‘Now we have more experience, we know to go slow. I think you were a little too ambitious last time. This time, we’ll just start slow okay? Let’s take it bit by bit.’
‘…a-Cheng, I’m not a child, I think I can handle it.’
‘Well,’ Jiang Cheng drawls, his voice low. ‘I also remember you saying that last time, and you wound up choking on it. It made you cry. I made you cry.’
‘I just wasn’t prepared!’
Their voices fade away as they turn the corner.
Frozen on the bank down below, Wei Wuxian’s eyes are as big as saucers.
‘Oh good, you’re here!’
Like a premonition of catastrophe, a string of his beloved guqin snaps.
Alarmed, Lan Wangji finds himself accosted by a husband who looks as though he’s made a sincere effort to attune himself to the rhythms of nature by becoming one with the grass and mud. Recognising that crazed glint in his eyes and yet helpless to withstand its force, he finds himself towed out of the Jingshi and halfway down the path, before a ‘what’ can pass his lips.
‘Xichen-ge needs our help!’
‘Xiongzhang?’ his eyes harden and his hand goes to his side by instinct, until he realises that in their rush to leave, he’s left Bichen behind.
‘Yes, I heard him and Jiang Cheng—’
Lan Wangji brakes abruptly.
‘Yes,’ retorts Wei Wuxian smartly, as he tries to pull Lan Zhan after him without success.
‘No,’ Lan Wangji says mulishly, the look in his eyes not unlike that of a bad-tempered mastiff which has made up its mind that it absolutely will not budge from the fire hydrant, come what may.
Notwithstanding all the flailing, the Second Jade of Gusu Lan continues striding back to their lodgings with one Wei Wuxian tucked under an arm. From a distance, his bearing is as erect as ever and his face just as blank. But from Wei Wuxian’s practised eye, the first cracks in the other’s icy demeanour were already beginning to show.
‘Yes! Your brother really, really needs our help!’
‘Do you remember,’ Lan Zhan intones gravely, or at least as gravely as he can manage while carrying a particularly defiant sack of potatoes, ‘promising me to stop being helpful when I ask you to?’
‘Yes...’ Wei Wuxian says.
‘Do you remember why?’
‘…because you only tell me that when I’m being too helpful, and I cannot stop being too helpful by being more helpful,’ he recites automatically.
‘I’m asking now, Wei Ying.’
‘But listen, I’m really not being too helpful this time!’
‘Good evening, Hanguang-jun! Senior Wei!’ chirp two juniors as they scurry past on the path back from the dining hall, looking entirely unsurprised to see the Jiang head disciple being carried back to their lodgings.
‘Hey,’ Wei Wuxian musters up a wave, before continuing to harass his long-suffering husband.
‘Look, I’m the first to admit that what happened previously, wasn’t, you know, ideal. But that was back when we didn’t understand their relationship and were making all sorts of crazy assumptions. But now! They’re married, Lan Zhan.’
‘As are we,’ says his husband, sounding thoroughly irritated now. ‘Why is their marriage of such interest to you?’
‘Because I want the best for Xichen-xiong, of course!’ Wei Ying blinks up at him. ‘Did you know that they’re having problems with…’
‘Good evening, Hanguang-jun! Senior Wei!’
‘Hi kids! How was dinner? But seriously. Problems. With their every day, you know? You know what I mean? Like, not every day “every day”, but like our “every day”, you know?’
‘Wei Ying, even the trees and the rocks know what you mean.’
With a last frantic burst of energy, Wei Wuxian wriggles his way to freedom at last. ‘So you see how serious a situation this is?’
‘I don’t think it is any of our business. I also have not heard any complaints from my brother.’
‘When was the last time you’ve seen or heard Xichen-ge complain about something?’
‘…when the fourth-year Lu Jian made a hole in Xiongzhang’s favourite robe, I saw his brow crease a little,’ Lan Wangji said at last.
‘Oh, I remember. That day when you came back and wrote out a syllabus on proper laundry techniques and scheduled a week’s mandatory training for all first to fifth-years?
‘Yeah, now just remember how you felt then… Hold that thought. And now think about this. When I was feeding the rabbits just now, I heard Xichen-ge and Jiang Cheng talking about it. In fact, I heard that Jiang Cheng made Xichen-ge cry.’
‘I will end him.’
‘What?? No, no, no, Lan Zhan, let me finish! Jiang Cheng definitely didn’t mean to do it—in fact, he sounds like he was the one who was trying not to let your brother, ahem, overexert himself!’
‘Stop speaking nonsense!’ Lan Wangji snaps, his ears tinged red. ‘That’s impossible. My brother excels in everything he does, he always has.’
‘But to excel in these matters, wouldn’t you need a partner?’ Wei Wuxian hisses. ‘Look at where you are! Where on earth would the pure and innocent Zewu-jun have gained such knowledge prior to his marriage? Who would dare? And what would people think of him if they knew?’
The ambient temperature plummets by ten degrees.
‘It doesn’t matter what other people think. It would be an honour to have intimate relations with Xiongzhang,’ Lan Wangji says coldly.
‘Shufu!’ come the panicked cries of several juniors from behind them.
Caught up in their argument, the couple continue to bicker as they make their way back to their lodgings, oblivious to the devastation left in their wake.
The hour is late and most of the Lan sect are sound asleep.
Their sect leader, however, has become well accustomed to staying up past his bedtime.
For two people with their responsibilities and schedules, it is rare that they are able to spend the day together or even take their meals at the same time of day. Instead, it has become their usual routine to spend the last hour of their day together before they retire for the night.
As Jiang Cheng brings a small lamp over to the low table, Lan Xichen is already busy setting out the cups and measuring out the leaves with a practised hand.
When he settles into his seat at last, Jiang Cheng finds himself unexpectedly captivated by the ethereal sight of the First Jade in candlelight, though he has seen it a hundred times before. In the flickering light, Lan Xichen’s skin looks like it’s glowing. His silky hair has a soft sheen that begs to be touched. Even his eyelashes are beautiful, like the finest inkstrokes against porcelain. And when he glances up abruptly, as though feeling the weight of Jiang Cheng’s awestruck stare on him, his lips quirk into a devastating smile.
‘You’re staring again,’ he murmurs.
‘Just, uh… Just thinking about, uh…’ Jiang Cheng says intelligently as his brain begins to reboot itself begrudgingly. ‘…what we talked about earlier.’
Lan Xichen’s eyes widen fractionally.
‘What, you mean… You want to… Here?’
‘Well, I mean…’ Jiang Cheng turns red. ‘Uh… I guess I really am excited for you to try it again. I’ll try and restrain myself this time, so it won’t be too much for you.’
‘Do you think,’ Lan Xichen begins before he can stop himself.
‘Yes?’ Jiang Cheng says, leaning in unconsciously.
‘No, I mean… I don’t know. What if people find out? What if Shufu finds out?’
Jiang Cheng blink. And scoffs.
‘Xichen, he’s neither blind nor deaf. He’s living here. In the same place as Wei Wuxian. I’m sure a part of him already knows what my brother does every day—or rather, what your brother does for him—and he’s just turning a blind eye to it.’
Lan Xichen hums thoughtfully.
’43 days in the Cloud Recesses, Xichen. I know we have a reputation to uphold. I know we have to follow the rules and set an example. But we’ve been here for nearly a month and a half, and there are still two weeks to go…’
If anyone asked, Jiang Cheng would swear on pain of death that he definitely, absolutely, 100% did not purposefully and meaningfully widen his eyes or puff out his cheeks in a very passable imitation of a pitiful kitten begging for cuddles.
Lan Xichen hides his smile in his cup.
‘Well. I suppose if we only do it at night and keep our voices down, there’s no reason why anyone would know,’ he says casually, as though they’re talking about the weather, as though the idea of breaking one of Gusu Lan’s 3000 rules isn’t also sending a frisson of excitement racing down his spine.
Jiang Cheng bursts out laughing.
‘I knew it! You little rebel. Let’s do it tomorrow, all right? I love you, but if I have to eat any more of your sect’s tofu and cabbage soup, I’m going to turn into a rabbit and then you’d be sorry.’
Lan Xichen just sighs but the smile in his eyes doesn’t go away.
‘You won’t regret it, I promise,’ Jiang Cheng babbles at him excitedly. ‘I’ve been thinking about this for so long. I worked so hard on refining my recipe. You’re absolutely going to love my pork rib soup.’
‘Wei Ying and you really are brothers through and through. I know you consider our fare bland, but looking at the level of spice the two of you prefer, I’m not confident I’d be able to taste anything either after one mouthful of your soup.’
‘Pfft, that’s not going to happen. I’ve adjusted the recipe so that we’ll use only a fraction of the pepper this time around. Now it’ll be just slightly more flavourful than water. It’ll blow your mind.’
As the moon rises further into the sky, they continue chatting and laughing as they finish off the last of their tea. Once they enter the inner chamber, however, the pleasant fragrance that had permeated the room suddenly becomes much stronger.
‘Sorry, I might have overdone it with the incense earlier,’ Jiang Cheng explains sheepishly.
‘It’s not too bad. Is it new though?’ Lan Xichen wonders. ‘I don’t recall this particular fragrance.’
Jiang Cheng shrugs.
‘Me neither. I spotted the incense burner on the table earlier and thought it’d be great if it could help to ward off the mosquitoes. How is it that these insects can even survive at this altitude?’
After their conversation, though they had argued for over an hour, they still hadn’t been able to settle on a course of action. They were in deadlock, but eventually, Lan Wangji grudgingly agreed that it would behove them to find out whether assistance of any kind was required in the first place.
‘Great, let’s go! I’ve already placed the incense burner in the Hanshi,’ Wei Wuxian informed him sunnily.
Upon hearing that, Lan Wangji’s entire being seemed to deflate—slowly, gently, like a tire which has blithely trundled across its very first spike.
‘Quick, come and listen!’ Wei Wuxian says in what he clearly imagined to be a whisper, crouching in front of the Hanshi without letting go of Lan Wangji’s wrist.
Thus tethered, Lan Wangji ponders upon the injustice of his own mortality.
If he sees his brother cavorting with that man in flagrante delicto, he might expire from shock. If his brother is not indeed engaging in the pleasures of the flesh, then Wangji is left with no alternative but to die from mortification. Either way, after suffering such an ignoble death, he would most likely turn into a resentful spirit bound to the earthly realm, capable only of trailing after his husband and moaning ‘I told you so’ at his back. And to top it off, his brother would probably then be called upon to deal with his unsettled spirit, and Wangji would need to find a way to put himself out of his misery again.
Oblivious to his husband’s agony, Wei Wuxian presses his ear closer to the door.
The incense burner had indeed done the trick. In fact, Lan Zhan and he had barely walked through the door, before the overpowering fragrance began to lull them to sleep. When he opened his eyes again, he was disoriented at finding themselves back at the entrance to the Hanshi, but when he thought about it further, he realised that it made perfect sense. Where else indeed might that repressed couple be willing to indulge in their deepest desires?
If he tried hard enough, he could just about make out Jiang Cheng’s voice.
‘There’s nothing to be afraid of. Just put your hands around me.’
‘Open your mouth.’
‘N-no, I don’t want to.’
‘Be good, do it for me.’
‘No, I can’t! Please don’t make me do it!’
‘Jiang Cheng, you bastard! Leave him alone!’ Unable to stop himself, Wei Wuxian bursts through the door, dragging a very unwilling Lan Wangji behind him.
A spoon clatters to the table as Lan Xichen stares at him in shock.
‘Where’s Jiang Cheng?’ Wei Wuxian asks in confusion. ‘Who were you talking to? Who—oh. Oh no. Oh my god. Are you dream cheating on my brother??’
‘Wei Ying!’ Lan Zhan snaps, as he turns instinctively to glare at his husband. He flinches a minute later as his eyes sweep over his brother as well by mistake, but his features swiftly regain their usual stony passivity as he realises with a profound relief that the other is fully dressed and merely sitting at a table by himself.
‘Wangji, Wei Ying, what is the meaning of this?’ Lan Xichen says slowly. ‘Who’s cheating on Jiang Cheng? Why are you here? Am I dreaming?’
‘Well, okay, yes and no,’ Wei Wuxian tries. ‘You’re not really here, but you’re fully aware of what’s happening, right? We came here to um… retrieve our incense burner from your room. Sorry I didn’t tell you earlier, but that object reveals your deepest, darkest desires.’
Lan Xichen’s face turns so red he’s fairly glowing.
‘What—?’ Wei Wuxian splutters as Lan Xichen attempts to slide his bowl of all things out of sight. ‘Oh for goodness’ sake, I’m not going to judge you for your… your bland…’
Wei Wuxian gapes down at the most perfect bowl of soup he’s ever seen. As he stands there, the familiar aroma of his favourite soup in the world wafts up to his nose. The lotus root slices glisten in the light. Succulent ribs that looked tender enough to part from the bone at the barest touch, break through the surface of the steaming hot soup, as if to better display their beauty.
‘Get lost!’ screeches the soup.
Eyes glazed over, Wei Wuxian doesn’t appear to hear anything out of the ordinary as he picks up the bowl and begins to lower his head.
‘Wei Ying, be careful of poison!’ shouts Lan Wangji, his fingers outstretched.
As if in slow motion, the bowl slips away from them and shatters into smithereens.
Jiang Cheng jolts awake and nearly falls out of bed.
By his side, Lan Xichen stirs at the same time. When their eyes meet, a range of emotions pass over the First Jade’s face too quickly to be identified, but to Jiang Cheng’s horror, those large, beautiful eyes well up unexpectedly and his lower lip trembles. Sniffling, Lan Xichen holds out for less than a second before he throws his arms around Jiang Cheng and buries his face in his neck.
‘Don’t cry!’ Jiang Cheng exclaims. ‘I’m okay! I’m okay, I didn’t really break into little pieces or anything.’
He casts his eyes around the room helplessly, looking for inspiration. Their shared dream had been so strange, so out of this world, that he’s not even sure how to begin to process it.
Outside, all is quiet and still. As the wind picks up, the chill makes Jiang Cheng wonder if they’ve accidentally left a window wide open. He shivers a little, prompting the First Jade’s arms to tighten around him in response.
His poor silly husband must still be petrified at the thought of losing him, Jiang Cheng thinks warmly.
‘I’m still here,’ he says gently. ‘It was just a dream.’
Lan Xichen mumbles something inaudible into his neck.
‘Come again?’ he says, prodding at him until he sits up at last.
‘I didn’t get to eat you in the end!’ Lan Xichen wails.
What the hell.