“They’re breaking A-jie’s betrothal to Jin Zixuan!” Jiang Cheng said, urgency making his voice rise far above the whisper he was aiming for. His brother jumped up at his words, gravel scattering across the yard at the motion, his eyes blazing.
“What? How dare he! Does he want me to beat him up again?” Wei Wuxian said angrily, fists clenching as if preparing to punch Jin Zixuan again right then.
“No, it was Father’s idea,” Jiang Cheng said, shaking his head. He didn’t want Wei Wuxian to get in trouble for getting into another fight with Jin Zixuan, especially since the other boy hadn’t even done anything this time.
“What?” Wei Wuxian asked with a frown.
“Really. But now Jin Guangshan wants me to marry Jin Zixuan,” Jiang Cheng said in a rush, wanting to get it out before Wei Wuxian ran off to check on Yanli, as he inevitably would. Wei Wuxian stared at him, open mouthed.
“He what? You? That peacock? Why?” He asked, befuddled.
“I know. I said I had to talk to A-jie first, before saying I’d marry someone she’d just been betrothed to, so Father’s probably going to be talking to her after he’s finished talking to Jin Guangshan,” Jiang Cheng rambled, taking a deep breath to continue. “And-”
“Let’s go find Shijie, then,” Wei Wuxian said, cutting him off before Jiang Cheng could talk himself into even more of a state. “C’mon, Jiang Cheng.” Jiang Cheng nodded weakly, letting his brother lead them towards the guest house the Jiang Clan members were given for their stay in Cloud Recesses.
“Shijie!” Wei Wuxian called as he opened the door to the house, the door rattling a little louder than strictly necessary. Yanli looked up at them from where she sat at the table, tearing her gaze from the spot on the wall in front of her where she’d been staring, face tight. She knew what was being discussed not far away, and that her fate was in the balance of their father’s conversation.
“A-Xian, A-Cheng,” Yanli greeted, looking between them both, her brow furrowed in concern at the way they were both breathing harder than they should have been (running was forbidden in Cloud Recesses, but Jiang Cheng had momentarily forgotten, and Wei Wuxian just didn’t care), and Jiang Cheng realized his hair was all out of place, half of it spilling over his shoulder instead of staying back like it was supposed to. He hurriedly swept it back, trying to look a little more put-together and less panicked than he felt in the moment. From the look Yanli gave him, he hadn’t succeeded.
“Jiang Cheng says — well, I’ll let him say it, right, Jiang Cheng?” Wei Wuxian started, before stopping himself and turning to his brother. Suddenly nervous about telling Yanli what had been decided in the meeting between clan leaders, Jiang Cheng cleared his throat, opened his mouth, then paused, shaking his head and moving over so he could sit next to Yanli before he began talking.
“Father asked Jin Guangshan to break the betrothal between you and Jin Zixuan,” he said, trying to remember everything that had been said so he could give her a proper account. “He said that since you both didn’t seem to want it, he didn’t want to force you to marry. Jin Guangshan didn’t want to break it over what he called a misunderstanding between children, but he agreed that perhaps you and Jin Zixuan wouldn’t be the best match, so he said he would go along with Father’s decision, but…” Jiang Cheng trailed off, biting his lip. Because then Jin Guangshan had said that, if Yanli and Jin Zixuan were a poor match, his father still had another child. Jiang Cheng. And that, if he were agreeable, perhaps they could rescue this marriage alliance if Jiang Cheng were to marry Jin Zixuan instead. It wasn’t like Jin Guangshan had any other legitimate children for a match with the Jiang Clan, so another marriage for Yanli wasn’t possible, but Jiang Fengmian still had a son. An as of yet unattached son.
‘Perhaps my son would mind the marriage less if it was to your son instead of your daughter,’ Jin Guangshan had said, and Jiang Cheng had been unable to stop the blush that came to his face at the comment. Oh . If that were so, some of Jin Zixuan’s reluctance to marry Yanli made more sense. Though as the Jin Clan heir he’d need to marry a woman at some point to produce an heir of his own and have a Lady of Koi Tower. His own preferences had nothing to do with that. As a clan heir himself, Jiang Cheng knew the expectations to marry and have children. If he really wanted to, Jin Zixuan could have lovers on the side — his father had certainly set the precedent for it in the Jin Clan — but he’d need a wife eventually. Yanli would be an amazing lady of anywhere, so he shouldn’t snub her for such things. Though perhaps if that were the case, and Jin Zixuan were constantly seeing other people, Jiang Cheng really couldn’t support Yanli being his wife. She deserved better than that in a marriage.
“But?” Yanli asked softly, prompting him to continue. He startled and looked over to meet her eyes, his own wide.
“But,” he continued, willing the flush that had started creeping up his face to go down. “Jin Guangshan said he didn’t want to ruin the beautiful union between our clans, and then suggested that instead of just cancelling the betrothal, we... adjust it, somewhat. So that instead of you marrying Jin Zixuan, it would be me.”
“Oh, A-Cheng, that’s unexpected,” Yanli said, reaching out to rest her hand on his. “What did Father say?”
“Well, he turned to me, and asked what I thought, and I — I said that I was honored by the offer, but that I’d have to talk to you before I made a decision. And then I bowed and when they started talking again I went to get Wei Wuxian and now we’re here, telling you,” Jiang Cheng said, all in one breath. Yanli nodded slowly, brushing her fingers lightly across his knuckles. It helped, actually, and Jiang Cheng managed to take a few deep breaths after getting the whole tale out in the open.
“Wow,” Wei Wuxian said, flopping down to sit at one of the remaining seats. “That’s something, isn’t it.” Jiang Cheng huffed and made a move as if to whack his brother on the arm, but didn’t put any effort into it. Wei Wuxian made a show of pulling his arm out of the way even so, but didn’t say anything else for once.
“So that’s what happened,” Jiang Cheng sighed, moving his hand so he could hold onto Yanli’s. To show support for her own emotional situation, obviously. “How do you feel about it, A-jie?” Yanli pursed her lips, giving the question serious thought.
“Truly, I’m not quite sure. It’s been a certain part of my future for so long, and the idea of losing that is off-putting. I’ve been practically raised to be Lady of Koi Tower, so it radically changes my vision of my future. Not that it has to be a bad thing,” she said, carefully weighing each of her words. “I think I’d like more say in who I marry, when I am ready. And I’m not attached to Jin Zixuan himself, perhaps more like the idea of him.”
“Yeah, the actual him is a jerk,” Wei Wuxian piped up. Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes at his brother, but didn’t argue. This whole situation had happened because Jin Zixuan insulted Yanli, so Wei Wuxian wasn’t technically wrong. But Yanli shook her head.
“Did he say anything other than he didn’t want to marry me, though?” she asked, turning to Wei Wuxian, who’d been the only one of them to hear everything. Wei Wuxian frowned and sat up straighter, ready to hit Yanli’s now ex-betrothed again.
“He said he didn’t want the marriage. That’s insult enough, isn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to marry Shijie,” he said, relaxing his posture at the last comment so he could lean his head against Yanli’s shoulder. Shaking her head Yanli reached up her hand that wasn’t still holding Jiang Cheng’s to brush Wei Wuxian’s hair out of his face.
“I appreciate the defense, A-Xian, but I can’t truly be upset with him for not wanting a marriage he had no say in,” she said. Wei Wuxian pouted.
“He could still be nicer to you about it all though,” he complained, and Jiang Cheng nodded in agreement. Dissatisfaction with his betrothal was no reason to be mean to Yanli! Though perhaps that had been a calculated choice. It had worked, after all, hadn’t it? Their father had wanted to end the betrothal because he felt it evident that neither Yanli nor Jin Zixuan wanted it.
Which probably meant Jin Zixuan had little interest in marrying Jiang Cheng either, and he’d be rude and try to end that potential betrothal as well. Then again, if Jin Guangshan was right and his son would mind a betrothal less if it was with Jiang Cheng as opposed to his sister, well. Who knew. Maybe the marriage alliance between their clans would work out better this way.
“So, you don’t care about whether or not you marry him, A-jie?” Jiang Cheng asked, wanting definitive confirmation that she wasn’t upset about this turn of events. There was now way he’d ever marry Jin Zixuan if Yanli wanted to, or if he’d truly hurt her feelings.
“It’s a bit overwhelming, but… no, I don’t think I care. In fact, it’s a relief, I think.” Yanli nodded, more sure in her words now. “I’ve never particularly wanted the marriage, I just expected it. And now that I’m not expected to be the Lady of Koi Tower, perhaps Mother will allow me to practice my cultivation and train with swords more.” She seemed excited at that idea, even, and Jiang Cheng nodded, concerns diminished. His sister was not disappointed or angry that she had lost her betrothal and that her whole life would be different than planned now.
“I’m glad you’re happy, Shijie,” Wei Wuxian said, nuzzling into her shoulder where he rested against it. “If that Jin Zixuan had upset you worse, I’d go and beat him up again.” Yanli giggled, and bopped him on the nose.
“Of course you would. But he hasn’t, and you won’t have to fight him on my behalf again. If the second betrothal goes through, I’m sure A-Cheng can defend himself, so you don’t need to get in trouble again.” Yanli smiled at both of them, and Jiang Cheng couldn’t help blushing at the reminder that it wasn’t just a matter of ending Yanli’s betrothal. Thankfully, Wei Wuxian knew just how to distract him.
“Jiang Cheng has no honor for me to defend.” he said smugly, and Jiang Cheng snapped his head from smiling at Yanli to glaring at his brother.
“Oh? I certainly have more honor than you, so that’s just defaming yourself, you know,” Jiang Cheng said. Wei Wuxian just grinned at him. Idiot. Jiang Cheng scowled.
“Isn’t it time for you to get back to kneeling? Father will be here any minute, you don’t want to get in more trouble, do you?” Unrepentant, Wei Wuxian shrugged at him.
“I wouldn’t get in that much trouble, it’s fine,” he said, waving a hand. “I’m much more interested in what you have to say, Jiang Cheng. How do you feel about marrying that peacock? Odd thing for Jin Guangshan to suggest, isn’t it? Same-status marriages between men are pretty rare, and Jin Zixuan’s his only legitimate son. Why present it as an option? Is the alliance between Jiang Clan and Jin Clan being a marriage so important to him? Though I guess you are younger,” Wei Wuxian said thoughtfully, trailing off.
“Get out,” Jiang Cheng said, making a move as if to try to grab Wei Wuxian, who leaned back out of the way.
“Alright, alright, touchy. I will make no more comments about you and Jin Zixuan and will resume reflecting on all my misdeeds,” he teased, getting up and sauntering to the door. “Maybe I’ll stop by Jin Zixuan on the way, Jiang Cheng, see what he thinks of you. If this was all a plot because he has designs on your virtue, I may have to beat him up again.”
“Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng yelled, as Wei Wuxian cackled and dashed out the door. Yanli smiled and patted her brother’s hand.
“You know he means well,” she reminded him.
“That’s not even slightly the point,” Jiang Cheng said through clenched teeth. What the point was, Jiang Cheng didn’t really know, but ‘meaning well’ definitely wasn’t it. It was obvious Wei Wuxian didn’t mean at least half of what he said, and Jiang Cheng was pretty sure he didn’t even think about most of his words before they left his mouth. That didn’t mean Jiang Cheng was in a mood to deal with his nonsense. He sighed heavily and leaned into Yanli, hoping he could calm down at least a little before their father showed up.
Within a few minutes — Wei Wuxian really had left right in time — Jiang Fengmian arrived at the house, and settled into the seat Wei Wuxian had just recently vacated. He glanced between the two of them briefly before speaking.
“I assume A-Cheng has already told you what Clan Leader Jin and I discussed?” he asked Yanli, who nodded.
“Yes. I am no longer to marry Young Master Jin, but A-Cheng might,” she said, summarizing the whole thing rather succinctly. Jiang Fengmian sighed heavily.
“Indeed. You are agreeable to the end of your betrothal?” he asked her. Yanli nodded.
“Yes, Father. I do not mind. I would prefer to marry someone who does not object so strongly to the marriage,” she said. Jiang Fengmian smiled slightly.
“Good. I’m glad. I don’t want you to be unhappy, A-Li,” he said, and Jiang Cheng had a moment of deep appreciation for his father. None of them wanted to see Yanli stuck in a marriage where she wasn’t wanted, and while he and Wei Wuxian would certainly do their best to protect her, their father had more say still in who she would end up marrying. Having him on their side in this was a boon.
“Thank you, Father,” Yanli smiled. She really did seem content with the change. Overwhelmed at first, yes, but she already looked as if she felt lighter, and Jiang Cheng decided it really was best for his sister to get her choice back. Yes, it may hurt her, somewhat, to be rejected like that, but she would shine through it and find a much better husband than Jin Zixuan. Though it occurred to Jiang Cheng he should maybe be less dismissive of Jin Zixuan and stop thinking of him as ‘that guy who’s a jerk to Yanli.’
“A-Cheng told you the second part as well, you said?” Jiang Fengmian continued, clearly wanting to close this issue quickly. Yanli nodded.
“Yes. Clan Leader Jin suggested changing the betrothal so it is between Young Master Jin and A-Cheng instead. And my thoughts were requested before a decision was made.” Jiang Cheng shifted uneasily as they reached the part of the conversation that more directly related to him.
“That is correct, A-Li. Do you have anything you wish to say on the matter?” Their father seemed a bit uneasy as well. Clearly, he hadn’t expected Jin Guangshan’s counter offer.
“It would not hurt me if A-Cheng were to marry him. I do not wish to force A-Cheng into anything he does not want, but if the only concern is my feelings, then neither of you should feel bad about going forward with this alternative,” Yanli said carefully, glancing over at Jiang Cheng briefly every few words. He tried very hard to keep a straight face and not act as nervous as he felt.
“Right. Thank you, A-Li, your input is invaluable, and we will keep it in mind,” Jiang Fengmian told her, resting his hand on her arm and squeezing it lightly. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to speak with your brother privately a moment.”
“Of course,” Yanli nodded, smiling at him and gracefully standing up. “A-Cheng,” she added, briefly brushing her hand against his shoulder before she turned to leave the house. Jiang Cheng watched her go, eyes following her until the door closed completely and he no longer had an excuse. With a deep breath, Jiang Cheng turned back to Jiang Fengmian.
“Father,” he said, hoping that the way his voice caught wasn’t noticeable. Jiang Fengmian smiled at him, eyes a little sad.
“I can’t say this was what I pictured for your future, A-Cheng,” he said simply. Jiang Cheng shook his head, glancing down at the table to avoid eye contact.
“No, Father.” He clasped his hands in his lap, trying to keep them still. It wouldn’t have been what Jiang Fengmian pictured for his heir at all. Marriage between men wasn’t unheard of, especially between clans who wanted such a close alliance and had no daughters, but there was usually more of a difference in status between the men involved. Jiang Cheng and Jin Zixuan were, by most standards, the same status; each the heir to one of the five major clans. There were a few historical examples of close status marriages, if one were to go through every clan’s records with a fine comb, but not a lot, and none Jiang Cheng could think of in the past generation or two. Under most circumstances, the two of them marrying would be unacceptable. However, his mother and Madame Jin had always been intent on their children marrying, and Jiang Cheng knew that a formalized alliance with the Jin Clan through a marriage would be good for the Jiang Clan. He could see why it had become an option, strange though it seemed.
“I told Clan Leader Jin I would bring him an answer when we have dinner with Grandmaster Lan tonight. I wanted to discuss everything with you first.” Jiang Cheng nodded quickly, still looking down at the table. Jiang Fengmian’s tone softened. “A-Cheng,” he said. Jiang Cheng looked up to meet his eyes. “Are you truly alright with this? Marrying a man, especially one as close in status to you as Jin Zixuan, there are some… risks to your reputation. Not that I don’t believe you’ll present yourself well and furnish your reputation yourself, but, the Jin Clan is more wealthy than ours. And you are the younger of the two of you. People will make… assumptions.” Jiang Cheng’s face flushed red.
“I understand,” he choked out. He did. It was why marriage between two men of the same status was so rare. While it wasn’t quite the same as marriage between a man and a woman, it was expected that one of the men — the lower class one — would take on more of the roles of a wife, as they were needed. Usually, the man of lower class was also younger, and in the case of marriages where the partners are closer in status, age was used to determine the ‘wife.’ Between him and Jin Zixuan, Jiang Cheng was younger by a year or so, which meant nearly everyone would decide that Jiang Cheng was the ‘wife’ if they married. Jin Guangshan certainly knew this when he offered this marriage as an alternative; it wouldn’t harm his own son’s reputation much, if at all. Jiang Cheng’s, though, might be compromised a little. Not too terribly, since such a marriage was considered a true expression of friendship between their clans or whatever, and that was respectable and all, but some people might think it meant he was weak.
Jiang Cheng knew he could prove them wrong if they did.
“There are some benefits to such an arrangement,” Jiang Fengmian continued, “Many of the same we would have gotten with A-Li’s marriage. But you wouldn’t have to leave Lotus Pier permanently like A-Li. I imagine you’d spend more time in Koi Tower, but Young Master Jin would spend more time in Lotus Pier as well. A more equal exchange of time. Both of you would still be able to take a wife, and if it occured that you had no heir, you could adopt one of his sons, if he had more than one. The same would go for him. And, to be perfectly honest, a benefit of you being younger is the Jin Clan would be expected to provide more for us than we for them. They do have more resources than us in many ways, and the additional guarantee of support would not hurt.”
As his father listed each point, Jiang Cheng nodded. It didn’t sound too terrible, really. Koi Tower had always seemed stuffy to him the few times he’d visited, but as long as he wasn’t trapped there forever Jiang Cheng could handle a few visits. Maybe once he got to know him better Jin Zixuan wouldn’t be such a pompous ass and they could be friends, as well as husbands. Jiang Fengmian pulled him out of his thoughts by laughing softly.
“I’m sorry, A-Cheng. I’m sure you’ve never had to consider marrying a man before.” His father’s assumption wasn’t entirely true, though Jiang Cheng hadn't given much thought to his inevitable future wife, and only ever in vague, general terms. Jiang Cheng could rattle off traits an ideal wife for a clan leader might have, but he hadn’t put too much personal interest into it. Training and keeping his brother in line always felt more important. Though if he’d ever thought about marrying a man, it was entirely Wei Wuxian’s fault. His brother had no shame and would flirt with anyone if he decided it would be entertaining. Jiang Cheng was pretty sure that’s why he kept being insufferable to Lan Wangji — Wei Wuxian mentioned how beautiful the other boy was far too often for it to be anything else. And Jiang Cheng had walked in on his brother kissing Nie Huaisang more than once. So yes, he was hardly oblivious to the idea of men being together; he’d even thought on occasion that maybe Wei Wuxian would be happier with a husband than a wife. His brother could get away with it, since he was technically the son of a servant, and didn’t have to worry about producing an heir the same way. Or he could be happy with a male lover and no wife, whether they were married or not. But it was definitely Wei Wuxian’s fault Jiang Cheng had ever thought about what it might like to have a husband. Even if he’d always imagined he’d be the higher status partner, unlike the current offer on the table.
“Not seriously, no,” Jiang Cheng said. Then his eyes widened as he realized the implications of what he’d said. He made to start protesting, but Jiang Fengmian looked slightly relieved and it stopped him in his tracks.
“Ah, is that so? That’s something of a comfort then. Oh, don’t worry A-Cheng, it’s fine,” he added, noticing the concern on his son’s face. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of, it’s hardly uncommon. You think I’m blind to A-Xian’s antics?” Jiang Cheng stared at his father, mouth falling open slightly. What? He knew all of that? Well, some of it anyway, Jiang Cheng could be sure his father hadn’t walked in on Wei Wuxian kissing Nie Huaisang — he’d definitely have heard about that from his brother. He spluttered inelegantly, at a loss for anything to say to this revelation. Thankfully, Jiang Fengmian didn’t seem to be expecting a response and continued speaking.
“If that’s the case then I’m less worried about this marriage. Since you’re both the same status, you don’t necessarily have to, ah, sleep together if you don’t wish to. No heirs expected, and all. Though obviously you could if you wanted to,” Jiang Fengmian added a bit too encouragingly, and Jiang Cheng felt he would burn through the floor he was flushing so hard. His father continued as if he hadn’t said anything of note at all, which was perhaps his goal. “Your mother likely won’t be pleased, but, well. She isn’t here, and isn’t Clan Leader. This marriage with the Jin Clan was her idea anyway, she can’t really complain.” Jiang Fengmian shook his head, as if shaking away the thoughts of his wife’s displeasure. Jiang Cheng winced, knowing if the betrothal went through he would be in for a deeply unpleasant conversation with his mother when he returned to Lotus Pier. She’d probably point out he was younger than Jin Zixuan like absolutely everyone else had.
“Very well,” Jiang Fengmian said with a brisk nod. “You have until dinner to think everything over. When we meet for the meal you can give me your decision. I leave it up to you, A-Cheng.” Jiang Cheng nodded quickly, standing up and bowing to his father.
“Yes, Father. I will see you then,” he said, and left the house as fast as he could justify between the ‘no running’ rule and being right in front of his father. Jiang Cheng needed to move . If he sat still any longer he was like to start yelling and Wei Wuxian had broken enough of the Lan rules for the day. Jiang Cheng didn’t need to add to the list of offenses committed by the Jiang Clan disciples. What he should really do was go speak with Jin Zixuan, but that idea made Jiang Cheng’s stomach clench and he almost wished his father had just accepted or declined on his behalf. He didn’t want to figure all this out, he just wanted to know what he was supposed to do so he could kick its ass and excel.
Intentionally or not Jiang Cheng found himself passing the courtyard where Jin Zixuan had been sentenced to kneel for however long Lan Qiren had decided to punish him for. When he caught sight of Jin Zixuan, Jiang Cheng stopped, suddenly unable to breathe. Jin Zixuan hadn’t seen him yet — his eyes were closed, as if he were meditating or actually reflecting on what had happened, like he was supposed to. Unlike Wei Wuxian, Jin Zixuan seemed far more capable of sitting still. A point in his favor.
Jiang Cheng knew he should go up and speak with him. He wasn’t really supposed to at the moment since Jin Zixuan was being punished, but that hadn’t stopped him from talking to Wei Wuxian, and Jiang Cheng felt there were extenuating circumstances in this instance too. Still, he couldn’t help just staring for a moment, nervous about actually approaching him. His potential future husband. With that thought in mind, Jiang Cheng couldn’t help looking at him in a new light.
He was ostentatious and arrogant, that certainly hadn’t changed. The size of the retinue he’d brought to Cloud Recesses was still excessive, but perhaps that had been Jin Guangshan’s choice, not Jin Zixuan’s. Jiang Cheng couldn’t know that for sure, and now that Yanli’s happiness wasn’t directly involved, he was more willing to give Jin Zixuan the benefit of the doubt. Or maybe he was just a vain jerk who thought only of himself and looking rich and impressive.
The worst part was that some of it worked on Jiang Cheng. Now that he was giving himself the chance to look, Jiang Cheng couldn’t deny Jin Zixuan was handsome, even with the spreading bruise where Wei Wuxian had hit him. It was just a fact that he had to acknowledge. Not that he’d been oblivious to the fact before, but he had always been Yanli’s betrothed, and that was as far as Jiang Cheng’s thoughts ever went. From where he was standing Jiang Cheng could see his profile and he really did have a nice jawline, didn’t he? Ugh. It was fine, he was most likely going to marry the man, he could appreciate Jin Zixuan’s face if he wanted to. He didn’t have to be overly critical of him on Yanli’s behalf anymore, and apparently his own standards were lower than his standards for her. With a soft huff Jiang Cheng stepped forward, determined to speak with him.
As soon as Jiang Cheng’s feet touched the gravel, Jin Zixuan’s eyes snapped open and he turned his head to look at Jiang Cheng, eyeing him warily. In that moment Jiang Cheng forgot anything he may have meant to say, and just stared back. Neither of them moved for a few long seconds, just watching each other. Eventually Jin Zixuan seemed to grow bored of this and raised a single eyebrow.
“Well?” he asked. Jiang Cheng cleared his throat, giving his head a tiny shake to try and shove words back into it.
“Have you spoken to Clan Leader Jin since he arrived?” Jiang Cheng ended up asking. Jin Zixuan furrowed his brows at him.
“No, I haven’t.”
“Right. Once you have, then, would you come find me?” He mentally flailed for a place they could potentially talk without other people around, realizing ‘find me’ may not be the easiest instruction, and if Jin Zixuan came to the house they were staying in he risked running into Yanli or Wei Wuxian, neither of which sounded like good ideas. “I’ll be up by that waterfall,” Jiang Cheng settled on. That was out of the way and there usually weren’t people there. If there were, they could move somewhere else. It would work. Jin Zixuan raised another eyebrow at him.
“Why? Do you want to fight me as well?”
“What? No, that’s not — I just want — talk to your father, alright? It’ll make sense then.” Jiang Cheng managed to stumble through the words, hoping they didn’t sound too angry. He was positive he couldn’t say the words ‘we should probably talk before we’re officially betrothed’ past the constricting in his chest. How was he supposed to just say that sort of thing? Especially when Jin Zixuan was looking so dubious about every word he was saying, he’d never believe him. No, he needed to hear it from Jin Guangshan. If Jiang Cheng said it, Jin Zixuan would think it was a joke. Jiang Cheng would rather not be laughed at first thing after saying they might be married.
Instead, he turned around and walked away, and it took all his self control to keep himself from running. Once he reached his destination Jiang Cheng found a large flat rock to sit on while he waited. He could pretend to meditate or something. Now he had even more time to think, as he waited for however long it would take for Jin Zixuan to speak to his father and seek Jiang Cheng out.
Because they needed to talk about this. Jiang Cheng was willing to marry Jin Zixuan, but he didn’t want another embarrassing fight that led to the second betrothal being canceled. That was an unacceptable outcome. Better to just acknowledge the marriage was doomed to fail and never make it official.
It all depended on why Jin Zixuan was so opposed to marrying Yanli, Jiang Cheng figured. If he was simply opposed to any marriage he didn’t choose, that would be it. The Jiang Clan didn’t force its children into marriages they didn’t want, as Jiang Fengmian had said, and Jiang Cheng felt he could extend that courtesy to the person he might be marrying as well. He certainly didn’t want to marry someone who wanted nothing to do with him. Truly, he was beginning to understand why Yanli always looked so conflicted around Jin Zixuan. His sister was perceptive, she must have understood Jin Zixuan’s reluctance for a while before it reached the point it had. Jiang Cheng didn’t want that for Yanli, and he didn’t want that for himself; it sounded miserable.
But if it wasn’t marriage in general Jin Zixuan was opposed to — if Jin Guangshan was right, and he’d be less opposed to marrying a Jiang son than a Jiang daughter — than perhaps he and Jiang Cheng could work something out. It wasn’t like Jiang Cheng hated him or anything. He just didn’t like slights against his sister. And the ostentatious spending of wealth was a bit ridiculous. But it seemed like all the Jin Clan was like that, it wasn’t Jin Zixuan in particular, so Jiang Cheng might be able to look past it.
Then if Jin Zixuan wasn’t opposed to marrying Jiang Cheng, perhaps because he preferred men and could tolerate an arranged marriage with a man in a way he couldn’t one with a woman, then what? They would be betrothed. They would get married. Jiang Cheng would have a husband, and, as everyone was so fond of pointing out to him, he was younger than Jin Zixuan. Which unfortunately mattered. Snide comments would suck, but Jiang Cheng thought that he’d be able to prove everyone wrong about him not being a proper man. Probably. But other people didn’t matter. They could be ignored, or Jiang Cheng could duel them. If Jin Zixuan treated him like a wife? Didn’t respect him as a fellow cultivator? Jiang Cheng could probably stab him. Maybe more than once. He huffed out a sigh and stood up, needing to move again. He was thinking far too much.
There wasn’t anything good for him to do while waiting, though. Jiang Cheng was distracted and couldn’t focus on anything for very long. Even the slightest noise had him immediately snapping toward the direction it came from in case it was Jin Zixuan. The first few times it was only birds, or other small animals. At some point a pair of younger Lan disciples happened by, both bowing to Jiang Cheng respectfully before continuing on their way. As soon as they were out of earshot Jiang Cheng groaned in frustration and lay down on the rock, throwing an arm over his face. This had been a terrible idea. What if Jin Zixuan had to kneel in the courtyard for the rest of the day? What if he never showed up and Jiang Cheng had to join his father for dinner with none of his questions answered? There had been suspicion in the way Jin Zixuan responded to his request, and Jiang Cheng worried he’d just be ignored. Hopefully once Jin Guangshan told his son the potential change to his betrothal, Jin Zixuan would realize how very serious Jiang Cheng was. Serious about talking to him, and serious about making a marriage work, if it was made official.
He kept circling back to what he knew of marriage, especially marriage between two men, and how that might play out between him and Jin Zixuan. They’d still spend most of their time with their respective clans and only have to interact every few months or so, perhaps more or less often as politics dictated. They’d have their own rooms, though they could share rooms if they wanted. Maybe they’d be expected to, but if his own parents were any standard to go by it was hardly a requirement that they spend every night together. And as his father had so helpfully pointed out, they wouldn’t be forced to have sex but no one would bat an eye if they did. Or at least, any eye batting would be about what exactly Jiang Cheng let Jin Zixuan do to him, not the sex itself.
Just thinking about it brought a blush back to Jiang Cheng’s face. It wasn’t like what he did during sex would make him a different person. He was hardly an expert, but Jiang Cheng knew enough to be sure that wasn’t how sex worked. It just wasn’t. Yes, he was younger, so custom dictated he would take a submissive role if they slept together. The idea of his potential-maybe-future husband expecting him to act like that all the time, though… No. Jiang Cheng refused. But, he was realizing, his concerns were all about how Jin Zixuan might treat him outside of bed, not that he was opposed to having sex with him. Which made his face turn even redder, and he felt warm all over. Gross. Throwing himself into the water in embarrassment was sounding like a great idea. Maybe this whole marriage thing was a mistake. His current mortifying train of thought was almost certainly all Wei Wuxian’s fault; Jiang Cheng had known far less about how relationships with other men worked before his brother discovered flirting. He just hadn’t cared about flirting or sex; he would get married to a woman when he was older, his parents would probably choose who, and it didn’t matter until then. Except suddenly the rules he thought were set had changed on him and his brother’s knowledge, much of which he’d imparted solely to make Jiang Cheng squirm, was becoming potentially relevant.
Of course that was the moment Jiang Cheng caught the sound of a single set of footsteps. He scrambled up immediately, brushing his hands over his robes to make sure they were in place and he didn’t look like he’d just been lying on a rock and having a crisis. After a long few moments of watching the woods, through which Jiang Cheng valiantly fought to convince his face to look calm and collected instead of bright red, Jin Zixuan stepped into the clearing with the waterfall. Jiang Cheng let out a held breath, his face still warmer than he ideally wanted. If the approaching person had been anyone else Jiang Cheng might have yelled at them in frustration, Lan rules be damned. That or actually throw himself into the water.
Jin Zixuan, of course, looked perfectly put together as he walked over to the rock where Jiang Cheng was standing. They stared at each other, Jiang Cheng’s heart beating a little too fast for someone who had been sitting still for ages. Jin Zixuan looked like he was about to say something, but he stopped himself, and they stood in silence a little longer before he seemed to change his mind.
“I spoke to my father,” Jin Zixuan said. Jiang Cheng nodded, holding himself as still as he could so that he didn’t shift around and look nervous. Apparently that was a good enough response, because Jin Zixuan kept talking. “I see why you wanted to meet. I didn’t expect — well, I didn’t expect this. Our parents are rather invested in a marriage, it seems.”
“Your parents,” Jiang Cheng managed to get past the fluttering in his chest. “My father wanted to break the existing betrothal, and if I tell him no, the second one won’t go through.” Jin Zixuan frowned at him.
“I see,” he said after a moment.
“Do you?” Jiang Cheng asked. Jin Zixuan stared at him. “I’m asking if you want this marriage. You can say no, but I’m not entering into this if you want no part of it. It’s not worth either of our time that way.” He tilted his chin up just a little to meet Jin Zixuan’s eyes. It was unclear if Jin Zixuan was taller or the rock they were standing on was just uneven (Jiang Cheng was going to assume the latter for the moment, it was better for his peace of mind). His response seemed to surprise Jin Zixuan somewhat, and he considered Jiang Cheng appraisingly. Jiang Cheng kept his chin up defiantly. Jin Zixuan watched him for several, long seconds before he sighed and broke eye contact.
“I don’t know. Do you want it?”
“I don’t know.” Jiang Cheng sighed, and slumped a little, his posture relaxing from how stiff and tall he was holding himself. Jin Zixuan shook his head.
“Wonderful,” he scoffed. “So pleased we’ve established that.” Jiang Cheng scowled at him.
“It’s your fault, isn’t it? What’s so bad about my sister you couldn’t stand the thought of marrying her, huh?” he demanded. Jin Zixuan glared.
“Nothing. Your sister is wonderful, I’m sure. I just don’t want a wife,” Jin Zixuan said stiffly. Jiang Cheng made a face.
“So? You’ll be forced to have one eventually, why not just my sister?” It seemed simple enough to Jiang Cheng. One day he would need a wife, and if he was so opposed to one why wouldn’t he take the easy betrothal and not have to put any effort into finding a wife. Why make it harder on himself?
“Because I’d rather make an arrangement with a woman who doesn’t care that her husband won’t love her instead of one who wants a happy marriage,” Jin Zixuan all but hissed. “I’d rather not ruin a girl’s dreams of falling in love with her promised husband when I know I won’t love her back. I can’t do that with a marriage my parents’ chose for me as a child. I can’t!” Jiang Cheng blinked, surprised at the outburst. The reasoning actually made a fair amount of sense. Young Master Jin really was exclusively interested in men, it seemed. Still.
“You could have talked to my sister about all that. She’s very understanding. You didn’t have to badmouth her in public,” Jiang Cheng said, still caught up on that point.
“I didn’t — I didn’t badmouth her! I just said I didn’t want the marriage. It was Wei Wuxian who took such offense to it.” Jin Zixuan said angrily, clearly annoyed at Wei Wuxian. Jiang Cheng understood the feeling. Being annoyed with Wei Wuxian was one of his most common emotions, and somehow it made him feel a little more positively towards Jin Zixuan.
“Not wanting to marry her is an insult, in his view. I can’t say I totally disagree with him, but I suppose I can allow exceptions,” Jiang Cheng said, perhaps a little haughtier than was necessary. Jin Zixuan stared at him. “What?” Jiang Cheng snapped.
“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised you’re more reasonable than he is,” Jin Zixuan said with a shake of his head. Jiang Cheng snorted.
“I don’t have to try very hard for it,” he said, rolling his eyes. Display of annoyance with his brother over, Jiang Cheng met Jin Zixuan’s gaze again and realized with a jolt that he was smiling. It was a small smile, not much more than one corner of his mouth turned up, but it was a smile. From the back of his head a voice pointed out that this may be the first time he’d ever seen Jin Zixuan smile. A louder voice pointed out he was even more handsome when he smiled. Jiang Cheng smothered both voices as best he could. “Enough about him,” Jiang Cheng said quickly. “Your father didn’t suggest you marry him.”
“No, thank goodness,” Jin Zixuan said, and Jiang Cheng could have sworn the smile had gotten wider. He could feel his heart speed up and his face get warm again. “He wants me to marry you.”
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng said, again holding himself very still. They had circled back to the point of the conversation, and Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure they were any closer to an answer. Still he had to ask. “Am I a better option than my sister?” Jin Zixuan sighed, and the smile disappeared. Jiang Cheng definitely didn’t miss it. Really, he didn’t.
“Yes,” he admitted softly, not meeting Jiang Cheng’s eyes and actively looking anywhere else. Jiang Cheng swallowed nervously. Well, that was part of an answer.
“Then what do you say to marrying me instead?” Jiang Cheng managed to bite out, voice only wavering a little. Jin Zixuan stopped avoiding his gaze and turned to stare at him.
“Is that what you want?” he asked.
“I’m not asking what I want, I’m asking what you think about marrying me. Stop turning this back on me,” Jiang Cheng said hotly. He didn’t know what he wanted! He was young, he hadn’t figured all that out yet. He wanted to make his family proud, to make his Clan stronger, to be a good leader for them some day far in the future. He wanted his sister to be happy, he wanted his brother to stop provoking everyone and getting himself in trouble (so he too could be happy), he wanted Jin Zixuan to stop looking so somber and smile again. It was a nice smile, and Jiang Cheng wanted to see it again. But Jin Zixuan didn’t seem to want to smile, because after opening and closing his mouth a few times he shook his head and looked away.
“I don’t — I’ll just go,” he muttered, taking a step back. Jiang Cheng grabbed his wrist.
“Don’t you dare!” he said. “I need to give my father an answer by dinner tonight, and even if I want to say yes to the betrothal, I’m not going to if I think you don’t want it. I need a real answer!” Jin Zixuan froze immediately, gazing at him in wide eyed surprise. As soon as Jiang Cheng processed what he’d said he dropped Jin Zixuan’s wrist as if it were burning (though nothing could be burning more than his face) and took a step back himself.
“What did you say?” Jin Zixuan asked, voice barely above a whisper, staring openly at him.
“I’m not going to say it again,” Jiang Cheng growled, staring awkwardly at a point somewhere to Jin Zixuan’s left. He hadn’t meant to say it, hadn’t even realized it was true until it was already out of his mouth. His stomach fluttered uncomfortably and Jiang Cheng desperately tried to even out his breathing. Why did he want this betrothal to work out? It wasn’t like he was in love — he’d never thought of Jin Zixuan in that light before. He was off-limits, Yanli’s future husband, and Jiang Cheng had been busy with training and making sure Wei Wuxian didn’t get into more trouble than he could handle. There had been no sighing after Yanli’s betrothed, wishing Jin Zixuan were betrothed to him. The thought had never occurred to Jiang Cheng.
None of it had crossed his mind until Jin Guangshan had suggested the change. But it had been all he’d thought of since, though mostly in terms of how Yanli would feel about everything and what was best for the Jiang Clan. Jiang Cheng wanted to marry Jin Zixuan so Yanli didn’t have to, and because it would solidify an alliance with the Jin Clan and give the Jiang Clan additional support and means. With the Wen Clan continually ramping up their interest in the other clans, closer ties to other major clans were necessary. It was practical, and as a future clan leader Jiang Cheng knew he would need to put the Jiang Clan’s needs over his own. So yes, he wanted this marriage for the Jiang Clan.
For himself, though? There would be a hit to his reputation, certainly, from the assumptions people would make that he was less of a man than his husband. There was also a chance it could help his standing, though, with people who respected what he was willing to do on behalf of his clan. Or perhaps people wouldn’t care at all and just nod and accept it as a marriage purely for political reasons. Jiang Cheng couldn’t predict everyone. He couldn’t deny a large part of him recoiled at the idea of willingly giving anyone a reason to disparage him. It was hard enough to prove himself as it was, Jiang Cheng didn’t need to increase the challenge. Even so, something in him was fiercely determined to show everyone he could do it; marry a man and still be an accomplished cultivator and clan leader.
Very little of it had to do with Jin Zixuan himself, if Jiang Cheng were perfectly honest. They didn’t know each other nearly well enough, all of their interactions having been very formal, focused more on Yanli, or were overshadowed by Wei Wuxian and his shenanigans. He’d only allowed himself to acknowledge he, personally, found Jin Zixuan attractive that afternoon, beyond the sort of factual admission related more to disparaging him for being too image-focused. But now that he’d had the realization, Jiang Cheng couldn’t stop thinking about it, which was stupid. Who was he, Wei Wuxian spending all afternoon getting no work done and sighing over how beautiful Lan Wangji was? It was as if someone had thrown a bucket of cold water on him when Jiang Cheng realized that was exactly what he had been doing.
So what? Jin Zixuan was handsome, and there was nothing wrong with Jiang Cheng being pleased with the idea of marrying someone so nice to look at. The bruise on his cheek from Wei Wuxian didn’t diminish Jin Zixuan’s looks at all, which kind of irritated Jiang Cheng. How dare he still look elegant after getting punched in the face — it was extremely unfair to regular people. Jiang Cheng was positive he wouldn’t look nearly so good with a huge bruise on his face. Absolutely ridiculous. He also realized in the silence while he was waiting for Jin Zixuan to say anything at all Jiang Cheng had been staring at his face again. And Jin Zixuan was staring back, eyes a little wide as he watched Jiang Cheng spacing out. Damnit.
“Well?” Jiang Cheng demanded, deciding he had embarrassed himself enough for the moment. They couldn’t stand on this rock all night, Jiang Cheng had to get back to his father with an answer. He didn’t want to be the only one revealing too much about his feelings and things, it wasn’t equitable. If they were going to be married, they were going to have an equal relationship; Jiang Cheng wouldn’t allow any different. Which meant it was time for Jin Zixuan to tell him what he was thinking instead of trying to deflect every question back to Jiang Cheng. He wasn’t going to play that game anymore. “Are you going to say anything?”
Jin Zixuan looked at him silently for another long moment, then sighed.
“I don’t know. I didn’t expect to have to think about this. I thought my father would enforce the betrothal with your sister.” He shook his head. “I thought that the only way I’d marry a man would be once I was older, with an established wife and few children to pacify my father so he’d allow it, or perhaps once I was Clan Leader. This marriage, suggested by my father no less, is unexpected. That you want the betrothal to go through is also unexpected.” Jin Zixuan stopped again, and Jiang Cheng held his breath. They were almost getting somewhere.
“And?” Jiang Cheng asked. Jin Zixuan let out a quiet laugh, and the almost smile was back.
“And,” he continued, inclining his head towards Jiang Cheng. “I don’t know what your reasons are. I understand it may only be because you believe it will benefit your clan, or because it’s what Clan Leader Jiang wants, but you know my interest lies towards men. As far as I’ve seen, you’ve never shown any inclination towards anyone, and I wouldn’t assume that means you want a husband.”
“We can’t all be Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng said with a restrained eye roll. Jin Zixuan looked startled and stared at him.
“Wei Wuxian? Do you mean he favors—”
“Men? Sometimes. Really, you haven’t noticed?” Jiang Cheng asked, genuinely surprised. “He’s hardly subtle. You, on the other hand, are subtle, it never occurred to me you might prefer men before today.” Jin Zixuan looked shocked.
“I am?” He asked, genuinely surprised. Jiang Cheng blinked.
“Yes? Though it’s not like we interact much, so even if you weren’t I probably wouldn’t have noticed. You rarely spend time with the disciples from other clans, you just come across as… aloof,” Jiang Cheng said, choosing his last word carefully. Jin Zixuan raised an eyebrow at him, but the little smile was back. That smile could be considered a success.
“That’s part of the reason I stay with just the Jin disciples, you know. I worry people will figure it out,” Jin Zixuan said, letting out a shaky breath. Jiang Cheng was taken aback. That famous Jin standoffishness, in Jin Zixuan was… fear? Jiang Cheng frowned, and resisted taking a step closer to Jin Zixuan.
“If we’re betrothed you don’t have to worry about that. It will be something that was decided by the Clan Leaders and you are doing your best to honor their choice,” he pointed out. Jin Zixuan looked at Jiang Cheng cautiously.
“Is that how you see it?” he asked.
“Yes?” Jiang Cheng said slowly, unsure what else he was being asked here. If the betrothal was made official, it would be known to have been the choice of Clan Leader Jin and Clan Leader Jiang. Maybe some people would wonder, but most would accept that it was the clan leaders’ choice and he and Jin Zixuan were such good sons, following through with the marriage imposed on them. It wasn’t a question of their personal preferences to other people. Jin Zixuan didn’t seem to follow.
“So the reason you want to accept this betrothal is because your father wants it, ” he said, sounding resigned. Jiang Cheng stared at him in confusion. No, his father wanted him to choose. He’d broken Jin Zixuan’s betrothal to Yanli because neither of them had chosen it, and neither of them wanted it. Jiang Fengmian wouldn’t hate a marriage alliance to the Jin Clan, but if Jiang Cheng said no, he did not want to marry Jin Zixuan, that would be the end of it. Neither he nor Yanli would marry him, and their clans would find other ways to formalize an alliance. That was the whole point of this discussion, because his father wanted Jiang Cheng to have a choice . Jiang Cheng was trying to understand what Jin Zixuan wanted before he made that choice, but Jin Zixuan was making it difficult.
“That’s not what I said at all,” he said hotly.
“Then what did you mean?” Jin Zixuan asked, holding his head up and meeting Jiang Cheng’s eyes. His posture said ‘challenge,’ but his eyes said something else. Jiang Cheng didn’t know him well enough to read his eyes, but he knew how to meet a challenge. He held Jin Zixuan’s gaze, glaring slightly.
“What I meant was that it doesn’t matter what people suspect, because it will be known you are betrothed to a man. People will think any attention you give me will be because of that betrothal, because you value the alliance and what it brings your clan. You won’t have to keep people from finding out because it will be known, and it won’t be about you, it will be about our clans. This is an opportunity, so why are you so reluctant to take it?” Jiang Cheng was having trouble keeping his voice level, and if anyone was walking nearby they would almost certainly hear him, but Jiang Cheng couldn’t find it in himself to care for that moment. If yelling would get Jin Zixuan to understand, he’d try that next. Jin Zixuan closed his eyes, and Jiang Cheng could practically feel him breathe in slowly as he tried to collect himself.
“Is it an opportunity for you too, Jiang Wanyin?” he asked, opening his eyes to look directly at Jiang Cheng. Despite his determination to hold Jin Zixuan’s gaze, Jiang Cheng couldn’t stop himself from blinking in surprise. Was it? That wasn’t how Jiang Cheng had thought of it. It was a political marriage, and other than it being to a man, was much what Jiang Cheng had expected for himself. If anything, it was more dangerous than an opportunity — it was his reputation at risk, after all, as if Jin Zixuan having lived absolutely no more than two years more than him meant anything in the slightest. No, it wasn’t an opportunity for anything more than damaged pride, in that way.
Yet Jiang Cheng couldn’t help thinking of other things. Of Wei Wuxian, who would almost certainly be happier marrying a man if he could get away with it (though if anyone could, it was Wei Wuxian). Of Nie Huaisang, who had practically weaponized his lack of masculinity in a way he refused to with a sword, might never get the chance to have a husband. And then of course Jin Zixuan, who didn’t want a wife but would one day take one because it was required of him. For any of them, this marriage and the fact they were allowed to choose it could mean they achieved something more than most men like them were allowed. Jiang Cheng hadn’t ever been interested in women , let alone men, and he was the one being given this rare opportunity. Not Wei Wuxian, not Nie Huaisang. Him. Did it mean anything more than doing what he thought was best for his family?
“I don’t know,” he said faintly, guiltily dropping his gaze to look somewhere around Jin Zixuan’s shoulder. “I haven’t had to think about it before. I was never interested in anyone.” Until then, it had always been Jiang Cheng as the serious one, destined for a suitable marriage when the time came, and Wei Wuxian who flirted with whoever’s reactions amused him most in the moment. His charismatic, fun-loving older brother, with his easy smile, who made girls giggle and half the boys too. Not Jiang Cheng with his clenched jaw and anger always waiting below the surface. No one looked twice at him after he’d opened his mouth. And that had been fine, Jiang Cheng hadn’t minded. He wasn’t interested in useless flirting when no one meant it and it didn’t matter five minutes later. That was Wei Wuxian, that wasn’t him.
“Never?” Jin Zixuan asked, brows furrowing in what Jiang Cheng thought was confusion. “You have to have noticed if people are attractive, haven’t you?
“Of course I have,” Jiang Cheng snapped. “I have eyes, don’t I? I can tell someone’s attractive without being interested in them. That’s not the same thing.” Jin Zixuan tilted his head a little, an odd expression on his face.
“Isn’t there a difference?” he asked. “There is for me, at least, between the way I can recognize a woman is beautiful and think that a man is attractive. Is it not so with you?”
“I’ve never noticed a difference,” Jiang Cheng admitted. He still wasn’t quite meeting Jin Zixuan’s eyes again, but he was at least looking at his face. Which may have been a mistake, since they were talking about silly things like knowing if someone was attractive and Jiang Cheng had noticed earlier that Jin Zixuan was, in fact, quite good-looking. But that was simply a fact, wasn’t it? Jiang Cheng had just ignored it until that day because of Yanli.
“Huh,” Jin Zixuan said, and gave Jiang Cheng an evaluating look. “Well, who do you think is attractive, then? Just out of people here in Cloud Recesses, I suppose.” Jiang Cheng frowned at him.
“Well, I have to say my sister first, obviously, she’s the most beautiful person anywhere,” he said, because of course Yanli was the most beautiful in Cloud Recesses. She was his sister, so he had to say she was the best. It was part of his job as a younger brother. “Then I suppose the Two Jades would be on the list. Uh, Wen Qing. Um. You, because as I’ve said I do have eyes. Maybe Nie Huaisang?” Jiang Cheng paused, trying to remember anyone else he’d particularly noticed during their stay at Cloud Recesses.
“You do know you listed more men than women, don’t you?” Jin Zixuan said, something in his voice sounding off. Jiang Cheng’s frown deepened.
“So? There are more men than women that I’ve encountered here, so it only makes sense that I notice more men than women,” he said.
“That may be true, but you could have just said that there aren’t many women here and maybe listed Wen Qing, you didn’t have to mention men at all,” Jin Zixuan pointed out. Jiang Cheng blinked.
“Oh,” he said. “Does that matter?”
“I don’t know,” Jin Zixuan said with a shake of his head. Jiang Cheng scowled.
“Well that’s not helpful at all,” he grumbled. Jin Zixuan laughed, and Jiang Cheng couldn’t help staring. He’d never heard Jin Zixuan laugh before. He thought maybe he’d like to hear it more often. The other boy wasn’t so bad, really, and he was more tolerable when he smiled.
“I’m sorry,” Jin Zixuan said, bringing his hand up to try to hide his amusement at Jiang Cheng’s annoyance, but Jiang Cheng could see it in the rest of his face. Somehow he didn’t mind so much. “I’m really not sure what to tell you. I know it took me a while to figure it out, but at some point I realized I cared much more when men were beautiful than when women were, and from there I started understanding that I wanted relationships with men, not women. Clearly it hasn’t been the same for you.” He shook his head. “Still, though, I know my cousin would never admit a man was handsome, unless someone pointed it out first and it would be impolite of him to disagree. You listed four without much thought. Including me, I might add.”
“So?” Jiang Cheng glared at him.
“Well, pardon me for being vain, but I can’t say I dislike the compliment. Especially since it’s from a handsome young man I may be allowed to marry,” Jin Zixuan said, his tone lighter than before, almost playful. Almost like...
“Oh.” Jiang Cheng blushed and looked down. He felt a bit like he’d just been kicked in the chest. Jin Zixuan was flirting with him. With him . Because they might be getting married and from their conversation Jin Zixuan seemed to have decided there was a chance, more likely than not, that Jiang Cheng liked men too. Jiang Cheng was realizing he may be right. At least a little.
Because it was hard to say it was impossible, especially when Jin Zixuan was standing so close and Jiang Cheng couldn’t help wondering things like how soft his hair would be if Jiang Cheng reached out to touch it, or how Jin Zixuan was even more handsome when he smiled, because it made his whole face brighter and Jiang Cheng wondered how beautiful he would be if he could get Jin Zixuan to smile properly, not just the small ones Jiang Cheng had seen so far. He thought he’d like to try. Decided, Jiang Cheng looked up, not sure what he was going to say but wanting to say something, and froze, mouth already half open, when he realized Jin Zixuan was frowning again.
“I’m sorry, that was too forward of me, you never actually said — I apologize if I offended you, Young Master Jiang,” he said, inclining his head and lifting his arms to bow to him. Panicked, Jiang Cheng grabbed his wrist, and Jin Zixuan stilled at the contact.
“You didn’t,” Jiang Cheng insisted, still holding onto Jin Zixuan in case he tried to leave again. “It wasn’t.” He stared at Jin Zixuan until he lifted his head up to meet Jiang Cheng’s eyes. “I—I don’t know, exactly, what I like, or the kind of person I’m interested in, but I would like to try. Marrying you, I mean. And if I decide I really don’t — if I don’t desire men, then I will never begrudge you finding others who will love you the way you want. As long as you're discreet, because I won’t have people talking about my husband’s affairs where they think I can’t hear,” Jiang Cheng added, because his pride had been shaken enough that evening and he had to shore it up at least a fraction. He’d heard enough gossip about Jin Guangshan and his wife to know he did not want the scorn and pity some people directed at Madame Jin. He was sure to get enough of that without the added fuel for the fire.
“I think that’s fair,” Jin Zixuan said, that hint of a smile coming back, which made Jiang Cheng relax slightly. “If you’re sure.” He started putting his hands down, though he didn’t pull his wrist from Jiang Cheng’s grip.
“As sure as I can be right now,” Jiang Cheng admitted. “Unless you have any suggestions?”
“Well,” Jin Zixuan said slowly, almost reluctant. “I have one thought.” He glanced off to the side, not quite looking at Jiang Cheng anymore.
“Yeah?” Jiang Cheng asked. Jin Zixuan licked his lips nervously, looking almost reluctant to say anything. Jiang Cheng held more firmly onto his wrist, hoping it was at least a little reassuring. Or something. “Go on.” Slowly Jin Zixuan looked back at his face, eyes flicking between his eyes and his mouth. Jiang Cheng held his breath, waiting.
“May I?” Jin Zixuan asked, lifting the hand Jiang Cheng wasn’t practically holding up to hover alongside Jiang Cheng’s face. Jiang Cheng swallowed a few times before he gave up trying to speak. Gently Jin Zixuan let his hand fall to rest on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. “I’ll stop if you want,” Jin Zixuan whispered. Jiang Cheng shook his head.
“No,” he decided, and surged forward to press their mouths together.
It was Jiang Cheng’s first kiss. With no point of comparison, he was unsure if it was supposed to feel so strange. Jin Zixuan’s lips were soft and a little dry, but the kiss itself was slightly wet and Jiang Cheng didn’t know how to feel about that. If he thought too much about it, it was a bit gross. But it still made something in his chest leap and his legs unsteady, and instead of making a face and leaning back Jiang Cheng grabbed onto the front of Jin Zixuan’s robes to steady himself and kept kissing him. One of Jin Zixuan’s hands moved up to tangle in his hair, and Jiang Cheng couldn’t help taking a sharp breath and pressing himself closer. Kissing was a little weird, but Jiang Cheng felt he could see some of the appeal.
“Did that help?” Jin Zixuan asked as they broke apart, his hand having moved back to resting on Jiang Cheng’s cheek. Jiang Cheng was tempted to say no, they needed to try again, but that would be a blatant lie. He was still unsure about a lot of things, but he knew he’d liked kissing Jin Zixuan and would like to do it again. The situation being what it was, Jiang Cheng felt that was a good enough reason to say he didn’t think he’d mind marrying him. He nodded, still too breathless to speak. Jin Zixuan smiled at him. “I’m glad.”
He stepped back, letting his hands fall back to his side, and Jiang Cheng reluctantly dropped his own. The fabric of Jin Zixuan’s robes where Jiang Cheng had been gripping them was rumpled, and Jiang Cheng resisted the urge to reach out and flatten the fabric back down. Jin Zixuan could fix it himself. It wasn’t because reaching out and touching Jin Zixuan in that moment felt like a dangerous idea, and Jiang Cheng had already broken enough rules for one day.
They stood there quietly for a time, both trying to compose themselves. Jin Zixuan did end up smoothing out the front of his robes, and Jiang Cheng took the moment of slight distraction to quickly run a hand through his own hair, taming it into acceptable levels of neatness. It wouldn’t pass inspection from his mother, but she wasn’t around and he could get back to the guest house and fix it properly without anyone looking at him and being able to tell he’d been kissing the heir to the Jin Clan. He hoped.
“Well,” Jiang Cheng said eventually. “I should go speak with my father. Unless you have anything you want to add?” Jin Zixuan shook his head, clasping his hands behind his back.
“No. As long as you’re sure. I’m sure you know — well, I am older than you, and—”
“I am well aware,” Jiang Cheng interrupted, rolling his eyes. “And just in case I wasn’t, my father made sure to point it out, along with all the implications.”
“Right,” Jin Zixuan said, face reddening. “That’s — I just wanted to be sure you — well, what people will say, and I’m sure my father’s only allowing it because I’m older, which is — what I mean to say, is that it doesn’t matter to me, and I won’t treat you with any less respect because of it.” His entire face was bright red by the time he tripped through everything, and Jiang Cheng’s face wasn’t faring much better. It may have been something of a relief to hear it, but that didn’t mean Jiang Cheng wanted to talk about it or address it. At least not until they were actually married.
“Appreciated,” Jiang Cheng said stiffly, hoping they could brush right past the topic. Thankfully, now that he’d said what he wanted to get out, Jin Zixuan seemed just as eager to forget that part of the conversation ever happened. “I’ll just…” Jiang Cheng meant to say he would be going, so he could speak with his father and get this whole uncertainty out of the way so they could get on to being betrothed and past all this blushing ridiculousness. Also give himself some time to think more about his preferences and if he really might be able to fall in love with Jin Zixuan, or if he was just young and inexperienced and caught up in the idea of marrying the other boy. But if he just left it would be a horrible ending to a conversation that, while far too personal and generally awkward, hadn’t been as bad as it could have been. It seemed unfair to leave it where it was.
So Jiang Cheng stepped back into Jin Zixuan’s space, who breathed out in surprise but didn’t step back to hold the distance. They stood like that a moment, and Jiang Cheng wondered if he could actually feel warmth radiating from Jin Zixuan or if he was imagining it. Wondered if maybe Jin Zixuan’s pulse was racing like his was, if his stomach fluttered in anticipation the same way. Then Jiang Cheng stopped wondering, lifting his hands to rest them along Jin Zixuan’s jaw, careful to avoid the bruise on his cheek, and where his fingers rested at the junction of Jin Zixuan’s jaw and his neck he could feel his heartbeat, just as erratic as his own was. With a sigh Jiang Cheng closed the last few inches between them.
It was different from their first kiss, but it still had Jiang Cheng unsteady on his feet and he broke it fairly quickly, moving back to a respectable distance before he lost the ability to walk back to the house to meet his father. That was most important now.
“Young Master Jin,” he said with a formal bow. Jin Zixuan gave him a dazed look for a few seconds before he collected himself and moved to bow back.
“Young Master Jiang,” Jin Zixuan replied, just as polite, if a bit breathless. Jiang Cheng couldn’t help the small smile that broke out on his face, pleased at how much he could affect Jin Zixuan, though he was hardly unaffected himself.
“I shall expect to see you at dinner,” Jiang Cheng said, before he turned and walked back through the woods to the center of Cloud Recesses.