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Disregarding Public Interest (or How Everyone Except Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng Knew They Were Together)

Chapter Text

As usual, it all began with that goddamned nephew of his.

Since Jin Ling had come into the position of clan leader following a succession of evil Jin tyrants, it only made sense for all that devil blood to rear up and bite Jiang Cheng in the arse when he was least expecting it.

Not only did his nephew propose that the sects resume their annual Discussion Conference where they could bring up the major concerns of the various sects, ‘seeking a common understanding’ and ‘working towards the betterment of the people’, he also suggested with the full approval of the Lan sect that the meeting could be held at Gusu Lan that year.

On Jiang Cheng’s part, he was fairly sure those were rules 804 and 2056 respectively that Jin Ling had blithely plagiarised in his invitation. He was even more certain that the entire farce had been orchestrated by his idiot nephew so that he would have a legitimate excuse to spend time with his best friends. God only knew how Jin Ling managed to persuade Hanguang-jun to go along with it, but Jiang Cheng had had the opportunity to meet Lan Sizhui once and he figured that that explained a great deal. On one memorable night hunt in Yunmeng, he had bumped into Lan Sizhui and that horrid Wen ghoul, and before he knew it, Jiang Cheng found himself cooking the kid dinner, offering him spare blankets, and packing him breakfast the next day. Stronger men than he had fallen, there was no shame in admitting that.

In any case, when it came to the Discussion Conference, Jiang Cheng would have laughed in anyone’s face back then if they had suggested in any way that the conference would turn out to be one of the most important events in his life.

It certainly hadn’t seemed that way when day one had already made him agitated enough to want to send his table flying across the room. His fists were itching to thrash the living hell of Sect Leader Yao for his snide insinuations that Yunmeng Jiang was leeching off the largesse of his nephew, but thankfully, Jiang Cheng had the presence of mind to storm out of the hall before Zidian awoke and made his murderous fantasies come to life. After thirteen long years, the weapon’s spirit energy and his had melded to the point where he had often woken up from nightmares to see violet energy crackling across his bedchamber, as though Zidian had sensed his unrest and was looking to banish the source of his unhappiness.

Unfortunately, storming off was only a good idea until you realised that you were stuck on a mountaintop with nothing but trees and rock every which way.

In Jiang Cheng’s defence, anyone in his position would also have pounced on the first helpful looking guide they came across.

‘TELL ME WHAT YOU KNOW!’ Jiang Cheng bellowed at the bewildered rabbits.

And that was how Lan Xichen first met Jiang Cheng after he entered seclusion.

 


 

If Lan Xichen had to think of a word to describe Jiang Cheng on that first meeting, it would undoubtedly be a word that few would think would fall from his lips.

Yet he could not deny that the young man’s somewhat unhinged expression, which was swiftly followed by the most transparent please-kill-me-now expression of mortification he had ever seen on anyone’s face, was the single most hilarious thing he had seen in the past year. Before he could stop himself, he burst out laughing, the laughter making his sides hurt and tears come into his eyes.

Jiang Cheng told him later that he had been tempted to storm off for the second time that day, but Lan Xichen was the first person he happened to meet after an hour’s wandering after all, and also, it was difficult to dislike anyone who laughed so openly like he did, even if it was at his own expense.

When Lan Xichen invited a reluctant Jiang Cheng into the Hanshi for a cup of tea, he fully expected the other to bolt the instant he was done drawing a map of the way back to the main area.

What he didn’t expect was for a chance meeting to turn into an hour’s discussion of the conference (which was more of a one-sided rant by his visitor), and for that to turn into two more hours of chatting. By a mutual silent accord, both parties steered clear of wounds that were still too fresh to prod at, preferring to talk instead about the things that happened after that nightmarish day at Yunping City.

By the time Jiang Cheng took his leave, the younger man had already extracted a promise from him to meet with him again the following day. One day turned into two, and two days turned into three.

Though he was still in seclusion and found it difficult to sustain any interest or pay attention to the world’s affairs, there was something about the straightforward and simple manner in which Jiang Cheng spoke that made Lan Xichen feel incredibly comforted. With Jiang Cheng, he was always included, but never forced to engage.

Over the past few months, he had been alone in seclusion, thinking that that was what he needed to reflect on the choices he had made over the past few years. There were nights in which his thoughts seemed to go nowhere and yet they kept him awake with their endless repetition, asking him what he could have done, should have done, and would have done if he could do it all over again. He knew that there was no point in asking for the impossible, but he couldn't help himself. Night after night, the thoughts crept into his mind and left him shaking.

He wrote lengthy missives to Yunmeng, and received in turn, letters that were much shorter and to the point. Unlike his reputation, which painted him as a violent and unkind man with an out of control temper, Jiang Cheng’s letters were always written with care and they never failed to make him feel better.

They didn’t say that he was forgiven.

No one can do that except yourself.

They didn’t tell him that he would soon forget.

I know how these memories can last a lifetime.

They didn’t urge him to return to being a sect leader.

I don’t want you to be anything else but well again.

And as the seasons flowed one into another, Lan Xichen found himself one day taking up a brush again and penning a letter to his closest friend.

…my friend, you know me better than anyone else at this point, which is why I know it will not surprise you to hear that as of tomorrow, I will officially be leaving seclusion and resuming my duties as the Sect Leader.

 

Chapter Text

‘I’m still not entirely convinced that we should be doing this,’ said Jiang Cheng dubiously.

‘That’s fine, because I’m completely convinced that we should be doing this, so between the two of us, we have made the right decision on the whole to be here tonight.’

Something felt wrong about that statement, but Jiang Cheng couldn’t put his finger on it.

In any case, there was probably no use now wondering if he should have put up more of a fuss when Lan Xichen suggested making a short trip to Caiyi. It was the Lantern Festival and according to him that meant that fewer people would be on the lookout for people sneaking out of Gusu, since everyone would be busy with their sky lanterns.

Jiang Cheng wondered if Lan Xichen still remembered their first trip to Caiyi together. Back then, they were both so young. Lan Xichen had just four years on him, but strangely, the distance between them back then had felt impossibly vast.

And yet, he mused, looking at Lan Xichen turn a lantern this way and that, over 15 years had passed since then, and his friend now moved with greater ease than before, his entire being radiating a sense of joy and exuberance that he had never shown in his youth. Seeing how happy his friend was over a simple trip out of the Cloud Recesses, Jiang Cheng couldn’t help but smile as well.

Although if Lan Xichen tried to make him carry one of those stupid lanterns and skip around praising the same stupid moon that appeared in the same damn sky every night, he would break his legs.  

Lan Xichen turned to smile at him, ‘Look, Jiang Cheng! There’s a crescent moon on this one, and a rabbit sitting on its edge!’

‘What is it with you Lans and rabbits?!’

‘Does the young master like this lantern?' oozed the merchant. 'Surely, it’s a mark of his exceptional taste! It was made by one of our greatest craftsmen who swore that he would not make another lantern after he finished painting the last stroke on this one, for nothing he made henceforth could compare! Only three pieces of silver for this masterpiece!’

‘That’s amazing,’ Lan Xichen said, awestruck.

‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,’ said Jiang Cheng.

 


 

An hour later, Jiang Cheng found himself carrying a lantern and following close behind Lan Xichen.

His black face was enough to scare away fellow revellers who might have entertained the fleeting notion of pointing and laughing at his misery. Was this not humiliation enough, without having to suffer the spurs of public insult on top of it? Jiang Cheng fumed. Lan Xichen was oblivious to his inner torment as usual, claiming that as Jiang Cheng had kindly purchased the lantern for him, he absolutely had to share in the joy of bearing so lovely a lantern with them on their merry trip through town.

Yes, Jiang Cheng could admit that he was a bitter, bitter man.

He hadn’t even meant to buy the lantern in the first place. He wasn’t stupid. It was just that Lan Xichen had obviously been so enamoured with the lantern that he would definitely have given the merchant whatever he asked for. Paying good silver for a piece of paper and some twigs? Madness!

Before Lan Xichen could open his mouth, Jiang Cheng beat him to it.

‘It hardly seems fair for a work of art such as this, but I wonder if 10 copper coins might be compensation enough for this masterpiece,’ said Jiang Cheng, in a tone so dry that one instantly recalled the Sahara.

‘…ah, young master, but of course. This lowly servant wouldn’t dare suggest anything higher! You have such a good eye…such a good eye…’ mumbled the merchant, scooping up the coins and trying very hard not to look him in the face.

Lan Xichen was over the moon. He was, quite literally, all over it.

Jiang Cheng had never seen a grown man look quite that enthusiastic fussing over a lantern and ensuring that his candle was positioned just so, all in order to prevent the slightest breeze from coming into contact with the flickering flame lest his moon lantern erupt in flames and cook his rabbit.

Nevertheless, Lan Xichen was happy, and that meant that Jiang Cheng, too, was marginally less grumpy than before.

 


 

They were taking a short break at one of the teahouses, having a drink of sweet tea and a bowl of yuanxiao. Jiang Cheng had balked initially when he first suggested ordering a bowl to share, and then his face turned a most interesting shade of red as he spluttered out something about how he didn’t normally eat sweet snacks and how it was a dish better reserved for family anyway. At that point, he looked as though a particularly unpleasant thought had crossed his mind and made him want to die.

Lan Xichen took a sip of Jiang Cheng’s tea and wondered if there was something about his presence that made Jiang Cheng reflect upon his own mortality so often, or if the other simply went through life looking as though he was going to kill someone or himself, whichever happened to be more convenient. Lan Xichen didn’t mind, he could volunteer. He was so happy that night. Actually, it was probably the happiest he had been in years. Ending on a high note didn’t seem like a bad idea at all. Plus he’d be sad if Jiang Cheng died. Jiang Cheng was really nice. Jiang Cheng was the nicest person he knew.

Jiang Cheng’s face was also becoming more interesting by the second, and Lan Xichen realised then that his friend was expressing some concern over his lack of alcohol tolerance. It was very sweet of him, but he had nothing to fear because Lan Xichen only ever drank tea. Or perhaps Jiang Cheng had only said something about alcohol and Lans? That was fine, Lan Xichen could extrapolate from there. He was really good at reading people and Jiang Cheng’s face was an open book anyway, Lan Xichen thought, patting the other’s face fondly.

 ‘…I said, did you know you’re talking out loud?’ Jiang Cheng managed.

Lan Xichen thought about that for a moment.

‘How else does one talk?’

‘…that’s not the point! And stop touching my face! You—I—I don’t think you were trying to…oh god. Never mind. I’m sorry, I thought you knew that I was having wine! I should have stopped you. Didn’t you think it was weird there was only one cup? The waiter took yours back because he was going to bring over a new cup and a teapot, containing, you know, actual tea and not alcohol because holy fuck, do I see now why you Lans shouldn’t drink.’

‘We don’t,’ Lan Xichen agreed peaceably. ‘It’s not good for us.’

‘Oh no, really? Oh, what a shock, I can hardly believe it,’ Jiang Cheng said shrilly.

 


 

Outside the teahouse, Lan Wangji’s eyes widened as he saw his brother and Jiang Wanyin sitting together. Though he wasn’t close enough to hear their conversation, he could tell that there was a level of intimacy that the two shared. He could also tell from his brother’s gestures that something was…off. It was almost as though his brother had not just recovered his spirits entirely, but had gone so far in the opposite direction of melancholy as to veer dangerously close towards Wei Ying-levels of cheeriness.

And there was still Jiang Wanyin to consider. Lan Wangji’s eyes narrowed. Who knew what intentions that man had? Everyone knew that Lan Xichen would give you the shirt off his back if he thought you were in greater need of it. How many people would love to take advantage of his kind-hearted brother while his guard was down?

But his brother was…his brother was smiling at Jiang Wanyin.

Lan Wangji felt his heart waver, even as his fingers clenched tighter around Bichen.

Two years ago, he remembered being afraid whenever he thought about his brother being lost to him. Lan Xichen had entered seclusion, and each day seemed to leave him mired deeper in grief and suffering. He frequently forgot to eat, and he often had spells where he retreated into himself, unseeing and unheeding of anything. At that time, Lan Wangji had confessed to Wei Ying that one of his greatest fears was that his brother would follow in the footsteps of their father and never return. Or that he would be like their mother and die alone in the middle of the night, with no one to hear him. How many more nights would Lan Wangji spend kneeling in front of yet another door that would not open for him?

But his brother had not only recovered, but had also left seclusion and taken up his duties once more as the Lan Sect Leader, working tirelessly without complaining to make up for the time he had lost. He wore the same smile on his lips, but it was obvious to Lan Wangji at least that something inside his brother had changed.

It had been a very long time since he had seen his brother smile as brightly as this.

His mind swirling with thoughts, he took a step back soundlessly and turned the other way.

 

Chapter Text

From a distance, familiar steps were heard.

Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi glanced at each other and unconsciously straightened their postures.

Anyone who had done a few shifts on guard duty knew how to distinguish between the sounds of different footsteps coming from far away. If the steps were light and measured, proceeding at a pace that never changed regardless of the time or day, one would soon see Hanguang-Jun rounding the corner impassively. If they were erratic, going from slow to fast or vice versa, where the sounds of something being dragged and cursing could also be heard, it could be no other than Senior Wei and his donkey.

However, if the sound of someone stepping off their sword was followed by a couple of moments of silence as though the visitor was taking care to fix their appearance, and firm, unwavering strides then began crunching towards to the gate, they would soon be met with—

‘Sect Leader Jiang,’ Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui chorused, bowing politely.

He nodded to them, and continued walking through the gates without stopping.

‘Uh…Senior Sizhui, who was that man? I didn’t see a jade token on him at all so why…?’ one of the younger disciples asked, clearly baffled by this break in procedure.

Jingyi sighed. Newbies.

‘It’s the fifteenth of the month,’ Sizhui said cryptically.

‘Jingyi!’

‘Master Lan,’ the group bowed as Lan Qiren made his way towards them.

‘Was that Sect Leader Jiang, Jiang Wanyin, whom I saw?’

‘Yes, Master Lan,’ replied Jingyi, his stomach sinking.

How was he going to explain something like this to Master Lan? The other wouldn’t believe it if he had said that the matter was likely to be of no great importance. How would Lan Qiren understand such a concept as romance? Nothing on earth could make him believe that another sect leader had made a trip to the Cloud Recesses for anything less than an emergency. Yet, if Jingyi said that Sect Leader Jiang had official sect business to discuss with Zewu-jun, the elder would undoubtedly head straight to the Hanshi.

If Master Lan went to the Hanshi right then, Zewu-jun would…well, Zewu-jun would probably still smile at them when he saw them the next day, but he would most likely be all heartbroken inside. What could be worse than Sect Leader Jiang and Zewu-jun having to sit through an entire afternoon with Master Lan, their hearts full of yearning to be together but prevented from doing so? Jingyi thought mournfully.

After all, Zewu-jun had given them express orders to ensure that Sect Leader Jiang and he remain undisturbed on the fifteenth of each month, as the two would be meeting to discuss official sect matters.

That’s right. Two handsome cultivators staying in the Hanshi all alone till dark, with the light of the full moon and the scent of the plum blossoms floating in through the window, discussing ‘official sect matters’. And everyone said that Jingyi couldn’t read between the lines. Well, he certainly proved them wrong with this one. Even Sizhui, whose eyes had grown all big and mortified when Jingyi first expounded on his theory, seemed to have accepted that he was right.

‘Well? Why is he here at the Cloud Recesses?’ asked Master Lan impatiently.

‘It seems that Senior Wei has only just returned to the Cloud Recesses too, having spent the past week night-hunting with Hanguang-jun,’ Sizhui said politely.

‘I see,’ Master Lan huffed. ‘I suppose it’s a good thing that the relationship between these two is on the mend. Sect Leader Jiang is a responsible man who shoulders a heavy burden! Young Master Wei could stand to learn a thing or two from him. The same goes for the rest of you!’

Having said his piece, the elder Lan walked off.

In the distance, a bird began to call.

‘…Sizhui, I always knew you were smart but that was just incredible,’ Jingyi breathed. ‘We don’t even have to write any lines!’

‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ said Sizhui, but his ears were red.

 


 

Lan Wangji paused, his hand poised to knock.

Instead of the usual silence or the muted sounds of his brother’s presence, he detected an unusual boisterousness to the sounds coming from within. A thump, followed by another, and then a stifled gasp, as though someone had been silenced abruptly.

Bichen slid noiselessly from its sheath as Lan Wangji readied himself to throw the door open and attack whomever it was that had dared to ambush his brother, when he heard a choked moan.

No.

And then a faint whimper.

No no no.

He had never once heard Xiongzhang make that sort of sound. It wasn’t possible. There was no way his elder brother, with his impeccable grace and regal bearing and excellent recall of the Lan rules—rules that he had painstakingly taught to Wangji himself—would be engaging in this…this sort of…

No. His mind rebelled at even putting words to what was happening behind closed doors.

There was another reason for it. Perhaps Xiongzhang had accidentally tripped over a table leg and was suffering from the pain. Absolutely, that was—

‘Jiang Cheng, please, no more…!’

Oh merciful gods above.

Images of his own nights with Wei Ying squirming beneath him, panting so sweetly and begging him to have mercy, flooded his mind. Instantly his ears went red and he leapt off the steps, aghast at what he was hearing. Was his brother truly—? His brother? Before marriage? With Jiang Wanyin? Playing these shameless games with each other? And his brother…his brother was the one who was begging…

Each thought, more horrifying than the last, broke into his mind and left the blood receding from his face until it was a ghastly white.

And then Lan Wangji found himself having to adjust his trousers. Looking down, he didn’t realise at first what he was seeing, until a new and more horrible thought occurred to him. If he heard what he had heard and now he was so affected, didn’t that mean that in a way he was attracted to…

He was not having a mental breakdown. He was not having a mental breakdown. He was not hugging a tree and pretending it was Wei Ying, because only Wei Ying could understand and interpret this madness into a language that Lan Zhan understood. His brother used to be able to do that too. Lan Zhan didn’t know him anymore.

‘Lan Zhan!’

Sweet merciful gods, thank you.

Wei Ying bounded over, excited but a little puzzled at finding him cosying up to a tree.

‘What are you doing? I thought you were here to see Xichen-ge? Why are you hugging a tree instead? What does it have that I don’t have? Haha! I’m just kidding, but really, hug me instead! Anyway, you haven’t been to see him yet, have you? Oh…is it because you’re going out to get more tea? I see you’ve spilt some! Don’t worry, I’m sure Xichen-ge has enough for us! Or do you think he’d need advance warning that I’m coming along too? He always looks happy to see us, so I think he’d be glad to know we’re both coming. Actually, maybe he could do with a few more visitors, other than us. He’d like it if everyone came, I’m sure!’

Ye cruel, cruel gods.

 


 

‘…’

‘Stop looking at me like that,’ Jiang Cheng snapped. ‘I told you, I used the standard amount of pressure.’

Lan Xichen’s pout became more pronounced at this as he fiddled with the teapot, gently lifting the cover to check the temperature of the water. The scent of the silver needle tea wafted gently through the air.

‘Still, I’m sure you didn’t have to be so rough,’ he said, slanting a look at Jiang Cheng.

Outside, someone was experiencing a coughing fit. The cold weather must be wreaking havoc on the juniors, especially the ones who hadn’t grown up in the Cloud Recesses. It was a good thing that spring was well on its way, Lan Xichen mused, making a mental note to check in with the kitchens on the disciples’ meals for the coming week.

‘Hey, if it hurts, that only means the treatment’s working. The right amount of pressure has to be applied on the acupoint in order for the connected muscles to feel relief. I still cannot believe you leapt in just like that. What on earth were you thinking?’

Jiang Cheng’s eye twitched at the memory.

‘I know, it was unwise but I couldn’t resist,’ Lan Xichen laughed ruefully. ‘I remembered how Wangji and I used to play when we were little. When we were done with our studies for the day, Shufu sometimes gave us permission to go to the cold springs. We would try to be the first to jump in, but we always wound up jumping in at the same time anyway, trying not to shriek about the cold.’

‘"Noise is prohibited in the Cloud Recesses"?’ Jiang Cheng asked drily.

Lan Xichen nodded, eyes still crinkled at the thought.

They had spent the whole morning working together, ploughing through their paperwork and consulting each other on the issues that plagued their two territories. As was their practice, they took short breaks for meals, and took a slightly longer break in the afternoon to refresh themselves after hours of hard work. That afternoon, Lan Xichen had proposed that they head to the cold springs for a quick dip, but a sudden cramp in his leg had seen the two of them beat a hasty retreat back to the Hanshi.

The practice had begun over six months ago, when Jiang Cheng bemoaned the fact that he often spent hours writing and rewriting official letters because he never knew how to say anything in a less than direct way, ruffling feathers and irking people into refusing to cooperate. Lan Xichen had the exact opposite problem where he was so polite that his diplomatic missives were being ignored because no one understood what he was trying to say.

Eventually, they realised that meeting once a month to work together benefited both of them. Lan Xichen had his natural tact and years of experience dealing with intransigent elders to help Jiang Cheng craft his responses, while Jiang Cheng helped the other to be more direct in his proposals by reading through the drafts and summarily cancelling out anything he considered to be too flowery or superfluous. Thus far, the approach was working out beautifully for the both of them.

‘We’ll go again in the summer,’ said Jiang Cheng gruffly, ‘or you could get out of here and come to Yunmeng. You’ll just have to put up with the lack of ice in the water.’

‘How hurtful, Sect Leader Jiang!’

‘Not as much as you’ll hurt if I catch you getting a cramp from something this stupid again,’ Jiang Cheng threatened. ‘Imagine what would have happened if I hadn’t agreed to go along. Would you really want that to be how people remember you? Here lies Zewu-jun. He battled a cramp heroically but perished in his backyard pond for want of stretching.’

Lan Xichen began to laugh, using his left hand at the last minute to steady the teapot as the stream of tea he was pouring began to waver. Jiang Cheng shook his head, a reluctant smile pulling at his lips, and started to set out the snacks for their tea.

With good food and drink and the company of a bosom friend, the year heralded by the spring looked as though it was going to be exceptionally beautiful.

 

Chapter Text

‘Over here, pressing the brush down firmly and lifting it quickly will allow you to create an impression of the rock’s imperfect surface.’

‘Like this?’ Sizhui asked, flicking his brush carefully.

‘Close, but with less caution in your strokes. Watch,’ Zewu-jun said gently, sitting down and picking up his brush again to demonstrate.

Two months ago, Sizhui was sitting in the Hanshi with his teacher, enjoying the peace and quiet of the late afternoon. There, it was always quiet, with the delicious scent of plum blossoms floating in through the windows in the winter months. For as long as Sizhui could remember, the light, vegetal scent of white tea mingled with that of the blooms would bring Zewu-jun to mind.

When Hanguang-jun had brought him to the Cloud Recesses, he was already four years old. Little remained in his memory of that time, but when he was older, he learnt that Hanguang-jun had entered seclusion in the back mountains shortly after their arrival in Gusu. Those three years of seclusion had been a punishment as much as an act of mercy, to allow the man sufficient time to heal from the wounds inflicted by the discipline whip, as well as from an emotional wound that was invisible to the eye.

Hence, during his first two years at the Cloud Recesses, his seniors told him later and not without a touch of envy, it had actually been Zewu-jun who had taken care of him around the clock. Children entering the sect were typically taken in when they were only a year or two old. A-Yuan had been older than them, but too small for his age. He was bright but clearly had no formal schooling, and the mere sight of the other children intimidated him. During his first few months here, he had been a silent but tenacious presence clinging to Zewu-jun’s leg, tearing up each time someone tried to remove him and place him in another’s care.

He would never be as tall or as strong as the others, the Lan physicians had warned Zewu-jun, citing the malnutrition he had endured in his early years. His late start probably didn’t help matters either, Sizhui thought, but Zewu-jun had never given up on him.

Though his duties as the sect leader kept him working till the candles burned low each night, Zewu-jun never let a day pass without spending some time with Sizhui, patiently going through the fundamentals of the sect’s teachings, guiding his brush as he learnt to write, and nurturing a love of music in him with the melody of the zither and the flute. Under the careful tutelage of his teacher, Sizhui’s intelligence and curiosity blossomed.

Since then, Sizhui had come to learn many things, not just from Zewu-jun, but also from Hanguang-jun, Master Lan, Senior Wei, his friends, seniors, juniors and everyone else around him.

He learnt to think before he spoke, and he learnt to observe before all. He learnt to talk to the dead and learnt how to bring them peace. He learnt to read what lay in the hearts of the living, too, even without a word passing their lips.

Perhaps most importantly of all, he learnt to be kind when he came to understand that everyone struggled with invisible burdens that others could not see.

 


 

They continued painting in silence, till Sizhui confessed that he was unsure as to how to capture the luminosity of the moon. A delicate curve could easily recreate the unmistakeable shape, but he wished to capture the silvery radiance shining through the clouds and that seemed to be an impossible goal no matter how he lightened his strokes.

‘Mastery of the brush will help your strokes to become lighter still, but for now, try using a brush with a tip broad enough to spread the ink across the paper in wide sweeps. Pay attention, too, to the proportion of ink and water used,’ Lan Xichen said, demonstrating what he meant on his own artwork.

‘If you wish to view another example, observe the lantern that you see upon that shelf.’

‘A lantern?’ said Sizhui in surprise. ‘Oh, yes, I see it. It’s lovely, Zewu-jun!’

‘Thank you. I like it too.’ Zewu-jun smiled at him, his eyes softening as they flicked towards the newest addition to his shelves.

‘Was it from Hanguang-jun?’ Sizhui asked innocently, thinking of his own lantern.

Back then, Jingyi and the others had teased him about accepting Hanguang-jun’s love token on Senior Wei’s behalf. He hadn’t even thought about it that way until the others discussed the romantic gesture. Nevertheless, both Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei seemed content to let him keep it, and it remained one of his most cherished possessions to date, even if it had been originally meant for another.

‘No,’ Zewu-jun said softly, looking a little embarrassed but pleased. ‘Jiang Cheng—I mean, Sect Leader Jiang—purchased it for me when we were at Caiyi.’

‘Sizhui, I’m counting on you to keep this to yourself. People would talk if they were to hear of it,’ he sighed, worried that Master Lan would learn about his impromptu trip out of the Cloud Recesses. He was the sect leader, but in many ways, he, more so than the others, was bound to lead by example and abide by the Lan rules. The Lan elders were not inclined to look kindly upon a boyish excursion. Though nothing had been explicitly written against it in the rules, Lan Xichen had already taken it upon himself to write out the rules twice when he had returned from his trip, just to get rid of that lingering feeling of guilt.

‘O-of course!’ Sizhui reassured him hastily, his face burning. ‘Zewu-jun can count on my discretion!’

Though he didn’t say it, Sizhui was taken aback by how readily his teacher had confessed to his relationship with Sect Leader Jiang. Yet, on second thought, perhaps he ought not have been surprised. The warmth in Zewu-jun’s eyes and the care and concern with which he treated Sizhui, had suggested to him time and again that the man considered him a part of the family. Senior Wei and Hanguang-jun had never once hidden the depth of their affection for each other from him either.

A lump lodged in his throat as Sizhui blinked back sudden tears. His teacher had been alone for so many years, and now, someone at last had seen how kind and lovely he truly was.

‘Zewu-jun,’ he said, not quite sure why he felt the urge to call the other and throw his arms around him in an impulsive hug much like he had done as a child.

‘Hmm?’ said Lan Xichen, his eyes on his painting as he carefully shaded the trees.

Sizhui held on to his left hand with both of his own, his heart full with an aching tenderness, as Lan Xichen glanced up at him in surprise.

‘I will support you no matter what. Please always be happy.’

 


 

Lan Wangji, on the other hand, would have been perfectly content to avoid his brother for the rest of his life.

Nevertheless, undeterred by his younger brother’s telepathically communicated yearning for isolation and self-flagellation, Lan Xichen had insisted on them spending some quality time together.

Trailing despondently by his side, Wangji didn’t question where his brother was leading him as all his energy was going towards keeping his face blank. Since young, his brother had been able to read him like a book, understanding correctly what he wanted to say without a single word passing his lips. All his life, Wangji had been grateful for that ability of his. And now the same ability was threatening to send him into an early grave.

What if Xiongzhang took one look into his eyes and divined his hitherto undiscovered...affections?

Lan Wangji cringed inwardly and began navigating the path with his eyes closed.

He could still feel his brother’s questioning look on him though.

‘…training,’ he stated with as much confidence as he could muster, and blessedly, his brother left him be.

 


 

After some time, Wangji looked up at last when his brother came to a stop.

‘…the cold springs?’ he said numbly.

‘Oh, yes. I was planning to come here yesterday, but I, uh…’ Xiongzhang broke off, going a little pink in the face and laughing a little. ‘I had other matters to handle.’

Yes, brother. I know exactly what you were handling, thought Wangji hysterically.

It was just a normal trip to the springs. It was fine. They came here together all the time. It was fine. He was going to keep his clothes on and it would all be fine.

Yet in truth it had not even been a full day since he heard his brother being pleasured by Jiang Wanyin. Couldn’t he at least get a day’s respite to try and erase from his mind his shameful reaction to that perverted stimulus? Each time he caught his brother’s eye, he felt a sense of shame curl deep in his gut as he tried not to let his mind wander back to what he had heard.

Yes, his brother was beautiful but that was no excuse. Everyone thought so. It was an objective statement of fact that Lan Xichen was the number one cultivator gentleman in the world. When he smiled at you, you felt like the most amazing person in the world for having put that expression on his face. People said that the two of them looked alike, but Wangji knew from first-hand experience that while everyone gravitated towards his elder brother, his own features were quite enough to make young children cry.

And now his brother, one of the foremost beauties of the world, was standing before him naked but for the thinnest layer of his underpants, looking at him questioningly.

Tension rippled through Wangji’s frame again. He dimly registered holding onto Bichen with a death grip, though he couldn’t tell if he wanted to attack someone or turn the blade inwards.

‘…Wangji, have you been experiencing great stress of late? You seem a little tense,’ Lan Xichen said, looking at him with some concern.

‘Let me help you to relieve some of your tension.’

Was his voice always this deep? Wangji’s ears burned as his traitorous mind began recalling Wei Ying ‘helping’ to relieve his stress the night before.

‘I'll help you stretch,’ Xichen suggested, placing a hand on the small of his back.

A tremor ran through Wangji at those words.

‘No,’ he managed, forcibly putting Wei Ying out of his mind. ‘Let's just go in.’

‘Wangji, you know as well as I do how insufficient preparation harms the body. Believe me, I’ve learnt my lesson. It’s time for us to act like adults…’

What—what was his brother even talking about? Wangji felt all the blood rush from his face.

‘Xiongzhang! Wang…Wangji loves Wei Ying!’ he blurted out desperately.

Lan Xichen paused.

‘Um. I’m sure he loves you too,’ he said, a little confused at the outburst.

A moment later, a look of comprehension dawned on his face.

‘Wangji must be working hard to be more expressive for Master Wei's sake. I'm proud of you, brother,’ Lan Xichen smiled.  

‘And of course, I love Wangji very much as well,’ he continued encouragingly, in the tone of an adult attempting to convince a small child to eat more vegetables.

Wangji looked downwards just in case.

Nothing.

Thank god.

 

Chapter Text

‘Is this all your skill amounts to, Sect Leader Lan?’ Jiang Cheng shouted as Sandu’s blade swept through the air in a wide arc. Lan Xichen leapt backwards deftly, Shuoyue glinting in his hand.

‘Says the one who has yet to land a strike successfully!’

‘I’ll do that when you stop being a coward and face me like a man!’

Jiang Cheng snarled again as he lashed out, his sword stopping short as the sound of metal rang out. Lan Xichen had parried yet another blow, and already, he was lashing out with Shuoyue to strike at Jiang Cheng.

The tip of the blade was within inches of his throat—

‘WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?’

Lan Qiren’s beard quivered in rage.

‘Stop this at once!’ he barked, wading in fearlessly between the two men.

‘Have you both lost your minds?’

‘Shufu!’

‘…Master Lan.’

Lan Qiren stared at the two sect leaders and felt like he had somehow gone back in time. Didn’t he once have to break up a fight between Sect Leader Jiang’s brother and Jin Zixuan? This time, it was Sect Leader Jiang himself and his own nephew caught up in the madness!

‘Xichen, explain yourself! What’s going on?’ he snapped.

‘Shufu, Jiang…Sect Leader Jiang and I were just having a friendly duel. We didn’t mean to cause a commotion.’

‘Causing a commotion is the least of it. Do you mean to tell me that the leader of one of the four main sects has come all the way to the Cloud Recesses only to be treated in this fashion? Have you forgotten everything I taught you in the past, Xichen? Do you not remember how we should treat all visitors as our guests and attend to their comfort? Now look at the state of both of you!’

Lan Xichen sheepishly straightened his robes and ran his fingers through his hair, removing a stray leaf that had been caught in the strands. He kept quiet, darting an unsure look at Jiang Wanyin. The other simply raised an eyebrow, before sighing and turning to face Lan Qiren.

‘Master Lan, I apologise for the ruckus,’ Sect Leader Jiang began.

‘I’m afraid it was all my fault. I came to Gusu this morning as I had some business to discuss with Sect Leader Lan. Just now, I had an idle fancy to test our skills against each other to compare the differences in the Lan and Jiang swordsmanship, and Xichen was kind enough to oblige.’

‘X-xichen?’ Master Lan spluttered.

This was worse than he had feared. He had thought that the two were unruly and brawling for no good reason, but this sounded much closer to Xichen’s previous situation with that man.

Lan Qiren shuddered.

 


 

Three years ago, when Xichen had come to him to ask for permission to enter seclusion, Lan Qiren had truly been taken aback. He had foolishly imagined that his nephew was pleased to have the truth about Jin Guangyao’s true nature revealed, and to have been the one to deal the final blow.

But when Lan Qiren observed his nephew that day, he began to suspect that he was wrong.

Lan Xichen’s eyes were red-rimmed with exhaustion and his fingers were clutching at his robes almost involuntarily, as though he were trying to stop his hands from shaking. He had obviously not been sleeping or eating well.

Lan Qiren had liked Jin Guangyao at first. Though his beginnings had been humble, under his careful leadership, the Jin sect had slowly but surely grown in the esteem of the other sects.

He had approved of the young man’s resolve, his excellent manners, his unfailing memory and his observance of all four thousand of the Lan rules. He was also relieved that Xichen, who had poured everything he had into running the Lan sect since young, finally seemed to have a friend who would understand the weight of such responsibility. A burden, however heavy, could always be halved with the companionship of a true confidant.

Thus, when Jin Guangyao got married, Lan Qiren, fearing that Xichen would be lonely, brought up the subject of matchmaking. However, the other firmly refused to even consider the prospect. Lan Qiren had thought little of it at the time, believing that his nephew was simply not ready, and he relayed this information accordingly to the other Lan elders.

As the years passed and Lan Xichen remained defiantly single and Jin Guangyao continued to visit the Cloud Recesses regularly, a few of the elders began giving him some rather pointed looks.

The penny dropped.

When Lan Qiren awoke from that fainting spell, he eventually came to settle on two disturbing ideas that he knew he would have to learn to accept. The first was that his eldest nephew was as gay as his brother, and that there was little hope of there being a direct descendant of the bloodline. The second was that Jin Guangyao had taken after his accursed father and was currently pursuing a little pleasure on the side.

While the first thought was hard to swallow, the idea that Lan Xichen, his precious nephew whom he had brought up painstakingly all these years, might have been relegated to the role of a lover instead of being the rightful spouse of someone who loved him like he deserved, was far, far more bitter.

Fortunately, Fate had intervened at Yunping, and ensured that Lan Xichen had cut off that source of trouble at the root. It might have caused his nephew an untold amount of pain, Lan Qiren thought grimly, but far better was it to suffer in the short term than for the long term.

And Jin Guangyao wasn’t even the only one who had hurt his nephew.

Nie Huaisang was another.

The current Sect Leader Nie was someone whom Lan Qiren had disapproved of right from the start. The young man had taken shameless advantage of Xichen’s kindness and had come to the Cloud Recesses time and time again to beg Xichen for aid in one matter or another. Yet, Lan Qiren had never said a word against him, knowing that it would be impossible for Xichen to turn away his sworn brother’s own flesh and blood. Aiding Nie Huaisang however he could was possibly even Xichen’s way of respecting his sworn brother’s memory.

Yet, in the end, both of these people had only seen his nephew as nothing but a pawn to manipulate as they liked.

The thought filled Lan Qiren with bitterness and left him choking on his own rage.

And now, here was a third young man who had come to visit the Cloud Recesses.

 


 

‘Shufu,’ Lan Xichen tried again.

After more questioning, Lan Qiren finally learnt that Jiang Wanyin had been coming to the Cloud Recesses regularly—so regularly in fact, that the elder wondered why he had not been informed nor heard more people speak of this. In his heart, he wondered if the rule on not gossiping about others behind their back had contributed to his shameful lack of awareness, or if it was his famed intolerance for impropriety that had made the Lan disciples reluctant to inform him of this development.

‘And you’re saying that the two of you have been meeting in private all along, for over half a year?’ he managed at last, still reeling.

‘Yes, that is correct,’ said Lan Xichen embarrassedly.

And now his nephew was blushing. Lan Qiren gritted his teeth. What was it about the Jiang sect that made their boys so irresistible to his nephews?

‘Sect Leader Lan’s deep knowledge and expertise is a great boon to the Jiang sect. As you know, the Discussion Conference will be held at Yunmeng this year. Sect Leader Lan was just sharing his views on it with me this morning,’ Jiang Wanyin stated calmly.

Lan Qiren’s blood pressure rose further still.

It wasn’t that he didn’t have faith in Xichen. However, his track record when it came to trusting the right people wasn’t exactly stellar. On top of that, the fault practically ran in his blood, Lan Qiren thought darkly. With a younger brother who pursued a practitioner of the dark arts, and a father who fell in love with a murderess, the crazed violent torturer in Sandu Shengshou had probably been an irresistible siren call to his innocent nephew.

He had been careless the first time around with that Jin son of a whore, but now he was going to be far, far more vigilant.

‘In that case,’ Lan Qiren said grimly as he swept past, ‘I will gladly lend my expertise to the occasion, having attended over two decades of these meetings. Come.’

Lan Xichen and Jiang Wanyin glanced at each other.

‘Let us begin.’

 


 

‘Whew!’ Jiang Cheng groaned as he collapsed backwards in exhaustion.

Lan Xichen could only laugh ruefully as he began preparing a new pot of tea. Lan Qiren had left the Hanshi at last, casting a dark look at them over his shoulder and promising to return right after the evening meal. It was part of his routine to oversee the daily meals, and the elder’s absence would have caused significant concern to the Lan disciples who were used to the unchanging regularity of their habits.

‘Xichen, did you see the way he looked at me?’ Jiang Cheng groused, making himself comfortable on the floor. His head was hurting from memorising the sheer number of archaic practices that he would have sworn were completely made up, if not for the fact that he knew Lan Qiren had no sense of humour.

Also, he didn’t like the look in the other’s eyes. While words like ‘proper seating etiquette’ were coming from his mouth, Lan Qiren’s eyes were busy promising a slow death by guqin string strangulation.

‘It’s like he thinks I’m not good enough to host this conference! Like, if I succeed at fulfilling even half of those ridiculous obligations, he’d eat his hat!’

‘That’s absurd,’ Lan Xichen said mildly. ‘Shufu doesn’t own a hat.’

‘That’s not the point, Xichen! Your uncle really doesn’t like me!’

‘He just doesn’t know you,’ the other corrected him. ‘And that’s Xichen-ge to you.’

‘Aren’t you being a little too optimistic? And it’s funny that he should be cross about that. Do you remember this little conversation we had last year? I said, “Hey, are you sure I don’t need to pay my respects to your teacher?” and you said—’

‘Yes, I know what I said,’ Lan Xichen sighed in exasperation, setting a steaming cup down on the floor next to Jiang Cheng’s head.  

‘I just didn’t want Shufu to think that I couldn’t manage my duties on my own. You know how he worries about me. I’m a grown man but I think he still feels guilty about asking me to be the sect leader before I was ready. My seclusion was difficult for him, too. I just…I just don’t want to make him worry about me anymore.’

‘He’s your uncle, he will always worry about you,’ said Jiang Cheng curtly. ‘Believe me, even when Jin Ling turns 50, I will still be hobbling after him with a stick and threatening to break his legs.’

Lan Xichen laughed.

‘That, I can picture easily enough.’

‘What are you laughing about? You’re older than me by four years. You’ll be right beside me with a beard long enough to touch the ground.’

‘Oh, so you do remember that I’m older than you!’ Lan Xichen started, leaning over and smiling in a way that made Jiang Cheng’s eyes narrow instantly in suspicion, though he was observing his expression upside down while still lying on the ground.

‘How about addressing me properly for once?’

‘…what do you mean, Xichen-ge?’ asked Jiang Cheng blandly.

‘…’

Strangely enough, Lan Xichen could feel his own ears grow warm at hearing that. Ignoring the way Jiang Cheng burst out laughing, he sat up hurriedly and turned back to his tea set.

‘Xichen-ge, I want more tea. Pour me more. Gege, are you listening to me? Ge…

‘You’re such a child. Sit up and drink your tea properly.’

 


 

Outside the Hanshi, Wei Wuxian came to a sudden stop as he took in the scene.

Master Lan had said only that there was a guest present, and that it would behove Wei Wuxian to bring dinner for two to Zewu-jun’s rooms, but never in his wildest dreams did he imagine that he would find his own brother recognising another as his own flesh and blood.

He knew things between them were bad, but to hear Jiang Cheng acknowledge another as his own brother, using such an affectionate term that he had never even bestowed on himself at that… Wei Wuxian’s feelings were a complex mix of regret and jealousy. Fortunately, amusement swiftly took over once he noticed the expression of mild exasperation on the elder Jade’s face.

Even Lan Xichen has standards when it comes to people wanting to be his brother

The sudden thought came to Wei Wuxian as he tried not to laugh.

Quietly, he left the tray of dishes outside the door and left the scene as noiselessly as he had arrived.

 

Chapter Text

Under the light of the full moon, the usual path had transformed into a silver road.

On the road stood a man garbed all in white but for a blood-red ribbon in his hair.

Wei Wuxian sighed and kicked a pebble off the mountain.

Lan Qiren had been in a sourer mood than usual at dinner. Several disciples had been caught committing one misdemeanour or another, and Wei Wuxian bet that most of them were still rushing to finish writing their lines though the hour was late. Even Lan Zhan had been somewhat distracted, not even noticing when Wei Ying had shifted closer to snag food off his plate.

Something very strange was going on in the Cloud Recesses.

First, there was the matter with Lan Zhan.

Over the past month, his taciturn husband had had two very bizarre episodes.

In the first, the two of them had been having a perfectly normal day. They woke up, had breakfast, meditated together for an hour or two, and went to visit his brother-in-law in the afternoon, although they left without seeing him as Lan Zhan had become oddly agitated all of a sudden.

He had tried his best to hide his inner turmoil by playing multiple variants of Cleansing but even to Wei Ying’s ears, the melodies were played at an unnaturally fast tempo and were likely to be of little use. After some time, Wei Ying began working on a new set of talismans while he waited for Lan Zhan to calm down and talk to him about whatever was bothering him. Yet, before he had even managed to test out a single one, his husband had crowded close behind him and wrapped his arms around him. Wei Ying had been surprised at first, for Lan Zhan was never so bold so early in the day.

Nevertheless, he had been successfully distracted. Lan Zhan had seemed perfectly normal again afterwards too, so Wei Ying shrugged it off, applauded himself mentally for being sexually devastating as usual, and put the incident out of his mind completely.

The next day, however, an equally bizarre incident occurred right after Lan Zhan had come back from the cold springs. Wei Ying still didn’t understand how his husband enjoyed being at one with nature when every cell in his own body would have shrivelled and died from the cold, but Lan Zhan apparently did. On that day, however, any word of greeting died on Wei Ying’s lips when his husband returned from the springs, looking as though he had just seen a ghost.

Without saying a single word, Lan Zhan had gone up to Wei Ying and pulled him into his lap, rocking him to and fro much like a traumatised child clutching his favourite doll.

‘Lan Zhan! What are you doing?’ Wei Ying had squawked, batting at him ineffectually. 

Lan Zhan only let out a disconsolate humming noise and buried his face in Wei Ying’s hair for a long moment before speaking.

‘I love Wei Ying,’ Lan Zhan asserted out of nowhere, as though Wei Ying had tried to deny it. ‘Love Wei Ying more than anyone. Love you.’

Wei Ying had been strangely touched. His Lan Zhan was being oddly affectionate, but that wasn’t a bad thing at all. Unfortunately, when confronted with such raw emotion without warning, his mouth-to-brain filter often got left in the dust.

‘I say, Young Master Lan-Er,’ he had laughed embarrassedly. ‘This is the first time you’ve said that so much. Are you trying to convince me or yourself? Has a pretty lady somewhere caught your eye, perhaps?’

Lan Zhan pulled back and looked at him with such a stricken expression that Wei Ying instantly felt bad.

‘I was just joking,’ he murmured repentantly, pressing a kiss against his jaw. ‘I’m sorry, I won’t tease you anymore. You know I love you, too, right?’

‘Mn. Love Wei Ying more.’

And then Lan Zhan proceeded to repeat himself for the rest of the day, even when he started bullying Wei Ying again and telling him that every day meant every day.

Did all husbands behave like this? Wei Wuxian didn’t understand it.

To make matters worse, as though taking their cue from the esteemed Hanguang-jun, many of the tiny Lans were behaving just as strangely. The other day, Wei Wuxian had walked past a pavilion and overheard Jingyi in an unusually heated argument over whether purple and blue decorations, or purple and white ones would look better in their halls. When he had gone over to learn more, all the disciples present looked somewhat shifty, although they did explain to him that they were just planning ahead for future celebrations. Wei Wuxian left them to it, feeling somewhat touched at having his Yunmeng Jiang colours included in their consideration, but something still felt off.

And now, even his baby A-Yuan was caught up in the madness, Wei Wuxian thought forlornly, spying the other looking up at the moon and smiling wistfully.

Walking the other way in order to give him some privacy, Wei Wuxian sighed heavily again.

Perhaps it was puberty.

But that didn’t explain the matter with his brother. Not only had he left Wei Wuxian to suffer the indignity of learning from Lan Qiren—of all people—that his own brother was at the Cloud Recesses, but he even appeared to be friends with Wei Wuxian’s brother-in-law. Lan Qiren’s presence meant that it had probably been an official meeting of sorts, but even Lan Zhan didn’t seem to know what was going on, judging by his silence and pained expression when Wei Wuxian asked him about it.

In any case, could there be anything in the world weirder than Jiang Cheng and Xichen-ge being friends? Wei Wuxian wondered. Was Lan Xichen secretly masochistic, or was he just the leading candidate to achieve enlightenment among their generation?

If only Xichen-ge hadn’t been away at the moment, Wei Wuxian would have consulted him on all these unusual happenings.

There was definitely something strange going on in the Cloud Recesses or his surname wasn’t Wei.

 


 

Looking blearily around the room for his clothes, Jiang Cheng went through the motions of washing up and getting dressed.

Later, he would blame it on his exhaustion but it took him much longer than it should have to realise that not a single member of his household seemed to be around.

There was no one in the corridors, no one tidying the bedchambers, and no one in the kitchen.

Instead, the closer he got to the Sword Hall, the more noise began to meet his ears. The excited mutterings of the household staff were coming across clearly even halfway down the corridor. It seemed like his entire household was gathered in the hall overlooking the training grounds, all talking animatedly amongst themselves. From time to time, the more excitable members broke into applause. Though all he could see were their backs, a dark suspicion was already forming in his mind.

‘Sect Leader Jiang!’

One of the kitchen staff had heard him approach, or perhaps she had sensed malevolent energy flaring up at the sight of all his people standing around doing nothing.

‘Don’t any of you have work to do?’ Jiang Cheng demanded incredulously. ‘All you need to do is ask and I’ll be happy to double your workload!’

‘No, Sect Leader Jiang, look! Zewu-Jun is here again!’ sighed Jiang Yuanqi. The portly matron with a booming voice had been a prominent feature in Jiang Cheng’s childhood nightmares, particular on days when Wei Wuxian and he had raided the kitchen to obtain snacks before dinner. Right at that moment, however, she could not have been more like a misty-eyed maiden in one of Nie Huaisang’s books—one of those who were always fainting dramatically into the strong, muscular arms of the hero.

Jiang Cheng suppressed a shudder, keeping his arms firmly down by his side as he strode past.

‘I don’t want to hear it. Get back to work!’

As expected, he saw his disciples practising their sword forms as they usually did at this hour of the day, with the exceptional bonus of a slender figure in blue and white walking fearlessly through their ranks. His disciples were moving with more vigour than usual, and Jiang Cheng even caught sight of a few of them smiling as they moved. What. The. Fuck.

‘When you turn, position your arm higher. Like this,’ Lan Xichen said, correcting one of his disciples’ stance. ‘And don’t aim too high lest it leaves you undefended below.’

‘Yes, Zewu-Jun! Thank you for your guidance, Zewu-Jun!’

Jiang Cheng cleared his throat.

‘Sect Leader Jiang!’ his disciples chorused immediately, snapping to attention and their backs becoming ramrod straight. Some of the newer disciples looked as though they had been caught in a compromising position, their postures straight but their faces unable to control their expressions of fear. The ones who had been smiling now looked as though they were carved from stone. Behind him, he could hear the household staff scattering in different directions.

‘Sect Leader Jiang,’ said Lan Xichen, smiling at him. ‘Good morning.’

‘…tch, Lan Xichen, didn’t I tell you not to stand on ceremony over here? You’re already correcting our Jiang style of fighting when you’re here, so don’t pretend to be a stranger,’ Jiang Cheng groused.

‘I didn’t meant to offend. Please forgive my presumptuousness.’

The word were polite but Jiang Cheng could see that blasted twinkle in Lan Xichen’s eyes from his respectful bowed position. Lan Xichen was obviously having fun at his expense and making sure he wasn’t going to take his temper out on those ungrateful brats—! 

‘No, Sect Leader Jiang! It’s our fault!’

‘We asked Zewu-jun to give us some tips!’

‘Don’t blame Zewu-jun!’

‘He didn’t take over our training session!’

‘Sect Leader Jiang, you’re the best!’ shouted an overwrought disciple from the back.

‘…’ said everyone else.

‘…get the fuck back to training,’ Jiang Cheng said at last, pulling Lan Xichen along with him into the Sword Hall.

 


 

Sorting through his papers, Jiang Cheng yawned widely, not bothering to even hide it.

Lan Xichen looked unperturbed, sitting perfectly straight at the table and reading the tax incentive plans that Jiang Cheng had drawn up the night before. Earlier that month, Jiang Cheng had invited the other to Yunmeng, fearing a repeated ambush by Lan Qiren. For the second time since breaking his seclusion, Lan Xichen had come to the Lotus Pier, and clearly all his people were busy marvelling at the idea that their cantankerous leader had a friend because this was the fourth time someone had stopped by to bring them more snacks and tea.

‘So what made you grace Lotus Pier with your presence so early in the morning?’ Jiang Cheng said tiredly, waving away the little plate of lotus seed pastries and starting to sort through a second stack of paperwork.

A faint crease appeared in Lan Xichen’s eyebrow.

‘I wasn’t going to set off so early,’ he agreed drily. ‘But I was woken up earlier than expected. Wangji was…worried.’

Jiang Cheng snorted.

‘How did you know? Did he stare at you meaningfully for an extra second today?’

Lan Xichen rapped him on the knuckles reprovingly with a brush, earning a startled squawk from Jiang Cheng that was more indignation than actual pain.

‘Wangji’s never liked to use words to communicate, but his actions speak loud and clear, especially when it comes to his loved ones,’ Lan Xichen said seriously.

‘This trip of mine must have worried him a great deal. In fact, I think I even heard him pacing outside the Hanshi while I was not fully awake. That silly brother of mine didn’t even wake me up right away when he arrived.’

Jiang Cheng looked up from his letters, a frown appearing on his face.

‘All that fuss for a simple visit? He does know that it takes you less than two shichen to come here on Shuoyue, right?’

‘Yes,’ Lan Xichen agreed, frowning. ‘I thought it was a little odd too, but perhaps he was worried that my skills have rusted or that the journey would be too taxing for me. He even brought me something to take with me on my journey.’

Abandoning all pretence of working at last, Jiang Cheng leaned over despite himself to see what Lan Xichen was extracting from his bag.

‘He passed me this book The Four Classical Beauties, mumbled something about wanting me to be happy, and then he—’

Lan Xichen paused as Jiang Cheng stared at the book for a moment before bursting into hysterical laughter, clutching at his stomach, and reaching out to paw at the book weakly as though he had no strength left to snatch it from his grasp.

‘Oh my god, Xichen, have you looked inside?!’

‘No, why—Jiang Cheng!’

Jiang Cheng snatched the book from him without a second thought, and buried it deep beneath his papers.

‘Trust me, you’re better off not seeing it,’ he said, still cackling as he imagined Lan Wangji’s face as he passed the book to his brother. ‘Oh god. I’ve seen Wei Wuxian’s work often enough to identify one of his fake covers by now. What was your brother thinking?’

‘Fake—oh. Oh,’ Lan Xichen murmured, the tips of his ears beginning to turn red.

Jiang Cheng looked up, a stray chuckle still escaping him when he saw the dismayed expression on Lan Xichen’s face. At times like this, when sunlight flooded the room and lit that silky lustrous hair that fell like a curtain, he could see why people called Lan Xichen the number one cultivator gentleman of the world. With that fair complexion that made the redness on his ears and cheeks so obvious, and the liquid honey of his golden eyes, Lan Xichen looked as though someone had teased him till he was on the brink of tears. Even Jiang Cheng wanted to lean over and cuddle—

What.

‘WORK! LET’S DO WORK! WORK IS GOOD!’ Jiang Cheng snapped. He clearly hadn’t slept enough the night before. There was no need to let anyone know about that temporary fit of insanity. What the hell was his brain even thinking?

Lan Xichen eyed him dubiously but acquiesced with a sigh.

Two seconds later:

‘Could I at least see—’

‘NO.’

 

Chapter Text

Once again, it was that time of the month.

After his previous visit, Lan Xichen, clearly fearing another heartfelt donation from the private library of his younger brother, had suggested delicately that they could perhaps take turns to visit each other. Jiang Cheng, whose head still remembered the pain of memorising Lan Qiren's hundred and one rules, had initially put his foot down and coldly rejected that idea without a second’s thought.

An urgent missive then arrived from the Cloud Recesses.

Apparently, it was of utmost importance that Jiang Cheng knew that over a hundred of Gusu’s magnificent cherry blossom trees were on the cusp of coming into full bloom. If he were to make his way to the Cloud Recesses, Jiang Cheng would have the good fortune to admire one of the loveliest sights in the world right by the Cloud Recesses’ less frequented western border, cajoled the wily horticulturist, carefully circling ‘less frequented’ for Jiang Cheng’s benefit.

‘Pfft,’ Jiang Cheng had said, folding the letter up carefully. ‘How stupid does he think I am?’

Arriving at the Cloud Recesses on the appointed day in his customary fashion, Jiang Cheng strode up to Jingyi and the other disciples stationed at the gate and asked for directions in his usual frank manner. Two of them, bowing and apologising profusely, departed to inform Master Lan Qiren of his arrival, but thankfully, the others were more than happy to show him to the western gate where Lan Xichen was, indeed, waiting for him.

‘…hah, I bet you thought I would get lost!’ Jiang Cheng crowed.

‘Right,’ Lan Xichen sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose and ignoring the excited disciples milling behind Jiang Cheng.

Behind them, a starry-eyed Jingyi gestured enthusiastically for the crowd to feast their eyes upon the two older men currently engaged in an intimate conversation, their long hair whipping in the breeze as cherry blossom petals floated all around them.

 


 

Jiang Cheng grunted viciously. All around them, the energy of Zidian crackled through the oppressive air as he wielded the whip. With a feint and a sharp twist of his wrist, he managed to yank Shuoyue straight from Lan Xichen’s hands and send it winging back at him in an instant. Blocking the sudden attack with a blast from Liebing, Lan Xichen's swift thinking had made the sword halt right in front of him instead.

‘Well done!’ Jiang Cheng laughed in exhilaration.

‘The same goes to you!’ grinned Lan Xichen, as he prepared to attack with Shuoyue again.

After spending most of the day conferring with Master Lan on the final details for the conference, they were at last free to release all their pent-up energy by sparring with each other.

Jiang Cheng had taken care to be on his best behaviour since morning. The careful notes that he had made regarding the seating arrangements, guest quarters, and conference agenda, had clearly been a surprise to the Lan elder who rewarded his efforts with a brief attempt to look less like a constipated frog. Unfortunately, Jiang Cheng had been too taken aback by the sight of Lan Qiren’s face without its usual glower to truly soak it in before the other’s face reverted to its usual expression of disapproval.

To be honest, Jiang Cheng was starting to feel rather offended at the amount of unprovoked eye aggression he was receiving from the Lan elder. Was his reputation truly that heinous that even old men clutched their virtuous nephews to their bosoms when he came by? What did Lan Qiren think he was even going to do? Sully his nephew’s virtue and leave him in a family way without a new last name? Jiang Cheng snorted.

Nevertheless, after many hours of hard work, even Master Lan seemed to brighten up when Lan Xichen suggested adjourning for a break and invited Jiang Cheng to duel with him. Within minutes of them drawing their secondary weapons, however, Lan Qiren’s smile vanished.

Jiang Cheng had planned to use Zidian as a diversionary tool and Sandu as his main weapon initially. Lan Qiren’s obvious distaste for the whip aside, Jiang Cheng himself preferred the sword and rarely trained with Zidian alone. However, that had visibly annoyed Lan Xichen who had clearly been anticipating a first-hand demonstration of the abilities of this first-class spiritual weapon. Caught up with taunting each other, neither of them really noticed when Lan Qiren left, but Jiang Cheng figured that it might have been somewhere around the time Lan Xichen lost his patience and began shouting at Jiang Cheng to whip him like he meant it.

Moments later, Zidian successfully dealt a violent blow to Lan Xichen across the chest to both sect leaders' surprise.

‘Sorry! Did I hurt you?’ Jiang Cheng yelped, embarrassed by his mistake. Twisting the whip sharply, he made to pull it back but his actions came to an abrupt halt when he encountered an unexpected resistance.

‘No, I’m fine!’ Lan Xichen called back, sounding vaguely puzzled.

Instead of following his orders, Zidian was pulling in the opposite direction and circling Jiang Cheng’s wrist in a hypnotic fashion.

Jiang Cheng gawked at it dumbly.

With a lash of its tail, it pulled itself free from his wrist and began streaking towards Lan Xichen's position.

‘What the–!’

Jiang Cheng was shocked to the core. How was his own spiritual weapon defying his orders? What is it even doing?? Jiang Cheng thought in horror as he leapt desperately after it.

‘Zidian, you return right now!’ he shouted, baffled and humiliated. ‘Xichen, watch out!’

Indeed, the other end of the whip had already wound its way up Lan Xichen’s leg, and within seconds, the rest of its serpentine body had streaked through the air, pulling the First Jade of Lan up sharply against a nearby tree, and coiling tight around his body.

‘Oh fuck!’ Jiang Cheng shrieked as he tried in vain to find the head or tail of the snake which had since disappeared into the writhing mass of coils. 

‘Jiang Ch—mmph!’ Lan Xichen’s shout was cut off as the snake’s coils pressed against his mouth. His usual composure was nowhere to be seen as his face began turning pink from the lack of air.

‘HOW ARE YOU EVEN DOING THIS?!’ Jiang Cheng screeched. His fingers began yanking hopelessly and randomly at Zidian’s coils, trying to get it to release Xichen to no avail. He managed to get its coils off of Lan Xichen’s face so that the poor man could breathe, but that was all he could do as Zidian clung to the man with all the tenacity of an octopus with separation anxiety.

Abruptly, Zidian stopped moving, giving the both of them a moment’s respite. But without warning, its coils then started visibly tightening around Lan Xichen’s torso at a greater speed, and the poor man was starting to look faint. At that moment, Lan Wangji and Sizhui arrived at the scene, having hurried over upon hearing the sounds of a struggle.

 


 

‘Zewu-jun!’ Sizhui gasped, as his adoptive father’s hands clamped tightly around his eyes without warning.

‘Do not look,’ said Lan Wangji sternly, even as his own raked over the scene.

This was clearly not meant for the eyes of young children.

‘Haven’t you had enough fun?!’ Jiang Wanyin was bellowing as he wrestled Xiongzhang up against a tree. Xiongzhang was panting hard, flushed and teary-eyed as he struggled against the hold of the violet coils enveloping his entire body. Jiang Wanyin’s hands were roaming all over his body, and yet clearly from what he had said, Xiongzhang was still demanding more.

Brother is so adventurous, Lan Wangji thought uncomfortably.

What had he been thinking, gifting one of Wei Ying’s books to the couple? Clearly it was he and Wei Ying who had much further to go. What was he even doing with his life, when Xiongzhang had applied himself and graduated to such an advanced level? Lan Wangji reflected darkly, ashamed of his lack of accomplishment.

‘What’s happening?’ cried Sizhui, clearly distressed. ‘Are Zewu-jun and Sect Leader Jiang fighting?’

I wish, Lan Wangji thought grimly.

‘Xiongzhang and Sect Leader Jiang are…’ he paused. Repurposing their spiritual weapons? Indulging a voyeurism fetish? Enjoying rope-play?

‘Training.’ Writing out the rules three times would be a bargain.

Sizhui sagged in relief.

‘Oh, I see. What training are they doing? May I join in?’

If exclamation marks had a sound, they would undoubtedly have sounded like the gunshots going off inside Lan Wangji’s head.

‘Hostage rescue.’ Four times.

‘Very advanced. Only suitable for older practitioners.’ Five—no, four. ‘Much, much older.’

‘Oh,’ Sizhui said, clearly disappointed.

‘Sizhui,’ Lan Wangji began, and then paused, uncertain of how to word his request.

‘This was not meant for our eyes. It would be wise not speak of this again. Not to Zewu-jun. Not to Sect Leader Jiang. Not to Senior Wei. And definitely not to the Lan disciples, particularly Jingyi.’

‘Y-yes, Hanguang-jun!’ Sizhui exclaimed, even as Lan Wangji began steering him away from the scene, hands still firmly placed over his eyes.

Good luck, Xiongzhang!

 


 

Across the room, Master Jiang was sprawled inelegantly on his bed.

After making the journey back to Yunmeng, he had gone straight into his rooms and toppled facedown onto his bed. There he amused himself by imitating a pig being butchered for some time.

Kill? Sandu roused briefly, sensing her thoughts.

Well. That was exactly what she had been trying to do that morning when Master had unleashed her upon the man in white. Yet, the very instant she had succeeded at last in landing a vicious blow, the wave of regret and concern that came over Master was so strong that Zidian knew instantly that she was not meant to hurt the other. But if she wasn’t summoned to kill, then there could only be one other reason.

Uncertain but willing to try and see if they were compatible, Zidian had started to twine her way around the man in white, marking his scent and familiarising herself with his body as per normal.

Unfortunately, Master had been so thunderstruck upon witnessing this that he began shouting in horror, the vibrations from his voice rattling its way through her scales and making her realise that she had been mistaken.

Horrified by her error in judgment, Zidian began tightening her coils swiftly. Perhaps if she strangled the other quickly enough, it would make up for her lapse? Yet, upon seeing this, Master began bleating even more incoherently, until even Zidian gave up in exasperation.

Life was difficult.

She missed Madame Yu. Those were the good old days.

See Wei Wuxian? Hit Wei Wuxian.

That was all.

To be honest, Zidian had not thought much of the boy when she was first relinquished into his keeping. She couldn’t decide if she liked or disliked him, only knowing that he much preferred the blunt strength of Sandu to her vicious and unpredictable strikes. Madame Yu had been insistent, however, and the urgency of her tone had convinced Zidian to accept the child into her protection.

It was only after she had fully accepted him as her Master that she realised that the boy wasn't quite right in the head. Of course, he was much better now, but Zidian still remembered what he had been like years ago.

In the middle of the night, while the entire world slept quietly, Master Jiang would often suffer from a fit and begin shouting for no reason, causing Sandu and her to start awake and be on high alert for danger.

Even during the day, the madness did not spare him. Too many times had Zidian been employed to strike complete strangers while Master leapt around, shaking his fist and chanting Wei Wuxian’s name.

It was as though he didn’t even know that it was impolite to call out someone else’s name while you were whipping them, Zidian thought resentfully.

Kill? Sandu asked again hopefully, perking up. Kill them all?

No, she said sternly, though not without a hint of regret. Not tonight.

The new Master Lan would probably not like that one bit.

 

Chapter Text

‘I told you—hrrk!’ Jiang Cheng gasped, as a new wave of nausea came over him. ‘To stay away!’

‘How could I have stayed away when your letter made it clear that you were suffering?’ Lan Xichen asked reasonably, his large hands carefully holding Jiang Cheng’s hair back as the other bent over the chamber pot, heaving his guts out.

The nausea subsided for a moment and Jiang Cheng was able to catch his breath, releasing his death grip on the side of his bed.

‘You…stupid man,’ he rasped out harshly. ‘What if you catch it too?’

‘I’ve not fallen sick since I was a child!’ chirped the other unrepentantly.

‘Too slow to catch a cold, are you,’ Jiang Cheng grumbled hoarsely, using what felt like all his energy just to hold onto the porcelain cup that the other passed to him. He sipped the warm water gingerly, feeling his stomach gurgle for a moment. Jiang Cheng wasn’t exactly sure what ailed him but his symptoms thus far seemed to be a combination of the most annoying ones he had ever experienced. It was as though his body was taking advantage of the rare event to review its extensive knowledge on all the ways to make Jiang Cheng thoroughly miserable.

His coughs were violent enough that Jiang Cheng half expected to see a piece of lung with each heave, and his stomach had developed a sudden and violent animosity towards all forms of sustenance. Even his head felt heavy and his body was wracked with chills and phantom aches that came and went.

Jiang Cheng sighed, gulping down the rest of his water to soothe his burning throat.

Alas, not being in favour of this plan, Jiang Cheng’s stomach churned unhappily for a moment before expelling the oppressive liquid violently a second later. The force of that visceral reaction brought tears to Jiang Cheng’s eyes and the cup slipped from his fingers, smashing into smithereens on the ground below.

‘Ah!’ yelped Lan Xichen, leaping backwards as both the contents of Jiang Cheng’s stomach and his cup revisited the air.

Jiang Cheng started coughing again, tears streaming down his face as he struggled to breathe.

‘Oh shit, I,’ he broke off as another fit of coughing came over him. ‘Sorry.’

‘No, no, it’s not you! I’m the one who’s so careless, what am I even doing?’ Lan Xichen said in consternation, angry at himself for being caught off guard. Why hadn't he helped Jiang Cheng to hold the cup or stopped him from drinking too much at once? Thinking it over quickly, he came up with a plan and began stripping off his outer robes efficiently.

‘What are you doing?’ the younger man rasped, collapsing on the bed as though his protesting limbs no longer had the strength to hold him up.

‘While you rest, I’m going to clean up the room and get these clothes washed! A hygienic environment will help promote recovery,’ Lan Xichen said determinedly, gathering the clothes in his arm. ‘Here, take your robes off.’

Jiang Cheng’s eyes widened.

‘My…no! What, are you,’ he gasped as another coughing fit came over him. ‘Completely out of your mind?’

‘No?’ Lan Xichen said, tilting his head in puzzlement. ‘Would you rather sleep in your damp and soiled clothes?'

‘…all right, fine.’

‘Good, now come on,’ Lan Xichen cajoled. ‘Just roll over…move your arm…okay now the other…’

‘I’m not five! I can dress myself an’ all,’ Jiang Cheng wheezed pathetically and muffled another cough in his arm as he began wriggling out of his robes miserably.

Lan Xichen smiled a little. Tugging the outer robe free from where a sleeve had been trapped under Jiang Cheng’s body, he pulled it loose gently and gathered it with the rest of his clothes in his arms. Bending over, he pulled a blanket over Jiang Cheng who had curled up around his knees, looking somewhat pathetic as he shivered.

‘Rest,’ he said quietly. ‘I’ll be back soon.’

 


 

Wei Wuxian was currently perched on the roof.

If one looked up from the main courtyard, all one would see would be a pair of large, dark eyes gleaming down. He was the master of subterfuge. The king of strategy. The god of sche—

‘Why are we hiding?’ Lan Xichen whispered next to him.

‘AIEEEEEE!’ shrieked Wei Wuxian, nearly falling off the roof in shock.

Breathing hard, he recovered his senses quickly, glaring at his brother-in-law who was unsuccessfully stifling his laughter.

‘Xichen-ge!’

When Wei Wuxian caught sight of Zewu-jun sneaking out of the Cloud Recesses, he decided to see what he was up to, following at some distance on Suibian. Little did he expect the Lan sect leader to make his way to Yunmeng. Much less did he expect to catch sight of his brother-in-law disappearing into his little brother’s room as soon as he landed at the Lotus Pier!

Though Jiang Cheng and he had been taking small steps towards mending their relationship, things between them were definitely still awkward. They weren’t at the point where it would be a matter of course for Wei Wuxian to stride into Lotus Pier again as though he had never left. In fact, if any of the disciples happened to catch sight of him and address him as ‘Senior Wei’, Wei Wuxian would put serious stakes on Jiang Cheng accidentally breaking said disciple’s nose the next time they ‘sparred’.

In any case, he had kept watch from his position up on the roof, waiting for the doors to open once more so that he could see what was going on. Surely Xichen-ge didn’t fly all the way to Yunmeng for something trivial? Wei Wuxian’s childlike heart was burning with desire to know what it was.  

When the doors creaked open at last, a different part of him started burning.

‘Oh, my eyes…!’ cried Wei Wuxian in horror when his wish was fulfilled.

Through the crack in the open doorway, Wei Wuxian could clearly see Jiang Cheng lying in bed. His hair was tousled and sweat gleamed on his skin. His robes were in disarray, and his inner robes were loose enough to expose part of his chest. His mouth was parted as though he had been panting, and his eyes were half closed, giving him an unexpectedly sultry expression.

Lan Xichen hurried out from the room, wearing only his inner robes as well, but with the ribbons tied neatly around his waist. For a Lan as prim and proper as Xichen-ge, however, Wei Wuxian knew that that was the probably the closest equivalent to him tearing off his clothes and dancing on the roof.

How? Why? Jiang Cheng and Xichen-ge…??

All along, whenever Wei Wuxian was confronted with Jiang Cheng’s notorious bad temper, he wondered if it was caused by sexual frustration. Jiang Cheng being blacklisted by the matchmakers near and far was no small matter. At some point in the distant future, Wei Ying had promised himself to locate a fair and lovely maiden for his brother...or even just a normal maiden... or, well, any female would do really, so long as she was able to take his brother in hand and teach him the joys of the bedroom! Who would have imagined that the gracious Zewu-jun would step up to the task?

Wei Wuxian cursed and bravely resisted the urge to hurl himself from the roof. Closing his eyes as though to block out what he had already seen, it occurred to him all of a sudden that he had not been paying attention to where Lan Xichen was going. Unfortunately, by the time he began peering downwards to try and spot the Lan sect leader, the other was already waiting patiently by his side.

 


 

Lan Xichen’s eyes crinkled as he watched Wei Ying try and get his thoughts in order.

He had spotted the other man on the roof shortly after he had left Jiang Cheng’s chamber, and the mischievous urge to scare the younger man had been irresistible. Perhaps it was a petty desire for revenge for the way Wei Ying had secretly followed him from the Cloud Recesses, but Lan Xichen had to admit it felt rather pleasing to turn the tables on the other.

However, he now had to find a way to make sure that Wei Ying didn’t burst into his brother’s room or demand to see him.

If there was one thing Lan Xichen knew, it was that old resentments ran deep in Yunmeng Jiang’s leader. If Jiang Cheng was confronted by Wei Ying’s presence, there was a hundred per cent chance of him working himself into a fit blustering about his health. Worse still, if Jiang Cheng wound up showing the slightest hint of weakness in front of his brother, he would most likely spend the rest of the night cursing his loss of face and refusing to rest and recuperate. Sometimes, that stubborn streak made Lan Xichen long to shake some sense into him, but this definitely wasn’t the right time for it.

‘Jiang Cheng is a little tied up right now…’ Lan Xichen said apologetically, patting Wei Ying on the back when he seemed to choke on air. ‘I’m afraid he’s not really fit for conversation at the moment, but perhaps if you were to return tomorrow morning…?’

Wei Ying’s laughter sounded a touch hysterical.

‘Xichen-ge, I have to tell you something,’ said Wei Ying at last, clearly determined to get what he had to say out of the way as quickly and painlessly as possible.

‘Look, I know you’ll think it’s none of my business. I also know that things between Jiang Cheng and me are not that great right now. But all of that doesn’t change the fact that no matter how that prickly idiot feels about it, he’s still the only family I have left.’

‘And you will always be his family,’ Lan Xichen insisted, trying to reassure the younger man. ‘No one will ever be able to take your place in Jiang Cheng’s heart.’

Wei Ying laughed shortly.  

‘I think we both know that’s not true. But it doesn’t matter. Even if Jiang Cheng doesn’t think of me that way anymore, he’s always going to be my baby brother. And if you ever do anything—and I mean anything to make him feel bad,’ Wei Ying paused, glaring at him for emphasis. ‘I’ll make you regret it and not even Lan Zhan will be able to stop me.’

Stunned, Lan Xichen was silent for a moment.

Wei Ying…already knew that Jiang Cheng was sick? On top of that, he could even tell at a glance that Lan Xichen wasn’t doing a good job taking care of his brother! Lan Xichen had thought that only the Jiang household staff would know about his deplorable lack of skill, but it seemed that it was obvious to all.

Lan Xichen bit his lip in embarrassment.

Wei Ying also wasn’t demanding to see his brother like he had feared. It looked like he had worried for nothing after all! Truly, no one understood his brother’s temperament better than Wei Ying himself. How could he ever have doubted that?

‘Wei Ying, please trust me, I won’t let you down,’ Lan Xichen promised determinedly. ‘Jiang Cheng’s been so good to me all this time. It’s my turn to take care of him now and I’m going to do my best!’

‘Xichen-ge… Thank you,’ Wei Ying smiled helplessly. A part of him still thought that he should be much fiercer and scarier towards any man who dared to court his little brother, but Lan Xichen probably really was the best offer that Jiang Cheng would ever get in his life.

The two men continued to look at each other in awkward silence.

‘All right! I’ve said what I needed to say, so, uh…goodbye! Have fun…’ 

Wei Ying cringed so hard it felt like his eyeballs were digging into his brain.

‘No! I meant…I meant…have a good evening? Oh no, that’s weird now, too. Have a mildly pleasant time with…god, it’s not like you’re Jin Guangyao and his sister, are you? Oh shit, that’s worse. I mean, er…’

‘Wei Ying.’

‘Y-yes?’

‘How about stopping after “goodbye”?’

‘Goodbye! Yes, goodbye, that works! All right, goodbye, brother-in-law! I’m rooting for you!’ Wei Ying babbled as he scrambled up the roof so quickly, that in a second, the only sign of his presence was the tail end of his ribbon disappearing over the wall.

 


 

Well. That was odd.

Lan Xichen mused to himself as he returned to Jiang Cheng’s chamber, bearing fresh robes that he had obtained from one of the household staff. They had clearly also been inside as the mess on the floor was gone and the candle at the side table was extinguished, leaving only the faint moonlight to illuminate the room.

Walking over to the bed, Lan Xichen gazed at his best friend silently.

The other always put up a strong front no matter the circumstances and Lan Xichen rarely saw him with his guard down like this. He didn’t like seeing him brought so low by illness, but there was little else he could do for him but to let the illness run its course, and to offer his help with anything he needed in the interim.

He rested his hand against Jiang Cheng’s fevered brow for a moment, comparing the temperature against his own. The other was indeed unnaturally warm, though Lan Xichen could feel shivers racking through him.

At his touch, Jiang Cheng’s eyes opened and he looked up at him, somewhat in a daze. Without speaking, he reached out with his hand to grasp hold of Lan Xichen’s own, tucking it beneath his chin as though seeking an additional bit of warmth. His eyes closed again.

Lan Xichen was at a loss.

He couldn’t very well stay in that crouched position without moving all night but he didn’t want to retract his hand either, as it seemed to provide Jiang Cheng with the comfort and body heat he sought.

Sighing, Lan Xichen pushed and prodded at Jiang Cheng until the other growled at him tiredly and opened his eyes again.

‘Move over,’ he said simply.

Jiang Cheng was probably too exhausted to argue as he obediently shifted a little to his left, leaving room for Lan Xichen to crawl under the covers. Shifting their positions a little so that he was curled around the younger man, Lan Xichen tucked the other under his chin and held him close, letting the shivers slowly ease their way into stillness. Within a few moments, the furrow in Jiang Cheng’s brow had lightened somewhat, and he relaxed into a deep slumber.

As Lan Xichen drifted off to sleep as well, an unusual feeling of peace and protectiveness washed over him as he held someone he cherished dearly in his arms.

 

Chapter Text

The sound of the first drops hitting the roof could be heard.

Lan Xichen sighed inwardly.

Though Gusu had been undergoing a dry spell in recent weeks, the rain had picked a most inopportune moment to arrive. Beside him, Wangji, too, was looking up at the dark sky with some concern.

That day, forty of the Lan disciples would be moving out in teams to provide assistance to those looking to speak to their loved ones. The annual Ghost Festival was the setting for the traditional first mission for juniors seeking entrance into their sixth year of cultivation study, and the long day ahead would be a test of both their skills and empathy.

The Lan juniors had been instructed on their responsibilities and informed of the need to prioritise cases where the spirits had been unable to move on. However, as was the case each year, it seemed inevitable that some households would insist on them using Inquiry for the sole purpose of calling out to those who had gone beyond the veil. Several of the elders, as well as Wangji, Wei Ying, and he, would be moving individually, going from group to group to ensure that everything was proceeding well. Having undergone the same mission as students, they knew well that at times, it was not the spirits themselves who would prove to be the most troublesome. 

In Yunmeng, Jiang Cheng would have an even busier day ahead of him. Not only did the Jiang sect leader bear the responsibility of hosting a feast for the souls of the nameless dead, he was also bound to visit the homes of many of the Yunmeng locals to pay his respects, as was the tradition even before his father’s time.

Nevertheless, in spite of his busy schedule, Jiang Cheng had refused to cancel their monthly meeting, sending a brief letter only four days ago to say that he would be stopping by the Cloud Recesses late in the evening for a few hours when the day’s work was done. Lan Xichen had tried to tell him that there was no real reason why they couldn’t meet on another day, or even postpone their meeting to the following month, but the Jiang sect leader was stubborn and declared only that he wasn’t the type to ‘eat his words’.

Lan Xichen’s brow furrowed in thought. While the late hour of Jiang Cheng’s arrival meant that fewer people would be around, it was still no guarantee that the Jiang sect leader would be able to enter the Cloud Recesses without being detected, especially since Master Lan had expressly instructed all disciples to notify him the moment Jiang Cheng stepped foot on their premises.

But where can we go so that Shufu will not find us? What if Shufu insists on accompanying us again and Jiang Cheng decides not to visit anymore?

‘Xiongzhang,’ Wangji said quietly, turning to him. ‘You seem worried.’

Lan Xichen hesitated, unsure of how to phrase his question without causing his brother undue concern. After all, Wangji had made no secret of his distaste for the Jiang sect leader. Yet, his brother, having headed the discipline committee in his youth, knew every nook and cranny of the Cloud Recesses even better than he did. Perhaps he would know where to go.

‘Wangji, I…’ he started awkwardly.

‘I wish to bring someone into the Cloud Recesses.’

His brother stared at him blankly.

‘Bring someone into the Cloud Recesses…?’ he echoed.

‘Yes,’ Lan Xichen confessed. ‘I wish to bring him here and hide him...’

‘…and hide him?’

Lan Xichen nodded.

‘…and you’re afraid that he might be unwilling to come?’ Wangji asked flatly.

Lan Xichen nodded again, speechless with love for his younger brother who knew him better than anyone else in the world.

Without another word, Lan Wangji walked back into his room and slid the door shut behind him.

‘W-Wangji?’

Judging by the strong feeling of consternation that his brother had communicated to him telepathically, it seemed that Wangji, too, had no idea where they could go.

Lan Xichen sighed again.

 


 

Wei Ying yawned as he trudged alongside Lan Xichen.

Ahead of them, Lan Wangji led the way silently.

It seemed like his husband was still in a bad mood.

They had woken up so early in the morning that Wei Ying himself was still half asleep while he got dressed. When he was finally ready, he found Lan Zhan sitting at a table, ruminating in silence. His posture was excellent as usual, and yet his blank expression and spiky aura were somehow conveying the impression of a deeply offended cat.

Wei Ying shook his head. He knew what it was all about, but truly, it beggared belief.

The day before, they had been so busy helping the fifth-years prepare for their first mission that they hadn’t had time to truly indulge in their nightly recreation. They didn’t even manage to do anything fun in the morning either as Wei Ying had probably been all but dead to the world in his sleep.

Well, there was no help for it, he thought fondly, looking at Lan Zhan in the distance.

It looked like the two of them would be retiring early that night. If his arse had to suffer a little, that was only to be expected. He couldn’t believe his silly husband could be that moody when they already did it all the time. Was everyone in the Lan sect like him? If so, that was just—wait a minute.

‘Xichen-ge,’ Wei Wuxian said slowly.

‘When was the last time you met up with Jiang Cheng?’

Lan Xichen paused in his steps, looking at him curiously.

‘I believe that was the time when you were there as well?’

‘T-that was one month ago!’

‘Precisely,’ Lan Xichen raised an eyebrow. ‘Didn’t you know? Jiang Cheng and I have an arrangement to meet once a month.’

A whimper escaped Wei Wuxian.

‘No…’

‘It’s true,’ Lan Xichen said. ‘It would be nice if we could meet more often, but I’m afraid we have to make do with what we have.’

My poor a-Cheng! Wei Wuxian thought in horror. How you must be suffering!

Everyone knew that Lan Xichen and his brother were alike in almost every way. If the younger one was so aggressive in bed, what must the elder one be like? Wei Wuxian shuddered in disbelief. If Lan Zhan was so desperate for him after just missing just one night, Lan Xichen had to be going insane, being restricted to a monthly rendezvous. In fact, if Lan Zhan had been in Xichen-ge’s shoes, Wei Ying probably wouldn’t be able to get out of bed for three days and three nights after they were done! Yes, he still winced at the idea of every day being every day, but compared to that—doing it on a more regular basis was definitely the better deal!

‘—and he said that two or three hours should be enough,’ Lan Xichen finished.

What? Wei Ying felt torn. Sure, he had been the one to bring up the subject, but no elder brother ever wanted to know the details of their younger siblings’ sexual exploits! Was this payback for that one night when the Hanshi was under repair and Lan Xichen was put up in their spare room? He had already apologised for that and promised to put up silencing talismans from then on, hadn’t he?

In any case, wasn’t it odd for both Xichen-ge and Jiang Cheng to be content with such an arrangement? Wei Ying himself couldn’t care less about what the old fuddy-duddies from the other sects were gossiping about, and he definitely wasn’t a stickler for moral norms, but this cavalier attitude was the last thing he would have expected from Xichen-ge. Also, as sect leaders, weren’t the two supposed to care more about upholding their image? Weren’t they at all worried about others finding out about their relationship? Wei Ying may have been the first to find out about their love affair thanks to his sharp instincts, but how long did the two think they had before the rest of the cultivation world came to learn about it?

‘Xichen-ge, did you ever tell Jiang Cheng that you wanted more?’ Wei Ying demanded at last.

‘I’m happy to wait for him,’ Lan Xichen smiled gently. ‘Jiang Cheng promised me that he would come when he was ready. He has his responsibilities, too.’

‘Xichen-ge, surely you’re not thinking of sacrificing your happiness for the sake of the Lan and Jiang sects? This is no small matter that we’re talking about! It concerns your lifelong happiness, both yours and my brother’s!’ Wei Ying said, distressed.

‘It’s not as important as all that, surely! Sometimes, we must put the needs of others ahead of our own. Jiang Cheng and I will have a few hours to spend together today. I am content.’

 


 

Wei Ying wanted to hit someone.

How could Lan Xichen think that his own happiness was not an important matter? Wei Wuxian didn’t know how it came about, but he was putting his money on his blithering idiot of a brother for being responsible for this sad state of affairs. The Lans were devoted romantics who loved only once in their life, and Lan Xichen was the archetypal Lan in all aspects. He bet it was Jiang Cheng who was being a stubborn fool, too embarrassed to lose to his brother again by coming out as the second cutsleeve in the family. But was this really something worth competing over?! Wei Ying raged inwardly. Wouldn’t it be better to get married properly so that no one could talk behind their backs? Their sects' followers should be so lucky to have two sect leaders for the price of one!

How he longed for someone he could unburden his chest to. But whom could he tell?

The juniors were out of the question. They all regarded Zewu-jun as an icon of righteousness and virtue—telling them that their dignified leader engaged in illicit activities monthly with another man would be like asking them to imagine Lan Qiren with a secret crossdressing fetish. Their young impressionable minds might crack under the pressure of trying to hold two such contradictory ideas at once.

Wei Wuxian shook his head violently as though he were physically dislodging those horrifying thoughts.

Lan Zhan? That was even worse. He would listen to Wei Ying until he was done, and then without a word, fly off to Yunmeng to kill his baby brother for daring to defile his brother’s purity. Jiang Cheng wouldn’t even know what hit him. One moment that stupid brother of his would be grumpily eating lotus seeds and ordering his poor disciples around, and the next, his head would be bobbing alongside the lotus flowers.

Previously, after Wei Wuxian had bid his brother-in-law farewell, he had set off for Gusu immediately, bursting at the seams with the desire to share with Lan Zhan what he had just uncovered. However, the flight back allowed him to cool his head and think things through. Wei Wuxian had tried over and over, playing out a hundred scenarios in his mind where he revealed the sordid truth to his husband, and not a single one of them failed to wind up in Jiang Cheng’s grisly death. By the time he reached Gusu, he discovered that he was not quite as keen to alert Lan Zhan to his brother’s new relationship status.

Wei Wuxian tapped his foot furiously, still thinking hard and ignoring the Twin Jades who were by now quite a distance ahead, looking at him curiously.

Well, there was at least one person who would be as invested as he when it came to the successful conclusion of the affair between the two…

 


 

‘A-Yuan! How are you, my adorable little Lan? Everything going well? Ghosts lining up obediently to whisper in your ear? Good, good! Anyway, listen, I have something to ask you.’

‘What is it, Senior Wei?’

‘Have you perhaps been writing to Jin Ling?’

‘Ah! Um…well, yes…but please don’t worry about it, I make sure not to do it too often! I wouldn’t want to disturb him and make him neglect his duties.’

‘Goodness, what are you getting all worked up about? I just wanted to know if you could perhaps mention something to him in your next letter.’

‘Oh, um, what is it?’

‘Ask him if he has anything planned for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Tell him that it’s a time best spent with family. Stress family. Make sure you really emphasise that and get it into his thick skull, would you?’

‘Ah, yes, Senior Wei!’

‘And let’s keep this a secret, just between the two of us. You don’t need to mention it to Zewu-jun. Nor to Sect Leader Jiang. And not to Hanguang-jun. And definitely…’

‘…not to the Lan disciples, particularly Jingyi?’

‘A-Yuan! What have I told you about being so cute? How dare you know me so well?’

‘Senior Wei, you’re really too much like Hanguang-jun…’

 


 

As the evening drew to a close, the colour of the sky darkened into indigo.

Overhead, the stars began to emerge one by one.

‘This was why you had to come tonight?’ Lan Xichen said softly.

Jiang Cheng nodded, flushing a little.

They were seated on one of the large rocks in the river, safely hidden by the thick foliage on both sides. Though it had been difficult to navigate their way in the dark, Lan Xichen had an intimate knowledge of the place, having played among the trees and in the water when he was young. Jiang Cheng, too, having grown up among the myriad lakes and rivers of Yunmeng, had had no difficulty in scrambling across the slippery rocks either.

Lan Xichen looked down at the completed lantern he held in his lap, not trusting himself to speak. His fingers caressed the elegant petals of the lotus lantern.

‘I couldn’t bring that many, but I thought, perhaps… perhaps seven would be enough,’ Jiang Cheng said haltingly.

‘For my family and yours?’ Lan Xichen said at last, swallowing around the lump in his throat.

Jiang Cheng nodded again.

Lan Xichen had heard of such a practice but he had never witnessed it before. Lotus lanterns that floated on the river’s surface on that night were said to guide the deceased on their journey into the afterlife. His parents had long passed, while his sworn brothers were still sealed in the coffin so no one could tell what had become of their spirits. For Jiang Cheng to remember them and to give them the same importance that he gave his family… Tears welled up in Lan Xichen’s eyes. No one else would have allowed him to grieve so openly without asking what right he had to do so.

Beside him, Jiang Cheng began working on another. His fingers pushed the petals of the lotus flower upwards, fanning them out with practised ease. Bending the paper till the leaves took shape, he soon formed a base for the flower to rest upon. Together, they worked in silence until all seven paper lanterns were complete.

‘Someone once told me that the rituals that we do are for the living, and not for the sake of the dead,’ Jiang Cheng said quietly, lighting the first candle.

‘He said that the paper money we burn for the dead is nothing more than a bribe for our guilty consciences, and that even incense had little to no benefit for the spirits...’

Though all he could see was Jiang Cheng’s profile, Lan Xichen could see the light of the candle flame flickering in those familiar almond eyes.

‘So I’m doing this for you, but also for myself,’ he said at last, sounding tired.

‘Because I think it has to be enough to know that we loved them once. And after so long, I think perhaps it’s time to let go.’

In silence, Lan Xichen reached out to grip his shoulder. Jiang Cheng’s eyes met his. The other looked exhausted, but the smile he gave him was small but genuine.

Slowly, they lit the remaining lanterns and set each one down gently in the water.

Their fingers laced together as they watched the lanterns float down the calm waters, until at last their warm glow became nothing more than pinpricks of light in the distance. 

 

Chapter Text

‘There you are!’ Wei Wuxian’s voice rang out.

Jin Ling looked up sharply.

‘What do you mean “there you are”?’ he demanded hotly. ‘Sizhui told me that you had something important to tell me and asked me to wait here after lunch! Do you know the sun is just about to set?!’

‘And still, technically, after lunch,’ Wei Wuxian grinned, visibly unaffected by Jin Ling’s rage, having been inoculated against the original Jiang strain when young.

‘And stop frowning, a-Ling, you’re going to get wrinkles at this rate! Do you really want to look like an old man when your fabulous uncle—me, obviously—is still young and beautiful? I come bearing great news, news that will surely make you leap for joy and kowtow to me in thanks!’

Jin Ling scoffed. ‘Please. What could you possibly have to say that could make—’

‘Jiang Cheng is in love with Zewu-jun.’

A long moment of silence ensued.

‘…Mo Xuanyu?’ Jin Ling asked suspiciously.

‘What? Obviously, I… hey, I’m not crazy!’ Wei Wuxian huffed in annoyance.

‘Look, it’s absolutely true but it’s a secret, all right? No one knows apart from the two of us! Anyway, the two of them are definitely in love but I think they just need a little push. When Jiang Cheng hears from his two favourite people, he might reconsider his stance on marriage!’

‘His two favourite... what, me and you??’

‘Of course! Don’t be fooled by his sharp tongue. My shimei has always had a soft spot for me! Did you know he’s been collecting many of my portraits? Did you know he all but begged me to be here in Yunmeng?’

‘You’re lying!’

‘Oh, am I?’

 


 

Two weeks ago:

Jiang Cheng frowned as he stared at the accommodation plans. Jin Ling would be bringing his usual retinue and ten of his top ranked disciples to the conference. While the brat had a designated room at the Lotus Pier, there was no real reason for the rest of them to be given the privilege of staying so close to the personal Jiang quarters. Who knew how many among them were secret progeny of the old Jin leader? Jiang Cheng added a note in the margins about making all his female disciples and staff practise their screaming till they could be sure of being heard at least one li away. His overstimulated mind lighted on Jin Guangyao. No, male and female.

‘Sect leader!’ one of the disciples rushed in, looking somewhat flustered. ‘There are people here to see you! They say they’re under attack!’

‘Who would dare?!’ Jiang Cheng snarled, leaping to his feet.

His worst fears had come true. The Lotus Pier was once more under siege and it fell to him to make sure that it didn’t fall to ruin once more.

‘I-I don’t know, sect leader! But these fishermen are very insistent on seeing you! They’re waiting by the docks!’

‘Fishermen?!’

Snatching up Sandu, Jiang Cheng all but flew in the direction of the docks, with his men following close on his heels. As he got closer, he could see that a crowd had gathered. Even the market vendors had left their wares unguarded as they joined the curious onlookers gathered at the end of the wooden platform like a troop of suicidal lemmings.

‘Hey, let me through! Excuse me!’ Jiang Cheng barked, squeezing his way to the front, where several of the local fishermen were waving frantically at him.

‘All right, what’s the emergency?’ he demanded. ‘Where’s the enemy?!’

‘There, Sect Leader Jiang! Can’t you hear that?!’

‘ALL OF YOU, SHUT UP!’ Jiang Cheng roared at last, struggling to understand what he was listening to over the din of the excited crowd. As a hush fell upon them, he could clearly hear the words sweeping out over the water.

‘Hoooooome,’ warbled a distant voice, sounding like the mournful call of a beached whale.

‘Home far awayyy… where the heads of the lotus will sway…’

‘Who the fuck is making that noise? Make it stop!’ Jiang Cheng said incredulously.

‘That’s the problem, Sect Leader Jiang! We can’t get near it! It’s killing all our fish!’

‘Where seldom is heard…’

‘What do you mean?’ he shouted, staring at the bodies of the fish floating up to the surface of the water, and trying to drown out the voice that was somehow trying to expel his brain forcefully from his ears.

‘When we try to get our boats closer, the music somehow forces us back!’

‘An encouraging word…’

‘What music?! That’s just noise!’

‘No, Sect Leader, listen!’

‘And a-Cheng’s eyes are stormy all day… ‘

What the fuck?

‘Ohhhhh give me a home,’ the singer started up again, as a dispirited strum of the guqin shivered into the air, as though it were about to die from shame.

‘WEI WUXIAN!!!’ Jiang Cheng howled. ‘WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?!’

 


 

‘…and so you see, after that, Jiang Cheng told me that I, as his beloved senior, was of course very welcome in Yunmeng at any time of year. Isn’t that grand? I can dock at Yunmeng again! Jiang Cheng even told me that he collected all of my portraits which had been hung around town! Of course, it’s sad that everyone in Yunmeng will be deprived of the opportunity to see all of this,’ Wei Wuxian gestured up and down to his body. ‘But you know how jealous your Jiujiu can be. I don’t blame him for wanting to hoard all of my pictures for himself.’

Jin Ling’s head hit the table with a satisfying thud. Fuck it. He had no dignity left as a sect leader anyway. Everyone already knew that Wei Wuxian was his uncle. It was a lost cause.

‘A-Ling?’

Praying for patience, Jin Ling sat up again, ignoring a rebellious strand of hair that had fallen across his eyes and given him a wild and unkempt look.

‘Firstly…those weren’t just portraits, those were the Most Wanted portraits that Jiujiu had done when he wasn’t sure if you were going to resurrect yourself or if you were going to, you know, just possess some poor guy’s body. Secondly, I don’t think you won Jiujiu over with your bullshit serenading. If anything, you should thank your lucky stars that he didn’t ban you from entering the Lotus Pier permanently! Why didn’t you just ask to be invited back?!’

‘I didn’t think that he’d agree just like that!’ Wei Wuxian said, aggrieved. ‘Is it my fault that love has mellowed him?’

‘And, oh my god, you even made Hanguang-jun play the accompaniment with his guqin? Were his ears bleeding? How did you even manage to persuade him to do it?’

‘Persuade him?’ Wei Wuxian said, sounding both insulted and flattered all at once. ‘Ha! That shows what you know—it was all his idea!’

‘You must be joking.’

‘I’m really not. I asked him last month! I waited till he was all relaxed and happy, you know, after he had come inside…’

‘I DON’T WANT TO KNOW!’ Jin Ling shouted in horror.

‘…to dry off properly, after spending the afternoon soaking in the cold springs. What’s the matter with you, idiot child?’

‘I’m not an idiot, you’re the idiot,’ Jin Ling mumbled, feeling his face burn.

‘But seriously, a-Ling, let me give you some invaluable advice. If you ever want to get a-Yuan to agree to something, make sure that you pick the right moment to ask. Always try to choose a moment when he’s feeling good and satisfied, got it? Even if you just want to sit him down and bounce—’

Jin Ling shrieked impotently at this, drawing the curious stares of the other patrons in the inn.

‘—ideas off of him, that’s the time to do it,’ Wei Wuxian finished placidly, with a pleasant smile on his face.

‘I thought Jiujiu was obsessed when he spent so many years wanting to kill you, but now I think I understand the appeal,’ Jin Ling gritted out.

‘Don’t be like that, I’m just looking out for you!’ Wei Wuxian said, injured. ‘Do you think your Jiujiu will share this precious knowledge with you? Of course not! He’s in a relationship with Lan Xichen, the saint of Gusu Lan! When will he ever need to ask for anything?’

‘I’m telling you, you’re insane! Did you fall out of bed and hit your head or something? There’s no way Jiujiu is dating someone. Who would put up with that foul temper of his? And of everyone you could have picked, you chose Zewu-jun? The number 1 cultivator in the world, and you think he likes my uncle? There’s just no possibility of this being true!’

‘Oh yeah? Well then, explain how is it that when I went to Yunmeng, I saw them sharing a room?’

‘You’re lying!’

‘I saw Zewu-jun sneak into your Jiujiu’s room late at night! And not only that, but I saw a-Cheng make such a sexy face! He was lying in bed and his face looked like this, and his hands were busy loosening his robes, and…’

‘Shut up! You’re shameless!! I don’t believe you!’

 


 

On that very afternoon, the leaders of two of the most well-respected sects in the cultivation world were having tea in one of the more popular restaurants in town. Seated on the second floor of the establishment, the two had a clear view of the street down below. Though the sky was still bright out, more and more people were beginning to fill the streets in anticipation of the festivities, and many of the street vendors had already begun to set up their stalls in preparation for the night’s festival. 

‘Have you really never celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival before?’ Jiang Cheng eyed Lan Xichen as the other began cutting one of the mooncakes into quarters.

Lan Xichen shook his head.

‘Many of the customs are considered to be rather frivolous and aren’t encouraged in the Cloud Recesses... I remember Shufu reading the tale about the ten suns to us though. When he told us what happened to Chang-e, Wangji asked him seriously about the name of her sword. He thought it had to be an especially powerful one to bring her all the way to the moon!’

Despite himself, Jiang Cheng found himself grinning at that. He had never thought about Lan Wangji as having been a child once, but surely he, too, must have been young and foolish once upon a time.

Though probably not as foolish as he himself had been, Jiang Cheng admitted to himself, feeling a pang at the thought of his own brother. In spite of the aggravation that he had felt during Wei Wuxian’s last visit, a miniscule part of him was surprisingly keen to see his brother back at Yunmeng again. He bet that that would occur sooner rather than later, too, considering how the other had gone to such lengths in order to extort a standing invitation from him. In fact, if his eyes weren’t deceiving him, he could have sworn that Wei Wuxian was right below him at that moment.

‘What’s your brother doing?’ Lan Xichen asked curiously, clearly noticing the crouching figure as well.

Oh good, not a hallucination then.

‘Excuse me?’ Jiang Cheng demanded. ‘You do realise that he’s your brother-in-law and I’m the one who doesn’t have any actual ties to him?’

‘I’m not sure this came from my side of the family,’ Lan Xichen said dubiously, gazing down at where Wei Wuxian had plastered himself to the side of the flower stall. Satisfied after a quick check that no one was staring at him save for the startled vendor, Wei Wuxian scooted forward, executed a quick forward tumble, and made a mad dash towards the inn on the opposite side of the street.

To Jiang Cheng’s horror, he then disappeared from view and reappeared on the second floor. A closer look at the posture of the figure sulking in a corner had told Jiang Cheng everything he needed to know about Wei Wuxian’s mysterious guest.

‘But where’s Wangji?’ fretted Lan Xichen who clearly had very different priorities.

‘I wonder,’ said Jiang Cheng disinterestedly as he continued with his attempts to burn a hole into Wei Wuxian’s head with the power of his glare.

‘It’s not like Wangji to leave Wei Ying alone in Yunmeng like this. Surely the two would want to spend time together on this special day…’ said Lan Xichen, peering at the street quickly through each gap in the wooden lattice, like a voyeur with a packed schedule.

‘He’s an adult; he can take care of himself,’ said Jiang Cheng distractedly, eyes still glued to the scene across the street.

The two seemed to be getting along a little too well for his liking. A few minutes later, Jin Ling seemed to reach the end of his rope and he began shouting at the other, his face getting redder and redder. Wei Wuxian, on the other hand, was…

‘I’m going to break your damn legs,’ snarled Jiang Cheng abruptly, causing Lan Xichen to start and glance over at the couple as well.

Lan Xichen felt his ears grow warm at the sight of Wei Ying’s lascivious expression and provocative poses. Moments later, Wei Ying burst out cackling and Jin Ling began yelling at him, punching his uncle in the shoulder until the other raised both hands in mock surrender.

‘He’s probably just teasing Jin Ling,’ Lan Xichen smiled at Jiang Cheng. ‘Wei Ying seems to express his affection in this way quite often. Besides, today is a day for family. Didn’t Wei Ying visit you two weeks ago as well?’

‘He was just fishing for an invitation. He grew up here after all. It’s not surprising that he’d miss the place,’ Jiang Cheng scoffed, visibly calmer once he had seen Jin Ling defend himself against his morally questionable uncle.

‘And perhaps the people, too?’ said Lan Xichen gently.

Jiang Cheng’s eyes met his uncertainly. Seeing no mockery in them, he sighed again.

The last bit of tension bled from his shoulders.

‘All right, fine. Jin Ling can get to know his other uncle. He’s also an adult who can take care of himself… Jin Ling, too.’

Lan Xichen laughed at his joke, looking so pleased and proud of him in that moment that Jiang Cheng could not help but return his smile as well.

 

Chapter Text

As the moon rose high into the sky, the spirits of those attending the Mid-Autumn Festival rose with it. Children, delighted at being allowed to stay up later than usual, wove in and out of the throngs of people, waving their paper lanterns with abandon. The streets were brighter than ever with lanterns hung outside every shop. Everywhere, the sounds of joy and merriment could be heard, interspersed with the calls of street vendors hawking their wares.

At the pier, a man dressed all in white stood silently by a boat.

‘Mummy, who’s that man?’ asked a child who, like a true child of Yunmeng, had wandered in the direction of the water. Her mother hushed her, looking a little bewildered by the unexpected presence of a statue of a man and his dog.

Fairy wagged her tail.

 


 

‘Wow…’

Lan Xichen’s eyes grew round as he watched the artist work the molten sugar on the gleaming table surface. Within seconds, the artist had skilfully manoeuvred the base of his ladle to create a thick swirl spreading from left to right. With a second dip of his ladle into the pot for more sugar syrup, the artist began adding fine lines to his edible artwork with practised ease.

Jiang Cheng tapped his foot meditatively as he stood back and watched his friend huddle with the troop of excited children at the stall.

Something about this was unsettlingly familiar.

‘Look, Jiang Cheng!’ Lan Xichen exclaimed in delight as he waved him over. ‘Isn’t this amazing?’

Oh, right.

Like Lan Xichen, the children gathered around the stall were similarly impressed, gasping with delight as they identified parts of the creature that was swiftly taking shape.

‘Come one, come all! The one who names my first creation of the night gets it for free!’ the artist called out.

‘The ox! The ox!’ shouted one child, his parents looking on indulgently behind him.

‘A cat!’ shrieked another girl, ignoring her mother’s efforts to point out the spinning wheel on the table with its 12 zodiac animals.

‘No, look at those horns, it must be the dragon!’ shouted another boy.

‘Oh, oh! It’s a rabbit!!’ cried Lan Xichen, all but vibrating in his eagerness.

Jiang Cheng closed his eyes in agony.

‘Well done, s-sir,’ said the artist in surprise when he looked up to see a full-grown man standing in front of him. ‘Here you go! Is it for your son or daughter?’

‘Thank you, and no, it isn’t,’ Lan Xichen beamed, presenting the stick proudly to Jiang Cheng.

‘Sect Leader Jiang…!’ said the artist, startled in spite of Jiang Cheng’s best efforts to become one with the nearest pillar.

‘Sect Leader Jiang?’

‘Here? Isn’t he too busy for this sort of thing?’

‘He’s joining the festivities? Really?’

Jiang Cheng gritted his teeth, hearing the incredulous comments from the parents nearby as they began to gawk none too subtly at him and his companion. Meanwhile, Lan Xichen was still holding out the stick of sugar art hopefully, waving it encouragingly at Jiang Cheng as though puzzled by his reticence.

Suddenly reminded of the time when Jin Ling had tried to feed Fairy vegetables, Jiang Cheng started to smile.

Everyone gasped.

Sensing their eyes on him again, Jiang Cheng scowled and grabbed the stick of sugar art.

‘Thanks,’ he muttered, trying to ignore the envious eyes of all the children present.

‘You’re very welcome!’ chirped Lan Xichen.

One child, clearly wishing to demonstrate his understanding of the Jiang family motto, decided to go all in by tugging at Jiang Cheng’s robes and looking up at him imploringly.

‘What do you want? Stop it,’ Jiang Cheng growled.

Sensing weakness, two more children pushed past Lan Xichen and came to stare at him.

‘All right, you’re starting to freak me out now. Go away,’ Jiang Cheng huffed, regretting his choice of friends as he noticed Lan Xichen’s smile take on a bewildered edge. Extracting his beleaguered friend from the rest of the children who had started inching inexorably towards him as well, Jiang Cheng said a quick prayer and tossed a handful of silver at the vendor.

‘Make these kids here some candy, got it?’

‘Yes, Sect Leader Jiang!’ grinned the artist, as the startled parents began calling out their thanks.

‘…thank you, Sect Leader Jiang!’ chorused the world’s youngest mafia gang, smiling winningly at him.

Jiang Cheng suppressed a shudder and walked faster, dragging Lan Xichen along.

 


 

‘Look at that, a-Ling!’ Wei Wuxian exclaimed, holding his hands to his thrilled heart.

‘Did you not feel love in the air when your Jiujiu looked so fondly at Zewu-jun? Didn’t you see that smile of his quiver with affection as he gazed upon his beloved?’

‘You repulse me,’ Jin Ling said flatly.

‘And that’s not all,’ continued Wei Wuxian mercilessly, ‘they were even holding hands as they left! Now tell me, do you or do you not agree with me that the two are in a relationship?’

Jin Ling scoffed.

‘Clearly you’ve been away from Yunmeng far too long. Those street urchins will harass anyone they meet to get free candy—Jiujiu usually holds out longer than that, but Zewu-jun was in their clutches. What else could he do but grab him and run?’

Wei Wuxian sighed.

‘A-Ling, how did you become so unsentimental? How did your uncle raise you??’

‘Which uncle?’ Jin Ling asked moodily. ‘The one that had his family killed, or the one that killed his family?’ 

‘…never mind.’

 


 

‘Okay, look at that,’ breathed Wei Wuxian, looking as though he had just discovered a treasure chest with a never-ending supply of gold. 

At the stall, Lan Xichen had sidestepped Jiang Cheng’s flailing and placed several nuggets of silver reverently into the outstretched hands of the vendor, ignoring Jiang Cheng’s attempts to intercept the exchange. The thunderous expression of the Jiang sect leader made his displeasure clear, but the lantern vendor was already starting to pack up his wares, having secured a week’s earnings in one transaction.

‘What a profitable match for a-Cheng! Look at how Xichen-ge takes the initiative to pay for whatever he wants, without being asked! Look at how a-Cheng doesn’t need to pretend that he’s left his money pouch at home!’ said Wei Wuxian approvingly as he stroked his chin.

‘That’s because he didn’t! I can see it right there,’ Jin Ling protested. ‘Jiujiu isn’t poor, you know. It’s not like he needs charity!’

‘Well, don’t blame me when your spendthrift ways leave you in financial ruin,’ Wei Wuxian sniffed as he watched his shimei accept the lantern with bad grace.

Ahead of them, the two continued to have a passionate one-sided quarrel.

‘Why? Xichen, just why? You shouldn’t be wasting money like this!’

‘Ah, you looked like you wanted it...’

‘No! That was a trap! Only silly tourists and small children would have fallen for that spiel. How does a man your age still fall for it? How??’

‘It’s worth every penny if it made you happy!’

‘…can you stop being so nice for one damn second, I’m trying to have a fight with you here!’ 

‘If I have to listen to any more of this, I might throw up,’ said Wei Wuxian grumpily.

‘Great, now they’re fighting. Really, if this is your idea of people being in love…’

 


 

‘Tell me, is it an Yunmeng tradition to sell white thread during the festival?’ asked Lan Xichen curiously.

‘Thread?’ repeated Jiang Cheng, as the two strolled down a less crowded street, with the solitary lantern between them lighting the way.

‘Yes, we just passed a second stall selling thread. What is it for?’

Jiang Cheng mused for a second, turning around to see what had caught his best friend’s eye. In a corner, he thought he saw a dark shadow duck behind an open door. Was it his imagination?

‘What thread—oh,’ Jiang Cheng said in realisation.

‘Please tell me you’ve eaten dragon’s beard candy before.’

‘Uh… well…’

Jiang Cheng groaned. ‘Okay, come, follow gege.’

‘…’

‘Oh, if it isn’t Sect Leader Jiang!’ greeted the old man. ‘What a rare sight! I haven’t seen you in ages.’

‘Good evening, Uncle Xiao, I’d like to buy a serving, freshly made please,’ said Jiang Cheng awkwardly, remembering the last time he had come by with six-year-old Jin Ling in tow. Upset at having to celebrate the Mid-autumn Festival in Yunmeng rather than Lanling, Jin Ling had been in a snit all day and had only been appeased by the promise of an unusual snack in the form of a dragon’s beard.

As Lan Xichen watched in amazement, the vendor twisted and folded a dough-like substance over and over, rolling the strands in flour consistently, till what appeared to be a white rope formed under his hands. With great dexterity, the old man twisted the rope around his hands over and over, pulling it apart till the strands were as fine and thick as hair.

‘Young master, would you like peanuts or sesame seeds?’ the vendor asked jovially.

‘Oh, uh…’ Lan Xichen faltered. ‘Peanuts, if you would be so kind.’

‘Sure thing!’

Within moments, the fine white floss was separated into sixteen pieces and wrapped around individual servings of peanuts till all that remained resembled a bowl of silk cocoons.

‘Try it!’ Jiang Cheng said encouragingly. ‘It’s good! It’s kind of sticky but fragile, so be careful.’

Without further ado, Lan Xichen picked one up between finger and thumb, whereupon the delicate sweet gave up on life and showered the ground with finely chopped peanuts. A second attempt saw a new spool following determinedly after the first. A third continued to contribute to the redecorating of the dusty soil, and sparked a strong desire in Lan Xichen to follow after it and bury himself in the ground.

Not even pretending to be absorbed in something else, the vendor was nearly in tears at this point as he slapped his table and guffawed.

‘God, you Lans and your ridiculous arm strength!’ Jiang Cheng threw his hands into the air.

‘Come, gege will feed you. Open wide,’ he said mockingly, though he made sure to keep his grip on the candy gentle. Ears red, Lan Xichen glared at him before submitting to being fed.

Unfortunately, as Lan Xichen chased after the last vestiges of the candy sticking to his fingers, Jiang Cheng could feel his face begin to heat up as well. It was all pretty normal, Jiang Cheng decided, willing his heartrate to slow. He simply had to get his mind to stop overreacting. There was nothing out of the ordinary about one’s best friend touching his lips gently to one’s fingertips. Who wouldn’t use their mouth to eat? And how would that idiot ever get to eat if Jiang Cheng didn’t help him compensate for all that inhuman strength?

It’s all perfectly normal… Jiang Cheng reminded himself, zoning out even as the vendor started hooting in glee, startling Lan Xichen into inhaling the peanuts by mistake.

Peeking out from behind a door, Wei Wuxian and Jin Ling watched the unfolding scene with rapt attention.

‘Are you seeing that?’ Wei Wuxian squealed, smacking Jin Ling on the arm excitably till the younger man yelped and leant away. ‘Look at a-Cheng feeding Xichen-ge! Do you believe me now?!’

Jin Ling squinted at the two men in the distance.

‘I think Sect Leader Lan is choking.’

‘What? No, that’s… uh…’ he faltered. ‘Yeah…’

Wei Wuxian sighed again.

The weight of the entire world could not have been heavier than the load that seemed to sit upon his shoulders at that moment.

 


 

Jiang Cheng couldn’t decide what to buy.

After the fiasco with the dragon’s beard candy, Lan Xichen and he had agreed that it might be best to avoid food entirely. Yet, Jiang Cheng couldn’t resist paying a visit to his favourite mooncake vendor.

Some of the younger disciples liked mooncakes with sweet bean paste, but many of the traditionalists preferred the ones with lotus seed paste. Jiang Cheng rather liked the mooncakes with the mixed nuts as well, but there weren’t many among the disciples and household staff who liked those. It might not even be necessary for him to buy that many mooncakes as Jin Ling had probably brought several boxes of Lanling’s finest with him as usual.

‘Take your time deciding, Sect Leader Jiang,’ the vendor interrupted cheerfully. ‘We’ll deliver your orders to Lotus Pier later tonight so you don’t have to worry about carrying these boxes around.’

Jiang Cheng nodded at her in thanks.

‘Xichen, which do you think I should buy?’ he asked.

Looking up when silence greeted him, he spotted the other a short distance away, caught up in a game of lantern riddles. Though he wasn’t close enough to read the riddle off the lantern or hear what the other was saying, Jiang Cheng could tell from the reluctantly impressed look on the host’s face that Lan Xichen was in his element. His best friend’s regal comportment had given way to a genuine warmth in his smile and posture as he confidently recited his answer. With one hand at his back, Lan Xichen gestured to the lantern with his other, speaking all the while as the audience began to cheer.

Jiang Cheng watched him fondly.

That show-off! How dare he come to Yunmeng and make the rest of us look bad!

 


 

‘A-Ling, what are you thinking about?’

‘You know, I think Jiujiu and Zewu-jun are really…’

‘Not in love, yeah, yeah I got it.’

‘No, I think, well… Maybe…’

‘A-Ling—!’

‘Don’t get so excited! I’m just saying, perhaps, you know… there might be the slightest possibility that you are not totally wrong.’

‘Oh, at last! Finally, we understand each other! We’re going to have so much to talk about!’

‘W-what? I’m just saying that you might not be completely mistaken! What do we have to discuss?’

‘Tsk. Don’t you want your Jiujiu to be happy? Don’t you want to see him settle down with the love of his life? But if even you, the apple of his eye, the pork rib of his soup, took so much convincing—what more the rest of the cultivation world? They’re going to have an uphill battle to fight if they want to be accepted, and the two of us are going to need to help them! Are you with me?’

‘Haven’t you noticed that I am already next to you—ow! All right, all right, stop pinching me! Yes, fine, you brute! What should we do?’

‘Oh, my dear child, I already know this is going to go so well…’

 

Chapter Text

At long last, the day of the Discussion Conference arrived.

Sect leaders from the major and minor sects had their boats dock in Yunmeng, one after another, with their second-in-commands and key disciples by their side. From the pier to the grounds of the Lotus Pier itself, lanterns swung on every roof, indicating the way. As the members of each sect walked through the gates, Jiang disciples on rotational shifts bade them welcome and ushered them towards their rooms to rest after a long journey.

Sitting on the roof with Jin Ling, Wei Wuxian watched the newest arrivals with interest as he tossed a pear from hand to hand.

‘Really?’ asked Jin Ling dubiously. ‘This is your master plan?’

‘Yes,’ shrugged Wei Wuxian, biting into the juicy fruit with some satisfaction.

‘Rabbits?’

‘Rabbits.’

 


 

Wei Wuxian eyed the people assembled in the room.

They stared grimly back at him.

‘Now you may be wondering why I have asked to speak with you when it’s right before lunch and everyone is hungry,’ Wei Wuxian announced.

‘A matter of grave importance has come to my attention,’ he continued, ignoring the look that Jin Ling shot him that plainly asked him to get on with it. Seated in the room were representatives from the Yunmeng Jiang, Lanling Jin, Gusu Lan, Meishan Yu, Laoling Qin, and Baling Ouyang sects. Nie Huaisang, who had been seated as close to the doors as possible without having his cushion actually placed on the threshold itself, was also paying close attention. Yet, conspicuously absent from the room, were the Lan and Jiang sect leaders.

‘Now I know a lot of you may be surprised to hear what I am about to say, but rest assured that this is the inevitable conclusion that was reached after careful deliberation of all the facts available up to the present moment.’

‘In fact, some of you may even wonder, "How can it be? How could we all have failed to see what was going on under our noses, requiring the young and handsome Master Wei to point out what was clear as day?" To those people, I can only say—’

‘Wei Ying.’

‘Yes, dear?’

‘The point.’

‘Well, all right,’ pouted Wei Wuxian.

‘As many of you know, Sect Leader Jiang has not had the easiest time of it since the burning of Lotus Pier. Yet, the esteemed leader of Yunmeng Jiang has survived it all, rebuilt his sect from the ashes, raised his nephew to be the fine young leader of the Jin sect,’ Wei Wuxian said, winking at Jin Ling, ‘and now we must ask ourselves now that the worst is over, what else lies in store for him.’

‘What?’ Lan Qiren said, eye twitching.

‘Why, marriage of course!’ chirped Wei Wuxian.

A heavy silence descended upon the room.

Though no one spoke, a chill ran down the spine of everyone present.

Why was Wei Wuxian mentioning this in front of them? Were they being called upon to volunteer a member of their house? Was one of them to be sacrificed at the altar? It was true that the Jiang sect had been an invaluable ally over the past years. Jiang Cheng’s connection with the Lan through his adopted brother, and his blood ties with the current leader of the Lanling Jin, also made him a prize catch. Anyone who secured his hand would find himself in a powerful position with three of the four major sects on their side. Nevertheless, the idea of being joined in matrimony with a man like Jiang Wanyin was a little like exchanging friendship tokens with a starving tiger.

Wei Wuxian clapped his hands enthusiastically.

‘All right, what say the Baling Ouyang?’

‘Alas, my son is still young and foolish, and unworthy of the esteemed Sect Leader Jiang leader,’ said Sect Leader Ouyang Zheng in a rush.

‘And the Meishan Yu?’

‘As relatives of Sect Leader Jiang, on the side of his mother… Blood relatives,’ emphasised Sect Leader Yu Hongyue, just in case the Yiling Patriarch got any funny ideas into his head. ‘We will be the first to congratulate Sect Leader Jiang on a successful courtship.’

‘And the Laoling Qin?’

‘It is high time that a young man of such accomplishment like Sect Leader Jiang finds himself a partner. I regret to say, however, that there is none in my family suitable for this honour,’ Qin Cangye said tersely.

‘What say the Lanling Jin?’

‘We offer our full support of this idea, but regret that none among our sect is worthy,’ said Jin Ling blandly.

‘And…from the Qinghe Nie?’ Wei Wuxian said kindly.

Nie Huaisang peeked out from behind his fan.

‘Jiang-xiong is not my type! At least… I don’t think so… I don’t know…’ 

‘Well! It seems like we’re running out of ideas! There’s just one last chance, though, so perhaps… How does the Grand Master of Gusu Lan feel about this humble person’s idea?’

Lan Qiren cleared his throat.

‘Sect Leader Jiang is a fine young man. However—’

‘That’s right!’ exclaimed Wei Wuxian.

‘You do have a nephew who’s naturally beautiful, graceful, hardworking, from a good family, with a mild personality, soft voice, and who—hang on!’

‘Jin Ling, has Zewu-jun been kind to you?’

‘He gave me a steamed bun once,’ came Jin Ling’s bored reply.

‘Wow, look at that! He even fulfils the last criterion on Jiang Cheng’s list—he treats Jin Ling well!’

‘Wei Wuxian! This… this is…!’

All around, the sect leaders nodded their heads frantically.

‘Yes, that’s a great idea!’

‘Lan Xichen would make such a great match!’

‘Ah, Master Lan, you must be so proud to find your nephew such a splendid match. Congratulations!’

 


 

Meanwhile, a different kind of search was taking place in the pine gardens.

‘Zewu-jun, I’m really sorry. It’s all my fault that they escaped!’ said Sizhui guiltily.

Lan Xichen got to his feet from where he had been kneeling, and patted him on the shoulder.

‘Don’t worry about it Sizhui, I’m sure we’ll find them eventually.’

‘Tch, of all the times for them to go missing!’ groused Jiang Cheng, continuing to scour the ground for the presence of two long-eared fluff balls. ‘How did this even happen?’

‘I…I must have left the hutch door open when I went to feed them.’

Jiang Cheng had been making his way to the outer courtyard when he overheard a distraught Lan Sizhui confess that Hanguang-jun’s gift for the Jiang sect had disappeared. The poor boy sounded near tears when he spoke to Xichen. Aparently, he had heard his Senior Wei mention more than once that he adored eating rabbit meat—could the rabbits have been mistaken as wild prey, and been caught and cooked by one of the Jiang staff?

Jiang Cheng sighed and renewed his search with increased fervour. Searching for rabbits was a welcome distraction from the tedium of the morning’s discussions in any case, he thought.

There was only a quarter of an hour left before lunch, so they didn’t have much time to find the rabbits before the grounds were flooded with hungry cultivators on their way to their designated pavilions for lunch.

‘I found one!’ called Lan Xichen in delight. ‘Sizhui, why don’t you return this one back to its hutch first? Jiang Cheng and I will keep looking.’

‘Yes, Zewu-jun!’

 


 

‘Wei Wuxian, what is the meaning of this?’ demanded Lan Qiren.

Behind him, the last Nie cultivator scrambled out of the room. The cultivators of the Qin, Yu, Ouyang, and Nie sects, plainly relieved to have found a scapegoat, fled the room as soon as a Jiang disciple entered to announce that lunch was served.

‘Are you trying to make a fool out of our sect? Is this another one of your jokes?’

‘It’s not a joke!’ Wei Wuxian said indignantly.

Around them, the Jiang household staff, long inured to violent domestics since the era of the temperamental Madame Yu, continued rearranging the tables and setting out the dishes placidly.

‘My nephew has never expressed any interest in courting Sect Leader Jiang!’

‘That’s great, because I think it might be the other way around.’

‘You—!’

‘Uncle,’ said Lan Wangji sternly, appearing at Wei Wuxian’s elbow.

Lan Qiren clenched his teeth, visibly swallowing his initial response.

‘It is not right,’ he said.

‘Dare I ask, Master Lan,’ pondered Wei Wuxian. ‘What is right, and what is wrong? What is black, and what is white?’

Lan Wangji gazed adoringly at his husband, struck anew by the compatibility of their hearts and souls.

‘Did the sect leaders not publicly state their approval of this match? Could everyone be wrong, except you? I thought hubris was another one of those things that the Lan sect had to avoid?’

‘Wei Ying. Be careful of your tone,’ Lan Wangji said, positioning himself between his uncle and husband.

‘Lan Zhan, Master Lan can say what he wants about me. But surely he cannot expect to imply that my shidi is not good enough for his nephew, and expect me not to care?’ demanded Wei Wuxian.

‘Wei Wuxian, like it or not, you are part of the Lan sect now. Do you think it proper to offer your sect leader’s hand in marriage without having consulted him, or any of the Lan elders for that matter? I have known my nephew since he was a baby. I have spoken to him about marriage. And yet, I have not seen the slightest hint of my nephew seeing Sect Leader Jiang as anything but a trusted and valued ally!’

‘Forgive me for being blunt, Master Lan, but that’s because you’re not seeing what I see. Sect Leader Lan and Jiang Cheng have already been seeing each other for some time, and I believe that they definitely have good feelings towards each other.’

Wei Wuxian wrinkled his nose.

‘I guess some of those feelings may be located lower down, but still…’

‘Wei Wuxian—!’

Wei Wuxian unsuccessfully repressed a smile at the scandalised face of the elder Lan.

‘I’m afraid my brother’s honour must be protected, Master Lan,’ he sighed dramatically.

‘Your… there is no way that Xichen would have… would…’ Lan Qiren sputtered, clearly unsure of how to speak about the unspeakable. He turned, as though to seek aid from others in the room, but met only Jin Ling’s interested gaze. Recalling with a start that the young man had once run Wei Wuxian through with his blade, Lan Qiren felt hope flicker in his chest.

‘Sect Leader Jin, please share your thoughts with us.’

Jin Ling shook his head sadly.

‘I fear that my Jiujiu’s reputation has been tarnished. If he suffers an insult, the Jin sect will not be able to take it lying down. I believe the best thing to do would be to come to an agreement about his marriage as soon as possible in order to salvage his honour, and redeem Zewu-jun’s.’ 

The flame died a miserable death.

‘…Wangji, say something!’ implored Lan Qiren.

‘Wangji has not heard of it.’

‘Thank you—’

‘But Wangji has seen it.’

‘This is… this is simply preposterous!!’ Lan Qiren said, looking to be on the verge of tearing out his beard.  

‘What is?’ came a deep voice.

Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen stepped over the threshold.

‘Is our hospitality not to your liking, Master Lan?’ continued Jiang Cheng, looking severe but elegant in his dark purple robes, even though traces of mud were visible at the hem. One hand was clasped behind his back, as though mirroring the stance of the First Jade. Lan Xichen, dressed in his usual robes of white and pale blue, appeared as graceful and dignified as ever, though a sharp-eyed observer may have noticed that his hairpiece sat slightly askew atop his head.

‘Jiang Cheng, what were you—mmph!’ Wei Wuxian’s eyes went wide with betrayal. Glaring at his indifferent husband, he stamped on the ground and gestured angrily to his mouth. No one else said a word but the tension in the air was palpable as they held their breath, waiting to hear Lan Qiren’s reply.

Lan Qiren eyed the two men uncertainly.

He looked back at the rest of the crowd who were waiting unsubtly for a chance to leap to the defence of a non-existent love affair, and decided to adopt the defence technique of the common ostrich.

‘Sect Leader Jiang, this elder was simply not in favour of your absence as the rightful host of this lavish meal. It is good that you have joined us at last.’

‘My apologies. Sect Leader Lan and I had affairs to discuss. Please, everyone, sit. Master Lan, please do us the honour of sitting at the head, in the place of honour. Xichen and I will take these last two places as punishment for our tardy arrival,’ said Jiang Cheng courteously.

‘Of course,’ ground out Lan Qiren, as though he spoke through a mouthful of sand.

‘I am certain that Xichen will have no objections to that. Please, let us begin.’

 

Chapter Text

The atmosphere in the hall was certainly odd.

Jiang Cheng didn’t know what was going on and that feeling was making him feel itchy all over.

On second thought, that might have been because of the fleas on the furry beast currently cradled in his lap.

Earlier, when they were returning to the hall where they were expected for lunch, Jiang Cheng had spotted a tuft of snowy fur beneath his veranda. Lan Xichen had gallantly invited Jiang Cheng to leave the animal in his care, but Jiang Cheng took one look at his friend’s besotted face and knew better than to invite trouble.

‘You may have it back when you have finished eating all your food,’ Jiang Cheng said primly at last, sweeping the startled bunny into his sleeve without further ado.

Unfortunately, he now had to live with the consequences of that decision.

Lan Xichen was all but glued to his side, invading the clearly delineated 3-chi of space between tables that Jiang Cheng had painstakingly, or rather, that his harassed staff had painstakingly measured and conformed to in accordance to his notes.

How was it possible for his friend to remain so besotted with these fluff balls when he lived with them and saw them every day? All they did was kick at one uselessly or stand around like useless quivering lumps, eating up all the cabbage. 

Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes as he scarfed down his food with one hand, the other continuing to stroke the rabbit’s long silky ears.

 


 

Meanwhile, Lan Qiren glared into his rice bowl and ate in silence.

Yet another nephew was being led astray by yet another Jiang. His Xichen, his one bright spark of joy, appeared to be on the cusp of toppling into the Yunmeng cesspit of depravity!

Even now, it was obvious that Wei Wuxian’s poor posture and manners had already infected his eldest nephew. While Sect Leader Jiang remained seated in his place, his nephew on the other hand was moving surreptitiously closer and closer to him throughout the meal.

Was his nephew incapable of being parted from his friend for more than a minute? What would become of future generations if he didn’t put a stop to this nonsense? Lan Qiren thought morosely. It was a thankless job but someone had to do it.

Lan Qiren paused, chopsticks mid-way to his mouth as he watched Jiang Wanyin’s hand move furtively under the table. A piece of cabbage was dangling uselessly from the chopsticks Jiang Wanyin wielded with his right hand, but his left hand was nowhere in sight. The rhythmic movements of his left arm, however, informed Lan Qiren that the other’s hand was moving up and down in his lap.

Lan Qiren’s brow furrowed as he continued to observe Jiang Wanyin discreetly.

His nephew moved even closer. As Xichen’s hand vanished beneath the table surface too, Jiang Wanyin’s eyes crinkled shut.

Oh, by the gods! Lan Qiren sucked in a deep breath.    

He had got used to the shamelessness of Wei Wuxian, but even that wretched boy would not do something like this. Were his eyes deceiving him? As he watched, the faint smile on Jiang Wanyin’s face seemed only to encourage the advances of his nephew, and now his nephew’s hand, too, was moving jerkily up and down the other’s lap.

 


 

‘Ooh, who’s a good boy? Who’s daddy’s little boy? Oh you’re really enjoying this, aren’t you! Yeah, I bet that feels real good…’ Jiang Cheng whispered. In his lap, the rabbit’s fur quivered as the beast luxuriated in the adoring caresses it was getting from both sect leaders. Lan Xichen’s eyes crinkled as he gazed fondly at the animal, continuing to stroke its silky head.

Suddenly, a cup came flying through the air, nearly hitting Jiang Cheng right in the head if not for Lan Xichen noticing in time and snagging it out of the air.

The alarmed rabbit leapt for safety as the table overturned and food went flying.

‘Xiao Bai!’ cried Lan Wangji in distress.

‘JIANG WANYIN!!!’ Lan Qiren bellowed, his face an alarming shade of puce. ‘Does your shamelessness know no bounds? Is it not bad enough that you’re wantonly displaying your utter lack of morals? Do you need to corrupt my nephew too?! And you! Lan Xichen!!’

His nephew gulped visibly, eyes wide as though his mother was about to be shot by a hunter.

‘GET! YOUR! HAND! OUT OF HIS PANTS!!!’

‘Ahahahahahaha!’ Wei Wuxian was laughing so hard that he was crying and thumping the table with his hand helplessly. ‘Lan… Lan Zhan, he…ahahahaha!’

Lan Wangji twitched, torn between soothing his apoplectic teacher, shielding his embarrassed elder brother, rescuing his rabbit, and protecting his husband from any more incoming projectiles.

‘Shufu, may I know what pants you are talking about?’ Lan Xichen scanned the room helplessly. Was this another episode of qi-deviation? Was he doomed to always have his nearest and dearest fall victim to madness?

Jiang Cheng’s mouth was still opening and closing feebly as he rocked back, alarmed by the sudden outburst.

‘Wh-what? How have I corrupted Xichen, I mean, what…?’

‘Sect Leader!’ cried several Jiang disciples who had raced in upon hearing the uproar.

‘A-Cheng, Master Lan thought that you were…ahahaha, oh my stomach!’ Wei Wuxian collapsed on the floor weakly. A vulgar gesture with his hand soon made everyone gasp, but none were as shocked as Lan Wangji who had rescued his rabbit and was holding his hands tenderly over its eyes.

‘Right in front of my rabbit?’ Lan Wangji said in horror.

‘No!’ Lan Xichen spluttered, feeling his face burn. ‘I was… I was just patting the rabbit!’

‘An actual rabbit! That doesn’t figuratively or symbolically represent any part of the human anatomy!’ said Jiang Cheng desperately, his mind racing.

‘The rest of you, get out!’ he shouted at the gawking disciples.

How the hell did they even wind up in this situation?

 


 

Several long minutes and many cups of tea later, things had calmed down somewhat.

‘Repeat that again, Xichen,’ said Lan Qiren grimly.

‘Shufu, Sect Leader Jiang and I are not in a relationship!’ Lan Xichen said.

‘Then why do I hear reports of others bearing witness to the contrary? Reflect on your behaviour! How have you been conducting yourself?’ he thundered.  

‘Master Lan,’ said Jiang Cheng coldly. ‘I will thank you to remember where you are! This is Lotus Pier and you are not to speak to my guest in this fashion. Xichen has conducted himself well in every situation, and does not deserve to be spoken to so harshly.’

Lan Qiren laughed bitterly.

‘Am I now to be lectured by you, young man? A sect leader’s position is only good as his name, and now even my nephew’s spotless reputation is in tatters, thanks to you!’  

‘Tell me about this supposed disgrace I’m in then. Chide me if you must or demand recompense if you like, but know that Xichen has nothing to do with my actions,’ Jiang Cheng replied tersely.

‘Jiang Cheng,’ Wei Wuxian whined. ‘When have you become so manly? It’s so strange hearing my shimei jump to the defence of his beloved like this!’

‘And you! You shut up!’ Jiang Cheng growled. ‘I don’t know how you did it but I bet every last coin I own that you started all this.’

‘That’s not… All right, it’s partially true,’ Wei Wuxian pouted.

‘But it’s only because I wanted the best for you, a-Cheng! Don’t you see? This way you and Xichen-ge don’t need to sneak around anymore! I asked all the sect leaders earlier and everyone said that the match was a great one and that you should get married as soon as possible!’

Lan Xichen’s face went completely white. Jiang Cheng quickly put out his hand to steady him, fearing that the other would faint from the shock.

‘What do you mean “married”?!’

‘I’ve seen the two of you!’ Wei Wuxian insisted stubbornly. ‘When I visited Lotus Pier, I saw Xichen-ge going into your bedroom late at night, and you were already in bed!’

‘When… how did you…’ Jiang Cheng said, nearly speechless in surprise.

‘Jiang Cheng was sick,’ Lan Xichen spoke at last, regaining some colour in his cheeks. His voice was hoarse but his were eyes clear as he gazed reprovingly at Wei Wuxian.

‘He had a bad fever, and I was the one who asked him to rest, while I tried to clean up the water that had spilt everywhere. Wei Ying, don’t you remember speaking with me that night and asking me to take care of your brother? How could your memory have twisted that into… into this?’

Wei Wuxian shrank back, feeling small under that gaze.

‘But… I…’

‘Jiujiu,’ Jin Ling spoke up at that point, refusing to flinch even when Jiang Cheng glared at him harshly.

‘Don’t blame him, I saw it with my own eyes too. We both saw Zewu-jun and you during the Mid-Autumn Festival. You showed the Yunmeng that you love to Zewu-jun and I’ve never seen you do that for anyone else in the past sixteen years.’

‘Is it really shocking that I would want to show a fellow Sect Leader around my hometown?’ Jiang Cheng asked acidly. ‘Does being friendly automatically imply that we are romantically involved? I thought I raised you to be brighter than this, Jin Ling. Weren’t you always complaining that my standards were too high and saying that I’d never find someone? What made you believe this load of crap?’

‘Eh, Zewu-jun gave me a steamed bun,’ Jin Ling shrugged.

Sparks began racing up and down Jiang Cheng’s arm.  

‘You… you traded me for bread?!’

 


 

Outside, Jingyi shook his head disapprovingly.

‘I would have held out for chicken,’ he remarked to Sizhui.

Inside the room, chaos continued to reign with the sounds of shouting, running, and furniture being broken. Sect Leader Jiang’s outraged bellows were interspersed with an ominous crackling noise. More screaming and scuffling were heard until the sound of a xiao blew through the room.

A hush fell over the room.

By a silent agreement, Jingyi, Sizhui, and three of the Jiang disciples resumed their positions with their ears pressed to the wall.

 


 

Collapsing into his seat, Jiang Cheng looked somewhat worse for wear with his hair coming loose from his bun and sweat running down his forehead. Gulping down his tea as though it were alcohol, Jiang Cheng glowered at his nephew who had taken refuge behind Wei Wuxian who, in turn, was hiding behind Lan Wangji.

Standing by the side, Lan Xichen sighed and put Liebing down. He had successfully avoided teaching the youngest juniors for two years now, but somehow, he still wound up with a group of adults who wanted to play Eagles and Chicks.

Slamming his cup down on the table, Jiang Cheng gave Jin Ling one last glare before shifting his attention to the irritatingly poised and elegant Second Jade of Lan.

‘You! What is your excuse?’

 ‘…’

Lan Xichen observed his younger brother with interest.

He had expected Wangji to react with his usual frosty animosity towards the Jiang sect leader, especially in the face of such a belligerent demand, and yet his younger brother was looking away. Even his ears were a little red.

‘Xiongzhang,’ Wangji said quietly at last, looking a little unsure.

Lan Xichen felt his heart swell with fondness for his stern little brother who always tried so hard to be the perfect Lan.

‘Yes, Wangji?’ he said gently, looking him in the eyes.

‘The Hanshi.’

‘…’

‘…’

‘…’

‘…’

‘Wangji!’ Lan Xichen exclaimed, horrified.

‘…Xiongzhang, Wangji has made a mistake. Please punish Wangji,’ Lan Wangji bowed deeply to his brother.

Jiang Cheng spluttered in shock. What sorcery was this?

‘Lan Zhan! Surely you’re not changing your mind? You know how perfect your brother and Jiang Cheng are together!’ cried Wei Wuxian.  

‘…no,’ Lan Wangji said obstinately, raising his head minutely and glaring at Jiang Cheng. ‘Xiongzhang should not be with Jiang Wanyin.’  

‘Lan Zhan, ah, Lan Zhan… Are you jealous?’   

‘Wangji may not have intimate relations with Xiongzhang either!’ came the stern rebuke.

Silence filled the room again.

On the whole, Lan Xichen reflected, he rather preferred it when the incoherent screaming occurred outside in the room and not inside his head like this.

…oh. There it was.

Thank you Shufu.

‘I’ve had enough of this bullshit,’ said Jiang Cheng at last, standing up.

‘A-Cheng!’ Wei Wuxian called after him, though Lan Xichen noted that the younger man didn’t look too concerned. Granted, it was difficult to look concerned when one’s eyes seemed to be filled with an unholy delight, but Lan Xichen rather thought that Wei Wuxian owed it to his brother to at least try.

Lan Xichen shook his head.

‘I’ll go after him.’

 


 

Jiang Cheng glared down at the fish in his pond.

Leaving that toxic environment was already helping him to feel less like exploding with rage and whipping everyone within range, but the resentment continued to simmer within him. What gave everyone the right to judge? What right had they to take the one good thing in his life and turn it into something sordid for their own entertainment? The worst part of it was probably Wei Wuxian—going about in his usual fashion, stirring up shit and letting others pick up after him! Were his noble intentions some sort of token of immunity bestowed by the Jade Emperor himself? Jiang Cheng swore and kicked the foot of a pillar in rage.

Every muscle in him tensed, hearing footsteps rush up from behind him.  

‘Jiang Cheng!’ came Lan Xichen’s familiar voice.

‘Are you all right? I’m sorry for what happened back there. I never realised that our meetings could result in such misunderstandings...’

‘Don’t worry, I’m used to it by now. What is one more humiliation? My name’s been dragged through the mud ever since you came into my life,’ Jiang Cheng said bitterly, thinking back on all the times they had met. His reputation as the fearsome Sandu Shengshou had suffered, especially after that one morning when his staff had walked in on him cuddling up to the First Jade. To date, he was still unable to look some of them in the eye for long without blushing.

Looking up at the unexpected silence, Jiang Cheng was just in time to catch sight of the stricken expression on Lan Xichen’s face. Jiang Cheng was taken aback as the other’s expression smoothed away into an eerie stillness that reminded him uncomfortably of Lan Wangji.

‘Wait, what…?’ he started, but it was too late as the older man turned away.

‘I’ll take care of it, Sect Leader Jiang,’ Lan Xichen said softly.

‘Xichen!’ Jiang Cheng called, a sudden anxiety growing inside him.

Unfortunately, the other appeared not to hear him. At that moment, two of his disciples rushed up, as though they had been waiting for a chance to speak to him.

‘Sect Leader! We have a message for you.’

‘I’m not in the mood for it! Get out of the way!’ Jiang Cheng snapped, his eyes still watching anxiously even as the hem of Lan Xichen’s robes disappeared around the corner.

‘But Sect Leader—! We were told that it is important!’

Jiang Cheng sucked in deep breath and tried to remind himself of his responsibilities as the sect leader. It was his duty to listen to his men and not neglect his duties whenever it suited him. He could do this.

‘All right, just hurry up about it then!’

‘Ah…y-yes! We have a message from Senior Wei! He wants to know, uh…’

‘Spit it out already! Can’t you see I’m in a rush?’

‘Senior Wei says that… uh… Sect Leader Jiang has his word that he won’t ask you to m-marry Zewu-jun anymore, so please return to the hall, and oh god, don’t kill us!’ squeaked the younger disciple.

‘…no, but I am going to kill that fucker,’ Jiang Cheng swore, and strode quickly past them.

‘Sect Leader Jiang, please wait!’

 


 

The sinking feeling hadn’t left him for a moment since Lan Xichen left.

Though only several minutes had passed, Jiang Cheng could feel it in his gut that something bad was happening. Standing outside the hall, he found out that his worst fears had come to pass. Or rather, his worst fears, had he an imagination wild enough to rival Wei Wuxian’s, had come to pass.

‘…and so, time after time, though Sect Leader Jiang had rejected my advances, I refused to listen and tried my best to win him over. I used my position as a sect leader to make it difficult for him to refuse my company at least once a month.’

‘Lan Xichen!’ Lan Qiren shouted, nearly vomiting blood. ‘Have you lost your senses? What are you saying?’

‘Shufu, I’m saying that I’m in love with Sect Leader Jiang, Jiang Wanyin, Jiang Cheng. I’m saying that he’s the only one for me in this world. Even if you cannot forgive me, please understand that it was my fault for pressing the issue. Jiang Cheng did nothing wrong!’ said Lan Xichen, kneeling with his head bowed before the room.

‘What the hell?’ Jiang Cheng slammed the doors open, unable to listen to his friend spout any more nonsense.

‘Jiang Cheng!’

‘Jiujiu!’

‘Jiang Wanyin—you!’

‘Lan Xichen, you get the hell up right now!’ Jiang Cheng ranted, as he strode over to him and pulled him up roughly. ‘Do you mean what you said?’

‘That… that I forced my company on—’

No, you idiot. By the way, just so you know, that Lan rule on not telling lies? It was probably written for your own good because my god, you really are the worst liar in the world. Who would believe that you forced me to do anything? No, I meant, that other thing you said. You know, uh…’ Jiang Cheng lost steam in the middle of his rant.

‘Do you really, uh… like me or something?’ he mumbled at last, eyes glued to where he was still gripping Lan Xichen’s arm.

(‘Or something!’ Wei Wuxian called out gleefully in the background, only to be silenced abruptly by Lan Wangji clamping his hand over his mouth.)

Lan Xichen’s eyes softened. Looking as though he was steeling himself, he reached out to take Jiang Cheng’s hand in both of his own.

‘I must confess I never really thought about it before today. I don’t think I even realised how true those words were until they came pouring out of me. Jiang Cheng, I love you. You’re my best friend and you make me happier than anyone else in the world. Will you give me a chance to make you happy, too?’   

Jiang Cheng’s face was so hot that he felt sure steam was rising from it.

Nevertheless, he retained enough sense to hold on tight to one of the rare good things he found in life.

‘You already do. You don’t even need to ask.’

A smile broke out on Lan Xichen’s face, the joy in his eyes lighting up his face so clearly that Jiang Cheng felt his face grow even warmer as a smile rose to his lips in response.

‘I WILL NOT STAND FOR THIS!’ thundered Lan Qiren as he shook a fist at them. ‘Xichen! Think of your position! You are the Lan sect leader! How will you face our Lan ancestors like this?’

‘Shufu,’ answered Lan Xichen gently, not taking his eyes off Jiang Cheng as though he feared to lose a treasure that he had stumbled upon.

‘If it pleases you, I will gladly abdicate my position. Xichen is sure that in Wangji's and Wei Ying's capable hands, the future of the Lan sect will be secure.’

‘…welcome to the Lan sect, Jiang Wanyin, you dear boy,’ said Lan Qiren.

‘Come, we have a joyous occasion to plan.’

 

Chapter Text

OMAKE 1

Seated in the shade of the trees, Jiang Cheng sipped his tea and admired the waterfall.

With the ongoing madness of the wedding preparations, the peace and tranquillity of the Cloud Recesses were a much needed balm for his frazzled nerves. As both parties were sect leaders with neither having any intention of stepping down, the logistics of caring for not just one but two sects each were a veritable nightmare for both. Yet, though he knew that the two of them had yet to make much of a dent in their paperwork, Jiang Cheng’s heart remained light.

In a month’s time, he would be a married man. He, who had been blacklisted by no fewer than three matchmakers, was actually getting married, and not just to anyone but Lan Xichen.

Jiang Cheng bit down a smile.

Truth be told, it still baffled him sometimes that the other was not just willing, but even seemed thrilled at the notion of spending the rest of his life with him. He shook his head. When would the fool grasp the concept of getting a decent bargain?

‘Sect Leader Jiang! We found you!’ came excited cries from behind, accompanied by the sound of footsteps hurrying over.  

His fingers clenched around his cup.

It seemed like his peaceful morning had come to an end.

 


 

The paper fluttered.

‘Number 8. When Zewu-jun goes to Lotus Pier, please ensure that vegetarian dishes are served as well, so that he may not go hungry,’ pronounced one of the Lan disciples in what he evidently imagined to be a passable imitation of Lan Qiren’s imperious tone. 

The paper fluttered again.

‘Number 9: In the winter months, a thick coat should be provided to Zewu-jun so that he may not suffer unduly from the cold.’

Flutter. Flutter flutter flutter.

‘Number 10—’

‘Oh just give me that,’ Jiang Cheng snapped at last, fed up with the inefficient fanning. ‘Isn’t it faster if I just read the whole thing?’

‘Sect Leader Jiang!’

Scanning through the paper quickly, Jiang Cheng nodded as he read. He didn’t understand why they had to go to the trouble of compiling a set of rules and penalties when everything listed was pure common sense. Were all visitors to the Cloud Recesses handed a copy? If he had only known that his tea would be interrupted by a gaggle of juniors squawking their demands at him, he might not have been so eager to arrive at the Cloud Recesses first thing in the morning.

Sighing heavily, he folded the paper and tucked it into his robes.

‘Do you have any other instructions for me?’ he said sarcastically.

‘None at all! Please forgive us for overstepping our bounds.’

‘What is there to forgive? I’m not such an unreasonable person that I would object to feeding and watering your Zewu-jun whenever he comes to the Lotus Pier,’ Jiang Cheng said gruffly. ‘Even if you hadn’t wasted my morning, I would have made sure to do it.’

‘Do what?’ came a cheerful voice from behind him.

‘Senior Wei!’

Jiang Cheng grumbled under his breath. More Lans had come to join the fun, and yet the one Lan he wished to see was still nowhere to be seen.

‘A-Cheng!’ Wei Wuxian slung an arm around his shoulders. ‘Have you come to visit me? Or are you here to visit your beloved?’

‘Who would come all the way just to see your ugly face?’ Jiang Cheng sneered.

‘Ugly?! Have you looked in the mirror recently?’

‘What are you doing here?’ Lan Wangji asked the juniors, as the two brothers began wrestling with each other.

‘Hanguang-jun! We… we just wanted to talk to Sect Leader Jiang to make sure he’s treating Zewu-jun well.’

Lan Wangji nodded. A wise move.

‘Jiang Wanyin,’ he said.

‘Lan Wangji,’ returned the other, eyeing him suspiciously from Wei Wuxian’s chokehold.

‘You are quick to anger. Violent. Rash. Judgmental.’

‘Did anyone ask you to start listing all my flaws?’ Jiang Cheng said in irritation, shaking his brother off.

Wei Wuxian looked exasperated. ‘Lan Zhan, you…’

‘But Xiongzhang still likes you,’ the Second Jade continued as though no one had interrupted, his eyes boring into Jiang Cheng.

‘If ever a day comes when you make my brother unhappy, killing you twice won’t be enough to make up for it.’

‘Hanguang-jun is too humble,’ snorted Jiang Cheng. ‘Why stop at two? Why not kill me thrice? Or four times?’

‘Lan Zhan, what nonsense are you saying?’ Wei Wuxian squawked. ‘I’m not resurrecting Jiang Cheng for your killing pleasure!’

‘Emperor’s Smile.’

‘No!’

‘Ten jars.’

‘…’ Wei Wuxian hesitated, sneaking a peek at Jiang Cheng.

Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. 

‘Wei Wuxian, are you really trying to get my permission to raise me from the dead so your precious Lan Zhan can kill me again for his amusement? Is there no limit to your shamelessness?’

‘Ah, Lan Zhan, save me! The virgin’s angry!’ Wei Wuxian pretended to hide behind his husband.

‘Who are you calling a virgin?!’ Jiang Cheng hissed, feeling his cheeks burn.

The temperature dropped by ten degrees.

‘You…’ Bichen glittered in the sun.

Wei Wuxian gaped.

‘Jiang Cheng, you… are you not…’

‘It seems there is no need to wait for that day to arrive,’ Lan Wangji said with grim satisfaction as he drew his blade.

‘Wangji, Jiang Cheng! Wei Ying, you’re here too!’ came a cheerful call.

Pausing in the middle of their disagreement, the trio turned as one.

Lan Xichen’s smile was radiant even from afar. As he made his way towards them, even the sun itself seemed to rejoice at the appearance of the First Jade as its rays lit upon his hairpiece and crowned his dark hair with a glittering star. At his approach, two birds landed on a swaying branch overhead and sang their hearts out in welcome.

‘Xiongzhang.’

‘Xichen-ge!’

‘Xichen,’ Jiang Cheng said, somewhat dazzled. ‘I’ve been waiting for you.’

Lan Xichen gazed at him fondly as he took his hand.

‘I’m here now,’ he smiled, entwining their fingers. ‘Wangji, Wei Ying, I hope I’m not interrupting anything?’

Holding on to his murderous spouse with a death grip, Wei Ying forced a weak smile.

‘N-no, Xichen-ge, of course not. I guess uh… Lan Zhan and I will see you both during lunch?’

A distinctly evil expression began to unfurl on Jiang Cheng’s face.

‘Well… I’m afraid we might not resurface till much later in the day. What matters is that we take the time to really get to know each other inside and out. Xichen, shall we go to your room right away?’

Lan Xichen glanced at him, surprised but pleased at the unusual show of enthusiasm for what his beloved had once called ‘all that traditional hogwash’ and ‘dumbass paperwork’.

‘Of course. I would be happy to spend the entire day inside with you if you like,’ he promised warmly.

Overhead, the birds continued to sing.

 


 

OMAKE 2

Outside, the sky was still dark though the clouds towards the east were already beginning to turn pale.

The morning call of a thrush echoed in the trees, broken only by the resonant notes of the guqin.

With a soft swoosh, the wooden door of the Hanshi slid open.

Lan Xichen stepped out onto the veranda.

‘Wangji,’ he said with a wan smile.

‘Xiongzhang,’ Lan Wangji returned calmly, poised and perfectly attired despite the early hour.

Taking a few steps forward, Lan Xichen knelt before the guqin and laid his hand softly on the strings to mute the sound.

‘I really am marrying Jiang Cheng today.’

‘Mn.’

‘Wangji,’ Lan Xichen tried again. ‘I expect this will be the last time I hear Cleansing outside my door?’

‘…mn.’

‘Thank you, brother.’

 


 

OMAKE 3

Lan Zhan was sulking.

Other people may not have been able to tell, but Wei Wuxian was practically an expert in reading his micro expressions, second to none apart from Lan Xichen. However, when it came to cheering Lan Zhan up, Wei Wuxian was the indisputable champion.

Booting a rabbit unceremoniously from its luxurious seat in Lan Zhan’s lap, Wei Wuxian plopped himself down in its place and wound his arms around his husband’s neck.

‘Look!’ Wei Wuxian beamed as he took out a small pink sweet in the shape of a rabbit. ‘They were selling these at Yunmeng during the festival and I thought of you right away. Do you like it?’

Lan Wangji’s eyes softened as he glanced at his husband, a faint smile tugging at his lips. However, the moment he reached out to take the sweet, Wei Wuxian held him back with a hand pressed to his chest.

‘Oh, what a predicament,’ Wei Wuxian sighed. ‘I happen to like rabbits too!’

‘To eat,’ said Lan Zhan drily.

His eyes widened as Wei Wuxian popped the sweet into his mouth.

‘Finders keepers?’ Wei Wuxian murmured, looking up at him through thick dark lashes.

Lan Zhan’s hand twitched involuntarily around his waist.

Wei Wuxian smiled inwardly.

Every time.

 

Chapter Text

OMAKE 4

‘Now, it says here that there has been a case of a fierce corpse appearing in the northeast. In Yunmeng, we received a report of an isolated incident last month too, where…’ Jiang Cheng trailed off when he felt his husband’s arms circle his waist, tugging him back so that his back rested against his chest.

‘Excuse me, Sect Leader Lan,’ he huffed. ‘Are you listening to me?’

‘Of course,’ Lan Xichen pressed a kiss to his temple, his eyes scanning the missive over Jiang Cheng’s shoulder.

‘Perhaps it is time for Jingyi to go on his first solo mission,’ mused the First Jade, his voice betraying nothing though his hands were loosening the ties of Jiang Cheng’s robe.

‘In fact, I think he’s been ready to work independently for a while now. Don’t you agree, Sect Leader Jiang?’ Lan Xichen said blandly. Jiang Cheng shuddered as the edge of a nail caught against sensitive flesh. Letting the letter fall from his hands, he gripped the table and arched his back.

‘Might be better to send someone with him,’ he breathed, trying to contain his excitement. ‘Even Sizhui had someone with him at the start, and Jingyi’s cultivation le—mmph!’

Seemingly unable to wait anymore, Lan Xichen tilted his head up for a long kiss.

‘Is Xichen inside?’ came a sudden voice from outside.

‘Yes, Master Lan!’ came the obedient report from two of the disciples.

‘Shit!’ Jiang Cheng hissed.

Acting on sheer instinct, Jiang Cheng grabbed hold of his husband and pulled him into the nearest wardrobe, the door falling shut behind them.

 


 

Lan Qiren eyed the room with trepidation.

Having waited patiently for over ten minutes in the main chamber for his nephew to emerge from his bedroom, he had run out of patience at last and had gone searching for the other. Yet when he entered Xichen’s bedroom with a soft knock, he found only a single candle flickering on the table and a letter carelessly discarded on the table.

‘Mm…’ came a muffled groan from inside the wardrobe.

Lan Qiren’s eyes snapped to it.

Once, based on his own observations, he had mistakenly assumed that his nephew and Jiang Wanyin were engaged in certain distasteful activities in public. Ever since then, his reputation in the sect had suffered so greatly that Lan Qiren saw no other option other than to voluntarily enter seclusion in the back mountains for seven days and seven nights to cleanse his mind of all impure thoughts. Though it had taken him time to commit the lesson to heart, he had at last reached the point where he knew better than to make any assumptions without ample evidence to back them up.

The important thing was to keep an open (and spotless) mind, he realised, and by adhering to that principle, he would be able to regard the world with perfect equanimity.

Without eating, drinking, or sleeping for a week, Lan Qiren felt as though he had emerged from his seclusion a new man, and had gone straight to the Hanshi to share the findings of his critical self-reflection with his nephew.

So what if there were stifled groans coming from inside the wardrobe?

Plenty of things could groan. Perhaps it was a resentful spirit. Or perhaps a fierce corpse. He really wouldn’t put it past Wei Wuxian to procure a moving corpse and leave it in Xichen’s wardrobe, much like a cat presenting a favoured human with a rat.

So what if a corner of a dark purple robe stuck out from underneath the door?

Xichen was a married man after all. Was it truly that shocking for him to add Yunmeng Jiang colours to his wardrobe? Lan Qiren wouldn’t even be surprised if his nephew turned up one day wearing braids in his hair and fiddling with a new ring on his finger. In any case, his nephew had always had an unnatural liking for pale lavender anyway—a colour that skirted dangerously close to being all purple and no blue.

So what if muffled slurping noises were also coming from inside?

Xichen wasn’t the first Lan disciple he had caught eating snacks in their room, and he wasn’t going to be the last either. How could Lan Qiren blame him? Perhaps it was chicken. Delectable roast chicken with crisp crackling skin and tender meat that exploded with flavour. A great juicy leg that one could tear into with great bites. He wouldn’t even chastise Xichen as long as the other was willing to share.

Unable to wait any longer, Lan Qiren flung the door open.

Two people gazed back at him with shocked eyes.

‘S-shufu,’ squeaked Lan Xichen. His robes were hiked up to his waist, exposing the curves of his bottom, while his trousers were puddled around his ankles. In front of him, Jiang Wanyin staggered to his feet and tried in vain to pull his robes together.

Lan Qiren’s eyes bulged. A bead of saliva dangled from the side of his mouth.

‘What… this time… I am not mistaken, am I?’ he whispered.

‘…what are you looking at?!’ Jiang Cheng howled in rage. ‘Pervert! Pervert!!’

‘A pervert?? Me?’  

Lan Qiren saw red and began groping blindly behind him for a handy missile.

Pulling his trousers up, Lan Xichen panickedly flung a cloak over Jiang Cheng before hoisting him on his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and bearing him away from the scene of the crime.

‘Shufu, I’m sorry! I’ll come back later!’ cried Lan Xichen as he ran past the gawking disciples at the front of the house.

‘Where are you taking me, Xichen? Let me go! I’m going to have it out with that pervert!’ came Jiang Cheng’s outraged yell.

This time, there would be no way to salvage Lan Qiren’s reputation.

 


 

OMAKE 5

‘Hey,’ Jingyi said suddenly. ‘You know what would be really weird?’

‘What?’ Sizhui said, adding more fish to Jin Ling’s plate.

‘You know how Sect Leader Jiang and Zewu-jun have been sneakily adding a bit of each other’s colours to their wardrobe ever since they got married? What do you think happens when two people from four different sects get married? Do they just wander around looking like peacocks?’

‘Firstly, peacocks are majestic and there’s nothing wrong with them,’ Jin Ling scoffed, ladling soup into Sizhui’s bowl. ‘And secondly, that’s not going to happen because the wife will follow the husband! As the saying goes, marry a Jin and follow the Jin.’

‘I’d laugh at you for comparing yourself to a chicken, but it’s actually a step up in your case,’ Jingyi retorted, sticking his tongue out.

‘Hey!’  

‘…what if both parties are male?’ Sizhui interjected, before another fight could start.

‘What?’

‘What?’

‘What if, like in Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei’s case or in Sect Leader Jiang and Zewu-jun’s case, both parties are male and there is no “wife”… what would happen then?’

Jingyi frowned even as Jin Ling kept his eyes firmly on the tea set.

‘What are the chances of that happening? I mean, do we even know anyone who is both a cutsleeve and has parents from two different sects? I guess the Young Mistress meets the last criterion but—hey, watch it!’

Jin Ling’s hand jolted abruptly and hot tea splashed across the table.

‘You’re so clumsy,’ Jingyi clicked his tongue. ‘Good thing it’s about a hundred years too early for you to even think about getting married.’

‘…unless it’s with someone from the Wen and Lan sects,’ Jin Ling mumbled at the table, his face red.

‘Wen and Lan??’ Jingyi said incredulously.

‘Isn’t Wen Ning the only one left? He’s definitely not got any Lan in him, and I don’t think fierce corpses can procreate, can they? But if Wen Ning adopts someone someday, then I guess…’

Jingyi babbled on, oblivious to Jin Ling’s skyrocketing blood pressure.

‘Oh god, shut up Jingyi!’ Jin Ling roared at last.

‘What? What did I say? I haven’t said anything!’ Jingyi protested.

‘You’ve done nothing but say things! Don’t talk about things you don’t know about—!’

All eyes were on them as the two began to squabble noisily. All of a sudden, Sizhui leant in and pressed a quick kiss to Jin Ling’s cheek, causing the other two to fall silent in shock.

‘I accept,’ he said shyly, his cheeks flushed.

‘Uh… Accept…??’

‘Jingyi, I’m sorry but… I never knew how to tell you that I’m actually from the Wen sect. And Senior Wei helped to raise me when I was little. And it was Hanguang-jun who brought me to Gusu Lan and raised me as his own. And Jin Ling and I are very much in love. And we’re going to be cultivation partners at some point in the future.’

Jingyi was frozen in place, his mouth half open in an unattractive grimace as Sizhui’s words pattered on like machine gunfire.

‘And Jin Ling, we’ll be using all four of our colours when we get married. Okay?’

‘I… Uh… Yes, dear.’

 


 

OMAKE 6

Extracts from two mysterious diary pages:

Day 6022:

Was thrown into solitary imprisonment in isolation cell after failed assassination attempt. Attempted to execute daring prison break. Master Jiang not amused.

Day 6022 (continued):

Jail term mitigated by the pretty one suggesting that a catch was loose. Master Jiang said it was more likely that something else was loose in his head but released me anyway. Contemplating moving house to stay with Master Lan.

Day 6045:

Sandu attempted to mate with a tree today. Did not go well. Purple humans seem keen on running interference but failing. Am too busy polishing scales to attempt extraction.

Day 6046:

Sandu still in tree. Hahaha.

Day 6047:

Sandu back to taking up space like a lump. Played rousing game of skipping with purple humans in the afternoon. Also attempted to improve aerodynamic performance of purple humans by breaking off malignant growths from their bodies. Was unsuccessful but will try again tomorrow.

Day 6051:

Master Lan went into Master Jiang’s nest. Master Jiang a most dull and unenthusiastic mating partner. Even Sandu’s tree would show more enthusiasm. Feel bad for Master Lan.

Day 6052:

Attempted to show Master Lan to tree. Not sure which trees are part of Sandu’s harem but chose at random. Master Lan stronger than expected. Also faster than expected. Master Jiang said, ‘Not this shit again,’ and put me back in my isolation cell. What did I expect? No good deed goes unpunished in this household.

 

Chapter Text

Omake 7

In a parallel universe where Wei Wuxian has too much time and not enough patience:  

‘Oh good, you’re both here,’ Wei Wuxian says cheerily as he walks into the room with an armful of red fabric.

Jiang Cheng eyes him suspiciously.

‘We’re busy working. What are you doing here?’

‘I’m part of a new peace initiative!’ Wei Wuxian chirps. ‘In a bid to build a more inclusive society, it’s been decided that one of the four major sects will adopt Wen colours.’

‘Really? I don’t think I’ve received word about this initiative,’ Lan Xichen said dubiously.

‘Who exactly decided this?’ Jiang Cheng demanded.

‘What could be more inclusive than such a visible demonstration of acceptance? Anyway, here are some samples that Huaisang’s sent over. Go and change, would you? We’re going to see which sect looks better in red. Xichen-ge, you don’t mind us decorating this room a little to test the new colour scheme, right?’

‘Is this really necessary? Yunmeng Jiang is not going to change her colours on a whim,’ Jiang Cheng grumbled, accepting his bundle with ill grace.

‘Quickly, now,’ Wei Wuxian said, pushing at his brother.

‘Well, if it’s for world peace…’ said Lan Xichen hesitantly.  

Several minutes later, Jiang Cheng returned, still adjusting his crimson coat. A band of purple dark enough to be mistaken for black ran around the high collar and edges of his robes. A thick belt in the same shade cinched his robes together, balancing out the extravagant red and gold embroidered fabric.

‘What the hell, Wen Wuxian, this is practically nothing but red,’ Jiang Cheng groused, plucking at his robes discontentedly. ‘A-Die and a-Niang are probably rolling in their graves right now. And why the hell have you made this place look like a slaughterhouse?’

‘I’m not sure our sect elders will approve of these robes either,’ said Lan Xichen honestly as he entered. ‘They’re a little extravagant, are they not?’

Jiang Cheng’s mouth fell open.

Lan Xichen’s outfit was a sight for sore eyes. The faint flush on his cheeks made him look even more appealing as he stood there, visibly fidgeting under their gaze. Though the layer beneath his coat was silk white, his outer coat and inner robes were also crimson and embroidered in gold. Even his traditional white ribbon had been replaced with a dark red ribbon, and his hair was pinned back in gold.

Wei Wuxian sniffled, hands on his hips as he surveyed the both of them.

‘All right, please face the door. Natural light helps me see better… Hmmm, there’s something weird…’

‘Yes, it’s you. Why are you crying?!’

‘Shut up. Look at me,’ Wei Wuxian squinted at their feet. ‘Whoa. I didn’t notice at first, but when you stand side by side, it’s obvious that the legs of your trousers are shorter than Xichen-ge’s.’

‘What, really?’ said Jiang Cheng, bending over immediately to check.

‘Don’t crouch, you idiot, it’d be harder to tell like that. Just keep your legs straight and bow.’

‘I don’t see the difference,’ puzzled Lan Xichen as he leant down and craned his neck.

‘Oh, can’t you see it? That’s odd. Maybe we need a third opinion,’ Wei Wuxian mused, flagging down a passing Lan disciple.

‘Help me fetch Master Lan, will you? Be quick!’

‘While we’re dressed like this?’ Jiang Cheng spluttered. ‘Even if you’re bent on making me lose face, what about Xichen?’

‘Wei Ying! Jiang Cheng is right. Neither of us are presentable at the moment. Shufu will not be pleased,’ protested Lan Xichen at the same time.

Wei Wuxian waved their concerns away.

‘Nonsense, I’m sure Master Lan would love to be here on this happy… day.’

‘All right, I’m here. What’s all the fuss about?’ Lan Qiren’s voice trailed off as he hurried into the compound, stopping short as he took in the newly decorated hall. His eyes grew large and horrified as Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen turned awkwardly to bow to him. 

‘Shufu!’ exclaimed Lan Xichen, flying to his side as Lan Qiren collapsed.

‘Wei Wuxian, look at what you’ve done!’ Jiang Cheng’s eyes were wide with shock. ‘Did Master Lan’s heart give out? Over new clothes? Is that why everything is forbidden here?’

In a matter of minutes, Lan Qiren was revived, but the sight of his nephew and Jiang Cheng bedecked in red seemed to agitate him further to the point where they feared to approach for fear of a relapse.

‘I’m dreaming… yes… that’s it! I’m dreaming! This is just a bad dream!’ Lan Qiren raved as Wei Wuxian hastily dashed forwards and helped him out of the compound.

 


 

‘Whew!’ Wei Wuxian collapsed into a chair. ‘Lucky that was just a fainting spell, eh?’

Jiang Cheng glared at him fiercely.

‘You and your stupid ideas! I hope he makes you write the rules fifty times!’

‘What?’ asked Wei Wuxian, sounding injured. ‘Sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the greater good. Anyway, we’re almost done.’

‘No! I’ve had enough. I’m changing out of these ridiculous clothes!’

‘It’s not for you anyway. This was something extra made for Xichen-ge!’ said Wei Wuxian, a crazed glint entering in his eyes as he leapt to his feet again, brandishing a fistful of red fabric.

‘…Wei Ying, this hardly seems necessary. Judging by Shufu’s response, Gusu Lan will definitely not be adopting this new style,’ said Lan Xichen resignedly, even as he bent obediently for Wei Ying to begin pinning the thin fabric to his hair.

‘WEI WUXIAN!!’ came an outraged shout from the front of the compound.

The three of them turned to see Lan Wangji storm into the compound, his eyes raking over his brother’s and Jiang Cheng’s attire with cold fury.

‘Ah, Lan Zhan…’ Wei Wuxian laughed sheepishly. ‘I guess you found out.’

‘Xiongzhang. Sect Leader Jiang. We’ll be taking our leave now,’ Wangji bit out as he grabbed Wei Wuxian’s wrist and began pulling him towards the doors.

‘No, Lan Zhan, we were so close! So close!! They have to be together! I’m not going anywhere and you can’t make me! Nooo! Lan Zhan, why??’

The loud cries of protest petered out when the two were far out of sight.

‘…well,’ said Jiang Cheng at last, sounding at a loss. ‘I guess we know he’s in for it whenever your brother courtesy names him.’

Mechanically, Lan Xichen began removing the pins from his hair, looking just as bewildered by the events of the past hour.

‘Maybe Wangji wanted to try these on instead?’

The two of them contemplated the door in silence. 

 


 

OMAKE 8

For the past three years, Sect Leader Jin Rulan has requested for all attendees of the Lanling Jin Discussion Conference to cooperate with the latest security measures and leave all arms in the secured weapons chamber for safekeeping. In general, this practice has proven to be much safer for the owners, but not so much for the weapons themselves…

As soon as the last attendant places him on the sword stand and leaves, Bichen slides out of his sheath and throws himself off the stand. He clatters to the ground with a despairing clang as the other swords look on with mixed reactions of disdain, surprise, and curiosity.

Chenchen, what are you doing? Suibian asks, sliding out for a better look.

I am unfit to be a sword. Bichen declares morosely. I have strayed from the path of cleanliness. I shall lie in the dirt and repent for my sins. 

Not again.

What a diva.

Give us a break! 

Baxia scoffs openly, raising his voice above the clamour of the other swords.

What do you know about dirt? Look at me! Do you know how difficult it is to be clean when you only shower in the blood of your enemies?

You know not where I have been. I am tainted. Defiled and unclean. 

Poor baby. Zidian says, voice dripping with false sympathy. Perhaps you’d like a bell to jingle as you fly around crying ‘Unclean, unclean!’ to warn off the rest of the world?

Oh, an Yunmeng bell? asks Shuoyue with poorly concealed interest. I hear they are not easy to obtain.

Bichen’s sword glare intensifies for a moment before subsiding.

What’s wrong with a little dirt anyway? Suibian wants to know.

It’s against The Rules, Hensheng says knowledgeably.

Eradicate dirt and establish rules to remain spotless, recites Bichen sadly. Then cleanliness shall be everlasting.

Suibian groans.

My god, you Lan weapons will be the death of me. Look, out of all the swords here—

Zidian crackles warningly.

—excuse me, out of all the swords and evil viper bitches here, if I claim to be number two when it comes to being absolutely filthy, no sword would dare claim to be number one! It’s part of the job when you’re a weapon, and being a sword is awesome! Don’t you like being a sword?

…I like anything, Bichen rumbles shyly, flipping over to not-so-subtly display his jewel-inlaid side to Suibian.

A stray bolt of electricity hits the sword stand, missing Suibian by seconds when he slips off the stand too to join his friend.

Oh… you’re so sparkly… breathes Suibian.

The two swords twinkle alluringly at each other in the dying amethyst light.

Put your sheaths on, you shameless heathens! Zidian shrills from her side of the room.

Get up here and be real swords, you pansies, Baxia scoffs.

This wonderful sword-normative culture is something to be proud of, Hensheng says agreeably. 

Kill! says Sandu brightly.

Damn straight, says Baxia with pride. Kid, you’re gonna go far.

 


 

OMAKE 9

Jiang Cheng sighed heavily.

Another day, another pile of paperwork.

‘Jiujiu!’ came an imperious greeting. Jiang Cheng’s eyebrow twitched as Jin Ling marched into his study without so much as a by your leave. Fairy trotted in right alongside him, her bushy tail waving happily in the air at the sight of one of her favourite people.

‘What do you want?’

Jin Ling rolled his eyes. ‘Is that any way to talk to your only nephew when I’ve come all this way to Yunmeng to visit you?’ 

‘Only nephew? Then what about Sizhui?’

‘What? Jiujiu! Who told you?!’ 

Jiang Cheng eyed his nephew as he set down his brush reluctantly.

‘Surely the whole world has heard of their father-son relationship by now, given how often your uncle brags about it. Did you think I would refuse to acknowledge Sizhui when I even acknowledged his father?’

‘Oh! No, I guess not,’ Jin Ling sagged in obvious relief.

Jiang Cheng squinted at him.

‘What’s really on your mind?’

‘Uh… Fairy’s learnt a new trick!’

‘…’

‘You’re not going to believe this, but Fairy is a genius!’ Jin Ling said proudly. ‘I always knew my spirit dog was smart but this new trick proves beyond all doubt that she’s the smartest dog in the whole world. Watch this. Fairy, help Jiujiu!’

‘What are you up to now?’ Jiang Cheng complained loudly, though he was secretly pleased when the dog wandered up to him and proceeded to rest her head in his lap, gazing up at him with big soulful eyes. Her tail waved happily in the air, thumping against the side of his table with every other beat.

‘You see?’ Jin Ling said smugly. ‘It works!’ 

‘You haven’t even shown me anything!’

Jin Ling shrugged and set down Suihua on a table.

‘Jiujiu, don’t you feel better now?’

‘…which part of this is a trick?! Fairy’s innate cuteness just part of her being a dog!’

‘Pfft, no, it’s hardly that simple,’ Jin Ling said, waving a hand dismissively as he started backing towards the door and reminding Jiang Cheng unpleasantly of his irritating brother. 

‘What nonsense is this?’ Jiang Cheng demanded as purple lightning began to crackle. ‘Do I not look busy enough? Do you have to come here just to waste my time?’

‘Ah! Fairy, help!’

With a sharp bark, Fairy scampered off and snagged Suihua from the table, nearly jabbing Jin Ling with the long weapon in her eagerness to get the sword to him.

‘You see?’ Jin Ling said smugly. ‘Fairy knew I’d need Suihua! What a brilliant girl you are, Fairy. Oh yes, you are! Yes, you are! Ahem. Anyway, I’m off to the kitchens to… uh… supervise the help. Have fun working, Jiujiu! Fairy, stay and help!’

Jiang Cheng looked at Fairy.

Fairy cocked her head.

After a brief pause, she shook herself and returned to Jiang Cheng’s side.

‘…all right, fine, you’re great at being cute and fetching stuff. What a genius you are,’ Jiang Cheng sighed.

‘Let’s get back to work then.’

 


 

‘Oh, for the love of god. How thick can his face be?’ Jiang Cheng growled, chucking the letter to one side as he reached for his brush.

Fairy glanced up at him uncertainly, her tail starting to sweep from side to side.  

Dear Master Lu,’ his brush slashed across the paper.  

‘No. Greetings, Master Lu. No, why the fuck should he merit such courtesy? Master Lu. Fuck you, I am not compensating you for the loss when I warned you expressly about the risk of flood damage to the grain. Fuck you and your stubborn refusal to listen with a pointy stick and fuck your—’

Jiang Cheng broke off with a huff of disgust and crumpled the letter into a ball, tossing it aside.

That was probably one swearword too many, though he would have to check with Xichen on the maximum number allowable in order to scrape through a letter with some semblance of dignity as a sect leader in a civilised world. Why was letter writing so hard?

A wet nose touched his wrist and Jiang Cheng jumped.

Fairy gazed at him calmly, holding the balled up letter in her mouth.

‘Er… right. No, I don’t need this anymore, thank you,’ Jiang Cheng said, bemused, offering the soggy lump back to her.

Fairy eyed him for two seconds, before turning and loping out of the room.

‘Yeah, me neither,’ Jiang Cheng sighed and tossed it away.

Several minutes later, the sound of nails clacking across the floor alerted him to Fairy’s re-entry as she bounded into the room, trailing a long white ribbon behind her.

‘What the—’ Jiang Cheng said, aghast. ‘What are you doing with this??’

‘Fairy!’

He swivelled around just as Lan Xichen hurried in, and promptly did a double take at the sight of his husband in his inner robes, his hair still dripping wet and leaving little trails of water behind him.

‘Xichen, you…’

Lan Xichen stopped dead in his tracks upon realising that he wasn’t alone.

‘Um. Fairy ran off with my ribbon when I was taking a bath so I…’ he said, sounding a little self-conscious as he started to straighten his robes.

Jiang Cheng clicked his tongue. Lan Xichen’s long hair was creating a puddle where he stood, and the thin white layer of his robes was clinging to his skin and already turning translucent in some areas.

‘It’s a bit late to pretend you weren’t running around the Lotus Pier half naked,’ Jiang Cheng said, draping his own outer robe around his shoulders. ‘Do you know how many of my disciples I’ll have to blind if they caught sight of you in such a state?’

Lan Xichen blinked owlishly back at him.

‘Then what about that time they caught us in the Sword Hall? And that time behind the training grounds? And that time we—‘

‘All right, I get the idea. My husband is a nudist,’ he sighed, and gestured towards his chair.

Lan Xichen sat down obediently at his desk, while Jiang Cheng stood behind him and began rubbing his hair dry with a spare towel.

‘Oh, a letter from the Lu family?’

As he towelled his hair dry, Jiang Cheng felt as though he could practically feel the gears spinning in the other’s head when the other stiffened as he read on.

Without another word, Lan Xichen calmly retrieved a new sheet of paper and began writing a reply.

Jiang Cheng stopped what he was doing and rested his chin atop Lan Xichen’s head, reading over his head in awe. Lan Xichen was flatly rejecting any suggestion of compensation and instead, outlining an arrangement for funds to be loaned at an equitable interest rate under the fulfilment of certain conditions.

Still feeling somewhat touched, he glanced down when Fairy nosed at his leg, tail wagging nineteen to the dozen.  

‘…all right, I admit it. You are a genius.’

‘Thank you,’ Lan Xichen replied calmly as he continued writing.  

Jiang Cheng scoffed but couldn’t bring himself to correct the other nevertheless.

‘Hmmph. You’re lucky I love you.’

‘I know,’ Lan Xichen smiled up at him.

I’m the one who’s lucky.