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Chapter Text

This was getting out of hand.

The first time the God of Spring had walked into the under realm, Jiang Cheng had found it easy to dismiss the experience as a mistake. Jiang Cheng’s chariot horses, who often wandered into the mortal realm, blind as they were and only seeking grass, had been far too easily attracted to the man who smelled like everything they loved. Following them back down into Jiang Cheng’s domain was simple curiosity on Lan Xichen’s part, he knew, thus it’d almost seemed like a fluke of fate, a small spot of oddity in his life’s routine, there and gone, and that was that.

The second time was slightly harder to excuse, if only because the veil of a polite answering of his equally polite invitation to Lan Xichen to return did not seem entirely adequate to explain Lan Xichen’s near delight at being back and bothering him. Which wasn’t exactly polite at all. Or particularly bothersome.

Third time, it was purely intentional. As was the fourth, fifth, and sixth times. Jiang Cheng could admit he was not as irked by Lan Xichen as he probably should be, but that did not stop the irritating confusion he felt each time Spring decided to drop in, always unexpected, and always with a far too happy grin.

Only his sister, brother, and nephew ever smiled at him like that and he was certain that was only because they’d loved him before he was granted the title of all the under realms. All the other frivolous gods tended to give him a very wide berth, when he even deigned it prudent to even leave his home. He was stubborn and not pleasant to be around, he knew that all too well, and that only made him more confused as to why Lan Xichen would seek him out. And so often.

Asking only got him a laugh and a change of subject, like he was supposed to guess, or supposed to know already. Jiang Cheng hated that he couldn’t press the issue, not under the force of that smile, and rather helplessly got pulled along after the spring deity, just as transfixed and aching as the sleeping soil the god so easily brought back to life.

Now his black world was being lit up with flowers. Literally.

Chrysanthemums, orchids, persimmons. Lilies and lotus. Nothing of color ever grew in the underworld save for the jewel water lilies of his gardens, but with a mere touch Lan Xichen had the black plants all around them bloom as vibrant as they would on the surface world, spots of oranges, reds, whites, violets and pinks. He found himself lingering over the lotus especially fondly, drawn in by Elder Sister’s love for the plant’s rosy blush.

Lan Xichen, of course, noticed his gazing, or perhaps his slightly less cantankerous quiet, and ducked into his field of view with a sweet smile on his face and cherry blossoms happily playing in his hair. “Is that a smile I see, dearest Lord of Death?”

Jiang Cheng had once scowled so fiercely at a gaggle of water nymphs they’d all burst into tears. The fact the same look only got him a delighted laugh was justifiably off-putting.

“I’m not your dear anything,” Jiang Cheng huffed, hating that his face too had taken in an embarrassed flush. He would not be one of Lan Xichen’s flowers, he told himself firmly. He would not ache and bend into his light.

It was harder to convince himself of that than it should have been.

The lilies that made up Lan Xichen’s crown fluttered open as though laughing at him. He immediately bristled. “You’d be very wrong about that, dear Jiang Wanyin.”

“Shameless,” Jiang Cheng shook his head and the god only looked more pleased than ever. Ridiculous. “I’m not dear.” He was the Lord of Death, a walking terror and monster and Lan Xichen had no fucking right to make his heart light up like this. 

“But you are,” Lan Xichen insisted, because of course he would choose to argue the point. A smattering of primroses dotted his hair now, the same color as his ears and cheeks. “Dear to me.”

Was he… blushing?

“You’re obviously insane,” Jiang Cheng decided, because that made the most sense. “I warned you the crossing from life to death was hard on the mind.”

“I’m perfectly sane,” Lan Xichen laughed, finding that oddly funny, which only proved Jiang Cheng’s point and disproved his own. Honestly.

Jiang Cheng crossed his arms, unconvinced. “Just what an insane god would say.”

Another laugh, which made him narrow his eyes. Lan Xichen softened to see it and gently reached out to grip his upper arms. He shuddered instantly, nearly ripping away, but found himself stuck as his body seemed to thrum to life. He didn’t need the fluttering of dark violet petals rolling off his shoulders to know his hair was a mess of flowers now, the way Lan Xichen’s was. It was a shock, feeling those pinpricks of life against him that he couldn’t even glare properly.

“I am sane and you are dear to me,” Lan Xichen told him, as though this show of power was confirming his point and not just flustering Jiang Cheng. “Is that truly so hard to believe?”

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng told him, because it was hard, and he was confused, and irked, and still horribly trembling. His earlier conviction of not melting under the god’s light was already being tested and he was losing. Shit. “Everyone knows I’m not pleasant to be around. Even I know it.”

“Maybe I like proving you wrong,” Lan Xichen said with the shrug of one elegant shoulder, as though it were simple as that. The god was an idiot enough he probably thought it were.

Jiang Cheng scoffed. “I’m supposed to believe that you come down here to this bleak place just to torment me -”

“Actually, I don’t care about that. The bleakness I mean,” Lan Xichen cut him off with a silly grin. “And I do not mean to torment you. I just appreciate your company.”

“Why?” And that was the true point of this. Why. Why did this beautiful idiot of an immortal think he could gain anything worthwhile from being here, stuck in Jiang Cheng’s darkness? Why spend his time in a place such as this when he had an entire world of light and sun and green to return to?

“I like it here,” Lan Xichen said, sweet but far more serious now. Jiang Cheng belatedly remembered he should be trying to pull away, but could not make himself move, rooted in place as helpless as one of Lan Xichen’s flowers, just waiting to be bathed in the sun. Damn it all.

“You shouldn’t,” he breathed. “No one likes it here.”

“I do,” Lan Xichen said to that, easy as that, and stepped in all the closer. Slowly, tenderly, he kissed a spot under Jiang Cheng’s eye and everything just stopped. The ghostly wind, the flutter of flowers, Jiang Cheng’s heart, time itself. Stopped in its tracks, bending to the will of one sweet mouth. “And… I like you.”

Jiang Cheng stared at him, this chaotic fool who seemed determined to turn his world upside down and slowly shook his head. His cheeks were caught by those warm, warm hands and he closed his eyes, utterly lost before their lips met and his world restarted on that first shaky breath shared between them.

This was getting far too out of hand, he decided. He just didn’t know how to care about it anymore.

Chapter Text

Over the month Wei Wuxian had been married to the God of Love, he’d discovered Lan Wangji was actually rather ridiculous when it came to sleeping. Up at five in the morning right on the dot, then asleep at nine at night with the same precision. It stirred in Wei Wuxian the urge to thoroughly wreck such a schedule, especially since it was sadly clear his husband was a damned morning person - five in the morning. Five! What nonsense - but given Lan Wangji always looked so well rested, Wei Wuxian found himself refraining, if only because he knew Lan Wangji was unhappy enough being tied down to the social reject of the entire cosmos and he didn’t need Love hating him more than he already did - the irony of which such a statement was not lost on him.

So, when A-Yuan came to bid him goodnight sometime near midnight with a furrow in his brow and told him Lan Wangji was actually awake and standing at his balcony was… unusual. Very unusual.

“He looked distressed,” A-Yuan told him, wringing his hands. Over the time they’d met, the young man and Lan Wangji had grown close, reaching a connection Wei Wuxian was still struggling to find with the surprisingly icy god, but he could understand his concern. After all, Lan Wangji never really showed his true feelings, at least not to Wei Wuxian, and the knowledge that his husband was now in distress and losing sleep was the proof he needed that Lan Wangji’s firm mask was starting to crack. Perhaps even had broken, finally.

“I’ll go talk to him,” Wei Wuxian assured A-Yuan and waved his hand over his workshop to blow out every fire and light still burning. “Get some sleep.”

He was hugged and left to make good on his promise, though that was easier said than done. The mountain and valley base he lived in were all his, and every door to his home could be opened with a mere thought. Lan Wangji’s door was no different. Wei Wuxian, as a token of truce and sort of wedding gift, had set a new spell on it so that Lan Wangji could lock it at will and only let in those he allowed. Wei Wuxian still had the power to break the spell, since it was his own, but he respected the boundary firmly set between them. Lan Wangji generally opened the door to him anyway, if only because it was polite, but there had been times he had refused. Wei Wuxian hoped tonight would not be one of those times.

“Lan Zhan?” It had not endeared him to his husband, calling him so formally, but Lan Wangji had just as quickly returned the favor. It was not necessarily progress, but it was a step in the right direction. After all, Wei Wuxian was the only one to call him that, and in return, Lan Wangji was the only one to call him Wei Ying and make it sound like angry poetry too.

He maybe loved it more than he ought, but he figured there were worse things than to start falling in love with your own spouse. He was more than excused.

Silence greeted him, which he expected, and gently rapped his knuckles on the door. “Lan Zhan, I know you’re awake. A-Yuan was worried.”

He didn’t bother asking if Lan Wangji was alright. He was awake, therefore something had happened. But Wei Wuxian could only care about it if he knew what it was about and that hinged entirely on his husband opening the door, or keeping him locked out.

Amazingly, the door cracked open in a gentle breeze of sandalwood and incense. Wei Wuxian blinked in surprise but obediently slipped through the opening and shut the door softly behind him.

Lan Wangji was stunningly beautiful, as was right for the God of Love. It was a well worn fact, something everyone knew, but to see it in person was still a breathtaking experience. Wei Wuxian was well acquainted with his icy mask, which was lovely, and hints of irritation and exasperation, which only made him prettier. Seeing him now, tired and almost confused, he was suddenly beautiful in a way Wei Wuxian had never noticed. A real beauty, unhidden. Just simply so.

Wei Wuxian stepped up beside him, keeping a distance just short of fully respectful, but Lan Wangji did not, for once, give him a reproachful look for it. His dark eyes were on the horizon, as though he were waiting for the sun to rise. He’d be waiting a long while, if that were the case, and Wei Wuxian felt a spike of worry.

“What has you up, husband?” he asked, trying the title. It generally got him more of a reaction than not.

Lan Wangji sighed and glared a little, which was a good sign. If Love could still glare at him like that, then all was not lost yet. Wei Wuxian smiled right back.

“Standing out here like a pallid, beautiful ghost, it’s no wonder A-Yuan was worried,” he teased, hoping to further that irritation. Lan Wangji was more likely to speak when he wheedled, and only to make him go away, or stop talking. Not the best basis for a marriage maybe, but it was still something. “You must have given him quite a fright.”

He narrowed his eyes at Lan Wangji as though assessing him. Lan Wangji blinked slowly back, though a twitch of irritation was starting to pull at his eyes again. “Are you sure you’re my husband and not just a very convincing ghost replica?”

Another sigh. “Wei Ying.”

“Mm, that was close, but my Lan Zhan tends to say my name with far more indigation than that,” Wei Wuxian hummed in exaggerated, disappointed thought. “Try again.”

Another glare too, progress. “Wei Ying.”

“Almost,” Wei Wuxian said, grinning wide, and gestured wildly at Lan Wangji’s everything in support. “Again, again. More angst. More gruff!”

“Wei Ying.”

“No, no, now you’re just sounding too tired.” Wei Wuxian set his hands on his hips and did the best impression of Lan Wangji’s cold fury that he could muster. “Like this: Wei Ying. Hear that inflection? That’s the important bit. Wei Ying. Wei Ying. Now you try.”

Lan Wangji looked at him like Wei Wuxian was every regret he’d ever had in his life. “Wei Ying.”

“That is me, husband!” Wei Wuxian exclaimed then leaned on the bannister with a joyful laugh. Better to be an annoyance and therefore a distraction then sit in all that sadness. Lan Wangji was no longer staring out like a lost child which was all that mattered. “And there you are, Lan Zhan, you were starting to worry me.”

“Did not mean to,” Lan Wangji said with as few words as possible, as always.

Wei Wuxian tucked his hand under his chin, watching him close. “That will not stop me, you know,” he chuckled. “I’ll worry whether you mean to or not, as well A-Yuan and everyone else. You’re family now. That’s just how it works. Understand?”

To his surprise and delight, Lan Wangji’s ears started to go red. The fierce God of Love, blushing like a maiden! “Mn.”

Wei Wuxian had to bite on his tongue very pointedly to not ruin the moment, though he desperately wanted to. Blushing or not, Lan Wangji still looked troubled, and if he was tossed out now, he’d never be able to help.

“So, what has you up?” he said once he was sure the urge to swoon was firmly squashed. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you break your sleeping schedule.”

That blush grew more pronounced, but so did the furrow in his brow. Wei Wuxian was caught on how charming he looked, how like a child, puzzling through something new. “Had a dream.”

“A bad dream?” Wei Wuxian guessed. He sincerely hoped Lan Wangji was not the kind of man to be this distressed over good dreams.

He got a little nod in answer, which was more than he’d expected. “Want to talk about it?”

Lan Wangji’s neck was flushed now and he glanced very pointedly away. But it wasn’t the usual dismissal, angry and quick. It was more… embarrassment?

“I… no.” Unconvincing, that. Wei Wuxian only had to raise an unimpressed eyebrow at him for Lan Wangji to backpedal. “I… it was about… you. The dream.”

“You dreamed about me? A bad dream?” Wei Wuxian blinked at that and felt his smile slip away. Lan Wangji looked ready to flee at any provocation and Wei Wuxian was determined to not let him. Calmly, he straightened and set a hand on Lan Wangji’s wrist. As ever, the god was cold, whereas Wei Wuxian ran hot, and he hoped it was a soothing warmth, not something to dislike. “As you can see, Lan Zhan, nothing bad has happened to me, so please put it out of your mind. A dream is just a dream.”

Lan Wangji shook his head once, firmly, and turned to him abruptly enough Wei Wuxian flinched. His hand was grabbed in turn and held and suddenly his husband was looking at him with such a fierce expression all the breath rushed out of him. “No, it could happen,” Lan Wangji insisted. “The Golden King could… he could…”

He could do many things, Wei Wuxian knew well. He’d been on the sharp end of Jin Guangshan’s judgement enough to know personally, and this marriage was no exception. Lan Wangji was a casualty of the chief god’s petty desires and was rightfully afraid.

Wei Wuxian covered Lan Wangji’s trembling hand with his own. “What did he do to me that he hasn’t done to me already?” he asked, not unkindly. “I’m an Exile, Lan Zhan, and deathless. There is not much else he can do.”

Lan Wangji’s lips thinned and he shook his head again, curt and angry. “He could end this,” he said, almost desperate. “Make me leave.”

Wei Wuxian stared at him in disbelief, realizing just what Lan Wangji’s fears rested. “You… don’t want to leave?” Not his smartest statement, but Lan Wangji nodded all the same, looking almost hurt at his surprise. That look snapped Wei Wuxian back and he gripped Lan Wangji’s hand in reassurance. “You are my husband now, Lan Zhan. Mine. And I am yours. He cannot undo us because we are no longer under his control. He has no rightful grounds to even try.”

Lan Wangji did not look reassured, not in the least. “He is the Golden King,” he pointed out, deflating, and Wei Wuxian wanted to groan aloud to see it. His husband, a terrible morning person and a rule follower? Truly, Jin Guangshan had been cruel indeed to bind them as husbands. “There’s nothing we can do.”

“Seven Hells, there is not,” Wei Wuxian scoffed, startling him. “Lan Zhan, he can just try. I will fight for you. I will tear his world down if I have to. You are mine and I am yours. He has no say and there is nothing he can do to keep me from forever standing by you. Understood?”

Dazed and blushing, Lan Wangji nodded, and his eyes slowly smoothed out, dark and deep and wondering. Wei Wuxian knew his power was up, heightened by his emotions, and stood tall in it, letting his husband see fully just who he had married. A prankster, yes. An outcast, yes. A true threat to punish, also yes.

“I am yours,” Lan Wangji said after a moment, voice low but steady, and actually sounded sure of it. “You are mine.”

“As long as you want me, I am here,” Wei Wuxian said, grinning like the wild thing he was, and wanted to cry at the tiniest turn of lips that answered him. “So stop with your sleepless nights. Dreams are just dreams. If you dream about me again, come find me so I can remind you of this again and again, no matter how many times it takes.”

“He could still hurt you,” Lan Wangji said, not quite letting go of that. Wei Wuxian chuckled to see that stubbornness in him.

“He could. He has,” he agreed. “But again, Lan Zhan, what can he do to me that he hasn’t already done?”

“Hurt you. More,” Lan Wangji said, steadfast in that.

“I’m not scared of him,” Wei Wuxian huffed, because he wasn’t. “Just look at my workshop, Lan Zhan. I’m going to teach him a lesson about trying to court you when it’s been clear you are not interested. And are married now.”

Lan Wangji actually looked disapproving, finally, and Wei Wuxian snickered. “Wei Ying. That is treason.”

“No, it’s called a prank,” Wei Wuxian laughed and leaned in a bit closer, delighted that Lan Wangji was letting him. “What can he do? Exile me?”

Lan Wangji actually considered that, because he was ridiculous. Wei Wuxian felt his heart stutter and squeeze with all the love he felt and would feel and wanted to feel. Even if Lan Wangji tired of him one day, dissolved their marriage and moved on, Wei Wuxian suddenly knew he’d be stuck on him forever and happily so. Who knew he’d have to thank the Golden King for anything, and for something this good?

“Don’t cause trouble,” Lan Wangji decided on, because apparently he couldn’t argue the truth. Wei Wuxian could only laugh and grin, all promise and reckless adventure.

“I am trouble, husband.”

Chapter Text

For how different he was from his rather eccentric husband, Lan Wangji was surprised at how little they actually fought. In truth, this had been the first fight he’d consider so, and the first time Wei Wuxian had turned heel and stormed away.

Their marriage was not the stuff of legend, nor even his choice, but Lan Wangji still felt an odd, but very real fear watching Wei Wuxian retreat back into his mountain, and wondered if his inability to bend would cost him happiness with someone who was genuinely trying to get to know him, and not out of any sort of lust.

Because there was no question that Wei Wuxian did not look at him and see some maiden ready to be wooed and won. He saw a partner, a powerful equal, and wanted to do all sorts of mischief. And Lan Wangji wanted that, more than he could even fathom.

But in having what he’d never had before… was it really so bad he was afraid to challenge the Golden King even with a prank?

He disliked the chief god, disliked how he loved (and didn’t love). He hated that his refusal to share the god’s bed for even a minute had led to Lan Wangji being married off. Like he was a disobedient daughter, or a child. He bristled to be so controlled, so misunderstood. He was Love, but not just lust. Love was more than the physical reactions. So much more.

Wei Wuxian made him feel seen. He was brilliant, a trickster, and full of reckless danger. He’d called himself trouble and he’d clearly meant it. Lan Wangji was charmed, utterly, but also very afraid. Such recklessness could only lead to a bad end… right?

His husband had not seen it as such and Lan Wangji was not so bull headed to see he didn’t have a point. There wasn’t much the Golden King could do to them now and he did not doubt Wei Wuxian’s power to keep all naysayers at bay. But it wasn’t just Wei Wuxian he worried for. It was the Wens, who were newly immortal, and weakly so. It was the mountain, which could crumble with one bolt. It was humanity, always at the mercy of Jin Guangshan’s whims. What of them? What did they do if their prank backfired on those they loved?

No, Lan Wangji could not back down from that, even if it killed him to do so. Wei Wuxian was bent on some sort of revenge, but revenge always had farther reaching consequences than anyone could know. He just hoped he would be forgiven.

He waited an hour, meditated and calmed himself, before trying to reenter Wei Wuxian’s workshop. The door opened for him, which was a good sign, but the fires were out and the room oddly cold, which was not. He swallowed, bracing himself for total rejection, and shut the door softly.

“Wei Ying?”

“I know, okay?” Wei Wuxian still seemed in a fit of pique, though was winding down into the resigned spectrum of the feeling. He was glaring at a mirror, an enchanted thing Lan Wangji had seen only once before, and was surprised to see his own reflection in it, rather than Wei Wuxian’s. He did not even seem to know the real Lan Wangji had entered. “You worry too much and you’re right to. But I can’t help it, alright? I need to see him squirm. I need to watch him writhe. How dare he do what he’s done to you?”

He flung a metal shank of armor at a pile of unfinished chain mail and it crashed to the floor. Lan Wangji flinched at the sudden noise, but his reflection, cold and unyielding, just watched Wei Wuxian crumble with no expression. The sight was a punch to the gut. Was that truly how he was seen by his husband? Coldly beautiful and unbending?

Wei Wuxian set his hands on his worn work bench and bowed his head in defeat. Past resignation, now. Pain. “Excuse me for wanting some justice,” he murmured, almost too soft to hear. Had the furnaces been burning, Lan Wangji would have missed them completely. “Excuse me for falling in love with you… and not knowing how else to prove it.”

Lan Wangji stilled, eyes widening. Of course, he’d felt Wei Wuxian’s heart turning. Love was his domain, after all. But love was at times blind and he suddenly knew he’d missed the full depth of it, if only because Wei Wuxian looked truly wretched and he hated it immediately.

“What do I do, Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian asked into the mirror, to that cold, uncaring face. Tears slipped down his cheeks, but he smiled still, and Lan Wangji felt his breath die in his lungs. “Do you hate me now? Can I fix this? How could I ruin this marriage over something so stupid?”

“Wei Ying.” He spoke before he even knew what he wanted to say, but the words were out and Wei Wuxian’s head snapped over to him, shocked. It was disarming how vulnerable his husband looked and he stepped forward before Wei Wuxian could pull away completely and find some way to excuse all of this. No more. “Wei Ying.”

“Lan Zhan, uh…” Wei Wuxian quickly waved away the reflection and wiped his face, leaving a smudge of soot on his cheeks. Lan Wangji felt his own heart turn at the sight and wondered if he’d been blind to his own depth of feeling, ironic as it was. “This isn’t…”

“Wei Ying.” He was before him now, closer than he usually stood, and given how dark Wei Wuxian’s eyes went at the proximity, he was more than aware. “You love me.” It wasn’t a question, but Lan Wangji still wanted to know how. Why.

“I… yes,” Wei Wuxian breathed out, too lost in his emotional arguments with himself to fight. Lan Wangji was glad of it, knowing he wouldn’t have to push.

“Truly?” he asked, needing to know that much. He let his power reach out, gently touch Wei Wuxian’s heart as his own hand did, teasing under his skin. He felt his husband shudder and bend towards him, like a flower arching into the sun.

“Yes.” A mere breath of a word, nothing more. “So much it hurts, Lan Zhan. So much.”

He could feel it, such an exquisite pain, and knew the same was in his own heart, struggling to be free. He took Wei Wuxian’s hand with his other and set it there as though to prove it through the way it fiercely beat under those callused fingertips. “It is the same for me.”

“Truly?” Disbelief, wonder, awe. Joy. Lan Wangji was helpless but to softly smile back at the grin that exploded over Wei Wuxian’s face just hearing it.

“Mn.”

Wei Wuxian’s eyes filled with more tears and he ducked his head with a huffed laugh, sniffling as his smile filled with water. “I never thought… I didn’t think…”

“Sorry,” Lan Wangji said, sorry for it all, for hesitating so much with his heart, for daring to overlook Wei Wuxian’s own. Sorry for the argument, for his fears, for everything he could control. So very sorry. “Forgive me?”

“I’m the one who should be sorry!” Wei Wuxian gripped him fiercely, eyes glowing a faint red with his emotional power. He was warm, so warm to hold, and Lan Wangji wanted to melt into it. He wondered if, this time, he wouldn’t have to stop himself. “Such a stupid argument… you were right to stop me.”

“Worried for you,” Lan Wangji pressed a little harder against Wei Wuxian’s heart, loving the tattoo it beat into his skin. “Worried for our family.”

“Family…” Wei Wuxian swallowed thickly and stepped in closer, until their breaths were mingling and his warmth spread over him, as was right for the God of Fire. Perfectly titled. “You are my family too, Lan Zhan. I should have listened.”

“You did,” Lan Wangji pointed out, because this conversation was happening. “You are.”

“But -”

Lan Wangji touched his lips, silencing the protest. Wei Wuxian’s cheeks went red, but he obediently stopped fighting, and Lan Wangji smiled again, ever so slightly. He was sadly out of practice. “Forgiven,” he assured, and felt his own ears heat. “I have… fallen too. You are my family. I… love you.”

The surprise melted quickly to unbridled joy, then his face was seized and his husband looked at him in awe, laughing, crying, nearly vibrating in place. “Oh Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan. May I kiss you? For the rest of my life, may I kiss you?”

“Yes.” Simple as that. Kisses had never been simple, but this was. It was right, and warm, and everything he knew he’d ever wanted, even if it was wet on the edges and tasted of tears. It only made him hold Wei Wuxian closer, his husband, his brilliant trickster. “Forever, yes.”

Chapter Text

The God of Fire was known to be ever smiling, and being married to him had proven that utterly correct. Wei Wuxian had a smile for almost every emotion Lan Wangji could witness - sadness, anger, joy, slyness, revenge. There were moments when he seemed to pause, lost in some place, but he would always pull himself back, shake it off, and smile again.

It was endearing, slightly alarming, and very curious. Lan Wangji, known for his icy, expressionless exterior, felt each smile like a kiss on his heart, the good ones and the bad ones. But still, how many smiles could one god have?

To answer that, he counted them, over a solid month, then a solid month more. Each flash of smile was caught and categorized (when he wasn’t thoroughly distracted by warm hands and a laughing mouth, anyway). Once he was certain he’d counted them all, he wondered how he could tell him so, in a quiet moment that did not happen all to often. Wei Wuxian was constantly filling his world with color, warmth, and laughter. So much life. Quiet moments between them were few, but precious, and he waited for his chance to tell Wei Wuxian of what he’d learned.

As it happened, it came on a night months into giving into passion and gentle caresses under kisses and covers and moonlight. Laying in the after, with Wei Wuxian’s head on his chest, Lan Wangji saw a smile on his face and remembered his list. He gently carded his hands through Wei Wuxian’s hair and began.

“Do you ever stop smiling?” He’d decided, once the list had been concluded, that this was a proper lead-in. Wei Wuxian blinked and looked up at him, the sight so endeared to him now his heart fluttered.

“A-jie told me to always smile, because I was made to, so I’m not sure if I do,” he admitted, which was a fair enough assessment. “Why do you ask?”

Lan Wangji gave a little hum. Now or never, then. “You have seventeen smiles,” he told him, hoping it wasn’t weird to say. Now that the words were no longer buried and he could see his husband’s surprise, he was no longer certain.

“You… counted my smiles?” Wei Wuxian asked in disbelief, which didn’t help that feeling.

“Is that strange?”

“No, no!” Wei Wuxian sat up with a laugh and beaming, delighted smile (number eight) and kissed him with a silly grin (number fifteen). “I’m just surprised. No one’s ever done that. I didn’t think I had that many.”

But he did, and each was beautiful in it’s own way. Yet, even as he thought it, a new smile appeared on Wei Wuxian’s face, one he’d never seen, and apparently there were eighteen smiles now and this one was all his own.

“Eighteen,” he said, gently touching those sweet lips.

“This smile means ‘I’m glad you’re mine’,” Wei Wuxian explained and leaned down to nuzzle him, nose to nose. “So very glad.”

Lan Wangji pulled him close, breathing in the scent of soot and ash that always trailed in his wake. It was a comfort now, the smell of home. “I am yours, Wei Ying,” he agreed and felt a smile of tilt his lips.

“One,” Wei Wuxian counted with a kiss and laughed. “Now I have to count yours!”

There would not be many, he knew, but that didn’t matter. They would be mostly all for Wei Wuxian and he already had them all.

Chapter Text

There was nothing innocent in the way Lan Xichen was leaning over his desk, lilies sprouting in his hair, fingertips dancing over Jiang Cheng’s free hand. He had all of three seconds to just breathe and set down his brush pointedly before Lan Xichen proved him right.

“Husband,” he began, never a good sign.

“What did I do this time?” Jiang Cheng asked, pretending that a spike of worry was not building in his heart. Even with the near century of married life together, it had not fully sunken in that such a being of light and life could love him the way Lan Xichen loved him, and Jiang Cheng had yet to shake the perpetual fear that the beautiful god would finally get tired of Jiang Cheng’s doom and gloom.

“Why do you…” Lan Xichen trailed off in a laugh and the lilies bloomed further, tiny red poppies peppered in between the white blooms. His eyes were far too knowing and Jiang Cheng looked away in shame and embarrassment, earning that sweet laugh again. “Wanyin. If I was not happy here, I would not come. You must know this.”

“Doesn’t stop me from worrying,” Jiang Cheng muttered and turned his hand to cup over Lan Xichen’s, feeling the palm calloused from work, of growing things and breaking the earth free of winter’s chill. It was hard work and Lan Xichen was a true artist. Jiang Cheng had never known life could be beautiful until he’d looked upon the spring for the first time and felt the warmth. A warmth that was forever in the tilt of Lan Xichen’s mouth, in the kisses in the corner of his lips. Jiang Cheng was a thief in that regard, forever stealing each one, and he refused to give them back.

“I am happy,” Lan Xichen assured him, knowing his deepest fear, and leaned in to trail his other hand through Jiang Cheng’s hair, making a black and violet lotus bloom behind his ear. Jiang Cheng shivered to feel it, a spot of stubborn, fragile life taking root in dead, cold soil. “That is not the matter.”

“Then what has you looking for trouble?” Jiang Cheng asked, because he too knew his husband too well, and there really was nothing innocent about the way Lan Xichen leaned down even closer, nearly sprawled over his paperwork now. Jiang Cheng grimaced despite himself to hear the paper start to crinkle. “A-Huan. My reports…”

“Husband,” Lan Xichen said again, ignoring that, because of course he did. He was constantly finding any excuse not to let Jiang Cheng work, menace that he was. “I find myself with a question I am unable to answer.”

He pulled on the end of Jiang Cheng’s hair and another lotus bloomed against his onyx crown. “And you believe I do?” He, the God of Death, who knew nothing of court gossip or anything that wasn’t about his realm? He snorted just to think of that.

Lan Xichen huffed a little and kissed his nose, determined as always to prove him wrong. “Yes, I do believe so.”

Spring had a way of ripping through the dead earth and forcing it back to life. As its herald, Lan Xichen’s love was no different. A century and more of kisses and it was still a thrill to be pulled in so close and smiled at so tenderly. Only life could bend death to its will and Lan Xichen held it in the power of a single meeting of lips.

“Then ask,” he breathed, wanting nothing more than to be kissed until everything around them disappeared, though he knew that would not come until Lan Xichen was satisfied with whatever was bothering him. He only hoped he did know the answer, lest he too get caught up in the same irritation.

Lan Xichen tilted his head, a cascade of cherry blossoms slipping off his shoulders, and smiled, a tad lost. “When was the last time we ventured out?”

Jiang Cheng blinked at that. “We went to A-Ling’s festival,” he recalled, not sure why Lan Xichen wouldn’t remember that. “And in welcoming the spring, I joined you there.”

“I remember,” Lan Xichen laughed and waved that off, a flutter of roses in the motion. Jiang Cheng sighed as his desk was covered instantly and brushed a few errant petals off his latest report.

“I would hope so, considering what we did behind the curtains.”

“I meant - “ a blush of peonies now, much to Jiang Cheng’s delight “-out, as in just the two of us.”

Jiang Cheng’s brow furrowed in thought. “Like… a date? Have we… even done that?”

“I’m going to assume not considering your answer,” Lan Xichen huffed, impossible man, and further pushed Jiang Cheng’s report out of reach. “So, since it’s clear we have failed in this, I am demanding my husband accompany me to the surface.”

Jiang Cheng raised an amused eyebrow. “That is not how it works down here.”

“It is when I’m here,” Lan Xichen leaned in further, so tantalizingly close, and really, why in the hells was Jiang Cheng arguing this? “You, my dear Lord of the Dead, are mine, just as I am yours. The needs of the husband trump the needs of everyone else. The under realms will survive without you for an hour.”

“Stop making your own rules,” Jiang Cheng forced down a laugh, but was quickly losing to it. “That is not how it works and you know it.”

It was Lan Xichen’s eyebrow that arched that time, and the lily’s of his crown seemed to curl in wickedly. “You say that as though you are not coming with me.”

“Of course I’m coming,” Jiang Cheng snorted, because that wasn’t a question. “Why else do you think your distractions work? You will always be more important than all the mountains of paperwork I have to deal with.”

He offered his arm to the fool that had stolen his heart, so long ago, and led him out of the under realms, out of the black worlds and through the caverns of rock, until they passed into the mortal realm behind the rush of a waterfall and the sweep of clouds and mist at the base.

Lan Xichen gave him a knowing look, making his ears grow hot. “How long were you planning this?” he asked, delighted and hair a mess of excited flowers. Jiang Cheng smiled to see it, despite the embarrassment he felt.

“I’ve wanted to show you this place from the moment we met but… never got around to it.”

Lan Xichen kissed him slowly for that, sweet and smiling and full of reassurance. More lotuses bloomed around Jiang Cheng’s crown in response, making him tremble, and both of them were a mess of flowers by the time Lan Xichen pulled back.

“Every moment spent with you is a moment I treasure,” Lan Xichen assured him, eyes alight with promise. “No matter where we are. No matter what we do. I love you, Wanyin, and I’m blessed to stand at your side.”

Jiang Cheng swallowed at that and squeezed his hands, shaking his head. “Only a stubborn fool would fall in love with me,” he chuckled, because it was true enough. “And a greater fool was I to let him.”

Lan Xichen laughed again, that boyish laugh Jiang Cheng loved so much, and then he was being tugged into the world, Lan Xichen’s realm of life and green and flowers. As always, he followed, smiling and trusting, until the cold of the under realm disappeared in the strength of Lan Xichen’s warmth, if only for a little while.

Chapter Text

It was odd how Lan Wangji had never been to the under realms, especially since they now meant so much to his brother. But when asked by a grinning Wei Wuxian if he wanted to go for a visit now that Spring had ended and Lan Xichen had returned to Wei Wuxian’s own brother, Lan Wangji had been startled to realize that he wanted to, but didn’t know how.

It was said that the crossing of life into death was hard on the mind. It was said that the crossing was sometimes so traumatizing, one lost their way forever and stayed in the in-between.

It was not, in fact, that hard.

Wei Wuxian led him into the deepest cave he’d ever entered, down and down and down, until he could feel the world physically shift from what was mortal, to what was immortal. What was life, and what was death.

The under realm was bleak, which was the only thing not surprising about the experience. It was a perfectly normal landscape of grass and trees and flowers, but a colorless grayscale save for the blooms themselves. His brother’s work, no doubt.

Lit by a golden orb set in the air by his husband, Lan Wangji had to admit his first impression of the place was… gloomy, yet underwhelming. How had the stories gotten this place so wrong?

“Where is the dog?” he asked Wei Wuxian, which was an altogether bad idea given the shriek that followed. Wei Wuxian was leaping into his arms in a flash, looking around frantically.

Dog? Oh no, no, no, where?! Where is it Lan Zhan?! Save me!”

Lan Wangji blinked and decided it best to come back to such a reaction at a later time. Calming Wei Wuxian down was the first priority… though maybe not putting him down, not yet. “It is said a fearsome beast dog guards the gates.”

Oh.” Wei Wuxian laughed lightly and snuggled in, happy in his place for the time being. Lan Wangji could not argue it, given his husband was in the best position to kiss. “Oh, goodness Lan Zhan, don’t scare me like that!”

“Sorry,” Lan Wangji said and was kissed for it, just as he’d hoped.

“It’s alright,” Wei Wuxian told him, humming a happy hum. “Jiang Cheng doesn’t keep a dog, that’s a tall tale meant to scare people away.”

Lan Wangji nodded, because that made sense. “And those?” he asked, gesturing with his chin to the two black horses ambling over to them. Wei Wuxian grinned wide and wiggled out of Lan Wangji’s hold.

“Jasmine and Princess, the real gatekeepers here,” Wei Wuxian introduced the two mares. “And I know their names are terrible. Jiang Cheng cannot name things, ever! So don’t ask him!”

“Like your naming skills are any better,” said the god himself, arm in arm with a glowing Lan Xichen, who immediately embraced the both of them as best he could when he was close enough.

“I didn’t know you were coming,” he said, hair a mess of joyful flowers. Lan Wangji softened to see him so guileless and let his brother flutter about him.

“Mn. Wanted to visit.”

“I’m so glad,” Lan Xichen told him with a wide smile. He looked… radiant, was certainly a word for it, though Lan Wangji had always believed his brother so. But it was even more now. Lan Wangji could feel his love for the God of Death and could feel the returning cascade from Jiang Cheng. He decided the god could continue loving his brother if it always felt just like that.

Wei Wuxian, in the meantime, had moved off to his own brother, but instead of a warm embrace, he elbowed him in the gut. Jiang Cheng smacked him right back, which did nothing to deter him.

“Ay, Jiang Cheng, I’ve warned you about the temperature down here,” Wei Wuxian whined, all playful teasing, and nudged his brother again. “Is it just me, or is it cold as hell down here, eh? Eh?”

Jiang Cheng sighed the sigh only a long suffering brother could sigh. “I could beat you up, you know that right? Right here, in front of your husband. Then what will he think of you?”

“Lan Zhan would defend me!” Wei Wuxian huffed, all confidence, and Lan Wangji glowed a little himself to hear it. “Then you would be beaten up in front of your husband and how would that look!”

They dissolved into a slap fight of all things and Lan Xichen chuckled to see it, eyes dancing.

“You look well. Happy,” Lan Wangji murmured to him, nudging his shoulder with his in his own show of affection. Lan Xichen smiled sweet and nudged right back.

“As do you, di-di. I daresay we’ve managed to find happily ever after in a never ending existence. Who would have thought?”

“For you, I knew,” Lan Wangji told him, ever ready to defend his brother’s loveability. “You deserve nothing less.”

“As do you.” Lan Xichen gently squeezed his hand and they both smiled to one another, one wide, one soft and content, and watched their husbands bickering slowly get overrun by two curious horses, who shoved and shoved for treats until Wei Wuxian was in the grass and Jiang Cheng’s pockets raided.

It was ridiculous and heartfelt and full of love and laughter. Lan Wangji breathed in relief and closed his eyes, determined to soak in every last ounce of the feeling.

Chapter Text

In many ways, being dead wasn’t all that bad. Besides the rather annoying one-sidedness of it all, Nie Mingjue would admit there were worse things to dying and refusing to cross over. He got to watch over who he wanted, and haunt who he wanted, and had even learned to push things over, which was more fun than it had any right to be.

The bad part wasn’t that he was dead, but that no one else seemed to know it. The media deemed him a missing person, his brother and his friends under the impression he’d just up and left them. And that made him angry, because surely they knew him better than that. Surely they’d see the snake in the grass and know something bad had happened.

It’d been over two years and his body had not been found. The police had stopped looking, his brother had moved on with his life. Huan had finally started writing his music again and Meng Yao had gotten away with murder.

That was the worst part. Not that he’d loved the man, trusted him, been so blind. But that he’d been killed and Meng Yao had slipped through suspicion like oil over water.

The first months, Nie Mingjue had resolutely spent his time going back and forth between Huan and Huaisang, half afraid Meng Yao would try to weedle into their vulnerabilities and plant himself like a weed. But then Huaisang had moved in with a roommate who had a guardian ghost, and a very protective one, and though the dramatic spirit spoke the most archaic Chinese Nie Mingjue had ever heard, they’d managed to find common ground in their want to protect Huaisang.

And with his brother protected best he could be, it gave him leave to watch over Huan and hope for a resolution to his case before Meng Yao used his charms on Huan and their friend ended up with a bullet to the face the way Nie Mingjue had.

But since the reopening of his case by a cold case detective, Huan had gone into a weird mood. One that shifted this way and that and he didn’t seem to understand why. Nie Mingjue knew a crush when he saw one, given how often Huaisang had fallen in and out of love with people, and wished Huan could hear him laugh. Because of course Huan would fall for a bad boy, just as Nie Mingjue told him he would.

He wouldn’t say he was pleased that Huan wanted Detective Jiang. He was a good man, Nie Mingjue could see that readily enough, but he wasn’t exactly pleasant to be around. He was cutting, and fierce, and competent, independent to a fault and rigidly stubborn. Even his ability to see and talk to Nie Mingjue wasn’t quite enough to overcome his unease with it all, but even he’d admit the asshole was growing on him. And he was a friend to Huaisang, which was something Nie Mingjue would always account for. His brother was smarter than he allowed people to know. If this prickly man was a friend, then there was a damn good reason for it, so Nie Mingjue did his best to cooperate with him, even if he was terrible at following orders.

Huan would laugh to see them bicker, but as it was he was sitting at his studio sighing, pencil tapping on his desk, eyes unfocused on the sheet music. He’d been writing a new song after nearly a year of not touching his scores and it was clearly fighting him. Nie Mingjue had never seen him distracted to this extent and it worried him that Meng Yao might be the reason for it. 

“You’re never this quiet,” he murmured, knowing he would not be heard, but unable to help himself. “What’s wrong?”

He’d found, during his afterlife, that answers were easy to find if he tried hard enough. Feeling for things, like studying a map too hard and feeling the eyes start to strain forward. He did that then, focusing on the music sheets, and felt a soft pull to the title written across the top. Wanyin. Night poetry. Artistic and vague, as Huan always was, and he snorted.

“That’s for Detective Jiang, isn’t it?”

Somehow he knew it was true, even if he couldn’t get the answer straight up, and moved over to the door to peek out the window into the hall. It was close to time for the lesson bell and Lan Zhan would be ushering out his brightest pupil, a young boy named Wen Yuan who’d taken up guqin after watching a performance. His adoptive father, one Doctor Wei, happened to be Detective Jiang’s brother and could see Nie Mingjue too. The boy, thankfully, could not, which was a relief. He could not control what form those who could see him would be, after all, and the last thing he wanted was to scare an innocent child to death. Detective Jiang had seen him with a bullet in his face. Doctor Wei had seen the dirty, discarded body.

He himself saw what he wore the night he died. His favorite jacket, his old army boots, comfortable jeans. The softest shirt he owned that he didn’t actually like that much, but Meng Yao had adored it.

In the end, he’d put three holes in that shirt, a hole in his face, and shoved his body into a hole three feet deep and covered in concrete. It was little wonder he still hadn’t been found.

The bell rang overhead, finally snapping Huan out of his daze. He quickly got up and hurried to the door, always eager to watch his brother subtly flirt with Doctor Wei, which Nie Mingjue knew was the highlight of the day, not to mention he got to see all the happy kids always so eager to tell him about their lessons. Nie Mingjue didn’t mind it, liked feeling the atmosphere the children brought to the air, and wasn’t the only ghost floating down the hall in the sea of excitable ducklings.

Like clockwork, Wen Yuan was shown out of Lan Zhan’s classroom, his guqin wrapped and strapped securely on his back. It dwarfed him almost comically, in Nie Mingjue’s opinion. But it was not Doctor Wei waiting there with his too big smiles and too loud laughter. Huan pulled up short and Nie Mingjue peeked around him, amused at the red overtaking his friend’s cheeks.

“That is not how you punch,” the man huffed to the tiny boy in his arms, who was failing miserably at connecting his fist to Detective Jiang’s palm. Little cheeks puffed and the boy quickly stopped trying to smack his hand, managing a solid, if glancing, hit to his chin. The man glared while the boy peeled off into laughter. “I can beat you up, you know that right?” the cop demanded, bouncing the boy, and got louder giggles for his effort.

Wen Yuan went rushing past them before Huan managed to move, and before Nie Mingjue could decide if he wanted to waste energy pushing his friend forward. “Shu-shu! What are you doing here?”

Detective Jiang huffed at him, but allowed Wen Yuan to grab his hand. “Your idiot of a father got stuck at work so I told him I’d come get you. A-Ling also wanted to say hello.”

“A-Ling says hello,” the boy in his arms chirped happily, waving to his cousin. Wen Yuan reached up to grab his hand and tickled him with a grin.

“I can see why he likes you,” Nie Mingjue snorted and decided that, yes, he was going to push his hopeless friend into action. Thankfully, Huan had remembered vocabulary and how to use it and moved forward on his own. Progress.

“Detective.” He was all smiles, oozing confidence, but his face was a flushed mess. By the way Detective Jiang raised an eyebrow at him, the front wasn’t exactly successful.

“Lan Huan,” he got a slight bow and a crooked grimace that was probably supposed to be a smile. Nie Mingjue rolled his eyes so hard he felt them roll all the way back. Good grief. He felt the man’s mind connect to his own and he was mentally flipped off, making him smirk back. At least the man had guts.

“I was wondering… would you perhaps be free this evening?” Huan asked and Nie Mingjue’s own mind flickered as Detective Jiang’s did, his ability feeling out what Huan wanted to truly ask. It was fascinating, feeling the workings of a mind not his own, and blinked when Detective Jiang focused in on a ticket resting in Huan’s back pocket, one Nie Mingjue hadn’t even known was there.

“For the performance?” Detective Jiang asked, calm and at ease even as Huan blinked in surprise. Again, his mind flickered, going through his schedule, to plans for the case, and the want to simply go to bed and sleep. Nie Mingjue narrowed his eyes at the man in challange, daring him to even think of not coming when asked, and that mental fuck off rang through their connection again.

“I - Yes,” Huan licked his lips and pulled out the ticket. “I have more if you’d like to bring your family,” he offered, eager and hopeful.

To the man’s credit, he melted instantly. Nie Mingjue could feel his reservations about any sort of relationship, especially when it was so close to Nie Mingjue’s case, but he was perfectly soft for Huan and that’s what mattered.

When Detective Jiang took the ticket, their fingers brushed, a pointed move, and Huan got a slightly better looking grimace-smile that time. “I’ll be there.” As long as no ghosts interrupt.

That was aimed at Nie Mingjue and he flipped the man off. “I’m not out to destroy Huan’s love life, asshole. Be there or I will make your night a living hell.”

You already do, Detective Jiang pointed out, even as he turned to his nephews, one with huge eyes, the other shyly hiding from Huan. “A-Yuan, do you want to go?”

“Yes, please yes,” Wen Yuan looked up at Huan with his best smile, easing his friend into a far more comforted state.

“And your father will want to go as well,” Huan hummed, thoughtful, but not without a sly look at Lan Zhan, who’s ears turned red. “I’ll get you as many tickets as you need.”

“Jiu-jiu, me too?” the other boy whispered, still casting a shy smile Huan’s way.

“You too, A-Ling, and your ba-ba and ma-ma. Does that sound like fun?”

A happy nod. “Listen to the pretty music.”

That got Huan a pointed look, almost flirty, and maybe Detective Jiang wasn’t as terrible at this as he seemed to be. “Yes, very pretty music.”

“Fuck, I’ll have to keep you alive now, just for that,” Nie Mingjue crossed his arms in exasperation, shaking his head at the blushing delight that overtook Huan’s face. Hopeless. So fucking hopeless.

I’ll keep myself alive. Just protect Lan Huan.

So, he knew then. Nie Mingjue met his eye and nodded once, all soldier, before grinning wide.

It was going to be one hell of a night.

Chapter Text

“How is it that I have a full wardrobe and nothing to wear!” Wei Ying just about screeched as he shifted frantically from shirt to shirt.

“Just wear one of your nice vests,” Jiang Cheng, ever not helpful, said through the phone, and because it was a video call, his brother made sure Wei Ying could see him roll his eyes. Wei Ying pouted right back.

“It’s not that simple!” Because this was Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan who was talented and beautiful and oddly funny, who seemed to enjoy Wei Ying’s company after his long campaign of winning him over. And now he was going to a concert and Jiang Cheng was insisting he bring flowers, and he was not ready. Not in the least.

“Jiang Cheng!” he whined and panned his phone over his best shirts. “Help me!”

“If I’d known you’d be this scared…” Jiang Cheng muttered. “The dark red one, with the black vest. Those nice slacks you like, and your work shoes. There. Done. You’re welcome.”

“I’m not scared,” Wei Ying huffed, because he wasn’t. He was terrified. Big difference. Still, he grabbed the clothes Jiang Cheng ordered him to and had to admit the ensemble looked amazing. Damn it. “This is all your fault, by the way.”

“How is it my fault? Lan Huan gave me the tickets on a whim, it’s not like I planned this.”

“You’re all seeing! How can I believe you?” Wei Ying tossed his phone on the bed so he could still watch, but dress with both hands. Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes again and Wei Ying could hear the chime of a store bell.

“I’m not all seeing. If I was all seeing, I’d know what flowers to get for your crush.”

“He’s not -”

“He is, don’t even try.”

Wei Ying puffed out his cheeks, blew out slowly, then sighed in defeat. Damn little know-it-all brothers. “Get me lilies. He loves lilies.”

Jiang Cheng nodded and for a few minutes there was just Wei Ying fighting to put his clothes on without wrinkling them and Jiang Cheng checking out various bouquets.

Wei Ying lifted the phone back up the moment he was dressed. “Okay, what’s the verdict?”

Jiang Cheng paused to look at him, because he was a better brother than Wei Ying deserved, at least some of time. “Mm, unbutton a little more at the top. Give him something to look at, yeah?”

“Jiang Cheng!” Wei Ying yelped, scandalized. He still pulled the buttons free.

His brother didn’t deem it important enough to respond, just turned his own phone to focus in on a beautiful bouquet of lilies. “This one, right? I don’t need a sixth sense to know you’re drooling already.”

“It’s perfect,” Wei Ying agreed, hopping into his shoes, not that easy to do one handed. “I owe you one.”

“Just a second ago you were blaming me for your heightened blood pressure.”

“And if I drop dead I’m haunting you forever,” Wei Ying agreed, grinning.

Jiang Cheng sighed and grabbed the bouquet. “Whatever, it’s not like it’d be anything new. Now hurry up and get A-Yuan ready. I’ll see you at the theatre.”

Ah, yes. The theatre. The theatre where he was going to watch Lan Zhan perform. The theatre where he was going to give Lan Zhan flowers. The theatre -

“Shut the fuck up and go already!”

“I said that out loud, didn’t I?” Wei Ying’s laugh was not hysterical in the least. Nope. “Sorry, not sorry!”

How was it that he had his best suit on and it still seemed inadequate? Lan Zhan sighed as he waited backstage, adjusting his cuffs for what had to be the thousandth time, hating the butterflies in his stomach that came not from the upcoming performance, but from not knowing if a certain someone would be in attendance or not.

It was hard enough that his brother had given them some of the best tickets in the whole concert hall, the front row on the left side, closest to where Lan Zhan’s solo would be played. Would Wei Ying be sitting there, front and center, watching him play? He closed his eyes just thinking about it, heart singing wildly in his chest. Perhaps tonight he could finally give voice to all he felt for the man, if not just in words, but through his music. He hoped it would be good enough.

“A-Zhan? If you keep tugging on your sleeves, the cuff links will rip.”

Lan Zhan flinched a bit and immediately stilled his hands, folding them properly behind his back. His brother laughed softly to see it and rested a hand on his shoulder, which made his ears burn at being caught, even as he leaned into the contact, grateful as ever for it, and drew the welcome strength Lan Huan had always provided.

“Nervous?” Lan Huan asked, a knowing look in his eyes.

“No,” Lan Zhan said, giving it as truth, because he wasn’t nervous about the performance, just who would be watching.

“Of course,” Lan Huan was a better brother than he deserved, truly, to allow that to slide with minimal teasing. “A very prestigious crowd tonight. Shu-fu is certain this concert will do wonders for our school.”

Lan Zhan nodded, confident in that. He wished that was the reason for the nerves. It made him feel guilty to know he was not out to impress any patrons tonight, but a man who probably didn’t even know what a patron was. “I will make you proud.”

“I’m already proud of you,” Lan Huan chuckled before offering him a small felt box. Lan Zhan blinked at it, recognizing it from his brother’s collection, and raised an eyebrow. “Just take it, A-Zhan. I know you like these and so does Doctor Wei, if I’m not mistaken.”

The blush in his ears graduated into a slide down his neck, but he took the cufflinks with a slow nod. Inside were the carved onyx cuff links Lan Huan had inherited from their father, artfully shaped into clouds. He’d worn them once, months back, when he’d had his own cuff links break during a lesson, and Wei Ying had indeed taken notice of them. More because they were black, not his standard white or blue, but the sentiment was appreciated.

He switched his cuff links out and pressed his forehead to his brother’s in silent gratitude. Then the director was waving them towards their seats with the five minute warning. Lan Zhan took a breath at that, claiming his spot and doing his best not to fidget. Five minutes and he’d see if Wei Ying had come. Five minutes and he’d play with all his heart, should the man be there to hear it, and hopefully, by the night’s ending, he’d have his most fervent wish finally answered.

He glanced over at his brother, wondering if his thoughts were the same about Detective Jiang, who had promised to come already. As though feeling his gaze, Lan Huan looked over and nodded once. As always, they were of one mind, and Lan Zhan sat up tall as the curtain began to rise.

Tonight was the night, for both of them. And he was finally ready to face it.

Chapter Text

“Fucking hate being right,” Jiang Cheng muttered as he slumped into the wall, ears still ringing from the close-quarter gunshot. Of all the nights to rush in without a vest… ah well, nothing to be done about that now. He was alive at the moment and functional enough to get back to where he left Lan Huan. Probably. Hopefully. That was what mattered.

(He was resolutely ignoring the way Nie Mingjue’s spirit was starting to solidify as the ghost stared at him in worry, which was never a good sign.)

“Don’t look at me like that.” Okay, so maybe he was looking. Sue him. Gasping, Jiang Cheng stumbled at the top of the stairs, grip shaking but solid enough on the rail. He was still vertical, at least. Progress. “I’m not going into the fucking light or whatever.”

I’m too pissed off to die, he didn’t say, didn’t have to, since Nie Mingjue could hear it anyway. The ghost looked more grim, but nodded once, even smiled a bit.

“That’s what I thought too. He proved me wrong.”

“No shit.” He perhaps shouldn’t waste precious energy on gesturing to a spirit’s general everything when no one could appreciate the joke but himself and the fucking dead guy. (And Wei Ying wondered why his sense of humor was so damn terrible. At least his dead people were remnants of lives, spirits, incorporeal. Wei Ying had the actual bodies to talk to which, yikes). “Fuck. Just tell me Lan Huan is safe.”

“He’s safe.” Nie Mingjue looked confident of that, which was more of a relief than it really should have been.

There had been no time between nearly being kissed and a red dot appearing on the wall between them. He didn’t know if Lan Huan had remained in the practice room, or had gone to the lobby for his brother, but as long as it was nowhere where the gunman had gone, Jiang Cheng didn’t care.

He stumbled again, this time bracing a wall with a blood slicked hand. He was losing traction and quick and blindly fumbled for his radio once it became clear to him he was not, in fact, going to make it back to Lan Huan. Feeling it broken and barely there between his fingers was hardly a surprise. Nothing had gone right today, after all. Why should this?

“Tell me he’s close,” he grit out and leaned heavily on his arm, the room starting to spin.

Nie Mingjue looked less confident that time, but remained just as determined as ever. “I’ll bring him.”

“He’s not a fucking empath, it doesn’t -” Jiang Cheng bit off a curse and lost balance, barely managing to slide down the wall instead of face planting right into the floor. The spirit was gone, disobedient as he was, which was fucking typical. “…doesn’t work like that, fucking fuck.”

Though perhaps Lan Huan had heard the gunshot, or would come looking for Jiang Cheng when he failed to return. The man was fool enough to put himself in danger like that for others. If he didn’t feel so damn fond about it all, Jiang Cheng would try to talk himself out of feeling such things for a hopeless, and rather helpless, beautiful being like Lan Huan. He’d nearly gotten the man shot today just going in to kiss him, for god’s sake. And he expected to get away with more? Ha!

His world was the unseen darkness between every human, after all. His eyes could see the demons people chained to their backs, saw the sorrow they hid behind smiles. Perhaps that was why he felt for Lan Huan the way he did - there was no mask there, not when he was with Jiang Cheng. That was what made it so hard to walk away from him too, captivating as he was, like a moth drawn into a flame after a long night in total darkness. Maybe he was just that lonely, maybe just that in love. It didn’t matter. Lan Huan didn’t belong in his world and he didn’t need some nosy ghost to argue that point at every turn.

A nosy ghost who’d actually made good on his word, somehow. He felt the impression of Nie Mingjue’s hand on his shoulder, a rush of energy sparking under his jacket, then Lan Huan was breathlessly racing up the stairs, eyes wild and frantic. When he spotted Jiang Cheng slumped against the wall he practically stumbled over himself to get there faster and more slid in front of Jiang Cheng then settled nicely. It was the most graceless he’d ever seen the man and he hated that it only made his feelings worse, damn it all.

“Detective?” A cool hand pressed to his forehead and he grunted in response, willing himself with all he had left to not burrow into Lan Huan’s welcoming touch. He had his pride.

“Pride means nothing if you’re dead,” Nie Mingjue pointed out somewhere looming over them, because of course he had something to say about this too.

You were shot in the face by the love of your life. Do I really want to take relationship advice from you?

“Point taken.”

“Detective!” Lan Huan sounded far more distraught now and Jiang Cheng realized, belatedly, that he had yet to answer him proper.

“I’m here, I’m here,” he grit out, trying to sit upright. The wound immediately pulled and he could feel the blood seeping between his fingers. At least he still had enough blood to bleed, something good to think about. “But I think he got away.”

“Who cares?” Lan Huan had gone a deathly pale, eyes wide and horror-filled at the sight of blood. Jiang Cheng was once more confronted by the knowledge this man literally knew nothing of practical matters, probably hadn’t even thought before racing up here. Useless man.

Jiang Cheng smiled at the thought, his body slowly relaxing down into something numb. “I also think I was shot,” he tried for something lighter. Well, lighter for him.

Amazingly, it got him a laugh. Hysterical on the edges, true, but there. “I’d have to agree.” Lan Huan’s hands fluttered over him, uncertain, and Jiang Cheng decided to take pity on him. Grabbing a slim wrist, he shoved Lan Huan’s hand under his jacket and over the wound, hissing between his teeth at the immediate pressure change.

“Push on it here, don’t let up,” he instructed, eyes fluttering a bit. Bad sign number two, that. With his other hand he gripped Lan Huan’s shoulder, grounding himself, and focused on staying conscious. “Do you have your phone? Call for an ambulance. Officer down.”

“I don’t,” Lan Huan whispered, voice trembling in fear. “But A-Zhan is downstairs, I believe he’s on the phone with your brother.”

Which meant the cavalry was due any minute. “Help me…” he flapped a useless hand. What were words, really? “Flat? I need to be flat. Keep pressure though.”

Lan Huan nodded curtly, but seemed far more himself with a clear goal in place. He got Jiang Cheng to the floor and propped up what Jiang Cheng instructed him to with the jacket Lan Huan literally ripped off of him. Hello strength kink, you can fuck right off.

“If you survive, you should actually accept his date,” Nie Mingjue rolled his eyes.

You can fuck right off too, Jiang Cheng huffed, groaning as Lan Huan pressed into his wound again. “Fuck. Definitely was aiming for keeps, wasn’t he? Do you think I’ll live?”

Lan Huan panicked all over again, but still tried for him. Ridiculous, ludicrous man. “I think you’re going to need stitches,” he said, a trembling smile in place, and Jiang Cheng rasped a laugh. “A band-aid too. Maybe three.”

“Fuck, don’t make me laugh,” he cursed, but kept on a smile. If this was how the light found him, or hell pulled him under, there were worst ways to go. Hell, he was already looking up at an angel.

Shit, glad that wasn’t out loud.

“I’m not an angel,” Lan Huan laughed, pale but somehow sweet in his worry. “And that was out loud.”

“Fuck,” Jiang Cheng closed his eyes and willed the embarrassment to die quickly. He was not spending his last breaths mortified out of his mind. Fuck that.

“But if you are dying, why not just tell him what you really feel?”

You are nosier than your brother, Jiang Cheng spat at him, but it wasn’t nearly as harsh as he wanted, and forced his eyes to blink open. It was already getting harder than it should be.

“You are though,” he said, voice wrecked, but sure. He splayed his fingers weakly and Lan Huan’s free hand gripped him tight, trembling and still so cold, and he smiled even more to feel it. “An angel, I mean. To me.”

“An angel of music?” Lan Huan was still trying. Jiang Cheng probably was dying then.

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng accepted that corny angle and was pleased to see a blush overtake Lan Huan’s face, though his eyes were also filling with tears. And that… that wouldn’t do.

“I hate hospitals,” he murmured, feeling like he was drifting away, but yet tethered to where Lan Huan was holding him. “White and sterile. Beeping machines, hate those. Drive me insane.”

He did his best to grip Lan Huan’s hand back when he felt it shake, but he wasn’t sure he was successful. “Come with me?”

“I’m not leaving your side,” Lan Huan told him, all stubbornness, and for once Jiang Cheng could believe such a thing. It was a relief to hear, especially as he lost the fight against his eyelids.

Trapped in darkness, he clung tighter to that spot of cold against his hand, the soft patter of tears falling on his face.

“Beeping,” he said again, focusing hard on that particular hate. “Distract me?”

A soft sob, half laugh, half tears, and a trembling kiss pressed under his left eye. Numb as he was, he felt something in him start to fly and hoped that didn’t mean he was leaving. Not yet. “Anything you want.”

Anything. A dangerous prospect, if a simple one. He smiled and squinted best he could, wanting to see those dark eyes that had haunted him throughout this entire mad case, especially if it was the last he’d see. He managed the vague shape of Lan Huan’s handsome face, his eyes two black pools of worry, somehow warm even in their darkness. Perfect.

“Sing?” The way mother used to when she rocked him to bed. The way A-Jie did when she tucked in A-Ling, a soft kiss to his temple. The way Wei Ying danced around his kitchen with a laughing A-Yuan, singing and wild and utterly happy. “Sing for me, please?”

His mind was already slipping, his hold on the world stretched too far for him to reach anymore, all save for where Lan Huan pressed into his wound, and where his other hand wrapped around his.

Where his lips rested on his own, brief and wet and heartbreaking. “If I had my way,” he heard the words, in his own head, in his own heart, and for once had no idea where they came from, “I’d sing for you for the rest of my life.”

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng hated waking up in hospitals, for the obvious reasons. The sterile environment, the beeping machines. The wandering spirits still lingering there because they were surprised to find they were actually dead.

There were thankfully no ghosts he could feel as he became aware of the world again, but seeing Lan Huan sitting there with bags under his eyes and looking wrecked was about the same gut reaction. The fact he smelled like smoke only made everything weirder.

“Why do you smell like cigarettes?” Jiang Cheng croaked, his voice sticking to the back of his throat. Lan Huan’s head snapped up so fast he probably got whiplash. “You never smoke. Never have in your life. You told me so.”

“Detective.” Lan Huan took his hand with palpable relief and squeezed it and some of what had happened started to come back. The gunshot, the blood. Lan Huan’s scared face. His mouth too, because they’d been about to kiss, hadn’t they?

“You kept me from bleeding out and stayed with me for god knows how long,” Jiang Cheng huffed at him, licking his dry lips against the words. “I think we’re more familiar than that, Lan Huan.”

Tears came to the man’s eyes and he nodded, looking far too happy to say his name. Idiot. “Jiang Cheng, I thought… I thought I may have lost you.”

“Too pissed off to die,” Jiang Cheng told him, getting a laugh. It was his usual go-to for this situation, which happened more than it ought, really. “Seriously, you smell. Did you smoke something?”

“I found a pack of cigarettes in your pocket,” Lan Huan told him, contrite. “You told me once they helped with your shakes. I… may have tried one when you were in surgery.”

Amazing. “A Lan smoking? Call the cops.”

Lan Huan squeezed his hand again, laughing wetly, and pressed his forehead to their joined fingers. “For the record, it didn’t help. Just gave me a headache.”

“It would,” he snorted, then looked around. Nie Mingjue was oddly absent and his presence difficult to parse. He closed his eyes to feel for him and found the spirit in the waiting room, where Nie Huaisang and Mo Xuanyu had fallen asleep.

“Jiang Cheng?”

“I’m here,” he breathed, grateful that that was actually true. He forced his eyes back open and managed a grimace of a smile for Lan Huan, who was still quietly crying. He’d never been more grateful to potent meds than now, seeing those silent trails. Without morphine he’d be panicking. Instead, he could simply squeeze Lan Huan’s fingers best he could and keep trying to smile. “I’m here.”

Chapter Text

Many things in Lan Zhan’s life had changed from the moment Wei Ying had barreled into it. He remembered thinking the man arrogant, too loud. It had been obvious he loved his son dearly, which had been the only good thing Lan Zhan had found redeemable about him. That, and his smiling eyes, teasingly sweet and light.

Over the span of a few months, Wei Ying had completely turned his mind - and his heart - around. Now he knew that arrogance was confidence in his skill, well earned and worth respect. He knew his loudness was not because he was selfish or demanding, but because he had something to say, a purpose, meaning, and the smarts to deliver on it. He still loved his son to distraction and had made room in his heart to include Lan Zhan. It was a love Lan Zhan did not dare take for granted, precious and unconditional as it was. He was blessed, and he knew it.

Wei Ying’s eyes still smiled, more often than not these days, and were always full of mischief and good humor. Lan Zhan liked it best when Wei Ying was looking at him, love in his face and so much joy. Knowing he was the reason for it still gave him flutters inside. He did not think it would ever lose its wonder.

That wasn’t to say that being with Wei Ying didn’t come with challenges. Wei Ying was often up at odd hours in a cold sweat, breathing hard and gaze glazed over from his dream still. While it was true his psychic ability was strongest in the presence of a deceased body, in dreams it was still able to touch him, shake his soul. Lan Zhan hated those nights, where all he could do was hold Wei Ying in his arms and murmur sweet nothings to make the ghosts leave his eyes. His beautiful, light filled eyes. Seeing them go so dark was always a shot to the heart.

Wei Ying’s job was also a stress and a constant annoyance. He was on call, for a start, and had to be called away at odd times no matter the day. Days off were rare and precious for it, which he appreciated, and he knew that when Wei Ying was with him, he was there fully and happily so, but there was always a tension in the back of Lan Zhan’s mind, when that next phone call would be, when the next case would come. When more ghosts would reach for Wei Ying and Lan Zhan would be powerless to stop them from grabbing hold.

He hoped he would gain more patience, more understanding, better love. He wanted to be with Wei Ying and to do that he had to love every part. It was a learning curve, but one he was willing to take. He hoped he would be able to do so for as long as Wei Ying wanted him.

Tonight was a night a call had happened, interrupting a lunchtime call and stabbing Lan Zhan with a worry Wei Ying would not have eaten well for the day. As time dragged through the evening, the worry grew worse, and he retreated to his studio to play his guqin lest he pace a hole into the floor.

Hearing the door open was a heady relief, the familiar jingle of keys and quick footsteps. Wei Ying always treaded light, like he was dancing through his life, which wasn’t a stretch to imagine. He’d danced into Lan Zhan’s with ease.

Lan Zhan quickly set down his qin, but had barely made it to his feet when he heard Wei Ying running full tilt through their apartment. Within moments, the studio door was yanked open and Lan Zhan had his arms full of a frantic, laughing Wei Ying.

“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan!” He was kissed, giggled at, and shaken in equal measure, like Wei Ying had no idea what emotion he wanted to settle on, so was just feeling it all. “Lan Zhan!”

“Wei Ying?” Lan Zhan tried to follow each kiss, but could barely kiss back, and finally just gripped the man’s forearms to hold him still. “Wei Ying, breathe.”

“Lan Zhan, oh, it’s terrible!” Wei Ying wailed a little, but the smile in his eyes told Lan Zhan it wasn’t, in fact, terrible at all. Whatever it even was.

He blinked to show he was listening and nodded once. Wei Ying breathed on cue, then was practically buzzing in his hold.

“Lan Zhan, I just realized something terrible,” he said mournfully, but still kissed him with a wide smile. “Lan Zhan, I can’t remember when we went out last! When was it, Lan Zhan? When did we last go on a date?”

Lan Zhan thought on that and furrowed his brow. It had been a while, true enough, if Wei Ying meant a very proper date. “Two weeks ago.”

A sad noise. Wei Ying was really leaning into the dramatics about it, which meant something good was about to happen. Lan Zhan felt his body come alive in the anticipation.

“Too long, you mean! Lan Zhan, I’m free for the day! My phone is off and I want to go out. Right now, Lan Zhan! Let’s go.”

“Yes.” Because it was simple enough to answer. He would always follow Wei Ying’s lead, no matter how frivolous. He would always stay by his side.

That lesson, at least, was well learned, and a very easy promise to keep.

Chapter Text

One had to expect the unexpected when one shared a home with a psychic who made a living as a detective. Over the three months they’d been living together, Lan Huan had witnessed Jiang Cheng get into a fight with a mirror, get called to work at one in the morning twice in a row, watched his drying wrack rattle with all the plates and get glared at until it stopped, and spent countless nights with Jiang Cheng waking in a cold sweat and spending the next hour slowly bringing him back to sleep.

Jiang Cheng was always looking at him like he was waiting for Lan Huan to get wise, leave him, and realize he was trouble. In all fairness, he was trouble, but trouble Lan Huan loved to have in his life and he was determined to keep getting better and better at loving Jiang Cheng the way he deserved. It was already starting to get easier, now that they were in the same orbit and he could better sense Jiang Cheng’s moods, be present for most of the calls and all of the nightmares. And he’d never say it (well, maybe someday) but watching Jiang Cheng cuss out a rattling teacup was far more darling than it had any right to be.

But somehow, even with all that, coming home to Jiang Cheng trying to clean off a wiggling, hissing kitten was startling. And perhaps it was because that for once it wasn’t because of ghosts, or police work. It was something normal, and therefore easily overlooked.

“I thought you didn’t like cats?” he said, uncertainly entering the kitchen. The tiny thing was yowling now and it was easy to see how red Jiang Cheng’s hands had gone with blood from multiple scratches, as well as the warmth of the water.

“I do, but most of the time they don’t like me,” Jiang Cheng told him through gritted teeth and scrubbed at a gross patch of what looked to be mud, but was really flea dust. Dried blood reanimated in the water and turned the suds a muddy red. Lan Huan’s heart was immediately moved.

“Where did you find it?” he asked, not quite cooing as he carefully set his guqin case on the table, but it was a near thing.

“Him,” Jiang Cheng corrected, holding up the sad little ball of kitten fury. It was starting to look more orange than bloody dust, and had a rather cute mohawk going on with the way Jiang Cheng had scrubbed its fur. “Someone left him near the dumpster at work. Been trying for three days to get him out of it close enough for me to grab him.”

“I think he grabbed you, I fear,” Lan Huan said, hissing in sympathy to see soap slide over Jiang Cheng’s raw hands. “Do you need help?”

“Get a towel?”

Lan Huan quickly moved off to the bathroom, though gave the mirror in the hall a slight bow and smile since he knew the spirit possessing it was rather particular about manners. He grabbed the fluffiest, darkest towel he could find and hurried back, just in time for Jiang Cheng to plop the kitten into the cradle of his arms.

“Fold him up,” Jiang Cheng instructed and quickly squished the squirming kitten down inside the towel’s folds before it could claw its way out. “Hold him. I need to give him another scrub.”

Lan Huan did as told in amusement, watching his fierce detective turn that sharp focus on the very unhappy cat shivering in his hold. “Why do I have the feeling you’ve done this before?”

“I have. My family couldn’t have dogs, because Wei Ying is scared of them,” Jiang Cheng told him and took the corner of the towel to start mussing the poor cat dry. “But he had a habit of picking up strays.”

“As do you,” Lan Huan pointed out, which got him a tongue sticking in his direction, making him laugh. It wasn’t often Jiang Cheng allowed himself to act outright childish, but when he did it was usually around Wei Ying, or, more frequently these days, Lan Huan.

He treasured the trust that spoke of and leaned in to steal a kiss before the man could get away. Jiang Cheng paused and leaned into it, breathing slow, and just squished the cat down again so it couldn’t move as he chased Lan Huan’s mouth for another.

“Mm, and welcome home,” Jiang Cheng murmured in a tone of voice that would’ve been sweet if it weren’t exasperated. “Surprise, I got you a sharp puppy.”

Lan Huan felt a laugh bubble out of him, high and boyish and embarrassing, but Jiang Cheng didn’t seem to mind it, just looked exceedingly proud of himself.

“What should we name him?” he asked once he managed to find his voice again, smiling down at the miserable, still rather angry fluff.

“I’ve been calling him Danta,” Jiang Cheng shrugged a shoulder. “But call him what you want.”

“Danta… you named him Egg tart,” Lan Huan felt another laugh coming, heightened by the blush that got him and the smack to his arm.

“Shut up, it’s a perfectly adorable name.”

“It’s perfect,” Lan Huan assured him and gently lifted the kitten to eye level. It stared defiantly back, batting at the edge of the towel, and he chuckled. A perfect cat for a prickly man. He couldn’t wait for his music sheets to be forever knocked off the stand now. “Welcome to the family, little Danta. Welcome home.”

Chapter Text

“You’re lucky that my case is stalled,” Jiang Cheng huffed into the phone, already halfway out the door of his precinct. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been able to cut his days with so many weirdly timed “lunches” just to save Lan Huan who could have very much asked his brother for a ride.

“You are my hero,” Lan Huan said, not sorry sounding in the least, and why should he? It had to be the sixth time this had happened already. “I finally got a call from the shop, so my car should be fixed by tomorrow.”

“Right during your day from hell?” Jiang Cheng didn’t need psychic powers to know he was being swindled. He grinned as he ducked into his car. “How inconvenient for you.”

“Do you perhaps know someone willing to come pick me up after rehearsals?” Yup, definitely not sorry.

Jiang Cheng sighed, but it was fond. Two years, and this man still made him melt. Two years after Nie Mingjue’s case had wrapped up and there had been no real reason to see Lan Huan again, yet here they were with matching rings.

“Am I your husband or your taxi service?” he asked, amused, and started the now very familiar drive towards the concert hall.

“Technically you’re not my husband yet, A-Cheng. That’s a month away.”

Very much not the point, either. Jiang Cheng snorted and rolled his eyes. “Yeah? And I’m clearly marrying a gremlin. What have you done with the perfect Lan Huan?”

“Oh, haven’t you heard?” A smile pressed into his mind, so he knew Lan Huan was grinning. Always a wonderful feeling, that. “He met a detective who changed his life forever.”

That was always a wonder, hearing that. He didn’t know he could be a good influence on anyone’s life, outside of his family and job. He smiled back, even though Lan Huan would not be able to sense it. Or perhaps he could. He wasn’t an empath, but he knew Jiang Cheng well enough to guess his moods correctly all the time. He hoped his happiness got through, even with a gruff voice.

“Bad boy I’m guessing? What were you thinking, A-Huan?”

“That I love him and very much can’t wait to see him,” Lan Huan hummed, and a roll of love gleamed though his connection to the man, making his ears go hot, even this far along. “He’s picking me up, you know.”

“What a hero,” Jiang Cheng said, fingers drumming on the steering wheel. He didn’t like driving, but Lan Huan was the best goal to get to. He just hoped traffic cooperated so he could get there soon and kiss this ridiculous man and steal some time for just them. “You should hang onto him. Forever if you can.”

A wide smile crackled in his mind, making a matching one light his own lips. “Oh trust me, Detective, I plan on it.”

Chapter Text

He wasn’t sure who had been more surprised, in the end: Wei Wuxian, who’d managed to strong-arm his way into the patronage of the most prestigious and rich Clans in the country, or the Lans themselves, who’d taken his claims of time-wielding magic with thinly veiled disdain and had been utterly - and magnificently - proven wrong.

For Jiang Cheng, it didn’t matter much, only that Elder Sister and her husband and son had a warm, safe place to live and Wei Wuxian had his chance to itch that heroic itch he’d never been able to fully scratch. His brother lived to exceed expectations and he was very much doing that here, with the eyes of the most important mages, shamans, and scholars in the world now dependent on his skills.

Jiang Cheng lived for quiet, for moments where he could sit and sew and soak in the sound of Elder Sister’s singing, or Wei Wuxian practicing his flute, or his nephew giggling from under the coil of priceless silk he’d turned into an impromptu tent. Even his brother-in-law’s artful work with a blade and a sharpening stone had started to become the perfect background noise, not that Jiang Cheng would ever admit such a thing to that preening peacock’s face. Jin Zixuan had earned his place of respect in Jiang Cheng’s life as Elder Sister’s love, husband, and protector. If it weren’t for the way he looked at her like she’d hung the moon, even so many years on, Jiang Cheng would have left him far behind long ago and encouraged Elder Sister to do the same.

But they were all they had now, each other. No great family lands to inherit. No family ties to claim. They’d left tragedy and judgment behind them to live as they wanted, and that had led them here.

It wasn’t easy work, but not difficult either. Elder Sister’s job was arguably the hardest of all of them, having to coach Wei Wuxian on his speech and mannerisms to better fit in during his time jumps, all while teaching Jin Ling his letters and numbers. Jin Zixuan, a former heir and still a gentleman, spent his days overseeing the imported goods coming into GusuLan, and those going out.

Wei Wuxian’s was the easiest, of course. He just had to be a hero. And to do that, Jiang Cheng’s had to clothe him properly and do it fast enough that the Lan’s did not lose patience and remove them. (Not that he thought they would. They prided themselves with patience, but they also prided themselves as above greed and he’d seen the way they’d stared at Wei Wuxian in clear avarice, so he wasn’t taking any chances.)

Tedious, monotonous, boring. But it was work, honest work, and it meant food for his nephew as well as a warm bed for Elder Sister, and that was all that mattered to him.

He was generally left alone in the rooms given to him by the Lan for him to sew and live in. Jin Ling was his most usual visitor after Wei Wuxian and that morning was no different. As Jiang Cheng sewed down a line of stitches in the collar of Wei Wuxian’s newest garment, the train-end had been overtaken by a giggling five year old, who occasionally peeked out at him under the hem, only to disappear with a squeal.

It was moments like this that made it all worth it. Not rebuilding his father’s legacy, not claiming his rightful place as a leader. Here, he was just an uncle, a brother, a mage. A tailor. And a damn good one, too.

“I hear a mouse,” Jiang Cheng mused, as though to himself, and waved a hand for his measuring string to uncoil from the desk and fly over. He triple-checked the measurements, calculated perfectly to Wei Wuxian’s shoulders and chest, and tucked in the next line of fabric that needed pinning. “I thought I was entertaining my nephew, not a rodent.”

“Not a rodent, jiu-jiu,” Jin Ling argued from under the silk. Priceless silk in patterns of black and red. Jiang Cheng should really not be allowing the boy to jostle it so, but it wasn’t his expense to spend, so he let Jin Ling do what he wanted with it, short of letting him put any inch of it in his mouth, or tearing it. All other damage he could fix and Jin Ling’s messes were nothing compared to the chaos he called brother.

“No? Then who is hiding under there?” Jiang Cheng took a moment to stretch and crack his neck, before kneeling down to pull up the hem. “A mouse, or a nephew?”

“Jiu-jiu!” He was leapt on with a cheerful giggle. “See? Not a mouse.”

“Not a mouse,” Jiang Cheng agreed and poked the boy’s nose. His mother’s nose and a very dear shape at that. “Did you find anything fun under there?”

Jin Ling thought on that a moment. “A dragon,” he decided.

“A dragon?” Jiang Cheng glanced down at the very same creature printed into the silk with a small smile. “Was it a big dragon?”

“Big,” Jin Ling nodded and flung his arms out wide. “This big, jiu-jiu.”

“Oh, a very big dragon then,” Jiang Cheng nodded too, like that was some great wisdom. “A prince of dragons, surely.”

“King of dragons,” Jin Ling countered, nose in the air. “Prince dragons are small dragons, jiu-jiu.”

It was a physical pain, some times, just how much he loved this boy. He chucked Jin Ling’s chin and stood again, fingers tugging at the end of the boy’s braid, woven to match his own. “Of course, of course. How could I forget?”

“Master Jiang? Is this perhaps a bad time?”

Jiang Cheng turned to the voice and was startled to see the First Jade of Lan standing in the doorway of his work space. Like some painted god from Elder Sister’s scrolls, he seemed ethereal and so poorly out of place amidst the chaos of fabric on the floor that Jiang Cheng wanted to snort at his lost expression. He settled for a much safer bow, low and proper.

“Zewu-jun, to what do I owe the pleasure?” he asked, surprised that Lan Xichen actually returned the bow, as though Jiang Cheng were anyone worth bowing to anymore. “If you’re looking for Wei Wuxian -”

“Ah, no, no,” Lan Xichen said hurriedly, smiling a sweet smile when Jin Ling hid behind Jiang Cheng and peeked out at him, eyes wide. “Master Wei is with my brother, at present. I cannot stay for long, but I was hoping to see…”

He trailed off and a new light lit his eyes, boyish almost, hopeful, and truly awed. Jiang Cheng had never seen anyone give such a look to his clothing before and he felt heat crawling up his neck almost immediately. Ridiculous. “Hoping to see what, Zewu-jun?”

Lan Xichen glanced back his way, but did not lose any of that wonder. If anything, he looked at Jiang Cheng like he was just as special as the beautiful robes beside him.

“The garments,” Lan Xichen admitted, gesturing almost shyly at them. “I have never seen their like. I’ve been curious about you since the moment I first saw Master Wei in that first dynasty robe. Your work is… truly exquisite.”

Jiang Cheng stared at him in disbelief and felt a pleased, if mortifying, flush start from the top of his head and go straight down to his toes. Thankfully, he was saved from having to find some sort of answer to that by Jin Ling, ever coming to his rescue. “Jiu-jiu,” he whispered, which meant it was barely hushed. “What does that word mean?”

“It means beautiful, little one,” Lan XIchen answered in his stead, dark eyes roving Jiang Cheng up and down and flustering him further. “Beautiful and intricate and absolutely lovely.”

“Oh.” Jin Ling looked up at Jiang Cheng’s red face, then back to Lan Xichen. He grinned. “You are exquisite too,” he told the man, because five year olds had no sense of shame, apparently.

A gentle laugh, like the First Jade of Lan was truly flattered by such a statement, barely even pronounced correctly as it was. What a madman. “I thank you, Young Master Jin.”

“Did you want a robe?” Jiang Cheng managed to breathe out before Jin Ling could fully adopt Lan Xichen right then and there, torn between wanting the man to leave and wanting him to stay so Jiang Cheng could get his hands all over him in the name of making him something beautiful to wear. “A first century one?”

“I- oh.” Lan Xichen seemed to be the thrown one now, which felt like a victory. A fetching red bit at his ears and neck, stark against the brilliant white and blue robes he wore. “I… I wouldn’t want to trouble you.”

These Lans, so hesitant to want things. Jiang Cheng snorted and snapped back to himself, waving his hand for a new coil of measuring knots to fly into. “No trouble. Just need to get your measurements.”

“Oh…” Lan Xichen looked him over like he was a true wonder, which was hardly the case. It was just a bit of fabric, after all. “I have a meeting I must go to, but perhaps… I can come later tonight?”

It wasn’t a proposition, but Jiang Cheng felt a curious want lit inside him, to take the time to fluster this man, see under that perfect Lan serenity and beauty. It was in his nature to build beautiful things from scratch, after all, and to deconstruct a garment from outside to inside was a talent Jiang Cheng had cultivated well over the years. In many ways, Lan Xichen was no different from the clothes he’d sewn, lovely in form, delicate in movement. He wondered, suddenly, what he would see in Lan Xichen’s underneath, in the stitches holding the seams together, the hidden folds and creases and colors. He wondered if Lan Xichen would let him.

It wasn’t a proposition, but Jiang Cheng felt the challenge anyway, and smiled a smile he hoped was invitation enough. “Tonight. I’ll be waiting.”

Chapter Text

“What the fuck were they thinking?” Jiang Cheng muttered as he looked at the clothing prints Wei Wuxian had snuck him from the third century capitol. “Look at this shit. This is beyond ridiculous.”

Wei Wuxian, currently balanced on his brother’s step stool and stuck in a wrap of fabric and pins, grimaced. “Try wearing it. They looked so stiff! I’m going to cry the moment this trip is over.”

“Why do these Lans want to know about the gentry all the time?” Jiang Cheng wrinkled his nose and tossed the page away in disgust. With a snap of his hand, his sewing kit was instantly flinging itself into his palm. “Or the royal courts? Why can’t they learn about the common people? The ones that make their bread, give them the ability to have that many layers.”

Wei Wuxian had never seen someone thread a needle so angrily. Jiang Cheng got it in one, which was amazing enough. “They’re Lans. They like to know how things were run.”

“But not how they truly work,” Jiang Cheng huffed and stepped in to set in some frighteningly quick stitches under the pins. Wei Wuxian still had no idea how Jiang Cheng was so precise with his needles and by now he was too scared to ask. “They don’t have a practical sense in their bodies, or minds.”

Wei Wuxian chuckled, because it was true enough. As much as he enjoyed the Second Jade of Lan’s curiosity about him, he could tell there were some things that had just never crossed Lan Wangji’s mind. Breaking rules was one, which was just depressing. “Maybe you should become the mistress of the Lan Sect and show them how it’s done.”

“I walked away from leadership, you’ll remember. I’m not about to marry into it,” Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes.

“But you’re still willing to be a mistress - ow!”

Jiang Cheng brandished his needle, which glinted in a clear threat. “Call me mistress again. I dare you.”

“I yield, I yield!” Wei Wuxian couldn’t even defend himself, how was that fair! “Jiang Cheng, have mercy. I can’t move in this!”

“Then stop picking fights,” Jiang Cheng snorted, sounding so much like Elder Sister he wanted to laugh some more, but knew better when his brother was holding the needle like that. He settled for that proud smile he’d put off for pouting.

“I’m sorry it has so many layers,” Wei Wuxian said, truly sorry for it. He knew it was a huge amount of work and Jiang Cheng, for all his complaining about it, never fell behind, even if it meant staying up all night. It was thankless too, which was a shame in his eyes. Jiang Cheng took beautiful fabric and made pieces of art. Art meant for time jumping that generally was ruined by the third journey. Wei Wuxian hated that the most, knowing all Jiang Cheng’s hard work went ultimately to waste.

At least he was thrifty and able to reuse the leftover fabric. Otherwise Wei Wuxian would refuse time jumping altogether, handsome Lans be damned.

He was gently poked on the forehead, drawing him back to the present. “Why are you making that stupid face?” Jiang Cheng asked him before kneeling down to quickly set in the start of what would be the full hem. Wei Wuxian smiled to see it, remembering when they’d first started this, with Wei Wuxian young enough to pass as a young girl and Jiang Cheng modifying one of Senior Sister’s dresses for him.

“This is just my face!” he complained, but managed to pat Jiang Cheng’s hassled-looking braid with minimal poking. “Hey, Jiang Cheng, Jiang Cheng, do you remember when we were kids and you dressed me like Senior Sister?”

Jiang Cheng barked a laugh, a true event to witness some days. “I remember you kept messing up your makeup,” he recalled, a soft look in his eyes.

“Madam Yu didn’t believe us when we told her that very first jump,” Wei Wuxian murmured, remembering her rage, the lightning quick fury of her striking him. How Jiang Cheng had jumped between them to make her stop, taking the hit. “But you believed me. Stood up for me…”

“Of course I believed you, you brought me that toy, remember?”

It wasn’t just the toy, Wei Wuxian knew and also knew better than to say so. “I remember,” he said instead, soft with memory. “Remember the fifth jump, when Senior Sister helped us for the first time?”

“Ma-ma caught me sewing and threw me out of the house,” Jiang Cheng told him with a wry look, which was something Wei Wuxian hadn’t known. He blinked in surprise, but Jiang Cheng shrugged since there was no point being angry anymore. Madam Yu’s temper was just a memory as was the woman herself.

“And now look at us,” Wei Wuxian said, proud of that, even if it was highly ironic.

“The time master and his overworked tailor,” Jiang Cheng hummed a bit and smirked up at him. “Sounds about right.”

“I’m sorry!” Wei Wuxian went back to his pout, which got him a smack to the knee. Jiang Cheng stood and started in on a few more staple-stitches, which meant soon Wei Wuxian would be free and shooed out of his brother’s space. “If I could make it easier…”

“Don’t.” Jiang Cheng pulled on his ear, hard, making him whine. “I know my job, so let me do it, and stop apologizing.”

“Okay, okay! Jiang Cheng, have mercy!”

Jiang Cheng, satisfied, pulled his ear one more time because he was a little shit of a brother and finished up his last quick stitches. Then he pulled free the pins and tugged off the heavy fabric. “There, you’re free. Shoo and let me work.”

Wei Wuxian caught his hand and squeezed it in gratitude, which Jiang Cheng allowed for a good five seconds before pushing him, literally, out his door. “Let me work, Wei Wuxian. Go bother your Lan and leave me in peace. I’ll have the next fitting ready by tomorrow. Don’t be late this time!”

“I won’t, I won’t!” Wei Wuxian laughed, thankful and so blessed. He didn’t deserve Jiang Cheng, but he was happy they were brothers. He hoped, in the next life, he could be this lucky again. “Make sure it’s gorgeous! Those third century asses like gorgeous!”

“Don’t insult me! You know it will be!” Jiang Cheng slammed the door, almost managing to sound offended. Wei Wuxian’s laugh echoed down the hall.

He did know it would be gorgeous. It always was.

Chapter Text

He’d seen the eyes since he was five. Glowing purple lights in the corner of his room, watching him sleep. It had scared him, at the start, until he’d realized that his fear made the eyes go away. And that’s when his curiosity had won out.

When he’d found the courage, he’d asked the eyes to stay, the eve before his sixth birthday, and had been given a dirty, wrinkled paper with smudged charcoal characters for his effort. It smelled of blood, and dirt, and something like cold death, but his fear had fled and his life had never been the same.

I’m sorry I scared you. I just wanted to know you are safe. Tell me to leave and I will. I’m not here to hurt you, A-Ling.

Jin Ling hadn’t told the eyes to leave. Quite the opposite. He demanded the eyes stay, but only after a long bath and a change of clothes, because he didn’t want ma-ma to think he was dirtying the floors on purpose, or ba-ba to worry that he was sneaking outside.

The floors were clean from then on, but Jin Ling’s escapes into the dark night had only just begun.

The eyes belonged to a man, or what used to be a man. Honestly, Jin Ling had no idea what he truly was. Uncle Wei had told him of walking corpses and of reanimated corpses, but neither of these drank blood, or had fangs and claws. The man was still very human in his mind, even if his body did not remember being so, and was worried enough about his own beastly side to muzzle himself with a heavy, iron mask so he did not accidentally bite Jin Ling. Or so he had explained, writing in the dirt with a stick. He couldn’t speak, but he could make some noises and was far more intelligent than any non-human beast Jin Ling had heard about. He was oddly funny at times, stern at others. He had a perpetual scowl on his face, and the violet glow in his eyes could dim or sharpen depending on his mood. He was fascinating, a steady friend, and Jin Ling had come to depend on him greatly.

Because the best thing was that he was family.

Jin Ling was ten when Uncle Wei finally told him the story of Jiang Cheng, how he’d been captured by the Wen Clan and killed in Lotus Pier. That was the story everyone knew, the tragedy of the fallen Jiang Heir, but Uncle Wei knew the full truth because he had been there. He’d seen Lotus Pier ablaze and running red with death. He’d seen the Wen dead, scattered corpses everywhere he looked. They’d been drained, completely, of blood, and it’d happened when they’d been alive, begging for mercy. Their mummified faces were still screaming, in fact.

At the center of the flames and carnage had been Jiang Cheng, but not the Jiang Cheng Uncle Wei had known. He was no longer human, no longer afraid, and he’d murdered everyone in that place without hesitation.

He’d only hesitated, Uncle Wei had admitted, the stink of wine heavy on his breath, when he’d approached and reached out for his brother, calling his name. The humanness had returned, but the beastly shell had trapped it inside. Jiang Cheng was forever changed and had disappeared into the form of a raven the moment Uncle Wei had touched his face and Uncle Wei had spent the years searching in vain for him since.

Jin Ling knew his jiu-jiu didn’t wish to hurt anyone he cared about. Jiang Cheng had told him himself after many months of figuring out a sign language known only to the two of them, so they didn’t have to write everything down in the dirt. Though he had not been able to wrestle the story out of Jiang Cheng - yet - he knew enough to know Jiang Cheng regretted it, regretted what he was, and had isolated himself because of it. But what mattered most was that he was still here, wanting to be with Jin Ling, and that meant the world to him, even if his jiu-jiu was all shades of terrifying and always dirty.

Jiang Cheng was Jin Ling’s most closely guarded secret and a treasured one. He sat there with his unblinking eyes and let Jin Ling go off about his day, listening raptly to whatever he said. They bickered over sword techniques, or who was a better shot with a bow, and Jiang Cheng trusted him enough to accept the waterskin full of animal blood Jin Ling always brought and remove the mask he wore over the lower half of his face. Jin Ling loved those times the most, even if it was disgusting with the smell and sounds, because he knew Jiang Cheng loved him enough to trust him with his most beastly side. And Jin Ling trusted him too, completely.

Ma-ma had always taught him to be brave. Brave enough to see the good in people, to stand up for himself and for his loved ones. Bravery had given Jin Ling the chance to connect to his monstrous uncle, and love had bound them together. He just wished he was brave enough to tell ma-ma that the raven that often perched to watch her in her garden was the younger brother she still mourned, or to tell Uncle Wei that Jiang Cheng was not giving into his beast, but was clinging as firmly to humanity as he could. That they could be proud of Jiang Cheng. That they hadn’t fully lost him, nor he they.

But Jin Ling didn’t know where to begin. The cultivation world was not forgiving to those that strayed from the path, who became monsters the way the Wen had. Just because he knew his jiu-jiu would never hurt him didn’t erase the fact that he was a monster and a monster Jin Ling had no idea what to label, or how to deal with. He loved Jiang Cheng fiercely and that love was returned, but Jin Ling feared that would not be enough to keep Jiang Cheng safe from the world if he were to be discovered.

So he kept quiet and swallowed down that guilt. Until the night when he couldn’t hide anymore.

He’d just turned sixteen when Carp Tower was flooded with walking corpses. No one knew where they’d come from or could understand their sheer numbers, and it was immediate chaos. Jin Ling grabbed his bow and arrows and charged into the fray, shooting them down before they could reach ma-ma and ba-ba, who was surely already protecting her.

Distantly, he could hear shouting, the snarl of Fairy as the dog lunged at the nearest corpse, and knew they’d be overrun if he didn’t act, and act quickly.

Be brave, sweetheart, his mother’s voice filled his heart, his blood, and Jin Ling summoned as much spiritual energy into himself as he could, firing at the horde. They were drawn in by the feel of it, he knew, and obediently started to follow him, lumbering but gaining speeds that were definitely the result of a hidden puppeteer.

“Fairy, guard ma-ma!” was his final order before he turned and sprinted into the woods.

The route was well known, well loved, and it was with confidence he fought the charging monsters as he ran for the old tree by the pond, a gnarled, ancient thing that Jiang Cheng loved for some reason, and yelled out a warcry so his jiu-jiu would know he was coming. That he needed help, needed his uncle, needed the beast.

With a wicked silence, the slice of claws through flesh, the beast came. Those eyes were electric, sharp and focused, a feral sound in Jiang Cheng’s throat as he took out a corpse that had gotten too close to Jin Ling. They had a bare moment to nod to one another before they were fighting side by side, eating away at the numbers until all that was left was a stinking pile of rot and severed limbs.

Jiang Cheng slowly turned to look at him when the last one fell, eyes accusing and almost violent with how much fear there was, and Jin Ling huffed, reading his unspoken words far too easily.

“I had to get them away from Carp Tower somehow,” he defended himself, nose in the air. “And I heard about a grumpy, homicidal beast in the woods that would help me out.”

Jiang Cheng’s hands were a flurry of quick, sharp words, and Jin Ling bit down a wild grin as the sentence formed. “So sorry for being protective of those I love.” He had never known anyone could make their hands dance so sarcastically, but his jiu-jiu was a master of it.

Jin Ling sheathed the arrow he’d pulled and walked over to Jiang Cheng, reading the tension still in his shoulders with a spike of guilt. In one fearless movement, he touched the front of the iron mask - carved into the shape of bared teeth after a twelve year old Jin Ling had complained it’d been too boring - and looked up at those violet eyes, gleaming angrily in the dark.

“I’m sorry for scaring you,” Jin Ling said, contrite now, and bit his lip. “I just… I had to get them away from ma-ma.”

“I know,” Jiang Cheng sighed. “I would have done the same.”

Jin Ling puffed up at that, knowing it for the praise it was, and grinned. “We made a great team. I told you so.”

A low growling huff. “Brat.”

He felt a laugh starting to bubble in his chest, but it died the moment he heard voices shouting down the path, calling his name. Ba-ba, it sounded like, and Uncle Wei.

“You have to go,” Jin Ling hissed, panic gripping his heart. “Please, jiu-jiu. If they see -”

“A-Ling.” It was his favorite sign in the world, the way Jiang Cheng wove his name. A tap on his heart, then his fingers lifting in a graceful arch under his throat. A-Ling. From my heart to my mouth. A-Ling. “I am not afraid.”

And for once he did not look it. He looked resolved, ready to face the world again, and Jin Ling knew he should be proud of that, proud that he more than likely caused it, but he only felt fear, cold and fierce, and felt the tears prick his eyes when the voices came closer.

Jiang Cheng gripped his shoulder, gave it a squeeze, and Jin Ling forced himself to stand upright. Take a breath. He had to stand tall for his uncle now, stand firm in all they had. So he would.

Be brave.

Chapter Text

“You have all your things?” Ma-ma asked for the fifth time and stuffed more roasted nuts into his pack.

“I have them,” Jin Ling quickly reassured her, again, and took her hands to kiss them. He grinned wide to let her know he wasn’t lying. “I’ll be alright, ma-ma. It’s just a regular hunt, not even a night hunt. And I’ll have jiu-jiu with me.”

Her eyes went teary, the way they did each time she looked at Jiang Cheng, the brother she thought she’d lost so long ago. He tended to stay in raven form around her so as not to make her cry because of his looks and mask, just as he was now, perched as a fluffed up ball of feathers on Jin Ling’s saddle.

“And he will take care of you,” she said, all confidence, and drew Jin Ling down to kiss his forehead, the way she’d always done. “But still. If you die, I am going to kill you.”

It was a real threat too, coming from her, and Jin Ling shared a knowing look with his ba-ba, who was still hopelessly lost on her after so many years, but knew enough to respect her threats even more than he loved her.

There were worse things, Jin Ling supposed, than having a mother who had the ability to be rather terrifying.

Jin Ling set his foot in the stirrup and flung onto his horse’s back, waving down at his parents as Jiang Cheng fluttered up to perch on his hand like he was a well trained falcon, not a grumpy uncle.

“I think she stuffed the whole kitchen into my saddlebags,” Jin Ling said once they were out of the city gates and fully into the woods. The eerie violet eyes he’d known for so long looked amused, even in a bird’s face, and Jiang Cheng made a soft chuffing sound in agreement. Jin Ling wondered if it had been the same for when Jiang Cheng had been human and chasing off after Uncle Wei. Did ma-ma weigh his pack down too with all the treats she could carry?

The road stretched out before him and Jin Ling grinned, feeling that itch in his soul that wanted to fly. The best he could do astride was allow his mare to gallop, which she did in a burst of speed. Jiang Cheng took to the air, soaring at his side, and for a blissful small eternity, the world was exactly the way he’d always dreamed it would be, the way it was meant to be.

Sundown found them building a fire - or rather, Jiang Cheng teaching Jin Ling to build a fire. He’d taken his more human form again, but firmly kept the mask on, even refusing the usual bladder full of blood Jin Ling had brought for him. His inquires had gotten him nothing but grunts thus far, but he knew eventually his jiu-jiu’s thirst would take over and he would have to start drinking. Hopefully that would lead to proper talking. Well, as proper as they got speaking through hands, anyway.

He was halfway through a cooked fish he’d caught when Jiang Cheng finally gave in. The sound of the bladder was still gross, as was the slurping and the smell, but it was also familiar and easily ignored. Jin Ling could even watch now without feeling sick, feeling like they were sharing a meal, dining in some nice place, just the two of them.

Jiang Cheng looked like ma-ma, in a way. Sharper featured, where ma-ma was soft. They had the same nose, though it looked dignified on Jiang Cheng, when it just made her lovely. Jin Ling had the same nose.

“You know it doesn’t bother me, right?” he asked, soft, more into the fish than properly at his jiu-jiu. But he knew direct questions were sometimes best not asked with eye contact. He wasn’t sure why, but it worked best that way when it came to his emotional uncle. “What you are. It’s all I know you to be.”

Jiang Cheng stared down at the fire a long moment before his hands slowly lifted, dark nails dancing in the firelight. It was always amazing to Jin Ling how elegant Jiang Cheng could make the movements, even with such scary claws.

“I make her cry,” was how he answered and Jin Ling knew immediately what Jiang Cheng was getting at. “So I don’t show my face. I am not her A-Cheng anymore.”

The A-Cheng was a special blend, one Jin Ling only knew because of a long week when he was fourteen that Jiang Cheng had altered his own signed name to A-Ling. The swooping curve was the same, only with Jiang Cheng’s name after it now.

“But you’re still her brother. Still my jiu-jiu,” Jin Ling pointed out. “Of course she cries. She’s mourned you a long time and now all you do is hide.”

Sharp now, quick and angry. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“You’re right, I don’t,” Jin Ling huffed, cheeks puffing in irritation. You are still you, no matter what you are. Your heart is still Jiang Wanyin. You are still my jiu-jiu.”

“But I am not her A-Cheng.”

“That shouldn’t stop you from being her brother,” Jin Ling said, firm on that. “Doesn’t make a difference what you are, not to me anyways. It doesn’t matter to her either. She’s just happy to have you back. So let her have you back.”

Jiang Cheng looked rebellious and Jin Ling wanted to laugh because that was where he’d gotten it from. But slowly Jiang Cheng deflated and reached up to snap his mask back into place.

“I’ll try,” he sighed, looking sad, but hopeful too, and that’s what really mattered here.

Jin Ling nodded to that, satisfied. “Good. That’s all I ask. Well, that, and that you help me find the biggest, most ferocious beast to hunt down and take home. A-Song bet me two silvers that I wouldn’t catch anything and I have to prove him wrong.”

Jiang Cheng shot him a very done look at that, making him laugh.

This, he decided, wiping his eyes as he was shoved over - this was the life he truly wanted, a life with the chances to make his family proud… all of his family.

Chapter Text

It was the soft sway of a Jiangshi bell that woke him, the sound well beloved enough to break the sleeping schedule he’d had since he was a small child. He spent the moments from when the footsteps were at the door, to the slide of robes and shoes being kicked off just blinking in the dark, trying to find some semblance of focus and awareness so he could be best prepared for when he was joined in bed.

Jiang Cheng smelt of rain and wind and chill when he slipped under the covers Lan Xichen lifted for him and leaned over him to give him a slow, tired kiss.

“I can’t stay long,” was murmured against his lips alongside a defeated sigh. “Not long enough for my tastes, anyway.”

“Every moment spent with you is a treasure to me, Wanyin,” Lan Xichen chuckled softly and was kissed again for it, a bit more bold, but still so tired. “You know it is no matter to me how long you can stay. As long as it is I who gets to welcome you.”

“Shameless,” Jiang Cheng told him, but sounded pleased, which was a victory. Lan Xichen felt Jiang Cheng start to shift onto his back and moved with him, tucking into his side and settling his head over Jiang Cheng’s chest. It was his favorite place in the world, he was certain, with the lull of Jiang Cheng’s heartbeat under his cheek, his earthy smell in his nose and in every breath. He wiggled in as close as he was able, making Jiang Cheng huff a soft laugh and grunt as he took his weight. Lan Xichen hadn’t realized he was such a horrid cuddler until Jiang Cheng had first held him in his arms. He owed the man no shortage of kisses to convey his gratitude for indulging him.

He’d get started on those in the morning, he decided, and settled in with a low breath. “I wish we were closer,” he admitted, tracing a lotus pattern over Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. “If only so you did not have to tire yourself out in flying so far just to be here with me.”

“I’d fly farther,” Jiang Cheng told him, ever stubborn, and Lan Xichen had to bite down a far too happy smile to hear he was worth that much trouble. “I’d build a damn bridge in the sky from my docks to yours if that’s what it took, you know this.”

“I do, and I treasure that too,” Lan Xichen told him, leaning up to steal a kiss of his own. Perhaps he was going to get started on those earlier than planned. “I love the way you love me.”

“I see that my absence only made you more shameless,” Jiang Cheng huffed but let himself be teased out of a pout with a lingering, laughing kiss. Lan Xichen could feel him melt and treasured that too. Treasured everything about the prickly man who’d captured him so completely.

“There is no shame in how you make me feel,” he told Jiang Cheng, voice soft with all the feelings he felt and could not give voice to. “I just love you. I am not ashamed of it.”

“Yeah, yeah…” Even in the dark, he knew Jiang Cheng was red. He reached up to trace the heated skin with his fingertips, tracking it down over his nose and across his lips, which parted under his touch. “Me too. You know that, right?”

He still had trouble saying the words, but in all else it was clear. I love you. So valiantly proven.

“I do know,” Lan Xichen promised and settled back into his arms, smiling wide against his heartbeat.

Chapter Text

There was nothing worse than one-sided feelings. Wei Wuxian could very well remember Senior Sister’s pain the years before that preening peacock had finally grown a brain and married her. He remembered thinking then how he never wanted to be in love if it meant suffering like that. Love was meant to be joyous, not painful.

Love was agony, he’d found, and now here he was, for some unfathomable reason at Cloud Recesses keeping Lan Wangji company and missing his Senior Sister more than ever.

Because he knew he loved Lan Wangji, wanted to be with him, stand by his side. The problem was that Lan Wangji was impossible to read. There were times, like when he’d stopped Wei Wuxian from leaving that Wei Wuxian thought maybe, maybe I have a chance. But then there were times like now, where Lan Wangji sat in silence, doing endless work, and Wei Wuxian could only wonder just why the new Chief Cultivator even wanted him around.

He was loud and chaotic and not exactly good for Lan Wangji’s reputation - not that Lan Wangji cared, which had his heart always screaming maybe, maybe! - and he’d gone out of his way to make Wei Wuxian a home here, with him even, in the same room, but separate beds. Separate rooms. Separate everything. If only he had the strength to just leave and not sit in what had to be pity on Lan Wangji’s part. After all, Wei Wuxian had no one but him, so of course he wouldn’t let Wei Wuxian be alone. Just the thought of that had his gut twisting up. It would be so much easier if he just left.

Why did he do this to himself?

He glanced up from his blueprints, designing a new set of compasses for Shizui and Jingyi to use on their upcoming Night Hunts, and gazed at Lan Wangji’s beaitufl profile. He was unfairly attractive and had long ago awakened feelings in Wei Wuxian he’d thought belonged solely to the fairer sex. Not so.

Lan Wangji had always been a wild card in that way, the exception to every rule. The exception to his desire to not sit in one-sided romance too. Gods, he was pathetic.

“Wei Ying?”

He blinked and realized Lan Wangji was staring back at him, expectant, waiting for an answer. Ah, because of course Wei Wuxian had been staring at him the past minute with a dopey look, most likely.

(How Lan Wangji could be so dense was startling, to say the least.)

“Ah, sorry, Lan Zhan,” he covered smoothly and held up his blue prints. “I was wondering if I should put a design on the covers. A rabbit for Shizui, of course, but what for Jingyi?”

“A fox,” Lan Wangji answered immediately and waited a beat for further conversation before returning to his work. Wei Wuxian’s heart clenched at the sight, because it was truly the little things that had made him fall in love in the first place, and made him continuously fall over and over again.

Why do you want me here? Why can’t you see how I feel? Why am I so scared to tell you everything?

He said none of those things, just put on his best smile and nodded.

“A fox. Perfect as always, Lan Zhan. I’ll see what I can do.”

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng did his best not to fidget as he stood outside Lan Xichen’s door, the arch a well known curve that heralded so many new things. A real and growing friendship, a real and growing feeling in his heart each time Lan Xichen smiled, which was becoming easier and easier to gain. The man was still grieving in his seclusion, but he’d given Jiang Cheng the jade token to allow him entry at all times and Jiang Cheng made it a point to come and be with him when he could afford it, the way he wished someone had done for him, so long ago.

Lan Xichen looked tired, but happy to see him when he pulled the lattice back. “Wanyin,” was the welcome, no bow, no nothing proper. One of the many signs that they were beyond such things. Jiang Cheng gave it in return, his wrapped bundle nearly burning in his sleeve now.

“Lan Huan,” he said and slipped inside, out of the cold. Lan Xichen’s rooms were always chilly, but he kept the furnace always burning and blankets out. Jiang Cheng didn’t wait to be shown to the tea table to grab one and wrap it around himself. “How have you not frozen over yet? Fuck’s sake.”

“It was close, I assure you,” Lan Xichen chuckled, the barest breath of mirth passing through his nose. He glided so gracefully to grab the teapot and two cups and join him. It was a well beloved dance, this moment just sitting and talking, drinking and making odd animal shapes in the soups that were brought in. It was a spot of normal Jiang Cheng didn’t think he’d ever get, a hint of… something he wanted, and didn’t think he’d ever want. He wouldn’t get it, because Lan Xichen deserved someone much better than Jiang Cheng to love, but that didn’t stop his foolish heart from falling.

There were worse things, he supposed, than loving someone that didn’t know it. Of all the secrets and pains he’d carried over the years, the agony and grief and guilt, this was by far the easiest ache to hold onto.

Lan Xichen had once told him that love was like seeds which were planted in the people around around them. Jiang Cheng had to agree, though his seeds had sprouted long before planting, which was just typical.

He waited for Lan Xichen to pour them tea and settle before offering the bundle to the man. Not much delighted Jiang Cheng, but seeing his surprise was damned close. “Mid-Winter,” he explained, trying hard not to sound harsh. “Are you losing track of days again?”

“More the days have been going fast of late with so much winter preparations,” Lan Xichen assured him, which Jiang Cheng actually believed. He seemed sincere about it and eager as he traced the paper wrapping. “I did not get you anything.”

“I did not expect it,” Jiang Cheng snorted and gestured for him to open it, impatient to get it over with, lest his heart fall right out of his chest and into his tea. What a horrifying sight that would be. “Open it before I take it back.”

Another little laugh, progress, though his heart threatened to jump out right then and there to see his sweet, sweet smile. Honestly, how did anyone spend any length of time with this man and not fall as hopelessly as Jiang Cheng had fallen?

Lan Xichen stilled when he uncovered the comb and jade pin, carved with lotus and lilies. He wondered if Lan Xichen would read into the symbolism of it and find Jiang Cheng’s deepest wishes, but of course he did not, just carefully removed the wooden comb and pin with shaking hands and awe plain in his eyes.

“Wanyin…”

“You wanted to change your style, so that pin is altered for a lower knot,” Jiang Cheng told him, glad he could fall on stating facts instead of the bite of disappointment, and told himself it was good enough that Lan Xichen seemed pleased with the gifts. “And the comb is like mine, which you said you liked.”

Never mind the comb in question had been the comb he’d bought as a young fool in the grips of first love. How Lan Xichen could overlook a gift that literally meant heartsickness was also very typical, because of course Jiang Cheng would be lost on a man as dense as a brick.

“They are beautiful,” Lan Xichen breathed and immediately reached up to undo his own top knot. It was a sign of how close they’d become, the trust and lack of propriety. Jiang Cheng warmed to see it and moved without prompting, getting up to take the pin and comb and set in the new style.

“There,” he said when he’d finished, giving the comb a secret caress before setting it down in front of Lan Xichen again. His hair hung in looser curtains and it looked far too good on him. Jiang Cheng quickly returned to his seat to get his heartbeat back under control.

“Thank you, Wanyin. For the gifts. For everything.” Lan Xichen’s eyes were so impossibly dark, so soft and warm and everything Jiang Cheng wanted to drown in. He forced a smile to his face instead and nodded once, forcing himsefl to be content with what was offered. He wasn’t a thief, after all. He would only take what was freely given.

Lan Xichen would never give it, so this was enough. It had to be. And one day, he hoped, he’d believe it fully.

“You’re welcome.”

Chapter Text

Wei Wuxian had often had to face his fears. Fear of losing family, fear of losing Lan Wangji. Fear of losing the people he loved. Fear of being wrong in the end, fear of being right. Fear of not doing the right thing and doing it anyway.

Fear of his own anger. Fear of his own potential.

But there was one fear that seemed insurmountable and one he had no mind to change, because dogs were terrifying and he hated the total gut-wrenching fear that overcame him the moment he heard a bark. Dogs geneally stayed away from him and he they and that was that.

Lan Wangji had helped him face many fears, so he wasn’t surprised that he had to face a dog now.

Well, not a dog. Not any more. A monster with a dog’s face, which only hearkened back memories of a Wen dungeon and being forced to survive a night with a mutated wolf-beast that wanted to eat him. In all fairness, Lan Wangji had not wanted him along on this hunt, knowing the chances of wolves were high in the area, but this creature was unexpected, given it body-hopped into what scared people the most. Lan Wangji’s fear was in Wei Wuxian dying, so the creature had had to get creative.

It’d become a monstrous dog in order to scare Wei Wuxian and make Lan Wangji a distracted, and therefore an easier target. And because fear of dogs turned Wei Wuxian into a powerless nothing, it worked.

Lan Wangji’s sleeve was a shredded, bloody mess as he stood between the dog-beast and Wei Wuxian. He hated that his fear could not make him move, hated that his fear of losing Lan Wangji could not win out. Or perhaps it could, if he were anything but numb. He tried desperately to grab for any other emotion to force the panic down, be some use to Lan Wangji, but he wasn’t fast enough, and in one swift strike, his Lan was shoved aside and Wei Wuxian had to duck before being snapped up by it’s jaws.

Seeing it charge a wounded Lan Wangji had him seeing red. Or perhaps that was just fear screaming so loudly that Chenqing answered in a rush, filling him with its might and forcing his mind’s chanting - I’m afraid, I’m afraid, I’m afraid - into eerie silence.

He was the Yiling Patriarch, Chenqing reminded him. He was Wei Wuxian. Most importantly, he was Lan Wangji’s husband and he was not about to let his fear of dogs ruin that.

Lifting his flute, he blew into it as sharply as he could, imagining a dagger, a blade, the most deadly pointed thing he could think of and Chenqing responded with a shrill note that stabbed the creature in a wave of demonic energy.

It growled and turned towards him, red eyes gleaming in the dark. Wei Wuxian’s flashed the same in response and for a moment it faltered, perhaps sensing the true danger.

Wei Wuxian lowered Chenqing just enough to glare it down. Resentful energy swirled through him, chasing his fears away, and as he looked across at his greatest fear personified, he felt nothing but calm rage.

“Get away from him,” he ordered, taking a step forward, then another, and another. His power pulsed and oozed into the beast, making it shudder, and forcing it to back up. One step, two steps, three. It shook its head and snapped it’s teeth and for a second he felt that fear again, immediately smoothed by Chenqing’s spirit.

I’m afraid, I’m afraid. But I am not running.

“Get out of the way, or I will kill you where you stand,” he told the creature, voice rippling, and it complied, allowing him to stand at Lan Wangji’s side, stand between his heart and the beast. Then Chenqing was on his lips and an eerie song brought the creature down, down and down and back into it’s true form.

A boy. A little boy. Scared of the world and of his death he did not understand, who lashed out because he too was afraid of being left behind and forced to leave the only world he’d ever known. Wei Wuxian knew that fear well and knelt before him, hand outstretched.

“Time to go home,” he told him, eyes soft as his power ebbed away. The boy hesitated, but reached out, and was gone the moment their fingers brushed.

“…Wei Ying?”

He felt his husband’s hand on his shoulder and let his energy completely vanish. Immediately, tears were in his eyes and he stood, pulling Lan Wangji into a startled kiss.

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t move fast enough,” he whimpered, crying in earnest now. Now that Chenqing’s influence was gone, he was shaking all over, adrenaline and terror all in one sickening coil. “Lan Zhan, I’m so sorry. I was so afraid, I’m so sorry.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji’s worry eased out of his face until there was nothing left but that love Wei Wuxian often drowned in. “I am not hurt badly. You saved the spirit.”

“We did,” Wei Wuxian sniffled, burying his face int Lan Wangji’s neck just to breathe. “I was so scared.”

“I know,” Lan Wangji told him and held him with his one good arm. Wei Wuxian knew they needed to get him help, needed it immediately, but he couldn’t make himself move. Lan Wangji too did not seem eager to let go of him and that was all the permission he needed to kiss his husband until the fear went away.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t often that the Second Jade of Lan was injured, or blood stained his pristine robes, but when it did happen, it was a shot right through Wei Wuxian’s heart. The failure to protect the man he loved, his husband, his partner in everything… 

Lan Wangji took pain well, but always with a hint of wide-eyed surprise that made it all worse. He was heavy too, which did nothing to help Wei Wuxian limp them back up the stairs to their rented rooms on the inn, which of course had to be three flights up.

“Stay with me, Lan Zhan,” he ordered, pleaded, and kicked the door open the moment they reached it. Not his most graceful entry and far too loud. Lan Wangji wasted precious energy just to give him a reproachful look, which he glared at. “Don’t give me that face. You’ve kicked down doors when it was me bleeding all over you. I don’t want to hear it.”

A sigh, but no complaints. Victory then. Wei Wuxian put on a grim smile as he helped Lan Wangji to the couch to sit, then quickly dragged over the bathing tub. Only then did Lan Wangji think to protest.

“Wei Ying…”

“You’re hurt and we’re doing this my way,” Wei Wuxian told him, voice broking no arguments, and sent a wave of power out to every water bearing pot in the room. It flooded through the air and into the bucket, which was still not nearly enough, but it would have to do. Lan Wangji would not like sitting in his own blood for long anyway. “Alright, off with the robes. Don’t make me strip you.”

They were lovers, married for years, but still Lan Wangji blushed as he had that very first night. Despite his words, Wei Wuxian helped him remove his robes and get him folded into the tub. The wounds were clearer now - a deep cut on his thigh, a gash across his shoulder blades - and Wei Wuxian got to work. He hurried around the room grabbing towels and ripped what was left of Lan Wangji’s outer robes into bandages. Lan Wangji didn’t protest, which told him the pain was severe.

“You with me, Lan Zhan?” he asked, wishing he wasn’t shaking so badly. The smell of blood made the distant screams of his own cultivation start to stir and he forcefully pushed them away. Dipping a rag into the water barely reaching Lan Wangji’s shins, he started to gently scrub and hated every flinch.

“You fool… why did you push me out of the way?” he murmured into the quiet, tears coming to his eyes as he cleaned. He wiped them quick, but Lan Wangji saw them anyway and lifted a hand to cradle his cheek. Wei Wuxian immediately nuzzled into it, comforted by the smell of him, even if his palm was dirty and blood-stained. “I can’t live without you, Lan Zhan. You can’t just -”

“Wei Ying.” He did not protest the soft kiss  he was pulled into, though he should have given the wounds had to be pulled. But Lan Wangji was stubborn and kissed his face, over the tears and scrapes and dirt and Wei Wuxian was powerless to stop him. “I will not lose you again. Never again.”

“And you think I can lose you?”

“I knew I could take the hit, so I did,” Lan Wangji said, simple as that. “You will not lose me either.”

Wei Wuxian sniffled and kissed him soft, before urging him back to the way he’d been, not pulling his still bleeding wounds. “I’d better not. Ever. Promise me.”

A soft smile answered him, as well as those eyes he loved so much, dark and sweet. “Promise.”

Chapter Text

“I have come to the conclusion that Marx is a piece of sh-crap and should not be worthy of a fifteen page essay,” Jiang Cheng declared grandly from his spot in their living room, pencil behind his ear, glasses sliding off his nose, and the most disgusted look on his face.

Lan Huan chuckled from where he was making them tea, wishing the familiar dunking of the bags was far more soothing today. But even the calming smell of chamomile did nothing to ease the shake in his hands. Which meant nothing else would.

He moved into the living room to sit next to his roommate and handed him his favorite mug, a ceramic thing with a clash of colors all over it, hand painted by his nephew. #1 Best Jiu-jiu it read in blocky, childish letters. Jiang Cheng hadn’t stopped preening about it since he’d gotten it over a month ago for his birthday.

“I warned you not to take Philosphy 102,” Lan Huan chuckled, because he remembered that lesson and that essay. It had not been a fun experience and he’d actually spent his essay just slamming all of Marx’s ideals. The professor had been impressed enough to give him a passing grade.

“You’re right, as always,” Jiang Cheng gruffed and sipped his tea - honey lemon, surprisingly sweet and tart. Before they’d become roommates two years back at the start of school, he’d always assumed Jiang Cheng was more of a black coffee and tea sort of person. Not so.

Just one of the many things that charmed him daily. Was it any wonder, truly, that his heart was in trouble where this man was concerned?

“How is your own paper coming?” Jiang Cheng asked, looking up at him over his glasses as he continued to type.

Lan Huan smiled. “Finished,” he said and felt his stomach swoop in remembering the why. “I have my debut on Saturday, so I got all my work done.”

“Wish I could go,” Jiang Cheng sighed. “You deserve some friendly faces in that piranha tank. How’d it get sold out so fast?”

“Very rich piranhas who hear my family’s name and come running,” Lan Huan sighed too, hating that, but felt his heart rate tick up at Jiang Cheng’s admission. “And, actually… I do have a ticket.”

“Really?” Jiang Cheng looked impressed. “How did you wrestle that out of their teeth?”

“Carefully,” Lan Huan had to laugh, which made his butterflies all the worse, and before he could stop himself, took the chance. “Jiang Cheng, I need to ask you something. And in asking, I know it may change the way you see me, but I sinserely hope we can go back to how we are in that case.”

“…are you mafia?” was how Jiang Cheng took that, squinting at him.

Thank god he made laughing so easy. “No, no, nothing like that. It’s just that I…” A deep breath. “I like you, Jiang Cheng. And I want you to be there at my concert so when I play I can play for you.”

It took a second, then Jiang Cheng flushed red, as red as Lan Huan was certain his own face was. “Wait, you… like me?” 

Lan Huan pulled out the ticket and laid it in Jiang Cheng’s palm. “Again, I hope I didn’t ruin anything between us. My feelings for you are genuine, but if you dno’t wish to date me I’d still very much like to continue being your friend.”

“Are you stupid?” Jiang Cheng demanded, sputtering a little. “Of course we’re friends. Do you think just anyone can put up with me and not run off?”

“I’d put up with you everyday if you’d let me,” Lan Huan assured, warm in the truth of that. Jiang Cheng’s face went hotter.

“You are…” His cheeks puffed out, something Lan Huan had seen his baby nephew do. No wonder where he’d gotten the habit. “You really want to date me?”

“Yes.”

“Me?”

Lan Huan chuckled. “Yes. You. I want to date you, Jiang Cheng.”

“…holy shit,” Jiang Cheng considered that with a breathed out oath, then sat up a little straighter. “I’ll go to the concert,” he said, blushing hot. “As… as your date. But I can’t promise anything. If it gets weird, we go right back to how we are now, okay? I’m not giving this up.”

Lan Huan nearly puddled right through the floor in relief. “That’s all I ask, thank you.”

Jiang Cheng gave him a fleeting smile before decidedly returning to his essay. “Don’t think me yet. I may still punch one of those piranhas, you know.”

“I know,” Lan Huan could see it all too well and smiled around his cup of tea. “My hero.”

Chapter Text

It was about week five in living with his boyfriend that Jiang Cheng realized Lan Huan was actually a bit of a hoarder. Not trash or anything like that, but animals.

He supposed he could understand it, given Lan Huan had never been allowed pets growing up. Their apartment was temporary, just to last the year, so they’d compromised on getting mice to start their pet journey together and Lan Huan had fallen in love with the one they’d chosen, Little Petal, immediately.

That wasn’t the problem. It was actually adorable and the farthest thing from a problem. The thing was…

“A-Huan, I think we need to talk,” Jiang Cheng sighed, leaning in the archway of the living room. Lan Huan was an elegant sprawl on the floor covered in mice. Yeah, that’s right. Plural. “More specifically what you’ve been doing while I’ve been at work.”

Lan Huan blanched and sat up, careful of the two curled up in his turtleneck. Ridiculous man. “They were at the animal shelter,” he started with. “I couldn’t just leave them there.”

“You couldn’t discuss this with me either?” Jiang Cheng asked, eyebrow raised.

“What is there to discuss?” Lan Huan averted his eyes like a child just caught stealing a cookie from the jar. Owning pets had brought out his stubborn side, which was all shades of hilarious. “They are small and out of the way.”

“A-Huan. We had one and now we have seven. Seven.” Jiang Cheng did his best not to laugh at the contrite look his boyfriend adopted, but it was a losing battle. “You have absolutely zero chill.”

“I’m sorry,” Lan Huan breathed and Jiang Cheng knew he could believe it. After all, the six new arrivals had only just appeared, which probably meant Lan Huan had seen them in need and folded immediately, as he was prone to do. It was… sweet. Exasperating, but sweet.

Still. “When we graduate to cats, you aren’t allowed to pull this stunt,” Jiang Cheng sighed and sat next to him on the floor. His socked feet were immediately mobbed by curious noses. “And that is not up for discussion. We can’t become the crazy cat ladies and try to rent. It just won’t happen.”

“i know,” Lan Huan assured him and took his hand to kiss it. “I only took them because they are small and easy to keep. I’m sorry for not asking first. It will not happen again.”

It would probably happen again, but Jiang Cheng believed him regardless. “I’ll let it slide this time, then, but next time we need to communicate.”

“They need names if that is something we can discuss?” Lan Huan offered, holding out a young, black mouse with a white spot on its nose. Jiang Cheng was lost immediately, damn it all.

“I suppose that can be up for discussion,” he said, shaking his head, and took the tiny rodent. It immedieatly burrowed into his cuff and sat there, wiggling its nose. “We are doomed to keep taking in strays, aren’t we?”

Lan Huan laughed, helplessly, and kissed him soft. “Probably.”

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng had been floating all day, a grin on his face, a skip in his step. He’d had it before he’d left for work that morning, and he was humming in the kitchen when Lan Huan came home. It wasn’t a usual mood for his husband to adopt and Lan Huan indulged in more than a fair share of happy kisses before he was shooed out of the kitchen so Jiang Cheng could cook in peace.

Lan Huan took his time undressing just to listen to the sweet humming and wondered what it could possibly be from. A promotion at work? An upcoming vacation? A surprise celebration?

It was an itch, knowing Jiang Cheng would probalby wait until dinner to tell him anything, but it would be worth it just to see Jiang Cheng so blissful for once.

He was smiling to hear Jiang Cheng halfway break out into a song (and only halfway because he didn’t know all the words and had been humming the melody just fine) when he stepped into the bathroom and noticed the small trash had been moved from next to the toilet. Not a big deal, easily fixed, but what was laying on top of the tissues and wrappers had him pausing. Shock made everything stand still a moment, then he was running back to the kitchen.

“Where is the fire?” Jiang Cheng asked him, amused at his huge eyes, but his mind had gone blank, focused solely on what had been in there and what it had read.

“Why is there a pregnancy test in the bathroom?” he asked, alarmed and excited, all at once.

Jiang Cheng looked even more amused and that bright glowing, floaty happiness encased him all over again. Lan Huan’s heart jumped right into his throat to see it. “Guess.”

“You’re pregnant?” The words were out before he realized there may actually be something wrong with them, but the shock had stopped the circle of his brain in it’s tracks.

“What the actual fuck, A-Huan?” Jiang Cheng barked a laugh and smacked him in the stomach lightly, rattling him back to earth with a horrendous blush. “I don’t have baby making bits, thank you very much.”

“Then… who?” he asked, before it started to click. “Wait.”

“An idiot. How is it I know Wei Ying and I still married the bigger idiot?” Jiang Cheng muttered, but his smile was wide and too happy to frown.

Lan Huan got excited all over again. “Your sister?”

“That was the third one, positive all across the board,” Jiang Cheng told him and he drew Lan Huan into a laughing kiss. “I am going to be an uncle. The best uncle.”

“You will,” Lan Huan said, assured of that, and kissed him back. “Though, for the record, if you had the baby making bits -”

“Finish that sentence and I will neuter you,” Jiang Cheng told him brightly. Lan Huan laughed to see it, real threat or not, that face was priceless.

“Understood, my love. Understood.”

Chapter Text

Life did not alter much in Lan Xichen’s patch of garden-forest. As with his people, he kept to a schedule, day in and day out, tending to the flowers and the various small creatures dependent on the foliage for home and safety. Even the occasional hurt animal or caught insect had become commonplace enough he knew how to deal with them, so when he walked out one morning only to hear a very loud and colorful slew of cursing coming from a dew covered lily… well. It was new. Very new.

(If someone had told him, that very morning even, that this was the day that would shape the rest of his existence, he would have laughed.)

The swearing belonged to a small-folk, just as he was, but winged. That alone was awe-inspiring enough, given their deep violet shimmering hue. He’d never seen the like and was captivated, even if the man they were attached to not so gracefully fell right out of the lily and onto his rear before Lan Xichen.

His first thoughts had been solely on the wings. The rest were arrested by rosy cheeks and dark, wide eyes framed by wet inky hair plastered to high cheekbones and a strong jaw.

“Shit, sorry,” were the first words he got from the flustered fae. A not so graceful start, to be sure, but charming in its own way. Lan Xichen smiled despite the minute shocks each curse word pulled out of him, given no such crude words were spoken in his Haven-Sect, and definitely not in his garden-forest. “I didn’t know this patch belonged to anyone.”

“Are you lost?” Lan Xichen asked, because that was important. Far more important than staring at his handsome face and adorably furrowed brow, anyhow.

“More exhausted,” he got in answer, a gruff, grudging admission, before he seemed to remember himself and quickly reclaimed his feet. He was drenched, which only made Lan Xichen’s smile wider and his guest’s blush all the more bright. Still, the bow he gave was proper and perfect, well bred, and Lan Xichen returned it with respect. “This one’s name is Jiang Wanyin, from the YunmengJiang Haven-Sect.”

“This one is Lan Xichen, from the GusuLan Haven-Sect,” he gave in return, worried as those wet wings gave a pathetic flutter where they were folded in, though lopsided and wrinkled oddly. “Are you injured?”

A blink, then eyes following his own to the twitching wings. “Oh, the water? No, it’s just an annoyance at this point. I wasn’t expecting a face full of dew-drops to wake up to.”

“Mmm, yes, we do discourage sleeping in the flowers,” Lan Xichen said, finding his humor again. “The dew builds on the leaves and tends to collect in the center.”

“Noted,” Jiang Wanyin told him with a grumpy sigh and reached up to try to slick back still very wet hair. “Is there a safe place I can dry off? Once my wings are dry I can get on my way. I’m sure you are kept busy enough with your garden to deal with the inconvenience.”

“You are a guest,” Lan Xichen argued and turned back to home. “It would be a pleasure to indulge your company if I may.”

“…oh.” Another blush, but a curious look had overcome a lot of that grumpiness, though his brow still had that charming crease. “You… don’t have wings.”

“I do not,” Lan Xichen agreed and led the way through the maze of leaves. “Our ancestors long ago took to the ground, tending the roots and more fragile life below. Wings became unnecessary, so eventually we stopped growing them.”

Jiang Wanyin nodded at that and looked around. “I couldn’t imagine being earth-bound, no offense.”

“No offense taken. After all, wings are your world, just as my feet are mine,” Lan Xichen told him, easy as that. “That is what makes life interesting, I find. The differences life can produce. Differences should be celebrated, don’t you agree?”

“Respected, if nothing else.” Jiang Wanyin said that as though it were a firm belief, though perhaps not originally his own. It spoke to a good upbringing and his body language was straight and easy, exuding noble confidence. Was he a prince? Royal?

He was regal in any case, at least in Lan Xichen’s eyes. “Agreed.”

Lan Xichen’s house was nested under the eave of a stone, a long abandoned teapot with patched cracks and holes now used as windows. Jiang Wanyin took it in silently, looking impressed, which was a boost of confidence Lan Xichen was not expecting.

“You live in a mortal’s throw-aways?” he asked, not judgemental, only surprised.

“I do. My people believe in nothing going to waste if it’s possible to re-utilize it.” He’d refurbished the place himself and he was very proud of it, even if it was essentially nothing more than a human’s broken teapot.

“My brother is the same way,” Jiang Wanyin said, which explained his lack of condescending attitude, and that put him already a step above some of his other, less memorable or well-meaning visitors. “He’s obsessed with mortal throw-aways. His nest is more weird shit than proper straw at this point.”

“Your brother is a bird?” Lan Xichen said, blinking at that oddity. He’d never heard of moth-fae also born as bird-folk before.

“Adopted,” Jiang Wanyin explained. “A martin, though he’s far more magpie and extra annoying for his attraction to shiny things.”

Lan Xichen chuckled and moved to the side of his home, where a flat rock nestled amidst moss and clover, a perfect sunbathing place. “He sounds like quite the character,” he mused and gestured for his guest to claim the rock to dry. “The sun will be better in a few minutes, once it rises more fully. Would you like some tea in the meantime?”

Jiang Wanyin looked very much like he wanted tea, but did not let himself agree. “I don’t want to be a burden -”

“A guest, not a burden,” Lan Xichen reminded him, already heading to his door. “I’ll be back in a moment.”

He was grateful for the chance to hide and be busy, so he could more properly examine his feelings. Excitement, curiosity. He couldn’t remember the last time a guest - unexpected or otherwise- had been so exciting.

Lan Xichen made sure he was far more composed when the tea was finally ready, but did not make it far. Sitting on the stone, sun bathing his wings in full extended glory, was Jiang Wanyin. Beautiful and sunlit and intensely irritated, given a rather fluffed up house martin was trying to anxiously preen his hair.

“Jiang Cheng, I thought you’d died!” the bird wailed, all dramatics as he was pushed away. Instantly, he shifted into his fae form if only so he could have hands to flutter around his brother with instead of his beak. Lan Xichen bit down a laugh at Jiang Wanyin’s growing frown.

“I’m clearly not, so stop making a fuss!”

More wailing, though not as effective that time. The young bird-fae was already starting to smile, wide and guileless. He was lovely too, though in a far different way than Jiang Wanyin. Softer, brighter around the edges, where his brother was all angles and cute furrowed brows.

They were charming, Lan Xichen decided, and he sincerely hoped it would not be the last time he’d get to enjoy their company.

Given he was so far unnoticed, he returned to his house for a third cup, then moved back outside with far more purpose. The childish arguing stopped immediately and the brothers’ attention was fully on him, one through a red face, the other through wide, awed eyes.

“You must be Jiang Wanyin’s brother,” Lan Xichen said, smiling at the newcomer, and set down his tea to bow. “This one is Lan Xichen.”

Jiang Wanyin elbowed his brother pointedly. “He owns this garden-forest, so be polite.”

“I’m always polite,” came a pout, but the bow he turned on Lan Xichen was just as proper as his brother’s had been. Another prince, perhaps. “This one is Wei Wuxian.”

“Pain in the ass, more like,” Jiang Wanyin muttered, which got him swatted at. Lan Xichen felt helpless to chuckle at the pair, loving their brotherly love immediately.

Despite his best intentions, he kept them far later than Jiang Wanyin’s drying time merited, not that either seemed to mind. He was curious about them and they he, and the hours passed in a golden blur of laughter and smiles and forehead crinkles.

The sun was high enough it was already stating its decent again when they finally said goodbye. Lan Xichen didn’t even think before removing the jade pendant from his sash and pressing it into Jiang Wanyin’s hands, startling him.

“Insurance, so I may see you again soon,” he said, by way of explanation, and felt his ears grow hot as a blush overtook Jiang Wanyin’s face. He folded the man’s fingers over the jade and gave a soft squeeze. “I hope to see you.”

Honest surprise, awe, then determination. A nod, firm and absolute, and Lan Xichen didn’t even had wings, but he felt his heart flying all the same.

“You will.”

(And he did.)

Chapter Text

Considering the first time he’d met Lan Xichen he’d taken a face full of dew drops and the ground-fae’s first impression of him had been a drenched idiot, being forced to land and walk under a leaf umbrella while it rained now was… well. He just hoped it wasn’t a sign he shouldn’t come here. That Lan Xichen wasn’t as perfectly kind and sweet as he’d led Jiang Cheng to believe.

(At least he was used to Jiang Cheng being wet around him if nothing else. Small mercies.)

He jogged and ducked under leaves and mushrooms once that familiar teapot house was in view and couldn’t dredge up nearly enough guilt for his muddy state as he clambered up the steps to knock.

Lan Xichen was just as beautiful surprised as he was pleased, and worry made his eyes richen to a deeper hue of inky brown. Jiang Cheng gave a curt bow and held out the token, the only thing on him dry, which snapped the fae into action.

“Jiang Wanyin, this is hardly the weather for flying,” Lan Xichen pulled him inside quickly and fussed around him a half second before hurrying off to grab a towel. He had not reclaimed his token. “Could you not have waited for the rain to ease?”

“It wasn’t raining when I first got here,” Jiang Cheng defended himself. He was used to rain, given the lotus ponds of home were often flooding. But the clouds over Lotus Pier were easy to track. Here, the mist lay low on the ground, and one could not tell if it meant rain or fog.

A sigh, worried and something like fond too. A towel was quickly draped over his shoulders and he was led further inside once he’d kicked his muddy shoes off. The warm floor against his toes was heavenly.

“The weather does change dramatically.” Guilt now, which was ridiculous. Surely he wasn’t about to - “I’m sorry, I should have warned you.”

“I could have just waited, you know. You don’t have to be responsible for everything.” Jiang Cheng huffed and sat on the floor, ignoring the other’s look. Like hell was he sitting on the fine cushioned seats with his drenched behind. He held out the token again. “I said I would return and I found the time. So here.”

Lan Xichen chuckled, a soft, tender sound, then folded Jiang Cheng’s fingers back over the jade. “No, you keep it. How else can I convince you to return again and again?”

“You can just ask,” Jiang Cheng pointed out, but immediately pulled the token back and tucked it against his heart, where it’d rested since the first visit. He’d never admit how comforting a weight it had become. “I don’t know why you’d want me as a regular visitor, but I’m happy to come. Obviously.”

His wet wings twitched as though to prove his point and Lan Xichen huffed a little laugh, this one through his nose. How cute… which was another thought he’d never admit to.

“I enjoy your company, Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Xichen said as he joined him on the floor, smiling wide and almost childlike. “Is that so hard to believe?”

“Of course it is, but it gets me a warm fire and company that doesn’t try to peck my brains out every second, so I’m going to just go with it.” He said it grandly, nose in the air, and was rewarded with another little laugh, which was what he wanted. “And I get to drip dry on your fine carpets,” he tacked on, still not as sorry as he should have been.

“I fear I’ve befriended a gremlin,” Lan Xichen agreed, pulling a blanket over his own shoulders and looking eager. Jiang Cheng did his best not to blush too hard at friend. “So, tell me why you’ve come. Surely it was not only to return my gift?”

Jiang Cheng felt his grin sharpen into something wild, which had the other leaning in, ready for the gossip. “It would seem our brothers met by chance on the road, and I fear Wei Wuxian is grossly in love with him now and has no idea.”

Lan Xichen’s eyebrows raised, surprised and delighted, and Jiang Cheng launched into a tale of ribbons, frantic nesting, and a missing feather. As he talked over the hour, the rain gradually stopped and the sun returned, filling the window with warmth and light. Jiang Cheng’s wings opened and spread of their own volition, sensing the heat, and as they plotted on how to matchmake their unsuspecting brothers, Jiang Cheng basked in the sunlight, unaware of the lights being thrown off the violets and blue hues of his wings.

Lan Xichen noticed, laugh trailing off as his eyes caught something on the ceiling. Jiang Cheng looked up to see a kaleidoscope of colors, shifting as his wings did, like drops of amethyst and sapphires sparkling against the teapot’s lid.

“Jiang Wanyin…” the fae breathed, awed, and Jiang Cheng lost the battle against a heavy blush that time, his wings snapping shut to flutter in his flustered alarm.

“Sorry, I didn’t realize -”

“That was beautiful!” Lan Xichen told him, hand covering Jiang Cheng’s own and making them both jump. He quickly leaned in as though to keep him from bolting. “Forgive me for startling you, I’ve just never seen anything like it.”

Jiang Cheng was proud of his wings. They’d come in early and he’d carried them proudly through the years. But he also knew they were average in size and nothing as spectacular as the near crimson-purple of his mother’s wings, or the dark royal blue of his father’s. And they were definitely nothing compared to the rosy hue in Elder Sister’s.

To call his wings beautiful? He shivered at the word and his wings opened again, hesitant, and was answered with a wide, charmed smile, a soft hitch in breath. The hand around his curled and squeezed, encouraging, and he let them fold out to their fullest extent, soaking in the sun and cascading the room in a shower of purples and blues.

If someone like Lan Xichen could call them so, then perhaps they were beautiful. And maybe he’d even come to believe it too, one day, especially if Lan Xichen continued to smile at him like that.

Chapter Text

The man with the calculating eyes and face half hidden behind a fan had been watching him from the moment he’d first stepped on the stage. It hadn’t been a solo, either, so he knew it was purposeful, and steady. He didn’t know what he’d done to get such a look, one that did not look like the usual lust his profession stirred, but there was precious little he could do about it. It wasn’t as though the man was the only one staring at him anyway.

His solo got more of a reaction, the stilling of the fluttering fan, a slight leaning forward. He looked as though he were trying to place Mo Xuanyu’s true face from under all his powder and gaudy jewelry, but still there was no desire in his eyes. Only calculating darkness Mo Xuanyu knew well.

After all, he’d seen it enough times in the mirror.

The face of a kitten, the eyes of a killer. Had Father or Half-Brother decided to kill him off once and for all? Had selling him to this place not been good enough to punish him for daring to exist?

If that was his fate, he was glad for it and wouldn’t blink when the blow finally came at last.

When the Madame pulled him aside and told him the man had bought him for the night, well. That was that, wasn’t it? He put on a smile and settled at his vanity to wipe free his powder. The room was the largest this teahouse could offer, given he was the most popular prostitute it held. To buy him for a session was no small price. For an entire night?

Was it Father’s money or his own? It’d been too dark to get a proper look at anything but the man’s face, and though he seemed vaguely familiar, the connection would not come. He’d just have to wait and see. What good was wondering things anyway, when the end had come?

But when the door opened, Mo Xuanyu knew he was incorrect. This man was not here to kill him… nor was he even a full man. Not yet. Just on the cusp, the way Mo Xuanyu was, but a far truer kitten than he’d ever been. Still, his eyes were dark, so dark, and gleamed like knives as they assessed one another. A kitten, but with sharpened claws.

He was wearing a carefully composed mask, it was obvious. Mo Xuanyu had mastered the art of smiling masks and was done with it. If this man wanted to play games, then he would play his favorite game. How cute would this little kitten be all red and blushing?

“Let me guess, this is the part where you do your best to try and impress me,” he said, moving over to him. The young man’s eyes widened and he backed up quickly into the door, which had shut behind him. A good thing, too, else-wise he’d be flat on his backside. How fun! “Buying me for the night, hm? And what can I do for a little kitten wearing such fine robes?”

He man had trailing wisps of hair that framed his face and Mo Xuanyu twirled one around his finger, giving it a pointed tug. Immediately, those eyes widened again and the mask cracked. A novice, then. Even more fun.

“I… it’s not what you think,” were the first words he got from him. His voice was smooth, surprisingly low, with the hint of dramatics. Mo Xuanyu’s sort of man, if he were honest with himself for once. He held up his hands in a pleading manner, fan folded now and waving in the air. Mo Xuanyu snatched it just to watch him squirm more.

“So you don’t think I’m pretty?” he asked, fluttering his lashes just so. He knew his beauty had nothing to do with this meeting, but that mask was still up and if this man wanted to see him in secret like this, in a brothel smack at the center of the greenlit world of prostitutes, then Mo Xuanyu would make sure he knew exactly what he was in for.

“It’s not - I mean, you are, but…”

Horrendously flustered now, the man stared up at him pleadingly, obviously more a darling of the gentry court and not used to such shamelessness. How interesting, then, that he’d subject himself to this world merely to talk to Mo Xuanyu, the disgraced wannabe-Jin, who’s only sin was being born a bastard.

That mask was nearly crumbled completely off and Mo Xuanyu dialed back, just a little, snapping the fan open and fluttering it at himself, eyebrow arched in challenge. “Are you trying to flirt now, little kitten? Because if you are, you’re only embarrassing yourself.”

Gods, I know,” the man sighed, groaning and covering his face, which looked more tomato than flesh. Satisfied, Mo Xuanyu leaned in close and pried his hands away to tuck his fan back into them, folding each finger purposefully over the silken pattern.

“Breathe and try again,” Mo Xuanyu told him, the game ended. A scared boy stared back at him through those wide eyes, dark and dangerous, but truly afraid. That look, too, was one he knew well. “And perhaps find yourself a cold bath, then return to me.”

A squeak and then he was turning, all his gentry upbringing reacting to the dismissal by instinct. He stopped himself before he hit the door face-first, but it was a near thing, and Mo Xuanyu felt a laugh - a real laugh - tickle the back of his throat. He shoved the man out with a smirk, loving the way he tried to protest.

“Try again I said, little kitten,” he purred, leaning languidly in the doorway. “When you can look me in the eye and manage a full sentence, return. I’ll be here. After all, I’m yours for the whole night.”

To his credit, the little kitten returned after a mere half hour, announced himself with firm intention - Nie Huaisang, he said, with a proud chin in the air, and that explained why he looked familiar, being his family was close to Father’s - and spoke of revenge, of death, and getting even.

“I need your help,” he said, still rosy cheeked as Mo Xuanyu leaned into his space.

And Mo Xuanyu considered that, considered the anger that had never died from being cast out, considered the hate he felt to the family that didn’t want him and a new desire for the future Nie Huaisang was offering.

“Alright kitten, I’m in,” he said finally and grinned a wild grin, one that was matched much to his delight. “When do we begin?”

Chapter Text

For all Nie Huaisang enjoyed the finer things in life, it was also far too easy for him to forget things. Rather important things, at least. He could keep his schedule down to the minute, remember every crazy detail, but water? Food? Sleep? Not so much.

The sticky notes had started a two months ago, after a very long night designing a new art piece He’d fallen asleep in his studio, satisfied at a job well done, but unaware he’d been in there upwards of ten hours with breaking only for the bathroom.

A bright pink note had been waiting for him when he awoke, fluttering as it’d been on his forehead.

Made extra for dinner, just warm it up in the oven. And the kettle is set up for you too.

It wasn’t signed, but it didn’t have to be. Even without the neon, Nie Huaisang had known the stylish loops of his boyfriend’s calligraphy well enough by then, and had smiled and smelt the paper, still clinging to the scent of Mo Xuanyu’s favorite honey-sugar perfume.

He’d eaten and drank his tea, refreshed with a full meal and caffeine, and had downright conquered the rest of his day. The note had gone into his journal that night, pressed lovingly in the corner.

To his delight, the notes did not stop. Don’t forget your scarf, spoke the yellow, stuck to the window of their bedroom to showcase it was snowing outside. Cookies for you in the box, said the pink, signed with hearts and a smiling face.

Mo Xuanyu worked early hours as a make up artist for dance companies all around the city and the notes, more often than not, were the first glimpse of his boyfriend for the day.

Don’t forget I love you! You got this! cheered an orange note, one he stuck inside his planner with a smile.

He did know and slapped his own note on the fridge, blue and bright and with a garland of mulberry leaves doodled in the corner.

Will be late tonight but with desserts. I love you too.

Chapter Text

The first Conference he’d gone to since returning from his seclusion had… not gone well. Not gone at all, really. After all, how could one attend when they couldn’t even climb the steps to Carp Tower?

“You are so stupid, thinking you could handle the Conference this soon!” Jiang Cheng was standing at the front of a boat they’d found in the port of the city and guiding them through the winding waterways with a long pole, desperate as they’d been to get away from prying eyes. He’d all but carried Lan Xichen away from the Conference and had not looked at Lan Xichen once since helping him aboard.

It hurt a little, but Lan Xichen understood this scared-anger well enough. And it wasn’t as though Jiang Cheng was wrong, either.

“I am sorry, Wanyin,” Lan Xichen said, trailing his hand through the water. He felt calmer now and grateful for the man’s quick thinking, even though he was certain Jiang Cheng had chosen to take a boat for his own comfort, not just Lan Xichen’s.

“You scared me,” Jiang Cheng didn’t seem to have heard him, his voice pulled into a mutter now. It was a miracle he could even hear the words.

“I did not mean to scare you.”

“Yeah?” Jiang Cheng whirled on him finally, face red. “Well, I didn’t mean to love you either, but here we are!”

Lan Xichen blinked up at him, startled, and abruptly Jiang Cheng went red, then pale, and stared at the rod in his hands in pure confusion.

Lan Xichen wished he was faring any better. “Wanyin… loves me?”

“I…” Furrowed brows, surprise flickering in his eyes. Slowly, like dawn breaking over the horizon, realization set over his expression, a startled smile lifting the corners of his mouth. “I… do?”

In a daze, Lan Xichen reached for his hand, pulled him down to sit before him, and took his face in his hands. “You love me,” he said again, needing that confirmation, needing to know it was truth. Jiang Cheng’s cheeks heated, but he was resolute now, and gripped his wrists.

“I do…” Licking of lips, a fractured, scared smile. “Holy shit, A-Huan. I do.”

Chapter Text

He wondered if he should’ve been more surprised to learn that Xichen was a cuddler. A terrible one, too. Nie Mingjue barely had time to get cozy between the covers before Xichen was wrapping around him, either at his back or curled in at his front, it made no difference. An arm, a leg, and warm breath on his skin, as close as Lan Xichen could get himself, every time.

It was charming to see the composed man so… well. Not composed. Hair a mess, nose bent where it was pressed into his chest, breathing more audible because of it. He didn’t snore, but he was a deep breather and a loud breather at that. Nie Mingjue had spent more than a few mornings simply basking in the mess of hair and limbs and pearly skin just wondering how he managed to gain this.

He’d never imagined himself in bed with someone, let alone his best friend. Xichen had been the one to make the first moves, from courtship gifts to kisses, uncertain as Nie Mingjue was of his own feelings. But now there was no more doubt, no more wondering what to call the emotion between them, the affection, just as surely as Xichen erased all space left between them in the moments they shared in bed.

In these moments, he was all Xichen’s and he didn’t even have to say the words to tell him so. 

But he did anyway, in the quiet, in the press of their bodies, smiling into that wild hair and sweet face.

Thank you for loving me.

Chapter Text

“You’re going to squirm right off my lap if you keep that up, A-Yuan,” Wei Ying chided his son as the little boy did his best to lean all the more closer to the stage. They were sitting in the center row in the center seat, alone to watch the rehearsal, and A-Yuan had graduated from his own seat to Wei Ying’s lap, then to his knees with his tiny hands on the seat in front of them.

“It’s so beautiful, ba-ba,” A-Yuan didn’t seem to care he was close to falling off, eyes wide and voice awed. “Teacher plays so well.”

Lan Zhan did play well. Beautifully well. And all for them, too. Wei Ying knew that that’s what it meant for that intense gaze to be on them as he played, never wavering. Wei Ying smiled in response and closed his eyes to showcase how much he loved hearing it, then had to chuckle as he saved A-Yuan from sliding off his knees completely.

“Just stand there,” he instructed, though kept his hands on the boy’s shoulders so he wouldn’t run off. Now that he didn’t have to worry about the boy toppling, he could focus once more on Lan Zhan and the soft expression he was making. He knew the same was on his own face.

The moment the song came to an end, he was on his feet clapping. “Lan Zhan!” he called as loud as he dared, because it was a bit too much to scream I love you at the top of his lungs in an empty concert hall, but still wanted Lan Zhan to know if he ever wondered. 

Not that he thought Lan Zhan wondered, but he would still kiss him the moment he was in his arms again to tell him. And maybe a few more kisses after that. You know. Just in case.

Chapter Text

By the third mock-fitting and measuring, Jiang Cheng had Lan Xichen’s measurement memorized. He was wide in the shoulders, solid in the chest, his hips slightly small but strong. Seven knots, six knots, five knots. His torso was as long as his legs, because of course a perfection of man was perfectly formed, much like Wei Wuxian was lithe from head to toe. Ten knots.

“Seven, six, five, ten,” Jiang Cheng murmured and pressed his knotted rope to the fabric spread out on the table. This was always the hardest part, measuring on a flat surface for a three-dimensional object. Lan Xichen had been kind enough to promise trying to find another form for him to sew on, given the form he had was shaped to fit Wei Wuxian and not Lan Xichen. Jiang Cheng almost half hoped another form would be hard to find, if only because it meant Lan Xichen had to come in more often for fittings, and he’d discovered he greatly enjoyed the way his ears would go red each time he laid seven knots over his shoulders, or six knots on his chest. The five on the hips were a delight of squirming perfection.

The ten going the length of his torso was delightful too, in it’s own way, given his hand would rest at the base of Lan Xichen’s throat. Each flash of swallow, breath, and word echoed through his knuckles, warming his skin. He loved it more than he ought to.

He was a fool for wanting anything substantial with the heir to the Lan clan, but he couldn’t help himself. Lan Xichen had a way of looking at him like he was actually seen, like he was a wonderful, beautiful thing. He listened to Jiang Cheng go off about this sort of style or that, and actually remembered points from before, proving he cared about it because Jiang Cheng cared about it. He shivered and trembled around each touch, but seemed always amazed by each new layer they added, and it’d yet to grow old.

Jiang Cheng had wanted to know what lay in Lan Xichen’s underneath. Now he knew it was kindness that had sewn him together, and understanding. Compassion and righteousness. He truly was a perfect sort of man, if a totally useless one when it came to clothes.

He’d admitted to getting drunk with his sworn brothers one night - so willing to break rules, Jiang Cheng loved that - and ripping his robe when he tried to wash it. Funny enough for one try, but after five? He was hopeless and useless and utterly charming for it. Jiang Cheng wanted to hate how quickly his heart had wanted him, but then Lan Xichen would smile, or laugh that little nose-laugh of his and he’d forget to care.

But wanting the man led to a challenge, and that was that he no longer was any sort of royalty and could not court the man in any way that would be proper. No shiny gifts, or expensive oils. All he could offer was clothing and conversation, and maybe that was an odd brand of courtship, but it was all his own and he decided that he could at least try.

It wasn’t as though it’d get him anything but a blushing, further flustered Lan Xichen anyway. Rejection was fine as long as he could have that.

“Master Jiang?”

Jiang Cheng looked up to see Lan Xichen in his doorway, lit by the sunlight and absolutely glowing. He was truly well named. “I told you to call me Wanyin.”

“Wanyin,” Lan Xichen amended easily and stepped inside. How he could make shutting a door and standing on a stool look like a dance, Jiang Cheng would never know. “I managed to escape early today. Hope you do not mind.”

“Why would I mind?” Jiang Cheng asked, slipping into his smoothest voice, and instantly the man’s ears went pink. “Honestly, I was just about to go mad trying to make this work on the table. Need you in one layer for today. This under robe is giving me trouble.”

Lan Xichen always hesitated a little before undressing, which Jiang Cheng understood. It was hardly proper to stand in front of someone in their underclothes.

He took the fine robes as they were shed and set them reverently over a bench, then retrieved the garment pinned to his work station. He helped Lan Xichen into it and immediately saw the problem.

“The seam is too high on the shoulder,” he said before Lan Xichen could even pull a discomforted face. He quickly set a spell with his fingers and the thread unraveled, loosening the join. Lan Xichen watched him curiously. “Is it pulling anywhere else?”

“A little on this side,” Lan Xichen admitted, trying to roll his shoulder back, only to be stopped by a line of stitches. Jiang Cheng cut his hand through the air and the thread pulled free from the join there too.

“This is what happens when I try to work flat,” Jiang Cheng sighed and gave a bow around his sewing kit flying into his palm. “Forgive me for that, Zewu-jun. This is going slower than I thought it would.”

“If you insist on my calling you Wanyin, you must call me Xichen,” Lan Xichen offered to him, because he was ridiculous like that. The fact his robes were taking longer than expected didn’t even seem to be an issue. Jiang Cheng considered what he was offering only a moment before he stepped in to set in new stitches.

“Very well, Xichen. But only when we’re alone like this. I hate to think what your brother or uncle would assume to hear me calling for you so familiarly.”

A shiver as his fingers brushed over a shoulder, down the line of his chest. “What must your family think of me calling you as they do?” was his counter and his voice was perfectly controlled. That alone was a win, knowing he was the need for that control.

“You are the only one to call me Wanyin,” Jiang Cheng told him and looked up at him just so, under his lashes, not smiling with his mouth but with his eyes and grinned slowly when Lan Xichen’s blush crept down his neck. “It is all yours to say as you wish.”

“…Ah, then I must endeavor to keep it well,” Lan Xichen murmured, licking his lips, and it would be so easy, so very easy, to steal away the kisses pressed in the corners of his sweet mouth. Jiang Cheng leaned in a little, lifting on his toes to reach, and set a stitch instead, near the hem of the collar, so the back of his hand brushed that flash of throat.

“Please do,” Jiang Cheng said just as softly, proposition plain as he could make it, and stepped away with a smile. He didn’t miss the shaky breath that followed him, sweet victory.

Chapter Text

There was an old saying that laughter was the best medicine to pain. Lan Xichen had not been physically hurt many times in his life, so though the ankle break was minor comparatively to what it could have been falling down a steep drop, feeling the delicate bones grind made his eyes water, the empty, stretched places under his skin filling with sharp agony. Thankfully, he had a fluttering Shizui to worry about and his frantic face was enough to get him smiling.

“I don’t know what’s taking Jingyi so long,” Shizui wrung his hands, now that he no longer had a wound to dress. Lan Xichen chuckled and pat his nephew’s hair, tucking an errand strand away behind his ear.

“I am not dying, nephew. Be at ease,” he promised, because it truly was just a broken ankle, nothing life-threatening. It hurt, oh how it hurt, but Shizui was unharmed and that was all that mattered.

Leave his first hunt out of seclusion to end with such a pathetic injury. He could only sit and laugh at the sad state of affairs they were in. He held tightly to Shizui’s fluttering hands while they waited for Jingyi to return with Wangji, and more than likely Wei Wuxian, to help walk him back up the mountain and safely home. He hadn’t fallen that far away, which was embarrassing, but the side of the cliff was steep enough that his weight was too much for the juniors to maneuver between them alone. So, he had to sit and try not to feel too humiliated at the thought of his di-di seeing him like this.

But it was not Wangji that Jingyi brought. With his perpetual scowl, the gleam of violet, hair a mess of unbound glory, Sect Leader Jiang was a striking figure in the setting light and an intensely irritated one at that. Lan Xichen had not even known the man was visiting and his ruffled state proved he’d been in the middle of dressing, or perhaps a bath, before Jingyi had summoned him. Lan Xichen felt his breath hitch the moment their eyes met.

Jingyi was talking a mile a minute, which only got worse when Shizui ran over to them. They were bouncing ideas off one another on how to best move Lan Xichen, which only seemed to be making Jiang Cheng more and more irate. Lan Xichen, for his part, could only shrug helplessly and chuckle at them in an effort to keep the man from yelling at them, because they meant well and were only worried. Jiang Cheng’s expression softened in response, hearing his silent plea, though his frown was very much still there, and he was so different with his hair tumbling about his face that Lan Xichen couldn’t help but gaze at him, drink him in, long after the sect leader had turned back to the boys.

Until, finally, “Oh for fuck’s sake, it’s not that complicated.”

Lan Xichen choked on a laugh, which got stuck only because of how swiftly Jiang Cheng turned back to him and marched over, like he was gearing for a fight. Lan Xichen had nothing to fear from him, he knew that, but he couldn’t stop the flinch when Jiang Cheng leaned over him, hands reaching for his own.

“Arms around my neck. Your brother has the medical wing in a tizzy and Wei Wuxian is keeping your uncle from killing you. With any luck I’ll get you in there without him spotting us, but we need to go now.”

The implication of what Jiang Cheng was demanding had Lan Xichen’s ears going red, even as he obediently shifted his arms across Jiang Cheng’s shoulders and chest. “Wanyin, surely this is not necessary.”

“You broke your ankle and I don’t want to be murdered by your rampaging uncle for leaving you here when I can just do something about it now,” Jiang Cheng scoffed, then ended the argument entirely by getting his arms under him and lifting. Lan Xichen immediately clung to him close and tight, not used to the feeling of being carried, and had to bite down a very unattractive noise at the sudden show of strength.

He wasn’t wholly successful, either, if that smirk was to be believed. Ah, but his blush was going to be permanent at this rate!

“Uncomfortable at all?” Jiagn Cheng asked, like he wasn’t easily holding him, like he wasn’t about to walk uphill and into Cloud Recesses carrying him like a bride.

Flustered and speechless, Lan Xichen could only shake his head, then hold onto Jiang Cheng’s shoulders as the man started his march back, two very excitable juniors rushing ahead to pave the way. But that was little matter, given the confident determination on Jiang Cheng’s face, gleaming in his eyes. The shift of muscle at his back and under his thighs had him wanting to hide his burning face, but the only place would be Jiang Cheng’s neck and that would not help anyone if he expired from embarrassment right here in Jiang Cheng’s steady hold.

“Thank you,” he managed, a mess of feelings and warmth and confusing heat. Jiang Cheng grunted in response, but his eyes were smiling as he glanced down at him.

“Thank me only if I get us in there alive,” he teased. Teased. Lan Xichen felt laughter bubbling in him again and a grin slowly overtook Jiang Cheng’s lips, though pieces of swaying hair got caught in the corners of them. Lan Xichen dared himself to wipe them away, which got him a small huff of thanks and a flutter of butterflies in his stomach, beating madly deep inside.

“Sorry for the trouble,” he said, more for form’s sake, and shivered a little as Jiang Cheng bounced him up just enough to get a better hold on him again. Such strength… wow.

“Carrying the esteemed Zewu-jun like a swooning maiden? How is this trouble?” Jiang Cheng asked, scowling a little, but his eyes danced. Lan Xichen bit his lip and huffed through his nose, unable to do anything but laugh as he was carried away, literally swept off his feet, the pain in his ankle all but a memory as they walked.

It seemed the old saying was right, after all.

Chapter Text

It was the fifth shot he’d missed since the start of his night hunt, and considering he never missed he was beginning to wonder if his uncle had been right. A steady heart was a steady aim and his jiu-jiu had the steadiest aim Jin Ling had ever seen, even if he wasn’t a perfect hit every time, he hit solid and true.

Jin Ling didn’t know just why his heart was unsteady, but clearly it was given he couldn’t even get an arrow to fly straight tonight and he was quickly becoming too frustrated to keep trying. One deer, that was all he wanted! One deer to take home to ma-ma, was that too much to ask for?

Tonight it seemed, as a sixth arrow veered frustratingly left and startled the buck into a swift retreat, it was.

He didn’t throw down his bow in childish fury, but it was a near thing. As it was, he still had to snap it over his back so he didn’t break it, as he had the last one in a fit of pique.

Remembering that only had his face burning in anger and embarrassment, a certain windy laugh in his ears. Mistress Moon, why do you make such a fuss! Mistress Moon, it’s just a name! Mistress Moon, keep scowling and you’ll become a miser before you’re grown!

He retrieved his arrow and set it firmly back in his quiver, shaking in anger as he looked out where the deer had disappeared to. A whole night of hunting and nothing to show for it? What kind of god was he that he couldn’t even do what he was the patron of?

A wind tickled the nape of his neck, under his hunter’s braid, and he suddenly had his answer. Growling, Jin Ling realized the breeze had changed direction, which meant his scent was everywhere it shouldn’t, and it had very much not been a western-blowing wind at the start.

Jingyi,” he snapped, glaring out into the darkness. “You owe me a deer! And stew, since ma-ma won’t be making it tonight.”

Laughter buzzed over his cheek, a caress on jaw. He blushed to feel it, but just stuck his nose in the air, standing his ground. “Well?” he demanded of the breeze. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

A soft giggle echoed between the trees, swaying as the leaves swayed. It’d always been a beautiful sound, the shiver of the forest dancing in its slow, steady way, and he hated to admit he had Jingyi to thank for it, not that he ever would.

“Where are you?” he said when the wind god did not appear. Usually, by now, Jingyi would have dropped from a tree or rolled from under a bush, covered in leaves and cackling merrily. But tonight he was not there, only his voice carried in the winds, and only audible even then because Jin Ling knew how to listen for it.

“Jingyi!” he huffed, hands on his hips, but still only the breeze answered him. He sighed in defeat, wondering why he felt a coil of disappointment, before turning into the curling air and focusing on what he could hear.

It was like music in many ways, how Jingyi made the winds move. They whistled and sang and laughed, always joyous, always full of trouble. At least in Jin Ling’s domain. He wondered, suddenly, if it was only he that Jingyi bothered this way and a warmth spread through his chest at the thought.

“If you wont come to me, then I’ll come to you,” he muttered and closed his eyes to concentrate. Laughter, sweet and full, raced over his ears, and below it was a far more tender sound, the sound of singing, lovely and low. Jin Ling blushed when he realized what song it was, a mortal’s song that Jingyi had taken a shine to. It had nothing to do with the winds, but just of love, and Jin Ling had teased him endlessly for it.

Now, eyes still closed and following the breeze, he swallowed and sang along, reaching out into the darkness.

“I want to be your love for ever and ever, without break or decay…”

“When the hills are all flat, and the rivers are all dry.” A hand, warm and smooth, slid up his palm and matched their fingers. He knew the wind god was smiling even before he opened his eyes.

Jingyi was… radiant, was the only word for it that came to mind. For once, his hair was set loose from its top knot and swayed about his cheeks and under his jaw, framing the sweet grin on his laughing lips. All in white and lit by the moon, he downright glowed and Jin Ling hadn’t even realized he’d stopped breathing until the wind slowly died.

“So, you found me,” Jingyi said, voice hinting at his usual teasing register, but it was too soft tonight, too honest, and he slowly lowered his hand.

Jin Ling’s palm tingled and he fisted it to preserve the warmth there. “I’m surprised you weren’t up a tree to better enjoy your handiwork,” he scoffed, wondering why this felt different, this familiar argument with his friend. “You owe me a buck. Ma-ma wanted to make stew.”

“I found you a buck,” Jingyi said, which explained way too much, even before Jingyi stepped aside and he saw the dead creature laying peacefully in the grass. “It passed on not too long ago and I know you dislike taking more than you need.”

Jin Ling approached the fallen deer with a breath of thanks, sensing its age and easy death. He touched the neck and breathed out slow, feeling the life it’d lived, how long and fruitful.

Jingyi was singing again, the same love song, and Jin Ling snorted to hear it as he pulled the buck’s head into his lap. “When it thunders in winter, when it snows in summer, when heaven and earth mingle… not till then will I part from you.”

Glowing in the light of the moon, Jin Ling sent his spiritual energy into the creature and felt its soul return, vibrant and new and young again. An old buck no more, it lifted its head and stared at him a moment, before finding its feet and bounding away.

“…do I still owe you a buck?” Jingyi asked, head tilted but smile sweet.

“Not tonight,” Jin Ling told him, watching where the buck had gone before looking to Jingyi. Jingyi, who laughed, a lovely sound, and the wind picked up around them again just to dance and press against him, like a hug, a joyous warmth.

Jin Ling felt himself smile in return, even when the teasing started up again. Heartbeat loud in his ears, he brushed it all off as he always did, but found himself oddly caught in Jingyi’s glow.

There were worse things, he supposed, than not going home with promised food. And he knew, even if he didn’t understand how, that tonight was the start of something more important than a lost meal, and when Jingyi’s wind tugged him along, laughter and leaves and alight with moonshine, Jin Ling finally understood why his heart was a mess, and wondered what it all meant, that it could beat so fiercely, and for Jingyi.

Chapter Text

“Ready to lose?” Jin Ling asked as he strapped on his arm brace. Lacing it with his free hand and teeth, he let his eyes drift over the crowd of spectators, already more than necessary for a simple sparring match, but he couldn’t help but puff up in pride seeing how many they could draw on just word of mouth. Last second and unplanned, nonetheless his forest was teeming with gods of all roles and power levels, from children to the aged and ageless.

Of course, only one in the crowd really mattered and grinned at him, waving. Jin Ling felt his cheeks heat, but waved back, and did his best not to strut too much as he moved back towards the firing line.

Jin Rusong was still pulling his left arm free of his hanfu and tying it away on his waist, the way Jin Ling’s was, in the traditional sparring style. Jin Ling huffed at him that he wasn’t hurrying, but rather making kissing noises to his pet demon of a swan, who hissed at Jin Ling in response.

“Stop making doe eyes at your pet,” he admonished, a familiar jab between them. As such, his fellow godling only laughed, good-natured, and let Jin Ling tie on his brace without fuss.

“He just wants to give me a kiss,” Jin Rusong argued and honestly sounded like he meant it.

“One, you don’t know if it’s actually a he,” Jin Ling pinched his cousin’s nose, making him laugh harder. “And two, that demon is more liable to take your face off than kiss you.”

“You’re just jealous,” Jin Rusong said and moved off the moment the brace was tied to make good on that. He cupped the swan’s face and kissed its beak, and amazingly the huge bird made happy noises in return. It still glared daggers at Jin Ling though, because it was still a demon, and Jin Ling glared right back.

If that creature thought this display was making him jealous, it had another thing coming. And as his eyes cut across to the stands, to the spark of white and wind laughing at the center of it all, he threw down the proverbial guantlet to the damned thing, as it were.

Challenge absolutely accepted.

Without thought or care of who was watching, Jin Ling marched himself right up to the stands, hopped over the barricade that had been magicked up, and up the steps to Jingyi, who blinked in surprise, but melted to him quick enough.

“Did you fire your arrow so badly that we all missed it, Mistress Moon?” Jingyi asked, the tease easy on his mouth, and Jin Ling huffed before plopping himself right down on his lap. Jingyi made an oath of surprise, but caught him easily, and looked up at him in confusion, but also amusement, and a bit of heat.

Jin Ling rewarded him by putting his arm around his shoulders, drawing them even closer, and looked down at him as though they were the only two in all the world.

“Dear Mistress Moon, you have the look of someone about to win a bet,” Jingyi grinned, knowing his own smirk far too well, and laughed easily enough even as Jin Ling squished himself even closer. “You do realize you are making quite the scene?”

“I don’t care.” And to his surprise, he realized he didn’t. Even with an audience, even with Jin Rusong laughing, or a demon bird biting him, or even his parents, who were watching and didn’t know… all that mattered was this, Jingyi and him, and he pouted his lips in anticipation, flushed with want and the victory to come. “I will win and I will win for you.”

Jingyi turned slightly pink, but his smile grew tenfold. How it didn’t fall right off his face was nothing short of a miracle. “That’ll get you a kiss, I hope you know. For luck, of course.”

“Of course,” Jin Ling agreed and closed his eyes, already grinning before their lips met, too silly to be proper, too wide and laughing to meet only once. Having to leave that laughing mouth was harder than it ought to be, but he had a duel to win and a wind god to win it for.

And even if he didn’t, he still had his kiss and a smile and a heart that matched his own. Which meant everything.

If he lost today, he’d already won. And no demon swan biting him in the backside could alter that, though it certainly would make victory sweeter.

Chapter Text

It is, of course, Nie Huaisang that figures it out first. At this point, Lan Xichen is more than a little convinced the young lord is far more clever than he lets on.

Case in point: Huaisang has sat thinking from the moment their new bodyguard showed up - Wanyin, he’d said, voice crisp and flat in a dare for these pretty lords to question his lack of family name - and occasionally staring hard at said Wanyin, mouth moving in silent words behind his fluttering fan, eyes narrowed on the violet sword on his belt, as well as the chime of bells that seemed to echo with his every step.

When it happens, it’s only been half a day at most and they are collecting water for the horses. Lan Xichen moves to make a quiet remark to his companion, only to find Huaisang is no longer at his side. He is, in fact, striding over to their rather terrifying Wanyin, gaze soft and wondering, scared and hopeful.

“Jiang-xiong?”

The world seems to stop at that, even though it’s merely the three of them caught in that name. Wanyin glares and for a moment Lan Xichen is sure he’s about to strike Huaisang down, lord or not, but as he quickly moves to intervene, he realizes what he took as fury-anger, is more like… confusion?

Dark eyes dart over Huaisang, from the stone color of his robes to the braids in his hair, but there is no recognition. With a desperate look, Huaisang snaps his fan shut and smacks it over the man’s forehead with a resounding thwack. Lan Xichen can’t even react, or step between them, before Wanyin’s quick temper immediately dissolves into wide-eyed shock.

“Nie-xiong?” Wanyin asks back, haltingly, and Huaisang promptly laughs in relief, but it’s a very broken thing. Lan Xichen can’t blame him for his tears. He feels much the same.

He remembers the Jiang Clan, how it had been besieged by the Wen Clan for daring to speak out and stand tall. It was still nothing more than ashes, the lotus lakes overgrown. It was considered a haunted place, where none had survived, so toxic with death’s miasma all other clans had left it be, like a tomb, or a burial ground.

Lan Xichen wishes, most fervently, that now he’d gone through the rubble regardless. He’d been just a teenager at the time, the heirs of Jiang Clan even younger. None had believed children could escape the Wen Clan’s fury, but somehow…

“Oh gods,” Huaisang babbles, tears and laughter, and Wanyin looks slightly panicked, shushing him quickly after glancing around. It doesn’t do much, only makes Huaisang sob softer. “Jiang-xiong, Jiang-xiong, how are you alive?

“It isn’t a kindness to be alive,” Wanyin says to that, voice hushed and solid stone. Lan Xichen feels it like a slap to the face. Even Huaisang takes a step back, eyes wide. “And in all regards, I am not. Jiang Cheng died long ago with the rest of his family.”

“No one else?” Lan Xichen asks, afraid of the answer, and feels his insides turn cold at the look he’s leveled with.

“My brother and sister,” Wanyin allows, uncertain a moment before he hardens all over again, chin in the air. “But we are no longer Jiang. So stop looking at me like that, Zewu-jun. And keep this to yourselves. My family’s been through enough pain. Don’t add to it.”

“Jiang-xiong…” Huaisang can’t seem to say anything else at this point, but Wanyin is already turning away.

“You’re the lords, I’m the sellsword. Don’t make this complicated.”

Lan Xichen bites his tongue, wanting to say so much, even though no words come to mind. Watching Wanyin stalk off is like losing the Jiang all over again. Watching him walk away from any hope is more painful a feeling than he’s ever known.

“What do we do?” Huaisang looks up at him, tears in his eyes but something determined on his face. Lan Xichen wishes he had a better answer.

“What can we do?”

Chapter Text

In the weeks that Jiang Cheng had been forced to remain with the odd Lan tigers, he couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that they were all slightly crazy. Meditation instead of naps, which was appalling. No hunting, only fishing, which was fine in some aspects - Jiang Cheng was a great fisherman, after all, so he could respect that skill - but refraining from any other meat? How could they eat fish daily and not go mad?

They didn’t play, they didn’t run around. They were the most zen tigers Jiang Cheng had ever been around, and given he was one of their own kind - albeit not the snowy white of their hide - it was off-putting to say the least. He was used to open affection, rough housing, hunting with his family. He was used to being loud and hard work, not the often silent and delicate past times that carried the Lan through the day to day.

Ridiculous, the lot of them, though Jiang Cheng found himself almost fond of the odd shifters. He’d been taught to respect the traditions of all his neighbors, no matter how strange, because if it was strange to him, his own way of life was just as strange - if not stranger - to them in turn. But respect or not, it was not the adults that drew him in first. It was the cubs.

Perhaps it said too much about himself that he got along better with the kids. Definitely said enough about the company he was used to (looking at you, Wei Wuxian). They still were too quiet, too tame, but the childish delight and curiosity seemed universal. By the second week, when he’d ignored his bed rest orders to venture to a stream and fish, he’d been adopted by a gaggle of wide-eyed cubs and become something of a fishing god to them in the hours he was down there. Now, he could hardly venture anywhere outside without at least a dozen curious chirps following in his wake. Damn his cute nephew for making him so soft. One look at their eager faces and he was helpless to resist.

And it was hardly better, worse even, when it came to Lan Xichen.

He’d saved Jiang Cheng’s life, to start, and that was the beginning of all his problems. Because Lan Xichen was perfection personified in all respects. He was kind and gentle and far too understanding. But his body language was all wrong for what Jiang Cheng knew as tiger (and even in their human forms he was lost in trying to read the man), utterly foreign and reserved. Jiang Cheng always felt out of step with the other whenever they walked together in Lan Xichen’s private gardens, testing his healing wounds. He knew how his family showed gratitude, but had no idea how it was shown in Lan Xichen’s world. And just saying the words thank you didn’t seem adequate.

Because of Lan Xichen, he could see his family again. Because of Lan Xichen, he had a second chance to live. It was no small thing and Jiang Cheng practically buzzed with all the things he wanted to do to show it, but couldn’t, or didn’t know how to.

He caved three weeks in, when his back leg finally bore his full weight with only a limp to showcase it’d been broken. Jiang Cheng felt the relief so heady, a rush of joy that he could actually go home, that the weeks of bed rest and pain were worth it, and just… bumped his head to Lan Xichen’s in thanks. It was all he could do, what he would do with his sister, or brother, or any member of the Jiang clan, and an appreciation of cultures went both ways, right? Surely Lan Xichen would understand that.

Forehead to forehead, a gentle press. There and done. He felt immediately better and moved off again, pleased with his progress in healing, and had made it nearly five steps before he realized his error.

Lan Xichen was blinking at him rapidly, looking stunned, like Jiang Cheng had swatted him, not bumped him in thanks. Jiang Cheng stopped in turn, turned, and tilted his head in question, not understanding such a reaction.

Was it really so strange what he’d done? “What’s wrong?” he asked, a drip of panic kicking up his heart rate.

“You just…” Lan Xichen shook himself off, but still had a rather dazed expression. “What was that?”

“What?” Jiang Cheng’s ears went back and his tail tucked in, uncertain now, and knew he’d greatly miscalculated. “I… I messed up, didn’t I?”

“No, no!” Lan Xichen, far too good for anyone to deserve, quickly trotted over with a sweet face, but kept that usual distance between them that was his own normal. Jiang Cheng did his best not to panic further, seeing that. “Sorry, you caught me off guard. Just because that is not what I am used to doesn’t mean it’s a wrong thing. You were just saying thank you, weren’t you?”

Jiang Cheng nodded, ready to run away at the slightest provocation, and Lan Xichen chuffed a little, eyes crinkled into squinty half moons. Fuck, but that did things to his heart. Shit. 

And then, hesitantly, Lan Xichen stepped in and… bumped him back. Forehead to forehead, a gentle press. There and done, though Jiang Cheng could not help but shiver to feel it. For some reason, Lan Xichen made it feel far more significant than a familiar motion and he didn’t understand why Lan Xichen looked so tender in doing so, like he too was taking more from this show of affection than it really merited.

The thought he’d just missed something crucial was starting to itch at the base of his tail. It curled immediately.

“You’re welcome, Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Xichen told him, voice soft and low and terribly sweet. Jiang Cheng blinked at him, slower than he’d meant, and got a smile from the white tiger for it that made him want to melt where he stood.

Who knew falling from a waterfall trying to save a cub would lead him to such a place and to a proper angel? Jiang Cheng licked his lips, unsure how much he could push, or what he was missing, but returned the nudge all the same.

One thing was for certain, he thought, helpless to the way Lan Xichen’s smile was turning his insides to mush. Wei Wuxian could never know about this. Ever.

Chapter Text

It was almost hard to believe that a year ago, Jiang Cheng had felt odd in the midst of all the Lan tigers, their simple ways and not-so tiger behaviors. Now, he knew he had his place, even if that place involved being a general menace and teaching the cubs how to properly roughhouse and fish in between their more stoic teachers and lessons.

The best place of all, however, were Lan Xichen’s gardens, under the persimmon tree. There was enough space for to sprawl under it and he’d convinced his mate on more than one occasion to waste an afternoon beneath it, moving with the shade, or rolling in the grass at the roots, napping and grooming and just laying together, curled up, in bliss.

Well, techically, Jiang Cheng was the only one curled up. Lan Xichen, once Jiang Cheng had opened the floodgates of affection between them, had proved himself a flopper, and a sprawler, and generally anything that wasn’t dignified when it was just the two of them. He loved how ridiculous it all was. Loved Lan Xichen.

Even if it meant a heavy weight over his back and a lazy grooming session that was putting Lan Xichen more to sleep than Jiang Cheng, and he was the one doing the grooming. Seeing those half mooned eyes, the slow blinking, the happy purring… it was worth being squished down or getting a paw to the face every once in awhile.

Because here, Lan Xichen was just himself, and he was sweet and funny and liked being active. He’d taken to the Jiang’s style of affection like a flower opening to the sun and bloomed beautifully by the day.

Now Jiang Cheng was usually the one being head bumped, or purred at, or convinced into a race. Jiang Cheng understood it, the need to let loose to the one that mattered to him the most, and being heads of their clans only gave them that much more energy they had to force away.

Today, they were wasting time in the sun, away from all duties, from demanding cubs and grossly in love brothers. Today it was just them and their persimmon tree, Jiang Cheng curled up in the sun and Lan Xichen half folded over him, sighing every so often in contentment.

“Take me to Lotus Pier again?” Lan Xichen asked when he realized Jiang Cheng was still blinking and not fully asleep yet. He slid his chin over Jiang Cheng’s shoulders and down his scruff, too lazy to lift away proper and resettle. “I think i want some seeds.”

“To eat?” Jiang Cheng yawned and turned his face into Lan Xichen’s, softly nuzzling and licking at a spot under the tiger’s eye.

“To plant,” Lan Xichen puddled instantly, smashing his face into Jiang Cheng’s too closely for the kisses to continue, making him laugh. “I’m serious, I want a lotus pond here, so when you come here you have a bit of home with you.”

“I already do,” Jiang Cheng reminded him, and nudged his forehead to his mate’s, an echo of that very first touch, in the very same place. “You are a piece of home, A-Huan.”

A smile, sweet and full of sunlight. “And you are my home as well, Wanyin.”

He was nudged for that, all the way over, and Lan Xichen went rolling, laughing his boyish laugh, especially as Jiang Cheng took a page from his book and flopped over him.

“I’ll make you a lotus pond,” he promised, their noses brushing. “So you don’t miss me too much.”

Lan Xichen shifted just to kiss his snout and scratch his ears, making his eyes go squinty in pleasure and rattle with purrs.

“It’s hard not to miss my heart when it’s gone,” he said, arms folding around Jiang Cheng’s scruff, “but thank you.”

Chapter Text

“Don’t think I don’t know what you were doing,” Mingjue gruffed at him as they retired for the night. It wasn’t every day his mate remained in his lynx form and he was clearly as unhappy about it as ever. A meeting of all the clans always had him grumpy.

Because he was strong and capable and wise, good to his people and family, but in a den of other huge cats, he was looked down on for his size. Literally.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Meng Yao told him, all innocence, though he knew exactly what Mingjue was huffy about. He hadn’t left his mate’s side all day, for one, and every time he noticed others starting to look too amused, he’d moved them on, always between the laughing faces and Mingjue.

He’d thought he’d been sneaky about it, too. But Mingjue had always known him far too well.

That didn’t mean he was going to admit it easily.

“A-Yao.”

“I think the hunt went well this year,” Meng Yao mused, like that was the topic of their conversation all along. He pushed into the large cave that had been set aside for them and immediately made his way to the bedding, fluffing it up with his paws. “My father certainly swallowed on his own words seeing the size of the elk you took down.”

We took it down,” Mingjue corrected, joining him at the cushions. Still in lynx form, an event. He smashed his large paw over Meng Yao’s, halting him from fluffing. “And stop it. I know what you’re doing. What you were doing, too.”

Meng Yao sighed at him. “Is it really so bad I wanted you to enjoy the Conference for once?”

“At the expense of yourself?” Mingjue demanded, because of course he’d picked up on that, the leers, and staring. If Mingjue was looked down on for his size, it was even worse for a bastard son like Meng Yao, who was small for his kind but still bigger than his mate, hilariously so.

“I wanted them to take you seriously,” Meng Yao defended, refusing to apologize for it.

“By making them laugh at you instead?”

“Yes,” Meng Yao said, curt, and flopped unceremoniously over the bedding, quite done with all of it. He’d been sneered at since he was born, but it’d never got easier to deal with. He’d only gotten more convincing with his smiles.

Not convincing enough for his mate, who amazingly hopped over him and slid under his front legs, a low rattle in his body. Purring and still a lynx, would wonders never cease.

“Next time someone laughs, let me rip off their noses,” Mingjue threatened, because of course he would. “You are my mate and worthy of respect, not to mention the smartest person in the hunt this year. I will not tolerate anyone putting you down for something you had no control over.”

Meng Yao carefully pulled Mingjue in until they were squished together and his mate was perfectly caught in the circle of his body and paws. When they were human, it was little different, holding Mingjue through the night. He was selfish by his very nature and Mingjue made him the most selfish of all. He’d never let him go, either, if he could help it. As long as Mingjue wanted him, anyway.

“I will not apologize,” he warned, already drifting off with the familiar weight of Mingjue against his chest.

“Nor will I when I cause a diplomatic incident tomorrow,” Mingjue purred, pleased with himself, and Meng Yao laughed to witness his husband look so wicked.

Diplomatic incidents were headaches, but honestly? He couldn’t wait to see it.

Chapter Text

Nie Huaisang had woken up covered in roses, which was an altogether better outcome than he could’ve hoped for. Like many things in this blur of a weekend, he blamed Wei Ying fully for supplying the alcohol and full house, and for letting Nie Huaisang drink himself into a drunken blackout with so many cameras around.

The fact his drink-ruddy face was not in the society page was a near miracle. What had made it in was a picture of him sleeping, passed out in a dramatic slump like he was posing with a bunch of roses tucked in carefully around him. Artful, deliberate. A canvas was sat up and the bare edge of what was probably some art student drawing him, but it was cut off by the angle. Frustrating, that.

Still, he wasn’t Nie Huaisang, rising fashion model and gossip columnist, for no reason. Once he had a good two coffees in him - black with sweet cream, because Jiang Cheng was a merciful god unlike his unholy demon of a brother, who Nie Huaisang was going to blame until this whole debacle aired out - he set to work figuring out just who that mysterious artist was, and why they’d decided to throw roses over his sleeping body.

The first route was a simple one: the artist had drawn him for a claim to fame. It wasn’t as easy as snapping a photo, for certain, but if the artist was good enough, a painter maybe, then he could make a fortune selling such a thing to Nie Huaisang’s… admirers.

But as a week passed, then another, no paintings blipped on his radar. Wei Ying laughed that he was being too paranoid. Jiang Cheng insisted he wasn’t being paranoid enough. Elder Brother just rolled his eyes and told him to go look for himself, for once, and find his own answers. So he did, feeling oddly vulnerable as he walked the art buildings with more confusion than interest hoping for something. Anything. Until finally, a month later, he found what he was looking for.

Well, sort of.

Dionysus asleep in a bed of roses, it was titled. He knew the pose from the tabloid, but otherwise it wasn’t him lying there, beautifully rendered in acrylic. It was a masterpiece of colors, if a bit amateur in some of the details, but Nie Huaisang found himself studying it closer regardless. It was a gorgeous piece, even if he was getting an odd sense the artist only used paint because it was for the project, and that brought his attention snapping to the name listed in the corner.

Artist: Mo Xuanyu.

He tilted his head, considering that. He knew a Mo family and kept a wide berth from them, as most who knew them did. They weren’t rich, but they weren’t poor. Utterly unremarkable save for their perchance for general meanness and turning their noses up at everyone. If this was a Mo from that family, surely they’d have just snapped a picture of him and sold it.

But this… this had taken time. This had taken love. This Mo Xuanyu had taken a chance to paint him and had made it into someone else… all for a grade?

He told himself he wasn’t disappointed by that. Or by the fact his face was not the one up there. It was still a nice painting, one he wouldn’t mind putting in his apartment, if push came to shove, and he decided that he would, if only for the laughs his friends would give him knowing he was the muse to such a piece of beauty.

The teacher looked perplexed at his request to buy the painting, which got him what he’d wanted all along: Mo Xuanyu’s dorm area. (He wanted the cell number, but that was a breach of too much privacy and the teacher knew it, which, good for her.)

Now, here he was, standing in the lobby of the smallest dorm on campus, a near dozen art students staring at him like some kind of Greek God, wide eyed and startled.

“I’m looking for Mo Xuanyu,” he said, chin high, and all the faces turned to the one that had looked the most startled of all of them. He was a lovely man, slender, with delicate hands, and nervously raised one to signal Nie Huaisang over to him.

“This is about the roses,” was the first proper sentence stuttered from Mo Xuanyu when they were alone in the corner. “I’m sorry, I panicked. I saw someone with a camera and I didn’t want them to make fun of you.”

Nie Huaisang blinked at that, reading the open, scared honesty easily enough in the man’s face. He was slightly taller, but definitely younger, and had a charming ink stain on his chin. His eyes were dark, too, like pools of ink newly wetted and lined in red kohl. Nie Huaisang had to shake himself a little when he realized he was staring.

“So you drew me instead?” He knew he sounded incredulous, but was rewarded with a contrite look and wringing hands.

“I’m sorry,” Mo Xuanyu told him. “I had a project due and my model couldn’t make it to our session… and I just - you were perfectly posed!”

Nie Huaisang had not been ready for the honesty, but it was nothing compared to the earnest awe he was getting now. “I saw the roses in a vase and put them around you, like you were modeling for me and had just fallen asleep. Everyone was too busy laughing at me to take pictures of you.”

“You could have taken a picture, made a small fortune,” Nie Huaisang pointed out, carefully controlling his voice back. Mo Xuanyu was looking at him like he was something wondrous, beautiful and lovely, and it had nothing to do with his celebrity status, but how he’d passed out?

“I don’t need a small fortune,” Mo Xuanyu told him, a tad desperate now. “I know you don’t believe me, and I’m sorry. I was planning on taking the painting down the moment the next one was done and throwing it out -”

“Absolutely not.” Nie Haisang cut across with such force Mo Xuanyu actually stepped back. He forced himself to calm down, but it was hard. Throw out such a masterpiece? Was he insane? “How can I buy it from you if it’s covered in dumpster shit?”

His demand had Mo Xuanyu blinking owlishly at him, then total confusion flickered over his face. Nie Huaisang felt a dawning horror to see it. Surely, this talented man didn’t think his painting was worth trash? Surely -

“Why would you want to buy it? I barely got an A on it,” Mo Xuanyu told him, as though to assure him of its worthlessness. So he was hopeless then, gods. “And paint is not my usual medium, so it’s terribly flawed.”

“Every piece of art is flawed,” Nie Huaisang told him, no nonsense, and went for his wallet. “Trust me on that. I’m the most flawed piece of art around.”

“I doubt that very much,” Mo Xuanyu told him, breathless and earnest and almost too quiet for Nie Huaisang to hear. It was his turn to stare at the man owlishly and match the man’s blush with his own.

“Oh, um, thank you.” Nie Huaisang wanted to kick himself for such a lame answer and drew out a couple large bills from his billfold with far more grace. “Will this be enough for a down payment?”

The man’s blush worsened, a very fetching color on his lighter skin. He needed more sun. “Too much.”

“Not enough,” Nie Huaisang decided to answer that in pure challenge and went for another bill. He was stopped with those slender fingers wrapping about his wrist and grinned in victory, even when Mo Xuanyu flinched away in apology. “This is enough, then?”

“It… it is,” Mo Xuanyu told him, weak and dazed, but did not reach for the money. With a huff, Nie Huaisang folded them and stepped in to tuck them into the pocket of the man’s jacket. Instantly, he smelled a faint perfume, which shouldn’t have worked for on a man, but oddly it made him smell… holy shit, was that honey?

“I think I need your number,” Nie Huaisang said, bolder than he felt, and met Mo Xuanyu’s wide eyes squarely. “So you can call me when the painting is ready to be moved.”

“I… yes, of course.”

“And so I can call to ask when you’re free for dinner too,” Nie Huaisang added, almost in afterthought, and watched a shy smile slowly overtake Mo Xuanyu’s face. It was just as lovely as the rest of him, how intriguing. “If you want.”

“Of - of course,” Mo Xuanyu told him, pulling a Sharpie out of his pocket and writing his number on the inside of Nie Huaisang’s wrist. He told himself his skin wasn’t tingling, but it really was, and instantly warmed by the heat coming off Mo Xuanyu’s palm. “And I’m free right now if you want to make it a lunch instead, no call required.”

Nie Huaisang bit his lip to keep down a wild grin. More and more interesting, he hadn’t met a man this genuinely sweet in years. “Lunch it is.”

Chapter Text

For all Nie Huaisang hated walking the dreary landscape of the under realms, he had never been more grateful that Jiang Cheng had been the one put in charge of it all. For all his grumblings, he was truly the most qualified of all of them to run the place smoothly. He was fair, honest, and just, but more importantly he was a friend. And Nie Huaisang needed a friend right then.

“You know why I’m here,” he said, voice in it’s most dangerous level. He was still seething from all he’d learned - from the soul pouch brother Xichen had had to carefully ease out of his hands, from the sight of blood, so much blood and the twisted remains -

Jiang Cheng watched him steadily from behind his desk. It was a credit to their friendship that this meeting was here and not his impersonal throne room. Impressive as it was, it generally heralded nothing good. Jiang Cheng, he knew, resorted to meeting people in that room just to say no to them, with the full display of his power behind him so no one would argue his final judgement. To be met here instead, where he was most often, most comfortable, with a fire in the brazier and flower petals still littering just about everything, meant the answer stood at a solid maybe ready to be convinced into a total yes.

Nie Huaisang felt hope that this debacle could be salvaged. It had to be fixed, could be fixed. Immediately.

“Of course, Nie-xiong,” Jiang Cheng said, calm as ever, and dipped his quill with careful precision. There were lotus forming a flower crown around his head, his husband’s work no doubt and a sign that he had brother Xichen’s support in this as well. He tried to relax into that knowledge, even if the deed was not yet done. Not by a long shot. “You want him back.”

It was easily said, but Nie Huaisang knew it for the challenge it truly was. Because of course Jiang Cheng was protective of every spirit that entered his hall and given the state Mo Xuanyu must have been in when he entered…

He swallowed down the bile and anger that thought churned up. “He’s my husband.”

By choice, by new and still shy desire. They were bound in laughter, in wanting, in friendship. In love, still blooming into something he had never known. And could possibly never know, should he fail here.

Jiang Cheng tsked at his answer, disapproval clear. “Death parts the legal bindings. He is not yours to own, Nie-xiong.”

A reprimand with the glare to match. Nie Huaisang blanched, feeling the ages-old urge to hide behind his fan. He clasped his hands behind his back so he would not reach for it. He would not hide. Not for Mo Xuanyu. Not for his husband.

“He owns me,” Nie Huaisang countered, because it was true enough. “I’ll have no one else.”

Raised eyebrows now, surprise. Jiang Cheng took that in quietly and scratched in a note on the paper before him. A few petals that had been carefully brushed to the side fluttered back over his hand, curling around his fingers. He let them.

“Your love is new, but true. You don’t have to convince me of it,” Jiang Cheng told him, eyes sharp and absolute in that. “But the fact remains that he took his own life to save yours. How can you guarantee that we will not be having this conversation again? Because I will only say yes to you once.”

That was a very real threat, he knew, and bowed his head low in respect to show he understood Death’s terms. “The Golden King was wrong to try me,” Nie Huaisang said, voice dripping with venom. It felt poisonous and too thick on his tongue. Gods, but he only wanted a peaceful life to explore love and laughter with the man he was falling in love with. The man who’d crossed into the unknown on the whim of chance, saying yes to a crazy plan to wed, and stayed true. The man who’d known only pain and suffering, who looked at Nie Huaisang and smiled, like he was a wonder, a blessing, a gift

Jin Guangshan was very wrong indeed to ruin that happy beginning before it had had a chance to gain traction. Clearly, he had underestimated Nie Huaisang’s desire for peace and joy and had greatly misjudged his devotion and love for his bastard son.

“The man responsible for forcing my husband’s actions is dead.” And what a relief, too. Xue Yang was a special kind of mortal, one that could chill the heart of any god that he came across. “And the one responsible for hiring him will be dealt with.”

“The Golden King isn’t simply ‘dealt with’,” Jiang Cheng pointed out, but not condescendingly so. Of the very, very few who understood Nie Huaisang’s sharp, vengeful intellect, Jiang Cheng was one, and one who understood him best. “You may just start a war, if not an entire revolution. Is your marriage worth that?”

“Mo Xuanyu is worth war, treason, and the upheaval of my life. I would give my own immortality for one lifetime by his side.” Nie Huaisang stood tall, proud, like his brother had always nagged him to, and stared Death down flat. “He is worth everything to me. I am his. He is mine. And if you cannot give him back, then I will join him here.”

Silence fell at that, heavy and meaningful. Jiang Cheng’s quill had stopped scratching at the paper long into that declaration and slowly, oh so slowly, returned to the inkwell.

“You do not have to convince me,” Jiang Cheng told him after a tense moment of contemplation. “It is his choice. Should he agree, he will return to you, fully restored.”

Nie Huaisang felt tears prick his eyes and he blinked them forcibly away. So, it was a yes from the gatekeeper of the afterlife, but now he was faced with another test, the most important one of his life. “And I will obey his wishes.”

“As you should,” Jiang Cheng said and waved a hand, drawing back a curtain and showcasing a frosted mirror that reflected nothing of the room around them, only a dark nothingness. “He let Xue Yang pull his godly essence from his body and killed himself on command so you would be spared from whatever the Golden King concocted to scare him. As such, his soul is still lost. You must call him here, though he has every right to refuse you, lost or not. If he doesn’t come by the third time you call, then there’s nothing I can do. Understand?”

He gave a jerky nod and stepped towards the mirror, courage failing as he stared into the void and it stared right back. “Thank you, Jiang-xiong,” he whispered, then closed his eyes to call his husband back to him. “Mo Xuanyu?”

He felt his hope die as silence prevailed. He licked his lips and lost the fight against a rebellious sting of tears.

“Xuanyu?” he forced himself to call again. The slight altering meant so much trust and faith and love. He hoped it echoed in his voice. “Can you hear me?”

Nothing. Nie Huaisang stepped back and trembled. “Xuanyu,” he said for the final time, and it felt like goodbye, like finality, and his voice was barely there, choked and raw and heavy. When only quiet reached him he began to turn away, heart threatening to break, only for his hand to be caught by chilly fingers, desperate and thin and so very beloved.

“A-Sang.”

Chapter Text

He’d been wooed with flowers. Standing here, now, at the end of courtship and on the start of his new, married life, Nie Huaisang still wondered why that had mattered so much, in the end.

For their kind - and the Nie in particular - courtship was an extensive show of bringing down kills to present, or rolls of hides as gifts. It was about showcasing one’s mastery of the hunt and ability to provide for their prospective mate. Centuries of tradition, never broken, and even Nie Huaisang, for all his distaste of the rituals, could not deny it was how things were done, and had expected whoever wished to court him would follow that perimeter.

Mo Xuanyu had not. He’d brought him roses, lilies, chrysanthemums. He’d brought him plant bulbs and seeds for his gardens. Potted peonies for his rooms. A hanging basket of daisies happily flourishing in his aviary.

It should not have worked, all things considered, not to a Nie. But it had, because those flowers, against so much expectation, had showed more thought and care than a simple kill ever could. It’d spoken to his heart, a gentle reminder that someone cared, thought him worth courting, all without wishing for an answer in return.

When the Mo family had forced Mo Xuanyu to stop, Nie Huaisang had felt the absence of those flowers like one would miss a limb. He couldn’t explain why, even now, such a visceral reaction, but he had, and the rage that had carried him to Madam Mo’s parlor to demand Mo Xuanyu returned from his punishment still simmered on the memory.

He’d won Mo Xuanyu’s freedom by laying claim to him as a mate, a claim happily answered in that charged moment of time. Flushed with victory, Huaisang hadn’t thought more of it, what it truly meant to take this abused man under his care as his mate, but now it was all he could think about, how unprepared he was with another presence in his life, another plate at his table, another warmth in his bed.

His cheeks heated, thinking of that, and the depth of embarrassing despair he felt when he realized that he, for once, had no idea what he was doing. Tradition dictated Mo Xuanyu’s place under his blankets, sharing his rooms and space, and Nie Huaisang could not argue how well he fit. A surprise, as he’d always been, but still a fit.

And that was the problem. Why he was losing sleep, thinking too much on it. Why he wished and wished for more, but did not know how to breach Mo Xuanyu’s very real need to heal on his own. How much was too much? How could he know?

The smell of soft cedar and chrysanthemum eased past his crowded mind, long before he heard the still mismatched limp and soft hands touching his shoulders. He forced himself to breathe in that sweet, heady smell and not dwell on the injury, which stirred up that rage so easily, even three weeks after the fact.

“Huaisang?” Mo Xuanyu sounded half asleep and far too worried. “Is something wrong?”

He wanted to kick himself when he turned and saw the very real fear in his husband’s dark eyes. Foolish to be angry when his own actions caused just as much pain, if of a different sort. Even if he hadn’t used his other form to shred Mo Xuanyu’s hide, or nearly break his hip, he was hurting him just the same, and he hated that his brain, for all its cleverness, was so slow to realize it.

Nie Huaisang quickly took his hands and squeezed them softly, smiling as sweetly as he could, and was relieved when Mo Xuanyu’s body slowly relaxed. “My mind is too busy to sleep, I fear,” he chuckled, because it was true enough, and looked over Mo Xuanyu with a far more critical eye. “Why are you awake? Are your injuries painful?”

The soft blush that spread over his husband’s face was endearing, if startling, to see. “Ah… no, I am well. You have been gone so long, I just worried…”

He trailed off awkwardly, obviously cutting off what remained of that thought. Nie Huaisang didn’t have to wonder very hard at what it was possibly what he wanted to say. Worried he had gotten tired of Mo Xuanyu already, was displeased? That fear was still deepening his eyes to open wells of pain and Nie Huaisang leaned down to kiss his hands and nuzzle into his wrists, hoping to wipe away that fear with surprise.

It worked, for the most part. “My mind doesn’t like to be quiet,” he smiled up at his husband, feeling his heart squeeze in his chest. “Sorry for worrying you. I’ll return to bed soon.”

Mo Xuanyu relaxed further, but did not look fully relieved. He bit his lip, uncertain, and took a steadying breath that Nie Huaisang could see.

“May I stay with you then, until you are ready to return?” It came out in a breathless rush, an anxious slew that spoke far too easily of his expectation of rejection.

Nie Huaisang blinked at him, surprised, but nodded all the same. “Aren’t you tired?” he asked, watching Mo Xuanyu fold himself awkwardly next to him. His hip was still badly bruised, making kneeling a painful affair, and Nie Huaisang had to wonder how this was better, sitting here in silence, than sleeping in a soft bed, and he softly told him as such, worried himself.

He got another blush, blotchy as it was, and shy eyes that refused to look at him. “I… it’s just…” Another worry to his lip, then a sigh of defeat. “When you sleep with me, when I’m in your arms… I feel… safe.”

And I’m not there, Huaisang’s mind unhelpfully tacked on, making him swallow as his own cheeks heated. “Forgive me then. Had I known, I would not have left.”

“I’m not that fragile,” Mo Xuanyu told him, a hint of that strength he had that had been buried so long in his words. Slowly, he met Huaisang’s eye and nodded once. “It’s true, Huaisang, that I still expect to wake up and find this all a dream. Seeing you gone was just a shock, is all.”

“I’ll wake you the next time,” Huaisang promised, wishing it wasn’t a regular occurrence, being up so late. He took Mo Xuanyu’s hands in his own once more and squeezed them pointedly. “So you never have to feel unsafe again.”

A soft smile spread across his husband’s face at that, and finally, finally, a true relief was there in his eyes, hesitant, but willing to trust. “Thank you.”

Chapter Text

Jingyi had almost been disappointed the first time he’d crossed paths with a proper wupo. The silver hair, golden eyes, the gleaming sword his carried… all things considered, Jin Rulan was formidable, looking the part and playing it well. He had an eerie focus, impressive skill, and fought like a wild thing. His knowledge of the world’s monsters was more detailed than the entire collection of the Lan Library and his drive to kill all monsters was admirable. He had scared many, many people as they’d crossed country, superstitious as they were, because Jin Rulan was scary, in looks and trade, but there it actually ended.

Because Jin Rulan was actually oddly funny, and naive about the world. All he knew was fighting and his war craft, his horse, and his weapons. He knew how to survive on his own, but around people? He was about as socialized to the people as the people were to him. Which was to say not at all. Not even a little.

He was handsome too, which no one seemed to notice. Shy in ways that proved people’s fear of him actually hurt. He had a temper at times and got protective of stupid things, such as one of billions of knives he carried, or the odd red mark he bore on his forehead, which he refused to explain.

He hated being touched, was confused by music, couldn’t dance without toppling. He was ridiculous, truly, and Jingyi was maybe a little in love with how hopeless he actually was.

He was practical, but not much else. He had skills, but no socialization. In many ways he was the wolf he was often compared to, wild and dangerous alone, but once thrown into civilization, little more than a stray dog avoided like a plague.

Well, more for Jingyi then. All the better.

“How’s this?” he asked, tapping a new beat onto his yaogu drum, grinning as he did so. “For his hair was stark as starlight…” 

“You already made a song about my hair,” Jin Rulan complained immediately from where he was grooming his horse, a formidable black and white painted creature that Jingyi was more afraid of than Jin Rulan himself. He’d yet to hear the horse’s name, but surely for a war stallion of the Ferghana breed, it had to be fearsome indeed! “Three, in fact.”

“Aw, and you said you hated my music,” Jingyi saw his opening and laughed when Jin Rulan glared and started grumbling under his breath. “Fine, then I won’t make another about your hair.” His fingers tapped on the drum, a quick little beat, and immediately he was inspired. Shizui would be so proud. Twenty-seven songs in a month, a new record! “Okay, then maybe one about your eyes?”

He didn’t get a response, which was rather typical, and Jingyi decided to take it as not a no. For about an hour he mused on different ways to describe Jin Rulan’s gorgeous eyes and managed a full melody set during that time. Three verses, four choruses, and a rather amazing hook about sunshine and peonies he was very proud of. Now all he had to do was get Jin Rulan to listen.

During all his musing and tapping out beats, Jin Rulan had kept up his muttering and Jingyi grinned, quickening his pace just to hear it. If he annoyed his wudo, then he stood a better chance of being heard once he had his attention. But what he heard had him pausing, because surely, surely that couldn’t be right.

“Maybe if we left him in a field somewhere, Fairy?” No, it was absolutely right. “Don’t look at me like that. He’s a shining beacon of loud and it’s a miracle all monsters within a mile radius haven’t come running.”

The horse tossed its head, snorting, and Jin Rulan looked immediately pained. Was he actually having an argument with his horse and losing?

“Fine, a tavern,” Jin Rulan bargained, only to be snorted at again. He very much was arguing and losing to a horse. Gods above, and just when Jingyi was sure his heart couldn’t love him any more! “I would give him coin, Fairy, come on.”

The great stallion - Fairy? Fairy?! - pinned him with a look then shook out its head and neck, making the golden bells on its bridle jingle merrily. Jin Rulan looked close to snapping, like that sound was his own war beast putting its foot down and not letting him leave Jingyi as warned. Which, maybe it was.

Ridiculous, ridiculous man!

“You named your horse, Fairy?!” Jingyi demanded, upset that such a creature had such a pathetic name. “Fairy!”

Jin Rulan flinched and immediately glared, golden eyes flashing. He’d gotten that into the song, thankfully. “What’s wrong with it,” he demanded right back, nose in the air. “It’s a dignified name!”

“It is not!” Jingyi laughed and shoved at Jin Rulan’s shoulder. He didn’t even budge, by the gods! “He’s a great, heavenly steed in service to a proper wudo! Give him a name like Painted Death, or Wicked Lightning!”

Fairy’s ears pricked towards him in interest and Jin Rulan looked further offended. “You said you liked my name for you,” he scoffed, this time to the horse, who just blinked. He threw his hands in the air. “Fine then, let him name you. Be his horse! I’ll find another who won’t mind my names.”

Jin Rulan was a beautiful man, cruelly so, even stomping away. Jingyi winked to the warhorse with a bold laugh as they both trotted after him. “Wait, Rulan! You haven’t heard my song yet!”

“I’ll shove it down your throat!” came the warning, more resigned than truly heated. So Jingyi, as always, did not heed him, and sang at the top of his lungs, wondering if it would, indeed, have monsters running for them. He’d just make another song out of that if so.

“Eyes of golden fire, delightful to behold~!”