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The Bare Necessities

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife

 

 

 

 

Jiang Cheng had been expecting this for a while, and yet it was still with much dread that he hung up the phone.

Curses upon curses, there was always a reason for everything. That goddamn phone call from two weeks ago was what began a volleying series of conversations between himself and Lan Qiren. Back and forth, back and forth. It was incredible how chatty the mostly tightlipped old man could be. In the end, he knew this would happen. Of course it would. Conversing this much with the headmaster of his nephew’s school might give the impression that Jin Ling was the one in trouble.

But no, the one in trouble was him.

It's beyond embarrassing. To think that he was the one who stepped into a trap. God fucking damn it. All this trouble came from dating Lan Huan, but fuck, if he wasn't worth it. Jiang Cheng lets out a hissing breath, turning to lean his hands on the counter. On the other side of the kitchen, Lan Huan tilts his head. “Uncle again?”

“Mm.” It’s not as if Lan Huan wasn’t aware that his uncle was calling Jiang Cheng so often. He would have to be blind and deaf not to notice. “He’s invited us over for dinner.”

“Oooh!” Jingyi's grin tilts into a smirk. “That's nice, but I suppose we aren’t being invited to this dinner too, right?”

Jin Ling mutters, “Not unless you want to eat dog food.”

Jingyi replies, “Actually, Granduncle is vegetarian. All of us are.”

Jin Ling shoots Jiang Cheng a worried look, “Good luck, jiujiu.”

“Boys.” Lan Huan taps the maths textbook twice. They both sigh but go back to their homework. He turns to Jiang Cheng, “So… dinner.”

“Tomorrow,” Jiang Cheng agrees, massaging his forehead. “He wore me down, goddamn it! Trust the old man to lecture me into submission.” It wasn’t that he kept declining invitations from Lan Qiren. He just kept dodging the topic completely by casually mentioning how busy he and Lan Huan were these days, but somehow Lan Qiren managed to work out their freaking schedule from this! “Ugh! That’s a classic Jade-tactic if I ever saw one!”

“That’s also a Purple-Spider-tactic,” Jingyi mutters loudly, “If I ever saw one. Which I have. I've seen many.”

Jiang Cheng decides to ignore him. There are far more pressing matters. “Dinner with your uncle, Lan Huan. Tell me, what should I be expecting? Do we have a plan for this? A strategy? Somehow despite all of our one-sided chatting, he still hasn’t told me what exactly this is for—”

“Plan? It’s just dinner!” Lan Huan laughs, prodding Jingyi until he returns to his homework. “What are you even talking about, A-Cheng?”

“What am I talking about?” Jiang Cheng sneers. “I’m asking if I need to bring anything with me.”

Lan Huan blinks. “Well, Uncle isn’t too fond of sweets, but a fruit basket would be received better than bringing wine. Wine would definitely be a bad idea. He would not like that at all.” After thinking another second, he adds, “He also likes tea—”

“I’m not asking about bringing gifts! I’m asking if I need some kind of weapon!” he exclaims, waving both hands in agitation. “What type of test is this? Will it be regular shovel-talk, or will I literally be fighting for your hand?”

Lan Huan's jaw drops, cheeks filling with colour. “F… Fighting for m-my hand?”

Jiang Cheng stares at him. “What do you think this dinner is for? Eating food? Don’t be stupid. This is about you, of course. This is about proving to him that I’m worthy of you.”

Worthy of him? Aww someone calls from the other room, but he doesn’t pay that any mind and neither does Jiang Cheng. Lan Huan isn’t stupid. He'd guessed the reason for his uncle's interest a while ago, but… “Why are you so nervous? You know him already and he knows you. I told you not long ago that you were his favourite studen—”

“That was a long time ago. What does that matter now? This is completely different. We’ve never interacted personally.” The prospect of sitting through a meal with the former Jade is about as appealing as the food he’s going to be served. Lans don’t even talk during mealtimes (or at least they didn’t until they started dining in the Jiang household). How awkward is this going to be? “Alright then,” he tells himself, “I guess we’re just gonna have to… do it.”

And that's the last they speak of tomorrow’s plans.

Then it’s as if the whole of tomorrow whirls by in a blur and suddenly Jiang Cheng is rushing back home to shower and put on a clean shirt. Lan Huan meets him at the door, already showered and dressed and looking perfect. Jiang Cheng barrels through, thrusting a box of tea into his hands with instructions to put your origami skills to use and wrap it up nicely. By the time he has returned to the front hall, Lan Huan has picked out his shoes, polished them, wrapped the gift up nicely, and as soon as Jiang Cheng steps forwards he holds up a—

“Do I really have to wear that?” Jiang Cheng whines. It’s a tie. A dark blue silk… “How did you even know that would match what I'm wearing?”

“Because I saw what you were wearing.”

“But I was in the bathroom? The door was locke—”

“You’ll look so handsome with this,” Lan Huan coos, slinging the tie around his neck and pulling him closer. “Oh yes. Perfect.”

Jiang Cheng scowls fiercely, face flaming red. He was muttering like a raving lunatic in there! For crying out loud, he even gave himself a pep-talk in the mirror! “Lan Huan, did you peek—”

“So what if I did? It’s not like I haven’t seen you naked before. Lift your chin up, A-Cheng. There, like that. Hold still now. Good boy.”

Lan Huan starts folding the strip of silk around until he is absolutely certain he has no idea what type of knot he's tying. Their eyes meet, and Jiang Cheng tells himself that they’re having a staring contest, but really… there are so many colours in his eyes. Lan Huan’s eyes, that is. They are a shade that flickers between black coffee and rich amber depending on the light. Even if they were ‘just brown’ as some say, those eyelashes are so long and thick, that gaze so tender… he's beautiful.

“There we go,” Lan Huan says softly, caressing the underside of his jaw. Then he starts fiddling with the tie again, causing Jiang Cheng to let out a sigh. “Is that too tight?”

Jiang Cheng shakes his head. “Tighter, or it'll fall off. You don’t have to be so gentle.”

“I do wonder what I may have just walked into,” LinZhen says, shielding her eyes as she saunters past them towards the stairs, “But that’s none of my business, so I’m not gonna ask. Don't mind me. Just passing through.”

Lan Huan keeps a firm hold on him, huffing with laughter when Jiang Cheng settles for glaring daggers at his assistant’s retreating back. He leans in closer, “I don't have to be so gentle, but what if I want to be? I would treat anyone gently who I love as much as you.” Lan Huan smiles, pecking his cheek. “You look lovely.”

“You’re so embarrassing.” The burst of warmth on his cheeks forces out a grumble. He’s about to slap Lan Huan away, but then Jiang Cheng remembers that they have dinner with Lan Qiren. Glancing at the clock, he lets out a squawk. “Time to go! Time to go! Grab the keys! BOYS, WE’RE LEAVING—!”

They arrive too early.

So early, in fact, that Jiang Cheng makes them wait outside until it's quarter to the hour. Whilst they are sat in the car, he runs over as many conversation starters as possible in his mind. He ignores the fluttering curtains to the best of his ability and prays that Lan Qiren isn’t watching him panic from the window. Thankfully, Lan Huan doesn’t interrupt his mental preparation, merely holding his hand and waiting quietly for the time to pass.

Finally, Lan Huan leads them to his childhood home. Precisely one minute after knocking, the former Jade (and Jiang Cheng’s former high school teacher) opens the door and peers at both of them before allowing them inside. After taking off their outerwear, Jiang Cheng presents his gift and is declined… countless times.[1] His mind literally goes blurry. From this single interaction, he immediately knows that the night is going to go by very, very slowly.

After they follow Lan Qiren to the dining room, Jiang Cheng once again freezes at the sight of the table which is completely covered in food. All of the dishes are laid out in various shades of white and green. Steamed rice, steamed vegetables, steamed dumplings, a large bowl of vegetable soup, and a plate of what looks like tofu, but… wrinkly. Jiang Cheng’s mouth opens and closes a few times, and then blurts out, “What the fuck?” which is quickly rounded off with a tight smile and hastily tacked on, “You shouldn’t have.”

Lan Huan covers his mouth. “Uncle, you’ve outdone yourself. This is wonderful.”

“It looks delicious,” Jiang Cheng babbles, but really, this could feed a dozen people at least! Lan Qiren casually wafts their compliments aside, sitting down and then gesturing for them to do the same. “Thank you for inviting us.”

Lan Qiren nods, “Mm, I’m glad you came.”

Jiang Cheng plasters on a smile as he pours the tea, offering the first cup to Lan Qiren, and then he tries his best to relax. There might be one upside to so much food, or even to the fact that they have immediately been brought to the table. If they’re eating, they can’t talk. Lans don’t talk during mealtimes, thank fu—

“Pass me your bowl please.”

Jiang Cheng obeys instantly, but watching Lan Qiren spoon rice into his bowl, it occurs to him that having their meal served this way is not very Lan of them. Beside him, Lan Huan also shifts in slight unease. Lan Qiren gestures for him to pass over his bowl too, and then… and then every single conversation starter he thought up earlier flies out of Jiang Cheng’s head. They completely vanish, replaced with the rich aroma of tea and incense. That should ease his mind, but all it does is cause his body to clench up to the point that his chair creaks.

Both Lans turn to him, because of course they do. They have super-hearing, goddamn it. Aside from him ruining their dining chairs, they can probably hear his heart thumping madly, and his breath shuttling back and forth, and maybe even hear the hollow echoing of his empty-as-a-fucking-drum skull—

“So, Jiang Cheng.” Lan Qiren (Jiang Cheng’s shock might never wear off! Talking! During! Mealtimes!) clears his throat. “You’ve finally come to receive my blessing.”

If he were as shameless and bold as Wei Ying, he might have laughed. Well, actually you were the one who bullied me into coming here. I only agreed because I couldn’t refuse your invitation. Instead, Jiang Cheng nods and chokes out a simple, “Yes, sir.”

“Finally,” Lan Qiren sighs, shaking his head, “After all these years. I’ve been waiting for such a long time. A-Huan, I was truly horrified to see your brother marry before you and in such a careless manner too. Without any warning, just running off with that… with that… just eloping like that! I was really hoping you’d be first, but now at the very least I’ll be glad to see it done right—”

“Wait a second,” Lan Huan interrupts (interrupts!). “What do you mean you were hoping I would marry first?”

“Well, after this many years wouldn’t you say it’s been long enough? I can understand wanting to wait for the right time, but this is well past a respectable engagement period and verging on shameful.” Lan Qiren doesn’t seem to notice them exchanging startled glances at all, so caught up in some type of memory that his chopsticks drip sauce onto the table. Suddenly he throws his nephew a sharp look. “Were you really going to wait until I was cold in the grave before getting married?”

Lan Huan’s mouth falls open. “What? I… no, Uncle, I mean—”

Lan Qiren, “In which case, why did you make him wait so long? Why did it take being forced into the spotlight by that… by the media releasing that footage for you to come to this decision?”

Jiang Cheng realises something then, his limited accessible brain cells clicking together like the screensaver ping pong ball hitting a corner. This about getting married. This is about them getting married. (After all these years.) About asking permission. Receiving blessings. He… Lan Qiren thought they were dating all this time?! Jiang Cheng nearly bites off his tongue in shock.

What the fuck? What the fuck?! What in the actual flying fuck?!!

And why doesn’t he seem angry about it? Or at least, why does he only seem angry that it ‘took them this long’ to reach this point? What even is this point? He thought they were engaged? He thought they were together all this time?! Since fucking when?!!

“Uncle,” Lan Huan says, sounding slightly strangled. “How long exactly do you think we’ve been… engaged?”

Lan Qiren hums, moustache twitching in thought. “Oh, I don't know. It's none of my business, and I couldn’t rightly say. You both have managed to be discreet. Not holding hands in public, not being attached at the hip. No one would be able to tell that you were involved with one another just by looking at you.”

But that’s because they weren’t together until relatively recently! Jiang Cheng winces at the sound of his chair cracking. Luckily it doesn't collapse underneath him. He winds his ankles around the chair legs and thinks, wonderful. Now he just has to somehow keep it together quite literally.

“It’s always best to keep private affairs private,” Lan Qiren continues. “That being said, now that the public are aware of your relationship, it would be best to get ahead of this with the appropriate measures. (With marriage?!) It would be the right thing to do, don’t you think?”

Somehow, within the space of the next two seconds, he starts communicating with Lan Huan via panicked wide-eyed looks and even decides to risk his chair falling apart with a hard kick to his ankle. What the fuck do we say? that kick meant, and his raised eyebrows ask, and why the hell does he think we’ve been dating all this time? Did you know about this?

Lan Huan kicks back twice gently. Play along. Then he raises his hand and turns to ‘cough’, mouthing behind his hand: The Box.

…The Box?! Jiang Cheng’s mind flies back to The Box Incident and being rescued by his mother and Lan Qiren. In his head, he hears Lan Huan’s adolescent voice and feels him grab his shoulder. Please consider giving him another chance to take the Test. Don’t fail him based on this. We were both distracted… then he sees the Jade glancing between him and Sparrow. Hmm. Distracted.

Then he hears his mother’s voice say, villains are going to exploit your weaknesses… They’ll use them against you. Your friends, your family, your loved ones. Why do you think we designed the Test this way specifically for you?

Oh Jesus Christ on a cracker, that can’t be it. That can’t be—

“However,” Lan Qiren intones, his expression somehow managing to become even more sombre, “Before we get started with any wedding planning, I must first ask that you sort out this issue with the media attention you've been receiving recently. Jiang Cheng, your brother’s work has me quite concerned with how it might have an effect on your reputation.”

Jiang Cheng’s stomach twists into a knot. How ridiculous. Somehow, he's become attached to the idea of marriage despite only hearing about it mere seconds ago (or at least he's attached enough to be automatically appalled at whatever it is Wei Ying has done to prevent it!). “Pardon me, but what part of Wei Ying’s work has you concerned? You'll have to narrow it down.”

Lan Qiren’s lips press together. “Hm, indeed. It’s this specifically which bothers me,” he says, “These images, to be exact,” and then tosses onto the table—

Three magazines and two print-outs of newspaper articles, each one of them proudly displaying Jiang Cheng’s right on the front page… or to be more precise, displaying the Purple Spider’s ass beautifully photographed from various angles. High definition. Perfectly framed. Ass after ass after ass. One after another.

Jiang Cheng wants to scream.

He also wants to smack his fiancé over the head, who is completely and without shame tilting his head to the side to look at the photos more closely. Right in front of his own uncle. Right in front of him. Fucking hell. This is mortifying. Jiang Cheng quickly gathers them up, swatting Lan Huan’s hands away. “Of course, of course. I’ll deal with him myself. There won't be any more of these, I promise.”

“Good,” Lan Qiren says, sounding genuinely pleased. “Now that that’s settled, let’s finish dinner and then we can discuss things further. Would you like to try the tofu?”

Over the course of the next twenty minutes, Jiang Cheng learns that the tofu is in fact called ‘Thousand Layer Tofu’ and is made through freezing and thawing the tofu to create the wrinkly pockmarks it’s famous for. Then he learns that it’s also one of Lan Huan’s favourite dishes. The conversation is as bland and dull as the muted flavours of the food itself.

But none of it is bad, and he surprises himself with how much he enjoys it.

Even so, he can’t help but wonder (with no small amount of guilt) whether Lan Huan has been suffering having to eat all of the food he cooks him. Although he’s made an effort to reduce the amount of spices he uses, what if it’s difficult for him to eat it? What if there’s a reason why the Lans eat such bland, plain food? Does having superpowers mean that strong flavours are unpleasant? It would make sense, given the fact that they have super senses—

Lan Huan nudges him. “A-Cheng, are you finished?”

“Huh?” Jiang Cheng blinks. “Oh yeah, I’m done. Thank you for the meal, sir. It was really good.”

“You may call me ‘Uncle’ too if you wish,” Lan Qiren says, swiftly clearing up the plates and leaving before Jiang Cheng can reply. Then he returns with a bowl of sweet bean soup that’s not too sweet and a fresh pot of tea. Once again, it’s surprisingly good. Conversation begins again when Lan Qiren passes him a rather large scrapbook, “I've been meaning to show you this.” Lan Qiren inhales slowly, sipping his tea. "And thank you for the gift. This blend is one of my favourites."

Jiang Cheng carefully sets it down next to his bowl, and after flicking through a few pages finds himself slowing down and his eyes going hot. Swallowing a few times, his throat feels tight when he traces a scribbled note. “This is my mother's handwriting.”

“Mm yes, well this was something she and I discussed from time to time. She didn’t approve of wedding planners. This was her personal project more than mine, but she left me this to give to you…”

The rest of his words fade away as Jiang Cheng sifts through lists of venue options, colour schemes, bouquet arrangements and different versions of traditional suits… there are even sketches. Clippings from yellowed pages of magazines. It’s only after Lan Huan leans over to look that he sucks in a shaky breath. He doesn't know what to think about the fact his mother also was under the impression they would be married someday. She was never outwardly sentimental, but here, she… here, her meticulous details spoke a lot for how she felt about it, and what is more sentimental than a book of dreams?

"She always had good taste," Lan Qiren says, looking down at the cup of tea. "Though she intended this to merely be a guide for both of you, to pick and choose as you wish."

“Oh look,” Lan Huan murmurs, turning the page to reveal a few grainy pictures of them as sidekicks. They look like they’ve been taken from CCTV or taken with long-distance binoculars. In each of them, they’re smiling and… “Look at your tights,” he giggles and then pauses. “Wait... are those crosshairs?”

Lan Qiren glances over, “Ah yes, Yu Ziyuan was going through a phase. Testing out some new gadgets, I believe. That one was taken through a sniper lens.”

“…haha, oh I see.”

Is it strange that he misses his mother more after hearing that? Her old fascination with weapons, her casual use of them in the everyday... Jiang Cheng knew to some extent that his mother and Lan Qiren were friends, and that as heroes they respected each other too, but he would have never expected them to have talked about stuff like this. The old man in front of him suddenly looks truly old, and Jiang Cheng wonders if he's thinking about her too. Perhaps even missing his old friend.

“These are just our suggestions,” he says, slowly lifting his eyes to meet Jiang Cheng’s, “But I hope you will consider them—”

“Please help us plan this wedding, Uncle!”

Oh god.

What the fuck did he just say?!

Curse him and his big mouth! Jiang Cheng’s internal flailing becomes external flailing, his panic causing him to jolt. The chair collapses beneath him. Luckily, Lan Huan manages to grab him before he falls, and then he spends a few minutes babbling apologies as they relocate to the living room. He is so past embarrassment (or coherent thought) by this point that, much to Lan Qiren’s quiet pleasure, he ends up repeating the same request accidentally. 

When Lan Huan meets his eyes, the twitch of his lips says, so I guess we’re getting married. Because. Well, because my uncle said so.

Jiang Cheng threads their fingers together.

And so, the planning begins.

 

 


 

 

The truth is that neither he nor Lan Huan has ever mentioned marriage being in their future a nd after they returned home, they both confessed again that it was never in their plans to get married. Despite that, Lan Huan held him in the hallway for a long moment, rocking them gently and whispered into his hair, “Plans change, Lotus. I’m not unhappy about this. I hope you aren’t either.”

Later that night, Jiang Cheng lay in bed staring at the ceiling.

Then he picked up his phone and drafted a quick email. He didn’t believe in spending time visiting cemeteries, or at least it wasn’t something that he was in the practice of doing. Even for something like this, he didn't feel any need to stand at his parents’ graves talking to the dead. Instead, he typed out a simple message: “I’m marrying Lan Huan, mom. Thank you.” and then he stared at the blinking cursor quietly, and then he deleted everything.

The next evening, he went into the kitchen and unpacked some leftover Thousand Layer Tofu and vegetables Lan Qiren gave them, and then turned to the stove. It was far too quiet. Jiang Cheng pulled out ingredients and, before prepping them, went to turn the old radio on. Then he fell into the rhythm of chopping lotus roots, and when the soup was bubbling, Jin Ling popped his head out of his room—

“Dinner is in two hours. Do your homework first.”

He watched Jin Ling roll his eyes and then turned back to the large, slightly rusted pot. Lan Huan trotted past sniffing the air, humming along with ABBA and running his fingers over Jiang Cheng’s shoulders. He was left smiling slightly, and whispered to himself, “Soup for dinner, jie… thank you.”

 

 


 

 

Dinners are truly the harbingers of chaos, or so it seems to him after yet another social gathering brings about further complications (and opportunities). It’s only a couple of weeks later when they are invited to Nie Huaisang’s fundraising event, and after much whining (and bribery) Jiang Cheng finds himself sitting at yet another dining table suffering silently. The Commissioner babbles his way through a painfully cringe-worthy speech and quickly shuffles over to join them.

“You did well, Huaisang,” Lan Huan praises him, laughing when the man pulls a sour face and starts fanning himself.

“Great, now the forensics lab is never going to get its equipment upgrade thanks to you,” Jiang Cheng sneers, not bothering to spare his friend an ounce of mercy. That was an awful speech and they both know it. Half the sponsors look like they’ve fallen asleep. Jiang Cheng hisses, “I wrote you flashcards and yet you fucking chose to go off-script. Ungrateful bastard. What's the point of anything if you bore everyone to death?”

“Yeah, well fuck you too. You could be a little more supportive, you know? It’s not as if your flashcards would’ve saved me,” the Commissioner complains, waving over a waiter to pour him some wine. When Jiang Cheng gestures at Jin Ling, Huaisang sighs but nods and turns to the scowling boy with an overly bright smile. “How’s school going, kiddo?”

Jin Ling crosses his arms. “I don’t see why I have to be here.”

The reason was simply that the other three kids were a year above him at school, and thus were ‘stuck at home’ doing some important group project for class. Since the Spiders were conveniently taking the night off too (Apparently they both got along famously with Lan Qiren, and were enjoying organising shit with him. Go figure.), Jiang Cheng stuffed Jin Ling into a blazer, clipped a tie to his collar and brought him along as his plus-one-and-a-half.

With no other response forthcoming, Huaisang redirects his efforts to the only kind, caring, sympathetic person in his vicinity. “Lan Huan, congratulations on the engagement!" Then he squints. "It is congratulations, right? You’re happy about it? Blink twice if you're not.”

Lan Huan smiles, “I am.”

“Well, good. I heard it from Old Man Lan himself. He came to my office at lunchtime specifically to brag about it.” Huaisang raises a glass towards Jiang Cheng. “Congrats to you too, asshole.”

Lan Huan’s quiet ‘Uncle? But why?’ is drowned out by every coworker within hearing-distance immediately stampeding over to slap Jiang Cheng on the back and enthusiastically congratulate him. All of this happens, but none of it breaks Jiang Cheng’s eye-contact with Huaisang as he tries to glare him into submission.

For no reason other than him feeling supremely bored (and rather spiteful), Jin Ling snaps a photo of his uncle’s murderous expression and sends it to his friend, the meme-lord himself, “Avenge me, Jingyi.”

Huaisang smiles sweetly. “How’s wedding planning going?”

Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes. “Fuck off.”

“It’s going very well,” Lan Huan says cheerfully. “We’ve already picked a date, we’re having our robes and suits measured, and in a week we have a cake-tasting appointment with the—”

“Oh, robes?[2] So you're going for a traditional Chinese wedding then? That’s interesting.” Huaisang sips his wine, “Hmm. Very interesting.”

Lan Huan tilts his head, “Why is that interesting?”

“It’s interesting because this is the first I've heard about any suit fittings, let alone traditional robes. I have to wonder… Jiang Cheng, why would you keep this from me? Why would you not come to me first about this? Am I not the best in the business? Do I not deserve even your consideration, as the friend who has put up with your sorry ass the longest—”

Lan Huan, “Best in the business?”

Jiang Cheng drags a hand over his face. “Of course you wouldn't know about it. Huaisang also has a side-business of designing suits. He's actually pretty good.”

Huaisang, "Backhanded bitch-slap, but I'll take it." 

“Designing suits?” Lan Huan asks in surprise. “But… if you're Commissioner, where do you find the time?”

“You think this job pays well?” Rolling his eyes, “Being Commissioner is more of a side-job than being a designer. Designing suits is my passion. It’s also where I make most of my money. I'm the best in the business five years running. Most clients beg me for my services, but apparently some friends don’t.” Sniff. “Really, it's your loss.”

“Then it’s my loss. Fuck off,” Jiang Cheng spits out. Then he clarifies for Lan Huan, “He designs suits. Not suits, but… suits.”

Ohhh, that’s why he wouldn't know about it. The Jades have been making their own suits in-house for generations. “Ah, right. Suits.” Blink. “Did he design your suit?”

Jiang Cheng sighs. “No, but he’s been trying to for years—”

“But he won’t let me. He won’t let me. I tell you, I have clients lining up at the doors, yet this sad sack has been patching up the same old suit for years. Decades, even. It’s a disgrace.” Huaisang smiles tightly. “But that’s fine. If you don’t want me designing your suits, that’s fine. What’s not fine is your wedding attire being designed by some poor schmuck. Jiang Cheng, spare a thought for the poor man's sanity! He won't know your proportions!”

Lan Huan frowns, “Why would you know his proportions?”

Huaisang wafts his fan. “Oh relax. We’re old college roommates. What wouldn’t I know about him?”

Jiang Cheng hisses, “Will you shut up? It's not happening! And you wonder why I didn't tell you?”

Jin Ling nods to himself, though he's only been half-listening to the conversation. “I guess that's why it took so long to get through that appointment. Jiujiu really hates formalwear. He was so horrible to that tailor I thought he was gonna make him cry.” When Lan Huan makes a noise of surprise, he frowns. “What? You were there too. You saw him steal the measuring tape. I really thought he was gonna garrotte him with it.”

“No, no, it's not that. It's just that…” Lan Huan stares pointedly at the old navy suit Jiang Cheng is wearing. “I didn't know you had a problem with formal wear, A-Cheng. I think you wear suits very well.”

“No, he does not wear suits well. He only looks good in them. Therein lies the difference,” Huaisang’s biting tone suddenly oozes into a drawl. “There’s a reason why he started his career known as Detective Sweatpants. That’s all he used to wear back in the day—”

Jiang Cheng grits out, “Nie Huaisang.”

“—because of one too many incidents where from what I can recall, either he’d be running too fast or, I don't know… he’d sit down too suddenly. Either way, somehow his bulging quads would split his pants open right at the seams, or was that your ass?” (Lan Huan’s jaw drops. Split open his… his pants?) “It happened so often it became a problem. HR forced him to wear that ugly trenchcoat indoors, but that just made employees mistake him for a stripper. The receptionists loved it, but yeah… dress pants really don't like him. With robes, he might just avoid public indecency—”

“Jiujiu, no,” Jin Ling says sternly, grabbing his sleeve. “Put down the knife.”

“—but it’s gonna be tricky,” Huaisang concludes. “I do wonder where you'll find a material that has enough stretch… that is durable enough to withstand some roughhousing, but that is also fashionable. That's quite a tall order. Some might even say it's impossible.”

Lan Huan deflates. “Oh.”

“But that’s essentially what I mean by his ‘proportions’. His ass requires consideration. I imagine you’re quite ridiculous too. Those shoulders, hm. For that reason, I strongly suggest you get your tailor to put a little more thought into his choice of fabrics. You wouldn’t want Detective Jiang’s ass to become front-page news now, would you?”

Lan Huan stammers, “No, I… I…”

“Speaking of front-page news,” the scheming schemer says, smoothly segueing onto his next point, “Didn’t you hear? What a coincidence. What are the chances that both of you are getting married at the same time the Purple Spider and White Jade are tying the knot—?”

“Pardon me, Commissioner,” a woman calls out, “But did you just say that Spider and Jade are getting married?”

Huaisang nods, “Yeah, I did. Does no one here keep up-to-date with the headlines? That’s part of the job too, you know.”

Immediately people go to check their phones, and everyone falls eerily silent.

Then the room erupts into complete mayhem.

“The Supers are marrying?!”

“It's been so long since the last superhero wedding, ah I'm gonna cry!”

“Oh my god SpaaAAAAaaade!!”

Jiang Cheng snatches Jin Ling’s phone away. Sure enough there is a fresh article right off the press, penned by the great Wei Ying himself. Exclusive news that… “You little shit,” Jiang Cheng swears, nearly snapping the phone in half. “What the hell are you playing at—”

A waiter walks over, expertly dodging dozens of excited police officers. “Sirs, will you be having the soup or salad today?” When Jiang Cheng continues fuming to himself, he turns to Lan Huan, “Soup or salad?”

“Super… salad? Ahaha, no.” Lan Huan's mind is struggling to keep up with everything. Detective Sweatpants. Spade wedding. Pants splitting open. Jiang Cheng. His mind feels more than a little broken. “No, I’ll just have a regular salad, please. Thank you. Haha.”

“Uhh, but—”

“A regular salad,” Lan Huan raises his voice, standing abruptly, “For a regular man, thank y—ACK!”[3]

“What are you doing?” Jiang Cheng snarls, yanking him down by his tie. “Lan Huan, what’s wrong with you? Can everyone calm down? Huaisang, will you get a hold of your staff, for fuck's sa—”

“Why should I? Look around. This is a perfect example right here. An opportunity you would be foolish to let go. You're just too shortsighted to see it.” Huaisang spreads his hands out. “One mention of Spade and everyone’s already like this. No one is hounding you about your wedding anymore. Do you understand what I’m suggesting here?”

Amidst the noise and chaos, Jiang Cheng meets his former roommate’s eye and instantly understands what he’s saying. After all the publicity linking him and Lan Huan to their masked-personas, it's likely the city’s villains will be eagerly awaiting their wedding, probably hoping to gatecrash and take them as hostages again. Most superheroes tend to avoid announcing big occasions to avoid drawing attention from villains, but Spad—but the Purple Spider and Jade’s announcement has already been made.

A distraction.

The bait is almost too obvious, but their city’s villains have never been that smart. It would be a good way to divert attention. Some sort of distraction… but how would it work? They can’t be two places at once. Huaisang holds his phone screen up, pointing solemnly at Wei Ying’s little bunny icon, his eyebrow quirked.

Huh.

That might just work.

“Don’t thank me. This suggestion counts as part of your wedding gift.” Huaisang swirls his glass. “The other part will naturally be me designing your suits. Free of charge. You’re welcome.”

Lan Huan looks between the two of them and closes his eyes in prayer, “Oh no.”

 

 


 

 

The next day, Jiang Cheng wastes no time in storming his brother's house, partly because he’s there to collect Jingyi, but also because he has business with him. “You owe me,” is the first thing he says, striding in like he's marching to war. “After what you’ve done. You owe me many times over. Pay up.”

Wei Ying sputters, “Uh, actually I think you owe me? Your kid almost ate the entirety of my fridge—”

“Good! Jingyi,” Jiang Cheng slings an arm around the startled boy’s shoulders, “You’re such a good boy. Excellent job. Keep eating.” Jingyi shoots Lan Huan a worried look but obediently continues shovelling rice into his mouth. Jiang Cheng absentmindedly starts patting his head like a dog, though he swivels around to face his brother. “Now, listen.”

“Are you still going on about the gossip rags? I've already stopped publishing your ass photos! What more do you want from me? Spare a thought for your poor big brother—”

“Shut up, now listen. You’re going to do this for me. I will not owe you for this ever. This will be your wedding gift to us, and you can even enjoy having a good time yourself whilst you’re at it.”

“Wh—”

“The Purple Spider and the White Jade are getting married. Jiang Cheng and Lan Huan are also getting married.” Jiang Cheng tosses him something. “Try this on.”

Wei Ying unfolds the bundle of fabric, his eyes growing wider and wider, and then narrowing in contemplation. “You want me to wear the Purple Spider costume?”

JingYi starts choking.

No one in the room looks happy about this… except for Xue Yang, who doesn’t look like he cares at all.

“A distraction,” Wei Ying deduces, holding the catsuit up to his body. The legs are dragging on the floor. The slow smile he gives has Jiang Cheng shuddering. Licking his lips, “You want me to be delicious bait?”

Delicious bait?!

"No." Jiang Cheng lifts his finger, pointing it directly between his brother's eyes. “Don't you dare embarrass me, Wei Ying. Don’t you fucking dare. The Purple Spider is a legacy. You better take this seriously, or else—”

Wei Ying runs out of the room.

“—you fucker.”

“That went well,” Lan Huan says pleasantly, smiling at his own brother. “Will you be alright with this, didi? I hope it’s not too much trouble for you. There will still be the after-party which I'm sure you and Wei Ying will want to attend.”

Lan Zhan opens his mouth, but before he can speak, his husband rushes back in, already spewing out complaints. “The fuck is this, Jiang Cheng? Do you stuff your pants? Why is my ass sagging? I can't fucking breathe? How do you live like this?”

“Oi, sensei. Shifu. Boss-man.” Xue Yang tilts his head back to look at his mentor, who is too busy plucking at his derriere to pay him any attention, twirling a screwdriver between his fingers. “Yo. Hello. Mister, I need some help here, pretty, pretty please—”

“How can you let him wear the Purple Spider suit?” Jingyi demands, pointing at Wei Ying and glaring up at Jiang Cheng. “That’s… that’s wrong on so many levels! What about me? I want to be at your wedding too, b-but if Purple Spider is there—”

Jiang Cheng is too busy arguing with his brother to answer Jingyi, though he continues stroking his hair even as he throws threats and warnings like daggers. It’s incredible yet unsurprising how pissed off he already is with Wei Ying, who's more concerned with his appearance than anything. Dumbass! He’s definitely not taking this seriously!

Meanwhile, Lan Huan is observing all of through the haze of a terrible headache. Jin Ling stomps his foot, “I knew it,” he growls. “You were having a sleepover, weren’t you? And you didn’t want me to come! There was never any homework, was there?”

Oh, he's talking to his friends, of whom Zizhen immediately says, “That's not true, Jin Ling! Why would you even think that?”

Jin Ling’s scowl deepens, though his voice rises into a whine, “Don’t try to deny it. That guy over there is eating candy and you’re all wearing matching pyjamas. (“They're my pyjamas,” Sizhui says, “What else would we wear to sleep in?”) You didn't want me to come. You guys suck.”

“That-guy-over-there needs some he-eelp,” Xue Yang sing-songs, lifting a skeleton model up to eye-level. “Not that anyone cares. Oh, what does this button do? Tsk. Fine then. Hello, from the other siiide. I must have called a thousand ti—”

It’s right then that Lan Huan should have jumped in, but how was he to know what would happen in the next few seconds?

Time doesn't slow down when super-speed isn’t activated, therefore neither he nor his brother is quick enough to do anything when a white laser beam shot out suddenly, directly hitting—

 

 


 

 

“So in my defence,” Xue Yang says drily, “I did ask for help. Several times actually. No one was listening. How can you even call yourself a hero if you don't listen to a poor civilian’s cry for help?”

“Poor civilian,” Jingyi scoffs. “What type of poor civilian builds laser guns? That's villain behaviour, you know.”

Jin Ling is still in shock. “My uncle… is a cat.”

Indeed, he is a cat. A very large cat. It’s only due to his super-strength that Jingyi is able to carry him around. The petting that he had been giving to him previously is being returned to him tenfold. It feels good, but there's no way he’s going to admit to that. Holding back a purr feels like swallowing a cactus, but Jiang Cheng is nothing if not full of spite and stubbornness.

“Now, from what we've seen before,” Wei Ying says, standing a safe distance away, “This ought to wear off in due course. There’s no need to panic. For once, my minion’s inability to build functioning laser guns is a good thing. Let’s try to stay positive—”

“Pawsitive,” Jingyi mumbles. “Sorry.”

“…”

Jiang Cheng leaps from his arms, but before he can reach the floor he ends up caught by Lan Huan. Hissing angrily and clawing ineffectively at his fiancé’s arms, it’s then that he knows the next however many days before this wears off are going to be hell.

It’s indeed, a special kind of hell, being bound to a small, furry body and having to rely on others to shit and eat.

Litter boxes. Ugh. At least he’s allowed to dine at the table, and when he can’t fight the urge to lick-bathe himself the others pretend not to see it. Small mercies, but he’ll count his blessings.

One morning, whilst he’s loafing on the back of the sofa, he watches Lan Huan potter around making breakfast with only mild apprehension. Contrary to what most people think, he isn’t completely hopeless in the kitchen. Every now and again, he turns around to ask Jiang Cheng something, and it makes his chest ache with longing. How he wishes he could answer him. All he can do is give him a slow blink.[4] He hopes that’s good enough.

Lan Huan leaves after eating breakfast. He’s not going to the hospital, but to a wedding appointment. After a very strange meeting with the venue host the other day, during which Lan Huan babbled some bullshit excuse about why he had to carry his feline friend around with him in his arms, they decided it was best for Jiang Cheng to stay at home. (“Da-Cheng is… a lucky cat,” Lan Huan had told the baffled host, “Very important. He needs to be here.” “And what about the other groom?” “…he’s busy. Very busy. And sick.”)

The venue was really gorgeous. Jiang Cheng was surprised to find it was a place he’d been to before as a child, probably for some formal function his parents must have dragged him to. The location wasn’t far from the courthouse, but far away enough to have sufficient land for a number of sprawling gardens. It was without him needing to ask that Lan Huan carried him around several of them, walking slowly enough for him to take it all in.

His memories swam closer with each footstep, and as if Lan Huan had seen them too, he said quietly, “Do you remember this place, A-Cheng? We played here when our parents were busy. That party was so boring, but we had so much fun.”

In truth, he didn't remember much. He must have been too young. What memories he had were of running past a blur of coloured dresses, twinkling lights along winding pathways, someone holding his hand and laughing… all very generic, but still managing to spark something inside him. He wanted to say, your uncle and my mother chose this place. Maybe they saw us playing together. Do you think they knew what we'd become back then? But that’s impossible.

Coming to terms with the wedding was still a work in progress, but moments like those made him wonder if it was always in his future. Even if it wasn’t what he'd planned or wanted originally, Jiang Cheng found himself warming up to the idea. It wasn’t as if he was dreading marrying the man he loved. I’m not unhappy about this. I hope you aren’t either. He was excited. He had become excited, and now he was invested in it. Not just at the wedding, but at the thought of making a precious memory for them to look back on fondly. Of wearing matching rings and calling each other husband.

Thinking about this, Jiang Cheng starts kneading the sofa cushions anxiously. Are they even going to be able to have a wedding anymore? He can't very well marry Lan Huan as a cat now, can he? It’s been almost a full week and he's still not human. It’s whilst he’s sulking over this that the doorknob turns, and then Lan Huan steps into the house with a broad smile. “Da-Cheng? Pspspsps! Where are you, my love?”

When Lan Huan walks into the living room he's already quick-changed into an undershirt and a pair of boxers. He’s carrying a large box. He's home early. Jiang Cheng runs over, meowing and meandering between his legs. He can't help himself. Rubbing himself against his husband-to-be, crying plaintively until the man laughs and nearly trips himself with each step. I love you, I love you, I love you.

“Did you miss me?” Lan Huan teases, bending down to scoop him up. Jiang Cheng curls up around his head, kneading his throat and flicking his tail under his nose. “How were things with Cora?”

It’s been difficult navigating relations with his former pets, but especially with Cora. Sometimes they get along really well, both of them curled up together and grooming each other’s ears. Other times Cora will hiss at him until he goes running to Lan Huan. It's most likely the reason for this is because the puppies love Jiang Cheng. Just like his own pupp—kids, just like his own kids, the puppies will trail after him everywhere he goes. Fairy mostly doesn’t mind, but Cora hates it.

“Mrawr. Mrrrkksss!”

“Is that so? Well, I’m home now. You’re safe.” Lan Huan kisses between his ears, humming happily. “And guess what? I brought cake! The baker your mother chose is still grateful after all these years. Couldn’t stop talking about how Purple Spider saved her life. She gave me all the samples to try at home when I told her I wanted to try them with you.”

Jiang Cheng tilts his head. How the fuck is he supposed to try cake samples like this? Can cats even eat cake? Lan Huan puts him down on the table and goes to get some plates. He noses at the box, smelling all sorts of… strange things. They’re probably delicious to humans. He wishes he could—

“Right then.”

A stack of plates and a fork are set down. Then each cake slice is served carefully. What the hell? You could just use one plate, Huan-gē, he wants to say. More plates means more washing up, not that you'd know anything about that. Moron.

“Now, I’m afraid you’re going to have to rely on my opinions. I know you think my tastebuds are rotten, but you’re going to have to trust me here.” Lan Huan’s fork hovers above the first slice… and then it trembles, and his hand flies up to his mouth. “Oh god. Cake. That’s hilarious. Can I even eat cake? Hahaha…”

Cake. Jiang Cheng’s warm fuzzy feelings evaporate even as his warm fuzzy self remains. Cake! Fucking cake! Lan Huan’s fork never makes it to the cake. Jiang Cheng swipes out with his paw and the first cake sample goes skidding across. Crash!

Somewhere in the house, Cora yowls.

Lan Huan blinks. “Did you just—”

Jiang Cheng hisses. He’s stupidly angry. This is worse than being a teenager. As a cat, his emotions, patience, feelings and thoughts are so mercurial. He’s so frustrated. He’s so angry. The joke should be funny. He should be happy Lan Huan came back home to be with him. But he just wants to share in this—to share in everything with him, no matter how small or stupid it is.

It’s with this thought that he wilts, his hissing petering out as he curls up into a ball of misery. How ridiculous. He's upset about cake. Again. It’s so stupid. Jiang Cheng hides behind his tail, remaining silent even when Lan Huan strokes his back and makes a worried noise. “Oh sweetheart,” he mutters, and tries to pick him up again. When Jiang Cheng resists, he flips up the hem of his shirt, “Come on then.”

Again, he can’t resist the invitation and dives under, rising up to poke his head through the neck and butt his head against Lan Huan's chin. Then he immediately starts kneading biscuits on his pecs. This habit of sometimes sharing a shirt (or oversized hoodie) came from when Lan Huan was practising his piano. He'd join him every time, just like this. [5]

When Lan Huan starts humming a tune, his low voice vibrating in his chest… Jiang Cheng finds himself melting from the warmth, and from each loving caress, and drifting closer and closer to sleep. The doorbell rings, dragging him back towards consciousness. Jiang Cheng snuffles, his mind foggy and sounds swirling around him. Below him is Lan Huan’s heartbeat, above him are familiar voices. Slowly, they begin to register as words.

“—no no no, Uncle, did you have to… oh no, look now, he's awake. Baby, nooo…” Lan Huan’s petting becomes a little more frantic. That, and the sound of him close to tears, wake Jiang Cheng up instantly. “And now he’s stopped purring. Aiyo, I think I’m going to cry.”

Lan Qiren sniffs. “Don't be ridiculous. I know you’re fond of that cat, A-Huan, but that’s a bit too much, don't you think? Now tell me, where is Jiang Cheng? I wanted to get his opinion on something before the final meeting with the venue host.”

Jiang Cheng whuffles, closes his eyes and goes back to sleep. That leaves Lan Huan to handle this by himself, but the situation is really bizarre. “He’s taking a nap,” he says, glancing down at Jiang Cheng’s pink twitching nose. “I think he’s quite tired, especially after today. He’s not been sleeping well lately. I think I wore him out. Maybe I should stop teasing him so much.”

There's a long pause during which he waits for a reply, but when he looks up… Uncle is facing the wall and pinching the skin between his eyebrows. He exhales loudly through his nose. “I don’t need to know about this, Lan Huan. You could have just said that he was sleeping.” (What?) “I’ll talk to him tomorrow when he’s… when he’s recovered.”

Recovered?

Lan Huan frowns, “Recovered from what? He’s fine? He isn’t hurt—”

“That's not for you to decide! Honestly, I thought I raised you better!” Lan Qiren shakes his head. “Be more gentle next time. We’re on a tight schedule here. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Be more… be more gentle?!

It’s then that he realises he's only in his boxers and undershirt. I think I wore him out. Oh. Be more gentle next time. Oh no. Lan Huan almost jumps up to protest, but there… there’s a cat on him! He can’t get up!! “Wait no… wait, Uncle!” he pleads. “Uncle, no! IT’S NOT WHAT YOU’RE THI—”

 

 


 

 

The morning of the wedding, Jiang Cheng rolls over… and over, and over. He’s mostly still asleep whilst doing this. In his dream, there’s something red obscuring his vision, something warm holding him tight. He knows these arms, but why are they so… big? (Or why is he so small?) Then a voice says: I now pronounce you husband and cat—

Jiang Cheng falls off the bed.

What even was that dream? Husband and cat?! When he pats himself over, it's with trembling hands. Human hands, thank god. Sadly, their favourite shared hoodie was destroyed when he suddenly turned back without warning. Despite that, the memory of his feline adventures still lingers. Jiang Cheng glares at the ceiling. It can’t be a good sign that he woke up like this.

“Jiujiu, why are you on the floor?”

Craning his neck back, “Jin Ling, why are you climbing through my window?” Then Jiang Cheng does a double-take. “What the fuck? Why are you climbing through my window? Did something hap—”

“Good moooorning! How’s the groom feeling today?” Huaisang pauses in the doorway, looking him up and down. “Ah, I see. That bad, huh?”

A brisk knock at the door, then Linzhen comes in carrying a tray and hip-checks Huaisang aside to get to her boss. “We have just over an hour to make you pretty. Get your butt off the floor. Time is of the essence.” She clicks her tongue. “Look at you. I need to comb your hair again. Sit down. You’re too tall.”

Jiang Cheng lets himself be (bullied) manoeuvred around, too out of it to complain when he's brushed and dressed by his assistant as Jin Ling follows him around feeding him bites of breakfast. Huaisang jabs him with his fan, snapping him out of his fugue. “Really though, how are you feeling?”

How is he feeling? Jiang Cheng munches thoughtfully. Perhaps others would feel nervous on their big day, but mostly he felt fine. Quietly excited. No cold feet. No pre-wedding jitters. Just oddly calm and happy.

“Happy? That’s good. That’s surprising. It’s not like you to be so optimistic—ow! Hey, hey, Jin Ling, I’m just saying!”

That was a fair point. What he was saying is true, and reminds Jiang Cheng of the fact that many things could still potentially go wrong. Most of those things are dependent on how well Wei Ying’s team will manage their given task. Big, loud, flashy celebration. Draw everyone's eyes away. This calculated risk felt very much like tying their hopes to a rabbit and sending it into a fox’s den.

“Alright, you’re done,” Linzhen announces, checking her watch. “And Minzhen should be done too. Go look, Boss. Tell us what you think.”

“Oh yes. I did good with this. Shines like silk, tough as leather, yet it breathes like Egyptian cotton.” Huaisang circles him, testing seams and smoothing fabric into place. “Shoulders back now. That's right.”

Jiang Cheng walks over to the mirror and… everything is so bright and red. It’s honestly very strange seeing himself like this. Part of him knew that having a wedding meant becoming the centre of attention, but that’s never been a place of comfort for him. Maybe he wouldn’t stick out that much in a theatre troupe or perhaps at a Chinese opera, but here he feels a little bit ridiculous. Almost naked.

“Naked?!” Huaisang quickly goes to check behind him, lifting his robes up. At first Jiang Cheng doesn’t understand what he's doing, but then he asks, “What, did you tear something? That’s impossible. You haven’t even walked five steps, don't tell me you—”

“No! Not like that, you moron! I just feel,” (exposed, self-conscious, weird) “Not like myself.”

"Who said you have to be yourself? He already knows who you are." Huaisang blinks. “By that, do you actually mean ‘not dressed like a slob’? When was the last time you wore clothes as nice as this? If you feel naked now, I wonder how you’ll feel wearing fitted pants later.” He looks at Jiang Cheng for a couple of seconds and then sighs. “You only have to suffer being sexy for today, alright? Do it for me. Then you can go back to wearing those godawful sweatpants.”

“Jiujiu, look.” Jin Ling thrusts his phone at him with a wide grin. “Jingyi sent us this.”

There’s a video already playing. Jingyi’s face is pressed far too close to the screen, which then tilts, and then he assumes Sizhui must have taken over filming. “—so I thought, since you two didn’t get to do a proper photoshoot[6] due to a certain person being turned into a cat, we could at least do this instead. That’s why we took the liberty of making this photo album for you. OKAY, PRESS PLAY… NOW!”

The video turns into a slideshow of… Jiang Cheng stares, his anxiety melting away into something else. Indeed, they never got to prepare a wedding album due to his untimely transformation, but Jingyi factored that in as the main feature. There are photos of him. As a cat. Napping with (and often on top of) Lan Huan in various places around the house. The words: ‘I loaf you very much’ hover over the final photo of him curled up on top of Lan Huan’s stomach. “Good luck, Uncle!” the boys’ pre-recorded voices chorus together—

—and in another room, Lan Huan laughs loudly and drags Jingyi into a hug, pressing a kiss to his blushing cheek. “Oh, that's adorable. I loved it, A-Yi! Thank you so much.”

JingYi ducks his head with a shy smile. He’s been a little quieter than usual without Sizhui around since he and Zizhen have gone with Wei Ying and Lan Zhan to their fake wedding location. Lan Huan hugs the boy gently until he eases a bit. He’s slightly nervous too, but also brimming with excitement and emotions.

“If you’re done, then we mustn’t keep Jiang Cheng waiting,” Lan Qiren says from the door, startling Jingyi into almost dropping the phone. From his pinched expression, he’s probably confused by whatever he heard. Oh right. A certain person being turned into a cat. “If you ready, let's go. We don’t want to be late.”

Lan Huan pauses watching his uncle fold a coat over his arm, another coat for Jingyi, and turn to him expectantly, and is hit with a wave of affection that nearly bowls him over. His uncle has always been supportive, but one would have to be blind not to notice how he's gone above and beyond for this. He even grudgingly organised an extravagant party for their already-married brothers to (enjoy) use for the diversion, but here at the actual wedding… here, you can see the difference in sentiment.

“I… I’m glad you like him, Uncle,” he hears himself say. “Thank you for this, and for everything.”

Lan Qiren gazes at him for a long moment. “Jiang Cheng has always been good,” he says, and when they brush shoulders at the door, adds curtly, “No thanks needed.”

There are to be no door games, no bridal procession. With Wei Ying not around, they’ve managed to get away with this decision. They've been selective with what traditions they’ve included to be mixed with modern practices, wanting to keep the wedding as simple and stress-free as possible. Small, and intimate, and just for them.

Even so, the boys insisted on at least providing some sort of challenge that they must pass to prove their determination to marry. Hence the reason why Jingyi is playfully clinging to his arm in an attempt to hold him back. “His favourite ice cream flavour?”

“Cherry.”

“Favourite place in the world?”

“Home.”

“First date?”

“Classified.”

“Uncle,” Jingyi pouts. “Biggest fear?”

“Also classified.”

“Uncle!”

Another outraged voice drifts into range, “—what do you mean you’ve never had a fight? You’ve known each other for ages. That can’t be true. Stop being sappy!”

Jiang Cheng snorts. “We’ve disagreed and argued plenty of times, but we've never actually fought about anything. Or fought each other. Yet. I’m not being sappy, I’m being—” The moment he looks up, he stops in his tracks. Ahead of him, Lan Huan has also frozen in place. Compared to him, the Jade looks like he’s stepped out of a classical painting. Or a Chinese drama. From his sparkling eyes to his polished boots, he looks perfect. “Lan Huan.”

“J… Jiang Cheng,” Lan Huan murmurs, cheeks filling with colour and eyes growing red, “Oh.”

“Don’t cry!” he blurts out, darting forwards to catch his elbows. “Lan Huan, come on.”

Lan Huan laughs tearfully, “B-But we’re supposed to cry, aren’t we? Oh, A-Cheng, you look so… wow.”

“Okay,” Jiang Cheng croaks, lips quivering, “Okay cry, b... but just a bit. Not too much, you hear me?”

“Cry all you want,” Huaisang interrupts. “Your robes are both waterproof and machine washable. Super-tears aren't gonna lose you anything. Except your dignity.”

“You’re both so gross,” Jin Ling sneers, grabbing his uncle by the arm and signalling for Jingyi to do the same. Instead of holding them back, now the two boys are pushing them forwards. “Ugh! Hurry up and get in the car! We have a wedding to get to!”

As they’re driving to the courthouse, Jiang Cheng finds it impossible to look at Lan Huan in such close quarters. Which is ridiculous. It makes no sense. Like with any awkward situation in the modern-day, he channels his nervous energy into fiddling with his phone. The first thing he does is check the news. Wei Ying’s fake wedding should have started by now. He wonders how much will have made it to the press—

It's already there, in multiple headlines. The more Jiang Cheng reads, the more horrified he becomes. Despite Wei Ying’s promises to keep his ass away from the front page, the public has decided to step in for his absence by providing their own ‘evidence’. The biggest news today is not that the Purple Spider and White Jade are getting married.

The biggest news is that the Purple Spider has an imposter because, quote: That’s not the ass we know!”

There are comparison photos. Side-by-sides. Public outrage and speculation. Ass after ass after ass. Diagrams of the curve. Jiang Cheng might actually cry from stunned embarrassment. His ass has somehow made it to the front page again, and this time it wasn’t even Wei Ying’s fault! Well, it was his fault, but not intentionally! Worst of all is the fact that the villain-of-the-day who has, indeed, shown up to cause trouble, is reported to be quite upset by this revelation too.

What the holy shitballs. Jiang Cheng warily clicks on a video and the footage is as bad as he was expecting. Wei Ying is a terrible Purple Spider who keeps posing all the time, causing Lan Zhan's Jade to be thoroughly distracted… it's a complete disaster. The plan may have worked, but at what cost?

“Boss, you’re looking a bit pale. Maybe a strong beverage might—” Jiang Cheng smacks the champagne flute out of Minzhen’s hand. She blinks. “O-kay. Still got that instinct I see, sir.”

'That instinct'. He wants to hiss at her, but that would only prove her point. Jiang Cheng breathes deeply a few times, trying his best to calm down. The plan is working. It’s fine, he tells himself. A large, warm hand curls around his, prises his phone away and then holds him. Just holds him. Lan Huan squeezes his hand gently, folding it between both of his, and suddenly he can breathe.

They arrive at the courthouse.

It goes surprisingly well. There are no hitches whatsoever. Whilst they prepared for the possibility of there being another untimely interruption… nothing happens. They sign their names together, they do the ceremonial bows, they serve Lan Qiren sweet tea. It all goes swimmingly. All according to schedule. It all happens so fast. Jiang Cheng would feel guilty to have not paid enough attention to his own wedding, but it all blurred past so quickly… his mind was somewhere else, his body followed Lan Huan’s lead as if by muscle memory.

By the time he returns to awareness, they’re getting changed into their evening suits and Lan Huan is once again fixing his tie.

This time it's a bow tie. Jiang Cheng knows that much at least. They picked out a light blue one for him and a lilac one for Lan Huan. There is a flash of silver from the movement of his fingers, and when Jiang Cheng looks down there's his wedding ring. Of course there is. He’s the one who put it there when they…

Oh.

It dawns him then, slow and silent as the sunrise. They’re… they’re married. Watching his husband flip and fold the strip of silk with practised ease, it settles on him like the late afternoon sun slanting through the windows. Everything has changed, but at the same time, nothing has.

These matching rings were the only request Lan Huan made specifically, with no explanation given other than he thought it would be nice to wear them. Jiang Cheng suddenly reaches for Lan Huan’s hand, slotting their fingers together—clink!—oh. Oh wow.

If Lan Huan has noticed him not being quite with-it, he doesn't seem that bothered at all by it. In fact, there’s a very peaceful energy radiating from him. Maybe that's why he’s not freaking out despite feeling completely overwhelmed. Lan Huan’s expression is utterly serene, and when he glances up his soft eyes are as warm as melted honey. “Alright?” he whispers.

Is he alright? Jiang Cheng nods, but even then he isn’t sure. Just as he’s beginning to doubt himself, two large hands come up to cup his face, and when Lan Huan leans in he thinks it’s for a kiss, but… then he presses their foreheads together, rubs their noses together and laughs quietly when their eyes cross in the middle.

Jiang Cheng blinks a few times, wet eyelashes sticking together. “Hug me.”

This is just like the night after going to Lan Qiren’s for dinner. This quiet moment. This surge of emotion is more than can be put into words—plans change, Lotus. I’m not unhappy about this—he knows they're both happy, but the realisation that he never had plans to change beyond a certain point is quite… alarming. All this happiness is filling a void he never even knew existed in the first place. Jiang Cheng hides his face against Lan Huan’s shoulder and tries not to think too much about anything.

“We’ll go when you’re ready.” Lan Huan leans back to kiss his forehead. “Take your time. I’ve got you.”

Even with the slight delay, they arrive at the wedding banquet perfectly on time to thunderous applause. It’s loud and brash, and when someone whoops, Jiang Cheng fights back a wince. His face is probably matching with the red decor, but he soldiers on with his hand clinging to Lan Huan’s, gritting his teeth in a smile. After greeting everyone they come across, Jiang Cheng sinks into his chair with a heavy sigh. Then someone takes the seat next to him, which forces him to paste on another smile and—

“Oh, it’s just y…” Jiang Cheng’s eyes narrow to slits. “What the fuck happened to you?”

“Bar fight,” Wei Ying says cheerfully. Despite being quite banged up, he is jittery with post-battle endorphins and glowing with excitement. Somehow, seeing him like that allows the last of the tension inside Jiang Cheng to dissipate. They’re alright. The distraction worked. “How did it go?”

Jiang Cheng raises his hand, proudly presenting his ring. “How do you think?”

Wei Ying whistles loudly, but then Huaisang leans around him and clicks his tongue. “Tungsten?[7] Ah, well.” Pursing his lips. “I guess it’s pretty enough.”

The grooms exchange confused glances. What’s wrong with their rings? Before they can say anything, Wei Ying quickly passes Jiang Cheng a gift bag and then scuttles back to lean against his husband. That type of behviour has Jiang Cheng carefully checking the contents of the bag. Is it booby-trapped? Some kind of prank? A single scrap of some sort of… cloth? “Uh, thanks, you... you shouldn’t have?”

Lan Huan takes the cloth from him, smiling in bemusement. “Sorry, but what exactly is this?”

“It's all that’s left from… you know.” Wei Ying skitters his fingers across the table. Darts a few glances at Jiang Cheng. “You know.”

Jiang Cheng snatches the cloth back from Lan Huan. He stares at it. So this. This is his… “What do you mean this is all that’s left? What did you do?!”

“I’m sorry!” Wei Ying wails.

“You will be sorry!!”

“Oh thank god. Good riddance. It's gone,” Huaisang says, meeting Lan Huan’s worried eyes calmly across from the bickering brothers. “Relax. The only sentimental value he imbued in that old thing was his own stubbornness. That scrap right there is probably all that remains of his original suit. I told you, he patched it up so many times it’s more thread than fabric.”

Lan Huan frowns, “So it wasn’t—” 

“It wasn’t his mom’s, no. He wore that suit once and then deemed it far too precious to use.”

"There's one other thing," Wei Ying says, his eyes huge in his face. "My best-man speech got ruined."

Jiang Cheng looks at him. "Thank god."

"—which is why Huaisang has kindly agreed to take over—"

Jiang Cheng grabs two glasses of wine and downs them both. 

Seeing this, Lan Huan is worried that Jiang Cheng is genuinely upset with losing his suit, and so he folds up the little scrap of cloth and tucks it carefully into his breast pocket. Huaisang cracks a smile at that, and then bravely leans across to interrupt his friends. “Alright listen,” he exclaims, “You’ve got no excuses now, ChengCheng. Let me design you your next suit. Let me put those assets to good use. We can include all the tech you want, but as your friend I am begging you, let me do this. Please.”

Jiang Cheng scowls but gradually loosens his hold on Wei Ying’s throat. “All the tech I want?”

Huaisang nods, “All of it. Maybe even more than you already had. I’m offering my services free of charge for this one time only as a bonus wedding gift. Actually, let me do Lan Huan’s too—”

Jiang Cheng jerks in surprise. “I beg your pardon?”

“Imagine it,” spreading his hands open, “Matching suits. You’ll still have your own colour schemes, but just the,” clenching his fist, “Look of them. The style. The cut. It'll be very subtle, I promise you, but think about it! Couple costumes! Picture it!”

Lan Huan nods slowly, “Oh yes, that sounds nice.”

Snort. “Of course you'd like it. Huaisang, I—” Again, there's no time to protest much. The servers have come to lay out the food. Jiang Cheng holds onto his arguments. Truth be told, there aren't many. Huaisang was right. The only attachment he had to his old suit was the years he’s spent wearing it, and… this is a new beginning, isn’t it?

They dine in relative silence, with respect to the Lans’ eating habits. The banquet is full of rich flavours, but also with an equal mix of simpler dishes too. Jiang Cheng spots Jingyi digging into a tray of chicken wings and snorts again. Then he spots a plate of Thousand Layer Tofu and smiles, taking a large serving for both Lan Huan and himself.

After dinner, they endure another round of applause as they head over to the desserts table. This is the first he’s seen of their wedding cake, and as they come close to it Jiang Cheng gasps and lets out a quiet wail. Lan Huan chuckles, pushing him along. Once again, he can't help wondering why the people he loves are such trolls. “Why are there… did you ask them to put sparrows on our cake, Lan Huan?”

“Perhaps.”

“Perhaps? Why… ahhh, why are you like this?” Jiang Cheng covers his face with both hands. At least the sparrows aren’t replicas of the poor deformed thing he attempted to draw on Lan Huan’s cake. He probably couldn't describe how ugly it was in great enough detail. “Did you have to put sparrows on it?”

“Sparrows are considered to be auspicious by our culture; the Ancient Greeks even regarded it as a symbol of true love. As for the lotuses…” Lan Huan awkwardly manoeuvres them so they can cut into the cake together, taking great care not to damage any of the decorations. Then he lifts a piece to Jiang Cheng’s lips with a smile. “Well, I’m very fond of lotuses.”

Jiang Cheng sighs but he accepts the bite of cake, scraping his teeth over the pad of his husband’s thumb. His breath hitches, pupils widening. “Mm, you’re a sap… but this is good.” He smiles. “Your turn now, say ‘ahh’.”

Lan Huan opens his mouth obediently, but of course… he smashes the cake into his startled face.

A burst of laughter explodes from him, nearly bowling him over with the force of it. Lan Huan sputters, but instead of wiping off the icing, he combs it down his chin, shaping it with his fingers… “No, hey no, don’t!” Jiang Cheng chokes out, sneaking a glance at Lan Qiren before he wipes away the sugar goatee. “You’re awful—”

“But will you still love me when I’m old and wrinkly with a long white beard—”

“I’ll shave it off you first!”

“That’s not a no.” Lan Huan ducks down to suck some icing off his fingertips. Right then, a dozen cameras click in unison. Flash! Jiang Cheng spins around just in time to catch Radish Man giving him a little wave. Jingyi pumps his fist. Excellent. Wonderful. Another meme in the making.

They serve the cake together, bumping shoulders and elbows and bickering until the caterers come to whisk everything away.

It’s strange, this rush of excitement welling up after everything, flowing endlessly as the release of his stress allows him to finally relax and enjoy the evening. Jiang Cheng returns to the table as others wander onto the dance floor, his heart so light it feels like he’s dancing along with their steps.

This time when someone takes the seat next to him, he keeps his eyes trained on the far side of the room. Sizhui twirls Jingyi with one arm and Zizhen with the other. Then the latter spins away and tiptoes over to A-Qing, but she’s more focused on stabbing Xue Yang’s shin with her cane than dancing with him. “Why are you not with your friends?”

Jin Ling carefully balances a plate of cake on his knees. “Zizhen stepped on my feet six times already. For the Pebble, he's as heavy as the Rock.” Jiang Cheng huffs and is about to speak, but he continues, “Also, I wanted to make sure you were having a good time.”

Jiang Cheng raises his brows. “What makes you think I'm not?”

“You look too serious. Like you're thinking way too much.” Jin Ling swings his legs, nearly toppling the plate over. Quick reflexes save both their suits. “Like… like you’re an old man trying to hold onto memories he hasn’t even made yet.”

Jiang Cheng’s brows climb higher. “That’s pretty deep. And insulting.”

“Hmm, I know. But you’re having fun though, right? Shouldn’t you be dancing?”

“I don't dance.” At first Jiang Cheng merely ruffles his nephew’s hair, but then he decides to fold him into a hug, kissing the top of his head. “Thank you for checking on me, A-Ling.”

Jin Ling squeezes him back briefly, but then wriggles away, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. “Uncle Huan asked if you could meet him on the balcony.”

Uncle Huan, huh?

Jiang Cheng watches Jin Ling walk away and sits there holding his abandoned plate, taking his time to look around at everyone and bask in this atmosphere of merriment. There will be photo albums capturing this, shaky videos of the kids filmed from Wei Ying’s laughing hands, stories told and jokes shared. There will be memories made from this.

After soaking up that view, he walks away with only a nod of parting to his Spiders and a quick smile given in answer to Huaisang’s amused glance. The wide double-doors open up to a blanket of stars spilling from indigo and purple to a faint glimmer of gold in the distance. It’s warm outside, the night chirping along with rustling leaves. The smell of summertime drifts up from the heated earth, and sweet grass and jasmine…

“Where are you?” he calls out, walking around in a small circle. It feels nostalgic, but then he’s hit with a wave of actual deja vu. They were kids playing here once, or in the garden just below the balcony. Jiang Cheng inhales deeply. “Huan-gē—”

“Yes, dear?” a familiar voice gusts against his ear. Suddenly he's trapped in an embrace, held tightly around the waist, and then the floor falls from underneath his feet! “Hey, calm down.”

“Calm down? What the fuc—”

They touch down on the roof, and this far away from the heady perfume of jasmine, he can finally enjoy the clean scent of sandalwood and mint. Looking up, he’s met with a joyous smile and twinkling stars and sparkling eyes. Lan Huan darts forwards and the kiss is sweet, tasting the sugar from each other's lips. Again, Jiang Cheng finds himself overwhelmed his own happiness.

“Wait, Lan Huan—!” The lovestruck fool dips him backwards. Immediately, Jiang Cheng starts struggling, but then he hangs limply because really, what else can he do? “What are we even doing up here?”

“I just wanted some time alone with you.”

Jiang Cheng tips his head back with a laugh, “Are you drunk? We’ve spent the whole day together.”

Lan Huan grins, nodding. “Yes, and yet I’ve still not had enough of you.”

Shaking his head ruefully, he lets go of Lan Huan’s neck without any worry of being dropped and even reaches down to prise one arm free from his waist. After lacing their hands together, Jiang Cheng looks at their matching rings again and smiles again. “You know, I found something quite interesting in the sock drawer.”

They’re quickly lifted back upright, and Lan Huan’s cheeks are glowing bright pink. He wants to kiss them. “The sock drawer?”

“Yes, Huaisang insisted we needed good socks or else he’d tailor those too. Anyway, I found a receipt for two rings. According to the receipt, they were bought on the day following our first date. Our first date, which was a fried chicken lunch at my office,[8] not the two of us suffocating in The Box.” There is a long silence where all Jiang Cheng hears are Lan Huan’s shallow breaths. Quietly, “That was almost a year ago.”

There’s no answer and Lan Huan merely tucks his head against his shoulder, but amazingly he finds he isn't annoyed by this. Actually, he's more annoyed by the fact that Lan Huan chose such a shitty place to hide something that important. In the sock drawer, of all places?

“I thought you said you weren’t interested in getting married,” he says gently, running his fingers through his husband's hair. “Lan Huan?”

“Yes, and that was true, but then… I suppose when we got together, I wanted there to be the option available. I mean, there would have been the option available anyway, but… I wanted it to be a possibility. I started dreaming differently. Imagining a different life to what I had originally planned. Maybe I didn't want to get married to just anybody. Maybe it had to be you.”

It's his turn to blush, with heat spreading from his ears to his face. The rings weren’t the most expensive ones out there (he found out, after consulting the internet), but it was more the fact that he’d bought them all that time ago that was significant. The Lans were known for not being frivolous with their spending which meant that when they did, it was usually an investment in something they believed to be worthwhile.

“Do you think you would have proposed to me at some point then?”

Lan Huan makes a strange little noise, muffled and yet profoundly clear in feeling. “I… I would like to think so. I knew that I loved you and that you were a sure thing, but I also knew you weren’t interested in marriage. In the end, what was most important was us being together—”

“But you bought us the rings,” Jiang Cheng says, grinning when Lan Huan whines. “You did. And somehow you even knew my finger size, which I’m not gonna think about too closely.”

“We really owe Uncle another ‘thank you’. For once, jumping to conclusions got us here, and Jiang Cheng…” Finally, he lifts his head up, his eyes brighter than the stars above them. “I’m so happy that it did. You have no idea how much I—” Jiang Cheng kisses him, laughing into his mouth. When he pulls back, the first thing Lan Huan says is, “Can we dance?”

That has him pulling back warily. “Dance? I don't dance. We don't dance, Lan Hua—”

“Well, maybe now we do.”

And they do, somewhat, if what they’re doing can be called dancing.

Spinning around in circles, mostly hugging each other and stumbling over each other’s feet… until the floor falls away again, and instead of a rooftop they’re dancing among the stars.