1. The Sunshot Campaign
After meetings, they would conclude things promptly and then leave to continue the war effort separately. There are always disagreements, with the rising death toll and the exhaustion of the prolonged battles causing tensions to run high. Even amongst allies, they weren’t like-minded on a good day, so how could anyone expect them to agree on bad ones?
Lan Xichen bid his fellow sect leaders farewell and left the room.
It was as if the cold air had cut him in half, the darkness of the night swallowing him as he walked further away from the light.
Often, a point of contention was how much work each sect was taking upon themselves. The cost of the missions, the authority taken or given, the credit earned and prizes won. He hated how these things were always brought to the forefront, as if they held equal importance as the reason for the war itself.
Shufu told him that despite his distaste for this sort of thing, this was part of what his future would be like as a sect leader. Before, he had to consider the impact of his actions and how they reflected on his sect’s reputation. Now, he must consider how they reflect on other sects, especially in terms of giving them face.
It’s never good to take all of the prey during a night hunt, leaving others to starve—
But during war, the ones who were starving were those waiting for the fighting to end. Who would have thought that he would have to weigh good deeds against good relations?
With their uncle defending the Cloud Recesses, he and his brother were able to travel to the aid of others. Thus, he was always on the move, directing his disciples back and forth, with never a moment’s rest. Lan Xichen took in a deep breath, released it slowly and summoned Shuoyue into the air—
“You’re doing too much.”
—he froze, then turned smoothly to face the other with a well-practiced smile. “Sect Leader Jiang, I was just about to leave. May I help you?”
Jiang Cheng scowled, as if he’d smelt something unpleasant. “No, that’s the problem. You’re helping too much. You need to stop.”
Oh, not this again. Out of everyone, he would have hoped Jiang Cheng would understand the situation. The end was still nowhere in sight, there were still so many fires to put out. For some reason, everyone’s actions were being made into a competition, to reap the last plunders of war.
(Instead of being seen as opportunities to quicken the healing of those suffering.)
“I’m doing what is needed,” he said, unable to keep the irritation out of his voice. Lan Xichen put Shuoyue down, closing his eyes to steady himself. “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to snap.”
Jiang Cheng snorted. “See? You’re never normally this low on patience. I can’t allow you leave when you’re this ill-tempered. People expect to see Zewu-Jun with a smile on his face. Instead, you’re here reeking of killing intent.”
Lan Xichen’s calm centre shook.
“They’ll expect more of that from me and Wei Wuxian. Try to remember that part of the safety you give to those you save is that feeling of hope, so…” Jiang Cheng shifted a bit on his feet, “Why leave in the middle of the night? Wait until the morning. This is my territory. You can stay for the night.”
That was true.
They were at the Jiangling border and the disputes have been settled. Lan Xichen nodded after a moment, sheathing Shuoyue properly and heaving a sigh—
—both of them spun around just in time to see Bichen slice through the air as Lan Wangji took to the sky. When he passed them by, Lan Xichen saw his little brother’s aggrieved expression. The flare of his core was prickly with irritation.
Beside him Jiang Cheng put Sandu away, exhaling loudly, “How unnecessary!”
Indeed, he thought his brother had cooled off after the altercation with Wei Wuxian. That was why he came in the first place. When news of their conflict spread and he was asked to deal with them, he had no choice but to go to try and mediate. Even if they disliked Wei Wuxian’s methods, he was still ultimately on their side.
(For the time being, at least.)
There were many who questioned (quite loudly, if he might add) why Lan Wangji had such a bone to pick with the demonic cultivator, and not instead with his sect leader, Jiang Wanyin… also, there were criticisms about why said sect leader wasn’t disciplining Wei Wuxian enough.
On top of that, some gossipers would also criticise the fact that Hanguang-Jun’s reputation was not being maintained by his older brother. In less polite words: why was he also not disciplining Wangji as he should? What a headache.
Whatever was happening between Wangji and Wei Wuxian, was not any of their business. Even so, they were responsible for them, hence why the blame and judging eyes were aimed at them. Lan Xichen saw his fellow sect leader struggling to maintain order with his martial brother and he felt trapped in a similar situation with Wangji.
“Pardon me, Sect Leader Jiang,” he forced himself to say, “I must go after him—”
“Don’t,” Jiang Cheng replied curtly. “He’s got no mind for anything other than Wei Wuxian. I’m tired of both of them. Go back to your quarters. Sleep.”
Lan Xichen laughed then. It hardly sounded like himself. That voice was worn thin and reedy, rattling in his throat. “How can I sleep? There’s so much to be done. If you’re worried about my killing intent, I think we should worry more about our brothers.”
“It’s pointless worrying,” Jiang Cheng argued, whilst obviously sounding very worried. “They do as they like. I’m so sick of it. Wei Wuxian won’t listen to me. He doesn’t listen to anyone.”
Looking at him, he could see how tired the other man was… and how young he was too, with his awkwardly long limbs and lanky build. Although he was considered an adult by now, Lan Xichen couldn’t help but see him as a child. They were both children when this started. They weren’t given enough time to grow.
“For some reason, it seems as if Wangji wants to make Young Master Wei his responsibility.”
“But he isn’t his responsibility.” Jiang Cheng’s eyes squeezed shut. “Why won’t he stop? Why won’t either of them stop? The attention they’re drawing to themselves is creating all sorts of problems, making us look incompetent…”
It wasn’t that bad for Lan Xichen, since he was mostly protected by Hanguang-Jun’s impeccable reputation, but for Jiang Cheng… he wasn’t so lucky, since Wei Wuxian’s demonic cultivation was its own problem to deal with.
With this thought, he inclined his head, “Rest assured, I will deal with this.” He was about to mount his sword again—
“Forget that! Where the fuck do you think you’re going?!”
There was hardly any time to react. Lan Xichen’s eyes flew open. “Excuse me?” He didn’t even realise he was backed up against the wall until it knocked into his back!
Suddenly, Jiang Cheng was in his face, his hand planted squarely beside his head on the wall. He moved so quickly! Lan Xichen’s eyes flit sideways, trailing from his wrist up to his shoulder. What a fierce expression!
“You haven’t even noticed you’re injured.”
Lan Xichen’s mouth fell open, but then he followed Jiang Cheng’s pointed glare and saw blood on his arm. He felt a sting there, a dull throbbing pain in his ribs. “It will heal soon.”
“It should already be healed. Your body needs rest.”
Quite right. These small wounds, and even the worse ones, should be well on their way to fully healed by now. He couldn’t argue with him, and so he smiled, “I thank you for your hospitality, Sect Leader Jiang.” He gestured for Jiang Cheng to let him pass. “If I may…”
Instead, he found himself being taken by the elbow. “Come with me. I’ll wrap that up before you drip blood everywhere.”
Lan Xichen was unable to refuse, so he followed him to his quarters and it… wasn’t exactly an uncomfortable silence between them, but still strange. It occurred to him that he’d never spent this much time alone with Jiang Cheng before. Another thing he couldn’t help but note was that his hands were very warm.
“—urt anywhere else? I’m done… hello? Sect Leader Lan, are you hurt anywhere else?”
“…what? Oh, no, that’s everything.”
“Alright. Sleep then.”
“Thank you. I’ll be out of your way tomorrow.”
Jiang Cheng paused in the doorway.
The light cast him in shadow, but he could see the feathery edge of his eyelashes moving as he looked him up and down.
“Don’t lie awake all night worrying. I’ve gone too many nights without sleeping due to my… problem. I won’t let you do the same for yours. You can deal with things tomorrow. You have other brothers you can go to for comfort.”
Lan Xichen watched him leave, and the thought crossed his mind… yes, he had other brothers he could go to, but he would have quite liked him to stay as well, as a comfort.
2. The Aftermath of War
It was naive of him to have expected things to settle down after the war.
Even so, he hoped they would. Somehow, it was still so easy to hope. Despite having so much taken from them, stolen and burnt and crushed into the bloodied ground, if nothing else… Lan Xichen knew how to hope. It was not always a good thing, having this inexhaustible belief that someday things would get better.
As he rolled up his sleeves and continued grinding herbs into a paste, there was hope burning in his eyes and dripping down his cheeks. With trembling hands stained red from his brother’s wounds, hope felt like failure. Yet, he continued to hope.
There was so much that needed to be done.
Once again, he felt lucky (yet resentful) that he had such a strong core to power him through so many days without rest. There were homes that needed rebuilding, his sect who needed guiding through the wreckage. There were those who needed medical attention, including his brother, with thirty-three whip-marks gouging deep into his flesh…
(—and thirty-three elders who also needed treatment. After being beaten so viciously, his hands shook worse than theirs, and he couldn’t believe that his little brother did that to them—)
There was his father, who needed mourning.
(He wasn’t there at the burial. He wasn’t there to see the Wens beat his father so badly that he didn’t recover. He wasn’t there, but now he is.)
There was his uncle, who would need his support in the days to come… and that child Wangji brought back from the Burial Mounds, who had such a high fever it was doubtful that he would survive.
Lan Xichen wiped his face with the back of his hand, sniffling pitifully as he ached to leave this work for tomorrow.
You can deal with things tomorrow. You’re doing too much.
But who else will do these tasks? The responsibility has fallen to him. It was his duty to lead his clan and to help out wherever he can; with all of their losses came an abundance of work. If Wangji was well enough, the work could have been reduced.
Even though Lan Xichen was fairly sure he knew the reason why his brother decided to act out so rashly, part of him cannot garner much sympathy for him. He would’ve otherwise praised him for being brave enough to protect his beloved… but he hurt so many people doing so, and then ended up punished for it—
(Whilst he wanted Wangji to recover more than anything, but it wasn’t the wounds on his back he was worried about. What about the damage to his heart? How does one heal this type of heartbreak?)
Lan Xichen was shaking, shaking his head, shaking apart, and… the floor was shaking?
(No, it was the walls that were shaking, and a strike of lightning—)
He watched mildly as something toppled to the ground. “That was my door.”
“You broke my door. I… I just recently had it fixed…”
Jiang Cheng glared at him, his face obscured by his own shadow, but his eyes glowing like twin embers. The flare of anger coming from him halted, his incensed posture wilting abruptly. “What the fuck happened to you?”
“Sect Leader Jiang.”
Lan Xichen tried to stand to greet him, but then… found that his legs were numb.
(Numb? When were his legs ever numb? He’s knelt for hours, meditated for days without any fatigue. The absurdity of this caused him to chuckle, but then came a jolt of embarrassment.
Of all times, why must this happen when he has company?!)
“Ugh, what’s that smell?” Jiang Cheng wrinkled his nose. “It smells like—” Before he could say what it smelt like, he sneezed three times in quick succession. “F-Fuck!”
“Sect Leader Jiang, I wasn’t expecting to see you. Please excuse the… mess. I’ll clear this up right away.” (As soon as he could stand, that is.) “How might I help you?”
“Are you sure you’re not the one needing help?” Jiang Cheng muttered, marching over and then hovering by his side uncertainly. “Are you hurt or something? You look like you’re in pain.”
“No. Just leg cramps. Been kneeling too long.”
“Oh. Well, come on, then.”
Jiang Cheng hauled him onto his feet, and all Lan Xichen could do was cling onto his mortar and pestle and hope his legs wouldn’t collapse under him. There was a moment where Jiang Cheng seemed like he was about to step away, but then he sighed and remained holding him upright.
Lan Xichen cringed, “Thank you.”
“Try circulating your spiritual energy.”
“I… I can’t.”
Lan Xichen gasped, feeling warmth bloom around the places Jiang Cheng was holding him as spiritual energy flowed from his fingertips. The man was eyeing him, his expression unreadable. Was he concerned, or disgusted, or perhaps annoyed…?
It was impossible to hold his gaze, so he looked away in shame.
Jiang Cheng squeezed his arm. “I can come back later.”
“Why did you come?” The question came out without any thought. No filter. No manners. Lan Xichen babbled, “I mean, what did you need? Was there a something—”
“I came to get the medicine we ordered, but… it seems like you might need it more than me.” He paused. “I’ve been waiting to see you since morning, but they told me you were resting.”
In the aftermath of the war, Yunmeng Jiang (among other sects) set up trade with Gusu Lan for medicines, both the raw materials as well as ready-made ones, the recipes of which couldn’t be shared outside of the sect. They supplied Gusu Lan with building materials and sometimes food surplus from their harvests.
The vast collection of resources in the Cloud Recesses’ library allowed for the most effective medicines to be prepared, and most disciples, as well as all of the seniors, were skilled in the field of medicine.
“Didn’t we send you the month’s supply?”
“You did, but there has been a rise in the number of illnesses. We think it’s seasonal. Nothing too worrying, but winter is hitting us harder this year than it usually would.”
Lan Xichen blinked slowly again.
Why didn’t Jiang Cheng simply send for more medicines to be delivered? Unless he came to negotiate payment…? “That’s terrible,” he managed to say, “If you can summarise what the common symptoms are, we can work out what is needed—”
“You look like you haven’t slept in weeks.” Jiang Cheng’s frown deepened, “Rest first. Why does it always feel like I’m saying that? They said you were resting, so why aren’t you?”
“But I can’t, I…” Lan Xichen covered his face with both hands, the bitter stench of herbs causing his eyes to water. “You don’t understand. There’s so much work to do. There’s no one else—”
“I don’t understand?” Jiang Cheng scoffs. “Try again.”
Indeed, the younger man looked just as dead-on-his-feet as Lan Xichen felt, but there was an edge of desperation keeping him alight. The fire in his eyes, the spark that flared out in tandem with his heartbeat. Jiang Cheng might be just as dog-tired as him, but instead of receding into himself, his resentment burned in him so brightly that it shone from his core.
The emotions seeping into him through the spiritual energy felt as if he was caught in a raging storm. This was how he felt all the time. Exactly the same. All alone at sea. Swept constantly below the waves. Battered and broken.
“Thank you,” he tugged his arm free, nearly spilling the contents of the mortar, “For your advice, but I can decide my own workload—”
“Sect Leader Jia—”
Something smacked into his chest.
Lan Xichen coughed, groaning as his head smacked into the wall.
The hand that shoved him slammed against the space just above his shoulder. Did Jiang Cheng just strike his meridians?! The ointment splashed onto his robes. He sighed, but otherwise found himself completely unable to move.
Jiang Cheng tilted his head back to glare up at him, “What good are you to anyone like this? You’re more likely to brew poison than ointment when you’re this tired!”
For a few seconds, Jiang Cheng simply sneered at him, but… instead of being offended, Lan Xichen was more curious than anything. This was quite a strong reaction coming from Jiang Cheng. It was rather endearing seeing him so worried about him, attempting to loom over him even though he was an inch-or-so shorter than him—
“And now you’re zoning out, ah? Come on. Let’s get you to bed.”
There was no way to stop him.
Jiang Cheng was a force of nature, bullying him all the way to bed and then shoving him down, none-too-gently. Lan Xichen stared up at him in awe. There was such a contrast between his rough-handling and Jiang Cheng tucking the blankets around him.
What a strange feeling.
“Take care of yourself, won’t you?”
That was the last thing he heard, because at some point he closed his eyes and Jiang Cheng left so quietly, he didn’t even hear it. He’d expected Jiang Cheng would stomp out, kicking and hitting things, with his bad temper, but… he didn’t.
Lan Xichen held his breath, then released it slowly.
“What about you?” he asked the empty room, unable to rid his thoughts (or dreams) of the man whose kindness was as forceful as a punch. The irony hit him just as strongly, that Jiang Cheng asking him to take care of himself when he wasn’t doing that either…
What about you? he wanted to ask.
Who’s taking care of you?
3. The Venerated Triad
Whilst he could indeed find comfort in his sworn brothers individually, otherwise—their whole brotherhood was a major headache.
Lan Xichen told himself often that it would work out someday.
The broken trust between Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao would mend in time, and they would see each other as friends, if not brothers. When he spent time alone in either of their company, he could see that future most clearly.
When they were together though, the tension was stifling and he could see cracks forming all over the place. If possible, he would’ve said da-ge wouldn’t trust A-Yao as far as he could throw him, but… da-ge could throw things really far, so that would entirely negate the point.
Lan Xichen was pondering all of this, his fingers itching to doodle the comical scene in his mind, when he looked across the conference table and his wry mirth disappeared. Jiang Cheng was gripping his teacup with a worrying amount of force. Even so, from his expression, he could tell that he wasn’t truly angered, so much as he was bored.
They rarely interacted outside of official sect business these days. With the war having ended, the after-war efforts mostly completed and life returned to as close to normal as it could be, there was no reason for them to socialise beyond what was necessary.
However, there was never any official excuse required for him to decide to go visit his sworn brothers… therein lay the difference, he supposed: the fact that they had sworn brotherhood together, but where did that leave Jiang Cheng?
Whilst each of the so-called ‘Venerated Triad’ were made famous due to their actions during the war, it wasn’t as if Jiang Cheng had been sitting quietly doing nothing! Perhaps if Wei Wuxian hadn’t perished and Wangji weren’t so opposed to it, he could have formed a similar pact with them? They were involved in more missions together than were generally known to the public.
Maybe it was exactly for that reason, or due to the absence (and disgrace) of Wei Wuxian that Jiang Cheng chose to stand alone. Since that was also a sore point between Wangji and him, that bridge was burnt from the beginning.
As the meeting was about to draw to a close, Sect Leader Yao suddenly stood up and began yet another long-winded spiel about something or another… and Lan Xichen thought he might have seen the entirety of Jiang Cheng’s eyeballs as they rolled backwards into his skull, his scowl slackening in despair.
Usually, he wouldn’t allow himself to laugh, but it was an effort not to. He had to bite his lip to stop any noise coming out. Jiang Cheng must really be at the end of his rope. With a heavy sigh, he picked up his teacup and then… put it back down, instead, taking a small gourd from his inner robe, uncorking it and throwing his head back to drink it all at once.
Something told him that whatever that was, it probably was not a tonic.
After that someone managed to cut Sect Leader Yao down, saying that they’d have to adjourn for now (thank god) or else they’d be talking until moonrise. Lan Xichen took his time gathering his things and watched closely as Jiang Cheng did the same. He seemed fine. Maybe it was an energising tonic, or something else?
Lan Xichen waved his friends off, excusing himself from both of their invitations with the excuse that he was tired. Honestly, most of them looked drained from the meeting. Sect Leader Yao’s long speeches tended to have that effect.
With that, he finally left the conference hall, walking through the winding corridors towards his designated room—
—only to find a sword pointed at his throat!
“S-Sect Leader Jiang?” The other man was glaring at him so fiercely, he almost felt like he’d already been stabbed! “What’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong? You tell me what’s wrong! Why were you watching me?”
Lan Xichen’s mouth opened, and then snapped shut. “I was merely looking around the room.”
“You were laughing at me!” Jiang Cheng protested, narrowing his eyes. “Explain yourself!”
“Sect Leader Jiang, I think you might be… unwell, and perhaps you misunderstood.” (Drunk, he thought to himself. Definitely drunk.) “I wasn’t laughing at you,” he said gently, holding his hands up. “I promise.”
“Then what were you laughing at?”
That was when Lan Xichen realised he’d lied. He had been laughing at Jiang Cheng, but mostly because he’d rolled his eyes so dramatically. Oh, well. “Uh…”
Jiang Cheng snarled, pulling Sandu away just to swing his sword again—
Was this going to be a fight?
Lan Xichen lifted Shuoyue just in time to block, completely baffled by this turn of events. Then he proceeded to dodge and parry his way down the corridor. This was ridiculous! Jiang Cheng’s fighting ability didn’t seem to be that affected by the alcohol (or whatever it was he drank), but his common sense was all but gone!
He drew him out into a courtyard, looking around briefly in amazement. It was by some luck that they hadn’t bumped into anyone yet! At this time of night, the others had probably retreated into their rooms— “Sect Leader Jiang, do we really have to fight?” he asked. “Calm down!”
“You laughed at me!” Jiang Cheng replied, practically hissing.
“I meant no offence.” Lan Xichen could feel Jiang Cheng’s energy depleting, his movements growing slower, and adjusted himself accordingly. “Really, I saw you rolling your eyes, and thought: wow, my feelings exactly!”
That caused Jiang Cheng to pause, his face scrunching up in thought. “Your feelings can’t be my feelings.”
Lan Xichen sighed, lowering his sword and knocking Sandu out of Jiang Cheng’s limp fingers. “That’s not what I meant—”
—before he could explain what he meant, Jiang Cheng slammed him against a column. The man was enraged, but there was a spark of something else in his expression that was quite… striking? Captivating? His eyes were very blue.
Lan Xichen wondered why his heart was suddenly racing, and why his hands were sweaty, and his face flushed with heat—
“You don’t make any sense,” Jiang Cheng snapped, punching the column in frustration. “I’m really pissed off right now!”
“I’m sorry.” Lan Xichen swallowed thickly. “I didn’t mean to… I was only looking at you because I was wondering how you were doing, and that meeting was quite boring. Your expressions were amusing, and then you drank that… thing.” Not knowing what else to say, he added, “It’s been a while since we last talked.”
Jiang Cheng recoiled. “You were worried about me?”
“Well, I… yes, becau—” Lan Xichen cleared his throat. “We’re friends, aren’t we?”
“Are we?” Jiang Cheng blinked, then scowled. “Whatever! I’m fine! Stop worrying over nothing. It’s pissing me off!”
Lan Xichen leaned his head back and then tilted it thoughtfully. Lifting a hand to be level with his hairline, he brought it slowly across to Jiang Cheng. The gentle impact of his fingertips against the other’s forehead made him huff and go a bit cross-eyed. After this, he patted Jiang Cheng’s head with a smile.
“Have you grown taller?”
Jiang Cheng’s face immediately turned bright red. “N-No? Stop messing around!”
“But I’m not messing around. You’ve grown by at least an inch. Look, we’re at eye level now. What happened? You grew so fast.”
“Why are you saying such nonsense? Shut up!” He slapped his hand aside. “Stop doing that!” Stomping his foot, Jiang Cheng shoved him further away, “Stop worrying over nothing. I’m fine. You’re always checking on me anyway,” (???) “And no, I’m not… I haven’t… you’d better shut up! I’m leaving now, goodnight!”
Lan Xichen laughed, rubbing the spot where he was pushed and watching the other man scurry away.
“Goodnight!” he called out, chuckling when Jiang Cheng tripped over a rock at this. For some reason, he found it impossible to stop smiling. Softly, he added, “Sleep well.”
4. The Night-Hunt
Sometimes, when the days dragged on too long and he could not tell day from night anymore, he would leave the Cloud Recesses on his own. Not with a gaggle of junior disciples running behind him. Not with his brother, nor with anyone else. Lan Xichen used to night-hunt with his best friend, but since that was no longer an option, nowadays he hunted alone.
With no one watching, he would unleash the howling grief in his heart on the unwitting beasts of the night. They would be the only ones to see the whites of his eyes, and his teeth flashing in a grimace. There would be no witnesses left alive, as Zewu-Jun remained to all those that knew him, a gentle and peaceful man.
As he pulled Shuoyue out of the stomach of a snapping viper, a foul odour filled the air and he watched the innards spill out. The sight was horrific, but he wasn’t bothered by it. There were far worse things he’d seen in his lifetime.
Some might think he had grown to enjoy the act of killing, but it wasn’t really that. He was never happy on the battlefield, nor did he gain any joy from fighting. This was like lancing a wound to rid him of the poison, to release the ugliness and sorrow of his failure.
How could Nie Mingjue die so suddenly? It didn’t make any sense. The healing songs had been working. He played them for him whenever they spent time together. Others said it was bad luck or inevitable, but he was left with a distinct sense of foreboding.
Under the dense canopy, there was hardly any moonlight and the sounds around him warned of more dangers in the shadows.
Lan Xichen dragged the point of Shuoyue across the ground, and the sound his blade made hitting against rocks and pebbles was like bells ringing. Thus, it sang a dirge for his fallen brother as it would do for many years to come.
A branch snapped.
He spun on his heel, lifting his sword in a calm, practiced movement.
Then he lowered his arm.
Ahead of him, a dim glow was growing brighter, but he sensed more than saw it approaching, and he knew it meant him no harm. The purple light of Zidian was shrouded, contained with such perfect control that it barely registered.
Some might think its bright light would hinder its master, giving away his position, but Jiang Cheng’s control was impeccable. He was swift as lightning cutting through the gloomy darkness. There was no time between lifting his sword and suddenly being shoved back against a tree. It was only because Lan Xichen allowed it that Shuoyue was taken from his hand, but he knew lesser cultivators would have never stood a chance against Jiang Cheng’s speed.
Again, he couldn’t help comparing Jiang Cheng to the storms he embodied, with each meeting like lightning striking the ground. Who could say if each of their meetings was spontaneous or intensional? Only the lightning knew itself.
Lan Xichen couldn’t explain why a part of him… admittedly a large part of him, looked forward to whenever Jiang Cheng and he crossed paths. Perhaps this was how farmers revered storms, bringing blessings to water their crops—except he saw Jiang Cheng as the lightning, chasing away the evil in his heart.
The spark of energy raised the hairs on his neck, and the sizzle of Zidian stung his cheek. Lan Xichen looked at the hand near his face and marvelled at the way it rendered him unable to move. How was it that, despite all of these infrequent, irregular meetings over the years, this was such a familiar sight?
By this point, Lan Xichen was past caring and started giggling. It was as if the crackling energy was trapped and buzzing under his skin. This hand near his face, this man leaning over him.
“Again?” he eyed the jut of Jiang Cheng’s wrist bone. “This is becoming something of a habit.”
“How else do I make you listen? For someone known to be a good listener, you’re hard of hearing when I’m talking to you!” Jiang Cheng snarled, standing close enough that he could feel each puff of air from his lips. “I’ve been calling your name for almost a whole fucking hour!”
“…you have? I didn’t hear you.”
Jiang Cheng sneered, “Yeah, I noticed! How can you be so careless? Dripping blood again. By the look of it, some of that is yours.”
Lan Xichen tried looking at himself, but almost ended up headbutting him doing so—they were so close together. So close. And Jiang Cheng wasn’t moving back an inch. Not giving him any room to breathe. To move. To escape. Not that he would.
“—ear me? Fucking hell, not again!”
His head snapped sideways. There was heat blooming on his cheek. Jiang Cheng huffed loudly, dragging his attention back to him. With his hand hovering in the air, Lan Xichen could only look at it in shock. “Calm down!”
“One can’t help but wonder what’s got you thinking so much. You haven’t even noticed you’re bleeding, and—going on a rampage? Killing so many beasts in one night!? Zewu-Jun, you’re frightening everybody. My disciples were too scared to even try approaching you.”
Lan Xichen realised it wasn’t Zidian’s purple glow that was casting that colour on him but that his robes were soaked in a mix of bloods. There was a dull roar in his head. His limbs were leaden and sore. All of a sudden, he felt his eyes grow hot.
“What’s got you beating the shit out of everyone, huh? You’re not usually this violent.”
“I’m fine,” he choked out, forcing himself to smile. “Really, it’s nothing.”
“Doesn’t sound like nothing. You can tell me. I won’t judge. How can I judge someone like you?” Even with this invitation, Lan Xichen dropped his gaze and refused to speak. Jiang Cheng stood for a moment before clicking his tongue. “You’re so stubborn. It’s not like I’m going to hit you for having bad thoughts.”
“You—” Lan Xichen stuttered. “But you just did!”
“Pah, nonsense. You must have hit your head before. You’re acting so strange.” (What type of excuse was that?!) “Zewu-Jun, for you of all people to go around with such killing intent, it must be that the world is ending… or rather, it must be ending for you.”
Something about this statement pierced him right through the heart.
“It’s not even been a month,” Jiang Cheng said flatly, his voice jarringly dull. “That’s not enough time, and a year won’t be enough either. There will never be a day where you won’t think about him, but that doesn’t give you the right to behave so recklessly. Will we have to bury two people this month, or will you start being more careful?”
Lan Xichen inhaled sharply.
It was true that lately, he didn’t care much about his own safety, but he wouldn’t say that he was actively seeking out dangerous situations… he wouldn’t say so, but where was he standing right now? In the middle of the woods at night, covered in blood with no memory of how he got there. Actually, he had no idea where he was at all.
(Had he wandered into Yumeng territory? Was that how Jiang Cheng found him?)
“Does your uncle know you’re showing such a lack of care towards yourself? Does your brother know? Why is it that I’m always the first to know?”
It was clear that Jiang Cheng was talking to himself, not expecting an answer. (Not that he had one.)
“Let me tell you something though,” he continued. “If you really plan to follow Chifeng-zun into the afterlife, expecting some sort of happy reunion—you’re a fool! He’ll beat you up and send you straight back the way you came! You won’t even have time to blink!!”
Lan Xichen was startled into laughter. “What does that even mean, Wanyin?”
“Do I have to explain it further? It’s nonsense! It means nothing!” Jiang Cheng poked him in the chest. “That’s exactly what your sacrifice would mean to him. He wouldn’t ever want you to die for him. Burn incense, not yourself.”
This advice was good, if strangely worded. Lan Xichen’s nose prickled with emotion, but he focused on the man in front of him, “Nonsense, hm? I feel like I can talk nonsense with you.”
That was also true. It was bizarre that despite having relatively few conversations, Lan Xichen felt himself forming an odd kinship with Jiang Cheng… and a fascination with his manner of speech. He was straightforward to the point of being disrespectful. Bold, and others would probably say offensive, but he was not one of them.
“What’s this ‘Wanyin’? Who said you could call me that?”
“Well, if you’re behaving so familiarly towards me, I should be able to do the same with you. If you want, you can call me Xichen-ge or Lan-dage,” Lan Xichen offered, grinning as he looked him up and down. “We’re suddenly so close, Wanyin.”
Jiang Cheng seemed mostly confused, but shrugged. “If you say so… Xichen-ge.”
“Wanyin,” he said again, smiling, “Can I ask you something?”
“I don’t know, can you?”
Chuckling, “I’ve noticed that whenever we meet on the road or without planning to, you are,” he held his palm up to his brow, “Around this height. However, when we meet at official functions, you’re the same height as me. Then, sometimes you’re taller. I swear you’re taller. But that’s impossible isn’t it?”
“Swearing is against the rules.”
“How are you going from one height to another?” he asked, and that was when Jiang Cheng took a step backwards. That small movement knocked their feet together, and as he glanced downwards… “Oh!”
“Oh? What ‘oh’?” Jiang Cheng straightened his back, scurrying back a few more steps. “Stop looking!”
“It’s your boots,” Lan Xichen realised, thinking back on all of their past encounters. When they were attending meetings together, he always thought these boots were part of Jiang Cheng’s formal attire. Those were the times he was taller, but here he was wearing them again! “W… Were you planning on seeing me this evening?”
“N-No, I wasn’t. Shut up! It’s not like that!” Jiang Cheng’s face was bright red. “Whatever you’re thinking, you’re wrong!”
“Alright,” he agreed easily enough, and then bent his knees slightly. “Here,” grabbing Jiang Cheng’s wrist and pulling him back to the same position as before, returning himself to being Jiang Cheng’s captive. “There you go.”
Jiang Cheng sputtered, “You… are you making fun of me!?”
“No, I would never do that,” Lan Xichen soothed, but just as he was about to say something else, a chilling howl rippled through the forest. Hearing this, they both turned to survey their surroundings. “That sounded nearby.”
“You should go back to recover,” Jiang Cheng said curtly, and then, “But you’re right. It sounds nearby, and you’re still standing on your feet. No point sending you home if you can fight.”
Smiling sweetly, “What do you suggest, Wanyin?”
Rubbing his forehead, “Ugh, do you want to finish this hunt together then?”
Lan Xichen beamed, “It would be my pleasure!”
With that, he ran ahead laughing, followed by a stream of angry expletives.
Somehow, the world did not end, but it did become unbearably quiet.
This was the price and payment that he was due on behalf of his sworn brothers—penance for Jin Guangyao’s crimes, for his ignorance, amongst many other sins. There was no one forcing him, but it was chosen as his punishment.
The ground had shattered beneath him. Lan Xichen could no longer trust his own judgement. Almost twenty years of friendship, listening to the wrong brother. How could he live with himself after allowing such crimes to be committed? How could he—
Lan Xichen could only sit alone in his room, searching himself for all the assumptions, and the choices, and the actions that he’d made. Where did it begin? How far did it go? Did he have to unravel everything from the very start?
Everything about this was terrible, especially the fact that he was questioning his right to trust his best friends, because… what was friendship without trust? What did it matter now? Where did all of this leave him? What’s done is done. Whatever the future brings is not up to him to decide.
After the last of the incense was burnt, Lan Xichen unfolded his legs and crawled to the other side of the room. There was an argument days ago, that he didn’t have to punish himself to this degree, but even a comfortable bed seemed like more than he deserved. Shufu left him staring at the same spot on the wall that he was staring at now. He hasn’t seen him since.
When he is tired from searching and his heart is withered in his chest, he cannot control where his mind takes him. There are few memories he can return to that are safe from all of this. Of those, the best ones are centred around one person… and they are completely unmoored from anything else. They are rare occurrences, random and precious snatches of time unknown to anybody but them.
It’s within these memories that he can find some peace, even if the memories were not what some might call ‘peaceful’.
They’ve never arranged meetings nor planned night-hunts together, but sometimes, by some stroke of luck, their schedules would align. Lan Xichen could never predict when his solitary hunts would be interrupted, but he welcomed it every time… every time, when Jiang Cheng would call out his name and appear, as if by magic.
Sometimes—no— oftentimes, Jiang Cheng wouldn’t give him that much warning.
Lan Xichen would find himself slammed into a tree, or shoved against a boulder, or on some occasions, tumbled onto the forest floor and pinned down.
It was a game. It was childish. It always left him breathless.
Jiang Cheng had an uncanny sense for when he needed some type of interruption, and it was always needed—for both of them, he thought—a break away from their responsibilities, and the simple pleasure of spending time together.
He loved how he could let himself go with Jiang Cheng. Releasing his frustrations and laughing triumphantly at their success. The beasts slain without mercy. No explanations if he let loose his full power. Jiang Cheng didn’t care and didn’t judge whatever he did. After he started calling him ‘Xichen-ge’, he was no longer ‘Zewu-Jun’ to him.
Outside of these excursions, they never announced any type of sworn brotherhood, nor… nor anything else.
No one else knew they had this between them.
It’s been ages since they last hunted together. Since Jiang Cheng was apparently able to detect his bad moods, unless there was a distinct need for intervention, he couldn’t expect to see him. Before the events of Guanyin Temple, the world had been running so smoothly that they’d fallen out of touch.
In that time, part of him had been shamelessly hoping that something bad (but not too bad!) would happen, or that he’d give Jiang Cheng reason enough to worry about him… ah, these selfish desires.
What excuse did he have for wanting to trouble Jiang Cheng like this? Only that he enjoyed his company and craved his attention.
Lan Xichen has never had someone bully him with self-care the way that Jiang Cheng did, but knowing that he cared about him was what kept him from acting out. It was a constant stalemate between wishing for his attention but also promising he would take care of himself that left him quietly yearning.
When was the last time he needed him like that?
Will he come for him now?
After what happened at Guanyin Temple, he didn’t know if he could bear to face Jiang Cheng again. The fact that Jiang Cheng saw him in that state, despite having seen him throughout all these years, was utterly devastating, and—what must he think of him now? Perhaps it would be best to forget they have anything between them. Nothing was there, nothing was seen.
Lan Xichen did not want to shame Jiang Cheng with his presence.
It was as he was thinking this that the door opened.
There was little light left to form a shadow, but just enough to see the shape of him. Lan Xichen closed his eyes, listening to the heel of his boots hitting the floor and the rustle of his clothes. It was so quiet. He was expecting…
Was he expecting him to come? He’d been hoping, he’d been dreading.
If he came to see him, he’d expected Jiang Cheng to kick the door down in his anger. Why was it so quiet? Finally, he opened his eyes to see him, and it… it wasn’t good. Jiang Cheng’s mouth was grim, his eyes solemn in his face. Lowering himself to his knees, barely making a sound as he stretched his arm out towards him, he was beautiful. Gentle, as he cupped his cheek.
Lan Xichen shuddered, leaning away from his touch. “You shouldn’t have come.”
“That’s up to me to decide.”
“Why are you here?” he whispered, unable to look at him. Then he felt something hot slide down his cheek. This was so humiliating. “Please, just leave.”
Jiang Cheng shook his head slowly. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Lan Xichen opened his mouth, but the words died in his throat.
What could he say to that? It wasn’t as if he could change Jiang Cheng’s mind once he decided on something. If only he could shove him out of the door, but at the same time hold onto him forever. You’re so stubborn. It’s not like I’m going to hit you for having bad thoughts—
“Stop it,” Jiang Cheng said, still speaking calmly.
“But I’m not—”
“Shut up, yes you are!” he snapped, finally hitting the wall behind him. Jiang Cheng smacked the wall again, causing him to flinch. “Why are you punishing yourself? What for? It’s not helping anyone! It’s not what we need, and it’s certainly not what you deserve—”
“Wanyin,” Lan Xichen coughed wetly, his lips quivering into a smile. “I… I h-hate it when you’re quiet. It’s better like this. But now that you’ve said what you wanted to say, please… just go—”
Jiang Cheng grabbed him before he could turn away, brushing a thumb over his cheek. A fresh wave of tears started pouring down his face when he heard him say, “Xichen-ge.”
(Well, if you’re behaving so familiarly towards me, I should be able to do the same with you. If you want, you can call me Xichen-ge. We’re suddenly so close, Wanyin.
If you say so… Xichen-ge.)
Finally, his composure broke, and he couldn’t stop crying. Were they still close? “I don’t want you seeing me like this,” he croaked out. “Shouldn’t you hate me?” littered in between sobs. Throughout this, he was held tightly and felt something soft pressed to his forehead, “I missed you, I missed you.”
“What good is punishing yourself?” Jiang Cheng asked. “You’ve suffered enough, the same as the rest of us. You’re not perfect. If we knew before, we should have done something too. Why have you locked yourself in this fucking room? Don’t shut yourself away like this. Breathing in all this dust can’t be healthy.”
Lan Xichen smiled, “You’re so kind to me, Wanyin.” His smile was returned, awkwardly yet sincerely. “How do you always know best what I need?”
Jiang Cheng answered honestly, “All I know is what keeps you going. When the night is dark and heavy, you wander out into the moonlight, and when the morning comes, you always slow your pace so you can listen to the birds sing.” With a tender look, “I’m almost certain that the moon must shine to be seen by you, and the birds must sing to be heard by you, and I… I…”
He could feel warmth rising in his cheeks, as if he were basking in a patch of sunlight. Which of them was moving forwards? The space between them was narrowing. Jiang Cheng’s hands had fallen from the wall to land on his shoulders, and he felt a whisper of a breath on his lips—
And then he was gone.
Lan Xichen’s eyes fluttered, his eyelashes sticking together. “Wait, where are you going…?”
Jiang Cheng was on the other side of the room. “Y… You told me to go, so—so I’m going!”
“What?!” Lan Xichen could only watch as he stumbled backwards out of the hanshi. “Wanyin? Wanyin! Don’t just leave so suddenly!”
But that’s exactly what he did! With a flutter of purple robes, Jiang Cheng took to the sky as his face burned a bright red—but—but what on earth?! Lan Xichen stared in shock! In disbelief! How could he leave like that?!
Jiang Cheng hovered mid-air, not looking at him. “You’ll come find me when you’re ready, won’t you?” he asked, but there was no time to reply before he took off suddenly, shooting through the air so fast that he was a blur!
Lan Xichen gaped. In his mind, he yelled: what the fuck?!
What was with this hot-cold behaviour? Before he could overthink it, he leapt onto Shuoyue and ran out of the hanshi, flying up in the clouds chasing after Jiang Cheng. What’s this ‘come find him when he’s ready’? He’s already ready! He’s been ready for years!
+1: The Chase
This was not how he imagined he would leave seclusion.
Yet here he was: tearing through the clouds in hot pursuit, his heart pounding in his ears every time he caught sight of Jiang Cheng’s fluttering purple ribbon trailing in the wind.
Lan Xichen couldn’t recall the last time he expended this much spiritual energy, but… it felt good to fly again. More than that, he’d missed flying with (or after) Jiang Cheng. The space left behind him always sizzled with residual energy that he couldn’t resist breathing in deeply.
Jiang Cheng landed without even rippling the water, barely touching ground before he ran. Was he scared? No, couldn’t be. Embarrassed? Probably, but most likely he was overwhelmed by… by something. Which part of their conversation caused him to react this way?
“Wanyin!” he called out first, and then, when he saw some disciples gawking at them, “Sect Leader Jiang! Please, wait!”
If he heard him, he made no show of it. Lan Xichen tried to hold onto hope, but it was sinking rapidly in his chest… What if he misunderstood? Did he offend Jiang Cheng somehow? Maybe it was as he’d feared, and Jiang Cheng thought him pitiful after seeing him like that—
“Well? What are you standing there for? Come on!”
Lan Xichen hurried after him, smiling quickly at the disciples and then… trying to figure out where they were going. This was not the way to the main house, and if memory served, this wasn’t the way to the private quarters either. Jiang Cheng’s pace kept them at a distance. He was still running away.
When they reached an empty courtyard, that was when he slowed down and seemed to forget what he was doing. Lan Xichen watched him turn around, his eyes wide and searching. Jiang Cheng’s complexion had bloomed in excitement, blushing pink from his nose to his ears. He was so lovely that he couldn’t stop himself stepping forwards—
“Are you alright? You flew all this way… uh, what are you doing?”
—so, so lovely, his eyes so blue—
“Hey, back off! What are you doing?!”
Lan Xichen took one last step and— CRASH. “…oh.”
Jiang Cheng’s chest heaved as he gasped for breath. “What was that?”
“Nothing!” he babbled, staring in horror at his hand which was—which was stuck in the wall! No! How could that be?! Surely he didn’t punch it that hard? Debris had flown up into the air, a small dust cloud causing Jiang Cheng to cough. Oh fuck.
“Did you say ‘oh’?” Jiang Cheng demanded. “Fucking ‘oh’? You smashed my wall and all you can say is ‘oh’?!”
“This never happens when you do it!” Lan Xichen exclaimed, his ears burning in embarrassment as he tried to extract himself from the wall. Somehow he punched through to his forearm. How was he going to get it out without destroying the whole wall?! “Wanyin…”
Jiang Cheng stared at him for a moment, and then burst out laughing. “Your face!” he coughed, smacking his forehead repeatedly on his shoulder. “Oh my god, your face is so red!”
Lan Xichen buried his burning cheek against his shoulder, “Stop being mean.” Saying this sent Jiang Cheng into yet another peal of laughter. What a sweet sound. Wrapping his arm around his waist, he cast a wary glance at his trapped wrist before focusing on the man he was holding. “What made you run?” he asked. “You scared me.”
Jiang Cheng sighed. “I felt bad for taking advantage of you.”
“I was about to,” he coughed, “You know, I was going to kiss you.”
“Were you? I thought that was me.”
“What’s stopping you now?”
Jiang Cheng sputtered and then grabbed his collar, “Ugh, seriously? Do I have to do everything around here…?”
Lan Xichen muffled the rest of his complaints, pressing him fully against the wall. He tilted his head, slotting their mouths together, and he was already breathless, but then the feel of Jiang Cheng… having him like this was invigorating. He couldn’t get enough of it. Of him. And Jiang Cheng licking the seam of his lips drew a deep moan out of his throat.
As he opened his eyes, panting for air, Jiang Cheng was in a similar state, with glistening lips and bright eyes. He was so distracting. He’d only ever seen Jiang Cheng smiling this much during night hunts, when no one else was around, but in the daytime, when the sun was shining—
“Stop staring,” Jiang Cheng chided. “And let me explain… I always feel like I’m the one leaning in,” he said, “Encroaching on your personal space. I always hate it when others do that to me, but I can’t help myself when it comes to you. Even so, it’s rude to keep barging in on your life without invitation.”
“But I’m always happy to see you,” Lan Xichen replied, pecking his jaw. “In fact, I wait for you to do so every time. Maybe I should chase after you more often?”
Jiang Cheng snorted. “Not if you keep breaking down my walls! Maybe I should get you to fix it? Haha, maybe we should put up a plaque to cover it?”
Lan Xichen giggled, “Yes, let’s put up a plaque to commemorate this sweet confession—”
“What? Wait, no—”
“—so we can remember this special moment forever. Ah, it’s so deep and meaningful. As… as deep as my hand has gone through this… this very thick wall. Why is this wall so thick?” Lan Xichen blinked. “Hm. Anyway, Wanyin, I have been wondering, why did you come after me that first time?”
There was no need to explain what he meant. Jiang Cheng only thought about it for a second. “I had never seen Zewu-Jun smiling like that, with such tension held in his expression. There was this look in your eyes, and your aura was as if you were itching to split a tree in half.” Patting his cheek, “I was mostly worried about property damage.”
Lan Xichen laughed, “You claim you were worried about property damage, yet you only asked after my well-being.”
“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng said, lifting his chin, “I did no such thing. You’ve remembered wrongly. Now, you can either kiss me back, or else you can fuck off…”
The moment their lips touch is when the wall finally collapses.