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“You didn’t tell me? All these years and not one word?” Lan Xichen says. “How long?”

Half Jiang Cheng’s problem is that his words come too easily or not at all. They’re either knife sharp and ready to cut, or they stick in his throat trying to choke him. There is no in between.

But now. Right now. He wishes more than ever he had the skill to be soft. Lan Xichen deserves the truth as prettily as Jiang Cheng can deliver it — even though he almost certainly doesn’t feel the same way.

Before them, the sun sinks low on the horizon, warm and red and too big to be real. The lake laps at the pier; a soft lullaby — comfort of a kind. The evening breeze tugs playfully at the ends of Lan Xichen’s forehead ribbon, as he turns his head to look at Jiang Cheng, lips pressed together, eyes solemn.

“Jiang Wanyin, how long?”

Give Jiang Cheng a hundred demonic cultivators, cursing his name, ready to raise an army of fierce corpses to rend him limb from limb — he won’t flinch. He’ll turn and face them and he won’t back down. But this?

“Does it matter?”

“I rather think it does to me.”

Jiang Cheng’s mind scrabbles for some way to make the truth palatable. 

“Long enough.” He exhales through his nose, and turns his head away, fixing his eyes on the distant shoreline. Maybe the words will find their way out, if he can make himself believe this is just another foolish flight of fancy he’s indulging within the privacy of his own mind, rather than a mistake that’s about to ruin one of the few friendships he’s ever managed to forge.

A long moment passes before he’s finally brave enough to add, “Long enough that I can’t remember when it wasn’t a part of me.”

There’s a sharp intake of breath from beside him, and immediately Jiang Cheng wishes he could grab the words out of the air and swallow them back down. Unsay them. Unmake them before they unmoor him any further.

But it’s impossible.

All at once in his mind’s eye, he can see himself, fifteen, arriving at Cloud Recesses — so young and so, so eager to please — the desire for his peer’s approval burning under his skin.

It seems ridiculous to think it now, and he would certainly never admit it aloud, but even then. Even back then. One look at Lan Xichen, the pristine, perfect First Jade. Elegant, gentle, and painfully kind. He had been everything a young master ought to be — and in that first meeting, Jiang Cheng hadn’t known whether the fierce stab of longing that rose in his chest had sprung from a desire to be like him, or be with him. He just knew that he looked at Lan Xichen and wanted. Somehow twenty-five years later, he had never stopped wanting.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says, words quick and harsher than he means them to be. “It doesn’t have to mean anything.”

Beside him, Lan Xichen goes very still, and Jiang Cheng can’t bear to look at him — can’t bare his soul any more than he has done. Better to let this be an end to it, and hope that a night’s sleep and a new day allow them both to forget.

“It’s getting late,” he says. “Don’t let me keep you from—”

“Do you remember two year old Jin Ling falling in the lotus pond at Koi Tower?”

Jiang Cheng snorts, he can’t help himself. “Remember? It was during the most important cultivation conference that year. Dragging him out of that blasted pond got muddy water all over my best robes, right before I was due to give a speech on trade alliances.”

Lan Xichen hums in amusement. “You were so frustrated with him, and so fond at the same time. I remember you scooped him up into your arms and scolded him, and cradled him as he cried. At the time I remember thinking—” 

“Thinking?”

“That love looked good on you.”

“Ah.” Jiang Cheng feels himself flush, and turns back to look at the view. 

Out of the corner of his eye, though, he sees the dying rays of the sun bathe Xichen’s face in golden light. 

“Love looked good on you then, Jiang Wanyin. I hope you won’t consider me too forward if I say: it still does. I can only hope you find it an equally pleasing look on me.”

“What? No. If this—” A stab of fear; his own old insecurities surge in his chest. Jiang Cheng squares his shoulders, holds his head high and grits his teeth, as he wheels around to finally face him head on. “I neither want nor need your pity, Zewu-Jun.”

“Good,” Lan Xichen says. “Because that’s not what I’m offering.”

“What then?” Jiang Cheng’s lip curls up in a sneer. “Courtship? Romance? Perhaps you want us to elope, like our brothers did. We are sect leaders, Lan Xichen. We have responsibilities that cannot be laid aside. We—”

Lan Xichen surges forward, cutting him off with a kiss. There’s a moment where Jiang Cheng’s too paralyzed by shock to move; then he reaches out to grab Xichen’s robe, meaning to push him back, but somehow it doesn’t work out like that. Instead, he finds himself pulling Xichen closer, sinking into the warmth and comfort on offer. His knees feel weak; his head spins, and immediately Xichen’s arms wrap around his waist, steadying him, grounding him.

“This is what I want—” Lan Xichen says, when he finally pulls back. He rests his forehead lightly against Jiang Cheng’s, eyes still shut tight. “Only this. Wherever we go in this world, however long, by necessity, our duties keep us apart, for us to always remember that we find our home in each other. Is that something we can have, Wanyin?”

Years ago, when Jiang Cheng first saw the First Jade of Lan, pride of their generation, he saw the paragon. The incomparable beauty, the flawless smile, the compassion and wisdom, the strength and prowess in battle. For most people that’s all they ever get to see. But years of living lives that run parallel to each other have given Jiang Cheng insight into the man behind it. Together they bear the weight of shared experience, the knowledge of how isolating leadership can be — the need to present one face to the world, when on the inside — well.

Standing here, now, Jiang Cheng can feel the fine tremor in Lan Xichen’s hands as they clutch at his waist. Feels the heat of his body. Feels the way his breath hitches as it warms Jiang Cheng’s cheek, smelling faintly of garlic from the dinner they just shared. In spite of everything Jiang Cheng finds himself battling the urge to smile.

Perhaps.

Perhaps this isn't impossible.

And even if it is, he's the leader of the Yunmeng Jiang. The impossible is nothing.

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng says. “Yes. It is.”