The Lotus Festival in YunMeng this year was special – it would be graced by the radiant presence of the visiting Crown Prince Lan Xichen from the northern kingdom of Gusu Lan. Having coincided with the festival, the diplomatic visit would end with the Prince of Gusu himself as the guest of honour for the event, opening the festival, having the centre, front-row seat for the stage performances, and finally closing the festival for the year.
This was Lan Huan's first time in YunMeng, and he was beyond excited.
A kingdom built on lakes and lowlands, the capital of Lotus Pier was said to float entirely, well known for their balmy winds carrying a lotus fragrance with them wherever they went. Instead of roads and carts, they had water and boats, their diets based on lotuses and fish and the people said to naturally be marvellous swimmers, sailors, and boat builders.
Upon entering the territory of YunMeng, Lan Huan peered excitedly out of the palanquin to drink in the novel sight of flat lands of sprawling fields, flowers and plants bright and vibrant unlike the pale, muted hues of Gusu. Lotus Pier was in the middle of the largest lake of the kingdom, and Lan Huan stepped onto a massive, luxurious boat – smaller than a ship, he’d been told, decorated with cloud tapestries and blue and white silk, the kind that only a country near lakes and sea like YunMeng was capable of building. The movement of the entire craft thrilled him, as it felt like the ground beneath him was shifting forward, yet in such a slow, graceful glide that he could be lulled to sleep. Lotus Pier sprawled out before him - a complicated, vast city of wooden buildings on stilts rising from the water, connected by docks and paths and boats.
It was unlike anything he has ever seen before, the scent of lotuses reaching him before he even caught sight of the sea of pink, purple and white lotuses surrounding the floating city. Having seen the towering mountains of Gusu all his life, those could never compare to this.
The Gusu Lan delegation was welcomed at the largest royal pier, decorated in banners of blue and white, by the rulers of YunMeng in their finest violet brocades. Diplomatic gifts were exchanged - blue cloud-patterned boxes exchanged for bundles wrapped in purple silk.
Lan Huan saluted elegantly and perfectly to the monarch of YunMeng Jiang and his sons and daughters, and was swiftly escorted to his own quarters.
Draperies and furniture were blue and white to signify Gusu Lan, yet with blue and white lotus patterns painted on bowls and seats and surfaces. Part of the greater lake had been fenced off as a small ornamental pond with white - and blue! - lotuses floating on a bed of leaves. Wind chimes were a common fixture here in Lotus Pier, the air filled with musical tinkling. Gusu Lan prided itself on its cool, elegant minimalism - but YunMeng Jiang was exuberantly beautiful and full of life.
The Lotus festival was meant to celebrate the very plant that sustained them, a showcase of the city's finest - cooking competitions for the best of local cuisine, gardening competitions for the most beautiful, most flawlessly grown lotuses, art and song and dance in celebration. He would be in the central city square watching the judging of competitions, the best musicians and dancers, but what Lan Huan found himself drawn to the most were the street festivals.
On the way to the river palace, he'd seen the preparations of the rest of the city for the festival - banners of lotus motifs hung from every window, stalls set up and goods hauled into place, awaiting the day itself. The entire Lotus Pier seemed abuzz with the same excitement he had felt for the upcoming event, and while his retinue advised him on the timetable he had for the Lotus Festival, his thoughts drifted over to the street celebrations itself, where smallfolk could partake in lotus-based dishes and snacks, buy all sorts of paraphernalia, play numerous games and paddle boats to have lotus-viewing parties in the water.
A festival was not a true festival without the participation of commoners, and he found himself wishing he could be there - could walk among the ordinary people and see the festival from their eyes, unrestrained by protocol and decorum.
An idea struck him.
Fearing assassination, the Crown Prince of Gusu Lan never travelled without a body double - especially when it came to visits outside of his home kingdom or occasions of great political importance. He had his body double with him now - a boy identical in age, height and looks- well, nearly. Their faces were not identical, but once the layer of cosmetics required for the Crown Prince's public appearances was added, his body double looked indistinguishable to Lan Huan once made up. With the right accessories and clothes, none would be the wiser.
"During the Lotus Festival, you will take my place as the guest of honour in the central square." Lan Huan said to his body double, who was currently serving as an attendant in simple, solid robes, bowing low and saluting deeply.
"As His Highness wishes."
This was not the first time he had done this. His mother, Queen of Gusu Lan, had been a commoner, and the tale of his parents was a love story told and retold over and over among the people of Gusu. His father, a dashing young Crown Prince at the time, had seen his beauty of a mother and fallen instantly in love, sweeping her into the palace to be married and crowned as his Queen. Gusu Lan believed wholeheartedly in romance and soulmates, their royal family possessing the rare practice of marrying for love, hence they strove to maintain the strength of their military, economy, and political standing to keep the country safe.
Mother had told him many stories of her time as a mere commoner girl in the streets of Gusu, about the lives and mundane delights of the regular folk. Fascinated, Lan Huan had disguised himself in simple clothes and slipped out of the palace, tasting the freedom that anonymity brought. Now that he was in a foreign country for leisure - an occasion without any overt political purpose, he wasn't going to let another opportunity to mingle on the streets go.
The morning of the festival, he went through the motions as visiting Crown Prince of Gusu Lan, and when the time drew near, changed out of his priceless navy robes of cloud-patterned silk, set down his prince's headpiece, opting for his commoner garb - solid, coarse clothes in a sky blue and a simple white ribbon to tie his hair with. His jade token was carefully tucked into his sleeves, proof of his status as Heir to Gusu Lan.
Over his common clothes he wore a Lan attendant's uniform and feigned purpose as he walked, easily slipping past guards who assumed he was a servant focused on an errand, and let him out of the river palace wing.
Just like that, he was free.
He drew curious glances as he strolled down the bustling streets of Lotus Pier. Lan Huan's clothes quickly identified him as hailing from Gusu, given the long, voluminous robes at his sides which could hide an entire set of attendant's robes within. He was not the only foreign visitor, however, with the occasional presence of a gold-wearing Jin native or the broad-shouldered olive green of QingHe Nie. Lotus Pier's Lotus Festival was known far and wide, attracting many guests from abroad.
He drank in the sights afforded to him - the myriad stalls selling all kinds of snacks and products - deep fried lotus root slices, roasted and candied lotus root seeds, lotus root soup, lotus perfumes, crystallized lotus flowers- and his hand inched toward his wallet at every sight, eager to try anything and buy whatever he laid his eyes on. Unable to decide, he bought several bags of lotus root seeds, candied, salted and roasted, wanting to try them all, and was snacking upon them as he continued walking.
The bags spilled at a sudden harsh shove and seeds went everywhere - Lan Huan so shocked that all he could do was stare despairingly at his purchases scattered all over the ground. He'd only tried one flavour, too.
The culprit was a boy around his age in purple and black, who had accidentally barrelled into him and immediately cursed "Fuck!" rather angrily - Lan Huan automatically flinched at the anger at his voice. The boy craned his neck forward and yelled - "You're dead when I find you, Wei Wuxian!" and someone in the crowd, running like his life depended on it, let out a whoop.
Said boy in purple and black robes looked back, saw the mess of seeds covering the floor, and immediately went "Oh, shit. Shit, I'm really sorry!"
His voice was rough but surprisingly sincere as the YunMeng boy awkwardly scratched his neck and bowed low in apology. "I wasn't paying attention to where I was going. Here, let me make it up to you." He fished around in his pockets - around his hips, as, clad in the YunMeng style of sleeves tightly fitted to the arm without space to carry items.
Pulling out his own wallet, the boy peered inside with a sigh, then a scoff, muttering "It's fine. I'll just get it from that idiot later," and finally met Lan Huan's eyes with his own, pale bluish-grey and as clear as the lakes that surrounded Lotus Pier.
"Again, I'm really sorry for bumping into you and making you spill all your snacks. Let me buy you a replacement." The YunMeng boy said. "What's your name?"
Lan Huan blinked, still momentarily stunned at the turn of events. "Lan - Lan Huan."
"Should have guessed. You're obviously a Lan." The boy said. "I'm Jiang Cheng."
"Why were you running, earlier?" Lan Huan asked curiously, "And who was this ‘Wei Wuxian’ you were chasing?"
"Oh, that was just my adopted brother." Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. "Our Jiejie gave us extra pocket money for the festival and he stole my share and ran away with it."
Lan Huan frowned. "That's terrible! What sort of didi would do that?"
"Oh, no, Wei Wuxian's older than me." Jiang Cheng carelessly said, to Lan Huan's horror. As an older brother himself, he could not fathom ever treating Wangji like that. "Don't worry," Jiang Cheng continued, lips curling into a half smirk, "I stole his money the last time."
Lan Huan could only stare. Jiang Cheng didn't seem too offended by it, as if this was a normal occurrence between these two brothers - how very odd. Perhaps this was just a way of affectionate teasing that he'd never come across before.
Jiang Cheng crouched and picked up a paper bag once filled with lotus seeds off the floor, inspecting the name of the stall printed on it before frowning. "Huh, there's better lotus root seeds than this. Come on."
Before Lan Huan could react, Jiang Cheng had grabbed his arm and started to drag him along. As the Crown Prince, Lan Huan had never been touched like this - with the exception of his own mother - and he jolted. "What are you doing?" He said urgently, and Jiang Cheng looked back at him.
"Bringing you to the best lotus root seller in Lotus Pier." He declared. "I'm alone now without Wei Wuxian, and since you're a visiting Lan, it's my duty as a Jiang to give you the best welcome to the Lotus Festival. Besides," he frowned, "I did ruin all your snacks, so I've got to make up for this somehow."
With that chance encounter, Lan Huan now had his own personal YunMeng Jiang tour guide, who bemusedly told him which stalls appealed to clueless tourists new to the festival with marked up prices and stereotypical products, even as Lan Huan gazed at everything in awe and wonder, taking in everything he could see.
"You see that lotus lamp?" Jiang Cheng said, pointing to a pretty-looking glass piece that glowed golden from the candle held within, "That piece gets made everywhere, look-" He pointed to another stall a few paces away, which was selling the exact same object, and as Lan Huan walked with the boy, he started seeing it everywhere.
"It must be a very popular product." He murmured, and Jiang Cheng chortled.
"Everyone and their mother has that lamp in their house, but someone's buying it, so I guess they still sell it."
"Even you?" Lan Huan asked curiously, and Jiang Cheng nodded. "There's been one in my house for as long as I can remember."
The lotus root seed stall they eventually reached had an old wood frame, the surface stained and dented with wear but spotlessly wiped clean, and the owner, a plump and hearty madam, took one look at Jiang Cheng and called out, "Ah, A-Cheng! So nice to see you again!"
"Afternoon, auntie." He greeted back.
"Where's that brother of yours? And who's this?" The woman looked Lan Huan over, who returned a friendly smile.
"A visitor from Gusu Lan at our famous Lotus Festival." Jiang Cheng introduced. "Wei Wuxian's off gallivanting who-knows-where, whatever."
Lan Huan was certain he heard a note of bitterness in Jiang Cheng's voice, but chose not to comment on it.
"You found a handsome one!" The woman chuckled, and Lan Huan bowed his head slightly with a "Thank you, ma’am," accepting the compliment as Jiang Cheng brushed it off.
"Since you're new here, you should try all the flavours we have to offer!" She continued, Lan Huan watching the seeds roasting on the grill in interest and scanning the available selection - even more seed types than the previous stall he had been at.
"Alright, one of everything, please."
Jiang Cheng stared at him. "One of everything? Are you just going to eat seeds all day?!"
"Let the man buy what he wants, A-Cheng!" The stall owner protested genially, but Jiang Cheng only narrowed his eyes.
"No, no, I'm not going to let Lan Huan ruin his first festival experience." He turned to him, "You got candied, roasted and salted, right? Those are pretty good choices. We'll get those three."
When Lan Huan pulled out his wallet, Jiang Cheng slapped his hand away, which made Lan Huan jerk out of surprise. "Sorry, didn't mean to hit you that hard." Jiang Cheng said gruffly, already holding money. "But I made you drop your snacks, so this one's on me."
Lan Huan felt a twinge of guilt - here he was with a prince's allowance, yet Jiang Cheng was paying for him. The determined, almost angry look on the Yunmeng native's face allowed no argument, however, and the Prince knew that he was just trying to right his accident.
Lan Huan tasted the difference almost immediately - the seeds were freshly roasted, mouthwatering and delicious, and he made a pleased noise as he chewed, Jiang Cheng watching him with pride in his expression. "Good, isn't it?"
Lan Huan nodded, and offered him the bag. "Won't you try some?" He urged, and Jiang Cheng blinked at him. "It's your food, you don't have to give me any."
"Ah, well, you did buy it for me."
"Only because I made you drop the ones you bought. This is yours."
"I insist." Lan Huan said with a smile, and Jiang Cheng's smile was crooked as he accepted it, "Fine, then."
As Crown Prince, Lan Huan hardly got to partake in such simple pleasures - everything presented to him was perfectly curated, perfectly arranged - because only the best could be given to the royalty of Gusu. While he genuinely appreciated the effort that went into everything offered to him, being a Prince meant that he couldn't just offer kindnesses to people - the fuss would be enormous, he had learned, while younger, perfunctorily smiling through elaborate salutes and dull thanking ceremonies after being nice to a servant. That was not to mention the political implications of being friendly to the wrong people, from the wrong clan - his early diplomatic debacles had taught him that.
He beamed when Jiang Cheng casually grabbed a handful of seeds from the bag and ate them as they walked.
"Jiang Cheng, what's this?"
And then later-
"Jiang Cheng, what's that?"
Jiang Cheng had never seen a man resemble a puppy as much as Lan Huan of Gusu, whose sparkling brown eyes seemed directed at a million directions as they walked - seeing everything as novel and wondrous. Pride bloomed within him, knowing that YunMeng's Lotus Festival was so impressive to him, but it got a bit absurd sometimes with Lan Huan in awe at the simplest things.
"Don't they have that in Gusu?" He'd said incredulously when the Lan boy stared at a wooden beaded rattle.
"Well, yes, but I've never seen it made using those materials before -" Lan Huan murmured, and Jiang Cheng wondered just what kind of sheltered life he had, never seeing a simple rattle with wooden beads and cheap animal skin stretched over the drum. Lan Huan wanted to stop at everything - Jiang Cheng protested that they could get things cheaper elsewhere, but Lan Huan was easily swayed.
"She seems very sweet," He murmured at a little girl with pink lotuses on her twin buns selling fried lotus root slices, and the little girl grinned back, missing a front tooth.
"Gusu-gege is very nice too, and also very handsome and dashing!" She parroted flattery - but it was simply the truth, yet Lan Huan brightened at her, reaching for his wallet. Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes good-naturedly. "Fine then, go on. It's your money, after all."
Lan Huan pulled out a gold tael and handed it to the girl - a gold tael, of all things - and both Jiang Cheng and the little girl stared at him with wide eyes as she opened her tin of money and started to quickly count through the silver and copper pennies in it, calculating his change.
"You - don't you have anything smaller than that?!" Jiang Cheng said disbelievingly, while Lan Huan shook his head innocently.
"Um, Gusu-gege," the little girl said, flushing in embarrassment, "I don't have enough change, so you can have this-" she held out the entire tin, "but tell you what! I'll, I'll give you more sticks of fried lotus roots, okay? To make up for it-"
Seeing her distress, Lan Huan shook his head and smiled pleasantly. "It's alright, meimei. You can just have this." He pushed the gold tael into her disbelieving hands as Jiang Cheng's jaw fell open.
The girl was reluctant, but eventually accepted the money with a shy smile on her face, bowing low, and it warmed Lan Huan's heart.
"You - how rich are you that you can just give out gold taels like that?! Are you a -" Jiang Cheng spluttered, surveying him up and down, "nobleman or something?! What does your family even do?!"
"Uh, well," Lan Huan began, "my father is-" Qingheng-jun, King of Gusu Lan, but he very well couldn't say that, "a...diplomat?"
"Oh my god, you're a nobleman involved in politics?!" Jiang Cheng carded his fingers through his bangs anxiously. "Why don't you dress better?! How was I supposed to know of your status?! And here I am, a mere merchant's son just treating you like a normal person-"
Lan Huan frowned. This wasn't how he wanted to be treated. "But I want you to see me as a normal person."
"In my usual clothes," he began, "people treat me like I'm-" untouchable, sacred, inhuman- "different. I don't want that. I want to just-" He gestured with an arm, sleeves billowing out, "be treated like an ordinary person."
Jiang Cheng still looked worried, but raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, truly. I would enjoy nothing more."
"That's really odd coming from a nobleman's son."
"In what way?"
"Well - most of them like being nobility, don't they?" Jiang Cheng said disdainfully. "Flashing their money, being bowed to and flattered, flaunting their status."
Ah - the arrogant elite. Sycophants existed everywhere, even in Gusu, swarming around people of power and caring nothing for people of lower rank. Lan Huan couldn't stand them. "I find that behaviour extremely distasteful."
"That's evident." Jiang Cheng said. Lan Huan could see respect in his eyes, which warmed him.
"So, considering the money you have, I really didn't need to buy you those seeds, then."
"Ah- no, not really." He smiled.
"You gonna pay me back?" Jiang Cheng said, which flustered Lan Huan, who began to dig through his sleeves for his wallet. "Right, I apologize-"
"Save it." Jiang Cheng smirked. "I was just joking."
Realizing he was being teased and treated like anyone else, Lan Huan laughed, pink colouring his cheeks.
"So, you said you were a merchant's son?" They continued their stroll.
Jiang Cheng's father owned a successful fabric and tailoring business which he was set to inherit. He had two other siblings, both of which he'd mentioned before in passing - an older sister and the adopted brother, Wei Wuxian. "Jiejie's part of the competition today." He said proudly. "Her lotus root and pork rib soup is the best and we're all rooting for her to win. Last year she came in third!"
Jiang Cheng's joy was infectious and Lan Huan couldn't help but grin at the other boy's wide, toothy smile. "I wish her luck as well. But aren't you going to watch the cooking contest, then?"
"The seats to watch the contests in the main square always get snapped up too quickly, my family didn't manage to secure any seats.” He explained. “Besides, half of them are reserved for royalty and important people anyway. There's always next year." He shrugged. If Lan Huan had stayed and fulfilled his princely duties as he was supposed to, then he would have witnessed Jiang Yanli compete.
"How about you? What's it like being a diplomat's son? I bet you grew up in the lap of luxury with jade and pearl rattles?" Jiang Cheng teased, and Lan Huan offered a sheepish smile because he very well couldn't offer the truth (his rattles had been made out of silver and gems.)
"Something like that. My father spent a lot of time at the Cloud Recesses-"
"The royal palace of Gusu Lan?!" Jiang Cheng blurted out, "w-wait, so your father is a royal diplomat?!"
"Yes?" Lan Huan said, that was as close to the truth as he could get without fully revealing it.
"Oh my god." Jiang Cheng looked like he was having an epiphany. "This is crazy."
"And, well,” Lan Huan continued, wanting to soothe the atmosphere, “he's brought me to nearly all the neighbouring countries." Now, his first time in YunMeng Jiang.
"Is that why you're here, too? Because of your father-"
"No, this is a visit for leisure." Lan Huan smiled. Thank goodness too, or it wouldn't be safe enough to slip away disguised.
"I've never been out of YunMeng." Jiang Cheng said in awe, "but I've been saving up - I want to go see the sights of the world, someday."
Lan Huan briefly entertained the idea of going on a vacation trip around the different kingdoms - what would it be like, without royal decorum? He'd want to bring Wangji, and Mother, and uncle, even Father, if he could spare the time - but as monarch, it was unlikely. Having Jiang Cheng there would be nice, to see his wonder at seeing the sights of the world with fresh eyes.
"Would you go to Gusu Lan?" He asked, and Jiang Cheng nodded.
"Definitely. I want to see real mountains, I’ve only ever seen mountains in paintings." The YunMeng native remarked, and Lan Huan blinked in surprise – it never occurring to him that mountains could be special.
"You know, this is my first time seeing a lake as big as this." He said, "I thought it was the sea, at first."
Jiang Cheng blinked, a considering look coming upon his face. "Neither have I, though people say it's just like the lake here, but bigger. Maybe one day-" he joked, "we could both go see it together."
"I'd like that." Lan Huan said quietly.
The fried lotus root slices were satisfyingly crunchy in his mouth - and before Lan Huan could react, Jiang Cheng had leaned over and bitten off half the next piece on his stick with a loud crack. "Thanks." He smirked. "It's good, isn't it?"
"Really good." Lan Huan blushed, ducking his head to hide the colour on his face as Jiang Cheng laughed. “You’re too easy to tease, Lan Huan!”
They continued down the festival, Lan Huan helping himself to the rest of the food available. He tried lotus root and pork rib soup - offering the ribs to Jiang Cheng, because the royal Gusu Lan diet was vegetarian.
"Wait," Jiang Cheng protested. "What do you mean, vegetarian?! The pork rib is part of the whole package of the soup!"
"I just don't partake." Lan Huan said, wondering if Jiang Cheng was going to press the issue.
"But the meat and the bone essences are already boiled into the soup, so the rest isn't vegetarian, is it?" He questioned.
"Ah, well," Lan Huan looked down at it. "I've already had it, and I don't mind such trace amounts - the soup is delicious. It would not be right to waste food."
"Wouldn’t it be a waste not to eat the ribs, then?" Jiang Cheng asked, and Lan Huan paused, wondering if the YunMeng native going to force him into violating his own principles.
"Not if you eat it." He offered with another pleasant smile, this one more borrowed from years of experience from diplomatic meetings. Jiang Cheng simply raised an eyebrow- "If you insist," he said, taking the ribs with his chopsticks.
"They're really delicious, so I think you're missing out, but it's your choice. And if you're around tomorrow, drop by our house. You've got to try Jie's award-winning version of the soup."
Lan Huan felt a twinge of regret upon hearing that. "Today's my last day in YunMeng," he admitted, "I won't be able to try your sister's cooking, unfortunately."
"Oh." Jiang Cheng said, face falling. The reality of their limited time dawned, but his expression soon turned determined.
"Well, at least you made it for the festival. There's still enough time to make it an experience you won't forget!" He declared, pale grey-blue eyes shining, and Lan Huan, nodding with a smile, could only think about clear river waters those eyes reminded him of.
They played the games and activities the festival had to offer - one that involved throwing thin chopstick-like implements into cups, which Lan Huan excelled at - he was a precise archer, and laughed at Jiang Cheng's grimace when he easily outdid him and won the prize- a pretty crystallized lotus, cheaply bought elsewhere, but different, and special, for it was the one that he won in the game. Once the shopkeeper passed it to him, Lan Huan offered it to Jiang Cheng - "For you."
"Hey, I don't want a pity gift." He replied flatly.
"It's a gift, without pity." Lan Huan said earnestly.
Jiang Cheng looked at him for a moment. "But this is your first time at the festival," He eventually said, "It makes a good keepsake."
"I'll remember giving it to you more. I just don't want to see you scowling like that."
"I'll stop that, then." Jiang Cheng said, stretching his lips wide to show his teeth in a truly atrocious rictus, although his brows relaxed. Lan Huan laughed. "Please never make that face again," and felt warm when the other boy did chortle in return.
"Take it. Please."
Jiang Cheng reluctantly accepted it, but soon led them to another stall in which he picked out and paid for a white lotus accessory with a lilac tassel, meant to be worn at the belt.
"For you." He said, giving it to Lan Huan.
"Jiang Cheng, this shouldn't be an exchange!"
"Well it's not. I wanted to give you something as well, that's all." Jiang Cheng's voice was gruff, pushing the gift into his hands before abruptly striding away, and Lan Huan could do nothing but readily accept it.
When they encountered the lotus seed paste bun stall, Lan Huan tried a bun and was instantly hooked at the sweet, rich paste, ordering a dozen more. Jiang Cheng laughed, loud and musical - "Good choice!" and ordered a dozen for himself as well, both of them snacking on the sweets as they watched street jugglers and performers.
"I'm sure you sate your sweet tooth with all sorts of expensive candy, mister-royal-diplomat's-son." Jiang Cheng teased, and Lan Huan smiled. "We're both eating sweets, look who's talking."
"Wei Wuxian makes fun of me all the time for eating sweets. Says I'm like a kid." It was meant to be a lighthearted comment, but Lan Huan sensed something resentful about it and looked at him with concern.
"Why, what's wrong?"
The other boy shook his head. "Nothing."
He racked his brain trying to pick apart the statement, using his rhetoric abilities picked up from complex diplomatic meetings. Jiang Cheng had said he was to inherit his father's business, and any time bitterness had crept into his voice, it was to do with his adopted brother's presence, even though he spoke of Wei Wuxian fondly.
"Do you feel insecure next to your adopted brother?" Lan Huan hazarded a guess. This was no political summit amd he could afford to make mistakes. Jiang Cheng stared at him in surprise. "How did you know-"
"I guessed." Lan Huan replied, but laid out his reasoning. Jiang Cheng's expression was impressed though somber. "As expected of a diplomat's son. I suppose you're meant to take after your father as well in the future?"
Lan Huan's gaze dropped, remembering his responsibilities as Crown Prince of Gusu Lan. "I am."
"I'm just-" Jiang Cheng began, "Worried, that's all. I'm to continue Father's business and maintain business relationships with clients, but Wei Wuxian can do so much better. He can speak to anyone, make them laugh and close deals faster - I'm prickly, I don't really have much of a sparkling personality." He said the last few words mockingly. "I'm hardly approachable."
"On the contrary," Lan Huan countered, "I've enjoyed your company this entire afternoon.”
Jiang Cheng looked at him with wide eyes. "It's - because - " He coughed and cleared his throat, "-you're very likable."
"Thank you." Lan Huan said, heartened.
"Not everyone is like you, Lan Huan." His expression darkened in annoyance. "There's lots of idiots out there."
Lan Huan's smile had a wry edge to it. "That's to be sure. But I'm certain your confident and straightforward manner will be enough to deal with them."
Jiang Cheng's eyes darted to him, disbelievingly. "I've never heard people say about me before. Usually it's that I’m-" his voice was deprecating, "-harsh, aggressive, rude."
"Well, if they were unpleasant to you first, I believe they deserve that." Lan Huan said, expression sunny. Jiang Cheng smiled. "But," Lan Huan continued, "that's hardly been my impression of you. You apologized and made up for the accident in which we met, then decided to show me, a complete stranger, around the festival. Thank you.”
"I just don't want anyone's experience of our famous Lotus Festival ruined." Jiang Cheng said, though a slight pink hue was creeping into his cheeks, "and that's only to be expected. It's just manners."
"Manners are in startlingly short supply in most people." Lan Huan remarked, and the other snorted.
"Tell me about it."
Lan Huan returned to nibbling on his lotus bun - before remembering that he was incognito, and didn't have to act in a dignified, princely manner - so he stuffed the bun in his mouth and chewed with cheeks puffed out. Jiang Cheng laughed. "You look like a hamster! You've even got paste on your lips, are you a child-" He clucked his tongue like a fussing mother would, and reached out to wipe the smear off - before freezing.
That was the second time Jiang Cheng had touched him unbidden. The boy in question seemed just as shocked as he was, mumbling under his breath - "Um. Shit. uh, sorry, I didn't mean to act so familiarly, I uh-" He rifled around in his pockets and pulled out his handkerchief, raising it weakly. "Should've just given this to you. Um. Yeah."
"No, no, it's alright." Lan Huan insisted faintly. "T-Thank you."
To give him something to do, Lan Huan bit down on another bun and Jiang Cheng followed, a briefly awkward silence lapsing between both of them - the air charged but hardly unpleasant in the slightest.
When Jiang Cheng's eyes lingered on a cute ornament of an intricately sculpted and painted puppy sitting in a lotus flower, Lan Huan immediately bought it and gave it to him. "You seemed like you were interested." He said happily, as Jiang Cheng blushed (adorably) and tried to push it away. "You idiot! What am I supposed to do with this?!"
Lan Huan had never been called an idiot before, but from Jiang Cheng it sounded fond. "Keep it and let it cheer you up?" He wondered. "It's very cute."
"Ugh, fine." Jiang Cheng said, feigning irritation that Lan Huan knew was empty, taking the ornament from him and slipping it into his pockets.
At the street dances, Lan Huan noticed Jiang Cheng tapping his feet to the rousing music with his arms crossed - "Shall we join in?" He asked, and Jiang Cheng blurted out-
"But we're both males-"
"So what? There's male couples too!" Lan Huan pointed out. "It looks fun!" And Jiang Cheng had certainly seemed like he wanted to join in. "Come on!"
Jiang Cheng let him drag him into the mass of dancing people even as he shook his head and muttered under his breath - yet he smiled when he got into it, Lan Huan laughing all the while - he'd never danced a folk dance before, or moved this vigorously, his wide robes billowing around him as he spun, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Jiang Cheng watching him with a fond grin, his own robes swirling around his legs in graceful arcs.
Jiang Cheng's hands were warm, Lan Huan learned, grateful for the dance requiring them to touch palms.
His mother missed her life from before marrying into the palace, and he now understood why. Even with the finest luxuries and servants to attend to their every need, there were certain pleasures that the Cloud Recesses could not replicate, things that were hidden from Lan Huan until he slipped out of the royal sphere to indulge, dressed as one of the commonfolk. Street stalls, street food, folk dances - these would always be there, but the company of an honest, good-natured soul like Jiang Cheng? His heart squeezed at the thought of his absence.
Lan Huan wanted to keep knowing him, even after he returned to Gusu and to his life as the Crown Prince. As night fell, they made river wishes - the name of the activity in which they wrote their aspirations on coloured paper to be folded into lotus flowers and cast into the lake for good luck. Jiang Cheng chortled at his own poor attempts at paper flowers.
"You didn't fold the edge all the way to the mid crease, I'll fold it for you-" their fingers brushed as he took the flower from him and neatened it up - "and these folds need to be more curved! There-"
Having had years of practice, Jiang Cheng's own lotus was neat and precise, which Lan Huan felt very much suited the boy in front of him.
"Ready?" Jiang Cheng said, both of them crammed into the edge of the docks among crowds of people who all wanted to cast their lotuses into the lake, and as a gong was struck, Lan Huan put his lotus into the cool waters and watched it float away, carried by the gentle eddying waves, but one purple lotus among various multicoloured ones. A cheer rose up among the crowd, and night had already fallen by then, the bright moon illuminating Jiang Cheng's face with silver moonlight. His own white lotus, carefully folded, bobbed gently in the water, bumping against Lan Huan's purple one.
"What did you wish for?"
A considering pause. "For the people I treasure to always be safe, and happy."
The festival was still in full swing and the celebrations would last through the night, but Lan Huan knew the competitions and performances in the main square were over. The hour of nine at night would soon approach, and while he wanted to wander with Jiang Cheng at his side under a sky of stars, he knew he had to go back soon. Heavens knew if sleep would soon claim him if he didn't return for the appropriate time of rest, and he couldn't afford to burden Jiang Cheng with his sleeping self - nor could he imagine the alarm that would be raised if he, Crown Prince of Gusu, failed to return to the river palace.
"Thank you so much for your attention, today." Lan Huan said, saluting low, which jolted the other boy out of his pleasant night reverie. "N-No problem."
"I'm afraid this is where we part ways, Jiang Cheng."
His lips gently and precisely shaped the words in his mouth, knowing he would get precious few chances to continue saying the other's name in the future.
"You're not staying for the rest of the night?" Jiang Cheng said unhappily, and Lan Huan reluctantly shook his head. "I- I must return to - pack my belongings for my trip back to Gusu tomorrow." He murmured an excuse. That was also not technically a lie, since he was leaving the next day, even though the attendants would be the ones doing the packing.
"This has been an experience I shall never forget." He murmured.
"There's so much you haven't seen." Jiang Cheng said softly. "Be sure to come back next year. I'll find you."
Lan Huan's eyes were fond. "I might not be able to, but I will let you know." From the folding of paper lotuses, he had saved himself a piece which he had written an address Jiang Cheng could send letters to and pressed it into his hands. "Please write to me."
"I will." Jiang Cheng nodded solemnly, pale eyes radiant in the moonlight.
Lan Huan reached into his sleeves. "I have a gift for you."
"You've already given me so many things," Jiang Cheng protested, but Lan Huan smiled.
"Not from Gusu."
From his sleeves, he produced his jade token - the one that proved his identity as Crown Prince of Gusu Lan, and his sacred cloud-patterned forehead ribbon – presenting both to Jiang Cheng.
"If you ever come to Gusu, you can find me at the Cloud Recesses. Just show them this token and I will come to you."
Jiang Cheng's eyes were wide as he gazed at the token, the detailed carvings flawless and intricate on the white jade. "It's...it's really beautiful." He said reverently.
Running his fingers and thumb along the white silk of the ribbon, Jiang Cheng carefully wrapped the strip around the token and tucked it snugly into the front of his robes, where Lan Huan liked to think was over his heart.
His own heart pounding in his ears, Lan Huan stepped closer and, leaning in as Jiang Cheng's eyes widened - brushed a kiss against the edge of the other boy's lips.
"Shall I see you again?" He murmured, and Jiang Cheng, blushing, nodded.
"I'll - I'll do everything I can to come to Gusu as soon as I can." He declared.
When he departed, Lan Huan kept looking back to see the slowly shrinking figure in purple and black, who stayed in place until he was too far away to see him.
For the next three years - a constant stream of letters watered and strengthened the flower of affection he felt for the boy from YunMeng, who was slowly growing into a man and taking over his father's business as he was always meant to. Jiang Cheng wrote to him about how he was gradually collecting enough spare cash for a trip to Gusu to see him again - and three years after their first meeting, Jiang Cheng was finally visiting Gusu Lan.
He could hardly wait to see Lan Huan again. Wei Wuxian had endlessly teased him about it and Jie had smiled, pleased to hear that he had found someone he cared so deeply for - while Jiang Cheng snapped at Wei Wuxian that he wasn't bringing him along during his trip, to his adopted brother's whines. He wanted this for himself, wanted to meet Lan Huan alone.
Gusu was a cold, mountainous place, and Jiang Cheng gaped as he entered the capital surrounded by towering mountains, making him feel small and insignificant yet protected by their sheer size at the same time. Lan Huan had mentioned that he was the son of a royal diplomat - so it was possible that his father, and now him, worked at the royal residence of the Cloud Recesses.
Jiang Cheng wasn't exactly sure if he was doing it right as he approached the guards, dressed in white, at the main gate, and showed them the jade token, asking for Lan Huan.
From the way the guards exchanged startled looks, he still couldn't be sure as he was ushered inside the royal palace itself in all its cool elegance.
He waited at a room that seamlessly combined minimalism and luxury when a guard's sudden proclamation of "His Highness the Crown Prince has arrived-" had Jiang Cheng quickly scrambling to bow deeply. Was there some issue? Why was the Crown Prince of Gusu Lan here, when he was merely looking for a diplomat's son?
The doors opened, and he heard the shuffling of footsteps and the rustle of heavy, expensive silk. He dared to peer slightly from his bowed position and caught the edges of the Crown Prince’s pale blue robes, painstakingly embroidered with cloud patterns in silver thread.
"My humblest greetings to his Highness." Jiang Cheng immediately murmured.
A familiar voice came. "Please, Jiang Cheng, there is no need to bow."
Jiang Cheng finally looked up – his eyes meeting with the stunning beauty of Crown Prince Lan Xichen, Zewu-Jun, in all his royal finery and makeup.
"H-How do you know my name?" He stammered.
The Prince laughed, and it was like looking upon the face of a deity. "Jiang Cheng, it's me. Lan Huan."
Jiang Cheng could only stare as Crown Prince Lan Xichen - no, Lan Huan - crossed the gap between them and grasped his hands gently.
"My heart," he smiled, "We are finally reunited."