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two flowers; a million stars

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Lan Xichen never makes mistakes. His work demands precision, so his life is governed by the same routine. Once the sun sets, he leaves his rooms and heads towards the Night Tower, where he carries out his work. Lan Xichen is the Night God, in charge of arranging the constellations in the sky and reading the future that the stars foresee. That’s why he’s always up in the Tower, a granite structure that reaches beyond the sky itself. With arms outstretched, Lan Xichen arranges the stars in the sky with the same care as a jeweler that deals with precious stones.

 

The first star appears in the sky not long after the sun disappears on the horizon, followed by the constellations and planets. If the calendar dictates it, Lan Xichen also adds the moon, clutching it with invisible tacks to the sky. It’s a rather mechanical task that doesn’t accept errors due to its repetitive nature. But Lan Xichen, despite being a God, is not infallible. One night, while he’s busy hanging the remaining stars in the Azure Dragon’s tail, one slides down his robe and vanishes out of sight, passing through the clouds that connect the Heavenly Realm with the Six Realms.

 

Lan Xichen watches it fall out of the corner of his eye and is close to dropping the remaining stars to salvage it, but in the end decides against it. He finds himself in a dilemma: the more time he takes finishing his work, the more likely his uncle will find out and scold him, but if he leaves his post without completing the task, he will also be punished. So, he decides on the lesser of two evils and keeps working until the dark mantle that surrounds the earth is covered with precious stones, twinkling in various harmonies.

 

Only then Lan Xichen ventures down the Six Realms, which he rarely visited even as a child. This action is also carried out in secret, trusting that no one will notice his absence thinking him locked in the Night Tower. A God like him shouldn’t mix with low rank fairies, but it’s more dangerous to leave a star in the mortal realms. That’s why he has no choice but to conceal himself as he explores the realms. However, he can’t find the star neither in the Demon Realm nor in the Human Realm. He’s about to return home and accept whatever punishment his uncle, the Heavenly Emperor, deems adequate, when he lands on the Flower Realm and can immediately hear the star singing.

 

The Flower Realm, as its name implies, is a vast expanse of territory full of trees and all kinds of flowers. The Heavenly Realm gets all his grains, fruits and vegetables from it in exchange from protection, which helps both realms keep friendly relations. Thanks to this, Lan Xichen feels confident enough to head towards the crop fields, where he can feel the lost star both in the light it emits and in the harmony that only his trained ear can grasp. Of course, all the Realms have prohibited areas, and there's no doubt that he's entering one, but he feels protected by the night. Surely, there’s no one around at this late hour.

 

He’s wrong.

 

He’s just left the orchards behind, with its delicious aroma of ripe fruit and is entering the vineyards, when he hears steps a few rows away. Quiet steps, from someone taking a stroll. It’s not a guard, for the flower fairies know very well that no one would dare sneak into their territory, but someone that knows the place like the back of their hand. Unable to decide his next step, Lan Xichen remains crouched against the closest vine, considering his options. He himself hung the full moon in the firmament that night, providing the light for anyone to see him if he ran away but even if he doesn’t, he’ll be found out by the fairies and ratted out to his uncle. Both options are terrible.

 

Before he can move in either direction the other person decides for him. His voice breaks the silence of the night, awaking the vines that surround him —they’re trembling despite the lack of breeze. It’s a young man’s voice, tough and authoritative.

 

“I know you’re out there. Get out if you don't want to suffer the consequences,” he says and sounds closer. “Don't think I don't know where you are. I am the keeper of this vineyard and all the plants here obey me, so you'd better give yourself up or else you’ll get to know what I can do to an intruder like you.”

 

The vines tremble, and Lan Xichen feels one of them twisting around his arm. That settles it. He’s not a coward nor is he doing anything wrong, so he stands up —his heavenly aura is enough to make all the flowers around him fall asleep once more.

 

“Who are you?” The voice asks, and although it lacks confidence, Lan Xichen still doesn’t detect any fear in it. This impression is reinforced when the young man materializes before him, descending a few inches from his figure amid a flurry of purple robes.

 

Moonlight hits his face, illuminating his high, sharp cheekbones, as well as giving his gray eyes a strange bluish glow. He’s a fairy, much younger than him, who has lived millennia and whose youth explains the recklessness in his eyes. He’s not wielding any weapons but a sword hangs from his belt, his hand just inches away from the hilt, showing that he’s ready to wield it at any time. The fairy, who also has all the attributes of a male of his species, watches him with a frown and a silent fury that is transmitted to the plants around him, making them curl around him like snakes.

 

“Who are you?”

 

Lan Xichen exhales a long breath.

 

"My name is Lan Xichen and I am the Night God," he says, although he certainly doesn’t look like one at that moment. His robe is mud stained and tattered here and there, so he doesn’t blame the other man when he raises an eyebrow, questioning his story.

 

"And what has the Night God lost in my vineyard?" The young man asks. “It seems to me that such an important guest should be welcomed at the Flower Palace. Perhaps I should notify the Floral Goddess so that the necessary arrangements can be made.”

 

“No!” Lan Xichen says, and he can clearly see the smile that adorns the other's features when he realizes he’s at his mercy. “Listen to me please. Yes I am the Night God, but I’m not here for Heavenly Realm matters. I must admit that I made a mistake and dropped one of the stars from the Azure Dragon’s tail to the Six Realms. I've already visited the Human Realm and the Demon Realm without finding any clues that the star has fallen into them, but I think, I can almost assure you, that the lost star is here. I would never dare to enter private property without good reason otherwise.”

 

"Suppose I believe you," the young man says, and Lan Xichen finds the way the vines snap back into place with a single touch of his hands a good sign. Perhaps his outward appearance is fierce, but there’s some tenderness in his gestures as he arranges the vines back into place. “Suppose you are the Night God and you dropped a star. Why not contact the Floral Goddess? She could find it for you and send it back as soon as possible. There are enough servants so that a person of your importance doesn’t need to bother with such a trivial task.”

 

Lan Xichen feels his cheeks burning.

 

“What’s your name?” The Night God asks.

 

The young man doesn’t respond immediately. He weighs the question, and Lan Xichen can feel his eyes watching him closely, from his face to his dirty robe. However, something in his appearance must corroborate his story —perhaps the soft light that emanates from his body and to which the plants are attracted, curling around his feet as if they were loving cats— because in the next moment he hears:

 

“Jiang Cheng.”

 

"Jiang Cheng, I must confess something," says Lan Xichen, forcing himself to look him in the eye, so that he knows he’s not lying. “The reason I have come down personally is because I don't want my uncle to find out about my carelessness. He holds me in high esteem and I fear he will be disappointed if he knows about this. I believe it’s in his best interests to not trouble himself over this simple matter, as you’ve said yourself.”

 

"So you are afraid of your uncle?" Jiang Cheng asks, and Lan Xichen cannot believe the accuracy of his reading. He smirks, but the gesture is enough to create a few wrinkles around the corners of his eyes that look quite adorable.

 

"Yes," Lan Xichen admits, shoulders down.

 

Jiang Cheng unfolds his arms.

 

"Where do you say the star is? Are you sure it's here?” He asks, gesturing for him to follow. Lan Xichen can't help but smile.

 

“Yes. I can feel it,” he says, as they walk side by side towards the exit. The vineyard gives way to a meadow, where they stop. Fairy houses can be seen in the distance. “In fact I’m surprised that no one noticed. A star may appear harmless to a mortal’s eyes, but it emits enough light to attract the attention of even the most ignorant. Have you really not seen it?”

 

"No," says Jiang Cheng. “But you say you can feel it, don't you? I’ll lead you, as long as we don’t go to the Flower Palace.”

 

"Very well," says Lan Xichen, closing his eyes and concentrating all his power on his chest, so that it can resonate with the star’s harmony. At first it's a low sound, barely audible even to him, but it picks up when he calls its name. A tug to the east, past the lighted houses, indicates the direction to follow.

 

"It's the lake," says Jiang Cheng, after Lan Xichen informs him of his findings. “That explains why no one noticed.”

 

It makes sense and there they go, hiding among trees and bushes with the mastery of someone who has hidden from the people’s eyes before. Thanks to this, Lan Xichen has a privileged view of the Fairy City in the Flower Realm, which doesn’t look that different from other cities in other realms. However, something that sets it apart from other places is the proliferation of all kinds of plants, from vines that climb the walls of its houses, creating intricate designs, to moss that covers the stone paths they walk in. It’s an explosion of colors and aromas that intermingle, creating a landscape that he could spend decades admiring.

 

The lake is no exception. When they reach it, Lan Xichen realizes the beauty of the moon that hangs from the sky, now trapped on its surface. Along the banks are endless lotus flowers, which would usually sleep like all the other flowers in the realm if not for the attraction exerted by the star at the bottom of the lake.

 

"So you weren't lying," says Jiang Cheng, standing on the pier. They haven't exchanged a single word up until then, but his voice sounds much kinder. Starlight illuminates his face at intervals, highlighting his gray eyes.

 

"No," says Lan Xichen, stopping next to him. Now that he knows everything will be fine, he wants to sit down and enjoy the night that he himself woven with his clumsy hands. He hardly ever has a chance to look at the sky from the perspective of the creatures for whom he creates it; the moon is nothing more than a circle, similar to a ball, when he hangs it in the sky and yet from down here it seems enormous. The stars are mere dots overshadowed by its splendor. “All right. I'll get it out of there and then I'll leave without causing you any more trouble,” he promises, pulling up his sleeves so they don't get in the way.

 

But before he can do anything, he notices Jiang Cheng from the corner of his eye —the fairy takes off his robes with a single movement, keeping only his pants.

 

"It will be easier if I do it," says Jiang Cheng before diving into the lake. Everything happens so fast that Lan Xichen can only blink as he watches Jiang Cheng swim away, taking long strokes towards the light. His back shines moonlit, his shoulders have an iridescent glimmer thanks to the water droplets on them and his hair looks like ink.

 

Lan Xichen sees him disappear under the lake’s surface and has started to feel worried when Jiang Cheng returns to the surface, holding something no bigger than a button, its light blinding. Lan Xichen immediately orders the star to dim its brightness and kneels down to help Jiang Cheng out.

 

"You shouldn't have done that," says Lan Xichen, once Jiang Cheng is at his side. Sitting on the pier, their legs dangle a few inches from the water. Luckily, it's spring and the breeze is warm enough for Jiang Cheng to ignore the mere idea of catching a cold, even if he’s drenched.

 

"I didn't do it for you," Jiang Cheng complains. He refuses to wear his clothes out of fear of getting them wet and keeps his eyes fixed on the treasure he’s holding in both hands. The star is a tiny, transparent, warm little stone that shines every few seconds. “So all that mess for this, huh?”

 

"No, you really shouldn't have," says Lan Xichen, trying not to notice the way the starlight outlines Jiang Cheng's features. His soft lips, his cheekbones, his long and thick eyelashes, his gray eyes... His neck that comes in sight with each palpitation of the light, the firmness of his well-formed muscles. There is no one like him in the Heavenly Realm.

 

"And I already told you I didn't do it for you."

 

"I meant I can do this," says Lan Xichen. The star floats away from Jiang Cheng's fingers gently and firmly; it only takes a movement of Lan Xichen’s wrist for it to land on his open palm, vibrating with something that could almost be thought of as joy.

 

Jiang Cheng's face goes through various emotions. First surprise —at the God's powers, now that he knows he wasn’t lying. Then anger at his own stupidity, trying to look brave by jumping into the lake when it was unnecessary and lastly, shame. His cheeks are tinged with a pleasant pinkish color and he turns his head so that Lan Xichen cannot see him.

 

"Well, you’ve got your star. You can go now,” he says, standing up. His mood hasn’t gone unnoticed.

 

Jiang Cheng is about to leave, after retrieving his clothes from the pier first, when Lan Xichen's voice stops him.

 

“Wait!”

 

“What? Does His Majesty want to mock me some more?”

 

“No!” Lan Xichen says, standing up and rushing to follow him. He fears that Jiang Cheng will run before he can reach him, but Jiang stops and shoots him his best glare. “No. I wanted... I want to thank you for helping me. I’m sorry. I wasn’t mocking you. Thank you for diving into the lake and for keeping me company despite having your suspicions. It was a kind gesture on your part. Thanks, Jiang Cheng.”

 

Jiang Cheng shrugs.

 

"It is my duty to your highness," he says, bowing. It seems like a farewell and usually Lan Xichen would let him be, but he regrets the way things have ended.

 

“Jiang Cheng.”

 

He turns as if asking Now what? when he feels something warm around his shoulders. It takes him a few moments to understand what’s happening, but by the time he does, it is too late. Lan Xichen rises in midair, the lost star tucked between the folds of his robe, that’s missing its first layer, an overcoat that hangs from Jiang Cheng's shoulders, shielding him from the breeze.

 

He can't object to his last words, he's too stunned.

 

“Thank you.”

 

.

 

No one notices his mistake. Lan Xichen returns to the Heavenly Realm and places the last star in the sky without his uncle appearing to punish him for his carelessness. But even though apparently nothing happened, his little excursion outside the Realm has made a big impact on him. Until then he didn’t question his lifestyle, a routine in which he sleeps in the mornings and wakes up at sunset to fulfill his duties, but the world beyond the Night Tower fascinates him. He can't stop thinking about Jiang Cheng.

 

Jiang Cheng and his embarrassed and angry face when Lan Xichen demonstrated his powers, turning his act of gentleness into nonsense. Lan Xichen knows almost nothing about the creatures of the Six Realms, but he is not stupid. He knows he hurt Jiang Cheng. His response tells him he’s been mistreated throughout his life. Only someone whose kindness has been trampled time and time again would look at him with those bright eyes, on the verge of tears —the thought only fuels his anxiety.

 

Consequently, his work changes. He continues to do the same, but his thoughts are elsewhere, in the fields full of vines illuminated by the moon and in that young man who helped him, saving him from the fury of his uncle just to receive mockery for an answer. So it’s not surprising that one night, several days after his encounter with Jiang Cheng and while he’s thinking about him, another star slips from his fingers and disappears almost in the exact point the previous one did, immediately giving him an excuse to return to the Flower Realm.

 

The Night God is a lonely being, always locked up in his tower, keeping the stars company. Lan Xichen had never questioned it but when he descends on the pier, only to find Jiang Cheng sitting where he left him, he wonders if things can't be different. Jiang Cheng, however, is not happy to see him, judging by the way he leaps to his feet and shoots him an angry look.

 

“You again? What did you lose now?”

 

Jiang Cheng is a fairy at least several centuries younger than him, but his voice has enough authority to make him feel ashamed.

 

"Another star," he replies in a tiny voice, and Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes.

 

"Go ahead," he says, opening his arms to indicate that the grounds are his to do whatever he pleases. “I guess you know that the star didn't fall into the lake,” he says, and takes a seat on the pier’s edge once more. His feet are bare; his black boots placed beside him. It is the fourth day of the full moon, so his figure looks as sharp as the first time they met. Lan Xichen stares at him for a long time, in which neither of them makes any comment.

 

"Aren't you coming with me?" Lan Xichen asks at last, and his voice has a hint of sadness.

 

"A God like you doesn't need the help of an inferior being like me," Jiang Cheng says, his back still turned on him. “Can't you just call it like you did last time?”

 

"It's not that easy," says Lan Xichen, taking a few steps toward him. His attempts are still futile, Jiang Cheng doesn’t want to see him and he doesn’t blame him. “I can't call it if I don't know where it is. And I can only do it within a small radius.”

 

"How terrible," Jiang Cheng replies. “But you know where it is. You can feel it like you did before, can't you?” Lan Xichen makes an affirmative sound. “So go find it and call it. I don't see why you need my help.”

 

He’s right. The star’s calling him to the southeast —he can find it in less than an hour and be back in the Heavenly Realm ten minutes after putting it in his pocket, but his goal has changed. Of course, he wants to retrieve the star and return it to the sky, but not before having made peace with Jiang Cheng. His brother, the God of Marriage, often tells him that he’s too kind and that it’s useless to try to reconcile with stubborn people, but Lan Xichen has different ideas. To him, nobody is a lost cause. He wants Jiang Cheng to know that he’s grateful for his help.

 

"You know the Flower Realm better than I do. You know the best hiding places to avoid being seen by people. I couldn't go two steps undetected without your help. Please help me. I cannot do it without you.”

 

Jiang Cheng cocks his head.

 

"Do you really think that kind of flattery works on me?" He says finally, standing up. Jiang Cheng is only a few inches shorter than him, so he has no problem holding his gaze. He’s furious and Lan Xichen is considering retreating, when he adds, "Very well, let's go. If that means I can get rid of you quickly.”

 

"Thanks," says Lan Xichen and a big smile spreads across his face.

 

The excursion is no different from the first one. They walk away from the lake and all the way to a rice field —the star shines on its farthest shore. However, this time Jiang Cheng makes no move to reach for it and lets Lan Xichen do all the work, calling out to the star in a firm, soft voice. The star is still midway through its way to Lan Xichen’s extended hand when Jiang Cheng turns around, his arms folded.

 

"Well, if your Highness no longer requires my help, I will go."

 

"No, wait a moment."

 

“It’s that an order?

 

"Please," Lan Xichen implores, gently touching his arm. They’re at the edge of the rice field watching the clouds reflected in its shallow waters. Lan Xichen reaches out to Jiang Cheng, presenting him with the star he just recovered. “I want you to know how important your help is to me.”

 

Jiang Cheng hesitates for a moment before taking it into his hands. This star is slightly larger than the first one, almost the same size of his palm, and emits heat that spreads throughout his body, relaxing him. However, he doesn't understand the meaning of Lan Xichen's words until he feels him leaning towards him to the point his chin’s almost resting on his shoulder.

 

"Can you see that star formation?" He asks, pointing to the sky. To him each and every star is as clear as ever, he recognizes them even when they crowd the sky without apparent order, but he understands the confusion he reads on Jiang Cheng's wrinkled forehead. “There,” he says, and uses his powers to make the stars that make up the Azure Dragon's chest shine in stages.

 

“Oh! One is missing,” says Jiang Cheng, and Lan Xichen can't help but smile noticing the change in his voice. “Is this it?”

 

“Yes. The night sky wouldn’t be complete without your help,” he says, and he knows these aren’t the right words as he hears Jiang Cheng click his tongue.

 

"I think I told his Highness that you don't need to waste flattery on someone like me," says Jiang Cheng, but he doesn't sound angry. He then makes a move to return the star, but Lan Xichen shakes his head.

 

"Would you like to place it in the sky?"

 

“Is that even possible?”

 

"I've never tried it before, but I think it is," says Lan Xichen. In theory, he should just take it in his hands and imbue it with spiritual power, ordering it to take its place in the sky, but he has Jiang Cheng to consider now. He covers Jiang Cheng's hands with his, raising both towards the sky while muttering commands in a language unknown to the inhabitants of the Lower Realms.

 

At first nothing happens, making him believe that his assumptions about his powers are wrong, but the next moment the star begins rising into the sky. Slowly, then gaining speed, it traces a brilliant path in the night sky before stopping at its usual spot. They look at it for a long moment before turning to see each other.

 

"Thank you," says Lan Xichen, gently withdrawing his hands from Jiang Cheng's. He shrugs. 

 

"You should be more careful."

 

“I know. It won't happen again,” he promises, but makes no move to leave. Lan Xichen looks around, as if looking for a conversation topic.

 

“All right. If your Highness will excuse me, I have duties to attend to,” Jiang Cheng says, bowing down. Lan Xichen can't help but feel disappointed, but he doesn't want to use his authority to hold him back.

 

“Will you help me...?” He asks, making Jiang Cheng turn around to face him. “Will you help me if it happens again?”

 

Jiang Cheng smiles, although reluctantly.

 

"If your Highness requires my services, I will be there."

 

Lan Xichen lets him go, staring at him until he's nothing more than a black dot in the vastness of the rice fields. Then he goes home.

 

.

 

Jiang Cheng's promise to help him is reassuring. But for Lan Xichen it is much more than that. His words are always in his mind, which, together with the small details that his memory recreates for him in the most unexpected moments, make him even more distracted than usual. For example, on one occasion he’s reading in his room at the Night Palace, when his mind brings back the memory of Jiang Cheng's face, just a few inches away from his.

 

"He smells like grapes," Lan Xichen mutters under his breath, not realizing that his eyes go over and over the same line of text without understanding its meaning. And flowers —but he can't discern which particular species. Lan Xichen has so little life experience outside of books that it’s not surprising he’s that awed after his encounter with Jiang Cheng.

 

Everyone in the Heavenly Realm respects him —even his brother and uncle treat him with courtesy despite being blood related. That’s why Jiang Cheng is like a breath of fresh air; he might address him politely but he never holds back his sarcasm, showing him that he’s not afraid despite his rank.

 

Lan Xichen wants more. He realizes that he hardly knows Jiang Cheng. How old is he? Where does he live? Why is he always alone? And yet, he has no way of contacting him, since doing it through official channels would alert his uncle that something’s changed. His only option is to descend while the Heavenly Realm sleeps, but what reason would he give for such visits? They aren’t friends, but Lan Xichen wants them to be.

 

Jiang Cheng’s promise to help him if another star falls down to his realm is his last resource. Sure, it's a risky alternative, one that might catch his uncle’s attention, but as the days go by, Lan Xichen feels increasingly desperate. The food that comes from the Flower Realm only reminds him of Jiang Cheng and on more than one occasion his servants find him looking at a bunch of grapes with nostalgia. That’s why one night Lan Xichen finds himself standing on the Night Tower’s edge, a star clutched in his fingers.

 

He knows he’s about to make a mistake, but the prospect of spending another night looking at the eternal sky seems too depressing. Lan Xichen lets out a long breath before letting the star he randomly chose sink into the clouds. Ten seconds after it fades from his sight Lan Xichen is already descending with it, although at a slower speed to allow it enough time to hide outside his reach.

 

This time Jiang Cheng is nowhere to be seen when he sets foot on the top of a hill. The star, however, is near —he could call it and it’ll come to his side immediately, but that’s not why he’s here. Lan Xichen turns his back on the star and heads towards the nearest village. Jiang Cheng isn’t there either and no matter how much he hides, he doesn’t go unnoticed. Luckily, there are few people on the streets, but the few who wander the stone paths leave whatever they’re doing to watch him pass by.

 

"Excuse me, are you looking for someone?" A voice asks, startling him. His steps have led him to a plaza in the middle of the village, from which he plans to orient himself to go to the vineyards as his first destination and then to the lake —places where he found Jiang Cheng previously— but the fairy in front of him stops him.

 

"Ah... yes," Worst case scenario he could lie, saying he’s been sent by the Heavenly Realm and undergo a lot of boring ceremonies with the Flower Goddess, but a good look at the young man makes him think that may not be necessary. He’s a young fairy, perhaps the same age as Jiang Cheng. His green eyes examine him carefully from behind a paper fan. Lan Xichen decides to take a bet. “Yes. I am looking for Jiang Cheng. Do you happen to know him?”

 

"Ah, Jiang-xiong? Yes, he's over here,” says the young man, closing the fan to reveal his face.

 

Lan Xichen can't believe his good luck as he follows the fairy through the neighborhood. Not for a moment does the thought that everything could be a trap cross his mind and his goodwill is rewarded as soon as they stop in front of one of the many houses that make up that part of the town. The young man, who hasn’t yet introduced himself, circles the building and Lan Xichen has no choice but to follow him, delving into what looks like a garden. A big tree spreads its branches around the house, providing shade for the flower bushes at its feet. The vegetation is exuberant, the many aromas intoxicating, but it’s not enough to distract him from his goal.

 

A swing made of vines hangs from the tree and Jiang Cheng’s sitting on it. Ah, so he does have friends , thinks Lan Xichen, with a hint of relief. The possibility that Jiang Cheng had been banished from the Flower Realm for some reason haunted him, but there must be another explanation for his nightly expeditions. 

 

"Maybe I should have asked earlier, but who are you?" The young man in front of him asks, distracting Lan Xichen from the vision of Jiang Cheng, who fights with another fairy, albeit playfully. It is the first time he’s seen him smile openly and even play, hitting the other in the ribs with his elbow, and the image is enough to leave him speechless for a few seconds. “Hello?”

 

“Sorry. My name is Lan Xichen.”

 

“And?” But before Lan Xichen can say anything else, Jiang Cheng detects him, standing among his mother's azaleas. He immediately jumps to his feet, making his friend fall on his ass.

 

"Lan Xichen? What are you doing here?”

 

“Good evening.”

 

Jiang Cheng bows down to him.

 

"Ah, so you do know him," the green fairy says, glancing at him from behind his fan. “I found him in the plaza. He looked lost and was looking for you, so here he is.” It seems to Lan Xichen that he expects something from Jiang Cheng, perhaps a thank you , but after exchanging a couple of eloquent glances, they both turn their attention back to him.

 

"Thanks for bringing me here…”

 

"Nie Huaisang."

 

Lan Xichen nods.

 

“What now?” Jiang Cheng asks, folding his arms.

 

"Come on, where are your manners? That’s not how you talk to a guest." The third young man says, approaching them to put an arm around Jiang Cheng's shoulder. His smile is open and sincere when he introduces himself to Lan Xichen. “I’m Wei Ying. I'm sorry for my brother's terrible manners. He may be a bit brusque but he's not a bad person,” he says, ruffling up Jiang Cheng’s hair, who shoots him his best killing look.

 

“I know. Young Master Jiang has helped me a lot in the past few days.”

 

"Oh, has he?"

 

Nie Huaisang and Wei Ying exchange a smile.

 

"I'm sorry to say that I've bothered him on more than one occasion," says Lan Xichen, following Wei Ying, who offers him the swing as the only available seat.

 

“No, no. I’m sure A-Cheng has caused you enough trouble.”

 

As if by chance and once Lan Xichen is seated, Wei Ying maneuvers Jiang Cheng to sit beside him. It’s cramped —their shoulders, their knees touch the other’s.

 

"Wei Ying," Jiang Cheng says under his breath, pronouncing his name syllable by syllable.

 

"I'm sorry I haven't offered you something to drink until now, I'll be back in a few moments," Wei Ying says, turning around and taking Nie Huaisang with him. The garden seems deserted once both disappear inside the house and a pleasant silence fills the place. Lan Xichen is used to it —there’s nothing but the sound of wind at the top of the Night Tower, but the silence of the Flower Realm is different. Even if there are no voices, he can hear insects buzzing around him and flowers swaying in the breeze; it is very nice.

 

“So?” Jiang Cheng asks, distracting him from his inspection of the flower roof that connects the treetop to the house, creating a natural protection against the rain. “Did you lose another star?”

 

Lan Xichen laces his fingers together before nodding.

 

“Don’t worry. I know where it is,” he says, when Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow. The light coming from the house illuminates his features, taking away the edge that moonlight gives them to add a certain softness to the corners of his eyes. “Are they your friends?”

 

"Wei Ying is my older brother," he admits reluctantly. “And Nie Huaisang has been our friend since childhood. But as you can see, they both behave as if they’re four years old.”

 

Lan Xichen smiles.

 

“Do you have any siblings?”

 

"Only one," Lan Xichen replies, sticking his legs into the ground and propelling himself backward, so Jiang Cheng loses his balance for a moment and has no choice but to hold on to his robe.

 

"Be careful, have you never used a swing before?"

 

“No. It’s the first time I see one. We don't have anything like this in the Heavenly Realm,” admits Lan Xichen, making the swing rock back and forth. Once again, he catches Jiang Cheng off guard. He’s about to fall when Lan Xichen puts his arm around his waist, holding him in place.

 

Jiang Cheng is not grateful at all.

 

"Don’t they teach you common sense in the Heavenly Realm?" He asks, pulling away from him to hold onto the chain that climbs towards the branch. This one is interwoven with flowers of various kinds and Jiang Cheng is very careful not to crush them. “If you want to swing I'd better get off.”

 

“No. I'll stop,” says Lan Xichen, setting his feet on the ground once more. His robe is dirty and his boots have changed color entirely, but he doesn't care. However, his disappointment about the swing is obvious, making Jiang Cheng sigh.

 

“Ok. Just a little. But I’ll do it.” Jiang Cheng says, swinging slowly.

 

They resume their conversation. Lan Xichen tells him about his brother, the God of Marriage. Lan Wangji is a couple of decades younger than him, but they’re still often mistaken for twins. The only thing that distinguishes them from one another is their countenance, since many claim that Lan Xichen looks much friendlier than Lan Wangji, although he begs to differ. Like him, Lan Wangji spends most of his time absorbed in his duties as the God of Marriage, which coupled with his own night duties prevents them from seeing each other often. Lan Xichen doesn't say it out loud but he feels a little lonely, something he hadn't noticed until he started visiting the Flower Realm.

 

In exchange, Jiang Cheng tells him about his own brother, his sister and his best friend. Wei Ying is an apple fairy, while Nie Huaisang’s a pear fairy and Jiang Yanli’s a peach fairy. They don’t have jobs as important as that of the Night God, but someone has to do them. In general, the Flower Realm is dedicated to the cultivation of all kinds of fruits, vegetables and grains, which gives them a lot of free time outside their duties.

 

"There are many activities to choose from," Jiang Cheng explains, when Lan Xichen asks him how he spends his free time. His eyes go from his face to his house’s back door —Wei Ying is nowhere to be seen, even after half an hour of absence. “Swimming, climbing trees, playing hide and seek... Occasionally we also hold festivals to celebrate good harvests…” Lan Xichen is not paying all the attention he should. Now that he can talk to Jiang Cheng without rushing, he’s surprised at how pleasant the sound of his voice is. “There are boat races on the lake in the afternoons…”

 

"You do all that?"

 

“Not everything. I don't like crowds,” he admits, avoiding his gaze. “I’d rather be alone.”

 

"That's why you go out at night."

 

Jiang Cheng shrugs.

 

"Didn't you come looking for your star? You better not keep waiting for tea, my stupid brother has probably forgotten already.”

 

Lan Xichen nods, but makes no move to get up from the swing.

 

"What else is there in the Flower Realm?"

 

"I see that your Highness has interest in the matters of mere fairies."

 

"I'm curious," says Lan Xichen, and it's not entirely a lie. He doesn't want to go home just yet. The company is pleasant, despite the lack of tea and the precariousness of their seat. The star is still where it fell and no one will miss it on another full moon night, so what's wrong if he stays a little longer?

 

Jiang Cheng's explanation is more academic than anecdotal, but it entertains Lan Xichen nonetheless. He could learn all about the Flower Realm in the Heavenly Realm’s library but it wouldn’t be the same. He enjoys listening to Jiang Cheng’s voice and witnessing the little changes on his face as he goes from one subject to another —a book could never make his heart flutter like that. But then again, books never get tired. Jiang Cheng is. His voice is losing strength and his words slow down, until they lose all meaning. Lan Xichen is convinced that something is wrong when Jiang Cheng lets out a yawn, hiding it behind the back of his hand.

 

"Sorry," says Lan Xichen, standing up. The moon is now behind them, indicating the lateness of the hour. “I didn’t notice the passage of time.”

 

"I know," Jiang Cheng says, jumping off the swing and stretching out. “We still have to retrieve the star, don't we?”

 

"No, it's okay," says Lan Xichen, shaking his head. “It's late and I'm sure no one will see me crossing the fields, so you don't have to worry. Thank you for keeping me company tonight. I’m sorry for keeping you this late.”

 

“Stop apologizing. I did it because I wanted to.”

 

Lan Xichen smiles to himself.

 

“Wait a moment.”

 

Jiang Cheng disappears inside his house before he can bid him farewell. He hears laughter and then Jiang Cheng’s voice chastising his friends but he can’t make out his words. By the time the grape fairy returns, his face is as red as a tomato when he hands him a white garment.

 

"Thank you," he says, presenting him his overcoat, the one he lent him a few days ago. “It is clean, so your Highness has nothing to worry about. I washed it myself.”

 

"Thank you, Jiang Cheng."

 

He rewards him with a little smile.

 

“Goodnight.”

 

Lan Xichen lets the darkness engulf him, the robe carefully folded on his arm. It doesn't take long for Jiang Cheng to become a tiny figure at his feet as he takes flight, following the star’s calling, but somehow, he feels closer than ever.

 

.

 

The robe smells of grapes and flowers —lotuses, Lan Xichen determines later. It’s a fresh and somewhat appetizing aroma that keeps him confused for a couple of days. This, and the fact that Jiang Cheng has started appearing in his dreams, tells him that something has changed inside him. But Lan Xichen is not quite sure what to do about it. The easy way out would be to ask his brother if there is any red thread linking his fate to Jiang Cheng's, but the prospect of a refusal terrifies him.

 

Lan Wangji has never offered to read his fortune, although Lan Xichen has sometimes caught him casting glances at his ankle, where his own red thread of fate must be. To ask him now would arouse his suspicions, the least thing he wants when even he doesn’t know what to do. Perhaps, he thinks, as he lies in his bed in the Night Palace, the clean robe folded next to his pillow, it’s nothing more than the novelty of a friendship outside the Heavenly Realm.

 

The people around him never change, so it’s not surprising that a new environment and a new person would remain in his mind. But to make sure once and for all, Lan Xichen decides to carry out a couple of experiments. 

 

Night after night he can be seen standing on the edge of the Night Tower, his arms full of stars that he drops one by one on the Flower Realm. Only the inhabitants of the Six Realms are witnesses to this phenomenon, although they cannot explain it, but by the time he descends among the fruit fields, Lan Xichen has already forgotten about the repercussions that his actions could have. His first impulse is always to look for Jiang Cheng, asking the help of fairies, who are getting used to his presence.

 

“Here again?” Jiang Cheng asks, but his tone is becoming less sarcastic and more forgiving as time goes by. Lan Xichen silently thanks him for always leaving whatever he’s doing to help him, although most of the time they take several detours while searching for the scattered stars.

 

They visit the night market in which the fairies sell their products, from handmade bracelets to all kinds of robes. Lan Xichen buys one on his first visit and feels somewhat embarrassed when he asks Jiang Cheng to let him change at his house, where he meets Jiang Yanli. Fairy clothing is much lighter than Heavenly robes, made with semi-transparent silk to help him withstand the hot weather of the Flower Realm.

 

They go watch the boat races, in which Nie Huaisang wins the top prize thanks to his intelligence, and a few days later they venture into the shallow parts of the lake to pluck lotus flowers. By then, Lan Xichen is already sure about his feelings for Jiang Cheng. And even though he’s still quite sharp around the edges, Lan Xichen has discovered that there is much more to him than his volatile temperament. Jiang Cheng is loyal and honest —he never complains no matter how hard he has to work. Lan Xichen loves the way he smiles when he thinks no one’s looking. His eyes sparkle in a special way every time he looks at his loved ones.

 

With him, Lan Xichen realizes that the night is much more than the silence of the darkness and the movement of the stars and that there are a thousand and one activities to do as soon as the sun is hidden. The Festival is a party like no other; the streets are filled with stalls. The music travels freely through the air as both of them —with Wei Ying and Nie Huaisang at a prudent distance behind them— try to figure out if the flickering light on the roof of a nearby house could be the star or a reflection of the fireworks that pierce the sky.

 

“You know?” Jiang Cheng says, when they finally retrieve the star. Lan Xichen is standing a few inches away from him, dazed by his image against the fireworks that explode behind him.

 

"Hm?"

 

His eyes are beautiful, with the color of storms. It’s no wonder that as Lan Xichen can read him, Jiang Cheng is also able to see into his soul.

 

"You don't need to do this to come visit," he says, holding out the star.

 

“I…”

 

Jiang Cheng shakes his head. Lan Xichen discovers that he cannot look him in the eye; a strange shame seizes them both as they pass the star from one hand to the other.

 

"Of course, I am not suggesting that your Highness is doing it deliberately. But if you ever want to visit without a star in the way, you are most welcomed.”

 

It’s all he has to say before jumping onto the street, where he joins his brother and his friend. Lan Xichen stands there looking at him go and a part of him allows himself to feel hope.

 

.

 

After that day, no star goes missing again. Lan Xichen resumes his duties as the Night God with the same precision as ever and it could even be said that he’s faster, so he can be in the Flower Realm ten minutes after completing his duties. At first it’s a bit strange, showing up without the excuse of urgent matters, but in the long run he discovers that it is much better. They no longer have to stop whatever they’re doing to go looking for the star, which means more time together.

 

"You look happy," says Jiang Cheng.

 

"I'm happy."

 

They’ve been seeing each other for several days with no other plans than spending time together. They meet on the pier shortly after sunset and from there they depart to any activity of their interest. Thus, Lan Xichen has had the opportunity to participate in all kinds of traditional activities, from simple things like picking apples, to trying to swim in the lake and almost drowning as a result. That particular day is special, though. It is the eve of the grape harvest, an important event for Jiang Cheng’s family.

 

Jiang Cheng explains to him that it’s nothing complicated —his duty consists in supervising the harvesting, choosing the best grapes to make the wine that’s sent to the Six Realms, but he is still nervous. Lan Xichen notices the way his hands tremble as he tries to braid some twigs into a flower crown. Sitting next to him, Lan Xichen tries to imitate his movements, only stopping when he realizes he’s terrible at it.

 

"I didn't know you’re also in charge of producing wine for the Realms."

 

"Only the one made with grapes. The rice one is produced by the Rice Fairy,” he explains, and the subject change helps him relax. His hands start moving again, braiding, inserting flowers between the gaps, and arranging the leaves until they take a crown shape. Jiang Cheng's favorite colors are purple and blue, something that can be seen in the heliotropes and hydrangeas interspersed with white flowers and twigs. “Done,” he says, leaning over to place it on his head. It is heavy, but not too heavy.

 

Lan Xichen feels his stomach do a flip as Jiang Cheng examines him with a critical eye. He wants to say something, but he feels his voice stuck in his throat, instead looking down at his own crown. For his he chose his favorite flowers, jasmine and pansies with a soft bluish hue at the tips, but its petals are now crushed thanks to his clumsiness.

 

"Don't worry," Jiang Cheng has been watching him closely and sits next to him before gently taking the crown from his hands. His fingers touch his palm, but both pretend not to notice. “It can be fixed. Try to bend the twigs inward, surrounding the main structure. It doesn't have to look perfect,” he says, and although he doesn't touch him directly, he points his finger here and there, towards the spots that can be improved. Still, the crown looks soulless when it's finally ready. The flowers are still broken and have started to wither.

 

“Sorry. You took the time to teach me and still the result leaves a lot to be desired.”

 

Jiang Cheng shakes his head.

 

"I already told you it can be fixed." Jiang Cheng forms a seal with his hands and in the next moment a soft golden light surrounds the flower crown, repairing the damage. Jasmines bloom again before his eyes, turning white once more while the pansies recover its soft blue shade.

 

Jiang Cheng hands him the crown.

 

"Thank you, but it's yours," says Lan Xichen, taking it to examine it for a second before placing it on Jiang Cheng's head. His fingers brush his temples and he tucks a strand of hair behind his ear before withdrawing his hand.

 

"I see," is all he says. The darkness of the night makes it impossible to distinguish his features, but Lan Xichen thinks he can sense some embarrassment in his averted eyes. How can he not be happy? Insects, frogs and birds join their voices, singing into the night; the scent of flowers fills his senses and among them, almost imperceptible, is also Jiang Cheng’s perfume.

 

They don't need words. Their silence is different from the emptiness of the Night Tower, in which Lan Xichen spends less and less time. He now carries all the stars with him on his travels to the Flower Realm. So no matter where he is, he can take them one by one —or in handfuls, if he’s in a rush— and release them into the sky without leaving Jiang Cheng’s side.

 

That night is no different. Lan Xichen rummages through his sleeves and starts releasing the constellations and the planets —small, colorful balloons— into the night sky. After some time, Jiang Cheng has learned to listen to their voices, to the melodies within them that compose a symphony in the night sky.

 

"Is there no moon today?" Jiang Cheng asks, after Lan Xichen makes no sign to reach for anything else inside his sleeves.

 

“No.”

 

They’re sitting on a blanket on the lake shore and except for a few lanterns hanging at intervals between the trees, there is no other light source. They can barely see each other.

 

"Don't you get bored coming here? There are so many other Realms you could visit.”

 

Lan Xichen shakes his head.

 

"I like coming here," he says, and he’s serious. He still smiles whenever he remembers the way Wei Ying threw him into the lake one afternoon, believing he knew how to swim and Jiang Cheng had to drag him out, drenched and dripping but laughing like everyone else. “I know there are many things to discover in the other realms, but it’s not the same. I wouldn’t enjoy them if I were alone.”

 

Jiang Cheng looks down.

 

"Unless my presence bothers you?"

 

"I didn't say that," Jiang Cheng complains and reaches out to flick his forehead. “If it bothered me I would have told you a long time ago not caring if you were the Heavenly Emperor himself.”

 

"I know," Xichen smiles and dares to take his hand. Jiang Cheng doesn't pull back, but he does get a little tense. “That's what I like about you, little Grape Fairy. You always say what you think.”

 

“Not always.”

 

“Like right now?” Lan Xichen asks, sitting up. Until now he was lying down, his head propped on his elbow, but he’s soon by his side. Light is scarce, but not enough to make him invisible; Lan Xichen can still see his jawline, his trembling lips, his eyes that look first to his hand, caught between Lan Xichen's and then towards his face.

 

“Yes. Because there is nothing to say,” says Jiang Cheng, letting go gently. He stands up and begins to shake off his pants, his gaze fixed on the lake. “It's late, Lan Xichen. Tomorrow I must get up early for the Grape Harvest, so if you don’t mind, I'll retire for today.”

 

"Sorry for keeping you so late," says Lan Xichen, though his chest feels tight. As a God, Lan Xichen hasn’t experienced many emotions. Of course, he knows joy and even anger, since relationships even between celestial beings are never perfect, but the sadness that takes over him at that moment has a special flavor. It’s different from the sadness he felt after losing both his parents at a young age, but just as overwhelming. It oppresses his heart, making the night even darker and the air colder, even though it’s mid-summer —he doesn't know what to do with it as he stumbles back to his palace.

 

Lan Xichen, however, is not pessimistic. He withdraws like a wounded animal to hide in the safety of his den but the following afternoon finds him as determined as usual. Even if Jiang Cheng rejects him, he plans to let him know his feelings and for this he’s willing to sacrifice his duties, leaving the sky empty so he can meet him while the sun is still high.

 

The world is different under the sun, more colorful. Lan Xichen finds Jiang Cheng in the center of his vineyards, carefully supervising the harvesting of the fruits. He’s so focused that he doesn't dare bother him until the end of the day, contenting himself with watching him from afar as he joins the chores until he ends up as drenched in sweat as everyone else.

 

"Good afternoon," he says, stepping out of the trees to intercept him. Jiang Cheng is so startled that it could almost be comical, were it not for the way he avoids his gaze while responding to his greeting. “Are you busy?”

 

"No, I just finished. Do you want to come?” The sun is overhead, though it’s starting to set, coloring the world in a soft golden light. Their shadows are like two more people glued to their heels.

 

"Only if I don't get in the way."

 

"You don’t," says Jiang Cheng. “I’m sorry I’m not presentable.”

 

"You look as good as ever," says Lan Xichen, glancing sideways at him. Despite the daylight, the atmosphere between them is still as dark as the night before.

 

"You're just being polite," says Jiang Cheng, wiping the sweat that runs down his forehead with the back of his hand.

 

"I would never say something I don't mean."

 

They walk in silence for a long time. The fairies who helped in the grape harvest outpace them, greeting them as they go by —Lan Xichen waves at them. His visits have made him part of the Flower Realm, in which he fits in perfectly thanks to his refined manners and the elegance of his gestures, but everyone knows the true reason for his presence.

 

"Sorry," Jiang Cheng says suddenly. The road to his house has felt like an eternity, but he decides to speak as soon as he glimpses the silhouette of the tree he’s played on since childhood. “I'm sorry for my harsh words. I was nervous about the harvest. It’s the first time I am in charge and I was afraid of making a mistake but that doesn’t excuse my terrible behavior.”

 

"Apology accepted," says Lan Xichen, feeling butterflies in his stomach when Jiang Cheng looks him in the eye for the first time that day. “I understand that you have your duties, Jiang Cheng and I regret always imposing my presence without taking them into account. Am I imposing right now? Because if so, I will leave and return another day, no hard feelings.”

 

“No. Please stay.”

 

They enter the house through the wooden door that leads to the garden. Under the sunlight, the vines that extend from the toptree to the house’s roof project magical figures on the grass. Scraps of light and shadow dance across his skin and hair, as well as Jiang Cheng's when he turns to look at him with a tiny smile on his face.

 

"Xichen," he calls him, experimentally, and feels his cheeks burn as the God raises his head to look at him. “I hope you don't mind if I excuse myself for a moment to make myself presentable. I’m dirty and although you say otherwise, my appearance is not adequate to keep a God company.”

 

"A-Cheng." Lan Xichen tries to sound reprimanding, but the familiarity of the name doesn’t go unnoticed by either of them. However, more than feeling embarrassed, Lan Xichen is happy to finally say it, after long months of feeling jealous of Wei Ying and Nie Huaisang.

 

“I’ll be back soon. Please make yourself at home.”

 

Jiang Cheng exits the garden before Lan Xichen can see the grin that spreads through his lips. When he comes back, wearing clean clothes and carrying a tray with tea and some snacks, he finds that both his brother and Nie Huaisang installed a table in a corner of the garden and are drinking what looks like wine with Lan Xichen.

 

“What? You should thank me for entertaining your guest,” Wei Ying says, ignoring his furious gaze. “You left him here with nothing to do.”

 

"Wow, thanks," Jiang Cheng says, rolling his eyes. “You’re very considerate. Wei Ying, did you stop to think if Xich... Lan Xichen can drink wine?”

 

“He’s a God! Of course he can!”

 

“Did you ask him?”

 

"No, but he didn’t say he couldn’t," Wei Ying complains. Both turn their gaze towards the God, who has remained silent. He looks normal but Jiang Cheng remembers that Lan Xichen told him that he doesn't drink wine.

 

"Xichen?"

 

"Hm?"

 

“Are you ok?”

 

"Yes," the man answers in a soft voice. “Come here, A-Cheng,” he says, pointing to the cushion beside him. Jiang Cheng knows something is wrong when, seeing that he doesn't respond immediately, Lan Xichen pouts and starts hitting the poor cushion with an open palm. “A-Cheng?”

 

Jiang Cheng has no choice but to take a seat under his “friends” amused gazes.

 

"He's drunk."

 

"It's just grape juice, A-Cheng ," Wei Ying says, offering him one of the jugs. “You know there’s no wine yet. Aren’t you the one producing it? But we thought Xichen-ge would like to drink some fresh juice and he didn’t say no. We didn't know he would get drunk. We didn't think about it.”

 

Jiang Cheng runs his hand over his face.

 

“Clearly.”

 

“What difference does it make? He looks happy,” says Nie Huaisang, and their sights go towards the God. He's smiling but Jiang Cheng doesn't miss his glazed gaze, still fixed on him. “What's wrong with it?”

 

"Go away," says Jiang Cheng, but without raising his voice. It doesn’t surprise him that both obey him immediately, the bastards have surely planned down to the last detail. But whatever their goal, they are not going to achieve it. “Xichen?”

 

“Yes?” Under the sunlight, Jiang Cheng realizes that his eyes are a deep brown color, like copper. “A-Cheng, your hair is so long,” he adds, immediately forgetting the topic of conversation. Jiang Cheng didn’t have time to dry his hair after coming out of the shower and so his hair falls to his shoulders, soaking his robes.

 

Lan Xichen reaches out to wrap a strand of hair around his fingers and bring it to his lips.

 

“Smells good.”

 

"You should go home," says Jiang Cheng, feeling like his heart is about to burst out of his chest.

 

"I want to stay here," he says, grimacing and folding his arms.

 

“You don’t know what you’re saying. You're drunk.”

 

"Still, I know what I want."

 

Jiang Cheng sighs. Talking to Lan Xichen is like dealing with his three-year-old nephew; they’re both equally stubborn. But perhaps the strategy he applies with Jin Ling can be useful this time around.

 

"Okay, so what do you want?" He asks, gently taking the cup from his hands. Wei Ying is right, it’s just fresh grape juice, but he can't risk him drinking more.

 

Lan Xichen smiles, leaning towards him.

 

"Should I say it?"

 

"I'm not a fortune teller. I can’t tell," Jiang Cheng complains, and although he tries to keep his composure, he knows he's playing with fire.

 

"A-Cheng, my A-Cheng..." Lan Xichen brushes his hair away from his face —his fingers are as soft as the breeze when he caresses his cheeks.

 

“You don’t know what you’re doing.”

 

"I do know."

 

"You are a God," he says, sure he’s just seen the silhouettes of his brother and friend hiding behind the curtains of the nearest window.

 

"Yes, what about it?"

 

Jiang Cheng shakes his head.

 

"You don't get it," he says, and his hands turn into fists on his knees. It's so easy for Wei Ying to joke about the situation and for Huaisang to go along with it, but he's still a fruit fairy, while Lan Xichen is a God. “You think you do. As you get to know more people you will notice the difference.”

 

"No, I will not."

 

"Xichen, stop being so childish," Jiang Cheng complains, flicking him on the forehead. “You are a God and you should behave like one.”

 

"Gods are capricious," says Lan Xichen, with a smile. “If I acted like a God I would take what I want regardless of the consequences,” Lan Xichen begins to close the distance between them, but Jiang Cheng, stubborn as he is, remains unmoved. Lan Xichen is so close Jiang Cheng can see the mole on his eyelid, a detail he hadn’t noticed before. “But I'd rather know myself rejected... or reciprocated before acting.”

 

“Wanna know then?”

 

Lan Xichen approaches him with a clumsy movement, their noses bumping into each other, but neither pays too much attention to this fact. Jiang Cheng alternates his gaze between Lan Xichen’s lips and his eyes. He smells like grapes, but also like jasmines. Trembling, Jiang Cheng closes his eyes at last, abandoning himself to whatever is going to happen, but nothing does. He opens his eyes once more.

 

Lan Xichen is staring at him.

 

He’s smiling.

 

The garden is getting dark and the first fireflies are fluttering around them.

 

"I'm sleepy," he says, and he collapses on his thighs with a thud. “A-Cheng, you are so soft.” Lan Xichen rubs his face against his thighs. His hands surround his body until they’re resting on his buttocks, which he squeezes gently.

 

"Lan Xichen!"

 

He’s sound asleep. Moments earlier Jiang Cheng had believed that perhaps he wasn’t drunk and was only pretending so that he could be alone with him, but the silly smile that spreads over his rosy-cheeked face indicates him that he drank too much grape juice.

 

“See?” Jiang Cheng says, brushing his hair away from his face. “You didn't know what you were doing.”

 

Lan Xichen sleeps peacefully and Jiang Cheng lets him be, even when his legs are screaming in pain. Their peace is interrupted after a while, when Wei Ying emerges from the house, followed by Nie Huaisang.

 

"Well, congratulations, A-Cheng," he says. His eyes move from his face to Lan Xichen's hands, still cupped around his buttocks and his smile widens even more.

 

“You're wrong.”

 

"Do you think we are blind?" The young man complains and turns to Huaisang for support. “We saw everything.”

 

"You didn't see anything because nothing happened," says Jiang Cheng, careful not to raise his voice. 

 

"He kissed you," Wei Ying is already desperate. He wants to shake his younger brother by the shoulders, but he holds himself back.

 

“No. There was something in my eye,” Jiang Cheng lies. Of course neither of them believes him, judging by their incredulous looks, but he bravely endures them.

 

“So what? Don’t pretend you don’t love him.”

 

"I'm just a Grape Fairy."

 

Before Wei Ying can do anything drastic —like maybe punching some sense into his brother— the sound of lightning breaks through the sky. A white fracture spreads through the heavens, bringing a downpour into the Fairy Realm. As the rain falls on them, a white figure descends in the middle of the garden, pinning them into place with his mere gaze. It’s the Heavenly Emperor.

 

"Your Highness," all three say in unison. Jiang Cheng bends over as he’s unable to kowtow, giving the impression that he’s shielding Lan Xichen with his body.

 

"Move," the Heavenly Emperor orders, ignoring Wei Ying and Nie Huaisang. He doesn't wait to be obeyed, a gesture of his hand is enough to make Jiang Cheng bounce back. A fairy like him, just a few decades old, is no match for him. Still, he wants to protect Lan Xichen from the fury he reads on his eyes. “Lan Xichen, get up right now.”

 

His voice is a roar that makes the world tremble. Out of the corner of his eye, Jiang Cheng can see his parents peeking out of the nearest windows, fear on their faces.

 

"Your Highness," he dares to say, gathering all his courage. “Xichen... His Highness the Night God drank grape juice and is sleeping right now.”

 

"He’s drunk?"

 

Wrong words.

 

"LAN XICHEN!"

 

"This Fairy was careless and dared to offer his Highness grape juice... If anyone should be punished, it is me." Still sitting on his heels, Jiang Cheng shouldn’t look fierce, but he does. His gaze meets Wei Ying's. Do you understand now?

 

"Are you also the reason behind the empty sky tonight?"

 

The question surprises him. He thought Lan Xichen took care of his duties while he was taking a bath but he’s wrong. The sky has been empty for hours and only the cries of the inhabitants of the Six Realms alerted the Heavenly Emperor.

 

"Yes, it is my fault, Your Highness. I request that you give me a suitable punishment.”

 

The Emperor doesn't even glance at him.

 

"Enough," he says, and just the flick of his fingers is enough to detach Lan Xichen from Jiang Cheng’s body.

 

Lan Xichen opens his eyes only to meet Jiang Cheng's concerned ones. He knows something’s wrong, but nothing prepares him for hearing his uncle’s voice, who begins to scold him as soon as he realizes that he’s awake.

 

"A-Cheng..." he calls out.

 

Jiang Cheng doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t want to cause him more trouble. He opens and closes his lips and when he’s about to say something, the Heavenly Emperor loses all patience and with a snap of his fingers vanishes into the air as quickly as he appeared. Lan Xichen leaves with him.

 

The Flower Realm is enveloped by rain.

 

.

 

Lan Xichen no longer returns to the Flower Realm but Jiang Cheng takes comfort in the knowledge that he must be fine every time he looks up at the night sky. He’s grateful that the Flower Realm wasn’t punished because of him, but he misses Lan Xichen. His days are not the same without him and yet he can’t do anything about it.

 

"Of course you can do something," Wei Ying says one afternoon, after hearing Jiang Cheng sigh for the nth time. “Go get him, little brother. Tell him you miss him, that you can't live without him and you don’t care about what his uncle says.”

 

"Fuck you, I'm serious."

 

“So am I.”

 

"You know I can't go after him," Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes, regretting opening his heart to his brother. “I’m a low rank fairy. I will be denied entry the instant I set foot in the door. I doubt my cultivation is enough to withstand the energy of that place anyways.”

 

"That's what dual cultivation is for, little brother," Wei Ying says, winking at him.

 

"Wei Ying, I swear to God…”

 

"Listen, do you wanna see him again or not?"

 

Jiang Cheng looks at his hands for a long time. The flower crown Lan Xichen gave him a couple of days ago is starting to wither —his powers aren’t enough to preserve it forever. Once the flowers die, there won’t be anything left of him, aside his memory.

 

“Yes.”

 

"Here," Wei Ying says then, offering him a tiny pearl. “It fell out of the Heavenly Emperor's headdress. I'm sure it has enough power to let you in without a problem.”

 

Jiang Cheng doesn’t know what to say, but Wei Ying doesn’t expect anything. That's how things are between brothers. Instead, he places an arm around his shoulders and flashes him his best smile.

 

“What do you say? Shall we go right now?”

 

“We?”

 

“At least let me join the fun. I promise to disappear as soon as you and your boyfriend start making out.”

 

“He’s not my boyfriend and we’re not going to…”

 

“Yes, yes. Whatever. Are you taking me or not?”

 

Jiang Cheng has no choice but to give in. It takes someone like Wei Ying to get around the finer details of their escape, because just as Lan Xichen had never left the Heavenly Realm before, Jiang Cheng has spent his entire life protected inside the Flower Realm. Luckily, the security is not so high and they manage to circumvent the protective barriers only with the pearl’s power —a problem arises when they try to teleport to a place that neither of them have visited before.

 

"Maybe if we think hard enough about the same place..." Wei Ying suggests. “Or about the same person? We could appear in his rooms. So think about your dear Lan Xichen and I will do the same. Don't even think of the Emperor by mistake! I don't want to be killed the moment he spots us.”

 

“Alright.”

 

That’s an easy task. His mind presents him with the image of Lan Xichen’s face framed by flowers —the hydrangeas seemed in love with the softness of his hair while the heliotropes highlighted the color of his eyes. Clenching the pearl inside his fist, Jiang Cheng focuses on the person he wants to see again before leaping into the void from the highest cliff in the Realm. They could die, and yet they know the plan is a success when they feel a solid surface under their feet seconds after they've jumped. When they open their eyes, the Heavenly Realm is there, all shrouded in misty clouds and silence.

 

They landed in a garden, but it’s very different from those in the Flower Realm. A single touch indicates to them that the flowers are artificial, as they melt between their fingers leaving behind something akin to ashes. But while it's an interesting mystery, Jiang Cheng isn’t there for it. He came looking for Lan Xichen and he’s nowhere to be seen.

 

"We'll have to explore," Wei Ying says, choosing a random path. Jiang Cheng is about to remind him that they must be careful, when they stumble head-on into a young man who he initially believes to be Lan Xichen.

 

"Intruders," the man says in a cold voice. He has the same black hair as his brother, but his eyes are honey colored.

 

“No, no!” Wei Ying waves his arms to downplay the matter and is not daunted by the God’s cold gaze. Jiang Cheng would be intrigued by how someone like him became the God of Marriage if he didn’t have more important matters to attend to.

 

"God of Marriage, Lan Wangji," Jiang Cheng says, walking toward him. “My name is Jiang Cheng. I dare to trespass into the Heavenly Realm to see your brother, His Highness the Night God.”

 

"I see," says Lan Wangji. 

 

"Could you show me the way?" He asks, after a long moment of silence.

 

“I could. But my brother is paying for his mistakes and I don’t think he would appreciate the visit of the person who caused him so much pain.”

 

“I know. I know I don't deserve him, ”Jiang Cheng says and stops Wei Ying's protests by raising his hand. “But I want to see him. I want to apologize and let him kick me out of his life if that’s what he wants.”

 

Lan Wangji looks down. His stoic face breaks down for a moment and surprise colors his features when he looks at something near Jiang Cheng’s feet.

 

"That wasn't there a second before."

 

"What?" Jiang Cheng asks, unsure what he’s supposed to be looking at. 

 

Lan Wangji shakes his head.

 

“Please.”

 

"If you want to see him, find him yourself."

 

Those are his last words. His hand closes around Wei Ying's arm, pulling him away from Jiang Cheng. Both brothers protest, but they can’t do anything against the God’s will. As Wei Ying’s being taken away, he yells at him not to worry, promising he’ll join him shortly. Jiang Cheng has to make do with that promise, he doesn’t have any time to waste.

 

Luckily, Jiang Cheng still has the pearl from the Emperor's headdress and is weighing how to use it to teleport to Lan Xichen's chambers when it slips from his hands. He has to squat down to retrieve it from under the bushes it rolled to, but the incident, rather than wasting his time, helps him notice something.

 

When he stands up, something catches his eye. Something glimpsed out of the corner of his eye and that’s still there when he bends down to touch it: it's a white ribbon that for some reason is tied around his right ankle. The ribbon has a pattern of stars and flowers along its length, which seems endless and continues into the distance —it is only when Jiang Cheng realizes that he cannot take it off, no matter what he does, that he understands what it is

 

Heart pounding, Jiang Cheng begins to follow it. With each step he takes he gets closer to Lan Xichen. His Palace is in the Realm’s confines, in the shadow of the Night Tower. 

 

Jiang Cheng feels the protective barrier as he sets foot in the Palace’s vicinity and has to use all his strength not to stumble backwards. He’s gone too far to give up now and that’s why he keeps walking, using the pearl as a shield. It only breaks when he’s already inside the Palace, leaving behind the main door carved with star patterns.

 

Now that the pearl is useless, Jiang Cheng tosses it aside before entering the first room, full of scrolls and painting supplies. The lighting is poor, despite the fact that night has not yet fallen and not a single noise can be heard, making him believe that perhaps he’s wrong and Lan Xichen is imprisoned elsewhere. Only the sight of the ribbon around his ankle reassures him as it’s still guiding him towards some inner room.

 

The library gives way to Lan Xichen’s personal chambers. There’s a bed in the center, surrounded by extinguished candles and several curtains hide more private amenities from view. Lan Xichen isn’t there either but Jiang Cheng doesn’t need the ribbon to realize that his figure can be seen in the garden to his right.

 

His voice gets stuck on his throat at the sight of him.

 

Lan Xichen is leaning over something he cannot distinguish on the other side of the garden. But there is something different about these flowers, a splash of color that sets them apart from the fake ones that make the rest of the garden. The vision brings him close to tears. Lan Xichen planted the flowers that Jiang Cheng braided into his flower crown and he’s been taking care of them, trying to make them bloom despite the adverse conditions. His face is mud stained.

 

"Lan Xichen," Jiang Cheng says, crossing the threshold between the Palace and the garden. He almost hopes that Lan Xichen will jump on him as soon as he sees him, but the man gives him a curious look, as if his appearance was a constant and not an exception in his life.

 

“A-Cheng. Come here, come and see the flowers,” he says, waving at him.

 

"Xichen?" Are you ok?” Jiang Cheng kneels next to him, captivated by the sight of the flowers, who have done their best to stay alive. The heliotropes have begun to give more flowers, tiny buds that he caresses to infuse them with a little more life.

 

Lan Xichen ignores his question.

 

"Will you come with me to the Tower tonight too?"

 

“Xichen, you're scaring me. Tell me you haven't drunk any more grape juice since the Emperor brought you back,” says Jiang Cheng, shuddering at Lan Xichen's perpetual smile. He looks normal, but he can’t tell if his indifference comes from a lack of interest or something more serious.

 

“You know that I haven’t.”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

"Xichen?" Jiang Cheng wants to tell him about Lan Wangji and the ribbon around their ankles, but Lan Xichen seems lost —drastic measures are needed to awake him from his daze. Jiang Cheng cups his face with his hands. “I'm here. I'm real.”

 

A tiny smile appears on Lan Xichen's face.

 

"What else can you be but a dream?" He asks, placing his hands on his and cocking his head to the side to enjoy his touch. “A-Cheng, I know you don't love me.”

 

“What? Who told you that?”

 

“You.”

 

“That’s not true.”

 

"If you do, the more I’ll believe this is a dream."

 

Jiang Cheng pinches his cheek.

 

"It hurt, didn't it? Now you know it’s not a dream.”

 

Lan Xichen shakes his head.

 

"Dreams can feel real too."

 

"Lan Xichen."

 

"My birth name is Huan."

 

"Okay, Lan Huan," Jiang Cheng corrects himself. “What should I do to make you believe me? I came all the way here from the Flower Realm and you think I'm a hallucination. If I didn’t love you so much I would’ve already off pulled your ears.”

 

"Let me hug you," says Lan Xichen, opening his arms. By now Jiang Cheng knows that he’s having fun at his expense, but he complies. Lan Xichen wraps him in his arms, resting his head in the gap between his neck and shoulder before letting out a soft contented hum. “My A-Cheng would never let me hug him like this.”

 

"Lan Huan stop playing with me."

 

“But it’s true.”

 

For someone that thinks he’s just a figment of his imagination, Lan Xichen’s holding him tight. One of his hands is resting on his back while the other’s on his hip, caressing it with his thumb. By now Jiang Cheng knows that there’s only one way to make him understand that he’s real and that he’s come to give him an answer, but that doesn’t make it easier for him. His heart feels like it's about to explode, and his hands, which now rest on Lan Huan's shoulders, tremble uncontrollably. A part of him appreciates not having to put his feelings into words, as he’s rather clumsy with them, but another asks him if he really wants to ruin Lan Xichen's life by reciprocating his feelings.

 

The Heavenly Emperor will not be happy.

 

"A-Cheng," Lan Xichen whines.

 

Jiang Cheng sighs and then cups Lan Xichen's face with his hands. The movement is enough to surprise Lan Xichen, who can only stare at him before Jiang Cheng closes the distance between them. What starts out as a soft kiss evolves into something else when Jiang Cheng bites Lan Xichen's lower lip, tugging on it before kissing him again. 

 

It's too much for Lan Xichen, whose hands tremble as he tries to keep up with Jiang Cheng’s pace. But while there isn't a big show in the little garden, things are very different in the Six Realms. The stars, which Lan Xichen had once again forgotten about, rise into the sky on their own, tracing light trails similar to those they make when falling. They look like fireworks that stay in the sky, shining as fairies, humans, demons and all kinds of creatures witness the strange phenomenon.

 

It doesn't last long, though. It stops the moment they pull apart, gasping for air.

 

“Satisfied?” Jiang Cheng asks, raising an eyebrow. Lan Xichen's smile is a reflection of his own.

 

"Maybe we should do it one more time, just to be sure," Lan Xichen jokes and gets a flick on the forehead for his indolence.

 

"I should leave you locked up in here."

 

“But you won’t?”

 

"I thought I made it clear that I want to be with you."

 

"And I wanna be with you, my little grape fairy," he says, rubbing his nose against his neck.

 

"Good luck trying to explain that to your uncle," Jiang Cheng scoffs.

 

Lan Xichen giggles.

 

"We'll do it together."

 

The prospect should be terrifying for Jiang Cheng, who has entered the Heavenly Realm from the backdoor just to steal the heart of the heir to the throne, but he’s not scared. There are many things he has to face, not only the Heavenly Emperor, but also his parents. There are many things he has to explain and do —including finding his brother— and many changes to come. But when his gaze casually falls down to the heliotropes and hydrangeas growing in the infertile soil of the Heavenly Realm, cared for by Lan Xichen’s loving hands, he knows that nothing is impossible.

 

They will face it together.