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Audience of One

Chapter Text

Lan Xichen is in the studio when he gets the call.

There are several missed ones waiting for him when he finally has a fifteen break and steps out of the live room to exchange his guqin for his phone. Two of them are from Lan Wangji, but five are from Wei Wuxian, and Lan Xichen closes his eyes for a second against the bright lights of the control room.

“Could I have a moment?” he asks his music producer, Mianmian. She sits at the creamy wooden table pressed against the window of the live room, her elegant fingers hovering over the keys of the computer all his songs are mixed and processed on. “Family emergency.”

“Sure, you’ve been working so hard anyways, now would be a good time for a longer break,” Mianmian says, even though Lan Xichen has only managed a single verse worth keeping after a few hours. She climbs to her feet and gives Lan Xichen a warm smile as she passes. Lan Xichen’s own smile is a brittle thing these days, but it stays on his face. “I’ll get us some water for the final bit.”

As soon as the door to the hall closes, Lan Xichen’s smile falls from his face and he swipes open his phone to his text messages. There are a few from acquaintances wondering if he’ll be attending Today’s Top Ten Talents dinner this month, unlike the last couple months. He’s fallen a few spots from number one in the months he’s been absent from the public’s eyes, but years of popularity have kept him from completely falling off the list like he almost wishes.

Text messages from Wei Wuxian also clog his phone, but it’s Lan Wangji’s single text message from two hours ago that grabs his attention.

He said no, the message reads, and Lan Xichen immediately presses call.

The longer Lan Wangji doesn’t pick up, the harder Lan Xichen’s heart hammers as he paces around the small lounge attached to the recording booth. The black leather couches call to him after so many hours pouring his heart out into a song and the two hours of sleep he got last night, but Lan Xichen knows as soon as he sits, he won’t get up.

Lan Wangji doesn’t pick up on the third call, and Lan Xichen lowers the phone to stare helplessly at the screen. Even if Lan Wangji is in the studio, Lan Xichen knows he’s told his producer and manager to keep an eye on his phone and interrupt any recording if Lan Xichen calls.

The hypervigilance stings, but Lan Wangji not picking up even on the fourth call, makes the whole room spin around Lan Xichen. The only other time Lan Wangji has purposefully ignored Lan Xichen’s calls is when Wei Wuxian disappeared from the country and Lan Wangji disappeared into despair.

But both men have been back and together for a year now, and Lan Xichen has seen nothing but smiles and heard nothing but yes as their days passed with as much steady happiness as two young stars could obtain.

A fifth call ends with no answer from Lan Wangji, and Lan Xichen digs the palm of his hand into his forehead. Even when Lan Xichen closes his eyes, the world continues to spin when he thinks of Lan Wangji sitting alone somewhere, refusing to answer the ringing phone because he knows Lan Xichen will try and fail to fix the impossible.

He almost grabs his bags and leaves the studio right then, even with Lan Wangji’s radio silence. He’ll bang on the door of every room in the studio if he has to, drive to every apartment Lan Wangji has ever visited, stop by every restaurant Lan Wangji has ordered from, check every childhood hiding spot, and look inside every pet shop with rabbits in the city.

He found Lan Wangji before when he didn’t want to be found by anyone but Wei Wuxian, and he will find him again. Even if the thought of seeing Lan Wangji unresponsive and dishevelled a second time has Lan Xichen reaching for the table’s edge to steady himself, Lan Xichen refuses to let his little brother be alone.

Only the new text from Wei Wuxian waiting for Lan Xichen when he opens his eyes stops him from leaving. Another one comes in as he stares at the screen, reassuring Lan Xichen that whatever has happened, this time the lines of communication remain open.

He glances at the closed door once, and after taking a deep breath, he calls Wei Wuxian.

“Xichen-ge.” Wei Wuxian picks up on the first ring, his words a rush of breath more than sound. “Is Lan Zhan with you?”

“No. He’s not with you?”

“He said he had an interview booked for later this afternoon, but I thought after what happened–”

Wei Wuxian trails off and Lan Xichen closes his eyes again. He should have asked Mianmian to grab him a tea while she was out.

“What happened?” Lan Xichen asks.

Lan Xichen knows what was supposed to happen, and not just because Lan Wangji told him and their uncle his plan over breakfast. He’s been privy to most of the couple’s struggles and triumphs during their eight years of private dating, including the recent two-year break that followed the tragic deaths of Wei Wuxian’s adopted parents, and Wei Wuxian’s own adoption of their son. While the couple may have shredded the predicted script of Lan Wangji’s life, they had never not followed the natural path their love paved for them.

Lan Xichen doesn’t know if he has the energy to shove them back on that path right now.

“I have to talk to him,” Wei Wuxian replies instead. With each new syllable out of his mouth, his tone pitches higher. “Please, Xichen-ge, I know he’s probably upset right now and he probably needs to put his thoughts in order, but I can’t go to my shoot knowing I’ve hurt him like this when all I wanted to do was keep making out with him and then send Jiang Cheng a smug message and call jiejie and tell A-Yuan he could live with both of us now and–”

“Wei Wuxian.” Lan Xichen can’t hear the patience he’s always been known for anywhere in his voice. “Please, slow down and start at the beginning. What did Wangji say and what did you say?”

A beat of silence passes and Lan Xichen glances at the still closed door.

“He proposed to me,” Wei Wuxian wails, and something thuds on the end of his line. “He proposed to me and of course I told him I wanted to marry him, but then Lan Zhan started talking about the wedding ceremony and public announcements, and when I told him he couldn’t do that, he got upset and thought I didn’t actually want to marry him and he left.”

“Ah,” Lan Xichen says, and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Why can’t you make it public?”

The two have never been subtle around each other, least of all Wei Wuxian. Their closest family and friends know the two have been dating from the start, but they’ve managed to keep the extent of their relationship from the public and the press.

Lan Qiren is the one who insisted on the secrecy at the start and given their careers and Lan Wangi’s own dislike of sharing private details with the public, the men agreed easily enough.   Still, even Lan Qiren couldn’t expect that secrecy to last forever, and Lan Xichen has been expecting Wei Wuxian to throw the chains of silence off as soon as he can. 

“You know our positions,” Wei Wuxian replies. “You know how easily the public opinion can affect what we’re offered and who chooses to represent us, and even if they’re okay with two guys marrying and having a child, you know how toxic and old-fashioned the industry is.”

“So you’re scared this will hurt your career.”

“I never took you to be such a coward, Xichen.”

“I’m scared this will hurt Lan Zhan’s,” Wei Wuxian snaps, breaking Lan Xichen from the echoes of the past and stopping any indignation from spreading through Lan Xichen’s tired limbs. “There’s always been negative press about me, and I can always go somewhere else, but everyone has always loved Lan Zhan, and he needs that love to stay in the career he loves.”

“Wangji loves you more than his career,” Lan Xichen says.

“But it’s still important to him and he shouldn’t have to lose what’s important.”

“He shouldn’t have to lose you.”

The again bounces silently between them along the phone line.

“He hasn’t. He won’t. We just need to talk about it.”

Mianmian returns to the room, carrying a bag of fruit along with water bottles. Lan Xichen gives her a grateful smile before he turns to face the wall as Wei Wuxian continues.

“Please, Xichen-ge,” Wei Wuxian begs, “You’re the one who told me about your parents and you’ve been in the talent industry the longest. You can understand best what reputations do to us.”

Lan Xichen flinches and fights the urge to politely hang-up that second. Instead, he inhales deeply and pictures how tired Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian must be looking right now. He saw that expression a lot during their break, and empathy still comes when Lan Xichen calls.

“I’ll convince Wangji he needs to call you soon,” Lan Xichen tells Wei Wuxian, “I’m sure the two of you can work this out.”

“Okay,” Wei Wuxian says, but the word droops into a whisper. “Thanks, Xichen-ge.”

Wei Wuxian hangs up as Lan Xichen turns back around and watches Mianmian begin setting up the computer to start recording again. He sends Wangji a quick text message recounting the phone call and asking his little brother to call Lan Xichen back when he can.

“Ready for the final crunch?” Mianmian asks, glancing at the clock informing them they only have two hours left in the studio that day. “Or should I see if we can get more time?”

Lan Xichen’s phone buzzes in his hand.

Not now, the response from Wangji reads.

Unnecessary, comes the second text.

Talk at shushu’s tonight? the third text asks.

If Wangji didn’t get into the studio until later in the afternoon when he’s working on the end of an album, he likely won’t be home until shortly before midnight. Potentially with Wei Wuxian in tow, potentially with a face frozen in a second heartbreak instead. Either one will require at least an hour of conversation when both brothers are tired from a long day, which means Lan Xichen will not get the rest he needs before a mid-morning recording session tomorrow. He has an interview tomorrow too, and it’s the first interview he’s held since coming out of his months-long retreat from the public eye and returning to the music scene.

Of course, Lan Xichen tells his younger brother.

An incoming call from Jin Guangyao lights up Lan Xichen’s screen and he shoves the phone back into his bag.

“No extra time needed,” Lan Xichen says striding back to the booth, and his cheeks ache from the polite smile that stretches them.

 

*** 

 

Lan Xichen drives himself home from Gusu Studios.

“Self-sufficiency,” their uncle used to say from the driver’s seat of their family’s car when Lan Xichen asked why he didn’t hire a driver like all the other rich children with busy parents who attended Lan Qiren’s famous Cloud Recesses School of Music. He said the same thing when the two were old enough to learn how to drive on their own in much older cars than befitting of their social status. 

Now, even though both Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji have long been rich enough to afford drivers, they still drive their own cars. Even when Lan Xichen’s eyes burn from exhaustion and the crammed roads roar with the honking of frustrated drivers, the steering wheel in his hands eases their shaking.

The last few hours in the studio passed just as poorly as the first few, none of the meagre lyrics Lan Xichen was prepared to sing coming out right, and the notes of his violin wobbling weakly. There will always be days like that, even for talented musicians like himself.

But his car will always be his to control. 

He turns on the radio while he waits in traffic, and peppy voices bounce off the leather seats.

“–eight months now, but there’s rumours he’s been seen going in and out of the studio again,” a male announcer says, and Lan Xichen’s whole body tenses. 

“He could just be supporting his brother,” a female host replies. “He did that frequently almost three years ago now, and they’ve written some truly beautiful duets together before.”

“True, but we do know he’s scheduled an interview with the Phoenix Hunt tomorrow, which his fans are desperate to hear.”

“I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were them,” the female host laughs. “Both Lan brothers are notorious for giving polite interviews that seem to say a lot without saying anything substantial.”

“Careful, Bicao, their fans love to say you just have to read between the lines.”

“Well, they’ve certainly been doing that a lot with this next song,” Bicao says, and Lan Xichen’s breath catches in his dry throat. “I’m sure they’ll be interested in finally hearing a little more about the inspiration behind it tomorrow. For those of you who don’t know, this is the song Red Blades from Venerated Triad, the latest album from the talented if currently reclusive, Zewu Jun.”

The first soft notes of a violin surge sadly through the air, and Lan Xichen turns the radio off. It doesn’t stop him from hearing the lyrics that have branded his heart.

“My friend, you carry yourself like you have a saber hanging at your hip.”

“Better that than my brother’s silly fans.”

“I think his fans may be better suited to our current times. Unless you have a secret vigilante life you’ve been hiding from me.”  

A horn blares behind Lan Xichen, and he jerks his car forward through the now green light.

His hands stop shaking by the time he arrives at his uncle’s penthouse. Both Lan brothers have their own apartments that are closer to downtown and the studios they frequent, while Lan Qiren’s home has always sat on the outskirts of the sprawling city to be closer to the more isolated music school. The location is a common compliant of new parents, but the location allows for expansive and beautifully kept grounds, and Lan Qiren always attributes some of his students’ consistent success to the lack of distractions such a location holds.

Lan Xichen went even further into the countryside during his months long retreat, and though his own city apartment was maintained during that time, he has yet to stay there for more than a night at a time since his return.

Partly because, like when he enters the penthouse now, his uncle already waits for him to discuss his upcoming schedule. Lan Qiren has always taken an active role in their careers, especially in maintaining their public image and deflecting the media, even when they hired managers of their owns. Since Lan Xichen’s seclusion and return, though, Lan Qiren has taken on full managerial duties for his oldest nephew.

“Recording?” Lan Qiren asks as Lan Xichen gives him a smile before heading straight for the polished kitchenette.

“A good start,” Lan Xichen says as he prepares tea for them. He stays by the kettle until most of his frustration with the day has been exhaled, and his parched throat drenched.

Lan Qiren might have agreed with Lan Xichen’s decision to throw himself back into the musical scene, but he frowned the whole conversation.

“They’ve revised some of the interview questions,” Lan Qiren says after a pause, and Lan Xichen joins him at the table with their tea.

Lan Xichen goes over the questions with his uncle once more, even though all he wants is a nap. They finish quickly, given Phoenix Hunt gave a rough copy of the questions a week ago at Lan Qiren’s insistence, and Lan Qiren rises with a nod.

“You’ve never had trouble with these before,” he says, and Lan Xichen thanks him for his vote of confidence softly. “Wangji’s press announcement, on the other hand, will take much more finessing.”

Lan Xichen stares at his uncle’s frown, but simply gives him a weak smile when he returns Lan Xichen’s gaze.

“I’m sure you’ll think of the proper way to proceed,” Lan Xichen tells him as he busies himself with clearing the table. “I’ll let you focus on that.”

And try not to scold Wangji myself while you do.

“Rest, Xichen,” his uncle replies before heading down the hall to his office.

Lan Xichen does not rest. Lan Xichen fills his cup with more tea and then stands at the wall of windows in their open concept living room that overlooks the lights of the city. He sips his tea and contemplates his brother’s predicament, and what Wei Wuxian told him.

He tries very hard not to think about his own messes, but the longer he considers his brother’s problem, the more he sees a possible connection between the two. And not just because Lan Xichen’s troubles are recent or because Lan Xichen loves his little brother more than anything else.

By the time Lan Wangji returns, Lan Xichen has retired to one of the L-shaped leather couches near the penthouse’s entrance. His sketchpad balances on his knees even though the day has drained him of most inspiration and the couches are, as Wei Wuxian complains, hard enough to make you prefer standing over sitting.

It’s Wei Wuxian that Lan Xichen hears first, his expressive voice raised in argument over Lan Wangji’s deeper rumbles of discontent. Wei Wuxian spots Lan Xichen first as well, and the smaller man drags Lan Wangji over with a desperate look.

“Xichen-ge! I knew you’d help us!”

Shushu is home already,” Lan Xichen warns his brother, but shifts over so the two can join him on the couch. “And is already preparing a press release for the two of you.”

Lan Wangji hums and stares at his hunched boyfriend.

“Wei Ying said forever,” Lan Wangji says, and Wei Wuxian grabs one of his hands.

“And I mean it, Lan Zhan, you know I do. But what if you only have me because of this and then you start to resent me–”

“Never.”

“Even when I’m the reason everyone hates you?”

Xiongzhang and shushu won’t hate me.”

“But they’ll be affected negatively too. The school will too, given you’re its golden boy, and I know you care about it.”

“Our talents and success speaks for it.”

Shushu and I can handle our own reputations,” Lan Xichen cuts in smoothly before Wei Wuxian can protest. “If one of your concerns is the engagement affecting our positions permanently, please let me put it to rest now.”  

“Fine, I know better than to doubt either of you, but, Lan Zhan, you’re still really young,” Wei Wuxian argues desperately, “Young and new, compared to everyone else, and you know how much everyone likes to tear down a rising star.”

“Then let an established star go first,” Lan Xichen interrupts again before Lan Wangji can give a stubborn reply. Both men twist toward Lan Xichen, and he smiles at Wei Wuxian’s tilted head. “If I publicly date a man for awhile first, your engagement shouldn’t receive as much backlash.”

“But,” Wei Wuxian says into the pause. “You’re not dating anyone right now and you’re not out publicly?”

Lan Xichen shrugs as if he’s not lost a lifetime of sleep recently over this issue.

“Not officially, no. But I’m sure you heard Venerated Triad like everyone else, and Wangji told you about the interview tomorrow.”

Xiongzhang,” Lan Wangji says softly, and Lan Xichen’s assured smile flickers.  

Like Lan Xichen was the only one to witness the depth of Lan Wangji’s despair when Wei Wuxian left the country in grief, Lan Wangji was the only person Lan Xichen allowed near him in that first month after Venerated Triad’s release. When Lan Xichen hid away in the rural estates their parents once owned, Lan Wangji stayed with him every weekend for three months, despite his own busy schedule.

Others were there for Lan Xichen’s firing of Jin Guangyao. But Lan Wangji is the only who was there for the fall-out.   

“You just got back,” Lan Wangji says.

“And so I should put the speculation to rest,” Lan Xichen replies, and places a hand over his brother’s. “I know I’ve told you that everyone on my staff predicts the news to be met mostly favourably.”

Even Mianmian, new and hired as a favour to Lan Wangji, told Lan Xichen that she will make sure no studio is a problem when he warned her of what the interview tomorrow would entail.

“No self-martyring,” Lan Wangji says, lips pressed into a thin line while he holds Lan Xichen’s gaze. Lan Xichen nods, grateful he had time earlier this evening to think about this issue and whether this really is him attempting to sabotage himself before he could even get started again.

But even with the thrill of producing something meaningful currently out of his reach, Lan Xichen loves music more than he loves anything but his family. He has never known any other career, and he can never thank life enough for giving him every opportunity since he was a young boy to pursue that musical path when so many others can’t.

He still doesn’t feel himself and his personal life is still a mess at his bare feet. But he speaks with confidence when he says,

“I’m not trying to hurt my career, Wangji, and neither will the fans. They just want confirmation for the answer they’ve already decided on since I’ve been gone.”

“And you only missed, what, one concert in those eight months?” Wei Wuxian says slowly, glancing at his boyfriend before continuing. “A couple of planned interviews?”  

“That’s right.”

“Then they should accept you back easily enough,” Wei Wuxian agrees, and Lan Wangji untangles his and Wei Wuxian’s hands so he can wrap an arm around his boyfriend when Wei Wuxian’s voice catches on the word accept.

“They were mostly just confused and surprised,” Lan Xichen says, looking at Lan Wangji again, given his family were the ones who passed on the news of fans’ reactions in the wake of Venerated Triad’s release.

“They’ll want more,” Lan Wangji warns.

More interviews. More guest appearances. More songs. More interaction with other stars. More glimpses of the personal life Lan Xichen no longer has.

They will want so much more than Lan Xichen simply going to the studios to make music and then returning home to calm himself with tea and blankets, even though Lan Xichen barely has energy for more.

“They always want more,” Lan Xichen replies, and silently apologizes for his next words. “And we have always dealt with it fine. Do you not trust me to handle things anymore, didi?”

Lan Wangji stiffens and his fingers curl around Wei Wuxian’s arm.

“I don’t trust others,” Lan Wangji says after a few seconds pass, and Lan Xichen’s throat tightens to a straw’s width. Unable to respond immediately, Lan Xichen squeezes Lan Wangji’s free hand and hopes he hears the thanks for always forgiving and supporting Lan Xichen even though Lan Xichen is partly to blame for the splintering of his own social world. 

“A-Yao’s trying, da-ge, why can’t you see that?”

“We’ll create a contract together,” Lan Xichen tells the two. “A non-disclosure agreement included, of course, and then we’ll find someone to pay to play the part, just like any other acting role. A few interviews together, some photos of dates, and a pre-determined break-up.”

I wouldn’t be giving them my heart, Lan Xichen doesn’t say, but knows Lan Wangji hears. No one would want this fragile mess anyways.

“Xichen-ge,” Wei Wuxian starts, looking to Lan Wangji first and then to Lan Xichen, “You’d really do something like that for us?”

“I want you to be happy,” Lan Xichen addresses his brother, but even after all the chaos he has brought with him, the sentiment rings true for Wei Wuxian too, “If this will help, then I will gladly do it.”

Xiongzhang should be happy too,” Lan Wangji says stubbornly, and the smile Lan Xichen gives him is real, even if it’s sad.

“I will be,” Lan Xichen assures him, and scoots closer so both brothers can take comfort in the physical presence of the other. “How could I not be?”

This will exhaust him, but he doesn’t think either of them can survive even the possibility of Lan Wangji losing Wei Wuxian again.

“We could find someone we trust,” Wei Wuxian says when Lan Wangji stays quiet. His tone stays deferential, but his eyes brighten with the familiar light of inspiration.  

“You have suggestions?” Lan Xichen asks. A stranger would be easier to keep things professional, but someone with a positive connection to them would be safer.

Unfortunately, some of Wei Wuxian’s closest friends likely want nothing to do with Lan Xichen at the moment.

“Well, there’s Wen Ning,” Wei Wuxian says as he chews on his lip, “But he’s practically a baby compared to you, and not very good at lying. Ninety-nine percent of shijie’s friends are women who wouldn’t be interested.”

Wei Wuxian glances at Lan Wangji and taps on his knee with his free hand. “I do know someone single and trustworthy who–”

“No,” Lan Wangji says, and Wei Wuxian pouts.

Er-gege, he’s not that bad.”

“Yes.”

“You two just don’t know how to communicate with each other. I’m sure Xichen-ge–”

Xiongzhang is already busy and tired.”

“He’s been getting better at controlling his temper, and they won’t see each other often.”

“Inconvenient.”

“He’ll be living in the city for awhile to take care of A-Ling for shijie, remember?”

“You’re talking about Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Xichen finally clues in, and almost laughs at Lan Wangji’s faint scowl. “You think he would agree to something like this?”

Though Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng have lived in each other’s orbits for years now thanks to their respective brothers, the two aren’t friends. Lan Xichen can count the number of one-on-one conversations the two have had on one hand, and all happened at large family dinners or the few movie premieres Jiang Cheng attended for Wei Wuxian.

From the teasing Lan Xichen has overheard from Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng has stayed aggressively single the entire time, and prefers living in the countryside near the lakes his family’s business cares for.

“He’s been yelling at me to get hitched to Lan Zhan for years now,” Wei Wuxian replies, “And he never breaks his promises.”

“Still angry with you.”

“It’s a work in progress,” Wei Wuxian says, softening his words and pressing tighter against Lan Zhan’s side. “But he wants me to be happy, just like you want Xichen-ge to be happy.”

“We can at least ask him, Wangji,” Lan Xichen agrees. Jiang Cheng may be a more personal candidate than Lan Xichen was considering, but Wei Wuxian bounces in his seat at Lan Xichen’s acquiescence.

“I’ll go ask him to meet you for breakfast tomorrow!”

He leaps up and Lan Xichen watches him rush to grab his phone from his jacket. Lan Xichen watches the grin that lights up his face when Jiang Cheng answers, and the cheerful greeting that gives no hint to the dark shadows currently under Wei Wuxian’s eyes.

Xiongzhang.”

Lan Xichen turns to Lan Wangji, and even the single, faint crease in Lan Wangji’s forehead pushes Lan Xichen to sit even straighter.

“I’ll be fine, Wangji,” Lan Xichen assures him quietly, just as he did when Lan Xichen announced to his family he would be returning to the city in a week to start recording again.

They are the same words Lan Xichen has been telling himself for the past month, especially when Lan Wangji found him a new music producer and Lan Xichen began checking social media again.

Repetition has not made the words any truer yet and signing up for the scrutiny of the public may do more harm than good.

But Lan Xichen will do anything to help Lan Wangji get the happiness at least one of them still deserves.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng hates the city.

The mechanical noises, the dirty smells, the endless lights, the constant crowds, and the frantic pulse of rushed lives; all of it grates on him within five minutes of entering the city limits.

“It’s only natural,”  he tells Wei Wuxian whenever they argue about it. He spent most of his life growing up by the fresh lakes and rivers his family has protected for generations, with the natural cycle of sunlight and starlight to structure his days.

“Jiejie and I grew up with you and you don’t see us throwing a temper tantrum over neon lights,”  Wei Wuxian will reply, because he and A-Jie fell in love with the convenient city life years ago.  

“A-Cheng is an old soul, A-Xian,”  A-Jie always says when she’s around to interrupt the argument. “Made from the water and the lotuses, and called to them in turn.”  

“More like a bitter grump who hates change,”  Wei Wuxian always responds in turn, dodging Jiang Cheng’s ensuing slap.

“A bitter grump who still visits your needy ass,”  Jiang Cheng snaps before A-Jie gently reprimands him for his language.

This upcoming stay in the city is no different in reason than all the times before. His remaining family calls him to where they have moved on with their new partners and family, and Jiang Cheng answers. While he frequents the city for business as well, it is only for his family that he stays overnight.

He brings more than an overnight bag with him this time though, and the people he will be required to see are neither strictly family nor strictly business. A-Jie warned him that taking care of Jin Ling while she and Jin Zixuan are in America to get her surgery will not be as simple as Jiang Cheng’s casual visits. He will be the one dealing with Jin Ling’s teachers and babysitters, as well as the house cleaners, groceries, and all other day-to-day tasks. He will not have a break from Jin Ling’s temper tantrums, nor be able to flee back to the countryside when the city leaves him in a permanent bad mood.

“A-Jie, I promise I know all this. Just like I know you need me to do this.”

“A-Xian

“Has a ridiculous schedule, and A-Yuan to care for. I’m sure he’ll be around a lot anyways, if just to take advantage of me for babysitting.”

Though based on the phone call last night, Jiang Cheng will be seeing even more of his brother than he first planned. That is his first stop that morning; breakfast with his brother, brother’s boyfriend, and brother’s boyfriend’s brother, to discuss the proposed arrangement.

“You’re fucking with me,”  was Jiang Cheng’s response after he stopped laughing when Wei Wuxian told him about his idea last night.

Wei Wuxian is not. At least, he claimed so for the entirety of the conversation, even when Jiang Cheng threw out a million questions and insulted the plan a dozen times. Maybe once Jiang Cheng shows up, only Wei Wuxian will be waiting for him with his patented cheeky grin and a got you, A-Cheng poised on his tongue.

But Jiang Cheng can not ignore the possibility of this all being real, not when he heard the desperation in Wei Wuxian’s voice last night and they are finally making progress on mending the rift his parents’ death and Wei Wuxian’s subsequent disappearance ripped in their relationship.

So Jiang Cheng drives into a city he hates for his sister, and then drives even further into the chaotic core than he ever does for his brother. He spends ten minutes looking for parking at Caiyi Café, as per Wei Wuxian’s instructions.

He’s been there once before with Wei Wuxian and has seen plenty more pictures from his dates with Lan Wangji. Placed near both music studios and permanent movie sets, it attracts a constant stream of celebrities. Jiang Cheng doesn’t recognize anyone when he walks in, but he recognizes the rich brands of clothing most wear. Some glance up at his entrance, but most return to their food and friends in seconds.

When Jiang Cheng ate with Wei Wuxian, they stayed on the main floor with its dim but open space, square tables, and smoothly carved wooden pillars. This time Jiang Cheng heads to the bar of gleaming mahogany where a server watches his approach. He raps his knuckles once on the polished surface with a satisfied nod, and then looks up.

“I’m here to see someone upstairs.”

“Your name and theirs here, sir.”

The server slides a blank notepad and pen toward him, and Jiang Cheng quickly signs his and Wei Wuxian’s name. The server takes them when Jiang Cheng finishes, stepping back and turning away to speak into his headset.

“This way, sir,” the server says as he leaves the bar. He leads Jiang Cheng to a flight of a stairs, and the second-floor rooms that encourage the famous guests to dine in.

Thin walls of pale wood and stained glass separate the rooms along the long hallway, and sky blue curtains flutter at the entrances. Yet Jiang Cheng can only hear the murmur of voices and not the distinct words of each conversation, as if a spell ensuring privacy has been placed on each room.

Jiang Cheng follows the server to the last room on the window side and the server knocks once on the door frame the curtain hangs from.

“Jiang Wanyin here, sirs,” the server announces softly, and Jiang Cheng startles back as Wei Wuxian tears open the curtain.

“Jiang Cheng,” his brother declares as if to negate all attempts at privacy with his voice alone. “You didn’t get stuck in four hours of traffic this time!”

“Fuck off,” Jiang Cheng grumbles, but lets Wei Wuxian laugh and pull him into a quick hug.

Wei Wuxian drags him inside the small room lit by the day’s sunlight streaming through the wall of panelled windows. There’s enough space along the walls for people to drop their bags, instruments, and coats during the colder season, despite the long table at the center and the unused kerosene heater in one corner.  

“Here,” Jiang Cheng says, and shoves a small paper bag into Wei Wuxian’s hands before they sit. “I picked them this morning.”

Wei Wuxian grins and tears open the bag immediately. Jiang Cheng turns to the other guests at the table as Wei Wuxian shoves the first lotus seed into his mouth.

Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen sit on the floor cushions in nearly identical baby blue suits. Steam curls up from the tea at their folded hands and around their beautifully chiselled faces that watch the other brothers. While Lan Wangji gives Jiang Cheng a flat look, Lan Xichen’s lips curve into a faint smile at the antics.

“The same,” Jiang Cheng says, and pulls out two more bags from the purple jacket he wears despite the summer heat. Jiang Cheng spent ten minutes last night debating if he should get up even earlier to pick extra seeds after Wei Wuxian’s late call. While Lan Wangji takes his without a word, Wei Wuxian’s grin stretches at Jiang Cheng’s gesture and Jiang Cheng gives himself a mental pat on the back.

“Thank you, Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Xichen says when Jiang Cheng hands him his. “Please, have a seat and order anything you’d like before we begin. Wei Wuxian tells me you have a long journey into the city.”

“Five hours,” Jiang Cheng tells him, and skims the delicate paper menu in front of him. His stomach growls as he orders the biggest breakfast item he can find and a large coffee.

“Really, Jiang Cheng?” Wei Wuxian asks as he returns to his seat beside his boyfriend, and only then does Jiang Cheng notice the exuberant prices.

“I’m sure my rich boyfriend can handle the bill of the places he invites me to,” Jiang Cheng snorts. The cold aura spilling off Lan Wangji’s perfect posture expands, but Lan Xichen’s smile stays the same.

“You agree to do this, then?” Lan Xichen asks, and slides a clear folder with a slim stack of papers inside across the table. “We drew up a contract last night. Open to amendments, of course.”  

Jiang Cheng taps his fingers on the folder but doesn’t open it.

“Let me get this straight first,” Jiang Cheng says, and ignores Wei Wuxian’s snigger. “You come out publicly, you show off how sickeningly happy you are with a boyfriend, everyone loses it, everyone calms down, and then these two idiots get engaged and everyone’s already spent all their fucks freaking out over you?”

“That’s one way of putting it, yes.”

Jiang Cheng snorts, and crosses his arms over his chest.

“I still don’t see why you can’t just flaunt yourself as shamelessly as you usually do,” Jiang Cheng says to Wei Wuxian who sighs.

“I told you why last night.”

“And I told you it was dumb last night.”

“You might not be in the same spotlight as us,” Wei Wuxian replies, placing a hand on his boyfriend’s arm. “But you know how the corporate world works, and what happens behind closed doors. And you saw what happened on social media when I left.”

Jiang Cheng’s fingers dig into his arms at the sad smile on Wei Wuxian’s face and the remembered vitriol that triggered such a look. Concern preceded the vitriol of course, in those first few weeks when not even Wei Wuxian’s siblings knew where he went in his grief, and those siblings were too broken to respond to the public.

But when a month ticked by and then another without any word from the rising movie star, and all his projects could no longer be put on hold, entitlement took over. Wei Wuxian was already dealing with a particularly nasty group of stalkers before his disappearance, but even his normal fans turned into a mob of cliched crazy exes then, demanding Wei Wuxian return their calls and publicly prostrate at their feet before being allowed to return to his previous life.

They are the reason Jiang Cheng has lost a phone to a murky pond, and the reason A-Jie has been forced to drag him out of that pond at two in the morning while he screamed his indignant grief at the uncaring stars.

“He’s my brother, not theirs!”

“You’re not leaving this time,” Jiang Cheng argues, even though Wei Wuxian has already won thanks to all those terrible memories he just triggered.

“I’m leaving their fantasy. Destroying it, really. And when they still haven’t forgiven me for last time.”

Jiang Cheng wants to roll his eyes, but he has met fans who genuinely believe Wei Wuxian should answer to them for his personal choices.

“So you want me and him to deal with their wrath instead.”

“Leave,” Lan Wangji cuts in, as close to a snap as Jiang Cheng has heard in a long time. “If you won’t do this.”

“I never said that,” Jiang Cheng replies, lips curling back as he glares at his future brother-in-law. “I have thought of a few benefits to this whole mess.”

Xiongzhang is not a business opportunity.”

“You seem to be making him into one from where I’m sitting.”

“That’s not true and you know it!” Wei Wuxian snaps, as Lan Wangji looks like he’d like nothing more than to run Jiang Cheng through with a sword.

A hand on Lan Wangji’s shoulder stops Jiang Cheng’s snarling reply.

“Why don’t you let the two of us speak privately for a moment?” Lan Xichen suggests, not a single ruffle in his smooth voice. “I’m sure this situation isn’t the most comfortable for Jiang Wanyin even without an audience, and we are the main players here.”

“There will always be an audience,” Lan Wangji says without taking his eyes off Jiang Cheng.

“Wangji,” Lan Xichen murmurs, and Lan Wangji finally glances at his older brother. The two say nothing for ten seconds, but Lan Wangji gives a stiff nod at the end.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, and Wei Wuxian slips his hand into Lan Wangji’s, but doesn’t immediately stand.

“Ten minutes,” Lan Xichen tells Wei Wuxian, “I promise I’ll only steal him for ten minutes.”

Wei Wuxian frowns at Jiang Cheng but exits the room at Lan Wangji’s tug.

Silence falls after they leave, and Jiang Cheng turns his full attention to the politely smiling Lan Xichen for the first time that morning.

Jiang Cheng will admit Lan Xichen’s consistent spot on “China’s Most Eligible Bachelors” in the widely read Phoenix Hunt magazine has some basis. The man’s long black hair frames a strong jawline and flawless skin that has never suffered from the acne inflictions that scarred the skin of his mortal peers. That hair falls past his broader shoulders in an old-fashioned choice that simply highlights the unique beauty a man like Lan Xichen carries.

And though Jiang Cheng uses the word beautiful and Lan Xichen is not a meathead, his fit frame states he is a man who never misses his gym work-outs.  

Yet when Lan Xichen gestures for Jiang Cheng to take a bite of the food that arrives mid-examination, Jiang Cheng sees the way his suit sits a fraction too loose on his body. When Jiang Cheng lifts his gaze to meet Lan Xichen’s once more, he spots smudges beneath those brown eyes despite the thin layer of foundation Lan Xichen must wear just like Wei Wuxian when making public appearances.

Those eyes have been blinking almost as much as Jiang Cheng’s, and Jiang Cheng only got five hours of sleep last night.

“You have some doubts,” Lan Xichen says softly as Jiang Cheng swallows a bite of his omelette.

“I have some questions. Most importantly, why are you doing this?”

“I love my brother,” Lan Xichen replies, “As you do yours.”

“That doesn’t mean I’ll go along with every crazy scheme of his,” Jiang Cheng argues, even though he has in fact gone along with ninety-nine percent of them.

“This scheme was actually my idea first,” Lan Xichen says, and holds up a hand when Jiang Cheng opens his mouth. “For reasons that I think you put best at Jin Ling’s birthday party last year.”

When Jiang Cheng frowns, Lan Xichen leans forward an inch. “I believe it went something like if Wei Wuxian doesn’t stop whining to me at midnight about wanting to be fully tied to Lan Wangji forever, I will drown them both in my lake.”

“I will,” Jiang Cheng says without thinking about Lan Xichen’s possible protectiveness, but the other man just smiles at Jiang Cheng.

“As will I,” Lan Xichen replies. “Though I would have to borrow one of your lakes.”

Jiang Cheng’s surprised bark of laughter gives Lan Xichen’s smile an edge of satisfaction.

“Wei Wuxian seems determined to minimize the potential damage to Lan Wangji and to my family’s reputation,” Lan Xichen says. “And while I’m sure he would come around eventually, after much discussion and persuasion, even I seem to lack the patience to withstand his stubbornness right now.”

“You’re doing better than most of us,” Jiang Cheng tells him, but sighs. “Okay, fine, I get you want to help them. But what about you?”

“Me?”

“Aren’t you worried about your fans and how they might take it?”

Lan Xichen blinks at Jiang Cheng and for the first time, falters when he speaks.

“My fans, well, they’ve already been going a little wild recently, expecting this type of announcement. Did you not know?”

Jiang Cheng shrugs. Wei Wuxian told him that Lan Xichen was taking a break from the music scene after firing Jin Guangyao, and Jiang Cheng was there when Lan Xichen fired him. From what he understands, most of the scandal behind the firing has been kept quiet, even if everyone has noticed the end of that relationship, as well as Lan Xichen’s decades’ long friendship with Nie Mingjue. While Lan Xichen’s fans miss him, they’ve not gone as far as demanding a self-flagellating return as they did with Wei Wuxian.

“I don’t usually read fans’ online bullshit,” Jiang Cheng tells him, “Not after Wei Wuxian got back.”

“Isn’t the online opinion important for your family’s company?”

“Sponsor opinions are, and so are reviews of the visits we allow the public.” Jiang Cheng gives Lan Xichen a grin more suited to a war meeting than a private breakfast. “But in my case, any publicity is good for business because once we’ve got the attention, the results always overshadow the bullshit opinions.”

“And you’re good at getting favourable results.”

“I have to be.”

The company mattered to Jiang Cheng’s parents, and they matter to him. Even being fresh out of college and in mourning hadn’t been enough to stop him from picking up where they suddenly left off.

“What about Lan Qiren?” Jiang Cheng asks when Lan Xichen just hums at his answer. “I can’t imagine him being too happy about this.”

“Actually, he was rather agreeable after his first, let’s say, visceral reaction. His only condition is that there is no monetary gain involved, but he thinks if I’m in a committed relationship, it will help everyone take the news more easily.”

The corners of Lan Xichen’s lips quirk up. “And as you just mentioned, any press is good press if the goal is to make my name relevant again and draw attention to my return.”

Jiang Cheng snorts, but can’t argue. When Lan Xichen says nothing more for a moment, Jiang Cheng opens the folder in front of him. He skims through the agreement as he continues to eat, and Lan Xichen watches him. Nothing in the contract seems sinister or out of place; just stipulations about how many dates, interviews, and the like he’ll be expected to appear for, and a non-disclosure agreement that continues beyond the end of their fake relationship.  

“Am I going to have to attend classes as well?” Jiang Cheng asks halfway through at the mention of possible formal dinners with other celebrities. “How not to embarrass your celebrity boyfriend with your opinions?”

“Let’s take it one appearance at a time,” Lan Xichen replies, “But no, no classes required. I’m in the middle of recording a new album now anyways, so there shouldn’t be a lot of public appearances necessary.”

“Besides these glimpses of our dates.”

“Yes. I’ll mention in my interview tomorrow that I’m currently seeing someone, which will no doubt put every celebrity magazine on high alert of any restaurants I attend. Ideally, we’d have our first date this weekend–”

“I can’t,” Jiang Cheng interrupts, “A-Jie and Zixuan leave Friday morning and I don’t want to leave A-Ling alone for those first few nights when it’s his first time being away from them that long.”

Jiang Cheng glances down at the contract again. “Should we add a line in here about that?”

“I don’t need a written contract to agree that your nephew is your first priority,” Lan Xichen says gently, and Jiang Cheng’s cheeks burn at the rejection of his negative assumption.

“Just wanted to be sure,” Jiang Cheng says.

“I understand.”

It’s this that finally convinces Jiang Cheng this entire convoluted scheme for the sake of their brothers’ happiness is just that. Not that there was anything specifically terrible Jiang Cheng suspected Lan Xichen of trying to achieve. Even from existing only on the periphery of his orbit, Jiang Cheng knows Lan Xichen to be a decent person, and Jiang Cheng has nothing to offer a man of his status. There should be no ulterior motives for throwing himself to the mercy, or lack thereof, of the temperamental public.

But Jiang Cheng hates lying, and he hates unnecessary socializing, and so the alarm bells have been screeching as insistently as cicadas since he first talked to Wei Wuxian last night.

“You really are a crazy saint,” Jiang Cheng mutters, but stays quiet when Lan Xichen asks him to repeat himself.

Jiang Cheng is not a saint, but he must be as crazy as the rest of them, because he reads over the contract again just to be sure and then gives it a satisfied nod. He grabs a pen from his pocket, looking up once to check if Lan Xichen has anything to add.

The other man stares directly at him, and for the first time, Jiang Cheng wavers under the full force of his attention.

“You sure you want someone like me doing this?” Jiang Cheng asks.

Wei Wuxian’s comments about his poor temper and prickly attitude may sting half the time, but Jiang Cheng is under no illusions concerning his personality. He is not made for commanding the spotlight like Wei Wuxian nor for mesmerizing an audience through his grace like A-Jie. His talents lie in the purity of a committed effort that only the natural world still responds to, and the stubborn insistence of his results that carries him through business deals.

“I’m really not a good actor,” Jiang Cheng adds.

“I’m counting on it,” Lan Xichen says, which makes no sense, but gives Jiang Cheng a smile before he can respond.

It’s not a real smile, like the ones Jiang Cheng has seen at family gatherings and the brief one given when discussing the imagined drownings of their brothers. But then, none of this will be real.

Jiang Cheng signs the contract and shoves it back across the table. Lan Xichen slips it inside the messenger bag at his side and then holds out his hand.

“I look forward to doing business with you.”  

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng is late for the first date.

Even though the date is as real as the relationship, he still intended to be on time. He was already wearing a pair of jeans without a single dirt stain on them and the grey cashmere sweater A-Jie gifted him by the time A-Jie called for the nightly session with Jin Ling.

The five-year-old threw shouting fits Jiang Cheng was sure could be heard halfway across the city every night on the weekend without his parents, but Monday and Tuesday he finally went to bed without crying after saying bye to his parents. Jiang Cheng assumed it would be the same Wednesday.

“No,” Jin Ling pouts when A-Jie finishes reading the bedtime story over the phone and tells Jin Ling he needs to sleep now.

“A-Ling, go with jiujiu and sleep now,” Jin Zixuan says, crowding closer to A-Jie so Jin Ling can see both of their faces on screen. “We talked about this.”

“No!” Sitting in Jiang Cheng’s lap, Jin Ling crosses his arms over his chest with a scowl eerily similar to Jiang Cheng’s. “I want baba and mama to carry me to bed.”

“A-Ling,” A-Jie chides gently, but Jin Ling starts wailing his protests just like the first night without them.

“Go,” Jiang Cheng tells his worried sister and her husband. “I’ll take care of him. You need rest before the surgery.”

Jiang Cheng says that, but Jin Ling only settles after an hour of Jiang Cheng bouncing him around the house and trying to distract him with every toy he owns when reasoning with the small child fails. The teenage babysitter, A-Qing, walks in halfway through the melt-down, but Jiang Cheng refuses to leave until he’s succeeded as the uncle he’s supposed to be.

Eventually, Jiang Cheng settles on the golden spiral rug of Jin Ling’s room with his back against the white frame of Jin Ling’s bed. Jin Ling hiccups in Jiang Cheng’s lap, his wet cheek pressed against Jiang Cheng’s chest and his quivering lip threatening more tears.

“A-Ling,” Jiang Cheng starts, and cups his nephew’s small head in his hand. “You know, the sooner you close your eyes, the sooner you’ll see baba and mama again.”

“That’s not true,” Jin Ling sniffs, and Jiang Cheng leans his head back against the plush mattress.

“It is so true.”

Jiujiu just wants to leave like baba and mama.”

“A-Ling. Your parents didn’t want to leave, you know that.” When Jin Ling stays quiet, Jiang Cheng tightens his grip on his tiny nephew.

“Your mama needs special medicine,” Jiang Cheng repeats the explanation he heard A-Jie and Jin Zixuan giving their young son. “That she has to get from your Qing-gugu in America. And you’re too small to go on the airplane and you need to go to school.”  

What they are not telling Jin Ling is that even though the surgery should be fine, A-Jie will be tired leading up to it and exhausted afterward. She will need all of Jin Zixuan’s attention, who will no doubt be fluttering around her every second making sure she’s comfortable. If Jin Ling went with them, he would need just as much care, if not more, given he would have no one to play with and he cannot speak English as well as his parents yet.

Wen Ning, and Jin Xiaoting who went with them, both offered to care for Jin Ling if he came, but Wen Ning is doing his own intensive residency at Wen Qing’s hospital, and A-Jie stubbornly vouched for Jiang Cheng as the live-in caregiver over Jin Xiaoting. Probably she guessed that her anxious husband would need Jin Xiaoting almost as much as Jin Ling wanted his own mama right now.

“Then they should fly the medicine and Qing-gugu here,” Jin Ling insists, and Jiang Cheng snorts.

“Not how it works.” He places his hand over Jin Ling’s eyes before his nephew can protest. “Just close your eyes, Jin Ling. Either you’ll see baba and mama in your dreams, or you’ll be one day closer to seeing them when you open them in the morning.”

Jin Ling reaches up to grasp Jiang Cheng’s fingers, but doesn’t pull them away from his face.

“Can I see waigong and waipo there, too?” Jin Ling asks, and Jiang Cheng struggles to speak with his nephew making the old scars in his chest throb.

“Maybe,” Jiang Cheng croaks.

“Do you see them?”

“Sometimes.”

“Do they talk to you?”

Even in dreams, their constant shouting steals all the air and leaves none for Jiang Cheng to breathe.  

“Yes.”

“Do they play with you?”

“Depends.”

“On what?”

“If I ask.”

He stopped asking soon after A-Die brought Wei Wuxian home.

Jin Ling squirms a little in Jiang Cheng’s lap, and Jiang Cheng gives his hair one last stroke.

“If I move my hand, will you go to bed now?”

Jin Ling nods, and Jiang Cheng lowers his hand just so he can scoop up Jin Ling. He tucks his finally quiet nephew beneath buttery yellow blankets as Jin Ling watches him with drooping eyes.

“G’night, jiujiu.”

“Good night, A-Ling.”

Jiang Cheng leaves the night light on and slowly closes the door to Jin Ling’s bedroom. A-Qing sits at the marble kitchen island when he returns and raises a single eyebrow at him.

“I thought you had a date tonight,” she remarks, which is when Jiang Cheng notices he’s late. Half an hour late, with a giant wet spot on his sweater from Jin Ling’s tears and a twenty-minute drive still across the city.

“Fuck,” Jiang Cheng says to A-Qing’s laughter. “Fuck, shit, fuck.”

“Text him.” A-Qing pokes Jiang Cheng’s shoulder as he lunges for the phone he left on the counter, dancing away with another laugh at his scowl. “I’ll go get the hair dryer for your sweater.”

A slew of text messages waits for Jiang Cheng when he grabs his phone. He ignores the ones from Wei Wuxian already asking about the date and Lan Wangji’s three-word threat, and opens the ones from Lan Xichen.

All of them are concerned rather than accusatory, and Jiang Cheng sends him a very short explanation as A-Qing returns.

“We can’t wake A-Ling,” Jiang Cheng warns her, and she waves her free hand.

“Please, I’m an expert at doing this quick and quiet.”

Ten minutes later, Jiang Cheng peels out of the garage and down the driveway that loops around a hill. Of course the peacock had to go and live on the top of one of the only hills in the city, and Jiang Cheng maintains a litany of curses all the way to the French restaurant Lan Xichen reserved for them that night.

It’s far fancier than Caiyi Café, with a valet to take his car as soon as he pulls into the parking lot, and far less private. Only one floor for all the tables spread throughout the room, and all guests sitting at them can be seen from any angle of the restaurant. Lan Xichen sits alone at one in the middle, and even though they should know better if they’re also celebrities, a few people openly watch the host lead Jiang Cheng to the table.

“Jiang Wanyin.” Lan Xichen gives him a smile as Jiang Cheng takes a seat. “I’m glad you could make it.”

“I said I would, didn’t I?” Jiang Cheng mutters as he waves away the waiter with a simple request for water.

“You did, but the dates are meant to be flexible.”

Jiang Cheng just gives him a noncommittal grunt and for the first few minutes, the two busy themselves looking over the menu as Jiang Cheng tries to get his panicked pulse under control. The hair he decided to wear down tonight keeps falling into his flushed face and even though Jiang Cheng triple-checked his sweater in the mirror, he still feels a phantom wet spot.

Even without the rough start, he knows he must look plain sitting across from the radiant Lan Xichen, whose sky-blue suit with white trims fits him perfectly this time. Jiang Cheng brought suits with him, but solely for the business meetings and meals he would need to attend while in the city. Now he wonders if the stiff clothes will require regular use, even though he knows Wei Wuxian hasn’t bothered to adopt the same clothing style as his real boyfriend.

Lan Xichen, however, compliments Jiang Cheng’s attire before they order their food. Despite the elegant glasses on the white tablecloth, Lan Xichen also only orders water rather than the wine the waiters must expect.

He sips at the drink quietly as Jiang Cheng looks around the room.

“Do you like the décor?” Lan Xichen asks, and Jiang Cheng refocuses his attention immediately.

“It’s pretentious as fuck,” Jiang Cheng says honestly, and hurries to ask the first question he can think of before Lan Xichen decides to feel insulted by his bluntness. “How did your interview go?”

“You didn’t listen?”

“I did,” Jiang Cheng admits, but doesn’t tell him he spent five minutes after reading the transcript just unclenching his jaw, “They seemed to care more about the meaning of the songs on Venerated Triad and Nie Mingjue than you having a new boyfriend.”

“There has been a lot of speculation since I’ve been away,” Lan Xichen says, and though his face stays serene, Jiang Cheng was there when the revelation of Jin Guangyao’s betrayal twisted its features.

“And you’re not really putting any of it to rest.”

“I’d rather not talk about it,” Lan Xichen says, “If it’s all the same to you.”

Lan Xichen takes a sip of his water as Jiang Cheng bites his tongue for a second.

“How about your new songs? Are the recording sessions going well?”

“I’ve been in the studio every day,” Lan Xichen replies, and Jiang Cheng would be growing mad at all the non-answers if not for his genuine curiosity when he asks,

“How does it all work?”

“How does what work?” Lan Xichen asks with the slightest furrow to his brows, and Jiang Cheng waves his hand toward him.

“Your creative process, or whatever. Wei Wuxian still plays the dizi sometimes and he always likes to say shit like it came to me in a dream, A-Cheng, or the cacophony of cars spoke to my soul. Which is bullshit, but he does scribble notes down randomly and just plays around with tunes. But he’s never written a whole set of lyrics.”

Until then, Lan Xichen’s gaze was constantly sliding away from Jiang Cheng, but now his stare catches and he leans forward.

“Do you not play any instruments?”

“According to Wei Wuxian, I sound like I’m going to summon the tormented souls of the brutally murdered when I try to play,” Jiang Cheng says with a snort.

“Surely there must be one that sounds more pleasant,” Lan Xichen replies, but his lips curve up in faint teasing.

“Dizi, guzheng, piano, guitar.” Jiang Cheng lifts a finger with each one he lists. “Bad, worse, terrible, deadly.”

“Perhaps you didn’t have a very good teacher.”

“Careful,” Jiang Cheng says with a smirk, “I thought insulting family was against your Lan rules. Wei Wuxian and I studied at Cloud Recesses for a couple summers, remember?”

“Of course, that’s where Wei Wuxian and Wangji first met,” Lan Xichen says, though the two boys would go years before they saw each other again once they both officially entered their mutual artistic industries. A-Die and A-Niang still called their children, biological and adopted, back to the countryside at that age, but those summers at the music school planted the first seeds of loving those outside their families. “But what about singing?”

“I’ll sing to myself when I work sometimes. But no one will be lining up to listen.”

“I’m sure the fish are,” Lan Xichen says, and the people beside them look over at Jiang Cheng’s surprised laughter.

“They get scared away by those noises if they’re too loud,” Jiang Cheng tells him. “Just like with a boat motor.”

“I should have known that,” Lan Xichen replies, no doubt thinking of the sluggish river that runs behind the Lans’ music school. “But I suppose I’ve never done any serious fishing.”

“You’d be good at it. You have to sit very still and not swear when the first fish eat all your bait before you catch them.”

Laughter bubbles out of Lan Xichen’s lips before he can stop himself, and he lifts a fist to cover his smile.

“I can whistle,” Jiang Cheng tells him, even though he doesn’t find that worthy of being called a skill when he’s surrounded by celebrities like Lan Xichen. All the children who grew up by the same lakes as Jiang Cheng learned that basic skill while working and playing for long hours outside, and so the only person entertained by it is Jin Ling, and sometimes Lan Yuan.

Lan Xichen, though, keeps giving Jiang Cheng glimpses of his real smile over the smallest facts, and Jiang Cheng cannot find any derision in his expression.

“A-Die taught me bird calls when I was younger,” Jiang Cheng continues, and ignores the familiar ache in his chest, much stronger now thanks to his earlier conversation with Jin Ling. At least he no longer tastes gasoline when he speaks of them. “And when Wei Wuxian started playing the dizi, I copied that.”

“That sounds lovely,” Lan Xichen says, and Jiang Cheng can believe he means it.

“So how about you?” Jiang Cheng asks, and smirks when Lan Xichen eyes widen. “Don’t think I didn’t notice your misdirection. Is your recording not going perfectly right now?”

“You could say that.” Lan Xichen purses his lips for a second, but immediately smooths them out when he notices Jiang Cheng noticing. “I suppose I’m experiencing a bit of a creative block.”

“Is it so bad to admit you have setbacks like the rest of us mortals?”

“When I retreated to the countryside for months to deal with said setbacks, yes.”

“But did you go there to write?” Jiang Cheng presses, and Lan Xichen frowns.

“Not exactly.”

Jiang Cheng huffs and leans back in his seat to cross his arms over his chest.

“You city celebrities,” he snorts, “Think that as soon as you breathe the fresh air you’ll start sprouting poetry or some shit. If that was true, I would be the best poet of us all.”

“And are you?” Lan Xichen asks, covering his mouth again as Jiang Cheng glares at him.

“Don’t ask stupid questions.” The waiter returns with their main course and for a moment, they busy themselves with the food. “So if you didn’t go there to write, how can you be expected to return with a full album prepared?”

Lan Xichen doesn’t say anything with his mouth full, but even after he swallows, he stares at his meal for a long moment in silence before looking up.

“I’m not sure, but I am.” He holds up a hand before Jiang Cheng can snap a reply. “Could we stop discussing music for the evening?”

Jiang Cheng stares at him and watches the edges of Lan Xichen’s calm wither and curl in on themselves under prolonged exposure like leaves dying in fall’s bitter winds. Jiang Cheng has seen the same reaction in his business partners when Jiang Cheng stubbornly argues for a better deal, and in Wei Wuxian’s smile when Jiang Cheng kept flinging his poisonous grief at Wei Wuxian’s face.

But Lan Xichen is neither of those, even if their current predicament is a business arrangement and the conversation stirred memories of Jiang Cheng’s experience with stagnating in heartbroken isolation. Calling him an idiot and snapping words like they can carve a clear path to the heart where the problem lies will do nothing but make Jiang Cheng feel like the asshole people call him for making even the famously forgiving Lan Xichen uncomfortable.

Jiang Cheng drops his gaze and focuses on his fresh food instead, just as Lan Xichen does. Despite his resolve, Jiang Cheng’s grip on his utensils grows tighter with each new second that ticks by without conversation, and A-Niang’s ring digs a dent into his finger. Lan Xichen is not someone Jiang Cheng knows well, and this swanky restaurant is not the picturesque lands of his home that he and his workers can traverse for hours in comfortable silence.

He also doesn’t know Lan Xichen well enough outside of loved musician and future brother-in-law to think of a new topic. He never knows anyone well enough outside of his family for conversation, which always makes Wei Wuxian laugh because “that’s literally how you make friends, A-Cheng, you start up random conversations with strangers!”    

But Jiang Cheng doesn’t want friends, or at least, he doesn’t want to go through the trouble of building a friendship. He shouldn’t even be thinking about friendships right now given this whole ordeal is meant to be a business arrangement.

“Jiang Wanyin.” Lan Xichen’s voice startles him from his thoughts and he almost spills all over himself. “You mentioned you were late because of Jin Ling. How has he been this week?”

Jiang Cheng latches onto that question for the rest of the night, as Lan Xichen must have guessed he would. By the time dessert arrives, Jiang Cheng has shown Lan Xichen his entire collection of fifty-plus pictures of Jin Ling from this week and is in the middle of ranting about Jin Ling’s inability to stay out of his parents’ stuff.

“And I don’t know how the fuck he managed to get the clasps on right with his chubby little fingers,” Jiang Cheng is saying as Lan Xichen once again covers his mouth and giggles just like the brat in question, “But he struts out of that room with necklaces and bracelets I’ve never even seen A-Jie wear, and clanks around the house for the next hour like it’s the best idea he’s ever had.”

“Please tell me you took a video,” Lan Xichen says, and laughs when Jiang Cheng thrusts the already loaded video in his face.

“A-Jie and Zixuan couldn’t speak for five minutes,” Jiang Cheng says proudly as Lan Xichen’s muffled laughter joins his memory of his sister and the peacock’s delighted reaction.

“You’re a good uncle,” Lan Xichen tells him when he has calmed down and returns the phone. “And I can see why A-Yuan and A-Yi love playing with Jin Ling so much.”

For the rest of dessert, Lan Xichen shares stories about his own pseudo nephews, whom Jiang Cheng has played with a few times during his visits to Wei Wuxian. He speaks with less grandiose gestures and exaggerated language than Jiang Cheng, but his voice loses the polite distance and his brown eyes grow warm like tree trunks basking in the morning sunlight.

When Lan Xichen walks Jiang Cheng to his car after with the affection for their mutual nephews carrying them along, Jiang Cheng thinks this whole thing might not be an awkward disaster after all.

Chapter Text

The pictures of Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng’s date hit the Internet like broken eggs. People wail their surprise, others complain about the shells that land on them, while others still demand someone clean up the mess instantly.

Yet Lan Qiren and Lan Wangji report the majority of responses are positive.

All I needed to know about this dude is he makes Zewu Jun smile like THAT, is one comment Lan Xichen reads among the filtered collection his family lets him see with the pictures.

Lan Xichen doesn’t spend as much time as he thought he would nervously analyzing them though, because Jiang Cheng keeps sending him far more entertaining photos in the days following their fake date.

Most are photos of Jin Ling like the ones he showed Lan Xichen in the restaurant. Each one brings a natural smile to Lan Xichen’s face, and each subsequent one makes him marvel at Jiang Cheng’s photography. Wei Wuxian has sent Lan Xichen plenty of pictures of Lan Yuan, Lan Jingyi and sometimes Jin Ling, and Lan Zhan has too. While many of them capture the same type of moments—the toddlers caught in mid-action or blessing the camera with a happy grin—half of them turn out slightly blurry or confusing.

All of Jiang Cheng’s are captured with a perfectly steady hand that grasps the most interesting detail of that moment.

Your photos are such good quality, Lan Xichen texts him at one point over his morning tea, four days after their first date.

My phone has a good camera, is the reply he receives, and Lan Xichen doesn’t think Jiang Cheng is being humble on purpose.

Mine does too, but I always move it when I take photos of A-Yuan, Lan Xichen tells him. Yours don’t have that seem to have that problem at all.

He doesn’t receive a reply until he drives to the studio, and even then, it’s a simple,

Thanks?

That reply, along with the first date, makes Lan Xichen contemplate Jiang Cheng more than he planned on thinking about whomever agreed to this publicity stunt. In some ways, Jiang Cheng is exactly what Lan Xichen expected from their brief interactions, Wei Wuxian’s stories, and Lan Wangji’s still simmering grudge. At the restaurant, Jiang Cheng clearly scorned the other celebrities and their tastes, and asked blunt questions that Lan Xichen’s family skirts around.

Even prepared for that brashness, it put Lan Xichen on edge at first. Usually it’s the press that asks personal questions so directly, latching onto a single sniff of blood. Yet when Jiang Cheng asked those questions, he also frowned like he knew about all the nights Lan Xichen couldn’t sleep but couldn’t do anything either. Jiang Cheng frowned like Lan Wangji does when Lan Wangji notices Lan Xichen barely finished half his meal again.

And when Jiang Cheng pressed for more details, it was like Lan Wangji trying to ask, how do I help you?

Lan Xichen doesn’t know the answer, but simply being asked makes him slump a little less.

Concern, genuine and warming, is not something Lan Xichen expected from Jiang Cheng, which only makes Lan Xichen internally chide himself even more. He has no solid ground on which to make reasonable assumptions of Jiang Cheng; when they first met as Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji began dating, both were too wrapped up in their own brothers to give much attention to the other. Jiang Cheng was quieter in his judgements then, rolling his eyes and smacking his brother with a hiss of his name. He still shouted, but he was more deferential, more admiring of those older than himself, and glued to his siblings’ sides.

After Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan’s deaths three years ago, Lan Xichen only saw Jiang Cheng once Wei Wuxian returned to the country a year ago, after Jiang Cheng spent two years stewing in angry grief while establishing himself as the head of his family’s company.

Which is all to say that Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng don’t know each other, and it was an error for Lan Xichen to assume he did. An ironic error for Lan Xichen, though he purposefully ignores that detail, except when three am thought spirals refuse to let him.

Staring up at his dark ceiling in those sleepless hours, Lan Xichen pulls that guarantee of a safely shallow relationship over himself like another blanket, even with the pictures the two exchange and Jiang Cheng’s visit to Lan Xichen’s studio that Saturday.

When Lan Xichen asks Mianmian for clearance and the associated pass for Jiang Cheng, the woman stares at him for a long moment before uttering a neutral,

“Huh.”

“I told you about him,” Lan Xichen reminds her. Not about the contract and his brother’s predicament, but the fake details.

“You did. I just guess I didn’t realize you were this serious about him.”

“This type of visit isn’t very serious,” Lan Xichen says, the same thing he told himself internally at least a dozen times over breakfast this morning. He kept the radio off on the car ride over in favour of repeating the mantra instead, praying the words would steady his shaking hands and calm his racing heartbeat.

Lan Wangji’s constant gaze this morning even after Lan Xichen assured him he would be fine that day hadn’t helped, and neither does Mianmian’s furrowed brows.

“Alright,” she simply says. “I’ll make sure he can get to us.”

Jiang Cheng can’t join them until midmorning, so Lan Xichen and Mianmian begin recording without him. Lan Xichen’s nerves keep him from sinking too deep into his music, and he looks up the second Jiang Cheng storms through the door of the control room.

The other man’s gaze goes straight to Lan Xichen where he perches in the live room, and Lan Xichen gives him a little wave with his still trembling hand. Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow but returns Lan Xichen’s wave with his left hand. His right hand holds a thermos as big as Lan Xichen’s forearm.

Lan Xichen watches Mianmian offer to take the jacket Jiang Cheng wears despite the blazing sun that greeted Lan Xichen earlier that morning. Jiang Cheng shrugs away her offer and when Mianmian laughs at the way she makes Jiang Cheng scowl, Lan Xichen suddenly realizes the two must already know each other through Wei Wuxian.

His heart hammers so loud he’s sure they can hear it in the other room, and his suddenly dry throat demands he get up to grab the full water bottle sitting in that room.

Instead Lan Xichen glues himself to his seat while Jiang Cheng settles on the leather couch across from the window. He takes a huge gulp from his thermos and then takes out the laptop he told Lan Xichen he would be doing business on while Lan Xichen played, but looks up once to check on Lan Xichen again.

The clear walls between them burn to nothing under Jiang Cheng’s blazing gaze.

“–okay?”

Mianmian’s loud voice over the speaker almost startles Lan Xichen off his chair.

“Sorry, what was that?” he asks, and glances at where Mianmian now sits at the computer with a frown.

“You’re all clear to start again,” she tells him, and Lan Xichen gives her a shaky laugh.

“Right. Thank you.”

The first few minutes drag by as Lan Xichen can’t stop himself from checking on Jiang Cheng every few notes. True to his word, the man mostly scowls at his laptop screen, chugs his thermos, and occasionally pulls out his phone to rant into. Mianmian ignores him and after a long half hour, Lan Xichen pushes the other man’s presence to the cliff’s edge of his awareness.

Not that Lan Xichen accomplishes much at that point. It is not just the other people that make Lan Xichen second guess each instrumental note and stumble over his words when a phrase cuts a clear pathway to his heart.

“Your lyrics are always so dramatically metaphorical despite their claimed honesty, Xichen.”

“And compared to er-ge’s, yours always bludgeon peoples’ skulls with their simplistic repetition, da-ge.”

“Break,” Lan Xichen sighs, when he can hear the echoes of his friends more clearly than he can the music he currently plays. Mianmian just nods, and hands Lan Xichen water as soon as he steps into the control room.

“Are you done for the day?” Jiang Cheng asks, setting aside his laptop and climbing to his feet. The leather couch can fit eight people and the white painted room spares several feet of standing space between the couch and table, but it seems to shrink when Jiang Cheng joins the other two.

“Very much not. I barely got through a quarter of a song just now.” Lan Xichen offers the frowning man a smile. “I can show you around the studio before we get back to work.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“If you promise not to scare anyone.”

“Actually, the interns could probably use some practice developing a spine,” Mianmian adds.

“I mean me being here while you record,” Jiang Cheng clarifies with a frown. “You just said you barely got anything done.”

“That’s not your fault.”

“Really? Because you seem really distracted.”

“Am I not allowed to check on my boyfriend every once and awhile?” Lan Xichen says with a placating smile, but that only makes Jiang Cheng’s frown deepen.

“Not if it’s because he’s making you uncomfortable,” Jiang Cheng replies, and Lan Xichen’s smile cracks at Jiang Cheng’s perception. But Mianmian stands only inches away, looking back and forth between them with wide eyes, so Lan Xichen keeps the smile in place just like he’s done during countless interviews before.

“Why would my boyfriend’s presence ever make me uncomfortable?” Lan Xichen asks, tilting his head toward Mianmian. “I love having you around.”

“Don’t,” Jiang Cheng warns.

“Don’t what? Remind my boyfriend how much I enjoy his company?”

“Stop.”  

“Remind him that he’s what inspired me to write songs again and he promised to keep me company when I returned to the city?”

“You don’t have to act like this.”

“Remind him that I’ve been asking him to visit the studio for weeks, but he’s been too busy until now?”

“Seriously, Lan Xichen, just–”

“Remind him that Mianmian here arranged a special pass for the whole day because I told her how much I loved him?”

“Would you just stop worrying about faking everything for others for five fucking seconds?” Jiang Cheng shouts, and throws a hand toward Mianmian. “Her priority is supposed to be your comfort and helping you make your music, which you clearly can’t focus on right now!”

“Hey now, I shouldn’t have anything to do with your lover’s quarrel,” Mianmian cuts in, and Jiang Cheng whirls on her.

“It’s not a lover’s quarrel,” he snaps, “It’s an idiot wasting everyone’s time quarrel.”

“You agreed to visit,” Lan Xichen reminds him as Mianmian’s jaw drops at Jiang Cheng’s harsh statement. “After I said you didn’t have to if you were too busy.”

“Because I didn’t realize you would have to pretend this hard at work!”

“I’m not pretending,” Lan Xichen can only say. He wants to demand to know why Jiang Cheng cares this much about Lan Xichen covering up his discomfort when he already agreed to a fake relationship, but he can’t with Mianmian in the room. “I’m just having an off day.”

“So stop letting me make it worse,” Jiang Cheng snaps. “You’re clearly busy and me being here isn’t helping, so I’ll just show myself out and you can get back to working comfortably like you should.”

“No,” Lan Xichen says, because they both agreed to this and Lan Xichen cannot break his promise to Lan Wangji so early in the game. Not with an audience, and maybe not even with just Jiang Cheng, because admitting to his discomfort now would be admitting he cannot overcome a pitiful weakness even for the sake of the brother he loves.

Jiang Cheng grinds his teeth and in that brief pause, Mianmian quickly heads to the door with a pointed glare at him and a loud declaration of,

“I think I’ll go find some chrysanthemum tea.”

“You clearly hate me being here,” Jiang Cheng grits out when she’s gone, “Which is making me feel bad which means if I stay, we’ll both be sitting here feeling bad and not getting any work done!”

“So we power through just like any other bad day,” Lan Xichen argues, voice rising to match Jiang Cheng’s.

“This isn’t a bad fucking day, this is you feeling uncomfortable to the point of dysfunction! At your workplace!”

“And those feelings don’t matter when we’re doing this for our brothers.”

“Is it even worth it at that point?” Jiang Cheng shoots back.

Lan Xichen can’t speak for a second, so shocked that after agreeing so determinedly to the plan at Caiyi Café and on their first date, Jiang Cheng cannot put up with even this little trouble for the sake of his brother’s relationship.

“Do you really hate my brother so much that you would deprive your own of happiness?” Lan Xichen demands.

“The fuck are you talking about? I don’t hate Lan Wangji.”

“You were trying to get a rise out of him the whole time at Caiyi Café,” Lan Xichen points out.

“I was just being honest with my opinions.”

“At family gatherings you’ll only stand near each other for five minutes.”

“He’s not a very good conversationalist and he’d rather talk to Wei Wuxian.”

“For so honest a man, why is this so hard for you to admit?”

“I’m not fucking lying.”

“Dislike, then,” Lan Xichen argues, because this judgement of other people is based on years of evidence, not just his feelings toward them, “You have to admit that at the very least, you dislike him.”  

“I’m jealous of him, you dense idiot.” Jiang Cheng takes a step forward and the blaze in his eyes should warn Lan Xichen away, but he’s desperate for warmth, even if it comes from a forest fire. “Every day for a full fucking year I called and I emailed Wei Wuxian begging him to come back home, but the only reason he finally came back a year after that was because of your cursed brother.”

Jiang Cheng holds himself tight enough to break his own ribs. “How can I hate him when he did the one thing I couldn’t?”

“Da-ge just wishes he was brave enough to do the same thing! You can’t blame me for finally proving he’s as much a foolish coward as the rest of us.”

The fight fades from Lan Xichen like the final, lingering note of a guqin and without that guiding melody, Lan Xichen stands helpless before the senseless pain of life.

“Have you talked to Wei Wuxian about this?” he asks when Jiang Cheng simply stands there burning from the inside out.

Lan Xichen witnessed the first time the core of Jiang Cheng’s grief-driven rage came to light. Most of their respective families and friends did, as they were all at a New Year’s party at Jiang Yanli’s and Jin Zixuan’s. Lan Xichen doesn’t know what led up to the argument in the days before or what triggered the final melt-down that night, but he saw Wei Wuxian crying and he heard Jiang Cheng sobbing as he screamed,

“I didn’t want your fucking money, I wanted my brother!”

“I can be in the same room as him without screaming, can’t I?” Jiang Cheng snorts, but turns away at Lan Xichen’s look. “We’ve talked. But I still want to scream and break things sometimes.”

Jiang Cheng laughs, and the broken edges scrape Lan Xichen’s chest in their familiarity. “Guess I really am just the terribly bitter man everyone says I am.”

Their hurt fills the room like stacks of cardboard boxes, and Lan Xichen can find no space to stand without knocking one over. He moves backwards until his calves hit the edge of the couch and lowers himself onto the solid cushions.  

“I don’t mean to assume,” Lan Xichen says quietly, but Jiang Cheng stands still and listens, “But it seems to me that there are many layers of hurt between you and Wei Wuxian. You exposed the root and cleared out the rot there, but you may have to peel back every layer and treat it separately before the whole is cured.”

Jiang Cheng collapses onto the couch beside him but leaves a full cushion of space between them.

“And how exactly do you cure each layer?”

“Talking.” Lan Xichen almost smiles at Jiang Cheng’s grimace. “That’s all my songs are too, you know. Talking to the audience, talking to myself, talking to someone special, and knowing that at least one person will listen.”

Sometimes they listen too much, and sometimes they don’t react the way Lan Xichen wants, but Lan Xichen doesn’t say that. Instead he watches Jiang Cheng turn the metal ring on his finger round and round. His hands tremble, though from emotion or the obnoxious amount of coffee he drank, Lan Xichen can’t tell.

“There is a lot between us,” Jiang Cheng admits, “Stuff that happened when my parents were alive, and all that time Wei Wuxian was gone. It feels like Wei Wuxian’s only been back for a month in comparison.”

Jiang Cheng falls quiet and contemplates his ring for a long moment before shaking his head.

“But this is exactly why I got mad in the first place,” Jiang Cheng says as he twists to face Lan Xichen. “We were supposed to talk about your comfort level and your issues, and you turned it into helping me with mine. After I shouted at you!”

“You were upset.”

“So what? If your enemy on a battlefield was upset you ran him through with a sword, would you just stop and let him do the same to you?”

“We’re not on a battlefield,” Lan Xichen says a little cheekily, and continues when Jiang Cheng angrily opens his mouth, “And even if we were, you wouldn’t be my enemy.”

Lan Xichen has no right to make those lofty assumptions anymore, but wishful thinking still spills from his lips sometimes before his brain can catch it.

Jiang Cheng slowly closes his mouth into a hard line. He stares at Lan Xichen for all of five seconds before groaning and dropping his face into his hands.

“You’re legitimately a really good person, aren’t you?”

“You see everyone as people, don’t you?”

“How else should I see them, A-Yao?”

“More like animals. Hungry. Selfish.”

“Some of them are like that.”

“But most of them aren’t?”

“Now I’m afraid you’ll laugh at me if I say, ‘not truly, not at heart.’”

“I won’t laugh, er-ge. I’ll just think you’re a good person.”

“So I’ve been told,” Lan Xichen says, and Jiang Cheng spreads his fingers open to peek at him. Lan Xichen sits straight, and his face feels smooth, but Jiang Cheng looks at him like all the cracks in Lan Xichen’s heart crease his face. He tilts his head like he can hear the continuation of that statement that has haunted Lan Xichen for months now.

What good has being good done for me? For anyone?  

Jiang Cheng lifts his head and lowers his hands to grip his knees.

“I know the contract and your career requires certain things,” Jiang Cheng finally says, “But I want to at least try making the whole thing as painless as possible for both of us.”

He slams himself up against the back of the couch and waves his hand toward the room. “So go on, tell me. What do you honestly want right now?”

“That is a very broad question,” Lan Xichen replies, even though an honest answer immediately bubbles to his lips. Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes at him, and Lan Xichen holds up a hand before the man can grow angry again. “I wouldn’t mind a break.”

“Without me in the room,” Jiang Cheng clarifies, and Lan Xichen should continue to say no. Both for politeness’ sake, and because Lan Xichen is the people person of his family, and even other celebrities. He gains energy and smiles from others, and while he has always needed quiet breaks from them, he has never needed as many as he’s had these past eight months.

“Yes,” Lan Xichen says, and Jiang Cheng accepts his answer with a nod. Lan Xichen waits for the suggestion that he reconsider his recording quest, or for the silent pity to purse his lips, but it never comes.

“I need to go yell at people on my phone anyways,” Jiang Cheng says, “I can find Mianmian for you while I’m at it. But since you haven’t told her about the whole fake relationship part, maybe I should ask her to stay out of the room for a bit.”

“I’m not perfectly comfortable with her either,” Lan Xichen admits, and quickly adds, “But that’s through no fault of hers, and she seems perfectly kind.”

“One of the few decent people in this business, according to Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng agrees. “I’ll go keep her away from here then. She probably wants to yell at me for being an asshole anyways.”

“Are the two of you close?”

“Not as close as she is with my siblings, but she is one of the few girls who won’t run away and won’t verbally castrate me for no reason.”  

“I’m sorry,” Lan Xichen blurts when Jiang Cheng reaches the door with his laptop bag in hand, “And thank you.”

Jiang Cheng’s hand hovers over the doorknob for a moment, and he looks back at Lan Xichen like those words have rarely been directed at him.

“You’re welcome,” Jiang Cheng replies, words clumsy in their unfamiliar shapes. He leaves the room and Lan Xichen only gets up once to lock it before attempting to disappear into the leather couch.  

 

***

 

Jiang Cheng gets home from Gusu Studios late in the evening only to find A-Qing and Jin Ling drenched and dripping water all over the black and white checkered floor of the kitchen.

“A-Qing and I wanted the koi in the pond,” Jin Ling tells Jiang Cheng, his clothes pasted to his body and weeds dangling like ornaments in his hair.

“A-Ling said you had lots of lakes and ponds,” A-Qing says where she wrings out the frayed ends of her dress, the skirt more like a collection of ribbons than solid fabric.  

“I do,” Jiang Cheng manages to say before quickly adding, “Which you are officially never allowed near.”

“Why not? I’m probably a better swimmer than you.”

“I grew up five feet from the water.”

“So?”

“So? So I obviously have more experience than a teenage girl.”

“Are you saying girls aren’t as good as boys?”

“What–of course I’m not–teenage was the important part of that!”

But A-Qing drops into a crouch halfway through Jiang Cheng’s flustered sentence and grips Jin Ling’s small hands with a solemn expression.

“A-Ling, I need you to promise me you’ll never listen to your jiujiu when it comes to girls,” A-Qing says.

“I wasn’t insulting girls!”

“Promise me, A-Ling.”

“Do not promise this little witch anything, A-Ling.”

“You two are being really weird,” Jin Ling tells them both with a frown, and pulls his hands away from A-Qing. A-Qing pouts, but her ringing phone quickly grabs her attention as Jiang Cheng seethes behind her.

“Oh, ugh, they sent Xue Yang to pick me up.”

“Oh good,” Jiang Cheng says, and grabs some of the money A-Jie put aside for A-Qing from one of the kitchen counters. “Take your money and go.”

“Xue Yang’s not good, he’s the absolute worst,” A-Qing says as Jiang Cheng places the money in her open palm. He rolls his eyes, but slaps down another fifty yuan when she keeps holding her wet hand out. “He’s not even young enough anymore to need adoption cuz he’s been in college for at least three years now–”

“I literally didn’t ask.”

“But baba absolutely insists we keep an open-door policy for him–”

“Still didn’t ask.”

“And I know diedie doesn’t like it either, but baba swears Xue Yang’s getting better–”

“Wonderful.”

“And that he was only so rotten because the modelling world really screwed with him mentally as a kid and then he got into the paparazzi–”

“I don’t care.”

“But I’m ninety percent certain he’s back in that paparazzi life cuz he got all defensive about his laptop when I was in his room–”

“I really don’t care.”

“It could be even worse than that, it could be that he murdered someone–”

“And I’m going to murder you if you don’t get out before the other loudmouth I know shows up,” Jiang Cheng shouts. A-Qing rolls her eyes, but she finally ruffles a squirming Jin Ling’s hair and bounces out of the house with her money and soaking clothes. The second Jiang Cheng hears tires on the driveway, he whirls on Jin Ling.

“Let’s go, I want your mess cleaned before Wei Wuxian can add to it,” he says, and drags Jin Ling to the closet to grab armfuls of towels.

He scolds Jin Ling throughout the clean-up, but Jin Ling just nods occasionally. Once they’ve dumped all the towels in the laundry and gotten Jin Ling into dry clothes, he loudly declares his hunger.

“Should we fry all the koi you and A-Qing caught?” Jiang Cheng snorts, and rolls his eyes at Jin Ling’s disappointed pout. He only half listens as Jin Ling trails after him to the kitchen and explains why it was so hard for him to catch the slippery koi with his bare hands. He babbles the whole time Jiang Cheng pulls down the appropriate pots and ingredients, though Jin Ling immediately starts asking about the food.

“You’ll burn yourself,” Jiang Cheng says when Jin Ling demands to be picked up so he can see what Jiang Cheng puts in the large pot.

Mama lets me watch and I never burn.”

Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes at his nephew, but when Jin Ling holds his ground in the stare-down, Jiang Cheng relents.

“You go down the second you touch anything,” Jiang Cheng warns as he lifts Jin Ling onto the countertop on the other side of his cutting board. Jin Ling nods, but immediately cranes his head to look inside the pot and Jiang Cheng shoves his face away.

“It’s red!”

“For your Xian-jiujiu. He’s coming tonight, remember?”

Jin Ling does in fact remember, though because Wei Wuxian’s film roles constantly take him away from the city for long stretches, Jin Ling sees Jiang Cheng more than him.

Wei Wuxian arrives moments later while Jiang Cheng narrates his actions to the still curious Jin Ling, who keeps leaning far too close to the pot despite Jiang Cheng’s reprimands.

“A-Ling, A-Cheng, your favourite person is here,” Wei Wuxian sings as he strolls into the kitchen, and Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes while Jin Ling scrunches his face. “Ooh, looks like I arrived just in time.”

Steam pours off the food in the pot, though Jiang Cheng continues to stir as Wei Wuxian lifts a shrieking Jin Ling into his arms.

“What have your mama and baba been feeding you?” Wei Wuxian asks Jin Ling and leans his hip against the cream counter. “I swear you’re twice the size you were last week.”

“Am not,” Jin Ling replies, and glares at Wei Wuxian. “You’re sweaty!”

“I had to do some stunts for the last scene today,” Wei Wuxian replies, “Lots of running and fighting and big action. You’d love it, A-Ling.”

“Gross,” Jin Ling just says instead, and shoves at Wei Wuxian’s forehead.

“You were just covered in an entire pond,” Jiang Cheng snorts, but Jin Ling keeps squirming and complaining until Wei Wuxian sets him down.

“Honestly,” Wei Wuxian pouts as Jin Ling scurries off, “I miss two years of him being a drooling mess and he acts like I’m a total stranger. He wasn’t even old enough to remember people then!”

Jiang Cheng doesn’t look up from the food and he keeps his grip on the spoon as light at Wei Wuxian’s joking tone. Joking is Wei Wuxian’s coping mechanism and joking is what the brothers used to do together. Healing those layers, as Lan Xichen mentioned, means laughing with each other.

What good has my anger done? Jiang Cheng thinks, and sees Lan Xichen sitting on that studio couch when Jiang Cheng commented on his goodness as everyone does, the barest inch of a hunch to Lan Xichen’s shoulders.

Anger molded kept Jiang Cheng propped upright in the months after his parents’ deaths. Anger directed properly got him results at business meetings when they tried to ignore him. Anger spilled pushed everyone but his family away from bothering him. Anger wielded wildly protected his brother.

But anger didn’t bring Wei Wuxian back to the country, and anger won’t keep him here. It won’t fix A-Jie’s condition or carry her through the operation. It won’t bring a smile to Jin Ling’s lips.

It won’t bring Jiang Cheng’s parents back.

The irrational urge to grab his phone and text Lan Xichen an apology momentarily snakes through Jiang Cheng, and he clenches his fist around the spoon. Constantly being called a good person is not the same as constantly being called an angry person, and yet they are both definitions of a person that discourage a closer examination of the underlining complexities.

Jiang Cheng scowls at everyone because he is an angry person.

Lan Xichen smiles at everyone because he is a good person. 

Jiang Cheng shoves others away because he is an angry person.

Lan Xichen reaches out a hand to others because he is a good person.

Jiang Cheng howls and screams, but no one ever hears the meaning, not even in his coherent words, because he is an angry person.

Lan Xichen maintains the comfort of others and tucks his conflict into his pockets where no one can see it and therefore no one can prove it exists, because he is a good person.

“Did you forget the next step or is stirring your new favourite hobby?” Wei Wuxian’s amused voice breaks Jiang Cheng from his thoughts, and he hisses as some of the bubbling liquid hits his wrist.

He turns the heat of the burner down and searches the white cupboards above his head for a lid to put over it. Wei Wuxian snatches it from its obvious place on the lower shelf and hands it to Jiang Cheng with a tilted head.

“You alright?”

“Fine,” Jiang Cheng grunts.

“Really? You seem grumpy.”

“I’m always grumpy, according to you.”

“Grumpy grumpy,” Wei Wuxian says, which shouldn’t make as much sense to Jiang Cheng as it does. “Did something happen at the studios today? It was your first visit with Xichen-ge, right?”

“Nothing happened,” Jiang Cheng insists. He isn’t sure which of Wei Wuxian’s possible reactions would be worse; Wei Wuxian calling him dramatic for what happened, or being disappointed that Jiang Cheng can’t handle this straightforward relationship. He isn’t yet in his thirties like his older siblings and he has never been in a romantic relationship like them, but he is an adult like them. He has his own house which he does all the repairs for, cooks for himself better than Wei Wuxian though not as good as A-Jie, and runs his own successful company.

The fact that Jiang Cheng has business partners and coworkers who at least respect him if not like him, makes the whole afternoon and his current freak-out that much worse. He doesn’t get nearly as upset when those people give him fake smiles, and when they try hiding discomfort over the situation at hand. He doesn’t get into shouted arguments about family that end in spilled vulnerabilities staining the floor like wine with those people, minus that first year after his parents’ deaths when everyone was determined to bring up either his parents or Wei Wuxian.

Jiang Cheng should be able to treat Lan Xichen like them, or like the distant acquaintance he has been for the past couple years. Cordially but shallowly, not digging past whatever polite mask the other has donned that day.

Yet Jiang Cheng keeps reacting like witnessing one personal conversation eight months ago makes him entitled to caring and knowing about Lan Xichen’s internal state. Or worse, like they are back at Lan Qiren’s music school when Jiang Cheng was ten and admired the older student both for his musical brilliance and the steady demeanor that was so different from the temperamental and stormy waters of Jiang Cheng’s heart.

Those waters still spill out and splash others far more often than they should, and Lan Xichen doesn’t deserve to be soaked just because Jiang Cheng was tired from Jin Ling keeping him up the night before, and frustrated from navigating through the city’s endless traffic to once again arrive late at his destination.

“So you went,” Wei Wuxian persists, inching closer with each word, “You listened to his beautiful music, you saw the studios, everything was sunshine and rainbows?”

“There were no rainbows,” Jiang Cheng says, and Wei Wuxian places a hand on his jutted hip.

“Metaphorical rainbows.”

“I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean,” Jiang Cheng tells him, but looks away a second later. “We had a minor argument, alright? Will you eat your stupid spicy food now?”

“You like stupid spicy food too,” Wei Wuxian says with a frown, “And not until you tell me about the argument.”

“It was an argument, what more do I need to tell you?”

“Jiang Cheng–”

“I got mad at him, I shouted, we argued, he calmed things down, we moved on.”

“Did he make a mess too?” Jin Ling’s voice startles both men, and they whirl to where the small boy has returned to the kitchen with a giant stuffed dog in his arms. “Like me and A-Qing?”

“No,” Jiang Cheng replies as Wei Wuxian darts to his far side away from the harmless stuffed animal. “There were no messes.”

“Then why did jiujiu get mad?”

Jiang Cheng opens his mouth to snap that it’s none of Jin Ling’s business, but Wei Wuxian’s arm wraps around Jiang Cheng’s side. Despite being smaller, his arm pins Jiang Cheng’s own to his sides, and he doesn’t let go even when Jiang Cheng snaps at him. Instead, Wei Wuxian presses even closer and rests his head against Jiang Cheng’s shoulder.

“He was being dumb,” Jiang Cheng finally says, because the degree of his anger was unwarranted, but not his argument.  

Wei Wuxian squeezes his waist.

“A-Cheng,” he chides, but softens his voice before continuing, “Look, I know I’m the one who asked you to do this, but if it’s making you unhappy, then I want you to stop and just let me deal with things. Lan Zhan feels the same way.”

Jiang Cheng swallows his immediate and constant criticisms of the plan that have now doubled thanks to Lan Xichen’s discomfort this afternoon in favour of studying Wei Wuxian’s tired face.

“Are you really having that many problems at work right now?”

Wei Wuxian shrugs, still glued to Jiang Cheng’s side.

“A lot of directors and producers are still wary of giving me bigger roles. They’re worried I’ll throw a fit and disappear again.”

“Throw a fit?” Jiang Cheng repeats, and jerks out of Wei Wuxian’s grip just so he can glare at him. “My parents were fucking killed, and they’re saying mourning them was throwing a fucking fit?”

Never mind how Jiang Cheng raged at Wei Wuxian for disappearing, he’ll march into those directors’ offices right now and show them exactly how big of a fit he can throw.  

“Language,” Wei Wuxian hisses, but Jin Ling just frowns at the two over the top of the dog’s head. “Look, it’s not a big problem, I’m still getting good enough roles and I still have connections. So if you and Xichen-ge need to stop, stop.”

“We don’t need to stop,” Jiang Cheng says, though he glances at his phone. “I don’t. It’s just–”

He loves his brother and he already agreed to maintain this lie for him, but Jiang Cheng still hates lying, and now he’s discovered that he especially hates watching Lan Xichen hurt himself to give others the façade he thinks they want to see. “–Lan Xichen isn’t very good at communicating.”

“Lan Xichen,” Wei Wuxian repeats with a raised eyebrow, “The great Zewu Jun who’s famous in the talent industry for being one of the best conversationalists around, isn’t good at communicating?”

“Not when it comes to what he really wants,” Jiang Cheng snaps, and Wei Wuxian’s mouth forms a perfect o.

“Later,” Wei Wuxian says with a glance at Jin Ling. “But Jiang Cheng, have you listened to his songs?”

“He didn’t want people to hear those new ones.”

“The old ones, then.”

“Only the ones you’ve played around me or I heard on the radio.”

“You should listen to them.”

“Songs don’t say everything clearly,” Jiang Cheng argues even though he can still see the edges of the smile Lan Xichen wore when he told Jiang Cheng his songs were his voice.

“But they can give you a glimpse of the singer’s emotional state.” Wei Wuxian claps his hands before Jiang Cheng can respond. “Enough of this! Let’s eat before all your hard work gets cold.”   

Despite his earlier reluctance, Jin Ling repeats his stories about the day to Wei Wuxian as they eat, encouraged by Wei Wuxian’s easy laughter and quick questions. After, Jin Ling insists on showing Wei Wuxian all his new toys and takes them to what the small boy deems the cozy room.

It’s this room, directly attached to the kitchen, that exudes A-Jie’s gentle comfort more than any other place in the house. The walls are painted a light violet with dark golden trims wrapping around the bottoms. Family photos within subtly but beautifully decorated frames line the walls. Rugs of all kinds lay across the floor and stave off any chill. There is one deep brown couch beside the doorway, but it’s so big and its cushions sink so deep, that five people can comfortably cuddle on it. A TV sits on an oaken table nearby, but Jiang Cheng knows it’s usually ignored in favour of the three shelves across from the couch.

Jiang Cheng made those shelves himself when A-Jie announced her pregnancy, carving intricate animals along the framework and sanding down every surface so Jin Ling won’t get any splinters whenever he uses them for his large collection of toys. Jin Ling takes the toys out one by one to proudly show them off to Wei Wuxian. Jiang Cheng sits on the pile of cushions in the far corner with a small coffee table where A-Jie and Jin Ling often share snacks, a stack of children’s books and pressed petals piled on one precarious edge.

Jiang Cheng watches Wei Wuxian and Jin Ling play together from that perch until Jin Ling’s parents call.

Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian put Jin Ling in his pyjamas and then all climb into his bed. They all crowd around the screen of Jiang Cheng’s phone before Jin Zixuan calls them all morons and tells them to go get his tablet so they can share a bigger screen. Even then, Jin Ling is so squished between Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng as they both vie for their sister’s attention, that the young boy eventually squeezes the tablet to his chest and tells them to go away.

“You’re stealing mama and baba,” Jin Ling scowls at them, and Wei Wuxian laughs, but allows Jin Ling to shove them out of his bedroom.

“Sleep in thirty minutes,” Jiang Cheng shouts as they leave, but follows Wei Wuxian back into the cozy room.

They situate themselves on the couch, Jiang Cheng wrapping a violet throw around himself despite the lingering summer warmth. Wei Wuxian presses his bare and cold toes against Jiang Cheng’s shins despite the couch’s bountiful space, and just grins when Jiang Cheng slaps them.

“So there’s already pictures of your studio visit online,” Wei Wuxian tells him, as if to distract Jiang Cheng from Wei Wuxian’s blatant invasion of his personal space.

“Of what, me walking inside a building?”

“Exactly,” Wei Wuxian says, and pulls out his phone. “It basically just confirms that you are in fact who they already guessed you are, and the date wasn’t just a one-time thing.”

Wei Wuxian told Jiang Cheng that fans and celebrity news outlets confirmed Jiang Cheng’s identity within hours of those date pictures. It’s easy when Jiang Cheng had been in several photos with Wei Wuxian and A-Jie over the years, and when there are photos of him for the nature protection and preservation business online.

“Has Lotus Lakes’ online accounts been getting more followers?” Wei Wuxian asks as he stares at his screen.

“A few when I checked last night. My personal one?”

“Absolutely flooded,” Wei Wuxian reports, and Jiang Cheng pulls the blanket tighter around his shoulders to keep himself from leaning over to see what Wei Wuxian does.

The contract stipulates that Jiang Cheng should confer with Lan Xichen before he makes any broad statements about their relationship on social media platforms. But Jiang Cheng also agreed, outside of any written contract, to let Wei Wuxian manage his social media accounts during the dating period. Lan Wangji is meant to be doing the same for Lan Xichen, though of course any replies will be dictated by Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng.

“You’re doing this for us, the least we can do is filter all the crazy for you,” Wei Wuxian told them when Lan Xichen protested. “And it will show Lan Zhan and I what to expect.”

Later, standing side-by-side in the parking lot of Caiyi Café as the Lan brothers paid for the bill, Wei Wuxian added softly,

“You did it for me when I was gone. It’s time I returned the favour.”

A-Jie called later that evening, thin face twisted in worry, Jiang Cheng’s name and a concerned insistence already on her lips, before he told her he already agreed to let Wei Wuxian handle this area. She offered to help too, despite being in a hospital halfway across the world, and Jiang Cheng knows she still feels guilty for leaving it to Jiang Cheng to handle Wei Wuxian’s social media accounts when he left and let his PR team go.

But she had a two-year old child, a dancing career, and her own grief to handle. She kept her private communications open for Wei Wuxian while Jiang Cheng snatched those public personas and their burdens for himself in the hopes that he would find Wei Wuxian through them. Jiang Cheng never blamed her for the mess he stepped into, and he doesn’t hold Wei Wuxian responsible for the actions of his fans.

Neither is Jiang Cheng looking to return to that particular abyss of the online world. Now he advertises the family business and interacts with his remaining family, and that is enough.

“I’ll have to ask Lan Zhan and Xichen-ge how they want you to confirm it’s you,” Wei Wuxian says as he continues to look at posts. “But some of these would be pretty funny for you to respond to. Oh, look, there’s already memes!”

How?” Jiang Cheng says, and can’t help but lunge for his phone. Wei Wuxian falls out of the way, hand stretched toward the opposite end of the couch.

“No looking yet! I’ll screenshot the best ones for you to see, promise.”

“You mean most embarrassing,” Jiang Cheng growls, but returns to his previous huddle. Wei Wuxian slowly returns to a sitting position and turns his attention back to the phone.

Without being able to look at screen, Jiang Cheng watches his brother’s face instead and tries not to twitch every time he cackles. Most of the posts seem to earn a simple raised eyebrow or rueful sigh, but five minutes in, Wei Wuxian falls quiet with pursed lips. When thirty seconds pass with his thumb paused on the same spot on screen, Jiang Cheng nudges him with his foot.

“What?” Jiang Cheng asks, and Wei Wuxian shakes his head.

“Nothing.”

He starts to move again, but Jiang Cheng grabs his arm.

“I didn’t agree to this so you could hide all the bad from me,” Jiang Cheng snaps, and Wei Wuxian’s gaze flickers to his scowl. “Only the stuff that doesn’t need attention.”

“This doesn’t either,” Wei Wuxian protests, which slows Jiang Cheng’s beating heart slightly, but Jiang Cheng doesn’t release his arm.

“Then just tell me what it is.”

Wei Wuxian lets out a long and dramatic sigh.

“It’s just some fans have already got a compilation of news articles going,” Wei Wuxian says, and Jiang Cheng loosens his hold, but doesn’t fully let go.

“Articles referencing me?”

“They worked fast,” Wei Wuxian replies, and Jiang Cheng stiffens at the familiar placating smile Wei Wuxian always gives to soften an incoming blow. “Already got through three years of articles.”

“The crash.”

“The crash, the money, me leaving.” Wei Wuxian trails off and Jiang Cheng frowns.

“You already warned me they’d bring all that up again.”

He scowled and sneered when Wei Wuxian first warned him, but even he expected that. His family has lived long enough in the spotlight for Jiang Cheng to know that anything that goes public can never be fully erased. There will always be an archive somewhere, just waiting for the right person to open again and remind everyone of what’s written as if it happened yesterday.

The deaths of their parents and the drunk driver’s charges made it to both paper and online newspapers. Wei Wuxian’s subsequent disappearance from the country filled those sources for a long time, especially when people learned from the phone that managed to survive his parents, that Wei Wuxian was on a call with A-Die at the moment of the crash.

Wei Wuxian’s transfer of all his savings to Jiang Cheng and A-Jie should not have reached the public’s awareness, but someone somewhere found out, published an article, and then the news spread like a grease fire. Jiang Cheng’s bet is on a banker who knew they could make some side money selling the news to the paparazzi, but the source was unimportant in the end. Everyone wanted someone to blame for Wei Wuxian leaving after all, and tragically dead adopted parents were a rather uncomfortable target even for those delusional fans.

But a living younger brother who never reached the heaven of stardom like his siblings, who inherited his family’s business in the middle of nowhere, and whom had been seen scowling at his brother at public appearances; now that was someone everyone could pin their conspiracy theories on without guilt.

“Are they yelling at you about it again?” Jiang Cheng asks.

“Not yet.”

“The conspiracy theories?”

“Still lurking in their dark corners so far.”

Wei Wuxian turns his gaze back to the screen but doesn’t move, and Jiang Cheng remembers Lan Xichen smiling slightly as he told Jiang Cheng the cure was talking. They’ve already talked about this, shouted and cried about it too, and Jiang Cheng thinks that surely Lan Xichen meant talking as the starting point. The actions and time that follow are what’s important in Jiang Cheng’s opinion, because anyone can say anything, especially when they’re trying to stop someone from crying.

But maybe, Jiang Cheng thinks as he stares at the same hunch Wei Wuxian wore on his first New Year’s back when Jiang Cheng raged at him, talking needs to happen at several points along the journey. Similar to how most people can’t check the directions on a map once and know exactly where they’re going, continued conversation ensures they’re both still on the same path to reconciliation, especially when the terrain changes once again.

After all, just because someone gets up from a fall hours ago, doesn’t mean you ignore every ensuing stumble and scrape, even when they say they’re fine.

“It’s the drunk driver’s fault, not yours.”

“I know.”

“A-Die wasn’t even driving.”

“I know.”

“And it’s none of your stupid fans’ fucking business,” Jiang Cheng says, and Wei Wuxian looks up again. “How you dealt with your grief and what you did with your money.”

He scoots over so Wei Wuxian can take whatever physical comfort he always he needs. At his approach, Wei Wuxian places the phone face-down in his lap and steals the corner of the blanket Jiang Cheng still has around him like a cape.

“And if you’re really upset about it, you can always remind them that A-Jie and I paid you back as soon as you got back,” Jiang Cheng says.

“I really don’t care about their so-called financial expertise,” Wei Wuxian says.

“Then what do you care about?” 

Wei Wuxian bites his lip, and Jiang Cheng waits as he spends an uncharacteristic amount of time considering his words before he speaks.

“You getting upset again. You’re a really ugly crier, you know.”

“Fuck you,” Jiang Cheng says, and shoves an unresisting Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian topples onto his side, but when Jiang Cheng does nothing else, he gives Jiang Cheng a wobbly smile from his sprawled position.

“But really,” Wei Wuxian says, “I kind of like having you around again and only yelling at me half the time. I don’t want that to change. Well, maybe a little less scowling would be nice, and then I wouldn’t lose sleep at night worrying about you getting wrinkles before you’re thirty.”

“I’ll murder you right now and then you won’t have to worry about any of that,” Jiang Cheng threatens, and grabs a pillow to smother Wei Wuxian’s laughter for a moment.

Only when Wei Wuxian kicks him does Jiang Cheng relent, and Wei Wuxian puffs at the loose strands of hair falling into his face as he sits back up.

“You already apologized,” Jiang Cheng says quietly once he settles, though Wei Wuxian whips around to lock gazes instantly. “And explained why you did what you did. That’s what matters, not what strangers think happened.”

Jiang Cheng has spent most of his life caring about what others thought of him, and those two years were the peak. He still cares, probably too much, what his family thinks of him, but that is because he loves them and will not survive losing another one of them. Not to death like his parents, but especially not to his anger and his mistakes. Not to miscommunication and hidden but good intentions either.

Wei Wuxian has said as much too, has held Jiang Cheng again when everything came pouring out, and has been trying to find a way forward that includes his brother, not just his boyfriend, again.

“I’m here now, A-Cheng, I promise.”

“And you still accept it all?” Wei Wuxian asks, and Jiang Cheng pulls at the blanket again as if to physically shield himself from his emotional vulnerability.

“I’m trying to,” Jiang Cheng admits, because relationships don’t have a reset button and mapping out the new shape the relationship takes will always require time, even when both parties are trying their best to make that shape beautiful, “I will.”

Even with that jealousy over Lan Wangji still lingering and the grief that still tastes like gasoline in Jiang Cheng’s mouth, Jiang Cheng means every word he gives Wei Wuxian. Blame and blind anger are partly what drove Wei Wuxian far away from Jiang Cheng and to Lan Wangji’s safe side and A-Jie’s comforting words, and so Jiang Cheng is moving beyond those emotional states. Wei Wuxian, too, now steps past careful distances and self-sacrifices so they can finally have nights like this again with Wei Wuxian leaning against Jiang Cheng’s side.

“We just have to be extra honest with each other,” Wei Wuxian says softly, “That’s what jiejie keeps saying.”

“Right,” Jiang Cheng agrees, and his voice stays steady despite the sudden thundering of his heart.

For just a moment, content and warm in that cozy room, he contemplates finally telling Wei Wuxian what happened at the start of the second year of his absence. That final phone call with A-Die would be a natural starting point but Jiang Cheng hesitates.

Not even A-Jie knows about it, though she witnessed the effects of it when she dealt with him nosediving into the pond. The only other people who know about it will never tell, and there are no old articles for the public to drag out into the daylight. Jiang Cheng does not blame Wei Wuxian for that particular incident, so he gives into the exhaustion from just one emotional conversation and stays quiet. 

“We should probably make sure A-Ling hasn’t fallen asleep with the Ipad on his face,” Wei Wuxian says after a moment, and Jiang Cheng reluctantly follows Wei Wuxian away from the comfort of the couch. “And then let’s steal some of peacock’s extra buttery popcorn and watch a movie after.”

“Only if you don’t get to choose.”

“You chose the last one!”

“Because you always make us watch terrible horror movies!”

“They’re not terrible if they always make you jump at the scares.”

“They’re terrible because those scares are the only point, and even you know that.”

“Why would I watch them if I thought they were terrible?”

“Because you love having an excuse to grab people,” Jiang Cheng accuses, but their arrival at Jin Ling’s bedroom cuts their argument short.

Jin Ling is still awake but barely, lying on his side with the Ipad by his pillow. He doesn’t scream or cry when his parents say goodnight this time and Jiang Cheng takes the Ipad away. He scrunches his face when Wei Wuxian places a dramatic kiss on his forehead, but then insists Jiang Cheng do the same before he leaves the room.

They end up watching a zombie horror movie despite Jiang Cheng’s many protests. Less than halfway through, the two already cling to each other beneath a blanket, and Wei Wuxian laughs every time a scene startles Jiang Cheng. Those same scenes make Wei Wuxian squeeze Jiang Cheng’s arm tight enough to cut off circulation, just like every horror movie before this one.

While Jiang Cheng usually pushes Wei Wuxian off during the less tense scenes, popcorn be damned, this time he stays glued to Wei Wuxian’s side the entire time. He won’t say it, but it’s a nice excuse to hug and be hugged after going two years without Wei Wuxian’s comforting if chaotic presence, and weeks at a time without his sister.

“Do you hear that crying?” Wei Wuxian whispers at one point while the bleeding protagonist sneaks through a marsh with the zombies hiding among the swaying reeds.

“I will fucking stab you,” Jiang Cheng hisses back, tensing with the rising music.

“No, seriously, is that coming from the movie or real life?”

Jiang Cheng hits the mute button, and they both listen to the world around them over their pounding heartbeats. After a few seconds, Jiang Cheng hears the same distant crying as Wei Wuxian, and Jin Ling’s muffled voice calling for his parents.

He shoots off the couch, almost tripping in the tangled blankets, and Wei Wuxian stays hot on his heels.

They skitter into Jin Ling’s bedroom room and Jiang Cheng slams the light switch. Jin Ling blinks up at them through his tears from where he sits, one chubby hand holding the gauzy white curtain that encompasses two sides of his bed.

“What happened?” Jiang Cheng demands as he stalks to Jin Ling’s bed.

“Did you have a nightmare, A-Ling?” Wei Wuxian asks, shooting Jiang Cheng a look at his harsh tone.

“I wanted to see mama and baba but then the monsters tried to eat me,” Jin Ling cries as Wei Wuxian sits on the edge of Jin Ling’s bed and Jiang Cheng hovers.

“What kind of monsters?” Wei Wuxian asks at the same time Jiang Cheng says,

“It was just a dream, A-Ling.”

“They had no eyes,” Jin Ling says, and hiccups on his tears. “And they were wearing shadows and they ate everyone.”

“There are no monsters anymore,” Jiang Cheng says, before Wei Wuxian can encourage anymore descriptions. “Look around, A-Ling. You’re in your bed and there are no shadows anywhere.”

“They’re hiding!”

Wei Wuxian scoops Jin Ling into his lap, but Jiang Cheng watches Jin Ling look toward the closed closet doors.

“They’re hiding in there?” Jiang Cheng asks, and Jin Ling nods.

“But you know, A-Ling, jiujiu turned on the lights so quick, they probably didn’t have time to hide,” Wei Wuxian tells the scared child as Jiang Cheng looks around the room.

He spots the wooden sword Jin Zixuan commissioned from him for Jin Ling’s recent birthday, and strides over to the dresser it rests against. The jade dragon and lime green tassels swings as Jiang Cheng hefts it up and hurries to the closet.

The other two squeak when he throws open the doors and with an exaggerated shout, he slams the toy sword against the back wall of the closet.

The resounding smack of wood on wood sounds several times as Jiang Cheng swings the sword at every wall before briefly battling the hanging clothes.

When he whirls back around, Wei Wuxian clutches Jin Ling to his chest and Jin Ling watches him with wide eyes.

“All dead,” Jiang Cheng announces, and moves aside for Jin Ling to see the harmless interior.

“Can you at least warn me before you give us both heart attacks?” Wei Wuxian asks, but Jin Ling leans an inch out of Wei Wuxian’s secure arms.

“Where else are they hiding?” Jiang Cheng says, ignoring Wei Wuxian complaints and the twitching of his lips.

Jin Ling points toward the miniscule stretch of space between his bed and the floor. Jiang Cheng raises the sword again and with another battle cry, lunges to his knees and slices the air beneath the bed.

Above him, Wei Wuxian laughs, but then immediately exclaims,

“Quick, Jiang Cheng, get the tail!”

When Jiang Cheng straightens, Wei Wuxian grins at him and Jin Ling scrambles down beside Jiang Cheng to confirm the monster-less space.

“What about those?” Wei Wuxian asks, with a nod toward the three wooden chests bound in leather like old traveling trunks rest against the far wall. “They look like pretty good hiding spots for monsters.”

“It’s dark inside,” Jin Ling agrees, and Jiang Cheng marches over. Most are filled stuffed with toys, but Jiang Cheng still stabs the sword down and raps it against the sides for Jin Ling to hear. Each opened chest earns him a shouted watch out, jiujiu from Jin Ling as Wei Wuxian provides enthusiastic descriptions of the imaginary monsters Jiang Cheng kills.

“Look at the teeth on that one, A-Ling!”

“Ooh, got him right in the face.”

“Careful, Jiang Cheng, that one almost grabbed your arm!”

“All clear,” Jiang Cheng says a few minutes later as Jin Ling peeks around his legs to confirm only his toys rest inside the space.

Jiujiu killed them all.”

“That’s right. So now you can go back to bed.”

“But what if they come back?” Jin Ling looks up, but his eyes stay dry. “Can jiujiu fight more?”

“Were you even watching me just now?” Jiang Cheng demands, and bangs the sword against the chest. “I’ll break the legs of any monster that shows up, no matter how big or how many.”

“Promise?” Jin Ling asks, and Jin Ling might forget this childish promise one day as the monsters might grow too metaphorical for Jiang Cheng to help him fight, but Jiang Cheng will carry this moment like a brand on Jiang Cheng’s heart.

“Promise.”

Chapter Text

Breakfasts with sunrises and Lan Wangji make Lan Xichen seriously contemplate never returning to his own apartment.

All three Lans have risen with the sun since the brothers were young, but Lan Xichen is always first from his bedroom thanks to the insomnia now plaguing him. He creeps to the kitchen as soon as five am hits, for earlier than that would make his family worry. He fills the kettle with enough water for all of them, grabs a throw blanket, and then sits on one of the couches to watch through the massive glass windows as the ascending sun’s rays glide across towering buildings while the water boils.

Lan Qiren usually takes his tea and a bowl of plain congee back to his room after a quick morning greeting to his nephews. When they were children, he would eat with them, both to ensure they didn’t speak during their meals and that they were ready in time for the drive to school together. Now that they’re older, he returns to the kitchen to discuss the men’s schedules when he finishes his tea and not a second before. Dinner, if all three are home, has become the sacred meal of togetherness instead.

Lan Wangji, though, pours tea and prepares food for two, and Lan Xichen joins him at the table with a soft smile as soon as Lan Wangji sits.

They don’t speak until they finish their food, but simply looking up to find another person rather than an empty seat is a comfort to Lan Xichen.

It is not a comfort meant to last, though. Lan Wangji, Lan Xichen is sure, misses staying with Wei Wuxian and Lan Yuan as much as he used to before concern for Lan Xichen drove him to hover by his brother’s side. Eventually, especially with Lan Xichen helping them toward that end, the two will marry and officially move in together. Not into Lan Wangji and Lan Yuan’s expensive but small apartment in the same building as Lan Xichen’s, but into Wei Wuxian’s larger one, or perhaps a new house all together with a yard and pond for Lan Yuan and his friends to enjoy. There, they will throw large and lively social dinners just like Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan currently do, inviting the Lans because of Wei Wuxian’s connection.

And Lan Xichen will live in his own apartment just as he did for years before this one, proving he has fully recovered mentally. He will live alone like before, rarely there because of his busy schedule like before, and content with a quiet place like before.

Yet without the comfort of lively conversations held when he spends time outside his apartment and the easy ability to invite friends to his apartment should he choose, the quiet grates like a scream.

“Are you in the studio today?” Lan Xichen asks once they finish their food. Lan Wangji hums, and Lan Xichen gives him another smile. “You’re working hard.”

Xiongzhang too.”

Lan Xichen accepts the compliment with a sip of his tea.

“Date today?” Lan Wangji asks, and pulls out his phone. He doesn’t look away from Lan Xichen.

“In a few hours.”

A few days have passed since the studio visit, which Lan Xichen sent an apology text for the following day. Jiang Cheng’s reply came in fits; an immediate,

R you serious, first, quickly followed by,

I shouted at YOU and already told you it wasn’t your fault.

A few minutes passed while Lan Xichen considered how to respond, before another text popped up, this one also followed by a flurry of shorter ones.

I guess I didn’t say it wasn’t your fault.

It isn’t.

The yelling, I mean, and you feeling uncomfortable and me being jealous and all that.

And Mianmian showed me where they keep a secret stash of candy so next time I can take some home to A-Ling which he and the bratty babysitter will definitely love, and you still showed me around the studio after.

Which was really interesting by the way.

Never tell Wei Wuxian or Lan Wangji I said that.

But yeah.

Lan Xichen waited then, getting up from the couch to wash the dishes from breakfast in case Jiang Cheng wanted to continue. When he returned to his phone, there was nothing, but as Lan Xichen started to type out a reply, the final ones came through.

Wei Wuxian and I talked last night.

Sort of like you suggested. It helped, I think.

Didn’t hurt at least.

So I’m the one who should be thanking you and saying sorry.

Sorry. For making assumptions, too.

Lan Xichen carefully didn’t comment on how Jiang Cheng texted in shorter fragments just like Wei Wuxian, and just as quickly, as if determined to throw every thought into the open before the other person can shut him down. He also didn’t ask what assumptions Jiang Cheng referred to, unsure if he wanted to know just what Jiang Cheng thought of him.

He did thank Jiang Cheng for his understanding, and then asked which candy Jin Ling would like best and when Jiang Cheng was available for another date.  

“I was thinking visiting Ritan Park this time would be better suited to his tastes,” Lan Xichen tells Lan Wangji. “He has to be up early to drop Jin Ling off at school, so we’ll be able to walk before noon.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes flicker to the surface of his tea.

Xiongzhang is being very accommodating,” Lan Wangji says.

“I enjoy going there as well,” Lan Xichen reminds him, because while he argued with Jiang Cheng about his behaviour toward Lan Wangji yesterday, Lan Xichen recognizes the continued resentment goes both ways.

They cannot move past it unless both change their behaviour toward the other, and while this romantic relationship with Jiang Cheng might not be real, Lan Xichen would like future family dinners with his in-laws to be as pleasant as possible.

“And Jiang Wanyin has been very accommodating as well,” Lan Xichen adds, though he doesn’t plan on repeating the conversation from the studio.

But Lan Wangji looks at Lan Xichen as if he was in the room at the time, and Lan Xichen takes a gulp of tea.

Lan Wangji hums again doubtfully, and Lan Xichen has the sudden and hysterical image of his brother and Jiang Cheng carrying out a conversation purely in hums and whistles.   

Xiongzhang?” Lan Wangji asks as Lan Xichen chokes on his tea.

“It’s nothing,” Lan Xichen coughs as Lan Wangji leans forward. “Just as my dates with Jiang Wanyin are nothing to worry about, I promise.”

He doesn’t tell Lan Wangji that, despite the tense conversation at the studio, spending time with Jiang Cheng has been rather enjoyable so far, as has their texting. Instead, he nods toward the phone resting by Lan Wangji’s plate. “Was there anything you wanted to update me on?”

Lan Wangji stays quiet, and Lan Xichen’s heart thumps much too fast for the still early hours of the morning.

“Wangji?”

“Nie Mingjue will return in three weeks,” Lan Wangji says, and liquid sloshes over the rim as Lan Xichen sets his teacup down.

“Oh.”

“Please, I know you’re leaving soon, but if we could just talk again

“I have nothing more to say to either of you.”

“Jin Guangyao–”

“I haven’t spoken with him.”

“Please, er-ge, if you’d just listen to me

“That’s all I’ve been doing, A-Yao! I’ve been listening to you since the day I met you and I thought you were doing the same. But for you to do something like you this can only mean you never truly heard anything I was saying.”

“When?” Lan Xichen asks over the raised voices in his head.

“After the Sunshot Charity Dinner. According to all social media.”

Lan Xichen knew Nie Mingjue’s concert tour abroad would finish at the end of September and that any chance of reconciliation would need to wait until then. He craves that reconciliation like an asthmatic craves a full breath of air and yet–

And yet–

“I need to get ready,” Lan Xichen says, and leaves the table before Lan Wangji sees his panic. Lan Wangji calls after him but doesn’t follow when Lan Xichen doesn’t answer. No one sees him when he shuts his bedroom door and slowly slides down the smooth surface to the floor.

Eight months.

Eight months of Nie Mingjue abroad and Lan Xichen in seclusion and Jin Guangyao left to make his way without either of his friends.

Eight months of Lan Xichen taking Lan Qiren’s advice, and Lan Wangji’s too, in forcing himself not to chase after Nie Mingjue and refusing to answer Jin Guangyao’s calls. Eight months of that to learn to be impartial when needed, to explain the fracture lines of his heart in words, and to plot a way forward.

Eight months, and yet the songs aren’t ready. His thoughts aren’t ready. Lan Xichen isn’t ready.

He wants to be, because every time he goes to the studio and doesn’t see Jin Guangyao waiting for him with a smile, he must take an extra few seconds just to breathe before recording. Every night when the nightmares wake him, he holds his phone and imagines messaging Nie Mingjue about his tour as they have done many times before, even when the other was in a different time zone.

He wants to see his friends–ex-friends–friends again, but he doesn’t yet know if he can move forward with friends he hurt and was hurt by in turn.

“Talking,” he told Jiang Cheng when the man asked how to fix the piles of hurt built between people, “That’s all my songs are too, you know.”

The advice sounds painfully arrogant and naïve now as he sits with his forehead pressed to his drawn-up knees and tries to breathe through the suffocation of failure. Lan Xichen tried writing a whole album of songs to talk about the hurt between his friends, and when that blew up in their faces, there were simple spoken conversations, and none of it worked.

Xiongzhang?”

“I’m fine, Wangji,” Lan Xichen calls, barely raising his head.

Time. He needs to tell Mianmian to book him more time in the studio, and he needs to spend more time contemplating the best ways to fix this.

Lan Xichen pulls out the phone he shoved into his pocket, but a reminder of his “date” with Jiang Cheng today stills him. Cancelling their dates would give Lan Xichen more time not just from the nullified dates themselves, but from planning the handling of the media with his family.

This whole scheme is for the sake of Lan Xichen’s family, though, and Lan Xichen will confine himself to the peak of an isolated mountain forever if he helps break the heart of one more person he cares about.

Lan Xichen closes his eyes and time bleeds into nothing as he struggles to take more than five deep breaths in a row. Once he manages ten, he opens his eyes again and finds several texts from Jiang Cheng waiting for him. He can hear Lan Wangji murmuring on his own phone outside, but Lan Xichen clicks on the texts first to ensure there hasn’t been another scheduling surprise.

A-Ling didn’t want to go to school because he thought his friends were sick, the caption above the photo reads.

In the photo, Jin Ling sits on a booster seat in the passenger seat of a car, clad in a buttery yellow uniform with a school bag in his lap. The clothes crumple with his slumped posture and crossed arms, his small face screwed up in a stunning scowl. He glares at the dashboard instead of the camera, and outside the window, Lan Xichen can see the blurry outline of a brown brick school and other children streaming toward the doors.

There is another photo, and Lan Xichen dives into this small distraction from his own problems. He stares at the photo for a few seconds before he recognizes the small black blur at the center of the picture is the hair of someone about to peek through the car window.

Sure enough, in the next photo, there is now a little boy peering through the window, his hands cupped around his eyes like binoculars and his mouth open in a soundless shout. Little Lan Jingyi, Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen’s second cousin, and one of Jin Ling’s friends.

Lan Xichen covers his mouth to muffle his sudden and watery laugh at the concluding photo. Lan Jingyi bangs on the window with his tiny fists and Jin Ling strains against his seatbelt to kneel against the window to shout through the glass. Their faces are so close to the glass, Jiang Cheng will probably need to wipe off the spit from their enthusiastic conversation.

And in the top corner of the photo, only half his face showing, Jiang Cheng gives his nephew and friend behind him an exasperated side-eye that must have preceded an epic scolding.  

They ran inside together, Jiang Cheng’s final text says. I’m free for this “surprise” whenever.

Lan Xichen pictures the two children as he leans his head back against the door. Even shouting and constrained to the stillness of a photo, Lan Xichen saw the excitement in Jin Ling’s eyes as he realized there was still someone waiting for him just outside that car door.  

Lan Xichen rocks onto his knees and pulls himself up by the door handle. When he opens the door, Lan Wangji stands there, looking up from his phone the second Lan Xichen appears.

Even though they’re no longer children who need no excuses or reasons for physical intimacy, Lan Xichen pulls Lan Wangji into a hug. He doesn’t say anything, and he only holds his stiff brother for three seconds, but he hopes Lan Wangji feels his gratitude for his brother always being there no matter how many others in their lives come and go.

“Is A-Yuan sick today?” Lan Xichen asks when he steps back. Lan Wangji’s brows furrow and Lan Xichen holds up his phone. “Jiang Wanyin told me. Jin Ling was upset about it this morning.”  

“Yes,” Lan Wangji replies. “Fever.”

“Is Wei Wuxian worried?”

“Unnecessarily so.”

“You should go,” Lan Xichen tells him. “You want to before you head to studio, right?”

Lan Wangji frowns and Lan Xichen almost hugs him again. Instead, he lays a gentle hand on Lan Wangji’s shoulder.

“I’m fine, didi, promise. I need to get ready to leave soon anyways.”

Lan Wangji lingers a little longer as Lan Xichen begins to set out his outfit and wash his face. When Lan Xichen doesn’t collapse after ten minutes, Lan Wangji finally murmurs his parting and heads to Wei Wuxian’s.

Lan Xichen leaves soon after, all signs of his break-down that morning wiped away by the time he arrives at Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan’s home. Jiang Cheng waits for him outside the gate at the bottom of the driveway, because he still can’t figure out this fucking gate system. He jogs over as soon as the car approaches, hands shoved into a plum coloured jacket despite it being the second week of September.

“Jian dui?” Jiang Cheng asks as he slides into the passenger seat and holds out a plastic container. “I promise there’s only red bean inside.  

“I’d love one,” Lan Xichen says as he pulls back out onto the street, and Jiang Cheng places the container in his own lap. “Should that promise make me worry about where they come from?”

“Jin Ling and Wei Wuxian made them. Almost burned down the whole kitchen even though Wei Wuxian knows how to cook. I made sure to supervise the filling.”

Lan Xichen smiles at the mental image, and Jiang Cheng leans against the window.

“So where is this big surprise?”

I never said it was a big surprise,” Lan Xichen replies, and Jiang Cheng snorts.

“You wouldn’t tell me immediately,” Jiang Cheng argues, “So it’s a surprise.”

“You sound upset by the concept of surprises.”

“There haven’t been many good ones recently,” Jiang Cheng says tightly, and Lan Xichen thinks back to this morning, and then to Lan Wangji’s text only a few weeks ago.

“This one should be nice,” Lan Xichen assures them both. “I’m taking us to Ritan Park. Have you been?”

Jiang Cheng shakes his head with a frown. “I’m surprised. I think it will be a perfect place for you.”

“And you?” Jiang Cheng asks sharply, shifting in his seat to stare at Lan Xichen.

“I like going there when I could use a break from the city life,” Lan Xichen assures him. “It’s a nice place to draw.”

“Such an artistic soul,” Jiang Cheng says, but relaxes into his chair. Lan Xichen glances at him as they come to a red light.

“I wouldn’t discount us too easily.” The light changes and Lan Xichen pulls the car forward. “I go there to run and practice Changquan sometimes, too.”

“It’s big enough for that?” Jiang Cheng asks, once again looking over at Lan Xichen.

“With running, I have to do loops. But it’s the most similar place to the country trails I used to run on.”

That was one of the things he already missed about his rural stay, and likely would for a long time. Only nature was there to judge if he struggled through his Changquan routines, and it didn’t care about one lone human jogging through its ranks. There was always something new to see too, even when he simply ran along the dirt roads near his home to lessen the risk of getting lost.

“What about the other people there?” Jiang Cheng asks just as Lan Xichen turns into the parking lot of the park.

“They can present unintentional obstacles,” Lan Xichen admits, and inhales deeply but quietly as he turns off the engine. “And one of the things I wanted to discuss before we entered.”

He turns fully in his seat to find Jiang Cheng already watching him closely. “My family and I were thinking it would be a good idea to publicly confirm the nature of our relationship after this date.”

“Right.”

“We think, therefore, that this date would be a good opportunity to offer something more.”

“Something more?” Jiang Cheng repeats, and rather than frown, he simply looks confused.

“Something like holding hands,” Lan Xichen explains, and a flush spreads across Jiang Cheng’s face as Lan Xichen continues. “The interview and the pictures so far are perfect, but this would make our later confirmation of their theories even more believable.”

“Right, sure, believable.” Jiang Cheng clears his throat, but the flush stays. “That’s, yeah, makes sense.”

“I still wanted to make sure you were alright with that first,” Lan Xichen says gently, because Jiang Cheng’s hands are once again shoved into his pockets and he glares at Lan Xichen.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” he demands. “Just holding hands isn’t a big deal, right? For us, I mean.”

“Right,” Lan Xichen agrees, even though Jiang Cheng now glares at the dashboard much like Jin Ling earlier. Lan Xichen has never much cared about Jiang Cheng’s dating life or single status, but now staring at the flustered man, he wants to ask how much truth there is to Wei Wuxian’s teasing.  

“I just wanted to make sure we were both comfortable,” Lan Xichen says instead, because asking that now would very much not be comfortable for Jiang Cheng. “Like you did for me in the studio.”

Jiang Cheng finally looks at him again, and his face twists with the same surprise that squeezed Lan Xichen’s heart when Jiang Cheng grew so angry on Lan Xichen’s behalf in the studio.

“I’m fine,” Jiang Cheng grunts after a long second, and shoves open the car door. “Let’s just go see this special park.”

The park is in fact special, being one of the oldest parks in the city with historic temples and murals. Lan Xichen doesn’t know if he’s repeating facts Jiang Cheng already knows, but Jiang Cheng doesn’t interrupt as Lan Xichen explains the various points of interest as they walk the paths that wind past several groups of people practicing traditional dance, tai chi, and using the park’s outdoor exercise equipment.

Most of those people pay no mind to the pair, but a few younger girls and even some older citizens stop Lan Xichen along the way to shower him in praise and ask for a picture.

They slide curious glances to Jiang Cheng as well, but the majority look away as soon as they see the mild scowl on his face and the arms crossed over his chest. Only the oldest ladies have no issue tutting at him and asking him how he’s enjoying the morning in the park.

“I haven’t seen much of it yet,” Jiang Cheng answers honestly, but with them, his tone stays away from outright disrespect, and they all smile at him before returning to their own lives.

Lan Xichen leads them to the Qinghui pavilion, the highest point of elevation within the property, where Jiang Cheng can enjoy a wide view of the park with its small lake and lotuses. It must look like a meagre pond compared to those in Jiang Cheng’s property, yet Jiang Cheng stops the second they reach the top of the rockeries’ steps.

His eyes widen to take in every detail and for the first time since the conversation in the car, his hands loosen and his shoulders relax. The morning light sluices off those straight shoulders and highlights the strong angles of his face as he stands above the world like nothing below can break him.

“I listened to some of your songs, too,” Jiang Cheng says as Lan Xichen takes slow steps to join him.

“Oh?”

“None from Venerated Triad,” he adds quickly, and Lan Xichen’s already dry throat shrivels further.

“Why not?”

“You said the songs as they were arranged on that album weren’t the actual ones you wanted people to hear,” Jiang Cheng says, and Lan Xichen looks to the lake as Jiang Cheng looks to him.

“I suppose I did,” Lan Xichen murmurs. He hasn’t forgotten that Jiang Cheng and others were there following the album’s sudden release and the end of his confrontation of Jin Gungyao at the studio, but sometimes he likes to try. Even being around Lan Wangji sometimes, knowing that he witnessed that moment of failure, drives him to his room just to relearn how to breathe.

Still, they never pulled the album, everyone agreeing that would likely make things worse and Lan Xichen unable to handle another accusation of being a coward. Which means Lan Xichen has no right to expect the public, to expect anyone, not to know one version of the feelings that built a coffin for his friendships.

He has even less than zero rights to expect the man who agreed to his impulsive plan and is well known for his abrasive attitude to take that old conversation into consideration when listening to Lan Xichen’s music.

“Has that changed?” Jiang Cheng asks. Lan Xichen keeps his eyes on a lotus leaf that floats sluggishly across the water as he shakes his head. “Then it’s none of my business, so I’m not going to listen.”

He says it not with pity, but as if it should be a given.    

“Then what do you think,” Lan Xichena asks softly, watching a fly land on that same leaf, “Of the position put forward that no one can ever properly express exactly what they mean anyways, and so being upset is pointless?”  

“There’s a major difference between screwing up the delivery of your own words,” Jiang Cheng replies without pause, “And someone twisting yours into the meaning they want.”

The words sound like a lesson a child should know, and of course Lan Xichen knows there’s a difference. He and Lan Wangji have known the power public reputations hold since they were children thanks to their parents’ miserable marriage and early deaths. Since they entered the industry as stars themselves, they have both seen their fair share of celebrity friends fall victim to misconstrued quotes and to information sold by the people once considered part of a trusted inner circle. Celebrity magazines, and especially social media, have always had far fewer standards than the average newspaper when it comes to preserving the subject’s truth and the nature of their sources.

Yet Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen have never experienced such fate first-hand until very recently. Lan Wangji carries himself with such confidence in his morally sound reputation, that even the loudest critic finds their voice dying when attempting to speak bad of him. Lan Xichen has built such a polite and kind reputation that even the most notorious magazines shy away from disrespecting him.

As for expressing themselves, even those who complain that Lan Wangji is too taciturn in every day life admit that in music, the two brothers convey the depth of themselves better than anyone.

But maybe the brothers have just been lucky. No one can go their whole lives without being dragged through the mud of some mess, not when they live in public scrutiny.

No one can live in such a lofty place for so long without someone, even trusted friends, wanting to sell the clouds they sit on.

“–chen.”

Lan Xichen startles from his thoughts at his name and the small sting to his forehead as if a bug hit it.

“Did you just poke me?” Lan Xichen asks as Jiang Cheng quickly lowers his hand.

“Not very hard,” Jiang Cheng says defensively. “Only as hard as you were spacing out.”

A flush spreads across Jiang Cheng’s cheeks once again and Lan Xichen raises a hand to cover the smile that tugs at his lips despite himself.

“I’ll have to thank Jin Ling for teaching you such a strategy,” Lan Xichen says, and the flush deepens.

“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng replies, and an elderly couple reaching the top of the steps glare at him. Jiang Cheng glares right back for a second but moves to the edge of the pavilion to give them the central view, and Lan Xichen follows him. “Did you forget what I said about accepting you’re like the rest of us mere mortals?”

“I feel very mortal right now,” Lan Xichen tells him, too aware of the other visitors now to let the discussion return to the topic of Venerated Triad. “For example, I’m getting far too warm even in this shade and nice t-shirt, and I don’t understand how you’re wearing a jacket.”

“There’s a breeze,” Jiang Cheng says, and Lan Xichen raises an eyebrow.

“I suppose you would be more sensitive to the subtle whims of nature than the rest of us city folk.”

“Remind me to never poke you again. You get far too sassy from one little nudge.”

“Ah, but it’s so much fun,” Lan Xichen says, and lets Jiang Cheng see his smile as the other man rolls his eyes. He doesn’t immediately reply, instead looking back to the lake and its lotuses as if comparing them to the ones back home.  

“So which one was your favourite?” Lan Xichen asks after his thoughts over his old friends have been safely tucked away for the moment, and Jiang Cheng glances at him. “Of the songs you listened to?”

“Snow Caps,” Jiang Cheng replies instantly, and Lan Xichen’s lips twitch.

“Like feeling tall, do you?” Lan Xichen asks, with a nod to the edge they stand near.

“Haha,” Jiang Cheng says, but his eyes gleam as if excited by this side of Lan Xichen. “No, it’s because of that feeling you talk about. Alone but not lonely, not with the whole world spread out before you.”

He goes back to watching the lake and Lan Xichen watches him. “It doesn’t have to come from something as grand as standing on top of a mountain. You can feel it when you’re the only one in a small boat on a lake, or alone at home at night and you look out the window. For just a moment, you really believe you could do anything because there’s no one around to tell you otherwise.”

“And you said you weren’t a poet,” Lan Xichen says softly.

“I’m not, I’m just repeating what your song said.”

“You’re telling me your interpretation.”

“Is it wrong?” Jiang Cheng asks with a frown.

“No,” Lan Xichen says with a slight laugh at the way Jiang Cheng looks like a child anxiously awaiting test results. “But the way you related those other places and the feelings they invoke? That’s your heart, and its resonance.”

He smiles at Jiang Cheng and though discussing music still makes his chest tighten with those memories awaiting a chance to tear into him like wild dogs, watching Jiang Cheng’s lips purse in thought and hearing his honest opinions keeps those dogs at bay. Perhaps it’s because Jiang Cheng is not a musician nor of the professional musical world, and therefore carries none of its baggage, but also clearly cares to understand. “That’s the other half of what a song is, of what we hope it will be. Not just that people will hear the song, but that it will resonate with them and remind them of something in their own life.”

“Because then they’ll understand what you’re saying,” Jiang Cheng says.

“Hopefully, yes.”

Jiang Cheng nods, but his face stays twisted.

“I don’t usually give it this much thought,” he admits.

“Music?”

Jing Cheng nods.

“Usually it’s just, this sounds good, or, this is fucking awful, who let it get on the radio.”

“Producers,” Lan Xichen replies, and Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes.

“Maybe they should be forced to drive five hours listening to same repetitive song on every station before they release anything,” Jiang Cheng grumbles, and Lan Xichen laughs.

“But what about when you were a child?” Lan Xichen asks. “When you studied at Cloud Recesses?”

“I was more concerned with remembering which notes were what,” Jiang Cheng says with a shrug. “So A-Niang wouldn’t yell at me over that failure too.”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“Music is meant to be a joyful thing,” Lan Xichen says even though he has seen the viciousness of the industry, “Not something to be used as a test of a child’s worth.”

“We literally went to school for it,” Jiang Cheng replies, “Where there were tests. Lots of tests.”

“Yes, but you were still meant to enjoy music.”

His own face flushes now at Jiang Cheng’s frown and at how privileged he must sound to the other man right now. His love for music has always been paired with his skill for it, and he has always been around other people who are naturally inclined to it, and so he never worried about the evaluations of it like Jiang Cheng clearly did.

Even Jin Guangyao, who does not have the ability to produce his own music through voice or instrument, has a natural ear for others’ and navigated the musical industry with seeming ease.

“I’m not saying I don’t enjoy music,” Jiang Cheng says, and takes a step closer with hands spread out in a placating gesture. “Just that I never bothered to think too much about it. It was always Wei Wuxian’s thing when we were kids. A-Jie’s too, I guess, since she dances to it.”

“I suppose I just think it should be everyone’s thing,” Lan Xichen relents, “Especially when you can talk about it like you just did.”

“Well.” Jiang Cheng rubs the back of his neck as his gaze flits to the ground. “Like I said, I don’t usually give it that much thought. I just thought since, you know. I know you now and I’m supposed to be your boyfriend and we will be family, I should probably take the time. For your songs. Since you care about it and all.”

“Oh.”

They stand like that for a moment, Lan Xichen’s mouth parted slightly and Jiang Cheng’s skin doing a valiant job of appearing sunburnt despite the shade they still stand in.

“In that case,” Lan Xichen finally says, “May I ask what other songs you liked?”

They talk like that for awhile longer as the water grows brighter and brighter below them with the rising sun. Jiang Cheng doesn’t often stray near musical theory territory as he talks, nor the more technical side, though a few comments indicate he still remembers at least some of the theory he learned at Cloud Recesses. Instead he focuses on the feelings and the metaphors Lan Xichen invoked, which ones he enjoyed and which ones, in his opinion, require a class in poetry to understand.

He still looks at Lan Xichen sometimes like he expects Lan Xichen to dismiss his opinion, yet he gives them without hesitation when Lan Xichen asks. Speaking loudly and honestly, Lan Xichen realizes as Jiang Cheng rants about a currently popular pop song he dislikes, is not his problem. Rather, Jiang Cheng struggles to believe that such speech will be listened to beyond that moment.

That thought only makes Lan Xichen ask more questions about Jiang Cheng’s thoughts.

Their grumbling stomachs interrupt them a moment later, and Lan Xichen smiles at Jiang Cheng’s immediate scowl.

“There’s a place to eat just below us,” Lan Xichen tells him. “Shall we?”

Jiang Cheng follows him back down the path to the Stone Boat Café, a lakeside pavilion with red pillars and slanted black roof tiles in the shape of an ornamental boat. Even the outside seating that provides a lovely view of the water is shaded from the sun at this hour, Lan Xichen assures Jiang Cheng as they cross over the small stone bridge to reach the front entrance.

The problem, Lan Xichen sees as soon as a staff member ushers them inside, is others enjoy the beautiful nook as much as Lan Xichen. An entire high school class seems to occupy the seats and most, if not all, whisper furiously to each other as they watch the pair pass them. While they need the publicity, Lan Xichen also very much needs to eat.

The moment after they’ve ordered from the limited menu, a pair of girls approaches their waterside table and nervously ask for a picture. Jiang Cheng raises his eyebrows at them and at Lan Xichen, but Lan Xichen just gives them an easy smile and joins their selfie.

That first agreement invites an entire swarm of teenage fans to descend intermittently, even once the server returns with their food. Some want a picture with the lake in the background, some want the interior’s engraved beams visible above their heads, and one brave boy asks if they can have a selfie with both Lan Xichen and the now scowling Jiang Cheng sitting at their table.

Lan Xichen’s cheeks start to ache, but the smile stays. Jiang Cheng, on the other hand, crosses his arms over his chest after the third request and gives anyone who approaches a thunderous scowl. When a group of girls giggling too hard to finish a coherent sentence hover over their table, he shoves away from the table and stomps to the server up at the front. Lan Xichen’s smile finally cracks as he watches him go, but he turns back to the girls at his stage name.

Three minutes later, Jiang Cheng returns with a server in tow, who packs up their food in two small red boxes before putting them in a plastic bag to hand to Jiang Cheng.

“Buy tickets for a fan meet next time you want to bother him for so long,” Jiang Cheng says, and half the café falls quiet at his irritated tone. “Now screw off and let him eat with his boyfriend in peace.”

The girls startle back as Jiang Cheng grabs Lan Xichen’s hand and pulls him to his feet. His knees bang the table on the way up and he says the other man’s name in protest, but Jiang Cheng just marches him out of the café with a grip as tight as handcuffs.

Jiang Cheng stops only when he finds them a small bench off the main path a few minutes away, shaded and obscured by a grove of trees. Leaves already litter the bench’s surface, and Jiang Cheng swipes them away with his one free hand. Still holding onto Lan Xichen, he nods and then drops down onto the wood, dragging Lan Xichen down beside him.

“That was a little rude, don’t you think?” Lan Xichen says after a moment when Jiang Cheng busies himself with opening the bag one-handed rather than speaking. Lan Xichen’s voice comes out even softer than he intended, and far less upset than he likely should be at the moment. 

“They were rude first,” Jiang Cheng grumbles. “You were obviously trying to eat, and you barely got more than three bites thanks to them.”

“Still,” Lan Xichen starts, and Jiang Cheng whirls on him with a scowl slashing across his face.

“Still what? Just because they love you, they get to demand your time whenever they want?”

“I am a public figure currently out in public.”    

“You were in public clearly busy with something else.”

“Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Xichen says gently because their argument in the studio taught him the anger twisting Jiang Cheng’s face masks something else just as frequently as Lan Xichen’s polite smile. “It’s really not a problem for me. I’m used to it.”

Jiang Cheng stares at him as their entwined hands rest on the warm bench between them.

“That doesn’t make it okay,” Jiang Cheng argues, but the scowl fades from his face, and he hands Lan Xichen his box of food.

“I suppose not,” Lan Xichen agrees, and quirks his lips at him, “But you seem to be doing a good job of reminding everyone of that all on your own. Do you have to do this often with Wei Wuxian and Jiang Yanli as well?”

“Depends,” Jiang Cheng replies as he finally releases Lan Xichen’s hand to better open his box of food. Lan Xichen smiles a little at the man’s seeming obliviousness but draws no attention to it given he too struggled to eat his food with one hand. He has no idea how Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji can manage a whole meal like that. “If we’re with Jin Zixuan, he’s got a pretty good back the fuck off look, almost as good as mine. A-Jie is really good at the gentle reprimand that makes you feel bad for disappointing her. And Wei Wuxian always manipulates the attention how he wants so everyone always seems happy to be sent away, like they thought of it all by themselves.”

“And you scold them,” Lan Xichen finishes, and smiles around his bite of food as Jiang Cheng huffs.

“Someone has to. Might as well be the person whose reputation doesn’t matter to them.”

“Well I suppose if someone has to,” Lan Xichen replies, and Jiang Cheng glances at him like he’s tempted to poke him again. “Still, maybe next time you could be a little less abrasive. They were just teenage girls, after all.”

Jiang Cheng snorts.

“Most teenage girls I know are tougher than all the guys I know,” he mutters, but when Lan Xichen presses his lips into a tight line, he adds, “Alright alright, I’ll turn down the temper a notch next time.”

He returns to his food and Lan Xichen does the same. Lan Xichen lets his shoulders slump a little like he couldn’t around the fans and doesn’t worry what his mouth is doing besides consuming the food his stomach growls for. He doesn’t tell Jiang Cheng that snapped words had been dancing across Lan Xichen’s tongue like small flames, but he swallowed them before they could spill from his lips, years of being a star making him accustomed to the way they burned his throat.

He doesn’t tell Jiang Cheng how close he came to giving that fire life, unused to those aching insides thanks to his seclusion, and how yet another sliver of guilt would have burrowed into his heart afterward if he did snap.

He does, however, deftly pick out a few pieces of daikon he noticed Jiang Cheng relishing earlier and plops them in Jiang Cheng’s box.

“There’s too many in mine,” Lan Xichen says easily when Jiang Cheng glances at him. Jiang Cheng snorts, but accepts them in his hunger.

“So how many pictures of that pond have you drawn?” Jiang Cheng asks when the empty boxes rest inside the bag by their feet.

“I don’t draw the park just because I’m in the park,” Lan Xichen says.

“I would hope not, but I had to be sure.” He props his elbows on his knees and leans forward to watch the few people wander by their alcove. “So what do you draw?”

“People sometimes,” Lan Xichen replies, “But like the pictures you’ve sent me.”

“How so?”

“The people are in motion. Or about to be.”

“No portraits from the great Zewu Jun, then.”

“You could still call them portraits,” Lan Xichen laughs. “I like capturing the city, too.”

“The city,” Jiang Cheng repeats with a twisted mouth. “All the ugly high-rises and annoying traffic jams?”

“There are some pretty high-rises,” Lan Xichen replies, and continues before Jiang Cheng can protest, “And there are dozens of stories happening within those traffic jams.”

“And that’s what you like, the stories?”

“The small moments, the contrasting details, that make you wonder what story there could be. Like the jiaozi vendor, surrounded by steam and lanterns hanging from the corners of his cart, but gaze glued to the screen of his phone even with all the stools filled. I wonder what has him so focused—is it a message from his family? A recipe he thought he had inscribed in his heart? A sudden news alert?”

“Maybe he’s just bored and watching a movie,” Jiang Cheng suggests, and Lan Xichen chuckles.

“Maybe he’s just watching a movie irresponsibly,” Lan Xichen agrees. “But those are the small details. Here.”

He climbs to his feet, and Jiang Cheng follows him with a curious look as Lan Xichen leads him back to the edge of the lake. He scans the lotus leaves floating along its surface and then points to one butting against a smooth rock near them.

“That one there with the dragonfly, you see?” Lan Xichen asks as he points. Jiang Cheng squints, but eventually nods. “If I were to draw yet another picture of this lake, that’s what I would focus on. The shimmer of the wings, the splash of vibrant colour, and the delicate veins of the leaf along the much broader backdrop of water.”

Jiang Cheng watches the leaf and its friend for a long moment and shakes his head.

“And you asked me how I take such good photos,” Jiang Cheng snorts, and Lan Xichen tilts his head.

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s the same concept, isn’t it? Just use some sort of detail to focus and snap the pic. It’s easy with the grid on your phone.”

When Lan Xichen stares at him, Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes and holds out his hand. Lan Xichen only continues to stare at the flat palm until Jiang Cheng huffs,

“Give me your phone.”

“Oh, right.”

Lan Xichen hands over his phone, and then leans over Jiang Cheng’s shoulder as he shows him the way he turns on the faint grid lines in the camera app and uses them to focus on that dragonfly.

“Don’t zoom in until after,” Jiang Cheng warns him as Lan Xichen starts to magnify the image to capture the dragonfly. “The camera doesn’t keep the quality, but the basic photo editor on your phone does.” 

“I thought I wasn’t supposed to feel embarrassed by basic technology skills until I was at least sixty,” Lan Xichen remarks, which earns him a sharp grin.

“If you don’t take many pictures, why would you know the functions?”

“How do you know I don’t take that many pictures?”

“Wei Wuxian showed me all your social media accounts,” Jiang Cheng replies, and Lan Xichen desperately flips through his public photo collections mentally. “And Lan Wangji’s. You both have even less pictures than A-Jie, and she’s very private about her life online. And I know most of Lan Wangji’s from the past eight years are ones Wei Wuxian took and sent him. The selfies especially.”

“Does Wei Wuxian send them to you as well?” Lan Xichen asks with a laugh, and Jiang Cheng glares at the dragonfly like it’s the cause of his older brother’s behaviour.

“Every fucking one,” Jiang Cheng growls, and Lan Xichen covers his mouth to muffle his continued laughter. Jiang Cheng glances at him and Lan Xichen presses his lips tighter together in case Jiang Cheng thinks he’s the butt of the joke, but Jiang Cheng’s lips twitch upward. “You know it’s not as big as the ones in my backyard, but we could drown them here. Less gas money that way.”

Lan Xichen lowers his hands then so Jiang Cheng can see the grin that mirrors his own and hear his delight that the contemplation of their beloved brothers’ murders really shouldn’t trigger.

But then, Wei Wuxian has no shame when it comes to those selfies, so Lan Xichen thinks he would understand their slightly maniac conversation.

Whispers a few feet away douse Lan Xichen’s warm mood as quickly as a dunk in the pond. Jiang Cheng glances behind them at Lan Xichen’s sudden change, but Lan Xichen calls his name before the stiffness returns to his relaxed shoulders.

“Would you be comfortable holding hands for the rest of the walk?” Lan Xichen asks, and Jiang Cheng freezes like a terrified rabbit. His eyes slide back to Lan Xichen, and Lan Xichen considers whether bringing up Jiang Cheng’s earlier possessive grip would make things better or worse.

“Alright,” Jiang Cheng says before Lan Xichen can decide. He doesn’t move, so Lan Xichen offers his open hand with a slight smile. Jiang Cheng stares for a second, and Lan Xichen’s heart begins to beat a fast rhythm unfit for such a peaceful park and such a casual touch.

Jiang Cheng slides his hand into Lan Xichen’s much more slowly than in the Stone Boat Café, and his fingers stay limp as Lan Xichen twines them together. Their hands are a similar size and so just like earlier on the bench, they slot together naturally.  

Lan Xichen gives Jiang Cheng a smile, though a fraction of Jiang Cheng’s nervousness in the car has seeped into Lan Xichen’s nerves.

“This way,” Lan Xichen says, and takes them back to the path.

Without the shock that carried him in Jiang Cheng’s footsteps earlier, Lan Xichen notes the hard callouses of the other man’s hand as they walk, and the ragged edges of his fingernails when Jiang Cheng’s fingers curl into his at the sight of people. Lan Xichen’s own hands hold callouses, mostly on the pads of his fingers where he plucks the strings of various instrument. They are softer than Jiang Cheng’s though in their newness thanks to Lan Xichen’s lack of performance in the past few months.

His hands also hold far more warmth than Jiang Cheng’s cool ones, despite how often Jiang Cheng shoved them into the pockets of his jacket earlier. A question about that trips its way to the tip of Lan Xichen’s tongue, but he spots the pinkness of Jiang Cheng’s ears before he can ask. The colour stains his cheeks too, and a million more questions shove their way into Lan Xichen’s mouth at that.

“Just holding hands isn’t a big deal, right? For us, I mean.”

It’s not, Lan Xichen wants to assure him. It shouldn’t be, even if you’ve never dated anyone before.

Lan Xichen holds his young nephew’s hand all the time, as well as his young second cousin’s hand. He used to hold Lan Wangji’s when they were younger, and sometimes still does when either of them need comfort. At family gatherings, he’s seen Wei Wuxian grab and cling to Jiang Cheng multiple times, and Jiang Yanli do the same with a much gentler approach.

But maybe it’s less about the value Jiang Cheng gives this gesture and more about his comfort with physical touch outside his family. Lan Xichen rather likes holding hands with people he knows, regardless of the exact nature of emotions fuelling that gesture, but he doesn’t know how Jiang Cheng feels about it outside using the gesture to pull people where he wants.

Either way, asking Jiang Cheng would likely result in more embarrassed spluttering, so instead Lan Xichen says,

“So how have your business meetings been going? You said you had dinner last night with a sponsor.”

Jiang Cheng latches onto that conversation immediately as they continue their stroll, and Jiang Cheng tells Lan Xichen all about the various presentations and dinners he’s been attending since he’s been in the city. The flush over their joined hands soon fades, and Lan Xichen kindly doesn’t draw attention to the way Jiang Cheng squeezes Lan Xichen’s hand in line with his raised voice when he relays either a frustrating business moment or a success, and the way his tight grip uncurls during the slow build-up to those moments.

Lan Xichen enjoys the way Jiang Cheng gives his opinions with every part of him and enjoys the way the grip pulls Lan Xichen back to the present conversation every time Jiang Cheng’s loud voice alone fails to keep Lan Xichen’s thoughts from straying. Focusing on commenting on Jiang Cheng’s stories is therefore as much for Lan Xichen’s benefit as it is for Jiang Cheng’s, but the man told him only moments ago to allow himself to be selfish, and so Lan Xichen does.

And anyways, this conversation is important, Lan Xichen tells himself, for it is a necessary reminder that Jiang Cheng has just as much of a life outside of this whole scheme as Lan Xichen does, and an even busier one than Lan Xichen first assumed. He thought that, with the main purpose of his company being nature preservation, most of Jiang Cheng’s work would be limited to the countryside and to government contacts who provide the funding. Being in the city, therefore, would cut the workload significantly.

But, as Jiang Cheng tells a story about wanting to gouge his eyes out with a spoon as he sat through yet another small talk filled lunch with a sponsor, Lan Xichen learns that there are various organizations and rich individuals that Jiang Cheng and his workers rely on in order to fund their preservation efforts. There are people within the city that work for the company that handle sponsor contacts throughout most of the year, attending presentations and business meals when Jiang Cheng is in the countryside, but everyone is far more likely to listen seriously when the head of the company himself attends a meeting, even the ones who dislike Jiang Cheng’s attitude.

“It sounds like you really could use a place like this for a respite while you’re here,” Lan Xichen tells him as they near the entrance of the park they started at. Lan Xichen gently untangles their fingers and slides his hand into his jean pocket to grip his phone when his skin aches at the emptiness.

“It actually doesn’t seem like a half-bad place to run like you said,” Jiang Cheng says, stopping by the red archway. He places his hands on his hips and looks back the way they came like he’s already charting the route he would take with a hungry spark in his eyes.

“Would you like to?” Lan Xichen blurts, and Jiang Cheng turns so that spark illuminates Lan Xichen’s face. “Come running here, together, I mean. It seems a more enjoyable date, and I could drive so you don’t immediately get stressed again after.”

Never mind the fact that only a few hours ago, Lan Xichen panicked at not having enough time. That worry still lurks in his mind, but spending time with Jiang Cheng in this park pushed those shadows away from the center and to the edges where they can only whisper.

The two need to spend time together in public anyways, and this neutral ground gave them the chance at minimizing pain like Jiang Cheng mentioned in the studio. It was a pleasant experience even, Lan Xichen would say, just like Lan Wangji wishes Lan Xichen could have.

“You like it here?” Jiang Cheng asks, and Lan Xichen smiles.

“I do.”

“Your fans?”

“Surprisingly, much less likely to bother people running past them rather than eating.” His smile turns teasing. “And much less likely to bother me with someone scowling while charging toward them.”

“Oh, I see how it is,” Jiang Cheng replies, and gives Lan Xichen the scowl he mentioned, but only holds it for a few seconds with Lan Xichen smiling at him. “Fine, but I won’t go easy just because we’re supposed to look like we’re together.”

The words sound like a dismissal and Jiang Cheng juts out his chin like he already won, yet he watches Lan Xichen with that same gleam in his eyes as when Lan Xichen showed him his teasing side.

They stood inches from a dangerously high edge then, but neither of them can see that ledge when they never look away from each other.

“I think you’ll find that’s my line.”

Chapter Text

There has never been a more constant stream of notifications on Jiang Cheng’s phone than that September following his date with Lan Xichen to Ritan Park. Every time Jiang Cheng visits the city for longer than a weekend, he receives a few emails from Jinzhu and Yinzhu updating him on the lands back home. Often he gets texts from Nie Huaisang inviting Jiang Cheng out to places with far too poetic a name for a simple restaurant or bar, though he always ends up getting dragged along if Wei Wuxian is in the city. Wei Wuxian’s incessant messages usually come at a constant frequency regardless of where Jiang Cheng currently resides.

But now, every morning he wakes to messages from A-Jie and Jin Zixuan updating him on the impending surgery and asking about Jin Ling. There are messages from A-Qing too, ones from Lan Jingyi’s parents and Wei Wuxian to organize playdates with Jin Ling, and sometimes messages from the staff who clean the massive house and tend to the gardens.

And then there is the dating.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t deal with messages related to that until he’s dropped Jin Ling off at school and has a third mug of coffee in his hand. Before Ritan Park, there were only a few from Wei Wuxian asking Jiang Cheng how things were going and texts from Lan Xichen arranging their future dates.

But after Ritan Park, and a second studio visit two days later in which Jiang Cheng stubbornly stationed himself in the break lounge to pick through the stash of candy to find Jin Ling’s favourites, Lan Xichen decided it was time to give his increasingly hysterical fans some concrete answers.

Yes, is all Jiang Cheng said to one of the posts Wei Wuxian showed Jiang Cheng from a fan asking if that really was Jiang Cheng holding Lan Xichen’s hand at Ritan Park and if they really were dating.

He is indeed my boyfriend. Isn’t he cute? ^.^ Lan Xichen tells his fans before he and Lan Qiren release an official statement to the press. Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes when Lan Xichen shows him the cute comment, four days after that first Ritan Park date, standing at the same entrance as they prepare to run together. He ignores his thudding heart until it’s beating fast from their quick and evenly paced running.

Their official status brings even more messages from Wei Wuxian about social media trends, as well as his own unsolicited comments, and a flood of activity to Lotus Lakes’ online accounts, which Jiang Cheng takes responsibility for. There are phone calls and emails from various magazines, radios, and some TV channels, which Jiang Cheng ignores.

It’s not just the publicity that comes with fake dating a celebrity that keeps Jiang Cheng busy, but Lan Xichen himself. Since the first date, Jiang Cheng has been sending him little updates and pictures of the chaos Jin Ling brings everywhere he goes. Lan Xichen always responds with amusement and compliments in kind, but the only time he initiated a conversation outside of business was to apologize for the studio incident.

The morning after Ritan Park, though, Jiang Cheng wakes to find two watercolour paintings waiting for him among his unread messages. The first is of a tree branch hanging over the blurry background of a bustling street, with a single, vibrant red leaf looking three seconds from being blown away, but stubbornly clinging on with a skinny stem.

The second is another street painting, this time on ground level. Grey garbage cans rest against the side of a shaded building, the cement fading away into the white of the paper further from the building, but gleaming with puddles from a freshly fallen rain where it intersects with those cans. Looking down at those puddles like it’s looking for fish is a grey tabby cat, its tail blurred in a swishing motion, but every whisker and strand of fur painted in distinct detail.    

Stop being so good at everything, Jiang Cheng texts back as he stumbles to Jin Ling’s bedroom to drag the grumpy boy away from his stuffed animals. It’s fucking annoying.

Only if Jiang Wanyin stops swearing, is the reply that waits for him when he herds Jin Ling into the kitchen, making Jiang Cheng choke on his first cup of coffee.

There have only been more since then.

A vibrant red door set in the crumbling grey walls of a temple squashed in between two sleek modern offices.

White wisps swirling up from the baozi being cradled by their bamboo steamers.  

An elderly man perched on a nondescript curb, one hand wrapped around his smooth wooden cane and the other outstretched to a plump pigeon.

The pink and purple hues of the sunrise caught on an office’s glass window with traces of a faint face turned toward that incoming light.  

A little girl on top her father’s shoulders, her colourful tanghulu shoved into her mouth so her hands can reach for the lantern swaying above her.

Every picture distills the frantic pulse of the city’s heart into a single moment, much like catching a glimpse of a vibrant seashell before the endless ebb and flow of the tides snatches it from sight again.

I know what you’re trying to do, Jiang Cheng texts him two days after the second studio visit while Jin Ling watches the one hour of TV his parents allow a day. And it’s not going to work.

I’m just trying to share with the curious Jiang Wanyin like he does with me, Lan Xichen replied. Are they not good paintings?

Don’t try playing the insecure card now, I already told you they were good.

I’m “playing” the modest card, which is a rather celebrated trait.

You’re being a smart-ass, which is a rather unbecoming trait.

I’m simply trying to ensure Jiang Wanyin doesn’t grow bored.

And so it goes. A few messages are dated far later than Jiang Cheng thought Lan Xichen stayed awake and far later than Jiang Cheng himself is awake. For the most part though, they come in during normal people hours which means portions of Jiang Cheng’s waking hours are spent answering those messages as well.

Then the third week of September hits and less than a full week after their first Ritan Park date, Lan Xichen invites Jiang Cheng to visit Cloud Recesses with him.

Wangji and I like visiting and helping with classes almost every week if we can, Lan Xichen tells him. I said I could visit the Wednesday afternoon classes this week.

Alright, Jiang Cheng replies just as a problem he’s been waiting for since his second date with Lan Xichen drops into his virtual mailbox.

“You can’t be serious,” he argues with Jin Zixuan that night after Jin Ling falls into a troubled sleep.

“You knew about this before we left,” Jin Zixuan says with a frown. The limited glimpse of Jin Zixuan’s surroundings give no hint of A-Jie, just as Jiang Cheng purposefully sat himself at one of the stools in the pristine kitchen rather than in any of the more familial rooms.

“And you don’t think you should reconsider even a little after everything that’s happened?” Jiang Cheng demands even though technically nothing more has happened since the incident eight months ago.

Jiang Cheng knew a few weeks after that incident that Jin Zixuan was still in contact with Jin Guangyao and didn’t want to completely cut him off from Jin Ling. That decision was Jin Zixuan and A-Jie’s to make, and A-Jie only asked for Jiang Cheng’s opinion once, given he overheard the reason for the fall-out between Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao.

At the time, Jiang Cheng only cared about Jin Ling and A-Jie’s well-being. With them claiming no harm to their persons, Jiang Cheng pushed aside any thoughts about Jin Guangyao’s right to continued contact with them to focus on more relevant matters.

Now, after seeing firsthand how Lan Xichen not only reaches out a kind hand to everyone, but speaks to everyone like he genuinely wishes to connect with them even after they rage at him like Jiang Cheng, Jiang Cheng wants nothing more than to slam the gate shut if Jin Guangyao comes anywhere near the house.

Better yet, he’ll close the gates on Jin Guangyao so he can experience exactly what it feels like to be crushed by someone else.

“I already called him before this to confirm he could still visit,” Jin Zixuan says, “That email to you was just a reminder.”

“So fucking call him back and tell him he can’t.”

“Don’t give me orders,” Jin Zixuan says, and the twist of his lips is closer to Jin Ling’s pout than a scowl.

“Then don’t be a fucking idiot,” Jiang Cheng snaps back, and only stops himself from shouting because he doesn’t want to wake Jin Ling. “You know what he did.”

“And I know he’s sorry for it.”

“Bullshit.”

“He called me,” Jin Zixuan tells him, “Right after it happened. He was obviously upset.”

“Everyone in that room was upset! But you don’t forgive someone for fucking stabbing you in the back just because they seem a little upset after they stabbed you.”

“That’s a cliched metaphor,” Jin Zixuan replies, and Jiang Cheng almost throws the tablet. “But if I have to continue it, then me cutting him off from his last friendly face is inviting him to turn that knife on himself or someone else in his desperation.”

“So fucking what?”

“So if it was Wei Wuxian, you would do the same thing as me.”

“That’s different,” Jiang Cheng says, and for the first time, Jin Zixuan looks as angry as Jiang Cheng.

“Neither of them were born into our homes,” Jin Zixuan argues, voice rising when Jiang Cheng opens his mouth to interrupt. “Neither of them are our full blood brothers. So how can you claim yours is any more valid than mine?”

“A-Xuan. A-Cheng.”

Jin Zixuan’s face blurs as he startles at A-Jie’s quiet voice.

“A-Li, you’re supposed to be sleeping,” Jin Zixuan protests, face smoothing out briefly as he speaks her name, only to crease with worry a second later.

“I’m alright,” she assures him, and Jiang Cheng looks away as she cups Jin Zixuan’s cheek. “Let me speak to Jiang Cheng, please.”

“But–”

“A-Xuan,” she says, and then whispers something too quiet for Jiang Cheng to hear over the call. Jin Zixuan still hesitates, but Jiang Cheng hears the rustle of clothes and then A-Jie’s gentle voice calls Jiang Cheng’s name.

“You should be resting,” Jiang Cheng protests as soon as he looks back to her thin face.

“I will after this,” she promises, and gives Jiang Cheng a soft smile. “I didn’t hear everything, but it sounds like you care about Lan Xichen now.”

“It’s not real,” Jiang Cheng reminds her, because neither Jiang Cheng nor Wei Wuxian could sleep at night keeping that secret from her, even if it meant the stupid peacock knowing too. But both swore to secrecy, and while Jin Zixuan may defend his terrible brother, he would never betray A-Jie.

“The dating,” A-Jie agrees, “But I think you could be friends outside of that. You seem to like him.”

“Everyone likes him.” They always have, even as petty children and teenagers at Cloud Recesses.

“He’s a good man,” A-Jie says. “And so is A-Xuan.”

Jiang Cheng shifts in his seat like he’s Jin Ling about to be lectured.

“A-Jie, I wasn’t accusing him of not being one.”

“I know,” she replies, because she has never blamed Jiang Cheng or Wei Wuxian for being so protective of her, though sometimes Jiang Cheng wonders if she should.

She never wanted them to physically fight Jin Zixuan as they did once when drunk, and it must have hurt to see Wei Wuxian glaring and complaining about Jin Zixuan when she wanted to make peace with Jin Zixuan even if she couldn’t date him. She must have ached to talk to someone about her feelings, but her brothers’ obvious dislike for the object of those feelings meant she had to clean-up her bleeding heart all by herself.

“And you also know how much he wants a family,” A-Jie continues, “A big, happy family, with more than just A-Ling and me. Just as I do.”

“I know.”

Just like Jiang Cheng told Lan Xichen, there are layers of hurt that were created long before his parents’ death and are rarely discussed by all three siblings. Maybe if Jiang Cheng’s parents still lived they would, but speaking ill of the once loved dead, even if the dead fucked him up more than he recognized as a child, makes Jiang Cheng choke on the taste of gasoline before he can speak.

Jin Zixuan, A-Jie once told them when Wei Wuxian was being particularly verbal about his continued dislike of the man thanks to his awkward and often disastrous attempts to bond with A-Jie’s brothers, is the same as them where family is concerned. His parents’ marriage was an unmitigated disaster, though most of the blame could be placed at his dead dad’s feet. Everyone knew at the time that his superstar dad, Jin Guangshao, was not only cheating on his wife with multiple women, but that even if he got a woman pregnant due to his own lack of caution, he refused to pay child support. Even if a woman from one of those one-night stands called him begging for even a little money, he would threaten to bring his team of lawyers and the police down on her with charges of harassment and stalking.

But somehow, Jin Xiaoting managed to keep most of her fights with her disgusting husband out of Jin Zixuan’s sights. Somehow, Jin Zixuan didn’t turn out like his asshole of a father. Somehow, Jin Zixuan grew up wanting to play with those siblings his father refused to speak of except to insult.

Which is why, when he and A-Jie officially began dating on their own terms, he immediately tried to treat Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian respectfully as his future brothers-in-law.

Which is why, when Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen helped Jin Guangyao reach out to Jin Zixuan a year before his and A-Jie’s wedding, Jin Zixuan embraced him with A-Jie’s loving support.

“It’s their first chance to support each other as brothers,” A-Jie told her own brothers when Jin Guangyao joined the wedding planning and they commented on how hard Jin Guangyao was working to make the wedding as extravagant as possible. “Let them try as they wish, not how others wish.”

“Do you think he’s actually sorry?” Jiang Cheng asks. A-Jie might be more forgiving, but she has never let people get away with hurting others, especially those she cares for. Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji might not be married yet, but A-Jie has been far quicker than Jiang Cheng to treat the Lan family as if they are.

“I don’t know,” A-Jie answers honestly. “But if A-Xian had been cut off from all of us, Lan Wangji, A-Ling and all his friends included, do you think his heart would have stayed as loving and kind as it is now?”

“You can’t believe it’s the same thing.”

“I don’t, but I think A-Xuan does. And I don’t think he’s wrong to believe that when someone has no one left who believes in their capability to do good, they are much more likely to fail at doing that good.”

Jiang Cheng looks away from the screen and at the empty kitchen. It’s so much bigger and more modern than the Stone Boat Café he sat in when he and Lan Xichen were swarmed by fans despite the plates of food they were clearly trying to eat. Jiang Cheng watched the steam from that food get fainter and fainter as Lan Xichen’s polite smile simultaneously grew tighter and tighter.

Yet even when Lan Xichen’s hands trembled as they held up yet another phone for a selfie and the last hint of steam vanished, not a single negative word slipped from Lan Xichen’s lips. It was as if he thought letting even one heavier syllable loose would forever tarnish his reputation as a good person, in the same way that no amount of softer speech can ever lessen Jiang Cheng’s reputation for being irrationally ill-tempered.

It’s like they’re stuck in one of Lan Xichen’s paintings; that single aspect of their personality distilled into the focal point of a picture that therefore excludes the surrounding environment.

Which art and photography require but cannot be used to understand all of a person.   

“I still don’t like this,” Jiang Cheng grumbles. “But it is your guys’ call.”

“Thank you for caring so much, A-Cheng,” A-Jie says, and he squeezes his mouth shut even as he flushes. “A-Ling will be happy too.”

Which is why, on the Wednesday Jiang Cheng is due to visit Cloud Recesses, he ends up supervising A-Ling’s visit with Jin Guangyao first. Not just because he doesn’t trust Jin Guangyao, but because Jin Zixuan and A-Jie are not complete idiots who have no precautions in place. The other man isn’t allowed in the house after the incident given the confidential documents Jin Zixuan keeps in his study, so Jiang Cheng waits for the man just inside the front gates on the driveway.

“A-Ling!” Jiang Cheng shouts over his shoulder when Jin Guangyao’s sleek yellow car pulls up. “I told you to be ready ten minutes ago!”

Jin Ling shouts something back, but Jiang Cheng keeps his eyes on the approaching man and his thoughts on restraining his scowl.

“Jiang-xiong,” Jin Guangyao greets him pleasantly, wearing perfectly fitting black jeans and an ivory button-down shirt. “How are you and A-Ling?”

“Fine,” Jiang Cheng grunts before raising his voice again. “A-Ling! Now, or I’m throwing all your candy to the koi!”

“My shoelaces broke!” Jin Ling shouts back as he stomps out the front door. A backpack in the shape of a fish so bedazzled it hurts Jiang Cheng’s eyes to look at thumps against his shoulders. “Shushu!”

Jin Ling runs to the iron bars and the smile Jin Guangyao gives Jin Ling is a dazzling firework compared to the dying flashlight beam he gave Jiang Cheng. A second later, Jin Ling turns to glare at Jiang Cheng.

Jiujiu is slow too,” he says with a rattle of the bars, and Jiang Cheng glares right back.

“You threw a fit last time because you wanted to unlock the doors,” Jiang Cheng snaps, “So stop whining and let’s go.”

They go through the small control room for the gate that Jin Zixuan seems to have only for Jin Ling’s delight given the gates can be controlled from inside the house, and a whole building isn’t necessary for the single keypad that requires the access code. There’s a little stool beneath the keypad on the inside of the building for Jin Ling to reach, and Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes when Jin Ling shoots him a triumphant look and shoots through the open door of the control building to the outside world.

Jiang Cheng refuses to acknowledge how much easier the control room makes things for him too, given how he still can’t seem to figure out the intercom within the house.

“Ready for a fun day?” Jin Guangyao asks as he leads Jin Ling to the yellow car, letting him sit in the front passenger seat where he has a booster seat ready while Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes again in the back.

If Jin Ling’s parents didn’t insist Jin Ling be kept far away from the vultures of the talent industry, Jiang Cheng is sure Jin Guangyao would have shown off a recording studio or a fancy clubhouse to Jin Ling. Instead, he resorts to the best form of bribery for a child Jin Ling’s age; signing him out of school for a full day to take him to the nearest and biggest amusement park. Fast-track tickets and money for any toy or treat included.

Jiang Cheng stays a few steps behind the two for most of the day, and elects to serve as a scowling bag boy whenever the other two want to go on a ride. If Jin Ling was older, Jiang Cheng might enjoy the massive rollercoasters with him, but he wants nothing to do with the baby ones, or the spinning ones.

He tells Jin Ling he simply doesn’t want to or that his legs will be too cramped, but Jin Ling scowls as if he hears the unspoken baby rides. Near the end of their visit, Jiang Cheng lets Jin Ling tug him into a neon pink spinning saucer, and then spends the following ten minutes patting Jin Ling’s back as he throws up all the candy he shoved into his mouth before the ride.  

“This is why I said no after the second cotton candy,” Jiang Cheng snaps at Jin Guangyao as the man brings Jin Ling a flimsy paper cup of water.

“Eating all these special sweets is part of the fun of amusement parks,” Jin Guangyao replies, as they both look away from the vomit that’s the same shade as those pink saucers. “He’ll be running for the next ride in a few minutes.”

Jin Ling does beg to go on three more rides before Jiang Cheng insists they leave, even convincing his two uncles he’s brave enough for the children’s haunted house despite the nightmares he still gets throughout the week.

“I wanna fight them like jiujiu,” Jin Ling whispers only for Jiang Cheng when Jiang Cheng crosses his arms even after Jin Guangyao agrees.  

Jiang Cheng still asks Jin Ling one more time if he’s sure when they reach a door just outside the entrance that says last chance.

“We can still leave now,” he says which only makes Jin Ling stomp his foot and protest that he wants to go inside while Jin Guangyao laughs.

“Sounds like A-Ling isn’t the scared one here,” he says, and Jiang Cheng barely stops himself from swearing at him.

There’s nothing to fight inside and Jin Ling won’t move unless he’s between the two adults, but he doesn’t cry like some of the other kids. He even scowls at a few of the scares, after he finishes shrieking.

They buy one last balloon and one last ridiculous headband, and then Jin Guangyao finally drives them back to Jin Ling’s house. Jin Ling remembers to thank him for the day, saving the conflicted Jiang Cheng from deciding between reminding Jin Ling of his manners and not giving his snake of an uncle any credit. Jin Guangyao gives Jin Ling another seemingly genuine smile and a quick hug after he ensures all of Jin Ling’s new toys are safely tucked inside his backpack.

 “Jiang-xiong,” Jin Guangyao says as Jin Ling runs over to enter the gate code using yet another stool chained to the control house. “I heard some congratulations are in order.”

Jiang Cheng slowly moves his gaze away from Jin Ling and to Jin Guangyao’s dimpled face.

“For?” Jiang Cheng asks, crossing his arms over his chest. That smile stays pleasant, but Jin Guangyao’s eyes track every miniscule movement of Jiang Cheng’s.

“Officially getting a boyfriend.” He laughs a little to himself, and Jiang Cheng grits his teeth. “I couldn’t believe it at first, but A-Sang said Wei-xiong confirmed it.”

“Glad he put your doubts to rest,” Jiang Cheng says instead of demanding to know why Jin Guangyao couldn’t believe the news. Fans have vocalized the answer online already, and it’s the same disappointment A-Niang expressed enough times for Jiang Cheng to memorize her lectures. “Now I need to go.”

“I was just wondering how they were doing,” Jin Guangyao calls, stopping Jiang Cheng the second he turns away, “Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue, I mean.”  

“You already implied you’ve seen their social media posts,” Jiang Cheng says, watching Jin Ling look back at them through the half-open door of the house instead of returning to Jin Guangyao.

“Jiang-xiong.” Jiang Cheng hears more notes of laughter in his voice. “You might always be blunt with your opinions, but I’m sure you’ve realized that others aren’t, especially on public forums.”

“Then ask them yourself.”

“I think you know they aren’t answering my calls right now.”

“Then I think you know it’s none of your fucking business,” Jiang Cheng says through bared teeth.

“I think it is if I’m still on their minds, as I imagine I am.”

“A-Ling, go to your room,” Jiang Cheng snaps in response, and Jin Ling’s eyes widen at his tone.

“But–”

“Now!” Jiang Cheng roars, and even though Jin Ling is used to his raised voice, this furious shout pushes Jin Ling into the house with only a silent pout as resistance.

Jiang Cheng waits until the door of the house slams shut before twisting back around to Jin Guangyao with clenched fists. “You have no fucking right to assume anything after what you did.”

“Really?” Jin Guangyao asks, his own expression unfazed by Jiang Cheng’s howling anger. “Isn’t it because I understood too much that I made the mistake I did?”

“It’s because you were as arrogant as you are now!” Jiang Cheng moves until he looms over the other man. “Thinking other peoples’ feelings are yours to manipulate as you want, and that people have no right call you out on your lies!”

Jin Guangyao stares at him for a long moment, smile fading but that thoughtfulness that makes Jiang Cheng bristle like a wild animal staying.

“How much has er-ge told you about what happened?” Jin Guangyao asks quietly.

“Don’t call him that!”

“I don’t think very much.”

“He doesn’t have to, I was there.”

He was there with Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, meant to meet them for a meal and then dragged along when they rushed to Gusu Studios upon hearing Lan Xichen’s new album being played on the restaurant speakers. It wasn’t due for at least another few weeks, Wei Wuxian explained, though that didn’t explain the way Lan Wangji gripped his cup like he wanted to break it when he heard the songs, and then the way he ran through the studio halls to find his brother.

They found him in a control room with Jin Guangyao, eyes red and face twisted like a desperate beggar as he demanded to know how Jin Guangyao could justify changing Lan Xichen’s lyrics and releasing the album without warning in order to hurt their once mutual friend, Nie Mingjue.   

“You were there for the tail end of the argument,” Jin Guangyao corrects. His quick response kills Jiang Cheng’s building rant, only because Jiang Cheng has never had the information needed to understand the context of that argument or how the lyrics destroyed friendships. “Not the beginning. Not when da-ge was there.”

Jin Guangyao smiles, not the fake ones from earlier nor the affectionate ones he gave Jin Ling, but the sharp curves of a bloodied blade, as thin as a zither string. “Not like everyone witnessing your break-down with Wei Wuxian.”

“How fucking dare you,” Jiang Cheng hisses. He can barely handle Jin Zixuan making parallels of the situation, and he holds a handful of respect for that man. The only time Jiang Cheng has seen Jin Guangyao do something worthy is when he helped plan Jin Zixuan and A-Jie’s wedding, but they would have managed fine without him and based on the past year, he only did it to solidify his connection with Jin Zixuan and other talents. “I swear, I’ll feed you to wild dogs if you don’t stop talking about shit you know nothing about!”

“I’m not trying to judge you, Jiang-xiong,” Jin Guangyao says, barely fitting his raised hands in the miniscule space between them, “Just reminding you that people can still care about someone and their well-being even when they’re upset with each other.”

“Then let me remind you that if you actually gave a shit, you’d be spending every second of every day trying to make things right instead of insisting he’s wrong to feel upset,” Jiang Cheng snarls, “But you’ve made it very clear you only care about his star status, not him.”

“And you’ve made it clear you’ve never cared about either. What changed?”

“Um sorry, why am I here if there’s already two adults here?”

A-Qing’s voice cuts through the air before Jiang Cheng starts building a furious wall of curses between himself and Jin Guangyao to shield himself from Jin Guangyao’s doubt. They both turn to see the teenage girl standing a few feet away, hair in a messy bun and a tattered purple dress blowing in the breeze. She places a hand on her hip as Jin Guangyao steps away from Jiang Cheng and clears his throat.

“He was just fucking leaving,” Jiang Cheng snaps, shoving Jin Guangyao’s shoulder, who merely turns his attention to the approaching girl.

“You’re Xue Yang’s adopted sister, A-Qing, right?” Jin Guangyao says, and gives her a wide smile as Jiang Cheng clenches his teeth to stop himself from screaming at Jin Guangyao to just get off the property already. “I’m a friend of his.”

“Oh, cool,” she replies, and gives him an equally fake smile. “So are you a conniving clown or scum of the earth?”

The rage leaves Jiang Cheng like a balloon popping, and he chokes on the rushed release of air as Jin Guangyao’s smile flickers.

“I met him through my brother and my friend,” Jin Guangyao says, still showing his dimples, “They’re a model and fashion designer respectively, but I’m a music producer.”

“So you’re a capitalist cock, got it.”

“A-Qing,” Jiang Cheng says, not to save Jin Guangyao, but to save the teenager from getting fired. “This is Jin Zixuan’s younger brother. He was just visiting A-Ling.”

“Another uncle, huh?” Unlike Jin Guangyao, her smile never wavers. “I guess I just haven’t seen you around yet.”

“Understandable,” Jin Guangyao replies, “Babysitting is a rather temporary job, so I imagine people don’t see much of you for very long.”

“I’ve seen her so much she might as well live here,” Jiang Cheng cuts in, and steps forward before the two decide to spend the rest of the day trading barbs on the driveway. “Which is convenient, because I’m sure A-Ling is already bored again, and Jin Guangyao needs to get the fuck out so I can go do more important things.” 

“Of course,” Jin Guangyao says, “I’m sure we both have very full schedules, after all.”

He sweeps away from the two and into his yellow car before either can respond. Jiang Cheng waits until the car drives from sight before heading over to the control building with A-Qing.

“Is there a reason you decided to roast him on the spot?” Jiang Cheng asks as they move through the small building and out onto the cobblestone-looking driveway on the other side. “Because that was beautiful, but technically you’re not getting paid to insult people.”

“He reminded me of Xue Yang, and then he said he knew Xue Yang,” A-Qing replies, “And that’s how Xue Yang and I talk to each other all the time, except when baba is around because he gets really upset and even Xue Yang feels guilty about that sometimes. But diedie doesn’t really care as long as we’re keeping voices down and no one’s bleeding.”

“You’re not getting paid to tell me your life story either.”

“You asked,” A-Qing says, and Jiang Cheng waves his hand. She rolls her eyes as they pass the lush shrubbery and flowerbeds that lead to the front door.

“Short answer this time, how long have you been babysitting A-Ling?”

“About a year now.” She stares at him and then hops in front of him when he opens the front door. “Why, are you actually worried about what he said about me babysitting?”

“No,” Jiang Cheng snaps, the glee in her eyes as obvious as the delight in his voice had been when she insulted Jin Guangyao. “Why would I ever worry about a brat like you?”

“It’s okay, A-Ling really likes me,” A-Qing says, ignoring Jiang Cheng’s protests and dropping her school bag on the kitchen counter with a loud clink from her dozens of keychains. “And so do his parents obviously, because I do the best braids for Yanli’s hair before Zixuan’s shows sometimes, which is why she showed me the best glittery eye shadow ever and also this really cool spin–”

“Go find the person you’re actually getting paid to talk to,” Jiang Cheng interrupts when A-Qing doesn’t stop for any breaths.

She sticks out her tongue but flounces off toward A-Ling’s bedroom.

Jiang Cheng lets Lan Xichen know he’s ready as the other man offered to drive again, and then changes out of the clothes that now smell like sugar and vomit while he waits. A-Qing and Jin Ling stay in his bedroom as Jiang Cheng tries not to fixate on everything Jin Guangyao said.

He fails, in part because he has never known what happened between Lan Xichen and his friends that led up to Venerated Triad being released as it was. In school, Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen were years older, and Jiang Cheng too focused on his own grades and his siblings to pay them much attention. When they all entered their various stardoms, Jiang Cheng went to university for business and then to the countryside to run Lotus Lakes, seeing those like Lan Xichen or Jin Guangyao less than half a dozen times a year at family gatherings.

And if Lan Xichen was someone he saw rarely, then Nie Mingjue was a shooting star in his rarity, something Jiang Cheng heard about far more than he saw, if only from all Nie Huaisang’s messages.

The glimpses Jiang Cheng got of the three together could therefore be glimpses of any three strangers for all that it informed him of their friendship.

But he at least saw them smiling at each other. Even the severe Nie Mingjue, whom Nie Huaisang claimed did in fact care for his childhood friend and his manager turned friend.

So Jiang Cheng can understand why Jin Guangyao’s actions hurt Lan Xichen. Anyone would be upset to have their words twisted, and Lan Xichen loves both his music and friends. He doesn’t, however, understand how Venerated Trio hurt Nie Mingjue. Nor does he understand how Jin Guangyao can try labelling his actions as an honest mistake when Jiang Cheng heard him admit to changing the lyrics and including music Lan Xichen never intended to put on the album because he believed they would make the album good enough to take the number one spot on the charts.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t need to understand, though. Knowing all the details and understanding the full story doesn’t affect the fake dating, and there were eight months before this in which these events bore no effect on Jiang Cheng’s life. After this fake dating, even with Lan Xichen officially becoming his brother-in-law, it will have nothing to do with Jiang Cheng. Controlling his temper and not wishing harm on Jin Ling’s other uncle is what Jiang Cheng should be focused on.

Yet Jiang Cheng can’t forget the way Lan Xichen looked at Jiang Cheng like he was receiving a long-awaited present every time Jiang Cheng told him an interpretation of one of his songs. Lan Xichen leaned forward each time as if worried about missing even a single word Jiang Cheng uttered, and he tilted his head as if still hearing the exact melodies Jiang Cheng referenced. Not once did he tell Jiang Cheng he was wrong or stupid for thinking what he did, and cheesy phrases about songs being echoes of everything that lay in someone’s heart sounded right falling from Lan Xichen’s lips.  

More than that, he looked like he could spend several more hours happily listening to the echoes inside Jiang Cheng’s heart.

That’s probably why Jiang Cheng became so flustered about holding hands. Lan Xichen’s hands are the same as the rest of him; elegant and warm, fingernails clipped perfectly for the use of a musical instrument, and a surprising number of callouses along his fingertips that speak to his hard-work and strength.  

Jiang Cheng’s hands, in contrast, are large, constantly cold, and carry layers of callouses. They are only deft when he’s tying knots, and often grab things hard enough to hurt.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t want to hurt Lan Xichen. Not that he ever did, but after a month together, it’s now an active thought that is morphing into the burning and dangerous thought of I don’t want anyone to hurt him.

“So are you ignoring the doorbell on purpose or did all your shouting make you deaf?”

Jiang Cheng nearly falls off the bed of the guest room as A-Qing interrupts his spiralling thoughts.

“What?” he asks, looking up to see her standing in the doorway holding Jin Ling’s hand.

“Someone is ringing the gate doorbell? Handsome man, would probably make all my friends lose their minds, looks exactly like the famous Zewu Jun, I will definitely talk to him if you want to stay here and mope–”

“I’m going now, you’re staying,” Jiang Cheng says, rushing to his feet and ignoring A-Qing’s smirk and Jin Ling’s pout. He barely remembers to grab his jacket in his rush to keep from being anymore late, and the small smile Lan Xichen gives him does nothing to help his flustered state.  

“Busy day?” Lan Xichen asks as he covers a yawn and pulls out of the driveway.

“Kids,” Jiang Cheng says, because Jin Guangyao planted questions in his mind, but he doesn’t want to ruin their outing before it even starts. “You know. So tell me, is Lan Qiren still on the verge of having an aneurysm at any sign of nonsense like when we were there, or has he taken a hands-off approach for his health?”

“He still teaches a good number of classes,” Lan Xichen replies, amused smile faint but there.

For the rest of the car ride, Lan Xichen tells Jiang Cheng about the classes, students, and grounds of the school. It sounds much the same as it was when Jiang Cheng went with siblings, no less and no more prestigious, even with the Lan brothers being famous now. Then again, their father was a famous and well-known musician before his marriage and then death took him away from the public stage, so the Lan brothers graduating from the school and entering the industry must seem like a natural fate to everyone else.

Not all the students who attend are meant for that path, though. Jiang Cheng can’t believe that A-Die assumed all three of his children would become musicians, especially when he made it clear from a very early age that Jiang Cheng’s fate was taking over the family business, even if he later wished Wei Wuxian would do so.

They were there, therefore, because A-Die believed his children should learn traditional arts. It was the same reason he first put A-Jie in dance classes, and why he sung Wei Wuxian’s praises when he did so well with his music classes, even if Wei Wuxian also manufactured several chaotic incidents those two summers they attended Cloud Recesses.

Many of their classmates’ parents were the same. Even though they were moulding their children into models, designers, and actors, they wanted their child to be well-versed in other arts.

“Da-ge is already acing all of his classes,” Nie Huaisang used to complain to them, spread under whichever tree Wei Wuxian decided was his favourite that day, “And he actually likes all the instruments and singing. I don’t see why I have to, too.”

Jiang Cheng silently agreed with him as soon as he realized that no matter how well he did in theory classes thanks to his studious attitude, he would never be able to produce a musical note like Wei Wuxian, and his parents would only use this as another subject to fight over.

“Look at it this way,” Wei Wuxian used to respond, throwing an arm over his friend and then attempting to wrestle the upright Jiang Cheng closer to their huddle, “We all get to play together here! The rest of the year, we’re stuck in the school by the lake and you’re trapped in the city without us.”

An argument would usually start then, with Jiang Cheng snapping at Wei Wuxian that nothing was wrong with the lakes or the small school they attended, and Wei Wuxian saying Jiang Cheng was missing the point, and Nie Huaisang laughing when the brothers eventually began chasing each other.

“Here we are,” Lan Xichen says ten minutes after they pass the outskirts of the city and trees rather than houses line the road.

The parking lot for most parents is just outside the property, but Lan Xichen drives the car beneath the stone arbour that marks the entrance of Cloud Recesses in place of the iron gates of city properties. He takes an immediate left down a dirt road that Jiang Cheng vaguely remembers thanks to Wei Wuxian’s various pranks, and parks in the secluded lots reserved for staff members.

“Shall we?” Lan Xichen asks once he comes around to Jiang Cheng’s side of the car and holds out his hand.

Assuming the presence of paparazzi here seems paranoid to Jiang Cheng, but perhaps Lan Xichen thinks they should practice for when they go to more public places again.

Not that Lan Xichen needs any practice, Jiang Cheng thinks as he slides his rough hand into Lan Xichen’s. His hand is the perfect weight in Jiang Cheng’s, neither squeezing too tight nor hanging too limp. It’s so perfect that even as touch-wary and embarrassed as Jiang Cheng was in Ritan park, Jiang Cheng forgot to worry about it until Lan Xichen pulled away at the end of the date and Jiang Cheng almost clung harder on instinct.

His face still heats now when Lan Xichen gives him a smile, and Jiang Cheng worries for just a moment about how much he tore his nails this morning, but then they begin to walk further into Cloud Recesses.

Wei Wuxian may have been more attached to this place and the people he met, but Jiang Cheng still holds his own vivid memories of the grounds. The stepping stone pathways, the open corridors that connect the smaller buildings, the pristine interior that dissuaded anything above a hushed whisper, the lawns with their collection of white pebbles where Lan Qiren often scolded Wei Wuxian publicly, the river that gurgles just beyond the main set of buildings, the sky that is always overcast in his memories; everything looks as if ten-year-old Jiang Cheng immortalized it.

His hand spasms in Lan Xichen’s at the burning ache the familiarity triggers in his chest, but he stares straight ahead rather than meet Lan Xichen’s concerned glance.

“There is a lot between us,” Jiang Cheng told him in that studio, “Stuff that happened when my parents were alive.”

He didn’t realize that this place is also connected to one of those layers of hurt, and he suddenly longs to collapse on one of the stone benches they pass and sit there until the pain fades.

Instead, he follows Lan Xichen, who leads them to one of the east buildings near the back of the property, big enough for only a few classrooms. Jiang Cheng hears the muffled sound of an instructor and nothing else, the halls just as hushed as when he was a child.

Lan Xichen knocks politely on the archway of the open door before stepping into the room, still holding Jiang Cheng and dragging him with him.

Twelve children sit in the plain room, kneeling on cushions with a small wooden table in front of them. Papers rest in front of them, but no one holds a pen at the ready, and only half of them look away from the instructor kneeling at the front of the room at the couple’s entrance.

“Children,” their instructor, a cheerful man, says, “As I told you earlier, we have a very special guest today, and perhaps the rest of the term. He will be leading the remainder of the class, so I expect you to give him the same attention you give me.”

The children all nod, and Lan Xichen releases Jiang Cheng’s hand with a smile.

“They’ve prepared a spare seat for you if you’d like,” Lan Xichen whispers, and Jiang Cheng heads to the cushion at the back he gestures to. A couple curious children glance at him, but most of them watch Lan Xichen’s graceful approach to the front of the room.

“Good afternoon, children,” he says once he sits.

“Good afternoon,” they chorus, no one any older than twelve.

“My name is Lan Xichen,” he tells them, “You can call me Xichen-laoshi. Now, I’ve been told you’ve been learning about the guqin. Is that correct?”

“Yes, Xichen-laoshi,” most say.

“Then please bring your instruments to your desk.”

They all look at each other and then back to him, a few furiously whispering to each other. One small girl raises her hand and bites her lip when he smiles and nods toward her.

“Xichen-laoshi,” she says, “Um, we don’t really play the guqin.”

Jiang Cheng snorts, and a few students turn around to stare at him.

“Ah,” Lan Xichen says, but his gentle smile never wavers, “You’ve been studying the notes, yes?”

“Yes.”

“And listening?”

“Every day,” one boy pipes up, and at his instructor’s look, quickly adds, “Xichen-laoshi.”

“Well then, surely you should all be able to pluck a few notes,” Lan Xichen says, and when the children all once again look at each other, he asks, “Would you like to play?”

That triggers such a furious round of whispering, the children might as well be shouting. Jiang Cheng watches this all with his arms crossed over his chest, raising his eyebrows at Lan Xichen who simply lifts a single finger to his lips.

“If that’s really okay, Xichen-laoshi,” the girl from before says, the boy who forgot to address Lan Xichen properly shouting his agreement while a few other students nod furiously.

“Go on, then. Carefully take your guqin from your assigned cupboard.”

Slowly at first, and then in one rushed wave, the children climb to their feet and scramble to the dark wooden cupboards that line the back wall of the classroom. Each one houses a lovingly polished guqin that Jiang Cheng remembers multiple students sharing, though only getting to use once they’d proven themselves on dozens of tests. Thanks to that, students rarely touch the actual instrument for longer than a few minutes before they are teenagers with a few summers or years of classes under their belts.

Most of these children are likely full-time students given the time of year, but they might only attend after their normal school, and Jiang Cheng doubts they’ve passed the requisite number of classes by now.

Yet the instructor makes no move to stop them, and when Lan Xichen rises to his feet to help the struggling students carry their instrument over to the table, the instructor and Jiang Cheng do the same.

“Now,” Lan Xichen says once they’ve all settled, “I will play a short refrain, and I’d like you to tell me the notes I play.”

Jiang Cheng stands now as Lan Xichen plucks three slow notes and the children all lean forward.

“Well?” Lan Xichen asks once the last note fades from the air. A few hands immediately shoot into the air, and a boy rambles off the correct notes the second Lan Xichen gestures to him.

“Very good. Now, hands at the ready and please play back the notes I play.”

Lan Xichen waits for the children to give their neighbours a wide-eyed look before they place their hands on the table. He plucks out another three notes, only one different from what Jiang Cheng can tell, and then gently covers the strings with his hand.

“Please,” he tells the students, and with small faces scrunched in concentration and even smaller fingers, they hesitantly pluck the same notes. “Good. Try this one.”

Lan Xichen does this several more times until most of the children no longer frown at their instruments or hesitate a few seconds before touching the strings. He moves onto playing five notes at a time and repeats them when a few students fumble, he calls out the notes as he plays the same refrain.

“Now,” Lan Xichen says at least ten minutes later when the children all sit straight from eagerness rather than expectation, “What is everyone’s favourite song at the moment?”

Some children raise their hands, but a few even shout out their answer, their nearby friends shoving at them for the noise. Lan Xichen laughs, and then gestures to one of the boys who has been struggling the most to imitate the notes.

“How about yours?” he asks the boy, who almost falls over at the sudden attention, but quickly opens his mouth.

“I really like ‘Partings’ by Nie Mingjue,” the boy says in a wobbly voice. A few of the other children immediately ooh while some tease him for liking a singer who has a deep voice the boy will never match, but Jiang Cheng only has eyes for the frozen Lan Xichen.

“Ah,” he says softly, and Jiang Cheng wishes he would just tell the boy to choose a different song. Instead, the man’s eyes briefly flutter shut as he takes a deep breath to fuel the smile he gives the young boy. “That’s one of his slower songs, isn’t it?”

“It’s calmer than the others,” the boy replies with a furious nod, and Jiang Cheng watches Lan Xichen slip one hand into his lap where no one can see the slight tremble. “I really like it.”

“It’s longer too,” Lan Xichen says, and looks around at the children. “However, I’m confident in all of you. Are you ready to try?”

“Yes, Xichen-laoshi!” they reply, and Jiang Cheng returns to his seat just so he can grip his own knees to keep himself from verbally scolding an ignorant child for an innocent song choice. It’s not until Lan Xichen looks over at him, though, that Jiang Cheng’s urge to hiss choose something else at the child finally dies.

He looks at Jiang Cheng like the sleep-deprived stare at a cup of fresh coffee, and he keeps looking at Jiang Cheng as he returns both hands to the instrument. Only when he begins to play does Lan Xichen finally look away from Jiang Cheng, yet Jiang Cheng’s heart pounds for the whole song.   

Lan Xichen moves through the song five notes at a time and has the children repeat the refrain each time, just as they did earlier. After each new one, they start from the beginning until they’re playing ten, twenty, and eventually half the song’s notes in a row. After the halfway point, they begin to struggle to repeat the whole thing, but Lan Xichen simply calls out the notes in a gentle voice when they falter.

By the time they finish the song, Jiang Cheng’s knees have gone numb from his hands gripping them, and the instructor has left and returned with a cup of warm tea for Lan Xichen. Still, when the students pluck the last note of the song, the smile he gives them sparkles in his eyes, and the children all turn to each other to gleefully revel in their accomplishment.

“What do we say to Xichen-laoshi?” the instructor asks as he returns to the front of the room and hands Lan Xichen the tea.

“Thank you, Xichen-laoshi,” they practically shout, and Lan Xichen shakes his head.

“Thank you for such a pleasant class,” he tells them. “I look forward to playing more with you in the future.”

“Go on,” their instructor says at the gaping mouths and quick questions that triggers, “Instruments away and off to your next class with you, or you’ll be late.”

Most rush off at that, toeing the line of outright running, though a few head up to the front to thank Lan Xichen personally. Jiang Cheng waits for the crowd to disperse and for the instructor to busy himself with tidying up the classroom before he joins Lan Xichen at the front of the room.

“Is that how you run all of your classes?” Jiang Cheng asks once Lan Xichen has talked with the instructor and Lan Xichen leads Jiang Cheng to the corridors that wind around the back of the school near the dormitories.

“To tell you the truth, it’s been awhile since I attended a class,” Lan Xichen admits, and though the tea has given Lan Xichen’s cheeks a bit more colour, Jiang Cheng still looks around for a bench for them to sit on. “But I was inspired by what you said.”

“I say a lot of shit,” Jiang Cheng says, and a passing student turns sharply at the sound of Lan Xichen’s soft laughter. “You’ll have to be a lot more specific than that.”

“What you said about your studies here,” Lan Xichen replies, and Jiang Cheng almost stumbles as he stares at Lan Xichen. “And how you were too focused on memorizing notes for the tests to enjoy the actual music.”

“Oh.” Within seconds, his face feels as hot as freshly boiled tea. “But I mean, it’s not like I was ever going to be a great musician anyways, and that’s how it was for everyone else.”

“Exactly,” Lan Xichen says, and when Jiang Cheng furrows his eyebrows, Lan Xichen only juts out his chin in an increasingly familiar if subtle gesture of stubbornness. “I know that my uncle focuses more on theory and tests within his classes, just as I know not every student here comes to be a musician. Not every student is here because they want to be, either. But everyone has a favourite song, and that’s why I want to give them a chance to play that song.”

They step away from the stone corridors and onto the grass that stretches out to the forest at the back of the property. “At least for that one song they might forget all the tests and feel the same joy and pride professional musicians feel.”

Which is why he chose the boy who’d been struggling alone at the back, and why he didn’t shy away from a song that probably hurt him to hear once, let alone over and over again.

“It’s not your job to make everyone happy,” Jiang Cheng says quietly, and stops walking just so he can face Lan Xichen directly.

The small smile on Lan Xichen’s face probably means he’s thinking of the grin that struggling boy wore on his face when they finished the full song. And while the boy walked out of the room with his head held high, Jiang Cheng knows just how quickly that head will drop again if his school days are anything like Jiang Cheng’s.

“And if the students’ issues come from their home life,” Jiang Cheng adds, and makes himself meet Lan Xichen’s sympathetic eyes despite the way he’s giving Lan Xichen a glimpse of the rot he rarely discusses even with his siblings, “Then it’s going to take a lot more than a few classes and one teacher to make things right. It might take years for the student to even realize there’s something wrong.”

“I’m well aware of that,” Lan Xichen says, a gentle reminder that as well-adjusted as he seems most of the time, he too comes from an atypical childhood, “And I don’t expect to fix everything wrong in their lives this way. But what’s the harm in trying to help?”

“I can’t answer that without sounding like a terrible person.”

“You’re not,” Lan Xichen says, and his response comes so quickly and so confidently that Jiang Cheng finally looks away. “But when you came here, surely there was something that felt like a respite for you and helped you feel better about your time here?”

Jiang Cheng stares at the short grass at their feet and hears Wei Wuxian’s childish laughter when he convinced the others to take off their shoes and let the grass tickle their bare feet.

“Here,” Jiang Cheng says, and heads away from the buildings and to the treeline. There are still clear paths that belong to the school property, with large gaps between each tree to let in sunlight. Clearings too, with stone benches placed precisely by the sluggish river that feeds various ponds and eventually widens enough for fishing at the small town only twenty minutes away.

Jiang Cheng leads Lan Xichen to one such clearing, ten minutes from the nearest building where the packed earth becomes a smooth tablet of rock that overlooks the river speeding down a brief dip in elevation. Sturdy trees still stand sentry nearby, and Wei Wuxian took great delight in convincing Jiang Cheng to see who could hang upside down from a branch the longest. Nie Huisang only tried once and elected himself judge after the first time resulted in a bloody nose.

“We always came here on our breaks,” Jiang Cheng explains as Lan Xichen takes in every leaf and every miniscule crack in the rock. “Sometimes A-Jie would too, but she had her own spots she liked to visit alone. Probably somewhere near the water too.”

No matter what form it took, bodies of water would always remind the siblings of the home they all loved, if in different ways. Sometimes Jiang Cheng thinks that he should have wanted to leave more than either of his siblings, yet even when his parents’ fighting reached its peak, he still cherished the maze of halls and docks, the glittering lakes, and the tight-knit village he came from. That is why A-Die’s disappointment still hurts even after so many years; Jiang Cheng does value the land that gives them life and Jiang Cheng does believe in preserving all the gifts nature gives them, no matter how many headaches and exhausted muscles it takes.

But they all did, and Jiang Cheng never shone as bright as his siblings, so it’s no wonder A-Die looked to the rare gems over the plain root.

“It seems peaceful,” Lan Xichen says as he glances down the hill and to the pond the river pools into before carrying on again. When he looks back up at Jiang Cheng, a teasing smile tugs his lips. “And if I’m remembering correctly, that’s the pond you pushed Wangji into.”

Accidentally,” Jiang Cheng replies, automatic and defensive, before he gapes at Lan Xichen. “You remember that?”

It was near the end of the first summer, Wei Wuxian determined to pursue the newfound and cold Lan Wangji. Jiang Cheng doesn’t remember why Lan Wangji was there in the first place, or what they were talking about. He doesn’t remember why Wei Wuxian clung to Lan Wangji, beyond that simply being what he does to people. He only remembers the moment when Lan Wangji tried shoving Wei Wuxian away and Wei Wuxian slipped on the rocks.

Wei Wuxian grabbed for Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng grabbed for Wei Wuxian. In the same second, furious and unable to hold up two older boys, Jiang Cheng pushed Lan Wangji in the chest. The sleeve Wei Wuxian held ripped and Lan Wangji tumbled into the cold pond as the brothers slammed back onto solid ground.

“Of course,” Lan Xichen says with a laugh, as if Wei Wuxian wasn’t terrified at the time that they’d murdered another boy, and Jiang Cheng wasn’t terrified of said boy’s older brother murdering them. “I think that’s the only time I’ve ever seen A-Sang run. He kept crying over and over again that he didn’t know what had happened and da-ge–”

Lan Xichen chokes on his next breath and just like that, all the questions Jin Guangyao stirred within Jiang Cheng fill him again like a hive of angry bees within his chest.

“I’m not a very good listener,” Jiang Cheng says as Lan Xichen slowly seals his mouth shut and stares at the water below, “And I didn’t know them like you did. But if you want to talk about them, I can try to listen.”

“I don’t know what I should say,” Lan Xichen replies, barely above a whisper.

“Whatever the fuck you want to say.” Jiang Cheng waits, and when Lan Xichen stays quiet, he sits on the flat stone with a huff. “You were going to tell me how Nie Mingjue reacted to us almost accidentally drowning Lan Wangji. Honestly, I don’t really remember him being there.”

“He left as soon as he saw Wangji was fine,” Lan Xichen says, each syllable plucked as slowly as his guqin strings. “I told him I would handle everything, and he dragged Nie Huaisang off to actually finish his homework.”

“He was that dedicated of a student?”

“More like he thought Nie Huaisang wasn’t dedicated enough.”

“Which he wasn’t,” Jiang Cheng agrees, finally earning a look from Lan Xichen. Lan Xichen’s lips curl a fraction, and Jiang Cheng taps the stone near him with his foot.

“No, I guess he wasn’t,” Lan Xichen says, and hesitantly lowers himself to the ground across from Jiang Cheng. “But Nie Mingjue might have also been a bit harsh on him.”

“Huaisang always made it seem that way when we were kids,” Jiang Cheng says, even though the fact that Nie Huaisang could vocalize his complaints whenever he felt them implied he somehow had a better relationship with his older brother than Jiang Cheng with his parents.

“Even when their parents were alive, they were very distant,” Lan Xichen explains, “So Nie Mingjue took it upon himself to ensure Nie Huaisang succeeded in every class at every school.”

Lan Xichen looks down again, creasing the hem of his white shirt between his fingers. “Things got better when he realized how much work Nie Huaisang put into his designs, and how that could be a career itself.”

“Wouldn’t that have taken awhile?”

“Years,” Lan Xichen confirms, but he almost smiles as he says it, “I lost track of how many times I told him being too strict to forgive any failure wouldn’t guarantee Nie Huaisang’s success.”

“And he listened?” Jiang Cheng asks, because Nie Mingjue’s lack of listening skills had been another complaint of Nie Huaisang’s. Still is in some of the text messages Jiang Cheng receives, and over meals together.

“I thought he did sometimes,” Lan Xichen says softly, “We knew each other even before we started taking formal lessons together.”

Lan Xichen smooths out the crease he made in his shirt and holds his hands in lap. He squeezes tight enough that his knuckles go white, and Jiang Cheng shoves his own hands beneath his knees to keep from grabbing the thumb Lan Xichen rubs across his skin like he wants peel away the flesh there.

“Is this really alright?” Lan Xichen asks, and Jiang Cheng doesn’t understand the guilt in Lan Xichen’s eyes.

“What, talking?”

“Yes.”

“Holding it inside definitely won’t help.”

“I know.” He takes a deep breath. “I’m trying to write songs about some of it, after all. But I still haven’t–I’m talking about them like nothing’s changed. Like all that’s between us is a school days’ friendship, even though it never was.”

When Jiang Cheng just frowns at him, Lan Xichen closes his eyes. “Nie Mingjue was the first boy I ever loved. The first boy who made me realize I loved boys like others loved girls.”

Jiang Cheng’s fingers curl into his flesh, and something like shame for forcing this conversation on Lan Xichen burns away his first response. Lan Xichen admitted in that interview awhile ago that he once crushed on Nie Mingjue, and one of the songs on Venerated Triad was about that. But he speaks now like this is his first time confessing such fact, and the depth of his feelings shake his voice.

“Are you ashamed of that?” Jiang Cheng wonders, even though Lan Xichen came out to the public and he’s never been repulsed by Lan Wangji’s relationship with Wei Wuxian.

“Of loving him? Never. Of not telling him that before those songs threw it into his and everyone’s faces? I don’t know what I feel. Guilty.”

“But that wasn’t your fault,” Jiang Cheng argues, and if he wanted to crush Jin Guangyao before, now he wants to pulverize him.

“The way it happened wasn’t, but I still wrote those songs. I still wanted–” Lan Xichen stops again, and Jiang Cheng hates that in this one conversation, he has seen the eloquent Lan Xichen falter more than Jiang Cheng has seen in his entire life.

“Awhile ago, you said you and Wei Wuxian talked and it seemed to help,” Lan Xichen says abruptly after a long pause, “How did you make it work?”

“We both wanted to talk,” Jiang Cheng says after a moment, thinking not of the conversation alone, but the way they grabbed and poked and leaned against each other just like when they were children lacking years of resentment, “And we both wanted to listen.”

“I thought I was listening. I thought we were all listening. But now I think we were only hearing what we wanted to hear, me more than anyone.”

And Jiang Cheng still doesn’t understand the events leading to this point or the exact shape the trio’s relationship took, but he understands the bleeding he hears in Lan Xichen’s voice. He understands desperately flinging your thoughts at someone and the relief of thinking they heard everything you couldn’t vocalize, only for their obvious misinterpretation to gouge rivets into your heart. He understands loving someone and therefore thinking you know them, only for their actions you didn’t predict to wipe you off your feet and leave you staring up at a cold sky with cheeks burning from humiliation and a spine smarting from your own arrogance.

He understands clinging to your assumptions so tightly you rip your own fingernails, because it’s the only way you survived for years and years.

“Have you tried talking to them?” Jiang Cheng asks, so quiet he barely hears himself over the river’s hushed rush. “Since it all happened?”

“We weren’t supposed to be there until the afternoon,” Lan Xichen says, no longer rubbing his thumb, but instead digging it into the flesh, “The day Venerated Triad was released. Nie Mingjue and I. But he barged into the room when I was confronting Jin Guangyao. He left before the rest of you showed up and then left the country three days later for his international tour. I haven’t spoken with either since.”

Jin Guangyao’s words taunt Jiang Cheng in his head, but he ignores them when Lan Xichen meets his gaze.

“Have you?” Lan Xichen asks, like he’s not sure which answer he should hope for. “Through Jin Ling or Nie Huaisang?”

“Today,” Jiang Cheng admits, “With A-Ling.”

Lan Xichen nods to himself, and Jiang Cheng hates himself for not knowing how to help the man who always reaches out to others. He opens his mouth, but he can’t form any comforting words when he knows none of his will fix this situation, and the details of the afternoon stay lodged in his throat. He looks at Lan Xichen’s hands again, but he can’t grab them when he’s aware of every breath the other man takes.

“Aren’t you angry?” Jiang Cheng asks instead. That at least is a familiar road that he can navigate, and in the studio, Lan Xichen raised his voice like he was. He cut into Jin Guangyao’s speech and demanded answers, falling quiet only when his jaw clenched too hard for words to pass his lips.

Jiang Cheng had been riveted by the sight even as his instincts screamed for him to get as far away from the danger zone as possible, like watching an oncoming storm from his car window.

“I was,” Lan Xichen admits, in a tone that implies Jin Guangyao hadn’t been the only target of Lan Xichen’s fury, despite the blame Lan Xichen wraps around himself. “But now, I don’t know.”

That last word trails off rather than ends sharply, and finally Jiang Cheng realizes that all of Lan Xichen’s pauses in this conversation are not because his thoughts are incoherent and his emotions undefined, but because there are too many coherent ones that express sentiments he preserves for structured lyrics. Just like how he never scolds his demanding fans, and how even as a teenager, he reprimanded but didn’t drag Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian to his uncle for pushing Lan Wangji into a pond, the man is too used to being the mediator to unleash all the less than positive words buzzing beneath his skin.

Perhaps too, he knows that once he lets even one slip, the rest will come like an unstoppable swarm of horse flies. Releasing them means letting them consume the rot that builds in the dark places those negative emotions are stored in, but only if they can also eat the flesh meant to protect one’s vulnerable innards.

And based on the conversation they’ve just had and what Jin Guangyao did, Lan Xichen’s too scared to say too much even in his songs.

“It wasn’t pure selflessness that made me do this, you know,” Lan Xichen says softly a few heartbeats later as if reading Jiang Cheng’s thoughts, “You saw in the studio how I’m struggling with some of my songs. Not just finding the right words or the right notes, but finding the joy that usually comes with creating or even just playing a song. I thought if I could help someone else experience that joy, I would remember it as well.”

“And you still let them choose Nie Mingjue’s song,” Jiang Cheng replies, and that instinctive anger surges through him, “You fucking idiot. Why–”

“It did help,” Lan Xichen cuts him off, and finally pulls apart his hands to flatten them against the rock. “Watching all of them do their best to play along and seeing them celebrate when we finished not only made me happy, but also gave me a new memory to associate with that song.”

He stares at Jiang Cheng much like he did in that classroom right before he began to play the song, as if Jiang Cheng has built the walls of a safe space from all his abrasive indignation. “It just made me tired after, that’s all. But I was already tired.”

Looking at him directly in the dying light with that admission draped over their shoulders, Jiang Cheng notices how pale Lan Xichen’s complexion has become, making the shadows under his eyes stand out like splotches of permanent marker. He’d yawned a couple times in the car and along their tour, but those were the sounds of someone needing a tea as opposed to the way Lan Xichen now tilts on his hand like he could curl up on the stone and fall asleep right there.

The realization constricts every one of Jiang Cheng’s internal organs, and yet Lan Xichen waves away Jiang Cheng’s simple suggestion that they leave then and there so Lan Xichen can rest. He insists he has another class to teach before they leave for a late dinner, and Jiang Cheng follows him back to the classrooms with an increasingly heavy scowl.

Jiang Cheng sits in the back of that classroom too, and watches Lan Xichen go through the same lesson as before with an equally young group of gawking children. These ones don’t pick a song with a personal connection to Lan Xichen, and Jiang Cheng has a moment to admire the way Lan Xichen only needs to consider the song for a moment before he flawlessly adapts the melody to the guqin’s strings. His notes sound as assured and perfect as the ones from his finalized songs, and the smiles he shares with the children all stretch with that joy Lan Xichen mentioned earlier.

But now that Jiang Cheng has seen the signs of exhaustion, he cannot see anything else for more than few seconds.  Lan Xichen’s resilient composure has always been a quality to admire, but now acid bubbles through Jiang Cheng’s vein with each new crack hastily covered up.

By the time they head back to the staff parking lot together, Jiang Cheng is more hissing corrosive liquid than human. When the car comes into view, the taste of gasoline fills Jiang Cheng’s mouth so strongly, he chokes.

“Give me your keys,” Jiang Cheng says, swinging into Lan Xichen’s path and holding out a hand. Lan Xichen stumbles to a stop with a frown.

“What?”

“Your keys. Give them to me.”

“Why?”

“Don’t ask stupid questions,” Jiang Cheng snaps, and jabs his hand toward Lan Xichen again. “Keys.”

“It’s my car?”

“And it’s a very nice, straightforward car that anyone can drive.”

“I don’t understand,” Lan Xichen says slowly, and that only makes the taste of gasoline thicken. “I drove here and–”

“Now you’re exhausted.”

“I’m not too tired to drive.”

“How many hours of sleep did you get last night?”

“Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Xichen says after a beat, tone shifting into a soothing one used for cranky children, but Jiang Cheng can now hear the hoarse undertones and he wonders just how many other times he missed it. “I just taught two classes without much trouble–”

“How many hours?”

“I walked all around these grounds with you without passing out–”

“How many?”

“I drive myself every day to the studio–”

“How. Many. Fucking. Hours?” Jiang Cheng demands, the last word a shout that startles a few nearby birds into flight. Lan Xichen purses his lips for a moment as Jiang Cheng’s heart thunders in his ears, but Lan Xichen eventually sighs and says,

“Four. Maybe less.”

“And how many did you get the night before?”

“Likely the same.”

“This whole week?”

“Why does it matter?”

Most people say they see red when they rage, but Jiang Cheng always sees the orange of the marigolds placed between his parents’ beds before they took them off life support.

“Being dead behind the wheel doesn’t matter?” Jiang Cheng shouts, voice only rising in volume at the lack of comprehension in Lan Xichen’s wide eyes. “Being too damn slow to hit the brakes when a pedestrian suddenly runs across the road doesn’t matter? Being too fucking tired to notice the stop sign doesn’t matter?”

“Of course that matters,” Lan Xichen replies, but he still stands too straight and too stubborn to calm the acid in Jiang Cheng’s veins and the screaming in Jiang Cheng’s head. “But I promise I am perfectly capable of handling a routine drive back through the city.”  

The orange blurs the scenery around them and those words, routine drive, printed over and over again in stark black characters in every newspaper and on every news site, rise in Jiang Cheng’s mind as clearly as his parents’ names on their tombstones.

“Like you’re handling your songs right now?” Lan Xichen flinches a full step back at that. Later, Jiang Cheng will replay that action in his mind until guilt burns a hole in his stomach, but in the moment, Jiang Cheng only bares more teeth. “Is that what you mean by handling something? Because fucking this up isn’t just fucking up some stupid musical note, it’s becoming a fucking murderer.”

“Excuse me, sirs?”

A stranger’s voice interrupts before the stiff Lan Xichen can reply, and Jiang Cheng whirls around so fast, he almost smacks the new man.

What?” Jiang Cheng demands, and the unassuming man with glasses takes a faltering step back.

“This is a school,” the man replies, as if Jiang Cheng just wandered out of the forest like a deer looking for food, “With a lot of children present. Which means I’m going to have to ask you to move your argument somewhere else, or I’ll be forced to call the cops.”

“You’re going to call the cops on us for arguing?”

“You’re shouting and swearing,” the man replies with an upturned nose. “It’s frightening the children.”

“Then they should go back to their classroom instead of eavesdropping.”

“Sir, I’m not arguing with you about this. Either take your attitude somewhere else or I’ll get the cops to do it.”

Jiang Cheng steps forward, no sensible or coherent counterargument on his tongue, only the destructive desire to never surrender to anyone when his pride has been damaged. A warm but firm hand on his shoulder stops him, and in that verbal pause when he knocks Lan Xichen off, Lan Xichen speaks.

“We’re deeply sorry for causing a disturbance, sir,” Lan Xichen says, and Jiang Cheng snarls at him when he steps between the two. “My friend was just about to drive us home anyways.”  

Other colours pierce the orange dye at that, and Jiang Cheng’s mouth snaps shut as Lan Xichen assures the gratified man they had no intention of causing a scene and it has no reflection on the school itself. The acid and gasoline fades enough for Jiang Cheng to swallow his instinctive urge to continue the fight, but he still tenses when Lan Xichen turns to him after the man walks back toward the school.

Metal jangles as Lan Xichen holds out his keys in the space between them.

“I don’t like being unable to control the things I’m supposed to be good at,” Lan Xichen says far more gently than Jiang Cheng deserves. “And I don’t like everyone treating me like I’ve become too fragile to function.”

He steps forward and despite Jiang Cheng’s earlier insistence, Jiang Cheng can’t look away from his warm eyes long enough to snatch the keys. “But now I realize your concern isn’t because you see me as weak. It’s because of what happened to your parents.”

Jiang Cheng grabs the keys then, curling his hand around them until the edges of the metal make his skin bleed just like the crushed metal of his parents’ car tore them open.

“Did you know that in most car accidents, the asshole who fucked up is usually the one who survives?” Jiang Cheng asks, no longer choking on the gasoline in his mouth, but on the kindness in Lan Xichen’s eyes and that desperate need to keep someone else he cares about from losing themselves to idiocy. “They don’t brace themselves and they don’t instinctively try turning to the side. They’ve got a whole engine, airbags, and all that other shit to protect them, but all that’s between the other passengers and the asshole crashing into their side is a thin piece of metal and some glass.”

It’s at least part of the reason Jinzhu lived, being the driver that night while A-Die sat in the front passenger seat and A-Niang sat in the back discussing something with Yinzhu before she started arguing with A-Die as he spoke to Wei Wuxian over the phone. Yinzhu once confessed that’s likely why A-Niang died and she didn’t, because in the moment Jinzhu desperately swerved the car to avoid the drunk driver careening toward them, A-Niang leaned out of her seat and into the front to snap at A-Die.

Despite being less at fault than the still living drunk driver, it’s those two women and Wei Wuxian who have nearly died from guilt.

“It’s not something you can take back,” Jiang Cheng continues when Lan Xichen just listens, even though talking about this fills his lungs with the blood from the cuts his words rip in his throat. “Even though all it would have taken is one fucking nap or one goddamn taxi.”

Jiang Cheng half-expects Lan Xichen to disregard his words in the silence that follows. After all, most people don’t think about how badly lack of sleep can affect their driving. Jiang Cheng himself has had to drive on less than ideal amounts of sleep before, though he always makes sure to caffeinate himself and pull over if he feels himself fading.

And Jiang Cheng did just yell loud enough to cause a scene at Lan Xichen’s family’s school.

“That may be one of the most convincing arguments for sleep self-care I’ve ever heard,” Lan Xichen finally replies, and Jiang Cheng’s grip around the keys loosen. “Though perhaps next time we can avoid even the mention of police involvement.”

Jiang Cheng glances back toward the school with slightly burning cheeks and closes his eyes against the mental image of Lan Qiren bursting a blood vessel when he hears complaints about this. At least it’s likely that any reports will focus on Jiang Cheng’s poor behaviour, and none of the details about the sleeping issues Lan Xichen doesn’t seem open to discussing. Those issues need to be dealt so they stop interfering with Lan Xichen’s health and safety, but Jiang Cheng is the last person to think that means Lan Xichen must tell a rigidly stern family member about the problem.  

“Jiang Wanyin.” A brush of fingers against his wrist forces Jiang Cheng to look back at Lan Xichen. “I’m sure I said this before, but for what it’s worth, I’m sorry for what happened with your parents.”

For a moment, Jiang Cheng thinks the orange has come back, his vision goes so blurry and his throat aches too much for words. Three years passed means he shouldn’t still react like this, both the sudden tears and the sudden anger. Plenty of people gave him condolences and he gave them a nod and numb thanks in return, while plenty of drivers since have made his fist slam against the horn in fury, but not climb out of his car to scream at them.

But he also hasn’t cared about those other people as much as he now cares about the kind man standing in front of him. He hadn’t just exchanged memories and confessions with those people, in a place that reminds him both how toxic his parents could be and how much he loved them.  

And Lan Xichen sounds like he’s not just referring to their deaths, but to the mess of insecurities and layers of hurt they passed onto the children who mourned them.

“I’m sorry your head’s being shitty,” Jiang Cheng mumbles in response, and when he finally blinks his vision clear, he sees Lan Xichen smiling at him like he just cured his insomnia.

“Thank you,” he says, and wraps his fingers around the hand that holds the car keys for a single heartbeat, “Now if you don’t mind, I think we’ve both had enough school for one day.”