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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 jiejie’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 jiejie, 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 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 preparing for surgery 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. “Xiao-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 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 piers, 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.”   

 

Chapter Text

Five weeks have passed since Jiang Cheng arrived in the city when September comes to an end. He and Jin Ling have finally established routines with far less temper tantrums in the morning and crying at night. They both still miss Jin Ling’s parents, but A-Jie will finally go into surgery at the end of the month and after a week of bedrest, she should be clear to come home.

Which doesn’t mean Jiang Cheng’s arrangement with Lan Xichen will end. A month of dating is insufficient by most people’s standards and especially by the fans that Wei Wuxian reports are endlessly hungry for more information about them. They devour the pictures of Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng’s continued public dates, but Lan Xichen too has become a part of Jiang Cheng’s routine, and a part Jiang Cheng looks forward to.

They continue to go on runs together in Ritan Park every day after Jiang Cheng drops Jin Ling off at school. The runs always bring a fierce grin to Jiang Cheng’s face as Lan Xichen matches him step for step, clearly giving as much attention to his health as he does his music, at least when it comes to the exercising part. He doesn’t eat as fast nor as much as Jiang Cheng, and those shadows beneath his eyes never fully fade, even if they are growing lighter on most days. But Lan Xichen tells Jiang Cheng about his attempted naps, and they split the driving between the two.

Some days after those runs, Jiang Cheng goes with Lan Xichen to Gusu Studios. Jiang Cheng never stays in the control room, though he usually stops in to greet Mianmian before he commandeers the table in the furthest corner of the studio’s first floor lounge. His presence no longer earns any confused frowns or double-takes by other singers and producers, and some even wave or spend a few seconds on small talk with him.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t care about any of them, nor does he care to give them too much information about Lan Xichen, but he is trying to be more mindful of how his attitude reflects on Lan Xichen, especially after their visit to Cloud Recesses. Lan Xichen is dealing with enough without Jiang Cheng picking fights with the people he works with.

Lan Xichen will find Jiang Cheng a few hours later. Sometimes he has finished recording for the day, and sometimes he says Mianmian decided they need to take a short break. If it’s a break, Jiang Cheng will either accompany Lan Xichen on an ambling walk around the studio property or sit with him and watch the man inhale a disturbing number of sweets. The stash, it turns out, is mainly maintained for Lan Xichen who has a sweet tooth to rival every sugar-crazed child Jiang Cheng has ever met.

Occasionally, Mianmian joins them in the lounge too. She has always seen far more than she lets on, but she is an easy addition to conversations, and she proved her concern for Lan Xichen is genuine when she yelled at Jiang Cheng for five minutes for that first studio argument with Lan Xichen once they were alone in the hallways. Jiang Cheng has continued to see that reassuring measure of protectiveness since then; spotting her in the halls as she holds her own in furiously whispered conversations with other producers and managers, and noting the way she keeps everyone away from their little table when Lan Xichen needs that break.

If Lan Xichen is finished for the day, they’ll go somewhere for a meal while A-Qing watches Jin Ling after school. By the time this dating ends, Jiang Cheng tells Lan Xichen, he’ll have visited more restaurants in the city than in his entire life.

“Is that such a bad thing?” Lan Xichen asks with a slight laugh, and Jiang Cheng replies that he hasn’t decided yet.

Even on the days that Jiang Cheng doesn’t see Lan Xichen, they still message each other as Lan Xichen continues to send him drawings, including one of Jin Ling and his friends based on a photo Jiang Cheng sent him earlier. They exchange stories too, about the day, and sometimes those conversations are no more than a few comments, but through them Jiang Cheng learns that Lan Xichen can’t stand tea that’s not scalding hot, can do a handstand for more than a minute, and will defend the value of even the most cliched romantic story. He collects leaves even though they dry out and crumble within a week, and long ribbons for his nephews to play with. He mostly maintains his family’s traditional vegetarian diet at home but is weak for American-style hamburgers. He likes sewing, but he’s terrible at all other household chores.

He is one of the most organized people Jiang Cheng knows, yet he loses at least one sock every other day.

He is paranoid about shin splits because he got them as a teenager, frequently clasps his hands behind his back where no one can see his hands squeezing together, and will outright close his eyes when he needs to take a second to calm himself. He has several constellations memorized because he used to tell Lan Wangji stories about them when they were young, and though he never road rages, his hands always curl a little harder around the steering wheel when someone doesn’t use a turn signal.  

He can say as much with a single raised eyebrow as Jiang Cheng can with an eyeroll, and he can never fully hide the amusement in his eyes when he tells a joke.

Then it’s a few days before the end of that fifth week, and Jiang Cheng is on a call with A-Jie and Jin Zixuan.

“You’re all prepared for the dinner this weekend?” Jin Zixuan asks as A-Jie begins to yawn.

“The dinner?”

“The Sunshot Charity Dinner?” Jin Zixuan says. “Lan Xichen has mentioned it to you, hasn’t he? With his disappearance from the public eye and this sudden dating plan, he needs to attend it more than any of us.”

“A-Xian must have mentioned it too,” A-Jie says, and Jiang Cheng mentally sifts through the slew of texts Wei Wuxian has sent him this week. “We all go every year if we can.”

“It’s one of the biggest celebrity events of the fall,” Jin Zixuan adds, “And one of the biggest charity events for us every year.”

“A-Qing should already have the night marked in her calendar,” A-Jie tells him as a headache starts to build in his skull just thinking about the night.  

Sure enough, when Jiang Cheng texts the teenager, she confirms she’s already cleared that Saturday evening to take care of Jin Ling. He swears when he sees Lan Xichen did forward him an invitation to the event a few days ago and Jiang Cheng did agree without realizing just how big an event it was.

He swears twice as loud when Wei Wuxian responds to his messages about the night with,

WE R GONNA MAKE UR 1ST TIME SO FUN!!!! NIE-XIONG EVEN SAID HE’LL MAKE SURE WE LOOK FABULOUS!!!!!!

Jin Ling is at the movies with A-Qing and his friends when Wei Wuxian bangs into the house that Saturday afternoon. Jiang Cheng tried to argue against the plan, even pointing out that Lan Wangji probably wanted to get ready with Wei Wuxian, but the man just said he would go over after much like Jiang Cheng would be picking Lan Xichen up.

“Jiang Cheng, come on,” Wei Wuxian says, bouncing up onto the couch when he finds Jiang Cheng huddled on it in the cozy room. “We have so many things to try and jiejie said we could use her dressing room.”

Jiang Cheng scowls at Wei Wuxian as he tugs on Jiang Cheng’s arm, but the scowl falters when another voice calls his name.

“Please, Jiang-xiong, it’s been ages since we’ve seen each other so the least you can do is not let all my hard work go to waste.”

Jiang Cheng looks up to where the now increasingly popular clothing designer stands in the doorway. An open fan blocks half his face, but Jiang Cheng can see the amusement creasing the corners’ of Nie Huaisang’s eyes, just like when they were children and he watched the Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian wrestle each other.

“What hard work?” Jiang Cheng snorts, and shoves Wei Wuxian off him as he stands, “I know you have a million suits just lying around your mansion.”

“I can’t just choose any suit,” Nie Huaisang protests, and lowers his fan just enough for them to see his pout. “It has to be the perfect one for you and all your angry wrinkles.”

“I’ll give you some wrinkles,” Jiang Cheng threatens, and Nie Huaisang darts away with a squeak as Jiang Cheng marches toward him. Wei Wuxian’s laughter follows them, and Jiang Cheng grips the edge of the kitchen island as the choking nostalgia descends on them.

“First you don’t reply to my texts and now you threaten me,” Nie Huaisang complains from the other side of the kitchen island. “Honestly, Jiang-xiong, you’re as cruel as ever.”

“I replied to your texts yesterday!”

“You replied to three of them, but what about all the other ones? It took you two days to reply when you first got into the city, and you still haven’t replied to the cat video I sent you yesterday. And what about the group chat Wei-xiong maintains so diligently?”

“You never post there!”

“I have a reputation to maintain,” Nie Huaisang says with a wave of his fan, “But I still reply if I get addressed directly.”

“And I’m replying right now,” Jiang Cheng responds, before lunging across the counter. Nie Huaisang slips around the side and then dashes for the cover of Wei Wuxian who gestures down the hallway.

I want to see all your hard-work,” Wei Wuxian tells Nie Huaisang as Jiang Cheng stalks over. “Come on, I can’t wait to see just how many choices you brought.”

“Twenty-four if you count each hat combo as a different one,” Nie Huaisang tells him, and Jiang Cheng stumbles on the smooth hardwood floor.

Twenty-four?”

“You don’t look this good without effort,” Nie Huaisang tells him, even though the man currently wears a simple grey blazer thrown over a white shirt and black jeans. “Don’t worry, I have just as many for Wei-xiong and double for myself. But you’re the one who needs the most hands-on expertise.”

Jiang Cheng contemplates strangling his friend as Wei Wuxian quickly leads them through A-Jie and Jin Zixuan’s bedroom and into A-Jie’s own dressing room. Even though every dance hall A-Jie performs at has its own dressing room, Jin Zixuan built her this personal one as soon as they bought the house.

It’s a spacious, circular space with golden gilded mirrors for walls so A-Jie can see her outfit from every angle. Behind the mirrors are the closets that house A-Jie’s many dance outfits and dresses, and the mirror with the lotus engraved on top leads to A-Jie’s own studio space.

Wei Wuxian immediately steps away from the raised edges of the room and down the gentle slope to the middle where a white divan waits. He sprawls across the surface while Jiang Cheng gives the obscene number of mirrors a suspicious look. Jin Ling isn’t allowed in here without supervision because of the risk of smudging, but Jiang Cheng thinks the room could do with some opaque surfaces.

He told A-Jie as much when he first saw the ostentatious room, but A-Jie just smiled and told him it was a gift from her husband and therefore she accepted the enthusiasm.

“I guess it’s acceptable,” Nie Huaisang says of the room, and slaps his closed fan into his hand. “Jiang-xiong, please strip while I go get the outfits from the kitchen.”

“You’ve gone crazy if you think I’m stripping in front of you two in this house of horrors,” Jiang Cheng splutters as Wei Wuxian laughs.

“But we’ve gone skinny dipping together multiple times,” Wei Wuxian points out.

“We know which kinky novels the other loved,” Nie Huaisang adds as if that won’t make things worse.

“I swear, I will kick you both out and wear whatever the fuck I want.”

“Please don’t break my heart like that,” Nie Huaisang says, sounding more frightened than when Jiang Cheng was charging toward him with the threat of bodily violence. When Jiang Cheng just glares at him, Nie Huaisang sighs. “Alright alright, you can climb into a mirror then, and we’ll pass the clothes to you.”

He leaves the room and Jiang Cheng counts to ten before he whirls on Wei Wuxian. He waits expectantly, but the other man just continues to lounge on the divan, twirling his phone in his hand. He glances up after a few seconds but simply raises his eyebrows in response to Jiang Cheng’s look.

“What?” he asks, and Jiang Cheng blows out a long sigh. He should have known Wei Wuxian would walk through this situation as he does every other; with blind optimism and weaponized cheer. Even though the two of them have been acknowledging what went wrong with each other, Wei Wuxian still prefers letting tension roll right off his back.

Jiang Cheng is not nearly as good at doing that, but with Wei Wuxian just blinking at him, he decides to try.

“Nothing,” he snaps, and slides open one of the mirrors. Behind them might be closets, but these closets are big enough to fit at least three people comfortably, so Jiang Cheng relaxes until Nie Huaisang returns.

The second Nie Huaisang starts shoving outfits at Jiang Cheng though, all his tension returns. He steps out of the mirror to display each outfit with shoulders too stiff and a scowl already sitting on his lips. Nie Huaisang has Wei Wuxian try on his own outfits halfway through, but Wei Wuxian still stops to examine Jiang Cheng every time, and Jiang Cheng grinds his teeth harder with each new criticism.

Nie Huaisang isn’t satisfied with anything; tapping his closed fan against his palm as he circles Jiang Cheng, pinching bits of fabric between his fingers, tugging on hems, and tutting every few seconds. While Jiang Cheng isn’t arrogant about his looks, he also isn’t usually insecure about them, but the drawn-out process and all the damn mirrors are threatening to plant those seeds.

“This is taking way too fucking long,” he snaps after the thirteenth outfit, Wei Wuxian tapping away on his phone for a moment.

“You can’t rush perfection, Jiang-xiong,” Nie Huaisang says from behind him, and Jiang Cheng twists just to glare at him.

None of this has been even close to perfect, in your opinion,” Jiang Cheng points out. “We might as well give up if I’m so hopeless.”

No one is as hopeless as da-ge, and I haven’t given up on him yet,” Nie Huaisang replies, freezing Jiang Cheng’s glare and his heart, “Seriously, I have to beg him for at least an hour before he lets me pick out an outfit just to shut me up, and then there’s only allowed to be three choices, and then by the time he’s made it to the studio, he’s back in some ripped jeans and a ill-fitting hoodie!”

Nie Huaisang comes back around to give the front collar another look and Jiang Cheng turns back with him.

“One day his terrible fashion sense will give me a heart attack and then he’ll understand my constant weeping.”

“He’s looking fine in his tour pictures,” Wei Wuxian pipes up reassuringly, and Nie Huaisang pouts.

“Only because I’ve been calling him before every show, and because I’ve also been calling his team of stylists before every public appearance.”

“Is this really okay?” Jiang Cheng blurts before either of them can share one more tidbit about Nie Mingjue that he shouldn’t be privy to anymore. Both men look at him with tilted heads, and Jiang Cheng glares at their confusion. “Talking about Nie Mingjue like I’m not currently dating his ex-friend.”

He thinks he’s still missing some information as to why Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen’s friendship took such a hit with one album after years of close friendship, but Lan Xichen made it very clear the other week that whatever the reasons, the two are not talking in part because that’s what Nie Mingjue wants.

Normally Jiang Cheng wouldn’t care, but after hearing about Nie Mingjue’s reaction to the album and Jiang Cheng’s own reaction to Jin Guangyao asking about Lan Xichen, he imagines Nie Huaisang also feels like shielding details about Nie Mingjue from others.

Despite the age gap and the myriad of complaints Nie Huaisang always has, he adores his older brother.

Da-ge calls me dramatic at least once a day,” Nie Huaisang says slowly, “But I think right now he’s being more overdramatic than I’ve ever been.”  

Jiang Cheng stares at the unhappy downturn to Nie Huaisang’s mouth and the creases cracking out from the corner of his eyes. Nie Huaisang stares right back, and snaps open his fan to cover his mouth, as if to block the others from seeing him start and stop multiple times as he chooses the best thing to say.

“I actually wanted to ask how Xichen-er-ge is doing,” Nie Huaisang says, and behind him, Wei Wuxian lowers his phone. “I wanted to ask him myself, but I feel like he probably doesn’t want to talk to me right now.”

Jiang Cheng opens his mouth but looks to Wei Wuxian first. The other man just shrugs and gestures to Nie Huaisang’s back, as if trusting Jiang Cheng to know Lan Xichen best at this point.

“I think he thinks you don’t want to talk to him,” Jiang Cheng replies, and Wei Wuxian snorts.

“I told you so,” Wei Wuxian says, and Nie Huaisang just waves his fan a little faster. “Maybe you should tell him who else you’re talking to.”

Jiang Cheng takes a second to glare at Wei Wuxian who clearly knows more about this situation than he’s mentioned before, and then swings his glare onto Nie Huaisang’s face like a search light.

“Well?” Jiang Cheng demands when Nie Huaisang doesn’t immediately speak. “Please don’t tell me you’re this stupid.”

“It could also be considered stupid to not get all the information I can about the situation when I’m trying to help da-ge fix his people problems,” Nie Huaisang replies, and Jiang Cheng’s cheeks burn at the unintentional slight about ignorance. “Jin Guangyao is one-third of the problem which means he has one-third of the total information.”

“Except his one-third are all lies so why bother listening?” Jiang Cheng asks, because despite what he told Lan Xichen about him and Wei Wuxian listening to each other, Jiang Cheng still struggles to listen even to the people he cares about if his pride has been hurt.

“Even if they’re all lies, I still need to hear them.”

“How does that make any fucking sense?”

“Because he was my friend too!” Nie Huaisang snaps, sharper than Jiang Cheng has heard in a long time, “And he still talks like he wants us to be the friends, even though he knows I’m not going to give him any help right now. He won’t even ask me for fashion advice right now.”

Nie Huaisang glances at the inky lines of the mountains that spread across his fan. “And because I’m the one who introduced them to each other.”

That halts Jiang Cheng’s oncoming tirade, and he gapes at Nie Huaisang.

“What?”

Da-ge and Guangyao,” Nie Huaisang says, taking a small step back at whatever crosses Jiang Cheng’s face. “I met Guangyao at the first Sunshot Charity Dinner he had an official invite to and da-ge was looking for a new manager, so I introduced them. I liked him.”

“Obviously,” Wei Wuxian says, stepping up the slope to join the two on the upper ledges and looking at Nie Huaisang like they’ve had this conversation before. “You would never sabotage Nie Mingjue.”

“You said the Sunshot Charity Dinner,” Jiang Cheng interrupts, mind suddenly whirring too fast with thoughts about Lan Xichen to bother with Nie Huaisang’s guilt, “This Sunshot Charity Dinner?”

“The same one eight years ago, yeah,” Nie Huaisang replies, and lowers his fan so they can see his frown. “Why?”

“This outfit needs to be picked out now,” Jiang Cheng says, and grabs the next outfit from Nie Huaisang as he strides back toward the open closet. He closes the door on their questions and tugs on the clothing so fast he almost rips the finer material.

But based on what Nie Huaisang just said, Lan Xichen is going to need someone to talk to, even someone as imperfect as Jiang Cheng, far more than Jiang Cheng needs the perfect outfit.

 

***

 

Lan Xichen is torn between wishing Lan Wangji was there as he prepares for the Sunshot Charity Dinner, and relieved his younger brother isn’t there to see Lan Xichen pacing through his small apartment in panic for the fifth time that evening. Normally Lan Xichen deals with his nerves by sitting on his couch and working through the breathing and meditation techniques Lan Qiren taught both nephews from the time they were little.

“It doesn’t matter where you end up in life,” he would tell the boys, “Doing this will always strengthen your mind and your heart.”

Probably that is one of the reasons Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen can sit so still for so long no matter what inner turmoil rages within, a much-praised ability within their industry.

But that night, as soon as Lan Xichen sits and tries to arrange his thoughts, his sees the burnished copper of the banquet hall walls that flicker with the illusion of flames licking up their surfaces when the light dims to a glow. The couch becomes a cushioned stool, his small coffee table a smooth bar counter, and he hears Jin Guangyao laughing softly just for him. He smells the alcohol that drifted off people like perfume as they danced in decadent clothes, and he tastes the thousand-layer cake that his friends teased him for eating four slices of.

His heart quickens and lightens with those remembered sensations, until he recalls everything that followed that beautiful night.

Then Lan Xichen launches himself off the couch, banging his shins on the table and nearly crashing right onto the glass top. He forces himself to move, looking for anything to tidy, even though he only has two bedrooms that he keeps in perfect order, a kitchen he hasn’t used since he’s been back, and a large main room that he rarely makes a mess of. The only things that could be scattered about are his books and collection of random knick-knacks, his instruments always carefully tucked away in their alcove after use.

But those items rest on his shelves and some of the older ones hold memories Lan Xichen can’t examine now without momentarily forgetting how to breathe.

So he wanders like a lost spirit. Music blasts from his stereo; at first, he tried playing American pop songs since he knows none of those singers personally, but that only reminded him that Nie Mingjue was still abroad and returning tomorrow. He switched to German death metal after that, the furthest thing he could think of from either of their genres. All the deep-throated shouting might eventually give him a headache, but if he has a headache, then maybe he won’t be able to think at all.

He wishes he took longer to get ready, but he has so many suits tailored to him and he has attended so many formal events, that he barely needs to do more than throw on his most pristine baby blue suit and brush out his long hair. The two small braids he makes to frame his face like ribbons take less than ten minutes. Covering up the more damning shadows under his eyes has become a simple part of his morning routine, and he only needs a few seconds to sling his woolen, dark blue coat over his couch.

Maybe choosing an outfit different from his normal ones would have made Lan Xichen feel better, but he didn’t consider that until that night. He didn’t consider any of the details that would make him feel like attending this event will be the equivalent of surrendering to his own personal firing squad.

He did have the foresight to know he would sleep even worse in the days leading up to the event and agreed to let Jiang Cheng drive them both. But now that means when, after multiple attempts to bring himself to type out the words, he finally formulates a text to Jiang Cheng calling the night off, he sees a message from Jiang Cheng saying he’s on his way over. It’s earlier than Lan Xichen is expecting the man, and Lan Xichen doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry about the fact that this is the day Jiang Cheng chooses to be on time.

He’s leaning toward crying when Jiang Cheng shows up, barely hearing the buzzing of the apartment building’s front door over his intercom with the loud music blaring. He quickly turns the music down and answers the call.

“Hey,” Jiang Cheng says, Lan Xichen able to see him looking around the lobby on the small video screen.

“Good evening,” Lan Xichen replies, and then replays his words again and again to decide if their garble betrayed his panic.  

“Are you going to let me in?” Jiang Cheng asks when Lan Xichen just stands there.

“Oh, yes, sorry, one moment.”

His hands tremble as he hits the unlock button, and he clasps them tightly behind his back as soon as Jiang Cheng makes it through the lobby doors.

This time Lan Xichen responds immediately when Jiang Cheng rings his doorbell, though each step has begun to feel unreal, as if he is floating over the floor. He still forces a smile to his lips when he opens the door and waves Jiang Cheng inside. He closes the door and stays like that trying to collect himself before Jiang Cheng clears his throat.

“So,” he says, and Lan Xichen turns. “You ready to head out or what?”

And Lan Xichen can do nothing but freeze in place, one hand still clutching the doorknob behind him. Even when Jiang Cheng’s face tightens in concern, Lan Xichen’s mouth won’t form the necessary and casual agreement. The more seconds tick by in silence, the harder his heart beats until Lan Xichen can hear nothing else.

He’s never supposed to let anyone see him this undone, but he can’t make himself move, and he can no longer deny the fact that he has no idea what to do when he sees Jin Guangyao tonight.

Lan Xichen has gone over a million possible scripts in his head, and he’s ripped up every single one of them. They either require him to ignore anything bad ever happened in favour of losing himself to kinder memories, or have him unable to forget the bad, which in turn makes his chest ache worse and worse with every new word until he can’t breathe.

He has no guarantee that he can even smile at others like expected and participate in all the small talk required when his body keeps careening toward a panic attack.

“Hey,” Jiang Cheng’s loud voice rises over the sound of Lan Xichen’s heartbeat, though he has no idea how many times Jiang Cheng has called for his attention.  He blinks, and the man’s face looms in his blurry vision. “Just–let’s just sit for a moment.”

Jiang Cheng grabs the hand Lan Xichen still wraps around the doorknob, fingers now numb from the cold metal. Jiang Cheng pries each digit from the surface before pulling Lan Xichen over to the grey cushioned couch, shoving Lan Xichen’s shoulders until he sits. “Now–what the fuck is that noise?”

“German death metal,” Lan Xichen manages to say, and Jiang Cheng’s frown only deepens.

“Oookay. Do–is that important for you to hear right now?”

“You can turn it off,” Lan Xichen says even though the moment Jiang Cheng jabs the off button, the silence scrapes Lan Xichen’s ears until he wonders if they’re bleeding.

Jiang Cheng throwing himself onto the couch startles Lan Xichen out of his spiralling state long enough to hear Jiang Cheng say,

“What’s the problem?”

Lan Xichen pries his mouth open, only for Jiang Cheng to cut in. “And don’t you dare fucking say, nothing. You were just listening to people screaming.”

“Singing,” Lan Xichen corrects out of habitual loyalty to every musical genre, and Jiang Cheng snorts.

“Whatever.”

He waits, but Lan Xichen just stares down at his lap. His hands still tremble, and Lan Xichen folds them and presses them against his legs as if enough solid pressure will stop it.

“I was with Huaisang earlier,” Jiang Cheng says when Lan Xichen says nothing, and Lan Xichen’s gaze jerks up to Jiang Cheng at that name. The man watches him with far more calm than usual, but his mouth twists into familiar unhappy curves. “He told me this event is where he first met Jin Guangyao. Where you all met him.”

Lan Xichen’s eyes slide shut and his exhale comes out shaky with the renewed images that rise behind closed eyelids.

“Hey, look at me.”

Lan Xichen opens his eyes at the fraying in Jiang Cheng’s voice, and sees the calm rapidly slipping from his face at Lan Xichen’s continued reticence. Jiang Cheng scoots closer and the cushions dip until their thighs press against each other and Lan Xichen smells the earthy pine cologne Jiang Cheng wears that night.

“I know I’m everyone’s last choice when it comes to comfort,” Jiang Cheng says, “But I’m not fucking driving you to some stupid party when you look like you just watched someone die. So just tell me. Do you want to skip the dinner tonight?”

“No,” Lan Xichen replies because he’s been preparing that expected answer. But when Jiang Cheng scowls, he lets out a shaky laugh. “Yes. I don’t know.”

“Is it because of what Huaisang told me?”

“Because every time I think about going, I remember how naively enamored I was with Jin Guangyao the first time I met him?” Lan Xichen chokes on the bitterness in his voice, yet Jiang Cheng doesn’t even flinch. “Yes.”  

He expects Jiang Cheng to tell him he’s being stupid. To get over himself and not let the memories of years past affect his mental state as much as he is. It’s what Lan Xichen told himself in the countryside when he tried to work out where everything went wrong, and it’s what he tells himself when he can’t sleep at night.

If he truly wants a second chance with the people who were his closet friends, then he cannot let them repeat the same mistakes, and that includes not giving in so easily to the filter of inherent goodness that he sees the world and people through. It means not letting how much he loves others guide his every action and make him believe that they love him just as much in return.

But Jiang Cheng doesn’t give his normally blunt opinion. His eyes darken like rich earth and his hands curl into fists, but he simply says,

“Why?”

And Lan Xichen could give an answer about his natural naivety, his desperate desire to believe in people that refuses to be extinguished, no matter how much cold water he pours on it. That is the answer he knows Lan Wangji and Lan Qiren have accepted for why Lan Xichen suffers so much from this mess. Wei Wuxian too, he knows, has told Lan Yuan the reason Lan Xichen is sad is because he is kind and someone used that to hurt others.

Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao, Lan Xichen thinks, have come to the conclusion that it stems from selfishness. He wanted them and their friendship to exist only as he thought it did and should, not truly empathizing with his friends like everyone lauds him for, and therefore making him easy to manipulate.     

Each of those answers are true. But they are not the only ones, and they miss something that Lan Xichen needs someone to understand before he believes he truly did make everything up and before he can move forward.

“That night, I was coming from my parents’ graves,” Lan Xichen says, and Jiang Cheng’s eyes widen at that, “Fuqin had died a week before. Lan Wangji decided not to go the dinner at all because of that, and I was very late.”

Lan Xichen still remembers the chill of the air that night, and the way he clutched his cellphone for a long time in the parking lot as he contemplated calling Lan Wangji and asking if he could intrude on his evening. He was with Wei Wuxian that night, being comforted as needed and while Lan Xichen knew neither would begrudge his presence, Lan Xichen couldn’t bring himself to press the call button.

Especially not when he reminded himself that with Lan Qiren sick that night, Lan Xichen was the only one of the famous Lans who could attend the biggest celebrity charity event of the year. They could have simply made the monetary contribution they were always going to make, but it was their presence that everyone would remember, and so Lan Xichen rushed inside.

“I was not as composed as I normally am,” Lan Xichen admits, “So when I was rushing through the halls, I quite literally ran into Jin Guangyao.”

Ran into and almost knocked them both to the carpeted ground. He immediately dissolved into hasty apologies, helping Jin Guangyao straighten as the man softly laughed away his apologies.

“It’s not every day you can say you ran into the great Zewu Jun,” the man told him, only making Lan Xichen’s blush worse.

“I apologized for being so oblivious, I asked him if he was alright, and then he said he should be asking me that.”

“I don’t mean to overstep,” he said, hesitating in a way that he rarely lets people see, “But you don’t seem to being doing as well as someone should at a party.”

“I told him about the death, and I tried to brush away his concern by telling him that he’d been sick for awhile and we hadn’t been close for many years but–”

“I never knew mine very well,” Jin Guangyao said, and maybe Lan Xichen was just exhausted that night, but his expression was the softest Lan Xichen had seen in a long time, “But it still hurt when he died. Not as much as when muqin died, but still. I’m sorry you’re going through that.”

Lan Xichen’s words failed him in that moment, despite how many condolences he and Lan Wangji already received that week, but Jin Guangyao only glanced further inside the building.

“Would you like me to buy you a drink? It seems like you could use one.”

“I don’t drink alcohol,” Lan Xichen told him, but a small smile touched his lips. “And if anything, I should be buying you one.”

“I can’t accept your money, but I would love to accept your company.”

“So we sat at the bar,” Lan Xichen says, his words coming out so much slower and shakier than they did that night when Jin Guangyao never once gave Lan Xichen that practiced smile he gave others. “And we talked for most of the night.”

Their parents aren’t an easy topic for either of them, yet Lan Xichen found himself giving his parents’ sordid tale to the man whose gaze never once dimmed looking at him and whose laugh was rusty, as if he only ever let loose that sound when expected. In return, Jin Guangyao told him about the birth father who never once reached out to his mother after the night that got her pregnant. He told Lan Xichen about his kind mother, who worked multiple part-time jobs just to pay rent in a hopelessly impoverished neighbourhood and the second-hand clothes he wore all throughout his schooling, both things people to that day continued to look down on him for despite proclaiming to be modernized adults.

They moved onto both lighter and equally personal topics from there; everything from their dreams to their current family to their day jobs to the food they loved best.

“Well this is definitely a good start, right, da-ge?”  

“Nie Huaisang and Nie Mingjue found us later,” Lan Xichen says, recalling how he almost fell off his bar stool at Nie Huaisang’s voice, so absorbed in his conversation with Jin Guangyao. Nie Huaisang kept grinning cheekily at Nie Mingjue as Jin Guangyao greeted them familiarly, until Nie Mingjue told his younger brother to go be useful and get them more food if he was going to keep grinning like a drunkard.

“But da-ge, I want to talk with our new friend too,” Nie Huaisang replied, Nie Mingjue telling him to go bother his other frivolous friends instead before glaring at Jin Guangyao when he laughed.

“They’d already met Jin Guangyao in the hours I wasn’t there,” Lan Xichen explains, and he can’t stop from twisting his hands as he encroaches the conclusion and Jiang Cheng’s ensuing judgement. His heart has been beating fast all this time, yet he can almost ignore the inner bruising it leaves when his mind drifts into the golden past. “They had already talked to him, separately and together, and Nie Mingjue already agreed to try Jin Guangyao as his new manager. He had already secured his position with them when I ran into him.”

Perhaps Lan Xichen could argue that Nie Mingjue has no right to judge him for his quick attachment to Jin Guangyao, when he did the same. But Lan Xichen didn’t think of it that way that night, nor does he ever wish to. That night he was simply happy they both saw something in this new man that invited him into their lives, reaffirming to Lan Xichen that his and Nie Mingjue’s childhood friendship was naturally and solidly continuing into their adulthood.

“Do you understand?” Lan Xichen asks as he refocuses fully on the present, and Jiang Cheng sitting stiffly on the couch beside him. He almost grabs Jiang Cheng but pours all his desperation into his voice instead. “Why I can’t believe everything was disingenuous from the start?”

Everyone understands Lan Xichen’s hurt. When he yelled at Jin Guangyao, when he cut all contact, when he fled for a respite; everyone sympathised with that. They said he was taking care of himself and his actions were comprehensible.

But it’s the forgiveness that Lan Xichen needs them to understand. The reasons he believes, even now, that some part of Jin Guangyao simply wanted to be their friends. That he thought he was doing the right thing for all of them, and that the calls Lan Xichen cannot answer are not simply about him trying to earn back his job.

Except, Lan Xichen tried to convince Nie Mingjue of that back when Nie Mingjue fired and disavowed Jin Guangyao, only for Jin Guangyao to release Venerated Triad as he did. Which is why Lan Xichen can’t trust his own judgement and why, if he is to speak with his ex-friends again, he needs to know there is someone else who supports that decision.

Because it is going to hurt, no matter what words he chooses or which ones Jin Guangyao utters. When they do eventually speak again, even if they both wish to rebuild a friendship, their hands will be bleeding from old wounds as they construct those bridges together. Pretending they aren’t bleeding, that nothing was ever wrong, only heightens the risk of those wounds festering and getting infected just as their insecurities did in the past.

But for all of Lan Xichen’s experience being the optimistic one, he doesn’t know if he can hold someone’s hand and focus on both the warmth and the blood spilled.

“I don’t know,” Jiang Cheng admits, but he leans closer before Lan Xichen can despair. “Convince me. You were friends after that?”

He waits to hear what Lan Xichen has to say just like Lan Wangji used to after their mom died and he crawled into Lan Xichen’s bed late at night. Lan Xichen would wrap his arms around his younger brother and then wrap blankets around them both before whispering,

“Do you want to hear a song, didi?”

Lan Wangji would nod and listen in perfect silence as Lan Xichen softly sang whatever melody he could remember. Sometimes they weren’t even songs, but stories he heard that he put into musical form for his younger brother who always allowed a little more snuggling in those hushed hours than during the day. Sometimes he made up his own stories, which Lan Wangji loved just as much as the others.

Sometimes Lan Wangji would have questions after, but he always liked the songs and those moments assured Lan Xichen they would always be connected, even if Lan Wangji retreated into silent grief every other hour of the day.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t sit still like Lan Wangji and every feeling that flickers through him announces itself along the lines and angles of his body; from the scrunch of his forehead, to the tense tilt of his shoulders, to the fingers that curl and uncurl on his black slacks.

Not the most neutral listener or gentlest comforter, just as he said.

But he sits and he waits, and Lan Xichen knows he will give an honest opinion after everything is said and done.

“We were,” Lan Xichen says, and he sees not just those many studio hours together, but all the times in between. The restaurant tables that were always too small for Nie Mingjue, the streets cast in neon shades and grey smudges, and the cushions of the apartments they took respite within together. “Jin Guangyao was always going to Nie Huaisang for advice on his outfit choices, and Nie Huaisang always liked taking people to trendy places, so the two of them bonded first.”

“They’re worse than a pair of gossiping old ladies,” Nie Mingjue always complained in the beginning, but without any venom.

“But aren’t you happy seeing more of A-Sang?” Lan Xichen would reply, because Nie Huaisang told Lan Xichen that he never clicked with the rest of Nie Mingjue’s staff and never felt particularly welcome visiting Nie Mingjue in the studio.

“I’ve told him plenty of times to stop being so sensitive,” Nie Mingjue always said when Lan Xichen broached that subject with him. “If he wants to visit the studio, then he should just visit.”

“I think it made Nie Mingjue happy, even though he never admitted it,” Lan Xichen says, because by that point, the other man had come to acknowledge the value in Nie Huaisang’s work. He was happy his younger brother found a work to enjoy and sustain him, even if he still thought Nie Huaisang was far too reliant on other people and far too soft.

“Even if my designs are the best, I still need a model to wear them, da-ge. That means a lot of sweet talking and deals, not just recording a song and shoving the demo in someone’s lap.”

“And Jin Guangyao was good at his job,” Lan Xichen says. Nie Mingjue would admit that, and he never would have kept Jin Guangyao around if he wasn’t, no matter how much Nie Huaisang liked him more than the managers before. “Nie Huaisang used to joke that Nie Mingjue might as well be wearing blinders with how he walked from the dressing room to the stage, ignoring everything on the way. He hated dealing with anything that wasn’t just playing his music, and Jin Guangyao was good at making sure Nie Mingjue felt like he was spending most of his time on that.”

For all that Jin Guangyao was good at dealing with the myriad of people that wanted a slice of Nie Mingjue’s time, and for all that Jin Guangyao relied on his ability to manipulate other people, Lan Xichen thinks that some part of him wished he could be like Nie Mingjue. Or like Nie Huaisang who, for all that his job relied in part on social connections, was not nearly as affected by people and their opinions as Jin Guangyao.

Even Lan Xichen, for all his love of others and his soft heart, never understood Jin Guangyao’s insecurity as well as Jin Guangyao needed someone to.

But then, it was only when everything was falling apart that Jin Guangyao revealed how bad his relations were with others.

“He liked Nie Mingjue’s music, and he wanted to work on it even more than Nie Mingjue’s record producer.” Which was technically not Jin Guangyao’s job as a manager, but no one could deny his ability to subtly rearrange songs to add more layers of meaning while maintaining Nie Mingjue’s style. “So he started taking meals with Nie Mingjue outside the official schedule like he did with Nie Huaisang and eventually, we were all spending time together.”

Lan Xichen, after all, often worked at the same time, in the same studios as Nie Mingjue, and their friendship had continued past childhood and Lan Xichen’s temporary crush, even if their fans constantly fight over who is the better artist. They were often at each other’s apartments, with or without Nie Huaisang, and so it is only natural that after their first meeting, Lan Xichen eventually bonded with Jin Guangyao as well. Lan Xichen’s respect for Jin Guangyao’s determined attitude only grew, and Jin Guangyao only clung tighter to Lan Xichen’s genuine kindness.

It makes Lan Xichen wonder if things would have been different if they all met in school. If they could have been friends that way, with the same musical and economic background, maybe Jin Guangyao wouldn’t have felt he needed to prove he was worthy of being their manager and then friend. Maybe he would have known how toxic the industry was before he waded through it and knew how to avoid the dregs as Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen were taught. Maybe he wouldn’t let the ridicule that reminded him of his childhood bullies affect him, and maybe that ridicule would have never come about in the first place.

“You introduced him to Jin Zixuan, too,” Jiang Cheng says when Lan Xichen falls quiet for longer than before.

“Yes,” Lan Xichen replies, a little startled that Jiang Cheng would think to bring that up. “Jin Guangyao found out who his father was a few years before and Nie Huaisang knew Jin Zixuan from the modelling business, so Jin Guangyao just needed a little supportive push to reach out.”

“Stop being a coward,” Nie Mingjue snapped when Jin Guangyao backed out for the third time when Lan Xichen had arranged for the two half-brothers to be in the same relatively private place at the same time.

“Easy for you to say,” Jin Guangyao snapped right back, one of the first times Lan Xichen saw him lose his temper with Nie Mingjue. Normally he was far wittier with his replies, or he simply laughed off Nie Mingjue’s stern or unsympathetic comments, quickly growing as used to them as Nie Huaisang. “Everyone wants to know you, no matter callous you act or how well-off they are. Someone like me has nothing to offer someone like him.”

“You’re his brother,” Nie Mingjue replied before anyone else could cut in. “That’s the only thing that matters right now.”

Jin Guangyao laughed then, more hysterical than he ever let anyone hear.

“You say that as if you haven’t spent most of your life judging A-Sang.”

“So?”

“So, that’s with the two of you growing up together. Jin Zixuan and I are strangers.”

They could have argued with Jin Guangyao endlessly, Nie Huaisang pointing out that he’d mentioned Jin Guangyao to Jin Zixuan a few times now, and Lan Xichen coaxing him into at least talking to Jin Zixuan that evening, if not revealing their blood connection. But Nie Mingjue, not necessarily acting in the right but acting far more decisively than any of them, grabbed Jin Guangyao by the arm, dragged him to where Jin Zixuan sat with Jiang Yanli, and shoved him into the empty chair.

“You can at least offer to repay Xichen for his kindness,” Nie Mingjue snapped, and then left the restaurant all together.

“Did Jiang Yanli tell you about that night?” Lan Xichen asks, and Jiang Cheng snorts.

“We met with her the next morning to discuss the wedding plans, and she brought Jin Guangyao with her.”

“That’s right,” Lan Xichen almost smiles at the memory of Jin Guangyao telling them all about Jin Zixuan’s awkward delight at connecting with Jin Guangyao and attempting to include him in his life just in time for his marriage to Jiang Yanli. “He spent a lot of time that year helping to arrange the wedding.”

Which in hindsight, is perhaps where the downfall started. Lan Xichen doesn’t know precisely what changed, or how exactly Jin Guangyao felt about everyone. Nie Huaisang used to tease Jin Guangyao sometimes for having an even greater interest in Nie Mingjue than Jin Guangyao let on, but if that is true, he never admitted it even to Lan Xichen. Maybe if he did Lan Xichen could have helped them avoid this entire ordeal, because while Lan Xichen hasn’t been in love with Nie Mingjue for years, he can still sympathise with someone who is.

Lan Xichen does think something did scare Jin Guangyao into throwing himself into the wedding preparations and distracting himself from Nie Mingjue through it. Except after the wedding, when he realized how much time he spent away from the Nie brothers to set-up the wedding, he started to panic about them not needing him, even though they never gave him any reason to think that.

If anything, the few months after that wedding should have reassured Jin Guangyao of his place in their lives. There was a tour then, and Jin Guangyao naturally accompanied Nie Mingjue as his manager while Nie Huaisang, trying to help Nie Mingjue’s fashion image, joined with far more enthusiasm than usual. They kept each other company backstage, sending Lan Xichen a slew of text and picture-based updates as Lan Xichen stayed in town finishing up another album.

Lan Xichen still has one of the pictures saved in his phone, taken not by any of them, but by a stagehand who forwarded it to Nie Huaisang. The timestamp clocks in just after one am, thirty minutes after Nie Mingjue had finished his concert for the night. From what Nie Huaisang said, he and Jin Guangyao had been waiting half-asleep on the couch in Nie Mingue’s dressing room for the man to finally finish. When Nie Mingjue returned, he dropped right into the middle of the couch, ignoring Nie Huaisang’s complaints about taking up too much space in favour of closing his eyes.

“Lean on me if you want then,” he told them, “I don’t care as long as you’re quiet.”

So they had. With hesitation and doubts from Jin Guangyao, Lan Xichen is sure, but not enough to deny himself comfort. For in that picture, Nie Huaisang slumps against Nie Mingjue’s left arm, Jin Guangyao half-hides his face in Nie Mingjue’s right arm, and Nie Mingjue’s sleeping face is smoother than a sheet of glass.  

But less than two weeks after that tour, the three learned just how dangerous Jin Guangyao’s insecurities could be.

“It was a few months after that wedding that Nie Mingjue fired him,” Lan Xichen says quietly, “When he found out that Jin Guangyao got his record producer and a few others arrested on eventually dropped charges of financial extortion and client abuse.”

Jiang Cheng’s jaw drops, and Lan Xichen continues before he can comment. “He and the record producer were always arguing about what was best for Nie Mingjue’s songs before that, and I remember Nie Huaisang saying he didn’t like the comments the man was always making. But that didn’t matter to Nie Mingjue when he learned Jin Guangyao was the one who essentially hired paparazzi to hack the record producer’s accounts to find evidence of something scandalous.”

“Why does it matter how I found out or that he denies it?” Jin Guangyao demanded one of the first and only times Lan Xichen heard them argue about it in full. “Of course he would deny something like this and of course he would hide it. It’s not my fault the police couldn’t do their damn jobs.”

“What gives you the right to decide that? What gives you the right to invade his privacy like all the other media leeches out there?”

“What gave him the right to invade my own privacy, as you put it? What gave him and others the right to taunt me, every day since I joined with you, with my parentage, my educational background, my work experience, my relationship to you and A-Sang? To harass me on every social media account I own whenever I offered an opinion they didn’t like?”

“So you have them arrested and ruin their career with rumours?”

“Just because the charges were dropped doesn’t mean it was just rumours. And even if they were, that’s how everyone on your team has always been succeeding, da-ge. Just because you can practice obliviousness to it all and succeed through music and privilege alone, doesn’t mean the rest of the world can.”

“So Nie Mingjue fired him and refused to see him after that,” Lan Xichen says, and closes his eyes. “He said he couldn’t trust someone who only cared about the status people gave him and used such underhanded tricks. Of course, what Jin Guangyao did was wrong, but Nie Huaisang and I–or, I guess I thought we could still work things out.”

Nie Huaisang had been on his own work trip at the time and came home early when he heard what was happening. That only made Nie Mingjue more upset, screaming at his younger brother not to sacrifice his hard-earned career for someone who clearly didn’t care about him.

“Those first few weeks, I saw Jin Guangyao whenever I could and he was clearly upset every time,” Lan Xichen says, just as he once told Nie Mingjue. “He said he wanted to things to be how they were, but he was also angry that Nie Mingjue wanted him to say his actions were completely wrong and motivated only by self-gain.”

“I meant what I said about the others,” Jin Guangyao said when Lan Xichen brought up reconciliation for what must have been the fifth time that month. “Everyone on his staff there are always sucking up to him and putting down others, because they want the prestige that comes from being associated with him. That record producer just wanted a star who gave him easily sellable albums, no matter how little he tried or how much money he burnt on booze. At least I actually wanted to help da-ge become even more successful than he was on his own. It’s not my fault he refuses to see that, or that the evidence I found was dismissed.”   

Which meant in the following months, the two only grew further and further apart. Jin Guangyao refused to visit any of the places they used to frequent as a group, not even the pretentious tea shop, Peony Plates, that Jin Guangyao always loved indulging in because he never could as a student. In the same way, Nie Mingjue refused to leave the house for anything but recording music, with Nie Huaisang frequently calling Lan Xichen to wail about Nie Mingjue’s constant dark moods.

“It’s even worse than when we were kids,” Nie Huaisang complained, and Lan Xichen couldn’t help but agree, “There’s absolutely no reasoning with him like this.”

“They were both so miserable,” Lan Xichen remembers, and his fingers twist in his lap, “I thought that surely what would be best in the end was working past it and becoming friends again. So I offered to try to get Jin Guangyao a job as my record producer.”  

It was not the most well-considered move given what led to Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao’s falling out in the first place, and the few details Jin Guangyao revealed about how toxic the industry had been for him. But Jin Guangyao was–is good at his job, and he told Lan Xichen that very first night that working with musicians was his dream.

“It’s going to sound so cliched,” Jin Guangyao told him, leaning on that bar countertop with a shy smile on his lips, “But music is what’s gotten me through life. Whenever someone hit me at school or stole my things, whenever I caught mama crying because she was so stressed or I thought I’d end up in that dirty one-room apartment my whole life, I’d put on a song and suddenly there was someone who understood me and someone telling there was a life that was so much better than mine. So even though I can’t sing or play an instrument, I want to help make that music somehow.”

Some of it too, maybe a lot more than he let on, stemmed from the fact that all Jin Guangyao knew about his father for the longest time was that he was a popular musician, and so even without his father in his life, he could still feel connected to him through music. Some of it, Lan Xichen knows now, is the sheer amount of money and power succeeding in the music industry can bring, enough to ensure Jin Guangyao never lives below the poverty line like he did with his mom for most of his life.

“I didn’t want him to give up,” Lan Xichen explains, “And I thought he was. Both on music and on Nie Mingjue. So I got him the job and I thought if I could just believe in him until I could make the two listen to each other, everything would end well.”

In the end, he did the same thing Nie Mingjue did, maybe worse, because at that point Lan Xichen had an even clearer picture of all the fears Jin Guangyao constantly hid from everyone. He didn’t know the full extent of the backstage abuse that happened for years thanks to Jin Guangyao’s perceived lack of experience and lack of connections, but he knew more than Nie Mingjue had, and he was therefore more willing to offer support to keep that from happening again.

But Lan Xichen, just like Nie Mingjue, still acted like how he sees the world, how he wants to see the world, is the way the world can be. He believed he saw every angle of Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue, and believed if he just tried hard enough, he could help them see each other defined by all those brilliant lines.

“And as we all know, that didn’t happen,” Lan Xichen says, wishing he could laugh away the bitterness in his voice.

No matter how hard Lan Xichen tried, Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao stubbornly refused to acknowledge the validity of the other’s side. Eventually, they couldn’t be in the same room without an argument about something breaking out, only around each other thanks to their mutual friendship with Lan Xichen. Nie Huaisang had given up on having them in the same room by then, but even away from each other, their resentment permeated everything.     

“I was upset and desperate to fix things with them, and then I was frustrated with them when Wangji needed me more thanks to Wei Wuxian leaving and they still put me in the middle of their fight, and I poured all of that into my music for years.”

Things he told Nie Mingjue before, like how much Lan Xichen loved his friend’s certainty even if he could stand to be a little more flexible, and things he hadn’t, like his teenage crush. Things he told Jin Guangyao before to help him understand the Nie brothers, and things he didn’t until Jin Guangyao asked him why he cared so much about Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue fixing their friendship. Things that Nie Mingjue only told Lan Xichen after exhausting recording sessions, like his frustration with his inability to connect with the people around him, and things that he didn’t say but Lan Xichen saw, like how he always ordered extra dishes and ensured most of it ended up on Jin Guangyao’s plate when they ate out.

Some things and some lyrics were meant to be heard only in that moment when Lan Xichen first put them into song because his chest would rip open if he kept them inside any longer. Some things were meant only for his two friends to hear whenever Lan Xichen finally figured out how to make them listen. Some things were secrets that were only meant for Lan Xichen to hear as a reminder.

But all the lyrics were brutally honest, and so all Jin Guangyao needed to do was rearrange them into a weapon and release it for the entire public to hear before Nie Mingjue could.  

“I always intended for some of it to end up on the album, but I was going to speak with Nie Mingjue first. And I wasn’t going to include the parts that mentioned things he told me in confidence.”

“If his problem is that I wasn’t as honest as he thinks everyone must be to deserve their success and be called a good person, then he should have no problem with an album that is unfiltered feelings, whether he gets a warning or not. Besides, it’s not like you ever mention him by name.”

But it would be obvious to anyone who knew either of them, even their public personas, whom Lan Xichen referred to in most of his songs. It was obvious, arguing with Jin Guangyao, that he knew Nie Mingjue would be furious with the act of vulnerability that, for all his preaching of honesty, Nie Mingjue cannot achieve with the songs and emotions he publishes. That Jin Guangyao knew this would provoke Nie Mingjue like waking a raging bear from its hibernation, and only make him more furious when the album’s instant success proved Jin Guangyao’s talent and argument.

“So then instead of fixing things, we ended up here,” Lan Xichen finishes.

There is more he could say, more motivations he has considered; like neither Jin Guangyao nor Nie Mingjue being able to let the other go, and still hurting in ways that damaged their other relationships. There are more pieces of the argument he could offer that no one else heard; like their back and forth about when secrets became an honesty that people deserved, who could claim the right to share secrets that involved two people, and how much honesty was enough when unasked for.

But Lan Xichen has already been talking for so long, offering so much more than he has to anyone else, his throat hurts too much to continue. His head, too, because he cannot stop seeing Nie Mingjue marching into the studio with murder in his eyes, and the stubborn self-destruction settling on Jin Guangyao’s lips.

It’s bad enough Lan Xichen keeps having nightmares of those expressions.

“What a fucking mess,” Jiang Cheng says as soon as Lan Xichen falls quiet, and a huff of air that wants to be a laugh bursts from Lan Xichen’s lips.

“An eloquent summary,” Lan Xichen says, and Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes at him.

“And yet, it sounds like you’d actually like to talk to Jin Guangyao again,” Jiang Cheng replies, and Lan Xichen quickly looks down at his lap. “Like you’re angry but you still want to fix things.”

“But I can’t talk to him tonight with reconciliation in mind without Nie Mingjue there,” Lan Xichen says softly, seeing the hurt that flashed through Nie Mingjue’s eyes when Lan Xichen admitted to writing the lyrics on Venerated Triad, “It’d be like betraying him all over again.”

“You’re thinking about having one conversation, not planning his fucking murder.”

Lan Xichen just shakes his head.

“Even ignoring that, I can’t talk to him when I’m like this,” Lan Xichen insists, “I need to be calm and I–I can’t be with him in that place.”

He hates admitting that, but he has already told Jiang Cheng so much in the past hour, he can’t be bothered by handing him one more vulnerability.

“So what do you want to do?” Jiang Cheng asks after a long pause in which Lan Xichen can’t look at Jiang Cheng, and Jiang Cheng can look nowhere else. “Because I don’t give a shit how big this event is, you say you don’t want to go, we don’t go.”

And for a moment, Lan Xichen lets himself imagine doing just that, just like he once imagined calling Lan Wangji to insist he couldn’t attend the dinner and needed to be with him that night. He would have never met Jin Guangyao as he did, and maybe then Lan Xichen wouldn’t have been so invested. Maybe he could have let go when Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao ended things, rather than stick himself in the middle and take their hurt into his own heart.

Maybe he would have never loved them as much as he still does.

“Just–” Lan Xichen almost says nothing. Years of practice since he became a star, and since he was a child who was praised for never raising his voice and always staying calm, would make it easy for him to give Jiang Cheng a placid smile and wave away the whole conversation. He could pour his energy into acting fine throughout the entire night and likely succeed, mentally counting his breaths until he finally returned home where he could once again break down in the privacy of his own home.

But Lan Xichen is tired, and he misses having someone filling the space beside him as solidly as Jiang Cheng does.

“Please don’t leave me alone,” Lan Xichen says, and keeps his gaze locked onto his lap. “I know you hate clingy people but just for tonight, please stay with me.”

Jiang Cheng’s hand covers his own a heartbeat later, and Lan Xichen’s lifts his gaze to Jiang Cheng’s conflicted expression. His forehead scrunches into several lines, and for an unsettling second, Lan Xichen gets the urge to run his finger over them like a brush smoothing out clumps of paint.

“It’s not so bad if it’s you,” Jiang Cheng admits, and then gives Lan Xichen a smirk that promises the kind of brashness Lan Xichen has started to look forward to from the man, “Especially when all you’re asking me to do is be my natural prickly self.”  

Chapter Text

They arrive only thirty minutes after the official start time of the dinner, which means there are still plenty of others also arriving on the unfurled carpet at the front of the building. Thanks to Jiang Cheng being the driver and his lack of familiarity with the area, Lan Xichen was able to distract himself for most of the ride with giving Jiang Cheng directions. Upon arriving, Jiang Cheng’s squinted looks outside the window and inexperience with this particular event also distracts Lan Xichen from who waits inside the building that night.

“A valet will take the car,” Lan Xichen tells him, glancing out the window to see they are three cars away from where everyone exits their vehicles. A few cameras flash with each new person. “There will be some media wanting pictures once we step out.”

“Fantastic,” Jiang Cheng mutters, glancing down at himself and then back out the front window.

“You look wonderful,” Lan Xichen assures him, because he does. He wears standard black slacks and a white undershirt, but it’s the high-collared, deep purple suit jacket that keeps catching Lan Xichen’s attention.

Intricate flowers and their stems are engraved along the leather surface in thin gold lines that catch the light whenever Jiang Cheng moves. Three silver rings loop through the ends of each sleeve, almost an exact match of the single silver and purple metal ring he always wears. Purple beads circle his right wrist and a slim, black leather bracelet circles his left, stylish garnishes that draw Lan Xichen’s gaze whenever Jiang Cheng gestures. His long hair is held back with a very loose clasp, allowing some selected strands to stay loose and frame his flushed face.

The jacket appears perfectly tailored to Jiang Cheng, emphasizing all the muscles Jiang Cheng has gained from his outdoor labour whenever he moves.

Lan Xichen doesn’t know how much Nie Huaisang picked out and how much Jiang Cheng did, but the outfit suits him either way, both beautiful and masculine.

“Thanks,” Jiang Cheng mutters, like he’s still not sure if he deserves Lan Xichen’s compliments. He raises his voice with his next words. “I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you also look annoyingly good, like always.”

“It’s still nice to hear,” Lan Xichen says with a laugh, ignoring the way his smile grows a little more natural at that.

They reach the front of the line and a suited staff member opens Jiang Cheng’s door. “Shall we?”

Jiang Cheng nods, and Lan Xichen steps out of the passenger door. The call of his stage name immediately fills the air and he flashes the crowd a quick smile, but immediately moves to meet Jiang Cheng halfway around the front of the car. He slips his arm through Jiang Cheng’s without a word and tangles their fingers together. Jiang Cheng doesn’t startle or hesitate this time, only a shadow of his scowl on his face as Lan Xichen turns them toward the building.

It looms above them with a black glass roof that curves down in the middle before swooping back up into sharp edges. Banners of deep reds, purples, blues, and gold all drape down from the eaves and flutter between the arches of glass windows. Jade statues stand guard both at the top of the massive cement stairs and at the bottom where Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng step onto the carpet.

“That’s just fucking obnoxious,” Jiang Cheng comments, but Lan Xichen can only nod. When he says nothing, Jiang Cheng glances at him and gives his hand a hard squeeze.

The beads of his bracelet rub against Lan Xichen’s wrist and the cool metal of his ring digs into Lan Xichen’s skin. He focuses on those things as they make their way up the stairs, passing a few celebrities who know Lan Xichen and tell him how nice it is to see him back in the city.

“There will be a lot of that tonight,” Lan Xichen tells Jiang Cheng as they finally step into the main halls of the building. The polite smile on his face falters as they walk past the coppered walls, but Jiang Cheng just holds his hand tighter.

“Small talk?”

“Yes.”

Jiang Cheng snorts.

“I’ve been to parties before, I know how it works. Especially for someone as popular as you.”

Jiang Cheng cranes his head every time they pass an open doorway to one of the many banquet rooms within the building, not quite hiding his curiosity despite his earlier comment about the architecture. He keeps slowing to look, drawing Lan Xichen to a sudden halt without seeming to remember they’re still holding hands. It’s cute, in an exasperating way, how quickly he goes from being embarrassed about the action, to forgetting to take it into consideration when he moves.

“The main course and speeches will be held in the same room,” Lan Xichen tells him as they continue their way down the unending number of halls. “But afterwards, they tend to spread all the different bars and dancing and information booths throughout the rooms. All on the first floor near the gardens.”

“There’ll be that many people here?” Jiang Cheng asks with a frown.

“Anybody who’s anyone and anyone who wants to be anybody attends, so yes,” Lan Xichen replies, forcing himself not to spend too long looking at the other people they pass. “It’s how many connections are made with and across the different industries, and how many are maintained. I’m sure there will be several articles tomorrow, not just about how much money was raised, but about several new collaboration projects that were brokered tonight.”

Jiang Cheng doesn’t say anything, but his jaw clenches as he understands exactly why Lan Xichen knows Jin Guangyao will be somewhere here tonight. Nie Mingjue’s career is stable enough that he can miss the event, especially when everyone knows he’s currently flying back from a long and successful international tour and collaboration. But Jin Guangyao, as either manager or record producer, currently attached to a star or not, needs nights like these to strengthen and develop his career.

He doesn’t just need them, he thrives on them, always going to Nie Mingjue and eventually Lan Xichen the next morning with a collaboration project or interview he set up through conversation alone that night. And they were always ones that even Nie Mingjue himself could be shown the value of.

There are new elements to consider when Lan Xichen thinks about those times now, like the verbal abuse Jin Guangyao never mentioned and the possibility of those projects resulting from bribery and blackmail. But Lan Xichen had been there for a few conversations and with the ease that Jin Guangyao adapted to different people and the way he presented persuasive arguments tailored to what the person said several minutes prior, he didn’t need to do much besides talking to win people over.    

“It might actually be beneficial for you to look into attending regularly,” Lan Xichen says in an effort to redirect his thoughts to both the present and the good that comes from socializing. When Jiang Cheng glances at him, Lan Xichen latches onto the opening. “For making connections to support Lotus Lakes. Everyone here has money to donate, as I’m sure the purpose of the event implies.”

“That, and everything else,” Jiang Cheng comments as a lady passes them with an entire jewelry store draped about her person. “But if Wei Wuxian and A-Jie already go to this thing every year, then I’m sure they’re already telling people here about it.”

“I’m happy to hear that,” Lan Xichen tells him. He has heard every sibling bring up Lotus Lakes, at least in passing, but he has now seen first-hand just how zealously Jiang Cheng works to maintain the non-profit organization, and how tightly he holds onto the legacy of his parents, both the good and the bad.

Lan Xichen knows how lonely it can be to feel you are the only person who cares deeply about something, and he’s seen the way Jiang Cheng still seems surprised sometimes when Lan Xichen takes his opinion about personal matters into careful consideration.

He has also seen how much Jiang Cheng’s siblings adore him, but Lan Xichen is beginning to worry the man himself is blind to the depth of that affection. That blindness is one of the things that still hurts the most about Jin Guangyao’s actions; that he did have people on his side who would have helped build him up even more if only he’d asked.

Their arrival at the main hall a moment later pulls Lan Xichen from his thoughts, as does Jiang Cheng’s double-take at seeing the open doorway cut into the shape of a temple entranceway. Tables upon tables blanketed in white are spread throughout the room like white lily pads bobbing on water, and the walls and floor alike are the same burnished copper Lan Xichen remembers so well. Across the way from the entrance stands the stage and podium where the hosts and organizers will thank everyone for attending and give their speeches, a screen that currently says welcome, please find your name on the plates, taking up half the wall.

More than three-quarters of the tables are already filled, but a shout cuts through the air before Lan Xichen can recognize any faces or panic.

“Jiang Cheng! Xichen-ge!”

Wei Wuxian calls for them from a table near the stage, half standing on his chair as he waves his arms at them. The people around him all turn to look, but the man’s easy exuberance and Lan Wangji’s steady figure beside him ease some of Lan Xichen’s tension. Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes beside him, but keeps his gaze on his brother just as Lan Xichen does with Lan Wangji as they make their way over.

“You actually made it,” Wei Wuxian says with a grin as they take their seats across from the real couple. They form a striking contrast with Lan Wangji in the colours of freshly fallen snow and Wei Wuxian wearing a suit spun from threads of midnight. Blue lines the edges of that snow and peeks out from beneath Lan Wangji’s suit jacket, while crimson bleeds into Wei Wuxian’s fabric and covers his chest where he’s left the buttons of his jacket undone.

The pair earn quite a few looks even once Wei Wuxian sits down, but neither pay them any mind as Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen join them. The table sits only four people, with most of the tables fitting bigger groups at the back of the room. Lan Xichen shoots Lan Wangji a grateful smile as he sits, knowing his brother requested this specific seating arrangement.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jiang Cheng demands, leaning forward as Lan Xichen releases his hand and Wei Wuxian smirks.

Xiongzhang.”

Lan Wangji’s quiet voice draws Lan Xichen’s attention away from the other two, and he almost smiles at the miniscule furrow to Lan Wangji’s forehead. There hadn’t been many physical signs of his panic to scrub away before he left the apartment with Jiang Cheng, and his heartbeat stays at a much steadier pace than before, but Lan Wangji is his brother. He knows Lan Xichen’s history with this place as well as Jiang Cheng now does, and he knows where to look for the cracks in Lan Xichen’s public persona.

“I’m fine, didi,” Lan Xichen says, soft enough for only him.

Lan Wangji studies him, but sitting at the table with just them, Lan Xichen’s words aren’t a lie. He and Jiang Cheng face the stage, which means lesser risk of Lan Xichen catching a glimpse of people he doesn’t want to see yet. Jiang Cheng is a bolstered buffer at his side, Lan Wangji a calming presence to his front, and Wei Wuxian a loyal and clever conversationalist on the other side.

He has a bubble of safety here. All he needs to do is stay in it.

“–already?” is the word Lan Xichen tunes back into as he and Lan Wangji turn to the other two.

“I promised Lan Zhan I’d wait until the meal,” Wei Wuxian says with a pout. “Empty stomach and all that. But it sounds like you could use a glass already to sweeten your sour mood.”

“I’m driving,” Jiang Cheng replies, which causes Wei Wuxian to turn to Lan Xichen, and Lan Wangji to stare once again.

“I was a feeling a little tired this morning and asked Jiang Wanyin if he wouldn’t mind driving,” Lan Xichen explains, more for Lan Wangji’s sharp look than anything else. Lan Xichen glances at Jiang Cheng, even though he can already predict the answer. “But if you’d really like to drink with Wei Wuxian tonight, then–”

“Fuck that,” Jiang Cheng cuts him off, earning a raised eyebrow from Wei Wuxian. “He has plenty of other friends here he can drink with if he really wants.”

“Yes, but–”

“I already said I’d do it,” Jiang Cheng interrupts again, but rather than immediately jump to that anger Lan Xichen witnessed at Cloud Recesses, his gaze asks a question. As if that argument tore at his heart as much as it did Lan Xichen’s, but also made him just as determined to listen for all the words the other man was saying beneath the spoken ones.

“Then I’ll leave it to you,” Lan Xichen concedes, and lays a quick hand on his wrist in apology for doubting his decision. Jiang Cheng accepts the action and the words with a quick nod before turning back to the other two who look far too curious and thoughtful for Lan Xichen’s liking.

“What?” Jiang Cheng snaps at Wei Wuxian who simply smiles in a way that only makes Jiang Cheng bristle more.

“Nothing, nothing. Just happy to see the two of you getting along.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees, though he looks like Lan Xichen has just presented him with a deeply complex question of morality.

Thankfully, a server with hot tea distracts the table a few minutes later and then the welcoming speeches begin even while a few seats remain empty. Lan Xichen focuses on those speeches, even if he’s heard most of them in some variation before, only letting himself look at the front and at the people sitting at his own table.

Wei Wuxian plays more with his napkins than he does listen, but both Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng keep their gazes on the speakers. Lan Wangji with perfect posture out of expected respect and Jiang Cheng leaning slightly forward with arms folded on the table and a critical glint in his eyes.

“Those weren’t half bad,” he comments when the last person finishes thanking them all for their presence and donations. “Could have been shorter.”

“You say that about every speech,” Wei Wuxian says as the servers begin to bring the appetizers out to everyone’s tables. “Maybe you should try taking inspiration from them and make your curt ones longer and less, well, curt.”

“No one wants to sit and listen to empty greetings for that long,” Jiang Cheng argues.

“Sure, but they like hearing what the events are about.”

“They like experiencing it even more.”

“I’m just saying, I don’t think it would kill anyone if you tried speaking a little longer, say at the Cultivation Conference.” He grins. “Though actually–”

“What’s the Cultivation Conference and why do you need to make speeches for it?” Lan Xichen asks curiously drawing Jiang Cheng’s look away from Wei Wuxian’s teasing momentarily.

“The LL Autumn Cultivation Conference is one of our yearly events for Lotus Lakes,” Jiang Cheng explains.

“The biggest one for the regular sponsors,” Wei Wuxian adds, and Jiang Cheng nods.

“For our workers and the locals too. It’s a way of showing them what all their hard work and money goes to, how we help the land, and letting them enjoy what they’ve protected.”

“Which means lots of speeches that Jiang Cheng never wants to give.”

“Because the point are the activities! And you speak enough for the two of us.”

“Is it open to the general public too?” Lan Xichen asks as the servers reach their table and place small dishes of smashed cucumber salad, roasted peanuts in vinegar, and honeyed lotus root with sticky riced.

“Sort of,” Wei Wuxian replies, immediately taking some of the peanuts.

“We send specific invites to all our sponsors and employees and shit,” Jiang Cheng elaborates, “I get in contact with all the surrounding towns, and Wei Wuxian and A-Jie usually invite a few celebrity friends who post about it after. But it’s an outdoor event about engaging with nature and ecosystem services harmoniously, which means a lot of area preparation and planning around a specific number of people. So we can’t let it get as big as this.”

“That, and Jiang Cheng would probably go on a rampage if he had to deal with that many people,” Wei Wuxian says with a smirk. “Which is really not good for business.”

“Only if they were being stupid. Which big groups of people usually are.”

Lan Xichen chews quietly on his own food as he mentally asks himself some questions. Mainly, why he has never attended one of these events before. From the way the two talk, Jiang Cheng’s two siblings always make sure they attend, which means Jiang Cheng probably extends the invitation to the people his siblings’ care about, and his parents would have done the same when they ran it. That should include Lan Wangji, even if Jiang Cheng doesn’t particularly get along with the other man.

But then, for the three years prior to this one, Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian weren’t close enough for Wei Wuxian to attend. Perhaps in the years that Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji dated before that, the invitation was extended, but Lan Wangji didn’t think to specifically ask Lan Xichen to come. There have been plenty of events throughout the years after all, that Lan Wangji has shyly told Lan Xichen about Wei Wuxian inviting him to and Lan Xichen happily encouraged him to attend, without asking about joining.

It is only natural that there are entire years’ worth of things that people never learn about others, even the people they are closest to. Yet Lan Xichen cannot stop his thoughts from veering toward his ex-friends and how much he didn’t know while assuming he did. They did the same to each other and to him, yelling at each other for not matching up to their expectations, wielding the assumptions they had confirmed as weapons, and now they have all been left alone and hurting.

The fresh vegetable in his mouth turns into tasteless lumps, and he spends a few seconds consciously swallowing water when he chokes. He waves away Lan Wangji’s concern and lowers his hands to his lap, but he cannot push away his plate of food like he wishes without increasing that concern.

“Here,” Jiang Cheng mutters, and Lan Xichen startles as he drops the lotus root covered in a sweetness that Lan Xichen loves onto Lan Xichen’s plate. He grabs Lan Xichen’s uneaten cucumber as red stains his cheeks. “A trade to satisfy your sweet tooth. Just don’t stuff your face with them.”

When Lan Xichen looks at him, Jiang Cheng stares back like he knows exactly what problem Lan Xichen suddenly stumbled into and what he wished to do in response. Beneath the table, Jiang Cheng’s left hand gives Lan Xichen’s right hand a clumsy squeeze of reassurance, before he turns his attention back to his food. He keeps that left hand dangling between them though, and Lan Xichen brushes it once in silent gratitude.

Jiang Cheng stares even harder at his plate of food at that, and Lan Xichen smiles a little as he returns his own hands to table in order to slowly eat what Jiang Cheng gave him.

As the food shifts to soup and then main course dishes that continually flow from the kitchen, Wei Wuxian entertains them with stories from the sets of his current projects, and those celebrities who none of them have close personal connections. Everyone works to keep that conversation away from anything serious, the Lan brothers simply by encouraging Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng by being a target of his teasing, and Wei Wuxian by virtue of being himself.

When there is a pause between the main courses and dessert, people begin to leave their assigned tables and mingle with each other, many approaching Wei Wuxian and Lan Xichen alike as the two genuinely get along with most they meet. Many are curious about Lan Xichen’s return and his new album, just as they are Wei Wuxian’s new project.

With each person, whether Lan Xichen considers them acquaintances or not, he introduces Jiang Cheng. Some look at him curiously, some nervously, but they all greet him warmly, fake or not. Jiang Cheng doesn’t attempt pleasant smiles like Lan Xichen, but he is perfectly civil, asking all the right questions about what the other person does for a living.

Lan Xichen knows some who approach that night and shake their hands do not approve. A few people subtly comment on Jiang Cheng’s lack both of a position in the talent industry and within the city itself.

Worse, are the ones who learn of Jiang Cheng’s profession and try to turn the conversation into a bragging competition. They ask if Jiang Cheng’s car is an environmentally friendly car, talk about how they’ve recently turned to veganism, and jokingly point out that Jiang Cheng is still using a cellphone. They ask him if he lives off the grid, growing his own food and producing his own electricity, and talk about how they’ve recently started their own vegetable gardens to be more self-sufficient and describe their twenty-four hour social media purges.

Jiang Cheng’s admittance that only one of his vehicles is more environmentally friendly than the average car, that he is not a vegetarian let alone a vegan, and he does in fact ‘live on the grid’, always triggers either a self-satisfied nod or an aura of smugness from the other person as they conclude Jiang Cheng is no better than the rest of them.

“May I ask you something?” Jiang Cheng will simply say, eerily polite and relaxed before the other person can flounce away. “Did you research the catering company for tonight’s event?”

Or, “That’s great you take a break from your devices–where did you buy them again?”

Or, “Please remind me, how big did you say your homes are–you have multiple, I assume?”

Or, “Your car sounds efficient, so do you know of any affordable ones like it that you could encourage everyone to buy?”

Upon occasion, the other person doesn’t mind Jiang Cheng’s redirection toward the ways someone with their power and influence could actually be making lasting changes, and the rage simmering in Jiang Cheng’s clenched jaw slowly seeps away.

But other times, sometimes even before Jiang Cheng can respond, Wei Wuxian cuts in with a dangerous lack of concern for his own reputation.

“Remind me, how many of our rivers have you helped clean recently?” he asks, stepping into the other person’s space as Lan Wangji watches calmly behind him. “How much of your ridiculous salary goes toward researching green technology that everyone can use? How many times have you used those connections you’re always bragging about to enact real policy change? How many brand corporations have you gone against for their conscious destruction of our planet?”

Wei Wuxian’s aggressive aura only grows when the other person sputters or tries to list all the reasons those suggestions are ridiculous.

“Funny,” Wei Wuxian responds, “I know my son is really precocious, but he is only five and yet, he spent all last weekend trying to plant enough trees to combat the waste of the corporations you choose to fund.”

As much as Lan Xichen enjoys the glimpse of Jiang Cheng’s confidently competent business mask and watching Wei Wuxian’s words make jaws drop, Lan Xichen is grateful that those conversations are few and far between. Lan Xichen’s reputation likely helps, but so does the presence of the two other celebrities at their table.

 Lan Wangji watches everyone approach with a cold gaze that is warning enough for most, and Wei Wuxian is known for being as sharp with his tongue as he is friendly. Jiang Cheng might not be a celebrity, but he is sitting at a table with three of them, and a few people even recognize him from events he’s attended with Wei Wuxian and Jiang Yanli over the years.

Throughout it all, Lan Xichen never once catches sight of the man he most dreads and wishes to see. He does, however, look up at one point and locks gazes with Nie Huaisang where he stands halfway across the room. He has a fan in one hand, the other pushing perfectly coiled strands of hair out of his face.

His eyes widen as soon as he notices Lan Xichen looking, and Lan Xichen freezes in his seat. With a flick of that fan, Nie Huaisang hastily turns back to the model speaking with him and Lan Wangji’s voice draws Lan Xichen’s attention back to their table.

People begin to return to their seats as dessert is brought out, though quite a few begin to make their way to the bars instead. There will be dancing later as well, even performances in other rooms, but Lan Xichen is loathe to leave the bubble of their table just yet, and the others appear fine with indulging him.

“It’s like they fit the whole city in here,” Jiang Cheng grumbles, pulling his seat as close to the table as he can as if that will prevent anyone else from trying to talk to them. Lan Xichen smiles at the sight, though he quickly hides it by shoving a piece of fruit in his mouth when Jiang Cheng glances at him.

“I did warn you,” Wei Wuxian says in an almost sing-song voice, and Jiang Cheng just glares at him.

“You didn’t warn me, you just said I’d have fun and it would be a good break from my usual routine.”

“That was the warning for you.”

“What is your usual routine?” Lan Xichen cuts in before the brothers can start bickering again, as entertaining as it is. “At home, I mean. I know here it’s mostly taking care of Jin Ling.”

“If he’s actually taking a break from work, then it depends if he’s imitating a modern man or feeling like the grumpy old soul he is,” Wei Wuxian replies immediately, with a teasing look for Jiang Cheng.  “If the first, funny animal videos. If the second, carving a piece of wood or some poetry.”

“Oh, that’s right,” Lan Xichen remembers, and beams at Jiang Cheng, “You made that lovely dining room table for Wei Wuxian and A-Yuan.”

“It wasn’t that hard,” Jiang Cheng mumbles, blushing at the compliment, “His only specifications were that the table be strong enough for a child to climb on and also that A-Yuan likes grabbing legs, so make sure the legs are round and smooth, not square.”

“Do you make a lot of furniture?” Lan Xichen asks. He leans an inch closer because these are the kinds of facts that remind Lan Xichen that not knowing someone and then learning about them can be exciting rather than painful.

“No. I usually just use whatever fallen branches or driftwood I find while working, so it’s smaller household stuff.”

“Or those cute figurines you made for A-Ling and A-Yuan’s birthdays,” Wei Wuxian adds, and Lan Xichen wasn’t there for their most recent celebration, but he’s seen Lan Yuan playing with a carved white tiger since.

“How nice,” Lan Xichen says, and Jiang Cheng’s blush only deepens. He looks up at Lan Xichen like he thinks the other man might just be teasing, and Lan Xichen’s smile softens. “I like collecting little figurines for my apartment. It makes it feel less sparse, even if most of them stay on shelves.”

“Maybe you should add to it sometime, A-Cheng,” Wei Wuxian says with a familiar chaotic glint in his eye, and Jiang Cheng’s response comes automatically.

“Shut up.” He turns back to Lan Xichen and just as quickly says, “I mean I could if you wanted.”

“Thank you, but don’t worry about it,” Lan Xichen says with a laugh. “But there is something else you can do for me. Wei Wuxian said you also do poetry, but I seem to remember you saying on the very first date that you weren’t a poet.”  

“I’m not,” Jiang Cheng replies, and he sits a little straighter but with a little less tension than before, “I just read it sometimes. And only the good stuff.”

“What exactly counts as the good stuff?”

“You know just, nothing too stupid or nonsensical. Just because it’s poetry doesn’t mean it should take a whole literary analysis to understand the gist of it. Or that it can use nature metaphors however the fuck it wants. Like, I long to be the bug that crawls across your bare skin. What the fuck is that?”

“Obviously it means they want to touch their lover,” Wei Wuxian teases, and briefly leans against Lan Wangji, who has been silently eating his dessert while observing the exchange this entire time.

“I know what it means, idiot, but bugs are gross.”

“Shouldn’t you be the one telling us how important bugs are?” Lan Xichen asks.

“They’re important, but no one wants them crawling on their bare skin. It’s not sexy at all!”  

“I don’t know,” Wei Wuxian says, that teasing glint in his eyes only growing stronger, “You remember those manhua Nie-xiong showed us when we were thirteen. Seemed like there were some sexy things you can do with antennas and extra legs.”

“Shameless,” Lan Wangji says as Jiang Cheng hisses at his brother to shut the fuck up, and Lan Xichen laughs despite the slightly disturbing mental image that invokes.

“So the two of you were privy to his secret stash?” Lan Xichen asks, doing his best to focus on his happy memories of the younger boy as he did at Cloud Recesses with Jiang Cheng.

“It’s why we all know some private details about each other,” Wei Wuxian replies, “Despite one of us lacking any first-hand experience.”

“I don’t care how special this event is, I will stab you with my spoon.”

“Come now,” Lan Xichen says as Jiang Cheng leans across the table with a glare and Wei Wuxian grins, “You shouldn’t tease him so much. Perhaps Jiang Wanyin is a romantic and hasn’t met the right person yet.”

“And he never will when he refuses to date anyone.”

“We can’t all throw ourselves at whatever pretty face we see,” Jiang Cheng snaps.

“At least I give those pretty faces a realistic chance,” Wei Wuxian shoots back, and his grin only widens. “Rather than expect them to be naturally beautiful, graceful, obedient–”

“Fucking again, really?”

“Hardworking and thrifty, while coming from not just a functional, but a nice family–”

“I was drunk and sixteen and still thought I was totally straight when I said that!”

“With a personality that’s not too overbearing which apparently means not being too talkative or loud–”

“Seriously, fucking drop it already!”

“Now now,” Lan Xichen interrupts, because as much as he has grown to enjoy teasing Jiang Cheng himself and as curious as he now is about Jiang Cheng’s romantic leanings, there is a defensive edge rather than challenging one to his crossed arms, and his blustering isn’t empty. Wei Wuxian doesn’t yet seem worried by the increased agitation, but Lan Wangji glares at Jiang Cheng for his tone. “Wei Wuxian, it’s not polite to have a conversation that excludes half of the table.”

Lan Xichen’s hand circles Jiang Cheng’s leather bracelet and his fingertips press into Jiang Cheng’s palm as Lan Xichen gives Wei Wuxian an innocent smile. “But if you’d like to continue this topic and include everyone, I do have plenty of stories about your drunken tangents I could share.”

Wei Wuxian’s smile freezes in place, and Lan Wangji looks to Lan Xichen once more with the slightest furrow cut into his forehead. Jiang Cheng slowly looks to him too, before slumping back in his seat with a smirk and an appreciative sparkle in his eyes.

“Thanks for the generous offer, Xichen-ge,” Wei Wuxian says, the teasing note fading, but that grin staying on his face, “But clearly those stories would be best told when we’re all actually drunk again.”

Jiang Cheng snorts, but the conversation moves on as they finish their dessert. They are slower than most other tables, half of them now empty as people get up once more to wander about the halls. Wei Wuxian drags Lan Wangji off to the bar with a reassurance from Lan Xichen that they will be perfectly fine waiting at the table on their own. Lan Wangji is much more hesitant to leave, but he can see how much stronger and real Lan Xichen’s composure has become.

Or so it is until ten seconds after they leave, and Lan Xichen receives a text.

“What?” Jiang Cheng asks when Lan Xichen pulls out his buzzing phone and then stiffens at the waiting message.

Please don’t feel obligated, but I wanted to talk to you, if you were comfortable with that. We could speak in the east gardens in ten minutes if it suits you.

Lan Xichen still has the number saved under A-Sang, and Lan Xichen wordlessly hands the phone over to Jiang Cheng for him to see.

“Do you want to?” Jiang Cheng asks, and Lan Xichen doesn’t even need to consciously remind himself it’s okay to be honest with Jiang Cheng when he looks at him.

“Yes,” he says, lowering his voice even though no one else is close enough to hear. “I miss him.”

Nie Huaisang was very much like another younger brother, or perhaps cousin, when Lan Xichen was growing up. Though he remains a little frivolous, a little whiny, and very clingy to his older brother, Lan Xichen has enjoyed watching him grow into his own until the past nine months of no contact.

“But I thought he would be angry,” Lan Xichen says, and takes back his phone.

“Maybe he is,” Jiang Cheng replies slowly, “But he can still care.”

A fact Lan Xichen understands intimately well, and he stares at the screen of his phone for a long moment in silence.

“Then you think I should speak with him.”

“If that’s what you want.”

Lan Xichen thinks about how quiet his apartment is every time he walks inside, and how dry the food became in his mouth earlier. He thinks about brushing out tangled hair and glimpses of nuanced designs and smaller hands grabbing onto his sleeves. He thinks about Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian shouting and teasing in turn after all the absences and all the hurt.

Lan Xichen takes a deep breath before carefully replying,

I’ll be there.

“I know I asked you to stay with me earlier,” Lan Xichen says when he looks back up at Jiang Cheng. “But could you stay at the table while I speak with him? Obviously no one will steal it if you leave, but knowing there’s a friendly face waiting will help.”

“If you’re sure,” Jiang Cheng replies. He crosses his arms over his chest but doesn’t move as Lan Xichen stands with a small smile.

“Thank you, I am.”

“Just text me if you change your mind.”

Lan Xichen nods, and before he can convince himself it would be better to simply stay at the table all night, he heads off. It shouldn’t take him ten minutes to find the garden, but he wants a moment alone to compose himself. Even if he wants to speak with Nie Huaisang again and even if this seems like a wonderful chance, Lan Xichen can’t imagine what Nie Huaisang will want to say. He might be more subtle in his actions, but he is as protective of Nie Mingjue as Nie Mingjue is of him.

Lan Xichen reaches the archway leading outside to the east garden a minute after the meeting time. He thankfully didn’t run into anyone else along the way, and he curls his fingers against steady stone for a moment as his eyes adjust to the dim lighting of the lantern-lit path. The path winds its way through pink azalea shrubs and shedding magnolia trees toward the quiet pond ringed by pines at the garden’s center.  

Faint laughter and the murmur of voices drift on the flower-scented air, but there is only one person currently occupying one of the few benches along the path, tapping the folded end of a fan against his knee.

Nie Huaisang’s head whips up so fast at Lan Xichen’s approach, he almost expects the glittery band holding half Nie Huaisang’s hair in a bun to go flying off. Surprise flits across Nie Huaisang’s face before he smiles.

“Lan Xichen,” he says, tone careful as Lan Xichen lowers himself onto the free space beside him just as gingerly. “Thank you for coming out here. Are you enjoying the evening so far?”

“It’s been interesting,” Lan Xichen decides is the best way to sum up everything that has happened so far, both the good and bad. “You?”

“I’m not sure yet,” Nie Huaisang says, but continues before Lan Xichen can ask for elaboration. “Do you like Jiang-xiong’s outfit?”

He asks the question with an eager half smile that’s painful in its familiarity.

“I do,” Lan Xichen replies honestly and his chest aches at the sight of Nie Huaisang puffing up a fraction at his validation. Lan Xichen’s instinctual mouth continues the line of conversation before his brain can catch up. “I’m guessing you chose it for him?”

“You know I always let the model have the final say,” Nie Huaisang protests, finally unfolding his fan. “I just gave him some choices—and not even as many as I wanted, he left in such a rush halfway through.”

“Ah,” Lan Xichen says softly, and closes his eyes as he remembers how early the other man seemed to arrive at his apartment. How he refused to leave the couch until Lan Xichen really was certain of his decision to attend tonight’s event.

“Huaisang,” he says as he opens his eyes, still grateful for the invitation but too tired for talking around the point and subtle half-truths. “Not that I’m not happy to speak with you, but why did you want to speak with me?”

“Can’t I just want to talk to a friend?” Nie Huaisang asks with a pout. “It’s been what? Eight, nine months since I last saw you or talked to you?”  

“Nine, yes.”

“And before that I don’t think I ever went a week without wanting to talk to you about something important.”

“Your brother has also never been mad at me for more than a week,” Lan Xichen says, unable to tease Nie Huaisang for those overdramatic calls as he might once have.

“Have you?” Nie Huaisang asks, fan now covering most of his mouth, but not his sharp gaze.

Some part of Lan Xichen will always remember Nie Huaisang as the hesitant little boy clinging to his and Nie Mingjue’s shirts, but that is the past.

Nie Huaisang is not, nor ever has been, a completely hapless push-over, and Lan Xichen has witnessed that firsthand as they’ve all grown up. He might not be as deceptively pleasant as Jin Guangyao turned out to be, but Nie Huaisang clearly learned some things from Jin Guangyao as they became friends. Being Nie Mingjue’s younger brother and working with models regularly has only helped him further curate his own façade and successful method of coaxing people into doing what he wants.

And after nine months apart, Nie Huaisang sits even straighter and steadier than Lan Xichen remembers.

“I don’t know,” Lan Xichen replies, because he is upset that Nie Mingjue refused to hear him out before he left the country.

“Yet I still want to talk to you, and you still want to talk to me,” Nie Huaisang summarizes, pausing before he asks, “So you’re not mad at me, then?”

“Why would I be?”

Nie Huaisang shrugs, but Lan Xichen sees how he leans a little further away like he used to in preparation for one of Nie Mingjue’s lectures.

“Maybe I could have helped more when you were trying to be the peacekeeper,” Nie Huaisang says, “Maybe I should have realized my friend was preparing to do something that bad to another friend. Maybe I should have tried harder and sooner to reach out to you.”

“You were trying,” Lan Xichen says, and that at least, he knows to be true even after everything. He saw Nie Huaisang with Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao both, playing the part of loyal little brother and supportive friend while those two stubborn people refused to see the possible duality to their situation. “And I imagine you were dealing with a lot of fall-out after–after Venerated Triad was released, just like me.”

“Just thinking about it makes me want to pass-out right here, it was so exhausting,” Nie Huaisang says, a hesitant but familiar whine seeping into his voice.

“I agree.”

Nie Huaisang falls quiet for a moment, and then peeks at Lan Xichen over his fan once again.

“So you really have forgiven me?”

“Yes.” Maybe a few years ago, or even a few months ago, Lan Xichen wouldn’t have, not truly. Maybe he would have acted like he had even as he carried a heavy ball of resentment for the abandonment that slowly pulled away both trust and affection from his relationship with the youngest Nie.

But Lan Xichen has learned to forgive Wei Wuxian for what he put Lan Wangji through when he dropped off the map, and Nie Huaisang’s radio silence had been because Lan Xichen harmed his family. He can no more begrudge him that than Wei Wuxian begrudged his initial protectiveness over Lan Wangji.

Nie Huaisang slumps with a relieved if muffled sigh at his answer.

“I’m going to need to sleep off my stress for a whole day, that was so scary,” Nie Huaisang tells him, and a smile tugs at Lan Xichen’s lips. He doesn’t allow it to fully form yet, not when he still has his own stressful question to ask.

Lan Xichen might not be ready to hear the answer, but at least this garden is a far more peaceful setting than Lan Xichen was expecting for this conversation. “Are you angry with me?”

“I’m not usually a very angry person,” Nie Huaisang says, and slowly straightens again as he twists toward Lan Xichen.

“You are when someone hurts someone you care about,” Lan Xichen says softly, “It’s how I know you and Nie Mingjue are truly brothers.”

“You didn’t mean to hurt da-ge by writing those songs.”

“Jin Guangyao may have weaponized the songs, but I still wrote them. The criticism, the frustration, the secrets, and the pleading were all me.”

When Nie Huaisang frowns down at his fan, Lan Xichen sighs. “Maybe I was trying too hard to simply shove broken pieces back together in the way I thought they should be, instead of taking the time to see them as they were before helping glue them back together.”

“People have an easy time loving the house, but not the crow on it,”[1] Nie Huaisang agrees, and for all that he has always been seen as the most delicate and lazy of the four, it sounds like he’s been the one working the hardest at understanding everyone’s side of the story since the other three sealed themselves away.

They sit in silence for a long moment, Lan Xichen’s coat valiantly keeping away the night’s growing chill.

“How is he?” Lan Xichen asks quietly without looking at Nie Huaisang. He hears the frown in the other man’s voice when he speaks.

“Tired. All the concerts were fine, and the collaboration album went as planned, but I think he was really out of it the whole time.” Lan Xichen glances at him in the pause. “I’m picking him up from the airport in about eight hours, so maybe we’ll both be so tired we can have an honest conversation again.”

Lan Xichen almost laughs at that.

“Still taking advantage of his sleepy sappiness,” Lan Xichen comments, and Nie Huaisang pouts.

“I have to get him to talk to me about his feelings somehow!” He waves his fan a little faster. “Besides, I would just be following up on a conversation we already had a few days ago.”

Lan Xichen stills, but before he can think of a good way to ask about that, Nie Huaisang scoots closer to him.  

“Will you see him once he’s back?” Nie Huaisang asks, wide eyes eager once again, but worry tightening his face.

“If he’ll see me,” Lan Xichen tells him as his heart pounds at the thought, “I want to apologize, and speak to him properly.”

Nie Huaisang smiles at that, but before he can speak and Lan Xichen can lose his nerve, Lan Xichen asks, “What about Jin Guangyao? Have you been in touch with him?”

Nie Huaisang leans back at that, fan moving up to cover more of his face.

“Please don’t get mad?” Nie Huaisang says, and Lan Xichen’s hammering heart almost drowns out his next words. “Your scary boyfriend already yelled at me about it anyways.”

“He did?” Lan Xichen asks, voice wavering in disbelief. After all, Jiang Cheng admitted he’s been in contact with Jin Guangyao since the man is still Jin Ling’s uncle, and Nie Huaisang is Jiang Cheng’s real friend of many years.

“It was cute,” Nie Huaisang says, “Once it was over and I wasn’t scared for my clothes anymore.” He quirks his lips at Lan Xichen much like Wei Wuxian did over dinner, but the look fades when he continues. “Promise you won’t give me your trademark disappointed look?”

“I’ll try my best.”

“I wanted to understand exactly what he did,” Nie Huaisang explains after a moment, “So I never cut him out completely. I thought he might refuse to see me, but he’s been getting meals and shopping with me just like before.”

“What do you talk about?”

Nie Huaisang shrugs.

“Mostly the same as before. But I won’t talk about da-ge with him, and he only talks about work when he tells me about his day.”

“Then what happened between us–”

“We have talked about it.” Nie Huaisang frowns and stops to choose his next words carefully. “He said he doesn’t care about getting his old positions back, but he wants to see you both.”

“And you believe him?”

“I don’t know, do you?”

 “Maybe.” Lan Xichen twiddles with the hem of his coat sleeves as he considers his own inner state. The thought of meeting now doesn’t stir the same panic it did in his apartment, but neither does he wish to break the fragilely peaceful atmosphere he and Nie Huaisang currently sit in. “I would like to speak with him, but not yet.”

Lan Xichen glances out over the dark garden once more before turning back to Nie Huaisang. “Where was he placed this evening anyways? I haven’t seen him all night.”

Nie Huaisang stares at him, mouth falling open and snapping shut in rapid succession.

“He didn’t come tonight,” Nie Huaisang finally says, and Lan Xichen freezes. He waits for Nie Huaisang to take the words back, to modify them with something like he’ll be around later, he’s just late but Nie Huaisang stays silent watching him.

“But–”

The explanation he gave Jiang Cheng about tonight echoes back at him and drowns out any words that Lan Xichen thinks of.

“Why?” Lan Xichen gets out, and Nie Huaisang replies even more hesitantly.

“I think he knew you’d force yourself to come here.”

And so the next question becomes: cowardice or concern? But Lan Xichen can’t form the phrase. Instead he stares down at his lap and curls his fingers into soft fabric as Nie Huaisang watches him closely. He closes his eyes after a second and mentally counts his breaths as adrenaline shakes him. If Jin Guangyao really didn’t come tonight because he was taking Lan Xichen’s apprehension yet commitment to social expectations into consideration, then that could be a huge sign that he really does want to make things right. Yet the hope at such a thought comes hand-in-hand with doubt that clogs his lungs.

A breeze draws Lan Xichen’s eyes open again to the sight of Nie Huaisang fanning him as he bites his lip.

Please don’t faint on me, er-ge,” he pleads, “I really don’t know what I’d do, or what I’d tell everyone before they murdered me.”

Lan Xichen wants to laugh, but instead he bends over and lets the cold air continue to caress his face.

“I’ll be alright, A-Sang,” Lan Xichen tells the other man, and takes another few counted breaths. “Just a little overwhelmed.”

He straightens and Nie Huaisang lowers his fan but doesn’t move away. He looks three seconds from clinging to Lan Xichen’s arm like he used to before all the fighting.

“Maybe we could speak again when you’re feeling less overwhelmed?” Nie Huaisang says, and Lan Xichen smiles at the thought, even though his chest still aches.

“I’m sure you already have a new restaurant in mind.”

“Just a few I need second opinions on,” Nie Huaisang replies, and Lan Xichen lets himself believe they really are moving past everything. 

 

***

 

Jiang Cheng is cold.

This is not an uncommon problem for him. Nearly drowning in that lake and giving himself hypothermia a couple years back probably made the issue worse, but since he’s been a child, his body has always struggled to keep him warm far more than anyone else in his family. More times than not he ends up shivering at some point in the evening, unless he spends the whole day occupied by physical work or wrapped in extra jacket. His parents used to simply tell him to go do something active if he was that cold, and Jiang Cheng quickly learned it’s nothing worth bothering people over, especially when he hates being pitied.  

He was fine earlier, both when he was too occupied with a terrifyingly upset Lan Xichen and when his whole body grew too hot at Wei Wuxian’s teasing. But now he just sits at a table as he waits for Lan Xichen to return, no jacket and no one to talk to as the banquet hall blasts AC to make up for all the people inside. So of course his body chooses that evening to refuse to produce enough heat.

He keeps checking his phone, both in case Lan Xichen texts and for an update on A-Jie. It will be daytime for her now, the day she finally goes into surgery, and she promised she or Jin Zixuan would update her brothers by the end of the night. For now though, no new messages wait and Jiang Cheng can only twirl his phone so many times before he drops it on the floor.

“Where’s xiongzhang?”

Jiang Cheng curses as he almost bangs his head on the table, jerking up from his fallen phone at Lan Wangji’s sudden demand. The man hovers over him, no Wei Wuxian in sight, and even Jiang Cheng can see the alarm in his eyes.

“In the gardens,” Jiang Cheng replies, and settles back in his seat. “Huaisang wanted to talk to him. He said he wanted to go alone and told me to guard the table.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes narrow a fraction. “Text him if you don’t believe me. He took his phone with him.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t reply. Instead, he stares at Jiang Cheng for a moment and then returns to his seat at the table.

Jiang Cheng swallows his groan and looks around desperately for Wei Wuxian. He spots him in seconds, surrounded by fellow co-stars and in the middle of a rambunctious conversation with them. He still looks to see where his boyfriend is, smiling at Lan Wangji’s slight dip of his head, and then raises his eyebrows when he spots Jiang Cheng sitting mostly alone.

Technically there’s nothing wrong besides the usual bullshit, so Jiang Cheng just rolls his eyes at him. Wei Wuxian grins at that, before turning his attention back to the person talking his ear off.

For a long time, Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji simply sit in stiff silence, refusing to look at the other or acknowledge their discomfort. If Wei Wuxian came over, he’d probably laugh at them both. Or maybe he would soften with concern, much like Lan Xichen seems to when he notices the obvious tension between the two, though he laughed well enough at the memory of their childish squabbles.

It used to be only that. Just two people acting immaturely over Wei Wuxian’s split attention, and stubbornly insisting the other person was too hard to get along with. But they had gotten along, or at least weren’t hostile with each other, when Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji first started dating, before Lan Wangji’s involvement led to all the stress that preceded A-Die and A-Niang’s deaths and the chaos that came after. Before Wei Wuxian decided the best thing for Jiang Cheng was distance from his own brother, before all of Jiang Cheng’s grief triggered years’ long resentment and he decided to act as if he didn’t even want Wei Wuxain to return, before Wei Wuxian returned to Lan Wangji only.

Jealous, he told Lan Xichen. Jealous, not just of Lan Wangji, but of Wei Wuxian too. Jealous of his talent, of his easy earning of A-Die and everyone else’s affection, jealous of his ability to find someone who loves every inch of him unconditionally. That jealousy has been festering for years and that jealousy is one thing Jiang Cheng has finally been working hard to cut out of himself, even if he makes a bit of a mess as he does.  

But he has never bothered to deal with his jealousy of Lan Wangji; of how Lan Wangji was able to stand by Wei Wuxian’s side when no one else could and then act as if the man was beyond reproach, acting like a guard dog when Wei Wuxian returned and Jiang Cheng couldn’t be in the same room as him without eventually getting into a bitter shouting match with his brother. Jiang Cheng has tried to stop being so outwardly hostile for Wei Wuxian’s sake, but he has not tried to redirect all his negative thoughts about the expressionless man sitting across from him.

Except, he’s not nearly as expressionless as normal that night, or perhaps Jiang Cheng has gotten better at reading him through forced proximity. His posture is perfect, his mouth a flat line, and his hands still on the surface of the table.

But every few seconds, his eyes gaze flickers to the exit of the banquet hall and his fingers press hard against the surface of his phone as if fearing he will miss it vibrating otherwise.

Jiang Cheng has only asked Lan Xichen once about how much Lan Wangji knows about his current struggles.

“He stayed with me for a few months while I was in the countryside, but since I’ve been back, I’ve been trying not to worry him as much. He’s been through enough worry to last a lifetime.”

Sitting across from the man now, Jiang Cheng almost snorts. For such a smart and empathetic man, Lan Xichen can be a complete idiot when it comes to other people’s concerns over him. He might be able to fool the media and the public with his composure, but he should know it doesn’t work the same with good family. He should know they want to be relied on, and he should know they only worry more the harder you try to hide your wounds.

But then, if Jiang Cheng has learned anything these past few weeks, it’s that Lan Xichen has almost as much self-pride and strict self-expectations as Jiang Cheng does. They just act on them differently sometimes.

Jiang Cheng glances at Lan Wangji once again and hates that his train of thought takes him straight to the next logical stop. That is, as his brother, Lan Wangji can be no stranger to Lan Xichen’s method of dealing with problems, just as Wei Wuxian isn’t ignorant to Jiang Cheng’s coping strategies even with the time they spent apart from each other. Which means that Lan Wangji has more reason than any of them to worry about Lan Xichen’s well-being, and has as much right to bare his teeth at Jiang Cheng over Lan Xichen as Jiang Cheng has over Wei Wuxian.

Not that Lan Wangji would scowl and rage like Jiang Cheng, but he made his feelings pretty clear in that very first meeting, and Jiang Cheng responded by briefly acting like the spoiled fans he knows must anger Lan Wangji as much as Wei Wuxian’s piss off Jiang Cheng.

Jiang Cheng glares at the tablecloth and spends a solid minute cursing both his cold body for demanding a distraction and Lan Xichen inspiring compassion, for making him act as does next.

“I’m sorry,” Jiang Cheng says through gritted teeth, voice hardly a decibel above a whisper and not looking up, “For calling Lan Xichen a business opportunity at Caiyi Café. That was a low-blow, and I didn’t mean it.”

He forces himself to look up and meet Lan Wangji’s narrowed gaze. He’s pretty sure Lan Wangji can put two and two together but just in case, he adds, “I was trying to get a rise out of you.”

A sound almost like a snort falls from Lan Wangji’s closed lips, but his expression doesn’t change. Jiang Cheng bites back his because I still don’t like you, given it would defeat the whole purpose of an apology. That’s what I do, would also be an accurate addition, but Lan Wangji has probably already figured that out and hearing him acknowledge it will just make Jiang Cheng angry even if it is true.

Xiongzhang let you drive tonight,” Lan Wangji says instead, and Jiang Cheng crosses his arms over his chest.

“He was tired, like he said.”

“You yelled at him about it.”

“I–how did you even hear about that?” He knows Lan Xichen wouldn’t have told Lan Wangji that, given how the argument featured both of their insecurities. He might have mentioned a brief argument, but as Wei Wuxian once told Jiang Cheng, Lan Wangji doesn’t embellish things. If he says yelling, it’s because he was there, or someone told him specifically that Jiang Cheng yelled.

Lan Wangji just stares at him, and Jiang Cheng swallows down the first instinctive and defensive words that spring to his tongue.

“I did,” he admits, “He touched a nerve. But I still shouldn’t have yelled. I apologized after.”

A distinct frown touches Lan Wangji’s lips and that puts Jiang Cheng on instant high-alert.

“He didn’t want to come tonight,” Lan Wangji says, and Jiang Cheng twitches at the way the other man’s fingers tighten around his phone. As soon as Lan Xichen returns, they are going to speak about just how much Lan Xichen is not successfully hiding from his younger brother, and how sad that makes Lan Wangji, before Jiang Cheng actually starts feeling bad for him. “But he came with you.”

“Yeah, so?” Jiang Cheng says, because he is not Wei Wuxian or Lan Xichen, who are patient and know how to listen to Lan Wangji.

“You care,” Lan Wangji says, and Jiang Cheng scowls at how defeated and upset Lan Wangji manages to make those two words sound.

“I didn’t realize that was such a fucking crime,” Jiang Cheng sneers, but stops his next acidic words when Lan Wangji’s eyes narrow further at that. “Not that–fuck, never mind. Yes, I care a bit, alright? He’s a good person, it would be like hating puppies or something if I didn’t care even a little bit.”

“He’s not a puppy,” Lan Wangji replies, and Jiang Cheng glares.

“I am not having another discussion about metaphors tonight.”  

Lan Wangji’s frown shifts slightly, and Jiang Cheng is pretty sure the man is smirking at him.

The conversation fades into silence for a moment, and Jiang Cheng’s scowl and Lan Wangji’s narrowed looks fall away with it. The dialogue feels unfinished and Jiang Cheng feels like he just confessed something big, but for one of the first times in years, he doesn’t feel like throttling Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji too, after another moment, gracefully stands and pauses in front of Jiang Cheng.

“Text,” Lan Wangji says, and holds up his phone, “When he’s back.”

“I’m not your secretary,” Jiang Cheng replies, but Lan Wangji accepts that as if trusting Jiang Cheng will, at the very least, tell Lan Xichen to text once he’s back.

Lan Wangji heads off with their strange truce floating between them and rejoins Wei Wuxian’s side, who drags him off to another room after a quick and concerned look that Jiang Cheng waves away.

He swallows a sigh as he glances around the room and the cold immediately begins to seep in again. Technically, he would still see Lan Xichen’s return if he got up and walked around the room, but that still feels like breaking a promise, and he doesn’t feel like earning even more strange looks than he’s already gained that night. Better to simply return to his phone and scroll through his emails again, hunching slightly to try conserving his body heat.

“Jiang Wanyin?”

Jiang Cheng nearly drops his phone with a curse at the sudden call of his name. He looks up to see two men he hasn’t met yet staring curiously down at him. They wear contrasting suits similar to Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, one dark and one a pale blue frost. The man in the lighter suit wears thick-rimmed glasses with a solid black cylinder clipped to the right frame, and he smiles at Jiang Cheng them.

“I’m Xiao Xingchen,” the man introduces himself, and gestures to his side. “This is my partner, Song Lan. We’re A-Qing’s parents.”

“Babysitter A-Qing?” Jiang Cheng blurts, blinking rapidly at the two of them as Xiao Xingchen nods. “Oh.”

“She’s told us a lot about you,” Xiao Xingchen replies.

Oh.

“Like what?” Jiang Cheng asks, barely stopping himself from immediately insisting that whatever she’s said are lies. No point doing damage control until he knows just how much damage there is.

“She thinks you’re very funny,” Xiao Xingchen says, that same smile reminding Jiang Cheng of Lan Xichen’s gentleness. “She says one of the best parts of the day is when you get back, not because she wants to go home, but because she loves seeing you and Jin Ling playing together.”

“She said that?” Jiang Cheng isn’t sure if he should be touched or insulted, and Song Lan snorts.

“Not in those words,” Song Lan tells him, with an affectionate glance at his husband. “Xingchen is inferring as much from all the times she’s come home and told us about you and Jin Ling arguing over which pillows were best for making forts and which were allowed to be knocked over.”

“She has said seeing you and Jin Ling interact is one the most entertaining parts of her days,” Xiao Xingchen protests, which still feels slightly like an insult.

“Well she’s a pretty interesting character herself,” Jiang Cheng replies before he can worry about that coming out too abrasive. Neither of the other men seem to mind though, Xiao Xingchen’s smile widening and Song Lan looking the perfect part of exhausted but fond parent.   

“And she’s very good with Jin Ling,” Jiang Cheng quickly adds, because it’s true and because they seem like the type who want to hear more about their child. “She always throws herself into whatever they’re doing, no matter how childish or messy it is. Like, did she show you the paintings they did this week?”

Painting is a generous word, but when the other men shake their heads and Jiang Cheng shows them the pictures he has saved on his phone, there is no dismissal of their value. Instead, Xiao Xingchen laughs as he holds the phone inches from his face and Song Lan describes the details he sees; the chunks of paint on the ends of A-Qing’s hair like hair dye and the green and blue zebra stripes on Jin Ling’s face. A-Qing at least had the forethought to do this activity outside, and Jiang Cheng remembers coming home to find a truly impressive array of newspapers and cardboard spread over half the driveway. Most of the paintings were blobs of colour more than anything, and both A-Qing and Jin Ling’s hands looked like they simply shoved them in buckets of paint before beginning.

But one picture from Jin Ling is of Jiang Cheng defending him from those imaginary monsters and A-Qing laughed so hard at Jiang Cheng’s unthinking but soft fuck, that Jiang Cheng couldn’t even lecture them.

He did, however, carry them both through the house and insist A-Qing shower and wear some of Jiang Yanli’s clothes before going home so her parents wouldn’t think Jiang Cheng is a terribly irresponsible person.

Judging by the delight her parents wear as Jiang Cheng tells them that story and others, Jiang Cheng has somehow managed to create a surprisingly positive image.

“So what are the two of you doing here?” Jiang Cheng asks after they finally stop laughing over what A-Qing deemed the Red Bean Incident. The two give him an amused smile as if sharing an inside joke with him, but A-Qing hasn’t mentioned their jobs before, and Jiang Cheng has never seen the two on TV.

“We’re entertainment lawyers,” Xiao Xingchen replies. “Heavily focused on ensuring the working conditions and work hours for models are acceptable and don’t negatively affect their health.”

“So, half the room loves you and the other half hates you?” Jiang Cheng asks.

“Just about,” Song Lan replies smoothly.

That intrigues Jiang Cheng almost as much as them being A-Qing’s parents, and he remembers his manners in the same instant, awkwardly gesturing to three empty seats of the table. “Would you like to sit?”

“Your friends won’t mind?” Xiao Xingchen asks.

“They won’t be back for awhile.”

The men hesitate a second before graciously accepting the offer. The two certainly have interesting stories to tell concerning their jobs, and Xiao Xingchen is eager to hear more about Jiang Cheng despite having A-Qing as a source of information. They are well-informed about his family situation, but they still listen with rapt attention, though Song Lan periodically does a scan of the crowd as if keeping an eye on someone.

At one point, Jiang Cheng follows his gaze where it lands on a young man lounging alone at a table. He looks college aged, wearing a black shirt of shimmering silk rather than suit jacket, studded jeans, and a loose scarf.

The second Jiang Cheng looks at him, the young man glances back and a smirk blooms on his lips.

“Have you spoken with him yet?” Song Lan’s voice draws Jiang Cheng back to the table, and he flushes at Song Lan’s intense stare.

“Xue Yang,” Song Lan clarifies, and Jiang Cheng shakes his head. He almost looks back at the younger man at familiar name, but he keeps his eyes on the men in front of him.

“A-Qing’s mentioned him,” Jiang Cheng says, and glances at the small smile on Xiao Xingchen’s face.

“I’m almost afraid to ask,” Song Lan says, once again donning a look of exasperated fondness, though Jiang Cheng has a feeling it’s once more directed more towards A-Qing.

“I’m sure she’s had some entertaining stories to tell,” Xiao Xingchen says, and he keeps smiling.

“He lives with you then?”

“Most of the time.”

“He’s a bit of a free spirit,” Xiao Xingchen explains. “Not to mention, he’s older than A-Qing and he–he didn’t have much experience being attached to the same people for very long as a child.”

“Being a child model,” Jiang Cheng supplies, remembering A-Qing telling Jiang Cheng about that and her baba’s opinion on its negative effects the first time Xue Yang picked her up.

Xiao Xingchen nods and his smile fades a little at whatever experiences he’s remembering, but Jiang Cheng doesn’t ask.

Part of Jiang Cheng is curious, especially about Xue Yang’s biological parents, but it’s none of his business. Not to mention, Xiao Xingchen looked sad enough telling him how A-Qing’s parents died in an accident when she was very young. Xue Yang’s history with his biological parents is likely just as sad or worse, judging by all the snapshots Jiang Cheng has collected from other people, and he doesn’t want to be the reason Xiao Xingchen looks that sad twice in an hour.  

“Not the best setting to grow up in with little guidance,” Xiao Xingchen says, and Jiang Cheng gives hearty agreement, knowing Jin Zixuan’s own experiences are why he’s trying to keep Jin Ling far away from the spotlight until he’s much older.

“We should go check in with him,” Song Lan cuts in, and there is a history within the tension of his voice that Jiang Cheng can only guess at. His downturned mouth tells one story, but the concern in his eyes adds a complexity that reminds Jiang Cheng uncomfortably of the period of time immediately following Wei Wuxian’s return to the country.

“It was nice to finally meet you,” Xiao Xingchen says with a smile at Jiang Cheng as the pair stand.

“Likewise,” Jiang Cheng replies, and watches them head through the room toward Xue Yang. The boy also climbs to his feet as if to leave before they can reach him, but he stops to raise his glass in Jiang Cheng’s direction with a wide smirk, as if they are close friends.

A shiver that has nothing to do with his chill dances down his spine, but Jiang Cheng just raises his glass and stares right back with a challenging expression.  

Xue Yang slips away a moment later, and Jiang Cheng returns to the cold that’s been waiting on the edges of his conversation. He mutters a grumpy curse as his table remains empty of the others and gives the room another cursory look. Most of the people he knows from attending Wei Wuxian and A-Jie’s celebrity events he already spoke with and they’re not close enough that they need to speak more than once.

There’s a moment where he thinks he sees some familiar faces that make him want to leap to his feet with a snarl at the cold sneers sitting above the red suns stitched onto black suits, but Jiang Cheng blinks, and the faces belong to strangers.

So instead of moving, he hunches over his phone once more as he waits.

Which means as soon as Lan Xichen texts him that he’s coming back a little over an hour later, Jiang Cheng sees it and straightens. He ordered himself a hot tea in the meantime, but his hands still shake slightly and as soon as the warm liquid leaves his mouth, his teeth threaten to chatter.

But Jiang Cheng ignores all of that as he watches the hall’s doorway and sees Lan Xichen the second he returns.

Jiang Cheng watches him pause in the doorway, immediately looking for their table and for Jiang Cheng. As soon as his gaze falls on Jiang Cheng, a relieved smile spreads across his face and his graceful glide through the room verges on a power walk. He looks at Jiang Cheng the whole time, and Jiang Cheng grabs his own knee to stop the sudden and ridiculous urge to jump up and march right over to Lan Xichen.

“I’m sorry I left for so long,” Lan Xichen says once he reaches the table, sliding into the chair beside Jiang Cheng.

Jiang Cheng just waves away the apology impatiently as he twists to face the other man.

“So?” Jiang Cheng says, studying Lan Xichen carefully. His shoulders slump slightly in exhaustion and distant recollections flicker in his eyes, but he smiles at Jiang Cheng.

“He really did want to see me,” Lan Xichen says, and shakes his head a little as if still surprised. “He said he missed me.”

“Well of course he did,” Jiang Cheng scoffs, because he remembers Nie Huaisang praising Lan Xichen’s kindness as much as he whined about Nie Mingjue’s strictness.

“Your confidence is appreciated, if unwarranted,” Lan Xichen replies, and Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes at him.

“But I’m right, aren’t I?” Jiang Cheng presses. “You guys were gone for awhile and you look happy.”

“I–” Lan Xichen stops for a moment, but a soft smile touches his lips when he continues. “I am happy. We made plans to get lunch this week, and Huaisang said he wants to help Mingjue work through what happened.”

Jiang Cheng leans forward as Lan Xichen continues to tell Jiang Cheng bits of the conversation, partly out of interest and partly in hopes of trapping his little remaining body heat in a tangle of limbs.

Unfortunately, Lan Xichen notices the shift in body posture a moment later and interrupts the story Jiang Cheng was trying to listen to.

“Are you alright?” he asks, and Jiang Cheng curls his hands a little more where he shoved them beneath his armpits.

“Fine,” he says, and clenches his jaw when his teeth threaten to chatter again. Lan Xichen opens his mouth in obvious disbelief, so Jiang Cheng hurries to add, “I’m just cold.”

“Cold,” Lan Xichen repeats like it’s a foreign concept despite just being outside, and Jiang Cheng grinds his teeth.

“Yes, cold.” Whereas at Ritan Park Lan Xichen only briefly teased him about his use of a jacket and Jiang Cheng could easily blame his attire on the wind, Lan Xichen now stares at him seriously. The look and Jiang Cheng’s blunt admission to a frankly stupid weakness should make his cheeks flush, but Jiang Cheng can’t even feel that burn at that moment. “Huaisang said wearing a coat would ruin this suit jacket and the hall’s been blasting the fucking AC like it’s the middle of the summer.”

He doesn’t mention that he wasn’t even thinking about grabbing a coat when Nie Huaisang yelled at him about it, too focused on rushing out the door and getting to Lan Xichen’s apartment as fast as he could. He also doesn’t acknowledge that he knows the chill must seem ridiculous to others, especially someone who was just outside.

Instead, Jiang Cheng just hunches further and glares at Lan Xichen.

“Continue,” Jiang Cheng says to the mix of concern and amusement lining Lan Xichen’s face, reluctantly removing a hand to gesture at Lan Xichen.

Lan Xicheng grabs that hand before Jiang Cheng can blink.

“You’re shivering,” Lan Xichen says, and Jiang Cheng tears his hand away. He shoves it underneath his legs as Lan Xichen stares.

“Here,” he says a heartbeat later, and begins taking off the coat he wore outside. He holds out the blue attire for Jiang Cheng to turn and slip his arms through rather than simply passing the fabric over, and now Jiang Cheng finally feels his burning cheeks.

“It’s fine,” Jiang Cheng protests even though he was just cursing himself moments before Lan Xichen returned, and desperately wishing for a way to warm up.

“It is,” Lan Xichen agrees, and lifts the coat a little higher. Jiang Cheng opens his mouth but closes it at that stubborn tilt to Lan Xichen’s chin, and the way he sits as perfectly straight and certain as Jiang Cheng is accustomed to in that moment.   

He remembers what Lan Xichen said about control in the wake of their argument at Cloud Recesses, and how he seems to genuinely enjoy taking care of others. Jiang Cheng reminds himself of the tired note to Lan Xichen’s voice as he recalled his conversation with Nie Huaisang, and how unsteady even happy conversations can make one feel if there is anxiety leading up to it.

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes as exaggerated as he can, but he turns to slide his arms into the coat sleeves as Lan Xichen pulls them up to his shoulders. He turns back around and lets Lan Xichen fuss with the buttons and the collar. Lan Xichen isn’t that much taller than Jiang Cheng, but the few inches of height and shoulder length mean that Jiang Cheng can huddle in the fabric like he’s wrapped in an oversized blanket.

“Better?” Lan Xichen asks with genuine interest as Jiang Cheng revels in the warm, fur lining of the coat.

Jiang Cheng contemplates giving into his embarrassment for just a moment, or underplaying the gesture given how frequently others and himself wave away the problem. A-Jie making warm soup, after all, is rarely just for Jiang Cheng nowadays, and Jiang Cheng accepts the blankets Wei Wuxian sometimes throws at him either by throwing something back or staying quiet. He’s just as likely to feel like he’s being babied as he is to feel grateful for an acknowledgment of his occasional issue.  

But the only people at the table are Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng, and accepting Lan Xichen’s care merely brings a sense of relief, like finally collapsing into bed after a long day of work.

“Thank you,” Jiang Cheng says, and Lan Xichen rewards him with a soft smile that ignites a fuzzy warmth inside his chest.

He does glare at Lan Xichen when the man raises a hand to muffle his giggling as Jiang Cheng snuggles deeper into the coat and sinks further down the chair.

“You look adorable,” Lan Xichen comments, because the man has no survival instincts.

“Text Lan Wangji you’re alive while it’s still true,” Jiang Cheng replies, withdrawing his hands further into the too long sleeves, the collar rising to his nose. “And then talk to him honestly. He was really worried.”

That distracts Lan Xichen, as does his determination to order them both some fresh tea. Jiang Cheng has a cup cradled in his much warmer hands by the time a loud voice interrupts their conversation.

“Why does Jiang Cheng look like an angry turtle hiding in its shell?” Wei Wuxian asks with delight as he throws himself into the chair across from Jiang Cheng. Lan Wangji sits with far more grace but just as quickly, gaze immediately going to his older brother as if checking for physical wounds.

“He was cold so I offered my coat,” Lan Xichen says simply, and his hand goes to Jiang Cheng’s puffed up shoulder as if to cut off Jiang Cheng’s ire before it can even begin.

“No fair, Xichen-ge,” Wei Wuxian replies with a slight pout even as his tone stays teasing. “Lan Zhan didn’t bring a coat so you know I can’t show off how much cuter I’d be with my boyfriend’s clothes.”

Xiongzhang, how was the meeting?”

“It’s not a competition,” Jiang Cheng snaps to distract Wei Wuxian from Lan Wangji’s quiet question and Lan Xichen’s soft ah. Wei Wuxian glances at the two curiously, but quickly turns his attention to Jiang Cheng’s retort.

“Because Lan Zhan and I’d obviously win,” Wei Wuxian replies, though his tone goes careful as he watches Jiang Cheng’s reaction.

“Because no one else wants to flaunt themselves so embarrassingly in public!” Jiang Cheng snaps without venom, and Wei Wuxian relaxes back into familiar teasing.

They continue to bicker for awhile as the other two hold their own quiet conversation, but Lan Xichen’s hand never leaves Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. If not for the way his palm occasionally presses against Jiang Cheng’s shoulder blade when his voice grows particularly snappish, Jiang Cheng would have thought the man forget about his loose fingers curled over the soft blue fabric.

It’s not yet midnight when they all notice Lan Xichen’s energy flagging, and Jiang Cheng quickly comments that A-Qing probably doesn’t want to stay with Jin Ling all night. Lan Xichen accepts the reason for departure easily enough, pausing briefly to have a hushed conversation with Lan Wangji while Wei Wuxian drags Jiang Cheng into a quick hug.

Jiejie hasn’t messaged you yet either?” Wei Wuxian asks after and Jiang Cheng shakes his head.

“She said they might not until three or four in the morning,” Jiang Cheng reminds him.

“I’ll still be up,” Wei Wuxian says with a smirk, and Jiang Cheng shoves his shoulder. Wei Wuxian’s laughter follows them as they leave the room and head down the halls back the way they first came through the building.

No one stops them, but as they exit the building and pass an alcove shadowed by trees and a circle of waist-high stones, Jiang Cheng overhears newly familiar voices.

“–promised you wouldn’t go near them!” Song Lan says, and Jiang Cheng turns his head to see Xiao Xingchen standing silently at his side with his lips pressed into a tight line, both men staring at the quiet Xue Yang.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t change his pace, nor does he make any sound. Yet for just a second, time slows like they’re stuck in a movie, and Xue Yang turns to look directly at Jiang Cheng. Where before he stared blankly at the space an inch above Song Lan’s shoulder, now Xue Yang’s face twists into an expression that makes Jiang Cheng stumble.

It’s an expression he’s seen only a few times in life; once in the middle of a forest so primal and untouched, no one’s phone had any service, and twice in the glimpses of a mirror when he was caught in the worst of his grief-stricken rages.

It’s not an expression that belongs on a young man Jiang Cheng has never even met.

It’s the expression of someone who wants to hurt and hurt and hurt their target.

“Sending her home already?” Xue Yang calls, and the cold mocking in his voice belongs to someone who grew up among seasoned criminals. “And here I thought she said you were actually a big softie. Why not keep her with the family she wants instead of sending her back to the shitshow?”

“That’s enough,” Xiao Xingchen says sharply, and the hatred slides briefly out of sight when Xue Yang glances at him. “Stop dragging other people into our problems.”

“He waltzed into them on his own,” Xue Yang shoots back.  

“We didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” Jiang Cheng says quickly, already stepping away and toward the steps leading down to the street with Lan Xichen. “I’ll make sure A-Qing has enough money for the cab home.”

Song Lan nods, and Jiang Cheng heads down the stairs, ignoring Lan Xichen’s curious looks for the moment. Only once they stand at the curb of the street waiting for the valet to return with the car does Jiang Cheng explain who the three were. He’s still wearing Lan Xichen’s coat, Lan Xichen pressing closer to hear Jiang Cheng and Jiang Cheng huddling close to Lan Xichen’s side to soak up the other man’s body heat. A few photographers from earlier remain, but Jiang Cheng doesn’t care what picture they get as long as he stays warm.

They stay mostly silent during the car ride back to Lan Xichen’s apartment, Lan Xichen leaning back in his seat with closed eyes. The bright and colourful lights of the city’s nightlife spill across the tired lines of his face and catch on the upturned and content curves of his lips. Jiang Cheng can’t help the occasional curse at a particularly terrible driver ahead of them, but he keeps them quiet and the rage lessens quickly whenever he glances at his passenger.

Lan Xichen opens his eyes when they arrive at the front gates of his apartment’s parking lot, Jiang Cheng punching in the code Lan Xichen gave him earlier and heading to the front curb of the apartment’s main entrance way. He keeps the engine running, warm air filling the enclosed space as Lan Xichen unbuckles his seatbelt and turns to him.

“Thank you again,” he says, the only sources of light the dim dashboard and the streetlight outside. “It might not be how you like spending your evenings, but I do hope you had some fun.”

“I already told you I was fine,” Jiang Cheng replies, “It was just like one of Wei Wuxian’s premieres, or A-Jie’s afterparties. Pretentious, supposedly formal, but perfectly passable if you’re with the right people.”

“And I count as one of those now?” Lan Xichen asks, and Jiang Cheng huffs as he tries to hide his flushed cheeks in the collar of Lan Xichen’s coat.

“Don’t ask stupid questions,” Jiang Cheng grumbles, which only increases the teasing in Lan Xichen’s eyes and the burning in Jiang Cheng’s face.

“Wangji said he had a nice conversation with you, too,” Lan Xichen says after a second in which Jiang Cheng thinks the other man will grab for the door, but stays in his seat instead. Jiang Cheng straightens up at that and narrows his eyes at Lan Xichen’s serene expression.

“What did he say we said?” Jiang Cheng asks, not sure why his heart thuds at the idea.

“Simply that you apologized for the Caiyi Café argument. Thank you for that.”

“It’s not a big deal,” Jiang Cheng replies, even though they both know it is for him.

“Perhaps the two of you can talk about the pond incident next.”

“And everyone says I remember things for too long,” Jiang Cheng says, and glares as Lan Xichen hides his twitching lips behind his hands.

When he lowers them though, all hints of teasing have been tucked out of sight.

“May I ask you something?” Lan Xichen says, and Jiang Cheng nods despite the serious tone immediately making his hand twitch for the gear selector so he can drive far away from the upcoming conversation. “Why were you upset by Wei Wuxian teasing you about your dating life?”

Of all the questions Jiang Cheng was expecting, that was nowhere near the top ten, and Jiang Cheng can only gape. When he stumbles for words, Lan Xichen hesitantly clarifies, “you’ve never seriously dated anyone before, right?”

“Right,” Jiang Cheng says, because it’s not a secret.  

“And I imagine that’s something Wei Wuxian has teased you about before.”

“Right.”

“And teasing is something you’re used to him doing,” Lan Xichen continues, watching Jiang Cheng carefully.

“Of course.”

“Of course,” Lan Xichen repeats, “But tonight you seemed genuinely upset by it.”  

Jiang Cheng opens his mouth, but neither denial nor confirmation escape his tight throat. When he struggles to answer, Lan Xichen asks,

“Are you ashamed?”

“No!”

Jiang Cheng doesn’t think he is. Even if the few blind dates he’s been on ended disastrously, he’s never hurt anyone beyond bruised egos. Given those people have never been interested in follow-up dates, Jiang Cheng assumes they get over any accidental indignation he caused within a few days.

But Jiang Cheng is disheartened sometimes when he sees Wei Wuxian with Lan Wangji and A-Jie with Jin Zixuan. It’s not his primary reaction ninety nine percent of the time, thankfully. Ninety nine percent of the time he’s happy; happy because according to his siblings, they found someone who has seen every layer of them and never once stopped wanting to be with them.

It must be nice, not just to be seen and liked, but to be understood and loved. Jiang Cheng still doesn’t even understand himself some days; the whiplash change of his mood, his inability to let go of the past, his shoving away of the people he desperately wishes to cling to, the pride he shields his heart with, and his constant impatience with everyone’s stupidity. He can’t expect someone else to understand that if he can’t, and he certainly can’t expect someone to love a permanent mystery, especially a mystery that snarls and bites constantly. He doesn’t even expect that of the family who grew up with him.  

So Jiang Cheng isn’t ashamed, but one percent of the time, he is selfishly sad to be reminded of the good things he will never have.

He knows that is no one’s fault though, and that he will be okay in the end, no matter the solitary nights that fade into lonely mornings where he childishly, half-heartedly wishes he could return to a time when his whole family lived together in a close-knit village. He still has that village at least, and he went on with his life even when he thought A-Die and A-Niang would divorce, when both his siblings moved away, when his parents died, when Wei Wuxian left, and when strangers came for Wei Wuxian and for Lotus Lakes.

Throughout all those times Jiang Cheng has not only carried on but built a moderately successful life that isn’t completely devoid of other people.

“Then why?” Lan Xichen asks, one hand pressing against the shoulder of Jiang Cheng’s car seat as he leans closer.

Because, Jiang Cheng thinks, you showed me what I could have and then Wei Wuxian reminded me of what I already know.

Not intentionally of course, and it’s not like Jiang Cheng has fallen in love with Lan Xichen. But the comfort given and returned, the touches, the smiles, the shared food, the family sitting across from Jiang Cheng; for one surreal moment, Jiang Cheng experienced the upside of having a partner like his siblings.

And then Wei Wuxian painted over that dream with the memories of Jiang Cheng being a human disaster, and Jiang Cheng remembered he would never have those genuine moments.

If he tells Lan Xichen any of that though, the man will try offering comfort from a well of energy that the night has already drained. If he tells Lan Xichen, the nice parts of the evening may be ruined for him, even though Jiang Cheng did enjoy himself around the other man. Even if being lovers is fake, the warm companionship they gave each other that night wasn’t, and makes Jiang Cheng think that maybe they can try being friends after all this, so long as Jiang Cheng doesn’t do anything too selfish.   

“Wanyin.” A gentle call of his name like it’s a precious thing, and suddenly their faces are a lot closer in the dim light, all soft gazes and quiet breaths, and if holding hands with Lan Xichen feels nice, maybe other touches of physical comfort would too. “You can be honest with me.”

“It doesn’t matter.” The words are nothing more than puffs of air hitting Lan Xichen’s shadowed cheeks, and silky hair falls into Lan Xichen’s dark eyes as he tilts forward to hear better.

Jiang Cheng’s lips part to expand on that, to insist there was no reason, but big, coherent thoughts can’t squeeze into the limited space between them, and suddenly Jiang Cheng doesn’t want to talk. He just wants to revel in the warmth he finally feels instead; the warmth of the car, of Lan Xichen’s eyes, of Lan Xichen’s breath, of Lan Xichen’s body. He shifts closer to that warmth and Lan Xichen’s fingertips press into Jiang Cheng’s thigh where his hand splays across the cup holder between them. A few more inches closer, and those fingers will be covered and forgotten.

The slam of a car door and drunken laughter cracks through the air like a thunderclap, and they both startle back. Jiang Cheng’s head smacks the headrest as his hands grasp the steering wheel for a grounding point, and Lan Xichen withdraws his hands to his lap as he whips his head around to look out the window.

“I should let you leave,” Lan Xichen says after a few pounding heartbeats, voice steady if quiet. “I’m sure you’re tired, too, and Jin Ling will wake you early tomorrow.”

“Right, yeah,” Jiang Cheng stutters as Lan Xichen opens the door. “I–good night.”

Lan Xichen turns back at that, just so Jiang Cheng sees the smile on his face.

“Good night,” he says, and slowly closes the car door.

Jiang Cheng waits for Lan Xichen to enter the apartment building before he pulls away, both to ensure the man makes it inside and because he can’t quite focus on anything else for a moment. He turns on the radio to distract himself from the roar of blood in his ears and gives his head several shakes, but he’s still replaying the look on Lan Xichen’s face while his skin still holds onto that warmth of proximity by the time he returns to A-Jie’s home.

The kitchen lights are on, but A-Qing isn’t there nor in the cozy room. Desperate to get out of his head and steady himself with the known, Jiang Cheng heads quietly to Jin Ling’s room where he finds them both tucked under blankets in Jin Ling’s bed. A-Qing reads Jin Ling a story even though Jin Ling’s eyes are closed, and the girl looks up the second Jiang Cheng enters the room.

“Why are you wearing someone else’s jacket?” she asks with a frown. Jiang Cheng stops and glances down to see Lan Xichen’s blue coat still keeping him warm.

Fuck.

“None of your business,” Jiang Cheng snaps, and latches onto the obvious distraction. “Why is Jin Ling still up?”

Jin Ling’s eyes blink open at Jiang Cheng’s voice, and he lifts both his arms toward Jiang Cheng.

“He had a nightmare and said he couldn’t go back to sleep until you defeated all the monsters.” A-Qing ruffles Jin Ling’s hair where he still rests his head against her chest. “He might look like a sleepy baby now, but every time I tried putting him back down, he started screaming.” 

“The monsters are too big for me and A-Qing,” Jin Ling whispers, and raises his head as Jiang Cheng takes a seat on the edge of his bed.

“Your arms are pretty puny,” Jiang Cheng says as he takes his nephew’s wrists and lifts his arms up and down. “You definitely need to do a lot more push-ups if you want something more than noodles for arms.”

“How many?” Jin Ling asks, and scoots a little closer to Jiang Cheng.

“At least twenty a day. Thirty if you really want to be strong.”

“Are you a drill sergeant or his jiujiu?” A-Qing demands, but Jin Ling just ingests the advice with a serious look.

“And then I’ll be scary like jiujiu?”

“With your size?” Jiang Cheng snorts, and gives Jin Ling’s wrists a squeeze. “No, but you’ll be as strong as you need to be.”  

He releases Jin Ling’s arms, and smirks at Jin Ling’s pout. “Do you want to try some now?”

“Screw sleep,” A-Qing cheers as Jin Ling nods furiously and climbs off the bed.

“Ten now, and then ten later in the day,” Jiang Cheng instructs, and gets down on the floor beside Jin Ling to show him the proper position. A-Qing does something on her phone quickly before getting down on Jiang Cheng’s side and sticking her tongue out at Jiang Cheng. “You should always spread them out like that, got it?”

“Got it!”

“Bet I can do them faster than you, A-Ling,” A-Qing sings, and Jiang Cheng keeps himself upright with one arm as he pokes her shoulder.

“It’s not about speed,” Jiang Cheng warns them, “Trying to do this fast will just get you hurt and not give you any muscles. You need to do them with the proper position for them to work.”

“Fine, I bet I can do them better than you, A-Ling.”

“Nu-uh!” Jin Ling shouts back, and tugs on Jiang Cheng’s sleeve. “Show me how to do them better, okay, jiujiu?”

“Just watch, both of you.”

Jiang Cheng shows them how to do a push-up properly, both a full one with straight legs on his toes, and a half one on his bent knees. He gives A-Qing verbal instructions and places a hand on Jin Ling’s back and on his stomach to keep his small frame straight so neither of them hurt themselves. Neither of them are scrawny, and Jiang Cheng knows Jin Zixuan encourages Jin Ling to play outside and whatever sport strikes his fancy. But neither of them spend hours outside like Jiang Cheng does, and A-Qing complains dramatically after her fifth one.

Jin Ling struggles at the halfway point too, but he screws up his small face in determination as he continues to count off each one.

“Breathe slowly, A-Ling,” Jiang Cheng reminds him as he pants out the number eight. “In on the way down, out on the way up.”

“I am!” he huffs, and takes a deep breath before his shaking arms carry him through the ninth and then tenth one.

“Good,” Jiang Cheng says, and tugs Jin Ling into a sitting position before he can fall on his face.

“How am I supposed to fight monsters if my arms are sore from that?” A-Qing complains where she lies on the rug.

“Obviously you don’t do them right before you fight the monsters.”

“Obviously,” Jin Ling repeats, and crawls over to tug A-Qing upright as well. A-Qing makes herself dead weight until Jin Ling whines at her and she sits up with a dramatic groan.

“You’ll have to carry me to bed now,” she tells him.

“No way!” Jin Ling shouts, and scrambles up into his bed. He draws the blankets up to his chin and quickly lies down, sticking out a tongue at her. “I’m already in bed!”

“Do you still need me to fight the monsters?” Jiang Cheng asks as A-Qing laughs. Jin Ling nods furiously from beneath his blankets, so Jiang Cheng grabs the same wooden sword from before and acts out several fights for the two. Once they are done, Jin Ling insists on receiving a kiss to his forehead and then finally agrees to sleep.

A-Qing and Jiang Cheng leave the room together, Jiang Cheng’s heartbeat finally normal again as the door to his nephew’s bedroom clicks shut.

“Do you actually know how to fight?” A-Qing asks as they make their way back to the kitchen island. She jumps into a stool and rotates the seat back and forth as she watches Jiang Cheng.

“I learned Changquan when I was younger.”

“Why?”

“My parents prioritized tradition when I was growing up. They wanted us to be able to participate ourselves, not just know about it.”

“Well I wish someone had taught me how to fight,” she says as she stares down at her knee-high, striped socks and continues to do half-spins on the chair. “I bet I’d look really cool and even be better than you.”  

Instead of answering, Jiang Cheng watches her for a moment as his brain sluggishly recalls the other conversations he both had and overheard that evening.

“I saw Xue Yang tonight,” Jiang Cheng says, and A-Qing looks up at that, but doesn’t stop moving. “Are you actually scared of him?”

“Of what, him hurting me or something?” She scoffs. “No way. If there was even the slightest chance of that, diedie would kick him out no matter what baba said.”

She grins as Jiang Cheng finally puts a face to those two familial terms. “But I would love to imagine punching him in the face when he pisses me off, and know I’m imagining it properly.”

Jiang Cheng watches for another moment and then opens his mouth, already regretting his words.

“I could teach you a little if you really wanted.”

“Really?” Jiang Cheng nods even though a headache forms just looking at the grin on A-Qing’s face that reminds him uncomfortably of Wei Wuxian’s chaotic one. “Let’s do it! And in exchange, I promise not to tell anyone how you came home in someone else’s coat looking like you just had your first kiss.”

Chapter Text

The morning after the charity dinner, Jiang Cheng wakes to two pieces of news. The first is the only important one; the confirmation that A-Jie’s surgery went well. She’ll need to stay in the hospital for a week before she can fly so Wen Qing and the others can ensure there are no complications, but everyone is confident she’ll be fine. So confident that they tell Jin Ling his baba and mama should finally be coming home that upcoming weekend. Jin Ling has Jiang Cheng show him on a calendar what that means, and how to cross off each new day so he can see how much closer they are to his parents’ return.

Jiang Cheng wants to count off the days as excitedly as Jin Ling, but the surreal thought of no longer taking care of his nephew and what will happen with Lan Xichen injects unease into his relieved happiness.

Lan Xichen is at the centre of the second piece of news. Technically, it’s not news to either of them but the celebrity tabloids act like it’s news of the apocalypse, so Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji dutifully report it to their brothers.

As they expected, pictures of Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen are everywhere; the most popular one is from the end of the night with Jiang Cheng in Lan Xichen’s coat, pressed against his side.

What they did not expect are the pictures of Nie Huaisang and Lan Xichen speaking in the garden, with simple headlines like trouble in paradise for Zewu Jun’s new lover? and much more pointed ones like is Zewu Jun moving in on his old friend’s brother?

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes when Wei Wuxian shows him, and he has half a mind to reply online for once. He leaves it to Wei Wuxian though, who has a manic glint in his eyes as he types out what, so as soon as someone’s gay they’re interested in every guy ever? before posting a picture with the caption does THIS look like trouble in paradise?

He bombards the Internet with pictures he managed to snap inside the banquet hall in the few seconds Jiang Cheng looked away from him and to Lan Xichen. Most of the fans eat those posts up, with the majority being on Jiang Cheng’s ‘side’ for the moment, while a small but vocal group insist Lan Xichen would be better off with someone in the industry who knows his history.

Lan Xichen, for his part, tells Jiang Cheng the only concern he has over this is for Nie Huaisang and how Nie Mingjue might be reacting. But Nie Huaisang still meets Lan Xichen for lunch on Tuesday like they planned, and Lan Xichen messages Jiang Cheng that night about how nice it was.

Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng are meant to have their own dinner ‘date’ on Thursday, and so that evening finds Jiang Cheng waiting nervously outside a hot pot restaurant. It’s a small neighbourhood place and far closer to Lan Xichen’s apartment than previous ones. A place Lan Xichen considers a favourite and frequently visits, he told Jiang Cheng over text, and that only makes Jiang Cheng’s heartbeat faster.

He has no rational reason to shift from foot to foot with nerves. After all, these fake dates are routine by now and the two are familiar enough that they can pass the whole evening in comfortable conversation. If anything, Jiang Cheng now enjoys these meals together.

But that is perhaps the problem. Jiang Cheng enjoys their time together far more than a basic business partnership at this point. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Wei Wuxian is always saying Jiang Cheng needs more friends and Lan Xichen is clearly a supportive friend to have.

Yet Jiang Cheng can’t stop remembering that moment of closeness in the car and A-Qing’s comments when Jiang Cheng returned home. Jiang Cheng’s cheeks were on fire when he returned the coat to Lan Xichen on Monday before their run, but Lan Xichen simply took the clothing back with a smile, waving away Jiang Cheng’s embarrassed apology. He didn’t comment on that car conversation or his sudden use of Jiang Cheng’s given name, which means Jiang Cheng is freaking out for no reason.

The longer Jiang Cheng waits though, the more his freak-out shifts from that to where Lan Xichen could be. Fifteen minutes past the planned meeting time and the man is nowhere in sight, with no new messages and no phone calls. Jiang Cheng sends him one asking if he’s running late, and when half an hour passes, Jiang Cheng hits the call button with a scowl.

Lan Xichen doesn’t pick up no matter how many times Jiang Cheng calls, and Jiang Cheng pulls the phone away to glare at it. Forty minutes with no update, and Jiang Cheng frowns out at the relatively empty street. Anger quickly oozes into concern like candlewax clogging his veins, because Lan Xichen is never late without warning. He has also never missed this many calls before without first letting Jiang Cheng know he’ll be in the studio and therefore unable to take calls.

Jiang Cheng glances down at his phone, but still no answers present themselves on the screen. Jiang Cheng could call Lan Wangji, but Lan Wangji will likely panic internally and if the reason for Lan Xichen’s lateness turns out to be harmless, both brothers will be upset by the false alarm.

Which also means that Jiang Cheng can’t ask Lan Wangji to give him a key to Lan Xichen’s apartment to check up on the man. Lan Wangji would insist on coming with him and then everyone would be embarrassed if nothing is wrong. Jiang Cheng could ask Wei Wuxian to grab it for him, but Wei Wuxian would never be able to keep it a secret from Lan Wangji.

There are other people though, whom Jiang Cheng now knows were close enough to Lan Xichen to potentially have a spare key, and people who are good at keeping secrets.

Does your brother have a spare key to Lan Xichen’s apartment? Jiang Cheng sends the message to Nie Huaisang and then begins to count out the two minutes he will wait before calling.

…I’m afraid to answer this question, Nie Huaisang replies in ninety-three seconds.  

Just yes or no. I need to get inside.

Why don’t YOU have one? Nie Huaisang asks after a thirty second pause as Jiang Cheng grinds his teeth.

Haven’t gotten to that point. Yes or no?

Why do you need to get inside?

We’re supposed to be on a date and Lan Xichen is forty-five minutes late and not answering his phone, Jiang Cheng types out the truth after a second of hesitation.

Is he okay? Nie Huaisang replies immediately.

HOW THE FUCK AM I SUPPOSED TO KNOW IF HE WON’T ANSWER HIS PHONE AND I CAN’T GET INSIDE???

Idk maybe he mentioned smth earlier.

He didn’t. KEY, YES OR NO?

Yes, Nie Huaisang finally answers.

Meet me at his apartment with it.

I hope you cry the most at my beautiful funeral if da-ge catches me and ends me for this.

I’ll be sure to laud your bravery for your er-ge’s sake. Now fucking hurry.

By the time Jiang Cheng arrives at Lan Xichen’s apartment building, more than an hour has passed since the planned start of their date. Nie Huaisang waits in the lobby, his usual fan nowhere in sight with half his face hidden by the hood of his sleek grey jacket.

“You owe me compensation for my currently obscenely high blood pressure,” Nie Huaisang tells him as Jiang Cheng storms into the lobby and to the elevator. “Is this how you feel all the time? Because if so, your scowling makes sense, but I think it would be a good idea to see a doctor soon.”

“Your compensation is making sure one of your friends is okay,” Jiang Cheng snaps as the elevator glides up.

“And what if I’m not okay after this?”

“Do you have the key or not?” Jiang Cheng asks as they stop at the blue painted door of Lan Xichen’s home. Nie Huaisang draws out the key and Jiang Cheng snatches it as Nie Huaisang rolls his eyes. Still, he lets Jiang Cheng unlock the door and march into the apartment first.

The only light comes from the city outside the windows and Jiang Cheng turns his phone flashlight on. The single beam sweeps through the small and sparse room before falling on Lan Xichen where he curls on his side on the couch.

Jiang Cheng stalks over, though he pauses briefly by the low coffee table a few inches from the couch. Lan Xichen’s phone rests on the glass surface, lit up by dozens of notifications. Most are from Jiang Cheng, but there are also two missed alarms set for three and two hours ago respectively.

Jiang Cheng’s gaze snaps to Lan Xichen at that, and he gently steps closer.

If the alarms didn’t already indicate that Lan Xichen had no intention of this happening than his clothing would. His white sweater is so loose that the sleeve of one shoulder slips down to the elbow, and while the sweatpants he wears are stylish ones that billow out at the thighs and tighten at the ankles, they are still sweatpants. It is the most causal attire Jiang Cheng has ever seen on him, and Jiang Cheng’s clears his throat several times before he can speak.

“Lan Xichen.”

His voice sounds like a boom of thunder in that quiet apartment, yet Lan Xichen’s breathing stays deep and even.

“Lan Xichen,” Jiang Cheng tries again, standing above the man.

Er-ge?” Nie Huaisang calls where he hovers behind Jiang Cheng.

When that still doesn’t work, Jiang Cheng slowly kneels on the creamy blanket pooling on the floor by the couch. The peaceful sound of Lan Xichen’s breathing fills his ears and Jiang Cheng studies the strands of hair that fall across his closed eyes.

“Lan Xichen,” he says once more, frustration seeping into his tone. Still Lan Xichen stays sleeping, and Jiang Cheng takes a deep breath.

He reaches out slowly in case the man decides to suddenly wake up, but nothing changes as Jiang Cheng places his hand on Lan Xichen’s exposed shoulder.

“Wake up already,” Jiang Cheng says as he gives his warm shoulder a firm shake.

Lan Xichen’s forehead furrows and the sleeping rhythm of his breathing finally changes. Jiang Cheng shakes his shoulder and calls the man’s name once more. He shifts closer to Lan Xichen’s face so he can see Jiang Cheng when his eyes open halfway.

“You awake yet?” Jiang Cheng asks a little desperately as Lan Xichen squints but doesn’t move.

“Wanyin?”

His name is barely more than a hushed breath, filled with the softness of sleep and all the vulnerability that waking minds hide. That fire returns to Jiang Cheng’s cheeks and before he can reply, Lan Xichen’s eyes slide close.

“Just a little longer please,” he says like Jin Ling does in the mornings, albeit with far more sighed politeness than a grumpy child.

The last flickers of Jiang Cheng’s anger over being stood up sputter out with that, and Jiang Cheng moves his cool hand to Lan Xichen’s forehead.

“Well you don’t have a fever at least,” Jiang Cheng says, voice dying as Lan Xichen sighs and presses his head further into Jiang Cheng’s hand.

“He did look more tired on Tuesday than he did Saturday,” Nie Huaisang finally speaks up, still behind Jiang Cheng, “But I thought that was just because we were outside at night on Saturday so I couldn’t see the shadows under his eyes then.”

Jiang Cheng stares at Lan Xichen’s peaceful face as the man falls back into his deeper slumber and Jiang Cheng’s stomach growls.

“Fix the blanket,” Jiang Cheng tells Nie Huaisang as he bolts to his feet and heads to the tiny kitchen just beyond the couch he spotted last time he was there.

The lights flicker on a modern if basic kitchen. Only a few marble countertops leave room for food preparation, a beautiful kettle with swirls of calligraphy across white clouds sitting on one. Jiang Cheng finds a single rinsed plate in the sink with no indication of how long ago Lan Xichen used it.

The wooden cupboards and steel fridge are pathetic in their emptiness, and Jiang Cheng exhales noisily as he reminds himself slamming the doors shut won’t make the food magically appear. Maybe the sound will finally wake Lan Xichen permanently, but Jiang Cheng doubts the man will still feel like going out, and he won’t feel like cooking himself if he wakes even later.

Jiang Cheng heads back into the dark living room and grabs Nie Huaisang by the shoulder.

“You’ve been here a bunch, right?” Jiang Cheng says as Nie Huaisang squawks and stumbles to keep up with Jiang Cheng who strides for the door. “Where’s the nearest grocery store?”

“Your phone can tell you that, you know.”

“But it can’t carry groceries,” Jiang Cheng replies, and waits impatiently as Nie Huaisang locks the apartment door with a pout.

Lan Xichen is still fast asleep when they return with their arms full of groceries. He stays asleep as they put away the groceries and Jiang Cheng kicks Nie Huaisang out.

“You might not be as big a nuisance as Wei Wuxian in the kitchen,” Jiang Cheng tells him while getting out various pans, “But this kitchen is ridiculously small.”

“And I’m sure you and er-ge want to enjoy that small space privately,” Nie Huaisang says, far enough away that Jiang Cheng can’t smack him.

He darts off at Jiang Cheng’s glare, taking the key with him and gently closing the front door after requesting Jiang Cheng let him know that Lan Xichen is okay later. Jiang Cheng doesn’t reply verbally, but he knows there will be text messages waiting for him after.

Jiang Cheng cooks as quietly as he can, humming quietly off-tune as he does. He knows that even when they eat out, Lan Xichen prefers less spice than most and rarely eats meat, so Jiang Cheng decides to make vegetable chow fun and danhuatang. Once the noodles and soy sauce are in the wok, he quickly throws on the kettle because the one thing the kitchen did have in stock earlier was a ridiculously large collection of tea.

“Jiang Wanyin?” The chow fun is done and set aside when Lan Xichen calls his name. Jiang Cheng turns to see Lan Xichen standing a few inches from the doorway, one hand rubbing his face and pillow-pressed hair spilling everywhere. “You’re in my apartment?”

“When you didn’t show up, I had Huaisang let me in,” Jiang Cheng explains to the man who frowns and blinks like he’s still half asleep.

“Show up,” Lan Xichen repeats slowly, clearly struggling to push away the last sticky strands of sleep in his brain before his eyes widen. “The restaurant. Oh no, I’m so so–”

“Explain why before you bother apologizing,” Jiang Cheng interrupts. Lan Xichen pulls his arms behind his back, one hand gripping the other, and that stupid sweater slips down his shoulder again to expose smooth skin and shifting muscles.

“I haven’t been sleeping well this week,” Lan Xichen says softly, voice dragging Jiang Cheng’s gaze back up to his tired face. “Well, I suppose I should say even more poorly than my already abysmal schedule before this week.”

He pauses with a glance down at his bare feet.

“You don’t have to tell my why if you don’t feel like it now,” Jiang Cheng tells him, and Lan Xichen looks back up. “So you slept like shit and then accidentally fell asleep?”

“We were both supposed to drive ourselves over tonight,” Lan Xichen says, flashing him a grateful smile for waving away the reason. “I thought before I gave up and called a taxi, I would try taking a nap. I promise I set alarms long before our meeting time, but I guess I didn’t hear them.”

“I believe you.” Jiang Cheng crosses his arms over his chest. “It’s not that surprising you would sleep through them if you’ve barely been sleeping.”

“Still, I apologize. You must have waited awhile and then you drove all the way here and–” Lan Xichen looks over his shoulder and raises an eyebrow at the saucepan filled with vegetable stock on the burner. “Now you’re cooking?”

“Chow fun and danhuatang,” Jiang Cheng says, and turns away so Lan Xichen can’t see the blush the wonder in his voice triggers. He still waves a hand for Lan Xichen to follow him into the kitchen to see the food and to grab some tea. “We missed the dinner reservation so I figured I might as well make some while I was here.”

“We did miss the reservation, didn’t we,” Lan Xichen says as the kettle whistles, still staring at the food.

“We could always go out somewhere else,” Jiang Cheng says, not sure what to make of Lan Xichen’s odd expression. “If being seen is that important, then–”

“No!” Jiang Cheng startles back at one of the most emphatic exclamations he’s heard from Lan Xichen. Lan Xichen takes a breath, and when he repeats the sentiment, he sounds calmer but just as firm. “No, you made this dinner for us to eat here and I–I would like that. To eat dinner here. With you.”

“Okay then,” Jiang Cheng says, and half turns away from the strange mix of desperation and excitement in Lan Xichen’s smile. His eyes slip to that exposed shoulder once more and Jiang Cheng forces his gaze up as his hands tighten around the countertop. “Maybe while I finish making this, you could change into something that fits you better.”

Lan Xichen glances down at the sweater hanging from him and it’s Jiang Cheng’s turn to see red bloom across the other man’s face.

“Ah.”

“Not that–I mean if you’re comfortable than obviously I’m–it’s not actually a problem of course–just, you know–”

“I might get cold like this,” Lan Xichen saves him, though that flustered shade still stains his face. “Yes, I’ll be just a moment.”

“I don’t mean like formal wear or anything,” Jiang Cheng shouts after him, as if he can take back his embarrassment. Lan Xichen doesn’t reply, and Jiang Cheng spends the next few minutes resisting the urge to bang his head on the cupboard doors.

The sweatpants remain when Lan Xichen returns, but he wears a blue button-down cardigan that fits him perfectly over a white undershirt. They take the food and tea with them to the small four-person dining table that overlooks Lan Xichen’s balcony. Plant upon plant in cheerfully decorated pots fill that balcony, though quite a few plants look like they are on the mend from neglect.

Last time Jiang Cheng was in the apartment, he didn’t see much, so focused on helping Lan Xichen down from his panic. Now with the lights on and Lan Xichen focused on the warm food, Jiang Cheng cranes his head around to take in the details he missed before.

The main room is small, but all the white walls, cream furniture, and pastel coloured rugs make the space seem brighter and bigger. It helps too that Lan Xichen doesn’t have much in the way of furniture; the dining table shoved by the balcony, the set of shelves standing sentry on either side of the entrance, the glass coffee table, and the couch Lan Xichen fell asleep on. The couch is the only dark colour in the room, a blue as dark as the deep sea, and Lan Xichen explains with a smile that the colour was chosen so no one worries about stains when Lan Jingyi and Lan Yuan are over.

The only other feature of note are the screens blocking off the far corner of the room, on the other side of the hallway from the kitchen. The screens are beautifully painted and clearly a set given the painted mountain range extends perfectly from the end of one screen to the beginning of the next.

“It’s my music corner,” Lan Xichen explains with a smile when Jiang Cheng asks. “This apartment is known for its soundproof walls, so I don’t need a special room when I’m inspired or wish to practice at home. I simply need a little physical separation from the rest of the apartment.”

“They’re beautiful,” Jiang Cheng says.

“Thank you. They were a gift from my fuqin to my muqin.”

Jiang Cheng looks up sharply from his noodles at that. He can count on his hands the number of times he’s heard either Lan brother discuss their parents, though he’s heard bits and pieces of their story from Wei Wuxian, and from other students when he attended Cloud Recesses. It’s well-known that their father was a famous musician, one of the most publicly beloved of his generation. Their mother was a star in the fashion industry, friends with one of their father’s friend, and all three attended Cloud Recesses as teenagers. Then that friend ended up dead after a celebrity party, suspicion was placed on their mother who reluctantly left the country, and Lan Xichen’s father hired the best lawyers possible to defend her so she could return and marry him.

The death was ruled as accidental, their mother returned, and their father retired from music and the spotlight. There are rumours that their father used money to obtain a favourable ruling, rumours that their mother was using their father for money, and that their father would only help their mother return to the country and family she loved if she agreed to marry him.

But how much their mother actually loved their father, how often the Lan brothers saw their parents while being raised by their uncle, how they felt about their parents, and how they dealt with their parents’ relatively early deaths, is something only the Lan family knows.

“Did she like the mountains?” Jiang Cheng asks after a moment, watching Lan Xichen carefully. The man stays calm, taking another spoonful of the danhuatang before answering.

“She did. Her parents took her once on a skiing trip when she was young, and then she went with fuqin a few times before they were married.”

Lan Xichen gives Jiang Cheng a sad smile once more but continues speaking. “They were part of her corner, too. The corner she’d always take us to when we wanted to sit in her lap while she sang or told us a story. I remember she once said that she would love to live near mountains one day because they were a reminder of the things that still existed in this world that were so much bigger than all of us and all our problems. Places so big that all the stories she told could exist there without us ever knowing for sure.”

“There are definitely some that are still too wild for even experienced hikers to get through easily,” Jiang Cheng agrees after Lan Xichen falls quiet for a moment. The distant look in his eyes fades at Jiang Cheng’s words and Lan Xichen looks at him with a spark of curiosity.

“Are there mountains near your home?”

“None nearby. But you can see them in the distance on a clear day.”

“I would like to see that,” Lan Xichen says wistfully, and Jiang Cheng snorts.

“If our brothers get married, I’m sure you will. I know Wei Wuxian and A-Jie will want to do an all family trip to the lakes once that happens, and that would include you.”

“There would be enough room for all of us?” Lan Xichen asks, leaning forward with excitement like Jin Ling being told about a trip.

“Sure. It’s a very old property, in a very small village, which means everyone has far more space than they could ever use.”

“Then I’ll have to make sure Wangji mentions this all to Wei Wuxian,” Lan Xichen says with a smile, and Jiang Cheng winces.

“On second thought, how about you just stay quiet so I never have to be the gracious host to Lan Wangji.”

“Come now, he wouldn’t be that bad,” Lan Xichen says, but laughs when Jiang Cheng crosses his arms and glares at him.

“You two might have everyone else fooled, but I know he knows how to be perfectly petty, and you can be a mischievous fox when you want to be.”

“Perhaps. But I would want to help mitigate the situation, promise.”

“I guess it would be inconvenient for you too if something happened to your host.” That earns him an amused shake of Lan Xichen’s head as the man looks back down to his meal. They continue to eat in content silence as they both do their best to consume every last speck of food.

“There’s something I haven’t mentioned about the charity dinner,” Lan Xichen says when Jiang Cheng’s stomach is finally full. Jiang Cheng looks up to where Lan Xichen gazes at him calmly across the table. “Something Huaisang told me.”

“What?”

“He said the reason we never saw Jin Guangyao is because he chose not to attend, because he knew I would be there.”

“He wanted to avoid you?” Jiang Cheng asks, which doesn’t fully explain the absence, because that place was big enough that the two of them could have passed the whole night without running into each other if they tried. Not to mention, if Jin Guangyao wants to know how Lan Xichen is doing and return to his life as he implied to Jiang Cheng, he should have wanted to take advantage of the opportunity that event presented.

But then, thinking of that day they took Jin Ling to the amusement park, Jin Guangyao had also acknowledged the fact that Lan Xichen was avoiding him.

“Or he knew I wanted to avoid him,” Lan Xichen says at the same time Jiang Cheng has that thought, and Lan Xichen’s expression brightens at the possibility.

“That’s what you hope.”

“It is,” Lan Xichen agrees, but that hopeful light quickly fades under tired doubt. “It’s also why I slept so terribly last night, and some of the nights before. I couldn’t stop thinking about whether or not I’m wrong to believe it’s a sign that he’s trying to fix things, if only a little bit so far.”     

Jiang Cheng could offer his own opinions but for once, knowing they won’t help, he shoves them away.

“Either you ask him directly or you choose to believe in your interpretation,” Jiang Cheng says instead. “Trying to puzzle out what another person is thinking like this will just drive you crazy.”

Jiang Cheng drove himself mad engaging in that destructive fixation when Wei Wuxian left, and sleep deprivation is only one part of the physical havoc that can be wreaked. It’s still one of Jiang Cheng’s continued character flaws, and so he still knows the effects intimately well.

Ice grips Jiang Cheng’s chest at the thought of Lan Xichen losing himself to that endless thought cycle of how could they like Jiang Cheng did.

“I believe I’m discovering that,” Lan Xichen says with a wry smile.

“Then choose,” Jiang Cheng says, suddenly unable to make light of the situation. The desperation in his voice scares him, but he lets Lan Xichen hear it. “Whichever one you need to be okay. That’s what matters here.”

Lan Xichen glances down at the table, but his expression merely turns thoughtful. None of that panic from Saturday threatens to overtake him, and neither does the grief Jiang Cheng has seen flash across his face on several occasions now. Still, Jiang Cheng watches him carefully with one hand gripping the edge of the table.

“Thank you,” Lan Xichen finally says, and Jiang Cheng’s hands uncurls slightly when Lan Xichen looks back up with a relaxed expression. “For saying that. I’ll remind myself of that when my thoughts get noisy again at inconvenient times since I don’t feel like asking just yet.”

“Treat them like a toddler having a tantrum,” Jiang Cheng says, since Lan Xichen cares for his own nephews sometimes.

Sure enough, Lan Xichen smiles at that, and while one conversation and one suggestion won’t fix everything, the fact that Lan Xichen napped to compensate for the lack of sleep and speaks confidently about his decision makes Jiang Cheng think things will be better soon.  

He still looks tired, though, so Jiang Cheng offers to leave soon after dinner. Lan Xichen insists he at least show Jiang Cheng around the apartment properly since it’s now his second time, and Jiang Cheng eventually indulges his curiosity. The apartment isn’t big despite Lan Xichen not lacking in money, but there are only three things Jiang Cheng wants to see anyways; the plants, his art, and the figurines.

Lan Xichen admits with pink-tinged cheeks that he hasn’t been around to take care of the plants on the balcony, and Jiang Cheng only stops teasing him when that pink darkens to a rosy red.

Some of Lan Xichen’s art hangs along the walls throughout the apartment, though there are far more bound in his sketchbooks. Jiang Cheng doesn’t ask to see all of them, but Lan Xichen does show him the drawer Jiang Cheng didn’t even notice within the coffee table where he keeps most of his supplies.

“Technically, it’s better for my eyes and posture when I do it at my desk,” Lan Xichen admits as he closes the drawer. The top of the coffee table, while glass, bears the appearance of a slab of ice with blur swirls, obscuring the contents beneath. “But I always prefer sitting on a couch when I draw.”

“How terribly improper of you,” Jiang Cheng says deadpan, even as he grins. “I don’t know how I’ll ever go on now, knowing about this dark side of you.”

“By teasing me endlessly, I imagine,” Lan Xichen says dryly.

The collection of figurines Lan Xichen mentioned at the charity dinner is the last thing Jiang Cheng examines, and they sit on the shelves by the front doors. It’s a miscellaneous assortment just as Lan Xichen said; from nature scenery to unusual architecture to musical instruments to tiny animals to an intricately detailed figure of Sun Wukong the size of Jiang Cheng’s hand. Some look like those a child would have picked out, some a joke, and others still with deep sentiments behind them.

With such variety, it would be easy to create an addition if Jiang Cheng wanted, just like Wei Wuxian suggested.

Jiang Cheng departs after the tour and after helping to clean the dishes, despite Lan Xichen’s protests. It’s far later than Jiang Cheng intended to stay out by the time he leaves, but there is a content smile on Lan Xichen’s face as he says good-night, and satisfaction keeps Jiang Cheng’s step light all the way home.   

Of course, everything goes to shit less than twenty-four hours later.

There are dozens of notifications and messages waiting for Jiang Cheng as usual when he wakes up the morning after the apartment dinner, but he doesn’t have time to check them over his morning coffees like usual. Instead, he drops Jin Ling off and then drives straight to a meeting with some sponsors to discuss the chartered bus that will be transporting everyone from the city to venue for the Cultivation Conference in an effort to cut down on fuel use.

Yu Jinzhu and Yu Yinzhu have been sending him an endless slew of emails with information for those meetings, on top of the ones about the possible stirrings an old and supposed to be nonexistent Internet group on private servers that immediately raises Jiang Cheng’s blood pressure to dangerous levels. By the time he finishes the meetings and his call with the two women about their course of action, it’s mid-afternoon, and Jiang Cheng has a brief respite before some business dinners.

Except, when he walks back into the house, he notices a missed call from A-Jie less than ten minutes ago, which immediately takes all precedence.

“A-Jie?” Jiang Cheng asks as soon as her face takes shape in a dimly lit hospital room.

“Are you busy?” she asks, a relieved smile touching her lips when he speaks. “I know it’s afternoon for you.”

“And it’s the middle of the night for you, which means you should be asleep. Why aren’t you? Where’s your husband?”

“He’s with the doctors right now,” she says, and Jiang Cheng’s hand clenches around his phone when she coughs. “A-Cheng, I’m so sorry, but I can’t come home tomorrow.”

Jiang Cheng doesn’t even realize he’s moved until his body hits the cushions of the couch in the cozy room.

“Why?” Jiang Cheng asks hoarsely. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing serious,” she assures him despite coughing again. “But I started developing a cold yesterday and you know Wen Qing wanted me on a week of bed rest regardless because the chances of serious illnesses increase after a surgery like this. She doesn’t want me flying until the cold passes.”

“It is just a cold though, right?” Jiang Cheng asks, because a delayed arrival is bad enough, but the thought of A-Jie suffering seriously a whole ocean away after the surgery was supposed to fix things makes Jiang Cheng want to scream. “You’re not downplaying this to make me feel better?”

“I promise it’s just a cold,” A-Jie tells him. “Wen Qing isn’t worried, she’s just taking the necessary precautions.”

“Okay.” Jiang Cheng digs his fingers into one of his already pounding temples. “Okay. So that’s just, what, one more week? I can handle things here for one more week.”

“I’m sorry, A-Cheng,” A-Jie says again anyways, as if she sees right through his skull and to the buzzing panic battering his brain. “I know you must already be starting on preparations for the Cultivation Conference and A-Ling won’t react well–”  

“It’s fine,” Jiang Cheng interrupts as worried lines crease her thin face. “A-Ling and I will be fine. You get some sleep, I’ll tell him after school, and we’ll call you when it’s a more reasonable hour for you, okay?”

“Are you sure? I can stay up–”

“Trust me, A-Jie,” Jiang Cheng insists. “I won’t let you or A-Ling down.”

It’s a fool’s promise to make and he knows as soon as he says it that he’ll fail, just as he knows A-Jie would be more trusting if it was Wei Wuxian saying these things. But the worry fades from A-Jie’s face and she looks at Jiang Cheng as softly as she did when they were children and Jiang Cheng had hurt himself while playing.

“I do trust you, A-Cheng,” she says, and Jiang Cheng almost believes her. “I just don’t want you to take on more than you can handle. Promise me you’ll ask for help from A-Xian and Lan Xichen if you need it.”

“Promise.”

“Good. I still need to tell A-Xian, but I promise I’ll go to sleep after.”

“Just leave a message if he doesn’t answer. He’s really busy with work this weekend.”

“Take care of each other,” A-Jie replies, and ends the call after Jiang Cheng nods.

As soon as the call ends, Jiang Cheng drops his head into his hands, shoving his fingers through his hair hard enough for his scalp to sting. Pain is better than panic though as he grimly contemplates just how likely Jin Ling is to lose it at this news and how ill-equipped Jiang Cheng is to deal with his grief over this. Jiang Cheng feels like shouting himself, which never calms anyone down.

Jiang Cheng looks back to his phone and slowly unlocks it. The notifications offer a guaranteed distraction, and he goes to Wei Wuxian’s messages first. They’re all from very earlier this morning, reconfirming Wei Wuxian does indeed have a busy shooting schedule this weekend. The man is never awake that early, or at least, never messaging people that early for any other reason.

Everything with you and Xichen-ge okay? The first message asks, and Jiang Cheng frowns as he scrolls through the subsequent messages assuring Jiang Cheng that Wei Wuxian knows better than to trust the online gossip, but also that everyone is losing it over new pictures from last night. The final message from Wei Wuxian says Lan Wangji spoke to Lan Xichen who clarified everything, so he forgives Jiang Cheng for not immediately responding to Wei Wuxian.

There are links in the thread of messages, and Jiang Cheng clicks on them as his already thudding heart becomes a painful gallop.

Those links direct him to the two pictures that have sparked pages of articles and online comments. The first is of Jiang Cheng outside the restaurant last night, scowling down at his phone as Lan Xichen once again failed to pick up. The writer has titled the article Zewu Jun having trouble with yet another hothead, with commenters shrieking about how Jiang Cheng has been stood up.

The second has Jiang Cheng groaning out loud and it suddenly explains the messages from Nie Huaisang waiting unread on his phone. Rather than snagging a picture of both Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang leaving or returning to Lan Xichen’s apartment, the media only snagged one of Nie Huaisang leaving Lan Xichen’s apartment alone, in the middle of pulling up his hood. There are no pictures of when Jiang Cheng arrived or left, and so of course fans are losing their minds over the idea of Lan Xichen standing up Jiang Cheng for Nie Huaisang.

Jiang Cheng has been doing so well about not reading the comments so far, but frustrated and scared over A-Jie, his fingers scroll down to the comment sections before he can stop himself. There, fans speculate over the possibility of Lan Xichen and Nie Huaisang having their own romantic relationship, but far more suspect Nie Huaisang has been acting as a liaison for Nie Mingjue.

After all, fans argue, Lan Xichen admitted that lyrics on his new album were about his childhood crush on the other singer, and the two have stayed close since childhood, even if Lan Xichen claims his feelings are purely platonic now. Nie Huaisang, they argue, is no doubt invested in their relationship and likely trying to convince Lan Xichen to go back to his brother.

It would make far more sense than dating a hick nobody, one fan argues.

Right?!?! Another responds. Zewu Jun and Nie Mingjue have HISTORY and SIMILAR EXPERIENCES within the industry. I’m sure they understand each other better than anyone else can, and I’m sure Nie Huaisang understands that.

Jiang Cheng wants to snort at their assumptions over Nie Huaisang, but instead he grits his teeth at the comments about a fellow singer understanding Lan Xichen’s experiences best. Jiang Cheng can’t argue against that, even if he could argue that he has been doing his best to learn about Lan Xichen’s history regardless of their different careers.

Fans will always want to shout and fantasize about something though, and Jiang Cheng is about to click out of the whole mess when his eyes catch on a comment with a link to one of Lan Xichen’s social media accounts.

Jiang Cheng taps the link without hesitation and that turns out to be his biggest mistake yet.

Lan Xichen posted a picture of Jiang Cheng. One from last night and one Jiang Cheng had no idea he took, because he’s in the middle of cooking. Gaze turned down to the soup on the stovetop, one hand on a spoon, one on his jutted hip, and a slight smile on his face at whatever comment Lan Xichen has just made. Jiang Cheng is framed by the doorway of the kitchen, which means Lan Xichen must be on the couch, and the halo of light Jiang Cheng stands within throws a soft hue over everything.

I’m so lucky to have such a handsome man cook for me ^^ the caption reads, followed by a million hashtags, but Jiang Cheng’s gaze goes unfocused before he can digest any of them.

The post is not directed at any one article, but it might as well be given the timing, and a jagged laugh claws its way up Jiang Cheng’s throat.

For all his complaints about other people’s stupidity, it turns out Jiang Cheng is truly the biggest idiot of them all. There he was last night, rushing to Lan Xichen’s aide and enjoying his evening with Lan Xichen as if they were friends, forgetting that nothing, not even supposedly private moments with the other man, are real. It is all an act for their brothers’ sake, and here Jiang Cheng is, both flustered and internally preening over the other man’s attention. Carrying on as if Lan Xichen will continue to ask for his company after the fake dating ends, when Lan Xichen has a million other people he could choose for friends over Jiang Cheng. Strutting around as if Jiang Cheng has anything of value to offer Lan Xichen, or anyone in this city for that matter.  

For the first time since this whole sham began, anger toward Lan Xichen bubbles in Jiang Cheng’s stomach. Anger at him for treating Jiang Cheng with kindness, for making Jiang Cheng smile, for caring to hear about Jin Ling, for caring to hear from Jiang Cheng at all, for sharing meals and another world, for challenging Jiang Cheng to runs and exchanges of thoughts; for making Jiang Cheng give a damn.

The anger never spreads further than Jiang Cheng’s core though. It’s quickly overwhelmed by Jiang Cheng’s knowledge of Lan Xichen’s inherent kindness and Jiang Cheng’s awareness that he is the one who reached for the warmth that was never meant for him.

He is just a placeholder, and always has been, and he is an arrogant fool for ever forgetting that.

The insistent buzzing of Jiang Cheng’s phone draws his gaze down once more, and only the fact that it’s a sponsor has him answering. He will need to cancel all his plans for this evening to keep Jin Ling company in the wake of A-Jie’s news, and only his nephew’s well-being manages to quell Jiang Cheng’s screaming thoughts long enough for him to get through several civil conversations.

When they are done, Jiang Cheng doesn’t move from the couch, instead returning to his earlier position of head in hands as the humiliation concerning Lan Xichen drills holes in his grey matter.

“Hey.” Jiang Cheng doesn’t know how much time has passed when A-Qing’s hesitant voice shatters the external world’s silence. He looks up to see her standing in the doorway with Jin Ling’s chubby hand in her own. “Aren’t you supposed to be at a bunch of important business meetings right now?”

“Cancelled,” Jiang Cheng says, and his muscles groan like a tree being uprooted as he stands. “I’ll take care of A-Ling tonight.”

“Really? You look like you should lie down instead.”

“I’m fine,” he snaps, and inhales deeply when A-Qing juts her chin out at his harsh tone. “I’m fine. Do you need a ride home?”

“Nah, I’ll just take a taxi.”

Jiang Cheng nods, and strides into the kitchen to the drawer where the babysitting money is kept. He takes out enough for the taxi and two hours’ worth of pay. When he turns around, A-Qing holds Jin Ling in a hug, messing with his hair as she pulls away. She raises her eyebrows at the extra money Jiang Cheng gives her, but slowly deposits it in her purse.

“You sure everything’s cool?” she asks.

“I’ll message you later,” he tells her with Jin Ling watching them. A-Qing only raises her eyebrows further at that, but she finally gives him a nod and heads out the door with one last goodbye for Jin Ling.

Jiujiu?” Jin Ling asks when Jiang Cheng just stands in the middle of the kitchen staring after A-Qing. Jiang Cheng closes his eyes at Jin Ling’s voice and counts to ten slowly before opening them again.

“Come here,” Jiang Cheng says, and holds out a hand. Jin Ling takes it without hesitation, and Jiang Cheng leads him back to the cozy room. He settles them both on the couch, holding Jin Ling’s tiny hands in his own and taking a deep breath.

“A-Ling,” he starts, and immediately stops for another breath. “A-Ling, you know mama and baba love you very much, right?”

Jin Ling nods.

“And you know they were supposed to come home tomorrow.”

“Like the calendar says!” Jin Ling says, beaming and perking up at the reminder. Jiang Cheng’s throat tightens, and he swallows several times before continuing the conversation.

“Right, like the calendar says. But mama just called me and told me the doctors say she needs some more special medicine. So she can’t come home just yet.”

Jin Ling frowns but doesn’t say anything, and Jiang Cheng’s throat tightens to a straw’s width. “A-Ling, do you understand? Mama and baba can’t come home tomorrow. They–”

“No.”

“What?”

“No!” Jin Ling repeats, scowling up at Jiang Cheng. “Mama and baba come home tomorrow.”

“They can’t, A-Ling, that’s what I’m saying. Mama is sick and needs to stay for special medicine.”

“No!” Jin Ling shouts again. “Mama already got special medicine.”

“She needs a different kind now. She–”

“No!” Jin Ling rips his hands free from Jiang Cheng and hops off the couch. Jiang Cheng lunges for him, but misses by an inch as Jin Ling scurries into the kitchen.

“A-Ling, what are you doing?”

Jiang Cheng makes it to the kitchen doorway just as Jin Ling whirls around from the fridge with the calendar they’ve been using for a countdown in his hands.

Mama and baba come home tomorrow!” Jin Ling shouts, and jabs one hand at the circled day on the calendar. “The calendar says!”

“I know what the calendar says,” Jiang Cheng replies, voice creeping toward the same volume as Jin Ling’s shout. He crouches down to Jin Ling’s level and reaches for the calendar he thought was such a good idea at the start of the week. “The calendar is wrong, A-Ling. Mama and baba have to stay in America longer.”

Jin Ling’s face screws up like a raisin and without warning, he throws the calendar at Jiang Cheng’s face.

“No!” he screams again as the calendar smacks Jiang Cheng and he falls back onto his butt. Through his blurry gaze he sees Jin Ling dash for the front door, and Jiang Cheng scrambles up with a curse.

“Where the hell do you think you’re going?”

Jiang Cheng reaches Jin Ling as the boy grabs the doorknob. Jin Ling screams when Jiang Cheng grabs him and tries to haul him back. Somehow, with his furious grief opposing Jiang Cheng’s desperate desire not to hurt Jin Ling, the smaller boy keeps a grip on the round metal.

“I want mama and baba!” Jin Ling screams, writhing body held horizontal in the air with Jiang Cheng’s hands around his waist.

“You can’t just go get mama and baba!” Jiang Cheng shouts as Jin Ling kicks his legs furiously in Jiang Cheng’s direction. Socked feet batter Jiang Cheng’s tense arms and Jiang Cheng moves a leg to brace his knee against the door.

“Can too!” Jin Ling shouts right back, and kicks harder. “Let go!”

“Let go of the door!”

Mama!” Jin Ling screams in response, as if his parents will hear him no matter where they are if he can just yell loud enough. “Baba!”

He keeps screaming and screaming, the sound lodging splinters into Jiang Cheng’s heart along the same network of scars his parents’ deaths left. Jiang Cheng grits his teeth and gives Jin Ling’s body a great heave with his knee trying to keep the door closed.

Jin Ling’s hands finally slip from the doorknob, but Jiang Cheng’s great pull sends Jin Ling’s feet right into his chest. Jiang Cheng stumbles back into the kitchen island, sharp corner stabbing at Jiang Cheng’s spine, and Jiang Cheng breaks.

“You’re not the only one missing them!” Jiang Cheng screams at Jin Ling as the pain drives him and Jin Ling to the floor. “I want them to come back too!”

Collapsed on the cold floor, back throbbing, tears threatening to roll down his cheeks, Jiang Cheng grabs Jin Ling’s shoulders and drags the still screaming child to his chest. Jin Ling tries to twist away, but Jiang Cheng just locks his arms around his small back and accepts the pounding fists to his chest.

Nothing he says calms Jin Ling down, and eventually, Jiang Cheng stops trying. He just holds him, Jiang Cheng’s own head tilted back against the island as he swallows back so many of his own tears, his lungs drown in them.

Once more, Jiang Cheng loses track of time. It slides by not in minutes, but in the changes of Jin Ling’s physical state. Screaming and flailing turns into sobbing and the clutching of Jiang Cheng’s sweater. Sobbing recedes into gasped and hiccupped calls for his parents. Those calls fade into crying interrupted by coughing and hitched inhales for breaths.

At that point, Jiang Cheng finally relaxes his hold so he can rub Jin Ling’s back with one hand.

“I miss them too, A-Ling,” Jiang Cheng says, tone calmer even with his throat raw from holding everything back. “And they miss you.”

He pulls his aching head away from the hard surface behind them and presses his cheek to the top of Jin Ling’s head. “We just have to wait a little longer and then everything will be okay.”

Jin Ling’s response is to sniffle and dig his fingers deeper into the folds of Jiang Cheng’s shirt. He says something, but Jiang Cheng’s clothing muffles the words. “What?”

“I don’t wanna wait!” Jin Ling leans back far enough to glare at Jiang Cheng as Jiang Cheng lifts his head.  

“Well I don’t want to wait either,” Jiang Cheng tells him, but keeps gently rubbing circles into his back. “Waiting sucks.”

“It sucks!” Jin Ling agrees, and Jiang Cheng takes his hand off Jin Ling’s back so he can wipe at Jin Ling’s snotty face with the end of his sleeve. Jin Ling squirms at that but seems to have given up on trying to run away to America for the moment, staying close to Jiang Cheng.

“We just have to keep busy,” Jiang Cheng tells him, “So we forget we’re waiting.”

Jin Ling scrunches up his face as if just like Jiang Cheng, he’s wondering how on earth to stay busy enough to forget about the waiting. Despite having now stayed in the city for weeks, Jiang Cheng suddenly blanks on ideas for keeping both Jin Ling and himself distracted for one weekend, let alone another week or two.

If they were at Jiang Cheng’s home it would be different, given a full day’s worth of distractions could be found simply by opening one of the backdoors and stepping onto a boardwalk, and Jin Ling doesn’t have vivid memories of his parents there, but here–

Jiang Cheng’s hand pauses on Jin Ling’s cheek until Jin Ling tugs on the end of his sleeve.

“A-Ling,” Jiang Cheng says, and he doesn’t smile, but some of the water drains from his lungs. “How would you like to go on our own trip?”

Chapter Text

Within twelve hours, Lan Xichen receives two text messages that each feel like a blow to the head from behind. Unexpected, dizzying, stealing thoughts and breath alike for a long minute.

Their lingering aftermath, though, is vastly different.

Lan Xichen receives the first text just before midnight on Friday night. He’s half asleep after corralling Lan Jingyi back to bed no less than three times, and expecting replies from an uncharacteristically unresponsive Jiang Cheng, if anyone. Instead, his screen lights up with the words,

I’m sorry. I just need time to think.

Sender: Nie Mingjue.

Lan Xichen doesn’t sleep for another hour after that. It takes him that hour to decide how he feels, and he firmly holds onto his decision like Jiang Cheng recommended before using his breathing exercises to fall asleep.

In the morning, thinking of that text helps Lan Xichen smile even wider at the antics of his adopted nephew and second cousin, and speak just as gently as he’s known for when Lan Jingyi knocks an entire kettle of tea to the floor.

“What matters is neither of you are hurt and that you apologized,” he assures the upset children for the third time as they finish wiping up the last of the hot liquid.

Both Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are out of town for the full weekend thanks to their jobs, and Lan Yuan and Lan Jingyi are inseparable, so Lan Xichen offered to care for both boys that weekend. It’s not an unusual event, but it has been eight months since the children were in Lan Xichen’s apartment, so Lan Jingyi fidgets even more than usual and Lan Yuan cries even quicker than normal when he spills.

A request to water the plants quickly distracts the boys from the tea disaster though, and that’s when Lan Xichen sees the second text.

Jiang Cheng is the sender, and in that second between reading Jiang Cheng’s name and reading the text, relief swells in Lan Xichen’s chest. The man hasn’t texted since Thursday night and while Lan Xichen knew the man would be too busy with business meetings all Friday for casual chatting, the two always confer when new pictures of their dates end up online. Even if that conferring is just Jiang Cheng writing, idiots, and saying he doesn’t give a singular fuck about strangers, he always replies to Lan Xichen.

And Lan Xichen has sent him several messages. First thanking him for the night before, then asking him how the business meetings were going, then asking what he thought of the news Lan Wangji shared, and finally, much later in the night and once this morning too, asking if everything is alright on his end. The previous lack of response is the only reason Lan Xichen didn’t immediately message or call him about Nie Mingjue’s text.

Jiang Cheng’s reply is a single sentence.

Don’t post pictures of me without fucking asking first.

Those words kill the smile beginning to sprout on Lan Xichen’s face, and he freezes in the middle of his living room.

I’m sorry, he immediately sends back, but falters with an explanation. Jiang Cheng can only be referring to the photo Lan Xichen took of him while cooking the other night. When Lan Xichen took the picture, he was simply happy, and also in disbelief that after so long with only family for visitors, this stubborn, passionate, and complex man was really standing in his kitchen cooking a meal for them. It felt like a moment of contrast just like the ones he loved capturing in his art.

While he didn’t try spreading his art to the far corners of the world, he did like sharing those moments with others, and that’s what he’d been thinking when he posted the picture of Jiang Cheng. It would be a shame if no one else saw this caring, domestically competent side of Jiang Cheng that Lan Xichen is blessed to see more and more frequently. It would be a shame if no one knew how grateful, how giddy, Lan Xichen still is to gain access to this frankly adorable side of Jiang Cheng.

His fingers refuse to type that out coherently though, and instead he ends up with,

I just thought it was a nice photo of you.

When Jiang Cheng doesn’t reply, Lan Xichen quickly sends another text.

I really am sorry, and I’ll take it down immediately.

Still no response, even after Lan Xichen checks on the boys outside and then paces back inside.

Wanyin?

Please, I know it was careless and thoughtless, but I really didn’t think it would do either of us harm.

Still nothing, and Lan Xichen doesn’t understand the panic that fills his lungs like tar and slicks up his throat, but he can’t stop it either. Even though Lan Xichen has been returning to his usual state of calm diplomat in the past few weeks and Jiang Cheng is, for all his infamous rage, probably only mildly annoyed, the radio silence has Lan Xichen desperately hitting call.

The phone rings again and again, and the tar spreads to Lan Xichen’s mouth as he remembers trying to call Nie Mingjue after the Venerated Triad release and receiving the same endless ringing noise instead of a voice.

Lan Xichen thought he could handle that silence. That’s something he wanted to tell Jiang Cheng when he told the other man about Nie Mingjue’s text, and especially in correlation to the other night. That, despite the sleep problems from this week, Lan Xichen can handle Nie Mingjue needing more time and he can handle choosing to focus on his interpretation until he is ready to speak with Jin Guangyao because he is starting to be okay. More so than when he first came back to the city at least, and he simply tried diving back into the same stale routines that hurt because the shape looked the same, but the edges were shaved differently enough to cut him before he spotted the difference.

Now, even if Lan Xichen continues with many of those routines and he struggles in the studio, he has accepted those differences and allowed himself to make further changes. He has Lan Wangji, who he tries to be more honest with, and the smaller Lans to look after. He has classes at Cloud Recesses where encouraging the students’ enthusiasm in a way that differs from Lan Qiren’s teachings rekindles Lan Xichen’s own smiles. He has Lan Qiren, who always leaves his apartment open to his nephews even if he isn’t as open with his affections. He has Mianmian in the studio, runs in Ritan Park, art in his apartment, images and texts filling his phone, and social meals with Jiang Cheng.

Even meeting up with Nie Huaisang is different in their cautiousness and yet, Lan Xichen’s patience and acceptance of that pace doesn’t drain him as it would if it was forced.

His chest still aches so hard sometimes he can’t breathe, sleep or eat, but there are more and more good things to focus on until that pain subsides. Not disappears, but fades enough that Lan Xichen can live hopefully and happily until he meets with his old friends again. 

The thought of Jiang Cheng, the person who helped bring about so many of those good things, being angry with Lan Xichen because Lan Xichen never told him that, turns that ache into an earthquake that rips open Lan Xichen’s chest and leaves him gasping as he clutches the precious organs slipping out. The thought fills his brain with the staticky white noise of panic, quickly erasing rational thoughts and instead making Lan Xichen consider the possibility that Jiang Cheng is in fact furious with Lan Xichen for hurting him and will pull away just like Nie Mingjue.

Lan Xichen shoves his phone into his pocket and gathers the two Lan boys for a surprise visit to Jin Ling’s home. He won’t survive this day with tar in his lungs, a hole in his chest, and static in his brain, and Lan Xichen had been planning on asking Jiang Cheng if he wanted to arrange a playdate for the three boys anyways.

When they reach the house, no one answers the door and Jiang Cheng still has not texted or called back.

“Did Jin Ling say he was going away today?” Lan Xichen asks the boy’s two friends, even though they would have already said something. Jiang Cheng, too, usually mentions any trips in advance, and since Jin Ling’s parents are returning soon, Lan Xichen assumed the man would be preparing at their home.

The boys shake their heads, and Lan Xichen goes back to staring helplessly at the closed fence.

“Is A-Ling okay?” Lan Yuan asks, and wraps himself around Lan Xichen’s leg.

“Yes, A-Yuan, he’s okay,” Lan Xichen says, and hesitates as the two boys look up at him expectantly. “He’s just hiding.”

“Where?”

“I’m going to ask,” Lan Xichen assures him.

“What about there?” Lan Jingyi asks, and Lan Xichen lets the boy scurry off toward a row of bushes, dragging Lan Yuan along.

Lan Xichen could ask Wei Wuxian if he knows where Jiang Cheng has gone with Jin Ling, but the man is probably busy filming, and dragging him into it might make Jiang Cheng angrier. Getting anyone involved might make him angrier, but worrying his family is definitely the worst option.

Do you know where Wanyin is today? Lan Xichen texts to Nie Huaisang, I can’t seem to get a hold of him.

He watches the two Lan boys move onto investigating the gate control house as he waits for a response.

As touched as I am that you two clearly like me enough to talk about me with each other, Nie Huaisang replies a moment later, I’m starting to get the feeling you two aren’t exactly on the same page for some things.

Huaisang, please, Lan Xichen sends back. Not even the possibility of Nie Huaisang seeing through their façade is enough to break him out of his desperation. Do you know where he is?

Only because I was complaining that we STILL haven’t had a normal hang-out and he told me he wouldn’t even be in the city this weekend.

Where did he go? Lan Xichen asks, three seconds from simply calling Nie Huaisang.

His home.

Lan Xichen doesn’t swear, but for a split second he hears Jiang Cheng cursing in his head, and that is maybe the worst part of this whole situation.

“A-Yuan, A-Yi.”

They look up from the shrubbery they’ve been prying through so enthusiastically that even the thick fir trees further up the driveway briefly shake as if a person dove inside them.

“I found out Jin Ling and shushu are hiding very far away,” Lan Xichen tells them. “Can you boys still help me find them?”

They rush over hand-in-hand with exuberant exclamations about how helpful they’ll be.

Lan Xichen doesn’t even check the time before he herds them into the car and drives back to his apartment first so they can collect some toys and snacks for the long ride ahead. Wei Wuxian has mentioned the small village that his and Jiang Cheng’s childhood home sits near, and with that town loaded into the car’s GPS and still no messages from Jiang Cheng, they leave the city.

Lan Xichen is grateful the boys are excited, spending the first hour of the ride asking questions about the place they’re going to, and the second hour peering out the window with wide eyes and calling out everything they see. By the third hour they’ve fallen asleep with their small heads resting on one another.

Lan Xichen wishes the drive would calm him too, but his heart continues to match the car’s speed the entire time, and his hands stay clenched around the steering wheel. The control he normally feels is an ant beneath the crushing boot of fear. If anything, being in the car thinking of Jiang Cheng just reminds him of the last time he was in a car with Jiang Cheng and found his body leaning as close to the man as possible before his brain had a chance to catch up.

It should have scared Lan Xichen, that longing to reach out and touch, but they had been giving each other safety and comfort all night through physical contact, and Jiang Cheng looked so sad in that moment. One hand clenching and unclenching around his knee, forehead creasing, head tilting down, and an old conflict brewing in his dark eyes. Lan Xichen wanted to smooth everything away with his own fingertips and give the cold man all the warmth he ever needed.

Instead they were interrupted, and Lan Xichen may have ruined that warm and safe relationship forever, that thought causing alarm to constantly course through him like the current of a river.

Still, Lan Xichen keeps to the speed limit until they safely arrive on the outskirts of Jiang Cheng’s hometown. They left the wider, busier roads more than an hour ago, and travel down a compact dirt road instead. Lan Xichen spots the tall, traditional wooden gates of the town at the same time his GPS tells him he’s arrived. The square, maroon pillars of the gate are aged but the name of the village is still clearly carved into the top of the gate. At the base of the right pillar there is a sign with a border of lotus leaves, informing travellers that Lotus Lakes is another forty kilometers down the road. 

While Lan Xichen doesn’t believe Wei Wuxian would have lied to him, it’s still a relief to see the name of Jiang Cheng’s organization out here, especially when the young boys in the back start asking a million questions about everything they see. First and foremost among them is the question of Jin Ling’s location.

“I’ll have to ask someone to help us find him,” Lan Xichen says as they drive into the village proper.

Once they pass through that wooden gate, few things separate the rows of courtyard homes from the surrounding land. They passed an expanse of farmland ten minutes back but here, swathes of trees lean against aged walls, and one row of homes to the east slowly follows the gradual incline of a rolling hill.

Not all buildings along the main street possess an enclosed yard at the front, but even those that do have yards have no closed doors or barred gates at that moment. It’s as if they’re inviting everyone to wander in, and the buildings with lanterns and signs are just as open with their wooden doors and lattice windows. A couple of cats have taken advantage of the freely offered space to curl up on sun-warmed patches of stones without collars or concern.

A few minutes down the main road, Lan Xichen pulls up to the nonexistent curb a few feet away from where two older men sit in weather-beaten wooden chairs as they lean over a game board. When Lan Xichen gets out of the car with the two young boys, he notices the men seem more concerned with talking than they do finishing their game. Their aged and gruff voices carry over the quiet road, joined only by the occasional thump of the wooden sign above them that has come loose from its bearings and now constantly swings away from the building with the breeze before slamming back into the wall.  

“Excuse me,” Lan Xichen calls as he walks over. Lan Yuan and Lan Jingyi both take hold of his hands, but stare at the older men with open curiosity. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I was wondering if you could give us some directions.”

Both men’s heads jerk up the second Lan Xichen speaks, though they twist their bodies around as slowly as a turtle in his direction. Lan Xichen guesses they’re no older than Lan Qiren, yet their faces hold far more creases and far more shades of sun-kissed work than him.

The one on Lan Xichen’s left wears the practical garb of a farmer with a slanting bamboo hat and pants tucked into knee-high rubber boots, ready to step into the field as soon as needed. Not a single wisp of hair flutters from beneath his hat, and his chin and cheeks are shaven perfectly clean as well.

The man sitting across from him wears boots as well, but battered and beaten ones, only laced up to his shins. He wears a toolbelt around his waist as if he just came from a job and forgot to take off the belt. Or maybe his job is the sign on this building, but the man decided to take a break with his friend first. His greying hair is scooped back and left free to the elements.

He also has a broken nose and a few thin scars along his arms, and Lan Xichen sincerely hopes they’re not from something like a house falling on him while on the job.

“Directions, you say?” the man with the toolbelt replies slowly.

“Well you’re certainly not a familiar face,” the man wearing the hat says.

“I’m here to visit a friend who lives here, but unfortunately I don’t have his exact address,” Lan Xichen explains.

The two men stare at him like he’s committed an obscene faux pas and Lan Xichen almost returns to his car right then and there. But then his only options would be to knock on every door in the village and repeat the same question, and so he smiles at the men and pushes through despite his impatience and low energy.

“His name is Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Xichen says, hopeful thanks to the men’s apparent ages, and yet they continue to simply stare at him. “I’ve tried texting him, but my service here is spotty.”

He barely feels any guilt for a white lie told in his desperation, especially when the men take their time replying.

“Jiang Wanyin, you say?”

“It’s not ringing any bells in the old noggin.”

“You haven’t heard of that family name at all?” Lan Xichen presses. Jiang Cheng might not be the most social person, but Lan Xichen assumed that with him both growing up here and now being the CEO of an organization that involves the lands near here, he would at least be familiar to the older citizens. “His family has lived here for generations.”

The men glance at each other with such unchanging expressions, it would take Lan Xichen at least another decade of knowing them to understand that single eyebrow twitch.

“Jiang family, you say?”

“Hmm,” the man wearing the hat hums, but slides into a shout before Lan Xichen can express his disbelief.

“Oi, lao Wang!”

The man waves, and Lan Xichen and the boys turn back toward the parked car where an old man squats inches from the tires with a head tilted so far to the side, Lan Xichen fears the man’s thin neck will snap with a breeze.

The man rocks back on his heels at the shout but doesn’t look away from the underside of the car. “You ever hear of a Jiang Wanyin? The owner of that car is looking for him.”

“And A-Ling!” Lan Jingyi shouts as well, delighted by all the loud but not unhappy voices. “We want to play with A-Ling!”

“Maybe the name Jiang Cheng is more familiar to you?” Lan Xichen says as lao Wang shoots up like a firework despite the pure grey hair sown unevenly across his scalp. He stares at the car for a second long enough to trigger an unnecessary explanation on the tip of Lan Xichen’s tongue. His car may be a more expensive brand, but it’s not like Wei Wuxian and Jiang Yanli, who must visit, don’t also have nice cars. Jiang Cheng himself drives one when he’s in the city, not the tiny pick-up truck Lan Xichen knows he also owns.

Then again, Lan Xichen’s car is the only visible vehicle on the whole street.

Lao Wang ambles over and crouches in front of Lan Jingyi as Lan Xichen swallows his defensiveness, but not his growing unease.

“You’re looking for your friend?” he repeats, and Lan Jingy nods furiously.

“And shushu,” Lan Yuan adds.

“They’re saying it’s a Jiang Wanyin.”

Lao Wang considers the two boys with the same tilted head he gave the car before glancing up past Lan Xichen to the other locals.

“I know he lives here, but I don’t have his exact address,” Lan Xichen says, even though explaining himself doesn’t seem to be doing any good.

“You sure you’re not thinking of Ninghe?” lao Wang asks after humming to himself. “I used to know a few Jiangs down there.”

“Good thinking,” the man wearing the hat says, giving Lan Xichen a kind smile that only makes the whole situation worse. “It’s fairly close by and those GPSs are always getting our towns mixed up.”

“What you wanna do is go back down the road about an hour,” lao Wang begins, and Lan Xichen lets him continue even though he’s positive he inputted the correct place. “Back to where this road becomes paved again and intersects with route one hundred, you remember? You should have turned left there, rather than going straight. So now you’ll go right and then after another forty minutes you should see a sign telling you you’ve got sixty kilometres and the falls coming up in another twenty kilometres. The road will fork before then and you wanna go left and then you’ll be there in another five. Can’t miss it. Ninghe or the falls, if you take the wrong turn.”

“I see, thank you,” Lan Xichen says with a strained but still functional smile as the three older men beam at his gleaming passiveness. “But may I please ask a question before I go? The sign we passed coming in here that says Lotus Lakes is further up ahead—is that correct?”

“Oh, you’re here for Lotus Lakes?” the man with the toolbelt asks, straightening up.

“You should certainly go see them before you drive back,” the man wearing the hat says with an even bigger grin.

“How about it, boys, would you like to ride some boats today?” lao Wang asks, still crouched as if someone carved him in that position with no aching muscles to hinder him.

“No, we’re not–I mean, we would love to see Lotus Lakes, but we’re not here for them specifically,” Lan Xichen says, and for the first time, feels every particle of stale air and every mite of dust that settled in and on him during the over five hour drive here.

He sat the whole time and yet suddenly, reasoning with these men when half of his brain is still submerged in the murky bogs of panic, all Lan Xichen wants to do is sit again. Preferably with some tea in front of him and Jiang Cheng beside him, laughing at his retelling of this battle with the old men, while the children play nearby.

“But my friend, Jiang Wanyin, is the CEO of Lotus Lakes,” Lan Xichen continues, spurred on by the thought of Jiang Cheng, “So surely he lives nearby. Or perhaps one of his employees who can point me in the right direction lives here?”

Lan Xichen consciously stops his smile from widening or slipping into an unbecoming smirk when the men share another pointed look rather than immediately responding.

“The CEO of Lotus Lakes, you say?” the man with the toolbelt repeats, but now Lan Xichen can see the slight narrowing of his intelligent eyes.  

“If that’s true, then you should definitely head down there,” lao Wang says, which Lan Xichen should have expected by this point.

“You can enjoy the place and ask the employees there about this friend of yours,” the man wearing the hat adds.

“Will that many people really be there right now?”

“Do you think no one’s working just because it’s a Saturday?” the man with the toolbelt snorts, and Lan Xichen carefully doesn’t point out that this man and his friend didn’t appear to be working when Lan Xichen showed up.

Ayi!” the man wearing the hat shouts over Lan Xichen’s shoulder once more, and everyone turns to see two women ambling down the street a few feet away. The older woman bears a patch of freshly fallen snow for hair and cranes her head at the man’s shout.

“What?”

Lan Xichen almost begs the men not to disturb her any further, as her shout draws the attention of some other figures further up the street and a couple heads poke out of open doorways nearby with curious looks. While he should be used to swarms of people, he already feels unbalanced in this small gathering of stubborn elders, and any more people may become a polite mob.

“Is your shop open?” the man wearing the hat asks with a placid expression as if they always converse by shouting across the road at each other.

“Not for any of you lazy asses!”

“We’re working very hard on tourism today,” the man with the toolbelt replies, and the man wearing the hat shoves him at the woman’s glare.

“Not for us, of course. For this visitor here who’s been all turned around. He’s headed to Lotus Lakes and then he’ll have to drive back to Ninghe.”

The older woman marches over, arm still looped through the arm of the younger woman who simply follows her with an exasperated but resigned expression. 

“And am I being paid for this?” Up close, she barely stands as tall as Lan Xichen’s chest, yet Lan Xichen almost takes a step back at her scathing voice.

Ayi, surely a hospitality discount after what we told you–”

“Don’t give me that tone,” she interrupts, and her free hand waves down at the now rather confused Lan boys. “Children always eat free, but a grown man should always be able to provide for himself.”

“Of course I would pay you for any food you provide,” Lan Xichen cuts in before the other men can, and he gives the older woman a polite smile. His smile does nothing to ease the grumpy expression on her face, but the look is suddenly so similar to Jiang Cheng’s that the ground feels steady again. “But that won’t be necessary if I could just be pointed in the direction of Jiang Wanyin’s home.”

“Lad,” the man with the toolbelt says, using a gentle tone normally reserved for scared strays, “We can’t tell you what we don’t know. But you go see Lotus Lakes, which I promise you’ll enjoy even if your friend isn’t there, come back down here so ayi can see to it that you’re at least well fed, and then you can head back your way with a full belly and full heart.”

“Please,” Lan Xichen says, meeting each of their gazes in turn.

More people have joined them silently since the conversation about food began; a surprisingly young man leaning on a broom and two middle aged women with matching topknot buns who could have been twins if not for the jagged scar on one woman’s face twisting all the way from her right temple to her chin. “I promise I know him, and his family. Wei Wuxian has always been a close friend of my brother, and Jiang Yanli invites us to her home at least three times a year. Jiang Fengmian was a close friend of my uncle—Lan Qiren—before his early death. Lan Yuan here is Wei Wuxian’s son, and he and Lan Jingyi are Jin Ling’s best friends.”

“His bestest friends,” Lan Jingyi pipes up, and Lan Yuan nods seriously.

“And shushu is the bestest shushu,” Lan Yuan adds as if he has more than one. “So we want to play together please.”

“Then prove it,” the woman with the scar says, eyes soft for the children, but voice firm for Lan Xichen. The others in the crowd shift and inhale like they wish to protest, but no one interrupts her. “Call this so-called Wei Wuxian and let us speak to him.”

A fair request, if not for the fact that Lan Xichen hasn’t told anyone he was driving all the way up here, a fact he realizes now with a slightly clearer head that he should have at least mentioned to Lan Yuan’s parents. Even though Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji have never once scolded Lan Xichen for any smaller trips he took the boys on during the weekends that he cared for them, this trip will likely raise many concerned questions that Lan Xichen balks at answering.

“He’s at work today,” Lan Xichen warns even as he releases Lan Yuan to pull out his cellphone. The woman says nothing, simply stares at him until he holds the phone to his ear.

“Is it ringing?” she asks.

“Yes.”

She holds out her hand and Lan Xichen slowly gives her the phone before taking Lan Yuan’s hand again.

“Who is this?” she says into the phone after a tense second. Her expression gives nothing away as she listens to the other person speak. “Tall, long-haired fellow with two boys?”

Lan Xichen tightens his grip on said boys, though he does his best to give them a reassuring smile when they look up at him.

“He says he’s tou’r’s friend,” the woman says, and the old men mutter something too low for Lan Xichen to hear. The woman listens for awhile longer on the phone, her near twin studying Lan Xichen the entire time.

“Everyone,” the woman announces after another moment with only the slightest rise of her eyebrow. “This is Lan Xichen, xiao Cheng’s boyfriend.”

The crowd erupts into squawked questions at that, much like a surprised flock of birds.

“Sorry, I think my hearing aid must have stopped working there,” the man with the toolbelt says, and turns a finger in his ear. “Boyfriend, you say?”

“You don’t have a hearing aid,” the man wearing the hat snorts.

“What kind of boyfriend?” lao Wang asks.

“Yes, what exactly is your job?” ayi asks, pressing closer with the younger woman still attached to her hip. “How long have you known him?”

“How did you meet?” the younger woman asks, eyes alight with the prospect of a romantic story.

“Where do you plan on living?” the man holding the broom asks.

Lan Xichen pulls the boys a little closer to his sides as the others crowd around him and ask dozens of quick questions like a group of fans. Instead of feverous admiration bubbling in their voices though, he hears the undercurrent of unconcealed concern. A natural and curious interest gleams in their eyes, too, and Lan Xichen is certain he has just given the entire village something to gossip about for at least a few weeks. If he ever makes it to Jiang Cheng, he may have to apologize for that too, though he will also be asking why everyone is so defensive of him in the first place.

“He’s apparently a famous singer,” the woman on the phone cuts in, though only the younger woman and the man with the broom look impressed by that. “Stage name Zewu Jun. Oh, and this is in fact Wei Wuxian’s A-Yuan.”

That earns another eager round of questions, lao Wang dropping into a crouch again to better address the children.

“And exactly how old are you now?”

“What’s your favourite food?”

“What’s your friend’s name?”

“Most important question, do you like swimming?”

“Can we swim here?” Lan Jingyi latches onto that question with a gaping look at everyone, no doubt thinking of Cloud Recesses where swimming in the water is considered too dangerous.

“As long as you’re with an adult who can swim,” the man with the broom says, moving closer so he can also crouch down and meet Lan Jingyi’s gaze. “Understand? No adult, no swimming.”

He speaks with the same gentle firmness Lan Xichen emulates as a teacher, and Lan Jingyi gives the man a serious nod.

“You can swim, can’t you?” ayi asks, and never has Lan Xichen been more grateful for the seven am swimming lessons his uncle dragged him to as a child.

“Moderately well, yes.”

“We’ll take him to tou’r now,” the woman on the phone announces, and everyone immediately takes a step back to allow him access to his car.

“Give us a minute to explain the whole sending him to another town bit at least,” the man wearing the hat protests.

“Though there’s not much explaining to do,” the man with the toolbelt adds. “Especially given your occupation.”

“Just that ever since the young ones became famous,” lao Wang says, “There’ve been a few–”

“Nasty?” the younger woman suggests when lao Wang hesitates on his next word.

“Inconsiderate,” the man with the broom says.

“Unhinged,” ayi scoffs.

“Scumbag,” the topknot-haired woman without the phone decides.

“Right, there’ve been a few of those people coming and trying to–”

“Coerce?”

“Pester.”

“Bribe.

“Blackmail.”

“–persuade us and xiao Cheng to give them private information about xiao Xian and xiao Li.”

“And you did show up without knowing his address,” the man with the toolbelt adds.

“I did,” Lan Xichen admits, no one but the two women with their hair in buns now looking at him skeptically. “It’s a bit of a surprise visit, to be honest.”

“How romantic,” the younger woman says with a genuine smile.

“Let’s not prolong the surprise any longer then,” the woman still holding Lan Xichen’s phone says, and gestures toward his car. Lan Xichen’s heart immediately returns to beating at triple speed as he follows their instructions, the other villagers now happily waving him in the correct direction.

“We’ll see you around soon, don’t you worry,” lao Wang says with a wink. The woman with the scar goes to the driver’s seat, and the other woman limps to the back to open the doors for Lan Xichen and the boys.

“He wants to speak with you,” she tells Lan Xichen, returning his phone once he slides inside. The women wait until they are all buckled in before turning on the engine, and Lan Xichen lifts his cellphone to his ear after taking a single steadying breath that accomplishes nothing.

“Wei Wuxian?”

“Heyyyy, Xichen-ge,” Wei Wuxian’s exorbitantly cheerful voice makes him wince, not from the volume that threatens to spill into the car itself, but because that tone is silk wrapped around poisoned blades. “I assume Jinzhu and Yinzhu are in the car with you?”

Lan Xichen guessed earlier that’s who they were based on Jiang Cheng’s stories, but he still closes his eyes briefly at the confirmation.

“Yes.”

“Cool cool cool. So is there a particular reason they didn’t know you were going to be there? Because I gotta say, getting a call, not just a text message or email, but an actual call from them when I’m at work isn’t really good for my stress levels. And my stress levels were already not great this morning.”  

“I–”

“And I know Jiang Cheng can be a very I do what I want type of person when he gets into a certain mood, but even he makes sure to warn them when someone plans on visiting him up there.”

“He didn’t know I was coming,” Lan Xichen says, because he knows Wei Wuxian wants to hear that for himself.

“And why’s that?” Wei Wuxian asks, cheerfulness dropping from his voice in a second.

Lan Xichen doesn’t want to explain here, with Jiang Cheng’s close assistants in the front and the children in the back, though at least the children are distracted by the unfamiliar homes and the thickening forest. The woman in the passenger seat is in turn distracted by explaining what they see to them, but she still glances at Lan Xichen every few sentences.

More than that, Lan Xichen never wants to explain to Wei Wuxian that he unintentionally or intentionally hurt his brother. But Wei Wuxian is the second only person who deserves that explanation, not just because Jiang Cheng is his brother, but because Lan Xichen also has Wei Wuxian’s son riding along with him.

It was easier when Lan Xichen was operating on an instinctual panic and a determined desire to fix things immediately. Those two things would have been easier to articulate, and those things are still there as they inch ever closer to Jiang Cheng’s house. But they have eased enough thanks to the prolonged conversation earlier and his lack of driver position, and so doubt at this plan, guilt for involving the others, and a whole collection of other sentiments now muddy his brain.

“He hasn’t been responding on his phone,” Lan Xichen says, parsing out the most straightforward facts he can. “And we didn’t have a previous plan to meet-up today.”

He hesitates before adding, “I didn’t realize he was planning on traveling back home today until this morning.”

Which Lan Xichen hasn’t had much chance to ponder while trapped in a whirlwind of what ifs, but now that he has time, he frowns at the oddity. The more time that passes, the more detailed updates Jiang Cheng gives Lan Xichen about his daily life and upcoming events, even if they don’t involve Lan Xichen directly. Even if Jiang Cheng has been angry with Lan Xichen since last night, they discussed weekend plans days before that, and a trip like this is something Lan Xichen would expect him to bring up. Not to mention, the strange timing of taking a trip like this so close to when Jin Ling’s parents are due to return.

“He wasn’t,” Wei Wuxian replies, but gives no additional information. “So if you had no prior plans and you didn’t know he was going there, why are you there now?”

“To apologize,” Lan Xichen admits which makes the women exchange a look, but they say nothing to him. “And I should apologize to you now too. I didn’t realize this would be A-Yuan’s first time here, and I’m sure you and Wangji wanted that experience for yourself.”

Lan Yuan looks over at the mention of his name and, as if sensing Lan Xichen’s unhappy mood, scoots away from the window to snuggle close to Lan Xichen’s side. Lan Xichen rests a hand on the top of the boy’s soft hair, and silently promises to buy the boys their favourite treat on the ride home for always being such a comforting presence in his life.

Wei Wuxian’s end stays quiet for a long moment as the car turns off the main road and onto a slight incline.

“I can move past that,” Wei Wuxian finally says, the edge sanded off his words, “This way you and Jiang Cheng can do the work of setting all the rules, and Lan Zhan and I can just focus on the fun. But I do want to know exactly what it is you need to apologize to Jiang Cheng for.”

“That picture I posted of him on Friday,” Lan Xichen explains.

“What, the picture of him cooking?”

“He texted me this morning saying he was upset about it and hasn’t replied since.”

Wei Wuxian goes quiet again, and Lan Xichen pulls the phone away just to make sure the call hasn’t dropped.

Something thumps on Wei Wuxian’s end and then a stream of muffled and near nonsensical complaints fills his end.

“That idiotic, emotionally constipated–I can’t believe he just–and he calls me the dramatic one as if I’ve ever–well, okay I guess have but that doesn’t–I bet he wouldn’t even admit to anything if I–or you because I promised Lan Zhan but also–just–”

His voice trails off into a frustrated, wordless screech, and for a moment Lan Xichen worries he will now have to explain this mess to Lan Wangji as well thanks to rendering his boyfriend dysfunctional.

“We’re two minutes away,” the woman driving announces, and Lan Xichen repeats the sentiment to Wei Wuxian.

“Okay, okay, I just, I’m discovering that karma sucks and I’m dying a little,” Wei Wuxian says, but he continues before Lan Xichen can interject, “So you didn’t mean to upset him, obviously, and the reason you actually posted the picture is because?”

“I thought it was cute,” Lan Xichen says even though Wei Wuxian will no doubt use that against him later.

There’s a much louder thump, and Lan Xichen may also need to explain to Lan Wangji why his boyfriend suddenly has a concussion.

“Please don’t hurt yourself,” Lan Xichen says when he hears yet another thump and Wei Wuxian’s muttering.

“Don’t worry about me,” Wei Wuxian replies, though his voice still sounds muffled. “Go worry about Jiang Cheng’s propensity to completely and stubbornly misinterpret everyone, and then dump some water on him once you’re done talking.”

Wei Wuxian hangs up as the car slows to a halt directly in front of an aged stone wall, the doors of the main entrance already thrown open. The forest continues to spread along either side of the car yet when Lan Xichen peers over the walls through the windshield mirror, the horizon becomes clear of most vegetative obstruction.

“Thank you for driving us here,” Lan Xichen says when neither woman immediately climbs out of the car, though the boys shift impatiently. “And I’m sorry for not properly introducing myself or the boys earlier. May I ask for your names?”

“I’m Yu Yinzhu,” the woman with the scars in the driver’s seat says.

“I’m Yu Jinzhu,” the woman with the limp in the passenger seat says.

Tou’r told us about you,” Yu Yinzhu says.

“He did?”

The women share a smirk before looking back at Lan Xichen in unison.

“You’re much cuter in person,” Yu Jinzhu says, in a way that implies they will be saying something similar to Jiang Cheng very soon.

“Thank you,” Lan Xichen says despite his flush, and since he has already been exposed earlier, offers them another personal tidbit in return. “I would say the same of Wanyin.”

The smirks widen, and the women finally open their car doors with a flourish. The boys scramble out at a nod from Lan Xichen, and he quickly follows them. The women gesture for all of them to follow them through the open archway of the main entranceway.

Yu Jinzhu’s gives her hand a shake after and tucks it against her side, but not before Lan Xichen spots the trembling. She keeps walking with a slight limp without complaint, just like she climbed into the car without complaint. That determined movement forward even with past trauma clawing at one’s shoulders reminds Lan Xichen of Jiang Cheng and of himself, and so Lan Xichen follows them into the first courtyard with a much steadier step.

The first courtyard has been turned into a dirt parking lot, with Jiang Cheng’s small pick-up truck and city car on the right and empty spaces on the left. A second open archway built into another stone wall leads to a courtyard filled by an elevated wooden deck. The boys gasp when they see it and scramble up the slabs of wooden stairs until they can peer around from the highest point in the centre.

Lan Xichen moves slower, taking in the near golden colour of the wood, the concentric shape that imitates a tree trunk, and the miniature ponds filling the gaps between the deck and the walls they just passed through. Directly ahead are the closed doors of the main home with its black tiles and curving eaves.

But on both the left and right, there are small wooden bridges connecting the deck to open corridors much like the ones at Cloud Recesses. Small, closed-off rooms sit at one end, but the rest of the corridor remains open as they continue around the edges of the main home and toward the back of the property.

“This way,” Yu Yinzhu says, and leads them to the tiny bridge on their left.

Once again, Lan Xichen slows as he realizes that unlike Cloud Recesses, these corridors are made entirely of wood. The ground beneath their feet slowly bleeds from a golden honey into the dark brown of rich, damp soil as the path of wooden planks continues with no jarring gaps. The roof above them is the same dark brown, with interlocking beams and intricate carvings of aquatic animals that are sanded with age, but still well-cared for.

“This is incredible,” Lan Xichen says as his hand skims the smooth railing to his left. The outer stone wall continues to accompany them a few feet away, yet the lack of corridor walls gives them plenty of fresh air to breathe. “The work that must have gone into making this, not to mention maintaining it all—I can’t even imagine.”

“You should say that to the men responsible for that maintenance,” Yu Jinzhu says as the corridor ends but uncovered planks continue to lead the way. Within seconds, they pass an intersecting path that leads into the main house.

“You’ve already met them,” Yu Yinzhu adds before Lan Xichen can ask. “The man back in town with the toolbelt, Li Tie. He travels to all the villages in the area and helps them do repairs.”

“He has an apprentice down in Ninghe and a small team for taking on independent contracts,” Yu Jinzhu continues. “Mostly for carpentry and masonry restoration work.”

“But he gets tou’r to help him whenever it’s work on Lotus Pier.”

“Or any of the homes here.”

“They actually just finished repairing the northeast docks before tou’r got called into the city.”

“Then, is Li Tie the one who taught Wanyin about wood carving?” Lan Xichen asks as the main house on their right narrows into a squat hallway. It widens again further down the boardwalk so the overall shape of the house from this side is that of an anvil.

“Yes,” Yu Yinzhu says, and shares a look with her sister.

“His parents taught him a little first,” Yu Jinzhu adds, “But Li-shu taught him most of it.”

Another look before they decide to say,

“Li-shu says he’s good enough to be given a regular position on his team or work that type of job elsewhere.

Lan Xichen would ask why Jiang Cheng never chose that path, but he already knows the answer. He does wish to demand why, with all their talk about tradition and skills, Jiang Cheng’s parents never appreciated this skill of Jiang Cheng’s. Or if they did, why they didn’t make it clear enough to Jiang Cheng, who acts proud yet always seems suspicious of compliments from others when those compliments aren’t connected to his job at Lotus Lakes.    

That is not a conversation to have with these women though, and not with two young boys eagerly pushing them along to their destination. So instead he simply replies with a soft,

“I see.”

The women share yet another look as if they hear all the questions and sudden anger Lan Xichen doesn’t voice.

“You should ask tou’r to show you his workshop here if you’re around awhile,” Yu Jinzhu says as they reach the back end of the anvil.

Here the boardwalk becomes a T shape, and they step onto the right path and around the corner of the main house. Here they enter the back grounds of the property for the first time, and Lan Xichen’s jaw drops along with the boys’.

It is not a single small lake that greets them, but a city of them. One gleaming surface of blue spills into another everywhere he looks, the thriving population housed within evident even on the surface where lotus stalks wave and lily pads float.

The wooden boardwalks skirt the boundaries of the lakes, one providing passage to the left where the stone wall continues in a wide circle, while Yu Yinzhu and Yu Jinzhu lead them down the one on the right that hugs the back of the house. Even further beyond them, Lan Xichen sees the wooden trail continues along with more of the building.

But the women turn onto a pier first, one that ventures directly into the centre of the beautiful waterways. It doesn’t dare travel further than fifteen feet, but at the end of the pier, small dugout canoes offer a chance to explore the waters.

Near one of these boats, Lan Xichen finally sees Jiang Cheng. The man helps a lifejacket wearing Jin Ling climb out of the boat as they watch, one hand pushing the child up and one holding onto the pier to keep the boat steady. With his face still half-turned toward a water lit with the precious gems of sunlight and the breeze playing with his fully free hair, Lan Xichen freezes as if he has stumbled upon the lake’s hidden treasure.

“A-Ling!” Lan Jingyi shouts as Jiang Cheng climbs up onto the pier alongside his nephew. The duo spin toward them at the shout, and even from a distance, Lan Xichen sees the smile break across Jin Ling’s face when he spots his friends.

“A-Yuan! Jingyi!” Jin Ling takes off at a run towards them, and Jiang Cheng steps away from the water he belongs to.

“No running on the piers!” he roars, and the Lan children grab Lan Xichen’s legs. Jin Ling stumbles once, but immediately catches himself and begins striding forward with his chin jutted out. As soon as he reaches his friends, he begins tugging them away from Lan Xichen with excited questions about their sudden appearance.

Lan Xichen looks back up to the still distant Jiang Cheng whose gaze falls on Lan Xichen. The second those familiarly expressive eyes land on Lan Xichen, relief sweeps through him, heavy and consuming.

He should be concerned that Jiang Cheng is still angry, but in that moment, Lan Xichen simply wants to hug him. Wants to apologize. Wants to tell him all about the trip here, the villagers’ defensiveness and Nie Mingjue’s text message. Wants to ask why he is here, so suddenly, with no warning. Wants to tell him everything that has happened in the past twenty-four hours and for Jiang Cheng to do the same and more, because there is so much of the man that Lan Xichen realizes he doesn’t know.

Lan Xichen wants to ask if they can sit right then and there, because his legs are suddenly no more solid than the lakes spreading all around them.

“You’re far from home,” Jiang Cheng calls out as he begins marching toward them and pulls off his lifejacket.

The man pauses a few feet away, close enough now that Lan Xichen can see the streaks of dried mud on his jeans and the spots where the sun has bleached the colour from the mossy green sleeves of his shirt. They fit him as well as all his other clothes, but more than that, Jiang Cheng fits them. They are the clothes that show how much good work he has put into the land they stand on, and Jiang Cheng stands in them like he finally knows his worth down to his core.

Somehow, Lan Xichen finds it harder to breathe the fresh air of that moment than inhaling the smog of the city.

“What?” Jiang Cheng asks when Lan Xichen doesn’t respond.

“Nothing, sorry, it’s just your clothes,” Lan Xichen starts. The word gorgeous snags somewhere in his throat, but he fumbles forward when Jiang Cheng frowns down at himself, “They look very rustic.”

“Oh.” Jiang Cheng looks back up at him. “Do you–is that a good thing?”

“Yes,” Lan Xichen says quickly despite his burning face, “It’s good. Very masculine.” 

Jiang Cheng opens his mouth, but no words come out as his own face flushes like Lan Xichen’s.

“What are you doing here?” Jiang Cheng finally asks.

“I needed to talk to you.”

“You drove five hours to talk to me?” Jiang Cheng says, and Lan Xichen blushes.

“Well, you weren’t answering your phone and I wanted to apologize,” Lan Xichen explains, the words sounding needy even in his own brain and making his cheeks burn further.

“You drove five hours to apologize to me?” Jiang Cheng repeats again with wide eyes like Lan Xichen has spewed a completely nonsensical order of words. Jiang Cheng’s response comes out in a sharp tone, like an accusation, and his confused eyes reignite the pain in Lan Xichen’s chest from that morning.

Lan Xichen opens his mouth, but he doesn’t know what Jiang Cheng needs to hear from him, and Lan Yuan tugging on Lan Xichen’s jeans saves him from answering.

Bobo, we want to go on the boats like A-Ling,” Lan Yuan tells him where Jin Ling holds his free hand.

“You have to ask your shushu,” Lan Xichen tells Lan Yuan in a gentle tone, already trying to soften the blow if Jiang Cheng rightfully decides he would rather his unexpected guests stay on land. “Those are his boats, and he might be tired.”

Without hesitation, Lan Yuan latches onto one of Jiang Cheng’s legs.

Shushu, shushu,” Lan Yuan chants as Jiang Cheng stumbles back on his free leg. “Please let us ride the boats, shushu.”

“Yeah, jiujiu,” Jin Ling says, and wraps himself around Jiang Cheng’s other leg as Lan Xichen tries not to laugh. “Let us ride the boats.”

“The boats, jiujiu!” Lan Jingyi joins in, but Jin Ling scowls and shoves him away from the leg he tries to grab.

“He’s my jiujiu, not yours!” Jin Ling shouts, but Lan Jingyi just sticks out his tongue and joins Lan Yuan.

“Please, shushu,” Lan Jingyi says with Lan Yuan as Jiang Cheng manages to stay upright despite the three clingy children and the steady reddening of his face.

“Alright alright, just get off me before I grab your legs and throw you in the lake.”

The children all cheer despite the threat, and when Lan Yuan doesn’t let go, Jiang Cheng just sighs heavily, and begins waddling down the dock. The other two, seeing that Jiang Cheng simply scolds Lan Yuan, return to their own imitation of burs on clothing, and Lan Xichen follows the valiantly walking Jiang Cheng with a growing grin despite the ache in his chest.

Lan Xichen turns back briefly to thank the women, but they are headed to the path they came from. They stop at the corner, but only to give Lan Xichen a quick wink before disappearing from sight.

“What are you doing?” Jiang Cheng calls, and Lan Xichen turns back with burning cheeks. The man squats by an open bin at the end of the pier where he takes out lifejackets for each of the boys. “Hurry up and help with these. Nobody gets on without these, including you.”

Lan Xichen hurries over at that, helping the Lan boys do up their buckles and zippers, though Jin Ling is eager to show off his new knowledge and help as well. He keeps looking to Jiang Cheng for confirmation as he babbles about how to put it on and the importance, chest puffing out whenever Jiang Cheng nods. Lan Xichen doesn’t try to hide his smile this time, especially not when Jiang Cheng hands him an adult size and Jin Ling insists that he help Lan Xichen put it on.

Lan Xichen kneels down so Jin Ling can help, the Lan boys eagerly crowding around to help as well. When he looks up, he finally sees Jiang Cheng grinning again, the edges curving with subtle mischief when Lan Xichen stands.

“What is it?” Lan Xichen asks, and Jiang Cheng shakes his head.

“Just glad to see that even the elegant Zewu Jun looks like a puffball in one of these.”

Lan Xichen glances down at the padded material swelling out, but with Jiang Cheng’s forgiveness looming ever closer, embarrassment is nowhere to be found.

“As the knowledgeable boys were just telling me, their function is safety not elegance,” Lan Xichen replies cheekily, which earns him an eyeroll from Jiang Cheng and a whispered,

“What’s knowlegebe mean, jiujiu?”

“Knowledgeable means he thinks you’re smart,” Jiang Cheng snorts, and ruffles Jin Ling’s hair when the boy and his friends all perk up and grin at Lan Xichen. “Which means you should show us all how to get into the boat.”

Jin Ling, with Jiang Cheng’s help, does in fact show them how to use the support of the pier to get into the boat, crouching by the middle to minimize the rocking of the boat. Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen still have to help the boys get in given their height, Lan Xichen hovering on the pier while Jiang Cheng offers a guiding hand from the boat. He offers the same when it’s Lan Xichen’s turn, though they quickly sit on opposite ends in order to maintain balance.

There are thankfully three benches so the boys can sit together in the middle, though they very quickly rock the boats in their eagerness to lean over the sides.

“A-Ling, what’s the first rule of being in the boat?” Jiang Cheng snaps.

“No standing,” Jin Ling replies immediately.

“The second?”

Jin Ling screws up his face for a second in thought but then quickly says,

“No moving fast.”

“Good.” He grabs an oar from the side and Lan Xichen does the same. “If you’re going to be by the side, then you hold onto the boat, got it?”

The boys chorus their agreement as Jiang Cheng dips the oar into the water. He glances at Lan Xichen who offers him a smile as he imitates the man.

“It might take me some time to remember,” Lan Xichen tells him. “But shushu has taken us on boats before.”

“As long as you don’t make us go in circles,” Jiang Cheng replies, though the near smirk on his lips says he would laugh if Lan Xichen did.

He does not, though his strokes are certainly not as powerful or confident as the ones Jiang Cheng uses to push the boat out into the middle of the first lake. Jiang Cheng also doesn’t stop moving every time one of the boys distracts them with an observation, nor when the oar brushes flowers still painted in delicate shades of pink, or when the boys eagerly stick their hands through the archways of the bent stems of the dying lotuses.

Those steady motions are only another distraction as Lan Xichen attempts to mirror them. Thankfully, Jiang Cheng decides they should take a pause in the middle of the first lake since everyone else keeps looking around so quickly it’s making my neck hurt.

“Everything is just so beautiful,” Lan Xichen tells him, and Jiang Cheng can’t argue with that. Even though the lotuses are beginning to sink back into the depths they spring from, the stubborn petals that remain and their curling stalks steal Lan Xichen’s breath.

There is no end to them either, as they huddle in close groups with water lilies, wave and curl around each other, and stretch both to the sun above and the water below. The late afternoon sun catches on every free inch of water so that a glittering splendour fills the space where the beauty of flowers is absent.

Even when Lan Xichen looks to the shores, he finds something worth gazing at as the old trees begin to display their colourful fall foliage with pride.

 “Shushu, bobo,” Lan Yuan says eagerly as the boat simply drifts, “A-Ling said there are fish?”

“There are lots of them,” Jiang Cheng agrees.

“Where?” Lan Jingyi almost topples right out of the boat in his haste to peer over the edge and find them, and both men reach for the back of his lifejacket.

“You’ll never see them like that,” Jiang Cheng scolds him, hand still hovering even with Lan Xichen’s fingers now on the boy’s lifejacket. “Maybe not at all from here.”

“They don’t like loud noises,” Lan Xichen tells the boys, just like Jiang Cheng reminded him on their first fake date.

“Right,” Jiang Cheng says. He glances at Lan Xichen, and Lan Xichen has to bite his lip to keep himself from grinning when Jiang Cheng’s eyes glint with mischief like the sun on the scales of the fish they’re looking for. “If you want to see them, we’ll have to play the Quiet Game.”

“I wanna play,” Jin Ling says immediately, and Lan Jingyi once again rocks the boat as he nods his head furiously.

“Me too!” Lan Jingyi shouts, and Lan Xichen tightens his grip on the lifejacket just in case.

“Dada and I play sometimes,” Lan Yuan says with a wide smile. “Dada always loses.”

“Of course he does,” Jiang Cheng snorts before raising his voice. “The rules are simple. First person to speak or make a loud noise loses.”

“But what if I see the fish?” Lan Jingyi asks, as Jin Ling looks seconds away from protesting and pouting at the rules.

“Then you can call time-out to tell us,” Lan Xichen assures him.

“But that’s it,” Jiang Cheng warns. “Otherwise we’ll never see any fish.”   

“Here, I’ll give you some tips,” Lan Xichen says, and finally lets Jiang Cheng see his grin. He’s not positive he’s been fully forgiven, but Jiang Cheng is definitely treating him like a partner-in-crime in this moment, and Lan Xichen will cling to that as long as Jiang Cheng lets him. “Look at the oars. See how they make ripples every time we move them?”

He moves his hand to Lan Jingyi’s shoulder and points down to where wood of their tools meets the water. “Choose one ripple and try to watch it. See if it goes all the way back to the shore. And if you lose it, try watching another.”

“How many lotuses does the ripple touch?” Jiang Cheng adds, and he moves the oar faster than usual just so the boys can see the water ripple out and lift the nearest cluster of vegetation. “Count that, and then count how many lotuses still have their flowers, how many are bending down, and how many pods there are.”

“Do you see any dragonflies on the leaves?” Lan Xichen asks, all three boys now clutching at the sides of the boat with their tiny hands and looking with wide eyes from boat to water to lotuses and back again. “Look there and at the ripples, and that’s where you’ll find any fish.”

“Ready?”

“I’m gonna win,” Lan Jingyi cheers, and Jin Ling glares at him.

“Nuh-uh, I’m going to win.”

“If either of you want to win then shut up in three, two, one.” Jiang Cheng counts them in and both Lan Jingyi and Jin Ling clap their hands over their mouths as Jiang Cheng gets to two. Lan Xichen almost loses in that first second with his urge to laugh at their determined faces, but instead he taps the Lan boys’ heads to draw their attention back to the water.

For a long time, Lan Xichen watches the ripples just as he suggested the boys do. The calm of water, he eventually thinks, breaks just like the calm of people; the ripples are the creases and lines that twist and spread over one’s bodies at a disturbance, whether it be a gentle push from life or a rough slap. But it’s in those creases that meaning and understanding, both beautiful and ugly, are found, just like the fish Lan Xichen told Lan Jingyi he could find there.

Lan Xichen could follow that current of thought for a long time sitting like that, but the young boys grow impatient close to the ten-minute mark. Lan Xichen sees Lan Jingyi pushing away from the side and back again, glancing quickly between everyone as if hoping to see their mouths opening. Jin Ling looks around too, but when he sees Jiang Cheng sitting silently, he goes back to watching the water. Lan Yuan, conversely, has both his hands in the water as he happily and quietly pushes it back and forth.

“I’m going to lose it if one more mosquito flies at my face,” Jiang Cheng announces just as Lan Jingyi opens his mouth. Everyone immediately straightens, and Lan Xichen once again reaches out to keep the boys steady.

Jiujiu lost!” Jin Ling shouts in delight, and only grins wider at Jiang Cheng’s exaggerated scowl. The other boys giggle and join in the shouting as Lan Xichen pastes a mask of innocence on his face.

“What happens to Dada when he loses, A-Yuan?” Lan Xichen asks the small boy, who only thinks for a second.

“Hugs!” Lan Yuan declares. “Dada gives me lots and lots of hugs!”

“Not in the boat!” Jiang Cheng shouts as the boys all start to move and the boat dips from side to side. Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng both grab the sides as if to steady it, and Jiang Cheng holds up one open hand to Lan Yuan. “Hugs when we’re back on solid land, alright?”

Jiang Cheng sighs as Lan Yuan slumps back in his seat with a pout.

“Until then, what’s something we can do on the water?” Lan Xichen asks, ruffling the small boy’s hair. Lan Yuan looks up at him slowly, but Jin Ling immediately looks to the lake around them with a grin.

“Splashing!” Jin Ling shouts, and scoops up a small handful of lake water before flinging it at Jiang Cheng.

Lan Jingyi gasps, and then Lan Xichen once more grabs the back of his lifejacket as the boy shoves himself over the edge of the boat to splash water at Jiang Cheng.

Jiang Cheng closes his eyes as the water lands even though the boys only have enough strength to fling water at his lifejacket. He opens them with a scowl dark enough to scare a pack of animals, but says,

“Is that really the best you got? Seems you’ve been skipping your push-ups, A-Ling.”

“Have not!” Jin Ling shoots back, and the boys begin scooping water with renewed vigour.

Jiang Cheng crosses his arms and glares at them, but that only makes the boys shriek and laugh harder. Lan Xichen watches with his own growing grin before finally helping the boys by flicking water with his oar. It arcs onto Jiang Cheng’s hair and dribbles down the side of his face as he turns a dangerous gaze on Lan Xichen.

“You do not want to start this war,” Jiang Cheng says, even as his eyes light up like they do before their runs together. A challenge thickens and deepens his voice, dragging at the lighter tone Lan Xichen attempts to maintain.

“I do believe the loser isn’t supposed to fight back,” Lan Xichen replies with a raise of his eyebrow. “Plus, I didn’t think you wanted to capsize the boat today.”

“You think I wouldn’t just toss you in before that happens?”

“I think I’d pull you in with me.”

Jiang Cheng huffs, the scowl slipping from his face the longer the conversation continues.

“You are secretly very clingy,” Jiang Cheng concedes. For all that the man acts like he hates those people, he says it in the same tone he used when he confessed that being stuck with Lan Xichen isn’t so bad.

“And stubborn,” Lan Xichen adds with a pleasant smile. “But only as much as Wanyin.”

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes, but the boys’ demands for attention end the conversation before he can reply. Rather than playing the game again, Jiang Cheng starts rowing so he can show them the entire city of connected lakes.

Some lakes don’t have obvious borders, the only indication that they have crossed from one to another being the slight narrowing of water and sudden strips of land that create a channel. Sluggish rivers trail off the edges of other lakes and create peaceful paths between the larger wells of water.

Jiang Cheng points out all the interesting landmarks as he rows and answers all the boys’ questions. He seems to know the details of every land-bound tree and every water loving leaf. He talks, not just about their species and facts, but about their progress through the seasons, as if sharing the personalities and achievements of lifelong friends.

That tree, he tells them, had a rough summer and was always bending over to escape the heat. This semi-circle of lotuses, he tells them as they pass through another narrow channel, has been tired and shy all summer, and much quicker than the rest to return to their mud beds. That shore over there, he tells Jin Ling in particular, always gifts the best tiny wonders to Jiang Yanli.

The boys gobble up every story Jiang Cheng gives them, as does Lan Xichen. He leans closer with each new tidbit, not just to hear the words, but to soak in the way Jiang Cheng gives them. Quietly yet confidently, the cadence of his voice matching the consistent sounds of nature around them. Sometimes, a bird calls louder than its friends or something dives into the water with a plop, like the sudden screech of car horn rising above the city’s symphony.

In turn, Jiang Cheng’s voice sometimes rises with emphasis, or to argue with the boys, but unlike the city, the individual sounds never attempt to drown out the others. Not on the water at least, not where they sit safe in their little boat, and that is perhaps what makes Jiang Cheng’s tone so fascinating and so fitting. He knows every song that nature plays, but more than that, he knows how to slip in his own verse without disturbing the flow of the song.

Maybe that’s why Lan Xichen finds himself thinking that he could spend hours out on the waters in contentment so long as Jiang Cheng was there.

Eventually Jiang Cheng brings them to a halt once more in the middle of a lake, but this time, he asks Lan Jingyi if he would like to learn bird calls.

“We don’t have any bait to lure the fish, but as long as you make the right sounds, the birds will answer,” Jiang Cheng tells him, and the boys are instantly interested.

Jiang Cheng ensures they can all whistle properly before showing them how to position their hands for the first call. It takes many tries, even for Lan Xichen, but after hearing the clear call of a distant bird reply to Jiang Cheng’s demonstration, everyone in the boat becomes determined learners. When they finally make the same sound as Jiang Cheng, the boys start crowing so excitedly, they almost miss the returning echo of a bird.

They beg to be taught every call that Jiang Cheng knows, and he obliges. Lan Xichen watches with a smile for a long while before the scenery around them once more draws his attention.

It’s sitting there, in a tiny bubble of family that defies the silence people expect to accompany tranquility, that Lan Xichen finally understands firsthand why Jiang Cheng related to the song “Snow Caps” so much. The song talks about the sky spreading as far as one can see and believing in the possibility of anything and everything because the borders of the world drop away that high up.

Lakes are lakes because they are confined by borders of lands and do not dip deeper than the sea. Yet even when Lan Xichen can see the treelines that circle the lakes, he doesn’t feel constrained. The forests here are as much an invitation as the sky atop a mountain and the depths of the water below. Nothing here will judge Lan Xichen, and everything here simply wishes to grow.

And when Lan Xichen stares down at the lake, he sees another sky, but one he can touch.

Lan Xichen lifts his head to tell Jiang Cheng this, but once again pauses as he notes the easy confidence to Jiang Cheng’s posture. Jiang Cheng doesn’t let any insecurity show in his posture in the city either, but the confidence he carries in the city always holds a warning like the crackle of electricity. It keeps people from getting too close and stings anyone who tries.

Out here, Jiang Cheng still doesn’t invite people to get close, but nothing threatens to hurt those who try.

And Lan Xichen, sitting in that boat with a heart broken from peoples’ hidden weapons, finds he can still be a hopeful fool.

“May I take a picture?” Lan Xichen asks Jiang Cheng when the boys take a break from their bird calls to skim the water with their fingertips.

“For publicity?”

“The lake, certainly.” He gestures to the children huddled together as they peer over the sides and to Jiang Cheng sitting relaxed but ready to grab them if they lean too far. “This? Just for me, and our families.”

Lan Xichen still wants to verbally apologize for the other picture but bringing it up now would only disturb the children’s happiness and destroy Jiang Cheng’s relaxed mood. So when Jiang Cheng stares at him for a few seconds and then simply nods, Lan Xichen takes his pictures quietly.

They spend the rest of the afternoon in that way. Jiang Cheng explains that many of the rivers feed into the officially protected areas of Lotus Lakes. Technically, Jiang Cheng could take them there so long as they travelled in a boat like theirs and didn’t throw anything in the waters. Jiang Cheng and his people have to go out onto the waters for testing and treatment sometimes in boats like these. And there are specific smaller lakes that are accessible to visitors.  

But everyone is satisfied with what Jiang Cheng has already shown them, and the boys have become even more fidgety than normal. So, Jiang Cheng brings them back to land as the evening encroaches, promising the boys to teach them calls for the evening and nocturnal birds once the sun fades.

There is one small mishap when they return to land. At their request, Lan Xichen helps the Lan boys take off their lifejackets as Jiang Cheng ties up the boat. The second Jiang Cheng straightens, Lan Yuan throws himself at Jiang Cheng’s leg and asks for the promised hugs. Jiang Cheng obliges, scooping up the giggling Lan Yuan in the blink of an eye, before Lan Jingyi demands hugs as well. As soon as Jiang Cheng lifts him up, he laughingly begs to be lifted even higher, until Jiang Cheng tosses him with a small smirk.

Lan Jingyi shrieks and laughs as he’s caught, Lan Yuan asking for the same. Lan Xichen takes off his own lifejacket as he watches all this with a growing smile before Jiang Cheng calls Jin Ling’s name. Lan Xichen turns with the others to where Jin Ling stands a foot away with his lifejacket still firmly fastened, and his small hands squeezing the buckles.

“You don’t want any victory hugs?” Jiang Cheng asks him, lowering Lan Jingyi back to the ground.

Jin Ling shakes his head twice, and then bursts into tears.

For one second, Jiang Cheng seems to shrivel, hunching in on himself as if physically struck by failure. But then he marches forward and scoops up his nephew just as quickly as he did the other boys. Jin Ling wails and locks his arms around Jiang Cheng’s neck, his words too garbled by his tears for Lan Xichen to understand from his distance.

“Come on, let’s just get inside,” Jiang Cheng says over his shoulder. He cups the back of Jin Ling’s head with one hand and then leads them all to the main building.

Lan Xichen pushes past to open the sliding doors when Jiang Cheng looks ready to try despite having no free hands. The doors open on a spacious sitting room, towels already neatly stacked on the dark wooden floor within arm’s reach.

The narrowed hallway Lan Xichen saw from the outside sits directly ahead through a circular, doorless space, and three women step through it just as Lan Xichen follows Jiang Cheng inside.

Xiao Ch–what happened to A-Ling?” ayi demands when she sees the crying child.

“Nothing happened,” Jiang Cheng snaps as he hoists Jin Ling higher. “He’ll be fine. He just–”

“Needs a quiet space,” Yu Jinzhu suggests, hearing the helplessness in Jiang Cheng’s voice as clearly as Lan Xichen does.

“Go on,” Lan Xichen tells him with a gentle smile, even though the look on Jiang Cheng’s face makes him want to hug the other man as tightly as he holds Jin Ling. “I’m sure he’ll feel better in his or your room, and we have excellent company here.”

Jiang Cheng only stares at him for a heartbeat before giving a jerky nod. He sweeps off down a hallway to the left, muttering softly to Jin Ling as he goes.

Tugging on Lan Xichen’s hand immediately draws his attention, and he instantly crouches down when he sees the Lan boys’ screwed up faces.

“Why is A-Ling crying?” Lan Jingyi asks, looking three seconds away from crying himself. Lan Yuan already is, and cries,

Bobo, we hurt A-Ling!”

“A-Yuan, no,” Lan Xichen says, and pulls both boys into his arms. “No one hurt A-Ling.”

“But he’s crying,” Lan Jingyi argues, small hand clutching Lan Xichen’s sweater.

“I think,” Lan Xichen starts slowly because this day is highlighting all his ignorance, “A-Ling just really misses his mama and baba.”

Lan Xichen reaches around them as they sniffle to grab some of the towels. The boys move with him as he does, and he’s careful not to dislodge their grips on him. 

“He’ll feel better soon,” Lan Xichen promises them as he tousles their hair. “Playing with you two will make him feel better.”

Lan Yuan sniffs at that and Lan Jingyi wipes his eyes roughly. Lan Xichen smiles softly at them and gives both their chins a gentle chuck.

“As for making the two of you feel better while we wait,” Lan Xichen says, “I think I know just the song.”

They both immediately perk up at that, and Lan Xichen guides them to the low table and the cushions spaced around it. Sitting on the one side gives them a perfect view of the lake they just came from, and the boys barely pay attention to anything else.

Lan Xichen spares a curious glance for the women first, but they are quiet and move about the room without hesitation. Ayi heads into the small kitchenette with its swirling stone countertops and detached island, the surface of the island mostly taken up by a long, narrow griddle that could make ten jianbing at once.

Yu Jinzhu and Yu Yinzhu, on the other hand, further open the lattice screen that separates the sitting space from the kitchenette and then join the others at the table.

A tug from Lan Jingyi brings Lan Xichen’s attention back to them, and he gives them another smile before he begins the first song.

You ask how deeply I love you, and just how great my love is.”

The boys are familiar with the song thanks to Lan Xichen, but that doesn’t stop them from curling as close to him as they can as they watch the waters outside. Calm descends on the room as Lan Xichen’s soft voice fills it, striving to match the ambience of the natural world as easily as Jiang Cheng had in those boats.

It’s far easier here than in the studio, even with the strangers in the room, and Lan Xichen almost sheds a few tears himself.

In the middle of the second song, Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling return to the room. Lan Jingyi sees them first, and shoots up so quickly in Lan Xichen’s lap, he almost smashes into Lan Xichen’s chin. Lan Xichen keeps singing but twists around like the children in his lap.

Jin Ling still wears his lifejacket, but he’s now wrapped in a fluffy towel and tucked against Jiang Cheng’s chest like a large marshmallow. His small head tilts toward Jiang Cheng’s chin and his tiny hands bunch up Jiang Cheng’s shirt as he watches Lan Xichen.

“Well?” Jiang Cheng says quietly to Jin Ling when the song finishes. “What did you want to ask him?”

“Sing ‘Peaceful Summer’ please.”

Can you please sing ‘Peaceful Summer’,” Jiang Cheng tells him, wiping at Jin Ling’s wet cheeks with his sleeves.

“Can you please sing ‘Peaceful Summer’,” Jin Ling repeats, and Jiang Cheng gives the top of Jin Ling’s head a quick kiss.

“Of course,” Lan Xichen says as Jiang Cheng comes over. “Is that your favourite song?”

Mama always sings it,” Jin Ling says with a sniffle, but no fresh tears fall. Instead, he snuggles deeper into Jiang Cheng’s arms as the man takes a seat on a cushion across from Lan Xichen. The second he sits, the Lan boys crawl over and into his lap to crowd around Jin Ling.

“I miss mama and baba too,” Lan Jingyi tells him. Jin Ling scrunches his face, and the boys wipe his tear stains with their sleeves just like their aforementioned parents always do for them.

“And I miss dada and baba,” Lan Yuan tells him. “But baba always says if I’m patient, I can have extra hugs when he comes home.”

“And extra cookies,” Lan Jingyi says, tugging at one of Jin Ling’s hands. Lan Yuan grabs the other, and Jin Ling doesn’t say anything, but he also doesn’t push them away. Lan Xichen waits for a moment longer and then begins to sing once the boys are satisfied with their huddle of hugs. 

The boys listen in rapt silence, and when Lan Xichen looks up at Jiang Cheng, his eyes are closed. Lan Xichen’s breath catches at the exhaustion lining his face, and even though he continues the song a heartbeat later, Jiang Cheng’s eyes still fly open in concern.

Lan Xichen just shakes his head at Jiang Cheng’s narrowed gaze and keeps singing until Jiang Cheng’s shoulders once again slump. Jiang Cheng cups Jin Ling’s head as the song fades to a close, but when the Lan boys sit up to clap, Jin Ling slowly does the same.

Jiujiu, I’m hungry,” Jin Ling says, twisting around to tell him. Jiang Cheng huffs at the whining tone, but he ruffles Jin Ling’s hair one last time before shooing the boys out of his lap.

“Lucky for you, A-Ling, I’ve just made some fresh snowflake cake,” ayi says from the kitchen where she’s already begun to unwrap one of the plates of neatly sliced food the women brought.

“That’s more than some,” Jiang Cheng says, marching over the second he’s upright again. Lan Xichen stands a little slower and stays near the boys. “That looks like you made a whole cake for each person here.”

“Glad to see you haven’t lost all your senses in that city,” ayi snorts, and Jiang Cheng’s eyes twitch.

“Xu-nainai,” the man says slowly, with far more patience than he usually shows. “I just bought you five crates of raspberries!”

“And I just decided that the boys would love some raspberries,” ayi tells him.

“They don’t need five crates worth!”

“Why not? A-Yong always loves the cakes I make him.”

“That doesn’t mean he eats all of it the second I show up on his doorstep!”

“Do none of your homes have working freezers?”

“Bored yet?” Yu Yinzhu asks suddenly at Lan Xichen’s shoulder, and he barely stops himself from stumbling back.

“Quite the opposite,” Lan Xichen says with a genuine smile. “Maybe a little confused.”

“Whenever one of us goes all the way to a city, we don’t just pack for ourselves,” Yu Jinzhu explains quietly, as if not wishing to interrupt the circular argument occurring a few feet away. “We ask all the neighbours if there’s anything they want us to buy while we’re there, and if there’s anything they want us to bring to their relatives there.”

“Most of the older folk are like Xu Menghua here,” Yu Yinzhu adds, nodding to the older lady Jiang Cheng continues to argue with. “Not many family members here anymore, and most of them can’t afford to visit often.”

Tou’r travels the most,” Yu Jinzhu continues, “So he always gets to be the deliveryman for the rest of us.”

“Of course,” Lan Xichen says because he still remembers how Jiang Cheng brought lotus seeds for all of them to that very first breakfast. It was such a small gesture, yet the moment Jiang Cheng held out that tiny paper bag to him was the moment Lan Xichen first believed this could all work out.

The clap of hands startles everyone but the arguing duo, and Lan Xichen looks to the suddenly stern Yu Yinzhu.

“Right then,” she says as her sister smirks beside her. “There’s no point in us just standing here, and I’m sure you’ll want to eat regardless of when you plan on leaving. Jin Ling, has jiiujiu showed you the meal pavilion yet?”

Jin Ling nods, his lifejacket finally off, as Yu Jinzhu effortlessly moves around the two in the kitchen to grab plates from the cupboards below.

“Then you lead us there,” Yu Yinzhu says. “And by the time these two finish, we’ll have the table all set up.”

Jin Ling perks up at the prospect of leading, and Yu Jinzhu returns with an armful of dishes. Yu Yinzhu and Lan Xichen help her pass one plate and one cup to each of the boys to carry, and Lan Xichen takes the two-tiered bamboo basket of shuijiao. 

Tou’r told us you don’t really eat meat,” Yu Jinzhu tells him as the boys begin to march out to the piers again. “So the bottom ones have vegetables and tofu.”

She steps outside before the once again startled Lan Xichen can ask when exactly Jiang Cheng would have mentioned that to them. He glances over his shoulder to where Jiang Cheng has begun to help Xu Menghua unpack her food despite still arguing with her, and he has to follow the others outside before the band of fondness in his chest cuts off all the air from his lungs.

Out on the piers, Jin Ling’s voice echoes over the waters as he tells his friends all about the meal pavilion that he and Jiang Cheng ate lunch at. The sun is sinking even faster now, spilling its vibrant hues everywhere as it goes; swirls of orange and pink for the sky, and streaks of silver and gold for the water. Lan Xichen’s footsteps once again slow to a stop so he can take in the beauty all around him.

This village is so tiny and this chunk of the world so small, and yet Lan Xichen would need hours and hours to properly capture everything he sees and hears and feels. And he wants to more than he’s wanted to in a long time, because everything here is as precious as a child’s love, and yet as fragile as a spider’s web. So fragile that Lan Xichen’s whole body once again becomes unsteady just standing there, and the same ache he got in his throat when he first saw Jiang Cheng again makes his eyes burn.

Bobo!”

The call of his nephew tugs Lan Xichen from the strange spell, and he turns to see the boys have gotten to another corner of the boardwalk. They wave for him to hurry, and Lan Xichen picks up his pace once more.

They follow the boardwalk that runs to the right of where the boat from earlier is tied up. This one hugs the walls of the residence, clinging to every corner and marking the boundary between land and lake. Quite a few of the rooms have closed doors that Lan Xichen imagines can be easily slid open so the residents can start their day with a view of the water in their backyard.

Only one set of doors are open, the first one they passed right after leaving the main room, and judging by the cushions placed in the doorway, it is Jiang Cheng’s room where he took Jin Ling. Most of the rooms, Lan Xichen realizes, are likely bedrooms, the very bedrooms that Jiang Cheng’s family grew up in.

Later, Lan Xichen hopes he can take the time to explore every room Jiang Cheng lets him, but in that moment the boys once again call for him, and the women’s gazes keep him from stopping again.

The meal pavilion sits at the end of yet another pier that veers away from the residence and into the lake. A curving grey tiled roof and fluttering curtains provide shelter as chestnut pillars stand as strong as the ancient trees they were carved from. A large square table sits in the middle, with a generous amount of the wooden platform stretching in every direction so a dozen people could gather without fear of falling into the water.

The boys eagerly work on the task the women give them, Yu Yinzhu sternly instructing and Yu Jinzhu watching with an alert gaze that keeps shenanigans to a minimum.

“Think she could train them to wash the dishes as well?”

Lan Xichen turns from where he stands at one of the pillars watching the boys. He smiles at Jiang Cheng’s considering stare and raises an eyebrow at the plate in his hands as Xu Menghua brushes by them.

“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng says at Lan Xichen’s look, cheeks quickly turning red. “Just because I think she made too many doesn’t mean I think they shouldn’t be appreciated. It would be a crime if you didn’t get to try some before you left.”   

Lan Xichen’s smile dims and he inhales as deeply but quietly as he can with Jiang Cheng standing right there. It’s silly to suddenly dread the inevitable drive back home, especially when Jiang Cheng has been more than accommodating of Lan Xichen’s decision to come here. Even if Jiang Cheng has enjoyed himself today, Lan Xichen cannot blame him for wanting his unexpected guests gone sooner rather than later.

Yet the day slipped so seamlessly into evening that Lan Xichen’s brain has simply been operating as if that evening will fade as easily into a night here with these people, and that night into a new morning.  

A silly hope, he supposes. Presumptuous even, to claim he came here for selfless reasons like apologizing and ensuring Jiang Cheng’s well-being, only to selfishly cling to this place and this man.  

But Jiang Cheng has a habit of encouraging that selfishness.

“I appreciate your concern,” Lan Xichen says, watching Xu Menghua fuss over the table and boys in equal measures. “And letting us stay here far longer than I imagine you wanted.”

“Why are you talking like I’m kicking you out?” Lan Xichen turns back at to see Jiang Cheng frowning. “We have plenty of rooms for all of you to stay the night, and A-Ling’s already been telling me what breakfast he wants to eat with everyone tomorrow.”

When Lan Xichen can only stare, the blush on Jiang Cheng’s cheeks deepens and he looks down.  

“I mean, obviously you don’t have to stay if you don’t want to,” Jiang Cheng mumbles, “I’ll let you know which roads are best this late and we can make sure you have enough tea for the ride home.”

“I thought you were mad at me,” Lan Xichen blurts, and then glances quickly at the others. The boys are preoccupied by the food, but he sees the women pause in their motions for a second.

Jiang Cheng’s hand on his shoulder once again draws his gaze back to the other man. He too glances at their audience and swears under his breath.

“Start without us,” Jiang Cheng tells them, and rolls his eyes at Jin Ling’s protests. “I’ll just be one minute, A-Ling.”

He pulls at Lan Xichen, and Lan Xichen follows him away from the pavilion and back down the pier. They don’t go very far, stopping halfway between the pavilion and the house where they can still be seen but not heard by the others.

“You mentioned apologizing earlier, too,” Jiang Cheng says with his arms crossed over chest.

“For the picture I posted,” Lan Xichen explains. “The one of you from Thursday.”

Jiang Cheng’s frown doesn’t fade, but his arms loosen.

“Oh.”

Oh?” Lan Xichen takes a step closer. “Wanyin, you said you wanted me to ask next time I did something like that, and then you didn’t reply to my messages and you left the city without any warning.”

Lan Xichen takes a deep breath because Jiang Cheng is supposed to be mad at him, not the other way around.

“I’m sorry,” Jiang Cheng interrupts, and Lan Xichen freezes with an open mouth. “I didn’t take my phone with me this morning when A-Ling and I went out on the lake, so I honestly didn’t see your texts or calls before you showed up.”

From anyone else, Lan Xichen might view that as a feeble excuse, but he believes Jiang Cheng.

“But you were upset, and you did leave the city,” Lan Xichen says, and now it’s Jiang Cheng’s turn to look away. The frown disappears, but his face twists and Lan Xichen grabs the wrist of one of his clenched hands. “Wanyin, I don’t fully understand the problem, but I am sorry I upset you, and you have every right to be upset if–”

“It wasn’t just the picture,” Jiang Cheng blurts, gaze cutting to Lan Xichen and then back to the lake. “Or the comments I read about it, even though they did kind of piss me off and I was kind of in a bad mood when I replied to your text.”

Lan Xichen tightens his grip at that confession because they agreed not to read those comments and Jiang Cheng knows from his siblings’ experiences why that’s a bad idea. “But I’m not still mad, not after you drove five hours to talk to me.”

He still sounds confused by that action, a little broken even, and Lan Xichen studies him as closely as he did the ripples earlier.

“And what made you drive five hours?” Lan Xichen asks quietly, like he should have the moment he arrived at Jiang Cheng’s home.

It was always arrogant and in fact nonsensical to think he was the only reason Jiang Cheng came out here, even if the thought of losing their friendship engulfed all other coherent thoughts. Jiang Cheng acts more spontaneously than Lan Xichen most times, but never without a trigger of some kind. But even now, Lan Xichen is no closer to understanding the bigger picture.

“Was there an emergency here?” Lan Xichen presses.

“No.”

“Was this always planned and you forgot to mention it earlier?”

“Please,” Jiang Cheng snorts. “I’m not Wei Wuxian,”

“And he said this wasn’t planned,” Lan Xichen remembers, which makes Jiang Cheng look at him again.  

“It wasn’t,” Jiang Cheng admits, and Lan Xichen opens his mouth, but stops when Jiang Cheng sighs. Exhaustion strains Jiang Cheng’s face once more and so Lan Xichen waits, his heart thudding when Jiang Cheng glances over his shoulder at Jin Ling.

“It was A-Jie,” Jiang Cheng finally says.

“She was supposed to come home soon, right?” Lan Xichen confirms, because that was yet another reason everything that happened this morning hadn’t made any sense.

“She was.” Jiang Cheng takes a shaky breath. “But she called Friday, right after I saw the picture. Said she just caught a cold so even though it’s not serious, Wen Qing doesn’t want her leaving the hospital, let alone getting on a plane yet.”

Each word scrapes across Jiang Cheng’s tongue and thuds to the wood at their feet. “I told A-Ling when he got home from school and he–we both lost it a little.”

“I’m sorry,” Lan Xichen can only say. Maybe if Jiang Cheng called him immediately following the news, Lan Xichen could offer more. But it’s always harder to find words that are good enough in the face of the exhausted acceptance that follows hours after a terrible incident, even for someone as supposedly eloquent as Lan Xichen.

Slowly enough for Jiang Cheng to pull away if he wants, Lan Xichen covers one of Jiang Cheng’s hands and then gently eases his fingers between Jiang Cheng’s.

The other man doesn’t pull away.

“I needed a break,” Jiang Cheng admits. “And I thought maybe taking him some place new but still meaningful, some place I know what to do, might make us both feel better. But it was–”

“A whirlwind decision?” Lan Xichen offers when Jiang Cheng pauses, and Jiang Cheng clutches Lan Xichen’s hand.

“That’s a kind way of putting it.”

“How else would I put it?”

“You could say I lost my shit,” Jiang Cheng says, hunching slightly just like he did when Jin Ling cried. “That I made a terrible, hasty decision.”

“If it was such a terrible decision, then why is everyone here having so much fun?” Lan Xichen asks, drawing their joined hands to his chest. “If you lost your shit, then how have you managed to take care of everyone here?”

The urge to hug the man once more surges through Lan Xichen, but Jiang Cheng holds himself so stiffly, he fears Jiang Cheng would pull away completely if he tried. Instead, Lan Xichen briefly places his free hand on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder and gives it a squeeze.

“Look at them, Wanyin,” Lan Xichen says when Jiang Cheng doesn’t immediately reply. He steps to the side so Jiang Cheng has a clear view of where the boys share plates of food, giggling at whatever the women are saying and arguing loudly over which food is the best.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t say anything and he doesn’t let go of Lan Xichen’s hand, but his stiff hunch slips away the longer they watch.

“You made that happen,” Lan Xichen tells him, desperately, passionately, loudly, because Lan Xichen could write entire songs about how hard Jiang Cheng tries to take care of others. He would, if it would help the other man see himself the way Lan Xichen has today. But for now, he will let his actions speak for him and offer the only supportive companionship he can. “And if you’ll let us, we would love to stay the night.”

The only sunlight left lights the top of the trees like torches and the lanterns hanging from the pavilion’s pillars have been lit against the darkness, but Jiang Cheng looks at Lan Xichen like every part of him is illuminated by midday’s sunlight.

“Then I guess we should go tell them they can save some of that food for tomorrow,” Jiang Cheng says, and Lan Xichen grins until Jiang Cheng shyly smiles back.

Jiujiu, here!” Jin Ling says as soon as the pair return to the pavilion.

He pats the empty seat beside him, and Jiang Cheng gives Lan Xichen’s hand one last squeeze before he joins his nephew. The women sit on the other side of the empty seat, and the Lan boys have similarly saved Lan Xichen a seat beside them and across from the women.

Night falls fully as they eat, and the call of cicadas and those nocturnal birds Jiang Cheng mentioned earlier create a pleasant soundtrack for their meal. No more tears spill from anyone’s eyes, and Lan Xichen finds himself laughing more freely than he has in days at both the antics of the young boys and the passionate discussions Jiang Cheng falls into with his neighbours. Arguments they might be called, if not for the familiarity in every hand gesture, every tilted head, and every amused tone of voices. The boys are equally delighted by the loud conversations of the adults, and eagerly share all their stories of the day and beyond.

The meal fully erases all tension from earlier, but that strange ache and exhaustion replaces it, and so Lan Xichen happily agrees that they should retire to the house once they finish the meal. Everyone carries all the dishes they can back inside while Jiang Cheng stays behind briefly to put a protective tarp over the table.

Yu Jinzhu and Yu Yinzhu stay to help with the dishes and then accompany Xu Menghua back home. They promise to stay long enough next time to help the boys crush Jiang Cheng at hide-and-seek.

“And I’ll make sure I have extra cake for you at the Cultivation Conference,” Xu Menghua tells them, as if their attendance is now a given.

When Jiang Cheng returns, they do indeed play hide-and-seek at the boys’ request with the condition being they all stay in the house. A gentle breeze spills off the lake and through the open doors of the sitting room the whole time, carrying their giggles out into the night.

After only a couple rounds, the young boys are already yawning, and they barely argue when Jiang Cheng declares it to be bedtime.

“They can sleep in my room,” Jin Ling says when Jiang Cheng says they need to get the bedroom situation figured out. Jiang Cheng raises his eyebrows as Jin Ling grabs both of his friends’ hands.

“What, all in one bed? Or are you expecting me to move all the beds for you?”

“Please, jiujiu!”

“Please, shushu!”

“Alright, alright,” Jiang Cheng says before Lan Yuan can grab his leg again. “But if any of you start complaining about the space or kicking each other, you’re sleeping in separate beds.”

The boys all nod and follow Jiang Cheng to the guest room turned Jin Ling’s room. Jin Ling insists the other two do push-ups with him like Jiang Cheng has taught him for fighting monsters, something that has Lan Xichen once again smiling as Jiang Cheng blushes at his look. The other boys are eager to follow Jin Ling’s example before spreading out in Jin Ling’s rather spacious bed.

Jiang Cheng calls Jin Ling’s parents for him on an Ipad, and Lan Xichen does the same on his phone for the Lan boys. Lan Xichen worries about further tears, but all the boys stay sleepy and happy, Jin Ling rambling off so many facts about lotuses he just learned that Jiang Yanli laughingly suggests they start calling him Lotus Master.

After the calls finish, the Lan boys ask for another song and Lan Xichen easily complies, sitting on the edge of the bed and watching their eyes gradually fall close as Jiang Cheng watches from the doorway.

Jin Ling closes his eyes before the others, and when Lan Xichen looks up after the other boys have fallen asleep, Jiang Cheng is no longer in the room. He’s probably preparing another a guest room for Lan Xichen. He should go help if so, but Jiang Cheng doesn’t call for him and Lan Xichen loves soaking in these peaceful moments. Watching the boys’ faces relax in sleep makes Lan Xichen relax too as the memories of the day flit through the neurons his mind and light them up intermittently like fireflies.

The joy of a smile given in the privacy of a small boat, framed by windswept hair and sunbeams.

The coolness of clean water closing over his hand and the glint as droplets chase each other through the air.

The relief of letting go and letting the river’s natural current take him where it wishes.  

The rough rub of an old towel, but the warmth of family holding him.

The heightened taste of food, the lightened notes of laughter, and the quickened fall into soft sheets that follows the return from water to land.

Lan Xichen wants to capture all of them in a bottle, and for what feels like the first time in months, an uplifting melody starts to resonate in his mind, bouncing between those fireflies. He checks on the sleeping boys once more before standing as his fingers itch to put hopeful, happy words onto paper where they cannot be forgotten.

The bedrooms are all along the S shape corridor that the right boardwalk clings to, and Lan Xichen follows their turns back to the main sitting room where the doors to the lake are still wide open. There is a small, bronze couch along one wall, but Lan Xichen takes one of floor cushions and places it in the doorway.

Settled against the doorframe with the lake to his side, sturdy wood at his back, and pen and notepad in his lap, Lan Xichen begins to record the moments from today, and as he does, the emotions that have been crystallized inside them slowly seep into the ink. By the time he’s filled two pages, his pen no longer slows when he shares a particularly honest sentiment, even when it comes out in shades of selfishness.

For me, Lan Xichen writes as he looks up at the dark sheet the lake has become, remembering what he told Jiang Cheng in the boat.

This place, this memory, this happiness, this version of you, all for me.

He doesn’t know how long he’s been writing by the light of the house when he looks up to find Jiang Cheng sitting across from him. Similar floor cushion, similar doorframe support, but his legs sprawl loosely in front of him and he stares out at the quiet lake. Maybe it’s the shadows that fall across his face when he turns away from the light, maybe it’s the mood that lyric writing has put Lan Xichen in, but in that moment, Jiang Cheng seems further away than when he’d been here and Lan Xichen in the city.

He doesn’t cry like Jin Ling and he doesn’t tense like out on the piers, but the night hangs heavy around him, and once more Lan Xichen longs to reach out like he did in that quiet car following the charity dinner.

“You look like you’re composing poetry,” Lan Xichen says quietly, in case Jiang Cheng doesn’t wish to speak.

A second passes, but the man eventually blinks and looks to Lan Xichen. He huffs, but so softly it wouldn’t create even a single ripple on water.

“Just thinking,” Jiang Cheng says.

“May I ask what about?”

“Something that will make me sound really old.”

“Then I imagine it will sound ancient to me,” Lan Xichen says, and smiles Jiang Cheng gives him the eyeroll he hoped for.

“You’re not that much older than me,” Jiang Cheng replies, leaning an inch off the doorframe.

“Even a year more is three hundred and sixty-five days more of wisdom,” Lan Xichen gives back with a cheeky smile, which earns him a bark of laughter and shake of Jiang Cheng’s head.

“Smartass,” he says.

“Wiseass, actually.”

Jiang Cheng laughs again as Lan Xichen internally preens. A moment later, Jiang Cheng leans his full weight back against the doorframe again, and the past rises in his eyes again, but doesn’t drag him under.  

“Just–” He trails off as he looks back to the lake. “It feels like it’s been forever since this place has been as loud as today.”

Lan Xichen opens his mouth to ask whether that’s good or bad, but Jiang Cheng continues first. “I missed it.”

The words are a whispered sigh more than anything, but Jiang Cheng doesn’t take them back.

“Do Yu Jinzhu and Yu Yinzhu and all the others not eat here often like today?” Lan Xichen asks. The way they acted made it seem like shared meals are a regular occurrence, but the sudden loneliness that springs up around Jiang Cheng says otherwise.

“They do,” Jiang Cheng says, “Not every night, and not always here. And Jinzhu and Yinzhu weren’t able to for a long time after the car crash.”

“The memories?” Lan Xichen asks hesitantly, even though Jiang Cheng knows Lan Xichen understands firsthand the way past associations can drive a person away from a pleasant place. But if the women couldn’t bear to be in this place after what happened, then Lan Xichen can’t imagine how Jiang Cheng could when he grew up here.

“No,” Jiang Cheng says, and then frowns. “Well, maybe that too. But no, because Jinzhu couldn’t even walk for weeks after. She had to do months of physiotherapy before she could even walk a few blocks with a cane, and that’s obviously not treatment she can get out here.”

Lan Xichen remembers the limp, remembers the tremble and the scars.

“Is she okay now?” Lan Xichen asks even though it feels like a stupid question. Jiang Cheng shrugs.

“She has good days and bad days,” Jiang Cheng says. “She’s definitely in a better mood than when I saw her during the more intense physiotherapy sessions.”

There are more things Lan Xichen wants to ask about that time period and the way that crash touched every aspect of everyone’s lives. But Lan Xichen is suddenly afraid, both of the mood that will put Jiang Cheng in and of the answers he might give.

For Lan Xichen already knows that Wei Wuxian was not around to support Jiang Cheng and now he knows that these two family friends were isolated by their injuries. He knows now, just how long the trip out here takes, and he can’t imagine a young mother like Jiang Yanli driving it frequently with a temperamental two-year-old, even with her husband’s support.

“But even with them here, it’s not the same,” Jiang Cheng adds.

“Because you’re thinking about when you were a child,” Lan Xichen says, because the ache in Jiang Cheng’s voice is an old and steady one, not the sharp edges that come from the changes in the wake of grief.

Jiang Cheng nods, too tired it seems for either barriers or embarrassment. He doesn’t speak again, and Lan Xichen follows his gaze back out to the lake.

“You know, when I learned that Wei Wuxian grew up somewhere freer, his personality made a lot more sense,” Lan Xichen says, “But now I can see it—all the places you must have played together, all the adventures you went on, and all the space you had where no one could stop you.”

“The waves stopped us sometimes,” Jiang Cheng says deadpan, and Lan Xichen smiles.

“Did they?” Lan Xichen teases, “Or did your parents simply make sure there were always extra towels by the doors?”

A smile flickers across Jiang Cheng’s face as he meets Lan Xichen’s gaze. It sputters out a second later, yet Jiang Cheng doesn’t look away.

“Everyone was always arguing,” Jiang Cheng says, “But at least they were here.”  

Something in Lan Xichen’s chest splinters, and his breath snags on all the tiny pieces. Once again, Lan Xichen can’t think of anything to say to ease even a fraction of Jiang Cheng’s pain. He almost wishes the boys were still awake, because a hug from Jin Ling is one of the few comforts Jiang Cheng is guaranteed to accept.

“I’m sorry,” he says, and then takes a deep breath before adding, “Missing people is hard, but it’s even harder when they and our relationships with them were far from perfect.”

Harder because there are multiple wounds, some from the loss but others from the damage done by those people before they left, and none of them can be treated in the same way or at the same time. They form in those layers that Lan Xichen mentioned ages ago to Jiang Cheng in the studio, and they form films of both blood and rot that make it hard to even know where the wound is. Time alone will not heal them like some physical damage, and often they must be ripped open even further for a clean healing.   

“And I’m sorry that some of the paths to closure were taken from you,” Lan Xichen says, because that is one of the things that still hurts about his own parents’ death. At least with the people who have hurt Lan Xichen recently, they are still alive so there is still a chance to speak with them, but his parents passed before he even realized that’s what he wanted.

His mother went long before coherent questioning of her situation could fall from Lan Xichen’s lips, but even with his father, Lan Xichen didn’t realize how many things he wanted to ask until the man could not be asked. His father’s brother might still be available, but Lan Xichen cannot demand answers from him in the same way that he would from his parents, and whatever Lan Qiren can give will never be as satisfying as it could have been.

Jiang Cheng stares at him as if Lan Xichen vocalized all of that, as if Lan Xichen has seen and said exactly what Jiang Cheng needed. A part of Lan Xichen expects Jiang Cheng to end the conversation there, perhaps get up and walk away. Even if he started this conversation and even if he trusts Lan Xichen, there is only so many times a person can strip themselves bare in a short period of time before they need a break.

But Jiang Cheng stays sitting across from him, so Lan Xichen adds,

“It’s not the same, but I will always be happy to share a meal with you if you want company.”

Blushes are hard to see in dim lighting, but Jiang Cheng looks away quickly as if trying to hide one and a smile pulls at Lan Xichen’s lips.

It’s incredibly selfish given the circumstances that have led to it and so Lan Xichen doesn’t tell Jiang Cheng this, but he’s glad Jiang Cheng will be coming back to the city for longer than originally planned.

“Speaking of arguing people,” Jiang Cheng says after long minutes where they listen to the night. “Any updates on your end? You seemed pretty scattered when you first got here.”

A lump forms in Lan Xichen’s throat at the thought of Jiang Cheng noticing something off about him even in the midst of being angry with him, and he has to swallow a few times before he can speak.

Even then, he decides to simply pull out his phone and offer it to Jiang Cheng to read Nie Mingjue’s text. Jiang Cheng pushes off the doorframe at that, sliding across the smooth wood until their drawn-up knees mirror each other and their toes line up perfectly.

“Well shit,” Jiang Cheng says upon reading it, just like Lan Xichen expected he would, and a grateful laugh spills from his lips.

“A succinct summary.”

Jiang Cheng opens his mouth but swallows his additional comment as he glances back down at the text. His fingers tighten around the phone and his eyes narrow until they’re a single degree away from a glare, but he takes a deep breath before he looks up again.

“But you’re okay with it?” Jiang Cheng asks as he studies Lan Xichen. “You said earlier you thought you needed more time.”

“I am,” Lan Xichen agrees. “I did. Now I would like to meet sooner rather than later, but I can wait.”

Jiang Cheng nods slowly, but his grip on the phone doesn’t loosen. “But you seem upset.”

“You shouldn’t have to wait in limbo indefinitely for someone,” Jiang Cheng finally says, and Lan Xichen can’t help but place his elbows on his knees as he leans closer to Jiang Cheng.

“I agree. But if I was truly in limbo, I wouldn’t be here right now enjoying myself.” Lan Xichen props his chin on his hands and tilts his head so he can study Jiang Cheng’s flustered expression better. “That’s what I wanted to tell you this morning before I realized you were upset. There might have been some rough patches this week, but I have also enjoyed so many moments with you and Huaisang and my family.”

He smiles because just like every other moment today, Jiang Cheng doesn’t pull away. “So that’s why I’m okay with this text—because days like this prove I’m going to be okay and happy no matter what happens.”

Jiang Cheng’s jaw slackens halfway through Lan Xichen’s speech, and this close, Lan Xichen can see the slight reddening of his cheeks. Jiang Cheng swallows hard and his hands clutch his knees, fingertips brushing Lan Xichen’s own knees. His toes curl and uncurl against Lan Xichen’s, and he dips his head to stare down at them rather than Lan Xichen. His hair slips over his ears and Lan Xichen gets the dangerous urge to brush the strands back so he can see Jiang Cheng’s expression properly, but Lan Xichen keeps himself still and waits for Jiang Cheng’s controlled response.

Lan Xichen almost speaks when Jiang Cheng’s entire body pulls taut, but the man takes a deep breath immediately after and jerks his head up with his jaw set in a determined line.

“And you haven’t even seen the best part yet,” Jiang Cheng says, a rare, wild grin transforming his face in a way that pushes Lan Xichen’s heartbeat into triple speed.

He grabs Lan Xichen’s hand and pulls them both to stumbling feet. “Come on.”

Jiang Cheng drags the curious Lan Xichen outside, straight back to the wooden paths once more, but this time to the one that leads to the left and away from where the children sleep peacefully. He moves too quickly for Lan Xichen to do anything but stare at their joined hands and follow, his thundering heartbeat drowning out all awareness of time. They stop on the chilly wooden planks at the edge of another pier and Jiang Cheng gestures with his free hand toward the sky.

Black velvet stretches above them, thousands of tiny lights sewn throughout. The fabric unfurls in every direction, as if to reassure the land below that there is at least one thing that will continue for eternity.

Lan Xichen has seen this sky and these stars before, and yet standing beneath them with the soft lapping of waves filling his ears and someone’s hand filling his own with warmth, the night has never looked more beautiful.

“You know what’s the best part?” Jiang Cheng asks, his voice hushed in the darkness. Lan Xichen turns his head slightly just to see the faint outline of his grin. “The stars can’t judge anything you say.”

Before Lan Xichen can reply, Jiang Cheng’s hand squeezes his and he throws his head back to gaze up at the distant sky.

“Those assholes I passed today should never have gotten their licenses,” he shouts, and a bird calls back. He glances to the open-mouthed Lan Xichen and swings their joined hands toward the lake. “Go on. I promise no one in town lives close enough to hear us, and the animals here don’t need protection from a little ranting.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes but doesn’t let go of Lan Xichen’s hand.

“Just turn that filter of yours off, at least for the little things. Like, the coffee today tasted like oil!”

He says it with such betrayal, that Lan Xichen can’t help the smile on his face.

“I wish my morning tea was warmer,” Lan Xichen tries, and Jiang Cheng shakes their hands.

“Louder.”

“I wish my morning tea was warmer,” Lan Xichen calls, still not a shout, but louder than his usual volume.     

Jiang Cheng grins, and turns back to the lake and the sky it reflects.

“I will damn well wear two sweaters if I want to.”

“I hate all the scarfs people want me to wear at interviews,” Lan Xichen offers, recalling Lan Qiren’s email about an upcoming one from this morning. Jiang Cheng snorts, but merely shouts,

“I hate people who lie about their clothes’ fucking fabric just because they want to impress people.”  

“If I ask for five sugars, it’s because I want five sugars.”

“Don’t give a kid fresh cookies without a warning.”

“Don’t switch studio rooms five minutes before someone’s scheduled use.”

“Stop calling outside of business hours and expecting an immediate response.”  

“Enjoying pop songs doesn’t make me any less intelligent.”

“Temporarily patching up one fucking hole in your wall doesn’t make you an expert handyman.”

“I don’t want to look at dozens of pictures of me in the exact same outfit.”   

Lan Xichen’s throat may be starting to ache, yet with each new word he gives to the sky, another pocket of air fills his deprived lungs. They let him add to every new sentiment Jiang Cheng expresses, following the man’s path like he used to trace the constellations for Lan Wangji in the star charts he found.

Sometimes, just like then, Lan Xichen veers off to a nearby but unconnected star, giddily making his own shapes and encouraging his cautious younger brother to do the same. Jiang Cheng grins every time Lan Xichen does so now, building upon those new paths like the piers under their feet and always pushing Lan Xichen further along.  

“I wish A-Ling would stop crying.” Time ceases to exist completely by the time that quieter statement joins the stars. Lan Xichen tears his gaze away from their lights to Jiang Cheng’s face where the wildness has faded but the sincerity has not. The other man continues to stare up at the sky, but Lan Xichen can see the sadness in the slopes of his cheeks. “I wish I could make him happy.”

Lan Xichen’s heart stops, and for a moment, he considers repeating what he told Jiang Cheng before dinner, or reminding him of the joyful moments on the lake. Instead, Lan Xichen looks back up to the stars that promise to hold the confessions people are too afraid of giving to others.

“I wish da-ge hadn’t left,” Lan Xichen admits, because he may be creeping closer to forgiving his friends and himself like he told Jiang Cheng earlier, but it still hurts.

He holds himself still even when his eyes begin to sting as all the careening highs and crashing lows from the day take their final toll. “I wish they realized all I wanted was them.”  

The lights blur and flicker, and he almost begs them not to leave, but he can’t form the words when their absence is his fault. “I wish my heart had been enough.”

He opens his mouth to say more, but the tears become sobs without his permission. He lifts his free hand to muffle the sound, only for Jiang Cheng to yank him into his body. His arms wrap around Lan Xichen’s back tight enough to hurt, but Lan Xichen simply buries his face in Jiang Cheng’s solid shoulder. He may get cold frequently, but his body is a safe furnace in that moment, shielding Lan Xichen from both the night air and his friends’ lies.  

They stand like that for as long as the night cradles them; Jiang Cheng holding him silently and Lan Xichen pressing against his steady form as he falls apart with only the stars as their witness.

 

***

 

Muffled voices slip into Lan Xichen’s sticky sleep long before he drags his eyes open to the morning light. The faded wallpaper and sliding doors of the room Jiang Cheng led him to last night greet him when he finally opens his eyes, and he takes a long time to slowly rub the sleep from his face. Judging by the amount of light and the fact that he can hear the others, it is long past his family’s usual wake-up time, but by the time he went to sleep last night it was already close to that wake-up time.

The blankets are so warm and the cadence of low, familiar voices so comforting, that embarrassment can find no purchase in Lan Xichen as he sluggishly recalls crying in Jiang Cheng’s arms last night. Jiang Cheng never once grew impatient, holding on until Lan Xichen let go when his eyes finally dried. Only then did Jiang Cheng lead him back inside, one hand on Lan Xichen’s arm the entire time, even when he grabbed him some water.

Only once Jiang Cheng showed Lan Xichen to this small room did he release Lan Xichen in order to go boil the man some tea.

Lan Xichen only managed a few sips before he fell into a deeper sleep than he’s had in months.

The small teacup still rests on the bedside table near his head and Lan Xichen traces its whimsical design as he listens to the noises that are distant enough to keep him relaxed, but close enough to comfort him. This small room shares a wall with the kitchenette in the main room, separate therefore from the other bedrooms but with doors that also open directly onto the lake. On a stormy day, Lan Xichen would hear the rain pattering on the walls and the waves crashing on the nearby shore, but that day, all he hears is the occasional call of a bird.

Despite feeling rested, Lan Xichen lays there awhile longer, soaking in the security of that room. Eventually though, his desire to see the ones making such a ruckus pushes him from the pile of blankets Jiang Cheng gifted him.

Lan Xichen hesitates once at the door, simply throwing on a sweater over the borrowed pyjamas on his way. He reminds himself that as much as Jiang Cheng loves the small children, he would probably appreciate some assistance, and he deserves much more than that after how he cared for Lan Xichen last night.

The doors slide open with barely a sound and Lan Xichen pads to his right where the ones to the main room are once more open to the lake and everything else. Voices spill loudly and unapologetically onto the docks, and Lan Xichen leans against the doorframe for a moment just to take in the domestic sight that greets him.

The three boys sit at the countertop of the island, three plates forming a barrier between them and the sizzling griddle. The savoury aroma of jianbing fills the air as Jiang Cheng folds and flips them from where he stands across from the boys. Everyone still wears their pyjamas with no concerns for the mess the boys might make.

Lan Jingyi shoves his food into his mouth the second Jiang Cheng places it on his plate, Lan Yuan thanks him, and Jin Ling takes one big bite before saying,

“More!”

“That was more,” Jiang Cheng tells him, and waves his spatula at his nephew. “And don’t talk with your mouth full.”

“One isn’t more, jiujiu,” Jin Ling replies after quickly swallowing his bite.

“Oh no? Exactly how much is more?”

“Two,” Lan Yuan decides.

“Five!” Jin Ling declares.

“Ten!” Lan Jingyi shouts, and the eyes of the other two widen before they shout their agreement.

“If I knew you were going to be such brats, I’d make you less,” Jiang Cheng replies even as he starts pouring more batter onto the griddle. Jin Ling sticks out his tongue and Jiang Cheng glares at him when he leans too close to the griddle. “I’ll make two more for each of you, and then if I hear any more whining, I’ll toss you all in that lake.”

“And how many do the adults get?” Lan Xichen asks, finally announcing himself with a genuine smile. The Lan boys swivel around so quickly at his voice, they almost fall off their seats. Jiang Cheng looks up just as fast, but while the boys immediately call for him, Jiang Cheng studies him first.

“As many as we want seems to be the rule this morning,” Jiang Cheng finally snorts, gaze going back to the griddle as Lan Xichen wanders over. He places a hand on Lan Yuan and Lan Jingyi’s shoulders and gives them each a greeting kiss to head.

“I see. I hope the boys haven’t made too much trouble.”

“We haven’t made trouble!” Lan Jingyi promises, and Lan Yuan bobs his head enthusiastically.

“Here, bobo,” Lan Yuan says, and holds out his plate. “Shushu is making us more.”

“I heard,” Lan Xichen says with a smile, and takes the plate before Lan Yuan drops it. He glances at Jiang Cheng, who studiously watches the griddle. “Thank you for letting me sleep so long.”

Jiang Cheng shrugs, but looks up briefly.

“You needed it,” Jiang Cheng says, and then hesitates.

“I feel much better,” Lan Xichen assures him before the other man can feel awkward about asking. “Thank you for that as well.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Jiang Cheng mutters as he drops his gaze back down to the food. Lan Xichen wants to protest, but he also doesn’t want the boys getting curious about what happened and he doesn’t want to put Jiang Cheng on the spot.

Instead he busies himself with refilling the boys’ glasses and enjoying the food once Jiang Cheng makes some for themselves. He ensures the boys thank Jiang Cheng once they finish, and Jin Ling starts begging to go in the boats again.

“I thought you wanted to swim today,” Jiang Cheng says, and Jin Ling replies without missing a beat.

“I want to do both.”

“Then you’d better get dressed,” Jiang Cheng tells him, and the boys leap off their stools to race to their bedroom. Lan Xichen half stands when Lan Jingyi briefly trips, but Jiang Cheng just returns to finally eating some of his food. Given the boys’ excitement and the necessary drive home today, it will likely be the only downtime they have, and Lan Xichen faces Jiang Cheng fully when he takes his seat again.

“You’re a good uncle, Wanyin,” Lan Xichen says, and Jiang Cheng looks up at him with a start. Lan Xichen smiles, and hopes that his next words can provide even a fraction of the warm comfort Jiang Cheng has freely given him again and again. “And Jin Ling might forget these precise moments when he’s older, but his heart will never forget these feelings.”

Chapter Text

They leave Jiang Cheng’s home Sunday afternoon, after Lan Xichen explores the village with the boys while Jiang Cheng naps at Lan Xichen’s insistence. The boys whine and plead to stay longer, relenting only once given the assurance that they will be allowed to return soon, and a little bribery in the form of more snowflake cake.

Halfway back, their separate cars make a concurrently planned pitstop for dinner in yet another small village where half the people seem to know Jiang Cheng personally despite being more than two and a half hours away from Lotus Lakes. They don’t speak quite as familiarly as those from his hometown, but the store owner and half his patrons are delighted to see him, filling him in on all that has happened in the past week.

“How?” Lan Xichen asks once they sit on the hood of Jiang Cheng’s parked car. A cool breeze cuts through the open field the cars border, but the skewers of fresh meat in their hands keep them warm. The store owner even threw in an extra stick for each of them.

“Not all of Lotus Lakes’ employees are from my one village,” Jiang Cheng says with a shrug. He holds the bag of discarded sticks in one hand as the boys eagerly explore the field. “And we’ve been trying to get a whole network of ecosystem services set up in the surrounding areas, not just the places right by the protected areas. It’s more beneficial to everything and everyone that way.”

Jin Ling’s need for a bathroom stops the conversation there. Lan Xichen thanks Jiang Cheng once again for everything he did that weekend, and then they climb back into their respective cars. They head in different directions once they hit the city in the evening, and Lan Xichen takes Lan Jingyi home first. The boys’ parents barely ask Lan Xichen about the trip, even though Lan Jingyi starts gushing about it the second they open the doors.

From there, Lan Xichen drives a sleepy Lan Yuan to Lan Qiren’s apartment where his parents wait.

“Dada! Baba!” Lan Yuan shouts as soon as they make it through the door, flinging himself at Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji respectively. Lan Xichen smiles as he gently closes the door and Wei Wuxian lifts his babbling son into his arms.

“How’s the best little radish in the world?” Wei Wuxian asks, peppering Lan Yuan’s head with kisses until he giggles. “A little birdie told me you had a lot of fun with your shushu this weekend.”

Shushu taught us how to talk to them!” Lan Yuan says, eyes going wide at the supposed confirmation that it worked. “Listen!”

He cups his hands like Jiang Cheng taught him and imitates a spotted redshank with his tiny face screwed up in concentration. The grin on Wei Wuxian’s face widens and softens with nostalgia, and erases Lan Xichen’s worries that the man is still upset.

Lan Wangji, on the other hand, stays a silent statue, and even Lan Xichen can’t read his current expression.

“Now you just have to learn how to tell the pigeons to go away,” Wei Wuxian teases when Lan Yuan finishes. He hoists the boy higher in his arms and looks up at Lan Xichen. “Now, thank bobo for the weekend and let’s get to the car. You still have school tomorrow.”

Wei Wuxian carries Lan Yuan over so the boy can give Lan Xichen a tight squeeze. Wei Wuxian gives him a pat on the shoulder as he passes, but Lan Xichen can’t tell if it’s encouragement or a warning.

The door closes on the fading voices of his husband and son, yet Lan Wangji still says nothing.

“Where’s shushu?” Lan Xichen asks when Lan Wangji continues to study him in silence.

“Already in his room.”

A small blessing.

“I’m sorry,” Lan Xichen starts.

“I don’t need an apology,” Lan Wangji cuts in with a steady voice. “I want to understand.”  

“Didn’t Wei Wuxian tell you what I said on the phone?” Lan Xichen asks with a frown. “I was worried Wanyin was upset and he wasn’t responding on his phone. I tried the house and found out he’d left the city last minute.”

“Wei Ying explained that,” Lan Wangji replies. “But I still don’t understand.”

“You once flew to another country without telling anyone to see Wei Wuxian.” Only once Lan Wangji stood beyond airport security and was ten minutes away from boarding the plane did he call Lan Xichen to let him know he was flying to America to finally see Wei Wuxian again.

“Because Wei Ying needed me.”

“And Wanyin didn’t–doesn’t need other people?”

Rather than try to argue that point, Lan Wangji simply replies,

“Does he deserve you?”

Lan Xichen’s jaw drops at that, but words quickly spill from his tongue.

“He drives at least ten hours every month for his family and his neighbours, so yes,” Lan Xichen says as he stalks forward, “He does deserve to have someone make that drive for him. He listened to me when I was upset, so yes, he deserves to be listened to in turn.”

Lan Xichen’s voice drops dangerously as he hovers in Lan Wangji’s personal space. “He apologized to you, so yes, he deserves an apology too.”

Lan Wangji just continues frowning and frowning as Lan Xichen glares. His words whipped through the air with certainty, but Lan Xichen’s brain is a screeching soundboard of confusion. Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng may have been struggling to get along since Wei Wuxian came back, but Lan Xichen thought they were better. He thought by this point, it was simply a stubborn commitment to minor negativities and their conversation at the Sunshot Charity Dinner meant they were moving beyond that in the ways that mattered.

He thought it was something he could tease them about, not argue about.

The anger goes out of Lan Xichen like a house suddenly losing electricity. Lan Wangji stands there without change, but Lan Xichen sinks onto the couch without a word. He lets out a tired sigh and watches Lan Wangji’s forehead crease as he thinks.

They are the siblings who rarely fight, even jokingly, and therefore the complete opposite of Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian. But the older they’ve gotten, the more conflict they’ve run into. Lan Xichen tells himself it’s only natural given they’re both flawed humans; Lan Wangji an obvious bundle of pettiness to anyone who knows him personally and Lan Xichen far more passive aggressive than the media realizes.

It doesn’t mean Lan Xichen enjoys these moments, especially when it becomes clear that he has misinterpreted his younger brother. Misunderstandings are another thing that occur naturally for most people, but Lan Xichen is still so accustomed to being one of the few people in sync with his brother, every stumble feels like breaking a bone.

Judging by the frown cutting deeper and deeper into Lan Wangji’s face, and his shoulders growing tauter and tauter, he feels the same way about conflict with Lan Xichen.  

Didi,” Lan Xichen calls softly, and he quickly pats the cushion beside him when Lan Wangji looks over silently. He comes without protest and sits like he did as a child waiting for Lan Xichen to sing to him.

“You know, you’re actually very similar in some ways,” Lan Xichen says as after a second. Lan Wangji’s eyes immediately narrow further, but he doesn’t move away. Lan Xichen punctuates each ensuing word with a gentle poke to Lan Wangji’s forehead like he used to when they were younger. “You’re both astoundingly stubborn.”

Lan Xichen pushes Lan Wangji’s hair back and grips the back of his head. “And fiercely protective of your loved ones.”

Lan Xichen withdraws his hand and Lan Wangji stops frowning quite so deeply. Common ground is only the first step to friendlier relations but it’s an important one. Since Lan Xichen hasn’t quite figured out where this fight stems from, he might as well start from the beginning. Lan Wangji usually cuts straight to his point, but it seems this conflict has them both fumbling through a dark house.

“It’s been nice seeing xiongzhang and Wei Ying smile again,” Lan Wangji says slowly, and Lan Xichen waits for him to continue. “But he has put just as many tears on your faces.”

And those words shouldn’t bring Lan Xichen relief, but he thinks he finally sees the core of this conflict. When Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng were children, tension came from immature competitions for Wei Wuxian’s attention and natural misunderstandings. When they were teenagers and then college students, sometimes there was a lingering clash, but there were also several shenanigans that Wei Wuxian dragged them both into in which they operated as almost-friends.

Then Wei Wuxian’s adoptive parents died, and he disappeared and broke Lan Wangji’s heart. When he reached out again, sorry and broken, Lan Wangji forgave him somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. Lan Xichen took longer, but when he finally saw Lan Wangji again after he returned weeks later with a smile on his face, Lan Xichen couldn’t stop himself from offering forgiveness if just to keep that smile alive. In doing so, Lan Xichen chose to focus on the happiness of earlier times, and those childhood memories are what Lan Xichen has been teasing Jiang Cheng about.

But Lan Wangji is not the only person who was hurt. Jiang Cheng, Jiang Yanli, Yu Jinzhu, Yu Yinzhu; there is an entire village hurt by those circumstances. Forgiveness from some of them did not come as easily or quickly, and though Lan Xichen cannot blame anyone for that, Lan Wangji’s main concern has always been Wei Wuxian’s well-being.

“And what of the tears on his?” Lan Xichen asks softly. He understood Lan Wangji’s need to defend his boyfriend when Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng couldn’t be in the same room without getting into toxic fights, but now that time has passed.

Now both brothers are trying to consider each other’s feelings more, and while they may be struggling, everyone has committed to a path they believe leads to healing.

“What of the tears I’ve put on others’ faces?” Lan Xichen continues, because Lan Wangji didn’t just mention Wei Wuxian. Lan Xichen should have known his own well-being was half the problem, especially after Jiang Cheng warned him that Lan Wangji was more worried than Lan Xichen realized.

Lan Xichen has been focusing so hard on sewing himself back together, both externally and internally, that he forgot to check on the person who saw the full extent of the open wounds. He forgot that other people are not only invested in his healing, but also in preventing him from suffering the same injuries.

He forgot that Lan Wangji hasn’t seen Jiang Cheng become part of the cure, not the poison. More than that, they both forgot that in these situations people can not simply be categorized as cures and poisons. They are both simultaneously, depending on the other person, depending on the specific events.

“I’m sorry I’ve made you worry so much about me getting hurt again,” Lan Xichen says, and Lan Wangji’s shoulders finally loosen a fraction. “And that I’m not always fully transparent when I’m struggling. But I promise you, Wanyin and I have been helping each other far more than we’ve been hurting each other.”

Lan Wangji should already know that after the charity dinner and after Lan Xichen told him about last Thursday, but Lan Xichen understands intimately the lengthy time required to work through the harm caused by others.

And now that he’s been around Jiang Cheng, he understands that words alone are not enough to reassure people that someone has changed.  

“Let me show you,” Lan Xichen says softly, and takes out his phone. He hands the phone over once he’s opened his gallery to the dozens of photos from this weekend. Many are of the beautiful scenery, but there are just as many of the Lan boys that show it is not just Lan Xichen whom Jiang Cheng made happy these past two days.

There is one in particular, the final one from the lakes, that Lan Wangji stops on like Lan Xichen hoped he would. It’s a picture Jiang Cheng offered to take on Lan Xichen’s phone when he found them after his nap on Sunday. Lan Xichen and the boys sit on the pier with their legs dangling in the water, Lan Xichen’s arms squeezing them to his sides as they all grin at the camera. Even frozen in time, compressed into pixels, their joy shines for everyone to see.  

“Looks like a happy family,” Lan Wangji comments after a long minute ticks by. The last lingering tension finally leaves Lan Xichen as he once again hears all that his brother does not say but knows Lan Xichen will hear.

Like the happy family we couldn’t be. Like the happy family we wanted to be. Like the happy family we want to be.

“And isn’t it nice to be part of such a large family?” Lan Xichen asks, still barely above a whisper. “To have even more people to share our happiness with?”

Lan Wangji stays quiet, no doubt thinking about those shared dinners at Jiang Yanli’s before the deaths of her parents, with Jiang Yanli already insisting that Lan Wangji be considered family. Lan Xichen thinks about those, but he also has dozens of others to consider now; the meals shared this weekend by the lake, and the meals Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji have shared with Wei Wuxian, Lan Yuan, and Lan Qiren since Wei Wuxian returned. He thinks of the ones he’s shared with the Nie brothers over the years, of the times Jin Guangyao joined them and couldn’t fully hide his genuine fondness for them. He thinks of Jiang Cheng’s face sitting by the lake, remembering a family fractured but together.

When Lan Wangji speaks again, he turns to face Lan Xichen directly.

Xiongzhang wants to continue like this even once the contract ends?” Lan Wangji asks slowly.

Something twists in his chest, like when he thought Jiang Cheng was requesting he and the boys leave his rural home the other evening. Lan Xichen hasn’t completely forgotten about the contract or his stardom, but he also doesn’t think about his image, his persona, or what is expected, when he’s with Jiang Cheng.

Lan Xichen is always, technically, honest. But with Jiang Cheng, he is sincere and genuine, down to his core, with no fear and no hesitation.

“He has done far more for me than the contract stipulated,” Lan Xichen tells Lan Wangji, “And I hope I’ve done the same, because he’s become an irreplaceable friend.”  

Lan Wangji stares at him as if Lan Xichen has once again become unreadable, and his face twitches like he can’t decide on which emotion to settle on.  

“He will go back to the countryside,” Lan Wangji finally says.

“And we have both already proven distance is no match for a Lan.”

Both Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng are used to traveling after all. Jiang Cheng travels fairly frequently for family as Yu Jinzhu and Yu Yinzhu reminded Lan Xichen this weekend. Lan Xichen doesn’t travel as often as some other singers or actors, but he still performs at concerts and does appearances in other cities.

“Besides, a friendship doesn’t need to end just because the people are no longer in close proximity constantly,” Lan Xichen continues, and Lan Wangji’s eyebrows raise just a fraction at the word friendship.

He says nothing though, just nods slowly. A familiar comfort slowly returns to the room as they simply sit in each other’s company and mull over their thoughts. Lan Xichen desperately wants to lie down after the day and conversation, but he sits there instead for awhile longer, thinking of family and fighting and healing.  

“I missed it.”

“Do you think shushu ever forgave fuqin?” Lan Xichen asks suddenly.

“Don’t know,” Lan Wangji replies. He doesn’t take much time to think, but then, this is something they’ve likely both thought about in the past few years. “But we’re not them.”

It is a promise and a question simultaneously, and Lan Xichen smiles as he takes Lan Wangji’s hand into his own.

“No, we’re not,” Lan Xichen agrees, and Lan Wangji gives him a small smile. He lets Lan Xichen pull him into a hug and even curls his fingers around Lan Xichen’s back before they pull away.

Lan Wangji takes his phone out of his pocket when he stands, and he almost huffs at Lan Xichen’s questioning look.

“Wei Ying’s been wanting to invite Jiang Wanyin and Jin Ling over for dinner,” Lan Wangji explains. “I’ll invite them now for tomorrow. Xiongzhang should come too.”

“Thank you,” Lan Xichen says, and stands to show his brother out. “You should remind him that you and Wei Wuxian are looking forward to the Cultivation Conference. I’m sure you’ll love it.”  

Lan Wangji leaves shortly after that while Lan Xichen elects to simply stay the night there. He half expects Lan Qiren to interrogate him in the morning, but his uncle seems more interested in hearing about the village and lakes than he does lecturing Lan Xichen. He’s visited before, long ago and for the funeral, he reminds Lan Xichen, and so he is familiar with the places and people in Lan Xichen’s stories. Lan Xichen shows him the same pictures he showed Lan Wangji, and a soft smile both for the landscape and the grandchildren Lan Qiren adores fills his face in the early morning light.

Later, Lan Xichen joins Lan Wangji at his place for dinner with Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling just as discussed the previous evening. Lan Xichen arrives early in case Lan Wangji needs anything, but Wei Wuxian is exuberant enough for the both of them. He throws himself at Jiang Cheng the second his brother arrives, scooping up a startled Jin Ling seconds later. Jiang Cheng startles just as much at Lan Xichen’s appearance, but quickly shoots him a smile at the same time Lan Xichen’s empty stomach flutters.

“I did promise I would mitigate the situation,” Lan Xichen whispers to him in explanation.  

Despite Lan Wangji’s reservations, the night passes as easily as the charity dinner, but with the added and excited company of two young children. Wei Wuxian feeds off their energy, and so Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng rarely need to speak to each other directly. When they do, usually because one of their brothers forced them to, they are both cautiously stiff but polite. When it comes to serving and helping the others at their table, they occasionally engage in a restrained, but petty competition to see who can be the quickest and most helpful.

There is even a moment when Jiang Cheng makes a particularly scathing remark about a mutual acquaintance’s stupidity, and Lan Wangji hums his agreement. The response comes automatically, and they both stare at each other for a split second in mutual horror, before refusing to look at each other for a solid five minutes.

Lan Xichen muffles his giggling with a cough while Wei Wuxian simply carries on the conversation with a beaming grin. Lan Xichen doesn’t know if Wei Wuxian is simply being his usual optimistic self or if he also had a conversation with the two, but he even lets both Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji clean the dishes alone. The murmur of their voices occasionally drifts out of the kitchen, but no shouting matches or fights break out.

Jiang Cheng leaves that night with a sleepy child in his arms and the curl of satisfaction on his lips. Lan Wangji concludes the night wasn’t terrible. Lan Xichen can’t wait to go home and draw a snapshot from the evening to share with Jiang Cheng. Wei Wuxian is already talking about how they should start having family game nights now that he knows Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji won’t murder each other in one evening.

Those plans are quickly put on hold though as that Wednesday, Jiang Cheng warns Lan Xichen he won’t be able to socialize much until the following weekend. The Cultivation Conference is finally upon them, and Jiang Cheng always spends the week before going over all the final details with his team and ensuring the sites will be ready.

He visits Lan Xichen once in the studio on Saturday, clutching at an even larger thermos than usual. He slumps a bit when he sprawls on the couch and Lan Xichen sees Mianmian biting her lip when she whispers something to him. But Jiang Cheng waves away whatever worry she vocalizes, and the smile he gives Lan Xichen is only a degree dimmer than usual.

“It will all be ready on time,” Jiang Cheng says when Lan Xichen asks how the preparations are going. He doesn’t get many details besides that despite all his curious questions, and Jiang Cheng teases him for acting like a child trying to ruin their own surprise party. He only stays half as long as he usually does, but Lan Xichen figures that’s only natural.

Jiang Cheng has still been sending photos, after all. Many are from the backlog of ones he took that weekend. Some are ones that are clearly meant just for Lan Xichen and his family, as the children are in them. Others, like the one of Lan Xichen framed by the lake and the inky lines of distant mountains, will no doubt be devoured by Lan Xichen’s fans if he so chooses to post them.

It’s these photos that finally make Lan Xichen realize where Jiang Cheng’s photography experience comes from, and he takes an even closer look at the photo gallery on the Lotus Lakes website. He assumed, the first time he glanced through them, that Jiang Cheng or Jiang Fengmian simply hired a professional photographer. That’s probably the case with many of the older ones, which all capture similar scenes at the same angles. But the newer ones, ones that showcase the surreal beauty Jiang Cheng’s team sees daily and give the public a glimpse of the team itself, are no doubt taken by Jiang Cheng and his coworkers during their days on the job.

You really are incredible, Lan Xichen texts him. He resolves to repeat the sentiment next time he sees Jiang Cheng in person, because the man always takes hours to respond to those types of text messages, and his reply is usually some variation of okay?

And then, on Tuesday the week of the Cultivation Conference, Lan Xichen’s phone pings with a notification that someone has added him to a new WeChat conversation.

This is Yu Jinzhu, says the first unknown number.

And this is Yu Yinzhu, says the second unknown number.

Xiao Li said you could be trusted.

And tou’r actually listens to you.

So we have a request.

Which is why, on Tuesday night, Lan Xichen once again finds himself standing outside of a Jiang dwelling without Jiang Cheng’s prior knowledge. Instead of children, he has three bags of steaming take-out and a collection of teas with him. Instead of ignorance and panic, he arrives armed with a carefully vetted plan and calm determination.

He uses Wei Wuxian’s key he got from Lan Wangji’s place to open the front door and slip inside. The hallway and kitchen lights are both on, but no one occupies them. It’s long past Jin Ling’s bedtime, and the house stays quiet except for the slight rustle of plastic bags when Lan Xichen sets the food down at the kitchen table.

He wanders further into the back of the house where all the bedrooms and studies are, quiet as a ghost. Buttery light spills from one of the doorways furthest down the hall and as Lan Xichen gets closer, he hears the faint clacking of someone typing.

He stops in the doorway, and sure enough, Jiang Cheng sits at a desk in the middle of the room, eyes glued to the screen of a laptop, fingers typing furiously, and a slight scowl etched into his face. His unkempt hair is pulled back into a bun, but this late at night, half of it slips out and curls along his jawline. He wears an oversized hoodie whose sleeves slip past his knuckles, as if already prepared for a chilly night.

He looks ready to stay there working until midnight, maintaining the unnecessarily demanding schedule the Yu sisters revealed he’s been keeping to the past week despite their repeated protests.

Something like guilt twists in Lan Xichen’s stomach for not noticing what Mianmian must have when Jiang Cheng visited him in the studio. But Lan Xichen has grown tired of self-flagellation these past few months and so he focuses solely on the handsome but tired man in front of him and the list of goals floating in his head.

Lan Xichen knocks gently on the doorframe, and Jiang Cheng’s head shoots up. His jaw drops when he sees Lan Xichen, and he stares at Lan Xichen’s smile.

“What the fuck,” he finally says. His voice is hoarse, though at least Lan Xichen sees an empty glass of water on the desk.

“Yu Jinzhu and Yu Yinzhu gave me the passcode for the gate,” Lan Xichen explains, “With Jiang Yanli’s permission, of course. I borrowed Wei Wuxian’s key to get in the house.”

“That’s–but we don’t have a date planned?” Jiang Cheng ends the statement as a question, despite how many times they’ve now seen each other for non-date reasons and their real friendship.

“No, we don’t,” Lan Xichen confirms.

For once, Jiang Cheng seems at a loss for words, and Lan Xichen takes advantage of that to step inside the study proper and keep speaking.

“I brought dinner for us. We should go eat it before it gets cold.”

“You made dinner,” Jiang Cheng says with obvious disbelief, and now is not the time to point out that Lan Xichen technically can cook for himself most of the time. It’s just the same three, basic meals.

“I bought it,” Lan Xichen amends, “But we shouldn’t waste it either way, and I’m sure you could use a break.”

Jiang Cheng shakes his head just as expected.

“I’m fine, it’s only–” He glances down at the clock on his laptop and aggressively rubs his eyes as if that will change the numbers he sees. “When the fuck did it become nine-thirty?”

“When you were working,” Lan Xichen says gently, and grabs the empty glass from the desk as Jiang Cheng glances up at him. Now, Lan Xichen can see the faint redness to Jiang Cheng’s eyes and the way they’re already beginning to puff up. “Come, you deserve a break and your guest doesn’t deserve to go hungry.”

“I don’t think you count as a guest if you barged in here,” Jiang Cheng says, but finally gets up. Lan Xichen can’t tell if it’s the chair or Jiang Cheng’s bones that creak, but the other man winces as he stretches.

“Technically, I was invited,” Lan Xichen replies glibly. Jiang Cheng snorts, but follows him out of the room.

Lan Xichen herds Jiang Cheng to the table first, and then stubbornly insists he stay there while Lan Xichen grabs them both plates and utensils. He also grabs the biggest, clean cup he can find and fills it with water for Jiang Cheng before putting on the kettle. Only once he’s picked out tea for them does he return to the table where Jiang Cheng waits for him to start, even though his stomach now growls loud enough for them both to hear.

Sitting across from each other, with Jiang Cheng solely focused on his food, Lan Xichen takes his time to further examine the other man. He notes, not just the tired eyes and messy hair that could be the result of any other day of hard-work, but the dry skin beneath his eyes and the way he can’t even be bothered to push his hair out of his face. Patches of sunburn dot his jawline, his cheeks, and the tip of his nose. None of it is peeling, but other places are dry and cracking from too much exposure to harsh winds.

His hands, too, are dry and nicked from outdoor preparation, and he keeps pausing to rotate his overused wrists. His usual posture is nowhere to be found as he slumps over the table without a work task to keep him propped up. And even though Lan Xichen made sure to buy as many of Jiang Cheng’s favourite and healthier foods as he could, the man eats as if on autopilot and puts down his chopsticks far too early.

“Thank you,” Jiang Cheng says, and Lan Xichen frowns at him. “I need to get back to work.”

“You’ve barely eaten half your meal,” Lan Xichen points out.

“If I eat too much, I’ll go into a food coma.”

“What about a normal amount?”

Jiang Cheng shakes his head.

“It’ll make me tired.”

“If it makes you tired, it’s because you’re tired already,” Lan Xichen argues, but Jiang Cheng’s expression closes off like a door being slammed shut.  

“I’m sorry I couldn’t keep you company when you drove all the way out here,” Jiang Cheng replies shortly, the chair screeching as he stands up suddenly. “You can keep eating. Stay here as long as you need to recharge. I can transfer you money for half of it.”

“Jiang Cheng,” Lan Xichen starts, keeping his voice carefully gentle and his posture relaxed, even though his heart is thudding. It’s not that he didn’t believe Yu Jinzhu and Yu Yinzhu when they said Jiang Cheng always overworks himself during this time, and it’s not like Lan Xichen is unused to Jiang Cheng’s particular brand of stubbornness. It’s not like Lan Xichen is blind to the devotion Jiang Cheng has toward his company and the hard work he does every day.

But Jiang Cheng has always seemed to recognize one’s need to be healthy to function, and he has never seen Jiang Cheng this dedicated to his own destruction.

That only makes Lan Xichen more determined to help Jiang Cheng in the same way he has helped Lan Xichen all these weeks.

So he stays where he is and somehow, that’s enough to still Jiang Cheng’s agitation for just a moment and his gaze flicks to Lan Xichen’s as Lan Xichen continues to speak. “I don’t need payment for this, just as you haven’t asked for payment for all the meals you’ve made me.”

He stands up slowly, smiling with open hands. “But I would appreciate it if you could keep me company for just one cup of tea.”

When Jiang Cheng doesn’t immediately protest, Lan Xichen goes to the almost boiling kettle, looking over his shoulder at Jiang Cheng. The other man watches him but twists his body back toward the siren call of his work.

A strategy of baby steps and compromises really is needed, just as Lan Xichen inferred from his conversation with the Yu sisters.

“You could always bring your laptop out here,” Lan Xichen suggests. “But you should at least try a cup, especially when you need your voice for all those speeches.”  

Jiang Cheng stares and stares, and even though persuasive words cling to his tongue, Lan Xichen instead turns around to silently pour them drinks so Jiang Cheng sees his refusal to leave. When Lan Xichen turns back around, Jiang Cheng is gone, but Lan Xichen simply stirs the tea and waits. Jiang Cheng returns a few minutes later in a huff, ignoring Lan Xichen’s blinding smile in favour of leading them into the adjacent room he has called the cozy room. He heads to the small table in the corner and plops down on the floor cushion with his laptop.

“You don’t have to sit here just because I am,” Jiang Cheng protests when Lan Xichen sets their cups on the table and then drops onto a cushion directly beside Jiang Cheng.

“I’m curious,” Lan Xichen replies smoothly, tilting his head toward Jiang Cheng’s laptop screen. “Unless it’s confidential.”

“No,” Jiang Cheng says. “Not this stuff.”

“What is ‘this stuff’?”

“Getting stupid caterers to reply to my fucking phone calls.”

Lan Xichen blinks.

“I thought the food at this event was local?”

“It is,” Jiang Cheng says, as he pulls out his cellphone. “Eighty-five percent. But since a decent number of our big financial sponsors live in urban areas and we want to encourage people everywhere to support more sustainable companies, every year we work with this one city-based food supplier.”

He jabs at his phone. “And every fucking year their staff is great, but the manager forgets to respond to my fucking calls.”

“They’re still open at this hour?”

“Storefront is closed, but they prepare food for the following day until midnight.”

“Could I try?” Lan Xichen asks, taking out his own phone before Jiang Cheng can hit call. Jiang Cheng frowns at him, but after a moment, just shrugs. He shows Lan Xichen the phone number, and a young woman picks up the phone on the fifth ring.

“Hello, this is Zewu Jun,” Lan Xichen replies to her greeting. Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow at the use of his stage name, but Lan Xichen simply smiles and continues. “I’m calling to check on a previous order made with you?”

The line is silent for so long, Lan Xichen checks to make sure the call didn’t drop. “Hello?”

“Hi, yes, um, sorry,” the woman replies, “But did–did you just say Zewu Jun?”

“Yes.”

The Zewu Jun?”

“The singer, yes,” Lan Xichen replies, keeping his voice light and gentle. “You know of me?”

“Know–I’ve been to all your concerts! I mean, not all of them obviously, but everyone I could afford and I’ve seen all the recordings of the ones I couldn’t and you sound exactly like you do in your interviews and I–wow. I–I can’t believe I’m talking on the phone with you right now. Am I dreaming? Did I fall asleep making that last batch of cookies?”

“No, you’re not dreaming,” Lan Xichen says with a laugh. “And thank you so much for your support. What’s your name?”

“My name–Wu Huiying. My name is Wu Huiying. And of course I support you! You’re just–you’re real. You’re real and you called our store and I am probably embarrassing myself so much um–”

“You’re not,” Lan Xichen assures her, “But I would really appreciate it if you could help me with this order, Wu Huiying.”

“Right, order! Right, okay, uh is it under your name? What is it for?”

“No, actually, it’s for the company Lotus Lakes.”

When Lan Xichen says that, Jiang Cheng shifts closer and places his laptop on the table so Lan Xichen can see the spreadsheet pulled up on the screen. Lan Xichen relays the information they need confirmation on, and Wu Huiying is extremely apologetic as she pulls up the store’s order history and then tracks down her senior staff member. They too are instantly apologetic and when Lan Xichen does hand over the phone to Jiang Cheng, they are primed to be as cooperative as possible.

The conversation only takes five minutes after that, and Lan Xichen takes that time to grab some cushions to put between their backs and the wall.

“Never thought I’d see you use your fame like that,” Jiang Cheng says when he hangs up. The words sound judgemental, but the gleam in his eyes is the same one that sparks when Lan Xichen gets competitive about their runs and the same one that lights up when Lan Xichen gets particularly snippy. As if his imperfections are things to acknowledge rather than minimize and then feel guilty about when they aren’t successfully squashed.

“All I did was mention my stage name when she asked who was calling,” Lan Xichen replies smoothly, “It is one of my names, so I didn’t lie.”

Jiang Cheng just shakes his head, but he wears a shadow of a smirk when he turns back to his laptop.

“Well, thank you,” he says a moment later, eyes glued to his screen but tone sincere. Lan Xichen smiles at that, but it fades as he watches Jiang Cheng return to his work. The conversations Lan Xichen wants to hold have a much higher chance of angering Jiang Cheng than convincing him to eat did, but they too are a necessary part of making Jiang Cheng take better care of himself this week.

“Wanyin,” Lan Xichen says gently, and his hesitation draws Jiang Cheng’s gaze to him. “Why didn’t you let someone else handle that call?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, surely Yu Jinzhu or Yu Yinzhu would have been capable of calling,” Lan Xichen says. He keeps his words slow and his eyes focused on every twitch of Jiang Cheng’s face. “They might have had to wait or call several times, and their persuasive techniques would have been different, but I’m sure they would be up to the task.”

“They would,” Jiang Cheng agrees, but doesn’t add anything more.

“So then why not delegate that them?”

“I’ve delegated other things to them.”

“Like?” Lan Xichen asks, even though he knows.

“Setting up the sites for the actual conference,” Jiang Cheng says, frowning now. “Organizing the workers there. Communicating with the local towns. Do you honestly think I don’t fucking know how to delegate this far into running Lotus Lakes?”

“I know you do,” Lan Xichen says, because he has both heard and seen the evidence of it.

Jiang Cheng has told Lan Xichen multiple times about the city offices, and the competent workers there who foster connections with the urban communities given Jiang Cheng spends the majority of his time in the countryside. Even today, Yu Jinzhu and Yu Yinzhu explicitly stated that even though Jiang Cheng is always involved and hands-on, it is only ever this event where the level of involvement becomes unhealthy.   

“Then–”

“Which is why I really don’t understand why you’ve been driving ten hours every day for almost a week,” Lan Xichen interrupts. He hates the confrontation building between them, but he hates Jiang Cheng’s unnecessary exhaustion even more. “Making sure to care for Jin Ling in the morning and take him to school all by yourself, then driving for five hours to work for eight hours out in the sun and wind with your staff before you drive another five hours back here so no one else has to stay over and you can be here if Jin Ling has nightmares—how is that delegating properly?”

Lan Xichen forces himself to take a deep breath after his voice rises on that last question. His heart keeps thundering at the thought of Jiang Cheng showing such a disregard for his own health, and that thunder only gets louder when Lan Xichen realizes he never would have known about it if not for the Yu sisters reaching out to him.

Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes, and Lan Xichen can’t tell if he’s upset the Yu sisters told Lan Xichen all this or if he’s upset that Lan Xichen is upset about it all.

“Those sites are the most important part of this event,” Jiang Cheng says, “It’s only fair that I oversee the details, and work alongside my workers when they need it.”

“It’s not fair that you’re burning yourself out to do so,” Lan Xichen argues.

“I’m still getting enough sleep to drive,” Jiang Cheng replies immediately, and crosses his arms over his chest.

“I’m not saying you’re not.”

“Then what’s the fucking problem?” The anger Lan Xichen has been waiting for finally surges through Jiang Cheng’s voice, though he keeps his voice low as if concerned even now about disturbing Jin Ling.

“You trust your workers, don’t you?” Lan Xichen asks.

“Of course.”

“And you trust your siblings?”

“Of course.”

The anger simmers beneath every word, but his frown tells Lan Xichen the other man doesn’t see where Lan Xichen is leading them.

“Then surely you can trust them to complete preparations themselves,” Lan Xichen says. “Surely you can ask them to help you do some of the work.”

He hopes the desperation in his voice will soften the blow. He hopes the obvious concern will make Jiang Cheng pause and think, but the other man’s face just flushes dangerously instead.

“I have asked the people who can do the work to do what’s necessary,” Jiang Cheng continues to argue. Each new word adds a darker shade to his flush, and Lan Xichen is helpless to stop either of them from hurting.

“But they can do more! They want to do more, or they wouldn’t have reached out to me!”

“They don’t need to do more!”

“Then what about the people who aren’t doing anything yet?”

“There’s no one–”

“There is,” Lan Xichen insists. “There’s our brothers, for one, and your friends and family friends who know about this event like Mianmian and Huaisang, and the villagers like Zhao Guanxin who also commutes to work but I know has offered to help in the evenings.”

The names do nothing except make Jiang Cheng dig his fingers harder and harder into his knees until Lan Xichen fears he’ll break the bone itself.

“You don’t need to run yourself into the ground for this,” Lan Xichen continues, because he will gladly offer up himself as a target for Jiang Cheng’s fury if it means he’ll accept this point once he stops raging. “Not when you have even more people who would help you if you just asked.”

“But I didn’t!” Jiang Cheng screams, voice bursting and cracking because this is finally the core of the problem being dragged out into the light. “I didn’t have anyone that first fucking year and I still made it work!”

The echo embeds itself in the air and Lan Xichen’s heart both, not because of the volume or the spittle, but because Jiang Cheng has never sounded more broken.

“What do you mean?” Lan Xichen asks, choked up as if he’s the one suffering.

Tears gleam in Jiang Cheng’s eyes, but he blinks them away as he says, 

“The first Cultivation Conference I was in charge of was three months after my parents died.”

“Wei Wuxian was out of the country.” Lan Xichen realizes after a second. Out of the country for two years, and his bond with Jiang Cheng still too broken for him to help the year he finally returned. “Your sister?”

“A-Jie had a temper prone two-year-old to care for.” And Jiang Cheng would never ask someone to help him over caring for his nephew.

“Yu Jinzhu and Yu Yinzhu were still in the hospital,” Lan Xichen says because that is yet another piece of the picture he’s now privy to.

“Jinzhu could barely stay conscious for more than five hours still, and even Yinzhu was having trouble moving.”

There’s a roar of horror growing steadily in Lan Xichen’s head with each new tidbit of context, but he doesn’t stop speaking and neither does Jiang Cheng. It’s as if they’re in a boat careening toward a waterfall, and they’ve both simply resigned themselves to seeing how far down they’ll fall.

“There were no other senior staff members?” Lan Xichen asks desperately, because he can at least understand Jiang Cheng only trusting this event to experienced staff.

“We went through a large staff turn-over right before they died,” Jiang Cheng replies, no longer close to tears and no longer loud, just tired. “A lot of our senior staff had retired and gone on trips with their families, and I was in charge of training the new ones as the vice president.”

Lan Xichen doesn’t even bother to ask if some of the staff could have returned, because he knows Jiang Cheng wouldn’t have asked. He also doesn’t ask about Jiang Cheng’s neighbours because while they likely helped him with the physical set-up of the sites and reaching out to nearby towns just like they are now, they wouldn’t have been able to help with the business side.

Judging from what Lan Xichen has been told, their increased involvement is something that happened after Jiang Cheng took over. It’s quite possible, too, that in the first year, the elderly villagers and all the others saw Jiang Cheng’s fixation on the event as a coping mechanism and didn’t want to take that away from him.  

“Your friends–”

“All my university friends were from other provinces. Most of my childhood friends were here and busy with careers, or in other cities.”

Lan Xichen remembers what Yu Yinzhu said about Xu Menghua’s family situation, remembers being told that the school Zhao Guanxin works at isn’t actually in Jiang Cheng’s hometown. Most of the people Jiang Cheng’s age were likely more like his siblings than him in their more permanent move to urban centres once they were old enough. Family friends like Lan Qiren were also spread out. Many probably returned for Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan’s funeral, but they wouldn’t or couldn’t stay for three months.

 “Get it yet?” Jiang Cheng demands, rage returning when Lan Xichen doesn’t immediately ask about another person. “I had even less than I did now and I still did it. So why the fuck are you treating me like a failure?”  

“I’m not saying this because I think you’re failing,” Lan Xichen says, and even though he realizes he’s not just arguing with Jiang Cheng but the entire host of insecurities in his head, Lan Xichen refuses to stop trying, “I don’t think you’re weak or incompetent or dysfunctional, or anything like that. I’m saying this because you–you fucking deserve support.”

Jiang Cheng’s mouth drops open and his clenched fists go slack. A large gap, and not just a crack, finally breaks through Jiang Cheng’s defense and he looks at Lan Xichen like he’s listening to him, not just hearing him. He looks at him like he’s finally starting to see that Lan Xichen can care and worry about him without pitying him.

That Lan Xichen is upset, not with him, but with the circumstances.

“You deserve as much support as you always give others,” Lan Xichen continues, “You deserve to succeed without sacrificing your health and you deserve–”

There is so much more that Jiang Cheng deserves, but a lump keeps growing in Lan Xichen’s throat as the full reality of how alone Jiang Cheng was sinks in.

When his parents died, Lan Xichen felt alone, but he was never truly isolated. He had his uncle and his brother both times, and while both times he felt like he needed to be the strong and independent one for Lan Wangji’s sake, Lan Wangji was there. In the same house, in the same school, in the same industry.

The Nie brothers were also there both times, and when Lan Xichen’s father died, the brothers had lost both their parents as well.

On top of that, when Lan Xichen lost his mother, he was still young enough that no one but his younger brother was relying on him. He didn’t have a job, kids, school, or anything else comparable to Lotus Lakes. Even when his father died, Lan Xichen’s past manager respected his need for a break. His fans were, for the most part, sympathetic and understanding. Lan Xichen eventually used music as a coping mechanism as always, but no one demanded productivity from him.

Even so, both those time periods of Lan Xichen’s life were indescribably dark. Even when Lan Xichen hadn’t spoken with his father in months, he mourned him deeply.

His brain refuses to even form a vague image of what he would have felt and done without a support network while forced to organize an event that has a deep connection to his family’s legacy and would determine the future support his entire company received.

Perhaps most astonishing is the fact that Jiang Cheng succeeded. Lotus Lakes may not be as well known to the general public as a famous singer like Lan Xichen, but Lan Xichen has now heard stories from the Yu sisters and Jiang Cheng, and seen the exact numbers that prove Lotus Lakes is thriving. The number of sponsors, the support from the surrounding villages, the amount of funding, and most importantly, the healthy growth of the protected areas and ecosystem services, has increased since Jiang Cheng took over.

Part of that is likely the changing times, but as Lan Xichen has now seen and heard, Jiang Cheng is also far more hands-on and personally involved than his father had been.

Lan Xichen knows from his own experience that most people respond more positively to that type of leadership, and he’s seen plenty of it since he’s become more involved in Jiang Cheng’s life. He saw it when he went to Jiang Cheng’s hometown, when they stopped for their roadside meal, and when he looked through Lotus Lakes’ official social media accounts as well as the employee ones. There are candid, fun, and sneaky photos and posts among the official ones of nature, and every single one brims with an obvious devotion not just to Lotus Lakes, but to Jiang Cheng as well.

And Jiang Cheng did all of that, or at least started to, while alone and trapped in a quagmire of grief.

Knowing about such a context, it’s painfully obvious why Jiang Cheng would continue to operate as if he can and must still succeed alone. As if not being able to operate at full independence means he is failure.

“I’m going to hug you now,” Lan Xichen tells him. He waits one second for Jiang Cheng to reject him, and then pulls him into his arms just as Jiang Cheng did for him underneath the stars.

Jiang Cheng sits stiffly for second after second, but Lan Xichen doesn’t let go. He can feel Jiang Cheng’s heart pounding erratically against his chest, and his muscles convulse every few heartbeats. Eventually, Jiang Cheng’s arms twitch uncertainly, and he cautiously curls his fingers into the back of Lan Xichen’s sweater.

Lan Xichen doesn’t say anything, just tightens his own grip in encouragement, and Jiang Cheng lowers his forehead to Lan Xichen’s shoulder in time with his slow exhale. His breath hitches on the inhale, and Lan Xichen gives him all the time he needs as the last bit of anger fades and all the hurt exhaustion finally overtakes him.

Only once Jiang Cheng’s breathing finally stops sounding like a struggle does Lan Xichen loosen his grip a fraction.

“Just because you can function alone, doesn’t mean you have to,” Lan Xichen says softly because that is perhaps the most important thing Jiang Cheng has helped him understand these past few weeks.  “And you’re not alone now. You have all your experienced staff, and your family is and will be back soon.”

“But they’re still busy,” Jiang Cheng argues, though he stays in Lan Xichen’s arms. He continues before Lan Xichen can ask. “Wei Wuxian is in the middle of a project and for once he’s trying to do exactly as asked. A-Jie and Zixuan will be exhausted when they get back Thursday, and they’ll just want to be with A-Ling.”

Lan Xichen is too stunned to immediately respond, because Jiang Cheng is not just admitting that he doesn’t want to bother his siblings. He’s admitting, intentionally or not, that he doesn’t think his siblings will prioritize him even if he does ask.

Lan Xichen’s instinctive reaction is to refuse the existence of such a reality, but instead he stops and thinks. He thinks about the fact that Yu Jinzhu and Yu Yinzhu asked him to check on Jiang Cheng. He thinks about how, even though Wei Wuxian often jokes about Jiang Cheng being a grumpy workaholic who needs more of Jiang Yanli’s soup breaks, the man hasn’t physically shown up to ensure Jiang Cheng is taking breaks. He thinks about how children demand twenty-four hour care, and how even the most well-intentioned people often become incapable of giving attention to the world outside of their young children.

Lan Xichen thought it obvious that the Jiang siblings adored each other, and that Jiang Cheng simply wasn’t seeing it just like Jin Guangyao once didn’t see the affection of people in his life because of the blinders of their childhood and parents.

Now he wonders if it’s perhaps more complicated than that. If Jiang Cheng’s siblings aren’t showing him just how much they love him, not in a way he needs, not in a way he recognizes. After all, Jiang Yanli doesn’t dote on him like she does Wei Wuxian, and Wei Wuxian doesn’t constantly hand him a bouquet of compliments like he does Jiang Yanli.

And Lan Xichen knows that’s because the Jiang household’s conflict revolved so much around Wei Wuxian’s adoption and Jiang Yanli has always been trying to compensate for that by showering him with love. He knows that Jiang Yanli is a far easier person to compliment and cling to, and that both brothers idolize her. He knows that the brothers have always shown their affection more through teasing and ribbing, but now they are cautious around each other, scared to overstep and add to the hurt they’ve already inflicted on each other. He knows that people don’t need to show their love for everyone in the same way, and that Jiang Cheng wouldn’t want the exact same treatment his siblings give to each other.

But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been isolating for Jiang Cheng. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t shaped his feelings of inadequacy and desperate need to be self-reliant just like his parents’ behaviour did.

Lan Xichen squeezes Jiang Cheng helplessly at that depressing train of thought and Jiang Cheng raises his head.

“Xichen-ge?” Jiang Cheng asks, and Lan Xichen can say nothing but,

“No.”

“No?”

“No, the hug isn’t done yet. No, you can’t leave yet.”

Jiang Cheng snorts in laughter, but it’s a weak thing that fades quickly, and Jiang Cheng lowers his head again. Lan Xichen tries to match his breaths to Jiang Cheng’s slow, even ones as his own stutter at the thought of no one properly cherishing this man who pours everything he has into the happiness of those he loves.

“I’m here,” he whispers, and Jiang Cheng breath hitches once again, but he says nothing. Instead he presses his forehead harder against Lan Xichen’s shoulder and wraps his arms fully around Lan Xichen’s waist.

I’m here.

I’m here.

I’m here.

They slowly untangle awhile later, and only at Jiang Cheng’s insistence. He still has work to do, but he insists it’s just a few more emails, and he no longer sounds dismissive or defensive.

Lan Xichen, in turn, doesn’t try to stop him. Instead he stands up to grab a throw blanket on the couch for Jiang Cheng and the romance novel he brought with him from his bag. He drops the blanket onto Jiang Cheng’s lap and settles back down beside the staring Jiang Cheng with a smile.

“I’ll be quiet, I promise,” Lan Xichen says, and even though he has essentially just made a promise about his presence, he gives Jiang Cheng the chance to verbally reject his offer, “But I would love to stay here a little longer, if you’ll have me.”

“If that’s what you want,” Jiang Cheng eventually replies, adjusting the blanket and pulling his laptop into his lap. He glues his gaze to the screen, but a blush steals across his cheeks once again and he shifts so their shoulders slot against each other.

True to his word, Lan Xichen turns his own attention to the novel. He’s quickly absorbed in it, the clacking of Jiang Cheng’s laptop keys in the background forming a comforting white noise. Once and awhile there’s a brief pause, and when Lan Xichen looks up on the third one, he sees Jiang Cheng curiously reading a snippet of Lan Xichen’s book.

His whole face twists in confusion at whatever line he reads, and Lan Xichen tilts the book so Jiang Cheng can read the title.

Spring Petals Drifting on the Gentle Winds,” Jiang Cheng says in disbelief. “That sounds like a really bad romance novel. Is it a really bad romance novel?”

“It’s not bad.”

“Are you sure? Are you really sure?”

“It might be a little cheesy, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad,” Lan Xichen replies, amused rather than offended by Jiang Cheng’s raised eyebrows and shaking head. “It’s a rather sweet story so far.”

“Of course you’d say that,” Jiang Cheng says. “I really shouldn’t be surprised you’d read this stuff.”

“You really shouldn’t,” Lan Xichen agrees, “You did admit ages ago that between the two of us, you’re the literary snob.”

“I’m not a snob, I just have standards.”

Lan Xichen simply hums before teasingly saying,

“Well I hope this doesn’t put me too far below your standards.”

“As if I could ever think poorly of you,” Jiang Cheng snorts, cheeks going slightly pink again, “But I will question your poor taste.”

“How generous of you,” Lan Xichen says smoothly, and fully opens up the book again. “But I will point out that you’ve only read a line or two.”

He turns his attention back to the line he was on as Jiang Cheng does the same in his peripheral vision. Jiang Cheng doesn’t immediately say anything, snorting a little before glancing back at the email on his laptop. He glances over again though when Lan Xichen turns the page.

“Seriously?” Jiang Cheng comments a few lines later. “An entire page talking about his appearance?”

“They’re in love, it’s only natural they’d gush about each other.”

“It’s a pa–it’s two pages, Xichen!”

“Two pages of beautiful words,” Lan Xichen half defends, half teases. “Poetry even.”

Her eyes were the glittering, iridescent amethysts of his heart–what does that even mean?”

“Read it and you’ll see,” Lan Xichen teases and then clears his throat. “Hard but beautiful, precious no matter what form–”

“Stop.”

“–he could spend days simply admiring their beauty–”

“My ears are bleeding.”

“–watching how the shimmers changed with each new minute of the day–”

“Xichen-ge!”

“–a continuous miracle, no matter the hour, the season–”

A cushion to his face momentarily muffles Lan Xichen’s words, and he pushes it away to the sound of Jiang Cheng’s threats. Laughter bubbles in Lan Xichen’s throat, but with one arm shoving Jiang Cheng’s cushion away and the other holding his book as far away as he can, he continues reading. Jiang Cheng eventually gives up on the cushion and simply tries grabbing Lan Xichen’s arms.

“Enough, enough!” Jiang Cheng begs, practically hanging off Lan Xichen to grab the book. It’s a wonder they haven’t woken Jin Ling, but Lan Xichen wouldn’t feel bad even they had. Not when energy finally fills Jiang Cheng’s voice, his body loose from play-fighting, and his eyes shining with the same amusement that threads through his words despite his protests.

In return, Lan Xichen cannot stop grinning and he finally lowers his book.

“I won’t force you to listen as long as you keep half your judgements to yourself,” Lan Xichen tells him.

“Half?”

“I’m sure half of your comments will be amusing, even when they’re wrong.”

Laughter punches out of Jiang Cheng and he pushes off Lan Xichen.

“Confidence is a good look on you,” Jiang Cheng teases. “Even when you’re wrong.”

Lan Xichen resists the urge to stick out his tongue, but he might as well have with the way Jiang Cheng grins as he looks back to his laptop. He has one more email, he assures Lan Xichen as they once again settle against the wall sitting shoulder to shoulder.

Sure enough, only a few minutes later, most of Jiang Cheng’s attention returns to Lan Xichen’s book. His comments do become slightly less judgemental, more questions than observations. While Lan Xichen rarely appreciates people uninvitedly reading over his shoulder, Lan Xichen simply shifts to allow Jiang Cheng a better view. When Jiang Cheng keeps craning his neck and makes no move to kick Lan Xichen out or close the laptop, Lan Xichen gently tells him he can rest his head on Lan Xichen’s shoulder if he’d like.

Jiang Cheng hesitates, and he doesn’t lean his full weight on Lan Xichen immediately. But when Lan Xichen just continues to read, Jiang Cheng’s hair eventually brushes Lan Xichen’s neck as Jiang Cheng fully rests his head on Lan Xichen.

There are still things Lan Xichen needs to say, but he stays quiet for several more pages and simply enjoys this moment. They might have argued and Jiang Cheng might have been extremely stressed today, but it’s these small domestic moments with him that make Lan Xichen smile and relax when he’s still exhausted from his own lack of sleep and stressed about his social life and struggling with his songs.

In the grand scheme of Lan Xichen’s life, these moments have only just started to occur, but he already knows he never wants them to stop.

Eventually though, he pauses at the end of the page and softly says, “So here’s the plan we decided on for tomorrow.”

“We?” Jiang Cheng repeats, shifting just so Lan Xichen can see his amused eyebrow raise.

“You are going to sleep in.”

“A-Ling–”

“Will be taken to school by A-Qing and me. I’ll pick her up and bring her here so Jin Ling has someone more familiar around and will let you sleep. I’ll drive them both to school and then I’ll come back so when you do wake up after sleeping in, there will be fresh breakfast.”

“You’re a self-declared disaster in the kitchen.”

“I’ll buy you breakfast, and lots of obnoxiously bitter coffee.”

“Just because you need a whole sugar pot in yours, doesn’t make mine obnoxious.”

“Agree to disagree,” Lan Xichen says breezily, and Jiang Cheng’s tired laugh puffs against Lan Xichen’s neck. “So you will wake up well rested to warm breakfast and bitter coffee, and only after you’ve enjoyed that meal and had a relaxing shower will you drive to Lotus Lakes.”

“And I assume you’ve already told Jinzhu and Yinzhu to expect me later than usual?”

“They have threatened to lock you in your room with no technology so you will at least nap if you show up too early.”

“Betrayed by my own staff two days in a row,” Jiang Cheng says, looking like he wants to protest more, but sounding too tired to do so.

“Is it a betrayal if their job is to ensure their boss’ health?” Lan Xichen teases, because they seem to have completely bypassed Jiang Cheng’s possible defensiveness.

He doesn’t know if it’s because Jiang Cheng got all his stubbornness out earlier when Lan Xichen first showed up, if Jiang Cheng is simply too tired and realizes it, or if it’s Lan Xichen’s own stubbornness outweighing his. He hopes it’s at least partly because Jiang Cheng is comfortable with him, sinking into both the cushion and his presence. He hopes it’s because Jiang Cheng trusts, not just him, but A-Qing and Yu Jinzhu and Yu Yinzhu, even if he struggles to act on that trust.

“I’m pretty sure that’s not in their contract,” Jiang Cheng replies.

“And I’m pretty sure you don’t have a contract saying to bring them coconut candy every time you travel back from the city,” Lan Xichen counters. Jiang Cheng shakes his head, tilting back to speak to the ceiling.

“I’m not going to win this fight, am I?”

“Is it such a bad thing when losing means sleeping, good food, and good company?”

 Lan Xichen shifts so Jiang Cheng looks at him again before he gently grips Jiang Cheng’s hand. “When it means you aren’t alone this time?”

Jiang Cheng swallows hard and looks away after only a few seconds. He closes his eyes and Lan Xichen doesn’t push for a response. As much as Lan Xichen wants to verify Jiang Cheng truly believes that Lan Xichen and the others are now here for him, the man has already been vulnerable several times tonight and forcing another moment contradicts Lan Xichen’s whole goal of helping Jiang Cheng rest.

“Anyways, I’ve already received permission from his parents to care for Lan Jingyi tomorrow night, so with your express permission, I can also pick up Jin Ling from school and bring them both back here to play and have dinner together. That way Jin Ling will be perfectly content when you get back.”

Less than ten seconds tick by before Jiang Cheng opens his eyes and says,

“I’ll let the school know you have permission to pick him up.”

“Thank you,” Lan Xichen says, “Now that we’ve agreed on a plan, I’m sure you’re as eager as me to see what happens to Li Chunmei.”

Jiang Cheng’s full weight falls on Lan Xichen once again, more comforting than any weighted blanket could ever be. None of the man’s earlier hesitation remains, and his voice is far softer than before, even in judgement. His words get more and more slurred with each passing moment until they’re barely more than indistinct puffs of air. Still, Lan Xichen responds to every single one, even if he can only hum, just so Jiang Cheng knows Lan Xichen is still there.

At some point when Jiang Cheng is halfway to passed out, Lan Xichen gingerly extracts his arm and lightly wraps it around Jiang Cheng’s waist to keep it from going numb. He says a soft sorry, but Jiang Cheng just shifts to keep his head in the same place, eyes closed.

When Lan Xichen makes it a full two pages with nothing but the soft rustling of pages breaking the silence, he carefully shifts his gaze to Jiang Cheng.

The man’s eyes are fully closed, dark eyelashes resting against sleep flushed cheeks. His breathing is deep and slow, not changing when Lan Xichen whispers his name. Lan Xichen’s fingers flex and curl around Jiang Cheng’s hipbone without Lan Xichen’s permission, but Jiang Cheng merely sighs softly in his sleep.

A helpless, adoring smile steals across Lan Xichen’s lips. His other hand rests on the lines of a truly dramatic scene, but he can’t tear his gaze away from Jiang Cheng. He could stare at Jiang Cheng for hours like this, content because Jiang Cheng is finally content. He could hold Jiang Cheng for as long as he needs a pillowed pillar, keeping away anyone who would disturb Jiang Cheng’s deserved rest, even if his whole body went numb in the meantime. He could sit here until Jiang Cheng stirred again, their faces close enough that Lan Xichen will feel the brush of Jiang Cheng’s hair along his jawline as soon as Jiang Cheng shifts.

Only then would Lan Xichen consider moving, close enough that he would simply have to duck his head to capture Jiang Cheng’s lips with his own and guide him back to wakefulness with sweet kiss–

Oh.

The images sear through Lan Xichen’s mind as he stares at Jiang Cheng’s lips. The images stay there, even when Lan Xichen forces his gaze back up to Jiang Cheng’s closed eyes.  

Oh.

The realization dawns slowly, leisurely, calmly, just like the sun’s unchanging and steady climb above the horizon every day, illuminating every part of Lan Xichen with joyful light.  

He wants to kiss Jiang Cheng.

He wants to wake him right now and tell him how much Lan Xichen adores him. He wants to pepper Jiang Cheng’s beautiful face with countless kisses as if that can cure the dry and sunburnt skin. He wants to dance around the house with him, laughing until they can’t breathe. He wants to rip up the business contract that first bound them and scatter the remains to the wind, so Jiang Cheng knows it is Lan Xichen’s heart that keeps him at his side. He wants to scream his adoration to the same heavens standing on the same pier that Jiang Cheng showed him this past weekend. He wants to put every thought he’s ever had about the man to song so the whole world knows his brilliance, and Jiang Cheng can never forget just how much Lan Xichen loves him.

He wants to laugh because Lan Wangji saw this before Lan Xichen did, and Lan Xichen finally realizes why his younger brother has been so skeptically defensive of Lan Xichen. He wants to tell Lan Wangji that he understands; he understands how he felt for Wei Wuxian and he understands why Lan Wangji has been so worried, given their family’s propensity to fall irrevocably and the heartbreak Lan Xichen suffered less than a year ago.

He wants to tell Lan Wangji, and Jiang Cheng too, that while the shadows of that heartbreak still linger over his heart, he feels no fear when Jiang Cheng looks at him, holds him, curls up beside him like he has always been here.    

He wants–

He wants.

Lan Xichen wants to see Jiang Cheng shine. To see him succeed so conclusively that even the ghosts that haunt him cannot take that success away from him.

Which means Jiang Cheng needs sleep. He needs sleep, food, unconditional support, and a clear mind focused on the upcoming event. He will not, regardless of what he feels, want to respond to a change in his social life.

And Lan Xichen understands. There were times before a release of a single or album when being asked to give mental and emotional attention to other matters made him want to scream. When he was so exhausted from the preparation, that it hurt when people asked more of him because that meant no one saw how drained he was.

There have been times, both after his parents’ deaths and after his friends broke his heart, that even contemplating the simplest requests from the people he still loved felt like climbing a mountain with broken legs. Overwhelming times when his throat burned from a sudden ocean of tears drowning his lungs because I am just so tired, please can’t you see that, but he still choked out a yes to those requests.

Lan Xichen’s arm tightens around Jiang Cheng and the man shifts but doesn’t wake. Lan Xichen smiles and just once, lets himself brush some loose strands of hair out of Jiang Cheng’s face.

He will not put Jiang Cheng in such a position. He will help him through this event just as he promised, and when Jiang Cheng finally has a chance to think about something else, Lan Xichen will ask him to consider going on a real date.

Lan Xichen has waited far longer for far less.

Chapter Text

1, 8:06 PM  

You’ve reached the voicemail of –Nie Mingjue–. Please leave a message after the recorded tone.

I know you’ll want to hang-up as soon as you hear my voice, but please wait. You won’t understand what you missed or why I left so many messages unless you listen to them. One a day until you get back home from your tour. You’re lucky I didn’t think of this at the start of your tour, or all the messages might have finally broken this old machine.

It’s actually Huaisang who thought of this, in case you need another reason to keep listening. Or, at the very least, he was the inspiration.

We were talking about you and I, you see. It’s something he’s rarely allowed to happen after I hurt Xichen, so don’t start freaking out about that. We talked about Xichen too since we’re all so wrapped up in each other. And we talked about how I could at least get you talk to me again, if that’s what I wanted. Even if I only wanted to talk to Xichen, the two of us can’t be like we were.

The main problem is we’re not on an even playing field. We never were from where I was standing, but it’s uneven for different reasons now. 

So here’s something to even it out. 

I choked on my water the first time I ever saw your full, genuine smile, and Huaisang is never going to let it go. 

***

2, 7:48 PM

I’m glad you kept that blond streak you accidentally dyed when you used Huaisang’s products. And not just because remembering Huaisang’s panicked reaction and your shouting still makes me laugh.

I’m even happier he convinced you to dye your tips after.

***

4, 1:10 PM

Sometimes when the weather changes quickly, I get really bad earaches from the sudden air pressure change.

                                                                                                                ***

7, 9:26 AM

No matter what else happens between us, I swear that I will still be calling you an absolute madman on my deathbed for ever claiming that mint chocolate isn’t anything but proof of cruel, malevolent spirits who just want to watch us suffer.

I will also be cursing Huaisang for managing to convince me to give it another try in your absence.

May your next meals leave you both hollow and desperate for meaning.

***

9, 6:37 AM 

There was this refrain mama used to hum. More than a few notes, but not quite enough to be a full chorus. I could never figure out what song it was from and when I asked her, she said it wasn’t from anywhere. I asked her what it was about because I could never decide if it was a sad or happy song. She smiled and told me it was about how she much loved me.

The older I got, the less she sang to herself or to me, the less she listened to music, and the less she smiled. But she never stopped singing those same notes, and she always smiled when she did. And when she became too sick to speak, I sang it for her.

I only ever wrote the notes down once, right after she died. I was afraid that even if I hummed it everyday, one day I would forget it. I put it in a cookbook I never use and shoved it in the back of the tallest cupboard that no one uses.

I haven’t looked at it since she died, but I’ve never stopped hearing it.

***

11, 10:58 PM 

You asked me once how I can act as if I feel nothing, mostly towards people. I know you’ve asked similar questions about how Xichen smiles so much. There’s a million discussions we could have on this topic, but here’s my short answer.

Compartmentalization. I’m sure you know that word. You’re not an unintelligent man, so I’m sure you know how it generally works.

For me, it means I put everything in boxes with nice little labels. You can picture them in whatever colour you’d like. I usually go with a simple grey steel since the point is to keep things firmly and cleanly locked inside.

Every person in my life gets a box. And every emotion I feel for that person gets another separate box inside that first box. So when I deal with that person I can either open up one specific box to deal with them or as you observed, I can take whatever unpleasant thing they’re making me feel and seal it in another box.

Obviously it’s not always as simple as that, but I’ve had a lot of practice and that’s the best way I can explain it. I learned very quickly that those kids in school who wanted to hurt me wanted to, well, see me hurt. It was no fun for them if I locked everything in little boxes and didn’t let them see inside. And if I wanted to have a good future then I needed to do well in school, which meant I couldn’t have all those feelings flying around my head while I was trying to write a test or listen to a lecture. And mama was already so stressed, things would have only been worse if I let her see everything.

I can hear you scoffing, so let me say for the record, I’m well aware there are problems with this method. Two problems to be specific, at least in my experience. One, I have to do it with pleasant feelings too if I don’t want to get overwhelmed. And two, like I said, each feeling I have for a person needs to go in its own box inside their box. Which means if one person makes me feel too many different things, I start running out of boxes. And the ones that are there start cracking and sometimes if I’m not careful, things spill and get messy. And I–I can’t succeed if things are messy because people see that mess and people use that mess against me.

You and er-ge and Huaisang, your boxes all started to get a little too full. Especially yours. I was–

I was worried that your box was so full it would just blow up for everyone to see, which is why I panicked that year of Zixuan-xiong’s wedding and had to make sure there were no witnesses. That, and those witnesses really were nasty people that only had unpleasant things in their boxes.

Anyways, keep listening to the messages and maybe I’ll tell you exactly what’s inside your box.

***

14, 8:37 PM

It’s rare it affects me now, but technically I get claustrophobic sometimes. Obviously it’s not too bad, since I travelled in that bus with you on tours and I’ve taken flights before without much trouble. And everyone complains about the lack of space in that bus.

It has to do with the lighting and the people. If there’s other people around, especially if they’re talking, nothing happens. If the lights stay on, I’m fine. It’s the times when…

I don’t want to say it like this, but the simple version is it happens when I’m alone and it’s dark in a small room. I mean a closet sized room.

Yes, there’s a story behind that. Which I don’t like talking about, but I didn’t even want to talk about the issue in the first place. Unfortunately, I did include that verse on Venerated Triad about your fear of any and all kinds of boats because of your parents’ drownings.

So I owe you the very brief story of how three other boys locked me in the cleaning closet in the basement of our elementary school after class one day because I didn’t have enough money for them to steal and I refused to give them the new pencil case mama had just bought me. They turned off the lights, locked the door, and forgot about me. A cleaner found me the next morning, but I lied and told them it was an accident. I don’t remember how I got home or if any teacher noticed. I just remember I was lucky mama was working overnights. And I actually had a fever when she asked me why the school called to say I missed a day.

So there, now I know one of your debilitating fears, and you know one of mine. 

***

17, 1:00 AM 

I don’t sleep well in new places, no matter how luxurious the bed. I’m also a light sleeper, so I don’t sleep well in noisy or bright places. Honestly, I don’t sleep well in general, and never have.

I know you noticed that, and I know you and Xichen and Huaisang all commented on it before.

But what you never noticed, or maybe you just never commented on, is that it always got a little easier if I was in the same room as you.

***

18, 3:33 PM

I’ll take your anger over your apathy.

***

21, 11:11 PM

I know if you do end up talking to me again, you’ll ask what happened to those boys. The ones who tormented me in school, following me from elementary to high school. Specifically, what happened, because I’ve mentioned them offhand before these calls, and gave a vague, oh they got what they deserved type of answer.  

Which now, I’m sure you’ll say that what I meant is that I made them suffer for what they did to me. And you’d be right. Not until the middle of high school, mind you, and not until I had sufficient evidence of every little rule they’d ever broken. Minor vandalism, forgery of notes, cheating on tests, sneaking alcohol. A lot of my classmates weren’t willing to speak out against them, but they were willing to speak to me, and that’s all I needed to start finding bits of real evidence. All the incidents weren’t much on their own, besides the alcohol, but when everything was added up and presented to the principal in a neat little folder? Well, we might not have been anywhere near the best school in the province, but we were still supposed to be a somewhat academic one, and leaking all that would lead to a mob of upset parents.

Not that those boys were really punished. The principal and parents arranged for them to be ‘transferred’ to another school that would better suit their ‘academic needs.’

The other students saw through that, of course. They knew there had to be a bad reason they left so suddenly, without any of their typical bragging. The scornful rumours about them were so vicious and constant that mama thought I won an award or something, I was smiling so much.

Of course, none of the evidence had anything to do with how they treated me. I knew that if I went to someone just because of that, I’d be doubted and then waved away. They’d say I was probably taking everything too personally, and therefore exaggerating or purposefully misremembering to get the boys in trouble.

That’s the problem with reporting any abuse against yourself. Physical, verbal, emotional, sexual—it doesn’t matter what type. As soon as the person you’re reporting to finds out you’re the victim, suddenly everything you say and do is biased and questionable. You’re not there for righteous reasons anymore, not there for the sake of justice or for the sake of another person, and you’re certainly not there with impartial evidence. Even if the only evidence is your account of events against the other person’s, somehow you’re still the one who probably misinterpreted things because of your emotions.

I’m sure you’d love to argue with me right now, and it’s probably hard for either you or Xichen to understand. Because people have always listened to you and taken your opinion as the truth. And I don’t just mean the droves of loyal fans you could command like an army, I mean Huaisang and Xichen and Wangji and all your other friends. If you told them someone hurt you, that they did something wrong, they would believe you without any evidence. They’d want evidence if the accusation were too serious, and you’d want to give it to them because you believe in that, but their first reaction would be to stand by you.

I’ve never had that certainty. I tried once when I was really little to report the bullying. I told my teachers and I told mama. She struggled for weeks to find someone to cover her shifts and then took a whole day off to go to the school to complain.

They saw her and I for exactly twenty-three minutes, and told her that boys will be boys, that the other boys said they were only playing, that they understood it must be hard without any male figures in our lives but that she shouldn’t teach me to be so sensitive, and that I should simply play with some other children if I didn’t get along with these ones.

It’s one of the few times I heard mama raise her voice, and one of the few times I saw her cry in public. The principal gave her some tissue before he asked someone to see us out, but that was it. So I stopped telling anyone about it, especially mama, until I had enough evidence to prove they were bad in the ways that others cared about.

Which I realize makes this whole thing pretty ironic, doesn’t it? Me, telling you all these truths and expecting you’ll just believe me. No pictures, no bank statements, no collaborating conversations—nothing but me and my words. Which is enough to please people, to create music, to persuade people to commit to projects, to build people’s egos, but it’s never been enough to keep people on my side. Not when it’s my word against someone else’s.

But I’m still talking. Like I tried after I released Venerated Triad but not when I got that idiot you called a producer arrested. I did have evidence then, but apparently it wasn’t enough. Which, I’m still angry at the police for not being able to properly follow-up on the obvious proof they had, but I’m even angrier at myself because clearly I wasn’t as patient as I should have been, as patient as I have been. I should have known I needed more, especially if I wanted to convince you afterwards that I was in the right. Maybe I should have kept more of the messages I was sent, but all that would have led to is a harassment charge, and the equivalent punishment of a slap on the wrist.   

I don’t know if having more evidence would have mattered anyways, and maybe that’s why I didn’t try harder to explain when everything fell through. Because you liked that producer. You liked everyone on your crew to some extent and they’d been around longer than me. They had more convincing words than me.

Maybe that’s why I thought taunting you into talking to me at the studio was a good idea, and why I’m still calling. At the studio it was er-ge and I, and we were saying the same things. Well, his songs and I were, and I knew he wouldn’t lie about it, and that those lyrics were the evidence.

And now? Well now, there’s just me. Just my words. There’s no one to argue against, no one to shout over me, no one to replace my story with theirs.

Of course, that still doesn’t mean that you’ll just believe me. I wouldn’t.

But maybe if we end up meeting again in person, maybe one day if we ever trust each other again, I can show you the notes of mama’s song.

I’d like it if you could at least believe that story.

***

23, 1:05 PM

Huaisang, Xichen and I made a bet once, about whether you would remember to post stereotypical food photos to your accounts while you were on an international tour without one of us there to make you.

I’m not checking your accounts now, but Huaisang suddenly gave me eighty yuan this morning while cursing out American sausage stands and meat lovers, so I guess I know how you’re doing.

Thanks for lunch, da-ge

***

25, 11:59 PM

I hate this. There, I said it. I’m sure you’ll be happy to hear it if you’re actually listening to these. You’re always saying that er-ge and I don’t express our dislikes often enough, even though I know I’ve told you multiple times how much I hate how you think baggy gym shorts are appropriate for every occasion. And how you’ll use the same mug for a week straight. And how you always chose the alarms that go from a peaceful melody to blaring sirens. And I really hated that one time you tried growing a beard. Stubble looks great on you, a small moustache is fine, but anything more than that is an assault on everyone’s eyes. Just because you want to flex your ability to grow one doesn’t mean you should.

That’s all I’m saying today.

***

26, 2:22 PM

Lime green is the most disgusting colour in the world, no you can’t change my mind. 

***

29, 10:50 PM  

This might surprise you even though you can be observant when you want to be, but I’ve only ever been drunk once in my life. I’ve been buzzed plenty of times, around plenty of different people. But being drunk is different. Being drunk means no control, which makes you a very easy target and very likely to say something that people will use against you later. 

You were there the only time I wasn’t careful enough. It was after it was announced that once again, you and Xichen were both in the running for Best Male Singer at the Top Chinese Music Awards. It was right before I connected with Zixuan-xiong and started helping him with the wedding. You must remember how Huaisang insisted on throwing a party. Not excessive, but definitely not just a small, private party.

You were drunk too, by the time it happened. More than me, of course, but most people get more drunk than me.

The three of you kept making sure I had a drink, Huaisang especially, and I…I just took them. I wouldn’t say without thinking, but definitely less thinking than normal.

And you–

Do you remember? I couldn’t tell in the morning, if you didn’t remember or if it just didn’t matter, because you never said anything, and you acted like nothing was or would ever be different.

We were standing near each other, talking, and you decided you wanted to talk to people in another room, but you wanted me to come with you. So you–you wrapped your arm around me and slipped your hand inside the front pocket of my sweater, because obviously that is the best way to pull someone around.

Of course, even drunk, you asked me if it was okay. And I said yes, it was, like a fool. I let you pull me into that other room, I let you keep your big paw over my stomach, I let you keep me tucked against your obnoxiously big body and I–

I know that mama slept with some of her managers before, to get extra shifts or keep her job so we could still afford rent. I’ve slept with people to gain positions before and I’ve slept with people purely for sex before, but I can’t–I won’t do that with you.

And yet, I let myself enjoy it. I stood there and I leaned against you and gave people real smiles and I–I don’t know what you were thinking. I don’t know if you were thinking at all or if it meant anything beyond a friendly hug to you, but to me

To me it was what made me realize I was drunk.

That’s when I told you I wasn’t feeling well and locked myself in the bathroom. Xichen overheard me throwing up and comforted me like I was someone who had just drank too much. Which I had.

But I made myself throw up that night, hoping it would sober me up. At least enough to…

to stop making a fool of myself.

***

30, 8:41 PM   

I realize everything I tell you doesn’t have to be about bad moments, and I’ve told you plenty of positive or neutral things. After all, some of the lyrics Xichen wrote were sweet and honest, as expected of him.

But remember I told you that even pleasant things have to go in their boxes. I just…collect them and tuck them away with a little more care, like Xichen collects all those figurines on a shelf. They’re still very breakable and can make an even bigger mess than the unpleasant ones.

And doing things this way, I can’t tell what you’re thinking of the mess I’m spilling right at your feet. I can’t even tell if you’re actually listening to these or if you went through and hit delete for five minutes straight until these were all gone. Maybe I’m talking to nothing or maybe my voice is in storage right now as you prepare to upload this all online.

I doubt you’d do that last part, but I know you would say I deserve it. At least the deleting part.

I can’t agree with you that what I did was completely without reason or justification. I can agree that I hurt both you and er-ge. For you, with the album, it was a little bit on purpose because, well, you hurt me, and I wanted to get your attention. I wanted to stop being the only one judged for my truths. 

I knew you’d be mad with me, and er-ge a little, but I thought you would forgive him pretty quickly. I thought you would stick around longer than you did.

That–

I shouldn’t have thought that. I know better than to think that.

But you and er-ge and Huaisang, you make me want to think that despite my better judgement. I think Zixuan-xiong and Jiang-saosao are trying to make me think the same.

This message is such a mess, I’m almost hoping you deleted it.

***

31, 4:38 PM

I didn’t think I’d like A-Ling much. I don’t hate babies but I’m also not the type who melts over them. They can be cute, but they’ll also wail their lungs out at midnight, like my old neighbour’s kid.

Then A-Ling came along and obviously at first, he was just a drooling ball of flesh that needed to be held constantly. But then he started growing and he became so curious and happy and clever, in a childish way. Don’t misunderstand, he can also be massively selfish and petulant, but it’s not malicious. There’s no desire to hurt or bully people, and with how attentive his parents are, it should stay that way.

And I think A-Ling likes me too. Enough to call me xiao-shushu even when his parents aren’t around to enforce it, and enough to smile at me like he does with his other family. Enough to want to go on trips with me like today.

Jiang-xiong was on our trip today too, and he was mad I was spoiling A-Ling. Admittedly, watching him vomit all the candy he ate wasn’t pleasant, but we’re only children once. Rides, candy, bedazzled sneakers, cute animal-shaped backpacks, funny headbands; they’re all things we only think acceptable to want when we’re children. They’re all things mama would have loved to give me, if we’d been able to afford it.

So if I like A-Ling and I like being his shushu, what’s so wrong with making sure A-Ling doesn’t miss out on those things?

***

32, 12:05 AM 

You know, despite all the other things I did, I tried not to lie directly to you or Huaisang or Xichen. Not big lies at least. There were a lot of little white ones, some misdirections, especially at the start and the end.

But there was only ever one big one. It’s about unrequited feelings like on the album, and even though I’ve already given you information equal to that, and I’ve already given you a truth about mama, you’ve given me more. More about your parents, and how they and their deaths affected every aspect of your life. It’s not quite the same, because both of yours loved you, were good people from the sounds of it, and any pity people may give you comes from their deaths.

I lied about never meeting Jin Guangshan before he died. I met him once. Mama had already died, and I’d gotten a test done for further proof. I convinced someone to get me a visitor’s pass for the studio and take me to his recording room in the studio so I could introduce myself when he went on break.

I told him who I was. Who mama was. And all he did was look at me for ten seconds and then tell me to come talk to him when I had something more than diluted blood to elevate me.

So I applied to any industry job I could. I had my degree, but I still had to start with grunt work and all the thankless errands that go on behind the scenes. I already wanted to succeed, for mama, for myself, for my love of music, but the stakes were higher then.

Ironically, it’s doing that work that I started to hear all the rumours. It took less than a month, less than a week really, to realize that the man’s infidelity and mistreatment of women was one of the worst kept secrets in the industry. Even before I started working, I saw some posts online about it, but I wanted to believe what mama said about him. I wanted to believe that his talent was real, and that some stars really are stars all the way through.

And then he died. Before I met you, before I could truly succeed, before I spoke with him again, before I could reconcile mama’s image of him with the reality I saw and hated.

So when I finally met you and Xichen, when I confessed the rumours were true, when you asked me if I’d ever had a chance to meet him—I didn’t want your pity. You, with your parents who may have been more absent than they should have when you were growing up but who clearly loved you, who you clearly idolized. Xichen would understand a little better, but I wasn’t ready for understanding.

And then you introduced me to Zixuan-xiong and I really didn’t want his pity for that on top of everything else. Not to mention the fact that Jin Xiaoting is very much alive and while she can’t erase the rumours, she does her best to keep them away from her son. She’ll use lawyers if she has to, and a whole horde of rich elitists like herself. We might have a mutual dislike of each other, but fighting her in over that isn’t worth it.

So I guess when Zixuan-xiong asked me to help with the wedding, I saw it both as an escape from what was happening with you and a way of proving myself, to the living and the dead. Even though I hated what I’d seen and heard, even though it turns out he wasn’t someone who deserved my efforts, I still wanted that proof of success mama always wanted for me. I still wanted to get as far away as possible from that decrepit, bug-infested hovel.

It didn’t help that Zixuan-xiong is actually rather likeable under all his posturing, and Jiang-saosao is Jiang-saosao. Even if I could spend the rest of my life never speaking with his buffoon of a cousin, I was happy helping with those wedding preparations.

But the problem with being away from anywhere for too long is there’s even more to prove when you get back. Succeeding as well as I did with Zixuan-xiong made me even more determined to exceed expectations when it came to you and your music. 

Maybe that’s why I wasn’t as patient as I should have been when I returned to full hours in the studio. Maybe that’s why that producer’s behaviour seemed even more intolerable than before. Maybe that’s why I was so worried about losing my position with you, even though you welcomed me back like nothing was different.

And maybe all the insults and threats and physical harassment from the less tolerable Jins was finally catching up to me, leaking out of their boxes long before I spotted the holes.

But you know, I never lied about Huaisang being the one to approach me at that first charity dinner, and I didn’t lie about not immediately realizing who he was. I really was just taking a breather in the gardens before I went back to that roomful of vultures scrounging for any scraps of secrets they could get. Those secrets are all they cared about, not the near insufferable work I did for all those condescending project managers who were too lazy to even lift a finger when they didn’t want to do something. They didn’t care about the inhumane amount of overtime I did for next to nothing, and still did well. All my small successes meant nothing to them. I was nothing to them.   

But if you let them see your frustration, or worse, your hurt, you lose. So I really was trying to calm down and really was caught off guard when Huaisang just dropped into the seat beside me with one of his fans and asked me if I was tired of all the glitter already or tired of all the creatures wearing it.

I wasn’t as careful as I should have been when I told him I was tired of the fake glitter but, as we’ve told you before, he just said that was a good answer before he started talking about his evening.  

So there you go. A lie revealed and a truth reiterated all in one message.

***

34, 3:02 AM

I wonder if you’ll find it surprising how easily I found work at another studio after Venerated Triad’s release. It helped that neither you or Xichen went public about the details of our falling-out or what I’d done to the music. I’m surprised he didn’t, frankly, but I’m sure if I even tried to continue working for the same studio, I would have been kicked out.

As it is, when I left to work at Peony Studios, the place was full of serial gossipers, but that’s this entire industry. It’s fuelled by rumours more than hard work half the time, but I also had big, unignorable success this time around, regardless of how I got Venerated Triad to succeed.

I wonder if you expected me to leave, at least temporarily, like Xichen did, like you did. I wonder if you expect me to leave once you’re both back. I wonder if you think I’m only doing this so I can get my position on either of your teams back.

I’ll save you the trouble now and tell you that none of that is happening. This industry may be poisoning us all slowly, but it’s not a poison that can be stopped from the outside, just like I can’t curate music the same way from the outside. I made it here, I love it here, and I will succeed here, just like you and Xichen.

But that doesn’t mean I’ll take the exact same path as before. It doesn’t mean that I have been these past few months. No more throwing people in jail or spreading career-ruining rumours, even if they’re frankly terrible people who deserve to have all their food spit in for the rest of their lives.

Which brings us to the main detail of this message. When I first started, I was working with several artists, helping their teams sort out the direction they wanted the song to go in, working out the final editing details, reviewing the finalized tracks, all that. Fine work, but not the same as working with one artist from start to finish.

Well now I’ve found a new artist. Or more accurately, she found me. There’s a very long story involved, but that’s for a future where you want to share stories in person again. But in short, I was in a park when I saw her getting harassed by some pompous pricks, and I pretended to be her manager to get her away. I got her safely inside a cab, but well, she recognized me. She came running up to me ten blocks later just to ask for an audition. With me, specifically. She was so out of breath she could barely get out a sentence but she still–she insisted she could perform right then and there if I wanted. 

Her name is Qin Su. There’s a lot I’d like to tell you about her, things that are important, but those things aren’t just my secrets, they’re hers too. I can tell you that as of this message, the greater public hasn’t heard her sing yet. We plan on releasing a demo soon, and then her debut single will be in three weeks time. She already has half an album ready, and it shouldn’t take us too long to get the rest finished after her debut with how hard we’re both working.

I think you’d like her. Huaisang actually met her today. Unplanned, given he snuck into the studio without warning me and spent the better part of an hour watching us work. While I’m sure you would be the first to scold him on privacy issues, I think he was doing it to protect you.

I can hear you snorting at that, but why shouldn’t he be cautious? You’ve always been his entire world, no matter how strict you were with him, and you’ve spent the past nine months on another continent. The tour and the collaboration might have been planned before everything, but you can’t deny that how quickly you left, and the fact that you told Huaisang not to join you this time, is because of what happened with Xichen and I. And I know he misses Xichen too.

So he and I may have been close, but what does that matter if he thinks I’m planning on hurting you again?

...

Anyways, Huaisang seemed to like Qin Su and she liked him too. He liked her voice at least, and we went for dinner after, which is partly why I’m calling so late. Qin Su insisted on treating all of us which, no, was not intended as bribery, but genuine appreciation.

She’d buy you a meal too, if you were to ever meet. She’s in awe of both you and Xichen, and really anyone who’s produced something halfway decent. I don’t think I’ve heard her say a bad word about anyone yet.

I have to meet her in the studio first thing tom–well, today, so I’ll end it here. 

***

37, 2:33 AM

You remember Xue Yang, I’m sure. You didn’t like him. You didn’t understand why he liked me, and vice versa.

I helped him once. Well, I’ve helped him a couple times, but there was one time of significance. I can’t tell you all the details because just like with Qin Su, those are his secrets to share and I’m trying that whole being considerate of others’ secrets thing. You know, the thing you thought I would always be horrible at.  

But what I can tell you is he landed himself in trouble quite a few years ago with some others in the modelling industry and the paparazzi. Trouble he didn’t fully realize was severely bad until he let slip some details and I convinced him he needed to get out.

Once he realized, he freaked out. Not because of the questionable morality, mind you, which I know you would think should be the issue, but because he didn’t want his semi-adoptive, lawyer parents to find out. He was afraid of their potential disappointment given they do have deeply developed moral compasses that are scarily similar to yours. But it is what got him to finally listen to me in the first place.

So I found out the secrets of the other people involved. Worse secrets than his, ones that involved abuse, which were frankly rather easy to find given the modelling world can be even worse than the music industry, and the paparazzi are constantly skirting the bounds of legality. I helped Xue Yang find them and he used them, and his young age, to get a deal with some investigators. He did have to tell that adoptive family something, but they haven’t kicked him out yet.

I don’t necessarily expect you to sympathise with or understand everything I’ve told you. But you should at least understand now that not all truths, especially the ones people hide, are equal. They’re another type of currency, but unlike real money, it’s a currency where the people who have the least are also the least aware of its value and think the least about it. You have so few of such little value, and you have so many other forms of currency, you’re always able to dismiss their value and the people who need to use them.

I’ve never had that luxury.

My truths, and the ones I could find out about others, have always been my form of currency. If I wanted to be even more dramatic, then I could say that they’re more like weapons. Rocks that people could smash against my skull when they wanted me gone. I wanted to think that you would catch those rocks if given the chance. The only person who ever tried was mama, and I only let her see the pebbles.

Even when yours and Xichen’s truths were put on that album, even now, most of yours are pebbles. Small blemishes that you’ve admittedly blown out of proportion, but nothing you can’t come back from. Nothing worth losing a friend or brother over.

I want to argue that mine aren’t either, and neither are my actions. I want to.

But it’s much harder when we can both see the unequal piles of rocks at each other’s feet and you’ve always claimed to hate inequality.

But you also hate suffering, of strangers and friends, and frankly, I’m getting rather tired of dragging myself out of this burial mound.

***

38, 3:27 PM

If you’re still listening, congratulations on making it to the final message. It’s the Sunshot Charity Dinner tonight, which means you’ll be getting back home in less than twenty-four hours. If I try phoning tomorrow, there’s a high chance you’ll answer, and ruin the whole order of things.

I’m not going tonight. I told Qin Su that I could still get her and her parents an invitation since she was really looking forward to her first one, but she just said she’d wait until I could attend with her. She said she’d feel bad if she went without me after all the work I’ve done and she’s so excited, she probably wouldn’t be able to stop herself from talking about the debut.

I want to go, but er-ge will no doubt force himself to attend, with his cactus of a boyfriend, and I know he doesn’t want to see me yet.

But he probably does want to see you again, and you know, as angry as you are with me for hurting him, I hope you’re just as angry at yourself for taking it out on him. That is exactly why he didn’t want to publish some of those lyrics, because he didn’t want to add to the anger and the hurt, because he didn’t want to admit to you that there were so many times that he was, just like you don’t like admitting to all the times you’ve been blind or just flat-out wrong. You don’t like admitting your rage is just like everyone else’s rage—not always righteous, not always fair, and just as capable of hurting the people who don’t deserve it as much as the people who do.

And yet, even then, you are still wanted. All your flaws, all your mistakes, and you still have a baby brother who adores you, a best friend who just wants the chance to forgive you, and crowds of people who will be happy with any bit of music you give them.

I’m not trying to say you don’t deserve it, you know, as furious as I sound right now, as much as I might have believed it a few months ago. I’m still angry at the unfairness of everything, but you do deserve his forgiveness, you deserve your success, and you deserve to be wanted.

You might not think that I deserve anything at this point, but that has never stopped anyone from wanting. And I want–

After all these messages, this really should not be so difficult.

…I want to see you. I want to talk. Or just see you talking. With Huaisang, with er-ge...just someone who makes you smile and puts you at ease.

I know I put it there on purpose and I know I said I would take it over your apathy, but I’m tired of only seeing your furious face.

I can’t promise you anything. Even after all these messages, even after your time away, we are still ourselves. I can’t change my whole self for anyone, and neither can you.

But I think I’m willing to make compromises now if you are. I’m willing to talk about it at least.

But I won’t beg. I won’t call you again. There’s no point meeting if you don’t want to, so I’ll wait for your response. I haven’t blocked your number and I unblocked you from my social media.

Of course, if you’ve deleted all these messages and I’m just talking to the void right now, me saying all of this is useless. Or maybe you listened and then deleted all of them. Maybe you listened and decided there’s no value. Maybe you’ve already decided you want to reconnect with er-ge, and that’s it.

I know what I would have expected nine months ago, or even a month ago. But I also never would have done this nine months ago.

So for once, my only plan is to wait. 

Chapter Text

Seattle is rainy.

The concerts are fine.

Nie Huaisang is fine.

Nie Mingjue is fine.  

 

***

 

Portland is full of hipsters.

The concerts are colourful.  

Nie Huaisang is fine.

Nie Mingjue is fine.

 

***

 

San Francisco is foggy.

The concerts are routine.  

Nie Huaisang is working hard.

Nie Mingjue is fine.

 

***

 

Las Vegas is gaudy.

The concerts are bright.

Nie Huaisang is calling constantly.

Nie Mingjue is fine.

 

***

 

Santa Fe is old.

The concerts are lively.

Nie Huaisang is tired.

Nie Mingjue is getting used to only sleeping for four hours every night.

Nie Mingjue is fine.

 

***

 

Dallas is flat. 

The concerts are sold-out.

Nie Huaisang is calling more frequently.

Nie Mingjue is fine.

 

***

 

Denver is surrounded by mountains.

The concerts are thunderous.

Nie Huaisang is demanding more pictures.

Nie Mingjue is fine.

 

***

 

Nashville is a city of music.

There are no concerts, not after the first week, not for three months. Instead, Nie Mingjue is in studios every week for more than half the week, working on the collaborative album he’s been planning for a year with an upcoming American singer, Scott Smith.

Nie Mingjue works out when he’s not in the studios, both in the gym and on the nearby mountain trails. He goes out to eat and drink with Scott and his friends when he’s not doing either of those things. He only stops moving to sleep. Even when Nie Huaisang calls him, he’s doing something else, even if it’s just pacing around the ridiculously large condo complex.

The fourth time they go out to eat, Scott jokingly warns a newcomer not to take Nie Mingjue’s ‘seat’—closest to the door, back to the entrance, allowing everyone else at the table to have a complete view of the room and all its exits.

Nie Mingjue refuses to sit in the same seat twice after that.

But Nie Mingjue is fine. 

 

***

 

Nie Huaisang was originally supposed to join Nie Mingjue at the end of his stay in Nashville and accompany him for the final leg of the tour, but Nie Mingjue orders him to stay home instead.

They fight.

Nie Huaisang doesn’t call for days.

Nie Mingjue starts hearing his name whispered between his staff when he passes them. They deny it, and swear they’re not dissatisfied, no matter how angry he becomes. Zonghui, his manager, has to have a meeting with him. 

He doesn’t use the word paranoid, but Nie Mingjue hears it. 

Nie Mingjue deflates.  

 

***

 

Atlanta is small.

The concerts are rowdy.

Nie Huaisang is growing more and more snappish with each call.

Nie Mingjue doesn’t have the energy to fight or listen.

 

***

 

Orlando is warm.  

The concerts are a blur.

Nie Huaisang is withdrawn.  

Nie Mingjue is rarely hungry anymore.

Nie Mingjue’s staff are drinking lattes on the final morning in the city. The most extravagant shapes imaginable are drawn in the foam.

“It’s because they’re frivolous and indulgent luxuries that I drink them now when I can, da-ge.”  

Nie Mingjue is not fine.

 

***

 

Here’s the problem when someone close to you finally spills the noxious truths about the feelings and thoughts they’ve been bottling up for years. 

It makes the whole relationship feel like a lie. 

Every memory needs to be repainted with new colours and readjusted into new shapes, but only in your mind, because it was only you who didn’t see the truth. Then the paint seeps into other places and you stab yourself on the new corners, and you wonder. You wonder about all the times something looked off, but you didn’t look closer. The times you knew something was being left unsaid, but you didn’t ask further. All the times you let the matter slide by because you wanted to believe the other person trusted you enough to tell you the truth when it mattered.   

Worse, it injects doubt into the future of that relationship, and Nie Mingjue hates doubt. Some people say he doesn’t even feel doubt. They are wrong, but Nie Mingjue rarely tries to change that impression and usually, he does act with genuine confidence. There are two reasons for that.

One, his childhood was defined by certainties. His family loved him. Lan Xichen was his best friend. Nie Mingjue was good at school, sports, and music. He was a talented and moral boy. His parents were good people who taught their children to be the same. Because they kept him safe and privileged, the majority of Nie Mingjue’s decisions as a young child were the ‘right’ ones and added another certainty. He made good decisions. 

As he grew older, those certainties became more layered, but they remained without doubt. Lan Xichen, for example, was still his best friend and that meant even though Lan Xichen disliked confrontation and often hid his negative feelings from others, he would always be honest with Nie Mingjue. 

Two, when his parents died, Nie Mingjue couldn’t afford doubt. He didn’t have the time doubt required and he didn’t have room to make bad decisions, because all his choices now affected both his and Nie Huaisang’s livelihood, well-being, and future. His decisiveness was also the one steady thing he could give Nie Huaisang when tragedy and grief made everything else unstable.

So Nie Mingjue molded his own past certainties into the pillars that kept his world free of shaky doubt. He rarely adds new ones, though he started to build one for Jin Guangyao before the man’s actions destroyed it halfway through. 

And then Lan Xichen’s album cracked his pillar and Nie Mingjue was left to wonder how he never saw those cracks before. He couldn’t even judge how big nor how deep the cracks were, he was too stunned simply by their existence. Stunned and scared because even if the secrets revealed by the songs aren’t necessarily harmful, there is so much more that Lan Xichen might not be saying. There is so much about him that Nie Mingjue might not know and apparently, according to the songs, so much about Nie Mingjue that Lan Xichen might not trust.   

There are so many decisions Nie Mingjue made that may have been the wrong ones, but how can Nie Mingjue know unless someone tells him?

Which might be an unfair judgement given how many times he’s been told his immediate decisiveness interferes with listening to others. But that doesn’t mean people have the right to lie to him, to go behind his back, to take all his certain trust and poleaxe him with it.

Because now he’s lying on the ground and he doesn’t know how to make any decisions from there. 

 

***

 

He misses his brother.

He misses Lan Xichen.

He misses his parents.

He misses his bed and his shower and the smell of Nie Huaisang’s paints and the pile of magazines on every surface and finding scraps of fabric in every drawer of every room and fights over his hoodies and instruments in every corner and teasing Lan Xichen for his stash of sweets and weekends of char sui with beer and visiting a gym where he is known and the stony hues of ‘his’ room at the studio and hogging the best corner of the couch and messing with everyone’s hair and letting Nie Huaisang dye his hair and watching Nie Huaisang’s fashion shows and being used as a human parasol for everyone smaller than him.

He misses Jin Guangyao.

There is no one left to deny that to, not here.

He misses him.

He misses, he misses, he misses, he misses, he misses, he misses, he misses, he misses, he misses, he misses.

He misses.

 

***

 

Every interviewer always asks the same question about inspiration, and Nie Mingjue always gives the same answer.

Nie Huaisang was the final and constant push for Nie Mingjue to pursue his career as a singer after their parents died. Nie Mingjue always loved music, and every instructor who taught him said he was good enough for a career in it.

Nie Mingjue didn’t doubt them. But when his parents died and he became the sole guardian of Nie Huaisang, he couldn’t stake their livelihood on such a risky venture. Nie Huaisang was already artistic enough for the both of them, and perfectly content to try pursuing that less stable path. 

Nie Huaisang is actually the one who submitted the songs Nie Mingjue made in his free time to a producer and Nie Huaisang is the one who convinced him to at least meet up with the excited man. Even when Nie Mingjue finally agreed, he was quick to tell everyone involved that he didn’t want to bother with the glitter and glitz that so many other stars wrap around themselves and use as props to race to the artificial heavens.

“You’re telling me you’re a pragmatic celebrity?” Jin Guangyao asks. It’s the morning after they met at the Sunshot Charity Dinner. Nie Mingjue sports a mild hang-over, hair pulled up in a messy bun to keep it out of his focused gaze. Despite the number of people Jin Guangyao spoke with last night, the number of glasses that passed through his hands, and the late hour he was up with the Nie brothers, his appearance and expression are neat and calm.

“I’m telling you what my priorities are.”

“Which are relatively simple ones to achieve in your position,” he says, “You’re one of the most popular young singers with two albums already under your belt, after all. You already have enough money for those priorities, and more.”

“And by more, do you mean fancy cars and rooms in homes no one ever sees and clothes I’ll only ever wear once?” Nie Mingjue shakes his head. “I don’t care about that type of ‘more’. Make sure there’s enough for us to be comfortable, enough for Huaisang to pursue his dreams, and enough in savings that we would be okay until I found another job if my career ended tomorrow. Anything left over should go to charities—local or international, doesn’t matter as long as it goes to someone who will use it, not waste it.”

Up until then, Jin Guangyao had been wearing an obvious business persona; perfectly pleasant, but interested in Nie Mingjue only for the sake of succeeding in this career. At that, though, there is a spark of interest in Nie Mingjue as a person, noticeable only in the way he stares at Nie Mingjue for three seconds longer than usual and his pen stays still for another full three seconds even after he glances down to add to his notes.

The answer never changes, whether he’s in China or America, but Nie Mingjue feels like he’s changed.

Or maybe he’s just fallen apart.

 

***

 

Nie Mingjue calls his brother.

Da-ge?” Nie Huaisang answers, sleepy, confused, far too many time zones away with only Nie Mingjue to blame for that. “It’s not even seven here–I thought you and Zonghui were having a meeting tonight?”

“I cancelled it.”

“Why?”

“I told him I needed a mental break and that I needed to talk to you.”

Sheets rustle on Nie Huaisang’s end as if he has shot up in bed.

“Why?”

“I don’t know how to stop fighting.”

There are better ways of summarizing what he’s been feeling and what he doesn’t know how to stop; how to stop thinking about the worst-case scenario and how to stop preparing for it. How to stop focusing only on one path forward that has already proven to provide security at the expense of personal introspection and innovation.

He was the same way after his parents died and he became the sole person responsible for assuring his younger brother’s happiness. He, who loves that his brother is so creative and free even if Nie Mingjue did insist he also try harder in school, became narrow and strict when he realized how easily Nie Huaisang could be left alone in this world with no one but himself to rely on.

Only when Nie Huaisang convinced him to give music a try and Nie Huaisang’s career in the fashion world took off did Nie Mingjue relax. Only then did he start to not only enjoy, but explore, life and other people again, even if his main priority always remained the same.

Now Nie Huaisang is thriving, and Nie Mingjue doesn’t want to ruin that as he falls back on his old habits to ensure they survive another heartbreak. He doesn’t want to lose it on Nie Huaisang like he lost it on Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao.

So he left. He told his old friends that he had nothing more to say to them. He did, but it would have been the same things he’d been saying for months, just with an extra layer of anger. He told Nie Huaisang not to come because Nie Huaisang would want to talk about it, and then they would fight.

If it was just Nie Mingjue and his old music, then he wouldn’t have to think about any new or uncertain paths forward and he wouldn’t have to fight.

Except by doing that, he simply ended up lying to himself just as he once accused Jin Guangyao of doing, and he let untreated negativity fester and grow just as he criticized Lan Xichen for doing.

The fighting has simply moved into his head instead.

“With Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao?”

“And myself,” Nie Mingjue admits.

Nie Huaisang stays quiet for a long time and Nie Mingjue eventually falls back fully onto the hotel bed he’s been sitting on. Only one lamp is on, and he watches that light grow brighter as the room around him grows darker.

“Why are you still fighting?” Nie Huaisang eventually asks.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, why don’t you just forget about them? Say you’re right and they’re wrong, and then when you come back, just continue on your own like you’ve been doing.”

“That doesn’t sound right coming from you.”

“Why?”

“You’re always saying I shouldn’t be so rigid.”

“And you’re always saying that sticking to your decisions is what gets things done,” Nie Huaisang shoots back. “So why’s this time different?”

“You know why.”

“Do I?”

“They were my best friends,” Nie Mingjue snaps at him.

Flawed, of course, because they’re all humans. But they were or are brilliant in areas that Nie Mingjue lacked, and he loved them all the more for it. Jin Guangyao’s cleverness and adaptability. Lan Xichen’s unconditional empathy and faith in everyone.

So when it all fell part, some of his anger came from a frustration that they had these things, things that should have allowed them to avoid causing harm, things that should have balanced out Nie Mingjue’s own flaws, and yet they still failed.

They still hurt people, as much as Nie Mingjue has now hurt them.

“And what about you?” Nie Mingjue asks when Nie Huaisang doesn’t immediately respond.

“What about me?”

“You adored them. Do you still want to be friends with them? Do you still want me to be friends with them?”

“This conversation is about you, not me.”

“This conversation is not fixed, so tell me what you want.”

Nie Huaisang hesitates for an uncharacteristically long time given how he usually won’t shut up about what he wants, and dull blades slice up Nie Mingjue’s chest. If his own baby brother is afraid to voice his opinion around him just as it turns out Lan Xichen was, if he’s always hiding from Nie Mingjue just as Jin Guangyao was

“Huaisang,” Nie Mingjue commands, “Tell me what you want.”

“I want you to come home, okay?” Nie Huaisang says, loudly and unapologetically, “I want you to come home and I want you to be happy. I want you to stop worrying about me so much and let yourself have things just because you want them, like you eventually let yourself have music, like you always let me have my art.”

Nie Mingjue opens his mouth, but Nie Huaisang continues.

“And what do you want from them?” he challenges. “If you were to try being friends again?”

“Honesty,” Nie Mingjue replies because that at least has never changed.

“Why?”

When they were at their worst, Jin Guangyao once accused Nie Mingjue of only wanting honesty so he could either condemn or commend someone. That he didn’t want honesty because he cared, but so he could coerce someone into becoming the ideal version he wanted.

Lan Xichen never made similar accusations, but his songs implied plenty about Nie Mingjue’s growing stubbornness turning every conversation into a fight, and how Lan Xichen didn’t know how to find the energy to even start a conversation at that point.

“Because otherwise we’ll just end up back here and I’m tired of being here.”

All of them in different places, physically and mentally, trying to staunch their wounds all by themselves. All of them sinking deeper and deeper into resentment, ignoring the lifelines of each other’s voices.

All of them blindsided and blind, screaming why didn’t you tell me and only receiving the echoing why didn’t you listen in return.

“But,” Nie Mingjue continues, “I don’t want it just because I’m demanding it. And even if I get it, I don’t know if I can be supportive in the ways they need.”

It’s not like he expected them to tell him everything, but he never wants to experience the same sick twist in his stomach he felt when Jin Guangyao confessed to getting Nie Mingjue’s producer arrested and again when he first heard the lyrics of a song on Venerated Triad. He doesn’t want to hear about years of hurt that he could have prevented, years of hurt that he contributed to, long after the fact.

Nie Huaisang’s brief and hysterical laughter pulls him from his thoughts, and he frowns at the ceiling.

Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang starts, a familiar helpless note in his voice, just like when he asks a particularly obvious question about his designs. “When have you ever not supported me?”

“When you wanted to dye my hair blue?” Nie Mingjue snorts. “When you wanted to run away to France? When you first responded to the studio’s call for submissions on my behalf?”

“First of all, I asked you ahead of time what song you would submit if you ever wanted to try pursuing music,” Nie Huaisang retorts, the grooves of that particular argument smoothed from frequency. “Second, you are being difficult on purpose, because you know I’m talking about my passions and my career. And third, the correct answer is you’ve always been my biggest supporter, even when you wanted me to focus more on my schoolwork because you were worried about my future. And even then, you still bought me every artistic tool I asked for.”

“That’s different. You’re you, and we’ve never had a fight like the one I had with them.”    

“We argued a lot,” Nie Huaisang replies, “and we both said things we shouldn’t have. But neither of us stopped caring and we both apologized eventually.”

“I didn’t leave you and refuse to talk to you for seven months.”

“Oh.”

The conversation has become a black hole of time, and while Nie Mingjue imagines Nie Huaisang will probably need to get ready for his day soon, Nie Huaisang doesn’t make any attempt to end the call.

“So to be clear,” Nie Huaisang says slowly, “You do want to talk to them again, and not just because you want to clear the air with them. You actually want to move forward as friends again?”

“Yes. At least with Xichen.”

He could, as Nie Huaisang said earlier, simply attempt to move on. That might be what everyone expects he’s done after seven months. It might be what the others have done after seven months. They each have their own families after all and their own careers now. Hopefully, they have found a good team to help with their music as Nie Mingjue has built over the past couple years, and they can definitely make new friends.

People have ended all sorts of relationships for far less than what happened between them and have been perfectly fine in the end. Nie Mingjue would eventually be fine.

But Nie Mingjue is stubborn and that’s not what Nie Mingjue wants. He wants to create new music, not just rehash the same old songs as he’s been doing the past few months. He wants friends who he can share with, laugh with, debate with. He wants people who treat Nie Huaisang well. He wants to listen and he wants to learn. He wants to get out of his own head, even if it’s a struggle. He wants to minimize the hurt of the people he cares about. 

He wants to let himself want.

Which, admittedly, is far easier to do with one friend than the other.

“In that case, should we figure out a plan of attack?” Nie Huaisang asks, tone perking up and Nie Mingjue smiling in return. Those were always their father’s words if he was home in the morning and they had a busy day ahead as children. Nie Huaisang might never have liked athletics like the rest of the family, but he was always excited to join the conversation, always excited to share his ideas.

“I don’t think it needs to be a very elaborate one,” Nie Mingjue warns immediately, and he can hear the pout in Nie Huaisang’s reply.

“Fine, but your actions shouldn’t be too abrupt either. Like, you should announce your exact return date at least a month ahead of time online.”

“Agreed.”

“You should choose a neutral meeting ground to start.” Nie Mingjue doesn’t bother making a suggestion, knowing Nie Huaisang is already going through a list of places in his head. “If they agree to meet. You’ll have to be careful how you phrase that first message.”

“I’m sorry and I want to talk,” Nie Mingjue says. “There’s no point sending anyone a block of text if they never had any intention of reading it in the first place.”

“And you hate texting.” Nie Mingjue doesn’t bother confirming what Nie Huaisang already knows, and simply waits for his brother to continue. “Although, it could be a good idea to clear up some misunderstandings through writing first since then you could take time to thi–”

“No,” Nie Mingjue interrupts, because he did give this some thought before he called, “It’s not like I can rely on that every time an argument pops up. And it’s even harder to tell how someone really feels over text.”

“Okay, well I could test the waters for you before you get back,” Nie Huaisang says, and Nie Mingjue frowns at the dim room around him.

“How?”

“Well, Jin Guangyao has been wanting to talk to me still, same as when you were first fighting. Xichen-ge is still keeping to himself somewhere, but I can try reaching out once he’s back in the city.”  

“Don’t bother him if he doesn’t reach out to you first,” Nie Mingjue replies, “It wouldn’t be fair for you to fix things for me.”

“But if we end up at the same event doesn’t it make sense for me to at least try and have a conversation? Don’t you want to know how he’s doing?”

“Of course. But he might need space and time, like I did.”

“Some time, not forever,” Nie Huaisang retorts, “And we already agreed a heads-up is a good idea.”

Nie Mingjue opens his mouth, but Nie Huaisang continues. “Which brings us to the next matter. You should come home as soon as you finish your concerts.”

“I–”

“I already talked to Zonghui and he said it’s possible.”

“Huai–”

“The last few weeks are just interviews, and the team wanting to go on holiday, but obviously you don’t need to supervise that.”

“Huaisang–”

“If you really wanted to go on holiday there, you can always go back and actually take me with you like you said you would.”

Huaisang.”

“Please.” The stubborn but reasonable tone falls away, and Nie Mingjue’s growing impatience with it. Unlike when Nie Mingjue asked him what he wanted, Nie Huaisang’s voice now trembles and cracks, as if he’s been getting just as little sleep as Nie Mingjue the past few months. “Please come home early, da-ge. I’m really tired of being here as well.”

“I’m sorry,” Nie Mingjue says softly, and sits up. His voice begins to shake like Nie Huaisang’s, but he forces himself to enunciate each word clearly. “I’ve made this really hard on you too. I just didn’t want to disrupt your life when you’ve been doing so well.”

“Having you gone for so long is a disruption.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” He tries to make his tone light. “I thought you might want a break from all my scolding.”

“A small break is fine, but I think I’ve started hearing the pipes in the walls because you’re not here to overpower everything with your daily reminders.”

He smiles for just a second before Nie Huaisang’s muffled sniffle wipes it away.

“I miss you too,” Nie Mingjue tells him, and his eyes immediately burn as if they were simply waiting for him to say those words out loud. He has cried plenty already, but confronting the fact that he’s left Nie Huaisang alone triggers a fresh stream of tears. “I’m sorry. We’ll see each other soon.”

“You should tell me that in person,” Nie Huaisang sniffs. “You know, I’ll come there if you can’t leave early. I can meet you in Boston

“No,” Nie Mingjue says as he wipes his face, “No, you have that show coming up the same week.”

“I don’t have to be there if

“You’ve been talking about it for months,” Nie Mingjue points out, “Working on it for months. I made sure I don’t have anything scheduled that day so I can watch it on my phone.”

“But

“I’m going to talk to Zonghui about coming home early as soon as we hang-up,” Nie Mingjue says, because he was going to say yes as soon as Nie Huaisang asked, but the apology took precedence. “So don’t you dare cancel all your hard-work for me. I can’t wait to see it, and by the time it’s over, I’ll be home.”

“You’ll still be a few weeks away,” Nie Huaisang replies, but he hears a rustle as if Nie Huaisang is wiping his face too. “But fine. If you promise to come home as soon as the concerts are over.”

“Promise.”

And no more just saying ‘I’m fine’ when I ask and you’re obviously not.”

“Promise.”

“If you don’t, I will fly there tomorrow, I don’t care.”

“Understood.”

“Also, what happened isn’t all your fault.” Nie Mingjue only has time to blink before Nie Huaisang continues. “You’re always doing your best and you’ve always taken really good care of me and you’re always trying to take care of everyone else and I’m really proud of you.”

“I’m really proud of you too,” is all Nie Mingjue can get out as Nie Huaisang briefly reduces them both to tears again.

They chat a little while longer as Nie Mingjue asks what preparations Nie Huaisang will be doing that day. They stay on the line until both their throats are sore despite Nie Huaisang’s busy schedule and Nie Mingjue being on the verge of falling asleep.

He still goes straight to Zonghui’s room after, just as he promised, and doesn’t sleep until he’s guaranteed at least one part of the happy future they want. 

 

***

 

Philadelphia is a city of history.

The concerts are large.

Nie Huaisang is pleased with his show.

Nie Mingjue is proud. And sad he couldn’t be there in person.  

 

***

 

Boston is full of green spaces.

The concerts are exhausting.

Nie Huaisang is flustered. He tells Nie Mingjue that Lan Xichen announced to the public that he has been dating Jiang Cheng for months, and Nie Huaisang confirmed it’s true through Jiang Cheng’s family.

Nie Mingjue is stunned. And tired. And worried, though Nie Huaisang says as best as he can tell, the two are happy.  

 

***

 

New York City is as bustling as expected.

The concerts are overwhelming.

Nie Huaisang is drained.

Nie Mingjue wanders the streets by himself near the end of the week and stops by a sausage stand when his stomach starts growling. For a moment, he just stares at the sizzling meat, hand halfway to his wallet when the smell reminds him of sitting at a new grill house with his friends and Nie Huaisang complaining that Nie Mingjue never curates his online gallery when he goes to new food places like that unless someone is there to tell him take a picture.

Jin Guangyao had laughed, not bothering to hide his delight when Nie Mingjue pointed out that food was for eating and enjoyable because of that. Ergo, he didn’t understand why other people should find his pictures enjoyable. Nie Huaisang pouted and insisted it wasn’t about whether people could eat it or not, while Lan Xichen finally spoke up to agree with Nie Mingjue and say that it could make other people jealous.

“Yes, but it can be a dream to work toward,” Jin Guangyao retorted, and Nie Mingjue raised his eyebrows over his beer. “Okay, part of a dream. Associated with a dream.”

“Proof that someone has made it you mean?” Lan Xichen asked, and Nie Huaisang quickly jumped on that line of thinking as Jin Guangyao nodded.

“Exactly! It’s a point of reference and a humble brag.

And while Nie Mingjue is not an idiot and of course knew that people used pictures as points of reference, he simply looked at his friends and told them those strangers could go look at someone else’s posts if they cared that much.

Nie Huaisang had whined, but Jin Guangyao only laughed again, and then argued that Nie Mingjue should look at it as his friends wanting to know how he’s doing and at least share it with them.

“At least take pity on Huaisang.”

“What can I get you?” The vendor’s voice draws Nie Mingjue’s attention back to the loud city streets, and Nie Mingjue fishes out his wallet.

He takes a picture before he takes a bite and sends it to Nie Huaisang. He posts the picture online a second later, no filters, just the caption New York, and then focuses on eating before his meal grows cold.

 

***

 

Pittsburgh is a river city.

The concerts are dynamic.

Nie Huaisang is planning outfits for this year’s Sunshot Charity Dinner.

Nie Mingjue is dreaming of being back home.

 

***

 

Cleveland is humid.

The concerts are deafening.

Nie Huaisang is excited Nie Mingjue will be home soon.

On his one day off, Nie Mingjue buys some flowers and then heads to the Homely Hotel. It’s fancier than any of the ones Nie Mingjue has stayed in so far, its website boasting about large suites and onsite facilities that create an enclosed community atmosphere and encourage long-stay visits.

He heads to one of the first-floor rooms near the back, situated with direct access to the hotel’s expansive, private garden. He’s wearing jeans and a button-up shirt, but the other guests still stare as he passes. People have always stared at him though, first for his height, then for his fame, and sometimes, as his brother and Jin Guangyao like to claim is always the case, for his overly casual outfits.

The only person that matters that day is the woman who opens the door he knocks on, beaming first at him and then at the flowers in his hand.

“You and A-Xuan, always with the flowers,” Jiang Yanli laughs.

“You like them,” Nie Mingjue says as she takes them gently from his hands.

“I do,” she agrees, and gestures for him to step inside.

Once the flowers are secured and some tea brewed, they sit at a small table directly by the glass doors leading to the garden. Jiang Yanli presents him with an entire platter of American snacks.

“I’m supposed to be careful of my sugar levels and all of that before my surgery,” Jiang Yanli says as she nibbles on a cookie. “But Zixuan always brings something back whenever he goes out, and he says we can just bring them back for A-Ling if we have extra.”

Jin Zixuan and Jin Xiaoting are out currently, a fact that Jiang Yanli mentioned in her message when Nie Mingjue asked about stopping by.

They’re perhaps not the closest of friends, but Nie Mingjue likes her and it only seemed natural to wish her luck before her surgery when his tour brought him to the same city. They’ve known each other at least in passing for many years through the celebrity circles they frequent, and they’ve seen more of each other since Jin Zixuan and Jin Guangyao officially met.

“So how has the tour been?” Jiang Yanli asks. Nie Mingjue knows he’s not one for details, but he gives her an account of all the cities he’s been to and she listens with an almost childish wonder.

“It sounds marvelous,” she replies when he finishes. “Zixuan and I have been talking about returning to do a cross-country visit once A-Ling is old enough to handle extended trips. But I don’t know if we could handle quite as many cities as you’ve been to.”

“Or being away from the rest of your family for that long,” Nie Mingjue points out, because her commitment to her family is another reason Nie Mingjue likes her.

She smiles softly at that.

“They might insist on coming along this time,” Jiang Yanli says, still smiling despite the chaos her brothers are known for. “But what about you? I heard that Huaisang didn’t join you this time?”

“He didn’t.”

She waits, carefully unwrapping another cookie. “We’ve been calling almost every day, but I told him I needed space.”

“I see,” she says, staring down at her lap. There’s no judgement in her pensive gaze, only consideration, as she no doubt remembers Wei Wuxian’s extended need for space a couple years ago. 

Nie Mingjue remembers hearing about the incident at the time and thinking it rather selfish of Wei Wuxian, especially when Nie Mingjue attended the funeral and witnessed the remaining Jiang children’s grief. He still thinks it was selfish, even if he has followed a similar path in many ways, because at least everyone knows where he is. At least those he has been refusing to speak to know it’s because he’s angry, and not potentially dead or in trouble.

But admittedly, those past events do make it easier for Nie Mingjue to speak with Jiang Yanli now.

“I fly home this weekend,” Nie Mingjue tells her, and that makes her lift her head again. “As soon as I finish the concerts in Chicago. It’s earlier than planned, but there’s no more concerts and Zonghui said we can just do the interviews over the phone.”

“I hope the magazines aren’t too disappointed by that change,” Jiang Yanli says mildly.

“I care far more about disappointing Huaisang than I do them.”

Jiang Yanli breaks into another smile at that and a calm quiet falls over them for a moment. Nie Mingjue sifts through the pile of snacks to find another gummy before Jiang Yanli begins to tell him about the places she has seen so far, and where she thinks she would like to take Jin Ling one day.

She doesn’t bring up the other people Nie Mingjue has left behind, including Lan Xichen and her brother, for which Nie Mingjue is grateful.   

They’ve made a decent dent in the pile of snacks by the time Jin Zixuan and Jin Xiaoting return.

Nie Mingjue never planned on purposefully fleeing before their return, and so he turns calmly when they hear the door open and Jiang Yanli rises to greet her husband.

“We’ve just been enjoying all the snacks you bought,” Jiang Yanli is saying as she returns to the room with her husband and mother-in-law in tow. Neither of them seem shocked to see Nie Mingjue sitting there, though Jin Xiaoting’s smile is carved from ice and Jin Zixuan’s tone is cautious when he greets him.

Popo, you have to see the flowers Mingjue brought me,” Jiang Yanli says, gently taking the woman’s arm with a warm smile. “They’ll add such wonderful colour to my hospital room.”

Jiang Yanli leads the other woman away as Jin Zixuan slowly takes the seat across from Nie Mingjue.

“So, how has the tour been?”

Nie Mingjue gives him a shortened version of the account he shared with Jiang Yanli, though Jin Zixuan listens with the same eager curiosity as his wife. Nie Mingjue can imagine them huddling around a laptop after, looking up all the cities Nie Mingjue mentions and slowly tracking out a viable route just like Jin Guangyao used to with Nie Huaisang even when someone else was in charge of finalizing the tour schedules.

“Have you had any time to miss home between all that?” Jin Zixuan asks.

“Plenty,” Nie Mingjue says, because he refuses to deny anything now just like he promised Nie Huaisang. “How has Jin Guangyao been?”

Jin Zixuan’s eyes widen, and he glances over his shoulder quickly. The murmur of women’s voices stays as distant and muffled as before, and Jin Zixuan’s shoulders relax.

Nie Mingjue decides he dislikes Jin Xiaoting as much as he likes Jiang Yanli.

“He’s–well, have you talked to him at all since you’ve been here?”

“No. Huaisang has.”

Jin Zixuan frowns, but the tension that surged through him when Nie Mingjue first asked his question doesn’t return.

“Do you plan to?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then why ask?”

“To help me decide if I should or not.”

The frown deepens.

“Shouldn’t it be whether or not you want to?”

“I know what I want,” Nie Mingjue says. “In an idealized world at least.”

He always thought the way he looked at things and the way he wanted things matched reality. Far more than Nie Huaisang at least, even though he could admit that his baby brother has always had a much better handle on people. But it turns out that he can be and had been just as foolish, just as blind, and just as hypocritical as everyone else.

“But you don’t know if you can make that a reality, and if you should want the reality it would create,” Jin Zixuan summarizes without missing a beat, and leans back in his chair. When he speaks again, his voice is far softer than Nie Mingjue has ever heard it, and far more sincere than most people expect him to be. “I think my sixth birthday was the first time I wished for a brother.”

Jin Zixuan stares at the neat pile of wrappers with a slight smile. “Even when there were other things I wished for, even when mama got too old to safely have another child, I always had that wish in the back of mind. And then I got my wish.”

He looks back up at Nie Mingjue, and Nie Mingjue can still hear that tremble in Jin Guangyao’s voice when he told Nie Mingjue how delighted Jin Zixuan was to meet him. “Only, my wish meant learning that baba was not the man I thought he was, and dealing with mama’s disgust, and constantly arguing with my cousin. My wish meant learning to decide how much conflict one person is worth, and what to do when a person isn’t the same as the version you have in your head.”

“And you decided he was worth it,” Nie Mingjue says.

“I decided it wasn’t just about his worth,” Jin Zixuan replies, “But about the type of person I wanted to be, the type of person I claimed to be.”

He once again glances over his shoulder, but this time with a soft look of nostalgia. “I’d already learned that lesson a little bit thanks to A-Li.”

Nie Mingjue witnessed very little of the two’s earlier dating disasters, but he heard the stories from a very amused Jin Guangyao. At the time, Nie Mingjue sided with Jiang Yanli’s brothers who were still skeptical of Jin Zixuan, and wondered at how Jiang Yanli seemed as forgiving as Lan Xichen.

“I wonder,” Jin Guangyao said, pausing to pick up the extra noodles Nie Mingjue dished onto his plate. “How much it has to do with her innate personality and how much it has to do with her having seen his other qualities? His heart is actually in the right place most of the time, even if he has terrible execution.”

Nie Mingjue doesn’t think he can consider himself a forgiving person by nature, even if Lan Xichen has always pointed out that he’s indulgent of Nie Huaisang, but he likes to think that he saw Jin Guangyao. He saw early on that the man is clever and resourceful and eloquent. Nie Mingjue wouldn’t have been interested in him as a manager otherwise, and the fact that Nie Huaisang got along so well with him was an added bonus. 

When they started to work together, Jin Guangyao was quick to show he was also creative and ambitious, working long hours to propel Nie Mingjue’s career further, and inspiring Nie Mingjue to work harder as well.

It isn’t like Nie Mingjue didn’t see the insecurities too. He saw the way Jin Guangyao always chose the seat that gave him a full view of the room and its exits. The way he never napped with others around even on the long tour rides, and rarely seemed to sleep at all. The way he always ordered less food than everyone else, but was always hungry. The way he could switch, from pleasant to vicious to victimized, in seconds.

But Nie Mingjue didn’t see how all those factors were colliding in the power struggle happening behind his stage’s very curtains. For all that Nie Mingjue claimed to care about his staff and fair treatment, he was blind to the conflict boiling to its breaking point, just like he was blind to the full extent of the hurt he and Jin Guangyao’s conflict later caused Lan Xichen.

Though by that point, the blindness was perhaps more wilful; neither he nor Jin Guangyao wanted to admit the other had any valid arguments, nor did they want to admit that the reason they were still fighting was because they cared.

Instead, Nie Mingjue stood on his moral high ground and shoved Jin Guangyao as far down as he could, failing to see that his constant berating was turning the man into a cornered animal, and stealing his best friend’s smile.

He doesn’t want to go back to any of that.

He wants to act on the impulses he didn’t or couldn’t act on before.

He wants to see people clearly, so he can support them properly. He wants his friends to see themselves clearly, so they can find the best paths forward.  

He wants to solve things together, not just yell about them.

He wants to be better, not so he can lord some righteous morality over everyone else, but so he helps more than he hurts others. 

He wants to be more than he ever was before.

 

***

 

Turbulence prevents Nie Mingjue from sleeping, the plane lands an hour late, and it’s been at least eight hours since he last ate anything. He opted for a commercial airplane, first class, separate from the staff that have accompanied him on the rest of the tour and who are staying behind to take care of the remaining equipment and take a short holiday. Instead of them, Nie Mingjue stumbles off the plane at three in the morning with a dozen other anonymous travellers who look ready to take a nap on the dirty carpet by the baggage carousel.

By the time Nie Mingjue grabs his suitcase and rolls into the arrival lobby, he’s seeing black spots and his phone threatens to explode with all the messages from Nie Huaisang asking what’s taking him so long.

None of it matters when Nie Mingjue finally spots his baby brother.

He still wears his suit from the charity dinner, but most of his hair has slipped free of his carefully styled bun and falls into his face. He doesn’t even push the strands away as he glances impatiently between his phone and the gate Nie Mingjue just walked through.

Delight widens Nie Huaisang’s tired eyes and time skips until Nie Huaisang barrels into Nie Mingjue’s open arms.

Nine months, twenty cities, two countries, countless five-star hotels, adoring concert crowds, superior studio rooms, and this sweaty smelling airport lobby is suddenly the best place Nie Mingjue has been all year.

“You owe me an entire boutique for making me wait this long this late,” Nie Huaisang tells him as Nie Huaisang’s arms squeeze Nie Mingjue’s waist, as if scared Nie Mingjue will disappear onto another plane once he lets go. Nie Mingjue’s chest muffles his words, but Nie Mingjue still hears the tremble in Nie Huaisang’s voice.

“I owe you more than that,” Nie Mingjue admits because they both know he’s not just talking about tonight.

“Like what?”

“I don’t know yet.”

He tightens his hold on Nie Huaisang instead of forcing his brain to create coherent thoughts, and Nie Huaisang just burrows further into the hug. They both need a bed before they fall over, and probably a very long, very hot shower first, but instead, Nie Mingjue curls his fingers in the ridiculously expensive fabric Nie Huaisang always wears and Nie Huaisang uses his older brother as his favourite pillow.  

“Did you stop eating when you were over there?” Nie Huaisang breaks the silent limbo just when Nie Mingjue has made peace with sleeping like this.

Nie Huaisang leans back to frown up at Nie Mingjue, but only draws far enough away to poke Nie Mingjue’s shoulder. “You feel more like a normal gym rat than a bodybuilder on steroids.”

“Everyone’s a bodybuilder on steroids compared to you,” Nie Mingjue quips back, squeezing Nie Huaisang’s scrawny arms to hear him squawk his protest just like always.

“We’re not talking about everyone else or me,” Nie Huaisang retorts, suddenly far too focused for the late hour. Nie Mingjue sighs.

“I ate. I wouldn’t be standing here if I didn’t, would I?”

“If I said that all those times you asked if I was eating enough vegetables, you’d tell me to stop being cheeky and demand to know how many.”

“Huaisang–”

“I already looked up which of your favourite places are still open,” Nie Huaisang interrupts him. “And I already told the driver we’ll be stopping on the way because I know you didn’t eat on the plane.”

“I wasn’t hungry.”

“And first-class garbage is still garbage,” Nie Huaisang says because the first time they ever travelled on an airplane together, Nie Huaisang threw up his meal within an hour.   

“And what about you?” Nie Mingjue asks as Nie Huaisang finally pulls away so they can make their way to the car. Nie Huaisang keeps both arms wrapped around Nie Mingjue’s free one as they walk.

“What about me?”

“You just came from a party,” Nie Mingjue says, even though any flush of decadence has long faded from Nie Huaisang’s cheeks. “Make sure you get yourself some water at least.”  

They climb into the back of the car, and Nie Huaisang tucks himself against Nie Mingjue’s side even before buckling his seatbelt. When Nie Mingjue gets his food and passes a water bottle to Nie Huaisang, Nie Huaisang stays exactly where he is despite the danger to his clothes.

Da-ge?”

Nie Mingjue looks up from his food, and he sees the scrunch to Nie Huaisang’s face even in the dim light.

“Are you okay?” Nie Huaisang asks. It’s difficult, but Nie Mingjue switches to eating with his left hand so he can wrap his right arm around his younger brother before speaking.

“No,” Nie Mingjue admits. “But I’m better now.”

 

***

 

Nie Huaisang crawls into Nie Mingjue’s bed, grumbling at him for taking up the entire king-size bed with his bulk, but staying exactly where he is instead of returning to his own bed. He has a pillow over his head when Nie Mingjue wakes early in the morning, curled into a bundled ball that uses every inch of Nie Mingjue’s sheets.

After a childhood of dealing with Nie Huaisang’s nightmares, struggling with the loss of their parents at the end of high school, and all the tours together, this is the sight Nie Mingjue is most familiar with upon waking. For the first time in months, his first breath doesn’t catch in his confused lungs and his exhausted brain doesn’t immediately start ringing alarm bells.

He doesn’t move for a long time, his muscles finally seeming to realize just how hard the last few months and that plane ride were. He hasn’t slept nearly enough given what time he arrived last night, but he has nowhere else to be that day. So he simply lies there, letting the comfort of his own bed lull him back into a half-sleep. He opens his eyes periodically just to check on his still sleeping brother, and a wave of gratitude hits him every time he sees him. Not just for Nie Huaisang still supporting him, but for still seeking Nie Mingjue out when he needs comfort.

Eventually, Nie Mingjue rolls onto his back and blindly grabs for his phone on the bedside table. Nie Huaisang mumbles a sleepy protest, even though his head stays buried beneath his pillow, and Nie Mingjue quickly squeezes his shoulder.

“I’m here, Huaisang. Go back to sleep.”

Despite how much older they’ve gotten, the simple action works just as well as when they were children. Nie Huaisang doesn’t make another sound, but Nie Mingjue keeps his left hand splayed on his brother’s shoulder as he begins to check his social media. His baby brother is a grounding presence when Nie Mingjue finally leaves his own pages and clicks on Lan Xichen’s.

In spite of everything, Lan Xichen hasn’t blocked him.

Nie Huaisang gave Nie Mingjue the run-down of what Nie Mingjue should expect to find, but it’s still unsettling to see all the recent changes in Lan Xichen’s life through this medium. There are posts about his music of course, though less than Nie Mingjue would expect after nine months. Links to the interview he did about Venerated Triad. A few of his art and quite a few of Lan Wangji.

And then there are the ones of Jiang Cheng. Jiang Cheng a few steps ahead on a busy sidewalk. Jiang Cheng stretching before the couple’s regular runs together. Jiang Cheng standing by the entrance sign of Cloud Recesses. Jiang Cheng conversing with Mianmian in the control booth of the studio. Jiang Cheng suited up for the charity dinner last night. Jiang Cheng’s hand intertwined with Lan Xichen’s.

Lan Xichen hasn’t taken a lot of pictures of the two of them together, though he’s replied to a lot of fans who’ve posted candid pictures of them. But there is one recent selfie with the caption he doesn’t really like selfies, but he’ll do them for me. Thank you everyone for your support so far! ^.^

It’s impossible to tell where the couple is and Jiang Cheng looks like he’s three seconds away from rolling his eyes, but Lan Xichen beams at the camera. Not the polite smile he perfected by the time he was six, or his genuine if small one, but a helpless grin that shows off all his white teeth and crinkles the corners of his eyes.

Staring at it, the same ache Nie Mingjue felt the past few months when he saw a new post from Nie Huaisang spreads through his chest. It feels like grief, as he mourns not the permanent and physical loss of a person, but the loss of opportunity. Of closeness, of normalcy.

If this happened before Nie Mingjue left, he would have been the first person Lan Xichen told about Jiang Cheng. Even before they started dating, Lan Xichen would probably bombard their group chat with Jin Guangyao about his crush, asking them for help preparing for his first date, and then gushing about how wonderful Jiang Cheng is once they started dating.  

Instead, all Nie Mingjue has is second-hand knowledge because of a situation he is partly to blame for.

Nie Mingjue lowers his phone to his chest with a noisy exhale. He stays like that for a moment, listening to Nie Huaisang’s steady breathing beside him and the bird songs outside. Then he lifts his phone again and looks up Jin Guangyao.

He doesn’t completely expect to have access, yet the pages load as if they never fought.

Jin Guangyao’s accounts have always been less personal and more carefully curated than either Nie Mingjue or Lan Xichen’s, and that holds true even now as Nie Mingjue scrolls through it. There are a few pictures of stars he’s been working with, and some of the restaurants Nie Huaisang has recently visited with him, but little about Jin Guangyao’s personal status.

The most recent post is the silhouette of a young woman with the words clinging to innocence in cursive writing across her body. There’s a date for this Monday in the bottom corner.  

It’s still not even close to noon when Nie Mingjue returns his phone to the bedside table. His eyes burn from the screen and he covers them with his free arm. His thoughts won’t settle now though, and he does owe Nie Huaisang a fresh breakfast at the very least.

He rolls over so he can check on Nie Huaisang one last time before pushing himself out of bed. He pulls the blanket over Nie Huaisang’s shoulders, and then quietly pads from the room.

Buttery sunlight washes over the kitchen and Nie Mingjue heads straight to the fancy latte maker he finally bought Nie Huaisang when they first moved into this place. He and the machine have a mutual hatred of each other, and every time he presses a button, he reminds the hissing metal that this is for Huaisang, not me. The machine remains unimpressed, but it does produce the necessary drink, and Nie Mingjue only has to threaten it with the trash can four times.

He takes one of the drinks back to the bedroom where Nie Huaisang finally stirs, blinking sleepily around the room.

“Is the machine still alive?” Nie Huaisang asks when he spots the drink. He’s only half upright, so Nie Mingjue places the cup on the bedside table and takes a second to ruffle Nie Huaisang’s already wild bedhead. Nie Huaisang grabs at his arm with a protest, but then uses the limb to pull himself into a sitting position.

“Unfortunately,” Nie Mingjue says, and withdraws so Nie Huaisang can grab the drink. “I’ll call you when breakfast is ready.”

“I’ll come out soon,” Nie Huaisang tells him, in a tone that implies he will be gluing himself to Nie Mingjue’s side for the next few days like he did as a child. Given Nie Mingjue often got scolded for ‘hogging’ his baby brother from his own parents, Nie Mingjue won’t and doesn’t want to resist.

Instead, he nods and then smiles when Nie Huaisang throws up his arms in a familiar demand for a hug. Nie Mingjue complies easily, and briefly closes his eyes as he once again revels in the fact that he’s finally home.

“You’re going to make sure there’s enough pear slices on the side, right?” Nie Huaisang asks with his forehead pressed against Nie Mingjue’s shoulder.

“Apparently,” Nie Mingjue says as he straightens.

“You’re the best, da-ge!” Nie Huaisang calls after him as he heads back to the kitchen.

He detours to the front entranceway first when he hears the clang of the mail slot and the rustle of papers. As he straightens, he notices the red number flashing at him from the voice machine on the table in that front hall.

Thirty-eight, the number reads.

“Huaisang!” he shouts as he frowns at the machine. “Why weren’t you answering the phone?”

The reply is muffled and incomprehensible, and Nie Mingjue shoves a hand through his own messy hair before hitting play on the first unread message.

“I know you’ll want to hang-up as soon as you hear my voice…” 

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng is nearly injured before the Autumn Cultivation Conference even begins thanks to Wei Wuxian. His brother barrels into him from behind as his greeting while Jiang Cheng is doing a final inspection of tent poles. Jiang Cheng’s shout of his name and Wei Wuxian’s peals of laughter has everyone in the clearing looking over at them.

“Come on, don’t pretend you’re not happy we got here even earlier than we said we would,” Wei Wuxian says as Jiang Cheng finally shoves him off. His brother wraps an arm around his shoulders a second later, nearly ripping Jiang Cheng’s walkie earpiece right out of his ear. “And we brought mid-morning treats for everyone.”

“Are there any left?” Jiang Cheng snorts, and Wei Wuxian slaps a hand over his chest.

Rude! I’ll have you know I was only awake for half the ride and only for the half I had to drive, so yes, there are some left.”

Xiao Xian!”

“Xu-nainai!” Wei Wuxian whirls them both around with a grin at the older lady’s appearance. Xu Mingjing is right beside her, and Wei Wuxian finally releases Jiang Cheng so he can bounce over to the villagers.

“Don’t distract them!” Jiang Cheng hollers after him, but Wei Wuxian simply begins leading them to the main entrance, no doubt to show off his boyfriend and his son again.

“You know, the preparations are basically finished,” Yu Yinzhu says as she steps up beside him along with Li Tie.

“Yeah yeah,” Jiang Cheng says, and scowls at Yu Yinzhu’s ensuing smirk.

They still do one last check of all the stations that spread from man-made clearing to the river, forest, and meadow. They speak with each employee and each villager volunteer at every station and no one reports any problems. They have an hour left before the official arrival time for attendees, which means forty-five minutes before Jiang Cheng should head to the entrance of the conference grounds to greet everyone.

Jiang Cheng is in fact impressed that Wei Wuxian arrived that morning at 9:30 sharp, even though he’s ninety percent sure that Lan Wangji carried Wei Wuxian and the Lan children to the car himself. Most of the attendees head up the night before the conference and stay in the village or the neighbouring ones so they don’t have to make the drive that morning. Before his parents’ death, Jiang Cheng’s siblings always stayed in Lotus Pier for half a week before the conference. But Wei Wuxian had said his latest production was in crunch time, so he needed to work overtime every day that week to get the full weekend off for the conference.

Wei Wuxian is a ball of energy now, whirling from person to person with Lan Wangji at his side, Lan Yuan clinging to his leg, and Lan Jingyi shouting his greeting to everyone. All the old villagers are delighted to see him and the Lan children, and while most of the employees of Lotus Lakes are new to him, it doesn’t take long for Wei Wuxian to charm them like he does everyone else.

He introduces Lan Wangji as a friend only, even though the villagers that have known the Jiang family since they were children know about their relationship. Jiang Cheng is sure at least some of the Lotus Lake employees will guess at the truth after today, but all their contracts have policies against spreading private information about fellow employees and equal rights’ policies. Jiang Cheng also always establishes in the very first orientation that the workspace is meant to be a safe space for everyone, right before he describes the Yu sisters’ very diverse and sometimes deadly skill sets. 

He might not trust all his employees as much as his neighbours, but he trusts they know the consequences of being assholes.

Besides, with how successful Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng’s fake dating has been, Jiang Cheng doubts Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji’s relationship will stay a secret for much longer. Lan Wangji did propose to Wei Wuxian after all, so Wei Wuxian can’t doubt his partner’s continued commitment like he did before A-Die and A-Niang’s deaths. They even have a child now, which may be part of the reason Lan Wangji finally decided he wanted to be free with his love.

The two have been lucky in the sense that Lan Yuan has always called Wei Wuxian what can be passed off as an Americanized term of affection given his birth there and Wei Wuxian’s care of him during his stay there. But Jiang Cheng knows that the two don’t want Lan Yuan to have to lie, nor even realize that he’s lying.

While Jiang Cheng always calls Wei Wuxian shameless, lying about this would teach Lan Yuan a shame that Jiang Cheng never wants him to experience.

Sometime after their arrival, Lan Yuan and Lan Jingyi spot Jiang Cheng and Li Tie at the grassy riverbank checking that the wooden boats for the afternoon race are secure one last time. The two boys careen into him, grabbing for his legs like before and babbling up at him about the car ride over.

“Wang-popo told us we can go on the boats today!” Lan Jingyi tells Jiang Cheng. The boy looks over at the aforementioned boats with wide eyes. “Can we go now?”

“No,” Jiang Cheng says, “Not yet.”

“Can we see the fish now?”

“Not yet.”

“Why?”

“Not everyone’s here yet,” Jiang Cheng tells him. “You wouldn’t want to leave A-Ling behind, would you?”

Lan Jingyi scrunches up his face before declaring,

“We’d come back for him!”

Li Tie laughs, three short wheezes of air that draw Lan Jingyi’s wide gaze to Li Tie’s grin.

“We have to go on adventures on land first, little one,” Li Tie tells him.

“If you behave during them, we’ll take you on the boats again,” Jiang Cheng promises.

“Okay!”

An insistent tug on Jiang Cheng’s jeans finally forces him to crouch so he can hear Lan Yuan’s soft request.

“Can we have hugs now?”

Jiang Cheng’s nerves and concerns for the day do not melt away entirely, but his shoulders do relax a fraction as he smiles at his hopeful nephew.

“Yes, A-Yuan, you can have hugs now.”

Lan Yuan immediately throws his arms around Jiang Cheng’s neck and Jiang Cheng almost chokes as Lan Jingyi follows suit. Still, he valiantly lifts them both up as they giggle and shriek at every motion.

When they finally relent to being put down, Li Tie asks them if they’d like to meet a very special friend while their shushu finishes work. They perk up immediately and Jiang Cheng smirks at the thought of his brother and Lan Wangji having to deal with Lan Yuan begging for a cat after this event.

A-Jie arrives twenty minutes later, Wei Wuxian’s shout announcing her arrival to everyone there. Even without Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng would have been able to follow the voices of the villagers gathered around her like the gurgling of a brook.

Dim shadows stain the skin beneath both Jin Zixuan and A-Jie’s eyes, but she is beaming, and he is holding a happy Jin Ling.

They two finally got back into the country on Thursday, returning home as Jiang Cheng washed the dishes from dinner and Jin Ling played impatiently with his toys by Jiang Cheng’s feet. They both heard the door the second it opened, and Jin Ling was scrambling into his parents’ arms a heartbeat later, all of them huddling together inches from the front entranceway. Jiang Cheng stepped around the corner of the kitchen a little slower despite all the tension of the day vanishing the moment he heard A-Jie’s voice.

Watching them though, something heavy settled in his chest alongside his joy and relief. The ground between him and the other three stretched into the length of a pier, and he wanted nothing more than to cross the distance like he does to reach his boats and join them, but he suddenly couldn’t move. The longer he watched them, the more their happy huddle seemed like the calm surface of the morning lake he never wants to disturb with even a single touch.

Of course, they called Jiang Cheng over soon after and A-Jie’s tight hug shoved away that weight for the moment. That night was full of laughter and chatter despite the late hour, and when Jiang Cheng left the city after dropping Jin Ling off at school, he had the Cultivation Conference to focus on, rather than the unnameable thing he has lost with Jin Ling.

Now, he watches again, until Jin Ling spots him and begins squirming in Jin Zixuan’s arms. Jin Ling starts running as soon as Jin Zixuan puts him down and Jiang Cheng drops to one knee before the boy reaches him. Jiang Cheng doesn’t understand why his heart pounds like he’s lost the young boy, but he doesn’t hesitate to pull Jin Ling as close as he can to his chest. He closes his eyes and simply listens as Jin Ling locks his arms around Jiang Cheng’s neck and begins telling him all about school yesterday.

“And were you good for mama and baba?” Jiang Cheng asks when Jin Ling finally takes a breath. He opens his eyes to Jin Ling’s pout and A-Jie’s smiling approach.

“I’m always good for mama and baba,” Jin Ling insists, and Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow.

“Really?”

“Really!”

“Really really?”

Jiujiu!” Jin Ling complains, and Jiang Cheng bites down on a grin. “I am.”

“Okay, okay,” Jiang Cheng says, and gives the boy a quick kiss to top of his head when he scowls at him. “I know you are.”

“Really?”

“Really really,” Jiang Cheng promises, and hoists Jin Ling a little higher as he stands again.

Tou’r.”

They both look over at Yu Jinzhu’s voice. She’s using one of her canes today, painted nails curled around the head of a crane that Jiang Cheng and Li Tie carved for her.

“Guests are beginning to arrive,” she tells him, a lilt to her tone that makes Jiang Cheng narrow his eyes at her. Her expression gives nothing away though, so he glances down at Jin Ling.

“Your friends are with Li-shu right now,” Jiang Cheng says, and Jin Ling instantly begins twisting around to try spotting them. “Mama will help you find them.”

He sets Jin Ling down and he races off, shouting for A-Jie to help him find his friends. Jiang Cheng in turn follows Yu Jinzhu as she leads him to the banner hoisted on top of wooden poles that welcome everyone to the conference grounds. It’s a twenty-minute walk from that edge of the conference grounds to the first entrance and the grassy parking lot they’ve marked with well-used stakes. The only part of the conference that will take guests through the protected areas of Lotus Lakes will be small, carefully controlled sampan rides, but even the areas used for ecosystem services deserve a buffer between them and vehicles.

There’s a metaphor involved too, given all guests must sign in at the small tent set-up in front of that first entrance and listen to an employee explain the rules, including the limited technology use. The walk from that point is therefore meant to be a transitional phase in which the attendees slowly shed their usual worries, urban living mindset, and car exhaust before they spend the day fully engaging with the natural world.

While the exaggeration of the metaphor by certain sponsors always makes Jiang Cheng want to roll his eyes, he enjoys the quiet of that twenty minutes.  

They arrive at the entrance at the same time Lan Xichen’s car pulls into the grass parking lot.

Jiang Cheng turns to the blank-faced Yu Jinzhu with a flat,

“Seriously?”

“What?” Yu Jinzhu asks, not innocently, because that is a demeanour she’s never donned, but more neutral than anyone else Jiang Cheng’s ever known. “Lao Wang walkied from the village checkpoint and thought you’d want to personally greet your boyfriend.”

“Does he have Xichen’s car committed to memory, or did you memorize his license plate?”

“Both,” Yu Jinzhu says without a shred of shame, and Jiang Cheng snorts.

Another time he might snap at them for poking into his private life, even though it’s been a lost battle for years and he did tell them about his agreement to date Lan Xichen. Today, he simply turns back toward the now parked car. If he tries arguing, Yu Jinzhu will no doubt hear the anticipation sparking in his chest just as she sees the way he fiddles with his ring.

He hasn’t seen Lan Xichen since Lan Xichen barged into Jiang Yanli’s home and dedicated his evening to caring for Jiang Cheng. Jiang Cheng’s memories of getting from the cozy room to his bed are dim and fragmented, but he remembers Lan Xichen’s voice pushing away all his worries. He remembers being horizontal and swimming in the haziness of sleep, trying to tell Lan Xichen it was too late to be driving and he could stay the night if he wanted. Jiang Cheng doesn’t remember Lan Xichen’s response, just a sudden pocket of warmth beside him that Jiang Cheng rolled into before slipping back into sleep.

In the morning, Jin Ling’s sprawling hug and quiet voice telling Jiang Cheng he was going to school momentarily disrupted his sleep, and Jiang Cheng thinks he managed to tell him to behave. By the time Jiang Cheng fully woke and showered, Jin Ling was gone and Lan Xichen waited in the kitchen for him with breakfast, just as promised.

When Jiang Cheng returned home after work, Lan Xichen was once again in the kitchen with dinner and two excited boys, just as promised.

Jiang Cheng thanked him then, admitting to Lan Xichen that his step was quicker, his hands stronger and his breathing easier that day. He snapped less, ate a little more, and accepted his staff’s confidence in their success.

Jiang Cheng expected the admission to snag in his chest and rip out a piece of him when he finally dragged them out. But when Lan Xichen smiled at him, the words flowed like a river and his chest warmed like he just gained rather than lost something.

They’ve been messaging everyday as usual since, Lan Xichen’s filled with even more emojis than usual in his excitement for the conference.

The car doors finally open and Jiang Cheng crosses his arms over his chest when Yu Jinzhu glances at him. They slacken the second Lan Xichen steps out, and Jiang Cheng is far too distracted by Lan Xichen’s outfit to control his facial expression.

It’s not as if he hasn’t seen Lan Xichen in casual clothing before. It’s not as if Jiang Cheng hasn’t noticed how attractive Lan Xichen is before.

That day though, he is the perfect image of a stunning model dressed for autumn. Tapered, snug jeans cling perfectly to his runners’ legs. A sky blue t-shirt hoodie hangs loose over a tucked in tank top and shows off the hard lines of the toned arms Jiang Cheng now knows are perfect for holding him. Lan Xichen’s hair is tied back in a loose ponytail that gives everyone a clear view of his strong jawline that always gives away his subtle stubbornness, the soft lips that are always quick to smile, and the kind eyes that always see what Jiang Cheng thought invisible.

He’s even wearing a wide-brimmed, floppy sunhat that he pushes up when he turns his head toward Jiang Cheng.

A grin breaks across his face as soon as he spots Jiang Cheng, and Jiang Cheng’s mouth goes completely dry.

“I’m starting to think you should show him your private tent before everything starts,” Yu Jinzhu comments, and Jiang Cheng’s face ignites.

“Shut up.”

Lan Qiren finally climbs out of the passenger side, and the two men begin heading their way. Lan Xichen pushes up his hat again and Jiang Cheng is offended that the only word his brain can currently think is adorable.

“I’m just saying, you’re going to be very busy today. Not a lot of time to act on that look you’re giving him.”

“There is no fucking look.”

“Of course, there are a lot of trees along the walk back and you know we’ve marked the path so no one else should step off it.”

“I swear, I will stick you on desk duty for a month,” Jiang Cheng hisses, “If you don’t shut. Up.

“Wanyin!” Jiang Cheng gives Yu Jinzhu one last glare before turning at Lan Xichen’s greeting. He sees Yu Jinzhu smirking slightly in his peripheral vision, but he forgets about her the second he lays eyes on Lan Xichen again.

He’s going to knock that stupid fucking hat right off Lan Xichen’s head the second he has plausible deniability.

“Hey,” Jiang Cheng says, and then clears his throat at how breathless he sounds. “No suspicious mobs stopped you this time?”

“The mobs were very friendly this time,” Lan Xichen assures him, turning to greet Yu Jinzhu at that. “Thank you again for your assistance this week.”

“Thank you for assisting tou’r,” Yu Jinzhu gives back, “Everyone is very excited to see you again.

She turns and bows slightly to Lan Qiren as she says, “Welcome to the Autumn Cultivation Conference. I’m Yu Jinzhu, vice-president of Lotus Lakes.”

Jiang Cheng quickly follows suit and bows as well.

“Lan-laoshi,” Jiang Cheng greets him carefully. He hasn’t seen the older man since he and Lan Xichen began their fake dating scheme, though he has been in contact given Lan Qiren is currently in charge of Lan Xichen’s PR team.

A slight frown pulls at Lan Qiren’s lips, but Jiang Cheng is accustomed to that look from Cloud Recesses. He’s not, however, accustomed to Lan Qiren staring at him like he’s trying to predict Jiang Cheng’s next move and already planning the damage control. That’s a look he reserved for Wei Wuxian during their summers at his school and Jiang Cheng isn’t sure what he’s done recently to deserve it.

“Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Qiren says before turning to Yu Jinzhu. “A pleasure. I’m Lan Qiren, though I believe we’ve met once before.”

“At a past conference, yes?” Yu Jinzhu asks, and Lan Qiren nods.

“I came as a friend of Jiang Fengmian. I seem to recall you and your sister assisting even then.” 

“Your memory is correct.”

Shushu is almost as excited as me,” Lan Xichen tells them despite the man’s expression. “It’s been years since the conference he attended.”

“I’m intrigued to see what changes you’ve made,” Lan Qiren tells Jiang Cheng. Jiang Cheng can’t tell if the older man looks forward to those changes or if he is already prepared to judge Jiang Cheng for them. The man was always a stickler for tradition at his music school, after all.  

“In that case, we should get you checked in,” Yu Jinzhu says. She gestures to the tent where two Lotus Lake employees sit alongside Zhao Jianding and Zhao Guanxin. They wave at the sudden attention and everyone follows Yu Jinzhu and Jiang Cheng over.

“Well hello again,” Zhao Jianding says to Lan Xichen when they all reach the table.

“Hello again,” Lan Xichen says. He smiles despite the fact that Zhao Jianding, recognizable by his slanted bamboo hat, was one of the first men to hinder Lan Xichen’s search for Jiang Cheng when he visited the village last weekend.

“We’re happy you could come,” Zhao Guanxin, Zhao Jianding’s son and yet another of the villagers who first met Lan Xichen last week, says. “Everyone has been wanting to introduce themselves officially, and Xu Mingjing listened to all your songs after you left. She’s a huge fan now.”

Everyone is a huge fan now,” Jiang Cheng says, and rolls his eyes at Lan Xichen’s curious look. “Every time they see me now, they have a million questions about you. I should be asking you for some sort of compensation for all the peace and time I’ve lost to them.”

Lan Xichen laughs and briefly squeezes his arm.

“Whatever Wanyin wants,” Lan Xichen replies despite their audience, and Jiang Cheng’s face catches fire once more. “Oh no, you’ve already gotten a sunburn?”

“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng manages to get out, and he uses the hand Lan Xichen still has on his arm to drag the other man closer to the table. “Hurry up and get signed in.”

He ignores Yu Jinzhu’s hint of a smirk, his neighbours’ raised eyebrows, and Lan Qiren’s narrowed stare. Lan Xichen simply smiles at him again and does as asked.

Everyone who arrives needs to sign their name on the guest list after the Lotus Lake employees explain the general rules and schedule of the day. It’s mostly basic reminders like absolutely no littering, no wandering away from the designated areas, and no inappropriate behaviour. Lotus Lake employees and volunteers will all be wearing a shirt with the logo on the front and back, and have silver bells hanging from their hips, and all guests are expected to listen to them.

Guests are also asked to put their phones on silent and then turn off their phones before they move forward. Throughout the day, there will be designated times for communication checks and some guests have already messaged about needing exceptions, but the point of the day’s activities is full engagement and the Lotus Lakes employees will be taking plenty of photos. Only photographers reviewed and approved by Jiang Cheng ahead of time are allowed on the premises, and they can take photo requests.

Most guests who have attended the conference before are used to those rules, and even the employees keep their phones on silent and only check at designated times once the conference begins, using walkies instead for communication with each other. Lan Qiren nods approvingly at these rules, and Lan Xichen turns his phone off without complaint.

After they’ve heard the rules and signed their name, each guest receives a silver whistle. They are meant to be used to signal the need for help if someone gets hurt or lost, though they can’t be heard from very far away if someone wanders too deep into the forest. The whistle also acts as a sign that the guest has been properly checked in.

By the time the two Lans receive them and everyone is properly introduced, it is actually close to when other attendees should be beginning to arrive, and Jiang Cheng hesitates when Lan Xichen looks at him expectantly to lead the way.

“You can’t let your boyfriend take the first walk by himself,” Yu Jinzhu says before Jiang Cheng can say anything.

“There’s no telling what stories Jinzhu will share,” Zhao Jianding agrees solemnly, but it’s Lan Xichen shifting beside him that keeps Jiang Cheng from simply standing his ground there.

“I won’t be able to greet anyone else for awhile,” Jiang Cheng warns them.

“You can always jog back,” Yu Jinzhu says with a shrug.

“Or just greet everyone at the inner entrance,” Zhao Jianding suggests.

Jiang Cheng gives Yu Jinzhu a customary glare for her comment, but replies,

“Let’s get moving, then.”   

Lan Xichen practically bounces forward as Yu Jinzhu takes the lead and the men at the tent wave them off. Despite the Yu sisters only being one tier more sociable than Jiang Cheng, Yu Jinzhu quickly slips into her business presenter mode and keeps Lan Qiren a few feet ahead of the other men as she plies him with information about ancient trees on either side of their path. The path itself is simply the gaps between the trees that have been more thoroughly flattened by repeated travel, with purple ribbons tied around the massive trunks to indicate the correct way forward.

Lan Xichen immediately falls into step beside Jiang Cheng, their hands brushing with every step, and stealing away a bit of Jiang Cheng’s stress every time.

Jiang Cheng’s fingers instinctively curl a little more with each touch, until their fingers are intertwined. 

Neither of them speak for the first few minutes of the walk as Lan Xichen takes in the canvas of autumn leaves catching the sunlight above them and the clusters of wildflowers brushing his shins in greeting, twisting this way and that just like he did when they were in boats out on the lake. He doesn’t ask questions, so Jiang Cheng just watches him and that stupid hat slide around with every tilt of his head.

“You’re going to lose it if you keep moving like that,” Jiang Cheng finally says, and gives in to the urge to adjust the hat himself.

The tips of his fingers sweep up Lan Xichen’s cheek and then his ear when Lan Xichen turns, and Lan Xichen freezes. Jiang Cheng resolutely ignores his own flushed cheeks and Lan Xichen’s wide eyes as Jiang Cheng pushes and pulls at the hat. It sits snugly for only a second before Lan Xichen inhales and it slips down over Lan Xichen’s eyes. “Where did you even get this ridiculous thing?”

“It does look a bit silly, doesn’t it?” Lan Xichen admits, simply letting Jiang Cheng try adjusting the hat again. “It’s actually muqin’s.”

Jiang Cheng stills with one hand on the hat’s brim. “But you mentioned getting sunburnt despite the chill, and it was the only one I could find.”

“Oh.”

He starts to lower his hand, but Lan Xichen catches it. Jiang Cheng doesn’t move, barely even breathes, as Lan Xichen closes his eyes with their clasped hands an inch from his cheek.

“She never really used it,” Lan Xichen murmurs, “Not when I saw her, at least. I don’t know if it’s because it’s clearly too big or if it’s because we didn’t go out much with her.”

He opens his eyes, and despite his wistful tone, his eyes stay dry. He even smiles at whatever face Jiang Cheng is making. “Please don’t apologize. She’d probably say the same thing as you once she stopped laughing.”

“It’s cute,” Jiang Cheng blurts because his brain has switched to self-destruct mode, “Ridiculous, but cute.”

“Oh.”

They’re still holding hands, palm-to-palm, callous-to-callous, pulse-to-pulse. Lan Xichen has drawn them so close to his face that when he quirks his lips at Jiang Cheng, Jiang Cheng feels the movement against the tip of his thumb. The world has gone silent around them, or maybe it’s just Jiang Cheng’s blood thundering in his ears forming white noise. He wants to look away, he should look away, but he’s drowning in Lan Xichen’s gaze just like he almost drowned two years ago. Just like then, the deeper he lets himself sink, the more his thoughts blissfully fade away.  

But unlike then, air keeps filling his lungs and warmth spreads through every nerve until he forgets what cold is. Every point of contact, every shift of muscle, triggers a thrilling jolt that reminds him he is alive, perhaps more so than he’s been in years, perhaps more than he’s dreamed of being in a long time, because in that moment he is nothing but happy.

Lan Xichen lets out a sudden but slow exhale before taking a small step back. He lowers their hands but doesn’t let go.

“Well, I suppose there’s no harm wearing it for the rest of the walk,” he says.

“We’ll get you some sunscreen when you take it off,” Jiang Cheng hears himself reply, and glances up the grass path where Yu Jinzhu and Lan Qiren are now distant specks. “Come on.”

The inner entrance is marked by another banner hoisted on poles before the manmade clearing. Yu Jinzhu and Lan Qiren already wait at its base with two of the youngest and most eager Lotus Lake employees and a more senior member tasked with supervising them. The two youngest, Zhou Hongli and Zhu Renhui, barely more than children as they joined Lotus Lakes immediately after graduating from high school, perk up the second they see Jiang Cheng approaching.

“Jiang-zong!” they greet, though their eyes quickly flit to Lan Xichen.

“Any problems?” Jiang Cheng asks them.

They shake their heads, gazes still flicking to Lan Xichen who gives them his usual polite smile.

“Good,” Jiang Cheng replies, and tilts his head toward Lan Xichen. “This is Lan Xichen–”

“Your boyfriend!” Zhou Hongli blurts, bouncing forward a step despite Jiang Cheng’s raised eyebrows.

“Right,” Jiang Cheng says, and explains to Lan Xichen, “I told the staff at our meeting yesterday you’d be coming and not to freak out or bother you if they were a fan.”

“We’re sorry we’d never actually heard your music before, Zewu Jun,” Zhu Renhui cuts in. “But you looked really cool in the videos the staff watched last night.”

“What, did you all have a viewing party or something?”

“Jinzhu-fuzongcai and Yinzhu-fuzongcai emailed them to us.”

Jiang Cheng looks at Yu Jinzhu, who simply says,

“Research is important.”

“Well thank you,” Lan Xichen cuts in, smiling at all of them in turn. “It’s a pleasure to meet everyone. May I ask what music you do enjoy?”

“Opera,” the two say simultaneously, which is clearly not the answer Lan Xichen was expecting judging by the way he glances at the curving line of earrings they both wear.

“Well, my music is certainly not that,” Lan Xichen says, still smiling. “And your names were?”

Introductions are had as the murmur of more people coming through the trees drifts on the air.

“You should go find Lan Wangji,” Jiang Cheng tells Lan Xichen once they’re done with pleasantries. “Jinzhu can help if you somehow miss Wei Wuxian’s obnoxious laughter.”

Lan Qiren purses his lips, but Lan Xichen just squeezes Jiang Cheng’s hand.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course.” He gently untangles their hands when Lan Xichen just stares. “You should take this chance to look around a little. Visit with your family. I’ll see you after.”

Jiang Cheng doesn’t understand the way Lan Xichen looks at him, but he moves off with Yu Jinzhu and Lan Qiren easily enough, and Jiang Cheng turns his attention to the incoming guests.

While he normally hates small talk, everyone who attends the conference is someone Jiang Cheng knows, and so personally greeting them is easy. Easier, and far more enjoyable, than when he was a child standing between his parents, trying to memorize the name of every stranger looming over him as if that might earn him a hug later.

He knows every name now, of every sponsor and their family members, and all the locals who attend, and they smile at him as an equal. And among the groups that pile off the chartered buses are even more familiar faces like Nie Huaisang, who looks like a pristine advertisement for outdoor clothing and hangs off Jiang Cheng’s arm when he greets him, already looking around eagerly for any birds. There’s A-Qing, an eager step ahead of Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen, who apologize for a sick Xue Yang’s absence.

There’s Mianmian, one arm looped through her fiancé’s arm and one through Wen Qing’s, who managed to fly into the country with Wen Ning just for this weekend. Jiang Cheng takes the time to personally thank her again for taking care of A-Jie and they spend a few minutes discussing her current condition.

Five minutes to eleven and the employees out front walkie to say there’s one more group of stragglers hurrying down the path. Jiang Cheng is expected to make the welcoming speech at eleven, so he leaves the rest of the greetings to the others and heads to the main clearing where most have gathered.

There are no permanent buildings, only easily assembled and reusable tents and stalls along the circular edges of a flat field. The space was cleared years ago, but all other trees and plants were left to their own devices, and so a forest as sturdy as a fortress wall surrounds them on all sides.

Guests have always been asked to bring their own tarps or picnic blankets for sitting, and to email ahead if they need to borrow one. There are a few spread out now with bags pinning down the edges, though many people have elected to stay standing for the moment. They hover around the single raised, wooden platform which is only big enough for two people.

Yu Jinzhu and Yu Yinzhu stand by the sides and Jiang Cheng heads up without preamble. Half the crowd falls quiet as soon as Jiang Cheng steps up, and the rest are silenced by Yu Yinzhu’s calm but loud command for attention.

“Welcome, everyone, to the Autumn Cultivation Conference,” Jiang Cheng starts, looking out over the sea of people. The first year A-Die requested he make a speech and then again the first year he had to run the conference by himself, Jiang Cheng spent five minutes beforehand throwing up.

Now, while his heart beats a little faster, his voice and stomach stay steady. The words on his tongue are confident. The walkie on his hip and the earpiece in his ear are familiar tools. The employees and volunteers standing on the edges of the crowd have worked at his side, not just his parents’, and they trust in him because of that work and not just because of his name. The people in the crowd have already witnessed his success, or at least heard of it.

And standing all together, with the children on their shoulders surrounded by the people who they grew up with, are his siblings and all their family and friends, beaming up at him.

“A lot of you have been to one of these before, so I’ll keep this short. For those of you who are new and for those of you with less than stellar memories–”

A few names are shouted out in jest, a few elbows thrown, and Wei Wuxian sticks his tongue out at Jiang Cheng when Jiang Cheng looks directly at his brother for that. “–Lotus Lakes holds this event every year, both to celebrate the support we receive throughout the year and to show those supporters firsthand what their contributions help build and maintain. While there are many parts of the protected areas that only employees are allowed to enter, Lotus Lakes does more than preserve the biodiversity of the bodies of water it’s named after. The land we stand on now, while not a protected area, is still an important part of Lotus Lakes, as are many of the shores and forests that surround the lakes. These lands are important not just as a buffer zone, but as places for ecosystem services, the maintenance and growth of which is the other goal of Lotus Lakes and what you will all have the chance to take part in today.”

Hands-on participation as the guests learn about these services is the main change that Jiang Cheng has enacted since he took over the company from A-Die. In A-Die’s time, people still learned about the protection and services, but there was less opportunity for engagement, less involvement from the neighbouring villages, and A-Die always seemed a distant and silent observer.

Now, in an unignorable voice, Jiang Cheng explains that they will start with provisioning services where everyone will work in teams to forage for local food, fish responsibly, and obtain safe drinking water. What they gather will be used for lunch, alongside the crops and finished products that the local farmers have grown and brought today.

Throughout the day, everyone will be working in different teams with one Lotus Lake employee as the team leader. For the first event, the teams have been predetermined based on the groups of families and friends as noted on the guest list. Jiang Cheng won’t be joining any particular team for the first event, instead moving between the different stations.

Before they begin, Jiang Cheng reminds everyone one last time that while there is no wildlife in the area that is deadly and they aren’t going to stumble into a protected area unwittingly, no one should be wandering off alone. No one should eat or drink anything that the team leader doesn’t verify, and if anyone starts to feel sick, they should let their team leader know immediately. They can return to this clearing where the water and rest stations have been set up, as well as a first aid tent.

With those reminders fresh in everyone’s minds, Jiang Cheng begins listing off the groups and the conference officially begins.

Half the small groups follow the team leaders to the marked paths to the left that lead to the river. The others move through the secondary clearing behind the stage where the farmers’ have set up stalls displaying their goods, and then beyond that to paths that lead to the established foraging sites the Lotus Lake employees chose weeks ago and double-checked this week.

There are several areas near Lotus Lakes that produce edible vegetation, and the company as well as locals watch and gently cultivate those areas year-round. Each year they choose a different area for the Cultivation Conference to prevent an over taxation of the less abundant areas, just as they only allow fishing for most populous kinds as established by their surveys. The specific quotas each group is allowed to catch and forage are strictly reinforced.

Given his nephews’ eagerness to see fish, Jiang Cheng heads to the river stations first. There are a few different stations for fishing to keep the groups spread out, as well as a water collection site further up the river. The stations have all been established on the grassiest parts of the riverbank, where the land slowly melts into clear water shallow enough for the children to wade into. They tested the currents earlier in the day, and they were careful to choose spots where the grass grows shorter too, and parents won’t need to worry about their children getting tangled in the reeds that often spring up where land meets water.

When Jiang Cheng arrives, he stops behind the groups and simply listens for a moment to ensure his employees have a handle on the situation.

“Any problems?” Jiang Cheng asks into his walkie when the groups near him are finally allowed to begin.

Everyone answers in the negative and so Jiang Cheng allows himself a moment to personally check on his family. Wei Wuxian and A-Jie have been grouped together, having assured Jiang Cheng they could handle all three children.

Jiang Cheng has to remind the children several times when they see him that they won’t catch any fish if they’re too loud. Even once they do finally catch the appropriate fish and place it in their group’s water bucket, Lan Yuan becomes so distraught at the thought of eating their new ‘friend’, they have to throw the fish back. Lan Jingyi solemnly apologizes to the fish as it swims away while Lan Wangji comforts Lan Yuan and Wei Wuxian looks torn between laughing and hugging Lan Yuan as well.

“You really are just like your baba,” he tells the sniffling Lan Yuan while Jin Ling whines at A-Jie that he still hasn’t gotten to catch a fish yet.

Jiang Cheng leaves them with their extremely amused team leader and heads further up the river to find Lan Xichen’s group at the water collection site. Nie Huaisang has glued himself between Lan Xichen and Wen Ning as he glances around for glimpses of wildlife, while Lan Qiren oversees everyone and Mianmian and Wen Qing essentially carry the group through their task. Not all the water will end up drinkable, and they are always prepared for that, but Jiang Cheng is relieved to see that everyone there is engaging with the task as if they will be.

Or, most of them are. The employees are used to Jiang Cheng flitting from station to station, and so his sudden appearances and disappearances do nothing to disrupt them unless they wish to speak with him. Lan Xichen, though, perks up the second he notices Jiang Cheng on the outskirts, and gently slides Nie Huaisang’s arm out of his so he can join Jiang Cheng where he’s poised to leave again.

“I liked your speech,” Lan Xichen whispers once he stands beside Jiang Cheng, the glittering river at their backs. “Short but sweet.”

“As it should be,” Jiang Cheng replies, and Lan Xichen smiles. He’s still wearing his hat, but he’s found some string to loop through the holes in the brim. It catches on his chin when he turns his head to follow Jiang Cheng’s gaze back toward his group. “Shouldn’t you be helping them right now? What are you going to do if you get lost out here and need a drink?”

“Ah, I was,” Lan Xichen assures him, “But right now it seems we’re just getting in the girls’ way.”

“Did Wen Qing keep slapping your hand away?” Jiang Cheng asks, and grins when Lan Xichen looks away. The hat slides again, and Jiang Cheng sees the reddened tips of Lan Xichen’s ears. “You should tell her to be more careful—I’d personally be very unhappy if she smacked your talented fingers off, and I’m sure others would too.” 

Lan Xichen’s ears go even redder at that but before he can reply, Wen Qing shouts over,

“Distract your boyfriend on your own time!”

“I’m protecting him from your abuse,” Jiang Cheng calls back, and Wen Qing raises a perfectly manicured hand.

“Say that a little closer.”

“Jiang-zong, the groups at foraging site one are ready to switch,” a team leader says over the walkie before Jiang Cheng can reply to Wen Qing.

“Alright, have them drop everything off at the collection station,” Jiang Cheng says, Lan Xichen looking at him curiously. “Yinzhu, are the locals ready?”

“Yes.”

“Alright, foragers and water collectors can head over there when they’re done. Fishers, that gives you another twenty minutes or so.”

Everyone confirms their understanding over the walkies, the team leaders nearby nodding and Jiang Cheng hears a chorus of five-minute warnings. He gives Lan Xichen a smile and whispers,

“Don’t worry, we’re switching up the groups for the next event.”

“Will you be leading a team for any of the events?” Lan Xichen asks. He looks as hopeful as Jin Ling when he asks for dessert, and the autumn sun shining down on them suddenly feels as hot as the summer’s.

“Later,” Jiang Cheng says, and almost laughs at Lan Xichen’s near pout. “After lunch.”

He finally leaves that station after, heading over to the secondary clearing to see what the groups collected and how the groups are enjoying the displays. Unlike the stations where everyone is encouraged to keep their voices down, the secondary clearing has all the lively conversation and exuberant energy of a farmer’s market. There are a few people crowded around each stall, including Zhao Jianding and Zhao Guanxin’s stall, and the employees at the collection station are eagerly sorting through the fruits and roots the guests have gathered.

This year, the main gathering target are the orange persimmons whose trees don’t mind the wet soil. There are also apple trees, orange seaberries that inhibit soil erosion, and tart red wolfberries whose young roots and leaves can also be harvested.  

Twenty minutes later, the land and water groups switch for an additional half an hour, with the same perusing of the farmers’ stalls occurring after. All the groups gather back in the main clearing afterward, where the next event is explained. It’s a natural progression in which teams will now prepare the goods they gathered along with the farmers’ products for lunch.

While none of the vegetation gathered is harmful when eaten raw, most people tend to enjoy wolfberries better once they’ve been dried out, and the seaberries need to be bletted first or made into a juice for the ideal taste. The farmers and employees have therefore done their own harvesting before the conference so that the guests could immediately see what some of the end products are. Some are as simple as dried wolfberries, which make the children trying them for the first time screw up their faces at the sour taste. Others have made various baked goods, jams, and drinks.

The fish, though, are prepared by the guests themselves with the team leaders showing everyone how to properly descale, gut, and fry the fish they caught. 

This is perhaps the most chaotic part of the day, but no one gets hurt, and any mistakes quickly become moments of humour. After, people retreat to the main clearing where they set up blankets and tarps with their families to enjoy the fruits of their labour.

Jiang Cheng always takes this opportunity to do another round of socializing, stopping by each miniature picnic to hear everyone’s thoughts on the day so far.

He goes to his family first, where they have a patchwork of blankets set up so all their friends can eat with them. The children are particularly excited to show off their food and insist on Jiang Cheng trying a bite from each of their plates.

“Where’s your plate?” Lan Xichen asks when Jiang Cheng straightens from his crouch and returns Jin Ling’s plate to him.

“I grabbed some food from the stalls earlier,” Jiang Cheng says, waving away the looks of concern that cross both his siblings’ and Lan Xichen’s faces. “And I’ll eat a big dinner later.”

He begins to head off, making it a few steps away from the next picnic when an arm slides through his. He nearly trips over his own feet, twisting to see Lan Xichen smiling at him with that familiar stubborn jut to his chin. His free hand holds a plate precariously piled with food.

“What–”

“You said everyone had a lot of questions about me,” Lan Xichen cuts in, “So surely it would make sense for you to take this time to show off your boyfriend. And this way you can eat and talk.”  

“Xichen–”

“Your staff are eating, so why shouldn’t you?”

“It’s not that,” he says, and sighs at the way Lan Xichen narrows his eyes. “I just–I want you to enjoy yourself.”

“And I want the same for you.”

“I am,” Jiang Cheng insists, because he is. He never eats much until later at this conference, and most of the employees are the same way. They make sure to eat a big breakfast and then drink a lot of water throughout the day, but their enjoyment during the conference comes from the activities and the interactions, not the lunch.

Lan Xichen smiles.

“And I am too.” His fingers grip Jiang Cheng’s arm a little more firmly. “But I would enjoy myself even more if I could keep you company for a little while.”

Jiang Cheng opens his mouth to argue, perhaps point out that he won’t be much company at the moment, but stops when Lan Xichen’s gaze briefly flits toward the ground. His hat slips over his eyes, but Jiang Cheng still sees the vulnerable downturn of his mouth. He sees the way Lan Xichen holds himself still as if afraid of a rejection, despite how confident he seemed earlier.

But perhaps the social interaction and the number of people is finally catching up to him. Even though Lan Xichen has been out and about for weeks now and returning to his normal state of taking enjoyment in others’ company, dealing with a large number of strangers can still be taxing. Jiang Cheng thought that having his family with him would put him at ease, and Lan Xichen has been nothing but smiles for familiar and new faces alike.

If that is the problem, then Jiang Cheng doubts that joining him on his lightning round of socialization will make Lan Xichen feel any better. But if he really is feeling unsettled and Jiang Cheng can help, then he’ll do whatever Lan Xichen asks.

“Alright,” Jiang Cheng says softly, and Lan Xichen immediately perks up.

“Great,” he says, back to smiling. “I can’t wait to meet everyone from all the stories you’ve told me.”

Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes at Lan Xichen for that, but Lan Xichen just lifts the plate a little higher in offering. Jiang Cheng takes a strip of fish with a roll of his eyes, and then leads Lan Xichen to the nearest blanket. 

Though everyone is happily eating, they all always greet Jiang Cheng cheerfully as soon as he arrives. Most ask him to join them for a moment, shifting to make room on their blankets and tarps. Jiang Cheng always thanks them for the offer even though he ultimately declines. He kneels for a few minutes on the edges instead, listening to their account of the morning and complimenting their food. He is particularly interested in hearing from any children, whether of the sponsors in attendance or of local villagers, encouraging their questions and listening to their answers as carefully as he does with Jin Ling.

Most of them offer him a piece of their meal, eager to share their success just like Jiang Cheng’s nephews. Jiang Cheng accepts easily, though some of the excited children give him too much to eat in one bite. Extras go onto the plate Lan Xichen holds at his side.

Jiang Cheng tries once to tell Lan Xichen he doesn’t need to kneel if he doesn’t want, but Lan Xichen does every time, gracefully and smiling. His smile widens whenever anyone responds to Jiang Cheng’s presence with enthusiastic welcome, and it stirs the echoes of their argument on Tuesday night.

Not the explicit words and not who was more right, but an undercurrent that Jiang Cheng didn’t hear at the time. Lan Xichen had argued that people wanted to support him, that Jiang Cheng should let them. And while Jiang Cheng thinks Lan Xichen understood by the end why Jiang Cheng was acting the way he did, it didn’t negate an unsaid sentiment that naturally underscored Lan Xichen’s point.

Everyone here wants the Cultivation Conference, and Jiang Cheng by association, to succeed. Sometimes when Jiang Cheng goes to board meetings and business dinners, presentations and awareness events, there are those in attendance who want nothing more than to dismiss him and Lotus Lakes, who are only there to challenge him.

But there is no one here like that. This is only for the people who have already established themselves as supporters, who see the value in Lotus Lakes, and so wish to enjoy the event as much as Jiang Cheng hopes they will.

It’s been a long time since Jiang Cheng could freely enjoy this event as an audience member, even before his parents died, but he does remember this meal. He remembers Xu Menghua and her family less than a foot away, remembers her scolding Li Tie as he plopped down with a stray cat he treated like a house cat. He remembers he and Wei Wuxian flicking pieces of food at each other whenever Wang Xiaozhi turned his back on them, A-Jie settling them down even as she laughed and a lovesick Zhao Guanxin scooted as close to her as the brothers allowed.

He remembers craning his head to catch a glimpse of A-Die and A-Niang speaking with the other guests, remembers teenaged Yu Jinzhu and Yu Yinzhu flitting back and forth and promising to deliver the messages to A-Niang that Jiang Cheng whispered in their ears.

He remembers the second A-Die and A-Niang finally, briefly returned to their tarp, and they felt like a family for a rare, beautiful moment.

Jiang Cheng sees that same moment, repeating over and over again at every new picnic he and Lan Xichen join. He ends up smiling almost as much as Lan Xichen thanks to that, only blushing slightly when Lan Xichen stares at that smile and not fighting him when he insists Jiang Cheng eat between each new group of people.

The people are curious about Lan Xichen too, and despite the contract, something warm curls in Jiang Cheng’s stomach every time Lan Xichen introduces himself as Jiang Cheng’s boyfriend.

It’s fake, he reminds that warmth, but that fact never seems to matter. The arm through his, the smile on Lan Xichen’s face, the food offered to him; none of that is fake. Lan Xichen’s delight whenever someone conspiratorially whispers to him about Jiang Cheng, the affection in Jiang Cheng’s grumbling, the sunhat that now hangs halfway down Lan Xichen’s back; none of that is fake.

You don’t even want a boyfriend.

But he wants Lan Xichen beside him, at least for now, and he has always wanted someone to acknowledge he is theirs, regardless of what shape the relationship took.

So Jiang Cheng lets himself enjoy the sincerity found in the refractions of their artificial roles, just like Lan Xichen wanted. He takes the company and he takes the food and he takes the laughter and he tucks it all inside his chest next to his beating heart.

In return, he snorts at Lan Xichen’s humbleness when people recognize him as Zewu Jun, he sweeps his thumb over Lan Xichen’s pulse whenever he sings a few lines for people like Xu Mingjing, and he pulls them both up whenever he deems they’ve been in one place long enough. For every bite of food Lan Xichen offers, Jiang Cheng insists he eat too, and every time Lan Xichen’s hat slides off, Jiang Cheng puts it back on his head.

Lan Xichen thanks him every time, even when Jiang Cheng’s hand catches in Lan Xichen’s silky strands of hair as he reaches back for the hat or when his fingers accidentally brush Lan Xichen’s cheek as he pulls away.

It’s during one of these hat fixes, their social rounds almost over and their families’ huddle in sight, that Jiang Cheng hears another familiar voice.

“Hey, big boss man,” A-Qing calls, and Jiang Cheng turns to see her bouncing over. She’s wearing a loose, lacy black dress over a white long-sleeved shirt, knee high socks and combat boots.

“Brat,” Jiang Cheng greets her. “Where have you been hiding?”

“There was no hiding, just a lot of moving around. We’re over with Yanli and A-Ling now so I can brag about the fish I caught to him.”

“Oh joy.”

“Speaking of, is there a swimming contest later? I’ve gotta show A-Ling how much better I am than you like I promised.”

“There is a boat race which you and your skinny arms will lose just like you would have lost any kind of swimming race against me.”

“Jokes on you, diedie was on the rowing team in university,” A-Qing replies with a grin, “You’re going to eat our surf, just watch.”

“I’m shaking in my boots,” Jiang Cheng says with a roll of his eyes.

“I certainly am,” Lan Xichen finally cuts in, his tone far too amused for Jiang Cheng’s liking. “Teenagers have far more stamina than natural.”

“It only seems that way because you’re an old man,” Jiang Cheng teases.

“I do believe you’re the one whose been repeatedly called an old man at heart, not me.” 

“Soooo,” A-Qing cuts in with a glint in her gaze that immediately makes Jiang Cheng narrow his eyes. “Are you finally gonna introduce me to your legendary boyfriend or?”

“You already met him last week. And even if you hadn’t, you’re the one who didn’t introduce yourself first.”

You’re the responsible adult here, not me.”

Lan Xichen laughs, loud and free and surprised, grinning at the pleased A-Qing.

“It’s a pleasure to see you again,” he tells her. “You really are as fun as Wanyin said.”

“I did not call her fun.”

“Delighted to see you again,” A-Qing says, and gives him a little bow as if she does in fact know what manners are. “Even more delighted if you’d answer even one question about your love story. I didn’t have time to ask you last week and I try talking to grumpy-pants, but he refuses to say anything even when he comes home looking like he’s just received a fairy tale kiss.”   

“That has never happened,” Jiang Cheng hisses, his whole face red in a matter of seconds. He refuses to look at Lan Xichen, glaring at A-Qing instead.

“I’m afraid we can both be rather private people,” Lan Xichen tells her, tone still gentle despite the possible intrusion.

“Which is fair given your whole famous singer thing,” A-Qing replies flippantly, as if Jiang Cheng hasn’t caught her singing along as loud as she can to one of Lan Xichen’s albums with Jin Ling after school before. “But can you just tell me how long you’ve liked each other?”

“We’ve been dating for almost nine months now,” Lan Xichen says slowly, the same information they’ve shared with the general public.

“Yeah, I know, but how long have you liked each other?” A-Qing asks.

For some reason, Lan Xichen blushes.

“What do you mean?” he asks, and A-Qing rolls her eyes.

“You can’t tell me you asked each other out just cuz,” A-Qing says. “You’re a star and he’s him and you must see hundreds of people at your celebrity events, not just each other.”

A-Qing claps her hands together as her eyes light up. “Unless you guys also met casually at like a bar or something using fake IDs and–”

“No no,” Lan Xichen says at the same time Jiang Cheng snorts. “Nothing like that.”

“I thought you once said your brain stopped working when you tried picturing me at a bar.”

“A hipster bar,” A-Qing corrects. “I’m sure you go to plenty of old man bars.”

“I think Wanyin is plenty hip,” Lan Xichen replies, and A-Qing’s face contorts like she’s been brutally injured.

“I will pay you all my babysitting money to never say that again.”

“I’ll give her a bonus for that,” Jiang Cheng adds, and grins at Lan Xichen’s offended look.

“Now back to important things,” A-Qing says, clapping her hands. “You two. Liking each other. When? Why?” 

Lan Xichen’s blush deepens, even though they have an agreed upon story about always seeing each other at their brothers’ events because their brothers have been close since working on the same movie years ago and from attending summer school even more years before that. It’s close enough to the truth that neither of them can forget, and Lan Xichen has already mentioned it on his social media accounts. Most fans have been more focused on receiving glimpses of the present relationship and the two agreed there was no point in creating a detailed story with a romantic spark like A-Qing probably wants to hear until Lan Xichen agreed to do an official interview about it.

Yet Lan Xichen has forgotten his words, and what spills from Jiang Cheng’s mouth is a different truth. 

“I’ve always liked him,” Jiang Cheng says. He hears Lan Xichen’s sharp inhale, but he keeps a calm gaze on A-Qing. “My siblings and I all went to his family’s music school in the summers. Even though we were in different grades, everyone knew who Lan Xichen was. Everyone always liked him.”

Even then, even with the few real interactions they had, Jiang Cheng knew Lan Xichen was kind. Kind and gentle and always offering to help others. Brilliant, too, with a beautiful voice to match his beautiful heart. He was the model for every other student to emulate, and because he was so kind to them, he was a model that everyone adored rather than envied.

So maybe Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen never truly saw each other then, maybe they never really sought each other out throughout the years, but Lan Xichen has always been a pretty if distant constant, like the stars. Jiang Cheng doesn’t check for them every night, but whenever he does look, they’re waiting high above just the same as always.

But Jiang Cheng finds he rather prefers being in the warm arms of one turned human, especially when he looks over to see Lan Xichen beaming brighter than anything else Jiang Cheng has ever seen.

He’s gorgeous, and Jiang Cheng would do anything to have that smile always on and turned toward him.

“Does that mean you have pictures of each other when you were babies?” A-Qing asks. Jiang Cheng suddenly feels dizzy as he looks away from Lan Xichen. “Toddlers?”

“Pre-teens actually,” Lan Xichen replies.

“Does that mean you have yearbook photos?”

“Yes,” Lan Xichen says at the same time Jiang Cheng quickly says,

“No.”

A-Qing bounces closer to Lan Xichen as Jiang Cheng glares at him.

“So I need your phone number so you can send those to me immediately,” A-Qing says, and Lan Xichen laughs as Jiang Cheng’s glare darkens.

“Don’t you dare,” Jiang Cheng warns.

“I’m afraid I’m not in the habit of giving out my personal addresses,” Lan Xichen tells her. “But I can send a few images to Jiang Yanli that she could show you briefly.”

“You’re the worst,” Jiang Cheng tells him as A-Qing pumps her fist in victory. “The absolute worst, and I am telling A-Jie as soon as we get back to never share any photos you send her.”

“I could send them to Wei Wuxian instead,” Lan Xichen replies, unable to hide his teasing smile with one hand still holding a plate and the other still looped through Jiang Cheng’s.

“I will dump you the second you do.”

“You know, you should really work on making threats that people will actually believe,” A-Qing snorts.

“Fine, I won’t talk to him for a day.”

“I said believable–”

“You don’t think I could go a day–”

“I’ve seen you replying to his text messages, you look like you’re about to send a million heart emojis every time, and you want me to believe ignoring him wouldn’t break your own heart?”

“Xichen is the one who loves emojis.”

“And you love that he loves them.” She looks to Lan Xichen before Jiang Cheng can speak. “Quick, what’s your favourite emoji?”

“I don’t use them the most, but I think all the animal ones are very cute?” Lan Xichen answers as if there’s a wrong answer, and A-Qing claps her hands again as if that was the right answer.

“See, you’re perfect for each other!” she tells Jiang Cheng, once again making both men blush. “I like the sparkling star best.”

“That is a very lovely one,” Lan Xichen says with a smile at the same time Jiang Cheng says,

“We are not having this conversation.”

“Right? I mean what’s the point of a star emoji or sticker if it’s not sparkling like a real star?”

“Have you ever even seen a real star?” Jiang Cheng demands.

“More than you,” A-Qing sings, and Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes at the blatant lie.

Jiang Cheng opens his mouth to reply, but three tiny bodies barrelling into his shins interrupts him as he stumbles and Lan Xichen tries to keep them both upright.

Jiujiu!” Jin Ling shouts up at him, “Mama says you have to eat with us right now!”

“Jinzhu, Yinzhu, how we doing for time?” Jiang Cheng asks into his walkie.

“You’ve got twenty minutes.”

“Prep is on schedule.”

“Alright,” he says, and Lan Xichen releases him when he crouches down with a smirk at the boys. He glances up at Lan Xichen briefly before turning back to Jin Ling. “How would you like to beat A-Qing in a race back, A-Ling?”

“You’re on!” A-Qing says with a grin, and immediately shifts into a runner’s starting position.

“Xichen?” Jiang Cheng asks with a pointed look at Lan Yuan.

“Three,” Lan Xichen immediately begins to count with a smile, “Two, one–A-Yuan, A-Yi, give jiejie a hug.”

The two boys launch themselves at A-Qing immediately and Jiang Cheng grabs Jin Ling. A-Qing shrieks and Jin Ling laughs as Jiang Cheng sprints off with him tucked under one arm. Within seconds, A-Qing is chasing after them with both Lan boys hanging off her back, giggling and shrieking as much as Jin Ling. People are staring, but they’re laughing as much as the boys, as much as the delighted A-Jie when Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling come skidding to the finish line of their picnic.

“You are a terrible man,” A-Qing pants when she reaches them, the Lan boys still dangling off her as they gleefully shout at the spectators. Her own parents sit a few feet away, amusement lining their faces. “And if it were not for the children, I would have slaughtered you where you stood.”

“Seems a little harsh,” Jiang Cheng says as he sets the red-faced, still giggling Jin Ling on the ground.

“Yeah, A-Qing, don’t be a sore loser,” Jin Ling tells her.

“Yeah, jiejie,” Lan Jingyi choruses.

“We had fun, jiejie,” Lan Yuan says, and tries to climb even higher on her shoulder to pat her cheek comfortingly.

She hums and slowly drops into a sit on the ground.

“Well I guess if my favourite boys tell me how I’m the best jiejie ever and give me the best hugs ever, I can forgive them,” she says, and when the Lan boys immediately rethrow themselves upon her, Jin Ling joins in and lets her ruffle his hair even as he protests.

“I’m still gonna beat you in the boat race,” A-Qing says. She looks up as Lan Xichen finally rejoins them, biting down hard on his lip as if fighting back laughter. She points dramatically toward Lan Xichen with a narrowed gaze. “And you can bet I am going to rub it in your face, you traitor.”

“I simply thought you would enjoy some hugs since Jiang Cheng told me you loved hugs,” Lan Xichen says with a perfectly innocent expression.

“Besides, wouldn’t the real betrayal be him turning on his boyfriend?” Jiang Cheng says, and grabs Lan Xichen’s hand for emphasis. “You’re the one who was just saying how perfect we are for each other.”

“Don’t worry, A-Qing,” Wei Wuxian calls over from the picnic blankets where he leans against Lan Wangji. “Lan Zhan and I will be winning that race anyways.”

“You two?” Jiang Cheng snorts. “Please. We all know why you’ll be coming last place.”

“Should the rest of us start a betting pool, Jin-xiong, Wen-xiong?” Nie Huaisang asks, visibly delighted in the monster he’s about to unleash as Zhao Jianding and Li Tie also look over at those words.

“Betting pool, you say,” Li Tie says, and Jiang Cheng points a finger at him.

“No betting if you’re racing, Li-shu,” Jiang Cheng says as Lan Qiren looks at all of them with less disapproval than Jiang Cheng would expect.  

“Of course,” Li Tie says, turning to Zhao Jianding. “Jian-ge, if lao Wang and I win, you’ll split the money you win off us with us, right?”

“Of course.”

“I’ll do the same for you,” Wen Ning says to Wen Qing and Mianmian.

“Do not spend your money on betting,” Wen Qing replies even as Mianmian grins.

“Scared you’ll lose to me?” Wei Wuxian asks her with a beatific smile that does nothing to lessen Wen Qing’s unimpressed stare.

Tou’r,” Yu Jinzhu’s voice interrupts in Jiang Cheng’s ear as a full-blown argument between the various blankets begins. “You should get ready to start the next event.”

“Alright, clean-up time everyone,” Jiang Cheng says over the channel that all the Lotus Lake employees are on. He turns to grin at Lan Xichen. “Time for the fun to begin.”

“But it already started hours ago,” Lan Xichen replies without missing a beat.

“Sap,” Jiang Cheng says, but softens his voice and twists slightly so all he sees is Lan Xichen’s face. “Thank you.”

He releases Lan Xichen and begins to call out clean-up instructions to the attendees as the Lotus Lake employees move through the rest of the crowd doing the same. All food was served with washable plates and cutlery, and everyone was told to bring their own reusable water bottle. There are compost and different garbage bins to dump any left-overs in before the employees accept the dishes for cleaning.

Jiang Cheng goes to the platform once more as the attendees begin to head to the washing station. Once they deposit their lunch remains, they naturally crowd back around the platform where they see Jiang Cheng with the Yu sisters. The team leaders spread out just like before as Jiang Cheng explains the first of the afternoon events.

First is the Silver Bell Hike, aptly named after the silver bells the villagers used long ago to signal their locations when they went into the wilderness. Of course, the team leaders don’t only rely on the bells now, but each carries one for symbolic purposes, and the employees still get excited whenever they’re deemed experienced and responsible enough to receive one for this event.

The hike is both a cultural service and educational opportunity. There are seven information stations, where the hikers will learn about the regulating and supporting ecosystem services the Lotus Lake employees perform on a daily basis. They will also learn more about the lands and lakes themselves, as well as the species that Lotus Lakes protects, as they traverse from one station to the next.

This is also the time attendees will be briefly taken by sampans through one of the protected lakes.

“Now at each station there will be a game,” Jiang Cheng explains, instantly drawing any child’s waning attention back to him. “Most of them are trivia games. Some of them are small scavenger hunts. There are prizes for each station for the team that gets the best score.”

“I’m on jiujiu’s team!” Jin Ling shouts for everyone to hear. Most of the crowd chuckles good-naturedly, even more so when Lan Jingyi shouts his agreement while Lan Qiren attempts to shush him.

“The teams are randomized this time,” Jiang Cheng says once he swallows down the lump of affection in his throat. “So everyone can work together with new people.”

While Jiang Cheng probably wouldn’t enjoy that aspect if he was a guest member, everyone else at Lotus Lakes supported the idea. Admittedly, given the event is about learning not only to care for nature, but how to live harmoniously, it makes sense to also encourage harmony among strangers. It is no different than when a new person joins the staff of Lotus Lakes.

Jiang Cheng sees Jin Ling’s pouting lip quiver when Jiang Cheng says that, and Jin Ling crosses his arms over his small chest as he shakes his head at whatever A-Jie is whispering to him. Jiang Cheng almost feels like pouting himself when he reads off the teams and it turns out none of his family or friends are on the team he will be supervising with Zhu Hongli as the leader.

Within seconds of gathering though, two men on Jiang Cheng’s team offer to switch spaces with Jin Zixuan and Jin Ling. There’s probably something to be said about spoiling Jin Ling, but Jiang Cheng doesn’t care on that particular day, and Jin Zixuan easily agrees with many thanks to the men.

The other teams gather without any trading. Nie Huaisang and A-Qing end up on the same team which is a duo with terrifying potential that Jiang Cheng desperately wishes he never needed to imagine. Xiao Xingchen is with them because they’ve made sure anyone under the age of eighteen is still with a guardian, but Jiang Cheng doesn’t think his presence will do much to prevent any scheming.

Lan Wangji and Lan Yuan are on one team, while Wei Wuxian and Lan Jingyi end up on a separate team. Zhao Guanxin and one of the children from Ninghe, Ouyang Zizhen, are also on Wei Wuxian’s team, and Lan Jingyi latches onto the other boy within seconds.

Xu Menghua and Wen Qing end up together which is another combination Jiang Cheng is sure to have nightmares about. Xu Mingjing is also on that team and she looks besotted with Wen Qing as soon as the woman opens her mouth.

Lan Qiren and Wang Xiaozhi join a team with mostly locals, as well as the quieter Song Lan. Mianmian and her fiancé are on a team mostly of sponsors from urban areas, but Jiang Cheng sees her charming everyone as soon as she introduces herself.

Finally there is Lan Xichen, who much to Jiang Cheng’s amusement, ends up on the same team as both Zhao Jianding and Li Tie. The men greet him like an old friend, clapping him on the shoulder and drawing him into the centre of the group that huddles as closely together as penguins in the arctic winds.

Lan Xichen has left his hat behind with A-Jie who, given her recent surgery and cold, has elected to stay behind and take a rest with a few others who informed the staff of their choice before the event. Wen Ning also chooses to stay behind to keep her company.

Once all the teams have been sorted, the hike begins. Each team leader knows which station their team will begin at, though they still stagger the start times to ensure no areas are overwhelmed by people. Jiang Cheng’s group begins at what has been marked as station one, Zhu Hongli leading them along the same path that initially led to the fishing grounds. Station one is much further up the river than the fishing grounds and is a station about flood control.

The game for this station, after the information session, is to reconstruct a fish ladder using the surrounding materials. Even though Jiang Cheng tells Jin Ling multiple times that neither he nor Zhu Hongli are allowed to help their teams during the game portion, his nephew still wants Jiang Cheng to observe every step of his process.

From there, with Jin Ling holding both Jin Zixuan’s and Jiang Cheng’s hands, the team moves up the riverbank to stations about water diversity where Zhu Hongli explains and shows the team how employees take measurements both along the river and at the shore of the lake. Before they go out onto the lake itself, they detour to a small pond full of the lotuses their company is named for. While most are returning to their winter slumber, everyone is delighted by the vibrant green blanket of lily pads that still bobs along the surface.

After, Zhu Hongli takes them out onto the lake in one of the larger sampans the company owns and were brought down from the main piers of Lotus Lakes earlier. The flatter boats are used both for visitors and for employees to examine samples while still on the waters. Half the sampan is covered by a small shelter which protects the employees from heat exhaustion and gentle rains alike. Most of the wooden sampans of Lotus Lakes are years old, but every employee is taught to care for the boats as dedicatedly as they care for the lakes.

Jiang Cheng listens to Zhu Hongli just as closely as the attendees to ensure the young man emphasizes all the rules properly before they get into the sampan. There’s not many, mostly just that they need to speak quietly, and they are forbidden from throwing anything in the lake, but everyone needs to understand that these lakes are not for playing in.

While Zhu Hongli is younger than some of the guests and is also physically incapable of scowling at anyone, his chipper attitude has everyone smiling along with his instructions. The second his cheerful tone dips in the slightest, the team scrambles to fix their errors.

They play trivia while the sampan glides across the water, every ripple catching the jewelled glitter of the late afternoon sunlight. The guests delight in both the coolness and cleanliness of the blue Zhu Hongli allows them to dip their hands in, and the more lethargic guests close their eyes as the lake’s breeze plays with everyone’s hair. Jin Ling excitedly uses the knowledge he learned last weekend to answer some of the trivia questions while Jin Zixuan keeps his arm wrapped around his son.

Zhu Hongli returns them and the sampan to the same spot they climbed aboard so another team can use it, and the group hikes back down the shore of the river. They don’t go all the way back down though, instead turning away and taking a path into the forest on the east shore of the lake. A blessed, cool shade falls over all of them as the coloured foliage above blocks out the sun.

Everyone follows Zhu Hongli’s example and speaks in hushed tones as he points out the various species of trees, plants, and birds. Zhu Hongli also demonstrates how the employees check for any disease or invasive species, and the minimalistic ways they interfere to cultivate healthier growth. He takes pictures of the members of the group attempting to wrap their arms fully around the tree trunks, everyone laughing when there are still inches of brown bark separating their hands.

He also ensures they responsibly obtain the various ribbons that have been carefully placed for a scavenger hunt.   

They exit the forest into the meadow used for foraging site one during the first event. Here, the attendees are shown how to weave grass shelters after the informational portion, and Jin Ling momentarily gives everyone a heart attack when he wanders into a patch of long grass taller than him.

The final station is back at the secondary clearing where the farmers’ stalls are still standing. Employees have brought the collection of compostable goods over so Zhu Hongli can go through the proper process with everyone.

Once all the teams have returned from the hike, the team leaders assemble to review the tallied scores and establish winners while the guests take a break at their blankets and share stories about their hike. Jin Ling immediately races over to his friends, now with the addition of Ouyang Zhizhen, to brag about how well he did at the games.

Since team leaders were sharing the results over the walkies for Yu Jinzhu to record at the rest area as they went, it only takes ten minutes for the winners to be established, and another ten minutes for prizes to be announced. They range from Lotus Lake souvenirs to locally made delicacies to gift cards at the dinner’s catering company.

“We’ll be taking a thirty-minute break before we begin the boat races,” Jiang Cheng announces after everyone has received their prizes. “Everyone who signed up to race, make sure you get some water first and then head over to the start line.”

He hands his walkie to Yu Jinzhu as everyone begins their preparations. Most of those who signed up are locals who have been on the river since they were old enough to sit up on their own, and who will be using their own canoes and rowboats that were brought up a few days earlier. There are also a few people like Lan Xichen and Song Lan who have boating experience despite their urban dwellings.

The races will occur in brackets, with teams of two or three per boat, and attendees were required when they RSVPed to the conference to say then if they wished to join the race and share their level of experience. While it may seem harsh, people who can’t swim and children under the age of twelve aren’t allowed to join, and everyone who races is required to wear a lifejacket. Thankfully, no one in that category attempted to sign up this year, and as Jiang Cheng heads through the crowd to find Lan Xichen, he hears only excitement for the upcoming races.

“Ready to win?” Jiang Cheng asks Lan Xichen as he comes upon the man still talking with Li Tie. Lan Xichen whirls at his question as if he’s just been discussing a secret with Li Tie who glances over at Jiang Cheng with an oddly satisfied expression.

“Lead the way,” Lan Xichen says quickly, though he shoots Li Tie a grateful look first. Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow, but Lan Xichen’s hand grabbing his and a beaming smile quickly distracts him.

The starting point of the race is in between the flood control station and fishing grounds, while the finish line is set further down the river past the fishing grounds and past the main clearing. A slow crowd trickles up the established path toward the starting point, everyone carefully trained by this point not to go wandering off or disturb the river too much, voices raising into the air in exuberance, but quiet enough that birds still dare to fly and hop nearby.

Both the start and finish lines are being handled by senior staff members, their many years of experience with this race giving their voices weighty authority as they explain the rules and course. They move among the teams as they push their boats out of the shallows and begin to climb in.

There are a few shouts about the chill of the clear blue water, while others heckle the complainers for being weak. Jiang Cheng has thrown on a sweater specifically for that reason, and he grins across the boat at Lan Xichen when the other man inhales sharply enough for a gasp as he steps into the water.

“So you hate the cold, but you’d laugh at my suffering from cold water?” Lan Xichen asks when he sees Jiang Cheng’s grin.

“Water is different,” Jiang Cheng replies, because while he wouldn’t want to go swimming in this temperature, the river brings him comfort regardless of season. “And besides, you can hop in now.”

Jiang Cheng holds the boat steady as Lan Xichen climbs into the front. The last part is more of a fall than anything, and Jiang Cheng leans over as Lan Xichen blinks up at him.

“Ow?” he asks. Jiang Cheng wants to laugh at him, but a sudden ray of sun leaves him hot and unsteady as he stares down at Lan Xichen sprawled and flushed in the wooden embrace Jiang Cheng has known all his life.

He looks away, hands clenching the side of the boat, as Lan Xichen struggles into a sitting position. 

“If you manage to give yourself a concussion before we even start the race, I’m pushing you in this river and leaving you,” he eventually says, still pulling the boat along. The cold water is a blessing now, and he doesn’t climb into the boat himself until they’ve reached the official starting point and his face has cooled. There’s no way they’ll win if Jiang Cheng is dehydrated from the start.  

The race begins at one of the widest and still accessible points of the river, the space between the two shores broad enough for ten boats across. There’s some good-natured teasing between everyone as the boats bump against each other, all of them still crowded in the shallows of the shores where oars can dig into the bottom to keep anyone from drifting away with the river’s current. The first leg of the race is therefore always a bit more chaotic than a real race would be, but that’s where half the fun comes from as the air fills with shrieks and shouts between partners following the signal to begin.

No one immediately tips their boat over despite all the jostling as everyone steers their boats out into the middle of the river where they’ll have more room to maneuver and take advantage of the current.

The more experienced locals like Zhao Jianding and his son immediately pull into a miniscule lead, but Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen stay close enough for Jiang Cheng to count the wrinkles on the older man’s grinning face. He can hear Wei Wuxian’s laughter close to his right, and A-Qing calling to Xiao Xingchen just behind them, and his heart soars like the birds above them. His blood thunders through him as steadily strong as the current of the river beneath them and Jiang Cheng loves the way each stroke of the oar works with that pulse to push them further ahead.

He grins at Lan Xichen, for once not caring what his face is showing and if it’s showing too much even though Lan Xichen’s pace falters for a beat.

“Not bad for a city boy,” Jiang Cheng calls over the voices of the other teams and those from the shore as they reach the first group of spectators.

Lan Xichen blinks and his pace returns to normal, but he never looks away from Jiang Cheng.

“I did watch those videos you sent me,” Lan Xichen replies. “I may have even spent a few evenings practicing the motions while I watched.”

“With what?” Jiang Cheng laughs as they reach the quarter-mark where their nephews cheer for them.

“Mostly a broom,” Lan Xichen replies without shame. Jiang Cheng almost loses his oar to the river as he imagines the other man sitting on his couch with the utmost seriousness, dipping his broom through the air in time to the training videos Jiang Cheng sent.

“You are,” Jiang Cheng says, readjusting his grip and attempting to keep the same pace, “Without a doubt, the most ridiculous man I know.”

And I’m so happy I know you.

And despite the way that could be taken as an insult, despite the way Jiang Cheng can’t directly express the gratitude swelling in his chest, Lan Xichen smiles at him like he hears everything Jiang Cheng can’t put into words, like he loves even these conversations with Jiang Cheng.

“Only for you,” he replies, and Jiang Cheng almost drops the oar again.

Wei Wuxian’s sudden whoop saves him from needing to think of a reply, as Jiang Cheng immediately refocuses on doubling their pace to keep their brothers from overtaking them.  

By the time they pass the halfway point, the participants are far more spread out than earlier. Jiang Cheng is pretty sure a local and young couple are in the lead, though at least Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen are ahead of their brothers and A-Qing despite Lan Xichen being inexperienced. Jiang Cheng has a sneaking suspicion that Wei Wuxian has actually steered their boat off the main river and through one of the many smaller channels to a secluded pond they can make-out in.

He would be offended, but it’s not technically a competition between just the two of them, and he’s really grateful Wei Wuxian isn’t around to witness what happens when Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen near the three-quarter mark.

They’re between the two fishing grounds, the only spectator one of the Lotus Lakes’ employees posted in intervals along the shore, when it happens. The river narrows at this point, and the shore becomes more reeds and other aquatic plants than solid ground, the long and tangled vegetation not satisfied staying in one place. It spreads into the water so only two boats can pass through at a time and Jiang Cheng tells Lan Xichen to watch where he places his oar.

Jiang Cheng tries to steer them as far away from the reeds as he can, and Lan Xichen twists in his seat. But when he tries to row like that, he can’t match his strokes to Jiang Cheng’s, and he quickly turns back to face Jiang Cheng as he tries to overcorrect.

Lan Xichen’s next stroke puts the oar right into a clump of reeds along the conference grounds’ shoreline despite Jiang Cheng’s warning. Jiang Cheng immediately lifts his oar out of the water, but the force of his last stroke is already pushing them past the clump even as Lan Xichen instinctively grips the handle of his oar tighter.

Jiang Cheng thrusts his oar into the water in an attempt to turn the boat as Lan Xichen slams against and then half over the side of the boat. His arms stretch and strain as he keeps a grip on the oar that seems to have somehow buried itself directly in the riverbed.

“Just let go of it,” Jiang Cheng says as the stern of the boat sweeps in an infinitely slow arc back toward the shoreline.

“It’s okay, I got it,” Lan Xichen replies, despite the way he speaks more to the water inches from his face than Jiang Cheng. He tugs on the oar and the boat rocks dangerously to his side, the end of his hair already in the water.

“Do not–”

“I just need to adjust my grip and–”

“That is not how–”

“–pull us a little closer–”

Lan Xichen pulls as hard as he can and the boat, which hasn’t had a chance to turn in line with the oar and is therefore now drifting with its sides parallel to the oar, dips far enough that Lan Xichen’s face hits the surface of the water. Jiang Cheng, going against everything he has ever been taught about balancing out an unsteady boat, instinctively and desperately reaches for him.

The boat capsizes.

Water rushes inside Jiang Cheng and he bumps his head on the hard edge of the boat when he shoots upward. He swallows more water as his mouth opens on an instinctive curse at the pain, but his foot hits solid ground and he pushes himself forward rather than up. Slimy strands catch on his face and hands, but this time he breaks the surface of the water when he tries to stand.

He chokes and spits, shoving the water and weeds out of his eyes to desperately look for Lan Xichen. The man bursts through the surface before Jiang Cheng has a chance to panic, also coughing and spluttering and wiping at his face.

He’s still coughing when he opens his eyes to look for Jiang Cheng. They widen as soon as they spot him, and Jiang Cheng can’t speak through the burning of his throat as Lan Xichen’s gaze catches on the mess of reeds and other aquatic weeds now stuck in Jiang Cheng’s hair.

Lan Xichen snorts.

His hands fly to his mouth as he makes the sound again, but neither his hands nor the water stop him from dissolving into laughter a second later.

“Oi,” Jiang Cheng tries to say through the burn.

He can’t speak loudly, and even if he could, Lan Xichen is laughing louder. Far louder than Jiang Cheng has heard in all these months together, far louder than Jiang Cheng could ever imagine any Lan laughing, even Lan Jingyi. The sound shakes Lan Xichen’s entire body, scrunches up his entire face, and has him clutching at the capsized boat. Even when he swallows more water, he keeps laughing, choking and snorting and wheezing, like he doesn’t know how to stop.

And Jiang Cheng is a mess. The top of his head throbs from where he hit it. His hair is a nest of tangled reeds that dangle into his face. He still can’t see clearly thanks to all the water. His cheeks burn with embarrassment as much as his lungs are burning from all the river he just swallowed. His arms ache from trying to change their boat’s course so quickly. Every part of his body from his shoulders down is completely submerged in icy water. The riverbed is simultaneously too muddy and too rocky. He’s already dreading his family and staff hearing about this because there is no way anyone will ever let him live this down.

But Lan Xichen is laughing. Lan Xichen is laughing freely, and Jiang Cheng would do anything to keep him laughing like that for as long as he wanted. He would make a fool of himself a million times over just to hear Lan Xichen’s unrestrained joy.

Oh no.

He stares. He stares at Lan Xichen’s hunched over form, at the wet hair plastered to his steadily reddening face, at the plants that also drape over his shoulders, at the bulky lifejacket that obscures Lan Xichen’s lean body, at the ripples spreading around him in his undignified state that lacks all the grace and poise he is known for on and off stage. He is far from perfect in this moment and Jiang Cheng’s hands are slowly going numb, and yet Jiang Cheng could stay here the rest of the day simply drinking in the sight of him.

Oh no no no no no no.

He’s standing in a river with a capsized boat and he should be worrying about the race or the severe bruising he is no doubt going to have later or the secondary drowning Lan Xichen is potentially giving himself right now or the employee who saw all this or their families or any number of other things, but instead all he can think about is how much he wants to hug Lan Xichen, how much he wants to laugh with him, how much he wants to be with him like this forever.

Nonononono.

He loves him.

He loves Lan Xichen.

He loves Lan Xichen like a real boyfriend would.

Fuck.

“I’m–sorry–” Lan Xichen gasps through his laughter and tears, completely oblivious to the panic that rushes through Jiang Cheng him like a tsunami in the wake of his sudden revelation. “I shouldn’t–I can’t believe–”

Jiang Cheng has no idea what he’s trying to say, but he chokes on some water again, and that’s the only thing that breaks through the current screeching in Jiang Cheng’s head.

“Okay,” Jiang Cheng hears himself say as he inches through the water toward Lan Xichen despite how much he would rather sink beneath the surface and scream. “It’s okay, it’s fine, but you really need to stop drinking the river.”

He grabs one of Lan Xichen’s arms so he can lift the other man a little higher out of the water and hopefully keep him from drowning. Jiang Cheng’s brain is a short-circuiting, steaming, fizzling mess right now, and the contact doesn’t help, but then Lan Xichen lets his forehead fall onto Jiang Cheng’s shoulder for support and Jiang Cheng becomes a statue. Not even a flood could move him as he stays perfectly still, resolved to letting Lan Xichen lean on him for as long as he needs.

He doesn’t deserve this. He is acting selfishly, he is acting desperately, already grasping at the scraps he can get, but he doesn’t care. He stands there as Lan Xichen’s laughter turns into gasps and hiccups as he tries to calm down and he stands there when Lan Xichen lifts his damp face and smiles at Jiang Cheng with barely a breath of space between them. He stands there as Lan Xichen pushes his hands through Jiang Cheng’s hair to adjust the reeds, Lan Xichen’s fingers still resting on his scalp as he whispers,

“There, now your river crown is perfect.”

“Xichen?”

Lan Xichen freezes in Jiang Cheng’s half-embrace, and Jiang Cheng’s heart does the same. Another boat glides past them on the river, the racers saying something to them with concerned expressions, but Jiang Cheng can’t hear them. He doesn’t hear anything as Lan Xichen slowly looks over Jiang Cheng’s shoulder, and he doesn’t hear anything as he turns toward the riverbank.

Nie Mingjue stands a few feet away from the river with downturned lips but concerned eyes.

Da-ge?” Lan Xichen breathes, and Jiang Cheng closes his eyes.

When he opens them, Nie Mingjue is still standing there with an impassive Yu Yinzhu at his side, and Jiang Cheng is still standing in a river wrapped around the man he has fallen hopelessly in love with.

“Are you okay?” Nie Mingjue asks, troubled expression going to the overturned boat and then to Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng’s dishevelled states.

The words that’s none of your fucking business anymore rise in Jiang Cheng’s chest, but Lan Xichen nods. Lan Xichen nods and then he begins to move toward the shore, one arm still on the boat to try pulling it with him.

“Stop,” Jiang Cheng says, and grabs Lan Xichen’s arm on autopilot. “You’ll hurt yourself like that.”

He slips his hands under the water to grab the now submerged tops of the boat’s sides. Lan Xichen follows suit a second later and they both tug the boat slowly back to shore.

They don’t speak as they move. They don’t look at each other. Jiang Cheng tells himself that everything currently aching is from capsizing the boat, even though he didn’t hit his chest at any point.

Yu Yinzhu grabs the boat to help lug it up onto the ground once they reach the shore, the employee from before nowhere in sight. She also says nothing, not until the boat rests on solid earth and the two waterlogged men look up.

“They weren’t on the guest list but Nie Huaisang said he invited them as family, and he wasn’t sure if they could make it,” Yu Yinzhu tells Jiang Cheng, “I was called to the entrance. They said they wished to speak with Lan Xichen.”

“They?” Lan Xichen asks.

Nie Mingjue steps to the side so they can all see Jin Guangyao waiting a few feet away. The other man wears a perfectly neutral expression, but he lifts his hand in a mini wave when they all turn to look at him.

“We were hoping to apologize to you,” Nie Mingjue says, and Lan Xichen’s gaze immediately shoots back to him. “And to talk with you somewhere privately.”

“Really?” Lan Xichen asks, and Jiang Cheng never imagined a look of hope could trigger so much fear in him.

“I’m sorry it took me so long,” Nie Mingjue says. This close, Jiang Cheng sees the dark smudges under Nie Mingjue’s eyes, but the man is still a looming giant with a strong voice to match. “If you don’t want to talk, I understand. If you only want to talk with one of us, we understand. If you want to push me in that river, I also understand.”   

“I might want to dump a little water on you right now,” Lan Xichen replies. Nie Mingjue’s lips twitch at that, and Lan Xichen smiles as soon as they do. “I–”

He glances at Jiang Cheng first, as if Jiang Cheng has any role left to play, before taking a deep breath.

“I’d like to talk,” Lan Xichen says, “With you to start. I’m not sure if there’s somewhere private along the trail we could–”

“Use my tent,” Jiang Cheng interrupts. He might hate the current situation for no logical reason, but he hates the idea of Lan Xichen completely isolated from everyone else and getting lost even more.

He glances to the silent Yu Yinzhu, catching a glimpse over her shoulder of Yu Jinzhu approaching the group from down the river. The women aren’t exactly glaring at the unfamiliar pair, but they’re not showing any emotion, which is just as scary to most people.

“Yinzhu,” Jiang Cheng says, “Show Xichen-ge the way to my tent so he can dry off and talk to these two privately. Make sure he has everything he needs while I check on the races.”

“Of course, Jiang-zong.”

Yu Yinzhu steps between Nie Mingjue and Jiang Cheng, and Jiang Cheng grabs Lan Xichen’s arm. Even though it’s dangerous right now with the adrenaline of his realization pounding through him, Jiang Cheng draws Lan Xichen close, fingers curling tightly, painfully.

“She’ll keep one of them outside if you want,” Jiang Cheng tells him, struggling to keep his voice pitched low at the hope and caution warring in Lan Xichen’s now pale face. Water keeps dripping down his jawline from his soaked hair, and Jiang Cheng’s fingers itch to wipe everything away. “If you want anything, tell her, okay? I have to go check on the results, but she can get me if you need and I’ll be back right after, okay?”

He knows everyone is watching them, taking note of the protective lines of his body curling around Lan Xichen, and the desperate tinge to his voice. He knows their waterlogged clothes are causing pools at their feet and the sun is already drying their hair in a spectacular mess. He knows both A-Die and A-Niang would say he’s acting in a way that’s unbecoming of his professional position, and that there’s no reason to cling to Lan Xichen as he does.

But another part of him simply hisses let them look. Let them see how attached he is to Lan Xichen, fake boyfriend or not. Let them see that if anyone ever hurts Lan Xichen again, Jiang Cheng will be there a second later as a force of reckoning, regardless of his own state.

Lan Xichen’s arms wrap around him for just a second in answer.

“Thank you,” he breathes, head turned so the words puff against Jiang Cheng’s ear, and Jiang Cheng shivers.

He pulls away before Jiang Cheng’s pounding heart can make him say anything stupid, and the small smile on Lan Xichen’s lips might as well be a gunshot to Jiang Cheng’s chest. Lan Xichen’s hands drift across Jiang Cheng’s arms as he steps back, hands lingering on Jiang Cheng’s as if he wants to hold them as much as Jiang Cheng wants to hold his. Jiang Cheng does give his fingers a quick squeeze, even though his arms tingle at every spot Lan Xichen just touched.

Lan Xichen finally steps away fully and turns back to the others. Yu Yinzhu moves off through the trees, Lan Xichen following her while the other two fall into step behind him. Jiang Cheng watches for longer than he should, but Yu Jinzhu lets him.

“You know I could check on everything if you wanted to go with him,” Yu Jinzhu says as she hands him a towel and they head toward the race’s finish line.

“No,” Jiang Cheng says with a jerky shake of his head. “He wants to talk to them alone.”

“Did you ask him that?”

“He needs to talk to them alone,” Jiang Cheng corrects despite his clenched jaw. “If I was there, I’d just–”

Snap at them. Yell at them. Insist Lan Xichen not hold anything back. Clutch Lan Xichen’s hand as if they have been real boyfriends this entire time. Drag Lan Xichen back to the river and his helpless laughter. Beg Lan Xichen to stay with him. Blurt out his confession.

“Ruin everything,” Jiang Cheng concludes without looking at Yu Jinzhu.

Tou’r,” she starts, but he hears the firm xiao Cheng she used to say whenever she was the one who found him hiding as a child.

“Don’t,” he warns, and throws the towel over his head. “I’m fine.”

The towel falls over his face and blocks out her expression. Jiang Cheng rubs at his hair and the stuff stuck in it as hard as he can. No matter how viciously he rubs though, he can still feel phantom fingers against his scalp, as if every place Lan Xichen touched him now has an imprint thanks to Jiang Cheng’s love.

He jerks the towel away at that ridiculous thought, before scrubbing his forehead. Maybe he can’t forget how Lan Xichen made him feel, but he can at least wipe those thoughts right out of his head before he starts spouting Wei Wuxian levels of nonsense.

“We’ll check on the finish line,” Jiang Cheng says, striding forward again. “Make sure Wei Wuxian actually made it–walkie?”

Yu Jinzhu hands over his walkie as they walk down the river, keeping to the outskirts of the spectators.

“Anyone have eyes on Wei Wuxian?” Jiang Cheng asks into the walkie, and everyone answers in the negative. “Right, so I definitely need to make sure he’s not causing trouble, and then I’ll make sure A-Jie’s doing okay, and then I’ll go back to Xichen.”

The plan to find his siblings eases Yu Jinzhu’s skepticism for the moment, and they both fall quiet.

It’s not that Jiang Cheng plans on confessing to either of his siblings. They would be too delighted, too ready to tease, and too quick to tell him to go confess to Lan Xichen. That will not be happening with every feeling in Jiang Cheng bubbling so close to the surface. It will not be happening until Jiang Cheng is positive that Lan Xichen, through some miracle, is open to a real date with him.

But even if he can’t tell his siblings about the panicked shrieking in his head, they can distract him. Comfort him. Offer opinions about the conversation currently happening in the tent, at least, and how Jiang Cheng should show his support when he returns.

A few attendees call out to Jiang Cheng as they pass, teasing him about the wet clothes. He’s not fully conscious of the replies he gives, but they satisfy everyone enough that they don’t mind his unbroken pace forward. Yu Jinzhu stays on his other side and pulls out her phone as they continue. She and her sister are usually tasked with keeping an eye on online matters, especially during events like these, so the action isn’t unusual.

When her gaze stays on her phone, though, Jiang Cheng slows his pace and raises an eyebrow at her. Her eyes flick across the screen like she’s speedreading, but still consuming every word. A scowl drags down her lips as her hand clenches around her cane and Jiang Cheng’s heart starts thudding again.

“They broke the agreement,” Yu Jinzhu says, and the venom dripping from her voice immediately tells Jiang Cheng who they is. “They went to the media and did a whole fucking expose-here.”

She shoves the phone into his hand, which begins shaking as soon as she swears. She glances up at the crowd and bodily drags Jiang Cheng over to a grove of trees far enough from the shore that no one will hear them if they keep their voices down.

“Yinzhu,” she says into the private channel she shares with her sister. “Take out your phone right now. Rumours Verified just released an article about tou’r.”

Jiang Cheng lifts the phone as Yu Yinzhu replies, and immediately wishes he was still asleep before this day ever started.

AT HIS CORE, the headline plastered over the screen screams at him. Beneath it are the sub headlines, smaller, but no less evocative. THE SHOCKING TRUTH ABOUT CEO JIANG WANYIN’S RELATIONSHIP WITH HIS SUPERSTAR BROTHER, ACTOR WEI WUXIAN, AND HIS EFFORTS TO SILENCE HIS BROTHER FOREVER .

Beneath that is yet another bolded sentence.

DOES BELOVED SINGER ZEWU JUN REALLY KNOW THE TRUTH ABOUT HIS NEW BOYFRIEND? OR IS HE YET ANOTHER VICTIM? 

Next are the photos. Blown-up profiles of Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng side-by-side that Jiang Cheng wants to laugh at, because they were so obviously chosen to be as polarizing as possible. On the left is Wei Wuxian as everyone sees him; laughing joyfully with the people around him, face open, handsome in his vest jacket, one hand loosely holding a drink as if to demonstrate how fun he is. The new golden boy of the acting industry, the caption reads, the photo taken six months before A-Die and A-Niang’s deaths.

On the right, Jiang Cheng is only half-looking at the camera, one of his truly disgusted scowls twisting his face. He’s glaring, body twisted away from the photographer as if to show how unfriendly a person he is, the harsh cut of his suit turning his young body into something old and vaguely sinister. Heir to his family’s nature preservation company, Lotus Lakes, the caption reads, taken three months before A-Die and A-Niang’s deaths.

Below that is a familiar shot of twisted car wreckage, and gasoline slicks down Jiang Cheng’s throat that still burns from the river water. A terrible tragedy, the caption reads, as if the writer of this article knows anything about what those deaths did to the Jiang family.

Another paired photo, a clipping of one of the many articles from that time discussing Wei Wuxian’s sudden disappearance, directly beside a group shot of three people that make Jiang Cheng momentarily see orange. They’re smiling into a webcam, the photo clearly taken from a shoddy home video studio, and the caption describes them as the Eternal Suns, seekers of truth who are finally ready to break their silence despite the risk.

Jiang Cheng isn’t sure if he wants to throw up or throw the phone in the river, but he does neither. Instead he takes a deep breath, closes his eyes briefly like Lan Xichen is always doing, and then begins to read the article in the famous celebrity magazine.

It starts with background information about Jiang Cheng’s family, information that he merely skims. It focuses mostly on Lotus Lakes and Wei Wuxian’s rise to stardom in the acting industry before he hit twenty, along with A-Jie’s early success as a dancer. Jiang Cheng is of course painted as the stuffy businessman, prepared to take over the family business despite his ‘shocking lack of charisma’ and ‘obvious jealousy of the freedom and talent of both his biological sister and adopted brother.’

The article discusses some of the public events the siblings were seen attending together a few months before A-Die and A-Niang’s deaths, and the simmering tension that guests reported between Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian. There are pictures of the two arguing outside the bathroom, a rare glimpse of Wei Wuxian’s face in taut, angry lines with his arms crossed impatiently over his chest as Jiang Cheng hisses something at him. Some of those photos were released during that time period and Wei Wuxian already made a public statement dismissing any serious trouble between the two, but of course the article now wonders how much of that can be believed.

‘It really is a shame,’ the article says, ‘that we are all too easily prepared to lie for the people we love, even when that person is poison to us.’

Of course, the article doesn’t know what the argument was actually about since it revolved around Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji’s secret relationship, and around the Eternal Suns.

‘The Eternal Suns,’ the article reads, ‘were like so many other fan groups at the time, and so it’s no wonder that until now, no one saw them as a key player in the covered-up drama that was about to unfold.’

A fan group that made videos of their covers of the singers they loved, and their own skits inspired by the actors they loved. They posted videos of every event they attended, which was a lot, always commenting on social media and trying to engage with their idols. They claimed and claim that idols like Wei Wuxian did come to recognize them as representatives of their larger group of fans, and the article shares photos of the friendly replies Wei Wuxian gave them on social media.

Including those pictures is the first obvious mistake the article makes, because Wei Wuxian can easily post his own screenshots that prove only a quarter of those are real, and even those real ones are mostly taken out of context. Yu Jinzhu will no doubt already have taken note of that, so Jiang Cheng doesn’t bother saying anything.

Instead he continues to read with a growing rage as the article continues to tout the story Wei Wuxian’s old stalkers and tormentors tell as the undeniable truth.

When Wei Wuxian’s adopted parents died suddenly in the car crash, the Eternal Suns were as heartbroken as the rest of Wei Wuxian’s loyal fans, the article writes. They were as shocked as everyone else when Wei Wuxian suddenly disappeared and responded as enthusiastically as everyone else when the Jiang siblings begged the public to help them find their brother.

‘And then something strange happened, around ten months following the deaths,’ the article says, ‘Rather than assigning one of Wei Wuxian’s experienced PR members to manage any social media inquiries about him, or at least allowing the more eloquent Jiang Yanli to take over given her experience in that area, Jiang Wanyin became the public spokesperson for Wei Wuxian.’

Because A-Jie had a fucking child, Jiang Cheng wants to scream. She was in mourning, not just for her parents but for the brother she adored who vanished with only a single message, while also still being a new mom who had just started her career again.

Jin Ling might not have been a newborn at the time, but he was still too young to even speak properly, let alone understand why his mama was so sad and tired all the time, even though Jiang Cheng knows she did her best to keep Jin Ling from seeing her grief. She would have broken herself trying to be the perfect mom and wife if she also took the lead in the area of public relations, and Jiang Cheng refused to let either his sister or nephew suffer any more than they already were.   

And Wei Wuxian let his entire PR team go right before he left the country.

‘Almost immediately, fans were deprived of any new information and the public search for Wei Wuxian was, not explicitly but obvious to anyone in the situation, called off,’ the article continues, oblivious to either Jiang Cheng’s clenched fist or the context it’s missing.

The Eternal Suns were confused, the article continues, but not deterred by Jiang Cheng’s ‘obvious and undeserved hostility’ and ‘illogical opposition to finding his brother.’ In the same year, Lotus Lakes began to grow more rapidly, as if waiting for that boon of money Jiang Cheng received when Wei Wuxian vanished.

‘Perhaps, too, Jiang Wanyin felt like the company was a flower blocked from the sun by his brother’s magnificence,’ the article says, ‘Perhaps that is why the CEO seemed so eager to turn his attention away from his missing brother and was so vicious to those like the Eternal Suns who, naturally, couldn’t let go of the potential foul play even when official investigations were called off.’

Called off because A-Jie finally convinced Jiang Cheng that if Wei Wuxian didn’t want to be found at that moment, then they couldn’t force him. Called off because A-Jie was scared if they kept pushing publicly after everything that happened, Wei Wuxian would be pushed away permanently. Called off because the two resolved to keep the search private and their own channels of communication open as they simply did their best to let Wei Wuxian know they were there for him and loved him whenever he felt like reaching out again.   

And perhaps Jiang Cheng hadn’t been particularly friendly to a lot of the fan accounts, at least not as much as A-Jie or Wei Wuxian would be. Perhaps, in his grief and his loneliness and his perpetually sleep-deprived state, when he needed to conserve his limited patience and social graces for Lotus Lakes’ sponsors and employees, he was not always as polite as he could have been to those fans.

But the Eternal Suns were not fans. The Eternal Suns were leeches; stalking Wei Wuxian before A-Die and A-Niang’s deaths, demanding to be granted special access to sets and opportunities to gain recognition through Wei Wuxian’s contacts, and blackmailing him with threats of exposing his relationship with Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji didn’t know about the extent at the time; only Wei Wuxian’s immediate family, the Yu sisters and a private investigator knew, which is what Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian were arguing about so much before the deaths.

Jiang Cheng wanted Wei Wuxian to tell Lan Wangji everything. Jiang Cheng wanted Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji to come out publicly so the Eternal Suns would stop having power over Wei Wuxian. But Wei Wuxian said Lan Wanji wasn’t ready. Wei Wuxian said Lan Qiren still didn’t like Wei Wuxian or his relationship with Lan Qiren’s beloved nephew. Wei Wuxian said they still weren’t that serious and he didn’t want all the scrutiny this early into their relationship or Lan Wangji’s career, nor did he want the famously private Lan Wangji to feel pressured to make public declarations for someone who was only a temporary partner.

“You’ve been dating seriously for three years!” Jiang Cheng pointed out whenever they argued. “You’ve been in love with each other since we were teenagers! And if you have to keep breaking your heart like this to be with him, then what’s the fucking point?”

Wei Wuxian wouldn’t listen. Even when things started to affect his health, even when they put a strain on his relationship with Lan Wangji, even when he called his siblings in a panic just like he called A-Die the night of the crash.

So Jiang Cheng knew who the Eternal Suns truly were when they tried reaching out to him following the deaths. The group wasn’t quite stupid enough to use those public profiles in their harassment of Wei Wuxian, unfortunately. But the Yu sisters have always been decent with technology, and when they were confined to hospitals with little else to do following the accident and an overwhelming dose of survivor’s guilt, they became self-taught digital experts. They scoured every corner of the Internet to find every single personal detail about Wei Wuxian’s stalkers to use against them the second they reared their ugly heads again.    

And the stalkers did. The article, with none of that background information, begins to discuss how the Eternal Suns moved on in some ways like many other fans, but kept hoping and staying alert to any potential news about Wei Wuxian.

For the first time, dread seeps into Jiang Cheng as the article begins a retelling of the events Jiang Cheng and the Yu sisters have kept from everyone, including Jiang Cheng’s siblings.

‘A year after Wei Wuxian’s disappearance, Wen Lingjiao of the Eternal Suns was looking through the online photos of Wen Chao’s distant cousin from America,’ the article reports, ‘In a happy coincidence that we tend to think only occurs in stories, these photos would become the first lead everyone had been searching for.’

A very, very distant cousin that Wen Lingjiao was jealous of and hated so much, she got the other members of the Eternal Suns to bypass the privacy block that said cousin had established. There weren’t any outright damning photos once Wen Lingjiao had access, whether because Wei Wuxian was being careful or because he was still too grief-stricken to take his usual excess of photos, Jiang Cheng still doesn’t know. But in the background of one photo, an outline of Wei Wuxian can be seen, and that’s all those Eternal Suns dogs needed to rabidly chase down that trail.

The Eternal Suns claim in the article that they looked through all the accounts the cousin owns, deduced where Wei Wuxian must have flown into America, and tried getting confirmation through the cousin. When they were fairly certain of where Wei Wuxian was despite the cousin’s lack of confirmation, something the article now wonders if stemmed from a fear of Jiang Cheng given what happened next, the Eternal Suns privately reached out to Jiang Cheng. They waited for days, barely able to contain their excitement at being able to help reunite the family, only for Jiang Cheng to respond with blackmail, bribery, and threats of violence to keep the Eternal Suns from ever breathing a word of what they learned to anyone.

He wanted us gone almost as much as he wanted his brother gone,’ a quote from Wen Chao reads, ‘He had us drive all the way out to the countryside where his company is—very rural place, very isolated. Then when we got there, he and these two goons drove us even further out and then forced us to walk into this completely untouched forest with no cell service and threatened to leave us there if we didn’t do what they wanted. It sounds cartoonish when we say it out loud, but he honestly said that no one would find our bodies out there, and I really do believe he would have done it.

After establishing just how vulnerable the Eternal Suns currently were, the article continues, Jiang Cheng told them the amount of money they would each receive to disband from that day on, disappear, and never speak a word of Wei Wuxian’s possible location or their correspondences with Jiang Cheng to anyone.

‘Terrified, isolated, and significantly lacking the type of legal and financial power Jiang Wanyin possessed, the Eternal Suns agreed to his terms,’ the article says, ‘The next day, still so shaken they were too scared to go outside, they each found the promised sum in their bank accounts from orphaned bank accounts, not realizing at the time that Jiang Wanyin had stolen from his family’s own company to provide these illegal funds.’

There are bank statements. There are fucking bank statements, evidence of transfers from the account that Yu Yinzhu made untraceable, pictures of the online reminders where Jiang Cheng explicitly states no one else is to know about Wei Wuxian’s possible whereabouts. Reminders and bank statements that no one but Jiang Cheng should have copies of, because Yu Yinzhu made sure the files would erase themselves on all other devices after a set time. The only evidence of this nightmare should be the encrypted files on Jiang Cheng’s laptop that no one should be able to access unless they broke into A-Jie’s home and somehow hacked it.  

There are fiscal reports from Lotus Lakes that year too that the article points out show a significant dip in financial revenue despite the increased social success of the company that year. The numbers of course don’t match up exactly, but the article claims the timing is suspicious when examined beside all the other evidence.

Technically, those fiscal reports can be accessed by anyone from Lotus Lakes’ official website since Jiang Cheng believes transparency in this area earns their company trust.

He almost laughs at how even his honesty is being taken out of context and used against him now.

We honestly had no clue going into it just how bad the family relationships were,’ Wen Lingjiao is quoted, with the article commenting on how Wen Lingjiao once again tears up from the traumatic memory as she has several times throughout the interview despite doing her best to keep up a brave face, ‘I mean, obviously as fans we will never know everything about our idols’ lives, and we can’t expect to. But Wei Wuxian just seemed so loved by everyone—his parents, his siblings, his costars like Hanguang-Jun, his fans. None of us could have known that those rumours about their parents’ problems and sibling jealousy was hiding such a monster.

We’re sorry we didn’t face that monster head-on,’ Wen Chao tells the interviewer. ‘We debated what to do for so long, but then all of a sudden, Wei Wuxian came back.

He came back and for the first few months, the brothers stayed far away from each other, never spotted at the same public events like they were before the deaths.

‘It can only be assumed that Wei Wuxian had finally had enough,’ the article says, ‘That he wouldn’t be cowed any longer, no matter what his brother threatened him with. That he would take refugee with his wonderful jiejie and friends like the flawless singer Lan Wangji, famously and aptly nicknamed Hanguang-Jun by his fans. That he would dedicate himself to a thriving career so he could rely on himself and honour the memory of his adopted parents who were always so supportive of his dreams.’

We weren’t going to get involved again,’ Wen Chao claims in the article. ‘We of course reached out to Wei Wuxian, not as a group but simply as separate fans, to tell him how happy we were to see him return and how we would continue to support him like his hundreds of other fans. But then we noticed Jiang Wanyin showing up at a couple of his celebrity events this year. And then Zewu Jun announced he and that monster have been dating.

The next portion of the article is a quick introduction to who Lan Xichen is, and then a detailed look at Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng’s relationship. There are dozens of pictures for this section, most of them from the ‘dates’ they went on and therefore ones that Jiang Cheng has already seen. Some of them though, are snapshots that imply trouble in their relationship, like the one of Jiang Cheng alone and angry outside a restaurant, the one of Nie Huaisang in the gardens with a distraught looking Lan Xichen and of Nie Huaisang leaving his apartment.

There’s even one that Jiang Cheng has never seen before of Lan Xichen outside A-Jie’s house with a crushed expression as he presses a phone to his ear.

The article notes that Zewu Jun is well-known for being a private celebrity, and that he told the press he was dating Jiang Cheng for months in secret before they went public.

‘But could this commitment to sparse details be hiding something toxic?’ the article questions. ‘After all, while Zewu Jun claimed that the current tension between him and his fellow singer, Nie Mingjue, and his old recorder producer, Jin Guangyao, came more from artistic differences and unrelated personal issues, the fact that they haven’t been sighted together in months or interacted much online implies a much deeper issue. And the timeline of Zewu Jun and Jiang Wanyin’s relationship puts the official start of their relationship very close to the release of Venerated Triad, which is the last time Zewu Jun released any music despite it being almost nine months since, and Zewu Jun’s previous and much faster rates of production.’

That’s why we finally decided we needed to tell the story publicly, consequences be damned,’ Wen Chao tells the interviewer. ‘We’d been posting a little bit on some very private and very obscure forums to see if there was any interest, but we realized that everyone needed to hear this because everyone adores Zewu Jun. There’s never been a single fan, costar, or employee who’s had anything bad to say about him. He doesn’t deserve to be trapped in a poisonous relationship. He doesn’t deserve to be made to feel alone and resigned when there are so many people in his industry and so many fans who would rally behind him if something is wrong. He doesn’t deserve to be silenced like we were.

The article includes a few more quotes from people expressing their adoration for Lan Xichen before it returns to a discussion of Jiang Cheng’s character and the implications of the scandal that’s been revealed. It’s winding down though, only a few paragraphs left, and Jiang Cheng’s focus slipping away with it.

Orange keeps flickering in his vision, but the edges are faded and frayed. It drains away before Jiang Cheng can even try to hold onto it.

“Who has eyes on Wei Wuxian?” Jiang Cheng barks into the walkie. “I need to find him right fucking now.”

Most of his employees apologize for still not seeing him, but a couple by the finish line say they saw him and Lan Wangji cross a few minutes ago and wander off. Jiang Cheng immediately strides off in that direction, unaware if Yu Jinzhu is keeping pace as he desperately searches for his brother’s face.

He was never supposed to find out like this. Jiang Cheng doesn’t know if he would ever tell Wei Wuxian period, even though they are no longer supposed to be hiding things from each other. But he really thought he’d taken care of the problem, and he trusted the Yu sisters to deal with any type of resurgence.

In the end, what happened wouldn’t change anything. It wouldn’t change how long Wei Wuxian was gone, it wouldn’t have changed the arguments they had when he returned, and it wouldn’t change their choice to try and move forward together.

All this will do is potentially retrigger the guilt Wei Wuxian felt over the stalkers in the first place, and then he’ll leave again and Jiang Cheng will not survive that.

Or maybe it won’t be guilt. Maybe it will be that terrible, depressing thought pattern that kept them at each other’s throats for the first months that Wei Wuxian returned; where Wei Wuxian thought that Jiang Cheng truly hated him now and Jiang Cheng was still so hurt and angry that everything he said only reinforced that belief.

He’s not breathing properly. Black spots flash in the corners of his eyes and he stumbles every few steps, but he doesn’t stop. Yu Jinzhu grips his elbow but only to keep him moving like he wants.

“Jiang Cheng!”

Somewhere along the riverbank between the three-quarter mark and the finish line, Wei Wuxian calls his name. Jiang Cheng spins toward the sound and sees him heading over with a cheerful wave, Lan Wangji at his side. “I heard you and Xichen-ge decided to try swimming to the finish line!”

He’s grinning, his hair mussed and his shirt half undone because he somehow manages to be utterly shameless even when the true nature of his relationship with Lan Wangji is a secret.

He’s grinning and Jiang Cheng hauls him into a hug like he should have the second he returned to China last year.

“Jiang Cheng?” Wei Wuxian asks, hands hesitantly coming up to touch Jiang Cheng’s shoulder blades. “Hey, what’s wrong? Is everything okay with the conference? With Xichen-ge?”

He opens his mouth, but shouting from where a path to the main clearing has been marked interrupts him.

“A-Cheng! A-Xian!”

They pull apart as A-Jie comes running toward them with tears gleaming in her wide eyes.

Today has officially become a nightmare.

Jiejie, what’s wrong?” Wei Wuxian demands when she reaches them. She’s dangerously out of breath, and both brothers reach for her at the same time. They grip her elbows as she clutches at their arms. “Where’s the peacock and Jin Ling? Where’s Wen Ning?”

“Fine,” she gasps, and when she straightens, tears slip down her cheeks as she looks straight at Jiang Cheng. “A-Cheng, this article, it was just released–”

“I saw,” Jiang Cheng tells her, but that only makes the tears fall faster. “A-Jie please. It never happened like that, you know I wanted Wei Wuxian to come back, you know I wouldn’t steal–”

“Is that why you were so upset when you threw yourself in the water?” A-Jie cries, and Wei Wuxian looks at Jiang Cheng with a horrified look he never wanted to see. “Is that what you were trying to forget that night? Were you dealing with those–those leeches that whole time all by yourself?”

“Jinzhu and Yinzhu knew,” Jiang Cheng says as if that will make things better. He grabs A-Jie’s small hand, hoping she can feel how sorry he is through touch alone. “It was supposed to be dealt with, it wasn’t supposed to be a problem ever again. I have no idea how they got the information they did, but I promise I’ll fix it.”

“Fix what?” Wei Wuxian demands, gaze swinging between his siblings. “What wasn’t supposed to be a problem? What article are you talking about? Why are you acting like Jiang Cheng tried to drown himself?

They are not speaking nearly as quietly as they should be, but no one else comes near them with Lan Wangji marking a perimeter by circling slowly and silently around them.

“An expose was just released by Rumours Verified,” Yu Jinzhu tells Wei Wuxian. “About your disappearance after the car crash and the dealings that occurred back here about a year into your disappearance.”

“What dealings?” Wei Wuxian’s other hand clamps down hard on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder.

“The article claims that a group of your fans known as the Eternal Suns discovered your location before anyone else by spotting you in the background of one of Wen Qing’s photos,” Yu Jinzhu summarizes, “They claim to have gone to tou’r with the information only to be threatened and bribed into never speaking a word about what they’d learned and disbanding immediately. They claim tou’r used company money to pay them off and then cover up the whole thing.”

“They were the stalkers,” Jiang Cheng says, and Wei Wuxian immediately pales. Jiang Cheng grabs Wei Wuxian’s shoulder in return. “Jinzhu and Yinzhu were trying to find out who they really were, and they also had programs tracking every mention of you just in case, and it picked up one of their conversations.”

They were smart, in a way. There is no way they could have been such a problem for so long if they weren’t, but Jiang Cheng and the Yu sisters quickly discovered that they were also extremely arrogant. He’s certain the only reason they were able to operate as they did for so long and thought they could threaten Wei Wuxian once again, and Jiang Cheng when he reached out to them, is because they’d been lucky for so long and Wen Chao assumed his business tycoon of a father would always bail him out of any trouble.

“They were talking about how they could blackmail you again by threatening to reveal your location,” Jiang Cheng says, bile stirring in his gut just like when he read the transcript Yu Yinzhu showed him. “Since they figured you didn’t want to be found. Or manipulating A-Jie with the promise of telling her where you were eventually.”

“If he needs distance to heal, then we need to respect that, A-Cheng, or he may never come home,” A-Jie had just told him and Jiang Cheng had finally, begrudgingly agreed to try accepting that only days before the Yu sisters discovered this mess waiting to explode in Wei Wuxian or A-Jie’s laps.

“So we reached out to their official account. Unofficially, privately, claiming we had information about you that we wanted to share with your most loyal and influential fan group.”

They really did invite the group to the area and then drove them even further into the countryside. They really did lead them into one of the still untamed forests beyond Lotus Lakes, where there’s no cell service and even Jiang Cheng would have trouble escaping if he got lost in there. They took the group just far enough into the primal wilderness to feel isolated before Jiang Cheng laid out the terms with Yu Jinzhu and Yu Yinzhu standing on either side of him.

And yes, he did threaten them with violence. He did lay out the damaging information the Yu sisters found out about the group because he would beat them at their own game if he needed to. He told them that he would pay them the sum referenced in the article to leave Jiang Cheng’s family alone permanently. He did warn them that Yu Jinzhu and Yu Yinzhu would not hesitate to go after them if he ever heard from them again, though what exactly would happen was left to their imagination.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t feel guilty for that. Even after Jiang Cheng threatened the Eternal Suns, even after he pointed out that what’d they done to Wei Wuxian was illegal and wrong, even after they fearfully agreed to his terms, they still looked at him like they would love nothing more than to torture Jiang Cheng for the rest of his life. They looked at him without any remorse for what they put Wei Wuxian through, and no remorse for what they had been planning on doing to Jiang Cheng’s remaining family. They deserved far worse than what Jiang Cheng did, and far worse than what the article claims he did.

He does, however, feel like scum for the tears now in A-Jie’s eyes and the twist of Wei Wuxian’s face.

“I paid them to leave you alone,” Jiang Cheng admits, and Wei Wuxian’s fingers are digging into Jiang Cheng’s flesh, but he doesn’t even feel it. “To leave all of us alone, for good. And I might have said some things, but I never took money from the company. It was all from my personal savings and the savings A-Die left us individually and my own salary.”

“It was a bad fiscal year in general,” Yu Jinzhu cuts in to add, no doubt thinking of the fiscal reports in the article, “But tou’r made sure his salary was the only one that got cut.”

“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian blurts. Jiang Cheng and A-Jie stare at him, and he begins to tear up as well as he continues speaking. “I thought if I disappeared, if I cut all my ties with the fame and the influence they wanted so bad, they would lose interest and stop causing trouble and everyone would be better off. I never thought they would go after you.”

“I know,” Jiang Cheng says, because they talked about this at this year’s new year party. There was a lot more screaming then, but the tears crowding all their eyes are the same.

“Is that why you were so angry when I got back?”

“No!”

“Is that why you agreed to date Xichen-ge so quickly? Because you were trying to take some of the heat off me?”

“No!” Jiang Cheng takes a breath and a second to thank his past self for not digitalizing his copy of the contract with Lan Xichen. He can’t imagine how much worse the situation would be if that was all leaked in the same article. They’d probably try spinning some tale about Jiang Cheng blackmailing Lan Xichen into agreeing to date Jiang Cheng, and even if Lan Xichen publicly set the record straight, he would still have to admit to lying to everyone for months.

“I told you,” Jiang Cheng continues, “They weren’t supposed to be a problem anymore.”

“But–”

“We talked about this!” Jiang Cheng gives Wei Wuxian’s shoulder a shake, hating that they’re rehashing the past they had finally worked through, hating that he can’t sound more convincing, hating that his thoughts are spinning in circles. “They’re pieces of shit who can’t make anything themselves and it’s not your fault they tried to take advantage of you!”

It still hurts that Wei Wuxian left. Jiang Cheng still thinks things could have gone differently if Wei Wuxian owned up to his relationship with Lan Wangji.

But he’s not angry at Wei Wuxian anymore. He doesn’t assign those assholes’ crimes to Wei Wuxian anymore. He can’t blame Wei Wuxian for thinking that moving to another country and disavowing all the fame those assholes craved while also ending all the relationships they were trying to use against him would make them leave Wei Wuxian alone. Jiang Cheng understands the rationale even if he still grieves that lost time, and still wishes Wei Wuxian talked to him and A-Jie before he made that decision.

And Jiang Cheng knew even before this what it’s like for everyone to judge and doubt your relationships until you can’t help but do the same. Now, thanks to the past few months, he has come to understand a little bit what it’s like to have your private life on public display.

Wei Wuxian still looks hesitant, but he wipes his face and then swipes at the tears on Jiang Cheng’s cheeks.

“How do we fix this?”

“We need to break down the article into claims and so-called evidence,” Yu Jinzhu says when Jiang Cheng doesn’t immediately respond because his siblings are still crying, and he still feels like screaming. “Then gather our counter-evidence and plan how to release it.”

“Do you have enough?” Wei Wuxian asks.

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng says, because that is a simple question he knew the answer to even as he was reading the article.

“For our part. If we want to prove motive and how it connects to the past stalking, we’ll need any correspondences you’ve saved.”

Wei Wuxian bites his lip, and Jiang Cheng hurries to add,

“We can still keep your relationship a secret.”

“Let your PR teams know,” Yu Jinzhu instructs with a measured look at both Wei Wuxian and Jiang Yanli that immediately makes them straighten just like when they were children, “No statements, but they should at least get a heads-up in case you’re bombarded by this.”

“Stay here for longer or shorter than planned?” Wei Wuxian asks.

“Same as planned.”

Wei Wuxian nods, quickly understanding that the best course of action for them at the moment is to act as if nothing has changed. They all know that no matter what hour they arrive home, there will probably be some form of paparazzi lingering around. A-Jie’s historic protectiveness of Jin Ling should hopefully lessen any presence near her home, and Jiang Cheng knows that the sets Wei Wuxian works on refuse entry to media unless explicitly allowed by multiple people, including the actors.

But there will still be a feverous uproar at this, and Jiang Cheng’s stomach twists at the thought of it coming for his siblings when he tried so hard from the start to keep that from happening.

“We’ll have something by the morning,” Jiang Cheng promises them, “Or the start of something, at least.”

He glances at Yu Jinzhu. “Call the city offices. They need to be warned and reminded of protocol.”

He hates being on the defensive like this, but at least having a task to focus on and people to protect is pushing away some of the initial panic.

“The leak,” Wei Wuxian questions, but Yu Jinzhu shakes her head.

“Secondary.”

“The conference,” A-Jie whispers, and reaches up a hand to cup Jiang Cheng’s cheek. It signals an offer to break-down further if he needs to, but instead he takes a deep breath and draws in all the familial warmth he can in that brief moment.

“Continues as planned,” Jiang Cheng says, his first confident sentence in awhile. “Hardly anyone will be checking their phones and seeing the story until after anyways. I’ll announce the race winners, do the dinner speech, and then get started on damage control.”

He half expects the others to object, given the post-dinner bonfires are Wei Wuxian’s favourite part, and the one time when Jiang Cheng finally gets to sit with his family like any other guest. But they say nothing, just cling to each other a little harder.

“A-Li!”

Jin Zixuan’s panicked shout slams into their small huddle and Jiang Cheng startles back as Jin Zixuan and Wen Ning come running toward them along the riverbank. Jin Zixuan grabs for his wife first, looking her up and down. “Are you alright? Is it your chest? The heat? What–”

Jiefu,” Jiang Cheng says as Wen Ning looks between all of them with obvious concern. Lan Wangji finally returns to Wei Wuxian’s side, a reminder that Jiang Cheng cannot stay here like this for much longer and that he can entrust his siblings to others while he faces the world. “She’s not hurt, but please don’t leave her right now.”

“Of course,” Jin Zixuan says, even though he looks confused and A-Jie stares at Jiang Cheng with a plea in her eyes that Jiang Cheng doesn’t understand.

Lan Wangji murmurs something to Wei Wuxian as Jiang Cheng turns to Yu Jinzhu.

“Jiang Cheng.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes snap up at his brother’s call and Jiang Cheng’s barely controlled breathing hitches.

He turns and almost starts crying again right then and there at the sight of Lan Xichen because of course Jiang Cheng loves him. Everyone Lan Xichen meets adores him, and Jiang Cheng has now seen him during all his honest moods; happy, sleepy, angry, sad, goofy, and vulnerable. He has seen the sneakiness, the passive aggression, the inability to let go of people, and the doubt Lan Xichen shows only to his friends and family. He has been driven crazy by Lan Xichen’s resistance to expressing his hurt and his negativity, but he has come to understand, at least a little, why he does it, and it has only made Jiang Cheng more determined to be someone Lan Xichen can be honest with.

Jiang Cheng has seen him at almost every hour of the day, found something he likes at each, and now wants to be there for all the moments he hasn’t yet, just like that stupid novel talked about. In return, Lan Xichen has faced his rage, has encouraged his laughter, has held him through his tears, has praised his attempts with Jin Ling, has held his hand as he stumbled from the past wounds, and has listened to his thoughts without interruption, both the ones that crackled through the air and the ones that were a hurricane trapped in his head.    

In return, Lan Xichen has given Jiang Cheng so many smiles, just like the one he wears now as the man finally stands beside his friends again. They’re all smiling, which can only mean the talk went well and they are finally prepared to move forward and out of the cloud cover of conflict that has followed them for so long.     

And Jiang Cheng stands in the landslide of a past disaster he needs to dig clear, and he’s in love and selfish and he already knows he will take whatever Lan Xichen gives him. When he grasps Lan Xichen’s hands, he will leave crescent moons from gripping too hard, and when he holds onto Lan Xichen, the media eyes on Jiang Cheng will spot the mud Jiang Cheng transfers onto Lan Xichen’s normally pristine clothes. When Jiang Cheng is even more tired from rebuilding, he will snap and curse and bristle even more than usual, and yet still want to cling to Lan Xichen like a scared child.

When he falls, he will fall into Lan Xichen like an avalanche.

Maybe Lan Xichen could handle that for one night like he did Tuesday night. But Jiang Cheng has seen better than anyone that the man is only human; even he would be overwhelmed by a stream of nights like that. And the days will provide no respite, as his association with Jiang Cheng will force him to deal with an onslaught of public scandal and greedy paparazzi, no matter how quickly Jiang Cheng disproves the Eternal Suns’ claims.

Even after that, there will always be doubt and there will always be questions of one’s moral character.

Lan Xichen doesn’t deserve that. He never could, but especially after he’s spent so long buried by the weight of his friends’ betrayals and has only just now found the first hints of sunlight again with them.

Jiang Cheng cannot, will not, drag him back down.

So he forces himself to walk toward Lan Xichen, even as his chest splinters with every step. Lan Xichen hurries to meet him halfway, still beaming. A shred of reed still tangles in his hair and Jiang Cheng almost loses his resolve at the sight. He wants to reach out and brush it away, or perhaps dangle it between them and tease Lan Xichen for it. He wants to support him, just like he did in the river, but the best support he can give now is space.

“What’s wrong?” Lan Xichen asks before Jiang Cheng can speak. The smile fades from Lan Xichen instantly, and Jiang Cheng almost laughs at the perfect reminder of why this wouldn’t work. It would always end up like this, even without the article. Lan Xichen always so bright, so kind, while Jiang Cheng does nothing but steal that light.

Perhaps Jiang Cheng should be grateful that this article was released now. If it hadn’t, Jiang Cheng might have let his feelings slip and then be convinced by his siblings to confess to Lan Xichen. He might have continued this façade as if he had a hope of Lan Xichen returning the shape and weight of his feelings. He might have clung to the scraps that Lan Xichen gave him, because Jiang Cheng can never seem to let go of people once he cares about them.

He might have tried to tie Lan Xichen down, not recognizing the harm he was causing, until they were both drowned.

“We need to take a break.”

Lan Xichen’s expression freezes, and the hand that was in the middle of reaching for Jiang Cheng’s falls slowly to his side.

“What?”

Over Lan Xichen’s shoulder, he sees Jin Guangyao take out his phone and Nie Mingjue look over with a frown. Behind him, Lan Wangji’s gaze drills into Jiang Cheng’s shoulder blades and the murmur of Jiang Cheng’s family still fills the air.

But Jiang Cheng takes a breath and refocuses all his attention on Lan Xichen. He can’t worry about their audience now.

“There’s been a media scandal,” Jiang Cheng tells him, “Involving me and the company.”

Lan Xichen’s eyes widen, and he immediately grabs Jiang Cheng’s hands.

“What can I do?” Lan Xichen asks, and Jiang Cheng’s eyes begin to burn again.

“Nothing,” Jiang Cheng says, “This isn’t your problem, or it shouldn’t be.” 

Lan Xichen opens his mouth, but Jiang Cheng keeps going. “Keep your head down. Focus on your music and friends. You and Lan Qiren can tell the media–tell them you didn’t know about any of this. It happened before we started dating anyways so that shouldn’t be a problem. If you tell them we’re taking a break while I deal with this, I’m sure everyone will believe you and leave you alone.”

What happened before we started dating?” Lan Xichen asks, fingers threading through Jiang Cheng’s, and Jiang Cheng can’t do this. “Deal with what?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Jiang Cheng says because he knows if he starts explaining the situation, he won’t stop until he’s unloaded everything, and Lan Xichen will feel even more obligated to help him. “What matters is I won’t have time for dates anyways, and we needed to have some sort of build-up to a break-up eventually.”

Saying the word break-up when none of this was real to begin with shouldn’t steal Jiang Cheng’s breath like it does. It shouldn’t make him go cold all over like he’s back in the river or make him choke up like he’s once again drowning. It shouldn’t make his hands spasm in Lan Xichen’s, nor should it make Lan Xichen grip his hands a little tighter in return.

But it does.

“So I’m gone for however long,” Jiang Cheng forces out through numb lips and a tight throat. “Reassuring my employees here, travelling to all our different urban offices to clarify what happened with our sponsors, answering everyone’s questions in person, and I barely have time to talk to you. And even when things calm down, even when I get to spend time with you again, it’s not the same. Things feel different for you, and eventually you realize you don’t love me anymore.”

It should be easy for Lan Xichen at least, given he isn’t an idiot like Jiang Cheng, and hasn’t fallen for what he can never have. “So you break-up with me, we stay amiable because our brothers are still friends, and eventually they, you know, and–”

“Stop,” Lan Xichen croaks, and steps closer to Jiang Cheng, who steps back in return. “Just stop for a moment and let me think.”

“There’s nothing to think about,” Jiang Cheng replies, “I told you what needs to happen. I need to start dealing with this and you need to go enjoy the rest of the conference with everyone. Then you can start focusing on rebuilding your life and relationships like you’ve been wanting to for months.”

“I don’t need to do anything but help you.”

“I told you how to help.”

“You told me to abandon you.”

Jiang Cheng doesn’t understand why Lan Xichen sounds so betrayed, but he can’t stop to think about emotions or he will crumble. Besides, Lan Xichen has his friends again to support him, and even if those friends have hurt him, at least what preceded the hurt was genuine friendship.

Jiang Cheng would have liked to stick around during the rebuilding process, to support Lan Xichen however he needed and just maybe, so Lan Xichen’s friends knew that someone was watching to make sure they didn’t fuck up again.

But Lan Xichen told Jiang Cheng he’s being more honest with Lan Wangji about what he’s feeling, and even if Lan Xichen has struggled, he is not helpless. He is not weak, he is not incapable of learning, and he is not alone.

He will be happy, with or without Jiang Cheng.

“The contract always had an expiry date,” Jiang Cheng reminds him, and Lan Xichen flinches. “I’m just telling you how we make the lead-up to it realistic.”

Lan Xichen shakes his head so hard, Jiang Cheng almost reaches out to stop him.

“And there was a clause that specified decreasing the number of dates before the break-up,” Jiang Cheng continues, even though the word cuts into him once again. “So technically I’m not breaking our contract. Am I?”

“No.”

“So my plan means no contract break, the least damage to your career and public image–”

“Stop,” Lan Xichen interrupts, and Jiang Cheng hates hearing his pleading tone. Yet another reason for Jiang Cheng to leave before he does even more harm. “Please just–let’s talk about this. I know you and Yu Jinzhu and Yu Yinzhu will think of something brilliant to deal with whatever this is, and tomorrow we can figure out what we’ll do when you’re back in the city–”

“What makes you think that I’ll even go back there when I’m dealing with this?” Jiang Cheng demands, even though he’s essentially admitted that he will have to go there at some point. “Or that if I do drop by, I’ll want to spend any more time there than necessary?”

“Your family–”

“Will be better off staying away from me until this calms down.”

Even though his family plans on publicly proclaiming their support for him, even though they cannot forgo their association with Jiang Cheng like Lan Xichen, Jiang Cheng can hopefully minimize the trouble this brings them. No doubt his vehicle and physical presence will be at the top of many fans’ and the media outlets’ radars, which means limiting visits should put at least some of the pressure off his siblings and their families.

He will never forgive himself if he is the reason the paparazzi finally decides that snapping a shot of his young nephews is worth the legal trouble it will bring.

“They’ll want to visit, no matter the trouble.”

“Well maybe I don’t want to.”

“You can’t honestly tell me you won’t want to see your family–”

“I don’t want to go somewhere I hate when I’m already dealing with all this bullshit!” Jiang Cheng shouts desperately, because he knows he will cave if Lan Xichen keeps offering alternatives.

He jerks his hands free of Lan Xichen’s because he knows he will eventually cave from Lan Xichen’s presence alone. He takes a step back, because he wishes more than anything that they could just go back to the river, where the only thing he needed to do to support Lan Xichen was offer a hand. Where Lan Xichen was free to laugh and Jiang Cheng was free to watch him, and holding onto him wouldn’t cause Lan Xichen any harm.

He wishes they could just be them for a little while longer, even if they need to stand in cold water to get that chance.

But all of this is a part of being them, and the best thing Jiang Cheng can do right now is remind Lan Xichen of the reasons they’re better off in separate places.

“You know I fucking hate it there,” Jiang Cheng continues, mustering all the vitriol that Lan Xichen’s continued companionship has sucked away. “I hate the noise, I hate the crowds, I hate the traffic, I hate the pollution, I hate the smells, I hate your entitled fans, and I hate all the artifice. I don’t want to deal with this in a place I hate!”

He doesn’t lie. But he also doesn’t add the part about Lan Xichen, more than anyone else, having shown him how to make all that tolerable.

Jiang Cheng turns his gaze to the path beyond Lan Xichen that leads back to the main clearing and his tent. He sidesteps as far as he can and then hurries past the frozen Lan Xichen, Lan Xichen’s shocked friends, and Yu Yinzhu wearing a slack grief she rarely lets anyone see.

Jiang Cheng!”

Lan Xichen’s hand wraps around Jiang Cheng’s wrist right over his pulse, and for a heartbeat, Jiang Cheng lets himself be held.

“You asked me once if it’s so bad to admit I have setbacks like everyone else,” Lan Xichen says, and Jiang Cheng can’t turn around, not even when he hears the desperation rubbing Lan Xichen’s voice raw, “So now I ask you–is it really so bad to admit you’re hurt?”

And Jiang Cheng almost confesses everything because with Lan Xichen, it isn’t.

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng answers, and pulls away.

Chapter Text

“Lan Zhan and I have decided to go public.”

It’s evening, less than a day after the Cultivation Conference. Jiang Cheng has only had time to release a general statement dismissing the article and Eternal Suns’ claims. Jiang Cheng has spent most of the day answering phone calls between compiling evidence with the Yu sisters. He’s already agreed to at least three different business dinners in two different cities to answer questions and provide reassurance in person. Those Lotus Lakes’ employees who haven’t been assigned PR tasks have spent the day summarizing the results of the conference and are finally starting to call out their goodbyes as they head home.

Jiang Cheng stays firmly planted on the piers of Lotus Lakes with his cellphone tucked against his ear, watching the final stragglers tie up the sampans. He already knows he and the Yu sisters won’t be going home for another few hours.

“Are you sure?” Jiang Cheng asks. He should feel happy. Maybe roll his eyes or mutter an exasperated fucking finally.

Since the conference he hasn’t felt anything but the frantic push to solve the problem, roaring over everything else like a boat’s motor in his head. There are other things waiting to be felt, reminding him of their presence in the burn of his eyes, the burn of his throat, and the burn in his chest. But for now they have sunken like dead lotuses in mud, and not even the orange of his rage or the gasoline of his grief stay for very long.

“I’ve made Lan Zhan wait long enough for something we both want,” Wei Wuxian says, “And I refuse to let those assholes hurt anyone else over this.”

Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath and Jiang Cheng knows he should say something. Even if he can’t be gentle like A-Jie, he can be confident, encouraging.

He can’t say anything.

“I’m going to try finding some of those messages they sent me tonight,” Wei Wuxian continues. “I’ve given Jinzhu and Yinzhu access to my accounts so they can use their hacking expertise to find whatever I miss.”

It’s not hacking if you already gave them access, Jiang Cheng thinks, but the words never make it to his lips.

“Alright,” he says instead. More thoughts form sluggishly like a small wave that never breaks, but this time, Jiang Cheng forces his vocal chords to work. “Just make sure Lan Wangji is with you.”

Even without having seen all of them, Jiang Cheng knows these are not the type of messages Wei Wuxian should look through alone. The chances of him spiralling into the same guilt as three years ago and deciding he doesn’t want to put Lan Wangji through the potential backlash is too high.

“He already made me promise I wouldn’t start until he was with me,” Wei Wuxian assures him. Jiang Cheng once again tries to drudge up the happiness he should feel knowing his brother not only has someone to take care of him, but is finally letting someone take care of him.

The sunset burns Jiang Cheng’s retinas and his employees nod their goodbyes, but Jiang Cheng doesn’t move except to breathe.

“I need to get back to work,” Jiang Cheng finally says.

“Wait,” Wei Wuxian replies, and Jiang Cheng almost hangs up from that desperate tone alone. Wei Wuxian doesn’t immediately continue, and Jiang Cheng wants to snap at him, but instead he just watches the fading light dancing along the lake’s surface.

Jiejie was pretty worried,” Wei Wuxian says quietly. “And I–will you tell me what she was talking about? With you throwing yourself in the water?”

It’s the subdued tone that stops Jiang Cheng from instinctively snapping and hanging up right then and there. He can count the number of times he’s heard that quiet ache in Wei Wuxian’s voice on his hands alone. The first time he ever heard it was after he witnessed Wei Wuxian’s fear of dogs for himself when they were still children and still new to brotherhood. He knew how to chase away the animals, but he didn’t know how to help a shaking, sobbing Wei Wuxian except to stay and hold his hand until Wei Wuxian believed him when he said the dogs were gone.

There were still tears in Wei Wuxian’s eyes when he finally whispered thank you in that same, aching voice and let Jiang Cheng take him home. 

When Jiang Cheng hears that same tone now, everything in him momentarily cedes to the instinctive urge to stop Wei Wuxian’s suffering.

Except, no matter how Jiang Cheng responds, it is sure to hurt Wei Wuxian like it hurt A-Jie.

“It’s nothing to worry about,” Jiang Cheng says after a long pause. He takes a few shuffling steps further down the piers and away from any lingering employees who might overhear him. “It was a drunken accident.”

And that’s not a lie. Jiang Cheng really was drunk and his fall into the water really was an accident. His getting drunk wasn’t an accident, which is perhaps what everyone is still worried about, and why the Yu sisters asked A-Jie if she could visit Jiang Cheng that night.

He’d just wanted things to be quiet, just for a little while. The Eternal Suns had been so fucking loud, blustering and yelling and threatening even after Jiang Cheng dragged them into that forest and made it very clear what their only option was. They cursed him the entire time, even when it was clear he had won, and even though the Yu sisters were there at the time to remind him of his victory, Jiang Cheng couldn’t forget their mocking, arrogant voices when he finally returned home that night.

“Why should you even care what happens to him after he left you?” Wen Chao shouted, and safe within the silent walls of his home, the stony mask Jiang Cheng wore the entire day finally cracked from that echo.

He left you.

He left you.

He left you.

He left you.

Jiang Cheng grabbed a small bottle of baiju then and didn’t stop chugging until he was halfway through. He took the bottle, and he went to scream at the stars, but even that wouldn’t make the voices in his head shut up.    

He left you.

He left you.

He left you.

He left you.

He left because he never needed Jiang Cheng as much as Jiang Cheng needed him. He left because his grief and his need for space was bigger than Jiang Cheng’s need to keep his family together. He left because he was stifled here and someone who shone as bright as him could never be expected to stay in one place, to share his brilliance with only a few people.

He left you.

He left you.

He left you.

He left you.

That’s what all of social media was saying, all the blogs and fan conspiracies Jiang Cheng was constantly reading in the hopes that someone, somewhere knew where his brother was.

He left you.

He left you.

He left you.

He left you.

He must have left because of the family issues, most fans argued, which meant that someone was to blame. Someone in the family, and everyone knew that A-Jie was the heart of the family, and A-Die and A-Niang were no longer alive to take the role of suspects, which of course meant all the blame fell on Jiang Cheng.

He left you.

He left you.

He left you.

He left you.

He left because Jiang Cheng wasn’t good enough. Jiang Cheng never had been, for anyone or anything, but now the whole world seemed to be shouting that fact, day in and day out, until the only thing Jiang Cheng wanted was for things to be quiet.

He left you.

He left you.

He left you.

He left you.

The voices continued and Jiang Cheng went back inside for a second bottle. A third. A fourth, and then Jiang Cheng lost count, but still everything was too loud. Even the house began shouting at Jiang Cheng as the memories imprinted along every surface rose to join the cacophony in his head.

He fled to the piers again when that happened, though he doesn’t remember his exact steps, nor does he remember his fall. He remembers wooden ground and then water. Cold water that should have shocked him, would have panicked him if he were sober, but instead simply froze his thoughts. His limbs, already numb and sluggish from alcohol, did not struggle. His eyes, already blurry from the haze of alcohol, blinked once before sliding shut. His lungs protested, but it was a pinprick of heat on a frozen corpse.

He left you.

He left.

He le.

He

H

Beneath the water’s surface, the world finally fell quiet and he watched his thoughts flutter away like a butterfly disappearing into darkness. 

“I fell into the lake while drunk and A-Jie had to help me out,” Jiang Cheng summarizes.

A-Jie wasn’t supposed to be there that night, and thanks to a truly horrendous combination of alcohol poisoning and head cold from the near drowning, it took Jiang Cheng a few days to realize the Yu sisters must have asked her to visit him last minute, though they gave her no compromising details.

It was the first time they dared interfere in his personal life since the car accident. They hadn’t interfered beforehand thanks to the several arguments and one memorable screaming match they had after the Yu sisters were released from the hospital and Jiang Cheng insisted they couldn’t treat him like a child, nor would he let them work for him if they were only doing it in memory of A-Niang. It was hypocritical of Jiang Cheng given how many things Jiang Cheng did in memory of A-Die and A-Niang, given how many things everyone did in memory of others, but that was exactly why Jiang Cheng couldn’t handle them around him if they were only operating as reminders of the past.

They had another argument after the near drowning that only ended when Yu Yinzhu, tears filling her eyes for the first time since Jiang Cheng had known her, screamed, “I will not watch another Jiang die!”

It immediately stole all of Jiang Cheng’s anger as it echoed A-Jie’s sobbed “don’t make me lose you too” that still haunts Jiang Cheng. He doesn’t remember much else about A-Jie finding him that night and he doesn’t like remembering it, since most of what he can recall is a cold that seeped into his bones and A-Jie’s frantic crying that he couldn’t respond to.

“That’s it?” Wei Wuxian asks with far more hesitance than usual.

“A-Jie had me checked out at a hospital and I had a bad cold after, but yes.”

The night birds begin to call to each other, but Wei Wuxian doesn’t hang-up.

“Extra honesty, remember?” Wei Wuxian finally says, and Jiang Cheng closes his eyes against the mix of fear and stubbornness in Wei Wuxian’s voice. Jiang Cheng has promised himself he’s not regressing, that his decisions are only based on logic, but he knows everyone else doubts that.

He doubts it himself.

“I was drinking because I was upset about the Eternal Suns but that’s it,” Jiang Cheng replies, “I’m not stupid enough to try swimming when I’m that drunk. And I don’t plan on letting that happen again.”

He doesn’t have time in the middle of this mess, and he doesn’t want to deal with the consequences of any stupidly needy decisions his drunk self might make. Besides, he and Wei Wuxian promised each other they would be better, and Wei Wuxian being in the same country again makes it easier to ignore those taunting echoes.

He refuses to think about all the current criticisms bouncing around online spaces.  

“Okay, okay, it’s just–I drank a lot. Before. It didn’t do anything but make Wen Qing yell at me.”

Another time, Jiang Cheng might have winced in sympathy at that terrifying mental image. He might have asked Wei Wuxian what he meant by a lot or told him off for not taking care of himself. Instead he waits a second to see if Wei Wuxian will add anything else before saying,

“I have to go. And I know you need to put A-Yuan to bed soon.”

“Okay.” The agreement comes reluctantly, but Wei Wuxian only adds, “I’ll update you in the morning.”  

 

***

 

I know you’re always listening, even when we’re underwater

And I know you deserve more than deafening dismissals

More than another person that has you running to wait in the cold

As if you haven’t been freezing all your life  

To give the flowers around you the sunshine of your soul.

 

So I promise if you’ll listen one more time, I’ll return what’s been given

Remind you of the beauty growing amidst the weeds

Catch the fish hiding in the ripples and the dragonflies on the leaves

Because no matter how the rivers differ or rock our boats

Being beside you will always keep me afloat. 

 

***

 

‘First, I’d like to address what everyone has been saying about my didi online this past week. I won’t bother going over all the counterevidence he released since I assume most of my true fans can read. I will say that from the time he was a child, Jiang Wanyin has done his best to uphold the values Lotus Lakes stands for and worked hard to become the best leader he could. I will say that he would never steal from the people and work he loves, and that I believe in him.

I will say that the Eternal Suns were not my fans, but stalkers who harassed, threatened, and blackmailed me for many months before I left the country.

They were blackmailing me over my romantic relationship with Lan Wangji. We’ve been dating for almost six years now. It would have been eight years, if not for the harassment from the Eternal Suns that drove me to leave behind everyone I cared about in the wake of the sudden deaths of Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan.

I don’t intend to lose any more happiness to fear, so this is my official, public announcement. I love Lan Wangji. I’ll never love anyone but him. I love him so much, I want to marry him one day. I want to raise our son together and grow old together and never be parted from him.

As for the Eternal Suns, you’ll find the abhorrent conversations they put me through posted to all my accounts, as well as in the counter article Jiang Wanyin released. I gave him full permission to release them. Our families have always known about my and Lan Wangji’s relationship, and they have always done their best to support us. I know they’ll continue to do so just as we will continue to support them.

And if you are truly my or Lan Wangji’s fans, I hope you’ll continue to support us and our families’ happiness.

Regardless, we will continue to stride through life together.’

            —press release from actor Wei Wuxian

 

‘I have loved Wei Ying since I was a teenager, and I will love him until the day I die. I have stayed silent this long to protect my lover and my family, and our general privacy policies remain the same. However, we will not hide our relationship anymore, nor will we be shamed for it. My happiness and my love are mine to enjoy and celebrate, and I will do both.

Additionally, my love’s family is my family and therefore mine to support, and I will do so until my heart stops beating.

That is all.’

            —press release from singer Hanguang-Jun

 

***

 

Well I don’t like the paranoia, and I don’t like the gossip

And I don’t like the distance that keeps you up at night

But oh darling, how I love the lotus growing from the mud

Reaching for the sky like I reach for you

Reaching for the sky like I hope you’ll reach for me.

 

***

 

Jiujiu, why aren’t you in your bed?”

Jin Ling sounds far more upset than he should snuggled between his parents as he calls Jiang Cheng on Jin Zixuan’s tablet.

“I am in my bed,” Jiang Cheng says. He won’t be staying there once the call ends, but A-Jie said at the start that he looked tired, and she probably wouldn’t appreciate him pacing outside during the call.

Jin Ling perks up as Jin Zixuan tries to signal something to Jiang Cheng through his alarmed gaze.

“Really?”

“Really.”

Jin Ling tries to scramble off the couch. A-Jie’s arms wrap around him and he whines.

“Say goodnight to jiujiu,” she tells him, and Jin Zixuan takes over the job of holding Jin Ling in place when he protests.

“He’s very grumpy today,” A-Jie explains, as Jin Ling begins to dissolve into a full-blown temper tantrum. “We’ll talk to you later, A-Cheng. Please get some sleep.”

“But jiujiu said–”

His wail is the last thing Jiang Cheng hears before his phone screen goes dark.

 

***

 

I could spend a lifetime singing for you

And you could take your time teaching me nature’s symphony

Until we’ve drowned out the cruel clamour

Always following us from the outside to the inside

Wailing for attention like a child’s temper tantrum.

 

Wailing like the crowds I wish I could part just for you

Like you part the waters for me

But if I can’t do that, then I’ll stay inside for hours with you

Holding hands and carving out quiet corners

Where I selfishly store your smiles just for me.

 

***

 

Thursdays are Bad Movie Nights.

Preparation starts at seven-thirty with a mad scramble and series of shoving matches in the kitchen as everyone selects their snack and drink. The movie itself always begins at eight pm sharp, and Song Lan has several videos on his phone of either Xue Yang or A-Qing launching themselves over the couch because the other hit play before they were settled. Xue Yang and A-Qing take turns choosing the movies most weeks, but Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan have been known to contribute some particularly mind melting choices over the years.

It’s the one night a week where Xue Yang and A-Qing have explicitly agreed not to attack each other, and instead use their arsenal of cutting commentary to rip into the garbage film together. It only took fifteen minutes on the first Bad Movie Night, which was an accidental one, for the two to start gleefully building on each other’s scathing criticism of the film. Xiao Xingchen acts as the referee, reeling them in when they get too harsh, while Song Lan focuses on making the most dramatically and silently offended expressions he can.

Tonight, Xue Yang is the only one on the couch even though it’s five minutes to eight. He can hear the low murmur of Xiao Xingchen’s voice as he talks to A-Qing in her room. Occasionally, her voice raises in a shout, though nowhere near as loud as the screams she flung at Xue Yang half an hour ago. Probably because she’s crying now, rather than trying to hold in her tears like when they were arguing.

“I’m starting the movie soon,” Xue Yang calls out to the house at large. A-Qing screams something back, and Xue Yang glares at the paused movie.

He should have known not to say anything before the movie, but he’d been making sure A-Qing wasn’t going to spend another night locked in her room, only to overhear her once again calling that stupid uncle of Jin Ling’s she’s been idolizing since the end of summer.

Xue Yang couldn’t help telling her how pathetic she was being. They argued, with Xue Yang insisting A-Qing was being a complete imbecile for defending someone who turned out to be just as trash as everyone else.

“He already proved the article got everything wrong!” A-Qing insisted, and Xue Yang laughed.

“The Eternal Suns might be the biggest posers I’ve ever met, but they weren’t faking their fear of him when I talked to them.”

“You talked to them?” 

Which naturally led to him revealing that he was the one who contacted the disbanded Eternal Suns, breaking into Jin Ling’s home using the passcode he stole off A-Qing’s phone and her house key, and then stealing files from Jiang Cheng’s laptop on the weekend A-Qing was suddenly not needed to babysit.

He’d been wondering how to reveal his involvement to her anyways for the sheer purpose of playing with an open wound, but he planned for it to be much more dramatic, and he never imagined A-Qing grabbing the perfume on her dresser and whipping it at his head. He didn’t imagine her face turning lifeless while her teary eyes went red like the day she thought Xiao Xingchen was giving her back to the orphanage. He didn’t think she would keep throwing everything she could get her hands on, both of them screaming at each other over the sound of smashing glass.

He didn’t expect Xiao Xingchen needing to burst in and heave a flailing A-Qing away from Xue Yang as Song Lan dragged Xue Yang from the bedroom by his shirt’s collar.  

He really didn’t expect it to ruin Bad Movie Night.   

Xue Yang turns his glare from the screen to the long scratch marks on his arm. A-Qing likes to joke she keeps her nails long for exactly this reason, but it’s been a long time since the two physically fought. The marks sting when he touches them, but he keeps poking them just to see the blood swell and then trickle down his arm.

Song Lan quietly enters the room in the middle of Xue Yang’s examination, and Xue Yang gives him a single glance as he takes a seat on the opposite end of the couch. He’s still wearing his work suit, which means he must have gotten home right as Xue Yang and A-Qing’s screaming match began. He hasn’t even taken off his tie yet, which he hates, though A-Qing and Xue Yang have done their best to simultaneously lessen and tease him for the hate over the years by buying him the most ridiculous ties they can find.

Today he’s wearing one with tiny strawberries wearing sunglasses that had A-Qing barging into Xue Yang’s room and shoving her laptop into his face when she first found the tie online.

“Did you want to hurt her?” Song Lan finally asks, and he doesn’t bother hiding his frustrated confusion like Xiao Xingchen sometimes does.

Xue Yang shrugs.

“Oh no, you don’t get to stop using all your clever words now.”

“I’m having a foggy brain day,” Xue Yang tells him, and Song Lan stares.

“You’re having an I’m going to make everyone’s life a living nightmare day,” he says, and Xue Yang smirks. Most of the doctors Xue Yang has seen wouldn’t approve of that reply, and even Song Lan’s husband would probably scold him for that. Or at least say his name disapprovingly.

But Xue Yang appreciates the brusqueness, even if it is annoying that Song Lan refuses to go along with Xue Yang like this. It’s one of the things that first made Xue Yang see him as anything more than Xiao Xingchen’s perpetual shadow.

He doesn’t think Song Lan appreciates the way it made Xue Yang see him as a challenge at first, but now they have fun with it.

Usually. Song Lan doesn’t look particularly happy tonight, and Xue Yang isn’t in one of his “stabby” moods, which is what the household likes to call it when Xue Yang is on a mission to hurt everyone he comes across.  

“I wanted her to shut up,” Xue Yang says, which is true, if not the whole truth.

The paradox of Xue Yang’s upbringing is that thriving in the fashion world from a young age meant learning how to put himself in other people’s heads at the same time that any shred of empathy was stripped from him. You looked at things from someone else’s perspective for the sole purpose of figuring out how to break them and beat them, not so you could hold their hand and give them empty words about understanding what they were going through. If you held their hand at all it was for appearances’ s