Jiang Cheng is breathing heavily, like he can’t get enough air. His hand is still bleeding. He thinks he must have caught it on a thorn or a tree branch but he’s otherwise unscathed. His robes are soaked through with sweat and a quick glance at Lan Xichen is enough to confirm that he’s in the same state. Zidian’s coils finally retreat, and he’s pretty sure they’ve burned off all that spiritual energy. He stares at the small tornado of purple- and blue-crackling clouds in front of him, where both he and Lan Xichen directed their energy, forcing it out of their bodies and into the broiling mud before they burned up.
Everything is quiet, which is a relief, until Jiang Cheng hears a faint mew of a sound. In an instant, the blades of Sandu and Shuoyue flash and Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen point their swords at the clearing fog, which is dissipating rapidly now.
When it clears entirely, Jiang Cheng blinks, wondering if this is some kind of illusion.
“What the fuck,” says Lan Xichen.
Jiang Cheng is too shocked to notice the profanity uttered by the virtuous Gusu Lan sect leader, partly because it mirrors Jiang Cheng’s own inner monologue and partly because he can’t quite believe what he’s seeing.
Sitting in a tiny crater in front of them, muddy and ruddy-cheeked, is a human baby, arms outstretched. His bottom lip quivers and fat tears begin to roll down his face.
“No, no,” says Jiang Cheng, rushing forward and lifting the baby into his arms. He shoves Sandu at Lan Xichen, who’s staring at him but manages to grab Sandu while Jiang Cheng shrugs out of his outer robes. Raising his nephew absolutely prepared Jiang Cheng to do any mundane task while holding a baby and that includes attempting to make some kind of swaddling out of his damp robes.
“Better than nothing,” he mutters, rocking the baby, who’s now staring up at him with wide eyes that look faintly familiar. “Do we know your parents, hm?” He gently touches the baby’s nose with a crooked finger.
Turning to Lan Xichen, he says, “Cloud Recesses is nearest. We’ll go there and have your healers look him over.”
“Are you … sure that’s a real baby?” asks Lan Xichen, which is probably a reasonable question, given that they were just battling a demon.
The baby’s chubby fingers curl around Jiang Cheng’s hair. He blows out a frustrated breath. “Either it’s a real baby and we need to find his parents, or he’s another demon.” He refrains from mentioning that, sometimes, A-Ling was both at the same time. “We’ll know when we reach Cloud Recesses. The wards won’t let us in if he’s anything other than human.”
Lan Xichen’s eyes widen, and he nods. Jiang Cheng tries not to be insulted at this response.
“I make good observations, sometimes, Zewu Jun.” He knows well enough that he is not unintelligent, just as he knows that his anger often disguises the fact.
“Here,” says Lan Xichen, and something in Jiang Cheng makes him take a step back.
“Jiang Wanyin, your hand,” says Lan Xichen, and he takes Jiang Cheng’s hand, and wraps it in white cloth.
“Definitely human,” says one of the Lan healers, after they have poked and prodded the baby, and played any number of songs to reveal evil spells, or possession, or secrets. “But.”
“But?” asks Jiang Cheng. The baby is in his arms again, dressed now in clean, warm clothes and demonstrating once more his firm grip on Jiang Cheng’s hair.
“He looks to be about eight months old,” says the healer. “And he is certainly healthy, but he has no past.”
“He’s eight months old,” says Jiang Cheng, trying to extricate his hair from the baby’s mouth. “How much of a past would you expect?”
The healer turns her hands over, palms up. “Not much, admittedly, but there is no sense of mother or father, no bumps, no bruises, no signature even of the mildest childhood illness. It is as though he is brand new.”
“Maybe he’s just sturdy and independent,” says Jiang Cheng, unsure of why he should feel so defensive of this baby.
“We’ve sent out junior disciples to scout the area,” says Lan Xichen. “To try to find the child’s parents.” He comes to stand next to Jiang Cheng, looking over his shoulder at the baby whose mouth drops open, upon catching sight of Lan Xichen. Jiang Cheng takes advantage of the baby’s mesmerised state to withdraw his hair from the baby’s mouth.
“Hm,” says the healer, and when Jiang Cheng looks up, she is looking between him, Lan Xichen, and the baby, thoughtfully.
“Lan Qingzhao,” says Lan Xichen. “Explain.”
“I would rather not,” says Lan Qingzhao. “Until I have carried out more research. May I have permission to enter the forbidden section of the library.”
Jiang Cheng opens his mouth to demand to know what she is thinking but Lan Xichen sighs behind him and conjures up a talisman to allow the healer entry to the library.
“I will expect a report as soon as possible,” says Lan Xichen.
“Of course,” says Lan Qingzhao, and she bows.
Two more women arrive, and bow.
“Sect leaders,” they say, in eery synchronicity. “We are here to bring the young master to the nursery.”
Jiang Cheng trusts the Gusu Lan sect as much as he trusts anyone, but he takes a step back, his hand on the baby’s back, and now he is perhaps closer to Lan Xichen than might be appropriate. “Of course,” he says, shaking his head. He moves forward again and holds the baby out but as soon as the baby leaves his arms, the room is filled with the sound of shrieking.
“That’s a new sound,” says Lan Xichen, and Jiang Cheng doesn’t need to look at him to know that he’s wincing. Without thinking, Jiang Cheng plucks the baby back out of the young healer’s arms and the crying stops immediately.
The baby looks up at Jiang Cheng with tear-filled eyes. He sighs. “Have a crib brought to my chambers.”
He does not look up to see if the collective Lan sect equanimity has been shaken by that order. “I will not embarrass Sect Leader Jin by telling you how long it took before he could sleep in any room but my own, but I am not … un-used to caring for infants.”
“Before you go,” says Lan Qingzhao, and Jiang Cheng wonders if she’s the sort who likes to have the last word. “Perhaps you’ll allow me to look at your hand.”
Jiang Cheng glances down. His blood has soaked through the cloth that Lan Zichen wrapped around his hand earlier; it is brown and bronze now.
“It’s fine,” he says. “A scratch.”
“Sect Leader Jiang, you know as well as I do that night hunts seldom result in minor injuries.”
Jiang Cheng opens his mouth to argue but he’s stopped by a hand on his shoulder and the unnerving sensation of his lips being sealed.
He turns to glare at Lan Xichen.
“I know,” says Lan Xichen, which isn’t an apology for placing a silencing spell on another sect leader. “But, speaking from experience, the sooner you let Lan Qingzhao tend to your wound, the sooner we may leave.”
“Thank you,” says Lan Qingzhao. “I think.” She looks up at Jiang Cheng. “I would ask you to give the child to someone else to hold but …”
Jiang Cheng holds the infant closer, extending his injured hand towards the healer.
“Quite,” says Lan Qingzhao. With practiced hands, she unbinds the wound, and washes it out, and imparts some spiritual energy. She encounters something of a blockage it seems, and looks up at Jiang Cheng. Still unable to speak, he rolls his eyes in Lan Xichen’s direction.
“I think we are both still rather, ah, full, after whatever that demon did to us to increase our spiritual reserves.”
“It’s a good thing you thought to offload that energy,” hums Lan Qingzhao. “The pair of you may have erupted otherwise. Significantly more messy than a wounded hand and a wayward child.”
“Well, brother,” says Wei Wuxian, leaning against the outside of Jiang Cheng’s chambers. “I had heard that you and Xichen went on a night hunt and came back with a baby, which is not the order I’d choose to do things in…”
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes and glances at Xichen, who looks a bit pink. It has been a long day and night, and full of exertions, and Lan Xichen is not long out of seclusion.
“Go away, Wei Wuxian,” says Jiang Cheng. Oh. Good. He can speak again.
“But I want to see my new nephew,” says Wei Wuxian, with a pout. “And Lan Zhan has gone out to investigate something. Lan Qingzhao is scary.”
Jiang Cheng is too tired to untangle his brother’s non-seqiturs. “He’s not your nephew. His parents will be found. It’s not my fault that your husband works for a living. And I thought she was quite pleasant, actually.”
“Well, of course Sandu Shengshou would be charmed by the prickliest healer in Cloud Recesses,” says Wei Wuxian. “But given that my husband is out researching something for her about your baby, I think I have a right to be here.”
“Not my baby,” says Jiang Cheng.
“Your baby, then,” says Wei Wuxian, gesturing between Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen.
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes again and steps into his rooms, Lan Xichen close behind him and, because the day is not over yet, Wei Wuxian follows them. He sees immediately that there is a crib set close to his bed. Risking a peek at the baby, he can see that his eyes are drooping. The baby’s hand is rubbing the back of his head and Jiang Cheng thinks he can risk setting the baby down to sleep.
As soon as he withdraws his hands, the baby wriggles and his eyes open blearily, and Jiang Cheng barely has the time to react before the baby starts to scream again.
“Okay. Okay. We’re not ready to sleep yet, that’s fine, that’s fine,” he murmurs. He turns around to where Lan Xichen and Wei Wuxian are standing awkwardly.
“Could one of you please pour me some tea?” he says. Although his spiritual energy is still running high, he is thirsty and he is hungry, and he is a little cranky. His request seems to snap Lan Xichen and Wei Wuxian out of their statue-like states. “And would you both stop looking at me like that? I know how to hold a baby.”
“What’s his name?” asks Wei Wuxian, as they sit down. Jiang Cheng tears his eyes from Lan Xichen’s hands, seeing a tiny tremor as he pours the tea.
“He hasn’t yet seen fit to tell us,” says Jiang Cheng and he’s rewarded with a brilliant smile from Lan Xichen.
“He needs a name,” says Wei Wuxian. “Even if it’s not his real name.”
Lan Xichen nods. “Everyone deserves a name,” he says, in that gentle, somewhat surprised way he has, and his smile is still warm.
Jiang Cheng looks down at the baby, whose eyes are closed, and whose breathing suggests that he is asleep, but Jiang Cheng is all too familiar with this ruse. “Yunru,” he says. “That will do for now.”
Wei Wuxian snorts. “Well, A-Yun, I suppose we should be grateful that you were found in clouds, and not in a swamp.”
Jiang Cheng growls at his brother, and Yunru stirs in his arms. “Why don’t you go to bed, Wei Wuxian?”
“Bed’s cold without Lan Zhan,” says Wei Wuxian, around a mouthful of rice. “And this is the most interesting place in Cloud Recesses.”
Cradling A-Yun in the crook of one arm, Jiang Cheng begins to eat. “If you don’t leave,” he begins.
“What? You’ll break my legs? That kind of threat really only works on Jin Rulan, and, honestly, it’ll probably stop working soon because you never follow through.” Wei Wuxian leans over, and gently touches A-Yun’s foot. “Hear that? When this scary man threatens to break your legs, he never, ever means it.”
Jiang Cheng concentrates on eating, willing himself to stay calm in the face of extraordinary provocation.
“Wei Wuxian,” says Lan Xichen, now that the meal is over. “I understand that you are restless in my brother’s absence and, though I do not wish to speak for Jiang Wanyin, I certainly require rest and, as you see, A-Yun does, too.”
Jiang Cheng does not examine the burst of feeling in his chest at Lan Xichen’s gentle, firm words, but Wei Wuxian’s face grows solemn before he stands up, and executes a bow. “Of course, Zewu Jun.” His face cracks into a grin. “I expect you will want to sleep while you can. It’s my understanding that babies sleep less even than the Gusu Lan sect.” He nods towards Jiang Cheng. “Sleep well, A-Cheng.”
JIang Cheng feels he can breathe again, now that Wei Wuxian is gone, and he smiles at Lan Xichen. “I would apologise for my brother but he is at least partly your sect’s problem now.”
Lan Xichen smiles, but Jiang Cheng can see that it is taking an effort.
“Would you like to hold him?” he asks, suddenly awkwardly aware that he has monopolised the baby since their time with the healers.
Lan Xichen looks startled. “I—”
Jiang Cheng does not give him an opportunity to refuse. Carefully, he leans across and places A-Yun into Lan Xichen’s arms.
“Oh.” Lan Xichen breathes out. A-Yun curls towards his chest, seeking warmth and finding it, his fingers closing on the front of Lan Xichen’s robes. “He’s so small.” He looks up at Jiang Cheng, and Jiang Cheng is struck at how perfect the image in front of him is.
Jiang Cheng is not blind to Lan Xichen’s beauty, no more than he is blind to his own faults. He is grateful to have struck up a relatively close friendship with his Gusu Lan sect counterpart, even though they have largely depended on letters, while Lan Xichen was working his way out of seclusion. He would rather not examine the ache at the thought that Lan Xichen will be an excellent father some day. Jiang Cheng does not look away quickly enough as Lan Xichen looks up and they lock eyes for a long moment. It does not escape Jiang Cheng’s notice that Lan Xichen is swaying slightly.
“Here,” he says. “Let me put him into his crib. I think he’s properly asleep now and you look as though you could do with going to bed too, Lan Xichen.”
It is only after Jiang Cheng has placed A-Yun into his crib, certain now that he will stay asleep, at least for a while, that he realises that Lan Xichen has not moved.
Lan Xichen looks up at him. “May I stay?”
Jiang Cheng blinks.
“I’ll sleep here,” says Lan Xichen. “The couch is certainly comfortable enough.”
“I don’t mind,” says Jiang Cheng, looking between the bed and the couch. “Though perhaps it would be best if I sleep closer to A-Yun. He will definitely wake multiple times in the night.”
Lan Xichen blinks, and Jiang Cheng can only wonder how much, if any, experience Lan Xichen has had with babies. “He will be hungry, at some point,” says Jiang Cheng, “Or wet, or dirty, or …”
“... scared,” says Lan Xichen, quietly.
“Yes,” says Jiang Cheng. “He is very likely to wake up scared.”
“Well, then, Jiang Wanyin, perhaps we should consider trying to sleep, especially if it is likely that the little master has other plans.”
Lan Xichen stands up, and briefly clasps Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. “Thank you,” he says.
Jiang Cheng is too bewildered to ask why on earth Lan Xichen should express gratitude to him, given that the man is barely out of seclusion and his sect is already dealing with fall-out from what should have been a straight-forward night hunt to ease him back into public life.
Efficiently as ever, Jiang Cheng shrugs out of his outer robes. They are grimy and he doesn’t have a spare set with him, but he will worry about any public decency issues tomorrow. He folds his robes and leaves them on the nearby desk. Before he gets into bed, he stands over A-Yun’s crib, meaning to linger only for a moment, but this is a trap he knows all too well; the comfort of watching a baby’s chest rise and fall, lips smacking slightly in sleep, and knowing that, for these few breaths, someone feels safe in Jiang Cheng’s world.
A-Yun wakes up three times in the night and it breaks Jiang Cheng’s heart that the baby does not cry out, so much as whimper. Jiang Cheng is on his feet and cradling him within seconds each time, hoping against hope that Lan Xichen will not have woken up. No such luck, of course, as Lan Xichen sends little clouds of light that distract and delight A-Yun, while Jiang Cheng is changing him.
“Can I help?” asks Lan Xichen.
“You are,” says Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen looks dubious. Jiang Cheng smiles at him. It is effortless to smile when it is so dark. “It is an easier job with two, especially when the baby is such a big, strong boy, isn’t that right, A-Yun?” He knows Lan Xichen is bursting to say something, the way his gaze flickers from Jiang Cheng to A-Yun and down to the ground.
“You are good with him,” Lan Xichen says, at last.
“Babies are simple,” says Jiang Cheng. “Even though they cannot speak, they make their meaning quite clear.”
“Unlike sect leaders,” says Lan Xichen, and he seems to be choking back a laugh. “Who speak so much that what they say has no meaning at all.” He nudges Jiang Cheng’s shoulder with his own. “Present company excepted, of course.”
“Are we flattered, A-Yun?” asks Jiang Cheng, looking down at the baby because he suddenly can’t bear to look at Lan Xichen’s earnest expression. “Or are we insulted?”
He nudges Lan Xichen’s shoulder, though, so that he knows that Jiang Cheng is neither one, nor the other. “Come now, Zewu Jun, let’s try to sleep again. I have been here for less than one night and we have done horrible things to your sleeping pattern.”
“I don’t mind,” says Lan Xichen, and his smile is soft. He squeezes Jiang Cheng’s upper arm gently. “I really don’t.”
“Soft,” mutters Jiang Cheng, and he turns to put A-Yun into Lan Xichen’s arms. Lan Xichen’s alarmed expression disappears quicker than before and A-Yun blinks sleepy eyes up at him.
“Hello, young master,” murmurs Lan Xichen and A-Yun smiles.
“He likes you,” says Jiang Cheng. Lan Xichen looks at him, with a strange mixture of uncertainty and pleasure.
“Does he?” Lan Xichen looks down at the baby again and Jiang Cheng is almost relieved that Lan Xichen cannot see him smile.
“Babies are simple,” he says, again. He leans against Lan Xichen, slightly. “And, like any good Lan, they cannot lie.”
They both go back to bed, after that, even though it must be getting close to Lan Xichen’s wake-up time. Jiang Cheng lies down, and stares at the canopy above his head, which is slightly more visible now, in the light of the coming dawn. He yawns, and he does not know how he’ll get back to sleep, until he hears soft strains of guqin music. He wants to tell Lan Xichen that it’s cheating, to lull a baby to sleep with beautiful music, when all Jiang Cheng ever had for Jin Ling was a rusty singing voice and a repertoire of one and a half lullabies. He’s asleep before he can finish the thought.
Jiang Cheng wakes up to the sound of heavy rain on the roof, because it would not be Cloud Recesses without perpetual damp and discipline. He is also faintly aware of the sound of humming and when he sits up, he can see that the crib is empty.
It is not that he doesn’t trust Lan Xichen with A-Yun, but he is in no way convinced that the man should be left unattended with a very small child. He washes quickly and pulls on the spare robes left out for him, which are the plain white, unadorned robes of a Gusu Lan sect disciple. With his Yunmeng belt and with Zidian on his finger, he knows there is little chance of him being mistaken for anything other than who he is.
When he makes his way into the living area, he’s brought up short by the sight in front of him. Lan Xichen is sitting down, dressed immaculately as ever, and he is dangling Liebing’s tassel above A-Yun, who seems quite content in Lan Xichen’s arms, giggling when the tassel brushes over his hands or his nose.
“You slept,” says Lan Xichen.
“You cheated,” says Jiang Cheng. He doesn’t really think before he sits down next to Lan Xichen, and peers over his shoulder at A-Yun, whose mouth drops open when he sees Jiang Cheng.
“See, little one? I told you he’d come back.” Lan Xichen smiles that achingly gentle smile of his, like he knows a lot more than he’s letting on, and Jiang Cheng’s cheeks feel hot.
“I was in the next room,” he mutters, reaching to touch A-Yun’s soft hair. “Have you eaten?”
“We have,” says Lan Xichen. “Some of us ate fruit and then drank all the goat’s milk and A-Yi has gone to ask for more.”
“Oh, A-Yun,” says Jiang Cheng. “Did Xichen-ge not leave any milk for you?”
He can feel Lan Xichen’s smile rather than see it and it’s a relief to know that someone understands his teasing.
“Here you go,” says Lan Xichen. He carefully passes A-Yun to Jiang Cheng. “I’ll get your breakfast.”
“Oh!” says Jiang Cheng. “You don’t need to—.” Lan Xichen has already left the room. Jiang Cheng looks down at A-Yun, who’s staring back at him. “He really didn’t need to.”
Lan Xichen returns in short order with a tray and they undertake baby transfer again. Jiang Cheng is just pouring a second cup of tea for himself and for Lan Xichen, when there’s a knock on the door.
“There you are!” says Wei Wuxian, shaking off the rain like a wet dog.
“Yes,” says Jiang Cheng, trying not to sound as irritated as he feels, as his relaxing morning melts away in front of his eyes. “Here we are. Right where you left us.”
“Oh, this is a lovely picture. I wish I could paint. Lan Xichen, do you do self portraits? Hey, Lan Zhan, get in here. A-Cheng looks well in white and violet, don’t you think?”
“Wangji,” says Lan Xichen, sounding pleased. He stands up and Jiang Cheng supposes it would be polite if he stood up too.
Lan Wangji bows, and Jiang Cheng supposes it would be polite if he bowed too, although he wishes he was holding A-Yun because Lan Xichen gets away with just inclining his head and smiling serenely.
“The child,” says Lan Wangji.
“Have you found his parents?” asks Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji gives him the kind of look that either means he’s severely constipated or that he thinks Jiang Cheng is a complete idiot.
“I told you,” says Wei Wuxian.
“You told him what, precisely?” asks Jiang Cheng.
“Aha,” says Wei Wuxian. “No, nothing, we hardly talk at all. We’re men of action, not men of words.”
“That might be true of him,” says Jiang Cheng. “But you’ve never met an occasion that you thought could be improved with silence.”
“May I see your hand?” asks Lan Wangji.
Jiang Cheng frowns as he looks down at his bandaged hand. “It’s fine,” he says, even though he hasn’t changed the dressing this morning. He expects it to have healed, even though it stings a little, still.
“Please, Sandu Shengshou,” says Lan Wangji.
“Fine, Huanguang-Jun,” says Jiang Cheng. Two can absolutely play that game. He holds his hand out to Lan Wangji, and turns to look at Wei Wuxian, who’s approaching Lan Xichen and A-Yun with an expression of unnerving delight.
“Can I hold him?” asks Wei Wuxian.
“Do you even know how to hold a baby?” asks Jiang Cheng, a little meanly. “Ouch.” He turns to glare at Lan Wangji who definitely did not need to be that rough.
“Wei Ying,” says Lan Wangji. Wei Wuxian comes over, having somehow managed to wrangle the baby out of Lan Xichen’s far more capable arms. He looks at Jiang Cheng’s hand, and Jiang Cheng looks down to see that the wound is still open, without any evidence of healing.
“The fuck,” says Jiang Cheng, with feeling.
“It’s okay, aha, I’m sure it’s fine,” says Wei Wuxian. “I like to think of these little scratches as a to-do list.”
“Of course you do,” says Jiang Cheng.
“Does it hurt, Wanyin?” Lan Xichen’s voice is soft but it’s evidence from his face that he’s deeply concerned.
“No,” says Jiang Cheng.
“Really?” asks Wei Wuxian. “I thought they stung like a bitch but then this itty bitty body wasn’t up to much back then.”
Jiang Cheng looks at him curiously, and wonders if that means that Wei Wuxian’s attempts at building up Mo Xuanyu’s golden core have been successful. He’s still not going to admit that the wound is painful, not when he’s got other things to think about, like A-Yun and the fragile support they are building for Lan Xichen.
“I’m not the problem here,” Jiang Cheng says, eventually. “We need to figure out how we concluded the night hunt with a child.”
“Yes,” says Wei Wuxian, nodding vigorously. “Yes, let’s figure out how that could possibly have happened.”
“The wound and the child are clearly connected,” says Lan Wangji.
For a man who says so little, Jiang Cheng dearly wishes that Lan Wangji would, on occasion, say things that were not disturbingly profound or confusing. He and Lan Xichen look at each other, and Jiang Cheng is relieved to see that Lan Xichen is as mystified as he is.
“Lan Qingzhao has found some interesting things,” says Wei Wuxian. “And Lan Zhan’s visit to the mountainside was—”
There’s a commotion outside, which might be more usual in Lotus Pier, with raised voices, a harsh ‘no, A-Ling—’ and the doors burst open. There is, in turn, an excited spiritual dog (Fairy), a high-pitched scream (Wei Wuxian) and pitiful wailing (A-Yun).
On the ground, like a pile of soggy laundry, are two Gusu Lan sect disciples, the youngest sect leader and the heir to a minor sect.
“Give me patience,” mutters Jiang Cheng, while Lan Xichen is desperately trying to rock A-Yun back to equanimity.
“Zewu Jun, Zewu Jun, I brought more milk.” An arm extends out of the pile and Jiang Cheng walks forward, first to pluck the bottle out of Lan Jingyi’s hand and then to haul him to his feet.
“So you’re here to be useful,” says Jiang Cheng and he’s not oblivious to the flush of pleasure on Lan Jingyi’s face. “That doesn’t explain the rest of you. On your feet, now.”
A-Yun’s cries are hiccups now and a soft ‘Wanyin’ from behind him makes Jiang Cheng turn. He takes the baby from Lan Xichen’s arms and Lan Xichen smiles at him, with a slow blink. Sometimes, the Lan Gusu sect leader seems more cat than human and Jiang Cheng is a little appalled with himself that it takes nothing more than a smile from Lan Xichen to make him relax.
“I’m here to see my new cousin,” says A-Ling and Jiang Cheng can only wonder at how word spreads, with little to no regard for accuracy. “And Ouyang Zizhen was visiting Carp Tower, so I could hardly leave him with the sect elders.”
“I’m here to see my new cousin, too,” says Lan Sizhui.
“I brought gifts,” says A-Ling.
“I swear to all that is sacred, if one of you does not start speaking sense now, I will—”
“Tea!” says Wei Wuxian. “Let’s have tea. Say, Lan Zhan, I don’t suppose you hid any Emperor’s Smile under the floorboards here?”
Lan Jingyi gasps at the implication and Jiang Cheng turns back to Lan Xichen, unsure of what to say, but, like a compass, he knows his true north. Lan Xichen puts his hands on Jiang Cheng’s upper arms.
“If I turn around, will they all still be here?” Jiang Cheng asks, through gritted teeth. He looks down at A-Yun, quieter now, bracketed as he is between the arms of two sect leaders.
“I’m afraid so,” says Lan Xichen, gently.
“How do you bear it?” asks Jiang Cheng.
“Hey!” says Wei Wuxian. “We’re right here!”
“They mean well,” says Lan Xichen.
“Seclusion sounds awfully tempting right now,” says Jiang Cheng, without thinking, and there is a gasp, followed by complete silence. He looks up at Lan Xichen, horrified at what he has just said. Lan Xichen is smiling, and it’s not the polite, formal smile they have grown used to, since his uncertain return to the world. Jiang Cheng has often thought of him as a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, unaware that it is beautiful. Lan Xichen's smile now is a wide smile, and it reaches his eyes.
“Seclusion is lonely,” says Lan Xichen. “This is not that.”
“That’s for sure,” mutters Jiang Cheng.
“Do they know we’re here?” Jiang Cheng thinks it’s Lan Jingyi, though his voice is quieter than usual.
“Honestly, I get it now,” says A-Ling.
“Get what?” asks Jiang Cheng, finally turning to face the room.
A-Ling has never been afraid of Jiang Cheng, even if his parenting style erred more towards the Yu side, than the softer Jiang side. “How you and Zewu Jun made a baby, of course.”
Jiang Cheng takes a deep breath, and realises that it’s not going to help. Zidian is humming and, for fear of what he might say or do, Jiang Cheng turns to place A-Yun in Lan Xichen’s arms, before he storms out of the guest chambers and into the warren that is Cloud Recesses.
Even the fucking rabbits have more sense, and are sheltering from the rain. Jiang Cheng should probably care more about getting his borrowed robes dirty, especially when he doesn’t think he’s ever seen a Lan sect member with even a speck of dirt on their clothes, but he’s not pristine like the Lan sect, or polished like the Jin sect, or noble like the Nie sect. He’s just … he’s just soggy, and a little cold.
“Zewu Jun wanted to come to find you.”
Jiang Cheng closes his eyes and grits his teeth.
“But A-Yun screamed every time Zewu Jun tried to hand him to someone else to hold. Lots of noise and very un-Lan-like. He’s too little to transcribe the Lan sect rules while in a handstand.” Wei Wuxian waves his hands slightly. “No coordination.”
“He’s not a Lan,” says Jiang Cheng, automatically, although he doesn’t, in truth, know what A-Yun is.
“More of a Jiang, if you ask me.” Wei Wuxian says, before he rubs his nose. “Actually, more of a Yu. Terrible at conflict, very messy.”
“Sometimes,” says Jiang Cheng. “I really despise you. Go away.”
“Absolutely not,” says Wei Wuxian. “I promised Zewu Jun that I’d bring you back.”
Wei Wuxian steps closer and slings an arm around Jiang Cheng. Half-heartedly, Jiang Cheng elbows him. “You just wanted to get away from the dog.”
He looks down at his elbow, still lodged at Wei Wuxian’s chest, and up at Wei Wuxian, who hadn’t even budged, like his feet are rooted in the muddy ground beneath them.
“Your spiritual power,” whispers Jiang Cheng.
Wei Wuxian smile grows impossibly wide. “Definitely getting there,” he says. “Lan Zhan is helping. We’re trying to see how much spiritual energy he can transfer when we—”
“Finish that sentence, I dare you,” says Jiang Cheng.
“Anyway, that brings us really neatly to the question of spiritual power,” says Wei Wuxian.
“Is that where it brings us?”
“A-Yun,” says Wei Wuxian. “He’s definitely yours.’
“Please stop,” says Jiang Cheng, feeling exhausted now. “It’s not funny.”
“I know,” says Wei Wuxian, with uncharacteristic solemnity. “Lan Qingzhao spent all night in the library, and Lan Zhan went onto the mountain, and the Lan disciples went in search of A-Yun’s parents and they’ve all come to the same conclusion.”
“And what’s that?”
“That A-Yun’s parents are right here. Thank goodness Zewu Jun is his other father. He has more sense than to sulk in the rain.”
“I’m not— I don’t understand.”
Wei Wuxian rubs his nose. “Come back. We can explain.”
Jiang Cheng goes with Wei Wuxian because he does not know where else he can go. They detour by his rooms, where he can change again.
“Very wasteful,” says Wei Wuxian, on the other side of the privacy screen. “All these outfit changes. We’re not in Lanling now, you know.”
“Our nephew is the sect leader,” says Jiang Cheng. “Please say that to his face. I want to be there, when you do.”
Jiang Cheng picks up Sandu. His hair is still wet, but he has done his best. He feels less sect leader and more wayward teenager, and he has not been a teenager for twenty-five years. He’s even more horrified when Wei Wuxian leads him to Lan Qiren’s rooms.
“No,” he hisses, when he realises where they’re going.
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian hisses back. “You’re his grand-nephew’s father. You have some explaining to do!”
“I thought you were going to explain things to me!” says Jiang Cheng, pitifully, but he lets Wei Wuxian drag him into the room. He bows to Lan Qiren and roundly ignores everyone else, except for Lan Xichen, who’s holding A-Yun.
“Do you feel better?” whispers Lan Xichen.
“Now I do,” Jiang Cheng says, with more daring than he knew he possessed, hoping that Lan Xichen understands his meaning.
“If, ah, if my brother could possibly stop gazing into Zewu Jun’s eyes. Wow. That’s … that’s intense.”
With a hmph, Jiang Cheng turns to face the room, but he makes sure his shoulder is pressed against Zewu Jun’s, his hand gentle on A-Yun’s head. “There’s a saying about glass houses, Wei Wuxian,” he says.
“Ha!” says Wei Wuxian. “Well.” He clasps his hands together. “Now we’re all here, maybe some explanations?”
“Please,” says Lan Qiren, his beard quivering.
Lan Qinzhao steps forward and makes her bows. “Grand Master,” she says. “Sect leaders. Since Sandu Shengshou and Zewu Jun returned from their night hunt, we have conducted an in-depth investigation as to the origin of this child.” She looks at Jiang Cheng. “Sect Leader Jiang, if you could, briefly, tell us what happened.”
Jiang Cheng feels a flash of irritation, like they haven’t all made up their minds already.
“Wanyin,” murmurs Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng lets out a breath.
“Of course,” he says. “Yesterday, Zewu Jun and I left for a night hunt. It was Zewu Jun’s first since leaving seclusion and we thought it best if he was accompanied by someone who— by another sect leader.”
“By a potential cultivation partner,” says Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng knows he’s not the only person who’s turned to stare at him.
“Xichen,” he says softly, because Lan Xichen can’t mean it. He can’t think of Jiang Cheng like that. Jiang Cheng is going to have to talk to him about attaching himself to anyone who is kind to him. That is how tragedies happen. That is how tragedies happen specifically to Zewu Jun.
“Please,” says Lan Qiren. “Continue.”
“It was a straightforward hunt,” says Jiang Cheng. “A mountain demon, and probably a relatively young one at that.” He notices some of the Lan disciples shifting from foot to foot. “Although I allow that they can cause difficulties. There was nothing out of the ordinary, and we dispatched it relatively easily, except that there appeared to be some kind of backlash. We were overcome with spiritual power.” He glances at Wei Wuxian. “But it seemed to be our own. We hadn’t absorbed anything demonic.”
“No,” says Lan Xichen. “It was definitely our own power. We diverted it as best we could, into the clearing.”
“You diverted it to the same spot?” asks Lan Qingzhao.
“Yes,” says Lan Wangji, unexpectedly. “The ground is scarred, still, and there are traces of spiritual energy there.” His gaze flickers towards Jiang Cheng. “Spiritual energy and some of Sandu Shengshou’s blood.”
Lan Qingzhao nods. “Yes, that makes sense.”
Jiang Cheng is glad this makes sense to someone. A-Yun shifts in Lan Xichen’s arms and he blinks heavily. He catches sight of Jiang Cheng and smiles, gurgling a little.
“Lan Sizhui,” says Lan Qingzhao. “What phase of the lunar cycle was it last night?”
Lan Sizhui steps forward. “New moon, Healer.”
“So, we have two powerful and compatible cultivators,” says Lan Qingzhao. “Who feel a surge of spiritual power, on the night of the new moon. They direct it to the same spot in the earth, which so happens to be where one of them has shed some blood.”
“And we made a baby?” asks Jiang Cheng, blinking. “Not to doubt your expertise,” he says, although he is doubting rather a lot right now. “But if it was that easy, why don’t we know of other babies created this way?”
“Easy,” says Wei Wuxian, with a snort. “A-Cheng, what is easy for you might just be impossible for others.”
“When has the impossible been any kind of obstacle to Sandu Shengshou?” demands A-Ling, with a very Jin-like haughtiness. Oh, that perfect, loyal idiot of a boy.
“Sect leader Jiang is right, of course,” says Lan Qingzhao. “It is not that easy. If it was just a question of blood, and power, and the moon, it would be straightforward. There is, of course, more to it.”
“What more can there be?” asks Jiang Cheng.
“Two things, I think. One if, of course, a desire for a child,” says Lan Qingzhao.
Jiang Cheng barks out a laugh. “Are you implying that in the middle of a night hunt, I was thinking about creating a child?”
“I sometimes think about what I want for dinner,” says Lan Jingyi, which is not as helpful as he apparently thinks it is.
Jiang Cheng closes his eyes and exhales roughly.
“Family,” says Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng looks up at him. Lan Xichen looks vaguely guilty. “I … family. I was thinking about how glad I was to be with family.”
Jiang Cheng’s heart thunders. It is all he can hear for a few moments.
“What else?” he asks roughly. “Lan Qingzhao, you said two things.”
He doesn’t miss the glance between Lan Qingzhao and Wei Wuxian, or the way Wei Wuxian taps his nose before flashing a bright smile.
“Obviously,” he says. “It must be love.”
Jiang Cheng’s ears are ringing again and he is struggling to breathe. Without thinking, he marches right past the Lan disciples and his nephew and goes outside, into the small courtyard. It is raining, still, and if this is the third set of robes he has ruined in twenty-four hours, he really cannot bring himself to care.
He hears a wail, and the sound of a door swinging shut, but his eyes are closed.
“Wanyin,” says Lan Xichen, from right behind him. He puts his hand on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder and Jiang Cheng cannot help the way he leans his head against Lan Xichen’s hand.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I’m sorry.”
“Why are you sorry, Wanyin?” asks Lan Xichen.
“I love you,” says Jiang Cheng. “I’m sorry.” It is not a sudden realisation; he has never articulated it before because there was no need. There was no need for anyone else to know how, even in seclusion, Lan Xichen had just the words to calm Jiang Cheng’s spirit. There was no need for anyone else to know how proud he was to learn that Lan Xichen had spoken of him as one of the Twin Prides of Yunmeng.
“Are you sorry that you love me?”
Jiang Cheng lets out a long shuddering breath. “No,” he says. “No, not even if it is not what you want. Even if A-Yun—”
“Jiang Wanyin,” says Lan Xichen, more harshly than Jiang Cheng has ever heard him speak before. “Do you ever actually hear what is being said?”
Jiang Cheng turns to stare up at him.
“Do you think that A-Yun would exist if we did not both want him? If we did not both—” Lan Xichen is as close to losing his composure as Jiang Cheng has seen, since that night in the Guanyin temple. His jaw is tight and he is positively glaring at Jiang Cheng.
“If we did not both love each other,” says Jiang Cheng, with wonder. He raises his hand to cup Lan Xichen’s cheek, as he has never dared to do.
“Yes,” says Lan Xichen. “You idiot.”
“It has to be against the Lan sect rules to insult another sect leader,” says Jiang Cheng.
Lan Xichen huffs out a laugh. “It’s against the rules to lie, too, and you are—”
“An idiot?” Jiang Cheng smiles a little, baring his teeth. “You chose me, though.”
“Yes,” says Lan Xichen.
Jiang Cheng’s face feels hot, despite the cold rain.
“You chose A-Yun,” he says.
“Yes,” says Lan Xichen. “And you have chosen us.”
Jiang Cheng’s eyes widen and he nods. “I have,” he says. “And I do.”
Lan Xichen takes Jiang Cheng’s hand, and carefully unwraps the rain-sodden bandage. There is no sign of the wound. Jiang Cheng does not know when it healed itself but he supposes it was when he accepted that this fairytale might actually be real.
Lan Xichen kisses the back of Jiang Cheng’s hand and he looks at Jiang Cheng, with so much feeling that Jiang Cheng wonders if he’s going to have to discharge a little more spiritual energy.
“If we could possibly go back inside to rescue Jiang Yunru from our interfering family, I would be very grateful.”
“Jiang Yunru,” breathes Jiang Cheng, before he hurries to catch up with Lan Xichen. “Our son.”
Lan Xichen smiles brilliantly and he was right, Jiang Cheng thinks. Lan Xichen was right. He is glad to be with family.