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Hold Me Like You Want Me

Chapter Text

Saturdays had become Jiang Cheng's favorite day. It meant long, lingering mornings in bed. No work for either him or Xichen. No family obligations until the late afternoon. They'd made Saturday mornings theirs and theirs alone. The only interruption allowed was taking Sugar out for her morning walk.

So when he woke while it was still dark outside, he was confused. Sugar usually didn’t move until sun-up. Xichen was often up before the dawn, but he usually only left the bed long enough for his morning routine and to grab a cup of tea before coming back for sleepy cuddles. On this morning Jiang Cheng reached over to the other side of their bed and found it empty and cold.

“No,” he said as he forced his eyes open to confirm his boyfriend wasn’t beside him. “No, it’s Saturday.”

A soft laugh was his answer.

“No,” he said as he turned over, facing the closet, and saw Xichen putting on real clothes. Not just lounge-wear or the comfortable clothes he painted in, but actual trousers and a sweater. This could not stand.

“Come here,” he demanded.

Xichen walked over, sweater still in his hands, and leaned down to give Jiang Cheng his morning kiss.

“Good morning, my love.”

“It’s Saturday,” Jiang Cheng said. He tried to tug Xichen back into bed, but that would require moving even more out of the warm cocoon of their bedsheets, and he refused on principle.

“I’ll be back before you know it,” Xichen said, moving away to slide his sweater on over his head.

“But,” Jiang Cheng said, reaching out, hands on Xichen’s hips. “It’s not even light out.”

Xichen pried his hands off his hips, raising them both to kiss his wrists, his palms, before sitting on the bed. He pulled the blankets back up over Jiang Cheng’s shoulders and cupped his face, a world of sadness in his eyes.

“My father,” is all he said.

He would’ve sat up if Xichen hadn’t already had one of his large palms splayed over his chest, using that damnable Lan Arm Strength to keep him down.

“He requested an audience. Alone. I can’t refuse it.”

And Xichen wouldn’t, because he would always be a good and loyal son to a motherfucker who absolutely didn’t deserve it.

“What can I do?” Jiang Cheng asked.

Xichen kissed him again. “Stay here. Sleep. Be here when I come back.”

“Xichen.”

“I like coming home to you,” Xichen said. “The thought of you, here, in our bed? That’s all I need.”

It fought every instinct Jiang Cheng had to not get out of their bed and march over to that bastard’s hermit mountain mcmansion with Xichen, but he knew that would cause more stress for Xichen in the end. So he let it go. For now. He could easily visit that piece of shit on his own later.

“Thank you,” Xichen said. He kissed him one more time before standing up to leave.

“Hey,” Jiang Cheng said just as Xichen made it to their bedroom door. “I love you.”

Xichen’s grin was brilliant, briefly chasing away all the worry on his face. “I love you too.”

**********

Jiang Cheng knew he wouldn’t be getting back to sleep after Xichen left, not with the worry churning in his gut. So he slipped out of bed, took a shower, got dressed, and took Sugar for her walk. He nodded at the few Lans who were already out at his time of morning, trying not to let his eyes cut to the woods to the east and the secluded cabin there. He let Sugar bask in everyone’s attention and then headed back home.

He hated having nothing to do when he was worried as hell.

See, the thing was, while Xichen was the accepted leader and legal holder of just about everything Lan, his father was still his father. And his father could still make things difficult. And his father still knew the exact things to say to destroy parts of both of his sons.

Jiang Cheng and Lan Qiren were never going to be friends, but they both had found a common ground in trying to protect Xichen from his father’s more conservative opinions.

To put it plainly, despite the fact that he had married the woman he loved, even when she didn’t love him, he had opinions over who Xichen should marry. And it was certainly not a man. He had opinions over his younger son’s marriage as well, but that ship had sailed long ago, and even he could recognize a lost cause, even if he wouldn’t be quiet about it. Xichen took the brunt of all the criticism, refusing to let it touch his younger brother and his own little family.

And Jiang Cheng knew the only reason Xichen still answered his father’s summons was to maintain the family peace. If Xichen didn’t appear, it would go to Lan Zhan, and Jiang Cheng didn’t want to imagine what would happen if it got to Wei Ying.

Everyone assumed Jiang Cheng was the one with the temper to watch out for. An angry Wei Ying? Protective over his family? Absolute wrath of devastation.

And if it ever got to Yanli? Game over for Lan Qingheng.

Jiang Cheng almost wanted to see it, except he knew just how much it would hurt Xichen in the end. And he got it. Because despite it all, Xichen still loved his father, even if he didn’t like him, and had long ago lost most respect for him.

Back inside the house he let Sugar off her leash to run free. Nutmeg and Pepper still had yet to emerge from their hiding spaces, but he knew they’d appear as soon as they heard him in the kitchen. The fresh water in their bowls and bits of food still in their dishes meant they must’ve accosted Xichen before he left. It made Jiang Cheng smile, how his two cats had his boyfriend so wrapped around their paws.

Xichen deserved something sweet for breakfast. French toast? Pancakes? Crepes? He checked the food situation. Everything was newly stocked. The housekeeper must’ve stopped by yesterday. In the bread box he found a fresh french loaf. There were some granny smiths in the fruit bowl. Apple cinnamon french toast then. Perfect for a cool Autumn morning.

**********

Jiang Cheng had just finished setting the table when all the pets stood at attention, ears perked up and facing the front door. Sugar was the first to bolt for Xichen and Jiang Cheng smiled as he heard the happy greetings exchanged between the two.

“Something smells amazing,” Xichen said as he appeared, Sugar in his arms like she weighed nothing.

“You spoil her,” Jiang Cheng said. “No one else can cart her around like that.”

And he was pretty damn certain she wouldn’t let anyone else pick her up.

“Sometimes a queen deserves to be treated as such,” Xichen said, carefully putting her down. He pulled a treat from his pocket and left her happily chewing on a BusyBone.

“Ridiculous,” Jiang Cheng said as he pulled Xichen into a hug. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Xichen said. He hunched his shoulders, curling himself up under Jiang Cheng’s chin.

“That bad,” Jiang Cheng said as he hugged him tighter.

“I don’t like yelling or ultimatums, but I’d reached the end of my patience,” Xichen said. His lips brushed against Jiang Cheng’s neck. “I took the advice of this ruthless CEO I know. He told me that if a wayward client didn’t positively respond to polite inquiries, to hit them where it hurt.”

Money talked. Especially when a threat to cut-off an income source was floated out there. Jiang Cheng hated that it had to come to that, that Xichen had to use his position as the family leader against his father, against his elder, but he’d been pushed to this point. That it had come down to money of all things; something he knew Xichen hated talking about.

“That CEO sounds like an evil bastard,” Jiang Cheng said.

Xichen’s hands started to wander, coming to rest just above the swell of his ass. “He has his good points.”

“Come eat,” Jiang Cheng said. He was determined to get some of their Saturday back. “There’s enough carbs and sugar on this plate to put you into a food coma.”

“Trying to get rid of me?” Xichen asked.

“Oh, I plan to help you work it all off later. Over and over again.”

Xichen laughed loudly then, the joy of it overtaking his whole body in the shaking of his shoulders and the light in his eyes.

He kept one arm around Jiang Cheng as the other grabbed his plate, and directed them towards the couch.

“You’re going to make a mess,” he warned.

“I truly don’t care,” Xichen said as he sat, tugging him down into his lap and balancing the plate between them. “The clock’s already ticking.”

He kissed Xichen’s temple. “I know, baby,” he whispered.
It was the worst part of their relationship, the fact that they usually only got one full day a week together. That their Saturdays had to sustain them until school breaks or Jiang Cheng justifying a long weekend or arranging his schedule for meetings in this part of New England that allowed him to stay with Xichen for just a day longer.

His brother-in-law made the commute twice a day, five days a week. Jiang Cheng was starting to lean towards that idea. It wouldn’t be possible when he had to work overnights, but he was willing to find a way and he certainly had more flexibility in his schedule than Xichen did.

He loved Saturdays, but he didn’t want just Saturdays.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng understood the intricacies of economics and business, even got a nice little punch of satisfaction when a spreadsheet balanced itself out, but as a CEO he spent far less time actually doing calculations and far more time listening to others drone on about them. The current staff member from their main budgetary committee for the Yunmeng Project, Mr. Lynch, was going on for so long, in such a low monotone, that even Jiang Cheng was fighting to stay awake. He didn’t bother having Luo Qingyang shake those few who had dropped off. He just let those lucky bastards sleep on. They were all facing a long holiday weekend, and with the overcast skies outside and the smell of snow in the air, the only ones who could stay awake and alert now were the truly determined and the over- caffeinated.

His personal phone lit up with a text from his brother. He quickly unlocked it, opened the message, and immediately dropped his phone on the table with a loud clang.

“Sir?” Qingyang asked.

“Um,” he said, carefully standing and buttoning his jacket. “I’m so very sorry to cut this presentation short, Mr. Lynch. There’s a small family emergency I must attend to.” Qingyang was already at his side. “Let us postpone until after the holiday weekend.”

“Do I need to call anyone for you?” Qingyang asked as she followed him to his office.

“No need,” Jiang Cheng said as he pulled on his trench coat and gathered up his laptop and bag. “Have Marcos pull the Land Rover for me.”

Qingyang froze. “Sir, are you going up to the Lan property?”

“Yes.”

“For, what I’m assuming, will now be five-and-a-half days instead of just four?”

“Yes.”

“Willingly? Without me forcing you to? You’re taking an actual mini vacation? Even though you've only been back here in Boston for two days?”

“Yes.”

Qingyang smirked. “Permission to state something as your friend and not your employee?”

Jiang Cheng checked his watch. “As long as you can say it on the way to the elevator.”

“Headmaster Lan must be damn good in bed,” she said.

“Not just in bed,” Jiang Cheng said as the elevator doors closed on her laughing face.

**********

The entire drive up to the Berkshires was filled with picture after torturous picture sent by his brother, showing in great detail close-ups of Xichen’s hands as he taught the elementary level students how to paint. Apparently the art teacher, Mrs. Li, had called out, they couldn’t find a sub, so his brother-in-law had called his sometimes artistic husband for help. Wei Ying and little Sizhui were also gettig an early start to their weekend as they headed up to the school. Sizhui would be shadowing Lan Jingyi in classes for the next two days, while Wei Ying took over teaching the art classes, but apparently Xichen had stopped by to see if he needed any help, and then started teaching himself.

“He’s good at this,” Wei Ying’s voice filled the Land Rover through the speakers. “Like, really good.”

“He misses teaching,” Jiang Cheng said. “He should’ve had years of it under his belt, but, we all know how that bullshit turned out.”

“Yeah,” Wei Ying said.

The less said about that absentee father, the better.

“How far out are you?” he asked.

Jiang Cheng had just turned onto MA-23. “About twenty miles out. Keep him occupied until then?”

“Aye-aye, Captain. You’ll get here just as class lets out.”

“That’s the plan.”

“You’re so cute.”

He was glad that his brother couldn’t see the immediate scowl on his face. He hated when he called him cute. “Fuck off, Wei Ying.”

“Love you too, little brother.”

**********

Lan Xichen had the textbook definition of artist's hands. Large, long, slender fingers that he liked to dip in paint, cover in charcoal, stain in ink. Long, slender fingers that effortlessly flew over piano keys, his guqin, and his flute. A hand span large enough to cradle the entire side of Jiang Cheng’s face, or the width of his lower back.

Jiang Cheng had a thing for Xichen’s hands and he wasn’t ashamed of it, because anyone with eyes had a thing for Xichen’s hands. And his wrists. And his forearms.

Xichen’s hands meant safety. They meant peaceful nights resting on his chest, heartbeat strong and steady under Jiang Cheng’s ear, those fingers combing through his hair, or cradling his face, a thumb teasing across his lips until he’d smile or laugh or raise his head for a kiss. They were gentle as they held the cats and carried them around the house, or rubbed Sugar’s belly until she completely melted into a puddle of canine joy.

Those hands were also a disaster in the kitchen, either from trying and failing to make dinner, or from distracting Jiang Cheng as they teased across the nape of his neck or around his waist. Too many times of overboiliing pots meant Xichen had to stay on the other side of the kitchen while Jiang Cheng was at the stove.

And those hands produced the most glorious of paintings and the most beautiful music.

Okay, fine, so Jiang Cheng was more than a little in love with all of Xichen, not just his hands.

But his hands were an epic fucking distraction, and a weapon often deployed against Jiang Cheng’s control, specifically by his absolute troll of a brother who always took the chance to exploit this particular weakness. Wei Ying had always been a pain in the ass, but with a smart phone and an unlimited data plan, he'd gone to the next level.

Another picture came through and Jiang Cheng purposefully ignored it to keep his eyes on the road. He was only minutes away now.

He shook his head at his own infatuation still--years after they’d started dating--for one Lan Xichen.

The driveway up to Lan Academy was already packed with cars waiting for the final bell. Jiang Cheng bypassed them all, parking in Xichen’s empty spot. He pulled out the visitor's pass Maria had long-ago laminated for him and made his way towards the art building.

“Uncle Cheng!”

Jiang Cheng braced himself as Sizhui ran straight for him, hugging him tight and laughing as his friend, Jingyi, joined him.

“Boys,” he greeted. He patted his coat pockets and found the lollipops he’d bought on the way up. Every kid deserved some Chupa Chups and those poor Lan kids usually grew up without any sort of sugary sweets. He considered it his rightful duty as a sort-of-uncle to Jingyi, to give that kid some real junk food. “Don’t tell Great-Uncle,” he said.

The boys nodded eagerly, taking their prizes before running over to attack Lan Zhan. His brother-in-law barely flinched as the nine-year-olds took a flying leap at him.

“Wei Ying, don’t you dare!”

Lan Zhan did flinch as Jiang Cheng’s idiot brother also took a flying leap at him. He still caught him though. That Lan arm strength really was a thing to be admired.

“Your prince awaits,” Wei Ying said as he gestured at the open door of the art building. “He’s cleaning the paint brushes.”

“Thanks,” Jiang Cheng said.

“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” Wei Ying yelled after him.

“What wouldn’t you do?” Jiang Cheng yelled back.

“No yelling on school properties,” Jingyi yelled.

Jiang Cheng let the door to the art building shut on the bright sound of both Wei Ying’s and Sizhui’s laughter.

Xichen wasn’t in a suit today. He wore charcoal trousers and a soft light blue sweater. His hair was pulled up high in a knot on the top of his head, not unlike the one Jiang Cheng often wore. From where he stood Jiang Cheng could see the sleeves of the sweater were pushed up, those strong forearms on display, along with the lavender jade bracelet Jiang Cheng had given him for their anniversary on his wrist.

Fuck was he really, stupidly, in love with his boyfriend.

“Need a hand?” he asked.

Xichen startled, dropping all the brushes in his hand and whipped around. “How?”

“There are this amazing inventions you may have heard of,” Jiang Cheng said as he walked over to Xichen. “They’re called automobiles. They help you travel distances.”

“I thought you weren’t supposed to be here until tomorrow night,” Xichen said, wet hands clinging to Jiang Cheng’s shoulders as he pulled him into a hug.

“I'm sorry, is my presence an inconvenience for you? I can always drive back to Boston if you’d like.”

“Don’t you dare,” Xichen said. His smile was warm, happy, as he pressed a soft kiss to Jiang Cheng’s lips. “Hi,” he said.

“Hi,” Jiang Cheng replied. He kissed Xichen again, longer this time, though mindful of where they were. “Home?” he asked.

“I just have to finish cleaning the brushes and then stop by my office.” Xichen brought one of those glorious hands up to cup Jiang Cheng’s check, his thumb rubbing across his cheekbone. “How long?” he asked.

Theirs was a relationship of time and distance. Weekends were theirs, but Jiang Cheng still spent most of his weekdays in the city. He had finally started the satellite office here, so he could have more time at home, their home, but Boston would always be the business headquarters, where the bulk of his meetings fell, and where his social obligations required his attendance. He didn’t know how he could get everything he wanted, but he was damn sure going to find some way to get it. He just needed to find someone he trusted to take over the bulk of the Boston meetings. He had his eye on a certain person for his Chief Operating Officer, considering her background and experience, but he knew it would be a battle. He’d just have to promote her before she had the chance to refuse and the Board could honestly kiss his ass if they disagreed.

“Sweetheart?” Xichen asked. “Did I lose you there?”

“Plotting a coup,” he teased. He pressed a kiss to the inside of Xichen’s wrist. “I’ll drive back Tuesday morning.”

“Fuck,” Xichen softly muttered. “Five whole days.”

“Five whole days,” Jiang Cheng said. “Whatever are you going to do with me?”

Xichen closed his eyes and took a deep breath, all the signs that he was trying to gain control. Jiang Cheng tried not to grin at the rush of victory from breaking his composure.

“Xichen?”

“Hmm?”

“Take me home.”

Home to their spoiled pets and the smell of Xichen’s paints and the ever-expanding collection or orchids. Home to the music room, and the screened-in patio with the couch they spent too many nights curled up on, under layers of blankets, watching snow fall. Home which now held almost all of Jiang Cheng’s favorite books, and most of his clothes, and almost everything he loved and cherished.

“Gladly,” Xichen said. He eyed the sink. “As soon as the brushes are cleaned.”

“Such a dutiful man,” Jiang Cheng sighed. He stood back and stripped off his trench coat and suit jacket, before rolling up his sleeves. “Hand me half of those. We’ll get it done faster.”

He grinned when lips nuzzled behind his ears and a soft ‘think you’ whispered across his skin.

“Keep your hands and lips to yourself, Headmaster Lan,” Jiang Cheng said. “Honestly, we’re in a classroom. What would your uncle say?”

The splash of water to his face was shockingly cold, and definitely childish, but it was worth it for the light in Xichen’s eyes.

Chapter Text

“Remember, remember the fifth of Novem—”

“Finish that rhyme and I will drive up there and kick your ass before you’ve even had a chance to brush your teeth,” Jiang Cheng said to his brother. “Also, good morning.”

“Happy Birthday, you old bag of bones,” Wei Ying said.

“Still younger than you,” Jiang Cheng said.

“Well, at least I’m not fucking the Cryptkeeper,” Wei Ying teased.

“Rude!” Jiang Cheng yelled into his phone, hoping his brother’s ears were ringing. “Rude and uncalled for. He's only three years older than you!”

“Should’ve let me finish my rhyme,” Wei Ying said.

Jiang Cheng grumbled at him.

“You’re coming home today, right?”

Home. That was a hell of a concept for him now. Home was technically his condo here in Boston, but home had really become Xichen’s house up in the Berkshires. All the pets were up there full-time now, not wanting to keep disrupting their lives by carting them back and forth. His condo was pretty cold and lonely, but he was still working on setting up a proper satellite office in Western Massachusetts. When he stayed for long stretches in the Berkshires these days, it required lots of video-conferencing and rearranging of schedules.

He was trying to feel less guilty about not being as hands-on as when he took the reins of the company, but as Qingyang pointed out--repeatedly--he’d worked so hard then so he could enjoy his time now.

And he hadn’t taken any significant time off since July, but winter break for Lan Academy was approaching, and so was a long winter vacation for Jiang Cheng.

“I’m booked with meetings until the afternoon, but I should be there in time for dinner,” he said.

Wei Ying made a dissatisfied sound. His brother and nephew had gone up to the Berkshires for a long weekend, and while Yuan--Sizhui now-- was shadowing Jingyi in classes, Wei Ying was by himself. And bored. A dangerous combination, especially in Molly's house. The asshole would probably find a Ouija board and start trying to summon the dead.

“Then I won’t get to see you until tomorrow because Xichen’s got dibs now," he whined like the grown-ass man-baby he'd become.

“He does, indeed, have dibs,” Jiang Cheng agreed. “I’ll be over there tomorrow morning, so you don’t have to wander Molly’s home, wailing about your abandonment, as your husband and child go off to school.”

“I’m getting pretty good at the ghost sounds,” Wei Ying said.

“You have too much time on your hands for someone who is supposed to be finishing the draft of his book.”

“Rude!” Wei Ying yelled. “Rude and uncalled for!”

Jiang Cheng laughed into his phone at his brother's continued complaints as he locked up his condo and headed into the city. If the worst thing that happened today was having to listen, in detail, to Wei Ying's long list of complaints about how Jiang Cheng didn't understand the artistic process of writing, then it'd be a perfect birthday.

Jiang Cheng knew better, of course, but he could hope.

**********

Jiang Cheng came back from his lunch meeting to find his desk covered in no less than three gift baskets, a bouquet, a cake, and his heavily pregnant sister trying to fit a crock pot between it all.

“Yanli, what the hell?” he asked, hurrying over to her. “You’re supposed to be on bedrest.”

“I wanted to see you on your birthday,” she said as Jiang Cheng carefully guided her over to a chair. “Honestly, you and Zixuan both. You act like I’ve never been pregnant before.”

“You’re carrying twins,” Jiang Cheng said. “And you have doctor’s orders.”

“I’m fine,” Yanli said. “Now come here so I can hug you.”

He did as she ordered, reveling in his sister’s warm touch.

“Is that a muffin basket?” she asked.

“Probably.” The Porters sent one over at least once a week, Mrs. Porter still insisting he didn't eat enough.

“And flowers in the shape of a white dog?”

“That’s from Xichen.”

“Of course it is," she said with a soft laugh. She patted his head again and pulled him closer. "Zixuan made the cake.”

“Please tell me you didn’t bring up the cake, go back down, and then bring up the crock pot.”

“Of course not,” Yanli said. “My boys brought the cake and were supposed to come back for the crock pot, but got distracted by the fish tank in the lobby.”

“Which means your husband got back to the car to find you missing?” He pulled back from the hug to look at Yanli’s confused face. “Or did you text him first?”

“I don’t remember,” Yanli admitted.

Pregnancy brain. It had hit Yanli bad this go round.

Qingyang ran into the office then, a phone in each hand and a terrified look on her face. “Sir! Your sister is...right there. Sitting right there. Perfectly fine.” She quickly spoke into one of the phones. “Call back security. We found her. She’s okay. Please calm Mr. Jin down.”

“Honestly,” Yanli said, trying to stand up. “Like someone would kidnap me and a crock pot.”

“Wei Ying would,” Jiang Cheng said as he carefully guided her back down into the chair.

Yanli laughed. “He would, wouldn’t he?”

**********

After a last-minute late lunch featuring his very pregnant sister, his hyperventilating brother-in-law, his pouting nephew who just wanted to go look at the fish again, and both of his parents, Jiang Cheng had never been more relieved to pull into Xichen’s driveway. All he wanted to do was get into bed and sleep for at least ten hours.

Of course as soon as he got his laptop out of the backseat, he was faced with one Lan Qiren.

“I understand it is your birthday,” he said, a hand stroking his long beard.

Jiang Cheng nodded. “Funny thing how they happen every year.”

Lan Qiren did not look amused.

“Is there something I can help you with, sir?” he asked.

“There is,” Lan Qiren said. He pointed to the windows facing Lan Qiren’s home. “Those cats of yours. They keep staring. Control it.”

“Sir, you don’t control cats so much as hope to contain them,” Jiang Cheng said. “That spot gets the best sun; they’re going to gravitate towards it.”

“Well, direct them somewhere else. They keep staring.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said as he headed towards the front door.

He planned on doing not a single damn thing.

Inside Sugar was waiting for him. She let him slide his shoes off and put his coat up, but then it was barks and nudges and time for her treat.

“You were never this spoiled back at the condo,” he said, heading towards the kitchen and the jars filled with all kinds of pet treats.

Xichen might still have a general aversion to grocery stores, but let that man in a pet store and he’d buy out half their inventory.

Honestly, Sugar did not need organic handmade dog biscuits, but try telling that to Lan Xichen.

Sugar taken care of, he went over to Pepper and Nutmeg stretched out on their new bed, perfectly placed on their favorite window seat. He was surprised Pepper wasn’t attached to Xichen like she normally was when he was home, but apparently she’d opted for a longer nap. Both cats made their little pleased sounds as he scratched their ears. Nutmeg even opened her eyes for a second before stretching back out in warm, lazy cat bliss. He kissed the top of both of their heads and then headed upstairs to find his elusive boyfriend.

“Xichen?” he called.

He wasn’t in his studio. Or the music room. Or their home gym.

“Babe?” he called, stepping into their empty bedroom.

“In here!” Xichen’s muffled voice came from the bathroom.

“You okay?” Jiang Cheng asked as he opened the door.

And immediately stopped.

There was a runt of a kitten in Xichen’s hand. A tiny, loud, angry, scraggly brown thing, who was swatting at Xichen’s hair. It was ugly and hissing and had clearly already made a mess of Xichen's gorgeous hands.

Jiang Cheng instantly fell in love.

“Give me,” he said.

“Gladly,” Xichen handed the kitten over. “She’s a biter.”

“Well, of course she is when you hold her like that,” Jiang Cheng said as he carefully cradled the kitten to his chest and slid down next to the tub.

She was obviously a found kitten, too thin for anything from a breeder or from recovering in the pound.

“Where did you find her?” he asked.

“So that 4H field trip I supervised to the Nie farm yesterday,” Xichen said.

The ones that fucker Meng Yao had arranged to garner more income and prestige for the Nie farm. It was a smart business decision, but Jiang Cheng would never admit it that to the devious little snake's face.

“I came back with more than just mud on my shoes.” Xichen said as he joined him. “I’m still not convinced Mingjue didn’t find this thing a few days before and purposefully ‘discovered’ it when I was surrounded by a bunch of animal-loving children.” He kissed Jiang Cheng’s cheek. “She likes the sink, so I’m sad to say, your side has now been claimed.”

“Then I guess we’ll just have to share yours,” he said.

Xichen hummed in agreement pushed some loose strands of hair behind Jiang Cheng's ear. “Dr. Rose checked her out. Still waiting on some test results, but other than being underweight and mean, she doesn’t even have worms.”

“That’s a miracle,” Jiang Cheng said. "And she's not mean. She's feisty."

“Reminds me of someone else I know," Xichen said. He carefully rubbed a finger over the kitten's tiny head. "I was thinking she’s a Cinnamon. I hoping she’s one. I had one of those little tags made at the pet store.”

This man. This too caring, too generous, absolutely got roped into adopting a stray kitten man. He was amazing. And he was all Jiang Cheng’s.

“I love you,” he said.

Xichen’s face softened, the way it always did when Jiang Cheng told him that. “I love you too,” he said. He rested his head on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder and looked down at the quiet, purring kitten. “Taking care of a kitten was not in my plans for your birthday. But she’s certainly taken over the bathroom, so the long, luxurious soak I planned for both of us is out.”

“I’ll take comfy pajamas and delivery pizza,” Jiang Cheng admitted. “It’s been a hell of a day.”

“I can do that,” Xichen said. He nuzzled Jiang Cheng’s neck. “Whatever you want.” He kissed him, soft and sweet, and promising. "Happy birthday, my love."

Chapter Text

Lan Xichen was gathering up all the work he needed to take home for the weekend when a soft knock drew his attention to the door. Lan Zhan stood there, looking tentative in a way that he hadn’t seen since childhood. There was only one person who could take his little brother, so confident inside these walls, so happy and lively outside of them with his family, and turn him back into that little boy who kept a stoic face, a straight back, and downcast eyes.

“What did he do this time?” Xichen asked.

“Demanded I see him tonight,” Zhan said.

Tonight. When their father knew his brother would want to get home as soon as possible to enjoy the weekend. That with the traffic the nearly three hour trip would take closer to four. And Yuan had a school play tonight, his very first.

“Get on the road,” he said. “You have a much more important prior engagement. He has none. If he wants to speak with you, he can pick up the phone or use that Tesla he had us buy and drive down to Boston to see you on your time.”

Xichen was angry, and he knew it was clear in his voice. He deliberately softened his face and his tone as he approached his brother.

“I’ll handle it,” he promised, pressing a comforting hand to his shoulder.

“You always do,” he said. He raised his eyes finally, the tiniest hint of mischief in them. “You have your own plans for this weekend.”

He did, but Jiang Cheng usually arrived on his doorstep exhausted, running on only spite, righteous indignation, and caffeine. He'd sleep like the dead until mid-morning.

“It’ll work out,” he promised his brother. “Now, go. I was promised a video of my nephew’s stage performance, and I’d like one I can watch without getting motion sickness or hearing the recorder’s added commentary.”

“Wei Ying is enthusiastic,” his brother said, defending his husband as always.

“Wei Ying has a latent inability to sit still or keep his mouth shut,” he said. “But I suppose that’s part of his charm.”

“He can do both quite well with the proper motivation,” his brother said.

Xichen was almost positive his brother was incapable of such blatant innuendo even ten years ago, but now he said it with a perfectly calm face. All that exposure to Wei Ying, Xichen supposed.

“Thank you,” he said as he left.

Xichen nodded and waved him off. This was his duty. As the older brother. As the head of their family. As the head of the Lans.

His father had not taken Jiang Cheng’s insult of him well all those months ago. He’d sent letters and e-mails and voicemails demanding Xichen end his association with such an ill-mannered man.

There were many things Xichen was willing to do for the sake of the family peace; giving up Jiang Cheng would never be an option. And his father had forfeited the right to give him orders, demands, and ultimatums when he’d abandoned the family duties before Xichen was even ten years old.

Jiang Cheng’s words still rang in his ears from the last time he’d been present and Xichen’s father had left a scathing voicemail. Just because that bastard knocked your mother up, it doesn’t make him your father. Lan Qiren raised you. That’s your dad. That’s your father. That fucker who holed himself away in his mountain retreat because he forced a marriage on a woman who didn’t love him and kept her in it even when she asked for a divorce? He’s of no consequence and has shitall to do with your life. Let him complain as much as he wants, but where the fuck was he these past twenty years?

Xichen had been willing to put up with his father’s nonsense on his own, but having got nowhere with his eldest son, he’d turned to his youngest. And that was unacceptable.

As he waited for the rest of the members of the Lan carpool to arrive, he called his father. No answer. So he left a message.

“I will see you early tomorrow morning. You will not contact Zhan again unless he asks it of you. Your grievance is with me, not with him, and you will stay away from his family.”

“Such a serious face,” Lan Fei said as she joined him. She smelled, like always, of brown sugar and butter. Lan Academy’s culinary courses had come a long way over the years, largely thanks to the woman next to him who had dragged the Academy, and the Board, kicking and screaming into modern times in terms of food.

As Lan Fei said back then, she didn’t study at the Culinary Institute to teach students how to make glorified glue.

“Don’t tell me there’s trouble in paradise already?” she asked. “I have money going on a proposal before the year’s out.”

“We haven’t even been dating for a year,” Xichen said.

Lan Fei shrugged. “When it’s right, it’s right. I married Cordie after only dating for six months.”

Xichen made a little sound of agreement. He didn’t want to delve into Jiang Cheng’s many legendary rants on how weddings were an absolute waste of money and why throw such an extravagant party for something that was likely to end in divorce anyway. Xichen personally disagreed, always a fan of weddings and the celebration of the couple's joy, but that was a discussion for another time.

“We’re fine,” Xichen said.

“Fine?” Lan Fei asked. “Not great? Not amazing? Just fine?”

Xichen laughed at her affronted tone. “We are fine, and also great and amazing.”

“Good,” she said as Lan Chen pulled up with the van. “I’d hate to have to break his pretty face.”

“Please don’t break his pretty face,” Xichen agreed as he climbed into the van. “I’m quite fond of it.”

*********

Xichen did not want to get out of bed. He just wanted to stay here, wrapped around Jiang Cheng, warm and cocooned under the covers. He also wanted to get this meeting with his father over with so he could enjoy the rest of his Saturday. He tried to slip out of bed, but Jiang Cheng rolled over, little sleepy angry sounds coming from his throat, and curled up on top of him.

He laughed and cupped the back of Jiang Cheng’s neck, massing the tense muscles there until he fell completely back to sleep. Then he finally managed to slip away, tucking the blankets around his boyfriend. He picked Sugar up from her bed in the corner and placed her next to Jiang Cheng.

“Keep him warm for me,” he ordered.

His Saturday shower was far less enjoyable alone, but certainly went much faster. After he’d shaved and started to brush his teeth, he took a moment to appreciate the little changes the past months had brought. When he’d built this house, it was always with the intention that someday it would be shared. And while in the deepest recesses of his heart, he’d always hoped it would be Jiang Cheng, he’d also been realistic. For so long his large house had sat open and empty waiting for its other occupant. The once empty second sink in the bathroom was now surrounded by Jiang Cheng’s toothbrush and razor along with his preferred lotions, soaps, shaving cream and toothpaste. Whimsical hand towels with Shiba Inus on them also occupied his side, a gift from little Jin Ling, who saw them in a store and yelled for his uncle until his father finally agreed to buy them. There was a small ceramic box full of his hair ties and another full of various back-ups for his body jewelry. The closet had also become one of their shared spaces, though Jiang Cheng kept few of his work suits here, most of his casual wardrobe had migrated to Xichen’s closet over the months. Xichen let his fingers brush over his shirts, stopping on a cream-colored sweater. Oversized on Jiang Cheng, it would fit Xichen just right. And he wanted something of Jiang Cheng with him as he headed up into the mountains.

He was almost completely dressed when that beloved voice broke the silence of the morning with a very whiny, “No. No, it’s Saturday.”

Xichen laughed as sleepy eyes tried to glare at him.

“No,” Jiang Cheng said with a pout. “Come here.”

And Xichen did.

**********

His father’s cabin was a luxurious retreat he’d built while still head of the family. It was also one of the reasons why he’d been pressured to step down. His father did not have a head for money and had tried to argue that the cabin was a business expense and not a personal one, to get the family foundation to pay for it. Perhaps he had been hoping it would be enough to lure Mother back to him, but she had stayed firm in her place, closer to the Academy and her sons.

Every time he drove up here it was harder and harder to convince himself to get out of the car. There was a time when he’d been excited to his father’s personal attention, trying to share his art or music with him, to bring joy to a man who had always seemed sad. It had never worked and Xichen had stopped trying.

He couldn’t remember the last time he saw his father smile out of anything other than politeness.

Father was already standing at the door.

Xichen took one long deep breath and got out of his car.

“You’re late, Huan,” he said.

“I never gave you a time,” Xichen said. “And it’s just after dawn.” He looked down at his father, refusing to break his gaze or bow his head. Those days were over.

His father broke first.

“Come inside,” he said.

The house always felt empty, cold, and stifling. It was such a difference from this morning, their warm bed, and soft morning kisses. Of a fuzzy cuddle with Sugar, the insulted meow of Pepper when he’d stepped out of the bedroom, and even Nutmeg emerging to ask for food with a happy trill and a rub against his legs. He’d come from a home of noise and light and warmth, so much of it brought by the man hopefully still sleeping in their bed, and it made him want to turn right around, away from this building that was just a house and not a home.

“Why did you want to see Zhan?” he asked, unwilling to make small talk.

“Wangji is my son,” Father said. “Can I not see him? Apparently not according to you.” His father sat with a cup of tea and offered nothing to him.

“You destroyed your last chance to speak with him when you called his son a bastard," Xichen said, keeping his arms folded across his chest.

“It’s a fact, Huan. You should not be so sensitive over it. He’s not even his real son. Wangji has no legal rights over him.”

“Wangji is his legal guardian. Regardless of legal status, Yuan is his son, and will be heir to the Lans, if Yuan chooses to become a legal member of this family.”

“Your duty--”

You have no right to speak to me of duty,” Xichen said, patience finally worn thin. “I’ve been doing your duty since I was a child. Your choices denied me a childhood. Your choices denied me so many freedoms I should have had, a life that should have been led, so you’ll have to excuse me if I refuse to listen to your opinions on my duty. Uncle and I saved the family from the ruin you would’ve plunged it into.”

Jiang Cheng’s words floated through his head. Xichen hated that it had come to this, but his hand had been forced by the man sitting across from him.

“If you attempt to cause trouble again, I will be forced to take action.” He looked around the cabin. “It would be such a pity if we had to find a better use for this space. Though, it would serve greatly as a guest house or honeymoon destination.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” his father said.

Xichen didn’t sit forward, he didn’t narrow his eyes or raise his voice, he stayed calm and smiled. He looked down at his wrist, at the bruise there from the sharp teeth of a very impatient man, and channeled a bit of that wrath.

“Mr. Lan, I would remind you, that you have no idea what I would and I would not dare to do. That you were never around to learn. And finally, that you have no place to dictate anything to me, my brother, or my uncle. Keep quiet and to yourself and you can remain here in peace. Continue to disrupt our peaceful lives, ones we’ve gladly carried on without you for over twenty years now, and it’s not only your precious home you’ll lose. After all, the Lans deplore waste, and you have nothing to show for your supposed self-employed state.”

His father was slack-jawed and stunned.

Xichen did feel the rush of a vicious victory, but he mostly felt tired, and sad that this was now where they stood.

All he wanted to do was go home. So he left his father there, stunned, cup of tea spilling onto the hardwood floor.

**********

His house wasn’t the only thing that had changed over the past few months. His family had expanded too, to contain Yanli and her husband and their young son. To contain all of the Jiangs, who loudly fawned over him or tugged him around family dinners, or showed him off at balls. It had Madame Yu and her strong hold on his arm as she whispered vicious gossip in his ear and Mr. Jiang and his soft, sad smile and constant thanks for loving his son. It brought him two cats and a dog, and his heart.

The latter of which was trying to kill him now.

“Cheng, please,” he gasped out.

Fingers tugged in his hair, pulling his neck back, a harsh laugh, a harsher thrust, teeth biting down on the back of his neck as Xichen tried to raise himself up for even more. More of everything. He wanted those bites and bruises to see during the week, to remember as he counted down the days until they were together again. He wanted the ache that came when he begged Jiang Cheng for nights like this, a hard fuck to start, and then hours of lingering, softer touches.

Jiang Cheng pulled them both up, smiled into his skin as Xichen’s fingers dug into his legs at the deeper angle.

“Oh, you’ll have to work harder than that.”

A familiar taunt. A favorite taunt. A vow of its own.

Challenge absolutely accepted.

**********

It was getting late. They’d delayed Jiang Cheng's departure as long as they could. The pets were in the car. They just had to let go of each other.

“I hate this,” Jiang Cheng confessed. “I hate walking away from you.”

“I’m not particularly fond of it either,” Xichen agreed. “Thanksgiving break is soon, I know you probably have to spend it with your family--”

Jiang Cheng honestly look insulted. “Your uncle has already offered to accommodate my family, though Yanli, the Peacock and the Peachick will be with us. She’s deemed your kitchen acceptable and your dining room table good enough. We do need to get some sort of bed for Jin Ling though.”

“I--”

He held up a hand. “Trust me, you want the test-run with my family at the holidays on your own territory, because Christmas at Lotus Pier is--there’s a reason your brother didn’t go until long after Wei Ying was sure he wouldn’t break up with him.”

“That’s--”

Jiang Cheng's mind had clearly gone into CEO mode. “We should probably update the guest bedrooms next weekend. And I have to get started on Yanli’s supply list for the kitchen.”

“My love--”

“Not that your guest bedrooms aren’t perfectly acceptable, but to contain and entertain a toddler? That’s a negative.”

Xichen gave up trying to speak and just shut Jiang Cheng up with his mouth, pressing him hard against his car, until his boyfriend had gone soft and slack.

“I love you,” Xichen said. “Even if you’ve decided to spring your entire family on me for Thanksgiving.”

“Half of it is absolutely my brother’s fault. The other half was me refusing to not spend my time off here. This is the compromise.”

“My home is your home,” Xichen said. He kissed him again before standing back. He adjusted Jiang Cheng’s scarf, Lan blue made with Nie wool, and kissed him one last time. “Call me when you get back to the city.”

“Like you’re not going to track me the entire way,” Jiang Cheng said as he finally got into his car.

“Then call me to say goodnight.”

One last, lingering kiss, and then he stood at the end of his driveway, watching Jiang Cheng’s tail lights until they faded in the distance.

Back in the house he picked up Sugar’s leash and hung it by the door. He gathered up the cat toys, wondering how Pepper even managed to drag one up to the top of the bookshelf. He checked on the orchids. He smiled at the plate he found in the fridge reminding him to eat dinner. Then he went to his art studio.

A fresh canvas had already been placed on the easel and his favorite paints, brushes, and pencils were were set up just the way he preferred.

His house may have been emptier and quieter than hours before, but his heart was full.

He picked up a pencil and started sketching.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng didn’t attend most of the Andover Alumni events, but tonight’s was to specifically honor Wei Ying and his success as an author, so even though it wasn’t his graduating class, he was still here out of support for his big brother.

And because the entire family was in attendance.

Yanli and the Peacock were making the rounds while Jiang Cheng and Xichen had been left to watch the Peachicks and little Yuan. Sizhui. He was Sizhui now and officially, legally, a Lan. Xichen was in charge of the stroller where the twins slept while Jiang Cheng got to manage Jin Ling who had taken over his lap and was playing a game on his phone. Sizhui had a book to occupy himself. The kid was already reading Shakespeare.

“Which play are you on?” he asked.

The Tempest,” Sizhui said. “It’s different. I like it.”

We are such stuff as dreams are made of, and our little life is rounded with sleep,” Xichen quoted.

“Of course you can quote Shakespeare,” Jiang Cheng said as Sizhui quietly laughed at them.

Hast thou not dropped from heaven?” Xichen asked.

“Stop it,” Jiang Cheng warned. “There are children about. Think of the example you are setting, Headmaster Lan.”

“Yes,” Xichen said with a solemn nod. “These poor children who will learn how to speak and understand the work of the Bard. What a horrible educator I am.”

Jiang Cheng’s retort stopped in his throat as he saw who had just entered.

“Oh Fu--dgecicles,” he said as Jin Ling smiled up at him.

Logically he knew that as a member of Wei Ying’s alumni class Nathan had been invited to the event. He just didn’t think, after everything that had happened back then, the asshole would actually show.

“What’s wrong?” Xichen asked.

Jiang Cheng watched as Xichen scanned the room, trying to find any threats, eyes passing over the possible emotional time bomb in the black glasses and the ill-fitting off-the-rack suit.

“So, you know how I told you I had one great ex, one okay ex, and one really bad ex?”

“Yes,” Xichen said, a hint of ice in his tone. He apparently still wasn’t over the encounter with Aidan, the great ex.

“Still?” Jiang Cheng asked.

Xichen shrugged. “I never claimed my feelings toward Mr. Delaney were rational.”

Jiang Cheng knew they’d have to come back to that later, but for now, he was focused on the man walking over to them.

“Right, so Aidan was the great ex. Mya was the okay ex. The man coming towards us is the bad ex.”

Even Sizhui had put his book down to watch Nate approach.

“This is the one your sister had words with?” Xichen asked. “The one your brother threatened to cut into little pieces and toss into Dorchester Bay? The one who said you were just pretending to be gay for the attention because you refused to have--” Xichen looked at their nephews. “You refused to..”

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng said, saving him. “That would be him.”

**********

Jiang Cheng knew it was a stupid thing to agree to date Nate, but he’d been flattered. No one else had ever asked him out, and even though he only felt indifferent towards Nate, had zero physical attraction, he was hoping maybe, just maybe, he could be normal. Go Oo a date or two or seven. Like a normal person. And not thinking about Xichen. Maybe he could get over his stupid crush now. It’d been four years. It should be gone by now.

Jiang Cheng apparently forgot he was often the universe’s bitch. He didn’t know what the hell he’d done in his past lives, but he was severely sorry.

He hadn’t felt anything on the first date other than bored. Or the second. Or the third. On the fourth he let Nate kiss him and immediately wanted to go swallow an entire bottle of Listerine. It wasn’t like when Huaisang kissed him, which was awkward as hell, but still relatively fine. This made his stomach turn and his skin crawl. He didn’t know what to do on the fifth or sixth dates. He didn’t know how to get out of this, because Mom was actually pleased he was on a date with anyone and even Father had gain him an encouraging pat as he left tonight.

The seventh date had not gone well. The seventh date had seen Nate trying to push for more, and Jiang Cheng firmly pushing in away. The seventh date had ended in a hard shove from Nate and an accusation that made Jiang Cheng wish he’d never tried to be normal.

He hadn’t been leading Nate on, not intentionally. And he didn’t know how he could be a tease, when he’d only let Nate kiss him. Once. And hadn’t even reciprocated.

And apparently Nate had run his mouth off to his friends, so the next morning, when Jiang Cheng arrived at school, there were whispers and pointing and a locker full of notes accusing him of everything from being homophobic to just trying to gain social justice points. He’d tried to deal with it on his own, ignoring it as much as he could, until today when someone had taken shoe polish to his locker, covered it in all kinds of slurs and taunts, and the staff had just stood there looking at it, no one bothering to try and clean it up except Wei Ying who had immediately pulled off his button-up and tired to at least smear the words to make them illegible.

He’d been hiding in the bathroom since second period. He refused to let anyone see him cry and he certainly wasn’t going to let them see it at school. He couldn’t even skip for the day, because Wei Ying had driven them here.

Right now all he wanted was Yanli, but she was down in New York.

“Baby bro?”

Wei Ying’s voice echoed through the bathroom. Jiang Cheng tried to wipe the tears from his face as he heard Wei Ying check each stall, but he knew there was no real hiding it. He unlocked the door and stepped out.

Wei Ying immediately engulfed him in a hug. “I’m so sorry, Cheng.”

He tried to smile, tried to shrug it off, but his brother wasn’t having it.

“There’s an emergency assembly going on right now,” he said. “I may have spent the past few hours raising hell in the administration office about how their supposedly open and welcoming school allowed a young student to be harassed for their bisexuality.”

“I don’t know if I’m--”

“Doesn’t matter,” Wei Ying said. “If it's not you, than it's someone else here. You’re whatever you are, and that piece of shit had no right to tell you what you aren’t. Or to pressure you into something you’re not ready for. And the school waited too long to try and contain it. So, assembly.”

“It’s not going to change anything,” Jiang Cheng said.

“Oh, it will if they don’t want it going to the news,” Wei Ying promised. He wiped Jiang Cheng’s face. “I’m sorry your first boyfriend turned out to be an asshole.”

Jiang Cheng shrugged. “I didn’t really like him anyway. And I wouldn’t call him my boyfriend. There’d have to be a relationship for that and I--” He shook his head. “Why can’t I just be like everyone else for once?”

“Fuck normal,” Wei Ying said. “Sure, it might be nice and easy and boring, but you’re fucking extraordinary. And you deserve someone who appreciates that. So fuck the Nates of the world. We’ll find you the best person. And even if you feel like you don’t want a person in your life, not like that, then we’ll find you the best companion.” He shuddered. “Even if it’s a dog.”

He didn’t say anything, he couldn’t, so he just hugged his brother tighter.

“Come on,” Wei Ying said. “We’re going to get milkshakes.”

**********

When they finished classes the next day, an entire crowd had gathered in the parking lot. Jiang Cheng wanted to crawl away and hide as he realized they were all around Wei Ying’s car.

“Is that Yanli?” Wei Ying asked.

It was. It was Yanli in an open chef’s jacket, her hair pulled away from her face, yelling--yelling--at a figure crouched at her feet.

They ran over to her, pushing past the crowd, and Jiang Cheng nearly tripped over his feet as he saw who was on the ground.

Nate. Quivering. He smelled like piss.

“Did he piss his pants?” Wei Ying asked.

“Amazing how little boys with little egos can take destroying someone else’s life because they’re so disappointed when they can’t manipulate someone into helping them get off, but the second they’re called out on their harassment and rightfully called to answer for their crimes, they become quivering little children,” Yanli said.

She sounded almost exactly like Mom. It was terrifying.

“Get up,” she ordered.

Nate did, eyes glued to the ground.

“Look at me,” Yanli ordered. He did. She pointed to Wei Ying. “Now, look at him. And know that the only thing that’s kept you from getting the shit beat out of you, is me. Because he’s been begging to do it for days now.”

Nate blanched as he looked at Wei Ying.

“Now, look at him.” She pointed to Jiang Cheng. “Look at my precious baby brother, who had the good sense and instincts and strength to say no. Look at a sixteen-year-old who has more grace and character than you do at eighteen. Look at him, willing to lower himself to date someone like you, and apologize.”

“I don’t want it,” Jiang Cheng said. “I don’t want anything from him.”

Yanli nodded. “Fair enough.” She sneered at Nate. “Pathetic. Stay away from my family.”

Nate nodded, stumbling off.

Yanli turned to the crowd. “Do I need to speak with anyone else?” she asked. “Or is the message here clear?”

Muttered apologies and nods followed her words.

“Then leave,” she ordered.

**********

“So,” Jiang Cheng said as he finished the story. “That’s my bad ex.”

On the outside, Xichen looked calm. But Jiang Cheng knew his boyfriend, and could hear the plastic starting to crack on the stroller.

“Babe, let the stroller go before you wake up the peachicks.”

Xichen carefully pulled his hands back and turned his glare to the man headed their way.

A Lan Glare was a hard thing to stand against. A Lan Xichen glare? Rare and deadly.

Nate’s steps flattered and he almost went crashing into one of the tables.

Xichen turned to Jiang Cheng and cupped his cheek. “If you’ll excuse me, my love.”

“Don’t get blood on that suit,” Jiang Cheng said. “It’s one of my favorites.”

“What’s Uncle Xichen going to do?” Sizhui asked.

“I think he’s just going to explain to that man it would be his best interest to leave.”

He grinned as Xichen’s movement had caught both Yanli and Wei Ying’s attention.

That poor fucker. It’d been over twenty years, but the pettiest part of Jiang Cheng’s soul couldn’t allow him to feel sorry about the hell that man was going to face. He damn well knew what he was doing, coming to an event with Wei Ying as the honored guest.

And sure, Jiang Cheng could’ve easily fought this battle on his own, but Jin Ling was in the middle of his game, and he had no desire to disturb him.

“Whoa,” Sizhui said. “Auntie Yanli looks pissed.”

“Don’t use that word around your Great-Uncle or you’ll get a lecture,” Jiang Cheng said.

“Jingyi says it all the time,” Sizhui said.

“Jingyi’s got a loud mouth like your dad and a different level of expectations for his behavior. I don’t give a shit if you say it, but your Great-Uncle will.”

Yanli’s voice had risen loud enough to be heard at their table. No one was trying to stop her, not even the Peacock, who had a look of smitten adoration on his face.

“When I told you to stay away from family, there was not a statute of limitations on that order,” she said.

“It’s a free country, I can speak to who I want,” Nate said.

“No,” Xichen said. The coldness of that single word making the other people around them freeze.

Jiang Cheng smiled into his water glass. Tonight was turning out far more entertaining than he'd planned. And for once, it wouldn't be his temper headlining the gossip blogs.

Wei Ying took a loud, audible sniff. “Did someone piss their pants again?” He slapped Nate on the shoulder, hard enough to rock him off his feet. “Nate, have you ever heard of the Lans?”

“I’m not an idiot,” he said, shrugging off Wei Ying’s hand.

“And so, I assume, you’ve heard of the Twin Jades of Lan?” Wei Ying asked. He pointed to Lan Zhan. “May I introduce you to my husband?” He pointed to Xichen. “And our beloved Jiang Cheng’s partner?”

Jiang Cheng would’ve liked to watch the rest of Fool Commits Social Suicide, but Jin Ling had tapped his face.

“Can we get some food now?” He looked over at his cousin when Sizhui pointedly cleared his throat. “Please?” he added.

Jiang Cheng carefully shifted his nephew to the floor. “Boys, I’ve grown a bit bored of this place. What do you say we find some real food?”

His nephews eagerly nodded.

“Jin Ling, you hold on to Sizhui’s hand, okay? Don’t let go, unless it’s to grab mine or to hold onto the stroller.”

“I know,” Jin Ling said. “Can we get pizza?” he asked. “Please,” he quickly added.

“We can get pizza,” Jiang Cheng agreed.

They stopped by the group still gathered in their little stand-off.

“So, we’re leaving to get food,” he said.

“Wait for me,” Wei Ying said, already reaching to undo his tie.

“Wei Ying, you have to stay,” Lan Zhan said, stopping his husband's hands. “There’s the speech.”

“But--”

“You’re honor-bound,” Lan Zhan said.

“We’ll save you a slice,” Jiang Cheng said.

“Pizza?” Wei Ying held a hand to his heart. “You’re ditching me for pizza? Respect.” He turned to his husband. “Please?”

Lan Zhan shook his head.

“I’ll take them all back to my condo,” Jiang Cheng said. He smiled at his brother and sister. “Make a date night of it, you four. Enjoy the kid free time.” He shoved the massive diaper bag that came with caring for the twins into Xichen’s hands. “Let’s go before the tiny humans revolt.”

“Of course,” Xichen said. He took Sizhui’s other hand. “We should just head home. If I order the pizza now it should be there by the time we arrive.”

“May we please have breadsticks?” Sizhui asked.

“Of course,” Xichen said.

Jiang Cheng didn’t spare a thought or a word for Nate. That was his past, part of it he had long ago stopped dwelling on. He was in the present now, with his family around him. There was joy here, as his nephews skipped ahead of them, playing a sidewalk version of the Floor is Lava, and Xichen wrapped an arm around his waist.

He smiled as he looked down at the twins, still fast asleep through it all.

“They’re going to be up all night,” he said.

“I’ll make sure to set up the actual coffee machine and put the brew on a timer.”

“Ah, yes, your one household strength: coffee machines.”

Xichen narrowed his eyes. “I can leave you alone with all four of them.”

“Do it. You and your hand can get nice and reacquainted for the next three months.”

Xichen scoffed. “You think you’d be able to last that long?”

Jiang Cheng smiled up at him. “You really want to find out,” he threatened.

“Nope,” Xichen said. “Never. I will not abandon you to the youths.”

Jiang Cheng kissed him for his smart decision. “What is it you always say? Good behavior gets rewarded.”

“Ew,” Jin Ling said. “Sizhui, they’re kissing again!”

Chapter Text

The Lans weren’t supposed to feel envy or jealousy. And if they did, they were never supposed to show it. Lan Xichen repeated this to himself, over and over again, as he tried to keep a serene smile on his face and a loose hold on his water glass.

It didn’t help that his two closest friends were seated across from him and openly mocking his attempts to keep his composure.

“Jealousy is for those who don’t know trust,” Nie Mingjue said.

“Jealousy is a base emotion that Lans are above,” Meng Yao said.

Nie Mingjue waved a finger. “No, no, what was it?” He turned to Meng Yao. “If you only learned how to properly communicate with each other, you wouldn’t be so jealous over someone else’s past.”

Meng Yao smirked as he delicately gestured with his wine glass. “Don’t forget that it’s completely foolish to be jealous over past lovers when you have someone in the present.”

Xichen suddenly wished he hadn’t convinced Jiang Cheng to invite those two to accompany them to the Firefighters Ball. At the time he thought it would be a good opportunity for all of them to dine together and to keep Jiang Cheng and Meng Yao from openly fighting as they kept trying to verbally cut each other to the quick.

Xichen wondered if he was now being punished in some way for his continued efforts in trying to make Jiang Cheng and Meng Yao reach a state of mutual civility.

Of course his friends did serve as a good distraction for Xichen, who was absolutely not staring down the strange man in the corner who had a far too friendly and familiar hold on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. One Jiang Cheng had not shrugged off yet. A stranger Jiang Cheng was smiling at and laughing with and who he clearly knew very well.

A stranger who, even in the Boston Fire Department’s dress uniform, was obviously very fit. And very tall, taller than Xichen, and who was now coming over here, and--gods above. That was an attractive man.

Mingjue whistled low. Meng Yao froze at the sound before shrugging it off. “I’ll allow it,” he said. “Just this once.”

“If that man isn’t Mr. July in a charity calendar somewhere, I will willingly eat your mother’s take on borscht,” Mingjue said.

Meng Yao smiled at him as he pulled out his phone. “Then prepare for some beet goodness because--” He frowned. “Now that’s just disappointing. You even got the month right.”

Mingjue took his phone. “That man’s abs have abs.” He looked over at Xichen and tilted his head to the side as if studying him like some fascinating bug.

“If you are daring to compare my physique to that of a professional firefighter right now, I’m going to sic Yanli on you,” Xichen vowed.

Meng Yao wound himself under Mingjue’s arm to look at the phone and then up at the men coming towards them.

“They didn’t even use photoshop. His eyes really are that green,” he said.

Xichen snatched the phone out of Mingjue’s hands and shoved it under a napkin.

“Will I get it back at the end of class, Headmaster?” Mingjue asked.

Xichen truly needed to devote some serious time to finding a different best friend.

“And here we are,” Jiang Cheng said. He leaned down to kiss Xichen’s cheek. “You okay, baby? You look upset?”

“He does look a little green,” Meng Yao agreed.

“No one asked you, Satan,” Jiang Cheng said.

“Satan?” the man asked. “Come on, Cheng. That’s cold.”

He had a deep voice. With a thick Southie accent. A true Boston boy, born and bred.

“It’s true,” Jiang Cheng said as he straightened up. He kept his hands on Xichen’s shoulder and his eyes on Meng Yao who just smiled at him.

“Still wicked rude,” the man said. “Some things never change.” He held one of his massive hands out. “I’m Aidan,” he said. “Aidan Delaney.”

**********

Aidan Delaney was a veteran firefighter, one of the many honored tonight, for helping to save a group of children from an on-fire school bus.

Aidan Delaney came from a large, loving family who took up two entire tables and cheered loud enough to shake the room when he accepted his award.

Aidan Delaney was a charismatic man who obviously had his own fanclub and was well known among the firefighter community as he was quickly pulled away from their conservation earlier by another group begging for his attention.

Aidan Delaney was Jiang Cheng’s ex-boyfriend.

“The viper just got wine all over me,” Jiang Cheng said as he tried to mop up the mess Meng Yao had made when he spit his wine out at that bit of news.

“It was a bit of a shock,” Xichen said, even as he dabbed at Jiang Cheng’s suit. “It was not expected at least.”

“Even I didn’t know about this,” Mingjue said. “Which means Huaisang didn’t know.”

“Some of us know how to keep our private lives private,” Jiang Cheng said. “And we only dated for a year.”

Still that was an entire year. One that Jiang Cheng had protected--hidden--or else everyone would’ve known about it. There was no way Jiang Cheng, the heir to Jiang Industries, could’ve gone a year--an entire year--dating someone and no one would have found out.

“What happened?” he asked.

Jiang Cheng blinked at him in surprise. “Do we need to discuss demisexuality again?”

No, no, Xichen understood that, and understood Jiang Cheng’s struggle in defining his own sexuality until he’d found there were so many other people like him out in the world.

But a year was an investment.

“It was a lifetime ago,” he said. “When I was still at Harvard. I was doing volunteer work down in Quincy and his grandmother was living down at Wolly Beach then. We had that long train ride, from Harvard Square down to Wollaston and back. Always seemed to end up in the same car or in line next to each other at the Dunkies down on Newport. So we got to talking and then he asked me out and--I said yes. Because he didn’t know who I was, didn’t have a single clue, just knew me as Cheng, that Harvard kid,” he said, dropping the r’s.

“Fuck,” Mingjue said. “You never told him who you were.”

Jiang Cheng nodded. “He didn’t know I was one of those Jiangs, even though I’m almost positive some of his family still works for us. And he didn’t know Yanli or Wei Ying, so I didn’t have to compete with, or being compared to them. He liked me for who I was, or part of who I was, but in the end, it was two different worlds.”

There was no way Madame Yu would’ve accepted a working-class Southie firefighter into her family.

“Did he ever find out?” Xichen asked.

Jiang Cheng nodded. “Years later after we broke up for other reasons. He was so pissed. I never knew Aidan could get that angry. Said he could take the fact that I was in love with someone else, but the lying by omission? That I made him feel like he was working-class trash. Which is what I was trying to prevent, but the road to hell and all that bullshit.”

Their table had grown quiet, especially the other side, where similar misunderstandings had caused years of heartbreak.

“And on that pleasant note,” Mingjue said as he stood. “I think it’s time to leave before this gets even more depressing.”

He held out Meng Yao’s coat for him and let his fingers linger on his shoulders as Meng Yao buttoned up Mingjue’s own.

They’d come a very long way, but Xichen knew tonight would inevitably drag up some bad memories.

“Call me when you get home,” Xichen said.

“Always do,” Mingjue said. He nodded at Jiang Cheng. “Thanks for the dinner.”

“The Firefighters Relief Fund appreciates your generous donation for tonight’s event,” Jiang Cheng quoted. “Now, get the hell out of here.”

They both stayed quiet as they watched the others leave.

“I’ll never like that snake,” Jiang Cheng said. “But it’s damn good seeing Mingjue happy. Weird, but good.”

He took Xichen’s hand in his own and raised it for a kiss. “You about ready to go?”

Xichen had been ready for hours now. He knew these events were part of their lives, part of Jiang Cheng’s job, part of Xichen’s own as head of the family, but he just wanted to go home to their pets and their bed and their own little world.

“Yes,” he said. “Let’s go home.”

**********

Xichen still couldn’t believe he got to have him, this gorgeous, contrary, loving man who gave all of himself over to Xichen. Xichen watched him now, the straining of Jiang Cheng’s arms from where they bound to their headboard, that blue tie forever ruined now, but a worthy sacrifice. His eyes followed down to the angle of his neck, head tilted back as he gasped for breath, his entire body still shaking and twitching with aftershocks. It was a tempting sight, that jawline, that neck, the divot of his throat, but Xichen’s eyes traveled lower. To the rings through Jiang Cheng’s nipples, the right one its standard purple. The left one a stark electric blue. The lotus blossom tattoo over his heart. Then lower, to the mess all across his toned stomach, his cock spent, his hips still rocking up because Xichen still had his fingers buried inside him.

“Fuck,” Jiang Cheng cursed. “Xichen, just fucking fuck me already.”

Xichen hummed as he pulled his fingers out. He wanted something else now.

“No, I don’t think I shall,” he said. He pulled off his hair tie and let his hair fall down loose around them. He shifted until he could lick up the mess Jiang Cheng had made of himself.

He was answered with a round of soft fucks falling from that beloved mouth as he tried to pull away from and push up into Xichen’s touch. Jiang Cheng was truly a wonder when he was so oversensitive.

He shifted again once he’d finished there, sliding his body up Jiang Cheng’s own. He paid his respects to the purple ring, ending with a soft kiss. To the blue--his ring, his blue--he bit down and tugged hard.

Words had left Jiang Cheng, his feet were sliding on their sheets, as he’d been reduced to grunts and whimpers.

A sucking bruise to the divot of this throat. A sharp bite to his neck. A little nibble to his jawline. He blindly reached up and tugged Jiang Cheng’s hands free.

He leaned into Jiang Cheng’s gentle touch as those hands cradled his face.

“Are you up for the challenge?” Xichen asked.

Jiang Cheng laughed, that soft, deep one Xichen only heard in their bed. “You couldn’t have decided you wanted to ride me before?”

Xichen stole a kiss. And another. And another.

Jiang Cheng sighed, his fingers sliding through Xichen’s hair, tangling the ends together.

“Let me watch you,” he said.

Xichen pushed himself up to his knees, settling over him. He reached for the lube and watched Jiang Cheng watch him as he started to prepare himself.

“Beautiful,” Jiang Cheng said, eyes locked on Xichen’s own. Soft words from usually such a harsh tongue.

There was a time, in his first relationship, when Xichen didn’t want another’s eyes on him. He’d preferred sex then with the lights out and more clothes on than off and it wasn’t because of modesty or shame. It was because David had a way of making Xichen feel insignificant even at his most vulnerable and open. It was easier to keep the lights low, so he didn’t have to look into eyes that always seemed to find him wanting.

With Meng Yao--they would always crave different things. Meng Yao preferred to be harshly, almost painfully, broken and then slowly and softly put back together. It was exhausting for Xichen, always worried he’d actually hurt him and then often one or both of them were left unsatisfied. They’d tried but in some ways, some things, they’d been incompatible with no way to fix it.

Absolute trust really did make a world of difference.

Xichen felt safe with Jiang Cheng. He could be open and vulnerable and completely free. Laughter here meant joy, not mockery. Or rather, a little mockery but always followed with forgiving kisses and touches. There was no judgment in those eyes, always love, often wonder, and so much desire that it made Xichen burn even when they were doing something as mundane as walking Sugar.

Xichen gasped and rocked forward as two of Jiang Cheng’s fingers slid in beside his own. He hissed out a breath and pushed back, wanting them deeper.

“Let me,” Jiang Cheng said.

Xichen pulled his own fingers out and rested both of his hands on Jiang Cheng’s chest, let him finish, let him give what he knew Xichen wanted. What he needed.

Later he would pull Xichen down onto him and Xichen would wrap around him, and clutch him as close as he could. Later, he would slam one hand against the wall for leverage, rattling the painting above the bed, while Jiang Cheng fucked up into him as hard as he could manage in their current position. Later he would fiercely whisper a mantra over and over and over again.

Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me. Don’t you ever dare fucking leave me.

And he would be answered with a vow.

I’m here. We’re here. I’ve got you. You’ll never get rid of me.

**********

“Satisfied that you’ve made your claim clear?” Jiang Cheng asked.

Xichen kissed the lotus blossom tattooed over his heart and said nothing.

“You never had--will never have--anything to worry about,” Jiang Cheng said, his fingers playing in Xichen’s hair.

“You like him,” Xichen said. “Still.”

And that’s the part that Xichen struggled with because if Jiang Cheng had let himself fall, if Aidan had insisted that they could make it work--where would they be? Would they have ever been?

“He’s a good man,” Jiang Cheng said. “And after two bad attempts at relationships and a slew of unsatisfying hook-ups, he was a patient, kind, and understanding person who tried his damndest to make me desire him and to fall in love with him, and never, not once, resented me when I couldn’t reciprocate. In the end, he wanted things I couldn’t give him, no matter how much he wished for it or how hard we tried. I could never be who he wanted me to be. It never would’ve worked between us for a lot of reasons, but three main ones.”

“Which were?” Xichen asked.

“He’s allergic to dogs.”

That would indeed be a problem for Jiang Cheng. The memory of giving up his boyhood dogs still haunted him. He adored Sugar, and his cats, but Sugar was the queen of them all. They only reason he didn’t have more dogs was because of the lack of space and out of respect for his brother.

Xichen was already consulting with Sugar’s breeder, trainer, and Wei Ying, to pick the next one. There was plenty of space at his home, especially with the new fence being installed.

Jiang Cheng shifted, rolled on to his side to face him, and ran a finger down Xichen’s cheek.

“He wanted the whole nine yards,” he said. “The fancy, extravagant wedding and the white picket fence and the kids; especially the kids. I couldn’t deny him that.”

They both loved being uncles. They also both loved when they got to give the tiny humans back to their keepers. Xichen had never wanted kids of his own, something Jiang Cheng was in perfect agreement with, and neither one of them had regrets over that choice. Maybe, one day, they’d foster older children, but for now they were both content with themselves and the pets.

“And,” Jiang Cheng said, tugging Xichen closer, “the most important one.”

“Yes?” Xichen asked.

“He wasn’t you.”

Xichen would not cry. He wouldn’t. Even if this night had felt like it’d lasted for an entire year. Even if part of him was still scared, and very vulnerable, and dwelling on what could've have been. What he could've lost. And he'd never even known he'd lost the chance.

“I love you, dumbass,” Jiang Cheng. “You’re my prince charming, always have been, always will be. And I’ll settle for nothing less than the absolute best.”

“No pressure,” Xichen said.

“Once your heart’s decided to calm the fuck down and not pound out of your chest, we are going to talk about your absolute hypocrisy in this situation,” Jiang Cheng said. He ran a soothing hand down Xichen’s spine. “I mean, you know I hate that fucking viper and yet just because your best friend had to go and marry the fucker, I’m forced to interact with him on the regular. You don’t see me inviting my exes over for brunch.”

Xichen knew it wasn’t fair, but he did not want Mr. Delaney in their condo. Or their house. But he’d do it, if Jiang Cheng wanted it.

“You could--”

“Oh, shut the fuck up,” Jiang Cheng said. “You’re ridiculous.” He kissed the top of Xichen’s head. “And adorable. I can’t believe you’re jealous over a firefighter from Southie.”

“You liked him--like him,” Xichen said.

“And you’d like him too if you can just get over the fact that we dated,” Jiang Cheng said. “He’s very community and charity-minded.”

“Such a little saint,” Xichen muttered.

“Xichen!” Jiang Cheng chastised him with a full-body laugh. “Honestly, baby, you’ve got nothing to worry about. There is no competition. You won. You won then and you’ve won now.”

A canine whimper and a scratch at the door meant their time alone had come to an end.

“Now go walk our furry child. I’m taking a shower,” he said.

**********

Sibling Saturday often took place in one of their homes, but today’s session was at Yanli’s restaurant. Lan Jingyi had come to the city for a weekend and Yanli, having heard about his bordering addiction to fried chicken, had decided to test out a few different breading recipes on him. The rest of them were there for whatever Jingyi didn’t devour.

“So,” Wei Ying said. “I heard you met Aidan.”

Xichen tried to smile and failed. He nodded instead.

“Yeah, he’s a bit much isn’t he?”

“Thank you,” Xichen said with a nod. “Anyone that nice has to be hiding something.”

Wei Ying gave him a friendly shove. “That’s what I said, but Cheng said I was being paranoid and looking for problems where there weren’t any and that I should stop trying to make everything in my life into the plot of my next mystery novel. But, come on.” He slid closer. “Do you think Mingjue would do a background check on him? Just for shits and giggles?”

If Xichen asked he would never, ever live it down.

“Ask Huaisang to do it,” he said. “It might take longer, but he’ll get more concrete results.”

Jiang Cheng pushed them apart. “You,” he said, pointing to his brother. “Go help your husband with the kids.”

“But--”

“Go,” Jiang Cheng ordered. He took Wei Ying’s spot and turned to Xichen with an unimpressed look on his face. “And you need to evaluate the fact that you’re agreeing with my brother. Remember when he almost burned down a cabin as a kid with nothing but mentos and diet coke--something scientifically impossible? Remember when he filled the whole fountain at Jin Manor with yellow Jell-O? Remember when he dyed your uncle’s beard bright pink? That is the man you’re looking to for validation of your conspiracy theory for a dude you met last night.”

Put together like that, it did sound horrible.

“I love you,” Xichen tried.

“You’re such a fucking mess sometimes,” Jiang Cheng said. “Poor Lans with all these emotions you’re not supposed to have and you don’t know how to rationally deal with.” He kissed Xichen’s forehead. “You’re precious.”

Xichen would take precious, gladly, if it got him that soft smile.

Chapter Text

The Lans didn’t celebrate Christmas for the most part. Outside of a few adjacent-Lans and some married-ins, they weren’t Christian. They did try to incorporate as many holidays as they could for their vast student body over the winter break. And living in America it was impossible not to be slapped in the face by everything Christmas even before Thanksgiving, but Lan Xichen had never had a Christmas tree inside his house until now. Or a wreath on his door for that matter, but he’d come home to a package from L.L. Bean yesterday containing a live wreath. Sent from Madame Yu. He took it as her approval, but part of him still wondered if it was some sort of pine-scented threat.

The Jiangs weren’t Christian either, but Madame Yu loved the holiday. Almost notoriously loved it. Her normal understated classic taste apparently disappeared as soon as December hit. Xichen had seen the pictures. The woman loved multi-colored, borderline garish, Christmas decorations. And her children had grown up with that tradition. He’d seen the small tree Jiang Cheng kept his condo. Xichen wanted him to have that here as well.

So last night he went to the local grocer and bought one of the trees they sold. It was just a little one in a pretty gold pot that could be planted once the season was over. It came with its own packet of ornaments, but Xichen frowned down at them. They were too generic, not personal, and Xichen had purchased this for someone.

He looked over at the cats who were staring at him from their window-seat beds.

“I’m going to need to go shopping, aren’t I?” he asked.

Nutmeg just turned her back on him and started licking herself, but Pepper trilled and came over to him. She hopped from the floor to the chair to the counter. She rubbed up against his hand, ran her face there, once, twice, then sat back and with one her massive paws, knocked the tiny pack of ornaments to the ground.

“Clearly someone has an opinion,” he said. He still dropped a kiss on her head and fished out a treat for her.

He already planned to go out for a tiny set of lights, he could easily find some ornaments as well.

*********

“If you get him a bunch of fancy-ass ornaments, he’s going to get pissy. We can just go to Target.”

“We will go to Target,” Xichen said to his best friend. “And quench your apparent thirst for a, what do they call it, Target Run. But first, I’d like to try and support a small business.”

Nie Mingjue sighed. “I can’t even make fun of you for that.This is why they want you to run for mayor.”

“I’m very happy as headmaster,” Xichen said as he pushed opened the wooden door of Mountains and Mole Hills.

“Do you at least have a theme?” Mingjue asked. He unconsciously hunched his broad shoulders, trying to make himself smaller in the small, overpacked store.

It was very much like trying to watch a bull tiptoe through a Christmas-themed china shop.

“Animals, nature, and the like,” Xichen said. “But...natural looking. I want it to be unique to us.”

“Holy shit, you’re going to make him a dog themed christmas tree,” Mingjue said.

“Not just dogs,” Xichen said. “Birds too. Deers. And cats. Maybe.”

Mingjue grabbed something and put it in their basked. Xichen said nothing as he spotted the small, cloth fox.

“Not a fucking word,” Mingjue said as he put a wolf and a pig in there too.

“Don’t you need one for Xuanyu as well?”

Mingjue looked around the store. “Do you think they have unicorns?”

“Go,” Xichen said, waving him off.

He wandered over to the wall of ornaments, looking for something that grabbed him. Despite what the’d told Mingjue, he really didn’t have a theme. The tree wasn’t that big, so he didn’t need that many, but he wanted something for them.

A collection of agate ornaments caught his eye, so he selected one purple and one blue. Predictable, yes, but it was still them. A badger in a scarf, for their Hufflepuff jokes. A cabin ornament for Maine. None of the cat ornaments quite represented their cats, so he just grabbed the cutest one, same with the dog ornaments. Lastly he grabbed a small collection of mini ornaments. He looked over his basket and nodded in approval at what he’d collected.

He found Mingjue with a stuffed unicorn under one arm and a set of his own ornaments.

“Not a single fucking word,” he hissed as Xichen smiled at him.

**********

Xichen was just shutting down his computer for the weekend when the familiar commotion that signaled the start of his weekend began outside his office.

“How is she extra fluffy today?” Maria asked.

“Just picked her up from the groomers,” Jiang Cheng said.

“And look at her little bow!” Ali said.

“She smells sweet too!” Maria said.

Xichen laughed to himself as he pulled on his coat and scarf. He closed and locked his office and joined the group gathered around Sugar.

“Hey, babe,” Jiang Cheng said, giving him a quick, soft kiss. The best kiss to start the weekend. One that promised more.

“Good afternoon, my love,” he said.

“Cats didn’t kill you, I see,” Jiang Cheng said.

“They’ve been perfectly well behaved,” Xichen said.

They had to have a discussion about the orchids and Xichen had to google how to keep cats away from an area that involved him having to figure out how to make a peppermint spray, but they’d all survived in the end, even with the overwhelming smell of peppermint. It was festive, he supposed.

“You’re such a bad liar,” Jiang Cheng said.

“They’ve been mostly well behaved,” he corrected.

After they pulled Sugar away from her admirers, Xichen relaxed for the drive home, his hand reaching back between the seats to scratch Sugar’s head. Such a small part of his weekend, but one of the best parts.

At the house they let Sugar run free and Jiang Cheng went to greet his cats. Xichen lingered in the foyer as he took off his shoes, coat, and scarf. He lingered and waited and was soon rewarded.

“Xichen?”

His boyfriend’s voice sounded soft, tremulous, in awe.

Xichen smiled to himself. A job well done then.

Xichen wrapped his arms around Jiang Cheng’s waist. He was frozen in front of the tree, Nutmeg cradled in his arms.

“I figured,” Xichen said, kissing the soft skin behind Jiang Cheng’s ear. “I figured we could have our own tradition. We’ll plant this one when the season’s over, or when the ground is soft enough, and get another one next year. And the year after that, and so on and so forth. And then one day, when we’re old and grey, we’ll look out our bedroom window and see the roots of our personal forest.

A shudder went through Jiang Cheng. He carefully placed Nutmeg down and turned in his arms.

“I love you so fucking much,” Jiang Cheng said.

“I love you too,” Xichen said.

Xichen was all for making new traditions, their own traditions. And he was happy to start here, in their kitchen, with their pets around them, and a tree representing years to come beside them.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng knew it was stupid. They’d already gotten married. His husband had, apparently, been proposing to him since weeks into their relationship. He had his own Lan ribbon now, as a spouse, as the partner of the head of the family and the clan. He’d proposed with his own purple hair ribbon that day in Lan Xichen’s office partly as a joke, partly because it was either that or a rubber band, and partly to match the Lan’s traditions as much as he could in the moment. The purple hair ribbon was something Xichen could understand and hold on to and keep with him. And he did. He’d often found the ribbon wrapped around Xichen’s wrist after he returned from a business trip or a week in Boston. He knew if it wasn’t wrapped around Xichen’s wrist or tucked away in his pocket, it was reverently kept with his Lan forehead ribbon and hair ornaments, as something precious. Something scared.

But that hair ribbon wasn’t made of the same strong material as the Lan ribbons. Eventually it would fade and fray. So Jiang Cheng wanted to give him something more. And perhaps it was more traditional, in being that it was ring. And perhaps it was pointless, being in that they both already wore wedding bands, but it still killed Jiang Cheng a little bit to realize his husband had been wanting this for so long, and had said nothing, because he thought Jiang Cheng didn’t want that level of final commitment. Never mind that in all other legal senses they were already basically married then, never mind that they were in each other’s wills, were their medical contacts, shared bills and checking and savings accounts. His husband had wanted a wedding, and had held off, and never asked for it, because he thought asking for it might be the one time Jiang Cheng refused him.

That precious, stupid, wonderful fucking idiot he loved with every last part of his heart and soul.

“Isn’t it a little late for the ring shopping?” Nie Huaisang asked.

Jiang Cheng probably should have brought anyone but his best friend. However, Huaisang really did have the best taste out of everyone he knew and would be honest in his opinions.

“It’s a gesture,” he said.

“You’re going to make him cry,” Huaisang said. “Niagara Falls cry.”

“He’s not going to cry,” Jiang Cheng said, knowing there was a good chance Xichen was absolutely going to cry. “Who knows? He might throw it back in my face and ask where it was nine years ago.”

Huaisang laughed behind his fan. A pastel and holographic one that somehow still looked classy. Xuanyu’s work then.

“It’s not funny,” he said.

“It is if you really think Lan Xichen would refuse any gift you ever gave him. You could probably give him pencil shards and he’d find some way to encase them in resin and make a paperweight.”

Jiang Cheng was offended on behalf of his husband, even if he could recognize some truth in those words. There was a reason though that Xichen clung on to anything that resembled love and affection, and that reason, because of that fuck-up that was his biological father, would always make Jiang Cheng’s blood boil.

“He is not that sentimental,” he said.

“Cinnamon has her own scrapbook,” Huaisang said.

She did and it was a marvelous piece of artistic work that Jiang Cheng would not hear a single word against. Wei Ying had helped Xichen make that scrapbook. It was a family tradition now.

“He’d never raised a pet before,” he said. “He wanted to keep track of everything in case there was a next time. And there was with Honey, Clove, and Ginger.”

“You two and your animals,” Huaisang said.

“You have your own pig,” Jiang Cheng said.

“And she’s glorious,” Huaisang said as he pulled him into the jewelry store.

**********

There were too many choices and yet not enough.

Some were too plain. Some far too gaudy. Others were nice, but wouldn’t match with their platinum wedding bands. Huasiang was intrigued by one that essentially looked like a watch band, but they both dismissed it for Xichen.

Xichen was elegant, not flashy. He didn’t want, wouldn’t want, a cluster of diamonds or something so obvious. He’d cherish a plain band, of course, but Jiang Cheng needed this to be special. Needed to show that he’d thought about it, and he had, even if it was after the fact.

Huaisang then paused in that way that always reminded Jiang Cheng of a hunting dog who had found its prey.

“How predictable do you want to be?” he asked.

Jiang Cheng walked over to see what he found.

Oh.

“I mean, it is very on brand for the both of you sentimental fools,” Huaisang said. “And I’m sure we can talk to one of their designers about possible different stones. You’ll have to pay out of the nose for natural purple diamonds, but I doubt you’d settle for amethyst.”

“Not this time,” he agreed.

“We can get this one for you too, if you’re okay with just plain old sapphires, though we might be able to get blue diamonds,” Huaisang said. “Unless you’re not--”

“Just call the designer over here,” Jiang Cheng said.

“If he ever finds out how much you’re about to drop on this,” Huaisang said.

“He won’t,” Jiang Cheng said. And he found that comment rich from a man who had built Xuanyu his own backyard skating rink as a pre-engagement present . “Besides, unlike some people I don’t drop my disposable income on Gucci Crocs.”

“They were Balenciaga,” Huaisang said. “And they almost made me as tall as you.”

“Almost,” Jiang Cheng said and reached over to pat the top of Huaisang’s head. “But not quite, Baby Spice.”

Honestly the harsh slap he got from the fan? Worth it.

**********

Jiang Cheng was out on the encased part of the back patio. Their three dogs were with him. Sugar, still the queen, even as age had finally started to slow her down. Honey, the middle child, and far more Xichen’s dog than his. She loved Jiang Cheng too, but she followed Xichen around the house at all times and sat at the door for hours after he left. Ginger, their new puppy and the youngest of all their pets, slept in his lap.

He knew Xichen was home before his car even pulled into the drive. Honey had a habit of darting off from wherever she was resting and running to the door as soon as his car turned onto their street, and she’d just shot up from her place and plopped down in the foyer.

He carefully shifted Ginger off his lap and placed her down next to Sugar.

“Keep an eye on her,” he said, scratching the top of her head.

He found Xichen in the foyer, crouched down and hugging Honey. He leaned on the kitchen counter and watched them, his heart so full it almost stole his breath.

How did he ever get this lucky?

“So the PTA didn’t destroy you this time,” he said.

“A near thing,” Xichen said as he stood, Honey in his arms. He walked over to him and gave him a quick kiss. “Good evening, my love.”

“Hi,” Jiang Cheng said. He tilted his head towards the patio. “The rest of the canine brood is out there, but someone had to be the first to greet you.”

“Jealous?” Xichen teased.

He shrugged. “Honey can get first cuddle dibs. I always win in the end.”

Xichen kissed him again before walking out to the patio, the sweet words he used to greet the other dogs drifting back into the kitchen.

Jiang Cheng took the box he had hidden in the drawer with some of the loose kitchen utensils and joined the others on the patio. Xichen had taken over his spot, Honey on one side and Ginger in his lap.

“She’s sleeping so much more these days,” Xichen said, eyes on Sugar.

“She’s an old dame,” Jiang Cheng said. “She gets to do whatever she wants now.”

He cradled Xichen’s face in his palms, tilted his chin up for a deep, searching kiss, smiling as he tasted traces of chocolate and mint. He then slid down to his knees.

“What are you--”

He pulled out the ring box.

“--doing,” Xichen said, words ending in a hush.

“I need you to know that I didn’t propose to you that first time just because I’d been faced with the reality that you’d been proposing to me since months into our relationship. I need you to know that I didn’t agree to our wedding just because it was something you wanted. I need you to know that I’ve considered us forever since the first time I left the pets here, in your care, trusting you with all the things I love and hold dear. I need you to know that if you had asked me, at any point, to marry you in words and gestures I understood, I would have always said yes. Without hesitation. That you are the only one--will ever be the only one--for me.”

He opened the box. A platinum band with five purple diamonds spaced throughout the ring. His own had five sapphires. Combined for the ten years they’d been together.

“So this is late, and I’m forever an asshole because of it--because I didn’t see it when you needed it--and even though we already are, will you marry me?”

“Get up here right now,” Xichen ordered.

“The rings.”

“Right now.”

There were tears in his eyes and his hand did tremble just like it had on their wedding day, but he was laughing too, just like he had then. And Jiang Cheng knew he wasn’t much better, held tight in Xichen’s arms as soft kisses were placed over and over again along his hairline, his ear, his cheek.

“Yes,” Xichen finally said. “Forever yes.”

Chapter Text

Their days were mostly spent in the Berkshires now, at their home on Lan Property, but with all the holiday parties and the long winter break to come, it meant Jiang Cheng had to do the round of December Social Obligations in Boston. Qingyang was doing an amazing job as COO of Jiang Industries, but Jiang Cheng was still the CEO and majority owner, and his presence meant something more.

Xichen knew they only had two more weekends of this and then they’d pack the pets up and make the long trip to Martha’s Vineyard for the Jiang Holiday Extravaganza. Logic told him he should be thankful for this quiet time with just the two of them alone together. And he was, but it was far too quiet here, and it made him feel unsettled. A far cry from the early days when he’d banished all the pets from the bedroom just to get an hour alone with his boyfriend.

“It’s too quiet,” Xichen said as he laid down next to the large fake tree Jiang Cheng kept in the Boston condo. He missed their tiny live tree, but it made no sense to keep a real one here in the condo.

“That’s the problem with having an entire menagerie in your home,” Jiang Cheng said as he joined him. He straddled Xichen’s lap and made himself comfortable. “You forget what quiet means.”

“I don’t like it this quiet,” Xichen said.

He was beautiful, always, but under the glow of the Christmas lights, Jiang Cheng’s natural beauty became ethereal, the light catching on that strong jaw, those sharp cheekbones, tempting Xichen closer and closer.

Jiang Cheng suddenly started laughing. The loud, uncontrollable kind with his whole body, and sat back, resting on Xichen’s propped up knees.

Unbelievably beautiful.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he stuttered out between laughs. “I just got the worst pick-up line in my head.”

Xichen ran his fingers under Jiang Cheng’s shirt, rested them on his warm skin, felt the muscles contract under his hand as his body shook with laughter.

“You have to tell me now,” Xichen said.

“I will,” Jiang Cheng said, rubbing at his eyes where tears had started to fall. “Okay,” he said, more to himself. He shook his hands out and laid them back on Xichen’s chest. “Okay,” he repeated.

Xichen waited, like the patient Lan he’d been raised to be.

Jiang Cheng’s lips were still twitching, Xichen could see how hard he was trying to be serious, but as soon as Jiang Cheng leaned in closer, he burst out laughing again.

Xichen just shook his head as the joyous sound filled the condo, his heart so full of love at the sight of Jiang Cheng overcome with laughter..

“Okay,” Jiang Cheng said, shaking his hands out again. “Okay, for real this time.”

“Ready when you are,” Xichen said, holding steady.

Jiany Cheng leaned down, lips hovering next to Xichen’s ear, his loose hair pushed to the side.

Xichen held his breath, uncertain as to why. It’s not like they weren’t a sure thing, but there would always be something about having Jiang Cheng so close, but not close enough.

“Wanna make some noise together?” he whispered into Xichen’s ear.

The laughter that over took Xichen was like a punch. A sudden burst up from his belly and through his whole body.

“I know,” Jiang Cheng said. “I know, I’m sorry.”

“Come here,” Xichen said, pulling him down, wanting that laughter to fill him, mix with his own, keep him warm forever. “Come here and kiss me.”

The condo was still too lonely and too quiet for Xichen’s liking, but in their little corner, under the glow of the multi-colored lights, it was warm, and happy, and full of life.

Chapter Text

“You’re just--you’re just going to bring him? To Lotus Pier? Just like that? You don’t want to maybe wait until next year? Are you---are you sure he can handle it?”

Jiang Cheng stared at his brother over their lunch table.

Wei Ying rubbed his nose and shrugged. “Don’t look at me like that. It’s not about Xichen. You know I love him, and you with him. You two together. But you also know how your mom is this time of year. You know the Lans don’t celebrate Christmas. Even with their basic knowledge of it, there’s having to dodge all the red bows and garlands and santas in the store and then there’s Lotus Pier at Christmas. It’s a neon animatronic freak show that punches you in the face, steals your pride and your lunch money, and then dropkicks you once more for good measure with the holiday spirit.”

“She’s not that bad,” he said.

His mother was enthusiastic about Christmas, perhaps aggressively so to some degree, but she could be reasoned with--bartered with at the very least. The singing stuffed cats in place of the musical nativity set that played ‘What Child Is This?’ for example. Stuffed animals in place of the actual lambs she was tempted to buy for little Yuan’s first holiday season with them. Mistletoe only placed on the main pathways of the house and not every five feet. She could make compromises when met with better offers or a convincing argument.

Few things in this world made his mother truly giddy, but something about Christmas did, and they’d all grown up indulging her. Granted it had turned their mother into a bit of Holly Jolly Yuletide Monster, but that meant she could be easily distracted by anything that lit-up and played a Christmas carol.

“We both have two full weeks off. Two full weeks we intend to spend together,” Jiang Cheng said. “So, it was either deal with Mom’s increasingly dramatic speeches about me abandoning the family and our traditions because of my demands over Thanksgiving or drag Xichen to Lotus Pier, slap a Santa hat on his head, and tell him to keep calm and merry on.”

Wei Ying whistled low.

"What?" Jiang Cheng demanded.

“Nothing," Wei Ying said, fidgeting with his napkin. "Just, you might want to ask Mingjue if you can borrow some of his homemade brew. Xichen might need it to get through the next two weeks. Does he know almost all of the Jiangs and the Yus will be there? To stare at him? The only person you’ve ever brought home for the holidays?”

“They’ll only all be there for Christmas Eve and Day. And New Year’s. The rest of the time they’re at their own homes,” Jiang Cheng said.

He had, in fact, kept that small, truly insignificant detail from Xichen. Even combined the Jiangs and Yus couldn’t hold a candle to the seemingly unending amount of Lans. The biggest difference was, well, the Yus were loudly opinionated and unafraid to show it and the Jiangs were either like Yanli or like...him.

“He’ll be fine,” he said, more to himself than Wei Ying. Xichen was charming. All he had to do was nod and smile and he’d win most of the family over.

His brother scoffed. “Better ask Mingjue for two bottles of that home brew.”

Wei Ying absolutely deserved to get Jiang Cheng’s napkin thrown at him, but he also had a point.

He’d call Mingjue as soon as lunch was over.

**********

“Zhan,” Lan Xichen said in surprise at finding his little brother in his kitchen. “I wasn’t expecting you today.”

“Yuan wanted to visit Jingyi,” he explained. He finished rearranging Xichen’s orchids, like he always did when he visited. “And I came to prepare you.”

“Prepare me?” Xichen asked in confusion. “Prepare me for what?"

Zhan pulled a dvd case out of his coat pocket and handed it to him.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” Xichen read out the title. “What’s this?”

“While done for comedic effect, of all the general holiday films out there, I felt this was the one that would best prepare you for Christmas at Lotus Pier. Once it’s done there is a series, I believe called Crazy Christmas Lights, that we will also watch for your preparation.”

His brother could be hilariously funny and sarcastic when he was in a mood, but this was not a joke. His face and eyes both showed that he was completely serious.

“It can’t be that bad,” he said even as he followed Zhan into the living room.

His brother shook his head. “That’s what I thought. And then I saw the polar bears.”

“The what?” Xichen asked.

“They sing and play instruments, like those bears at Disney World,” Zhan said.

Lan Xichen froze in place. “Madame Yu has her own Christmas version of the Country Bears Jamboree?” he asked.

“Polar bears,” Zhan corrected as he took the dvd case from Xichen’s lax grip.

**********

The drive had been long. The boat trip had been uneventful. Lotus Pier remained one of the most beautiful places Jiang Cheng had ever seen in his life as long as he didn't look at their backyard. Xichen still hadn’t started a running sprint towards the ocean to escape, so Jiang Cheng felt that so far it could all be counted as a success.

“Baby, you need to breathe,” he said once he’d parked the car.

“Is this the right time to mention your mother terrifies more than any person or thing I’ve ever encountered in my life,” Xichen said, clutching Pepper’s carrier in his lap.

“That’s just your natural sense of survival,” Jiang Cheng said. “It’s my cousins you really have to be careful around.”

No one could prove that Yu Jinzhu and Yu Yinzhu were professional assassins, but no one could disprove it either. It was one of Wei Ying’s more sensible conspiracy theories.

He leaned across the seat and kissed Xichen’s forehead. “Besides, my mother likes you. Even more, she likes and approves of you. You’re going to be fine.”

“Right, of course,” Xichen said, nodding. He still had a white-knuckle hold on Pepper’s carrier and the fabric was reaching its breaking point.

Jiang Cheng put his hands over Xichen’s own and held them there until Xichen’s entire body relaxed.

“Okay?” he asked.

Xichen nodded again. “Should I also mention I can’t stand your father?”

“Hey,” Jiang Cheng said with a true smile. “That makes two of us.”

Xichen did not laugh. Instead his eyes narrowed as he took in the backyard. “Is that...is that an inflatable Santa and his sleigh and reindeer?”

Jiang Cheng took a deep breath.

“So, here’s the thing,” he said as he unlocked the car doors. “Mom has a bit of a collection.”

**********

There was a tiny elf sitting on the mantle of the fireplace in their bedroom. Logically Xichen knew it was a toy or decorative object and its eyes couldn’t possibly be following him and yet he wondered if Jiang Cheng would be horribly insulted if he hid it in the back of their wardrobe.

“Oh fuck,” Jiang Cheng said as he came into the room . “That fucking creepy ass thing. I thought I got rid of them all already. Where the fuck did this one come from?”

He picked it up and marched across the hall to Wei Ying and Zhan’s room, opening the door wide enough to toss it in.

“No, no, hell no,” Wei Ying said opening the door again, hair and clothes a mess.

“Already?” Jiang Cheng asked. “We’ve only been here for an hour.”

“Yeah? Come back with that judgy face once you have a kid to take care of. You’ll grab any second alone you can get too.” He shoved the elf into Jiang Cheng’s chest. “You take the fucking creepy ass elf. I’ve already cleared this room out. No more. I’m not getting murdered in my sleep.”

“It’s not staying in my room,” Jiang Cheng said.

Both brothers fell silent and then turned their heads to the other bedroom on their floor.

“Yanli will kill us,” Jiang Cheng said.

“Yeah, but imagine the Peacock’s screams,” Wei Ying said. He gripped Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. “This is your mission, should you choose to accept it.”

“If I go down, I’m taking you with me,” Jiang Cheng said, already headed towards his sister’s bedroom.

“A worthy death,” Wei Ying said, before slamming his door.

Xichen was on vacation. He was not going to play Academy Headmaster to a group of thirty-somethings. He was going to pretend he hadn’t witnessed the last fifteen minutes. He was going to disavow any knowledge of what just occurred. He was absolutely not going to get on Yanli’s bad side. Or Madame Yu’s.

He continued his unpacking, a task interrupted by the eyes he felt on him earlier, and went over to the wardrobe.

“What the fuck!”

The words were out of his mouth before he even processed it. Jiang Cheng came running back into the room.

“Baby?” he asked.

“Why?” Xichen asked. “Why are there more elves?”

This one was sitting on the top shelf of the wardrobe staring down at him. Looking at him as if he knew Xichen disliked him. It. The decorative object that could not possibly have thoughts or feelings of any kind.

“I am so sorry,” Jiang Cheng said, grabbing it and tossing it towards the hall. “I had no idea she’d acquired more.”

“How many are there?” he asked.

Jiang Cheng cupped his cheek. “I love you,” he said.

“How many?” Xichen asked.

“I love you, so much,” Jiang Cheng said.

“How. Many.”

“With all that’s in me,” he continued.

“Jiang Cheng.”

“There’s probably sixty now,” he said. “She makes it into a scavenger hunt for the kids.”

It was only Saturday. He’d been here for less than two hours. He already felt like he was losing his mind.

He was never ignoring his brother’s warnings again.

“For the record, I deeply wish we were in Maine right now,” he said.

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng agreed.

He wrapped his arms around his boyfriend. “And while I have no regrets about coming here, I can’t promise all of your mother’s horrid little elf creatures will survive this weekend.”

“We’ll blame it on Sugar,” he said.

“And I love you,” Xichen said. “Even if I’m not entirely sure my sanity will survive this weekend either.”

“You’re not afraid of penguins too are you?” he asked.

Xichen laughed. “No, no, of course not.”

Jiang Cheng hugged him tighter. “You’ll be just fine.”

“What does that mean?” he asked, suddenly not feeling fine at all.

“Nothing,” Jiang Cheng said, too quickly. “Nothing at all. Just a little thing out by the tennis court that’s of no concern.”

Xichen took a deep breath, leaning even more on Jiang Cheng, and reminding himself that this is what it meant to be family, to share each other’s traditions. Even if they came with horribly clashing colors and tacky inflatable lawn decor and creepy elves and a Christmas tree in their room covered in bear ornaments. He still had two full weeks of Jiang Cheng in his arms and Sugar, Pepper, and Nutmeg close to him. With his own brother and his nephew. A few tacky lights and the overpowering smell of peppermint everywhere was a small price to pay for such a gift.

He opened his eyes and found one of those creepy ass elves on top of curtain rod.

“My love, I’m going to need you to sweep this room again, because I just found another one.”

“Fuck,” Jiang Cheng said as he turned around and walked over to the window. “How in the hell did she even--she stuck Velcro on it? What in the hell?”

Chapter Text

The Jiang Holiday Extravaganza was an entire fortnight of excess that even after four years still shocked Xichen in the five minutes of peace, quiet, and reflection, he got to himself at Lotus Pier. At least he’d learned how to avoid all those damn demon elves on their shelves, especially since Jiang Cheng always exorcised their room of them when they arrived. He also knew which bathrooms to avoid (near the library and off the living room with their Santa and Mrs. Claus toilet seat covers respectively), and how to kindly suggest a theme to Madame Yu for the Christmas tree in their bedroom. The first year had been a tree full of teddy bears, and while not offensive in any way, half of those ornaments sung in voices eerily reminiscent of The Chipmunks. Many were motion activated. He’d come out of a sound sleep his first night here, terrified, as Nutmeg tried to climb the tree and a freakish high-pitched voice sang ‘Up on the Rooftop.’ This year Madame Yu had apparently found some mercy and picked deer. Glittery deer, but just deer. None of them sang or played music, though the large light-up display on their fireplace mantle did. It was a compromise Xichen embraced. Mostly because he’d easily found the off-switch on the musical Santa train.

The sheer amount of food and all its richness? That was still a struggle. He had consumed far too many desserts at the Christmas Eve party and now regretted it as he laid on their bed, waiting for Jiang Cheng to return with Sugar. Honey, their new puppy, was already in her bed in the corner, fast asleep. Cinnamon and Nutmeg had claimed the library as their territory, but Pepper was on the bed beside Xichen, stretched out over all the pillows.

He truly wanted nothing more than to roll over and sleep with her soft purrs lulling him into dreams, but there was one Christmas tradition he had come to fully embrace and he was going to stay awake for it, even if the sugar crash in his system was demanding sleep.

This was why Uncle had always forbid food excess, especially sweets.

He smiled as their bedroom door opened, Jiang Cheng carrying the crisp, cold scent of the outdoors on his skin and in his hair. He carefully placed Sugar on the bed, then sat down between her and Xichen, stroking Xichen’s hair.

“The great Lan Xichen. Defeated by fudge,” he teased. His fingers moved to his belly and rubbed it in warm circles. “How far you have fallen.”

“It was very good fudge,” Xichen said. “I know you still have your problems with him, but Jin Zixuan is a talented baker.”

“It’s one of his few good traits,” Jiang Cheng agreed.

When he leaned down to kiss Xichen, he could taste the remnants of peppermint and chocolate. Xichen wasn’t the only one who had an excess of sweets tonight.

“I’m going to grab a shower while I can,” he said. He ran a thumb over Xichen’s lips, a soft smile on his face when Xichen caught it and gave it a sharp bite. “I’d ask you to join me, but I don’t think you’re capable of moving.”

“Probably not,” Xichen admitted. “The spirit is willing, the body refuses.”

Jiang Cheng sighed and patted Xichen’s belly again. “This is what I get for hitching myself to your old, broken down, wagon.”

“I am four years older than you,” Xichen said.

“And yet one of the oldest people in this house,” Jiang Cheng said as he slipped off the bed.

“We can’t all be sat at the kid’s table,” Xichen said.

Both Jiang Cheng and his brother had been placed there to watch over the younger cousins and their nieces and nephews. That was the story at least. Xichen had experienced enough Jiang family dinners to know it was more to do with Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng, two grown men, always being on the verge of a food fight.

“Can you honestly say you enjoyed your time at the main table?” Jiang Cheng asked as he pulled out his pajamas. “Enlightening conversation with Uncle Yi about different wood grains?”

“Each day brings a chance to learn something new,” Xichen said.

“Baby, you are so full of shit,” Jiang Cheng said with a laugh as he walked out into the hallway.

**********

Xichen had fallen asleep despite his best intentions, but when he woke up from his dessert-induced nap, Jiang Cheng was beside him, hair down and loose, reading glasses on, with his Kindle in his hands.

Xichen still couldn’t believe he had the good fortune to fall asleep and wake-up and live beside such a man.

“Sorry,” he said.

Jiang Cheng startled, but set his Kindle to the side.

“You were fighting a losing battle,” he said. He slid down to press up against him. “I’m surprised you lasted as long as you did.”

“Did I miss it?” Xichen asked.

This was their tradition. On Christmas Eve, late at night, when the house was quiet and nothing could be heard but the sound of the bells and windchimes on the porch, they exchanged their gifts to each other. The private ones. The sentimental ones. The ones they wanted to keep just between them without the eyes of the entire family on them and without any running commentary from certain vocal parties.

Wei Ying and Madame Yu both had very pointed opinions on gifts.

“It’s 11:50,” Jiang Cheng said. “You woke up just in time.”

He reached under his pillow and pulled out a slim box.

“Merry Christmas,” he said.

Xichen reached under his own and pulled out the slim wooden chest he’d commissioned to hold the small glass figurines inside.

“Merry Christmas,” he said.

It was Jiang Cheng’s year to open his present first. Xichen eagerly waited to see his face.

“These are--” Jiang Cheng’s voice went soft. “These are our pets.” He looked at Xichen, fingers carefully trailing over the glass figurines inside the box. “How?”

“I ran into a few old friends from college when I had to chaperone that school trip to the Renaissance Festival. One of them is a glassblower, the other a woodworker. I know they’re not like the tiny crystal ones you collect but--”

“They’re perfect,” Jiang Cheng said. He pulled Xichen in a deep kiss. Then another. And another, before finally turning back to the box, the softest smile on his face. “You even got Honey in here.”

“A last minute addition,” Xichen said. The little glass Honey had arrived days before their departure.

“Thank you,” Jiang Cheng said. “I love them.”

His fingers danced over the tops of the five glass figures again before carefully closing the box and setting it on his nightstand.

“Your turn,” he said.

Xichen picked up the slim box and heard a slight rattling inside.

“Not a necklace,” Xichen said.

“No, you don’t wear those,” Jiang Cheng said, fingers unconsciously wrapped around the jade lotus pendant hanging from his own neck.

“A bracelet?” he asked. “A fountain pen? A letter opener?”

“Stop guessing and just open it,” Jiang Cheng said.

“The guessing is the fun part,” Xichen said. He carefully started to unwrap the paper.

“Just open the damn thing,” Jiang Cheng said.

Xichen deliberately opened the present even slower, just to see that frustrated furrow between his boyfriend’s brows.

When he finally opened the box, he forgot how to breathe.

He’d resigned himself to the fact that there would never be a wedding for them, even though he knew they’d be together for life. Jiang Cheng was very vocal about his hatred for weddings and a general apathy towards the institute of marriage when legal ties and an agreed life-long commitment was just as valid in his eyes. So Xichen knew he wouldn’t have an engagement or a wedding or a marriage in the legal sense.

But this--this was--this was the Jiang Bell.

A silver bell engraved with the design of a nine-petal lotus hung on a royal purple tassel. It was sacred to the Jiangs. Similar to the Lans and their forehead ribbon. And was meant only for family members.

“Legend has it,” Jiang Cheng said in the wake of Xichen’s silence, “that the bell can calm the mind and clear the spirit. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s a family tradition. I’ve been lobbying to get you one for years now and my Great Aunt finally gave up the goods.”

Xichen was still at a loss for words. His fingers shook as he removed the bell from its box. A soft ringing filled the room.

“You’re my family. We’re our own little family, cats and dogs included,” Jiang Cheng said. “And it was time you had your own.”

“You,” Xichen said, laughing even as happy tears filled his eyes. “I got you little glass animals and you give me--”

“What is rightfully yours,” Jiang Cheng said.

He kissed the tears on Xichen’s cheeks, his fingers wrapping around Xichen’s own where they held the bell.

“I love you,” Xichen said. All he could say when words truly failed to express what he was feeling and the depths of the emotions running through him.

An excess of love, of devotion, of trust, of dreams fulfilled and even more hope for the years ahead of them.

“Of course, I’ve now fucked myself over,” Jiang Cheng said. “No present is ever going to top this one.”

“No,” Xichen agreed. “But I somehow think you’ll still beat me, again, like you have, every year.”

“We’re going to disagree on this one,” Jiang Cheng said. “You gave me the menagerie in tiny glass form that I can have forever.”

And Jiang Cheng had given him his family, completely, fully, now.

“A draw then,” Xichen said, even if they both knew who had won this year.

“A draw,” Jiang Cheng agreed.

Chapter Text

Xichen had woken in the middle of the night to a room empty both of his boyfriend and his dog. Even still half-asleep he was able to guess why, so he slipped out of bed, only setting off one of the motion-activated ornaments on the Christmas tree (this year their room’s tree theme was, fittingly, cats and dogs).

The house was silent, unlike most nights during the Jiang Holiday Fortnight of Excess. They always fell silent on Christmas Eve though, from the youngest of the Jiang and Yu relatives to even Wei Ying, never exactly known for his quiet manner. There was something solemn about the night.

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

Except for outside.

From the windows in the kitchen, Xichen could spot Jiang Cheng standing towards the water. He had a blanket wrapped around his shoulders and eyes trained to the distance. Xichen carefully opened and closed the door behind him, not wanting to disturb the peace of the house inside or Jiang Cheng outside.

“Isn’t it past your bedtime?” Jiang Cheng asked, even as he held out his arms for Xichen to come and huddle with him and his blanket.

“Isn’t it past yours?” Xichen asked. “Aren’t you supposed to be worried about Santa coming down your chimney?”

“I’ll come down your chimney,” Jiang Cheng scoffed. Then snorted. Then outright laughed. “That sounded better in my head.”

Xichen said nothing, just rested against Jiang Cheng and watched the ocean. Even Sugar had grown still at their feet.

“Okay?” Xichen asked.

Jiang Cheng nodded. “I’ve always loved this time of year. From Thanksgiving through to Valentine’s Day, Mom is actually nice to all of us. She loves winter, always has. Even when we were kids, even when she’d spend hours making cutting remarks about all of us, come Christmas everyone was indulged, even Wei Ying. It’s always been a time of peace in our family.”

Xichen had noticed that; he’d also noticed Mr. Jiang was absent for most of it. Last year he’d barely noticed it, caught up in his first time experiencing this whirlwind. This year it was far more obvious. He’d emerge from the library to play with his grandchildren, but when it was just his grown children and his wife, he’d disappear again.

“Dad basically lives in the library and lets Mom do whatever she wants and somehow it works for them,” Jiang Cheng said. “And she only puts garland and flameless candles in the library so Dad can have his peace. And he just nods and agrees as she starts taking trips out here, every weekend, starting in September, to oversee the decorating progress.” He laughed, though not a joyful sound. “Perhaps that is their gift to each other--a ceasefire and some tolerance.”

Jiang Cheng’s fingers were wrapped around the pendant Xichen had given him hours ago. It was a simple jade lotus pendant, but one Xichen had carved himself.

“Thank you for more than just tolerating me,” he said.

Xichen shifted, wrapping the blanket tighter around them, pulling Jiang Cheng deeper into his arms, letting him lay his head on Xichen’s shoulder, to let him have a moment of weakness, hidden from the rest of the world, just the two of them and the night and Sugar at their feet.

He remembered a conversation they had once, about their parents--their fathers. And Jiang Cheng’s words from then rung in his ears now.

My father knows how to love those who are easily loveable. He struggles to understand sharp edges. It’s taken me years to realize that’s a failing in him, not me.

Xichen loved Jiang Cheng’s sharp edges. The way he could spit words like knives. The guttural harsh sounds that came out of him when he was on the warpath. The furrow between his brows. The clenched jaw. The fact that a sweet kiss to his cheek could unclench that jaw. A gentle finger across his brow could soothe it. Arms wrapped around him could turn tense shoulders lax. That for Jiang Cheng happiness really was a warm puppy. That sharp edges protected the softest of souls within.

“Fuck,” Jiang Cheng muttered into his shoulder. “I swear I just came out here to walk Sugar. But the fucking walk from our room to the door through that silent house, it woke-up all the ghosts of Christmas pasts. Each year I’d be so fucking thankful that peace reigned in our family, looked forward to it, anticipated it. And each year by March it was gone.”

March. Over twenty-five years ago Jiang Fengmian disappeared on a sudden business trip and came back with a child, claiming it was his nephew. March remained a fraught month in the family, full of bad memories.

“Anyway,” Jiang Cheng said with a heavy sigh. “Something about Christmas Eve always gets to me because it’s the turning point, you know?”

He straightened up, stealing a kiss, a hint of desperation in him.

Xichen pulled him closer, deeper, pouring into him the words he wanted to say, but Jiang Cheng couldn’t handle hearing right now.

They were silent as they walked back to the house. Jiang Cheng held Sugar while Xichen took care of the blanket. The silence stayed as they entered the house, only breaking when they both heard childish whispers and a creak of the floorboards near the nursery.

Jiang Cheng pressed Sugar into Xichen’s arms as he stealthily crept up the stairs, keeping to the shadows, until he was looming over both Yuan and Ling.

Xichen had to press his face into Sugar’s fur to keep himself from laughing loud enough for them to hear.

“Why do I find a little bun and a little peachick out of bed?” Jiang Cheng asked. He quickly caught both boys before they could fall over. “Don’t you know Santa won’t come until you’ve slept?”

“But we already slept!” Jin Ling said.

“You need to sleep some more,” Jiang Cheng said as he scooped up both boys.

“But Uncle!” Yuan said. “I can see our stockings from here!”

“Well, that’s because the elves have to come and check the house first,” Jiang Cheng said as he carried the boys towards the nursery. “They fill up the stockings as a sign that this house has good children who are asleep in their beds.”

“The elves are everywhere,” Yuan said.

Jiang Cheng nodded. “I won’t tell them, if you won’t. We’ll just all go back to our beds and not come out until,” he turned to Xichen with a smirk. “Five? Isn’t that right?”

Xichen nodded. “Standard Lan time. Perfect hour to greet the dawn.”

His brother, and possibly Yanli, were going to kill him. But he couldn’t imagine that the boys would stay in their beds for much longer than that, not when they knew full stockings and presents were downstairs.

He waited there, on the stairs, listening as Jiang Cheng put both the boys to bed, gave into Jin Ling’s demand for a bedtime story, and Yuan’s for a song.

Sharp edges covering the softest of souls; a man so full of love, even growing up with those parents, because those three siblings banded together and protected each other after a rocky start. They were inseparable. He remembered watching the boys from his place next to his uncle, their first summer at Cloud Recesses. They’d cried when they had to leave Yanli, and she cried leaving them. And here they were now, so many years later, still inseparable, still so deeply connected, still so protective and full of love for each other.

It made this house, even with all its ridiculous decor, feel like a home. Lived-in, well-loved, full of good memories.

Jiang Cheng softly closed the door to the nursery and greeted him with a small smile.

It made Xichen’s pulse jump with the anticipation of getting to taste those lips again, hold him close, breathe him in.

“Why are you still standing there?”

“Waiting for you,” he said.

And he would always wait for him, as long as there was still life in him. Because the man before him wasn’t his entire world, or his entire family, but he was the one who made it all the more worth it, all the more fun, all the more tolerable.

He’d spent years mourning a love he’d never thought he’d get to experience. Resigned to a life of duty and trying to survive on the fantasies of what could have been, in another time, if things had worked out in different ways.

And somehow, someway, life--fate--Jiang Cheng himself--had given him this gift of a man before him.

Love wasn’t a strong enough word, but it was the best one he had for now.

“I love you,” he whispered, in the silence of the night.

“I love you too,” Jiang Cheng said, a gift always freely given. “Now, let’s try to get some sleep.”

Chapter Text

“You can’t keep giving him pets for his birthday.”

Xichen didn’t respond to his best friend’s words as he held the puppy in his lap. He was too enamored by the ball of fur that he was finally able to bring home. The first litter of puppies he’d met back in May hadn’t resulted in success, but this one, this little ball of fuzz he’d first met, tiny and wrapped in a towel back in August, had felt perfect from the first time he’d held her. There had been quite a few visits over the last few months, even bringing Sugar along to make sure she wouldn’t reject the puppy, and his brother-in-law another time, to make sure he wouldn’t run screaming from it, but finally it had all worked out and he was able to bring little Honey home.

It just so happened that the breeder agreed Xichen could bring Honey home two weeks ahead of schedule, something he was keeping from Jiang Cheng as a surprise. It just so happened to also be around his birthday.

“It’s our dog, not just his,” Xichen said. “And I didn’t intend to give him Cinnamon for his birthday, but someone just magically found a kitten days before my school visited their farm.”

“I never saw that kitten before in my life,” Mingjue said.

“So there just happened to be a warm box with some food and toys and a blanekt in it near Shadowfax’s stall?”

“What the workers do when I’m not around is none of my business,” Mingjue said as he took the turn into the Lan property, waving at the security guard who let him in. “My point stands.”

“Out of the four birthdays I’ve celebrated with him, this is only the second one with a new pet acquisition.”

“That’s half of them,” Mingjue said.

“But not all,” Xichen argued. “And if we’re going to talk about over-the-top presents, you gave Meng Yao a horse.”

“I let him choose a horse.”

“You weren’t even dating at the time,” Xichen said.

Mingjue abruptly brought his truck to a stop in front of Xichen’s home.

“Get out of my car,” he ordered.

Xichen held up little Honey. “You either have to open the door for me or hold the puppy. You choose. But one option is far less likely to pee on you.”

“I need a new best friend,” Mingjjue muttered as he jumped out of the truck.

“I’ve been saying the same thing for years,” Xichen called after him.

***********

The only good thing about Jiang Cheng being in Boston for most of the week was that it made it easy to keep Honey’s arrival in their home a surprise. It was the first time in a long while Xichen hadn’t spent five straight days wishing Jiang Cheng was at their home, working at the satellite office of Jiang Industries. He’d gone to Boston to help Qingyang through the mid-fourth-quarter mess, taking Sugar with him so the condo wouldn’t be too quiet and lonely.

There was no way Jiang Cheng would miss their newest family member as soon as he arrived.

The puppy pads on the kitchen and bathroom floors would be a dead giveaway.

As would the puppy food in the new storage container.

The new food and water bowls laid out.

The new toys.

Jiang Cheng did usually arrive at the Berkshires dead on his feet, but his sharp eyes saw everything, even when he was exhausted.

Xichen decided to go with a forward approach.

“Your really need to tell your uncle that I can’t control the behavior of the cats. They’re cats they stare--holy shit where did she come from?”

Sugar’s leash went lax in his hand and she took off for Xichen and Honey.

“Surprise,” Xichen said.

“When did you--how did you?” Jiang Cheng asked as he walked over to them, kneeling quick to undo Sugar’s leash and harness.

“Monday afternoon,” he said.

“You dirty little liar,” Jiang Cheng said. He stood back up and greeted Xichen with a kiss.

Honey let out a little growl.

Jiang Cheng backed off with a soft laugh. “She’s made her choice clear.”

“That was very rude,” Xichen said to the puppy in his arms. “We do not growl.”

“It’s fine,” Jiang Cheng said. He stepped behind Xichen and wrapped his arms around him, resting his chin on Xichen’s shoulder. “She’s our dog, but I think she’s going to be your puppy.”

“But--”

“And I love that for you,” Jiang Cheng said. He kissed Xichen’s cheek. “Besides, I don’t think Sugar’s quite ready to share her crown or her throne. She’ll tolerate Honey, sure, but this way they won’t be fighting for attention or territory.”

“But--”

“It’s okay to have a favorite child, Xichen,” he teased.

“It is so very not,” Xichen said. He shifted Honey in his arms and nuzzled her soft head. “This was supposed to be a surprise for you.”

“It is a surprise for me,” Jiang Cheng. “Coming home to see the man I love cuddling a puppy? Who the hell complains about that?” He raised one of his hands to rub the top of Honey’s head. “Best birthday weekend welcome ever.”

Chapter Text

Mid-January always meant deep winter storms. White out conditions and blizzards and Jiang Cheng spending entire weeks working at home in the Berkshires for safety reasons. Lan Academy didn’t often close, even during some of the harsher storms, but today’s blizzard wouldn’t even bend to Lan Qiren’s will.

Even here, on Lan property, with their multiple alternative energy sources, the power was out.

Xichen had still headed out to the Academy, checking to make sure his students and staff in the dorms were well. After finally winning the fight against the Board two years ago to update and replace all the generators (and with a hefty donation from the Ouyangs and the Patels), the dorms hadn’t lost power in over a year. This storm was a bad one though, testing the limits of everything, and Jiang Cheng wouldn’t be able to relax until he saw his husband back here, home, and safe.

He’d moved as many of the pet beds as possible into the living room to keep all of them close, safe, and warm. He already had the fire well-maintained and roaring. He’d gone through the house, two pairs of socks on his feet and layers of t-shirts and sweaters, gathering the softest, warmest blankets from each room and the linen closet. Lunch would have to be peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He didn't want to risk keeping the fridge open for too long, uncertain of how many days they'd be without power, but Jiang Cheng could not live off Lan trail mix alone.

He was finally ready to cocoon himself and just sit and wait when a loud pounding sounded from the door. He opened it to find his idiot brother on the other side, chattering teeth and hands shaking with a cardboard tray of travel mugs.

“What the fuck?” he asked.

“Old houses are drafty,” Wei Ying said. “Let me in.”

Jiang Cheng looked outside, unable to see any car.

“How did you get here?” he asked as he took the tray of drinks.

“Molly dropped me off. I was helping check out the dorms.” He waved his arms out. “Help me?”

“Dumbass,” Jiang Cheng said as he started to help his brother out of four--no, five--combined layers of coats, sweatshirts, and cardigans.

“Xichen is fine,” Wei Ying said as he headed towards the living room. He eyed the dogs before heading to the other end, to settle with the cats. “I saw you forced him to take the Land Rover.”

“Where are the kids?” he asked. Jin Ling was still on Boston, everyone in the family deciding he should stay with his parents until the blizzard passed, but Sizhui and Jingyi should've been at the creepy haunted mansion of Wei Ying's.

“They decided to pile into Zizhen’s dorm room, since, you know, they have heat and power,” Wei Ying said. “The viperous traitors.”

Jiang Cheng shoved the plate of sandwiches at him. “Shut up and eat.”

Wei Ying did look too damn cold and his teeth were still chattering. He’d never been able to handle the cold, not even when they were kids. Jiang Cheng went into the guest bedroom and pulled out one of his old Harvard hoodies stored in the closet. He grabbed a few of Xichen’s old Lan Academy ones as well.

“Here,” he said, dumping them beside his brother. “Layer up.”

“Thanks,” Wei Ying said around half the sandwich in his mouth. “So, Twenty Questions? Truth or Dare?”

“How about we play ‘Sit Here and Look Out the Window?’”

“Boring,” Wei Ying said. He looked around the living room. “I guess I could read.”

“You’re not going to make me listen to your commentary on the author’s writing style are you?” Jiang Cheng asked.

“I can make zero promises, brother mine,” Wei Ying said.

Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes as he sat down in-between Wei Ying and the dogs, with more sandwiches and the tray of hot chocolate.

“I’d rather play Twenty Questions,” he said, damn well knowing he was opening himself up to hell.

Wei Ying grinned around his mug. "Oh, this is going to be fun."

**********

“They look like little puppies.”

Jiang Cheng woke with a crick in his neck and someone drooling on his face. He blinked into the bright light coming from the windows, high noon sun reflecting off all the white snow. His brother was on top of him, snoring on. Jiang Cheng shoved him off and turned around to find Xichen and Zhan both smiling at them, phones out and pictures probably already sent to the entire family.

“Great, you two survived,” he said.

“And brought food,” Xichen said.

Jiang Cheng eyed the basket with suspicion. “Who made it?”

“Rude,” Xichen said.

He sat down beside Jiang Cheng, wrapping him up in a hug, putting his ice cold fingers under Jiang Cheng’s shirts.

“Who made it,” Jiang Cheng said.

“Zhan did,” Xichen said. “So there’s actual spice in it and not just glorified rabbit food and wall paste.”

Jiang Cheng refused to apologize for his past statements on Lan Academy’s traditional cuisine. All the culinary teachers there agreed with him.

His brother-in-law shared a knowing smile with him as he carefully moved a still sleeping Wei Ying into a more comfortable position. He picked one of their softest, thickest blankets and laid it over him, Wei Ying’s head resting in his lap.

Xichen shook his head. “The aim of the Academy’s founder was to provide sustenance, not --”

“Taste,” Jiang Cheng said.

“Well,” Xichen said, nuzzling behind Jiang Cheng’s ear, nose still a little cold. “At least my family’s cooking never gave anyone food poisoning.”

Chapter Text

New Year’s Eve at Lotus Pier was relatively calm considering the family and place in question. New Year’s Day brought the whole family together in a large early evening meal, the first gathering of the year. Madame Yu released her iron-tinsel grip of holiday control to let everyone spend New Year’s Eve how they would. There was a small family dinner earlier in the night. Later on the kids would gather in the playroom under Madame Yu’s watchful eyes, excited to stay up far past their bedtime to watch the ball drop, all with fancy party crowns and plastic flutes of sparkling apple cider or grape juice. Mr. Jiang would also spend the night by his wife’s side, quietly, contently watching over the younger Jiangs, Yus, Jins, and now one little Lan.

A peaceful evening where they both could find quiet joy in their family.

Both of them had sacrificed much of their own happiness for the sake of their marriage, made so many mistakes in raising their children, and yet, somehow, they were allowed--gifted--this, to be grandparents and grand-aunts-and-uncles to a whole new generation.

A thing to remember, the power of forgiveness and kindness, as another year started.

Madame Yu sat in one of the rocking chairs, little Meihui in her arms, as he husband sat with the older grandchildren, blowing into noisemakers along with all the kids. She turned her eyes back to her first great-grandchild and said her thanks, over and over again, in her head to the gods, to the universe, to the young boy she’d been horrible to for so many years, to let her have this, even though she knew she didn’t deserve it.

A new year, a perfect time to make amends.

**********

Wei Wuxian firmly believed in ending the year the way he wanted to start it, which always meant in his Lan Zhan’s arms. His husband indulged him, and his love for the night and stars, and would always cuddle and huddle with him under a mountain of blankets on the family’s private pier. They’d stay there for hours, looking out on the water, the winter night sky above them, as they waited for one year to end and the other to begin. On a pier, with fireworks above them; a familiar, beloved thing. They didn’t check the time as they sat out there, could hear the cheers and the noise from the house when it switched over to midnight. They stayed out even after the new year officially started, warming each other, trading kisses and whispers and wishes for the year to come until it was time to sleep.

***********

Jiang Yanli often spent her New Year’s Eve in the kitchen. There were some foods that just tasted better the next day and it was easier to work in the kitchen when the rest of her family were otherwise occupied. It also helped that while she waited for things to set or cook or bake, she got to sit back and watch her husband in his own element. His gold and silver apron was already covered in flour. There was some in his hair and on his cheek. For a man so often put impeccably together, he was an absolute mess in the kitchen. He was in the process of making three different vasilopita. He’d learned to make them as a kid from his favorite nanny and it was a tradition he’d brought to their family during his first Jiang Holiday Gauntlet.

“Do you see something you like?” Zixuan asked, looking up from his cake tin.

“Yes,” she said. She walked over to him, dusting some of the flour off his face. “Is that a problem?” She trailed her hand down to the front tie of his apron and started to pull at the knot.

“We only have twenty minutes until the current cake is done,” Zixuan said.

“Then I suggest you get to work.”

His eyes strayed to the door and then back to her. He kissed her quickly before stepping away, grabbing one of the heavy wooden bar stools and shoving it against the kitchen door. It wouldn’t stop any hungry invaders, but it’d buy them some time.

“Eighteen minutes and counting,” she said as he husband finally returned to her arms.

**********

Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi hadn’t spent that many New Year’s Eves together. An amazing thing, really, considering how long they’d known each other. But Jingyi had only been attending the celebrations at Lotus Pier since he was eighteen. He was just barely twenty-five now, and the past year had been an utter whirlwind. Sizhui was only in his second year of teaching at Lan Academy. They still had unpacked boxes in their house from the move back to the Berkshires. March saw the birth of their Little Butterfly, their Meihui. That had consumed most of their time, as Jingyi gladly put his career on hold to take care of their daughter. He still worked some days at the Lan Law Offices, Meihui strapped to his chest, but that was basically to do notary work and help file papers. Then there had been the Olympics in July, cheering and yelling themselves hoarse as Jin Ling competed and medaled in both individual and team events. They had to watch from home, but they’d done so with a house full of Lans and old friends from Lan Academy who were proud to see just how far their little peacock prince had come.

It had been a very busy year.

“Any wishes for the New Year?” Sizhui asked as he rested against Jingy’s chest.

They’d taken advantage of everyone else in the house being occupied, and the offered babysitting, to take a nice, long, relaxing soak in the large guest bathroom. Jingyi honestly couldn’t remember the last time they’d enjoyed a bath together.

“Sleep,” Sizhui said.

“Samesies,” Jingyi agreed.

“You can’t samesies a New Year’s wish,” Sizhui teased.

“Just did,” Jingyi said. He kissed the top of Sizhui’s head and cuddled him closer. “We either need to get out soon or we’re both going to fall asleep. That’s dangerous in this house.”

“I know,” Sizhui agreed. “But just a little longer.”

“A little longer,” Jingyi agreed.

*********

The past year had been amazing for Jin Ling. He doubted any other would top it, at least not soon, but he’d achieved a life-long goal and was finally in a relationship with the man he’d loved since he was sixteen. This year he’d gained that relationship, two Olympic medals, and a dog. It was kind of hard to imagine the new year could top this one.

But this time he was ending his amazing year and starting the next one with Zizhen at his side.

His only plan for the future was relocating to Rhode Island and moving in, finally, with Zizhen. No longer an entire ocean between them, both finally in the same place, at the same time.

They were in their own room for now, resting against each other, watching New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. Eventually, as it got closer to midnight, they’d drag themselves downstairs to ring in the New Year with all the kids, but for now they were just taking the time to be.

Jin Ling never knew he could love such simple, quiet moments, with those arms around him, so very much.

He smiled as Zizhen kissed the top of his head.

“Falling asleep?” Zizhen asked. “Go ahead. I’ll wake you up in time.”

**********

There was a time when Jiang Cheng often left the Vineyard for New Year’s Eve, attending parties in the name of Jiang Industries. He’d usually make it back for the New Year’s Day meal by the skin of his teeth, but it’d been nearly eighteen years since he’d last attended one of those parties. His plans had changed after that last New Year’s Eve party in Boston. A party where he’d been surprised to see Lan Xichen as well, across the room of Linda and Maryann Kenyon’s New Year’s Eve gala. It was the one year he didn’t make it back for the New Year’s Day meal, spending it instead with Xichen and the Nies. He didn’t know then that’d he’d be spending every single New Year’s Eve and Day with Xichen from that year on.

He straddled Xichen’s lap now, running a finger over his brow, as he remembered that night.

“Even with that mask on at the gala, I knew it was you, because of these eyes,” he said.

Xichen’s fingers tightened on his hips, pulling him even closer.

“I was so desperate to kiss you that night,” Xichen confessed.

“I wanted you to,” Jiang Cheng said. “I would’ve let you.”

“You weren’t ready yet,” Xichen said.

No, not he wasn’t. And he would’ve loved the kiss then, but he would’ve dismissed it as something Xichen just did to be nice, because it was New Year’s Eve, and it was midnight.

“And I wanted more than just a kiss,” Xichen whispered into his mouth, one hand now cupping the back of Jiang Cheng’s neck and guiding him down to his lips.

The house filled with loud cheers and yells for the New Year as the old grandfather clock in the hall stuck midnight and the fireworks started over the water.

Jiang Cheng clung to Xichen, kissing him over and over and over again, as much as he wanted to that night, and the following morning, as much as he wanted to every day, even after nearly twenty years together.

Chapter Text

Then:

The Kenyon New Year’s Gala was always a masked ball, always one of the most sought-after invitations of the year, and always required at least one Jiang to attend. Honestly, not required but the Kenyons were old family friends and it seemed disrespectful not to send at least one person from the family. Some years it was Yanli and her proud peacock husband. Some years, before they’d become parents, it was Wei Ying and Lan Zhan. Since both his siblings married and had children, they kept to Lotus Pier for New Year’s Eve and Day. Jiang Cheng had been attending the Gala on his own for two years now, though this year he’d finally given into Qingyang’s demands and brought her as his plus-one.

“You could’ve put a little more effort into your costume,” Qingyang said.

She looked like she belonged as a background dancer from the Masquerade number of Phantom of the Opera. Her mask and the mountain of hair that went with it wouldn’t be out of place in the court of Louis XIV. Jiang Cheng had chosen a less decorative option. Mainly his family’s traditional purple robes and a simple black and silver mask. His hair was down though, completely loose and unadorned, and that was enough to make him unrecognizable to the crowd.

“You’re lucky I’m not just going with a standard suit and mask,” Jiang Cheng said as they entered the ballroom.

“But what about my Tuxedo Mask dreams?” Qingyang asked.

“I’m just the arm to escort you around, milady,” he said. “And here as your wingman. Since I know you’re dressed up like this to impress that dancer.”

“Actress, technically,” Qingyang said. She held out one black lace gloved hand and pointed to the center of the room. “Lead on, good sir. Help me win the heart, or the night at least, of a fair maiden.”

Now:

New Year’s Eve dinner was always early, to give the kids a chance to nap (and honestly some of the adults too), and for those who had plans away from home to get to their destinations. Jiang Cheng was thankful this was Qingyang and Wen Qing’s year to attend the Kenyon New Year’s Eve party. Some years he just didn’t have it in him to rush to catch one of the last ferries to the mainland, battle traffic to get to Boston, attend the gala, crash in a hotel room long enough to sleep, battle the traffic back, rush to catch the ferry back, and arrive at home just in time for New Year’s Day dinner. And since this was his grandniece’s first Jiang Holiday Extravaganza, he wanted to be here for all of it.

Even Maryann and Linda didn’t attend their own gala all that often anymore. The task for hosting had been passed down to their daughter and grandson and Qingyang was closer to both of them than Jiang Cheng.

He’d never been one for the glitz and glam of the social circles their family and friends were a part of, but especially not when he could be here, in his room at Lotus Pier, curled up on top of his napping husband, with half their pets also either curled up on their bed or somewhere else in the room. Some fuzzy faces were gone, but never forgotten, and there were new ones like Cocoa and Poppy.

Cocoa laid across the pillow now, her little pink toe beans stark against her brown fur, and her brown tail occasionally swatting Xichen in the face. His husband just scrunched his nose and instinctively moved it away, long used to a cat trying to make a bed out of his hair.

“You’re supposed to be napping,” Xichen said with barely opened eyes.

“I’m resting,” Jiang Cheng argued. He stretched up to kiss Xichen’s forehead. “Go back to sleep.”

“You too,” Xichen said.

“Shh,” Jiang Cheng said. “We’re resting.”

Then:

For once Huaisang wasn’t the only one in the room with a folding fan, but of course his was a piece of handpainted art to go with his gold and black mask and its large plume of feathers. His eyes kept straying to the same spot in the crowd, where a man with pastel blue hair and a set of silver fairy wings stood with an entire group that just screamed artists.

“You’re drooling,” Jiang Cheng said.

“Shut the fuck up,” Huaisang sang with a smile on his face. He closed his fan with a snap and whacked Jiang Cheng on the arm. “Dance with me.”

“I’m not hearing a please in there.”

“Now,” Huaisang said, grabbing his arm and tugging him towards the center of the room.

“Is your brother lurking in a corner glaring at me right now?” Jiang Cheng asked.

He and Huaisang had been friends since that first summer at Cloud Recesses. Huaisang was even a year younger than him, only five when all first years were supposed to be six or in the year of turning six, but had gotten special treatment because of his family and his brother’s connection to the Lans. They’d been friends since then and yet, still, for some dumbass idiotic reason, Mingjue seemed to think Jiang Cheng was going to break his baby brother.

Laughable, especially since Huaisang was usually the cause of any trouble or mischief Jiang Cheng found himself dragged into.

“My brother is...distracted tonight,” Huaisang said. “Hunter getting captured by the game, wolf getting chased by the fox, or possibly the other way around. You never can tell with those two.”

“Good for him?”

Huaisang frowned. “Maybe. If it works out this time.”

“And you’re dancing with me instead of the blue-haired fairy because….”

“Shut the fuck up,” Huiasang sang again, violently shoving Jiang Cheng into a turn.

“Ah, playing the long game,” Jiang Cheng said.

Huaisang didn’t date often, not wanting to waste his own time, but he did like the plans and the courting once he set his sights on someone. And he very much had his eyes on someone now.

“Ugh,” Huaisang said and stepped back. “I can’t deal with that smug smile. I’ll find you again at midnight.”

“Qingyang’s already booked me for midnight,” he said.

“I have lifetime best friend pity kisses dibs. So I’ll see you at one minute to midnight,” Huaisang said. “Go mingle. Be the good CEO.”

“And you’re going to find a corner to be your weird, stalkery self from?”

“No,” Huaisang said. “I am going to ask Xuanyu if he’d like to dance.” He slapped Jiang Cheng with his fan again. “Now, go. I don’t want him to think I’m interested in the likes of you.”

“You asked me to dance,” he said.

“Go away,” Huaisang shooed him. “Xichen’s around here somewhere, go sniff his hair or lust over his hands or something.”

“I do not,” Jiang Cheng said.

“You so do,” Huaisang said.

“I do not,” Jiang Cheng said.

Not purposefully at least. It wasn’t his fault that Xichen would just pass him by, his hair floating behind him, smelling like his paints or his favorite tea, or rarely, an enticing spicy cologne.

“Go,” Huasiang said, turning purposefully, hitting Jiang Cheng with the plume from his mask.

Now:

“Help me find the best blankets.”

Jiang Cheng stared at his brother from the other end of the nursery.

“You see that I have your granddaughter in my arms. Where she’s sleeping. Peacefully. You want me to wake the sleeping baby to help you find blankets for your annual end-of-year-fort you and your husband will build at the end of the pier?”

“It’s more a nest than a--”

“Wei Ying.”

His brother pouted. How he was still able to do that and somehow not look ridiculous as he started knocking on the door of his fiftieth birthday, was actually ridiculous.

Jiang Cheng carefully laid Meihui back in her crib.

“Come on, you absolute pain in the ass. I don’t know why you refuse to go to the linen closet on your own.”

“It’s haunted,” Wei Ying said.

“It’s not haunted,” Jiang Cheng said. Not anymore. Not since they evicted the mice a few years ago.

“It so is,” Wei Ying said as he followed him. “Get the fleece ones please!”

Then:

Jiang Cheng would know those broad shoulders, that jawline, and those long fingers anywhere, but it was the eyes that really got him. Even under the blue and silver masquerade mask and the cloak and outfit that made him look like some sort of snow prince, it was unmistakably Lan Xichen.

He met Xichen’s gaze across the crowd, having felt the weight of that stare as he walked the room. He made his way through the crowd, Xichen’s eyes never leaving his own, until the were in front of each other.

“And here I thought you Lans spent the New Year polishing all your trophies and medals at the Academy,” he said.

“Surprise,” Xichen said. He saluted him with his flute of champagne.

“And drinking,” Jiang Cheng said, able to smell the Cristal in his glass. “What would your uncle say?”

“Cheers,” Xichen teased. He grinned, something devious in it. “Breathe, Jiang Cheng.”

“So much for your reputation of Lans having no vices.”

Xichen shook his head. “It’s not a vice, it’s a glass of champagne.” He took a sip, as if daring Jiang Cheng to call him on it. “And you know my brother. You’re well aware Lans are not without vices.”

To say the fucking least.

“And here I thought your brother was the exception to the rule.”

“My brother is an exemplary Lan,” Xichen said. “And we’re far more alike than people suspect.”

 

Now:

“Your brother is drunk,” Jiang Cheng said.

“My brother is not drunk,” Xichen, who also sounded a little tipsy, said. “He’s had one sip of champagne.”

“He’s gone extra silent and frowny and is about to fall asleep in three...two….one...bingo.”

“Stop it,” Xichen said.

He was laughing though, even as Wei Ying carefully re-arranged Lan Zhan to lay down on the couch, his head cradled in his lap.

“Why is it that you two drop at a single glass, but Molly can outdrink Mingjue?”

“Because it’s Molly,” Xichen said. “We don’t question what Molly can do.”

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng agreed. “She is the most exemplary Lan.”

“Excuse me?” Xichen asked.

Jiang Cheng kissed his cheek and patted his tipsy, confused head. “You’re excused.”

 

Then:

The balcony was the one place of solace they both tended to find at these events and they always seemed to end up on one together. It had become a sort of tradition for them. It was a comfortable silence between them now as they looked out over the water. It was calm and quiet, even with the partiers on the boats, the calm before the firework storm to come.

His breath caught in his throat as Xichen’s fingers brushed his cheek, pushing back a stray piece of his hair, tucking it behind his ear.

His ear tingled for moments after that slight touch of Xichen’s long fingers on his skin.

He could hear the collective countdown from inside. The loud cheer of ‘Happy New Year,’ the band playing ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ The fireworks starting in the Harbor. He kept eye contact with Lan Xichen through it all, his breath held, afraid to break the moment.

He’d never felt the urge to kiss someone more in his life. And maybe, somewhere, in some other life, he would be the one kissing Xichen right now, ending the year with a kiss, starting it with one as well.

But they weren’t partners or lovers. They were two men who knew each other as kids. They were two men whose brothers had married each other. They were friends, of a sort, though a distance had seemed to grow between them over the last few years, with Jiang Cheng assuming leadership of his family’s company.

Jiang Cheng had loved the man before him since he was a teenager, but Lan Xichen, kind, noble, caring Lan Xichen, had never, and would never, see him in that way.

Jiang Cheng forced a smile he didn’t feel and raised his glass.

“Happy New Year, Lan Xichen,” he said. “May the year bring you everything you’ve wished for.”

Xichen grinned at him, a soft thing that made his heart jump.

“Happy New Year, Jiang Cheng,” he said. “May the year bring you everything you’ve hoped for."

Now:

They could see some fireworks from their bedroom window. Jiang Cheng clasped their hands together, smiling as their wedding and engagement bands lightly clinked against each other. He pressed a kiss over Xichen’s heart, over his own lotus tattoo there, could still feel his pulse racing as the sweat cooled on their bodies.

“If you say one word about starting the New Year with a bang,” Xichen warned.

“It’s tradition,” Jiang Cheng said as he tilted his chin up for yet another kiss.

And another.

And another

And one more until Xichen rolled them over, settling on top of Jiang Cheng, smiling down at him in the dim light from the night sky and the fireworks outside.

Then:

Lan Xichen looked a wrinkled mess. He looked human. Gone was the snow prince from the night before and in its place was a messy-haired, definitely hung-over, in desperate need of some water, a jug of coffee, a plate of greasy food, and a shower, regular man. As regular as Lan Xichen could be.

Jiang Cheng fought every last urge and instinct to cuddle. Xichen looked soft, almost like back when they were younger. Before life and duty and broken hearts and Jiang Cheng’s own bullshit over his crush and work and Lan Academy and Jiang Industries took over. He was more like the Xichen from his college days, who sometimes let Jiang Cheng drive to Rhode Island just to escape his Cambridge apartment for the weekend. Even though Xichen was working on his Master’s. Even though Xichen definitely didn’t need his brother’s boyfriend’s younger brother all up in his space.

This Xichen now, eyes barely open and stumbling around, reminded Jiang Cheng so much of that Xichen back then, back when he thought maybe he might have a chance, that it hurt/

And still somehow charmed the absolute shit out of him.

“Sit your ass down before you break something,” Jiang Cheng said. He stood up and guided Xichen towards the table set up in the suite. “Room service is coming.”

“Tea?” Xichen asked, his voice rough, but his tone hopeful.

“Coffee,” Jiang Cheng said. He set a mug down in front of him. “Drink it. You’ll need it.”

“Tea,” Xichen said again, this time pleading.

Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes but walked back over to the tiny kitchenette.

“All they have is English Breakfast, so not one word of complaint,” Jiang Cheng said as he filled a mug with water.

Now:

New Year’s Day Dinner was black tie. The last grand family event until Chinese New Year. The last full day and night for all of them at Lotus Pier until summer. Even with the fancy clothes and glasses and dishes, it was one of the most relaxed dinners of the entire holiday fortnight. Maybe it was because everyone was still a little tired from the festivities the night before/morning of, but everyone was relaxed, more or less.

Out of all the official family dinners, it was Jiang Cheng’s favorite.

And it definitely helped that he got to see his husband in a tux and didn’t have to worry about not keeping his hands to himself.

“No,” Xichen said as he redid his bowtie. Again.

“It looks better undone,” Jiang Cheng argued.

“Not before dinner,” Xichen said. He leaned over him, pinning his wrists down on the bed. “Be good.”

“But you like it so much when I’m--”

“Stop,” Xichen pleaded. “We have to go downstairs.”

“That’s not what you said our first New Year’s Eve together here. We barely made dinner the next day.”

“No one could or would blame me. It was the first stretch of time I truly had alone with you for over two weeks.”

“Started a whole new tradition that night,” Jiang Cheng said. “One of your bests.”

Our bests,” Xichen corrected. “Ours.”

Then:

“Mom, I’m sorry,” Jiang Cheng apologized, again. “I’m with the Nies and Xichen--”

“Lan Xichen?” his mother asked. “Really? He’s still single, yes?”

“Mother,” he warned as he clutched his phone.

“Well, is he?” she asked.

He was, he was very much still single.

“I didn’t ask,” Jiang Cheng said. He lingered in the doorway of his room, eyes locked on the balcony where Xichen stood looking out over the city. “It’s not my business.”

“Did he not attend the gala with a date?”

“He was there with Nie Mingjue.”

She made a knowing sound. “I always suspected those two.”

“But Mingjue apparently had plans to meet someone else there, I don’t know. I actually have yet to see Mingjue, so I think Xichen came more to keep an eye on Huaisang.”

“That boy is trouble,” his mother said. “Even worse than that demon you claim as your brother.”

“Huaisang is harmless,” he argued, out of loyalty to his best friend.

His mother scoffed. “You’re smart enough not to disillusion yourself, Cheng. Don’t lie to yourself either.”

“I am sorry I won’t be there for dinner,” Jiang Cheng said.

His mother sighed. “We will miss you, but you’re where you need to be.”

“You really believe that?” he asked.

“Yes,” his mother said in that tone that allowed no argument.

Now:

The playroom was full of pets and family. The room was full of noise, everyone talking as they tried to get settled for the final family photograph of the holiday. Even in all their fancy clothes, they were all relaxed after dinner and desserts.

Xichen stood behind the tripod, setting up the camera to take a series of shots.

“Countdown’s beginning,” Xichen called out in his Headmaster Lan voice.

Everyone, especially the younger members who had attended or did attend the Academy, all fell immediately into order.

His mother nodded in approval. “Perhaps we should have sent them to Lan Academy instead of Andover,” she said to his father.

“Wei Ying would’ve destroyed the dorms,” Jiang Cheng said.

“Jiang Cheng would’ve made at least five of the teachers cry,” Wei Ying replied.

“Yanli would’ve tried to take over the culinary classes,” they both said.

“I would not,” Yanli said. “I was a respectful student.”

“You once gave an instructor at Andover a fifteen-minute lecture on the differences between various types of olive oil,” Jiang Cheng said.

“Not to mention that whole yeast PowerPoint,” Wei Ying said.

“You have 15 seconds to stop arguing before the camera starts taking pictures,” Xichen warned.

In the end of the over thirty pictures taken, only five turned out usable, which was almost a record for their family.

Then:

“Are you not supposed to be rushing back to Martha’s Vineyard?” Xichen asked.

He looked more himself now. There was still a strain around his eyes, his smile still dimmed, but those kind eyes were clear, and the smile was genuine.

“I’ve decided to keep you and Huasiang company,” he said.

“Really?” Xichen asked. His face showed his surprise. “Your mother, and I say this respectfully, is going to allow that?”

Jiang Cheng laughed. “Scared of my mother, are you?”

“Yes,” Xichen said without hesitation.

“Good,” Jiang Cheng said. “That shows a strong sense of survival.”

He went to the kitchenette and heated up some of their leftovers from this morning, preparing a plate for both Xichen and himself.He carried them over to the couch where Xichen sat, and handed him his plate, napkin, and silverware.

“It’s not Yanli’s cooking, but it’ll do,” Jiang Cheng said.

“Thank you,” Xichen said.

Jiang Cheng nodded. “It’s always best to start a new year sharing a meal with friends and family.”

Huaisang finally appeared, drawn out by the smell of food. He shoved himself in between them and stole Jiang Cheng’s fork as he started to eat off his plate.

“Has anyone seen my brother yet?” he asked.

“He called me earlier,” Xichen said. “He’s still with--” he looked at Jiang Cheng then back to Huaisang. “He’s still with--”

“His little fox, got it,” Huaisang said. “Maybe this will be the year they finally get their shit together.” He nudged Jiang Cheng. “Like someone else I know.”

“Excuse you,” Jiang Cheng said.

“You heard me,” Huaisang said. “Get off your ass and do something about it.”

“You get off your ass,” Jiang Cheng said.

“Oh?” Xichen asked. “Jiang Cheng, are you seeing someone?”

“No,” Jiang Cheng said.

“He wishes,” Huaisang muttered.

“Pardon?” Xichen asked.

“Ignore him,” Jiang Cheng said. “He doesn’t know what he’s saying. Still drunk, probably.”

Now:

It was good to be back in the Berkshires. Their quiet, beautiful home. With it’s evergrowing forest of planted Christmas trees and collection of orchids and the wall of family pictures that kept getting bigger and bigger. Their home full of Xichen’s paintings and pottery work. The pet beds and the music room and the home gym. And their own personal type of peace and quiet. It was good to be with family, but exhausting all the same.

After dumping their suitcases in the laundry room, he found his husband standing in the kitchen, glass of water in his hand, staring out at the back porch.

“Baby?” he asked.

Xichen looked up at him. “Yes, my love?”

“You okay?” he asked.

Xichen put his glass down and held out his arms, Jiang Cheng walked into the hug.

“This spot is one of my favorite places in the house,” Xichen said.

“Why?”

“Because it’s where you agreed to date me,” he said. “And that moment? It changed everything.” He cupped Jiang Cheng’s cheek. “You took that chance, you gave me that trust, and it all started here.”

That year had brought him something so dear, and deep, something he’d wished and hoped for, something--someone--he’d never thought he’d get to have, not like this, not nearly twenty years together, married, grand-uncles, and still so happy. Of course it wasn’t perfect, Jiang Cheng still had a temper and Xichen could be the stubbornest asshole in the land when he wanted, but the one thing they’d had, from the start, was that communication. And it served them well. To know when to give each other space. To know when actions were needed instead of words. To know that they loved each other still, always, but even they had moments when they didn’t like each other very much. Because they were human, and had flaws and bad days, and even the best open communication sometimes failed.

And it had started here. But it had also started on a balcony at a fundraiser the weekend before. At the New Year’s Eve gala. At a family vacation. At an art gallery. At a dance in the Cloud Recesses between a kind, caring young man and a gangly, shy, angry boy.

“I love you even more now than I did then,” Jiang Cheng said.

He stepped out his arms and took his hand, leading them out of the kitchen, past the orchids and the pet beds, to the stairs and past the wall of family photos, to their room and their bed.