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fools who run their mouths off

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Jiang Cheng's immediate thought, when the goose first descends upon him one fine morning, is that it must be Wei Wuxian's fault.

(His first reaction, which comes before the clarity of thinking, is to scream bloody murder, flailing around for empty air at the sudden sharpness digging into his skin and loud screeching assailing his ears until he falls on his tailbone, sleeping robes in disarray and a lapful of goose feathers flapping before him.)

But Wei Wuxian is not even at Lotus Pier—he hasn't been for many years—so Jiang Cheng is forced to come up with more reasonable possibilities when the goose proves impossible to capture, assail, or hide from. Certainly it must be a demon or a curse of some kind—even though Zidian is ineffective against it and Sandu does no more than pass through it cleanly, drawing neither blood nor malicious spiritual energy. Whatever it is, Jiang Cheng cannot find a way to rid himself of it, and pestering Jiang Cheng appears to be its only aim in life.

It must be Wei Wuxian, he can't help thinking by nightfall, when he's a frazzled mess and the goose has successfully disrupted his day.

It chases him out of no less than three important meetings, nips him in the wrist when he tries to sit down to go through paperwork, and nearly causes him to fall into the water as he waited to greet a few returning disciples at the pier.

Nothing it's done is particularly evil, just generally a massive annoyance.

Hence, Wei Wuxian.

(Who is still, of course, far from Lotus Pier currently. Perhaps traveling with his husband elsewhere, Jiang Cheng isn't sure, though Jin Ling—in the stories he tells of his own visits to Cloud Recesses—keeps him updated, whether he asks or not. He never asks.)

Maybe it's a curse done by someone with a similar temperament, anyway, but Jiang Cheng does not know any of his disciples who would have such audacious foolishness. Whatever curse has been cast on him, none of the elders have heard of it. No one can tell him what to do with the goose shadowing his every movement, but it's clear, after just one day, that it wreaks enough havoc so that Jiang Cheng's presence has quickly become a destructive, counter-productive force in the sect.

"Perhaps," one of the elders suggests, "Sect Leader Jiang can take a moment to investigate this pressing matter."

No one's dying, Jiang Cheng wants to snap back. But the training hall is in shambles after the blasted goose chased Jiang Cheng through it just hours ago, and now the disciples were left putting it back together instead of going through their practice. The scrolls tallying the sect's finances in preparation for the Discussion Conference are now a messy pile on the floor, instead of carefully arranged by order of expenditure, and it would take time to order them as they were. Dinner that evening is spoiled from when Jiang Cheng passed by the kitchen and instead was harassed into cutting through the kitchen door, inadvertently knocking the bubbling pot of soup over.

It might not take very long before the goose-induced chaos turns his entire sect against him.

So Jiang Cheng nods. "I will look for a solution to this… mild disturbance," he agrees. "I'll stay in my rooms until then."

He knows he's not imagining the relief that washes over everyone's faces.

 


 

Though nothing quite compares to the tomes stored in Cloud Recesses, the Jiang Sect boasts its own formidable collection of texts. Over the next few days, Jiang Cheng has his disciples bring in books that he attempts to dig through, in between battling to keep his goose away and what little sect business his head disciple manages to bring to his attention before the goose attacks anew.

"It's strange," Jiang Cheng mutters as he kicks the offending goose away, only to have it return like it felt no pain from that. It very likely did not. "It only knows to come at me from that angle. I've moved to different places within this room, and always—the same angle."

"That's interesting," Feng Xu says, glancing worriedly at the goose. "Do you know why?"

Jiang Cheng doesn't. None of the books he's gone through have provided any inkling of a clue. He takes the new pile of books from Feng Xu and asks him to return in the morning with the next batch, in case something in the new pile does.

Research has never been Jiang Cheng's strongest suit. He read what he had to because he had to, but had always been much more comfortable fighting his way out of a predicament. This kind of mystery is really more Wei Wuxian's style—he'd no doubt be interested in the theory of it, the machinations behind what may be causing it.

Jiang Cheng just wants to rid himself of the stupid goose.

He glares at it once it backs him into the same corner it's backed him to multiple times that day, but pressed against the east-facing wall, with nowhere else to go, they're at a standstill.

"What," Jiang Cheng snaps, exasperated, "do you fucking want?"

The goose just honks.

 


 

"Jiujiu, what's this I hear about you being plagued by a goose?" is how Jin Ling announces his arrival a few days later, barging into Jiang Cheng's chambers with Fairy trailing not far behind.

"I'm sure I taught you to knock before entering anyone's private residences," Jiang Cheng grumbles, watching Jin Ling take the goose in, his eyes wide and almost comical as he blinks very slowly.

"It really is a goose," he says, glancing back at his dog to observe her reaction. Fairy doesn't even so much as sniff. "Fairy doesn't seem to mind it. So it's not a demon?"

"Not that I can tell," Jiang Cheng says. He's at his usual corner that day, having learned—eventually—that as long as he stays in that section of the room the goose will leave him be, for whatever small mercy it is. "Not a curse. Not a real goose, either. Not when I try to butcher it, anyway."

Jin Ling raises an eyebrow at that. "A spiritual goose?" he wants to know.

"It doesn't eat, nor does it act like any other spiritual animal I've met," Jiang Cheng says. "I've had days to think about this, you know."

"Have you found anything from your books?"

"Nothing that can help."

"Have you asked—" Jin Ling purses his lips at the look Jiang Cheng levels him. "He would know."

"He might've caused it."

"Why would he—well, maybe. Accidentally." Jin Ling curls his lips, like he does when he's trying very hard to think. "Either way, though, you might have better luck looking into what information the library at Cloud Recesses has."

"I might," Jiang Cheng hedges.

"I can ask for you," Jin Ling offers, and because he knows Jiang Cheng too well, he adds, "I won't even say who I'm asking for."

 


 

It turns out to be the first real lead Jiang Cheng gets on his goose-shaped headache, because only a few days later, Jin Ling's sending him an urgent message. It's short, hastily written, but it has Jiang Cheng grabbing his things and setting off for Cloud Recesses immediately:

"You are not the only one. There is another goose terrorizing the Lan sect as well."

 


 

It doesn't occur to Jiang Cheng to confirm that his presence is expected until he arrives at Caiyi Town, dismounting his sword to make the trek up to the Gusu Lan Clan's residences. He has no jade token to grant him passage, no letter to let anyone know he is coming. But the disciple that guards the entrance lets him in, and Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian are there to greet him when he arrives.

"Oh," Wei Wuxian breathes, eyes going wide as he looks around Jiang Cheng, who pauses to greet them both. "It really is another goose!"

"Why is everyone so surprised when—hey!" Jiang Cheng snarls, shooing the goose away as it suddenly starts snapping at him. It had stayed uncharacteristically unobtrusive throughout the entire journey here, following Jiang Cheng a few steps behind. He isn't sure what's causing this now.

He can't quite tell what Lan Wangji is thinking, but Wei Wuxian becomes even more fascinated at this behavior. "Is it always like this? When does it stop?"

"Don't you have one of your own to observe?" Isn't that, after all, what Jiang Cheng came here for? He wonders, suddenly, if maybe Jin Ling had only said as much to get him here.

"Well, yes, but we can't assume all their actions will be exactly the same," Wei Wuxian says. He can't keep the delight off his face. "A goose! How absurd!"

"Are you sure this isn't your doing?"

"Now why would I do that to poor—and you were all the way in Yunmeng!" Wei Wuxian says, finally taking pity on Jiang Cheng's struggle not to let the goose shove him into Cloud Recesses before his hosts welcomed him in, and moving into the residences. "If I could go that far—oh, Jiang Cheng, do you think I'm smart enough to pull something like this off? You really know how to flatter—"

"You—"

He's interrupted by a loud honking, the exasperated chattering of a voice that's increasingly growing louder, closer, and when Jiang Cheng looks up, he finds a white-robed flurry coming straight for him, a feathered fiend much like his own not far behind.

He steps aside just in time to avoid being run into, reaching sideways to grab the man by the back of his robes to hold him up.

"Watch where you're going," he says, even as his own goose chooses that moment to waddle around his legs and knock his knees out from under him, tilting his center of gravity without warning. He flails for a second, and for the second time in as many weeks he's landing hard on his tailbone, this time a tangle of limbs and sharp bones digging into his ribs courtesy of the man who's dragged along and fallen on top of him.

"Oh," Wei Wuxian says, glancing down at Jiang Cheng. "That's very interesting. I guess your geese wanted to do the honors of making your introduction!"

"Wei Wuxian!"

"No, no, that's Lan Jingyi, actually," Wei Wuxian says, biting down his lips but doing nothing to hide the smile on his face. "And that—" he says, pointing behind Lan Jingyi— "is his goose."

 


 

It's Wei Wuxian who catches Jiang Cheng up on the case of the goose that appeared out of nowhere to terrorize Lan Jingyi, around the same time Jiang Cheng's goose showed up.

"Was it your birthday too—uh, Sect Leader Jiang?" Lan Jingyi asks, frowning when Jiang Cheng tells him no, it wasn't. "So there goes that theory."

Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow. He vaguely remembers this Lan Jingyi—he's one of Jin Ling's friends, though not the one his nephew gets starry-eyed over. The cloud motif on his forehead ribbon says he's a Lan by blood. Jiang Cheng knows little else. "What theory?"

There really isn't one, but Lan Jingyi apparently spent three days exhausting everything in the library that had to do with births, at first. They've been looking into it as much as they can, though Lan Jingyi, like Jiang Cheng, has been relegated to house arrest so as to not have his goose wreak havoc otherwise.

"Sizhui's been looking through all possibilities we've thought of," Wei Wuxian is saying, "but we haven't had any luck finding much until we heard about your goose."

Jiang Cheng waits, expectant. Leave it to Wei Wuxian to draw out the inevitable, just to be self-congratulatory about it.

"I mean. It's just a start." Wei Wuxian just grins, not even the grace to look sheepish. "We know, so far, it doesn't appear to be evil. We now know it's not birth-related, either. We weren't sure whether it's a prank or not, but there's no reason it would hit you and Lan Jingyi—there's really not a whole lot you two share in common. Is there? But we can start looking. Maybe a shared location, something you both did just before your geese arrived… If we find more similar cases, that could also—"

"Senior Wei, Hanguang Jun," someone calls out, and that's when Jiang Cheng realizes they've reached the library. Lan Sizhui—that's the one Jiang Cheng needs to talk to Jin Ling about, at some point—is there to greet them at the door. "Sect Leader Jiang. Jingyi."

"We come bearing geese," Lan Jingyi announces. "Tell us you've got good news, Sizhui."

But Lan Sizhui only shakes his head. "Nothing new so far, still," he says, sounding sincerely sorry for it. He's got circles under his eyes, and he seems pale, even for a Lan. "Although—"

Wei Wuxian makes an inquiring sound.

Lan Sizhui tilts his head to the side. "Your geese appear to no longer be disruptive," he points out. "Have you noticed when they stopped?"

 


 

They have not, in fact, noticed precisely when the geese started behaving, though they do agree they haven't noticed anything amiss since both geese were introduced.

"I'd say maybe they just wanted to meet," Wei Wuxian postulates, tapping his cheek like it's a theoretical problem to resolve. "But I suppose the ideal situation here is to get rid of both geese completely."

"How could the rest of the cultivation world ever hope to keep up with this kind of genius conclusion," Jiang Cheng mutters under his breath, low enough that Wei Wuxian can pretend not to hear it.

But Lan Jingyi, who is next to him, swallows down a snort—failing spectacularly, and choking on air instead.

Jiang Cheng thwacks him on the back for lack of other alternatives, trying to soothe him and frowning as he says, "Try not to die before you accidentally leave me with two geese, will you."

Lan Jingyi has the gall to shoot him a dirty look, but before he can say anything that might get him punished for breaking a Lan sect rule, they've all gathered round the table Sizhui has spread his work out on, Wei Wuxian listing down the theories they've eliminated and are considering.

They talk about what they've both done in the week leading up to getting goosed—but nothing in the list are things that only the two of them did, and no one else. On second thought, Wei Wuxian is now hesitant to rule out Lan Jingyi's birth as a possible trigger—it doesn't fully explain Jiang Cheng's goose, but it's the event that is most unusual out of everything.

"It might make more sense the more we find out later," is how he explains it. "But perhaps not as the foremost reason the geese showed up."

They compare notes on geese behavior next—Sizhui's observation on the geese reminds Jiang Cheng about how his goose had behaved during the journey over, acting up only when he came to greet Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji at the entrance.

"Maybe it doesn't like you," he tells Wei Wuxian, just half the bite than usual.

"When does it stop, otherwise?"

Jiang Cheng hesitates, but only because what he's about to say sounds silly, and not at all helpful. "There's a wall in my room," he says. "The goose stops bothering me when I've reached it."

"That's so weird!" Lan Jingyi says, because that's how he's managed to calm his own goose down, too. But his part of the room is near the bed, not the window like Jiang Cheng's, and it's a corner, not a wall.

Lan Sizhui frowns. "Are they in the same direction?" he wants to know.

They aren't, which feels like another futile trail of inquiry—Jiang Cheng's window faces the east, while Lan Jingyi's corner is westward.

"But then—" Wei Wuxian grabs a map of the lands, pointer finger landing at Yunmeng as he says, "If you go east from here—" and traces the path over until the direct line reaches Gusu— "You'll meet whoever is going west from here."

"They stopped when you two ran into each other," Sizhui breathes. "They wanted you to go where the other one was."

It would make sense, Jiang Cheng realizes, now that he and Lan Jingyi are in the same space—both geese seem quite content. It's the first time in days he's been anywhere and hasn't been chased into a table, or a shelf of books, or a hot stove. When he thinks about it, the goose had always been chasing him eastward, hadn't it?

"Let's test this!" Wei Wuxian says, eyes wide. "Jingyi, come over here!"

He doesn't even wait for Lan Jingyi to say anything, grabbing him by the wrist and tugging him away from the group, toward the library entrance. Almost immediately, Lan Jingyi's goose honks with displeasure, echoing Jiang Cheng's goose, a flutter of white wings flapping threateningly within the confines of the library.

"I think you've proved your point," Jiang Cheng says as visions of flying scrolls and torn up books haunt him. He hurries over to Lan Jingyi, and almost immediately, the geese calm down.

"But how far can he—" Wei Wuxian wonders, tugging Lan Jingyi back a few more steps, stopping only as soon as the geese start honking again. He tuts, measuring the distance between Jiang Cheng and Lan Jingyi with his gaze. It is not a great length—if Jiang Cheng reaches his arm out, he would be able to rest it on Lan Jingyi's shoulder. "No further than this, then?"

"No further than this," Jiang Cheng says. "It seems the theory holds." The geese want them near each other. What he can't figure out is—

"But why are they doing that?" Lan Jingyi asks. "They're barely even looking at each other now, so it's not like they needed to be brought together."

Everyone looks at Jiang Cheng and Lan Jingyi. They look at each other.

"I cannot think of a single reason," Jiang Cheng declares. They are not from the same clan, they are not from the same anything, with very little in common besides knowing the same people that a handful of others also know.

"It might be random, who it affects," Wei Wuxian suggests. "But what the geese want—it seems there's intentionality behind it."

"Are you saying—"

"Not exactly the Self-Sacrificing Summoning Ritual," Wei Wuxian says hastily, holding his hands up at the way Jiang Cheng starts looming over him. "But maybe there is something the geese want you two to do?"

"Like a mission?" Lan Jingyi asks.

Wei Wuxian nods. "Exactly that. It would explain the absence of harmful effects, and annoying someone into doing one's bidding isn't necessarily unheard of as a persuasive tactic—" He has the grace to pause here, while everyone clears their throats and gives him meaningful looks— "so I don't think it's far-fetched."

"But they've stopped trying to do anything since they got us in the same place," Jiang Cheng points out. "Does this mean the thing we're supposed to do is here?"

"It's something we can explore," Wei Wuxian says. "Maybe it isn't time yet, whatever it is."

"So these geese have—have—" Lan Jingyi stumbles around for the word— "some kind of sentience? To know what the mission is and lead us to it?"

"There's a strong enough will driving them to do it, at any rate," Wei Wuxian says with a nod.

"Or it could just want to drive us both insane," Jiang Cheng points out, glaring at the geese.

Wei Wuxian's response is far too eager. "We can try that out too, if you like!" At the scowl Jiang Cheng gives him, he laughs and adds, "I just mean we should try to get you and Jingyi moving. There's nothing now that seems to be bothering them, so whatever you're doing is aligned with their goal, or not against it, but maybe if we let them direct you—"

"So we should listen to two sentient geese and base how we live—our decisions—on their whims?"

Wei Wuxian looks at him, the question clear on his face: Do you have any better ideas?

"I have a sect to run," Jiang Cheng reminds him. "Responsibilities and obligations to people beyond this creature. The Yunmeng Jiang Clan are hosting the Discussion Conference in a few months and I have work to do in order to prepare for it."

Wei Wuxian glances at Lan Wangji for a moment. "You can try this in Yunmeng for now. I know your goose let you come here, but if neither of them let you go to Yunmeng, then that is one more thing we'll know about their purpose."

Lan Jingyi hesitates, but not for long. "I have duties here too, Senior Wei."

"Sizhui can help spread them out among the other disciples for the time being," Lan Wangji says, the first time he's spoken, no doubt in full backing of his husband's line of thinking. "If Sect Leader Jiang would allow it."

"You will help each other by your presence alone," Wei Wuxian reminds Jiang Cheng. "Jingyi is one of our best. He can practice alongside your disciples, if you wish, and teach them things as they can teach him as well. It can be educational for both sects."

"But Senior Wei—"

"You didn't stay very long in Lotus Pier last time you were there, did you?" Wei Wuxian asks Lan Jingyi. "It's a beautiful place, thanks to everything Sect Leader Jiang has done. Have you ever had lotus seeds? They're delicious, so you should try some, and at least go out on the pier while the markets are opening—" He catches himself, clearing his throat and grinning sheepishly at Jiang Cheng. "And I'm sure there's much to learn from Sect Leader Jiang himself."

Jiang Cheng purses his lips, his fists clenching and unclenching by his sides as he counts his breaths. "You can choose to dress it up all you like," he tells Wei Wuxian, finding some comfort at least in the knowledge that only he seems to like the idea. "But we have no choice either way. He comes to Yunmeng with me, or neither of us can do anything on our own."

"Ah, why is the cup always half-empty for Sect Leader Jiang," Wei Wuxian sighs, patting Lan Jingyi, who looks—not upset, but resigned—on the shoulder. "No, seriously, Jingyi. Lotus seeds. Life-changing."

Though still clearly reluctant, Lan Jingyi says little else as Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji, and Jiang Cheng hash out the details of the arrangement: come the next morning, Lan Jingyi and Jiang Cheng will head to Yunmeng and attempt to uncover the geese-given mission they apparently need to accomplish; Wei Wuxian will coordinate efforts to find other goose-related incidents to compare against; and Sizhui will lead researching efforts at Cloud Recesses based on any possibilities sent his way.

"I'll send some of my disciples out to look into this as well," Jiang Cheng says. "And Jin Ling might be able to send word through the watch towers."

It's a solid plan. As solid as they can get trying to decipher what two immortal, magical, incomprehensible geese could possibly want them to do.

It's the first time in weeks that Jiang Cheng feels a tiny little bit of hope flickering deep in his gut—so of course, naturally, Wei Wuxian has to ruin it.

"You two can head out to Yunmeng tomorrow—I suspect Jingyi will need time to pack his things. Ah, and I suppose we'll have to add another set of bedding for Jiang Cheng's rooms tonight, don't we, Lan Zhan?"

"Another set—"

"—of what?"

Wei Wuxian glances at Jiang Cheng and Lan Jingyi before pointedly looking at the geese standing guard next to both of them. "It's not exactly up to any of us reasonable folk here, is it?"

 


 

The last time Jiang Cheng shared sleeping quarters with anyone—not counting during the Sunshot Campaign, when sleep came whenever you could get it, regardless of where you were—he was still a child, and he'd had years to get used to Wei Wuxian.

That was more than two decades ago—Jiang Cheng has learned to appreciate his solitude since.

But the geese, as Wei Wuxian points out, do not care for what Jiang Cheng thinks, and so he steps into the guest quarters the Lan sect had prepared for him that evening, Lan Jingyi following not far behind. There are two beds in the room, a carefully measured, goose-approved distance apart.

"Does Sect Leader Jiang—" Lan Jingyi starts, clearing his throat before he tries again— "Does Sect Leader Jiang have a preference for which side of the room he'd rather sleep in?"

Jiang Cheng is too old for this. "It doesn't matter," he says, walking over to the one closer to him.

"If it didn't matter why'd you pick one, then," Lan Jingyi mutters under his breath, biting his lip when Jiang Cheng shoots him a glare.

"What was that?"

"Nothing, Sect Leader Jiang," he mumbles, like he's remembering himself. He grabs for his sleeping robes and moves the dividing screen around just far enough his goose won't protest if he stays behind it while he changes. "This one apologizes for the inconvenience."

"It's hardly either of our faults," Jiang Cheng sighs, waving his hand dismissively before he takes his own robes and switches them out, extremely aware of the quiet presence on the other side of the screen.

He has not had to accommodate his movements around a stranger like this in a long time, and it occurs to him now, as the two of them get ready for the evening, just how uncomfortable this situation is going to be. Lan Jingyi, a younger member of the sect though not Jiang Cheng's direct junior, is trying to defer to Jiang Cheng's habits, but there is no real hierarchy between them, so all it does is leave a bitter taste in the back of Jiang Cheng's tongue. The Jiang sect can host other sects' disciples in Yunmeng, of course, but none of them would be spending this much time with Jiang Cheng. Lan Jingyi will have to be in his sect meetings. He will have to shadow Jiang Cheng as he works. He has no reason to distrust the Lan sect, but allowing anyone such unfettered access into Jiang Cheng's life just seems—unnervingly intimate.

He frowns, reaching up to undo the braids in his hair, running strong fingers through his scalp to loosen the knots. There is little choice in the matter, he reminds himself, folding his purple ribbon into a neat pile next to his robes.

He's lived through worse.

It's not until he sits on his bed that he realizes how early it is—that he isn't remotely sleepy yet, that around this time he'd still be poring over work for the sect. But it is nearly bedtime for the Lan sect, and he did not have the forethought to bring work with him. Maybe they'll have an early start the following day, instead, and—

"Oh!" Lan Jingyi startles, stumbling back as soon as he comes out from behind the screen.

"What?"

"Your—your hair is loose," Lan Jingyi points out, complete with a finger pointing at Jiang Cheng, as though he could not see what he means.

"I do not sleep with it tied up," Jiang Cheng says icily. It has been years since he's had to listen to them listed out, but surely he hasn't unwittingly broken a Lan clan rule? "You sleep with your ribbon on?"

"I—it's—of course I have to!" Lan Jingyi says, touching his ribbon like he's making sure it's still there. "It would be—it wouldn't be appropriate to be without it."

Jiang Cheng huffs. Wei Wuxian had always made the bigger deal of it, but he'd never quite understood this about the Lans, either. "I thought all you worried about was who touched it."

"It's more than that!" Lan Jingyi protests. "There are, like, dozens of rules around the ribbons alone, you know."

"I can believe it," Jiang Cheng says drily. "So you only sleep without it when you're, what, with parents? Spouses?"

"Or alone," Lan Jingyi adds, tugging at the end of his ribbon. "Not even Sizhui has seen me without it. Nor I him."

"It sounds bothersome when you have to share a room with someone for the foreseeable future," Jiang Cheng says, shaking his head.

Lan Jingyi makes a face. "I'll live, I suppose."

"For now." Jiang Cheng crosses his arms. "We haven't completely ruled out these geese aren't just planning an elaborate murder. Who's to say this isn't just some form of torture?"

Lan Jingyi scowls. "I was starting to feel better about the geese," he complains.

"I cannot imagine how," Jiang Cheng says.

"I mean—at least they don't poop," Lan Jingyi says. "Or eat. Or bother you when you're sleeping."

"In your corner of the room?" Jiang Cheng asks pointedly, because his goose had not let up until he'd pushed his bed against the east wall.

"Fine. Once I figured that out, yeah." Lan Jingyi exhales. "This is probably the weirdest thing that's ever happened to me."

"Your sect leader married a demonic cultivator who's made a home for himself in the body of your friend's mad uncle."

"Yes, but that's stuff that happened to them." Lan Jingyi looks at him, eyebrow arched. "I got a surprise goose for my birthday, and now I'm rooming with my friend's other uncle. Huh. Jin Ling has a lot of uncles, doesn't he."

"His grandfather got busy," Jiang Cheng says before he remembers who he's speaking with. "I meant—"

"It's not exactly a secret," Lan Jingyi says. "They skirt around it in the history books, but it's there if you know how to read it. So. Jin Ling has uncles. I have a goose. What do you think our mission is? You don't think we've got to kill someone, right? These aren't revenge geese, are they?"

Jiang Cheng furrows his brow. Lan Jingyi has settled into bed, staring at the ceiling, but Jiang Cheng is still sitting on his, wondering the same thing. "If they are, knowing what it is they want will help us understand how to avoid doing anything unnecessary," he says. He isn't sure, but he'll have to believe as much.

"I'm sure Senior Wei can help us figure it out too," Lan Jingyi murmurs, turning his head when Jiang Cheng scoffs. "He's really smart about these kinds of things!"

Jiang Cheng simply crosses his arms. "It takes a wicked mind to understand another."

"You don't really think that," Lan Jingyi says. "Or you won't be letting him help at all."

"We are left with very little choice, given how we know nothing about these geese," he snaps. "Why are you still awake, anyway? Don't you have rules about being asleep by nine?"

"Not unless we're on a night hunt," Lan Jingyi says, though he turns off the lanterns lighting their room, shooting Jiang Cheng one last look. "Or making a very reasonable and irrefutable point to our elders."

"You—"

"Have a good night, Sect Leader Jiang."

 


 

They rise early the next day only to finalize some other things—Jiang Cheng sends a message to Jin Ling about the watch towers, Lan Jingyi packs up his things and confers with Sizhui about arrangements regarding his duties. They depart without much fanfare after breakfast, midway through the morning, with Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji escorting them to the gates.

Lan Wangji looks much too relieved to be sending Lan Jingyi and his goose far, far away from Cloud Recesses.

The journey back to Yunmeng is uneventful, the geese allowing them to head back without protest. No one from the sect greets them at the pier when they arrive—Jiang Cheng hadn't sent word—but the vendors there wave at Jiang Cheng as they pass, some venturing to hawk their goods at the two of them.

Lan Jingyi stays beside Jiang Cheng, but his gaze is drawn every which way, taking the activity of the markets in, eyes a little wide as his attention is stuck on a stall selling lotus seeds.

Jiang Cheng huffs. "Not that one," he tells Lan Jingyi.

"Sect Leader Jiang?"

"That spot is positioned to be one of the first to greet visitors, so the seeds will be priced more to cover the cost of the stall," he explains, walking a little further down the road to one of his favorite vendors. "Mingyi-jie here sells very delicious lotus seeds."

"Sect Leader Jiang, you are too kind," she says with a pleased smile. She casts cloudy eyes in Lan Jingyi's direction, the gray arch of her eyebrow rising high. "And who is this handsome young disciple?"

"He is visiting from the Lan clan," Jiang Cheng says, purchasing a bag of lotus seeds along with a few other snacks he tends to get from her stall. He asks after her grandchildren, and she asks him how his travels have been. They exchange a few pleasantries, after, as any visit to Mingyi-jie's stall necessitates: they talk a little bit about the weather these days, how the summer is shaping up to be hotter than even last year's, what things they can do to their homes to keep them cool for the season. Jiang Cheng only excuses himself when another customer arrives, but not before promising to come back before he leaves, next time.

"Bring more handsome fellows with you, and I'll give you an even better deal then!" Mingyi-jie calls out, waving them off.

"Here," Jiang Cheng says once they're on their way, holding out the bag of lotus seeds for Lan Jingyi. "You can tell Wei Wuxian what you think of them."

Lan Jingyi blinks at the paper bag for a second before he takes it gratefully. "Thank you. She seems fun."

"She's been selling seeds at that spot for as long as I can remember," Jiang Cheng tells him. "She is."

It's a short walk from there to the main residences of the Jiang Sect. He takes them toward the training grounds first, because at this time of day that's where most of the disciples would be.

Feng Xu, who is supervising them, hurries over to greet them, his gaze only flickering toward Lan Jingyi for a moment before he waits for Jiang Cheng's instructions.

"Lan Jingyi will be staying with me for the time being," Jiang Cheng says, glancing down at their geese. "Have a second bed set up in my quarters—" he ignores the way Feng Xu's eyes pop out at this— "and make sure the kitchen staff know to provide meatless options at every meal."

"Oh! Oh, no, you don't have to—" Lan Jingyi starts, coloring when both Jiang Cheng and Feng Xu look at him. "Please, don't let me impose more than I already am. This one will happily eat whatever everyone else is given."

"It does not break a Lan clan rule to partake in meat?"

Lan Jingyi shakes his head. "We do not eat it within Cloud Recesses because we are not allowed to take life there, but we eat what we are offered." He pauses, glancing briefly at Jiang Cheng, before adding, "This one does not mind chicken, in fact."

"Very well, no further instructions for the kitchen staff, in that case." Jiang Cheng turns back to Feng Xu. "The geese dictated Lan Jingyi stays nearby at all times, but in the event I am not available, treat him as you would a peer. There is much to learn from the Lan sect, as there is much to share from ours."

"Of course, Sect Leader," Feng Xu says with a deep bow. "I will make the arrangements right away."

 


 

The arrangements are no less uncomfortable in Yunmeng than they had been at Cloud Recesses, but Jiang Cheng reminds himself they are still worlds better than angry geese, so they make do.

He wakes at his usual time to find Lan Jingyi meditating at the foot of his bed, where he waits until Jiang Cheng can get ready so that they can break their fast at the dining hall with the Jiang Sect disciples. The morning is spent at the throne room, where Jiang Cheng splits his time looking over sect business or receiving requests. He meets with sect elders after lunch, mostly to oversee how preparations for the conference are coming, sometimes to discuss other sect matters as they arise. By mid-afternoon he usually has time to himself, but more often than not spends it looking over the disciples practicing on the training ground. If it gives Lan Jingyi a chance to practice his cultivation alongside the Jiang Sect disciples as well, then it is but a convenient coincidence.

The Jiang Sect disciples—who had earlier not quite known what to do with the sudden appearance of a Lan Sect disciple within their residences, shadowing their Sect Leader and being shadowed by two geese in turn—take to Lan Jingyi before long. He is, after all, a highly ranked disciple in his own clan, not to mention closer to their age than Jiang Cheng is. They leave him be in the first few days, practicing the Lan Sect drills near the training grounds, but eventually approach him with questions when training is over, and they realize that Lan Jingyi is a little more eager to speak with other disciples than the Lan Sect reputation that precedes him.

Even Jiang Cheng's head disciple isn't immune to curiosity.

"Is it true that you do handstands for three hours as a form of punishment?" Feng Xu asks one afternoon, his breathing heavy as he rests beside Lan Jingyi, who is only a little winded after his own practice.

"It depends on how fast you can also copy the sect rules down," Lan Jingyi tells him. "I learned to do it in two and a half hours, eventually."

Feng Xu looks faintly impressed. "So you can do it for three hours? That's amazing."

"It's just something all of us do at some point, in my sect," he stammers, and Jiang Cheng wonders if he's trying to figure out what rule he'd break, if he were to accept the compliment from Feng Xu.

"Show us," another disciple says. "How do you stay upright for so long?"

"You must have incredible arm strength," Feng Xu marvels with a mix of jealousy and admiration that has the back of Lan Jingyi's neck turning a bright red.

But the disciples crowding around Lan Jingyi must have increased the distance between him and Jiang Cheng, because before Lan Jingyi can say more, his goose is honking, nipping at Feng Xu's thigh and flapping its wings threateningly.

"Oh, no, I'm so sorry!" Lan Jingyi is apologizing immediately, stepping away from the group to stand closer to Jiang Cheng. "I didn't realize—are you hurt?"

Feng Xu shakes his head, palming the part of his thigh that had been bitten, though it doesn't look like the goose drew blood. "I'm fine," he says, glancing worriedly at Jiang Cheng, who gives him a blank look. "This disciple apologizes for taking your time."

"Ah, you didn't," Lan Jingyi says, but the disciples have already started to excuse themselves, setting off for their various afternoon chores. He sighs, turning to his goose. "What was that for, Master Nibbles? Did this one stray too far from where you wanted? Don't worry, I will certainly remember my place from now on."

"Did you—" Jiang Cheng pauses, because surely he didn't hear that right? "Did you name your goose?"

Lan Jingyi just juts out his chin, defiant though the flush at the tips of his ears says otherwise. "And why haven't you?" he asks.

"Because these aren't pets," Jiang Cheng says. "A curse, likely, if not worse. Of course I haven't!"

"All for the best, then." Lan Jingyi shrugs. "I've been calling yours Master Waddles anyway."

"And why is mine Waddles!"

"That's Master Waddles to you. Haven't you noticed? He's definitely more waddle-y than Master Nibbles. And you've seen him just now—what did Feng Xu even do? Was I really that far away from you?"

Jiang Cheng shakes his head, resolving to argue his case against Master Waddles at a later opportunity. "I didn't think you were." He doesn't point out that, while Lan Jingyi certainly was beginning to move away from Jiang Cheng, he'd been more consciously closing the distance to keep the geese happy.

"Then, is Feng Xu—" Lan Jingyi frowns.

"He is to be trusted," Jiang Cheng says. Feng Xu has been with the sect since Jiang Cheng began rebuilding Lotus Pier. He'd lost his entire family in the massacre, too. Jiang Cheng had found him in a nearby street, feverish and wounded, and taken him into the sect not long after. He has been nothing but a good, honest boy. Hardworking and loyal. "I certainly trust him over diabolical fowl whose intent we still do not know."

"I didn't mean to say otherwise," Lan Jingyi says, lowering his gaze. "It's just—"

"You must have stepped just a little bit too far—the geese haven't elected to pursue him once he left, did they?" Jiang Cheng asks.

"No, you're right," Lan Jingyi agrees, but the frown doesn't fully leave his face.

Dinner is usually a rowdier affair in the dining hall, the disciples exhausted but in generally high spirits. Jiang Cheng and Lan Jingyi accompany the disciples on night hunts if there are any happening nearby, though none of them so far appear to be the ghost or spirit or demon that their geese want them to deal with.

In the quieter evenings, Jiang Cheng and Lan Jingyi retire to their room before nine, so Lan Jingyi can sleep by the Lan Clan hours. Jiang Cheng goes over the rest of his work next to him, going by the light of a single candle until late into the night. He is reluctant to follow the same hours Lan Jingyi does, though he does notice it is getting more and more difficult for Lan Jingyi to follow them himself.

"Stop fussing," Jiang Cheng grumbles from his seat, barely even looking up from the letter he is studying. He can't make heads or tails of Sect Leader Yao's request—it is so couched in so much flattery and allusion the heart of it has been swallowed up by the evasiveness. "I can hear you from here."

"I'm trying," Lan Jingyi whines amid rustling fabric. He huffs, tossing one way and then the other, enough to get Jiang Cheng to glance up and look.

"Is the bedding not comfortable enough for you?" he asks, watching Lan Jingyi scratch at his forehead ribbon. "Or is it the ribbon?"

"It's just so itchy," Lan Jingyi mumbles. "It's usually fine during the day, but—"

But it has been weeks. They are no closer to finding an answer for their geese than the first evening they slept in the same room.

"I am not your sect leader," is what Jiang Cheng tells him. "Do what you must."

Lan Jingyi says nothing for a while. And then: "You cannot tell Hanguang Jun."

"I do not make it a habit to talk to Hanguang Jun about anything."

"Or Senior Wei."

Jiang Cheng gives him a look. "I really don't care what rules you're breaking within your sect. You realize everyone can see everyone else's foreheads, don't you?"

"Yes, I know already," Lan Jingyi snaps, Jiang Cheng's words enough to push him to finally yank his forehead ribbon off his head. His face is awash briefly with relief, before he seems to remember something, and then he is turning away from Jiang Cheng, the back of his neck bright red.

"I have seen better foreheads, anyway," Jiang Cheng says with a snort.

"Excuse me!" Lan Jingyi squeaks, appalled.

It only makes Jiang Cheng laugh. "The best ones usually are not two shades lighter than the rest of their face," he adds. "But perhaps if it would make you feel better, at least it seems as though you've worn your forehead ribbon dutifully enough that even without it, you look as though you've got one anyw—"

It's such a quick flick of a finger, Jiang Cheng doesn't catch it until it's done, the spell already cast to silence him, his mouth sewn solidly shut. He looks up with a muffled sound caught in his throat and catches Lan Jingyi's face, smugly pleased with himself, even with the stupid band of paler skin on his forehead where his ribbon used to be.

How dare he—

And then Lan Jingyi laughs, far too delighted with shutting Jiang Cheng up, but only until Jiang Cheng recovers from the shock of Lan Jingyi casting the silencing spell on him. In the next moment Jiang Cheng is leaping at him and Lan Jingyi is ducking away, rolling over the other side of his bed to avoid Jiang Cheng's reach, his footsteps lithe and agile as Jiang Cheng's movements are desperate and chaotic, always just a half-step away, slippery and elusive.

It is a strange time for the geese to be helpful, but the cacophony seems to pique their interest and one of them walks directly onto Lan Jingyi's path.

"Master Waddles, no!" Lan Jingyi shrieks, stumbling forward when he cannot change momentum enough to course-correct.

It's the only chance Jiang Cheng needs. He closes his grip on the back of Lan Jingyi's robe, though the force of gravity pulls both of them down—Lan Jingyi groaning as he thuds heavily against the floor, Jiang Cheng almost landing on top of him were it not for the way he quickly braces both palms on either side of Lan Jingyi.

"You can't be mad!" Lan Jingyi says, turning to face Jiang Cheng. "You started this!"

Jiang Cheng tugs at his robe, unable to respond.

"Only if you promise not to hurt me! Or punish me!"

Jiang Cheng narrows his gaze.

"Sect Leader Jiang! You have to promise!"

He is ridiculous, but Jiang Cheng huffs. Fine. If he must compromise. Hopefully Lan Jingyi can read the acquiescence there.

"Okay, but just so you know, I didn't think it'd actually work," Lan Jingyi says, undoing the spell and wincing, as though he was preparing himself for punishment anyway. "I thought you'd stop it before it reached you."

"I didn't think you would have the audacity to do such a thing," Jiang Cheng finally says, now free to speak again. "Unbelievable."

"You said you wouldn't tell anyone!" Lan Jingyi reminds him. He still looks like he's bracing himself for something.

"I made no such promises," Jiang Cheng says, "seeing as to how I could not verbally confirm any of them. I did tell you I do not care for the way the Lan Sect punishes its disciples, but that does not mean you are automatically exempt from Jiang Sect punishment."

"Yes, Sect Leader Jiang," Lan Jingyi says. "I understand."

Jiang Cheng scoffs. "Very well, then. Prepare yourself."

Lan Jingyi shuts his eyes tight and bites his lips down.

Jiang Cheng waits.

After a few moments pass, Lan Jingyi finally loses his battle with patience and pops open an eye—

Which is the exact moment Jiang Cheng reaches out—Lan Jingyi, seeing his hand coming, yelps—and flicks him on his bare forehead.

"There," he says, sitting up and smoothing over his robes before he returns to his work, the corner of his lip twitching when he hears Lan Jingyi sputtering behind him. "Now we are even."

 


 

It is a Jiang Sect disciple who finds them their next breakthrough and sends Jiang Cheng and Lan Jingyi traveling to a small, remote town a few hundred li southwest of Baling.

"Why does Sheng Yan live so far away?" Lan Jingyi wonders, though his gaze is caught by the passing scenery below them. Jiang Cheng doesn't think he's ever traveled this far before—usually, any cases that happen in this area are handled by the Baling Ouyang Clan. (He'd sent word to Sect Leader Ouyang, though he only remembered to because Lan Jingyi said Ouyang Zizhen would take it against him if he'd learned they were nearby but didn't visit.)

"He doesn't. His parents moved to Yunmeng to find work, but his mother's family stayed there," Jiang Cheng says. "He was visiting his grandmother, who had fallen ill."

It was during this visit that he'd heard of a peculiar story from one of his grandmother's neighbors, of a goose that appeared one day to cause a great amount of headache to the villagers. The story was mentioned in passing, while they were reminiscing over old memories, and Sheng Yan had not heard of the geese plaguing the Jiang Sect until he returned and mentioned the strange coincidence.

It had been by chance, then, and not an official assignment that brought them news, the first one they'd heard in nearly two weeks since Lan Jingyi came to Yunmeng. Neither Wei Wuxian nor Jin Ling have found anything so far, and none of Jiang Cheng and Lan Jingyi's night hunts have been out of the ordinary. The geese followed them there, but only to stay out of the way and ensure they stayed near each other.

Even Sheng Yan's story appears to be decades old. There is no goose terrorizing the village any longer, but Jiang Cheng hopes they can at least find out how the village rid itself of the goose.

"Do you think a cultivator came to vanquish it?" Lan Jingyi asks.

"Unlikely. Sheng Yan says they don't trust cultivators in that village." Even his family do not know Sheng Yan is now a cultivator himself—according to him, they believe he is a simple merchant in Yunmeng, picking up after his parents' store. There were towns like that, scattered all over the lands, victims to demons that cultivators didn't get to in time, if not victims to cultivators who caused more harm than help when they did come to visit. "We will have to approach it by foot."

The closest town to Sheng Yan's village is a half-day's walk away, and the sun is ready to set by the time they get there. They have just enough time to find a small inn to stay in—the only inn any visitor could stay in—and go over their plans after dining on the inn's simple meal of soup and bread.

"I don't think we can be traveling musicians," Lan Jingyi says, sitting on his bed as he adjusts the strings on his guqin. It's meant to be kept out, tucked in a sack large enough to also hide both of their swords. "Why would we travel to the middle of nowhere to peddle entertainment?"

It is an annoyingly great point. They didn't have enough time to come up with a better plan, but this ruse would be easy to see through. Jiang Cheng tries to think. "We can simply be passing by to get to an even more remote village."

"What would we be doing there?"

"We could be cousins off to see our grandmother before she passes—"

Lan Jingyi can't hide the snort that escapes his mouth in time. "So you're going to copy Sheng Yan's actual story?" he asks, incredulous. "That isn't suspicious at all! Besides, not only is there very little family resemblance between us, but why would we be asking about a random goose if we have a more urgent place to be?"

"What do you propose, then!" Jiang Cheng asks. Side-stepping around problems is not something he particularly enjoys doing, preferring to confront it head-on. The pretense is an additional detail he understands is important, but not something he can fully wrap his head around.

But Lan Jingyi appears to have given it much more thought than he has. "We work together," he says, "as scholars, maybe! We have come directly to ask about the goose to further our studies."

Jiang Cheng frowns. "What kind of scholars would be interested in geese?"

"The kind that have two of them tailing them everywhere?" Lan Jingyi says, gesturing to their geese. They have been so obedient and well-behaved Jiang Cheng had almost—almost—forgotten they were there. "Historians? Husbandry experts? We can be husbandry experts!"

"And what would you know about husbandry, exactly, if a village full of farmers seeks your opinion on various husbandry issues?" Jiang Cheng asks, leveling him with a look.

Lan Jingyi doesn't hesitate. "It is my expert opinion that geese are really fucking annoying!"

Jiang Cheng barks out a laugh. "Historians, I think," he concedes. "Researching various types of folklore and similar stories."

"We found the geese in part of our research, and we believe they are connected to the goose in the village's stories?"

Jiang Cheng nods. "And the guqin?"

Lan Jingyi shrugs. "It helps pass the time," he says. "Puts you to sleep faster."

"I have never even heard you play," Jiang Cheng points out. "And you can't use spiritual energy to put anyone to sleep—that will give us away as cultivators immediately."

"I never said I'd use it like that," Lan Jingyi says, plucking a string to draw out a low, soothing hum from his guqin. "We're allowed to play this just for music, too."

Jiang Cheng doesn't ask, but Lan Jingyi strums out a soft lullaby from his guqin, as though to prove his point. It is a tender melody, lilting like a summer breeze in the quiet of the evening, each new chord rustling like wind through a canopy of leaves. Jiang Cheng feels his breathing ease to follow the slower beat of it, tension slowly bleeding out from where he carries it in the back of his neck, over his shoulders, his forearms.

"What instrument would you have played?" Lan Jingyi murmurs, as though just realizing something. "If we'd pretended to be musicians."

Jiang Cheng doesn't even clench his jaw at the question. "The flute," he breathes out, his eyes fluttering close.

"I didn't know you played."

"I don't," he says. He'd been given lessons, when he was younger. But Wei Wuxian had been better at that, too. "I just remember enough to be passable."

"You should take out your flute and play with it, then," Lan Jingyi says, missing the weight of Jiang Cheng's words. He wouldn't know, anyway. What he understands of Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng are the tales that survive in their history books. Unverified gossip. The aftermath of everything in the way they interact with each other now. It doesn't need to be deeper than that.

It doesn't need to be more pitiable than that.

"It's late," he settles for, a feeble excuse Lan Jingyi doesn't let him get away with.

"I'm still awake, so it's absolutely not that late," he points out, nodding toward the items Jiang Cheng had packed. "Come on, don't just fall asleep on me. I want to hear you play."

Jiang Cheng huffs, and though he isn't sure what force compels him to, he does as Lan Jingyi asks and takes out the flute he'd brought with him. He really hasn't touched it in years, and he really isn't sure what of it he'd still remember. "I can't play things by ear," he warns Lan Jingyi.

"That's fine. What songs do you know?"

There's a simple nursery rhyme, one of the first songs he'd learned as a boy. Only a few chords in a repeating, hypnotic melody. Good for singing children to sleep, far too easy a song for anyone who'd spent longer learning music. Too basic a song for a traveling musician to be playing—perhaps Jingyi makes a good point, and it's lucky they don't have to pretend to be making a living off Jiang Cheng's meager skills.

But Jingyi only looks delighted with the suggestion, an easy, "Oh, I haven't heard that song in years, let's do that!" out of his lips before he's asking Jiang Cheng to start, waiting until he gets into the once-familiar rhythm of the song and then strumming along, his guqin serving more to enhance the simple notes Jiang Cheng plays.

It sounds richer, with the accompaniment—a fuller melody than the stiff progression Jiang Cheng's playing can coax out of his flute. He glances up to catch a gentle smile gracing Jingyi's face, no doubt letting nothing more than instinct carry him through his strumming.

It's not something Jiang Cheng has ever understood for himself. Nothing has ever come to him by instinct—even this children's song was something he'd had to perfect over many nights of rote memorization of where his fingers should be, imitating the breathing his teacher used. He would never just be able to follow a basic progression of chords and know, in his gut, what note to harmonize with it. He would never have the capacity nor natural talent compose his own melody.

But Lan Jingyi doesn't tire of plucking around the chorus Jiang Cheng plays, layering each repeated verse with a wild new note that changes its texture and cadence. He looks up on the third round, his fingers moving much more languidly than they had earlier, the melody honey-thick and syrupy like a proper lullaby should be.

He grins, and Jiang Cheng thinks he can taste the sweetness of the song in the back of his tongue, too.

 


 

They set out after breakfast the next day, donning simpler clothes than the robes that would have marked them as members of their respective sects, and arrive at the village before the sun is at its peak. It is just in time to catch a few of them returning home for lunch, and just in time for those villagers to get curious about the two strangers come to visit their town, bringing their pet geese along.

Lan Jingyi introduces them both, sticking as close to the truth as they are allowed—they are traveling to study the village's story about the goose, after hearing about it from Sheng Yan—while leaving out more salient pieces of it, allowing the villagers to piece the rest from their impressions of the two of them, and correcting none of their assumptions.

Jiang Cheng hates lying, and the Lan Sect are forbidden from it. This is as good an alternative as they will get.

"We were wondering," Lan Jingyi is saying, "if you remembered whether the goose that showed up here followed any specific villager?"

"That was years ago," an old man says, scratching his graying beard thoughtfully. "But it was Li Qingwei's goose."

He doesn't remember much about the goose, however, only that it shows up at some point one day to chase Li Qingwei around. But it was only for a day, maybe two. The goose had gone just as quickly as it had showed up, and the old man cannot remember why.

"Does Li Qingwei still live in the village?" Jiang Cheng asks. "We'd like to speak with him, if possible."

But Li Qingwei had passed on many years ago—a disappointing development that shows in the way Lan Jingyi's face falls. Jiang Cheng himself tries not to let the frustration show on his face, though he isn't sure how successful he is.

"His grandson's still here," the old man offers. "Yizhen's working the fields now, but he might have heard more stories from his family. They live down that road, the third hut over there. His wife will be home with their younger children."

The old man leads them there, knocking on the door to introduce them to Li Yizhen's wife, Yang Mei. "My apologies," he says. "I did not catch your names."

"You can call me Jingyi, and this is Cheng-ge," Lan Jingyi says swiftly, leaving out their family names. The old man does not seem to miss it. Jiang Cheng tries not to let his shock show, but it makes sense for Lan Jingyi to have used his given name—Wanyin might be recognizable, even this far from Yunmeng.

Yang Mei just looks at both of them curiously, offering them water and some bread while they wait for her husband, one baby slung around her hip, two small girls peering around her legs—first at the two strange men in their home, then at their geese.

"They may not look it, but they might bite, so you should be careful," Lan Jingyi tells the children when he catches them looking. "I named him Master Nibbles for a reason."

The younger girl nods, wide-eyed, shrinking back behind her mother's leg.

"What about the other one?" her older sister asks.

"This is Master Waddles," Lan Jingyi says proudly, to the girls' amusement.

"Why do you call them Master?"

"Because," Lan Jingyi says, "we are just following their whims."

Yang Mei laughs along with her daughters, returning from the kitchen to place a tray of bread and fruit on the table. "My husband has not talked much about his grandfather's goose," she says, "but I think he will agree."

She doesn't have much more information to offer them, however, so it is up to Lan Jingyi to talk around their studies and the behavior they've observed with their geese so far. At some point, under Lan Jingyi's watchful gaze, the older daughter dares to reach out a small hand to pet Master Waddles' back. Jiang Cheng watches carefully, too, ready to grab his goose if it so much as tries to hurt a little girl.

But it does not seem to ruffle any of Master Waddles' feathers to have a small child pet him, and she looks up at her mother with bright, sparkling eyes.

Jiang Cheng lets out a breath he doesn't realize he'd been holding, catching Lan Jingyi's gaze to find a look of relief washing over his features as well.

Li Yizhen arrives later that afternoon, after Yang Mei has excused herself to do some of her afternoon chores and Jiang Cheng and Lan Jingyi have offered to watch the children while she does. Li Yizhen is a young man perhaps a few years younger than Lan Jingyi, and he only takes a moment to see the geese playing with his children before he pieces together what the strange guests are possibly doing in their home.

"We apologize for the intrusion," Jiang Cheng tells him, "and thank you for your hospitality."

Li Yizhen just nods, a man of fewer words than his wife. He can only tell them the story that's already familiar to Jiang Cheng and Lan Jingyi, of the goose showing up to chase his grandfather around one day. He remembers the stories of which gardens the goose and his grandfather accidentally trampled on, whose hens were chased away from their coop, the neighbors that were nipped at or shoved aside for being in the way.

"Is it true that your grandfather only had the goose for a day?" Jiang Cheng asks, remembering what the old man had said.

"Most of those incidents happened in one day, but I believe the goose chased my grandfather out of the village," Li Yizhen says. "I am not sure for how long."

"Was it his birthday when it happened?" Lan Jingyi asks.

Li Yizhen frowns. "He never mentioned, if it was."

"I see. What happened after that? How did he get rid of the goose?"

"Ah." Li Yizhen looks apologetic. "He says my grandmother saved him from it."

Jiang Cheng shares a look with Lan Jingyi. "Did he mention how?"

Li Yizhen shakes his head. "That was always how he ended the story," he says. "She was long gone before I was even born."

"I see," Jiang Cheng says.

"This was not helpful to you," Li Yizhen says. "I am sorry I cannot tell you more."

Lan Jingyi tries to smile. "We know there is some kind of resolution now, thanks to you," he says, finding the silver lining that Jiang Cheng could not. "If you don't mind, could you tell us your grandmother's name? We'd like to see if we can find out more about her. It seems we have more to do, after all."

 


 

They make it back to the town late, having spent most of the day traveling and waiting for Li Yizhen only to find another dead end with his short tale. The inn is still open, and they pay for lodging in the same room, something heavier hanging in the air between them than yesterday, when they thought they might be getting close to an answer.

"We have her name," Lan Jingyi says once they are in their room, but even he exhales it like he is heavily burdened. "I can ask Sizhui to see if he can find anything out about the grandmother—Hua Fan."

Jiang Cheng just grunts, and if he yanks more aggressively at his braids, well, that is his prerogative.

"I know," Lan Jingyi sighs. "There have to be more cases of this happening. How are we the only people in the entire world to be cursed like this?"

"We cannot keep chasing trickles like this for—how long, exactly?" Jiang Cheng asks.

Lan Jingyi hums. "It's certainly starting to feel like a wild goose chase."

"You did not just—" Jiang Cheng groans, but not loud enough to drown out what sounds like hysterical laughter.

"If we can't laugh about it—"

"I certainly refuse to be brought down by fucking geese," Jiang Cheng states flatly.

"That's the spirit." Lan Jingyi's laughter fades after a while. "Can we talk about something other than these stupid geese now?"

Jiang Cheng himself is weary of dealing with the geese and accommodating them into his daily life, so he welcomes the change in subject. At the very least—another sliver of silver lining if Jiang Cheng is forced to find it—Lan Jingyi is not a completely annoying companion. He's mouthier than most other Lan Sect disciples, but it keeps him more interesting than them, too. And while he doesn't hesitate to speak up, even when he probably shouldn't, he does not often go over the line the way Wei Wuxian does.

Maybe Jiang Cheng is just getting used to him—his open curiosity about everything, the way he asks questions without thinking, sometimes. How he slips into more casual conversation with Jiang Cheng, presumably because he, too, is getting used to Jiang Cheng's company. Familiarity and habit have a way of stripping down formalities between even strangers like them, Jiang Cheng supposes, or perhaps it is the constance of being around each other that chips away at the veneer of propriety between them.

Jiang Cheng may have become sect leader and Sandu Shengshou when he was still young, but he'd never felt comfortable carrying the weight of either title. Some, he was certain, took to the responsibility and expectation like it was a second skin. On Jiang Cheng, it felt like over-sized robes he could trip over at any moment.

And it is exhausting trying not to trip all the time.

"Cheng-ge," Lan Jingyi says, drawing Jiang Cheng out of his thoughts.

"Cheng-ge?" Jiang Cheng echoes, arching an eyebrow. "Don't get too comfortable."

Lan Jingyi smirks. "But it was the only one that worked, so maybe you liked that. Or would you prefer Cheng-jiu? Old man Jiang?"

"Lan Jingyi."

He's met with a breezy laugh. "I just thought you fell asleep on me or something."

"What were you talking about?" Jiang Cheng asks. "Maybe you just nearly bored me to death."

Lan Jingyi tsks. "I was saying, that family was nice. It's a shame we couldn't give the geese over to them. The girls looked like they wanted to keep them for pets."

"Pets," Jiang Cheng echoes, snorting. "Their parents would sooner roast them if they could."

"Roast them!"

"One of them could feed the entire village if these were geese that could be cooked," Jiang Cheng points out. "Animals to be kept for companionship are a luxury not everyone can afford."

"That's true," Lan Jingyi says. "Maybe this is why they don't allow pets at Cloud Recesses. I nearly got expelled when Master Nibbles showed up—they thought I'd snuck him in."

"Like anyone would willingly take a goose in as a pet," Jiang Cheng says with a snort.

"Well," Lan Jingyi hedges, "I suppose they thought if anyone would, I would."

"I can see why," Jiang Cheng says, the corner of his lips curling up as he meets Lan Jingyi's affronted gaze. "You wanted pets? What about the rabbits?"

"The rabbits are a little boring. And I wouldn't have opted for geese if I could help it," he says with a sniff. "A dog, I thought. Fairy's actually a lot of fun to play with, when we visit Jin Ling."

Jiang Cheng hums.

"What? Not a fan of Fairy?"

"No, it's—" Jiang Cheng shakes his head. "It's silly."

"Well, now you have to tell me," Lan Jingyi says, turning in his bed to face Jiang Cheng. His eyes are brighter than normal, born of genuine curiosity that eases the hesitation Jiang Cheng feels. "Please? Cheng-ge?"

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. "You cannot tell anyone this," he makes him promise first. "Or I will sic Master Waddles on you. Somehow."

"I swear on my sect's honor," Lan Jingyi says, leaning forward.

"No need to be that dramatic." Jiang Cheng shrugs, before letting out a breath. He utters the next words casually, matter-of-factly, like it's just a minor anecdote. "I'd actually thought of gifting Jin Ling a dog for his seventh birthday. But since he was living in Lanling, I wanted to secure Jin Guangyao's approval before I did such a thing. Jin Guangyao was hesitant about it—Jin Ling may still be too young for a dog, he'd said, but maybe when he was older we could discuss it."

"But Jin Ling got Fairy from—"

"Not even before he turned eight," Jiang Cheng says with a shake of his head. "It doesn't matter—Fairy's a good dog for Jin Ling. That's what's important."

"You wanted to be the fun uncle who gave his nephew a puppy, though."

Jiang Cheng's face heats up. "That's not—!"

"Aw, no, it's okay, I get it," Lan Jingyi says. "He loves Fairy a lot, you should have—"

"I don't know if Jin Guangyao intended what he did," Jiang Cheng adds. It is just a small matter of a pet for a nephew, he reminds himself. And it had sounded like Fairy was a true source of comfort for Jin Ling, too. Jin Guangyao had apologized profusely in private, saying he'd despaired of a way to cheer up the young boy when he remembered Jiang Cheng's suggestion. It had come from a good place, Jiang Cheng had forced himself to believe then. He isn't sure what to believe now.

Lan Jingyi nods. "I think he really looks up to you, all the same," he says. "Jin Ling, I mean."

Jiang Cheng shoots him a look. "Between the crazy uncle who brought his dead uncle back and the uncle who threatened to kill him, I can't imagine how."

"Yes, but. Even if they weren't those," Lan Jingyi insists. "I think you have a stronger influence on him than you think. When he fights, when he speaks, the way he looks to run his sect—it's you he's trying to emulate, no one else." He's quiet for a moment, and Jiang Cheng lets the silence hang in the air for a while. "You like dogs, then?"

"I used to have three of them when I was younger," he says. "Fairy was already a smart, well-behaved dog, but I showed Jin Ling some of what I remembered about training them and taking care of them."

"What were they called?" Lan Jingyi asks. "Your dogs."

So Jiang Cheng tells him. And, after his initial delight at such frilly names, Cheng-ge, you are Jin Ling's uncle, Lan Jingyi asks him to tell him more about what they were like, and what they did, and what tricks they knew.

Jiang Cheng casts his mind back for his favorite memories of the dogs, the games they used to play with his sister and the way they ran all over Lotus Pier in the afternoons, trying to duck away from his lessons. It's easier to talk about them like this, when he's focusing only on when he had them. It doesn't trigger an ache deep in his gut like simply remembering them used to do, maybe because enough time has passed. Maybe because he's suffered heavier losses since.

"You don't have dogs now, though," Lan Jingyi murmurs.

Jiang Cheng tries not to bristle. "They're a lot of work and I'm a busy man."

Lan Jingyi hums knowingly. "Those sound like excuses, Cheng-ge," he says, tone light.

"Be quiet. It's past your bedtime."

Lan Jingyi chuckles, but with a slow, sleepy cadence. "You should think about it. Dogs are amazing, and you clearly like them, why shouldn't you have something you like," he rambles, more a whisper now as his breathing steadies into someone falling asleep.

Jiang Cheng has thought about it. Many times, over the years. He'd been very busy, at first, had too many things to think about. He'd considered it around the time Jin Ling was turning seven, and then Jin Guangyao got Fairy, and he'd stopped thinking about it then.

And now Wei Wuxian is back, and Wei Wuxian is scared of dogs. Wei Wuxian hardly even visits these days. And nobody has taken Fairy away.

A dog he has might be taken away, even though that is a ridiculous thought. Jiang Cheng is the leader of his sect. There is no higher power now who can dictate whether he can keep a dog or not.

But Jiang Cheng can never be sure.

He has never been good at keeping what he's wanted.

 


 

They're roused from sleep with the sound of screaming.

Jiang Cheng jolts awake at once, grabbing for Sandu as Zidian crackles with warning around his fingers. Lan Jingyi is just as alert in his own bed, tying his ribbon over his forehead before he pulls on his robes, ready within seconds.

They take the shortest way out—through the open window of their room—and find the source of the cacophony at once: a rampaging creature of dark fur and sharp fangs, bloodied claws and a spit-shiny maw. Its eyes gleam crimson beneath the light of the moon, zeroing in on a scratched up young man who had fallen to the ground, desperately crawling to escape.

The screaming was coming from a young woman a few steps ahead, a wide gash on her arm where the monster must have reached her.

The street was slowly waking, a few curious people peering out their windows and stepping out their doors to see what was going on.

"Stay back and close your doors!" Jiang Cheng calls out as he lands in the middle of the street, Zidian a bright spark of purple light in the dark. "Jingyi! We need to drive it out!"

Lan Jingyi nods from where he'd stayed on the roof of their inn, plucking a few notes on his guqin that makes the monster screech in temporary pain. Jiang Cheng reaches for the woman first, ushering her to a nearby house to keep her safe. He grabs the man after, watching another strummed chord from the guqin freeze the monster in place.

The man is heavier—his foot is hanging at an awkward angle, likely twisted when he fell—so Jiang Cheng loops an arm around his shoulders to carry him to the same house that opened up for the woman.

"Cheng-ge!" Lan Jingyi calls out after another strum of his guqin, and Jiang Cheng turns around just in time to see Lan Jingyi slash at the monster, who seems to have adapted to the guqin's melody and was about to lunge at Jiang Cheng's back.

"Hurry," Jiang Cheng says, all but shoving the man into the residence. He turns back around, whipping Zidian out to wrap it around the creature's legs, yanking it off-balance while Lan Jingyi finds another angle of attack.

It seems like the monster barely even feels it. It lumbers onto its feet, shrugging off Zidian with a forceful sweep of its arm that has Jiang Cheng sliding back down the main road, intent on its killing path.

"It's going after that couple!" Lan Jingyi realizes, glancing up to meet Jiang Cheng's gaze. "Oh! Maybe it's after the smell of their blood!"

Then Lan Jingyi is cutting open his arm with one smooth swing of his sword before Jiang Cheng can say anything, dark red liquid dripping down on the ground, the scent of iron sharp and pungent in the air.

He's right, of course—the beast turns around almost immediately, opting for closer prey, and Lan Jingyi grins, bright and a little manic, before he jumps back, just far enough to be out of reach, close enough for the smell to tempt the creature.

"Lan Jingyi!" Jiang Cheng roars, running after both, using Zidian to hold the beast back whenever it got uncomfortably close to Lan Jingyi.

They switch to a full-on offensive as soon as they're far enough away from the town, the beast rampaging wildly while it tries to grab at Lan Jingyi, who has pulled out his guqin to focus on long-range attacks, lightly flitting atop the trees just out of reach.

So it's up to Jiang Cheng to take it down, Lan Jingyi acting primarily as distraction while he uses Sandu to slash at its weak spots.

Its skin is thicker than he's expecting, the fur made of surprisingly sturdy bristles, but the folds around its joints appear vulnerable. Jiang Cheng leaps out of the way just as the beast swings around to swat at him, like he's nothing more than a fly annoying it. He takes the opportunity when a particularly screechy note from Lan Jingyi's guqin hits, thrusting Sandu directly into the tender flesh of its neck.

It lets out an unearthly shriek, its movements growing wilder as it tries to shake Sandu loose from its neck. Jiang Cheng lets go, taking to the air to get enough leverage so he can use Zidian to trap its legs. He heaves, getting enough momentum and force to yank the monster's footing down from under it, and takes the chance to grab Sandu where it's sticking out from its neck, pulling it down to complete the cut.

The monster writhes, half-beheaded, blood spurting from its neck, before it finally, ultimately goes still.

"What the hell was that?" Lan Jingyi asks, coming to stand next to Jiang Cheng.

"Some kind of forest monster," Jiang Cheng says. He'd never encountered one before, though it had been simple enough to take down, at least. A honk reminds him the geese must have been following the two of them to the woods, somehow staying out of the way and keeping quiet even as they probably stayed further apart than they used to be allowed, but when he turns to look it's to see Master Waddles sniffing at the blood dripping from Lan Jingyi's arm. "Your injury."

Lan Jingyi startles, holding up his arm to examine it. "Oh," he says with a thready kind of laugh. "I almost forgot. Wow. This is a deeper cut than I meant to—"

"Jingyi!" Jiang Cheng calls out, reaching out just in time to catch Lan Jingyi as his eyes roll back and he loses consciousness.

 


 

"I'm going to break your fucking legs if you do that again," Jiang Cheng says the next morning when Lan Jingyi deigns to stir awake. It's nearly midday, their stay at the inn extended indefinitely, and Jiang Cheng has spent the morning having to deal with a very irritable goose as it tried to keep him tied to Lan Jingyi's side, even though all he was intending to do was make sure Lan Jingyi had clean bandages and some kind of food for when he woke.

Lan Jingyi groans in response, voice hoarse from sleep.

"Here," Jiang Cheng says, holding up a small bowl of medicine to Lan Jingyi's lips. "This will dull the pain."

Lan Jingyi winces at the initial taste, though he drinks all of it down. He blinks, rubbing sleep from his eyes with his good hand, and glances down at the sleeping robes he has on, the bandages wrapped around his arm and reinforced with a few rounds around his shoulder. "My robes," he murmurs, examining the faint red line seeping through the bandages. Jiang Cheng will have to change them soon.

"The innkeeper's wife stitched it back together," Jiang Cheng says, nodding at the carefully folded robes at the foot of his bed. "Your arm will be sore for a few days, but the cut was clean. It will heal cleanly, as well."

"Okay," Lan Jingyi says, pushing himself up to sit.

"What are you doing?" Jiang Cheng asks, one palm immediately on his chest to push him back down.

"It's late?" he says, frowning. "We should head back to Yunmeng."

"And have you fall off your sword halfway through?" Jiang Cheng asks with a scoff. "We can stay here until you've recovered. Then we will go back."

"You've got work. The conference—"

"I've already sent word. Feng Xu will continue to handle sect matters in my absence," Jiang Cheng tells him. There aren't many crucial decisions to make at this point in time, and Feng Xu knows which ones he will need to leave for Jiang Cheng. "We can take a few days to let you heal."

"But it's only my left arm," Lan Jingyi insists. "I'll be fine."

Jiang Cheng glares at him. "It didn't have to be your left arm at all," he says. "We could have lured that thing out another way."

"I didn't have any talismans on me; everything happened so fast," Lan Jingyi says. "And I thought we were out of time."

It's quick thinking on his part, Jiang Cheng knows, but far more impulsive and reckless than he expected from a Lan. He shakes his head, fingers to his temple. It was a calculated risk, and Lan Jingyi had held the creature off with his guqin. He'd had the presence of mind to stay out of its way and let Jiang Cheng take point in short-range attacks. That part, he doesn't disagree with. They'd made quick work of it, all told, with minimal damage to the town and no casualties—he'd checked on the couple this morning. They were shaken and were recovering from their own minor injuries, but otherwise safe.

"You have to be more careful next time," is what Jiang Cheng goes with, nevertheless. "Or I really will break your fucking legs."

Lan Jingyi laughs softly. "That's twice you've threatened me with that, now," he says. "You only tell Jin Ling that, and you never actually do. You must really like me, Cheng-ge."

"How do you even get that from—" Jiang Cheng snaps his head up, catches the teasing curl of Lan Jingyi's lips, the giggle bubbling out of him before the movement tugs at an ache in his arm and he winces.

"My arm…" he whines pitifully.

Jiang Cheng snorts, holding up more of the medicine to his lips. There's less of it in the small bowl, the bend of Lan Jingyi's head a little more awkward, so Jiang Cheng places a hand beneath his head to tip it to the right angle, the silky fall of Lan Jingyi's hair smooth in his fingers as he helps him take another sip of the bitter liquid.

"Serves you right," he mutters quietly, heat crawling up his cheeks. "You can't move too much, yet."

"I won't," Lan Jingyi mumbles, flush from his injuries, perhaps, before his breath catches and he blinks. "Did that just—"

Jiang Cheng follows his gaze to the foot of his bed, where both geese have been resting. "What is it?"

"I don't know," Lan Jingyi says, frowning. He lets out a long exhale, like he's trying to clear the fogginess in his sleep-addled brain, and stares intently at the geese. "I thought I saw—"

"What's wrong with the geese?" Jiang Cheng presses.

"I thought I saw them flicker."

 


 

Jiang Cheng almost falls on his rear—and on top of an injured Lan Jingyi—scrambling for something to write with, something to write on, forgetting that his very angry goose doesn't like it when he tries to go more than a few steps away from Lan Jingyi.

"Will you stay out of the way!" Jiang Cheng snaps, catching himself in time, only just barely landing on Lan Jingyi's thigh as he swats away at his blasted goose as it tries to chase him back to Lan Jingyi. "We need to tell the others."

"I know, I know," Lan Jingyi says, shifting in his bed to give Jiang Cheng space. "Let me go with you, then."

"It's fine," Jiang Cheng huffs, remembering the bell that the innkeeper had thrust into his hands the first time he'd tried to go down and his goose had squawked and flapped past the diners and their breakfasts.

Please, just ring this if you need us, he'd said, even after Jiang Cheng took out some coins to pay for damages.

So he calls for some paper and ink, glaring at the geese while he tries to gather his thoughts together. "They flickered," he repeats. "Both of them?"

Lan Jingyi nods. "Not—not now, obviously," he says. He'd pulled himself up to a sitting position, wincing only slightly, as he looks thoughtfully at the geese. "Do you think it was that monster?"

"Probably," Jiang Cheng says, trying to describe the beast they'd encountered. The more Lan Sizhui and Wei Wuxian knew, the better. They'd been on night hunts before, but this was the first time they'd met such a creature. He can't remember if the geese had been flickering last night, though. "Did you see if they were reacting yesterday? While we were fighting?"

"Kind of had my hands full with a bleeding arm and a barely helpful guqin," Lan Jingyi says dryly.

Jiang Cheng frowns. "It was helpful. Your guqin. They stayed out of our way last night."

"So they… wanted us to fight that thing?"

"They weren't against it, at least," Jiang Cheng says, the theory gaining strength and solidity in his head. "If they were reacting then, we wouldn't have seen it. But why now, too?"

Lan Jingyi's eyes widen. "Maybe it's my blood," he says. "I felt my pulse quicken, just before I saw them."

"You are not going to try and feed them your blood," Jiang Cheng says before Lan Jingyi gets any more ideas. "If that's what it is, then these are definitely evil creatures. We'll need to deal with them some other way."

"What kind of evil creature needs a blood sacrifice to be sated and then disappear?"

"These geese have been following us for weeks, Lan Jingyi, do you think I have a blasted clue what kind of evil creatures they are?"

Lan Jingyi's jaw drops before he forcefully shuts his mouth, but his lower lip trembles as barely covered laughter threatens to bubble out of him. "I wasn't asking to get an answer, you don't have to be so literal, first of all," he says with exasperation. "This is just the most—I'm sure that's not what they are, but you're right, what do we actually know? These geese could just be biding their time until we get fattened up to their liking and then they'll eat us in our sleep, that might as well happen!"

Jiang Cheng groans—he can't believe he's agreeing with Lan Jingyi right now, but he's at the end of his rope with trying to understand what they're supposed to be doing. "Just," he says, closing his eyes and taking a deep, steadying breath. "Let's keep an eye on them more. See if more of that flickering happens, and try to remember what we were doing before."

"Yeah, we can do that."

"In the meantime, I'll say—I'll just give Sizhui an account of what happened, and then our theories, and see what he can find."

"It's more than we knew, before we came here," Lan Jingyi offers quietly. "At least."

Jiang Cheng nods. "It is." He doesn't bring up how it's one drop more information in a bucket whose depth and size neither of them yet know. But he glances up at Lan Jingyi, and the two of them sharing a wry, tired smile.

"But," Lan Jingyi adds slowly. "On the off-chance these geese do want to eat us, how do you feel about taking turns standing guard in the evenings?"

 


 

They do not take turns standing guard over the geese in the evenings, though if Jiang Cheng stays up later than usual, and if Lan Jingyi wakes up earlier than he's used to, then that's just how it is.

They do try to keep an eye on the geese, in case something causes them to flicker, if not disappear entirely. Jiang Cheng pins no hopes on the latter, but he's right in the middle of the strangest thing to have happened to him so far, so who can say?

The flickering only happens once more, though, and only to Master Nibbles. It's the day they've decided to travel back to Yunmeng, when Lan Jingyi's injury has mostly healed, although his movements remain a little constricted. Jiang Cheng catches him wincing as he attempts to dress himself for the journey, pain contorting his face when he tries to lift his arm up higher than his shoulders.

"Sit down," Jiang Cheng instructs him, hand on Lan Jingyi's shoulder to guide him back to his bed. "No need to strain yourself on this. Are you sure you're well enough to return?"

"Yes, I'm going to shrivel up into a ghost if you keep me bedridden any longer," Lan Jingyi says. "I can stay upright on a sword, and if I fall off, you have my permission to say 'I told you so'."

Jiang Cheng snorts at that, though he notices that Lan Jingyi doesn't protest when he holds the inner robe sleeve out to conveniently slip Lan Jingyi's arm through it. They do the same for the outer robes, and Lan Jingyi holds out both arms to let Jiang Cheng tie it up as best as he can.

"Thank you," he mutters, looking faintly embarrassed at being assisted this way.

"We're not done," Jiang Cheng tells him, moving his shoulders so he's turned his back to Jiang Cheng. "Unless you want your hair loose for the journey?"

"Oh, I—" Lan Jingyi's uninjured arm immediately goes up, touching the space on his forehead where his ribbon had been, falling down to follow where his loosened hair reaches his waist. It was he who'd undone both ribbon and hair at some point after waking, complaining about how uncomfortable it was to sleep with them otherwise, but he'd clearly not thought through how much easier it was to untie knots one-handed than it was to tie them up again. "I—"

"Would gloves help?" Jiang Cheng asks, showing Lan Jingyi the plain cotton gloves he'd commissioned from the innkeeper's wife the other day, after they'd discussed traveling back and while Lan Jingyi was napping. "I don't know the specifics of your rules on the ribbons, but perhaps—"

"That—that should be fine," Lan Jingyi says, turning his gaze to the ground. "Thank you."

Jiang Cheng just nods, putting the gloves on before he picks out a comb and brushes through the knots in Lan Jingyi's hair, careful not to pull too hard when a particularly unruly knot doesn't want to get untangled. He gathers long silken strands of hair in one hand, holding it there as he ties it into a high bun that only maybe kind of looks like the one Jingyi favors. Jiang Cheng doesn't really remember, and he's used only to the Jiang braids, so this will have to do.

The rest of Jingyi's hair falls down his shoulder, cascading like a waterfall, and it looks good enough, so Jiang Cheng carefully picks up the forehead ribbon that all Lan clan members hold so dearly. He can see Lan Jingyi flinch at the contact, even when he'd reached for it with gloved hands, because it times almost exactly the same as the moment Master Nibbles flickers out of view.

"What just happened?" Jiang Cheng asks, glancing down at Lan Jingyi.

"I don't—I don't know," he answers back, eyes wide as he looks up at Jiang Cheng, who's putting the ribbon down to take off a glove and press two fingers just under Jingyi's jaw—the closest pulse point he can reach.

Jiang Cheng arches an eyebrow, feeling the pulse jackrabbiting beneath his touch, in time with Master Nibbles flickering in and out of view. "Is your heart about to burst?" he wants to know. Maybe there is some merit to Jingyi's theory on the geese being tied to their blood. "We may have found a way to kill the goose. Let's try it out now."

"Hey!" Lan Jingyi huffs, swatting Jiang Cheng's hand away. Master Nibbles stays solid. "Don't make fun of me. Just—hurry up and do it." At the look Jiang Cheng gives him, he adds, "Please."

It is not in Jiang Cheng's nature to push buttons when they do not want to be pushed, though he is surprised at how near-mythical the symbolism around the ribbons are for the Lans. It's ridiculous, in his opinion, to be so beheld by such an external and easily accessible piece of clothing, but he puts his gloves back on and ties the ribbon around Lan Jingyi as quickly as he can.

"There," he says. "It shouldn't accidentally fall off, I think that's tied hard enough."

Lan Jingyi nods, tracing the ribbon where it rests upon his brow. "Thank you," he says again, a little subdued, something more open and vulnerable washing over his normally—not harsher, but more defiant? Fiercer?—features.

Jiang Cheng blinks, more used to seeing Lan Jingyi painted in bold colors and bolder strokes, but something about this specific moment has softened him into someone Jiang Cheng almost doesn't recognize. Or, does, but can't easily reconcile with the Lan Jingyi he's gotten accustomed to.

He clears his throat, shakes himself out of following that line of thought. "We're wasting daylight," he declares, glancing at both geese—both still solid, for the time being—from the corner of his eyes. "We should go."

 


 

There's a letter waiting for them at Yunmeng when they arrive, already a few days old. Jin Ling has received reports of a goose attacking a small village northwest of Lanling. It's going to take them longer to travel there, and Jiang Cheng is annoyed—after the scarcity of information for the first few weeks, now it feels as though they're a step behind.

"We can go right now," Lan Jingyi, still recovering, tells him. He juts out his chin when Jiang Cheng looks at him with disbelief. "It's fine! I'm fine! We're wasting daylight!"

Jiang Cheng sighs, but he lets his desire to get to the bottom of this goose-shaped mystery override his caution. Lan Jingyi is a grown man—he should know his own limits. "Then we should go," he says, staying only long enough to ensure Feng Xu has no pertinent sect business for Jiang Cheng and to ask him to send a message to Lan Sizhui with their whereabouts.

They go as fast as they can, but evening catches them at a town somewhere between Yunmeng and Lanling. Jiang Cheng decides they need to rest here, having noted the way Lan Jingyi seems to be holding himself for the past hour. He has not exerted himself much while he was recovering, and a day of travel would have taken its toll on him.

Lan Jingyi does not put up much of a fight, exhaustion creeping from around the corners of his eyes, visible in the shadows on his face. They find an inn serving dinner and sup quietly not simply because Lan rules dictate so, but because the day has worn on them. Even their geese are subdued, their presence more suited to background fodder.

It isn't until they're both in bed that Lan Jingyi speaks. "We'll find this goose," he says. "I can't believe Jin Ling found one. A live one!"

"Let's hope it's still alive when we get to it," Jiang Cheng mutters, leaning into his instinct to immediately quell that flutter of hope that's been threatening to bloom all day since he'd read Jin Ling's letter.

"It's gotta be," Lan Jingyi says. "If we've learned anything from these two, it's that they are really hard to get rid of. I wonder who it's pestering."

"We don't know that it's pestering anyone in particular," Jiang Cheng says, frowning. What if the goose is another dead end—just an animal gone berserk? What if they arrive and the village has already roasted it for a feast?

"Cheng-ge," Lan Jingyi groans from his bed. "Do you really need to pick out the sour grape out of the entire bunch?"

"I am simply trying to set expectations," Jiang Cheng huffs, though after a moment, he concedes, "We have more of a trail than before."

"We'll fly faster tomorrow," Lan Jingyi promises.

"We just need to fly faster than humans can run," Jiang Cheng reminds him. "We'll find them."

 


 

They get to the village by mid-afternoon, and Jiang Cheng's wariness proves warranted when the village chief lets them know that there had indeed been a wild goose, and it had indeed caused a lot of damage, but unfortunately, it had left just the other day.

"Chased Zhou Xuanyi right out of town," an older woman tells them, shaking her head. "He's been helping his father with the farm but we haven't heard from him in days. You don't think he's in danger, do you?"

"We'll find him for you," Lan Jingyi promises, sharing a quick look with Jiang Cheng. "Do you remember which way they went?"

They'll cover more ground atop their swords, so they take the woman's direction and follow the road to Qinghe, eyes peeled for any sign of a young man and a particularly aggressive goose.

"Do you think they'll follow the roads?" Lan Jingyi asks, eyeing the canopy of forests to their left, the plains to their right.

"We'll have to assume they do." They'll have to hope they do, or there is a lot more ground they are unable to cover.

Of course, this is when their geese decide they have their own plans. It's as the plains become mountainous terrain and dusk turns to evening that the geese, who have been dutifully following behind this entire time, suddenly lunge for them both, nearly knocking them off their swords. Jiang Cheng leaps off in time and lands on solid ground, catching Lan Jingyi by his unwounded arm when he stumbles upon landing next to him.

"What did you do?" Jiang Cheng asks.

"Me? What—do I look like I just randomly provoked them? Why would I—stop that!" Lan Jingyi's tirade is cut off when one of the geese, beak wide open and the many disturbing rows of its very sharp teeth on display, goes for his hip. Lan Jingyi jerks away, stepping right onto Jiang Cheng's foot as the other goose backs Jiang Cheng into Lan Jingyi.

"Alright, alright!" Jiang Cheng gives in, his hold on Lan Jingyi firm as he allows the geese to essentially corral the two of them where they clearly want, whatever it is clearly too urgent to even allow either of them to turn around.

"If they're planning to kill us, now's probably when they're going to do it, huh?" Lan Jingyi asks, his steps backward shaky and unsteady.

"Who's picking the sour grape out of the bunch now?" Jiang Cheng shoots back. He can only just keep Jingyi upright without falling himself, the path they're on rougher than the well-worn road many travelers have used. There are more trees this side of the mountain, roots tangling with uneven ground and stray rocks on the ground beneath them. "Be careful."

"I would if I could see where we're going," Lan Jingyi hisses. His foot slides on something—a mossy rock, maybe, or muddy ground—and he yowls as he flails both arms out to keep balance, but all he does is grab at Jiang Cheng's robes, whose own center of gravity has been thrown off by Jingyi's movements.

They both go down, one undignified mass of limbs, and Jiang Cheng understands—as soon as he hears the splash and feels the wet of a river soaking waist-high through his clothes—exactly how it was that Jingyi's footing had slipped.

"I am going to roast you both!" Jiang Cheng snarls at both geese, who have now paused at the edge of the riverbank to watch the results of their handiwork. He splashes fistfuls of water at them, but they don't even shake their feathers dry. It doesn't even touch them.

"What the fuck," Lan Jingyi gasps next to him, the chattering of his teeth louder than his words, and that's when Jiang Cheng realizes how freezing cold the river is.

"Let's get out of here," he says, pulling Lan Jingyi up. A chill runs down his spine as his damp clothes meet the cool mountain breeze, and his own fingers are trembling as he wraps them around Lan Jingyi's arm.

This time, the geese let them go where they want, only honking at each other in what sounds like smug satisfaction as they waddle after Jiang Cheng and Lan Jingyi.

"Are we supposed to expect a monster soon?" Lan Jingyi asks, letting Jiang Cheng lead them into a small cave that seems drier than the riverbed. "They were clearly herding us off here for a reason."

Jiang Cheng is beginning to doubt it. He finds enough dry wood for a small campfire, and once he has that going, he peels off his wet robes to dry next to it. He moves over to help Jingyi do the same with his own wet clothes.

"There are some spirits," he says once they've sat close to the fire, attempting to warm themselves up, "that are not necessarily evil or malevolent."

"Tricksters," Lan Jingyi whispers. "Do you think—"

"If they are, then this is their purpose," Jiang Cheng says.

Lan Jingyi shakes his head. "But it doesn't add up. They've behaved when we were together, usually. This is the first time—"

"Trickster spirits don't always make sense," Jiang Cheng reminds him. "In fact, they thrive on that chaos, that unpredictability."

"No, that's not what it is," Jingyi says, refusing to listen. "It doesn't make sense. There's the blood thing, don't forget, we're so close to figuring this out, I can feel it."

Jiang Cheng doesn't know how he can cling so stubbornly to something even flimsier. "You think everything has to make sense before they can happen?" he asks with a snort, the words heavier on his tongue, sharper in the way they dig against his ribs.

Lan Jingyi's gaze flickers over to him, something flashing over his face that Jiang Cheng doesn't want to examine too closely. It had looked, unsettlingly, like clarity. "Of course not," he says quietly, carefully. "No, you're right, they don't need to make sense. But what are we supposed to do with that?"

"You live with it," Jiang Cheng mutters. "Like you do with everything else."

"Well, you don't have to sound so bleak about it," Jingyi says with a sniff, after a long moment of tense quiet. "I'm the one who's gonna have to move to Yunmeng. Probably."

"Is there something wrong with Yunmeng?" Jiang Cheng lifts his chin up. "And probably?"

Jingyi wrinkles his nose. "I'd like to think Hanguang Jun would at least try to put up a fight," he says. "I know you're Sect Leader and everything, but—whatever. Your ponds are cool, I guess."

"Are you trying to pick a fight?" Jiang Cheng asks, huffing when he sees the sly curl of Jingyi's lips.

"Is it working?" he asks, cackling at the pebble Jiang Cheng chucks at him. "Maybe if you get a dog."

"I am not getting a dog," Jiang Cheng says flatly. "And we don't know that we're stuck with these geese for sure, yet."

"That's what I was saying," Jingyi says, grinning at the look Jiang Cheng throws him. "Let's just wait and see when we find Zhou Xuanyi."

"Fine." It's as much of a concession as Jiang Cheng is willing to give, since Jingyi talked him around to it. He focuses his gaze on the blazing fire, the spark of light and the crackle of burning wood, letting that wash over his thoughts and keep the worst of his concerns at bay.

Maybe it's why he doesn't realize how close Jingyi has come until his chilly shoulder's pressing against Jiang Cheng's own.

"You're freezing!" Jiang Cheng snaps just as Jingyi begins to apologize for the contact.

"I'm—yes, because it's cold!" he says, huddling into himself. "I didn't mean to get so close—I just. I always run cold."

Jiang Cheng doesn't have that same problem, the heat of the fire enough for him to return to his regular body temperature. But their clothes have barely dried, and even the ones they packed were ruined in the river. "Come here, then," he says with a sigh, placing a palm to Jingyi's freezing back and directing some of his spiritual energy into warming him up.

"Oh," Jingyi gasps. "You're—That's really warm."

"You're welcome."

"Thank you, I meant, that's—yeah," he says, closing his eyes as he slowly, eventually, stops shivering.

Jingyi's back remains cold to the touch, so Jiang Cheng continues to spread warmth from his palm in slow steady circles that heat up chilled skin, moving up to his shoulders and the back of his neck, where Jingyi draws a stuttering breath. "No, don't—" he says as soon as Jiang Cheng withdraws, heat suffusing through his cheeks now too. "That felt nice. The—the heat."

Jiang Cheng nods, though Jingyi can't see him. Can't tell how dry his throat's gotten, either, nor how rapidly his pulse has—

There they are, on the other side of the flames. He hadn't noticed, at first, the crackle of firelight casting light and shadow enough that it was easier to miss, but now that he's looking, now that he's paying attention, he sees it for himself—keeps it for himself—too:

Both geese watching them, there one moment and gone the next.

 


 

Lan Jingyi is up when Jiang Cheng wakes, roasting some of the bread they'd packed. He's managed to get into his dry robes, somehow, though the ties on it are loose and less refined than normal until Jiang Cheng fixes them for him. He offers a small loaf to Jiang Cheng after, the two of them eating their breakfast in relative quiet before they head back on the road.

They try to make up for how far they'd fallen behind—the days they missed with the letter, the night they spent side-tracked by their own traitorous geese—with the speed of their swords and the advantage of cutting through straighter paths in the air than the ground would have provided. Flying higher, too, lets them scan the ground for any unusual activity, and it's this that allows Jiang Cheng to spot a lone figure struggling through a narrow path below, something white and feathery tailing it closely.

"Down there," he says, Jingyi following the line of his arm until he sees it too.

"We found him," Jingyi says, relief breaking out on his face.

Jiang Cheng can't help returning the smile Jingyi gives him. "We found him."

They find no reason to approach any other way but the most direct, so they fly down to land next to the figure—a young man who looks worse for wear, sweat soaking through his clothes and the dirt and grime of travel marring what might have been pleasant features.

"Zhou Xuanyi?" Jiang Cheng asks, holding out a hand to assist the man. He stumbles against him, weakened and exhausted.

"Are you alright?" Jingyi asks, pulling out some water for him to drink.

Zhou Xuanyi takes the proffered drink gratefully, gulping nearly all of it down. He doesn't stop moving, because the goose at his tail won't let him, and his voice is filled with despair. "It won't—it won't let me stop," he all but sobs. "Only just. Only to keep me alive."

"We can try to help you," Jingyi tells him. "Would you like something to eat? I have bread and some dried lotus seeds."

"Thank you, thank you, this one is so grateful—"

Jiang Cheng shares a look with Jingyi as Zhou Xuanyi has his fill of the food they'd packed with them. "It's not reacting to these other geese," he points out.

"Maybe he's got a different mission?" Jingyi wonders. "Oh, there's a cave up ahead!"

They guide Zhou Xuanyi over to the cave where, faced with a natural barrier to the direction he needs to go, his geese finally lets him be for a while.

"You need to rest," Jingyi tells him, offering him more food. "You've been traveling on foot for days."

"I don't know what it wants," Zhou Xuanyi says, glancing wildly at the two of them. His gaze alights on the other geese, settling next to his own, the first time he must have seen them. "You—you—"

"They started to behave once we were in the same place," Jingyi explains.

But of course Zhou Xuanyi's goose has a different mission for him; it had been leading him away from both of them, after all, and not toward. Jingyi coaxes the story out of Zhou Xuanyi, noting down the details of when the goose showed up—"Cheng-ge, it was his birthday, too!"—and its behavior since, sharing the theories they've gathered themselves.

"We believe you should follow where it leads you. We will help," Jingyi promises. "We might be able to find what it wants from you there."

"What could a goose possibly want with me?" Zhou Xuanyi wonders. "I'm just a farmer. I'm no cultivator. I can't—I can't fight monsters!"

"It might be a different mission than ours," Jingyi says.

Zhou Xuanyi looks back at the both of them. "You haven't found out what yours is, yet?"

Jingyi shakes his head. "We're hoping it will be clearer with your help."

"But I'm just a farmer," Zhou Xuanyi repeats. "I don't know what you hope to learn from me."

"Trust us," Jingyi tells him. "It is a lot more than we've had to hope from in days."

 


 

They let Zhou Xuanyi catch his breath and rest a little, but realizing there may be an end to his current torment seems to have reinvigorated him. He's ready to go faster than Jiang Cheng expects, dusting off his robes as he stands.

"Do you know of any villages nearby?" Jingyi asks, glancing thoughtfully at Zhou Xuanyi and his goose. To Jiang Cheng, he says, "We might be able to go faster by sword."

"You're thinking he's probably being led to the village for his mission?"

"If not, his goose will let us know, but this will help us cut down some time, if we let him fly with us, won't it? He can ride with me."

It's a sound plan. Jiang Cheng sees no real problems with it, except: "Your arm's still healing. He can ride with me, and you can focus on staying upright. We should get going."

Jingyi frowns at him, opening his mouth as though to ask something, but closes it again. Instead, he watches as Jiang Cheng helps Zhou Xuanyi up on his sword, his gaze moving to the geese to see if they have any complaints with the arrangement. All three of them are looking eagerly at the men, as though aware they're about to go on their way.

It's a quiet, peaceful flight. Zhou Xuanyi's shaky on the sword, at first, but after Jiang Cheng tells him to close his eyes and simply hold on, his knees stop shaking and he turns into a steadier presence behind Jiang Cheng. It's a good thing he didn't let Zhou Xuanyi travel with Jingyi, who keeps glancing sideways at them as they pass over the mountain path and even as they descend upon a village nestled in the middle of a valley.

They land just outside the village entrance, Zhou Xuanyi immediately heckled by his goose toward a specific direction.

"Guess we're in the right village," Jingyi says, falling into step beside Jiang Cheng as they follow Zhou Xuanyi down a side street, twisting through the paths to what might be the house at the end of that particular lane, surrounded with a small rice field. "Is there—are you alright?"

Jiang Cheng furrows his brow. "Is there something wrong with me?" he asks.

"Maybe?" Jingyi frowns. "You've been—" he starts, trailing off when he can't seem to find the words. "I don't know! Weird!"

"I'm not anything, Jingyi," Jiang Cheng tells him, nodding back at Zhou Xuanyi ahead of them. "I think his goose found something."

Jingyi doesn't look like he believes him, but a quick glance shows Jiang Cheng isn't lying. Zhou Xuanyi's being nudged toward the door of the house, so he's knocking on it until it opens.

"Yi-er?" the older woman inside says. "Is that you?"

"Auntie?" comes the confused response. "This is your house? Is A-Xiang—"

"Is that a goose?" Zhou Xuanyi's auntie asks at the same time, and then the goose is urging Zhou Xuanyi in, and a lot of things happen at once.

Something else honks, for one, loud and obnoxious and from inside the house, followed immediately by the clattering of what is probably a lot of furniture breaking. Someone shouts, someone apologizes, something honks again, Jingyi rushes in and Jiang Cheng rushes in after him, and a small, shaky voice calls out, somehow stronger and louder than everything else:

"A-Yi?"

The question comes from a young woman, one insistent goose pushing her toward Zhou Xuanyi until she's stumbling into his arms.

"A-Xiang," he breathes, eyes wide and breath held still. "Is that really you?"

There's no mistaking the look on her face, gentling once she recognizes Zhou Xuanyi, sweet and adoring and something, Jiang Cheng knows, only Zhou Xuanyi should see.

He clears his throat, catching Jingyi's attention before he heads out of the small house. The older woman follows them out not long after, no doubt wishing to give the two some time alone to catch up as well.

"Thought we'd never see the boy," she says after a moment, her tone warm and fond. "They were inseparable as children, you see. A-Xiang was inconsolable when we had to move away. They were so young, I thought they'd forget."

"That's wonderful for them," Jingyi says, his voice sounding odd to Jiang Cheng's ears.

"Thank you for bringing Yi-er to my A-Xiang," she says with a smile. "Do you two also—"

"Mama?" A-Xiang calls from the doorway. Zhou Xuanyi's standing next to her, their hands clasped together, cheeks flushed and looking altogether pleased. "A-Yi wants to talk to you."

A-Xiang's mother smiles even wider. She excuses herself from Jiang Cheng and Jingyi's company, facing the couple with pride in her eyes.

Jiang Cheng stays outside. Jingyi stands next to him, similarly frozen.

Neither of them point out that neither A-Xiang or Zhou Xuanyi have a shadow of a goose with them anymore.

 


 

They don't leave right away. It wouldn't have been proper to just disappear. Zhou Xuanyi comes out eventually, thanking them for their help and letting them know there will be a wedding, and he would be honored if both of them could attend. A-Xiang's mother is cooking a feast, he says, and they should stay for dinner, at least. The least they could do, and really—A-Xiang and her mother insist. It would be no imposition at all.

Then it is: they don't have much for lodging, but it's late, and they have traveled very far. If they don't mind spartan bedding, would they stay the night, as well? Jiang Cheng is not inclined to accept had it been left to him alone, but Jingyi's arm is still recovering, so he tells them they would appreciate a place to stay. Zhou Xuanyi rolls out straw mats for the three of them in the middle of the room while A-Xiang and her mother sleep in theirs, wondering at his incredible luck at finding the girl he'd never been able to forget.

"I should have realized sooner,," he says into the quiet, on the other side of Jingyi. "They say geese mate for life, don't they? Symbols of love from afar, A-Xiang was saying. She reads poetry, you know. But she didn't realize the geese were paired. With me. They let us find each other again. How lucky am I?"

It's a sweet story. Truly, a wonderful thing to have happened to the both of them. Jiang Cheng congratulates him, again, before he pretends to sleep.

He rises when Jingyi does, early the next day, hearing him stir awake before dawn breaks. He keeps his breathing even, listening to the sound of Jingyi moving around. He doesn't get up until Zhou Xuanyi wakes.

They take some bread from A-Xiang's mother but Jiang Cheng insists they have overstayed their welcome, and that they should head back before breakfast. There's a long journey ahead for them both, after all, so they set off on their swords, rising above tree-level to cut through the mountains.

"So," Jingyi says once the sun starts to pierce the sky with the purple and orange of its awakening. "That's a weird mission, huh?"

Jiang Cheng scoffs.

"But I guess it adds up," Jingyi says. "Li Yizhen said his grandmother saved his grandfather from his goose. She must have had one, too. They never said how long it was they spent together before the goose disappeared, did they? So it fits. I guess that's what happened."

"A soul-binding spell," Jiang Cheng says. Not in the way they'd learned about it, of course, because it's certainly more powerful than anything any cultivator can cast. "More or less."

Jingyi laughs. "More or less, he says. Nobody cast it though, did they?"

"No, it's—" Jiang Cheng casts his mind for the word—what do you call it when it turns out you've been on the receiving end of a spell cast by what appears to be the mostly invisible hand of fate? "—more advanced than that."

"No kidding," Jingyi says, clearing his throat. "So, I guess, when the geese started flickering, that meant—"

"The thing about spells," Jiang Cheng says, interrupting him. "Especially now that we know what it is, is that we can break it."

He looks straight ahead when he says this, but Jingyi's silence is deafening.

"You want to break it," he says after a long, long while. He says it like a statement, but it sounds like a question.

"Wei Wuxian should know how," Jiang Cheng says, swallowing around the words. "There should be something about it in the books at Cloud Recesses. We can go directly there, and then you will be conveniently back home when we get rid of the geese, like this never happened."

"Like this never happened," Jingyi says, hollow like an echo.

 


 

They can pass by Lanling on their way to Gusu, stay in a room with comfortable beds, and have a better meal than the utilitarian food they've packed for traveling, but neither of them suggest it.

It would be faster to use the roads around Lanling, anyway.

And it would be easier to avoid discussing this with Jin Ling, as he would no doubt ask for an update. It doesn't seem like something he needs to be privy to, not until it's over. He'll likely have opinions contrary to Jiang Cheng's, as well, and Jiang Cheng does not want to argue with his nephew.

They find a cave along the road to settle in for the evening, the two of them falling into the familiar pattern of setting up the fire, taking out the bread, foraging for fruits and nuts. They find more water to slake their thirst and stay an arm's length away when they sit by the fire.

Jingyi tells Jiang Cheng his arm is feeling better, when Jiang Cheng picks up his sleeping robes as they get ready for sleep, and no further help is needed.

He sleeps with his back turned to Jiang Cheng. The sight of it keeps Jiang Cheng awake deep into the night.

But sleep must have come to him at some point, because he wakes to the soft hum of a guqin playing a lullaby. He opens his eyes to find Jingyi sitting by the cave's entrance, idly strumming the strings of his guqin as he watches the morning sun break through the canopy. He'd already put his robes on, his hair tied up a little more haphazardly. His ribbon a little loose, like it was the other morning. Jiang Cheng understands his help is no longer accepted, so he does not offer it.

"Your goose was flickering, too," Jingyi says without glancing back at him. "It wasn't just mine."

It is too much to have hoped they would not have to do this before they get to Gusu. Jiang Cheng sighs, pulling himself up to sit, all grogginess of just waking up gone in an instant. "But it didn't disappear."

"Not yet," Jingyi says.

"We wouldn't have even been in this position had the geese not shown up and ensured we had no choice to—"

"But they did, and we did," Jingyi points out. "And who knows what could happen if—"

"If we continue to let geese tell us what to do?" Jiang Cheng asks. "Don't you find that notion even remotely ridiculous?"

"Isn't the problem that they actually can't tell us what to do, or it wouldn't be taking them so damn long?" Jingyi snaps. He finally looks at Jiang Cheng, and Jiang Cheng almost wishes he hadn't. He hadn't ever wished to see Jingyi look this—helpless. Defeated. "All they did was create a space for—for us to figure it out."

"Anyone under the same duress would think—feel—" Jiang Cheng says, closing his eyes and letting out a deep breath.

He doesn't understand why Jingyi wants to fight this so much—it is such a foolish, romantic notion, this. But flimsy, in the end, nothing that would stand up to the practicalities of reality. Why would Jingyi wish to have his soul tied to Jiang Cheng's for a moment longer, waiting for the faint chance that a more solid bond can be developed between them when he has a much bigger world of possibilities ahead of him? As a Lan, as a younger man, as himself?

He says none of that, though, and what comes out of his mouth instead is: "Wouldn't you prefer to make the choice for yourself, instead of have it shoved at you regardless of your own desires?"

He knows it is the wrong thing to say at once because something snaps, then, in Jingyi's eyes. Breaks. Maybe irreparably so.

"Oh," he says, his voice sounding dull, gaze falling to his guqin. He is no longer playing any tune. "Of course. It was thoughtless of me to—you're right. We should be free to make our choices."

Jingyi only repeated what he'd said, but Jiang Cheng can't shake the feeling that its meaning has shifted—distorted—from what Jiang Cheng had intended.

He can't bring himself to take any of it back.

He shouldn't.

 


 

It's almost anticlimactic how quickly they find the spell that undoes the soulbinding.

They reach Gusu after another day's travel, arriving at the break of dawn unannounced. Sizhui and Wei Wuxian know exactly where to look once they're told the nature of the spell, picking out an ancient tome to flip through for the base of the array they need. With a few modifications from Wei Wuxian, it should work.

"Are you sure about this?" Wei Wuxian leans over to ask Jiang Cheng while Sizhui and Jingyi have their heads bowed together, deep in discussion over the mechanics of the array.

Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow. "Am I sure about ridding myself of the goose that's haunted me for the last few weeks? Surely you aren't seriously asking."

"And surely you know that's not what I'm asking," he says. "Nobody cast this spell on you except the universe. You were probably—you were probably fated, in previous lives. You really want to go against the universe? Over this?"

Jiang Cheng levels him with a look. "They did tell us to attempt the impossible, didn't they?"

Wei Wuxian sighs. He would not push, unlike before, treading carefully on matters like this now. "It's your choice," he says finally, glancing over at Jingyi, too. "Both of yours?"

"Wei Wuxian," Jiang Cheng says, the only warning he wishes to give.

Wei Wuxian takes it, and keeps his mouth shut until Sizhui calls for his help on a tricky section of the array.

 


 

Jiang Cheng feels nothing when the connection is severed. The light of the array washes over the two of them, held in its circle, the geese flickering in and out of view next to them until they disappear completely, leaving behind not even a single feather to say they were ever there.

Then it is done.

And Jiang Cheng goes home.

 


 

Lotus Pier has never betrayed Jiang Cheng.

Even growing up with the family that he did, with the inexplicably conflicting feelings he had for them, he remembers primarily happy memories spent with his siblings here—of playing with Wei Wuxian, of warming his stomach with A-jie's soup, of running across the market stalls when there were festivals and practicing drills with the other disciples in the training grounds.

Lotus Pier is home: familiar, warm, and known.

And when it had been attacked—it was Jiang Cheng who had betrayed Lotus Pier then. Abandoned it. He'd fled and Lotus Pier paid the price, so as soon as he could, he made sure to rebuild it the way it stood before, just stronger, just better, just so he didn't have to lose it again.

Lotus Pier has always been home, and Lotus Pier has never betrayed Jiang Cheng.

It's just—

It's been weeks since he returned from Gusu and resumed sect leader duties back from before he'd been disrupted. His days have returned to what he has always been used to. Meetings on sect issues in the mornings, conference preparations after lunch, disciple training in the afternoons, night hunts in the evenings. More work, when he returns after, until he falls asleep at last.

Everything with the familiarity and cadence of habit instilled over the years, but none of the comfort he used to derive from it.

He is restless.

He shakes it off, that first week, as nothing more than a habit he needs to grow out of. He'd gotten used to the activity of the geese, of the presence beside him, in the weeks they were there. He would get used to their absence just as easily.

The disciples are curious about what happened, but know Jiang Cheng enough not to ask for more information than he gives, altogether more relieved that their sect leader has rid himself of his goose. They dare themselves to outlast each other on handstands for fun, but by the second week of Jiang Cheng's return that exercise loses its shine, as all things of novelty eventually do. He waits until he can say the same for him.

He reaches for his flute, sometime in the third week. Closes his fingers over the keys, lips wrapping around the lyrics of an old children's song he would not sing aloud. He shuts his eyes to hear the ghost of a melody drifting over memory, the echo of string humming in the quiet of the evening, and lets sleep claim him from there.

Mingyi-jie calls to him from her market stall, the first time he visits in the month since his return. It's not until he's purchased the seeds that he realizes the price has changed.

"I told you I'll give you a better discount if you bring more handsome men with you," she scolds him. "And what do you do—you come back with no one!"

"That's not how commerce works," Jiang Cheng says dumbly, blinking as she cackles and thrusts a second full bag of lotus seeds into his hold, worth much more than what he paid, now.

"This is for the handsome one," she says. "When he returns."

He has stopped counting weeks by the time Jin Ling shows up unannounced—unconscionable for a sect leader, natural for a nephew—even though they've been maintaining a steady correspondence. Last he'd written, he was visiting Cloud Recesses to sort out a peculiar case that was happening in Lanling, in the hopes that the library there might have some information. Jiang Cheng had gone through his letter many times, reading over the remark he made about how Ouyang Zizhen was visiting as well and so had wheedled everyone into visiting Caiyi Town for an afternoon.

(Everyone, Jin Ling had written. Jiang Cheng tried not to think about who that included.)

"Hm," Jin Ling says now, frowning at Jiang Cheng after they are done with dinner and have caught up on sect business and other matters—the Discussion Conference is coming up soon, and he wanted to consult with Jiang Cheng on some arrangements he wanted to make for the Jin Sect members.

"Hm?"

Jin Ling crosses his arms. "Are you never going to tell me what the geese were?"

Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow. "It would be foolish to repeat information I'm sure you've already gathered from Lan Sizhui."

"And I suppose jiujiu is the preeminent expert on foolish behavior," Jin Ling says, merely jutting his chin out at the reaction he draws from Jiang Cheng. "Why did you do that?"

Jiang Cheng has no patience for dancing around what he knows Jin Ling is asking. "It was the right thing to do."

"For whom, I wonder?" Jin Ling scowls. "You look miserable, Jiujiu. Is this what you think you needed? I can't imagine it's what you actually wanted."

"And what would you know about—"

"I may be young, but I don't see the point of suffering needlessly," Jin Ling says. "I know there are things that have been hard to come by for you—things you worked tirelessly to achieve—but that doesn't mean you're not allowed anything good or easy or—"

"If it were so easy, why the hell did geese have to terrorize us for weeks!"

"Okay, so now you've just let those geese terrorize you for nothing?" Jin Ling asks, bewildered. "Why do you refuse to have this?"

"He is not—it is not mine to have," Jiang Cheng bites out, standing abruptly. "Get out."

Jin Ling's eyes are wide. "Jiujiu—"

Jiang Cheng shakes his head. "I said," he says, voice sharp enough to have Jin Ling scrambling away, even though it's barely above a whisper. "Get. Out."

 


 

It is easier to throw himself into work the closer the Discussion Conference draws—he spends mornings wrangling the banquet menu, hours in the afternoon clearing out shooting range and the hunting grounds for the festivities, corresponding with various other clan leaders about the agenda for the discussions.

But that in itself is its own double-edged sword—all of this, after all, is so that Lotus Pier could open its gates and welcome in representatives from all the other clans, including the Lans.

Including Jingyi.

Unwilling to further follow this line of thinking, he dedicates himself even more to ensuring not a single item in preparation for the conference is out of place, and that his time there is carefully structured so as to leave no space in his schedule for frivolities. The seating arrangements are tweaked near-daily, the menu not extravagant nor impressive enough, the competition grounds are not up to par.

"Who commissioned these arrowheads?" he asks, frowning at the sample his disciples presented him. "They're shoddy and ill-made—do you want us to become the laughingstock of the cultivation world?"

It's Feng Xu who bows for forgiveness. "This one takes responsibility for this mistake," he says. "The craftsman who usually supplies the clan with arrowheads moved away recently, and we assumed we would be able to substitute his work with another's."

"Where is he now?" Jiang Cheng asks. "There should be time yet for us to commission better work from him."

The craftsman hadn't moved that far at all, it turned out—only about a hundred li away, quickly reached on sword—but Feng Xu had worried such a request would not be entertained from anyone but the sect leader, so Jiang Cheng takes it upon himself to make the journey there.

"Regarding the rest of the items to prepare—"

"We will take care of them, Sect Leader Jiang," Feng Xu promises, bowing low.

The craftsman's name is Cao Chengling, white-haired and misty-eyed, and Jiang Cheng furrows a brow when he opens the door to his workshop, as though he'd been expecting Jiang Cheng. "I wondered why the Jiang Sect have not ordered their arrowheads yet, with the conference you're hosting coming up," he says mildly. "It's a good thing I make these year-round, and have a surplus I can sell you. How many do you need?"

He tuts at the number Jiang Cheng provides, for he is short just a few of those arrowheads.

"I am more than happy to make more for Sandu Shengshou, of course," he says. "And it would not take very long—perhaps it makes sense for you to wait here while I finish the rest of your order? That way you can ensure the quality remains as high as your standards demand."

Jiang Cheng purses his lips. He can't help feeling he has been led by the nose into this situation, but Cao Chengling is right—it would be a waste to return to Yunmeng only to have to come back almost immediately. "Very well," he says. "Since it is more practical this way."

Cao Chengling simply hums in agreement, puttering around his workshop to get to work. He leaves Jiang Cheng as he is, offering neither a seat nor tea, though he glances up at one point and asks if Jiang Cheng could bring over one of his tools from the other side of the workshop.

Jiang Cheng does, too flummoxed to do anything else, and Cao Chengling decides, then and there, that Jiang Cheng may as well assist him, his status as sect leader and cultivator be damned.

But it is something to do, all the same, so Jiang Cheng does not complain, going to town to purchase food for Cao Chengling, taking down dead branches from the trees behind his house when he mentions they are a hazard, feeding his chickens because Cao Chengling has to make sure the fire he's stoking does not get too hot for molding the arrowheads with.

"Oh, and don't forget to take the leftovers out back when you're done," Cao Chengling tells him after dinner, wiping his mouth with the sleeve of his robe before he heads back to his workshop.

"Out back?" Jiang Cheng echoes, but Cao Chengling's already deep in his work again, so Jiang Cheng has no choice but to do as he says. He gathers the remains of dinner in a small bin, remembering the pile of compost while he was out feeding the chickens, and makes his way there.

It's already dark, the moon high in the sky—he hadn't noticed the time pass as quickly as it seemed to have, out here. Cao Chengling should be done the day after next, he'd said. And in a week Lotus Pier will open its doors to all of the cultivation world.

He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. The conference will last seven days, and then—

His eyes fly open, his gaze flickering toward the woods bordering Cao Chengling's land. "Who's there?"

 


 

Jingyi has always heard about how beautiful Lotus Pier was. The Cloud Recesses has its own points of pride, of course, but the tragedy of Lotus Pier made it seem like its beauty lay in the past, in the memories its old visitors carried from before the Wens destroyed it.

But then he came to visit it for the first time, and then he had to stay there for a while, and now it plagues his dreams and he isn't sure why nobody ever talks about Lotus Pier that way anymore.

He doesn't have a point of comparison himself, but he can't imagine any other Sect residence as colorful and boisterous, as warm and breathtaking, as the sight of water running through Lotus Pier, of the lotus flowers drifting along misty ponds and the purple banners on proud buildings. Of vibrant market stalls teeming with Yunmeng residents and cultivators and low boats lazing along the gentle waters. Of the warm wood and gentle colors in its residences and halls, the ornately designed furniture that spoke of careful craftsmanship, and the delicate-looking but imposing lotus throne that seats perhaps the most handsome, complicated, and infuriating man Jingyi has ever known.

He holds his breath as the pier comes into view, the boat slowing as it nears its destination. He keeps his posture straight, as is expected of a senior disciple, and nods minutely when Sizhui's gaze flickers over.

They have talked about this before.

He will be fine.

Or try to be.

There are enough things happening, at any rate. Junior disciples to keep track of. Sect matters to pay attention to. Festivities that will involve many people in public venues for all seven days of the conference.

Jingyi will be busy enough with his own responsibilities to worry about what the host himself is up to, even though it certainly feels like that is all his thoughts have wandered to, in the months since they parted.

He hadn't believed Jiang Cheng could have been so callous with his decision, back then. Could not believe that was the choice he wanted to make.

Ouyang Zizhen had nearly stormed Yunmeng himself, once he'd heard the full story, furious on Jingyi's behalf.

Jin Ling had tried to mediate, and been abruptly shut down.

Sizhui had held him close, crying more than Jingyi could bear to let himself—such a ridiculous thing, sympathy crying, especially for someone who ugly cries like Sizhui—that it made both of them laugh themselves to sleep.

He likes to think he's had enough time, since, to have clarity about what happened. Clarity in what he wants. Jiang Cheng had said, after all, that they should be free to make their choices.

Well. Jingyi has had enough time to be sure in his.

They are greeted by a contingent of Jiang sect disciples, many of whom Jingyi recognizes from his time there. Feng Xu is not among them, but Sheng Yan gives him a small wave that probably breaks Jiang sect protocol, and Jingyi can't help grinning back in response. They pass by the markets as they're led to the banquet hall, and Jingyi makes a note to take Sizhui to Mingyi-jie's stall when they have some free time.

The opening banquet is better than Jingyi anticipated, not just in the entertainment but in the items prepared for the guests—an assortment of delicacies famous in the region, with enough options highlighting the cuisines in other clans. It is some of the best food that Jingyi has had.

Jiang Cheng sits at the head of the hall in the vibrant purple robes of his clan, proud and straight-backed and strong-jawed and beautiful. His gaze is fierce and steady as he looks over the banquet, nodding graciously as the sect leaders take turns toasting to him. He stays this way as the banquet drags on deep into the night, as various sect leaders vie for his attention on something or other.

Jingyi speaks with disciples of other sects, too, drags Ouyang Zizhen away so that Jin Ling and Sizhui could have time to speak together, but his gaze is drawn back, again and again, to the man holding court at the head of the hall.

Ouyang Zizhen sighs. "Jingyi," he says, biting down on his lower lip. "If you keep looking like that you will burn a hole in his head."

Jingyi winces. "Let's get out of here," he decides. "Before I do something stupid."

Ouyang Zizhen laughs, but grabs him by the sleeve of his robe to lead them away. Most of the attendees have retired to their guest rooms, anyway. Their presence is no longer needed. "Yes, let's! I wanna see where they've set our clan up for this. And if it's worse than yours like when the Yao Clan hosted."

"They didn't," Jingyi says, following Ouyang Zizhen out. They stumble out into the evening, and the bridges and pathways connecting the residences to the hall should be confusing, but it surprises Jingyi how easily, still, he makes his way through it. He'd not been able to explore Lotus Pier on his own, but Jiang Cheng was a meticulous, detail-oriented man. They'd run through the guest rooms numerous times while he had been here, making sure each accommodation left little for the clans to complain about.

They go to the Lans' rooms first, because many of the disciples would be retiring for the evening. "No curfew tonight?" Ouyang Zizhen asks, glancing at Jingyi as they pass by some elders.

"Not for the duration of the conference, since there are activities slated for the evenings," Jingyi says, letting Ouyang Zizhen inspect the room Jingyi would be sharing with Sizhui. It is about half the size of the room he'd shared with Jiang Cheng, which makes sense—the sect leader's quarters should be much larger than most other's—but furnished similarly. Jingyi swallows around the lump lodged behind his throat, skirts around the memory of the nights he'd spent with the dim glow of candlelight and the gentle rustling of paper carried him to sleep. "We should go to yours, now."

The rooms for the Ouyang clan are much the same, as well, which almost disappoints Ouyang Zizhen. He tugs Jingyi back to explore the Jins' next, but then they run into his father, who scolds him for disappearing at the banquet when he was supposed to be seeing how sect business matters are discussed with his father.

"Where do you think you're going? We have much to talk about," he huffs, and Jingyi laughs at Ouyang Zizhen's protest, leaving him to deal with his father.

It's not a far walk to the Lans' rooms, but Jingyi doesn't quite feel like turning in for the evening yet.

He's deciding which way to go—the Jins, after all, though he doubts Jin Ling will be around, or should he try and find Feng Xu?—when he hears a yip from across the bridge connecting one set of rooms to another.

"Fairy?" he calls out, but the dog that runs up to him is snow white and curly-haired, with big dark eyes and a small puff of a tail. He bends down to let her nose at him, first, before he gives in to the urge to pet her. "Oh! Hello. Where did you come from?"

"It was time for her evening walk," someone answers, and Jingyi looks up to find Jiang Cheng on the other side of the bridge, head held high, hands behind his back, gaze fixed on Jingyi's. "We usually go around the residences."

"I see," Jingyi says. "Has she been to the pier?"

"In the mornings." Jiang Cheng pauses for a moment, then, as though having come to a decision, he takes slow, careful steps toward Jingyi. Or the dog. Jingyi isn't sure. Probably the dog. But Jiang Cheng is staring at him. "She likes the water."

"When did you—"

"Not very long," Jiang Cheng says, halfway through the bridge now. "I found her in the woods, in a village not far from here. She seems like she'd been lost, and no one nearby knew who she belonged to."

"You got a dog," Jingyi says, his lips curling up into a smile.

"I like them," Jiang Cheng says. He stops just before Jingyi, who's still crouched down petting the dog. She jumps out of Jingyi's hold, though, to hop up onto Jiang Cheng's arms. "Why shouldn't I have things I like?"

"Especially when they clearly like you back," Jingyi says, dusting off his robes as he stands. "What's she called?"

"Precious," Jiang Cheng says, the look in his eyes daring Jingyi to say anything about it, anything at all.

Jingyi laughs. "It suits her," he agrees. "She seems very friendly."

"Only with some people, I've found. She tends to be skittish with most strangers."

"Oh?" Jingyi raises an eyebrow. "Not me, though."

"Not you." Jiang Cheng frowns, his gaze almost stubbornly stuck on Jingyi's. "I don't think she'd mind if—if you came to visit. They're not allowed at Cloud Recesses, but you could—if you liked—"

"We care about what I like now?" Jingyi asks, a little helpless, only a slight edge to his tone.

"Jingyi," Jiang Cheng sighs, a tremor in the way he calls his name. "I'm sorry. I only wanted it to be your choice, not—nothing else's. But I don't blame you if it's changed—"

"It hasn't." Jingyi steps closer, watching Jiang Cheng's eyes widen as he inadvertently steps back, just a smidge. "I could have told you that, if you'd let me."

"I don't think I would have been able to believe you."

"You should try more often," Jingyi says. "Lans never lie, and I'm full of great ideas. Aren't I right about the dog?"

Jiang Cheng huffs out a laugh. His eyes seem brighter in the moonlight, warmer when they hold Jingyi's gaze. "You're very right about the dog," he says. "So, I would like the chance to listen to more of your ideas. If you'd let me."

Jingyi smiles. "Then I'll be sure to furnish you with a list on my next visit, Cheng-ge."