nice toy for Pistachio."

"Xichen, I thought Lans were supposed to be thrifty?"

"Yes...but look at it, imagine how much fun Pistachio would have...right?"

A rumbling purr echoed from Jiang Cheng's arms. He groans, and then turns to meet Lan Xichen's smiling face. He looks down to see Pistachio, the cat seemingly agreeing with the other man, and purrs at him, rubbing her head against his arms.

"This isn't fair. You two are ganging up on me," Jiang Cheng groused, scowling as his heart gives up on protesting and he gives in. Lan Xichen beams and tells the shopkeeper to wrap up the cat toy, before handing over the money.

"There's more cat toys there! Let's take a look!" Lan Xichen glides across to the other stalls, his white ribbon fluttering at the breeze. Jiang Cheng not so reluctantly chases after the other Sect Leader.

The people in the towns under his protection knew of his reputation, they both feared and adored him in varying measures. As they weaved through the bustling streets, Jiang Cheng could hear the hushed whispers and see the eager pointing of fingers at the cat in his arms. His expression morphs into a thunderous one as he starts to tense up, the staring and gossiping making him feel trapped.

"-that Sect Leader Jiang?"

"Why is he holding a cat?"

"-is that Zewu-jun that's accompanying him?"

"-would anyone else accompany him, he's so bad-tempered."

Jiang Cheng tries not to shrink into himself. Forcing himself to walk purposefully with his back rigid and head high, he plasters a menacing snarl on his face.

Only to walk smack into a wall of white.

He is steadied by a hand on his wrist, and as he jerks away in reflex, he nearly loses his balance.

"Fuc-"

Hands wrap around his waist as he stumbles. The cuss dies on his lips as he sees an intense gaze boring into his. Transfixed, he stares as a wet tongue dances over soft pink lips. Unconsciously, his mouth parts, and he lets out a soft exhale.

______________________________________________________

What is he doing?

Lan Huan's eyes fixate on Jiang Wanyin's parted lips, and he blinks. He steps back abruptly and shifts his weight from one foot to another, with an indescribable feeling bubbling in his chest. He sees Jiang Wanyin fidget, hugging Pistachio closer to him as he stares at the ground.

"Are...are you alright?"

"I'm fine," the younger man says tersely, his tone sharp.

"Should we continue looking for things to buy-"

"I'm tired. Let's go back."

Jiang Wanyin turns and strides away, and mentally shaking his head at himself, Lan Huan follows.

Why was he so attracted to Jiang Wanyin? When the other man had asked him if he liked his scent, Lan Huan was being completely truthful when he had said yes. Despite the notes of sadness and bitterness, the fragrance of blooming lotuses that were found in Lotus Pier was apparent, and it was juxtaposed by the striking smell of rain during a fierce thunderstorm. It was an unlikely combination, but it suited Jiang Wanyin so well.

Lan Huan found himself wanting to make the sadness, loneliness and all the pain of his fellow Sect Leader go away. He couldn't bear to see the younger man hurting, and he wanted to take him away and hide him from his demons.

Deep down, he knew that Jiang Wanyin wouldn't hurt him. The younger man didn't lie, didn't sugarcoat his words, didn't have any hidden agenda that he wanted Lan Huan for to achieve. All he wanted someone to show care to him. And Lan Huan would provide care.

He wanted to make sure that no one was hurt, not like Da-ge and Meng Yao. Where he had helped, helped to kill Da-ge. He wouldn't allow anyone to get hurt again, even if it meant being less trusting and being more cold and cynical, he would do it.

It was ironic, really. He had doubted Wangji for trusting in Wei Wuxian all these years, and he had utmost faith that his surviving sworn brother was a good person, his sworn brother. Then, after he found out about Meng Yao's unforgivable acts, his trust had been shattered, broken, and crumbled into tiny pieces as he felt his heart twist.

Had he really known this man? What was he to the other? A way for him to get what he wants? How could he not have known?

Then he saw Wangji's relationship with Wei Wuxian blossom, and he feels regret tinge his weary soul.

Why did he trust so easily?

Even now, he still grieves. He remembers Shuoyue piercing through the flesh of his sworn brother. He remembers the splatter of blood, the shriek of pain and indignation. The wide-eyed looks that were directed at him. But most of all, he remembers the eyes, red-rimmed and burning with fury. The expression, twisted in betrayal. The screams.

But I never thought of hurting you, Lan Xichen!

A part of him had died there and then. When he was sitting with Huaisang, he felt hollow. He felt like laughing. So, he was just another means for someone to use, this time to take revenge.

Never again. Never will I be used by anyone.

It had seemed so real. Meng Yao had been there for him, when Wangji was distraught over Wei Wuxian's demise, when he was struggling to rebuild his Sect. When he was bone-weary, about to collapse. Meng Yao had taken him aside, gave him some tea, and offered words of encouragement.

Were all the smiles, the laughs, the times that they shared all fabricated? Did he laugh at him behind his back, wondering why he was such a gullible fool? Did he even care for me?

Lan Huan feels wetness on his cheeks. He closes his eyes, feeling tears stream down. The smell of thunder, rain and lotus flowers floats around him. Then he feels a hesitant pat on his shoulder, and blurrily, he sees deep purple robes and a lean figure. He blinks, seeing furrowed brows. More tears drip down his cheeks, and the expression on Jiang Wanyin's face morphs into one of unease.

Lan Huan giggles. Another tear falls. Jiang Wanyin eyes narrow, and his lips press together, looking at Lan Huan in barely veiled concern.

"You're okay, right?"

He nods, and giggles again as Jiang Wanyin's face changes again. He never noticed how expressive the other man was.

"Why are you laughing? Weren't you just crying a few moments before?"

Amusement faintly mixed with hysteria wells up his chest, and without thinking, he blurts out.

"It's just...you're so awkward!"

An expression of outrage along with embarrassment makes Lan Huan dissolve into giggles.

Unexpectedly, the other man just laughs quietly along with him.

______________________________________________________

"Where did Pistachio go?"

"About that...she seems to have taken a liking to the Lotus Pond near my office."

"Well, she should come back soon, her wounds are still healing and she needs rest, also, there's a meeting for Sect Leaders in Gusu soon."

"Right," Jiang Wanyin turns to look at him. "Shall we go together?"

Lan Huan hums in acceptance and continues drafting his reply to a letter from Wangji. After Wei Wuxian had confronted Jiang Wanyin about his poor health, they had left for Gusu despite Wei Wuxian's multitude of protests after Lan Huan had insisted on staying behind to look after Jiang Wanyin. He does feel a little guilty about leaving his work to Wangji while he does almost nothing every day, but he knows that Wangji understands why he chose to stay behind.

Yes, Wangji understands. He smiles at the younger man, and feels happier than he did for a long time.

Chapter Text

"Please don't."

"I need to take it. How do you think the other Sect Leaders will react?"

"You can't hide it forever."

"..."

Jiang Cheng adverts his eyes and stares at the ground. He feels hysteria bubble up in him. What did Lan Xichen expect him to do if he couldn't take the suppressant? There would be a meeting for Sect Leaders the next day, and he didn't want them to find out that he is an omega. They might not insult him directly to his face, but they might curl their lips at him, side-eye him, and talk behind his back.

He would be lesser than them, and their behaviour would reflect it. He remembers when he was struggling to rebuild Lotus Pier, with his face still holding traces of baby fat, his hands still trembling in barely concealed anxiety. How could he go back to that again? The feelings of worthlessness, of feeling less and inadequate. It made him feel small, feel like he should crawl into a hole and just lie there. He couldn't feel that, he couldn't.

Jiang Cheng then feels his defense mechanism rear up. It was born the day of the Lotus Pier massacre, when he saw bodies, people he knew, people who saw him grow up, his father, his mother, lying lifelessly on the cold ground. Their blood staining the floor. He remembered the torn emblem of the nine petaled lotus, and he had felt a part of him crack, fracture and die along with them. He had felt so helpless then, so useless. Why, why couldn't he have done anything? Why couldn't he have helped? The feelings turned into anger, the pain warped into hate. Fine. He had thought viciously. Fine. I'll show you what revenge looks like.

He remembers facing the other Sect Leaders. "I am now the Sect Leader of Yunmeng Jiang." He said, standing tall and head held high. He conceals the trembling hands behind his back, the cold beads of sweat that had been hurriedly wiped away on his handkerchief. He meets their eyes steadily. They looked amused, almost indifferent, and all of them held a hint of mockery. As if they were saying. A boy masquerading as a man? Let alone a Sect Leader? He's bound to fail.

His nails dig into his palms. I will not. He swears furiously. I will no longer feel inadequate. These feelings of helplessness are useless. Anger would make me stronger, and I wouldn't be looked down upon then.

The familiar beast stirs up in his chest. He feels the rage overtake him, red colouring his vision. Glaring at the man opposite him, he snarls "Why do you care? It's none of your business."

Lan Xichen gazes cooly at him, but Jiang Cheng sees the flicker of surprise at his violent reaction. "Indeed it is none of my business, but why do you consider the reactions of the other Sect Leaders important? You never seemed to care for them." He pauses and looks hesitant. "I...just want to see you healthy."

The beast shrieks, and Jiang Cheng feels himself desperately trying to bring it back, to tame it, to quiet it down. Stop, don't, don't say that to Lan Xichen, he doesn't deserve it. He struggles but ultimately fails, the anger simmering, boiling, wanting to burn everything in its path and reduce everything to ashes. The gates lose the fight, and Jiang Cheng feels the anger burst out of him in a fierce torrent.

"Why, are you just like those alphas that want omegas under your control?"

Stop. Stop this, you're being irrational.

"You're just like them, aren't you? You seem so good and perfect in the eyes of the cultivation world, but you're not."

Jiang Cheng. Stop.

His mouth doesn't stop, poisonous words flying from his mouth to hurt, to make the other crumble. Lan Xichen's expression crumbles, and his eyes are full of wide, dark pain. Then, the expression shifts into one of coldness. The smile was nowhere to be seen. Lan Xichen stares stonily at him, and Jiang Cheng feels his heart twist and clench in pain.

No, I didn't mean to say those things.

As his venomous mouth finally runs out of things to say, he immediately snaps it shut, and is horrified to feel tears welling up in his eyes. He knew that Lan Xichen had the best of intentions, he had been concerned for him too, even though Jiang Cheng had no idea why. Now he had run his mouth and said all those untrue, hurtful things and had ruined everything with the other man.

Why is it that everything I do is wrong?

Jiang Cheng then feels the familiar ache in his chest. He was really a good for nothing. He had just chased away the first friend that he had made. Why couldn't he control his temper? Was he such a horrible person that he would hurt everyone that attempted to get close to him?

Yes. You are.

He heaves a shuddering breath and raises his hands to his traitorous eyes. He feels a tear leak out, then another. Scrubbing at his face desperately, he turns away, hoping to preserve whatever dignity he had left. A hand on his wrist stops him. He lifts his pathetic-looking face to gaze into warm gentle eyes.

Lan Xichen's eyes were understanding. His mouth was pressed into a thin line, but he didn't look angry, which was surprising. He simply looked like...he wanted to help. Jiang Cheng feels like laughing. Why? Why would Lan Xichen still care about him, even after all he said?

Jiang Cheng weakly tries to tug his wrist away from the other man's grip. And fails. Dammit, why was he so ridiculously strong? Lan Xichen moves closer, and the alpha's comforting scent of spring breeze calms his tumultuous and jumbled mind.

"Can I scent you before the Sect Leaders' meeting?"

"What?"

Jiang Cheng feels his brain short circuit and his mouth gapes inelegantly. "You want to scent me?"

"Yes, it will help cover up your omega scent, and you wouldn't have to take suppressants." Lan Xichen says seriously, blinking at Jiang Cheng's shock.

"But I'll smell like you! And it'll seem like you...we're..."

"We're sleeping together? I'd much rather let people assume then letting you harm your body."

"I...I don't...I...why?" Jiang Cheng feels helpless again. Why? Why would Lan Xichen risk sullying his reputation, the First Jade, to associate himself with someone like him? Why would he inconvenience himself like that? Didn't Lan Xichen see that he wasn't worth all this trouble?

Jiang Cheng feels young again, like the first time he asked his sister. "A-jie, why does father never look at me?" His sweet sister had looked at him, seen the hurt in his eyes, seen the tears swimming, and she had smiled, though it was fractured and sad. "I don't know, A-Cheng, but A-jie will always love you."

The same feeling of vulnerability washed over him. He had known the answer then, but he didn't know now. Did he really matter to Lan Xichen? Was he worth something, anything to the other man?

Lan Xichen stays silent, but he continues gazing steadily into his eyes. He sighs but doesn't say anything.

Jiang Cheng freezes as he feels arms wrap around him, tucking him into a broad chest. He feels the alpha's scent wash over him, and he instinctively presses closer for more comfort. In Lan Xichen's arms, he felt warm, safe and calm. It was as if he was back in the past with his Jiang Sect bell ringing to clear his mind. Now that it didn't work-

A nuzzle at his hair broke him out of his thoughts. He looks up and sees Lan Xichen smiling down at him. "Do you feel better now?"

"Yes, thank you," He mumbles, and separates from the secure embrace of the other.

"It's what friends should do." Lan Xichen says, with a small smile on his face. "Will you let me scent you instead of taking suppressants?"

Oh right. They were friends, nothing more, nothing less.

He didn't know whether to laugh or cry at the twist of disappointment in his stomach. Did you actually think Lan Xichen would want someone as something more? Let alone you? Utterly pathetic. He steeled his expression and hopes that he didn't give away anything.

"Yes, I'll let you scent me."

_____________________________________________

Lan Huan feels his heart skip a beat at those words. He had gotten permission to scent the other? He feels giddy and light. Nodding quickly, he smiles and says, "I'll see you before the conference then, Wanyin."

Jiang Cheng nods jerkily and disappears into his office, presumably to bury his head in more paperwork.

Lan Huan is left standing alone, and he decides to explore the premises of Lotus Pier.

Lan Huan walks serenely, feeling the breeze toss his hair playfully, sees the various stages of bloom of the lotus flowers. He hears disciples training in the field nearby, with the various sounds of swords clashing with a sharp clang and steady footsteps of the disciples running.

He rounds the corner, hearing cheerful chatter in the distance. Oh. That was the kitchens! There was a flurry of activity, with loud voices and jovial laughter that rang out. Women bustled around, moving and working animatedly. Their hands were a blur of efficient movements, chopping, dicing, frying, and peeling. Altogether, it was a very pleasant atmosphere.

Then, a wrinkled old lady catches sight of him. Even this far away, Lan Huan could see her eyes light up, her quick nudging to her colleagues before all eyes fell on him. They looked like a pack of starving wolves, to which Lan Huan freezes and stares awkwardly. Collectively, they gape at him, before the silence is broken.

"Look at that handsome Lan cultivator, come here, young man!"

"He looks so skinny, we need to make him food."

"Yes, don't be shy! Come and talk to us old women!"

Lan Huan refuses the urge to turn and flee, with the voices and attention becoming overwhelming. He flashes his most charming smile at them, walking up to them and bowing elegantly.

"Good afternoon, how are all of you?"

He hears giggles and whispers break out, the old women nudging each other playfully.

"He's so polite, what a fine young man!"

"We need to feed him, I'll go prepare some soup!"

"Even better now that you're here!" A jolly faced woman with wisps of grey hair framing her face beams at him, her eyes crinkling at the corners.

Lan Huan feels a flush crawl up his cheeks, and he coughs. He is a Lan. Lans were not supposed to get flustered or show outward emotions. But how was he supposed to react to this?

Hands tugged on his robes gently, pushing him into a seat with an empty table. Lan Huan blinks and refuses to admit to himself how intimidated he feels by the kitchen staff. They chatter at him while bustling around, making sure to shoot questions and inquiries at him. Then a plate full of steaming buns is set in front of him. "Here! This is the Lotus Pier specialty, the lotus paste mantou."

"I couldn't possibly impose on you like this-"

The glares silences him. He gulps and picks up the soft bun, the mild, sweet scent rising into his nose. It smelled so good! Lan Huan bites into the bun and feels the soft, slightly chewy texture grace his tastebuds. It wasn't too sweet nor too bland, but it was just right.

Making sure to finish the bun, he looks up, startled when he sees all eyes on him. Lan Huan feels his eyebrows climbing into his forehead. At his expression, the women beam brightly at him, their faces expectant.

"Did you like it?"

"Very much, thank you for your hospitality." Lan Huan says politely with a small but genuine smile. When had he last been fussed over like this? Never, he realises. In Cloud Recesses, his mother had passed early, his father in seclusion until he died. His uncle did not care for him in that way, instead choosing to teach him skills that would help him as a Sect Leader. This feeling was nice, he thinks.

"Sect Leader Jiang was the one who came up with this recipe." One of the women is saying, her eyes dimming a little.

"I'm sorry, but did you say Sect Leader Jiang invented the recipe?"

"Yes. When he became the Sect Leader, he found us on the streets, we were homeless, jobless, our families had been killed by the Wens." The mood in the kitchen turns sombre. Some of the women sigh, staring at the floor. "He had taken us in, stating that we did not need to be cultivators, but we would have a home in Lotus Pier all the same."

Lan Huan waits. So Jiang Wanyin had taken in these women, not even cultivators, into Lotus Pier to give them a home? It didn't seem like something Lan Huan had thought the other man would do. Even though he had never paid attention to rumours, he had still heard tales of the infamous Sandu-Shengshou, who had tortured and killed countless cultivators that had dared to practice demonic cultivation.

"Back then, he was all alone, he didn't have anyone, neither did we." One woman says, her tone melancholic and eyes glazed, staring into a past that Lan Huan couldn't see.

"He made these mantous to feed us, we were starving, he would visit us every day to deliver this to us. We haven't forgotten his kindness."

Lan Huan stares at the buns in front of him. He picks one up, with it feeling suddenly heavier with significance.

"He needs someone to take care of him, do for him what he had done for us. Even until now, he still suffers. We try our best, but he's impossibly stubborn." Another woman sighs, her tone transitioning from exasperated to fond.

Lan Huan could hear a few snorts as the woman finished her sentence. He could feel a fond smile forming on his face. Stubborn wasn't enough to describe Jiang Wanyin when he made up his mind. Trying to change it was akin to ramming his head into a wall.

"Zewu-jun, we all heard of your kindness and good heart. For Sect Leader Jiang to keep you here with him means that you're special to him. Please take care of him." Solemn eyes bore at him, their hands were clasped together, with identical pleading expressions were directed at him.

Lan Huan nods in determination. Jiang Wanyin would not have to suffer anymore. He would make sure of that.

"Don't worry, I will take care of him."

______________________________________________

Jiang Cheng eyes Pistachio unhappily. The damned cat was lying on his documents! Scowling down at the cat, his expression turns even more thunderous as the cat had the audacity to yawn in his face.

"Pistachio! I have to work, could you move your furry ass to the nice cat bed we bought for you?"

Pistachio opens one gleaming golden eye and winks at him. Jiang Cheng throws his hands up in the air in surrender, huffing in annoyance. Pistachio had been granted a permanent home in his office and free run of Lotus Pier. Why on earth would she choose to lie on his documents now? He was supposed to be working, dammit!

He had been working, buried in the pile of letters that concerned the Sect Leaders meeting the following day. There were arrangements to be made, damnit! Though, Jiang Cheng had admitted to himself, frivolous arrangements such as the banquet and the alcohol to be served. Rolling his eyes, he frowns. Whatever, he'll just serve the other Sect Leaders water and Lotus Pier cuisine. They wouldn't dare to complain anyway. He thinks smugly.

As his thoughts stray, he feels the repressed anxiety bubble up. What would they say if he had attended with Lan Xichen's scent covering his? Would they outwardly react? Accusations and mockery flying at him? What if Lan Xichen didn't manage to hide the fact that he is an omega? Would their reactions be worse then?

He clenches his fists, digging his nails into his palms. Wouldn't it be better if he had just taken suppressants instead? But he had promised Lan Xichen. Well, not exactly promised, but he wouldn't be able to stomach the disappointed look that will inevitably be directed at him.

A warm body breaks him out of his thoughts. He glances down, seeing Pistachio rubbing her head against his hand and purring softly. It might be naive of him to think that she was offering him comfort, but he persists in that thought, smiling at the cat. Stroking her head and soft fur, he feels himself get lost in thought again.

Lan Xichen seemed to care for him, even after Jiang Cheng had yelled in his face and insulted him. He couldn't help but wonder why he himself was so drawn to the other. Even before the whole collapsing thing he pulled off, he had always been civil to the other man. Polite, but never friendly. What had changed? Was it after Guanyin Temple?

Even so, Jiang Cheng would do his best to make sure he helped the other man too. As dense as he was, he didn't miss the sadness that tinged the other's gaze when he seemed lost in thought. Lan Xichen was struggling too, but no one seemed to be helping him. He didn't know about Lan Wangji or Wei Wuxian, but whatever they were doing, it wasn't enough.

Jiang Cheng swears to himself that he would do his best to repay the other.

Chapter Text

"You need to come closer."

"..."

"How would I be able to scent you otherwise?"

A scorching glare is directed at him, and the omega in question folds his arms over his chest, mouth pulled back in a severe frown. Lan Huan raises his hand to cover his mouth and resists the urge to giggle. He beckons for the other man to come closer, only for the frown to deepen.

However, Lan Huan could see the flush that was crawling up the other's neck. He smiles, endeared by Jiang Wanyin's behaviour. The younger man inches closer, his eyes wary and body tense. Both of Lan Huan's hands catch on slender wrists. He tugs the other closer, sitting down on the bed with him, making sure that they were facing each other.

"Did we have to do this here?"

"You'd rather be seen with me at your neck?" Lan Huan raises an eyebrow, amused when Jiang Wanyin huffs, folding his arms over his chest.

"No! But in your room?"

"Technically, it's yours, since I'm a guest."

"Hmmph."

Lan Huan smiles reassuringly, patting Jiang Wanyin's hand. "Don't worry too much about it, it'll be over before you know it." Jiang Wanyin's lips are still downturned, but Lan Huan manages to catch the flicker of...disappointment? Curious, he stares at the expressive face, but it disappears in a split second, the usual scowl returning.

"How...how are we going to do this?" Lan Huan sees the uncertainty in the stormy eyes, the nervous twitch of those fingers.

Right, he had forgotten. Jiang Wanyin was new to this. He would be surprised if the other knew what scenting was supposed to be like. For all the snark, Lan Huan could see the conflicting emotions the other man was trying to hide. Trying. He had to be patient and gentle, making this experience a good one.

Lan Huan inches closer, steadying his breath. Jiang Wanyin smelled heavenly, the lotus flowers and rain lulling his heart into a rhythmic beat. He blinks, before placing his hand on the strong shoulders. As he draws closer, tiny freckles that dot the omega's sharp nose could be seen. He also sees the flush getting more prominent, with the other steadfastly avoiding his gaze.

As his hand trails to the omega's neck, he could feel the skin beneath his hand heating up, feel the tiny shiver that was nearly unnoticeable. He was now leaning into Jiang Wanyin's neck, with a hand on the other side of the slender neck and another hand brushing against a shoulder.

He could see the goosebumps rising on the sun-kissed neck, along with a spike in the sweet scent as his nose brushed against the scent gland. Something stirs in his chest.

Dipping closer, Lan Huan huffs lightly at the other's neck, feeling light-headed from the increasing pheromones. He nuzzles against the neck, making sure that his scent was covering Jiang Wanyin's.

Lan Huan freezes as he hears a low whimper.

 

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Jiang Cheng feels exposed. Lan Xichen's eyes were boring into him, making him feel uncomfortably warm. He resists the urge to fidget, instead averting his eyes. He was hyperaware of how near the other man was, feeling a rush of hot air at his neck. Lan Xichen's scent of chilly winter and crisp spring breeze with hints of wildflowers made him warm.

He nearly startles at the feather-light touch of the hand against his neck, before feeling his skin prickle. Another hand settles at his shoulder, its hold firm yet gentle.

Jiang Cheng tries not to panic. What is scenting supposed to be like? What if it isn't enough to hide the fact that he's an omega? What would he do then-?

He feels a nose being buried in his neck. He shivers, instinctively going lax. He could feel something bubble in his chest-

Did he just...?

Fuck.

The other stiffens, stilling the gentle nosing at his neck.

There was no dignity left for him. Jiang Cheng decides while trying desperately not to combust into flames. Oh no. This was bad. This was very bad. What would Lan Xichen think of him now? He was just supposed to be scented but now he had made things...weird, to put it nicely.

Jiang Cheng tries to scramble away but was stopped by the alpha. With his heart thumping furiously in his chest, he stays in place. The crushing embarrassment was rivaled by the traitorous flush that swept across his whole face like wildfire. God. This was horribly awkward.

To his credit, Lan Xichen didn't say anything to mock him. But he had chuckled, continuing to nudge against his neck, smothering his scent with the alpha's own.

Lan Xichen leans back, leaving Jiang Cheng flustered and ready to crawl into a hole and die. He leaps to his feet, his face hot.

"Wanyin, is something wrong?"

Mumbling some bullshit excuse, Jiang Cheng flees the room.

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Screwed. He was so screwed. Jiang Cheng groans, burying his face in his hands. If things were bad, it was even worse now. He resists the urge to slam his head on the table, glaring down at his hands angrily.

Did he really have to make things so awkward? Lan Xichen was helping him, putting his reputation on the line so that Jiang Cheng wouldn't have to take suppressants. He had reacted inappropriately, it was supposed to be something friendly! Instead, he had reacted like Lan Xichen was his alpha, even going so far to tilt his head for better access to his scent gland.

Lan Xichen must think that he's a shameless asshole.

Sighing loudly, Jiang Cheng tugs at his bangs harshly. Strands of hair fell over his face as he lays his head on his hands, cursing himself. He bolts upright as his door bursts open.

"Jiang Cheng!"

Fate really hates Jiang Cheng.

He already knew that when it came to leaving things up to chance, he was fate's personal chew toy. It was akin to those deer antlers he had gotten for Jasmine, Little Love and Princess for them to relieve their teething pain. He still remembers slight horror he felt after seeing the state of those antlers, bent, broken, and infused with deep teeth marks. It was shortly after some time with the dogs. Yeah, he definitely was fate's chew toy.

Speaking of dogs, he really wished he had one now.

"Wait. What?!"

Jiang Cheng looks up tiredly to meet wide grey eyes. He waves a hand at the disciple that bows apologetically to him, a clear dismissal. Right. He had almost forgotten that the Sect Leaders meeting was today.

Wei Wuxian bounds up to him, a curious look on his face. "Jiang Cheng? Why do you smell like Zewu-jun?" Comprehension dawns on the expressive face, the eyes widen exponentially. "Did he claim you?"

"Of course the first thing you'd ask is that." Jiang Cheng snorts, glaring at the other man. He was so infuriating! He had always been infuriating! Jiang Cheng could feel his head beginning to throb from stress.

Wei Wuxian's expression morphs to one of guilt and he twists his hands around, staring at Jiang Cheng with sad eyes. "How...how are you?"

"Great." Jiang Cheng scowls, looking imposingly at the shorter male. Then, he sighs. "I won't die, if that's what you're worried about." Try as he might, Jiang Cheng couldn't find the energy to muster up any anger or hatred when he looks at Wei Wuxian. All that he feels is a sense of overwhelming loss. There were so many regrets and words that had remained unsaid. Didn't you say that you were going to be by my side forever?

Wei Wuxian had left him. It was a reminder, a reminder that no matter what he does, no one wanted him. His brother, his only support, his lifeline. Wei Wuxian was many things, but Jiang Cheng, back when he was naive and young, thought that the silver-tongued man would keep his promises. It had been so easy to trust that promise.

"That's good." Wei Wuxian says earnestly. His hands are twitching, as if he wanted to reach out to Jiang Cheng, to touch him. He better fucking not. Jiang Cheng would flay him with Zidian. Deep down, he knows that he too longs for the days of the past. Back when they could laugh freely, with friendly shoves and easy rapport. The care they showed each other, even as they went out of their way to hide it. The days they spent with A-jie, praising her cooking and eagerly begging for more. A-jie had smiled softly, her smile warm and radiant as the sun, and they basked in it.

He remembered the quarrels that they had, the sharp words they exchanged, with scowls and feelings of resentment. Then as they became regretful, muttered apologies and averted eyes as A-jie had looked on approvingly.

A-jie had been the glue that bound them together. After her passing, their relationship had been destroyed, torn, set to light, and scattered like ashes. He didn't know what to do.

"Were you really hurt that badly when...I left?"

Jiang Cheng resists the urge to throw his stone paperweight at the idiot's head. "Don't flatter yourself, not everything is about you." He snaps, irritated.

What a pathetic liar you are.

He sees Wei Wuxian's shoulders droop. There was an uncomfortable tension, with both males seeming to stare each other down. The room is quiet, with the only audible sounds being the harsh intakes of breath. It balloons, swelling up until both were acutely aware of how deafening it is. Jiang Cheng stares at the table and Wei Wuxian fidgets.

"Look. It's over now. There's no use dwelling on it." Jiang Cheng rubs his face, feeling drained. He needed a damn break. Wei Wuxian sighs, staring at the ground. "You are...happy now, aren't you?"

"Yes," a whisper reaches his ears. "Yes, I'm happy now."

He smiles. It feels withered and fractured like him, but it was genuine. Wei Wuxian's lips twitch at the corners, but his eyes are sad.

"I never wanted to hurt you, you know." Those grey eyes bore into his, pleading for him to understand.

"I know."

It was him. Their relationship had soured because of him. He knew that even as Wei Wuxian left, he could continue to care for him, going to visit at Burial Mounds and telling Wei Wuxian about how the cultivation world wanted him dead. He would nag him to be careful, because even when Jiang Cheng was hurt by his brother leaving him, he was still his idiot brother, and he cared.

As Jin Zixuan died, he became fueled by suspicion. He had, to his shame, listened to the poisonous words that the other manipulative Sect Leaders had sprouted to him. He was oblivious to their hungry eyes, how they were trying to reach for more, for more power, ambition fuelling their greedy hearts.

He had played right into their hands, becoming paranoid and wary of what his brother might be up to. He had been distrustful suspecting that Wei Wuxian was up to no good. Forgetting all this while that it was Wei Wuxian that he was having misgivings about. The man that had left his Sect to save strangers.

When A-jie died. He broke. Cradling her still body, he felt helplessness crash on him like a tidal wave. He had hurls accusations at Wei Wuxian, screaming about how he had ruined everything. The old resentment comes rushing back, pulling him under. Why?! Was it not enough for you to leave me? Why did you take the only person I had left?

He had wailed his sorrow up to the crimson red sky, tears pouring down his cheeks. Please wake up Jie, you can't leave me! You're all I have left, please don't leave me alone!

He crushes A-jie's body to his chest, feeling as if he was back in the past, when he was a child, staring with tear-filled eyes at his screaming parents as they fought. Why, why couldn't he have died instead of her?

Everything else that had happened had passed in a blur. There was no sense of triumph when he killed the man he once called his brother. Those crimson eyes haunted him, follows him wherever he goes. With the demise of the Yiling Patriarch, whatever humanity left in him died.

He was a hollow husk. Fuelled by rage, despair, and hatred, he had hunted down every demonic cultivator that caught his attention. Zidian crackled and hissed as he flayed them, leaving them with empty eyes, with their flesh ripped to ribbons.

One night, he thought about ending it all. He was all alone, one by one, he had watched his family die. He had killed the man that he called his brother. What was left for him now?

Jiang Cheng was on the floor in his room. He unsheathed Sandu, raising it up to his neck. He feels the freezing blade sting lightly as he places it at his neck.

However, just as he was about to silt his throat, a squalling cry of an infant pierced his ears. He had slammed down Sandu, rushing out of the room. He bursts into the room, where the wails originated.

The red-rimmed and shiny eyes of a baby immediately met his. The tiny mouth dropped open, clenched fists stretched towards him. The Lanling Jin cultivator carrying the infant winced, immediately stepping away from him, prompting loud wails from the infant.

"Apologies, Sect Leader Jiang. We couldn't get him to calm down, so we brought him to you."

Jiang Cheng should have felt insulted. Who did they think they were? The audacity of these people, fancy coming and dumping a child on him. But that wasn't just a child. It was A-jie's child. He rushed to the Jin cultivator, roughly taking the child into his arms. He looks at the baby, who stops crying, looking at him with teary curious eyes.

The chubby hands reach out, grasping his lock of dark hair, before pulling harshly on it. Jiang Cheng didn’t so much as wince but had stared at the infant in silence. The rosy lips stretch into a smile and the baby gurgles happily at him.

That was when he swore that he would live. If only for his beloved sister's son.

"I'm sorry. For killing you." Jiang Cheng chokes out, his fists clenching. "I should have known better."

Wei Wuxian looks at him, visibly startled. He raises a questioning brow, a small grin spreading across his boyish face. Jiang Cheng tries not to feel insulted. Contrary to what people might think, he has a conscience. He does!

"I'm sorry too, for breaking my promise." Wei Wuxian says, his eyes shining and voice small. Jiang Cheng scoffs, but also offers a tiny smile.

He needed to start letting go of the past.

 

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Jin Ling takes pride in many things. Firstly, he was the nephew of the Sandu-Shengshou, wielder of the legendary Zidian. Secondly, he was a superb archer, if he did say so himself. Thirdly, he was often compared to his uncle, be it in temper or cultivation strength and lastly, he could read said uncle like a book.

However, he did not expect this!

Jiu-jiu strides into the meeting hall, vibrant purple robes billowing after him. Zewu-jun follows, snow-white robes fluttering gracefully. The scent of winter breeze and wildflowers drift around the two Sect Leaders. Jin Ling feels his mouth drop open inelegantly.

What? When? Why? Did his uncle bond with Zewu-jun? Jin Ling feels his mouth go dry. Uncle hadn't said anything about a cultivation partner, he never had.

Jin Ling feels a frown form on his face. He bores holes into his uncle's back, glaring harder as his uncle catches his eye and raises an eyebrow.

Jin Ling tilts his head, motioning at Zewu-jun, he is unprepared for the red flush that appears on his uncle's cheeks. Resisting the urge to laugh loudly, he settles for a smug smirk, which grows wider as his uncle shoots him an annoyed glare.

Whispers break out across the room. The other Sect Leaders and their disciples whisper discretely. All except the Yunmeng Jiang and Lan disciples. Hanguang-jun looks expressionless, while Wei Wuxian grins widely. Does he know something I don't? Frowning at Wei Wuxian, Jin Ling feels like throttling that exasperating man to get an answer. Annoyed, Jin Ling notices that the Jin clan cultivators behind him were also frantically whispering to each other. Clearing his throat quietly, he glares at them.

Jin Ling sees his uncle tense, back stiffening minutely. Then, Zewu-jun glances at his uncle, going so far as to gesture for him to sit at his place before sitting beside him. What an interesting development, Jin Ling ignores the part of his brain that started screeching.

Does Zewu-jun like uncle?!

Jiu-jiu sits, his eyes stormy and sharp. Jin Ling recognises that expression, it meant that his uncle's temper was volatile and would flare up any moment. To put it crudely, it meant that if anyone fucks with his jiu-jiu, there would be hell to pay.

Jin Ling resists snorting. Well, not if Zewu-jun is already fucking his uncle. Gross, he shudders chiding himself, he did not need to think about his uncle's love life.

"How interesting, Sect Leader Jiang." A soft, lilting voice rings out, throwing the room into utter silence.

Sect Leader Nie is fanning himself with an intricate black fan, which Jin Ling knows he always brings around with him. All eyes were on his uncle, eager to hear an explanation from the infamous Sandu-Shengshou.

Jiu-jiu smirks, his sharp eyes going flinty. "Indeed, Sect Leader Nie." The smooth timbre of his uncle's voice replies. Jiu-jiu's face was impassive, but after a lifetime of observing his mannerisms, Jin Ling could see the anxious twitching of his uncle's brow.

"Would Sect Leader Jiang care to explain what is the meaning of this?" Another Sect Leader says, scowling at his uncle. He was the leader of a less known clan, the Li clan, Jin Ling belatedly realises.

"No. I do not owe any of you an explanation. Let's get on with the meeting." Uncle's brows are furrowed, his eyes going darker and voice going lower. Zidian sparks, and a hushed silence falls.

"You corrupted Zewu-jun, how dare you!"

Sect Leader Li could only be suicidal or just plain stupid, Jin Ling decides, as he loses the fight of whether to stay dignified like the Sect Leader he is, or surrender to the exasperation that he feels and smacks his forehead with a groan.

Uncle grins terrifyingly, flashing sharp teeth as he laughs without humour. "So what if I have? Mad that you can't throw your daughters at him anymore?" A sneer twists his uncle's face and Jin Ling winces because he knows that things are going to become ugly if that idiot persists.

"I should have known that Sect Leader Jiang was this kind of person-"

"Do finish that sentence, Sect Leader Li." Zewu-jun's voice cuts in politely, although Jin Ling knows it's anything but polite. The First Jade has the trademark genial smile along with a serene look on his face.

"Weren't you the one who had pledged to drive out the water ghouls in the town in your territory?" Zewu-jun's smile grows wider and he says cheerily, "I distinctly remember water ghouls appearing in Sect Leader Chen's territory instead."

Jin Ling snorts, whoever would think that the esteemed First Jade was so petty, because he didn't.

"Who are you to say anything about my Sect matters! You've been hiding in your room all the time!"

Jin Ling sees Zidian spark violently, along with a deafening silence that follows.

He smacks his head again. How stupid.

Chapter Text

Wei Ying blinks. He can see Lan Zhan's expression shift, a minuscule tightening around his eyes. The air crackles with tension, with all the assembled people holding their breath, all except one.

Sect Leader Li is red in the face, his tone condescending as he addresses Zewu-jun. Out of the corner of his eye, Wei Wuxian sees purple sparks and tries not to wince.

It is easy to see why Jiang Cheng has always been compared to his mother, along with remarks on how similar both of them were. The way he narrowed his eyes, how he pursed his lips in heavy displeasure. Wei Wuxian can practically see the violent purple lightning cracking about those furious eyes, a vivid memory that they were once violet, now a stormy blue.

A few people in the room fidget nervously.

Wei Ying is intimately familiar with Jiang Cheng's temper. Growing up, his shi-di had been prone to explosive fits of rage. However, they usually vanished as quickly as they came. After the war, he had seen Jiang Cheng grow angrier and angrier, his temper becoming wild and uncontrollable. With that, Wei Ying has often found his shi-di destroying things in anger.

Not that he was much better, with all those corpses and all.

He huffs in self-deprecating amusement. Lan Zhan's gaze flicker to him, a question in his eyes. Wei Ying shakes his head, a half-smile on his face.

When he had returned, Jiang Cheng's temper had not ebbed, not even a little. In fact, it had gotten worse, with rumours following Jiang Cheng's reputation wherever he went. Jiang Cheng became Sect Leader Jiang, or Sandu-Shengshou, and no one had referred to him by any other names.

The anger had persisted in his brother. Festering in him like a malevolent spirit, destroying everything in its wake. This searing rage and had the cold, icy exterior of the other man. The murderous rage of Sandu-Shengshou was not an exaggeration.

"Just what did you say, Sect Leader Li?" Jiang Cheng's voice cuts through the silence, cold and chilling. There was a strain in his voice, a hidden rage behind the polite (considering it was Jiang Cheng he was talking about) words.

"I said that all Lan Xichen did was hide in his house!"

Wei Ying sees Zewu-jun's expression crumble, pain bleeding into those golden eyes so similar to Lan Zhan's. Jiang Cheng stiffens, Zidian glowing brighter than ever. It hisses and spits sparks, a tell of the volatile emotions. Hiding a wince, Wei Ying is reminded of how Zidian's lashes had felt upon his back.

"So what if he had been in seclusion?" A flash of pearly white teeth and a mocking smile. "Look at yourself, doesn't all your time and energy go to your wives? Even Sect Leader Nie has more achievements than you."

Wei Ying hears an offended gasp from the back of the fluttering black fan.

"Or, are you telling us that you didn't take another wife again?"

A few chuckles broke out. Indeed many people had heard of Sect Leader Li and his lustful ways. He wouldn't hold a candle to Jin Guangshan, that fucking bastard, but he was that man in this generation. At least he married his conquests? (Not really, because he doomed them to a lifetime of loneliness.)

"No matter. Sect Leader Lan is well within his rights to call out your incompetence." Jiang Cheng folds his arms and leans back, a lazy smirk at the corner of his mouth acting like a tiger that had successfully cornered its prey.

It was too bad that cornered animals strike back.

"Sect Leader Jiang knows all about achievements, I'm sure. Who could forget the fuss you made after being able to use the Yiling Patriarch's sword?"

Wei Ying flinches. This was bad, this was very bad. Jiang Cheng had always, always been touchy towards this subject. All hints at talking about it resulted in full-blown rage and bellowing loud enough for people in the next village to hear. He is startled out of his panic by a warm hand on his thigh. Looking at the direction of the hand, he sees Lan Zhan staring at him, a tiny crease between his brows. Are you alright?

Wei Ying half-heartedly smiles in reply, panic causing his heart to jump and leap, like the frogs he had caught once upon a lifetime in the Lotus Pier ponds.

Jiang Cheng's face goes blank. Zidian stops crackling, the purple sparks fading. Why wasn't he exploding in rage? Wei Ying wants to shout, say that everything his shi-di has achieved was by the sheer force of will and determination, not because of the golden core that he had been given. He opens his mouth, ready to say something on his shi-di's behalf-

"That was uncalled for." His mouth snaps shut. Zewu-jun is glaring holes into Sect Leader Li. The normally welcoming and pleasant aura that is indicative of his friendly nature had turned frosty. Zewu-jun's eyes narrow in displeasure, a frown marring his face, making it unrecognisable. "I request that Sect Leader Li apologise at once."

Wei Ying sees the various people in the room wince from the shift in mood. Few people had ever seen the esteemed First Jade angry. The tone was polite, as usual, but the threat laced in them was as obvious as the moon on a clear night.

"I agree with Zewu-jun, you went too far, Sect Leader Li. Sect Leader Jiang's achievements are not to be belittled."

"I agree too. Please apologise at once."

"You dare to insult my uncle?! I demand an apology at once!"

Sect Leader Li blanches. Outnumbered and pressured, the cowardly man had fled with his tail between his legs. Wei Ying feels a sneer of disgust twist his lips. What a cowardly fat fuck. "I apologise," He says stiffly.

Zewu-jun nods, however, he barely looks pleased. With the harsh aura still around him, he motions with his hand. "Then, let us not delay this meeting any longer. Sect Leader Nie?"

Sect Leader Nie flutters his fan. "Right so, what I'm proposing is..."

Throughout the meeting, Wei Ying keeps sneaking glances at his brother, not paying any attention to what was being discussed. Jiang Cheng didn't seem to be listening either, staring at the floor with a blank face.

After what seemed like a decade, the meeting was over. Wei Ying fidgets in his seat, longing to go over and prod his brother into some kind of response. While their talk before the meeting had been a step towards mending their broken relationship, it was still fragile, still able to shatter with a careless word, a reckless action.

As the Sect Leaders and the other Sect members stream out of the hall, Wei Ying eyes the unusually silent Jiang Cheng and doesn't miss the concerned glances that were directed to his shi-di by one Zewu-jun. He stands up, and is about to make his way to Jiang Cheng when a look from Zewu-jun stops him in his tracks. The expression of determination, firm and unyielding that said-

Go. I will deal with this.

Wei Ying feels a protest forming at his lips. He couldn't just leave his brother like that! Lan Zhan nods to his brother, then grasps Wei Ying's wrist before pulling him out of the hall.

 

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Lan Huan waits for his brother and Wei Wuxian to leave the room. After he was sure that there was no one other than him and Jiang Wanyin, he tries not to frown, gently placing a hand the other's shoulder.

Jiang Wanyin startles badly. His eyes flash with fear and his body tenses impossibly. Zidian sparks wildly, before dying down just as quickly. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine."

"You don't look fine." Lan Huan is surprised at his bluntness, immediately clamping his mouth shut. Judging by the slight widening of the other man's eyes, he was as well. "What he said...it's not true, you know."

"Is it not?" The other man scoffs, turning away from Lan Huan. "He's right." Jiang Wanyin continues after a pause. He closes his eyes, as if trying to hide himself away from Lan Huan.

"I disagree. You've achieved more than anyone could ever try to." Lan Huan says firmly, trying to ignore the twinge of sadness in his chest. Squaring his jaw, he tugs on Jiang Wanyin's hands, waiting for the other to face him.

Jiang Wanyin accedes to his unspoken request while being unusually quiet and pliable. Lan Huan finds himself missing the sharp and scathing tongue of the other man, wishing that it would soon make a reappearance. It was too unlike him to be so quiet and meek. Lan Huan looks into the other's eyes, seeing a world of pain and misery swimming in them. He sees the turbulent emotions, the self-loathing, the slight reddening of those eyes. He tries not to get lost in them, not let himself be swept away and drown in them.

Pulling himself together, he gently traces the back of Jiang Wanyin's hand. "Just know that I, along with so many others, admire what you've achieved."

"It doesn't matter." The other man says, pulling his hands away. Lan Huan sees the exhaustion on the other man's face, the bone-deep weariness that was hidden by anger. Was that why he was always so angry? Was it because he didn't want to be vulnerable?

"It does." Lan Huan hesitates but makes up his mind. Trying to convey all the sincerity he feels, he says earnestly, "You do."

Jiang Wanyin looks at him, a bitter smile on his face. "At least someone thinks so." He shakes his head, seeming to brush off whatever had happened. "Like I said, it doesn't matter. Let's go now, the other Sect Leaders are probably waiting for us."

Lan Huan frowns. Why did Jiang Wanyin insist on taking the least important words to heart? He gets to his feet gracefully, extending a hand to the other man who was still sitting.

Jiang Wanyin sighs, ignoring his outstretched hand and stands up, brushing his robes straight. Head held high, he strides past Lan Huan and sweeps out of the hall, not looking back.

Lan Huan stares after him.

 

______________________________________________________

 

Jiang Cheng shoves all the messy emotions, the sticky humanness into a box, slams the lid shut, and flings it into a dark corner of his mind. Preoccupied with walking, he nearly walks into a golden wall.

Frowning, he looks down. The same frown greets him. That brat. "What do you want?" He demands harshly, tone flat. He sees Jin Ling wince, his shoulders drooping before he straightens with confidence and stares Jiang Cheng down.

"Why is Zewu-jun's scent on you? And why are you two behaving like you're courting each other?" Jin Ling pauses, before scowling with righteous anger. "You didn't say anything to me about this."

"I don't need to tell you anything. You're all grown up now, aren't you?" Jiang Cheng snaps, annoyed at the rapid-fire questions that were shot to his face. He shoves down the twinge of regret at the hurt that appears in Jin Ling's eyes. He feels his head pound, a headache induced by stress. It was probably also due to the late nights and missed meals as well.

"You're my uncle!" Jin Ling cries indignantly.

"Am I? I'm under the impression that you were always fawning over Wei Wuxian." Jiang Cheng sneers, feeling the familiar anger bubble up in him. He violently eradicates the fear that he'd felt when he saw both of them together, merry laughter ringing out. He had stared at them from a distance. I don't belong there. With that revealation, he'd felt like he had been stabbed, the knife twisting in his chest, so that blood dribbled out and stained his robes. In fact, it had been preferable to that feeling. He'd walked away, numb, cold and lonely.

"That's unfair! Wei Wuxian is just nice to be around, not like-" Jin Ling's eyes flash in alarm as he snaps his mouth shut with an audible sound.

"Not like me." Jiang Cheng finishes hollowly. He knows what his nephew thinks of him, knows that his nephew found him overbearing. Perhaps even resented him for his harsh ways. But to hear it was a fucking slap in the face. Jiang Cheng dimly registers that Jin Ling is rambling, words pouring out of his mouth like a flood. He shakes his head, resigned. Holding up a hand, he sighs. "I know what you were trying to say, don't bother repeating yourself."

"Uncle I-"

Jiang Cheng walks away.

He finds himself at the bench, the one he slept on the day of the Lantern Festival. He sinks into the hard wood, feeling it prod against his tender muscles and he is glad. Glad that he could feel something even if it was pain. He brings his knees up to his chest, hugging them tightly.

Why was he such a disaster? He couldn't even focus during the meeting, and one sentence from that dick of a Sect Leader was enough to send him into a downward spiral. Not to mention, the fact that his nephew preferred Wei Wuxian to him. Why did he ever think that for once, just once, that he had actually beat Wei Wuxian in something.

Look, your nephew likes his other uncle that crashed into their lives a few months ago more than you who raised him.

He stares at the grass. Why wasn't he enough? Wasn't good enough to gain his father's affection, his mother's pride. Wasn't strong enough to stop his golden core from being taken. Wasn't courageous enough to stand up to the people to intent on tearing his brother down. He feels tears prick at his eyes and suddenly longs for the comforting scent of winter and spring breeze.

Look how far you've fallen, wanting Lan Xichen to comfort you.

A weight against his leg pulls him out of his thoughts. He glances down, vision blurry with tears, to see round golden eyes staring at him. A soft headbutt against his leg made his lips crack into a smile that feels all too foreign.

Nestling against his side, Pistachio purrs at him, her tail swishing gently. "What are you doing here? Isn't it nap time for you?" He tries to stroke her head, but she ducks, all the while purring loudly. Jiang Cheng Sighs, retracting his hand and gazing out at the pond.

"You know, sometimes I wonder what the world would be like if I wasn't born." He laughs, a bitter sound tinged with hysteria. "I'm sure my father would have been delighted to make Wei Wuxian the heir to Yunmeng."

Pistachio stares at him, her eyes wide and she meows plaintively.

"Although, my mother would definitely not be happy about it." Another laugh. "I just wish I was enough." Jiang Cheng sighs. The confession feels heavy on his tongue, the feeling of those words leaving him made him feel lighter. After all, he was talking to a cat, it was unlikely that the cat would be able to tell anyone about what was happening now-

"You are."

Jiang Cheng nearly shrieks and falls off the chair in fright. He whips around to see Lan Xichen step out from the shadow of a large tree, the white robs fluttering gently.

Intense golden eyes bore into his. "You are enough." The other man repeats.

Trying to distract himself from the embarrassment, along with the multitude of feelings that rose in him, Jiang Cheng gives Pistachio a betrayed glare. That sly and scheming witch of a cat! Pistachio blinks lazily at him, looking painfully smug, as she starts to groom herself, swiping a paw over her ear delicately.

Lan Xichen sits at his other side and Jiang Cheng has to stop himself by the sheer force of will to not lean in and inhale that comforting scent. He is tired, he realises. Tired of the all-consuming rage that drowns him. Tired of fighting with people he cared about, tired of the emotions. He didn't want to feel, but he hated the ice-cold void that was present without the anger.

"What do you want?" He hears his voice ask, a mere mockery of what he had said to Jin Ling a few moments ago. Exhausted and flat, with no anger, but a weariness he feels more and more these days.

"You're not fine. I came to make sure you're fine." Lan Xichen states simply. Jiang Cheng sees the other man hesitate, as if contemplating something. Whatever it was, he seems to have decided, nodding to himself. Jiang Cheng didn't feel a smile twitching at his lips at that. He didn't.

"Would you like a hug?"

What? A...hug? That was not what he had been expecting, to say in the least. "I..." The words die in his throat. Jiang Cheng had never been one for physical affection, going so far as to avoid it altogether. However, the thought of Lan Xichen's warm embrace was enough to make him long for it.

He knows that if this had been before all that had happened, before the alpha had come for the Lantern Festival and stayed to care for him, he would have refused vehemently. Perhaps even with Zidian flashing and crackling in its whip form as he violently rejected the offer.

But now? He was tired, so tired and lonely as well. He couldn't fight it, he wouldn't fight it.

"I...yes please."

Lan Xichen smiles, his eyes lighting up and looking so fucking happy that Jiang Cheng couldn't help the warmth that blooms in his chest at that smile. He wants to see it again.

Strong arms wrap around his waist and Jiang Cheng relaxes, allowing his head to lean on the equally strong shoulder. Wrapped up in that secure embrace and comforting scent, Jiang Cheng forgets how to think. He learns how to breathe.

Chapter Text

Fuck. That was the only thought that ran through Jin Ling's mind. He had screwed up, hadn't he? He tries not to slam his head into the wall, pressing his head to the cool surface of the sturdy wooden pillar.

He hadn't meant to say that to jiu-jiu. It had slipped out, but he didn't meant it that way. Jiu-jiu was not soft, nor were his words kind. But his uncle cared for him in his own way. Jiu-jiu preferred to show love by his actions, never using words to convey or express his love.

Jin Ling remembers one particular instance that remained clear and vivid in his memory. When he was aged eight or so, the older, bigger Jin Sect cultivators had picked on him. Bullying him mercilessly for being orphaned and having close to no family.

"Look at that pathetic child! He doesn't even have a family."

"He can't possibly be the Sect heir, what a worthless brat!"

Loud mocking laughter rang in his ears, the other disciples pointing at him and jeering. He had been shoved too, hard enough to make him fall to the ground.

He bit his lip, feeling pinpricks of pain and blood starting to dribble out. His eyes were misty from the tears that had wanted to fall. Chin quivering in defiance, he had tried his best not to show weakness. Chin up, his jiu-jiu had always said, staring at him with those severe eyes. Don't let them sense your fear.

"Fuck you, you stupid dumb shits!" Jin Ling yelled, his fists clenched at his sides tightly. The disciples froze, sneers appearing on their faces. They sauntered towards him, their eyes alight with sick amusement. Jin Ling gulped, fear rendering him useless.

"Seems like the kid isn't a mute. What do you say we show him where exactly he belongs?"

A hand reaches to grab him. Jin Ling remains quiet as he is lifted off the ground and stares into the face of the ringleader, the grin perverted and twisting his face. He had spat in that unpleasant face, the feeling of satisfaction that had welled up had been short-lived as the other boy brought back his fist. Jin Ling closed his eyes, body tensing in preparation of the inevitable blow.

"Just what exactly do you think you're doing?" A familiar voice rings out.

Jiu-jiu strides into view, tall and imposing as ever. His face is blank, mouth turned down into his usual frown, and Jin Ling couldn't help the rush of relief that had washed over him.

" S...Sect Leader Jiang!"

The boy had released him, making Jin Ling flop on the floor ungracefully. He stands up, brushing the dust off his robes swiftly before racing to hide behind his jiu-jiu's legs.

"A-ling, let's go now, we're supposed to reach Lotus Pier before nightfall." Jiu-jiu states, before holding his hand and starting to walk away.

"Jiu-jiu! They-"

"..."

Jin Ling feels tears welling in his eyes. Didn't his uncle care for him? Why hadn't he done anything? Jin Ling feels righteous hurt consume him and he uncontrollably lets a sob escape. His uncle stops, eyes flitting towards him. Jiu-jiu bends down, face looking less severe and more sad than angry. Warm fingers had brushed away his tears. Jiu-jiu had picked him up, hugging Jin Ling to his chest as he walked, a soft rumbling in his chest as he hummed a familiar song. Jin Ling had dozed off, exhausted from the overwhelming emotions.

He had woken up to the heavenly smell of something good to eat. Beside his bed, he saw a steaming bowl of something. Eagerly, he tips the spoon with the delicious smelling thing into his mouth-

Only to yelp as his tongue was scalded. His door opens, before jiu-jiu's sharp eyes blink at him in mild surprise and opens the door wider to stride in. Jiu-jiu rolls his eyes, scooping some of the soup up to blow carefully at it before placing it at his lips. "Drink." Obediently, Jin Ling opens his mouth, only to sigh happily as the soup warms him up.

"Jiu-jiu, what is this?"

Jiu-jiu's eyes dim, his lips pursing tighter than usual. He sighs, "Your mother's lotus soup with pork ribs. I tried to recreate it, but hers was better."

"Jiu-jiu, yours is good too." Jin Ling says earnestly. His uncle had cooked for him? The warmth that fills him now wasn't purely from the soup, but also his heart. Jiu-jiu smiles, although the smile doesn't quite reach his eyes.

In the silence, he is fed spoonfuls of soup that his jiu-jiu carefully blows on to cool it down. Jin Ling feels cocooned in warmth.

When he had returned to Koi Tower, he had come across the three bullies. They had approached him, posture submissive and eyes averted to the floor.

"We would like to apologise for our actions and words, young master Jin." They had chorused, albeit resentfully before they scuttled off.

Puzzled, Jin Ling stares after them.

"Jiu-jiu, do you remember those boys that had bullied me?"

"Mmm, are they still giving you trouble?"

"No, they apologised."

"Good."

"Did you do something, jiu-jiu?"

"I wrote letters to their parents about how they disrespected the future Sect Leader of their clan."

"Thank you!"

"Don't thank me, you brat, go practice your archery now."

Jin Ling sighs fondly at the memory. Swiping away the tears that had gathered unknowingly in his eyes, he couldn't help but remember the flash of pain that had appeared in his uncle's eyes. He couldn't let jiu-jiu think that he didn't care about him! He had to...had to do what exactly?

"Hey!"

Jin Ling absolutely did not shriek like a girl as Wei Wuxian slung an arm around his shoulders. He shrugs the offending arm off, crossing his arms as he glares at the other man.

"What?" He scowls, hoping desperately that his eyes weren't red. Wei Wuxian laughs merrily, grabbing his arm to pull him away from the pillar.

"You have a partner, don't you?"

"What?! No!"

"Seems you were getting real cozy with the pillar."

Jin Ling groans. His other uncle was so very, very ridiculous. "I-I'm worried for jiu-jiu." Jin Ling confesses suddenly, his shoulders drooping as he turns to face Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian's smile vanishes. A crease appears between his brows, suddenly making him seem older and more serious. "Jiang Cheng...he's not okay." Wei Wuxian frowns, eyes fixed on the grass.

"It isn't a recent thing." Jin Ling finds himself saying, tendrils of dread curling around his heart. He remembers how jiu-jiu had always looked sad whenever he wasn't angry. How he had to constantly nag at jiu-jiu to eat and sleep. How jiu-jiu had become weaker, the shadows under his eyes darkening, how his hands trembled whenever he held Sandu or Zidian. He was afraid, afraid that jiu-jiu might crash and burn and not be able to get up again.

A few months ago, when Jin Ling had visited his uncle, he had been shaken by what he had seen. Jin Ling had opened the door of his uncle's office quietly. Curious eyes blinked at Sandu on the desk. Jiu-jiu stares at Sandu, his hands twitching at his sides. When Jin Ling had caught sight of his uncle's expression, he had nearly gasped in shock. Accustomed to seeing anger in those familiar eyes, he saw pain, so much pain that it had nearly taken his breath away. Along with the pain, was longing, that had confused Jin Ling, until the realisation crashed into him while he was talking to Sizhui and Jingyi at Cloud Recesses, causing his brain to shut down and eyes to water.

"We need to do something to help then." Wei Wuxian says determinedly. Jin Ling doesn't miss the slight redness of those usually bright eyes, now subdued and dull. "Where did Jiang Cheng go?"

"In the direction of the pond he always stares at, I think?" Jin Ling says, scrunching his face as he tries to recall where his uncle had gone. "I...I upset him."

"Well, we're going to look for him and you can apologise," Wei Wuxian says, tugging onto his arm as he leads them towards their destination. Jin Ling doesn't protest, going with Wei Wuxian obediently.

As they approach, they see not one, but two figures on the bench. From the distance, Jin Ling hears a low purring from the bench. Was that? It had to be a cat. But why was there a cat? As they approach, the two figures are positioned suspiciously close together. With a jolt, Jin Ling realises that the figure in white is Zewu-jun and the figure in purple is his jiu-jiu. He squints and blinks once, then twice.

"What the fuck?"

 

______________________________________________________

 

"No, but thank you for the offer." Lan Huan smiles, feeling the strain in his cheeks. Eyeing the line of people wanting to talk to him, he desperately looks around for any possible escape. As much as he was raised to be polite and accommodating, the false pleasantries now turned his stomach, as did the insincere laughter and untruthful words.

"Zewu-jun, this is Yun'er, my daughter, she is an accomplished musician and is able to play the dizi. Yun'er, greet Zewu-jun!" A sickly sweet voice prattles at him, before an omega is shoved in his face forcefully.

Lan Huan attempts to take a discreet step back, trying to avoid contact with the omega. The omega's scent assault him, the overwhelming scent of strong perfume that covered up her natural scent. It made him wish to simultaneously sneeze and cover his nose at once.

"Zewu-jun, it's so nice to meet you-"

Lan Huan nods at appropriate times as the omega rambles on about herself, what she was doing and all of her accomplishments. Distracted, he scans the dining hall for people that he actually wanted to talk to.

"Do you think I'm pretty?" Yun'er flutters her obviously fake lashes at him, her lips pressed into what she thought was a coy pout. Lan Huan didn't tell her that she looked like a goldfish, as she was practically dripping in gold, along with makeup being painted on her face. Shu-fu would spit up blood if he displayed that kind of manners, or the lack of.

"Maiden Fu has her own charm." Lan Huan says, plastering a polite smile on his face. Technically he wasn't lying, Fu Yun'er was charming, just not in a good way.

Yun'er giggles and hides her face with a handkerchief. Lan Huan barely blinks before Yun'er and her mother is shoved away by another overly eager mother and omega.

"Zewu-jun, I must tell you about my daughter-"

"Brother."

"Wangji." Lan Huan says, with the relief of a drowning man that struggles to the surface for air and receives it. He bows to the annoyed woman, apologising politely before pulling his brother away to a quiet corner.

"What is it?" Lan Huan asks, trying to read his brother's expression. His brother didn't look happy, in fact, he looked rather disapproving. "Tell me." Lan Huan smiles as reassurance, whether for himself or his brother was unknown. As his brother's brow creases, lips tilting down at the ends, he says insistently, "A-zhan, what is it?"

"The council is demanding for you to get a mate and produce an heir," Wangji says finally. He remains quiet, before adding, "There would be an official selection process soon if you do not take a mate."

The smile freezes on his face. A mate? An heir? Selection process? The smile grows, this time a bitter and fractured one. Lan Huan wasn't surprised, the council was anxious, there was no direct line of succession for the Lan Clan and it was clear that an heir would be needed for stability.

Lan Huan had long resigned himself to following whatever that the council had ordered. It was expected of him, the leader of the Lan clan. He had duties to fulfil, responsibilities to commit to. It didn't mean that the stab of bitterness he had felt at all these was unwarranted. It wasn't his life, he had realised. He was just a projection of other people's expectations.

The selection process was carried out by a clan's council, where all the interested unmated prospective omegas are allowed to come to stay at the clan for a period of time. Clan elders and scholars would carefully analyse the omegas, eliminating the omegas with flawed appearances first, then moving on to things like what skills they had and how well they could cook.

The last five or so omegas are then introduced to the alpha, where one will be chosen by the end of the month. Then, the couple would be bonded and hopefully begat an heir. Obviously, the selection process was only carried out for alphas, because who could expect alphas to go and stay at the omegas' clan and be subjected to comparison? Who indeed.

Lan Huan snorts. Again and again, he wondered at the obvious bias against omegas. Omegas had their own strengths too, it was unfair to discriminate against them because the majority were smaller than alphas and therefore assumed to be weaker. One particular fiery omega passes his mind and he feels his lips curl at the corners.

"Brother," Wangji asks more than says. The crease grows deeper between his brows and Lan Huan presses his finger against his di-di's forehead, smoothing the creases out.

"I'll be fine, don't worry about me." Lan Huan says with a cheer that he does not feel. Wangji purses his lips, a tiny action that would have gone unnoticed by most. His eyes are pleading.

Are you really okay?

Lan Huan laughs, a harsh and bitter sound. "What can I do? The most is to take a mate now so that I actually have an illusion of choice." He smiles mirthlessly, his tone dry. Shrugging unbecomingly, he pats Wangji on the shoulder. "Don't worry about it."

Turning away from his brother, his eyes fall on Jiang Wanyin. The younger man sat stiffly at the table, head lowered at he picked at his food. Lan Huan sighs, after hearing the blabbering of all the women and omegas, along with the unpleasant news that he had just received, a dose of Jiang Wanyin's snark and dry humour would do him good.

He approaches the younger man, sliding into the empty seat beside him. The younger man glances at him, nodding in greeting before continuing to stab the vegetables on his plate to pieces. "I'm sure the great Zewu-jun enjoys having hoards of omegas being thrown at him." Jiang Wanyin says, a blank expression on his face.

"I do not actually. Their scents are too strong, too unpleasant." Lan Huan confesses, trying his best not to slump down in the chair to just groan his misery into the table cloth. Should he-? "I think your scent is lovelier than all of theirs." He fixes the other man with a wide smile as he comments sincerely.

Two red spots appear on Jiang Wanyin's cheeks. "Don't say things like that, people might take what you said the wrong way." The younger man hisses at him, seeing heads being turned in their direction.

"I mean it, your scent is really nice." Lan Huan says earnestly. He was comfortable around the other man. Jiang Wanyin was brash, severe and harsh. He was also blunt, straightforward and honest to a fault. Most importantly, he didn't try to make use of Lan Huan, nor did he have any hidden agendas.

The red crawls up the other man's face and he adverts his eyes. Lan Huan finds himself smiling at the other's reaction, immediately deciding to tease the other as much as he could.

"Don't you get pestered to get married too?" Lan Huan asks, curiosity apparent in his voice. Jiang Wanyin was not hard on the eyes, in fact, there was a certain appeal to him, the high cheekbones, the sharp, intelligent eyes that were a lovely mix of blue and grey. The slope of the elegant nose-

Lan Huan blinks. When did he start waxing poetic about the younger man when describing him? Lan Huan feels an answering flush adorn his cheeks at those thoughts. Jiang Wanyin eyes him, raising an eyebrow at the blush. Lan Huan feels his face heat up more, shaking his head in hopes that the other man wouldn't ask.

"Ah...no." The other man admits, almost sheepishly. At Lan Huan's questioning look, the other man purses his lips, before blurting out, "I was blacklisted, okay?"

Jiang Wanyin was blacklisted? What? How? A grin spread across his face, now this was a story he had to hear. The younger man glares at his offending grin, huffing at his unspoken question. "Look...I was young and uneducated about these things." Jiang Wanyin waves his hand at the mention of said things, as if trying to describe the mess of courting with an action, before scrunching his nose at whatever thought that occurs to him.

"I was also rather well known for my horrific temper." Jiang Wanyin shrugs, dismissing Lan Huan's request for a story. "There really isn't much to say, plus it wouldn't have worked out anyway." Because I am an omega, went unsaid.

Lan Huan hums, considering what he knew of the other man. "Does that mean you haven't had any experience in courting?"

"N-none at all." The other man splutters, eyes scandalised as he stares at Lan Huan incredulously. Lan Huan smiles serenely at him, but he knows Jiang Wanyin can see the mischief behind it, the wicked light in his eyes. He didn't know why, but a spark of happiness ignites in his heart.

Their moment was interrupted by another omega being pushed to him by a loud chattering mother. "Zewu-jun! This is Jingwen, she is a good chef and can sew well-"

Hearing a chuckle from the man beside him, Lan Huan smiles flatly at the omega and her mother as he subtly pinches the other man in his side. An answering, cut off yelp makes his smile grow a little more sincere, as he resigns himself to an evening of not so subtle matchmaking.

Chapter Text

A knock sounds on the sturdy door of his office. Jiang Cheng looks up from the frustrating letter, one with words too messy for him to read easily. Distractedly, he wonders who the visitor would be and just how long he had been working. He glances out of the window, noting the purple hue of the sunset. "Enter." He says curtly, eyes wandering to the letter.

"Jiu-jiu?" Jin Ling's contrite face peeks, those large eyes blinking at him.

"Yes?" He stares back, wondering what Jin Ling wanted. Folding up the letter neatly to puzzle over it some other time, he motions for his nephew to come in and sit.

"I-I wanted to apologise." Jin Ling mumbles, his hands twisting nervously in his robes.

Jiang Cheng's eyebrows arch, tapping his fingers rhythmically on the broad, dark desk. The sound echos through the room, the steady knocking grounding him. "What for? You didn't do anything wrong." He states, eyebrows pulling together as he observes his fidgeting nephew.

His nephew's eyebrows draw together in a way that looked similar to his. Idly, Jiang Cheng ponders the reason on what had prompted Jin Ling to apologise. Did he want something? Was he in trouble? It wasn't likely for both, as Jin Ling, hard-headed as he was, would rather solve the problem himself. Then what could be the reason?

"I-ugh! This is so difficult!" Jin Ling cries in frustration, his face turning red.

"You're saying that a lot more often than you had before." Jiang Cheng points out dryly, staring at the stack of unopened letters at the end of his desk. Fingers itching to start opening them to get it over with. "Spit it out already."

With how Jin Ling was behaving, Jiang Cheng was getting worried about what might have happened. Did his nephew knock someone up? If he did, Jiang Cheng was going to break his legs for real this time. He would.

"Ihurtyouwithmywords." Jin Ling blurts, words running together and colliding into each other.

"What?"

"I hurt you with my words, for that, I apologise," Jin Ling repeats, thankfully more slowly this time, his face determined. Jiang Cheng blinks. That was it? The brat had worried him there. He had been ready to threaten an answer out of his nephew.

"Don't worry about it." He says, because it's true. Jin Ling had bigger things to worry and fret about than whether his words had upset him. What he said had not been offensive either, Jiang Cheng was just too sensitive and took things too personally, but how could he not when it was his nephew who had said them?

He observes his nephew, noting just how much he had grown. Jin Ling seemed to carry himself like the Sect Leader he is, the elaborate golden robes of the Lanling Jin Sect Leader making him look like an adult. His ponytail was longer as well, with it kept loose and flowing in its signature style. Jiang Cheng wonders if his nephew still fusses over his hair as much as he did before.

He had matured too, the baby fat on his cheeks slowly being replaced by his obnoxious father's bone structure. At the very least, Jin Ling would always have his mother's eyes and smile, along with her golden heart.

The brat looks thrown off, as if he expected Jiang Cheng to shout or lose his temper. The thought hurt, he realises belatedly. Was he really such an ill-tempered person that everyone, including his nephew, was wary of it? "Jiu-jiu, I...I really am sorry, I didn't mean it that way." He says earnestly, the eyes shining as he leans forward, looking unusually serious.

Taken aback, Jiang Cheng resorts to his default frown. "I told you, don't worry about it." He pauses, a glowing warmth spreading in his chest as he eyes his guilty-looking nephew. Jin Ling's concern about whether his words upset him was moving. Even if his nephew hadn't cared about how he felt, that was enough. For that, he was grateful. "Thank you though." He adds.

Jin Ling blinks, a small smile spreading across his face. "Jiu-jiu, I have another thing to ask." This time, the air around his nephew is tainted with insufferable smugness. Jiang Cheng tries to ignore the dread that he feels, picking his cup up to sip his tea. As he frowns at his nephew warily, the brat's eyes light up and an evil smile stretches over his lips. The brat opens his mouth, to which Jiang Cheng braces himself for whatever his idiot of a nephew might say.

"You like Zewu-jun, don't you?"

Jiang Cheng chokes.

 

______________________________________________________

 

Lan Huan grins, hearing cackling from outside Jiang Wanyin's door. That voice was loud, peals of laughter ringing in the hallway. It was simultaneously delighted and gleeful, with a slightly demented note to it, as if the owner of the laughing voice was rejoicing in someone's misery. Schooling his face into a slightly more serious expression, Lan Huan knocks on the door softly. The laughter doesn't stop as Jiang Wanyin's tired voice tells him to enter.

Lan Huan opens the door and slips in, closing the door softly after him. Sect Leader Jin stands up to greet him, mouth still twitching. "Zewu-jun." The youth grins brightly as he bows, before turning to shoot a smirk at Jiang Wanyin.

Jiang Wanyin glares at Sect Leader Jin, a clear threat in his eyes. The other sobers up, but traces of the smirk still adorn his face as he looks expectantly at Lan Huan. Jiang Wanyin shoots him a long-suffering look, exasperation etched on his face. Lan Huan offers a sympathetic smile, but couldn't help the slight twitch of his lips.

"Wanyin, would you like to go night hunting?"

Lan Huan sees Sect Leader Jin's eyebrows climb into his forehead, prompting the reappearance of the smug air around him. Jiang Wanyin seems to feel it as well, shooting the other a severe frown. Turning to look at Lan Huan with the beginnings of the flush on his cheeks, Jiang Wanyin coughs.

"I accept the invitation, who else is going?"

"Just me." Lan Huan offers helpfully. He turns to the grinning gold-robed youth. "Sect Leader Jin, would you like to go too?"

"I must decline, Zewu-jun, I would not dare to get in the way of two powerful cultivators." Those expressive eyes light up as they turn towards Jiang Wanyin as he splutters, glaring at the other. "Besides, jiu-jiu seems to want-" A hand is clapped over Sect Leader Jin's mouth before he can finish his sentence.

Sect Leader Jin grins, shoving his uncle's hand off his mouth before bowing to both, "I have something to attend to, please excuse me, jiu-jiu, Zewu-jun." He strolls out of the room, long ponytail swishing.

"Goddammit, that brat."

"He's a good nephew, he clearly cares for you."

"He's still an insufferable brat." Jiang Wanyin retorts although exasperated fondness shines in his eyes as he shakes his head. He stands up, pausing to rub at his temples. "Shall we?"

"Are you feeling up to it though? It's only been a week since your body gave out-"

"Stop worrying Xichen, I'll be fine." Jiang Wanyin seems to refrain from rolling his eyes with difficulty, choosing to shake his head at him instead. "When did the great Sect Leader become a mother hen?"

"What do you mean?" Lan Huan shoots back, grinning. "I've always been a mother hen."

Jiang Wanyin levels him with an unimpressed stare. He sweeps out of the office, robes swirling fluidly. Lan Huan follows him, footsteps light in the soft glow of the hallway. He couldn't help but worry, to say that Jiang Wanyin hadn't been in the best condition lately was an understatement. However, Lan Huan was sure that nothing would go awry, as they were both powerful cultivators in their own right.

As they were perched on top of their swords, whizzing through the rapidly darkening sky, Lan Huan can feel his blood race with excitement. When was the last time he had gone night hunting? It made his blood sing, clearing his mind and he realised just how much he had missed it. He had missed the thrill of it, the euphoric rush that fills him as he twists and dances, Shuoyue and Liebing gleaming in the dim light of the cloudy moon, a slim crescent in the black sky.

Jiang Wanyin is an elegant figure on Sandu, the purple of his robes nearly camouflaged against the sleek velvet of the night. They land behind a small village, before sheathing their respective swords.

They make their way towards the village, the soft glow of orange from flames flickering in the lanterns allowing them better vision. It was quiet, but not eerily silent. Low murmurs and soft chatter of the villagers drifted to them. Torches burned merrily into the sky, wisps of smoke swirling prettily. A scent of roasted meat wafted through the village, as well as the burbling of a nearby stream.

Lan Huan smiles at the cozy atmosphere of the village. What was possibly bothering them? He turns to Jiang Wanyin, whose sharp eyes had caught sight of a wandering villager and was posed to move. Jiang Wanyin's eyes flit over to his. "I received reports of a disturbance in the nearby forest," he states, before approaching the unsuspecting villager.

"Miss, would you be so kind as to direct us to your village head?" Jiang Wanyin says, gesturing to Lan Huan as he addresses the middle-aged woman with a kindly face. She sizes them up, mouth pursing as she nods, beckoning them to follow. They are led to a small hut in the heart of the village, before an older woman appears after a series of knocks on the stout bamboo door. Her scent drifts towards them, an omega.

Her face is streaked with black, white wisps of hair falling over her wrinkled face. Despite her slight frame, she holds herself proudly, with an air of quiet determination. "Sect Leader Jiang." She bows, turning to Lan Huan. "And you are?"

"I am Lan Xichen, leader of the Lan Sect." He answers, bowing to her politely. She bows, seemingly uninterested, turning to Jiang Wanyin.

"There was a recent storm that blew a merchant's carriages off a cliff in the forest. I suspect that that has been the cause of the disturbance." She states curtly.

"That would fester resentment in the recently deceased people. Thank you, we'll get going now." Jiang Wanyin nods thoughtfully.

"Be careful, I don't want to haul your injured ass back again." She warns, scowling at the other man, who frowns back. Her eyes soften as she glances at Lan Huan. "Although, with this one here, I'm sure you'll be fine." She offers, her smile growing wider as Jiang Wanyin shoots her a betrayed glare.

"Ugh. Let's go." He mumbles, stalking off into the darkness. Lan Huan bids the village head goodbye and catches up with the younger man.

"How did she become the head of the village?" Lan Huan asks, curious. It was unusual to have a woman as a leader of a village, let alone an omega woman.

"Ah, her husband was the village head, but he mistreated her, so she challenged him for the position and won." Jiang Wanyin says, distracted, narrowed eyes scouring the forest for their prey. "I helped her to dispose of the body." He side-eyes Lan Huan, smirking, a gleam of sharp teeth visible.

Lan Huan doesn't know why he gulps at that information. It wasn't fear, nor sympathy for the dead man. Unless...

No, he would not think about that.

Even as they were suspended in the air, Lan Huan belatedly realises that his scent had spiked, as Jiang Wanyin gives him a questioning look. He opens his mouth to answer, but a shadow catches his eye. He flies to the shadow, with the other man hot on his heels, trusting his judgement.

They land quietly in a small clearing, the slim branches of trees casting wicked shadows akin gnarled, deformed fingers on the grassy floor. A silver of the moon blinks in and out of the sky as clouds pass, casting shadows on both of their faces continuously. Lan Huan's body tenses, his ears straining for any kind of sound. Jiang Wanyin is a steady presence at his side, with a determined set to his jaw and hand at Sandu.

They are posed to strike, positioned with their backs to each other in a defensive stance. The forest is silent. Too silent. They hear a sound and tense impossibly.

A creaking groan, a snapping of branches. A familiar smell assaults him. Rotten flesh. The overpowering stink of death and decay punches him in the stomach, nearly leaving him bent over to heave. Decades of fighting these creatures had trained him, although he still wrinkled his nose at the stench. It coats his tongue, hitting the back of his throat violently. He struggles not to grimace in disgust.

Eyes alert and wary, they hear the crunch of leaves as the horde tramples over them. The thump as an unfortunate creature flails over a log and is trampled by the others. The sound that they made. Groans. Gunts. Growls. A mixture of all three.

"Anytime now." Jiang Wanyin hisses, his hands tensing on Sandu's hilt. Lan Huan can feel the tension of the other man even as he stands still, practically vibrating with it.

The fierce corpses pour into the clearing, like the waves during high tide. Violent, relentless, merciless. Their claws stretch out, wicked and gleaming in the low light of the moon. Their faces were twisted into snarls of animalistic rage, sharp, rotten teeth bared as they worked their jaws, gnashing and growling.

Lan Huan draws Shuoyue, the blade glittering. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Jiang Wanyin draw Sandu as well.

The horde charges. Hands with hanging flaps of flesh lunge at them. A corpse lunges towards him, its empty eyes blank but filled with murderous intent. Lan Huan cleaves through the corpse neatly, his blade slicing through its body for it to fall on the grass in two pieces. Behind him, he can see Sandu at work, the cold glint of the blade slicing through corpses efficiently.

The flow of corpses continues, more and more pouring into the clearing. "This isn't normal, why are there so many of them?" Lan Huan winces as the decapitated hand of a corpse drops on his feet, immediately kicking it away to prevent it from staining his robes.

"Just kill them first." Jiang Wanyin grunts, before purple sparks flare and Zidian transforms into a whip. It thrums with power, a vehement promise to destroy. Lan Huan continues slashing past the corpses, admiring the whirring of Zidian as Jiang Wanyin carves a hole in the considerable number of corpses.

As they slice and slash down the corpses, the once roaring waves had dwindled down to a trickling stream. Lan Huan cuts down a few of the last corpses gracefully, grateful for muscle memory that allowed him to escape from the encounter unscathed. Assuming that that was the last of the corpses, he relaxes.

A cry of pain startles him, causing him to whip around, heart racing in his chest. A corpse had raked its claws over Jiang Wanyin's neck, blood pouring from the marks. He panics, raising Shuoyue to cleave the head of the corpse neatly. The dull thump of the head hitting the grass is all but ignored at Lan Huan stares anxiously at Jiang Wanyin.

Jiang Wanyin hisses in pain, his hands twitching as he stumbles. Lan Huan catches him by the waist, peering at the gaping wound with concern. "It doesn't look too deep, but an infection could be nasty." He fumbles for his qiankun pouch, a hand still on the other's waist.

Where was it, where did he put it- Ah! He picks a small rounded bottle, pulls off the cover then raises it to sprinkle the powder on the wound. "You do know that the wound needs to be cleaned first, right?" Jiang Wanyin looks up at him quizzically, his tone dry. Lan Huan blushes with embarrassment because, how could he forget?

He grabs a cloth from his pouch, before dabbing at the blood with trembling fingers. A hiss of pain makes him hesitate. He tries to be gentle, avoiding causing the other man pain. After he was satisfied that the wound was relatively clean and wasn't as bloody, he taps the bottle with light fingers, white powder falling the wound. Jiang Wanyin winces, tilting his face away.

"It might sting a bit." Lan Huan says softly as he continues coating the wound with the powder. After deeming it acceptable, he steps back almost reluctantly, as the events of the fight come rushing back to him.

Lan Huan had failed. He had failed to protect the man in front of him. He had promised himself that he would not allow the omega to get hurt. He had been too slow, too sloppy, that the other had gotten hurt under his watch. Had the wound been any deeper, the situation would be a lot more serious than it was now. Perhaps Jiang Wanyin would even have-

Lan Huan allows the feelings to consume him, allowing his limbs to weaken until he drops Shuoyue on the grass. Why wasn't he able to protect the other? Everything he did, he couldn't help anyone. Da-ge, Meng Yao... He had been there. Been there for everything that had happened. Why couldn't he have prevented anything? Why didn't he notice anything? Was he that much of a fool?

Jiang Wanyin had gotten hurt. He could have even lost his life and he...he hadn't been able to protect him. The thought of the other man lying on the ground, bleeding out as his face goes white and eyes blank was akin to a knife twisting in him. He would have preferred if he had been the one injured instead, because at least, at least he would have been able to control something.

He feels a hand on his shoulder, belatedly realising that he was trembling, his hands clenched into fists at his side. He raises his head, looking into worried eyes. "I'm sorry," he gasps, hands clutching at the other's robes. "I'm so sorry." At the question that appears in those eyes and the furrowing of the thin brows, Lan Huan struggles not to sob.

"It's all my fault."

Chapter Text

The silence hangs between the two of them. It grows, swells uncomfortably, until it feels as if it's crushing them.

"It's not your fault, what are you talking about?" Jiang Cheng's head swam, torn between the pain and confusion what the other man had just admitted. Stepping away, he narrows his eyes at the other, seeing the look of horrified guilt and overwhelming remorse on the other's face.

"I didn't-you got hurt!" Lan Xichen cries, his hands trembling. "I was supposed to protect you!"

So that was what he was upset about. Jiang Cheng shrugs. "Did you do this?" He asks, gesturing at his neck.

"No!"

"Then?" The rippling pain at Jiang Cheng's neck makes him dizzy, causing his eyesight to blur a little. His hands reach out, almost involuntarily and he grasps Lan Xichen's robes to steady himself. He could feel the violent trembling of the other. "Look, if anyone was to blame, it's me, because I was careless."

He had not seen the corpse flying at him, those wicked claws aimed for his throat. It was too late when he looked up, the burning panic he had felt as he leapt away, narrowly avoiding his throat being ripped apart by the vicious claws. He remembers the blinding flash of pain that had erupted, along with the cry that he had been unable to prevent from tearing out of him. It was his fault, he should have been faster, stronger to avoid the injury. How could Lan Xichen blame himself?

"It's not your fault."

"Then it isn't yours either."

"But-"

"Xichen, we need to find out the cause of why there were so many corpses." Jiang Cheng interrupts, seeing the guilt that marred the other's features. "We'll talk later, let's do this first." Seeing the other's resigned nod, he starts analysing the situation at hand. The number of fierce corpses that attacked them was too great a number for the carriages that were blown of a cliff. There had to be at least a hundred of those disgusting creatures.

Jiang Cheng points to the spot where the horde had entered. "We should retrace their steps, it should lead us to wherever they came from." He follows the trail of chaotic destruction left behind by the creatures. Flattened grass, rotting pieces of clothing on the fingerlike branches, sometimes a lost finger or two.

They trek, sharp eyes wary and alert for any threats. They are lead to a gorge, with the remains of what seemed like a stream. Jiang Cheng sees the ruins of what seemed to be a broken ruin of wood and rope. "A bridge..." He glances up. There had been storms in the area, perhaps the bridge had been rendered useless, but people would still use it, leading to them falling to their deaths. "Do you think the bridge could have been faulty?"

Lan Xichen nods. "It makes sense, an unstable bridge would result in many deaths. Especially when it's the only way to cross this gorge." He tilts his head. "Why was the bridge destroyed then?"

"Perhaps the merchant wasn't blown off a cliff..." Jiang Cheng stares at the wreck of the bridge, then spots something that resembled a wheel. A destroyed wheel. The merchant's and his servant's bodies had not been found. He hesitates. It seemed very likely that all the corpses were caused by this faulty bridge.

"The merchant must have tried to cross the bridge with his carriages, thus resulting in the bridge breaking and falling with them." Lan Xichen voices out his thoughts. Jiang Cheng hums in agreement.

The scent of fresh blood spikes the air like a flower. Jiang Cheng is dimly aware of the wound on his neck gushing blood, causing his head to go light and him to stagger. He had ignored the insistent pulsing of heat at his neck, the sharp spikes of pain if he so much as moved his head.

"Wanyin!" Strong arms wrap around him, tugging him up and steadying him in an upright position.

"Need...need to get back." Jiang Cheng grits out, blinking away the black spots that had started to appear.

"Then let's go now." Lan Xichen says, the bright golden eyes fraught with worry. He is tucked against the alpha securely, the heat of the other's body warming him. He allows his eyes to slip shut, surrendering to the exhaustion.

 

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Jiang Cheng is nudged back to wakefulness at the jostling of his body. His eyes snap open, feeling strong arms leaving him as he was placed on a soft surface...his bed?

He blinks, cracking open his tired eyes and trying to push himself into a sitting position. The room swims before him...when did he have two of everything? A flash of white catches his eye. "The physician is coming soon." A soothing voice tells him. Jiang Cheng could hear the slight quiver of the voice, as if the other had been upset.

"Xichen?" The blurred white blob focuses as he blinks harder, hand rubbing the remains of sleep away. He cranes his neck, trying to see better. His efforts are rewarded by the flare of pain from his neck, making him grit his teeth.

"Yes, it's me," Lan Xichen's face is surprisingly close to his. He squints, sighing as the rest of the room goes still. "How are you feeling?" A gentle hand placed across his forehead startles him and he almost jerks in fright, but he catches himself.

"I'm fine." Jiang Cheng swats at the offending hand. He didn't need to be babied! At least, that action had made Lan Xichen's face lighten, his lips twitch. He didn't like how the other man looked when he was upset or unhappy, the tightness around those warm eyes, the tiny downturn of the lips. It made his heart ache, made him want to do something, anything to see that smile again.

He wasn't one for sentimental bullshit. That at least he knew. He had a fear of these uncontrollable, messy puddles of life, the sticky humanness of things. It was ridiculous how his stomach fluttered whenever Xichen had smiled at him, the warmth of his gaze akin to basking in the sun. The sheer goodness of the other's being. He wanted to take, to receive all of it.

But he couldn't. It had just been barely a week after the other had arrived at Lotus Pier, the fact that how they saw each other had grown from acquaintances to something like friends. It seemed like a lifetime ago when he had embarrassed himself by collapsing on that fateful day.

Xichen was good. He was kind, caring and warm, so warm. He had pushed the bite of icy loneliness that surrounded Jiang Cheng, his warmth melting those feelings away, along with the feelings were the walls that he had built, made high, stout and hardened after decades of pain.

Jiang Cheng could see, practically taste the hypocrisy of the man that was Lan Xichen. Xichen chided him for working too much and not sleeping enough, he would drag him to bed, even tucking him in once. Yet, he stumbles into the hall for breakfast, dark shadows, almost matching the purple of the Yunmeng robes, lining his eyes. Xichen would make him eat, intensely staring at him all the while, as his own food remained untouched. Xichen hugged him, chased away his demons, but he didn't miss how haunted the other's eyes became at times, how the other had withdrawn from him.

Jiang Cheng wanted to help, he tried to help. Only for Lan Xichen to give him that fucking smile and change the topic distract him. One of Xichen's favourite things to talk about was how nice he looked when he smiled-to which Jiang Cheng would splutter and turn red, his brain short-circuiting.

That smile would simultaneously fry his brain and render him speechless!

Jiang Cheng sighs, gazing at Lan Xichen. "About what happened, I-"

There is a knock on the door. Lan Xichen shoots him a look and gets to his feet gracefully. He opens the door, to reveal a scowling woman.

Jiang Cheng refuses to admit that apprehension mixed with a healthy dose of fear made him shiver. No, it was the cold. It was absolutely the damn cold. He ignores the fact that Yunmeng never got cold enough to snow. "Sect Leader Jiang." The physician bows to him, her face darkening as her glare intensifies.

"Daiyu." He nods at her.

She walks stiffly to him, dark eyes hawk-like and stern. Her lips are set into a thin line, with the dark arching brows furrowed.

"Strip."

A muted gasp. Jiang Cheng feels his cheeks flame, he sighs at his physician. "No." He gestures to his neck. "The wound is here, I'm fine otherwise." He sneaks a look at Lan Xichen, only to see the other with a flush on his cheeks. He glances away immediately.

Daiyu glances at Lan Xichen, her gaze sharp. "I have eyes. What happened this time?" She doesn't demand for him to strip again-to which he heaves a huge sigh of relief. Deft fingers brush against the skin around the wound. He feels the breath of air from the exhale that sounds suspiciously like a sigh.

"Do you want the good news or bad news?"

"Both, tell me the bad first." Jiang Cheng says, seeing Lan Xichen tense while he lingers at the back of his room. He doesn't look awkward, he could never look awkward. The First Jade had this skill of looking as if he had a place everywhere.

"Your major scent gland had been ripped out." Daiyu pauses, running a critical eye over the wound. Her fingers twitch at his neck. "That means you won't have a scent, in the worst-case scenario." She pauses, her eyes softening. "At best, you will only have minimal scent."

Jiang Cheng hums in acknowledgement. In all honesty, he had expected the diagnosis to be much worse. He could live without having a scent, it meant that one big problem was solved. He looks at Lan Xichen, who looks...crushed. Tilting his head the best that he could, he stares at the other, hoping his wordless question would be answered. Tear-filled eyes was the reply and Jiang Cheng narrowly avoids sighing again.

"Does he know?" Daiyu frowns at him, her hands on her dainty hips.

"Yes. He does."

"Right, the effect of the suppressants should be fading." Daiyu browses through her bag, her swift fingers picking out neatly wrapped parcels of paper tied with thread. It may not look ominous, perhaps could be considered nice. But Jiang Cheng knows the horrifying taste of the disgusting medicine in those tiny inconspicuous looking things. "Take these every day, your usual doses. As for that wound on your neck, it should recover quickly as long as it doesn't get infected."

"Is the neck wound supposed to cause a lot of pain?" Lan Xichen asks, his golden eyes catching Jiang Cheng's own. Those eyes roam over him, as if they were searching for something.

"His scent glands were ripped out, his body would most likely be unbalanced for a while, but it shouldn't have any lasting effect." Daiyu states. She stalks over to him, her arms full of the medicine he was supposed to take. She dumps it on the table beside his bed. Then she swats the back of his head lightly.

"Hey!"

"Stupid fool. Making me worry for decades-decades about you and your stubbornness." She rants at him, dark eyes flashing wildly. "Don't put yourself in danger again." She says-no, orders as she scowls fiercely enough to rival his own. He frowns back in response, folding his arms like a naughty child.

"You! Zewu-jun, you take care of this hard-headed person here." Daiyu orders, before grabbing her bag and sweeping out of the room.

"Sit." Jiang Cheng pats on the space beside him, then narrowly avoids slapping himself because how condescending would that have sounded? He ordered Lan Xichen to sit like one would do to a dog. The other, however, does not protest, approaching him quietly and sitting on the bed beside him.

"Tell me why you think it's your fault."

 

______________________________________________________

 

Lan Huan hesitates. How does he puts the mess of emotions that was weighing him down into words? He wasn't sure he could-wasn't sure he wanted to. He looks at the other, sees the tired eyes and weary set to his mouth. Behind that, he sees a determination, the strong burning of a fire. Jiang Wanyin had made up his mind, Lan Huan wouldn't escape from this.

"I..." He starts, then clams up as he feels his throat go dry. He smiles, then tries to wipe it off because it feels misplaced, foreign. From the frown on Jiang Wanyin's face, the smile had surely been more of a grimace. "I can't." He says helplessly. What could he say? I don't know how to do anything other than smile because- That would be received well, he thinks dryly.

"Would you like a hug?"

Jiang Wanyin is gazing at him, his eyes open and vulnerable. He twists his hands in his lap, but stays still otherwise. A few strands of hair frame his face, making him look softer, softer to approach, less intimidating. The voice of the other man when he had offered was small, as if he was afraid of rejection.

Lan Huan blinks dumbly. Did Jiang Wanyin just ask if he would like a hug? He stares at the other man. A beat passes with both of them in silence. The other's eyes dim and he panics.

"Yes." Lan Huan blurts, clumsily wrapping his arms around Jiang Wanyin waist. He presses himself against the other, seeking the comfort that he so desperately needed. The warm body freezes, before slender arms twine around him, almost shyly.

He ignores the fact that both of them are covered in blood, dirt, twigs and all kinds of things that they had picked up on the night hunt. He ignores the voice in his head telling him that he was going too far- He shuts out everything else, choosing to close his eyes and savour the moment.

"Thank you." He says earnestly as they separate all too soon. Jiang Wanyin nods at him, a smile tugging the corners of his lips up.

Lan Huan tries to convey everything he is feeling in his smile. Jiang Wanyin had hugged him, willingly at that. Lan Huan knew of the other's aversion to touch, had seen first hand how he would avoid brushing against others and any needless physical contact. He tries to show the appreciation and grateful that he felt in his eyes, because the hug had helped him. Helped him more than what the other would think.

It gave him liquid courage, made Lan Huan feel like he was drunk, as he opens his mouth, a flood of words ready to pour out.

"I just...I want to protect everyone that I care for." Lan Huan stumbles over the words, feeling graceless. It was foreign to him, the hesitation and the lack of knowing the right thing to say. It was difficult too, the sense of vulnerability that had made him defenseless, helpless against any criticism or judgement.

He looks into Jiang Wanyin's eyes and sees none of those.

Encouraged, Lan Huan presses on. "I failed, I failed Da-ge and Meng-Jin Guangyao. We were supposed to be sworn brothers, but somehow, something went wrong." He swallows, a lump in his throat. "I was there, I should have done something-anything to prevent those things from happening."

"I didn't suspect anything, I even taught Jin Guangyao how to play the guqin." Lan Huan trembles, bringing his hands to his face. "He used it to murder Da-ge!" His voice rises as he speaks, as he pours out the hurt, anger and the sense of betrayal.

Jiang Wanyin says nothing, only continuing to gaze at him with steady eyes, his hand on Lan Huan's lap, as perhaps a way of comfort or to ground him? It worked, because he exhales heavily to compose himself.

"I thought he wanted the best for us, for our relationship as sworn brothers. He used me, used me as a tool to help with his plans to murder our sworn brother." Lan Huan says regret causing his heart to twist. "I was so blind. Why didn't I do anything?"

Why hadn't he done anything?

"I ask myself that question too." Jiang Wanyin says, his lips quirking into a mockery of a smile. Lan Huan remembers that this was a man who had seen his Sect burn to the ground, his parents die before his eyes, then loosing his golden core and finally his sister. Jiang Wanyin's life had been miserable, to say the least. Lan Huan feels small, because the other had been able to shrug all of those off and pull himself together to rebuild his Sect and raise a young boy.

And Lan Huan couldn't get past this.

"I feel so useless." Lan Huan admits, adverting his eyes as he felt his vision start to blur. This was unbecoming, why did he always cry in front of the other? Lan Huan didn't think that he was weak for crying, he just thought that it was useless. Wasn't going to solve anything except for making himself feel better and that was breaking a rule of his clan.

Tears start to drip from his eyes, as he struggles to process the emotions along with the intense fear that had nearly consumed him. A warm, calloused palm cups his face, a slender finger brushing away his tears. Lan Huan freezes, tilting his face up to see the other's sincere eyes.

"I don't know what to say, I'm horrible at giving advice." Jiang Wanyin states simply, a crease appearing on his brow. "But I'd listen to you anytime you want to talk."

Lan Huan smiles. That is enough.

Chapter Text

"No, not again."

Noting the bright yellow rays of the sun peeking through his large office windows, he looks back at the disruptive creature that had dared to interrupted his work yet again.

Pistachio's cold, damp nose nudges against his cheek, her furry head bumping against his nose. He reaches to pet her and she nimbly ducks his hand, purring all the while. She stretches languidly on his table, her tail smacking his face. She looks over her shoulder, almost mockingly.

Golden eyes meet blue and the latter narrows.

They stare at each other for what felt like an eternity, both not blinking in case they broke the spell.

"Fine. You win." Jiang Cheng sighs, defeated. "...asshole." Really, when did he get so soft? Fancy being unable to resist the demands of a cat! But she wasn't just any cat, was she? He tugs at her tail playfully, making sure not to hurt her.

Pistachio side-eyes him as she gives a rumbling purr, her body vibrating from its force. Jiang Cheng picks her up, cuddling her close to his chest. He looks down at her and she blinks innocently at him.

The sky shone a lovely shade of blue, as blue as the sleek silk sheets found in Gusu. The puffy clouds floated in the vast blue sky, drifting and filtering the sun's rays into sparse patches of yellow light. The gentle breeze blew through the surroundings, causing trees to lean and shake their leaves over his head.

The pond was as still as a mirror, light flickering off the still surface, occasionally disrupted by the small ripples made by vivid green small frogs and delicate dragonflies with their shiny wings. There was a soft rustling of the breeze through the waving reeds and cheerful croaks from the myriad of frogs.

Jiang Cheng drops her into the pond.

He then strides away to the bench, ignoring the sound of splashing. He sits on the bench, hand above his eyes to block the glare of the sun. Pistachio's head bobs merrily in the water as she frolics, paws flicking as she paddles in the water. She looks almost playful, her ears pricked eagerly as she meows at him.

He feels a smile tug at the corners of his lips. Pistachio had wormed her way into his heart, her expressive eyes and gentle paws making him melt into a puddle, helpless against her demands. She was unusually intelligent for a cat as well, always comforting him whenever he felt his demons drag him under in a stint of self-loathing and misery.

The peaceful atmosphere was broken with a shout from a suspiciously familiar voice and the frantic pounding of footsteps.

"Wanyin!"

"Xichen?"

"What? No Xiche-don't!"

Jiang Cheng slaps a hand over his face at the resulting splash of water. He huffs, torn between laughing and groaning. He peeks between the gaps in his fingers and sighs, something he seemed to be doing a lot recently. Lan Xichen tries to grab Pistachio from the pond, one arm wrapped around her. She wriggles free, an annoyed look on her furry face. Pistachio pins her ears flat against her head, meowing insistently as she paddles away.

Lan Xichen seems to struggle, swimming after Pistachio in desperation. A look of intense frustration adorns his features as he splashes his arms ineffectively like a squalling infant. It reminded him of a certain golden-clothed baby...

"Wanyin, help me!"

"..."

Pistachio meows at him, her golden eyes seeming to glitter with mirth, or perhaps it was just the sun. It had better be the sun. He frowns at her, hands on his hips.

He was really doing this, wasn't he?

Jiang Cheng sighs, standing up from the bench reluctantly. Removing his shoes and outer robes quickly, he dips his toes into the pond, the familiar warmth of the water welcoming him. The water laps at his feet like an affectionate dog, the sensation ticklish.

As the pond was only waist deep, seeing the look of stunned realisation and sheepish smile only added to his amusement. Lan Xichen had gotten himself completely wet from flinging himself into the pond in great urgency. As the other brushes his ink-black hair out of his eyes, Jiang Cheng struggles not to laugh, the sight of the esteemed Zewu-jun losing all his famous grace rendering him near speechless as he clamps his lips together as an attempt to preserve his fellow Sect Leader's dignity.

Lan Xichen shoots him an injured look, a pout forming on his perfect pink lips. Zewu-Jun, the revered leader of Gusu Lan, infamous for its strict rules and the iron self-discipline of its disciples, is pouting because Jiang Cheng is trying his dammest best not to laugh at him. Jiang Cheng feels a wicked grin forming. “I can’t believe,” Jiang Cheng wheezes, in between stuttering laughs, “that you dived head-first into a pond because you thought...what did you think?”

"I thought she was drowning."

"Tch. As if I would let her."

"You wouldn't." Lan Xichen replies ruefully, as a small pretty smile adorns his equally pretty face. He flushes, banishing the thought immediately.

Since when was Lan Xichen pretty?

Yeah, he's more on the handsome side. The voice snipes at him. Shut up! He screeches at the stupid voice. Lan Xichen is not handsome! Or pretty!

The alpha stands up, graceful in the water despite his inaptitude towards swimming, or any water-related activities. Lan Xichen might be nervous to swim, but that did not stop him or cause him to hesitate when he had seen Pistachio's head bobbing in the water. That thought had warmed him, even more so than the sun that beamed down on them. Unable to help himself, Jiang Cheng stares shamelessly, his eyes roaming over the other's body.

The First Jade's robes clung to him, the white fabric clinging to his body. His arm muscles were clearly shown, broadcasting the famous Lan strength from doing handstands endlessly. But the chest was perhaps the most impressive of all. Not too bulky or too thin, Lan Xichen's chest was broad and slender, the wet clothes showing the perfect abs of the other.

Jiang Cheng pushes away the complicated feelings that rose. It was just jealousy. He was just envious of the other man for being perfect while he was just...him. It did not mean anything, it would never mean anything.

Lan Xichen stands directly in front of him, those golden eyes gleaming in the sun. He advances steadily, his lips pressed together in determination. Jiang Cheng unwittingly takes a step back, then two, half frightened by the intensity of that gaze. He resolutely refuses to think about the other feelings that had stirred up. They continue for a few moments, a dance that would seem strange to any straying eyes.

He stumbles.

He barely blinks before he is pressed against the chest that he had been admiring (hopefully subtly). He absolutely does not squeak as he nearly loses his balance and flops into the water nor did he gasp at the feeling of arms clutching at his waist. He does, however, unhappily acknowledge the traitorous flush at his cheeks and wild pounding of his ridiculous heart.

They don't say anything.

Lan Xichen stares, his eyes a vivid gold in the sun. Jiang Cheng freezes, heart thudding loudly in his chest. What was he supposed to do? What is even happening? Why did the other man look at him like that? His hands are pressed lightly against that strong chest, trembling despite his staunchest efforts to keep them still.

"Xichen-I...I don't..."

As if in a trance, Lan Xichen's slender, long fingers tuck his wayward strands of hair behind his ear, the gentle fingers skimming across his cheek. The heat rising below his skin would surely not escape the other. Jiang Cheng shivers and Lan Xichen's gaze darkens, skimming over his face and settling at his parted lips.

Jiang Cheng shifts nervously, hyperaware of the large palms securing his waist. They seared through his skin, making his body tingle with something that felt like anticipation. It felt good, felt right. But what was he doing? What were they doing?

"I miss your scent." Lan Xichen says seriously.

"I didn't lose all of it." Jiang Cheng replies breathlessly.

"Thankfully." Lan Xichen whispers in his ear as he draws impossibly closer, his jaw brushing against Jiang Cheng's cheek. Jiang Cheng doesn't know what to say. What the fuck was this conversation about anyway? This was nonsense. They were both talking nonsense.

The sudden scent of mild lotus flowers and rain mingling with strong winter and spring breeze makes him light-headed. He blinks heavily, his eyes half-lidded as he tries to clear his unfocused vision. The realisation slaps him across the face and rings out like booming thunder.

It hits him just as abruptly. He struggles to keep a straight face as he feels his stomach muscles spasm violently and twist viciously.

Fuck.

 

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It was against the rules to brag.

Lan Huan did not consider himself as a prideful person, nor a person that was full of himself. However, he would have liked to think that he knew something about Jiang Wanyin. At least, knew when the other man was lying.

"I'm fine."

Lan Huan's right eyebrow raises instinctively. Jiang Wanyin did not look fine at all, with the paleness of his face and how his features were pinched in pain. "Right...and that's why you're breaking out in cold sweat." He remarks dryly as he dabs at the younger man's damp forehead. Didn't Jiang Wanyin trust him enough to tell him the truth?

The omega remains silent, hunched over his middle, with both arms wrapped around it. As if sensing his disappointment, the younger man stiffens. "What do you want me to say?" Jiang Wanyin scowls darkly at him, eyes bright with annoyance. "That I'm hurt? That I can't bear the pain by myself? That I have to rely on someone to care for me?" He asks, while the mild but bitter scent flares. Narrowed blue-grey eyes bore into his.

"The fact remains that I have to deal with shit like this on my own." Jiang Wanyin finishes acidly. His fists were clenched, teeth gritted. Then his eyes closed and face tightened as he rocked himself unconsciously against what seemed like another wave of pain. Lan Huan hears the unspoken words clearly as if the other had shouted them. I will always be alone. No one cares.

Lan Huan tries to stop the frown that had formed. He tried. However, it grated on his nerves that Jiang Wanyin would think so little of himself, that the other did not care for his own well-being. Along with that irritation, he was also concerned, probably far too much for his own good. He wanted to protect the other, see him happy and healthy. But of course, it was easier said than done.

He starts carefully untying the sash around his wet robes, only to hear a strangled noise that sounded like a mix between a groan and squeak. Glazed eyes stared at him, burning and alarmed. "W-what are you doing?" Lan Huan notes that the other man's voice was a pitch higher than usual.

"I would get sick if I stay in these wet robes, so would you." Lan Huan says matter of factly, making swift work of removing his outer robes, leaving them to fall in a neat heap on the floor. "You should change too." He gestures at Jiang Wanyin's shivering figure. "Would you like me to help you with your robes?" Lan Huan asks politely. The younger man looks extremely uncomfortable and miserable, the pain and cold wracking his fragile body with shivers.

"No! No need for that-could you get some robes for us to wear? It's in this cupboard." Jiang Wanyin blurts quickly, tripping over his words as he meets Lan Huan's eyes before adverting his own swiftly.

Lan Huan nods serenely, focused on his task. He pulls open the smooth wood of the cupboard door and eyes the purple robes inside. Humming quietly, he fishes two sets of the robes out and runs his hand over the designs of notable simplicity that were accented with silk. As he turns back to look, Jiang Wanyin is staring at him with an unreadable expression.

"I will change into these now." Lan Huan says as he lightly places one set of robes beside the younger man on the floor, where a puddle of water surrounds him. At the returning nod, he breezes out of the room, heading to his own quarters.

As he shuts the door behind him, he belatedly realises that he was going to wear Jiang Wanyin's robes. It felt like an intimate gesture, a significance that he couldn't place his finger on. He clutches at the brilliant purple fabric, an emotion that he does not understand welling up in him.

He removes his underclothes efficiently, mind buzzing and unfocused. Over the course of the few weeks that he had stayed in Lotus Pier, he'd found himself exuberant, his spirits practically singing with joy as he sought out the company of one Jiang Wanyin.

It was frightening, with how easily they'd grown comfortable with each other. How he'd grown comfortable with the younger, infamously volatile man. Lan Huan had still shied away from any kind of interaction, with the gnawing mistrust always at the back of his mind. He was absurdly paranoid now, always suspecting anyone's motives. At least, he mocked himself, at least I seem to be right now.

It was too bad that his council was demanding for him to return.

They had sent him a strongly worded letter. (with language as strong as was allowed in the Lan Sect, anyway)

Dear Sect Leader Lan,

This letter is written on the behalf of the council....duties needed to be attended to...decide on your behalf soon if you do not...

Yours sincerely,

The council

Why was he always a tool to be wielded? No one seemed to care about what he actually wanted. The council had been insistent and he knew that the veiled threat was to be taken seriously, or they would take matters into their own wrinkled hands. He crinkles his nose at that thought, at the very least, he would have liked some semblance of control over his own life.

It was pathetic. He is pathetic.

Marriage. He thinks a little hysterically. They wanted him to find a partner, mate them and marry them. Then obviously, produce an heir. The idea was both terrifying and repulsive. How could he trust another person and become intimate with them? It wasn't the fact that he was being forced to choose a partner that terrified him out of his wits. It was the fact that he had to have a partner. A person. Someone that would have power over him. What if they betrayed him? What if he fell in love, then they stomp all over his heart until it lay broken in tiny shards?

Not that it wasn't already.

He belatedly realises that he had finished dressing himself and was anxiously twisting at the violet sash that was supposed tied around the waist. Jiang Wanyin clothes fitted him perfectly. It might have been a bit tight a few months back, but with his inconsistent eating habits, he had inevitably lost weight. The length, though, he muses as he eyes himself critically, was a little too short.

It was strange to wear another person's clothing. Alien, even. He had been accustomed to the Lan Sect's flowing robes that had swished around one's feet. The Yunmeng robes were more restricted, with trousers that prevented the breezy feel. But...it wasn't bad. It was different, not bad.

He opens the door and almost jumps in fright at the wet, unpleasant feeling of something against his legs. A very muddy, soggy Pistachio stared back at him pitifully. He caves and picks her up, trying his best not to dirty his clean robes.

As he knocks on Jiang Wanyin's door, entering at the "Come in." He holds Pistachio up like an offering at the younger's frown.

"I see you bought the troublemaker." He huffs, standing up gingerly from the bed, with one hand wrapped around his midsection, a phantom reminder of the earlier pain. Jiang Wanyin nods to him and he hands Pistachio over, concern still a heavy pit in his stomach as he sees the other wince.

"Does it still hurt?" He tries not to sound like a fussing mother. "Do you want to see the physician?" He fails. "I can help-"

"Xichen. I'm fine, stop worrying." Jiang Wanyin scowls, but Lan Huan can see how his expressive eyes light up. A hint of laughter amongst the sea of exasperation.

The younger man holds Pistachio expertly, with her tucked under his arm. She looks crestfallen, head bowed as if in remorse. The glare of fond resignation makes Lan Huan smile. It seemed like Pistachio could get away with just about anything.

Familiar with the process, Lan Huan quirks a questioning smile at the other man. He had been through it quite a number of times, with Pistachio proving that she had a knack for getting herself into situations that were a little sticky...literally.

They do not speak as they start work. A small wooden tub is dragged out, fluffy towels are dug out and Lan Huan is sent to collect water for the sodden cat. Pistachio is placed firmly in the tub, twin stern glares holding her in place as she sulks, her ears flat and tail twitching. They wash the mud off her thick coat, the dirty brown dripping off to reveal a smooth grey coat.

The warm, clear, water in the tub turns brown with debris and dirt. Pistachio is then carefully lifted out and toweled down, small meows of half-hearted protest escaping occasionally.

"There's another meeting in a week." Lan Huan says as he taps the adorable creature on her pale pink nose. Said adorable creature blinks at him and goes a little cross-eyed with trying to look at his finger. "I suppose it's time to choose the new Chief Cultivator." He looks up and sees Jiang Wanyin glaring at the towel with something akin to murderous rage.

"Nie Huaisang seems to be the likely candidate." Jiang Wanyin says as he shakes his head, continuing to dry Pistachio's legs.

Lan Huan tries not to flinch at the mention of Sect Leader Nie. He wonders when Huaisang had became that, something so formal and distant.

It might have been because he knew all along and had used him.

Lan Huan doesn't think the meeting would go well at all.

Chapter Text

The round, cool sphere lay in his palm, barely as big as his smallest fingernail. It was a dull, muddy brown, looking so ordinary that it didn't warrant the glare had been directed at it for who knows how long.

It looked calm and cool. It was the solution, the key out of the gates of hell. He should have taken it without further thought, but why was he hesitating?

Jiang Cheng looks in the direction of the lotus pond that he was so fond of. He sighs, dragging his eyes back to the pill resting innocently on his palm.

It wouldn't be wrong to take it, right? It was worth the discomfort, the pain. It was the lesser of two evils. After all, how was nausea and dizziness comparable to the fire that would consume him?

He hated fire.

He hated everything about it. From the way it was pronounced, how it tasted in his mouth and left a lingering bad taste behind as he spat out the word. How it sizzled and singed his skin, leaving dark marks and ashes. How it roared, grew into an uncontrollable inferno, destroying everything in its wake. It was wild and unpredictable, and he hated it.

It was what a heat felt like. It burnt him inside out, scorched him until he felt like he was going to die. He nearly died. He remembered the fire in his body, the raging flame that couldn't be clenched. It hurt, so badly.

Of course. He had only ever had one heat. At the worst possible time, he had presented. That was when he had been captured by the Wens. That was when he vowed that it would not happen again.

It was still alive in his memories. Still present, still malicious and cruel. Still visible and tangible like the scars that marked him forever. It broke him, the feeling of being too hot, of burning in his blood and how his family's spiritual whip had flayed his skin to reveal deep, gaping wounds that would struggle to close and heal.

Jiang Cheng remembered the emotions that had risen up in him. Panic, when he had been discovered. Hatred at the Wen dogs, who had murdered everyone he knew and destroyed his world in a night. Hatred at himself, for being too stupid that he had been caught, too weak that he had been unable to escape.

Then, it was just an ocean of pain. He felt so helpless, so angry. It grew and grew in a pit in his stomach. As the whip had struck him, he screamed. And hated himself all the more for that. He was so weak that he couldn't stop the cry that tore out from his throat. He had given his captors pleasure, like he was entertainment and they were the sadistically gleeful audience.

Wen Chao's eyes had gleamed maliciously. He had chuckled, pig-like squeals and snorts escaping him as he shook with the force of his sick laughter. They surrounded him, a sea of red, akin to the blood that they had so ruthlessly shed not long ago.

He blinks. The tinge of red clears from his vision and he sees the neutral brown pill. His hands don't shake, and he ignores how much effort it takes to hold them still. A week or two ago, he wouldn't have thought about this, he would have just gulped down the pill and wash it down with some sweet lotus tea, side effects be damned. But now...

Lan Xichen's kind and lovely face flashed in his mind. He cringed. He had made a promise to the other. Jiang Cheng could be called many things, he had many flaws and imperfections, but he always kept his promises. He scowls fiercely at nothing. He was forced into a corner. He had no choice. None at all.

He had to do this.

It sticks to the roof of his mouth, the horrible, bitter taste assaulting his pitiful tastebuds. He tries not to gag. His fingers reach for his teacup and he gulps mouthfuls of the sweet tea, trying to wash the taste off his tongue.

The suppressants only kicked in after a few hours but why did he already feel so nauseous?

As he swallows hard at the lingering bitterness, he decides to focus on his work. This time, the Sect Leaders meeting would be hosted by Sect Leader Nie in the Unclean Realm. It would be in...he taps his fingers against his trusty table. Three days. Hopefully, it wouldn't be a huge disaster like the last one. Better still, there would be no attempts at matchmaking.

He scowls at the thought of the numerous omegas that swamped Lan Xichen at the last meeting. It was irrational, how annoyed he felt, as they tittered and giggled behind their handkerchiefs while talking to the First Jade. Lan Xichen had smiled, the smile that made him look so handsome, that made everyone swoon over his heavenly looks. Everyone except for him, of course, as he glared darkly at the other omegas.

Lan Xichen was too good for him.

Staring listlessly at the sheaves of paper strewn about messily on his desk, he sighs for what felt like the thousandth time. The pile of envelopes on the right corner catches his wandering gaze. He picks up the envelope on the top of the sizable pile. The envelope was made of luxurious paper and was obnoxiously gold. Lanling Jin. Jin Ling.

With eager hands he opens the envelope to reveal a letter no less obnoxious than the envelope. He barely refrains from rolling his eyes. His heart aching with longing, calloused fingers grip the edges of the sleek paper, sharp eyes scanning the page.

Dear Sect Leader Jiang,

I wanted to address you as uncle but there were people looking over my shoulder that insisted I use your title. How have you been? It feels strange to stay in Carp Tower after living in Lotus Pier for so long. As usual, the council keeps harping on and on about how my clan has lost all respect due to xiao shu Jin Guangyao and how I should do something. It is no cause for worry, however, as I don't know what to do.

I will be visiting Lotus Pier a day before the Sect Leaders meeting in the Unclean Realm, we can then travel there together. I think this meeting would be interesting, especially since we need to choose a new Chief Cultivator and all. Do you think you would be chosen, jiu-jiu?

Most importantly, is Zewu-jun still staying at Lotus Pier? Wei Wuxian says that you're in love with him and honestly, I'm starting to believe him. I think it would be good if you had a love life, god knows you've been alone practically forever.

Yours sincerely,

Sect Leader Jin

He snorts. Jin Ling sure had his priorities right. Why was he so concerned about his relationship with Lan Xichen? His nephew was ridiculous. He twists Zidian around his finger as he frowns at the letter. Was his nephew alright? Were the Jin Sect Council making trouble for him? He would crush them all if they dared, no one would be allowed to stand in the way of his nephew.

Unless of course, Jin Ling was going on a rampage and committing unreasonable crimes such as murdering people with corpses. He would stop his nephew himself then. He would never admit this, but despite his nephew being an orphan and being raised by him, his nephew had a good heart. Jin Ling had his mother's heart, he would do his best to do what was right, and not what was easy.

Placing Jin Ling's letter at the side where he had mentally labelled as the 'safekeeping' corner, he continues reading letters from the considerable pile. At times when he became irritated with the stupidity of others in the letter, he would draft a curt and aggressive letter, while the serious letters garnered a solution and to the point advice.

He is broken out of his thoughts by some voices. Some very loud voices. The audacity of some people, really. Plastering a fearsome scowl on his face, he stalks out of his office and towards the direction of the raised voices.

"-not how it's done!"

"It is!"

"What is going on here?" He demands. Twin heads whip around to face him, with identical expressions of horrified shock.

"Sect Leader, I was correcting this junior here on one of the Yunmeng sword forms, but he insisted that he is correct."

"I am correct! It is executed like that!" The shorter junior disciple piped up, directing an indignant glare at the taller disciple.

The taller disciple scowled at the shorter one, his brows furrowed. "No, it should be-"

He feels a phantom throbbing in his head and pinches the bridge of his nose in hopes of it not manifesting. Their shouting really wasn't helpful at all. "Enough. Show me which sword form you were arguing about. Move your asses to the field!"

He strides off to the training field, putting effort into making sure not to stumble as dizziness slammed into him with a viciousness that surprised him. As they make their way to the training field, he spots a blurred figure in white gracefully practicing. A gleaming silver blade whips around, twisting and turning elegantly. On the other side, there was a horde of purple-clad disciples that immediately stiffened when they caught sight of him.

He decides to ignore the figure, which he knew was Lan Xichen, because no one in Yunmeng wore white unless someone passed, and there had been no funerals lately. He arches an eyebrow and shoots the two disciples a look.

They fumble and draw their swords. Moving apart from each other in a coordinated manner, to which Jiang Cheng mentally nods at, they swing their swords in a swift arc, twisting their body and positioning feet in a way that he frowns at. They needed improvement.

"Don't put too much weight on your left leg. It makes it easy for you to lose your balance." He says clearly as he recalls their movements. Unsheathing Sandu, he continues, displeasure that the disciples were unable to get the move right. "Neither of you are right, this move requires you to feint and slash instead of feint and duck." He instructs them while demonstrating with Sandu.

They watch him, eyes focused with intent. Nodding eagerly as he faces them, they beam, bowing to him with cries of "Thank you, Sect Leader!" To which, he simply nods and then tilts his head. "Why did you both get this simple move wrong?"

The two fall silent. They stare at him with wide eyes and shoot each other desperate looks. "Sect Leader Jiang hasn't been training us for a while now, our senior who is in charge of training has trouble with this move-perhaps he forgot! But everyone has different opinions on how it is executed!" The shorter disciple rambles nervously, wringing his hands at Jiang Cheng's uncharacteristic silence.

Has it really been that long since he last taught his disciples?

Jiang Cheng feels guilt prickle at his skin, the thorny claws of the troublesome feeling sinking into his heart. He stares at the two young faces and his stomach sinks as he couldn't even remember their names. What kind of leader was he? All he did was yell at his clan members and threaten to break their legs. Why haven't they, at the very least, revolted?

What a self-absorbed, pathetic fool he is.

His fingers grip the edge of his now creased violet robes. They shake uncontrollably. He feels a phantom weight on his chest, as if he was being crushed by a horse.

"-ect Leader? Are you alright?" The taller disciple asks, peering at his face concernedly.

"I'm fine." He hears his voice reply. It sounded strange, foreign to his ears. A hand falls at his side, it's gentle grip familiar. He doesn't flinch. Lan Xichen blinks at him, a question in the warm golden eyes.

"Spar with me." He continues. It wasn't a demand, nor a statement, but a plead. He needed to do something. He couldn't not do anything. Lan Xichen's head tilts minutely in an achingly familiar way. Are you sure? He seems to ask. "Spar with me-please." He repeats desperately. Out of the corner of his eye, he absently observes the two disciples exchanging concerned looks. He didn't do anything, he didn't say anything, just stared at the First Jade, who held all his attention.

"If you're sure." The other says, conceding defeat as his gentle gaze sears into his skin, making him feel small and guilty. They move apart from each other, before they both draw their swords in unison.

He grits his teeth. A disconcerting mix of feelings washes over him. But the one that he was so intimately familiar with was anger. He felt his blood pump a little faster, his heart pound a little harder. Clenching his fists, he stares with narrowed eyes at Lan Xichen. He felt like a mess, a whirlwind of emotions.

If Jiang Cheng was emotional, Lan Xichen was as cool as a cucumber. Nothing betrayed his calm, penetrating stare as he sized him up. Jiang Cheng could see how in control the other was from the way the First Jade's eyes flickered over his form with unblinking eyes. He was so unemotional, so unaffected.

It made him angry.

It wasn't the surge of murderous rage that he had felt before during the Sunshot Campaign and after his br-Wei Wuxian's demise. It wasn't the wave of intense frustration at a baby Jin Ling that had howled and howled and wouldn't let him sleep. It was desperate, a plead and a cry for help, all at once.

They clash in a flurry of blurred silver. The clang of metal against metal rings out loudly in the training field. Narrowed blue eyes meet wide amber eyes. Purple-clad cultivators surround them, leaving them a respectful distance as they watch the show.

Lan Xichen had been surprised by how viciously Jiang Cheng had flown at him. Jiang Cheng didn't miss how the pretty eyes had grown rounder and how a tiny crease had marred the handsome face. He had charged like a rabid dog after all, he muses absently. With his teeth bared in a snarl, he swung Sandu at Lan Xichen with all his strength. Of course, the esteemed First Jade had deflected the sword easily, and had graced him with a strike of his own.

They danced across the field, both untouched by each other. He had nearly been too slow, Lan Xichen's blade missing him by only a few hair lengths. He blinks hard, hoping to steady his wavering vision. Scowling fiercely, but knowing that it was lackluster at most, he charged again.

Lan Xichen stands steady in front of him, feet planted firmly on the ground. The sun's rays lit his fine features in a soft glow. In the shadows, he feels lesser.

As his blows get deflected, again and again, Jiang Cheng feels the terrible feeling of desperation welling up again. It swamps him, burning him like acid. Why was he so weak? It didn't escape him that Xichen was merely avoiding his sloppy assault and not going on the offensive.

Metal strikes metal in a symphony of sound that made their spectators wince. Jiang Cheng hopes that no one sees how his arms tremble weakly.

"We should stop." Lan Xichen mouths to him. "You don't look too good." He continues, his forehead creasing minutely. Jiang Cheng purses his lips, gritting his teeth as he makes one final, feeble effort to best the First Jade. To which the other had simply twisted elegantly to duck the swing as he brought Shuoyue up as the two swords met yet again.

"Never." He whispers.

His breaths escaped him in uneven rushes, his chest heaving erratically as he clutches Sandu's hilt until his knuckles turn white. He is dimly aware of the whispers of the audience and the wide-eyed looks that they kept exchanging.

He couldn't hear anything, except the roar of blood in his ears and the thunderous pounding of his heart. His whole body shook like a leaf in the wind. He would say later that he didn't know why he did it. He grips the cold metal and it lengthens into a whip.

Zidian whizzes through the air, sizzling and sparking wildly. It was a testament to his emotional state. A tell on what a mess he is.

It shocks him too. Lan Xichen, revered First Jade of the Gusu Sect, capable Sect Leader and his...friend had caught Zidian mid-air with his bare arm. Zidian doesn't burn, doesn't singe the other's skin with violent lightning.

It fizzes out.

Jiang Cheng's knees give out on him. He falls to the grass. No, no. It was proof. Proof of his shameful feelings towards the other. They were on display. Now Xichen would want to have nothing to do with him. Perhaps feel disgusted at him for wanting something that he could never have. His eyes close in resignation and he hunches over, hiding his face away from the curious eyes.

Warm, large hands palmed his own shaking ones. "Breathe." Lan Xichen tells him, his voice fraught with urgency. "Breathe, Wanyin." The hands stroke his own soothingly, but Jiang Cheng could sense the nervousness practically pouring out from the other.

He felt like his lungs were caving in, the airway twisting and constricting, preventing the priceless flow of air into his starving lungs. His hands scrambled out of the other's secure hold, rising to clutch at his chest. Scratching at it viciously, he stares up into panicked eyes, his own glazed by a sheen of tears.

"I'm sorry." He gasps.

Chapter Text

Jiang Wanyin wasn't breathing.

Lan Huan could see the other's chest heave fruitlessly, each breath harsh and raspy as he stares at him with eyes glazed with tears. Jiang Wanyin immediately latches onto Lan Huan's robes, knuckles clenched and fingers unyielding, rapidly losing colour to match the pale shade of his white robes.

Hoping that his voice wasn't sounding ridiculously high with panic-Wangji had teased him that one time as Lan Huan paced like a madman, saying that his voice could rival a bird's.

He grasped the other's hand tightly. "Wanyin. Focus on my breaths." He sees Jiang Wanyin's eyes flicker, clouding over and refocusing as the other stares blankly at him. He looks down at his hands. They were shaking. To say that Lan Huan was freaked out would be a massive understatement.

"Inhale. Exhale. Inhale..." He smiles weakly.

Jiang Wanyin gasps and breathes in huge gulps of air, each breath brought some colour into his face, which had been pale from fear. He gently cups the younger man's cool face, a visible sheen of cold sweat on the other's forehead and lightly freckled nose. A startled blink greets his bold action and Lan Huan smiles as reassuringly as he can. The smile had probably been nothing more than a quirk of his trembling lips, but Jiang Wanyin visibly relaxes.

With no small amount of trepidation, because Lan Huan doesn't know what he's doing-he has no fricking idea, he continues the mantra, almost senselessly. Thankfully, Jiang Wanyin's face relaxes exponentially, a far cry from the twist of fear that had marred his face before.

"That's it, you're doing wonderfully." Lan Huan strokes the younger man's back as he kneels beside the shivering form. "Exhale..."

Lan Huan takes deep, measured breaths, his eyes never straying from Jiang Wanyin's face. They breathe together until he was sure that the other was fine-going to be fine and faces their audience.

The various purple-clad disciples of Yunmeng were staring anxiously, fidgeting and wringing their hands as they were held off by his glare-no warning look.

"Is...is Sect Leader alright?"

"Should we call for a physician?!"

"Zewu-jun, what should we do?"

"I'll take care of Sect Leader Jiang, please do not fret." Lan Huan answers, smiling reassuringly at the disciples. They shoot each other wide-eyed looks, but melt away to make room for him to move. Lan Huan blinks questioningly at his fellow Sect Leader, who just stares at him blankly, as his lost gaze flits to the disciples and immediately sharpens to flint. Jiang Wanyin struggles to his feet, nearly losing his balance as he wobbles unsteadily.

Without prior thought or hesitation, Lan Huan's arms shoot out to wrap around the other's slim waist. He hears a couple of stifled gasps and whispers, as did Jiang Wanyin, whose cheeks ignite in a most fetching colour.

The infamously headstrong Sect Leader does not protest, however, as they make their way to Jiang Wanyin's quarters, Lan Huan assumes.

He gets dragged to the kitchen instead.

"-eed a fucking drink."

"I don't think you're in a state to drink-"

"Shut up Xichen, I'm going to need it." Jiang Wanyin grunts, giving him a look through his captivating narrowed eyes and Lan Huan shuts his mouth immediately. The younger man tugs on his wrist and places a finger on his lips.

It was a comical sight to behold as the usually uptight Sect Leader presses himself to the walls by the kitchen's back door, a nifty hand reaching into a high cabinet to sneak out a slender porcelain bottle. Said Sect Leader's eyes flicker around quickly, looking out for anyone who might catch him in the act. Lan Huan sees him hesitate, cradling the bottle in his hands, then reach into the cabinet again.

Jiang Wanyin emerges from a kitchen a very pleased man, his eyes glittering and patting the bottles fondly.

"Three? Isn't that too much?" Lan Huan frowns.

"I'm being prepared." The other sniffs disdainfully.

"Oi!" Jiang Wanyin hisses. "Did you just poke me?!"

At Lan Huan's sheepish grin, the purple clothed man glares at him. "I mean...are you alright?" Lan Huan begins, hesitating. "You're acting really strange, Wanyin." He wants to add that it was okay for the other to confide in him and Lan Huan would listen-certainly never mock him for it. Jiang Wanyin didn't have to pretend to be okay.

"Xichen, you wanted to talk, didn't you?" Steel-blue eyes flicker with an emotion akin to regret. "This is liquid courage, you know." Smiling ruefully, he raises the arm full of liquor.

Lan Huan nods.

In the room, Lan Huan sits in silence as Jiang Wanyin sets the bottles on the table and busies himself with setting cups on the table. He glares at the tiny cups, flinty eyes narrowing.

Then he takes a swig from the bottle.

He sets it down, eyes downcast and narrowed.

Lan Huan stares.

Jiang Wanyin scowls, clenching his fists. Picking the opened bottle, he downs the whole thing, eyes closing. A few stray drops of the liquor runs down his rose-red lips to his bare neck. Lan Huan adverts his eyes and tries not to stare, the arch of the slender neck causing him to flush.

"Lan Xichen." Jiang Wanyin glares, sharp blue eyes meeting his petrified ones.

He slams the delicate piece of porcelain on the table, eyes never breaking away.

"Lan Xichen. I like you." He states with the intensity of a thousand burning suns. His lips are set in a straight line, eyes darkening. Yet Lan Huan sees the slight tremble of the stubborn chin, the shaking of the slender, calloused hands.

"Oh...I like you too?" Lan Huan tilts his head.

"No!" He snaps. And softens immediately, eyes trained on Lan Huan. "I mean...I like you! As more than a friend!" Jiang Wanyin fires at him.

Lan Huan feels a buzzing in his ears. He blinks. And blinks again.

"Oh." He says faintly.

 

______________________________________________________

 

Jiang Cheng isn't sure what prompted him to yell his feelings in Lan Xichen's very pretty face.

But with the dull roaring that filled his head, he was made reckless by the alcohol. Which was...exactly what he intended. He was too much of a coward to confess to Lan Xichen when sober.

The rush of adrenaline immediately fizzes out like a dying flame as he hears the other's response.

Oh. Lan Xichen had said.

The First Jade sits still, his posture akin to an exquisitely carved statue. His lips are slightly parted, eyes widened in shock.

Lan Xichen definitely wasn't expecting this.

Jiang Cheng feels like a child again-nervous and insecure. His shoulders sag with what feels like the weight of the whole world. Now came the inevitable. The rejection.

How dare he think that Lan Xichen would feel the same way?

How dare he?

He hates himself even more for the tears that spring to his eyes. Hates himself that the urge to break down was overwhelming. He hates himself for thinking-wishing-hoping that Xichen would reciprocate his feelings.

"I'm sorry-you can forget whatever I said." He curses himself as his voice shakes. "Can...can you please stay?"

Stay. Don't go. You're the only one who cared enough to see the ugliness inside. The only one who accepted it.

The only person I'll ever love.

His face his tilted up to meet warm golden eyes. Caring, gentle fingers brush away the lingering wetness on his cheeks. Lan Xichen looks so kind, so beautiful, so perfect. Too good for the likes of someone like him.

"I..." Lan Xichen hesitates. His eyes flit skyward, emotions swimming in them. "I don't know how I feel towards you, Wanyin." He smiles, but it doesn't reach his eyes. "I'm sorry." He sighs, and then reaches out to Jiang Cheng.

It probably wasn't possible to feel that much pain in one's chest. Jiang Cheng muses absently. He flinches, barely taking in the flicker of hurt on Lan Xichen's face.

"That's fine." He whispers. "I don't know what I should have expected anyway."

Tears brim in his stinging eyes as he smiles at the alpha. The mix of emotions reared its ugly head, prompting a wider smile. Love, so much love for Lan Xichen. Jiang Cheng loved him, loved his mother-henning, the kindness, the gentleness. He loved how Xichen's laugh tapered off into an undignified squeak, the infectious rare giggles, how he trusted him-Jiang Cheng! enough to be vulnerable with him.

Regret, for he could never have him. And then that bittersweet feeling. Because whatever that Xichen had given him, he treasured so much-and wished for the impossible.

"I'm sorr-"

"Don't apologise. You have nothing to be sorry for." Jiang Cheng whispers. He stares at the bottles, opens another, and starts drinking.

"Wanyin, I don't think-"

He downs the other in huge gulps, trying to drown out Xichen's concerned voice. The alcohol burns his throat, buzzes unpleasantly in his stomach, makes his head light. It was still preferable to looking Lan Xichen in the eyes.

Xichen's scent grows sour with worry and Jiang Cheng ignores the pang of guilt in his chest. He couldn't face the other. He couldn't.

He sets the bottle down after he downs it all with desperation, the horrible feeling of urgency-of wanting to just...forget.

Forget what a failure he is. Forget how much he loved Lan Xichen. Forget how Lan Xichen would never love him.

He reaches for the third bottle, vision blurry.

His wrist is caught by an insistent hand, the silence suffocating. He scowls, trying to tug his wrist away, but to no avail. He readies himself to snap at Lan Xichen with the heaviness that weighs him down, the ice freezing him. He needed that-needed the alcohol. To stop feeling so cold, so alone.

He falters at the other's pained expression.

Don't. Please. Is what the other seemed to say.

His hand falls.

Then they rush over him, drowning him and pulling him under. He was drowning, drowning in his own feelings and it was all too much-

He lets a sob escape. It is an ugly ragged sound, torn from his already burning throat. He slaps a hand over his mouth, clenching the other in his robes, crushing the fabric together.

Then he is pulled into a warm embrace. The soothing scent of winter breeze and wildflowers drift around him. He buries his face into the strong shoulder-too fucking drunk to care about dignity and continues to cry like a baby.

The last thing Jiang Cheng remembers is the feeling of a gentle hand stroking his back and a warm voice murmuring something as he falls into the abyss of unconsciousness.

 

______________________________________________________

 

"Jiu-jiu." Jin Ling says. He tries not to flinch as his uncle's hazy eyes land on him. "Are you alright?" He reaches for his uncle's forehead, "You don't need to go for the conference if you're feeling unwell, you know."

The taller man flinches away from Jin Ling's hand. The hazy eyes clear then glaze over again. It was honestly...disconcerting to watch. "I'm fine." His uncle huffs and stares into seemingly nothing again.

"...okay, right. You don't look fine, jiu-jiu." Worry is eating away at Jin Ling now. He tries his best not to try and slap his hand over his uncle's forehead, partly because he was afraid of his uncle's reaction and partly because he wasn't that dumb. Okay, so what if he was still afraid of his uncle's hot temper? That man was scary, damn it!

"Jiu-jiu, are you sure you're well enough to go to Qinghe?" Jin Ling protests, because even if he had a healthy respect for his uncle's temper, the care for the other won out. "You really, really don't look well."

Narrowed eyes snap towards him and Jin Ling freezes out of reflex. That was his uncle's face when he would threaten to break any unfortunate person's legs.

"I'm going," Jiu-jiu says.

Then it was settled. Jin Ling just shook his head-mentally, of course. And decided to keep an eye on his hard-headed uncle.

Jiu-jiu is silent for the most part of the journey, his dark blue eyes flitting over Jin Ling as if he couldn't see him. But Jin Ling catches how his uncle's expression twists in what seems like regret, the stern demeanor of the other softening into one of weariness.

"A-Ling." Jiu-jiu's deep voice interrupts his thoughts.

"Yes?" Jin Ling turns to look at his uncle.

"Thank you for everything, I'm proud of you." His uncle says, lips tugging into a tiny smile.

"Are you really okay?" Jin Ling says, really concerned now. He tugs on his uncle's robes, the way he used to when he was younger. He knows that Jiu-jiu means what he says and never lies. But Jin Ling can't help the feeling of dread at how his uncle says it. It sounded so...so final.

"Jiu-jiu, you're not leaving me right?" Jin Ling says, alarm colouring his tone. Jiu-jiu was the person that had been there for him forever, he was all Jin Ling had. Jiu-jiu is his rock, his responsible guardian, the one who was uncannily similar to him in all their mannerisms. "I can't live without you-I can't!" He clutches at his uncle's violet robes like a lifeline.

What if Jiu-jiu still had those thoughts?

What would he do, then?

"Don't be silly." His uncle huffs, eyes gazing into his with what seemed like fond exasperation. "I wouldn't leave you, not now, not ever, as long as you still need me."

Jin Ling sags against his uncle, relief washing over him like a tide. He drapes himself over his uncle and buries his face into his uncle's neck instinctively. And stops. It couldn't be...?

"Jiu-jiu, you have a scent?" He is immediately pushed away. He starts towards his uncle but is stopped in his tracks by a scowl. However, this one was more afraid than angry, his uncle's eyes flickering in wariness.

"We're at Qinghe," Uncle states and strides off, leaving Jin Ling scrambling to catch up.

He knows what he smelled, trusts his nose. Jiu-jiu had a scent.

It smelled like lotus and lightning.

It smelled sweet.

It smelled like an omega in heat.

 

______________________________________________________

 

Lan Huan's hands are concealed by the low table in front of him. He twists his hands, scanning the room thoroughly, looking for that one person. Various Sect Leaders were positioned all over the room, each chatting and laughing with each other.

He nods half-heartedly to Wei Wuxian and Wangji, eyes immediately drifting away from their connected hands.

Someone approaches him, tries to make conversation, their voice grating to his ears. He nods and hums accordingly, tuning them out as the bubble of anxiety wells up in him. Soon enough, the person huffs and disappears, offended by his lack of attention.

He couldn't see Jiang Wanyin anywhere.

The doors open and said man steps into the room. Lan Huan's heart does a funny thing in his chest, something like a flip and squeeze. He feels warm as well, like he was standing in the gentle evening sun in Lotus Pier.

Jiang Wanyin meets his eyes almost immediately, his eyes go soft and sad before he nods to Lan Huan politely and turns away.

A figure in gold trails by his uncle's side as said uncle immediately strides over to his designated seat, right opposite Lan Huan.

Jiang Wanyin sits with all the grace of a swan, head bowed, and Lan Huan just stares like the fool he is.

Jin Ling plops down beside his uncle in his own seat. Doe eyes and childish face steeled in a solemn expression. Lan Huan's lips twitch at that. He knows how rambunctious the Jin Sect Leader could be and seeing him like this was akin to seeing Jingyi being bribed promised chicken.

A fluttering black fan is visible at the corner of his eye. With a smooth voice, Sect Leader Nie commences the start of the conference.

The conference is slow going, each Sect Leaders with different opinions arguing and talking over each other. The leaders of four great Sects however, sit in stony silence.

Nie Huaisang fans himself languidly, his body relaxed as he gazes at all the other cultivators. Eyes that knew too much, mind sharper than what others could think.

Jin Ling shoots his uncle worried looks, his hands coming up to brush his bangs away from his face as they fall over his eyes occasionally.

Jiang Wanyin's eyes are closed, posture stiff and straight. His forehead creases every so often and his eyes flutter open now and then. They are glazed, unaware and not the sharp piercing ones that Lan Huan is used to seeing. A hiss of pain escapes the stubborn man and Lan Huan is nearly beside himself with worry.

Then, Lan Huan catches a scent. It is familiar, like home to him. Yet it is foreign as well, sweetened by something Lan Huan doesn't know.

It seems to swell and drift over to every cultivator in the room, prompting bewildered looks and noses sniffing the air. Nie Huaisang has sat up straight, his eyes gazing down at...at Jiang Wanyin.

As if on cue, Jiang Wanyin doubles over with a harsh groan. His face is shiny with a visible sheen of sweat. The sweet, mild scent grows a little stronger.

Oh. Lan Huan thinks dimly.

Jiang Wanyin is in heat.